”Okay,” I mutter to myself as I crawl through the vents of the Guggenheim Museum, ”forty-five minutes til the dry cleaner closes, then another hour and fifteen til dinner. I can still catch Felicia on time…...sure. And maybe after that miracle, I’ll part the Hudson and drown my sorrows by turning some water into wine….”
Felicia Hardy may be the greatest thief in the world, at least the most audacious. Your average burglar settles for breaking into houses, ransacking the place to find jewelry and electronics and guns and anything else they can make a quick buck off of at a shady pawn shop. Not the Black Cat, though. No, she only ever goes for the most expensive things under the tightest security, and makes sure everyone knows she did it. She’s meticulous in her planning, practically a ghost when it comes to stealth and infiltration, a brilliant manipulator, an expert martial artist, a master gymnast, and a gigantic pain in my butt.
Right now, I’m supposed to be getting ready for the most important dinner of my life. Instead, I’m crawling through air ducts hitting dead end after dead end, because this stupid art museum decided to display a 57-million-dollar cat statue in downtown New York. It’s like whenever the circus comes through Gotham City, it’s just begging for trouble. I am so bringing this up at the next city council meeting.
”Any progress?” Captain DeWolff asks through the earpiece in my mask.
”Not yet,” I say, reaching a sealed-off hatch in the duct. ”Just more dead ends. I know she came in through the vents, but I’m not seeing any signs of her exit. I’ve made three rounds through this system, and I just don’t see a way out.”
When the security measures around the Guennol Lioness tripped, it not only set off the alarms, it activated security doors all over the museum. Every entrance, every hallway, every window (except the skylight, apparently), even every air duct is locked down tight with heavy steel doors and hatches.
”I hate to do it, but it looks like I’m gonna have to force my way in,” I admit, careful to state it as a fact rather than as a question so DeWolff doesn’t say no, then quickly change the subject. ”Any luck on getting the cameras back online?”
”Negative,” she answers. "Whatever program Black Cat used to knock out the surveillance systems, it was thorough. So far, the tech guys aren’t anywhere near restoring the feed, let alone retrieving any lost footage.”
”Well, once I get Cat webbed up for you, I’m sure she’ll be happy to provide some tech support,” I say, as I reach into the utility belt I keep under my suit and activate a remote-control Spider-Drone with a cutting torch on it. ”It’s gonna be a bit loud in here for a couple of minutes, Captain. I’ll let you know once I’m in.”
”Wait, what are you--”
The small plasma welder on the underside of the Spider-Drone begins cutting into the security door, filling the air duct with a loud hiss and a shower of sparks. I crawl back to get away from the smoke, and then pull out my phone and open up an ebook to read while the drone does its work.
”So I tell Professor Nuñez ‘sure, that’s how you interpret Ionesco’s work, but I thought the entire school of absurdist theatre asked the audience to reach their own conclusions.’ You should’ve seen the look on his face.”
”....heh, that’s crazy.”
”So now the whole class has to read The Bald Soprano and write 500 words comparing and contrasting its themes to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot by Monday.”
”Oh man, that’s…..not cool.”
”......and then after that, I have to strip down to my underwear and fight off a pack of rabid wolves with nothing but a toothbrush and a pogo stick.”
”....wow, that’s nuts.”
Mary Jane Watson glared at Harry with annoyance. He hadn’t looked up from his phone in the past ten minutes. The single slice of pizza on his plate was already stone cold, and the ice in his soda had melted.
”Y’know, if you didn’t want to go out tonight, you could’ve just told me. Glory and Betty wanted to check out the band that’s playing at the House of Yes, and I can just--”
”Nonono, I’m sorry, I’m just…….really distracted,” Harry said, finally breaking his attention away from his brand-new OzPhone 12, one he’d gotten six weeks before it was available to the public. ”Dad was breaking in all the new interns at work today, which meant I had to go to the shareholders meeting for him, and I’m still sending emails back and forth with investors. All part of ‘inheriting the kingdom,’ Dad says. And Doctor Smythe keeps going on and on about needing to talk to the old man about something or other called ‘Project V’ but won’t tell me what it is, and I’m still trying to organize the fundraiser for Mom’s foundation next month, and I haven’t even started on my term papers yet, so--”
”I get it,” MJ said, putting a hand up to cut him off. ”You’ve got a lot on your plate. And that’s a lot of stress. But that’s why we’re hanging out tonight, to burn that stress off and enjoy ourselves for a bit. Your dad’s corporate empire will still be standing after you have some pizza and dance with your girlfriend. I promise.”
”....you’re right, MJ,” said Harry, putting the phone in his pocket.
While Mary Jane and Harry had only been dating for the past two months, they’d been friends for years before that, going back to high school when they met through their mutual friends. MJ was new to the city, and her aunt Anna had set her up on a blind date with her friend’s nephew, a scrawny geek named Peter. Despite appearances, Pete was a really great guy, and not only did they hit it off, but Mary Jane also became fast friends with his longtime gal-pal Gwen Stacy and her at-the-time boyfriend Harry.
Of course, a lot can happen in a few years among a group of emotionally-charged teenagers turned twentysomethings. The four of them (six, when including Liz Allan and Eddie Brock) changed partners more often than a square-dance for a bit, but now that they were all in college and on the verge of becoming actual honest-to-God adults, the relationships were starting to solidify in place.
Pete and Gwen had eventually realized that they were made for each other, and MJ was genuinely happy for them. And Harry really was a good guy once she got him to pry his attention away from all the business his dad kept forcing on him. Still, though neither of them said it out loud, both of them knew what this was: settling for second place.
”So…...this band that’s playing tonight,” he said, picking up the cold slab of pizza on his plate to take a bite. ”They got a name?”
”The Mercy Killers, man,” Cletus Kassidy said as he hungrily shoveled creamed corn into his mouth. ”Sickest death-metal band on the East Coast. You start blasting that shit into your earbuds, and man, you just feel like the baddest motherfucker on the planet. It’s pure adrenaline, man, listening to that, you just….you just wanna swerve your car onto the sidewalk and start just mowing folks down, y’know?”
”.....uh-huh…..” said Eddie Brock, cutting into the brownish mass that was allegedly ‘country-fried steak’ with the side of his plastic fork. ”I’ll, uh, I’ll check them out once I’m outta here.”
”Can’t believe they’re lettin’ you back out into the world, man,” Cletus said between mouthfuls of food. ”It’s gonna be so boring here without you.”
”Well, I’m sure you’ll manage.”
Eddie had grown up in a broken home, with an absentee mother and a drunken brute for a father. As a kid, he spent as much time as he could away from the house, usually with his old friend Pete and his aunt and uncle-- there were plenty of times he found himself wishing the Parkers were his family instead of the Brocks. Over time, though, he and his little group of childhood friends drifted apart, and he found himself spending more and more time with friends of a different kind.
When he was fifteen, he started selling drugs for one of the local dealers, making a small fortune from his classmates at Midtown High. This lasted for about six months, until he was caught and expelled. Still, he’d made the right connections, and by his sixteenth birthday, he was initiated into Tombstone’s syndicate.
Everything was going well until he was called in for a raid on a rival gang. Eddie had never pulled the trigger on anyone before, but Tombstone needed every soldier he had to take on Hammerhead, and everyone going in knew that once the shooting started, it was kill-or-be-killed. Eddie was still trying to make himself ready to cross that line, when everything fell apart.
Nobody even realized Spider-Man was there before half of them had already been webbed up. Eddie had heard about him before, knew that he was a metahuman and had a reputation for putting small-timers in the hospital, but he couldn’t believe just how fast he was as the webslinger tossed Tombstone and Hammerhead’s men around like ragdolls. In a panic, Eddie had raised his gun and fired at the masked vigilante, at almost point-blank range…
…and Spider-Man ducked under it like it was nothing. He turned to face Eddie, and then just...stopped, like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Like Spider-Man recognized him. For a few seconds, Eddie and Spider-Man just stared at each other, before Eddie raised the gun again. Before Eddie could fire off a second shot, the wall-crawler sprayed his webs at him and left him stuck to the wall for the NYPD to pick up.
He was supposed to get five years, but he was being let out in three partially for good behavior, but mostly because what with the world going as crazy as it was, there just wasn’t enough room in jail for small-timers like him. In less than twenty-four hours, he was going to be a free man.
”So….what are you gonna do once you’re back out in the big bad world?”
”Find a job, get my GED, get things back on track, I guess,” he said. ”I know somebody who works at some shelter called FEAST, said they can get me a place to stay for a little while and maybe some work.”
”Boooo-ring,” Cletus rolled his eyes. ”Know what I’d do if they let me out? I’d go on a goddamn rampage, man. Find everybody responsible for putting me away, and make ‘em pay. And I mean everybody. Every sheep who buys into this bullshit system, every pig who enforces it, every politician and company-man who makes money off it, I’d waste every last one of them.”
Cletus Kassidy had a big mouth and anger issues. Eddie imagined that in school he was one of those kids who wore edgy shirts like “you laugh at me because I’m different, I laugh at you because you’re all the same.” It made Eddie roll his eyes a lot, at least at first. He’d heard that Cletus was doing time for animal cruelty, that he’d been caught planning to shoot up his school, that he stalked and stabbed a girl who’d rejected him, and a dozen other rumors that were probably all fake. Whatever he was really in for, Cletus never said. Maybe he really was dangerous if you put a gun or a knife in his hand, but here on the inside, he was all talk.
Eddie couldn’t stand him. Which made the fact that they were cellmates that much worse.
”Well, here’s to your last day in the funhouse,” Cletus said, raising his cup of orange juice. ”And to your shiny new future among the drones.”
”Yeah,” Eddie grunted, raising his own cup. ”Here’s to the future.”
He gulped down the drink, but he knew his little toast was meaningless. Nobody was going to want to hire an ex-con who worked for one of the city’s most notorious crime bosses. All the GEDs and night classes and odd-jobs in the world weren’t going to change the fact that he’d been caught by a superhero, marking him forever as a low-life henchman and nothing more.
If Eddie Brock ever had any chance at a future, Spider-Man had ruined it.
”Okay, I’m finally in,” I say, crawling through the hole my trusty Spider-Drone had cut through the last security door. ”I’m at the display for the Lioness. Now I can figure out where Black Cat went.”
Making my way through the museum’s security was more of an ordeal than I’d expected. The heavy steel doors were one bad enough, then I had to deactivate the laser grid, short out the electrified floors, and web up the automated tear-gas dispensers. I have to admit, I wasn’t giving them enough credit when I got here-- they really don’t want people stealing this stuff.
”You do realize ‘circumventing’ all of that security counts as damaging public property, right?” Captain DeWolff says.
”True,” I admit, ”but it’s worth less than the Lioness, right? Which means if I save it, it’s basically a net gain for the city.”
”You clearly didn’t study economics,” she says. ”What do you see in there?”
”Well, there’s the display,” I say, scanning the room for any irregularities, ”and a discarded glass-cutter. Three unconscious security guards on the floor, two male, one female, all face-down but definitely breathing. There’s a length of cable that I’d bet Cat used to descend into the room, but it was cut when the security doors came down. And I see what looks like a duffel bag, going to check it out.”
It’s not like Felicia to just leave things lying around. Did she leave something here? A bomb, maybe? A booby-trap? A crazed little-person with a knife? None of that really strikes me as her style.
Carefully approaching the bag, I first adjust my lenses to scan for any traces of explosives, dangerous chemicals, or anything else I don’t want getting on me, and I come up with nothing. So far, so good. Tentatively, I pick it up, and start searching through it.
”Nothing,” I say. ”The bag’s empty. And I’m still not seeing any way she could have gotten out of here.”
”Hang on,” DeWolff says, ”how many guards did you say were in there?”
”Three. Two male, one female.”
”I’m looking at the employee schedule. There’s only supposed to be two guards stationed there.”
The two male guards are still lying there on the floor.
The third ‘unconscious’ guard, the female, is nowhere to be found.
”Oh my God, I am so stupid!” I say, cursing myself.
She knew I’d be the first on the scene. She knew I could disable the security measures that would have kept her trapped inside. She knew that I get distracted easily by things that are seemingly innocuous but out of place.
That’s why I couldn’t find any trace of her escape: because she didn’t. She let the doors close, changed into a guard uniform that she had brought in that duffel bag, then waited for me to come along and make the way out for her.
”Jameson’s going to have a field day with this,” I mutter to myself as I start sprinting out the way I came in.
”Spider, are you implying what I think you’re implying?”
”I’m already on it, Captain,” I say, gritting my teeth. ”In the meantime, can you do me a favor? Call Johansen’s Dry Cleaning in Chelsea and tell them ticket number 195 is going to be late for his pick-up.”