[AC] The Spyder: Manhunt #1 (Mature)

Artifice Comics artificecomics at yahoo.co.uk
Sun Feb 29 11:48:40 PST 2004

>>From Artifice Comics:


        The ice cubes rattled in the glass.
        Eric Townsend gripped his right wrist firmly, settling the shakes
and silencing the ice.  In spite of himself, he downed the rest of the
whiskey in one full gulp.
        He sucked in a quick bit of air through clenched teeth and reached
for the support of the marble railing as he finished his nervous climb up
the winding staircase.  The light switch clicked audibly as he nudged it
down.  Darkness spread over him like a cancer.
        He shuddered, not knowing if it was really the booze which caused
him to tremor so.  God knew he had had enough whiskey over the course of
the evening.  It was probably just the booze.
        But his goosebumps told him differently.  The icy ball congealing
in his gut told him differently.  He tapped at the keypad of his ten
thousand dollar security system and quickly shuffled away before the red
light had even blinked on and the three beeps had sounded.  His breaths
quickened in their succession, in time with his feet.
        He found his eyes darting over the white marble railing and toward
the expansive foyer which the upstairs hallway overlooked.  Several
pinpoints of red light suddenly pierced the darkness as the security
system hummed to life, but for some reason these motion sensors did not
reassure Eric.  They did not reassure him that his home was safe.
        His pace quickened and his eyes slipped away from the emptiness of
the hollow, black foyer.  Held firmly in his hand, the whiskey glass felt
cold.  Lifeless.  The ice cubes were rattling again.
        He jumped as his bedroom door slammed, a yelp catching in his
throat.  He hadn't thought he shoved it so damn hard.  The thick oak
was rigid and spiteful against his spine as he fell back against it,
listening intently for a long moment as the door's boom echoed throughout
the house's cavernous hallways.  The echo dissipated, and soon Eric's ears
could find no trace of life within the darkness.  Save for his own throaty
breaths.  He ran his fingers over the slime of sweat which coated his
brow, pushing the perspiration back into the curls of the sandy blonde mop
atop his head.  Despite an earlier resolve to attempt slumber without the
assistance of inebriation, he now cursed himself for leaving the bottle
of whiskey downstairs.  His nerves were frayed.  The ice began rattling
yet again.  He hunched forward wearily, stretching to place the glass down
on his bedside bureau.  Soft thunder rolled through the bedroom as the
glass settled upon the dark oak surface.  Eric felt the sound reverberate
through his innards.
        The sweat rolled newly down his forehead.  He wiped again, but to
no avail.  The clammy dew simply renewed itself, colder every time.  The
shadows were alive in Eric's bedroom.  Just as they had been for the past
three nights.
        For some strange reason he stopped himself from reaching for the
nearby light switch.  Briefly, he faltered, simply standing and inhaling
the shadows, wondering what impulse had stayed his hand, before the drop
of sweat which pooled then fell from the tip of his nose reminded him of
why he could not sleep.  The fear assaulted him and he dashed forward,
trying to outrun it.  His footfalls were muted in the darkness, absorbed
by the plush carpeting as Eric hurried toward the mammoth window.
        He felt eyes upon him.  Something hiding within the darkness,
within the cavernous house in which he slept all alone.  The huge window
shrank then as his senses went frantic, and the curtains, the sole thin
barriers between him and salvation from the black abyss, seemed to rush
away from him.  He lunged for them, swearing something cold and hungry
nipped at his heels as he did so.
        With a gasp, he threw the drapes wide, spilling icy moonlight
over the room like pale translucent ink, staining both his bedsheets and
walls in the crisp rectangular shape of the floor-to-ceiling windows.
His silhouette cut darkly through the bone-colored luminance as he
took shuddering pause in front of the wide pane of glass.  Behind him,
the Baroque stylings of his bedroom lay naked, exposed by the furtive
moonlight.  A chill ran through him, bubbling under his dimpled skin.
        The uncontrollable tremors threatened to take hold again, and he
tried desperately to focus on something other than the nightmares clawing
at the boundaries of his subconscious.
        Outside, the night looked to be biting.
        His lawn stretched out behind the house for over an acre, its
boundaries dictated by small burms which teemed with trees and shrubbery,
their branches stripped half-bare by the fast-approaching autumn.  The
foliage swayed in a hypnotic rhythm, fluttering in the icy breeze under
the leer of a pregnant moon.  So full and bright, the moon.  Like a
pallid, ghostly celestial oculus.  Some sort of omniscient eye.
        The image of Nostromo's wide, dead eyes exploded in Eric's head.
        He choked upon his gasp, falling away from the window as though
his face had just been sledgehammered.  Cold, empty, lifeless eyes.
Staring from a face divorced of body.  The images slashed mercilessly
through Doctor Eric Townsend's exhausted mind.
        The head.  Just lying there.  Lying there.  The body laid out on
an adjacent table.
        The gunshot victim, he was able to deal with.  True, the young
photographer from the Harbour City Tribune could not have been more than
twenty- five years old, and his face refused to come unfrozen from that
ghastly twist of fear, the skin stretched tight around chiseled bone.  His
eyes, so wide, were clouded with congealing blood and a hidden sadness,
like the hint of a deep- seated realization which had just begun to take
hold.  And the back of his head was missing.
        Eric Townsend could handle that.  He was trained to handle that.
        But he had never seen a severed head.  A severed head that was
still warm, still leaking, still staring.  A severed head with such
bizarre facial anatomy.  A severed head with veritable fangs sticking out
of its mouth.
        Eric's fingers dug harshly into his triceps as he pulled his
arms tight around his abdomen.  He never told the authorities about what
happened.  He scarcely believed it himself.
        On the other side of the window pane, the sickly moon laughed at
him and the chill air taunted him, daring him to remember.  He tasted
vomit and his mind folded back through time.  It happened all over again.
        The walls of the hospital lab seemed to fade into a static gray,
framing the macabre setting in darkness and isolating him somewhere within
a nameless void with the two murdered cadavers and the stringent aroma
of antiseptic.  Eric remembered glancing at the clock, for the purpose
of records.  2:00 am.  The detective Ñ "Middleton," if Eric remembered
correctly Ñ had wanted an immediate autopsy on the two men, despite not
actually sticking around for the results.  Only Eric, the surgeon on
call for the night, was expected to do that.  He remembered the knife.
The scalpel, gleaming under the invasive overhead spotlight.  And the
apprehension.  The breaths that felt hot and moist inside the surgical
mask.  He had caught a quick glimpse of his unfamiliar reflection in the
blade, adorned with his antibacterial garb.  So sterile.
        He approached the table, brandishing the knife in front of him in
a subconscious attempt at intimidation.  Intimidation of the dead.
        That damned head was still staring.  As though it were watching
him.  Or perhaps just returning his gaze, as he sure as hell was watching
it the whole time.  Every step.  Even as he searched with his fingers for
the appropriate origin of the first incision on the young photographer's
body, his eyes were locked on the grimace of the disembodied head.  Locked
with the dead eyes of Guillermo del Nostromo.  A quick glance confirmed
the appropriate position for incision, but it was only a glance.  He could
not look away from the dead eyes.  He paused.  With another sigh, the
shimmering knife slid through supple flesh, beginning the procedure.
        And on the next table over, Guillermo del Nostromo just kept
        Eric sighed then, somewhat relieved.  No blinks or growls, no
furious jerks and rolls, no reaction of any sort from the head.  It was
dead...Just as dead as the young photographer.  The tension had been
        Relieved, Eric slid the knife the rest of the way through Parsen's
gullet in one clean motion, almost laughing to himself as he did so.  He
paused with a sigh, shook the inappropriate giggles from his body with
one last quick glance at the head, and peeled the dissected flesh back
        With the squeal of a rabid banshee, a multitude of what appeared
to be black maggots exploded from within the folds of the dead boy's
intestines, staining the tables, walls, and Doctor Eric Townsend's
face with the gelatinous obsidian remnants of their chaotic, wriggling
presence.  They were like flecks of hyperactive pulsating shadow, bouncing
around the unsuspecting room like ravenous locusts.  They darted in
haphazard patterns like lost and bewildered animals, before coming to a
collective pause and then suddenly bursting out into every darkened corner
of the lab, trailing pathways of blackness and a discordant symphony of
soft suckling noises.
        Doctor Eric Townsend was trained to handle gunshot wounds to the
head.  But nothing could have prepared him for that.
        He was paralyzed.  Staring at Parsen's innards, forgetting he had
to breathe, and covered in some sort of ungodly slime, he listened as
the suckling faded and he was left alone with the dead bodies, frozen in
the complete silence of a sickening tableau.  Somehow, the creatures had
vanished.  He did the only thing that felt natural.  He vomited all over
the waxed hospital floor.
        It would be half an hour before a trembling, sobbing Eric would
return to the operating room after staggering into the hallway, gasping
against a fear- clotted windpipe.  And for the next three days, he had
barely stopped shaking.
        Eric blinked, driving the vision away and feeling a tear turn
cold upon his cheek.  He reeled and stumbled desperately for the bedside,
dropping to his knees and snatching the whiskey glass with both hands.  He
shoved it to his mouth, drinking down the small bit of melted ice at the
bottom.  He tapped at the base of the glass, coaxing out every last drop.
Not even a hint of whiskey.  Frustrated and scared, he threw the glass off
into the darkness of the corner of the room and scrambled into his bed,
pulling the silk sheets tight around his fetal body.  There would be no
        So many bodies.  Even before the "Drainers" began, he had seen a
steady stream of bodies emerge from Harbour City's shadowed alleys.
        But never before had the shadows themselves assaulted him.
        "I've gotta get out of that hospital," he whispered to
himself. "Out of this fucking city."
        Eric was shaking again, but he no longer had the strength of mind
to care.  Murdered bodies flashed randomly across his psyche as his eyes
glazed over.  The milk of the moonlight had seeped into the ceiling, and
the gangly, twisted limbs of the barren trees directly outside his house
threw skipping shadows across the room.  Skipping and skidding and moving
with a life of their own.
        The living shadows.  He had seen them dancing upon the lawn the
past few nights through the haze of alcohol and memory, thrown across the
short grass by the crisp moonlight.  Darting between the foamy, lapping
waves of the sparkling midnight ocean, around the sparse streetlights of
the affluent neighborhood, and through the sprawling landscapes of Harbour
City's most expensive properties.  The old houses sat upon the rolling
green hills like fat geriatrics, content with their view of the Pacific
Ocean and too bloated and oblivious to take note of the faint glimpses
they were afforded as the shadows invaded.  But Eric Townsend had noticed.
In his torturous insomnia, he had seen the shadows dance ever closer to
his home.  So dangerously close.
        They were coming for him.
        Eric gulped.  He shut his eyes tight.  Given the choice between
the shadows which crawled across his ceiling and the torture of his
nightmares, Eric knew his decision.  He was content enough to let the
nightmares take hold and hope for morning.  Content with a restless
        The soft squeal of a diamond across glass snapped him instantly
        On his ceiling, the shadows leered down at him in the distinct
shape of a man.
        "Oh Jesus, oh Christ," Eric gasped, finding himself suddenly
unable to move.
        With the soft clank of glass tapping glass, the silhouette
shifted, apparently moving something circular and transparent out of
Eric's field of vision.  Its hand then moved forward.  Eric heard the
click of the window lock.
        "Oh shit," he hissed to himself, feeling the clammy sweat turn
swelteringly hot under the blanket and sheets as his face flushed red.
He rolled over ever so slightly along the silk sheets with a feigned
grogginess, utterly stupefied.  They were coming for him.
        He heard the window slide open at his back.
        The word "no" rolled over in his mind.
        "No no no no no no."
        He bit his lower lip, feeling the sting of his teeth and the
slight trickle of blood, reminiscent of the warm mingling of sweat and
tears which beaded upon his cheeks.
        There was a gun in his bureau drawer.  The thought dawned on him
with the clarity and force of some divine epiphany.  A small revolver
which he had forgotten the name of.  Loaded if he remembered correctly.
He prayed he remembered correctly.
        Nearly silent feet touched down upon his carpet.
        Time was up.
        He closed his eyes, said a silent prayer, and lunged for the
dresser drawer.
        There was a flurry of movement and something let fly an
ear-splitting shriek.  Eric Townsend would later realize that the horrible
scream had come from him.
        A jackhammer pounded the surgeon's head, which reared and carried
his body with it.  Blood flew from between his lips as his ribs were
struck viciously thrice, one rib cracking clean in half in the midst
of it all.  His face went numb as a violent hack cut the skin open on
his cheekbone.  Something locked firmly around his wrist...And broke it
without pause.  He was on the ground without having been given the time to
even realize he had fallen out of his bed.  His eyes were squeezed shut
and the pain consumed him, igniting his every nerve.  Paralyzing him.  He
could honestly move only half his body but for the surges of debilitating
        "What the fuck is this?!"
        The voice sounded inhuman.  Like the bark of a starved dog,
lashing out at all that might stumble into the radius of its leash.
Passionate yet devoid of any sympathy.  Murderous.
        "Look at me, god damn it!"
        Not a bark this time.  A roar.
        Eric's eyes peeled back, spilling tears down his bloodied face.
He found himself staring down the barrel of a Glock 18 handgun.  His
scream caught in his throat as the gun was pressured into his eye socket,
pushing him firmly against the plush cream carpet, which he stained with
his own blood.  He whimpered loudly as the room beyond the gun slowly
faded into view.  Then the man beyond the gun.
        The Spyder.
        Wearing the face of death.  There was no trenchcoat, no hat, no
precepts of ghost-like grace.  He was seething and growling, his every
muscle taught and tense, his eyes crazed, stripped naked to the core of
his emotion.
        "What the fuck is this?"
        The Spyder shot his free hand forward.  In it was grasped another
gun, much smaller than his Glock.  A small 9 mm, pulled from the bedside
        Townsend struggled, but the Spyder leaned forward, his forehead
almost touching the young surgeon's.
        "Were you going to use this?" the Spyder began in ragged,
disjointed breaths, struggling to keep himself in check.  He winced
then, and jerked with some kind of pain that seemed to emanate from his
shoulder.  His control vanished. "Did you fucking think you were going to
use this on me, you fuck?!"
        "No!" Eric gasped. "Jesus, no, no no!  Please, God, no..."
        The Spyder chucked the gun away angrily, rearing back from Eric's
trembling face.
        "Poole Gardens.  Richest suburb in the metro area," the vigilante
wheezed in his grating, haggard voice. "Took three nights of watching and
waiting for me to get in here, completely undetected.  Now it's just you
and me, Doctor, and nobody knows I'm here.  Rather sad security for such a
        The Spyder relaxed the hand which held the gun, leaving a light
impression around Eric's left eye in the wake of the barrel.
        "Don't kill me, please.  I didn't do anything.  I don't -"
        "Doctor Townsend," the Spyder said, cutting short Eric's
pleads. "You will do exactly what I tell you.  Understood?"
        Eric nodded vigorously, still lying prone upon the floor.
        "Do you have the materials necessary in this house to disinfect
and stitch lacerations and splint broken bones?" the Spyder rasped. "And
don't you dare lie to me."
        Eric nodded again, feeling the hot tears on his cheeks.
        "Good," the vigilante hissed, holstering his Glock. "Then let's   
make this quick."                                                         


Artifice Comics Presents
The Spyder: Manhunt #1
"Reluctant Devils"

By Bill Castonzo


        The wind was cold and unforgiving, snaking its way through the
city with purposeless malice, scraping against brick and flesh alike.  The
dark night had given way to an unseasonably bitter morning, perhaps an
echo of the city's collective temperament as the eventful summer drew to
a close.  For Harbour City's coastal neighbor to the south, the summer
had brought inconceivable changes.  And for most of the denizens of
Australia's gothic seaport, their resultant proximity to Romanov did well
to precipitate an icy, ominous fear.
        But Harbour City had its own devil.  In the city's own twisted
way, it too was lorded over by a kind of dark god.  A ghoulish tyrant who
fancied himself above the laws and machinations of men.  Save for those he
might deem sinners.
        "What happened then?"
        The Spyder had been busy in the early hours of the bitter morning,
after lying dormant for several days.
        For those hunting the vigilante, the return was bittersweet.  They
had little hope of tracking down the almost supernaturally resourceful
Spyder while he was in hiding.  They had nowhere to begin and his knack
for vanishing without a trace was frustrating to the police, to say the
least.  His resurfacing meant he was active and still in the city.  It
gave them a place to start, however flimsy.  But his next move was still
dangerously unpredictable.
        "After he stopped the car?  Well, we were maybe two or three miles
west of Poole Gardens, near Forest Ridge.  He just told me to get out."
        "Did you?"
        "Of course.  He told me to go home and call the police, and that
my car would be found sometime later, unharmed."
        Detective Ron Middleton tightened his lips into an odd expression
that was equal parts amused smile and angry scowl.  His bushy eyebrows
settled low over his tired eyes.  He recalled the multiple descriptions
he had heard upon arriving at work that morning of the BMW coupe parked
brazenly across two lanes of traffic directly in front of the police
station, surrounded by six flares, found at around 3 a.m.
        "Did he say anything else to you?" Middleton sighed.
        "'Thank you'."
        "I beg your pardon?"
        "He looked me right in the eye, said 'thank you', and drove off."
        Middleton cocked an incredulous eyebrow, studying the other man's
somber face.  With a soft shake of his head, he trained his eyes on his
notebook, trying to make sense of the story.
        "Why didn't you try to defend yourself?  Fight back?"
        The other man raised his arm, displaying the soft cast which
enveloped his wrist and thumb.
        "And my broken rib's killing me as well," Eric Townsend replied
softly, if not with some indignance. "I told you, he had a gun on me the
whole time.  I was stitching him up, and he refused anesthetic.  He just
stared at me, wincing every so often as I pulled the thread through,
aiming his gun at my chest.  It was unreal."
        Middleton rubbed hard at his chin, the leathery brown skin
buckling and folding with each pass of his rough hand.  The salt and
pepper stubble, thick enough to almost be called a beard, tickled his
        "Let me level with you, doctor," Middleton said, his eyes rolling
about the room for a moment before locking with Townsend's.  The young
surgeon shifted uncomfortably under the gaze, sensing a familiar passion
behind the detective's world-weary exterior.  Something frightening. "I'm
really not buying what you're selling me here.  This is the second time in
four days that you and I have met under less-than-pleasant circumstances.
The second time we've had to speak about the Spyder.  I just sure as hell
hope there's not something that you're not telling me."
        Middleton leaned forward, his eyes darkening with accusation.
        Somewhere in time, gelatinous shadows exploded over Eric Townsend.
        "N-no, sir, detective," Townsend murmured, his whisper falling
into dejection. "I've nothing to hide."
        His eyes betrayed him.
        Ron Middleton harshly cleared his throat, keeping his lips tight
as his breaths flowed audibly through his nostrils.  He delicately folded
his hands upon the desk and his tone grew low, almost feral.
        "I want the fucking Spyder, Townsend," Middleton growled. "You
hear me?  I want him real fucking bad.  I want him bloody, beaten, and
broken.  And I will bring you down just as god damn hard if I find out
you're so much as holding your breath at his suggestion.  I don't care how
fuckin' rich you are or how many fuckin' lives you've saved, if you're
working with the Spyder in ANY way, there's two places I will guarantee
you right now that I will see you in: Hell and prison.  Do you get me,
        The young doctor bit his lower lip and nodded.
        "Good," Middleton said with a huff, reclining in his seat. "Then
the lady at the front desk will help you finish up your paperwork.  Get
out of here."
        Eric rose hesitantly from the desk, not wishing to look Middleton
in the eye, but not wanting to turn away either.  He desperately wanted
to fall to his knees and plead with the detective for police protection,
a place to hide, a fucking army battalion outside his house.  He wanted
to cry out that he had nothing to do with the Spyder, that he had seen a
young man's intestines burst open with a horde of demonic insects, that he
was a victim of his own unrestrained terror.  Instead, he simply extended
his good hand forward, looking for a reassuring handshake.  Middleton
scoffed at it.
        "Just get the hell out of here."
        Eric turned away quickly, clutching his overcoat close to his
body and cringing at the pain in his ribs.  His every bone quivered as he
contemplated the uncertainty of returning, unprotected, to the palatial
home which was so easily penetrated earlier that night.  He had sought
solace, some sort of reassurance from the police, but instead found only
thinly veiled accusations and threats.  Nothing had been solved for him,
and somewhere beyond the daylight, the hungry blackness still impatiently
awaited him.  But how was that different than any other day in Harbour
City?  An all too familiar chill ran through Eric Townsend's body as the
elevator doors opened and he shuffled inside.
        "So what do you think?"
        Middleton looked up from his desk.  Commissioner Jeff Ross stood
hunched in the doorway, his auburn hair horribly mussed and the dark
circles of his eyes rivaling Middleton's own.
        "Jesus, man, you look terrible."
        "Ha!" Ross retorted with a tired grin. "You obviously don't have
room for a mirror in this disaster of an office."  Middleton glanced for
what struck him as the first time over the thick stacks of dossiers and
haphazard arrays of newspaper clippings and police reports, both in files
and otherwise, strewn about his desk and floor.  The detective's eyes
widened in honest surprise.  It seemed Ross's assessment of the office
wasn't too far from literal.  But Middleton did not exactly have the taste
for meticulous neatness lately, in either his professional or personal
lives.  There were far more important things to occupy his time.
        "Hm," Middleton remarked, affording the matter no further
discussion.  Ross studied his detective inquisitively as he sauntered
further into the black man's cluttered office.
        "What do you make of this morning's events?"
        "The Spyder," Middleton said after a moment, only half-addressing
Ross' question. "The god damn Spyder."
        "So I've been told," the commissioner replied, dropping into the
seat recently occupied by Townsend.  He looked to Middleton with narrow,
tired eyes.  "That seems to be the only thing I hear about around here
lately, though God forbid we actually come up with something more solid
than stories and speculation.  Our doctor friend have anything interesting
to say to you, or just the same old bullshit about a ghost in the night?"
        "Same old bullshit," Middleton growled into his paperwork, not
caring to converse with his apparently chatty superior, and annoyed at
Ross's flippant manner.
        "The goddamn Spyder." Ross repeated Middleton's words as he craned
his neck in an exaggerated stretch.  He squeezed his eyes shut, giving
them a brief respite from the glaring lights of fluorescent fixtures and
the crisp morning sun. "I've been catching heat for this, Ron.  Past few
days, since Nostromo died, I've been catching all kinds of heat."
        "I'm sure," Middleton muttered indifferently as he sifted through
a stack of files some three feet high next to his desk.  He pulled a thick
dossier out of the mess and threw it carelessly on his desk.  Middleton
was not interested in idle banter.  If that was the purpose for Ross's
visit, the detective would find a more useful focus for his attentions.
It wasn't as though there was time to be wasted.
        "The papers, the TV stations...Hell, I've got correspondents from
morning radio shows showing up at the front door," Ross continued, rubbing
his eyes.  Middleton mouthed his "uh-huhs" but stayed within his work. "I
hear the Italians have been chewing up the phone lines at the Ministry
of Foreign Affairs and the Governor's office.  Briggs hasn't been down
here to the station yet, but it'll happen soon enough.  He just approved
a fat budget increase, and effective tonight, we're tripling the number
of active officers on the streets after nine...Supplementing them with
airships.  I don't even wanna know the kind of backlash this is gonna
bring.  There's a shitstorm in the works, Ron.  A big goddamn shitstorm,
and we're right in the middle of it."
        A moment passed.
        "Uh huh."
        Ross cocked an eyebrow and deliberately shifted forward.
Middleton did not look up.
        "Middleton, are you even listening to me?"
        The detective drew in a throaty sigh, clenching his teeth for a
brief moment.
        "Look, Commissioner Ross, with all due respect," Middleton began,
peering out from under a furrowed brow. "I'm trying to fucking work here."
        "Is that right?" Ross snapped, rising from his chair.  His
collected demeanor disappeared, revealing feelings which had been stirring
below the surface for months.  He slammed his hands down upon the desktop,
leaning in close to the detective. "Just what the hell are you working on,
Ron?  You're reading a goddamn file that's probably almost ten years old
by now...and that you've probably read about ten times before.  Shit, Ron,
how long has it been since you've slept?  Two or three days?  You're a
wreck, man, and if you can't see that, you're an idiot too.  What good is
any of this doing you?"
        No reply.  Middleton was frozen behind the desk.
        "What're you gonna find in there?  Some kind of hidden pattern?
Are you waiting on a goddamn epiphany to hit you?  Maybe if you look hard
enough, the letters will rearrange themselves into some kind of hidden
message.  Fuck, it's about the best you could hope for right now!  We're
chasing a ghost, Ron!" Ross threw his hands violently across Middleton's
desk, scattering the papers to the air and floor. "Listen to me, damn
you!  Don't you realize that this is pointless!?  We're chasing a fucking
        "You tell that to the fucking people whose lives this motherfucker
has ruined!" Middleton exclaimed.  His chair clattered to the ground as he
sprung to his feet, shoving Ross hard with both hands.  A finger jabbed
accusingly at the staggering commissioner. "What the fuck is wrong with
you, Ross?  Don't you dare come in here and tell me this is pointless!
You fucking tell that to the families of the people he's killed!  Tell all
those people whose lives he's ruined how pointless it is to track his ass
down!  'The fuck is wrong with you, man?"
        "What about your life, Ron?!" Ross shouted, refusing to relent. "I
know you're doing this for Mitch, god damn it.  I know what he's gone
through on account of the Spyder, and I know how close you are to him.  I
respect that, I know how messed up his life is.  But what about your life,
        "This IS my life, god damn it!" Middleton screamed. "This isn't
about Mitch, you presumptuous fuck!  You don't know shit about this whole
thing, so just shut up!  Let me do my goddamn job.  And save your sympathy
for someone else, someone like you who doesn't have the stones to deal
with this shit.  I don't fucking need it right now."
        Ross opened his mouth to counter but could summon no voice.
Middleton waited impatiently to scream his response, but he too fell mute
as Ross faltered.  Both men were left seething in an awkward silence that
was broken only by their own haggard breaths.
        "Ron..." the commissioner began in a low tone, struggling for
composure.  "We're on the same team, man.  I'm only trying to help you."
        Middleton's eyes remained hard, darting downward and over the
obsessive collection of paperwork which coated his office, then back to
        "I'm just trying to help you, Ron," Ross repeated, settling a hand
on Middleton's shoulder.  The detective pulled away with a sneer, causing
Ross's anger to flare once more. "I don't want to see you killed, man!  I
don't want to see any cops killed on my watch.  This Nostromo business has
been bad enough.  And I know you're shaken up about what happened with
Maggie Pierce but you can't let it make you like this!  You're on the
edge...Too close to the edge."
        "I'm fine," Middleton whispered harshly, more to himself than to
        "You're pushing yourself too hard," Ross snapped back.  But
Middleton's scowl told Ross how little his words actually meant to the
detective.  And it scared him. "Christ, Ron, the Spyder's killed cops
before.  Think about that.  He cut off Nostromo's fucking head.  Two years
ago he killed fifteen of our boys in a single night.  You know all this."
        For the briefest of instants, Middleton saw the Grim Knight's
glove slicing fatally through a pouring rain, trailing warm, thick blood.
The black cape whipped crisply in the night winds.  Through the tempest,
Raymundo Zuleta's bloody face sneered in wild glee as the bodies of police
officers fell all around him.
        "No, it wasn't-" Middleton caught himself too late.
        "Nothing," Middleton said quickly yet quietly, shaking his head
rather unconvincingly. "Forget it.  Just go on.  So, the Spyder killed our
boys.  And it's dangerous for me..."
        Ross studied his obviously shaken subordinate for a moment as
Middleton waited for the story to continue.  Ross's eyes turned quizzical.
        "Ron?  Do you know something you're not telling me?"
        "No," Middleton replied, almost before the question was finished.
Mustering his calm, he breathed deeply and looked Ross directly in the
eye. "No.  It's not important."
        Ross was unconvinced.  He stepped back a bit, studying the
detective with a solemn, inquisitive stare.
        "Why do I get the feeling..." Ross said, pausing a bit to ensure
he commanded all of Middleton's attention. "That everything concerning the
Spyder has moved completely out of my control."
        With one last glare, the commissioner of police walked briskly
to the office door, opened it, and let it squeak closed behind him as he
disappeared down the hall.
        Between the numerous towers of paper, Ron Middleton was left
completely alone.

	* * *
        "Hi Daddy."
        The night was crisp and cold again, and the swollen moon still
poured its muted luminance through any windows which might accept it,
the last refuse from the shadows.  On Harbour's far south side, its pale
rays settled softly upon the smooth, round cheeks of a five-year-old
girl, peeking through branches and passing a small painted glass sun
ornamentation, obviously a child's craft, to do so.
        The room hummed with the verve of mechanical precision, a contrast
to the inviting pastels and cute kangaroo paintings which adorned the
walls.  Alongside the child's small bed, clear tubes traced a path from
a two-foot square machine to a transparent clear mask which caught the
moonlight just inside the girl's cheeks, around her nose and mouth.
Under the mask, her lips and nostrils opened and closed subtly and
slowly, drawing in medicated breath from the machine.  She smiled as the
auburn-haired man crept into her bedroom.
        "Hey Honey."
        Jeff Ross stooped next to the bedside, setting a tender hand on
his daughter's chest.
        "How're you feelin', Pook?"
        "I'm sleepy, I think."
        "You think, huh?" Ross smiled. "How's your chest?  Mommy said you
had another of your attacks."
        "Yeah.  I think I'm okay now though.  Just sleepy."
        "Alright, honey, I just wanted to come in to see how you're doin'
and say 'night', okay?"
        "Did you catch a lot of bad guys today, Daddy?"
        Ross's lips pursed and his eyebrows drooped as he looked lovingly
at his daughter.
        "A whole bunch, Pook.  Caught a whole bunch of bad guys."
        "That's what Mommy said," the little girl smiled as her eyes began
to slide closed. "I just wanted to make sure."
        "Alright.  Get some sleep, honey, and you'll be all better
tomorrow, okay?"
        "Okay, Daddy.  I love you."
        "I love you too, Pookie," Ross said as he leaned in softly to his
daughter's outstretched arms, feeling her small fingers wrap around his
shoulders and a sudden sadness wash over him.  He let his lips linger atop
her head for a moment, nestled in the thin mop of auburn hair identical to
his own, before pulling away. "Good night."
        Ross backed away a few steps, then paused and watched as his
daughter's eyelids fell blissfully over her striking green eyes.  He stood
statuesque for a long moment, watching as her chest heaved in time with
the machinery at her bedside.
        "Is Coley gonna be okay?"
        Ross turned toward the doorway, where his wife stood against the
frame holding the hand of his younger daughter, who in turn gripped the
paw of her overstuffed teddy bear.  He smiled, scooping the smaller girl
with the silken brown hair into his arms and giving her a soft peck on the
cheek.  She smiled but her eyes remained entranced on her sleeping sister.
        "She'll be fine, Cupie," Ross smiled as his wife slipped her hands
around his waist from behind. "Her asthma got bad again, but Mommy was
able to give her her medicine in time, so she should be okay.  But that's
why you need to tell us if Nicole ever starts breathing funny, right?"
        "Mmhmm," the girl murmured, firmly nodding her head.  Her father
smiled, again pecking her cheek.
        "Angela, why don't you go give your sister a kiss goodnight,
        "'Kay Mommy," the young girl replied as Ross gently set her down
on the floor.  He felt his wife's grip tighten around his waist, sinking a
bit into the paunch he had been slowly nurturing during the past stressful
months.  If she did mind, she never mentioned it.  He craned his neck
backward and felt her face nuzzle upon his back, her breaths turning warm
against his shirt.  He smelled the perfume mingling with the scent of
shampoo rising from her dark curls and tried desperately to lose himself
in it.
        "How bad was it, Rachel?" he asked softly, not really wanting to
know.  Across the room, Angela held the snout of her bear against Nicole's
cheek and made a loud puckering sound.
        "Not as bad as last time, but I caught it early," Rachel Ross
whispered, her lips caressing her husband's back as she spoke.
        "Jesus, we can't keep this up," Jeff sighed.
        "I can handle the girls.  Nicole's okay.  You just worry about
what you need to worry about."
        "Rachel...The minute a job opens up in another city, we're out of
here.  Out of Harbour forever."
        "To where, though, Jeff?" Rachel replied tenderly. "Pacific City
and their new mayor?  Lorrington and their gangs?  All the morning shows
say the weirdness with the science beings is even spilling over into
Cottered.  The whole country's a little crazy right now."
        "I just can't take this anymore.  I can't take this city.  I...I
can't."  He trailed off, suddenly very aware of the vulnerability he so
blatantly displayed.
        "Why would it be any different anywhere else?"
        Ross considered this for a long moment, his eyes glazing over as
he stared at the ceiling.
        "The world's not supposed to be this way," he whispered, almost
        He felt Rachel's strong arms hold him tighter, but she could say
nothing to his lament.  She had heard the hopeless monotone in his voice
before.  She had been hearing it more and more.  It brought silent tears
to her eyes.
        He took her fingers in his, gently rocking back and forth, feeling
her body against his as he moved and hoping her touch could bring him
peace.  He watched as Angela whispered something to her sleeping sister
before setting her bear down gently on the bed.
        "Y'know, they've had pictures of the Spyder up all over
television," Rachel said, trying to inject some hope into her voice. "All
kinds of names or aliases too...Steffens, Stockholm, Peters, Denmon.  Some
Hispanic names.  I mean, the people on Morning View said that with all
this publicity and with the money Mayor Briggs just granted to the police
department, it's only a matter of time before you catch him." She paused
nervously. "Please tell me they're right, Jeff...Won't all this insanity
with the Spyder at least be over soon?"
        "Honey," Ross said gravely, wishing his wife hadn't even asked.
He almost didn't bring himself to answer. "I have a feeling this is just
the beginning."

        * * *

        "Sir, we received a record amount of mail this morning
        "...Haven't been able to get through to city hall..."
        "The police department's lines have been busy since..."
        "...reports of unrest in the union."
        Ian Thorpe cringed out of pure reflex for the countless time
that hour, but further consideration of that last statement gave him an
intrigued pause.  He glanced up from under furrowed eyebrows and smirked.
        "Union troubles, you say?"
        The woman stepped further into her editor-in-chief's office,
letting the door slip behind her.
        "Yes, sir," she replied eagerly, encouraged by Thorpe's relatively
positive response.  Such a thing seemed to be becoming an increasingly
scarce commodity at the Tribune offices. "My source in the officers'
union says they're pretty worked up about the commissioner's night hours
mandate.  But apparently Ross's office is pretty intent on moving along
with the whole thing.  And now, what with the public getting vocal about
the overbearing police presence...There's pressure coming from all sides
with the situation.  Nobody seems happy with what everyone else is doing.
Problems are brewing."
        "Interesting," Thorpe smiled lecherously.  He reclined in his
chair as his seasoned journalist's brain began to churn.  He meditated
briefly on the matter with a soft stroking of his well-defined jaw. "Well,
it's something...But it's really not much.  Not yet anyways.  Still, sure
as hell better for my front page than more Pacific City nonsense.  What do
you think you can get me, Sue?"
        "Not sure," the reporter answered meekly, shying away a bit for
fear of provoking Thorpe's recently short temper. "I'll have to talk to
my source again...Possibly some interviews, I mean the unions are always
pretty open to bitching to the public.  But as far as an argument from the
brass...I just don't know."
        "Yeah, so I've been hearing all day long.  Nobody who matters
in this bloody city wants to talk about this nice little siege that
Ross and his boys have so casually slipped under our noses..." Thorpe
snorted.  The promise of a story seemed to quickly fade. "Still, as much
as the police department likes to shit on us, I won't let the Tribune be
a sounding board for the damn unions either.  Come back when you've got
something more solid for me."  Thorpe waved her off with a dismissive huff
and turned his attention back to his paperwork.  Nervously, Sue Cramden
lingered near the doorway.
        "Mister Thorpe, you know the media restrictions make it
        Thorpe's clenched teeth appeared in an annoyed cringe as Sue spoke
        "Paige could get it done!" Thorpe snapped, catching the reporter
off guard.  She stood with wide eyes and open mouth, as though she wanted
to defend herself but just could not muster an argument.  Thorpe pursed
his lips, studying the crow's feet at the corners of Sue's eyes and the
neatly pressed turquoise skirt suit which hugged her squat, doughy frame.
The older man suddenly found himself rather nostalgic for Amie Paige's
presence in his office, if not for her stories.
        "Of course, sir," Sue finally squeaked before shuffling out of    
the office.  Thorpe felt a pang of guilt as he watched the door close.    
He certainly had been a bastard lately, but what was even worse, it had   
come so naturally that he almost failed to realize it.  His nerves were   
simply frayed of late.                                                    
        He sighed wearily, reclining in his chair.  Paige.  The stack of
paperwork from Darrell Fletcher concerning the recent lawsuit brought
against Thorpe's star reporter was thick to say the least.  Detailed
testimonies of the alleged events behind the charges that she had sexually
harassed her way into the Spyder's safehouse.  Fletcher had given his
assurance that the suit wouldn't hold up in court, which Thorpe believed
based on Fletcher's record with the Tribune's extensive list of supposed
transgressions.  The newspaper had nary paid a dime over the years.  Yet
Thorpe was no fool, and he knew how valid the lawsuit was.  It didn't
take an idiot to realize the nature Paige's preternaturally effective
methods of persuasion, regardless of whether or not she actually ever
discussed them with her peers.  The tabloids documented it all rather well
anyways...Especially when the superheroes were involved.
        "Came back and bit you in the ass, though, didn't it Amie?" Thorpe
muttered under his breath, not knowing whether to feel sympathetic or
indignant toward her.  He had seen the possibility coming for years, but
at the same time always hoped it would never arrive.  That time when a man
would take advantage of Paige's sexual approach to capturing a story.  In
a way, Thorpe was glad it happened as it did...He wouldn't have been able
to forgive himself if Norrington had tried to rape Paige, or worse, after
being assigned as her partner.  But while Paige had not been physically
harmed by John Norrington's deceitful advances, the effects were obviously
still devastating.  Thorpe had seen the emptiness and confusion in her
eyes.  He had heard the monotonous distance of her voice as she related to
him a sketchy version of the incident.  Norrington had quit before Thorpe
had the chance to fire him, but even with the depraved young man seemingly
out of her life, Paige's wounds showed no sign of healing.  There were
shattered pieces there that could take a lifetime to pick up.
        Thorpe wasn't the least bit surprised when she announced her
sabbatical.  She said she was taking time off to write her book.  During
the course of that meeting, her glassy eyes scarcely left the floor.  Ian
Thorpe hadn't seen or spoken to her since.
        In the meantime, half the Tribune's staff had been clamoring for
her beat.  Thorpe had gotten very sick of it very quickly.  They were all
eager to carve themselves a slice of fame to rival Paige's, but absolutely
no one got results like her.  Nobody at the Tribune could replace Amie
Paige.  Thorpe knew there was nobody like her.
        The head of the Harbour City Tribune blinked himself out of the
daydream into which he had unknowingly slipped.  He shook his head, trying
to make sense of the conflicted feelings which made him so detached and
irritable.  Of course he missed Paige, but it was on a purely professional
basis, nothing more.  He missed the fact that she always made her
deadline, he missed the notoriety she brought to the Tribune.  He missed
his meetings with her in his office...That confident raise of her eyebrow
whenever she knew she was making him squirm.
        Thorpe grunted, massaging his head.
        It had been a long day.  He obviously was not thinking clearly.
        "Damn it Amie.  This city's about to go to hell in a handbasket
and my top reporter leaves me out to dry."
        It was purely professional, he reassured himself.  Nothing more.

        * * *

        The elevator doors opened to a wide hallway lined with regal
paintings of Harbour City's founding fathers, some dating back to the
eighteenth century.  Past the portraits, the hall expanded into a
large reception area.  And beyond the receptionists' cubicles was an
absolutely stunning view of the late afternoon Harbour City skyline.
One of the perks of working in the higher echelons of the traditionally
self-indulgent city government was the view from the top floors of Poole
Plaza.  Located in the heart of the near south side, the Plaza's panoramic
views afforded lines of sight to every corner of the ancient city.  From
those heights, the gargoyles and weather-beaten stone edifices could
almost be called beautiful.  Almost.
        Leo Briggs marched out of the elevator, his eyes cast sullenly to
the floor.  He paid the windows as little attention as he paid the man at
his side.
        "Also, sir, I got a call from the Times-Herald out of the south
suburbs.  They're trying to put together a special section on the history
of vigilantism in Harbour.  They'd really like a statement from you."
        Paul Foster shuffled closer to Briggs, careful not to trip over
his own feet.  He struggled to keep hold of the stack of papers and
notepads cradled in one arm, as he readied himself to jot down Briggs'
response with his free hand.  The mayor of Harbour City sighed as he
slowed to a stop.  He looked to his well- postured advisor with a dreary
expression that seemed to fit perfectly between the heavy wrinkles of
his face.  It appeared as though gravity was being rather unkind to the
mayor's dimpled jowls that particular afternoon.
        "Paul, how's my hair?"
        Foster looked incredulously over the wispy combover which seemed
as though it was literally glued to Briggs' shiny scalp.  He smiled
        "It's...fine, sir.  But really, Mayor Briggs, there's things we
need to talk about," Foster spouted quickly as he flipped through the
sizable stack of papers nestled into the crook of his arm. "The phones
haven't stopped ringing since this morning...I've had inquiries from
everyone from the Harbour City Tribune to the Rock Report.  We're getting
complaints and questions from activist groups, government organizations,
concerned citizens...Several schools have called wondering if we have any
information they can pass along to students and parents.  Everybody wants
to know what's going on with the Spyder search, and I don't know what to
tell them.  You can't stay silent on this issue forever."
        Briggs grimaced, an almost cartoon-like expression when performed
by his malleable face.  He turned away, biting his lip.
        "Just tell them 'no comment'," he said softly.
        "Sir, I can't do that anymore.  There's all kinds of rumors
floating around.  People know the new police initiative is related to
the Spyder, but at the same time, Pacific City is on everyone's minds.
They're wondering if we're preparing for some kind of war."
        "We're already halfway there," Briggs said knowingly.
        Foster jerked his head, confounded by the mayor's drastic change
in attitude.  For better or for worse, Briggs was notorious for bowing to
the pressures of the media.  In fact, the mayor's petty drive to garner
favor in the court of public opinion was what had led Foster into the
heart of the Spyder investigation as a media liaison four months prior.
He had since been promoted to the newly created position of Counsel for
Media Affairs, following the highly criticized restrictions Briggs had
placed on the press following the Raymundo Zuleta disaster.  In all his
time spent as one of Leo Briggs' advisors, the one thing Paul Foster
had never had a problem with was getting the mayor to talk.  Yet since
Nostromo's death, Briggs had scarcely been seen in public, let alone
available for a conversation.
        "Sir, is there something wrong?" Foster asked.  The mayor opened
his mouth as if to speak, but quickly shut it, almost looking pained at
his decision to silence himself.  Briggs slowly lifted his head.
        Their eyes met, and Foster almost jumped.  Briggs's eyes, glazed
over and framed by countless folds of tired, discolored flesh, were
pleading, almost screaming.  Something was scaring Leo Briggs...Scaring
him bad.
        "No," Briggs said softly, mustering an unconvincing smile.  The
eyes screamed louder. "No, this meeting with the city council just has me
a little worked up is all.  Look, I'll talk to whoever I need to after I
get out of this meeting, alright?"
        "I suppose so..."
        "Perfect," Briggs said.  He quickly turned away, allowing Foster
no opportunity for a farewell.  The advisor watched as Briggs waddled
slowly through the reception area, nodding his hellos to the secretaries
as he approached the large oak double doors.  The image of Briggs's eyes
was burned into Foster's mind.  There was more to those eyes, to that
fear, than anxiety over a simple meeting.  There was a fear there, a
personal, passionate fear.  Foster wished he knew why.
        "Mister Briggs, thank you for joining us."
        Briggs forced a toothless smile as he entered the room.  It was
all glass and curves, an extremely modernized facility, particularly
when compared to the motif of antiquated history throughout the rest
of the building.  The room was dominated by an ovular table of tinted
glass, around which sat some ten black leather office chairs, seven of
which were occupied.  A small computer console complimented each seating,
built into the face of the table.  The four walls were equally divided
between floor to ceiling windows and an off-white paint.  The solid walls
were adorned at regular intervals with narrow black panels that held
upward-facing light fixtures, between which hung photos of some of Harbour
City's most notable landmarks, each illuminated softly by overhead track
lighting.  The two remaining walls of the corner conference room afforded
a spectacular panorama of Harbour's truly staggering waterfront.
         The councilwoman who had greeted Briggs eyeballed him sharply as
he took his seat at what could have been called the head of the table.
Curt nods were directed at the mayor in salutation from the assembly
of community leaders, the men and women to whom Briggs was directly
responsible.  The seven individuals may have been his so-called "bosses"
but he hardly ever communicated with any of them, really, save for the
obligatory phone call or e-mail.  Otherwise, the council seemed content to
let Briggs run the city as he saw fit.  Unless there was something very
        "Let's get right to it, Leo," the councilwoman said.
        "By all means," Briggs said softly.
        "We have several concerns, some of which you may be aware of,
some of which you may not," one of the councilmen said, his nasal tone
making him sound rather condescending. "Primarily, the current situation
in Pacific City has us a bit worried."
        "I don't see how that concerns us at all," Briggs replied
        "It doesn't directly...Not yet anyways," the councilwoman
replied. "The fact of the matter, Leo, is that Romanov thing has thrown
this country to shit."
        "My people in Canberra say that he's had no contact with the Prime
Minister or the Congress since procuring the mayorship of Pacific City.
The senators and representatives from Pacific City are scared to return
home.  Official communications with the city government have been token,
at best.  Romanov's only telling us what it wants us to know, and half the
time it's just bloody riddles.  There's talk of a civil war, Briggs, and
Prime Minister Howard and his people are doing all they can to prevent
that from happening."
        "Which still may not do any good in the long run," another
councilman chimed in.
        "Right," the councilwoman confirmed. "There's a lot at stake
here, Leo, and there's a lot we don't know.  Who exactly Romanov is, what
he wants, the extent of his plans.  But what we do know is that he has
a collection of some of the most powerful science beings on the planet
under his thumb right now.  I don't think it's a secret as to the fate of
Moonbase Churchill...?"
        Briggs nodded.
        "Well the Americans are bloody pissed, Leo.  And it hasn't been a
good idea to piss off the Americans lately."
        "They're in the middle of a military campaign right now in
Afghanistan, relating to the destruction of the World Trade Center in New
York City last year."
        "I know this," Briggs replied. "Look, I thought you said we were
going to get right to it...?"
        "Well here it is, then," the councilwoman sneered. "Pacific City,
lying just south of us, is in the middle of an international clusterfuck.
Our government's pissed at the English, who let Romanov loose to begin
with.  At the same time, the Americans, the Russians, and the English
themselves are pissed at us due to their respective stakes in the recently
destroyed space station.  They're clamoring for action we can't take,
due to the amount of unknowns involved.  We certainly don't want a
super-powered war in a city some two and a half million strong.  At the
same time, though, both China and Japan have expressed concern about the
so-called 'New Mages situation', and we're all aware of the temperament of
certain other neighbors of ours in the Indian Ocean."
        "Couple that with the outrage of the Italian government at
Guillermo del Nostromo's untimely death here..."
        "And we are sitting just north of a potential powder keg, some of
which has already spilled over," the councilwoman finished in an ominous
tone. "And who knows how long it will be before Romanov sets his eye on
        Briggs bowed his head gravely.
        "The fact of the matter, Mister Briggs," a councilman said with
venom in his voice. "Is that we are not pleased with how you've been
running this city.  Or perhaps, not pleased with who you've been letting
run this city for you...?"
        Briggs' eyes peered forth from the shadow of his own brow.  Could
the council somehow know...?
        "We need to resolve some issues, Leo.  First of all because we may
very well have to start preparing for some kind of war, and we don't need
to have this current situation hanging over our heads.  But secondly, we
need to take care of this in order to take some of the pressure off our
back, both from the Italian government and our own.  The last thing we
need is another 'incident' involving a science being...It would be enough
to push the Prime Minister over the edge.  And none of us want a civil
war.  A victory over a science being might very well be enough to calm
everybody down a bit, and removal of our vigilante nuisance allows further
concentration on the threat of Romanov attacking."
        "Of course, then there's the people to consider.  They're
scared...They've been scared for over four months now."
        Briggs sighed, expectant of what was to come.  Inside, Briggs'
sigh was one of relief, for the council did not know what he feared they
did.  Still though, the impending words were ones Briggs did not want to
        "We want the Spyder caught, Leo," the councilwoman said. "You told
the people you were going to bring him to justice for Raymundo Zuleta's
murder months ago.  And we've still got nothing."
        "We just supplemented the police force..." Briggs began, hoping to
somehow quell the council's collective temper.
        "And that's a start," one of the councilmen interrupted. "But not
good enough.  This is one man, Briggs.  One man who reportedly does not
even have any superpowers...?  How is it that we can't catch this guy?"
        "We want him brought in.  Hell, if it's in any way possible, we
want him brought in tomorrow.  This needs to be resolved.  Now."
        "By any means necessary, Leo," the councilwoman said slowly. "The
city can live with it so long as it's quick and clean.  But this has gone
on long enough."
        "Do we have an understanding, Briggs?"  The nasal-voiced
councilman leaned over the table, his eyes boring holes into the
uncomfortable mayor.
        Leo Briggs knew he had no choice.  He was backed into a corner.
And though he knew the possible fate of the city should he abide the
council's words, Leo Briggs had never been known as a pit bull.  A corner
was not the place where he ever mustered strength.
        "I understand," he whispered solemnly.
        Outside, the afternoon tumbled into the cold embrace of nightfall.

        * * *

        "This is not a good thing, Leo."
        "Well, it's not a suggestion, Jeffrey.  It's an order."
        Jeff Ross had spent the night in another restless slumber.  Dreams
of the darkness of Harbour City haunted his waking hours; when the time
came for sleep, his mind was simply unrelenting, torturing him with the
unspoken guilts and fears he always tried so desperately to hide away.
        But nothing stays hidden from the darkness.  Least of all in
Harbour City.
        Twice already that week the commissioner had spent the night awake
on the living room couch, out of courtesy to Rachel, who already put up
with so much from him without having to worry about his fitful nightmares.
So often he would awake tangled in his bedsheets, in a hot sweat, not
more than an hour after finally drifting off.  He often wondered what
went through his wife's head those times when he would bolt upright after
thrashing about in bed at two in the morning; what fears she had that she
would never speak to him.
        Ross hadn't spoken to Rachel much at all in the past few weeks.
He could vaguely remember a time when she would wait up nervously sipping
coffee until he trudged in the door.  Those times he could cry to her when
things seemed bleak.  But Jeff Ross hadn't cried in a long time.  Inside,
he felt blank, distant and numb, like a lost man without the capacity or
will to return home.  In Rachel's mind, then, was she doomed to forever
sip her coffee, waiting for a moment of relief that would never come?
        He just couldn't bring himself to tell her how out of control
everything was.  He wished it was a money problem, or that his car had
been stolen, or anything stupid and trivial and finite.  But it was life.
Everything was wrong.  It was the world around them, the world around
him, closing in an inch at a time and squeezing any sense of decency and
righteousness he might have ever felt out of him in favor of a gnawing,
empty blackness.  He didn't want to tell his wife what the city, the
country, the world was becoming...What he was becoming.  He didn't want to
tell anyone that the darkness was beginning to consume him.
        "You don't want to do this, Leo, you really don't," Ross said
solemnly, his eyes cast down and his back turned to the expansive window
and the oversized desk which lie in front of it.  Briggs remained
grave, though Ross did not even give himself the opportunity to see his
superior's reaction.
        "I have to do this.  I have no choice," Briggs said, his tone
strained.  The words echoed, giving way to an unsettling silence.
        The two men would never know how united their thoughts were.
        "Leo, I can't in good conscience do this.  I can't do this to the
people of this city."
        "Jeff..." Briggs began, his features almost softening, but he
quickly regained a level stoicism. "The Spyder needs to be caught.  It's
the council's decision."
        Ross whirled, his eyes sunken into dark, wrinkled flesh.
        "I want the Spyder caught just as much as you do, damn it," Ross
snapped.  "But this is too much.  Don't you find this excessive?  Christ,
Leo, this can't be the way.  You...You don't know these men, these men
who're supposed to 'protect and serve'.  You can't give them this kind of
leeway.  You don't want to."
        "It's temporary," Briggs said, now sounding so unconvinced that
Ross could not help but falter at the words.  Something deeper stirred
within Briggs' seemingly superficial mind. "I spoke with the council
yesterday, and this course of action has their full approval.  The unions
have conceded cooperation based on promise of double overtime pay and the
fact that it's only for a short while.  It's all ready to go.  It's...It's
only for a short while..."
        Again, the silence.
        "How did it come to this...?" Ross whispered, almost collapsing
under the impact of his words.  Briggs cringed. "How can this be right?"
        "It's just a little while, Jeffrey," Briggs said, his tone and his
eyes imploring forgiveness.
        "This isn't right, god damn it."
        "The world's not right!" Briggs exclaimed emphatically.  Ross did
not pick up on the deep-seated fear ringing in those words.
        "But we've been through so much already in this city, just in the
time that I've lived here.  Through the 80's, with the Grim Knight, and
then Raven.  Then when the Spyder first appeared.  The drugs and the gun
running and the street gangs.  Corruption on the damn police force.  It
never came to this before.  Hammerhand's rampage a year ago...And we still
didn't have to do anything like this."
        "I...Look..." Briggs began, his lower lip quivering as he sought
the words.  They came in a whisper. "...Can we...Can we keep it quiet?
Can we do this quietly?"
        "Are you insane?" Ross sneered, his eyes growing wide and
wild. "Are you fucking insane, Leo?"
        "Jeff, look," Briggs began, his eyes pleading with Ross for an
understanding he knew he had nearly no hope of receiving. "If there's any
        "You're still worried about your fucking approval ratings?!" Ross
growled, his anger bubbling over and eclipsing any sadness he was
feeling. "Well lemme clue you in.  You might as well not even have any.
Because you're about to throw this city to the fucking dogs.  I don't know
what you hope to accomplish but...Shit.  I just...I didn't think...Not
even you, Leo, I didn't think even you could be so low...So stupid."
        "It's not what you think, damn it!" Briggs rasped, slamming
his fist on his desk.  The loose flesh of his face twisted, his facade
threatening to break.  "It's not about me, Ross!  Damn it, this is not
about my approval ratings."
        "Don't lie to me," Ross spat. "I know exactly what you're about.
You're a sham, 'your honor'.  You're in this for yourself.  Just like
everyone else in this fucking city.  All you've ever cared about was
yourself, and look where it's gotten you.  And now you want me to clean up
your mess so it doesn't look so bad for you.  Well, fuck that, Leo.  No.
There's absolutely no way in hell we can keep this quiet."
        "You have to try," Briggs said, almost choking on the words.
Ross's tirade had little effect on him.  He pressed on. "Jeff, you don't
understand why I'm..."
        "Fuck you," Ross said simply. "If we're going to do this, so help
me Christ...If we're gonna go through with this we have to go all the way.
And I won't let it be on my head.  You're making the announcement to the
press tomorrow."
        He paused a beat, clenching his teeth at the pain of his next
        "Please, Jeffrey..." Briggs pleaded, almost falling forward with
clasped hands toward Ross. "Please just make this as quick as you can."
        "You make the announcement..." Ross huffed, oblivious to Briggs's
struggle with his private pain. "And then this city goes to hell."
        The commissioner slammed the door behind him as he marched out,
leaving its crash to echo off the high ceilings of the mayor's office and
back down into the stomach of the lone man left inside.  Briggs turned
slowly in his chair as the echo faded, bringing the city's twilight into
view through the window behind him.  He stared at it blankly for a moment,
struggling with what he knew was to come.
        "You can't imagine the half of it, Ross..." he whispered as he
finally broke down, burying his face into his hands. "Christ help us all."
        Jeff Ross would spend two hours at the bedside of his eldest
daughter that night before finally falling into a tortured sleep.
        Leo Briggs would not sleep at all.

        * * *

        Middleton had seen the same footage thirteen times.  The same
damned press conference.  The same damned face.
        He took a swig from the bottle of gin, cringing as it burned its
way down his throat.  Settling in his stomach.  Numbing him.
        He had been sitting in the darkness of his apartment and staring
at the television for six straight hours.  He couldn't think straight.
He wanted to be outraged or disgusted.  He just wanted to feel.  But he
didn't.  For six hours he had been blank.  The whole time he kept telling
himself that he was going to just finish the whole bottle of gin, fall
asleep, and hope he wouldn't wake up.
        He glanced at the small table in the corner of his living room,
next to the TV set.  The files were still there, strewn about haphazardly
since before Guillermo del Nostromo was murdered.
        Since before he had made love to Maggie Pierce in the next room.
Before he tried to arrest her for a series of grotesque slaughters.
        Her words kept cutting through his mind in nauseating rhythm, over
and over, like the picture of the fat man on the screen.
        <i>Fuck you!  I never want to see you again!
        You must be completely incapable of trusting another human
        In his gut, Middleton still felt the horrid tug of conscience
which always told him to trust the Spyder.
        With a roar, he chucked the bottle into the darkness, raining
shards of glass and splashes of alcohol over his television and carpet,
and leaving a large cracked impression in the opposite wall.  He stood
seething for a moment, finally having moved from his frozen stupor and
feeling it set his muscles on fire.  His head pounded with debilitating
        "You've ruined my life, you sonuvabitch," he whispered to the
night.  But he received no answer.
        The footage played for the fourteenth time on Middleton's screen.
        "...by my order, with full approval of the Harbour City Council
and state government of New South Wales, and with full cooperation from
this great city's law enforcement community, that Harbour City is about to
enter a temporary state...Of martial law."
        The chatter of gasps and disbelief.
        "Effective tomorrow, we will double the amount of active police
officers on duty during the day time, and continue the tripled efforts in
the evening.  Airships and a greatly augmented fleet of boats will patrol
the city and the waterfront around the clock.  A 9:00 p.m. curfew will be
in effect for all citizens, save for those with special permission from
the City Council.  Finally, the police force will be authorized to use
whatever means they deem necessary in the location and apprehension of the
vigilante known as the Spyder.
        "We, your elected officials, realize the impact this decree
has on the city and its people, and we ask that you be cooperative and
understanding, in this time of great crisis.  In return, the police
will be as courteous as possible during their investigations, but
will undoubtedly be a bit more aggressive in their efforts.  The full
ramifications of this policy are of course impossible to determine, but we
trust our efforts will be fruitful.
        "Upon apprehension of the Spyder, or at a time when the martial
law campaign has been deemed a failure by the city council, the city
government will revert to its normal state of operations.  Finally, I feel
confident in saying that this arrangement should expedite the capture of
the Spyder to not more than two, maybe three, days.  Thank you for your
time, your cooperation, and your understanding...Any further questions can
be directed to the Office of Media Affairs."
        Middleton watched Briggs shuffle off the stage and into an
awaiting entourage of security personnel as the room exploded in a flurry
of flashbulbs and shouted questions.
        He remembered the Continental.  The media frenzy, and then, the
dead bodies.  Cold hard steel in the Spyder's hand and eight men at his
feet.  The last time he saw Raymundo Zuleta alive.  The last time he saw
the Grim Knight alive?
        He remembered the Spyder, sitting in his living room the week
after.  Revealing his version of the truth.  So casually taunting the
futility of the city's police force.  The futility of Middleton's own
        Was he right?
        Ron Middleton grimaced, his chest heavy and mind racing.
        No.  The bastard wasnåt right.  The son of a bitch could not be
        Despite the gin, the shock, the memories, Middletonås thoughts
were growing clearer.  Doubt was fading, overcome by anger, by pain, by
longing.  His feeling was returning.  His passion.
        "You want a war, Spyder," Middleton hissed, casting his eyes out
over the ominous silhouette of the city. "Then we'll give you a war."

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