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A Stranger In Need

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I'm a nerd. I always have been.

High school was where I became most conscious of my nerdiness, as the school population increased, the cliques solidified, and the jocks began openly scorning us chess club geeks.

Then one day a genetically enhanced superspider bit me, and I woke up with a muscular definition to rival Hercules.

Well, maybe not Hercules. I was still slim, not bulging like a steroid-enhanced gym bunny. But I was pretty ripped, a six-pack decorating my abdomen, and I was proud of my fortune.

Only I couldn't tell anyone. With great power comes great responsibility, and my responsibilities prevented me from gloating about the blessings from my lucky accident. To all outward appearances, I was still Peter Parker, college student and freelance photographer, not Spiderman, the hero of the New York skyline. I didn't mind the deception most of the time, but any day I approached the office of my boss, Jonah Jameson, was the day I had to remind myself that I couldn't twirl him around my head. No matter how much the temptation called to me. He was gruff and abrasive and tried to pay me as little as possible. But when you're Spiderman, needing to be able to swing down to help a beleaguered New Yorker at a moment's notice, it's difficult to hold down a 9 to 5 job. I'd tried and failed several times. I needed the flexibility to set my own schedule.

So as I trotted through the offices of the Daily Bugle, I reminded myself again that I was a nerd. A slim, medium height, science-loving, Trek-watching, chess-playing, geeky photographer. One with enough stubbornness to demand a raise for this new set of prints.

I paused at his doorway, took a deep breath and strode in. "Mr. Jameson, I -"

And stopped. Because it wasn't Jonah Jameson behind the desk. This man was younger than Jonah, his brown hair like a hippie's, loose to his shoulders with a hint of gray at the temples. Like J.J., he was wearing a suit, but he definitely looked more stylish in his white suit, pale blue shirt and geometrically patterned tie than J.J. ever did. More Armani and less Bob's Discount Clothes for Gentlemen.

He certainly shared J.J.'s commanding attitude though. He held out his hand and somehow I found myself putting my pictures in it. He looked at them, studying them as J.J. did, but more carefully. And a lot more slowly.

"Get out of my chair!" I flinched at the brusque noise behind my head. For some reason, my spider sense never thought J.J. was a danger. He strode past me, yanked my pictures from the other fellow's hand and flipped through. In 10 seconds, he was calling for Robertson and indicating which one he wanted on the front page.

"Mr. Jameson, I - "

"You need a raise, Parker. Twenty-five dollars. Tell Marie. Get out of my chair, J.Q."

"Actually, Mr. Jameson, I was thinking of fifty dollars."

"What do you take me for, a banker? Haven't you heard we're in a recession? Twenty-five dollars." The other fellow moved out of J.J.'s chair, allowing him to sit down, which he promptly did, chewing on the end of his unlit cigar.

"This was my tenth front page picture, Mr. Jameson. I deserve fifty dollars."

"Be lucky you've got a job, Parker! Huffman, get in here! J.Q., I thought you were going away."

"In a few minutes, J.J. And please don't call me J.Q."

"J.Q.?" I diverted my attention from Mr. Jameson to question the initials, and the other fellow held out his hand.

"Jonathon Quillam Jameson. I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Parker. You take excellent pictures."

"Thank you, Mr. Jameson." We shook hands. He had a good grip, his hand dwarfing mine as he towered over me. "I guess you two are related?"

"Bright, Parker. He's my cousin. Second cousin. Huffman, get me Enright. I want him covering the City Council meeting tomorrow."

The Jamesons might be related but they didn't appear to be best buds. I thought there was at least a decade between them, but there was something ageless about J.Q.'s eyes that made him seem both young and wise at the same time. I instinctively liked J.Q. Next to J.J., his solid presence was very soothing, though I guessed he could be just as dominating. His voice was very level as he said, "Please call me Quill."

"If introductions are over, you two can leave now. I've got a business to run."

"I'll see you for dinner tonight, J.J. Mr. Parker." The other Mr. Jameson loped on out, but I stood my ground. "About that raise, Mr. Jameson."

"Thirty-five dollars, Parker. Not a penny more. And you're a thief, get out of here! Oh good, Enright, I want you on the City Council meeting tomorrow. Don't tell me it will be boring! You have to make it exciting. That's what I pay you for."

He'd given me what I'd wanted, so I slipped out, letting Marie know about the raise and getting a check from her. Quill was standing by the elevator when I reached it, surprising me that he hadn't left yet. The elevator usually zipped from floor to floor, as if acknowledging that its occupants were stressed-out journalists with tight deadlines.

"Mr. Jameson, nice to see you again."

"Mr. Parker, I've been waiting for you."

"For me?" I heard the little squeak in my voice. At school, too many teachers had called on me because they knew I would have the answer. My braininess had made some of the other kids dislike me and left me with an occasional twinge of nervousness about being directly addressed, particularly by authority figures. I didn't know what Quill did, but I was sure he was a leader in his field. He had that air of command.

"I've seen your pictures of Spiderman. You must have been very close to him."

"Well yes, sometimes. I have a zoom lens." I rarely used the zoom lens of course, since I was taking pictures of myself. But I had one. Aunt Mae and Uncle Ben raised me to be honest and even leading a double life, I tried to abide by their teaching.

"Can you get a message to him?"

The elevator announced its arrival with a ping. A woman exited and I stopped talking as she walked by, not interested in advertising my connection with Spiderman. We both stepped on and the doors shut. "I can try."

"It's very important, Mr. Parker. A matter of life and death. He needs this message tonight."

The elevator stopped at another floor. The mail clerk got on, pushing her cart, and we both went silent. Darlene was a horrible gossip; I think all mail clerks must be. It's their duty to act as the blood for the body of people in their buildings, circulating from floor to floor, depositing mail and spreading rumors. I looked ahead at the matte gray surface of the doors until we reached the lobby, where we both walked out of the building, finally stopping on the sidewalk.

"I'll do my best."

"Thank you. I'm at the Park Lane if you need to contact me. Suite 500." He handed me an envelope with a business card and a thousand-dollar bill clipped to it.

"Oh, sir, this isn't necessary." I tried to give him the money back, but he shook his head, his hands in his pants pockets.

"Believe me, this is worth far more than that." And he melted away into the crowd.

No one had ever given me a thousand-dollars before, just handed it to me, but I was enough of a New Yorker not to advertise my largess. I slipped everything in my pants pocket, keeping it in my hand as I walked the other direction, toward the apartment I rented with Harry Oswald, my best friend and rabid Spiderman hater.

As soon as the crowds thinned and a convenient alley appeared, I ducked in, climbing the walls until I was safely out of sight. I perched on a ledge several floors up, tucked the thousand dollar bill into an inner pocket of my jacket, and opened the envelope. The note was brief, written in thick black ink. "There will be an attempt to spring Raelynn Ramsey from jail tomorrow. I can't help. I can't tell the police. Please stop it."

A photo fluttered out of the envelope and I shot a web at it, pulling it back into my hands. The photo was of a kid, probably a sophomore or junior in high school, with spiky blondish hair. The girls at my high school would have said it was dishwasher blond if they disliked him; honey blond if they thought he was hot. He was smiling and I couldn't tell the color of his eyes. I looked back at the note. "I can't help. I can't tell the police." Had the kid been kidnaped? Was this Quill's son? It seemed logical, but they didn't much look alike. But who was Raelynn Ramsey? I'd never heard of this person.

But rectifying my ignorance wouldn't take long. I lived in New York and worked for a newspaper. I tore the note into tiny pieces, watching them flutter to the ground, leaving only confetti as evidence that Quill had broken his silence.

Heroics might be needed tomorrow, but now it was time for research.

Morning found me frustrated and only a little wiser after hours in the library and newspaper morgue. Like his cousin, Quill had graduated from college, done a stint in the army, and gone into journalism, editing a monthly magazine about California's bay area called the Beacon. The library had a couple of copies, and I'd flipped through them, generally impressed. The articles were a nice combination of fluffy reports on local activities and swanky social events, with a healthy dollop of social consciousness and some hard-hitting investigative journalism on local political scandals and corporate shenanigans. If your world was the bay area, the Beacon would keep you enlightened.

Unlike his cousin, Quill's history was murky between serving his country and dishing up a souffl of society gossip and serious data. J.J. had started on the bottom and worked his way up, from obituaries to bylines to page editor to news editor. His entire adult life was documented as part of the Bugle's history. Quill vanished and reappeared over a decade later, suddenly in charge of a full-color glossy magazine.

The kid was even more mysterious. Quill had never married from what I could tell, and I'd only managed to find one picture of the kid in the San Francisco Chronicle, standing next to Quill at the mayoral inauguration, identified as "his ward."

Who had wards these days? Kid, step-kids, foster-kids, adopted kids... nope, the kid was a ward. Without his name, I couldn't search further.

Raelynn Ramsey was a young woman with a history of prostitution and petty thievery who'd somehow stumbled into serious felony matters. Wanted for questioning in the murder of a prominent New York businessman, she'd fled to San Francisco where she'd been arrested and sent back to face justice. Since she'd proven so ably to be a flight risk, bail had been denied and she'd been cooling her heels in jail for several weeks. Today was the start of her trial. She'd be driven the few blocks to the courthouse, spend the day watching a jury be selected, and then would be driven back tonight.

I wasn't sure what friends would try to rescue her, or when or where. She seemed to work alone, with no obvious associates who would attempt a jailbreak on her behalf. Maybe her pimp? He stayed well out of the picture. I was guessing that it would happen while she was being transported. The courthouse itself was ferociously protected after 9/11, but New York traffic was a harder arena to control, and likely to offer distractions that the would-be rescuers could exploit. Presumably there would be quite a few of them, but I had experience with groups of thugs.

I made sure to get close to the New York City jail early. Court normally didn't start until 10:00, but sometimes the prisoners had to be available early for a pre-trial motion. I landed lightly on the roof of the closest tall building, Hart Financial. For a second, I thought I saw another person there, someone tall and broad and dressed in silver and white. But then he was gone and I assumed it must be a trick of the stark morning light, blinding my eyes through the mask.

I settled down to wait. Patience has always been one of my virtues. It's hard to conduct scientific experiments without a willingness to let results develop. I was instantly alert when the transport wagon left the jail, took a moment to scan the surroundings, and then swung after it. The police officer driving the transport wagon took a route designed to avoid the bulk of the morning commuters but even so, traffic was nasty. Without my spider sense, I would have been constantly anticipating an attack from the aggressive drivers that got close to the transport wagon. But knowing that nothing was going to happen soon, I relaxed into the swinging, flipping from skyscraper to skyscraper. I love New York in the morning, the crowds, the noise, the sense of urgency as thousands of people begin their day, my own ability to soar through the air above it all.

At one point, I thought I saw that column of silver and white again but then it vanished. Odd, whatever it was.

The transport wagon reached the courthouse without incident, and Spiderman couldn't hang around to observe jury selections. It was time for Peter Parker to make his appearance.

I'd never visited the courthouse before becoming a photographer for the Daily Bugle, but now it was territory as familiar as my old high school. I knew the guards, to remember to pass my camera and film around the x-ray machine, not to have metal in my pockets, how to look up the court schedule and find what judge was hearing each case.

Raelynn was already seated when I slipped into the courtroom. I sat close to the front so I could see her. She was ... wow. Gorgeous. Her full-lipped face would make her a perfect model for lipstick, the vibrant red lipstick that Aunt Mae would consider trashy. Her hair was red, wavy, and looked fantastic, even next to the dreadful orange prison jumpsuits. She'd altered hers, cutting off the sleeves, increasing the neckline to show off her substantial cleavage.

Jury selection is hardly the most exciting of events, but I always find it interesting. A dozen good citizens sat in the jury box and were asked questions that would give the assistant district attorney and the defense attorney a sense of how they would respond to this case. Had they been victims of crime? Did they know anyone who had been murdered? Did they know Mr. Wilson, the deceased? Did they know the defendant? Did they have any reason to think they couldn't be impartial? Did they have any hardship reasons to be excused from jury service?

Most of the answers came honestly and sincerely, city residents trying to fulfill their responsibilities but uncomfortable in this new setting. Some clearly wanted out, but Judge Bergman seemed determined to trounce weak excuses.

People would serve their time in his courtroom.

The attorneys used their rights to excuse most of the potential jurors for reasons I couldn't understand and kept others for reasons I found even harder to comprehend. More potentials filled the empty seats and their questioning began until lunch time came, when they were released with strict orders to return at 1:00 p.m. I decided to stay close to Raelynn.

The prisoners were served their lunch in the basement cells. No one was allowed in the area but I decided to stay as close as I could. I grabbed a sandwich from the cafeteria and hung out where I could see the elevators and emergency stairs, watching the crowds of people. Slick attorneys, nervous witnesses, battling spouses getting divorces... the courthouse was filled by a constant stream of people from all walks of life, whether paved with gold or lined with gravel and litter. No one looked suspicious and nothing happened. My spider sense didn't even give a teeny, tiny blip of a tingle. Though I didn't feel right wishing for a criminal act to occur, I was getting a little antsy, reciting the periodical table backwards to focus.

The afternoon was more of the same, until 12 jurors and three alternates finally sat in the box. Raelynn had said nothing the whole time, leaving the entire process to her court-appointed attorney, but she smiled frequently, a superior smug smile, as if she was finding the day quite amusing. She was physically gorgeous, but to use one of my Aunt Mae's favorite sayings, beauty is as beauty does. And I was guessing she wasn't very beautiful on closer acquaintance.

The judge released everyone at 4:15 with a stern reminder to appear punctually at 9:00 the next day to hear opening arguments. I slipped out before the jurors could leave the box, changed into my spiderman outfit in the alley, webbed my clothes to the wall, and was waiting as the transport wagon emerged from the back of the courthouse.

I swung along from skyscraper to skyscraper, web fluid shooting from my wrists. The height of the buildings subtly decreased, the huge corporate monoliths of downtown Manhattan giving way to the shorter and older buildings close to the jail.

The attack finally happened next to the Iverson building, though it all began so innocuously no one realized the danger at first. The transport wagon was waiting at a red light, and a black bird landed on the vehicle's snub nose, right in front of the driver. Then another, and another, until the front of the vehicle became a black mass of flapping wings. The driver honked, and a few birds cawed in defiance, climbing on each other and the vehicle, covering the window. The windshield wipers began running, and some of the birds were knocked off but they flew right back on.

I was clinging to the sixth floor but began dropping down, looking for more trouble. My spider sense was tingling madly and I wished I could shut it off. Yes, I know there's trouble, don't keep telling me. Sometimes I wish my spider sense could be more explicit.

The guard in the passenger seat got out of the vehicle, waving his arms at the birds, and the back door exploded open. The guard staggered from the shockwave and then the doors blew completely off, slamming into the hood of the car behind the transport and cracking its windshield. A woman screamed - the driver of the other car - and another car exploded in the packed mess of traffic that covered the New York streets.

Glancing up, I could see a figure at a window with a rifle - one that shot some type of explosive projectile rather than a mere bullet. He was aiming again, the prisoners were falling out of the truck, still manacled together, horns were honking, some people were scrambling out of their cars while others were trying to take advantage of the green light to keep driving. In other words, the nice normal New York traffic jam had become a disastrous melee of noise and frightened people.

The shooter was my immediate concern. The prisoners couldn't get too far with manacles. They certainly couldn't cause as much havoc as the person with the big gun. I ran for the building, climbing rapidly, keeping my body flattened close to the rough brick.

He fired again before I reached him, and I heard another car engine explode, more screams and car alarms shrieking. From just a few feet away, I aimed a stream of web fluid at the barrel, yanking it out of the shooter's hand, sending it flying out of the window. The weapon looked like a modified rifle, with a bigger barrel. It fell, stretching the web, and I balanced against the wall, shooting more web fluid from my left wrist, catching the weapon in both strands, slamming it against the wall and webbing it in place, well away from any window.

My spider sense screamed at me and I dropped from the building wall as bullets chipped at the brick. I glanced at the window using a web strand to swing in an arc. A young man with a shock of white hair, dressed in black clothes, was leaning out the window, firing at my previous location with a handgun. He wasn't prepared for how quickly I could swing, and I caught him on the head with my feet, kicking him back into the room. I followed him in, but I'd knocked him cold. A few shots of webbing guaranteed that he would wait for the police, and I swung out the window.

The street below was a frenetic hive of activity, but certain people stood out prominently - the prisoners in their floppy orange jumpsuits, and a big man in silver and white. He was standing by them with a tool in his hand. A manacle fell to the ground and one began running off, separated from the others.

Shooting a strand to a lamppost, I swung down, scooping up the freed prisoner. She shrieked in my arms as I carried her into the air and webbed her to the building. She screamed obscenities in my ear the entire time, so I covered her mouth with webbing. New York didn't need that air pollution.

The big man had freed another one, so this time when I swung down, I punched at him with my feet. He seemed to share my spider sense, as he ducked and I continued swinging past him, stumbling as I hit the ground.

Letting myself fall, I rolled into a ball to get my balance together, then flipped backward and turned to face him. He was tall, perhaps the same height as Mr. Jameson's cousin, with a body like a football player's. He wore a silvery white jumpsuit that conformed to his muscles, with bands of silver around the waist and wrists. A silver cowl covered his head. Though he wore a costume like the Green Goblin had, his eyes did not glitter with the Goblin's madness and hatred, but rather an implacable determination.

"This isn't your fight, Spiderman."

"It's my city. That makes it my fight." I shot at him with my webbing but he waved his hand in front of himself, and the webbing fell, drifting to the cement.

"Fine. We can do this the hard way." I kicked out, but he was gone again, anticipating my attack. He struck back with a punch, but thanks to my spider sense, I avoided the blow.

We traded attacking several times, our blows more often not landing. He was a great fighter, an entire staircase of steps above most criminals. For such a large man, he was extremely graceful, like a huge striking lion coupled with the lethal speed of a cheetah. We twisted, punched, flipped, kicked... but neither of us could win. We looked more like acrobats than fighters. I expected this to become a battle of stamina but the concentration needed to evade his strikes was my downfall, as I blocked out the noisy surroundings. I leaned back to miss his fist, and as I straightened, a chain wrapped around my throat - the prisoners had joined the fray.

I choked as they brought their hands behind my head, tightening the chain and making it dig into my throat. The silver guy lunged, but his hands went right past me, latching onto one of the prisoners.

The prisoners lost their choke-hold on me, allowing me to breathe again, and I wiggled free. I didn't attack, pausing a second to see why the silvery white guy had suddenly shifted the focus of his attack.

The red-haired woman seemed frozen in place, the silvery white guy's hands on both sides of her head. "Where is he?" The tone was soft and accented, vaguely seductive. "Where is he?"

"He..." She stared into his eyes, transfixed as if he was both snake charmer and snake. "I won't..."

"Too late," he said with a grim satisfaction, and she slumped. He helped her fall, then directed a terse, "Hold them for the police," to me and took off running. The other two prisoners were still chained to her. They screamed at her and tried to drag her to her feet. I webbed all three into a neat bag and sped off after the big guy. I wanted to know what was happening.

Big men usually aren't sprinters, but he was fast, his long legs eating up the pavement as he ran. Given his speed while fighting, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was. I dashed after him, not sure why or what was going on, only knowing that crime was happening in my city and I had a responsibility to help.

He ran down two blocks and left for another one before vaulting over a barbed wire fence and crashing through locked doors into a building, a ramshackle affair that looked on the verge of demolition. The walls were crumbling, debris littered the floor, and rats scuttled out of our way. He bypassed the elevators, running up the stairs.

Tiring of the chase, I shot webbing at the ceiling and reeled myself up to the next landing, getting in front of him. "Where are you going? And why?"

"I don't have time for this. Follow me if you want to help." He brushed past me and kept going, finally slowing when he reached the seventh floor and cautiously opening the door to step into an empty room that had probably been a receptionist area. He walked down one of the hallways that branched off the area with me dogging his heels until we reached another big open area. Maybe a large conference room? I skidded to a stop, amazed at the sight before my eyes. The room was lit everywhere with candles, black and red tapers in dozens of candelabras, sitting on tables around some of the walls. Their musky fragrance obliterated the smell of mold and decay. A black velvet cloth covered a big - something - and thick red rugs were spread on the floor.

At one end of the room was an elaborate chair, almost a throne. A young man with long black hair wearing a black frockcoat and black trousers was sitting in it, one leg casually crossed over the arm, one hand stroking a raven on his shoulder. His attention was fixed on the big silver guy as he spoke. "I should have known you wouldn't stay away. You never could obey, could you Master?"

"I won't obey blackmail, Xan. Where is he?"

"You precious boy wonder. Maybe he's already dead, Master. Dead because of your righteous sense of justice."

"Then I would rip you to shreds," the silver man promised, a vow for vengeance he would satisfy. "But you won't kill him. Not unless you can do it in front of my eyes."

"You think you know me so well, don't you? Because you trained me, you think you know everything I'll do." With a negligent gesture, he pulled on a bell rope, and the velvet covering fell, revealing a golden cage with a young man in the middle, his hands bound behind him, a rope strung around his neck. The floor underneath the cage was gone, and the velvet drifted down out of view. The kid in the cage was probably 15 or 16, with short spiky blondish hair. The face in the picture. We were given only a moment to realize what we looking at, and then the man in black tugged again, and the rope around his neck jerked up, lifting the young man off his feet, strangling him while the bottom of the cage broke off, falling through the hole, presumably to land on the velvet many feet below. The trap was macabre - break the rope and he'd fall to his death, leave him and he'd strangle.

Thanks to my spider sense, I was prepared to react at the slightest motion. My arm was thrust forward as soon as the kid began to struggle, a web shooting out from my wrist to cast a wide net, covering the hole. In my periphery vision, I could see a small spinning object whip through the air to slice through the old-fashioned metal lock. The door creaked open, and another spinning disc whipped in through the open doorway, slicing through the rope, and the young man fell onto my web, breathing harshly, but alive. So few seconds had elapsed, I doubted whether he'd even have a burn mark.

The fellow in black - Xan - was not pleased. He gave a loud screech, like a bird being tortured. The big fellow sprang to attack but a sudden burst of light and smoke shrouded Xan. The smoke drifted outward, and even the mask couldn't protect me. My lungs burned as I coughed, staggering away from the throne and toward the fresher air by the glassless window opening.

A breeze fluttered through the room, seemingly beginning from the inside, clearing the air. I advanced back into the room. The big fellow was sitting on the floor, untying the ropes around the kid's neck and hands. Once the boy was freed, the big fellow caught him in his arms, imprisoning him against his chest. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine, Kwai." His voice was shaky. "You should have gone after him."

"I have a responsibility to you first. Xan and I will meet again."

"And how much of a liability will I be to you then? You must train me now that he knows me. You must."

His voice steadied as he spoke, becoming strong and fierce.

The silvery white fellow bent his head, resting his forehead on the teen's. I could see the tight line of his mouth revealed by the half-mask, the grimness in his expression. "You know what this means, the commitment you must make."

"I know. I understand. And I make the choice freely and willingly." The teen wrapped his arms around the big man's head, tugging his lips to his own, taking them in a kiss that looked as passionate as the teen's voice had sounded.

I looked away, uncomfortable with the scene in front of me, giving them privacy while I put some of the pieces together. The big man had trained the fellow in black, who'd gone bad. Somehow, he was involved with Raelynn and the murder of a New York businessman. He'd kidnaped the big man's new student to stop him from interfering with the rescue of his partner-in-crime. But the big man - was he actually Mr. Jameson's cousin? - had gone to Spiderman for a distraction and assistance, unwilling to let events unfold without his presence.

This was the second time Spiderman had been hunted down through his connection with Peter Parker. At least Quill had done it politely and with financial advantage for myself; the Green Goblin nearly destroyed J.J.'s office. Someday I was going to have to figure out a way to separate my professional self from my secret identity.

But at the present time... I understood the basics of what had happened and why, but comprehension didn't make me happy about the scene in front of me. This kid was young, a few years younger than I, still in high school. And the silver fellow - well, it was hard to tell with the costume covering him, but he was definitely a grown man and if I was guessing right, at least in his late 30s.

He certainly wasn't coercing the boy though - from the noises I could hear, participation was energetic on both sides. And then they stopped, leaving only quiet breaths and the guy in the silvery white costume softly commenting, "You've gotten too thin."

"He didn't feed me. I could eat a horse."

"Xan was never the most conscientious of hosts."

I turned to look at them. "Everything okay?"

"Yes, everything is fine now. Thank you for your assistance. He might have died if you weren't here." He had one arm dropped around the kid's shoulders as the kid leaned trustingly into him.

"So who was that guy? And who are you?"

"It's a rather complicated and lengthy tale."

"I've got time."

"I think the police might appreciate if you brought that prisoner back down for them. They'll have a hard time retrieving her from the outside of a building."

"Oh - right." By now more policemen should have arrived to assist the officers in the van. Maybe they already had while we'd been fighting. I'd left one of the prisoners webbed to the building, quite visible, so they'd be trying to bring her down. "Well... I'll be back."

I turned away, but that kiss and the kid's age nagged at me. I stopped and turned back.

They were gone.

It was midmorning when I reached the Park Lane Hotel. New York criminals were making up for the fact that I'd taken yesterday off. I'd had to stop a convenience store robbery and two muggings already. I hesitated at the door, wondering if this was really my business, my place to intrude.

The remembrance of the day when I hadn't intruded, when I'd let a robber go free and his next act was killing my Uncle Ben, had me knocking firmly.

The young man, Jameson's ward, opened the door within seconds. "Oh, hi," he said, clearly surprised to see me.

"I'm Peter Parker," I said, offering my hand to shake. "I'm here to see Mr. Jameson." Truthfully, I wasn't, I was here to see this kid, but Peter Parker had no official reason to even know of his existence.

The confusion on his face cleared. "Yes, of course. He's showering right now. I thought you were the waiter with breakfast. Would you come in?"

He was polite as well as brave. I nodded, stepping in around him. He shut the door then led the way to the furniture in the middle of the room, sitting on the armchair and gesturing toward the couch.

The furniture at the Park Lane was nice, nicer than the furniture owned by anyone in my old neighborhood. Or even my current neighborhood. I perched on the armchair and tried not to let the surroundings intimidate me, focusing on the kid. His feet were bare and he was dressed in gray sweatpants and a white T-shirt, looking casual but collected as he sat in the chair, legs over one arm. He seemed fully recovered from his imprisonment. "Do I know you?" he asked.

"Um... no. I've only met Mr. Jameson one time. You weren't there."

I was interrupted by a knock on the door and he gave me an apologetic smile before heading to answer the door. I watched him as he walked... well, swaggered. Not only did he not look troubled by the events of the last few days, he looked... incredibly pleased. Whatever happened to him after he disappeared with the big guy in the silvery white costume had agreed with him. I found it almost embarrassing, the languid confidence in his body as he tipped the waiter, escorted him out, and prepared a cup of coffee with cream and sugar.

I remember being over the moon when I lost my virginity, but I doubt my fumbled groping and rushed orgasm with Eileen Graham made me look quite like... that.

Nothing had ever made me look quite like that.

"I thought I heard voices," Quill said, coming out of the other room, dressed in a white robe. He was fresh from the shower, hair still wet and slicked to his scalp.

His ward swaggered over to him, handing him the coffee. "Just the way you like it," he said huskily, his body language screaming that he would like to offer a good morning kiss with the coffee.

"Thank you," was Quill's reply as he accepted the cup and sipped. "You always know what I need."

I flushed and had to look away. They weren't doing anything overt, but the sultry looks were charged with sexual electricity. They put Bogart and Bacall to shame.

"Mr. Parker, can you join us for breakfast? We can order more if you're hungry."

"No, thank you. I've already eaten." Quill and the kid moved to the couch, the kid pushing the cart over and they sat down.

"I understand that you got my message to Spiderman. Thank you."

"It was nothing. I understand that he helped out with some problem yesterday. A kid was kidnaped?" I directed to the kid as if questioning my presumption that he was the victim. The kid had removed the cover from his plate and was beginning to eat his omelet while listening to us talk.

"Yes. My ward," Quill admitted, gesturing to the kid. "But Spiderman rescued him. He will always have my gratitude for that act."

"And you're okay?" I asked, still directing my attention to the kid.

The kid looked up from his plate, finally seeming to appreciate I was concerned. "I'm fine." He smiled and flicked a glance at Quill. "Better than fine."

"Oh." I wasn't sure what else to say, but I wasn't quite ready to leave. "Spiderman said he had help rescuing you. From a big guy in a silvery white costume. Another superhero."

The kid looked again at Quill, letting him respond. "Not a superhero. Just a man with abilities and the will to use them."

"You know him?" I asked, trying to keep my tone casual, though I was pretty sure Mr. Jameson was he. The superhero's voice had been different, more accented - and the cowl had hid his hair - but the build and the eyes were the same. I understood the importance of looking beneath the costume.

"He's been seen in the bay area several times. That appears to be his home turf."

"The west coast's friendly neighborhood...?"

"The press hasn't given him a name. He stays undercover as much as possible. Most don't believe he exists."

"Well, I'm glad that he and Spiderman were able to work together."

"They saved my life," the kid said, beaming his gratitude at both of us. We all knew who each other was - but we weren't going to speak the truth out loud. I'd never told anyone that I was Spiderman. I wondered if I ever would.

The thought saddened me. The silvery white guy at least would be training a partner. He would have a helper with similar skills, while probably no one else would ever get bitten by a genetically enhanced spider. I was alone.

"I hope that they can work together again. I know that Spiderman would always have a friend in him. He would never be alone."

I laughed nervously. "I was just thinking about them working together. You must have read my mind."

"Can't we all? When someone's thoughts are very loud?"

"I guess so," I said dubiously. I could frequently predict how some people would react - my aunt and uncle, Harry, J.J., Mary Lou... but the way the silvery white fellow had stared at Raelynn's face, then taken off running as if he'd learned the route from her mind - I thought his skills went beyond simple prediction based on awareness of a person's character. Far beyond.

"I do appreciate your stopping by, Mr. Parker." Quill rose to his feet, ending the interview. "We'll be returning to the west coast today, so we need to finish breakfast and pack."

I wanted to know more about his powers, what they were, how he got them, and how he would train his protégé, but I'm a photographer, not a journalist. I know how to take pictures, not ask probing questions and draw out answers from someone who doesn't want to give them. I accepted the dismissal. "Have a good trip." I shook hands with both of them before Quill escorted me to the door. "Oh - weren't you supposed to have dinner with Mr. Jameson tonight?"

"Unfortunately our plans have changed. My ward and I ... have matters to attend to."

"Well, good luck then."

I walked out of the splendidly elegant hotel and back onto the streets of New York. My city, my home, the streets that I loved and the people I protected. Quill and his ward would be heading to their home in California, where I sensed they also would love and protect the people... and each other. I hoped that the kid would be okay. He was taking on a big responsibility. I hoped we'd get to work together again, so I could check up on the kid and learn more about both of them. But for now, as I swung my way home, I could only wish them well.

~ the end ~