New York floated, glowing, under the stars. Spider-Man felt at peace with the world and with himself. He shot a web line up to a cornice on the Pan-Am building and turned toward Times Square. From this high, swinging from a thread under a hunter's moon, the city almost looked clean. The horns of late-night taxis were dimmed by distance, the squeal of brakes all but inaudible. Perhaps the entire night would be as quiet. Perhaps he would slide in through his apartment window at daybreak without a single crook captured, without a new bruise on his body, without . . .
Without a photo of some crime-in-progress to sell to J. Jonah Jameson at the Daily Bugle, and without a way to buy groceries by the end of the week. At least with Mary Jane Watson-Parker out of town, he didn't have to worry about his wife noticing a few scrapes, and he wouldn't have to buy any for the pantry more elaborate than macaroni and cheese.
He was happy for MJ, Spider-Man decided. She was promoting her film, Fatal Action III -- though Spidey wondered, sometimes, about the minds of the publicity people who'd had the bright idea of taping a week's worth of promotional material out in front of a maximum security lockup like the Vault. The photographer in him, however, knew that the contrast between the grim prison buildngs and MJ's vibrant good looks would make for some great photos, and the news stories about the filming would be worth more than any ads the studio could buy.
Still, he wished that some more cash would show up soon. The real money from the picture wouldn't happen until after the box office receipts came in, then made their way past the ranks of kamikaze accountants that the studio had on retainers -- the ones who could prove that there hadn't been a movie made that had turned a profit since Thomas Alva Edison yelled "That's a wrap!" at the end of shooting The Great Train Robbery.
A quick swing to the south brought the web-slinger toward the campus of Empire State University where--as Peter Parker --he was a graduate student in physics. Now Spidey's colorful red-and-blue action costume was just a darker bit of blackness, an amorphous shape beneath the sky. The figure swinging from a thread was at once familiar and slightly unsettling to those New Yorkers walking late at night, bound for work or for pleasure, who happened to glance skyward.
The blaring of horns from below came louder and broke into Spider-Man's reverie. Another squeal of brakes, followed this time by the heavy thud of two cars trying to occupy the same space at the same time.
"Sounds like news," Spidey said. He pulled his camera from his belt where he'd webbed it out of the way. A traffic wreck wasn't as exciting as an armed robbery in progress, but a spectacular enough collision could still make a dramatic picture, perfect for being printed above-the-fold on the front page of the Bugle's morning edition.
With a quiet 'thwip' Spider-Man shot web fluid from a dispenser strapped to his right wrist and altered course to hurry off in the direction of the sound.
Sure enough, when he swung around the corner of the Life Mutual building, he spied the strobing blue lights of a police car, heading toward him at top speed. A siren pierced the air, its rising and falling tones warning everyone to stand aside, the law was coming through. But the police car wasn't headed for the site of the wreck that Spidey had heard: it was following another car, a long, low sedan.
"Whoa, Nelly," Spider-Man said, shooting another line of web fluid up and behind him to halt his forward progress. "This looks like more fun than any fender-bender."
The sedan was painted a dark blue-black that glistened dimly beneath the streetlights. It took the next corner at speed, its rear skidding around in a four-wheel drift as the drive refused to slow his frantic pace.
"Going somewhere in a hurry," Spider-Man said, and turned to swing rapidly after the speeding vehicle. "Up here I don't have to worry about the stop lights."
In the street below, the police car took the same corner, siren warbling and lights blazing at their maximum. The tires squealed, and a stink of burning rubber drifted upward.
From his vantage point near the rooftops, where he was easily keeping pace with the dark car, Spidey observed the chase. The police weren't falling behind, but they weren't gaining, either. From farther uptown another siren blared, as reenforcements summoned by radio hurried to the scene.
Then Spider-Man saw something that he hadn't expected. The police car beneath him wasn't the only vehicle involved in the chase. An Army deuce-and-a-half -- a two and a half ton truck, painted in camouflage colors -- was bringing up the rear of the parade, its gears growling and its exhaust pipe spewing diesel smoke. The canvas cover arched over its rear end flapped and billowed with the speed of its passage.
"Quite a party," Spider-Man mused. "First New York's Finest show up on the invite list, and then a bunch of Uncle Sam's Own. J. Jonah Jameson doesn't know it yet, but I think he really really wants a picture of whatever this is all about."
While his right hand was busy with a web line, Spidey used his left to click his new camera over to auto-shoot. High speed film might get some decent shots even in this low light. He'd find out in the darkroom in the morning.
The object of all this pursuit, the dark sedan, continued on its course westward across midtown. The web slinger matched its course and speed five stories above. The speed of the chase had increased; rather than just swinging freely, Spider-Man had to put some muscle into the task in order to keep up. As each web line hit a high point ahead of him, he pulled on it, putting the muscles of his shoulders and back into the task -- muscles endowed, thanks to the bite of a radioactive spider, with a spider's proportionate strength. The effort was like that of rowing upstream, the motion same repetitive stroke that an oarsman would use.
The road ahead of the sedan lay clear for a moment. Then from the right and from the left more sirens blared. A block ahead, two police cars came from uptown and skidded to a halt, nose to tail, blocking the intersection. There they sat, an imposing barrier, the blue lights flashing from their roofs and dancing off the upper windows of the buildings that towered on every side.
The sedan didn't even slow down. Instead, the driver aimed for the rear quarter of the first police car. He struck it squarely, the center of the sedan's front grille smashing the cop car's fender just above the left rear tire.
Sparks flashed in the darkness, and the dull boom of the impact muted for an instant the high keening of the sirens. Glass shattered -- a brittle, high-pitched note -- and the headlights of the sedan went out, smashed by the collision. But the driver shoved down on the gas at the moment of impact and the dark sedan kept on going as the police car spun away.
Then the strange car was through the roadblock and still rolling. A screech of rubber told Spider-Man that the vehicle had some metal pressing against one of its tires, and a trail of steam from under the hood told of a smashed and leaking radiator. But it was through, and not slackening pace.
"I sure hope that's on film," was all Spidey could say. Even stepping up the rate of his web-slinging, it was all he could do to keep up with the frantic pace of the speeding car below.
The pursuing police car didn't slow down, but followed the sedan through the gap it had cleared. Then the Army truck arrived on the scene. Wider than any of the other vehicles involved in the pursuit, it hit the already-damaged police car in the intersection a glancing blow as it sped through the narrow gap without slowing down. The smashed-up cop car spun around again so that it once more faced south. The truck didn't stop.
"Whoever that is," Spidey thought, "they're serious about getting away. And the good guys are real serious about stopping them."
The Hudson river was approaching as the little parade sped west. More sirens sounded from every direction as the police answered the call for backup.
"I wonder how they're planning to get away?" Spider-Man asked himself.
Smoke was coming from the damaged tire on the getaway car, mingling with steam from the radiator. The car was wobbling as it sped through the Manhattan streets, and the police were gaining. Ahead, along the river, West Side Drive was a mass of flashing lights.
Then, with a sharp report like a rifle shot, the dark sedan's damaged tire gave way, exploding in a complete blowout. Fragments of rubber flew everywhere. The nose of the sedan dipped to the right, and sparks shot upward as the wheel rim gouging into the blacktop. Then the sedan spun sharply to the right and turned over.
It rolled three times before coming to rest on its crumpled roof. Spider-Man overshot the scene, but quickly turned and swung down to the street. Fluid poured from the ruptured fuel tank on the vehicle's bottom, now turned up to the sky like the belly of a dead beetle. Streetlights cast harsh shadows beneath the wrecked car. The leaking gasoline spattered on hot metal and erupted in a gusher of flame that enveloped the whole wreck.
Incredibly, someone was moving amid the shattered glass and crumpled steel. Before Spider-Man could get to the scene, three men crawled out from openings which had once been windows. They were dressed all in black, with masks covering their faces. Two of them carried cases of some sort. They scattered. Spider-Man had taken a step toward one, getting ready to cast a web over him to prevent his getaway, when his attention was drawn back to the car. Someone was still caught inside the flaming mass.
Spider-Man leapt forward, ignoring the flames even as their intense heat penetrated the cloth of his costume. The driver of the sedan, was still caught, pinned behind the steering wheel. He struggled, but was unable to free himself from the debris.
"Hold on!" Spidey shouted. "I'll get you out."
Using his incredible spider-strength, the web-slinger reached down and grasped the edge of the driver's-side door and ripped it completely off. A pool of burning liquid crept closer to his legs as he pushed the car back, rolling it half onto its side to get at the trapped occupant, crumpling the roof still farther as he did so. With his free hand Spidey reached in and grabbed the driver and pulled him out.
Spidey threw himself backward, clutching the rescued driver to him as he rolled away. Behind him, the car exploded in a lurid fireball, engulfing the entire passenger compartment in searing flame.
Spider-Man laid the person he had just rescued on the pavement away from the pool of burning gasoline. Then, at last, he looked up, no longer intent on his rescue mission. The police had arrived. The burning wreck was surrounded by police cars, and uniformed officers were converging on the scene. More sirens sounded in the distance, growing nearer. Fire trucks and ambulances, Spider-Man supposed.
"No time to lose," he said. He pulled the mask off of the weakly moving person on the ground. The mask, he realized as he did so, wasn't just a disguise. It was some kind of gas mask, or a rebreathing apparatus like a SCUBA diver would wear.
In the flickering light, Spidey was able to see, somewhat to his surprise, that the getaway driver was a woman. The gas mask had concealed her long blonde hair.
"What's this all about?" Spider-Man asked his prisoner. "Who are you?"
The woman didn't reply.
"Who sent you? Who are you working for?"
Spider-Man only had a few moments to find out what he needed to know before the police got to him. Being a costumed crime-fighter didn't get him any special relationship with the New York City cops.
"Ah," the woman said, her eyes half opening. It wasn't a groan, Spider-Man thought. It sounded more like the beginning of a word. "Akh . . . "
Then the woman's head lolled back as she lapsed into unconsciousness. Spider-Man stood, and turned to the approaching uniformed officers. Behind the police he saw a squad of soldiers, wearing helmets and flack jackets, fully combat armed, leaping over the sides of the deuce-and-a-half. The soldiers trotted toward him, their M16s at high port, ready to sweep up to firing position.
"Say, there," Spidey called out in his cheeriest voice. "Did you bring the marshmallows?"
"Stand clear of the prisoner," said a young man wearing camouflage patterned fatigues. Lieutenant's bars in subdued black graced his shirt collar. A .45-caliber automatic pistol was in a holster on his hip, but the flap of the holster was unsnapped and the lieutenant's hand was on the pistol's grip.
"Can you tell me what's going on?" Spider-Man asked.
"That's classified," the lieutenant snapped. "You don't have a clearance or a need to know." He turned to a man standing beside him. "Sergeant, secure the prisoner. And keep that . . . that civilian away from him."
"Her," Spidey corrected.
The sergeant stepped forward. "Doesn't matter. Still our prisoner."
"Get out before I have you arrested for interfering in a federal matter," the lieutenant said to Spider-Man. He looked tight-lipped, and not at all like somebody whose day had been made complete by the assistance of a friendly costumed wall-crawler. "Leave. Now."
"Nope, no marshmallows," Spider-Man said to himself, as he shot a web line high to a corner of the building facing him, and swung up into the night. "No marshmallows, but definitely a weenie or two."