The warning came just in time. Dirk threw himself to the side as the I-Beam plummeted into the masonry beside him. Fragments of brick and plaster, sent flying by the impact, pelted his prone form mercilessly. He raised his hands to protect his face and eyes, receiving a deep gash on the back of his right arm for his efforts.
"Someone get in there an' help 'im!"
Thick clouds of dust proved impervious to his vision. A rasping gasp escaped his throat as he inadvertently inhaled. He raised himself slowly- Too slowly, he cursed inwardly. Pain ran up his right side like needles.
"I found him!" shouted a voice close by. A hand gripped his shoulder. "He's okay! I think he's gonna be okay!"
Dirk flailed his arm outwards, catching a hunk of shirt for his efforts. "Get offa me!" he howled, as he shoved his would-be rescuer away from him. "I don't need yer help!"
He stumbled out of the dust-cloud, wiping at his eyes with grimy hands. The entire work crew had ceased its labors, crowding around the site of the accident. Dirk ignored them, blue eyes darting maniacally about. "Where is he? Where's the bum what nearly took my head off?"
His inquiry was rewarded by the sudden appearance of the crane operator, Joe Orlovsky, pushing his way through the crowd. "Is everyone okay? I don't know what happened! The cable just snapped! I…" His rapid apology stopped short when his gaze fell upon the fuming figure standing before him. "Uh… uh oh…"
A snarl erupted from Dirk's lantern jawed mouth, and he lunged forward, reaching for his accidental assailant. He fell short of his target, as his legs were tripped up from behind him. "Oomf!"
"You ungrateful bastard." Standing above him was the figure of Hank Armstrong, the man who had selflessly attempted to aid his coworker. "No one pushes me around!" He dove onto Dirk's prone figure, fists flying.
Dirk rolled with the first punch, which clipped him on an injured shoulder. He brought his knee up suddenly, drawing a howl from his attacker. His right hand reached up and grasped Armstrong's throat, shoving the man's face up and backwards.
As expected, Armstrong reached both hands up to Dirk's arm, attempting to move the offending limb- and leaving his torso wide open to a quick rabbit punch. "Nnff!" Hank instinctively pulled his exposed midriff away, leaning forward… and into the thick skull of his opponent. A painful crack resounded as Hank was knocked unconscious from the vicious headbutt.
Dirk rose, dusting himself off. "That's one," he threatened, causing the circle around him to expand. No one wanted to mess with this brutal street brawler. Almost no one.
Frank Ledbetter, foreman, stomped into the workyard, crowd parting before him like the Red Sea. His tie was partly undone, sweat staining the armpits of his white dress shirt. One hand held architectural designs intended for the meeting the commotion had interrupted. At his heels was Orlovsky, shivering in terror at the sight of the blood and dirt-stained Dirk.
"That’s it! You're fired!" Ledbetter was nonplussed. "I've been waiting for you to step out of line, mister! You're gone!"
Dirk clenched his fists tightly at his sides, his nostrils flaring. "I'm fired?" he asked. "I'm fired?" He stepped forward menacingly.
Ledbetter jerked his thumb towards the road, chomping irritably on his cigar. "That's right pal, F-I-R-E-D. Canned. Given your walking papers." He pointedly jabbed Dirk in the chest with the rolled up plans. "Grab your stuff and go, before I call the cops and have you sent back to the hoosegow!"
Dirk glared daggers at his boss and Orlovsky, and for a moment it looked as if he might lash out and strike down both men simultaneously. Then, he did a surprising thing. He turned away. "Yeah, all right. I'm goin'" he muttered.
Stunned silence overcame the onlooking laborers as they watched Dirk Garthwaite limp resignedly off of the construction site. The super villain formerly known as the Wrecker- the man who had gone toe to toe with Thor himself- was backing away from a fight like a wounded pup. Would wonders never cease?
"Hey there, Henry! Your usual?"
Henry Camp sidled up to the bar, collapsing into the nearest stool with a grunt. "Yeah, Pete. Pitcher of MGD an' a shot of Dewar's." He reached one hand into a nearby bowl of peanuts, pulling at his tightly knotted tie with the other.
"How'd the interview go?" Pete asked from his position at the tap.
Henry shrugged. "How do yuh think? No dice." He chomped on the salty fare that would likely prove to be his only lunch.
Pete snorted. "That's too bad, man. Buncha jerks." He deposited his patron's drinks in front of him. "Six bucks." A ten dollar bill found its way from Henry's wallet to Pete's hands. The void it left in its wake suggested this would be a very lean week for the ex-super villain. "Wish I could help you out."
"Weren't yuh jus' sayin' last week that ya'll could use another hand around here?" Henry rolled the sleeves on his dress shirt back. "Ah ain't mixed drinks since 'Nam, but ah'm shore it'll come back ta me."
"Uh…" The momentary hesitation in Pete's response told Camp all he needed to know. "Well, you know if it was up to me, man, I'd hire you in a second. But I got those insurance guys on my case all the time, you know, and then there's…"
"Forget ah asked." Henry shook his head. He quickly tossed back his whiskey, and chased it with a healthy dose of beer.
It was the same story everywhere he looked. No one wanted to hire an ex-con- especially one with a reputation for breaking things. The Wrecking Crew's attempt to destroy the Statue of Liberty was a particularly sore spot with most New Yorkers. Throw in a dishonorable discharge from the United States Army, and you were left with a resume that no amount of tweaking could help.
Under other circumstances, it wouldn't have bothered Camp; it had been years since he had needed to get a "real" job. Yet now- depowered, life savings tied up with lawyer's fees and his bail bond- for the first time in a long while, the menace known publicly as Bulldozer found himself struggling to make it through the day.
From what he knew, the rest of his cohorts in crime were having as tough a time as he was. He didn't talk to them much; Calusky- Piledriver- called every couple of days, Dirk once last month. And Thunderball? Calusky said he'd spoken with him recently, invited him to the bar tonight, but Henry doubted he'd show. Now that the powers they once shared no longer linked them, the Doc didn't really have any reason to stay in touch.
He took a long pull of his drink, wiped his mouth with the back of his arm. The clock read 1 pm. Still a couple of hours till the others showed up- he'd have to nurse his drink, hope they might spot him a beer or two.
"Hey, uh, Henry," Pete said, tentatively. Not sure where he stood with his patron after their exchange of a few minutes ago. He set another shot down in front of Camp, and continued. "You should talk to that guy over there."
Henry looked over his shoulder. Some red-headed midget was sleeping off a bender in the corner booth. He was the only other person in the bar. "Why's that?"
Pete smiled. "Crazy stories this guy has. Laugh your ass off."
The second shot was downed as quickly as the first. Henry grunted, stood up. "Yeah. Ah could use a laugh right now." He grabbed his beer and walked over towards the booth.
"Hey- No hard feelings?" Pete asked after him.
There was no reply forthcoming.
Forget the leering faces, the catcalls. Ignore the cloying musk of dozens of sweaty men, drinking and smoking and doing god knows what else in the darkness. Block out all external distractions, and concentrate solely on the rhythm of the music, feel it moving your body in an orgiastic display of sensation. This is your moment, your time, where you can display your talents in the only venue available to you; express yourself the only way you know how; let go in a way that you can never do around real people, out there in the world of lies and pain…
"AAAAAHH!" Carla lost her balance and fell as a grinning, bearded face grabbed her ankle. Began pulling himself on stage to the cheers of the other customers. She kicked at him, scoring a line of red across his cheek with her stiletto heel.
"You'll pay for that, you bitch!" He lashed out, slapping her roughly across the face. Her first thought was- How will I cover that up? I can't perform with a black eye. She felt sick.
Even as the bearded man struggled to pin her down, another hand reached out from the audience and groped at her. She gasped for air, couldn't even manage a scream. Even if she could form a coherent thought, she doubted her body could respond.
"Da hell youse think youse doin'?" Suddenly, Carla was free. She could breathe again. She looked around in a daze.
The new kid, the blond one, had her assailant by the throat and dangled him several inches off the floor. Behind him, another man lay half on the runway, facedown, blood soaking his white hair.
"Lemme alone, you motherfu… acckk!"
The bouncer squeezed the bearded man's throat, pulled him close. "Don't youse be talkin' 'bout my ma," he said, holding the other man effortlessly. He threw the man roughly, sending the drunk flying into a table. "Now get da hell outta here!
"An' da rest o' youse better not try anythin' like dis either, or I'll break some heads!" The other patrons wisely turned away from the spectacle, resuming their drinking and other, less laudable, pursuits.
Carla was still trying to process all of the events when a calloused hand reached towards her. She pulled away, instinctively, before realizing it was the bouncer's hand, offering assistance. Tentatively, she allowed him to help her to her feet.
He walked with her backstage, to the dressing room. "Youse okay?" he asked, an almost tender note in his thick Brooklyn accent.
She nodded. "Thank you, um…"
"Calusky," he offered. Shook his head. "Uh… Brian. Just doin' muh job."
Carla smiled. She was back in control now, the shock of her assault buried in a distant yet far from desolate corner of her mind. "Nonsense, Brian. You're my hero." On tiptoes, she kissed him lightly on the cheek. The club's throbbing red lights barely concealed his blush.
She bowed out of her second performance, though only after an argument with her boss. She didn't figure she lost out on a lot of money- it had been a slow morning, and payday for most of her customers wouldn't be until Friday. Lunch was at Souper Salad downtown, then a stop at the Bookstar to buy the new Pokemon book for little Luis.
As she approached her apartment, Carla was surprised to see the blond bouncer standing out front. She cocked her head curiously, giving him a warm smile. "Brad?"
He frowned. "Brian," he said, correcting her.
"I'm sorry. Brian." She looked around for a familiar blue mercedes. "Did Eddie send you for me? I told him I'm done for the day."
Brian shook his head. "No, nuthin' like dat." He rubbed his chin awkwardly. "I wuz offa woik, an' I just… uh, just wanted ta make sure youse got home okay."
"A regular boy scout, huh?" she teased. "Well, you don't have to worry about me. I can take care of myself. Most of the time, anyway." She reached for her keys, turning away from Brian and towards her home.
"Uh… wait!" He bit his inner lip, searching for his next words. "I, uh, I was wonderin' if youse might wanna, you know, go out sometime, or sumthin'? I'm meetin' some friends later, and maybe youse'd wanna join us for a drink or…"
Her key froze in the door lock. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath. Then she turned to face Brian again, smiling. "I'm flattered, I really am. And I appreciate what you did for me today," she began, "but you're really not the sort of guy I'm looking for. You know?"
There was no response. Brian just stood, slack-jawed, staring at her. Looking as if he wanted to say something.
"I just think we both have different needs." She touched the side of his face tenderly, patronizingly. "It wouldn't be fair to you to lead you on." She turned, unlocked her apartment. "You're sweet," she said. And then she was gone.
Brian stomped down the sidewalk, feelings of rejection turning to anger, and resentment. Who da hell does she tink she is? I'm Piledriver! I've fought da Avengers, fer chrissakes!
"RAARGHH!" He lashed out, smashing his fist through a car window. Brian stood silently, pain in his hand, blood trickling down his arm, alarm ringing in his ears, lost in the sensation.
"Did you want fries with that?"
"What? You some kinda funny guy?" The man slammed his tray down on the counter, spilling his coke. "No, I don't want any goddamn fries! I want a goddamn refund, stupid! This burger tastes like shit!"
"Is there some kind of problem here?" Derrick Jones stormed over towards the rapidly escalating confrontation.
The customer, sensing a change in the tide of conflict, turned to the new arrival. "You the manager?" At Jones' confirming nod, he continued. "This idiot here doesn't seem to understand what the phrase 'the customer is always right' means."
Jones put on his best fake smile. "Terribly sorry, sir. We'll take care of this right away." He waved to one of his other employees. "Arthur, get this man a fresh meal and refund his money." Then he pointed at his troublesome underling. "You. Franklin. In my office. Now."
Eliot Franklin shook his head disgustedly as he followed his boss to the back office. He reflected on the events that had landed him here, a cashier at McDonald's.
None of Eliot's scientific experiments had been able to recapture the powers that had been lost to him and the rest of the Wrecking Crew when their Asgardian might had faded a few years back. They had managed to sell their services in exchange for brief power boosts- first with the geneticist Arnim Zola, and most recently with some alien with a beef against the Avengers- but after they blundered that job, no one seemed to want to hire them any longer.
"You listening to me?" Jones' caustic voice jolted Eliot back to the present. "I'm sick an' tired of hearin' complaints about you, Franklin. This job ain't exactly rocket science, you know?"
Eliot sneered. "No, you’re quite right. That is something altogether different." He watched Jones talk, not really hearing the man. He despised this weak ignoramus. That he had to work for such a man made his stomach turn.
Yet what choice did he have? All his education and intelligence was meaningless when it came to finding a real job. Even Roxxon had balked when they saw the size of his criminal record. And none of the criminal underworld would have him- AIM, Hydra- not since the fiasco with the Secret Empire. That one wasn't even my fault, he thought. If the bastards had cut and run when I told them to…
"What?" Eliot's attention was jolted unceremoniously from its reverie. "What did you just say?"
Jones looked Eliot square in the eyes. "You heard me. I said 'that's what I get for hiring an Uncle Tom ex-con." He leaned in towards his employee, hands resting on his desktop. "I know all about you, man. First you was an oreo brother trying to rise above his roots, going to college, trying so hard to play the white man's game. Then they bit you on the ass, like they always do, and you got sent off to jail.
"Then you break out, get yourself some 'super powers', and what do you do? You hook up with some more whiteys, and become their whipping boy for years. In and out of jail, can't do nothing with your powers but try and break things, always at the beck and call of some white man." He sneered. "Make me sick."
Eliot could only stare, mouth slightly agape, as his manager tore into him. "And now that you ain't got no powers anymore, you ain't got a friend in the world. Not with your own, 'cause you turned your back on us, and not with Whitey, 'cause you ain't his kind. All you got is this job, 'cause I'm trying, Franklin, I'm trying to give you a chance. And…"
Jones never saw Eliot's fist coming. A sudden painful impact slammed his head to the right, his body following closely behind. He tried to rise, slipped on some papers that had flown off his desk. He slowly focused his gaze on the furious black man in the McDonald's uniform that had struck him. Pain turned to anger.
"You sonuva… I'm going to sue you blind, Franklin! You hear me- I'll sue your ass!"
Eliot rubbed his sore knuckles. "Take a number." His hand hurt like hell, but it was a good feeling. "By the way, I quit."