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“So the wall explodes, and there is plaster everywhere. The people in the inside are all like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’ So, as the dust settles, I make my entrance, and I do the maniacal-laughter thing, of course, and announce, ‘I am the Mandroid,’ yada yada…you know, the typical speech. That’s when that jackass Half-Life shows up. He trashes my robot minions, and the next thing I know, I’m getting a face full of his radiation blast…I mean, come on, radiation blast. That doesn’t even sound safe. They call me a menace, but their hero is a walking Three Mile Island. If I get cancer, I am so suing his ass.”
He gets silent before mumbling something into his glass of liquor.
“How’d you get away?” I ask as I stand there, wiping down a dirty beer mug.
“Get this,” he says with a laugh. “I made him think one of my minions was wired with explosives. I gave him the ol’ ‘save them or catch me’ speech. What an idiot.”
“I didn’t think you were the bank-robbing type, Mandroid.” I pour the brightly clad man another drink.
“You know how expensive it is to have robot minions? Enhanced neural processors don’t grow on trees.”
“Say, barkeeper / I’ll take that kicker / Give me your best liquor,” calls the man from the far end of the bar.
“I think you’ve had enough, Quizzy.” I hobble down to him. It’s happy hour on a cold, wintery Tuesday, and the place is packed floor to roof. I haven’t gotten a chance to sit down all day, and my body’s paying for it.
“Nonsense. I am the Quiz Master / I won’t be ordered by some drink caster.” The man gets up from his barstool and brandishes some kind of staff that extends out from his hand. His purple-and-gold sports jacket flaps off him like a cheap suit.“Drink caster? Your rhyming is making less sense than usual. You’re cut off.” I motion to Edward in the corner.The big hulking brute of a man lumbers his way toward the bar and picks up the slender, squirming drunk like a child. He carries him to the door and tosses him out into the alley without any ceremony.
In a past life, Edward was known as Two-Ton, a third-string villain in Titan City’s supercriminal underworld. That was before he got clean and I gave him a job. When you cater to the type of clientele I do, it helps to have a seven-foot, superstrong, near-indestructible bouncer at the ready.
Of course, there were still some mishaps. A year before, some mercenary named Raymond Gunn shot up the place. He destroyed my prized pool table. Then there was the time Doomerang started a brawl with Kid Cyanide because the kid was hitting on his girlfriend, the Cougar.
Still, for the most part, everyone remained civil. They all knew my bar as somewhere they could wind down. Really, supervillains are just like anyone else. All they want is a place where they can go and forget about the world for a while. I like to think I offer that. My name is James Joseph Friday, but most people nowadays call me—
“JJ.” The voice calls my name with a noticeable squeak, and I turn to find my newest employee, Gil Laridae, backing away from the bar top with a gun pointed at his chest.
“What’s the problem, Gil?” I hobble toward him.
“I’ll tell you what the problem is,” says the small, big-headed man standing on top of his barstool. His tiny, childlike hands are clutching a firearm with the steady grip of a professional killer. “This kid asked me for ID. Don’t you know who I am, kid?”
“Gil,” I say calmly, “this is Child Endangerment. He only looks like a kid. Really he’s forty-two years old.”
“I’m forty-one,” says the hit man as he puts away his gun away. “Now how about that drink?”
“Coming right up.” I motion for Gil to pour the man a beer, and to his credit, the kid snaps out of his stupor like an old pro.
It’s always a little disturbing the first time you have a customer push a gun, or a knife, or a fully charged plasma cannon in your face, but in this business, you learn to get over it fast, or you get out. I’ve gone through more than my fair share of employees. Most quit, but a few disappeared without much of a trace. No two ways around it: you have to be tough to work in this industry.
I watch my table waitress, Georgia Atlanta, as she slaps some guy who looks like he is half octopus and half human. I guess he was getting too touchy-feely with her, as customers tend to do.
Georgia’s one of those people who can handle herself. She used to be a mercenary by the name of Southern Bedlam, but she gave it up when her son was born. She moved out west to Titan City just looking for someone to give her a chance at a fresh start. I know how that can be.
“What’s it like to be a villain?” asks Gil after he’s calmed down. The kid has an abnormal fascination with supervillainy, and that sort of path leads nowhere good. My hope is that I can dissuade him from it by hiring him on as my part-timer. I figure I can show him that it’s not all fun and grand larceny.
“It’s not anything you want to be a part of, kid,” I say as I start to tap a new keg. With a grunt I heft the large metallic cylinder underneath the bar. I’m not as young as I used to be. I wipe my hands down with a nearby dish towel, but when I turn around, he’s still looking at me like some wide-eyed kid expecting to see a parade.
“Listen, Gil,” I say, “you don’t want to get mixed up in this world. It never ends well. Look at Dr. Zirconium over there.” I motion to a large imposing monster sitting alone in the corner. Underneath a torn white lab coat, his skin is made of jagged crystalline material. “Dr. Zee was a Nobel Prize–winning metallurgist, but one of his experiments went horribly wrong. Sure, the accident gave him increased strength and skin almost as hard as diamonds, but it also reduced his intelligence down to that of a twelve-year-old. Supervillainy always comes with a price. It ain’t worth it.”
“What about you?” says Gil. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out an old picture, and suddenly I’m staring at a memory I haven’t thought about in a long time. There I am in a black-and-white jumpsuit. I have this great big mask covering my eyes and the days of the week written all over my damn costume.
I take the picture from his hand. “God, look at this. I looked ridiculous. Look at my moustache. What was I thinking?”
“You used to be Joe Friday,” persists Gil. “You used to run around with a calendar pinned to your chest. How can you tell me being a villain isn’t worth it?”
“First off, it was a weekly planner, not a calendar. Second off, I was never much of a villain. It turns out planning your schemes based around the days of the week makes you a bit too predictable.”
“But everything turned out all right for you. You’re fine…”
I don’t usually get angry, but all the questions, along with the old photo, rile me up. “Kid, I was one of the lucky ones. Some of the guys I knew from the old days—King Carnivore, the Piper, Wrecking Cruella—they weren’t so lucky. Most of them are dead or in jail. Damn, the Emerald Hood has spent the last twenty years lost in time and space. Is that what you want to happen to you?”
“No,” he says meekly.
“I was lucky. Shining Templar only broke my leg in four places when he captured me. I spent a few years in supermax and got a bum leg to show for all of my troubles, but that’s when I decided to go legit. Take it from me. Make an honest living. It’s a lot less hazardous to your health.”
I shove the old picture back in his trembling hands. “Watch the bar. I’m going out for a smoke.” I turn my back on the poor dumbfounded kid. His shocked face’s the last thing I see before the back door swings closed behind me.
My hand reaches for my shirt pocket and the other picture I know is concealed there, an old memory I can’t seem to let go of. The one thing the kid doesn’t get, and maybe the one thing I can never explain, is that the villain life leaves more than just busted noses or ruined knees. The worst scars are the ones you can’t see, the ones you never really get over.
I resist the call of the old Polaroid, the urge to revisit that dark and lonely well. Instead my shaking hand fumbles for a cigarette. I light it with one of the matches from my back pocket, and the first drag is a warm blanket. All the tension and anger drain away as I stand there smoking and watching the snowy gray sky.
It’s an old habit, I suppose, watching the skies. It’s something most villains learn to do early in their careers. You never know when some guy in a cape and long johns is going to come swinging down and ruin your day. I haven’t committed a crime more serious than jaywalking in over two decades, but I guess it’s still a hard habit to let go.
After all, there are times when I feel the urge, and the old excitement starts to kick up again. Friday the thirteenth is always the worst day for me, but I’ve been clean for too long to let myself fall back into bad habits. Besides, I’m too old to play the game anymore. A man has to admit his limitations, and I know mine.
Idly I stretch my leg. I ain’t a villain anymore. I’m just a bartender, and that’s good enough.