The Answer

“I don’t know,” said the big doorman. “Are you sure you’re a villain?” he squinted, his face bent down to scrutinize me.

“I am wearing a mask,” I said pointing to the black domino mask on my face, “and I have this black trench-coat and hat.”

“JJ gets mad when I let the wrong people in, and I don’t know you?” The giant muscular man leaned back and scrunched up his forehead, looking more and more like one of my students at the community college after a particularly hard question.

“Well, would a superhero be carrying one of these?” My hand plunged into the depths of my coat, as a chill shot up my arm. It was always the same sensation, but putting your appendage into a limitless pocket dimension was bound to have some side effects.

When I pulled my hand back I was clutching a raccoon by the tail. It was swinging frantically, hissing and spitting. “Damnit, how do these things always manage to get in…” The rest of my words were cut off by my scream as the creature bit me square on the wrist. I dropped the animal and it scurried off down the alley. My magic pockets allows me to find almost anything imaginable inside my coat. Unfortunately, I am never quite sure what will come out.

The man named Edward laughed. “You’re funny. Okay, you can go in.”

I clutched my wrist. It was not the first time I’d been bitten by something from my pockets and it probably wouldn’t be the last. My name is The Answer and, despite what I told the mound of muscle guarding the door, I am a superhero. I just needed to get inside Friday’s Bar if I had any hope of finding what I was looking for.

The door banged open to a dim and dingy drinking establishment. There was a faint odor of something musky. I would not have called it dark, it was better lit than some places I have been, but with all the wood paneling, small windows, and burnt green trimming Friday’s radiated a certain claustrophobic feeling. Of course, the sensation wasn’t helped by knowing that the walls were probably lined in lead, tritium, and a whole slew of other materials meant to render the place near invulnerable and undetectable by any passing hero with super sight, hearing, smelling, or even telepathy. Not that the place was exactly a secret in the superhero community, but it was also not the kind of bar any one hero stumbled into blindly, well unless you had some kind of death wish.

I coughed as a cloud of smoke wafted into my face but I couldn’t be sure if it was from a cigarette or just fumes rising off of Monsieur Blight. Pollution centered villains were always some of the most inconsiderate people, especially when they were French. A mustached man stood behind the bar filling glasses from a tap. He was talking to a guy dressed as a crocodile, whom I didn’t recognize. The bartender, on the other hand, had to be Joe Friday, a B-list villain from the old days. I had read about some of his crimes in the archived news database at the public library.

“Take a seat wherever ya find one, sugah,” said the shapely bar maid as she passed me with a tray full of beer and bubbling drinks. I realized I was standing in the middle of the room and people were starting to notice. I retreated to a table in the far corner and opened a tab with a credit card that only took an impressive two tries for me to fish from my coat pocket. It wasn’t mine but it seemed to work all the same. The beer was tasteless, but passable so I settled in for a long stakeout.

Despite it only being mid-day Friday’s was crowded. I saw a few familiar faces, Friar Freeze, Dr. Zirconium, The Marginalizer, Band Stand, Womanslaughter, as well a half-dozen or so I couldn’t name. Thankfully, I had never had any direct conflict with any of them so there was little danger of being identified. It was just one of the benefits of being a relatively unknown hero who doesn’t have his own social media following. Half-Life or Ionic Storm could never just waltz into a bar and go unnoticed. The latter especially. He had more than 1.2 million followers, but then again he had always been addicted to the limelight.

I was nursing my second drink about an hour later when the front door swung open to reveal a man made of metal and flesh, covered in a garish yellow and maroon costume. A small robot assistant floated next to him. I had to pull my hat down over my eyes and slump back into the shadows before he looked my way. Mandroid and I had a history. I once hit him with a bucket of paint during a bank robbery, and he’s never let it go.

Thankfully the man had always been more than oblivious. As he walked past, blathering on to the ball-shaped robot that hovered alongside him, he never once glanced my way. I watched as he took a bar stool and started regaling those around him with a story about the time he nearly convinced the city to replace all the police with robots, which he had created through a shell corporation.

The story was before my time, but I knew it all the same, just as I knew he was conveniently omitting the part where he spent three hours cowering in a dumpster before the police found him. I almost chimed in to remind him, but then the door opened again and in walked Quetzalcoatl. If I hadn’t already been trying to hide my face he would have spotted me. Dressed in snake skin and feathers he strolled into Friday’s surveying it with a hawk-like stare. Unlike Mandroid there was no talk or foolish bravado. He simply took a booth in the far corner and ordered a steaming drink of something I couldn’t identify.

One of the most powerful villains I had ever faced, old Quet was an expert on ancient magic, and I had the bruises to prove it. He stole an artifact from the Coeus Museum of Antiquities. I would have stopped him in the act, but instead of pulling out a rocket launcher I instead pulled out an old shoe. When I finally woke up from my daze there were police lights blaring through the window and I thought it best not be caught at the scene of a crime. So I fled.

The trail went cold until one of my contacts told me that Quet enjoyed the mage’s brew on Wednesdays at Friday’s Bar, but now that I was faced with the villain himself I wasn’t quite sure of my next move. In truth, I was beginning to question why I had come at all. What was I going to do, fight him right then and there? I was surrounded by more costumed weirdos than a Halloween party, and none of them would hesitate to put me in the ground.

Panic began to well up inside. It was only a matter of time before his bronze-aged gaze found me. I reached into my pocket, as deep as I could. Half my arm disappeared before pulling out a rubber ducky, then a can of hairspray, a flash bulb, a kitchen knife, and then finally a rubber mask. It was the kind of scary molded-head mask that you would find in a bad monster movie, but I didn’t hesitate. Taking off my hat I yanked the sweaty rubber facade over my face. It was surprisingly snug, and I could even continue to drink my beer through the small mouth hole.

No one in the bar looked at me twice. I even watched the gaze of the Mesoamerican sorcerer pass right by. I breathed a sigh of relief, or at least as much of a breath as I could exhale inside the suffocating and bad-smelling mask. The eye holes limited my vision but I could see well enough to keep my attention on Quet. He was nursing his steaming drink while examining something small in his hands. I couldn’t make it out, but I bet dollars to dinosaur fossils that it was the Coatlicue Statue.

A small headless wood carving that was made to resemble the Aztec’s mother goddess, the statue was said to hold the power to control the moon. More practically, and after some research, it seemed more plausible that the artifact actually harnessed lunar light for a variety of uses, all of which in Quetzalcoatl’s hands would be nefarious. The man had enough natural magic at his disposal, but he was always looking for more. Both as a hero and an adjunct professor of archaeology -and sometimes freshman history 101- I knew I had to stop him, but how?

After my third beer I resolved to wait till he he left Friday’s Bar and was well away from the other villains that populated it. Unfortunately, by my fourth beer I had lost my nerve again, and by my fifth beer I realized that not only was my mask beginning to chafe, but that my quarry had no intention of leaving till was it dark, till he could use the statue for whatever plot he had cooked up in his feathered-serpentine head. That meant if I waited, it could be too late. He’d be able to use the artifact.

While drinking my sixth beer, I started watching Mandroid talk up a C-list villainess called Honey Badger, and the beginnings of a plan started to come together. Quet was busy tinkering with the statue, his drink barely touched. The big guy at the door, Edward, was staring at his hands as if trying to understand how such meaty paws could ever have come to be. The southern waitress was chatting up a sharp smiling wolfman in a dark red suit. JJ, was pouring out drinks and the kid he had running around cleaning tables had disappeared out the side door. No one was paying attention to me. It was then or never.

I pictured the object I was trying to find in my mind, it doesn’t always work, but sometimes I could control what I pulled from my coat. I reached into the pocket, the tingling sensations making the hairs on my arm stand straight up. It was a long moment before I came back with a hissing, snapping snake, and for once I had the creature’s head. It could do nothing to bite me, even as I released it onto the ground. The five foot snake quietly slipped from my jacket, slithering its way across the floor.

Honey Badger was the first to see the creature, and she lost it. In her mad dash to stomp it dead Mandroid went flailing backward landing awkwardly in the lap of Jacqueline Ripper, the British hitwoman. She was not happy with the man who was suddenly looking up at her from her thighs, and she expressed that anger by doing her damn best to try and rip his appendages free from his torso.

I stood up and “accidentally,” bumped into Honey Badger as she was trying to stomp out the now frantic serpent. She tripped into the southern speaking waitress who dumped her tray onto Dr. Zirconium. Dr. Zee never being one for level headed discussion started swinging. “The snake came from that guy,” I yelled while trying to disguise my voice and pointing at Quet.

By that time the bar was quickly breaking down into disarray as three separate melees erupted around the room. Tables were overturned, beer bottles were broken, a laser blast exploded against the back wall, doing surprisingly little damage, and for some reason a few of the patrons were being pinned to the ceiling by, what I could only guess, was telekinesis or magic. I caught a glimpse of Friar Freeze trying to ice over the giant bouncer, which proved to be a mistake on his part. Amid all the confusion, I made my way to Quetzalcoatl. He was engaged in a shouting match with Band Stand, well at least Quet was shouting. The other man was blaring a trumpet at him.

My mask felt like a sauna. I don’t know how heroes who wear helmets or full face coverings could do it all day. I was barely able to see in the confusion and I wanted nothing more than to rip it off, but I resisted. Then I saw it, the Coatlicue Statue. It was just sitting on the table, forgotten in the heat of the yelling/trumpet argument that was going on not more than two feet away. All I had to do was reach out and grab it.

A hand with the surprising strength of a vice grip locked around my wrist as I started for the artifact. When it spun me around I was face to face with none other than Joe Friday himself. Despite his age and his walking cane, I worried for a moment that he was going to break my arm with his bare hands, but I was wrong. The next thing I knew he was dragging me out the side door, my back slamming against the alley wall.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, boy?” Before I could respond he ripped the mask from my head. “Do you think I am blind, dumb, or just senile?”

“I… don’t…” I felt at a loss for words. It was like I had become one of my students that had been caught cheating, and I felt just as guilty.

“It was a rhetorical question.” JJ finally let go of my wrist and hobbled back a few steps, his cane clicking on the uneven pavement. “It’s always the same. You upstart young heroes come wandering into my bar looking for the evil Dr. So-And-So or your sworn arch-nemesis or whatever, but more than not I am the one that has to pull your butts out of trouble, or scrape your remains off the wall. This isn’t some fool game, you know, and you’re not the first masked moron to try something like this. Those men and women in there will kill you if they find out who you are, absurd mask or not.”

“Wait. You run a bar for villains and you’re going to lecture me?” I said finding some of my courage.

JJ looked me dead in the eye. “That lot is full of thieves, murderers, psychopaths, and would be tinpot-dictators, but everyone needs a place where they feel accepted, where they can be themselves. Can you imagine what would happen to this city if they didn’t have this place? How much worse would things be if the men and women in there, some with powers that could level a city block, didn’t have a place where they could unwind?”

“So you’re doing a civil service?” I said rubbing my wrist.

“Hell no. I’m trying to run a business, son. Saving your sorry hide is my only good deed for the day, but didn’t it ever occur to you why my joint is allowed to stay open?” As he spoke Edward emerged from the door behind him and tossed out two men dressed in matching crisscross patterned outfits. The owner of Friday’s Bar never once looked back, he kept his gaze on me.

“I guess I never really considered it.” I put my eyes down, suddenly feeling as if the man towered over me, even though he was more than a foot shorter.

“I pay the cops to stay away. I scare the mafia off, but groups like Eternal Vigilance and other heroes usually know enough to let me run my bar in peace, because they know it does more good than harm. That little riot you started in there, could you imagine if that was happening right now in the Iron Sides district, or at the corner of Apollo and 4th? They’d be ripping up half of downtown. My bar can take it and no innocent bystander has to get hurt.”

“If you care about innocents than you would have let me get that statue back from Quetzalcoatl. He’s going to use it tonight and a lot of people are going to get hurt. I have to stop him.”

The old man’s mouth was a hard-set line. He watched me for another moment before muttering “Wait here.” With an uneven gait he disappeared back into the bar, the sound of the fray momentarily escaping the sealed environment of the bar before the door slammed shut again.

I was unsure of what to do. Part of my mind was screaming at me to run for my life. The game was up. It was the part of me that was certain that JJ was about to come back with a brute squad of villains, all more powerful than me and my magic coat by any stretch of the imagination. Still, I couldn’t move. The old man had an authority about him. A strange power to inspire and simultaneously make me feel like a five-year old boy again. So I waited, because what else could I have done?

The door swung open and JJ hobbled out. The faint odor of sulfur followed him, but the bar fight sounded like it was quieting down. “Here.” He handed over my hat and inside it was the small wooden Coatlicue Statue. “I got your Mayan whats-it.”

“Actually it’s Aztec,” I said, but trailed off as he gave me another look. “I mean, thank you. How did you get it?”

“That wizard of a snake-bird hasn’t paid his bar tab in a few weeks. I gave him two choices. He either handed over the Mayan thing… excuse me, the Aztec thing as payment, or he’d be banned from the bar. He chose the first option, they usually do.

I took the statue out of the hat along with a small paper card. “And what’s this?”

“It’s my number. The next time you plan on doing something this stupid just call first, like the other heroes do, and maybe we can avoid more unpleasantness.” He put a thumb back toward the bar just as Jacqueline Ripper came running out, blood streaming from a broken nose.

The southern waitress watched her as she ran. “Yeah you best be gettin’ gone, ya hear?”

“Sorry about that.” My eyes fell to the pavement.

JJ waved his hands as if to say forget it. “Like I said, my bar is built to take it, and Edward will have them calmed down soon enough. That’s why I pay him, but it would be best if you don’t show your face around here again, understood?”

I nodded, unsure of what to say.

Finally, JJ turned back to his bar and walked slowly toward the door as if it was just another day for him. Maybe it was. I have to admit I went in not knowing what to expect, but I don’t think I could ever have expected what I found in Joe Friday. I tucked the statue close to my body and headed out down the alley to find the first bus to the museum.

As I walked, I looked again at the small white card he had handed me before slipping it into my pocket, not my magic one, but my ordinary pants’ pocket. Something told me this was a number I was going to want to have handy.

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