Robert looked at the directions again. “Take a left at the E Street junction, walk about two blocks. It’ll be at 64B, F Street,” read the text message on his two-generation-old cell phone. There was a 64A, a C and a D, but no B. He frowned and turned around over and over, trying to take in his environment, but only looking like a lost puppy.
You’d think that after 20 years, I’d know this town inside out by now, he thought to himself. Scratching his slightly greying temple, Robert braced himself to ask a stranger for directions—preferably a younger person, as this definitely seemed like one of those hipper neighbourhoods. Mr Stupendous would know where 64A was, he was sure.
Turning around once more, Robert finally noticed the alleyway sandwiched between 64A and C. Ah, he thought, with a triumphant smirk. 64B, I presume.
He walked in and, at the end of the alleyway, found a lovely lush garden. Smooth 1960s ska played over a stereo, loud enough to add to the atmosphere, but soft enough to not disrupt any conversation. The Skatalites, he thought. Why, I haven’t heard these guys in years! Scattered among the garden were ornately crafted metal tables and chairs, further adding to the vibe that this wasn’t a coffee joint, but someone’s backyard. A lone sign brandishing only the establishment’s address hung from the small hut in the corner, from where the scent of lovingly made, freshly brewed coffee emanated.
A lone waitress seemed to be working this shift, but it was the post-breakfast, pre-lunch crowd, so it wasn’t exactly packed. Robert looked around the place, until finally spotting Dr Nefa— er, Bernard. He was going to have to get used to calling him that all over again. It felt weird, considering how much he shouted Bernard’s other name throughout the rest of the year.
“I took the liberty of ordering for you,” said Bernard as Robert waved awkwardly to him and walked over. “Earl Grey, right?”
“English Breakfast actually,” said Robert, taking his seat. “But I wouldn’t hold it against you, considering how often we do these things.”
“You say that now, but the next time I see you, you’re going to be hitting me extra hard, I know it,” said Bernard, the corner of his lips curling up into a smirk, accentuating the wrinkles on his face.
“Cute,” said Robert, sipping the cooling tea. “Let’s be honest here, if there was one of us that was more prone to holding grudges, it’d be you.”
“Hah!” laughed Bernard, catching the attention of the couple at the nearest table. “I’m pretty sure that isn’t true, considering your,” he made air-quotes with his fingers, “Secret Origin.”
“I thought we agreed not to talk about work when we do this.”
“Come on, Bobby. We both know that never happens.”
“I know,” Robert smiled sadly. “Whatever happened to us, Bernard? How’d it get to be this way? I mean, have you read what they say about me in the press?”
“Well, that’s what you get for having twenty-something male sidekicks.”
“It’s not even that! Even outside of work, everyone seems to think I’m the ‘perpetual bachelor playboy.’ And I know what that’s supposed to insinuate.”
“Don’t be so close-minded.”
“That’s rich, coming from you. I’d imagine of the two of us, you’d be the more bigoted.”
“Oh please. Who do you think I am? The Führerbot 5000? When have you ever seen me targeting a specific group of people?”
“OK, I suppose that’s fair. You just want complete and total world domination.”
“Well, when you say it like that, sure, it sounds awful.”
“You sent City Hall into another dimension last week.”
“Hey, if the mayor wasn’t gonna meet my demands, what do you want me to do? I can’t look weak.” Bernard cocked a knowing eyebrow at Robert, fully aware that he looked every minute of his seventy years. The wispy white hair only spouting out crazily from the side of his head, his bifocals hanging off the tip of his nose, his generally frail frame—Robert would have almost felt sorry for him if not for the fact that Bernard had Chemical Z23 pumping through his veins. “Besides,” Bernard continued, “you managed to bring them back anyway. No harm, no foul.”
“I don’t think you actually know what that phrase means.”
“I’ve been in this business since your dad was still active, young fella. I know it all too well.” Robert didn’t respond, but looked off thoughtfully at the tomatoes growing in the plot next to the hut. Bernard glared at the silent man for a second, then realised what he’d said. “Oh, jeez, kid. I’m sorry. You know I miss the old man too, right?”
“I know, Bernard. I know. It’s just… I try not to think about him too much, you know? Like, I sometimes think that that bullet that killed mum took him too. It just took longer to hit him.”
“This line of work never had such a high mortality rate back in the day. Times are changing. They have been since the 90s, really.”
“There are still some of these kids that play by the old rules. Kids like Mr Stupendous and his team.”
“Some? That’s generous. The brightly garbed defender of the people and the sinister nemesis dynamic doesn’t seem to inspire the same level of awe as it used to.”
“We’re not in this for popularity, Bernard.”
“Aren’t we? You’re telling me you don’t get a thrill every time a kid looks up at you with hope in his eyes? ‘Cause I sure as hell still get a charge every time I see them gripped in terror.”
“I do. That’s a bonus though. I do this because it’s the right thing to do. You do this because…” Robert trailed off. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever asked why you do this. Dad certainly never mentioned it.”
“That’s because I never told him. Never needed to.”
“Kept it simpler that way?”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t just that. Your dad sort of understood. He ever told you about the first time we fought?”
“The big battle at the Khnum Chemical plant?”
“That’s the one. Well, there I was, my big debut in my Mark 1 giant mechanoid, smashing and crashing through the place like a bull in a china shop. Lots of mess, I’ll admit, but if they had just organised the place a little better, I’d have found what I was looking for and been out of there in a jiffy.”
“You were operating a giant robot. I’m not trying to excuse it, but come on, old timer, there was bound to be a mess,” Robert smiled.
“Touché,” nodded Bernard with a fond smile. “Well, your dad burst in like a bolt of lightning. Floating down from the sky like Zeus from on high. I swear, I had heard stories about the guy and even I was slightly star-struck. That’s how he got in his first punch, of course.”
“Of course,” said Robert, rolling his eyes not so subtly.
“Well, soon enough, he had me beat and was waiting for the cops to take me in. We’d trade the usual quips at first. ‘Your plans are foiled, evil doer!’ and ‘We’ll meet again, you costumed buffoon!’ That sort of thing.”
“You and your flair for the dramatic, Bernard.”
“Oh please. I bet he downplayed it when he told you the stories, but your old man was just as much of a ham as I was,” Bernard said with a laugh that turned into a coughing fit.
“You all right?” Robert said, waving to the waitress and asking her for a glass of water.
“Yeah. Damn bronchitis. Honestly, considering the muckity muck that I’ve handled in my life, I got off pretty light.” The waitress arrived with the water. Bernard nodded his thanks, and took a big gulp.
“That, and Chemical Z23.”
Taking a breath and letting out a soft cough, Bernard continued, “Thank the lord for small miracles. Anyway, where was I?”
“Monologuing, I believe.”
“Right. Well, when all the showboating was done, we still had to wait for the cops. He kept me in the air, away from the civilians, and we just hung there for a while. And in that awkward silence, all pretenses just kinda dropped away. He looked at me and was about to continue with the hero/villain banter, when he saw it in my eyes. And he recognised a sort-of kinship. I know this because I looked into his and I saw the same thing. The cops showed up a short while after and they took me away. And, obviously, I broke out again. But he hit me a little softer the next time we met. And I held back against him too.”
The two men sat silently for a moment. Robert was the first to break the silence. “Have you ever considered quitting?” he said, almost in a whisper.
“But why haven’t you?”
“I could. I mean, it’s not like a multi-million dollar business is something that runs itself. And you know that if you wanted to, we’d hire you. You could do some real good in a company like ours, with that big brain of yours.”
“I could. We could. But—and I want you to be honest with me here—we’ve agreed that these sessions stay between the both of us. No henchmen, no sidekicks and none of it leaves this table. Would you really be fulfilled without our little dance?”
Robert didn’t answer. Instead, he looked down at his cup of Earl Grey and smiled. Bernard smiled back, sipping his own tea, then said, “Thought so.”
“Let these youngsters continue to have their world-shattering grudge matches,” continued Bernard. “What we have is our golden age. Well,” he said, brushing his fingers through his white hair, “silver age, maybe.”
“Hah!” laughed Robert, unconsciously stroking his own greying temples.
“I wish I had these sessions with your old man, kid. He was a good guy.”
“So are you.”
“Don’t go spreading vicious rumours like that.”
“This is what we do, Bobby. And yeah, on one level, we’re changing the world. You’re saving it and I’m giving it the sense of danger it needs. But at the end of the day, what matters is that what we’re doing affects individuals. And that includes each other.”
“The never-ending battle for truth, justice and personal satisfaction?”
“And you call me a ham.”
“I take after my dad.”
“That you do, kid,” said Bernard with a hint of affection in his tone.
Another beat of silence, but this time, an air of understanding hung between them. “So, how you going to spend the rest of your day off?” asked Bernard.
“Go on a yacht with a bunch of swimsuit models.”
“You don’t have to over-compensate for those idiots in the tabloids, you know?”
“I’m keeping up my secret identity.”
“Sure you are,” Bernard grinned.
“What about you?”
“Create another mechanoid, probably.”
“That’s how you spend your day off?”
“No rest for the wicked, Bobby.”
“How long have you been waiting to use that line?”
“Top of my head, I swear.”
“Sure it was,” Robert grinned back.
“Please. I’m an evil genius. I do word play just as well as I do killer robots.”
Robert placed a twenty on the table. “I got this one.”
“Millionaire playboy like you, you’d better.”
“Sir!” yelled Robert’s assistant. “Sir, the city’s under attack from Dr Nefarious again! We have to evacuate the building!”
“Don’t worry about me, Jenny,” sad Robert calmly. “I’ve got my panic room in the basement if anything. You just get the rest of the staff out.”
“Yessir,” Jenny said diligently, running out of the office. As the door shut behind her, Robert pulled out the copy of Bhagavad Gita, activating the door to his hidden elevator. He rode it to the top of his skyscraper, stepped out into the afternoon sun and ripped open his suit to reveal his costume beneath.
“Up, up and away, old friend,” Robert smiled, flying off into action.
© Wayne Rée, 2015