"You realize, it's not over."
I shrugged in response. "Looks over to me."
"You don't watch enough horror movies," he shot back. "The killer always comes back for one last scare."
"Not this time," I told him.
Maxwell Dillon smirked behind the glass wall of his holding cell. "Keep on believing that, Herman. And when the dead start rising again, that comment will come back to bite you on the ass. Literally."
"Maybe. But we'll be ready for it."
"You better hope you are. You beat Dormammu. A guy like him has eternity to plan his revenge."
"And what about you, Max? If Dormammu shows back up, would you go right back to work for him?"
Dillon raised a hand to the spartan holding cell. "It'll be better than this." The cell was made entirely out of glass and plastic, not a single centimeter of metal to conduct electricity. It had been built to hold Magneto. Now, of course, the mutant mastermind was helping with relief efforts in Genosha, off the coast of Africa, and it was Electro who was locked up. Two shackles were wrapped around his ankles, one on each leg, and they steadily sucked electricity away from him, through wires surrounded by layers of non-conducting material. And there wasn't a single piece of metal withing fifty meters of his cell. Including anything I would normally have been wearing. All I had on me was a hospital gown, my boxers, and a plastic bag hanging from one hand.
"It's so strange to see you without your suit or your gloves," Electro said. "Did the guards make you check them in before you came to see me."
"Actually, Tony Stark and Henry Pym are studying my gloves." And that wasn't a line of bullcrap. A few days after everything had calmed down, Tony Stark himself had called me. He had apparently seen my vibro-smashers in action and wanted a first-hand look at my weapons. I had visited him at Avengers Tower earlier today, with Henry Pym in attendance. As soon as I handed over the gauntlets and the blueprints to Stark, his eyes had gone wide with amazement, talking about how it was incredible that a person with no formal training or education could construct such an amazing pair of weapons.
And then he broke out a small Flathead screwdriver, popped open the battery compartment, and in the course of sixty seconds, increased my power reserves by fifty percent. That's why he's a billionaire, and I had been scrambling to pay rent month and and month out. Of course, New York City currently had a glut of empty apartment and condos, and I was in the process of moving to much...fancier digs.
"Look at you, Herman. Tony Stark himself studying your weapons and making them better without breaking a sweat. Even at the pinnacle of your success, there's someone who is effortlessly better than you are."
"A man's got to know his limitations," I told Max. "Besides, I'm having the smartest man in the world upgrading my equipment for free."
"Yes...and what will you do with that equipment, Herman? There are no more zombies to kill. No more civilians to save. All the money and gold in the world is worthless without a functioning economy. You can just walk down to Best Buy and grab a stereo without paying for it. There really is no country for a man like you anymore, is there?"
I shrugged. "I have plans. But I didn't come here to discuss them with you."
"Ah. Then why did you come here? I'm curious. I would imagine you would want to keep your distance from me at all costs."
From the plastic bag, I pulled out a bottle of beer, one of the plastic kinds with a screw-on top that no self-respecting male would drink from unless he was at a football game. I opened up Electro's meal tray and shoved the bottle towards him. "I figured, you'd want to help me make a toast."
"A toast?" He eyed the bottle carefully, reaching out for it as I pulled a matching bottle from the plastic bag. "A toast to what?"
"We're having a wake tonight. For Aleksei. And...when we thought you were dead, he led a toast to you, Max. Maybe you'd want to extend the same courtesy to him."
"Really? After all I've done to you, after the pain I've inflicted..."
"I personally could care less, Max," I shot back. "I'd let you rot in here if I could. But this isn't about me. It's about Aleksei. It's your call."
"Hmm. You have a point, Herman. Aleksei was a big, dumb rock. But he was a loyal rock." After a second, he unscrewed the top of the beer bottle, and I did the same. The beer was warm, but it wasn't the liquid that mattered, but the words. Electro raised his bottle towards me, and I responded with my own salute. "To Aleksei," Maxwell Dillon proclaimed. "May his Heaven find plenty of walls to plow through."
"Smart-ass," I said, a grin on my face as I took a swig. Screwing the top back on, I pushed my bottle through the tray as well. "Here. I know they're feeding you prison food. Have a little something on me."
"Thank you, Herman." I nodded, and turned to walk down the long corridor back towards the guard post. "You know, I am telling the truth. This isn't over. Dormammu will be back. I'll be at his side. And there will be a reckoning, Herman. Oh, yes," Electro said, a sneer in his words, "there will be a reckoning."
"Can I get another whiskey and soda, Fred?"
"On it, Doctor!" Fred easily slid past the other bartender, snagging a bottle of Jack Daniels 1954 from the shelve in the process. "Single or double?"
"Make it a double," Doctor Octopus answered. "I'm not driving."
I laughed as the amber liquid filled the glass. "Fred," I told him, sitting next to the good Doctor, "are you using Jack Daniels 1954 as a bottom shelf MIXER?"
"Why the hell not," he called back with a big grin. "We've got cases of it in the back! I can't believe that when the world was coming to an end, no one thought to hit the high end night clubs! They were just cases of the good stuff sitting around for the taking!"
"In that case, I'll take a Stolichnaya Elit!" The high-priced vodka filled my glass, a faint taste of spice and cream on my gullet as I sipped the drink. "Whoa," I said. "That is damn smooth."
"And there is plenty, and I mean PLENTY, more where that came from, mate! We're probably going to have to expand into the place next door for the room!"
"You've been dipping into your own stock tonight, haven't you?" I laughed as I looked at Fred's red eyes. "You're tipsy!"
"Hey, I'm not drinking that American swill you stocked your hideout with, Herman. I'm enjoying the good stuff!"
Yeah, Fred was on his way to being smashed. The other bartender simply mixed drinks and served them. Tonight, the Bar With No Name was having a combination wake and grand opening, fully open bar, no cash allowed or wanted. Hell, most cash was worthless anyway. Anything people wanted was just around for the taking, and no matter how much SHIELD and the government warned otherwise, people were just taking what they needed and what they wanted. It was going to take more than a week for everything to shake out and get back to some semblance of normal.
This past week had been a blur to me. While everyone else on the planet had been in recovery mode, trying to take stock of what was lost, helping to dispose of the massive number of corpses that lined the streets, and figuring out a way to bring the world back to a working order, I had spent the first few days stone cold drunk. And then the next three days dealing with SHIELD, Doctor Strange and the Avengers as they debriefed me on the Darkhold, Dormammu, and what had really happened to Norman Osborn. And then a couple more days drunk.
And then the day after that mulling over an offer.
And today helping set up the Bar for its grand reopening.
There had been talk about moving the Bar to a new location, a place a little more upscale, a little more luxurious. That talk had happened between Fred and myself that very first night, when the two of us had broken open the front door to the Bar down in Alphabet City, passing the school bus that had been under siege that very first night, the site of my very first zombie kill. The lights still worked, but as Fred and I set about on the course of getting ourselves absolutely freaking' smashed, the door had opened. The bartender simply walked behind the bar, shooting a look at Fred that caused the Australian to sheepishly go around to a bar stool, and began pouring us drinks. That quashed any talk about moving the Bar.
Over the course of the week, once Fred had sobered up, he began to take stock of the bar's stock, and found it lacking. While I was out being interrogated and cross-examined by Colonel Fury, Fred had slowly begun to restock the bar's alcohol supply. Gone were the days of Classic Club liquor and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Now, Fred's nose sniffed out the high end stuff. He brought stuff from Fifth Avenue: $500 dollar bottles of aged Scotch, bottles of wine from the turn of the 19th century, beers with unpronounceable names. It had become his quest to restock the Bar with the high end goods that villains like us used to dream about as we pounded down Golden Anniversary beer.
Until yesterday. When I came into the Bar for a drink after getting the offer, and there was Fred. Behind the bar. Learning how to pour a proper drink from the mute bartender.
"The way I see it, mate," Fred had explained to me as he mixed me up a Jack-and-coke, "crime as we know it is over. Everything's out there for the taking. I could go down to the bank and pick up $100,00 and no one would give a damn. And when the new laws come down, how much do you want to bet they end up being old-school, Wild West style laws, I mean harsh and swift? Forget that. I'm retiring, Herman," he told me. "I'm opening up a bar. This bar. I'm the new partner, mate. I keep everything stocked, and the bartender pours the drinks. Because, hey, everyone need a place to get drunk, right?"
"...and Aleksei just scratches his head, and goes 'but you showed me on the map where you wanted me to bust up that camp of rebels.' And the government guy takes the map, turns it right side up, and tells Aleksei he had been holding the damn map wrong! He had accidentally busted up a government camp!"
I smirked, remembering that story as Speed Demon told it to our table. "So later on, I ask Aleksei what had happened. He just put that dumb smirk on his face and goes 'the rebels made me a better offer.'"
That broke up the table. Hydro-Man howled as Speed Demon sipped from his beer, and even I smiled brightly at the tale. "Man...you know, Aleksei wasn't dumb," Speed Demon said. " He was just...simple. Herman told me that," he said, pointing the bottle of beer in my direction. "Yeah. He had a good heart. I always wondered what would have happened if he had gone legit. Probably would have ended up a bouncer as some high-end casino somewhere," I said. "I mean, seriously, you start trouble at a casino, one look at Aleksei and your ass is going somewhere else."
"Too bad we're never going to find out," Hydro-Man said. "It's a shame, too. Look at us. We're all going to have to go get real jobs now. Crime isn't going to pay anymore."
"Hey, I already got a gig lined up," Speed Demon said. "High speed courier. The roads and highways are still a mess, and they're using the airports for emergency services. Stuff still needs to get places."
"I'll probably end up with SHIELD." Hydro-Man saw the eyebrows go up around the table. "There's a lot of places that need water and new irrigation system. The old water sources are filled with dead bodies and won't be clean for a while. Aqueduct convinced me to go apply for the reconstruction effort. I'll probably hear something tomorrow."
"Good for you, Morris," I said, saluting him with my bottle of beer.
"What about you," Speed Demon asked. "You got anything lined up? I would imagine they're pounding on your door to offer you a job of some sort."
I gave a half-hearted shrug. "I'm sure something will come up...I have a couple of irons in the fire..."
I had just stepped out of the bathroom when Boomerang called me over to the bar. I walked with unsteady steps, the mix of beer and vodka not settling well in my system. "This just got dropped of for you," Fred told me, pulling a package wrapped in brown paper from behind the bar. "No name on it. Someone gave it to the Prowler and said it was for you."
"Huh. Well, it ain't ticking. That's a good sign." I undid the string holding the paper together, and carefully unfolded the wrapping, my hands shaking slightly from the alcohol. Inside the paper was another wrapped package, this one in white tissue paper, along with a little envelope. I opened that one first. The writing swam slightly in front of my eyes as I read it once, and than a second time to confirm what I had read.
"Dear Herman," the paper said. "I've been assigned, by my request, to Molecule Man's initiative team operating out of Colorado. I figured this way, we'll never see each other again. I owe you this much, though, for the hell I put you through. Pete."
"Well, who the bloody hell is it from," Boomerang slurred.
"Pete," I responded. Boomerang blinked in surprise as I went to unwrap the tissue paper. It slowly was revealed to us, a thick, curved piece of gray polymers, tapering to a wickedly sharp point at the end. I knew what it was immediately. It took Fred a few more seconds.
"Yeah." I held the Rhino's horn carefully in both hands. It had been polished, and severed cleanly at the end where it should have been attached to the suit. "It's Aleksei's," I spoke quietly.
We stared at it quietly for a few seconds, in the din of the bar. "Tomorrow," Fred finally said, "when I'm sure I'm sober, I'm gonna hang that above the door."
I nodded slowly. "I think that's a damn good idea."
The communicator in my pants buzzed. It took me a few tries to fish it out, my fingers refusing to slide into the pocket of the jeans I was wearing. I held it up in front of me, reading the text message that I had just received.
"MEET ME OUTSIDE, ACROSS THE STREET. MM."
MM? Who the hell did I...
"Do you have any chewing gum? Or Febreze?"
"I got some Big Red."
"I need a piece. No. Two pieces."
"Ok, ok!" He fished under the bar as I smelled myself. I smelled like cigarettes and alcohol. Damn it. "Here," Boomerang said, handing me two foil-wrapped pieces. I shoved them into my mouth, chewing and getting as much saliva in my mouth as I could to wash the cinnamon taste around. "What the hell's going on?"
"No time to talk," I said, spitting the gum back into the foil. "How's my hair look?"
"Like a damn rat's nest." But I was already on the move as Fred criticized me. "Herman, who the hell..."
I lost him in the din as I pushed my way through the crowd. A lot of hands slapped me on the back, some of them shoving drinks at me, but I ignored them all as I made it to the front door. I remembered to grab my jacket before stepping outside into the November night, which was just starting to turn bitterly cold. I threw it on as I scanned the dark street, looking for the person who had sent me the text.
"Over here, Herman," her voice called out.
I carefully made my way across the road, hoping not to bump into the school bus of any of the parked cars. The sky was overcast, clouds blocking the stars and the moon, and all the lights were out in Alphabet City. ConEd had gone through and turned out the power girds for most of Manhattan, as people who died or fled their homes didn't have time to turn their lights off. Right now, the light pouring from the windows of the Bar With No Name was being made by a generator, the gasoline siphoned from the cars lining the street to power the drunkenly revelry inside.
She was in a thick black peacoat, as opposed to my brown bomber jacket, standing next to a fire hydrant. "Whoa," Ms. Marvel said as I carefully approached. "You smell like a speakeasy."
"Well," I said, focusing really really hard on not slurring my words or falling down. I wasn't that drunk, but why take chances? "The wake's been going on since seven. It's...what time is it?"
"0300," she replied.
"Really? Wow." I rubbed at my eyes. "It's...been cathartic. Lot of booze. Lot of memories. Lot of talk about what the hell we're going to do next. It's tough out there for a criminal now," I said with a smirk. "A lot of us are probably going to go legitimate, try to get real jobs."
"You're kidding me."
"Hey, Speed Demon's already opened his own courier service, and Doctor Octopus wants to get back into teaching again." Shaking my head, I told her, "it's our world now. We helped save it, and now we're going to help rebuild it."
"And it's all because of you, Herman." I waved my hand at her, but she continued. "I know you're modest, and want to stay off the radar...but it's true. This might not have come to pass if you hadn't been in the middle of things. You're the reason this world's still here, Herman." She took a stepped forward. "Thank you," Ms. Marvel said as she lightly kissed me on the cheek.
I went flush. She had to see how red my face had gotten. "Um...er...wow. Thanks. I mean...you're welcome? Yeah. You're welcome."
A small giggle escaped from the blonde powerhouse. "Fred told me you'd blush."
"Well, yeah. I called earlier to make sure you were sober enough to talk. I wasn't going to have you come out here all sloppy drunk and hammered. You'd make a fool out of yourself. He told me if I gave you a peck, you'd turn into a blushing schoolboy. Turns out, he was right."
"Damn it, Fred," I groused good-naturedly. I was going to come up with some witty, smooth reply to take advantage of the opening, when something cold touched the end of my nose. I put a finger on it, pulling back a bit of clear wetness as another bit of cold hit my ears. Looking up at the sky, I could see hundreds of white flakes falling towards the street. "Huh. It's snowing."
"Flurries tonight," Ms. Marvel replied. "No accumulation. So it's not going to hamper the clean-up effort." She gave a weary sight. "You know...how long is everything going to revolve around what happened? Everything is tying into removing dead bodies, and moving citizens around, and..."
"Hey." She looked at me with worried eyes, and I shot back my best grin. "Just...listen. No traffic. No planes. It's the first snow of the season. Enjoy the little things for a moment."
"I'm not used to New York being so quiet," she admitted. "Look, Herman...the reason I'm here is, I want you to really consider our offer to you."
"Oh. That's why you're here," I replied.
"Come on, Herman. You know I can't go in there and hoist a beer with everyone. To them, I'm Ms. Marvel, blonde bombshell who'd they like to see naked. With you...ok, I'm sure you want to see me naked, but at least you're holding a conversation with me and not trying to paw me because I kissed you on the cheek. I came here to see you because...I want you working with us. You're smart, you have powerful weapons...and you're brave. You're incredibly brave and you don't know when the hell to give up. And...maybe, deep down inside, away from zombies and demigods, they're a nice guy in there I wouldn't mind getting to know. Hell, you have Henry Pym gushing over your technical genius, and he's not the easiest guy in the world to please."
"Pym? Really?" I looked up at the snow, letting the flakes hit my cheek. "Is there even a need anymore, though? Does the world need someone like me around?"
"It's not over, Herman. The Absorbing Man and Titania are up in Seattle and aren't showing any signs of leaving. The U-Foes ran out on North Carolina and have gone AWOL. And we haven't heard anything out of Apocalypse or Doctor Doom since this whole mess started." She sighed again, a wry look on her face. "When one crisis ends, Herman, another one's beginning somewhere else. Besides...what are you going to do? Go into engineering? I'd bet you'd be bored with in a week."
I shoved my hands in the pockets of my jacket before responding. "You know...where I'm standing right now? This is where I killed my first zombie. Completely by accident, I shoved this guy backwards and he hit his head on that fire hydrant right there. I was so afraid I had killed a guy, I was looking for excuses. Look at me now. Look at where I'm standing. In the exact same place where it all began." The snow was melting in my hair, drops of water dripping down as I ran a hand through my brown mane. "Full circle. Hell, I'm coming full circle. And that means a closed system, where nothing new enters, and nothing new leaves. I was really never a fan of a closed system."
"So...is that a yes? Or is that a no?"
I shook my head, not believing what I was about to say. "I think what it is, Ms. Marvel is...Avengers Assemble."
The smile on her face shone through the snowy night. "That's great, Herman. Just great." She put out her arms to me, motioning me to walk up and embrace her.
"Actually," I said after a few seconds, "instead of that hug, there's this diner just up the road. I used to eat there a lot after a night of drinking. How about we celebrate over a cup of coffee...Carol?"
Ms. Marvel...Carol...chuckled. "You know, yeah. A cup of coffee would be great on a cold winter's night."
"Then come on. Let's get me sobered up." I turned, and extended the crook of my arm to her, not bothering to hide the wide smile on my face. "Lady, take my hand."
TO BE CONTINUED IN "TRANSISTOR"