It's three in the morning and for just a second I'm trapped in that fog where you're not really awake yet. I'm sure an alarm is going off and I grab my gun before realizing that the sound is my phone ringing and all I've grabbed is my wallet off the nightstand. A soft moan tells me Shelley is awake, and I know I'll get hell about this in the morning because she's convinced she can't get back to sleep after being woken up. We've been married thirty years, and I've never seen anyone who can drop so quickly back into a dead sleep but there's no telling her that.
I slide the phone over - an antique, black Bakelite with a rotary dial on the base - and lift the handset. I mumble something that even I'm not sure is a 'hello' but there's just silence on the other end.
"Charlie? It's you, isn't it?" There's a ragged intake of breath like you hear when someone's been really sobbing, and then just a quiet 'yeah'. Must be bad tonight.
"How about I meet you at the Denny's in ten?"
The Denny's is just a minute away from my house so I get there first and grab a booth. Some kids in the corner give me some funny looks, though I can't say if they're staring at the bunny slippers or the scar that runs all the way down the center of my face. The menu is sticky with something, and I don't have a napkin so I have to wipe my hands off on my shirt, but they could slap me on the way in the door and feed me canned dog food and I'd probably still come here just because it's open. Besides, Charlie has some strange fondness for their burgers and tonight it's all about him. I'm mostly steady these days, but Charlie can still hear it calling to him, trying to make him fall off the wagon.
He comes in a minute later, wearing a tattered cardigan and worn blue jeans. I can see that under that cardigan he's wearing a seven hundred dollar silk shirt left over from his days in the fast lane. He settles into the patched vinyl seat and takes a menu, even though we both know what he's going to order, and after a moment he gives me a sheepish look that seems out of place with those wide shoulders and square jaw. "Sorry about on the phone," he says, "I lost it. I'm still adjusting, you know?"
"You should come to the meeting tomorrow, Charlie. Talking to me is great and that's what sponsors are for, but you never see people anymore."
The waitress takes our order, and I decide I might as well dive on in.
"Okay Charlie, spill it. What is it that has you halfway off the wagon?"
He shrugs, then stares out through the window at the parking lot. He looks old suddenly, and I realize I don't know how old he is. Guys like us might look ancient when we're twenty or we might be healthy as a bear into our eighties - if we don't get killed first. We've both had our close calls for sure; I've got my scar down my face and he has that hand.
"I drove past Milton's place earlier. Down on fifth. He keeps it looking like a smoke shop, but I know he would recognize me if I went in, he'd invite me into the back. I can afford it, barely. Just one, but one is all you need." His voice is quiet, almost like he's talking to himself.
"I know Milton. Got some stuff off of him back when I was active, he did a custom job for me. Zombie snakes, a whole crate of them." Just the memory of those things gives me a terrible black twinge of longing. Charlie is nodding, his mind filled with the possibilities.
"Never did zombies before, always meant to try them. I was into death rays. Had one mounted in a converted observatory, sixty feet long and could level a city block."
I shouldn't encourage this, I should change the subject, but I don't know a lot about Charlie's career and I'm curious. "Who smashed it?"
Charlie smiles, ear to ear. "Silas Cantrell, gentleman spy. Ah, he was a class act. He managed to get it to collapse onto me at the last second, pinned my legs but didn't do any permanent damage. Exactly how it should be. I activated the self destruct, told him I would see him in hell... and of course while he jumped dramatically out the window I pulled free and dropped into the tunnels. Not all of my ventures went that well."
I nod, thinking back at my extensive résumé. "I had a few disasters. Once, the hero got there when I was out on a supply run and set off the self-destruct, didn't even get out in time so there was nobody to vow revenge on. Just a big silly waste of a secret lair."
We both sigh, and Charlie is fidgeting with the salt and pepper shakers. The glass clinks against his metal hand, a replacement from some run-in with a masked vigilante.
"Charlie... you know you can't go back to it. Come to the Villains Anonymous meeting with me, we'll get you back on track."
He nods, but I don't know that he means it. He wants to feel a windpipe in his iron grip, he wants... how does the saying go? 'To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.' God, it's been so long since I've heard the lamentations of anyone's women.
The waitress gives Charlie his burger, and in the silence as we eat I find that I'm now trying to talk myself down instead of Charlie. Take it one day at a time Doctor Calamity. One day at a time.