Super Max by Chris Hobson
Super Max by Chris Hobson
“Of course it’s you,” said Charlene the post woman, nodding her head at Max’s computer screen. He’d been reading the details of the bust online when Charlene walked in, and she seized upon it. “Who the heck else would it be? Tyler over in Receiving?”
Max bent over the remittance paperwork on his desk, wishing Charlene would leave. At times like these he was glad that he constituted the entirety of the accounts payable department, since no one was ever around to gang up on him.
“I was online all night,” he told her, trying to keep his lie simple. “You can ask the Derrick twins. Or check my activity log. Now,” Max added, jabbing his thumb at a pile of papers, “I’ve got to get through all of this before lunch. So if you don’t mind?”
Besides Max Marsh, no one in Rapid Falls bore even a passing resemblance to the Red Nova. Certain qualities of the town’s residents fit the bill. For instance, Bill Brader from the drugstore was tall enough at 6 foot 4, but he was thin as a rail; Sue Farthing could hurl a rock into the next county if you got her mad enough, but she had a bum leg. No one gave it much thought, though, until the day of the big counterfeit ring bust.
Acrid fumes eddied through the vent above his desk. Someone had burned their lunch in the pantry. Charlene flashed a crooked smile. “There are gaming emulators. You forget I have a teenage boy at home.”
She was right. At the end of the day, none of the locals matched the Red Nova’s physique so completely as Max. Barrel-chested with broad shoulders and the body of an ox, he stood apart from the crowd. And he’d moved to town six months before, when all of the miracles started happening.
Sighing ponderously, Max pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Who says he’s from here, anyway? Maybe he’s from Jessup.”
Charlene’s eyes went wide. “Jessup?” she exclaimed. “The closest they’ve gotten to a super was The Freezer. But he just passed through, on his Heartland Tour back in ‘78. No,” she shook her head insistently. “The Red Nova is not from Jessup. He’s here for the long haul.”
At that moment Ken from sales knocked on the doorframe. Max gestured him in.
“I take it everyone’s seen this?” said the salesman, a smile plastered on his face. In one hand he held a folded-up newspaper. With a flourish he threw it down atop the stack of remittance papers, smoothing it flat with his fingers.
A grainy picture of downtown Rapid Falls graced the front page. Over the rooftop of Mickey’s Cafe streaked what appeared to be a comet. The headline above the newspaper’s cover story said it all: “Red Nova Busts Bad Money Ring, Confiscates Haul.” The “Confiscates Haul” grated, as if to say, “He took the money for himself!”
“Supernova strikes again,” said Ken with relish. His distended eyes filled with fervor. “And this time he stopped an actual crime!”
Max gave a non-committal nod, handing the paper back. Undoing the buttons at his wrists, he rolled up his sleeves. Why isn’t the goddamned air conditioning on? he wondered. “I think you mean Red Nova,” he said through a sigh. “Good for him. Maybe now people will admit there’s a problem.”
“It’s nothing the department can’t handle,” put in Charlene, whose brother served on the police force. “The sheriff and state police have been cooperating on the case, it was only a matter of time until the Curtalls went down. We don’t need some leotard-wearing outsider meddling in our business.”
“Well,” said Ken in his upbeat way, “if they don’t recover the moolah, we’ll know who took it.” He nudged Max good-naturedly and then, with a friendly farewell nod, left.
Charlene remained, allowing the silence to expand. “This so-called superhero should think long and hard,” she said presently, “about how far down the rabbit hole he wants to go. Otherwise, he’ll make an enemy of every last soul in Rapid Falls.”
When he got home from work, Max waved his hands, using telekinesis to draw the curtains shut. Switching on the floor lamp, he tossed his shoes hastily into the coat closet and loosened his tie. The living room was smallish, with room enough for a red sectional couch, a corduroy recliner, and an antique cherry red TV console. Most days the orange shag carpet comforted his aching feet, but today all Max felt were the crumbs and bits of dirt caked into its fibers.
Max sat down and used his mind to switch on the TV. The air was redolent with the smell of masala. A news program faded in, already in progress. “Eyewitnesses claim he went by the name Red Nova,” a dour-looking female reporter in a black blouse was saying. “Although it defies belief, the masked assailant single-handedly broke up the Curtall Ring, a band of cousins who has beguiled Rapid Falls police for years.”
“I suppose this is your handiwork?” said D.D, who strode out of the bathroom wearing a towel tied into a turban on his head — and nothing else.
Max averted his eyes. “Do you have to walk around naked?”
D.D. gave a tight smile, water drops beading in his paint brush mustache. “I thought you were still at work.”
“Is our hero back?” came the voice of D.D.’s twin brother, Terry Derrick, from the kitchen. “Have him call Zinsh!”
D.D. parked his lithe body in front of the television, watching the screen as he towel-dried his hair. His narrow jaw worked a piece of bubblegum. “How did you manage to hack the alarm?” he asked, casting a glance up at a motion sensor affixed to the ceiling. “We had no idea you left last night.”
“Move, will you?” pleaded Max. He threw a hair brush at the young man, striking him on the small of his back.
“It’s not exactly super-max prison, but still.” D.D. continued, rubbing his back. “It’s a pretty good alarm.”
“It sure feels like super-max,” grumbled Max.
“Zinsh called,” Terry yelled over the oven fan. “You need to call him back, pronto!”
“OK,” Max replied, only half listening. He flipped rapidly through the channels to see what kind of damage control he needed to run.
It was worse than he’d thought: beyond the 6 o’clock news, the national outlets had jumped on the story too. Each segment began with the same grainy surveillance photo from the local paper. Reporters did their best to connect the inscrutable facts — a red streak hurtling through the night sky, two unidentified men screaming their heads off in the town square, a power surge — and ended their segments by showing the culprits, all cousins of Nat Curtall, shabbily dressed and sitting back-to-back in a circular formation, tied up with a length of galvanized steel rope.
Terry poked his head out the kitchen entrance. “Better start packing your bags.”
“Pack ‘em up, pal-o,” added D.D.
“What was I supposed to do,” Max asked, “let them keep recruiting kids to do their dirty work?”
Terry, who in every way resembled his twin brother save for his bald upper lip, shook his head. He was dressed in a rumpled brown sweater with a gold zipper down the middle.
“You have to face the fact that life goes on without you, Max,” he said.
The phone rang. Not the landline nor Max’s cell phone, but the phone phone, the direct line to Central Command.
D.D. looked at the cradle where the phone was charging, the towel now draped across his shoulders. “If he asks for me,” he told Max, “I’m out.”
Max sprang up from the chair. “Nova here,” he said into the handheld device, which resembled a large pear with an antenna on top.
“Please hold for Remediator Zinsh,” said a perky voice, one of the Ministry operators. There was a rustle, a hiss of static, and then a husky voice said, “Zinsh on the line.”
“I know what you’re going to say, Right Honorable Remediator. But if you’ll just lis—”
“Let me stop you right there,” broke in Zinsh, his voice coming through like a tuba underwater. “I’m not even going to ask what you were thinking, because clearly you weren’t.”
“If you’ll just hear me out,” Max tried.
“This Curtall business has hit the airwaves in a big way. What we have now is a case of solving one problem only to create a hundred others. Are you trying to stay in remediation forever?”
Max walked into the cramped laundry room, shut the door. “Your Eminence,” he insisted, “at some point the band-aid had to be ripped off.”
“That’s not your decision to make,” countered Zinsh.
Max continued: “In time, the whole town would’ve been consumed by their criminal network. You know the employment situation here. It’s practically the only game in town, Right Honorable Remediator.”
“Nova, your task isn’t to save these people. It’s to course-correct your own confused ways. And that starts with honing your alter ego.”
Max, or rather the Red Nova, had started walking a dark path back in Ruby City. Inflamed by the prospect of watching the world capsize around him, he’d begun clocking ever longer hours, deluding himself into believing that if he just worked harder on less rest, he and his fellow supers could eradicate evil forever.
But the superhero justice system worked frustratingly slow. The twisted souls Nova hauled in hired top-shelf lawyers, or made sure witnesses took extended holidays to the bottom of a black hole, and many of them walked free. His thirst for justice compelled Nova to begin planting false evidence on the accused. Although his behavior lasted only a matter of months until he was caught, it was enough to scandalize all of Ruby City. Showing leniency, the Remediator sentenced Max to confinement in Rapid Falls, population 7,000, assigning the Derrick twins as his handlers.
“Maxamillian Marsh,” the judgment had read, “is not to don the uniform of the Red Nova, nor to leave the town limits of Rapid Falls, for a period of one year.”
Zinsh’s voice rang in the phone receiver, “The procedures manual is clear: All work and no play leads to burnout. I know on your home planet alter egos aren’t important. But around here, they’re vital.”
“Yes, your Eminence,” conceded Max.
“I’ve seen this before,” the Remediator went on, “where the cure is worse than the disease. You have to learn how to let events take their course. Are you listening, Nova?”
Max shifted the phone to his other ear. “Yes, sir. I’m here.”
“The idea of strengthening your character by not helping others may seem strange,” he counseled. “You’ve always had the sacred right of deciding when to intervene in human affairs. But then the false accusations began…”
“Of course, sir,” sighed Max, not wishing to be reminded.
Changing the subject, Zinsh said, “What hobby have you settled on, then? It’s been six months. Do I have to replace the Derrick twins with a probation officer?”
Max threw open the laundry room door. His hyper-vision threw the living room into stark relief as he sought out some article of rubbish to call a hobby. At once his eyes passed over the video game console; did playing “Marauder’s Crusade” every night count?
“I’ve been doing a fair bit of house work,” he lied, eyeing a half-full pizza box that had been parked on the dining table all week. Its cheese had taken on the waxy sheen of melted candles.
Zinsh’s voice struck a note of finality: “Nova, this is your last chance. We haven’t forgotten all you’ve done for Ruby City — it’s the sole reason we aren’t tacking another year onto your sentence. But you’ve got to get with the program!”
“Model Airplane Club,” read a flyer in large block letters. The words bent in an arc over the image of a B-17 bomber sailing through the clouds. Then below that: “No experience necessary. Interested parties should contact Harold McTracy.” A phone number was listed on tear-off tabs along the bottom, none of which had been taken.
Max stood in the light-splashed atrium of the library, considering the leaflet. It was lunchtime, and he often spent his work breaks at the library, browsing for self-help books that taught him how to become more human. He held one such book in his hands at that moment, freshly checked out (it was called Finding the Hidden You) as he hovered in indecision before the tack board.
Desperate though he was to get Zinsh off his back, Max couldn’t imagine piecing together bits of plastic like some overgrown child. Did humans really behave that way? Still, he’d run through a list of potential hobbies and each one presented a problem: all sports were out of the question since, once his heart rate became elevated, his superpowers would manifest; similarly, if he tried fishing, he feared that his duty to protect all living beings would be called into question.
But building tiny airplanes presented no special barriers. And the fact that Harold McTracy didn’t seem picky about who joined his club enhanced the appeal. Anyhow, model airplanes suggested flight and, until recently, he’d spent most of his time among the clouds.
Max dialed the number on one of the leaflet tabs. On the other end a voice croaked, “Harold here.”
“Mr. McTracy, hi. My name is Max Marsh. I just saw your advertisement. For the model club.”
After an interval of silence, Harold said, “At the library?”
“Yes sir. Anyhow, I wondered if there’s room for one more member?”
“What do you know about flying?” was his response.
Plenty, thought Max. “Well, I just moved to town and, the truth is, I’ve never built a model before.”
“Yes sir. I suppose so.”
“Get yourself down to the hobby shop on Hollister and buy a kit. Any kit will do.”
“Sure, OK,” said Max. He smiled politely at the assistant librarian, a white-haired lady dressed in blue who passed by pushing a book cart.
“And glue. And some paints,” Harold added. “Whatever blows your hair back. Meet me in the basement of the American Legion post tomorrow. Say, 1900 hours.”
“Yes sir,” said Max, feeling unsettled. Sweat stood out across his forehead. Nothing about the exchange felt natural. “1900 hours.”
“Oh and Max, one more thing.”
“What say we leave the jumpsuit and cape at home?”
Max’s stomach lurched. “I’m not the Red Nova!” he whisper-yelled into the phone, his throat constricting with shock at the accusation.
“Sure, son. And I’m the tooth fairy. See you tomorrow.”
There was a rustle of static, and Harold hung up.
Max walked slowly down an aisle of the hobby shop. A musty smell pervaded the store, putting him in mind of a lagoon he’d once trudged through while searching for a stolen diamond. Making sure no one was watching, he focused his thoughts on the model kit boxes. One by one they levitated off the shelves. With a twirl of his finger they rotated, allowing him to examine their contents.
The inventory consisted mostly of World War 2-era kitsch: diecast B-17 Flying Fortresses, Messerschmitts, Warhawks, and even little bitty Supermarine Spitfires. Max took down the box for a 1/32 scale F-86F40 Sabre JASDF Fighter, turned it over in his hands, felt the plastic pieces tumble inside like the contents of a bone thrower’s gourd.
The shop owner, Mrs. Turley, watched Max with a keen eye as he neared the front. She’d been pretending to read the newspaper for the past 10 minutes, but his heightened powers of awareness told him she’d read the same sentence 17 times.
“I’ll take these,” he said, laying two model kits, a half dozen bottles of enamel paint, and a jar of titanium buffer metalizer on the counter. He’d settled on the Warhawk and Spitfire models.
“So what do you make of our…flying friend?” Mrs. Turley asked while ringing him up, canting her head at the newspaper.
“Who, the Red Nova?” Max shrugged. “Probably just passing through.”
A stout woman, Mrs. Turley sat on a stool much too small for her. She wore a shapeless blouse with a gray shawl thrown over her shoulders. Her rounded cheeks and protuberant brow threw her eyes into shadow, lending her face the shape of a Valentine’s heart turned on its side.
“Sure, just passing through,” she said with dripping sarcasm, running a hand absently through her head of copper curls. “And in the meantime he happened to solve the crime of the century? Right.”
“Honestly,” replied Max, handing her a twenty dollar bill, “I’m as stumped by it as you are.”
Making no move to accept his money, she said, “One of those boys he caught is my sister’s nephew, you know.”
“Gosh, no,” Max said with genuine concern. “What was he doing mixed up in all that?”
“Better question is,” Mrs. Turley pressed, plucking the bill from his hand, “why does some pajama-wearing looney think he can swoop in and stir up trouble?”
Careful, Max told himself, sensing a trap. “I couldn’t agree more,” he said, forcing a mask of concern. “People should mind their own business.”
She looked at him askance. “If you bump into the Red Freakjob, be sure and tell him that.”
Red Freakjob? Was that what people had started calling him? No matter, the population of Rapid Falls would soon see what life was like without the Red Nova.
Before leaving the hobby shop, Max picked up a free copy of “Warplane Modeler Magazine.” Leafing through its glossy pages, he’d read about double-action airbrushes and high-end compressors and realized there was more to modeling than he’d at first thought.
The following night Max walked to the American Legion post. He carried with him the Spitfire model, its box still encased in plastic shrink wrap, along with a black shaving kit bag. The day before, he’d emptied the bag of its razors and filled it with the bottles of enamel paint.
Halfway there, an ominous feeling took root in Max’s gut. The prospect of building model airplanes while real injustices were taking place in the world… it felt downright criminal. A heavy weight pressed down on his chest. Black clouds gathered on the southern horizon, lightning bolts flashing soundlessly between them. The air felt heavy and static-charged and smelled vaguely of ozone.
At the end of Van Brollet Street he found the American Legion building. Star-spangled bunting festooned the low brick structure. Max peered through the glass block windows near the door. Looking down at the box of plastic parts in his hand, he heaved a sigh and walked in.
“Welcome, welcome,” said an elderly man with white, short-cropped hair, beckoning Max through the doorway. Dressed in a wrinkled nylon shirt and black tie, he sat at a card table.
Holding up his model, Max said, “I wasn’t sure if I needed to pay a membership fee?”
The man’s cerulean eyes locked onto him, a spark of hilarity dancing in them. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t stand,” he said, slapping a metal walker that sat beside him.
Max strode over and shook his hand. “Max Marsh,” he said by way of introduction.
“I know who you are. I, of course,” the man added, “am Harold.”
You know who I am all right, thought Max. He waited for the man to fling some wiseacre comment at him, but was greeted only with a broad smile. Before Harold sat a half-assembled model of what appeared to be a helicopter without its rotor blade. He held a metal wand attached by a rubber hose to a compressor at his feet.
“Single-action siphon feed?” ventured Max, indicating the airbrush in his hand.
“Hey, you really know your stuff! Come on, sit down.”
“Only what I’ve read online.” Max settled into a molded plastic seat across from the man, his frame much too large for the little chair. At a glance he took in his surroundings: a simple brick-walled space with red-and-black ceramic tile flooring, the room looked as if it had been built upon a giant checkerboard. Oak bookshelves occupied one wall, while floor-to-ceiling cabinets lined another. Besides he and Harold, the place was empty.
Max sat his box up on its end so Harold could see the Spitfire painted on top. The man scissored his jaw.
“Ah, the Supermarine. British ingenuity at its finest.” Presently Harold shrugged. “Anyway, where’s your paint? I’m an acrylics man myself.”
Max fished the jar of titanium buffer metalizer out of his bag, along with the bottles of enamel paint. As he set them out on the table, the bottles seemed tiny in his enormous hands.
Harold regarded him doubtfully. Grabbing the container of metalizer, he held it up before him. “It says ‘For Airbrush Only’ on the label, you know.”
“Oh, really?” Max sighed. “I wish Mrs. Turley had mentioned that.” He felt deflated, wanted nothing more than to go home. Glancing down at the buzzing contraption near Harold’s feet, he added, “I haven’t had a chance to buy a compressor yet.”
“No problem. If you have brushes, that’s the way to start.”
From his shirt pocket Max took out two fine enamel detail brushes and set to work. Harold encouraged him to open the box and arrange the assorted plastic pieces before him on the table. Max consulted the directions and, finding a tube of model cement, proceeded to piece his airplane together.
“I’m not the Red Nova,” he said presently. “Just to get that out of the way.”
“I don’t care,” replied the old man, “whether you are or whether you aren’t. What matters now is staying right here.” He touched two fingers to his forehead and gestured toward the helicopter as if to affirm his dedication to the task before him.
“All the same, I wanted you to know. I’m aware of the rumors going around.”
After a prolonged silence, Harold said, “Most people think modeling is pointless.”
“You don’t say,” replied Max, who was busy gluing an aileron to one of the wings.
The old man chuckled, sprayed a section of the tail boom. “They’re right. But maybe we should let simple things be simple.”
“I wish I could see things that way, Mr. McTracy.”
“Call me Harold. Take the Spitfire, for instance,” he went on, pointing his airbrush at Max’s model. “One of the deadliest planes of the war. But early on, it couldn’t go into a barrel roll without stalling. When it went upside down, the carburetor would flood the engine with fuel. A bunch of black smoke would puff out, which made them sitting ducks. The Messerschmitts had fuel-injected engines, so the Jerrys could pounce.”
“Uh-huh,” said Max, unsure of what Harold was on about.
“Eventually the Brits figured out you could just pop a brass ring between the fuel intake and carburetor chamber to stop it from happening. Something that could be done in a matter of minutes if needs be. The simplest thing you can imagine.”
Max swept his eyes across the dozens of loose pieces, unable to see how they fit into a larger whole. “How do you know so much about Spitfires?”
Harold paused. “I’m a history buff, I guess.” He took a few more swipes with his airbrush, adjusted the compressor. “It’s your generation,” he said at length. “You don’t know how to slow down. Building these little gems,” he said, indicating his helicopter, “teaches you to take life by the second.”
Max felt jittery, like he should be doing a hundred other things instead. There was nothing noble about building children’s toys.
“And you’ve never known hardship.” Harold leveled his eyes at Max. “Never faced down pure evil.”
“You’d be surprised,” Max said.
“Oh yeah, I forgot. You’re the Red Nova.”
Max started, torn loose from his ruminations. His enormous shoulder muscles pulled taut. “I told you, I’m not him!”
“All right, all right,” said the old man, obviously enjoying himself. “No need for theatrics. I’ve met enough supers in my time to know what I’m looking at.”
“I’ve made a mistake,” said Max, standing suddenly. With a quick gesture, a little too quick for a human, he gathered the plastic odds and ends back into the box. “I shouldn’t have wasted your time.”
Harold set down his airbrush, throttled back the compressor. “If that’s how you feel…”
Twisting the lids back onto the enamel jars, Max threw them tinkling into the shaving bag.
“It was nice meeting you, Mr. McTracy. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve got other things to do.”
Harold sat back in his seat, a look of disquiet in his eyes. “Ask yourself what you’re in a hurry for,” he said in a measured tone. “You may have already missed it.”
“I doubt that’s the case,” returned Max. And with that, he left.
A few weeks later, everything changed. Max had just finished his salmon salad sandwich at Hayman’s Deli and started back to work. Without warning, an explosion tore across the midday sky, shattering the toy store windows beside him. It sounded like peals of thunder but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
“Look at that!” a woman said, pointing upwards.
A gasp lifted from a group of pedestrians, their heads thrown back. Following the woman’s line of sight, Max saw a point of light streaking across the firmament, trailing a long white tail behind it.
Max’s stomach dropped. “Thaddeus Bolt?” he muttered in disbelief.
Running fleetly to the gas station, he ducked into the snack aisle. Max had never met the Human Bolt in person, but he’d read plenty about him back in Ruby City. A misanthrope of the highest order, Thaddeus Bolt had long ago graduated from jewel heists to assassinating planetary heads of state. Far and wide he was known as the most dangerous of the rogue supers and stood atop the Ministry’s most wanted list.
Pulling out the phone phone, Max dialed Zinsh’s number.
The operator chirped, “Ministry of Remediation, may I help you?”
“It’s Red Nova. Give me Zinsh. Now!” He peered over the top of the aisle. People were running wildly down Main Street, plowing over each other and screaming.
“One moment please.” There was a protracted hiss of static, and then Zinsh’s voice barked, “Talk to me, Nova!”
“Thaddeus Bolt,” Max said breathlessly, moving toward the back of the shop. “He’s here!”
“So what?” the Remediator answered with nonchalance.
“So what am I supposed to do?” All at once a spray of fire hit the tax preparer’s office across the street, incinerating it to ash. Max stumbled backwards into a cardboard end cap, spilling batteries everywhere.
The Remediator’s voice grew icy. “Do? You do nothing, that’s what you do.”
“Why is he here? Is this part of my remediation?”
“We are aware of the situation. Nova, you have to leave it alone.”
“Am I supposed to let him burn down the whole town?” Anger flamed through Max’s chest, making it hard to breathe. “Will you at least send backup?”
Zinsh clicked his tongue. “This is not an advice hotline. Do the right thing, Nova. Stop interfering.”
He hung up.
Max stared. “Forget you then!” he cried, hurling the pear-shaped phone against the wall. It shattered into tiny fragments. When he looked up, he noticed that he wasn’t alone.
“I knew it!” said Ray Varner, who sat on his stool behind the counter, looking flush. “You’re the Red Nova!”
“Shut up, Ray!” Out of nowhere came an eruption of sound followed by a low rumble. At once a cloud of fire obliterated the nearby cinema house. “Come with me.”
He grabbed Ray by the collar, dragging the obese clerk behind him, the man’s little legs struggling to keep up. Kicking open the locked storeroom door, Max shoved him inside.
“Stay here,” Max ordered. “And call the National Guard.”
Ray’s soft cheeks gathered into a frown. “This is your fault,” he said, thrusting a plump finger at Max. “We never had this kind of trouble before you showed up.”
“Maybe. But right now you have to stay hidden. Here, use this.” He tossed Ray his cell phone, which the clerk bobbled. Before he could protest, Max yanked closed the metal door, melting it shut with his molten touch.
Outside, the air felt aflame. Bolt had already leveled the trinket shop, the cinema, and half the buildings south of Water Tower Street. He hung there, high in the sky, a dark smudge in the warping heat.
“Thaddeus!” exclaimed Max, using his powers of voice projection to lend strength to his words. The sound reverberated against the hot, crumbling bricks. “Why have you come?”
But Bolt remained stationary, unmoved by Max’s presence. Giving the empty street a scan, Max considered his options. If he transformed into the Red Nova now, he’d never be able to deny Ray’s story. And anyhow he’d be punching a one-way ticket back to Ruby City Correctional. At first he thought to run clear out of town, but recalled that would violate the terms of his plea deal.
Not seeing any sign of the National Guard, Max blurted out, “Citizen’s arrest! I’m placing you under citizen’s arrest!”
Thaddeus Bolt bellowed, “What is this foolishness? Transfigure into your true self so I can rid this town of your presence. I was hired to do a job, and I mean to do it!”
Wait a minute…what? wondered Max. But he didn’t have time to think, for a column of flame shot at him. He leaped out of the way, making it look like a human leap.
“What job were you hired to do?” he asked, rolling up onto one knee.
“Pssssst!” said a voice from the alley behind Vince’s Car Repair. Before Max could take a bead on who it was, he saw Bolt aim his trigger arm again. Thinking quickly, he scrambled behind a mailbox as another burning beam sliced the air beside him, decimating a Buick.
“Over here!” It was Morgan Grandy, waving his arms to get Max’s attention. He crouched in the alley, his skin as pale as his white line cook’s outfit.
“What is it?” asked Max, keeping his eyes fixed on Bolt.
“A bunch of us pooled our money,” he said, trying to keep his voice down.
“Can we talk about this later?”
“To hire Bolt.”
Max’s heart nearly stopped. It all fell into place: surmising that he was the Red Nova, the citizens of Rapid Falls had pooled their resources and put a bounty on his head. And the Human Bolt had come to collect.
“Perfect,” chided Max.
“Well you are the Red Nova…aren’t you?”
“So you hired the scourge of Ruby City?”
Grandy shrugged. “His rates were really reasonable.”
“No, I’m not the freaking Red Nova!” cried Max, loud enough for everyone to hear.
Plumes of smoke piled up high into the sky, engulfing the downtown buildings. Thaddeus Bolt slipped down through the billowing vapors, his arms outflung like a hawk.
“Show yourself, Nova!” he roared.
Max went to respond, but drew up short as something occurred to him: his alter-ego wasn’t well known in the superhero community. From day one, when he’d immigrated to Earth from Yoglat-3 — a planet where secret identities had never gained currency — he’d come across as a massive workaholic. So much so, in fact, that it became a running joke around Capitoline Hall that he slept in his costume.
The Red Nova, it was whispered in those hallowed corridors, had no alter-ego. So there was no way the Human Bolt could know for sure who he was.
Just then a twin-engine turboprop buzzed overhead, a Cessina 425 Conquest by the looks of it. The plane had come from Scott-Donn Field, no doubt, about ten miles outside of town. A memory of his evening spent with Harold awoke within Max: the delicate strokes of acrylic he applied to his model, the man’s unwavering attention to detail. It was truly endearing, this human preoccupation with flight.
He stood. Heat radiated over him like screws drilling into his flesh. “You must have me confused with someone else,” he exclaimed. “I’ve never even met the Red Nova!”
Bolt laughed. “A likely story. Now come here and accept your banishment. It’s the Asteroid Belt for you, my friend.”
Just then Max spied the Derrick twins standing on the roof of the courthouse, peering over the pediment. Their bright blue uniforms with green piping would give them away. He flicked his chin ever so subtly, warning them to stay put.
“Go on, turn into the Red Freakjob and save us,” came another voice, this one up by the electronics store. It was Charlene, the postwoman, kneeling beside an HVAC unit. She had a voluminous mail pouch slung over her shoulder.
“Get out of here!” he mouthed to her.
She gestured angrily at the wall of flame behind her, penning her in. “Knock off this citizen’s arrest garbage and stop him!” she said, the condenser fan blowing about her tallow hair. “He’s burning down the town!”
“Well whose fault is that?” Max snarled. He wondered how many other people were stuck in this crucible of fire, watching to see what he’d do next. Without thinking, he ran into the middle of the street, giving Bolt an unobstructed view.
“Ah there you are,” said the flying man, coming into focus. He wore a crisp ivory suit with black boots and a silver cowl. On his chest was emblazoned a golden thunderbolt. When he came to rest in the middle of the street, his long white cape trailing out behind him, Max saw that the Human Bolt stood well over seven feet tall.
“If you won’t submit to me,” Max roared, “the National Guard will intervene!”
Bolt scanned the horizon, flames twisting around him like a blazing helix. “Are you sure about that?”
Behind him, the town’s only water tower loomed, its rounded top like a giant blue mushroom cap. Across it read “Rapid Falls” in glistening black letters.
Falls. If he remembered correctly, back in his Academy days Max had read something about Bolt’s only vulnerability: water. “You’d better get out of here,” he yelled, “or else the Red Nova will pulverize you!”
The Human Bolt threw his head back and cackled. “Go ahead then and transform,” he taunted.
All at once Max dashed sideways up the alley. He passed by Charlene, who gaped at him open-mouthed. Through the wall of flame he jumped, bursting out onto Danderham Street.
Sprinting north, within half a block he came to the base of the water tower. The structure’s support beams held a water tank the size of a small building. It would have to be enough.
Without warning a lightning bolt exploded beside him. Max leaped forward just as another crackling bolt shredded the asphalt. With an agile movement he ducked behind a support beam.
“You’re vanquished, Nova. Come with me now or I’ll smoke you out.”
Max peeked from behind the structure. Thaddeus Bolt raised his hand menacingly. An unstable orb of light formed in his upturned palm.
Out the corner of his eye Max saw the Derrick twins. They stood at the parapet of a building across the street, looking down at him through their black goggles. He dipped his chin into his collar, indicating for them to fall back.
“OK, you got me.” Presently Max bent over, placing his hands on his knees, pretending to be winded. “I give up.”
The Human Bolt smiled. Descending once more to the ground, he produced a pair of electrical strands that resembled handcuffs. The super’s radiance enveloped Max.
“In time,” Bolt told him, “you will see that this is best.”
Max turned his gaze on a handful of people who’d crowded near the ice cream shop to watch. “No one wants me around here anyway.”
“Their ransom was a pittance,” said the Human Bolt, striding toward him on his enormously long legs. “The real prize is getting rid of you — permanently.”
Clapping his wrists together, Max bent forward in supplication. “I won’t transform. But do one thing for me first, will you?”
“Sure,” replied Bolt, his face igniting with glee.
Looking up, Max saw flames blanketing the rooftops of nearby buildings, licking the air. Thaddeus reached out with his cuffs.
Max shot backwards. Bolt dropped the cuffs, aiming both hands at his target. Before he realized what he was doing, the super discharged two thunderbolts into the base of the water tower. With a screech of metal, the tower came crashing down at avalanche speed.
“Everybody back!” Max screamed as he took shelter behind a statue.
Bolt didn’t have time to move before 500,000 gallons of water smashed down on him. When the structure hit the ground, a tidal wave 20 feet high surged into the air, dousing the entire block. Water rushed in every direction. Roads and alleys filled like rivers, the swift current carrying away cars and sending debris through shop windows. Max had to scramble up on top of the statue to keep from being torn away.
At length the raging flood abated. Like a field of diamonds the bright midday sun glinted off the water. In the town square, the crumpled tower lay like a beached whale, the word “Rapid” visible on its cracked surface. A few of the support beams remained standing, like the remnants of a washed-out pier.
Fear rushed in on Max as he scanned for people in the streets. “Anyone there?” he called out. At once the roar and clang of fire engines sounded. Here and there, Max saw people sitting atop cars and hanging onto drain pipes. A few voices returned his call, hidden away up corollary streets.
The Human Bolt, however, had vanished forever.
“Times like these,” said Harold, reclining against his seat back, “I wish they’d hauled you off.”
Max grinned. Plucking the king piece off the board, he set it upright beside his elbow. “It’s academic now. Do you quit?”
Harold surveyed the board. All he had left were two pawns, a rook, and the queen he’d been guarding so jealously that he hadn’t noticed Max’s knight sneaking up on his king.
“Maybe you’d like to step in? Play the rest out for me?” Harold asked the severe-looking woman standing near the door. She had her slender arms folded across her chest, all her weight shifted to one foot. Dark black curls framed her narrow, humorless face.
“I don’t play,” she said, her pale eyes unreadable.
“Smart woman,” replied Harold. Then, muttering to Max: “Surprised she hasn’t grown roots.”
“Easy,” Max returned under his breath.
Within minutes the two pawns created a diversion, allowing Max’s knight to clear the board of Harold’s other sovereign ruler. The old man tapped his fingertips on the table, ruminated for a moment, and then announced that he had to go to the bathroom.
“Funny thing,” said Max. “Me too.”
Once his companion was out of earshot, Morissa — that was the name of the case worker Zinsh had sent to observe him: Morissa — ordered Max to make it a quick pit stop or else she’d come in after him.
Outside of work, the restroom was the only place Morissa couldn’t follow him. And the acoustics of the Legion building’s restroom, for whatever reason, flattened all sound, making it impossible to eavesdrop from the hallway. For good measure, Harold turned on the tap full-blast.
“Any news?” he said, leaning on his walker. “Tell me you heard something. The suspense is too much for an old guy.”
Max shrugged, trying to play it off. But one look at Harold’s imploring face caused him to lose his composure. “Reduced sentence. I’m done in two weeks!”
“Holy cow, really?” exclaimed Harold, slapping the bar of his walker. His eyes brightened. “And then what? Where will you go?”
“Well, I was thinking. What if I stick around here?”
Silence. The old man’s face dropped. “What the heck for?”
“You never know when a super villain’s going to show up, for one thing.”
“But these people,” he said, sweeping his hands about him, “hired a hit-super to get rid of you.”
Max considered this. “If a stranger with no past moved to my town, I’d be suspicious too. Anyhow if I stay, I’ll move outside of town. Probably up in the hills somewhere.”
Giving him a searching look, Harold nodded at the door. “You won’t have to marry her, will you? It must be hard enough to let on like you’re dating, so no one asks questions…”
“Who, Moorisa?” Max shook his head emphatically. “She’s just temporary. Making sure I don’t destroy any more water towers or anything.”
“No one’ll doubt you’ve broken up with her when she leaves. She hasn’t exactly grown on us.”
Max contemplated the ceiling. “They’ll revoke my license to practice if I stay. No more heroics.”
“What do we need it for? Always gotten along fine without that nonsense.” The old man moved closer to him. “Another Red Nova will pop up in your place. Don’t worry about that.”
For the first time in his life Max felt contentment. Letting go didn’t mean giving up, only that he’d done his part and now a time for lasting rest had arrived. Peace of mind wasn’t a gift often bestowed upon supers. But standing here with Harold, bathed in golden bands of late-day sunshine, he felt grateful that his feet would never again leave the ground.
Copyright Chris Hobson 2019