by Dan Swanson
Sylvester McGoon was lucky to be alive, and he knew it. For several years after the war, he had been the right-hand man to Boss Neuertski, boss of the largest criminal enterprise in Opal City… until he had broken one of the Boss’ rules. Most guys that broke those rules ended up dead; Nails ended up with a year in prison. He figured it was a good trade-off.
Very few people knew Sylvester’s real first name. His nickname was “Nails,” which was short for “bends nails with his bare hand.” His favorite trick was to take a twelve-penny nail between his thumb and forefinger and bend it double. The only person who ever called him Sylvester was the Boss, and only when the Boss wanted to impress people around him with his power, because nobody but the Boss would dare take a chance of making Nails angry. Nails McGoon was big, ugly, scarred all over, strong, and mean, and people who made him mad always regretted it, except the Boss.
Nails was in prison because he had taken part in a robbery, and he had been captured red-handed. The Boss had rules that none of his important lieutenants were to actually participate in violent crimes, as once someone reached that level of the organization, the Boss didn’t want them getting arrested, since he would then have to break in somebody new to fill the empty job. Apparently the Boss thought very highly of Nails, because instead of having him killed, he had actually sent one of the organization’s lawyers to defend him. Even the best mouthpiece on the payroll wasn’t able to keep Nails out of prison, but he did managed to keep the sentence down to a year.
When he had been sent to prison, Nails was inducted along with several other prisoners. After dinner that night, three of the other new prisoners had decided to see just how tough the guards were. They broke from the line on the way back to their cells and surrounded the biggest guard. The other guards pulled their guns and waved the rest of the prisoners back against the walls, but they didn’t seem inclined to interrupt. Nails couldn’t tell if that was because they already knew what was going to happen, or if they were hoping that the big screw might take a few lumps.
Nails later discovered that everyone called the big guard Stork. And a lot of the other screws didn’t like him. His real name was Clarence, but nobody called him that. Nails could identify with that.
Stork was a big guy, nearly as big as Nails, and he had some scars himself. But the three new convicts were armed with knives they had stolen from dinner, and all Stork had was his billy-club. Nails thought he might be stronger than the big guard, but he quickly realized he wouldn’t really want to fight with him. Nails knew a lot of dirty fighting tricks, but after watching this fight, he thought that in a fight with the guard, he probably wouldn’t get a chance to use them.
The big man was fast. Nails barely saw Stork moving, and then the fight was over. One thug was on the floor in the fetal position, moaning, wrapped around a pain the size of the prison. Nails didn’t think of it quite that way — he figured the guy took a whack with the baton, right between the legs — but the end result was the same. The second one had to be taken to the infirmary, where they had to put a tube in his throat so he could keep breathing. It must have been a whack to the throat, collapsing the windpipe, and Nails thought he might have seen that blow. The third was on his back, and Stork’s foot was on his throat. Nails had seen that move. Stork had reversed his side-handle baton, then used the side-handle as a hook to pull the thug’s legs out from under him. After that, Nails and everyone else stayed out of the big guy’s way.
In the ensuing months, Nails developed a grudging respect for Stork. He was always fair with all the convicts, and while he used force whenever necessary to protect himself or make sure the prisoners stayed in line, he never abused a convict. There were some other screws who got their kicks abusing prisoners, but they never tried that when Stork was around.
With only a few months left in his sentence, Nails got a new cellmate, a weird guy in his forties or fifties who mumbled to himself all the time. He didn’t seem to be afraid of Nails, which was unusual. But Nails quickly realized that the man was more than a little crazy; in fact, Nails often declared that he was “nutty as a fruitcake.” Nails was extremely superstitious, and he was deathly afraid of nutcases; he was sure that the other man must be possessed by the devil or something like that. And he was worried that if he got on the wrong side of the devil, his turn was next.
Without his cellmate noticing, Nails soon became his protector, shielding him from whatever abuse the other inmates might have visited on this frail, old, crazy man who couldn’t defend himself. He took his own share of abuse — for about three minutes — and then two of his abusers ended up in the prison infirmary, expected to recover. And nobody bothered Nails or the old man again.
The guards told Nails that the man’s name was Dr. Edward Clariss, he had once been a professor of chemistry at Midwestern University, and the Flash had captured him. They wouldn’t tell him what crime Clariss had committed or why it had taken the Flash to capture him. They were quite pleased by the effect that Clariss had on Nails’ behavior and decided not to risk anything by telling him more about his cellmate. Nobody else seemed to know anything about Clariss, except he had just been transferred to the federal penitentiary in Maryland from the federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania.
Clariss mumbled all the time, and although Nails often listened to him intently, he mostly couldn’t make out very much. A lot of mumbles about “healthy weather” and “James Garner,” and occasionally Nails could make out “the Flash,” but that was about it.
One morning when he woke up, Nails got the shock of his life. Clariss had apparently awakened before he had, washed himself as well as he could using the sink in the cell, combed his hair, and made his bed neatly. He almost screamed when the crazy man addressed him in a normal voice.
“Good morning… Mr. Nails, is it? I realize I’ve been something of a burden to you recently, and I would like to sincerely thank you for your protection. You see, even though I was — and remain — ‘nutty as a fruitcake,’ as you have so quaintly put it, I am aware of all that happens around me.”
Nails’ jaw was hanging open. To have this nut speaking to him, in such refined English, was almost beyond his comprehension. And the guy was telling him he was still nuts. If he could have, Nails would be running as far and fast as he could. As it was, he was jamming himself against the bars, almost as if he thought he might be able to force himself through them.
“Oh, yes, Mr. Nails, I’m aware of my condition. The irony is, I created the condition myself. It’s a side-effect of the chemical formula I developed to duplicate the Flash’s super-speed!”
Now, even from a nutcase, this was a little much for Nails to believe. “If you’re fast as da Flash, how come you’re still in jail? Dey couldn’t hold Flashy in any prison for more’n a second.”
“Very good, Mr. Nails. Yes, my formula did indeed give me the same powers as the Flash, but it wore off. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps there is some genetic difference in the Flash, or his metabolism is somehow different, or it may even be because he was in his early twenties when he was first exposed, and I was in my late forties.”
“So, you’re tellin’ me dat da Flash is gonna lose his marbles, too?”
“Ah, Mr. Nails, an excellent question. So many people equate lack of education with lack of intelligence.” Nails couldn’t figure out if he was being insulted or not, but decided it didn’t matter. He was still scared of this guy; in fact, the lucid behavior after so many weeks of mumbling made him even more frightening.
“No, the Flash will not descend into insanity. I have been drifting in and out of lucidity since I was imprisoned. Mostly the periods of sanity come in the middle of the night, and during those times, I have been reexamining my formula. The factor that causes insanity is my own error, and was not present in the chemical that transformed the Flash. In another irony, I am certain that if I could expose myself to the revised formula that I have developed, not only would it temporarily restore my super-speed powers, but it would also permanently restore my sanity. But I will probably be incarcerated in one prison or another for the rest of my life, and remain insane for the rest of my life. But it would be so simple to create the new formula. After all, it’s only heavy water.”
“‘Heavy water’? I t’ought you was saying healthy weather! What’s heavy water?”
“Ah, Mr. Nails, if only you had been one of my students so long ago! Do you know the meaning of the word ‘isotope’?” Nails clearly didn’t. Clariss didn’t bother to explain it to him. “Heavy water is water which is composed of a less common isotope of hydrogen, often called deuterium, combined with oxygen. It exists in nature, but it is mixed with regular water, and if you didn’t know in advance that it was there, you would never notice. It can be separated from regular water, and when it is used in the proper chemical formulation, it can induce the power of super-speed. Of course, the preparation of the rest of the formula is not trivial. The Flash discovered it by accident; only I, in the entire history of the world, have ever created this solution deliberately.”
Nails was curious. “OK, dat’s da healthy weather stuff. Whatza deal wit James Garner?”
Clariss looked confused for an instant, and then burst out laughing. “I’m sorry, Mr. Nails. That’s the biggest secret of all. And even I’m not crazy enough to tell you that!”
Nails changed the subject. “What sorta stuff would you need to mix up some of this heavy water stuff? I might be able to get ya what you need, and den we can blow this joint!”
“Mr. Nails, Mr. Nails! We are in prison. I need a well-equipped chemistry lab. And I’m still ‘nuttier than a fruitcake’ most of the time. And you’re out of here in a month. It’s a fascinating idea, but not practical.”
Maybe, thought Nails. But maybe it would be worth breaking the old man out, once he got loose. If the old man could really make some of this super-speed stuff, boy, wouldn’t the Boss love that?
“Hey, Doc, I think you’re right. Now wouldn’t be da right time. But I got me connections. If I bust you outta this joint, can you make up some of that speedy stuff for me and my boys?”
“It would be simplicity itself!” Clariss said with a smile. And then, suddenly, he changed again, and was back to his former insipid self. The light of intellect faded from his eyes, replaced by the gaze of a paranoid madman, darting his vision here and there, never looking at anything for longer than a second, and always looking for a threat. Nails actually crossed himself, and dropped back into his routine as the reluctant protector of the mad professor.
Over the next few days, Nails was haunted by Clariss’ condition. Although he couldn’t have put it into words, the thought of being locked up in his own head, aware of everything going on around him, and yet completely unable to react appropriately, touched something inside him. Nobody in his adult life had ever depended on him the way Clariss did, and none had ever thanked him and appreciated him. A few days later, he spoke directly to Clariss.
“Doc, I know ya can’t talk back wit’ me right now, but I know you’se in there, listenin’. Look, if you wake up again from dreaming ’bout Lucy and you want somebody to talk wit, just wake me up. It’ll be OK.”
Clariss took advantage of that offer a couple of times, and occasionally, Nails found himself talking to Clariss even when he wasn’t lucid. Clariss always heard what he had to say, and always had some kind of response in his next lucid period. It was a very strange relationship that developed between them. But just before he was released, Nails made Clariss a promise: “Doc, it’s prob’ly gonna be tough on you when I’m gone, but I’ll be back for you wit’in a week. So you just hold on for a week, y’hear?” As usual, Clariss made no response, but Nails was used to that. He was quite surprised when he realized he really meant it.
The big day, September 1st, 1949, finally arrived. For whatever reason, Stork was the screw who came to lead Nails outside. Nails patiently listened to his advice. “Now that your debt to society is paid, it’s time to go straight, yadda-yadda-yadda.” Finally, he interrupted.
“Shut it for just a minute, eh, Clarence?” Nails thought he could take a chance this one time; Stork was stunned to silence by the use of his real name, and Nails quickly spoke into the silence. “Now, don’t get mad, man. You know my name’s Sylvester, right? I wouldn’t call you Clarence, ‘cept you jus wouldn’t shut up! Well, I got somet’in’ to say to youse before I get outta here.” Stork was listening.
“The old guy in my cell? Do me a favor and keep an eye on him, will ya? He’s nuts and all, but he can’t take care of hisself, and I won’t be there to protect him no more. If he gets hurt, I’m gonna make somebody pay big time, but I really hope nobody hurts him, ya got it?”
Stork wasn’t in the habit of doing favors for ex-convicts, but he agreed to this one. He really hated watching someone get bullied, especially someone with no way to defend himself.
“T’anks, bud. Youse and me, we ain’t never gonna be on da same side of da law, but if you take care of da old guy, I’ll owe ya one. And I always pay any debts what I owe.” Stork nodded in agreement, led Stork to the front gate, gave him ten dollars, and put him on a taxi to the Greyhound station.