by Dan Swanson
Nails McGoon was a little nervous when he walked into the fancy Opal City restaurant Boss Neuertski used as a front for his operation. Much to his relief, he was welcomed back. Unsurprisingly, he was reinstated at the lowest rank, and he would have to work his way back up to a position of trust, if that’s what he wanted. Some members of the organization liked being almost anonymous at the lowest levels, although while Nails was gone, the Boss had shot Al “Banana” Lopenda, one of the lowest of the low. But if you wanted to run with the big boys, those were the chances you took.
Nails wanted to do something that would impress the Boss and get him his old job back, and he had just the job in mind. If he busted the old guy out of jail and got him to work for the Boss, wouldn’t that be something? He thought it over for a long time. He didn’t want to bust any more rules. But the rules against violence didn’t apply to “junior associates” such as himself. In fact, junior associates were encouraged to participate in violence, and the main rules for a junior were “don’t get caught” and “don’t rat.”
Of course, McGoon still had good connections inside the organization, and everyone expected that he’d be back near the top soon, so he had more influence than a regular junior associate. It wasn’t difficult to get a dozen other ambitious junior associates to agree to join him in his rescue effort.
Three days after his release, McGoon was first in line for visitors’ day at the prison. The guards at the gate looked at him funny; they had never seen an ex-con come back on visiting day before. Nails was surprised to see that Stork was the guard overseeing the visitor room. He was even more shocked to see that Stork’s face was black and blue, he had a cast on one forearm, and he was using a cane to walk. Somebody had whacked him, but good. But there was nobody McGoon could think of would have the nerve to even try something like that.
When Stork spotted him, his expression turned from one of pain to something grimmer, and Nails started to get a bad feeling. Stork called in another guard, then led Nails into a private room. “If you’re here to see Clariss, you can’t. He’s in a hospital. He got jumped the day after you left.”
Nails was out of the chair in a flash. He had Stork by the throat and slammed him against the wall, moving faster than he ever had before. He saw a flash of anger in Stork’s eyes, and suddenly he was a little worried; even injured like he was, he knew this man could give him the fight of his life. But the flare of anger quickly died out, and Stork slumped lifeless against the wall, suddenly seeming small and weak.
“I tried, Nails. I tried. Six of ’em jumped him right after dinner, knocked him down, and were pounding on him before I could get there. Another six of ’em stood around, keeping everyone clear, so nobody could help him. Old guy never even knew what was happening to him. He had no chance!”
Nails knew better. He knew that regardless of how the Doc had behaved, he had known everything that happened around him. Maybe he couldn’t have done anything about it, but he had known.
Strangely, Nails felt a strong empathy for Clariss. He couldn’t stand even thinking about being helpless like that; he would rather be dead. Nothing had ever touched him emotionally like that since he had taken to living on the streets. His anger rose; where Stork’s flare of anger had been a flickering candle, McGoon’s anger was like an oil well fire, bright and roaring and searing hot. If the screw had shown any smallest sign of resistance, McGoon would have killed him instantly. But the flame of anger helped his eyes burn through Stork’s appearance and somehow allowed Nails to see that Stork was as shattered about this as Nails was angry.
“What happened? You told me you’d watch him!”
“The Sarge must’a been in on it!” McGoon could see some anger seeping back into the guard, and with it, some life. “He posted the dinner schedule, and I swapped shifts with Smitty, so I’d be around while the Doc was out of his cell. Damn, Smitty must’a been in on it, too! I always trusted him. Guess it shows what I know.”
As he watched, Stork started to grow again. Whatever had left him when he deflated was coming back. Nails released him and backed away, cautiously. He knew he was on the verge of exploding, and he could see that this big guy was building up to his own explosion. Any spark right now could trigger them, one against the other, and right now, on this one subject, they weren’t on opposite sides, and they couldn’t afford to destroy each other.
Stork was once again larger than life. “Then, when I was over in the guard’s dining room, they dragged the Doc out for dinner. I was just getting ready for the next dinner shift when I heard the noise. I didn’t get there soon enough, but he was still alive when I did! And he’s still alive today.”
“Sylvester…” began Stork. Nails realized he wasn’t being insulted, so he just waited. “…I gave you my word, and I let you down. I owe you one now, and I swear, I always pay my debts, too.”
“Clarence, if you feel that way, help me bust him out.” Stork looked as if he had been hit in the solar plexus. Once again, he seemed to deflate. But this time, there was a solid core in him that held up. He couldn’t pay his debt that way, and he regretted being unable to do so, but his duty had to come even before this debt.
He stood straight, and looked at Nails, eye to eye. He spoke slowly and deliberately, and chose his words carefully. “I’m sorry, Mr. McGoon, but there are some things I will never do, even to pay off a debt. I cannot, and will not, help a convicted man break out of prison, much less a man as dangerous as Clariss has been. And I cannot, and will not, turn a blind eye to any attempt you make to break him out. We are not now enemies, you and I. But if you return to your former life of crime, enemies we will be.”
Nails couldn’t believe it. In his own way, this guy was as nutty as the Doc. Nails had never met a man with such strong principles, who not only advocated them, but also stood on them. Rather, everyone he knew always went with the flow, sacrificing principles for profit without any thought at all. Nails grudgingly admired the man, and he realized that if his parents had possessed half of this man’s conviction, he himself might be an honest man today. He almost felt a longing, a regret for what could never be, but then he shook himself back to normal.
“So that’s how you got banged up? Whatta the ot’er guys look like?” he asked, from one tough guy to another.
Stork smiled sadly. “Some of ’em are still walking. A couple more are still in comas, according to the sawbones. I know it means they’re still out cold!” There was a little boast in those words, but just a little. Nails would have been crowing and laughing if he’d put those guys out like that.
“Two of ’em were stupid, and they went for the guards, trying to get their guns, but they ended up getting shot. That pretty much ended the party. One of ’em was plugged through the heart — croaked instantly. The other one got it in the spine, and he’ll never use his legs again.” Nails took some small satisfaction from this impressive damage report. Those creeps hadn’t gotten away free. And, he vowed, they weren’t done paying yet, either.
“And the Doc? What happened to the Doc?”
“Couple broken bones, in his arms and one leg. Puncture wounds to the chest, internal bleeding, a collapsed lung, concussion, and some broken ribs. But he’ll live, and they tell me he’ll heal. In fact, the doctors are amazed at how quick he’s getting better — they think it’s some kind of leftover from his super-speed powers.”
“If you can get me in to see him, Clarence, we’re even!”
The guard shook his head, still sad. “No can do. He was hurt too bad for the infirmary here, so they took him away somewhere else, and they ain’t told me where. If the prison doc wasn’t my friend, I wouldn’t have any news at all. I’m pretty sure they took him to a big city hospital, but I don’t know which one.” The prison was well away from all the major cities, but it wouldn’t take an ambulance too awfully long to get from the prison to any one of a half-dozen big cities, such as Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Opal City, Dover, or Annapolis. In fact, if he was stable enough, even New York, Metropolis, or Gotham City weren’t out of the question.
There was no reason for Nails to be here any longer, and just being in the prison building was giving him the creeps. “Thanks, Clarence. I see you done your best for the Doc. Far as I’m concerned, we’re even. I wouldn’t want a guy like you owin’ no favors to a guy like me. For a screw, you’re an OK guy. But we ain’t friends, and once I’m out dat front door dis time, you better count on me working the wrong side again. If dey bring the Doc back here, tell him I stopped to say hello, and tell him I’ll drop by again.” He opened the door to the small room, and then turned back. “Say, what about the Sarge and Smitty?”
“There’s no need for you to worry about them, Sylvester. I owe them, now, and I always pay my debts!” He bent wearily to pick up his cane. “I really hope I never see you here again. Don’t make me regret just watching you walk out of here.”
“I sure can’t make any promises, Clarence. See ya!” With the last word he turned and walked away.
Hopefully, Stork thought, out of my life forever.
Nails quickly headed back to Opal City and got his rescue team together. He sent them out to find out where Dr. Edward Clariss was being hospitalized. The Doc’s injuries could be a stroke of luck for Nails; it should be a lot easier to bust him out of a hospital than it would have been to get him out of the state penitentiary.
Nails McGoon’s rescue team located Dr. Edward Clariss in a hospital in Philadelphia in only two days. A young associate, Johnny “Priest” Madonne, showed intelligence and initiative by heading to Littleville, the town near the prison, and pretending to be a magazine reporter doing a story on the prison riot of last week. Several townsfolk remembered seeing an ambulance heading north out of town. Philadelphia was the nearest city in that general direction, so Priest headed there.
When he called Nails with the good news, Nails made a mental note to keep this guy close to him; the kid would help him look good. Clariss was in a teaching and research hospital, with a round-the-clock honor guard of two veteran cops. There was a shift change every four hours during the night. After that, it was easy.
Nails hired a couple of local working girls to go to Philadelphia with him. Once there, they dressed as nurses and distracted the guards, and Nails, dressed as a doctor, was able to pick the lock on Clariss’ room and spirit him out of the building in a wheelchair. When they were safely outside, Madonne, also dressed as a doctor, pretended to accidentally stumble into the room where the girls had lured the cops, which broke up that activity and allowed the girls to get out before anyone found out Clariss was missing.
The two cops returned to guard duty and were relieved to find that the door was still locked. When Clariss was discovered missing at the next shift change, the two agreed that somehow Clariss must have gotten his speed back, because they had been vigilant at his door during their entire shift, and no one had gone in or out. By that time, the only other witnesses who knew the real story were almost back to Opal City.
Boss Neuertski was skeptical of the crazy old man’s value to his organization, but he was very impressed with the planning and execution of this slick operation. If Edward Clariss was half as valuable as Nails promised, Nails would once again be an important lieutenant in the organization.
Nails drew thirty grand from the organization’s petty cash fund. During his lucid periods in prison, Clariss had outlined to Nails just what he would need to recreate his speed potion, and Nails now sent Priest out with orders to set up a chemistry lab for the Doc.
Clariss had insisted on specific manufacturers, including Elmer-Coleman and Fisher instruments, with chemicals and supplies from Perkin Scientific. Nothing less than the best would do. Priest Madonne located a laboratory distributor in downtown Opal City who had access to products from all three companies, and within two days, he had a laboratory fully equipped with brand-new, top-of-the-line equipment and supplies. He even had a few grand left over, which he kept for himself as a commission.
Nails quickly moved into a small apartment above the lab with the Doc, and the next time Clariss had a lucid period, Nails dragged him downstairs into the lab, and the Doc went right to work. He quickly made himself enough improved heavy water solution to cure his insanity. Of course, it also gave him temporary super-speed, but he didn’t want to try anything super until he was sure his bones were fully mended.
During his insanity, the personality that had appeared and befriended Nails during the Doc’s lucid periods was one whom he thought of as the kindly professor. Rather than being the real Edward Claris, however, the kindly professor was just another symptom of Clariss’ illness. Now that he was cured, the dominant personality was the man who had become the Rival Flash. Bitter at the ridicule he had endured at the hands of less talented, disbelieving peers — if he actually had peers, which he doubted — he was vain, ambitious, mean, sadistic, and very, very dangerous.
For the nonce, the Rival concealed himself and pretended to be the kindly professor. There was no doubt that he was the Rival, not Dr. Clariss, but he wanted more information about his current situation before he revealed himself. He soon decided he would take over the underworld in Opal City, starting with Boss Neuertski’s organization, and even in his vanity, he realized that he couldn’t do it himself. Should have started in a city without a hero before! he thought, knowing he shouldn’t have taken on the Flash until he was much better prepared. But there was no longer a resident hero in Opal City.
He realized that, due to his loyalty for the Boss, Nails McGoon would never side with him, so he would have to be the first to die. He thought he would probably make Priest Madonne his second-in-command, as he could see that that young man was intelligent and ruthless. And had no loyalties to anyone other than himself, which was just what the Rival would be counting on.
As he worked in the lab, making more of his improved speed potion, he also made a couple of other things. He made more of his original speed potion, using the contaminated formula that had caused his recent insanity. And he made some more of the slow gas he had used on the Flash during his last criminal escapade.
The Rival had followed Neuertski’s entanglement with John Ross carefully. He decided to make his move during Ross’ press conference.