Man-machine said, “You’re one of Night Wolf’s grandkids, right?”
Haley looked up at me for a second. When it was obvious I didn’t have any advice for her, she said, “Could be.”
“He didn’t fight fair either.”
“Fair?” Haley said, “You were blowing up innocent people’s cars with a laser cannon. When is that fair?”
“Forget about it,” Man-machine said. “You win. Just get me an ambulance. My chest hurts.”
We stepped away as the police surrounded him. Officer Van Kley read him his rights while Man-machine told the paramedics how to remove his armor.
I kept on watching him the whole time. By reputation, Man-machine would have slipped away by now, having hidden a mini-jetpack or smoke grenades inside his armor.
Instead he just looked old as they pulled the armor apart and lifted him onto a stretcher—just a gray-haired man wearing t-shirt and jeans.
The armor lay open on the ground. I wondered how long it would be before the FBI picked it up.
It got crowded after that. Now that the violence was over, the people in Lavender West came out to gawk. The journalists in News 10 rushed out the front door of the studio, cameramen in tow.
As Haley and I were being interviewed, I saw blur appear at the edge of the crowd. It turned into Jaclyn.
“Sorry,” I said, “I’ve got to talk to someone over here.”
The crowd opened to let her through.
“I am so sorry,” she said. “My dad caught me on the way out and wanted to know where I was going. It took a long time to get away. Where’s everyone else?”
“You’re the first one here,” I said.
Vaughn and Daniel flew in after that. Vaughn was in a black leather outfit that I can only describe as superhero bondage gear. Marcus flew in, having taken the form of a faceless, bat-winged man. Travis and Cassie arrived last—probably because they’d taken cars and parked two blocks away to avoid being identified.
I decided it was safe to conclude that this test of our alert system was completely unsuccessful.
By the next morning, it was all over the news. Man-machine turned out to be the secret identity of Gerald Cannon, owner of “G’s Auto Parts” a small chain. Apparently he’d been having a heart attack the entire time we’d been fighting.
It was his second. The first had happened in 1981, the year Man-machine had disappeared.
Gerald had survived the night, but was in Grand Lake University’s Hospital under guard and not allowed visitors.
I had time to read about it on a Tuesday morning because school had been closed for the day. Central High had received a bomb threat. The FBI was investigating it, but I had good reason to believe they weren’t investigating very hard.
I got a call on my cell phone at 6:30 AM, practically at the moment my alarm went off.
“Good morning, Nick. It’s Isaac Lim,” said the voice on the other end of the line.
His voice oozed cheerfulness.
I managed to get out a “Hi.”
He gave me an address. “Be there at 10:30 in the morning, fully dressed and ready for action. You’ll want to see this.”
“I have school,” I said.
“We’ve taken care of that.”
Four hours later I landed on a lawn in a subdivision just south of Grand Lake. The house I was in front of stood out for a number of reasons. First, it was a hundred year old, white painted, wooden farmhouse in a neighborhood of nearly identical, aluminum-sided McMansions with three car garages.
Second, because this house had ten cars and a semi-truck in front of it. Four of the cars were police cars. Most of the rest had government plates.
Third, because of the yellow “Police Line Do Not Cross” that held back more than twenty members of the media with their cameras, trucks, and satellite uplinks.
Isaac stood in the middle of the lawn and shook my hand almost immediately after I touched down. “Good to see you, Rocket. Follow me in.”
He turned and started toward the house’s front porch. “Don’t mind the civilians,” he said. ”They’re having a bad day.”
The inside felt comfortable, a place where needlepoint versions of Norman Rockwell paintings hung on the wall with pictures of grandchildren.
A grey haired, older woman sat in the living room in front of the TV. It was shut off. A red haired woman in a flannel shirt sat on the couch next to her, holding a cup of coffee. “Two teaspoons of sugar, Mom?”
We walked through without a word and stepped into the kitchen. A teenaged boy stood behind the counter eating a ham sandwich. He was watching a small TV that hung from the bottom of a cupboard. Over its tinny speaker, I could hear a voice say, “The Rocket just entered Cannon’s house.”
I knew him. His name was Chris Cannon and he was a sophomore. We’d both been on the school’s Science Olympiad team together last year.
I’d never felt more grateful for the helmet.
He watched us, saying nothing, as we opened the door to the basement and walked downstairs.
The basement was little more than concrete walls, a furnace, tools and a workbench. Cans of paint, two by fours, pipes, and plumbing fixtures lay next to the workbench. Evidently Man-machine was a bit of a do-it-yourselfer.
At the far end of the basement, a piece of the concrete wall swung outward. Had it been shut, I’d never have looked at it twice.
It opened up into a room three times the size and one that seemed oddly familiar to me. Man-machine used some of the same tools and machines as my grandfather. At least eight recognizable versions of Man-machine’s armor filled the space.
The older ones all had broken faceplates.
FBI personnel were everywhere in the room, documenting, photographing, investigating…
Isaac turned to me. “I think this may be the best moment of my career.”
One of the nearer agents, a short, dark-skinned man said, “Nah, just of your childhood, Isaac.”
Isaac laughed with them.
After a little while, he said, “You’ll want to take a look at this for sure. We’ll have to classify most of it, of course.”
He led me to the far end of the room. Newspaper clipping and photographs covered the wall. A few showed Man-machine with other villains, the products of short-lived teams set up to oppose the Heroes’ League.
Photographs of the Rocket covered the rest of the wall and overflowed around the corner to the next. The pictures went as far back as World War II up to this year.
Up to me.
Maps of the city hung on the wall, Grandpa’s patrol routes drawn on them and dated. Photographs of Grandpa’s armor had been enlarged nearly to full height. Each redesign’s picture was covered with scribbled speculations about weak points and improvements.
The speculations written about the redesign I wore were unnervingly close.
Not as unnerving as some of the pictures though. Starting in the late 1960’s the photographs included pictures of my grandfather even when he was out of costume and they continued past 1983 when the League disbanded and he retired.
I recognized pictures of my mom and her older brothers playing in the front yard of my grandparents’ house. I found a picture of myself as a toddler swinging on the porch swing with my grandfather.
I don’t remember hearing of him ever attacking Grandpa out of costume or kidnapping any of the kids. I can only guess that he would have thought that unfair.
I left after that. Told Isaac to let me know if he found anything important. Flew back to HQ, took off the armor and left it in the lab.
Then I sat on the porch swing for a while.
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Bio: Jim Zoetewey grew up in Holland, Michigan, near where L Frank Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz and other books in that series. Admittedly, Baum moved away more than sixty years before Jim was even born, but it's still kind of cool. Jim didn't attain his goal of never leaving school, but did prolong his stay as long as possible. He majored in religion and sociology at Hope College, gaining enough credits to obtain minors in ancient civilizations and creative writing—had he thought to submit applications to the relevant departments. He attended Western Theological Seminary for two years. He followed that up by getting a masters degree in sociology at Western Michigan University. Once out of school, he took up the most logical occupation for someone with his educational background: web developer and technical support. Simultaneously, he finished all but three credits of a masters in Information Systems, a degree that's actually relevant to his field. He's still not done. In the meantime, he's been writing stories about superheroes and posting them online at http://legionofnothing.com. He's still not sure whether that was a good idea, but continues to do it anyway. He's also not sure why he's writing this in the third person, but he's never seen an author bio written in first person and doesn't want to rock the boat.