Jim stayed for a few more rounds of Collective vs. Core. He finished his beer, and one more after that, before citing work the next morning as reason to call it an early night. Chris assumed that Jim’s leaving had more to do with Chris’s continued sulking then it had to do with work. He didn’t mind that much. Without Jim there, Chris had time to think about his mood.
Not that he did. Chris instead finished the rest of the beer in the apartment, smoked two packs of cigarettes, and watched a Planet of the Apes marathon. By morning, he had no more idea what was bothering him than he’d had the night before. Chris had at least come to some conclusions on what wasn’t bothering him.
One of Chris’s main revelations was that he wasn’t upset that he’d quit the superhero lifestyle. It was true that seeing The Standard Man on television yesterday had seemingly started off his bad mood, and Chris had worried that he was feeling regret for not being out there with his old partner. He had even considered going out for a brief flight to clear his head. After some contemplation though, Chris found he had no urge to return to the superhero life.
Chris was mostly certain his sour mood had nothing to do with April, Leslie, or any other girl. He had dwelled on the thought for a good portion of the evening, but found no real ache of loneliness. Not that he wouldn’t welcome some female company, but Chris’s bachelorhood wasn’t life threatening yet.
The reason for his disposition was still elusive, and Chris decided to let it go for now. It was his day off, and it had been a long time since he’d visited Max; the original Noir. Chris showered away the stink of the night before, tossed on some clothes, and caught the first bus uptown.
Max’s old brownstone sat alone on a small plot of land. It had a great view of the large park, and had little in the way of neighbors. It was in a quiet part of the city, put aside for the lucky few that could pay for a quiet city lifestyle. Chris gave the expensive home a nod of approval before he buzzed the intercom. Max had retired in style; he deserved it.
“Come in, Kid,” a static coated voice commanded through the speaker. “I’ll meet you in the study.” Chris stepped inside the manor, and headed down the hall.
Max’s study reminded Chris of a library. The walls were lined with shelves, and the room was furnished with leather chairs, and low tables. Chris had been here many times in the past, and felt guilty that he hadn’t visited in a few months.
Sleuth the Crime Hound was sleeping in front of the fireplace when Chris entered the study. The old hound half opened an eye to Chris’s entrance, and didn’t bother getting up. He thumped his tail heavily against the hardwood floor and waited for Chris to come to him. Chris smiled, and mentally compared the aging hound dog to the monstrous wolf thing that they’d portrayed him to be in Collective vs. Core. Chris was petting Sleuth when he heard Max’s cane tap into the room behind him.
“Kid.” The old man acknowledged. “It’s nice to see you. Can I get you anything to drink?”
“Yes please,” Chris responded. He stroked Sleuth’s head once more before he stood. “A beer if you have one. I can get it though Max, I know where the kitchen is.”
Max waved off the notion. “It’s my house Kid,” he stated gruffly, “and you’re my guest. I can get you a damn beer.”
Chris looked about as he waited for Max to return. Max Noir, or Classic Noir, as many fans knew him, came from a much different time. Story had Max stopping crime along the docks as far back as the Forties. He was one of the founders of The Collective in the Fifties: with the original Scarlett Speedster, Nereid, and of course The Standard Man. Max was a member of the team as late as the Eighties, though mostly in a consulting position by then. When Chris had become Kid Standard, Max was still there as a mentor for many of the younger heroes.
Chris had admired Max when he was new to being Kid Standard, and still looked up to the old man. Max Noir: fighting for justice with nothing more than a dark suit, wide brimmed fedora and a wicked right hook. Even now Max was a fit man. His trim muscles strained to escape the jogging suit he was wearing. His white hair had only begun to thin along his forehead, and he looked much younger than he was.
Along the mantle piece, Max had a series of papers and awards: his lifetime membership to The Collective, and the statuette he was awarded when he saved the police commissioner. There was a series of framed newspaper clippings, and Sleuth’s Dog of the Year award. On the short table in the center of the room lived an old typewriter, and the manuscript for Max’s book.
When Max returned, he found Chris flipping through the pages. “You like it?”
Chris read the rest of the page he was on before he answered. “It’s pretty good,” he said. “History and Common Sense for Young Heroes?”
“It’s a working title. More a descriptive right now.” Max handed a beer over to Chris as he continued. “There’s more of them showing up every day; young kids with more power than they know what to do with. They need the advice, and they need the assistance.” Max waved at the sheets of paper on the table. “I’m trying to get that down while I’m still here.”
“Max, you’re not going anywhere,” Chris countered with a half smile.
Max sat down on a tall backed leather chair, and pointed his cane across the table at Chris. “Don’t get me wrong Kid, I’ll be here long enough to bury most of my generation, but I’m not immortal.” Max waved away Chris’s look of concern and continued. “Without any sort of guidance for these kids, things can get out of hand quickly. We both know what happens then.”
“The Nineties.” Chris gave a shudder. The Nineties was considered a dark time for most of the superhero community. It was a time where the term vigilante was used more then hero. The public cried for villains to be stopped permanently, and there was a surge of self proclaimed heroes willing to do just that. These ruthless vigilantes brought out a new level of violence in the villain community, many who rightfully felt that they were fighting for their lives whenever a battle broke out.
Everything changed in the early two thousands, while Chris was still Kid Standard. He and the members of Teen Justice had been battling Jonathan Godfrey, The Standard Man’s arch nemeses. As tended to happen, the team became separated. While the rest of Teen Justice battled against hired goons, Quiver: In The Black’s sidekick, ended up alone against Godfrey.
Chris was the first to reach Godfrey and Quiver. Godfrey had strangled Quiver to death with her own bowstring, nearly decapitating her. Godfrey had been standing over the body when Chris had flown in. Chris would find out later that Jonathan Godfrey had pumped himself with a chemical cocktail that would give him The Standard Man’s powers. The same chemicals had driven Godfrey temporarily insane.
Chris had attacked Godfrey with fists, with heat and with cold. In an epic battle, Chris had savaged Jonathan Godfrey, and had nearly killed the man. Chris was still certain he would have killed Godfrey, had The Standard Man not intervened.
Chris’s near murder of Godfrey made headlines. Godfrey’s lawyers villainised Chris’s actions, and the media turned on him and other heroes. Public opinion turned against vigilante actions, and all heroes found their actions under scrutiny.
In an attempt to clean house, The Collective began to heavily police its own. They made it clear that heroes who killed would be seen in the same light as villains. By two thousand and five, super powered life was back to the way it used to be: spandex heroes punched spandex villains and carried them to jail. Chris didn’t care though, he’d quit long before that.
Max watched Chris from across the table. He knew where the young man’s thoughts had gone. “It was a shame, the Nineties,” he commented. “Worse still that your generation tends to take the blame for the whole thing. It’s not like you kids were alone.” He swished the dregs around the bottom of his bottle. “Remember Standard’s costume back then?”
Chris choked on a mouthful of beer. “God, it was all belts and pouches. Remember his attempt to grow his hair long? The worst mullet this side of Texas.” Chris smiled, and let the darkness fade. “Marlene managed to convince us that the costume changes were a good idea.”
“Marlene?” Max shrugged his lack of knowledge at the name.
“Marlene Wheeler,” Chris said. “Our agent back then, and costume designer.” He thought on it for a second. “Could have been worse, I suppose. Look what she dressed Girl Standard in.” Chris shrugged. “Sorry,” he corrected, “Girl Power.”
Max shook his head. “She’s the one who dressed the Girl? Horrible costume, that was.”
“Lack of costume,” Chris replied.
Max waved off the comment like a bad smell. “Exactly. Who strips down a sixteen year old girl, then has her fly about town? Disgraceful.” Max shook the thought away. “Saw your cousin recently,” he told Chris. “She’s doing bodyguard work nowadays, for those who can afford her.”
Chris rolled his eyes. “She’s not my cousin.” He fought back a slight surge of jealousy. Carol had managed to find a way to profit from her powers, while his own uses were limited to bar tricks. “Speaking of family, have you heard from your sidekick lately?”
“Partner, were you to ask him.” Max smirked. “Tom visits here and there, but The Collective keeps him busy. I see you more than I see him. I suppose that’s fair, since he sees The Standard Man much more than you do.”
“Yeah, well, good for him,” Chris replied. He stood, and put his empty bottle down on a coaster. “Max, I should get going. I’ve still got work in the morning.”
Max stood as well. “You want to get it off your mind before you go, Kid?” Chris made a quizzical face at Max. “Something’s bugging you,” Max said, “and you’re looking to talk on it.”
“It’s nothing Max,” Chris started, “I’ve just been working out some things.” He told Max about the TV report he’d watched, and about his day at work. He told Max about April, and about hanging with Jim. Chris explained his mood, and his complete lack of idea where it was coming from.
Max listened to Chris. He waited a few polite moments before he commented. “Do you want to know what I think Kid? You’re second guessing your decisions. You trained with half of The Collective; they were your childhood friends.” Max paused. He watched Chris light a cigarette, and pushed a marble ashtray across the table. “Now, all your friends have made something of themselves. They’re heroes, like you wanted to be back then.” Max pointed at Chris. “You, on the other hand, work at a coffee shop for a little more than minimum wage.”
Chris tried not to look upset. “Harsh,” he admitted.
“Didn’t say I agree with it, Kid,” Max replied. “You may not want the things your old friends have, but that doesn’t mean you don’t notice that you don’t have them. It’s human nature to notice what we don’t have before we notice what we do have.”
Max opened a small wooden box hidden under the table, and pulled out a slim cigar. It was a pleasure he didn’t allow himself all that often, and was a sign that Chris would be here for a while. Chris butted out his cigarette, and took a cigar from the offered box.
“It’s not like you need for anything Kid,” Max continued. “You don’t need to eat or sleep. Hell if I remember right, you don’t even need to breathe if you don’t feel like it.” Max went on. “Your job, and the pay, is more than adequate for your almost non existent needs. But it doesn’t change the want for creature comforts.” Max pointed his cigar at Chris. “And it doesn’t change the constant fight to keep with the Jones’. You want to be as successful as the people you grew up with. It happens to all of us at one point or another.”
“Wait.” Chris took a drag from the cigar. “Are you suggesting that I’m just suffering a mid life crisis?”
Max grinned. “I wasn’t suggesting anything.”
“But,” Chris objected, “I’m only twenty-eight.”
“So?” Max took a small puff from his cigar before elaborating. “Your friends are successful now, and you really noticed it yesterday. Back in my day, people waited until they were forty to consider mistakes. These days, you kids don’t have the patience to wait for mid life to have your crisis.”
Max opened his mouth to add to the point, but was interrupted by an indignant bark from Sleuth. “Oh for the love of…” Max held up the cigar. “He hates these things.” Max glared at the hound. “We’ll go out front to smoke, OK?” Sleuth put his head down, and vibrated his jowls with a loud harrumph.
“He’s like an old woman sometimes,” Max commented. “An old woman,” he repeated for Sleuth. Max sliced the heaters off both cigars, and left the burning ends in the ashtray despite the noise of protest from Sleuth.
“If it’s any consolation Kid,” Max commented as they stepped outside, “I’m impressed with your willpower.” Max struck a wooden match along the bottom of his boot, and relit his cigar before he continued. “The super hero lifestyle is like a drug,” he said. “Hell, if I were still capable, I’d still be out there in uniform. There’s something therapeutic about tossing on a ridiculous costume, and punching bad guys. Despite what anyone will tell you about the feel good of doing good, it’s about control. In costume, you can change the world into something that makes sense.”
Max pointed at Chris. “You walked away from it all, and never looked back. You may well be one of the most powerful people on the planet Kid, and you’ve managed to stick to your guns, not use that power.”
Chris shrugged. “It’s not that big a deal. I use my powers all the time, just not in a big way.” He thought on all of his little tricks, and shrugged again. “I’m hardly the most powerful person on the planet. I doubt I rank top ten.”
“Don’t sell yourself short Kid. You’re much more powerful than The Standard Man was at your age,” Max added. “I should know, I was there.”
Chris puffed on his cigar. “This isn’t about to become a great responsibility speech is it?”
“Oh, heaven forbid.” Max chuckled tobacco smoke. “You wanted some insight into what’s been bothering you, and I’ve given you just that. Take it as you will Kid.”
Chris nodded his thanks. They both smoked in silence for a few minutes before Max spoke again. “Before you get a chance to run off Kid I had a favor to ask of you.” Max flicked the butt of his cigar to the road. “The Standard Man said he’d do the prologue for my book, when it’s done, and I wanted to know if you’d do the epilogue.”
Chris stood stunned, and Max mistook the silence as cautious consideration. “It’d only need to be a paragraph or two.” Max suggested. “Its just that you are one of the finest examples of who the book is for. it would look pretty good too. You know, the old guard starting it off, and the next generation finishing it up.”
“I’d love to Max,” Chris assured him. “I’d be honored.”
There was an awkward silence, broken conveniently by Chris’s cell phone. Chris mouthed a quick apology as he answered it. Chris managed to get a hello in, before being cut off by the caller. He opened his mouth on the odd occasion, but didn’t get a word in. Chris’s face crumpled at the news. He finally nodded, and hung up his phone without so much as a goodbye.
“Max,” Chris began, features twisted between anger and confusion, “I’ve got to go.”
“Kid, are you OK?”
“That was Jim,” Chris answered in a near whisper. “He was making sure I hadn’t done anything crazy, since Jonathan Godfrey was released from prison today.” Chris could feel energy building hot behind his retinas, and was certain that his eyes were flared bright red. “Jonathan Godfrey was released today.”
“I know,” Max admitted. “It’s been on the news all day.”
Chris felt betrayed. “You knew?” He calmed himself as much as he could “I need to go Max.”
Max nodded curtly. The gesture was missed, as Chris took flew into the sky for the first time in years. Without a look back, Chris vanished through the clouds.