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Preview Purrfect Demons

The Mysteries of Max 65

Of Mischief and Mice

It was a dark and stormy night when our house was visited by a mouse, requiring our urgent assistance in a matter of life and death. The thing is that it’s not easy to garner sympathy for the plight of mice, who are not a popular species, so we had a hard time convincing Odelia to do something. But soon a special committee was formed to look deeper into the matter. Unfortunately the committee members were too busy battling their inner demons to bother with saving a colony of mice. And so in the end it was up to us to put our best paw forward and show them how things are done.

Chapter 1

The rumble of thunder hung in the air when Barry Spence decided to head into the office to finish an important presentation. He shouldn’t be out on a stormy night like this, and obviously it was a bad idea. But since he was a conscientious man and he hated disappointing his employer, he kissed his wife and kids goodnight and got into that car anyway.

Allison told him not to go, since the weather forecast said it was going to be a big one, but Barry being Barry he figured he’d get to the office, located on the other side of town, before the storm hit, and then he’d simply put in a couple of hours before heading home again. By that time the worst of the storm would be over, and at least he’d be able to sleep safe in the knowledge that he’d gotten a head start on the next week.

His wife had told him he was crazy, and she had also told him he was a workaholic and should probably see a shrink if he kept this up, lest he wanted to have a heart attack at age fifty and leave his wife a widow and his kids without a father. But he’d simply smiled at her, kissed the tip of her nose and told her he was invincible and he would never die.

Unfortunately the weather forecast had been off by about half an hour, and when Barry did indeed hit the road and passed the off-ramp, lightning struck a tree, a branch about as thick as Barry’s leg splintered off and hit his car, causing it to careen off the road at a high rate of speed. He crashed into the now limbless tree and was killed on impact.

Or at least that’s how it felt to him when his airbag blew up and he took the brunt of the impact. When he came to, firemen were working on the car, the Jaws of Life being used to prize open the door so they could get him out. A kindly-faced fireman told him to remain calm, and he would have told him he was calm. In fact he was about as calm as it gets. But before he could get the words out he lost consciousness once more.

The dream he had was a little bizarre. He was in a hospital being fussed over by a kindly nurse dressed in white, and when he asked her if she wanted to marry him, she laughed and told him to be good. “But I am good,” he told the nurse. “I’ve always been good, that’s the problem. I’ve probably been too good, which is why I’m in this mess right now.”

When he finally opened his eyes he felt as if he was crawling his way back to the surface after having been lying at the bottom of a very deep dark pit. The nurse standing next to him and fiddling with the machines that monitored his vital signs was exactly the same nurse he’d seen in his dream, and when he blinked and tried to speak, she smiled and said, “Glad to see you’re back, Mr. Spence. Now just rest and don’t try to talk. I’ll tell the doctor that you’re awake.”

He would have asked her if she was married, and if she was, was she his wife, but the fuzziness in his head finally subsided to such a degree he realized he must have been dreaming, and so he shut up with a touch of mortification, hoping he hadn’t actually spoken those words to this nurse, and lay back against the pillow awaiting the arrival of the doctor.

When he glanced down, he saw he was pretty banged up, surrounded by machines of all shapes and sizes, blinking and beeping away to their heart’s content. A bouquet of flowers stood on the bedside table and he wondered who had put it there since he couldn’t see a sign of a card.

Before long, the door to his room opened again and a man strode in with purposeful steps. This could only be the doctor, he determined immediately. At least the man looked exactly like what he imagined a doctor would look like, and wouldn’t have been out of place on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

“Mr. Spence,” said the man, his entire presence purveying a sense of importance and professionalism. “How are you feeling?”

“Groggy,” said Barry. “So what happened to me, Doc?”

“You don’t remember?” asked the doctor with a touch of concern.

“I…” He tried to think back, which gave him a shooting headache, but at least some blurred imagery from the accident came back to him. “I hit a tree,” he said finally. “They had to cut me out of my car.”

The doctor’s frown deepened. “It’s true that you were in a car accident,” he said briefly.

The nurse he had proposed to—at least in his dream—had returned to the room and stood quietly and attentively by while the doctor explained Barry’s predicament.

“So… how bad is it?” he asked as he touched his teeth with his tongue to ascertain if they were all still there.

“You broke a few bones and you took a pretty bad beating, so you can count yourself lucky to still be alive.”

And as the doctor rattled off the list of ramifications of the accident he’d been in, all Barry could think of was his wife and kids, and where they could possibly be. In the movies the moment the patient woke up after having been through hell and back, his wife and kids stormed into the room to throw themselves around the neck of their beloved relative. But in this case all he could see was this doctor and the nurse.

“So…” He swallowed with difficulty. “Where is my wife?”

Silence greeted him, and the doctor exchanged a look of concern with the nurse, who offered Barry the most compassionate look he’d ever been subjected to.

“My wife?” he repeated. “And the kids? Do they know what happened to me? Have they been told?”

“The thing is, Mr. Spence,” said the doctor after a pause, “that your wife was also in the same accident you were in, and so were your kids. You may not remember this, but they were in the car with you. And I’m afraid they didn’t make it.”

For a moment he simply stared at the man. “I don’t understand. I was alone in that car. I distinctly remember. I had to go into the office because I wanted to finish work on an important presentation and I thought I could head off the storm. Allison told me I shouldn’t go but I didn’t listen, which I now regret, of course. So you see, there’s no way she could have been in the car with me, since I was alone. It was just me.”

“You weren’t going into the office, Mr. Spence,” said the nurse now, adopting a kindly tone. “And you weren’t alone. Your family was in that car with you. So when your car went off the road…” She eyed him with compassion. “You were thrown from the car, which went into the lake.”

He stared at her, not comprehending. “I don’t understand what you’re saying,” he said. “It’s impossible. I’m telling you that I was going into the office.” He smiled weakly. “My wife calls me a workaholic, and even keeps telling me this habit of mine to put work before everything else will be the death of me one day. Well, I guess she was right. Almost.”

The doctor and the nurse had listened to this with stoic faces that nevertheless couldn’t hide their concern.

“I think you better rest now, Mr. Spence,” said the doctor. “It’s going to take you a while to get back on your feet, so you better take it easy.” He turned to the nurse, and gave her some instructions. For a moment Barry stopped listening, as he thought back to his wife’s face when she implored him not to go out into that storm. The memory didn’t jibe with what the doctor and that nurse were trying to tell him. Finally he tuned back in. “So… where is my wife?” he asked. “And when can I see her?”

At this point the nurse went a little pale and the doctor’s face turned into an impassive mask. Which is how he knew they were probably telling him the truth, hard as it was to believe. Frankly it was impossible. It simply couldn’t be. But as he thought about what had happened some more, he realized that his mind was playing tricks on him. And that maybe, just maybe, there was some truth to what these people were saying.

He still didn’t believe it, though. How could he? If he did, it meant his life was effectively over, and even if technically it wasn’t, the pain would be such that it might as well be. So he decided they were wrong. Allie simply hadn’t been told, or else she was visiting her parents and couldn’t be reached.

And as his mind flashed back to the day he and Allison got married, he closed his eyes and a smile curled his lips. It had been a sunny day, and his bride-to-be had been beautiful beyond anything he’d ever seen. So beautiful in fact that for perhaps the first time in his life he had wept like a baby.

He wept now, and wondered what his life was going to be like from now on. He couldn’t imagine it was going to look like anything much. One thing was for sure. Barry the workaholic husband and father was definitely a thing of the past.

Chapter 2

The streets were deserted and a heavy drizzle had turned them into a slick patch that made them all but impassable. Yet still one creature, in spite of everything, stirred as it stuck its nose from behind a car tire and peered out at the diffuse light distributed by a lone lamppost. The creature sniffed the wet air appreciatively, glanced left and right to ascertain whether its predators were safely hiding from the harsh conditions, and then ventured out from behind the safety of its hiding place. In one prolonged burst of speed it traversed the distance between the car and the lamppost, then up the pole until it had reached the safety of the top of the lamp, and triumphantly crowed with delight.

Not that it actually produced a sound, since that would have been tantamount to giving its enemies a clear indication of its position. The battle cry had been fully internalized, but the creature still pumped its little fist in a blatant gesture of defiance at a hostile world. As it glanced down at the pavement below, it was surprised suddenly to see a man standing there, his head covered with a cap and dressed in a yellow raincoat, collar up against the wind. At the foot of the man another creature sat, which could only be identified as a dog. The dog had lifted its hind leg and was doing its business against the lamppost, leaving a glistening puddle of moisture, before taking a tentative sniff and, satisfied it had done what it had ventured out to do, gave a soft woofle.

The man glanced down, growled something under his breath, and walked away, the dog happily prancing behind him, sniffing here and there as dogs do.

The creature lurking atop the lamppost wondered about the relationship between man and beast, and why the dog would voluntarily allow the man to put a leash on him and walk him around as if he owned him. Then again, the creature knew that the human-canine bond is a complicated one, and can only be plumbed to its fullest depth by an experienced professional of the human/canine mind. Freud, if he had lived, would probably be all over the study of this bond, as it might yield insight into the human psyche and what its urgent problems entailed.

The creature now settled on top of the lamppost, which was warm from the heat of the lamp, and quite comfortable, in spite of the drizzle that was still coming down in sheets of rain. And as it settled in for the duration, it fastened its beady little eyes on the house across the street, the real target of this expedition. The mission wasn’t without peril, but it was also necessary. For in that house the greatest cat detective that had ever lived resided. And if the creature wasn’t mistaken, events that would soon come to pass would demand the utmost of this investigator of crimes against the animal kingdom. It had a mission in mind for Max, as the feline sleuth’s name was, but before it could approach the famous detective, it first had to screw its courage to the sticking point. And to that purpose the creature half-closed its eyes and rehearsed once again the speech it was going to launch into once it stood before Max.

Lives depended on it. In fact the fate of an entire community was at stake. And it all came down to this furry little hero.

* * *

It had been quite a turbulent week, I must say. Grace had been sick with a toothache these last couple of days, so much so she had to see a doctor—which wasn’t difficult as her doctor lived right next door and was in fact her grandfather. Odelia had caught some bug and had been sick in bed with it, and then Chase had come down with the same bug just when Odelia was starting to feel a little better. But then I guess it’s often that way. These things seem to come together, and hit you when you’re reeling. The only ones who hadn’t caught any bug were the four of us: Max (that’s me), Dooley (my best friend), Harriet (our prissy Persian friend) and Brutus (Harriet’s butch black mate). Not that we were complacent about it, since we all know that when you start crowing that your health is as well as it has ever been, you come down with something and usually it’s something pretty nasty and debilitating. And since Vena the vet is just about our least favorite person in the world, the last thing we needed was to catch whatever bug was plaguing our humans and be forced to be subjected to Vena’s particular brand of torture.

And so we simply took a wait-and-see approach to these events as they unfolded and hoped and prayed for the best, as one does.

A bout of bad weather had hit Hampton Cove hard, and was whipping up the ocean and flagellating the streets and houses of our small town, so much so that we had actually refrained from venturing out of the house these past couple of days and had no plans to go out for as long as this storm kept hovering over the area like a miasma.

Most storms are of the ‘hit and run’ variety: they pop up out of the blue, do their worst, and pop off again, like thieves in the night. But this one seemed to enjoy our misery, and showed no signs of beating a hasty retreat. Instead it kept hanging around like an unwelcome visitor, eager to wreak as much havoc on Hampton Cove’s population as possible. Almost as if it had a mind of its own, which of course is ludicrous.

Still, as we glanced out of the window at the street outside, we could see neighbors taking their dogs for a walk with as much reluctance as they could muster.

“Why would dogs go out in this storm, Max?” asked Dooley. “Don’t they want to stay nice and warm inside like we do?”

“It’s their bladders,” Brutus ventured. “The dog itself, as a creature, wants to stay nice and warm, but its bladder prevents it from enjoying life. It keeps pushing the dog to go outside so it can relieve itself from the excess fluid against trees and lampposts. Just like Rufus is doing now.”

Rufus, the sheepdog belonging to our next-door neighbor Ted Trapper, didn’t even seem bothered all that much by the conditions to which he was being subjected. Contrary to his owner, there was an actual spring in his step as he raised his hind leg against a willing lamppost and did his business. Ted, on the other hand, seemed to hate every minute of it. But then that’s the price one pays when one becomes the proud owner of a dog: to head out in all manner of weather to accommodate your canine.

“If I were Ted I would teach Rufus how to use a litter box,” said Harriet. “Just saying. It would be so much more convenient.”

“It would definitely make his life a lot easier,” I agreed. “But the fact of the matter is that dogs don’t like litter boxes. And also, I don’t think they make litter boxes for dogs the size of Rufus. That thing would almost have to be as big as the doghouse that Ted built in his backyard.”

“So?” said Harriet. “There’s your solution right there. Ted should simply turn that doghouse into a litter box and all his problems would be solved. Rufus never uses that thing anyway, so it’s just a waste of space.”

She was right that Rufus hardly ever used the doghouse Ted had once constructed in a frenzy of activity. Rufus spent most of his time indoors, and when he did venture out he much preferred to prance around the backyard instead of exploring the limited space of his doghouse.

“Rufus is getting awfully wet,” said Dooley with a touch of concern lacing his voice. “If this keeps up he’s going to get sick.”

“It’s all of that hair,” said Brutus. “It soaks up so much water he’s going to look like a drowning victim soon.”

And as we watched, we saw that Rufus must have been well aware of this fact, for as he set paw for the cozy little home he shared with his humans, he shook himself, and caused Ted to cry out with annoyance.

“Will you cut that out!” our neighbor bellowed aggrievedly.

But of course that was a wholly shortsighted policy of him. For if Rufus did the same thing inside the house, it would look like a devastated area after a storm had passed through, with water soaking the floor, walls and ceiling.

Rufus passed in front of our house, and as he saw the four of us sitting on the windowsill and following his every move, he gave us a loud woofle in greeting. So we meowed a greeting in return, and Ted, noticing the attention we were awarding him and his charge, even went so far as to raise his hand at us.

Neighborliness. It’s an important part of life in a small town like Hampton Cove.

At that moment a lightning bolt slashed the air, and soon a crash of thunder rattled our bones.

“Yikes,” said Brutus. “The storm is right over our heads!”

“It sure sounds that way,” I agreed.

“Good that we’re inside,” said Harriet with a shiver.

“It’s not going to hit us, is it, Max?” asked Dooley, not at all happy about all of this violence. “The lightning, I mean? It’s not going to hit our house and burn it down, is it?”

“It won’t hit the house,” I assured my friend. “We’re not the highest point in the area, so if it does hit something, it will hit that.”

“What is the highest point in the area?” asked Harriet.

We all glanced at the lamppost in front of the house, and I wondered if that might be the highest point in the immediate vicinity of the house. And it was as I measured the lamppost with my eyes, trying to gauge its height relative to the surrounding houses, that I caught sight of something lurking on top of the thing. I could have been mistaken, of course, since it was very hard to make out, but there seemed to be some kind of bird or other creature up there.

“Do you guys see that?” I asked. “It’s almost as if there’s something on top of that lamppost.”

“Impossible,” said Brutus. “In this weather it would have to be crazy to venture outside.”

“I think Max is right,” said Harriet. “There is something on top of that lamppost. Though I can’t make out what it is.”

“Could be a bird,” I ventured.

“Or a rat,” Harriet offered.

“It’s probably a figment of your imagination,” Brutus scoffed. “Or simply a trick of the light.”

“Whatever it is, it should probably get down from there,” said Dooley. “Cause it’s not safe.”

As if to confirm his words, suddenly lightning struck again, only this time it actually did hit a solid object in the form of that lamppost!

Fireworks exploded, and as the electricity that runs through these things reacted to this sudden attack, all the lights on the street were suddenly doused and our surroundings were plunged into darkness.

“Oh, no!” said Dooley. “That poor creature!”

“It’s probably fried now,” Brutus grunted.

“I’m not so sure,” I said. For just before the lights went out, I thought I’d seen something being catapulted from the top of that lamppost and landing in our front yard. “I think it’s right…” I pointed to a spot in front of us. “There.”

And lo and behold, as we all looked, a small furry creature, illuminated by the light of the window, stood up, dusted itself off, and shook its tiny head.

“Is that…” said Dooley.

I nodded grimly. “A mouse,” I said.

“And a pretty tough one, too!” said Brutus.

Chapter 3

In spite of my earlier stated philosophy never to venture out into a raging storm—especially when your neighborhood has just suffered a massive blowout—we decided to see if that unfortunate mouse was all right. Now as a rule cats and mice don’t get along all that well. But at least in our corner of the world this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Case in point: once upon a time Harriet had been the victim of a mouse attack, and even she had never struck back at those mice in anger. To be fair, the mice had been in the majority at the time, and had even managed to momentarily render Harriet a spent force by locking her up.

Mice are cunning that way.

This mouse didn’t seem to be accompanied by any relatives at all, and so we figured we were probably going to be safe.

“Poor little thing,” said Dooley, who has always been a kind-hearted cat. “I hope it’s going to be all right, Max.”

“I hope so, too,” I said. I’d heard some stories about people being struck by lightning, and even though some of them had survived, it did give them quite a shock, and a lot of them were never the same again.

We hurried out of the pet flap, located in the kitchen door, then rounded the house and arrived just in time to see the mouse looking both discombobulated and confused, which was hardly surprising.

“How are you?” I asked therefore.

“Are you hurt?” asked Dooley.

“No, actually I’m fine,” said the mouse, and looked surprised.

“He’s fine,” said Brutus. “Let’s go back inside.”

“Maybe you think you’re fine, but in actual fact the real impact of what happened will hit you later,” said Dooley. “It’s often that way. Won’t you come inside for a minute? You can rest and get back on your feet.”

“That’s very kind of you, Dooley,” said the mouse.

For a moment it didn’t register, but then it did. “How do you know my name?” asked Dooley. Then his eyes widened. “Oh, no! That lightning strike has given you psychic powers! You can read my mind!”

“Don’t talk nonsense, Dooley,” Brutus grunted. “That kind of stuff doesn’t exist, except in fairy tales and Hollywood movies.” He eyed the mouse suspiciously. “What’s your angle, mouse? What’s your game?”

“No game,” the mouse assured us. “But it’s true that I have heard about you guys. But then who hasn’t? You’re pretty famous around these parts. Especially Max, of course, and his loyal sidekick Dooley.”

“And what about me?” asked Harriet eagerly. “Have you heard about me?”

“Of course,” said the mouse. “The beautiful and elegant Harriet. How could I not have heard of you? And then there’s Brutus, of course. The brave and strong Brutus.”

“The kid’s all right,” said Brutus, mollified.

I studied the mouse a little more closely, and saw that it had scorch marks on its back, and that its whiskers were burned off at the tips. But all in all it had survived that lightning bolt remarkably well.

“Must be the size,” said Dooley, as if reading my mind. “The smaller the size, the easier it is for a creature to survive a lightning strike unscathed. If it had happened to you, Max, you would have been a goner for sure.”

I didn’t know whether to take this as a good thing or a bad thing, so I simply nodded my acknowledgment.

“Let’s go inside,” I suggested, for I was gradually freezing my tushy off, and if there’s anything I dislike it’s being cold.

The mouse didn’t need to be told twice, and so it obediently followed us into the house, and parked itself near the radiator so it could warm its tiny carcass.

“You haven’t told us your name,” I said.

“Lucifer,” said the mouse, which struck me as quite ominous.

“Maybe that’s why you didn’t burn,” said Dooley, nodding. “With a name like that you’re used to being lit up.”

The mouse smiled an indulgent smile. “I didn’t choose the name. My dad did. We come from a long line of mice that like to live on the edge of society, you see, where life is lived in precarious circumstances.”

“So where do you live?” I asked.

“In a large factory where they used to make matches,” said Lucifer, which made a lot of sense. “I don’t know if you’ve heard of the place? It’s located near the mall. It was closed down probably thirty years ago.”

“Oh, that’s right,” I said. “The Lucifer Match Factory. Of course.”

Lucifer nodded as he warmed his tiny paws against the radiator, which was giving of its best. “It’s not a very nice place, I can tell you that. But since my family has lived there for generations, it’s the place we call home. In fact I’m probably the twelfth-generation Lucifer in my family, which tells you something about how long we’ve been out there.”

“So what brings you to this part of town?” I asked.

“Yeah, you’re far from home, young Lucifer,” said Brutus. “You must have walked for miles to get here.”

“I did, actually,” the little rodent confirmed. “And with only one goal in mind.” He turned a pair of hopeful eyes on me. “To speak to the one and only Max, hoping he would be able to lend a listening ear and provide me with a solution for my family’s most terrible predicament.”

I frowned. It isn’t every day that a mouse pays me a visit. “A solution for what?” I asked therefore.

The mouse paused and suddenly looked bashful. “I’ve climbed hills, I’ve crawled through sewers, I’ve scaled cars and traversed gardens and squares filled with every manner of menace. I’ve even been zapped by lightning. All this so I can ask you one question, oh great Max.”

“Shoot,” I said, starting to feel a little ill at ease. I’m not used to all this praise, you see. And I wasn’t entirely sure what to think of it.

The mouse closed his eyes and what was left of his whiskers trembled violently as his mind shot back to whatever question he was working himself up to ask.

“My family is in awful danger, Max. That old match factory is in the process of being sold to a consortium of investors who are going to tear it down and turn it into a new development. What these investors have in mind with the property, I don’t know, but what I do know is that the place where the Lucifer family has lived since the dawn of time will soon be destroyed. And so I beseech you, Max, to help us find a solution. If not…” He swallowed once or twice. “Life as we know it is over. Where are we going to live? What are we going to do? We’ll all die, Max!”

“You could always move to the mall,” Brutus suggested, earning himself a scathing look from the tiny mouse. “No, I mean it’s a great place, with plenty of food and plenty of space where your family can live. Okay, so maybe you’ll have to change your name to something other than Lucifer, but that’s not such a hardship, is it? You could call yourselves… the mall rats. Though maybe not,” he added belatedly.

“Or the mall mice?” Dooley suggested.

“See? Mall mice. Got a nice ring to it, wouldn’t you say?”

“It’s not that,” said Lucifer. “It’s just that… my family is very big, Brutus. There’s simply no way we’d ever fit into that measly mall.”

We all stared at the mouse. “So… how big is your family, exactly?” I asked finally.

“At last count?” He thought for a moment. “It’s hard to know for sure, of course, since the situation keeps evolving on a daily basis. But I’d say… about twenty, maybe?”

“Twenty? That’s not a lot,” said Brutus with a grin.

“Twenty million, Brutus,” Lucifer specified.

I think our jaws all dropped to the floor. “Twenty million mice!” Harriet cried. I noticed she’d gone a little pale beneath her fur. “But that’s awful! That’s just terrible!” But when Lucifer’s expression darkened, she hastened to add, “I mean it’s terrible that they’re destroying your home!”

“It is terrible,” Lucifer confirmed sadly. “Which is why I decided that I needed to find a solution and fast, too. My family doesn’t believe there’s anything we can do, you see. They’re pretty defeatist in their outlook. But I know that the great Max must be able to come up with something. Your reputation has spread all the way to our factory, Max, and so when I heard about the amazing feats of brilliance you’ve worked to perform, I decided to ask for your help.” He looked at me beseechingly now. “Can you do something, Max? Can you save us? Please tell me yes, you can.”

“Yeah, Max,” said Brutus with a grin. “Please save Lucifer’s family. They’re only twenty million strong, after all, and pretty soon now they’ll be out of house and home.”

“Oh, Max, you have to help Lucifer,” said Dooley. “Think hard, Max. Use that big brain of yours, please.”

The only one who hadn’t said anything was Harriet, and I turned to her now, hoping she had some brilliant idea or helpful comment to make. But instead she said, “I can’t even begin to imagine how much food you need to feed twenty million mice! And how much space you guys need!”

“Exactly,” said Lucifer. “Which is why I think the mall isn’t big enough for us. The Lucifer Match Factory is one of the biggest factories in the area, and since it was closed down has provided us with plenty of space. But now that it will be demolished, I don’t know what we’ll do.”

“You could always come and stay with us,” Dooley suggested. “I mean, it’s not as big as your factory, but we do have a basement.”

His comment was met with three looks of abject horror and one smile. The smile was Lucifer’s, and for a moment I was afraid he was going to accept Dooley’s crazy offer. But instead he said, “That’s very kind of you, Dooley, but this house simply isn’t big enough—even if you add in the basement.” He thought for a moment. “Unless you’ve got a very, very big basement that runs underneath these streets for miles and miles?”

“Nope,” said Brutus. “Just the regular-sized basement, I’m afraid.”

Lucifer shook his whiskered head. “Then I’m afraid it won’t do.”

“Oh,” said Dooley, much disappointed. “Okay, then I guess it’s up to Max to come up with a solution.”

Oh, boy. Talk about an impossible situation!

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