“‘Beware the Thief of Years’?” Lieutenant Irwin of the Calvin City Police said, reading the paper. He stood with Doctor Mid-Nite, the Atom, Dean Chalmers, and Professor Doyle. Behind them, Irwin’s men carried the body of Turner away on a stretcher. “What is this, the curse of the pharaohs?”
“Hardly that,” Doyle corrected. “The tablet comes from South America, not Egypt.”
“Well, wherever it comes from,” Irwin said impatiently, “if you’re trying to suggest that a twenty-two-year-old man died of old age as the result of a clay tablet’s curse–!”
“Lieutenant, I’m not suggesting anything at this early stage of the case,” Doctor Mid-Nite said evenly. “However, I’m not eliminating any possibilities, either.”
“Possibilities?” Irwin repeated. “This isn’t a possibility, it’s a fantasy! It’s a plot from a bad pulp magazine story!”
“So are a crime-fighting ghost, a sorcerer who lives in an impenetrable tower, a reincarnated Egyptian prince, and a device the size and shape of a flashlight that draws power from the stars to work miracles,” the Atom pointed out. “And all of those are teammates of ours.”
“The Atom makes a strong point,” Doyle said. “What would have been dismissed as dime novel fantasy ten — five! — years ago, is everyday fact today.”
“Even so,” Irwin said, a little less strongly, “I’m not ready to accept a curse that ages people to death in seconds. I’ll wait for the forensics report to come back on Turner.”
“In the meantime,” Doctor Mid-Nite said to Chalmers, “I’d suggest keeping a lid on this, as much as possible. Alarming the students and faculty isn’t going to help the investigation any.”
The Atom chuckled at that. “Forgive me, Doc, but I guess it’s been a while since you were on a college campus.”
The mighty mite proved correct in his prediction. By the evening meal that day, the campus was buzzing with the news of the unexplained death of Nick Turner. Al Pratt ate with a group of friends in the campus dining hall, while Dr. McNider was a guest of Professor Doyle in the faculty lounge. Turner’s death was the hot topic of conversation in both areas.
At eleven-thirty that night, the Atom and Doctor Mid-Nite met behind the campus library to compare notes.
“It’s all the kids can talk about,” the Atom said. “You should hear some of the goofy names they’re calling it, too. Father Time Murder, Youth Killer, Methuselah Menace…”
“I kind of like that last one,” Mid-Nite commented. “It’s the chief topic among the faculty, too. Nobody knows what to make of it.”
“Well, there’s one common element among the students,” the Atom said. “Fear. Everybody’s scared, terrified they might be next.”
“Few things are more precious to the young than their youth,” Mid-Nite said, nodding. “What’s the prevailing theory among the students?”
“Like something out of a Gothic novel,” the Atom said. “That Turner disturbed the rest of some old spirit, or whatever, and this is his punishment.”
“Very Bram Stoker, all right,” Mid-Nite said, nodding.
The Atom did a double take. “I don’t recall anything like that in Dracula.”
“He also wrote Jewel of the Seven Stars,” Mid-Nite said. “I’ll lend you my copy after all this is over.”
“I think I’ll wait for the movie,” the Atom said.
“So the general consensus among the students,” Doctor Mid-Nite said, “is fear that they’ll be next?”
“For the most part,” the Atom said. “A few cool heads among the kids said that, if this is some kind of curse, only the ones who actually touched the tablet should be affected. That would leave out just about everyone else but poor Turner and Doyle.”
“And did that work?” Mid-Nite asked. “Calm everyone down, I mean?”
“Not really,” the Atom said. “Most of the kids seem to think the spirit, or whatever it is, might take its mad out on the whole school, that anybody could be next.”
“Hm. Well, we still don’t know for sure what happened to Turner,” Mid-Nite mused. “But that won’t matter in light of the rumors.”
“A lie can run around the world before the truth can get its track shoes on,” the Atom added. Just then, two campus security officers on bicycles whizzed past the library. They didn’t notice the two JSA comrades in the shadows of the building, but the heroes saw them.
“Speaking of running–!” the Atom cried, and took off after the bicycles.
Mid-Nite sprinted after the Atom; although the medical marvel was in excellent condition, it was all he could do to keep up with the young athlete. “Why are campus security on bicycles?” he asked.
“Gasoline rationing,” the Atom replied. Mid-Nite nodded; he should have thought of that.
The officers had stopped at the Banner Science Hall and were just dismounting their bicycles when the Atom and Doctor Mid-Nite reached them.
“Charlie, look!” one of the officers said. The other officer turned to see the JSA champions.
“Atom! Doctor Mid-Nite! I’d heard you were on campus, investigating this Methuselah Menace thing!”
“We’re not sure there is a thing to it yet,” Doctor Mid-Nite pointed out. “One unexplained death–”
“You’d better have a look inside, sir,” the first officer said. Silently, the four men entered the building. There they found a cleaning woman, a negro woman of late middle age, in a very flustered state.
“I saw him!” she shrieked. “I saw him an hour ago, workin’ in Doc Martin’s office! Workin’ away, listenin’ to the radio! He wished me good evenin’! Oh, Lord!”
“Calm down, ma’am,” Charlie said. “You saw who?”
“Pete Lennon!” the cleaning woman cried. “Doc Martin’s teachin’ assistant! He worked late in the Doc’s office a lot, gradin’ papers and suchlike! And now — now–” The woman burst into tears and covered her face with her hands.
Charlie the security officer gently led her away. The other officer pointed at an office door that was halfway open. Mid-Nite and Atom read the name Dr. Dell Martin on the frosted glass panel of the door. The sounds of music drifted out into the hallway from the office interior. The Atom heard the lyrics, “You leave Pennsylvania Station ’bout a quarter to four, read a magazine, and then you’re in Baltimore…” Doctor Mid-Nite led the way, gently pushing the door all the way open. A human skeleton was seated at the desk, slumped forward over the papers. The skeleton was wearing tan slacks, a white shirt, and a sweater bearing the Calvin College athletic letter.
“Fan out!” Mid-Nite cried, galvanized into action. “Whoever did this may still be in the building! Move!” In seconds, the Atom, Doctor Mid-Nite, and the two security guards were running off in different directions, fanning out to cover the entire science building. The Atom, who had been in this building many times before as a student, found the stairs leading to the basement level. Figuring that to be a likely place for an assailant to hide, he bolted down the stairs.
“Halt!” an authoritative voice barked out. The Atom skidded to a halt at the foot of the stairs and found himself facing a uniformed Marine with a rifle.
“Whoa!” the Atom cried, raising his hands. “Stand down, pal! I’m the Atom! Don’t you recognize me? Never seen me on the newsreels?”
“Anyone can wear a costume,” the Marine insisted, not lowering his rifle.
“I’ve got identification,” the Atom insisted. “Inside my belt. Can I get it?”
“Slow and steady,” the Marine said. Slowly, cautiously, the Atom reached inside his belt, withdrew his All-Star Squadron identity card, and handed it to the Marine. The officer looked at it, nodded once, lowered his rifle, and handed the card back.
“Sorry about that,” he said, all gruffness gone from his manner, “but we can’t be too careful these days.”
“I understand,” the Atom said, replacing his card. “What are you doing down here, anyway? What are you guarding — the boilers?”
The officer chuckled. “There’s some top-secret government work being done here,” he said. “I’m afraid I can’t say more than that.”
“I getcha,” Atom said. “Has anyone else been down here tonight, who shouldn’t be?”
“Nope,” the Marine said. “You’re the first one I’ve seen since I came on duty at six.”
“OK. Keep your eyes peeled, OK?”
“That’s my job.”
The Atom ascended the stairs; he found Doctor Mid-Nite waiting for him.
“We found nothing,” he said. “The security officers are calling Lieutenant Irwin. Anything in the basement?”
“Just a Marine who had me on the business end of a rifle,” the Atom said.
Doctor Mid-Nite did a double-take. “A Marine? What for?”
“Said he’s guarding some top-secret government work. I didn’t know anything about it until now.”
“Interesting,” Mid-Nite said, rubbing his chin. “Why don’t we make a phone call?”
Minutes later, Doctor Mid-Nite and the Atom were in the campus security office. The security chief had vacated the office to give themselves privacy. Mid-Nite was on the phone to Washington, D.C.
“Yes, this is Doctor Mid-Nite speaking,” he said. “Code name Apollo. I want to speak to someone about Calvin College.”
The Atom leaned on a desk, arms folded over his chest, listening. Apollo was a clever code-name for Doctor Mid-Nite. No enemy agent would expect a mystery-man who used darkness as a weapon to be code-named after the Greek god of the sun. The Atom’s code-name was Goliath.
Mid-Nite covered the receiver with his hand and spoke to Atom. “They’re connecting me with someone named General Klemper,” he said. Suddenly, Mid-Nite took his hand away and spoke back into the receiver. “General Klemper? Doctor Mid-Nite here. Yes, of the Justice Battalion. I’m at Calvin College now — yes, that’s in Connecticut. Right. That Calvin College. I’m investigating some bizarre happenings here, and I just learned there’s top secret government work being done here. That’s right. Well, I don’t know; as I said, I just learned of the government work. Well, it’s possible. I wonder if you could give me some insight as to — of course. Yes, I understand, General. Certainly, I’ll keep in touch. Yes. Thank you. Goodbye.”
Doctor Mid-Nite hung up the phone. “General Klemper is a bit of a talker,” he said.
“What’d he say?” the Atom asked.
“Well, he wouldn’t tell me anything about the project here,” Mid-Nite said. “He didn’t say so, but I think he figures that, if I were cleared to know about it, I’d have known about it already.”
“Beehive mentality,” the Atom said. “If you’re on the outside, they fight like hell to keep you outside. If they find you inside, they figure you must have been cleared by management.”
“Right,” Mid-Nite said. “But before the general reached that conclusion, he did let a name slip out.” Mid-Nite paused, perhaps for effect, and said, “The Manhattan Project.”