“The Manhattan Project?” Atom repeated. “What the heck’s that?”
“I don’t know,” Doctor Mid-Nite replied, his brow furrowing with thought. “I’m guessing it’s something big, though. So big that General Klemper didn’t feel he could reveal it to us without proper clearance.”
“But we have top clearance from FDR himself!” the Atom protested.
“Exactly,” Mid-Nite said. “That just shows how big this thing must be.”
“I take your point,” the Atom said. “So you think this Methuselah Menace stuff is a hoax to get at the Project?”
“It could be,” Mid-Nite said. “A plot to scare away the students and faculty, make the college an easier target.”
“But how did they age Turner so fast?” the Atom said. “Even Doyle said the body looked just like him, only old.”
“I’ve got an angle I’m going to check on that,” Mid-Nite said. “First thing tomorrow.”
“No, we didn’t check fingerprints,” Irwin said as Doctor Mid-Nite stood in his office the next morning. “We thought of that angle, too. But we found out that young Turner had never had his fingerprints taken, so we’d have nothing to compare them to if we did lift fingerprints from the body.”
“I see,” Doctor Mid-Nite said. “Has the autopsy been completed?”
“It has,” Irwin said, reaching for a sheaf of papers. “Here’s the report. Coroner finds that the patient died of heart failure, and the body showed all the signs of the normal aging process. Puts the age at between eighty and ninety.”
“May I see the report, Lieutenant?” Mid-Nite asked.
“Certainly,” Irwin said, handing the papers over. “Don’t know what you think you’ll find, but be my guest.”
“Well, I hate to say anything as cliched as I’ll know when I find it,” Mid-Nite said, smiling as he took the report, “but I’ll know when I find it.”
Al Pratt stood in front of the bulletin board in the student center, reading the mimeographed noticed tacked up on the board:
ALL CLASSES CANCELED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE
He frowned; he knew what it meant. More than half the student body had announced the intention to leave the campus until the Methuselah Menace was stopped. Many of them had left already — a lot of the professors, too. Mass hysteria had taken hold at Calvin College. If Mid-Nite’s theory about the eventual goal of the Methuselah Menace were correct, it was working.
On a sudden hunch, Al went back to the Brendan Building. He wanted a closer look at the laboratory where Turner’s body had been found. The police had already been all over it, so there was no barrier to him. He stood in the lab alone, looking around him. He was sure there was something in there that wasn’t right. But what? Where? He had never been much of a detective; in his exploits as the Atom, he had preferred to let his fists do the work. But he was a student of science, and he would be a scientist himself. Science was based on observation. He had to observe. He pushed all other thoughts out of his head and concentrated on the room. His eyes did a gradual sweep across the laboratory from wall to wall.
There. What was that?
One wall of the laboratory, opposite the door, was taken up by a long worktable. The bottom of the table nearest the floor had sliding doors for storing chemicals and equipment. The laboratory had not been cleaned since the discovery of the body, so as not to disturb clues, but it was cleaned thoroughly every night before that. A clean environment was essential to the work done. So what was that smudge on the track of one of the sliding doors?
Al knelt in front of the door and slid it open. Empty. Nothing strange about that; in wartime, supplies were sometimes scarce. Al reached inside, feeling around. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for; like his friend and teammate, he was sure he’d know it when he found it.
Suddenly, he found it, and he knew it. A sly grin spread across his face.
At noon that day, Al Pratt carried his lunch tray to a table in the cafeteria where a couple of his friends were sitting.
“Hi, Dick, Vince,” Al said, sitting down. “Say, where’s Tom?”
“Packing,” Vince said. “He’s pulling out. Can’t say I blame him. I don’t want to end up old before my time!”
“God, me neither!” Dick shuddered. “I don’t want to be eligible for Social Security until 1987!”
“Well, I think the whole thing is a hoax,” Al said. “Some kind of publicity stunt, maybe.”
“Publicity stunt?” Dick repeated. “Al, this isn’t Aimee Semple MacPherson we’re talking about. Why am I telling you? You were there! You saw the body!”
“I saw a body,” Al corrected.
Before Dick could reply, there was a sudden whine from the public address system.
“Students of Calvin College,” Dean Chalmers’ voice boomed through the speakers. “I ask for your attention. I realize many of you are considering leaving the college until the recent unexplained phenomena have been settled.”
“‘Unexplained phenomena,'” Vince chuckled mirthlessly. “Easy for him to say; he’s already old.”
“I can’t say I blame you for your uneasiness,” Chalmers’ voice continued. “However, I ask you to reconsider. Dr. Charles McNider, a new member of our faculty in the medical department, has discovered evidence that conclusively proves that the so-called ‘Methuselah Menace’ is nothing more than a hoax, a fabrication.”
Dick and Vince glanced at Al in wide-eyed amazement. Al merely grinned.
“Dr. McNider,” Chalmers’ voice went on, “will be presenting his findings in an open meeting of the campus authorities tonight at seven o’clock. This meeting will be held in the Gilcaine Auditorium. All are welcome to attend to learn for themselves what Dr. McNider has learned. As dean of this fine institution, I urge everyone to postpone any plans of leaving Calvin College, at least until they have heard what Dr. McNider has to say.” Another whine announced the end of the broadcast.
Dick and Vince gaped at Al; Al merely reached for his french fried potatoes.
“Vince, would you pass the salt?” he asked.
Dr. McNider had, of course, been given Dr. Henshaw’s office until a permanent replacement for Henshaw could be found. This office had a window overlooking the small courtyard behind the medical building. The window was directly behind the desk; when the office occupant sat at the desk, the window was behind his head.
It was coming up on six o’clock that evening. Darkness had fallen over the college. At the window looking into Dr. Henshaw’s office, the top of a blond head could be seen over the back of the chair at the desk. It was at this head that a figure lurking in the darkened courtyard took careful aim with a hunting rifle. The sniper paused, lined up the blond head in his sights, and purposefully squeezed the trigger. The bullet crashed through the glass window, drilling straight and true into the blond head.
“I’ve seen enough,” a commanding voice boomed out. The sniper whirled in the direction of the voice and saw the powerful figure of Doctor Mid-Nite standing behind him. The masked gunman knew he wouldn’t have time to cock the rifle for another shot, so he swung it like a club. Mid-Nite dodged the swing easily. The gunman threw the rifle away and took off running. He looked over his shoulder to see if Doctor Mid-Nite were pursuing; he was not, instead just standing there. The fleeing sniper didn’t even see the powerful fist slam into his solar plexus; the force of his own forward run combined with the powerful arm behind the fist doubled him over and sent him sprawling along the grass.
“Good job, Atom,” Doctor Mid-Nite said, coming up to his teammate. The Atom merely nodded.
“Let’s see if my theory was right,” he said, reaching down. The gunman was conscious but curled up into a ball, holding his stomach with agony. The Atom wrenched the mask from his head, revealing a pain-grimaced face — the face of Nick Turner.
“How did you figure it all out?” Lieutenant Irwin asked ten minutes later, as Turner was handcuffed by the police.
“It was a sloppy job from the beginning,” Mid-Nite said. “He must have known it wouldn’t hold up long.”
“Just long enough for the hysteria to set in, though,” the Atom said.
“I compared the autopsy on the body we found with the record of Turner’s last physical examination at the college,” Mid-Nite said. “Young Turner, here, had his appendix removed five years ago; he still has the scar. No such scar was on the old body.”
“I looked around in the lab where the body was found,” the Atom added. “I found the back wall of a storage space cut out, leading into an empty supply closet next door. I figured Turner got the old body in and himself out that way.”
“And the skeleton?” Irwin asked.
“Turner most likely kidnapped the Lennon boy and dressed the skeleton in his clothes to fuel the hysteria,” Mid-Nite said.
“Now I have just one more question,” the Atom said, turning to the prisoner. “Why? Why’d you do it, Turner?”
The young man straightened his back, standing up straight and tall, and looked down his nose at the young hero. “Because my family name is not Turner. It is Turgenev. The illiterate morons at Ellis Island shortened it to Turner when we came to this country.”
Revelation beamed on Doctor Mid-Nite’s face. “I’m guessing that would be around 1917 or so?”
“Precisely!” Turner snapped. “My grandfather was a nobleman, a favorite in the court of Nicholas! But the godless Marxists would have murdered him like an animal had he not fled! It broke his spirit; he was never the same again!”
“Your grandfather — that would have been the body that was supposed to be yours?” the Atom asked.
“He would have been proud,” Turner said, “knowing he died for the cause — the noblest cause, to restore Mother Russia to her former glory!”
“Even if it means siding with the Nazis,” Mid-Nite said, “to get the Communists out?”
“There is an old Russian saying,” Turner said evenly. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Lieutenant Irwin took Turner away, leaving Doctor Mid-Nite and the Atom in the courtyard.
“Remind me,” Mid-Nite said, staring at the ruined window, “I owe the Red Cross training class a mannequin.”
“Check,” the Atom said. “I wonder who Turner was working for. He can’t have been acting independently. Most of the college didn’t even know anything was going on in the basement of the science building, let alone what was.”
“The authorities will get that information from him, if he’s wise enough to cooperate,” Mid-Nite said. “But from what I’ve seen of his national pride, I wouldn’t be surprised if he stayed in Leavenworth until he’s really as old as he wanted us to believe a curse made him, rather than talk.”
“Well,” the Atom said, shrugging. “At least the Manhattan Project is safe now.”
“Whatever it is,” Doctor Mid-Nite amended.
“Whatever it is,” the Atom agreed.