It was a bleak evening in October as Dr. Charles McNider sat in his study, listening to the radio. America had been embroiled in World War Two for nearly a year now, and Dr. McNider was fully involved in the conflict in both of his identities. As Dr. McNider, he provided medical consultation to all branches of the Armed Services. As Doctor Mid-Nite, member of the Justice Society of America, he fought to keep America’s home front safe from the menaces conventional law enforcement were unequipped to deal with.
Dr. McNider was listening to a news broadcast; half-listening, really, as he pored over a paper on tropical diseases submitted by the U.S. Army for his consideration. As McNider pretended to be completely blind, the paper was in braille. McNider studied the report, with the news broadcast in the background. Suddenly, the broadcast had McNider’s full attention.
“Colonel Martin Cripps, chief medical officer at Fort Meade, Maryland, passed away in his sleep last night. Colonel Cripps served his country for forty years and is deeply mourned. General Whitlock, commander of Fort Meade, has stated that he will announce the new chief medical officer at a press conference Monday.”
McNider switched off the radio. Colonel Cripps, dead? He was an old family friend. He had gone to medical school with McNider’s father. McNider couldn’t believe he was gone. Passed away in his sleep? It didn’t seem likely. It had been some months since McNider had seen Cripps last, but he had seemed in excellent health. If there were some question about Cripps’ death, it would not have been in a regular news broadcast; the Army would be investigating it themselves, keeping it mum. McNider decided he would look into the situation the very next day.
“General Whitlock? Dr. Charles McNider here. I heard about Colonel Cripps.”
“Yes, tragic. He was a good man and an excellent physician. I’m truly saddened by his loss.”
“I don’t know if you’re aware, General, but the colonel was an old friend of mine. Went to medical school with my father. I wondered if there were anything I could do.”
“An old friend, was he? I didn’t know. Well, don’t worry, Dr. McNider, everything is being handled.”
“Handled? What, exactly, is there to handle?”
“Eh? Why — funeral arrangements and all that. You know. I’m certain you’ll be made aware of the particulars. I know you’ll want to attend. Er, please excuse me, Doctor. There is still a war on, and I have a lot on my plate today.”
“Yes, of course. Goodbye, General.”
Charles McNider frowned as he hung up the phone. The general had let it slip that something needed handling. So there were some loose ends connected to Colonel Cripps’ death. Well, if General Whitlock didn’t feel comfortable discussing them with Dr. Charles McNider, perhaps he would be more apt to confide in Doctor Mid-Nite.
“Yes, may I help — oh!” The WAC secretary gasped as she looked up and saw that the man standing before her desk was a famous member of the JSA, currently known as the Justice Battalion of America.
“I am Doctor Mid-Nite,” he told her. “I’d like to see General Whitlock, if he is available.”
“I — of course! Yes! One moment, please,” the star-struck WAC stammered, before pressing the button on her intercom. “General Whitlock, there’s a — I mean — Doctor Mid-Nite is here to see you!”
“Send him in,” the general said without hesitation or, apparently, surprise.
“Thank you,” Doctor Mid-Nite said, smiling at the WAC as he approached the door to General Whitlock’s office. When he opened it, however, Mid-Nite got a surprise as big as the WAC’s.
“You see, you’re the second mystery-man to pay me a visit today,” General Whitlock said to Doctor Mid-Nite. “At least you had the courtesy to use the door.”
“Hello, Doctor,” Batman said affably. “It’s been a while.”
“The last All-Star Squadron general meeting, I believe,” Doctor Mid-Nite said, recovering from the surprise. “I won’t bother to ask what brings you here, Batman; I suspect your reason is the same as mine.”
“Colonel Cripps,” General Whitlock said. “I don’t know what was in that radio broadcast to put you long-john boys on the trail, but frankly I can use the help.” Just then, the general’s phone rang. He picked it up, spoke his name into it, listened, then put it down. “Excuse me a moment, gentlemen. Duty calls. I’ll be right back.”
The general left his office, giving Batman and Doctor Mid-Nite freedom to speak.
“So what was it about Cripps’ death that seemed odd to you, Batman?” Doctor Mid-Nite asked.
“Nothing at first,” Batman admitted. “He’s an old friend of mine. My father went to medical school with him. But when I phoned to inquire about his death, General Whitlock’s dodgy attitude sent up a red flag.”
Doctor Mid-Nite gaped a bit. “Your father? Wait, was he Dr. Thomas Wayne?”
“Why, yes,” Batman said. “How did you know?”
“My father was in that medical class, too,” Doctor Mid-Nite said. “Matthew McNider.”
“McNider, of course!” Batman exclaimed. “And I never made the connection! Some world’s greatest detective I am!”
“Well, you had no reason to make a connection,” Mid-Nite said. “So what did General Whitlock tell you about Colonel Cripps?”
Batman’s expression became grim. “First of all, the Colonel’s death seemed to be from natural causes.”
Mid-Nite raised an eyebrow under his mask. “Seemed to be? Wasn’t there an autopsy done?”
“I’m coming to that,” Batman said. “Before an autopsy could be done, Cripps’ body was stolen from the base hospital.”
Mid-Nite did a double take. “Stolen? How? Why?”
“In that order: Yes, I don’t know, and I don’t know,” Batman quipped. “When his body was found in his bed, it was immediately taken to the morgue area of the base hospital. Two hours later, when the on-duty physician went to examine it, it was gone. Poof.”
“From a guarded military base? In wartime?”
“Perhaps they thought there were areas that required more intense guarding than a roomful of corpses,” Batman pointed out.
“I see what you mean,” Doctor Mid-Nite admitted. “Who would want to steal a corpse, though? This isn’t nineteenth-century London, for crying out loud.”
“No, I doubt Burke and Hare are behind it,” Batman said, extending the metaphor. “I suspect it’s someone who held a strong grudge against Cripps. So strong, mere death wasn’t enough.”
“You mean they took the body to — oh, that’s sick,” Mid-Nite commented.
“I agree,” Batman said. “How close were you to Cripps? Did he ever mention any enemies?”
“I wasn’t all that close to him,” Mid-Nite said. “He was just an old friend of my father’s. I hadn’t seen him in months.”
“Me neither,” Batman said. “The last time I saw him was in July at Dan Knowles’ funeral.”
“I remember,” Mid-Nite said. “He was another of Dad’s classmates. I missed the funeral because I was in Norway on a JSA mission. (*) I–”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Food for Starving Patriots,” All-Star Comics #14 (December, 1942-January, 1943).]
Silence fell on the general’s office for a moment. Doctor Mid-Nite broke it.
“Batman, are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“I probably am,” Batman said. “I’m thinking that two members of our fathers’ medical school class dying within three months of each other may be more than coincidence.”
“But Knowles’ body wasn’t stolen,” Mid-Nite pointed out. After a moment, he added, “Was it?”
“I wouldn’t have thought so,” Batman said. “Now, I’m not so sure. Tell you what: why don’t we split up? I’ll visit Knowles’ grave and make sure he sleeps with kings and councillors.”
“OK,” Mid-Nite said. “I’ll do some checking, find out what other members of the class are unaccounted for. Where and when shall we meet?”
“Do you know the Aragon Diner?” Batman asked. “I use it as a meeting-place sometimes. Informants, and such.”
“I think so; corner of Tenth and Orange?” Mid-Nite asked.
“That’s the one. Meet me there at eleven-thirty, in civilian clothes.”
Mid-Nite smiled. “Not at midnight?”
Batman returned the smile grimly, then shook Mid-Nite’s hand and left by the window. Doctor Mid-Nite walked out the door and, after granting the star-struck secretary an autograph, left the base.
At eleven-thirty on the dot, Dr. Charles McNider walked into the Aragon Diner. It was a small place, but clean. It seemed empty at the moment; apart from the counterman, a short squat fellow with very hairy forearms, the only other person in the place was a Chinaman in the uniform of a hospital porter, probably on his break from a late shift at the nearby hospital.
“What’ll it be, fella?” the counterman asked McNider.
McNider hadn’t planned on ordering, but who knew how long it would be until Batman arrived? “Well, let’s see. I guess I’ll have a glass of milk and a hamburger; no onions, please.”
“No such thing,” the counterman replied.
“I beg your pardon?” McNider asked, confused.
“No such thing,” the counterman repeated. “Hamburger is chopped steak with onions. Chopped steak without onions is salisbury. You want hamburger or salisbury?”
“Salisbury, please,” McNider said. The counterman nodded and turned away to make it.
“The peach pie is very good here,” McNider heard Batman’s familiar voice. He turned, but there was no one new in the diner. The only other patron was the Chinaman.
“Batman?” McNider whispered, staring at the Chinaman through his infrared glasses.
“Not so loud,” the supposed Chinaman whispered. “My disguise fooled you, eh?”
“I’ll say,” McNider said, impressed, as he walked over to Batman’s counter. “What’d you find?”
“An empty box,” Batman said. “The coffin buried in Dan Knowles’ grave is minus one corpus delicti. You?”
“Apart from Knowles and Cripps, there were three other men in our fathers’ medical class. Two of them died within the last six months.”
Batman nodded. “And the third?”
“Dr. Thornton Blake, Cincinnati, Ohio,” McNider said. “You know, Batman, I just had a very disturbing thought.”
“Well, if some grudge-holding madman is not only killing the members of our fathers’ medical school class but also stealing their bodies…” McNider wasn’t sure he wanted to finish his thought, but there was no turning back now. “…can we be sure our fathers’ bodies are in their graves?”
Through the disguise, McNider saw Batman’s eyes suddenly narrow. Batman did not move, but McNider heard a sound, something very much like metal bending.
“Batman? What do you say we head to Ohio? At this point it’s safe to assume Blake is either the one behind it, or the next victim.”
“I think a short plane ride would do us both a world of good,” Batman replied. Very slowly and deliberately, he lifted a spoonful of soup to his lips. McNider glanced at the ruined napkin dispenser.
Three hours later, the Batplane landed at a small airfield west of Cincinnati. Batman and Doctor Mid-Nite acquired a hangar for the specially built plane and commandeered a private car to drive to Dr. Blake’s home. They arrived just in time to see the body being loaded into a hearse bearing the legend Ashton Funeral Home.
“Well, that’s the last of them,” Mid-Nite said, watching the hearse pull away. “I guess I know what our next move is.”
“Right,” Batman said. “Stake out the funeral home, wait for any body-snatchers. I don’t mind telling you, Mid-Nite; I’m supposed to be the terrifying creature of the night, but this case is giving me the willies.”
“Me, too,” Mid-Nite admitted. “And I work with a ghost, a sorcerer, and a reincarnated Egyptian prince on a regular basis.”
Later that night, Ashton Funeral Home in downtown Cincinnati was dark and deserted. The owner and proprietor, Clark Ashton, had closed up and went home hours earlier. Cincinnati was not the bustling twenty-four-hour city that New York, Metropolis, and Gotham were; the streets were dark and virtually deserted. No one noticed five men in overcoats and slouch hats ambling furtively through the rear alleyways of the street, approaching the back entrance of Ashton Funeral Home.
No one, that is, except the caped figure perched atop the department store across the street. Doctor Mid-Nite huddled in the shadow of the rooftop entrance; in this deeper pocket of darkness, he was invisible to most eyes, although the nighttime street was as brightest day to him. He saw the five men approaching the funeral home, picked up a large walkie-talkie device, and spoke into it.
“Owl to Bat. Customers approaching by rear. Five. Almost at your door.”
“Roger, Owl,” Batman’s voice came through the walkie-talkie. “I’ll be ready for them.”
“Try to save me a couple,” Mid-Nite quipped. “I’ll be there in three minutes.”
It actually took Doctor Mid-Nite four minutes to leap from the third-story roof to the awning and from there to the street, run across the street, and dash into the funeral parlor. He fully expected to see Batman standing over the unconscious bodies of five intruders. What he saw was two intruders holding Batman by the arms while a third punched him in the stomach. To Batman’s credit, he barely winced as the blow struck. The other two intruders were hauling a corpse, presumably Blake’s, from its drawer.
“Hold it!” Mid-Nite shouted impulsively, and he quickly realized how stupid that was. He noticed that the intruders all wore full-face masks under their hats. He threw down a blackout bomb, and instantly the room was plunged into total darkness. The intruders stopped assaulting Batman, confused by the abrupt plunge into darkness. Batman took advantage of the confusion to twist free of their grasp.
Mid-Nite made for the one who had been hitting Batman and delivered a solid punch with all his strength behind it to the man’s temple. Mid-Nite figured these men must be very strong to get the upper hand of Batman. His punch connected with so much force, he felt the sting through his gloves. The intruder did not even flinch. He then lashed out with his right hand, striking blindly in the dark. Mid-Nite ducked the blow.
He saw Batman pick up a chair and lash out at one of the men with all his strength. The chair splintered against the man’s arm and shoulder; he did not even flinch. Mid-Nite briefly wondered how that was medically possible, before he joined the battle.
In minutes, the battle was over and the intruders gone. Batman and Doctor Mid-Nite lay in corners of the room, dazed and barely conscious.
Batman was the first to awaken, and he helped Doctor Mid-Nite to consciousness. The blackout bomb’s effects had long since cleared, and the room was dimly lit by the street lamps outside the window.
“My aching head,” Doctor Mid-Nite complained. “I may have sustained a mild concussion. Batman — what the devil were those things?”
“I don’t know,” Batman admitted. “I haven’t fought the likes of them since Hugo Strange’s monster-men. (*) I hit them as hard as I could, and they didn’t seem to feel a thing.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Batman #1 (Spring, 1940).]
“Hugo Strange? Do you think he’s behind this?”
“Doubtful; I watched him fall to his death,” Batman said. (*) “But we should be able to find out who is behind it very soon.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Batman, Detective Comics #46 (December, 1940).]
“What do you mean?”
“During the fight I managed to plant a radio tracker on one of them. It wasn’t hard; since they couldn’t feel a chair broken on their shoulders, they probably couldn’t feel an object the size of a package of cigarettes being slipped into their coat pocket, either.”
“What happens if they find the tracker before we find them?”
“We’ll just have to be ready for a trap, that’s all,” Batman said. “Say… what’s that on the floor?”
Doctor Mid-Nite looked where Batman was pointing and saw a small, shiny object lying in the dust.
“It looks like a ring,” Doctor Mid-Nite said, moving to pick it up. “They usually keep morgues pretty clean, so I doubt very much if it was here before. I’ll bet it came off one of the men during the fight.”
Mid-Nite showed it to Batman. He watched his friend suddenly stiffen and become very tense. Batman stared at the ring as if it were some sort of unholy sigil.
“Batman? What’s wrong?” Mid-Nite asked.
Batman was silent for a long moment, and when he finally spoke, it was in hushed, sepulchral tones. “That is my father’s wedding ring. He was buried with it.”