“This should be an ideal opportunity. The plane will be waiting to fly you back to Metropolis after the debate.”
“You’re not going to use one of those mind-probe things on me, are you?”
“No. The information you get from Garrick when you shake hands with him will be fresh in your mind. No doubt just letting you talk into a recorder for a few hours will be enough for me to find out all I ever wanted to know about the members of the Justice Society.”
Stan Gunderson looked around as he spoke on the telephone. “Look, boss, I got more people coming in here. I’d better hang up.”
“Very well. I’ll see you in a few hours.” The Ultra-Humanite hung up the phone and smiled.
Two hours later, Stan Gunderson was the first of several presidential hopefuls to enter the auditorium. As he walked in, there was a fair amount of applause from the back of the room. Through the information he had gleaned from the mind of the real Gunderson, Mimic knew this debate was a unique event. In most presidential campaigns, debates among candidates from different parties did not occur until after the nominating conventions were held in the summer. However, because of the chaos in the established parties created by the two unexplained broadcasts of the past few weeks, the leadership of the two major parties, as well as the upstart All-Star and Humanist parties, had agreed that it would be a good idea to get all the candidates together in an open forum before the people.
As the sole candidate of the Humanist Party, the newest of the four parties to be represented, Gunderson had entered first, to be followed by Jay Garrick of the All-Star Party. Gunderson reached the top of the steps to the stage and turned to face the entrance. Garrick was already starting down the aisle. All smiles and waving to the crowd, the hero-turned-candidate made his way to the stage and started up the steps. Gunderson extended his right hand in the traditional gesture of welcome and camaraderie. Garrick saw it and was responding when there were three lightning-quick flashes of red light from one of the windows near the back of the room. Gunderson had barely registered the flashes of light when he realized Garrick was stumbling on the steps.
“Man down!” yelled somebody from one of the Secret Service details. All around the auditorium, black-suited figures sprang into action. He reached to offer Garrick a hand up, even as three agents materialized as if out of thin air to shield Garrick’s prone form, and four more pressed around Gunderson. One of them pressed against his body, and Mimic felt the rush of knowledge and skills flowing into his body — sailing, cycling, tennis, and sports of which he had no knowledge or interest before, but now he knew he could perform any of them like an experienced pro.
There was chaos in the large room as several costumed figures appeared, seeking the source of the beams of light that had struck Garrick. Garrick himself seemed to be unharmed, though the shoulder of his suit coat was burned away. Two of the costumed figures, one of whom Gunderson recognized as Americommando, and the other a dark-haired woman in black and purple.
Americommando flew through the use of some type of jet pack or jet boots, heading up to the mezzanine that ran across the back of the auditorium. The woman shot a crossbow, the bolt trailing a line behind it. She swung up to the mezzanine, landing lightly on the railing, then springing toward an open window on the upper level. They both looked around and out the window, then shook their heads.
A short time later, Gunderson, Garrick, and the other candidates were briefed by Alex Holton, lead agent for Garrick’s security detail. “It looks as if someone tried to target Garrick with some type of laser or heat beam. Fortunately, their aim was none too good, and the beam only grazed him.”
“Beams,” stated Gunderson.
“What’s that, sir?”
“Beams. There were two of them, not one. About yea far apart,” he added, holding his hands about four inches apart to illustrate. “I think if you check the carpeting on the steps, you will see burn marks about that far apart.”
Another agent spoke up. “Weird. I saw burnt tracks that far apart once in Metropolis. It was from a time when Superman tried to use his heat-vision on some crook and missed.”
“But that’s not possible,” replied one of the Democratic candidates. “Superman would never do something like that.”
“Don’t be so sure, folks.” Heads turned as Marissa Trail, from the Gotham City Secret Service office, entered the room. “Even Superman has been known to have been taken over by magical or other forces. Or perhaps he has reasons of his own for trying to drive Mr. Garrick out of the race. He might feel that, as the best known and arguably the most powerful member of the JSA, he should be running for president instead of Jay.”
“Now hold on just a minute, here, Miss Trail.” Jay Garrick was out of his seat and leaning on the table. “I’ve known Superman for nearly forty-eight years, and he would never do something like that. Not in a million years!”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t,” replied Alex Holton with a sidelong glance at Marissa Trail. “However, until we know just who staged the attack on you tonight, we can’t rule anything out.”
“They’re kidding, right? I mean, Superman wouldn’t do something like that!”
Helena Bertinelli stretched out on the hotel bed, enjoying the feel of a real mattress after weeks of sleeping on the train. “Hard to figure what a person can do, Courtney. Even super-heroes have their flaws.”
Courtney Dugan turned her face away from the television where a reporter was signing off from outside the hall where the aborted debate was to take place. “You don’t much like costumed heroes, do you?”
“Blame it on my upbringing. Being a Mafia princess pretty much means you don’t care for cops of any kind, whether they wear a standard blue uniform or a fancy costume.”
“Mafia princess? But I thought you were Wildcat’s grandkid. That doesn’t make sense.”
“Neither does life. But it’s true; Wildcat is my grandfather, but neither of us knew it until two years ago. My father was kidnapped by one of my grandfather’s enemies, who gave up his career as the Yellow Wasp and returned to Chicago. My father grew up believing he was a Bertinelli by birth.” Helena’s eyes flashed darkly as she related the story. “It was only after the rest of the family was murdered that I found out the truth. And I used some of the Yellow Wasp’s old weapons to help me avenge the Bertinelli family as Nemesis.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Showcase: Nemesis: Beyond Redemption.]
“But what about your real grandparents? I’d think Wildcat would have tracked down his own son’s kidnapper, you know?”
Helena turned her head away and let it fall to the bed. “Yeah. You’d think so, wouldn’t you?”
Courtney switched off the television and went into the bathroom to prepare for bed. When she came out, Helena was sitting up in her bed, her back against the headboard, reading.
“Hey, look, kid, I’m sorry if I told you too much about my family. I sometimes forget that some kids get raised right, away from all the things I had to deal with. You don’t need to be hearing about the crooks and killers in my past.”
“S’ okay, Hel. It’s not like my family is all that pure, either.”
“What are you talking about? Your dad, he’s like Mr. All-American! Straight arrow, handsome, a super-hero. What’s he do, make you look at pictures of the crooks he captures?”
“No, Pat’s great, though he really doesn’t do much of the super-hero thing. But he’s not my father, he’s my stepdad.”
“Oh. I didn’t know.”
“Don’t worry about it. I never met my real father, and I think he’s in prison now.”
“Prison? For what?”
“Oh, the usual: attempted murder, grand larceny, conspiracy to take over the world, littering…” Helena and Courtney both started giggling.
“No, really! What’s the story on him?”
“My mom met him in college, when she was working on her Master’s in Engineering, and he was working on his MBA. He came from a rich family back east, and my mom was from a wealthy ranching family in Nebraska. They got married right after they graduated, and five months later, Mom discovered she was pregnant. She got home, and she was so excited she ran down the basement. That’s when she saw what he’d been doing with some of her designs.”
“Designs for what?”
“Weapons. Mom had gotten a job with a military contractor working on energy weapons research. Apparently, dear old Dad was hypnotizing her at night, and she was describing all her work. Instead of using his MBA to manage the big family company he had inherited, he was using it for organized crime, setting up his own little private army to take over Gotham City.”
“So what happened?”
“Mom left, never told him that she was pregnant, and took off for the West Coast. Settled in Seattle and raised me on her own.”
“And your father?”
“It took him a couple of years, but he finally got his Strike Force together and tried to take on the JSA. Got taken down by Wildcat, Huntress, and, weirdly enough, his own uncle, the Star-Spangled Kid.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “A Parting of the Ways,” All-Star Comics #70 (January-February 1978) and “The Deadliest Game in Town,” All-Star Comics #71 (March-April 1978).]
“Wait a minute — you mean your stepfather’s old partner?”
Courtney grinned. “That’s the one. My real father is Arthur Pemberton, AKA Number One of the Strike Force.”
Helena shook her head. “That’s just strange, kid. Really strange.”
“Oh, it gets better. Around the time he created the Strike Force, my father stole my stepdad’s patents for his jet-powered car, while representing himself as Pemberton Industries. My stepdad was crushed, because he thought his old partner had stabbed him in the back, and he didn’t speak to him for years. He was married at the time and had a son named Mike, my eleven-year-old kid stepbrother. Well, after his patents were stolen from him, my stepdad was in big trouble financially. His wife at the time — Mike’s mom — ended up leaving him at his lowest point. In order to keep his home and business, he agreed to build an jet-powered armored car for a Las Vegas gangster. But when he had second thoughts about it, that gangster ended up kidnapping my stepbrother to make him do it. (*) After the crook got caught, he named my father — who recently got out of jail — as the mastermind behind it; even though he’d stolen the patents years earlier, he’d lost control of Pemberton Industries and the patents with them, so he needed my stepdad to build him jet-powered getaway cars and the like. They were trying him in a court in Carson City, Nevada, and my mother decided to try to see him. That’s when she met Pat.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Aftermath and Prologue,” Infinity Inc. #11 (February, 1985).]
Helena tossed her book into the trash can. “Okay, that’s it. Stupid romance writers can’t come up with anything to top that one!”
“Oh, lemme check it out!” Courtney leaned over her bed to reach for the discarded novel. “Got any juicy stuff in it?”
Helena started laughing. “Oh, no, you don’t. Pat’s not going to come after me, saying I corrupted his little girl!” She reached up and switched off the lights. “Let’s get to sleep, kid.”
“Good night. And hey, kid. Thanks.”
“For making me laugh. Been a long time since I’ve just been able to laugh.”
“After last night’s scheduled debate was called off, speculation as to the cause has been rampant in political circles across the nation. Rumors of an assassination attempt on All-Star Party candidate Jay Garrick have been denied by all of the campaigns, but witnesses say Garrick appeared to have been struck by something just before his security detail surrounded him. We have only this brief bit of video footage of the incident.”
The handsome face of the news anchor was replaced by footage of the auditorium, with Jay Garrick approaching the stage. A brief flash of light, followed by pandemonium near the stage. The screen froze.
“Did you see that, Ted?”
“Nah, not really, Johnny.”
“Wait a sec — rewind the tape. 3X2(9YZ)4A!” Johnny Chambers felt the familiar rush, like adrenaline times a thousand, as his body was supercharged by the mystical speed formula discovered by his long-dead mentor, Professor Gill. He reached for the jog control on the tape deck. As the tape played again, he swiftly manipulated the dial. To the eyes of the older-looking man next to him, the scene stuttered. “Got it!”
“What is it, Johnny?”
“Laser fire, twin beams. From above the crowd. Easy enough to see when thirty frames a second looks like slow motion to you.”
“Just wait, kid. One of these days, that speed formula of yours is gonna give out, and you’ll start feeling your age.” Age had indeed been unkind to Theodore “Tubby” Watts, Johnny’s long-time professional partner and best friend. Their work on documentaries since the mid-1950s had provided him with the money to live comfortably, and he had been blessed with a good wife and a son who now served on the New York Police Department. But thirty years of the good life could not counter the effects of surviving on sidewalk cart hot dogs, hero sandwiches, and banana splits during his early career. At just over three-hundred pounds, the former cameraman looked much older than his sixty-five years. But, Johnny was always quick to point out, he was always ready for the next job, no matter what it took.
“You know, I’ve seen twin beams like that before,” Johnny mused. “But where — oh!” His handsome head perked up. “Oh, no, that’s just nuts!”
“Twin beams — not lasers. Heat-vision!”
“Heat-vision? You mean, like Superman?” Ted let out a laugh. “You’re right, Johnny, that is nuts!”
“Sure, but, jeez, that’s what it looks like.” Johnny stood up and took the tape of the newscast out of the video deck. “Do me a favor, will you? Finish the editing on the documentary about the Pope. I’m taking this to the JSA.”
“Thanks for meeting with me. You’re the only one on the detail that I really know, so I thought I’d run this by you first. I hope you don’t mind.”
In the smoking car of the All-Star Party’s campaign train, Plasticman leaned back in his chair and looked at the cigarette in his hand. “Not at all, Johnny,” said Marty O’Brien. “After all, you and Libby made sure my mother and I were taken care of after the war. You know, every night she said a prayer for the two of you.”
“It was the least we could do. Your Dad died a hero, and not knowing he had a child on the way.” Johnny opened a folder and laid it on the table between them. “This is a still shot taken from video footage of the debate. See this?” He pointed at two pencil-thin beams streaking across the picture. “I’m positive that’s heat-vision from Superman or another Kryptonian.”
Plas picked up the picture and looked at it closely. “Sure looks like it, don’t it? One of the other candidates was saying the same thing, and the burn marks on the floor all appear in pairs like this.”
“I’m worried. Superman has gone bad before, not through his own fault, but, well…” Plas nodded in agreement. “I spoke with Hawkman and Green Lantern this morning, and they agreed that the security detail here, while you’re all good at what you do, you’re not a match for Superman or another Kryptonian.”
“I can see that. So is the Justice Society going to replace us?”
“No, definitely not. That’s why I’m here by myself. We want you to be aware of the danger, is all. Hawkman and G.L. don’t want to butt in on this — it’s Jay’s campaign — but they’re also concerned that he won’t call for help if it’s needed.”
“Not his call, Johnny,” said Marty. “I’m NBI, but on this detail we’re all Secret Service. Standard operating procedure. The protected subject doesn’t call the shots: the lead agent does. If Alex Holton wants extra help with this, he calls for it, and Jay gets no choice in the matter.” Plasticman leaned forward, the cigarette balanced on fingers stretched to six inches long. “See, that time I spent in the Bureau was worth something.”
“I think Jay requested you as much for your experience in the NBI as he did for your powers, anyway.” Johnny plucked the cigarette out of Plasticman’s fingers. “What are you doing with this, anyway? I never took you to be a smoker.”
“Fifteen years. Right up until I got my powers back. Up here–” He tapped his head. “–I miss it, but my body doesn’t. Tried it once, and didn’t feel a thing for it, actually. Same with alcohol; no effect.”
“That a bad thing?”
“Nah, not really. Look, how much do you want me to say to the others about this conversation? So far, I’ve been keeping kinda quiet here. Most of them remember me — those that remember me at all — as a clown or sideshow attraction, and don’t know I’ve got several years in as a field agent. For now, at least, I want to keep it that way.”
“I’ll trust your judgement. Speaking of trust, what do you think of Holton?”
“Ain’t made up my mind about him. If he’s legit, he’s one of the best spooks I’ve seen. Called a couple of old buddies back at the NBI; nobody’s heard of him before, but he’s got a record that’s impressive as hell. Kind of a lone wolf.”
“So what’s a lone wolf doing as team leader?”
“That, my friend, is a very good question.”