“Here we are, Doc,” the driver said as the taxicab pulled up in front of the hotel. “Eastern Star Hotel, just like you said.”
“Thank you,” Dr. Charles McNider said politely. Maintaining his pose of a blind man, he could not indicate that he could see for himself that they had arrived. He also could give no indication that he knew the driver had taken a quite circuitous route to the hotel, thus driving up the fare. He made a mental note of the cabbie’s name and license number, to report him later. The driver opened the door for Dr. McNider, and as he got out of the taxi, McNider saw a man coming toward him. It was a small man, almost as short as McNider’s friend Al Pratt, his face hidden by an enormous bristling beard.
“Dr. McNider, welcome,” the short man said, grasping McNider’s hand and pumping it. “I’m Skip Havelock; we spoke on the phone. Welcome to PulpFest ’76!”
“Thank you, Mr. Havelock,” McNider said. “I’m honored to be here.”
“Please, call me Skip,” Havelock said. “Come in, let’s get you settled in your room. The convention kicks off tonight at eight, with a short panel discussion on how you got started in the pulps. It’s going to be Murphy Anderson, Michael Avallone, and you. The dealer’s rooms will open tomorrow morning at nine.”
“Sounds thrilling,” McNider said, trying to keep irony out of his voice. This was the last time he made a Super Bowl bet with Ted Grant; the man’s judgment of things athletic was uncanny. Pulp magazine collectors, of all things.
As they walked through the hotel lobby, Havelock stopped walking and held McNider’s arm. Dr. McNider had to pretend he could not see the two-armed guards in Brink’s uniforms and the cloth-wrapped bundles they carried. The guards passed ahead of Havelock and McNider, and the two men began walking again after they had gone.
“Sorry about that, Doctor,” Havelock said. “The guards were taking the paintings to the hotel safe. Had to let them pass.”
“Paintings?” McNider asked. “I thought this was a gathering of pulp magazine collectors.”
“Oh, it is,” Havelock said. “Back then, the covers to the pulp magazines were usually painted before being reproduced as covers. And while most of the artists never got the acclaim they deserved, one or two of them did go on to commercial fame. Have you ever heard of Johanna Morado?”
Behind his smoked glasses, McNider’s eyebrows shot up. “Certainly. She’s a marvelous artist… I’m told,” he quickly added. He could not let on that he had actually seen Morado’s paintings himself, and been quite impressed with them. “She has hangings in the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan, and the Guggenheim, doesn’t she?”
“I see you’re an art buff,” Havelock smiled. “Yes, she went on to great fame in the art world. But she got her start doing covers for Uncanny Yarns forty years ago. And we’re lucky enough to have three of her originals on display here this weekend.”
McNider let that sink in: Morado originals. Perhaps he was going to enjoy this weekend after all.
“And naturally, I couldn’t continue as a doctor once I was blinded,” McNider said into the microphone on the table in front of him. He sat on a small stage in an auditorium-like room. Dozens of vintage magazine collectors filled the room. Many of them looked old enough to have read his stories when they first came out; others were much younger. McNider had tried to count the number of Doc Savage T-shirts in the audience, but had lost count. “I had always been a fan of detective stories, and tried my hand at writing them.”
“Did you have any assistance getting your first stories published?” asked Havelock, who was moderating the panel.
“Fortunately, I did,” McNider admitted. “An old college friend of mine, Lee Travis, had inherited his family publishing business. Mostly newspapers, but he did publish a few pulp magazines, including All-American Detective. Through him I got that magazine’s editor, August Black, to take a look at my work. He liked what he saw, and the rest is history.”
“I think we have a question from the audience — yes?” Havelock asked, pointing to a young man with a thick moustache and a Shadow T-shirt, who was raising his hand.
“Dr. McNider,” the young man asked, “didn’t you write the fictionalized adventures of Doctor Mid-Nite, the JSA member?”
“Some of them,” McNider answered. “Mid-Nite, like most of the JSA, licensed his image to publishing companies during World War II, with profits going to bond drives and other wartime charities. The publishers wanted to do the super-heroes as comic-book stories, rather than pulp text stories. As that is a more visual medium, I had some trouble with it and didn’t do all of the stories. But I did write the lion’s share, yes.”
“Dr. McNider,” another fan asked, “is it true that other pulp writers came to you for technical advice on medical issues?”
“Sometimes, a couple did,” McNider answered. “Most had other resources, but one or two whom I had met through our publishers did consult me on some matters.”
“Did Walter Gibson ever ask you for advice?” the fan continued. McNider quickly consulted his memory. Gibson? Gibson? This was as bad as medical school. Who the devil was Walter Gibson?
“That was excellent, Dr. McNider,” Havelock said, helping McNider down the stage steps. “Everyone loved it. I can’t remember when we’ve had such a popular guest!”
“You’re going to give me an ego,” McNider said, smiling.
“Most of us are going to the hotel bar to swap stories,” Havelock said. “You’re more than welcome to join us. We’d love to hear more about the transition from medicine to pulp writing!”
“Well, I–” Just then, McNider caught a glimpse of something white moving outside the auditorium window. It was a man garbed all in white, standing out starkly in the darkness; he was gone again before McNider could fully focus on him.
“I think I’d better beg off, tonight,” McNider apologized. “I’m still a little tired from the plane ride out here.”
“Of course. Tomorrow, perhaps,” Havelock said. “Shall I see you back to your room?”
“Thanks, but I can manage,” McNider said. “My apologies to the fans for deserting them.” McNider made his way to the elevator, affecting the halting, unsure steps of a blind man in a new environment. The instant the elevator doors closed, however, his figure became charged with grim determination.
Outside the hotel, the man in white skulked around the back of the building. In his gloved right hand he carried a strange-looking pistol; in his left, a piece of paper with marked drawings on it. He consulted the paper, then looked at the building before him, looked at the paper again, looked around him at his surroundings, looked again at the building. He then folded the paper up and slipped it into his belt. He then aimed his pistol at the brick wall before him and pulled the trigger.
A beam of bright white light issued forth from the pistol and licked the wall. Instantly, frost formed on the brick in the balmy August night. The frost was quickly replaced by ice. Clouds of water vapor rolled up from the wall as the supercooled air met the hot, humid summer air. The man in white smiled. This wouldn’t take long.
“Unless you’re the air-conditioner repairman, you’d better have a good explanation for this,” an arrogant voice behind the man in white boomed. Instinctively, the man’s head whirled around, and he regarded the sight with a snarl.
“Doctor Mid-Nite!” the Icicle spat. “In Ohio? Can’t I make a move without you costumed clowns dogging my every step?”
“I didn’t even know you were at large, Dr. Makent,” Mid-Nite said. “I thought you and the rest of the Injustice Society were still in jail, after that fiasco last year with that comic-book writer. (*) What happened?”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Where On Earth Am I?” Justice League of America #123 (October, 1975) and “Avenging Ghosts of the Justice Society,” Justice League of America #124 (November, 1975).]
“I got transferred to a prison I’d never been in before,” the Icicle said, smiling malevolently. “The warden, a progressive fellow, put me on work detail in the machine shop. Needless to say, the shop’s missing a wall now.” The Icicle turned fully around, ignoring the building for the present. His freeze-ray pistol leveled at Mid-Nite, surrounded by a cloud of vapor. “Good night, Doctor.”
Mid-Nite proved too agile for the Icicle. The freeze-ray struck the ground where the hero had been standing a moment ago. Before the Icicle could track his movements, Doctor Mid-Nite was right beside him, landing a right cross on the villain’s jaw. Mid-Nite had not counted on the villain’s insulated costume, which protected him from the effects of his own weapon; it cushioned his blow just enough that the Icicle could return it with one of his own. Mid-Nite stayed at close quarters with the Icicle, not giving him enough room to use his gun. They grappled for a few moments, and then the Icicle heard steps running toward them.
“Blast!” he snarled. “Our fight must have attracted attention!” Grinning wickedly, the Icicle slipped something tiny from his belt. It fell to the ground and shattered, releasing clouds of a light-blue gas. Doctor Mid-Nite instantly began shivering and convulsing with the cold.
“My newest weapon, Doctor, inspired by you,” the Icicle laughed through his insulated mask. “I call it my ‘chillout bomb.’ The vapor absorbs all heat in its path. Goodbye for now, Doctor. I hope we won’t cross paths again.” With that, the Icicle fled into the night.
Mid-Nite covered the visible part of his face with his cloak and stumbled out of the vapor cloud into the August night. The Icicle’s heat-absorbing gas dissipated quickly in the summer heat, and its effects wore off quickly. Doctor Mid-Nite was himself again just as the security personnel arrived. The Icicle, however, had gotten away clean.
“Doctor Mid-Nite!” the head security officer said. “Man, it’s really you! My dad saw you in action in the Pacific, back in ’42! Was that the Icicle you were fighting?”
“It was,” Doctor Mid-Nite confirmed. “He was using his freeze-ray beam on this wall here–” Mid-Nite indicated the wall with a sweep of his hand. “–presumably to render it brittle and break through. What’s on the other side of it?”
“This wall?” the security officer said. “Why — that’s the hotel vault!”
“I see,” Mid-Nite said, and his brow furrowed with thought. The hotel vault, where the Morado originals were kept before exhibition. Of course, any number of other valuables must also be in there.