In the early morning hours, Paul Brickman started out on his morning run. For seven years he had followed the same routine: Wake up at 4:30 A.M., drink down sixteen ounces of a concoction of eggs, vitamins, carrot juice, and powdered protein, then run five miles. Following that, a shower, a light breakfast, then a short drive to Camp Pendleton, where he spent his days training a new generation of Marines in the use of sophisticated electronic communications equipment. Fifteen years in the Corps had taught him the benefits of off-base housing, including the ability to exercise in relative peace.
This morning would not end so peacefully.
The last stretch of his run was a straight shot, seven blocks down his street. The flat terrain gave him a long view, and in the early morning light he spied the car pulling into a driveway from four blocks away.
“Jeez, who’s getting in at this hour?” he asked himself as he pushed to keep up his pace for the last quarter mile. He saw two people get out of the car, carrying something up a driveway to one of the houses. He was only a block away when they came back to the car and pulled out again, and he realized that it had been in his own driveway. “What the hell?”
Paul stepped up the pace and closed the distance quickly. He barely noticed the young face looking out of the window in the house across the street as he ran right up into his driveway instead of taking his usual cool-down walk around the house. The side door was slightly ajar. The trained instincts of a warrior kicked in, and he slowly approached the door from one side. Lashing out quickly, he kicked the door open as he rolled across the opening. Nobody was standing in the garage, he could tell from the quick look he got through the door. Stepping cautiously inside, he quickly cast his eyes over the other entrances to the garage.
The big overhead door wouldn’t be an issue. His motorcycle was pushed to the back of the garage, which was otherwise empty. He had never been one for lawn work or other activities, so he had a service to take care of his yard. The only things normally in the garage were his cycle and his car, and Captain Johnson had borrowed his Oldsmobile Cutlass for a few days. The door that led to the backyard was still closed, and he could see that the lock was engaged. The door into the house was also closed, but the screen door was not closed fully. He had meant to plane the side of it down so it wouldn’t stick, but for now, it let him know where the intruders had gone.
The only sign of any activity in the kitchen since he had left was one of the chairs: it had been bumped and moved about six inches. It was turned at an odd angle, as if something had caught on the top of the chair’s back as it went by. It told Paul where the strangers had gone.
The only thing past the table in that direction was an oversized pantry closet. Paul Brickman paused just long enough to grab his service revolver from its place in a locked kitchen cabinet before checking the pantry. The door was securely closed, so he stood to one side and slowly turned the knob. Hearing the faint click as the latch cleared the strike plate, he quickly pulled the door open, then returned that hand to join the other in a regulation grip on the pistol.
“Oh, jeez. Oh, jeez,” he said, lowering the gun as he watched the lifeless body of Captain Mary-Ann Johnson collapse onto the floor, two clearly visible bullet wounds in her back.
Terry Newcomb watched with wide-eyed fascination as first an ambulance, then a pair of police cars, and finally a black, unmarked car pulled up in front of Lieutenant Brickman’s house. The twelve-year-old watched as the ambulance attendants brought out a stretcher with a sheet draped over the body upon it. She had seen enough police shows to know that this meant the person was dead. What she couldn’t figure out was what a dead person was doing in the lieutenant’s house.
As she watched the ambulance pull away, she felt a hand on her shoulder. “What’s going on, pumpkin?” She turned and looked up at her father.
“Somebody died at Lieutenant Brickman’s house, Dad.”
“Oh, my God. I’ve got to find out what happened to him! You stay here, OK?”
“I will, Daddy, but I don’t think it was the lieutenant,” she said, even though her father was already out the door.
Paul Brickman was still in a daze when he finally saw a familiar face. “Lance! Thank God you’re here!” he said as Captain Lance Newcomb came into the living room, holding his military I.D. in his hand.
“You’re all right, Paul? What happened?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out, Captain.” This from a man in the uniform of Camp Pendleton’s military police. “I’m Lieutenant Mark Rivalto. Lieutenant Brickman, here, called to report a murder, and the local officers called the base when they realized it was one of ours.”
“Who was it?” asked the captain.
“Captain Smith, sir. Director of the Electronics Training Command.”
“Yes, I know her. How did she die?”
Rivalto pointed at a bag on the coffee table. In it was a standard-issue pistol. “Shot twice in the back. Looks like we have the weapon here.”
Lance turned to Paul. “Did you do it, Paul?”
“I swear to you, Captain, I didn’t kill her!” Paul replied. “We were friends. Just yesterday I let her borrow my car while hers is in the shop.”
“That would be a ’78 or ’79 Cutlass?” asked Lieutenant Rivalto, looking out the front window to the driveway.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“So, I take it she spent the night, or did she come here this morning?” asked the military policeman, making notes in a small notebook as he spoke.
“Huh? Neither. The last time I saw Captain Smith was when I left the base yesterday afternoon.” Paul turned to Lance. “Remember, I rode home with you.”
“That’s right, you did. I dropped you off here, then Karen, Terry, and I went to the beach for a couple of hours.”
“Well, the car is here now,” said Rivalto, pointing outside with his pen. Paul Brickman stood and went to the window. There, in the driveway that had been empty when he returned from his morning run, sat his car, along with Rivalto’s unmarked black Chevy.
Back in the Newcomb house, Terry had gotten the newspaper from the front porch and was looking through it when her mother came into the kitchen.
“You’re up early, sweetie. What’s up?”
“Something’s going on over at Lieutenant Brickman’s house. Daddy went over to find out what happened.” Young Terry looked up at her mother. “Can we go to Bayside Mall today?”
Karen Newcomb considered the idea. “I don’t see why not. Any particular reason?”
“Not really,” replied Terry, as she closed the newspaper on the full-page ad announcing an appearance by JSA member the Huntress at Bayside Mall that afternoon.
Helena Wayne looked out over the crowd gathered in the main court of Bayside Mall. Note to self: give Wildcat a good swift kick for suggesting this when I see him again, she thought. It had been the bare-knuckled crime-fighter’s idea for the assorted JSA members to make more public appearances, and when Helena was scheduled to travel to San Diego to get a deposition on a legal case, he had set up a pair of meet-and-greet sessions for her alter ego.
The organizers had asked her to make a splashy entrance, so now, at the stroke of noon, the Huntress leaped from her previously unnoticed position on one of the girders above the court, somersaulted three times in the air, snagged the thin line that she had positioned earlier, then swung in a wide arc over the gathered crowd. Releasing the line, she sailed over them and turned one more somersault before landing on the small stage in front of the entrance to the P.J. Camy department store.
As the crowd erupted in applause, the Huntress straightened out her cape and walked up to the microphone at the front of the stage. “Thank you, thank you so much for the warm welcome.” She wiped the back of one hand across her forehead. “Of course, here in Southern California, I suppose everything is warm.” The crowd groaned loudly at that. “OK, I know, I know, leave the jokes to the professionals. That’s what I’d like to speak to you about.”
That got her some puzzled looks from the front of the crowd, but she continued. “Many people look up to the Justice Society of America as an inspiration, as examples of what the best among us can do, can become. Many of us in the JSA are normal people not all that different from any of you. Some people take that to mean that anybody can put on a costume and go chasing after criminals. There have been reports lately of people trying to stop robberies on their own, of people charging into burning buildings with no knowledge of what they were doing.
“While it makes me proud to know that there are so many people who put the welfare of others above their own safety, these activities are far too dangerous for most people. Costumed heroes like Red Robin, Wildcat, and myself, we all trained for many years before putting on a mask. Police officers, firefighters, and the military, they are trained to deal with emergencies in ways that most people cannot even imagine. Don’t add to their burden by putting yourself at risk in an emergency, but stand by to help them if needed, and please, please do all you can to prevent the emergencies that require them in the first place.”
Again, the applause thundered in the enclosed space as the Huntress reached up to brush a stray lock of ebony hair from her face. For the next forty-five minutes, she allowed people to ask their questions and answered them as best she could. After that, she moved to a table that had been set up by the mall management where she could sign autographs. Dozens of people stood in line, some with photos that had also been provided by the mall, and some with autograph books or stuffed animals. One woman tearfully presented the Huntress with a bouquet of roses, explaining that the heroine had captured the killer of the woman’s brother in Gotham City a few years earlier.
Throughout the signing, Helena noticed one young girl who kept letting others go ahead of her in the line. At first, she thought the dark-haired girl was shy and trying to postpone the moment when she would meet a famous person. However, the girl’s expression told another tale. She was very deliberate in her actions, as if she had a specific plan in mind.
At last, there was nobody left except the dark-haired girl. A woman whose resemblance made it obvious that she was the girl’s mother stood nearby with a patient look on her face. “Well, young lady, it looks like you got your wish,” said the Huntress.
“You wanted to be the last one up here, didn’t you? Would you like to tell me why?”
“I need to talk to you about something important. About a murder.”
The Huntress arched an eyebrow. “A murder? Are you sure?”
“Oh, yes. They found her in the house across the street from mine, and they say a friend of mine did it, but I don’t believe them.”
“I see.” The Huntress looked over at the girl’s mother, who nodded her head. “Why don’t we find someplace more private to talk about this, ummm?”
“My name is Terry, Terry Newcomb.”
“Let me get this straight: you are investigating a murder that both the local police and military investigators have already marked closed, on the word of a twelve-year old girl?”
The Huntress sat in a cheap plastic chair, her cape wrapped around and draped over her legs, in the office of Camp Pendleton’s base commander. He sat at his desk, hands clasped before him on his desk. It was very clear to the heroine that this man had no desire to give her access to the records of the investigators, apparently because he felt it would be a waste of time.
“That is correct, Commander Lewis. My… client, if you will, tells me that she saw a car pull up at Lieutenant Brickman’s home, then leave before he arrived back from his morning run. Shortly after he went inside, his own car pulled into the driveway, and somebody got out of it and ran off down the street.”
“That sounds awfully convenient, don’t you think, miss?” asked the commander. “Brickman tried telling us his car had not been there when he came in, but the hood wasn’t even warm when our men checked. These are nothing more than the daydreams of a child who looked up to Lieutenant Brickman.” He picked up a folder from his desk and opened it up. “What we do have is a recently fired gun that has been matched to the bullets found in Captain Smith’s body. We know that Brickman and the victim were romantically involved. Apparently, something went sour in the relationship, had he shot her.”
“What about powder residue, Commander? Had Brickman been tested?”
“Yes, and the swabs came back negative. All that proves is that he is smart enough to wear gloves. Not surprising, really.”
“It is if his fingerprints were on the gun.” The Huntress stood up. “I don’t want to go over your head, Commander, but I think that something does not add up about this case, and I intend to discover what it is.”
“Very well,” replied Lewis, also rising to his feet. “I’ll have the paperwork issued, and I’ll do all I can to ensure you get full cooperation.”
“Thank you, Commander,” said the Huntress with a smile.