In the JSA Brownstone infirmary, the Green Lantern had removed his mask and cloak, and sat as still as a statue as Doctor Mid-Nite manipulated the controls of the magnetic resonance imaging device. The other members stood in the room at enough of a distance to allow Mid-Nite to work, but anxiously awaiting the results.
Mid-Nite stood up from the device’s screen. “No concussion, no internal damage,” Mid-Nite said. “He just knocked you out, is all. You’re fine.”
“Thanks, Doc,” Green Lantern said, rising from the seat of the device, “but I feel several degrees short of ‘fine.’ A veteran like me, letting a newbie like that get the drop on me!”
“Happens to the best of us,” Wildcat began. “Man, I remember when I fought that Clay kid, back in–”
“You say he shot something from his armor that covered your ring?” Power Girl interrupted. “What was it?”
“Tree sap,” Green Lantern admitted.
“Tree sap?!” Power Girl repeated, incredulously.
“Yep,” Green Lantern admitted. “I never have figured out why this magic ring of mine can’t do a blasted thing against wood. Jay thought it had something to do with cellulite–”
“Cellulose,” Hourman corrected.
“Cellulose,” Green Lantern amended, “because that element is present in all kinds of wood. But whatever it is, ordinary tree sap covered the ring and prevented me from using it.”
“Ha! Say, you might say he ‘sapped’ your energy, huh?” Johnny Thunder snorted, and laughed at his own joke, until a cold glare from Green Lantern cut him off.
“I might,” Green Lantern said mirthlessly, “but I wouldn’t.” Johnny swallowed nervously. “Anyway,” Green Lantern went on, “what really made this Black Nemesis guy effective is that he didn’t brag or boast about it when he had the upper hand. If the Gambler had thought to cover my ring in tree sap, he’d have spent at least five minutes taunting me about it, giving me time to figure a way around it. But no sooner had I realized what had happened, than his armored fist put me down for the count.”
“Now that you mention it, he was the same way when I fought him,” Mid-Nite said. “And I’m being charitable to myself, calling what we had a ‘fight.’ I never heard him say a word; probably would have at least known what direction he’d gone, if he had. Just blinded me with that flare, and was gone.”
“OK, so he’s that much smarter than the windbags we usually fight,” Red Robin said. “Well, now we know that much about him, and that gives us the advantage. He’s made a study of our weaknesses, and he knows enough not to hang around teasing us about it. Fine. Now we’re prepared for that. And that’s half the battle.”
“And this is the other half,” Power Girl said, flexing her Kryptonian bicep.
“Hate to interrupt,” Superman said, striding into the infirmary, “but we’ve got bad news.”
“Oh, wonderful,” Hourman said. “I was just saying this day was going too well.”
Without commenting on Hourman’s humor, Superman switched on the television monitor in the infirmary and manipulated the channel control. News footage of an ambulance crew wheeling a body covered by a sheet out of a run-down hotel appeared on the screen.
“Once again, our top news story for the hour,” an announcer’s voice began, “a murder in Chicago turns out to have connections to the world of costumed crime. Yesterday, sixty-nine-year-old Fred Clarkson, janitor at Chicago’s Champlain Arms, was brutally murdered while on the job at that hotel. Lynx News has learned that Clarkson once had a career as a costumed criminal called the Tarantula. Further investigation has shown that other masked villains from what some call the ‘Golden Age’ of super-heroic activity have recently been gunned down in cold blood. Is a new vigilante killer at large? And what does the super-hero community have to say about it? More on that when we return.” And the screen changed to a commercial for a new movie, something about a private detective hunting for a killer of cartoon animals.
The silence that followed in the infirmary was broken by Johnny Thunder turning to leave. Hawkman stopped him with, “And where are you going, Johnny?”
“I was just going to clean the fan,” Johnny said. “Something smelly just hit it.”
It had been two hours since the news broadcast on the Lynx News Network, and the members of the Justice Society were still discussing damage control.
“Most irresponsible, unprofessional, scandal-mongering excuse for journalism I’ve ever seen!” Hawkman cried, pounding his fist on the table. “Are they trying to start a panic?!”
“Knowing McQuade, probably,” Superman said sagely.
“Who’s this McQuade?” Wildcat asked.
“Don’t you ever watch anything but ESPN?” Power Girl asked. “Lincoln McQuade is the mogul who owns the Lynx News Network.”
“And calling what they produce ‘news’ is charitable,” the Sandman said. “McQuade is a huckster, a sensationalist. Have you ever wondered what P.T. Barnum would have done with mass media capabilities?”
“Can’t say that I have,” Doctor Mid-Nite said.
“Well, you don’t have to wonder,” Superman agreed. “Just turn on Lynx News.”
“And where do they get off saying the Justice Society was ‘unavailable for comment’?!” the Atom demanded. “I don’t recall anyone from that three-ring circus asking us for a comment on this situation or any other!”
“Actually,” Red Robin said, “I checked our answering machine. There is a call from Lynx News, buried in the dozens of messages we get every day from autograph hounds and ad men who haven’t yet figured out that we don’t endorse products.”
“Well, blast!” Johnny Quick swore. “How were we supposed to have known that? Why didn’t Lynx go through security channels to contact us, like the legitimate media do? Then we wouldn’t have been ‘unavailable for comment’! It’s so unprofessional of them.”
“It’s not like you to answer your own questions like that, Johnny,” Green Lantern said wryly.
“Well, we did our best to keep a lid on this,” Superman said, spreading his hands. “Now we’ll just have to deal with the fallout as best we can.”
“Hopefully, the worst part of it is that Sunset knows we’re on to him,” Hawkman said. “Heaven knows, I don’t want to have to deal with copycat killers, or phony confessions, or–”
The longtime leader of the JSA was interrupted by a loud buzzing sound, indicating that someone had approached the front door of their Gotham City brownstone headquarters.
“Why do I get the feeling this is the or Carter was about to mention?” Johnny Thunder asked.
Without commenting on that, the Huntress switched on the closed-circuit television viewer. The screen flared to life, showing a full-color image of the outside of JSA Headquarters.
“Great Scott!” Superman exclaimed. Dozens of old men crowded outside the headquarters, waving their arms and shouting. Their voices joined in an unintelligible cacophony, but what they wanted was clear: entrance.
“I’ll be a — isn’t that the Penguin?!” Power Girl exclaimed, pointing at one senior citizen, a short rotund man with a long nose.
“It sure is,” Red Robin acknowledged. “He’s kind of hard to miss. And hey! That one there, the bald guy with the David Niven mustache! I haven’t fought him since I was in high school, but I’m blown if that isn’t the Clock! (*) What are they doing–?” Red Robin’s eyes suddenly widened behind his mask. He looked closer at the image on the screen, and saw that the emotion on the men’s faces, which he had at first taken for anger, was something else: raw, stark terror. “The news broadcast!” he cried out. “These old guys must have seen it! They’re all afraid they’re going to be next — they want protection!”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Clock,” Star Spangled Comics #70 (July, 1947).]
“Yep,” Johnny Thunder said, nodding. “That’s the or, all right.”
“Gentlemen, please — please! Quiet down!” Hawkman cried, spreading his arms and wings wide as he stood on the front steps of JSA Headquarters. He was flanked by Red Robin, the Huntress, Wildcat, and Superman, all trying to establish order. But over a dozen elderly men, all one-time costumed criminals, were demanding protection from the Justice Society of America.
“You have to help us!” one of them cried out. “You have to!”
“You’re heroes, aren’t you? You protect people in danger, don’t you? Well, we’re in danger!”
“I am a law-abiding citizen now!” Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot declared, waving his umbrella for emphasis. “I am a businessman, a merchant, a taxpayer! A taxpayer, by God! I demand my rights as an American citizen! I demand to be protected from this reprehensible rogue who calls himself Sunset!”
“Gentlemen, for the last time, please!” Hawkman cried out. “We want to help you, honestly we do! The Sunset Killer is at the top of our list; we’ve known of this problem since before the unscrupulous news media announced the story. We’re doing everything we can to–”
“Tell that to the Tarantula!” one of the old men cried, shaking his fist. “Some of you can talk to the dead, can’t you?”
Hawkman scowled at that. “Now, see here! The Justice Society exists to serve and protect, of course. But we simply don’t have the facilities to offer round-the-clock protection to possible targets of a serial killer with a widespread operating base! I suggest you go to your local police precincts, ask to be put in protective custody–”
“I knew it!” the man who had been the Clock cried out. “I knew they wouldn’t help us! They probably approve of this Sunset Killer, letting him do their job for them — pick off all the super-criminals, one by one!”
“Sure!” another old man cried out. “They want to see us die!” The newest speaker pointed a finger at Hawkman and snarled angrily. “I know he wouldn’t shed any tears to see me go! Would you, Hawkman?”
The winged wonder stared at the elderly man in confusion. “Do I know you, sir?”
The old man looked crestfallen. “Good Lord, don’t you?” he asked, weakly. “I was the Purple Pilgrim!” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Valley of the Purple Pilgrim,” Flash Comics #86 (August, 1947).]
“The what?!” Wildcat exclaimed, barely able to suppress a laugh, until a freezing stare from the Huntress cut him off.
“The Clock is correct, fellow reformees!” Cobblepot said. “Chalk it up to deteriorating mental faculties that I didn’t think of it before! Why, this Sunset Killer is probably operating with the sanction of the Justice Society themselves! It would barely surprise me to learn that he really is one of the JSA, in fact!”
“Now wait one blasted minute, Penguin!” Superman cried out. “I understand your fear and frustration, but that is just insane!”
“Of course it is!” Red Robin agreed. “For close on fifty years, the JSA has upheld the law and battled crime within the confines of the law, and now, all of a sudden, we’re murdering old crooks in their beds? It doesn’t make sense!”
“Yeah,” Wildcat added. “If we’d have wanted to kill you guys, we could have done it long before this!” This statement elicited a chorus of gasps from the old men.
“Really not helping, ‘Cat,” the Huntress said in a hissed whisper.
“All right, all right!” Hawkman said, lifting his arms. “I give up. Any of you who wants the Justice Society’s protection, you’re welcome to stay at our headquarters until the Sunset Killer is apprehended.” Superman and Wildcat gasped at this statement; Red Robin and the Huntress remained silent, awaiting Hawkman’s next words. “With the understanding that it will be in the status of protective custody. You will remain in our detention cells, with no access to any other part of the headquarters. Communication with your families will be permitted, but we do not want anyone — anyone — learning of your presence here. Is that understood?”
Muttered acceptances met Hawkman’s proposal.
“Fine, then,” Hawkman said. He turned his gaze to Wildcat. “Wildcat, as you’re being so helpful today, why don’t you take charge of processing the… guests. Take down names, former identities, current addresses, all that. I expect the written report within the hour.”
“Aye aye, skipper,” Wildcat sighed. “OK, guys, line up. And please, tell me the Purple Pilgrim is the silliest name I’m going to have to deal with.”
“Robin,” the Huntress said, pulling her foster brother aside, “I just had a bad thought about this.”
“Really?” Red Robin asked. “You found another angle from which this stinks?”
“What if this is what Sunset wanted all along?” the Huntress asked. “Suppose he wanted to get these men inside our headquarters?”
Red Robin opened his mouth to speak, closed it to think, then opened it again. “You mean one of these guys is his confederate? Working with him to gain entry to our headquarters?”
“That, or he simply wants to hinder the JSA’s mobility,” the Huntress mused, “while he makes his big strike, whatever it is.”
“You really are Batman’s daughter, aren’t you, Huntress?” Red Robin said. “Always looking for every possible angle.”
“I had the best teacher,” the Huntress said. “You did, too.”
“I know,” Red Robin sighed. “Times like this, I wish he were still here.”