“The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to those men and women who have become a legend in our craft,” the speaker went on, to the audience of smartly dressed glitterati present in the theater. “And for the past fifty years, the name Jack Bagney has been synonymous with great cinema. His range is unparalleled; from crime thrillers like Gangster’s Song to westerns like The Trigger Twins to romance epics like Molten Hearts, Jack has done it all, and done it all excellently.”
“Would you please tell me what we’re doing here, Wildcat?” Wonder Woman whispered as the four Justice Society champions stood in the shadows in the wings of the Keystone Playhouse, watching the proceedings.
“Waiting,” Wildcat said. “I had a discussion with Hourman about Black Nemesis the other day, and I pointed out the importance of reputation. How every time he beats a JSAer it damages our rep, and how important that can be in a fight. And all of a sudden, it hits me. That’s what he’s doing!”
“What is?” the Atom asked. “What’s he doing?”
“Building rep!” Wildcat replied. “He didn’t pick his targets at random! His first hit was a jewelry store two blocks from our headquarters! Then an armored car robbery, in broad daylight, in Gotham City! And the Metropolis City Zoo, for cryin’ out loud! He was tryin’ to draw JSAers into fights with him, so he could build up rep by beating us!”
“And thus it is here,” the master of ceremonies went on, “in the Keystone Playhouse, where Jack Bagney was first noticed by a scout for Warner Brothers, that we present to him the United Film Thespians’ Lifetime Achievement Award!” The tuxedoed M.C. held up a small statuette of an old-fashioned movie camera, about one foot in height; it was made of solid gold, with Jack Bagney’s name picked out in twenty-four-karat diamonds.
“Oh, I get it now!” the Atom said with a grin. “And you expect him to try to steal the award, because this is Keystone City, Jay’s hometown!”
“Only, when Black Nemesis shows up, prepared for one JSAer,” Wildcat said, “he’ll have to contend with four!”
“Of all the harebrained — I can’t believe I let you drag me along on such a fool’s errand!” Power Girl hissed. “Wildcat, if Black Nemesis actually shows up here tonight on your outlandish hunch, I — I’ll eat my boots!”
Jack Bagney, a white-haired old man with Coke-bottle glasses, hobbled out to the stage, supported by two canes. Thunderous applause from the audience greeted him, making the old man smile as he stepped up to the microphone.
“I should get stunt pay for making it out onstage,” the puckish old ham joked, evoking laughter from the audience. “I really don’t know what to say. I–”
Suddenly, a window of the theater shattered inward as a black-armored figure rocketed through, heading for the stage. Screams erupted from the audience; Bagney, always ready for a fight, merely gaped in shock.
“How do you want those cooked?” Wildcat asked.
“Oh, shut up!” Power Girl snapped, and charged into action.
Black Nemesis swooped down, grabbed the golden statuette, and put his helmeted face close to the microphone.
“I’ve never been much for speeches,” he said, “so I’ll just say ‘thanks.'” And with that, he prepared to rocket off into the night again.
“Not so fast, Nemesis!” Wonder Woman shouted, hurling her lasso.
“Wha — Wonder Woman!” Black Nemesis cried as the golden lariat encircled his torso and pulled tight. “Not the JSAer I expected to see, tonight. But any port in a storm, I suppose. That’s me — a storm.”
“By the power of Hera, I command you,” Wonder Woman said, exerting her will through the lasso. “Surrender!”
“Don’t think so,” Nemesis said, and applied an additional thrust to his boot-rockets. Wonder Woman was jerked off her feet.
“Great Hera!” the Amazon princess cried as she was pulled around the theater like the tail of a kite. She was shocked; how had Black Nemesis resisted her magic lasso?
“Atom!” Wildcat snarled. “Get Bagney to safety! P.G., you’re with me! Let’s take him down!”
“This time, I have to agree with you, Wildcat,” Power Girl affirmed.
“This way, Mr. Bagney,” the Atom said, taking the old actor’s arm.
“Now, kid, I don’t need — hey, you’re the Atom!” Bagney said with a grin. “I was supposed to play you in a movie about you JSA boys! Project fell through, though.”
“You were?” the Atom asked, interested in spite of the situation. “Wow, that’s — that would have been… Wow! I’m honored!”
“Let her go, Nemesis!” Power Girl demanded, streaking up toward the circling armored villain.
“Me let her go?” Nemesis asked, pointing to the lasso encircling his armored form. “Who’s got whom, here? Oh, all right, if you want her so badly.” Black Nemesis suddenly banked and put on extra speed, whipping Wonder Woman around at just the right angle.
“Kara, look out!” Wonder Woman screamed, and released her hold on the lasso, but it was too late to check her flight. She collided with Power Girl in midair, sending both women careening backward to the side of the theater.
“Comes down to me,” Wildcat muttered. “Hey, you tin can! Come down here and fight me man-to-man, if you’ve got the guts!”
“Guts, is it?” Black Nemesis called, dropping Wonder Woman’s lasso to the floor. “I don’t have anything to prove, old man. But if you do, I’ll gladly give you the chance.” Nemesis extended his left arm, fist clenched, in Wildcat’s direction. The wily fighter prepared himself for some kind of projectile weapon; what happened surprised him. Nemesis’ gauntlet detached itself from his arm and shot forward like a rocket, heading straight for Wildcat.
“Blazes!” Wildcat cried, leaping with the speed and grace of his namesake, allowing the metal gauntlet to pass over his head. “Want to try two out of three, Jun–” Wildcat’s taunt was cut short by a severe blow to the back of his head. The gauntlet had changed direction and struck him from behind.
“Wildcat!” the Atom cried, rushing back onstage, having handed Bagney over to theater security. “You bum, if you’ve hurt him–”
“–I wouldn’t be a bit surprised,” Nemesis said, fitting his gauntlet back onto his hand. “And here we have the small fry of the Justice Society. Well, this is good for small fry.” Nemesis extended his right arm, and something black and tendril-like shot from it right at the Atom. The mighty mite had no time to dodge; the net enveloped him, closing around him like the tendrils of a giant python. The net was some sort of metal mesh, and constricted tightly; it was all the Atom could do to keep from being crushed.
“Thanks for the workout, JSA,” Black Nemesis said, and touching two fingers to his helmet in salute, rocketed out the window.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” the recovered Power Girl cried, streaking out after him. She burst out into the Keystone City night — but saw nothing. She scanned every direction with her super-vision, but Black Nemesis was nowhere to be seen.
“How?” she demanded. “How the devil did he get away so fast?”
Inside the theater, the recovered Wonder Woman ripped the metal net from the Atom’s body.
“Thanks, Diana,” the Atom said, flexing his muscles. “I probably had enough strength to tear that net, but not the leverage; it was squeezing me so tight! It must have been designed to constrict when it met body heat, or something.”
“You’re welcome,” Wonder Woman said grimly. “By the blood from Athena’s shoulder, I cannot understand it! No one should have been able to resist my magic lasso! Even Superman has bowed under its sway!”
“Ohh,” Wildcat said, rubbing the back of his head and grimacing angrily. “Well, P.G. was right all along, wasn’t she?”
“About what?” Power Girl asked as she alighted on the stage. She did not need to say that Black Nemesis had escaped; that much was obvious.
“That I’m an old fool,” Wildcat cursed himself.
“Ted, what are you talking about?” Power Girl said kindly, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You were absolutely right! Black Nemesis showed up here, just as you predicted!”
“Yeah, looking to boost his rep,” Wildcat growled. “And we just helped him do it, in spades!”
No one had an answer to that.
Johnny Quick had gathered Hawkman, Doctor Mid-Nite, Hourman, Red Robin, and the Huntress in the communications room to hear for themselves the tale their young protégés in Infinity Inc. had to tell.
Red Arrow, the once and former Speedy, was on the communicator view-screen. “Hey, all,” he said. “How’s it going?”
“It’s been better,” Hawkman said bitterly.
“I hear you,” Red Arrow agreed. “Well, I can take one worry off your hands, anyway. The Sunset Killer’s murder spree is over.”
“So Johnny said,” Robin acknowledged. “Now fill us in, huh?”
“OK, this happened just a few hours ago. Syl, Todd, Al, and I were having lunch at The Penthouse in Santa Monica. Ever been? Really great rooftop restaurant, right on the water! Beautiful view…”
“Could we skip the Zagat review, please?” Hawkman said testily.
“Carter!” Doctor Mid-Nite admonished.
“No, no, he’s right,” Red Arrow said. “Anyway, we were discussing the problems…”
“So I think we should offer our assistance to the JSA,” said Sylvester Pemberton, alias the Patriot. “Offer to send a few of our guys out there to help.”
“I don’t know,” said Albert Rothstein, alias Nuklon, picking at his Cobb salad. “The old-timers are a proud bunch, and they haven’t asked for our help.”
“Besides, the situation isn’t exactly localized,” Roy Harper pointed out. “The Sunset Killer got Sky Angel right here in our own backyard, and there was that guy in Chicago, the Spider–”
“Tarantula,” corrected Todd Rice, alias Obsidian.
“Right, Tarantula. Who knows where he’s going to–?”
The young Infinitor’s words were cut off by a gunshot. All heads whirled to see a middle-aged man in a busboy’s jacket, lying on the floor in a pool of blood. A young man in casual dress, who had previously blended in with the other diners, stood over him with a gun.
“Who was it?” the Huntress asked. “The busboy, I mean. I assume another villain?”
“Don’t know yet,” Red Arrow said. “Police haven’t I.D.’ed him yet. But wait, it gets better.”
“Stop him!” someone screamed.
“Sunset?” Al whispered to Sylvester.
“Doesn’t matter,” Sylvester responded. “He killed a man — that’s what’s important!”
“True,” Obsidian agreed, shifting to shadow-form and slipping through the floor.
The killer was running for the restaurant exit; the Patriot activated his cosmic converter belt in a blinding flash of light, and also sent a beam of energy that sealed the door. When all eyes looked, the young diners had been replaced by three costumed Infinitors.
“Hold it right there, mister!” Nuklon demanded, shooting up to twelve feet tall.
“Well, well, Infinity Ink,” the killer said. “Should have guessed my crusade would have brought me into conflict with you, sooner or later!”
“Crusade?” the Patriot demanded. “So, you’re the Sunset Killer?”
“What, is that supposed to be my name, now?” Sunset asked, and heaved a sigh. “You make one off-handed remark… Say, wait a minute. There were four of you at that table before! Who’s missing?”
“No one, now,” Obsidian said, phasing up through the floor behind Sunset. The killer whirled to face him. Obsidian enveloped the killer in his shadow-form, a technique that forced its victims to gaze upon the evil in their own souls.
“Oooh, a shadow-puppet,” Sunset mocked. “I’m so scared.” Unfazed, the killer ran through Obsidian’s shadow-form. The other Infinitors blinked in astonishment, then pursued Sunset.
“Don’t come any closer!” Sunset cried, waving his pistol at the frightened diners. “I really don’t want to hurt anyone, except the scum I’ve made it my life’s work to exterminate! But if I have to take an acceptable loss or two to continue my mission, I will!”
“Guess again,” Red Arrow snapped. In one fluid motion he drew an arrow, fit it to the bowstring, drew the string to his chin, and let fly. Before anyone had time to react, the barrel of Sunset’s gun was plugged with a scarlet shaft.
“Give it up now, Sunset,” the Patriot demanded. “There’s no way out now.”
“Wrong again, flag-face,” Sunset mocked. And with that, he ran headlong to the edge of the rooftop dining area — and dove straight off.
“What?” Hawkman demanded. “He dove off the roof?”
“Thirty-five stories, straight down to the water,” Red Robin acknowledged. “Syl gave chase, of course, but couldn’t reach him fast enough; he hit the water like a stone.”
“Did you recover his body?” Doctor Mid-Nite asked.
“Actually, no,” Red Arrow admitted. “Syl looked for it, using his belt to generate a force-field, but he couldn’t find it. There was a wicked undertow that day. Police are still dragging the bay.”
“I wonder…” Red Robin said, stroking his chin.
“Oh, come on, Robin!” Red Arrow admonished. “Thirty-five stories straight down, and into the water? There’s no way!”
“I hope you’re right,” Hawkman said grimly.
Two days later, in Houston, Texas, a man in sunglasses and a long overcoat got into a taxicab. He settled himself into the backseat behind the driver’s seat. He said nothing.
“Well?” asked the driver, a man somewhat beyond retirement age, somewhat impatiently after a few moments.
“Well, what?” the passenger asked.
“Well, where to?” the driver asked irritably. “Where are we going, buddy?”
“‘We’?” the man asked. “Oh, I’m going lots of places.” The man put the barrel of a gun against the back of the driver’s seat and pulled the trigger, sending a powerful blast through the worn leather and the driver’s body.
“You, I’m afraid, aren’t going anywhere. Well, actually, that depends on your belief system, doesn’t it?”
The driver’s body slumped forward and his head hit the horn. The Sunset Killer opened the door, exited the cab, and strolled away, whistling.