Wildcat sat in the JSA communications room on monitor duty. Nothing had been seen of Black Nemesis since the debacle in Keystone City several days before, but the old fighter was still angry at himself. Power Girl was with him, trying to take his mind off of it.
“Hey, ‘Cat, look!” Power Girl said, pointing at the television screen. “Looks like a news item on the Sunset Killer’s death, like Roy told us about!”
“Hunh,” Wildcat muttered, turning up the volume. It was another Lynx News broadcast, with footage of Sunset’s plunge into the bay.
“Earlier this week, the man known as the Sunset Killer brutally murdered a busboy named Gavin Drayson in broad daylight, at his place of employment in Los Angeles, California. Drayson, it was later learned, had a brief career as a costumed criminal called Captain Challenge.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Thoroughly Modern Mayhem,” Green Lantern v2 #61 (June, 1968) and Showcase: Tharka the Superwoman: Times Past, 1969: Invaders from Earth.]
“Really?!” Power Girl exclaimed. “And here I always thought the Sportsmaster was a silly name! I’ve sure heard a lot worse, lately!”
“Four members of the California-based super-hero group known as Infinity Incorporated appeared on the scene and attempted to apprehend the Sunset Killer,” the announcer went on. “The killer escaped them, seemingly by committing suicide by leaping off the rooftop restaurant into the waters of the bay below.”
“Wait, ‘seemingly’?” Power Girl demanded. Wildcat came to full attention now.
The scene on the monitor changed to a taxicab, the driver’s seat soaked with blood, a body being carried away under a sheet. “But last night, in Houston, Texas, a cab driver named Louis Feinberg was shot in the back through the seat of his cab, presumably by someone posing as a passenger. Feinberg was active as a costumed criminal in the 1940s, a criminal called the Angler, who battled Green Arrow and Speedy with gimmicked fishing equipment. (*) This can only be assumed to be more of the Sunset Killer’s work.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Radar Runners,” World’s Finest Comics #23 (July, 1946).]
“Blazes!” Wildcat swore. “How does he do it? How?”
Power Girl sighed. At least his mind was off Black Nemesis.
“Hey there, Hourman,” the Atom said, strolling into the complex chemical laboratory in JSA headquarters.
“Oh, hello, Atom,” Hourman said, looking up from his experiment. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I know you’ve been working with that white powder you found at the scene of Sunset’s big score,” the Atom said. “Thought I’d see if I could help. I mean, I’m a nuclear physicist by trade, but I know my apples from my oranges about chemistry, too.”
Hourman smiled. “Thanks. I could probably use it. I’ve been trying to crack this thing for days now.”
“Did you find out if any was found at the other crime scenes?”
“At almost all of them,” Hourman said. “At first it seemed there was none at Doctor Glisten’s murder, the first such that we knew of. But one officer there later remembered having seen some white powder on the grounds of the nursing home; he hadn’t thought it important at the time, and didn’t collect it.”
“Hadn’t thought it important!” the Atom repeated indignantly. “Do they train cops down there?”
“Easy, Atom,” Hourman said. “Forensic criminology has come a long way since the days of Sherlock Holmes, when almost nobody knew or understood what a fingerprint was, but in a lot of ways it’s still in its infancy. Anyway, there was enough powder collected in New York and Chicago to — along with what I found — give me an analysis.”
“You know what it is?” the Atom asked.
“Yes and no,” Hourman said, showing the Atom a computer printout. “I’ve been able to determine its chemical composition. But I have no idea what it does. I’ve been experimenting with the ingredients, exposing them to different means of stimuli, but I haven’t gotten a satisfactory reaction yet.
“Mm-hmm,” the Atom said, looking over the list. “Have you tried throwing it in the microwave?”
“What?” Hourman asked, not sure if his old friend was joking.
“Well, this combination here, I’m thinking it may react to a heat stimulus from the inside out, rather than the outside in,” the Atom said. “Really just a guess, of course, but what can you lose?”
“What, indeed?” Hourman said. “OK, then, I have a sample prepared right here. I was going to try electrical bombardment, but what the heck. Let’s nuke it.” Hourman placed the ceramic bowl of chemicals in the lab microwave, closed the door, and activated it. He and the Atom watched through the glass window of the oven door as the chemicals inside were bombarded with microwave radiation, and after more than four minutes they began to change.
“Oh, my!” Hourman exclaimed.
“Now, that’s interesting,” the Atom said.
“Rick? It’s Dad. How are you?”
“Dad, hi! I’m good. How are things back east? I’ve heard on the news about this Black Nemesis guy–”
“Yes, we’ve got our hands full out here. In fact, this isn’t actually a social call. Would Todd happen to be there?”
“Todd? Yeah, he’s here. Say, if you folks want some help out there–”
“It’s appreciated, Rick, and we’ll let you know. But I think we’re actually close to a breakthrough.”
“Okay, Dad, here’s Todd. Talk to you soon.”
“Mr. Tyler? Todd Rice here.”
“Please, make it Rex, Todd! Roy told us about your fight with Sunset. Can I ask you about that?”
“Well, sure… what about it?”
“When you tried your shadow-thing on him, to force him to confront the evil in his soul, and it didn’t work. How did that, well, feel to you?”
Todd hesitated a moment. “I’m kind of glad you asked, sir,” he finally said. “I’ve been wanting to talk to someone about it, but I didn’t quite know how to say it! Some people have shrugged off my effect before, like the Ultra-Humanite, but that was because they were completely evil, and satisfied with being that way. And those times, I felt a backlash, like my power coming back on me. You know what I mean?”
“I think I do. Go on.”
“Well, with Sunset — I felt nothing! It was totally empty, like — like there was no evil in his soul at all! But that can’t be right, can it? I mean, maybe he’s crazy, and really thinks he’s doing good work, but there must be some small part of him that realizes killing people is wrong! Doesn’t there?”
“Well, I don’t know about that, Todd, but you have given me some food for thought. In fact, I told Rick we were close to a breakthrough. I think you just brought us closer.”
“Really? You think so, just from that?”
“Not just from that, but it certainly helped. Thanks a lot, Todd. And keep up the good work out there. All of us old guard are really proud of you kids — your dad included, and especially.”
“Wow. Thanks, Mis — Rex. Thanks a lot.”
“Thank you, Todd.”
“One thing I don’t understand about this Black Nemesis,” Superman said.
“Just one?” Johnny Thunder asked. “I don’t understand about twenty!”
“Point taken, but what really puzzles me is, what’s he after?”
“What do you mean?” the Atom asked. “Seems to me, he’s after a lot of money!”
“Besides that,” Superman said. “Wildcat demonstrated to us that he’s purposely making himself the target of JSA members, in an attempt to build up his reputation by escaping and defeating us.”
“An attempt that’s been a rousing success, so far,” Wildcat pointed out.
“Yes, but why? What does he want that reputation for? What’s he going to do with it?”
“Hey… I hadn’t thought of that!” Wildcat said, pounding a fist into his palm. “Sure! He’s got to have a reason for wanting to be known as the guy who made fools of the whole Justice Society!”
“Maybe he’s an egomaniac,” Power Girl offered.
“No, I don’t think so,” Doctor Mid-Nite replied. “The man is brilliant, and a cunning strategist. I find it hard to believe that someone so focused could be doing all this simply to stoke his own ego. Superman has put his finger on the question: what is his final goal?”
“Well, I think our Keystone City adventure may have stepped up his timetable somewhat,” Wonder Woman offered. “He defeated and escaped from four JSAers at once, including two of the most powerful, in the hometown of a JSAer who’s also running for president. His reputation can’t need much more building up after that. Whatever he’s after, he’s probably ready to try for it.”
“Well, we’d better figure out what it is fast, then!” Hawkman declared. “It’s not like the answer is going to come knocking on our front–”
Suddenly, the signal buzzed, announcing the presence of someone outside JSA Headquarters.
“You were saying?” Johnny Thunder asked.
Hawkman threw up his hands. “The way these two cases have been going, nothing surprises me anymore,” he said. “Let’s go see who that is.”
The JSAers viewed their visitor through the monitor screen. The sensors had already determined that he carried no weapons of any known type, nor did his personal energy signature match that of any known super-powered being.
The visitor was a man, small of build, with a nose that seemed too large for his body, and small, beady eyes that seemed ferret-like somehow. He was dressed in a plain brown suit, and his head was bare; he carried some sort of magazine or newspaper, rolled up, under his arm.
“Holy–! Do you guys know who that is?!” Red Robin exclaimed.
“Should we?” Doctor Mid-Nite asked. “Now that you mention it, he does look a little familiar, but…”
“Imagine him with a top hat on.”
“Great Scott! The Mad Hatter!” Superman declared.
“Great, just great,” Wildcat said. “Another scared crook looking for refuge. We should go into the hotel business. Think Conrad Hilton would give us any tips?”
“Isn’t he dead?” the Huntress asked.
“So’s Jim Corrigan, but we talk to him.”
“Well, let’s not keep our visitor waiting,” Hawkman said. In short order, the Mad Hatter was ushered into the headquarters’ receiving area.
“Thank you for admitting me,” the Hatter said. “For those of you who don’t know, my name is Jervis Tetch. I once went by the appellation of the Mad Hatter.”
“‘Once’?” Red Robin asked.
“Yes,” Tetch said, smiling at his former adversary. “As you can see, those days are behind me.” Tetch patted his hatless head. “And may I take this opportunity, Robin, to apologize for all the trouble I used to cause you and your mentor. The times I tried to kill you. I truly regret that.”
“Uh, well, OK,” Red Robin said, uncertain how to take this. “Water under the bridge, and all. You know, I hadn’t heard from you in so long, I’d assumed you were dead.”
“Quite the opposite,” Tetch said, smiling. “I have been reborn.”
“What?” Wildcat said, nonplussed.
“Yes, it’s true,” Tetch said. “During my last stay in prison, some thirty or so years ago, I found the true path to salvation. May I ask, have you found Jesus, Mr. Wildcat?”
“Didn’t know he was missing,” Wildcat said with a shrug.
“Wildcat!” Superman snapped. “Mr. Tetch, please forgive–”
“It’s all right, Superman,” Tetch said with a chuckle. “In the evangelical game, one grows a thick skin, or one doesn’t stay in it long. Bravo, Mr. Wildcat, that’s the first time I’ve heard that one… today.”
Power Girl stifled a giggle.
“Well, what brings you to us, Mr. Tetch?” Hawkman asked. “I assume you haven’t come here to convert us.”
“Oh, my, no,” Tetch said. “As I said, I’ve been out of the criminal game for quite some time. I’ve found honest work here and there; for a while, I even lived in Hollywood, working as a consultant on a children’s television program. Didn’t last long, but I did make good friends with the show’s lead actor. Charming man. But I digress; I came here because of the Sunset Killer.”
“Seeking our protection,” Wildcat guessed.
“Not at all, sir,” Tetch replied. “I came because I have information that may be of use to you.”
“Information!” Hawkman exclaimed. “And how did you come by such information, Mr. Tetch, if you are, as you say, out of the criminal game?”
“Oh, I do keep in touch with the old crowd,” Tetch said. “Quite a large number of souls that need saving, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Any luck there?” the Atom asked.
Tetch grinned. “When was the last time Tweedledee and Tweedledum gave you any trouble?”
The Atom did a double-take.
“But, in my limited contacts with the underworld, I did come across this.” Tetch produced the document he carried under his arm and handed it to Hawkman, who took it and unrolled it. It proved to be some kind of tabloid newspaper; Hawkman glanced at the title.
“The Black Star,” he said. “I’ve never heard of this. What is it?”
“A newspaper, sir, produced by and for members of the criminal element.”
“What?!” Superman exclaimed, incredulous. “An underworld newspaper?!”
“Certainly,” Tetch said. “Crime, especially costumed crime, is a business, and, like any business, has its own specific needs. Members of this business find it helpful to exchange information, share theories and ideas, advertise for assistance, and so forth.”
“Amazing!” Hawkman said, thumbing through the newspaper. “That this has been going on under our — but you said there was something about the Sunset Killer?”
“Indeed,” Tetch said. “Turn to the classified advertisements, please. They’re in the back.”
Hawkman did so, and gasped at what he saw. A full-page advertisement had been taken out, asking Black Nemesis for aid.
“Blazes!” Hourman cried. “The criminal community is appealing to Black Nemesis?!”
“Certainly,” Tetch said. “This lost sheep, this newcomer to the world of costumed crime, has humiliated the Justice Society publicly and soundly; many criminals feel he is most qualified to save them from the ever-present menace of the Sunset Killer. Their ‘best bet,’ to use the vernacular.”
Wildcat snatched the paper away from Hawkman, who protested, but Wildcat’s eyes roamed over the advertisement, growing wider and wider. “That’s it!” he cried out, slapping the page with the back of his hand. “That’s the connection!” With that, he threw the paper to the floor, ran to a writing-desk in the corner of the room, and began writing something.
“My word,” Tetch said, with sincere concern. “I do hope I haven’t upset the poor man.”
Seconds later, Wildcat rushed back over to the group and pressed a piece of paper into Tetch’s hands. “Mr. Tetch,” he said, “I want to apologize for my manner to you earlier. It was uncalled for. Thanks a million for telling us about this! Here, take this check — use it for your evangelical work, or whatever it is you do with it.”
“Oh, Mr. Wildcat, I thank you, of course, but I didn’t come here expecting to be–” Tetch glanced at the check. “Er, Mr. Wildcat? You left the amount… blank.”
“You can think of a round number, can’t you?” Wildcat asked. “Thanks again for comin’ in. Everyone! Conference room! Ten minutes!” With that, Wildcat dashed off.
“Was that an official order, fearless leader?” Johnny Thunder asked Hawkman.
“Sure sounded like it to me,” Hawkman said. “Yes, Mr. Tetch, thank you very much for bringing this to our attention. Do you need a cab, or–?”
“N-no thank you,” Tetch said, still staring at the check. “I’m fine. That is, I’ll walk.”