Upstate New York, 1961:
“Hey, Mickey! You coming out, or what?”
“Hold on a sec, Jimmy! I’ll be right out!” Mickey Steuben leaned out his window long enough to wave to Jimmy Feeney, then ducked back inside. He grabbed the big paper bag from under his bed and ran downstairs. “I’m going out, Mom! Be back in a while!”
“Be back here for lunch, Mickey. Tuna sandwiches and tomato soup. Have fun.”
Out on the sidewalk, he met up with his best friend. “Wait’ll you see what I did, Jimmy. This is gonna be so cool!”
Reaching for Mickey’s bag, Jimmy’s hand was brushed away. “What is it? C’mon.”
“Not till we get to the clubhouse. I want everyone to see it at once.” Mickey smiled mysteriously behind his Coke-bottle glasses.
A few minutes later, a ragtag group assembled in a plywood and tarpaper shack near the riverfront. A round table, mounted on the huge spool left over from stringing new telephone lines, sat in the middle of the room. Painted dark brown, it was emblazoned with a crudely painted shield of red, white, and blue.
“I hereby call this meeting of the Justice Society of America to order,” intoned Jimmy in a solemn voice. “Roll call!”
To his right sat a short, stocky boy, his face covered by a dark blue pillowcase that had been cut to trail down his back in a makeshift cape. “The Atom!” he cried, raising his hands up to flex his biceps.
Next was a skinny boy in a yellow T-shirt, with a cutoff purple Tupperware bowl over his head. He raised a plastic water-pistol packed with dirt and spoke in a high voice. “The Sandman!”
The room’s sole girl was next, a skinny blonde girl in a short black jacket, busy un-knotting the ribbons holding her hair in pigtails. “Black Canary here!”
The next spot was empty. Mickey moved back into the shadowy corner as the roll call started. Now he moved forward, a black hood covering his head. Set into the front of the hood were a pair of lenses similar to those in his regular glasses. “Doctor Mid-Nite ready for action, sir!”
“Wow, where did you get that, Mickey?” asked Jimmy, donning a metal pie plate on his head. A pair of plastic wings, cut from some long-forgotten toy, were glued to the pie plate. “Oh, the Flash, chairman of the JSA.”
“I made it. I got new glasses last week, and my dad had this hood from a Halloween costume. I thought it would look right.”
“Good work, Mickey!”
“OK, now that we’re all here, are there any cases we need to take care of?” asked the young, make-believe Flash.
Rummaging in a box, Dan Calhoun pulled out a rumpled comic-book and held it up.
“Yes, Sandman. You have information about a villain on the loose?”
“Yes sir, Mr. Chairman.” He thumbed through the pages. “It’s the Fiddler, and he’s teamed up with the Shade. They’re planning to hold up the bank on Second Street.”
“I say we go and get them!” shouted the Atom. “We’ll teach them not to mess around in our town.”
“Agreed,” said Jimmy Feeney, nodding his head. “Let’s go!”
As one, the twelve-year-olds rose to their feet and dashed outside to their bikes. Capes fluttered behind them, and playing cards clipped to bicycle forks clattered over the spokes as they sped to the scene of the imagined crime. As they passed through the heart of town, they were stopped by Officer Muldoon.
“Ahhh, my best helpers! Where’s the crime today, heroes?” he asked, pushing his cap back on his balding head.
“At the First United Bank, Officer. Send the squad car by; we’ll have the criminals wrapped up and waiting for you,” answered Cassie Weeks, tugging the sleeve of her jacket back down.
“I’ll do that. Give ’em a wallop for me, will ya?” He waved as they rode off with Andy Jensen bringing up the rear. He wiped the sweat from his face as he walked toward the police station. He was stopped by Neil Griffin.
“What was that all about, Eddie? Trouble?”
“No, no trouble at all. Last summer, I was cleaning my garage and came across a box of old comics. Remember when they used to do those funny-books with made-up stories about the Justice Society and those other heroes? There were a bunch of those in there, and I gave them to Jimmy and the others. They’ve been playing hero ever since. Good thing, since nobody’s seen much of the real Justice Society for ten years or so.”
“True. Still, don’t you think they’ll get hurt, running around wild like that?” asked the concerned older man.
“Worst thing they’ve had is a skinned knee. Just kid’s play, Neil.”
All summer long and into the fall it continued. Meetings were held, lawbreakers were apprehended, and worlds were saved. By the time the snow melted the following spring, however, dreams of action were giving way to other dreams, and the box of comics sat in the dilapidated clubhouse, forgotten by all. But not for all time.
Upstate New York, twenty-five years later:
He sat in an office, reviewing a proposed state law. Adorning the walls were photographs of himself with local figures of note: the mayor, the county controller, the governor. One section of a wall was reserved for a trophy case, with several state track and field trophies prominently displayed. And in one spot, all by itself, was a faded photo of four young boys and a young girl, taken on a long-ago summer day.
“Jim? Your wife is on the line,” said a voice from the intercom on his desk.
“Hiya, honey. What’s up?” he asked as he picked up the line. The conversation was short, the affection obvious. In the doorway, his secretary smiled.
When he hung up, he noticed her. “What’s that smile for, Linda?”
“Nothing. Just hearing you talk to her, making plans for the kids. It’s wonderful seeing someone with a happy home life for a change.”
“Hey, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it? Just don’t let me forget — I have to get out of here by three-thirty to pick up the kids.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. happy father Feeney. I won’t forget. Now, about that gambling law…”
Four hours later, State Senator James Feeney left his office and headed for his childrens’ school. He was whistling as he walked up to the building, but stopped when the doors opened and two State Troopers walked out toward him. “Senator Feeney?”
“That’s me. Is there a problem, Officers?”
“I’m afraid so, sir.”
“Kidnapped! I can’t believe it! How could this have happened?” Melissa Feeney’s face was cradled in her hands, her husband’s arm over her shoulders.
“Don’t worry, dear. The troopers have their best men checking the schoolyard for clues, and the experts say that the kidnappers will probably contact us within a few hours.”
As if on cue, the phone rang. A police officer indicated to Jim that they were recording the call, and he picked it up.
“Hello. Feeney here.”
“I figured you would be. You know why I’m calling, right?” The voice was forced, uneven.
“You have my daughters.” It wasn’t a question.
“Damned right I do, and if you want them back, you better get those cops off the line.” The recording officer signaled to another, who lowered a receiver that he had lifted at the same time as Jim. The recording equipment was linked directly to the line, and was not interrupted.
“Now, here’s the deal,” the voice continued after hearing the click on the line. “I figure you must have money to spare, if you can spend your time making up new laws and taxes for us poor common folk. Now it’s time to share the wealth.”
“How much?” asked Jim.
“A quarter million. You’ll take it to the park down by the river. Tomorrow afternoon, between two and three. And if I see, hear, or smell anything that makes me think of a cop, you can bury your little girls together. You got it?”
“Understood. You have my word.”
“No, these little girls are depending on your word.” The conversation ended.
Cradling the phone, Senator Feeney looked at the gathered officers. “Any luck?”
“We have a trace,” replied one. “Public phone, corner of State and Third. We have three cars on the way.”
“No! If he spots the police, he’ll kill them! Just get a description.”
The officer spoke into his radio, then looked up. “Two plainclothes cops have already spotted him. They’re following at a distance, but he’s walking down to the subway now.” He paused, listening to the report coming in over his headphones. “No good; he slipped into a train, and it left before they could get on.”
“Let him go. I’ll pay the ransom,” said the senator. And maybe bring some unofficial help along while I’m at it, he thought to himself.
Daniel Calhoun sat in his darkened study, hands steepled in front of him, listening to his old friend on the speakerphone.
“I don’t know, Dan. Maybe I’m a little crazy. When that creep mentioned the park by the river, the idea just came to me. We know that area better than anybody, and maybe, just maybe, the five of us could catch him when I make the money drop.”
“Jim, we knew that area a quarter of a century ago. We were just a bunch of crazy kids running around. There’s no telling what we could run into down there now, since the city bulldozed everything and replanted it for the park.”
“Dan, I was on the City Council when that park was built. It wasn’t bulldozed. They just widened the open area leading down to the river. But the rise back behind the old clubhouse is still there, and I think the old cave system is still there, too.”
“Hmm… If we could get in there, it might just work. He said two o’clock tomorrow, right? He’ll probably have an eye on it for a couple hours before. Maybe the rest of us could camp out in those caves tonight.” Dan’s eyes lit up at the idea of a night in the old caves. Life in the chemistry lab had left him little time for wilderness adventures, though he still kept in shape playing tennis and golf. “I’ve got a couple of items in my lab at work that I can pick up, and maybe provide a surprise or two.”
“Great! Can I have the others meet you at your place? He’s probably got an eye on my house tonight.”
“Of course. And I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”
Mick Steuben’s office in the West Side Medical Center was a reflection of the eclectic interests of its inhabitant. The walls were adorned with photos of birds, and several stuffed specimens as well. Directly over his desk a large owl hung, wings flattened against its body, apparently diving for the in-box on the desk. Among the photos were a few personal ones, including one of a much-younger Steuben with two blonde gentlemen, one of them wearing dark glasses.
“Jimmy, you caught me just in time. I just got out of surgery on an operation just like the McNider process that Dr. Nelson used on me when I was in high school. Damn, that’s exhausting, but I think this kid’s going to recover his full vision.”
“Just like you did, eh? That’s great, Mick! I’ve got to admit, I always admired the way you went into eye surgery after Nelson saved your own vision. But I didn’t call to praise your surgical abilities, old friend. I need your help.”
“My help? For what?”
“Maybe I should say, I need the help of your old alter ego.”
“Oh, my God! What’s going on, Jim?”
“You haven’t heard? The girls got kidnaped. The guy will be watching for cops, but not for a gang of old friends who know the drop-off area better than anyone.”
“Ohhh, tell me more. I think I’m going to like this.”
Neil Griffen had just gotten home from the college when Jim Feeney’s call came. However, he had already heard about the kidnapping from a radio newscast on his way home.
“Jim! I didn’t expect to hear from you right now. How are you and Melissa holding up?”
“As well as can be expected, Neil. The doctor has given Missy something to help her sleep, but I’m not letting him near me. I need to ask a favor of you.”
“You name it, buddy! You need help with the ransom money?” In addition to teaching, Professor Griffen had published several books on the psychological effects of body type and shape, his personal area of expertise after growing up to be all of five feet, two inches tall.
“No, though I appreciate the offer. Actually, I was thinking along the lines of a little more personal involvement. The drop off is at Riverside Park, down where we used to spend all our time. I already talked to Dan and Mick, and they’re game for trying to catch this guy. How about you?”
“Are you kidding? Of course I’m in! Are you figuring to bring Cassie in on this, too?”
“She’d probably clean my clock if I didn’t. You want to take care of asking her?”
“Of course. Where and when are we meeting?”
“Dan’s gathering everyone at his house tonight. We thought it would be a good idea to camp everyone out in the old caves and catch this guy by surprise tomorrow afternoon. Except for me, of course. I’m making the money drop.”
“That should be good. Gonna give him a run for his money, Flash?”
At the other end of the line, Senator James Feeney smiled. “Just what I had in mind.”
Neil hung up the phone and walked down to his basement. There, the heavy bass beat of a workout tape was almost deafening. His wife saw him come in and broke off her routine to come over and wrap her arms around him. “You’ve got a big grin, dear. What’s the secret?”
He kissed his wife and reached up to run his hands through her long blonde hair. “Jim Feeney just called. Looks like the Justice Society is needed once again, Cassie.”