You couldn’t tell what the Question was thinking by looking at his eerily expressionless face. The artificial mask left Vic Sage’s real features concealed, giving the relentless action-hero and follower of Ayn Rand’s philosophy an added air of mystery. However, his body language spoke volumes as he clenched his gloved hands again and again. He looked down at the body of the young woman in red, white, and blue and nodded wearily.
“Chief McConnell, I appreciate your consideration in calling the Sentinels and keeping Belle’s body secured like this,” he said.
The handsome and muscular cop offered his condolences and added, “We respect you Sentinels. You’re all like honorary police officers in a sense. I can assure you that no one disturbed her in any way. We merely determined that she was, in fact, dead. The mask was not removed.”
“Yes. Funny thing about masks,” said the Question. “My own mask both protects my identity and is a manifestation of raw, implacable truth — a symbol of justice without compromise. All my life I’ve battled criminals, even as bleeding-heart liberals call these lawbreakers victims, trying to justify their decisions to commit crimes by claiming they were abused when they were kids, and moaning about their rights. And all the while, the real victims — those killed by these lawbreakers — lie in their graves, crying out for vengeance. Who will speak for the dead? What about their rights?”
“Uh, let me leave you with her,” McConnell said, uncomfortable with the crime-fighter’s intensity. “The Green Dragon boys didn’t see a thing. They were out cold before her killer arrived. The wound was precise, but it must have been made by a strange weapon. Laceration as well as burns.”
The Question ignored him and waited until the door had closed, then bent closer to the body and gently touched her blonde hair. It’s real? he thought. Nightshade told me that she could tell the new Liberty Belle wore a wig. We never said a word to her, since allowing her to keep her secrets was part of her requests when she joined up. Thunderbolt vouched for her; that was enough for us. Come to think of it, she’s too tall to be Belle as well, but she’s wearing her Sentinels communication device. I don’t know how some other woman got this device or a costume like Belle’s, but this may just mean the real Liberty Belle is not dead.
He walked over to the center of the room and whipped out a small communicator, making a connection to the Sentinels of Justice satellite headquarters.
“Project X, get me Thunderbolt now,” he said. “He’s got some explaining to do.”
While the Question was demanding answers from Thunderbolt, Checkmate director Sarge Steel was giving out information in his normal taciturn, matter-of-fact manner. Captain Atom listened intently and at attention. The military man within the action-hero never quite forgot what years of service in both capacities had instilled within his basic sensibilities. This patriotic zeal and respect for authority was something a few of his costumed colleagues mocked behind his back, but he was old-fashioned enough to cling to his views, and he was strong-willed enough to have total faith in his convictions. That’s why he reacted to hearing about secret experiments conducted by the American government after World War II with a mixture of interest, concern, and acceptance.
“Captain Atom, after the last world war, the lab boys decided to try to create a few superhuman agents,” explained Sarge Steel. “One genius named Dr. Dey was the main brain behind what was code-named the Atomic Knights Project. Soldiers volunteered to be subjected to various amounts and kinds of radiation. The project was deemed to be a failure, since none of them developed any type of superhuman power. Dey was a broken man. He had invested all of his energies in the project, and he never really bounced back from his failure. He left government service and disappeared.”
“And what became of the test subjects?” asked Captain Atom. “I’m assuming some of them survived the process.”
Sarge Steel nodded. “Correct. They went on to live normal lives. Some married and had children. Some even had grandkids. Others eventually died from complications caused by the process itself.”
“Did any of their descendants turn to crime? That kind of genetic experimentation could very well have created some of the superhuman threats I’ve faced over the years since I gained my own power.”
Steel nodded and said, “Yes, that’s exactly what happened in a couple of cases. However, I didn’t call you to rehash the mistakes of the past. On the other hand, at least one of the heirs became a heroine in her own right. I need you to protect the remaining heirs of the Atomic Knight Project. Someone has been tracking them down and killing them. The one witness to such an attack claims these assassins are using the Project’s name as some kind of perverse joke. They even wear armor that looks like ancient knightly suits of mail. I want you to stop these Atomic Knights before they kill every participant in the original project or their descendants.”
“You can count on me,” said Captain Atom. “This is the atomic age, not the dark ages.”
“It’ll be dark enough if these freaks continue to run loose,” replied Steel.
Captain Atom crossed the country at top flying speed, the conversation with Steel still fresh in his thoughts. I gained my own powers through an accident. I hate to imagine the government turning good soldiers into living but inhuman weapons. I condemn that kind of tactic in our Soviet foes, and I can’t say I approve of it in our own country, either.
He glanced down at the names and addresses he had been given, and he shook his head in surprise. “I certainly never realized one of the nation’s top World War II pin-up girls was married to one of the volunteers in the project. Apparently their own child died years ago, but he had a son, and that son has been raised by the grandparents. I won’t let the boy be harmed. After all, his grandmother did more for troop morale than almost anyone else.” He headed down toward California, even as the murderous Atomic Knights were closing in on their target.
Adam Thompson was a very handsome young man who had excelled in athletics and academics and was eagerly planning to go to graduate school at UCLA. He had longish dark hair and dark eyes that sparkled with both humor and intellect.
Now, as he made his way through traffic toward the estate at which he lived with his grandparents, he thought once more about how much he wished his late parents could have witnessed his successes. Ever since my folks died in a plane crash when I was ten, I’ve missed them. It’s not that grandma and grandpa weren’t great to me, but I’ve always realized that being raised by an older couple made me a bit different from my peers. Still, with the scholarships and awards I’ve been given, I think I’ve made them as proud as my parents would have been had they lived. He was a remarkable young man in many ways. He had never allowed the wealth his family enjoyed to make him spoiled, nor had he become indifferent to other people because of the privileges he grew up with as the grandchild of a former movie queen.
Thompson looked up as turned off the freeway and slowed down to guide his convertible on to a narrow road. “What a beautiful day! I’d sure like to be surfing with Wendy, but classes come first.”
He frowned as he pulled into a parking space near a luxurious home on a hill. “What in the world?” he gasped as two armored figures closed in on him from each side. They were silent but relentless, and each of them carried a gleaming sword.
Thompson was well-built and knew how to fight. He had always been a top athlete and had studied martial arts as well. The Eastern arts had become something of a fad among the elite in California in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He assumed a fighting position and glanced warily at each armored figure. Talk about a high-tech mugging, he thought.
He felt heat as the glowing swords drew closer, and he concentrated. As the Atomic Knights brought their blades down on the youth, he became intangible and jumped aside.
The Knights were startled and fell backward as Adam Thompson flew into the air and hovered just above them. “Target possesses superhuman abilities,” said one of the grim Knights.
Thompson knew that he had always been warned by his grandparents not to display his superhuman talents in public, but the area was isolated, and privacy mattered less than self-preservation. He frowned as he thought, What if these creeps hurt my family? He said aloud, “What do you want? Who are you?”
The flying youth swooped down and mentally increased his own mass until he was superhumanly dense. His strength was also greater than normal, and he smashed one of Knights until the armored man fell flat and stopped moving.
The remaining Knight spoke into a device on his wrist. “Knight 02 requesting additional agents. Target Thompson is dangerous.”
Adam Thompson said, “You’ll know just how dangerous I can be if you’ve harmed my family.”
Three other Atomic Knights emerged from hiding and circled the young man even as his dark eyes began to glow with an energy all his own.
Just then, Captain Atom arrived to spot the scene below and rushed down to join the battle. Great Scott! he thought. Adam Thompson seems to be superhuman. If I had to make a guess, I suppose the original Atomic Knights Project experiment altered his grandpa enough so that the lad was born with mutant powers of his own.
Peter Cannon, alias the Sentinels of Justice reservist called Thunderbolt, answered the summons with his characteristic mixture of haste and reluctance. The blond hero in the red and blue costume stood before the Question and the Blue Beetle in the Sentinels satellite headquarters, where he removed his own black domino mask.
“I don’t know how much of this is my fault, but I accept the blame,” he said after the situation had been explained to him. “If I hadn’t promised Candy to keep her secret, perhaps this woman would still be alive.”
“Her name is Leeza Gibson,” said the Question. “I determined that by checking her prints. She was a fashion model, one who was popular but not famous. She worked for the Dean Agency, owned by Candy Dean. I assume you’re referring to her?”
“Yes, I am,” said Cannon. “As you all know, Caroline Dean was the original Liberty Belle. She and I were rather close. She was always afraid that harm would come to one of her friends or to her sister if many folks knew about her double life.”
“Pete, listen — I think we all know what you’re going to say,” said the Blue Beetle. “We’ve solved a few mysteries in our time, too. If Caroline was the original Liberty Belle, then who better than her sister Candy to become the second Belle?”
“Candy was nearly broken by her sister’s death during the Crisis,” said Peter Cannon, using his training to keep himself from feeling his own emotions of loss once more. “She came to me begging me to help her become the new Liberty Belle. I trained her, and she somehow mastered my every move in a short time. It was remarkable, and I agreed to help her join the team. I felt like it was a way to honor Caroline’s memory, to preserve the good work Liberty Belle had done. Candy didn’t want the rest of you to know her identity, and she didn’t want you all to know her other secret.”
“There were two of them,” suggested the Question. “Candy Dean was only one Belle. She and this poor Gibson woman shared the costumed role.”
Cannon nodded. “Actually, there were three of them. Candy, Leeza Gibson, and another model named Maddy Lopez. Only Candy came to our group meetings, since she was afraid you’d see through her ruse. Apparently, Son of Vulcan did see through it, but he never told anyone else. He only threatened her with that.”
“Three successful woman all working together to fight crime under a single costumed guise,” said Blue Beetle. “Rather clever.”
The Question spoke. “Look, Thunderbolt, you said Candy was good. What about Leeza or Maddy, or whoever else was dressing up like that?”
“I can only vouch for Candy’s skills,” said Cannon. “Had I forced her to justify her enlistment of the other two women, I might have prevented this loss of life. Like I said, gentlemen, I am completely to blame.”
“You’ve got that right,” said the Question, an Objectivist who was always at odds with Thunderbolt. “You always did have a blind spot when it came to moral character and personal responsibility. If you ever took off your rose-colored liberal glasses once in a while and saw the grim realities of life on the streets, you’d be able to see that right is right and wrong is wrong. Any compromise between good and evil only hurts the good and helps the evil.”
Before Peter Cannon could retort, Blue Beetle said, “The important thing is to find Candy and Maddy and to find out who killed Leeza.”
“I’ve already talked to Maddy Lopez,” said Thunderbolt, trying to ignore the Question’s judgmental gaze. “She is safe and will see to the proper arrangements for Leeza. As far as the world knows, Leeza Gibson was killed. We can keep the Liberty Belle connection quiet. As for Candy Dean, I can’t locate her.”
“I can!” said Blue Beetle. “Let me modify the communicator. Apparently all three Belles carried them. Candy must have duplicated the one we gave her. I think I can modify it enough to become something of a crude homing device.”
“You’ll have to continue without me,” said the Question. “I’ve got to get back to Crown City.”
“Oh? Have a big case you’re working on?” asked Blue Beetle.
“No — a deadline for a story,” said the journalist-turned-crime-fighter Vic Sage.
An hour after Blue Beetle set to work on the communicator, he came back to Thunderbolt and shook his head. “No luck. It’s like Candy has dropped out of this world.”
A handsome blonde man in blue and gold rushed into the lab. “I heard that,” said Booster Gold. “Would you believe more like she dropped out of time itself?”
Blue Beetle frowned as his friend made the dramatic statement. “Booster, this is no time for a grand entrance,” he said. “No cameras are running. Explain yourself!”
“I’ll do better than that,” said Booster. “I’ll let you talk to an eyewitness.” He stepped aside and revealed a haggard-looking man in black.
The man said, “I can explain exactly what happened to Candy Dean and how her fate may spell the beginning of the end of life as you know it.”
Thunderbolt said, “And just who are you, sir?”
“His name is Broderick,” said Blue Beetle. “This man in black is a time cop, right, Booster? I recognize him from the description you gave from your own encounter with him.”
Booster Gold nodded. The action-hero had come from the future, and the grim man in black had once tried to force him to return to his proper era. “Right. My robotic pal Skeets put together a rough holographic display of my last meeting with Broderick. Of course, Broderick helped him with some of the scenes. I think if you see his story, you’ll understand why we have to take his claim very seriously.”
Skeets, a hovering robotic being about the size of a small radio, appeared and projected a series of images on the satellite view screen.
“But what about Liberty Belle?” Thunderbolt asked. “Where’s the real Belle?”
Broderick said, “She’s alive, but it’s when she is that is more important than how she is.”
The heroes watched silently as the images in the holographic display unfolded.