Sharon Devine was tired after a long day working at the Devine Mutual Trust Insurance Company she had founded. She sighed and slipped on her coat as she headed home.
No sooner had she stepped outside the office, than she was grabbed from behind and choked until she passed out. Her attacker wore white gloves and a white robe. If she had been able to turn to see his face, she would have only seen a stark white skull mask. He carried her off and laughed madly as he dropped a piece of parchment.
Minute Man sat grimly in the office of Police Chief Perry Dannon. The old man’s white beard shook with anger.
“I tell you, Minute Man, that this type of thing burns me up!” said Dannon. “Crime is bad enough without mind games. This Laughing Skull, as he signs himself, must be behind the Devine abduction, and this note he left taunts us to catch him!”
“Look, Chief, I think the note on artificially aged parchment, the name Laughing Skull, even the one witness account of him as a masked white-sheeted ghoul all work to our advantage,” said Jack Weston. “He’s playing some sick game, and sooner or later, he’ll give us a lead to nail him.”
“If anyone can catch him, it’s you. That’s why you’re here,” said Dannon. “What can my men do to help you?”
“Eat lots of vegetables, get plenty of sleep, and remember to brush twice a day!” quipped Minute Man as he departed.
Chief Dannon smiled. “That guy always has a joke on his lips, but I’d trust him with my life any day! He just doesn’t lose! I’d bet on him over Mister Scarlet, Ibis the Invincible… and maybe even Captain Marvel!”
Minute Man did joke constantly, but it was just his style. He felt as much horror at the crimes he encountered as anyone would, but he had always believed that the humor made his job easier and kept him from becoming a dark avenger like the ever-grim Spy Smasher.
Jack knew this Laughing Skull would strike again. Like his recent foe the Black Clown, the Laughing Skull had fought Mister Scarlet both on his own and as a member of the notorious Death Battalion. (*) Minute Man hoped to solve the riddling rhyme the ghoul had left behind. “A nutcase who leaves rhyming riddles behind for the cops to solve,” he mused as he pondered the riddle in the Minute Man Cafe. “That could only happen on this wacky world! Those other Earths that popped up during that cosmic crisis couldn’t have creeps like that!”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Laughing Skull,” Wow Comics #3 (Fall 1941).]
A blonde entered and called out, “Yoo-hoo! Jack? It’s me, Sandra Dee!”
Jumping up, he said, “Here I am, milady! Just putting on my face for the ball!”
“Jack, you kook! How’s business?” said the cheerful blonde in the light green sun dress. Looking around, she quickly added, “Ooh! Bad topic. Still empty, I see.”
“It gives me time to ponder the deeper issues of life, like why are we here, Marcia or Jan, et cetera,” he said with a rueful grin. “How’s your boyfriend, Devon? Still the poster boy for bleach?”
“Now that’s mean!” said Sandy. “He’s fine and you shouldn’t let him bother you. He’s really very sweet when you get to know him.”
Jack gazed longingly at her blue eyes and golden hair and said, “Yeah, I should be that lucky.”
Minute Man hummed along as Perry Como crooned from the Minute Man Cafe jukebox. He was looking over the list of other vanished individuals and the copies of the parchment left behind by the Laughing Skull.
OK, three of them have no tie in terms of where they work or who they hang out with, he thought. But they did all work at one time or another in banking. So that’s this goon’s beef! He didn’t like the calendars they gave out or something.
That list I charmed out of the local banking commission identifies three more targets who served with the missing trio on a bank loan board back in the 1950s, he mused. With most of them retirement age now, or even dead, that does narrow the field and his motive. Something offended him about that bank in the 1950s. He’s obviously one of us caught in that whole Suspendium trap, not that that narrows things very much. There were so many people in the crowd in Fawcett City that day. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The World’s Wickedest Plan,” Shazam! #1 (February, 1973).]
The scroll left at the Divine kidnapping read:
Don’t guess wrong!
Heed Gumm’s song
Of St. Louis and
The suave bloodsucker!
Minute Man frowned. “How do the three names fit that riddle?” he mused aloud. “Which one is he telling me is next? Bloodsucker? Dracula? Vampires? Leeches! Suave… charming vampires? Lugosi? Leeches? The suave leech — Archibald Leach! Cary Grant’s real name was Archie Leach, and he was sauve!”
Looking at another clue, he said, “A song of St. Louis? Meet Me in St. Louis starred Judy Garland, and her name was really Frances Gumm! I see his pattern for this one — movie stars. What song was in that one? Something about Merry Christmas? No… I Just Adore the Boy Next Door! That’s it — the victim is next to Grant! The actor next to Grant? No, too easy. The president next to Grant! That’s it! Hayes was after Grant, and Hayes is a name on the list! I’ll pay Hayes a call tonight.” He began dancing around the cafe as a Doris Day song played on the jukebox.
Bill Hayes lived in luxury in a mansion above the city on the hill where the community elite lived. Minute Man was both impressed and out of place. He never had outgrown simple pleasures, even though he had been lionized by presidents and kings and had seen exotic locales ranging from an undersea kingdom to Nazi Germany during the darkest days of World War II.
Minute Man sat in the shadows of the study while Hayes waited nervously for the Laughing Skull to strike. Weird laughter did echo out at midnight, and the white-cloaked figure with the skull face loomed up out of the darkness.
“You know, this appearing at midnight stuff is so clichéd!” the hero quipped. “I’d expect that from some rookie, but you old-timer villains should really know better!”
“You!” said the Laughing Skull. “My ally the Hood would pay much to see you dead!”
“Well, I’d pay a lot to see Dean Martin in concert, but we can’t all get what we want!” said Minute Man as he tackled the Skull. He slugged the masked man as they wrestled.
“Y’know, you’re not really living up to your name,” Weston joked as he kicked the white-sheeted man down. “Sure, I see the skull motif, and it’s real nice. Not as grim as that of, say, the Skeleton, but then he was ten feet tall. But as I was saying, I don’t hear any laughing. Come on, give me a good chuckle.”
Suddenly, the Laughing Skull released a pellet of gas that made the room spin before Minute Man’s eyes.
“Oh, so now you’re more of the Gassy Skull? Giggling Skull? How about Black and Blue Skull?” he said as he covered his nose and pulled the sheet back to hold the struggling villain.
The Laughing Skull clawed at Minute Man’s eyes and kneed him below the belt. Hayes rushed up to try to hit the villain, but he was slapped to the floor. “You! I seek revenge on you and all your ilk!” said the Skull.
“Ilk! Now that’s a word you don’t hear much these days,” said Minute Man as he swung blindly to knock the Laughing Skull to the side. He dropped low and swung around to trip the villain, who fell and pulled out a knife. Minute Man then grabbed a table and broke it over the Skull’s shoulder, then punched wildly and dropped his foe to the floor once more.
Then Bill Hayes screamed, and Minute Man turned to see the old man slump over in a faint. As he looked away, the Laughing Skull broke a vase over his head. The hero dropped to the floor, and then the Skull laughed again and again. “I could kill you now!” said the Skull. “But better you should die with the bankers who ruined my father long ago!”
Sandra Dee knew she should not snoop around her boyfriend’s home, but while Devon Willard was late, she had done just that. She’d found a scrapbook with clippings about his father’s activities as a former banker named John Dodd, who had fallen from grace after a turn to crime in the 1940s and had committed suicide a few years later. The scrapbook also had letters from a bank dated in the 1950s. The letters refused a loan. It seemed clear to the lively Sandy that Devon’s dad had gone bankrupt and had killed himself after a bank refused to provide him a loan, since he was a disgraced former banker himself. She pondered how Devon could still be so young if he was around in the 1950s.
Opening a trunk, she was astonished to find within a white robe and a skull mask. “This is the suit that murderer from the papers is supposed to wear!” she said.
She turned, only to see Devon Willard glaring down at her. “Devon, I…” she began.
“Sandra, you must not question what I do,” he said. “It is divine justice upon benighted souls who ruined a noble spirit. I revenge myself for the death of my father. You will not give away my identity.”
The girl shuddered, not knowing how to answer. “No! No, I won’t!” she said.
“Ah, I see the doubt and fear in those lovely eyes,” he said with the merest twinge of regret. “Now I must kill you as well!”
Sandy tried to run, but Devon was faster and stronger, and soon had her limp form in his arms. “You’ll die with Minute Man and the others at midnight!” he intoned, then laughed coldly.
Minute Man woke up to see himself and three others tied to a wall in a dank basement. Sandra was carried in as well, to his great shock, and she was dumped on the floor.
“You are awake?” said the Laughing Skull. “Good. Then die knowing my true face!” He unmasked, revealing his handsome features.
Minute Man gasped, for he knew Devon Willard and already disliked him. “Put it back on! Please, put back on the mask!” he yelled jokingly.
The Laughing Skull slapped him and said, “Jest, you popinjay. Die with these criminals who ruined my father and will pay in blood!”
“Do you accept American Express?” he replied. “I use it, being named Minute Man and all!”
The Laughing Skull looked longingly at the stunned Sandra Dee, then pulled a switch. Spikes began to extend from the wall across from the prisoners, inching toward them slowly. The laughter echoed as the white-sheeted maniac raced away.
Minute Man thought rapidly. This old cliché is really lame, but it could kill us all just the same. Think how Spy Smasher and Ibis would laugh if they read about this!
Jack Weston saw the flickering lights around him in sticks on the mantle. With a quick jerk, he managed to knock one over and let the flame hit his boot. He inched the rope closer, though the burning boot caused him pain. It snapped, and he snuffed the flame and ripped his other leg free. The wall closed in even more, and Sandra Dee’s body was almost close enough for the spikes on the wall to impale her. Quickly swinging both legs up against the wall, he braced himself long enough to break free. Then he grabbed Sandra and shoved her down so she was not in immediate danger from the looming chest-high spikes.
Minute Man knew he could not free the other three in time, so he had to stop the moving wall. He ripped off his belt and wedged the steel belt between the edge of the moving wall and the floor. It held firm for a while, allowing him to lean out as best he could to see around the wall. The switch was still down, so he grabbed his burnt boot and tossed it across the room. It dropped the switch, and the wall swung back just as his belt buckle snapped. He sighed with relief and cut loose the prisoners.
Giving Sandra a kiss, he yelled at the others, “Look after her while I bag that fiend!”
Minute Man raced out of the old house to see the Laughing Skull careen out of the dock in a speed boat. Throwing caution and himself to the wind, Jack headed up the slope and jumped off to land across the back of the speeding boat. He rolled to the side and desperately clutched for some handhold. Catching a raised fixture, he yanked himself forward.
The Laughing Skull turned at the noise of his foe scrambling inch by inch across the sleek boat. “Curse you!” he screamed. “You plague me thusly! I shall pay you back ere long!”
Minute Man remained uncharacteristically quiet this time and kicked out wildly. The Skull rolled back at the sudden impact. Jack landed in the boat safely and swung a right cross at the Skull. It hit, but the madman fought back hard this time, clawing at the masked man’s face and gouging his eyes. However, Minute Man lowered his head and held firm.
The clever hero suddenly reached over and yanked the steering wheel to the right sharply. The Laughing Skull, caught off-guard for this tactic, fell forward, and in a moment Minute Man pinned him down and ripped his mask off.
“You know, I really should say something funny about now, but for once I think better of it,” he said as he tied the foe up and steered the boat back to shore.
Later, he held Sandra Dee in his arms and comforted her about her last boyfriend. There’s a Moon Out Tonight by the Capris played softly, and Jack Weston knew it was a very good life.