Challengers of the Unknown: The Secret War, Chapter 2: United Against Mockingbird

by Libbylawrence

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Dr. Hiram McGuire was a rather naïve-looking genius who combined the air of an innocent with a jovial paternal manner. His wife and partner Dr. Ida McGuire was rather severe in appearance, but she had a very kind and considerate nature that easily won people over once they got to know her. They were well-known and well-liked at the branch of STAR Labs that they operated in San Diego. They were also brilliant, and that was why June Robbins had agreed to involve them in her Athena Project. She knew that their combination of scholarship and self-awareness would make them perfect for the job.

However, as the couple made their way through rush-hour traffic in a blue car, they were anything but themselves.

“Why are you so worried? We’re home free! The real McGuires were easily delayed,” said the fake Hiram. “By the time they reach the lab, we’ll be back at our own base! We’ve got the Athena element for the device we took from Dr. Robbins. We’re winning!”

His supposed wife shook her head and replied, “I can’t believe we’re beating him. I’ve thought of him being incapable of losing to anyone. He has always seemed like some lofty titan far above the frailties associated with mere mortals.”

Hiram grinned and said, “So you’re waiting on the thunderbolt to fall, huh? Well, don’t worry, kid! We’re gonna bring him down from Olympus, real hard and real fast!”

They reached a small house near a rural airstrip, where a plane rested on the runway. After they parked the car and unloaded a large package, the couple began to remove layers of special makeup and padding.

Hiram was revealed as a rugged man with a misshapen nose and a muscular frame that had some fat but still possessed an athlete’s coordination.

His wife lost her severity and became an elegantly graceful and lovely woman with upswept brown hair.

They were greeted by three others who emerged from the shack-like house. A stern-looking man with the gait of a cowboy came out first. He was followed closely by a strikingly gorgeous blonde woman and a gaunt man with a worried expression on his long, narrow face.

Before they could do more than exchange a few words of greeting and explanation, they were scattered by a low-flying jet craft that looked like something from the mind of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.

“Get to the plane!” barked the military-like cowboy.

The blonde cursed in a British accent and touched a gun that rested against her hip. “How’d ‘e find us so quickly?” she shouted.

“He hasn’t!” the gaunt man said. “That fancy jet belongs to the Challengers of the Unknown!”

The muscular man with dark hair said, “I told you we shouldn’t mess with them! Those guys are as good as we ever were! Maybe even better!”

Before they could reach their plane, projectile fire from the Challengers’ jet — called the Gallopin’ Gizmo — shattered the wheels on the other plane. A dangling rope ladder dropped down as Red Ryan swung agilely down to land on the runway. Ace Morgan skillfully piloted the jet until it hovered almost directly above the other grounded plane.

“You’re not going anywhere!” shouted Red.

The three men and two women exchanged glances of concern, but for once they knew they were beaten.

“What do we do?” asked the older woman.

The rugged-looking oldest of the men said, “We come clean! The Gallopin’ Gizmo can outrace our plane even if we could take off!”

Indeed, as the Challengers deplaned, the others stood quietly and made no effort to resist. Ace landed the Challengers ship and joined Prof, Rocky, Red, and June.

Rocky stared at the man who had posed as Hiram McGuire. “I know you! I said the mug who posed as me at June’s lab moved like a fighter I’d seen before, and I was right! You’re Tiger Force, ain’t you?”

The ex-boxer nodded and said, “Yeah, I was. You and me got plenty in common, Davis.”

Ace glanced at the leader of the group of five and said, “King Savage! I’ve always looked up to you. War hero, pilot, stuntman, actor, rancher. I never figured you for a crook. What is this about?”

“Mr. Morgan, I think we owe you an explanation,” said King. “Come on in. We’ve got a long and sometimes-ugly story to tell.”


The Challengers sat around a small table as the odd group of five began to share their story.

“I guess we’re going to have to come clean,” said King Savage. “The threat to national security is too great for us to risk failing to convince you that we’re trying to do something vitally important here.”

“Yeah?” said Red. “Well, we’re all ears, so spill it. Who are you, anyway?”

“Like I said, I recognized Tiger Force from the way he moved,” interrupted Rocky. “You were a champion boxer before dropping out of sight after testifying against crooked fight promoters in the ’60s. I could identify with you, since I also crossed some lowlife mobsters who wanted me to throw a fight. They even doped me, but I won anyway and brought them punks down!” (*)

[(*) Editor’s note: See “Contract on a Champ,” Adventure Comics #494 (December, 1982).]

The ex-boxer nodded and said, “Call me Mike Tempest. I haven’t been Tiger Force for more than twenty years ago, now. You got my story dead to rights, except I didn’t get a nice happy ending after my testimony. You brought down the whole mob that drugged you, and you rode off into the sunset. I wasn’t so lucky. Back in ’64, I sent most of the Blackjack Hanrahan mob to prison, but still had Hanrahan’s pals gunning for me. They kept finding me wherever I ran. They almost beat me to death, too, but I was rescued by a mysterious man or woman who made it real clear that I had to follow his orders or he’d turn me over to the gang.”

Rocky frowned and said, “I wondered what happened to you. You were great. You beat all the big names, like Davy Burke, Maxie Jones, Harry Sutherland. I guess if things had worked out differently for me, I might have ended up a marked man, too!”

“Something tells me there’s more to this story than your needing a weapon to use against the mob,” said Prof.

King Savage nodded and said, “Right. Mr. Morgan, here, recognized me as a war hero pilot and a stuntman. He got things half right. Back in Korea in 1953, I was all set to be the hero of the day, but when I was captured, I gave in to torture. I spilled my guts to a Commie louse named General Pao. I was no war hero — I was a cowardly rat. I would have died in that hole, except a mysterious figure freed me and enabled me to alert the military to Pao’s plans. The media called me a hero, and my fame allowed me to enter the movie business as a stuntman and later as an actor. Of course, my films didn’t demand a great deal of acting skill on my part. I was really happier as a stuntman. For a while there, in the ’60s, a guy named Buddy Baker and I were the top fall guys in the industry!” (*)

[(*) Editor’s note: See “I Was the Man With Animal Powers,” Strange Adventures #180 (September, 1965).]

“However, later your rescuer contacted you with blackmail demands, correct?” said Prof.

King nodded and said, “Exactly. He threatened to reveal the truth about me unless I followed his every command. He or she always spoke from afar via communication systems that distorted the voice, or he used letters or phone calls. I never could tell if Mockingbird, as he called himself, was a man or woman.”

June looked at the others and said, “Do you all have similar stories? I can’t imagine any other situation linking you together.”

The elegant woman with the upswept brown hair said, “I am Lili de Neuve. I was a stage actress in Europe before becoming a spa owner. The transition occurred after I narrowly escaped being condemned for a murder I never committed. An old flame of mine had moved on to a younger girl, and when he was killed, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had been tricked into going to his home that very evening. I was freed when three strangers gave me an alibi. The alibi was bought and paid for by a stranger called Mockingbird. From that moment on, he owned me, for all practical purposes.”

“I was the one who arranged the fake alibi for Lili,” explained King. “I was told to do so by Mockingbird in a letter. He provided the cash, and I did the rest. You see, that would prove to be his method of operation over the years. In various situations, each of us would secretly carry out his orders and, in short, be Mockingbird in effect for that particular mission. None of us knew the extent of the others’ involvement. We all knew one of us was Mockingbird, but we had no proof which one was the masked figure pulling our strings.”

The gaunt Italian man spoke up and said, “My name is Carlo di Rienzi. I was a performer with talents for magic and escape artist tricks. I crossed the mob, and they killed my wife. My son Gino was badly injured by their bomb, and he was crippled. As a man who could not be held by any bond, I could only imagine his torment. I had to help him. I found help from the enigma called Mockingbird. He contacted me and gave me the name of a Swiss medical expert whose treatments gradually restored Gino’s ability to walk. But of course there was a catch. The treatments would end unless I became Mockingbird’s pawn.”

“This is remarkable!” said June. “How could one man or woman have the resources to do the things this Mockingbird did?”

“He is not just one man,” said Lili. “He is one man with a limitless number of victims who dance to his every tune. He values secrets above all else, and it is through his spies that he has gained the means by which to force others to obey him or be exposed in one manner or another. Each of us played the role at various times, but none of us knew the true identity of our master.”

Red had been staring at the lovely British woman, who was in her early forties but looked younger than her age. “You’re Crimson Dawn! I had one of your calendars. You were a supermodel before they had supermodels! Plus, you’re married to my kid brother Tino’s favorite singer — Carl Henderson is his idol! Why, Carl’s old band the Sun Cats inspired him to become a singer. For that matter, who didn’t they inspire?”

Crimson smiled flirtatiously and said, “My, ain’t you the kind one? I married Carl and thought his wealth could secure me from the scandals of my past life. I was right… for a while.”

Tiger scowled and said, “Yeah, but cash can’t buy you love. Isn’t that what one of his songs said?”

Crimson’s eyes flashed with emotion as she said, “It wasn’t like that. I guess I have the most to reveal. See, I was more of a willing helper to Mockingbird than the others were. He was my father’s best friend, or so he said. The governor was a military man who wanted a son. He got me instead, but he trained me to become an expert with guns, knives, and the martial arts. When he died, I fell apart and gained a lot of weight. I picked up other unhealthy habits, too, before they became trendy. I lost a family fortune to a conman husband named Johnny Bright, and then I was rescued by Mockingbird. He and I became lovers, but he never revealed his true name to me. He had a lot of false names. He had Lili use her spa to turn me into a right beauty again and to help me kick some bad habits. I dropped my old name Kim ‘Kit’ Dawn and became Crimson — the most swingin’ bird on Carnaby Street!”

She smiled seductively and said, “As for Carl, it is no lie that I care for him. I have lied to him more than he deserves, though.”

“You always lied to us!” said Mike. “You told us that Bright took your money, and you had to change your looks and name to hide the shame from your family. You said Mockingbird would tell your folks who you’d become unless you obeyed him. That never did add up. In fact, you met Bright on one of our cases, but you told him your true identity! You weren’t hiding from any family.”

Crimson whispered, “I’m not proud of what I did. A girl will do funny things for love.”

Mike Tempest snorted dismissively and turned away from her.

“‘Cases’?” said Ace. “What kinds of cases did you have?”

“We were named the Secret Six, and under Mockingbird’s orders, we performed all kinds of missions against Commies and crooks,” said Crimson. (*) “From 1968 to 1974, we were his agents of choice.”

[(*) Editor’s note: See “Code Name: Mockingbird,” Secret Six #1 (April-May, 1968).]

“Six?” asked Prof. “What happened to your sixth member?”

A black man with gray hair and glasses rolled forward out of the shadows of the room. He was confined to a wheelchair and now looked frail.

“I am the sixth member. In fact, I was active as the fake Mockingbird more than the others. Ironically, we all suspected each other, but never realized that we all had been posing as Mockingbird at different times as we followed the real Mockingbird’s orders from mission to mission. For example, I was the one who put Carlo in touch with the Swiss medical expert who treated his poor son.”

Prof frowned as he recognized the older man. “Dr. August Durant! You were one of the world’s leading scientific minds before your illness led you to retire from public life.”

Dr. Durant nodded and spoke softly. “Thank you. Coming from a man of your accomplishments, that means a great deal. I was poisoned in the ’60s, and while the drug was placed in my drink by an agent who came from Karnia, a Soviet Bloc nation, he was working for a more deadly employer. I fell into a coma and almost died. A shadowy figure entered my room and gave me a remedy that revived me for a time. The remedy had to be taken daily, or I would die. Thus I fell victim to Mockingbird’s enslavement.”

Carlo smiled sadly as he said, “My friend, your story was shaky, even in ’68. How did you see your shadowy medic if you were truly in a coma?”

Durant smiled and said, “All of us slipped up from time to time. However, we obeyed Mockingbird and were successful as a team. There was a certain thrill in what we did, even though we were acting under duress.”

“Listen, did Mockingbird force you to pose as us and steal June’s gizmo?” asked Rocky.

“No,” admitted King. “Just the opposite! He wants to get his hands on it to achieve his ultimate goal. We posed as you and the McGuires to keep it from him. See, unlike all those years ago, we’ve united for a new purpose now. We don’t want to serve Mockingbird! We want to destroy him!”


Times past, 1967:

In a luxurious manor in the St. John’s Woods area of London, the man whose true name was Alex Conan brooded in spite of the efforts of a stunning girl named Crimson Dawn to cheer him up.

“Why so glum, luv? You got money, power, and little ol’ me!” she said as she rubbed his shoulders.

He smiled and pulled her into his arms even as he sighed heavily. “It is the keeping of the power that concerns me. I was able to make you over into the perfect woman. I’ve transformed countless other lives in other ways, too. Still, what good does it do me when the world is changing into a place foreign to all I value?”

Crimson sat on his lap and kissed him repeatedly before glancing down at a newspaper from the States.

“What’s all this, then? Air Wave? Sounds like a Mod rock group!” she laughed.

“Air Wave is a costumed meddler,” said Conan. “He is one of a new breed that is popping up with alarming frequency. The Vigilante, Plastic Man, Zatara, and, of course, Superboy are all mystery-men with costumes and daring that breaks away from the norm, and there are more arriving all the time, such as this Animal-Man and this new iteration of Blackhawks with gimmicky costumes. If it keeps up at this rate, I fear that in the next decade our world will be positively swarming with these so-called heroes. I can’t let them take over my world. I can’t let these freaks disrupt the standards I’ve worked so hard to maintain!”

“You know so much,” said Crimson. “I mean, you know about some of these fancy long johns that nobody else has heard of! Why can’t you find their secrets and force them to quit?”

He smiled and said, “I would if I could. Still, I have an idea all my own. Perhaps I should do what I’ve always done. I can use the people I’ve shaped and have them serve my cause. I can still maintain the status quo by having agents all my own take a more direct role in world affairs. I practically own war hero King Savage. Your father helped me put Savage under my thumb back in Korea. He could very well be just one of my new pawns!”

Crimson smiled and ran one finger along the man’s iron gray hair. “Count me in, too, darling!” she said. “I can do things other birds couldn’t imagine in their wildest dreams!”

And thus a plan was formed that would give birth to the Secret Six.

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