That night, Mysto walked around the small plaza where the drivers were staying. They were all renting rooms at the Lincoln Hotel, so he found many of them over dinner in the hotel’s small but pleasant diner. He spotted Kim Johnson and Matt Weston at a corner table. The pretty girl was playfully feeding Matt from her plate. The more-serious-looking Jon was sitting nearby.
He didn’t see Cronin, but then, from what he’d gathered, the hard-living driver didn’t seem the type to be content to spend his evenings in such a mundane environment.
Mysto frowned as he saw the happy scene change abruptly as Matt groaned and clutched at his stomach. In a matter of moments, the pleasant meal had turned into a nightmare as the driver’s pain became evident, and a waiter hovered in concern.
“He’s ill!” cried Kim. “We need a doctor!”
Mysto nodded in agreement as he saw the elderly man who had been identified to him earlier as Doc Green enter the room with a worried waitress.
As the doctor led the trio of Matt, Jon, and Kim to a private room near the main lobby, Mysto suddenly clutched the waiter’s arm as he started to clear the now-empty table. “I’d prefer you leave those plates alone for now,” he said. “We may need to preserve the remains for later examination.”
The waiter nodded and backed away from the table.
“I am no physician, unless one could call me a metaphysician, but I’d wager Matt’s food poisoning might be more than a matter of bad meatloaf!” said Mysto. He noticed that Matt was the only one of the trio that had ordered the meatloaf, as the others had contented themselves with fried chicken. He turned as the local sheriff entered the room, and he stood up to greet the stout man.
“Sheriff Tupper? I saw one of your reelection posters when I came into town. I’m Rick Carter. I take it your presence here means Doc Green views Matt’s plight as being serious and potentially criminal in origin!”
“Who in the blue blazes are you?” said Tupper. “We don’t cotton to that kind of fancy Sherlock Hemlock stuff here!”
“Let me assure you that I meant no offense,” said Mysto. “I have reason to believe that Matt Weston is in danger. A source alerted me to the possibility that there was going to be a murder attempt here. Matt’s abrupt and extreme illness made me assume he had been poisoned!”
Dr. Green cleared his throat and stepped into the room. “You must be a psychic as well as a magician, Mysto. I just concluded the same thing. Matt was poisoned. I have to wait on the county lab boys to examine the food, but I’m an old pill pusher, and I’d stake my reputation on it.”
“Well, I reckon if you say so, Doc, I’ll go along with it,” said Sheriff Tupper. “We’ll take the plates and run some tests. Now, Mr. Mysto, is it? What brings you here, and who is this mysterious pal of yours who can predict murder attempts?”
But Tupper sputtered in anger as he realized that Mysto was already gone. The suave sleuth had slipped into the kitchen while the doctor was occupying the lawman’s time.
Jon was already there, and he greeted Mysto as he entered. “The scene of the crime, as they say in the pulps!” he said.
“Indeed, I believe that to be the case,” said Mysto. “How is Weston? I take it he will recover.”
Jon nodded. “I think so. Thank goodness. Still, I don’t like this whole situation. Cronin and Matt have been going at it for years, and Cronin knows something that makes him look mighty suspicious to me. He knows Matt’s partial to meatloaf. Matt used to get a real ribbing over it from me, Cronin, and all his old pals.”
“That is interesting,” said Mysto. “Still, I can’t imagine that no one else in the diner ordered meatloaf. It is the special of the day. I can confirm that from the lovely Lucille when she returns from without.”
Jon nodded and said, “The waitress. I plumb forgot her name was Lucille. You didn’t even eat here, but you caught that name tag. You got sharp eyes, but I guess in your trade you have to!”
“Thank you,” said Mysto. “In any case, Lucille has much to answer for. She served your table, and I know that all the meatloaf was not tampered with, since other customers might have ordered it. It would be far too slim a grounds upon which to base a murder attempt to rely on Matt’s proven preference for the stuff! If it was poisoned, then Lucille did it, since she alone had access to his serving!”
Suddenly, he darted forward and shoved the door open. Lucille fell into his arms and gasped as Mysto pulled her closer and said, “You were listening outside. I smelled your unique perfume.”
“I’m not just some hash-slinger,” said Lucille. “I’m also the cook. I have every right to be here.”
“Indeed, you do,” said Mysto. “And I have the right to ask you about this phone number!” He held up a slip of paper she had torn from her pad. It had a two-digit number on it, along with a faint powdery substance. “This number twelve is too small to be a phone number, but I’d wager it is an extension number for Mr. Cronin’s room in this very hotel. He paid you, or romanced you, to plant something in Matt’s food.”
Lucille began to weep as she reached into her now-empty pocket. “How’d you get that? I never felt a thing!”
Mysto smiled grimly and said, “I have picked up a few tricks like that in my time. Picking a pocket is not that different from manipulating props on stage!”
“He said it was just a joke,” she said, beginning to sob. “He promised it would just make him drunk!”
Bursting into the kitchen, Sheriff Tupper jabbed a finger at Mysto’s chest. “Now, lookey here, you–!” he began, before Mysto cut him off with a commanding and resonant tone suitable for the stage.
“Sheriff Tupper, Doc Green — Lucille has a story to tell you. I would go pick up Cronin as well. You’ll find him in room twelve or at the pool hall down the street.”
Tupper sputtered and allowed Green to lead him out to where he gave instructions to his lone deputy. Lucille was taken away as well by the slightly overwhelmed lawman.
“I recalled you mentioned that in their friendlier days Matt and Cronin were pool buddies,” said Mysto. “His phone number, which I removed from Lucille’s uniform pocket, and the trace of pool cue chalk which remains on said slip of paper was enough for me to suspect Lucille had been involved with Cronin!”
Jon nodded in agreement. “Land sakes, you are a regular Mandrake!” he said.
As Kim emerged from the private room and sobbed, Jon tried to comfort his old pal’s girl. “Kim, Matt’s going to be fine,” he said. “Dr. Green told us both that earlier. Don’t fret so!”
“I know, but he can’t drive tomorrow,” said Kim. “Without the prize money, we won’t be able to pay his debts or get married!”
“Look, I told him I’d help if I could,” said Jon. “The farm’s not doing so well lately, but we have a nest egg.”
“No, we won’t bring you and your wife down with us,” said Kim.
“Well, then, I’ll just have to drive in Matt’s place,” said Jon. “I am rusty, but he and I used to be partners before my courting days led me away from the track.”
“That is very sporting of you, but with a small child at home, surely you have too much to lose to risk yourself,” said Mysto.
Jon grinned and said, “OK, I’m willing to play Dr. Watson. How’d you know about my young’un?”
“I saw you ask some of the drivers to autograph a plush toy car you’d brought yesterday,” said Mysto. “I deduced it was for a small son.”
“You hit that nail on the head, but I’m trying raise my boy with a set of values and a sense of responsibility towards others,” said Jon. “If I can help Matt, then I’m going to try!”
“I admire those ethics,” said Mysto. “I would predict your son will turn out to be a fine man someday if he’s anything like his pa. Blood will tell, you know.”
“Thank you,” said Jon. “Our boy is adopted, but we love him like he was flesh and blood to us!”
The next day dawned bright and clear and remained so as crowds assembled around the noon hour for the race. Mysto felt the same old sense of exhilaration as he waited to go on the hastily rigged stage to perform his act. He had been a daring pilot before embarking on his career as an illusionist, yet he had never truly felt as alive in the air as he did on stage.
Mysto smiled after greeting the cheering audience, and he performed one trick after another. The crowd gasped and cheered in unison, and he felt the old thrill surge through his body. While I warn them repeatedly that there is no such thing as magic, they still eat up every illusion as if I was Merlin himself! he thought. I suppose they prefer to think I am some wizard than just a dapper guy getting them to expect one thing while delivering the opposite through some agility and finesse, and a bit of flash powder!
He glanced across the track to where some of the drivers were in discussion. They would be ready to race in a matter of minutes. Great Scott! How blind have I been? he thought as he glanced down at his gloves.
Dropping a pellet that he had palmed earlier, he raced away as smoke filled the stage. This was a dramatic way to end the act, but it wasn’t in his stage routine. He had merely adopted the smoke pellet vanishing act as a way to depart the stage early.
Pushing through a crowd of mechanics, Mysto grabbed Jon as he prepared to climb inside his car. “Get back!” he yelled. “You must get back!” Jonathan frowned and moved away from the car as Mysto grasped his arm.
“I think your car has been rigged,” Mysto explained. “Cronin was not going to rely on the food poisoning alone to get rid of Matt. That white powder I foolishly called pool cue chalk on the piece of paper Lucy received from Cronin looked like cue chalk, and Cronin was an avid player, but I was wrong. I was smug. In my act, I often use certain chemical solutions which appear to be and are harmless when considered alone, but when I add certain other compounds to them from, say, a wand or my gloves, the chemicals react to produce desired effects like a glow or a flash, for instance. Well, it occurred to me while I was on stage that the cue powder might have really been a certain chemical-derivative of magnesium, to be exact, which when added to other chemicals creates combustion! By itself the substance would be harmless and look like cue chalk!”
Tracing his fingertips lightly along the steering wheel, Mysto brought his hand up to his nose and sniffed. “I was right. This slightly filmy substance on your wheel would have ignited when you touched it. I can detect an odor from your driving gloves. They’ve been coated with minute traces of the same white powder, and a trace of it remained on the piece of paper on which Cronin wrote down his number while seducing Lucille in order to get her to drug Matt! When that powder on your gloves hit the substance on the wheel, you and your car would have gone up in flames! Cronin must have tampered with your car and your gear before he was picked up last night.”
Jon shook his head. “You saved my life! I would have burned alive out there. Maybe they would have written it off as a wreck and nothing more, too! Cronin almost killed me in his mad quest to pay Matt back!”
“And yet, perhaps he was not alone!” said Mysto. Hurrying back, he faced a crowd of mechanics. He waited for a moment, and then, after scanning the group, he tackled one rather gaunt figure.
As he wrestled the man to the ground, Mysto was joined by Sheriff Tupper, who questioned the magician-sleuth, then received his reply. “When I came in, I passed through a crowd of mechanics,” explained Mysto. “All of them had something in common, except for one of them. They had oil or grease on their hands. One did not. His nails were spotlessly clean. I think he was not a real mechanic. He may be working for Cronin. Perhaps his prints will be found on the altered wheel or gloves. His credentials need to be accounted for, in any case!”
Turning to Jonathan, Mysto said, “Jon, if we do a once-over on your car, you’ll be safe to drive for Matt. He’ll be listening to radio coverage from his hospital room! Perhaps Cronin will talk when we confront him in his cell, or his ally, here, will reveal his role in exchange for some mercy!”
Jon nodded, and they began to work while Sheriff Tupper led away the sullen hired thug.
Hours later, Mysto nodded with approval as Jon won the race on behalf of his old partner Matt Weston. The winnings would pay off Matt’s debts and allow him to marry Kim. Cronin, Lucille, and the fake mechanic would go to jail for their efforts to keep the team out of the race through murderous means, and yet Mysto would occasionally wonder about the mysterious stranger who first tipped him off to the danger.
“I don’t know how that man in black knew about the peril or why he asked me to handle things,” he said, “but I’m glad he did. Jonathan Kent was a fine man!” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: Jonathan Kent would again substitute for Matt Weston sometime later, as seen in “Big Race for a Mini-Hero,” Superboy #196 (July, 1973).]
Mysto blinked and found himself once more within Madame Xanadu’s shop in the present.
“The cards enabled you to relive one of your early cases,” said Madame Xanadu. “You saved more than one life.”
“I know,” said Mysto. “That means a lot. It always has meant a lot. I suppose my stage magician ego just acted up earlier. I’d like my grandson to respect me like he does heroes like Batman and Superman.”
“The stranger who brought you to the track knew something that I am only able to tell you now,” explained Madame Xanadu. “Jonathan Kent’s adopted son would grow up to be Superman! In saving Jon, you enabled the young and future Superman to benefit greatly from the wisdom his father would impart to you over the years. Perhaps without Jon Kent, Superman would never have become the hero he is, and we would all have suffered for that loss. In many ways, Superman’s every good deed could be seen as flowing from your own efforts to rescue his father!”
Mysto gasped and said, “Incredible! I can’t believe it! Still, I can’t tell anyone. I can’t risk exposing Superman’s private life! Can you remove this information from my mind with hypnosis?”
Madame Xandau smiled and said, “You are a remarkable man! You are worthy of respect and admiration. I will do as you ask, but I will leave the feeling that you and all you did in your career were of great value!”
She watched as Mysto the Magician Detective departed the shop after her work was done. He would not recall the details, but he also wouldn’t lose his sense of pride and accomplishment again.
She then turned to see the black-clad figure of the Phantom Stranger as he stepped out of the shadows.
“I knew Mysto’s efforts would be of importance when I led him to the track,” said the Phantom Stranger, “but I could not reveal the truth behind his actions, since in those days it was even less of my nature to directly involve myself with others, except as a guide or an inspiration.”
“But how did you know the future that was in store for Jonathan Kent and his son?” asked Madame Xanadu.
“I was guided by forces beyond my own ken,” said the Stranger. “In truth, the danger to Jonathan Kent was mirrored by perils that plagued several other parents of future heroes. That evil originated in the present, but was dealt with in the ’50s by other men of mystery like Mysto, Roy Raymond, Captain Compass, and others. Perhaps someday the full story may be told, but not by one who ever can only move through life as a stranger!”
As he vanished, Madame Xanadu picked up the cards on the table. She looked at them, and her expression changed, but she said nothing.