The wind blew bitterly cold that dark October night. While the air was still dry in Islington, distant grumbles threatened to crack the sky before the dawn did.
A lonely house situated on a lonely hilltop was tonight a gathering place for four people — four characters each very different from the others, and yet the same in two ways. Each of the four believed in powers beyond the ken of mortal man, in dark things that shunned the light and went about their dirty business unobserved. And each of the four sought to use this belief to gain power and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.
Each of the four sat around a small round table in a dusty room in the attic of the lonely house. Their host sat at the table as well, eyeing each of them in turn. Their host went by the unusual appellation of Eight, and was so wrinkled and shriveled with age that the face and form gave no more clue to gender than did the name. Eight eyed each one with a keen interest and spoke in a cracked voice.
“Dick Swift,” Eight said of a handsome young man in black. “You more than any here — besides myself, of course — have reason to believe in powers beyond the knowledge of mortal man. You have been touched by these powers, and they have left their mark.” The one Eight called Swift smiled wryly.
“James Craddock,” Eight said of a roguish young man in garish clothes, “known as ‘Gentleman Jim’ to the tellers of tales. Known simply as a rather prosperous highwayman with a flair for the dramatic. So few know of your true nature, and what you do with most of the money you make on the highways.” Craddock grinned wolfishly.
“Sarah Lian,” Eight said of a beautiful young woman with features of the Eurasian caste. “Bastard child of an English sailor and a Chinese whore. Half-caste, linked to two worlds and welcome in none. You seek darker worlds, to give you power over the mortal world that would have none of you.” Lian’s dark eyes flashed under heavy lashes.
“Septimus Graham,” Eight said of the last guest, a gentleman attired in finery. “Money is your only god, wealth your only passion. You seek the aid of the dark powers in becoming the wealthiest man the world has ever known.” Graham’s expression was unchanged.
Eight’s attention now turned to the center of the table, not looking directly at any of the four but regarding each from the corners of Eight’s eyes. “I can help you achieve what you desire most. It will be long in the coming; this Year of Our Lord 1850 will not see its end result. But if patience is yours, the fruits of tonight’s labors will be grand, indeed. The cost, too, shall be high, but what treasure worth having does not have its price? If any intend to back out, do so now and waste no more of my time.”
The ritual continued. It involved many arcane steps and procedures, but culminated in Eight drawing two drops of blood from each guest, nearest their heart. These Eight mixed together in a copper bowl, which was then placed in a glass box. The box was set into a small structure composed of many such glass boxes, fitted together like bricks. At the top of this structure was a convex dish of glass, like a giant lens. A monocle for Goliath, Craddock found himself thinking. Eight turned this lens toward the skylight.
“Look,” Eight said, pointing into the night sky with a bony finger. The four looked and at first saw nothing; then they each made out a tiny greenish-yellow speck crossing the night sky.
“The comet,” Eight said. “The source of tonight’s power. The reason the meeting had to be tonight and tonight only. All powerful magic comes from the sky, you see. By now, the comet’s power has done its work.”
“What work?” Graham demanded. “We’ve seen nothing.”
Eight voiced no answer, but removed the glass box containing the copper bowl. Opening this, the bowl was displayed to the guests. It no longer contained their mixed blood, but four small, scarlet gems, like rubies. They glittered with a fire no earthly gem could produce.
“Each of you close your eyes and reach into the bowl,” Eight instructed. “Take the first one you touch. You will find the one you were meant to find.” This was done quickly and in silence. “For now, the rubies will be focusing instruments only. They will allow you to use your own skills, those you have now and those you will learn later, more efficiently. The full power of the rubies will not be realized until the comet returns.”
“When will that be?” Lian asked.
Eight grinned. “Ninety-eight years. The comet shall pass this sphere again in 1948. If all four rubies are touching one another at that time, their full potential will be realized.”
“And that potential?” Swift asked.
“Power,” Eight hissed through wheezy lungs. “Power enough to pop the very world like a child’s balloon, or hold it between your fingers like a marble. Power to do anything you have ever imagined, and much, much more!”
All four guests smiled.
The woman in blue sat in the uncomfortable chair, impatient. She uncrossed her legs with a silken rasping, then crossed them again. It was going on two in the morning, and very few people were walking the halls; most of those who did were too involved in their own problems to notice the blue tint of her face, though she did get one or two funny looks.
She was just about to pick up the copy of The Shadow Magazine lying on the table and thumb through it for the sixth time, when a handsome man all in black rounded the corner. Seeing her, he smiled. “Sarah, my dear. It’s been a long time.”
“It certainly has, Dick,” Sarah smiled sweetly, rising from the chair. “Why on Earth did you pick this place for our meeting, though? I mean, a hospital, of all places!”
“Convenience,” Dick replied. “It’s open at all hours, but at this ungodly hour, few would notice a gathering of ungodly souls like ourselves. Besides, it gives me a chance to reflect on the fragility of life, something we all too easily lose sight of.”
“Have you seen James yet?” Sarah asked.
“I’ve been here for some time,” a faint voice said, before Dick could reply. A spectral image floated into the hall from within the wall. The image was a man in a tuxedo, or perhaps a tuxedo without a man, for there was empty space between the hat and the jacket, and between the gloves and the coat-cuffs.
“Jim Craddock!” Sarah hissed. “You reprehensible old Peeping Tom. How long have you been watching me?”
“Long enough, my dear. Did you know you have a run in your stocking?”
“Auld lang syne can wait for later,” Dick interrupted, trying to stave off the growing battle. “We have business to attend to.”
“Yes, and a pressing problem,” Sarah agreed. “Nobody has heard from Septimus in years and years. I haven’t had any luck tracking him down. What about you, Dick?”
“I’m afraid I lost his trail as well. I’d hoped he would try to get in touch with us, as the meeting is as important to him as to us; but he has not. At least, not with me.”
“I’m afraid I have some bad news,” James began.
“Bad news?” Dick asked. “Pertaining to our absent friend?”
“Yes, do you know where Septimus — or, at least, his ruby — is?” Sarah asked.
A spectral sound that might have been a ghostly sigh floated through the air. “I’m afraid I do. You see, I’ve been keeping close tabs on all of our little band; easy enough for me to do, since I died.”
“I’ve never understood why you took that particular path to immortality,” Sarah commented.
“Ah, but it’s flawless,” James said. “Nothing can harm or affect me now. I am truly invulnerable and immortal. All I had to do was die, and the Queen’s justice was more than happy to help me with that.”
“You were speaking of Septimus,” Dick prompted.
“Ah, yes. Well, he took to wearing his ruby as a stickpin. Wore it everywhere he went, even to bed. It served him well; he became one of the wealthiest men of our age or any other. Kept himself to himself, though; publicity was not for him, not like Astor or Rockefeller.”
“Yes, that we all know,” Dick said, a little impatiently. “Tell us what we don’t know.”
“All right. Here’s a fact you didn’t know. Septimus Graham was wearing his charmed stickpin the night he sailed from England, bound for New York City in America.”
James let a beat pass; neither Dick nor Sarah spoke, hanging on his next words.
“This was on April 12, 1912. Septimus sailed on the thrice-damned Titanic, and his ruby went down with it and him.”
“You mean,” Sarah began after a long silence, “the fourth ruby is at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean?”
“Precisely where, no one knows,” James confirmed. “And without it, our three are about as useful as collar-buttons.”
“Damn Septimus!” Sarah swore.
“And the comet is due in two weeks,” Dick added. “Astronomers have classified it now; M-78, they call it. Ted Knight, an amateur astronomer in my home of Opal City, believes it will pass closest to the Earth at 10:54 P.M. Greenwich time on July 18th.”
“Two weeks to find a sunken ship that’s been lost for thirty-six years.” James sighed his strange ghostly sigh. “Let alone find a way to get the ruby up from that watery grave, once we do find it.”
“I think you’re both leaving out the obvious,” Sarah said, smiling coquettishly.
“Oh?” James addressed her. “Tell us, my gel, what is the obvious?”
Silently, Sarah pointed to a table in the waiting room. A copy of Time Magazine lay on the table. On the brightly colored cover was a photograph of the Justice Society of America.
“We three may lack the power to find and raise that doomed vessel,” she said wickedly, “but they do not!”
“And you think we can trick them into doing it?” Dick asked.
“Of a certainty,” Sarah assured him. “We all have experience dealing with mystery-men, do we not? And none of us has ever been caught. I know, to the two of you I must seem like an underachiever. Dick, you joust with the Flash, while James enjoys making a fool of the Hawkman. Me, in my guise of the Blue Lama, I prefer Sargon the Sorcerer as a target. But to each his own.”
“Dick, it sounds good,” James said. “Why, Green Lantern alone could find and raise the ship quicker than you can say ‘figgy pudding.’ Granted, there are risks…”
“But the potential reward far outweighs them,” Dick said pensively. “I agree. Let us consider this problem, my friends, and how best to bend the Justice Society of America to our will!”
“Well, Dinah, what did you think of your first couple of cases as a full-fledged JSAer?” the Atom asked Black Canary as they passed through the doorway into their Gotham City headquarters. “Had enough of fighting the Alchemist? Twice in a row now!” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Man Who Hated Science,” All-Star Comics #42 (August-September, 1948) and Justice Society of America: Times Past, 1948: All in the Chemistry.]
“I must say they were both interesting, especially my first,” Black Canary said. “Getting turned into a little girl by the Alchemist’s elixir of youth, then turned back into an adult by his alchemo-bombs — weird! It’s like something out of an issue of Weird Tales or something.”
“Say, Doc,” Hawkman said, looking at Doctor Mid-Nite intensely. “Do these hawk-like eyes deceive me, or do you look… younger?”
“I’ve noticed it, too, Hawkman,” Mid-Nite said. “And I have my own theory about it. We all used the elixir of youth to escape from the Alchemist’s death-trap, and then his alchemo-bomb aged us back again. Well, I don’t think the bomb neutralized the effects of the elixir, but simply aged us all about fifteen years from where the elixir had us. I was always about seven or eight years older than the rest of you, but now we’re the same age.”
“Good deal!” the Flash said, thumping his old friend on the back. “I always felt you got a little cheated, missing out on the Ian Karkull case by a week and a half. This sort of makes up for it, eh?”
“Um, friends?” Green Lantern said. “Hate to break up the revelry, but I don’t think we’re alone!”
The JSAers’ heads turned to see someone sitting at their meeting table, a lean, tall man in a tuxedo and cape, his head topped by a turban held in place by a fiery red ruby.
“Who’s that?” Black Canary asked the Atom.
“An old friend from the All-Star Squadron days,” the Atom said. “Sargon the Sorcerer!”
“Greetings, friends of the Justice Society,” Sargon said. “I wish I had come under happier circumstances, but I have need of your help.”