One week later, in a warehouse whose location was a very jealously guarded secret, a meeting was underway. It was a meeting similar in appearance to the ill-fated meeting earlier called by the Puzzler, except that no one was addressing the meeting yet. The attendees sat, nervously fidgeting in their chairs, anxious for something to happen.
“Where is he?” one man demanded.
“How would I know?” came a reply.
“He said he’d be here, didn’t he?”
“Well, he is a crook, after all. Maybe he smelled a rat.”
“Don’t look at me when you say that!”
Suddenly, the wooden floor in front of the gathered crowd exploded upward, as an ebony-armored figure burst up through it. Black Nemesis had arrived.
“He knows how to make an entrance, I’ll give him that,” one young woman in red and black said appreciatively.
“Didn’t keep you all waiting long, did I?” Black Nemesis asked. “Have any trouble parking?”
“Stow the theatrics,” one man demanded, “and let’s get down to business!”
“Quite right,” Black Nemesis said. “Well, as you all know, I’m Black Nemesis, the guy who’s single-handedly humiliated the overrated Justice Society of America! Don’t expect me to tell you my real name, because I won’t. Now, let me know who you all are! Just your nommes du crime, please, don’t bother with your true names. Let’s start at front row left.”
“The Black Baron.”
“The Huntress. The real one.”
“The Hooded Hunchback.”
“The Sky Pirate. And when we catch that scurvy dog who done in me poor nephew–”
“The Baleful Banshee.”
“That all of you?” Black Nemesis asked. “OK, then. Well, you put that ad in the Black Star because you want me to keep the Sunset Killer from getting you, right?”
Cries of acknowledgment came from the group.
“Well, I can do that. I can make sure he never lays a finger on you. But — you all need to do something for me, first.”
“Oh, here it comes,” the one who identified himself as Doctor Clever said. “What do you want? Our undying loyalty? Fifty percent of our criminal take? Our senior citizen discount cards at Steak & Ale?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” Black Nemesis declared. “I simply want you — all of you — to die!”
And with that, Black Nemesis exploded.
The old man smiled as he turned off the robot control mechanism. It had been his most satisfying strike yet. Perhaps the body count wasn’t as large as the Puzzler’s meeting, but there had been bigger players this time, greater threats to society that he had taken off the board. Yes, a very satisfying evening.
He shouldn’t have been surprised when his ceiling began to glow green. But he quickly regained his composure as the Justice Society floated down into his home, encased in a green energy bubble. When the heroes were all inside, Green Lantern dissolved the bubble. The Justice Society took a moment to view the scene before them. Complex machinery, large and small, stood in a circular pattern like a ring, or perhaps more aptly, a web; in the center of the web stood a hospital bed, adjusted to an almost ninety-degree angle. An old man, seemingly in his eighties if appearance was any indicator, lay propped up in the bed, his withered arms manipulating controls on the machinery. Tubes led from his arms and nose to other machines or to intravenous drip devices. Clearly, the man was ill, and not only mentally.
“Well, I suppose it was only a matter of time,” the man said resignedly. “At least you didn’t find me before–”
“Before your last big score?” Hawkman interrupted. “You killed no one tonight. We arranged for that meeting. Those ‘villains’ you thought you killed were phonies — duplicates created by Johnny Thunder’s Thunderbolt.”
The old man gasped, eyes wide. “You… tricked me? It was a ruse, to help you find me?”
“If you’re going to use remote-controlled robots to do your dirty work,” Red Robin said, “you should be sure no one who’s after you can see radio waves.” Power Girl smiled at her husband with admiration.
The old man sighed. “I thought it was foolproof,” he said. “I suppose you’ve heard that a hundred times, but I truly did. How did you figure it out? My robots vaporized when their tasks were carried out. Once I pressed this button–” The old man indicated a bright red button with a trembling figure. “–they immolated in three seconds, leaving no trace!”
“Except their skin,” Hourman said.
“Excuse me?” the old man said.
“The plastic compound you used for the robots’ skin,” Hourman said. “It didn’t vaporize completely — it left behind a white powdery residue.”
“And, what? You… reverse-engineered the plastic flesh from that?” the old man’s eyes were wide with respect. “I must say, that’s brilliant. I congratulate you, sir.”
“There were other clues,” the Atom said, “that should have told us we were fighting robots. But we didn’t tumble to them until the plastic flesh pointed us in the right direction.”
“Clues?” the old man asked. “Such as what, may I ask?”
“For one thing, Black Nemesis’ ability to resist my commands, once bound by my magic lasso,” Wonder Woman fairly spat. “I should have realized — no living being could do that.”
“And Obsidian’s shadow-attack on Sunset,” Hourman added. “He failed to force Sunset to confront the evil in his soul — because he had no soul. He was just your Greek mask, to speak and act through.”
“It was a beautiful plan, though,” the old man said, almost wistfully. “I took out villain after villain after villain, while at the same time becoming the person the surviving villains would be most likely to seek out for help! You have to admit, it was a masterpiece of planning and execution.”
“As long as you enjoy talking about yourself so much,” Hawkman snapped, “how about answering a couple of my questions? Such as, who you are, and why you did all this?”
The old man seemed hurt. “What, you mean you don’t recognize me? None of you?” He turned a wan smile on the Man of Tomorrow. “Not even you, Superman?”
Superman stared at the old face, consulting his vast memory. Then a look of realization and shock slowly spread across his face. “Great Scott!”
Red Robin, too, had just recognized the old man. “Holy–! It is you! Albert Elwood!”
Elwood gazed at Red Robin with wide eyes. “Robin? Is that you, my boy? Oh, my, how you’ve grown! Please, forgive me for not recognizing you sooner.”
“That’s… OK,” Red Robin said, still in shock.
“Hey, since you two seem to know this guy,” Wildcat said, “how about filling the rest of us in? Don’t leave us standin’ around like the gawking servants in the last paragraph of an Agatha Christie novel!”
“Superman, Batman, and I met Mr. Elwood a long time ago,” Robin said. “At the time he was a wannabe super-hero calling himself… well… the Crimson Avenger.” The Sandman did a double-take at that. “He wasn’t very good at it, and we convinced him to leave crime-fighting to the professionals… or so we thought.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: The Earth-One version of this story, upon which the Earth-Two version is based, is “The Mystery of the Crimson Avenger,” World’s Finest Comics #131 (February, 1963).]
“Yes, that’s right,” Elwood said with a smile. “You considered me a… how did the comic-book version of the events phrase it? Oh, yes. A ‘crackpot inventor.’ But I did come up with some really effective weapons, didn’t I? Did it ever occur to you to wonder why I chose to focus my talents on fighting crime?”
“Frankly, I assumed you were in it for the thrills and adventure,” Superman admitted.
“Well, I can’t blame you for that,” Elwood said with a kindly smile. “That’s just the image I tried to foster. But the truth is a bit more complex than that.
“You see, I realized very early the growing problem that so-called ‘super-villains’ represented. My father was a Metropolis cab driver. He worked sixteen-hour shifts to put me through college. He was killed in the cab racket wars, which, I later learned, were orchestrated by a super-villain. (*) My wife and infant daughter died in the New York City Subway Fire of 1939 — also the work of a super-villain.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Superman, Action Comics #13 (June, 1939) and The Hawkman, Flash Comics #1 (January, 1940), which feature as super-villains the Ultra-Humanite and Anton Hastor, respectively.]
The Justice Society listened with rapt attention.
“Oh, I was bitter for a while,” Elwood admitted. “I even listened to some of the demagogues who preached that super-heroes were the true problem, and that super-villains followed them. But I quickly realized that this idea was just as absurd as those who had spoken out against organized police forces, when such were in their infancy. The world was changing, and crime was changing with it; new methods were needed to combat crime. I was content to let the super-heroes take care of the super-villains.
“But then the super-heroes started disappearing. Many dropped from public view shortly after the end of the war. I assumed, I hoped, that they chose to retire and enjoy the way of life they had fought for, rather than having been killed in battle. Some years after the war ended, the Justice Society itself disbanded, leaving the ranks of the super-heroes seriously depleted. Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, two or three others. I saw the need for action.
“It took me a couple of years, but I built weapons for the war against costumed crime, and fashioned an identity for myself. I rechristened myself in honor of the first man to take up the mantle of costumed crime-fighting — the first that I knew of, anyway. (*) My first foray was, shall we say, less than successful. I allowed you two gentlemen, and Batman, to think that I had agreed to give up the fight, when in reality I planned to return with greater weaponry, and somewhat better training.” Elwood paused for a brief coughing spell, followed by a drink of water from a plastic cup near his bed.
[(*) Editor’s note: Lee Travis, alias the original Crimson Avenger.]
“But not long after that, the Justice Society returned to active duty. I felt the need for a well-meaning amateur somewhat reduced. So I returned to private life, always keeping a hand in, though, always upgrading my weaponry against the day when I felt I would be needed again.”
“So why the robot vigilante routine?” Wildcat demanded. “Why the cold-blooded murder of super-villains? Retired ones, at that?!”
“Because I saw the problem getting worse, not better,” Elwood said, a bit more sternly. “The villains continued to thrive; innocents continued to die. The super-heroes did what they could, what they would, but it wasn’t enough. And I learned that my own time on Earth was drawing to a close. I wanted to do something before my time was up, something for all the sons and husbands and fathers who stood to lose those precious to them. I conceived of my master plan and built my robots to carry it out — robots that were extensions of myself, through whom I could see and hear and speak, whose movements I directed with my own thoughts! It may not have been my own frail finger pulling the trigger that dispatched those iniquitous souls to their final judgment, but I could feel the finger tightening on the trigger, see the looks on their faces, hear their screams! My only regret, if any, is that so many villains are still left, now that you have put a stop to my work.”
Silence reigned in the small room for long moments. Hawkman broke it. “Very eloquently put, Mr. Elwood,” he said. “You do realize, of course, we have to take you in, to stand trial for what you’ve done.”
“Yes, of course,” Elwood said dismissively. “You do what you must, I suppose.”
“You don’t seem too broken up about it,” Wildcat observed.
“Oh… you mean, you’re serious?” Elwood said. “You actually expect to find a jury that will convict me?” Elwood began to chuckle, but it quickly turned into a severe coughing fit. His spindly fingers grasped a tissue and covered his mouth with it until the fit was over. When he put it aside, Hawkman spied droplets of blood on it. “Good luck with that,” Elwood said.
Hawkman opened his mouth to say something, but stopped when Superman laid a hand on his shoulder. The Man of Tomorrow and Hawkman walked off to a corner to talk; Doctor Mid-Nite and Wildcat followed.
“Elwood has a point,” Superman said quietly. “With what he’s just told us about his history, his motivations, any criminal attorney worth his fee could get him off.”
“And, if a cursory glance at his medical condition is anything to go by,” Doctor Mid-Nite added, “he likely won’t last long enough to stand trial.”
“What are you guys saying?” Wildcat demanded. “That we should just let him go? He’s a mass murderer! He admitted it!”
“No, I’m not suggesting that,” Superman said. “It’s just–”
“Then just what are you suggesting?” Wildcat said.
“Enough, ‘Cat,” Hawkman cut him off. “You — all of you — unanimously elected me permanent chairman of this Society. That makes the final decision mine. And here it is.
“Maybe a slick lawyer can get Elwood off, plead insanity, or remind the jury just who he killed. But whatever a jury decides for Elwood, they have to live with it. What we do here and now, we have to live with. Forget about just who Elwood killed, and what they were. They were human beings. Nobody has the right to decide unilaterally whether they have the right to live or die. Nobody is above the law, and nobody is beneath it, either. We all swore to uphold the laws of this nation, laws that were put in place to protect everyone. If we let Elwood off the hook, for whatever reason, our entire careers become lies and shams.”
Others of the Society had joined the small group, listening to Hawkman. “How about it?” the winged wonder asked. “Does anyone here think we should let Elwood walk, or do we let a jury of his peers make the decision? Anybody?”
Wonder Woman was the first to speak. “You speak for us all, Hawkman,” she said. “We do what justice dictates.”
“Right,” Hawkman said. “Now, someone call Commissioner O’Hara, have him send someone down to take Elwood into custody.” Hawkman gazed at the frail, withered form in the hospital bed. “Gently,” he added.