A few weeks before, Artemis Crock had been relaxing after pulling off a successful job for a retired mobster near San Joachim, California. The old man had hired her to throw a scare into some of his younger relations who had been “getting too big for their britches,” as the elderly gangster had put it.
Artemis had enjoyed the job for several reasons. She had a certain contempt for non-costumed criminals, and she enjoyed roughing up the swaggering, macho jerks. She also liked the large payment she had received, and she smiled even as she recalled the final bit of icing on the cake.
“I totally trashed that would-be super-heroine, La Castiga. I whipped the Whip, you might say!” she joked.
She had barely begun to unwind in her apartment when she stopped to sort her mail. “Well, well!” she muttered as she read an elegant invitation.
“You are cordially invited to join the newest version of Injustice Unlimited,” she read. “Your services are especially desired, and you will be well compensated. Should you wish to join, you will find certain instructions have been placed in a coded ad within the Underworld Railroad.”
She sank down on a sofa and linked her fingers across one knee as she rocked backward for a moment.
“The Underworld Railroad is the premiere trade publication for villains seeking work. Since I didn’t just get directions in this card, I guess the mystery man behind the scene wants to recruit several potential gang members. The cards alert us to the ad, and the ad tells us where to go! Pretty standard stuff.”
She picked up a small magazine and ran her fingers down several columns until she spotted the coded ad. She had memorized the code long before, since variations of it had been used since her childhood.
“The Monocle. Why, I thought he was dead! Still, any geezer who battled Hawkman himself is worth serious consideration. They didn’t come any tougher than Carter Hall in the old days!”
She knew Carter Hall was the famous Hawkman, since his son had revealed as much on a televised press conference for the heroic group Infinity Inc. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Press Conference,” Infinity, Inc. #12 (March, 1985).]
“Pretty stuck on yourself, huh, princess of plunder?” The words came from a woman lurking in the shadows of the apartment.
Artemis had back-flipped into a battle stance before the shadowy redhead could do more than assume a stance of her own.
The woman had red hair and wore a tight white and blue-black leotard with a stylized blue headpiece that protected her head but left her face uncovered. It was something like a modified tiara. Her costume was cut along a mid-rift pattern and left her stomach bare.
“Who are you, and how’d you get in here?” demanded Artemis as she aimed her crossbow.
The other woman laughed and said, “I’ve been trained by the best. I was able to bypass your security with ease! But don’t make me spank you, princess. I come in peace!”
“Say your piece before I leave you in pieces!” said Artemis.
The woman smiled and raised both hands in a placating gesture. “I’m Bellatrix. I am here to bring you to a mutual friend, although perhaps I should say, I want to bring you to meet someone who wants to be your friend!”
Artemis eyed the Bellatrix with an appraising stare. Clearly she’s fit and skilled, but I could take her, she thought. I’m sure of it! It might be more fun to prove it than to meet this so-called friend!
She lowered her gaze and smiled briefly before leaping at the intruder and connecting with a spinning heel kick that flattened Bellatrix.
Before Artemis could attack again, the redhead grabbed her ankle and yanked her to the ground. They grappled furiously without either woman gaining a clear advantage.
“You are good, Trixie!” purred Artemis.
Bellatrix scowled and said, “And you’re no better than I’d heard!”
Artemis lashed out with a quick jab to the nose that temporarily slowed her opponent and allowed the platinum blonde predator to prick her foe with the tip of a bolt.
Bellatrix gasped as she began to weaken. “You drugged me! You sorry vixen!” she whispered.
Artemis grinned and said, “I may be a vixen, but I’m not the least bit sorry!”
Later, when the narcotic had worn off, Bellatrix had awakened to find Artemis sitting confidently nearby.
“Now you know which of us is the cat and which is the mouse…” said a cocky Artemis.
Bellatrix sat up and regained her feet. “You cheated. I should have known you would not have relied on your own physical prowess against me.”
Artemis frowned as she replied, “Whatever gets the job done.”
“You sound like your mother,” said Bellatrix.
“You know my mother?” asked Artemis. “Just who are you?”
“My name is not secret,” said Bellatrix. “I’m Soseh Mykros. My father was a scientist who raised me to be a genetic perfection able to mimic any physical skill I see. His best friend is the man who wants to meet you.”
“A lot of men want to be my friend,” said Artemis. “What makes your guy so special?”
Bellatrix stared hard at the younger woman and said, “His name is Paul Kirk. Heard of him?”
Artemis hesitated and then said, “Paul Kirk was an adventurer, wildlife expert, traveler, and super-hero named Manhunter. He died long ago.”
“Let me be more specific,” said Bellatrix. “I want you to meet Paul Kirk, Jr., the son of the hero you referred to!”
Artemis nodded slowly, and her expression changed to one of grim acceptance. “Lead on,” she said.
During the ensuing flight, the two women had watched each other warily until they reached their destination.
“Nice vehicle you have here,” said Artemis as they disembarked from a sleek aircraft. “Did Kirk buy it for you? Is he your sugar daddy?”
“Get your mind out of the gutter,” said Bellatrix. “He is like a father to me. He helped raise me. As I said, my late father Dr. Mykros was his best friend. They worked together to build something noble and fine. Not that either quality would be familiar to you!”
Artemis admired the ranch-like compound that loomed around their airstrip. “Paul Kirk Jr. must be loaded. I knew his father was wealthy, but I didn’t know he had this kind of money!”
“This compound is but one of their holdings,” said Bellatrix. “In truth, it is owned by the group Paul formed with my father. The organization is called the Council!”
Artemis pursed her lips as she said, “Aren’t you being a bit free with the data?”
“While I will allow Paul to do the talking, I will merely add that we do not fear you!” said Bellatrix.
Artemis nodded as she resumed her normal sultry walk. She was impressed by this mysterious Council, but she had to hide it. That was her way.
She allowed Bellatrix to usher her inside the compound’s largest building, where an attractive woman with stark white hair and a white body stocking greeted them.
“Welcome, Artemis. Mr. Kirk will see you immediately.”
Artemis grinned and said, “Well, at least that babe knows her manners!”
“White?” said Bellatrix. “She is a real lady when she’s not carrying off a mission in some exotic spot. Red is the one with the bad temper!”
Artemis shrugged her shoulders. “White? Red? Really clever code names,” she said with a sneering grin. She started to turn to face her guide, when a tall man with handsome features stepped forward and led her deeper into the room.
“Leave us, Bellatrix. Thank you,” he said with a gentle smile.
Bellatrix nodded and said, “If you need me, I’ll be outside.”
He waited until the door closed, and then he said, “Welcome, Artemis. I am so happy to meet you. In another life, we might have been so much more to one another than we are now.”
“What are you saying?” Artemis remarked, raising one eyebrow in confusion. “I came because I’ve heard about your father all my life. I mean, I’ve pieced together a lot about him, and Mother told me more when she was drunk one time. Your father was my mother’s first love. That doesn’t really link us!”
Sighing, he extended one hand. In it, he held a photo of a lovely, dark-haired woman and a man who looked much like himself.
“Mother? You’ve got a photo of her with your father? My father never allowed mother to keep such mementos. He flew into a rage anytime Paul Kirk was mentioned! And that name came up more than once during their fights!”
“Artemis,” began Paul, “Paula Crock, your mother, was also my mother. I was born in 1946. My father was Paul Kirk, the Manhunter. They loved each other deeply. I know this from all I’ve researched. Their friends have told me as much. They were parted by a cruel twist of fate. An evil woman used your mother for her own gains. She, in turn, was something of a pawn of an evil immortal named Mars. In short, my parents were separated by no choice of their own.”
“You’re my half-brother?” said Artemis. “Incredible!”
Paul took her hands, and she made no effort to resist him. “I’m sorry to break it to you so roughly. We’ve lost so much time. Let me explain more fully. Originally, your mother was a mystery-woman called the Tigress. Her own mother was a thief-turned-witch who eventually became the Enchantress. She had little to do with raising Paula. That lack of direction led to Paula’s embracing a life of thrills and danger inspired by my father’s jungle exploits.”
Artemis nodded slowly. She had only met her magical grandmother little more than a year ago, and the fact that the weirdly preserved woman looked so young was but one of the many things she found hard to accept about the elder woman.
“Mother wasn’t a heroine,” said Artemis. “I mean, she had a thing for Paul Kirk, and she might have helped him out some during the war. A lot of costumed types did their part against the Axis.”
“She was a heroine,” said Paul. “Believe me. That makes it all the more tragic that magic warped her more than once into becoming the hardened criminal who later fought Wildcat, amongst others.”
“I know all about her criminal career,” said Artemis. “Where do you fit in it?”
“After the war, my parents settled in Africa, where they were happy,” said Paul Kirk Jr. “They made friends there, and they might have enjoyed true bliss, except for the separation that came about in ’47, when I was less then a year old. A woman called Gudra took my mother away by magical force and put a spell upon her. (*) My father left me with one of his closest friends and went out in search of his abducted lover. He never found her. Death found the Manhunter before he ever located Paula Brooks. A rhino killed him. He had faced death at the hands of Nazi killers, aliens, and super-villains, but one of nature’s own ended his life by chance.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Justice Society of America: Times Past, 1947: The New Olympians, Chapter 1: The Valkyrie’s Touch.]
“I’m sorry. Really,” said Artemis. “So, why didn’t mother try to find you?”
“I don’t know,” said Paul. “I think she tried, but that magic Gudra used upon her transformed her in more ways than one. She was maddened for a time. She’d been turned by Norse magic into something called Diana the Wild Huntress. That faded, but she didn’t snap back to normal. She became the criminal Huntress and served jail-time. I think, by the time she got out and tried to find me, I was beyond her reach.”
Artemis felt a tear trickle down her cheek, and she gritted her teeth in frustration.
“I was taken deep into the jungle by M’bantu when my father left me in his care. He knew magic had been at work at their camp and wanted to get me to safety. I was raised by several caring people. One of them is here on my compound. His name is Congo Bill. You have heard of him, of course?”
Artemis nodded and said, “Sure. So, by the time she regained her senses, mother was already a criminal, her lover was dead, and you were lost to her. That explains why she became what she is today. I love her. I love my father, too, but I know they both have a real hard streak. I guess they’ve raised me and my sister to have that same ruthless edge.”
Paul nodded and said, “I was wealthy. I had friends. I loved life in Africa, but I wanted more. I befriended a scientist named Dr. Mykros. We shared altruistic goals and wanted to unite our resources to make the world a better place. We funded and created a covert group called the Council. We vowed to fight the kind of crime and injustice we both hated. We did good work, and it was kept secret. Our allies or agents came from diverse walks of life. You met one of them. Bellatrix is Mykros’ daughter. I helped raise her. She is zealous, to say the least!”
“Is that woman called White another agent?” asked Artemis.
Nodding, he explained, “She and two other women grew up together. Their grandfathers were business partners after the war and were special agents during World War II. Their names were Red Dugan, Whitey Smith, and Blooey Blue, so naturally Red, White, and Blue were their code names. (*) The women use the same code names to honor the legacy.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Red, White and Blue, All-American Comics #1 (April, 1939).]
“What do you want with me?” asked Artemis. “Are you bitter that mother raised me and not you?”
He shook his head, even as the young woman began to weep. “I want to help you. I can’t change my mother. I know that. I’ve never even tried to see her. I’ve made a study of her, and I know she is beyond my help. You are not! I want to offer you a place on my team. I want to see you work for the common good! Use your skills to help the world. I want you to work by my side. I want you to carry out what once could have been our mother’s role in the world. I’d like you to become an agent of the Council!”
Artemis was suspicious. She loved her father deeply, and in no way was she ready to reject him for another father figure, even one that claimed to be her half-brother. Still, as she looked at the forty-something Paul Kirk Jr. and felt his emotional sincerity, something touched her, and she wept as he embraced her.
Later, she said, “This is a lot to take in. I’ve been asked to join another criminal team. The data is in this ad.”
“Take your time,” said Paul. “I won’t rush you. I’m confident you will make the right decision. I know you’ve worked with the second Starman, and you feel something for him. (*) He’d be thrilled to know you’d changed your direction in life!”
She said nothing as Kirk led her toward the waiting White, who in turn led her to a room where she could rest and think.
Artemis sank down on a bed and placed her face in her hands. This is too much for me! I’ve never taken things that seriously. Being the woman I am has always come so easily. Things like right and wrong were the last things on my mind. Paul Kirk Jr. is not my father, and he’s certainly not taking the place of my real dad. So why am I even thinking such thoughts? Am I trying to convince myself that I couldn’t change sides?
She sighed and reclined on the bed. The room was quiet, but her mind remained troubled for much of the night.
The next morning Artemis awoke to the sound of heavy footsteps in the hallway. She jumped across the room and rolled to a stop beside her crossbow and other weapons. As she crouched with the weapons ready and aimed, a quick knock echoed before the door opened to reveal a worried-looking Paul Kirk Jr.
“Artemis, there is a problem! Bellatrix has left. She took your documents concerning the next job you were considering. Yes, she explained all about it in her note!”
Artemis frowned and approached him as she pulled a sheet around her shoulders. “Paul, are you saying that psycho wants to turn bad?”
Shaking his head, he said, “No, she wants to infiltrate this gang you’ve been invited to join. The fact is, she says she’s going to pretend to be you! Among our many facilities here, we have a complete wardrobe, arsenal, and disguise section. The man who funded my operations here is the greatest master of disguise that ever lived.”
Artemis gasped as she moved toward her costume. “That little idiot will get herself killed! I’ll get her back. I’m not promising anything more than that, but I’ll bring her back safely, or die trying!”
Paul nodded grimly and turned to give her privacy.
Now, in the present, Artemis sighed heavily as she waited for the return of the Monocle’s gang and the source of her problems — the faux Artemis, Bellatrix.