He wasn't the last man Robert Hawkins expected to see—the President of the United States would have surprised him more, or various dead persons (two superheroes aside, Dakota wasn't yet that kind of town.) Though he was, quite possibly, the last man Robert wanted to have darkening his stoop.
His stomach had knotted when the limousine pulled into the community center's parking lot, polished near-black finish glinting deep violet in the sunlight. His office window was at the wrong angle for him to make out the license plate, or the man's face as he climbed out of the limo, but Robert didn't need to see his face. The white suit, the bald head, were more than enough. Feeling like his intestines were lassoing his kidneys, he left his office and hurried across the gym floor. Better to confront the man outside; he didn't want any more fuss than necessary.
Though it was too late for that; all the kids in the center were clustered around the windows, pointing and chattering. Robert ineffectually waved them back, just as the main doors opened and Lex Luthor strode in. He was flanked by a stout, nervous man with a palm pilot and a tall woman who walked like she could teach any of the center's self-defense classes. With one hand tied behind her back. Blindfolded.
Paying heed to neither his flunkies nor the whispering teenagers, Luthor scanned the room with one slow turn of his head, then headed for Robert. He extended one hand as he moved. "You must be Robert Hawkins. Pleased to meet you."
Robert hesitated an instant, clamped down on the gut-twisting aversion and took his hand. "Mr. Luthor." Luthor's grip was firm and dry, his smile pleasant and charming. His gray eyes were opaque, blank metal bulkheads. "To what do we owe this visit?"
He wouldn't go so far as to say 'pleasure', standard courtesies notwithstanding. Luthor knew him by name; doubtless he also knew of the three editorials Robert had submitted to the Dakota Times since LexCorp had made their first bid to acquire Alva Industries. The controversy would have been hard to miss. Even Robert's friends and fellow community workers hadn't followed his objections, especially after LexCorp had made good on its pledge to reopen the main Dakota plant, even increasing its workforce by a third again.
Robert understood their point. Alva Industries had always been one of the lynchpins of Dakota's economy. But Alva Senior had until his death been as capriciously treacherous as an old Greek god, building up and tearing down with no regard to the consequences. His son was a leech, living large while driving the company into the ground. LexCorp was powerful, wealthy, shining with the promise of both stability and growth, a safe, straight road to the future.
All that, for the low, low cost of selling their souls to the most dangerous man on the planet.
"My apologies for barging in without an appointment," Luthor said. "I've been meaning to stop by for the last week, but only managed to make time now. I hope I'm not interrupting anything." He faked sincerity well enough that there was no audible mockery in his tone, as if he genuinely believed the schedules of a few inner city kids were as important as his multi-billion dollar corporate empire.
But then that was Luthor's greatest claim to fame, even more than the financial skills or his much touted scientific genius. That charisma which could sway business rivals and politicians, which had fooled lawyers and judges and even, possibly, a superhero or two. From what Robert knew, it was that as much as his billions which had kept Luthor out of jail, time and again.
Most supervillains broke out of prison; difficult to keep something superhuman behind bars intended for regular men. Luthor had never escaped; he had never been jailed for more than a week. For that, most people trusted him as they never would the Joker or the Penguin. False arrests, rumors, libel: they could dismiss Luthor's crimes and enter the LexCorp fold guilt-free. Comfortable knowing that if they were wrong, it was a superhero's duty to save them from their mistakes.
But who saved the superheroes?
Robert folded his arms. "I'm free for the next half hour," he said. "What do you want to talk to me about?"
"There's a few things," Luthor said. "Certain of which might be more suited to the privacy of your office, if that's all right with you."
It was politely phrased as a suggestion, not a demand. Robert's guts looped themselves a knot tighter, but Luthor wasn't likely to try anything. Not with witnesses right outside the door—kids were hard to pay off; and besides it wasn't Luthor's style. He wouldn't dirty his hands personally with anything as simple as murder or extortion. Robert nodded and walked them to his office.
To his surprise, Luthor dismissed his staff at the door. "Mercy, Kyle, you can wait out with the car. Or shoot some hoops with the kids here, they look like they're having fun." Actually no one was playing at the moment, the basketballs forgotten on the floor as everyone gawked at the spectacle of a man with more money than all of them put together likely would ever see. Robert noticed no less than three cell phones snapping pictures. Luthor seemed to ignore the attention; his artfully photogenic smile might have been only for Robert's sake.
The smile didn't go away when he closed the office door, genial and genuine. It made Robert's skin crawl. Luthor was smiling like that in most newspaper shots, in all the recent photos taken at the business meetings, shaking hands with Alva Junior, but the first image that came to Robert's mind was from six months ago. The photo had been taken at the press conference in front of the LexCorp headquarters in Metropolis, the copy full of Luthor's reassurances that it had all been a terrible accident, his expressions of gratitude for the Justice League's assistance in containing the virus which had infected his new military robots' AI.
The kryptonite used in the robots' weapons, he had explained on CNN's broadcast, was a prototype of a new extra-efficient energy source. The newspapers had dutifully reported his words, and Superman's name was never invoked, for all he had spearheaded the defense. Or had, until he had nearly been speared in return by the lead robot. That particular footage of the superheroes' actions had only made it onto half the news networks. LexCorp owned the other half.
Luthor hadn't used his arch-nemesis's name, but he had said, "I would like to personally thank Static and Gear for their work today. Their powers were instrumental in the robots' deactivation, and I won't forget their efforts. Truly, they belong in the League." He had smiled as he said it, looking directly into the cameras, and Robert remembered feeling exposed, sitting at home on his couch, as if Luthor were staring straight at them with that gracious smile and those blank-wall eyes.
Then Virgil had changed channels with a wave of his hand, looking extremely discomfited. "Don't listen to that, Pops. Supes and the Bat did more than me and Richie." Which was too modest a thing for his son to say to make Robert anything but even more concerned.
Static and Gear had been official, if part-time, members of the Justice League since Virgil and Richie's sophomore years in college, and had worked with League heroes several times before that. And it wasn't as if Dakota's particular breed of super-powered criminals weren't nerve-wrackingly hazardous in their own right. Robert had learned to deal, more or less, and he was careful to keep his son from seeing the 'less.' But it was one thing to hear about Static and Gear's exploits on the news, or firsthand over dinner illustrated with excited hand gestures and statically charged flying silverware.
It was another thing altogether to see Metropolis's supreme supervillain making barely veiled threats against his youngest child and the boy who was like his second son. And another thing still to have said supervillain moving into his city—to have him standing in Robert's office, smirking at him from under the mirror-silver eyes and sleek pale dome of his bald head.
"Please have a seat," Robert said stiffly, settling himself behind his desk while Luthor sat down in one of the two chairs in front. The billionaire leaned back comfortably on the red vinyl as if the sagging cushion and taped arms weren't totally incongruous with the immaculately white lines of his suit. He might have been sitting in a ten thousand dollar piece of ergonomically designed office furniture. No disdain, as he did a quick glance around the office, just an interested investigation, and then his focus fixed back on Robert as Robert asked, "So what's this about."
Luthor crossed his legs and put his fingertips together. "Mr. Hawkins," he said, "you do good work here. I've looked into the center's activities and quite frankly am amazed at how much you've accomplished over the years on the budget you have. My main reason for coming here is because I'm aware that Alva Industries has been a major supporter of this center for years now. I wanted to assure you personally that while Alva is now under LexCorp, those contributions will continue. In fact I'd like to expand the company's involvement. As you may know, LexCorp funds several various charity efforts. I'd like this center to be one of them."
It wasn't a complete shock. Robert had heard much about LexCorp's charities from his friends who wondered why he opposed Luthor coming into Dakota. Of course, the rumors of what had been done under the guise of some of those charities—inconvenient rumors were so easily ignored. "I see," he said coolly, and then because his mama hadn't raised him to be rude, even to supervillains, "Thank you, Mr. Luthor." He knew better than to ask what the price would be.
"Not at all," Luthor said. "I consider it my responsibility to help take care of the communities which I'm part of. As part of that, we're going to be funding a few new scholarships to Dakota University, for the sciences, mostly, to encourage industrial growth in the city, and a couple LexCorp and Alva Industries internships—I'll send over some posters and flyers. And if you have any particularly promising kids here, any bright minds or special talents, I'd love an introduction."
"I see," Robert said again, seeing all too clearly. So this was the price—LexCorp propaganda for the children, getting into Dakota's next generation at the ground floor. Luthor surely knew, too, that there were a few metahumans among the center's attendants. 'Special talents' indeed. New weapons for his schemes.
"I hope you do, Mr. Hawkins," Luthor said, still smiling. The smile of a man who knew he'd won—who knew he couldn't lose. "I'm sure you can appreciate the opportunities LexCorp offers. Opportunities many of these kids wouldn't get otherwise, unfortunately. There's nothing worse than wasted potential. Don't you think?"
"No, there isn't," Robert agreed. "And all my kids here have potential—every one of them is 'promising.' We're not just about offering opportunities to a few lucky ones—this center is about showing people how to make their own opportunities. To help them take advantage of what they already have, and to make sure they don't get taken advantage of by people who don't have their best interests in mind. Teaching them how to live, how to make decisions for themselves, how to stay out of trouble. How to tell right from wrong."
He looked straight at Luthor as he said it. Luthor's smile didn't flicker, but something in his eyes did, a flame-blue glitter that was there and then gone, extinguished in the colorless gray. "I'm glad we understand each other," he said, uncrossed his legs and stood, his slacks falling in perfectly neat creases.
"Is that all?" Robert asked, as Luthor didn't head for the door but instead paced to the wall of framed awards and photographs and children's drawings above the bookshelf.
"There was something else." Hands casually behind his back, Luthor looked over the collection, paused at one picture. "These are your children?"
As the center director, he was in more of the photos than not; how Luthor had picked out the single shot of him with Virgil and Sharon was beyond Robert. He realized his jaw was clenched, unlocked it and said, "Yes."
"I can see the resemblance. Good-looking kids," Luthor commented. "You must be proud."
"Thank you." His teeth gritted again, and the knot in his stomach was winding tighter, for all there was no threat in the man's easy tone, his careless stance. "Mr. Luthor—"
"Ah, yes." Luthor turned back towards the desk, his expression serious. "I thought you should know, Static will be absent from his patrols, for the next day or two at least."
The knot squeezed so tight it strangled. Robert was on his feet without realizing he had stood, the shoved chair's legs scraping on the floor.
"Apparently he's...indisposed with a minor matter. Nothing so urgent as to be the League's concern," Luthor went on calmly. "But it will leave him unavailable in the near future." He paused, only an instant. Maybe he smiled, or maybe it was just the sun's lengthening shadows across his smooth face. "And Gear as well."
Robert almost, almost glanced at the wall, the photograph—he couldn't remember, was Richie in the picture or not? He had been on the hiking trip with them, but maybe he had been the one taking the picture...but it might be too late anyway.
Far too late. Luthor had captured Gear six months ago, during the robot attack. Neither Virgil nor Richie had been willing to talk about it, but Robert watched the news, and he wasn't stupid. He didn't need everything explained to him. Luthor had had Gear for several hours. Long enough. Robert had known Richie for more than ten years, knew how strong the boy was, but Luthor had years of experience with superheroes.
Robert drew himself up, drew a breath to steady his voice. He met Luthor's eyes, stared into that ice-slick gray with nothing to support him but his convictions, and his faith in his boys. "I don't know why you'd be telling me this, Mr. Luthor. If something's happened to Static and Gear, then surely the police—"
"Oh, I don't think the police need to be brought into this," Luthor said lightly, guileless warning. "It's not in anyone's interest to make it public that the city's local superhero population is temporarily reduced. In such circumstances criminals often get ambitious. Why, when Superman is away, Metropolis..." He shook his head, wordlessly. "Some Dakota miscreant may be inclined to try something, if they know there's no one to stop them."
Robert tried to swallow. The throttlehold his stomach had around his throat made it difficult. He should be proud his voice wasn't wavering, at least. Small victories. Empty triumphs. Luthor had his son. He made a last-ditch effort, for Virgil's sake, on the off-chance that Luthor was guessing rather than certain. "I still don't see why you think I need to know about this. Sure, I support Static, but so does most of the city."
"I thought you'd understand, Mr. Hawkins," Luthor said, low, a purr that was almost a serpent's hiss. He inclined his head, hands still harmlessly behind his back, and glanced up at Robert through his lashes with provocative amusement.
Robert's hands were curling into fists. Luthor was maybe only an inch shorter than him, but lean, a lightweight, and the translucent pale baldness of his skin gave him a frail, almost sickly look. Probably a glass jaw, one punch could put him down—it wouldn't solve anything. Might even make things worse, to humiliate the man; at best it would only underline Robert's helplessness. It might even be what Luthor wanted, why he had come. Use personal assault as an excuse to drive Robert out of the center and put his own cherry-picked director in place to further his goals.
Or maybe he had just come to gloat. Megalomania was a primary symptom of a supervillain, and Luthor was the textbook case.
He put his hands down flat on his desk. "I don't know what you mean, Mr. Luthor."
Luthor's expression was worse than a smile, a satisfied look that made Robert sick to his stomach, that somehow he was playing into Luthor's hands. "Oh, merely that Static and Gear often visit this center, I've heard," Luthor said. "I wouldn't want to leave you hanging, with your kids expecting a celebrity who disappoints them."
"I'm sure that Static won't disappoint them," Robert said, and opened the channels of his anger. Not for useless violence, but he wasn't going to cower before this posturing thug in his pristine white suit. "Whatever's occupying him and Gear, I'm confident that they won't be long at it. They know this city needs them. I believe in them, and if you knew Dakota better, Mr. Luthor, you'd know why. Static and Gear may be young, but they're members of the Justice League, and true heroes—they've come out on top against the worst this city has to offer; they won't be stopped by any unmoral, arrogant criminal, no matter how powerful he might believe himself to be."
"Mr. Hawkins..." Something in Luthor's expression changed, but it wasn't the vicious rage of stung pride, and not the feral smirk Robert would have expected, either. His tone was different, too, and as he raised his arm, Robert had the bizarre, unreasonable impression Luthor was going to offer him another handshake, as if they had just sealed some unknown deal.
He didn't get the chance to ask. Without warning, the floor under his feet opened into a whirling vortex as dark as a black hole. His desk dropped down into that unfathomable pit, followed by his chair, as Robert scrambled back against the window sill. Looking across the whirlpool of darkness, he saw Luthor clawing for purchase on the low bookshelf as the vacuum sucked him down, his plum-colored tie loose from his jacket and whipping in the wind.
Maybe this was a ploy. One had to be ready for anything, with a supervillain.
On the other hand, Luthor's eyes were wide and his face was shocked white, winking in the shafts of sunlight across the office, interrupted by the blinds rattling in the vortex's wind. And the pool of shadows itself was familiar. Robert had seen it in news footage and in person on one unhappily memorable occasion, and that had been years before Lex Luthor had set foot in Dakota.
"Luthor!" Robert shouted over the wind, reaching out his hand.
Luthor looked over and his eyes narrowed in calculation. The supervillain's face was rigidly calm but for its paleness, and Robert wondered just how big a mistake he might be making. Then it was too late to consider. Luthor lost his grip, falling down towards the black hole. Robert lunged, stretched out to grab him.
He got hold of Luthor's wrist, set his heels to the floor at the edge of the vortex and heaved all his weight backwards. For an instant he thought he could make it, but the suction was too strong, and overbalanced he was pulled forward.
Luthor's legs were already drawn down into the dark vortex. He stared at Robert, mouth open and red in his pale face, wide eyes reflecting the blackness. "Let go!" he hollered, trying to push Robert back, but it was too late. Like tripping and tumbling into an unexpectedly deep puddle, Robert fell forward, plunging into the whirling void with Luthor.
Robert awoke to his head throbbing with the worst hangover since the morning after his bachelor's party. But that had been some twenty-six years ago, and he had never drunk as much since. Certainly not after he had had children; up to him to provide a good example, one couldn't leave everything to television or their peers—
The voice was mostly unfamiliar, as professionally calm as a brain surgeon's but far too smooth. And no hospital bed would be this hard. Groaning, Robert sat up. The motion focused the pain to a point at the back of his head. He brought up a hand and gingerly examined the spot, found a bump but luckily no blood.
Cautiously he opened his eyes. The light was dim and brought no extra pain, just illuminated the blurred white figure in front of him.
"Here," said the figure. "Though I'm afraid they were broken in the fall."
Robert took his glasses, put them on. The frames were bent and one lens was cracked, but it was better than nothing, enough for him to focus on the gray peeling walls, the gray cement floor, and the gray-eyed, bald-headed man sitting beside him, legs drawn up and elbows loosely resting on his knees. Even in such dingy surrounding, dust streaking his white suit, Lex Luthor looked every cent of his billions. That easy relaxation was sheer ego, the relentless and reckless confidence of a madman. Megalomania had its perks.
Robert coughed dust from his lungs. "Are you hurt?" he asked.
"I'm fine," Luthor said. "Are you? Concussion?"
Robert turned his head experimentally. It still throbbed, but not severely. "I don't think so. Not a serious one, anyway. Was I out for long?"
Luthor shook his head. "Only a couple minutes. Tell me, Mr. Hawkins. I've only been in your fair city for a week, and haven't had much opportunity to check the local weather. Are localized spatiotemporal rifts common in Dakota?"
"Not exactly," Robert said. "Did you see anyone when we got here?"
Luthor frowned. "I thought, for a moment, that I saw a dark figure in the shadows, but he was gone without the door opening."
The door in question was a thick, battered metal portal with a wire-fenced window, firmly and decidedly closed. "A tall man, with pitch black skin and hair in cornrows about the same color as your shirt?"
Luthor glanced down at the deep purple under his white jacket and nodded. "That was what I thought I saw. Friend of yours?"
"Metropolis isn't the only place that breeds supervillains, Mr. Luthor," Robert said. "You've heard of the Bang Babies?"
"The first wave, and the second. I make it a point to research any place LexCorp's going to be located. I like to know exactly what I'm getting into."
Robert imagined this was so. Especially as Static and Gear were Bang Babies as well. Luthor would want to know every possible exploitable weakness of the superheroes he would face. Static and Gear didn't have a kryptonite vulnerability, but Robert was painfully aware that they were not invincible. As aware as Luthor must be, and that was an even more unbearable thought.
But Luthor couldn't be doing anything to them now. Unless this was part of his plans after all. "His name's E-bon. As Dakota's metahumans go, he's probably the worst of them." In fact, Robert knew, he was one of only two Bang Babies to have made it on the Justice League's official list of Class A supervillains. E-bon was not only powerful, but just smart enough to use his power in immensely dangerous ways. Though he hadn't been too active lately.
Suspicious, that he would make his move just as another supervillain came on the scene. Robert watched Luthor narrowly.
Surprisingly, Luthor didn't hesitate to admit, "I've heard of him. His powers are some manner of shadow manipulation, yes? I hadn't realized that included teleportation. I'm assuming the range is limited. Even so..." He paused, musing. "'I being the target, I wonder what his motives were in taking you, or was it inadvertent..."
"Mr. Luthor," Robert said, not willing to let this pass, "why would you assume you're the target? What kind of arrangement did you have with E-bon?"
Luthor blinked. "Mr. Hawkins," he began, but there was something untrustworthy in his face, more than the standard supervillain superciliousness. As if he had a prepared lie, but now was the wrong moment for it, and perhaps the wrong reason. "I think I—"
Whatever Luthor thought was interrupted by the clank of a padlock and the door swinging open. Luthor was on his feet in an instant, weight indifferently rocked on one foot as if he had been so standing all along, his arms folded and the lines of his suit still falling impeccably despite the dust. The tension in his shoulders was not nerves but the irritable impatience of a man of power awaiting his slow inferiors.
That didn't change even as E-bon entered, sliding into the room like ink flowing from a spilled bottle. He was six and a half feet tall, a silhouette of utter darkness only defined by the deep violet event horizon where light was trapped at his outline, but Luthor didn't flinch, simply tilted up his chin to meet the yellow-white embers of his eyes. "Mr. Evans, I presume," he said, proving that his research had been thorough, or his memory sharp. E-bon hadn't gone to any lengths to conceal his old, abandoned human identity, but most recent news reports didn't bother with such trivialities anymore. Supervillains tended to be booked by their chosen monikers for simplicity's sake.
"The name's E-bon," E-bon proved this point. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Luthor." He put out his hand.
Luthor accepted the handshake, and if he felt any discomfort in seeing his hand eclipsed in fingers of shadow, it didn't show on his face. "E-bon."
"Sorry to bring you to such a shit-hole," E-bon said, his usual growl all polite deference, "but I wanted the chance to talk. Alone."
"I'm a hard man to get hold of," Luthor acknowledged. "And the accommodations here may be lacking, but I can't fault the transportation. Impressive power you have."
"Hey, it's cool," E-bon said, ducking his head. If Robert didn't know better he'd think the young supervillain would have been blushing, had it been possible with a complexion of shadow. "That ain't the half of it. I got some moves that'd scare your hair back."
"I'd be interested in a demonstration."
"Oh, hey, you ain't seen nothing!" Behind E-bon, Shiv shoved into the room. His shock of hair was neon chartreuse at the moment and his maniac's grin as wide as ever. Most of the new Meta-Breed was in prison at present, undergoing treatments for mutagenic gas exposure, but Shiv only ever stayed incarcerated as long as E-bon did. "Wait 'til you see what I can do, Mr. Luthor!" He made fists and generated nunchakus of glowing energy, spinning them into sparking circles.
Luthor nodded appreciatively. "Impressive."
"Thanks! See, E-bon, told you he'd think so!"
E-bon's eyes narrowed, and shrank further to mere slits of light as Shiv pushed past him to pump Luthor's hand in both of his, the nunchakus dispersed. "Mr. Luthor, it's totally an honor to meet you, I gotta say, having a real supervillain here at one of our hideouts—"
"The pleasure's mine," Luthor said, smoother than E-bon's frictionless shadows. "Now, what did you want to speak to me about? I'm presuming you had a good reason to get hold of me like this."
He didn't change his voice much, just the tiniest inflection of threat, but the assured tilt of his head and the fractional tightening of his grip was an instant reminder of his power. Shiv went gray under his olive skin and dropped Luthor's hand. "I—uh—good reason—it was E-bon's idea, ya know—get you over to talk to you about the—"
"Shiv!" E-bon rapped out warningly, though the open anger in his voice was far less effective than the calmly guaranteed danger in Luthor's. E-bon must have realized that himself, because he forced himself cool and went on in a decent facsimile of Luthor's tone, "Not in front of our other guest."
He turned to Robert, the slits of his eyes radiant stars against the blackness of space. "I know you, big man. You're a Static fanboy. I seen you on the news, talking up everything those super-zeros do like they're some effing rockstars." He prowled closer, looming over Robert. "You think Static and his white boytoy come looking for his fan, we keep you here long enough?" He put one shadow-cold hand to Robert's throat, not squeezing, just experimentally. Robert stiffened his spine and refused to flinch. "Or maybe we got something better to do with you..."
Luthor coughed discreetly. "Much as I hate to interfere with a fellow entrepreneur's agenda, I'm afraid my company's schedule is pressing. Any chance you could shelve this matter for the time being so we can get down to business? I'm sure Mr. Hawkins will keep for now." He didn't so much as glance to Robert as he said it. "In fact, I can make certain of that."
He reached into the pockets of his pants and withdrew a slim tube about the length of a pencil and the width of his thumb. E-bon moved fast, grabbed Luthor's wrist. "What's that?"
"Nothing you have to worry about, I assure you," Luthor said. "Merely a sign of good faith between peers. It's a LexCorp prototype designed for capture and containment. Allow me to show you." He turned to Robert. "If you would sit, Mr. Hawkins."
Robert stared those gray eyes down. "Whatever you can do to me, I'll take it standing."
"You heard the man. Sit," E-bon rasped, and kicked him hard in the back of his knees to bring him to the floor. Robert grunted as he fell.
Luthor tsked. "Easier for you if you cooperate. I would have thought, being familiar with a certain element, that you would understand that." He crouched before Robert, held up the metal tube and turned one end toward him. "But then, there's quite a lot you don't seem to understand." He pushed a tiny button on the other end of the cylinder.
Robert was expecting something like Gear's fourth generation zapcaps, some kind of energy containment field. Instead a mass of silvery tendrils, no thicker than thread, shot out from the tube and wrapped around his arms and legs. He tried instinctively to jerk away, but the motion seemed to draw the tendrils to him, curling lightning-quick around his wrists and his ankles, and drawing them together, sealing his limbs in a shiny silver web.
"Hey, cool!" Shiv exclaimed, bending down for a closer look.
"I wouldn't touch that," Luthor warned mildly. He returned the tube to his pocket, brushed his hands off as he stood up. "This prototype's been tested on regular humans, but there's been some...unexpected side-effects when the sealant compound interacts with metahumans."
Shiv hastily scrambled back. "Whoa, side-effects, okay, got it, no touchy."
"So, now that's taken care of," Luthor said, "shall we get down to business?"
E-bon still loomed over Robert, heeding Luthor's hands-off warning, but not looking wholly convinced. 'Honor among thieves' didn't apply to supervillains, Robert supposed. E-bon was right to be suspicious. For all Luthor's knowledge, he had yet to say a thing about Static's supposed absence to his potential business partner, or any comment about Robert's relation to the superhero.
Robert could guess why, remembering Luthor's smile during the Metropolis press conference, Luthor gloating in his office. Luthor wanted Static and Gear for his own vengeance, villainous allies be damned. And maybe wanted Robert for those same ends. He certainly wasn't going anywhere now. The silvery web was almost imperceptible, now that it was warming to his skin, smoother and more comfortable than ropes would have been, but it rendered him immobile, as much as if he were encased in solid metal. He could flex a little, shift position or twist the lightweight bonds, but the web neither tightened nor loosened a fraction when he moved.
E-bon observed him try, then nodded and turned away, starting for the door. "Okay, Mr. Luthor. Let's talk."
"I want to see what you have first," Luthor said, not following.
E-bon stopped. "Meaning what?"
"I assume you wouldn't be so foolish as to bargain with me empty-handed. As fascinating as you and your associate's abilities are, if you're just trying to hire out your services then I'll have to decline. I don't put convicted criminals on the payroll without good reason, more than a simple abduction. So, what do you have for me?"
E-bon deliberated, clearly disliking being put on the spot so readily. Finally he got up in Luthor face and snarled, "Okay, there's something in this for you. Something worth it. But it's not ready for show yet. I know about you, Luthor. I ain't showing you shit until I know you won't go snatching it with no deal."
"All right," Luthor nodded. "Then how about you go get that ready, and I'll wait here. Unless you'd be willing to let me go back to my offices, and you can contact me when you're prepared—no? Very well, then. I'll wait."
Even in his uncomfortable position, Robert couldn't help but be either amused or amazed by how easily Luthor had control of the situation. E-bon might be a Class A supervillain but Luthor wasn't Class S for nothing. A Great White in a goldfish bowl. And E-bon was gaping like a fish, fury flashing white in his eyes and in purple ripples of shadow over his arms. He cooled down in a hurry, though, nodded stiffly. "Fine. You stay here, I'll come get you. But I want your cell and your piece." He held out a broad, void-black hand.
Luthor didn't protest, just took out his cell phone and a small pistol from a shoulder holster hidden under the clean lines of his jacket and passed them over. "That's all."
"What about that thing you tied him up with?"
Luthor took out the tube. "If it's all right with you, I'd like to keep this. It's a prototype, as I said, and I don't want to risk it getting damaged. It's ineffective without the web." He pushed the button to no effect, then offered it to E-bon, who peered inside the hollow tube and handed it back. The gun and cell phone he concealed inside himself—whether in a hidden pocket or actually within his shadows, Robert couldn't tell; the nature of E-bon's clothing was somewhat indeterminate.
"Sit tight," E-bon instructed, looked to Shiv and said, "Entertain our guests. And make sure they don't go nowhere. You can take Luthor to the office but don't let him into the hall."
"Got it," Shiv said, saluting. E-bon stepped to the wall of the cell, put his hand to it. The cracked plaster disappeared behind a spinning dark vortex, which E-bon sank into. The whirlpool vanished into itself, leaving the dim room seeming brighter for the absence of the shadows' void.
"Okay!" Shiv giggled, rubbing his hands together. "You wanna check out the central office, Mr. Luthor? There's like a million TV screens, and we got cable."
"I'd love to," Luthor said. "It's Shiv, isn't it?"
"Lex Luthor knows me! Awesome!" Shiv pumped his fist, then gestured toward the door. "Come on, this room's the pits. It used to be a padded cell, but they stripped the padding. Totally sucks, it was cooler before." He pushed open the door, politely saw Luthor through and then shoved it closed. The padlock clinked as it was snapped closed.
Robert heard Luthor saying, "So, Shiv, does this hotel have a wet bar?" and then their voices were lost as their footsteps died away, too distant to be heard, leaving him bound in silver, alone and helpless in the drafty cell.
It took Robert some fifteen minutes of uncomfortable contortions to extricate his cell phone from his pocket, and all of fifteen seconds for him to realize that no matter how he twisted or turned he was not going to get any reception. The walls were too thick, and probably the building had a steel frame.
Besides, who was he going to call? The police wouldn't be much help; it takes a superhero to take on a supervillain. And Static and Gear were 'unavailable.'
Unless Luthor had been lying about that. Trying to get his goat, maybe proving his point with a bluff.
Unfortunately unlikely, Robert decided. Supervillains didn't bluff. When one owned death rays, robot armies, and a significant portion of Metropolis, bluffing was pretty much moot. Which left it to him to find his way out of here, and save his son. Virgil might be the superhero of the family but his old man wasn't about to sit around and wait for rescue, not when his boy was in danger.
With his wrists and ankles bound up tight in Luthor's silver webbing, Robert's options of locomotion were limited. Twenty years ago he might have had the strength and flexibility to lever himself to his feet, but his days as a fit high school linebacker were now only so many faded yearbook photos. Gritting his teeth, he ignored the camera lens in the ceiling corner and the death screams of his dignity, and ungracefully humped across the floor like a giant, overweight inchworm.
The door was firmly closed and locked, and throwing his shoulder against it didn't so much as rattle the padlock, so he proceeded to make his way along the edge of the wall, looking for a convenient vent or at least a couple encouraging cracks that might indicate a weak spot. By his estimate it took him the better part of an hour to huff and puff and inch his way around the room, and he ended up with nothing but bruised elbows and a desperate wish for a chiropractor. He wondered if E-bon had returned. He wondered if Luthor and his fellow supervillains had been watching him. Rocking forward to a sitting position, Robert glared up at the security camera's blinking red light. Hope you enjoyed the show. Maybe he'd gotten them to laugh themselves to death.
He was squirming to try to stretch his back when that hope was dashed by the clink of the padlock. Robert straightened up with the last stricken remnants of his pride and faced the door.
Luthor entered, alone. He wasn't smiling, neither the charismatic show of teeth nor an amused villain's smirk. He looked preoccupied, crossing to Robert and pulling the silver tube out of his pocket as he crouched before him, every motion quick and deliberate, if too poised to seem hurried.
"What do you want?" Robert asked, mostly because it was the proper form with dealing with supervillains. By the standard routine, now was the time for either a violent dismissal or a gloating monologue.
"Hurry, you might not have much longer," Luthor said, bypassing the script entirely. "E-bon's not back yet but it's liable to be anytime now."
Luthor spoke as smoothly as he moved, but there was liquor on his breath, which was the only reasonable explanation for what the supervillain did next. Pressing the hollow end of the tube to the silver web sealing Robert's wrists, he pushed the button on the other end. With a sucking, wet sound like a vacuum cleaner pulling up mud, the silver strands retracted from around Robert's limbs and retreated into the tube as quickly as they had shot out, leaving him free.
Robert twisted his wrists experimentally. Other than mild pins and needles, the webbing left no trace. He stared at his freed arms and legs, and then at Luthor's hand, thrust into his face. He took the pale hand cautiously and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet.
"Come on," Luthor said, and hurried him out of the cell.
Shiv was half off his chair, sprawled over the desk in the old central office of the juvenile detention hall, drooling on the console and snoring. The Colt 45 bottle next to his head was almost empty, as were the plastic cups next to it. Luthor grimaced at them in passing as he ushered Robert to the exit, unlocking it with the key ring he must have lifted from Shiv.
He gestured Robert through, saying quietly, "Go as fast as you can. E-bon could show up any minute. I wouldn't bother with the police; go straight to LexCorp and ask for Mercy. Tell her you were sent by a man who—"
"Wait a minute," Robert stopped him. "You're coming with me." It didn't make sense otherwise.
Luthor shook his head. "E-bon wants me. I'm assuming you're not worth pursuing."
None of this made sense. And Robert wasn't about to be in debt to a supervillain. "I'm not leaving you here with them."
Luthor stared. "You hate me, Mr. Hawkins."
"I wouldn't abandon anyone to these monsters."
Luthor stared more, muttering something under his breath that sounded inexplicably like, "My God, it's Jonathan Kent, the urban edition." "Mr. Hawkins, we don't have much time. I'm not in danger; this is merely business. But I don't care to negotiate when there's lives immediately in the balance; it's inefficient and messy. So if you'd be so good as to get yourself out of the way in the least illegal manner possible." He once more indicated the door. "Tell Mercy you were sent by the man who drove a Porsche off a bridge. Got it?"
Robert frowned. Luthor glared back, all that glib charisma switched to intimidating command, the set of his shoulders an irresistible force. A ruler of men, accustomed to obedience and beholden to no rule himself, and short of cold-cocking him and dragging him out, Robert didn't see how he could convince a supervillain to do anything.
Stiffly he repeated, "Drove a Porsche off a bridge?"
Luthor nodded. "Ask Mercy to take you to Static and Gear. That'll be enough. None of you need contact the Justice League; this is Dakota trouble."
Dakota trouble, plus Metropolis's star supervillain. Who was breaking Robert free, possibly at risk to himself. If this wasn't the worst day he had ever had, it was at least one of the more bewildering. "You don't want the League involved."
"It's none of their business," Luthor snarled, still low but fierce, looking about as villainous as he had yet. But he calmed instantly. "I'd appreciate it if Static and Gear would use their discretion, that's all. Oh, and please tell Mercy that everything is going according to plan."
Robert choked. "This is 'according to plan?'"
"At least it will be, once you're safely out of here," Luthor said. "Now go, please."
Robert still hesitated, as Shiv snored and Luthor didn't quite tap his foot. Maybe the man was not only maniacal but certifiable. Robert had always taken that to be a Gotham supervillain trait but perhaps it was more widespread. Certainly Hotstreak was none too stable... "Luthor, if E-bon realizes you helped me—"
"I've disabled the appropriate cameras," Luthor said. "And Shiv will be lucky to remember his name, after a bottle of that subpar rotgut. Though if it'd make you feel better, you could give me an alibi."
Blue humor sparked in Luthor's eyes, almost imperceptibly brief. He spread his arms, faced Robert. "Go ahead, take your best shot."
"I tried to stop you. You've got an unexpected right hook."
"I'm not going to..." Luthor was smirking at him.
"Come now, your center has a boxing ring. You must have gone in for a few rounds sometime. And I was asking for it, wasn't I."
Definitely certifiable. "Mr. Luthor, even if I believed violence solved anything—"
"Then just get out of here. Or does any rescue in this city need Static's permission? Because I can assure you, Static will not be coming any time soon—"
Maybe it was Luthor's words; maybe it was his smirk. Robert's fist was pulled back before he knew it, readied for the shot he'd been aching to take since the supervillain had strolled into his office. Then Luthor took a step forward—a swagger, threat in every motion, and all the tension of this dangerous situation boiled over. Robert swung, caught Luthor square on the pale glass jaw.
Luthor rocked back, but didn't even lift his feet. He worked his jaw, quirked an eyebrow. "That all you got? E-bon wouldn't even notice."
Robert gritted his teeth and swung again. This time Luthor was knocked back a step, or maybe he was just humoring Robert. The supervillain straightened up and wiped his hand across his mouth. He was still smirking as he brought his hand down. "Thank you, Mr. Hawkins. Now get out of here."
Robert felt out of breath and he hadn't run a step. And Static still might need him. He took off down the hall, not looking back. Trying to tell himself that Luthor hadn't given him that chance because Robert had needed it, and not the supervillain at all.
He didn't believe it. He didn't believe he was really free, either, even after he passed through the main entrance of the old juvenile penitentiary complex and found himself in the twilight back streets of Dakota's east side. Every step Robert took, he expected to hear Shiv's shouts behind him, or to see E-bon's vortex before him, or to find Luthor following. Unless this was their plan.
It had to be. But he didn't have the requisite deviousness to solve a supervillain's scheme. Going to the police would hardly help; few enough jails were equipped to handle E-bon or Shiv's powers, and what could they arrest Luthor for? Getting oneself abducted was hardly a crime.
He called the center and verified that no one else had been hurt in E-bon's attack. He also tried Virgil and Richie's cell phones, and got the voicemail for both. Calling the special number to tap into the ShockVox's frequencies got no response, either.
With no other options, all Robert could do was spring the supervillain's trap. Flagging down a taxi, he directed the driver to Alva Industry's downtown headquarters. In rush hour traffic they made it in half an hour, without incident, metahuman or otherwise. Luthor must have successfully convinced E-bon not to pursue the matter.
The plan all along. Robert stood outside Alva Industries, in front of the new LexCorp sign, and debated.
He might have debated longer had not, exactly one minute after he arrived, a striking blonde strode out the double doors and stopped before him. "Mr. Hawkins."
Robert recognized the dangerous air of the woman who had accompanied Luthor to the center. That edge was more pronounced now, if not in any obvious way—she was easily as collected as her boss, but the calm had the same cold-bloodedly reptilian chill, and there was venom in her eyes.
"Are you Mercy?" Robert asked, not blind to the irony.
"I was told to tell you I was sent by a man who drove a Porsche off a bridge," Robert said, carefully.
She relaxed, barely, the tension of a piano wire instead of a garrote. "I see."
"He said I should ask you to take me to Static and Gear," Robert said, keeping his voice down. "And to tell you that, um, 'everything's going according to plan.'"
This didn't faze her. But then, she gave every impression that neither would a hydrogen bomb. Mercy only nodded again. "Come with me, Mr. Hawkins."
She walked him inside to the elevators, and took them down to an unmarked level below the subbasement, leading him through a sterile hall painted in the gunmetal gray of Luthor's eyes, to a door labeled 'Res. & Dev., Aux.' in black stenciled letters. This door she unlocked with a swipe of an ID card and a code she entered without looking at the keypad.
"They're inside," she told him, the first words she had spoken since they had entered the building. "I have other business now, if you'll excuse me," and she turned on her heel and strode back down the hall.
Robert stared after her, bemused and wondering if he should demand an explanation. Of what, he wasn't even sure. But he had come this far, and if his boys were really here...he pushed open the door.
By now almost nothing would have surprised Robert. He was half expecting a giant cage to drop down over him as soon as he walked through the gray door. Or to find himself free but helpless, Static and Gear imprisoned with no way to release them. Or worse still, not restrained, but waiting for him with blank brainwashed faces. Or else it was all a trick, and no one would be here. Robert, not about to be taken off-guard again by Luthor's obnoxious evil supervillain ways, was braced for anything.
Luthor hadn't been lying. Static and Gear were here, and trapped. At least Static was; his son was wound round in a mess of silver strands Robert recognized as Luthor's prototype bondage toy. Apparently his warning about metahuman side-effects hadn't been a bluff, because Virgil was wrapped in the webbing far more completely than Robert had been, the silver threads crisscrossing his whole body, bright against the dark blues and blacks of his costume.
That was no surprise. And no surprise that Gear was here with him, trying to free his partner.
It wasn't like it was the first time. Virgil's bedroom door had never had a lock and there had been a few times they had neglected to close it all the way, in the excited indiscretion that was a prerogative of youth. Besides, Robert took great pride in knowing that his son had trusted him enough to come talk to him before there had ever been anything for him to walk in on. And he had always liked Richie, trusted him implicitly, had thought of the boy as another son for years; to consider him a son-in-law made Robert more glad than not, and he had never hesitated to tell Richie so.
And of course they were superhero partners, and of course Gear would do anything to save his friend. Still. Given the circumstances, did freeing Virgil really necessitate Richie putting his tongue down his partner's throat?
So Robert could be excused for a tiny, tiny bit of complete and utter slack-jawed surprise.
He wasn't the only one off-balanced. His shoe came down heavily and his first footstep echoed off the high ceilings of the lab, and Gear, seemingly fused to Static as tightly as the silvery webbing, was suddenly a good five feet away from his partner and bright red from ears to hairline.
"M-Mr. H. I—I--"
"Whah? Pops?" Virgil craned his head toward the door, almost rolling himself off the chair he was balanced on, precariously given the silver restraints. He blinked rapidly at his father. "Um. This. Erm."
"We were. I am. That is. Was," Gear stuttered dumbly, in utter contradiction to his inhumanly high IQ.
"I could see," Robert said, his own equilibrium restored by confidence. They might be the superheroes, but he was still the parent.
Richie darkened a shade closer to strawberry. Virgil squirmed like he would happily sink through the floor or blast off through the skylight if he weren't otherwise engaged. "Pops, what are you doing here?"
Robert sighed. "I think that's my question."
The room was long and broad and looked nothing like a supervillain lair and quite a lot like an ordinary research laboratory, bright-lit and polished. There were no other people, either doctors or guards; no bars or chains, nothing holding them but the silver binding Static, and he was sitting on a folding chair and looking comfortable enough, if immobilized. Maybe a little too comfortable. Virgil wasn't wearing his Static mask, and Gear's helmet was set aside on one of the long metal lab tables, next to his backpack computer.
"You see," and Richie's brain had re-engaged. "I've spent the last eleven hours since the accident testing various possible extrication methods, since it became evident that Static's amplified electromagnetic field interferes with the remission mode activation signal of the binding nano-alloy, so I was taking complete temperature and activity scans as Static attempted to consciously vary his field in exact incremental frequencies, but such tight control is exhausting for him and I was getting a headache and we got. Um. Distracted."
He petered out. Virgil made a face at his partner that clearly said, Oh yeah, thanks a lot, and Richie made a face back that as clearly said, Um, sorry, I tried.
It could wait. "Why are you still here?" Robert demanded. "Luthor knows you're here, you should—"
Without the mask it was all too easy to recognize his son's expression. It was the same look as when he was a teen and making excuses to secretly go off superheroing. Or when he was six and trying to imply that Sharon had been the one to get ketchup on the ceiling. Virgil was too innately honest to lie well, but misdirection was another story. "How'd you get in here anyway, Pops?"
"Mercy showed me," Robert said. "At Luthor's instruction." Which had yet to make sense, but first things first. "You should get out of here while you can. Luthor's gone and can't stop you."
"Gone?" Richie repeated, shooting a look at Virgil. "Where?"
"With E-bon," Robert said. "We were both kidnapped, but I was..." He wasn't entirely sure how to explain. "Luthor got me out of the way—"
"Wait, what?" Virgil screeched, and shot up out of the chair, or attempted to. In practice, trapped in the silver binds, he ended up knocking over the chair and would have himself clattered to the tile, had he not caught himself in time. The restraining web glowed with static charge as he hovered over the floor. "E-bon kidnapped you? That overgrown inkblot!" Sparks crackled between the web's strands. "Did he hurt you? Did he get anyone else?"
"Just Luthor and me," Robert said. "Luthor was the one he really wanted; I was just in the way. Luthor came to the center to talk to me, was telling me how he had you two. And then E-bon got us."
"E-bon still has Le—uh, Luthor?" Richie asked.
Robert nodded. "E-bon wanted to make some kind of deal, I think. He should be keeping Luthor busy; hopefully you can figure out a way out of here before he gets back." He looked around the lab, still wondering at the lack of cages or chains. "What can I do to help? How is he holding you here? How did he capture you, anyway?"
Richie glanced at Virgil. "You mean...he didn't tell you?"
Virgil made to smack his forehead, only to be stopped by the silver around his arms. He groaned instead, levitated himself back onto the chair and thumped his skull lightly on the headrest. "Oh, man. He gloated, didn't he. Of course he did, it'd be way too good a chance to pass up."
Their expressions, torn between apprehension and hilarity, made as little sense as the gleams of humor in Luthor's eyes. Robert crossed his arms and stared the two heroes down. "Tell me what?"
His boys exchanged another loaded look. "Pops, did he tell you anything else? Luthor, I mean? It could be important."
Virgil had another thing coming, if he thought he could get off the hook by playing the heroic world-saving card. His old man wasn't born yesterday. But world-saving did take precedence. "He said to tell you to use discretion, and not contact the Justice League. And to tell his henchwoman that everything's going according to plan."
"Of course it is. It's Lex," Richie murmured.
Virgil frowned thoughtfully. "Don't contact the League, huh?"
"I don't know if you should or not," Robert sighed. "I mean, obviously, if Luthor doesn't want you to, you should. But he would have to know that, so maybe he wanted me to tell you that to make sure that you would do it. Only if he knows you're smart enough to think of that, maybe he knew that you wouldn't call them if you figured out he wanted you to call them, so thinking that he wanted you to call them because he said he didn't, you wouldn't..." Trying to think like a supervillain was hard on the head. No wonder Luthor had lost all his hair.
Virgil was looking a little cross-eyed himself, wriggling on the chair. He had always been an active boy; restraints weren't conducive to his concentration. Richie patted his partner's shoulder with absent-minded comfort and Virgil shot a look up at him. "What do you think, Rich? We could drop them a line, let them know what's up without getting into the specifics. I mean, he's got to have an idea of what's going down, right?"
"Probably, yeah," Richie agreed, "so..." He stopped as on the table behind him, Backpack chimed once. It sounded like a musical cellular ringtone to Robert, though he didn't recognize the song. Richie did, however, judging by the way his eyebrows shot up. He took a few fast steps backwards to peer down at his supercomputer's display. "Um. Never mind, that's gonna be moot."
"Meaning wh—" Virgil began to ask, and then the skylight set in the high ceiling slid open, and a figure in blue descended into the lab, red cape fluttering behind him.
Robert had met superheroes before. Other than the two who he regularly made do the dishes, and of course his daughter's husband and the soon-to-be father of his first grandchild, the Green Lantern had made appearances at a few of the center's functions at Virgil's behest, occasionally bringing the Flash along. And once, joining his son after a particularly long and difficult night, he had caught a glimpse of Batman, swooping down from a rooftop, long enough for the Dark Knight to raise his hand in salute as he swung around the corner and vanished into the shadows.
But Robert had never been to Metropolis, and some sights can never adequately be conveyed by a television news camera. He felt himself staring as the man touched down on tile floor, tried to blink but couldn't stop himself from gaping.
He was shorter than he looked on TV, but still had a couple inches on Robert. His arms were crossed, tense muscle outlined like carved marble, and his face likewise was set in stone, a hint of a frown in the stern set of his lips and the furrowed brow under the sleek blue-black hair. His steel blue eyes passed from Robert to Static and Gear, not disdainfully but measuring. Presumably he didn't use his x-ray vision all the time, but Robert still felt as if he were being looked straight through, as if he could hide nothing under that gaze.
Maybe it just took getting used to, because Virgil's tone, when he spoke, was not defensively wisecracking but as easygoing as if he were talking to Richie. "Hey, Supes! We were just gonna call you."
The hero's head turned toward Static. His frown might have deepened. "Static? What happened to you?"
"No biggie." Virgil chuckled with embarrassed humor, as if he weren't wound up in silver like a foil-wrapped baked potato in a supervillain's lair. "Just a dumb accident. Gear's on top of it, pretty much. That's not why we were going to call."
Superman nodded. "Where's Luthor?" he said, quietly, but not mild enough to disguise the steel in the question.
"Um." That steel, apparently, wasn't normal, Robert guessed from the sudden apprehension in his son's reply. "See, that's what we were going to call you about."
"He's with E-bon, turns out," Gear stepped in, standing beside his partner. "One of Dakota's meta-breeds. Apparently he got snatched for a chat, along with Mr. H—this is Mr. Hawkins."
"Yeah," Virgil said, "sorry, this is my dad here. He's cool with all the super stuff." He nodded to Robert and then to his fellow hero. "Dad, this is Superman. He's way cool, too."
Robert blinked. Superman did, too, and then he smiled. It was a warm, human smile, and like that the strength in his eyes was not dangerous but reassuring, protective. He held out his hand. "Very glad to meet you, sir. You have an incredible son, you should be proud."
"I am," Robert said, shaking his hand and smiling back, only a little dazed. Superman's grip was as firm as a hero's ought to be, natural without a hint of its true unfathomable strength. "Good to meet you. Thanks for looking out for my boys."
"Not at all. They're the ones who help us, not the other way around." Superman clasped his hand again, then let go and looked at his fellow heroes, his smile fading back into resolution. "Now, what happened to Lex?"
"Actually," Robert said, clearing his throat, "if I may, I think I know what's going on as much as anyone." Quickly he explained, starting with Luthor's visit to the center, then E-bon's abduction and what the supervillains had discussed, and finally his escape with Luthor's assistance.
Superman listened attentively, his expression giving away little. His fellow heroes weren't quite as practiced at maintaining their cool; Virgil nearly knocked himself off his chair again when Robert mentioned E-bon threatening him. Robert left out E-bon's hand around his throat out of pride. He wasn't yet old enough to be comfortable with the idea of his son out to protect him, instead of vice versa. Superhero or not. Some things it takes a father a long time to adjust to.
He ended with Luthor's advice not to contact the League, and the "according to plan" he had relayed when Mercy had brought him to Static and Gear. Virgil glanced at Superman when he finished. "See, so we figured you knew what was going down," he said inexplicably. "Only it looks like not?"
"I didn't know," Superman confirmed. "I assumed LexCorp coming to Dakota was just a convenient business deal." His voice was calm, but the slightest undercurrent of anger hinted that it was an unusually bad day to be a supervillain. Multi-billionaire or not, Robert wouldn't want to be in Luthor's polished wingtips. Superman turned back to him. "Mr. Hawkins—"
Superman's smile was briefer but just as warm. "Robert. This abandoned juvenile hall where you were taken, could you tell me where it is?"
"No sweat, I know the place," Richie volunteered. He already had his helmet in hand, Backpack climbing up to its proper place on his shoulders. "And I know a couple other of E-bon's haunts, if that one doesn't pan out. You gonna be okay, Static? We'll get you out of that as soon as I get back."
"Hanging in there," Virgil said, with a grin at his partner that didn't quite hide the frustration. "You be careful."
"Hey, I got the Big S on my side. What could go wrong?" He glanced from Static to Superman, hovering effortlessly above the floor, and grinned, sly like a blond fox. "Except me getting tempted to trade up permanently."
"Oh, you better not get hurt," Virgil growled warning. "I'll need you intact to take you apart later. Slowly. One limb at a time. With an electric screwdriver."
"Kinky." Then Richie glanced at Robert and flushed so brightly it was visible through his helmet's visor.
"Love you, babe," Virgil said.
"You, too," Richie said, still blushing. He flipped up the visor long enough to duck and brush his lips to Virgil's, then pushed it down again and started up his rockets to rise into the air, following Superman out through the skylight.
Robert watched them depart, wondering. He hadn't realized that Virgil had become so open about their relationship with the League. But there were bigger concerns now. "You could have left that easily? At any time? Or did you need Superman to break the skylight?"
"I don't think he broke it," Virgil said.
"Then why didn't you—"
"Richie wanted the equipment here to get me out. Since this stupid thing's a LexCorp invention," and he grimaced at the silver web, "it'd be easier to use their stuff than for him to make new tools from scratch."
"But...Luthor knew you were using his equipment?"
"Yeah. 'Specially since it's his fault I'm stuck in this thing. Well, kind of. I mean, I was the one fooling with his tube, but he could've been faster to say it hadn't been tested on metahumans."
"Was it a trap, then?" Robert asked, trying to make sense of what his son was saying.
Virgil rolled his eyes. "Yeah, probably! He likes his games, the jerk. Like that thing with the VR—he just knew I couldn't resist the next generation WoW, and Richie couldn't get enough of the hardware, and next thing you know we're stuck disembodied in cyberland and fighting for our photons, for a good six hours—and, uh, I promised not to tell anyone about that, so pretend I didn't. It's classified. And he did get us out, like he promised. He promised to help Richie out with this thing, too—probably crack it in five minutes, if they get more time to put their heads together. Richie says he's just as smart, or smarter, which is crazy because obviously Richie's smarter than anyone, but he's pretty hot stuff—"
Robert held up his hand. "Wait, what do you mean? Luthor promised to help you and Richie? Why?"
Virgil looked up at him, blinking. Then his face split in a grin. "Aw, you totally fell for Lex's big bad supervillain act."
"'Lex'?" Robert repeated. And then, "'Act'?"
"Can't blame you, after this long he's got it down to an art. Guess he's got to be good, it'd be dangerous otherwise. It sure fooled us."
An icy chill tickled down Robert's spine. Virgil and Richie had seemed normal, like their usual selves... "Fooled you about what?" he asked carefully.
"Lex. Thinking he was a bad guy," Virgil said, blithely.
"And he's not?" Robert asked, still more carefully. He might not have his daughter's psychology degree, but he had handled a few cult victims at the center, enough to recognize this clear-eyed and baseless conviction.
It wasn't his son's fault. Virgil was strong-willed, as strong as anyone, a superhero, for God's sake—but Luthor was a monster. A shockingly charismatic monster, Robert thought, remembering that utterly impeccable self-possession. And who knows what he might've done since he had captured Static and Gear. "And why do you think that?"
"Come on, Pops, you've seen it for yourself. He helped you escape, right?"
"He had his own reasons for that," Robert said, and immediately regretted it. It would do little good to fight this out with Virgil here, where Luthor's environment could reinforce whatever hold he had. He had to get his son out of here before he tried any real argument. "I mean," he temporized, "Luthor admitted he had a plan."
"Of course he had a plan," Virgil said. "He is a supervillain."
Robert opened his mouth. Closed it and opened it again. "You...understand he's a supervillain?"
"Pops. This is Lex Luthor we're talking about. He's a supervillain, all right; he's just not a bad guy." Virgil shot him a look. "And no, me and Richie haven't been brainwashed. Honest. We didn't believe it ourselves at first, but just think about it. What's Lex done that's actually, you know, bad?"
Robert opened and shut his mouth a couple more times. "I—I don't know where to start. The rumors alone—"
"Are just rumors, and who do you think starts most of 'em? I think he's got a corporate vice president in charge of the gossip mill."
"His business practices—"
"Are cutthroat as hell, yeah, but that's business. Mostly. And it's not illegal to be an asshole. If you look into it, most of the companies LexCorp buys out are the underhanded ones—breaking labor laws, environmental codes, you name it. Look at Alva Industries. Was it better under Alva or Lex?"
Robert had fruitlessly argued that one enough with his colleagues not to bother challenging it here. "Maybe so. But, son, his inventions? The death rays?"
"Lex's last death ray killed begonias. He was trying for crab grass but there was a glitch in his gene splitter, Richie helped fix it."
"Six months ago he attacked Metropolis with a robot army. You and Richie were there."
"Yeah, we were." Virgil, surprisingly, grinned at the memory. "And if you read the news, there weren't any serious injuries from that attack. No one so much as broke an arm. And LexCorp underwrites the insurance company which covered most of the damages."
"Did Luthor tell you that?"
"No, Gear found out. We haven't mentioned it to Lex, don't think he knows we know. Even with people who know he's a good guy, he still likes to make like he's a total badass."
"How'd Richie find out?"
"Because Lex gave us permission to go through all his computer systems."
"Luthor gave you access...?"
"No, just permission to hack. He told us he had nothing to hide and challenged Gear to find anything he was hiding. I think it's really a test of his security. He and Rich, they got this supergenius competition thing going on, you know, rivals, Lex makes a code and Gear cracks it. But we've been looking for six months, and we've found—uh, a whole lot hidden, actually. But not anything evil." Virgil laughed. "Which totally shocked me, too, at first, but then not so much, once you get to know Lex."
Robert pulled over one of the lab stools and sat down. It was a lot to take in. But his son didn't sound coerced or broken, and Virgil in his right mind would never side with evil. Most of the Bang Babies had turned to a life of crime, using their gifts for personal gain at the expense of others; Virgil had made himself a costume and sallied forth to fight those monsters, like it had never occurred to him to do otherwise. Richie had been the same. As he had told Superman, he was proud of his boys, and always had been. They knew right from wrong; he should trust them to know villain from hero.
As for the whole Lex Luthor not actually doing anything evil thing. Luthor's intimidation—he certainly had sounded threatening, but Static and Gear were fine, mechanical failures of prototypes aside. And Luthor had helped Robert escape from E-bon, likely at some peril to his own self and plans, whatever he might have insisted.
This could all be an elaborate, supervillainous ruse, of course. And maybe it was merely credit to Luthor's charisma that Robert found himself hoping it wasn't. "Why does he do it, then?"
"Kind of hard to explain, but..." Virgil's grin faded. "You don't see it all, Pops. Rich and I, we don't talk about everything. But there's real evil out there, and the worst of it doesn't come in dorky costumes or crazy superpowers. We're fighting it, all of us, everyday, with all we got. But it's hard from the air to see everything going on down on the ground, or underground."
Virgil looked, not scared, but upset. Helpless in a way that had nothing to do with the silver webbing immobilizing him and everything to do with the conscience of a true hero. "I know," Robert told his son, quietly. "I'm on the ground, remember?"
"Right. You know what you deal with. So you know how hard it is to fight. And you can't do it alone, not without help. Not without people who have a better idea what's really happening, who can see it and tell you what's going down, before it's too late."
"Lex Luthor's your undercover agent in the criminal underworld."
"Pretty much, yeah. There's nowhere Lex goes that he doesn't get respect, with his supervillain rep. It's tough for him to manage when he's being the tycoon, too. He has to keep up a clean record publicly, while making sure everyone who counts knows he's seriously crooked. That's why he started the supervillain thing. Inventing a whole new class of criminal, so freakish nobody questions what's really going on. You hear about giant robot armies, you don't stop to wonder what's the motivation."
"What is the motivation for giant robot armies?"
"Oh, like how next time we face alien invasion, a few of those robots will really come in handy. And it's good exercise for the League, too. Practice runs for when we go against the real thing. It's a wild game Lex is playing, but we need him."
Then Virgil grinned again. "Though you want the truth? More than anything, I think he does it because it drives Superman nuts."
"Oh, he and Lex are—uh, old friends." Virgil shifted uncomfortably. He must have been bound in that position for too long. "Going way back, before the hero and villain thing."
"Superman and Lex Luthor are friends."
"Tight as me and Richie," Virgil told him, then hastily went on, "but they put on a good show, don't they? Totally fooled us, until the Metropolis Robotcalypse. You wouldn't think the Big Blue could be that good an actor."
No, that duplicity wasn't what he would have expected of Superman, of all men. But then, superheroes had practice enough maintaining secret identities. And how many honest people would trust an old friend of Lex Luthor? Except if they knew the truth about Luthor... Robert frowned. "But if they are allies, why'd Superman want to know where Luthor was? Shouldn't Luthor have told him, if it was important?"
"Yeah." Virgil emulated his expression, though with more confusion and less suspicion. "You got me on that one. I didn't think Lex kept much from Supes. But he didn't say anything to us about any plans. Definitely nothing about meeting with E-bon. Though..." Virgil squirmed thoughtfully. "Lex has been asking about the Bang Babies. He keeps pretty close track of other supervillains, so I didn't think it meant anything, but..."
On Static's person, amid the silver webbing, something chirped. Virgil twisted his head down toward the ShockVox, switching the walkie-talkie on with a nod of his head and a burst of electric charge. "Yo, Gear, go."
"You got your mask on?" Richie asked. "We're gonna have a visitor."
"Got it," Virgil said, switched off the ShockVox with another nod and then wriggled like a fish. "Uh, Pops, could you give me a hand?"
"Where's your mask?"
"In my pocket. Thanks."
Robert got the mask on him just in time. He was stepping back from his son when there was the rush of air and a whirl of blue, and then Superman was standing before them, with Gear on one side and Shiv on the other. Shiv was as tightly secured as Static, though in the coiled cables of a zapcap rather than the LexCorp web.
Gear, a little unsteady on his feet, shook his head. "Talk about the only way to fly."
"Whoa." Shiv was also a little unsteady, but he might still be drunk. He gawked at Superman, wild-eyed, not struggling in his bonds but bouncing nervously on his toes. "Man," and his face cracked in a crazy grin, "first Lex Luthor, and now I get caught by Superman! This is like the frigging coolest day ever!" He plunked down in the folding chair behind him and made himself comfortable.
"He was the only one at the old juvie center," Gear said. "No sign of E-bon or Luthor."
"They weren't at any of their other usual haunts, either," Superman said. "We checked on the way back."
"Shiv," Static rapped out, and Robert had to fight down a reaction. His son never quite sounded like the boy he had raised, not when he was on the job. "Where'd they go?"
Shiv looked over. "Oh, hey, Static. How's it going, baby?" Then he got a good look at his enemy and started to laugh, almost hard enough to fall over. "Oh man, hey, look at you! Oughta be careful, Sparky, you go up against Lex, he'll mess your shit up."
"Oh yeah, like you and your bossman did. What's E-bon trying to do, get himself whacked? Seriously, nabbing Lex Luthor—you out for ransom or making a play for his territory, or were you just feeling suicidal?"
"No way," Shiv said, uneasily. "E-bon just wanted to talk. Lex wasn't mad."
"Talk about what?"
Shiv's eyes went narrow. "Wouldn't you like to know?" His gaze shifted from Static to Robert beside him and widened again. "Hey, how'd you get here, man?"
"Mr. Hawkins asked for our help once he escaped," Superman said, set and solid as stone.
Shiv laughed raucously. "Yeah, you better get yourself some help. E-bon was capital-P Pissed, you getting away like that. And I bet Lex'll pay you back times ten for that punch."
"'Punch'?" Virgil repeated, in not quite his usual hero's voice, and he shot his father a look behind his mask.
Robert hadn't quite mentioned that part, either. He grimaced and tried to boldly meet Superman's gaze when it fell on him for an astonished instant. Hopefully when this was over Luthor would explain. Honestly. He really didn't want to be the one to tell Superman he had taken his knuckles to an old friend of his.
"Even if you got me, E-bon and Lex are gonna get you all good," Shiv went on, giggling. "You zero heroes ain't got a chance, wait 'til you see what we got..."
His voice faded suddenly and his jaw went slack, eyes gazing blankly ahead.
"Shiv?" Static asked.
"Uh, sorry, that was me," Gear said. "I figured we wouldn't want him hearing this."
"What'd you do?" Robert asked. He gently poked Shiv, who swayed in the chair but bobbed back upright like a punching balloon, still staring at nothing.
"He'll be fine," Richie hastened to assure. "It's a new add-on to the zapcaps I've been working on, a theta wave generator. It puts someone into a trance state for a little while, functionally comparative to hypnotism. I was hoping it could be used for questioning, sort of a non-chemical alternative to truth serum, but so far the resultant trance is too deep for that—"
"Yo, Gear, job to do?" Virgil interrupted with a significant cock of his head, and Richie nodded and wrapped it up, "Anyway, he won't hear anything we say for a little while."
"But don't we want him awake, to ask him what the hell E-bon's cooking up?"
"We know that already," Richie said. "'Don't we?" and he shot a look at Superman.
Superman didn't look away, but somehow looked uncomfortable without obviously changing expression.
"We do?" Virgil asked.
"It's kryptonite, isn't it. E-bon's gotten hold of some."
"Kryptonite?" Static said. "Oh, man..."
"Wait," Robert said. "I thought kryptonite wasn't supposed to be that dangerous after all, wasn't it proven to be mostly inert?"
"The reports discrediting kryptonite were falsified. Deliberately," Superman said, his square jaw tightening. "It's real. And I'm completely helpless against it."
"And E-bon could trade this kryptonite to Lex Luthor?" Robert blanched. E-bon having it was bad enough, but no matter what Virgil had told him—could a supervillain really be trusted with something that powerful? Even a supervillain who was supposedly an ally, once he had a sure advantage... "What would Luthor do if he got hold of it?"
"Either destroy it, or add it to the collection," Superman said. "Lex has almost all the remaining kryptonite in the world stockpiled in various holdings."
"Almost," Richie said. "I think that's why he wanted Alva Industries."
"Alva Industries has kryptonite stores?"
"Yeah—you know how I've been researching the mutagenic Big Bang gas, V? And having so much trouble reproducing it? I haven't proved it for sure, but I've theorized trace measures of kryptonite might have been used in the original formula. It would explain some of its unstable properties. I was talking about that with Lex a few months ago..."
"Lemme guess. Right before he bought out Alva."
Superman's jaw clenched such that a regular man's teeth would have fractured. "So that's why he barely mentioned anything about Alva Industries to me."
"E-bon and his crew raided an Alva Industries warehouse a couple months ago, remember, Static?" Gear said.
"Yeah, we didn't get him in time, just his gang. Guess we didn't stop him after all, huh." Virgil turned his head toward Superman. "But Lex didn't say anything about any of this? Alva or E-bon?"
With a breath that might have been a sigh, Superman said, "He never does. Not when there's kryptonite."
"And he didn't want us to call the League so you wouldn't find out."
"But why didn't he want you to know?" Robert had to ask.
"Lex would tell you he has his reasons." Supervillains generally did, Robert supposed. And something in the hero's tone indicated that Superman didn't agree with most of them.
"So what are we going to do about this?" Virgil asked. "Or should we just let Lex handle it?"
"You're going to let a supervillain—" Robert began.
The door of the laboratory opened and Mercy strode inside. Heading toward Static, she opened her mouth, then saw Superman. Shutting her mouth without a word, she turned on her heel and headed back toward the door.
Robert didn't really see Superman move, just a red and blue blur, and then he was barring the entrance, a bright imposing figure blocking all access. "Mercy?"
"You're not supposed to be here," the blonde woman said flatly.
"I know what Lex is up to," Superman said. "But you were coming for Static now, weren't you. What happened? I was told everything was under control."
"The situation's changed. It's none of your business. Lex has a contingency plan, so butt out."
"Kinda looked like we were the contingency plan, there," Static remarked.
Mercy glared at Superman. "Not with him here. There's a contingency plan for this contingency."
"Mercy, please. If Lex is in trouble..."
Mercy kept glaring. She glanced down at Superman's hand on her shoulder, and looked for a moment like she was going to remove it forcefully and perhaps flip him over the lab table. Had she not been dealing with an alien of near infinite strength, Robert guessed she would have done so. She still hesitated long enough for Robert to wonder if she might make the attempt anyway.
Instead she looked past Superman to Richie and Virgil. "When there's innocent lives at stake, you superheroes are the first choice strategy." Her eyes fixed on Static's silver web. "But if you're still incapacitated, I'll manage."
"We can handle it," Superman said. The unshakeable confidence in his voice could not have been matched by any normal human.
The blonde woman raised her eyes back to Superman. "Fine. But you sure as hell better take care of it. I know where the closest kryptonite storage is."
"Probably in this building, sounded like," Superman murmured. "Thanks, Mercy. So what's wrong?"
"Lex called. He told me he wouldn't be back at the office for several days." Mercy hesitated barely a moment, without an obvious twitch, though Robert didn't think her hands had been so tightly fisted a moment before. "He also indicated by verbal code that he's being held against his will, and to be careful in the rescue strategy because there's a risk of putting other lives in danger."
"E-bon," Static growled. "What is that son of a bitch doing?"
"Lex's call was cut off before he could get into the details," Mercy said. "Too short to trace, and I haven't been able to track the beacon on his ring."
"You can see to Lex's other contingencies," Superman told her. "We'll find out what's going on with Lex. Gear, can you wake Shiv up now?"
Richie nodded. A moment after Mercy had left, Shiv blinked and straightened up in his seat. "...You're gonna be..." The metahuman blinked again, shook his head, neon hair falling in his eyes. "Uh. What was I saying?"
"You were telling us what E-bon wants with Lex Luthor," Static said.
"Oh yeah, right, he—wait." Shiv frowned. "No, I wasn't."
"Yeah you were."
"No I wasn't."
Richie sighed. "The generator definitely needs more work."
"Okay, you're going to tell us, before you get zapped through a wall," Static said.
"Oh, look at me, I'm so scared of a guy tied up in tin foil—ow!" Shiv squirmed as a blue bolt of electricity arced from the metal counter behind him to stab him in the butt.
"Static." Superman raised his hand. "I'm sure this young man will cooperate with us willingly, once he understands the danger."
"Yeah, I'll—the danger?" Shiv swallowed. "What'd ya mean?"
Superman put a hand on Shiv's shoulder, not a threatening squeeze but gently. "Shiv, we know your leader has a supply of kryptonite. What he might not know is how dangerous kryptonite can be."
"It is?" Shiv stared, then shook his head. "No way, you're just messing with me."
"He's not," Gear said. "I've been researching it, and I think kryptonite might have been in the gas that changed all of us."
"So if just trace amounts of it did this to us, what do you think full exposure might do?"
"Huh." Shiv considered, then glanced up at Superman. "Make us like him, maybe?"
"A normal human, maybe," Gear said. "But a metahuman—if you're already on a drug, what happens if you take another hit?"
"Shit." Shiv shivered a little in the zapcap's cords. "So maybe it's the kryptonite that's been getting to those people? And not the gas?"
Innocent lives, Mercy had said. "What people?" Static growled.
Shiv looked at him sidelong. "Shiv," Superman said, quietly, "You and your friend might be in danger, but we can't help you if we don't know exactly what he's doing."
"He—E-bon'll kill me, I go spilling my guts to heroes..."
"Not if I get to you first," Static snarled, electricity crackling loudly up and down his body, blue-white flashes reflecting in Shiv's eyes.
"Hey," Robert murmured uneasily. He understood the necessity, but he hadn't raised his son to be a bully.
"Static!" Superman said again, and stepped between the hero and his victim.
Behind his back, hidden from Shiv's view, Virgil winked at his father.
"He's not going to touch you," Superman reassured. "I'll make sure. We just want to help. And we won't tell E-bon a thing. We know most of it already—the kryptonite, the people in danger. We just want to know what E-bon wants with Lex Luthor."
"He wants the formula," Shiv said, quickly, as if the faster he betrayed E-bon, the less culpable he would be. "The secret recipe for the Big Bang gas. E-bon figured out all the ingredients, even the kryptonite, but he hasn't been able to cook up any. The people he's tested it on, they haven't...come out right. But only the way upper-ups at Alva Industries ever got to see the formula, it was so top secret. And most of them, Alva got rid of—they're overseas, or whatever. But Lex is in charge now, so he should know it. Or would be able to find out."
"And E-bon was gonna pay him for the mutagenic formula in kryptonite," Static said.
"Lex pays a lot for the stuff, anyone knows that," Shiv said. "The black market rate on one crystal of the mean green is through the roof, and everyone knows who's behind all the buys. E-bon thought he wanted it so bad, he'd pay more than cash. And Lex might want a piece of the action too, E-bon figured. Maybe get a few metahumans for himself to play with. E-bon's ready to bargain. Good supervillain relations, you know?"
Superman's expression was impassive. Or held deliberately calm with a will to match the strength of his body, Robert thought. "What if Luthor doesn't agree?"
"What do you think?" Shiv said, shrugging. "E-bon'll convince him. I mean, it's frigging Lex Luthor, but he don't got no super powers."
Static snorted. "Yeah, and as soon as he gets away, you and your boss'll find out what kind of super power a gazillion bucks is. You think you smalltime thugs stand a chance against Lex Luthor?"
"Hey, you think E-bon's crazy? If he has to twist Lex's arm, we ain't gonna sit around and wait for it to come back to bite us. The gas we got now, like I said, it don't work quite like it's supposed to." Shiv glanced up at Superman. "E-bon says, if we don't get Lex on our side, then we'll still have Superman owing us one. If Lex says no, you won't need to worry about him causing you trouble ever again."
Behind Shiv, where Superman was standing, something suddenly gave way with a loud crack, like ice breaking. Shiv jumped and tried to twist his head around on his shoulders far enough to see, ineffectually. Superman's face was as calm as before; whatever the noise had been, it apparently hadn't bothered his super-hearing. "Shiv, will you help us?"
Shiv tried to see over his shoulder again. "Uh, help how?"
"You understand the danger, don't you? Now that you know, you need to explain it to E-bon." Superman's tone was still quiet. If Robert hadn't been able to see the fingerprints fracturing the metal back of Shiv's chair, he wouldn't have even noticed the faint lines tightened around the hero's blue eyes.
"Dude," Shiv shook his head, "E-bon is pissed with me, the whole letting Mr. Rogers over there get away thing. He ain't gonna listen to me. I mean not like he ever does anyway, but he's really, really not gonna listen now."
"What if you had something to offer him?" Static asked, leaning forward in his chair. "Like a superhero, gift-wrapped?"
"For real?" Shiv asked, looking Static up and down like he was deciding where to tape the ribbons and card. "Man, that'd go over great!"
"No," Robert said, at the exact same time Gear did.
"I'll go," Richie went on. "Even if he takes away Backpack, I got enough tricks up my sleeve."
"Which is why he'd probably bonk you over the head and make sure you stayed unconscious," Static said. "And we don't need your brains scrambled. Me, E-bon'll want awake to gloat over. I'm the one he hates."
"Which is why you aren't going to do it," Gear said flatly. "Besides, do you want to risk him finding your secret identity?"
Virgil blew out a long breath, frustrated. "It wouldn't work anyway," he said. "Would E-bon really buy that Shiv managed to catch either of us, all by himself?"
"Hm. Point," Gear admitted, as Shiv whined, "Hey!"
"If I went in disguised," Richie said.
"What would E-bon want with you if he didn't know you were a hero?"
"Maybe I could—" Superman started.
"Dude, they've got how much green K there?"
"What about me?" Robert said. "If E-bon was that angry I got away, maybe he would want me back."
Three superheroes looked at him. Robert looked at them right back. They might be the ones in costume, but he was a law-abiding citizen as much as any of them, and he understood the need to stop E-bon just as well. Besides, he had seniority. At least he looked like he did, to judge by Superman's square unlined features.
"No way," Virgil said, and only just managed to swallow back the 'Pops' in time. His eyes were wide behind the mask. "M-Mr. Hawkins," and he barely stumbled over it, "you don't know—"
"I've met E-bon more than once. I know exactly what he's capable of." And what he could do to Dakota, with a new supply of mutagenic gas. "I'm not afraid." With both his boys such heroes, how could he be a coward?
That particular blank look of Richie's meant he was calculating odds in his head faster than his face could keep up. Virgil's mask couldn't hide the profound unhappiness in his eyes.
"It'd make me look good," Shiv said, thoughtfully. "Taking initiative, getting him back."
"No fucking way," Virgil said, but he sounded desperate.
"Mr. Hawkins," Superman said, "are you sure?" and Robert knew he was in.
Half an hour later, it was far too late to reconsider, and Robert refused to give in to the careful, reasonable half of his brain that really very much wanted to.
"I've been looking for the dude, E-bon, where do you think I was?" Shiv spoke fast into his cell phone. For a career criminal, he wasn't nearly as good at subterfuge as certain superheroes of Robert's acquaintance.
They were still standing under the shelter of the bus stop where Superman had dropped them off. He and Gear had retreated out of sight, but they would be close enough to observe, Robert knew. Of course, given super-hearing and super-vision and probably super-other things Robert didn't know about, not to mention Gear's absolutely guaranteed undetectable bug stuck to the back of one of his shirt buttons, the observation distance could be a mile away. Which Superman could cover in a millisecond anyway—but that wasn't the plan.
Headlights pierced the light drizzle as another car passed. There wasn't much traffic in this neighborhood—too late for safety-minded citizens to be out and about; too early for those who liked the full dark's secrecy to emerge. "Yeah, I got him right here with me," Shiv assured his boss. "He was, uh, walking back to the center. —Hey, the hell do I know? Maybe he couldn't afford a cab."
Robert put his hands in his pocket, feeling for the tube there. Short on time and for lack of a better disguise they had stuck it in the thick case of a permanent marker. It was comforting to have it at his fingertips, and hopefully E-bon wouldn't question it.
Shiv's edgy gaze darted back to him and Robert took his hands out of his pocket. Shiv didn't know about the marker. Shiv didn't know about most of the plan. Just as well; he was nervous enough as it was. "Yeah, we're at the corner of Fourteenth and Abel now," Shiv said into his phone. "I'll bring him to the juvie hall—"
"No need." The shadow of the bus stop's roof thickened, deepened, the voice emerging an instant before the man himself rose from it.
"Hey, E-bon, you didn't need to come all this way," Shiv began, jittering. "I could've—"
"--You could've brought the trap right to our hideout?" E-bon snarled. Before Shiv could protest, a midnight-black fist slammed him back into the shelter's left post. His head cracked against the cement pillar, and Shiv slumped to the dirty sidewalk.
Robert ducked out of the way, making like he was going to run and not needing much effort to feign fear. "Where you going?" E-bon asked with oily amusement. "I don't know how you got to Shiv or what kind of dumb plan you running here, but I ain't got time to wait for your hero buds." Thick shadows congealed around Robert, freezing cold and impenetrable. "You coming with me," the supervillain said, and a vortex of darkness swallowed Robert for the second time that day.
At least this time was planned.
He didn't exit E-bon's portal with enough velocity to lose consciousness this time, catching himself on his hands in time before he smacked his head against the wall. He was alone, he found, when he straightened up; E-bon had left Shiv behind.
E-bon melted back into mostly humanoid form as Robert looked around. They were in a room with dirty white walls and a bank of florescent lights reflecting on a long table, reminiscent of the LexCorp lab, though with a low ceiling and no skylight or other windows. And unlike the bright, sterile order of the lab, this place was dingy, the walls streaked with graffiti and dirt and cigarette butts littered across the scuffed floor.
The only door that Robert could see was not only boarded over but set some feet above the ground, out of reach. The wreckage of wooden stairs lay beneath it. Someone's basement converted to a meth lab or the like, Robert supposed, now converted to...something else. E-bon's mutagen kitchen. And E-bon's vortex was the only entrance or exit.
Lex Luthor was sitting on one of the two stools by the table, perusing a file folder, more papers spread out before him. His jaw showed only faint bruises from Robert's fist, and most of the dust had been brushed off his suit, though its neat white lines were looking a little crumpled. He stood at E-bon's reappearance, shot Robert an evaluating look. "What is he doing here?"
"This guy here was Shiv's apology," E-bon said. He ran a practiced hand over Robert, checking for guns or other weapons. "Making up for letting him get away like that."
"You really think it took your associate this long to recapture this man?"
"No way," E-bon snorted. "That idiot Shiv probably got himself caught by Static and tricked to call me. But I was there and gone before Mr. Too-cool Hero could do a thing. Static can have the son of a bitch. I got bigger things to worry about."
"Why bother springing the trap at all?" Luthor inquired. "You realize this man's probably bugged."
"Yeah, and I figure you don't want that bug-zapping a-hole following him here anymore than me. Would screw up the whole plan. So what can we do about it?"
Luthor circled around the table to approach them. "The shielding that you described to me should block most conventional devices, as well as Superman's x-ray vision. As for anything unconventional..." He withdrew something from inside his jacket, no wider or thicker than a credit card, with a jet-black finish. Holding the rectangle between the fingers of one hand, he raised it before Robert.
Robert met his eyes, willing himself not to glance down at his bugged shirt button. Willing Luthor not to react. Mercy had had no luck tracing Luthor's beacon, so Gear's wire was the only way for the heroes to find them. Even Shiv hadn't known where this hideout was located; E-bon transported him to and from. Without the button, there was no chance, especially if Luthor was telling the truth about the shielding against Superman's x-ray vision.
A green diode blinked on Luthor's rectangle as he passed it in front of Robert's chest. Luthor raised his head to look Robert in the eyes. Robert stared back into the billionaire's unreadable gray. Gear would be listening to everything they said, but Robert had no way of telling him where he was, and Richie had explained that it would take a few minutes to triangulate location. If Luthor were truly an ally...
Luthor's lips curved. The smile still didn't reach his eyes, but it sounded in his voice, vicious and mocking. "A good attempt. A plus for effort." His hand lashed out, closed on Robert's shirt button and plucked it off, holding it up to the light. "Quite a clever little thing. This would be Gear's work, I take it?"
"So he was bugged?" E-bon demanded.
"Don't worry," Luthor said. "I can fix this to emit a false signal, send our noble crusaders on a wild goose chase." He pressed the microcircuitry glued to the back of the button to his little black rectangle, ran his fingers over invisible keys, then returned both devices to his inner jacket pocket. "There. No harm done."
E-bon laughed. "Man, you are totally ace."
"Luthor." It was all Robert could do not to take another swing at the man. What kind of game was he playing? If his message to Mercy had been a set-up—if he had planned all of this, he and E-bon conniving from the start—Superman should be above such manipulation, but this was Lex Luthor.
Luthor smirked at him. "Did you think I'd be in need of rescue? That I wouldn't see the benefits of a local partnership?" He inclined his head toward E-bon. "As I told you, I'm always interested in meeting ambitious young talents. But you are prepared, if they followed him here some other way?" he asked his shadowy cohort sharply.
"Lex, my man, ain't no one following me," E-bon said, his grin a gaping black maw. "I own the darkness on all these streets. But yeah, even if that super-tool and his buds turn up, I'm all set. See this?" From his dark depths he materialized a small remote control. "The whole place is wired, floors, ceilings, walls. Anyone break in or out, it sets off this deadman's switch. Once it's on, I let it go, and the whole place fries. Me and Static could take it, but no one else. He's fast, but he ain't fast enough to stop me. And he ain't gonna let his green boy and everyone else get zapped. Gimme plenty of time to get the hell out."
Luthor raised his eyebrows. "I'm not partial to 'frying' myself."
"Hey, man." E-bon's grin was a match for Luthor's shark smirk, fang for fang. "You stick close to me, you don't feel a spark. Otherwise...hope those shiny shoes got a lot of rubber in the soles, you get me?"
Luthor didn't dignify the threat with a response. Instead he said, turning away as he did, as if he was only speaking out of courtesy and could barely be bothered with that, "What will you do with this man?"
E-bon snaked a broad, shadowy hand around Robert's upper arm. "I wanted this guy back to make sure he couldn't talk, tell somebody you and me got a deal. Maybe it's too late for that, but he'll still be good for a lab rat, I figure. I'll put him with the others."
He dragged Robert forward, around the crumbling cinderblock and mortar wall dividing the basement in half. Behind the wall, Robert saw a padlock, black iron bars—a cage. Fifteen feet square, and unlit, but the ambient glow from the other side of the wall was enough for Robert to make out the figures inside.
Some were sitting huddled; others were lying on the cement floor, wrapped in tattered rags and worn blankets. There may have been as many as twenty of them, and a few were small enough that they had to be children. A couple faces turned to their approach, the glitter of eyes catching the light; more were still, unresponsive. Someone coughed, wet and hacking. No one spoke.
Robert's stomach turned. These were the innocent lives, E-bon's guarantee that Static would not attack. His hostages, and more. The smell of body odor and sewage was not overwhelming but was pervasive. Robert's eyes were slow to adjust to the light, but he could still see irregularities in the figures' silhouettes, even under the wrappings, too long ears here, too broad and square shoulders there, a gleam that might be a second pair of eyes above the ordinary pair.
Lab rats. The gas we got now...it don't work quite like it's supposed to, Shiv had said. Robert had already known that E-bon was a monster, but this...
He looked back over his shoulder, to see Luthor taking a seat once more at the metal table. Ignoring Robert, paying no heed to the suffering behind the wall only a few feet from where he sat. With Gear's bug in his jacket pocket, deactivated, and a sheath of papers in hand that probably was the formula for the mutagen that had done this. Helping perfect E-bon's poison, for his own ends, Robert was sure. E-bon was a monster, but Luthor...
"You won't get away this!" Robert found himself shouting, bracing his feet against the floor so E-bon couldn't drag him further. Couldn't lock him away before he got a chance to make his accusations. Futile, but at least the man would have to acknowledge them. "You think you've got it all planned out, but you're wrong! Even if you don't think Static and Gear can stop you, you're not the only one from Metropolis—"
Robert realized his tactical error the second it was out of his mouth, a second too late. Luthor was standing, papers dropped on the table. "What did you say?" he hissed, and gestured imperatively to E-bon. "Bring him over here."
E-bon hauled him back, Robert stumbling, managing to draw himself upright in time for Luthor to grab him by the collar. "What did you say?" the supervillain repeated. "I'm not the only one?"
It was too late, and Robert grasped for what vindication he could, useless though it might be. "Superman's come to Dakota. He's going to find you." Whether or not in time for Robert's sake, or all these other poor souls at stake, at least when the hero realized Luthor's betrayal there would be the deserved reckoning.
"Superman is here?" Luthor's eyes were still the inscrutable, locked gray of an icebound river, but his fists around Robert's collar were white-knuckled and his lips were pressed to an utterly flat line.
"Lex, my man," E-bon said, brazenly cool, "it's nothing to worry about. I got your payment right here, enough to take care of that alien freak."
"Yes." Luthor let go of Robert, straightened his cuffs with short sharp motions as he turned to E-bon. "I think now's the time to show me exactly what you're offering."
"You won't be disappointed." E-bon slunk over to a metal crate almost lost in the shadows on the far wall. He bent to insert a key into the lock and then kicked the case. It clanged dully and the lid flipped open, revealing an array of stacked green blocks, translucent and shimmering in the refracted light from the ceiling.
"Here it is," E-bon said. The shimmering glow reflected crazily on his jet form, green streaking and rippling through the deep black and purple shades of his skin. "Fifteen bars of refined kryptonite."
Luthor stepped past Robert, toward the chest. The emerald bars reflected in his mirror eyes, cast sickly hues over his pale skin. "Fifteen? There were sixteen stolen," he snapped.
"Yeah, but there's only fifteen for sale," E-bon said. He drew aside the violet shadowed outlines of his vest to show the green bar glimmering against his chest. "This one's mine. Insurance if your buddy in the red cape makes any more pit stops in Dakota after you're gone."
Luthor licked his lip, a quick darting of his tongue like a lizard. It was the least premeditated gesture Robert had observed in him yet. Maybe just overwhelming greed. But the billionaire nodded smoothly without any further hesitation. "Fifteen, then. What about the liquidized extract used in the gas?"
"What about it?"
"I want it."
E-bon considered, then pointed to a small green vial on the end of the table, stacked with similar chemical bottles. "It's all there. Once I got enough gas cooked up, it's yours."
Robert was only peripherally paying attention to the supervillains' bargaining. His focus was on the kryptonite. One hand crept into his slacks pocket. E-bon hadn't bothered to search him, beyond the cursory pat-down for weapons; hadn't even noticed the marker in his pocket. And Luthor's little scanner hadn't picked it up.
Gear had warned him that he would only have one chance. The spray had a limited range and had to be directly applied to the surface of the kryptonite to activate. But once activated, the chemical agent would neutralize the mineral's effects for a few minutes. Long enough, hopefully.
Richie had said he had been working on the agent for some time. With Luthor's help, he had said. The irony now, if it got Luthor caught red-handed...Robert could appreciate it later. Now he had to find some way to get to the kryptonite.
The supervillains were still talking. He sidled one step closer to the wall, then another. Another five feet and he could risk going for it—better if he could be sure the heroes were coming, but he had to take the chance. Had to believe that Richie would have found a way, or Superman with all his powers, or Virgil with his own gifts—he trusted them, and they were trusting him. Virgil, counting on his un-super-powered old man, and no way was his old man going to let them down.
Another three feet—
E-bon's hand clamped around his arm, tight enough to cut off circulation. "Now where you going, Mr. Rogers-Neighborhood?"
Robert wrenched his hand out of his pocket, but not slyly or quickly enough. E-bon grabbed his wrist, huge dark fingers wrapping almost double around. "What you got there?" He reached into Robert's pocket, withdrew the black marker. "What's this?"
Luthor snatched it from E-bon, gave the cap a sharp twist and shook the pencil-thick silver tube inside out into his hand. He fingered one end, looked at Robert. "I see," he said icily, the vicious villain's smile playing on his lips.
E-bon stretched higher to look over his shoulder. "That one of those things you tied this guy up with before?" He snorted. "Sure worked great, didn't it, held one middle-aged chump for like a minute."
"It was a prototype," Luthor dismissed him. "And this one's not even that." He pressed the button at one end. E-bon jerked nervously, but it only hissed, a little dark mist spraying Luthor's hand. He rubbed the residue between his pale fingers. "See? Broken. So the fool thinks he can play the hero, and turn my own traps against me? I'm afraid it's not that easy to save the day." He tapped the tube against Robert's chest, admonishing with patronizingly scorn, then rubbed his bruised jaw thoughtfully. "And I owe you for before, don't I."
Like he hadn't asked for it. "I don't know what kind of sick game you're playing, Luthor," Robert began, his hands balling into fists, "but there's more where that came from—"
Luthor's smirk widened, as if that anger was the exact response he'd been waiting for. "Oh, I'm sure there is, Mr. Hawkins," he said, and swung his fist. He was fast, faster than Robert was expecting, and stronger, too. Robert didn't duck in time—too damn heavy, too much bulk to move quickly. Luthor's punch clipped him on the chin, knocking him over.
He went down, landed hard on his rear and only just caught himself on his hands, his wrists complaining at the impact on the cement floor. His head was ringing like a bell, green splotches pulsing before his eyes, and he could taste a metallic trickle of blood in his mouth. E-bon was crowing and Luthor laughed, a harsh bark above him. Robert shook his head to clear it, as E-bon said, "Better luck next time, Mr. Hero."
Something clinked on the floor in front of him, rolled a few inches, green glittering off it. Robert grabbed for it instinctively, his hand closing around the metal tube, as Luthor said, "So, E-bon, how much mutagenic compound are you hoping to have?"
Robert looked down at his hand, the greenish cast playing off his brown skin. He looked over his shoulder. The open crate was right behind him, the kryptonite bars gleaming softly with their strangely malevolent emerald hue. Only a foot from where Luthor had knocked him to the floor.
He looked back at Luthor, talking calmly to E-bon, not looking at him. Then the supervillain turned casually in mid-conversation, light shining off his bald head, just long enough to shoot Robert a lightning-quick glance that gleamed blue as vividly as the kryptonite's green.
"You son of a bitch," Robert swore for the first time today, raised the tube toward the kryptonite and pressed the button, spreading black over the kryptonite's hideous green like he was spray-painting a car.
He turned back in time to catch Luthor's quick, unmistakable wink, and then it was hidden behind a vicious show of temper. "What are you doing?" Luthor roared, and lunged for him, past a startled E-bon.
"Lex, man, what—" E-bon began, but Luthor plowed him aside, shoving the shadow man into the lab table hard enough to rattle the glass stacked there.
The supervillain grabbed Robert by the wrist, hauled him to his feet. "What do you think you're trying?" Luthor snarled. "You think Superman will come save you now?"
Robert had only just time to register the slightest of emphasis placed on the hero's name, and then everything happened at once.
An alarm went off, beeping wildly, just as the opposite wall crashed down in an explosion of dirt and brick mortar. The floor shook under their feet, knocking Robert into Luthor, who, conveniently enough, was knocked into the lab table. As E-bon flailed, Robert saw Luthor grab the vial of kryptonite extract and tuck it under his jacket.
Then a red-caped whirlwind and a crackling, brilliant ball of electricity filled the room, illuminating all corners. E-bon howled, the light painful to his shadows, and over him Robert could hear a few cries from the cage behind the wall.
"No!" E-bon rasped, cutting through the chaos. "Drop the light-show or I'll—!"
The heroes froze. Superman's cape settled around him as he flanked Static on the left, Gear standing on the right with a fourth-gen zapcap in hand, and Static himself in the center, his arms crossed, incandescent like a star. E-bon squinted into that brightness, his eyes barely slits.
"See this?" he said, and he held up the remote in his hand, one shadowy finger pressing down the red button. "I let go of this, and everyone but you and me fries. You can feel the wiring in the floor, can't you, Static? That's a hundred thousand volts of murder, hero."
Static's brilliance didn't waver, but his voice was too soft. "I can feel it, yeah. What do you want, E-bon?"
"For you to dial down the light bulb act. Give a brother enough dark to get me and my man Lex out of here."
Robert turned his head enough to see Luthor, but the man's face told him nothing. His eyes were narrowed in concentration but that was all.
"Is that it?" Static asked.
"That, and my goods," E-bon said, sliding a long step back to the crate of kryptonite. "Took too much work to get hold of this shit, I ain't giving it up now."
"Oh," Static said, his bright field not flickering. "Let me think. Hm. No."
"Wh—?" E-bon started to say, and then there was—not even a blur, not so much as a glimpse; the merest notion of red, and then the shadow villain was holding nothing and the remote was safe in Superman's strong hand.
"Right on!" Gear said, and threw the zapcap, which expanded to contain E-bon in bands of coruscating energy. Judging by the metahuman's instantly slack, unseeing stare, the fourth-gen caps had a trance-inducing theta-wave generator built in. Robert gave him a cautious poke. E-bon didn't blink.
"Let me see that switch," Gear said to Superman, pushing past the entranced supervillain, "I'll make sure it can't go off."
"Allow me," Luthor said, already beside Superman and prying open the side of the remote deadman switch with the innards of a ballpoint pen. "I can't imagine it's that complicated, considering who rigged it."
"Yeah, we heard. Your signal enhancer on my bug punched through all the interference from E-bon's wiring," Gear said, joining him, his own instrumentation in hand. "So what do we got, a single bridge circuit? Any pressure sensitivity? Does it have some kind of voltage divider?"
"You expect a potentiometer in a Christmas tree light-switch? We're just lucky it didn't short-circuit from the disruptive discharge."
"Man, glad to have you here, Supes," Static said.
"I'm sure you would have handled it fine on your own," Superman replied.
"Well, yeah. Maybe. I mean, I'm fast, but that fast?"
"Faster than the speed of thought, that is pretty dang fast," Gear said. "All done, by the way, you can let go now."
Superman put down the remote. Robert released a small and hopefully silent breath as they were not grilled by a lethal electrical current. Given his son's vocation, that would have been terribly embarrassing.
"What about the people here?" he asked. There were too many for the heroes to carry. "We should call the police, ambulances—"
Luthor checked his watch. "Should be here within five minutes, give or take. When did you actually arrive at this address? Mercy wouldn't have made the call to emergency services until she was sure you had located the place."
Static and Gear looked at one another. Static sighed. "Okay, which of us has the tracker on him this time?"
Luthor's smile was small, but all teeth. "Where's the fun if I tell you?"
"Later, V," Gear said, nudging his partner's shoulder. "There's people who need us. Let's go see what we can do for them before the real help arrives."
Virgil nodded and followed him around the wall. Robert almost put out a hand to stop them, but stopped himself instead. They were grown men now. Superheroes now, and they likely had seen worse than this before. Had to face this, and worse, to do their jobs. There's real evil out there, his son had said, and Robert couldn't protect his boys from all of it.
He would have followed them, but was distracted by another exchange. "Where are you going?"
"There're people in trouble, Lex—"
"This is their city; let them handle it. That hole in the wall's big enough for the EMT teams to get down here, so your job's done. Now you can explain what the hell you're doing here." Luthor's angry snarl was the most emotion Robert had heard from him yet.
"And what are you doing here?" Superman sounded relatively calmer; but considering the relativity was between supervillain and superhero, Robert would have expected a greater contrast.
"I'm here on business," Luthor said, crossing his arms over his chest.
Superman's arms were already crossed. "Same for me."
"Dakota isn't your business. That mess on Rigel XII was, last I checked."
"Green Lantern's taking care of that."
"He was supposed to be on vacation for another twenty-four hours."
"He got bored of the cruise and came back." Superman paused. "Lex. That cruise package special prize. Tell me it wasn't LexCorp funded."
"Don't go changing the subject. You knew there was kryptonite here or you wouldn't have sent Mr. Hawkins in with Gear's counteragent. How could you risk it?"
"And you knew there was a criminal with kryptonite here when you came to Dakota. Why didn't you tell me?"
"The stolen kryptonite became mine when I took control of Alva Industries. Since when are LexCorp holdings your personal concern?"
"Lex." Superman sounded, for lack of a better word, desperate. More than frustrated, definitely. If he hadn't been the invincible Man of Steel, almost scared. "You can't go haring off like this every time there's a rumor of kryptonite."
"I can't? Really, now."
"People will start to notice. They already know you'll pay through the nose for it, but if they get the idea that you'll do anything for it—you can't risk that."
"As a matter of fact, I can," Luthor said. "It doesn't hurt my reputation any, you know. Everyone knows why I'm collecting it. What supervillain worth his salt wouldn't be out to control his nemesis's greatest weakness?"
"Oh, damn your reputation anyway!"
"I like my reputation," Luthor said, smirking, though it looked different than before. Because of his eyes, Robert realized; their gray was blue now, reflecting the shades of Superman's costume. Superman had taken hold of Luthor's arms and looked like he wanted to shake the man until all his billions came out.
Luthor leaned forward, towards Superman, not at all intimidated by the superhero's hold. "And where would you be, without a nemesis to keep you on your toes?"
"On Rigel XII, handling planetquakes," Superman returned smartly. "Rather than rushing around Dakota hoping to find you before you got mutagenic-gassed into something that wouldn't look as good on the cover of Forbes."
"Never knew you had a thing for financial publications," Luthor said, then leaned forward the few inches more necessary to—
Robert blinked, realized he was staring and forced himself to look away. He turned his back to them, the better to avoid temptation. He wouldn't consider himself a prude by any means, but it was only courtesy.
He did take one peek back to verify that they were in fact only kissing. Even if Luthor somehow contrived to make that appear x-rated.
"Lex!" Superman mumbled, not much more than a whisper, "on duty—"
"You've been on Rigel XII and I've been here in Dakota for a goddamn week. Screw duty," Luthor hissed back, savagely enough to shut up even a superhero for several seconds.
Then—"Lex, in your pocket, is that a—"
Robert coughed discreetly.
Superman was supposedly possessed of super-hearing, but apparently hadn't been using it. He jerked back, breaking free of his nemesis with superhuman speed, and while he wasn't actually blushing, the impression was there. "Er, Mr. Hawkins. Robert, rather."
Luthor, on the other hand, evinced no impression of anything except total and smug awareness. "Mr. Hawkins," he said, smooth as satin, for all the world like his hands hadn't been straying to unlikely areas of the Man of Tomorrow's anatomy a moment before, "if I could impose on you, I may have to field a few questions from the police, and I'd prefer to have this taken care of as soon as possible. If you could hand it off to Mercy for me?" and he passed over a purse-sized satchel, heavier than it looked.
"Lex, that's lead-lined," Superman said.
"It's the one bar E-bon was keeping on him, plus the liquid kryptonite. Haven't seen that in a while, can't wait to see how Alva came up with it."
"All right," Robert agreed blankly, holding the clinking pouch. He wondered when exactly Luthor had gotten hold of E-bon's kryptonite bar. It must have been before the superheroes' grand entrance, probably when he had bumped into E-bon on the way to pretending to stop Robert. A damn good thing he had, too, or else Superman's final rush might have turned out unfortunately different.
Through the hole in the wall Robert heard the muted whoop of approaching sirens. "Mr. Hawkins," Luthor said, "if you want to give a statement to the police, by all means go ahead; but if you'd prefer to just go home, for which I wouldn't blame you after this day, I can tell them whatever they need to know."
And no doubt put his personal spin on the day's events, Robert thought. Though Superman would be here to keep him honest—of all the League heroes, Superman had a reputation for being one of the most cooperative with local law enforcement. Even if he might not give the whole story. Almost definitely not, in fact. He was now standing a few feet apart from Luthor, without any hint of a blush, instead assuming a regally stern, virtuous aspect in precise counterpoint to Luthor's suave amorality. Poster-boy ideals of hero and villain; if he hadn't seen them in each other's arms a minute before...
Robert wondered if Virgil or Richie knew. Recalled Virgil's hesitation at explaining Superman's secret friendship with his nemesis and suspected they probably did. No wonder they were so open around Superman. That he, an ordinary citizen, had also been trusted with this secret, was an honor in its own right.
Virgil and Richie came back around the wall—still in costume, but too close together and too quiet; not superheroes but young men for that moment, their bright idealism shaken. Virgil reached back blindly, and Richie grabbed his hand and squeezed, just an instant. Then they let go and together squared their shoulders, and were heroes again. "The ambulances are here, huh?" Static said, cocking his head toward the sirens. "I better make sure the way down's clear." He hopped on his disk and soared up through the broken wall.
"Everyone's alive, and no one's in danger," Gear reported. "There's eighteen people total, four kids. Half of them are just hungry and scared. The others..."
"It might've been used by a madman, but the mutagen compound is an Alva Industries product," Luthor said, orating like he was practicing for the press conference. "LexCorp will cover all the medical bills. In the name of good public relations, naturally," and he smirked.
Richie's smile back was no part of the game, just grateful. "I'll want to talk to their doctors. Biochemistry's not my specialty but after the research I've done on the gas, I have some ideas."
"Of course, I'll arrange that," Luthor said, and his poise might have been a practiced veneer but the hand he rested briefly on Richie's shoulder was honest.
"So, Superman," Gear said, "I didn't get to ask before we broke in. While I was tracking the bug on Mr. H, how'd you get Static out of the holding web, anyway?"
"You didn't get him out yourself?" Luthor asked.
Gear shook his head. "Static's electric field kept altering the frequency harmonics of the nano-web, I couldn't keep up. By the time I calibrated the instruments for one harmonic it had switched again."
"Same as your idea, really," Superman said, looking abashed, like a kid being praised for something his big sister had actually done. "I just could calibrate fast enough to hit the right frequency before it changed."
"So you recalled the web conventionally?" Luthor demanded. "You didn't have to heat-vision fry it or somesuch? I hope you attuned the monitors properly for the withdrawal, I'll want to go over those results."
"Er," Superman said. "We were in a hurry."
Luthor glanced to Gear. "Would Static consent to being a test subject again?"
"Uh. Maybe if you offered V a Ferrari?"
"No son of mine is going to accept flashy gifts from a supervillain," Robert said.
"Good God, it is Jonathan Kent. And you could've waited," Luthor grumbled in Superman's direction, looking more discomfited by this than he had the entire time in E-bon's nefarious clutches.
"No," Superman said, "we needed Static to face E-bon. Without his light, E-bon very well might have teleported away. With you." He brushed Luthor's sleeve. "Besides, they had to face each other. They're nemeses. You know how it is."
"Yes," Luthor said, "I suppose I do," and together they turned to meet the first rescue workers clambering through the fallen wall.
Robert Hawkins went home, slept ten solid hours, and arrived at the center the next day just in time to catch the morning news. It covered most of the previous day's events in abbreviated form, including a recounting of Lex Luthor's harrowing abduction at E-bon's hands, and clips of his press conference that morning. Robert himself was mentioned, but not by name; it was just the CEO of LexCorp and "a Dakota citizen, who managed to alert local superheroes Static and Gear, as well as a more famous visitor."
Robert allowed himself a chuckle at the "more famous," imagining his son's stung pride. Otherwise he found himself impressed by how Luthor managed to make himself out to be not only the victim but the unsung hero of the affair, while simultaneously implying uncomfortably Machiavellian maneuvering going on behind his assured smile, for anyone who watched close enough. Undeniably it took talent.
With the upset at LexCorp at the CEO's abduction, not to mention kryptonite to dispose of (and no mention of that had made it onto the news, Robert had noticed, for all the sensationalist details of E-bon's mutagenic experiments) Robert was surprised when he returned from lunch to find a forbidding blonde bodyguard outside his office, and one Lex Luthor waiting inside.
"Mr. Hawkins," Luthor said as he entered, rising from his chair. He was wearing a black suit jacket with a collarless charcoal knit underneath, not the beige he had had on at the morning's press conference. This probably counted as casual wear for a billionaire.
Robert took his hand without hesitation, shook firmly. "Mr. Luthor. Good afternoon."
"Please, call me Lex. Everyone does," Lex said. "I wanted to see how you were doing after yesterday." He looked around the office. "There doesn't appear to have been too much damage. No one here was hurt, were they?"
Robert shook his head. "No harm done." It had taken him most of the morning to put his office back in order after the havoc wreaked by E-bon's vortex, and two of the drawers of his desk weren't sliding properly, but it could've been worse. His laptop had been safe in his briefcase at the time, and he counted himself lucky that E-bon had spat back up the desk, rather than taken it with them. It would have been difficult to retrieve from the old juvenile detention hall, and he needed his files. Reassuring the staff and kids at the center would take longer, but the Bang Babies had been a part of Dakota life for long enough that everyone knew how to deal.
"If there's any repairs needed, send the bill to me personally," Lex said. "And you're all right, too?" He eyed Robert's chin critically, as if looking for bruises.
"Mr. Luthor—Lex. I'm fine." The last of his headache had faded during lunch. Truth be told his jaw was still sore, but probably no worse than Luthor's own, unless his right cross had really degraded that much. "If you're worried about your own part, I've gotten worse getting between brawling kids."
"I see." Lex nodded amused acknowledgment of the slight, but only for a moment. "Mr. Hawkins," he said seriously, meeting Robert's eyes, "I owe you an apology. You should never have been involved in yesterday's events. I was waiting for E-bon to make a play and went out to give him the opportunity, but I wasn't expecting him to move so quickly. Or for him to take both of us."
"Yes, well. It worked out all right, in the end," Robert said.
A twist in the billionaire's expression told Robert that in Lex Luthor's universe, things were supposed to either go right from the start, or not at all. After all, he must have plenty of schemes that failed. Thwarted by Superman and his fellow heroes, as they were planned to be from the start. Robert couldn't help but think it must be frustrating, even if it was intentional failure. And unintentional mistakes must grate all the more.
"Look," Robert said, "you might be the number one supervillain, but I can't see how that makes you accountable for other criminals. E-bon was a threat to this city before you ever stepped foot in Dakota, and Alva Industries helped create him long before LexCorp was in charge. As far as I'm concerned, you stand to make the city less dangerous. Even if your ways of doing so are..." He deliberated. "Somewhat suspect. Besides," and Robert couldn't help a smile, "I did get the chance to meet Superman this way."
Lex chuckled. It reached his blue eyes and made him look younger. The man had to be around forty, but he could pass for fifty, or thirty; his smoothly pale complexion and bald head made it difficult to estimate. And something about his bearing now reminded Robert more of Virgil and Richie. He was letting a little of his urbane tycoon sophistication down, and what showed beneath was the tentative self-consciousness of a much younger man.
Knowing Luthor, that slipped mask was manipulation as much as anything else, but Robert suspected what showed might be true all the same. Lex had been playing supervillain for so long that his honest side probably hadn't had much chance to mature. "I want you to know, Lex, I'm taking what I've learned about you and Superman in the strictest of confidences, the same as my knowledge of my son. Regardless of how I found them out, I understand how important these secrets are."
"Oh, I know I can trust in your discretion." Lex sounded surprised. "I wouldn't have broached them with you otherwise."
Upon consideration, Robert didn't doubt that somehow he could have managed that. "Thank you," he said quietly. Trust was too precious a gift not to appreciate.
Lex nodded. "Static and Gear—Virgil and Richie—never gave me any reason to think I shouldn't confide in you. I meant what I told you yesterday, you have every right to be proud of those boys. They're a credit to their vocation." His expression became wry. "Though I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a personal stake. If you want to know the truth, Mr. Hawkins—the hardest part of doing what I do is having to endure the entirely justified scorn and hatred of good, honorable men like you."
"Then why do you do it?" Robert asked. "Virgil told me enough to convince me that what you do is important, that they need someone like you to—keep an eye on the dark side, I suppose. But why does it have to be you? From what I've seen, you have your own talents to rival Gear's, and you have a—close relation with a superhero already. Why didn't you just become one of the heroes instead?"
Lex raised an eyebrow. "Seriously? It never crossed my mind." He chuckled, still wry. "In all honesty, could you see me as a hero? You raised your son to be a good man; when he came into his powers, it never occurred to him to become anything but a hero. Superman was the same way—it won't be violating his secret identity to tell you that I know his parents personally, and they remind me of you. Good people, down to their bones. I wasn't raised like that. I was raised to do what I do, to be what I am."
A little of Robert's discomfort must have shown on his face despite his best intentions; Lex gave him a smaller, softer version of his shark smile. "Don't get me wrong, Mr. Hawkins. I like what I do. I like being who I am. I'm glad that I can be myself and still ultimately know myself to be on the side of the angels, but the truth of the matter is—if I weren't a supervillain in appearance only, then I'd be a supervillain in fact."
Smaller; but that smile still had fangs. Robert had a momentary vision of that hypothetical fact—of Lex Luthor as the monster Robert had just yesterday taken him for—and shivered. It would not be a world he would wish on anyone.
Instead he said, "Well, if supervillains still eat like regular people—would you like to come to dinner this Friday? If you're still around Dakota, that is. Richie and Virgil will be coming, and my daughter and son-in-law. There's always room for one or two more at our table."
It only lasted an instant, but Robert had the satisfaction of seeing Lex Luthor completely off his guard, staring at him like he was another attacking metahuman. He hadn't looked so startled when being pulled into E-bon's vortex.
Then it passed and Lex was saying, slick as melting ice, "I will be around, and I'd love to, Mr. Hawkins."
"Good," Robert said. "And call me Robert."
"Robert," Lex said warmly, as they shook again. "Then I'll see you Friday."
"I'll meet you here at six o'clock," Robert said. "And please invite your—old friend in the red cape. If he's available."
Lex grinned. "I'll let him know," he said. "Good afternoon, Robert."
Robert saw Lex Luthor out, closed his office door and returned to his desk, taking out his notepad to start a shopping list. If he picked up tomato paste on the way home, he should have time to make the sauce tonight. He hoped that supervillains liked lasagna.