Secrets of the Desert
by Gary Wilbur
The trip was Perry’s idea. “You two are each excellent reporters on your own,” he’d said. “But there’s something… some chemistry, some rivalry, I don’t know, exactly… something that brings out your best work when you’re working on the same story. So I want both of you on this. I want an in-depth story on the growing anti-American sentiment in Qurac.”
They’d had a little trouble getting the cooperation of the Quraci government, but when the middle eastern leaders learned that this was a forum for getting their views known to the world, they provided the reporters with an official spokesman. “What Americans do not realize,” their guide.Ahmad, was saying, “Is that their customs, which they force upon the world, are often immoral practices. Take the way your women dress. It is shameful to allow women to appear so exposed in public. It is embarrassing to have you here, dressed the way you are, Miss Lane, and in the company of men.”
“Surely that is not the totality of your objection,” Lois responded coldly.
“No, certainly not. Americans are an aggressive, warlike people, and you systematically oppress us and seek to destroy the tenets of our religion.”
Lois’ eyes flashed angrily. “Yeah, and just what, exactly, has America done to oppress you and seek to destroy your religion? Remember that guy trying to ‘ethnically cleanse’ away your people? Whose side were we on there? Huh?”
“Uh, Lois,” Clark interjected, “I don’t think confrontations are exactly the way…”
“That’s okay, Mr. Kent,” Ahmad said. “I’d like to respond to this.” He turned to Lois. “America should not even have a presence in our country, Your dress, your ideas, your capitalistic greed all undermine the purity of our faith. And now there’s this new American symbol, Superman. He is a person who thinks he can do anything and enforces his will through brute strength. How American. And he wears a flashy costume to catch everyone’s attention and make them think they want to be like him. The immature abandon the truth for that sort of thing. How very American.”
“I think you have the wrong impression about Superman. And as for us being warlike, didn’t your country stage an unprovoked invasion of…”
“Uh, Lois.” It was Clark again. “I really don’t think it helps to bring that up. And we really should get on with the tour they have so graciously granted us.”
“You are a wise man, Mr. Kent,” Ahmad responded. “And you are right about the tour. Please follow me.” He led them down a corridor. Clark and Lois began talking in low voices as they followed him.
“Lois, are you deliberately trying to stir up anti-American sentiment?”
“What’s wrong with you, Kent? How can you be so naïve?”
“Naïve? Lois, it doesn’t help to be confrontational. It’s another culture, and they have different ideas and customs. That doesn’t make them wrong.”
“Well, they’re certainly making that judgment of us. You really are a farmboy, aren’t you? Sometimes you have to be confrontational, because the story always lies in what they’re not saying.”
“And not showing us. Have you noticed how studiously he has avoided taking us anywhere near that complex over there?”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
“Of course it does. The story is in what’s being hidden.”
“Lois, not everyone has sinister secrets hidden away.”
“But some do. Look at that Green Lantern guy, for instance. Why that mask? What’s he hiding? You can bet that if we had a masked vigilante in Metropolis I’d be all about finding out who he was.”
Clark was silent.
“Here,” Ahmad was saying, “Is one of the most beautiful parts of the presidential palace, built by a grateful people for their beloved sovereign.”
“Mrs. Contessa,” he began, “I am Moussarrif. I will take you first to your hotel, and then to meet my associates.”
“Most kind, Moussarrif,” she replied as he loaded her luggage into the car. “Have they told you why I am here?”
“I know that you are here to make up our losses on a Lexcorp deal, but that’s all I know. Why have you decided to do this?”
An enigmatic smile crossed her lips. “They are wondering, aren’t they?”
There were no obvious guards, nothing to make the place appear suspicious, but she felt certain there must be guards inside. She quietly walked to a side of the wall shaded by date trees.
“The beauty of these duds,” she smiled as she pulled a coil of rope and a grappling hook from the folds of her veil, “Is that you can hide whatever you need under them.”
Looking around furtively, she tossed the hook to the top of the wall and secured a good grip. “Here goes nothing,” she said, and scaled the wall.
“I hear that my visit to you is not being taken at face value,” the Contessa began. “It has raised a certain amount of curiosity among you. So. If you have questions, now is your chance to ask.”
“What made you think we have dealings with Lexcorp?”
“I read in a newspaper that a Mr. Grogan was caught using Lexcorp computers to buy drugs from someone in Qurac. Shocking news!”
“But that should not have made you connect Lex Luthor… or us.”
The Contessa gave the questioner a condescending stare, and continued. “I know Lex Luthor. We have attended more than a few of the same social functions, sometimes together. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Mr. Grogan is being sacrificed. He is no doubt being well compensated for his silence. And as for you… In order for me to be successful in the world of finance, it’s important that I be aware of all market influences, legitimate and… otherwise. Your organization is better known than you think.”
A couple of the men stirred uncomfortably.
Now the Contessa turned brisk and businesslike. “You are correct in your assumption that I want something from you. When I read about this Lexcorp drug scandal I knew the received drugs would be confiscated and your money never delivered. I decided then to make up your loss.”
“If…” the apparent leader of the group prodded.
“If you assist me in my quest.” The Contessa’s voice got lower, and her eyes shone intensely in the dim light. “My money is contingent on your cooperation. I want you to find a certain artifact, an ancient medallion, known to many as the Medallion of the Damned.”
“That’s just a legend, Contessa. A child’s story.”
“Perhaps. But I believe there is substance to the legend. If that is true, it would have a value to me that it could not have for anyone else. On that chance, I solicit your aid.”
“Tell us more.”
“I have done a great deal of research concerning this medallion, and I have concluded that it is almost certainly hidden either in the far east, possibly Bhutran, or in the middle east, here in Qurac. I want a small, discreet group searching, a group who stands to gain great profit from me if they find it.”
“So the reimbursement of our loss is contingent upon finding it?”
“Upon your agreeing, right now, to the search. And then three million when it is found and turned over to me.”
“Contessa, you have our complete attention. Please, what does the medallion look like?”
There were a couple guards at the front of a building across the yard. That looked like the most likely place to start a search. How could she… Yes! The women were bringing out baskets of food, and beginning to carry them to various buildings around the compound. Lois walked over, picked up a large basket and headed toward the guarded building.
The guard scarcely looked at her as she pushed open the door and went inside. There were only a few people working in there. Lois began laying out the food, but she was looking around for anything worth remembering. On the wall was a map of the compound, easy to recognize. But there was a red spot on it, right in the building she was in. What could that be?
Her food basket was close to empty, so she’d soon have no excuse to stay here any longer. Where was the spot that red mark indicated? There it was! A ring on a metal fastener in a corner on the floor revealed an otherwise inconspicuous trap door. Lois knew this was where she needed to go, and she knew how she could get there. Once again her mode of dress allowed her to have with her what she needed. She turned her back to the room’s occupants, pulled out and set off a smoke bomb.
The room instantly filled with smoke, and the people inside scrambled for the door. All except the veiled figure who was able to open the trap door unnoticed and slip silently into the cool dark tunnel beneath the compound.
“I think I can ditch this now,” Lois said, removing the traditional robe and revealing the khaki shirt and shorts beneath it. She pulled a cigarette lighter from her pocket for light. She didn’t smoke, but the lighter was the memento of the one time that she’d tried it. She remembered with a smile how aghast Clark had been when she lit up that time.
“I know it’s none of my business, Lois,” he’d said, “But I really hate the idea of you struggling with cancer later.”
The simple honesty and concern of that remark touched her, and she had put the cigarette out immediately. Now she was glad she’d kept the lighter. As she moved down the tunnel, unaware of what she might find, she said to herself, “I feel like that girl in the video game.”
After about a five minute walk, she came to a large door. It was heavy on its hinges, but Lois pushed it slowly open and stepped inside. She found herself in a huge warehouse of… of missiles.
“Holy…” Lois’ mouth fell open. “They aren’t supposed to have this.”
A camera would have been a good thing to have right now, and ironically, this she didn’t have. Off to the side and against the wall, though, she found a small filing cabinet. Although it had a padlock, it was really a flimsy one. Lois was actually able to pry it off with a piece of metal she found on the floor.
They were mostly inventory files. Some were in English, enough to direct her to which files were most likely to be important. Then she found the maps of targeted places around the globe. Two countries were unmistakably labeled. One was a country that many Quraci extremists felt had no right to exist, and the other was the United States.
Lois tucked a folder full of what appeared most significant into her belt, and turned to retrace her steps to the trap door. “I’ll make sure no one’s in the room,” she muttered. “And once I’m out of the tunnel, I’ll put the veil back on. I should be able to make it.”
The plan might have worked, except for the fact that there were people returning to the building as the smoke cleared. The front door opened just as she climbed out the trap door. Her disguise was in her hand. The man in the doorway shouted something in Quraci, and Lois heard footsteps running toward the building.
Without any hesitation, Lois hit the man like a linebacker, and sprinted out the door. There were five or more men chasing her, and when she glanced back, she saw that one of them was Ahmad, the man she had confronted on the tour that morning. She poured on the speed, aiming for the section of wall she had climbed earlier.
“Don’t shoot her.” It was Ahmad. “We must find out what she knows.”
“Damn!” Lois could see now that she had left the rope outside the wall. “That kind of oversight could cost me.” She changed course, hoping to get on the roof of the building where she had first seen the women. Maybe she could leap to the wall from there.
It was a good thought, but she was tackled before she was anywhere near her goal. She scrambled to her feet as the men swarmed in around her. She tried to fight them off, but her struggle was fruitless. Although she did manage to knee one guy and put him out of commission, there were too many of them. The papers were ripped away from her and her wrists were handcuffed behind her back.
Then a dark-eyed man in a military uniform approached and was handed the sheaf of stolen documents. He glanced through them, and slipped them into a leather case that hung on a strap across his shoulders. Then he looked at Lois. “Was anything else found?” he asked his men without taking his eyes off her.
“No, Major,” Ahmad responded. “What she had on her appears to be all of it.”
“Put her in the truck. We’ll find out exactly what she knows.”
“So, what do you think?” he asked of the darkness. “Is she the one?”
Out of the shadows, a large fierce-eyed man rose to his feet. “Yes. She’s the one. I’ve suspected for some time she’d eventually try something like this. You know, of course, that I will pay more to thwart her designs, and that I will kill any of you who disagree.”
“What do you want us to do?”
The fiery eyes peered out from a thick black mane and beard. “You can’t kill her, any more than you could kill me. But she can be rendered as helpless as if she were dead.”
“Mr. Savage, to you!” the bearded man hissed, grabbing his subordinate by the neck and lifting him off the floor. “Listen to me, you cretin. What she seeks is only valuable to an immortal. Like her. Like myself.. And if anyone is ever to find it, it must be me.” He dropped his henchman like so much rubbish.
“What . . . what must we do?”
“Behead her. Without the head the body will cease to function. Although the spark of life will remain in it, only recombination will allow that spark to billow again. So you must make sure the head and body never combine again. Ever.”
Moussarrif was unceremoniously shoved back toward where the Contessa was expounding. As he entered the room, he nearly tripped over her dog.
There was no answer. In fact there was no sound at all, and Clark peered into the room with X-ray vision. She wasn’t there.
“This is very curious,” he said to himself as he approached the lobby. At the front desk he asked, “Has Miss Lois Lane left any messages for me?”
“No, sir. Nothing.”
Clark walked outside, an expression of concern on his face. What could have happened to her? He made a quick scan around him with X-ray and telescopic vision. Nothing. He tuned his superhearing to the timbre of her voice, but that also yielded nothing. Should he just wait for her to turn up? His gut said no, something was wrong. Should he fly around the countryside searching as Superman? He remembered Ahmad’s comments about Superman earlier. No, that probably wouldn’t be the best idea. Let’s see, now. If he were home, he might call the police. Here, his only contact was Ahmad. So he stepped back into the hotel to make the call.
When Ahmad answered and Clark told him that Lois was missing, the Iraqi guide asked him right up front: “Are you afraid that her attitude this morning got her into trouble with authorities?”
“Er, no. I hadn’t thought any such thing. She was just expressing her opinions.”
“Good. I have known some Americans who are always suspicious of that. I don’t have any idea what could have happened to her, Mr. Kent. She is probably out sightseeing. In all likelihood she will return soon. But just in case, I will make some inquiries with police and hospitals.”
“Thank you, Ahmad.”
“You’re welcome, and please don’t worry.”
Thirty miles away, the deuce and half truck pulled up at a prison compound and Lois was roughly yanked out of the back and hurried down a rocky path. At the base of a series of steps, a scruffy guard opened a creaking metal door, and her captors threw her to the floor of a tiny cell. There was a light bulb hanging in the center of the room over a single wooden chair. Without a word the jailers pulled her up, sat her in the chair and cuffed her arms securely behind the straight back. Then they left as the major stepped into the room.
“Now, Ms. Lane,” he said, pulling off his gloves. “Ms. That’s how they say it in your country, isn’t it? Now, we are going to determine just what you know.”
Nothing looked unusual beyond those walls, and he was about to give up when he noticed a trap door and looked below it. That was Lois’ cigarette lighter! Clark’s whole demeanor changed, starting with a steely glint coming to his eyes and a firmer set to his jaw.
“It’s a tunnel,” he said to himself. He scanned the length of it and found it led to a huge underground lead-lined area. “If I know Lois, that’s where she went.”
He looked around and noticed that by going a short way out into the open desert he could easily bore into the ground and the hidden facility. But it was likely he’d be seen doing it. So instead he listened for Lois’ voice or breathing or heartbeat in that area. “There may be something important in there,” he had to conclude, “But Lois isn’t there.”
It was time to get more answers, and Clark contacted Ahmad again.
“I am very sorry, Mr. Kent. I have found nothing regarding your co-worker.”
“I believe she may have been down in that walled area. Could we look there?”
“Impossible. There is nothing there. It is only a walled garden.”
Clark looked at him with a new suspicion. “He knows,” he thought.
Then Clark saw what was probably the ugliest vision of his life. A dog was dragging a woman’s headless corpse through the street. Ahmad saw it, too, and he saw Clark’s revulsion at the sight.
“I wouldn’t trouble myself, Mr. Kent. Horrible as this appears, the woman no doubt deserved it. Look at how she was dressed.”
Clark stared at the deceptive official, seeming to see him for the first time. In one unpleasant rush of feeling, Clark no longer cared to be sensitive to this man’s beliefs and customs. He no longer felt it necessary to obsequiously go through government channels. What was he supposed to do? Stand back and let this brutal man continue to lie to him, all the while talking about what villains Americans are? Different cultures or not, there is a right and wrong, and to Clark, that distinction was not hard to make. Lois was in trouble and only one man could do anything about it.
“I’m going back to the hotel,” he said. “Call me if you find anything.”
“Who else knows of this?” he demanded.
“Knows of what? I don’t know what I had. I can’t read that stuff.”
“Don’t insult my intelligence, woman. We both know what you saw down there. Who else knows?”
Lois’ mouth was too dry to spit on her interrogator, but she tried to, and the gesture was not lost on him. He stepped up to her, paused, and slapped her, hard, four times, back and forth across her face. Lois did not want to show how demoralized she felt, but the crest of his ring had caused a tiny trickle of blood from her lip. She slumped forward, her torn shirt hanging from her shoulder in a very pre-comics-code kind of way.
The major stepped to the door and spoke to someone outside. “She’s not going to talk. But she’s not going to tell anyone else, either. Assemble a firing squad.”
As Superman re-emerged, government loudspeakers began to issue instructions to the citizenry. “Superman is Qurac’s enemy,” the message sounded. “All true sons of Qurac must help to destroy him. He has attacked Qurac’s vital defenses. Destroy Superman.” The message blared over and over.
Quracis poured into the streets, shouting angrily and throwing anything they could get their hands on at Superman. Of course it was no threat to him, but the level of their anger was disconcerting.
Then the tanks and helicopters appeared, a display of military might that was more than just a distraction. Superman turned his attention to them, using heat vision to fight fire with fire. Their ammunition spattered in all directions off his invulnerable body.
“This barrage won’t hurt me,” he thought, “But it could hurt innocent civilians.”
The man of steel started with the helicopters. One by one he grabbed them and stopped the propellers, then carried them quickly to the sand. Once safely landed he crumpled the propellers and crushed the guns, leaving the pilots in their disabled craft.
Superman now turned his attention to the tanks, just as he heard a woman’s scream of fear. Focusing on the sound, he saw the woman running directly into the path of an oncoming tank where her little daughter was about to be crushed. She snatched the child away, but the folds of her chador got snagged in the tread of the tank and tripped her up. She desperately yanked at the fabric as it got drawn more deeply into the tread, but her attempts were futile. She and her daughter were not going to be able to avoid being ground under the relentless tank tread.
But the American superhero was at her side in a heartbeat, forcing the tank to a dead stop and ripping away the links of the track. Miraculously, Superman had freed the mother and her tiny daughter.
The rescue made a great impression on the people who saw it. Many rushed up to hug the woman who was sobbing with relief and gratitude.Several stopped and looked at Superman in a new way as he turned to continue his defense against the onslaught of the tanks.
It was quite a show, that battle, a lone man disabling an entire company of tanks. But what was even more impressive was the change in the crowd. Although many continued to shout and throw things at the caped superhero, there were at least as many who began to cheer for him.
Now all the tanks were out of commission, and Superman needed to turn his attention once again to the search for Lois. He was about to fly away when he felt a tug on his cape. It was the woman he had saved, and a couple of her friends.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Glad to help.”
“No. No, please listen.” And then, with the meager English this little group knew, and the slight knowledge Superman had of Quraci, communication was nonetheless established. There was this American woman who had been taken away. They’d seen her while they were working over in that walled area. They knew she was American. The truck had gone up that road several hours ago. Maybe she needed Superman’s help.
“Lois!” Now Superman was the one who was grateful. “Thank you. Thank you all very much.” And he turned and flew off in the direction these good people had pointed.
“Hang on, Lois.” He landed her on the other side of the wall, removed her blindfold and broke the handcuffs. She stumbled, and weakly fell into his arms.
“Superman, there are missiles…”
“I know Lois. Hold that thought.” The man of tomorrow whirled just as the men of the firing squad came around the wall, shooting as they came. Lois crouched behind him as the rain of bullets was deflected off him. Then the squad members cried out in pain as red beams shot from Superman’s eyes, and they dropped the weapons that had heated up in their hands. Without a backward glance, the man of steel picked Lois up and soared away.
“Superman, I have to tell you…”
“I found the missiles, Lois. They’re gone now.”
“What? How did you…? When…?”
Clark called me when he couldn’t find you. He’s at an airport across the border waiting for you. You two are going home.”
“No argument from me, Superman. I’ve seen all I want to of this place. But I’ve got a great story at least. This one could well be my Pulitzer.”
“So you are saying that you will actually pay us for the head?”
“Absolutely. My boss is what you might call a collector. And this will definitely be of worth to his collection.”
“If you say so. And our boss will be pleased to know that the head is gone.”
“A mutually satisfactory deal, Moussarrif.” The mysterious man proffered the check. “Mutually profitable.”
“Who did you say was your boss?”
“It won’t mean anything to you, I’m sure, but he is known as Cerberus. Good day.”
The Cerberus representative picked up the special container, saluted and climbed into his jeep. Kicking up sand as he went, he drove off down the lonely desert road, driving at a fierce speed. He was nearly out of sight when a weary-looking dog came around the corner of the building, hesitated, and began to sniff around.