Luthor displayed no emotion as his sentence was read. He was fortunate to live in the times that he did, because an earlier age might have seen him shot. As it was, many people thought he got way too light a sentence: fifty years with chance of parole after twenty.
Lena Luthor was a year old when her father was convicted. Her custody during his incarceration looked like a problem for the state until the Contessa del Portenza appeared with proof that she was Lena's mother. So Luthor lost his daughter at that point as well. It appeared that everything had crumbled for him, and he wasn't about to let people think he was also crazy, so he kept the secret of Superman's identity to himself.
That knowledge, however, fed the fire of his resentment for the Kryptonian. Although Talia Head ran Lexcorp, Luthor still had a corps of people who owed him something, and he was able to run his underworld empire from his cell, keeping the man of steel busy all those years fighting the never-ending battle.
Sixteen years. During that time Luthor's hatred of Superman grew to an unreasoning obsession. But neither he nor the object of his hatred could have predicted the unique threat that was brewing now.
"Lena, that is not true. Your father and I had different ideas about raising you, but that . . . "
"Oh, it was a lot more than that. He wouldn't be in jail now if it hadn't been for you and your insane hatred for Superman."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about my father trying so hard to please you. If you hadn't hated Superman so much he never would have tried so hard to get him. It was all for you."
"Lena, you don't know what you're talking about."
"Come on, Mom. Do you think I'm stupid? I took history. My father was President, for God's sake. President! Do you think the President of the United States had any reason to hate Superman? No. It was you. You've certainly told me enough. Oh, Superman. Thinks he's such a hero. Deprived me of my life's ambition. I hope he rots in . . . "
"That's enough, Lena. You have no idea what your father was like. I hope you never have to find out."
"My Dad never got over trying to please you, Mom. And he destroyed his own presidency and got sent to prison all because of trying to get Superman, and all to please you. But no one ever can because you're so spiteful and vindictive and . . . "
Erica ended that tirade with a slap. Lena looked shocked, her hand to her cheek.
"That's about all I care to hear from you, young lady. Your father was no hero, believe me. I'll never convince you of that, but for now you can just go stew in your room until you can speak to me in a more respectful manner."
"Lena. What made you decide to . . . "
"Oh, Dad, I had to see you. I just wanted to tell you that I know why you're here. I know it's not your fault. I know this is all because of one person only."
"Superman? No, it's . . . Now, see, Dad, even now you're trying to protect her."
"Mom. I know she has always hated Superman. I know how your devotion to her led you to all this."
"Lena . . . "
"It's like a Greek tragedy, Dad. You were so great, you had it all, and it all fell apart because of her. It's like . . . It's like Macbeth. It was all because of Mom."
"Er, Yes. I see it now."
"I just needed to talk to you. We both know how she hates Superman. I think she's a little crazy."
"Well, she was never a fit mother, Lena. You know she once kidnapped you, don't you?"
"What? How did she do that? When was this?"
"When you were just a baby. She stole the Lexcorp technology and got someone to create a Bizarro Superman to kidnap you."
"Bizarro? Oh, wow. She was obsessed with Superman even then, wasn't she? So is that how she got me?"
"No. I was able to get you back."
"You saved me from a Bizarro? How did you do that?"
"Well, Superman was the only one with enough power to . . . "
"So he saved me? Really?"
"Well, he . . ."
"That's wonderful. Saved by Superman." Lena seemed for a moment to be deciding what to say next. "It's so hard living with Mom hating Superman so when I . . . " She stopped.
"What do you want to say, Lena?"
"Dad, I really, really like Superman. I have pictures of him hidden in my room. Sometimes I cry myself to sleep wishing I could meet him. And now you tell me he saved me when I was a baby? I wonder if he remembers me?"
"Lena, you can't let yourself fall for an . . . for a married man."
"Married? You don't mean that." Lena's lip started to quiver.
"I'm afraid I do."
"No. He can't be. Who's he married to?"
"I really shouldn't say, Lena."
"You don't know. You can't say, because he isn't really married, is he?"
"Okay. You know the name Lois Lane? The reporter for the Daily Planet?"
"Well that's who he's married to. It's a huge secret, Lena. Nobody knows this."
"Then how do you know?"
"As President I had access to the best intelligence operations in the world, and I just found out. Let's leave it at that."
Lena was silent for a long time. Then she said, "There's something else, Dad. Mom says that at the time Topeka was blown up, you knew about it because you had information from the future. She says I had something to do with that."
Luthor paused to think about the best answer to this one, and decided that Lena was likely to find out anyway. It was a matter of public record. "It's true that you were pulled into the future and that future version of you was keeping me informed."
"So if that's true, how did I get back?"
"Well, when Superman brought you . . . "
"Superman brought me back? He saved me twice?"
Damn! Luthor thought.
"He saved me. He must remember me. I just have to meet him."
"Lena, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment. If my advice counts for anything, then don't . . . just don't get involved with Superman."
"I know you just want the best for me, Dad. But don't worry. I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself."
"I hope you can, Lena. I really hope you can."
After Lena's visit, Luthor could not help but think there were possibilities to this situation. It was true that he did not want Lena hurt. But it was also true that she might be the means to hurt Superman.
Lena watched her as she walked toward the parking lot. She noted the wedding ring. I guess Dad was right, she thought. Hm. She's attractive, but she's old. Superman can't possibly feel anything for her. He's still so . . . He's so . . .
She didn't finish the thought. Another one was beginning to take shape.
"It makes no sense to wear your heart on your sleeve," he told Lois. "Luthor's election, the war, Kansas . . . none of that justified such self-indulgence." He had lived by that thought ever since, even though he nearly changed his mind when his father died after a long period of Alzheimer's, and Ma moved into the rest home and died a year later.
"Be Superman," Lois had said one particularly bad evening when he'd asked if she thought he should continue with the colors. "You can cry with me so that you can be Superman out there. Keep the colors, Clark." She never called him Smallville any more. And then she kissed him, the kind of kiss that bespoke a timeless passion and devotion.
All those years of battling Luthor's clandestine plans masterminded from his prison cell had brought about a whole new breed of dubious "heroes", crime fighters who were enamored of the glory and the action, but not always the responsibility. But they certainly provided a colorful backdrop for the city's twenty-year celebration of its miraculous rebirth after having been mostly destroyed by the cloned Luthor's "failsafes". And one of the most flamboyant was Magog, a young powerhouse whose exploits already rivaled Superman's.
The planning committee had asked Superman if he would grow his hair long again as part of that celebration, and he had agreed. And since many others picked up on the idea as a fashion, it did not seem unusual for Clark Kent to try the style again, himself. The city was beginning to take on a festive tone, and tourists were beginning to show up already. And such an atmosphere was irresistible for the villain known as the clown prince, the aging Joker.
"Just because you broke this story doesn't mean I can't get a headliner angle from it," she said as she passed Olsen on the way to the street.
Lois was on the way to the studio that had made Banter famous. She was sure she could pick up some clues from his former associates. She was only a block from the Daily Planet. But as she stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street, a car parked there pulled out suddenly and roared straight at her. She dodged, but still bounced off a fender's glancing blow. She was on her feet in an instant as the car turned and sped toward her again. Omigod, he's trying to kill me, she thought. She ducked around a corner before the car caught up to her, and tried to hide in an alley. But the driver saw her, and drove in behind her, blocking her escape. "Damn," she said. "It's a blind alley."
Superman was at the scene of Banter's disappearance, assisting the MPD in seeking clues when he heard Lois' alarmed voice, and he disappeared through that broken window in such a rush of wind that all the investigative equipment in the room was thrown into disarray.
The car was almost upon her when Lois saw the rough ground ahead of her. Cherry bombs had blown potholes, which kids had subsequently dug around, leaving a sizable long depression right in the center of the alley. She made a dive for it and flattened herself as low into it as she could. The alley was too narrow for the car doors to open, and the hole was situated beautifully in the center of the wheelbase width. The car came to a stop directly above her.
"It's a stalemate now, isn't it?" she muttered. But she knew Superman was on his way. Apparently the driver knew, too, because he put his car in reverse and sped backwards out of the alley just as both Superman and Magog appeared. And as Superman leaped toward the car to apprehend the criminal, Magog fired a blast from his rod that enveloped the car in flames. Superman was horrified, but he reacted quickly, blowing out the flames and pulling a very rattled driver from the car.
"That was not necessary!" Superman whirled angrily toward Magog.
"Hey, it stopped him, didn't it? And you got him out anyway. I call it teamwork."
"It was not teamwork, it was recklessness." Superman turned to Lois, who had pulled herself to her feet. "Are you okay, Lois?"
"Just fine, Superman. Who is this guy, anyway? What was he trying to do?"
Magog grinned, smacking his fist into his palm. "That's what he's just about to tell us."
"No," said Superman. "That's not quite how it works." He turned to the weasely-looking guy he had by the collar. "You have the right to remain silent. You have the . . . "
"That's okay, Superman. I know you have me dead to rights, and I know the Miranda stuff. But three witnesses . . . I'm not stupid."
"That's debatable," Magog offered.
"So I'm going to give you as much information as possible to try to make this as easy on myself as I can. A teenage girl hired me to do this. I don't know her name, but I'll provide a real good description if the cops are willing to deal."
"You were always so funny!" he said. "Really, you were my all-time favorite. You could make me laugh any time, even now, I'll bet. Go on. Be funny."
Banter stared up at him. "You can't be serious."
"No, I can't!" The Joker went into paroxysms of laughter. "Hey, that was really good. Oh, Whitty you still got it." Then the laughter suddenly stopped. "So this is what I have in mind. You've seen those old cartoons where someone says 'I know every tree in this forest' just before he smacks into one. Then he says 'See, there's one now.' Hoo hoo! That stuff always cracked me up. Now your material was like that. I loved your line, 'If that ain't the truth, I hope lightning strikes me.' It was always funny, but I thought, wouldn't it be a riot if lightning really did strike you? Just like smacking into the tree, get it? So . . . this is your chance to get maximum laughter from your most famous line, Whitty. Just lookee what we have here."
Whitty's gaze followed the expansive sweep of Joker's arm to the massive structure towering over them. He'd seen something like that in a science museum. It was an artificial lightning producer. Whitty broke out in a cold sweat.
"So all you have to do now is to say it. Say it, Whitty . . . . Say it!"
"Have a lead on something, Lois?" Clark asked as she passed him.
"Might be. I can't tell yet." She stopped and showed Clark the note.
"Want me to come with you?"
"No, I'm okay. Just, uh . . . well, you can kind of keep an ear tuned if you want to."
"Lois, there was a time you would never have said that."
She smiled a married smile as she headed down the hall, but Clark's smile turned grim after she left, and he turned toward the storage room.
It didn't take Lois long to get to the church. It was an aging structure, no longer used, and should have been demolished long ago. Several windows were broken, and although the main doors were locked, a side door was barely hanging on its hinges and provided easy entry. That's how she got in and made her way to the bell tower. The stairway started at ground level and spiraled up. Although it didn't look at all the same, Lois inexplicably thought of the mission tower in Vertigo as she began the ascent.
As she approached the top, and the level of the roof peak was only a little above her eye level, she heard the creak, then felt the step beneath her give way. She reached out desperately for any handhold, but there were none as she plummeted amid the rain of broken boards. Her mouth opened to shout for help but no sound came. This is it, she thought.
Then the wall exploded inward, as a blue streak with arms flew under her and caught her and guided her safely to the floor. She and Superman stood amid the rubble. Lois' heart was pounding fiercely. "Clark! Oh, Clark, I really thought I was . . . "
"Easy, Lois. It's all right."
"Yeah. Yeah, it is. But I felt like this was really my last moment in the world." She shuddered. "I've had a lot of close calls, but this somehow felt . . . different."
"I'm always going to be there, Lois. After all these years, you should know that."
"Yes. I do know that." Now she was the gutsy reporter again. "Yes. Look, any chance I could hitch a ride up there and see if there was anything to that note?"
"We'll look, but do you really think . . . "
"No. Not really. What I really think is that someone's trying to kill me. Hey! Look at these boards."
"I see it. Sawed more than halfway through. You're right."
"Clark, it's that girl. The one that hired that guy to run me down. It's gotta be. Why would some little high school girl want me dead?"
"You were on your way to try to find clues about Banter's disappearance that day, and this note references that case, too. It looks like a connection."
"Looks like. Might be. It's a start."
"Hello, Superman," said the voice on the other end.
Clark stiffened. "I'm sorry," he said. "I think you have the wrong number."
"No, I don't. I know it's you, Superman. I desperately need to talk with you. Meet me at the bench under the big oak in the park tomorrow morning. Ten o'clock."
"Er, how will I know you?"
"I'll know you. How could I not know you, Superman? No one else looks like that and dresses like that. Pretty easy to recognize. Please don't let me down." And she hung up.
Clark looked as troubled as he felt. Who knows who I am? he thought. Or does she know? This is puzzling. She knows my phone number, but recognizes me by the Superman costume. She must know I'm Clark Kent . . . and yet . . . ?
"What was that, Clark?" Lois stepped into the room in a bathrobe, a towel wrapped around her head.
"Someone . . . I think . . . knows I'm Superman."
As he descended near the designated oak he saw a young girl sitting on the park bench.
"Hello, Superman," she said, nervously getting to her feet as the man of steel landed before her. "Oh, my . . . I can hardly believe that we're actually meeting, I mean, like, you're actually here."
"Who are you? How did you know how to find me?"
"I'm Lena. Do you remember me at all? I was just a baby when you saved me. Twice, I hear."
"Lena . . . ! It can't be. Has it been that long? Well, I guess . . . Of course it has. Look at you. You're all grown up."
"Yes. I'm all grown up now." She glanced down at herself, then back up at the hero before her. "And I've thought about you so much, Superman. I know it must be difficult living with someone who ages faster than you do. It must be awful."
"Awful? Why, no, where did you get . . . ? Lena, what's going on? How did you find me? What do you know about me and how did you learn it?"
"Is that so important? Oh, I guess it is. My father told me that you're married, and that you keep it a big secret. I guess I understand why. If you want it secret, then I'll never tell. I would never do anything to displease you in any way."
"Let me get this straight. Your father is Lex Luthor, and he told you I'm married?"
"Uh-huh. To Lois Lane, that reporter."
"What else did he . . . Tell me everything you know about me."
"Well, you're the greatest hero in the world, and you came from another planet. But except for being so powerful, you're kind of human. You're married to a woman too old for you. You saved my life at least twice. My father got himself into trouble trying to hurt you, but only because he was so blindly in love with my witch of a mother."
"No more private information about me than that?"
"Nothing I can think of."
"How did you get the phone number?"
"I couldn't find it under Lane, and it certainly wasn't under Superman. But my father knew it."
"Your father . . . So why are we here? Did you just want to meet me?"
"Oh, Superman, I have wanted for so long to meet you, to do whatever I can for you, just to be near you . . . "
"Lena. Please sit down here. We need to talk."
"Anything you say."
Before either of them could say anything else there was an enormous thunderclap and flash of lightning at exactly the same instant, and a building down the street from them burst into flames. Superman was in the air in an instant, cape flying in the breeze, arms stretched out before him, straight as an arrow toward the carnage ahead.
"Wasn't that funny?" it said on the back of one playing card.
"Funny people deserve to go in funny ways," said another.
And a really ominous one was, "Religious fanatics are even funnier than comedians." All the cards bearing messages were Jokers.
"Yes?" Lois turned to see the obsessed teenager pull a gun from a paper bag. "What are you do . . . "
Lena fired a single shot and Lois crumpled, clutching at her abdomen as Lena ran away.
"Clark . . . " Lois faintly cried before she blacked out.
Clark had just donned the Superman costume for a quick patrol of the city before heading to the Daily Planet. The Joker's rampage and the recent attempts on Lois' life had made him a little more vigilant concerning her, so he lately had begun to keep attuned to Lois' voice. When he heard his name called out so weakly he was at her side in seconds.
"Oh my God! Lois!" He could see that she was bleeding badly, and he ripped off his cape to stem the flow of her blood. His throat tightened as he lifted her carefully into his arms and sped to Metropolis General. Who could have done this? Why?
Arriving at Emergency, he watched the professionals take over the case, rushing her into emergency surgery. He was vaguely aware of answering their questions about what had happened, but his mind was racing. Who could want to kill Lois? That guy who had tried to run her down said a teenage girl had hired him. What sense did that make? Why would a teenager . . . ? No!!
"How could I have been so blind?" he said aloud. He knew the answer to that one as soon as he said it. He had been linking the attacks with the disappearance of Whitty Banter, and when he learned that the Joker had murdered the comedian, he had focused his attention on the Joker. But now . . .
"I'm not leaving Lois, but I have to find this out." He strode to a pay phone and dialed the MPD.
"Captain Cassidy, please. Chas, do you have the description of the person who hired the guy to run over Lois Lane? Thanks. Would you read it to me, please?"
As the description was read, he knew exactly who it was, and he knew her twisted motive. But his thoughts were interrupted by a commotion down the hall.
"Who cares how he got so beat up. He needs treatment, that's all." Magog was arguing with members of the hospital staff. "Hi, Superman. Damn. Try to do the right thing and get bogged down by bureaucrats . . . ."
"What brings you, here, Superman?"
"There's been another attempt on Lois' . . . Ms. Lane's life. They don't know if she's going to . . . She was shot. Just a few minutes ago."
"Anything I can do to help?"
Superman's eyes flashed angrily for just a second. "Yes," he said. "Yes. I'm going to . . . to notify Lois' husband. If you want to help, find the shooter for me. Her name is Lena Luthor."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I thought Superman might still be here."
"That's okay. He told me you were after the . . . uh . . . suspect."
"Yeah, and I got her, too. All I had to say is that Superman wanted to see her and she came along like a lamb until she realized we were heading to the police station. She's a real amateur, still had the gun on her. And she fits the description the cops have. They've really got her, Mr. Kent. Fingerprints, the bullet, the driver's identification and hopefully your wife's."
"Oh. I didn't mean . . . Look, I'm sure she's going to pull through."
"Yes . . . "
"This girl, she's nuts, you know? Keeps saying she thought it was Superman's wife. Some motive, huh? You know she's Lex Luthor's kid? It's ironic. She'll be indicted just about the time he's up for parole."
"Thank you, Magog. If I see Superman before you do, I'll tell him. We all appreciate this."
"Yeah, well. You keep hope, Mr. Kent. She'll come through this." And Magog left.
Clark was quiet for a long time, then he started to talk to the love of his life. "It was a blessing to have the parents I had. It was a blessing to be able to do the things I have been able to do. But, Lois, you are the greatest blessing of my life, and you always have been. No matter what kind of scrape you've gotten into, I've always been able to save you. I couldn't do it this time, Lois. I'm so sorry. But you have always been your own person and made your own decisions, so please . . . Decide to live. I really need for you to live."
He sat there holding her hand in that room lit only by the monitors.