Luthor's enforcers had learned to respect superheroes and never take a foe for granted. Chances are, the old guy facing them was tough, a brawler, but they could handle that. They were also three or four to one, depending on how you counted the Siamese twins, Pluto and Plato Statler.
The problem was, nobody had ever briefed them on Captain Strong.
The sailor set his priorities straight and stamped down hard on a couple of floor planks, thanking the Lord that Irving had never bothered with carpeting or floor covering.
The other ends of the two planks groaned, popped their nails, and pivoted on the rafter stud below them in a teeter-totter effect. They came up right where they were intended to, smacking Wanda Nordo in the ass and catapulting Val Thorul, whom she had been holding, straight at the Captain. He caught the lad in his brawny arms with the anchor tattoos.
"Holy--" was all Val had time to get out.
"Back of the bar with yas," snapped Strong, and shoved Val over the bar. He decided Captain Strong knew what he was doing, and went into hiding behind it.
Wanda Nordo had been flung forward and to her left. For the first time since she'd stepped into the bar, a surge of anger replaced the fear in Lena Thorul Colby's gut. She stepped forward, ready to claw Wanda's eyes out. Strong intercepted her. "There'll be no catfightin' just yet," he said. "These swabs are too dangerous."
"Like you don't know how dangerous, tough guy," said Pluto Statler, and drew a .45.
"Like trouble in duplicate, sailor boy," sneered Plato Statler, and drew a nasty-looking gun that didn't look as though it fired bullets.
Strong hooked one leg behind a table leg and banged its round top from the side. It sheared off its screws and went sailing into the Siamese twins, hitting them right at the gut. Their guns went off, and a bullet and a particle beam shattered the mirror behind the bar and part of the wall behind it. The big sailor leaped onto his hands and started a springing somersault to bring him within range of the pair.
On the way, Louto Malono grabbed him by the leg with his metal arm and started to squeeze.
Even Captain Strong had to cry out. The ex-wrestler's bionic arm had superhuman power, and was fully capable of injuring him. He heard the Siamese twins arguing about shooting him. They said Louto was in the way, which he was. Strong was held upside down, his head and neck against the floor. Louto was trying to crush his ankle, and doing a darn good job of it, too. He couldn't quite see the broad they'd come in with.
He drew back his free foot and gave Malono a smacking kick in the mush.
Louto tried to hold on, but only for about a fifth of a second. His brain impulses ruled his mechanical arm, and at the moment there just weren't enough of them functioning. His nose spurted blood and he windmilled backwards, letting go of Captain Strong and bashing up against the Wurlitzer. He tried to come to, but there didn't seem to be a good reason to just then.
Wanda had fished a weapon out of her purse. It was Lex Luthor's version of a taser, and its energy impulses would do a lot more to Strong's body than just stun him. She levelled it at him and prepared to activate it.
The thing was snatched away from her by an unseen force and whipped itself back behind the bar.
Val's head popped up, grinning. He couldn't resist it. He held up the weapon and said to Wanda, "Looking for this?"
"You undersized j.d., I'll rip your ears off!" Wanda yelled.
Lena's head and hand shot up with a half-full bottle of rum in hand, which she shied accurately at Wanda. The villainess had to throw herself flat on the floor to let the missle pass over her. It hit the wood and spattered her with broken glass and booze. "Come and get me, honey," dared Lena.
This might even have been fun if she wasn't trying to protect herself and Val, she decided.
Strong had come in low under the Statlers' shooting range and tackled them by the ankles. When he had them on the floor, he took their guns away and tied the barrels together. Then he lifted them both up and shoved them against the wall. Superman would have just had them surrender, or mercifully knocked them unconscious with one blow apiece.
He wasn't Superman.
Both of his fists pistoned back and forth into their faces repeatedly like a jackhammer. When he got tired of that he crossed his arms and treated each face to the other fist. He walloped them several times under the chin. He bopped them several times on top of their noggins. He crossed his arms and cracked them smartly on the sides of their faces that faced each other, knocking their heads apart. Then he grabbed both of their heads and banged them together again.
After that, neither one looked like he'd be much fun to bother with, so Captain Strong let their heads go and they slumped to a sitting position against the floor. They were out cold, in the vicinity of absolute zero.
He was turning to Wanda Nordo when the van smashed through the side of the building.
It was armor plated and had an extrudable front device that looked somewhat like a cowcatcher. Luthor had designed the vehicle to be a battering ram, if need be, and such was needed now. It had knocked a tremendous hole in the front wall near the door, and the roof was sagging somewhat above it.
Strong noticed that Wanda was holding a round black control device with which she'd summoned the van. She was also wearing goggles. He wondered what the hell else that rolling pirate ship had on board, and he didn't have long to find out.
Smoke started billowing from its undercarriage. The Captain took a whiff of it and leaped behind the bar. Tear gas. "Pull yer shirts over yer faces, mateys," he barked to Irving, Lena, and Val, who were scrunched up against the floor. He followed his own advice.
Val coughed. "What'll we do?"
"Stay put ‘n' keep quiet, kid," said Strong. "That's all ya can do."
They heard noises of fairly sizeable things being dragged over the floor and guessed, correctly, that Wanda was gathering up her crew and getting them in the van. Strong thought about trying to impede her progress, but his eyes were stinging like they'd been worked over by a jellyfish. Best to make sure the woman and boy were safe.
A few minutes later, they heard the van pull out and crunch through the wall roughly again. The gas was still rife, but the captain guessed it would lessen with the van's departure.
In tears, only partly from the gas, Irving wailed, "What'll I do? My ‘stablishment's ruined! How'll I make a living, huh?"
His face covered by his shirt, Strong said, "Ya's insured, isn't yas? Should be able ta make this place...inta a nice, respeckable...dump again." He didn't care to speak very long at a stretch. The damned gas irritated his throat. He coughed, roughly.
"Sir," said Lena, coughing herself. "I want...to thank you...for saving my boy...and me." Her pauses were punctuated by coughs. "What...what do we...do now?"
"Think...I hear sirens, Mom," said Val.
Strong heard them himself. "‘Parently somebody called cops," he said. "Guess a van...bustin' thru walls...'tracts attention. Sit tight, chuckies...'n' we'll go home with them."
So the four of them waited, their faces pressed to the floor behind the bar, and waited for the cops to come through the door and get a faceful of tear gas. Maybe it'd be dispersed enough by then. Maybe it wouldn't.
At any rate, Lena figured that she and Val were safer than they had been an hour ago.
That was progress.
Kara's mouth gaped open at Linda's pronouncement. "Dick Malverne? You're going to marry Dick Malverne? Why, that's...I mean, I'm very happy for you. Congratulations, Linda."
The Linda clone smirked a bit. "I guess you were about to say he wasn't the kind of guy for you, right, Kara?"
The Kryptonian girl flushed a bit. "Well, I don't think I'd put it quite like that. Dick's sweet, but he's not the kind of guy I'd want to marry. Then again--" She looked at her parents' faces as she said it, and knew she'd see disappointment. "--I haven't found any guy I'd want to marry yet. Even though I almost did, a few times."
"Sure," said Linda. "There were a few guys, I know, but they always turned out to be villains or robots or something."
Kara was stunned for a moment. She knew that Linda shared her memories, up to a point. But to know subjectively that someone else had the knowledge of your innermost feelings, desires, hatreds, and loves...that was a shocker. Perhaps Linda felt the same about her. In a way, it was nice to have a "sister". In another way, she was going to be glad when she could leave.
"Yeah, and there were Jerro and Brainy," said Kara. "But I couldn't get serious with either of them, whether I wanted to or not. It just didn't work out."
"What would work out, Kara?" asked Edna. She looked concerned.
The heroine sighed. "When I find out, Mom, I'll let you know. Don't worry, I've been dating. Okay?"
"Well, I'm kind of glad I don't have to date anymore," said Linda, with a triumphant smile. "You've got to realize something, Kara. I don't have super-powers anymore. I'm not going to be flying through space or punching out bad guys."
"I don't do that much anymore, either," said Kara. "But go on."
"Since our separation, I've developed differently from you," Linda said. "I've had to be a normal human being full-time. I guess you've been doing that yourself, too, lately. But I don't have the powers option. How do you like doing it yourself?"
Kara smiled. "I love it. I don't have to save the world once a month. I can just be me. Is Dick in town?"
Linda said, "He'll show up tomorrow. Had some things to get done at the office before he could take off. We're getting married on Saturday. Honeymoon in Hawaii, empty the bank account, get back to work two weeks later. I think I'm gonna love it. You just have to show up for the wedding."
Kara smirked. "Sure, girlfriend. It'll be a kick to see his face when he sees Supergirl and Linda Danvers together. He used to be my Lois Lane."
Linda laughed. "Oh, yeah! Always trying to catch me with my cape down...excuse me, you."
"That'll do. I guess it would have been easier if he was just trying to put the make on me."
Fred said, "From my viewpoint, I was glad he was just trying the former, not the latter. Thankfully, Linda, you were a girl of upright moral character. I didn't think I'd ever have to worry about you, and I'm glad I didn't."
"The last thing we needed was a Supergirl who was preggers," said Edna. "At least not before you'd gotten married and gotten an education."
Kara sighed, uncrossing her legs. "Maybe so, Mom. But I may have set my blamed standards too high as a result. Sometimes I don't think I'll ever get married. But it's easier for me now on Rokyn, so you never know."
Edna nodded, sadly. "And you're dating somebody now?"
"I'm dating several somebodies now. Being an actress on Rokyn is like being one on Earth. You don't lack for people who want to take you to dinner."
Or bed, she added mentally. But she wasn't about to broach that topic just yet.
"Anyway, we wanted the wedding to be here, where we both grew up together," continued Linda. "I guess there's a few secrets I'll have to keep from him, even after marriage. Can you imagine it? ‘Well, Dick, you were right about Linda being Supergirl. But I'm not Supergirl, and I am Linda, and then again I'm not.' Can you dig that?"
Kara shook her head. "I'm not sure. I don't want him to know that I'm Supergirl, even if I'm not on Earth. But it's your marriage, Linda. Do what you think is best."
"I will," she said. "Or I'll try to. Dadblame it, it's so good to see you here again!" Linda hugged Kara spontaneously, and she hugged Linda back. She decided that it was great to have a sister.
"One thing," she said. "How did you meet him? What happened to your Carol Raines identity?"
"Oh, that," she said. "Well, after you left Earth, without telling everyone you were Linda, I decided to take a little trip up to Chicago. Part of it was wanting to see the neighborhood and our friends again, like Mrs. Berkowitz and Joan Raymond and Phil Decker. Part of it was wanting to help keep your secret alive. You know, if people saw Linda Danvers after Supergirl had gone, they'd think she couldn't be Linda Danvers, right?
"Anyway, I didn't know Dick Malverne had moved there. I didn't know you'd had a couple of dates with him again before you left. I was up at the old apartment house, talking with Ida and Joan, and they were glad to see me again. I was glad to see them, too. Anyway, they mentioned that Dick wanted to see me again, to see if he and I...excuse me, he and you...could make a go of it again. ‘Cause, remember, you'd kind of brushed him off after two dates again and then left town."
"I remember," said Kara. "Go ahead."
"Well, I thought, ‘Yeah, why not?' ‘Cause I hadn't gotten a steady thing going as Carol Raines, as far as a guy went. So I went out with him, and I wasn't quite sure what the hell I was going to do, because I figured that I'd have to go back to being Carol in a few days. But you know what? I really liked him. I really, really did like the guy.
"I don't know what it is made me like him more than you did. Maybe it was not having the super-powers or secret i.d. in the way. Maybe I could just be looser around him...uh, not really being ‘loose', Mom," Linda added. "You know what I mean."
"I know, dear," said Edna Danvers. "You could be more yourself around him."
Holy Rao, thought Kara. Mom's calling her "dear". Can she really be thinking of Linda as her foster daughter now? Well, if she does, I've gotta admit...I was asking for it. I left them, they didn't leave me.
"I think that's it," she said. "Plus he's got a darned good job with a real estate company, plus I think he still looks really great, plus...what the hell, I just liked him. Now, I love him. It wasn't exactly love at first sight, but I sure as heck knew that I wanted to see him some more. Sooo...I went back to Seattle, spent a couple of weeks back there, and made a decision. I quit my job, and I quit being Carol Raines. I was going back to Chicago. But first, I came here."
"Oh," said Kara.
Fred ran his hand through his hair. "Yeah, you wouldn't believe the looks on our faces when we opened the door and there was Linda again. You'd told us about the, uh, clone--sorry, dear--but we'd never seen her. Both of us figured it was you again, back for a visit. Then she said, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Danvers, I have to tell you something. I'm not your daughter. But I want to be. May I come in?'"
Edna cracked up with laughter. Even Kara smiled.
Fred said, "First thing I thought was that some super-villain of yours was running a scam on us. I went in the other room while she was talking to Edna and called up Superman. But by the time he got here, I was convinced that she was telling us the truth. She really was that other Linda, and we felt very, very glad to have her around. When Superman came through the door, we introduced him to her as our new daughter."
Linda sniffled a bit. "That was...something else, Dad. One of the nicest things that ever happened to me."
Kara sighed and took her "sister's" hand. You can't go home again, she told herself. Especially if another you comes back home first.
Edna said, "Kal checked her out himself with his vision, you know, and made sure she was human. Then he took a little skin scraping from her and put it on one of my dinner dishes and squinted at it. I guess he was using that microscope thing you folks have in your eyes. Then he came back in and said that Linda's gene patterns were the same as yours, so Linda was the clone, all right. Then he took her back to her old room."
Linda nodded, getting herself under control again. "He sat me down on the bed and put me in a trance. Hypnotized me. I guess he wanted to make sure I wasn't under somebody else's control, like I was going to up and throw a piece of Kryptonite at him. Then he brought me out of it, and smiled, and said, ‘It's good to meet you, Linda.' And I had to just hug him for that, you know? He really is such a sweet guy."
Kara nodded. "I know." She wondered if she should tell the reason for her visit, and decided to wait a bit on it.
"Well, we came back to the front room here and I told them what had been going on, and that I wanted to see if I could, uh, be Linda again. It took a little convincing, and Kal said that I had to be sure of the decision. Because it wasn't going to be easy getting rid of Carol and getting Linda back in action."
"But you did it," said Kara, a little less enthusiastically than she would have liked.
"Sure. A week later, Kal called and asked if it was still on. I told him it was, so he went to work. A few days later, he came back--I was staying here for the duration--and he had a new driver's liscence, a new Social Security card, a birth certificate, a bank book, and all the rest of the stuff. It was great. I was going to be Linda Danvers again."
Kara shifted in her seat. "Did he say anything to you about it?"
"He told me that he'd done this once before for you, and that you'd done honor to the role. He told me not to do anything to disgrace the role, and never, never tell anyone about Linda Danvers's connection to Supergirl.
"But I moved back to Chicago and started up as Linda again. At first it was a little rough...but Kal had established me, I mean, us as a partial amnesiac, y'know, when you came to Earth. So he told me that I should tell them, if I didn't remember something or was acting out of character, that I should say I'd had a relapse of that."
"So how are they doing back there?" asked Kara.
Linda said, "Well, Ida's not doing so well. She's had a stroke, but the poor dear, she's over 80 already."
"Oh, no," said Kara. "That's awful. I'll have to go by there and see her while I'm on-planet. Has Blackstarr been back, then?"
"Not as far as I know," said Linda. Blackstarr was the daughter of Ida Berkowitz, and one of Supergirl's toughest opponents. "Phil and Joan are about as always. Dr. Barry hasn't turned into a mutate again. I'm working at the U. of Chicago again, as a secretary. I don't mind. So, how have you been, Kara? What have you been up to?"
"I've been busy," Kara admitted. "Right now, I've come back on, well, something special. I'd just as soon not say what, right now. But it's great to be back, Mom and Dad!"
Fred Danvers smiled, and Kara kissed him, and then did the same to Edna. "I guess it's been serious weirdness for you folk ever since I came into your lives, hasn't it?", she said to both of them.
"Oh, yeah," said Fred. "Sometimes, I have to admit, when I really considered that a girl with more power than a dozen atom bombs was sleeping in the bedroom just down the hall from us, it was, let's say, a bit awe-inspiring."
"If you'd been a problem child, we would have been worried," said Edna. "But your nature was so good. Except in the mornings when I had to get you up for school."
Kara grinned. "Yeah, I remember--"
"Yeah, I remember that," said Linda, at about the same instant. They both looked at each other and grinned a bit sheepishly.
Fred said, "It wasn't easy sometimes, mentally adjusting that we'd somehow become connected to Superman. I mean, my God, the most powerful man in the universe--and we were related to him now, through adoption of his blood kin. A lot of times I--we, I think--just had to put that out of mind and concentrate on you as a girl, not a Supergirl. I'd like to think it worked."
"It did, Dad," said Kara, seriously. "I wouldn't have wanted you to relate to me like I was some sort of a, a freak or something. Like an atomic bomb in a skirt. I wanted a family again. And I'm so damn glad that you folks were out there to be that for me."
Linda said, "So what're you here for, Kara? Does it have something to do with Kal?"
Kara paused. "Why do you ask that?"
"Because he's been gone for a month. So has Clark Kent. Some of the newsies are starting to connect the two, and they've been speculating that one or the other may be dead. Or both."
"For right now, I'd rather not say," said Kara. "But I'm going to make one stop to check something before I hit the sack. Can I have the couch, Mom?"
"We've still got a guest room," she said. "You won't be gone long, will you? Promise me you won't fight any super-villains while you're gone, please."
Kara laughed. "I'll try to keep my nose clean, Mom. ‘Scuse me for a second." She took her bag and went down the hall to the guest quarters. Passing by her room, she felt a twinge of empathic pain. She had hoped to sleep in her old bed, but she had to admit it: she wasn't Linda Danvers anymore.
She wondered if she'd ever get used to being around somebody else who was.
Sighing, she opened the door, lay the suitcase on the guest bed, and fumbled with the latch.
Linda was at the doorway, unexpectedly. "Kara, listen," she said. "I may not have super-powers, but I can still help out. If this is something to do with Kal..."
That was when a whole closetful of clothes went SPUNG! and exploded out of the green case like potatoes out of a ruptured pressure cooker.
They had force enough to cover most of the room's surface area, knock a big mirror off the wall and send it crashing to the floor behind the chest of drawers, and slam Linda and Kara both off their pins and onto their kiesters.
"Oh, fraaaaaab," snapped Kara.
Linda tried to hold it in a few seconds, then burst out laughing so hard tears spurted to her eyes.
In a second, Kara joined her. Both sat among the avalanche of Kryptonian fashions and held each other, laughing like candidates for the booby hatch.
Fred and Edna poked their heads in and registered uniform astonishment. "What in the name of Heaven--" started Fred.
"Did you, ah, how did you, ah, let me help you," said Edna, approximately.
"No, Mom, I'll do it," said Kara resignedly, picking herself up from a pile of underwear and dresses and pantsuits. "If there ever was one--this is a job for Supergirl."
A short while later, having picked up and hung up or stashed the titanic mass of clothes, Kara changed to the one outfit that she always thought of as work clothes: her Supergirl outfit. She hadn't worn it since the day she came back to Earth for a short frolic, after the Zoners business. She smoothed the tunic over her front, adjusted the hotpants, made sure the cape was secure, and pulled up the shoes. Then she opened the window, streaked out at hyper-speed, shut it behind her, and rocketed away at a velocity that protected her from the human eye.
It would be too late to talk to Inspector Henderson at the Metropolis cop shop, but she could speak to whoever was in charge on the night shift. She wanted to find out what she could about the investigation first hand.
Of course, she told herself, you're also possibly exposing yourself to whoever or whatever got Kal.
But she took that as a matter of course. If she baited the perp out into the open, so much the better. She could deal with him, then.
Especially if it turned out to be Luthor.
Lex Luthor stepped out of the elevator and walked to within ten feet of the three women.
No one spoke for a long moment. Starfire and Cyber were a bit awed, and tried to hide it. They had seen Luthor in photos before, sometimes in prison grey, other times in costume. But neither had seen him quite like this.
He was wearing his Warsuit, a green and purple metal-and-plastic futuristic suit of armor created from a wedding of his own genius with the lost technology of Lexor. It covered all his body except his head, and a protective helmet could be extruded from the sides of the metal which abutted the sides of his head in times of necessity. The thing put him almost into Superman's power class, and its weaponry made him a deadly threat to his Kryptonian enemy.
But mostly they concentrated on his face.
It was not an unhandsome face, though the total baldness of his head seemed to detract from its beauty and add to its force. His nose was large but not misshapen. His chin was strong, his mouth fairly large, his cheekbones of medium size. The brow was like the front of a helmet. The women could find no wrinkles or lines in it.
Altogether, the head seemed like a defensive container for his eyes.
They were green, penetrating, and rarely wavered from their targets. In part, they seemed to convey a massive unconcern with the mundane...and to Lex Luthor, even such a setting as this one might seem mundane. But behind that, Cyber and Starfire sensed a terrible force of anger and discontent and ruthlessness. This was the quality of a man who felt he had been done a terrible wrong, and had spent his entire life in an attempt to correct that perceived injustice. And to visit a similar, but more powerful, injustice on his enemy.
They could also sense his intelligence, and knew that it was powerful, indeed.
He did not have the aspect of a cartoon villain. To them, Lex Luthor represented a powerful force. A being who, by the power of his own mind, had challenged the mightiest beings on Earth time and again, and would go on challenging them until he won or died. The two women were ruthless in their own ways, certainly ambitious, and did not shrink from killing when necessary. But neither of them had the intellect or drive that they sensed in Luthor.
They struggled to keep their qualms internal.
Lex Luthor spoke.
"Come," he said. "Let me show you a thing."
They followed him.
The four of them crowded themselves into the elevator car. Luthor activated it, and it took them below. Starfire and Cyber looked at Nasthalia. Both were a bit relieved to find that she looked frightened, too. Nobody said a word.
The car stopped some levels below their starting point and Luthor led them out. He brought them past several barriers in the hallway that stretched before them. The two newcomers figured that, had he not done so, both of them would have been dead several times over. Before a final obstacle, a steel door painted yellow, Luthor stopped, and spoke to them, not turning around.
"Beyond this point, there is no turning back. Once you behold what is within this chamber, your lives are not your own. If you have any qualms about your alliance, come no further. The revelation of what lies within will be paid by death."
The women didn't doubt him. But none made a move to leave. Luthor waited several more seconds.
Then he pressed his hand against the metal of the door and it retracted into the walls in two sections.
Another chamber, festooned with scientific equipment, was visible inside. But the room was dominated by a large horizontal metal tube in its center, supported by a narrower base which connected it to the floor. Most of the other equipment in the room seemed dedicated to monitioring the contents of the tube, and to various controls for whatever apparati it contained.
Luthor's shoes clacked gently on the flooring as he led them over to it. He did not look at them.
He went to a control panel nearby and performed a certain operation, then went to the tube and placed his hands against a certain section of it. It came up, on a hinge. He motioned the three women to come forward.
They did, and peered within the tube.
Now they knew Luthor's final secret.
They also knew that none of them could betray it afterward, and expect to live.
A few seconds later, Luthor slammed shut the tube section. Then he turned, to face them again.
"The operation nears finality," he said to them. "This is what I require you to do."