by Starsky Hutch 76
The van moved slowly down the large driveway toward the enormous palace that once belonged to General Kuffar. The crew peered out the windows, gaping at the ornate statues and gardens that flanked their path. “It’s like the freakin’ Taj Mahal,” said Mike the cameraman.
“Yeah, it is,” said Greg Hodges, the producer. “I hope you’ve got your camera rolling.”
“Don’t worry. I’m getting it,” Mike said.
As the van pulled up to the front of the palace, they were met by three Kobra foot-soldiers wielding pretty lethal-looking blasters. “If everything is just peachy in Kahndaq, then what’s with the heavy artillery?” Mike muttered.
“I was wondering the same thing,” Ron Troupe gulped, looking over his shoulder. Clark Kent just gave an expressionless stare. He would’ve been more surprised to not see them waiting at the entrance.
One of the foot-soldiers waved some sort of device back and forth across the length of the van and said to another, “They’re clean.” The fact that he said it in Kahndaqi told Clark that Kobra had wasted no time in recruiting the locals to swell his ranks, now that he had a foothold in this country.
The crew, lugging their equipment, was led into the palace by the foot-soldiers. There, the handsome former leader of the resistance met them. He was now Kobra’s chief diplomatic envoy and, to reflect that role, he wore a green uniform of military cut. On his arm was an armband bearing the Kobra insignia. “Welcome,” he said, flashing a charismatic smile. He extended a hand to Clark and said, “Mr. Kent, it is indeed a pleasure.”
“Thank you,” Clark said, shaking the man’s hand. Kobra certainly couldn’t have picked a better man to represent the public face of Kahndaq. If he hadn’t chosen to become a freedom fighter, he might have made a good matinee idol.
“I’m surprised the Naja-Naja wanted me for this interview,” Clark said. “There are certainly more prestigious television journalists who would have loved the opportunity.”
“The Naja-Naja has followed your career closely,” the envoy said. “He is a great fan of your work.”
He’s a smooth one, Clark thought to himself. It was hard to believe this was the same young man who had been ready to take a reporter’s head off for daring to insult the Naja-Naja.
The envoy led the group out of the lobby and down a long hallway toward the office where the interview would take place. As they stepped inside the spacious quarters, Clark recognized it as the place where the final confrontation between Kobra and General Kuffar had taken place. He was sure Kobra had chosen this room specifically to rub in the fact that the rule of international law now prevented him from making him pay for the assassination of the old ruler.
“You may set up in here,” the envoy said, shutting the door. “The Naja-Naja will be joining you shortly.”
The team unloaded their equipment and began the process of setting up. One crew member went about arranging the furniture in the office, turning two plush leather chairs to face each other. Two others began arranging the lighting equipment, assembling lamps and reflectors.
“Clark, could you sit in the chair on the left there?” Mike the cameraman asked.
“Sure,” Clark said, sitting down.
“I’m getting a reflection off his glasses,” Mike grumbled to the lighting team. “Y’know, Clark, you really ought to think about getting contacts.”
“I like the glasses. They give him sort of a… y’know… an intellectual look,” the lighting assistant said, walking over to the cooler full of drinks. “Gee, you’d think Edge could’ve sprung for a real craft services spread for a gig like this.”
“Don’t blame Edge,” Mike said, squinting into the monitor as he played with the focus. “That’s all we could get through security. If you want anything to eat, you’re gonna have to take your chances with the Kahndaqi cuisine coming out of the kitchen here.”
“Ugh. No thanks,” the young assistant said. “I was brave and got something to eat from one of those street vendors near the hotel — and spent the rest of the day in the bathroom.”
Everyone in the room laughed, nodding in empathy. Clark laughed, too, but only because he hadn’t been aware of this particular peril.
The news team quickly straightened up at the sound of approaching footsteps. Clark Kent rose from his chair as Kobra entered the room flanked by a throng of menacing-looking security personnel. “Missster Kent,” Kobra said. “It is a great pleasure to meet someone of your talent. I am sssure our talks will be beneficial to all.”
“You mean you and Morgan Edge?”
“When I say all, I refer, of course, to the people of Kahndaq,” Kobra responded.
“Of course,” Kent said, nodding with a congenial expression that revealed none of his skepticism.
Kobra took the seat opposite Kent’s chair and gestured to it. “Please, be seated,” he said with the tone of a man who was used to having his every command obeyed.
The interview went pretty much as Clark Kent had expected. Kobra made a big show of his benevolence to the people of Kahndaq. He expressed a desire to put aside whatever grievances Kobra might have had with other nations in the past so Kahndaq could move ahead and went into a lengthy speech about his desire for Kahndaq to become a vital part of the United Nations and open mutually beneficial trade relations with the west.
The director gave a signal to Clark, and he said, “Is there anything you would like to add in closing?”
“Yesss,” Kobra said, looking directly at the camera. “The people of Kahndaq are innocents. Whatever animosity you might have towards me — whatever crimes you may imagine I have committed — do not make these people suffer. They have suffered enough under the previous regime. It is time for them to prosper. That is all.”
“Very nice words, Naja-Naja,” Clark Kent said with an approving nod. He wished he could believe they were sincere.
“And cut,” the producer said. “We’ll take a short break and come back for part two, if that would be all right with you, Naja-Naja.”
“Of course,” Kobra said.
“Would either of you like a drink?” the assistant asked, rummaging through the ice chest for soft drinks.
“No, thank you,” Kobra said.
“Sure,” Clark said. “What have we got?”
The young man continued to dig through the chest, looking at the logos on the cans. “We got Soder Cola, Gin-Fizz, Doctor…”
“What was that last one?” Clark asked. He looked over and saw that the assistant was still frozen in place, leaning over the cooler with a blank look on his face. Clark jumped out of his chair in alarm and looked around to see that the entire crew was similarly frozen.
“There will be no lasssting effects from the gas, I assure you,” Kobra said. “Upon awakening, they will experience but a moment’s disorientation. Now, you and I have much to discusss, Sssuperman.”
Kobra pointed to the two foot-soldiers in the room and said, “I am sure that with your super-senses, you will recognize these two guards, despite their hoods, from our past encounters. I consider your secret something that will only be shared among my administration on a need-to-know basis.”
“If we’re making nice here, then what’s with the heavy artillery?” Clark said, gesturing to the heavy blasters the foot-soldiers carried.
“My new position of esteem has not made me less aware of the threat of former foes. If you should…”
In the blink of an eye, he had changed from the suit of Clark Kent to the uniform of Superman and had lifted Kobra up by the neck. “I knew you would pull something treacherous. Apparently, a snake can’t change its spots any more than a snake can.”
“But snakes do shed their old skins to grow new ones,” Kobra gasped. “Now… put me down.”
The two foot-soldiers trained their blasters on Superman. “I’m sure you recognize the radiations those blasters are designed to emit.”
A quick scan of the three-turreted blasters told Superman that while one was a normal, albeit lethal laser, the other two were concentrated red-sun radiation and a green kryptonite ray. Superman slowly eased the cult leader to the ground.
“Good,” Kobra said, rubbing his neck. “I did not want my men to have to use those guns.”
“You didn’t?” Superman said in a voice that implied he didn’t believe that for a second.
“No, I didn’t,” Kobra said. “Believe me, Superman. If I wished to lay a death-trap for you, I wouldn’t do it in my own home where there could be potential property damage. I would do it in yours.”
The thought of Kobra and his henchmen in the Kent household made Superman wince. “So what it you want from me?” Superman asked. “What is the meaning of all this?”
“I am currently experiencing difficulties with a mutual enemy of oursss,” Kobra said.
“Mutual? The only enemy I could think of would be Lex Luthor. He certainly has no reason to like you,” Superman commented. “But why should I help you with him?”
“Why? Because I am the rightfully chosen leader of this nation!” Kobra exclaimed. “Because to defend me is to defend the will of the people and the rule of law and order, and that is what you do, is it not?”
Superman folded his arms and gave him an incredulous look. Kobra sighed. “Naturally, you feel I am up to something and would just as soon leave me to Luthor’s tender mercies. If you don’t believe that I have the best of intentions, then use your considerable abilities to look for yourself. Then tell me I have not been good for Kahndaq!”
“I can’t do that,” Superman said. “Obviously, there have been improvements. But those are probably just means to an end — a way for you to exploit these people to further whatever your true goals are.”
Kobra leaned one hand down upon his desk wearily. With the other, he slid his cowl off his head and looked Superman in the eyes. “Improving the lives of these people is my true goal. I’m trying to make a better nation, a better world, a lasting legacy… something to carry on after I’m gone.”
The look in Kobra’s eyes was one of utmost sincerity. That alone would not have been enough to convince Superman. However, his super-senses allowed him to read him as well as any lie detector. “My God… you’re telling the truth. This cult of yours… you never bought into it before. It was just a front for your criminal empire. What has changed?”
“I… I can’t reveal that at this time. Suffice to say, I have my reasons,” Kobra said, his expression one of desperation and sincerity.
“If you can’t be totally honest with me, it’s going to affect my ability to help you, or to even be certain I should be helping you. In any case, it’s not like you haven’t dealt with Luthor before and survived.”
“Just barely,” Kobra said. “He managed to exile me to a fate which I narrowly escaped. I did at one time have something he desired greatly, which I planned to hold over him should he become a problem, but that is no longer an option for me.”
“And I suppose you can’t reveal that to me, either,” Superman said.
“In time, it shall be made public, but not right now. I have the safety of Am… I have the safety of my people to consider.”
Superman gave him an inquisitive look and then said, “Yes, your people. Your people, your cult, your armies, and now your nation. With all this, why should you be worried about one man?”
“Really, Superman,” Kobra said. “I would have thought you would be the last one to underestimate Lex Luthor.”
“I don’t underestimate him,” Superman said. “But I don’t underestimate you, either.”
“You flatter me,” Kobra said. “I have more to fear than you realize, though. It would appear you don’t know your foe nearly as well as you thought you did.”
“What do you mean?” Superman asked.
“I had my intelligence operatives do quite a bit of digging on Luthor,” Kobra said. “Kuffar’s former spy network is quite good. I was stunned by what they came up with. The wealth Lex Luthor has at his command is staggering.”
“Well, I figured he must have sacked a little money away from his criminal schemes to pay for his inventions,” Superman commented.
“Do not be a fool!” Kobra exclaimed. “Do you really think base crimes could pay for the sort of elaborate devices he creates? And when was the last time he committed a crime whose chief purpose wasn’t to eliminate you rather than make money?”
Superman had to admit he couldn’t think of one. “So then where is the money coming from?”
A feral look crossed Kobra’s face, and for a brief moment he seemed to go from hunted to hunter. He strode smugly behind his desk and slid back a wooden lid to reveal a control panel. He pushed a button, and a large expanse of bookshelves on the opposite wall parted to reveal an enormous computer. He walked over to it and pressed a button upon its keyboard, and a list of a variety of companies and products began to scroll down the monitor.
“Over the yearsss, you may have been the central focus of Luthor’s genius, but you were hardly his only focus. A man with a mind such as his — even the most idle thought is capable of bearing fruit, as you can see.”
Superman’s jaw dropped in shock. The list of patents owned by Lex Luthor was astounding. There were Luthor inventions in his own home that he never would have dreamed were connected to his worst enemy.
“A modern-day Thomas Edison, is he not?” Kobra commented.
“Edison never used the money he made from his inventions to put lives at risk,” Superman said grimly.
“True,” Kobra said. “Which is why I propose we join forces,” Kobra said.
Superman folded his arms and gave a half-smirk. “I’m not sure the old adage of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ applies here. The Kobra criminal empire is a bigger threat to the world than Lex Luthor ever was.”
“With a minimum of research, you and your Justice League comrades will soon find that all of Kobra’s criminal enterprises have been dismantled. I urge you to do so after the still-very-prevalent threat of Lex Luthor has been dealt with. The people of Kahndaq do not deserve to suffer for any past sins I may have committed.”
Again, Superman found himself startled by Kobra’s seeming sincerity His super-senses allowed him to act as a human lie detector, but his mind wanted to rebel against what they were telling him. Kobra had managed, over the years, to hurt him in ways that none of his other foes had — particularly when Kobra had chosen to pluck the Kents out of the past to blackmail him. (*) That sort of pain wasn’t easy to forget.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Sandstorm that Swallowed Metropolis,” Superman #327 (September, 1978).]
Most people had a hard time imagining Superman hating anyone. His emotions toward this particular individual after that would have startled them. Only Mongul had ever been able to inspire the same level of animosity. That was the only enemy he could have a harder time believing capable of turning over a new leaf.
Their conversation was suddenly cut short as the air was filled with the blaring of alarms. “Like clockwork,” Kobra said through gritted teeth.
“You think that’s him?” Superman asked.
“No, I know it’s him,” Kobra replied. “He is relentlesss. How many people shall perish tonight, I wonder?”
None, if I have anything to say about it,” Superman said as he flew toward the window.
“I am not so sure you do,” Kobra said, watching as Superman took to the sky.