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Again the phone rang. "Lois?"
"Yes, speaking," she said as she went on trying to type a story in her cramped office.
"This is Lena."
"Lena? You sound funny. Is something wrong?"
"No, not as far as I know. Tell me something."
"Almost anything if I can do it fast."
"How do I get to Superman?"
"If I find out I'm sure as hell not going to tell you. What else do you want to know?"
"Seriously? I thought you said nothing was wrong. Oh, hi Clark. Sorry, Lena, Clark just walked in."
"I just wanted to show you this, Lois." Clark held out his copy of the morning Times.
"What did you want Superman for, Lena?"
"I got something in the mail. A letter to him addressed care of me."
"It's Russell Baker's column," Clark said. "I thought you'd like it."
"I'll read it," Lois said, "if you'll be a dear and just leave it there on the desk. No, not you, Lena. I'm sorry, Clark. I mean I'm sorry, Lena. I'm sorry, Clark."
"I'm sorry, Lois," Clark said. "I'll see you later."
"It's really very strange," Lena said.
"Strangest thing I've heard all day," Lois said. "Not you, Clark. I'll see you later."
"All right, Lois," Lena said, and hung up.
"No, I didn't mean you, Lena," Lois said to the dead phone.
Lois sat with the phone in one hand, Clark's Times in the other and a look of clinical fascination on her face as she looked at Clark in the doorway.
"Sorry, Lois," Clark said and turned to go.
"Clark?" She decided to ask him.
"I'm sorry, Lois."
"Do you know how to find Superman?"
"Sometimes," he said.
"Sometimes. Yeah, me too."
"I heard he had dinner with Perry and his wife last night."
"Really? Maybe she's a better cook than I am."
"No, I don't think so," Clark volunteered. "Perry just wanted him to give his youngest son a pep talk. You know, Arnold, the one who always seems to be flunking out of college?"
"That's nice. I knew there had to be some sort of mission involved. Did it work?"
"I don't know. He just started at Stony Brook in January."
"Maybe if I adopted somebody really pitiful. Somebody with mange or rickets or something."
"Never mind, Clark."
Clark left, hoping no one would ask him why he was grinning. Kristin Wells, walking the other way down the hall to Lois's office smiled back at him, although Clark noticed that she had a slight tic above her left eye. He also noticed the freckle on the tip of her nose which seemed to be slowly driving Jimmy Olsen crazy. Poor Jimmy.
Lena Thorul was on the phone again with Lois, who had called Lena back to apologize for being so scattered when Lena had called earlier. Lois had no idea where to find Superman.
"The way he does things," Lois said, "is he sort of finds you. I heard Orson Welles is like that, but I don't suppose it's quite the same thing."
"Well, that's all right," Lena said. "I just had this feeling that I'd be able to find him if I called you."
"I'll let him know if I see him."
"Oh, thanks, Lois. It was just a feeling. Listen, now I've got to get off. There's someone at the door. I'll talk to you soon. Say hi to Kris."
Lena answered the door.
"I hear I've got some mail," Superman said.
"Oh," she said. "I don't suppose I should be surprised. You do this sort of thing all the time, don't you?"
"I'm afraid I do." He came in and closed the door.
"Well, here it is, then. Your letter."
It was a business-sized envelope whose return address said that it was from a person named Max Maven of Los Angeles. The name was vaguely familiar.
"I met him when I was a little girl," Lena said, "when we lived in New England. He's a mentalist. You must have heard of him."
"Yes, actually, I have. He does a very good act, according to most reviewers."
"Well, he was very strange. One day I ran into him at the candy store in town and he said that someday I would be his messenger."
"I don't usually look into people's minds unless there's a good reason. I respect people's privacy. But I tried to figure out what he meant by reading his mind, and it was completely shielded from me. No one's ever been able to do that before or since. I don't even remember saying anything to him. He just looked at me as though he knew me and said our paths would cross again. Does that make any sense to you, Superman?"
"I can't say it does," Superman answered, holding the letter at arm's distance and reading it through the envelope, "but that is probably not a relevant question in a lot of situations."
"I recognized him as the boy I met that day when I saw him on a talk show. He had lost some hair and wore all black and did all sorts of remarkable things. Told people their birthdays, quoted what people were writing on a pad out of his sight as they were writing it—that sort of thing. He looked a lot different, but I recognized him anyway. Oh dear, I hope I'm not bothering you with something trivial, Superman."
"No, no, not at all. Thank you very much."
"I just thought you had a kind of faraway look when I was talking."
"Did I? Just a premonition, I suppose. You know about those, don't you? I'll have to be leaving, Miss Thorul. Thanks for finally delivering your message."
"You're welcome," she started to say, but by the time she reached the second word of the phrase he was gone.
Superman streaked across the bending sky over America, wondering what he would find in California. The letter, which Superman had taken with him and was now allowing to burn to a cinder as he held it, catching the friction of Superman's flight, was brief enough:Superman -
Meet me at my home sometime during the day you receive this letter, or I will send Lena Thorul a photostat of her birth certificate.
Max Maven had signed it and followed that with his Los Angeles address. Superman did not enjoy being coerced.
Although she did not know it, Lena Thorul had been acquainted with Superman for quite some time. She lived in Smallville when she took her first steps and left town shortly after she spoke her first sentence.
Superboy, one day, had foolishly given her older brother a strange glowing yellow sphere which Superboy had found in a big cavern under the woods near town. Lena's brother intended to see what it was, but Lena got to it first. She happened to touch the sphere and the plate over an electric socket at the same time and the sphere melted to sludge. Lena's brother, Lex, saw the thing melt, and saw the baby's hair stand on end for an instant. She did not seem to be nearly as distressed over the incident as Lex was. He could not decide whether to be angrier at himself for leaving the thing lying around, or at Superboy for not realizing he had picked up an artifact of an ancient exploration party from the nation of Atlantis.
Lena learned to talk quickly—too quickly—after the day her hair stood on end. She also showed immediate signs of second sight. She always knew where to find her toys, as well as her brother's and father's lost tools. She also knew, for a while, that Lex was still alive when her mother had told her that he had died in a mountain climbing accident, but she was discouraged from asking about him. In the course of the more that twenty years since the incident of the melted globe, Lena's extraordinary mind had been asked to repress a lot. Lena was fairly successful at keeping that mind out of other people's affairs and out of her own past.
If Superman were to make a list of the ten things he would least want to happen, having Lena Thorul see that the name on her birth certificate was Lena Luthor would certainly be on the list.
In Los Angeles there was another letter, a longer one this time which showed at least some regard for etiquette. It was taped to the performer's apartment door:S.M. -
I trust you chose to enter through the door. Unfortunately I am not here at the moment, but you will probably be able to find me at the Magic Castle.
This is not a likable man, Superman thought.
The Magic Castle was a private club in Hollywood and one had to be a member or a member's guest to get in. Max Maven had neglected to consider the possibility that the doorman would refuse to allow Superman entry and that, once refused, Superman would not consider entering by force. The doorman was not unaccustomed to people in capes and odd costumes and simply did not believe the man was who he claimed to be. For a moment, Superman considered telling the man the contents of his wallet, but he saw a friend inside who turned out to be a member of the club.
"Ray!" Superman called. "Ray, do you care to rescue this gentleman from an unforgivable invasion of his privacy?"
Years ago, when he was fifteen years old, Clark Kent had read The Martian Chronicles. Clark was so impressed that Superboy flew off that afternoon to meet Ray Bradbury, the man who had written the book. What Superboy found was a man who had never flown in an airplane, who wrote stories about rocket ships, a Californian who did not know how to drive a car, a man relatively unconcerned with politics who was, at least that day, obsessed with the idea of convincing Walt Disney to run for mayor of Los Angeles. Bradbury had a lifetime pass to Disneyland, which was where he and Superboy spent the rest of the day. Superboy had never been there before, and no one there believed he was really Superboy anyway. Children were more interested in getting the autograph of Mickey Mouse, and adults were confused by his presence since they thought that only Walt Disney characters paraded through the streets in costume.
Bradbury's wife drove them to the amusement park in Anaheim. Bradbury utterly refused to allow the boy to fly him there, and neither of them had a driver's license. Walt Disney, whom Superboy and Ray Bradbury found in his secret apartment overlooking the main entrance to Disneyland, again refused to run for mayor, but had his chauffeur drive the novelist home. Superboy flew back to the Smallville Public Library and read everything that Bradbury had ever published.
"Hey, Supes," Bradbury called from the vestibule of the Magic Castle, "is that the real you? What do Walt Disney and John C. Fremont have in common?"
"Neither of them ever ran for mayor of Los Angeles," Superman responded.
"It is you," and Bradbury told the gatekeeper to let the costumed man in as his guest. "It's not really him," the storyteller whispered to the doorman, "but you know how these method actors are." He pointed to his head and turned back to the hero. "We're late, Supes. There's this great mentalist act going on in the main hall. Ever hear of a guy named Max Maven?"
The room where members of the elite of America's stage magicians sat at small tables with their various guest eating brunch was not even dimmed. Max Maven brought his own atmosphere with him. He was not particularly tall, but his presence was not to be ignored. His black hair swept back into the shape of a pronounced widow's peak, and he wore a black Vandyke, a black dinner jacket and a single earring. Max was doing card tricks, so nobody much noticed when a big man in a Superman costume walked in and took a seat at Ray Bradbury's table.
"Your card, sir," Max said as he held up the deck in one hand and the jack of spades slowly wriggled its way up from the middle of the pile.
"Umm, Max," the gray-haired illusionist at the table whispered to the younger magician whose show this was. "Hold up, Max."
"Speak right up, Harry," Max said in his clear stage voice.
"I wish I could tell you it was my card," the old magician said, "but it's just not."
"What do you mean it's not?"
"I mean my card wasn't the jack of spades."
"The hell it wasn't." The performer was losing his cool. "What're you trying to pull?"
"Hey calm down, Max. You wouldn't want me to say it was when it wasn't."
"You trying to embarrass me in front of my peers, Harry? That's it, isn't it? You're jealous, right?"
"Look, Max, this happens to everybody. Better here than on television, right?"
"Better never. Listen, I don't need you, Harry."
"I don't need some old has-been fixing my tricks, understand me, Harry?"
"Max, everyone in the room knows my card wasn't the jack of spades. The only one who doesn't know is you, it seems. It was the—"
"I don't want to know, dammit!"
"Max, I'm surprised at—"
"I don't need you, or this lousy club, or any of you for that matter. Listen, I went to a good college. I was going to be a doctor. I don't even need these cruddy cards to make a living, and you all know it."
With that, Max Maven tossed the entire deck into the air and, as the cards flew randomly around the room, he stormed out in a rage. In an uncommon breach of the rules of chance, fifty-one of the cards landed facedown on the floor of the room. Only one card landed face-up, and it landed on Harry's table. Max was gone by the time the gray-haired illusionist broke the silence of the room with the whispered phrase, "Oh, that son of a dog!"
The card on his table, the only card that had landed face-up, was the four of clubs, his card. Max had put one over on the experts.
Superman found Max in another room, a library furnished with wide plush chairs and paintings of great magicians of the past. A huge oil painting by J. C. Leyendecker of Harry Houdini hung over one fireplace facing the opposite fireplace and an equally large Walt Simonson acrylic of Merlyn. Between Houdini and Merlyn, between Leyendecker and Simonson, between hearths, sitting on the red carpet with his back against an unoccupied easy chair and reading a book by Carlos Castaneda at which he was laughing out loud, was Max Maven.
"You put on a pretty good show," Superman said.
"Shh," Max said. "I've got to finish this paragraph. This is funnier than Nixon's autobiography."
Superman turned to go but Max looked up.
"Good of you to come," Max said.
"Finish your paragraph?" Superman turned back.
"Yeah. I read pretty fast for an Earth human. Can we go into another room and talk?"
The pair found the exercise room on the top floor of the building. The room was padded on walls and floor and adjoined a shower and sauna which no one was using. No one was using any of the gleaming, expensive-looking equipment. Harry Houdini had been a physical fitness buff. A number of contemporary magicians were as well, but none seemed to be today. Max sat down on an exercise bicycle and began to pedal slowly, his arms and torso rising up and down as he spoke, and Superman stood with his hands clenched at his waist.
"Is the name 'C. W. Saturn' in any way familiar to you, Superman?" Max asked him.
"Yes, I believe I have heard of that name."
"Where, pray tell?"
"Mythology. It is one of the recurring names of the agent of evil also known sometimes as the devil, Satan, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Old Scratch, the Adversary, He Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken, the serpent, or simply the Evil One, as well as several other names in every known language and culture on Earth."
"You're forgetting Pandora, or don't you believe in equal treatment of the sexes? Are you sure you are justified in labeling it mythology, Superman? Can you truly believe that in all your travels, all your exploits, you have never run across any real, solid, unimpeachable evidence of evil in the world? Not a single event of certifiable, card-carrying injustice that you can't explain away as a social problem or a result of somebody's misdirected good intentions? Don't you think there is a source of pain as surely as there is a Creator?"
"Mister—What am I supposed to call you?"
"Max will be fine. Or Your Excellency if you prefer."
"Max, my interest in the reason you blackmailed me into coming here is diminishing dramatically. How did you find out about Lena Thorul anyway?"
"How did I find out what?"
Superman paused a moment and watched the magician's smile as it grew wider. "You don't know about her at all, do you?"
"Actually, I don't know much, although I suppose I could find out if I tried. I do know that she's psychic, and that she clearly has something from her past that her mind and several of her friends are keeping her from finding out. I took a shot in the dark and guessed that it would turn up on her birth certificate. Clever, no?"
"Yes, Max Maven, no one can deny you are a very clever fellow. Thank you for a very entertaining magic show," Superman said, and he was no longer in the room.
Max kept pedaling and said to the air, "It has to do with Lex Luthor if I'm not mistaken."
Max knew Superman was gone, but he also knew that the sound waves of his voice would catch up with the hero's super-hearing before Superman got very far.
"On the night Lex Luthor broke out of jail, C. W. Saturn found a conduit of entry to Earth," Max continued. "I assume that his method of escape somehow allowed the arch-demon's entry. Saturn, or any denizen of what we call the Netherworld, can only gain entry here through the foolish use by an inhabitant of our plane of the forces of magic. Need I repeat any of that to you, my good man?"
Max turned back to the door of the room to find it open, with Superman standing in the opening and looking into Max Maven's face.
"Who are you," Superman asked him, "and how do you claim to have this information?"
"Want to see something?"
Max dismounted from his exerciser and rummaged through a rubbish container for a newspaper, which he found.
"Doubtless you've seen this before," Max told Superman as he rolled one section of the newspaper into a cone and filled several paper cups with water from a cooler. "Usually it's done with milk, for some reason. Please bear with me. I am a showman, you will agree."
Superman watched impatiently as Max chattered through the charade of pouring water, paper cup by paper cup, into the cone, making believe he was holding steady a cone full of liquid, and suddenly whipping the empty paper through the air and crumpling it, the water apparently having vanished into thin air.
"Can you tell me how I did that?" Max asked him.
"Please indulge me."
"There is a small plastic balloon of the long narrow variety in the sleeve of the arm with which you held the cone. A plastic funnel around which you held the cone caught the water and fed it into the balloon, where it is now, chilling your wrist under that shirt. Now will you answer my question about what you know and how you know it?"
"Oh, haven't I told you that? I've got second sight. Mine is probably as strong as Lena Thorul's, although that is only because I have spent years developing it. I had a dream, you see. Now watch this."
Max pulled the water-filled balloon from his sleeve and dropped it into the rubbish. Then he began to roll the remaining newspaper into another cone as Superman rolled his eyes up to the ceiling and began to tap one foot on the floor.
"No no, Superman, I would like you to watch this time even more closely. Watch the level of my pulse and heartbeat too, and whatever else you can keep track of as I do this. Sunspot activity. Gamma rays in the air. My Krilian aura. Whatever."
Superman watched. Max Maven took a paper cup from the water cooler's dispenser and with one hand he filled it repeatedly with water and emptied it into the cone. He did this six times before his forehead broke out into a sweat, eight times before his pulse rate reached one hundred twenty, ten times before the walls of his aorta were strained to a dangerous pressure, a dozen times before the glow of Max Maven's Krilian aura made Superman squint.
"Enough. That's enough," Superman said. "I'm impressed. The water isn't going anywhere as far as I can see. How do you do the trick?"
"Magic," Max Maven said.
"Actually, I was hoping you could tell me where the water went. I suppose it must go somewhere." Max leaned against a wall and breathed heavily as he spoke, willing his heart to slow down.
"Sir, will you—"
"Excellency," Max said, "not sir. Max or Your Excellency. I thought we'd agreed."
"Would you please get to your point?"
"I've already made my point."
"Which was what? It may have gotten lost in the confusion."
"C. W. Saturn," Max Maven said, "has entered the plane of Earth to do some bad stuff. I don't know what, but I learned in a dream that it involves you. I believe that Luthor managed to devise some method to rip a hole between our world and Saturn's. The hole must be found and plugged up, destroyed, whatever. Meanwhile, Saturn is here, getting ready to give you the fight of your life. He'll probably destroy you, and the rule of order with you. I just thought you might like to know that."
"How do you know that?"
"The same way I know my shoes are tied when they don't fall off my feet. The same way you knew enough to tell me to stop willing the water from the cooler to disappear before I had a heart attack. I just know, that's all I can tell you. I also know that you wear glasses a good deal of the time, although I haven't the faintest idea why. I suppose a lot of people in the world know about Saturn coming around, although none of the others believe their own senses or have the presence of mind or social consciousness to let you know. Or maybe it doesn't matter whether you know or not. I did want to meet you, after all. I thought you might have some good stories to tell. Do you?"
Superman thought a moment, then said, "This power you have. This thing you call magic. Is that what you do in your act? Is that why you're such a successful performing magician?"
"Hell, no!" Max was indignant. "I'm not a magician onstage. I make miracles. I want to prove to the world that I'm the greatest mentalist in the world. If those guys out there found out I've really got the power, I'd have to do demonstrations for crackpot parapsychology studies at some backwater college. You tell anyone and make me a lab specimen, and I really will find out what the secret is about Lena Thorul."
Superman stared at Max and shook his head in amazement. "Then why did you show me that trick? What was that all about?"
"It's my job to perform miracles. Art for art's sake. It's your job to save the world. You have your own purposes for your art. If I hadn't done the trick, you wouldn't have believed me, would you?"
"Max, you are the most confounding creature I have met in quite some time."
Max smiled a wide smile that would look quite alarming walking toward an unarmed person from a dark alley. "Obviously," he said, "you have not yet encountered C. W. Saturn."
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words by Elliot S! Maggin
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