by Doc Quantum
Maxwell Lord’s hands shook as he brought a cigarette up to his mouth and lit it with a match. It was just nerves; at least, he hoped it was just nerves. At his age, you couldn’t be too sure about anything.
As the CEO of Queen Enterprises for the past forty-five years, Lord had done very well for himself, even when his boss had gone missing for over twenty of those years. He had also been made privy to the secrets of one of the greatest heroes of the golden age: Green Arrow.
And now, he was directly responsible for having helped bring the current successor to Green Arrow’s legacy into play. Arrowette and Flare were basically Star City’s new Green Arrow and Speedy. (*) Although they were still teenagers and had only been at it for three years now, they had already become legends in their time, thanks to several high-profile solo cases as well as adventures with the Junior JSA. (*) He should have been proud to have helped continue his boss’ legacy. So why did he feel so guilty?
“Mr. Hawthorne will see you now, Mr. Lord.”
Max looked up and ran a hand through his gray hair. It had been a long time since he’d lost his chestnut brown hair to the ravages of age, but he was still a handsome man, even now at seventy years of age.
He walked into his old friend’s office.
“Max! How are you, old boy?” said Foster J. Hawthorne, offering a handshake. He was a man of eighty who was bald, had a white mustache, a hawk-like nose, was very tall and thin, and wore pince-nez spectacles. Max often thought he could have played Sherlock Holmes on the stage in his youth.
“I’m… fine, Foster.”
“And how is Cathy? Has she recovered from her hip surgery all right?”
“Catherine is fine,” said Max, speaking of his wife. “She’s in France right now, visiting her family.”
“Good, good,” said Foster, motioning for Max to take a seat on his leather couch. “It’s always good to make sure we keep in touch with our roots.”
Maxwell Lord nodded, then opened his mouth and found himself at a loss for words.
“Is something bothering you, Max?” asked Foster. “Look, I know the election didn’t turn out the way we hoped. None of us could have foreseen what happened, truly. And the aftermath, with Gunderson turning out to be some kind of shape-changer? Well, that floored me. And now that we have our first woman president with this Minerva Schuster, I can only imagine we’re one bad premenstrual cycle away from nuclear war.” He chuckled at his own joke. “But these things have a way of turning out for the best. Why, what with your background in leadership, perhaps you might take a run at the next presidential election yourself. The All-Star Party is in need of a new leader, you know.”
“That’s not it at all, Foster,” said Max. “I’ve been troubled, yes, but not by the results of the election. It’s something Jay said to me after we lost.”
“Oh? Tell me what it is.”
“He basically accused me of being a pawn of Vandal Savage.”
Foster looked at Max for a moment without blinking, then burst into laughter. “You’ve got to be joking, Max. Who in their right mind would ever accuse you of being a pawn of some would-be dictator? This Vandal… Savage, did you say? Isn’t he the fellow who supposedly used a time machine to change history so he could rule the world?”
“No, that was Per Degaton.”
“Oh, well, they all seem so alike,” said Foster with a shrug and a wink. “You must forgive me for mixing them up.”
“I was so angry with him,” continued Max, “that I immediately dismissed anything he had to say at the time. But, as I’ve thought about it, I’ve begun to grow troubled.”
“Why, whatever for, Max?” said Foster. “You can’t take anything Jay said about you personally. After all, he did just lose the U.S. presidential race. He’s bound to say a lot of crazy things.”
“But that’s just it, Foster,” said Max. “Jay’s always been straight with me. He would never have said anything like that to me if it didn’t have some basis in fact.”
Foster frowned and stood up, then walked over to the liquor cabinet. “Fancy a glass of wine? I’ve got a bottle of cabernet that has just been waiting to be opened for a moment like this.”
“No thanks, Foster.”
“Come now, Max. We’re old friends. Let’s figure this out together over a glass of wine, like old times.”
“Oh, all right,” said Max.
Foster finished pouring the wine, then handed a glass to Max. “Now, my boy, tell me what has you so troubled.”
“It’s… it’s the Society, Foster.”
“The Justice Society?”
“No, you know what I mean,” said Max, not at all amused. “The Society.”
“Oh, oh, right,” said Foster, amusement in his eyes as he flicked his index finger off the side of his nose, as if sending a secret signal. “What is it that concerns you, Max? Don’t tell me the dues are too steep. We both know you can afford them.” He chuckled again.
“Who runs it?” asked Max. “The Society, I mean. Who’s in charge?”
“You’ve met him,” said Foster. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten.”
“Yes, I know who you’re referring to,” said Max, careful not to use any names, as per Society protocols. “But I wonder… does he work for anyone else?”
“Does he work for Vandal Savage, you mean? Is that what you’re asking, Max? Don’t be absurd.”
Max shrugged. “Stranger things have happened, Foster. Maybe Savage really does run the world, in a way, by being behind all these secret societies out there. I keep hearing rumors about this Illuminati, for instance.”
Foster sighed. “And do you listen to every conspiracist out there, with their wacky theories about who shot JFK, and whether FDR actually knew in advance about the attack on Pearl Harbor? People who believe in such things as the Illuminati are fit for the loony bin, if you ask me. Where’s the proof?”
“Well, Jay seemed to think there was some basis for the idea that Vandal Savage was in charge of the Illuminati,” said Max. “And from what I’ve been able to gather from my own sources, the Illuminati itself — whether it goes by that name or others — is more of an umbrella organization composed of many groups under many different names, kind of like the hydra. You cut off one head, and three more grow in its place.”
“Your metaphor is quite apt, Max,” said Foster, maintaining his air of amusement, “if we are talking about fairy tales.”
“Are we, Foster?” asked Max. “My source comes from no less than a very high-placed man in the U.S. government — one of our most secretive intelligence agencies, in fact. And if he believes in fairy tales, then we’re all in big trouble.”
Foster J. Hawthorne’s smile began to be replaced by a frown. “Just what are you saying, Max?”
“I just have some questions,” said Max. “You were the man who brought me into the Society some forty years ago.”
“I saw great potential in you at the time, and you’ve never let me down.”
“You were also the man who planted the idea in my head to start the All-Star Party,” continued Max. “And to recruit none other than Jay Garrick, the Flash himself, as its presidential candidate.”
“No need to thank me, Max. I saw an opportunity, and I merely mentioned it to you, is all.”
“You were also responsible for the majority of fundraising, especially in the early days two years ago, when we were just getting off the ground.”
“Where is all this going, Max?”
“I want to know, Foster, if you’ve been forthright with me all along, as I’ve believed, or if you’ve been following orders from those above you in the Society.”
Foster J. Hawthorne looked aghast at Maxwell Lord’s words. “I resent the implication that I’m merely some pawn in a larger scheme of moving other pawns around, like some kind of nefarious chess match!”
“But you don’t deny it,” said Max.
“I most certainly deny it!” said Foster. “Now if you’re about done, Max, I’d like to ask you to leave before our friendship suffers any further.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Max, placing his still-full glass of wine on the table next to him and rising to his feet. “I believe our friendship is at an end, as is my involvement in the Society.”
“I don’t enjoy being used, Foster,” said Max. “Especially when it turns out to be by someone I’ve trusted for most of my life. You may have helped me in my own career over the years, but I seriously question whether it was really all to your own benefit — or to that of your master, Vandal Savage.”
“Don’t be absurd!”
“I’ll be absurd as I wish to be,” said Max. “Good day to you, sir.”
At that, Maxwell Lord opened the door and walked out.
Foster J. Hawthorne ran out of the study a moment later and shouted, “You’re finished in this town, Lord! Consider yourself — and Queen Enterprises — a distant memory from now on, because I will make sure not another contract will ever be signed! You’re done!”
“Talk to my lawyer!” shouted Max just before he reached the outer office door and exited.
A cold sweat chilled Maxwell Lord as he rode his limousine back to Queen Enterprises in downtown Star City. His confrontation with Foster had confirmed in his mind his worst suspicions. Well, for better or for worse, he was now a free man. He just hoped that Queen Enterprises could weather the storm that was sure to come.
None of that mattered now. He had to talk with Bonnie Jones-Carter and explain himself. As Arrowette’s mentor, he had potentially been influencing her own career on behalf of Vandal Savage without ever knowing it. He just hoped she would understand.
Still, the conversation he dreaded the most was talking with Jay again. It turned out that Jay had been right, even though he was wrong about how much Max knew about it all.
Even more troubling were the gaps in his memory that he been noticing throughout the campaign. Friends and colleagues would repeat something that Max had supposedly told them at an earlier point in time, yet he had no recollection of those conversations at all. And the very name of Vandal Savage… well, something about that name, and the man’s very voice, heard in old recordings from the 1940s when he clashed with the JSA, caused chills to run up his spine. Maxwell Lord knew through his connections with the super-hero world that there were people capable of hypnotically controlling someone without their knowledge. That couldn’t possibly have been done to him, could it? The more he thought about it, the more he realized that he couldn’t dismiss the possibility that he had been a pawn after all, in more ways than one.
And then there was Amanda Waller to deal with. Jay had basically accused her of being in the same camp as Vandal Savage as well, but Max knew she was as honest as they came, if eminently practical to the point of ruthlessness. But she had taken things hard. He hadn’t seen her since the day after he’d last spoken with Jay, in fact. She just disappeared, fed up with politics for good. He wondered if she was fed up with the government as well. She had been an intelligence agent, after all, for several years. But that career had ended as abruptly as her political career. She seemed worse off now than when she’d begun, ready to lash out at anyone who even looked at her the wrong way.
Max Lord always had Queen Enterprises to fall back on, but where would Amanda Waller go? He didn’t suppose she would want to come work for him. No; wherever she went, she would make her mark again. He was sure of it.
In a gym in Washington, D.C., Amanda Waller pushed herself harder than she ever had before. It wasn’t all that difficult, considering how motivated she was by her rage. Jay Garrick had accused her, of all people, of being part of the Illuminati, of being part of the same murderous, controlling organization run by Vandal Savage to manipulate the world to its own ends. To think that she’d ever work for that immortal caveman or his Lucifer-worshiping buffoons.
But it was hard to remain angry at Garrick. He was a novice in these political games of intrigue, and readily able to accept a simplified version of the truth rather than judge a more nuanced reality. Yes, she knew Maxwell Lord had been unknowingly compromised by ties to the Illuminati — she’d known since the day she’d personally looked into his history years ago before their very first meeting, though she doubted that Lord knew the full extent of how integrated his particular gentlemen’s club, the Society, was in the grander scheme of things. But Lord was also very influential and, as a power-broker, was always on the move; it didn’t take much for Waller to start moving him in the direction she wanted.
Waller knew there was only one man to blame for all of this, and it wasn’t Vandal Savage. No, only one man had gained altogether too much influence over America’s intelligence services over the past twenty or thirty years, despite his rather brusque personality. While the CIA and the NSA had done little more than twiddle their thumbs behind their backs, he’d used the Crisis on Infinite Earths as an opportunity to consolidate his power. He had then positioned himself as the greatest enemy of Vandal Savage and his Illuminati organization, despite the fact that he had let the immortal villain escape from federal custody yet again under his watch.
By virtue of the fact that he’d been one of them, he had even managed to manipulate his fellow mystery-men into believing that he was still one of the good guys. Oh, he was always willing to play the hero card whenever it suited him, though he’d never really let any of those pesky heroic ethics get in the way of whatever goal he wanted to accomplish.
But Amanda Waller knew the truth. She’d always known since she’d first worked with the man, though it had taken him betraying her before she had allowed herself to accept it. The man would sell out his own mother if he thought it would help him reach his end goal.
Henry Heywood, better known as Commander Steel — and Hank to his friends — had created his own little fiefdom in America’s intelligence services, like an octopus with many tentacles, and no one but Waller knew the full extent of his reach.
Waller’s two-year foray into politics had been a carefully planned diversion, she now suspected. Maxwell Lord was even more of a smooth-talker than Steel, but she’d been at a weak point in her life and had accepted the offer in an attempt to build a new life in politics, since her shattered intelligence career seemed to be over. Now she knew that she’d simply wasted her time with the whole effort; intelligence was where she truly belonged, and where she could do the most to curb Steel’s growing power.
For America’s sake, Amanda Waller needed to take Steel down a few notches, and to her focused mind there was only one place she could go — one place where Steel had been unable to make any serious inroads. It would take a phone call to make yet another fresh start. She just hoped she wouldn’t be making a decision she’d regret.