Chapter 6: Private Wars
Superman has a day job.
It was just a joke, the kind of thing that the brain coughs up when it’strying to match a pattern. Kant said that humor was expectation strained untilit suddenly dissolved into nothingness. Lex had been making maps and doingcomplex math for weeks on end, and if that was a joke, it made sense that thepunchline was simply that Superman walked the streets of Metropolis as ahuman. The very thought of the most powerful entity in the world choosing towork a nine to five job in downtown Metropolis should have caused any rightthinking person to burst into laughter. But as Lex turned the idea over in hishead, the humor faded. And once the idea had presented itself, it refused toleave.
“Son of a bitch.”
People liked to believe that brilliance was a matter of sudden insight. IsaacNewton was sitting beneath an apple tree and just happened to be struck on thehead with an apple, which led to him developing the theory of universalgravitation. Archimedes sat in the bathtub and realized that an objectdisplaces its equal volume of water. Friedrich August Kekule realized thestructure of the benzene molecule after having a dream of a snake eating itsown tail. These were the stories that people liked to tell, because it madethinking seem like magic, and no matter that the stories weren’t true. Evenwhere there was a grain of truth behind the story of the insight, there werehundreds of hours of thought and study before it, and another hundred hours ofproving it afterward. Another thing that was never mentioned was how often astartling insight proved to be rubbish.
Some years ago, he’d spent days trying to make what he called a battlesuit apractical reality. It was going to be a callback to the knights in shiningarmor, creating a solitary soldier encased in impenetrable armor and capableof advancing on enemy lines with impunity, mounted machine guns firing awaythe whole time while a diesel engine belched smoke. He’d drawn up schematicsand eventually began stripping parts away, replacing those things thatthrilled the imagination with those that would work practically and reliably.The steel legs were replaced with treads. The arms were removed in favor of alarger cockpit with buttons and levers. The center of gravity was lowered,until the cockpit sat between or just on top of the treads. He stillremembered the feeling of looking down at his design and realizing he’d donenothing more than make a better tank. LexCorp now owned two factories thatmade them, building up a stockpile to sell to the European powers when thenext inevitable war broke out. Still, the whole project had been borne out ofa vision he’d had, of diesel powered mechanized armor striding across thebattlefields of the next war. The fact that he’d spent so much time pursuingthat vision was a source of embarrassment. It had been a valuable lesson incritically examining those ideas that came to him suddenly and struck him onsome emotional level.
What Lex needed was someone who would ask some pointed questions and act as afoil to his enthusiasm, a devil’s advocate. He made a quick calculation of therisks of speaking out loud, and found them acceptable. If he was right,Superman engaged in surveillance far less than he had supposed, and if he waswrong, there was no harm in it. There was only one person that he trustedenough to discuss the idea with, and conveniently she was sitting in the sameroom as him, drinking tea and reading a book.
“Mercy, your attention for a moment?” asked Lex. He used French, a languagethat they both shared, as a weak form of security.
“Of course sir,” she said as she put down her book with a finger restingbetween the pages.
“Convince me that Superman doesn’t have a secret identity,” he said.
“A secret identity?” she asked, as though she had never heard of the concept.On the long list of wonderful things about Mercy Graves was her ability toeffortlessly take the role of the ignorant in their dialogues when it wasrequired of her. Lex found being forced to define himself quite helpful.
“Like a spy,” said Lex. “Or a philanderer, I suppose. Superman leads a doublelife, and in the second one he doesn’t wear the costume.”
Mercy took a sip from her tea. “And what does he do in this second life?” sheasked.
“I don’t know,” said Lex. “I’d have to guess at motivations, and if he has analter ego I know less of his psychology then I had thought.” Lex ran a handacross his hairless head. “What does a man need? Food, water, sleep, shelter.Superman has never displayed any need for those. Perhaps he eats and drinks insecret, but playing at being human would be the least efficient way to goabout satisfying those needs. Sex or family … it’s possible. He’d have notrouble convincing women to sleep with him or bear his children as hiscostumed self though. So it must be something more ethereal, something that hecan’t get as Superman. True, honest friendship untainted by his brute strengthand speed, not to mention his celebrity? Or perhaps just the thrill ofdeception? There’s some historical precedent for it. Tsar Peter of Russia usedto dress up like a workman and go among his people.”
“Peter the Great was six foot eight in a time when the people of Russia werestarving,” said Mercy. “It was because he was tsar that no one dared broachthe subject, but surely they knew the man by his height alone. It’s the samewith Superman. They’d recognize him.”
“Perhaps,” said Lex. “But when people look at Superman, what are they reallyseeing? They see the emblem on his chest, the bright colors of his costume,and brilliant smile and the curl of hair that hangs down just so. If you sawSuperman in the street wearing a suit and tie, would you recognize him in thatnew context?”
“Most likely,” replied Mercy.
“Photographs of him are surprisingly rare,” said Lex. “When people think ofSuperman, they don’t think of him as he really exists, they think of NormanRockwell’s painting of him on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post.Superman has posed for a single photograph, the one that showed him and MissLane, and all the rest are of the man doing some impossible thing, liftingcars above his head or flying through the air, and the focus is seldom on hisface. He keeps his interactions with people short. The photographs from thecourthouse, at least the ones I’ve seen published, are always from a distance,the better to take in his full appearance. They emphasize the muscles and thecostume, not the face. And they’re published by the newspapers in terriblequality. Perhaps putting him in a suit and tie wouldn’t be enough, but if youadded a hat, an overcoat to hide his bulk …” Lex scratched his chin. “A changeof mannerisms, a slouch, makeup, prosthetics, wigs, a false moustache orbeard, glasses, speaking in a low or high voice, or a false accent, well,there are a large number of ways he could disguise himself and go unnoticed.Charlie Chaplin once lost a look-alike-contest, or at least that’s what hetold me. Very rarely do people distinguish faces by their component parts,they look at demeanor, gait, gestures, that sort of thing. They think incaricatures.”
“You’re getting dangerously close to pure ex post facto rationalization forsomething you want to believe is true,” said Mercy.
“I am,” said Lex after a moment. Mercy could cut straight to the heart ofmatters like few other people. “I find it attractive because it would revealsomething hitherto unknown about the man. I’ve run into failure after failurein trying to understand Superman, and this is the first theory that mightactually lead somewhere. Even if the probability is low, we have to pursue it.Can we at least agree that Superman might stand to gain something from havingan alter ego and that he might be able to pull off a long running disguise?”
“I can accept that perhaps he would be able to walk into a deli and purchasesomething to eat without arousing any suspicion,” said Mercy. “But you’resuggesting a sustained deception.”
Lex nodded. “The quiet period, when he’s less active, lines up too nicely withworking hours, and not just because there are fewer crimes around that time.His movements point to a specific location that he keeps going to or comingfrom. That data is fuzzy enough that it suggests to me an inexpert attempt tohide the pattern, or perhaps just an attempt by someone who wasn’t clear onwhat methods could be used to reveal the truth. Superman doesn’t strike me asa mathematician”
“They would still know,” said Mercy. “If they ever saw Superman in the flesh,they would see his alter ego for what it is.”
“Perhaps not,” replied Lex. “No one is looking around for Superman indisguise, because the concept is nearly unthinkable to them. No one believesthat they would work a day job if they had his powers. They would becomefilthy rich and live a life of celebrity and hedonism. Perhaps it occurs tohis coworkers that the man they work with looks like Superman, but theywouldn’t immediately make the leap to thinking that he actually wasSuperman. Maybe they would make jokes, but he would deflect them, or playalong. Maybe he even has a few people in his confidence. Think about it.Superman doesn’t wear a mask. If he wore one, people would wonder what wasbehind it. Many people have thought that Superman was hiding something, butthey think it’s his spaceship, or invasion plans, when all along it’s just so… mundane.”
“You’ve made up your mind,” said Mercy. It wasn’t a question, and wasn’t saidwith any trace of disapproval. She was simply informing him of what she hadobserved, and as usual, she was right.
“Thank you Mercy,” said Lex. In French this was rendered as “Merci Mercy”, aminor bit of wordplay that nevertheless brought a rare smile to Mercy’s lips.“I believe that this lead is worth the resources required to pursue it. Evenif the odds of it being true are somewhat low. The only question is themethodology.” He smiled. “Perhaps an investment in the arts.”
“If you find him, will you expose him?” asked Mercy. She asked without anyreal curiosity or concern, and Lex was certain it was only intended him to gethim thinking about the answer before he walked too far down the path. Mercycould convey quite a bit of information with a flat affect.
“Lord no,” Lex replied.
Lex Luthor saw antagonizing Superman in and of itself as having no value, ormore likely negative value. If Lex Luthor and Superman were the only actors onthe stage, Lex might even have refrained from using the bombs, and insteadrelied solely on those methods that revealed no foul play at all. It wouldhave been more difficult, but on balance probably worth it. Unfortunately, thestage was crowded with actors, and some of them seemed to find great sport intrying to take Superman down a peg. In Lex Luthor’s public role as Superman’schampion, he’d done everything from funding legal efforts to defend Supermanto penning articles in favor of Superman’s ridiculous moral stances. In thecontext of the other actors, antagonism became a more acceptable risk onlybecause it would blend into the background.
Superman’s presumed secret identity was a vector of attack, but not one thatLex had any intention of using against him. The people who thought they hadsomething to gain from disrupting Superman’s emotional state were fools.
“The judge is dropping the case,” said Clark as he laid his phone in itscradle. He was visibly upset, which was rare for him. He pouted in a way thatmight have looked adorable on a small child but just didn’t fit a grown man.
“There wasn’t enough evidence,” said Lois. “It shouldn’t have even made it tothe judge in the first place.”
“Calhoun is guilty,” said Clark. “I know he is.”
“You think he is,” corrected Lois. “And even if he’s got to be guilty ofsomething, there’s no guarantee that he’s actually guilty of manipulatingKramer. I know this story is near and dear to your heart, but maybe it’s timeto let it go.”
“It’s an injustice,” Clark insisted.
“I should introduce you to my friend Vicki Vale,” said Lois. “She works forThe Gotham Gazette and I’m sure she could regale you with some stories aboutreal injustice. Actually, you might like her, I think she’s your type.”
After she’d said it she realized that it sounded like a bit of a low blowinstead of an olive branch. Lois knew Clark still had a crush on her, and tohim it might have sounded like she was making fun of him and saying that hehad a thing for female reporters. But Vicki Vale really would be his type, andshe really could set them up the next time that Vicki came to town. Lois wasnever actively cruel to Clark, she just liked to push his buttons. She likedto see him get all uncomfortable when she swore around him. She would watchhis face while she sucked back a cigarette or took a glass of whiskey at herdesk, neither of which Clark approved of. These were small, harmlesspleasures. Clark was like a puppy dog in a lot of ways. She didn’t want tohurt him.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” said Lois.
“Mean it like what?” asked Clark. Clark had always seemed like the kind of guywho would blush at the drop of a hat, but Lois hadn’t seen it once. He wouldget visibly embarrassed, but even after all this time she kept looking for ahint of red in his cheeks or ears. Disappointingly, it was never there.
“Nothing,” said Lois. “I was just thinking that she would like you.”
Clark gave her one of his familiar grins. Lois worried she’d gone too far inrolling back what she’d said, but turned back to her typewriter. She wasn’t incharge of Clark Kent. And if Clark got his feelings hurt because hemisinterpreted something she said, well, it wasn’t the end of the world.
William Calhoun should have felt relieved that the judge had dropped the case,but instead he just felt angry. He’d been accused of being in cahoots withthat bomber on charges so paper thin it would almost be laughable. Willie hadspent five of his fifty-eight years in prison though, and he never laughedabout time in the clink. He’d sat down with his lawyer and looked through theevidence himself, and could admit that there was an implication there, but itwasn’t even firm enough that he could say he’d been framed. Even if it wasjust coincidence, it pissed Willie off to get called out on something he’d hadno part in, especially considering all the things that he was actually guiltyof.
It was Superman’s fault. Superman had barged into Willie’s bar and announcedas much, and it must have been Superman who whispered in the right ears to getthe case moving forward. Superman was a prick of the highest order. Worse,people listened to him.
Luckily, Willie’s schemes were paying off. The barrage of lawsuits had mostlybeen a nuisance to keep Superman tied up in court, but some of them had beentaken further than he’d expected. Three decisions were due to come down fromthe Supreme Court, and if Preethi v. New York went the right way, Supermanwould be bound by all sorts of rules. Superman had already agreed to abide bythe rulings no matter what they were, and so far the man had never broken hisword. It made him predictable, and Willie hoped he could use that against him.
One of Willie’s early tactics had been to have people accuse Superman ofeverything under the sun, to try to smear the alien’s name if not actually gethim in trouble with the police. Willie had paid a young girl to claim rape,and a few other people as witnesses. No one had believed it though, and thegirl had crumbled after a confrontation with Superman on the steps of thecourthouse where he’d been kind, courteous, and forgiving. After that it wastough to find people to make false allegations, and though Willie hadsearched, he’d never found someone with a real criminal complaint. It occurredto him that Superman was becoming so universally loved that even if Supermandid do something truly evil most people wouldn’t believe it.
Slander and libel weren’t working, and Willie was being bled dry. Business hadbeen brought to a near halt. There had to be a way to turn the tide againstSuperman, and Willie was willing to do anything to figure out what.
Hershel Whitman had become governor of New York when Franklin Delano Roosevelthad won the Presidency in ‘32, and he was in it for the long haul. The stateof New York was most famous for Metropolis, its crown jewel, and nearly halfof the people in the state hailed from that city or the surrounding greatermetropolitan area. Ever since Superman had shown up from out of deep space,politicians had been clamoring to be seen as associating with Superman, andWhitman was certainly no exception.
From a politician’s perspective, Superman was perfect. He didn’t upset theapple cart, he didn’t hold public opinions, he’d had nothing but positiveeffects on the rate of crime in Metropolis. As the incumbent, it would benearly impossible for Whitman to lose his next election if the people werehappy, nevermind that he hadn’t had all that much to do with Superman. Most ofthe hard work of governance was in building roads and bridges, passing fundingmeasures, and wrestling with the other parts of state government to hammer outlaws. The vast majority of people didn’t place their votes because of anythingsensible like the actual work that was done, they would see Superman flyingthrough the air and think “governor Whitman must be doing something right”.The bombings had been a black mark, but the city was recovering better thananyone could have hoped for, and thankfully the bomber had hung himself andspared everyone the ordeal of a lengthy trial. Whitman hated the inevitableappeal for clemency from death row inmates.
Whitman would have taken a meeting with Lex Luthor no matter what it wasabout. The man was a billionaire after all. When Luthor had asked to discuss apublic-private partnership of the arts, Whitman couldn’t help but feel thatsomeone up there was looking out for him. Whitman was a strong supporter ofthe New Deal policies, and there could be no downside to adding in abillionaire’s funds.
“There’s much discussion about you, you know,” said Whitman with a smile.Prohibition had been brought to an end, thankfully, which meant that a mancould enjoy a martini on his veranda without having to worry about scandal. Ahot summer had made way for a cool autumn, and Whitman’s two children playedin the yard.
Luthor shared the smile. “I’m sure that tongues will wag. What do they say, Iwonder? That I came up from nowhere?”
“Things of that nature,” said Whitman. “I dare say there’s a risk you’ll benamed Metropolis’s most eligible bachelor. There’s a mystery about you peoplequite like. You were born in Southside, if I recall correctly, and thecharitable work you’ve been doing there has been admirable. Yet prior toSuperman’s arrival, you were known only inside the world of business, and thenmore as a name than a man.”
Luthor shrugged, and looked out at the yard at the children. They’d inventedsome game that involved ever more elaborate cartwheels. “I’ve never wantedfame,” said Luthor. “For a time I wanted money, but I think I have enough ofit to last me for a good long while. No, now is the time for giving back.Superman has shown me that. And that’s precisely what I’m here to talk to youabout.”
“You have my full attention,” said Whitman.
“Simply put, I would like to fund the arts. I’m not an artist myself, I canacknowledge that, but I have certain ideas that I think would help towardsincreasing the beauty of our beloved city and showing off its character. NowI’m aware that the Public Works of Art Program has run its course, but I wasjust speaking with Harry Hopkins over the phone, and he suggested that a pilotprogram might be just the thing. They’re getting close to putting together asecond New Deal, which they hope to include some arts in, and I think we mightbe finished with what I had in mind before the bill goes through Congress. Itmight help grease some votes, as it were.” Luthor sipped at his martini. “Iwould put in a good deal of the funding of course, but I was thinking thatperhaps working jointly with the state could be mutually beneficial. That sortof partnership isn’t unheard of.”
“Of course,” said Whitman quickly. Lex Luthor was becoming known as quite thephilanthropist, and the photo opportunities would help in an election year.There were vague rumors about something criminal in Luthor’s past, but the manhad been born in Suicide Slums and if anything he was stronger for thenarrative of reform.
“I have three in mind,” said Luthor. “The first is a statue, that I thinkwould look nice in Fort Hob’s Park, though of course that’s negotiable. Notone of Superman, but something close I think, clearly inspired by him. Theidealized man, cast in bronze and standing tall, a reminder for each of us tobe the best person that we can possibly be. I believe this is the lesson thatSuperman intends for us to take. It would capture the zeitgeist, don’t youthink?”
“I do like the sound of that,” replied Whitman. There would be an unveilingceremony, and Whitman would be standing in front of the statue holding a pairof oversized scissors. He rather enjoyed the mental image.
“The second is a large mural that will grace the length of Gerald OrdwayDrive, along a length of the West River between the Queensland Bridge andDockside,” said Luthor. “I have no specific vision there beyond it showing aprogression of the city from its humble origins to the future we’re strivingfor, perhaps something in mosaic. Metropolis is the City of Tomorrow afterall, and I think it would be nice to pay some tribute to our roots as well asour aspirations.”
“Very doable,” said Whitman. “I’ll need to speak to the mayor and the citycouncil about it, but very doable indeed.”
“Of course,” replied Luthor. “I’ll be sure to put in a few words as well.”
“And the third?” asked Whitman.
“For the third, I want a photography exhibit,” said Luthor. “Sharp, candidphotographs of the people of the city. As I picture it, we’d hire somephotographers and park them downtown, to get a full sampling of the lifebloodof Metropolis and the rhythm of workers coming and going. When we’re finished,we’ll gather these photographs together and display them in a gallery - I havejust the one in mind - packed from wall to wall in order to show the fullbreadth of humanity from the immigrant populations to the high financiers. Ibelieve it would be a marvelous demonstration of both our similarities and ourdifferences. More than that, people who aren’t normally interested in the artsmight stop by to try to find their own photo, or the photos of their friends.My provisional title is ‘Faces of Metropolis’. I’d like some creative controlover that one, since the artistry will be in how we compare and contrast thepeople we capture rather than the photographs themselves.”
Whitman nodded, still thinking about the political opportunities. He was upfor re-election in November, and while there was little chance that theprojects could be completed by then, he’d be able to use this deal with Luthorin his stump speech. He could spin it to sound like his own idea, a melding ofbusiness and government for the improvement of the lives of the citizens ofthe state. The project would surely create jobs, but more importantly it wouldbe a highly visible way of creating jobs.
His children ran towards the house and poured themselves tall glasses oflemonade before dashing back off into the yard again. June was eleven andRobert was nine, and a father couldn’t ask for better.
“I enjoy children,” said Luthor. “I’ve thought about having a few from time totime. But more and more I find myself thinking of Metropolis as my child. Iwant nothing more than to help her grow, to protect her from harm, and to makeher into the best city she can possibly be.”
Whitman nodded. He found himself quite liking Lex Luthor.
“Calhoun just got arrested again,” said Clark with a smile.
“What are the charges?” asked Lois. “Something solid this time?”
“Racketeering, murder, conspiracy to commit murder, loansharking, illegalgambling, obstruction of justice, bribery, and tax evasion,” said Clark.
Lois let out a low whistle. “That’s a long list. Any of them that will stick?”
“All of them,” said Clark with confidence.
“You’re too close to the story, Clark,” said Lois. “And it’s back pagematerial anyway. If Superman’s involved it might be one of the first casesthat hinges on the outcome of whatever the Supreme Court is doing, but thatonly bumps it up to page four or five.” She looked him up and down. UsuallyClark wasn’t so happy. The bombings had begun to fade into the background, butLois had found that it affected people in different ways. She’d gone drinkingin one of the clubs, and the conversation had dropped into awkward silencewhen someone mentioned that they’d had a friend who died in one of the blasts.Clark seemed certain Calhoun was behind it, and Lois didn’t think he’d get hisclosure until Calhoun was in jail or dead. “Look Clark, take your mind offthis. Justice takes time. Write up the story and then just forget about ituntil the verdict comes in. Perry’s not going to want to devote too much spaceto it.”
“Alright,” said Clark, but Lois didn’t miss the pleased look on his face as hepecked away at his typewriter.
A dozen photographers were sent downtown, where they snapped picture afterpicture of people going to or leaving from work. They had cards to hand out,and by and large most people were game. Pictures were taken even of the onesthat didn’t seem too keen on the idea. The shots ranged from candid to posed,with some being simple headshots and others taken from a balcony or secondstory to capture everyone on the streets. Ideally, Superman would be hidingsomewhere among them. Of course, it was possible that Superman would see thephotographers and simply turn the other way to avoid them, but Lex had beentrying to work out the alien’s psychology for a while now, and felt that itwas unlikely. If Superman really did have a secret identity, it was probablethat he enjoyed being a normal human, and what could appeal to the alien morethan being simply one of many, a face in a sea of faces? Besides that,Superman wouldn’t want to be seen avoiding the cameras, because that would bejust as conspicuous.
There were too many people to photograph them all. The Emperor Building andthe Daily Planet Building were each within the four block area, and theEmperor Building alone had 10,000 workers. Still, a good number of peoplecould be photographed, and if Lex was right, Superman himself would beattracted to the photographers, no matter how ill-advised that would be. Ifthe plan failed to work, there were other, more risky plans. Privateinvestigators could be set to work, company payrolls could be combed through,and hard data could be examined. The trick was to find out who Superman’ssecret identity was - if he had one - without tipping him off.
It was late November by the time Lex and Mercy sat together in his lead-linedcabin some distance from Metropolis and sorted through the photographs.
“Dark haired white male, likely above six feet tall,” Lex had said when they’dfirst begun. “Superman is six feet and four inches tall, when he’s actuallygot his feet on the ground. We can’t rule out that the identity we’re lookingfor has a slouch, or an affected limp, but there’d be no changing his physicalsize, not unless there’s some power we haven’t seen yet. We can’t rule outthat he wears a wig in his daily life either, so set aside all thosephotographs with tall blonde men as well.”
“Yes sir,” said Mercy. She worked with quiet efficiency, sorting photographsinto various piles with Lex. It was boring work, and quite slow, especially asthe faces and people all began to meld together. It was in the second day ofthis that Mercy found a picture of Lois Lane. When she slid it across for himto look at, Lex saw Superman standing next to her.
“It’s him,” said Lex, and Mercy moved around to look over his shoulder.
“Are you sure?” asked Mercy. “I would have put it in the pile for laterreview, but I’m less immediately convinced than you are.”
“He’s the perfect mockery of humanity,” said Lex.
The man clearly didn’t want to be there. Lois Lane was as feral and energeticas ever, staring directly into the camera with a winsome smile, but the manwas looking slightly off to the side. He was tall and large, and lookedslightly disheveled. Your eyes were attracted to the notepad he tucked intohis jacket pocket, then to the glasses that were so thick you could barely seehis eyes through them. Almost immediately you’d peg the man as an oaf. He wasso unlike Superman that it had to be him.
“Superman always holds his head high, with his jaw thrust out,” said Lex.“This man spends most of his time looking down, with his chin tucked in. Itdisrupts the lines of his face, makes him less noticeable. But the nose, youcan tell from the nose it’s the same man. It’s him. It’s Superman.” Lexflipped over the photograph. The idea had been for the photographers tocapture essential information from their subjects wherever possible, but fromthe sampling so far it was clear that not all of them had been so diligent. Inthis particular case, Lex Luthor got lucky, and a number of nascent schemesfor manipulating Lois Lane into giving up information were quickly put torest.
Lois Lane and Clark Kent, reporters, outside Daily Planet bldg.
Author’s Note: This chapter once again grew too long, so again I’m splittingit up into what I think works best for the story breakdown. Ten thousand wordsseems a little bit long for a chapter, and that’s what I was approaching.Chapter 7 will be posted on Sunday.
< Prev Next >