Chapter 8: Peeling Back the Veil
Jimmy Olsen sat at the bar, gulping back his fourth beer. It was possible toforget, for brief moments.
Lois Lane had come over to him, shaking slightly, and said that they needed totake a trip out into the country. He’d grabbed his camera and plenty of film,then raced downstairs where he’d had to wait in the car for nearly ten minuteswhile Lois made some calls and tried to figure out where exactly they weregoing.
Lois drove. Her knuckles were nearly white on the steering wheel.
“Where are we headed?” asked Jimmy.
“A farmhouse near Bott’s Pond,” said Lois. “Superman found the kids.”
“Thank God that’s over,” said Jimmy, and Lois had shot him a look that shuthim up for the rest of the trip.
There were two cop cars outside the place when they arrived. The kidnappershad been taken away an hour ago, but he and Lois were the first reporters onthe scene. Jimmy would have been fine just getting a shot of the farmhousewith the cop cars in front of it, but Lois had loudly insisted to the policethat Superman himself had sent them to get pictures of the interior so theycould document the actual crime scene. Jimmy had no idea whether that was trueor not, but the police seemed to believe her. He’d nearly thrown up when he’dseen the body parts stacked like cordwood. Lois had just frowned and stared atthe scene with an intensity that scared him.
Jimmy looked up from his beer the second time he was tapped on the shoulder.
“Hi,” said a cute redhead in a willowy dress. She held out her hand towardshim. “I’m Eleanor.”
“Jimmy,” he replied. Her handshake was firm.
“Our hair matches,” she said with a laugh.
“I guess so,” he said.
“Rough day at the office?” she asked. She raised her eyebrows and bit her lip,like she couldn’t wait for his answer.
“I’m a photographer,” said Jimmy. He’d wanted to continue, to explain thethings he’d seen, but couldn’t find the words. And on second thought, maybe itwas better not to inflict that on anyone. The worst of the photographswouldn’t make it to print. Perry would pick out something that was suggestiveof horror but didn’t actually show anything. To Jimmy, it was almost worse toonly catch a glimpse. He was sure that he would be a better photographer if hecould understand why the small puddle of blood on the edge of the kitchentable was somehow worse than directly seeing the dismembered corpse.
“What kind of photographer?” asked Eleanor.
“I work for the newspaper,” said Jimmy. “For The Daily Planet.” He paused.There had to be something that he could say that wouldn’t ruin her evening.“You know that picture of Lois Lane standing next to Superman? I took that.”
Eleanor placed a hand on his arm. “Oh, I read The Daily Planet every day. Iwonder how many of your pictures I’ve seen?” She had an easy, pleasant smile,and Jimmy slowly began to take notice of her.
“Lots, probably,” said Jimmy. “People look at the bylines, not the photocredit. Most of them probably don’t even look at the bylines.”
“I look at the bylines,” said Eleanor happily. “Clark Kent and Lois Lane,right? Do you work with them?”
“Yeah,” said Jimmy.
“Say, what does Clark Kent look like? I’ve seen photos of Lois, obviously, butI’ve sometimes read the name of Clark Kent and wondered what he was like.”
“Clark?” asked Jimmy. He swallowed down the last of his beer and signaled foranother. “He’s a big guy. Sort of a hunched over gorilla.”
Eleanor laughed. She was still touching his arm. Jimmy felt his cheekswarming, and it wasn’t just the alcohol. “That’s not how I pictured him atall. In my head he was tall and upright, very dapper. Like Clark Gable.”
“No,” said Jimmy. “Not like that at all.” Between Eleanor’s questions, thebeer, and the images from the farmhouse swimming around his brain, Jimmy wasbeginning to feel out of sorts.
“Where’s he from?” asked Eleanor.
“What?” asked Jimmy. He’d been distracted by her eyes.
“Clark Kent, is he from the city or somewhere else? I pictured somewhere onthe East Coast, but the city itself,” said Eleanor.
“Kansas,” said Jimmy.
“Really?” asked Eleanor. Her eyes lit up. “I’m from Kansas too! Which part?”
“Smallville,” said Jimmy.
“Yes, I think I’ve heard of it,” said Eleanor. She looked over at the clockabove the bar. “Well I have to go, but it was nice talking to you.”
“You’re not staying?” asked Jimmy. He tried to keep the hurt from his voice.
“You didn’t seem all that interested in talking to me,” said Eleanor with afrown. She gestured towards his beer. “And I don’t know how many of thoseyou’ve had, but I think it’s probably been too many.”
“Today’s the worst day of my life,” said Jimmy. “Worst so far anyway. Theremight be other days that are even worse than this one. I’ve got a feelingthat’s the case. I just need someone to be by me. Please?”
She seemed about to brush him off, to offer some excuse and leave, but shemust have seen something in his face because she just nodded and stayed withhim.
They got to talking, actually talking, and eventually Jimmy felt like theworld wasn’t about to come crashing down on him. Eleanor had a certainbrightness to her that made the world seem less grim. She’d come to the baralone, and after an hour had passed, he’d offered to walk her home. When theygot to her place, she must have sensed how desperately he wanted not to goback to his cold, cramped apartment. She invited him up.
Her apartment was just as small as his was. He sat on her bed while she put ona kettle of tea, and that was when he started crying. He felt embarrassed andashamed, but she sat down next to him, ran her fingers through his hair, andmade comforting noises. They laid down side by side on her bed. She didn’tseem surprised or upset. It must have been around two in the morning that shestarted telling him about her father. He’d come home from the Great War withshell shock, and killed himself with a shotgun when she was six. Jimmy didn’tknow how to respond to that. He hoped it was enough that he had listened.Eventually she fell asleep, and he followed suit soon after.
In the morning he’d thought that there would be sheepish looks and awkwardgoodbyes, but she’d made them breakfast in her tiny kitchen and didn’t show anounce of shame.
“I need to change out of these clothes and get dressed for work,” saidEleanor. Her voice was soft and gentle. “But if you ever need someone to talkto, you know where I live. There’s a communal telephone on this floor, I cangive you the number.”
“I’d like that,” said Jimmy. “I never even asked what you do. We talked aboutme too much. I feel like a lout.”
Eleanor looked at him for a moment before answering. “I work for a privatedetective agency. And I really do need to get going, I’m sorry.”
Jimmy said his goodbyes and left for The Daily Planet. He felt better, moreat peace with what he’d seen the day before. He couldn’t imagine spending thatnight alone.
“Are you okay?” asked Clark. Of course he got better right after the biggestnews story since the bombings was already on the page. It was typical of him.
“Peachy,” replied Lois. She’d barely slept the night before. She would havegotten drunk, but she’d done some thinking about alcohol on the ride out tothe farmhouse. She’d become too entangled with Superman for loose lips. Sofar, she’d been making up for it by smoking more, but that didn’t seem to behelping her nerves at all.
“Sorry I wasn’t here,” said Clark. “Sorry you had to see that.”
“See what?” she asked.
“The body,” said Clark. “The blood. I read your article and looked at Jimmy’sphotos, the ones that didn’t make it to print. It was gruesome.”
Lois waved her hand. “That was nothing,” she said. “I mean, not nothing, butthere are hundreds of millions of children in the world, and you’ve got tofigure that hundreds of them die every day, right? Maybe thousands? Lots oflittle girls get raped. Lots of little boys get chopped up. The only reasonthis is front-page news is that they were rich and white with a famous father,and because Superman didn’t quite get there in time.” Clark watched her. Shetried to concentrate on her typewriter, but she couldn’t even remember whatshe was supposed to be typing up.
“Perry told me that Superman talked to you. What exactly did he say?” askedClark.
“That’s between me and Superman,” said Lois. She was being too harsh withClark, she could tell, but it would have taken more effort than she waswilling to spend to make her words come out nice.
“Lois, if you need someone to talk to, I’m here for you,” said Clark. “And Idon’t mean any offense, but it seems like you’ve got something you need to getout.”
“Possibly,” said Lois. She stopped for a moment to think through her wording.Superman had come to her of all the people in the whole world to get thingsoff his chest, and that meant that she was important to him. She had to assumethat he was listening and watching, so talking about Superman became a matterof framing him in the best possible light. “In general terms, he explained tome that being Superman can be difficult sometimes.” There, that didn’t soundso bad as it really was. “He said that he can’t do everything.”
“And that upset you?” asked Clark. He had a look of serious and heartfeltconcern, like she were some delicate doll that he was worried would breakunder stress. She hated that. She’d had more adventures in her life so farthan Clark Kent could ever dream of, and to him it was like she was made ofglass.
“It made me think about how right he is,” said Lois.
“Lois, look, I don’t know what it was he said, but I’m sure he didn’t mean toupset you,” said Clark.
Lois nodded. “I agree, it wasn’t his intent. But he opened my eyes up, and ifmy reaction to that is to be upset with the world, then so be it.”
Clark kept staring at her, and she kept avoiding his eyes. “Do you know what Ithink?”
Lois didn’t answer, because she wasn’t confident that she could speak withoutsnapping at him.
“My pa was in prison for a while, I told you that,” said Clark. “And for along time he never really talked about it, but I knew it was bad. And I thinkthat maybe talking about it would have made it less bad for him, you know?”
“You’re saying I should talk to you,” said Lois.
“No,” said Clark. “I’m saying that maybe whatever Superman said to you, hejust said because he was having a bad day. Maybe he just … needed someone totalk to, and talking to you made whatever difficulties he was having easier tobear.”
Lois found this far from comforting.
Superman was holding back, in nearly everything that he did. He didn’t hurtpeople, and certainly didn’t kill people. He could fly at twenty times thespeed of sound, maybe even more, but he almost never did. He worked quicklyand efficiently towards his objectives, and most of the time if you showed upafter he’d gone there’d hardly be any evidence that he was there at all.Everyone thought that was just who Superman was. He was so totally andcompletely in control of himself that he would never do anything truly wrong.He firmly followed the doctrine of unambiguous goods.
It wasn’t true though. People thought that Superman did everythingeffortlessly, and maybe as far as the physical realm went that was true.Inside his head though, he wasn’t much more than a man. She’d heard thatSuperman had walked into Calhoun’s bar and let himself be hit in the face witha gob of spit. She’d believed that Superman had been unbothered by that, butnow it was clear that Superman was human enough to have felt something there.Superman’s ideals weren’t innate to him, they took conscious effort on hispart. And what would happen when Superman had a day so bad that he decidedthat his ideals weren’t worth keeping?
Picture a circle. Next, picture a point outside that circle, call it O. Drawa line from the point such that it pierces the circle in two places - a secant- and call those two points A and B. Draw another line originating fromthat O such that it intersects the edge of the circle in only one place - atangent - and call that point C. The secant-tangent theorem states that OAtimes OB is equal to OC squared.
If the circle is Earth and the point outside it is Superman, then that tangentdefines how far Superman can see before his vision starts to clip the crust ofthe Earth. To find that distance, take the diameter of the Earth (roughlyeight thousand miles) plus Superman’s distance from the Earth (rarely seen tobe more than ten miles), then multiply that by Superman’s distance from theEarth, then take the square root of that. The result was 280 miles, thedistance that Superman could see to the geometric horizon from the height thathe stayed within ninety-nine percent of the time.
There were 1,127 miles between Smallville, Kansas and Metropolis, New York.
Of course, Superman had x-ray vision, but that was stopped by lead. Lex Luthorhad consulted a book of geological science and found that the estimatedabundance of lead in the Earth’s crust was one thousandth of one percent,which meant that for every mile of earth that Superman looked through, he waslooking through sixteen millimeters of lead. Based on Lex’s calculations, itwas safe to assume that it only took a centimeter of lead to stop Superman’sx-ray vision. The upshot was that Superman could not see what went on inSmallville unless he specifically moved himself into a position to do so.
It allowed for a comparatively enormous amount of breathing room.
It was imperative that he get someone there as quickly as possible. Whatrecords he could pull showed that Clark Kent at least existed on paper, and aquick call done through layers of intermediaries confirmed that theSmallville Ledger had once employed him, or at least claimed to haveemployed him. Lex was starting to once again doubt that Superman was an alien,since it very much seemed that Clark Kent’s backstory was solid, but he keptdigging all the same. Learning about the existence of Clark Kent had producednumerous threads to pull on.
He needed someone in Smallville, but the constraints on hiring were immense.He needed someone intelligent, prone to following orders, trained inespionage, and willing to go into deep cover for an extended period of time.He would need to instruct them to take precautions above and beyond what anycovert operation had required in the history of spycraft, a constant coverthat remained unbroken for weeks or even months at a time. The list of peoplethat fit the bill was very, very short. Lex was in the middle of trying tofigure out whether it would be possible to put someone in deep cover and stillkeep them in the dark about the connection between Clark Kent and Supermanwhen the doorbell rang.
A few minutes later, Mercy stood in the doorway of the study. “Miss Lane ishere, requesting a moment of your time,” she said.
“Send her in,” said Lex.
She looked different, though Lex couldn’t say exactly how. Did she know thatSuperman was Clark Kent? If so, it wasn’t obvious from her face. Lex waswearing the outermost layer of his personas, the one where he was a simpleenthusiast and advocate for Superman with no knowledge of the alien hewouldn’t willingly share with the world. He mentally prepared himself for LoisLane to peel back the personas one at a time. He’d been careful, but part ofbeing careful was preparing for your carefulness to fail you. He had storiesprepared that would justify his actions.
“Miss Lane,” Lex said with a smile.
“Mister Luthor,” replied Lois. He pinpointed what was different about her; shewas tense. “I called your office and they said you were here.”
“The businesses mostly run themselves,” said Lex. “I have a knack for hiringcompetent people, and that’s left me with the free time to pursue mypassions.”
“Superman,” she said. She began to dig a pencil and notepad from her purse.
“Just so,” replied Lex.
“I’ve read your proposals,” said Lois. “What would you do, if you wereSuperman?” She began writing in the notepad.
“A common question,” said Lex. He was about to continue on when Lois turnedher notepad around to face him. It said Can Superman be stopped? Lex’s eyesmoved to the door, to make sure it was closed. They were encased in a hiddenlayer of lead. Lois had been over when the shielding was being installed, andknew they were behind it. She was being cautious.
“A common enough question,” repeated Lex. “For many it’s the perfect fantasy.People talk about setting foot on the surface of the Moon, or going to theOlympics and dominating in every sport. They talk about standing up to theirvarious oppressors. My companies have been picking up quite a few Jewishimmigrants from Germany of late, and I feel that many of them would likenothing better than to fly down and put a hole in Hitler’s face.” He turned tolook at her. “Superman can’t be stopped. It’s frightening to think what mighthappen if his power fell into the hands of someone without such a strong moralcompass. For myself, I’m not sure that I would want the power. I’d use it forgood as best I could, I suppose. No flashy displays, no material wealth, justthe betterment of mankind.”
“I was wondering whether you could help me,” said Lois, pointing to hernotepad, where the words were still written.
Lex watched her carefully. Lois Lane could easily be working for Superman.Even if she didn’t know that he was Clark Kent, she could have been sent in toget some admission of guilt. He couldn’t trust her. But perhaps he didn’t haveto. “Help you with what?” he asked, not missing a beat.
“I’ve written two books,” said Lois Lane, “One on the radium girls and anotheron the role of women in the World War.”
“I know,” said Lex. He pointed to his bookshelf. “I’ve read them.”
Lois seemed momentarily taken aback by this, but of course he had read them.He’d read The Daily Planet every single day for the past year, and after he’dlearned that Clark Kent was Superman he’d gone and read every issue again.Earlier that morning, when he’d learned that Clark Kent had once written forthe Smallville Ledger, he’d immediately started thinking up possible methodsof getting back issues of it to his home or office without immediatelyallowing Superman to connect the dots.
“My new book will be about Superman,” said Lois as she wrote in her notebook.“And as you and I have something of a working relationship, I was wonderingwhether you would be willing to contribute.” She flipped the notebook towardshim again. S is losing faith in us.
“What sort of contribution?” asked Lex.
“You’re the preeminent scholar of him, and one of the greatest examples thathis efforts to be a symbol actually work,” said Lois. She pointed at thenotepad and raised her eyebrows.
All Lex could think was that it was a trap. She would have to be a masterfulliar for that to be true, but that was certainly possible. If he’d beenwilling to admit that Superman was using the disguise of Clark Kent and lyingthrough his teeth to everyone he interacted with on any given day, then surelyhe had to admit that the same might be true of the woman that sat next to himevery day. The idea of Lois Lane turned to his side was seductive though. Andthough he was well aware that the best traps didn’t look like traps untilthey’d been sprung, it truly didn’t look like a trap.
“I’m afraid I’m a busy man,” said Lex. “Though I admit that sharing mythoughts on Superman with a wider audience appeals to me. What precisely wouldbe the nature of this arrangement?”
Lois wrote in the notebook. Superman could surely hear that, if he werelistening. Lex couldn’t decide whether he was being too paranoid in thinkingthat Superman would find it suspicious. “I’d like you to write two chapters,”she said. “They can be short. There will be a chapter on the science that I’dlike you for contribute to, and another chapter on how he’s changed the peopleof the city.” She held up the notepad again. S is more human than he lets on,might turn on us. “Does that sound reasonable?”
“Let me think on it for a moment,” replied Lex. “In the meantime, feel free toperuse my library, I’d be happy to give you any book that you have an interestin. Give me five minutes, by the clock?”
Lois looked unhappy, but she nodded all the same.
Lex closed his eyes, relaxed his body, and thought.
There was too much unknown information. He could make all sorts of educatedguesses about what Lois Lane and Superman knew, but there was so littleinformation available that these guesses were barely worth anything. Therewere dozens of configurations of truth which fit the data as he saw it, and insome of those possible worlds it would be correct to allow himself apartnership with Lois Lane, and in others it would throw not just hisoperations but the fate of the entire planet into jeopardy. Lex Luthor had sethimself up as a follower of Superman, highly visible and shining like abeacon. If Superman really was losing his faith in humanity, what would happenif he learned that Lex Luthor was responsible for the deaths of dozens,nevermind that it had been the correct decision given the information he’d hadavailable at the time?
He looked to Lois. If she were telling the truth, why had she chosen toconfide in him? Well, he was a billionaire with an active interest in thebetterment of humanity, the premiere scholar on everything related toSuperman, and likely one of the few people she knew who had a room lined withlead and the sense not to immediately blurt out a strangled “What?” when showna secret message. On top of that, they had an established relationship. Itmade a certain sort of sense. The more he thought about it, the more hethought it plausible that she really had come to him in good faith.
He walked over to her and took the notepad and pencil from her hands. She hada hopeful look.
“I’ve decided that I’ll do my best to help,” said Lex. He pointed to whereshe’d written might turn on us, then began to write something of his own.“I’m a busy man, but a partnership could benefit us both.” He turned thenotepad towards her. Tell me everything you think you know about Superman.“I have a number of things coming up in the near future, so it would be goodto get this done quickly.”
“Agreed,” replied Lois. She grabbed the notepad from him. “I should warn youthat I don’t have a publisher lined up just yet, but it shouldn’t be aparticularly hard sell.” He can’t know I’m telling you.
“A problem to be dealt with in due time,” said Lex. “If you’re free tomorrow,we could meet here? There are a few things that I’d like to think over first.I’ll try to have some initial thoughts ready.”
Lois watched him for a moment, then nodded.
The next day, Lois Lane picked up the piece of paper from Lex Luthor’s desk ashe said unimportant things for the benefit of Superman.
I’m not saying that I believe you, Miss Lane. But if you think that Supermanis losing his faith in us, then that’s something that needs to be discussed,and I can only hope that if he finds out, he’ll understand that the discussioncouldn’t happen in front of him, as it were. You have more exposure to the manthan anyone on the planet, so far as I know. You’re the only one he’s reallytalked to. If you have concerns, I need to hear them, no matter howoutlandish.
“There much to the science of Superman,” said Lex. “His x-ray vision, forexample, doesn’t use actual x-rays. The current best theory is that there’s anexotic type of particle which is as yet undetectable to us. It permeates theplanet, with lead atoms being the only thing that can stop it for reasons thatpossibly relate to its atomic weight, electron density, or some otherproperty. But there’s so much unknown, as with much about Superman. I’ve beenworking on it for a year, and I still don’t have the faintest understanding ofhow his hearing works. I want to make it clear that much of what I say aboutthe science of Superman is on the cutting edge, and not to be taken as gospel.
“I’ve done the liberty of typing up a very rough draft, and would be pleasedif you could take a look,” he said. He handed her a blank sheet of paper and apencil. She was about to object that if they really wanted to be secretiveshe’d need to leave his study with some actual papers, but he pulled out anumber of typewritten pages, already marked up with a few corrections andnotes, and set it beside her. She began to give her account.
From time to time, she would ask Lex an inane question to keep up appearances,and he would respond with inane answers. To Superman it would sound like theywere simply working on a book together. She wasn’t sure whether she couldtrust Luthor, but he was by far the most capable man in the city, and shehoped that the worst he would do would be to burn her notes and refuse to seeher without letting Superman know what she thought. She tried to use thestrongest, most persuasive language she could, and hoped that Superman wouldnever learn what she really thought of him.
Still, she left some things out. She didn’t mention the possessive way thatSuperman had touched her when he’d picked her up and flown her through theair. She’d interacted with Superman on a number of occasions, and he alwaysseemed so familiar with her. So far as she knew, she was his only friend, butshe was also something more to him. She could feel his eyes on her while sheundressed sometimes. She could feel him staring at her while she tried tosleep. With every conversation she had, she imagined Superman listening in.This feeling had grown in intensity since their last meeting. She hoped it wasjust paranoia on her part. But either way, Lex Luthor didn’t need to know.
The picture Lois Lane printed was a grim one.
He was now reasonably confident that she knew nothing of Superman’s alter ego.Her account of Superman was vivid and unflinching.
He can hear everything that’s happening in the world, and it’s driving him todespair. I think he can shut down his hearing and tune it all out, but that’salmost worse in a way, because he still knows all of the pain and sufferingthat’s happening, and turning away from it doesn’t make it disappear. Hesounded like a martyr to me, forcing himself to bear witness not just to theevils but to the vast but simple indifference of the world.
Yet that was very different from the picture that Lex had been forming.Superman spent time as Clark Kent, which implied a certain apathy towardssuffering. What did Superman get from maintaining the Clark Kent persona? Fromwhat Lex’s various sources could tell him, Clark Kent didn’t seem to take verymany pleasures from life. He didn’t drink or smoke, and he had no romanticrelationships to speak of. It seemed unbearably dull to Lex. Even in his worklife, Clark Kent was only second best, and he didn’t seem to leverage the fullforce of his powers.
The first possibility was that everything Superman had said to Lois was aruse. Superman was an abject liar, he’d already proven as much by spending anentire year pretending at being someone he was not. It was possible that hewas manipulating Lois Lane towards some end, though Lex could only make thevaguest guesses as to what end. Superman should have no need for a reporter,since he already was one. If it was manipulation, Lex suspected that it was inpursuit of inflicting some mental or emotional harm, but it was also possiblethat he had some delusions about Lois. Lois hadn’t mentioned Clark at all, andLex hadn’t thought it prudent to bring him up.
The second possibility had taken some time to see. Lex had been under theassumption that the persona of Clark Kent had been invented as a cover forSuperman, but it was distinctly possible that Superman was a cover for ClarkKent. The solidity of his background information suggested as much. Lex hadtold Mercy that Clark was a mockery of humanity, but perhaps the outwardappearance of Clark Kent matched his inner feelings. Lex Luthor could almostimagine Clark Kent as a simple man who wanted nothing from life but to be leftalone, burdened by powers that he didn’t understand or desire, donning acostume and flying through the air because the guilt of sitting at his desksimply became too much sometimes. It was almost sad, until you remembered thathe was the most dangerous man on the planet.
If there were answers, they would be found in Smallville.
Joseph and Loretta Greene bought one of the town’s two general stores. Theymoved into a small house on Cherry Street, and quickly made friends throughoutthe community. Joseph was always ready to ask about the history of Smallville,a town which he seemed to have adopted as his own, and Loretta wasrelentlessly social. They attended church every Sunday at the Zion LutheranChurch. Though they didn’t have any children, they often spoke of it as aneventuality. If you could see straight through Loretta’s clothes, you wouldsee a scar running at a diagonal from the side of her left breast to justabove her navel. If you could see straight through Joseph’s dress shirt, youwould find three puckered marks that were unmistakably bullet wounds. Josephand Loretta had stories ready in case anyone ever saw and asked. Those werethe only marks of their former lives.
As it turned out, Clark Kent was somewhat famous in Smallville. His name hadcome up on the very first day that Loretta and Joseph had come to town, whenthe previous owner of the general store had told them that they should carryThe Daily Planet, even though it would be at least two days old by the time itarrived. Though he hadn’t been especially popular or well-known growing up,Clark Kent had become the nearest thing that Smallville had to a celebrity,and the people of Smallville often talked about what Clark was up to in thebig city.
Every few days, Loretta would write a letter to her family back in GothamCity. She wrote an enormous amount, even when there wasn’t much to say, andoften included some of Joseph’s historical research about the town and itsresidents. Joseph took to Smallville like a fish to water, and some days couldbe seen two doors down talking to the small group of men that worked at theSmallville Ledger, a once weekly newspaper that served as the main source ofnews for the county. Anything and everything of interest he learned there wentinto the letters to Gotham.
From time to time, a letter would come back.
The player piano had effectively died out in 1929 with the stock market crash,and few of the things were produced anymore, since radio had effectively takenits place. Player pianos worked through pneumatic action to play music, andthe different songs were recorded on sheets of perforated paper. Joseph andLoretta had brought a player piano with them when they moved in, and a verycareful observer might note that it routinely seemed to break down just afterone of these letters from Gotham City came in. Joseph would take theperforated sheet of paper with the music out of the machine and go to workrepairing whatever was wrong, and Loretta would lay the sheet on top of theletter. The typewritten letter would perfectly line up with perforated sheetmusic, revealing a scattering of letters that formed a message. Those briefseconds were the only time that someone watching through the walls fromhundreds of miles away would know that they were something more than justrural shopkeepers.
“Do you think we’ll ever know?” asked Loretta one night over dinner.
“No,” said Joseph.
“How much longer, do you think?” she asked.
“No idea,” said Joseph. He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “Let’s nottalk about these things.”
Five thousand dollars were deposited into a Kansas City bank account everyweek for each of them, courtesy of a trust that had been set up according tothe will of Joseph’s fictitious uncle. They had no idea who their employerwas, only that he was fanatically paranoid. Joseph and Loretta weren’t theirreal names, but all the proper records were in place if anyone went looking.If asked about the money, they would confess that they simply liked the smalland quiet life of a small town and didn’t want to complicate things.
Hershel Whitman sat on the veranda of the governor’s mansion. It was early inMarch, and too cold for the veranda, but he didn’t like to be inside the houseanymore. He’d have never thought that so soon after winning an election hewould feel like leaving his office. People had offered their condolences andpaid their respects, but it had been more than a month now, and mostly allthat was left were awkward glances and sad looks. June was shut up in herroom, and Robert was buried in the Oakwood Cemetery.
Superman landed in the yard and started walking towards the house. Hersheltried not to react. Early on he’d wanted to yell at Superman for failing tosave his children. He had yelled, in fact. Late at night, after June had beenbrought back and Robert hadn’t, when Hershel couldn’t sleep, he would walk amile or so from the mansion and scream at the sky. He didn’t know if Supermanhad listened, or if Superman cared. He felt somewhat guilty about that now. Ifit hadn’t been for Superman, June might not have come back at all.
“Superman,” said Hershel. His voice caught.
“Governor Whitman,” Superman replied. “I never said how sorry I was.”
“No,” replied Hershel. “You didn’t.”
“I came here to ask a favor,” said Superman. “Thirteen minutes ago FrancisPasqua spoke with his lawyer about getting immunity. He named William Calhounas the man who gave the orders.”
“Immunity,” said Hershel. “You want me to give him immunity in exchange fortestimony.”
“No,” said Superman. “I need to know what June heard them talk about, and ifit’s enough, I need her to testify.”
“Just kill him,” said Hershel. His voice was barely a whisper. “Just fly inand kill him. No one would stop you, no one could stop you. Hell, use a gunand no one would even think of you. There are a dozen people with cause tokill Willie Calhoun. You want my daughter to take the stand against him, tosay that his name was thrown around by those men? Calhoun would have the rightto face his accuser, and that means cross examination. No. I won’t put herthrough that.”
“He needs to be brought to justice,” said Superman.
“Do you know why it didn’t happen in the last trial?” asked Hershel. He’d hadtwo whiskeys before Superman had shown up, and swayed slightly as he stood..“It’s because you let him. The criminals don’t care about you. They know youwon’t hurt them. They know how to hide from you. Ronald Oakes. That was thename of the man driving my children, and everyone forgets about him. They slithis throat because they knew that if they didn’t he would call for you. You’renot making them stop, you’re just making them adapt.”
“Crime has dropped ninety percent since I’ve come to Metropolis,” saidSuperman. “You can ask the chief of police. I know you’re angry, but if wedon’t have the rule of law, we don’t have anything.”
Hershel crumpled into his chair. Arguing was no use. “If June agrees,” saidHershel. “If June agrees to talk, and she knows enough to convince thedistrict attorney, and the jury listens to her and then they say he’s notguilty, if all that happens… you’ll just let him go?”
“No,” said Superman.
“No?” asked Hershel.
“No,” replied Superman.
In 1911, a baby boy was left in the hallway of a tenement in Metropolis. Hewas taken to the Metropolis Foundling Hospital and from there became part ofthe Orphan Train program. In Metropolis the abandonment of children was acontinual problem, while in the Midwest there was a continual shortage oflabor. The inventive solution to these twin problems was for the children andbabies to be delivered to the heartland of America by railway. At every stopthe children would be taken out and displayed before the gathered crowd,sometimes having their muscles felt and teeth checked. Some would be selectedfor indentured servitude and possibly adoption, while others would be put backon the train and sent to the next stop. When the orphan train stopped inOskaloosa, the foundling, Clark, was selected by Martha and Jonathan Kent.They adopted him a few years later.
So far as Lex could tell, that was the official story that was believed by theresidents of Smallville. Though the orphan trains had fallen out of favor, theMetropolis Foundling Hospital was still standing. As Lex Luthor was fundingfive different orphanages in Metropolis, it wasn’t terribly hard for him toget the records from the Foundling Hospital, and more importantly, it wouldn’tlook too terribly suspicious, especially when it was known that Lex Luthor waslooking to expand his charitable giving. It had taken only a day of lookingthrough the records to see that they contained no mention of a boy named Clarkleaving the train at Oskaloosa, and no record of the Kents as sponsors for achild.
This in itself was nothing too out of the ordinary. Lex had found that fewpeople took record keeping seriously. Ownership of the records changed, peopledeveloped new formats, and sometimes entire years worth of data were destroyedby insects, acids in the paper, or an excess of humidity. Yet it still feltsuspicious to Lex. If you were trying to hide someone’s parentage, youcouldn’t do much better than the orphan trains. Clark Kent had the perfectexcuse for not having a birth certificate.
According to the reports he received from his two agents, Martha Kent owned afarmhouse outside of town, which she shared with a live-in farmhand namedElias Clayton. His agents had spoken to her, and remarked only that she was anice woman who went to church every Sunday and spent most of her time on thefarm. Jonathan Kent had died a year before Clark had come to Metropolis, andif that was a deception, someone had at least given him a gravestone.
Clark Kent had grown up in Smallville. There were dozens of people who couldrecall him as a boy. His worn and faded initials were carved into desktops andtrees. The evidence of his existence was so utterly convincing that itcouldn’t be denied. There were aberrant incidents in and around Smallvillethat suggested the powers characteristic of Superman extending back to thetime that Clark Kent was eleven years old. Superman had not actually arrivedin a spaceship, he had grown up on a farm in the middle of Kansas. Even if Lexbelieved this, it didn’t help to clear up anything. The power had to have comefrom somewhere.
The solution had to be on the Kent farm.
Floyd Lawton had come into Smallville as a drifter looking for room and boardwith barely a dime in his pocket. He’d walked down the dusty dirt roads, goingdoor to door looking for work, until finally he’d happened upon a small housethat belonged to a greying old lady. He’d gone down the path and up the stepsto the front porch, then knocked with a ready smile on his face.
“Missus Kent?” Floyd had asked as she came to the door.
“Yes? Do I know you?” she’d asked. She was in her sixties, maybe even older,with white hair tied up in a loose bun. Her dress was simple and blue.
“No ma’am, sorry, the name was on the mailbox. Name’s Floyd Lawton.” He tookoff his hat and clutched it to his chest. “Sorry to trouble you on this fineday, but I’ve been on the road a long while and I’m looking to settle down fora spell of work. If you have something that needs doing, or if you know someneighbors that need some work, I’d do it just for room and board, whatever’sasked of me.”
Martha Kent gave him a warm smile. “Why you know, I had a live-in farmhand upuntil just two days ago, Elias Clayton. He was a strong and able man, helpedwith the few animals I still keep, the garden, and the maintenance on the oldbarn. We made enough to keep ourselves afloat, along with the money brought inby leasing out the land to the Parkers, and I paid him a good wage. Well Eliashad aspirations, you see, but he was a black and so work didn’t come too easy,especially not the kind of work that he was keen on doing, which was acting.Then just a week ago a director of movies came out to Smallville, right out ofthe blue. He said that he was going to make the great American movie, and saidthat Smallville would make the perfect location for it. Well now, Elias tookthe day off to go speak with that director. I thought nothing of it of course,until Elias came back and told me that he’d been discovered. He said ithappens all the time, if you can believe that, so I said to him that he wasn’tto leave until he’d finished putting up new chicken wire around the coop. Iwas thinking it might be I’d try taking this year by myself for a change, butif you’re looking for work, then boy do I have some.”
Floyd nodded through all this, a slightly desperate grin on his face like hethought a real drifter would have. Martha mostly seemed happy to have someoneto talk to though, and they’d moved the conversation inside. They’d come to anagreement over homemade lemonade that had too much pulp in it for Floyd’sliking.
Later that day, Floyd had picked up his meager belongings from the Greenehouse in Smallville, where he’d rented out a room for the night. He had arifle slung over his shoulder, and two pistols in a wooden box that drawMartha’s attention.
“There’s not much use for pistols out here,” said Martha with a frown. “Wehave a shotgun, and a few rifles for dealing with the coyotes and wolves, orfor bringing in more meat.”
“They were my father’s,” said Floyd with a smile. “Hand-crafted and finequality pieces, and I’m only thankful that I’ve never had to sell them.”
“My husband Jonathan, may he rest in peace, he abhorred pistols,” said Martha.“He was pacifist and an absolutist, and thought every war was a crime againstGod’s own will.”
“He’s lucky he didn’t get drafted then,” said Floyd with a smile.
Martha’s face became very serious. “Oh, my Jonathan was drafted alright. He’dapplied to be a conscientious objector. When I say he was a pacifist, I don’tmean that he thought it was better not to kill, I mean he believed with everyfiber of his being that it was simply something a good person doesn’t do, nomatter the circumstances. He went to prison for his beliefs.”
“Ma’am, if you don’t want me bringing pistols into your home-” Floyd began.
“No, no,” said Martha. “There were more than a few things that Jonathan and Ididn’t see eye to eye on. You don’t use those pistols lightly though. Ifsomeone tries to steal from our farm, I’d rather just let them take what theycame for. It’s not worth killing a man over a pair of chickens.”
Floyd breathed a silent sigh of relief. He loved his pistols. He liked to useboth at once, feeling them kick in tandem. He’d once cleared out an entirepoker den with those two pistols, killing thirteen men with twelve bullets andearning him the nickname “Deadshot”. He was handy with a rifle too, and hadbeen briefly trained in sharpshooting by the military before a dishonorabledischarge that had left him perfectly positioned to become an assassin. He wasvery explicit on that term, and had maimed more than one thug who called him amere hitman.
He’d met men who didn’t want to kill before. Hell, most men didn’t want tokill. But he’d never met a man who’d prefer jail over being in the army,except perhaps those cowards that only wanted to stay out of the fightingbecause they were afraid for their own safety. In his opinion, Jonathan Kentwas probably just a slacker, but he held his tongue.
He settled into a routine at the Kent house. He would listen to Martha Kentyap away during an early morning breakfast, go out and do whatever work neededto be done until lunchtime, take a break during which he’d work on composing aletter to his completely fictitious sister, and then keep working on the farmuntil nearly sunset, when he’d go into town, grab a copy of the SmallvilleLedger, and on occasion mail off his letter for the week.
“Why is there a lock on the storm cellar?” asked Floyd.
“Oh, that old thing,” said Martha. “It kept blowing open, so I put a lock onit a while back and somehow forgot the key.”
“I could cut the lock,” said Floyd. “I wouldn’t want to get caught in atornado without a storm cellar.”
“It’s rusted shut anyway, I think,” said Martha. “And there’s a small basementroom we can go to if the storms ever get too bad. I wouldn’t worry about itdear.”
Floyd had gone back and looked at the doors to the storm cellar more closely.They were made of metal, and when he looked closely at the seams, he could seethat the whole thing had been welded shut. It was hard to make out with allthe rust, but the storm cellar had been sealed shut as tightly as possible.
So far as he could guess, whatever was down there was the entire reason forhis being on the Kent farm. He made sure to mention the storm cellar in hisletters to his fictitious sister, cloaking the information in long paragraphsabout how he was afraid of tornadoes. Hopefully his employer was smart enoughto read between the lines.
Author’s Note: Orphan trains were a real thing. Whether this was slavery byanother name or an ingenious solution to the societal problems of abandonedchildren and a lack of cheap labor is left as an exercise to the reader.
If you have an interest in reading more about the treatment of conscientiousobjectors in WWI, search out “Armed with Prayer in an Alcatraz Dungeon”, whichdoes a lot more justice to the topic than I can do here. It’s interestingreading even if you disagree with the moral philosophy of it. My grandfatherwas a conscientious objector in WWII. One of my strongest memories of him waswhen he told me about how he was routinely spit on while building bridges androads around the Midwest by people who thought that sticking to his beliefswas somehow the height of cowardice.
As always, I appreciate the favorites/follows/reviews/recommendations. Aspecial thanks to my wife Alyssa for being my beta reader.
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