Superman Through the Ages



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 SUPERMAN: THE LIVING LEGEND: LAST SON OF KRYPTON: CHAPTER 12

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Chapter 12
THE UNVEILING


The Zephyrmore Building was rented and maintained by the Coram Management Company, who were retained by Zephyrmore Properties, Inc.  Zephyrmore kept the building on a 99-year lease from Barryville Tool and Die Industries, which was a dummy holding company owned by Thunder Corporation.  The Chairman of the Board and principle stockholder of Thunder Corporation was a publicity-grabbing, billionaire playboy named Lucius D. Tommytown who did not really exist, never did exist, but was the creation and puppet of Lex Luthor.

Luthor occasionally hired an actor or a disguise artist to portray Tommytown in any of a number of settings: slipping away from an exclusive party, strolling through a European casino tossing hundred-dollar bills at attractive women at the tables, bathing unclothed in a fountain or a public aquarium or a champagne keg.  More often, Luthor would spend free moments in jail writing fanciful reports about Tommytown's activities and having them sent to a magazine under the name Brian Wallingford, a well-known freelance reporter also born of Luthor's brow.  After each sensational Wallingford story on Tommytown the momentum of the publicity would build and apocryphal sightings and antics of the billionaire would crop up in media all over the world.

Some others of Luthor's made-up people included Chester Horowitz, a prolific inventor; Frank Jones, a habitual contributor to political campaigns; and Faraday Watt, the name on Luthor's United States passport.  Luthor owned and operated these imaginary people.  He also owned and operated a number of real people, including those in his headquarters in the penthouse of the Zephyrmore Building, as well as the driver of the car in which he was now watching the WGBS Evening News.

"...and a spokesman for the FBI says the bureau expects Luthor's arrest within the next twenty-four hours."  Luthor switched off Clark Kent and pushed the stand holding his five-inch television under the dashboard as the car rolled into the building's underground garage.

"Switch on the private radio band, MacDuff."

"Yes, Mr. Luthor."  MacDuff's real name was Matthew Jahrsdoerfer, but no one noticed.

"Hello, penthouse?"

"Receiving," said the female voice from the speaker under the dashboard, "clear as a dinner bell."

"This is Poppa Bear," said Luthor.  "Care to answer me one question?"

"Shoot, Poppa Bear."

"Why is the scrambler turned off?  You want a police raid up there?"

"Sorry."  There was a click over the speaker, followed by storms of static that continued as they talked.

"Every law office in the world has my voice print on file.  Don't trip up like that again."

"What?"

"I said that if you want to ruin a good thing, just keep making mistakes like that."

Just static from the other end this time.

"What'd you say?" Luthor asked.

Something about congratulations.

"The car's on the way up the winch."

"What?"

The car, with two honks in the underground garage, opened a wall into a ten-by-ten-foot platform under an open shaft that reached to the roof of the building.  The car was on the platform and it was rising.

"Have a hacksaw and a small soldering gun ready when I get up there," Luthor said in the rising car.

"What?"

"A hacksaw."

"Lockjaw?"

"And a soldering iron, dammit!"

Static.  As the platform stabilized at the penthouse level.

"Listen.  Can't you people understand simple English?"

"Did you want something, Poppa Bear?"

Luthor placed the palm and five fingers of his right hand over a panel next to the door which, in response, swung open.  He carried the leaden case from the vault into the apartment with him.

"A hacksaw and a soldering iron, you turds.  Turn that radio off, the noise makes me feel like I fell asleep in front of the tube waiting for Sermonette."

The boss steamrolled into his throne room.  The straw-haired woman in her thirties at a desk in a corner put down her shortwave microphone and swung her chair around to face him.  Three bright young men in lab smocks stopped conferring over some point on a computer print-out.  A middle-aged man at a switchboard cleared all his lines and looked anticipatorily at the entrance.  A large high-browed, flat-nosed man and a stunning Vietnamese teenage girl emerged in karate gear from an adjoining mat-lined room to stand and watch.  A young red-bearded character looked up from a microscope and removed his glasses.  A tall, thin, dark-haired girl in her twenties who was repairing the mechanism of an electronic boom chair in the center of the room froze, looked up, riffled through her box of tools, and scurried up to the imposing figure at the door with a hacksaw and a small soldering gun.

"Thank you, Joanne," he said.  "You can go on with whatever you're doing now.  I'll let you know when it's time."

They each went back to their particular enterprises.  Luthor was in his heaven, all was right with the world.

In another place, under different circumstances, this man might have been a Caesar, a Napoleon, a Hitler, or an Archimedes, a Michelangelo, a da Vinci.  A Gautama, a Hammurabi, Gandhi.  But in this place, at this time, he was more.  Superman made him more.

As an artist saw objects as an amalgam of shapes, as a writer looked upon life as a series of incidents from which plots and characters could be constructed, Lex Luthor's mind divided the Universe into a finite number of mathematical units.  The Earth was four billion people, a day was 86,400 seconds, the Zephyrmore Building was from 16,400 square feet in the penthouse to 62,500 in the lobby and in the first twenty stories.  The time he had spent in jail so far this year was three months of thirty days each, three weeks, six days, two hours, and sixteen minutes.  This included four weeks, one day, and three hours in solitary confinement during which time he could do nothing more useful than count seconds and scrupulously retain his sanity.

There were other super-criminal geniuses in the world; he had met some of them, dealt with them on occasion.  They were chairmen of great corporations, grand masters of martial arts disciplines, heads of departments in executive branches of governments, princes, presidents, prelates, and a saint or two.  Unlike Luthor, these men and women chose to retain their respectability.  They had trouble coping with honesty.

Luthor was not motivated by a desire for money, or power, or beautiful women, or even freedom.  In solitary Luthor decided that his motivation was beyond even the love or hate or whatever it was he had for humanity.  It was consuming desire for godhood, fired by the unreasonable conviction that such a thing was somehow possible.  He began by being an honest man.  He was a criminal and said so.

He sat down next to the woman at the desk, Barbara Tolley, his clerical assistant.  She insisted on being called "B.J." even though her middle name was Arabella.

"Anything pressing?" Luthor asked her as he poured them both a cup of coffee from a beaker rigged to a device that kept it constantly filled with exactly sixteen ounces.

"That gadget you dreamed up in the fall—y'know, the way of making pictures jump off the page like you're wearing 3-D glasses?"

"What about it?"  It was a method devised by Luthor's inventor alias, Chet Horowitz, to make a holographic image possible on a flat surface so that a picture would appear to hang several inches off a page.

"Every major paperback company in town made a bid for the process.  It seems there's this whole new group of people whose job it is to package books like detergents or political candidates or something."

"And they want to put this thing on paperback covers.  Good idea.  You walk down an aisle looking for a cookbook, and the one that catches your eye has a cover with lobster thermidor hanging into the aisle.  So what's the problem?"

"Chet Horowitz stands to make a small fortune on it."

"Yes?"

"He made a small fortune on the gizmo that keeps electric plugs from shocking babies, and another small fortune on the new riveting gun.  That's three small fortunes since January.  Bernie that accountant says you're overspending and we won't have enough to pay Chet's income taxes this year."

Luthor smiled.

"All right, genius."  B.J. gave him the indulgent look she kept as a defense against his.  "If the solution's so damn obvious why didn't Bernie think of it himself?"

Luthor obviously had B.J. by the intrigue glands.  This happened so seldom that he sat silently long enough to see her eyes crinkle.  Then he solved the accountant's problem: "We don't have to pay Chet Horowitz' income tax at all this year.  Let a process server try to find him.  We're criminals, remember?"

"Right."  B.J. uncrinkled herself and squeezed the bridge between her eyes.  "But why do you have to persist in making the rest of us feel so inadequate?"

"That's how I stay in charge, Lady-pal.  Napoleon did it with conquest, Supes does it with pretension, my mother did it with guilt.  I manage with brute competence."

Luthor reminded himself of a song he'd written which had a line that went: "To live outside the law you must be honest."  He'd slipped the lyrics to a young singer he met in a bar in Minnesota.  The guy had a lousy voice and Luthor felt sorry for him at the time.  When he heard the line again he didn't recognize the song that surrounded it.  He resolved, from then on, to be his own editor.

B.J. was on the verge of making small talk.  Bad habit of hers.  Luthor decided it was party time, so he hopped to his feet.

"Your attention, please!" he addressed his employees.  There was immediate silence.  "Would everyone please follow me into the Meditation Room?"

Luthor led a procession to the penthouse balcony where his fingerprints unlocked the door to a big room whose walls were completely covered with bright green curtains.  He held the lead case under his arm like a minister's prayerbook as they filed in, all but one wearing intensely solemn expressions.  Luthor sat in the room's sole piece of furniture, a swiveling stool.

"I have obtained," Luthor continued, careful not to look at B.J.'s smirk, "the last vestige of the life of a great man.  The single thing from his life that he chose to leave for posterity after his death.  If you will pay attention..."

Luthor turned to the curtained wall, placed the chair facing it, and put the case and the tools down in front of the chair.  He walked to the corner and pulled the curtains' drawstring.  They peeled away to reveal, larger than life, a magnificent portrait in acrylics of Albert Einstein.  Luthor ignored his band of disciples and now spoke directly to the portrait.

"You see?  I brought it, like I said I would.  We couldn't let it fall into the hands of someone who couldn't appreciate it, right?"  He was as sincere as an eight-year-old child talking to a gnarled tree.  "Here, I'll show you."

Luthor held the lead case between his legs, huffing as he sliced off a corner with the saw.  The others in the room looked on silently, afraid to change expressions because they only partially understood, as he painstakingly softened a piece of the casing next to the opening with the soldering gun, then ripped it open further, piece by piece, inch by inch, until two sides of the casing were disconnected and the corner could be folded down.  Inside was a thin brown folder holding just a few pages.

Luthor looked at the cover of the folder, furrowed his brow at the neatly typed message on the card glued to the front.  He opened the folder, blinked, and winced at what he saw.

"Gibberish.  What is this nonsense?  Code?  This isn't English.  Isn't German.  What the devil's clawed hooves is this?"

B.J. flew into the vacuum Luthor's equanimity left behind.  "What's wrong, Lex?  What is it?"

"Look.  Look at this.  He must've gone nuts.  He spent twenty years looking for a Unified Field Theory and it made him crackers.  What is this chicken vomit?"

"It's writing.  Calm down, Lex.  Get out of here.  Everybody out of here.  End of the party.  Back to work."

The audience all shuffled out, not daring to murmur, and the woman closed the door behind them.

"It's not writing.  It's not Latin, not Greek, not Arabic.  Never saw a code like that.  What is it?  What is it?"

She understood that he was used to solving problems.  As a child his response to adversity was a tantrum.  As an adult he revelled in the fact that he was outside the law.  In his mind the totality of the Universe was as real as the drugstore down the block.  When everything comes that easily, a setback is a trauma.  All she had to do was to hold him down until he started coming back of his own accord.  He was almost around.

"Code?" he asked.

"Yes.  Or another language.  A lost one, maybe."

"That code-breaker.  The one I got the job for at the CIA.  You know the one.  Get him up here.  Blindfolded.  Right away.  And the crooked philologist, the one serving the six-year term for trying to put a wiretap on the Kremlin hot line.  Look over the jailbreak file and find one that'll work for him."

"All right.  What'll you do, Lex?"

"You'd better leave me alone awhile."  Luthor walked over to the portrait on the wall.  "I've got to have a talk with the professor."

 

 

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