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 SUPERMAN: THE LIVING LEGEND: LAST SON OF KRYPTON: CHAPTER 16

THE CONTACT


Sometime during the latter five to ten minutes of the news broadcast the apparent size of the studio crew and staff began to increase.  On a closer examination it became obvious that these added "staff" were not doing much of anything beyond standing around, gossiping, watching the show, that sort of thing.  Unlike entertainment shows, the news always had lots of background chatter.  It was thought that this lent the atmosphere of a newsroom to the broadcast.

The new people included most of the staff of the Daily Planet left in the building, as well as secretaries, night receptionists, agents, and executive types from the various enterprises of Galaxy communications; recording, opinion polling, publishing, entertainment, merchandising, and so forth.  At first they came because word of free drinks and food started to trickle through the elevator shafts.  Now they came mostly to watch what Lois Lane called The Steve and Clarkie Show.

"Not once, you say.  Not once in your whole life, you say.  Is that right, Clarkie?"  The sportscaster hung over the back of his chair much as his loosened tie drooped from his neck.  He was halfway through his second Blood Mary.

"Never, I told you.  Is that so incredible?"  Not a single bead of sweat surfaced on Clark Kent's face during a broadcast or after one, or at any other time, for that matter.  He made up for that chink in the armour of his identity by dropping papers now and then as he cleared news copy off his desk, then bending awkwardly as possible to pick them up.

"You heard him, everyone.  Anyone else here never do it even once?  C'mon, don't be shy."  Those who thought Lombard went beyond the realm of clowning into indecency seemed to outnumber those who were amused.  The Steve and Clarkie Show still apparently had the most loyal audience in town.  "Huh!  At least, no one else's gonna admit to it in public."

"Actually, I always thought it was a rather admirable quality to avoid that sort of thing."

"You're from a farm town.  How about the hayloft?"

"Never."

"In back of the VFW hall during a square dance?"

"Not then, either."

"Down by the lake when the folks were off cornhusking?  Under the bleachers in high school?  At the back gate during lunch hour?  In study hall?"

"During school hours?  My dad'd tan my hide."

"His dad.  Hear that?  Good old dad."  Lombard held out his half-finished tumbler of vodka and tomato juice.  "I mean I can't believe that you lived in the Land of the Free all your life and never touched an ounce of booze."

During his career in professional football Steve Lombard carefully cultivated the reputation of a partier.  Now his growing belly and barrel chest that made pinstriped shirts contour like a bulging jail cell did it for him.

"Seems to me there were a few years back there when it was illegal to drink alcohol in the Land of the Free."

"Prohibition?  Ancient history.  Nobody took that law seriously.  You always ignore dumb laws.  It's the American way."

Lois saw Clark foundering.  He always foundered when he was about to be winning.  "Hey, hundred-thousand-dollar man," she yelled from beside Benny's snack cart, "talking about ignoring dumb laws, what'd you pay in taxes last year?"

The lady customarily brought the house down.

"Lissentame, Clarkie." Lombard took control again. "Howboutchew take a gulpa this baby, huh?"  He held out his drink.

"No, thanks."  Clark, of course, was nursing a container of chocolate milk.

"Whadja do for drinks, anyway?"

"When I was a kid?  Well Ma had this concoction she used to make.  Like nectar of the gods."

"Now we're gettin' somewhere.  Did she have a still out back, too?"

"No no no.  She put in pineapple juice and apple juice and orange juice and a pinch of curry and some other things.  It was the finest tasting liquid nourishment in the world.  Probably the whole Solar System."

"The hell it was.  This here Bloody Mary's got it beat.  Any Bloody Mary's got it beat."

"Nothing's got it beat."

"Wanna make a little wager on that, Clarkie?"

Now Lombard had him.  Everyone in the studio was cheering and stomping and yelling "Bet!" or "Put your money where your mouth is," or something similarly appropriate.

"No bet," Clark protested. "I never bet."

"'Fraid you're gonna lose, eh, Clarkie?"

"I won't lose. Even you'd say the concoction tastes better than a Bloody whatever her name is."

"Then you'll bet.  A week's salary?"

"No, I don't bet money."  Hisses from the bleachers.

"How about food?  Do you bet food?  Dinner?  If three unprejudiced people pick your soft drink over the Bloody Mary, I treat you to supper anywhere in town you say.  If I win, it's your treat."

"Well, that sounds fair, but—"  Cries of "chickengut" and "waffler" from the chorus.

"Then it's a bet.  You heard it, folks.  And maybe we'll even get to see Mr. Kent's virgin throat moistened by a splash of the juice, hey?"

From the back of the studio a very prim young lady stuck her head in the door.  She had that caged look of a receptionist still on duty.  "Mr. Kent, telephone."

Clark took the chance to bolt from his seat and plow through friends and acquaintances out of the room to the young lady as Steve swayed through a monologue about the evils of abstinence.  "Who is it?" Clark asked her. "Something important?"

"I don't know.  It's on your private line.  He says he's Lex Luthor, and he does a really good imitation of his voice."

Sharp shooting pains to the stomach.  In Clark's most persistent nightmare, Luthor finds out his secret identity and devises a way to announce it to everyone in the world except Superman himself.  Clark wakes up in the morning, in his dream, to cheering crowds outside the window of his third-floor apartment at 344 Clinton Street.  He opens the hallway door and finds shoulder-to-shoulder admirers blocking the path to the elevator.  People flock to Metropolis and jam the hotels and park benches and subway tunnels.  The ratings on his local news show break national records.  Women wherever he goes, even at work, throw their bodies in his path.  People jump out of windows and leap in front of moving trucks when they see him in order to attract his attention.  A smiling Morgan Edge tries to ingratiate himself by giving Clark a million-dollar-a-year raise.  He has to be Superman all the time.  It is hellish.

"Hello?" Clark said.

"Hello, Kent."

It was Luthor, not a mimic.  The voiceprint was unmistakable.  "Yes, this is Clark Kent.  Who is this?"

"It's Luthor, Kent.  Listen, you'll tell your friend Superman I'm madder than I've ever been at anyone since the day that super-powered bonehead made me lose my hair.  It's been stolen."

"Your hair?"

"No you sparrow-brain.  The document."

"Document?"

"The Einstein papers.  The stuff I lifted from that vault the other day.  It was the feature story on your show, or don't you pay attention to what you're reading?"

"Yes.  Yes, I know.  But I thought you stole it, didn't you?"

"Not this time, you dolt.  It was stolen from me.  My mind, this is like trying to talk with a grapefruit."

"You don't have to get insulting, Mr. Luthor.  Why did you call me?"  Clark was going through the tedious process of tracing the call with x-ray vision.

"To tell you where your friend Superman can find me."

"Oh," Clark said as if replying to the question, what's the fifteenth letter of the alphabet?  "Where?"  He would stimulate an electron in the wire with x-ray vision, watch the impulse travel a few feet or a few inches until it hit an intersection of two wires.

"Tonight at Pier 82.  The slip where they dock those tourist boats."

"Tonight... tourist boats..."  He would then send an impulse down each of the intersecting wires, and one of them would dash back at Clark's phone with the speed of light.  He kept following these impulses in trial-and-error fashion until now he traced his connection for three blocks.

"I'll be on the bridge of the ship called The New Atlantis at nine-thirty tonight.  Can you get in touch with him by then?"

"I can try."  His impulse was coming from twelve blocks away now, and that looked to be more than half-way to Luthor's location.

"I'll help him find the thief of the papers.  Tell him just to be cool, I'm not going to pull anything.  I won't have them snatched out of my hands like—"

"Excuse me, but would you hold on while I get a pencil to write this all down?"  He'd found Luthor.  He was in a telephone booth at the corner of St. Marks Place and First Avenue.

"You mean you don't have—you weren't writing this down when I told you?"

"No, please hold on."

Luthor was fit for a pen at the zoo.  "You screaming dumbo, Kent.  If there's one thing I can't abide in people who manage to get as successful as you, it's incompetence.  If you worked for me I'd  - YIIII!"

Luthor was up in the air.  Phone booth and all.  Thirty feet off the ground and held aloft by a flying figure trailing a red cape.

"Hello?  Hello, Mr. Luthor?" came the voice from the dropped receiver as thick telephone cable unwound after the rising booth from below the street.

"Hello, are you still there?  Mr. Luthor?" came the words from Superman's throat, projected by super-ventriloquism through the receiver until the instant the cable snapped at the floor of the phone booth.  He set his burden on the roof of a three-story building with a cleaning shop on the ground floor.  Superman had no need to ask the first question.

"He stole it.  He stole it, the little twerp Lightfoot snapped it out from under my nose like an apple off a cart."

"Lightfoot?" Superman joined Luthor's conversation.

"John Lightfoot.  The crooked philologist."

"He must've done it before yesterday, old man.  He's very dead."

"He's not dead.  He made it out of the crash.  He was here in Metropolis, and he stole it."

"Hate to contradict you, but I saw him before the police got there.  I would have gotten there first, too, if he hadn't died almost instantly.  It was quite horrible."

"You saw him?  Dead?"

"I did."

"Then who—" Luthor fell silent and thoughtful and built up to his late mood by degrees across the words: "Who stole my document!"

"You'll tell me all about it on the way to your favorite jail cell upstate."

"You don't want to take me back to jail.  I'll help you find it.  I want the document found."

"Trust me.  I'll find it.  Next time, figure out another story."  The Kryptonian grabbed for Luthor's arm.

Luthor yanked back his other arm pulling back something in his pocket.  A spark leaped at Superman's hand as he touched Luthor.  "I said listen to me."

"Ouch.  What was that?"

"An electrical charge strong enough to take out the whole Metropolis Police Department and a couple of platoons of Marines, if necessary.  Unfortunately it affects you like a sudden attack from a bubble bath."

"No more tricks.  Come on and—"

"No, dammitt!  Listen to me.  Don't you understand?  Don't you see?  I won't allow it."

"Tell me about it on the way up to—"

"Keep your paws off me, freak," as he pulled a tiny lead-encased pistol from his pocket and Superman froze.  "I'm not ready for a fight, but you know I can put one up.  I'll use this if I have to."

Superman could not see what the gun was.  His x-ray vision, like any radiation, was unable to penetrate the heavy metal lead.  He was wary.  There was nowhere Luthor could go, although the criminal had fooled him before.

"This stuff was just to get out of any tight spots in case some over-eager cop recognized me on the street.  I won't fight you.  I just want to tell you I won't have his papers falling into the hands of a... a philistine."

"Just take it easy there, Luthor.  You probably can't hurt me, but we're in the middle of a crowded city.  Einstein, you mean?  It's Einstein you're talking about?"

"His words.  I won't allow it.  And don't talk to me like some pimple-faced kid with a zip gun.  I'm a pro."

"Offhand I'd say you already allowed it.  I wouldn't have thought Einstein was one of your big heroes."

"Who did you think were my heroes, you pigeon-brained muscleman?  Capone?  Hitler?  You?  What do you take me for?"

"An escaped felon."  In less than the blink of an eye Luthor suddenly saw his weapon lying at his feet and felt his arms being held motionless from behind him.  The voice came from behind now, too.  "And a misguided man, your heroes notwithstanding.  What is that thing on the floor?"

Luthor let out a resigned breath. "A pipe lighter, if you must know."

"Let's go." Superman scooped the criminal up in both arms for a 35-minute flight of slightly less than sixty miles.  Luthor caught a cold.

 

 

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