The Big Story
Chapter TenOf all your known associates, she's the one who contacted you.
The echo of that sentence continued in my head long after Dick Grayson - or whatever the boy called himself in his costume - disappeared through my window. It slowly eclipsed lingering traces of his angry loneliness as the predominant thought in my mind.
Lois Lane had hired me to investigate Clark Kent. It was the first contact I had had with her since she had employed me to investigate Lex Luthor and then had found out my secret. There were reasons for that that Bruce Wayne's former ward had no reason to know. At the same time, I realized there might be reasons that I had not considered.
I turned on my desk lamp and opened a file drawer - one with actual files in it. I pulled out a fat folder of newspaper clippings.
I stared at it rather than opening it, not quite ready to face the headlines. Instead, I dredged up memories I had spent two years trying to drink into submission.
It had been early spring, so early that the worst snow drifts from winter were still remnants of slush on the sidewalks. Between the melting snow and the perpetual drizzle, the city sewers were fuller than usual, and there had been a general anxiety that any solid downpour would produce flash floods in the low lying parts of town. Umbrella salesmen did a brisk trade, and there wasn't an office in the city that didn't smell of damp wool. That included my own Midtown office.
The greyness of that spring had kept business brisk enough that I was entertaining the idea of taking on a partner. I hadn't gone much further than a half-hearted attempt to get Gus to leave the Parkview, but I had hired a secretary, the briskly efficient Eileen O'Malley. So it was that I had come in to my office one morning to find Eileen O'Malley toe-to-toe with Lois Lane.
O'Malley and Lane were cut from the same cloth, tough-minded, independent women who had defied so much to get where they were that they were not about to let anyone push them around. I had been tempted to see how long they could glare at each other, but they had noticed my entrance. Both turned toward me, Eileen greeting with a "Mr. Jones," and Lois saying, "John-"
"Hello, Lois," I replied. "Any messages, Eileen?"
"On your desk," Eileen had answered, still giving Lois a disapproving look. "And Miss Lois Lane has been most insistent that she should see you. She was unwilling to wait for a ten o'clock appointment."
I nodded as I hung my hat and coat on the coat tree inside the front office door. "Guess it's a lucky thing I cracked the Watson case last night and could come in early today. Anything I need to attend to before I see Miss Lane?"
I could tell Lois was deeply irritated to be the subject of this third-person conversation, but it was always wise to remind Lane whose turf she was on. Eileen had made mention of a phone call I might want to return, and I made a show of deciding it could wait, and by the time I had led Lois back into my private office, she was quietly fuming.
She had waited until I closed the door to say, "Nice to see you, too, Jones."
I sat at my desk and met her gaze levelly. "What do you want, Lane?"
She clearly didn't have the energy for another standoff, because she sighed and sat in one of the client chairs. "It's Lex."
I snorted. "Please tell me you aren't hiring me for boyfriend troubles. From what I've seen, you can handle those on your own."
Her eyes flashed angrily. "I don't like being played, Jones."
I raised my hands in a warding gesture. "I'm not defending Gus. But I told you then and I'll tell you now, I don't get involved in my friends' romances."
"I'm not asking you to," she shot back, but her tone had softened a little. She reached into her handbag and pulled out a press clipping that she handed to me. "It's about this."
I reached forward to accept the clipping. It was the announcement of Luthor's intent to purchase the Daily Planet. I smiled. "Ah, he really does love you."
Her teeth had begun worrying her lower lip, and her eyes were troubled. "That's just it," she had said. "If he did love me, he would listen to me when I told him not to do this."
"Do you want him to love you?"
She was back to glaring. "That's not the issue, Jones. Love is for suckers."
I recoiled a little. "I'm sorry, Lane. I didn't realize -"
"Don't, Jones. The patter doesn't suit you. Just shut up and listen."
I had shut up, and Lane had explained her misgivings. She wasn't sure about the long-term future of her six month old relationship with Lex Luthor, but she was sure she didn't want him signing her paycheck. The personal reasons were obvious enough, but there were also professional considerations. What if a story emerged that might damage Luthor's interests? Would he allow it to be printed? If he and Lois remained an item, would he pressure her to drop her work in favor of loyalty to him? I refrained from advising her that if she were that worried about it, she should break off with him, but after a half-hour she had persuaded me to take the case.
Lois Lane would pay me a $25 retainer and $10 a day plus expenses to find out why Lex Luthor really wanted to buy the Daily Planet. I had cut her a deal on the rate because we had been friends, even if things had gone sour for her and Gus.
As I walked her to the door of my inner office, she had asked if I still saw him.
"Every Tuesday for lunch," I had replied. "Like always."
"Say hi for me?"
"I'll think about it."
She had nodded to herself. "He should've been more like you, Jones. I'll call you tomorrow."
I had opened the door for her without reply, watching as she walked out through the front office without even a glance at Eileen.
I had waited until she was gone to cross to Eileen's desk to hand her the cashier's check Lois had given me. There had been a young woman sitting beside Eileen's desk, and I had given her a quick smile as I handed the money over. "Expect her to call tomorrow," I told Eileen, "and try to be nice. Who's your friend?"
The girl - a bare 20 years old, I learned later - had ducked her head a little and blushed. Eileen answered, "This is my cousin, Hortense. She's just getting settled into the city, so we're going for lunch."
"I was afraid I'd be late on the subway," Hortense had blurted, explaining her early presence.
I had given her my best reassuring grin. "Looks like you must've mastered it, then."
The shyly flattered smile that dimpled her cheeks still haunts me. I trusted my tough guy looks and cynical attitude to counteract my casual flirtation, not realizing I was playing into the kid's romantic vision of city life. She had expected to find the excitement of the gangster movies she watched when she left the farm for Metropolis, and she did. She found so much excitement, it killed her.
I opened the file folder in front of me, skipping past the first few headlines to the shocking discovery that Hortense Arroyo, 20, had been shot dead before her body burned in the rum-fed fire of a warehouse on the edge of Suicide Slum. Police had written off the "shadowy figure" theory, suspecting that Douglas Canberra, 38, had been the trigger man. Canberra, a victim of the fire, had at one time been employed by billionaire Lex Luthor. It was suspected that Canberra had been hired to rough up competitor Bruce Wayne, also dead at the scene. No one was quite sure what Arroyo had been doing on the scene, but Wayne was known for being a playboy. She was likely some poor girl with stars in her eyes, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That was the best theory the police could come up with, at any rate. When Luthor sued for libel over the implication he might have something to do with Wayne's death, an aggressive investigation proved that the warehouse full of illegal rum was owned by a shadow corporation linked to Luthor. I turned to the next headline: "Lex Luthor: Rum Runner." The subheadline read, "Sinister motives emerge for billionaire's temperance campaign."
There was a trial. I had testified. Lex Luthor had avoided jail time, in part by disavowing any ongoing relationship with Canberra, in part by implicating a junior executive in establishing and running the shadow corporation (without Luthor's knowledge, he claimed), and in part by making me the source of reasonable doubt.
I was never a suspect in the deaths of Canberra, Arroyo, and Wayne, but most of Metropolis believed I had perjured myself when I claimed to have no knowledge of what happened that night. Lois Lane knew I lied.
She never published what she knew.
The phone on my desk rang, jarring me from my thoughts. I gritted my teeth, knowing who was calling.
The phone rang again.
I thought about not answering, then thought better of it. I picked up the handset. "Jones here."
"Nice subtle investigation you started, Jones."
"Does this mean I'm fired?" I tried not to sound to hopeful.
"You wish," Lois Lane retorted. "Although we should rethink our contract. I'm not paying you double to stumble around drunk at the Parkview Hotel."
"Even if I tell you Clark Kent might be somehow tied to Bruce Wayne?"
I got the satisfaction of hearing her sharp intake of breath. That surprised her. "Spill," she demanded.
"I don't think so. It's too early to say anything for sure."
"I'm not paying you for veiled hints, Jones."
"You know Superman saved the Marston baby, right?"
"You're not the only one who can use a library."
It took some effort, but I kept my voice even. "You got any other facts in this case you want to tell me about?"
"I told you, there's some link between Kent and Superman. It isn't like I went to you before I did my homework."
"Sounds like you were doing fine without me."
I could almost hear her scowl. "Don't think for a second I would've hired you, Jones, if I could've figured out the answer to this myself. I know the link is there. Your job is to find out what it is."
"Why didn't Kent leave with you to cover the Interborough Bridge?" I asked.
"You saw that?" she again sounded surprised.
"I'm asking you, aren't I?"
"You didn't go in to find out?"
I chuckled without humor. "Ignoring the fact that I was in the process of having my head bashed in, how far do you think I would get past Planet security? I'm sure the rumor mill already revealed my run in with Rockwell."
"It did," she replied dryly. "And Jones?"
Her voice dropped into a lower, more dangerous sounding register. "Don't think for a second that I hired you for old time's sake or because I couldn't find a dozen other private dicks. I could probably even find a couple as closed-mouth as you. But you and I both know you could get past Planet security without anyone batting an eye."
I made my voice hard. "I don't work that way, Lane."
She laughed, and it was a nasty sound. "You'll work that way this time. Just like you did for Wayne."
"That right there should be reason enough for you not to ask this of me," I pointed out.
"That right there is every reason why you shouldn't refuse me," she shot back. "You were certainly visible enough in Midtown today to merit a reopening of your file."
"And if I call your bluff? Things haven't changed that much in two years."
"Don't try me, Jones."
I closed my eyes. There were good reasons why Lois had not ratted me out when she discovered the truth about me. Part of it, I knew, was that no one would believe the story. Or rather, that was what I knew Lois thought, or had thought then. I was not so sure about people's unwillingness to believe, and Lane knew it. "You're asking too much," I protested.
"Consider it penance," she replied briskly. "God knows you've got that concept down."
As if on cue, my desk began to shudder with the vibrations of an approaching el train. "You never answered my question," I said into the phone, "about Kent's excuse."
"His official line? He went to take a piss and I couldn't wait for him." The train rattled closer, its brakes beginning to squeal. Her voice got softer again. "He's a liar, Jones, and you're going to catch him for me." The train was now at its loudest, hurtling past my window and drawing screams from the metal tracks as the brakes began to work in earnest. Lois was almost whispering. "You're going to catch him for the same reason I know you can still hear me right now. Understood?"
I waited a few beats for the train to pull into the station. In the resulting quiet, I spoke almost as softly as Lois had. "Yeah. I understand."
"Good-bye, Jones. I'll expect more tomorrow." She hung up.
I sat with the phone pressed to my ear a moment longer, listening to the dial tone blend with the noise of the train starting up again. When the sound of the train faded into the distance, I gently returned the handset to its cradle. My eyes drifted over the surface of my desk, resting on the file folder with Lois Lane's story face up in front of me. I slammed the side of my fist down on the folder in frustration, almost forgetting to check my strength. A horrified feeling settled in my throat, and I moved carefully to close the folder and put it back, only vaguely relieved that I had not broken anything. I shut the angry and accusing newspaper headlines back into their file drawer and opened the drawer on the other side of the desk.
The bottle was still there, only one third consumed.
I pulled it out of its home and set it directly in front of me on my desk. I centered it on the blotter. The black label made me promises I almost believed.
I reached for my chipped coffee mug, wiping the rim. I set it next to the phone. I imagined all the things I could have said to Lois Lane.
The whiskey could have helped. Or it might not have. Maybe this whole night had been just a case of the DTs and one drink could make it all go away. It wasn't true, but a part of me wanted it to be true. A part of me wanted to pretend I was just another delusional drunk, that the voices in my head were short circuits of brain chemistry exacerbated by alcohol.
For the first time in a long time, two of those voices rang clear in my head, their faces rising in memory. I wanted to remember as much as I ached to forget.
"I love you, Papa," one of the voices whispered.
I balled my fists and stared at the bottle of booze in front of me. Lois Lane had no idea what she was doing to me. Even if she knew, I wasn't sure she'd care.
My daughter had had her mother's eyes. I knew this because two years ago, a rum-fed fire broke a mental block that had kept me from remembering them - or their fate. Jack Daniels had kept them at bay ever since.
It still could.
I reached out my hand, tracing my thumb across the words "Old No. 7."
In my memory, my wife's fevered fingers brushed my cheek.
I could smell the fires, the smoke of burning flesh.
I clenched my fingers against the bottle.
Lois Lane didn't have a clue.