The Big Story

by Chicago

Chapter Twelve

I did not have a firm plan when I abandoned my flight and took myself invisibly down to the subway platform of the Planet Plaza stop. I waited until a subway pulled in and let myself blend into the rush hour crowd, appearing mid-stride in the throng. As densely as people were packed, anyone who saw me would assume I had darted out from in front of someone else. I let the surge of reporters and brokers and lawyers carry me in the direction of the turnstiles and emerged with them into another sunny Metropolis day.

In the morning light, viewed from the angle of the subway exit on Madison Street, the Daily Planet building rose with an air of monolithic power. It was about half past eight, and the sun was high enough that the sphere atop the building created a perfect eclipse. I spent an impressed moment studying the corona effect of the sun and the way it made the newspaper building seem to glow triumphantly. I walked forward enough to be out of the way of the people rushing to work, but that alone belied that Alonzo Gray was a small towner.

It wasn't an entirely intentional ruse. I had come the previous day on the streetcar, and I'd arrived too early to see the Planet at its most mesmerizing. Perhaps it was the new face, or the fresh sobriety, but for the first time in many years, I was struck by the enormity of the city and the untrammeled ambition of its occupants. I had experienced a similar sense of awe in another city, in the shadow of another newspaper building, inexorable in a different way, all filigree and gothic stonework. A sense of empathy stirred within me for the brash arrogance of the newsmen who thought nothing of submerging entire cities in their shadows.

In their own way, humans were a race of storytellers, and their stories were like their lives: short, brusque and insistent.

I continued to stand on the Plaza, stretching my mind tentatively to the swirl of people moving around me. I felt the mix of emotions they projected toward the stationary Lonnie Smith: irritation, amusement, cynicism, pity. Not much curiosity. They saw me (or didn't in some cases, my form just a part of an unconsidered mobile landscape) and decided what I was and gave me no further thought. So far, so good.

I reached further, skimming the surface of thoughts until I caught the name Kent. I pinpointed the source and began drifting across the Plaza, keeping my eyes relatively fixed on the spectacle of the Planet building. Other senses caught hold, and I heard a young voice tossing off perfunctory apologies as a set of footsteps pounded too-fast up the subway steps.

I took another couple of inattentive steps sideways.

Jimmy Olsen careened into me, stumbling to the ground and landing on his hands and knees with a loud, "Oof!" His camera skittered across the concrete.

"I'm so sorry!" I apologized with an overdone sense of horror that seemed appropriate to a newcomer to the city. I chased down the camera, calling back, "Are you all right?"

Olsen, sensing my move to his camera, was on his feet in a flash, his hands outstretched toward the box in my hands. I, for my part, kept a firm hold on the camera, hoping I had pasted a look of appropriate reverence on Lonnie Gray's face. "This is a 4X5 Speed Graphic," I said, and I felt Olsen's urgency calm a tad. I raised my face and met his eyes, handing over the camera with some reluctance. "And the lens - is that that new Kodak Ektar?"

"Yep," Olsen replied proudly, taking the camera and looking it over anxiously. "Still in one piece, too. White would kill me if I busted this up."

"Perry White?" I asked, looking impressed.

"Yeah. Frankie runs the camera pool, but -" He looked up, suddenly aware of me as more than an unwitting obstacle or a fellow camera enthusiast. His eyes narrowed. "Say, who are you, mister?"

I stuck my hand out. "Alonzo Gray, but everyone just calls me Lonnie. From out of Pueblo, Colorado. I write a column for the Pueblo Nugget, photograph the high school sports. Nothing like what you get out here." I made myself sound wistful.

Olsen grinned, and it made him look about 14, although I suspected he was closer to 17. He accepted my handshake and spoke in a worldly tone, "So that's how you knew the lens. Jimmy Olsen. I work for the Planet here." He jerked his head in the direction of the building, putting on an air of forced nonchalance. His chest had puffed out a bit, and he continued. "I was actually just about to have breakfast with -"

"Oh my god, he's going to jump!" a woman's voice shrilled, and a collective gasp seemed to come from the crowd. Everyone's necks craned upward, and Olsen's bravura confidence slipped as he fumbled with his camera and tried to follow the finger pointings of the other people in the Plaza.

I squinted in the indicated direction, trying to both shield my eyes from the sun's glare and to see the side of the Daily Planet building. My attention was so focused on finding whoever "he" was that even though I heard the whoosh, I wasn't quick enough to isolate where it had come from.

"Holy smokes!" Beside me, Jimmy Olsen had his camera up and now everyone could see Superman zooming along the side of the building. I listened to the ratchets and shutter clicks as Olsen snapped photo after photo and Superman stopped in midair around the 40th story or so. The crowd buzzed, the sound turning to thinly masked disappointment as the person on the ledge finally turned around and disappeared back into the building.

Olsen let out a sigh and let his camera drop down to his chest. "I thought I'd get a catch-shot. I can get those on page 1."

"Are you kidding?" I asked. "That was great! What do you think he said?"

Olsen shrugged, his sense of anti-climax unforced this time. "The usual stuff. Life's worth living, if it's so bad now it can only get better, think of your ma..."

"Your ma?" The question was out before I could stop it, but I followed quickly with, "Sounds like good advice to me." I filed the information away, still puzzled. Like much of Metropolis, I knew little of Superman. I read about his exploits in the paper, and I had seen enough speculation about his origin to believe none of it.

"Yeah," Olsen agreed without enthusiasm. "At least I got some shots," he consoled himself. Then he brightened. "And Lois wasn't here! Oh, she'll be fit to be tied."

"Lois?"

Olsen resumed his big-city air. "Lois Lane. You must know about her. She always gets the scoop."

"We've picked up a couple of her stories off the wire," I allowed, weaving the lies thick and full, certain they would stand up. "You know her?"

He tapped his camera. "I'm her main photographer," he boasted, then glanced at his watch. He looked a little agitated as he saw the time, but he kept up his attitude. "You eat yet?"

I shook my head. "I was going to when I got down here but then I saw the building and-"

"Yeah, it's something, all right. Why don't you come with me to the Print Room? You should meet Clark Kent. He comes from the middle of nowhere, too."

The way Olsen said it had Lois Lane's intonation, and I imagined the string of casual dismissals she must have offered Kent over the years. It would be a handy disguise for a mastermind, I decided, just like Lonnie Gray's rube act was working its own kind of magic for me now. "What's the Print Room?" I asked.

Olsen grinned. "Just follow me," he directed confidently. "This place has the best breakfasts in Metropolis."

I obeyed Olsen's request, making a point of staring at various signage and architecture in a stunned small-town way. Olsen paused impatiently for me, and I hurried apologetically to enter the Print Room with him.

Carol barely glanced at me as I entered, her eyes instead recognizing Olsen. "Heya, Jimmy. Clark's in your usual booth. He with you?"

The "he" was me, and Olsen nodded. "Lonnie Gray. New in town."

Carol gave me a quick once over as I started to smile and pretend not to remember the ache of being completely unknown. "Oh, yeah?" Carol said. "Well, go on then. Clark's waiting." And she hustled away before I could say hello.

Olsen was already moving forward. "C'mon," he urged over his shoulder, and I followed him, forcing myself not to look after the waitress who knew my usual and would yell it back to the cook as soon as I walked in. She didn't know Lonnie Gray.

But Olsen wasn't wasting time, and as we approached the booth by the window I suddenly remembered that he was leading me to Clark Kent, who might have something to do with Superman, and not in a good way. Had he seen the jumper through the diner window? How could he not? But he sat there, a study of patient disinterest. He had two fingers of one hand settled idly through the handle of a coffee cup, and he was wearing a blue pinstripe suit and a sedate tie. There was a grey fedora on the hat tree at the end of the booth. He didn't look like any mastermind I'd ever imagine.

Olsen bounded up to him, his voice effusive. "Hey, Clark. Did you see him?"

Kent smiled at the youngster. "I'm afraid I missed most of it. I was talking to Artie." Olsen looked about to say something, but Kent noticed me and spoke. "Who's your friend?"

"Oh, right! Sorry. Clark Kent, Alonzo Gray, from... where was it you said you were from again?"

Kent half rose in the booth and reached out his hand. I shook it. "Pueblo, Colorado. I write for the Pueblo Nugget. That was some show out there."

I had hoped to get some reaction from Kent, but he only smiled as if amused by my enthusiasm. "The Pueblo Nugget, huh? I've heard of it. I got my start at the Smallville Ledger. Have a seat. Join us." His tone was friendly, and I could feel the warm associations his mind was making as I settled into the booth across from him, sliding over so Olsen could sit.

"I always dreamed I'd make it to Metropolis one day, see the Daily Planet building. I never dreamed I'd see Superman," I said.

Kent smiled again and flagged the waitress. "Coffee?" he asked me.

"Sure," I agreed, and Carol had read the signal before she got to the table to ask. She brought the steaming cup with her and thumped it in front of me.

"What can I get you gentlemen?" she asked. "Usual, Clark?"

"You know me too well, Carol."

She offered him an indulgent smile of a sort I'd rarely seen on her features before turning more briskly to Olsen. "And you, Jimmy? Which half of the menu are you going to devour today?"

"I'm a growing boy!" he protested. "I need an order of pancakes and sides of sausage and bacon to go with my large orange juice."

Carol shook her head. "Whatever you say, Jimmy." Then she turned her attention to me.

"Two eggs, over easy, hash browns, toast," I rattled off.

Carol's pencil scratched across an order pad, and I felt Clark Kent's eyes drifting to the menus still standing upright and untouched between the ketchup and mustard bottles. "White, wheat or rye?" Carol asked.

I blinked. "Oh. Um, wheat, I guess."

"You got it. Be by with more coffee in a bit."

Carol left, and Kent sipped his coffee. "You order like a man who eats at a lot of diners." There was the barest hint of suspicion under his tone, but he seemed less worried than pleased with himself at the likely sounding guess.

"Well, just the one, really. May's, just across from the Nugget office. Doesn't give a choice of toast, though."

Olsen let out a low whistle. "You really are from the sticks, aren't you?"

"Arlene's never had a choice of toast, either," Kent recalled fondly. "Of course, Arlene would bake her bread every morning before opening, and it smelled so good, you wouldn't think about any other type of bread."

"Sounds heavenly. Where's Arlene's?"

"Kansas," Kent answered, and his mind flooded with memories of wide open spaces and smiling Midwesterners. I gathered the details of sunlight filtered through freshly starched gingham curtains, of pies delivered from Ma's kitchen to Arlene's diner. It jarred me, although I kept the reaction from my face. I had been crafting an image of Clark Kent as a cunning shyster, but that didn't jive with the farmboy innocence radiating from the man sitting across from me.

"That's where you were before here?" I asked.

Kent nodded. "Definitely a different kind of news."

"Yeah, I bet. Worst we get back home are ski accidents or avalanches."

"Thresher accidents and blizzards," Kent compared, "and grain futures." I could feel him deciding to like me and trust me. Or at least, to like and trust Lonnie Gray.

"I knew the two of you would get along," Olsen half-gloated, half-grumped. "Clark, aren't you going to ask if I got any good shots?"

"You always do, Jimmy," Kent answered with a hint of amusement, and I could sense him cataloging Olsen's Superman photo collection.

I shook my head. "This is surreal. That was Superman out there and we're just sitting here getting breakfast, and I'm sitting with a reporter and a photographer from the Daily Planet. Man, when Michael hears about this, he won't believe me!"

"Who's Michael?" Olsen asked.

"My editor. I think he expects me to spend my whole vacation getting lost on the subway."

Carol reappeared at our table, arms laden with plates. "You wouldn't be the first," she remarked, entering the conversation easily, "but if you got this far, you should be okay. Two eggs over easy." She set the plate in front of me, then deposited Kent's omelet and Olsen's pancakes. Olsen shifted his camera a little further from his plate and began eating voraciously as Kent thanked Carol. Kent and I shared a smirk over the boy's appetite.

"You know," Kent began thoughtfully, "Jimmy, you have any sense of Perry wanting us on anything special today?"

Olsen looked up. "Don' fink tho," he mumbled around a mouthful of pancake. He swallowed, then tried again. "I don't think so. Why?"

"Well, I was just thinking, if Lonnie here doesn't have any pressing business, maybe we could give him a tour of the Planet."

I lowered my knife and fork and gave Kent a "gee-whiz" stare. "You would do that?"

"If you were interested."

"Am I? Heck, just meeting the two of you has already made this vacation. I was hoping to get on the public tour but -"

"Oh, you have to let us show you the whole thing," Olsen decided, clearly enamored of the idea now that it had been mentioned. "We can show you the actual press and the archive and the editorial floor and-"

"Slow down, Jimmy," Kent advised, but he was smiling. "If a big story comes through we might have to cut it short," he warned me, "but if you don't mind tagging along-"

"Oh, Mr. Kent-"

"Clark."

"Clark. I don't want to put you out-"

"It'd be no trouble."

"Well, count me in then," I enthused. It was only partly show. I felt an odd sort of kinship with Clark Kent, an awareness of a welcoming sort of charm that I had not recognized from him when I met him as John Jones. A man who trusted so easily...

"It's settled then. We'll finish breakfast and then head on over. Probably sooner than later, since Perry's going to want to see Jimmy's snaps."

"Got it," I agreed, digging into my hash browns. It was suddenly clear to me why it had taken Lane so long to connect the arrivals of Clark Kent and Superman. Kent was a nice enough guy, although definitely not in Lane's league. And he certainly didn't seem to have the make up of a criminal or even of someone who might have a friend who could fly. But a doubt lingered. Bruce Wayne had known something involving Clark Kent, and he may have died for it.

I spread some egg yolk on my toast and took a bite. I wasn't certain I was any closer to any answers, but I'd gotten one of my objectives. I was going to be able to stick close to Clark Kent for at least a little while.