The Big Story
Chapter ThirteenThe Planet building was buzzing when we emerged from the elevators into the newsroom, and I felt a sudden chill. My attention had been focused on making and sustaining contact with Clark Kent, and I had been charmed by him. It had not occurred to me to wonder at his unconcern about Superman's appearance, or about his apparent lack of interest in finding out who had been perched on the ledge of the office building he worked in. Now that I was in the bustle of an office clearly rattled by the events of the morning, I wondered if what I took for an overlay of urban sophistication might instead be icy sanguinity.
"Jimmy, tell me you've got pictures," Lois Lane barked as soon as we came into her line of sight.
Olsen mugged a little and held up the camera. "You know it."
"Well, get them down to developing and quit dawdling. MPD needs to see them."
"GO, Jimmy! Before Perry gets out here and yells more."
I'm going, I'm going. Geez."
Kent's brow was creased. "What do the police need? I thought Superman-"
"Superman got the guy off the ledge, but apparently the pep talk didn't take. Security let him use the john." Lane made a set of gestures at her wrists. "Got both arteries. Cops are reading security the riot act now."
"Dear lord." Kent looked genuinely stricken, and he projected honest shock. "I take it he's-"
"Dead. Rockwell scooped the damned story, too. Already was on it when I got in. And who the hell are you?"
Lois had finally noticed me, and I offered an apologetic smile. "Alonzo Gray. I'm with the Pueblo Nugget -"
Lane glanced down at the hand I held out and ignored it. "Okay, Mr. Small Town Reporter. Who authorized-"
Kent cleared his throat. "I did. I offered to give him a tour..."
"We can do it another time," I hastened to offer, picking up cues from the minds around me about appropriate reactions. "Or if-"
"No," Kent cut me off, "I promised the tour, and I'm betting my column inches are going to be filled with Rockwell's story anyway. Just let me - Lois, what was the man's name?"
Lane shrugged, turning away from me and giving Kent her distracted attention. "Damned if I know. Not my story. One of those lawyers with Gravewood and Teasbury and Associates. Ask Rockwell. I'm sure you'll see him on your little tour. I gotta go check in on something. Have fun with Smallville, Mr. Small Paper." And then she was gone, hastening off across the newsroom.
Kent stood beside a desk, his expression numb. "You really don't need to give me a tour or anything," I said. "I can see myself out and maybe if I leave you my card-"
"Lonnie. You'll get your tour. I just - it never occurred to me that -"
I waited a beat before asking carefully, "Do you think it's someone you know?"
Images of familiar faces from the 40th-42nd floors flooded Kent's mind, but he was shaking his head. "I have a knack for faces, even when I don't know someone by name. It's not like I was friends with anybody at Gravewood and Teasbury, but you see people in the lobby -" He broke off.
"I know how you mean," I said quietly, meaning it. The emotion, the genuine regret radiating from him, was all too familiar. "Should we go get coffee?" I suggested. "If you want to talk or anything - I know I'm more or less a stranger, but -"
Kent gave me a quick smile. "I miss country manners sometimes," he revealed, and his gratitude was evident. "It's just the shock, is all. In Metropolis, you hear Superman is involved, you always figure everything turned out all right, you know? I mean... he's Superman."
There was a rawness of faith in his tone, a sort of awe that genuinely surprised me. I had sold myself on the idea that he had some connection to Superman, but the way he revered the legend, the sense of horror he felt at the taint on that legend this would bring - it seemed at odds with someone collaborating with a supposed superhero. The doubt that assailed him as a result of Superman's failure to save a suicidal man was like a crisis of faith.
"Not even Superman could solve every crisis," I tried to reassure, half surprised by the flare of anger that Kent kept under the surface.
"He should," Kent stated firmly, almost as if it were a resolution. He frowned slightly, then shook his head. "But there's nothing we can do about it now, and I did promise this tour. Should we start with the actual presses?"
I hesitated, trying to find the right response.
"Seriously, Lonnie. It'll help take my mind off this. Plus the presses are in the basement. Opposite direction of all this activity."
"Okay," I agreed. "I sort of meant to ask about that."
"About what?" Kent was heading toward the stairway exit, and I followed.
"I thought most places took the top floors of the buildings they own."
Kent actually chuckled as he held open the door for me. "Not the Planet. Perry wouldn't hear of it. A newsroom up on 73? Our reporters would get scooped all the time while they were waiting for an elevator." His voice had taken on a tone that I recognized as a parody of the Planet's fiery editor.
I smirked. "Not such a problem in Pueblo."
"Or Smallville," Kent acknowledged, holding open the stairway door. "Sorry about the stairs there, but the elevator car for the presses doesn't stop on 4. We used to only use the basement plus the first three floors, not counting the lobby."
"Yeah. Before my time, but they expanded after the war." The suicide of the lawyer still weighed on Kent's mind, but he was finding relief in his tour guide duties, and I was happy to give him an excuse to think of something else. As I followed him down the stairs to the third floor, I found I was growing more certain that Lane had misjudged him. Even after 4 years in the city, the tarnish Metropolis put on everyone had barely patinaed his surface. Two years ago that tarnish would have been even fainter. And Kent had the energy of a man who was compelled to do the right thing.
It suddenly struck me that the reason Bruce Wayne might have been interested in Kent could have had something to do with the man's reporting. Could Kent have put something in his stories that suggested suspicion of Lex Luthor's underhanded dealings? I would need to get into the archive and -
"Sorry," I apologized, realizing belatedly that the fervor of my new idea had caught my external self off guard. I had paused beside a potted shrub that sat next to the stairway door on the third floor. "I thought for a second this was related to an aspen tree. Made me feel a little homesick."
Kent bought my lie, which meant either it was better than I anticipated or he was still too distracted to pay too close attention. His words suggested the former. "I sometimes think the water in the Sound looks like waving wheat," he confessed as we waited for the elevator. "But nothing makes the same whisking rustle when the wind blows through it."
"I can imagine," I sympathized, picking the image from his mind as he spoke. I tasted a longing in him that I understood. He felt he had a place in Metropolis, but he was not home.
The elevator doors opened, and a half dozen people streamed out. Kent led the way in, then smiled as he hit the button for the basement. "Next stop, the biggest, fastest presses in the business."
I answered his smile with one of my own. "I can't wait."