The Big Story

by Chicago

Chapter Three

Phil's Barbershop wasn't open yet when I walked out of the Print Room, and since Kent had just sat down for breakfast, I figured I could afford a half-hour to wander. It had been long enough since I'd been in Midtown that there was news to me in the storefronts. Like Ira's Five and Dime, boarded up now, the display windows soaped, and the awning over the front door tattered and faded. A gleaming new drug store parked kitty corner from the neighborhood hangout offered an explanation.

I recognized the name on the windows; it was a chain store, its polish making Ira's look all the more drab. I wondered what happened to Ira, with his long face and perpetually dour expression. I didn't remember seeing him in the obituaries, but somewhere along the line I got out of the habit of checking them regularly.

There comes a moment when a man has seen too many funerals.

I reached into my coat pocket for my flask and took a pull of whiskey. The faint buzz of the alcohol dimmed the harsher buzz of other voices in my brain.

There were other signs of change in the neighborhood. The streetcar that rumbled past the Planet building was showing up at 7 minute intervals. Two years ago, it had come every ten minutes. There was new construction - high steel - on the corner of Madison and Park Front. The plywood wall facing the sidewalk had knotholes poked through at various heights so passersby could peer in. I walked by without pausing. There wasn't a concrete footing in Metropolis that didn't have a skeleton in it, and it seemed like the city was determined to remind me of my crimes.

That's what I got for returning to the scene.

But Lois asked, and Lois knew more than any human should about me. Enough that she could collapse what little life I had left.

I felt the self-pity creeping over me and I shook it off, taking another nip of whiskey and squaring my shoulders as I put my flask away. I'd given myself enough distance that by the time I got to Phil's, he'd have his door open.

I took Hawthorne across to Monroe, coming back down so I'd be on the opposite side of the Daily Planet plaza from where I started. Phil's looked across the plaza almost directly opposite the Print Room.

I wasn't worried about being made. Kent's cursory examination of me in the Print Room would have told him I needed to get cleaned up. If he saw me, the worst he would do is ask if anyone knew why I was hanging around. There was enough vitriol in the Planet's offices that it would be a couple days before he'd investigate further.

That was a couple of days longer than this case was going to last.

The bell over Phil's door rang as I entered, and Phil looked up from his paper. He was reading the Metropolis Ledger, because that was the way Phil was. If you asked him, he'd shrug. What else should a man read in the shadow of the Daily Planet?

So he looked up from his paper and sprang out of his barber chair with his usual effusive grin. "Johnny!" he greeted, the first person to seem genuinely happy to see me all day. "Where the hell you been?"

I shrugged out of my coat and took off my hat, putting both on the coat tree inside the door. "Around. You know how it goes."

"Of course, of course," Phil agreed. "Shave and a haircut?"

That was also Phil to a T. Be happy to see anyone, accept any answer, get down to business.

I rubbed my jaw as if I were considering even as Phil was whisking me into his chair and tucking a strip of tissue paper around my collar.

"Take five minutes, max. You can't be running around like that, Johnny. They'll think you've gone hayseed." He was already pumping the autoclave and starting the brush in the lather.

"All right," I conceded, and Phil spun the chair a little so I was facing out toward the street. That was another Phil touch; the man took pride in his work. He wanted people to see how he wielded a razor. This had the side benefit of letting me peer past my own cheekbones and Phil's body at the foot traffic on the plaza. Phil was lathering me up when I saw Kent and the red-headed kid - Jimmy, he had called him? - heading into the Planet building.

"Don't smile!" Phil scolded, and I let my cheeks go slack. Phil would have me shaved before anything could bring Kent back out of the Planet offices. I listened as he stropped the razor, and when he touched it to my well-lathered stubble, I almost sighed. It felt like he was shaving off an old self.