The Big Story
Chapter SevenThe midday sunlight was dazzling as I stumbled out of the Parkview Hotel. I blinked against the glare a few times, getting my bearings. Pennyworth had no further information on what Clark Kent had to do with the battle between Wayne and Luthor for ownership of the Daily Planet, and I had no desire to relive that time in conversation. At least, not with Pennyworth.
"Shoeshine, Mister?" a voice asked, and I looked down at a young black face.
"Hey, kid! I told you-" the bell captain started, moving toward us.
I managed not to bristle too obviously, turning my back and putting myself between the belligerent bell captain and the kid. "Let's go," I muttered, following him as he led me half-way down the block.
I was startled when the kid pulled up short. "You really need a shoeshine, Mister."
I glanced back toward the Parkview Hotel, but the bell captain had returned to his place under the awning, and the cut stone building at our backs was the Liberty Tower. "You're taking a chance working down here, aren't you kid?" I asked, not unkindly.
The kid shrugged, already setting his box on the ground. "This is my turf," he stated, gesturing toward the misplaced office monolith. "Mr. Gus tells me to look out for a guy with shoes scuffed to heck, and if that ain't you, I don't know who is. I didn't want you walking off the wrong way."
I considered the boy more seriously as he tugged my pants leg, getting me to set my left foot on the shoe shine box. He knew what he was doing, and not just in terms of a shoe shine. I wondered how long he had been delivering messages for Gus. Less than two years, I knew for certain.
He whipped out his polish and a rag. He knew how to deliver a message without drawing attention, and he was also right about my shoes - they looked like shit.
"What's your name, kid?"
"Roosevelt," he replied, spreading the polish over the trashed toe of my shoe. "Folks mostly call me Rosie."
"That so? And what else did Mr. Gus tell you?" I let my eyes wander along the street, taking in the tourists heading off on carriage rides into the park.
Rosie's polish went into one of his baggy pants pockets and he whipped his rag from his belt loop with a sharp snap. He began buffing my left shoe. "He said you'd ask my name. Also said to ask you who you favored in the third race."
I glanced down fleetingly. "Always go for the long legs," I remarked by rote, finishing a joke I hoped the kid wouldn't get. "And Mr. Gus is a bad influence on you."
The kid looked up at me with a wide grin that sparkled in his eyes, and yes, he knew the joke. "Mr. Gus said you say that, too. Other shoe, Mister."
"Sounds like Gus is giving away all my lines," I muttered as I lifted my right foot onto the shoe shine box.
"Not that one," the kid replied saucily, "although he did say I should ask you for another quarter."
I raised an eyebrow. "Did he, now?"
"Yassuh," Rosie replied, irony in his dialect. Whip smart brat, but I could see why Gus had picked him as a message boy. There was another snap of the rag coming out of the belt loop, and Rosie began buffing again. "Mr. Gus said you could do with solid food. Said he was buying, even, and you'd know where."
"Gus is buying, I could probably give you two extra quarters," I commented to the air, once more maintaining the appearance of a guy just getting a shoe shine.
Rosie gave a final crack of his rag as he finished buffing my shoe. "More than one look suspicious. That's a dime, Mister." He held out his hand, and I fished into my pocket for the dime and an extra quarter. "Should prolly flip me the quarter, Mister," Rosie suggested, and I kept an appreciative smirk off my face. I dropped the dime in Rosie's palm.
He thanked me and swiftly repacked his shoe shine box before moving off. I let him get two steps before pantomiming a moment's decision and a second reach into my pants pocket. "Hey, kid!" I yelled.
Rosie turned, his face appropriately apprehensive. I smiled and flipped a quarter through the air toward him. A huge smile lit his face as he caught it. "Thanks, Mister!" he called, and before he'd gone two more steps, he had another customer.
I shook my head as I turned my feet toward Adams Street. Kid was a consummate showman, too clever by half, probably, but gutsy enough to make the most of being that clever without getting burned.
The city was glittering bright as I walked, even the green of the park not enough to cut the glare of the concrete. This part of town was cleaner than most, kept that way for the tourists and their money. I pulled my hat brim a little lower trying to shield my eyes, but it was hardly any good when the light bounced off everything.
When I crossed Harding Street, the canyons of Midtown replaced the open feeling created by the park and cut the light with sharp shadows. The lunch crowd still filled the sidewalks, but it had the briskness of people returning to their offices after lingering one drink too long over their meals. Human traffic collected at corners, deciding whether to risk a dart across the steady stream of speeding taxis or wait for the light. Laughing gaggles of secretaries split up at intersections to mingle with more somber businessmen in dark suits. Silences fell as groups filed into office buildings.
I stayed to one edge of the sidewalk, moving with the flow of foot traffic, blending in with the crowd. No one paid me any more attention than anyone else as I turned south on Adams. I was alert for any sign that I might be followed, mindful of Pennyworth's explanation of how he'd found me earlier, but not so much of a whisper of recognition from the crowd caught my mind.
Two blocks down on Adams, I stopped in front of the Was-Ed's Diner and went in.
Gus was sitting at a booth against the back wall in front of two cups of coffee. He had on one of his usual natty brown suits, unrumpled even after an overnight shift. His hat was hooked on the coat hook on the edge of the booth. His dark brown hair was cut a little shorter than the fashion of the day - a remnant of his army days - and aside from a few greys, it looked the same as it always had. I slid into the side of the booth across from him and claimed one of the coffee cups. "Hiya, Gus."
"I didn't figure the old man would keep you much longer when you weren't down at the end of my shift. Take it Rosie found you?"
"And shined my shoes. And told me you're buying." I sipped at the coffee. It was still scalding hot.
Gus was watching me steadily. "I am," he confirmed. "You look like shit, John."
I slurped a little more coffee, wincing a little as it burned at the back of my throat. "That makes one of us," I shot back.
Gus snorted and reached for the sugar, pouring in what had to be three spoons worth with a lack of attention that came from long practice. I never did understand how Gus could drink it that sweet. "I don't think the liquid diet is doing so good for you," he commented.
"Helps me sleep at night, at least."
"Also gets you sapped and dragged to hotel rooms against your will."
I set down my coffee hard and stared at Gus. He was unconcerned by my scrutiny. He just tapped his spoon on the edge of his cup and set it to the side before picking up his coffee and drinking a swallow. "You think I was there against my will," I said flatly.
Gus nodded toward me. "Take off your hat and stay a while, John. And you disappear for two years and you honestly think I'm going to believe the Parkview Hotel is the first place you'd want to be when you resurface?"
I glared at Gus until I was surprised by a waitress walking up and depositing two plates of creamed chipped beef on toast on our table. "There be anything else for you boys?" she asked, a hint of distracted boredom in her tone.
"That'll be all, Gladys. Thanks," Gus replied to Gladys's already retreating back. "Eat up, John."
I gritted my teeth, then sighed. I'd never been able to stay angry with Gus. I took off my hat and set it on the table by the wall, then drew one of the plates closer. I slipped the silverware out of its napkin cocoon and then unrolled the napkin to lay across my lap. "How's Lorna?" I asked.
Gus swallowed the mouthful he'd been chewing and chased it with some coffee. "Good," he finally answered. "Got her set up in a sweet little bungalow over in Vernon."
I lowered my fork and stared at him. "You what?"
"We got hitched. Year and a half ago, now. Lorna got spooked with what happened to Hortense, and she got me to thinking how you never know in this life. One day you wake up and then you're dead." Gus was using the philosophical tone he always used when he discussed things that everyone would rather forget. That was one of the things about Gus - he never avoided topics, but he never made you feel like you had to comment, either. He just let it slide through the conversation. As I listened to him, I felt a bottle-shaped ache that I had used to fill the space Gus used to be able to bridge with talking.
"So one day, we up and said the hell with it. I promised Lorna I'd give up other women, and she gave up the club for the women's rotary." A half-smile quirked into Gus's cheek, and he shifted in the booth, reaching into his jacket pocket and coming out with his wallet. "And then there's this." He fished out a photograph and gazed at it for a moment before passing it to me.
I wiped my hands carefully on my napkin before accepting the last thing I expected to ever see from Gus Riordan. I looked up at him with a shocked expression, and he laughed. "Still can surprise you, eh, John." He took a swallow of coffee. "That's our little one. Betsy."
I studied the photograph. The baby in the picture was maybe six months old, big enough to sit up. She had on a frilly dress and someone had managed to get a bow to stick to a few wispy strands on a mostly bald head. Unlike most babies in photos, she was smiling. She had Lorna's eyes, but that smile? "Definitely a Riordan, with that grin," I stated, handing the photo back. "You named her Betsy?" I was asking to make conversation, to save myself from thinking about what it meant to have a daughter.
"Short for Elizabeth," Gus confirmed, taking the picture and tucking it back into his wallet as he fixed his eyes on me. "Elizabeth Joan," he added significantly. "We told the priest we named her for Joan of Arc. Think you can go to hell for lying to a priest?"
I should've joked back that Gus probably already had his ticket stamped, but instead I blinked and dove for my coffee cup, swallowing down a lump suddenly in my throat. I couldn't make myself look at Gus.
"We've missed you, John," he said quietly, putting his wallet back in his jacket. "I don't blame you. Hell, if the same shit'd happened to me, I'd probably have gone to ground in Uptown, too. Might've even crawled into a bottle and never come out." He paused, turning his coffee cup. Then he caught my eyes again. "Why'd you come out, John?"
I couldn't have answered in that moment if I'd wanted to, but I was saved by Gladys, coming by on coffee rounds to refill our cups. We sat in silence as she poured and moved on.
I drank some coffee. Then I said, "Sometimes a man's got a price."
Gus shook his head. "The only price you ever had, John, was caring too much. And you can bet I'm not letting you disappear back into your hole again if I can help it. You on a case?"
"Figured as much. Planet, again, isn't it?"
I nodded again.
Gus swore softly under his breath. "You gotta make me a promise, John."
"I can't keep promises, Gus."
"Bullshit," Gus contradicted me. "You'll keep this one. You'll keep this one because you've got a price, and I'm naming it. Since her grandpappy had a stroke, my Betsy's short a godparent."
I choked a little. "Gus-" "I'm not playing around, John. We worked together for almost ten years. You're probably the only decent guy I can stand in all Metropolis. I bite the big one, I want someone around who can tell my kid about the guy I really was."
"So you survive this case you're on, we'll talk about this. And some other things. Promise me."
"Like getting Rosie to quit shining shoes and go to school."
"I'm not saying say yes. Just promise we'll talk about it."
I relaxed a little. "I promise we'll talk about it," I agreed, and Gus leaned back with a grin.
"Good. Now, tell me about this case." He resumed his assault on his half finished chipped beef.
"I'm not getting you mixed up in it, Gus."
"Of course not," he agreed amiably between bites. "You're just going to ask me for info. Who're you tailing at the Planet?"
I took a bite of my own cooled food. "Nobody at the moment. I'm here."
"Don't crack wise," Gus warned. "Also, remember who introduced you to Lois Lane in the first place. It's likely I know something you want to know."
I considered. He had a point. "Clark Kent," I said.
Gus stopped eating, his fork halfway to his mouth. "You're shitting me."
"I know. Guy's squeaky clean. Worst you might say of him is he's a bit yellow. But -"
"Don't be so sure," Gus said thoughtfully.
"I caught him once," Gus mused, "coming out of a janitor's closet at the Parkview."
I blinked. "He boffing one of the maids?"
Gus shook his head slowly. "Wasn't anyone else in there. And he seemed surprised to see me there. Confused. Said he thought it was the stairwell entrance."
"He's not that dense."
"No," Gus agreed. He made a face as he drank a bit more coffee, and I suspected it had gone cold. He had waved away Gladys's last round with the coffee pot. "No. He was disarrayed. Didn't even have his glasses on. Had to fumble for them."
I snorted. "Bet he was caught an eyeful of someone getting down and dirty peeping through a keyhole and had to take care of things."
"Maybe." Gus didn't seem convinced. "You ever seen Kent without his glasses?"
I shook my head. "What's that got to do with anything?"
Gus lined his silverware up on his empty plate and dropped his napkin on top of everything. "I don't know. Just a weird feeling I've seen him somewhere before, and not as Clark Kent, if you know what I mean."
"A double life?"
Gladys came by again, taking Gus's plate away and refilling our coffee. I worked a little more on the remains of my chipped beef as Gus poured sugar in his coffee and stirred it. I tried to imagine Kent without his glasses.
"Need a ride back to the Planet?"
"No," I declined, deciding I was done with my plate and pushing it away. "Probably better not to be seen with me down there."
"Point." Gus sipped his coffee. "You'll remember your promise."
I nodded, and the voices that had managed to be quiet for over an hour began to increase their noise from whispering. "I'll remember," I said, mentally ordering the voices to shush. "I'll call at the Parkview."
"I'll be waiting for it."
We lapsed into silence and finished our coffee.