The Big Story

by Chicago

Chapter Eight

I didn't go back to the Planet. Instead I caught the subway south four stops and emerged at the Metropolis Public Library. The archive at the Daily Planet might serve me better in some ways, but given my reception in the neighborhood, I suspected my odds of getting into the building were close to nil. There were no such problems at the library.

It'd been too long since I'd been to the main branch of the library. I'd forgotten the way the trees on the grounds created a comforting expanse of green. They were not quite in full leaf this time of year, and they let the sun through pleasantly. There were readers scattered on the lawn around the sprawling library building. A few late lunch types had taken up residence on the broad stairs going up to the library entrance. On either side of those stairs, sleek griffins with modernist lines glared at one another, their stone surfaces dappled with sunlight and shadow. One had its mouth open in what might have been a scream of defiance. There had been some flap when the griffins were dedicated about their appropriateness to a library. Now Metropolitans identified fondly with one or the other, claiming the screamer was the voice of rebellion made possible by knowledge, and his disapproving fellow was the virtue of a rule that told the screamer to shut up and let people read.

I went up the steps along the side guarded by the close-mouthed griffin. I patted one stone flank as I went by. "I hear you, buddy," I remarked, and one of the late lunchers a few steps up and about eight feet over glanced up from her book and gave me a quick smile. I smiled back and kept going.

The library was cool and dark inside. The atmosphere was one of hushed activity, because the Metropolis Public Library was never truly quiet. At least, not on the level of mental energy. The intensity of the place was palpable, and somehow soothing. I let it wash over me as I made my way across marble floors and past the open reading room to the special collections desk.

A fussy looking man with thinning hair combed over a developing bald spot looked up at my approach. He was wearing a bow tie with his close cut suit, and his mouth had a hint of a perpetual scowl that seemed to dare a man to comment on his out of date threads. Light brown eyes regarded me from behind a pair of small wire-rimmed glasses. "Can I help you?" he asked, his tone pleasant enough, if a bit supercilious. He seemed to be actively resisting an urge to look me up and down.

"I wanted to look at the Superman collection," I told him, taking out my wallet and presenting my library card with a winning smile.

He took the card and settled it on the log book in front of him, dragging its edge down the page until he came to the next empty line. "Mr. Jones, is it?" he asked without looking up. I picked up the air of a casual test in his tone. I wondered how many people had been caught giving other people's cards when they automatically answered his name question. Not the hardened liars, of course, but if a person wasn't used to replying to a name, he'd usually give it away.

"Yeah," I confirmed, watching him write down my name and library card number. He glanced at a wall clock to the side of his desk and noted the time.

He handed my card back to me, already dismissing me from his thoughts. "Down the hall to the right. Third door down. Says Superman Archive on the door. Iris will help you."

"Much obliged," I replied, returning my wallet to my pocket but keeping my card out. I suspected Iris would want to see it, too, and probably to hold it while I looked at the papers.

I found the door just like the man said and entered through it to a narrow room that stretched back further than a person might expect. The first third of the room was taken up by a reading area with two large wooden tables. A counter with a swing up door cut the reading area from the archive proper, a space filled with horizontal and vertical file cabinets as well as actual stacks. A pretty brunette - Iris, I assumed - behind the counter was the only person in the room. She looked up as I entered.

"Hello," she greeted.

"Hello," I replied, crossing the reading area and presenting her with my card. "You must be Iris."

She smiled and glanced at my card. "And you must be John." She had the indulgent smile of a woman who expected to be flirted with and would never let a flirtation go further than she wanted.

"Guilty as charged," I confessed, playing into her expectation. "You've caught me."

She nodded, bringing her hands up under her chin and leaning on her elbows. The gesture served to draw attention to the diamond on her left hand. It was a relatively demur ring in terms of size, but the clarity of the stone was stunning. It offset the purr of her tone. "And now that I've caught you, Mr. Jones, what is it I can do to help you?"

I gave her an appreciative message-received smile and got down to business. "I need to take a look at the earliest reports on Superman," I told her.

"Need, eh?" She took my measure with her eyes as she rose. "You a cop or a dick?"

"What makes you ask that?"

She answered me over her shoulder as she opened a drawer in one of the horizontal files. "Most folks would like to look at archives, Mr. Jones. The ones that need to see are reporters, professors, lawyers, cops and private eyes." She lifted a bound newspaper file from the file cabinet. "You aren't dressed well enough to be a lawyer, and you don't smell like printer's ink." She set the newspaper file on the counter between us.

"I could still be a professor."

She gave me a look that implied I had insulted her intelligence. "Most professors don't use their heads to stop other people's fists. Judging from the nose, I'm guessing that's what you've been doing with yours."

I inclined my head in acknowledgment of her point. "You're a sharp one, Iris."

"Not all librarians are just about the books, Mr. Jones. And you haven't answered my question."

"Oh, let me keep one mystery, Miss-"

"West," she supplied, her blue eyes implying I'd answered her question. "Here's your early reports." She slid them closer to me. "Bring them back when you're done and I'll give you back your card. Unless you need more, of course."

"Of course," I agreed, picking up the bound file. "Thank you, Miss West."

"My pleasure, Mr. Jones," she replied, watching me as I took the file to one of the reading tables. I felt her eyes finally leave me when I sat down.

The advantage of the library's Superman archive was that it was complete and thorough about all things Superman. The disadvantage was its singular focus. I could already see the file in front of me was clippings. They would be fully referenced clippings, this being a library, but there were things to be said for having the full paper an article came from. Sometimes context would give more clues than the article itself could.

I reached into my jacket pocket for the short pencil and small notebook I kept there. Then I opened the file Iris West had given me.

Maybe context wouldn't be such a problem.

The first headline surprised me; it was from a supermarket tabloid. It screamed in war headline font, "Mysterious Stranger Rescues Marston Baby!"

I don't know why I didn't remember Superman as part of the summer of the Marston baby case. Maybe because that was still before Lois Lane had given the Superman moniker to the "mysterious stranger." Maybe because there was so much in the world to think about beyond the headlines. Or maybe because, like everyone else, I didn't believe anything that appeared in the pages of the Metropolis Whisper. I wondered how the library had decided it was a real reference to the Man of Steel.

The Marston baby. I closed my eyes, feeling the power of memory overcoming me in a wave of too familiar voices. Normally that would be my cue to reach for a drink, but I steeled myself, letting my mind fall back among the images of the past. For a split second, I once more faced a wall of flames, but then they seemed to part, to fall away, and I was back four years ago.

It had been a week since the Marston baby disappearance, but that was just backdrop to the whirl of life as I knew it. It was the first time we had ever gone to the Element Club, me and Gus and Lois. It was an occasion, a celebration of having made it. Gus and I were flush for the first time since Prohibition had ended eighteen months earlier and we both left the Pinkertons. He was finally firmly settled in at the Parkview, and in part because of the business he had been referring my way, my Midtown office was flourishing. I had gotten a reputation as tough guy for the rich, and whenever a peccadillo needed discreet handling, I was the man who got the call. Gus was the hotel detective who could do no wrong, and the Peregrine Hotel downtown was trying to woo him away from the Parkview.

And then there was Lois. She'd been running with Gus for about eight months at that point, and that was part of the reason the Peregrine had no chance of adding Riordan to its payroll. The Parkview was closer to the Planet for those days when Lois could get away for a lunch time quickie. They weren't in love, not really, but neither was in a hurry to end a good thing.

Lois drove that night, pulling up in front of my apartment building and laying on the horn. I had barely gotten into the back of her Buick coupe when she had the V8 fired up and roaring away from the curb. She looked at me in the rearview mirror. "Looking sharp, Jones," she approved.

Gus was twisting around to grin at me from the front passenger seat. "Told you he could clean up okay," he said to Lois. I was trying not to squirm inside the new sharkskin suit Gus had insisted I buy. Gus could pull off worldly charm. I was just a gumshoe.

"More than okay," Lois decided. "Hell, any of your little old ladies see you at this club, they won't even know it's you."

"Great," I shot back. "This is going to cost me my livelihood, Gus."

Gus snorted. "None of John's little old ladies would be caught dead in this place. And John gets caught here, they'll figure he's on a case and trying to blend in. Add to his appeal."

"I thought my appeal is that I look like I wouldn't hang out the places you go, Gus."

"Are we done talking about Jones's so-called appeal yet?" Lois asked, stabbing the transmission into fourth gear and opening up the engine to highway speeds.

"Sorry, Sweets. We can go back to talking about you."

That earned Gus a glare. "Don't call me Sweets," Lois snapped. "And for the record, Jones, on the way over, you know it wasn't me dominating the conversation."

Gus rolled his eyes. "Yeah, sure, Lois. I was the one pissing and moaning about Perry White."

"He took a story away from me! Said it wouldn't look good, leaving a woman on the case."

"Here she goes again," Gus muttered.

"What story?" I asked, not wanting to be in the middle if there was a blowup.

"The Marston kid," Gus answered. "It's Lois's beat, the whole celebrity thing, you know."

I knew. That was how she and Gus had met in the first place. He caught her sneaking around the Parkview after a story and set her out on her ear. She came back. He liked her spunk. She got her story, and Gus managed to keep her from putting the worst bits in the paper. Even after she and Gus split, Lois credited him for making her see the difference between prurient and newsworthy.

In that moment, though, speeding out toward the Element Club, Lois was steamed. "Celebrity or not, I finally get a story that I can show how I can handle tougher news, and he gives it to some damned rookie!"

"What rookie?" I had asked, and Gus had rolled his eyes again. I could still hear him through the years:

"Don't get her started..."

And then Lois had answered my question.

My eyes snapped open at a sudden recollection. Clark Kent. She had been steamed because Perry had taken her story and given it to this reporter not two weeks in from Smallville, Kansas. A week later, the Marston baby was rescued by a mysterious stranger wearing - according to the article - a blue union suit.

Superman.

I looked again at the Metropolis Whisper. No one else had reported on the mysterious stranger, but what cop was going to report on some guy who showed up and blocked bullets? It was only months later that credible news sources were picking up stories of Superman sightings.

But Clark Kent had been on the Marston story until Superman showed up, and after. He had arrived in Metropolis three weeks before Superman's appearance, only a week before the Marston kidnapping. And Lane said that he was never on hand for Superman's appearances - ever. It was no wonder she was suspicious. The real question was why she hadn't been suspicious earlier.

Of course, I knew that answer, too. Lorna had been singing at the Element Club that night, and later we'd all realize that that was the beginning of the end for Gus and Lois. It was a summer of fights and love and general dissipation, and our personal dramas eclipsed pretty much everything else. By the fall, Gus and Lois were done save for one ill-considered night after the Planet ran her exclusive on "Superman." And once Superman had become her bread and butter? I was betting Lois had been happy enough that Kent was giving the stories wide berth.

I sighed, flipping through the pages to Lois's Superman headline, staring at it unseeingly. I'd read it often enough when it came out.

There was a connection of some sort between Clark Kent and Superman, that was clear enough. It was a connection it had somehow taken Lois Lane four years to realize, but which had prompted Bruce Wayne ...

I took a hissing breath, unprepared for the sudden blaze in my mind at the thought of Bruce's name. I could feel the sweat beading on my forehead as I clenched my fists, listening to Canberra screaming, feeling the wet stickiness of Hortense's blood under my body, and hearing Bruce Wayne's hitching whisper as he spoke to me through the cloak he had thrown over my body. And through it all, I heard a child's voice crying "Papa."

"Mr. Jones? Mr. Jones, are you all right?"

I opened my eyes, uncertain when I had closed them, and blinked at the concerned expression on Iris West's face. She was resting a hand on my arm and giving me a gentle shake.

"You just went pale all of a sudden, like you were going to pass out."

I patted her hand reassuringly and she drew it away. "Just a spell," I explained. "I get them sometimes."

She looked at me with concern. "Do you need a doctor? I can call-"

"No, no," I reassured her, making my voice sound stronger than I felt. "It's passed now. I'll be fine in a minute."

She frowned at me a little like she didn't believe me. I didn't believe me either.