“To die will be an awfully big adventure.”J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
It was a terrifying whisper among the waifs in Gotham City.
Many of the homeless youth had started corralling together, even if it meant they needed to split the scraps and pocket change they made off of their manifold hustles.
The orphan Pockets didn’t know his real name. He was smaller, more nimble than the boys from the park, but his harelip never healed properly, meaning that it was easy for people to ignore him.
So Pockets became invisible.
Give the boy twenty minutes in midtown at lunchtime and he’d emerge with a wool hat, a watch, a wallet, a wedding ring, two bits, and a sausage sandwich. He had a rare talent for relieving people of their extraneous property, and he absolutely needed it more than they did.
Today, was Saturday, and Pockets was hungry. No real lunchtime crowd to speak of, and the bakery where he was sometimes able to get day-old bread for a penny a loaf was run by two middle aged Jewish brothers, so it was closed in observance of their sabbath.
Out-of-towners and suckers were much less common too, thanks to Peter Pan. There were a lot of mixed up ideas about the guy – but Joey, one of the newsboys who Pockets would sometimes camp with at night, said that the coppers thought Peter Pan was a dracula – and Joey super swore it was true, which was an unbreakable oath among the youth of Gotham’s streets.
That meant that Pockets would have to head down to Adams Park. It was a hike from where he was, but it was the only place he might be able to find a scrap, or to link up with some of Joey’s friends to split something to eat.
There was a slavic man in the park with a sausage cart. Kids could get franks two-for-a-nickel, and he’d load them up with onion sauce and sauerkraut if you wanted. Pockets didn’t like all of the toppings, but they definitely kept you fuller than the frank by itself.
And if the kids couldn’t scrounge together a nickel between them, the man was a sure bet to fall for the old heymister hustle: It was a classic, but you needed three kids to pull it off. The biggest kid would order two sweet sausages, and when the guy sets them down to take payment, the kid would dig in his pockets, fishing out a penny or two and feigning like he knew he had more, but had to check his other pocket.
While this is going on, the other two kids would sneak around the other side of the cart, stealing the sausages, and bolting. The older kid then puts his money away, explaining he must not have had as much money as he thought.
Pockets had pulled this con more than a dozen times with the slavic man, and was beginning to suspect that he was letting the kids get away with it, not that it mattered if it meant a hot meal.
The boy wasn’t fast so much as quick, and his little legs, quick as they might carry him in a tight crowd, took almost an hour to move him to Adams Park.
Upon arrival at the northeast corner of the park, Pockets noticed a huddle of kids stirring about something.
“Pockets!” hollered a boy, one of Joey’s friends who they called Extra. He was older, and sold newspapers instead of hustling, he was good, too, making enough to put himself up in a boarding house most nights. Though people didn’t buy papers from kids on Saturdays, so Extra was scraping for food with the other kids. “How much money you got, little man?”
Pockets dug into his trousers, eventually producing a penny, holding it up and handing it over with a shrug.
“Good man,” Extra praised with a salesman’s smile. “So check this out. Stan isn’t pushing his cart today, but the Rose’sguy is here.
Rose’s was another cart, but this one was every kids’ favorite. Hard candy, ice pops, and caramels. They had a couple carts that moved around the city at the various parks, but the Rose’s guy was particularly good to Gotham’s orphan boys.
He was a middle aged man with thinning blonde hair that was mostly just on the side of his head at this point, and he wore a patchy porkpie hat which very poorly concealed that he was losing his hair. A short fellow, with giant eyes and a too-big smile, and tiny little spectacles that kinda just rested on the end of his bulbous red nose. He almost looked like a character from one of Fleischer’s Film Funnies, but he loved the urchins, always giving you an extra scoop of hard candies or caramels in your bag, and gave out the pops for half price, too (they were usually a penny for six, with ice pops for a penny a piece).
The hard candies always tasted like flowers, which was the point, and Pockets and the other boys didn’t much like them, but they had the benefit of not melting like the caramels, so you could squirrel a few away for a lean day. The popsicles had that same vaguely botanical flavor, owing to the rosewater that they used to thin out the juice flavors. But on a warm day like this, boys who would otherwise be starving could eat their fill of penny candies and ice pops, and it became easy to forget that you might be sleeping in an alley tonight.
“Alright boys, alright,” spoke the man with the giant eyes. “How many children are you watching over today, noble king Extra?” The man removed his hat with a flourish, bowing low and showing play-reverence for Extra.
“Eight of us, my good man,” said Extra, putting on his best regal affectation.
“I’m not a boy,” shouted Natalie, who, to Pockets, sure looked like a boy.
“Begging your pardon princess Natalie!” the man bowed low again, tossing her a caramel which she caught, unwrapped, and gobbled down in a single, swift motion. An annoyed smile crept at the side of her mouth; Natalie didn’t like the playacting, but could put up with it because it meant cheap food.
“Children! I will fill King Extra’s bag full to the brim with sweets and treats, but please, form an orderly line for your ice pops. Youngest first and so on, and et cetera!” Pockets was the smallest, but he wasn’t sure if he was the youngest. The line formed, and his attempts to cut in somewhere vaguely near to the front were made impossible by the combined efforts of children who didn’t want to lose their spot and his own anxieties about sticking up for himself.
He ended up at the back of the line, only in front of one bigger boy, Ralph, who was the largest of the kids by far, not that Pockets really minded, too much. Extra wasn’t the type of kid who wouldn’t give out the candies, which was certainly a part of why he was given the bags.
When he approached the cart, after a bit of a shoving match that the vendor only admonished smilingly, the man looked down at the slight boy with his cleft lip and smiled a genuine smile.
“Cherry, please,” Pockets said, looking up, but not really making eye contact.
“Oh, poor prince Pockets, I’m afraid I’ve just run out! Forgive me, and please consider taking the sweet and citrusy orange in its stead. It’s got lots of vital flavors, and I’m sure you’ll love it,” the man held out a glistening orange pop, like a storybook princess might present it: held between thumb and forefinger, with his pinky in the air.
“Sure,” Pockets conceded, but smiled after a lick. “Thanks, mister!”
“Next time, cherry is on the house my pretty prince,” and the man bowed low, removing his hat.
Lex Luthor sat at his desk waiting for Mercy to knock on the door and let him know his appointment had arrived.
His appointment, Liam Warner, was not a punctual man; Lex had low expectations of people, but punctuality was certainly not something he took lightly. The value of a quarter of an hour of the world’s wealthiest man was more than $120,000; time was very literally money.
It was this inability of people to be counted on that led Lex to purchase companies that were successful or poised for success whole cloth, and to generally avoid interference in the operations of those outfits. No one could work hard enough to earn being a billionaire, but you could certainly work hard enough to get your money to work for you.
Lex almost caught himself drumming his fingers on his desk, an old, idle tic that he’d long abandoned in the interest of optimizing his productivity down to the minute; instead, he picked up his notebook and started jotting down notes about various topics: threads of ideas to follow, businesses to seek out or start, and areas where he could invest in real estate with high upside.
It was thirty minutes past their scheduled appointment time, and Lex’s patience had long since worn out, when Mercy’s knock rapped at the door to his office. He took a deep breath and held it, closing his eyes for just a moment and putting on his personalities in layers like a suit. Each level of his public persona coupled truth with deception, the former outgrowing the latter only at the deepest substrate.
Lex opened his eyes.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Mr. Warner is here,” Mercy said through the opened door.
If Lex were the type of man to spend emotional energy on pettiness, he would have sent the man away. The sheer audacity of thinking Lex Luthor could wait thirty minutes for a lout of an Irishman to have what should be a fifteen minute meet and greet was just…he made a mental note to dispose Mr. Warner of his position before the fool was able to negatively impact the business.
Lex exhaled, awash in calm, applying the last layer of his persona before replying: “Send him in, Ms. Graves.”
Liam Warner had a kind of nervous energy that reminded Lex of a stray dog that had been shown some small measure of kindness; there was a light in his eyes and a spring in his step. There was a goofy, open-mouthed smile that Lex’s social heuristics read as drunk, or imbecile. Lex Luthor wasn’t a man who let himself be trapped by the inferential shortcut of stereotypes, but he did find himself considering the possibility that Warner was both.
Warner walked like a vaudeville character, his bushy beard drawing his burly, muscular build into sharper contrast – this was a man who’d been in fights – and, if his research was any indication, had seen action in the trenches in Europe.
Lex stood, extending a hand to the eccentric who had just staggered into his office. Liam tossed his suitcase to his left hand, thrusting his right into Luthor’s.
“Top o’ the mornin’, Lex,” the informal words spilled out in Warner’s rural brogue, accompanied by an unexpectedly sharp smile and firm, confident handshake.
Lex grinned slightly, his outermost mask finding the man infectiously charismatic, even if his deeper layers were annoyed (at best).
“Mr. Warner, I’m glad you were able to find my offices,” Lex said, inviting his guest to be seated.
“Thank you kindly for the hospitality,” Liam replied. “The room was quite comfortable, and I’m afraid I slept a bit later than I expected. A thousand pardons. I uh, met a lass at the pub last night, and, well, push always comes to shove, isn’t that right?” A pause. “Not to mention the walk here from your hotel was a little longer than I thought it would be.”
“That’s why I sent a car, Mr. Warner.” Lex said, needing to consciously avoid clenching his teeth. Chaos was a useful tool when you were the one at the center of it, but it could be absolutely maddening when you were only a witness.
“Oh well, glad that we made it. It’s quite a delight to finally press the flesh with such a well known fella such as yourself, Lex. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve been a longtime admirer o’ your work.”
“Thank you, Mr. Warner. Your accent, are you from Kinsale?”
“Me pa, rest his soul, was from Kinsale, actually, but no, I grew up other side o’ the country, in Dingle. We have a farm right there on the northwest corner o’ the peninsula. You’ve been to Ireland?”
“A number of times,” replied Lex, ready to move on to matters of business, he transitioned without warning. “I spoke a while back to one of our workers, Mr. Vladkov, about a project you were working on involving rijke tubes. I was hoping you could tell me more about this.”
“I can do you one better, I can,” the Irishman said excitedly, standing to open his briefcase. “Are you familiar with the concept?”
Warner unwrapped a metal cylinder which held what must have been two dozen tiny, glass, chambered tubes on small, tight-fitting holders. The device had a long, protruding cord terminating in an AC plug.
“More or less,” Lex answered, “I don’t need an explanation of the general idea, but feel free to present,” Lex flourished his hand at the array of glass and metal that was now set upon his desk, “whatever this is as though I were layman.”
Liam plugged the device in and set it down, returning to the desk to explain.
“So we don’t know a lot about how the big guy’s hearing works, even if we’ve partially worked out his vision. So when the g-men came to me and mentioned a concern about what our big blue friend could hear, I started to develop this, based on a variation on the rijke tube. You’ll notice the tops o’ these tubes are closed, that was to save money, because it allowed me to prototype this with test tubes – like they use in a laboratory – instead o’ needing to fabricate something that wasn’t already mass-produced. Technically, that makes these Sondhauss tubes, but, I suspect with the patents that are sure to follow, these specifically will come to be called Luthor tubes.
“Because o’ the way that sound travels and dissipates, I hypothesized that Mr. S’ hearing could be disrupted, at least partially, by a self-amplifying standing wave. The theory is that he hears words like help or his name, but those are just the specific sounds that draw his attention. Observing his patterns we notice that he never responds to a plot or conspiracy, so normal conversation probably isn’t something he responds to at all.
“Installing these devices on outward facing walls or within them creates a kind o’ sound field. Because the resonance o’ the tubes gets louder as time passes, my theory was anything within that field would be scrambled or deadened or muted entirely from the big fella’s range o’ hearing.
“We’ve run more than sixty field tests, all sponsored by the Division of Investigation using agents with scripts that were planned and practiced in silence, and the findings were inconclusive, but worth following up on: In the unshielded control groups – that is, the groups with no lead and no Luthor tubes – the man upstairs responded to sixteen out of twenty threat scenarios resulting in sixteen confirmed arrests. In the groups with only lead shielding, he responded to ten out of twenty threats, and seven of those ten to which he didn’t respond were acted out in nearly total silence.” Warner paused, looked Lex directly in the eye, and smiled, proudly.
Lex didn’t like the small sample size, but was, nonetheless, impressed at the man’s competence in setting up the experiment.
“Finally, in systems with lead shielding and Luthor tube fields, he only responded to one out of twenty threats.” Liam walked back to the device, and turned the toggle to the “on” position.
“You’re going to notice a hum, like a microphone held too close to an amplifier, and then, a rapid increase in the volume of that sound.” A tiny filament of what looked like steel wool fiber glowed inside of each tube, followed by the notes described by Warner.
The Irishman lifted the device into the air as the sound became loud enough that it couldn’t be ignored, and then tilted it to point away from the pair. The volume decreased significantly.
“If you don’t mind, Lex, why don’t ya go ahead and stand on the other side of the device,” Warner instructed, and Lex followed suit.
“The volume is significantly louder on this side,” Lex yelled, and the door opened behind him.
“IS EVERYTHING OKAY, SIR?” Mercy shouted from the threshold.
“JUST SO, MS. GRAVES,” Lex shouted back.
Liam turned the device off, but the sound persisted for long moments after, hanging in the air even when Lex returned to his seat.
“It’s not perfect,” Liam explained, “but the feds ordered two hundred thousand pieces. You have to get used to the hum, but it doesn’t take too long for it to start to blend into the background. Of course, private use is probably subject to special permits, especially in densely populated areas.”
Damn, Lex thought. He knew he’d be able to secure the permits, but was more concerned that a lack of wide, private use of these devices would have the opposite effect, attracting Superman’s attention instead of creating an effective blindspot.
“I’m afraid I may have misjudged you, Mr. Warner,” Lex said, rising again. “In fact, I took you for a bit of a layabout,” Lex let the words settle in the now-quiet office, Liam stroked his bushy beard. “But I see you’re more of an eccentric – and please understand I mean that in the kindest way – you’re more artist than business man. More auteur than executive.”
Liam smiled. “High praise coming from a man as successful as yourself, I’m sure.”
“Unfortunately, I do have additional appointments today, but let’s schedule a standing meeting for each time you’re in the states. I’d like to get development updates on any cutting edge technologies you’re developing or even just considering. No idea too small or ridiculous. I could even arrange for a fixed apartment in one of my residential buildings.” Lex paused, and smiled. “Perhaps one that’s a bit less of a walk from here,” he held out his hand to his guest, and Liam took it and shook it with a chuckle.
“One last question, Lex,” Warner began, having packed and fastened his suitcase.
“Of course, Mr. Warner,” Lex responded.
“Are you and Ms. Graves attached, romantically?” Liam lifted an eyebrow.
“We are attached professionally, which, I’m afraid is every measure the full-time position,” Lex replied with a toothy smile. “Ms. Graves will see you out.”
Warner winked at Lex, who remained standing until the former had left his office.
It was five full minutes before Mercy Graves opened his office door.
“Mercy, I need you to reserve an apartment in Helena Tower for Mr. Warner,” he directed.
“Yes sir,” Mercy replied. Lex couldn’t be sure, but he was nearly certain that Mercy’s cheeks were a bit more blush than was typical.
“Is everything alright, Mercy?” Lex asked.
“Mr. Warner just has a very…intense way about him, sir.”
“I see. Thank you, Merc–“
“– HeaskedmeoutfordinnerbutIsaidno.” Mercy rushed the words out in a well-enunciated stream of thought.
Lex Luthor furrowed his brow, and noted an a twinge that was, since the alien’s arrival in Metropolis, becoming increasingly and frustratingly more common: he was confused.
“Thank you Ms. Graves.”
Early Sunday morning, in the lightning and thunder in Adams Park, the body of one of Gotham City’s homeless youth was found by a slavic man leaving church.
It was a boy he knew, one who he’d regularly let “steal” sausages from the cart he operated in the park during the week.
“I don’t know his name,” he explained to the policeman with the strange facial tic, “but the children called him Extra.”
Another son of Gotham City who would never grow up.