♪ ♫ People let me tell you ’bout my best friend,Harry Nilsson • “Best Friend”
He’s a warm hearted person who’ll love me till the end.
People let me tell you bout my best friend,
He’s a one boy cuddly toy,
My up, my down, my pride and joy. ♪ ♫
Bravo Foxtrot Foxtrot
A technology that seemed poised to explode into ubiquity had somehow completely failed to register as remarkable to Lex Luthor until it was “too late,” so Lex was doing calculations in his head.
In all, Lex thought of himself as a man who believed that ideas of “missed opportunity” and woulda, coulda, and shoulda were marks of low character.
Luthor didn’t make real money with the Skylight Club, per se, but it allowed him to swathe potential partners in luxury, to let them fully understand the additional expected value they were getting out of the transaction. He did, however, make a habit of buying up gin mills, former “juice joints” and raided speakeasies, because it took so little to get them back into working order.
On New Year’s Eve of 1933, he’d hosted a ring a ding ding at the Skylight Club’s exclusive gala. At a thousand dollars a ticket, it was a who’s who of Metropolis’s social and political elite. But wealthy people wouldn’t ever spend their last thousand dollars on a ticket to a party. didn’t get The real money came when you separated people from the last dollar in their pocket. One-hundred and twenty-five million people in America, and only five men who were within coverable distance of Lex’s net worth. Another million-or-so were millionaires – well off, but could lose it all if they were too risky or too risk-averse (or if they bought entry to too many thousand dollar galas). That left almost One-hundred and twenty-four million unremarkable people.
And Lex Luthor found it offensive that those people might have $40 tucked away in their mattress, or in a savings account.
“Banking holiday, hm.” Lex reflected in disdain.
But television, this was a technology that he had almost completely missed; a wildly uncharacteristic slip for him, but fortunately, not one that couldn’t be compensated for by an opportunist such as he: unrest in Colombia six years ago, and a massive, multinational strike starting in Costa Rica left The United Fruit Company’s stock lower than it had been in decades. He’d discussed a hostile takeover in August, but instead began buying shares on a massive limit order. Certainly not enough to be a majority, or even plurality stakeholder in the company, but enough that, when combined with his financial and political influence, he would be a shoe-in for a position on the board.
He would send a proxy, of course, but the point of it all would be an investment in television; specifically, the National Broadcasting Corporation, a division of the Radio Corporation of America, owned jointly by four firms: General Electric, Westinghouse, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, and the United Fruit Company.
Lex’s private victory was interrupted by the expected crackling of his intercom.
“Mr. Luthor,” the tinny voice of Mercy Graves came through the box on his desk. “Mayor Karlo and Commissioner Gelio are here to see you.”
“Excellent Ms. Graves, escort them in, and please join us.”
Lex thought of Mercy as much more than an assistant; she was a third triosphere to his own brain. A partner in most endeavors, and someone he rewarded handsomely for her utility. And while he might not have thought of her, strictly speaking, as an equal, she was more his peer than almost any other person he had worked with or met.
“Gentlemen,” Lex said, gesturing to an close, round coffee table with four handcrafted wooden chairs which were optimized for posture first, and comfort second. “Please join me at the table, and let’s discuss the current state of affairs in our neighboring cities. Can I offer you anything? Scotch, or coffee? Perhaps a glass of ouzo, commissioner, it’s just arrived from Plomari?”
“I’d take a coffee,” the commissioner made eye contact with Mercy, offering no sign of piqued interest at the offer of a Greek aperitif. “I take it black.”
“I’ve never turned down good Scotch,” answered Mayor Karlo with a dopey smile.
Lex smiled at the mayor, and depressed another button on his desk. “Esther? Three black coffees and a Scotch, please. You may open the Macallan.”
Mayors were easy to buy and sell, and the tendency of elected officials toward narcissism meant the mayor wouldn’t necessarily feel uncomfortable or awkward if he was the only one imbibing. But the commissioner, who had made headlines that reached national newspapers, could perhaps be nudged down the path to endearment with some simple camaraderie.
Lex joined the trio at the table; moving to his designated chair across from Mercy’s. With the Gothamites separated from one another, he would be able to better evaluate each man’s individual responses to their discourse, and would prevent them from communicating surreptitiously with one another. Naturally, he and Mercy had a series of verbal, conversational, and gestural cues that amounted to a sort of cobbled-together code when taken all at once, and they would be able to securely pass information to one another, even in the presence of the two outsiders. Lex took the initiative to begin the discussion.
“Gentlemen,” he began. “Your city has provided a model of governance around many of the challenges presented by Superman, but also by other, potential supermen. This is the kind of futurist-thinking that I admire, even if I wouldn’t have come to the same conclusions.” Lex paused for the the faint praise – and the requested drinks – to land. The commissioner remained poker-faced aside from a polite “thank you” to Esther, but the mayor’s face played at a smile, and his gratitude was displayed as a joyful aside with the help.
Ever the politician, Lex thought.
“So what’s your conclusion then, Mr. Luthor?” Gelio asked, raising an inquiring eyebrow.
“Please, commissioner, call me Lex. All of my friends do. I have something of an answer in mind, but first, I’d like you to tell me what you know about Superman – The Superman – to see if we can see the flaw in your regulations together.”
“Well he flies, he claims he’s from outer spa–“
“–I’m sorry, commissioner. I meant what we know about him, morally or ethically.”
“We don’t know about him ethically or morally,” the commissioner provided. “I suppose what you’re asking is ‘what do Superman’s words and behaviors suggest might be his ethics or morals?’ and while I think it’s dangerous to assume that those will remain consistent or reliable, it’s a different question entirely.”
“Fascinating,” Lex remarked, and he was genuinely fascinated. This man had a natural talent for critical thinking that suggested to Lex that he hadn’t realized his full potential. He could be useful. “Please, continue.”
“Well, Superman seems to be reasonably apolitical. He doesn’t involve himself – as much as he can avoid to – in government affairs.” A pause, then, as if the commissioner suddenly remembered something, “except that he is at least somewhat aware of our laws, and makes efforts to…follow…them.”
“Precisely, commissioner. It would seem to me that your problem is not a problem of supermen, but one of authority.” He waited – not for dramatic effect – but to let his audience process the thesis. “The legislation you’ve enacted only keeps one example of a superman from acting in your city. And by all accounts, the one it prevents has shown himself to be far more altruistic than your own ‘Bat-man,’ is he not? To put a finer point on it: I’m sure that Gotham has laws against racketeering, and yet in recent years the city has overtaken Atlantic City and Chicago as the mob capital of the United States.”
Commissioner Gelio tented his fingers and leaned forward in the exact manner that Lex would employ both if he were feigning genuine interest, or if he were genuinely interested.
“Commissioner, you’ve shown yourself to be a true talent at getting the press to pay attention to you.”
“That he has, Lex,” Karlo interjected, and took another sip of his Scotch. “That he has.”
Mercy’s cringe would’ve been imperceptible to anyone without Lex’s level of familiarity; to someone less acquainted, it would be easy to get lost in her pencil dancing across the notepad.
“To wit, commissioner: what are you doing to make that skill work for you?”
“Keep talking,” Gelio’s face twitched in a manner that would’ve made Lex uncomfortable if he hadn’t done his research. Although he wondered what kind of “tetanus” didn’t eventually run it’s course – if there was an ally in the commissioner, Lex had much to offer in the way of medical advances.
“Do you know how many news media outlets I have invested in, commissioner? Thirty. On the east coast. In fact eleven are right here in Metropolis. This isn’t to brag, mind you, but it provides a certain level of privilege. My press releases are printed without checking sources, and, barring a major paper or broadcaster beating me to the punch, my version of stories become the dominant ones.”
The commissioner tapped his index fingers against one another with a jittery, staccato rhythm.
“I understand that you don’t enjoy the same…”
“Largesse,” Mercy offered.
“Yes, thank you, Ms. Graves. The same largesse. But you both represent the highest offices in Gotham. You, Mr. Mayor, are law,” Lex allowed himself to become just slightly more grim. “Commissioner Gelio is of course –“
“–Order,” said the commissioner.
“Precisely. Statements from such important figures in Gotham City can launder stories in favor of whatever is needed. These shouldn’t be lies, of course – but there are times when public speculation is a disservice to the important work you are doing.”
“Mr. Luthor,” Gelio was being formal again – and they’d made such progress! – Lex needed to adjust. “With all due respect, I know you’re a big advocate for Superman. What you may not be aware of, is that this freak in tights jeopardized a specific and ongoing operation. A sting that we had worked on for weeks.”
Mercy tapped her eraser once against the notepad. It was a fifteen minute warning. If he didn’t give a specific reply, it indicated that this meeting was in danger of running long, and in one minute she would exit the room, cancel Lex’s next appointment, and return. Lex wound the crown on his wristwatch, twice, to indicate to Mercy that she should cancel the next two meetings.
“Commissioner, I’d like to connect you with some of the smaller press outfits that I manage in Gotham. You’ve recently removed a depraved child murderer from the streets – people should better understand your expertise on public safety,” Lex said. “The people of Gotham need to know that you’re their friend; let them presume for themselves that your enemies, be they criminal enterprises or costumed vigilantes, are their enemies.”
“I’m appreciate the connections, Lex. It’s always useful to have a friend at the papers. The guy who owns the big ones in Gotham, well…he’s not such a big fan of me or –“ the commissioner looked at Karlo, who was absentmindedly using his finger to twirl the block of ice among the dregs in his glass. He looked back at Lex. “What I’m saying is that I’ll need as many friends as I can get if Gotham is gonna win the war on crime. That said, I don’t know if I understand the utility in repealing the CAPE law just to try to attract your pal, Superman.”
“Superman is famously difficult to deliberately ‘attract,’ commissioner. I should know, I’ve tried to get a meeting with him, but alas, I don’t count the man a friend…except of course in the altruism and spirit of friendship he’s shown the world. I’ve never met Superman, personally.“ Lex’s eyes maintained unblinking contact with Gelio’s. His expression far more severe than his tone. “But a repeal is not the outcome you’re driving toward. Your heroism requires personal risk, and very real sacrifice. Let’s tell that story. Commissioner, have you ever heard of circular reporting?”
“Hello? Yes, I’ll accept!” Martha Kent smiled, holding the telephone a little tighter to her ear.
“Oh Floyd? Well, he’s a little rough around the edges; less conversational than Elias was, mostly keeps to himself, you see. But he’s plenty good at hitting a nail on the head. Is everything alright, Clark?”
“Alright then, out with it.”
Martha’s face lit up and she leaned conspiratorially close to the large, hardwood box that made up the bulk of the Kellogg wall phone.
“D’you mean to tell me that Superman is nervous about a girl?
“Oh don’t worry, Floyd took the truck into town to pick up some wood and mail a letter. Now listen, any woman would be lucky to have you Clark. But as far as how I let your father know – Jonathan was a bold man. He just out and told me he fancied me. I’ll always remember it. He said to me ‘Martha Clark, I reckon I’d like to take you for a picnic, if you’d allow me?’ And I said ‘Well I’ll allow it Jonathan Kent, but you’d better have fresh tomatoes, or we’ll need to stop at the grocery store first.’ You see, Clark, we were both be in the church youth group, and I’d often try to help out with some of the more masculine work because I wanted to be closer to your father. I wasn’t sure he’d even really noticed until he came and asked me out.
“Oh Clark, hold on a second. I know you don’t have a church to erect or pews to sand and stain. If a woman likes you, she’ll make eye contact when she speaks to you, but she may look down and away. She’ll get nervous, and she may say something embarrassing accidentally. Just know she doesn’t mean any harm by it. And if she gives you a hard time, she may be flirting with you – which is fine in some measure, but beware of floozies. Now tell me more about this woman, who is she?
“Oh so what? You’re still Clark for God sakes! Just tell her you’d like to take her for a picnic on the roof of the building, son. Leave her a sweet note. If she likes you when she sees you as your best self, there’s nothing wrong with that. And, at some point, when there’s love, and trust, you’ll be able to tell her. Think of how wonderful it would be to have someone to confide in who isn’t your mama.”
“Of course I’m right, Clark,” she beamed. “I always am.”
“You know you can call me any time you need, sweetheart. Love you, bye-bye.”
“Mmhm,” Bruce Wayne was scribbling onto a piece of paper at his desk, each slash of the pen an important detail of the absolutely surreal phone call he was having. Alfred Pennyworth opened the door to the study and entered.
Bruce set the pen down, turning to his adoptive father and spreading the fingers on his right hand into a claw, and making a fist with his right hand. He bounced the claw against his fist, and Alfred nodded, acknowledging the American Sign Language sign for “Jupiter.” He sat across from Bruce as the younger man concluded the call.
“Well of course, Clark. Anytime. Enjoy the rest of your day.”
Bruce finished a swash on the paper, he recapped the pen, and stared, confusedly at Al, preparing to recap the call.
“So you’ll never believe who that was,” Bruce stopped, and corrected. “You’ll never believe why he was calling.”
Alfred nodded to indicate that Bruce should continue.
“He has a crush, and he wanted advice – well, he said he wanted advice, but he kind of just launched into telling me about her and telling me about the advice that his mother gave him.”
“Oh dear,” said Alfred. “I could imagine Mrs. Kent’s advice being a bit backwards.”
“To say the least, but it brings to mind some important things we haven’t considered.”
“There are, as far as we know, three people in the world who know his secret. At least, three that he knows of. We can’t discount the possibility that there are people in Smallville who put it together. In all likelihood, he left some clues.”
“And there may be others,” Al added. “Governments – ours or others, could have deduced what we have. In terms of ‘national security,’ learning everything you could about Superman would probably be the most important information in any national intelligence file.”
“Right. The important part is that he feels he can confide in me, in you, in his mother.”
“That’s to our advantage, isn’t it?”
“On a purely binary yes-or-no basis, yes,” Bruce said. “But it’s concerning, because including that conversation, I’ve talked to the man for less than, what, two and a half hours?”
“Oh, I see.”
“Alfred, I think I’m his best friend. I just had a conversation with a professional journalist and…” Bruce gave the sign for “Jupiter” again “…about the kind of things that most boys learn in junior high. The man is my age and asked me, in earnest, how to tell if a woman likes him!”
“What did he say when you told him to just ask her?”
Bruce smirked. It wasn’t a surprise, but it kindled a pleasant memory of Alfred walking in on his two wards talking about a girl that Dick liked. When Dick asked “How do I know if she likes me too?” Bruce had answered the same way that Alfred had answered when Bruce had asked him the same question. “Women and girls aren’t inherently mysterious or confusing. The confusing and mysterious part is working out what your body is telling you about how you’re feeling when you’re around someone you like. Women might confuse you more than boys, but only because you’re looking for a way to attach some kind of cosmic meaning to these romantic feelings. You don’t have to do that. You can just ask her. I’m sure she’ll appreciate you being forthcoming.”
“He said that he was concerned that she only likes him ‘without his glasses.’ I get the impression that he’s asked her out before – at work, no less – and that she waved him off.”
“At work?” Alfred thought for a second. Then: “Poor Ms. Lane. She wanted a story and got an overenthusiastic fan.”
“Seems so. He mentioned that his mother thought she might just be playing hard-to-get. The good news is that he sounded like he knew, on some level, that that was incorrect.”
Al pinched the bridge of his nose.
“He was asking me how to convince her to like him. I insisted it doesn’t really work that way. He said that his mother told him that if she likes him better without his glasses, than he should just develop the relationship, and once he trusts her, he can reveal his secret.”
“I’m afraid Mrs. Kent holds a very one-way view on how trust works.”
“I don’t know how he’d calibrate that either. He sounded like a teenager getting ready to experience heartbreak for the first time.”
“How are we calibrating it?”
“Love is unpredictable, Alfred. We’ve criticized him for not spending enough time helping people, for not getting more deeply involved in conflicts because of how it might look, even when there’s a clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ The idea that he was taking time every day to work a desk job instead of saving lives seemed like an affront, given his power. More than anything, he wasn’t using optimizing his utility. What is saving twenty or thirty or a hundred people compared to ending starvation, or providing fresh water to people in droughts, or eliminating the crushing burdens of poverty? Even if you’re right, and he’s less likely to be the world-ending disaster we thought he could be, this is a man who needs friends. Normal friends. Maybe they don’t know his secret, but he needs people who he can talk to. And it sounds like he needs companionship. Maybe I could arrange something, but…what would we be paying her for? And could he even…” Bruce drifted off, and shook his head, reconsidering when he thought longer about the unintentional, but potentially life-threatening danger that would be posed to an escort. “I think we might be completely wrong about how often he has his glasses on.”
Bruce stood up, removing his own reading glasses and set them on the desk.
“I think he might need to take more time for himself.”