“My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right.AllEn ginsburg; “America”
I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia.
I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious.
Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.“
A Dance With The Devil
The sun was setting, and Dimitri Vladkov was running late for a meeting on the docks at Gotham Harbor.
Not a meeting, exactly, but, a private acquisition. A favor, for his employer, Liam Warner.
Dimitri had trouble understanding why this couldn’t be done during the day, or at the office and why the shipment needed to be carried out in a place with a less than shimmering reputation for safety.
Which was to say nothing of how unpleasant driving a big truck like this one was, and Dimitri was out of practice.
When he arrived at the Port of Gotham, the cargo ship containing the shipment had already arrived and was beginning to be unloaded.
“Four crates, which should be opened and checked for contents. Make sure you bring a prybar, and a pair of gloves, because there’s like to be loads of broken glass in each container,” explained Warner on their phone call earlier in the morning.
All told, Dimitri felt inconvenienced, but not too bad about these kinds of favors. Sure, they took an hour or two out of your night, but Dimitri could mostly plan around them, and they bought plenty of goodwill with the boss.
Before he’d seen Superman, he’d been unemployed for almost a year. The Depression seemed to be winding down for everyone but Dimitri. But to meet Lex Luthor, then Liam Warner –– it was like seeing Superman that day was an augur of positive things to come.
Now he was in charge of operations and logistics for Shamrock Home Electro-Lock, Ltd. A company that was less than a month old, and that had been, like Mr. Warner had said, the subject of a bidding war between Wayne Enterprises and LexCorp.
“Connecting people,” Liam Warner would say “that’s the mission.” And they’d connected thousands already. The federal contract had come through exactly as his boss had predicted; government buildings were being fitted with lead insulation all the time –– and plenty of private homes, too.
When he hopped down from the cab to investigate the shipment, he checked in with the longshoremen, who couldn’t find anything for the crates which was…odd. In spite of the general inconvenience of it all, this did seem like a small, at least fair price to pay for the turnaround in Dimitri’s life over the past several weeks.
“What’s yer name, mack?” demanded a longshoreman holding a clipboard who stank of tobacco spit.
“I’m here with Shamro––“
“Yer name, mack. I don’t got any Shamrock on the board, pal.”
“Dimitri. Dimitri Vladkov,” he replied, puzzled. Freight shipments never got addressed to individuals.
“There ya are, those three crates. Whoops, sorry pal,” the longshoreman literally spat. “Four crates.”
Dimitri made his way to the shipment, and was followed by the roustabout who continually spit as they walked more or less in step.
“Need help getting these onto yer truck? I don’t think your dolly is gonna do it, mack.”
He was right. Dimitri inserted the prybar into the seam on one of the crates and began exerting some pressure to open it.
“Sure. How much?” he asked after finishing one side of the crate.
“Don’t worry about it, mack. Short manifest tonight, and it’s this or we pay the boys to play cards for three hours.”
Dimitri nodded at the clipboard-wielding man, who ran off toward the other dockhands, shouting.
By the time he’d opened the first crate, he was surrounded by the foreman and four other dockhands with bigger, diesel-powered dollies. He started to reach into the packing straw then remembered his gloves. Clearing some of the straw away, there were easily thirty thousand small, glass somethings. And it looked like more than half of them had been broken.
“What are these?” he asked skeptically under his breath examining a handful of glass pieces. They looked like small test tubes with tiny, pinprick holes and three little chambers within. The glass was razor sharp and paper thin, these things would break under even the slightest pressure. What could you even use something like this for?
Dimitri thought better of inspecting the other crates; it didn’t seem worth the effort, and he could just open them at the office in the morning –– Mr. Warner was unlikely to be in tomorrow anyway, so there was no rush, and he directed the other workers to his truck. He removed one glove and ferreted away a handful of the tiny tubes into the finger hollows.
He thanked each worker and handed the men a couple bits, each, then got back into his truck, and began driving away from the docks.
Shamrock Home Electro-Lock, Ltd. wouldn’t have anyone working this late, so no one would be available to help unload the crates tonight, but it was close enough to a hotel that he could walk over and immediately get a Quick-Cab back to Metropolis, which beat the hell out of driving this truck back across the bridge in the earliest hours of the morning after a late night.
The narrow streets leading from the docks to the office were paved with brick and optimized for streetcars, not trucks like this one, not that any car was exactly a smooth ride on brick, but the truck seemed to jostle and toss Dimitri even at the slow pace he took to his destination. At one point, he hit some kind of a bump in the road, briefly thought of stopping, and then just muttered something to himself about it probably being a rat and moved along.
Dimitri couldn’t escape the feeling that more and more of these tiny tubes would be breaking with every block he drove, and was relieved to finally see the dark warehouse that housed Shamrock appear on the horizon.
He backed the truck up to a loading dock, and gave the tires a once-over to see if there was any damage or if it was just some stray that he’d run over, but under the low light of a Gotham evening, he couldn’t see anything that evidenced damage or a dead rat.
Dimitri planned to open the door to the warehouse, but the faint sound of a piece of glass hitting the pavement and shattering turned his attention suddenly to the truck. The man cautiously approached the vehicle, placing his hand on the handle of the black Colt 1911 holstered inside his jacket. Another plink followed by the sound of glass breaking prompted him to draw his weapon.
“Who’s there?” he called out into the night. “I gotta gun!” But the only reply was another tiny glass break.
Rounding the back of the truck, Dimitri lowered the weapon, staring at the rear door of the vehicle that he was certain he’d latched, but it was opened ever so slightly. Dimitri raised the gun again, pulling the door fully open, and all of the crates had been pried open. There was straw and glass all over the floor of the cargo hold of the truck, and Dimitri was struck dumb for a moment.
He looked into each of the crates, and they’d all been emptied by at least half, if not completely relieved of their contents.
The man was perplexed, holstering his gun and closing up the truck, securing the door for the second time this evening, and running to the front door of the warehouse: he needed to make a call.
He lit the lamp in his office and pulled out his address book, finding the number for Mr. Warner.
“Liam Warner here,” came the Irish brogue over the receiver after a second ring.
“Boss, I –– I think I got hijacked bringing those crates back to the warehouse,” Dimitri was still struggling to figure out how.
“You think?” came the voice over the phone. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, just…I dunno what happened exactly. I loaded the goods into the truck, and when I got back to the office, the crates were all missing at least half of these little…what are these glass things anyway?”
“Rijke acoustic tubes,” Mr. Warner supplied. “They’re part of an experiment in privacy technology. They vibrate at a specific frequency, and the hope is that that background noise could help prevent eavesdropping. Are there any left?”
“There’s plenty of broken ones, and maybe one full crate of good ones in the whole truck. Look, I’m really sorry about this, I don’t know how this coulda happened Mr. Warner.”
“Dimitri,” Liam started in a warm, calm voice. “I’m just glad that nobody got hurt. Go on home now, I appreciate the work you’ve done for me this evening, and I’ll salvage what I can when I get in if you’ll put the remaining tubes in my office.”
“Not a problem, boss. Good evening,” and Dimitri hung up the phone, running his fingers through his hair.
It didn’t feel right. It was downright confusing. Why go through all the trouble for an experimental technology, why ship it in Dimitri’s name, and why be so absolutely calm about an outcome where Dimitri lost most of the cargo?
Then Dimitri remembered something he’d been told by Saul right after the acquisition.
“I know this is strange, but you’ve met him, and he’s a strange guy. If you’re ever confused by something at Shamrock, and you can’t get a sensible answer, or you feel like a sensible answer might not exist, call the number on this card.”
Dimitri flipped to the back pocket of the address book, nervously removing the card that was tucked into the pocket, and began dialing the number, not knowing who he’d be connected to.
“LexCorp, Mercy Graves speaking,” came the answer after less than a full ring.
“Hiya Miss Graves. My name is Dimitri, and I work for Mr. Luthor in Gotham.” Dimitri’s statements had the intonation of questions. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I was told to uhh…to call this number if I was ever confused by something?”
“One moment,” snapped Mercy. A clicking sound, and then, an inhalation on the other end of the phone.
“This is Mister Luthor, Dimitri. Tell me more about why you’re calling.”
Dimitri told the whole story, being asked to begin again a number of times to include what seemed like very minor details, while Lex Luthor asked questions and took notes.
”It’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t important,” Lex remarked to the open air of his office, knowing that Mercy was unlikely to respond directly unless prompted. “Can you make heads or tails of this man’s story?”
“I think a lot of this might be solved if you met with Mr. Warner face-to-face. You’ve entrusted an awful lot to a fella you’ve only met once in person.”
Lex began to wave her off, but then lowered his hand.
“While I’ve bought and sold several dozen companies without ever meeting the workers, it was extraordinarily convenient that a company dealing in matters poised to make such an overwhelming profit in an industry that I personally practically willed into existence would fall into my lap just like that.”
“Is it possible you were emboldened by a string of victories? Or maybe this threat from the pages of a pulp magazine?” Mercy extended a pinky toward the ceiling of Lex’s office and made a soft slide-whistle noise through her teeth while looking obviously upward.
“I suppose either of those could be the case,” replied Lex, rounding his desk. “Although if this was a setup –– especially if it was a setup by him, I may have to second guess every business deal of the past…what would even be safe given those circumstances? Three months? Six?” Lex didn’t say it, but the subtext was read perfectly by Mercy –– this of course included the manifold deals that weren’t done by Lex directly, and that couldn’t be traced to him or LexCorp.
“I’ll set something up with Mr. Warner for the next time he’s stateside,” Mercy spoke the idea as though it were a foregone conclusion. Lex Luthor wasn’t the type of person who allowed plots to unfold under his nose without his hand influencing them. Especially not plots with the potential to be catastrophically dangerous.
“Of course, thank you,” Lex replied sternly. “And Mercy,” he cleared his throat, “let’s start reviewing every acquisition that LexCorp or one of my closer confederates have made in the last…eight months, please.”
“I’ll get right on it, sir.”
Dimitri closed everything up, turned off the lights in the warehouse, and checked and rechecked that the doors were locked. He wasn’t from this side of the bridge, and already Dimitri had a tendency towards being a little nervous. As he left the building, he walked over to the truck and slapped a padlock on the cargo door to at least deter an attempt at coming back for more of the little glass tubes.
He walked off the lot and toward the hotel, giving a paranoid look over his shoulder every so often. The scurrying of a rat, or the rolling of gravel drew twitchy turns of his head. Dimitri heard the clang of metal on metal from a distant flagpole and whipped around, drawing his pistol and leveling it at nothing but open air.
Somehow, the three quarters of a mile between here and the hotel seemed much farther. The nervous man felt much safer in Metropolis. Even Suicide Slums was less of a hellhole than this. He saw a homeless man under the bridge ahead of him, sleeping under a ragged coat, and the thought that maybe Lenin had a point crossed his mind, but the Ukrainian immigrant shook it off; letters from home had suggested that the Soviets were slowly starving anyone making an attempt at freedom.
Dimitri holstered his gun, and increased his walking pace through the shadows of the overpass.
“Dimitri,” came a whisper on the wind, and the same broke into a near sprint, hoping to clear the darkness of the bridge before whatever had just whispered his name caught up to him.
Children often scare themselves with fairytales or superstitions to explain the noises or shadows in their dark bedrooms or cellars. They invent shields against these imaginary monsters: If I don’t turn around, it can’t hurt me, or If I close the closet door, it can’t get out.
The monsters aren’t real, but these defenses wouldn’t work against even the least enterprising things that go bump in the night.
Dimitri’s belief that getting to the sidewalk, under the syncopated light of a streetlamp would save him from the whispers was, unfortunately, more childish than his belief that he had heard something whisper his name.
When he emerged from the overpass, he felt a foolish relief immediately before he heard a sound like a waving flag.
“Dimitri,” came the whisper again, and he unholstered his Colt, promising never to let it leave his hand again if he just made it through this. He turned around slowly, tears beginning to well in his eyes, and leveled the gun at –– what was it?
“Zalište mene u spokoyi.” Dimitri wanted to scream it, but only managed to whisper back.
Before him, stood flowing, matte blackness taking vaguely human form. The blackness was so absolute that it looked like a hole in reality. Its eyes reflected light like a wolf’s, giving them an eerie, green-orange glow.
Dimitri moved his thumb toward the safety on his gun, when a black blur shot out of the mass in front of him like the shadow of a striking cobra, and he was certain he would die. The slide on the 1911 fell loudly to the ground at the same time as the magazine slid out of the receiver, leaving Dimitri holding a disassembled, mostly harmless hunk of metal.
“Dimitri,” whispered the blackness, “I need to know who you spoke to tonight. Take a deep breath. Be calm and no harm will come to you.”
Dimitri’s feelings of loyalty toward Liam Warner were strong, but the chances were much higher that if this dyyavol was working for someone, it was Lex Luthor –– what if this was a test?
“Just the man who runs the company. H-h-he’s an Irishman.”
“Who else?” replied the whisper like it already knew.
“No one!” He shrieked, and closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, the blackness had vanished, leaving him absolutely beside himself.
He backed away slowly from where he stood, needing to watch the spot where the specter had been, scanning all around him, up and down, and seeing nothing. Recovering the gun would be useless; if the thing came back, it could just disarm him again, and it wouldn’t make him any safer to be fumbling with reassembling the thing as he walked.
He took another step back and bumped into the devil.
“Calmly,” whispered the blackness, putting a heavy hand on Dimitri’s shoulder. “Tell me who else you spoke with tonight.”
Dimitri took a deep breath.
“Lex Luthor…and his secretary. Miss Graves.”
The hand slipped from his shoulder.
“Luthor is a warlord. Don’t speak to either of them anymore.”
“I-I almost never! This is the second time I’ve ever spoken with him, and the first time I’ve spoken with the dame. Once was when they came here to look at the warehouse after buying us out…I swear, I––hello?”
Dimitri turned around slowly, and the dark figure was gone. The Ukrainian man didn’t bother to consider where it might have gone, and bolted the remainder of the way to the hotel without ever looking back.
On arrival at the hotel, Dimitri decided he needed something to calm his nerves before he went back to his apartment in Metropolis. He entered the lobby and walked to the bar, which was not particularly busy.
He ordered a vodka and tonic water with a twist of lime, then thought better of it and asked for two. The bartender shot him a concerned look, but Dimitri didn’t respond when the barkeep asked him if he was alright. He just stared off at a nonexistent point in the distance and let out a sardonic chuckle.
“You’d think I was pullin’ your leg,” remarked Dimitri, feigning a smile that quickly vanished from his face. The bartender raised one eyebrow, then went back to filling the order.
For quite some time Dimitri had felt that he owed Saul for this job, and he had. But Saul was involved with some of the shadier characters in Metropolis, and there was no telling whether Saul was commingling his dealings with Calhoun with his work at Shamrock. Dimitri had a bit of nerve to give Saul the what-for, but then began telling himself that Saul wouldn’t even have believed him. His drinks arrived, and he promptly paid the bartender, downing the first in a single swig.
To Dimitri: him and Saul were even. No more favors, no more side jobs. No more under-the-table stuff.
And, even with a gun to his goddamn head, no more Lex Luthor.