Lex Luthor wasn’t the only one gathering information. As the days passed, people began to make their observations, and a few things began to become known.
Superman would show up at misdemeanors in downtown Metropolis, felonies in the greater metropolitan area, and large disasters in the continental United States. Those who had done the math would point out that Superman could reach any point on the planet within an hour, but he only rarely seemed to use this ability; he went to a mine collapse in Peru, a landslide in Bangladesh, and an earthquake in China, but he seemed inconsistent in his ranging.
He prioritized crimes against people above crimes against property. Murder and forcible rape were almost sure to bring a response, while burglaries often went unstopped. He avoided controversy and grey areas, and tended to stay away from incidents where both parties were at fault. He tended to avoid crimes committed by people in the immigrant neighborhoods, and there was some question about whether this was the result of a language barrier or because Superman harbored some ideas about class or racial purity. There were some members of the Eugenics Society of Metropolis that pointed out that Superman was white.
Superman didn’t participate in any foreign wars, despite repeated requests. There was a civil war in China, and a war between Bolivia and Paraguay in South America. Thousands died, and Superman did nothing, presumably because of his claimed neutrality. It was unknown whether Superman would side with the United States if they once again went to war. In Germany, the National Socialists had risen to power and repudiated the Treaty of Versailles, which was generally agreed to be a worrying development. When the Nazis killed eighty-three people in a political purge, there was much discussion about whether Superman’s absence from Germany had been a calculated effort to avoid becoming embroiled in global politics, a tacit endorsement of their politics, or whether he simply hadn’t known about it until it was too late.
Certainly Superman wasn’t active all the time, and he’d proved to be far from omniscient. Even with him going on patrol and being visible high above the city, murders still happened with some frequency. The United States was slowly creeping its way out of the Great Depression, with Metropolis as the vanguard. Where there had been three murders per day before his arrival, there was now an average of one. Some people grumbled that he should do more.
Superman was in the news on a regular basis. He pulled Pretty Boy Floyd out of a rathole hotel in Gotham City, and requested that the reward be donated to charity. When the SS Morro Castle caught fire and burned on the way up from Havana, Superman swooped in and saved the lives of hundreds. He stopped a tornado in Kansas, and a hurricane moving towards Florida. He was undeniably a hero.
Through it all, the lawsuits began to pile up. A good number of criminals came forward with complaints of brutality, and some had the injuries to prove that they’d at least taken a hit to make their story plausible. There were accusations of rape that no one believed. Not every legal issue was so spurious. Superman was sued for theft after taking steel girders off the back of a truck to shore up a collapsing factory. He was subpoenaed as a witness to all manner of man-made disasters. The case of Shoe v. New York was working its way towards the Supreme Court. At issue was whether Superman’s x-ray vision could be used to obtain a warrant for arrest or whether that unreasonably infringed upon the right to liberty guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Most of the court watchers predicted that a half dozen cases would end up going to the Supreme Court in the coming year. It was a wonderful time for those with an interest in jurisprudence.
Lex Luthor existed in the background. In public, he was a champion for Superman, arguing in favor of the stances he believed Superman to favor and heading the first Conference on Extraterrestrial Science which of course had Superman as its sole focus. In private, he was the world’s most cautious puppet-master.
“You sure we should be doing this?” asked Ted. “It’s not exactly acting.”
“It’s acting,” said Claire defensively. “We’re pretending at being different people for an audience.”
That Ted had landed a bit part in a doomed production of The Stationary Man wouldn’t have been worthy of note if not for the fact that this made him more successful than Claire. It was a constant source of tension between them, and the subtext of nearly all of their conversations.
“Easy for you to say,” Ted replied. “You’re not the one who’s going to go to jail.”
“Oh hush,” said Claire. “The pay is good enough.”
“We probably shouldn’t be talking about this where he can hear,” said Ted. He fidgeted with the gun tucked into the waistband of his pants. It wasn’t loaded, and he was thankful for that. Guns made him nervous.
“There’s nowhere Superman can’t hear, the papers said so,” said Claire. “Now come on, I’m ready to go.”
“You’ll drop the charges?” he asked.
“Who on earth do you think I am?” asked Claire. “Of course I’ll drop the charges. This whole thing is going to last a single night, tops. Maybe he won’t even show up and we can get paid to do this again.”
“Fine,” said Ted. He pulled the ski mask down over his head and whipped out the gun. “Gimme your goddamned money and you don’t get hurt.”
Claire glanced nervously from side to side. “Please, I need that money to feed my baby sister.”
“Hand over the dough,” said Ted. “Just hand over the goddamned dough or I swear to God I will shoot you right in your pretty little mouth and steal the money off your warm corpse.”
“Superman!” screamed Claire at the top of her lungs. “Superman, save me!”
“Shut your mouth, bitch,” said Ted with what he hoped was a convincing sneer. But then he saw Claire’s face when he said the b-word, and instantly regretted it. He was about to break character and tell her he was sorry when Superman appeared between them. Neither had seen him arrive. He was simply there with a rush of air.
“What seems to be the problem?” asked Superman with half a grin on his face. He plucked the gun from Ted’s hand.
“This bastard was trying to mug me,” said Claire.
“I wasn’t,” said Ted. He didn’t have to feign the fear in his voice. He’d never realized how tall Superman was before. Odd that it would have such an effect, when that was the least impressive thing about him.
“Ted and I will be going to the police station,” said Superman. Ted felt his stomach tie into a nervous knot at Superman saying his name before realizing that Superman had probably just read it off of one of the cards in his wallet. “If you’d make a statement it would help to put this man behind bars.”
As Claire looked at him, Ted felt another jolt of honest fear run through him. She looked like she was going to agree to it. But at the last second, her face softened, and she shook her head.
“I need to get home to my baby sister,” said Claire. “I’ll file something with the police in the morning.”
“Very well,” said Superman. “Have a good day.” Then he flew up into the air, carrying Ted with him.
A homeless man watched from a distance, and wrote something in his notebook in an extremely neat script. The next day, a curious personal ad appeared in The Daily Planet. Lex Luthor made a point of reading through both of Metropolis’s daily newspapers each morning, and so even if Superman had been watching, there would be nothing suspicious about the way that Luthor’s eyes flickered over the page. There was no copy of the key to be found anywhere on Lex’s person – it had been committed entirely to memory. The actors had been hired by an intermediary who had no knowledge of Lex Luthor, and the man who’d watched them received payment from a slush fund that Luthor had cut his connection to years ago.
Leroy Barnes pulled his mask down over his face and hefted his tommy gun, then charged straight in through the revolving doors of the Commerce Bank of Metropolis. He used the butt of his gun to smack the security guard hard in the nose as Sean “Moustache” Murphy and Big Paul Castellano followed closely behind him. Leroy fired off five rounds into the ceiling, bringing plaster down on the customers. They scrambled to the floor without having to be told, men in fine suits and women in glitzy dresses pressing themselves up against the immaculate marble of the Big Apricot’s most prestigious bank.
“God dammit Leroy,” said Murphy, “We were supposed to do this clean.” Murphy picked up the guard’s gun and stuffed it into the burlap sack they’d be using to carry the money.
“This is a robbery!” yelled Big Paul, a short man who had once worked as a jockey down at the Apricot City Racetrack before he’d broken his leg. He limped, but it didn’t slow him down much. “Get down on the floor! We don’t wanna bump off nobody, so no funny business and we’ll be through this caper in a flash!”
The three of them walked towards the cash registers, guns held out in front of them, trying their best to cover the whole room. The idea was to get in and out before the cops had a chance to show up. There was the question of the Big Blue rearing his ugly head, but that was what contingencies were for.
“Empty the cash register sweetheart,” Big Paul said to one of the cashiers. He was careful not to point his gun straight at her, just in her general direction. He’d found that people panicked with a gun to their head. It was better to hold the gun like you didn’t want to use it, instead of like you were seconds away from killing them. “Throw it all in this sack and we won’t have any trouble.”
“There’s no need for that,” said a voice from the front of the room. Everyone turned to look at Superman. He’d entered the bank silently, and stood with his cape hanging down behind him. The revolving door spun around behind him. Superman looked the same as he ever did, a god striding among men.
“Stop right there,” said Murphy. “We planned for this, ya see? There’s hostages, planted all around the city, and you can stop us or save them, but not both.”
“I can do both,” said Superman. “And I don’t negotiate.”
Superman glanced rapidly between the three robbers and closed the distance to Murphy in the space of a heartbeat. He bent the barrel of the tommy gun with one hand, and reached into Murphy’s jacket with the other. Murphy dropped the gun and tried to beat against Superman, but it was like slamming his fists into granite. Superman pulled out a thin metal case from Murphy’s pocket and stared at it with a frown. It was locked shut, but Superman pried it open with ease and pulled out a slip of paper. He let the note flutter to the ground after reading it, then moved forward and tied up both of Murphy’s hands with the sleeves of the man’s own jacket.
Leroy and Big Paul had started running away as soon as Superman had grabbed Murphy, the promise of money forgotten. Big Paul, with his limp, was falling behind. Superman came at them from behind as they ran, ripping the guns from their hands and setting both men on the ground.
“You gonna kill us?” Leroy spat at him. “Or are you some kind of pussy?” Superman turned his implacable gaze towards the criminal, and Leroy lost his bravado at once, like a balloon being popped.
“No,” said Superman. He seemed about to say more, but tied them up and dashed through the revolving door of the bank, leaving it spinning behind him. On the floor of the bank, huddled among the other customers, Lex Luthor smiled.
Watching the robbery had been a risk, but Lex Luthor had wanted to see the Man of Steel at least once in person, just in case it would stir something loose within his mind. Lex stopped by the Commerce Bank three times a week at the same time of day, and so there was little unusual about him being there when the robbers arrived. There was nothing that Superman could use to trace the robbery back to Lex, unless Superman had been watching as Lex planned it. Even then it was unlikely given the precautions that Lex had taken.
In his home, Lex Luthor had built a keyboard which connected to the phone lines. Many nights he could be seen pressing the keys while staring at his coded notebook, with no apparent output. When he hammered down the keys to, they didn’t produce the normal solid clack of metal levers pressing up against a ribbon of ink. Though it looked much like a typewriter, the keys were attached to an electrical mechanism which translated each press of a key into a tone, which was in turn sent down the phone lines.
Someone watching Lex Luthor’s hands from above might try to observe what he was typing, but that would be a useless exercise since Lex Luthor was typing in a crude code on keys that were completely unmarked. Someone with absurdly superior hearing might find the terminus to the phone connection at an office building in downtown Metropolis, where the tones were magnetically recorded on a steel wire and later translated into a still-encrypted paper copy by a somewhat bewildered secretary. The paper copies were filed away, and from time to time Lex Luthor could be seen stopping by to leaf through them, seemingly able to decode them without need for a cipher.
The line was split of course, and the terminus in LexCorp offices was a decoy. The coded messages that filled the cabinets were nonsense, the letters randomized past the point of recovery, not that Superman had shown himself to be much of a code-breaker. The real coded message was received by a small office out in Star City, California, where it was decoded into a set of instructions, with a header in English and the rest in some other language. The people who worked at the office knew little about who they worked for or what purpose their work served. The English portion of the message was for them, and told them who to send mail to, or occasionally who to call, while the second part was for their recipient, and invariably in a language that the people at this small office didn’t speak – an additional protection against Superman, though it was really more of a minor inconvenience than good security. The people at the office assumed that their secret master was the United States government.
This circuitous route was a bit paranoid, even given Superman’s demonstrated surveillance capabilities. Superman had repeatedly been shown to need to focus on stimulus, and it was Lex’s working theory that Superman’s brain filtered out the vast majority of the input that it received from his ears and eyes. Superman could prime himself to listen for a gunshot, or the sounds of shouting, but he didn’t have total information processing. For this very reason, most murders in Metropolis were now surprise attacks using melee weapons that would eliminate the victim’s ability to produce sound. A gunshot was distinctive, while the sound of a knife slicing flesh was not. In a way, Superman’s arrival had made the underworld a more brutal place.
It was likely that Lex could have skated by on lesser security precautions than he took, but he’d woken up to nightmares of having his skull crushed between Superman’s hands too many times. In the dream he was just one in a long line of people that stretched out on either side of him, an endless number of people waiting to be killed by Superman. The alien did the work calmly and cleanly, and Lex was the only one who was trying to fight back. Precautions were the order of the day.
“Mustache” Murphy hadn’t known why he’d been asked to rob the bank. The jeweler on 4th St and 16th Ave hadn’t known why he’d been asked to make a small case lined with lead. Leroy Barnes hadn’t known why he’d been asked to fire off his gun towards the ceiling. All these men knew was that they were being paid. Strings had been pulled and messages had been sent.
The end result had been that Lex Luthor discovered that Superman couldn’t see through lead. More than anything, he was upset that something so stupid had worked.
It was what you would try if you knew a little bit about x-rays. Lead was used to block x-ray radiation, even people who didn’t have a clue what x-rays were knew that, so it made sense that Superman’s vision could be blocked by it. Yet Superman’s x-ray vision fairly conclusively did not use x-rays. That was obvious just from thinking about it, and of course Lex had tested it by having patsies carry around sealed strips of x-ray film and subject themselves to his gaze. Furthermore, Superman was able to distinguish colors using his x-ray vision, and in all respects treated it simply as “the ability to see through objects” instead of something that made any sense. Yet lead blocked it all the same. It was a victory to learn that, but utterly infuriating. Lead was used to block x-rays because it was dense, and yet it was apparent that any amount of lead stopped Superman’s vision, even a few centimeters. If lead blocked Superman’s vision in the same way that it blocked x-rays, Superman shouldn’t have been able to see through a solid foot of steel or three feet of concrete either. Thinking of new physical laws which would explain this behavior made Lex Luthor frustrated, though this wasn’t terribly unusual where Superman’s powers were concerned.
Lex had to wonder whether Superman realized he’d given something away by reaching to grab the case instead of getting the information through some other means. Lex had other plans in place – when Superman eventually followed the trail of clues that started with the piece of paper in the case, he would be confronted with a number of challenges to his x-ray vision, and he would be forced to give up a bit of information at each one. The clues would lead to three locations; a diving bell beneath a hundred feet of water, a large Faraday cage, and a steel vault in a closed down bank. There were no hostages to speak of, and either Superman would use his so-called x-ray vision to confirm this or be seen by spotters engaging in a rescue for someone that wasn’t there. Either would give information.
As the day passed, the reports came back from the spotters. Superman wasn’t seen at any of the locations he should have been led to. If lead was the only thing that would stop Superman’s vision, then it would have to be lead that Lex would use.
Simply lining a room with lead would be of limited use, since it would give Superman the incentive to pry in precisely the places that his attention was least wanted. It would be like erecting a sign that said “Don’t look here”. The only way around that was to make lead shielding so common that Superman wouldn’t be able to keep track of them all, and for that Lex developed a plan.
A scientific paper was mailed out to a number of universities and businessmen with the cryptic title “Non-Röntgenian Vision; An Exploration from Inference”. The paper used complicated words where simple ones would do, and meandered over twenty pages when its findings could properly be summed up in two. There were numerous digressions and spelling errors, and the author identified himself as a former professor of physics living in a cabin in the Adirondacks who had been exiled from Harvard some decades earlier due to indiscretions which the author implied were fabricated by his jealous colleagues. It was for the most part scientifically sound, but so mired in authorial problems that it had no hopes of being properly published in any journal of note. You would have to read it three times before understanding that it was talking about Superman.
The disgraced professor had died some years earlier in a Prohibition speakeasy that had been owned by Lex Luthor. The professor’s body had been dumped in the river and never identified, and his death was known by very few. The paper’s true author was Lex Luthor, who had crafted it carefully using information made available to members of the public through the police and the newspapers. The original incidents which demonstrated Superman’s inability to see through lead had been engineered by Lex himself, both the first one at the bank and a host of others used to confirm the finding. Taken on its own, the conclusions were tenuous, but it was enough to get the ball rolling.
The paper was mailed to the office of Thomas Nivas, a Dutch businessman with no obvious connection to Lex Luthor, and he made a show of reading it carefully. Where others would dismiss the professor as a crank, Nivas would take a gamble and begin immediately buying up shares in the handful of companies that mined or traded in lead. Within two weeks, Nivas would announce to the world that lead conclusively stopped Superman’s vision, and publicly challenged the Man of Steel to demonstrate otherwise. Superman never showed up, and though that proved little, Nivas began to see a trickle of customers. One of the first of these was Lex Luthor.
It was a happy bit of serendipity when Lois Lane scheduled a second interview.
“Well, of course I trust Superman,” said Lex. Lois Lane sat across from him in one of his leather chairs. Across the hallway, the sounds of construction could be heard, as his study was ripped apart in anticipation of lead lining on all the walls, the floor, and the ceiling. When the sheets of lead were in place, the fine woodwork would be replaced and the room would look exactly like it was before.
Lois Lane had apparently asked Nivas for the name of one of his clients, and Nivas had mentioned Lex Luthor. It was a minor betrayal of confidence, but Lex guessed that Nivas had given up Lex’s name because of the conversation they’d had wherein Lex had put forth what he believed was the most cogent possible argument in favor of a perfectly innocent man obtaining protection from the eyes of a watchful and seemingly benevolent god. Nivas didn’t know that Lex was the one behind the funding, nor the author of the paper he’d been mailed.
“I trust Superman,” said Lex, “But do you believe that Superman is perfectly good?”
“Perfectly?” asked Lois. “That’s a high standard. But he’s as damned close as we’re going to get. He’s been here four months now, and he’s saved hundreds if not thousands of lives. He doesn’t act as a law unto himself, he just flies through the air and helps people like it was the most natural thing in the world. He hasn’t killed anyone, and despite what people might allege, I don’t believe that he’s ever seriously injured anyone either.”
“All true,” said Lex with a smile. “But given that he isn’t perfect, do you think that it’s unreasonable to take precautions against the possibility that he one day acts in some unconscionable way?”
“Is it really worth however many hundreds or thousands of dollars this renovation is costing you?” she asked.
“There are a number of factors that go into determining that,” said Lex. “I have enough money that the expense is somewhat trivial to me, and I have enough intellectual property that having it stolen would be quite damaging to me – patents, ideas, formulas, processes, and half a hundred other things. Beyond that, there is a value to me in not being watched, even when I’m not doing anything of note. It brings me peace of mind, which is worth something even when the actual risk is low. I suspect much of the sales of this shielding will go to husbands who want to know that their wives aren’t being spied on in the bath.”
“‘Humans have an intrinsic right to privacy’,” said Lois. “Navis told me that, and I suspect that he heard it from you.”
“I believe I said something like that, yes,” said Lex. “It’s one of the great flaws of our Constitution that a right to privacy is not among those enumerated. It’s funny, isn’t it? No one would begrudge you from having frosted windows in the bathroom or drawing your curtains when company is over, but as soon as Superman enters the picture many people think that such measures are somehow indicative of criminality, or morally wrong in and of themselves.”
“I didn’t bring up crime,” said Lois.
“But you will, in the article?” asked Lex.
“Of course,” Lois nodded.
“Then I have a further argument for you,” said Lex. “Perhaps you perfectly trust Superman not to look at you while you change, or perhaps you have no secrets you’d rather he not be privy to, but do you believe that Superman will always be the only one with his abilities? We can infer that there are other aliens out there, and here on Earth there are plenty of scientists – myself included – who are working to reverse-engineer the things they see him do. If tomorrow my rivals in business can see through my walls, they’ll find my defenses already in place, which is only prudent.”
“I suppose,” said Lois. She looked down at her notebook. “I think I have everything I need. More than I need, actually. The article isn’t going to be particularly long.”
“You can admit that you enjoy talking to me,” said Lex.
“It’s stimulating, I’ll give it that,” said Lois. “But I also came here to thank you. The ERA passed the Senate and moved onto the House, and even if it fails there I’ll consider you to have held up your end of the bargain.”
“I’m a man of my word Miss Lane,” said Lex. “Though I have to warn you that prospects are bleak. The Eighteenth Amendment has made people shy of modifying our founding document.”
“All the same,” said Lois.
There was a moment where perhaps Lex could have asked her to dinner, but he let it pass by. Lois was tenacious and decisive, intelligent and principled, and in another time he might have tried to see whether she could sustain his interest in the long-term. Now was a time of action, and the threat of Superman was too great to permit for such idle distractions. Later perhaps, when Superman lay dead in the street, Lex would go on the pursuit.
After they’d said their goodbyes, Lex sat in his smoking room and thought about explosives. The actual designs would have to wait until his study had been coated in lead, but until that time he could refine his plans within his head. He would need to find someone to carry out his will, someone without a strong moral compass, but he thought that he had just the right person in mind.