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Victory Bonds

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The bomb changed me.

That's a foolish thing to say, really. The bomb -- the bombs -- changed all of us. When they dropped that first bomb on Hiroshima, though...

I don't know when I started...changing. I know that at least one bullet bounced off me before then, and the men always used to say I moved fast, but I wasn't any different from the other soldiers, not really.

The bullet that should have killed me zipped through the air and I heard the whine of it; I felt something hit me and yelled Get down! and pulled Jimmy down with me as we all dropped like rocks.

I remember lying there in the mud, the endless mud at the foot of Monte Cassino, while the bullets zipped around us, and thinking this was a hell of a hill to die on. I wasn't even supposed to be there. I was with the Army news, just there to report. Jimmy sure wasn't supposed to be there either, since he was only seventeen, but he'd lied about his age and they put him in the paper with me as a photographer. He did a little spying on the side.

We'd been swept up in the assault on Monte Cassino, that hellish five month battle on the Gustav line, and there weren't any men to spare for reporting; we all had to fight. As I lay there, face in the mud, I saw the bullet that had hit me sitting flattened on the ground. I thought maybe it'd hit a buckle on my kit or something, but really I knew even then there was something strange.

The day they bombed Hiroshima, I was in Berlin, helping the cleanup effort after we flattened the Nazis. It was August and brutally hot, and at eight-fifteen in the morning in Hiroshima it was one-fifteen in the morning in Berlin.

I heard the screams. I heard them, as plain as I could hear the man in the bunk next to me snoring. I heard the screams, and for hours I heard them. For hours.

Eventually, when it became evident I was suffering what they thought was battle fatigue, I was shipped back to England, to a convalescent hospital. It was there I figured it all out -- maybe not all of it, but pretty well enough. I knew I wasn't crazy; I hadn't cracked in three years at war, and whatever anyone thought, I trusted my senses. I could see through walls, hear things miles away, I could lift more than any man should, my skin couldn't be pierced or burned...

And I could fly.

The night I found that out, I took off from London and I was in Smallville in time for Sunday dinner. Boys were coming home slowly, trickling back in, but when I showed up on the doorstep Ma and Pa nearly fell over.

"You should have sent a telegram," Ma said, when they recovered. "We'd have come and picked you up at the station."

"Ma," I said, "I didn't come by train."

It all came out that night. I knew I was adopted, I knew I'd been a foundling, but they didn't tell me where they'd found me until then. They didn't tell me until then how they always knew this day might come, the day I found out I was different.

I went back to the hospital in England, and I asked for my medical discharge and got it, saying I'd make my own way home. The same night I was back in Smallville, the war behind me forever...except for how war never really gets behind you.

I looked around at the other fellows who'd come back, and you could see the hollow look in their eyes. You could see what had happened in the way some of them were missing parts, whether or not those parts were physical. Some families gave their boys to the war and never got them back, but even the ones who came back left something in the conflict.

I couldn't stay in Smallville. I was offered a job at the local weekly paper, but I couldn't spend my life in that town full of old men and hollow-eyed soldiers. I could have stayed on the farm and helped Pa work it, but I didn't want to take the work from men who needed it. There were plenty who did, and Pa could afford to pay. I had a little put by, especially in war bonds, and I thought maybe I could lose myself in Metropolis. At least there, I wouldn't know the names of the soldiers I saw.

So I bought a cheap suit and a fedora hat like I'd seen newspaper men wearing in the movies, and I went to the city.

***

My editor at the army paper knew Perry White at the Daily Planet, and when I called him up to ask him if he'd write me a letter of reference, he said he'd do one better. He got me an interview with Mr. White, which was generous of him. And terrifying.

"So you're Kent," White said, when I presented myself at his office. "Strapping kid, arent'cha?"

"I guess so, sir," I said, standing because I hadn't been invited to sit.

"Kellor says you're an ace reporter."

"He's very kind, Mr. White."

"For Christ's sake, sit down, and call me Perry. You think you can hack it at the Planet?"

I sat. "Well, sir, I hacked it all right in combat. Fewer folks shooting at me around Metropolis, I guess."

He stared at me, cigar hanging out of the corner of his mouth, and then started to laugh.

"Fair enough, Kent. Fine. Get your stories in and don't screw up and if you haven't pissed me off by the end of the month you're hired. LANE!"

"YEAH PERRY!" a woman's voice yelled back, and I stood and turned, and that was the first time I saw Lois Lane.

I learned later she'd been a real Rosie during the war, working the assembly lines, driving rivets into airplanes and helping assemble engines. For two years she lived elbows-deep in grease and bolts, and then quit and came to Metropolis when the line boss wouldn't stop pestering her. Men being thin on the ground, she found a job reporting under the name Louis Lane, and she was so good that when the war ended she held onto it despite the men coming home to elbow the women back into the kitchen. Nobody's elbowed Lois anywhere in her life, I imagine, and certainly not into a kitchen.

She was beautiful. She kept her hair short as she'd kept it on the line, but it was thick and black around her face. She wore a suit, tailored, and she looked like Marlene Dietrich in it, with her deep red lipstick and her dark brown pinstripe. She had a notebook in one hand, a press card in her breast pocket, and blue eyes a man could die for.

"Clark Kent. He's our new cub. Beat some sense into him but try not to break him, wouldja?" Perry said.

"No promises," she said. She swept me once. "Army man. Huh. Where ya from?"

"Smallville, Kansas," I said, and Perry snorted with laughter again. "By way of Italy and Berlin."

"Smallville. My god, Perry."

"Just show him the ropes. Man's been in combat, he should survive you."

"Fine. I'll find him a desk. Come along, Smallville, and if you're a good boy I'll show you where we keep the coffee."

***

It was 1946, and Metropolis was a busy town; soldiers coming home, postwar industry booming, refugees still arriving from overseas. There was no shortage of stories to cover, with or without "Louis" Lane. The hours were long, the pay was moderate, and I had never been happier. I felt like I was making a difference, and it was nice to be reporting on something other than casualty lists. The future looked bright for everyone at the Planet. Circulation was up, and soon I was competing with Lois to see who could get the better story or write the better column.

I'd been at the Daily Planet for three months, and in hopeless, unrequited love with Lois for two of those, when Jimmy showed up on my doorstep. I got him a job -- "Kent, if you drag any more old war buddies in here, you're fired and they can have your job" -- and we added him to our merry band of degenerate snoops.

At night I was learning to use my new abilities, the birthright of a planet I didn't know the name of and a race I had never seen. I got pretty good, but there didn't seem to be much use for it aside from digging around occasionally as a journalist. I didn't like to do that; for one thing, it wasn't ethical, and it gave me an edge over Lois that seemed pretty unfair.

The first time I figured out there was a use for it aside from entertaining myself, we'd been out celebrating. Lois had cracked a story on organized crime trying to get a foothold in postwar Metropolis, and she was the woman -- well, Louis was the man -- of the hour.

"I'll buy you a drink, Smallville," she told me. "Consolation prize for coming in second."

"Oh, I don't think I ought to -- "

"Come on, you can write home to your folks tomorrow night. Live a little. I never saw a newspaper man so reluctant to get a free drink," she said, shaking her head, and I decided one little drink couldn't hurt. Besides, she was wearing the red trousers, and I loved the red trousers.

I was walking home from the lounge after our celebratory drink -- alone, because as always I'd offered to walk her home and as always she'd told me to get stuffed -- when I came across a man being held up for his wallet. The story's not that interesting, but the upshot is the mugger shot me instead of him, and it zipped right off me, and before he knew what was happening I had him pinned and begging for his life.

His victim took off running.

I frog-marched the guy to the nearest police station and we went through the whole rigmarole, the usual paperwork I was familiar with from crime reporting, and afterward the Sergeant on duty stepped outside with me to have a cigarette (I don't smoke, but it never hurts to have a few to offer a fellow; men talk more when they're smoking).

"Not decent of the fella to run off after you saved his life," he remarked.

"Well, I did save it, I guess that's what counts," I said awkwardly.

"You sure did. Most cops won't admit it -- more'll admit it here than some other places, I suppose -- but it's a good feeling, setting things right. Makes a man feel...clean," he said, eyes rising to the nighttime skyline. "Someone's got to look after the city."

I had a bullet hole in my new suit, but I didn't have one in my skin, and the man who put it there was going away for robbery.

I was pretty thoughtful for a few days after that. I told Ma and Pa about it next time I visited -- why write when you can fly? -- and Pa just said, "It's a job for a strong man, defending a city like that."

And I said I thought he was right.

***

Lois was the one who named me Superman.

I chose a blue suit for my uniform because the police wore blue; Ma gave me the red sheet of cloth I'd been wrapped in as a baby, and I took that for a cape. It had some strange properties, some alien quality that made it as invincible as I was. It was helpful. And it looked pretty dramatic, too.

But Lois gave me my name. She wrote a column about the "Superman" that had been seen over Metropolis the day an airliner nearly crashed, helping to set it down safely outside the city. Perry, bless him, ran it despite thinking she'd finally gone off the deep end. He called her a crazy broad, and I don't know what her revenge for that was, but he only did it once. Two days later Jimmy caught a photo of me -- Superman-me -- and Louis Lane's crazy story was vindicated.

It wasn't easy, trying to be a reporter and a hero. The number of times I had to beg off a dinner or apologize for being late to work...well, it's a good thing reporters don't keep normal hours, or I'd have been fired many times over. As it was, Perry sometimes put me on garbage stories to punish me for disappearing on him. Some of them turned out to be gems in disguise, but the little scoreboard Jimmy kept showed Lois was clearly winning in the "probably going to win a Pulitzer" competition.

Bruce Wayne was one of my punishments.

Wayne didn't come back to the States until 1947. Rumor was that he'd spent the whole war in London, seducing the wives of men off in combat. He was both loved and hated: the civilian who hadn't gone to fight, the patriot who made some of our best planes and guns, the profiteer who made millions doing it. He'd had some factories going in England, but after the bombings they said he went to Japan. God knew what he did there. Plundered the country, some speculated. Some said he went there to help, but precious few people wanted to help Japan back then.

Some said he got out because the Russians were after him. 1947 was the year the Cold War began, though not many of us called it that at the time.

All I knew was that I got assigned to write the puff piece about his return to the States, passing through Metropolis on his way to Gotham, and I was annoyed. Lois got to report on the industrial strikes that were heating up over unionization, and I had to go say hello to some rich boy and ask him how he liked being home.

And then Lois showed up and stomped that story too. Sometimes I just wanted to --

Well, grab her and kiss her, usually.

The night Wayne came back to America, he threw a party at the Metropolis Grand, the ritziest place in the city. I had to rent a tux (they had to let the shoulders out). I was supposed to get five minutes with Wayne, but then Lois showed up.

I think it was the first time I ever saw her in a dress. It was the same deep blue as her eyes, and everyone in the room sat up and took notice when she strolled in.

"What are you doing here?" I asked her, as she offered the doorman a sawbuck in lieu of an invitation.

"I have a few questions for Mr. Wayne," she said innocently.

"Lois, Perry gave me this story."

"Wayne Enterprises is one of the companies battling unionization," she replied. "Besides, you couldn't pull off this dress."

"I don't know," a dark-haired man said from behind us, and we both turned. "It's his color. Bruce Wayne," he added, offering her his hand. "Guest of honor."

"Lois Lane," she replied. "Gatecrasher."

He smiled, a charming, intimate smile. "Miss Lane, I figure a woman only wears a dress like that to a place like this for one of two reasons."

"Do tell," she said, putting a hand on her hip. I prepared to watch her take him down, though I knew even she wouldn't dare.

"She's either looking for a rich man, or a pretty one. Can I offer you both?"

Oh, I hated him.

"You forgot the third reason," she said, reaching into her purse. He tensed for a brief second, and I wondered why, but then it was gone as she held out her press card. "I'm with the Daily Planet. I'd like a few minutes of your time."

"I think I can give you that, but I'd like something in return," he said.

"And what's that?"

"The first dance," he replied, holding out his hand, and with impeccable timing, the band began to play.

I watched Lois waltz away with Bruce Wayne, and with my story.

You had to give her points for style.

But Bruce Wayne had always had a reputation as a womanizer, so she got her five minutes and not a whole lot more. By the time I got another chance at him, Lois had already left to file her story, and Wayne had gone through three other women. Don't know what he was looking for -- or rather I didn't, then -- but it was obvious he wasn't finding it.

"So you're with the Planet too, huh?" he asked, when I managed to corner him for a moment. "I have to say, Mr...?"

"Kent, Clark Kent," I said.

"Mr. Kent, you're not as attractive as your competition."

"No sir, Mr. Wayne."

"So why should I answer your questions when I've already answered hers?" he asked, as a waiter brought him another drink.

"It's good publicity for your return?"

"You telling or asking?" he said with a smile, and then leaned forward. "Tell you what, I'll make you a deal like I made Lane."

"I'm afraid I don't dance."

He chuckled. "Let's trade information. I'll give you all the quotes you want, and you give me the dirt on this Superman that Metropolis supposedly boasts."

"What makes you think I know anything about him?"

"You're a reporter, aren't you? I hear he's a hot commodity in this town. Come on, tell me some stories, Kent, I've been in Japan for a year. They say he can fly?"

"Sure. And breathes ice. Rumors he can shoot rays from his eyes."

"And he's faster than a speeding bullet -- wasn't that a subhead?"

"One of Lane's," I answered. Lois has a more bombastic style than I do. "I don't think anyone's tested it."

"How do people know how to find him?"

"They don't. He finds them."

"How?"

"If I could tell you that, Mr. Wayne, I'd be telling the world," I said with a dry smile. "Why did you leave Japan?"

"Time to come back and take the reins at home. This union business proves it; I'll be reversing the Wayne International stance on unions as soon as I have a handle on the situation. What's his real name?"

"Nobody knows that either. He might not have one. So it's not true that threats were made against your life by the KGB?"

"If it is, they didn't bother telling me, but then I imagine they wouldn't. Does he only show up when there's trouble? Or does he fly around patrolling at night?"

"He seems to patrol. You see him in the daytime, sometimes. Could be he's just going about his business, though. What are your plans for Wayne International now that you're back in the states? Going to keep up the military contracts?"

"Well, there's a lot of money in them," he says thoughtfully. "But I'm not that fond of guns. I was thinking manufacturing's going to be the next big thing. Automobiles and radios and such. I sort of like the idea of being a Captain of Industry. Seems like fun." He leaned forward. "And here's the big question, Kent: why do you think he picked Metropolis?"

I raised my eyebrows. "Why not Metropolis?"

"Because Metropolis is a shining city, with a reasonably honest police force and a thriving economy," he replied. "You go four hours north and there's Gotham, full of crooked cops, gangsters, thugs, and poverty. If this so-called hero wants to fix people up, why'd he come here?"

"You know, Mr. Wayne, I think that's the first time anyone's asked that question," I said.

"Second. Miss Lane wonders too. Though I don't think she's as personally invested in the question as I am," he added. "After all, Gotham's my home."

"Then perhaps if you're worried about it, you're planning to do something about it?" I prompted, and he smiled.

"We'll see. So you don't know why Superman is here?"

I shrugged. "Maybe Metropolis is his home."

"Could be. Thank you, Mr. Kent, you've been enlightening. Anything else I can answer before we break this party up?"

I sighed. "How are you liking being home?"

He grinned. "Oh, you're writing that article. Well, I'm happy to be back on American soil, ready to roll up my sleeves and help my own country enter a new era of prosperity and peace now that we've won the war. How's that?"

"I'll make sure it sounds sincere when I write the piece," I told him. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Wayne."

"My pleasure. If you're ever in Gotham, look me up; just ask for the Wayne Building."

"I didn't know there was a Wayne Building in Gotham."

"There isn't, yet. By the time you get up there, we'll have the foundation poured. See you around, Kent."

Looking back, I could see what he was doing -- gathering intel for his own personal project, finding out how the Superman of Metropolis did things.

Probably doesn't reflect all that well on either of us that he turned around and did pretty much the exact opposite.

***

There were strange goings-on all up and down the coast that summer. The least of it was the unsettling but vague story circulating about a masked vigilante who was haunting Gotham's alleys and preying on the monsters that lurked in its shadows.

We left Gotham to itself; we had our own problems in Metropolis. I found myself, as Superman, stopping a lot of robberies, but not the usual bank-and-pawnshop variety. People were breaking into laboratories and factories, stealing machines -- technological things. Strange things happened at the docks. Bodies washed up, rats died en masse, the water in some parts turned rusty red.

Immigrants were going missing.

Lois and I both had a crack at the mysteries in Metropolis, because our instincts were telling us there was something, but the most we ever heard was quiet chatter about certain travel plans -- not what they were or who was involved. There were rumors that the crime ring Lois had cracked was just a front for something more sinister, but no matter how hard she leaned on her sources, she couldn't find out what.

And then, one very early morning, someone painted a swastika on the big brass double-doors of the Daily Planet building.

It was a stealthy move; it hadn't been there when the newsies picked up their papers, but it was there by the time the morning cleaning staff arrived. When I got there, one of them was fruitlessly trying to wash it off with soapy water. It was cordoned off, and the newspaper staff were going around the side to get in. Lois was standing at the cordon, glaring at the doors.

"What do you think it means?" I asked, staring as well, anger boiling up inside me.

"Aside from the obvious?" Lois said.

"The obvious being that we've got Nazis in Metropolis? Or a prankster with a sick sense of humor?"

"The obvious being that we're getting somewhere," she said. "We're getting close."

"Well, I'm getting squarely nowhere, so that means...?" I prompted, turning to her.

"I had a meet with a smuggler last night," she said.

"Lois!"

"Oh, can it, Smallville, I was looking after myself while you were still shucking corn in Iowa."

"Kansas," I muttered.

"There's a difference?" she asked.

"Did anyone go with you?"

"He wanted to meet alone. I took precautions," she added, opening her purse to show me the contents. It was a mess of pencils and notebooks, mainly, with a makeup compact and a handkerchief -- and a loaded revolver.

"I need to check on my source," she said. "And maybe see if I can get someone from the State Department to talk to me."

"You know anyone up there?"

"No, but I'm persistent. Why, do you have a string you can pull, soldier boy?" she asked.

"One or two. Let me follow that angle."

"You're welcome to it. The Old Boys are a pain," she replied. "Going to walk me around to the side entrance, big strong bodyguard man?"

"Oh -- ah," I stammered, and I probably blushed.

"Yeah, I thought so. See you inside," she said, and strolled off.

There's a niche in the alley across from the Planet, a risky place to change but not as risky as some. Thirty seconds after Clark Kent left the police cordon around the Planet entrance, Superman landed lightly inside it, next to the woman who was scrubbing fiercely at the paint.

"May I, ma'am?" I asked, and she stepped back, wide-eyed.

Burning paint off brass isn't easy without melting the metal underneath it, but I'd had some practice controlling my heat-vision by then. I got right up close, nose almost touching it, and scorched it clean, ashes fluttering away in the wind. It left behind a few greasy marks, but the soap and water would take care of those.

"Thank you," she said, in a thick French accent.

"My pleasure," I replied.

"The pig who did this, you'll catch him, won't you?"

"I'm doing my best," I answered.

"Could've used you during the war," she added, wringing out her rag and wiping away the last traces of the swastika.

"Sorry I didn't get here sooner."

"No matter." She flapped a hand. "We did all right without you. 'Get here sooner', eh? So you're an immigrant, like me?"

"This is my home."

"Oh yes -- mine too," she said with a smile.

"You take care, ma'am," I replied, and took off again.

Upstairs, back in my usual clothes, I put in a call to an officer who'd been with us at Monte Cassino, and who now worked for the Central Intelligence Group, the descendant of the OSS that had run American intelligence during the war.

"Kansas Kent! Don't tell me you're in town," he said, over the crackling interstate phone line. "I heard you were muckraking in Metropolis."

"You heard right, Major Scott," I answered.

"Just Mr. Scott now, but I think you can call me Alan," he replied. "Glad you're there -- I sent Jimmy your way, did he find you?"

"He sure did. Gave him a job with the paper."

"You're a pal. So what can I do for you? Calling about state secrets? We don't give them out like candy, you know."

"Someone painted a swastika on the doors of the Daily Planet this morning."

There was a long pause on the other end.

"Any idea why?" he finally asked.

"My colleague Lane thinks it's because we're putting our nose in where it doesn't belong. Problem is, I don't think either of us knows what exactly it is that we're into. Rumors, a couple of odd disappearances, some word about someone traveling somewhere...not much to go on. Before it was just local trouble, but Nazis in Metropolis..."

"Yeah," Alan replied thoughtfully. "That's a little more global."

"It's not proof -- could just be some kind of prank -- "

"Kent, do you know anyone depraved enough to use a swastika as a prank?"

"There were sympathizers in Metropolis early in the war. Bet there still are."

"There were sympathizers everywhere, back then. 'What this country needs is a Hitler', remember?"

"Makes my skin crawl, Major."

"Alan," he corrected gently. "I don't think this is a joke, Clark. What do you know about ratlines?"

"Ratlines?"

"It's high-level intelligence stuff, but not classified. It's a name for an escape route from Germany for Nazi brass. Mostly we think they're in South America now. A lot of them got out right after Berlin fell, some even before, but some have been hiding out until things settled down. I think Nuremburg's making 'em nervous. There's been an uptick in recent months, and there's at least one ratline that runs right through Metropolis."

I paused. "You couldn't have mentioned this to me?"

"Didn't cross my mind. We have our best men on it; no offense, Clark, you were a hell of a soldier, but you're a journalist, not a spy."

"No offense, Alan, but that's a load of bunk."

Alan sighed. "This business is ugly. I didn't want to get you involved. I hoped we'd wrap it up before it got this public."

"Well, a swastika on the front door of the city's widest-circulating paper is pretty public."

"And your buddy Lane, he thinks it's a warning?"

"Who knows? Why would they draw attention to themselves like that? A threatening letter would have been easier."

"Some of these boys, Clark, they still think the Nazis are going to win the war. Could be one of them got enthusiastic. Listen, I don't have the time to brief you fully on this right now, or to get your brief in return. I'm going to send one of our operatives your way. He's been trying to pin down their entry point in Gotham."

"See, now, Nazis in Gotham somehow surprises me less."

"It's not a nice place. But he's a good man, and while he can't give you everything, what he can give you, he'll give straight. He'll expect your full cooperation."

"How much of this can I print?"

"Depends," he said drily. "How far underground do you want to push these guys?"

"Nothing yet, huh?"

"Nothing yet. Hey, I got a question for you, do me a favor?"

"Sure, if I can."

"This Superman you got in Metropolis," he said.

I kept my voice even. "Sure, what about him?"

"You know anyone -- say, a friend of a friend who could put him in touch with me?"

"For the CIG?"

"Sort of."

"I think he works alone," I said. No government needed to get their hands on the kind of power I had. Not after the bombs.

"Well, if you happen to speak to him, shoot him my name anyway. I have some information that he might find interesting."

"Sure, if I can. Can't promise much. So how do I contact your agent?"

"You don't. He'll contact you. Tell me, Clark, did you ever hear of codename: Bat?"

***

Of course I'd heard of Bat. After the war, there were stories that came out about certain spies, like the double agent codenamed Garbo who'd run rings around the Nazis, but Bat had been legendary even during the war. He moved at night, he fought like a hellion, and a couple of guys had told me once that he'd managed to get through a Fascist line to bring them food and supplies when they were pinned down behind it. He was the most infamous spy of the entire OSS, and nobody but his agency handler even knew his name. He was a codebreaker, a border-crosser, and he wore a mask to protect his identity. And now, apparently, he was back in the States, still chasing down the remnants of the Reich.

I went over all this in my mind as I stood on the roof of the Planet, per instructions. They'd come in a plain envelope, left on my desk the same day I'd called Alan, and the scrap of paper inside simply said: Roof. 11pm. Tomorrow. Destroy this. It was signed with a stylized bat insignia.

I didn't move when I heard a rustle behind me, didn't speak until he did first: "So you're Kent the reporter."

"That's me," I said, turning. "And you must be Bat."

He was about my height, broad-shouldered, muscled like a boxer. His clothing was strange -- fitted black trousers with tight calf-boots and some kind of long-sleeved black shirt. Dark grey panels were stitched into his clothing, and he wore black leather gloves. The famous cowl, also leather, covered all but his mouth and chin, and had two sharp metal blades set into the crown like bat's ears. He had guns -- no, some kind of grappling mechanism -- holstered on his belt, along with a row of slim black pouches.

"Alan Scott sent me to find out what you know," he said.

"Funny, I thought he sent you to tell me what you know," I replied.

He cocked a smile. "You first, paperboy."

"I think I can help with that," said a voice, and both of us turned, startled.

"What the hell is this?" Bat asked, looking at me.

"Language, gentlemen, there's a lady present," Lois said, emerging from the shadows. "Oh, calm down, I come under a flag of truce."

"Lois," I sighed. "You followed me."

"Reporter, Clark. You're not subtle," she said. She turned to Bat, who eyed her warily. "Lois Lane. Reporter for the Planet. I have something you need."

"The lady reporter with the manly name."

"I don't often get called a lady," she said. "Thanks for including me, Clark, by the way."

"Just repaying the favor, Lois," I replied.

"You two want to have this lovers' quarrel later?" Bat asked. "What do you know, Lane?"

"I spoke to a smuggler two nights ago," she said, settling against a railing along the edge of the roof. "He was a bootlegger back in the twenties."

"What does he smuggle now?" Bat asked.

"People. He gets people into Metropolis."

"From where?"

"Wherever they come from."

"Nice business, bilking the helpless," I said.

"Those who can pay, do. Those who can't, just owe him a favor. Life's a little lean right now, but between the paying customers and the...other imports, he gets by. And in a couple of years, when they get on their feet, he'll have a lot of pull in certain neighborhoods."

"My intel says the ratline brings people in through Gotham," Bat said.

"Ratline?" Lois asked delicately.

"An underground transit route for Nazis who got away from the Allies. They come in at our port, take a trip to Metropolis, and leave again from there with papers. We think they're stopping in Florida, then heading to South America. Argentina's borders are wide open to Nazis."

"Peron," I muttered.

"Well, anyway, he says there's a new game in town," Lois continued. "I don't know if they're bringing people in or sending them out. He's only encountered them once, and once was enough, he said. They're fast, mobile, and ruthless. They speak German to each other. And yesterday, after he spoke to me, someone tried to murder him."

"Murder him?" I exclaimed.

"He's fine. He's safe with one of those people who owes him a favor. Told you we were getting close," she said to me, before turning back to Bat. "Help us find out what's going on, and for an exclusive we'll help you get your hands on them."

"They drive them in private cars from Gotham to Metropolis," Bat said. "Haven't been able to get my hands on more than one, and the driver shot himself before I could ask him any questions. His cargo is a little late for Nuremberg, but they'll find something to charge him with."

"He's in prison in Gotham?" I asked.

Bat laughed. "Yeah, right. The Gotham police are the reason the city needs men like me. You give a crook to them and even a Nazi could bribe his way out inside of an hour. He's in a military prison under heavy guard. He knows nothing, anyway. People took him from place to place, didn't tell him anything about it." He glanced at Lois. "If there is a gang of smugglers getting people out of Metropolis, that means some of them are staying in Metropolis. Ever wonder what else they're getting up to? In Gotham they're funding themselves through the drug trade, but there's more money coming in than going out, that's for sure. So what happens to all of it?"

I thought about the strange thefts, the machine parts, the electronics. "They're planning something. A bomb, maybe."

"All of this is interesting, but useless if we can't find them," Lois said. "Can you give us anything that'll actually help?"

"My job was to tell you all I can, and find out all you knew. If you're so hot to find them, come to Gotham and see how far you get. I hear you have friends there."

Lois raised an eyebrow. "Someone's been talking out of school."

"What friends?" I asked her.

"Nobody, Clark," she replied, mock-innocent. "Well, thanks for that miniscule scoop, Bat. See you boys around, some of us have work to do."

As she went back inside, closing the door to the stairwell behind her, Bat turned to leave. He faded into the shadows almost effortlessly, the grey and black blending into the darkness.

"Hey," I said, because it had been chewing at me all through the conversation. I heard him stop, and then he reappeared, only half-visible in the gloom. "You're him, aren't you? The man in the shadows in Gotham. They call him the Batman."

"That's an urban legend. It's been around for years."

"But it's you now, isn't it? The vigilante trying to clean up Gotham one punk at a time?"

"There's a reason I took the codename I did," he allowed.

"So you work for the CIG and hunt on your own time?"

"The problem with working one punk at a time is that there are always more punks. The big guys are the ones with the power, and the CIG has interests in them. But the punks have to be dealt with regardless. Servant of two masters," he said, shrugging. "It's all Gotham to me."

"Nobody knows much about you."

"Keep it that way."

"You don't want your side of the story told?"

"That would defeat the purpose, don't you think?" he asked, jumping lightly up to where the statue of Atlas holding the world stood atop the highest point of the Planet building.

"What's the point?"

"Fear. Fear and violence are the only things some people understand."

"That's a hell of a way to live."

"Easy to believe when you live in Metropolis. Stay out of it, Kent."

"It's Gotham's business. I'm only saying."

"Don't say," he told me, and leapt.

It was like watching a swimmer in a dive; he arrowed gracefully through the air, twisting, and by the time I reached the ledge he was nowhere in sight.

It only occurred to me later, lying in bed and trying to sort out what had happened, that I could have looked under his cowl, seen who he was. It never even crossed my mind.