Superman: Civil Rites

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#13 "Bait and Switch"

By David Marshall


Smallville Farmer’s Bank and Trust

Some wise guy pulled the alarm and “Big Walt” Morrison hated alarms! He searched the fearful souls prostrated at his feet for the guilty party. They kept their heads down, avoiding eye contact. The tense air inside the bank was every bit as suffocating as the muggy humidity outside beneath the blazing Mississippi sun. Walt tugged at his shirt collar and popped the top button. It dangled by a single thread but it was the least of his worries.

“Who pulled that damned alarm?” “Big Walt” shouted. The Smallville job was his latest hit and he hoped the money would take him as far as Memphis or perhaps even St. Louis. “Somebody had better start talking or I off you hayseeds one at a time!”

He pried a young boy from his mother’s arms. The child screamed and tried to wiggle free from Walt’s grip. “Maybe I’ll start with the squirt here!”

The young mother caught the child’s foot and fought to save her son. Walt cracked her in the head with the butt end of his gun. The blow wasn’t as vicious as it looked but opened a gash on her forehead. “Please… Not my baby! Take me instead!” the woman begged as blood trickled into her right eye.

Walt admired the young woman’s motherly instincts. He had no intention of harming the boy unless absolutely necessary. People were suckers for kids and seeing the boy in danger might encourage someone to speak up.

“Release the boy,” warned the bank manager, a balding imp of a man who mustered the courage of a bulldog as he rose off the floor. He was all of five foot three and weighed no more than a buck-twenty and change. if that. With his cheap black-and-white suit swallowing him whole and thick-rimmed glasses framing his hawkish face, he looked more like a barn owl than a businessman. The name plate on his nearby desk identified him as T. Snead. “I pulled the alarm. You have two minutes until the police arrive.”

Walt released the boy and shoved his gun under Snead’s nose. “Two minutes, eh? You saying Big Walt’s done wore out his welcome, little fella? Trying to get rid of me?”

Snead gulped hard then gazed at his customers sprawled on the floor around him. His spine straightened. “You wore it out the minute you walked through the doors with that gun! These are my friends and neighbors so you bet I’m trying to get rid of you! You can make for the door and get a head start on the cops or you can hole up here and fight them! You walk out that door now and no one gets hurt! Stand and fight and it will end badly for a lot of people, you included.”

The clanging alarm and the hellish humidity made it hard for Walt to think. Snead had a point. Walt had money in hand and a head start on the cops. He could make a name for himself with a bigger score in Memphis. He finally peppered the ceiling with bullets, raining plaster down upon the terrified bank patrons. He paused by the entrance and tucked his gun beneath his arm. He pointed at Snead with the bag of stolen money swinging from his hand like a hypnotist’s watch. “When the boys in blue get here, you let them know Big Walt Morrison was here! You got that four eyes? Big Walt Morrison!”

Snead ducked to the floor again the minute the shooting started but rose to his knees and stared Walt in the eye. “You bet I will! Now be off before someone gets killed!”

Walt felt pretty good as he waltzed out the front door with a sack of money in his right hand and his tommy-gun jutted against his left hip. He hoped the money was a decent score. A run of small hits were earning him a reputation. Memphis would put him over the top and make him a legend! Maybe he’d hit St. Louis or Nashville afterward. Yep, life was great!

Or it was until an explosion blew the concrete from beneath Walt’s feet and deposited him amid the rubble of the crumbled sidewalk. He dropped his gun and scrambled for it. “Somebody will pay for that! Big Walt does not like wise-acres or games!”

A bald-headed young man in emerald and purple Flash Gordon armor descended from the heavens and unleashed a strange green ray from his wrist that repelled Walt’s gun down the sidewalk toward the bank “Then you’re going to hate what I have planned next.” The bald kid slugged Walt across the jaw.

Walt grew up on a farm and was once kicked by a mule. The lowly beast had nothing on the bald kid. The vicious blow knocked out a tooth and sent him crashing into the mounting pole of a nearby parking meter. His collar bone snapped and Walt cried out but grabbed the meter and pulled himself up. A turret mounted near the armor’s forearm opened and a machine gun shredded Walt’s knee, forcing him to drop the money bag. Despite the intense pain he limped away like a wounded animal, in hopes of finding a car with the keys left in the ignition. Walt made it less than ten feet before the flying kid grabbed him by the collar and lifted him into the air. He would have passed out from the pain had he not been panic-stricken watching the Earth growing smaller beneath his feet. Walt clung to his young captor and peered over his shoulder in wonder. He heard stories about Smallville’s flying boy but didn’t believe them… and wasn’t he supposed to be black?

People on the street below gawked toward the heavens. Walt heard a woman scream something about a Luthor kid but he had no idea what she was talking about nor did he care. His burning desire was for his feet to touch solid ground. Going out in a hailstorm of bullets was honorable in his chosen profession. Being dropped to the earth by some flying kid and leaving a greasy spot on the sidewalk wasn’t the legacy he wished to leave behind.

The wail of approaching police sirens was, for once, a welcome sound. Surely the boys in blue would protect him from the flying madman! He turned to the flying boy. “Hey buddy! Put me down! I’ll confess everything!”

The young man in the armor stopped and hovered about two-hundred feet above the double yellow line that ran down the middle of the street. “Give me one good reason not to paint Main Street red with your cowardly, thieving blood!”

Walt clawed at the young man’s arms. “I don’t want to die! Not like this! Please…”

A police officer jumped out of his car below and with his gun drawn in one hand and a megaphone in the other. “You two up there! Come down this instant! You are under arrest!”

“You’re welcome!” yelled the young man holding Walt’s collar. “I’m on your side, dimwit! Super-Ape isn’t the only one who can catch bad guys you know!”

“Luthor is that you?” the officer asked incredulously.

Walt could almost feel the swell in the young man’s chest when he answered. “In the flesh, Rogers!”

The police officer holstered his gun. “Well come on down with him then boy! Don’t just… uh, float there all day!”

Walt was relieved to see the distance between him and the ground shrinking rapidly. A heavy sigh escaped his lips when his feet finally touched terra firma. His first thought was to kiss the ground but thrust his wrists toward the cop instead. “Get me away from this monster!”

Officer Rogers slapped handcuffs on Walt’s wrists and opened the rear door of his cruiser. Walt was all too happy to be shoved into the mesh cage that separated prisoner from officer and didn’t feel safe until the door slammed shut behind him. The arresting officer’s window was cracked so Walt could hear Officer Rogers’ conversation with Luthor while the gawkers gathered.

“Jail him,” said Luthor.

Rogers shook his head. “The emergency room will come first. You roughed him up pretty good, Luthor! When did you throw your hat into the superhero game?”

The bald lad smiled. “This town needs someone it can trust to protect it! A human being, not an alien freak!”

Did Walt hear correctly? An alien? What kind of crazy town was Smallville?

Snead came running down the sidewalk waving Walt’s gun wildly.

“Snead! What the hell?” Rogers yelled as he ducked for cover.

Snead held the weapon aloft before handing it over. “Relax, Rogers! This is the gun the miscreant used in the robbery. He shot up the bank and stole fifty-eight dollars!”

Walt sunk into the back seat of the police cruiser. “Fifty-eight measly bucks? I wish the flying kid would have dropped me!”

The Home of Eula Jacobs, The Next Morning

“Did you see the morning headline?” Clark’s father asked.

Clark shook his head. “How could I when you insist on reading the paper first?”

His father smiled and folded the paper in such a way the upper half of the front page was all that remained visible. The headline read, “Lex Luthor Foils Bank Robbery!”

“What?” Clark asked incredulously. “How?”

Clark’s father unfolded the newspaper. “It says here Luthor landed on the scene in a suit of armor that granted him super-strength and was equipped with military-grade weapons. He disarmed the robber and witnesses saw him hovering above Main Street with the man in his arms.”

“Incredible!” Clark mumbled.

His father laughed. “Says Smallville’s other flying boy!”

Clark shook his head before sipping a drink of coffee. One of the few good things to come from the recent turmoil was that his mother finally caved and allowed him to enjoy the morning jolt of caffeine. It felt good even to a Superboy. “I’m not jealous, just confused. Where did Lex get such a suit? It’s much like the one I fought before.”

Clark’s father pointed to a paragraph. “Very much like it! It says here Lex’s suit was an abandoned LuthorCorp experiment for the military. He told the paper his recent upgrades to the armor make him your equal or perhaps even superior.”

Clark rolled his eyes and chuckled. “He wishes.”

“Don’t go doing that son,” his father warned.

“Doing what?” Clark asked.

His father closed the newspaper. “Pride goeth before a fall. You can’t dismiss the suit’s potential for danger so casually.”

“I could have beaten the pants off that nutty guy with the jetpack,” Clark huffed. “What did the papers call him? The Confederanut?”

“The Confederanaut,” Clark’s father corrected. “But you didn’t and that suit was probably an inferior prototype to this one. Lex’s armor appears to be a finished product.”

Clark shrugged. “Maybe you’re right but as long as Lex uses it to foil robberies and such, we’re on the same side.”

“With wildly different motivations,” his father pointed out. “You want to help people, Clark. Lex seeks glory and has a personal vendetta against you from what you told me about your last encounter.”

Clark finished his coffee. “You’re right. I’ll be careful.”

“Please do, son,” his father said. “You’d better hurry. You’ll be late for school.”

Clark laughed. “Please! I have two minutes and school’s only five miles away! I can get there in thirty seconds if I jog backwards all the way!”

His father chuckled. “By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through. Ecclesiastes 10:18.”

Clark kissed his father on the forehead. “That’s my Pop! A verse for everything! Love you and see you this afternoon!” An instant later he arrived at school. Everyone seemed excited about something.

“Did you see him?” asked a freshman named Billy Mason. He was as much of a bookworm as Clark pretended to be and shared the locker two doors away from Clark’s with his best friend Pete. Clark was unsure of the other freshman’s last name but was almost certain it was Ross.

Pete nodded his head. “That dude is seriously bad-ass!”

Clark tapped Pete on the shoulder. “Who are you guys talking about?”

“Were we talking to you Kent?” Pete replied. Even the lowly freshmen bookworms felt bold around Clark. He obviously pulled off his meek persona all too well.

Other kids in the hallway snickered at Clark’s plight – bullied by the lowest of the low. It was embarrassing and Clark was tired of playing the patsy to protect his true identity. He wanted to lift the freshman worm off the ground and give him what for but his parents were right. Exposing his secret identity would place their family in grave danger from thugs seeking retribution and likely even from their own government. Clark read some of the opinion pieces in the local papers and even in Perry White’s Daily Planet in Metropolis. Not everyone was thrilled with the idea of an alien flying around claiming to protect them, let alone a young black man. Even up north there were still limits to people’s support of the Civil Rights movement.

“I’m sorry fellas,” Clark replied, remembering to stammer but not enough to give the boys too much of a thrill. “I got excited. It seems like everybody’s talking about him and I don’t even know who he is!”

Billy pushed his glasses up on his nose, a habit he perfected from hundreds of repetitions each day. His fingers had worn a smudge in the bridge of the black plastic frames. “You’re such a square Kent, always the last to know anything.”

The game was getting old. Clark punched his locker and barely managed to pull the blow before he regained control. He struck it a little harder than he intended and it fell off its hinges.

The boys’ eyes grew wide.

“Sorry Kent,” Pete stammered, as he gawked at the damaged locker still clanging to rest at their feet. “Did you just…”

“I did,” Clark replied. “Now tell me who you’re talking about or you’re next!”

Billy looked up from the dented locker door and gulped hard. “It’s that fella… with the jet pack! The one they call the Confederanaut! He’s back and demanding to fight Superboy! We saw him from the school bus this morning floating over downtown!”

The Confederanaut? Clark had to find a way to weasel out of school and face his enemy before he wrecked the town again. A second draw with the armored crook in Confederate gray was unacceptable.

“What’s going on here?” barked Vice-Principal Morgan. His bellow made Clark cringe. Morgan didn’t like Clark or any of the boys who weren’t on one of his athletics teams. The portly administrator turned to the two geeky boys he suspected of making trouble. “Which of you damaged this locker?”

“Not me,” stammered a frightened Pete.

Billy pointed to Clark. “It… it was Kent sir.”

Pete nodded his agreement and reluctantly pointed a finger toward Clark.

Clark hoped his stupid outburst hadn’t compromised his secret identity. He shrugged at Vice-Principal Morgan and flashed a sheepish smile.

Morgan burst into hysterical laughter as he placed his hands on the boys’ shoulders. When his outburst subsided he shook the boys hard. “Kent? You boys will have to spin a better yarn than that! Kent’s weak as a butterfly!”

Clark sighed lightly and slumped forward. Good old secret identity!

Morgan grabbed Billy and Pete by the arms. “Let’s continue this pleasant chat in my office, shall we boys?”

The boys begged Morgan to believe them as he hauled them away but as much as Clark wanted to protect his alter ego, he felt it dishonest to allow others to take the fall for his carelessness. A burst of heat vision erupted from his eyes and sliced through the locker’s bottom hinge. He made the cut as rough as possible. The top hinge was next and a burst of freeze breath cooled them. “Sir?”

Morgan turned around with the two innocent boys still in tow. “Yes, Kent? Can’t you see I’m trying to punish these…” He shook his head in amusement and guffawed once more. “…bullies for bothering you?”

“I understand that sir but you’re jumping to the wrong conclusion,” Clark admitted. “They’re telling the truth. I damaged the locker.”

Morgan looked incredulous. “You, Kent? Are you taking the fall to avoid retribution? Is that what this is about?”

Clark shook his head. “No sir, it’s the truth. My Pa teaches me to be responsible for my own actions, like a man, and that’s what I’m doing.”

“I still can’t believe you knocked a locker off its hinges, Kent,” said Morgan. His large belly jiggled when he laughed. “Maybe there’s more to Clark Kent than meets the eye!”

“No sir,” said Clark. “What you see is what you get! I tricked them so they’d leave me alone.”

“Huh?” Pete asked. “What do you mean?”

Clark pointed to the hinges on his locker. “The hinges have been weak since I was a sophomore. Every time I’ve opened and closed them these last two years they weakened a little more. They were barely holding on the last few weeks. I punched the locker and it fell into the floor. I just wanted to scare them into leaving me alone.”

Morgan released the boys in his arms and looked to them to verify Clark’s story. They quickly nodded and he motioned for them to return to class.

“Whatever punishment you want to give me, I’ll understand,” said Clark. “I destroyed school property and I’m very sorry.”

Morgan chuckled and patted Clark on the back. “Have you ever thought about coming out for football Kent or maybe wrestling?” he asked. “I could use a guy like you!”

Clark shook his head. “I don’t know sir. I’m clumsy and probably the least athletic person in this school. Think about it. You saved me from a beating at the hands of the dreaded Compass and Protractor Gang of Smallville, the Junior Varsity division even. Does that sound like a wrestler or football… person?”

“Nonsense! Forget all that!” Morgan answered. “Look what you did to that locker!”

Clark shrugged. “The hinges were damaged. I couldn’t do that to any of the other lockers.”

Morgan smiled. “I’m not talking about knocking it off its hinges son! Look at the dent you left in it! You’re a regular Superboy in disguise!”

Clark’s heart nearly stopped. His fist print was clearly visible in the metal door. “I must have tripped and gotten my weight and momentum behind it, sir,” Clark replied. “I’m not aggressive like some of these other boys!”

Morgan mulled Clark’s words nodded his head. “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off to think about it?”

Clark picked up his locker door. “So I’m not in trouble?”

Morgan placed his hand on Clark’s back and walked him toward the entrance. “No. I’ll write the incident up as a breakdown associated with your family losing their home in the Cleansing. Go home kid and enjoy your day but think about my offer.”

“To be clear, I’m not in trouble and this won’t go on my permanent record?” Clark asked.

Morgan smiled. “Only if you don’t wrestle or play football!”

Clark’s heart sunk.

Morgan pointed at Clark playfully and broke into a big grin. “Ah! Gotcha!”

Clark returned the gesture. “That you did, sir! You got me!” What a break! He couldn’t wait to get out of the school and change into his Superboy costume.

Moments later Superboy zipped through the skies toward downtown Smallville. There were no fires or emergency signals blaring this time. His foe simply floated above the town waiting. The police were on the scene below but the standoff hadn’t turned ugly yet. Superboy intended for it to stay that way. He closed the distance and circled the Confederanaut.

“So you finally decided to show, eh?” the Confederanaut taunted. “About time!”

“It takes me a while to fly here from… Metropolis,” Superboy lied. He didn’t want his enemy to know he was a native Smallvillian.

“The way I’ve heard it is that you’re from Mars or something,” the Confederanaut replied as a missile launched from his jetpack. It exploded against Superboy’s chest. The villain’s weapons were much more formidable than before. The missile would have blown a plane out of the sky. The violent but futile display didn’t harm Superboy but raised his concern for those below, including a press contingent. Were they ever going to leave Mississippi?

The sneering villain launched another missile and Superboy caught it in his right hand like a Golden Glove fielder. “It’s going to take a lot more than these toys to hurt me.”

“What are you made of?” the Confederanaut half-whispered as a welcome summer breeze whipped over the town.

A burst of heat vision took out the anti-aircraft cannons mounted into the jetpack’s sub-turrets. The crowd roared their approval from below. It was a most welcome sound to Superboy’s ears. They accepted him regardless of his color.

“You think that was my only trick?” the Confedranaut bragged. “I’ve just begun to fight!”

Two small guns rose from the each side of the jetpack.

“Those tiny guns had better pack a bigger punch than those anti-aircraft weapons,” said Superboy. “Let’s see how the stand up to my invulnerability!”

The Confederanaut grinned menacingly and squeezed the twin triggers built into his jetpack. The guns hummed as they warmed up.

Superboy uncrossed his arms to accommodate his foe with a target, so he’d see how futile his weapons truly were against one from another planet with skin millions of times harder than steel. He was ready for whatever the villain threw at him.

The guns unexpectedly unleashed a familiar, hellish green ray that struck the insignia upon Superboy’s chest and instantly sapped his strength. The Boy of Steel screamed in agony. Somehow the Confederanaut had secured one of the glowing green rocks and used it as an energy source!

The Confederanaut poured on the power and intensity of the beam. “You don’t seem so invulnerable from where I’m standing now, “Boy of Steel!”

Superboy tried to scream again but could muster only a whimper. In fact it was getting hard to… He plummeted onto the roof of Hailey’s Electronics and Furniture, the only store in town that sold televisions, and then flopped into the street below. He rolled with the impact but still heard bones snap.

“That kid can’t take a beating like that much longer!” cried Chief Parker. “We need an ambulance pronto!”

Superboy was surprised to hear Parker’s concern. The Chief of Police seemed to hate him, no, he did hate him! So why would he care if the Confederanaut hurt him? Despite the pain tearing at his body, Superboy felt a far stronger sensation burning through him- hope. It was a baby step but he’d take whatever change of heart Parker could muster.

Emergency crews toting a gurney forced their way through the police line and nearly reached Superboy but the Confederanaut laid down a line of small arms fire warning them to stay away.

The ambulance workers looked to Parker. “Sir?” one of them asked.

Superboy locked eyes with Parker and struggled to lift his hand to warn everyone to stay back. There was no need for anyone but him to be killed.

Parker nodded with a look of admiration in his eye. “Everyone back! Give the kid room to work!”

Parker was giving the crowd some hope of their own but Superboy needed a miracle.

“Hey!” yelled a dairy truck driver Superboy didn’t recognize. He assumed it was a relief driver since Fred mentioned he and the little lady were taking a trip to visit family in New Hampshire. “Look up in the sky! It’s a bird!”

Another man shielded his eyes from the hellish sun. “No it’s a plane! I think!”

Parker shook his head. “I’ll be damned. It’s Luthor again!”

A burst of emerald light slammed into the Confederanaut and jettisoned him into the wall of Hurley’s Tobacco Shop. Bricks crumpled into the street below, barely missing onlookers. The Confederanaut shook out the cobwebs and rose into the air after Luthor. His jetpack was severely damaged from the force of the blow but he returned fire with a missile. The projectile bore down on Luthor but he thrust his hands forward and an energy shield erupted from his suit of armor and the missile exploded harmlessly against it.

The crowd roared their approval!

“That’s it Lex!” shouted Mr. Hurley. “Teach him a lesson for damaging my building!”

A couple of young black boys Clark didn’t recognize cheered Lex on because he was “helping” Superboy.

A ray shot from the palm of Luthor’s hand and struck the Confederanaut in the chest. “Let’s see how you fare against my repulsor ray!” said Luthor.

With Luthor tying up his nemesis, Superboy’s powers were returning. His super-hearing flooded his brain with a cacophony of sound until he filtered out the noise. He wished his strength and ability to fly would quickly follow.

Luthor hit the Confederanaut with his repulsor ray once more. The beam slammed into him like a hammer and nearly separated him from his jetpack. He dangled high over the city streets from beneath the contraption, holding on with one arm. The device wasn’t meant to have a flyer’s weight distributed so unevenly. It circled in an erratic pattern and dipped and swooped uncontrollably. No human could hold on like that for long.

Superboy wanted to take to the air to rescue his enemy but his ability to fly still hadn’t returned. He turned his super-hearing toward the events high overhead where the Confederanaut grasped his jetpack for dear life.

“Take it easy boss,” said the Confederanaut. “You’re playing a little too rough. Come on. Get me down from here! You trying to kill me?”

“If I wanted you dead, you would be dead,” Luthor replied.

Boss? There was definitely a connection between the Confederanaut’s flying suit and Lex’s armor! Superboy wished he wasn’t the only one privy to the conversation. It would be his word against Lex’s and he knew who’d win that argument in a Mississippi courtroom.

Another burst of energy slammed into the Confederanaut. “Please boss! That’s enough! You’re going to kill me!”

“I’m sorry Warren but we all must sacrifice for the greater good of humanity from time to time,” Lex replied. “Your family will be cared for as I promised.”

Lex was going to slay the man in cold blood! Superboy leaped into the air but was still unable to subject gravity to his will. It was like when he dreamed he was running in quicksand. He was sluggish and felt heavy. All he could do was watch and listen.

The Confederanaut’s jetpack exploded and he was gone. Superboy wasn’t sure what happened. It didn’t appear Lex attacked him again. One second he was there and the next he was vaporized by the explosion. Lex made a show of searching for the villain but wasted little time before landing to speak with the press. Television crews pressed microphones into his face while the print media scribbled in notepads.

“What happened up there Lex?” a reporter shouted. Others chimed in with a chorus of similar queries.

Lex held up his hands to shush them. “I… don’t know exactly. Perhaps his weapons system was damaged by my last attack. He cursed me and I saw him manipulate the controls to fire again but instead of unleashing another missile… Boom!”

“Some sort of feedback as a result of the damage?” another reporter asked.

Lex nodded. “It must have been. I’m at a loss. The outcome was unfortunate but at least I was able to prevent him from inflicting further harm on Superboy! The alien has been a valuable supplement to the local authorities and even saved Dr. King’s life. We would certainly hate to lose him!”

The press turned their attention to a recovering, but still smarting, Boy of Steel.

“How does it feel to be on the receiving end of a rescue for once?” asked a reporter.

Superboy wasn’t sure what to say. If he divulged the conversation he overheard, it would seem like sour grapes or plain old jealousy. He locked eyes with Luthor. His foe’s smug grin confirmed his suspicions. Luthor was guilty but there was no way to prove it. “I’m…” Superboy began. He had to choose his words wisely. “I’m grateful of course. My only regret is that I couldn’t save the Confederanaut.”

“The Confederanaut beat you twice,” said another reporter. “How is it Luthor was able to defeat him so easily?”

“We each have our strengths and weaknesses,” Luthor answered, raising his voice to draw the reporter’s attention back to him. “Superboy’s weakness appears to be a strange, glowing meteor I discovered here in Smallville not long ago. It’s harmless to humans but deadly to Superboy’s alien physiology. More importantly, it’s an unparalleled source of great energy, the likes of which the world has never seen before! I even use it to power my armor!”

With the press buzzing around Luthor like a conquering hero, Superboy felt like a fifth wheel. “Excuse me,” he said. “My super-hearing is picking up a distress call!” With that, the Teen of Tomorrow limped into the air and didn’t stop until he was halfway to Alabama.

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