Superman: Civil Rites

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#5 - “Kindling”

By David Marshall

The Luthor Mansion, Smallville, Mississippi

“Care to explain this?” Lionel Luthor barked over the strains of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”. He held up the cover to the phonograph record Lex purchased the day before at Bixby’s in downtown Smallville. The sleeve featured a photograph of the rocker gyrating across the stage with his guitar, bent low at one knee, with the other leg raised and extended in front of him.

Lex Luthor looked up from his studies and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s rock and roll. Everybody listens to it.”

“Every ONE listens to it,” Lionel corrected as he decreased the record player’s volume. “And I assume by “everyone” you reference the teenaged white trash currently enthralled by such uncouth caterwauling? We own a private jet, son. If you wish to see a symphony or an opera, I could…”

“You have your music. I have mine.” Lex countered.

“Your music?” his father snapped. “Son, we need to talk! First that servant girl and now this? If anyone found out…”

“They’d assume I’m a normal teenager,” Lex replied. “At least about the rock and roll part and you dealt with my… impropriety.”

It pained Lex to relegate Sarah to little more than an unseemly common noun lacking even a name but he refused to give his father the satisfaction of knowing how badly her death bothered him.

“What about the Big Bands?” Lionel recommended. “There are hundreds of selections in my library if you wish to borrow them. I’m sure you’ll find something that will “move your feet”.”

“Something white you mean?” Lex asked.

Lionel stared at the picture on the album sleeve. “What in heaven is this vulgar man doing? Is something wrong with his legs?”

Lex chuckled. “It’s called the duck walk. It’s his signature move.”

His father shook his head. “So emulating a duck is the whole of your aspirations now? The world is your oyster and you aspire to webbed feet? You know the old saying ‘If it walks like a duck?”

“It must be a duck,” Lex finished with a nod. “Relax old man. It’s only music.”

Lionel slammed the album sleeve into the wastebasket by Lex’s desk. “You’re blind as a day-old kitten! With pedigree comes responsibility! I’ll slit your throat myself before you scandalize the family name by rubbing elbows - or more, with these animals again!”

Sarah lay in an unmarked grave behind the mansion and Lex kept quiet about witnessing her murder. How could his father possibly question his commitment to the family name? “I’m a Luthor. My responsibility is to make insane amounts of money and step on anyone who gets in the way.”

His father jerked him up from his chair and grabbed him by the throat. “Do NOT get glib with me, boy!”

Maybe it was the rebellious music playing in the background or perhaps righteous indignation fueled by thinking of Sarah but Lex met his father’s anger with a rage of his own. He tried to wrestle his father’s wrists from his throat. “Let go of me!”

Lionel didn’t back down from Lex’s steely gaze. “You want me to let you go? Is that truly what you want? How simple that would be if the world could easily forget you descended from my loins! But blood demands I bear that shame every time I see you! Would to God that I could let go of the disappointment you bring me!”

The rabid glare in the elder Luthor’s eyes grew increasingly savage as he tightened his fingers around Lex’s throat like a wild animal with its jaws locked around its prey. Lex slapped and pawed at his father’s hands but the death grip increased.

His father’s tirade grew ever distant as Lex slipped away toward blackness…

“Lex, wake up!” urged a familiar voice. A large, brown hand patted at his face to get his attention.

Lex opened his eyes. “What happened? Where am I?”

“We is the same place we’ve been for days,” Jim replied. “In the cavern on the side of the hill on Jackson Island. It been rainin’ for nigh on twelve days now.”

Jim was Miss Watson’s runaway slave and the two were reunited by fate after each fled civilization for reasons of their own. Miss Watson wanted to sell Jim down New Orleans way and Huck… no, Lex wanted to escape the trappings of civilization brought on by the reward money he earned in his adventure with Tom Sawyer.

Lex and Jim left their cavern hideaway and found their canoe and did what they’d done every day since the rains came – explored Jackson Island. When night fell they chanced another trip to the island’s edge. A few nights earlier they found a good piece of a raft, about twelve by nine and river-worthy. It was their destiny this night to happen upon a floating house that washed away in the recent floods. They climbed in through an upstairs window and discovered a man asleep.

“Hello you!” Jim called but the man didn’t budge.

Lex tried. “Hello you!”

The man remained still.

“The man ain’t asleep. He’s dead,” said Jim. “You hold on. I’ll go see.”

Jim went ahead of Lex and bent over the fallen man. “It’s a dead man, yes indeedy! I reckon he’s been dead two or three days. Come in, Lex, but don’t look at his face. It’s gashly.”

Jim tried to throw some old rags over the man’s face but Lex ran ahead and rolled the man over. It was Pap!

“Pap?” Lex asked. “But you can’t be dead!”

“This ain’t right, Lex!” Jim warned. “Something mighty suspicious about all this!”

Lex smiled at his companion. “Of course it is! Pap is here and look at him! He’s all cleaned up and wearin’ a suit and tie! He don’t even smell like ‘shine! He must have finally hit the big time, Jim!”

Jim tried to drag Lex away. “No, this ain’t the way the book’s supposed to read, Huck!”

“Who’s Huck?” Lex asked. “I’m Lex! And we can’t leave him here like this, Jim! A man needs a proper burial!”

“Like the one I gave your little girlfriend?” Pap asked. His eyes popped open and he sat up.

“Pap?” Lex asked. “You must be crazy from the rain. I don’t got me no girlfriend!”

Pap’s hands shot forward and seized Lex’s throat. “You need a good beatin’ boy! How dare you have relations with one of those burr-headed…”

Lex couldn’t believe his life would end at the hands of the man who brought him into the world but doubted death could death be any less painful than living. Perhaps the peace he craved for so long was no farther away than the space between heartbeats. He closed his eyes and welcomed his fate. His only regret was that his father wouldn’t bury him by his Sarah.

It was that thought - being denied Sarah’s love, even in death’s embrace, that fueled a sudden will to live and snapped Lex’s mind from his Twain-inspired hallucination. He fought the blackness that enveloped him and forced his eyes open. With a surge of adrenaline he slammed his fist underneath his father’s chin. The vicious uppercut broke the elder Luthor’s grip and left the old man sprawled upon the floor.

Lex stood over his father and savored a taste even sweeter than the air he sucked into his lungs – empowerment! He wasn’t born to crawl or beg. He was born to greatness and no one – not even the man who brought him into this world – would deny him that destiny!

Lionel nursed his chin and broke into raucous laughter as he rose to one knee. “Perhaps my blood courses through your cowardly veins after all!”

His father’s backhanded compliment only fueled Lex’s raging bloodlust. He would prove once and for all who was the better man. In the courts of long-ago kings, the sons often seized thrones by force. Change was overdue atop the Luthor Empire. “I will never be like you, old man!”

Lex retrieved an autographed Mickey Mantle baseball bat from beside his bed that he kept there for safety. It was doubtful “The Mick” would approve of the grand slam he was about to hit. Lex raised the bat high over his head. “See you in hell, “Pap”!

Lionel dived at his son’s waist and tackled him to the ground before the fatal blow was struck. The bat splintered in half against the hard oak floor. A scuffle ensued with the elder Luthor pinning Lex’s throat to the floor with the handle of the broken bat. When he spoke he hissed through bloody, gritted teeth. “You will be anything I say! You will do anything I say! Now get this monkey music out of my house before someone hears it and mistakes your rebellion for my approval!”

Lowell County Courthouse, Smallville

“I’m sorry but I can’t allow you to view those records,” said the County Clerk’s secretary. “They’re sealed.” She was a lovely white woman with shoulder-length blonde hair that shimmered like a field of ripe wheat. The name plate on her desk identified her as Cheryl Stone. She seemed genuinely apologetic.

“I appreciate your position, Mrs. Stone” said Clark, making a point to lead her eyes to her name plate to show he wasn’t being forward by using her name. “But it is imperative I see those records, Ma’am.”

“It’s Ms. Stone,” the woman corrected. “Perhaps it would be best if you come back another time.”

Clark couldn’t back down. His father told him it was imperative to make certain they were right about who owned the disputed tract of land Luthor wished to sell to some out of state chemical company. The only way to do that was to pour over the county records and find the deed. Clark was a terrific student and could read through the records at a speed no human, or even the computers at the Pentagon, could match but first he needed to access them. “Those are public records Ma’am. Any resident of Lowell County has a right to view them.”

“Is there a problem here?” asked the County Clerk as he waddled into the room from his office wearing a double-breasted white suit. His well-trimmed beard matched his suit. He fidgeted with a smoking tin in his left hand. “Otis Waring, Country Clerk at your … service.”

The man shifted his mass from one leg to another. Clark’s super-hearing picked up on the subtle creaking in his knees. Arthritis, perhaps?

“This young man wants to review our land records from the 1860’s and ‘70s,” Ms. Stone explained to her boss. She seemed nervous.

Mr. Waring said nothing at first but finally retrieved a cigar from his tin and lit it. A cloud of white smoke filled the room with its pungent aroma. “Now why would a young colored boy want to see those records?”

“With all due respect, sir, I’m not sure my race or age matter,” Clark replied. “And why I want to see them is my business.”

Mr. Waring’s eyes narrowed as he exhaled another plume of fetid smoke. “Mind your tongue, boy.” He emphasized the word “boy”.

Clark seethed but remembered his father’s many admonitions about not borrowing trouble. “I meant no disrespect sir, but those are public records and I want to view them.”

“Impossible,” Mr. Waring explained with a chuckle. “They were destroyed long ago. Now move along before I call the sheriff.”

“Then why did your secretary just tell this young man she couldn’t allow him to see those records?” Another man’s voice filled the room with a deep, rich baritone. Everyone’s gaze turned toward him as he entered the room. He was a tall, dashing white man with movie star good looks and a chiseled chin. Clark heard the secretary’s heart race as the stranger approached.

“And just who the hell are you?” Mr. Waring asked.

“It’s my company that plans to build on the disputed land,” the man replied. “An old family friend phoned me and advised me there were some possible discrepancies with the deed. I came here to research those records myself and couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with this young man. I get the impression you don’t want him going through your records. How else could they disappear so quickly when it was firmly established they existed only moments before?”

“Are you accusing this office of improprieties, sir?” Mr. Waring shouted with a thick drawl.

The broad-shouldered, barrel-chested white man smiled and shook his head. He made a show of picking up Ms. Stone’s name plate. “Not at all, sir! I apologize if I gave the wrong impression. You see, by saying, “This office” it implies I’m accusing ordinary folks like Cheryl here of impropriety or perhaps some of the other fine people who work for the county. I meant to imply that you alone are complicit in covering up for someone.”

Wow! Clark never heard a white man speak to another like that before, at least when they weren’t drunk.

“Now see here, Mr….” Mr. Waring shouted.

The man returned the name plate to Cheryl’s desk and reached into his wallet. He handed Mr. Waring a business card. “Tyler, Rex Tyler. Tyler Chemical.”

The Rex Tyler of Tyler Chemicals? He was one of the most renowned biochemists in the world! Clark did a paper on his company for school the previous year. Things were sure getting interesting in little old Smallville!

“I don’t give a damn who you are! You will not walk into this office and talk to me like some common….” Mr. Waring pointed at Clark.

“Careful,” Mr. Tyler warned, cracking his knuckles. “Whoever said words can never hurt us was a rotten liar. Believe me words can cause a lot of pain.”

“Are you threatening me, Mr. Tyler?” Mr. Waring asked.

The situation was rapidly spinning out of control and as much as Clark enjoyed seeing Waring put in his place, Mr. Tyler wouldn’t always be around and that the local black community would ultimately bear the blame for any altercation that took place. “Gentlemen! There’s no need to come to blows. Either the records exist or they don’t. And if they do exist we have a right to see them!”

Mr. Tyler flashed a devilish smile. He seemed to enjoy the cat and mouse game with Waring. “This young man would make a fine diplomat one day. Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Waring?”

The fuming County Clerk ignored Tyler’s question. “What do you want with the records, Tyler?”

“To verify the deal is on the level. It’s no secret how you treat persons of color in these parts and I won’t have my name associated with any wrong doing and since Lionel Luthor is involved I thought it best to check for myself. Word is there has already been an incident in which a local family’s home was burned and two family members perished,” Mr. Tyler answered. “If I don’t see those records the deal is off and you can explain to Luthor why it fell through.”

The rage in Mr. Waring’s eyes gave way to terror at the mention of Luthor’s name.

“I’ll grant you access but not the colored boy. Probably can’t read anyway,” Mr. Waring huffed.

Mr. Tyler shook his head and placed his hand on Clark’s shoulders. “You would deny my personal assistant access to the records after I brought him all the way from Metropolis to help? Who will compile notes for me?”

“Mr. Tyler, you are testing my patience,” warned Mr. Waring. “This… young man is obviously local rabble and not employed by your company.”

“Not an employee?” Mr. Tyler bellowed with a show of ersatz disbelief. “Now who’s making vile accusations? Why young Mr…..” He looked to Clark for help.

“Kent,” Clark interjected.

“Young Mr. Kent here is a fine employee! One of my best!” Mr. Tyler continued. “Yes sir! He’s a vital cog in the wheels of progress at Tyler!”

Mr. Waring glared at both Clark and Mr. Tyler. And Clark thought his X-ray vision was penetrating!

“Ok, fine,” huffed Mr. Tyler. “I’ll prove Kent is an employee! Here, Mr. Kent. Like I told you yesterday, our new checks are on backorder so I’ll have to pay you in cash. What was it? One-hundred dollars a week?”

“Mr. Tyler you don’t have to…” said Clark.

Mr. Tyler counted out five twenty dollars bills and laid them in Clark’s hand. “Again, the new checks should be in by next week. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Mr. Waring rolled his eyes. “If you wish to throw away hard-earned money on some ignorant colored boy at my expense before you proceed with this wild goose chase it’s your business, Tyler. Follow me.”

The clerk led Clark and Mr. Tyler to a room filled with oversized, dusty books. The volumes were in a sorry state and strewn about the room. “The months and years are etched into the binding of each book. You have until the end of the day.”

Mr. Waring slammed the door shut leaving Clark and his affluent companion alone.

“Looks like we have our work cut out for us,” said Mr. Tyler.

Clark nodded and reached the money back to Mr. Tyler. “Thank you for your help.”

Mr. Tyler shook his head. “Keep it son. The way I see it you are the one helping me and since I suspect we’re both searching for the same thing, I know you’ll do your best. A man gets what he pays for in this world.”

Clark was still suspicious but liked the suave fellow and had to admit it the money would definitely help his family and their ministry. “You’re alright, Mr. Tyler. By the way, I’m Clark Kent.”

“Nice to make your acquaintance Mr. Kent. Shall we?”

And with that, the two new allies each grabbed a deed book from the chaos and began to read.

Downtown Smallville

Lana Lang’s world suddenly went dark.

“Guess who?” asked the voice from behind that owned the hands covering her eyes.

“Sounds like the devil himself!” Lana replied. “Are you crazy, Lex Luthor? People may see you!”

Lex uncovered Lana’s eyes and laughed. “The devil himself, huh? I like that but hope you will at least credit me for being smooth-tongued.”

Lana shook her head. “I don’t know nothing about your tongue!”

A big smile crossed Lex’s face. “Would you like to?”

Lana felt herself blush. On one hand the question was so wildly inappropriate she felt she should take offense. On the other hand the very inappropriateness of it caused her heart to race. She leaned into Lex and covered his mouth. “Hush, you!”

Lex grabbed Lana’s hand and caressed her fingers. He let them linger over his mouth for a moment before pulling them away. “Or what?”

Lana wasn’t sure how she could back up her threat. “I don’t know… but you’ll be sorry.”

“I doubt you could ever make me sorry,” Lex replied.

The cat and mouse game was exciting but dangerous especially for Lana. “Lex, you have to stop this or you’ll find me strung up from a tree somewhere.”

Lex’s eyes grew fiery. “Over my dead body!”

“That’s easy for you to say,” said Lana. “It’s my dead body we’re talking about here or maybe those of my folks.”

“It isn’t fair,” Lex spat.

Lana shook her head. “No, it isn’t but that’s life.”

“One day when I’m president of this country, I’ll change it!” Lex boasted.

Lana covered her mouth and giggled. “President? Not if you’re seen with me!”

“Then meet me somewhere we won’t be seen,” Lex answered.

The suggestions chilled Lana’s very soul. Public encounters were risky but provided a safety net of sorts. Not much could happen between them on Main Street in broad daylight and no one really knew what was said between them. The situation presented either of them with deniability. But to meet Lex somewhere private was a different matter. She’d never been alone with a boy before, unless one counted Clark but they had been neighbors and friends forever. They were more like family. Lex wanted more but was she ready for romance, and with a wealthy white boy at that? She’d heard all her life the races weren’t supposed to mix. Then why was it Lex excited her so? “I… don’t know, Lex. It seems risky.”

Lex rolled his eyes. “What’s the worst that could happen? You may enjoy yourself.”

“Maybe that’s what I’m afraid of,” Lana whispered.

“Is that so wrong?” Lex asked.

Lana shook her head. “No, but then what? It’s not like we can carry on in public. Even a friendship would be frowned upon by your people and mine. That’s not what I want.”

“What do you want?” Lex asked.

Lana lowered her eyes. “I… I don’t know.”

“So it’s a no, then?” Lex asked. You won’t meet me?”

Lana chose her answer carefully. “No.”

Lex turned to walk off.

“Where are you going?” Lana asked.

Lex turned around. “You said no.”

“I said no it wasn’t a no,” Lana replied.

Lex beamed. “Then you’ll meet me?”

Although she knew better, Lana shook her head in disbelief at the craziness of the whole situation and couldn’t help but return the smile. She nodded. “Of course I will! We just have to make sure it’s somewhere no one will find us.”

“I know there perfect place,” said Lex. “Meet me at the old Crabtree store. You know the one?”

“On the edge of town?” Lana asked.

Lex took off down the street. “That’s the one! Meet me there in one hour!”

Across the Street

The man in the car watched Lex Luthor run down the sidewalk away from the colored girl and laid his camera in the passenger side floorboard of his Buick 225 and sped away to have the photographs developed. Mr. Luthor paid him handsomely to tail his son. If he were to make such accusations without proof it could mean his life.

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