Whatever Happened to the Disclaimer: This story features Superman, who is a trademark of DC Comics. This is an unauthorized work, and no profit is being made off this work by me. This story is copyright of me. Download if you like, but please don't archive without my permission. Don't be shy.
The Continuity Note Superman Forgot: In case you haven't read it, SUPERMAN v.1 #423 and ACTION COMICS #583 (both published 1986) depict a possible future set in the year 1997, with flashbacks of events taking place in 1987. This story takes place in 1989, according to the timeline established there.
Many of the characters depicted in this story first appeared in SUPERMAN v.1 #165
Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Bart Benson had a problem. A catastrophe, really. Bart Benson's glass was empty.
It was a terrible, awful thing. A regular tragedy, but it was something he'd dealt with frequently enough. He held the small container up to his lips, reared back his head with a practiced motion, and licked the interior surface as the last few drops of liquid came rolling down from the bottom. Then he brought it back to the bar with a loud thud, enough to make the man on the other side twitch, but not enough to get him to turn around from cleaning a mug.
"Gimme 'nother." Bart asked. Phase two of his crisis management. Once upon a time, Phase Two usually resolved everything. These days, the man behind the bar had to be a punk about it.
"I think you've had enough," he said, not even bothering to turn around and quit wiping the mug off as he spoke. "Go home, Benson. You do have one of those, don't you?"
"Don't tell me what to do," Bart snarled, balling his fists. "Whyncha earn your lousy pay and gimme another, you smug little--"
The young man finally deigned to face him at this, cutting him off before he could finish his thought. "Now there's an interesting choice of words coming from you, Benson," he replied. "'Pay'. As in: I serve you drinks and keep my mouth shut while you crawl inside a bottle, so long as you settle your tab at the end of the month. You're good for it, right, Benson? At least, that's what you keep saying when you're sober enough to form complete sentences."
Bart squinted at the barkeep and looked down at his empty glass. Then he swiveled around on his stool as if surveying the rest of the establishment for any patrons watching this confrontation. In truth he didn't actually look up at a single person in the bar. "Whakinda service is this?" he asked defiantly. "Ask for a drink and you get a sermon. You treat all yer customers like this?"
The barkeep put his hands on the slick wooden surface and leaned forward to lock eyes with him. "No. Just the bitter washed up ones who stumble in here and ruin a perfectly decent night trying to make everyone else as miserable as they are. You're bad for business, Benson. You'd improve my opinion if you'd quit running up a debt and acting like you own the place."
Now he was running into Phase Three. He'd have to talk his way out of this one. Some poor slob might be nice enough to help a guy out in a situation like this. It wasn't that he didn't have the money... it was just that the traps hadn't brought in as much as he had figured, and this good for nothing punk bartender kept raising the rates for the liquor.
It wasn't that he was some sort of transient or something. He'd worked the lumber company for fifteen years. He was the foreman at one time. Was it his fault he had one too many that ONE time, and the boss's frigid daughter happened to be visiting the grounds that morning? She fired him after FIFTEEN YEARS of blood and sweat, and of course he couldn't hold down work anywhere else. Selwyn owned just about everything in the county. What he didn't own he knew the people who did, probably told 'em what a drunk he was just to keep him unemployed. Well so what? He still had enough to live on trapping furs. Whose business was it that he'd set aside a few bucks every now and then to celebrate?
Bart looked to his right to see a man take a seat at the stool next to his. In all the time he'd come to this bar, no one had ever sat next to him. He might have objected to this, except he caught a glimpse of a wad of cash in the newcomer's hand as he pulled it free of his coat pocket.
"Be with you just a second," the barkeep assured him. "I'm not kidding, Benson. You can cough it up now, or you can walk out that door now. One way or another this gets settled--"
"That's actually what I was lookin' to speak with you about, buddy," the newcomer interjected, waving his cash a little more prominently to get the bartender's attention back. I wanted to buy this feller a drink. Figure I may as well buy him all the others he hasn't paid for while I'm at it, hey?"
Bart wrinkled his nose at him with suspicion. Phase Three usually didn't go this easily. Before he could investigate any further, the bartender took care of it for him. "What's your angle, mac? You know this guy?"
"What's it to you?" the stranger snorted. "One way or another, it's settled, right?" he unfolded his wad of bills and started flipping through them. "Or he can walk right out that door and I can walk right out with 'im."
"Hmpph. Yeah, why do I care if you throw your money away?" the little punk shrugged. He took the money and counted it out, then opened his register and pulled out some change. "Get you anything while I'm at it, Mr. Philanthropist?"
"Privacy, mister," he answered. The barkeep shrugged again as he handed off the coins and once he had finished pouring Bart's refill, he took his half-cleaned mug and adjourned to the other end of the bar.
Bart looked down at the new drink and licked his lips. Without even acknowledging the man who bought it for him, he took it in his eager hands and downed it with one swallow.
"Bart Benson, right?"
The stranger smirked at this. "You mean to tell me that a man you never saw before buys you a drink, pays off your tab even, and you ain't the least bit interested in why?"
"I know why," Bart mumbled. "And I tell ya, it's downright heartening to see a guy take pity on a poor fella in a tough spot. Salt of the earth..."
"You know a man goes by the name of Jim White?"
Bart felt a sudden chill in his spine. "Don't know what you're talking about."
He reached into his coat and pulled an old piece of paper from the pocket. After a moment of unfolding, he spread it out on the bar and pointed to a photograph surrounded by newsprint. "Jog your memory a little?"
Bart forced himself to shake off the lingering effects of the alcohol and he looked down at the caption below the photo: "Jim White and Sally Selwyn receiving their prize for first place in the barn dance." Behind the blonde girl and the man in glasses in the foreground of the photo stood Bart, his face twisted in irritation as he looked on. "You with the cops or something?" was all he asked.
"You know him, don't you?"
Bart looked down at his empty glass and set it back down on the bar. "Tired of this dump anyhow... let's take this outside."
The stranger offered no objection, and as he got up to lead the way, Bart finally got a decent look at him, if only from behind. His jacket appeared to be made of leather, but not quite like any animal hide he'd ever seen before. His boots looked like something out of a bad science fiction film. They were black, and seemed fairly functional, but it looked as if someone deliberately tried to make them look as unusual as possible. Upon further inspection, he noticed they even had a curved hook on either toe. When they finally got outside, he turned around, and held up the newspaper clipping once again with a smile on his face. "You know him, don't you?" the stranger asked again.
"Look, I hated Jim White," Bart grumbled. "He cost me my job. Selwyn's girl had a thing for him, and if he hadn't turned up missing, she wouldn't have taken it out on ME. But that don't prove I killed him. Don't even prove he's dead."
"Oh, I know you didn't kill him, Benson," he said with a chuckle. "Man like him, take a lot more than you to ever break him. But you tried, didn't you? You couldn't stand that the boss' daughter loved him and not you, that he'd stand to inherit millions while you'd barely get by on foreman money trapping rodents on the side."
"Well, so what?" Bart shouted.
"So you found out White was going to enter a rodeo contest, tryin' to make a little money on his own to prove himself to the lady. So you fixed it so the horse he was supposed to ride would buck and cripple him. And even then, you decided to put the scare into him by rolling a boulder at him while he was collecting his thoughts down by a river. Only it knocked him in, and he was never seen again."
"That's a load of--"
The stranger cut him off and started laughing. "But it gets better! You ran off when you realized Jim was done for, and even though everyone figured he committed suicide, you were so afraid of someone finding out that you got paranoid, nervous. You turned to the bottle, and washed your whole life down the toilet like so much vomit." He tapped a small metal object clipped to his left ear. Bart noticed it reflecting the street lights as he moved his head. "Little gadget I picked up. Reads thoughts, provided you ask the right questions and get the subject's mind to concentrate on the information you want. Don't try to deny it, Benson. You thought you killed that man, and you ruined your whole life because you were afraid it'd catch up with you."
Bart just stared at him in shock and horror. "But... but... how do you even know any of this? And why would ya even CARE?"
"Got a few reasons for that," he replied. "I got a personal interest in Jim White, for one. Wasn't easy getting ahold of that photo, you know. And I needed to know if anyone who knew him ever found out the truth about him. Where he came from, what he was doin' in this part of the country. And I have to admit, I kinda wanted to get a look at a worthless piece of trash who destroyed himself over a murder he didn't even commit."
"What're you saying," Bart asked. "White's still alive?"
"What's left of him," the stranger nodded, stuffing his hands into his pockets. Before Bart could react, the stranger had pulled out a knife, which barely registered until the stranger took a step closer and the light from the streetlamps reflected off of its lustrous metal surface and into his weary eyes. Bart's movements were sluggish from all the drinking, and by the time he'd forced his limbs to act it was already too late. All he'd managed to do was grab onto the stranger's arm just as he finished stabbing Bart in the gut.
Bart gagged as he felt a warm coppery film well up in his throat, and after he fell to the ground he could see the stranger looking at the blood smeared over the knife he'd used to attack him.
"Gotta admit, there was another reason I didn't mention," he added, kneeling down before Bart's wounded body and reaching into his pants pockets. Bart could feel the keys to his truck being pulled loose from his person, but it scarcley mattered after what had just been done to him. "I don't usually take things from people until their already too dead to care, but way I figure it, folks stopped giving a damn about you a long time ago. Besides, I need the ride. Have a nice night...
The last thing Bart saw before he blacked out was the stranger stand up and toss his keys into the air to catch them happily like a newfound toy. And as his killer walked away, Bart Benson's last thought was to wonder what he'd ever done to deserve this...
"Easy, Midnight, plenty for everybody."
The black horse shook his head impatiently as he watched the one next to him greedily slurping up water even as she was still filling his bucket. Ninety-three degrees, and expected to hit a hundred before the end of the day, she wasn't surprised that the horses were thirsty.
"Listen, Sally, all I'm saying is that a lot of girls would give almost anything to have a man like Burt Cooper fawning over them. The least you could do is give him a chance the next time he offers to take you out--"
"Daddy, I'm not interested. Could we just drop it, please?"
Digby Selwyn crossed his arms with a loud harumph. She figured that about that moment he was comparing her to her mother--he'd done that a lot since she died. She pulled the garden hose out of the bucket and proceeded to Midnight's stable. At least the horses were easy enough to please.
"And just what is the problem with Burt Cooper?" her father finally demanded.
"There's nothing wrong with him," Sally answered calmly. "He's wealthy, he takes good care of his employees, I understand he makes a great Five Alarm Chili. I'm not interested, that's all."
"Don't 'Sally...' me," she snapped. "Honestly, Daddy, it's not like I'm picking a man for that entry-level job at the oil fields. Burt'd make a fine husband. Just not for me."
Digby sighed and took his pipe from his mouth, pausing to rub his fingers through his white mustache. "Sweetheart, you know I did my best to support you after what happened to Jim..."
"This isn't about Jim--"
"Isn't it?" Digby challenged. "Sally, you're a beautiful young woman and ever since he threw himself in that river, you've been punishing yourself for it. I can't accept that for all he loved you, he wouldn't want you to move on with your life."
"So I should just forget--?"
"That's not what I'm saying," Digby explained. "What I'm saying is that you shouldn't let his memory take over your life. Jim was a good man, and he never wanted anything more than for you to be happy. I know it's hard, honey, but you're going to have to let go..."
"Maybe I already have," Sally said softly as she finished watering Midnight. "Maybe it's just that I don't want to latch on to anything else..."
They stood there in the stable without speaking. Several minutes went by, at least by her reckoning. It was an old argument, one they'd had often enough for her father to know the outcome by now. And they both just stood there, as if some new development would arise and settle the matter once and for all. She knew that was hopeless.
She'd given up waiting for miracles a long time ago.
Her father, on the other hand, never learned how to let a matter drop, even when there was nothing left to say. "Listen," he said, with a long pause before he continued. "It's not that I think you can't handle the ranch after I'm gone. You understand that. I'm not trying to marry you off for my sake. It's just that you've become so withdrawn since..."
"Since Jim killed himself," Sally finished. "You can't even bring yourself to say it, Daddy. Don't tell me it didn't leave its mark on you, too. I just--"
It was an old argument. It never ended quickly or easily, though. She would have thought practice had made that difference at least. She sighed and leaned down towards the gate to Midnight's pen. "I just--"
Just then, a new voice spoke up. "Ah, excuse me?" it asked, accompanied by the rustle of fresh hay by the stable door. Sally looked up and found her father already twisting his body around to face this unexpected visitor.
"Who are you?!" Digby demanded, more out of genuine surprise than from anger.
The stranger raised his hands and held them over his chest, palms outward in apology. "I--I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you like that, sir--"
Sally finally stepped in and put her hand on her father's shoulder. "Easy, Daddy. It's probably just another applicant for that farmhand position I put out an ad for. I'm sorry," she added, now addressing the tall, broad-shouldered newcomer. "The position's been filled this morning. If you could come back to the office tomorrow afternoon--well, we'll see what we can do for you."
"Right, of course," Digby nodded, regaining his composure. He approached the stranger and took his hand, shaking it vigorously. "Digby Selwyn, I own the farm, and a few other things around this part of the state. If you need some work, I'm sure I can find a place for you. I wasn't always prosperous myself--"
"I... know, sir," the man said, twitching his nose and running a finger across his black mustache. "And I'm not here about that, actually. I came to see the two of you. I'm a friend... in a way."
Digby shrugged his shoulders as he crossed his arms in contemplation. "No offense, but I can't recall ever meeting you before. Of course, when you get to be my age," he chuckled amicably, "you meet so many people you can't hardly keep track! Maybe if you told me your name it might jog my memory..."
"That would take some explaining," he said with a faraway look in his eye. "In fact, that's part of what I wanted to talk to you about. That, and I wanted to thank you... you and Sally..."
She had been standing there trying to make sense of this man's unexpected arrival, and then when he looked her in the eye something deep inside her seemed to wake up, as if she had always known. "Oh my God," she gasped, dropping the garden hose and rushing across the stable to make sure she wasn't hallucinating.
"Honey?" Digby asked as she nudged him out of her way so she could look the man over up close. He was six-three if he was an inch, wavy black hair that had grown out a little since she'd last seen it, but otherwise just the same as before...
"And the glasses," she said aloud, touching the side of his face where they would have been. "It threw me off, just like that mustache you've got, but it is you... I don't believe it. I... I just don't believe it..."
"Sally, what's going on?" her father asked. "Who is he?"
The man took her in his arms there was a look on his face that bore both joy and shame at the same time, and all Sally could do was put her head against his chest and let her tears soak into his flannel shirt. "Don't you recognize him, Daddy?" she said between sobbing. "It's Jim, Daddy. I don't know how, but... but he's come back!"
"Superman... Great day in the morning. But it's just not possible!"
Jim watched Digby pace nervously around the living room of the Selwyn Mansion, and all he could do was grab the arms of his chair and repeat what he'd said. "But it IS, Mr. Selwyn. I told you all about Jim White and how he came here onto your property. He fell in love with Sally and they even considered marriage, until an accident crippled him and left him confined to a wheelchair. How could I know about all of that unless I was there? The truth is I am Jim White. Maybe it seemed as though I fell into a river and drowned, but I'm here, alive and well in spite of everything that might make my story seem too fantastic to accept. You can't deny that, can you?"
"I'm not sure that I can't," he replied, reaching for the handkerchief from his coat to wipe the sweat from his brow. "Maybe Jim White might have survived to return here, but... not you. No, you're dead. There were witnesses... other heroes who saw you die in a final battle at the North Pole..."
"Close friends of mine," Jim countered. "After what had happened, I knew there was no way I could go on. I couldn't pretend that nothing had changed, so right then and there I decided to end it once and for all. But I couldn't let anyone know what had become of me, not after seeing so many friends and loved ones die at the hands of my enemies. So we agreed the only thing to do was to tell the world I had died. We've been in the process of arranging a new identity for myself ever since." He rubbed his lower lip across his facial hair. "This mustache is part of the plan, although I'm really beginning to wish it weren't--"
"Then you want me to believe Jim White was Superman all along?!" Digby asked skeptically. "And two years after Superman died, here he is, still alive and standing here in my home?"
"No. Superman is gone. Forever," Jim said solemnly. "The reports were true up to the part where I entered the gold Kryptonite chamber. I purposely sought to strip myself of my powers, and permanently. But instead of wandering out into the cold to freeze to death, as we told the media, I simply remained in the Fortress, until the others could decide how to integrate me back into society again."
"How convenient," Digby muttered. "So the only way to prove your story is going by the remarkable resemblance you have to Clark Kent. I have to admit, we don't hear much about you this far from Metropolis, but I've read a few of your articles, seen your picture enough times that I honestly wonder why I didn't realize it the first time you came to live with us, Jim."
He smiled mischievously at this. "It's been my experience, Mr. Selwyn, that people believe what they want to believe. I made a whole life for myself built around the premise that no one would recognize Superman if he wore a suit and a pair of glasses. And there's enough men of my height and build in the world to have kept you from ever considering that Clark Kent would stumble onto your property one day weary from heat exhaustion. I'm only sorry that it turned out that way, or maybe I could have saved you all some trouble..."
"Clark..." Digby mused. "Then is that what I should be calling you?"
"No..." Jim said, shaking his head. "Clark was laid to rest when my identity was exposed to the world by Toyman and the Prankster. That's not who I am anymore, not just for the sake of my privacy, but out of respect for all the friends who died because of the revelation that Clark and Superman were one and the same."
"I... I see," Digby said, his tone softening as the impact of the story finally started to sink in. "So then the reason you came to us before was because you had lost your memory..."
"One of my enemies had sent an object hurtling towards the earth," Jim explained. "When I learned it threatened to destroy TELSTAR satellite in orbit around the planet, I intercepted it as Superman, only to find that it had been booby-trapped with red Kryptonite, presumably by one of my enemies from outer space. I quickly threw it into the sun before it could do any more harm, and then I headed for my Arctic Fortress of Solitude to ride out the effects of the red-K where I wouldn't risk anyone else getting hurt. But I wasn't fast enough, and by the time I was over the United States, I was compelled to land near your property, where I inexplicably removed not only my Superman costume, but anything that might have identified me as Clark Kent. After that, I began to lose my powers and memories as I continued to walk down a road leading here, where I first met you and Sally."
"That doesn't make sense," Digby challenged. "I've read about Kryptonite. The red variety is only supposed to affect you for forty-eight hours. You lived with us for weeks..."
"I can only guess that the type of red-K in that UFO had different properties than what I had encountered before," Jim offered. "Since I incinerated it after I was exposed, there was no opportunity to examine it. Red Kryptonite is also supposed to affect me a different way each time, yet whatever this was had repeated previous experiences.
She had kept her peace up to now, letting Jim and her father discuss the situation, poring over the details and minutia the way men did, and partly because she had questions of her own that needed answering. But enough was enough, she decided, standing up from her seat and leaning over Jim's chair to put her arms around his neck. "Daddy, what does it matter what color Kryptonite was involved? Jim's alive, and he's come back to us after all this time. Instead of cross-examining him like a criminal, we should be celebrating this! We can pick up where we left off, start fresh, without anything to get in the way of our happiness. That's why you came back, isn't it, Jim?"
He shuffled in his chair for a moment, and then nodded. "That was what I had in mind," he agreed.
Digby looked at them, and a smile started to grow across his face from ear to ear. "Well, I suppose you just might have a point there, Sally. Man doesn't come all this way unless it's for something mighty important... but there's a lot of things I need to clear up, Jim. I'll leave you two alone now and we can continue this in the morning, huh?"
"I appreciate it, Mr. Selwyn," Jim said, patting Sally's hand as she began rubbing his shoulder. I appreciate everything..."
Her father nodded with a grin and headed out the door, leaving just the two of them. "You know Daddy," she teased. "Running a ranch and a oil field and everything else, he likes to stay informed when things happen."
"I understand the feeling," Jim said. "I used to be a reporter once... when I lived in Metropolis..."
"Is that why you left us?" she asked. "Left me? Your memory came back, and you just flew out of that chair to go back to your life?"
"It wasn't like that," he answered. "I fell into that river, Sally. One of my JLA teammates, Aquaman, found me before I drowned, and took me to Atlantis where another one of my friends helped nurse me back to health. After that, I woke up to find my memory and powers had returned, but I had no recollection of what had happened to me while I was still under the influence of the red Kryptonite. I went back to Metropolis and played out he rest of my dual life, and I had no idea you even existed."
"But... then how did you find out about me?" she asked. "And why come back now? After all this time?"
He stood up from the chair and walked over to the nearest window. Jim pulled back the curtain and looked out into the sky. The sun was setting, and the first few of the stars were beginning to appear. "I lost everything, Sally. The enemies I'd made in my lifetime had returned with a vengeance, killing my friends, exposing my secrets, ruining everything I had built for myself, both as Clark and as Superman. I knew the end was coming--I have friends from the future, and even they hinted to me that life as I had known it would soon be over--and when I fought that battle at the top of the world two years ago, I knew it would be my last."
She walked over to him and tried to console him. "Jim, I--"
"No, let me finish," he said grimly. "I didn't expect to survive that fight. I've faced death before, and I learned a long time ago not to let concern for my own personal safety stop me from doing what I have to do. No, all I wanted--all I prayed for--was that I could spare those close to me from whatever pain and suffering might be inflicted on me. I didn't really get my wish. Pete was murdered, and Lana and Jimmy... That was where I came up with the name I used, by the way. My unconscious somehow cobbled together two of my friends' names, and I got 'Jim White'. Thank God Perry and Alice survived that day... But when it was all said and done, I didn't die. In fact, I had to kill to defeat my enemy that day. Everything I'd known or loved was destroyed, even my oath against killing. But I was still alive. I didn't know what I would do with myself. I stepped into that gold Kryptonite chamber knowing it was the right thing to do. I wanted to end it all, but I couldn't bring myself to actually take my own life. I've spent the last couple of years trying to find my place in the world since then. But something happened.
"I can't quite explain it... much of my research on the effects of Kryptonite was destroyed when Brainiac attacked the Fortress, and my super-memory faded after I lost my powers, but I think that by canceling out my powers with gold-K, that somehow eliminated the block on my memory that had kept me from recalling my time here with you. It came to me in dreams at first. I'd see myself dancing with a blonde girl and breaking my back trying to stay saddled on a wild horse... and sometimes I'd wake up screaming because I'd remember drowning in that river before Aquaman found me. But finally, I started to realize that those experiences were real, and I had finally uncovered them after all this time."
She didn't know what to say about all this, but he took her in his arms and went on. "I don't think I can express what I felt to realize that after everything I'd been through, that I still had anything left in this world. People who hadn't suffered for their relationship with me, because no one was even aware of it! I had to come back here, Sally. Not only to express my gratitude for the kindness you showed me when I was at my most vulnerable point, but... but to see all this again. I had to be sure it was real, Sally. I had to be sure..."
The kiss she gave him was long and passionate, fitting for the two of them being reunited after so long. At first he was caught off guard, but it didn't take long for him to remember what it was like all those years ago, and when he finally started to reciprocate, it took her back to a place she thought she'd lost forever. "Convinced?" she asked when they had finally parted lips.
Jim stood there with a blank look on his face. "I... I..."
"I'll take that as a yes, then," Sally smirked. "Now I think it's time I showed you to your room. A lot's changed since your were last here and I can't think of a better way to get on with our lives than to show you around the property..."
Jim White was Superman.
"Was" being the key term. From what he'd said, his powers were gone forever, his ties to the career of the fabled Man of Steel utterly severed. Even his civilian identity as a mild-mannered reporter was cast off and left behind. And none of it mattered.
Oh, it answered a lot of questions. Jim wandered onto the Selwyn ranch years ago dazed and exhausted. He was a good man, a brave man, but on some levels he seemed so unsure of himself, so confused and lost at times. Being an amnesiac superhero cleared all of that up, and with those factors removed, he was restored to her, hearty and whole. Her feelings toward him didn't waver when he lost the use of his legs at that rodeo years ago, so why should him being anything else make a difference? As they rode along the property on horseback, she watched him nudge his animal along with a firm but relaxed hold on the reins, and she honestly couldn't imagine him being anything else than the man she loved.
"Merciful Rao!" he said, wincing as he raised his arm to shield his eyes from the sun.
"What?" she asked, his exclamation breaking her train of thought.
"Nothing," Jim grimaced, trying to catch a peek at the great yellow disk in the sky from between his fingers. "It's just that I keep forgetting to bring sunscreen with me when I go outdoors like this."
"We could always go back and get some," she offered. "It's not that far back to the house, and--"
"No," he chuckled. "Sometimes the only way to learn something is to do it the hard way. A few more sore necks, and I'll be more mindful about it in the future... at least, that's what Pa used to say..."
"I've never heard you talk about your parents," she noted. "Well, of course... you didn't remember them the last time you were here."
"You never asked," he replied.
He paused to navigate through a narrow space between two trees and checked behind him to make sure his horse had gotten clear without any trouble. "The fugue I went through wiped my memory, but it compelled me to keep anyone else from knowing I had forgotten who I was. If you'd asked, I would have come up with some answer, if only a fabricated one to protect my secret. After all, I gave you a name for me."
Sally blinked a few times at this. He was right, of course, she never thought to discuss that much with him. "I... Well, you could tell me now, of course," she offered.
"They died when I was a boy, about the time I left Smallville to begin my career as Superman," he answered. "Heh... that was years ago, but I can still remember it like yesterday. Ma sewing my costume from unraveled blankets in the rocket ship that brought me here... Pa teaching me to fly. There's a funny story behind that--He made this crazy contraption with helium balloons and he'd guide from the ground with a length of twine like a kite! I told him it'd never work at first, but sure enough--"
"You--you must have loved them very much," Sally broke in.
"Without them, I don't think I'd be the man I am today," he nodded. "There's a monument I sculpted for them carved onto a distant asteroid. I left it there near one I'd made for my biological parents some time earlier. It's not much, but I'm just glad I was able to do something to honor them before... well, before what happened in the Fortress."
She could feel the pain in his words as he spoke. Jim was restored to her, but he was a different man. Everyone he knew was gone now, and unlike the last time they met, he understood it. She was the only one left for him now, and it fell to her to give him back some semblance of life. It was a responsibility she wouldn't take lightly. "Jim, they're holding the annual barn dance this weekend. It'd take some explaining, but I'm sure there's a lot of other people who'd be thrilled to see you again, and we had such a good time when we went there before. Do you think--?"
"Dancing..." he mused. "I think I'd like that. Maybe I could return the favor for all those steps you taught me while my memory was gone. There's a tiny village in Burma I saved from a typhoon once, and they had this fascinating way of..."
She sighed and listened to him go on. Things weren't quite the same, she had to admit, but that was to be expected after all these years apart. People changed, and all she had to do was learn to adjust. For his sake, she had to.
Superman! His little girl was in love with Superman! And he seemed to feel the same way about her!
So why was he so blasted nervous about it?
Digby Selwyn torqued the shower faucet until the steaming water stopped flowing and with a practiced motion he nudged the translucent glass door until it was just open enough to reach out with his hand. Without missing a beat a towel was there for him and he quickly pulled it back into the shower with him to pad off the water and cover himself as he finally emerged to face the day. Or at least, he mused to himself, he could face whatever was left of it, since he'd been in bed until about noon so far.
"You said Sally and Jim left about two hours ago?" he asked as he rubbed his feet on the fluffy bathmat to do away with any excess moisture. Ten years ago he'd have been up at the crack of dawn, Saturday or otherwise. He silently cursed the ravages of old age and took the clean pair of boxers from his butler as he waited for his reply.
"Yes, sir," Hawkins nodded, holding up the rest of Digby's clothes as he spoke. Miss Selwyn didn't go into much detail, but she mentioned touring the woods on horseback. They didn't say when they would return--"
"No, no, it's no business of an old fool what they do with their day anyhow," Digby muttered. Ten years ago, he'd have been there to see them off, and he could have just asked for himself. Hawkins was no younger than he, but somehow he never seemed to lose step with keeping the mansion in order from dawn to dusk. "Tell me something, Hawkins."
"Sir?" the manservant prompted.
"What do you think of Jim White? I mean personally."
Hawkins stiffened a little at this. The quiet dignified man had been with the Selwyn household for nearly thirty years, to the point where he was practically part of the family, but he had always preferred to maintain a professional distance. Questions of this sort didn't make him comfortable. "You mentioned before, Mr. Selwyn, how you couldn't tell me exactly how Mr. White had returned. I can certainly respect his confidence..."
"But?" Digby prodded.
"But I must admit that it's rather unusual that a man presumed dead for so many years should reappear on your doorstep without a scratch. Even his spinal injury is no more. Were I the sort to engage in romantic speculation, I'd think he was some sort of secret agent or something."
Digby had to hold back a snort of laughter. Hawkins didn't know the half of it! "All I can say, Hawkins," he reassured, "is that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation behind Jim's return. If you could be told, you'd understand perfectly. Beyond that, you'll just have to trust me. But from what you DO know... what about that?"
Hawkins considered that for a moment. "Then I would still say he's a rather strange fellow, Mr. Selwyn. The last time he was with us, I had to show him how to operate an electric shaver. At first, I thought it was because he preferred conventional razor blades, but you'd left some sitting out on the sink and he didn't even bother with them. It was as if he'd never shaved before in his entire life, yet he was clean-shaven the day he arrived. He claimed to be in search of steady work, but his accent didn't sound like he was from anywhere in the state. More like the northeast United States. And he never indicated a specific line of work he was interested in. Again, sir, if I were to speculate, I'd almost say it was as if he never existed until he set foot on your property."
"Fair enough," Digby nodded, buttoning his shirt. It all made sense, now that he knew the truth. Superman's hair didn't grow under Earth's atmosphere--at least it didn't while he had his super powers--and with his memory wiped and that strange compulsion he described to hide his amnesia, he would have told Hawkins anything to pass for a normal man. Ironically, all that effort just raised the butler's suspicions, and now Jim was suddenly reborn without any explanation and what else could he say? It didn't take a trained observer to see Jim wasn't quite human. Jim wasn't human. That was what bothered him, perhaps.
"I would hasten to add, however," Hawkins went on, "that I do respect Mr. White a great deal, even if I find most of the man a total enigma."
"Oh?" Digby asked.
"Indeed, sir. I heard about how he prevented that dynamite explosion by the water pipelines when he first came to live here. As I understood it, someone had left a pitchfork near a box of TNT as a stormfront approached."
"That's right," Digby replied. "He fashioned a noose and rode a horse out to it, then he roped the handle and pulled it away just before the storm blew through. I was impressed at the time. It wasn't just brave, it was smart, using a rope instead of trying to dismount and grab onto the pitchfork by hand."
"And in the end, that is the true measure of the man, I should think, Mr. Selwyn," Hawkins concluded. "For all his eccentricities, Mr. White has proven himself to be a good and honorable person. And if that is good enough for you and Miss Sally, then that is sufficient for me." He perked his ears and turned to the bathroom door. "I believe that was the doorbell. If you'll excuse me, sir."
Digby dismissed the butler with a casual wave of his hand, then stroked his white mustache in contemplation. Hawkins had a point. He had been obsessing over Jim's story about exploded planets and radioactive rocks and rampaging supervillains, but beneath all that, he was still the same man he was all along. He'd spent much of Sally's life waiting for her to settle down with a good man, mostly so he could rest easy in his golden years knowing she'd be happy and secure. Now she was reunited with someone widely regarded as the ultimate man, and he was strangely unsettled about it. Maybe he was just being the overprotective father again, but he was sure there was more to it than that.
He sighed and shook his head. Whatever it was, Sally was a big girl, and more than capable of looking after herself. As for Jim... well, even without Superman's might, he was hardly helpless. Digby finished getting dressed and headed for the foyer. Strange that Hawkins hadn't announced who it was at the door by now, but whoever it was surely had come looking for him and--
He found Hawkins slumped against the wall at the foot of the stairs. He was clutching at his stomach, his face twisted and pallid from pain.
"Good Lord! Hawkins!" Digby shouted. He scurried down the rest of the steps and grasped him by the shoulders to steady him. His first thought was that he'd had a heart attack, the person at the door went to get help and Hawkins got as far as the stairs before the pain overwhelmed him. Then the elderly butler raised his hand from his gut and placed it weakly onto Digby's chest, grasping at his shirt like he was holding onto life itself.
His hands were red from blood, just like the vest of his suit. Digby looked down in horror to see the jagged tear in his clothes, then back at Hawkins face as he gasped a desperate breath and collapsed to the ground.
Digby stared at the fallen butler for a full minute trying to understand what had just happened, and as he turned his dumfounded attention to the blood Hawkins had left on his own clothes that he finally noticed the sound. Someone was in the gun cabinet.
He regained his composure and took stock of the situation. He didn't have many security measures in place at the mansion. It was in a remote area within his sprawling estate that the possibility of an intruder just didn't seem likely. The guns in the cabinet were more for display than self-defense, but he did have another upstairs just in case. All he had to do was get to his bedroom and load it before whoever it was realized anyone else was home. He could call the police from there, or he could try to take him by surprise. After all, if he had a knife to begin with, it was likely that he only wanted to steal the guns, so he might not be prepared to shoot one if Digby could only get the drop on--
"Nope. Figure you're best off right where you stand, old man."
He didn't even have time to react before he found the barrel of his prized Colt Model P Single Action revolver aimed straight for his forehead, just inches from his face. Impotently, Digby began to raise his hands in surrender.
"Good boy. Nice and slow there," the intruder sneered. He was dressed in all black, his jacket and boots were of a design he'd never seen before, and his eyes might have been green, but it wasn't like any shade of green he'd ever seen in a human eye. They seemed to burn with a furious rage that betrayed the calm demeanor he was trying to establish as he gestured toward the door with the gun.
"Nice piece, by the way," he said coolly. Whoever he was, he clearly had an appreciation for antique firearms. "Look to me like you take care of it, too. Hate to ruin it by firing a bullet into your skull, y'know? Wear down the lands in the barrel, wouldn't be in such near mint condition."
"You... you didn't have to kill my butler to steal that," Digby protested.
"No, of course I didn't," he scoffed. "This here's just a little souvenir though." He knelt down over Hawkins body and waved Digby towards the front door. Slowly, the intruder dipped two fingers of his free hand into the pool of blood now forming around Hawkins' body and began to wipe it onto the wall. He seemed more focused on that task, but he never lowered the gun as he worked. "No, I killed your butler for something else I want. Gotta leave him a message, see? Show him I ain't screwing around. Then you and me, we're gonna head outside, wait for him to come out and meet us. Bet it won't take long. No, not long at all now..."
"Jim..." Digby gasped. "You're after Jim..."
"I wouldn't blow a gasket trying to figure it out, old man," he smirked as he wiped more blood on the wall. "It'll all be over soon enough."
Marriage. She'd mentioned the word with an almost surprising frivolity. He tugged at the collar of his yellow flannel shirt and his mustache seemed to bristle even more uncomfortably than usual.
"Hey, don't get too enthusiastic about it, cowboy," she smirked. She ran up alongside him and elbowed him in the ribs.
"I'm sorry," he said after a deep breath. "It's just that it seems a little soon to bring up something as big as... well..."
She started giggling mischievously at him. "As big as...? Well, c'mon. It's not a dirty word, Jim." Something about the way she clasped her hands over her mouth as she laughed, he could easily rank it among the most beautiful sights he'd ever seen. It was nearly enough to make up for the way she was teasing him.
"Great Scott, Sally, I've barely been back for twenty-four hours!" he finally blurted out as he threw up his arms in mock-exasperation.
"Hey, we've been engaged for years, Mr. White," Sally replied triumphantly. She grabbed his arm and wrapped her own around it as they walked back from the stables. "Don't tell me you've gotten cold feet now..."
She was only kidding around with him, obviously, and normally he would have done a better job bantering back with her, but something about it struck a nerve, something he'd left buried deep in the past.
Of course they'd been engaged. It was HIS idea. He was determined to earn his own money, be his own man, become the kind of husband worthy of a woman like Sally. Jim White was that kind of guy. Her father would have gladly supported the two of them, but he would hear nothing of it. Jim White would win his true love no matter what.
Superman? He could never enjoy that privilege. How many times had he stumbled across a prospective mate only to ultimately reject her for fear that his enemies would use her to get to him. There were other situations, but every time it was a different variation on the same excuse. Superman could never take the risk of taking a wife.
Or was it really the other person's risk he was worried about? No, the truth was he couldn't risk getting close to someone only to have her die at the hands of some rampaging demon or some exotic alien disease. He'd never forgive himself, and the simple truth was he couldn't stand the possibility of going through life with a broken heart. Not again.
And maybe a little of that had carried over into Jim White when he first met Sally. He was a normal man for once, unfettered by the responsibilities and inhibitions of Superman, free to love a woman the way he'd always wanted. And yet, when that horse injured him--confined him to a wheelchair--he was all too eager to tell Sally to forget about him. He saw himself as a burden, a half a man who didn't measure up to the kind of man Sally deserved. He had to wonder... if he HADN'T fallen into the river, if his memory and powers had never returned... what would he have done then?
"Listen, I'm sorry if I rattled you..."
He abandoned his brooding thoughts and looked back at her. "What? Rattled? No, you didn't--"
She shook her head. "I know that look on your face, Jim. Don't try to deny it. I wasn't serious, though. What's happened between us isn't something you can just fix up overnight. I know that well enough. It's just that... since you came back, it all feels just like it did before. At least to me, anyway. To be honest, I almost want to pick up where we left off. You've been through so much, and it seems to me like this is a perfect chance for you to settle down. Here, with me. That is why you came back, isn't it?"
It was. He'd lost everything from his former life, and suddenly all this came back to him in a dream. Something still nagged at him, though. Almost like it was too good to be true, and he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
But how could it? His enemies were all gone. No one even knew who he was. Shoot, even that loudmouth bully Bart Benson had been fired from the Selwyn Lumberyard, and he was the closest thing to an enemy Jim White ever had. It was as if he was straining his super vision, searching for some distant sign of danger looming over the horizon.
And then he saw it.
"Jim? Jim, darling, what's the matter?" Sally asked.
They had been heading back to the mansion after dropping the horses off at the stable. By now they were close enough to see it off in the distance. Even without the benefit of his powers, his naked eyes were still in peak condition like any typical specimen of Krypton, so that might have been how he spotted it before Sally did.
"The door's open," he said grimly.
"What?" Sally's voice was beginning to crack with concern. "I don't understand, what do you mean--?"
He began to pick up the pace, until he finally had to pull free of Sally's tenuous hold on his arm as he started to sprint along the dusty road to the mansion. He almost called back to her, but he didn't really know what to say. Stay there? Follow his lead? He wasn't entirely sure what he was doing himself. All he knew was that he was running as fast as he could, and it seemed to be taking an eternity to get there...
He was out of breath by the time he got to the door. Wide open, but no apparent sign of it being forced open. It wasn't until he crossed the threshold that he found the body. The blood. There was so much blood and--
"Jim! Will you please tell me what's gotten into--?!" She arrived sooner than he expected, and whatever else she was going to say died on her tongue as she found him kneeling over Hawkins' corpse. Sally just gasped a few times and tried to call out the poor butler's name, but she just couldn't make the words come.
"He was stabbed," he said with a surprising composure. A quick examination of the body told him most of what he needed to know. "No rigor yet... so it couldn't have been more than a couple hours ago..."
"D-daddy?" she sobbed. "Where--?"
He looked at her and closed his eyes as tightly as they would go. She was so shaken by Hawkins' murder that she hadn't even noticed it on the wall. "He's alive, Sally. For now."
If she was going to ask him how he knew that, she never got the chance as she looked up at the wall above the steps over the body to see the bloodstains haphazardly marking the ivory paint:
DoWN BY ThE RiVEr
yOU kNOW WhERE
oR ThE OLd MAn iS neXt!
She just gazed at the message and shook her head. "It doesn't make any sense," she blurted out. "Who would do something like this?"
"He knows who I am," Jim said quietly. She looked over and found him examining her father's gun cabinet. "He killed Hawkins and took your father with him so I'd go out there and face him. And he's got at least one firearm from the look of it. I... Don't worry about your father, Sally. I'll see to it he makes it home all right."
"Jim, what are you talking about? We have to call the police and tell them--"
"Whoever did this killed Hawkins just to make a point," Jim objected. "This man will kill without compunction, and he'll do it again unless I play by his rules. He knows I won't allow that, not as long as there's anything I can do to stop it. I have to go alone."
"But you told us you don't have any powers anymore, and you think he has a gun and you--"
"HE KNOWS WHO I AM!" Jim shouted. She'd never heard him raise his voice before. It was like the sound of a man who was used to arguing with thunderclouds or volcanic eruptions. Almost instinctively, she caught herself taking a step back from him, then stopped when she saw him collapse into one of the chairs by the kitchen table and hold his head in his hands.
"Everyone... everyone who knows me--really knows me--has suffered," he said softly. It was hard to imagine it was the same man who had yelled out just a moment ago. "There's a few of them still alive out there, Sally, so when I remembered you after all these years, I thought maybe it wouldn't hurt anything to tell you the truth..."
She knelt down to try to comfort him, look him in the eyes. He eventually looked up at her, and it seemed to fill him with some newfound resolve, something familiar to him, albeit a begrudging familiarity. "If you think getting anyone else involved will just make things worse... we'll do it your way," she told him. "But I'm going with you."
"I can't let you do that--"
"And you can't stop me, either," she smiled. "You'll need all the help you can get, right? And I can't just sit here knowing there's a killer loose on our property."
"Sally, I won't just put you at risk like--"
"Jim, if it was your father, would you want someone else to take care of it? Even someone you trusted?"
There was no question about the meeting place assigned in the message. Jim disappeared before when he went to a riverbank to contemplate his life on the Selwyn estate, and that had been the moment when he regained his identity as Superman and Clark Kent. The statement "you know where" suggested that much, that it was someplace significant to Jim. The only burning question was how their adversary knew about it...
"I'm here," he called out once he'd stepped out in the clearing. Sally watched him from the bushes as he held out his arms to present himself. "Just like you asked. You might as well show yourself."
"Don't patronize me, hah? I know you brought a tag-along. Figure you can put one over on me, don't ya? Well, maybe I figure I should just snuff out the old man right here and now."
Sally tensed at the revelation that her presence had been detected, but also by the voice itself. It didn't seem to be coming from any one source, as if they were hearing an echo in the floor of a deep canyon. She looked to Jim to see if he had any instructions for her--no sense coming out of her hiding place until he needed her.
Indeed, Jim seemed to have matters well in hand. "You didn't arrange for all this just to back out now," he replied to the voice. "I'm the one you want. Give me the woman's father and I'll see to it they leave. You've got my word."
Sally had no intention of leaving, but she couldn't argue with what he seemed to be suggesting. They had to get her father to safety, and their best chance was for Jim to stay and keep this mystery man occupied until they could summon help. She just prayed no one would get hurt...
"Clever fellow, ain'tcha?" the voice snickered. "Well, it's not gonna do you any good, so yeah. Play it your way. See where it gets you." Suddenly there was a ripple around the trunk of a large tree just off to Jim's left and he turned to see a pair of figures appear from thin air. One was her father, roped to the tree but otherwise unharmed from the look of it, and the other was a strange looking man clad in black leather. He held up a small shining object and smiled at Jim. "Little gadget from Xynar IX. Good boy not calling the police, Superman. They coulda gone over this place with tweezers and never found me, not in a million years."
"Let Mr. Selwyn go," Jim commanded. He started towards them, but the man in black quickly leveled the stolen revolver at him. Jim didn't stop his approach until he heard the click of the hammer.
"Still pretty ballsy these days, huh, Superman? I'd have thought you'd have smartened up after all this time."
"I'm not Superman anymore," Jim grimaced. "All I want is for--"
"No, I reckon you're NOT Superman, are you," the man with the gun interrupted. "No, so maybe I think we'll do things my way, if that's all right with you, buddy. Because all of a sudden, I'm feelin' like I'm the most powerful man in the universe. Call out the girl."
She waited for Jim's reaction, and when he glanced toward her and nodded, she stood up from the bushes and walked over to them.
"Untie the old man," he snapped, waving the gun to gesture her to her father. She frowned at him and went to work on the ropes.
"Are you OK?" she asked him.
"Don't worry about me, Sally," Digby answered in a whisper. "You've got to get out of here. He's crazy, and he wants to destroy Su--"
They both stopped talking as the man in black came over to inspect her work. He never took the gun off of Jim, but made sure to look Sally over as carefully as he could. "Mmm-hmmm..." he sneered after a low whistle. "Not bad at all, is she? Should have known you'd have someone like her pinin' away for you. Could have crashed in the ocean and it would have worked out the same way for you, wouldn't it? That's your problem, by the way, Superman. Everything always falls into place for ya. Never had to worry about a thing."
"Leave them alone," Jim said through gritted teeth.
"Well, the funny thing about that is I'm not the one keepin' 'em here any longer," the man smirked. He looked back to Sally and smiled ingenuously. "You two are free to go. Run back to your little mansion and call the police if you like. As soon as they get out here I'll either be long gone, or I'll have a little story to tell about men from Krypton who grow mustaches and wear yellow flannel shirts so their enemies won't hunt down their loved ones."
He glanced down at what seemed to be a wristwatch on his right arm and clicked his tongue. "Or... you folks could hang around a bit. You're mighty easy on the eyes, lady. Just about anyone would do for what I got in mind, but I just as soon it be you, hey?"
"In mind for what?" Sally asked, trying to choke back the disgust in her voice.
He looked at her and laughed. "Well, someone's just _gotta_ bear witness for something like this," he answered. "It ain't every day that Superman meets his bitter end at the hands of his greatest foe, right?"
"I've had about enough of this," Jim snarled. "Who are you, and how did you find me here?"
"Guess that Gold-K really did affect that super-memory of yours, Jimmy," the man mused. "After all, big shot like you would need total recall to remember a 'nobody' like me, hey? 'The Scavenger of the Stars', Superman. Does that ring any bells?"
Jim crossed his arms and snorted in contempt. "Should it?"
"I was the greatest Class-A1 Scroungelord in the galaxy, Superman," he growled as he brandished his weapon. "Collector, pickpocket, thief, packrat... the word for what I do hadn't been invented yet, and I reckon it never will. I was already a legend in the interstellar underworld as someone who could take anything--ANYTHING--from anyone, providin' I wanted it, or knew someone with money who did. Maybe you're accustomed to guys like your Brainiacs, Darkseids, or Monguls... tyrants who wanna rule it all and put their faces on the money and erect hundred-foot statues of themselves to gloat about it, but me... Me, I really did rule the universe, because I could have plum-near anything I wanted, whenever I wanted, and I was too small-time for people like you to ever notice me."
"Well, that must not have lasted, now did it?" Jim asked.
The Scavenger bared his teeth and let out a bitter chortle. "Oh, you finally noticed me all right. It was gonna be my greatest heist ever, plundering the battlefields of the Sienar System for passcodes and DNA samples. They had YOU mediating peace talks out there, but a third party wanted to use whatever I could steal for a sneak attack on both sides to shift the balance of power in the region. Not that any of it mattered to me, but it made the job more prestigious, see? The Scavenger's suddenly the go-to guy for would-be empires. Or he woulda been if you hadn't shown up to butt in.
"I wasn't prepared for a fight, but I made you work for it, hey? But nobody can beat Superman, and sure enough, I spent the next five years in a Sienarese war prison before I finally escaped. And to what? My rep was ruined on account of you. Not that I needed it, o'course. I been surviving since I could crawl. Point is that you ruined my chance to be big league, and by the time I had a chance to take it out on your hide, you were dead and gone. Or so I heard."
"My final battle at the Fortress of Solitude," Jim surmised. "I hadn't realized word of that had gotten as far as outer space..."
"Modesty doesn't getcha very far with me, Superman," the Scavenger quipped. "All your greatest enemies, Luthor, Brainiac, Metallo, the Kryptonite Man, Bizarro #1, Toyman, Prankster, the Legion of Super-Villains, they all came after you with a vengeance until the big showdown where every one of 'em keeled over in a death-struggle with your friends. You had to kill to win that fight, and you were so tore up with guilt you committed suicide--stripping yourself of your powers with Gold Kryptonite, and then wandering out into subzero temperatures to die of exposure. That was the story that made the papers on Earth, and eventually it found its way to me, and every other would-be supervillain who wanted to get a piece of you.
"Except I didn't buy into it. You'd never kill yourself. I just couldn't see it happening. And even if you would, why drag it out like that? Lot more comfortable ways to die than to freeze to death in the middle of nowhere. You'd expose yourself to Green Kryptonite and be done with it, or fly a starship into the heart of a red sun. Nice and quick, no time for second-guessing, that's how you'd go about it. And that's when it hit me: you faked your death. Your enemies exposed all your secrets, ruined your life, and killed most of your loved ones, but you still had a reason to go on, something so important to you that you erased your own life just to protect it. Once I figured that out, I decided the only sensible thing to do was destroy it, and that'd lure you out into the open where I could settle the score once and for all."
"Wait," Jim asked, a look of shock crossing his face. "You knew about my fugue on the Selwyn estate all those years ago? That's impossible! Not even I knew until recently!"
"Still don't get it, do ya?" the Scavenger laughed. "I arranged that little fairy tale of yours, Jimmy. I knew there was no way I could find out what you were hiding, not when you'd go to such lengths to keep it safe from me. But I'm the Scavenger of the Stars and I can take anything I want! I waited a few years, and eventually I got my hands on a time machine--nothing fancy, in fact it could only transport inorganic material, but that was all I ended up needing. I procured a sample of Red Kryptonite, which wasn't much of a hassle since no one really had much use for it after you dropped off the map, and then I took it to a sorcerer I knew who owed me a favor. He enchanted the stuff so it'd have multiple effects on you at once, even repeat previous Red-K experiences even though it's not supposed to do that, and he boosted its potency so it'd last for weeks instead of days. I slapped it in the time capsule and programmed it for a few years back in the past, where it drifted towards the Earth on a collision course with one of the natives' communication satellites. And sure enough, you fell for it hook, line, and sinker."
Sally looked on in horror as the Scavenger spoke, but Jim simply regained his composure and balled his fists. "That might explain how I spent all that time with amnesia and no super powers, Scavenger, but you had no way of knowing I'd meet Sally and begin building a life for myself out here. Or how could you have found out about it later on? I destroyed that UFO before I succumbed to the Kryptonite's influence, specifically to make sure that whoever sent it wouldn't be able to use it to menace me or anyone else."
"I didn't need the time machine to keep tabs on you after that, Superman," the Scavenger explained. "And I didn't need to know exactly where you wound up after you lost your memory. The spell my guy put on the Kryptonite didn't just wipe your memory, it compelled you to hide it from yourself. You probably set down at some point on the way home and felt an overwhelming urge to bury your Superman costume, along with any identification that might peg you for Clark Kent. But the kicker--aw, this was the part that let me find you--was that the Red-K would also compel you to fall head over heels in love with the first girl you'd run into, and that musta been little Sally over here, wasn't it?"
He glanced back at her as the Scavenger said it, and all she could do was let her jaw drop and shake her head slowly at the revelation. Again, if this was having any impact on Jim, he didn't show it.
"From there, the effect'd wear off after a time, and you'd regain your powers and identity, but forget everything that happened to you during the fugue...forget right up until you exposed yourself to Gold-K two years ago, which'd reduce your super-memory to normal, which'd break the spell over it that made you forget. And sure enough you'd come runnin' to be with the Sweetheart Superman Forgot. All I had to do in the meantime was go through Earth records to find any unexplained disappearances and cross-reference them with any sudden declines in Superman sightings during the same time-frame. Took me considerable amount o'time, little more effort than I'd expected, but I'm the Scavenger of the Stars. I can take anything I want, even if I gotta wait a while for it. And here you are, and here I am, and what I'm lookin' to take is your life. Any last words?"
"Your gun isn't loaded."
It shouldn't have mattered, Sally thought to herself. In only a short time it had been made perfectly clear that the Scavenger was a dangerous man with an entire arsenal of weapons and technology at his disposal, and yet it gave Jim more than enough time to leap at him like a wildcat, knocking the gun out of his hand and sending him crashing to the ground in less than a second. She could see the Scavenger reaching for something in his jacket, but his fingers weren't even halfway there before Jim brought a savage right hand down to his jaw. For a moment, it seemed as if the threat was ended right there.
"Get... OFF OF ME!" the Scavenger screamed, knocking Jim away with a wild swing of his arm. He tumbled aside and by the time Jim righted himself, the Scavenger had already produced his knife, still crusted with brown stains from using it on Hawkins less than two hours ago. "You think you're gonna walk over me again, Superman!? Well you better think again, son! Maybe those so-called big shots couldn't finish you off before, but I--"
And suddenly Jim began to disappear with a strange rippling effect. Just as he faded out of sight, he held up a small shiny object in his hand and smiled broadly.
"No..." the Scavenger muttered. "NO!"
"You talk too much, Scavenger," Jim's voice reverberated through the forest. "And you're a showboat. If you hadn't been so cute about showing off your little cloaking device when you revealed yourself, I wouldn't have known how simple it was for you to operate, and I might not have noticed which coat pocket you stashed it in when you were done with it."
The Scavenger started slashing at thin air with a furious rage. "You think that's gonna stop me!? I'm the Scavenger of the Stars, Superman! I take whatever I want! You show yourself or I'll kill your woman right now!"
He turned to attack Sally and she realized just how serious he was about it, but at the last second she felt a tug on her arm and stumbled towards it as the villain narrowly missed her. She expected him to recover and turn around to try again, but instead he started looking around in confusion as if she wasn't even there. And then she turned to find her father and Jim behind her, and she realized what had happened.
"Oh, I'm sure you'd make good on your threats, Scavenger," Jim replied, a confident smirk peeking out past his mustache as he spoke. That's why I took this from you instead of your knife. Your not going to hide behind hostages anymore, not when I can protect them with your own ill-gotten technology. Drop your weapons and surrender. Now."
Jim put a finger to his lips to indicate that they shouldn't speak, probably because of something to do with the sound effects generated by the cloak, and he waved them on to the bushes. She started to breathe a little easier now. He'd tricked his enemy, and now they'd escape and get help. It was why she loved Jim, not just because of his unflinching courage, but his good sense and impeccable responsibility. Strange that he hadn't mentioned to her before about the gun not being loaded, but given the circumstances she could understand him neglecting that under pressure--
"Take this," he mouthed to her without giving voice to the words. He pointed to the cloaking device in his other hand to emphasize his instructions. Sally looked back at the Scavenger, still prowling around the clearing by the river like a hungry lion, and then back at Jim. "And get out of here," he continued. "I'll deal with him."
"What?" she whispered back to him. "He wants to kill you! You can't just--"
And then she felt her father's hand on her shoulder. She turned to face him and he simply gave her a stern look as if to say there wouldn't be a debate over this, and after a moment she calmed herself and assented to his wishes. Jim handed Sally the device and then reached for his back pocket.
"Here," he whispered to Digby, handing him the revolver the Scavenger had taken from him.
"Thanks," Digby nodded. "And good luck, son..."
They paused for what seemed like an eternity as Jim waited for just the right moment, and then he suddenly darted out of the cloaking field to rush the Scavenger while he was brandishing his knife away from his body. He saw Jim coming, but couldn't bring his weapon up in time to stop him, and the two were on the ground once again, wrestling for possession of the blade.
"You want to make a name for yourself, Scavenger?" Jim growled as he drove an elbow into his forearm, very nearly loosening his grip on the knife. "You want to be a big shot? Well, too bad, because you're a nobody in my book."
"Shut up!" the Scavenger cried out, landing a blow to Jim's face. Sally could see the blood from his nose and she winced in sympathy.
The two of them hadn't left, of course. At first she thought her father was capitulating to Jim's hopes that they would flee, but instead it seemed he just wanted to give Jim a chance to fight his own battle, without having to worry about their safety. So they stood there, together, watching in silence as the man who'd come back to their lives so mysteriously was fighting tooth and nail against a secret enemy from a far-flung corner of space.
And right about then Sally Selwyn began to realize she didn't really know Jim White at all.
"You're just another dime-a-dozen coward to me. Trust me, mister, I've put down a thousand more just like you before I even graduated high school. You know what they all have in common?" He gave him a hard blow to the stomach and ducked another swing of the knife. "Well do you?!"
The Scavenger came at him again with a stabbing motion, but Jim simply sidestepped him and struck his wrist with a quick karate chop. As he winced in pain trying to keep his hold on the knife, Jim backhanded him in the chest, sending him down on his rear. "They all think that Superman is helpless without his powers," Jim added as he pulled the Scavenger up by his jacket and started to yank down on the sleeves, tangling his arms in the folds of leather. Frustrated, the Scavenger tried to headbutt him, but Jim dodged the ill-conceived attack and used his forward momentum to flip him over onto his back. "That makes me upset," Jim explained, looking down at his opponent still trying to get up off the ground.
"If people like you ever put any thought into your lives and how you lead them, you'd realize there's more to being a man than some quick-fix like killing me. The people I respect and admire," Jim paused to wipe his nose and back away from another slash of the Scavenger's knife, "Men and women like the Batman, Black Canary, Green Arrow, the police and fire-fighters on this planet who put their lives on the line without the kinds of gifts that I had... the people of Krypton, who made their civilization great with hard work and determination without any yellow sunlight in their cells to speed things along... People like the Selwyns, who'd take a chance on a strange visitor like me regardless of the risks..."
He finally caught the Scavenger's arm in mid-swing and gave it a twist, forcing him to drop the weapon as the pain overwhelmed him. Jim looked down at the knife for a moment, then gave it a swift kick to send it flying into the woods and out of sight. "If you understood any of that," he said between short, labored breaths, "then you'd realize what a premium I place on my abilities as a 'mortal man'. That's how I knew your gun wasn't loaded, because an alien like you wouldn't notice the lighter weight of an unloaded weapon, and you'd never consider that it might be an Earthling custom to keep an antique weapon purely for aesthetic purposes. Besides, the ammunition drawer was still locked, so I really don't need to be faster than a speeding bullet, now do I? Not when my 'greatest foe' doesn't think to carry any."
The Scavenger started to stumble backward, trying to put space between himself and his triumphant quarry. "No..." he gasped. "I thought of everything... I'm the Scavenger of the Stars... you're not supposed to--"
"You're not taking anything from anyone ever again, Scavenger," Jim declared. He matched the beaten villain's pace and refused to let him back away. "You'd have been better off stewing in your own juices in space. Coming to Earth was the biggest mistake you ever made, because all you managed to do was give me something. Another friend, another home, another pleasant memory after a lifetime of struggle. You were wrong, Scavenger. Things never fall into place for me. I fought a tireless battle for what I loved, and just because I don't wear the uniform anymore doesn't mean you can swoop down and plunder the corpse. You're going to answer for what you did to Hawkins. Now surrender."
"You got me all wrong, Superman," the Scavenger replied. He reached down for his boot and pulled one of the curled spikes from the toe. "Maybe I can't beat you... and I... I reckon I did underestimate you... and I may not be able to make a name for myself after all..." he activated something on the spike and it began to glow with an orange luminescence. "But I at least prepared for this much: If I couldn't kill you and live to brag about it, I'd still make damn sure you'd never walk away from the fight. I wanted a reputation, sure... but I'll be happy to settle for plain ol' revenge. And once this detonator goes, I can at least die knowing I--"
"NO!" Jim screamed, and without hesitation he leaped headlong for the Scavenger and they both tumbled into the river. All Sally heard was a loud splash, and then she stuffed the cloaking device into her father's hand and raced for the bank to find them.
"Sally, wait!" Digby shouted. But nothing was going to stop her now. She reached the edge of the land where she lost sight of them and looked down at the raging currents hoping for some sign of life. The last time Jim fell into this river, he was confined to a wheelchair, and would have drowned if it hadn't been for Aquaman's timely assistance. At least now he had planned to make the dive, and with the use of his legs he might be able to--
Her train of thought was shattered by an angry blast of water that shot out of the river and drenched her where she stood. For a second she thought she had been injured in the blast, but upon closer inspection it seemed to be a fragment of some poor fish on her arm that must have been caught in the explosion. At last her father caught up to her and checked to see if she was hurt.
She didn't even know what to say. "Daddy... I... He's..."
He just took her in his arms and held her. "I know, Sally... I know..."
She looked over his shoulder at the river downstream of where they stood, almost hoping that there might be some sign of him at the last second, but she had to ask herself what the point of that even was. She'd given up that sort of hope a long time ago. It was over, and there was nothing to be gained from--
"Look!" she shouted. Digby turned to see what she was pointing at and for a moment she wondered if she was only seeing things, but the look on his face confirmed that it was real. An exposed root from a tree on the riverbank, and a powerful hand grasping it for all its strength. A few seconds passed, and then he hauled himself above the waterline with a long gasp of air. A few seconds more, and he found the strength to pull his captive up with him, unconscious, but safe and sound with Jim's other arm wrapped around his chest.
It didn't take them long to get to him and pull him back onto dry land. He insisted on getting the Scavenger up first, and then himself, and only after he checked to make sure his enemy was still breathing did he collapse on the ground to relax.
"Surprised me... with... with that bomb..." Jim panted, still trying to recover from the battle as Sally tried to support him in her arms.
"Shhh..." she cooed, trying to calm him down without letting herself break down into tears. "We'll get help, just as soon as we're sure you're all right. Just lie down and take it--"
"No!" he groaned, struggling to get back on his feet. She tried to resist his effort to stand, but he still had enough strength to pull away from her. "We've got to get back to the house. The Scavenger won't be anymore trouble, but we've got to contain this situation before it gets any worse!"
"I don't understand," Sally asked, "what do mean by that?"
He pointed to her father and then back by the tree where they found him. "Mr. Selwyn, if you'll grab that rope and help me with the Scavenger. Sally, bring the horses and we'll load him up for the trip back. The blood on the wall should be enough for the police, but I'll have to make some calls just in case... Just the same, we're probably in for a long night."
It suddenly occurred to her that he was already concentrating on delivering the Scavenger to the police, even if it meant the risk that it might expose his secret. Or maybe he had some trick of his sleeve to deal with that, too. He was so sure of himself, so resolved to his course of action, it was difficult to tell with him.
No, she reminded herself. She didn't seem to know him very well at all.
She found Jim in his guest room the next evening, staring out a window at the first few stars shining in the darkening sky. He seemed to do that a lot since he had returned, and she was finally beginning to understand why.
"They've taken the Scavenger to Belle Reeve, in Louisiana..." Sally said quietly, hoping to get his attention without disturbing his solitude anymore than necessary.
"I know where it is," Jim said in an absent-minded tone. "He shouldn't be much of a threat to anyone once he's there."
"Well, I get the impression that's where he'll be staying for the rest of his life," she added. "The authorities seemed pretty satisfied with the evidence he left from Hawkins'..." she choked on the words and decided there wasn't much point in giving them voice. "We... we're still trying to contact his family--everything's been so crazy the last couple of days... I think it still hasn't sunk in just what happened. They'll probably have his remains sent to England, have the funeral there, but Daddy wants to hold a memorial here on the estate sometime next week. I thought you might want to attend."
"Of course," he nodded, still facing the window pane. "It's the least I can do for him now..."
"You know," she said slowly, taking a seat on the bed, "no one would have questioned it if you hadn't been able to pull him out of the river yesterday. It was a minor miracle you survived yourself."
"Except there'd be a specter of investigation hanging over you and your father for the rest of your lives," Jim muttered. "An alien being invades your home and kills your butler, then disappears without a trace? People would be asking questions, Sally. No, I had to try, so Hawkins could rest in peace and his friends and family could go on with their lives. And besides--" He stalled with that, and then said it again, only with less conviction, "Besides..."
"'Superman doesn't kill,'" Sally recited. "Even when that might mean risking his own life, isn't that right? Even though Superman has killed before. Even when Superman isn't Superman anymore."
He stiffened and refocused his attention on the night sky.
"You told Daddy that Superman was gone, forever, but that's not true, is it? That's why you refused to leave the Scavenger to drown in the river, and that's why the police seem to have ignored your role in this completely. You must have contacted someone, somehow... Like a closer, some agent to clean up situations like this before your secrets get exposed."
At last he turned around to face her, and she was a little sorry for what she'd said now. The look in his eyes betrayed more pain that he probably wanted to admit. "One of the detectives who came to the mansion was an old friend of mine. J'onn J'onnz, the Martian Manhunter of the Justice League. He used his shape-shifting powers to impersonate a police officer, and then his telepathy to divert any attention to my involvement in the matter. That's how they found the Scavenger's knife so quickly. He read my mind and saw exactly where I kicked it during the fight."
The Justice League? Sally wasn't sure what she found more astonishing, that the JLA had gotten involved in this, or that they had a man who could infiltrate the local police so perfectly.
"That's also why I kicked the knife, instead of picking it up," Jim went on. "Not just because I was willing to fight fair against an unarmed opponent--though quite frankly, you can never really tell if a hood like the Scavenger is armed or not--but because I knew it was the murder weapon, and I had to make sure I didn't leave my fingerprints on it. Thanks to J'onn, as far as anyone is concerned, I'm just an unassuming employee who tackled the Scavenger before he could hurt anyone else. A telepathic nudge in the right direction ensures no one bothers to investigate 'Jim White' any deeper than his name and physical description."
"Then what about his whole plot against Superman?" Sally probed. "You mean to say everyone believes that man traveled to Earth for no real reason?"
"No," Jim replied. "We allowed the Scavenger to remember his plan, and everything he did while he was here searching for me. J'onn simply excised the part where he actually found me. It'll take some doing to make sure no one investigates this any further, or discovers the truth behind my first visit to your estate, Sally, but so far we've got it contained. People will hear about what the Scavenger did, and they'll believe he failed, which will only reinforce the fact that Superman's not ever coming back."
"I can't believe this," Sally gasped. "You did all this to protect your privacy?"
"No. I did it to protect yours."
He turned away and leaned his forehead against his arm propped up on the window frame. "After what happened in the Fortress of Solitude, I've been rebuilding a new life for myself. When that recollection of you finally came to me, I thought maybe there was a chance I still had something left. I thought that maybe fate had given me a new life already assembled and waiting for me, but it was just another trap set by another one of my enemies, Sally. I walked into it like an amateur because I missed you and Hawkins paid the price. The Scavenger was right about me--I never could have gone through with suicide. But sometimes I wonder if..."
She shook her head and then took his hands in hers. "Jim, you said it yourself, it's entirely possible that the Scavenger would have come here with or without you. He expected you to show up, but what if you hadn't? Don't you think he would have killed Hawkins all the same? And my father? And anyone else he could get his hands on hoping to get your attention?"
He opened his mouth to answer, but she kept going. "Jim, we owe you our lives for what you did. You can't blame yourself for what someone else did. Maybe it's true, and the only reason we're even together now is because of what the Scavenger did, but that doesn't make you responsible. Besides," she added, struggling to say it, "the danger's over now. And it's not like you were planning on staying much longer anyway..."
"It's true, isn't it?" she asked, turning away from him and crossing her arms tightly. "When you came here, I thought it was to rekindle what we shared together all those years ago. The day you fell into that river and disappeared, a part of me stopped living, Jim. I suppose I could have gotten on with my life, found someone else and started a family. With you gone, though, I just couldn't see the point. So you see, when you came back, I thought you must have been feeling the same way.
"But the truth is you had a life beyond me, Jim. Daddy used to say that I only loved you out of pity, and maybe he was right. The Jim White I knew was a kind gentle man, like you, but he was also a lost soul. No family, no friends, no real past to speak of. I admired your unflinching optimism in the face of all that, and I was determined to care for you like a little lost puppy."
"There's nothing wrong with kindness, Sally," Jim countered. "Back then, the other guys at the lumberyards would compare me to all the stray animals you'd take in and nurse back to health. We were just kidding around, but it was your compassion I loved the most."
"And if that was all it was, maybe it'd be enough," she sighed. "But I don't know you anymore, Jim. I've been denying it since you came back, but it's just too much for me to take in. Superman, Clark Kent, the Justice League, the adventures across time and space, the dark secrets you've been hiding for years. There's this pain you wear like an old coat, and I just don't understand it well enough to make it better. And I'm the kind of person who has to make it better, J--no, Kal."
He seemed perplexed that she'd use that name for him after all this time. "I don't mind if you call me Jim," he offered. "Whatever makes you feel comfortable--"
"To blazes with what makes me feel comfortable," Sally sighed wearily. "'Jim' was the first thing you blurted out to us because a magic time-traveling space rock compelled you to. Kal-El... he's the one who stares out my window trying to find his home star in the sky. And I'm sorry you can't seem to find it anymore."
A humorless laugh erupted from under his mustache and he nodded in surrender. "It's an old habit I picked up," he admitted. "And you can see it from Earth... it's just that once upon a time it was so simple for me to spot it whenever I liked... even in the middle of the day. I've got a few pictures, and I could use a telescope, but..."
She put her finger on his lips to stop him, and then she gave him a friendly kiss on the cheek. "I think we both know it's time we got on with our lives, Kal. It was nice, what we had... it was wonderful... but it's just not real anymore, is it?"
He took her in his powerful arms one last time and closed his eyes. "No. I suppose it's not. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry," she scolded him. "All you should worry about is building that new life you were telling me about. And once you've got all your loose ends tied up, don't be such a stranger, all right? No super-amnesia to use an excuse from now on, after all."
"Yeah," he chuckled lightly. "I think I'd like that..."
It had been a long walk to the gas station they'd chosen to meet at, but he didn't mind long walks so much these days. He liked the feel of his boots crunching into the dry, crumbly ground, and the relentless warmth of the sun on his neck and shoulders. His father studied this environment long and hard, and to experience and appreciate it like this made him feel a sort of connection with his forebearer. Besides, he'd already traversed the same road in the opposite direction to get to the Selwyn estate, so it wasn't as if he were unprepared for the journey.
The sportscar was red, and the motor made a sound that was more familiar to him than the make and model of the frame. After all the time he'd spent tuning up the engine or laying between the tires to make sure everything ran to perfection, it only made sense he'd recognize the sound anywhere. He felt his heart leap up at the realization of what it meant.
"Was starting to get a little worried about you, Smallville," she smirked as the automated passenger door flew open to invite him inside. When I got the message that the JLA got involved, I expected you to call me a lot sooner. Nothing serious, I hope."
He climbed into the vehicle and rubbed his facial hair with profound annoyance. "It turned out to be a setup. Everything's under control, but it got a little tricky for a while. And I had to attend a service for a friend..."
She bit her lip and brushed back her long, black hair. "I'm sorry, Clark. I'm sure you did everything you could."
"I'll tell you all about it later," he said, hoping to avoid the subject for at least a little longer. "Right now... well, there's nothing more for me here."
She nodded and put the car into gear once he'd pulled the door shut. "Things didn't work out with Sally, I take it."
"I wouldn't put it that way, exactly," he answered. "She loved me once... back at a time in my life when I didn't think anyone could appreciate me beyond my fame as Superman, or even my disguise as Clark Kent. Obviously that's not an issue for me anymore, but I couldn't simply ignore it either. I had to know...but in the end..."
"There's a part of you that's got nothing to do with Kent or Superman," she surmised. "And she recognized it and appreciated it at first... but the rest of you was a lot to take in. And ultimately, one way or another, she's got to love you for all of you, or not at all."
"Which was what you told me before I decided to come here," he groaned. He didn't even have to say it. She could tell just from the look on his face.
"Well, I hate to say I told you so," she smiled. "But it doesn't change anything. I mean, if I suddenly woke up remembering a forgotten love interest from years back, I'd have to see it for myself just so I could sleep at night."
"You're right, and for everything that's happened, I can at least get a sense of relief from all this," he agreed. He took her by her free hand and squeezed it. "I appreciate your understanding during all this, Lois. I just wanted to tell you that..."
"Hey, it's all right, Clark," she assured him. "You're the sole survivor of a dead world, you were the greatest hero this planet ever had, and you saved my life more times than I can count. I think you're entitled to go chasing a ghost or two from your past every now and then. After all these years, this isn't even the strangest thing I've known you to do."
"Heh! Yeah, I suppose you're right," he grinned.
"Now, what I wanna know is how you got these bruises all over your knuckles," Lois grumbled. She glanced at his hand in between looking at the road as she drove. "Clark, what on Earth were you doing back there?"
And the Last Son of Krypton leaned back in his seat, and did his best to relax, in spite of the woman next to him fussing over his injuries, or perhaps, because of it...
[never the end]
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