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Chapter 6
THE PENTHOUSE


Yesterday Luthor was dressed in skin-tight pajamas and crossed ammunition belts.  The outfit was the only affectation he had for a purpose, and therefore the only one he recognized as an affectation.  The penthouse hideaway four hundred feet over the city, the medieval tapestries hanging over the faces of the computers and wall consoles, the Egyptian sarcophagus whose mummy was replaced by a mattress covered with Snoopy sheets and pillowcases, paintings on the wall by Leyendecker, Peake, Frazetta, and Adams, those weren't affectations.  Those were matters of taste.  Luthor was flying in the terrace window with his jet boots for the seventeenth time, and he was running out of videotape.

Six videotape recording units operated by six wanted criminals stood at different angles facing the pathway from the terrace window to the far wall.  "We're going to get it right this time," Luthor said, "then we work on the disappearing shot and we're into the projection booth for splicing and recomposition into a holographic image.  It's going to be a long night."

Nobody groaned.  This was the highest paid staff in organized crime.

Lex Luthor firmly believed in the theory that there was some Universal law yet unexpressed by the temporal humans who lived on Earth, which explained the clashes of great opposing forces.  When the United States teetered at the brink of collapse, a socio-political genius named Lincoln appeared to steer the potentially disastrous forces in the direction of positive reform.  When Caesar began to amass dangerous power, Brutus found the moral strength to stop him.  When armies of procreating hominids of various states of development began to overrun the habitable areas of the Eastern Hemisphere and compete with each other for food, there arose homo sapiens with their wheels, their tools and their weapons to subjugate the land and take the future for their own.  When a super-powered alien brought his hyperactive sense of propriety across the heavens in order to cram it down the gullets of perfectly capable, sentient Terrans, there came Luthor, a creative marvel who alone among the human community was capable of keeping that self-important, cape-waving pork-face in his place.  Luthor saw himself, as he saw Lincoln, Brutus and the inventor of the wheel, to be an integral part of the eddies and currents of the Universe.  He was a product of natural law.

For every social force, Luthor thought, there is an equal and opposite social force to balance it.  Maybe that was the Universal law he had in mind.  Maybe it was that simple.  In one of the hundreds of biographies of the man that Luthor read before he was old enough to balance an oxidation-reduction reaction, he found that Einstein would approach each new problem of physics the same way.  Evidently the old man would sit back in his chair, close his eyes and ask himself how he would arrange the Universe if he were God.  When Lex Luthor now asked himself the same question he came to the inevitable conclusion that his rule about the balancing of social forces was true.  Everything is in or approaching a state of equilibrium.  There is no good and bad, no right and wrong, no Heaven and Hell.  There is not even any middle ground.  There is just dead center.

Therefore, Luthor had to do all he could to make life difficult for Superman.  Not to do so was equivalent to trying to repeal Ohm's Law or Pauli's Exclusion Principle.  It was Luthor's duty to the Balance of Nature.

Luthor now saw, with hindsight, that it was inevitable for his life to be bound up with that of the Kryptonian almost from the day Superboy began to exercise his power on Earth.  The notice on page three of the four-page Smallville Times-Reader about the Luthor family taking title to the old house on Merriellees Lane was in the first issue in that publication's history in which the editor, Sarah Lang, chose to decorate page one with a banner headline.  The headline read:

ARMY TO INVESTIGATE
SMALLVILLE ANGEL

The so-called Smallville Angel was how the written press across the country accounted for a series of apparent miracles that were happening in Smallville with increasing frequency over the months immediately preceding Luthor's arrival there.  Children in the process of drowning would suddenly find themselves waking up by the side of the lake; furious tornadoes would regularly unwind and sputter out on the edge of town; thieves cruising away from the scene of the crime would find themselves stopped short, surrounded by neat little jerry-built cages made of tree trunks or mud or whatever was handy—cages which vanished as immediately as they appeared when the police happened upon the scene; that sort of thing.

Everyone in Smallville knew by this time that there was no angel.  People had caught glimpses of the little boy in the red and blue flying suit for years.  He would be in his early teens now, and the people of Smallville generally felt that it was time the outside world took notice of their Superboy.  Everyone who walks the Sierras knows the day-to-day habits of the legendary sasquatch.  Every New Englander who lives north of Manchester, New Hampshire, knows there is a lot of flying hardware in the sky from somewhere other than here.  Every half of a pair of identical twins knows what telepathy feels like.  No federal commission has to put a label of legitimacy on reality.  It is always nice to think, though, that government officials have some concept of what reality in fact is.

Superboy seemed to come to the conclusion that if the army wanted to see him, there was no reason he should go out of his way to hide himself.  The week Jules and Arlene Luthor, their teenage son Lex and their infant daughter Lena moved into the house on Merriellees Lane, there appeared the second banner headline in the history of the Smallville Times-Reader:

SUPERBOY REVEALS HIMSELF

and the three words filled the entire first page under the paper's logo.  The special expanded issue was eight pages long, carried no advertising, was completely devoted to the subject of Superboy.  There was a complete transcript, for example, of the dinner conversation at the White House where the President honored the young hero, but there was no room for the fact that a new family had moved into town.

Luthor thought it was significant that the local weekly newspaper never did get around to recognizing his family's presence.  As it turned out, the family would not be in Smallville for long.

Young Lex Luthor's first happy memory of Smallville was a minor flap he caused by turning out to be the top science student in the eighth grade.  This caused some excitement because Lana Lang, the red-headed daughter of the woman who left the Luthors out of the Smallville Times-Reader, got the idea that for some reason Superboy had another identity.  She thought that he was probably one of the boys in the eighth grade.  Lex's quiet appearance in town at the same time as Superboy's spectacular revelation, as well as the new boy's uncommon brilliance, prompted the insufferably cute little girl to follow Lex around like a puppy for the better part of a week.  She thought he was Superboy and the new kid appreciated the attention.

Lex was a touch bored by schoolwork.  He did not much like following direction, but he liked to experiment, especially in his chemistry class where he found a lab partner with pretty much the same attitude.  Lex and his lab partner had an assignment one day to demonstrate in front of the class how two deadly poisons can be combined chemically to make a nutrient which is actually necessary to the human body.  Lex and his partner had to combine sodium with chloride to make table salt, and then sprinkle it on a scrambled egg and feed it to everyone in the room.  Lex had had breakfast before he came to school that morning and thought the idea was going to be a thundering bore, so before he left for school he stuffed a fake plastic egg from a novelty shop and a few jars of chemicals from his father's workshop in the basement into his coat pocket.

It was Lex's job to combine the chemicals while the class watched, his lab partner's to scramble and fry three eggs over a bunsen burner in an aluminum camping frypan.  Lex rigged up an inverted cone and clear glass tube over his reaction to distill the salt and keep any excess chlorine from escaping into the room.  Then he looked over at what his partner was doing.  He grimaced.

"Hey, that's no way to scramble an egg."

"Whuh?"

"Lookit that.  Egg juice all over the place.  Yuch."

"What do you mean egg juice?"

"All over the top.  You have to stir it around a little so it all gets cooked."

"That's the way my mother makes it."

"Listen.  Your mother ain't a great cook just 'cause she's a mother.  Mine burns water."

Everyone in the class laughed at that except the lab partner, who didn't get it.  "How does she do that?" he wanted to know.

Lex knew his lab partner was too bright to be that dumb, but the two had a good act.  Lex had a straight man.  He ran a finger of water into a beaker, held it in one hand and waved the other hand over the top like a good stage magician.  Lex was sure his partner noticed the micro-milliliter of substance he sprinkled over the surface of the water from his waving hand, so that when he brought the bunsen burner near it the water seemed to pop into flame.

Lex was also sure that his partner noticed, when the rest of the class was distracted by the flame, as Lex switched his fake plastic egg with the chemical compounds under it for the for the real scrambled egg.  His partner was a good kid and didn't let on.  Sometimes he was too good.

So when Lex took the plate of fake eggs out from behind the lab table, held it out to the class and sprinkled his sodium chloride catalyst over it, a big black glob of smoke flung itself from the dish like a dragon bursting from the sea.  Lex howled.  Both he and his lab partner got detention for a week.  Years later, when Lana Lang told the story, she swore the burst of smoke had claws.

Young Lex had curly brown hair, a nose he thought was too long, and big feet that tended to point outward instead of forward when he walked.  Little kids took to him the moment he grinned, older people seemed unable to resist the urge to pinch his cheek, boys his own age hated him as soon as he open his mouth in class for the first time, cute little red-headed girls made him stutter and occasionally choke when he tried to talk to them.  When Lana Lang saw Lex and Superboy at the same time—the hero showed up in time to smother a potential explosion in a chemistry experiment Lex was trying one day when his lab partner was absent—the girl lost any interest in him.  When after a few weeks Lex turned out to be not only the top science student but the top math, history, English, art and French student as well, the only kid who made any effort to be Lex's friend was his lab partner, Clark Kent.

Lana Lang was the second-to-the-top English student.  Clark was second in everything else.  Luthor decided that Clark kept his friends by being the eighth grade's top nerd.  Lex would rather keep his dignity.  Clark Kent grew up to be a mindless mouthpiece for some petty fiefdom in the American Corporate Empire.  Lex Luthor built an empire of his own.

Yesterday, Luthor tromped out to the terrace.  A moment later the man behind one of the taping units called, "Rolling!"

Lex Luthor, resplendent in purple and green, collar raised, sashes holding vials and bizarre weapons, small jets in his boots belching flame, flew into the room cackling like a rabid hyena.  He waved in front of him a rolled-up leather folder as he burst in, did a pirouette in midair, bounced gracefully off the wall with both hands and feet, and hopped to the floor as he snatched back his composure and said, "Cut!"

"Think we got it?" the boss asked his six cameramen.  They all thought so.

"All right, take your places for the next shot."

That was yesterday.



S!


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words by Elliot S! Maggin
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