Superman: The Private Life of Clark Kent: Skin Deep, Chapter 3: The Phantom Empire

by Starsky Hutch 76

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As the car’s engine started, the sheriff turned and looked back at Clark Kent. “I hear you been askin’ about Forton County. Well, you’re about to find out about it firsthand.” The car pulled out of the town and moved onto a long, undeveloped stretch of road.

“You a relative of that basketball player?” the sheriff asked. “That why you been going around askin’ so many questions?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Clark said, looking out the window at the countryside. Despite his ominous situation, the land looked unbelievably beautiful underneath the setting sun.

“Some colored folks are reporters these days,” the sheriff continued. “Maybe you’re partnered up with this Kent fella. Maybe he’s around here’n up to no good somewheres and you’re just holdin’ onto his wallet for him. Is that it?” Clark gave no answer.

“Go ahead. Play dumb,” the sheriff said. “That’s what you people are good at. It won’t matter who you are pretty soon, anyway.”

The car turned off onto a dirt road, and they continued to drive until they came to a wooded area. The sheriff cut off the engine, stepped out, and then opened the door to the back seat. “Get out,” he said, grabbing Clark by the arm. He shoved Clark ahead of him, and they walked into the woods.

Clark stopped in his tracks when he saw a group of robed figures holding torches; they turned and looked as if they had been waiting for them.

“So this is the troublemaker you spoke of?” one of them said. From his demeanor and the symbol on the breast pocket area of his robe, he was obviously in charge.

“Yep. A pickpocket, too,” the sheriff said. “Had some reporter’s wallet on him with about $5000 in cash!”

“You know what we do with your kind when they steal from white folks around these parts, boy?” the head robed figure said.

“I can imagine,” Clark said.

“Well, I bet you can at that, boy!” he said, roaring with laughter. “Let me see the wallet.”

The sheriff pulled the cash out of the wallet. “Let’s just call this a finder’s fee.” He tossed the wallet to the hooded man.

“Clark Kent, huh?” he said. “Funny, you look a lot tanner in person.” This drew laughter from the other hooded men. “I hope to God you are just a pick-pocket. Last thing we need’s any more reporters nosing ’round here. I’m sure you’ve figured out by now who we are.”

“The Phantom Empire,” Clark said.

Smart one, ain’t you? Maybe you aren’t a pickpocket. Though you sure as hell aren’t Clark Kent.”

“So what are we gonna do with him?” one of the robed men asked.

“Same thing we did with the last batch,” their leader said. “String ‘im up.”

“Now wait a minute,” Clark said, moving forward. The sheriff’s nightstick hit him squarely in the back, knocking him to the ground. Clark swung his leg backward, knocking the sheriff off his feet. A fist suddenly struck him in the back of the head, and everything became a flash of red. Several more fists pummeling him followed it. He fell to the ground, and several legs began kicking him.

“Raise him up!” someone called out. Two sets of arms grabbed each one of his own arms and raised his battered form up.

“Thought you could get away, huh, boy?” someone laughed. “That’s what that ball player thought, and he was an even bigger cuss than you. Of course, if we’d known who he was, we might not a’ hung him. You, we ain’t got no reason not to.”

A noose was thrown around his neck, and they began pulling him toward one of the trees. One of the robed figures threw the coil of rope over one of the branches, and another hooded man caught it.

“Get ready. When I give the signal,” the leader said. “One… two… three!

There was a sudden jerk, and Clark found himself hanging several feet off the ground, suspended by the noose around his neck. The rope hadn’t been pulled hard enough to snap his neck, but it was cutting off his oxygen. His body dangled from the rope, turning back and forth as his body jerked. His face aimed toward the tree branch he hung from, and he concentrated, praying for some remnant of his powers. A burn began to appear on the surface of the branch, growing deeper and deeper until it was suddenly severed.

A surprised cry escaped from the men as they stared at their intended victim floating in midair. Clark snapped his handcuffs and reached for the rope. He looked down at the hooded man who still held it, coiled around both his arms for leverage. Clark jerked it hard and swung him into several other phantoms.

The sheriff gave a cry of horror and started to run. With a burst of super-breath, Clark sent him flying into a tree.

Clark then turned and looked toward the head phantom, who was trying to make a getaway. “Get away from me! You’re a demon!

“Wrong!” Clark said, recognizing a Batman opportunity. He flew toward him with arms outspread. “I’m the angel of vengeance! I come to avenge every mother who lost her son, every child who lost their father, and every wife waiting for her husband to come home. Tonight, you pay for all your crimes. The fires of hell shall burn especially hot for you, I promise.”

Nooo!” the hooded man screamed as Clark swooped down and grabbed him by the front of his robe. He grew limp in his arms, and the hood fell from over his head. The leader of the Phantom Empire had fainted from terror at the prospect of paying for his crimes. Batman couldn’t have done better, Clark thought, smiling to himself.

“Mayor Elmore,” Clark said, looking at the face of the unconscious man. “Hope you weren’t running unopposed.”

Clark bound the rest of the men together, pausing long enough to retrieve his petty cash from the sheriff. He used the radio in the police car to place an anonymous call in to the FBI rather than taking them in himself. Until his skin faded, he would have a hard time convincing anyone he was Superman. He leaped into the air to fly back to town and discovered that as mysteriously as his powers had returned, they had left once more. He thought about borrowing one of the cars of the men he had captured but thought better of it when he looked down at his dark hands. He began to make the long walk back to Gadley to check out of his hotel room.

***

On the way to the bus station, he saw Chris across the street. Clark called and waved. He motioned him over to the sub shop where he was standing.

“I was trying to get a cup of water, but they can’t help me. Do me a favor and ask for one. They might help you because they don’t know you.”

Clark went in and got him a cup of water. He asked Chris if he wanted anything else.

“How about a steak and cheese, and make that a lemonade instead.”

Clark paid with a twenty-dollar bill. Chris’s eyes bugged out.

“I’ve decided to take your advice and go back where I came from,” Clark said. “So I’ll be leaving town in a few hours. Care to walk with me to the bus station?”

“Uh… I’m kinda tired,” Chris said hesitantly, “and I don’t really know my way around that part of town too good.”

“Not even for a guy who just bought you lunch?”

“Oh, OK,” Chris grumbled.

As they walked down Butler Avenue, Clark seemed to really notice the pawnshops, the cheap food and liquor outlets, and all the standard ghetto businesses for the first time. All of the town’s vices were packed into this small black community. An old, wrinkled black man nodded to them as he sipped on a bottle of Mr. Boston’s Gin. They walked on past black children at play, women hanging wet clothes on makeshift lines, and bass music thumping from an open window.

“Lazy niggers,” Chris spat.

Clark stiffened. Noticing the shadow that had suddenly come over his face, Chris became apologetic.

“Oh, not you. I didn’t mean you — you’re different,” said Chris, a man who carried all his possessions in a tattered green duffel.

“Of course,” Clark said. “After all, I just bought you lunch.”

They walked in silence after that. When they got to the bus station, Chris asked if he would walk him back to his part of town. “See you later,” Clark said.

As he sat in the bus station, he thought of all the people he had passed on the way there. Mayor Elmore was gone, but someone would come along to take his place. There were probably little sects like the one he’d found all over the place, not just in the one in the small southern town he’d visited. Had he really even changed anything? Sometimes, being able to bend steel in your hands just wasn’t enough.

The bus came into Gadley at about three P.M. The quiet ride ended in Atlanta at about 4:30. He took the subway back to the airport. A young black woman leaned against the seat next to him — young, innocent, and far from the sort of hopelessness he had seen in Gadley. In her arms she cradled a sack of books. Newspapers often called Superman the Man of Tomorrow. But he knew he wasn’t the embodiment of the future. That was found in people like her.

The End

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