Showcase: 1949: Lily DeLuna, Investigative Reporter, Chapter 3: The Search for Starman

by Dan Swanson

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From the journal of Lily DeLuna:

I went into the Register’s morgue and tried to find everything ever written about Starman. He had appeared out of nowhere in April of 1941, gravity rod and all. He was one of the few mystery-men who didn’t wear a mask, yet no one had ever identified him. That seemed strange to me. If I figured out who he was, I made a note to ask him about that. He worked closely with an FBI troubleshooter named Woodley Allen. He’d often fought crime in New York City, but he spent most of his time in Opal City, especially since 1943.

I called a classmate of mine, Jill Bethancourt, who now worked at the New York Times, and asked her to do a search in the Times morgue. She is better at research than I am, and she suggested looking for information on the gravity rod, too. And wouldn’t you know it, she hit a bull’s-eye! Back in December, 1939, the Metropolis Daily Star had run a story by Lois Lane about a scientist named Abraham Davis, who had announced to the world the development in progress of a wonderful invention he called the gravity engine! The Times had rerun the story, and Jill was able to send me both a copy of the story and a picture taken along with it.

When Davis had announced the gravity engine, Lois had asked for a demonstration of its purported ability to defy gravity, and Davis had been forced to admit that he couldn’t demonstrate it. Davis claimed that so far he had not found an energy source powerful enough to activate the gravity engine, and he had decided to make his work public to see if he could interest other scientists in helping him try to develop such a power source. The story Lois turned in had ridiculed Davis, and Lois presented as fact her opinion that Davis was a fraud.

It had hurt me just to read that story. But not as badly as the story had hurt Abraham Davis. In fact, I discovered that this particular story by Lois had generated so much public skepticism and scorn that Davis had retreated from the public eye. From that time on, very few of his fellow scientists ever gave serious consideration to anything he said, and no scientific journals would ever again publish any of his work. And, of course, nobody bothered to examine the gravity engine to determine the real truth.

I had met Lois once. When I was a senior at J-school, I took an elective course called Women of Journalism. Our professor set up a round-table discussion and invited several famous female journalists, including Lois and Libby Lawrence to be on the panel.

In our panel discussion, Lois had warned us that young reporters often failed to realize the power that they had, and also often failed to consider the consequences of imbuing their stories with their own opinions. And she told us that we might have conflicts between trying to write a good story and knowing that it might cause pain for someone. She said she had learned this lesson the hard way. At minimum, any story could make someone unhappy, and in the worst case, a story could make you full-time mortal enemies. I wondered if the Abraham Davis story had been part of the lesson she was referring to. And, of course, I’ll never forget the cocktail reception that my classmates and I gave for these famous women afterwards! (*)

[(*) Editor’s note: See The Brave and the Bold: Lois Lane and Liberty Belle: Times Past, 1948: Women of Journalism.]

Anyway, the photo accompanying the story was what interested me the most. It showed Davis with his gravity engine, a large device the size of a small desk, and there was a young man in the picture with him. The caption identified the man as Ted Knight, a New York University graduate who had just begun working with Davis as his assistant! In fact, the story states that Knight already had some ideas on how to modify the gravity engine into a smaller, more compact form — which sure sounded like a description of the gravity rod to me!

Of course, Ted Knight is also the name of a well-known wealthy socialite in Opal City. I found some pictures of Ted in the Register’s morgue and compared the two — young Ted, from the 1939 Daily Star photo and the somewhat older Ted from a 1945 Register photo were almost certainly the same guy. After this discovery, I had stopped researching Starman and started researching Ted Knight, looking for other connections between Knight and Starman. It turned out that, after he graduated from New York University in 1936, Knight received a Rhodes scholarship and had continued his education at Oxford University in England.

When I had been in England in late 1944 on a baseball tour, I had been interviewed by a lady reporter named Briana Webster, and we had kept in touch. I had asked her if she could find out anything about Ted’s education at Oxford. She had sent me a package, and up until now, I hadn’t had time to open it. Now seemed like as good a time as any.

So open it I did, and it was the jackpot! The original copy of Ted Knight’s Ph.D. thesis!

Ted had been working on his Ph.D. in astronomy at Oxford, but he had never received that doctorate. His doctoral thesis had been rejected by his thesis advisor, who apparently had never even read it, because he considered the subject to be ludicrous. Ted’s thesis review committee had never even looked at the documents Ted had written, but the thesis had been retained by one of the Oxford libraries.

And Briana had somehow found it, appropriated it, and sent it to me. It was titled “Unlimited Free Energy from the Stars: A New Age of Peace and Prosperity for Mankind”! On the front page, someone had stamped in very large red letters rejected, and under that were the handwritten words, “What rubbish! How did such a charlatan ever get selected for a Rhodes Scholarship? I recommend immediate withdrawal of his scholarship and his dismissal from Oxford. Any publicity regarding this ‘thesis’ could seriously damage Oxford University’s reputation as the leading scientific and academic educational institution in the world. Why, we might as well consider perpetual motion.” This was followed by a signature I couldn’t quite make out. What a pompous jackass!

Briana had also included a story from the Oxford University campus paper about Ted’s dismissal. It seems that, when Ted had found out his thesis had been rejected out of hand, he hadn’t given them time to dismiss him. Instead, he immediately withdrew from Oxford and paid back the scholarship — with carefully calculated interest, no less! Must be nice to be rich, eh? The incident had been something of a ninety-day wonder at the time, but the university hushed it up as best they could. Anyway, Ted had never completed his doctorate, and he returned to America in early 1937 after a little more than a semester and a half. He must have found Davis sometime after that, discovering in him a kindred soul, especially after both men experienced the same kind of scorn from the scientific world!

Adding this new information to what I had already gathered seemed conclusive. Ted Knight had discovered a power source during his thesis research, combined it with the gravity engine invented by Abraham Davis to help build the miniaturized gravity rod sometime in 1940, and voila! Starman was born!

I considered the idea that Ted might have merely built the gravity rod for an unknown third party by the time of Starman’s debut in 1941, but there was too much evidence pointing to Ted Knight. For example, Woodley Allen, Starman’s FBI contact, was Ted’s wife’s uncle, and Starman had retired just about the same time that Ted and Doris got married. Of course, all I had was circumstantial evidence, but it was enough to convince me!

Finally I decided to go to bed. I had been on the go for almost thirty-six hours, and I conked out right away. I would figure out the best way to approach Mr. Ted (Starman) Knight tomorrow.

End journal entry.


Lily DeLuna got off to a quick start the next morning, as she had things to do. There wasn’t much in the kitchen to eat, so she added shopping to the to-do list. Canned peaches and Spam wasn’t her favorite breakfast, that was for sure. A quick examination of the contents of the bunker showed that Vic Valor had not done any photographic work there. She wanted to develop her film today, so she added it to the list.

She would risk driving the Cord. She thought she could find everything she needed in the village of Elmville, about a twenty-minute drive from here. She had occasionally passed through Elmville on her way to other places, and once she had stopped and purchased the Elmville weekly paper, the Elmville Town Voice, out of professional curiosity. She hoped they had their own darkroom and might let her use it.

It was a beautiful day, and on the ride Lily tried to figure out how she was going to approach Ted Knight. She didn’t want to cause a scene, and she didn’t want to give away his secret to anyone else. Maybe she could catch him at his private observatory. It was worth a try. She avoided thinking about the mystery of the councilman and the gangster. She was hoping she might learn something from the photos, and she didn’t want any preconceived theories to interfere with her thinking.

She arrived in Elmville and asked directions to the office of the Town Voice. She was lucky to have arrived in the morning — the Voice, being a weekly, had a very small office and a very small staff, and the office was only open on weekday mornings. The publisher was out, but there was a secretary at her desk, and their only reporter, who doubled as the photographer, was actually developing his pictures in the darkroom when Lily arrived. She had to wait twenty minutes to talk to him, until he reached a point that he was able to open the door without overexposing his pictures.

Lily spend the time talking to Pam, the cute blonde secretary, who also worked as the paper’s administrator and proofreader. Pam was working two part-time jobs and putting herself through night school. Lily wished her luck and told her a couple of her own stories, and then the red light over the darkroom door went out.

Tim was a tall young man with dark hair and glasses. “Ah, so you’re Lily DeLuna? I’m Tim Buchanan, and I’m very pleased to meet you. I read the Register every day, so I’ve read a lot of your stories. Good stories — you are always objective, and you give the whole story. I try to write my stories the same way. Anyway, Pam tells me you would like to use our darkroom? I can’t. Our publisher, Mrs. Spooner, doesn’t like anybody but her employees to touch her stuff. Why does a big-city reporter like you need to use our darkroom, anyway? Why can’t you go to the Register?

Lily told them the whole story. When she was finished, Tim spoke up again.

“Say, Miss DeLuna, how about this? I can’t let you use our equipment, but I can develop your pictures for you. You can come in and watch, if you want to be sure I’m doing it right. But I want something out of this, too.”

Lily was suddenly suspicious of his motives. A couple of photographers in the past had used lines like that, and the darkroom developments they were interested in weren’t related to film. Pam was sitting right there with them, and Tim seemed smitten with her, but some guys were always on the prowl and didn’t care who they offended. She was quite pleased when Tim continued, “I don’t know how we would arrange it, but I want a mention on the byline!”

Lily laughed. “Hey, why not? We’ll work something out.” She stuck out her hand, and they shook on it.

“Done! I’ve always wanted to see my work in a daily! Let’s get started!” Tim was almost as enthusiastic as Lily by this point.

Tim was all business, and turned out to be a real artist in the darkroom. The contrast in the original prints was even higher than Lily had thought, and the people in the prints were unrecognizable. Tim made several more prints using some techniques to mute the contrast, techniques that Lily had never seen before. Tim hung up the exposures, and Lily treated Tim and Pam to lunch while they waited for the prints to dry.

After lunch, Pam let them back into the paper office and then headed for her other part-time job. Lily was about to throw away the original, high-contrast prints when Tim excitedly stopped her. “Lily, that’s it — look at this one here!”

The enhanced photo clearly showed the faces of the two men who had called the secret meeting, John Ross, chairman of the Opal City City Council, and Boss Neuertski, head of one of the largest criminal organizations in Opal City. In the original photo, the two men were unrecognizable. So what could Tim be so excited about? He was clearly hoping she would see it herself, so she restrained her questions and looked again, more closely.

There was definitely something strange about it; her mind was nagging her about something. She couldn’t recognize either man in the high-contrast picture, but in that picture, they sure looked a lot alike. That was it. The high contrast enhanced some facial features, blurred some others, and the two men who looked out of the night at her, with surprise, anger, and the beginning of fear frozen on their faces, were as alike as the faces of a pair of brothers. That had to be what Tim had seen. She turned to him, and he was smiling.

“So, you’ve seen it, too? It’s really difficult to see it in normal light, but these guys look a lot alike! They wear their hair differently, and Neuertski’s beard and the big heavy glasses Ross wears make them look different — but once you know what to look for, you can see it in the other pictures, too!”

Lily nodded excitedly. Two of the three most powerful men in Opal City might be secretly related. Although it was mere speculation at this point, the pictures sure seemed to suggest that they were brothers. But if this was true, how would they have they kept this a secret? Better question, why would they have they kept this a secret? What were they planning? She was determined to find out whether the idea and all of its implications had any basis in reality.

In Lily’s mind, Tim had already earned his byline credit. She was now anxious to get on with her story, so she gathered up the prints and prepared to leave. “You know, Tim, this could be the biggest story of my career. And you deserve a piece of it. Want to come with me when I interview John Ross?”

Tim quickly shook his head. “I hope you do get your biggest story ever, and I’ll appreciate a little piece of it. But there’s a reason I’m workin’ in a once-a-week paper in a small town, doing everything except going somewhere.” Tim’s voice sounded wistful, and Lily could see longing on his face. He continued.

“Your life is already in danger, and when Ross and Neuertski find out you know their secret, well… you seem to be confident you can handle it, but that’s not the life for me! I like being a one-man band, doing a little bit of a lot of things, and I really like working at the Voice. I just don’t think I ought to go off and rub noses with gang leaders and crooked politicians — at least, not on the big-city scale! Far as I can tell, none of the pols here in Elmville are up to anything they’d kill to protect, and that’s how I like it. If I can help you out with more pictures, let me know. And if you don’t want to use my name, it’s really OK with me. But, no, I don’t think I’ll be doing any legwork with you.”

Lily realized that he was torn between his desire for adventure and his desire for security. She didn’t think it would be fair to try to talk him into something he was so conflicted over, so she let it go. “Thanks, Tim! You’ll get your byline credit, and if I need any more pictures developed, you can be sure you’ll see me again!” She dropped the roll of negatives into her purse, left the pictures on the passenger seat in the Cord, and headed to the grocery store. She then stopped at the hardware store, picked up a variety of items, and headed back to her hideout.

When she got back to her bunker, she installed deadbolts on the inside of the trapdoor and the inside door. She really wished she could see outside the bunker, but that would have to wait.

She set up a work area, brought her portable typewriter in from the car, and started writing. She quickly typed up all the facts she knew so far, and realized that she didn’t really know anything more than she had before. The new speculation that Ross and Neuertski were related, perhaps even brothers, still didn’t tell her anything about their current relationship. She was theorizing without facts, something a good journalist was supposed to avoid. She needed something to take her mind off this story until she could conduct the proper research.

Fortunately, she had another project that needed her attention. It was time to head out and see if she could catch Ted Knight at his private observatory tonight. The power rod was figuratively burning a hole in her pocket, and she really wanted to find out how to use it. She hoped she would be able to catch him that night. Of course, she was a little nervous about revealing that she had guessed his secret identity, but he was one of the good guys. And it wasn’t like she planned to let the world know.

She found a spot along the state road that led past Knight’s observatory, where she could pull off the road and be partially hidden by trees and bushes. The river and hills on the other side of the road gave the spot a great view. Multiple fresh tire tracks and crushed weeds indicated that cars were parked here fairly often. She surmised, with a laugh, that some kids on dates were probably going to have to find some other place to go parking tonight. Well, hopefully she wouldn’t be here too long.

And in fact, luck was with her that night. Two or three cars drove by, slowed, and sped up when they saw the Cord, but finally she recognized Ted Knight’s car headed for the observatory. She waited another twenty minutes and then followed. She wasn’t sure exactly what happened when someone called a super-hero out on his secret identity, but it certainly promised to be interesting.

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