by Dan Swanson
March 31, 1949:
Lily DeLuna left for work a couple of hours early that afternoon. The Tombs, which was the nickname for the jail that the saboteurs were kept in as they awaited trial, was out of her way, and she thought she might be there for quite a while.
She showed the desk sergeant her press pass, which might not have been the wisest thing to do. Her front page Vic Valor stories the past two days had not shown the Opal City Police Department in the best light, and although Lily had been unknown to almost everyone only three days ago, the police were definitely learning who she was.
But there was no real reason to stop her from seeing the saboteurs. Other reporters had already visited that day, and the police had to be very careful not to seem to favor one news outlet over another. Actually, all of the other reporters had asked to talk to the leader of the group of saboteurs; nobody had asked to interview the guy Lily wanted to talk to.
The Tombs didn’t have an interview room. The other reporters, who were all men, had talked to the prisoners in their cells. But the police didn’t really want to take a woman who looked like Lily into the cellblock, so they let her use the office of the deputy chief. Her saboteur was brought in wearing cuffs, and two big, mean-looking guards remained in the room, despite Lily’s protests.
“Jimmy Valente — you look awful!” The saboteur was tall and thin, and one of the lenses of his glasses had been cracked during yesterday’s adventure. He had bruises on his face and arms, and he limped painfully. “Do you remember me?”
Very few men who met Lily ever forgot her, and Jimmy was no exception. Yet his greeting was not very enthusiastic. “Lily DeLuna.” He barely acknowledged her greeting. “You wouldn’t look so damn good yourself if you were tear gassed, roughed up by some super-goon, and then tossed in jail by a bunch of sadist cops!”
The two guards looked very angry, and Lily was sure Jimmy would have been roughed up some more if she hadn’t been there.
“If you’re here to mock me, just have them take me back to my cell and beat me up some more instead. That would be so much more fun!” Jimmy looked miserable, but he still had some fight left in him.
“No, Jimmy, I’m here to hear your story. I don’t think you’ll get roughed up anymore.” She glared at the two guards meaningfully. “Because I can see just how healthy you are right now. If anything happens to you between now and when my next story gets published, everyone will know just who to blame! By the way, I hope you don’t mind that I’m recording this conversation?”
Jimmy finally raised his head, and he looked straight into Lily’s eyes, startled, and then he slowly smiled. He realized that Lily was at least going to give him a fair shake. He hadn’t known her well back at the university, but unlike some of the other attractive co-eds, she had never been a snob. He hadn’t been surprised that she remembered him, even though they had never been great friends; that was just the kind of person she was. He thought he might be able to trust her to at least listen sympathetically to what he had to say.
“Oh, no, I don’t mind at all! Record all you want!”
Lily had brought a reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorder with her, a large box that she had already set on the desk and now opened. One of the guards stepped toward her and reached for the recorder before she could turn it on. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but it’s against the rules to record interviews with prisoners. I’m going to have to take that.” It was clear from his tone that, seconds after he touched the recorder, it would be smashed into pieces on the floor. Lily quickly moved it out of his reach.
“Corporal, you may not recognize me, but you’ve no doubt heard my name over the last two days. Those two Lily DeLuna exclusive interviews with Vic Valor in the Opal City Register yesterday and today? That was me! And he’s dropping by the Register again tonight, for another… intimate… chat. He’s told me he’s not real fond of ‘lawbreakers.’ In fact, Jimmy, here, can probably tell you better than I can just what happens when Vic is mad at you! And you’re wrong — it’s not against the rules, if Jimmy says it’s OK.” Lily could be quite caustic when she wanted to.
The guards noted that Lily seemed comfortable using Vic Valor’s first name, and they had heard about the reprimand he had given Commissioner Red Bailey for not using his rank when addressing him. And Valor did have super-powers, and he didn’t seem to be very careful in using them. Valente and his friends had already been quite banged up when they reached the hands of the police.
The guard who had reached for the tape recorder quickly considered his options, and then returned to his original position by the door, and no further mention was made of it. Lily realized that, as matters stood, she had just made two lifelong enemies. But she had an intuition that before she finished talking to Jimmy, they might change their minds.
After setting up the recorder, she interviewed Jimmy for over an hour. He admitted that he was part of a group that was trying to “protect the Earth” — he was pretty vague about what that meant. But they had never done anything violent before. They had sometimes carried signs to protest the construction of so many new housing projects in and around Opal City, but nobody had ever paid any attention to them.
Their leader was new to the group. He had first joined last month, and had quickly become the leader because of his enthusiasm, and, frankly, his money. The plan to blow up the levee and “save the swamp” was his. His money had paid for the whole thing. He had provided the explosives, and somehow he had managed to convince the previously peaceful group to help him carry out his plan. Jimmy didn’t understand it at all; he and his friends had never done anything violent before, and they were appalled that they had somehow been convinced to cooperate. Jimmy promised her he had never done anything like this before, and he would certainly never do anything like it again. He was clearly ashamed of his actions, so ashamed that he was almost crying.
A couple of things Jimmy said were of major interest to Lily. Although Jimmy’s group had set bombs at intervals along the entire levee, only the first bomb had actually caused major damage. Jimmy had helped build the bombs, and he knew that they were all identical. He didn’t know why the first bomb had worked so well and the others had been so ineffective. Also, Jimmy swore up, down, and sideways that his group had never had tear gas. In fact, he had no idea where the tear gas had come from.
These two guards had heard the other reporters talk to the leader of the saboteurs, and his story had been wildly different from Jimmy’s. He had taken credit for blowing up the levee, and the tear gas. Lily was secretly quite smug when their expressions gradually changed from anger at her to interest in Jimmy’s story.
After about fifteen minutes, the guard who had tried to take her tape recorder interrupted and asked, respectfully, “Excuse me, ma’am — do you mind if I take some notes here? I have a friend who was out there last night, and he’s in the hospital today because of that tear gas. Some of us were pretty upset when we thought these guys–” And he pointed at Jimmy. “–might have used tear gas against the cops, and, well, maybe we were wrong about that. Maybe we ought to be looking somewhere else… begging your pardon, ma’am.” He turned to Jimmy. “That ain’t to say, pal, that we’re gonna let you off after you tried to blow up that dike. Can’t have that kind o’ crap goin’ on in Opal! But you gotta understand, tear gas is for cops, and we gotta enforce that.”
Lily didn’t necessarily agree, but she did understand. She had actually seen police use tear gas before, at some student protest or other. Some student had been stupid enough to pick up a tear gas canister and throw it back at the cops. Almost instantly, a half-dozen cops had converged on the unfortunate youth and instantly beat him unconscious. Lily was sickened, but she understood. Police forces were always vastly outnumbered by civilians, and the police felt that certain actions by civilians, such as attacking cops and using tear gas against cops, needed to be discouraged for their own protection.
Lily was sure nobody who had seen that incident would ever make the same mistake that unfortunate student had made that day. In fact, as she thought about it, it seemed likely that Jimmy had either seen or heard about that same incident. Just to be sure, she asked him about it. “Say, Jimmy, do you remember that student who got hurt back when we were sophomores?”
“You betcha, Lily! Say, no wonder the cops was so rough on us, huh?” he said, understanding dawning on his face. Then his anger returned. “Hey, you, copper! This is supposed to be America, isn’t it? Innocent until proven guilty, right? Well, buddy, you cops owe me and my friends, big time. Why don’t you and your tough-guy buddies get out there and find the real bad guys, huh?”
“Ah, Jimmy? You and your friends are some of the real bad guys, remember!” Lily had the facts on this case, and she was going to make sure everyone else got them straight, too. “You just admitted to trying to blow up the levee. Maybe you and your friends and these cops are even. I wouldn’t push them if I were you.”
“Oh, yeah, huh?” Jimmy said, then shut up. Lily could tell that the cops were firmly on her side by now. And she knew it wasn’t her looks that changed their minds, but her insistence in digging up the truth.
After the guards took Jimmy back to his cell, they came back and, with Lily, talked to a police detective about what Jimmy had said. The detective wanted the magnetic tape recording, but the guards convinced him to let Lily keep it. He told her he was going to initiate two new lines of investigation — the new guy in the environmental group, and the man responsible for tear-gassing the cops.
Lily headed off to her waitressing job, well-satisfied with her afternoon’s work. Even more than before, she was looking forward to talking to Ultimate Valor later tonight.
As expected, Vic Valor showed up that night, sought out Lily DeLuna, and started telling her about his night’s adventures.
“I was summoned to police headquarters by the V-Signal. While I was there, I talked with Commissioner Bailey, and found out about the super-villain attacking the power plant…”
Valor’s voice trailed off as he noticed that Lily wasn’t taking any notes. After a slight pause, he spoke again. “What’s the matter, Lily? Don’t you want to interview me tonight?”
“I think I need a cup of coffee, Vic. Will you join me?”
“I’m sorry, Lily, but I don’t drink coffee. Caffeine has unpredictable affects on the metabolism of Xadamites. However, I will be happy to wait here until you get your coffee and return.”
This wasn’t at all what Lily wanted. “Well, can you drink water, then? C’mon, let’s go to the break room.” She took his arm and started walking. Valor didn’t move.
“Yes, Xadamites can safely drink water. But I am not thirsty right now. Please get yourself a drink, and then we can continue with the interview.”
Lily leaned closer and whispered to him fiercely, “Listen, buster, you and I have to talk! Now, by the way, not some other time! We can either do it privately in the break room, or right here where everyone can hear!”
“Of course, Lily! The entire reason I’m here is to talk to you!”
“Break room, buster, now! Or else!” Lily didn’t specify what else. In fact, she wasn’t sure “what else” meant in this case. What could she possibly do to Valor that he would worry about? Fortunately, he didn’t seem to be thinking along those lines, as he started walking in the direction Lily was leading him.
Lily ushered one of her co-workers out of the break room, then prepared a coffee for herself and a glass of ice water for Valor. There was a box of doughnuts on the table, so she offered him one. “I thank you again, Lily, and again I must refuse. Earth food is not suitable for Xadamites. But please, feel free to have one yourself.”
When Lily didn’t take a donut, Valor continued. “So what are we going to be talking about that requires privacy?”
Lily sipped her coffee, then put it down. “I’m not quite sure, Mr. Valor,” she said with a sneer, “why you think I’d prostitute my ethics to give you publicity, but I’ll tell you this right now — you can forget it!”
Valor was puzzled. “What does it mean, prostitute? The radio and TV programs I listened to never use that term.”
Lily was slightly flummoxed. “Umm, do you know what sex is?” She was blushing slightly.
“Of course, although on Xadam, men and women rarely discuss sex with each other. It makes us uneasy.”
Lily nodded slightly. “Same here on Earth. But we’re not really talking about sex. Do you know what money is?”
“I really don’t understand money. We don’t use money on Xadam. I don’t understand why you are asking.”
No money? That was the most alien thing about Valor so far. She thought for a moment. “OK, try this — do you have anyone on Xadam who exchanges sex for favors?”
“Yes, we call them klentos. They have very low status in society!”
Lily agreed. “Once again, same as Earth! Well, those people are called ‘prostitutes’ here. And, by extension, anyone who does something illegal, immoral, or unethical in order to achieve something she could not achieve through legal, moral, and ethical means has prostituted herself. Well, I am not a prostitute, for you or for anyone else! If I was, I wouldn’t be working two jobs and busting my tail on the night shift for a crummy two bucks an hour!”
Vic Valor seemed to be puzzled. “I can see you are very passionate about this issue, Lily. But I hardly think it applies here.”
Lily was very close to screaming, but she kept her anger and her voice under close control. “You come here and feed me lies, and I print them, and you get good publicity, and I become famous as ‘Valor’s girlfriend, the reporter!’ That’s what I’m talking about. Well, pal, forget it. It’s over. I’m not doing any more exclusive interviews with you, now or ever, and whatever you were looking for, you’re not going to get it from me!”
Valor responded, “I’m not sure what you are getting upset about. I’m not telling you lies, and we are both getting famous, because of these exclusive interviews. I thought of it as kind of a symbiotic relationship. You humans have a word for it — quid pro quo. It was my understanding that this is a common way for humans to do business.”
Lily was furious by now, and her voice was rising. “I’ll quid your pro, buster! And you have been lying; you might as well admit it!”
She stopped and took a deep breath, making a deliberate effort to get back her self-control. Once more calm, she continued. “If I’m going to be an outstanding reporter, or not, I’ll do it on my own by reporting the truth! I’ve done some thinking and some checking, and your stories don’t add up! I don’t know who you are or what your game is yet, but I do know you aren’t from a planet circling a brown star, you’ve been feeding me lies, and you aren’t anywhere near as great as you want people to think!”
Taking another deep breath, she went on. “So, no more interviews or stories by me. But you are going to keep talking to the Register! I’d get fired if I ran you out of here, and I happen to like the job. Here’s what you’re going to do. We’re going back to the newsroom, and you are going to tell my friend Betsy tonight’s story. And you are going to tell her the absolute truth! I’ll be listening, and I’ll check every detail, and if I find even one tiny little lie, I’ll write a story that completely exposes you — not just the lies to Betsy, but the lies you told yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that — every blessed lie. And don’t you doubt I can do it!”
Valor was trying to talk, but Lily was on a roll. “Just so you don’t think I’m bluffing, here’s a free sample; if you have so much trouble seeing in daylight, and you see by infrared, how the hell were you able to operate so close to that fire? No, don’t answer — I don’t want to hear any more lies. Just go give Betsy that story!” With that, she turned away from him abruptly and walked back to the newsroom. She walked up to Betsy’s desk. As she expected, Valor had followed her.
“Say, Betsy, would you mind doing the Valor interview tonight? I’m not feeling well, and I think I’m going to go home. Would you mind, terribly?”
Betsy had seen how much recognition Lily had gotten after her Valor interviews. Here was a chance for some of that fame to rub off on her, as well. Of course she didn’t mind. She pulled out her notebook and started asking questions and taking notes.
Lily DeLuna didn’t actually go right home. She stayed in the newsroom, behind a row of file cabinets, so she could hear every word. She made sure Vic Valor knew she was there and Betsy didn’t. Thus she got Valor’s firsthand report on tonight’s activities.