by Marcus L. Rowland
"Clark, have you met our new intern?" asked Jimmy Olsen, the Daily Planet's leading photojournalist.
"I don't think so," said the hunk I'd been watching out of the corner of my eye for the last fifteen minutes. "Miss...?"
"Mars," I said. "Veronica Mars."
"As in Lane and Kent? I was hoping to meet you." I tried to keep it casual and avoid gushing. Yes, I run into multiple Pulitzer and Kerth winners every day. Way too old for me and very married, but definitely a hunk.
"Veronica's from Neptune," said Olsen.
"New Jersey, California, or the planet?" asked Clark.
"California," I said. "Along the coast from LA." He probably knew that, if he knew that there was a Neptune in California.
"Veronica Mars from Neptune," said Clark, seeming to think for a second. "As in the Lilly Kane murder?"
"Clark's got a photographic memory," Jimmy said proudly, "except when it comes to returning library books or videos."
"I met your father when he was in Metropolis on his book launch tour," said Clark. "He seems like a nice guy."
"He is," I said.
"So you're thinking about a career in journalism?" asked Clark.
"It's that or law enforcement," I said, "or maybe investigative reporting like you, get the best of both worlds. I'm taking journalism and criminology at Hearst."
"And interning as a photographer," said Clark.
I nodded and thought "Nearly right." Meet Veronica Mars, your friendly undercover intern from the FBI.
"You want me to do what?" I asked four days earlier in Quantico.
"Discover Superman's secret identity," repeated Agent Brady, my instructor. In the distance, in the Marine part of the base, I could hear someone shouting at a parade. The words weren't clear, the sentiment was. Someone was royally annoyed. Business as usual for the Marine Corps.
"What secret identity?" I asked.
"Do you really think he spends all his time in that silly costume?" said Brady. "He's not always around, and unless he's taking vacations on the Moon he has to be doing something else with his time. The best theory is a secret identity, a personality he assumes when he isn't Superman."
"That makes sense, I guess," I said, "Any idea who it is?"
"Probably someone we've never heard of. If it was anyone in the public eye Superman would have to wear a mask, like Batman or that super-woman they had in Metropolis for a while."
"Ultra-Woman?" One of my heroes when I was a kid, though she was only around for a couple of days.
"That's right," said Brady. "There's good reason to think that she was Lois Lane, the investigative reporter. We know that Superman's powers have been temporarily shared with other people on several occasions. Ultra-Woman seems to have been one of them."
"She used to date Superman, didn't she?" I said, remembering old tabloid stories.
"She married another reporter about ten years ago," said Brady. "Clark Kent, also at the Daily Planet."
"Sure, Lane and Kent. Two Pulitzers as a team and four Kerths."
"Eight if you include the ones they've won on their own," said Brady. "They're heavy hitters, so try not to get in their faces too much. Incidentally, when you research this you'll find a lot of speculation that Kent's Superman, he does look a little like him, but it's been disproved every time. Apparently they're all good friends."
"So why should I be able to find this out when nobody else has? What's-his-name, uh... Lex Luthor must have spent millions studying Superman and he didn't get anywhere."
"Because you're obviously not a super-villain, you're nineteen and pretty. You ought to be able to catch people a little off-guard."
"And because you're one of the best interns we've ever seen here," he added, "and have a history of solving cases nobody else can handle..."
"That's more like it."
"Along with some spectacular screw-ups that seem to have come out well, which suggests a good deal of dumb luck."
"And we're back to 'Gee thanks'" I thought, but didn't say it.
There was a lot more, of course, but the essence was pretty clear. Even before I'd started at Quantico the FBI had arranged for me to intern at the Planet for two weeks - they somehow made the application look like it came from me, not the FBI - with a cover story that I wasn't able to start any earlier because of family commitments. I was booked in at the cheapest hotel they could find, with a day to get settled before I started at the Planet. And no real idea why the FBI wanted to know the truth about Superman.
"Any time you see Superman in action set your camera for fast continuous shots, like a sports shoot." Jimmy said as I drove us across town towards the first story of the day. "You've got a big memory card in that thing?" he pointed at my Nikon.
"Four gigabytes, and two two-gig cards as backup."
"Not bad. And that's a good fast lens," he said approvingly. "Just bear in mind that the Planet isn't going to pay for your personal camera if it's lost or damaged, and that any pictures you take while working for the Planet belong to us. We might pay you if we use something, but don't hold your breath waiting."
"Sure, I get that. But I'm used to this camera, I'd prefer to work with it."
"Okay," Jimmy said approvingly (just why someone over thirty still wants to be called Jimmy is one of those mysteries I'll probably never solve), "do good work then. Now, getting back to Superman... Use auto-focus but be prepared to go manual, autofocus can't always keep up, use a high shutter speed, and be prepared to waste twenty shots for every one we can use. Back in the days of film we practically kept Kodak in business."
"He's really that fast?"
"During the alien invasion in 2001 I was using a Nikon F3 with a motor drive and a bulk film back that took two hundred and fifty shots on 35mm cine film. Weighed a ton with the long lens I was using, and took about three minutes to reload. My backup camera was hit by a stray energy blast, and the F3 ran out of film while Superman was smashing the mothership. I missed some of the best shots of my career... Be glad that digital has finally caught up, more or less. And try to keep a few shots in reserve."
"Didn't you get the photography Kerth in 2001?"
"Might have been the Pulitzer if I hadn't run out of film." The car's GPS beeped for a right turn, and he added "Ignore that, the road's gonna be closed after a couple of blocks. Go on another two blocks then turn at the traffic circle."
"You know the city that well?"
"I know how the Police Department prepares for this sort of thing, and I checked the traffic news just before we left. All roads within a quarter mile of the Lexor are closed, apart from the one we're taking."
"Right. Sorry, I can see I've got a lot to learn."
"Back in the good old days I used to have a police radio in the car, but they went over to encrypted digital a couple of years ago, makes things a little harder."
"We'll crack it sooner or later," he said cheerfully, "I've already got a pretty good idea what algorithm they're using, just need to work out how they distribute the code keys."
"Try badge numbers," I said. "It's the one number every cop knows without having to look it up. Maybe combined with the car number or something."
"That could work..."
"It's what the Sheriff's Department did in Neptune."
"I'll give it a try," said Jimmy, adding "Okay, here we are. Stop at the barrier."
There were a couple of police cars blocking the road ahead, with a saw-horse barrier between them. One of the duty cops came over to the car, seemed to recognize Jimmy, and pulled back a saw-horse to let us through. Ahead was a tall building, the windows already smashed out, surrounded by a couple of acres of rubble. There was another barrier a little further in, with a few cars and trucks parked outside it.
"Pull over next to the black Jeep," said Jimmy, "that's Lois's car. When we're parked get a couple of hard-hats from our trunk, mine's the one with the black stripe."
Jimmy popped the trunk and I opened it and grabbed Jimmy's helmet and one for myself, both with the Planet logo. There was some interesting stuff back there, signal flares and lights, a folding ladder, and a gizmo that looked like a grapnel gun. I was beginning to get the idea that Jimmy would go almost anywhere for a good photo.
"Who's your friend, Jimmy?" asked Lois Lane. She was a little shorter than I'd expected, even wearing a helmet and sturdy boots, and looked a little impatient.
"Our new intern," said Jimmy. "Veronica Mars."
"Clark mentioned you," said Lois, shaking my hand. "You picked a good day to start, this ought to be fairly spectacular."
"They're just going to demolish the hotel, aren't they? But everyone's acting like it's a really big deal."
"That's right," said Lois, "The Lexor used to be the best hotel in Metropolis..." She looked sad for a moment, and I wondered if she'd had her honeymoon there or something. "It was pretty good when Luthor was alive, but once he was out of the picture the banks and lawyers took over, and things started to slip. And then it turned out that Luthor hadn't really jumped through all of the planning department's hoops when it was built, he just bribed a few people. Safety engineers, that sort of thing. The owners have been fighting it for years, but today it finally goes."
"I get that," I said, "but why's Superman involved?"
"Like I said, Lex Luthor never paid much attention to the parts of the building code he didn't like. There's a couple of hundred tons of asbestos in there, Superman is going to make sure that the dust doesn't go anywhere it shouldn't. He should be along in a few minutes."
"Is Clark around?" Jimmy asked.
"He's walking around inside with the demolition guys, watching them set the last charges."
"Not like you to stay outside," said Jimmy.
She patted her belly, and I realised she was pregnant. "There's no elevators in there, and right now Clark can climb stairs a lot better than I can."
"When's it due?" I asked.
"The first week in November."
"Congratulate me when my feet aren't hurting. I love my kids, but this part of it's a bitch."
"They're clearing the building," said Jimmy, who'd been taking shots to set the scene while we were talking. I swung my camera up and started began to shoot. There wasn't a huge amount to see, just a whole bunch of guys wearing coveralls and helmets walking away from the building. One of them was paying out wire from a big reel.
A couple of minutes later they were hunkered down well back from the building, and the clock was ticking down towards noon.
"Not like Superman to be late," said Jimmy.
"He may have stopped for a bank robbery or something," said Lois. "Not like they're going to start without him."
"There he is!" one of the cops shouted. There was a noise like a swooshing sonic boom, and suddenly Superman was there, hovering a couple of hundred feet above the building. Some speakers crackled, and a voice said "This is demolition control, we're holding the countdown at twenty seconds. When you're ready, Superman."
"I'm scanning to make sure that there's nobody left inside," said another voice, distorted and crackly. Through the camera lens I could see that Superman was holding some sort of radio. He circled the building four or five times at different heights, flew inside and came out with a stray cat which he dropped off with the engineers, checked it again, then said "All clear. Start your countdown."
"Twenty." Superman circled the building a couple more times, then seemed to pick up speed.
"Fifteen." He was going around the building three or four times a second, and I could see dust trails rising behind him. I tried to get shots, but I was pretty sure that they wouldn't be much more than a blur.
"Ten," There was a breeze blowing towards the Lexor, "nine," which grew stronger by the second, "eight" then subsided into a flat calm, "seven," apart from a vertical swirl of dust and a blue blur, "seven," Superman flying around the Lexor faster than I could follow, "six," gaining speed until the vortex walls were about fifty feet thick, "five," and dark with dust and scraps of paper and wood, "four," and the noise of the vortex was like the blast of a jet engine, "three," and I could barely hear the speakers, certainly I missed "two, one," and "zero." Inside the vortex, barely visible behind the swirling wind, the hotel seemed to implode and collapse, some of the debris flying upwards to join the circular storm, most of it going down.
Superman didn't slow down; if anything he seemed to speed up, and the whirlwind he'd made lifted from the ground, leaving a neat conical mound of rubble, and slowly condensed into a seething sperical cloud, surrounded by the blue blur of Superman flying faster than the eye could follow. The cloud began to glow and shrink, and Jimmy shouted "he's using his heat vision, I think."
"What for?" I asked
"Must be melting it down," shouted Lois.
The cloud gradually got smaller and smaller until it was a ball, apparently some sort of molten liquid, about ten foot across, still hanging in the air supported by the blue blur. It rose up into the sky, and out towards the sea. In another ten seconds it was gone, and things were eerily quiet apart from a couple of hundred people cheering.
"What do you think he did with it?" I asked.
"Okay," said the voice over the speakers, "that's all of the asbestos dust taken care of, I've melted it to quartz and dumped it out at sea. There are still quite a few chunks of solid asbestos in the rubble, be careful when you clear it. Have a nice day."
"Show's over," said Jimmy. "Did you get anything?"
"I'm not sure," I said, flicking through the pictures on the camera's small screen. "There are a couple that don't look too bad, but it's hard to tell."
While we were talking Jimmy had got a laptop computer from the car and transferred his pictures, then said "give me your card." He plugged it in and began to look through pictures, saying "Good one with the cat... and the one hovering over the building's okay. Mine's better though." Eventually he narrowed it down to eight pictures, six of his and two of mine, explaining why he'd chosen them, and transmitted them to the Planet. To be honest I thought he was being charitable, the cat picture was the only one of mine worth a second look.
"Did you get anything?" I looked up and saw Clark Kent, wearing coveralls and a hard hat and carrying a familiar-looking cat. Lois looked at the cat and narrowed her eyes, and Clark hastily said "I'm going to drop her off at the pound. Superman said he could see a microchip under her skin, so they ought to be able to trace the owner." Jimmy and I both took shots of the cat, and Jimmy compared them then sent his own to the Planet.
"Even if they can't trace the owner," said Jimmy, "any cat that Superman rescued will probably have fifty people wanting to adopt it."
"I hope so," said Lois, "we really don't need another cat, and you know what Clark's like."
"Like you've never adopted a stray kitten in your life," said Clark.
"Well... maybe one or two. But that's not a kitten, and somewhere out there she has a home."
As we drove away Jimmy chuckled and said "I'll lay you two to one odds that if the pound can't find the cat's owner Lois will end up adopting it."
"I'd offer," I said, "but I've got a dog at home, and he's not exactly a cat lover."
"Don't worry," said Jimmy, "I wasn't kidding about people wanting to adopt her, not with the Superman seal of approval."
Jimmy's 'phone beeped, and he listened for a second, then said "We're on it, chief."
"Oh yeah..." He began to give me directions.
The rest of my time at the Planet went fast, and I eventually left with a pretty good portfolio and (much later) a couple of thousand dollars in royalties. Global syndication is a wonderful thing.
Back in Quantico Brady kept me waiting for a couple of hours before I saw him. Eventually I was called in. Brady was there, with an agent I didn't know, a guy in his forties, and one I did; Agent Morris, who'd come close to arresting me a couple of years ago. Suddenly I had a bad feeling about this; Morris really didn't like me, and maybe she had good reason.
"Okay, trainee Mars," said Brady. "How was Metropolis?"
"I saw him six or seven times."
"But did you find out who he really is?" asked the man I didn't know.
"I'm sorry, agent...?"
"Scardino," said the stranger. "Dan Scardino. Did you discover Superman's secret identity?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"Humour us," said Morris.
"I really need a better reason than that." She didn't reply, just noted something on a pad.
"Okay," said Brady. "Let's just assume, for the sake of argument, that the FBI really needs to know Superman's secret identity. Did you discover it?"
"I really don't think I can answer that."
"In other words you did," said Scardino, "but you don't think we need to know." I didn't reply. He noted something on his own pad.
"Okay," said Brady. "Let's take this another way. Hypothetically, how would you find out Superman's secret identity?"
"Hypothetically," I said carefully, "I might take photos of Superman performing some sort of everyday activity - holding something, for example - and compare them with pictures of a suspect with his hands in the same position. Measure the fingers, that sort of thing. If I was really lucky I might even blow up the suspect's picture and enhance it, and get a glimpse of Superman's costume under the clothes he was wearing. Hypothetically."
"Very good," said Brady. "Now let's see your report."
"The folder you're carrying," said Scardino.
"Oh... Well, it's mostly just photos. Stuff that really wouldn't interest you."
I gave Brady the portfolio, and he leafed through it, with the other looking over his shoulders. Lots of pictures of Superman and Metropolis. Nothing that could be used to establish anything about any hypothetical secret identity.
"And this is your final report?" asked Brady.
"Unless someone wants to give me a much better reason for wanting the information, and prove to me that it's true."
"What do you think?" asked Brady.
"I'll give her an A," said Scardino.
"Make it B plus," said Morris. "Word of advice, Miss Mars, it's never a good idea to tell people how smart you are, you always end up giving too much away. I could backtrack on all the pictures you took for the Planet, maybe take the card from your camera and have the lab recover any files you've deleted, sooner or later we'd find the one you mentioned. You should have refused to explain."
"I'll go with the A, I think," said Brady. "At least you had the sense not to come in with a written report."
"This was a test?" I eventually asked.
"Sure it was," said Scardino. "You really think that after fourteen years the Bureau doesn't know who he is, or at least have a pretty shrewd idea? Unofficially, of course. Officially the Bureau knows nothing about any secret identity."
"But I could go public," I said weakly, "you'd be blowing his cover wide open."
"You could," said Morris, "but then it would turn out that the Bureau had never heard of you, and that your photo was a fake." It wasn't exactly a threat, more of a promise.
"Don't worry," said Scardino, "we know that it isn't going to happen. We don't give this test to people who can't be trusted to keep their mouths shut in public."
"So what exactly were you testing?" I asked.
"Lots of things," said Brady. "Your investigative skills, of course, though that's really only a minor part of it. More important, your ethics. We asked you to find out something pretty sensitive about someone who doesn't have a stain on his character, you handled it pretty well."
"What if I'd come in with a hundred-page dossier and proved it beyond all doubt?"
"Then we would have congratulated you and sent you on your way, shredded the report, and never given you a job that allowed you to come into contact with critially sensitive material."
"Congratulations," said Brady, "you've passed your first assessment, and we'll be inviting you to intern again next summer."
"Always assuming," said Morris, "that we don't end up arresting you first." She gave Brady her pad and left.
"Does she ever take that stick out of her ass?" asked Scardino.
"Not since I've known her," said Brady.
"Oh..." I said, "I thought it was me."
"Not really," said Brady. "Except that maybe she thinks we went a little easy on you. That's really not a hard assignment. She drew the short straw her year, we had two interns we wanted to test so we ended up sending her to Gotham City..."
Note: Dan Scardino appeared in several episodes of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Agent Morris (played by Lucy Lawless) briefly appeared in Veronica Mars.