The lights were low.  A row of candles flickered on the mantle.  A full-length mirror was propped up below the shuttered window and all the doors were closed. Everything was set up the way Gunther liked it.

Gunther stepped in front of the mirror. Wait, no. He stepped back. Not yet. This had to perfect. Gunther shook his head back and forth. He cracked his knuckles. This is it, this is it, this is it. He took a deep breath and stepped forward.

Yes. Gunther looked in the mirror and saw a tall, pale man with dark hair flopping about his head and running over his wide face in a scruffy, untrimmed beard. Naked except for a pair of blue, low-rise briefs and a silver ring around his right ring finger, the man was a vision. His chest was a perfect pair of hairy domes with a deep crevasse running down the middle, his abdomen a solid wall packed tight with warm, unbending marble. His arms were cannons, his legs trees, his shoulders rocks that could hold up the world. He was perfect and he deserved everything.

Gunther stared at himself, not wanting to move. Slowly, he raised his right arm and curled it into a flex, watching as his bicep rolled into a tight ball of muscle. His other hand glided across his hairy abs and fiddled with the waist band of his blue briefs. His cock was pushing against the fabric, tenting his underwear in front of him and pointing at the man in the mirror.

Gunther turned his head slowly, slowly. He stared at his chest, tattooed on which was a great red ‘S’ set inside a triangle. Gunther smiled and caressed it. Here I am, here I am, here I am, Superman.

--

The city sparkled.  Viewed from this height, Metropolis looked like a field of diamonds.  It was, Superman reflected, always beautiful, no matter how often he looked down upon it.

But Superman knew that all was not as it seemed. The city sparkled, but beneath that brilliance lay a darkness that if given the chance would corrupt everything that the good people of the city had worked for. And when those people were powerless against that darkness, it was up to him to set things right.

Superman passed through a cloud. Droplets of icy water condensed on his skin, wrapping his large, muscular body in a cool cocoon. After coming out the other side, he began his descent into the city’s industrial district.

Landing quietly on a rooftop, Superman clenched and unclenched his powerful fists, pushing warmth back into his body. His cape swooped around his mighty frame and settled at his feet.  He closed his eyes and concentrated. Slowly and softly, he began to hear voices coming from inside a nearby warehouse.

“…sure this place is safe, boss?”

“’Course I’m sure.  I talked with my contact in the department.  No cops know we’re here.”

“And what if… uh… what if HE shows up?”

“Well, then we’re probably fucked.  But you think blue boy pays attention to every little transaction in the city? He’s probably rescuing some kitten caught up a tree or something. Now shut up.  I think I hear our guests approaching.”

Superman focused. Sure enough, he heard footsteps. Lifting silently into the air, he glided over to the warehouse and hovered near a broken window, careful to avoid detection.

Superman caught a glimpse of himself in the shattered glass. Hanging there, his suit still moist from his descent, he looked every bit the superhero. His muscled body was large and powerful, but sleek, and capable of deadly precision. Whoever was in there didn’t stand a chance against him, but it was not his place to make the rules. He peered inside the window.

Five men, all of them armed, stood at one end of the warehouse. They wore sweatshirts, jeans, and caps pulled low over their faces. The exception was a tall, portly men who stood encircled by the others. He wore a dark three-piece suit, complete with overcoat, and a wide-brimmed hat. This, Superman knew, was Gino Castiggliani, a wanted gunrunner. He was flanked by two slightly shorter but well-built men who looked to be packing large, semi-automatic weapons. Two men in the back were standing on either side of an enormous metal crate that Superman guessed held the evening’s merchandise. Unfortunately, the case seemed to have a lead coating on it that Superman could not see through with his X-ray vision. More and more criminals were doing that nowadays.

Superman readied himself but did not make his move. Below, four young men entered the warehouse. One wore a backpack. All of them had tucked pistols into the waists of their pants and covered them with the bottoms of their shirts. They hadn’t made much effort to conceal them, and Superman didn’t need his X-Ray vision to see past the deception. One of the group, a young, dark-skinned man dressed in dirty jeans and a baggy jacket, stepped forward.

“You got the stuff?” the dark-skinned man asked.

Castiggliani crossed his arms in front of his chest. His voice was low and resonant. “What, that’s it? No hello? We’re not in any rush here, boys. The bargaining has just begun.”

The dark-skinned man shifted in place. “Look, we don’t wanna be here longer than we have too. Now do you have the stuff or not?”

Castiggliani chuckled. “Ah, I used to be like you, so impetuous and impatient.  Thinner too.”  The man remained stone-faced. “But I can see you want what you came here for. Yes, we have it.”

The dark-skinned man eyed the crate in the back of the room. He indicated it with a nod of his head. “Yep, that’s it,” Castiggliani chortled. “More than enough firepower to wipe any rival gang off the map for good. Straight from America’s front lines to the streets of Metropolis.” The man took a step forward. “Nuh-nuh-nuh. Not so fast. Let’s see some collateral.”

The dark-skinned man nodded and motioned to his friend with the backpack, who stepped forward. He slid the backpack off his shoulders and handed it to the dark-skinned man, who opened it and held it under Castiggliani’s face. From the window, Superman used his X-ray vision and saw that the bag was full of cash, all of it haphazardly bound up in rubber bands. This was what Superman had been looking for: the money stolen from the First Bank of Metropolis a week earlier.

Castiggliani nodded his approval. “Very nice work. Very nice. Vinnie, the bag.” The man to Castiggliani’s right swooped forward and snatched the bag out of the dark-skinned man’s hand faster than he could react. Castiggliani grinned. “We’ll have to count this, naturally. But as a sign of good faith, I see no reason we can’t load the crate onto your vehicle ahead of time. You’ve been a very good customer.”

The dark-skinned man cocked his head. “How do we know you’re not ripping us off?  We should open the crate first, take a look inside.”

“My boy, I’m hurt. As if I would lie to you. Besides, time is of the essence here. No telling who might show up. You can open this crate when you’ve returned to your home base. I assure you it’ll be well worth it.”

Superman had heard enough. He raised his wrist to his mouth and whispered “Move in.”  Then, as the dark-skinned man began to protest, Superman burst through the window.

“Holy shit!” Two of the gang members started to run for the door. Superman swooped down and threw them to the ground. They scurried towards the back of the warehouse.

Castiggliani’s men drew their weapons. “Rip im’ to shreds!” A hail of bullets zoomed across the room only to bounce painlessly off Superman’s body. They pinged and panged off his chest, his arms, and his face, feeling like no more than light pinches. Superman stared straight ahead.

Once the clips had run out, Superman spoke. “Please remain in the back of the warehouse. Law enforcement agents will arrive shortly to apprehend you.”

The dark-skinned man and his crew looked terrified. One cradled his head in his hands. Another had his hand at his side, ready to draw his pistol but looked too stunned to follow through. Castiggliani alone looked calm. He stepped forward. “Law enforcement? But Superman, we’ve done nothing wrong.”

Superman narrowed his eyes. “Your man is holding a bag containing 500,000 dollars stolen from the First National Bank of Metropolis one week ago. And you shot me.”

“Stolen? Well, I had no idea. I thought these boys were paying for this with their paper-route money.”

“Don’t bother trying to weasel your way out of this, Castiggliani. I don’t need to point out that you’re standing in front of a crate full of illegal firearms.”

Castiggliani didn’t break eye contact. “My lawyers will make sure it’s never opened by anyone but me.  Invasion of privacy.”

Superman began to walk toward the crate. He knew what he was about to do was a little outside of his usual jurisdiction, but if it would help the police put Castiggliani away sooner, it was worth doing. He walked right by Castiggliani’s formidable frame and put his hands on the edge of the crate.  With one smooth motion, he ripped the metal box wide open.

Superman’s eyes went wide. Then a fist slammed into his stomach with the force of a locomotive and sent him sailing through the air. He landed with a crash against the far wall and was promptly buried in falling rubble. He heard the screams of gang members as their bones were snapped and their insides ripped out, heard Castiggliani’s footfalls as he raced for the door, one step ahead of the game, and heard the guttural wail of the creature he had released. The box had not been filled with guns.

Superman burst out from under the pile of rubble and looked across the room. The box’s occupant was an enormous, grotesque human figure, at least seven feet tall and covered in bulbous muscle. Moving with a labored, heavy shuffle and naked except for the tattered remains of a pair of jeans, it looked barely human, an amorphous mass of might.

“No… please…” The dark-skinned man had been knocked onto his back. The monster towered over him, still holding the freshly-detached arm of one of his comrades. “Please don’t hurt me…”

“GRRRAAHAHH!” With a great roar, the creature raised a massive arm and brought it rocketing down. The dark-skinned man shut his eyes and threw his hands over his face.

The blow didn’t come. The man opened his eyes to see Superman, his legs spread wide and his muscular back rippling with effort, holding the monster steady. Superman turned his head. “Go!” he shouted. The man leapt to his feet and bounded out of the warehouse. Superman turned back to his foe, taking in the sight of its bulging eyes, protruding lips, grey skin, and mound upon mound of twisting, ropey muscle.

The creature’s other arm came down; Superman grabbed hold of it, and in a moment, the two combatants had hold on each other’s shoulders. The creature let out a primal roar that shook the room. Superman felt spittle, thick and hot, fly into his face. He redoubled his efforts. Gritting his teeth, he pushed down on the creature’s broad shoulders, trying to force it to its knees. The creature, to Superman’s surprise, pushed back. Spitting and screaming, its hands dug into Superman’s shoulders with a force Superman had rarely encountered, but it wasn’t enough. Superman tensed his back, breathed deep, and pressed himself upon his opponent. It proved too much for the monster, and the creature began to bend over backward.

It let out a new roar, but Superman continued to push. The creature readjusted its footing. Gritting its twin rows of sharp, yellow teeth, it let out a low growl, tensed up its neck, and brought its head crashing into Superman’s.

Superman broke the hold and stumbled backwards. Before he could reorient himself, a titanic fist slammed into his stomach. “Guh!” Another caught him under the chin. Superman took another dazed step back. He raised his arms into a fighting stance, but before he could act the creature kicked him in the gut. He rocketed across the room and slammed into the wall, his stomach and back burning with pain. He narrowed his eyes.

The creature began to lumber towards him, but this time Superman was ready. Bracing his feet against the wall, Superman let out a mighty yell and launched himself into a flying charge. He collided with the creature at an incredible speed, wrapping his arms around its middle and turning the both of them into a grappling, snarling projectile. The pair sailed through the opening Superman had made in the giant metal crate. They slammed into the crate’s back wall, and the force of their collision tipped the crate over so that the opening now faced the ceiling. Superman rammed the creature’s head into the crate over and over. It flailed and wailed, but didn’t submit.

“GRRAHH!” Superman kept at his work, but this time the creature, the side of its faced matted with blue blood, slid to the side and slipped out of Superman’s grip. It whirled around and Superman got one look at its wrecked, gushing face before its fist landed right on the side of Superman’s head. The hero grunted as the creature slammed him face-first into the metal wall. The creature’s hands gripped Superman’s wrists and twisted his arms into a pretzel behind him. Superman arched his back and stuck out his chest, trying to counteract the hold, but the creature only bent his arms further. Superman grunted. His joints lit up with a dull throb, his mammoth muscles all that was keeping the creature from ripping his arms from his sockets. As strong as they were, his arms felt as though they were being stretched to the breaking point.

Then he got an idea. Taking a cue from his opponent, Superman lowered his head and then flung it backward, catching the creature in its face. The hold broke, and Superman used his window of opportunity to spin the creature around and wrap his powerful arms around its head, clamping it in a sleeper hold.

The creature let out a wail that made Superman’s insides quiver. It tried to grab at Superman, but he held fast, applying increasing pressure to the creature’s windpipe. The creature groaned. Its hands batted Superman’s forearms, trying to peel them off. It began to sag in Superman’s grip. Soon the monster lost its footing. Superman got on his knees and let it droop to the floor, still applying pressure. It let out one last moan, pawed weakly at Superman’s arms, and went limp. Superman slowly eased his grip and let the creature, breathing feebly, collapse onto the floor.

Superman leaned against the wall, still in a sitting position.  He rubbed his arms.  The monster had done a number on him. Even now they tingled with a dim fire where the creature had twisted them behind his back.

Superman leaned forward and lifted one of the creature’s massive arms. Even unclenched, it was hard as marble. It was bigger even than Superman’s, if not so dense. Veins ran over it like a thousand tiny rivers, streaking the sickly grey skin with rivulets of blue and purple. On the underside of the forearm was a network of holes and track-marks, not unlike ones Superman had seen on certain drug addicts. Mounds of curled grey flesh marked the entrance points. Superman’s eyes glazed over in thought.

He heard police sirens in the distance and lifted his head. It was a shame he had little to show the boys in blue, but Superman had a feeling this case wasn’t over.

--

Black pants. Black shirt. Black mask and black gloves. Fake gun at his side. He had seen this a million times before. In order to become a hero, one had to make sacrifices. They would all love him.  This was part of the process. Superman, Superman, Superman…

--

The Daily Planet was a whirlwind. The click-clock of wingtip shoes rang against the marble floors and phones rang like a flock of angry locusts. Metropolis’ finest news source never stopped, and this was a slow day.

Clark Kent, easily filling out a blue three-piece suit, sat as his desk. The wooden chair he was sitting on creaked under his weight, but everyone was too busy to notice. He adjusted his glasses and began to work on a story about a new mystery drug on the Metropolis streets when…

Bam! A hand hit his desk. He looked up. “Smallville!” Lois shouted, her dark eyes sharp and alert.  “White’s office. Now. Robbery at Metropolis’ First.”

She walked briskly into the din, never turning her head or stopping to let someone pass. Clark stood up and followed. A robbery. He might be needed.

Perry White was leaning back in his chair, watching live news coverage of the robbery.  There were hostages, and a masked man. White lowered his eyes and bent forward. “Kent, Lane.” His voice was firm. “One of you needs to get down to the First Bank of Metropolis. Second robbery in eight days. Big headline: Not For the First Time: Superman Saves City’s Favorite Bank. Huge winner. Readership up three percent. Make your cases.”

Lightning-quick, Lois fired back. “What makes you think that Superman’s gonna save the day?”

“That’s what he does.  Next.”

Lois began to speak, but Clark beat her by a hair. “I’ve been doing a piece on the bank’s security, sir. I know it inside and out.”

Lois turned. “You’ve been doing that piece on the new super-drug.”

“Yes, but it involves the bank. The men who robbed it last week are involved with its trafficking.”

“Oh, whatta load of bullsh…”

“I’ve heard enough.” White shuffled some papers on his desk and looked Clark in the eye. “Get down to the bank. Lois…” he said as she started to protest.  “Have the mayor’s interview on my desk by four. Dismissed.”

“Thank you, sir.” Clark zoomed out of the room so fast you’d think he was superhuman.

--

The security guard was bleeding. There was a brown-red gash about the size of a golf ball torn into the side of his forehead.

Gunther looked around. A group of frightened customers huddled behind the counter. One bank teller, a young woman, was crying softly a few feet away, cradling the security guard’s head in her lap.  The bank manager, a stern but shaken women with short blond hair, tried again to make her case. “Please, sir…” she said. “We’ll open the safe for you. Just don’t hurt anyone else. We’ll give you what you want and…”

“Quiet!” The manager shrunk to the floor. Gunther intimidated her; he had seen himself reflected in the bank’s dark marble walls. He filled out every inch of his black sweatshirt and jeans. Even covered head to toe, the fabric still outlined his large muscles, moreso when he moved. The security guard had shoulders nearly half the width of Gunther’s. When the man had tried to club him over the head, Gunther had reacted without thinking. He’d spun around and smacked the man with the heel of his hand. Now the man was dying.

Gunther shifted in place. The mask tickled and made him want to sneeze. “Now listen!” he yelled as he faced the huddled group in the back of the bank. “No one needs to get hurt. This isn’t about you. We just need to wait.”

The crying bank teller looked up. “No one needs to get hurt?” she hissed, the security guard’s head still in her lap. “Look what you’ve done! Thomas might die!” Gunther didn’t move. His damn mask itched so much… “You’re a thug!” She looked right at him. “Superman will save us from scum like you!”

The mask still itched, but now it didn’t matter. Gunther took a few heated breaths. He clenched his fists. The teller looked down.

“Don’t…” he began, taking a step toward her, “talk about Superman.” He took another step, his boots echoing off the marble floor. The teller wrapped her arms tightly around the security guard. “Don’t tell me…” he breathed, “about Superman.” He bent over to look at her.  “You don’t know what he wants. GOT IT?” Gunther’s yell filled the room. The hostages flinched. The teller didn’t move. She looked at Gunther, her big blue eyes wet with tears.

And then she was looking past Gunther. She smiled, and cried again. Gunther turned around.

It was just like he’d imagined it.

Superman wasn’t standing. He was hovering inches above the hard floor, his arms crossed over his massive chest. The blue fabric of his suit hugged his legs, his body, and his arms, making every enormous muscle pop with power. His red cape, the shade of which Gunther had long tried to duplicate, hung over his wide shoulders, billowing behind him as he hung in the air. He looked at Gunther with clear, deeply set blue eyes. Gunther gasped.

Superman extended a hand. “Give me your weapon, son.” He said. “Let these people go.”

Gunther didn’t move. Somewhere, a woman whimpered.

“Don’t make this difficult,” Superman said. “I can take that weapon away faster than you can blink. The police are waiting outside. You’d best make this easy on yourself.”

Gunther slowly moved his gloved hand toward the replica gun at his side. He lifted the flap of the holster, fingered the weapon, and slowly drew it out. He held the replica in his palm, and extended his hand to Superman…

…who took the gun and crushed it into a ball. Gunther stood slack-jawed.  Superman dropped the jagged ball of iron onto the floor, where it landed with a loud ping. Superman spread his arms wide and addressed the hostages, never taking his eyes off Gunther.  “You are now all safe.  The situation is under control.” His voice was deep and rich. “Please file out the front doors where law enforcement officers will assist you. I will mind the perpetrator until everyone has been removed to safety.”

The hostages didn’t need coaxing. They filed quickly past Gunther and Superman, their fear gone. The bank teller and another employee supported the security guard between them as he limped toward the exit. As she passed, the teller flashed Superman a tearful smile. “Thank you. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, ma’am.” Superman was still looking at Gunther, and Gunther looked back. Soon, all the hostages had filed out onto the street, and the two were left alone. Superman alighted on the floor.

“That was amazing.” Gunther said in a rush of breath. “Truly amazing. You’re amazing.”

Superman allowed himself the tiniest of smiles. “Thank you.” He said. “Now please follow the hostages out the door. Walk in front of me. The more cooperative you are now, the easier it will be for you in court.”

Superman reached toward Gunther’s shoulder. “Wait, please!” Gunther gasped. Superman hesitated. “I mean… I just wanted to meet you.” The massive hand was still. “To see you.” Gunther reached up and grabbed a hold of his ski mask. He pulled it over his head, revealing his mat of grizzled, chestnut-brown hair and spotty, unshaven beard “I just wanted to see you,” Gunther repeated, and reached out a hand to touch Superman’s chest.

Superman grabbed hold of Gunther’s wrist. “Please turn yourself over to the police or I will be forced to move you.”

“Wait! No, just… just let me say something…” Gunther’s looked at his hero, pleading, and Superman gently let go. Gunther nursed his wrist briefly before looking up. “You’re my hero.” Gunther blurted. “The good you do. The power you have. It’s everything I want, everything I’ve ever tried to be. Ever since I saw you on TV rescuing that woman from the helicopter, I knew my destiny. I moved to Metropolis to be near you. I’ve worked to become more like you, to live up to your example, and I just wanted, just once... to see you. In person. Up close.” Gunther looked Superman up and down, from his crushing quads to his massive pecs. “To see you...”

Everything was still. Gunther gazed at Superman adoringly, and Superman, his eyes narrowed, looked back.

And then Superman turned to the side and laughed. It was a one small laugh, almost closer to a snort, but it hit Gunther like a gong. His hero was happy. “You know,” Superman said, with a small slim grin, “There are other ways to see me. I received the key to the city last week in Metropolis square. You could have come to the ceremony.”

“No, that wouldn’t do.” Gunther could feel his eyes watering for happiness. “It had to be personal. I had to…” Gunther took one step backward. “I had to see your power.” Superman towered before him in an explosion of blue and red. It was overwhelming. The superhero stood well over six feet tall, a dense wall of unbreakable muscle. Superman’s hands moved toward his hips, and his pectorals widened with gaping might. Gunther could barely speak for the thrill of it.

“I use my power to help others. That’s what it’s there for.”

“Yes, of course.” Gunther sputtered. “You use your power like a hero. You should. But it’s still yours. It’s you. You’re Superman.” Gunther hesitantly touched Superman’s right hand. Superman did not stop him. “This fist… this is the fist that pummeled Darkseid’s army into submission.” Gunther gingerly touched the hero’s abdomen. “Bullets bounce right off your stomach, like they’re ping-pong balls. We… they… people, we don’t have that power. People get winded running up stairs. But you…” Gunther pressed his hand against his hero’s warm marble stomach. He closed his eyes and whispered. “…you can move worlds.”

Gunther opened his eyes. Superman was staring at him, his smile gone. Gunther peeled his hand away from his hero’s stone-hard stomach.

“What is it you want, son?”

Gunther replied slowly. “To feel your power.  I mean… just for a second, to touch it, you. To know…”

Sirens were blaring outside. The hostages had assembled and were being questioned by police.  Several uniformed officers stood at the entrance to the bank, waiting but not anxious for the perpetrator to exit. After all, he was with Superman, and Superman would know what to do.

Superman looked down at Gunther. “You know that you must still give yourself up to the police.” He said quietly. “You have broken the law.”

“I know!” Gunther pressed his hands together. “Oh, I know! I’ll take my medicine, but first, oh please, oh please, Superman. Just a touch…”

Superman was still for another moment. Then Superman raised his right arm into a flex. His bicep peaked against the blue fabric of his suit. It popped into the air and stood erect before Gunther’s unbelieving eyes. Superman gazed down at the mortal beneath him.

Gunther tore off his right glove and moved his hand, hesitantly, toward Superman’s bicep. He prodded it first with his fingers, then cupped it with his hand. It was warm steel. Gunther squeezed it slightly, and marveled that it did not give nor move. It held fast, and it held strong, and it held forever. It was a ball of energy made mass, and Gunther shuddered to touch it.

“It’s amazing.” Gunther breathed. “My God, my God…” Gunther tightened his grip. “I’m sorry.”

Then Gunther sunk his fingers into the iron flesh. With his other hand he gripped Superman’s thigh. With a great heave, he lifted the Man of Steel off the ground, over his head, and threw him with all of his might toward the entrance to the bank. Superman crashed through the bank’s revolving door, bowled over several spectators, and smashed into a police car. Metal flew through the air. People screamed and ran. Sirens blared, and Gunther stepped out of the bank. He pulled his black mask over his head and advanced.

Superman was on his back amid the wreckage of what had moments before been a police car. He lifted his head and saw the man in the mask; he was tall, over six feet, and had a powerful frame. He might be an alien. He might be a robot. Superman didn’t know, but he was strong and he was a threat. His thigh ached where the man had grabbed it. He stood up. “Who are you?”

Gunther didn’t answer. He pulled back his fist and aimed a punch at Superman’s head. Superman dodged left and jabbed Gunther in the jaw. Gunther’s head snapped back. Would that he could bottle that snap and treasure it forever. Gunther punched with his other hand and Superman caught his fist. The two men grabbed the other’s shoulders with their free hands.

Superman dug his feet into the pavement. He strained his arms and bore into Gunther’s body, trying to topple him. Gunther pressed back and did not budge. The two men were close enough to hear each other breathe. Gunther looked into Superman’s eyes. He tensed his back, planted his feet, and gripped tight. He pushed against Superman with all the power he could muster. Superman pushed back, his breath coming in short puffs, but soon found himself bending backward. He readjusted his feet, pushed anew, and was bent again.

Then there was a bright brutal light and Gunther flew backward. He landed with a clash on the steps of the bank. Gunther’s black shirt was ripped open where Superman’s heat vision had torn into him, revealing his meaty, hairy chest. His skin sizzled red at the point of impact. He looked up.  Superman stood several feet away. His eyes glowed a dim orange, and there was sweat on his brow. He hand was pressed to the shoulder where Gunther had grabbed him. People were watching from a distance, afraid.

Gunther rose to his feet and looked Superman in his deep blue eyes. Then he turned and sprinted up the street. People gasped and parted before him.  Gunther heard Superman yell—“Stop!"—and heard the flap of his cape as he lifted off the ground.

Gunther ran straight into the mouth of a subway station, tumbled down the escalator, broke through a turn-style, and rolled onto the stone floor below. To his right was a long dark subway tunnel.  To his left were a group of about ten people standing on the platform waiting for their train; they turned to look at him. He turned around, ignoring them. He itched under his mask. He felt hot all over, and his hands were trembling.

                 

“Stop this now.” Superman demanded as he glided down the staircase and landed on the platform. For a moment there was silence while the bystanders stood by and stared. Gunther made a right fist. “Stop this now. Let these people go.”

“They can go.” Gunther said. “They can all go. Except for you. You’re coming with me.”

Superman’s never broke eye contact. “Everybody please leave,” he said. “It’s not safe.” Gunther drank in Superman’s eyes. At the bank they had been calm, unafraid—amused, even. Now they were slits. Now they were flashing with a dancing orange light.

People scrambled off the platform and up to the main street, and the two men were left alone.  A shiver ran up Gunther’s herculean body, and he smiled. Very soon he would crush Superman with his own two hands.

Neither man moved. Down the tunnel Gunther heard the distant wail of an approaching train. An express, he knew. “I’ll ask again,” Superman said. “Who are you?” The train was getting closer.

Gunther took a breath.  “My name is Gunther.”

“And what is it you want, Gunther?” Superman took a step forward, ready to settle the matter with force. The train rumbled closer, a wail of steel on steel.

“My name is Superman.” Gunther said, and he leapt off the platform and onto the track. He planted his feet and threw out his arms to catch the oncoming train. “Just watch!”

What happened next happened very quickly. The train roared toward Gunther, and Superman yelled out “No!” Gunther felt Superman’s great arms wrap around his middle and shove him out of the way into the concrete wall. The first car blasted by, barely missing the pair of them. Gunther immediately took Superman’s head in his hands, and shoved it backward. A car banged into the back of the superhero’s head with enough force to give anyone else an instant lobotomy. Then another hit him. And then another and another and another. Superman’s head bounced back and forth. He grit his teeth as if to grind them to knubs. His grip on Gunther slackened just the smallest bit, and Gunther leaned forward and ground the hero’s body against the passing train. Car after car screeched against Superman’s body, but all he could do was push back enough to prevent Gunther from toppling over him and train both.

The train finally flew past, and Superman had time to let out one quick breath of relief. Then Gunther landed a powerful right hook to his face. Superman grunted. Gunther sunk his fist into Superman’s stomach. Superman groaned, and bent forward. Gunther clamped his hands together and brought them down on top on Superman’s back, and the hero smashed face-first onto the concrete. Superman put his palms on the pavement, trying to rise, but before he could Gunther smashed his booted foot into the back of Superman’s head, and the Man of Steel’s face crashed through the floor.

Gunther stomped again. And again. And again and again. Superman’s face started to go numb, but in passing he felt firm fingers pulling back his hair, yanking him upright. A warm slab of muscle slid in front of his neck, and another clamped down on the back of his head. They squeezed with incredible force, and Superman knew he was in a sleeper hold. “No.” He grunted, and the weakness in his voice scared him. “No.” He kicked his legs, and the slabs clamped down harder.  He tried to pry Gunther’s arms off his neck, but already he saw spots. He twisted his body, one way then the other, breathing out a long low moan, trying and failing to jerk his head out of Gunther’s grip. Then the color began to drain from his sight, and his arms slackened. And then the subway became grey, and then black. Darkness took the Man of Steel.

--

Superman squeezed his eyes. He felt pain through his forehead, a persistent dull throb. He sniffed, and pursed his lips. What happened?

He felt something soft under his back, and it occurred to him that he was laying down. The man in the mask. Gunther. Superman raised his eyelids slowly. A room splintered into a thousand points of light, a kaleidoscopic image slowing take shape.

Gunther could be anywhere. He could be hurting someone. I have to stop him. The room settled. It was dark and the walls were painted a faded white color. A little light streamed in from a small window above his head. Superman tried to move his right arm and felt something tug on his wrist.

He snapped his head to the side. His wrist was bound with rope, to a wooden poll. A bedpost. He pulled again, but neither the rope nor the bedpost gave. He jerked his legs and found that they too were bound, as was his left wrist. He lifted his head and suddenly saw that he was naked, his hulking, muscular body laid bare on its back in a strange room on a strange bed. He squirmed for a moment but could not break his bonds, and then he saw Gunther.

Gunther was standing in a corner of this small, dim room with his back to the bed. He had on red boots. He was wearing a pair of blue tights over his thick thighs and tight red shorts over his muscular buttocks. A thin blue fabric Superman would have recognized anywhere was stretched taut over his wide back and shoulders, and when Gunther turned around Superman saw plainly his own great yellow ‘S’ spread across Gunther’s barreled chest. All he was missing was the cape. Gunther broke into a wide smile. “You’re awake!”

Gunther had shaved his beard and combed back his dark hair. His skin remained pale and splotchy, and his wide-set brown eyes retained their mania, but he looked cleaner than before.

He wore Superman’s suit as if he had been born into it; it hugged his muscular body like a second skin, and if anything seemed slightly too small. Veins on Gunther’s arms pressed dimly through the sleeves, and the great ‘S’ dipped and creased where Gunther’s pecs met in the middle of his chest. Gunther walked to the bedside and looked down. He was grinning. “You’re awake!”

“Gunther.” Superman found it challenging to collect his thoughts. “What are you doing?”

“I beat you!” Gunther said. “I knew I would. I’m not like Superboy or the Annihilator. I really beat you.”

“Gunther, you’ve got to let me go. There are people out there who need me. People who need my help.”

“Oh, they’ll get it. None of them will ever be in danger again. I’ll do you proud, I swear.”

Dread, hot and heavy, began to pool in Superman’s stomach. “Gunther, what do you mean?”

“I’m going to replace you, Superman.” Gunther continued to smile pleasantly, as if he had just remarked on the weather. “I was always going to replace you. Ever since I first saw you on the news, I knew my destiny.” Gunther turned around and walked toward a bureau on the wall opposite the foot of the bed. He picked up a folded piece of red fabric Superman recognized instantly as his own cape. “I was in a bad way back then. I didn’t know where I belonged. But seeing you save that woman…well, it pointed the way for me.” Gunther began to unfold the cape in his hands.  “I trained day and night.  I got bigger and stronger, so big and strong that I could take you down.” Superman tugged on the ropes binding him the bed. He cast his eyes around the room, looking for something he could use to escape.

Gunther unfolded the cape completely and let the end of it drop to the floor. Superman saw a glint of silver on his right hand. “Not that you needed to be taken down. You’re a great hero. You’re my hero.” Gunther turned around and stood to his full height. He threw the cape out behind him and set the narrow end between his broad shoulders. The rest curled down Gunther’s back in a majestic sweep, and Superman felt he could be looking into a funhouse mirror. “But it’s time that I have my chance.”

The two men stared at each other for a moment as the cape settled at Gunther’s feet. “Gunther, you can’t do this.”

“I already have, Superman.” He moved once again toward the bedside. “After the people have accepted me, you’ll see this was all for the best.  I’m honored to take up your standard, and I promise to protect the world just like you would. Better—you’ll see.”

“No!” Superman pulled at his bonds. He thrashed about the bed, his great muscles pulling uselessly on the rope. He strained until beads of sweat dampened his forehead, but the ropes wouldn’t budge. “No…”

“You can’t escape, Superman. I’ve planned a long time for this.” Gunther walked back to the bureau and opened a drawer. He reached inside and pulled out a rock. He held it up. It was small, no bigger than a penny, and it gave off a faint green glow. Superman’s mouth went dry. “Got it while I was janitor at LexCorp.” Gunther moved closer, and Superman turned his face away. “They have a whole wing just for researching you, did you know that? One of the scientists there, he was friendly with me. He had a thing for muscles.” Gunther curled one of his arms into a flex.  His bicep blasted out against the blue fabric of the suit. “All I had to do was flex for him. Once was all it took, and he would do just about anything I asked. I guess you know what that’s like.”

Gunther put the kryptonite back in the drawer. “Anyway, that should keep you from getting free. And don’t worry, Superman: I’m not weak to that stuff, and I’ll make sure Lex Luthor pays for everything he’s done.” Gunther loomed over the bed and looked at Superman with wide, warm eyes.  “It’s a new beginning, hero.” He turned and headed for the door opposite the bed.

“Wait!” Superman gasped. Gunther turned around. “Gunther, if I’m really your hero, then let me go. There are things out there you’re not ready for. There are things that take…”

“A Superman?” Gunther stood in the door a moment, filling out every inch of the red-and-blue suit. “That’s what I am.” He left the room and closed the door behind him.

--

“What do you have for me, Lane?”

Lois Lane, smartly dressed in a sharp red power suit and black skirt, flipped through her notepad. “Last night, Metropolis PD found a pimp and four prostitutes buried inside a collapsed building on the south side. Only one survived.” She flipped a page. “Early this morning the cops found Vinnie Denozzo, that drug kingpin we’d been tracking, outside the station. Three of his four limbs were broken and his nose was bashed in. He’s in critical condition.” Another flip.  “And we just got a report that a police chase ended when a car carrying stolen merchandise flew off Interstate 55 and crashed into a tenement building...four blocks away. It had to be the Superfake.”

Perry White sighed at Lois from across his desk. “You might wanna stop calling him that.”

“Well, I’m certainly not calling him Superman! Some stranger can’t just show up sporting the suit and not expect us to call him on it, can he?”

“I just mean that in light of how touchy it makes him…”

“I don’t give a damn how touchy it makes him. Are we here to report the news or aren’t we?  What are you, afraid of him?”

“When he threatens to hurt my reporters, yeah, I’m afraid of him.”

Lois held her tongue. She sat back in her chair and exhaled slowly. “Sorry. I know it’s dangerous but it’s a risk worth taking. The name Superman means something in this town, and this guy’s no Superman. He’s killing criminals left and right, not to mention any innocent bystanders who get caught in the cross-fire. This isn’t a guy Metropolis can rally behind. He’s a dangerous head-case and the city needs to know.”

Perry leaned over his desk. “Have you learned anything new about him?”

“Not much. We haven’t been able to find any friends, family, anyone that knows him. Still don’t know how he got hold of that suit, either, or where the real Superman is.” Lois lowered her head. “We will, though.”

“I know you’ll do what you need to do, Lane. But watch your back. This guy is dangerous.”

“I will.” Lois stood up. “I just wish I could watch out for everyone else.”

--

“You sure this place is safe, boss?”

Castiggliani and two of his armed bodyguards stood at the far end of a warehouse. Meatpacking district this time. It was very early in the morning. Behind them, another man stood next to a great metal crate.

“Safe as we’re gonna get. No one in the department knows we’re here, anyway.”

“And what, if… uh… what if HE shows up?”

“Well, then we’re probably fucked. But Superfake don’t seem like the brightest bulb in the box. Probably smashing up s’more skyscrapers in the name of truth, justice, and whatever the hell.” Castiggliani turned around and eyed the man near the crate. “Now where the fuck is Frank? He was supposed to meet us on site two hours before the sale.”

A crash, so loud Castiggliani could feel it in his chest, burst from the back of the warehouse. The wall near the crate had exploded, and battered bits of brick clattered on the ground and flew overhead. A thick dust filled the air, and Castiggliani put his hands over his face to shield himself. Through his fingers he saw a hulking, muscular man walk through a hole in the wall. The man held Castiggliani’s bodyguard, Frank, himself a well-built man, by the throat, using only one hand. He let go, and Frank, bloody and beaten and barely moving, fell to the floor with a grunt. The man stepped forward. He was pale, with wild, sunken eyes and a head of dark, think hair, haphazardly combed and tossed round by the wind. He was wearing Superman’s suit and filled out every inch of it, but of course he wasn’t Superman. Castiggliani looked up and Gunther and frowned. Great.

Gunther spoke in a raspy tenor, a voice slightly too high-pitched for a man his size. “End of the line, Castiggliani. Your life of crime is over.”

Castiggliani’s bodyguards hefted their weapons and took aim. “No, boys.” Castiggliani said. “Superman here’s got us beat.”

The guards looked sideways at their boss, blinking away the settling dust. Gunther’s next threat caught in his throat. Frank remained on the floor, and bled. Castiggliani admonished his men with a wave of his hands. “Well, what are you waiting for? Lay down your arms. On the ground.  Superman…” Castiggliani turned to look at Gunther, who looked back with mouth slightly ajar. “We’ll go quietly.”

The men put their guns on the ground. Gunther, still slack-jawed, took one half-step forward, cocked his head, and spoke. “Good!” He said, finally. “Yes. Now, uh, turn around.”

Castiggliani turned in place. His guards looked at one another under furrowed brows, but they slowly followed suit. They all heard Gunther’s blue boots pad the floor behind them, and soon Gunther was behind the guard on Castiggliani’s left. Gunther pulled the guard’s hands behind his back and began to lash his wrists together with a length of rope.

Castiggliani took a deep breath. “I was beginning to think I would never be caught, Superman.”  Gunther continued to bind the guard’s wrists. “The police, your predecessor. No one could ever quite get it done. Not until now.”

Gunther continued his work. “It’s what I’m here to do.”

“Of course, of course. Good job.” Gunther pulled the rope taut around the guard’s wrists and pushed him gently from behind so that he fell to his knees. Gunther walked toward Castiggliani and took hold of the Mafioso’s wrists. “A good job indeed. Will the police be swooping in soon to take us to our just rewards, then?”

Gunther brought Castiggliani’s wrists together. “Yeah. Eventually. After I call them.”

“You mean they didn’t come with you?”

“The police…” Gunther held on to Castiggliani’s wrists.  “They don’t work with me.”  He put another length of rope into place and slowly began to bind Castiggliani in place.

“Don’t work with you?” Castiggliani asked, his voice rising with concern. “But you’ve brought down more criminals in the past month than the last Superman did in a year. You’re wiping the city clean, by gum.”

Gunther had stopped tying Castiggliani’s wrists. “I am.” Gunther said. “I’m the best thing that ever happened to this city. I’m the hero of the people.” Castiggliani heard Gunther take a deep breath and felt the exhalation on the back of his neck.  “The hero of the people.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Castiggliani saw one of his guards crack a small smile. He continued to press what was swiftly becoming one of the easiest sells of his life. “Never a truer statement, my boy.  Never a truer statement. Why just yesterday I saw on the news…”

“The news!” Gunther spit, and he let Castiggliani’s wrists fall from his hands. “They don’t understand me at all. It’s destruction this, menace that.” Gunther walked in front of Castiggliani and turned around to face him. His cape swept behind him in the wake of the turn, and his muscled torso looked about as permeable as a castle wall. But when Castiggliani looked up into Gunther’s big, watery brown eyes, he saw a child, one of those suckers born every minute he spent swaths of his day defrauding. “And that Lane bitch.”  Gunther made a fist. “She has it in for me. Doesn’t appreciate what I’m doing for this city. For her city. I should teach her a lesson one of these days.

Gunther clapped his balled fist into his cupped hand, and a shot like a bombshell rang out, shaking dust from the rafters. Guide this one carefully, thought Castiggliani, or your head’s a zit. “What they need to see,” said Castiggliani, slowly and with a kind smile, “is you taking down more criminals.”

“I’ve done that!” Gunther spread his arms, and Castiggliani noted a silver ring on his right hand.  “And it doesn’t help! They hate me! The don’t even call me…”

“Superman,” Castiggliani said, calmly. “I might be able to help you.”

--

Perry White and Lois Lane stared at each other from across White’s desk. Lois had her arms folded across her chest. Perry leaned back in his chair. He put his elbow on his desk and rested his chin in his hand. “Lane…”

“No!” Lois shouted, rising to her feet. “No. I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say that we can’t print this.” She gestured to an article that lay on Perry’s desk. “That it’s too dangerous, too risky, that we could all be killed.  Right?” Perry looked her in the eye. “And I say no! Since when have we ever, in the history of this paper, not run something because it was too dangerous, too risky? We cannot let this happen to our paper, Perry! We cannot let this happen to our city!”

“Lois, you want to run a front page article suggesting that this Superman, or whomever he may be, is in league with Gino Castiggliani, the mobster. That he’s been tricked into doing the man’s bidding, eliminating his competition, an unwitting pawn of organized crime.”

“And that he’s a world-class moron. Yeah, I do. And it’s all true.”

“I believe you. I’ve no doubt that it is all true, and that’s the reason we should think twice before printing it. Lois, if the Superfake is in Castiggliani’s pocket, and they see this, he will send the guy after us, after you.”

“So what then? You want us to lay low until the threat has passed, to ignore injustice until it’s too late to stop it?”

“What I want,” Perry said, and his voice rose to match Lois’, “is for you to live long enough to write another story.”

Lois stared at Perry for a long moment. She sat down, lifted her head, and stared at the ceiling. “Oh, God,” she said. “Where is Superman?”

--

Gunther unlocked the door. He had put a black sweatshirt on over his super-suit, but Castiggliani could still see the blue fabric poking out of his sleeves. “Come in,” he said.

“Thanks.” Castiggliani stepped over the threshold and into a small, gray stairwell. He had driven here alone. It wasn’t his normal policy, especially not when he was coming this far north into the city slums, but Gunther had insisted on discretion.

The entranceway was dank. The wallpaper was peeling, and there was a great brown blotch on the ceiling where the plaster was peeling away. “Is this you?” Castiggliani asked, indicating a door at the bottom of a short staircase. Gunther nodded, and opened the door to his apartment.

Castiggliani stepped through and immediately had to resist the urge to press a handkerchief to his face. The place was full of mildew and dust. The room he had entered was small, with hardwood floors that had streaks of rot running across them. Against the rightward wall, there was a stove, a refrigerator, and a sink, but no table or counter. The walls were mostly bare, except for a full-length mirror propped against an empty fireplace on the far end of the room. A weight bench was pushed up against the leftward wall and barbells of varying sizes littered the floor. There was also a dresser in the far right corner of the room, and next to it another door. Castiggliani was very interested in this door, but didn’t say so.

“Nice place.” Castiggliani said. “How long have you lived here?”

“Since I moved to the city.” Gunther walked in front of Castiggliani and paced the length of the room. “Eight… nine years ago. There used to be people living above me, but they’re gone now.” He continued to pace the floor, and Castiggliani noted that he was clenching and unclenching his fists.

I have to be careful, Castiggliani thought. Twitchy fucker like this, he’s as likely to let me in as smear me across the wall.

Castiggliani had gotten to know that about Gunther over the past several weeks. The boy was eager to please, but guarded. Over time, Castiggliani had dragged Gunther’s life story out of him, or most of it. He’d grown up in some one-horse town in Kansas, the child of a barfly mother and an absentee father. He was slow and clumsy, and didn’t have any friends. After he saw Superman on the news, he became obsessed, and left for the big city as soon as he was strong enough.

As soon as he was strong enough. That was the key. Gunther seemed to think he’d gained his great strength by working out and eating right, but any sane man could see there was more to it. His power was the touchiest topic of all. Gunther was very quick to shoot down suggestions that it was the result of anything but his own effort (too quick, the mobster thought), so Castiggliani had to be very careful with what he said and how he said it.

He had a working theory, though, and it didn’t have anything to do with Gunther’s passion to weightlifting. Not for the first time, he eyed the silver ring on Gunther’s right hand.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t come up through the sewer with you,” Castiggliani said. “Don’t have the legs for it.” He walked toward an entranceway on the left wall, through which he could see an old washer and dryer. There was a large hole in the floor. “This is how you brought him in?”

“Yes!” Gunther went and stood behind Castiggliani. The mobster couldn’t see it, but he knew Gunther was smiling. “That was all part of my plan. I made that hole just so I could get him in without being seen. I knew there was a sewer line right below the building, and after I beat him I brought him right back here!”

“Well done, Superman.” Castiggliani turned around. He had been right—Gunther was grinning.  “You know you’ve got a first class brain to go along with that brawn. We should put that to better use.”

Gunther lowered his eyes and laughed under his breath, and Castiggliani knew that the tide had turned.

“So,” Castiggliani said, “you’ll be happy to hear that my men have tracked down the location of Chucky E, of the South Street Gang. We think he’s holed up in the back of a speakeasy in Old Town, surrounded by his armed guards. He’s the only boss they have left, so they’re taking no chances. We’re planning a raid in a few hours—Granddad and some of our new crew should be moving into position right now. It’ll be dangerous, and you’ve already helped us out so much already, but I was wondering …”

“Of course!” Gunther said. “Let me at ‘em, Mr. Castiggliani! I don’t care if it’s dangerous. Those bullets won’t stop me! I’ll smear that rat on the wall just like the last one!” He clapped his fist into his hand, and there was a boom like a shotgun blast. The mobster still flinched when he did that.

“Fine, my boy, fine. I can see you have a talent for this work.” Gunther beamed, and Castiggliani peered past him to the door in the right corner of the room. Gunther turned his head, and spoke without being prompted.

“That’s where I keep him.” His voice was slow and soft, like he was saying a prayer. “I talk to him every day, whenever I can. I tell him what I’m doing, who I’m stopping, who I’m saving. I tell him about the work I’m doing for him…”

Castiggliani placed a hand on Gunther’s shoulder. “I’m sure he’s very proud of you.” Gunther took a deep breath. “Can I see him?”

Gunther didn’t respond for a moment, and Castiggliani didn’t press the matter. After a moment, Gunther nodded, and Castiggliani prodded him gently in the back. They walked toward the door.  Gunther opened it.

And there he was. No cape, no boots, no suit. Not even underwear. Just Superman, near 300 pounds if he was an ounce, lying on his back, prostrate, his arms and legs bound to the posts of a king-sized bed frame, a black handkerchief tied around the back of his head and wedged deep in his mouth.

Castiggliani smiled, forgetting himself. He had never seen his enemy so defeated, put on display like a piece of meat for the tenderizing. Superman had a vacant look about him—the superhero hadn’t turned his head when they entered the room, but he turned it now. His eyes widened, and Castiggliani mastered his glee.

“Hero.” Gunther moved toward the bedside, and looked down. “I’ve been gone for a while. I hope you’ve been comfortable.” Superman looked over Gunther’s shoulder and locked eyes with Castiggliani, who could not stop grinning. “I’ve brought someone.” Gunther turned around, and Castiggliani let the smile fall from his face like it was a mask. “You know him.”

Castiggliani was not sure if it was fear making Superman’s eyes bulge out like that, but he hoped so. “I do,” he said, glancing downward and careful to keep his tone contrite. “I’ve known Superman for a long while, although it hasn’t been on the best of terms, I’m afraid.” He moved to stand beside Gunther. The sight of his enemy spread out beneath him was almost too much to take, and he beat back the urge to throttle the man there and then. “I want you to know that I’ve turned over a new leaf. Your successor has been an enormous help.”

Castiggliani thought he saw Superman’s eyes bug out another couple of millimeters. “It’s true, hero. He’s the one who’s been helping me take down all the gangsters, and the crooks, and all the bad guys. Luthor will be next. We’re going to clean up the city together!”

In truth, Castiggliani was contemplating a partnership with Luthor, after his immediate competition was taken care of. By all accounts, the business mogul was a shrewd man, and sending a blunt instrument like Gunther against him would not do, although the two of them might be able to find some new uses for him if they put their heads together. “That’s right!” he said.

There was a buzzing in Castiggliani’s pocket, and the mobster reached in to pull out his cell phone. It was his mistress, wondering where he wanted to go for dinner. “It’s Granddad,” Castiggliani said. “They’re getting ready to begin the raid.” He paused, allowing time for Gunther to fill in the blanks.  “Superman,” he said, addressing Gunther, “we’ve got to get to Old Town. It’s time to put the South Street gang down for good.”

Gunther raised himself up to his full height, and nodded. “Right.” He looked down at Superman, who was tossing his head back and forth, pulling at his restraints. “I’ll be back soon, hero. And I’ll have good news!” Gunther bowed his head and closed his eyes. He whispered something under his breath, and smiled. “Goodbye.” He turned and walked out of the room. Castiggliani followed.

Once in the foyer, the mobster clasped Gunther on the shoulders with both hands and thanked him. He thanked him three times.

--

Castiggliani saw Gunther out into the street before insisting that the deluded freak go on ahead. “Granddad’s expecting you,” he said. “I’ll meet you there.” And then, off the uncertainty in Gunther’s eyes. “I can’t move like a superhero moves.”

Flattery smoothed over Gunther’s doubts. The man-child nodded and darted down the alley next to his apartment building. When he emerged, he was sporting Superman’s blue-and-red suit—by now, it was spattered with brown and grey here and there, but still intact. Castiggliani watched him bound away south, each jump a mile, before finally letting the joy wash over him. He closed his eyes and soaked it in.

After calling Granddad and warning him who was on the way, Castiggliani turned his attention to Gunther’s door. Picking the lock was easy—that was a skill Castiggliani had perfected in the days before he had become a monster. Hell, he’d perfected that before becoming a third-grader, and this lock was not of a very high quality. Anybody could have just walked right in here, he reflected, but I’m the one doing it.

Superman was where Castiggliani had left him: tied up and helpless. When the hero saw that Castiggliani had come back alone, he struggled against his bonds, and the mobster felt himself become hard in his pants. No one—not his wife or mistress or girlfriend—could have excited him like this.

The first thing Castiggliani did was rifle through Gunther’s dresser drawers until he found the small shard of kryptonite Gunther had told him about. He held it in his hand for a moment, admiring the soft glow, before passing it over the prostrate Man of Steel like a metal detecting wand. Sure enough, the hero’s eyes rolled into the back of his head the closer the stone came to his body, and Castiggliani grinned at the possibilities. He placed the shard on top of Gunther’s dresser.

“God almighty, is that boy dumb,” Castiggliani said. “I’ve got bags of fertilizer in my garage smarter than him.” Castiggliani removed his coat, and went to stand by the bedside. “But look who I’m talking to. He talks to you every day. Every day, he said. Oh, you poor man.” Castiggliani reached down and began to undue the restraint binding Superman’s right wrist to the bedpost. Superman stared up at him. “Then again, you’re the palooka who got his ass handed to him. Maybe you’re no Einstein, neither.” Slowly, Castiggliani untied the knots on Superman’s other wrist, his right foot, his left. Superman tried to roll out of the bed on the side opposite Castiggliani, but the big man grabbed him and rolled him back over. “Maybe you’re just a big, dumb fuck who doesn’t know when to… shit…” Castiggliani grunted as he wrapped his arms around Superman’s body, hauling the battered superhero onto his feet. Unused or not, those muscles were heavy. “Umf…when to mind his own business. Okay…better?” The two men stood for a moment, Superman swaying back and forth on his feet, his body covered in a sheet of sweat, and Castiggliani smiling, his hands clasped behind his back. He opened his mouth in sudden surprise. “Oh, Superman, I almost forgot.” Castiggliani reached up and yanked the gag out of the Man of Steel’s mouth. It fell limply around his neck.

The hero sputtered. “Cast…”

“Shut up.” The mobster punched Superman hard in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. Superman gasped, and doubled over. Castiggliani grabbed the back of Superman’s hair and pulled him back into a standing position, and then punched him in the gut again. This time he let Superman fall forward onto his hands and knees. Once his face was in striking distance, Castiggliani kneed the superhero in the chin. Superman twisted away from the mobster and collapsed face-down onto the narrow strip of floor between the bed and the wall. Castiggliani bent over.

“Fuck me, Superman, you have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do this.” Castiggliani reached down and slid his arms under Superman’s shoulders, once again heaving the hero onto his feet. Weak as he was, Superman scrambled to find footing, which made Castiggliani’s job a little easier.

Once he was standing up, Castiggliani grabbed the hero by the shoulder and swung him round so that the two were face-to-face. Superman was slick with sweat, and his thick black hair clung to his forehead in greasy strands. Although Superman was a few inches taller than Castiggliani, the way he was hunching over brought the two of them to an equal height.

Superman’s eyes were glassy and unfocused, but Castiggliani still recognized fear. “Dangerous,” Superman sputtered, swaying back and forth. “Gotta stop Gunther. Lemme go…umpff…” Castiggliani clamped a hand over Superman’s mouth and pushed the bigger man back two paces until he was pinned against a wall. With his free hand, Castiggliani made a fist and struck Superman hard in the side. Superman gave a muffled grunt.

The mobster punched Superman in his other side, and heard the hero groan. Then he punched him again, and again and again, beating him about the chest and stomach. With his other hand, Castiggliani clamped down on Superman’s face and banged the back of the hero’s head against the wall. Superman tried to pry Castiggliani off him, and the mobster was delighted to find that he didn’t have anywhere near the required strength.

After beating his prize for a few more moments, Castiggliani tossed Superman face-first onto Gunther’s bed, where he collapsed, parts of his torso turned a splotchy red and his mouth open in a soundless moan. “Oh, this is like Christmas,” Castiggliani said, slightly out of breath. “This is like Christmas and New Year’s and Easter and about 30-hundred birthdays. I should get on my knees and thank that halfwit for giving me this time with you.”

Superman tried to raise himself off the bed, but Castiggliani grabbed the hero’s legs and dragged him toward the wall, so that Superman’s upper body was prostrate on the bed while his butt and legs hung off it, his knees hovering above the floor. Castiggliani stared for a moment at Superman’s glistening ass, two perfect mounds of tanned muscle, before undoing his belt and letting his slacks fall to the floor.

“Remember when you busted my crew on that arms deal a few years back, Superman? The one with the Turks? I went to prison for that job.” Castiggliani pulled down his underpants and let his thick cock fall free. It stood at its full eight-and-a-half inches, harder than Castiggliani could remember it being in years. “I’m afraid I’ve never quite forgiven you for it, although I did pick up a few new moves inside. You’ve been making the criminals of this city your bitch for years. Lemme return the favor.”

Superman reached for the opposite side of the bed, but the mobster held him back. Castiggliani let a big ball of spit fall from his mouth and land on Superman’s lower back. He spread it between the hero’s cheeks, and prodded his anus with a wet finger. Superman jerked his head back and gave a yelp. Castiggliani smiled.

Castiggliani’s cock slid inside Superman easier than he would have expected, although he still had to put it in an inch at a time, pausing after each new push to quiet Superman’s attempts to shake him out. Superman’s resistance only made Castiggliani harder, and he grinned as the last inch of him passed inside, and Superman let out a sound Castiggliani had never expected to hear from him: a wheezing heave of pain through gritted teeth, the sound of a man who was fighting a losing battle for everything he had. Castiggliani felt himself threatening to explode right then and there, so he took a deep breath.

“Easy, bitch,” he said, as he grabbed ahold of Superman’s wet hair. “Relax into it, baby, and you might even enjoy this.” He yanked Superman’s head back, and the hero made a noise that was half-gasp and half-choke. “Because you’re getting fucked, Superman.” He pulled his cock out two inches. “You’re getting fucked hard.” He pushed.

Castiggliani rode Superman rough. There was drool dripping from his mouth as he bent over the hero, crushing him with the weight of his body as he slammed in and out of his tight hole. Superman gasped and heaved throughout, expect for when Castiggliani clapped a hand over his mouth. It was the best sex the mobster could ever remember having.

“Ooohhh…” Castiggliani felt it coming. He let it go, thrusting into Superman and filling him with cum. He lay there for a moment, feeling the heat beneath him, before standing and pulling his penis out with a moist plop.

“Damn, bitch.” He pulled his pants back up. “Goddam. You really know how to make a guy feel special.” Superman didn’t say anything, but he did try to lift his knees back onto the bed. “Still fighting, huh?” Castiggliani chuckled. “I suppose one roll in the hay won’t be enough to break you. Don’t worry: we’ve got time.”

At last, Castiggliani managed to roll Superman onto his back. He was weakened, but he still weighed a lot, and he was using what little energy he had to fight Castiggliani off. One swift punch to the face gave Castiggliani enough time to retie Superman’s limbs to the bedposts. He put the shard of kryptonite back in Gunther’s drawer, and tucked his shirt back into his pants.

“I’ll be coming back, Superbitch. I’ll be coming back as often as I can. You’re over. You’re done. That moron has your suit, and your name, and your power. And I have him.” Castiggliani buckled his belt. “And if I can get that ring off his finger, I won’t even need him anymore. But one way or another, I’ll be ruling this city before long.” Castiggliani leaned in. “Thank you, Superman.” He kissed Superman hard on the mouth.

Castiggliani slapped Superman gently on the face and left the room. He shut the door behind him.

--

Superman lay still a full five minutes before he realized one of his bonds was loose. Castiggliani hadn’t bound his right wrist as tightly to the bedpost as Gunther had, and even in the presence of kryptonite, Superman still found he could wriggle his hand through the knot bit by bit. He did his best to concentrate.

His rectum burned. It was a tight, stinging sensation, but he tried to put it out of his mind. There wasn’t time for that—there was no telling what damage Gunther might have done by now. At last, his sweaty hand slipped free, and he set about untying his other hand, and then his two feet. It was slow, frustrating work. In the presence of kryptonite, his fingers weren’t as strong or dexterous as they had been, and the edges of his vision were blurred. Several times, he had to lay back down to rest. Superman couldn’t say how long he spent prying at the knots—an hour…two, three—but at last, he managed to free all of his limbs.

Superman collapsed over the side of the bed and onto the floor. He had meant to stand up and walk to the door, but found that his legs buckled underneath him. He tried to raise himself up, and the sore spots on his body burned where Castiggliani had beaten him. At last, he pulled himself to a crouching position, and then a standing position. Inch by inch, he made his way to the bedroom door. He opened it and stepped into Gunther’s apartment.

He shoved the door closed behind him and stumbled across the room, sitting down on a weight bench propped against the far wall. He took several deep breaths. With the kryptonite on the other side of the door, his mind was clearer than it had been in weeks, but he was still far from full strength.

His chest heaving, Superman looked around. He hadn’t seen any of this when Gunther had brought him in. The apartment was squalid, and bare. Whether by design or accident, Gunther had hidden him somewhere no one would think to look.

Superman raised his hand to his face and rubbed the spots out of his eyes. Castiggliani had mentioned the ring. Superman had spent the last few months in a fog of pain, but he remembered that Gunther had talked to him, and he had said enough to make Superman suspicious. Whatever Gunther’s ring was, wherever it came from, it would have to figure into whatever plan Superman made to stop him.

But first things first. Superman stood up with a groan and slowly padded his way toward the dresser in the corner of the room, near the bedroom door. He pulled open the drawers, glanced in, and pulled on a pair of baggy grey sweatpants and a tight white tee-shirt. He didn’t bother with shoes or underwear. The first priority had to be getting out.

Superman heard steps, heavy and plodding. His super-hearing hadn’t fully returned, but he thought he recognized them as Gunther’s, returned from wherever Castiggliani had sent him—Superman had spent too long undoing his bonds.

In a panic, he stumbled toward the apartment door. The footsteps were getting closer. He opened the door into a dank little stairwell. I can’t exit onto the street, he thought. He’s too close. In his current state, Superman couldn’t be sure he’d come out on top in a fight. Instead, he shoved the apartment door closed and started to climb the staircase. As he cleared the third flight, he heard the building door open, and Gunther enter his apartment.

Superman kept climbing, past apartments 4A, 5A, 6A, 7A, and finally to a dead end and a metal door. He was panting by the time he stopped. He tried to open the door. It was locked. He threw his body against it. There was a loud clang, and the door budged, but it didn’t open. His side burned. He threw himself against the door again. This time it sprang open, and he tumbled onto the roof.

The air was chilly, although Superman couldn’t say what day of the year it was—time had run together in Gunther’s cage. Superman jumped into the air, trying to fly, and while he rose a few feet higher than the average man would have, gravity pulled him back down, and he fell on his hands and knees. Let Gunther think I’m already gone, Superman thought. I need time. But at that moment, he heard urgent footsteps climbing the stairs. Gunther was coming, and Superman wasn’t ready.

“Hero.” Gunther stepped onto the roof, and Superman backed against the waist-high barrier between the edge of the roof and the empty air. Gunther was wearing Superman’s suit, the red and yellow symbol stretched taut across his broad chest, but it looked horribly wrong. The sleeves were frayed at the wrists, and the blue and red were splotched with brown and grey. Gunther’s hair flapped in the breeze, his eyes wide. “What are you doing?”

“I have to go, Gunther.” Superman took a few steps forward and stood up to his full height, trying to look stronger than he felt. “The city needs me.”

“The city needs ME.” Gunther took a step forward. “It’s always needed me. You have to go back downstairs.”

“Castiggliani is using you, Gunther.”

“My name is Sup…”

“He’s using you to eliminate his competition, and when he manages to get that ring off your finger, he’ll throw you away.” Superman could feel his strength returning to him, a warmth running up and down through his body, but he wasn’t fully recovered yet, not nearly. If he could just buy himself enough time…

“The ring?” Gunther looked past him for a moment. “MY ring?” He glared at his right hand as if betrayed. “My ring has nothing to do with anything. It’s nothing. It’s nothing.”

Gunther began to sway back and forth, staring at his palm. “Where did you get it, Gunther?” Superman asked. “How long have you had it?”

“I…it fell.” Gunther looked up. “It fell from the sky one night. Back in Kansas. It was…it was a gift. But it’s nothing.” He looked back at Superman. “You’re going back downstairs. You’re going to your shrine. I’m Superman now.”

Gunther took another step forward. Superman raised a hand. “It isn’t nothing, Gunther. You say it feel from the sky. That wouldn’t be the first time a piece of alien technology crashed to Earth. It’s the source of your power. You know it. How else could you be as strong as you are?”

“BECAUSE IT’S MY DESTINY!” Gunther’s face contorted into a grimace, and spittle flew from his mouth. He spread his arms. “BECAUSE I WORKED FOR IT! YOU THINK I NEED THIS?” He clamped his left hand over his right ring finger and pulled, grunting. With a twist, he yanked the ring off his hand. He drew his arm back and hurled it into the air. It whizzed by Superman’s face with the force of a bullet, and flew into the distance. “I. Am. Superman!”

With a raspy scream, Gunther charged. Superman planted his feet, but Gunther barreled right over the hero, and Superman found himself falling onto his back, his feet flipping into the air. Superman felt the roof land beneath him, hard. Gunther’s momentum carried him over Superman’s body and over the barrier. Superman rolled over onto his hands and knees, and heard Gunther’s body hit the pavement with a splat. He stood up and looked down.

Gunther had fallen eight stories and landed in the middle of the street. He lay facedown, a splatter of red beneath his prostrate body. He was still.

Superman jumped over the barrier. Still not at full strength, he landed messily, and rolled onto his side before standing up and surveying Gunther’s body. Superman turned Gunther over, and held him in his arms. His suit was now blue and brown and grey, and very red.

--

Once away from the kryptonite, Superman’s full strength quickly returned. He brought Gunther’s body, still wearing his suit, to the coroner, who promised to return it after the autopsy. Superman had other outfits stored at the Fortress of Solitude, so he let Gunther hold onto his garb a while longer.

After a visit to the mayor of Metropolis to announce his safe return, Superman searched the city for Gunther’s ring, fearful of what damage it could do in the wrong hands, but he couldn’t find it.

Within a week, Superman’s rectum stopped burning, but the rape haunted his dreams. One night, over a month after his escape, he was jerked out of sleep by a particularly bad nightmare, and sat straight up in bed to find his broad bare chest glistening with sweat. He searched for the ring again that night, without success. He hoped every day that he’d seen the last of it, but took most every chance he had to renew the search.

Before long, Superman regained his confidence, got back his suit, and soared through the air as beautiful and strong as he’d ever been. He was Superman, and he had good work to do.

Epilogue

It was a chilly Saturday in March, and Lex Luthor should have been in a good mood. LexCorp stock had risen following news of a promising new lymphoma drug, and without Superman around to interfere, Luthor had been able to keep an armed conflict going in western Africa, which meant lots of business for his weapons division.

He drummed his desk with his fingers, only half-concentrating on the quarterly report in front of him. It had been three months since Superman was last seen. He’d been fighting some mysterious figure in black, a figure that no one had been able to track down, much to Luthor’s consternation. The Superfake was leaping around the city, but he’d rebuffed Lex’s attempts to contact him…violently. That was no large mater—the man seemed a simpleton and would be brought to heel soon enough, but what really rankled Luthor was that, wherever the real Superman was being held, it wasn’t Lex Luthor who had put him there.

Luthor finally pushed the report to the edge of his desk and stood to gaze out at his city through his floor-to-ceiling windows. He’d wanted to prove his superiority over Superman since the first time he’d seen him on the news, and that wasn’t possible if the Man of Steel was already bested, perhaps permanently. Much as Lex loathed his nemesis, life lost a certain flavor without him. Conquering the world—long a personal dream—would be easy compared to conquering a god from the skies, and he resented that circumstance had taken that chance away from him.

Luthor heard the glass break before he saw what did it. There was a small, sharp ping, and suddenly there was a hole in his window the size of a bloated grape. The object that did it clattered around the room for a moment before settling in the far corner. Luthor picked it up.

It was a silver ring with no markings, warm to the touch. And it had come barreling through his window from an undermined distance away at a speed great enough to break glass. Luthor didn’t believe in coincidences, and this intrigued him. Where did you come from? He turned it over in his hand and toyed with the idea of slipping it on his finger. And what am I going to do with you?

 

Ricky Jaye

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