The Crime That Created The Man Of Steel

Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer is the author of several best-selling thrillers, including The Tenth Justice and The Zero Game, and the critically acclaimed comic books Identity Crisis and Justice League of America. Herman Estevez hide caption

itoggle caption Herman Estevez

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Brad Meltzer's literary offspring include comic books, television scripts and wildly popular page-turning works of fiction. His latest thriller, The Book of Lies, melds together two well-known tales of familial tragedy and redemption. One simply could not be more venerable. The other is modern, sleek and powerful. Cain and Abel, meet Superman.

Meltzer posits there's ancient power in the lost, unknown weapon used by Cain to kill his brother — a bone? a rock? — and manages to connect this notion, through a breathless series of intrigue and plot twists worthy of The Da Vinci Code, to the mysterious, real-life 1932 murder of Mitchell Siegel. Never heard of him? That gentleman happened to be the father of the creator of Superman. Jerry Siegel dreamed up the iconic, bulletproof comic book character only a few months after his father took three shots in the chest, for no fathomable reason.

"What does Cain, history's greatest villain, have to do with Superman, the world's greatest hero? And what do two murders, committed thousands of years apart, have in common?" That's the sort of breathless back-cover language from Meltzer's Web site designed to entice readers.

Mix in a long-lost father and son in contemporary southern Florida; a killer tattooed with the Mark of Cain; and a cache that includes not only the world's oldest murder weapon, but the secret of immortality, and perhaps you've got a humdinger of a book. Not all reviewers agree. Meltzer created a hilarious, yet rueful video mocking the most severe notices of his seventh novel.

This reading of The Book of Lies took place in September 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt: 'The Book Of Lies'

'The Book of Lies'

Nineteen years later
Hong Kong

"Good girl — such a good girl," Ellis said, down on one knee as his dog snatched the beef treat from his open palm. With a bite and a gulp, the treat was gone, and Ellis Belasco, with his sleek copper red hair, smiled proudly and added a strong authoritative pat to the back of his smoky brown pet's neck. As the trainer said, attack dogs had to be rewarded.

" P- Please . . . my leg . . . he chewed my leg!" the thin Chinese man whined as he crawled across the worn beige carpet toward the hotel room door.

"To be clear, she chewed your Achilles' tendon," Ellis said, calmly standing up and brushing back his long European-style haircut he was always meticulous to reveal amber eyes framed by striking, lush eyebrows that almost merged on the bridge of his nose. Because of his rosy coloring, his cheeks were always flushed, as were his full lips, which he licked as he stared down at a small tattoo between his thumb and pointer finger.

His birthright was healing nicely.

For the past two months, Ellis had been tracking the ancient book from collector to collector — from the doctor in China whose death gave it away, to Zhao, the shipper, who schemed to deliver it elsewhere. Every culture called it by a different name, but Ellis knew the truth.

"I know you have it," Ellis said. "I'd like the Book of Lies now."

From the corner of the bed, Ellis reached for his small gray pistol.

"Nonono . . . you can't — My fiancée — We just got engaged!" the young dockworker begged, scrambling on his one good knee as his other leg left a smear of blood across the carpet.

Ellis pressed the barrel of his gun against the man's throat. It was vital he hit the jugular. But he knew he would. That was the advantage of having God on your side. "I paid what you asked me, Zhao," Ellis said calmly. "But it makes me sad that someone else clearly paid you more."

"I swear — the book — I told you where it's going!" Zhao screamed, his eyes rolling toward the pistol as Ellis glanced out the hotel window, into the dim alley. The view was awfulâ€" nothing more than a blank brick wall. But that was why Ellis had Zhao meet him here. No view, no witnesses.

With a squeeze, Ellis shot him in the throat.

There was no bang, just a pneumatic hiss. Zhao jerked slightly, and his eyes blinked open. . . . "Ai! Ai, that! What was that?" he stuttered as a drop of blood bubbled from his neck.

The military called them "jet injectors." Since World War I, they had been used to vaccinate soldiers quickly and easily. There was no needle. The burst of air was so strong, it drilled through the skin with nothing more than a disposable air cartridge and the one- use red nozzle that looked like a thimble with a tiny hole. All you'd feel was the snap of a rubber band, and the vaccine was in your blood. For Ellis, it was a bit overdramatic, but if he was to find the Book that had been taken from him . . . that had been taken from his family . . . He knew every war had rules. His great- grandfather left him this gun — or the plans for this gun, at least — for a reason. It took time and patience to build it from scratch. Ellis had plenty of both.

"Forty . . . thirty- nine . . . thirty- eight . . ." Ellis began to count, peeking under the wrist of his starched shirt and checking his new Ulysse Nardin watch.

"Wait . . . ! The shot — ! What'd you put in me!?" Zhao screamed, gripping the side of his neck.

". . . thirty- seven . . . thirty-six . . . thirty-five . . ." Ellis said, his voice as serene as ever. "My family first encountered it in Belgium. Conium maculatum. Hemlock."

"Are you — ? You put hemlock — !? You put a poison — are you a fool!? Now you get nothing!" Zhao yelled, fighting hard as he thrashed and crawled toward the door.

In a way, Zhao was right. Shooting him was a gamble. But Ellis knew . . . it's not a gamble when you know you'll win. After unscrewing the empty hemlock vial, he replaced it with a vial filled with a cloudy yellow liquid.

"I- Is that the antidote?" Zhao asked. "It is, isn't it!?"

Ellis stepped back, away from his victim's reach. "Do you know who Mitchell Siegel is, Zhao?"

"Wh- What're you talking about?"

"Thirty- one . . . thirty . . . twenty- nine . . . In 1932, a man named Mitchell Siegel was shot in the chest and killed. While mourning the death of his father, his young son Jerry came up with the idea of a bulletproof man that he nicknamed Superman."

Mid- crawl, Zhao's feet stopped moving. " M- My! Wh- What'd you do to my legs!?"

Ellis nodded and stood still. To this day, scientists didn't know why hemlock poisoning started in the feet and worked up from there.

"Such a dumb idea, right, Zhao — a bulletproof man? But the only reason Superman was born was because a little boy missed his father," Ellis pointed out. "And the best part? The murder's still unsolved. In fact, people are still so excited by Superman, they never stop to ask just why Mitchell Siegel was killed — or to even consider that maybe, just maybe, he might've done something that made him the bad guy in this story. . . . Twenty . . . nineteen . . . eighteen . . ."

"I can't feel my legs!" Zhao sobbed as tears ran down his face.

"You think I'm the bad guy here, but I'm not," Ellis said, putting away the empty vial, zipping his leather doctor's case, and smoothing the sheets on the edge of the bed. "I'm the hero, Zhao. You're the bad guy. You're the one keeping the Book of Lies from us. Just like Mitchell Siegel kept it from us."

"P — Please, I don't know who the hell you're talking about!"

Ellis crouched down next to Zhao, who was flat on his belly, barely able to catch his breath. "I want my Book. Tell me its final destination."

"I — I — I told you," Zhao stuttered. " W — We — It's going to Panama."

"And then where?"

"That's it — Panama . . . " he repeated, his nose pressed to the carpet, his eyes clenched in pain. "Just . . . the antidote . . ."

"You feel that tightening in your waist?" Ellis asked, looking down and realizing that his shoes could use a new shine. "Your thighs are dead, Zhao. Then it'll climb to your testicles. Hemlock is what killed Socrates. He narrated his entire death — how it slithered from his waist, to his chest, right up to when his eyes were fixed and dilated."

"Okay . . . okayokayokay . . . Miami! After Panama . . . they're . . . it's going to Miami! In Florida," Zhao insisted. "The sheet . . . the lading bill . . . it's . . . I swear . . . it's in my pocket! Just make it stop!"

Ellis reached into Zhao's pocket and extracted the sheet of light pink paper that held all the details of the shipment's arrival.

. . . seven . . . six . . . five . . .

The dog began to growl. She could smell death coming. But Ellis ignored the noise, peacefully reading from the bill of lading: the container's new tracking number, the receiver's name (had to be fake) everything the Leadership needed.

. . . four . . . three . . . two . . .

Still flat on his stomach and now with his mouth wide open, Zhao gave a final hollow gasp that sounded like the last bits of water being sucked down a drain. Ellis's great- grandfather described the same sound in his diary — right after he mentioned there was no antidote for hemlock poisoning.

. . . one.

Zhao was nice — even kind when they first met at the doctor's funeral — but the mission was bigger than Zhao. And based on what happened in 1900 with Mitchell Siegel, the mission had enough problems with witnesses.

Zhao's tongue went limp, and his head slumped forward, sending his forehead against the carpet.

Ellis didn't notice. He was already on his phone, dialing Judge Wojtowicz's number.

"I told you not to call me here, Eddie," answered an older man with a soft, crackly voice.

"Ellis. I'm called Ellis now," he replied, never losing his composure. He spread out his left hand, admiring the tattoo.

"It's five in the morning here, Ellis. What do you want?"

Ellis smiled — truly smiled — turning his full attention to the phone. "What I want is for you to remember just where you were when I found you, Judge. Your group — your Leadership — your dream was old and dead. Is that how you pictured your final years? Just another discarded, cobwebbed old man sitting in his cramped Michigan apartment and wondering why his glory days weren't more glorious? You're not even a footnote in history, Judge. Not even an asterisk. But if you want, I can put you back there. Maybe one day you'll be a parenthesis."

"My family has been in the Leadership since — "

"Don't embarrass yourself, Judge. Family names don't get you into Harvard anymore; what makes you think they'll get you in here?"

There was a long pause on the line. "I appreciate your helping us with this, Ellis," the Judge finally offered. Clearing his throat, he added, "You're close to finding the Book, aren't you?"

"And about to get even closer," Ellis said, glancing at the pink bill of lading and studying the container's new tracking details: when it left the port, when it'd arrive in Miami, even the truck driver who was responsible for the pickup.

Harper, Lloyd.

"C'mon, Benoni," he murmured to the dog.

He knew it was an odd name. Benoni. But according to the diaries, that was the name of Abel's watchdog the dog that was eventually given to Cain and the only witness to the world's first murder.

"You're in for a treat, girl," he said as he stepped over Zhao's dead body and led the dog out into the hallway. "This time of year, the weather is gorgeous in Florida."

As the dog ran ahead, Ellis never lost sight of her. He knew his history. Only with Benoni would he find the Book of Lies and solve the true mystery of the world's greatest villain.

Copyright © 2008 by Forty-four Steps, Inc.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.