By Georgia Walden <email@example.com>
Rating: PG Date Submitted: October 8, 1997
Summary: In this continuation of "Alt Shook Up" we discover who was behind Lois's disappearance in the Congo, and see Lex Luthor meet his nemesis.
The characters in this story are based on the television series "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," particularly the episodes "Tempus, Anyone" and "Lois and Clarks." The usual disclaimers apply and this story is not intended to be an infringement on the rights of any corporate entity. "Nemesis" is a continuation of my only other fanfic "Alt Shook Up" which was an Alternate World version of "All Shook Up" by Bryce Zabel. The Alternate World created by John McNamara is a wonderful springboard for "what if" stories. It allowed me to play around with the characters without violating the continuity. (I *like* the established continuity. <g>) Though I started out with the idea that the Alternate World characters would be quite different from our Lois and Clark, I ended up trying to bring them into sync with our world - I guess because I think it's a pretty good world to live in. ;) The echoes and parallels to events in various episodes are deliberate. I wrote "Alt Shook Up" at a time when there was still a possibility there would be another season of L&C, and expected we'd get a chance to see Alt Clark find his Lois for real. I still wish we could. I had no intention of writing a sequel, but the loose ends were there, and I just had to tie them off as best I could, though I think it will be obvious A plots aren't my forte. ;) In case anyone cares enough to ask, let me say up front I don't ever plan to visit the Alternate World characters again as a writer. Considering the things that happened to them already, I think they deserve to be left alone to live happily ever after. :)
An enormous thank you to Eileen Ray, whose story ideas, knowledge, frequent encouragement, and occasional nagging ;) kept me going. She really deserves a co-writing credit. Thanks, Eray. <g>
Comments are welcome to Gwalden@aol.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
It was a typical spring morning in Metropolis. Traffic surged through the streets, people crowded the sidewalks, and a playful April breeze carried the sounds and smells of the city to every one of its nine million inhabitants. The sun, obscured by clouds promising a shower later in the day, broke through intermittently and touched the windows of tall buildings, turning them into walls of light. At the base of the most glittering skyscraper, a group of smartly dressed men and women stood and watched as Mayor Perry White snipped a ribbon that hung across the entrance. Photographers and a TV crew from GBS recorded the moment, while a few print journalists, looking bored, took notes.
"It is with great pride and pleasure that I officially dedicate this magnificent building, Lex Tower. May it always stand as a symbol of the contributions its owner and namesake has made to our city. Ladies and gentleman - Mr. Lex Luthor!"
The mayor kept his professional politician's smile firmly in place as the small, but very select crowd applauded his words. The television camera followed Lex Luthor as he stepped forward to shake Perry's hand. He smiled modestly, but inwardly he was feeling the elation of a man who had realized a lifelong dream. These people were the social elite, the old money and the rising stars of Metropolis, and they were here to acknowledge what he had always known. Lex Luthor was a man destined for greatness, and before he was through, everyone in the world was going to know it too.
"Thank you, Mayor." Lex noted that Perry White's smile didn't reach his eyes, but at the moment, he didn't care what some minor political hack thought of him. Lex knew he could make or break a thousand mayors, but not today. He continued, "Not only does this building, Lex Tower, takes its place in the record books as the tallest building in Metropolis, but I also have the satisfaction of knowing that many thousands of people were provided with work during its construction. The companies that will use its offices, the restaurants, shops, and all the ancillary businesses that will keep it running, will employ many more for years to come. This is what I want - to be a part of what makes Metropolis the greatest city in the world."
The crowd applauded again with even more enthusiasm, and Lex's smile widened as he looked at each face beaming at him with admiration. His gaze traveled from one to another, coming to a halt at a face that wasn't beaming - that wasn't looking at him at all, for that matter. His eyes chilled with recognition, but his smile didn't waver. There was one person in Metropolis who didn't think Lex Luthor was the most superior being on the planet, but he had plans to change that, and soon.
At Perry's insistence, Lois had accompanied him to the dedication ceremony but she wondered for the umpteenth time why he really wanted her there. She couldn't write speeches, and she had no patience for protocol. She was an excellent researcher when the subject interested her, but she suspected it was all just an excuse for Perry to keep her close and give her something to do. But building dedications, she thought, give me a break. Her attention had wandered when Luthor had made his little speech - she knew boilerplate when she heard it. The man was supposedly a shark in business; she vaguely recalled his name coming up in her investigations over three years ago, but if he wanted everyone in Metropolis to think he was a great philanthropist, fine. Perry had said Luthor wanted to meet her, and this ceremony was a perfect opportunity, but right now, she had more important matters on her mind. Clark was getting together the Planet's material on her weapons sales story, and was supposed to meet her for lunch to get started on the investigation into her African "adventure."
Lois smiled to herself. Clark. No matter what she was doing, somehow her thoughts always seemed to come back to him. She'd said she wanted to try dating, and he'd taken her at her word. For two weeks he had called her at City Hall every day, asked her out for lunch, or dinner - whenever she was free. He didn't often manage to stay for the whole meal, most times only making it back in time to share her dessert. They had gone to a couple of movies and baseball games, and had even seen the end of one of each. The best evenings were when they stayed in, watching videos, eating popcorn, and talking, though Clark usually got called away for a while. Clark was always so anxious when he had to leave, and tried to get back as quickly as he could. He didn't say so, but she could tell he was worried about her reaction to all the interruptions. Though she hadn't told him all the intimate details, he knew she'd been abandoned more than once by a man she'd trusted, beginning with her father. Flowers arrived daily, signed only with the initials C.K.; she suspected they were apology bouquets. She really ought to tell him they weren't necessary. It wasn't the leaving that had upset her most about the men in her past - it was the not coming back.
"And now, friends," Lex was continuing, "let's go inside and I'll give you a first look at my greatest accomplishment." With a flourish of his hand, he motioned the mayor and his entourage through the doors and into the enormous lobby of the building. Lois hung back, leaving Perry and Jack to handle the polite oohing and ahhing, but she was unwillingly impressed with the luxurious decor. The marble and steel had been softened with plush carpets and real plants, and a mixture of artwork - impressionist paintings and modern sculptures - filled the space with color and texture.
Lex murmured something into Perry's ear, and the mayor nodded. He turned to search the crowd, finding her and motioning her over, but before she could start toward them, there was a whooshing sound behind her.
A flash of red and blue flickered in her peripheral vision, and just like that, Clark was there beside her, straightening his sober blue-striped tie, and adjusting his glasses. He grinned at her, and what had been a very dull morning brightened. She smiled back.
"Hi. Sorry I'm late - train derailment up the coast. I saw it on TV just as I was leaving the Planet. No deaths, thank goodness, but it took a while to clean up the mess. Are you about finished here?" He looked at the crowd of people milling around the lobby, their chatter a mere well-bred hum in the high-ceilinged room. Lex and Perry were now posing for photographs in front of one the sculptures. It looked remarkably like a piece of the train wreckage he had just left. "That story should knock this little Luthor love-fest off the front page," he added with a slight edge to his voice.
"Well, for you, that almost qualifies as character assassination," Lois said with surprise. "Not that I disagree, but Luthor seems like a typical, if unusually successful, businessman to me. What's he done to get your attention?"
"Nothing." Clark shoved his hands into his coat pockets, and shrugged at her doubtful expression. "Really. He's done nothing at all, and I've only met him once - about two years ago, at a party Lana dragged me to." He winced inwardly at the mention of Lana, but Lois seemed unperturbed. He sighed. Most women, if they were seriously interested in a man, would be at least a little jealous of an ex-fiancee. At least he thought so, but what he didn't know about women would fill an encyclopedia. "Luthor was hosting a charity campaign - Metropolis Children's Fund, all very praise-worthy, but he seemed, I don't know, a little too smooth to me. He'd appeared out of nowhere, no one knew anything about his background, just that he had a lot of money. Lex Luthor is a man with no past, no real friends or allies in Metropolis, yet a major part of the city's economic success is directly dependent on him. When Tempus showed up last year the whole city turned into an armed camp and he seemed to fade into the background. Not a supporter, but not on Perry's team, either. Then boom, Tempus is taken out, Perry gets elected, and Lex Luthor is suddenly the most influential man in town. It just makes me uneasy."
"Boom, Tempus is taken out?" Lois giggled at the offhand description of one of the most traumatic events of his life. Clark smiled at the sound. He loved it when she did that.
BOOM! The sound of an explosion was still reverberating as Lois found herself out of the lobby, and across the street, pressed between a wall and Clark Kent. For a moment his body curved protectively around her, his cheek pressed against her hair. Through the ringing in her ears, she heard him say, "Stay put," and then he was gone. She stared across at the entrance to Lex Tower. Smoke billowed through the gleaming glass and brass doors standing open. Perry, Lex, all the people who had been in the lobby stumbled out into the street, coughing and shaken but unhurt, followed at last by Superman. The Chief of Police, who had been an invited guest, was already giving orders to the men who had accompanied him. They scattered into the surrounding area quickly. One uniformed officer, who had been on traffic detail outside the building, pulled out a notebook and began questioning Superman. Lois started across the street. If she didn't move quickly, they would have the site closed off, and she wanted to find out what had happened. Stay put, indeed!
Clark sighed when Lois stationed herself at his elbow and smiled brightly at the officer.
"Lois, we've just had a bomb explode here. I don't think there's any danger - but I only had time for a quick sweep inside. Couldn't you please wait a little further away?" The policeman waited for Lois's response with a slightly amused expression.
"No. I couldn't. What happened? Could you tell what kind of explosive it was? Street crime and gang violence have been on the decrease; are you sure it was a bomb, and not some accidental thing? Who would want to bomb Lex Tower? Or was it the people, not the building who were the target? It doesn't look like anyone was hurt. A warning of some kind, maybe?"
The policeman looked back at Superman expectantly. Clark frowned repressively at Lois, but the corner of his mouth had kicked up slightly and his eyes were warm with affection as he looked down at her. "Lois, take a breath. I was just telling Officer Ray here - "
"Lois, honey, are you all right?" Perry joined them, trailed by Jack, a bodyguard, and Lex Luthor. Perry looked anxious and disheveled. The only sign that Luthor had been within feet of a bomb exploding were a few flecks of dust on the sleeve of his perfectly tailored two thousand dollar suit.
"I'm fine, Perry - Superman whisked me out of harm's way," she reassured him. "I'm just trying to get a fix on what happened here."
"As am I, Miss Lane," Lex interjected smoothly, moving a step closer, and glancing at Perry with a lift of his eyebrow.
"Oh, ah, Lois - this is Lex Luthor. Lex, Lois Lane, best reporter who ever worked for me - no offense, Superman - now my personal assistant. She's like a member of my family, Lex," Perry added, and Clark narrowed his eyes at the emphatic tone. Lex had taken both of Lois's hands in his, and was gazing at her intently. Clark cleared his throat and edged a little closer to Lois. His hand trailed casually down her back, and he could hear her heartbeat accelerate in response to his touch. She leaned back into his hand as she spoke and he smiled slightly at the hint of breathlessness in her voice.
"How do you do, Mr. Luthor. You seem to have attracted more than the media to your little ceremony this morning." Her words were punctuated by the noisy arrival of a fire engine and two more police cars.
"I've always had a taste for the dramatic, Miss Lane, not unlike yourself, though this was perhaps just a little over the top, even for me," Lex replied, with a self-deprecating smile. "Perry has told us all about you, and I've seen your picture, but it failed to do your beauty justice." Lex lifted Lois's hand and kissed it, never taking his eyes from hers. Lois stared back, and Clark felt her tension through the hand he still held pressed to the small of her back. The short silence was finally broken by Lex. He flicked a glance at Clark. "You were on the scene. Were you perhaps distracted by something, or…someone…and didn't hear the bomb in time? Or was this one just a little too large for you to… er, swallow."
Clark ignored the sneer in Lex's voice, and replied evenly, "There was nothing to hear, Mr.Luthor. Until the blast itself, of course. A small amount of plastic explosive, a detonation device triggered by remote control would be my guess - but we'll have to wait for the forensics report."
"Yes, of course," Lex turned back to Lois, apparently dismissing the subject. "Miss Lane. Lois, if I may. I hope you'll be attending the formal ball here Friday evening. The mayor and all his staff were invited. The damage to the lobby should be repaired by then. I refuse to let anything spoil the inauguration of the Lex Tower ballroom, and it would be even more special if you agree to give me the first dance."
Lois laughed a little nervously, withdrawing her hands. "Thank you, Mr. Luthor - Lex. I'd already planned to attend. With Mr. Kent." Lois looked back over her shoulder at Clark, and he immediately responded to the "Back me up" message in her eyes.
"That's right, Mr. Luthor. We'll both be there. Perhaps by then, we'll have some information about what happened this morning. I plan to give the matter my undivided attention."
Lex nodded, and for a flash, the look he gave Clark was one of cold dislike. "Well, then, Mr. Kent. I'm sure we all have nothing to fear. Not with …Superman on the job." With a charming smile for Lois, and an abrupt lift of his hand to Perry, he left.
"Well, that was…interesting," Clark said slowly. He turned Lois to face him. "You have a burning desire to dance with Lex Luthor? I thought he was just a typical businessman."
"I'm not sure what he is, Clark. But one way to find out is to cultivate his acquaintance. He seems to like me, don't you think?" She slanted a look at him from under her lashes.
"Too much, if you ask me," he muttered, but she just continued to look up at him. He squeezed her shoulders, and then surrendered with a little huff of laughter. "Oh, all right. I guess it won't do any harm to go to this party, if you really want to. Just..don't encourage him, okay? We can find out what we need to know with good old-fashioned research. Right, Perry?"
Perry had been watching the scene with a worried frown, but he dredged up a smile at Clark's words. "Sure, son. No substitute for legwork and research."
"Exactly!" Lois beamed. "Legwork is just what I had in mind. Do you own a tux, Clark? I think you'd look gorgeous in a tux." She patted his cheek and turned to Perry. "Clark and I need to get started on this bomb story right away, Chief. You don't need me at City Hall - I'm taking a salary under false pretenses. Besides, I'm bored out of my mind there, and Clark has so much to do already. I'll help him write up the eyewitness stuff for the evening edition, and then we can start digging into background. If someone doesn't like Lex Luthor, besides Clark," she shot him a mischievous look, "I'd like to know why. This could be the story that gets me my job back at the Planet."
Perry sighed and nodded. "Go ahead. I couldn't stop you even if I wanted to, and heaven knows, I understand how you feel. How I ever let Alice and Olsen talk me into goin' into politics, I'll never know. Anyhow, if you're with Superman, I guess you can't get into too much trouble. Right?" Perry motioned to the young men who had been hovering discreetly in the background, and one of them signaled to a waiting limousine. Perry leaned forward and kissed Lois on the cheek. "Be careful, honey," he whispered. "You've got two very powerful men lookin' at you like you hung the moon. Even without bombs, that's an explosive situation."
"Don't worry, Perry," Lois murmured. "I'm only looking back at one of them, and his suits don't come from Savile Row."
Perry chuckled and with a final wave walked to the curb and entered his car.
The policeman who had been questioning Clark reclaimed their attention. "I guess I'd better get back to the precinct to type up my report, Superman. If you find out anything more about the explosion, we'd appreciate it if you shared the information with us - *before* you and Miss Lane put it in the Daily Planet."
"And you'll do the same for us, won't you, Officer?" Lois put in before Clark could answer. "Share and share alike?"
"Come on, Lois, let's go. I promised you lunch, how do you feel about Italian?" Clark asked with a grin. He nodded to the policeman. "I'll - *we'll* be in touch."
Officer Ray watched as Superman lifted Lois Lane into his arms, and began rising slowly into the air. When they were several hundred feet above the sidewalk, he wrapped his cape around her, and darted up and out of sight. The officer shook his head in wonder. The lady acted as though being flown around by a guy in tights was as normal as taking a cab. Ah, why should he be surprised? After all, this was *Metropolis*.
"You incompetent fool! You assured me that your carefully planted charges would only topple the sculpture, and that it would fall *exactly* where I wanted it to. Your stupid miscalculations almost got *me* killed and completely missed the target! Not to mention the costs of repairing the lobby. You're fired, Josephson." Lex listened for a moment to the voice on the other end of the telephone. "The balance of your pay? Don't be absurd. You completely bungled the job. I suggest you get out of Metropolis and stay out." Lex broke the connection and pressed the button to switch to another line.
"Prepare the standard termination contract for Mr. Josephson. I believe he can be found at the Cozy Moments Motel." Lex's voice dropped to a gentle murmur, no trace of his former anger left. "Don't waste any time, he won't be there long. Yes, I'm sure you do understand, my dear. That's why I pay you an obscenely large salary - for your understanding."
Lex pushed back his chair abruptly and crossed to the large window to stare out at the city. The sight of Metropolis so far beneath him never failed to give him a thrill of pleasure. There was a rap on the door. Felice, his personal assistant, strolled in, a cool self-satisfied smile on her face. She was a statuesque brunette with the glossy perfection of a haute couture model.
"The matter is taken care of, Lex. I'll send the usual fee to Jonas as soon as I receive confirmation of Josephson's "departure." Is there anything else?"
Lex didn't turn around. "No, Felice, that will be all - no, wait." He whirled on his heel. "Dismiss my driver. I'm taking the Jag out for a little run. I won't be needing you or anyone else for the rest of the day."
Felice nodded and left the office. Lex strode to the door leading to his private elevator with a slight lift of his spirits. Perhaps some time behind the wheel of his newest toy would distract him from this morning's setback.
Clark balanced a large pizza box, a white bag, and a bottle of wine and dug into his coat pocket for his key. As he opened the door, the bag slipped from under his arm. In a move too quick for the human eye to follow, he caught it and clamped the top between his teeth. Lois stood beside him, her arms filled with file folders, thick with clippings and computer printouts.
"My hero," she said with an exaggerated sigh, and laughed at his mock frown. "We could have sent out for pizza, you know. It wasn't necessary for you to fly to Rome for it."
Clark considered her comment, and then shook his head. "Nope, I promised you Italian for lunch, and Italian it is." He smiled and added, "I spent so many years not using my powers except in emergencies, trying to keep a low profile. I'm kinda getting a kick out of indulging myself now. And you."
His eyes held hers for a moment, and the warmth in them was palpable. Her skin heated in response and she took a step forward, then stopped.
"Oh, no, you don't, Clark Kent. We're here to work, remember. We filed the bomb story and now we're going to start reviewing these notes. Somewhere in this stuff has got to be a clue. Something I missed before."
They had entered Clark's apartment while Lois was speaking, and Clark began to lay out their lunch on the small table in front of the window. The authentic Italian pizza was still hot, and Lois sniffed at it appreciatively before dropping her armload onto the sofa. She went into the kitchen area, and opened the cabinet where the dishes were kept. Clark rummaged in the utensil drawer, finally bringing out the corkscrew. He began opening the wine.
"Lois, are you absolutely sure that what happened to you in the Congo was connected to your story? It's a dangerous spot - maybe you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And you said yourself that everything is pretty hazy. You were in a coma a long time, some memory loss is normal with that kind of trauma." The thought of Lois bludgeoned and left for dead in a wilderness gave Clark a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. What if she hadn't survived? What if she'd survived but hadn't remembered Metropolis was her home? God, what if he'd never met the other Lois and had married Lana? He gave the corkscrew a savage twist at the thought. He refused to even consider *that* possibility.
"I don't remember everything, but I do know what my attacker said. I was lying there, and I guess he thought I was dead, or near it. He was going through my bag, and my pockets, and taking everything that could identify me, I suppose, in case my body was found before the animals finished me off. And he was talking." Lois's voice was matter-of-fact, as though she were describing something that had happened to someone else long ago. She took the now open bottle and started pouring the wine as she spoke. The sick feeling in Clark's stomach grew.
"He said - 'That'll teach you to keep your long reporter's nose out of other people's business. Metropolis will be a lot better off without your meddling.' That seems pretty unambiguous to me." When Clark didn't answer immediately, Lois looked up from the glass she was filling. She put down the bottle and went to him with a little sound of concern.
"Oh, Clark, don't look like that." She brought his face down to hers, and kissed him slowly and thoroughly. They were both breathing a little heavily when she leaned back into his encircling arms. "It's over, I survived. That's what matters, and I don't want you to think about it any more. "*I'm* not going to." She smiled. "But if we ever run into that guy, I have definite plans for him."
Clark's smile in response was a little grim. "Yes. So do I."
Lois kissed him again, quickly this time, and stepped out of his embrace. "Well, okay. You can hold him. I'll do the rest." Her teasing glance over her shoulder was irresistible, and Clark shook off his dark thoughts and joined her at the table. Somehow Lois made living on the edge of disaster seem as normal as - well, as normal as flying to Rome for pizza.
The parking garage was shadowed and quiet in the section reserved by LexCorp for the owner's personal fleet of automobiles. Lex's footsteps echoed as he approached the black XKE and unlocked it. As he pulled on the handle to open the door, a man stepped out from a concrete pillar on the far side of the car. He was short and stocky, with a bald head, and a small dark beard that curved around his mouth. His brown suit was well-tailored, but rumpled and stained.
"Hiya, Mr. Luthor." The man grinned ingratiatingly. He had very large, slightly yellowed teeth. "I was hopin' you'd be comin' down soon to try out this beauty. You're a hard man to see - in private, I mean."
"Why the melodrama? If you want to speak to me alone, you can call my office for an appointment," Lex replied impatiently. "But if you're looking for a handout, don't waste your time or mine."
He opened the door, and set his foot inside, preparatory to sliding into the driver's seat. The man held up a manila envelope, thrusting it at Lex.
"Take a look at this, Mr.Luthor," he said. "Then maybe you'll be interested in what I got to say."
The man slid it across to Lex and he picked it up. It was very light. He lifted the flap and turned it upside down. A photograph clipped from a newspaper fluttered out and landed on the car's roof. It was a familiar picture - Lex recognized the face immediately. Tempus, that mysterious figure who had for a time threatened to become the kingpin of Metropolis. The shot had been taken during the confusing altercation in the GBS television studio. Tempus was holding a rock in his hand, brandishing it at a figure that lay on the floor, writhing in pain. Lex frowned at the photograph. He knew what everyone else did about that day - the rock had somehow been hurting Superman until the strange woman who had claimed to be Lois Lane had tossed it into the crowd.
Lex looked at the man. "And the point of this is…?"
"I know where the green rock is," he replied simply. "You interested now?"
Expressionlessly, Lex stared at the news photo, and then at the man. It was a scam, he thought. Someone had heard he was not… happy about the arrival of Superman, and was trying to capitalize on it. But what if it wasn't a lie? he thought with rising excitement. What if this dirty little man knew something?
"Perhaps," Lex said non-committally. "Anyone can *say* they know something. Do you have it with you?"
"Nah, I ain't that dumb." The bald man's large teeth showed briefly in a cocky grin. "First we deal, then I bring it to you."
Lex eyed him narrowly, and then shrugged. "How much?"
"Two hundred thousand, cash, and a promise you'll forget you ever saw me."
"That seems a rather small sum to ask for such a unique item," Lex said. The man's answer was tinged with bitterness.
"The rock's worth nothin' to me, Mr.Luthor - all I want is to get out of Metropolis without attracting anybody's attention, especially Mr.-Almighty-Superman," he said, and Lex heard the ring of truth in his words. "I been hidin' from the cops since the boss disappeared. No one will hire me. My face was plastered all over TV that night - I just want to get as far away from this place as possible. And for that, I need money. So, are you interested?"
"How do you come to have this rock"? Lex asked. "According to all reports, it was confiscated by the police and sent to Star Labs for study and safekeeping."
"Most of it was," the man agreed. "When the dame threw it away, it broke into a bunch of pieces. The cops thought they had 'em all, but I managed to pick up one in the confusion. I thought it might come in handy sometime."
"So it's not the whole thing." Lex frowned. "That's disappointing. Perhaps it's not worth two hundred thousand."
"It may not be big, but it's the only bit of that green rock that ain't locked up tight, Mr. Luthor. And it could be all yours."
"I still need to see the item, Mr. ah -?" Lex was still cautious, but there was something about this ridiculous creature's story that seemed genuine. And if he was on the level, he was right. That little bit of green rock represented unimaginable power in the right hands. In *my*hands, he thought with savage satisfaction.
"Johnny Domo," the man replied. "The boss used to call me *Major* Domo - I dunno why. He'd laugh and say it was a "private joke" - the boss was always sayin' stuff that didn't make any sense. I didn't care. He paid real good and everything was goin' great until that jerk in the tights showed up."
"The item, Mr. Domo?" Lex repeated sharply, and the man snapped to attention at the tone of command.
"Right. Do we have a deal?" he asked, and at Lex's nod, Domo grinned happily. "Can you get the money by tonight?"
"Yes," Lex said in sudden decision. "I can meet you back here at midnight. Bring the rock and we'll make the exchange. Simple and direct, agreed?"
"You bet," Domo said, and thrust out a grimy hand. "But not here. We make the swap on my turf. Hobbs Bay, Dock 51."
Lex stared at him for a moment, ignoring the proffered hand. What harm could it do to meet there? It had been a lot of years since he'd skulked in the shadows of Suicide Slum near the river, but he was still quite capable of taking care of himself. And if there was even a small chance that he could obtain a weapon against Superman - no risk was too great for that.
"Agreed. Hobbs Bay at midnight."
Lois groaned and flopped backwards onto Clark's couch. The floor around her was covered with discarded files, and she threw another one down onto the pile with a sound of disgust. Clark looked up from the printout he was scanning.
"What?" he asked, but then, seeing her drawn expression, got up from the kitchen table and sat down beside her on the couch. "You're exhausted," he said, and began to massage her shoulders. "Time for a break. You want some coffee, or something to eat? There's cannoli left."
Lois let her head drop forward, and relaxed into the motion of Clark's hands. "Mmmm, that feels wonderful," she murmured. "And, no," she added, "I don't want any coffee, or cannoli, or to take a break. I want to *find* something." Her tone was fretful, and Clark bent and kissed the back of her neck.
"I know. And we will. But it's been hours and you're too tired to see straight, so take a break, please, and then we'll start again, when you've rested." His lips trailed across to the spot where her neck curved into her shoulder, and then up behind her ear, and Lois shivered at the sensation. She smiled and closed her eyes, savoring the delicious uncoiling of tension in her muscles and the rise of a different kind of tension in the wake of Clark's touch.
"Just for a little while," she agreed, but then abruptly sat up straighter, placing some distance between them. "I think I would like some coffee after all," she said brightly, "and then let's go over these company records again. I just know there's something there I'm not seeing." Clark sighed. The yielding woman who had melted against him had turned back into Lois Lane, Ace Reporter, in the blink of an eye. And people called him a quick-change artist, he thought wryly.
"Coffee coming up," he said, getting to his feet. Lois watched him pour out two cups from the pot they had made earlier. He lifted his glasses and stared intently down at the cups. Steam began to rise and the aroma of warm coffee filled the room. He brought the two cups to the couch and placed hers into her hands, setting his down on the table in front of them. Dropping cross-legged to the floor next to her, he picked up one of the discarded files. It was labeled OFF-SHORE HOLDINGS. "What's this?" he asked, flipping through the stack of papers inside.
"The weak link in any illicit operation is the point at which money changes hands," Lois explained. "Off-shore companies are often used as fronts for money laundering - these were the ones I'd marked as particularly suspicious. Sudden shifts of large sums for no clear reason, names on the official paperwork that don't match up to actual people, that sort of thing."
"I'm impressed," Clark said sincerely. "But you came up empty?"
"I never finished checking into all of them. I had just put out some feelers when I got a very solid lead from one of my sources that led me to the African connection, and Perry agreed to the Planet bankrolling a trip. The rest you know. I was followed from the time I got off the plane. I never got a chance to even *start* investigating."
Clark looked thoughtful. "Hmm, interesting - the sequence of events, I mean. You start asking questions about these off-shore companies, and suddenly get a tip that takes you halfway around the world. And when you get there, you're met by a killer who knows who you are and what you're doing." He handed Lois the paper with the names of the companies. "Which one of these had you been asking about?"
Lois stared at him, her expression of frustration gradually giving way to appreciative understanding. "Clark, you're right. That *was* awfully convenient, wasn't it? Let me see," she took the list and scanned it quickly, "there were two or three good possibilities, but the most likely was this one." She pointed halfway down the page. "Theroxull, Ltd, - a holding company for a group of foreign investors, identity unknown."
"Theroxull?" Clark looked at the name, and then laughed. "Lois, don't you do anagrams?" he teased. "It could just be an amazing coincidence, but that name would sure set off alarms for me."
"Anagrams? What - ?" Lois frowned down at the paper, and then her eyes met Clark's with amazed delight. She launched herself at him with a whoop. He grinned and caught her easily, easing backwards until he lay flat on the floor with Lois sprawled on top of him. She kissed him, and then crossed her arms on his chest. "Anagrams - the arrogance of the man," she said, but she was smiling.
"It's not a crime to be arrogant, Lois," Clark reminded her. "It's just a possibility to be checked out. There's no proof that he's done anything except make a great deal of money he doesn't want to report to the government."
"Maybe," Lois said thoughtfully, then suddenly stopped, with an arrested expression. "But if he is the one, that throws a different light on the explosion this morning. You say the amount of explosive was small, the effect very localized. There was a lot of broken glass, but nothing was really destroyed but that hideous sculpture. Why?"
"Metropolis has an art critic that takes his work very seriously?" Clark suggested, and Lois punched him lightly in the chest.
"Idiot," she said. "Then why stop with one? The lobby was littered with them. No, seriously, what was special about that particular piece? Lex and Perry were being photographed near it, he had just motioned me to come over, too. Luckily, you and I were talking, or I might have been crushed when it fell."
There was a moment of charged silence, as they both considered that, and then Clark said, in the tone of one who was trying to convince himself, "There are easier ways of killing a person than making a hunk of metal fall on them."
"True," Lois agreed. "But oh, Clark," she said, with an excited wriggle, "I can't wait until Friday. I have a lot of questions for Mr. Lex Luthor. I have a feeling this is a real breakthrough. And so do you," she tapped him on the chest again, "don't you?"
Clark had a rather strained look on his face as he answered tightly, "Yes, Lois - I definitely have a feeling."
Lois stilled as she realized what he meant. She blushed, but didn't move. "I guess I should get up," she said quietly. "I didn't mean to, that is, I wasn't - "
"It's okay, Lois," Clark said. "I understand. Sometimes things just happen. No, don't get up, not yet," he said, when she began to pull away from him. "I like just holding you, okay?"
Lois smiled a little mistily. "Okay." She laid her head on his chest and relaxed against him once more. She really was tired, she realized. His hands stroked reassuringly up and down her back, and the soothing movements coupled with the steady thump of his heartbeat in her ear soon lulled her to sleep.
The area was deserted when Lex arrived on foot at five minutes to midnight. He had worn dark clothing, a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his forehead, and a black silk scarf wrapped high around his throat. He slipped from shadow to shadow as quietly as the street thief he had once been. He sensed movement in some of the alleys and darkened doorways he passed, but no one accosted him. Aside from the occasional rustle of a scurrying rat, the rhythmic lap of water against the stone and wood of the dock was the only sound. He stopped near the sign which identified Dock 51. Johnny Domo emerged from an alley as soon as Lex halted at the water's edge.
"Is that it, the money?" he asked eagerly, his eyes darting to the small satchel Lex held in his left hand.
"Yes, Mr.Domo, it is indeed," Lex said smoothly. He opened the bag to reveal the neat stacks of bills inside. "I've done my part. It's your turn now."
Domo drew a jeweler's ring box from his pocket. He flipped back the top and held it up slightly. A small irregularly shaped sliver of green crystal lay on the velvet, barely visible against the black. "It don't look like much," Domo said, "but when the boss held it close to Superman, he went down like he was shot. He had a pretty big chunk, though," he added warningly.
Lex stared at the unprepossessing bit of mineral. His mouth curved with satisfaction. "Yes, I remember,' he said, and his eyes gleamed with anticipation. "For what I have in mind, this piece will do very well." He reached for the box, but Domo held it just out of reach.
"The money, Luthor," and Lex nodded. He proffered the satchel with one hand, and held out the other, palm up. The exchange was made, and Lex tucked the small box into his right pocket. As soon as Domo had the satchel, he turned to go. "A pleasure doin' business with you, Mr.Luthor. Remember - you never heard of Johnny Domo."
Lex smiled, and withdrew his gloved hand from the pocket in which he had just placed the box. The nine-millimeter semi-automatic he now held was pointed directly at Domo. He fired twice, and reaching out, deftly caught the bag before Domo's lifeless body hit the ground. Lex prodded it with the toe of his elegant shoe, and then bent to roll the body over and into the waters of Hobbs Bay. He tossed the gun in afterward, and stepped back.
"Never fear, Mr.Domo. I can assure you that neither I nor anyone else will ever hear of you again." He chuckled, and swinging the satchel jauntily, walked briskly away.
Lois stood in front of the full length mirror on the closet door, and studied her reflection with a critical eye. The shimmering black dress was simple, a plunging V-necked halter design. The bodice was tight fitting; the skirt fell straight to the floor, flaring a little at the bottom. The very high heels of her slingbacked shoes emphasized the long sleek line even more. She turned slowly, looking over her shoulder. The dress had no back at all. She thought about dancing with Clark, his hand on her bare skin, and smiled wickedly in anticipation.
There was a light tap, and Lois whirled and crossed to open the bedroom door.
"Hi, Alice," she greeted the woman who stood outside, "come in and tell me what you think. I can't make up my mind how to do my hair."
Alice White stepped into the room and looked Lois up and down. She was an attractive woman in her early fifties with ash blonde hair and a voluptuous figure, but Lois seldom thought of Alice in terms of her looks. When her husband had brought his newest and youngest reporter home for dinner one evening, Alice had seen the lonely girl beneath the brash exterior, and had treated her like a daughter. Lois loved her.
"Lois, you look stunning. Even a Superman couldn't resist that dress," Alice laughed. "Not that I've noticed Clark putting up much resistance to you any time." She walked around Lois and studied the effect from the back. "Hmm, I think you should wear your hair up. Simple and sophisticated, like the dress, but with a few wisps around the face. And these," Alice held up a pair of earrings, "will be the perfect final touch."
Lois took the earrings with a cry of delight, and immediately began to put them on. "Alice, do you mean it? Real diamonds - are you sure Perry won't mind if I wear them? I remember when he bought them for you - your twenty-fifth anniversary, wasn't it?"
Alice laughed again. "Of course he won't mind. Perry's so happy to have you safely home - he'd probably give them to you if he wasn't afraid of what I'd do."
Lois laughed with her. It was a standing joke in the White household that big, blustery Perry was afraid of his wife. Lois swept her hair off her neck, holding it in an untidy twist on top of her head with one hand, and assessed the effect in the mirror. Yes, Alice was right - with the dangling earrings, the hair should definitely be up.
"Thank you, Alice. They *are* perfect," Lois said simply, and then turned her attention to the older woman's appearance. "You're looking very elegant yourself. I love that color on you." Alice was in aquamarine silk that matched her eyes.
"Perry and I will be leaving soon, dear. Are you sure Clark is going to pick you up? We'd be glad for you to ride to Lex Tower with us in the official limousine. Perry claims not to enjoy the pomp and circumstance of being mayor, but you know he'd love making an entrance with two women on his arm."
Lois smiled but shook her head. "No, thanks. Clark promised he'd be here, and barring an earthquake in China or something, he will." Lois's smile faded, and she turned to Alice with a thoughtful frown.
"Alice, do you think I'm crazy to get involved with someone like Clark?"
"What do you mean, Lois, 'someone like Clark'?" Alice asked. At Lois's stunned look, she added hastily, "I mean, I know he's an amazing creature- literally one of a kind - but I still think of him as that polite, quiet young man I first met."
Lois sat down at the mirrored vanity table, and began pinning up her hair, but her expression was still thoughtful.
"Tell me about him," she urged. "It's hard to imagine him living like that - hiding all the time. He must have been so lonely."
Alice sat down on the edge of the bed behind Lois. "Yes, he probably was. But," she added acidly, "he did have Lana."
Lois wrinkled her nose. "Clark's mentioned her. You didn't like her?"
"No, I didn't. Perry and I grew quite fond of Clark after he began working at the Planet - you know how Perry is - his young reporters are his children." Alice's voice trailed away, and she seemed lost in memory. Lois waited. She knew about the son who'd died long ago. When Alice got that faraway look on her face, she was thinking of Jerry. After a moment, Alice went on. "Clark was such a dear, but so self-contained. Now we know why, but at the time, I just thought he was shy. And then Lana came home to Metropolis. They'd known each other back in Kansas when they were children, lost touch when her parents moved here, and then the two of them attended college in different states. Clark seemed pleased when Lana reappeared, but I always felt there was something missing there. I can't say I was sorry she broke the engagement. I thought Clark could do much better for himself, even before I knew he was Superman." Alice smiled at Lois in the mirror. "And he has."
Lois's answering smile was grateful, but fleeting. "There speaks a very partial observer," she said wryly. "I wish I was as sure." Lois turned away from the mirror and faced Alice. "He says he wants to marry me. I never thought I'd be any good at marriage with anyone, much less…well, someone like him. I just don't know, Alice. Don't you think he needs a really special kind of wife?"
Alice looked astonished. "Is this the Lois Lane I've known for nearly ten years? The youngest Kerth Award winner in history? The "never give up, never give in" Lois Lane who charges through life demanding that things go her way?" Alice's mock surprise softened to an affectionate smile. "I'd say you're very special."
"Alice! Aren't you ready yet?! The car's waiting, let's shake a leg!" Perry's booming voice easily traveled up the curving staircase to the second floor, and Alice stood, smoothing out her skirt.
"I'm coming!" she called, and patted Lois on the shoulder as she walked by her to the door. "We'll see you at the ball, dear. And don't worry, I'm sure it will all work out. Just trust yourself, and Clark."
Lois looked back into the mirror. Squaring her shoulders, she lifted her chin just a bit, and smiled brilliantly. Alice was right, she thought, this isn't like me. There's nothing I can't handle if I set my mind to it. Including Mr.Clark Kent, AKA Superman.
They were only a little late. Not an earthquake in China - flooding in the Midwest, but Clark had managed to get home, change to his tuxedo, and arrive on the doorstep of the mayor's mansion by 8:30. The look on his face when she opened the door was worth the small wait.
"Lois. You look," Clark's hands lifted in a helpless gesture, "fantastic."
She smiled and reached out to smooth the pleats of his white shirt. "Thank you. And you look just the way I thought you would. Gorgeous."
She turned away to get her coat, and heard a gasp as Clark got the full effect of her dress from the back. Suppressing a satisfied grin, she handed him the coat, and he helped her into it, lingering a little at the task of drawing the sleeves up and over her bare shoulders.
"All right," she said briskly, and took his arm. "Let's go see what Lex Luthor has to say for himself. I have a feeling this is going to be an evening to remember."
He had been working the crowd for nearly an hour, moving from this wealthy businessman to that influential politician with a smile and a personal word for each one, but Lex knew the moment Lois and Clark entered the room. He immediately signaled the orchestra to switch from unobtrusive background music to the seductive rhythm of a romantic Gershwin tune, and headed straight for the couple standing in the wide doorway.
"Lois!" Lex was there, reaching for her hands. "You look beautiful." His welcoming smile cooled as he looked at Clark. "Kent."
Clark eyed Lois's hands held firmly in Lex's and his jaw tightened, but he managed a curt nod. "Luthor."
Lois had noticed the small muscle that flexed as Clark clenched his teeth, and hurried into speech. "Lex, the ballroom is stunning - and you must be gratified by the turn-out. Is that Senator Morris over there?"
"Yes, it is," Lex said with an indifferent shrug. "Come, you promised me the first dance." He led Lois out onto the floor without waiting for a response, and Lois followed, casting an apologetic look over her shoulder at Clark. He nodded and shoved his hands in his pockets, but she could see that little jaw muscle was still dancing like crazy.
Lex tried to pull Lois close, but acknowledging her resistance with a sardonic smile, gave up and made small talk as he steered her through the shifting crowd of dancing couples. When they reached the opposite side of the large room, he stopped before the door leading out into the hallway that connected the ballroom with the lobby of Lex Tower. Ignoring Lois's questioning look, he led her into the hall and over to a narrow unmarked door. Lex inserted a key into a lock beside it and when the door slid open, gestured Lois to precede him into the small elevator. She shook her head.
"What's this, Lex? You're not abandoning your guests already, are you?" Lois glanced back into the ballroom. Clark was nowhere in sight.
"You're the only guest I'm interested in right now, my dear," Lex said. "I thought perhaps you'd like to be the first reporter to see the penthouse. I personally supervised the decorating - it's my sanctum sanctorum. Interested?"
Lois tried to read Lex's expression. Was this just a slightly more refined version of "come up and see my etchings" or was there something else behind his sudden attraction to her? Only one way to find out. She had wanted to ask him some questions about his past - what better time?
"Of course, Lex. I'm very interested…in what you've done," Lois replied, and stepped into the elevator. He followed and the door closed quickly and silently behind them.
Clark grimaced and pushed his glasses back into position. He had been discreetly following Lex and Lois as they danced away from him and out into the hall, but when the elevator door closed, his view was abruptly cut off. There might be a perfectly innocent reason why that area was constructed with some kind of lead alloy, but somehow he didn't think so. He cocked his head slightly and focused his superhearing toward the floors above, but there were so many competing sounds nearby, it was difficult to discriminate the one distant voice he wanted to hear.
"Clark! Glad you made it, son - where's Lois?" Perry's voice behind him rose above the chatter of the crowd, and Clark winced and immediately stopped trying to hear beyond the normal range. He turned and greeted his former boss and the woman beside him.
"She's with our host, Perry. Hello, Alice," he added with a smile. "You're looking very nice this evening. Having a good time?"
"I always enjoy the chance to dress up and dance with a handsome man, Clark. One of the perks of being the mayor's wife, you know," she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Clark laughed appreciatively, but his mind had already returned to the couple upstairs. "Alice, Perry, if you'll excuse me, I, ah, I think I hear someone who's in trouble." He turned and was halfway across the ballroom before they could answer.
Perry shook his head sympathetically. "No time off for Superman," he said. "I hope Lois knows what's she's getting into."
Alice smiled serenely. "Oh, I think she'll cope, dear. She always has." She threaded her fingers through his and looked up at him affectionately. "Now, handsome, about that dancing…"
Lex flung open the double doors which led onto the balcony, and threw out one arm in a theatrical gesture. "Behold, Metropolis at my feet," he said. "And yours, too," he added with an odd intensity. Lois laughed, but when he didn't join her, she gently disengaged her arm from his and stepped away from him, looking out over the city sparkling beneath them. It was a spectacular sight, but she was too uneasy to admire it.
"I'm serious, Lois," he continued. "I have a great deal to offer the one special woman in my life, and though we've only recently met - I knew the moment I saw you that you could be that woman."
She took a deep breath and faced the man beside her. "Lex," she began, "I don't quite know what to say. It's very flattering, but I don't want to mislead you. I wanted to talk to you alone because I'm interested in your *story* - your phenomenal rise. I was hoping you would tell me about yourself," she paused, searching for the right phrasing, "and how you put together your empire in such a short time." Lois studied Lex's face, trying to read how he was taking what amounted to a brush-off *and* an interview at the same time. He was looking down, staring at the large signet ring on his right hand. He rubbed the raised surface with the index finger of his other hand, and Lois saw the design was made up of two intertwined "L" 's - gold on a shiny black field of onyx. Lex looked up suddenly, and catching the direction of her gaze, held up the ring closer for her to see.
"My new ring - do you like it? I just had it made to very particular specifications," he said with a wolfish grin. He seemed unaffected by her rejection of his startling declaration.
"Mmm," Lois said, grateful for the change of subject. ""It's… impressive."
"You have no idea, my dear. But, it's not my ring you asked about, was it?" With another rapid change of mood, Lex was now brisk and business-like. "What you really want to know is how I made my fortune. Isn't that right?"
"Well," Lois said, with a small relieved laugh, "in a word, yes. I've been doing some research on you, and it's hard to figure out just where your original stake came from. For instance," Lois tried for a casual tone, "I believe you were involved with a group called Theroxull, Ltd. Just what exactly does that company deal in?"
Lex went very still, then laughed softly. He brushed the back of his hand gently down Lois's cheek and she flinched at the feel of the ring's rough surface against her skin.
"Ah, Lois. So lovely, so single-minded, so…transparent." He sighed. "You were asking questions about Theroxull nearly four years ago. I'd hoped you'd forgotten all about it by now. So much has…befallen you… in the interim."
"I don't know what you mean, Lex," Lois said, but her feeling of relief had vanished.
"Oh, I think you do," Lex replied easily, and taking Lois's hand, he led her back into the large combination sitting room/office. The only light came from a lamp on a low end table next to the couch.
"Sit down, my dear. I'm going to tell you everything you want to know."
Lex seated Lois in a high-backed wooden chair, and took up a position directly in front of her. Despite his pleasant manner, Lois's uneasiness increased. There was danger in the room, and for the first time, she doubted her decision to question Lex alone.
Lex sat also, in a matching chair directly across from Lois. Steepling his fingers beneath his chin, he considered her thoughtfully.
"I wonder…if I had approached you in the beginning, Lois…courted you," Lex said, "would you have been more receptive? Could I have diverted you then from prying into my personal affairs? Tell me, would you have been charmed enough to look the other way while I amassed a fortune selling high tech illegal weapons to anyone with the money to meet my price?"
Lois opened her mouth to answer, but Lex rolled on, still speaking in that musing tone that frightened her more than if he were raging.
"No, don't bother to lie, my dear, I can see the truth in your eyes. You wouldn't have compromised yourself, not even to become the consort of the richest man in Metropolis. I suppose it was just as well I didn't meet you then - I would have been tempted to try, and that would have been dangerous for me. You've proven annoyingly hard to dispose of, and later there still would have been…*him*. But, no matter," he shrugged, "I'm going to remedy all that tonight."
"So it *was* you all along," Lois said. "You sent someone to get rid of me in Africa, and the bomb at the dedication - that was for me, too. Just because I was asking too many questions." Lex inclined his head, and Lois felt a chill at his easy admission. Why was he being so cavalier about her knowledge? "So what are you going to do now, while the ball is going on downstairs? You can't just disappear in the middle of the evening like this - your guests are probably wondering where you are. And Clark - Clark will be looking for me. You don't want *him* up here, do you? He tends to be a bit… protective." The warning was clear, but Lex merely smiled.
"Yes, he's revoltingly conventional, isn't he? The two of you are quite a matched pair. But you mistake the matter if you think I don't want him here. Au contraire, my dear - I'm *counting* on his flying to the rescue. That's why *you*'re here - to ensure his presence."
Lex held out his right hand and Lois stared in bewilderment at it. He passed his thumb under the ring finger, and the monogrammed onyx setting flipped up to reveal another stone beneath. Lex detached the outer covering and put it in his pocket.
"I knew when that arrogant meddler appeared that he was the only true obstacle to my goal, and thanks to a…former associate…I've found a way to neutralize him. Then I'll deal with you, but nothing baroque this time. Simplicity is the mark of true genius, don't you agree? "
He held the ring up, and Lois could see a glint of color as the newly revealed stone caught the dim light.
"Nothing can hurt Superman," she said scornfully, but then realization hit. Though she'd only heard about it from Clark, she knew what that glimmer of green meant.
"I see you know what this is," Lex said, approvingly. "Good. I won't have to go into any tedious explanations." He got up, went over to the massive desk, and reached behind it. A panel slid silently out of the wall, blocking the doors to the balcony.
"I designed these apartments especially with our young superhero in mind," he explained. "An alloy in the walls to block his vision, heavily reinforced to slow him down in the event he decided to come *through* them, and soundproofing." Lex looked around the room with satisfaction. "I wouldn't have been able to keep him out forever, but I did want to make things difficult for him."
"I won't help you," Lois said quietly. "You were right about that. I may not be able to stop you, but I won't do anything to put Clark in danger." She swallowed, and went on, putting into words the fear that had been growing since Lex had blithely admitted his guilt. "Not even if you threaten to kill me. I won't call for him." I can do this, she thought. I've survived worse situations, and I can get through this. She measured the distance to the elevator, and tensed her body in preparation for her move.
"I've turned off the soundproofing temporarily," Lex went on, as if she hadn't spoken. "I'm sure Superman," his mouth twisted on the name, "is, as you say, even now trying to locate you. Let's give him a hint, shall we?"
Lois surged to her feet, dashing past Lex, and reaching the door of the elevator, pressed the button to open it. Nothing happened, and she looked back at Lex who had made no move to stop her.
"Waste of energy, my dear," he said mildly. "I locked the elevator controls when we came up. The only way down is the fire stairs," he tilted his head to a door on his right, "and you'll have to come past me to get to them." His eyes gleamed with amusement. "Or you could just scream."
"No," Lois said flatly.
Lex sighed. "Very well." He came toward her and Lois turned to face him, her back pressed against the smooth metallic surface of the elevator door.
Clark stood in the hallway where he had last seen and heard Lois. He had removed his glasses and was gazing in frustration up at the ceiling. No matter which way he turned, his ability to see stopped at the one hundredth floor, the penthouse. He had tried listening again, too, straining to locate the one voice, the one heartbeat that would lead him to Lois, but there was nothing. How could she have entered that elevator with Lex and suddenly become invisible to his powerful senses? A floor specifically designed to hide from his eyes spoke of long-range planning. Clark frowned and whirled in sudden decision. He had to find out what was going on up there. He headed for the main entrance of Lex Tower, loosening his black tie as he went. A few seconds later, Superman hovered above the balcony of Lex Luthor's penthouse apartment, staring in disbelief at the blank wall that barred the entrance to the interior.
Inside the dimly lit room, Lois pushed down her panic and tried to think. Lex's leisurely approach seemed like a taunt, emphasizing her helplessness. She began to slide sideways, edging along the wall until she reached the corner occupied by a plant stand. On it was a luxuriant dieffenbachia in a brass urn. She darted behind it and gave a shove - the stand tottered and fell onto the carpet with a thud, the urn spilling potting soil as it rolled. Lex sidestepped the mess easily and kept coming.
"This is foolish, Lois - you're just postponing the inevitable," he said, with a reproving look.
Lois continued moving to her left. Her foot bumped against one of the massive firedogs in front of the ornate fireplace which took up much of the space on the side wall, and without taking her eyes from Lex, she reached out blindly to grasp the poker in the rack beside it. She brought it up with a grunt - it was solid iron with a shiny brass handle.
"Stay back," she said breathlessly. Lex laughed, reaching for the poker, and Lois swung it like a baseball bat, putting the whole force of her body behind it. The sickening sound of metal hitting flesh was masked by Lex's scream of pain. His face contorted with rage, he lurched toward Lois, and lifted his uninjured arm. She raised the poker again to ward him off, but his backhanded blow knocked her sideways, and she crumpled to the floor without a sound.
Outside, Clark had heard Lex's cry, and immediately arrowed his body toward the balcony, arms outstretched and hands fisted. He crashed through the metal, tearing a hole in it and casting the broken pieces to one side as though they were paper. His momentum brought him into the center of the room so quickly Clark was behind Lex before he could turn to face him. He placed both hands on Lex's shoulders and wrenched him around angrily.
"What have you done to her, you -!" He was so angry he barely noticed Lex's gasp as his left arm was jostled. Lex grinned, despite his pain, and made no attempt to escape from Clark's hold.
"Why, Superman, how kind of you to drop in," Lex said with spurious cordiality. "The party was getting a little dull without you."
Clark withdrew his hands with a sound of disgust, and then to his amazement, staggered as an acute dizziness hit him. Oh, no, he thought, that's impossible. How can I be feeling like this here, now? Even as he formed the thought, his vision blurred, and he felt the weakness in his muscles that he had experienced only once before in his life. His breathing became labored, but he forced himself to concentrate on the man before him. Lex was watching him, wary but expectant, and Clark understood.
"You have kryptonite," he said, and began to back away. Lex followed, reaching out with his right hand to stop Clark. His grip was firm, and Clark tried but failed to shake it off. He eyed the ring stone with dismayed recognition.
"Oh, please, Sup - , I mean, *Mr. Kent*," Lex smiled with amusement at his own words, "don't leave us now. This little gathering is finally becoming interesting." He shoved Clark into a chair, and stood over him, careful to keep the ring between them.
"This is insane, Lex," Clark gasped, wincing at the shooting pains that had invaded every limb. "How do you expect to get away with it? You can't just make Lois and me disappear in the middle of a charity ball without people asking questions."
"I'll deal with the problem of damage control afterwards," Lex snarled. "For now, I just want to watch you suffer. Suffer and die."
Clark barely heard the sadistic reply. He could feel the weakness growing; he had to act soon or he wouldn't be able to act at all. Turning his concentration inward, he willed himself to ignore the pain and focused all his energy on making his body respond. Lex had relaxed his watchfulness as he enjoyed his moment of power, and now brought the ring hand up to support his injured arm. Clark bent his head and rammed it into Lex's midsection, forcing him backward with the unexpected move. He pushed himself up and out of the chair and grappled with Lex, but couldn't muster enough strength to hold him in place. They staggered around the room like two drunken dancers, until Lex broke free and turned toward the elevator. Clark dropped to his knees, his gaze fixed on Lois's face. She lay near the fireplace; her eyes were closed and there was a cut on her cheek, as though she had been struck by something with a sharp edge. He couldn't tell if she was still breathing. The agony of seeing her there, hurt and unmoving, was worse than anything his body was experiencing.
Clark lurched to his feet and with a surge of strength grabbed Lex from behind. With both arms wrapped around Lex's body he dragged him backwards. Their stumbling brought them to the opening Clark had punched through the wall, and they fell together through it and out into the balcony. They strained against each other, silent except for the rasping sounds of their breathing and their grunts of pain. As they neared the railing, Clark blinked to clear the mist from his eyes. Lex suddenly relaxed in his grip, then twisted, in an attempt to catch Clark off guard, but he had underestimated how much strength his opponent still possessed. Lex lost his balance and with one short yelp of surprise and fear, toppled over the waist-high wall. Lunging after him Clark made a desperate grab and managed to catch his right wrist as he fell. He grimaced at the agony in his shoulder and fought for steadier footing. Behind him, he heard a moan, and chanced a look back. Lois was sitting up, feeling the side of her head where Lex had struck her. Despite the pain, he felt a fierce joy at the sight. She was alive - hurt, but still alive, and nothing else mattered.
"Lois, can you help me?" he gasped. "I'm really weak - I'm not sure I can hold him very long."
Lois got to her feet and walked a little unsteadily to him. Lex hung from Clark's hand, his face a pale expressionless mask. He stared unblinkingly at the wrist Clark held. His other arm was dangling uselessly. She must have broken it when she hit him with the poker, she thought with a sense of detachment born of shock. He had not uttered a word from the moment he had gone over the wall He looked up at Lois's face peering down at him and made a noise, the frozen mask twisting into life. He was laughing, she realized, a gasping, strangled sound just on the edge of hysteria.
"Indestructible Lois," he said. "I should have recognized… my beautiful Nemesis…"
Lois ignored him. "Do you think you can pull him up enough for me to get a grip on his jacket?" she asked, leaning out to gauge the distance. The moon had risen sometime in the last hour and its cool light poured down on the balcony, illuminating the scene.
"Lois, he's slipping," Clark whispered, "and I'm getting weaker by the second." His voice cracked and Lois's gaze flew to the white-knuckled hand that Clark held so tightly. The beautiful, poisonous glow of the ring on Lex's finger seemed to pulse and expand, casting a sickly green reflection on the hands of both men.
"Oh, god, Clark, of course you are," Lois breathed. "As long as he's wearing that ring, you'll never regain your strength. If you don't get away from it, you could die."
"Yeah," Clark managed a weak smile, "kind of ironic, isn't it?"
Lois looked at Lex again. He was staring at the ring with dawning comprehension. He began to struggle, vainly trying to bring his body closer to the building, to get a toehold on the slick surface only inches away.
"Don't move, Lex," Clark said sharply. "It makes it harder to - ah, no! - Lex!"
Lex's movement had caused Clark's hand to slide, and the ring now dug into his palm. A piercing pain, stronger than all the rest, shot sharply through his entire body. He jerked upward reflexively in a last desperate attempt to bring Lex closer, but it was not enough. Lex slipped from his grasp soundlessly, dropping and disappearing into the dark long before he reached the concrete 1300 feet below.
The balcony was eerily silent - only Clark's strained breathing broke the quiet. He sank to his knees, wrapping his arms around himself as though he were cold. He shuddered once, and lifted his eyes to Lois and she knelt before him, her hands going to his face, cupping his cheeks gently. His look of sick self-reproach cut through her muddled feelings of horror and relief like a knife.
"No, Clark, stop that," she said firmly, her no-nonsense tone at odds with the soothing motions of her hands stroking his face and neck, curving around his shoulders and gently kneading them. "You did your best to save him. You know you did. If he hadn't been wearing the ring, you'd have been able to, but he *was* wearing the ring. He was wearing it because he hated you and wanted to kill you." Her eyes misted with tears, but she smiled at him, that sudden brilliant smile that was like sunlight breaking through clouds. "And you *still* tried to save him."
Clark's breathing eased. She felt the tension gradually ebbing in his shoulders, and saw the clouded look of pain in his eyes begin to fade. He smiled back at her.
"Lois, when I saw that he'd hurt you, I didn't care what it took to stop him, or what he did to me. No, I didn't want him to die, but the most important thing was to keep you safe. It's - frightening - to love someone like that."
"Frightening?" Lois looked a little hurt by the word. "That's not a good thing," she said uncertainly. "Is it?"
He lifted a hand to her face, his fingers brushing softly down her cheek. "Sure it is." His crooked grin was reassuring. "It's a wonderful thing. The bad thing would be if you didn't feel the same way."
"Oh, Clark." Lois slid into his arms and settled against him with a wordless murmur of pleasure. "I do feel the same. Lex wanted me to call for help, to bring you here, but I couldn't do that. I wanted to keep *you* safe." She kissed the hollow of his throat, then his chin and the line of his jaw, her lips open and urgent against his skin. He gathered her more tightly to him, and his mouth closed over hers with the hunger and reverence that she remembered from the night they met. He always kissed her as though it were the first time, she thought wonderingly. Or as if it might be the last.
Clark ended the kiss reluctantly, burying his face in Lois's hair for a moment, and then looked up. The sky was clear and star-filled; he wished he could be up there now, floating, with Lois. He cocked his head slightly and got slowly to his feet, pulling Lois with him. She shook out the crumpled folds of her dress, and smoothed her hair.
"Someone must have called the police," he said, taking her arm. "I hear sirens heading this way." They re-entered the apartment, crossing to the elevator. He stared at the control panel, and a few seconds later a small hole appeared in the metal plate. The door slid open and they stepped inside. "We'd better get downstairs and let everyone know this party is definitely over."
Inspector William Henderson stood on the sidewalk at the entrance to Centennial Park, hands in his coat pockets, watching Lois and Clark approach. They were walking slowly, heads bent toward each other, completely engrossed in their conversation.. As they came nearer, Clark laughed at something Lois said, and lifted her hand to his lips. For a moment they just stood there, smiling at each other. Henderson's years as a Metropolis cop had made him a cynic, but his usually saturnine expression lightened at the sight. He nodded a greeting when they finally noticed his presence.
"Inspector Henderson," Clark said, with a puzzled frown. "I didn't expect to see you again before the inquest. Did you have more questions?"
Lois wasn't so polite. She'd known the inspector for years, since her days as a rookie crime reporter. "You had us at police headquarters for hours that night, Henderson. Can't the police handle the rest without Clark's help? Or have you gotten so dependent on Superman - "
"Lois, I'm sure the inspector has everything under control," Clark broke in hastily. "And I'm always glad to help the authorities," he added with an admonishing look. She rolled her eyes.
"Yes, you are," she said, "but there's such a thing as pacing yourself, you know! You can set priorities -"
Henderson grinned. "Same old Lois," he interrupted, but there was no malice in his voice. "Always in charge. Well, you can pull in your claws for now - I'm here with some good news. After due consideration of all the facts, it has been decided that no formal inquest will be necessary. Luthor committed suicide - you were too late to save him - end of story."
Clark looked relieved. "In a way, that's the truth," he said quietly. "He died because of the ring."
Henderson frowned, and cleared his throat. "Yes, well, uh, the ring. I have some not-so-good news about that. We still have no idea how Luthor got hold of the rock. None of the kryptonite is missing from Star Labs. >From the ring covering we found in Luthor's pocket, we *were* able to trace the guy who made it for him. Leo Osterman - "jeweler to the mob" - also a fence, you probably remember him, Lois. Claims he had no idea what the green stone was, and Luthor wasn't the kind you asked questions. But the ring itself…" Henderson looked a little embarrassed. "We can't find it."
"What!?" Lois and Clark spoke together, and Henderson threw up his hands.
"I don't know how, but between the time the body hit the pavement and the meatwagon got there, the ring disappeared. It was dark, the streets are full of petty thieves who wouldn't think twice about robbing a corpse, so…"
"So somewhere in Metropolis, there's a piece of kryptonite, and we don't have a clue where to look," Clark finished. Lois gave him a worried glance, but he seemed more resigned than upset.
"I'm afraid so," Henderson said. "Maybe we'll get lucky, and whoever took it has no idea what it is."
"Maybe," Clark said, but he didn't sound too hopeful. "But it's all in the police report…"
Henderson nodded. "Yeah. I wish I could say it will stay confidential, but…well." He shrugged, then stuck out his hand to Clark. "Good luck." He lifted an eyebrow at Lois. "You, too, Lois. You deserve some."
Surprised at his words, Lois watched Henderson walk away, then turned to Clark.
"You said you wanted to walk in the park after breakfast," she said, gesturing to the stone pillars that marked the entrance. "Here we are."
Clark took her hand without answering, and they stepped off the sidewalk and onto the tree-lined path. It was not quite nine, but the day was already warm, and the shade was welcome.
"Okay," he said, "you've been dying to tell me something ever since I picked you up this morning. What is it?"
Lois stopped and faced him, her face bright with excitement. "Oh, Clark, it's wonderful! Mr.Olsen - only he wants me to call him *Jim*," she laughed, "called me last night and offered me my old job at the Planet! He's really anxious to get the scoop on the Luthor debacle, and he's willing to pay very well for my exclusive report, whatever I'm free to tell, of course. Afterwards, I can choose my own stories - I'll have the full support of the paper on any investigations - the whole nine yards! And the best part," she gave him a quick kiss, "is that we'll be working with each other. Isn't that great!?"
Clark laughed and hugged her. "Yes," he agreed. "Lane and Kent, finally together at the Planet, and all's right with the world."
Within the circle of his arms, Lois acknowledged the truth of his words. As long as they were together, no matter what else happened, all *was* right in their world.
Clark's hands moved caressingly over Lois's back, and he began to sway back and forth in place, humming under his breath.
"Clark, what - ?" Lois began, then relaxed against him, as she recognized the melody. "They were playing that song," she murmured. "Before everything went crazy. It was always one of my favorites."
"I realized this morning that you and I got all dressed up and went to the ball," he said, "but we never got to dance with each other. I'd been looking forward to holding you, especially in that dress," he grinned down at her, "and it didn't happen. So, -" he twirled her around on the pathway, "I thought we'd make up for it now." He started humming again, and Lois sang along in a low voice: "It's very clear, our love is here to stay; not for a year, but ever and a day…"
They danced along beneath the trees without meeting anyone else until they reached the open area around the fountain.
"Clark." Lois stayed in his arms and tilted her head back to look at him. " Maybe this isn't the right time or place, but I have to tell you now."
He looked bewildered at first, but then he thought - he hoped - he understood. He smiled encouragingly.
"I believe our love "*is* going to last," she went on. "I'm as sure of that as I've ever been of anything. I know there are no guarantees in life, but I also know that I'm never going to love anyone as much as I love you."
Clark swallowed hard. "That's exactly how I feel," he said. "So…are you saying you'll marry me?"
Lois eyes met his and they were sparkling with love and tears. "Yes, Clark, I will."
"Lois." Clark could only say her name, and then he was kissing her, lifting her off her feet with the gentle strength that he controlled so effortlessly. When the kiss ended, Lois saw that he had taken them straight up into the air, and they were floating high above the treetops. The sun was warm; a slight breeze ruffled Lois's hair as they drifted.
"Now, that's dancing," she said dreamily, and wrapped her arms more tightly around his neck. "I could stay like this with you forever. But," she went on regretfully, "I suppose we should get back down to earth. There's a lot to do - my new job, and I don't want a long engagement, do you? I'll call Alice, and Perry, and -"
While she was speaking, Clark put one arm under Lois's knees, lifting and cradling her. He looked at her apologetically. "I'm sorry, honey. I really hate to do this, especially now, but Superman has a meeting with the Citizens for a Safer Metropolis at ten, which Clark Kent is supposed to cover for the paper. I've got to go."
Lois sighed, but nodded in understanding. She brushed her mouth against his, and said, "It's all right." Her lips curved in a small secret smile. "You always come back. Why don't you drop me off at the Planet on the way? I'll see you there afterwards. We can have lunch and start making plans."
Clark laughed and kissed her once more, as he turned them toward the Daily Planet globe which gleamed in the distance. "Whatever you say, Lois. Whatever you say."
"Love Is Here To Stay" by George & Ira Gershwin, copyright 1937.