Caped Fear

By Doc. Klein's LabRat <labrat@blueyonder.co.uk>

Rated PG-13

Submitted October 1999

Summary: Lois and Clark investigate a series of strange suicides in Metropolis … but it soon becomes clear that danger is much closer to home than they ever imagined.

Edited and proofed by Becky, Elaine, Kath, LadyBiker and Leapfrog. And special guest proofer, Wendy. ;) Edited for the Archive in pg13 format by Jeanne.

Notes: Feedback welcome as always. Thanks to the Usual Suspects for their able assistance in proofing above and beyond the call of duty with this one and to Wanda and Nan, who helped out with medical jargon and kept me right on hospital and ER procedure.

The poem quoted is "The Lady of Shalott" by Tennyson.

DISCLAIMER: The United Church of Salvation is an entirely fictitious organization and completely unrelated to any other religious group - corrupt or honest. No inference should be made that it is connected to any actual group or persons.

***

It had already gone ten minutes past seven when Lois Lane reached the townhouse.

Laden with grocery bags, she juggled the door keys awkwardly from the pocket of her coat. Negotiating the lock was a little more difficult, necessitating several muttered curses before she was able to push the door aside with one thrust of a judicious elbow. Ignoring its thump against the wall in her wake, she dumped the bags onto the coat-rack shelf seconds before losing them entirely. She shrugged quickly out of her coat, kicked the door shut, and dragged a hand through her hair with a sigh before she turned to switch on the living room lights.

She paused, surveying the tidy, comfortable room. Their home had a curiously abandoned air this evening. Of course, most evenings, she and Clark arrived home together after their day spent at the Planet offices. On those few occasions when they didn't, her husband would be waiting for her when she arrived, usually with the enticing scents of whatever was on the evening's menu already wafting through the townhouse from the kitchen.

If it were early enough, the local news would probably be on the TV. If not, Clark's favorite piano music would be playing softly on the CD player. If, by chance, she made it home first; some light jazz, a little touch of blues…a soft ballad or two, depending on her mood (and whether she was keen to influence his)…and she'd be in the kitchen or working at her laptop, half of her listening for the sound of his key in the lock or his steps on the stairs or the faint swish of displaced air as he alighted on the windowsill of the living room.

Either way, their home had never presented her with this air of slightly sterile and cheerless welcome.

This evening, though, was different. This evening, Clark was in Boston, one of a handful of guest speakers invited by the Boston Association of Young Journalists to attend its annual conference. The Kerth award-winning, internationally renowned, Daily Planet journalist. Lois smiled.

So, Clark was in Boston. And she was alone.

Something she found curiously disconcerting all at once, considering how many years she'd maintained the fiction - even to herself - that she preferred things that way and how long she'd kept to that creed. Strange how just a few months of marriage could change a girl, she reflected, standing in the middle of the empty living room, with those silent hours stretching before her. Tonight, there'd be no companionable laughter or playful banter as they cooked dinner together. No discussion of the day's events or mulling over their latest story as they ate, or watched TV or snuggled together on the sofa, or even forgot about all of the above in the sheer pleasure of being together and —

"Oh, for heaven's sake, Lane!" she chided herself aloud. "It's only *two* nights! And Boston's hardly New Krypton!"

The sound of her voice, breaking scornfully into the room's quiet and overly loud, unnerved rather than soothed her as she'd intended. She moved quickly across the room to switch on the TV, turning the volume control up a notch or so higher than would normally suit her. Katie Chang's cheerful voice pervaded the room, like the gossip of an old friend. Lois paused for a moment, attention reflexively fixed on the LNN city news report - one newswoman to another - and then went to retrieve her groceries as the subject matter began to bore her.

"And, don't forget," she reminded herself, with even more asperity, as she headed for the kitchen, "that Clark did want you to go along. You were the one who said you didn't want to risk leaving the Valley Vale investigation right now. Not when it *could* be close to breaking. Not when some trashy little hotshot from the Metropolis Star could come along scooping us at the last minute. 'Boston is out', you said. 'It's only two nights', *you* said."

She paused, one hand on the kitchen's swing door. "Idiot!" she condemned herself scathingly and, half a wail as she passed through, "Why didn't you just go?!"

Katie had made way for Brock Thompson. Lois quickly tuned out his sympathetic murmurs in the other room as she set about putting away the groceries.

With everything neatly stored, she turned her thoughts to dinner, but she wasn't hungry enough to make any effort at cooking worthwhile. After a deal of fruitless rummaging, she finally settled for a Continental Chicken Surprise TV dinner, and Saran-Wrapped the unused portion. There were no longer any dinners for one among the contents of Lois Lane's refrigerator. It took seven minutes out of the evening as it cooked in the microwave and she ate it sitting at the kitchen counter, still set in its plastic tray. She followed it with a listless half carton of Cherry Crunch ice cream, which was, perhaps more than anything else, some indication of the maudlin levels to which her mood had sunk.

Resorting to Cherry Crunch ice-cream didn't make her half as mad however as the sudden despondent thought that occurred to her as she washed up the utensils she'd used and dealt with the remains of her meal. Namely, that she was going to miss their nightly ritual of washing up together - her washing, Clark drying with heat vision - a process which never failed to amuse her. And, in truth, often gave her a sense of quiet enjoyment too; one of the daily, small and trivial ways in which she was reminded of her husband's uniqueness.

She paused, foot balanced on the pedal of the trashcan, frozen over its open lid in the act of dropping in the foil tray, and was so struck by the sheer absurdity of the thought that she quite appalled herself. She was missing washing dishes now? She shook her head sharply. Something, she told herself sternly, removing her foot and letting the trashcan lid drop with a decisive snap, was going to have to be done if Clark wasn't going to return to a slack- jawed heap of wallowing marshmallow in place of the wife he'd left behind.

She just didn't understand what had gotten into her. It was hardly the first time they'd been separated since their marriage. He'd been gone longer when Perry had sent him out to cover Superman's International Peace Prize Award in Stockholm - and on other occasions since. This was no different.

But, somehow, it *was* different, though she'd have been at a loss to explain how if called to it. She'd been fighting against this maudlin mood all day. He'd been on her mind to the point where her lapses in concentration had culminated in Perry's scathing demand to know why she'd just WAN'd her story to the Berlin office, instead of the duty copy editor, and…

…and she was acting like some lovesick kid, she told herself irritably, as the run of her thoughts began to depress her again.

After a couple of minute's thought spent searching for something which might distract her a time, she decided to make almond and cherry pound cake for Clark's homecoming. It would be the first time she'd used the recipe Martha had given her and she knew it was one of Clark's favorite treats whenever they visited his folks in Smallville. If she tapped into the special store of culinary lore that Katie had left with her, the result should be an appetizing mix of good old Mom Home-baked and Lois Lane Special. Just what a hungry superhero needed to welcome him home.

She set to work. As a trick to keeping her mind occupied with matters other than her husband's absence, it seemed successful. She was quickly engrossed as she set out ingredients, bowls and utensils. Mixing and sifting, she began to hum softly to herself, an old, sultry torch song, which lulled her even further. She did think to wonder how Clark was getting on, but the thought failed to dampen her mood this time.

A quick glance at the clock on the kitchen wall showed that, if things were going to plan, he would be just about starting his introductory speech by now: one down and two lectures to go. Lois smiled and sent out a faint 'break a leg' wish to him through whatever psychic links might lie between Metropolis and Boston that evening. She had given him a more tangible good luck message, of course, before he'd left. A message which had gotten somewhat more tangible than either of them had planned, and if Clark had been a trifle flushed and flustered when he'd finally left for the airport, it was not entirely because he was, by then, running almost twenty minutes behind schedule to meet his flight into Boston.

Lois chuckled and then, as thoughts of that early morning farewell overtook her, leaned absently against the counter, oblivious to the liberal dusting of flour that coated her arms and blouse…until the sharp trill of the oven timer announced its readiness to receive her offering and jerked her rudely from her daydream.

***

With the faintly tantalizing scent of baking cherries and apples already beginning to fill the townhouse, Lois changed into casual, linen pants and a well-worn, U-Met sweatshirt and sat cross-legged before the coffee table. She took a sip of the strong coffee she favored before she set herself to making sense of the jumble of papers, diagrams and police reports piled haphazardly before her.

"Okay, Mr. Valley Vale, where are you this evening?" she murmured, picking up the first of the notes in the open file.

Valley Vale was a big case all right. She and Clark had been nibbling at it for months. Superman had even tried to lend a helping hand, but not even X-ray vision had been able to track down the elusive grave robber who'd been terrorizing Metropolis for over a year now. Actually, grave robber, Lois thought distastefully, was something of a misnomer. She examined a batch of glossy ten by eights, stamped 'Property of the Office of Metropolis Medical Examiner', with a grimace. Valley Vale never actually took anything away with him from the scene of his violations. If you discounted the contents of his stomach, of course.

The Metropolis PD, out of some misguided sense of public duty, had, in the first instance, tried to keep a tight lid on the true nature of the midnight attacks on the city's cemeteries. At first, the only facts that even the most feisty and determined of reporters could pry from them had been that graves had been dug open and their contents spread liberally around the desecrated sites. None of them had been recent interments - a small grace that one, those involved in the clearing up considered. Most had been plots at least half a century old.

Well-known and long held internal rivalries between the various police departments had also taken its toll on the emerging truth. The initial report from the forensic lab of visible teeth-marks on the long bones of the first corpse had been scathingly dismissed out of hand by Darren Peters, the detective in charge of the case, as being nothing more than rat bites.

There had been more than one very public disagreement between the forensic technician heading the investigation and the detective before the evidence obtained from Valley Vale's second and third visits to other cemeteries had revealed the awful truth beyond questioning. That, somewhere at large in the city, someone was spending his occasional evenings, when the urge struck him, digging up graves and feasting liberally on the long dead bones of their interred corpses before making off into the night.

Their ghoulish diner's first port of call, on that winter's evening over a year previously, had been Valley Vale Cemetery down in Northside. It hadn't taken long for the less salubrious members of Metropolis' press to term him the Valley Vale Vampire, a name that had stuck, despite Peters' attempts to shake it loose. And that wasn't the only thing these days that the detective was having trouble shaking. There were the increasingly frequent and hysterical calls for his resignation, for one. Charges of incompetence and mismanagement of the case flew at him like sharp beaked birds, whenever he showed his face. Others muttered ominously about paying local taxes for nothing, calls for the case to be turned over to out of town law enforcement agencies mounted, and, Lois heard through her own local police sources, Peters spent more time these days fielding butt-shredding calls from the mayor and the D.A. than he did actually investigating Valley Vale.

Lois sympathized, to a certain extent. She knew Peters fairly well, had had a couple of run ins with him over the years, found him unbearably pompous and a bully to boot and she'd often been heard to liken his investigative skills to the lumbering progress of a dinosaur in the mating season, but he didn't really deserve the crucifixion. There were, at the last count, over ninety cemeteries within Metropolis city limits. Peters could hardly stake out all of them, waiting for his vampire to show. Valley Vale was smart enough not to hit the same cemetery twice and his attacks, only nine in all of those months, were few and far enough between to be wholly unpredictable. Valley Vale left few clues, other than an imperfect dental impression and one solitary footprint in mud that had proved inconclusive to furthering the investigation. A common enough sports shoe, worn by millions in the city, let alone bringing in out of town statistics.

In the absence of any real evidence, experts had rushed to give their theories on Valley Vale's motivations. Psychologists, canvassed both by the city and by the more unscrupulous newspapers, had vouched forth their own pet analysis and criminal profiles - many of them conflicting. The Metropolis Star had even hired a psychic at one point, all to no avail. In fact, the psychic, to Lois' eternal amusement, had concluded that the perpetrator was in fact a genuine 'soul of the undead', the reincarnation of a historically infamous tenth century English vampire. Lois had seen a lot that was strange and weird in the past four years but even she wasn't prepared to believe that one.

Nope, Valley Vale, to Lois, was no vampire. What he was was intriguing, slightly unnerving, but, more than that, he was *news*. Real news. The sort of news a reporter could get her teeth into. No pun intended. The biggest story she'd had in months (they'd had in months) and she was determined to be the one to break it - with her partner or without him.

She put down the gruesome photographs with a sigh. Only breaking this one was looking less like a certainty with each day that passed and she was aware that her assertion to Clark that that breaking point was close had been nothing more than sheer wishful thinking, when you got right down to it. Nothing about the case made any sense. And she was sure, through her contacts at the twenty- sixth precinct, that she had, at least, all of the information available to Peters and his task force.

She spent the next two hours trudging through all the old ground of the file. Everything was examined in detail, just as though she hadn't gone over it a hundred times already, both alone and with her partner. Still, she worried at it like a rat with a

***

She broke off the thought, with another glance for the nearest photograph, and picked up a scale map of Metropolis instead. Each of Valley Vale's previous hits was circled in red marker, a scattering of sites that spread across the city like a chickenpox rash. Though his attacks were irregular, he always struck on the full moon.

Lois cast a brief, thoughtful glance out of the townhouse window. The darkening sky was cloudy, but above them, she knew, that moon rode in full sail. One more reason for Valley Vale to be high on her mind this evening, prompting yet another futile and fruitless search.

The connection with the full moon had lead to several theories concerning Satanic practices, even theories that Valley Vale was more than one person… a whole witches' coven stalking the innocent metropolis. Lois wasn't convinced. But, no successful reporter ever left even the slightest of chance stones unturned, so they'd practically denuded the public library of all reference books on the subject. Not to mention the Planet's reference section. Many of them were spread in disarray on the table now, jostling cheek by jowl with coldly sparse reports in the jargon of forensic science.

"Valley Vale…Valley Vale…Valley Vale…" she repeated it absently under her breath like a superstition as she studied the jigsaw puzzle data spread around her. "Come on…come *on*…"

It was there. She knew it was there. Why couldn't she see it?

She was drawn to the map again: those red circles. As always, they meant nothing. She supposed, if you squinted just right, you could just about form them into a loose ring, with the attack on St. Luke's in December forming a central pivot. She narrowed her eyes still further, holding the map at a slight angle. She put it down on the table again. On impulse she took a sheet of trace paper and placed it on top, then began to connect those morbid dots with a sweeping line of the marker, forming her imagined arc. Halfway to completing the circle, however, she paused, suddenly and inexplicably drawn to finish the task in a series of straight lines rather than curved. She stared at the mismatched route her pen had taken and then, almost absently, pulled the paper higher to begin again. This time she made all of the connecting lines between each red dot straight. Nor did she connect them in the obvious arc, as she had before. The pen moved, almost of its own violation, in a series of sharp triangles and pointed angles to produce…

Lois stared at the design she'd created. Her eyes snapped back to one of the reference books laid open on the table: 'Satanism and Satanic Rites in the Twentieth Century'. Halfway up the page a diagram, remarkably similar to the one she'd just created, had been inserted into the text. A pentacle? Lois lifted a brow. Was it really that simple? Her eyes traveled between map and book for a moment and a rising tide of excitement swept over her as she realized what she had before her. Valley Vale was hitting cemeteries on the nearest course he could to forming a pentacle. It was an imperfect representation, of course, no two cemeteries were on the required direct line, but it was darned close! Too darned close to be coincidence.

And something more.

The pentacle was incomplete. One line stayed blank, between two points; one line only. One last hit? One last hit, from the mind of a twisted soul, to form a blazing signal to the world of his intentions and beliefs?

Lois tugged the trace paper clear with an inarticulate cry of discovery and dragged the map close, almost unable to look. There. Only one cemetery lay on a direct line between those two unconnected points: St. Bartholomew's Garden of Eternal Rest in City Heights.

She whacked her left knee soundly on the under-edge of the table as she surged to her feet, sending half the table's contents to the floor in a wild scatter of papers. She didn't even pause to register the jolt of pain that swarmed up her leg as she swept the living room like a whirlwind, thrusting objects into her large, canvas purse as she went. She was halfway to the door when she remembered the cake. Cursing, she hared through to the kitchen and twisted the oven dial to the off position before reversing course, snapping out lights as she went.

The slam of the outer lobby door coincided with the sudden sharp ring from the phone by the stairs. It rang until the answering machine cut in and then it was silent.

***

Clark Kent hated flying.

It was perhaps one of life's more ludicrous ironies, true. But to a man who could circumnavigate the world in a matter of moments, who passed through the petty borders which nations bound themselves with as though they were of no import, who had been known to visit thirty different countries in a day and without working up much of a sweat besides, modern commercial air travel was an exercise in frustration and exasperation, too unendurable to be borne, with its boarding controls and regulations and its interminably slow passage. Clark had once likened it, in an uncharacteristic fit of pique after a particularly fractious flight, to trying to make an important appointment, way across town, in a Metrocab that was being driven by a blind cripple at three miles per hour in a rush hour gridlock.

Lois had sympathized. Thanks to a brief, unexpected interlude one year before when she had found ephemeral fame as UltraWoman and been in possession, albeit briefly, of Superman's powers herself, she'd even understood his resentment. Just a little. Not that that made him feel any the better about it. Mostly, he was able to shrug off his irritation with the knowledge that commercial flight was an occasionally necessary evil in his life, but, every now and then, such immutable logic counted as zilch against his frustrations.

The eleven-forty commuter flight from Metropolis to Boston had been just such an irritation: a series of disasters and delays from beginning to end.

Now, standing before the cream draped Georgian windows of Boston's prestigious Astoria hotel, Clark yawned massively and scrubbed a hand through hair still dripping from the reviving shower that had been his first port of call on returning to his suite. Theoretically speaking, his muscles didn't record any discomfort, but his mind still recalled the grueling flight, cramped into the narrow Access American Airlines seat, even if they didn't, and - as always - his mind won the toss. He ached all over.

He rubbed fitfully at the tight, corded muscle at the back of his neck and thought, wistfully, of the soothing hands of his wife. He sighed and, more to get himself off *that* track than out of any genuine concern, frowned briefly and scanned the streets below him. His thoughts drifted into the background haze of his mind as he focused all of his attention out into the night for the briefest of instants; force of habit. But there wasn't anything stirring out there that shouldn't be. Probably fortunately, he thought, as he turned away with another yawn. It wouldn't do for Superman to be visibly seen to be helping out in Boston when so many people familiar with both of them knew Clark Kent was attending a convention in the city.

Discarding the towel wrapped around his waist, he reached for the fresh clothes he'd already laid out and began to dress. Tugging with an absent hand at the knot in his tie, he sat on the edge of the generously proportioned king-sized bed, intending to dial up some room service.

Instead, as he reached for the elegant twenties style phone, he paused, eyes drifting over the empty pillow beside him. A smile softened his lips as he thought about his wife, remembering how she'd been with him that morning, the softness of her in his arms as they'd made love. He forgot about dialing room service. His smile widened to a rueful chuckle. There weren't many people on this planet that could pin Superman down to a bed and prevent him from leaving, but his wife had pulled off that particular trick more than once since they'd been married, he thought, amused, and no doubt would again.

In just a few, short months she'd turned his world upside down and he hadn't regretted a moment of it. But then, she'd been doing that since the first moment he'd met her. It was a source of constant wonderment to him that just one glance from her, one word, one simple embrace, even the small, soft whispering of his name, could render him as powerless as any man on Earth; his strength, his powers, counting as nothing against hers.

His hand rested briefly on the embossed hotel emblem, silk-embroidered into the pillow, and his smile faded. That he missed her already didn't surprise him any, he could miss the woman from one end of a room with her on the other: nothing new there. Nor that he already regretted their decision that she wouldn't accompany him to the conference.

At the time, the arguments against it had seemed simple enough and whereas he'd been less than convinced by her seemingly absolute confidence that the Valley Vale case was about to break, it *could* have been close. Years of investigative journalism had taught him never to underestimate a story's potential to blow wide open on the one day in the year you chose to be looking elsewhere for a lead. And in the one place you hadn't thought to go looking. Losing the take to another reporter now, after all their months of hard work, just didn't bear thinking about. And it was only two nights away from home, after all.

Two nights without her warmth settled next to him in the small hours of darkness. Two nights without her companionship. Two nights without her.

He glanced over the bed again with a sigh.

"Idiot," he told himself. "She would have come along if you'd asked hard enough."

More tempting thoughts of his beautiful, vivacious wife drifted through his mind, which seemed to be in agreement with that verdict.

He glanced at his watch, then, grinning, hooked the receiver from the phone. He dialed quickly.

The soft burr of the call tone was replaced by his own voice as the answering machine kicked in.

Clark sighed again. He waited for the beep and then left a brief message. On consideration, as he cut the connection, he dialed a second number, but her cellphone was switched off and he found himself listening to another automated message. Frowning now, he thought for a moment and then dialed for a third time. It was late of course, but that had never stopped Lois before. If she'd gotten the bit between her teeth on some story or other she was likely to forget time existed. And, as Perry was fond of saying, breaking news didn't keep office hours, so why should his journalists? She *could* have been called in. That's what Perry maintained beepers had been invented for - snagging reporters in subways and on highways before they could escape his reach.

But she wasn't at the Planet either.

"You've reached the desk of Lois Lane. If you want to leave a message…"

He took her advice, though he was sure she'd pick up the message at home first. She probably had been working late on something, was just now en route home.

He thought about that, frown deepening.

Maybe he'd just try their brownstone again in the next quarter hour, he decided as he put down the receiver.

Just to be sure.

***

St. Bartholomew's Garden of Eternal Rest consisted of three acres of softly rolling hillside and soothingly arranged oaks and elms. It commanded an imperious position above the sprawling downtown area of City Heights, which had sprung up around its serene parkland in the past eighty years. Urban decay had taken its toll of the cemetery's once stately calm. Its shrubs were overgrown, tangled over years of neglect into dense jungle, pitted here and there with broken toothed gravestones, many of them toppled into the weed- choked ground, or leaning at crazed angles. Many others had bonded into the vegetation over the years where they, and the seekers after eternal peace they commemorated, were slowly forgotten and left to decay.

It held an air, to the casual eye, of a sober Victorian matron, now in her dotage, who slept fitfully in a dark, forgotten corner. Given no more than a fleeting glance and less attention than that by those who passed her by.

Heavy rain had swept the green slopes earlier in the evening, leaving the grasslands lush with droplets of moisture, sparkling like hidden jewels now under the moonlight. Rivulets of murky water still trickled steadily from the half furled wings of praying angels and trailed tears from the chubby cheeked faces of putti who turned soulful eyes to the dark sky overhead. But the storm had been brief, nothing more than a squall, already passed and gone and forgotten. Nothing was permanent or long remembered in this silent, atrophic world, save death.

In the darkness, the faint bell-like chimes of a monument clock broke the silence somewhere to the west. A tinkling, ethereal melody, punctuated by a single, mournful strike, before it too faded.

The cloud cover lifted for a moment's grace, letting through a weak beam of light from the moon sailing overhead. In the darkness it was as unwelcome as a spotlight, pinning the dark clothed figure that was currently shimmying its way up the high, cast-iron railings on the cemetery's east side with all the grace and expertise of a cat burglar.

Lois let out an explosive, irritated burst of air as one pants leg caught hard on the barb of spiked wire woven into the railings, just as she successfully reached the summit. She jerked the cuff free, muttering a brief imprecation against the absurdity of such security measures. Who did they think was going to break in? Or out? Reason asserted itself in another moment. She knew only too well why such ridiculous security measures were necessary to guard the recently and unrecently departed. She was breaking in, after all. And she knew it was likely - if her luck was good and her perception of recent events correct - that someone had very probably broken in before her too.

She glanced quickly around her with the thought, from her lofty position, perched precariously some six feet above the ground. But there was no sign that she had company.

Immediately below her, a wide, graveled path curved in a right hand arc into a tasteful screening of lilac bushes. Where it ran straight before the railings it was bordered on its opposite side by a gently sloping hillside, dotted with the monuments and stone-faced angels that guarded the slumber of its residents. Nothing moved in that serene landscape, beneath the pale, often clouded glow of the moon. Nothing broke the silence.

Lois warily adjusted her grip on the railing crossbar, avoiding the razorsharp barbs of wire, and hitched her leg over before lowering herself to dangle for an instant. She dropped to the ground with a jolt, crouching momentarily as she took her bearings. Then she reached into her purse. The Maglite felt secure in her hand, more weapon than flashlight, as she held it close against her thigh. She didn't switch it on, using the moonlight instead to track her way in weaving progress through the silent graves.

The boundary fence vanished quickly behind her, lost behind a tangled and twisted screen of spiked bushes and half-submerged and crumbling grave markers. She kept off the path for as long as she could, but the chaotic undergrowth grew denser and eventually she was forced out and onto the gravel. Progress was more difficult here, the gravel slick and half flooded in places. She negotiated streams she considered deeper than the Mississippi and was in the middle of tip-toeing through one of the deepest, muttering under her breath about new suede boots bought only the week before and already half ruined, when the throaty, treacle-thick chuckle floated through the still air towards her.

Straight out of a Bela Lugosi, fifties B movie.

Lois froze like a rabbit in headlights.

…Son of the Valley Vale Ripper…

…Graveyard Vampires at Dawn…

…Fangs of the Blood-Spattered Teenage Scream Queen…

Lois grimaced.

…Fangs of the Blood-Spattered Daily Planet Reporter…?

She gripped the Maglite against her thigh until her fingers numbed and sternly told her wildly leaping imagination to cut it out.

The sound came again, punctuated by a low burbling of incoherent words. Lois drew in a tight breath and headed for its source, easing her way between the stone markers to her right. One of them, a huge, monolithic slab in monument to Edwardian one-upmanship, provided ample cover for her to crouch behind. She peered around its marble edge.

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the deeper shadows under the clutch of trees ahead. The figure crouched over the grave, only a few dozen yards away, was dark clothed as she was, nothing more than a small mound against the ground. Then the Valley Vale Vampire lifted his head briefly, scanning the landscape around him with the wary, darting motions of a hunted beast and the washed out light caught the pale, angular planes of his face as it turned in her direction. Moonlight shone like silver pennies on the hollowed eyes. Noting it purely for the fact that it further confirmed that her hunch had panned out, Lois' mind simply refused to take any more notice than that of the long thighbone that Valley Vale was currently clutching in his left hand. Nor did it feel inclined to linger overlong on the scatter of other bones and scraps of tattered rag that littered the area around the open grave.

The flat, shiny stare swept over her and Lois shrank closer to the stone, sure that she'd been seen. But Valley Vale ducked his head again, his attention taken by his grisly task. Lois grinned humorlessly from between clenched teeth, exhilaration rising in her as she ducked back into hiding, setting her back to the solid stone. She sent a brief glance skywards, in thanks to whatever guide had lead her to her quarry, and then clenched congratulatory fists against her thighs.

"Yes…! I knew it…I *knew* it…!"

She cut off the hiss of delighted breath, sharply. Congratulations could wait. First things first, she fumbled in her purse for her cellphone and hit the pre-dial button for her local police source, before setting it close to her lips. The soft burring tone of the connected line murmured at her ear and was picked up as Lois shifted position to cast another quick glance around the gravestone.

"26th Precinct. Herrera."

"Herrera? Herrera, it's Lois - " the soft hiss choked off as Lois' eyes widened.

The site ahead of her was empty.

A laboring puff of breath exploded against her right ear.

Lois ducked sharply, all that saved her from having her skull caved in like a ripe watermelon by the shovel Valley Vale aimed at her head. The shovel struck the stone a millimeter shy of her left ear as she jerked out of its path. Her head came up hard against the sharp corner of the gravestone. She cried out as a flashlight exploded behind her eyes and for an instant, she was blind. Then she was looking up into the twisted rage in the podgy face above her as Valley Vale hoisted the shovel over his head for a second try. He was expecting her to try a frantic scrabble away from him, of course. But Lois Lane was made of sterner stuff. Instead of breaking sideways, as he'd figured she would, she rolled quickly onto her left hip, brought herself up on her elbow and swung her legs in a sweep that cut the legs out from under her attacker and landed him hard on his side with an explosive grunt of breath.

She was up and running an instant later. But he was quick, unbelievably quick, at her back. She could hear him panting as he closed on her. The cellphone was lost, squawking faintly in the mud behind her. A frustrated grunt of impatience - frighteningly close - gave her another bearing, enough to avoid another sweep of the shovel as it was swung viciously after her. Ducking, she tripped over something lying in her path and went sprawling. She spun onto her back as he came at her again, heels skating wildly in the churned up mud as she kicked her way clear of him. It only registered that she was backing up against the edge of the torn open grave Valley Vale had been feasting at when she realized she was treading mud and slime uphill as she retreated. She froze, eyeing Valley Vale warily, resisting the urge to glance behind her into that dark and gaping pit.

Valley Vale lunged forward, like a pouncing beast, and bellowed his frustration like one too as Lois avoided him with an ungraceful slide sideways in the treacherous surface. As she came level with him, her eyes fell on something, whitely gleaming in the fickle light and among the mud. What had tripped her, she realized. She grimaced, revulsion rising sour in her mouth, but it was no time for a fit of the vapors. Grimly closing off her mind to anything but escape, she grabbed out at the length of long bone half buried in the churned up mud. Slick as candle-wax, it rolled clear of her frantic fingers, setting her heart to jolting heavily as it missed a beat, then her scrabbling lunge for it brought it into her grasp. Clutching it tightly, she aimed it in a straight-armed blow at Valley Vale, with the full weight of her strength and a sudden flashflood of rage behind it.

Valley Vale shrieked like a castrated bull as the makeshift weapon slammed into his thigh and sent him sprawling to his knees and halfway over the edge of the pit in front of him. The prospect of tumbling headfirst into that darkness seemed to terrify him. It animated him in a screeching, scrabbling rush to his feet, legs kicking a frantic dance until he found purchase again.

Lois struck out at him a second time and missed as he skated in the mud, almost ending nose-deep in the dirt herself before she recovered. Regaining tentative balance, Valley Vale whirled to face her. His balance wavered; he stepped back an uncertain pace. The mud slope beneath him crumbled and he shifted stance desperately to keep his footing, straddling the slope. In that sudden moment of stillness, balance restored, crisis narrowly averted, he looked up bullishly from beneath heavy brows at the woman facing him and grinned, triumphant. Lois smiled back sweetly, right into the piggish little eyes, and then aimed high, coming up onto her knees and swinging the bone in a sudden, sharp arc to bury it with some degree of not inconsiderable force between the now chuckling monster's legs.

With a squeal that would have outdone a whole sty full of pigs, Metropolis' only vampire collapsed in a writhing heap beside her, curling himself around the throbbing center of his hurt as his entire world filled with bright starbursts of agonizing pain. Lois lay balanced on her elbows for a moment, breathing hard. Then she made her way painfully to her feet. She staggered back a pace, instinctively out of reach of Valley Vale's threshing feet. She stared at the howling figure blankly and then, glancing downwards, peeled her fingers distastefully one by one from the bone and dropped it to the muddy ground. She scrubbed one palm violently against the other with a shudder.

After a moment or so, she remembered the cellphone, still shrilling faintly to itself a few yards away. Confident that Valley Vale wasn't going anywhere for a time or two, she turned her back on him contemptuously. She straightened her sodden, mud-spattered jacket with two quick and violent tugs of her hands, raked the dripping mess of her hair back from her face with fingers that shook only marginally, and retrieved the squawking instrument.

"Herrera? Lois Lane."

Something warm was trickling down the back of her ear and beneath the collar of her jacket. She put up a hand, grimacing as she touched the stickiness there and then moved the hand up to her skull. She winced and felt a moment's blackening of her vision as she met the soggy patch of matted hair. A dark drumming far back behind her eyes heralded a full-blown headache to come. She put the hand behind her, groping for the steadying edge of the gravestone, and held on tight. When she was sure her voice wasn't going to waver any, she went on, enunciating slowly and carefully, "Herrera? You still there?"

Her conversation with the detective was brief, though twice as long as it need have been as she worked her way through the frequent, interrupting bursts of indignant disbelief her announcement provoked. She was smiling when she cut the connection.

She glanced over at Valley Vale. He'd curled himself tighter into a fetal position and was whimpering from between clenched teeth.

"Oh, quit that," she snapped irritably.

Valley Vale stopped whimpering just long enough to blink up at her in myopic shock, obviously hurt to the quick by her lack of empathy, before he went back to his dirge.

Lois sighed and then stalked determinedly forward. She put her hands on her knees and bent over the Vampire with a friendly smile. "Okay, how about we do a deal here? *You* quit and *I* don't kick you into that hole there and fill it in. What do you say?"

The howl stopped, cut off as though by a knife. Valley Vale's eyes flickered >from her to the open grave beside him and back again. In the sudden silence left in the wake of his wailing, his ragged breathing sounded harsh and rough. He studied Lois, as though trying to figure if she was serious about that threat. Lois brightened her smile a notch. Her tone sweetened. "If I think you've been a good boy, I might just tell the cops you're in there when they arrive. But, if I *don't*…"

Valley Vale's lower lip began to tremble. His eyes filled. His fingers clawed slowly in the mud beside him until they turned up a long bone buried there. He pulled it to his chest, wrapping his arms around it like a child with a favorite teddy bear as he began to slowly rock and croon below his breath.

Lois made a small sound of disgust and straightened. She hit the second pre- dial button. This time the call was answered less quickly and by someone only half as alert.

"Jimmy? Lois. Listen, grab your camera, I need you at St. Bartholomew's Cemetery. City Heights. Right now. We don't have much - what? Oh, I don't - hang on…" She snagged the phone between ear and shoulder and plucked at the metal strap on one upturned wrist. She squinted at the dimly glowing face of her wristwatch and then returned her attention to the cellphone. "Two-oh-four. You think you can — " she broke off again, listening intently. She raised a slow, measuring brow.

"Jimmy, you want to be the Kerth award-winning photographer who took the first photos of the Valley Vale Vampire before his arrest, or not? I mean because I can call Giles, or even Annabel…I know they'd be only too happy to get in on the ground floor on this, whether they've just crawled into bed after a wild night's partying or

***

"

Her self-satisfied smile spread like cream as she realized she was talking to a dial tone.

***

Clark replaced the telephone receiver, lips puckered into a tight line as though he'd just bitten into something sour.

Ralph Pereira usually had that effect on him.

He beat down the soft pulse of annoyance talking with the man had risen in him and scrubbed a hand across the back of his neck. He found, not entirely to his surprise, that the hand that hadn't been holding the receiver had clenched into an unconscious fist against his thigh at some point during the conversation. He eased the fingers steadily apart with a grimace.

Throughout the evening, he'd tried calling their brownstone several times more, the Planet another three. But he got nothing but answering machines. Lois' cellphone remained stubbornly unconnected. As an afterthought, he'd tried Perry's private office line and Jimmy's desk without much hope of success, and in that, at least, he'd been rewarded. No one answered. It had taken his final call to the newsroom before he'd found himself unexpectedly connected to an unrecorded human voice. Unfortunately, that voice had belonged to Ralph and he had hardly been any the more welcome to listen to.

Ralph hadn't known where Lois might be or where she could have gone, other than that she'd left the Planet just after six: six-oh-three, to be precise. She hadn't been intending to go out anywhere, certainly not to a movie or out to dinner, and had planned to spend a quiet evening at home. This somewhat more detailed than he'd expected answer to his query had shown an exceptionally vivid interest in his wife's movements that had risen Clark's eyebrows sharply before he filed it away for future consideration.

Right then, though, he'd had more immediate matters than Ralph to worry him.

And, as it happened, it seemed that Ralph had other things on his mind too, things that could only be described as 'Clark's Adventures in Convention- Land'. In short, just how many of Boston's babes he'd been able to hit on since he'd arrived. Clark's startled protests that there was nothing to relate had been brushed aside as just so much pussyfooting around. Ralph knew all about out of town conventions. Ralph had even been to one. And, just buddy to buddy, Clark could confide in him some, he wasn't gonna tell. Hey, as far as he was concerned, when the cat was away, the mouse back home didn't need to know what it'd been up to, right?

Clark had been halfway to telling him smartly that, actually, this particular cat was much more interested in what the mouse might be up to right then, before common sense cut in. Ralph had been almost duty bound to put a spin on that one which Clark had never intended to convey. He'd tried to keep a hold on patience. But by the time Ralph had given up on dragging out some true confessions from him and gotten around to confiding some lurid and none too believable anecdotes concerning his own past adventures (delivered in hushed and conspiratorial, all guys together tones) Clark had pretty much given up on him completely.

He'd left a brief message for Lois to call him when she could, which was innocuous enough that even Ralph couldn't make any capital out of it, but he had more confidence in the answering machine to deliver it.

He sat for a moment, mulling over that conversation, then reached for the phone again, punched in his home number and listened to a voice he was rapidly becoming very bored with. He hung up, got abruptly to his feet and wandered restlessly to stand before the black sheen of the window.

"Lois…" he murmured. "Where *are* you?"

He closed his eyes, a stillness coming over him, every muscle in his body tightening, every nerve straining to listen. Then he grunted, shaking his head ruefully at himself. Was he really expecting an answer?

Well…yeah, maybe he was. He couldn't deny that there was something inside him that was attuned to his wife on a level he could neither fathom nor explain. Something that went beyond instinct, beyond his powers, surpassing anything and everything he'd ever known or experienced before. Something he'd felt with no other person on Earth. Not even his parents.

It had overtaken him gradually, the awareness of that link between them. At first tentative, then growing, expanding, deepening in him in rhythm with his burgeoning feelings for his partner and entwining its way around his heart in much the same way. He had always held her on the periphery of his awareness, even from the first, but he was aware right from the first moment he became attuned to it that this was something more than the instinctive way every nerve-end in him seemed to leap to attention and come alert whenever Lois walked into the room. More than the way his skin tingled when she leaned across him to point out some obvious 'error' in the story he'd just written or placed an easy hand against his shoulder to get his attention as he sat at his desk, or the way in which her voice sent ripples of slow warmth coursing through him.

The unconscious awareness of her that settled itself deep in his soul, that was something else again. Increasingly, with the barest of flickering thought, he found himself able to pinpoint her location at any given time and no matter where she was. As though some vital compass point stretched between them. He could close his eyes and there she would be, on a straight line out from his thoughts of her and the image of her held in his mind's eye.

For the longest time, perhaps naively but understandably so given that he had never felt such strong feelings for any woman before, he had simply thought it a natural extension of being in love. An instinctive byproduct of being mentally attuned to another, of holding them close, of knowing someone so completely and of being completely known. He remembered how surprised he had been when it had finally dawned on him that not everyone shared that bond with their life partner, how awed that revelation had made him.

He remembered too, as clearly as if it had happened just that morning, the moment when he had focused sharply on that awareness for the first time, rather than simply accepting it at some subconscious level. When he had realized that it was real and not merely some romantic notion he had conjured up out of his fantasies.

He had been sunk in despair and desperate, sitting morosely in the middle of the cage in which the Lakes had trapped him. He had looked across the gap - so small and yet as unbridgeable as the deepest chasm - that separated him from Lois. And he had called her name. Not overloud, certainly not a yell, he had simply spoken commandingly, in a way that demanded she listen. And she had woken instantly from the deep, miserable sleep into which she'd drifted with no more prompting than that. As though she'd heard him call her at a level beyond hearing, from somewhere unconsciously tuned to him and from deep within.

Events had overtaken him at that point and it had only been days later that it had occurred to him that he had witnessed something at that moment that was extraordinary and awe inspiring and perhaps just a little frightening.

It had been later that day that he had first, consciously, tried out this mysterious, ethereal and fragile new power. From the other side of the newsroom he would murmur her name and sometimes she would look up from where she was pouring herself coffee or engaged in conversation with one of their colleagues, to give him a questioning look or tentative, half puzzled smile.

Sometimes she didn't though and he was unable to decide whether she ever really heard him or whether it was simply that primitive human instinct to become aware that it was being watched intently.

But the revelation had come that afternoon. He had been sitting at his desk, impatient and frustrated. Lois had vanished almost twenty minutes earlier on some errand she hadn't deemed important enough to let him in on and he wanted to get her input on the story he'd just finished getting down on screen. Hardly thinking, he'd reached out, determined to track her down - and to his absolute shock had succeeded where he'd never been able to before.

Lois ducked out on him frequently and finding her was sometimes the biggest challenge in his day. He'd tried other ways to find her in the past, but those were mostly doomed to failure from the first.

His hearing was no good. How did you isolate one human heartbeat, one familiar breath, out of the jumble and clamor of a busy newsroom? Expanding his hearing meant he caught everything surrounding him at an increased level, not just the heartbeat he was hoping to find. Consequently, unless she was within what he'd established as a limit of about a hundred paces of him, tracking her among the glassy jangle of ringing phones, clanking copiers, the hum of a hundred conversations, was impossible, no matter how deeply the unique collection of breath and heat and pulse that formed her was imprinted on his mind and heart. There were just too many distractions.

He could isolate some. Old Mr. Jeffers up in the penthouse suite above them had a latent heart murmur that caused an odd little double hitch in every second breath. Gillian, down in Marketing, suffered from asthma, which made her prone to a slightly breathy whistle when she spoke, inaudible to any except any covertly listening superhero. There were others too. But Lois, thankfully, was healthy and therefore indistinguishable at a distance and among the thundering roar of background static surrounding her.

His sense of smell could pinpoint her often, but it was a lesser sense, and capable of distinguishing that particular concoction of enticing scents which formed his partner only to a limited range. His enhanced vision could find her wherever she was in the building in the - literal - blink of an eye, but he used that sparingly. Lois had once, jokingly, told him that she'd assumed his frequent fussing with his glasses had been the signs of astigmatism. She hadn't entirely been serious, he knew, but if she had noted how frequently he played with them, then others could too. And Clark, as always, fought hard to maintain an air of almost banal normality when among his colleagues, fighting the urge to do anything on a regular basis which might be noted, filed away and consequently remarked on as a curiosity or something out of the ordinary.

So, despite his other-worldly powers, he was mostly as helpless as any normal man to find her at such times, his super advantage no advantage at all. The bond between them though…that pinpointed her accurately and unfailingly and from distances greater than he could ever have imagined, more so if her emotions were kicking out strongly, if she was excited or scared or furious enough to spit. He had been able to sense her distress and loneliness, the small, soft whimpering of a breaking heart, even on board the ship speeding him unwillingly towards New Krypton. And, incredibly, he now knew that Lois had heard his reassurances that he would return, though he'd had little hope at the time that she would.

And on *that* particular day at the Planet, beyond question, it had led him unerringly into the bowels of the building, where Lois was poring over a batch of old records. Nor had she looked surprised to see him when he joined her.

But, it seemed now that whatever invisible threads bound them together, whichever inner senses held her close within his heart, they were transmitting nothing between Boston and Metropolis this evening.

Perhaps Lois wasn't distressed right now?

He didn't know whether the thought cheered him or made him worry more. Right now, she was probably tied to railway tracks, watching the lights of the approaching train and cheerfully confident that she wasn't in any serious trouble.

*Was* she in trouble?

He couldn't sense cheerful confidence from her either, which might have been more worrying still.

There was, simply, nothing at all.

Should that make him feel better?

Or worse?

He sighed and pressed a forearm against the window's cool glass, laying his forehead against the ridge of bone as he closed his eyes, wearily.

At one time, Superman had briefly considered asking those amazingly inventive guys at S.T.A.R. Labs to see if they couldn't employ their talents to finding some means of enabling Lois to contact him when all others failed. She couldn't always scream for his help, he'd realized, when she was kidnapped, or tied to barrels of explosives or thrown into rivers. Sometimes, Metropolis' Villain of the Month had the foresight to gag his captive…a sure fire and simple method of preventing Superman's involvement in proceedings, and one which, when pushed to it, he preferred as the restraining method of choice. It beat knocking her over the head again. There was only so much the human skull could stand to take. And Lois' had already taken more than most.

Still, a solution would be even better. He'd thought about the Superman Signal Watch some bright spark had come up with before and wondered about adapting it. He was sure that Klein and his buddies could make something that would fit discreetly into some piece of jewelry for Lois to wear. A bracelet perhaps, something that could be easily activated and which would out-decibel her screams if the need arose - a difficult task, certainly (Lois could scream pretty loud), but not insurmountable. He'd been so enamoured of the idea that he'd even begun to elaborate on it, wondering about whether they could, perhaps, incorporate some kind of tracking device in there too. Then he'd always be able to find her, no matter where she'd gone. Or been taken.

He'd had the idiot lack of good judgement to mention the idea only once to Lois. After which he'd wisely never mentioned it again. Not even to his subconscious. It had been near enough a full week before she'd forgiven him and longer than that before she'd let him forget the lapse. He'd spent the greater part of the remainder of that week fielding her ferocious glances and listening to her low growls under her breath. There had been lots of dark mutterings about 'belling the cat' and 'husbands who think that signing a little bitty piece of paper gives them the right to go tagging their wives like they were stray puppies fresh out of the pound and liable to wander under the nearest bus'. Together with lots more which he, quite frankly, hadn't had the nerve to tune his hearing into.

He opened his eyes. A steady flicker in the darkness gave testament to the fact that the heavy snowfall that had begun to blanket the city earlier in the evening hadn't lessened any. The approaching blizzard from the north seemed to have little respect for the opinions of the LNN weathercaster, who'd earlier been cheerfully confident that the unseasonable and unexpected squall would have blown itself out long before midnight.

His fingers fisted into the velvet brocade of the flounced drapes as he stared blindly into the snow-frosted street. Snow provided good cover though. Few people would be out in the streets tonight, braving the chill.

He sighed. It was the first admission he'd made to himself that he intended to go searching for Lois. Even if it did mean breaking the promise he'd given her before he'd left Metropolis. In reality, he was honest enough to recognize, it was a decision he'd been working his way up to all evening. Since the first time that brownstone phone had rung out, unanswered. For a moment though, the memory of the solemn concern in his wife's eyes just before he'd left her held him from acting on it. Guilt could be a more powerful restraint than any physical bonds.

He understood, very well, why she'd been concerned enough to make him reiterate the promise they'd made to each other only a few short months before. He shared it. After a brief moment of indiscretion and a lapse of judgement had almost brought them to the brink of discovery and disaster, they hadn't made that vow to be more careful in future lightly. He knew how much their security depended on his being careful. How risky it was for Superman to be seen in the skies above Boston. How one, small moment, taken recklessly without thought, could destroy the lives they'd both worked so hard to gain; could put at risk the fragile security on which those lives depended and shatter it in an instant.

Secret rendezvous were out.

They'd agreed on that.

But then, he hadn't expected her to vanish on him as soon as he'd left Metropolis' city limits.

And he couldn't just sit in his hotel room, wondering where she'd gotten to and what disaster might have overtaken her between office and brownstone. He knew she could look after herself, but even the feistiest of reporters could find herself in more trouble than she could handle, now and then - or more often than that - and, if she *was* in trouble…This far out he'd never hear her call for him. Never hear her scream for his help. Never —

He shoved aside the sudden flood of bloody images that had flashed into his mind with those thoughts.

He had to find out what had happened to her.

But he was in Boston and bound by the promise that he wouldn't take to the air in anything that didn't have two wings and a tail until he was safely within Metropolis city limits. Lois had been very specific about it. Determined enough that he had been amused by her insistence at the time. An amusement his wife hadn't been impressed with as she'd pointed out snippily that the Astoria was, after all, just four blocks clear of Logan Airport and what with all those high-tech scanning and radar machines they had these days…

He had teased her out of her concerns at the time - there was no real danger of him being tracked by airport radar; he could fly fast enough to beat it here or anywhere else, and he knew that she was really simply finding reasons to feed her own anxiety, but…

…but he wasn't amused now.

He *was* thinking hard.

And finding the glimmer of a loophole.

He had promised. But had he promised for Superman…or only for Clark? For a moment, reviewing the conversation he'd had with his wife before he'd left for the airport, he couldn't remember. But increasingly, he was certain: In fact, during the entire conversation, Superman had never actually been mentioned at all.

Q.E.D. Clark Kent was in Boston. But that didn't mean Superman couldn't go looking for Lois.

Of course, it was a fine line in semantics that Lois was bound to be less than impressed with, if he ever had to defend the decision. But he had to know. And nothing less than flying back to Metropolis to find out was going to settle him tonight. Besides, he salved his conscience with logical sophistry, if she was in trouble then she'd doubtless forgive him the lapse. And, if she wasn't…

Well, they'd work on that.

Anyway, he could keep his distance. She'd never have to know he'd been anywhere near.

Decision made, he straightened, loosening his grip on the drapes to snick the latch clear and open up the tall windows to the night's chill air.

***

They loaded Valley Vale into the ambulance by stretcher, still whimpering, still jerking spasmodically. He'd refused to walk; had expressed shrill disbelief that anyone would expect him to try. Long before they got him there though, he'd come out of his self-induced trance and recovered breath and wits enough to begin ranting about lawsuits for unprovoked assault and wrongful arrest. Considering the weight of evidence scattered behind him in the mud, no one took much notice of these ravings.

On the edge of the bustle of activity that had invaded the cemetery's calm a bare thirty minutes after Lois' call to him, Detective Herrera watched the performance. He beckoned one of the uniforms keeping watch over the grave, now swathed with streamers of yellow ribbon marked 'Police line - do not cross', and murmured a few brisk words in his ear. The officer nodded and strode, hard-faced and narrow-eyed, for the ambulance, hitching himself into the interior just before the EMTs slammed the doors shut. The ambulance shrieked a trail into the night.

Herrera glanced across his shoulder at the dark pit behind him. As always, he was struck by the snapshot unreality that took over a crime scene once it was discovered. High banks of arc lights towered on stick-insect tripods over the grave. Beneath their sterile, unforgiving light, all sins were blasted into white-hot discovery, no smallest detail left unknown. Figures in white coveralls bustled here and there; uniformed cops stood guard behind the lines of fluttering tape, steely eyes on the handful of spectators who clustered on the barrier's other side. What always spooked Herrera though was the silence. With this many people around, it should never be this silent, he thought soberly, as he always did. But his somber, heavy-jowled features - which, in the past, one of his more astute girlfriends had once likened to resembling 'a Basset Hound on Prozac' - showed none of the emotions that flitted through his mind as he surveyed the makeshift lab and its kneeling acolytes.

Valley Vale had been interrupted before he'd gotten down properly to his midnight feast. This time. He'd left enough mementos however to convince anyone beyond doubt that they did - finally - have their man. The similarity to other sites he'd visited was marked and Herrera carried images darkly in his mind of those other sites, other feeding places, where grisly leftovers had been scattered plentifully around graves cleft open by the cannibalistic little pervert. His lips twisted, forming a thin line of distaste.

He turned his back on the forensic team, shrugging the collar of his coat up against the back of his neck as he shivered. He swept the hillside until his steady, unperturbed gaze fixed on the small tableau of figures over to the right of the crowd. His look soured. Lois Lane was perched on the table top of a crumbling Victorian monument. One hand held an antiseptic soaked pad to the right side of her head as she absently fended off the ministrations of a green coated figure with EMT stenciled on its back and kept her attention on the burly cop facing her. The wound didn't appear to be slowing her down any as she exchanged heated comments with both men. Herrera recognized the cop right off. Detective Darren Peters had been in charge of tracking down Valley Vale >from the start - and making a poor job of it.

Caught between the scowling cop, the increasingly frustrated EMT, and the righteous, holy wrath of his colleague, a youngster wearing a camera slung around his neck and an expression that hovered between intense excitement, flashing anger, and the wary wish to be elsewhere, stood watching the proceedings. His head swiveled like a spectator at a tennis match as he tried to keep all of them in view at once, looking increasingly out of his depth. Herrera recognized him vaguely as a Planet photographer he'd seen before, mostly in the company of either Lois or her partner, Clark Kent. But the kid's name currently escaped him. Herrera sighed and began to make his way carefully up the slippery slope.

"Hey, Herrera, can't you call off the dogs?" Lois flashed him an irritated glance as he reached them and then turned it on Peters.

"Not my case, Lois."

"Just doing my job, Lane," Peters said as a quick punctuation to that, with a dark, warning 'butt out' glance for his colleague. "Like I told you, you give me a statement, you get outta here. Simple as that."

"And, like I've told *you*, I've already given a statement!"

"So you did." Peters glanced sourly at a notepad in his hand. "If we published this instead of putting it in the Valley Vale file it'd get you a Doug Lyndsay Fellowship Award for Original Fiction."

A brief, upward flicker of Lois' left brow was her only comment on this remarkable showing of literary awareness, from a guy she'd been confident up till then could barely read…not counting the funnies.

"Well, it's the only statement you're getting. And, talking of stories, if you'll excuse me…" Lois hitched herself abruptly from her perch and gathered up her purse and coat. The EMT made a reaching movement in her direction and then held up abrupt, surrendering hands as she flashed him a single, dark glance. He picked up his kit and walked off stiffly with a shake of his head. Lois dismissed him instantly to continue, "I've got a deadline to — "

"Forget the deadline." Peters shifted his weight, which wasn't inconsiderable, effectively blocking her as she tried to pass him. "I wanna know how you figured this out."

Something flickered in the eyes of the Planet's finest reporter. Lois slumped back against the support of the stone tablet, putting a hand abruptly to her head and closing her eyes. She moaned softly and then looked around anxiously, after the retreating EMT.

"You know…this headache's getting worse. Maybe I *should* do like that EMT said and take a ride to the hospital. I'm feeling kinda…woozy."

Peters' lips twisted. "Sure. Let's go. I'll tag along. You can give me a statement while you're waiting in ER for three hours to get seen."

Lois scowled, gave up the diversion, making a remarkably swift recovery, and opened her mouth on a protest that was pre-empted by the detective.

"Either way - here or down at St. Luke's - you tell me what went down here, tonight, Lane. Or you and whatever story you think you got ain't hitting the presses."

"I *told* you - "

"The truth! Not some dumb-assed fairy story!" Peters roared, losing patience.

Over by the crime scene, several heads turned in their direction. The EMT, halfway to the police barrier, didn't join them. He'd already dealt with the woman. In fact, he considered it a miracle he wasn't the one doing the yelling. Back at the graveside, Lois fixed Peters with an imperious Medusan glare that might have made lesser men than a hard-nosed Metropolis cop back off rapidly. And frequently had. Peters, however, was immune. He lifted a brow and then his arm, one flick of his wrist showing off a cheap Timex, dressed in a threadbare brown strap.

"Time's ticking, Lane. Don't know how long we can keep the lid on this one and I'm almost sure I heard the words 'Metropolis Star' on the other side of that perimeter line when I came through. Whadda ya say? Still thinking about that deadline…?"

Lois' scowl deepened on him. "Like I said, I had a hunch."

"A hunch? Lady, we been tailing this creep for near enough a year an' he never left us jack one of a clue yit. An' you're trying to tell me *you* figured it out all on your own?"

"Hey, what can I say? My mother fed me a lot of fish as a kid." Lois gave him a sharp smile and then, as he stared her down coldly, "Oh, what? Can I help it if my brains work without the benefit of a paid vacation? I had a hunch, okay? You know…just like the cops on TV?"

"Oh." Peters nodded. "Gee, I love those TV cops too. You ever see that bit where they arrest a witness for failure to co-operate with an ongoing homicide investigation? That's the part I like best."

Lois folded her arms. "Homicide? Far as I know Boris Karloff back there hasn't killed anyone…" she let it trail, an implicit question in the words, dangling like bait.

Peters' face clenched. "No comment."

Lois' eyes lit. "So, he *did* - "

"I said 'no comment' an' that's what I meant, Lane."

"Oh, come on, just one little attributable quote, detective. Or unattributable, if you like." She rummaged in her purse, producing a tape recorder, which she thrust forward almost into his chest as she eyed him interrogatively. "Who'd Boris kill?"

Peters' confident, bullying air had melted in a fraction of an instant to the chagrined, hunched shouldered stance of a man who realized he'd put his foot in it big time. Herrera hid a smile. "Darren, I think the Doc wants a word."

"Huh?" Peters glanced around at him and then grasped the thrown lifeline like a drowning man. "Oh! Oh, yeah! I'll be right back. Keep her here," he added the rough warning over his shoulder as he strode hastily away from them. "I ain't finished with you yit, Lane."

Herrera watched him go.

"What's his problem anyway?" asked Lois, tightly.

"Guess he's none too keen on civilians breaking his big case," Herrera said dryly. He turned back to face her. "How's the head?"

"What? Oh, it's nothing." She took away the antiseptic pad distastefully. "Just a scrape. So, tell me, Herrera, who did Valley Vale kill?"

Herrera chuckled. "Uh-uh, more than my life's worth. Try calling Information."

Lois stared at him sourly.

"Palmer!" Herrera yelled, glancing around. "Palmer, get over here! Escort Miss Lane and her…friend here to the gates, will you?" he added as a young uniformed cop hurried over in response to the summons.

"But, wait a minute - "

"Bye, Lois."

"Herrera!"

"This way, Miss Lane. Sir." Palmer ushered them before him, ignoring her protests.

"Wait a minute." Lois balked and shook off the lightly restraining grip he took on her arm as she turned back. "Hey, Herrera!"

He was already halfway down the slope. He stopped, turned back wearily. He knew it. He *never* got off that lightly. Not with Lois Lane. He gave her a smile set in concrete for all that it was sweet as ten-year-old syrup. "Yes, Lois?"

She smiled winsomely back at him. "I guess a lift uptown's out of the question?" She waved the tape recorder at him. "Deadlines…? And, since Peters did hold us here…I mean, you wouldn't want the Planet to raise questions about obstructing the press in legal pursuit of their constitutionally held rights to - "

"You didn't bring your car?" Herrera quirked a brow at her, "How'd you get way up here without your car?"

"Oh, please, what'd you think I am, a few dozen rungs short of a ladder?" Lois snorted. "Sure, I'm gonna run up here in a pale silver Jeep and park it right outside some locked cemetery gates, where any passing nosy cop could see it."

Herrera looked just a little sheepish. Admittedly, she had a point.

Lois might just have had a hint of color staining her cheeks now too. She ducked her head as she stuffed her tape recorder firmly into her purse and busied herself in its depths for a long moment. Actually, she did feel pretty dumb about that Jeep. Silver? What on earth had possessed her? What had she been thinking? A silver Jeep - for a woman who spent half her life on stakeout or tailing down suspects to interrogate - could she have picked a color more unlikely to blend into the background? Only if she'd fitted it with a portable spotlight. Now a nice, dark green would have been better. Wouldn't it? Or black. Black was good. Except…well, she'd liked the silver. It was flashy. Smart. It said things. Yeah, Lane, a snide inner voice (which had a curiously deep masculine depth to its tone) snorted. It says, 'Hey, look, we're being tailed!' Lois shook her head slightly, dislodging that mocking echo.

"You walked all the way up here from uptown?" Jimmy was looking curiously at her.

Lois rolled her eyes. "No, I took a bus up to Lexington and walked the last few miles. Are we going to stand here all night discussing my travel arrangements?" she demanded, zipping the purse decisively and slinging it across one shoulder. She folded her arms tight.

Herrera looked pointedly to her companion. Jimmy looked discomfited. "I brought my car," he said defensively. He glanced at Lois and then back at the detective, suddenly looking uncertain as to which direction he should be defending the decision from. He shrugged. "It's just blocked in by all those emergency vehicles."

Herrera followed his pointing finger to where the red Mustang was backed up against the fence and pretty much surrounded. He sighed. "Palmer."

"Yes, sir." Palmer nodded smartly. "Right away, sir. Uh, your car, sir?"

"My car." He tossed him the keys and frowned sternly at the reporter. "You owe me one, Lane."

Lois waggled her fingers at him before grabbing her photographer by one arm and hustling him on at a run for the gates as Palmer hurried to catch up.

Herrera chuckled before he went to break the news to Peters that his star witness had ducked out on him.

As he came down the slope and saw the bulky cop arguing with the medical examiner's assistant he laughed even harder. Sometimes, it seemed like there just weren't any perks to his job at all. But now and then…

He schooled his face to something approximating solemnity as Peters, catching his soft laughter, looked up at him and scowled.

***

High above the city, the Man of Steel flew steadily.

It was a cold night, colder still on the city heights, with frost on the air and an unsteady, there-and-then-not drizzle that would have chilled most anyone else to the bone. Superman, of course, registered no discomfort, and might well not have done even if his strengthened body could. He had other, more immediate things on his mind.

The towers and spires of the city's skyscape whipped past him in blurs and streaks, like the markers on a slalom ski-slope as he wound his way through and between them. He barely noticed the familiar landmarks as they flashed by and fell behind him. His head turned in a slow arc, in tune with his enhanced vision as the X-ray sweep steadily quartered the city below him, section by methodical section.

As it turned out, leaving his hotel room hadn't been that much of a risk after all. A careful scan of the area surrounding the building for a range of five blocks had confirmed his suspicions that the unfriendly weather would help him out there. Boston's residents had abandoned her streets. Nevertheless, he'd taken off from the ledge of his room window at a speed that would have shown as nothing more than a fading blur to any watching human eyes.

His first port of call had been their townhouse. His habitual scan of the street below him had satisfied him that there was no one walking past the building, nor any idle eyes watching the street from the windows of the buildings opposite the townhouse. No one to see him enter the home of Mr. and Mrs. Clark Kent from the vantage point of the living room window, should he choose to. Instead, he scanned the house itself. And found only darkened, unoccupied rooms and an empty bed that showed no signs of having been slept in.

The fact that Lois' silver Jeep Cherokee had been parked outside hadn't given him cause for concern. In fact, it had been a small solace. At least she'd reached home safely and hadn't been ambushed on her way back from the Planet, which had begun to be his concern. Wherever she had vanished to, it seemed likely that she'd gone of her own free will and, wherever it had been, it had been somewhere where taking the Jeep was a bad idea.

Which could mean she'd gone practically anywhere, he'd thought dryly and he'd smiled quietly to himself as he'd lifted higher, beginning to widen his search. The Jeep's complete impracticality was still a source of lightweight tension between them, something he rarely passed up the chance to tease her about. His smile widened as he remembered their very first argument on the subject.

It had been in his first week at the Planet. Lois had…mildly irritated him. Again. About what he couldn't quite recall now. But, whatever the source, it had made it a matter of pride to get back at her. He'd thought he'd spotted his opportunity when he'd followed her down to the underground parking area and seen the Jeep. A silver Jeep. He'd raised a brow. Didn't she think a silver Jeep was a little…well, ostentatious for an investigative reporter who spent a major part of her time either on stakeout or undercover, trying to get the bad guys? Lois, clearly taken aback as she slid into the driver's seat, had immediately been on the defensive. The Jeep was…stylish. It said something.

"Yeah, it says, 'Hey, look, guys, we're being tailed!'" Clark had snorted derisively.

Lois had protested that with a diatribe which had lasted a full ten minutes. Clark had counted it to the second on his internal clock as he stared out of the side window and pretended disinterest.

"And vanity plates, Lois?" he'd interjected recklessly into her first pause. "I mean, come on, you might as well just hang flags from the rear windows! No wonder half the villains in this city track you down!"

Lois had spluttered valiantly, but clearly had no answer for that one. She'd contented herself with a frosty glare in his direction and a few of the vilest epithets in her repertoire, hurled at an unsuspecting elderly gent in a beat up Zodiac who had had the temerity to signal his intention to enter the same lane as she was in. Then she'd settled into a sullen silence for much of the remainder of the afternoon.

Clark chuckled softly with the memory and then sobered as he settled into his careful watch of the city below him.

He was in luck. He'd barely begun to scan the city when he found his quarry in a dark colored car, being driven by a uniformed cop. He frowned, drifting lower. Recognizing the vehicle license plates though, he figured that it was probable that his wife hadn't gone and gotten herself arrested, poking into something she wasn't supposed to, after all. Herrera was no fool. He'd have called for backup first. A flicker of a smile passed the Man of Steel's lips. And would have needed it too. Lois Lane didn't lightly let anything get in the way of the press' need to know.

The interior of the car was in darkness, but his enhanced vision made it brighter. Lois was in the back seat, huddled up against the side and hunched over the notepad resting on her knees as she wrote feverishly. Superman recognized the set look in her face only too well. His partner was getting down a take. Beside her, Jimmy dozed fitfully, chin on chest, hands clutching protectively at the camera slung around his neck. Superman let his gaze linger on Lois again. She looked just fine. A bit disheveled, maybe…actually pretty grubby, which was unusual enough in itself, but unhurt, certainly.

They'd been working on a story. That much was obvious. And Lois had obviously been in the thick of it to judge by the state of her. Another smile. Why was he not surprised? With concern now on the wane, reassured, a reporter's natural curiosity overtook him. What story?

A faint wail of sirens caught at the edge of his hearing and he lifted his head. He quickly picked out the fire truck as it negotiated the narrow alleyways on Curtis Avenue. Heading for the waterfront. He caught the thick plume of smoke. Warehouse fire. That was it, of course. Bound to be. And, if he knew his partner, she'd been crawling around right in the thick of that smoke and heat. Which explained her appearance some. He shook his head as he listened intently for a moment to the urgent splutter of radio talk that was reaching him faintly from the alley. The fire was already well in hand by the fire crews in attendance. It was coded as CNPR - a Commercial blaze with No Persons Reported on site. In other words, the building had been confirmed as empty and no one needed rescuing from the blaze. And, with a third truck already on its way, there was little need for Superman to lend a hand. Everything was under control.

Turning his back on the docks, he followed the car instead, on its circular route through the empty city streets. He quickly guessed its destination. He increased his speed marginally to overtake it and landed lightly on the high ledge of the Planet building to watch as it drew into the curb below the famous iron globe. Briefly, as Lois left the car and began to hustle Jimmy impatiently into the building, he willed her to look up and see him. One small, shared glance, one brief meeting of their eyes, would have gone a long way to dispelling the distance that Boston had put between them and the longing for her that distance had seeded in him.

She didn't.

A soft sigh escaped him as she vanished into the lobby, Jimmy in tow.

But he'd found what he'd come looking for, after all, and there was no reason to linger. He turned, on his way to lifting off the ledge, and found himself eye to baleful eye with the glowering figure crouching at his side. He smiled.

"Well, anyway," he told the gap-toothed gargoyle watching him, "she looked just fine to me. How about you?"

It appeared that the gargoyle held no opinion on the matter. Or, if it did, it wasn't willing to share it with him any.

Superman's smile widened as he gave it a brief pat against its flat-eared head and then rose smoothly into the air above it. He freewheeled lazily around and out on a heading for Boston and then paused, turning his head to where the rosy glow of dancing flames cast a rippling reflection on the waterfront.

The third truck had been misdirected. It was on the other side of town now, would take another thirty minutes to reach the scene, and, meantime, that fire was sparking its way towards other buildings in the area, fanned by a sudden, stiff rising breeze coming off the water.

A splutter of radio talk reached his ears and abruptly upped the ante. Control had just been in contact with the owner of the warehouse. The stock was toxic, highly flammable paint and decorating supplies. Caution was advised and the fire code had been upgraded to MUHAZ. MUtual aid required - HAZardous materials on site. If any of those supplies blew before the blaze could be safely doused, a lot of Metropolis' fire heroes were going to be directly in the line of greatest risk.

Superman glanced back across one shoulder briefly before he sighed.

Lois was just going to kill him when she found out he'd been in Metropolis fighting warehouse fires this evening.

He shrugged. And then grinned. But…he guessed a little misdirection wouldn't hurt any. A touch of sleight-of-hand to persuade folks Superman was still in town.

He headed for the warehouse.

***

At just a moment or so past three fifty five a.m., the Astoria's main bar was near enough deserted.

At the far end of the service counter, the bartender polished glasses to a pristine clarity with a judicious cloth and kept a weather eye on his solitary customer, just in case he needed a refill.

He hadn't for a while though.

Nor did he seem in the market for that other mainstay of the bartender's bible: sympathetic conversation.

Clark sat on the barstool, idly staring into the tall, frosted glass cradled in one hand and wishing he were somewhere else.

Acres of gleaming chrome and steel banisters and stair-rails in swirling, art deco curves linked the bar's three levels. Classical Muzak tinkled discreetly off in the distance. The hotel's owners had worked hard at creating the right ambiance of quiet congeniality. Clark had other words for it. Sterile and soul-less were just two of them. He hated hotel bars; counted himself fortunate he rarely had to spend time in them.

Right then, he could think of several other places he'd rather have been spending time in. All of them had Lois in them.

Freed from his concern over her, he'd still found himself restless and unready for sleep on his return to the hotel. The shower he'd needed to rid himself of the grime he'd picked up at the fire had only chased tiredness further from him and his mind was over occupied with the story his wife and Jimmy were working on. It hadn't been the warehouse after all, he'd established. None of the fire crews in attendance had spoken to or seen any reporters at the scene, and he knew that Lois would have gotten an interview with at least one of them if she'd been there.

Intrigued, he'd considered calling to find out what they were working on. But he knew that they'd be working under pressure of the morning deadline to get the story out and how unwelcome a call from a mildly curious partner would be. Still, his mind wouldn't let it go. Finally, he'd gone downstairs to the hotel lobby in search of a cafe that might be persuaded to serve him up a half decent cup of coffee and a quiet corner where he could wind down a touch before trying for sleep again. But the bistro was shuttered and only the neon- coated calm of the bar provided an escape from his room and a coffee maker that, he'd already discovered, turned most brands of coffee into something approximating swamp-mud.

At such a late hour, he'd been surprised to find even that still in business, but the bartender - who'd cheerfully owned up, with a half-abashed, college- kid smile, to the name of Jordan - had confided that, with the Astoria playing host to three conventions that weekend, the management would've been crazy not to keep the bar open round the clock. Sure, it was abandoned now, Jordan had gone on, in response to Clark's skeptical glance around the deserted bar; most of the convention guests were out hitting the local hotspots back in town. But when they closed around four thirty…and if the Illinois Union of Stationary & Office Accessories Reps. proved as thirsty as they had the previous year…well, things were going to be heating up pretty soon. Considering the shuttered bistro, Clark concluded wryly that the management figured the Illinois USOAR weren't going to be much interested in drinking coffee.

He glanced at his watch and noted that he had around twenty-five minutes to make himself scarce. Sharing a bar in the early hours with a tall glass was depressing enough. Sharing it with around a hundred exuberant sales reps. was something even worse.

He took another sip of his drink, aware that his uncharacteristically critical and anti-social mood was more a product of his wishing he were back in Metropolis than anything else.

"Hey, Kent…never would've figured you for a barfly."

Clark turned his head at the sudden, deep boom of a recognizable voice from behind him and smiled, genuinely pleased to see the tall, chubby figure of Mike Atwell join him at the bar. Atwell, a graying African-American in his late sixties, was Director of the BAYJ. He reminded Clark - and more than a few others who'd met him over the years, even when he'd been a good few years younger and carrying less poundage to boot - of a kindly grandfather straight out of a Hans Christian Anderson story, with his twinkling eyes set in round, Pillsbury-dough cheeks and his chunky, lumbering body. But the outward softness of his frame hid a hard-nosed bloodhound when it counted. Retired now, he'd been an astute and brutally honest journalist in his day, with an impressive pedigree to match his outgoing, easy manner and Clark already counted him a friend. So, he took no offense as Atwell went on, cheerfully laying an elbow to the bar and tilting his head to study the tall glass by Clark's hand.

"So, what's all this? Late nightcap? Early hair of the dog? Secret vices you didn't declare on your resume?"

"Spritzer and lime." Clark held up the glass briefly in mock salute. He didn't ask Atwell any similar questions. The man drank bourbon like another would drink mineral water - and with about as much effect. A legacy from a reprobate youth spent in the Navy, Atwell had confessed with a grin as he'd taken note of Clark's curious glance at their first meeting, during which he'd downed six doubles in the space of thirty minutes. Given his habits, finding him sharing the solitude of the bar with him in the graveyard hours of the morning was probably one of the least surprising things Clark could think of. In fact, if he were going to be surprised at anything, it would be that Mike hadn't turned up sooner.

Atwell gave him a sour glance. "Something suspicious about a man that haunts a hotel bar in the early hours and doesn't drink liquor," he judged with a sniff. He beckoned the bartender and glanced Clark's way as Jordan approached with professional celerity. "Another?"

"No, I'm okay, thanks."

"Bourbon, thanks." Atwell told Jordan. "Make it a double. Hold the rocks. Hold the water. Hold everything but the bourbon. So," he returned his attention to his prize speaker as Jordan nodded and went to attend to his order, "what's the story then? Out of town blues?"

He paused, gave Clark another speculative look and then nodded his head in ponderous thought, as though a puzzle had just been solved. "Ah…still haven't hooked up with that wife of yours yet, huh?" He shrugged as Clark glanced at him. "Front desk says you haven't had any calls incoming. Doesn't have you making any calls back to the big city that last any longer than it takes to hook up to a message service either. Except for one - to the Daily Planet and you made one more answerphone call home after that, so I figure it wasn't your wife you were talking to there and that whoever you *were* talking to didn't know where she'd gotten to. Hey, I used to be one of the best this old town could muster, remember?" He shrugged again as Clark raised a brow. "I'm curious, so sue me. It's a natural hazard of the profession. Wait till you get to retirement age and see if your pitbull instincts fade out. Anyway, I just figured I'd ask when I was passing, since you seemed a touch…concerned, earlier."

Clark paused, but he could hardly tell Atwell that his concerns on that score had been taken care of. "No, no calls, yet," he agreed simply. "I'm sure she's okay though. Your seminar go okay?" he asked, changing the subject. The sleight of hand was helped by the arrival of Jordan with Atwell's order.

Atwell took his first sip of the whiskey and nodded. "Sure. Actually, they paroled us early," he confided. He cast a brief glance out into the blackness pressed up against the high picture windows on the far side of the room. Dull thumps of whirling gray snow hit briefly against the panes before swirling off into the dark.

"Half the attendees failed to show anyway. Main Street was jammed tight for half the afternoon, I hear. Most of 'em probably just gave up and turned back for home instead. Should pick up tomorrow though. I called the Weather Center this afternoon; they're expecting it to ease up sometime early tomorrow morning. This morning," he corrected himself, with a glance at the clock behind the bar.

"Good," Clark murmured, casting a look at the windows too.

Atwell eased himself around on his bar-stool to face him and quirked a brow upwards. "Now, why do I get the feeling that wasn't entirely expressing concern that the BAYJ get enough numbers in to justify this little jaunt instead of being bankrupted by rain checks?"

"What?"

Atwell grinned. "Those flights looking likely to be cancelled starting to bug you, huh?"

Clark gave him a troubled look. "Well - "

Atwell's grin widened. "Triple A say they got no plans to re-schedule. Not just yet anyway. I called them too. Figured you'd want to know."

Clark looked even more uncomfortable. "Thanks."

"Hey, don't mention it. I know how much of a rush you're in to get back to the bright lights. Guess being stuck in a 'backwater' like this one is tame for a big city reporter."

"Mike - "

Atwell chuckled, waving him down. "Ah, forget it, Kent, I'm just foolin'. Hey, I know the drill. Used to be a proud new husband myself way back when." He flashed that wide grin at his friend again and then added, genially, "So, what about…Lois? Lois," he pursed his lips as Clark nodded affirmation, "cute name. So, you reckon she's pining for a reunion, same as you are, huh? Betting she's sitting at home ticking down the hours till your plane gets in?"

Clark smiled, thinking again of his earlier visit to Metropolis. "Lois? Doubtful. Right now she's probably chasing down leads on some hot breaking story."

"Ah." Atwell nodded sagely into his glass. "Jealous, huh?"

Clark laughed. "Green like Kryptonite," he confessed.

***

No truly great metropolitan newspaper ever really sleeps. At whatever hour for others might herald the close of their business day, its lights may dim, the clatter of its tickertape fade to a listless tick, its offices empty, its computers run on downtime, but it never really slips into slumber. Like a sleeping dragon, it keeps one hot, suspicious eye on the world and its tail lashes gently as it dozes, eager for battle and keen to respond to the clarion call to arms.

The offices of the Daily Planet, viewed in the after midnight hours, were no exception. Though activity was muted, far from the bustling, oft-times frenzied, clamor of the day, the stillness was illusionary. In the bowels of the building, perpetual in their motion, the great, heavy printing presses rumbled smoothly and relentlessly towards another dawn, another day and another early edition.

On the upper levels, in the newsroom itself, where copy was typed and editorial decisions made, there was darkness. But even here, light broke shallow pools in the shadows and studious phantoms flitted back and forth among the bookcases and conference rooms. Occasionally they even passed by the slim figure that sat pertly at its desk and tapped vigorous prose on the computer keyboard before it. But for all the attention that Lois gave those infrequent visitors, she might as well have been alone.

A faint crease of concentration furrowed her brow and her eyes never left the blue illumination of her screen. She hadn't even paused to remove her jacket on entering the office; had simply swept in, all rush and bustle, dumped her purse at her feet and launched into her take, with barely an absently grunted greeting at a departing colleague who passed her en route to the elevator.

She had taken a moment out of the frenzied capture of her story only once when she'd collared Jimmy for an update on the progress of the prints he was developing. One glance at his grinning face as he'd sped past her desk, intent on his own private frenzy of activity, had been enough to reassure her that the Planet's early edition would carry pictures of the most wanted man in Metropolis to accompany her take. She'd flashed the photographer an answering grin and then sunk back into her own world.

She was oblivious to the slow shifting of gears as the Planet warmed up to another day, as the activity around her became more intense, as the offices filled and darkness lifted and coffee began to percolate in the tireless rituals of the paper's world.

"Whoa, The King save us…Lois! I thought mud monsters from the Black Lagoon had invaded us! Is there really one of my best reporters under all that gunk?"

"Hi, Chief." Lois barely took her eyes from the computer screen to acknowledge the arrival of a curious Perry White at her shoulder. He looked her over again and then shook his head. It was probably wiser not to ask. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.

"Well, assuming you haven't gone and taken up mud wrestling as a hobby…there some reason you're in this early? Aside from the fact that Clark's outta town and you got nothing better to do with your nights?" he added, wryly.

The question might just have held the merest hint of complaint. These days the any hour, all hours, dedication Lois Lane had once focused on her career had slipped some. Where, once, the sight of her hammering at her keyboard in the dawn's early hours would have provoked no comment, it was now rare enough to be remarked upon. Not that White blamed her much for that attitude change, but - just sometimes - an Editor in Chief with his mind more on his paper than his employees and friends could regret its passing.

"Maybe I should arrange for Kent to work more out of town assignments," he murmured and then, as Lois gave him a dry sideways glance, "What's so all fire important anyhow? We got a scoop?" He leaned forward to peer hopefully at the developing story on the screen. "Valley Vale?" He scanned further, eyes widening. "Jumping Jehosaphat! You snared the Vampire? Well, how in the King's name you manage that?"

Lois shrugged. "Staked him out."

White snapped her a glance and saw, to his amusement, that she had offered the explanation in all seriousness.

"I see." He leaned closer, tone turning dry. "An' did he, you know," he flapped his fingers in a flying motion, "try turnin' into a bat first? Or did you string some raw onions round his neck and get a white horse to dance on his grave?"

That got her full attention. "What?" She frowned up on him.

Perry chuckled. "Never mind."

"Here we go! Hot out the soup and looking good!"

Jimmy fairly bounced down the stairs to Lois' desk and dumped a pile of eight by ten color prints beside her.

"This him?" White picked up one as Lois took another. "Doesn't look like much, does he?"

Lois grimaced. "In the flesh. And he wasn't. These are good, Jimmy," she added thoughtful praise.

"Worth getting dragged out of bed at two in the morning for," he agreed with a grin.

Perry studied the photo another moment and then frowned, bringing it closer to peer at it intently. He tilted it to catch the light on a different angle. "What is that he's holding there?" he asked finally.

Jimmy's pleased grin slipped a notch. He caught Lois' sudden glance and then met his boss' enquiring eyes. "Uh…well…"

"Near as we can tell, left female femur," Lois rescued him, nonchalantly. She frowned at the line she'd just typed and then deleted half of it.

Perry took his eyes from the print abruptly to stare at her. "And you included it in the shot?" He deepened the stare, reproving. "Hell's bells! Jimmy…!"

"He wouldn't let go!" Lois protested, keying down to a new paragraph. "What were we supposed to do? Forget about the picture?"

"Well…" Perry sighed.

"Anyway, Jimmy blurred it best he could." She turned her head briefly, tilted it to view the print in his hands with narrow eyes. "No one'll even notice it, trust me." She patted him confidently against the arm and returned to her take.

Perry sighed again. He put down the print with a shake of his head. "Course, you know, Clark's gonna be greener than five week old chili you broke this one while he was gone. Heard from him yet?"

"He left a message on my machine last night. Just to let me know he'd arrived at his hotel safely." She allowed herself a small inward smile at that. Arriving safely at his destination was something Clark never really had to concern himself with; something she never had to worry about either. "I haven't had a chance to get back to him yet."

"Oh. Well, I'm sure he went down a storm." Perry straightened, an editor's priorities suddenly more important. "You gonna make the morning edition with this? You only got half an hour till the presses roll."

"Sure, Chief. Sending it down now."

"That's my girl," Perry said as she leapt to her feet and then, concerned, as she paused to clutch at the edge of her desk, head lowered and a crease marring her forehead, "Lois? You okay?"

"Yeah, sure, I'm fine." She drew in a deep breath and lifted her head to smile at him. "Got a headache, that's all. Listen, I gotta change out of these clothes, so - "

"Lois?" Perry's face tightened a touch as she turned away, giving him a good view of the matted hair and blood soaked collar of her jacket for the first time. "Honey, what happened? Shouldn't you be down at Emergency getting that seen to?"

"Look, Perry, I appreciate the concern. Really. But it's nothing, just a scratch. Honestly. I got it checked out at the SOC by one of the EMTs. He said it was just fine."

"Actually, he said - "

"It was fine." A sharp glance silenced Jimmy's correction in its tracks. The photographer shared a look with the Planet's editor. Perry grimaced.

"What is this, some kinda guy thing?" Lois demanded scathingly, catching it and scowling between them. "Hubby's out of town so it's down to the rest of the frat house to look out for the little woman till he gets back?"

Perry sighed. "Lois - "

"Well, *this* little woman can look out for herself. Now, if you two *don't* *mind*, I'd like to get my take in the early edition and go get some of this…gunk washed off!"

She reached down to snag her purse with one hand. Another of those semaphore glances passed between the two men standing beside her. Perry rolled his eyes ceilingward. Jimmy shrugged.

"Well, if you got it checked out, I guess…" Perry murmured, doubtfully as Lois straightened up again to glare at them fiercely.

"I did. And I'd like to drop the subject now," she told him firmly. "If anyone wants me for the next hour I'll be down in the locker room getting showered and changed."

She headed for the elevator.

Perry shrugged as Jimmy glanced at him. "Don't look at me, I'm just the guy with his name on the letterhead," he grumbled as he made for his office. "Sometimes, I wonder if my voice even gits heard in here these days. Uh, Jimmy?" He turned back as Jimmy eyed him attentively. "Just outta interest, what *did* that EMT say?"

"That he thought it was fine, but that she should get it checked out to be on the safe side," Jimmy said promptly. "He wanted to take her on over to St. Luke's in the ambulance, with Valley Vale, but she wouldn't go. Well, you know Lois…"

"Oh." White mulled that over. Then he coughed lightly. "Well, son, why don't you keep an eye on her for a spell? Just in case. I'd…uh, sure hate to have one of my best reporters out of the loop."

Jimmy grinned and sobered as White raised a brow at him. "Sure, Chief," he said hastily. "Stuck like glue. Uh," he amended, with a glance for the elevator into which the subject of discussion had now disappeared. "Once she's…outta the showers, course."

Perry eyed him narrowly. "Smart call, son," he drawled. He pointed a stern finger at the photographer. "You let her outta your sight for the rest of the day, you got me to answer to. Capisce?"

Jimmy nodded smartly.

"Good. Well, hop to it, son! What we running here, some kinda rest home for the elderly and infirm? Git those prints downstairs! And get me some coffee on your way back up!"

"Yessir!"

***

As a matter of habit, Clark picked up the early edition of the local paper on his way back to his room. He'd successfully managed only three hours or so of restless sleep once abandoning the bar to Mike, but an early morning walk in the crisp, snow-tanged air had cleared the mugginess from his head some and he was in cheerful mood as he chose a selection of papers from the foyer stand and paid the vendor. The blizzard had played havoc with distribution, it seemed; his choice was limited and, disappointingly, there was no sign of the Planet's early morning edition. He'd been looking forward to reading Lois' take.

The Boston Tribune had a lot in common with the Planet though, carrying a mixture of local, national and international news. He scanned the front page - an expose of shady dealing on city officials' parking permits - as he waited for the elevator, and flicked through the inner pages as he stepped absently into the cage along with three or four other passengers.

"Which floor, sir?"

"Huh? Oh, fifteen. Thanks."

The elevator paused briefly for disembarking passengers on the fifth floor as he reviewed the theater section on page three, stopped again on floors ten and eleven. It took on two passengers on the twelfth.

"Isn't this your floor?"

Clark glanced up at the middle-aged woman looking back at him curiously and nodded, giving her a smile. "Yes, it is. Thanks."

He went back to his perusal of the paper as he walked slowly down the corridor towards his room at its far end. He reached page eight halfway along and the banner headline reared up to meet him, stopping him dead in his tracks.

METROPOLIS VAMPIRE CAUGHT

His immediate thought, disappointment that someone had beaten them to the take, after all those months of digging and sifting through any evidence they could find for clues, was wiped smartly clear as the sub-header directly underneath registered.

Daily Planet Reporter in Midnight Stakeout at Cemetery

"What the - ?"

An elderly woman, passing him at that particular moment, gave him a haughty sidelong glance. The glossy coated Peke in her arms echoed it. With those identical expressions of disapproval, and the heavy-jowled cheeks the woman was carrying in the midst of a podgy, overblown face, they might have been sisters.

Oblivious, Clark scanned the bulk of the story in a fraction of a second and then raised his eyes to the ceiling, the newspaper crumpling convulsively in his fist. "Unbelievable!" he hissed, an explosive, exasperated growl that provoked the Peke into a frothing-mouthed fit of yapping.

In deference to the savage look the Peke's owner gave him, he offered an absent apology before he excused himself to stride determinedly for his room. The woman watched him go with unforgiving eyes before she gave her attention to soothing her 'poor little baby', as it choked itself furiously into a fit.

***

"Jimmy? Jimmy!"

Lois punctuated the yell with a wave of the sheaf of computer data in her hand, half rising from her seat the better to gain the attention of the Daily Planet's researcher, way across the room. Jimmy glanced up from where he'd been trading a slow smile with the new filing clerk: brunette curls down to the middle of her back and blue eyes wider than a rabbit about to be run over by a garbage truck, Lois thought cynically. Jimmy waved back with a quick grin and jogged in her direction. By the time he reached her desk, Lois was back at her keyboard and had typed in three more paragraphs.

"Hey. What'd you need?"

"How about a researcher who can keep his body temperature level?" Lois grumbled.

Jimmy grinned at her, unabashed. "She's cool, isn't she?" he breathed admiringly, looking up to aim a wave at the new object of his desire, before returning to Lois with a confidential, "Leanore. Single, got a condo up in East Park…"

"Really? East Park…wow…" Lois glanced across at Leanore appraisingly, before she went back to the sheaf of papers in her hand. She raised a brow. "On her salary? Perry must be paying higher than I thought."

"Yeah. Well," Jimmy lowered his voice, "don't pass it around, but, actually, she's old man Jeffers' niece. Working out her time for her journalism major. You know, getting some work experience?"

"Ah. Well, I'd be careful, Jimmy, 'old man Jeffers' doesn't get wind of exactly what kind of experience his niece is getting down here in the newsroom," Lois warned him.

Jimmy ignored that, still lost in the glow of rose-tinged appreciation. "Works out twice a week at the local gym… She drives the coolest Cobra 427 - mint green - you know, man, that thing can go! Zero to sixty in four seconds…maximum bhp of 410 at 5600 rpm…it's like taking off in the shuttle, I mean just like…pow! Slams you back in your seat like an Exocet on full charge…at least, it does when Leanore drives it."

He sighed, wistfully, and then, returning heroically to business, leaned his elbows on the untidy clutter of the desk to enquire, "So, anyway…what can I do for my other favorite lady this morning?"

Lois reached for a small folder by her left elbow, passing it over. "This guy. Dale Karvin? He's in town for - "

"Big 'praise an' raise' rally uptown." Jimmy looked up from the open folder and shrugged. "It's been on all the local stations."

"'Praise an' raise'?"

"Well, it's what they do, isn't it? More raising than praising too, if I hear tell right."

"I take it you're no fan?"

"Of Karvin's? Don't know him well enough to be anything about him. Just not my scene is all. Are you?"

"Not especially. Can't say I know enough about the subject either way. Which is why," she added meaningfully, "I'd like some background on the man."

Jimmy snapped the folder to. "On my way, boss lady!"

Lois nodded and then dragged open her desk drawer and pulled out a 100mg bottle of aspirin. Tipping out a couple onto her palm she washed them down with a quick gulp of cooling coffee and grimaced as she got to her feet.

"Head still hurting?" Jimmy paused with a frown.

"Yeah, a little. The fresh air'll blow away some cobwebs though."

"Fresh air?" He turned to watch as she hooked her coat from the rack. "Where you going?" he asked, alarmed.

"City Hall. I just got a call that the Mayor's about to hold a press conference on Valley Vale's arraignment."

"But - " Jimmy glanced down at the folder in his hands and then over to the editor's office.

"If you get anything on Karvin before I get back, just leave it on my desk." Lois added hurriedly, glancing at her watch before she snatched up her purse. "It's urgent, Jimmy. I need it before I leave this evening, okay?"

"But the Chief said - "

She headed up the ramp at a run. "Thanks, Jimmy! I owe you one!"

Jimmy drew in a low breath and then puffed it out again, considering. "You will if the Chief finds out I let you go wandering off on your own," he agreed mildly, as he headed for the reference section.

***

Estelle Pinchenski rattled the charity can under the nose of another passer-by and kept the glazed smile fixed on her face with an effort as she was ignored.

After another five minutes went by without so much as a sour glance in her direction, she backed up into the shop doorway behind her, letting the can drop to dangle from its loop around her wrist and stuffing her chilled blue hands deeply into the pockets of her camel coat. One of them was cold enough to have been itching mercilessly for over an hour. She rubbed her palm against the lining of her pocket in an abortive attempt to ease that maddening tingle and then gave up with a sigh.

She glanced at her watch. Another half-hour and she was taking a break. Martin could hardly say she hadn't tried. Course, she lifted her eyes to the overcast sky with a scowl, Martin was probably collecting inside the mall. Warm and cozy. She sniffed. For a preacher and a Christian, she considered, Martin Gipe could be a prize jerk, times.

But even cold hands and a chill that leeched its way right down into her bones were worth it if they meant avoiding having to listen to another lecture on how worthy a cause the United Church was, how much her contribution was appreciated, how every single one of them must do the very best they could to achieve the Church's aims. All with that pious, pitying look that said she was very far from performing high on any one of those targets.

Estelle sighed. And even enduring that pity, which made her want to scream and drum her heels in frustration, was better than spending another day in her apartment alone, watching the world move past her window.

At least Martin gave her some attention, made getting up in the morning worthwhile.

She wondered idly if tonight might just be the night she'd persuade him to agree to her cooking dinner for him at her apartment. Her mood slipped a notch further as she considered bleakly that it probably wouldn't. There'd been a great many excuses made already and she was sure another was in the offing.

What the hell was the guy's problem? She was attractive enough. Wasn't she? She slipped a sideways glance into the store window and then shied hastily away, like a deer startled by traffic, before the slightly plump frame and haggard mouse face that stared back at her could fully catch her eye. Estelle had avoided catching her reflection in windows for over a decade and had no intention of changing her mind now. In her mind's eye, another woman lived, far removed from the prim, mousy little Estelle that greeted her first thing in the morning from the depths of the fly-speckled bathroom mirror in her dreary apartment. An Estelle that charmed and turned heads and drew men like moths to a flame. Just, in fact, like the heroine of her favorite novels. Fiery, redheaded Madison Bel Marco, who effortlessly juggled a successful modeling career with running a thriving fashion house business and satisfying both a husband and two lovers - in between secret assignments for the Government as one of their top espionage agents, of course.

Estelle's narrow mouth turned down at the corners. Yeah, right, she thought scornfully. She'd like to see Madison Bel Marco do all that, after spending half her life nursing a sick, elderly mother till she gave up and died. *Wasted* half her life. She'd just like to see her do that, that was all. She could have been successful, she pondered dismally, if she hadn't missed out on so much, when it counted. When it mattered. When the best years of her life were passing her by as she breathed in the sick air of her mother's room and glanced longingly out of the two story apartment window, in between dressing bedsores and emptying bedpans, for something better she could only imagine in half formed dreams.

Something better. She hadn't even known what it meant. Just that it was something she was missing out on. Her teachers had told her she was smart enough to go to college. And she had. She had spent two wonderful, free and easy years at Bain College in Detroit - a world away from the stifling home life she had known and the grasping mother who chained her to it. That had been before Mother's emphysema had been diagnosed, of course, and she'd had to drop out of school to take up the burden of unpaid nurse and care giver. Here in the miserable city of Metropolis, to which Mother had moved when Estelle had left the family home. To be nearer her friends, she'd said - now that she was alone. Abandoned, she'd meant of course. By an ungrateful daughter more intent on enjoying herself with her flighty friends than caring for those she should. Friends! Estelle snorted. Friends who'd hardly visited in over ten years and had quickly dropped out of their lives. Friends who hadn't even bothered to turn up at the funeral.

And then what? The ungrateful old witch had upped and died on her, that's what. Left her alone. Squeezed out her youth and her prime and then left her alone. Left her to molder in that empty apartment in her turn, unwanted and unloved and with barely enough education to hold down a job on the checkout of her local five and dime.

The bitter, discontented line of Estelle's mouth tightened to a thin line and then softened as her lips curved in a faint smile.

Until Martin. Martin had saved her. Would save her. She was sure of it. She didn't much believe in God any more, but still, she was sure He'd sent Martin 'specially for her.

She often thought, wonderingly, of how short a time she'd known him. Only three months since he'd knocked on her door seeking donations for the United Church of Salvation, for which he served as an oft times preacher and full time collector. She'd persuaded him to come on in a spell while she made a pretense of rooting for her wallet and had plied him with weak coffee and home-baked cookies in an effort to keep him, to stave off the moment when he'd accept the coins she gave him and leave her to the silence again. And he had listened. Actually listened to her. Actually seemed to be interested in what she had to say. And by the time he had left, he had drawn her into his world, infected her with his enthusiasm for his faith. As soon as the following morning, she had taken the small, gilt-embossed card he'd left with her, dialed the first of the numbers printed there, and volunteered her services to the Church.

Congratulating himself on his success in drawing another sinner into the fold, Martin Gipe would, perhaps, have been shocked to learn that Estelle didn't care two shakes for his precious Church. He would certainly have been appalled to learn that though she did count her contribution to its well being as a labor of love, it was a love rather more firmly directed at him than he would have felt comfortable with.

Tonight, Estelle thought dreamily as she stood in the doorway of the store. Tonight was definitely going to be the moment she and Madison Bel Marco had waited for all these years.

She stepped out into the street again and, fired by her hope that things were about to - finally - come right, she managed to snag seven contributions before she'd been at it more than five minutes.

***

"Lois Lane's desk; Jimmy Olsen speaking."

"Jimmy! It's Clark. Where's Lois? I've been trying to get through all morning and all I get is her machine!"

"Hey, C.K.! How's sunny Boston?"

"Sunny Boston's clouding over and heading for stormy. Which is, curiously enough, just about where *my* mood is right now."

"Oh." Jimmy's mobile grin stiffened on his face as he heard the dry note in Clark's voice. He winced. "Caught the early editions, huh?" he guessed.

"Sure did. Caught the morning news report on LNN too." Clark's tone turned drier still, taking on a falsely sweet note as he added, over-brightly, "Can I talk to Lois now?"

"Uh, sorry, no can do. She's gone - "

"Gone?"

"Well, she hasn't been in since first thing. She - "

"But…she is okay, right?" Clark's acerbic manner tightened. "I mean she looked okay when I saw her earlier and - "

"Saw her? When'd you see her?"

"Uh…on the news. On the…on the TV. In my room. This morning."

"Really? I thought LNN just covered the capture. Lois was mostly left out of it. Peters - you know that dope of a cop that's been handling the case? - I think he'd just like it if Lois wasn't involved at all. He's been trying to claim credit for the catch all morning. Never even mentioned her to the press at the SOC." Jimmy's tone regained its puzzled note, "In fact, most of the media's just beginning to wake up to the fact that it was Lois who caught Valley Vale right now. How'd - "

"I dunno. Maybe LNN had someone on the ground quicker than anyone else. Jimmy, is Lois okay?"

"Oh, sure! She's fine! Just bruised up a little, that's all. Banged up some. He put up one helluva fight." Jimmy puffed out an admiring breath. "I mean, like, wooh!"

"He?" Clark repeated, disbelieving. "*He* put up a fight? Valley Vale?!"

"Boy, did he ever! Lois though, I mean, man, she was like something out of pro-am wrestling night - incredible! Like The Ripper on a bad night, you know? Something else! Had him down and out flat, on the ropes, in two rounds, although it was almost a straight K.O., no penalties, no submissions, when he bounced her off of that gravestone like that. I mean, I don't mind telling you, C.K., when I got there, saw all that blood, just for a minute there I thought for sure we were looking at - "

"Bounced her - ?! Blood? *What* blood? She was bleeding?"

Jimmy paused, running out of steam all at once like a runaway diesel. There was an instant's silence.

"Uh, well…it…t was just a scrape. Didn't even need stitches or anything. You know, I don't even believe half of what she said he did. I mean, you know Lois, right? She was probably exaggerating — "

A long, tortured sigh crossed the wire.

"Jimmy…"

"Hey, C.K., it's cool, honest, I - "

"Did she get checked out? Did she go to the emergency room, get seen by a doctor?"

"Well, no…but it really wasn't that bad. You know she's down at City Hall right now, covering the press conference the Mayor and Peters are holding on Valley Vale's arraignment. Listen, I can get her to call you, she gets back in, if you want - "

"Yeah. Yeah, you do that. I've got some seminars to attend this afternoon. If she can't reach me, tell her to talk to Mike Atwell. He'll take a message."

"Sure thing, C.K."

"You're sure she's okay?"

"Absolutely. No problem."

"Okay."

"Hey, how'd you get along?" Jimmy changed the subject hastily as Clark sounded less than convinced. "Wowed 'em with that speech of yours, huh?"

"Uh, Jimmy, I…can't talk about that right now. Listen, I gotta go. You'll make sure Lois gets that message?"

"Trust me. Catch her first thing."

"Okay." Clark paused, then, "Thanks, Jimmy."

"No sweat, C.K. Uh-oh." A faint bellow in the distance sharpened his voice. "Chief's on the warpath. I gotta go! See you later!"

"Yeah, sure — "

Clark paused as the droning buzz of the dial tone cut him off and then hung up with a low sigh. The tight knot of worry was back in his stomach again, like an ulcer. He was beginning to slot together a picture of what had happened with Lois and Valley Vale the previous evening, through the jumbled jigsaw pieces he'd gathered from the papers and the news reports on TV and now from Jimmy's enthusiastic account, and he wasn't liking what that picture was amounting to.

Not one little bit.

Jimmy had seemed to think Lois was okay though. Perry obviously did, or he'd have packed her off to Emergency by now, would never have sent her out on assignment. He knew that. Course he did.

It was just that his stomach didn't.

An exuberant knock at his door lifted his head.

When he opened it, Mike Atwell beamed at him from the corridor. "Clark!" He slapped a hand against Clark's shoulder in passing and threw himself into an inelegant sprawl on one of the sofas. "How you doing? Thought I'd just look in, see if you'd recovered from your disgusting lack of self-control last night," he said, cheerfully.

Clark grinned at him. "I was the one on water and lime, remember?"

"Oh, yeah. So…" he grimaced, "I assume you don't have any aspirin on you, then? Not having the need for them, as it were?"

"Sure. Somewhere…" Clark crossed the room to where his jacket was draped over the back of a chair and fished in the inside pocket. "Don't have much use for them myself. Never found that they did anything for me, really. But, I usually keep some handy…"

"Don't tell me, you were a first rate boy scout, right? Always prepared."

Clark's smile widened as he switched to the right inside breast pocket, having come up empty. "Well, actually, yeah. But, to be honest, I keep them around in case Lois needs them."

"Right." Atwell grunted, as though he'd just confessed to something obscene.

"Here."

Mike caught the tossed plastic packet, double handed, ripped it open, and winced as he dry swallowed two of the pills. "Thanks. Wooh, that was a doozy."

"Thought it didn't have any effect?" Clark asked him, dryly. Now that he looked at him closely, the convention Chairman was looking just a little gray around the gills.

Mike shrugged. "I don't throw up on the bartender or hassle young women in elevators, I figure it's having no effect. I never said nothing about the morning after."

"Oh," said Clark, dubiously.

Atwell gave him a steady look. "Kent, if we're gonna stay friends, I just got one rule. You don't try and talk me outta having the odd little double now and then and I won't mention this nauseating affection you seem to have for your wife. Of the two," he added musingly, "I tend to consider my vice the more natural. Didn't anyone ever tell you affection should be saved for mistresses? It's wasted on wives."

Clark chuckled. "Deal," he agreed.

"Anyway, that's enough about me for one day." Mike sat up straighter, ditching his hangover like a duck shaking off water. "Actually, I came up to let you know that we've had to shift the program back a couple of hours this afternoon. Professor Dertman called in. He's not going to make his two p.m. seminar. Apparently, he's up to his well-paid butt in snow. Stuck on the freeway just shy of the city limits like a loon on a bulrush. It's gonna take him least that long to make it over here. You got any objection to your final lecture moving up in line?"

"Not at all. Got nothing better to do this evening."

"Good. Knew you'd be a trouper about it," Mike grinned up on him, irreverently. "Gives you a couple of free hours right now though, right? So, you game for a little road trip?"

Clark took an involuntary glance at the frosted windows.

"Well, a sidewalk trip, then," Mike corrected himself. "Just around the corner. I was talking to an old buddy of mine at the Boston Trib. Says he'd be glad to show you around, you want to go check out the competition?"

"Sure!" Clark said. It definitely beat sitting in his room trying to persuade himself a second side-trip to Metropolis was out of the question. "I'd appreciate that. Thanks."

"Yeah, well don't thank me too quick, Kent." Atwell got to his feet to give him a wry look. "That was the good news."

Clark paused in the act of reaching for his jacket. "What's the bad news?" he asked, warily.

Atwell coughed lightly. "Triple A just put out a flight flash on the local station. They're up to their wings in snow too. Whole airport's iced in like a tall double in a cool glass. Looks like you're stuck with us till at least tomorrow morning."

"Oh, great."

"Yeah. Bummer, huh?"

"Tell me about it."

Atwell grinned. "Fear not, my friend," he said, laying a companionable hand to the younger man's shoulder and guiding him for the door. "We'll keep you occupied till your plane thaws out." He gave Clark a broad wink as they emerged into the corridor. "There sure are a lot of bars in Boston!"

***

Karen Culver was clearing her desk, just about ready to call it a night, when she heard the faint commotion rising from the far end of the corridor, outside her cubbyhole office.

/Great/, she thought sourly. /The one night of the year I get tickets for La Boheme and they have to start again./

Sighing, she glanced at her watch.

Couldn't they have waited just ten more minutes till she was out of the building?

For an instant, she considered sneaking out anyway. She'd waited years for this treat, ever since she'd fallen head over heels in love with a dark-eyed, silken-voiced Russian tenor called Serge Minarsovka when she was barely out of pigtails and braces. All those years of worship from the backs of album covers and sighing over vinyl acoustics, leading up to this one, short six week run in Metropolis from an operatic tenor who rarely left his home country, wasn't something she was going to give up on now. And she'd already been kept back, was already a good two hours late in leaving, would have to rush if she was going to make the performance in time.

But she knew what would happen if Mr. Gerrord heard that eruption. And how unfair it would be to Richard, who would undoubtedly take the blame for the disturbance. She muttered a string of expletives and put down the files she'd been ready to take home with her, before she stalked from her room, already knowing what she'd find when she reached the large, walk-in stationary cupboard.

Sure enough, Clive Harkus was throwing the bulk of his weight around again, his bulky, bear-like frame blockading the slighter figure of the boy he was yelling at into a corner of the wall. Richard Carparon's weak blue eyes darted fitfully around the room and Karen felt a flicker of shame that she had ever thought of abandoning him when she saw relief flare in them at sight of her across Harkus' shoulder.

"What the hell is going on here?" she demanded, though she knew only too well.

Harkus glanced across his shoulder at her and, as usual, took a second out to give her a leering once over that made her think immediately about taking a shower, before he straightened away from the boy cowering against the wall.

"Ricky Retard's messed it up again," he drawled sardonically. He waved an arm around the metal-cast shelving that lined the room. Richard flinched back against the wall with the movement, a soft whimper escaping him before he bit it back behind clenched teeth. Harkus gave him an impatient glance.

"I mean, come on, Karen, how many times you got to tell him? The green files go on the top shelf. The gray ones go underneath." He slapped the piles of offending files as he spoke. For no other reason, Karen thought disgustedly, than that he knew the noise would frighten the boy. She took a glance at the shelf and her heart sank as she saw that Richard had gotten the colors reversed again when he'd stocked up.

"I mean, jeez, it ain't that hard," Harkus went on. "You got that?" He loomed over Richard again, raising his voice as though the office junior was hard of hearing instead of just a little slower than average. "It ain't hard. Retard." His voice had taken on a singsong note with that last and he looked pleased with himself for finding the rhyme.

"Don't call him that!" Karen snapped.

Harkus gave her a sardonic glance, a look that was at once both knowing and full of mockery. Karen's color heightened. She was honest enough to understand that her blush was half for anger, half for embarrassment. She glanced at Richard, at the mute pleading in his eyes, at the quiver in the smear of twisted mouth that dragged his face awry as he fought back tears.

Ricky Retard.

She never thought of him like that, of course she didn't.

But she did.

Somewhere, deep in the dark, human depths of her soul, she did.

And she was ashamed of it. Ashamed because, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't fight it.

Sure, there was no harm in the boy. Richard might be…well, just a little slow, no one was denying that. But he was helpful. Kind. Why, he wouldn't kill even the meanest insect if he found one. He wouldn't hear a word said against his Mama, Karen thought stoutly in defense of him. Not even after she'd given him that sideways sloping smile with a hot iron when he was only three years old, and her, drunk as a mule and furious, just cause he wouldn't talk as well as the kid down the street did. And when you pulled your eyes higher than the ruined face, beyond the twisted mouth and sluggish mind, when you looked deep into Richard Carparon's eyes, you found the bright, clear soul of an angel buried in among the blue.

But, sometimes, it was very hard to meet those eyes, hard not to see the strangeness, the…deformity.

"I…didn't…I didn't…" Richard was murmuring, repeatedly now, eyes fixed on her.

"Just leave him be, Clive," she said wearily and, softly, "It's all right, Richard. You did all right, okay?"

"Why? He can't do the job, he ain't no good. Come on, Karen, you're Personnel Manager, well as Andrew's little pet PA. It's your job to - "

"Don't tell me what my job is! I know what *my* job is! My *job* is making sure bullies like you don't cause trouble in my department!"

"Aw, hey, Karen, lighten up." He swaggered for her, grin sharp as a wolf's, voice sweetening to a cloying sentimental whine, "Whassup, Karen? Don't like to see your little boyfriend get in trouble? Huh?"

"He's not my — " the denial lashed out at him before she could control her anger and she bit off the retort as his grin widened on her. She drew in a tight breath, stiffening her spine. "I've told you before, Clive, I won't put up with this kind of behavior," she went on, trying to hold onto her poise, although she could feel tears of rage and frustration prickling at her eyes. "You keep this up and I'm gonna have to report it to — "

"To who? Who you think's gonna be interested? Hell, everyone knows the Retard's only on the books because Gerrord's sucking up to Karvin. Doing a little favor? Greasing a few wheels? Gerrord doesn't care. Grow up, Karen, you - "

"What is going on here?" a new voice asked.

Karen started and turned to where Malcolm Gerrord stood, frowning, in the doorway.

"Nothing. I was just getting some files." Harkus smiled at the taller man as he plucked a batch of green and gray from the shelves and then exited the room without another word.

"Karen?"

"Uh, I was just checking over the new stock with Richard, Mr. Gerrord."

"I see." Gerrord's eyes flickered impatiently over the figure hunched against the wall, barely concealing a twist of his lips as he waved an arm out into the corridor. "Well, I think it's time for your break, Richard. Isn't it?"

Richard ducked his head, giving Karen a sideways glance as he passed. He scuttled past Gerrord, who turned to watch him disappear along the corridor. Karen thought that he probably didn't realize how deep his frown had gotten as he did, or how much of his contempt for the boy was visible on his face.

"Karen?"

She started, suddenly realizing that he was watching her, impatient again.

"Yes, sir?"

"I'm glad you're still here. I was hoping to catch you before you left. I need these minutes typed up for tomorrow's meeting with Gillens, and Jennifer's gone home already. If you wouldn't mind…?"

She looked at the tape he extended and held in a sigh.

/Lucky old Jennifer./

/So much for La Boheme./

She smiled. A grade one, put upon PA's smile, just like they taught at Secretarial School.

She could almost hear the nasal tones of Ms. Johns echo in her head:

/Remember a good PA's three Golden Rules: Ever willing. Ever ready. Ever efficient./

She smiled until her skin stretched.

"Sure thing, Mr. Gerrord. I'll get right on it."

***

"Lois!"

She glanced over her shoulder as she continued to pour herself coffee and frowned as she saw Jimmy weaving his way towards her at breakneck speed between the desks. "Hey, Jimmy, what's up?"

"Lois, I forgot - "

"Have you seen this?" she interrupted indignantly, waving a fax-sheet at him. "Valley Vale swears he did all of his moonlight digging while he was sleepwalking. Can't remember a thing. His lawyers are already digging through five years of statistical cases of homicidal somnambulism to prove causal effect." She snorted her opinion of the defense as she plucked a spoon from the rack and began to strip it of its paper coating.

Jimmy grinned. "Well, he sure wasn't walking in his sleep - or anywhere else - after you got through with him," he commented cheerfully.

Lois grunted absent agreement and then glanced up on him enquiringly. "Forgot what?"

"What? Oh!" He shrugged apologetically. "C.K. called while you were out at the Mayor's conference."

"Clark?" Lois hurled the paper wrapping from the spoon into the wastebasket. She checked her watch and headed for her desk, stirring coffee vigorously as she went. "Well, why didn't you say so?"

"Sorry. I've been in the print lab all afternoon. I just remembered."

"I've been trying to get him all day. Did he say anything about how his speech went?" She parked the cup next to the untidy clutter of files on her desk and slipped into her seat as she reached for the phone.

"Uh, well actually, he seemed more interested in Valley Vale. He'd picked up the early editions."

"Oh," Lois said, punching in the number of Clark's hotel. One finger entwined itself in the telephone wire, looping it idly as she waited for the connection to be made. After a moment, the fingers of her other hand tapped an impatient rhythm against the desktop.

"Astoria Hotel. Hold the line, please."

"I…uh…told him what had gone down. More or less," Jimmy added. "Um…he seemed a little…tense."

The fingers stilled. Lois glanced up on him, registering a faint note of guilt in his voice. His face confirmed it.

"Uh-huh." She leaned back casually in her chair, eyes widening innocently. "So, you told him…what? Exactly?" she asked, in that too-calm-almost- disinterested-in-the-answer tone which Jimmy recognized all too well as being a prelude to trouble. He swallowed, hard.

"Oh, you know. Bits and pieces…"

Lois quirked a brow at him.

Jimmy's voice rose an octave. "Nothing, really. Almost nothing," he defended himself rapidly and, as her eyes frosted over, "Absolutely not a thing. I swear."

Lois thought about that for a moment or two as she listened to the tinkle of Muzak in her left ear. She cleared her throat faintly and then gently replaced the receiver.

"Um, I think I'll just call him later. From home," she decided. She glanced at her watch again. "I mean, he's probably right in the middle of dinner now." She glanced at Jimmy and he nodded vigorously.

"Sure! Dinner!" He spread agreeing hands wide. "Four twenty. Hotels serve up dinner. No doubt about it."

Lois nodded. She straightened. "And, anyway," her tone turned brisk as she snatched up the papers on her desk and shuffled them efficiently, "I really should get these reports into order, before I do anything else."

Jimmy grinned, unable to resist. "Smart call," he approved.

Lois hit him with a swift look that sent the chill level in the air rocketing downward another half dozen degrees and he sobered, backing off with upraised hands. "Um, I think I'll get going now. I'm taking Leanore bowling and" he gave her a sickly grin, "well, I'd best not keep her waiting."

***

"Miss Culver?"

She turned quickly; the startled, jackrabbit whirling of a woman walking in the dark alone and hearing an unfamiliar voice sound her name. A male voice: thick and slurry.

Her fist clenched in the pocket of her blue wool coat and the eyes of the man standing in the pool of shadow cast by the dim streetlight behind him followed that tensing of muscles, before they lifted to her face again.

"Richard?" She said uncertainly, peering into the gloom and then, a stutter of nervous laughter emerging as she took a step closer, quickly cut off, "My G-! Richard, you scared me."

"I did?" The blue eyes above the half-ruined mouth blinked at her, puzzled, and she almost laughed out loud again. It was a joke, all right. He was about as likely to scare anyone as a half-tamed kitten.

Ricky Retard.

She shook her head, irritably. She was going to have to do something about Clive - and real soon. His bullying the boy like this wasn't fair. It just wasn't. Only, he was right, in his way. That was the problem. She wasn't entirely sure that Gerrord would do anything if she did report his behavior. She thought about what Clive had said and wondered, half idly, whether Mr. Karvin would be a better person to take this to. She filed the thought away for future consideration later.

"I'm sorry, what did you say, Richard?" The frown that had crept over her face cleared as she realized he'd spoken.

"Mr. Andrews. Mr. Andrews, he told me to give you this. You forgit it."

"Oh!" She reached automatically for the blue folders with a click of her tongue. The Gillens expenses file. She'd promised to check out the figures at home, before tomorrow's meeting. Might as well, she thought sourly. It wasn't as though she had anything better to do with her evening, after all. "Thanks, Richard. I swear I'd forget my own — ow!" Her fingers snagged on something sharp before she jerked them back with a hiss.

"Miss Culver? Miss Culver, you okay? You okay?"

"Stupid staples!" she said it as a curse, examining the growing spot of blood on the tip of her index finger. She popped it into her mouth to suck on it briefly.

"Miss Culver?"

She looked at Richard, abashed. "I'm okay," she said quickly, in response to the rising tension in his voice and the sudden, wide-eyed worry on his face. "Really." She smiled. "Well, anyway, thanks for bringing these on out. You going home now too?" She glanced back into the darkness. "I can give you a lift…?" she trailed, making the offer only half-heartedly and barely concealing her relief when it was rejected with a violent shake of the boy's head.

"No, Mr. Karvin's coming for me. He said I could help. Tonight." For a moment, something beautiful shone in the boy's eyes. Joy. Worship.

"At the rally." Karen shook off her unease again and nodded. "You like Mr. Karvin, Richard, don't you?" she added, smiling at him again.

He nodded. "Yes."

"Good. Well, I'm sure you'll be a big help."

He frowned. "Ain't you going? Tonight?"

"Not tonight, no. Tomorrow, I think."

Richard's frown deepened, as though he couldn't imagine why she would want to miss even one of Karvin's revivals.

She lifted the files in gentle reminder. "I've got something else to do tonight."

"Oh. Oh, yeah. Okay."

"Okay," she agreed. "Well, I'll see you in the morning then, huh? Bright an' early?"

"Bright an' early!"

"Good. 'Night, Richard."

She turned swiftly, heels clicking a rapid tattoo on the paving. She didn't look back until she was reversing the car out of her parking bay.

Richard was still standing where she'd left him, eyes a pit of shadows in the gloom.

***

Dale Karvin paused as he smoothed the lapels of the white linen suit, lost suddenly in the reflection staring back at him from the cheval glass.

He saw a man of indeterminate age, perhaps approaching somewhere in his late thirties - an impression that was shy of his true age by almost a decade - lean and tautly muscled, handsome in a darkly brooding way. Stacy had always teased him that he could have been a famous actor if he'd used his talents right. He was made for the part of the hero of Victorian melodrama, she'd insisted. A Rochester, perhaps - brooding, satanic good looks, chocolate dark eyes inherited from a Mexican father and a wry curve to the edge of his lips that gave an impression of a serious demeanor always just verging on bursting into laughter. Rochester would have been perfect.

He grimaced. If he'd used his talents right - somewhat ironic that joke of hers, given how his life had turned out.

And hers.

Stacy had been in her grave these past two years. Taken by the racking cancerous growth that had infested her lungs and reduced her, inch by inch, to a pitiful shell of the bright, laughing young woman she'd once been. And he, the great Dale Karvin, internationally renowned healer, great, true friend of God, had been unable to lift a finger to cure her or spare her pain.

/Rochester…/

His long, elegant fingers resumed their slow stroking at his lapels. One corner of his mouth twitched as his eyes rested on the ostentatious rings that adorned many of them. He wished he could persuade Addley to let him give them up. But the crowd seemed to expect them, somehow, he thought ruefully. Only one meant anything at all: the wide and worn gold band on the ring finger of his left hand. The rest were so much dross, window-dressing, cold, lifeless props.

He shook his head, almost able to laugh aloud as his eyes flickered to view the sumptuous hotel room laid out behind him, the pristine, haute couture suit, the elegantly styled hair and carefully manicured nails.

Using his talents right.

"Oh, Stacy," he murmured, going back to his preening. "What would you think of me now?"

"I'm sure she'd be very proud, sir."

Karvin started slightly with the response and then straightened his shoulders almost defensively. He scowled through the mirror's reflected ice as his hands became more purposeful in their grooming of the suit. "What do you want, Bob?"

Robert Addley smiled at him. "Car's waiting."

"Oh." Karvin gave himself one last once over in the mirror. He held back a sigh. No, he didn't think his wife would be proud. Maybe once, when he'd been doing things right, but no…not now.

He turned abruptly away and gathered up his wool coat and scarf. "Bob, I'm still not sure about that second chorus. Don't you think we should - "

"Now, Dale, I told you, it'll be just fine. It's an ideal point to break. They'll be on the tips of their toes with excitement after your healing session. We'll get ten times the donations if we send the boxes round then, rather than at the end. Trust me."

Dale sighed. "We've got enough hymn cards laid out? And there's enough room at the center of the stage for the wheelchairs? And - ?"

"Everything's under control."

"Is it?" He paused before reaching out for the door handle. "I hope so," he murmured, almost too low to be heard. He frowned, as he ushered his aide through and into the corridor. "What about the water?"

"Plenty on tap."

"What?" Karvin looked back at him, puzzled.

"Sorry." Addley smirked. "Just a joke."

"Oh," Karvin said, sounding none the wiser and then, suddenly getting the drift of the 'joke' and the double meaning in his aide's words, "That's not funny, Bob."

"No." Addley's face grew suitably somber. But if anything he sounded more amused. "I don't suppose it was."

***

"I'm just *saying*, I can't believe you went wandering around that graveyard in the middle of the night, stalking some crazed killer!"

"Oh, come on, Clark, what was he going to do? He only eats dead people!"

"And that's supposed to make me feel better? Suppose he was thinking about serving himself up something a little fresher than leftovers for a change? Did you think of that?"

"Valley Vale never killed anyone."

"Peters thinks he has. It says here in the Tribune he expects to be charging Merkovian with murder one in the next couple of days; thinks he can tie him to the killing of a woman over in Curzon Street a couple of months ago."

"He's wrong. I did some digging on that one. It doesn't match Merkovian's MO. He's a genuine, southern deep-fried, pure grade whacko, no doubt about it, but he's no killer. I'd stake my life on Peters issuing a retraction on that before the week's out."

Clark refrained from reminding her that she had already done so. His silence was ample reproof anyway.

"I'm fine. Really." She crossed mental fingers with that, grimacing briefly over the still smarting patch on her scalp that he was bound to lecture her on when he got back. "It was nothing, honestly. He was a pussycat."

"With real sharp claws. I hear he put up a pretty good fight before the police got there."

"Oh," Lois said tightly. "You did." She smiled stiffly into the phone. "Well, you know how these hick papers get. They exaggerate everything and — "

"They didn't exaggerate you almost getting your brains pounded out on some gravestone at two in the morning!"

"Oh, really, it wasn't anything like as serious as — wait a minute, how'd you know that? The only papers I saw said I got knocked on the head a little. They didn't say how. Or when."

"When was *before* you got the idea to go sneaking into that cemetery, if you ask me."

"Clark. No, come on, how did…?" Lois paused. "Jimmy…" she hissed, in much the same tone that would have said, 'two-timing skunk'.

"Don't go taking this out on Jimmy, Lois. At least *he* told me the truth!"

"*I* told you the truth! Clark it was nothing. I swear! He took just a little persuading to give up, that was all. It was a *teensy* little tussle. Very minor. Hardly a scuffle. He just tried to…cave in my skull and once I'd hit him a time or two he lay down till the police arrived. That was all." She ignored the faint choking sound that came across the open line in response to this laconic explanation. "Actually, he was a little pathetic really. Curled up whimpering and crying like that. If he hadn't been such a piece of slime, I might almost have felt sorry for him."

"Yeah, well I doubt the relatives of those people whose bones he gnawed are giving him any sympathy. And I'm not that much inclined to - "

A sudden, high-pitched burst of static drowned him. Lois winced, yanking the receiver clear of her ear to avoid the piercing whine, and then brought it back warily as it died.

"Clark? Clark are you there?"

" - gravestones at two in the morning!"

"I can't hear you."

"What?"

"I said, I…can't…hear…you!"

"Oh! It's this storm, honey. Phones have been in and out all day. I can hear you real well."

"Clark, you hear everything real well."

"True." His warm chuckle briefly caressed her ear.

"What storm?"

"What *storm*? You haven't been watching the out of state news? What kind of a reporter are you?"

"A tired one. I've been out chasing leads all day, not chowing down on five- star room service. What news?"

"We've had snow storms here since yesterday afternoon. The Weather Center said it'd clear by this morning — "

"Let me guess. It didn't."

"Oh, *it* cleared."

"Well - "

"It was just that they forgot to mention there was a second one on its way. It hit the Mid-Atlantic states this afternoon. Got here around six."

"Six?" Lois' voice sharpened a notch. "Clark, are you going to be able to fly out okay this evening?"

"Um, probably not without the cape, honey. Sorry. The entire city's gridlocked, airport's closed down till tomorrow at least. My flight's been rescheduled for tomorrow morning. Provisionally, anyway."

"Clark! Why didn't you tell me that first thing?"

She quelled the sudden, sharp disappointment that had welled in her with the realization that the severe weather would mean he'd be delayed, knowing she had no right to it. Flying back on Monday morning had been his original flight plan, after all. In that respect, nothing had changed with the snowing in of Logan Airport. It was only that the last of the messages she'd discovered on the answering machine on her return home that evening - there had been a few - had declared his intention to come home early instead. His last commitment to the BAYJ program would be done and dusted by nine. There was a scheduled flight out of Boston at just after ten. It would bring him home by midnight. A bit of a squeeze on his schedule, but worth it, he'd maintained. Lois had figured it would be worth it too. And, entitled to it or not, she still felt that disappointment keenly as she listened to her husband's low sigh on the other end of the line.

"Well, because I had other things on my mind. Getting back to which…" he continued, curiously, "how'd you figure he'd be out there anyway? At the cemetery?"

"Oh, it was easy enough once I'd worked out that he was operating in a pentacle - south to west, north to south, south to east, and so on. His last little picnic was in Hillingdon, that was on a line due Southeast to Northwest. Given that, he only had St. Bartholomew's left to raid if he was going to complete the pattern."

"Well, sweetheart, if you were so sure he'd be there - " Clark broke off, sharply. He'd long since given up on asking his wife and partner such reasonable questions as why she wouldn't call the police *before* stalking a crazed killer through a cemetery at the dead of midnight, rather than making it an afterthought. It just didn't pay. "Well, congratulations, anyway," he finished, lamely.

"Thank you. You're on the byline, of course. You did do most of the legwork on this one after all."

"But not all of it. Thanks anyway. Anything new come in?"

"It's mostly quiet. Perry's got me on that retrospective. You know, the United Church of Salvation rally? Dale Karvin? The Evangelist? Fortunate soul that I am, I'm going to be at the performance of the decade this evening."

"Really? Isn't that just a little bit tame for you to be covering? It's more Greg's line, isn't it? Civic Events? It's just a straight nickel and dime puff piece, when you get right down to it."

"Not from the pen of this reporter it isn't. Actually, I think it was Perry's way of telling me to take it easy for a couple of days after Valley Vale," Lois added ruefully.

"Ah, now there, you see! If Perry thinks — "

"And I got the follow up on Valley Vale, of course," she over-rode him determinedly. "But that's mostly tied up. You know Peters is really going to have to work at it to get out of this one with his pension intact."

"So I hear. I also hear he's working at it by trying to take the credit for closing the case."

"Well, he's welcome to it."

"He is?" Clark sounded amused all at once. "Is this the same Lois Lane, tenacious newswoman, who used to put a hex on anyone she thought might cut her out of a scoop? Present company *not* excluded."

"Maybe, I've learned that there are more important things in life than being rich and famous," Lois told him, mock pious. "Or getting your name in print. Which reminds me. It came as something of a surprise to read in this morning's edition that a certain superhero had been fire fighting down on the dock front last night. In Metropolis that is." She paused, before asking, sweetly, "This wouldn't be any superhero that *I* happen to know, would it?"

There was a stretch of silence across the wire that was damming, before Clark started in hastily, "I just heard the sirens that's all and — "

"Really? From all the way out there in Boston? Wow, sweetheart, now that's what I call super-hearing!"

"Well - "

"Were you checking up on me?"

"No. Well…okay, I might have been."

"Clark - "

"Lois, I didn't know where you were! I wasn't getting an answer at home or the office or on your cellphone - and then I hear from Jimmy about how you almost got yourself killed out there in that cemetery - !"

"I did not!" Lois denied and then, a shocked hiss, "You didn't know that until today. Clark, you weren't back out here today, were you? Again?"

"No. But that doesn't mean I didn't want to be," Clark told her, frustrated. "I mean you might have been down in some emergency room, or — "

"Clark - "

"Lois, head wounds are serious, you know? You can get concussion or an embolism or — "

"Or a king-sized headache. Which is all that happened to me. Clark, I took a couple of aspirin. It was gone by mid-afternoon. Now, can we drop this? Please? I've just tied up one of the biggest stories we've had in months. Can't we just celebrate that? And you. I hear congratulations are in order for you too."

"For me?" he said, surprised. "What for?"

"Your lecture series. Mike Atwell says it was so well received they're thinking about asking you back next year."

"Oh. That. Sorry. In all the excitement of discovering my wife just about got her skull bashed in last night, while my back was turned, it went clean out of my mind."

Lois sighed, plaintively. "Clark, please, don't lecture me right now. I've had a real busy day and I'm tired and this is the first chance we've had to talk in two days. I miss you."

"Well, I miss you too, honey, which is why I'd prefer you didn't go putting yourself at risk when I'm not there to — "

"Clark…"

His sigh filled the receiver. "Okay." He threw up mental hands, surrendering. "We'll talk about it when I get back. So, when'd you speak to Mike?" he changed the subject obediently.

"I called earlier, but the desk said you were out. He seems like a nice guy."

"Yeah, he is. He's got a lot of good ideas," Clark agreed absently.

"Clark? You okay?"

"Hmmmm? Oh, yeah. I was just…thinking. Listen, honey…about this missing you thing and the flight delay…"

"Yes?"

"I mean, I know I did promise I'd stay put but…I'd kinda got to looking forward to that midnight rendezvous and, well, I was thinking, maybe I could put in a little…night flying of my own tonight, after all. "

"Really?" Lois responded coolly. "And just where were you thinking of…'night flying' to?"

"Oh, this little place I know, right in the heart of the city. Food's good. The hostess is better."

"I see. Well, you know, I *was* planning on having an early night…"

"Well, I wouldn't want to disrupt your plans any."

Lois chuckled. "When will you get here?"

"When will you get back from Karvin's rally?"

"Oh, around ten, ten thirty."

"Meet you upstairs at ten-thirty-five?" Clark suggested.

"I'll be waiting." Lois' mind was already distracted, pondering a certain satin and antique lace negligee in his favorite burgundy, which she'd been hoarding for a special occasion. And what occasion could be more special than an unexpected visit from a husband you hadn't seen in over thirty-six hours and who was already desperately missed? She frowned.

"Clark, are you sure it'll be okay? You know what trouble we got into last time. Maybe we shouldn't take the risk. Maybe we should just wait until you—"

"Lois, don't worry. I'll be…discreet."

"But…well, that radar's pretty close by and - "

"There are ways to avoid that. Hey, trust me, okay? I've been doing this a long time. I've kinda got it down pat." She could hear the sudden grin in his voice now as he went on, "This blizzard's gonna take care of risking anyone seeing me leave. With the airport shut down and nothing flying around up there, radar scan is gonna be minimal, and no one's going to think twice about seeing Superman in the skies over Metropolis. We just have to make sure no one sees him with you. Or sees me at all. And, since I've got no intention of being anywhere but in my own bedroom…"

Lois smiled. "Okay," she agreed quietly.

"Fine. I'll see you - " He was interrupted by a faint hammering. "Oh, hey, hold on, sweetheart, there's someone at the door."

Lois shuffled the papers before her on the low table idly, listening absently to the faint sounds of conversation played against her ear, before the warm tones of her husband's voice retook her concentration. "Lois? Sorry, looks like I'm gonna have to take a rain check on that date."

"Problems?" Her heart tightened with the question, but his rueful chuckle eased it.

"Only with over-zealous hosts. That was Mike Atwell and the rest of the committee. They feel kinda sorry for their guest speaker, sitting alone in his hotel room all evening. They've arranged dinner at a club downtown. I guess it's nice of them, honey, I can't really — "

"No, you go. Go. Really, you should go. Have a nice evening." She tried hard to hide her disappointment.

He heard it anyway.

"Lois, I'm real sorry…and I gotta go. They're waiting for me downstairs. Listen, they won't keep me out too late. I'll be over as soon as I can. Wait up for me? Oh, and Lois? Promise me you won't go off doing anything else dangerous before I get home?"

"Clark - "

"Promise?"

"I promise," she said with exaggerated patience, "that I'm intending to do nothing more dangerous in the next few hours than make a pot of coffee. Maybe risk the cholesterol on a donut or two. Oh, and death by boredom at Karvin's rally, of course."

"Good. I love you."

"Love you too."

She put down the receiver with a frustrated sigh.

***

Joseph Andrews ploughed with fevered fingers through the mess of papers hibernating in the top drawer of his desk. As the subject of his frantic search eluded him, he straightened with an explosive curse to slam it shut. He loosened his tie with an irritable tug and dragged a savage hand through his already unruly hair.

"Well?"

He turned sharply at the arrival of his partner and scowled.

"It was right here on my desk this afternoon! I swear!"

"This afternoon isn't good enough, Joe. It isn't here now! We've got to find it!"

"You think I don't know that?" Andrews slumped into the leather chair beside him and leaned his elbows on the walnut desk. He buried his head in weary hands and sighed heavily.

Gerrord leaned forward to plant his carefully manicured hands on the desk. The office was lit by one single desk lamp. In its backwash, his already starkly delineated features were transformed abruptly into a jagged, boogeyman jumble of brutal plains and sinister shadow as he stared down at his partner. Only the cold glitter in his eyes showed points of light in that darkness.

"Then start thinking what you did with it," he hissed.

Andrews lifted his head sharply. "I didn't do anything with it!"

"Yeah. Well, you sure didn't file it under 'confidential', like you shoulda."

Andrews flushed.

"If that report gets into the wrong hands, Joe — "

"I know! It won't. We'll find it."

"No. No, *we* won't find it, Joe. *You* will. You got that?"

"Yeah. Yeah, sure I will."

"You'd better." Gerrord's grim stare fixed him. "Because I'm not taking the rap for this if it blows up in our face. You hear me?"

"Okay!" Andrews snapped. He knew the mess they were in was…probably…his fault. But there was only so far that a guy could go, playing the guilt trip. He glared up balefully at his partner. And, no matter what Gerrord said, he did not intend to go down alone, if it came to it. But it wouldn't, he reassured himself firmly. That damn report had to be *somewhere*. He'd only just laid it down an hour before. It couldn't just vanish into —

"Oh no," he groaned as the realization struck him.

Gerrord had moved to stand by the windows, staring out into the darkness. He turned his head. "What?"

Andrews turned to face him, stricken. "Karen. I sent Richard out after her when she left. With the Gillens files. They were piled up there, in my in tray. The report was probably underneath them."

Gerrord stared at him in silence for a moment. "Oh, you idiot, Joe," he said at last. "You stupid, dumb - "

"Well, but it's okay, isn't it? You see? He had to have given it to Karen. She'll realize it's not part of the Gillens account and bring it back with her in the morning. Won't she?" Andrews added, the hopeful look he was giving his partner fading in the face of Gerrord's continuing, unblinking stare.

"And if she just happens to be curious enough to take a look at it first?" Gerrord shook his head sharply. "No, we can't risk it. You're gonna have to go over there, get it back."

"Now?"

"No," Gerrord snarled. "Why don't we sit around on our butts for a month or so, see if the entire Metropolis press corps doesn't start camping out on our doorstep first?" His voice rose abruptly to a soft roar, "Of course, tonight! We got away with this one, Joe. I don't know how, but we did. And we're not going to get caught now because you don't know the meaning of close security locks."

Andrews' lips tightened. "Okay," he agreed sullenly. "I'll go get it."

"You do that." Gerrord eased his shoulders out of the tight line they'd formed and buttoned up his jacket with steady hands before he turned on his heel to exit the room.

It hadn't…exactly…been a threat.

But Andrews shivered suddenly before he gathered up his coat and turned off the light.

***

"Pity Mike's Alley was closed for renovation, really, it's a great place to go on a Sunday night, lots of stuff going on, real cheap night out too…uh, not that that's why I wanted to go there. I mean - oh, here we are!" Jimmy pulled in a deep, steadying breath and tilted his head back to study the Movie-Plex's huge white-lit billboard towering overhead. "So! What you want to see?"

Leanore hooked one arm through his and snuggled up against his side. "Oh, I don't know," she said in the breathy voice which had fascinated him ever since she'd used it to say 'Hello' a week earlier. She gave him a shy smile. "You choose. Something romantic."

"Something…" Jimmy tried to gather his thoughts, which had begun to scatter right around the point she'd snuggled up close and gone AWOL completely by the time she'd gotten around to flashing that smile. "Uh, something romantic." He grinned. "Well, sure."

He scanned the board again and then made his way to the ticket booth. Leanore clung to his arm like glue until they were standing in line. Then, slipping free, she whispered in his ear, "I'm gonna get something to drink. You want something?"

Jimmy shook his head. "Yeah, okay. I mean," he nodded rapidly, "great! Sure!"

Leanore smiled. "Okay." But she stayed where she was, staring at him. After a moment, she added, "What?"

"Huh?"

"Your drink. What will I get you?"

"Oh! Oh, whatever. Coke. Coke's fine. Diet. Not Regular. Thanks."

She nodded. Flushed now, Jimmy watched her head for the concession stands. It took him a time, but by the point where he'd moved to second in line he'd managed to tear himself away from following that undulating sway of hers and back to business. He was feeling just a touch light-headed though as he fished in his pocket for change.

"Sir?"

"Uh, two for three, please."

He picked up the tickets as they were pushed towards him through the grill and then moved out of the way.

"Here you go."

He looked up. Leanore was standing by the glass doors, holding out his Coke. She'd got popcorn too, Jimmy noted. Was this girl perfect, or what? He thought that the decorative pot plant towering beside her set off the highlights in her hair. Its broad glossy leaves gave off the same burnished sheen in deep green and yellow. He wondered what she'd look like in a swimsuit of the same color.

"Jimmy?"

"Beautiful…" he answered and then, with a start, "Oh! Thanks." He took the Coke hastily.

After a moment or so, Leanore said, "Shouldn't we go in?"

"Oh. Oh, yeah! Okay."

She reclaimed her place draped on his arm as he handed over their tickets and found them seats.

When Jimmy settled into his seat he found he was sweating, coldly. He shifted and fielded Leanore's concerned glance with a smile. She smiled back. A touch uncertainly, he thought. He wondered if he should talk about something. About what was the difficulty. His mind searched for an opening gambit, growing steadily more panicked as the silence between them stretched. Finally, he found something.

He leaned across the armrest. "Do you - ?"

The lights went down.

Jimmy sighed and hunched back against his seat, castigating himself mentally for an idiot.

"Popcorn?"

So sunk in self-castigation was he that Leanore's soft whisper right up against his ear almost gave him heart failure. He jerked violently and his elbow whacked the popcorn carton out of her hand and over the row of seats in front of them. Fortunately, they were empty. The popcorn however, was irretrievable. Leanore fielded his mortified apologies with a smile that seemed only just a little forced to Jimmy and offered to share the handful she'd managed to extract before he'd disposed of the remainder so unceremoniously. Jimmy tried to decline, grateful for the fact that the darkened cinema probably hid his reddened cheeks. Leanore insisted though.

The succession of promos and sales pitches for the concession stands finished as Jimmy settled back into his seat again. He took a mouthful of the salty, butter-coated popcorn, more to stop it slowly sticking to his palms than because he was hungry. He seemed to have lost his appetite, all at once.

The screen lit…

…and filled with a succession of writhing bodies. A cacophony of excited moans and cries reverberated around the theater.

From somewhere among the almost unrecognizable expanse of naked flesh heaving above them, a blood-red title waveringly emerged to fill the screen, as the soundtrack thundered to the roar of a thousand Harleys.

Hollywood Biker Chicks III: Unchained Melanie.

Jimmy choked on the popcorn.

Beside him, when he dared to give her a glance, Leanore's profile was set in stone.

It was at that point, Jimmy concluded miserably later, that things started to go just a little downhill.

***

Clark was locking up his room door when he heard his name being bellowed across the corridor.

Mike Atwell gestured impatiently as he headed for him. "Hey, Kent, what's the hold up? We got people waiting! There's a couple of beers out there with our names on them, starting to warm up and lose their chill! I mean," he grinned as he reached Clark's side, "just how long does it take to whisper a few farewell sweet nothings in your wife's ear? I got this great club in mind, you'll love it," he went on deftly, putting a hand to his friend's shoulder and hustling him for the elevator. "What did you think of Dertman's lecture this afternoon?"

Clark, left slightly behind at the starting post by this rapid switching from subject to subject, took a moment to catch up, then said, "Great! Painted a pretty depressing future for us though. I'm not sure I entirely agree that we'll be completely paper-free by the year 2015. At least, I hope not. I think I'd kinda miss the smell of fresh ink." He smiled. "And I can tell you now what Perry's gonna make of Dertman's ideas for preventing ink transfer from fresh copy to paying customers."

Atwell laughed heartily. "Yeah, that one raised a few brows. Laminated pages!" he snorted. "Still, the guy's an original thinker, I'll give him that."

"Greg Tidewell's seminar on new technology advancements was interesting," Clark went on admiringly. "I think - oh no."

Atwell gave him a quick look and then followed his glance to where they'd almost reached the elevator. An imperious looking elderly lady was holding the doors for them with a sour expression that said she wasn't going to be doing it for much longer and was only doing it now because her mother had taught her some basic manners, unlike the rest of the world, it seemed. Unconsciously, in the face of that Gorgon stare, Atwell's pace quickened marginally.

"What?" he asked Clark.

"Nothing." He sighed. "I just don't think she likes me very much. Neither does the dog," he added.

Atwell looked at the rolls of fat and fur tucked under the woman's arm and cradled close against her ample bosom. "That's a dog?" he murmured. "I thought it was something the vacuum had sicked up."

Clark bit down hard on his lip to stifle a laugh. Atwell smiled broadly at the woman and murmured a few, charming words of thanks as he entered the elevator, Clark at his heels.

"Lobby, please," Mike said.

The woman pressed the button and directed a black look at Clark in the corner. The Peke growled softly and curled a lip to show a brief flash of gleaming incisor. Clark sighed and then turned his head sharply as the sound of raised voices came from the far end of the corridor.

"What the - ?" Atwell said, puzzled.

A slightly built man dressed in black jogging pants and sweatshirt and carrying a black briefcase was running headlong for the elevator. Further back, two uniformed hotel security guards chased him down, yelling for him to stop. One of them pulled up sharply as he realized that their quarry was going to make the elevator with seconds to spare, just as the doors began to slip to a close.

"Hold that elevator!" he hollered.

Too late. The thin man twisted neatly sideways into the narrowing gap and stood panting softly as the doors slammed shut, leaving his frustrated pursuers on their wrong side. The newcomer took a deep breath and then turned to face his fellow passengers calmly as they stared at him.

"Parking, please," he said.

"Uh, wait a minute," Clark said as the woman reached for the button. "I think your friends want to get on board."

The lift automatically began to descend.

"Yeah?" The man hunkered down to open the briefcase. "Well, I think we've kinda reached our weight limit on this trip." He thrust a hand into his pocket and brought out a handful of entangled gold necklaces and bracelets, dumping them into the case. He smiled at Clark. "So, why don't you just shut up and tell the lady there to press the button?"

He snapped the case closed, rose to his feet, and the woman squeaked as he pointed the snub-nosed pistol he'd just taken from it at them.

"Less you got something else you want to chat about?" the thief inquired mildly of Clark. "I mean, I got all the time in the world to be standing here listening to you, fella. I'm just starved for decent conversation. You gonna press that damn button or stand there all day with your mouth open?" he snapped at the woman.

"Don't," Clark advised her. "Look, those guards have radioed in by now," he told the thief. "They'll have every floor crawling with security. Why don't you just give me the gun and make things easier on yourself?"

The thief sighed. "Why do I always get 'em? Don't anybody in this town know how to do what they're told no more?" he muttered and then, darting forward, he was suddenly beside the woman, one arm wrapped tight around her throat to haul her close against his side as his eyes, flint-hard, fixed on Clark.

The woman screamed shrilly. And then did it again.

"Shut up, lady. I ain't in the mood," the thief snarled and then, pointing the gun hastily at the two men as Clark made the faintest of moves forward, "Hold it right there! Stay back or the bitch gets it!"

"You're not going to shoot anyone," Clark assured him quietly. "Especially not an old woman who can't hurt you."

"Yeah?" the thief said belligerently. "Who said anything about the broad? I'm talkin' 'bout this bitch here."

He put the pistol to the head of the Peke.

"People got themselves a real soft spot for little big-eyed, wet-nosed things, I always find," he said with a sour grin. "Keeps 'em in line better than anything else. I held up a five an' dime once with a possum as a hostage. Owner couldn't wait to empty the till so the poor little guy didn't get his head blowed off good," he confided. "Now press for the parking level."

Clark's eyebrows rose sharply.

And all hell broke loose.

In quick succession:

The woman began to beat at the thief with her purse, screeching insults. Apparently, the Peke wasn't a girl and she was taking exception to this slur on his sexuality.

The thief, completely overwhelmed by the venom of her attack, ducked and danced, trying to avoid her in the narrow space as he yelled useless threats that she wasn't listening to.

The Peke - perhaps having that insult in mind as much as his owner did - suddenly lunged forward and sunk his teeth, which were sharp and sizeable for such a small beast, into the thief's wrist.

With a yell, the thief involuntarily squeezed the pistol's trigger as he jerked back his bleeding hand.

The gun, fortunately pointing skywards at the time, ploughed a bullet into the elevator ceiling.

In a shower of sparks, the lights went out.

The gun fired again, the dull boom of the shot almost deafening in the enclosed space.

The woman shrieked.

The Peke shrieked with her.

And Clark had had enough.

Under cover of the darkness, which was no hindrance to him in the slightest, he reached out and calmly took the thief around the throat with one hand. Getting a firm grip, he ran him forward into the steel doors with just enough thrust to ensure he was out cold when he let him go, and would have a fair sized headache when he woke. The thief dropped to the floor in a heap, like a stone.

The elevator lit with a faint, cherry glow.

"Everyone okay?" Atwell said urgently as he turned from the emergency panel and surveyed the scene. He gave the unconscious thief a glance and then looked to Clark, who shrugged.

"I think he panicked in the dark and ran into the doors."

"Oh." Atwell said. He glanced at the woman standing furiously in the corner and stroking the Peke into submission with lots of cooing and billing. "Ma'am? You okay?"

"Don't be ridiculous, of course I'm all right. Call the police. Press that button. I want to see the Management at once. This is disgraceful! I was told this hotel was safe!"

"Yeah." Mike glanced at the panel. "Well, that's a problem. Because I don't think we're going anywhere for a while."

Clark followed his glance and held in a groan. The second bullet had hit the panel, twisting the metal and burying itself in the elevator's electronic innards.

Mike reached for the emergency call phone and paused as it rang shrilly. He picked it up. "Yeah? No, everyone is okay. He's out cold. Sure…okay…we'll find something to tie him with till you get here. Okay, thanks. Hotel security," he told Clark as he replaced the phone. "They heard the shots. They say it'll take maybe three hours to get this thing back on line. They want us to make sure he's secure. They'll pick him up when they get here. Can I borrow your tie?"

Clark hesitated. "Uh, sure." He tugged it free and handed it over. Mike hunkered down beside the unconscious man and used it to bind his hands behind his back. He used his own tie to secure the thief's feet and then rose to his own with a satisfied nod.

"Oughta hold him."

He bent to pick up the gun gingerly and then clicked on the safety. He dragged the briefcase towards him and dropped the gun into it, then put the case against the wall, below the damaged panel.

"Well? And what are we supposed to do now?" the elderly woman glared at them.

Mike shrugged. "I guess we're just gonna have to relax a time." He let himself slip down the elevator wall until he was sitting with his back against the steel and his legs drawn up against his chest. His arms rested loosely across his knees. "You know, I always said, first thing they should have in an elevator is a bar," he told Clark solemnly.

"I'm not staying here for three hours!" the woman stormed. "I have a dinner appointment! Let me have that phone! Hello? Hello?" She slammed it back as the dial tone answered. "Doesn't anyone know who I am? I won't be treated this way, do you hear me?"

"Lady, I think the entire hotel heard you. You want to keep it down?"

"And, how dare you call me old, you brute!" She turned suddenly on Clark, aiming a wild swipe at him with her purse and frowning as he ducked out of its path. "I'll have you know I was sixty two on my last birthday!"

Clark sighed. He could tell they were in for a very long wait.

The harridan in the corner gave up on abusing them and retreated to the other side of the elevator, stroking the Peke and grumbling under her breath.

Clark glanced up and then put up a hand to lay it flat on the underside of the middle panel of the ceiling. It gave slightly, lifting out of its frame as he pushed harder.

"What you doing?" Mike asked him lazily.

"Well, if I can get up here, I could make my way to the floor above and - "

"What are you, nuts? Listen, Kent, time for playin' the hero is when you got no choice. Or when you're in real trouble. We're not. Security knows we're here. They'll get us out just fine. Sit down and take the weight off those overdone muscles of yours."

"But - "

"You've been watching too many movies, Clark. What's the point? You think she's gonna go crawling up there?" he indicated their companion. "And I sure ain't, when I can take a slow, easy ride down to the lobby in about the same time it'd take me to climb my way out. So, come on, relax. You're not one of those nuts got a problem with small spaces, are you?" he added warily. "Because we got nothing left to tie you down with, you start losing it. You realize that?"

Clark gave him a steady look. "No," he said.

"Well, good. Cause I'd hate to have to sit on you. Now, why don't you sit down?"

Clark paused and gave the ceiling another glance before reluctantly settling himself beside the convention Chairman.

"That's my boy." Atwell tapped a slow rhythm on one knee for a moment and then shifted, uncomfortably. He loosened the top couple of buttons on his shirt and glanced at Clark beside him. "You'd best open up that collar there. It's gonna get heated up in here mighty quick."

Clark paused, then gave him a faint smile. "I'm…just fine," he said.

Atwell grunted. For a moment or two, silence settled on them.

"Don't suppose you happen to have a deck of cards on you?" Atwell asked at last.

Clark sighed.

"Didn't think so," Atwell said.

***

Dale Karvin got only halfway through his performance - Twice Nightly! Three Times On Sunday! Touring The Nation On God's Vital Work! - before Lois decided she'd heard enough. There was no story here. About all she could do with it was go over hard, stony ground that had been well trodden before. Angle A: Karvin was a true believer. He did good works, gave those who need it a little faith, donated copiously to charities and kept his sainted nose clean. Angle B: Karvin was a cynic, a scam artist, bleeding the naive and lonely dry for whatever big bucks they could give. He gave to no charity but those he set up as tax havens and was as dirty as a crooked D.A. Either way hardly mattered. Lois had been on this trail before. If Karvin was dirty, you could shout it >from the rooftops and make no difference. The believers would go on >believing. The skeptics would damn him just as they always had.

She had to admit though, watching Karvin go through his paces as he invited those petitioners at the front of the marquee to climb on stage and be healed of their various ills, if it was a scam, he made a good song and dance of it.

"Miss?"

She started as an elbow nudged at her arm and found herself assaulted by the bland smile of the middle aged, well-dressed woman on her left. The woman lifted the wooden bowl in her hands. Lois took it blankly and then, realizing, "Oh!"

She rummaged in her purse for her wallet and dropped in a few coins. She ignored the sniff of displeasure from her companion as she passed the bowl on. Most of the contributions had been crisp notes and more than a few had been twenties or larger.

" — of the Blessed Spring! Drink of the holy water! Cleansed by the hand of God! As your souls will be cleansed by the water of the Spring!"

She frowned as Karvin's theatrically raised voice took her attention again. He was holding what looked like a small, plastic bottle over his head, much like a soda bottle, Lois thought bemused. There was another nudge at her elbow and she turned her head.

"What's this?" she said, as the woman offered her one of the bottles.

"Water from the Spring." The woman nodded encouragingly, obviously having decided that Lois was a newcomer, in need of a guiding hand, rather than an irredeemable soul who was too touched with the avarice of money to give it up lightly to a greater cause.

Lois took the bottle automatically. Her first impression bore out some. As far as she could tell, it was little different from any bottle of mineral water you could purchase at any dime store. She peered at the label. Blessed Spring. Sparkling Mineral Water from God's own Heavenly Spring. Lois fought back a grimace. Up on the stage, Karvin was still exhorting the flock to drink, while reminding them that more of the blessed water could be purchased outside the marquee after the rally — a bargain at just $9.89 per bottle. God had high production costs, it seemed.

"We always drink the water of the Blessed Spring," whispered her unasked for mentor. She took a quick gulp of the water herself, her face transformed into ecstasy for a moment as she closed her eyes and swallowed. "To cleanse the soul," she added, as Lois hesitated. "Go on."

"How much?" Lois asked cynically, reaching for her purse again. It didn't look like she was going to get off lightly on this one. She wondered idly if Perry would kick off if she put it in under expenses.

"It doesn't cost." The woman smiled. It transformed her face, that smile. Lois felt her cheeks heat as though she'd been reprimanded. "It's a gift. From God," the woman said. She turned her head to look up reverently on the stage. "And from Reverend Karvin, of course. Go on," she reiterated, bringing her attention back to Lois and frowning at her.

Lois paused, but she figured it was easier than arguing. She broke the bottle's seal with a twist of the cap and took a few sips. It tasted like mineral water to her. It was warm and slightly flat, with a metallic undertaste, but, in the claustrophobic heat of the tent, it tasted better than it might have done. She took several more gulps before she capped the bottle and shoved it absently into her purse.

She hung on valiantly for another twenty minutes, but she knew that unless she found an angle that no one else had figured on before her, she wasn't going to be writing a story on Karvin any time soon. She wouldn't do a puff piece. Not for anyone. Maybe if she could get an interview with the man himself she might be able to get more of a handle on it, she thought tiredly. Karvin's acolyte gave her a reproving glance as she made her way through the line with soft excuse me's.

Outside, a light starting drizzle replaced the heavy air inside the tent. Lois paused for a moment, face upturned gratefully to the welcome moisture, feeling it cool her heated cheeks. After a moment or so though, it quickly became more freezing than soothing. There was a definite chill in the air now. Lois shivered and pulled the collar of her coat closer around her throat as she set off purposefully for the Jeep, parked neatly to the rear of the crowded parkway.

Her throat felt slimed by the stale water she'd drunk in the tent, the taste of it still heavy and metallic in her mouth. She thought about stopping off at a little roadside diner that she knew for a cream soda. She glanced at her watch as she got behind the wheel. It was already nine-thirty, but she doubted Clark would arrive at the brownstone much before midnight. She'd plenty of time before then to make a detour. She smiled as she fired up the engine, mind skipping ahead to distant plans, and paused as she glanced in the mirror and put the Jeep in reverse.

A few yards away, huddled under the pitiful shelter of the awning overlap as the rain hardened, and illuminated by the sodium lamps surrounding the marquee, a young, Hispanic woman was standing by the main tent. A boy of around eight, wearing heavy leg braces and hunched over, leaned dispiritedly against her side. The woman was clutching a crumpled yellow card, like others that Lois had noted being carried by some of the crowd within. All of those invited onto the stage for healing by Karvin had had them pinned to their jackets or blouses.

Lois hesitated a moment longer. But there was something in the woman's body language that froze her hand on the gear. She sighed and shifted it into park. She got out of the car.

"Are you okay?" she asked as she approached the pair diffidently.

"They wouldn't let me in. I come all this way an' they wouldn't let me in. I gotta get in. For Denny's sake." The woman glanced down at the child, worriedly.

"Who wouldn't let you in?" Lois glanced back to the tent. "It's a little crowded in there, but there's enough room still."

"Oh no, I gotta get to the front, you see? So Mr. Karvin can take care of Denny."

She was one of the petitioners, Lois realized. One of the band of people who'd brought loved ones here in the slim hope that Karvin might produce a healing miracle where conventional medical lore had failed. She frowned. "You said you'd come a distance?"

"From Atlanta."

Lois lifted a brow. "Atlanta? Well, that is a ways," she agreed. She paused then asked, "Just on the chance you might get in?"

"Well, I wrote to 'em. And they sent me back my pass." She lifted the yellow card. "But they said there's so many…so many…an' Mr. Karvin can't help *every* — " Suddenly, startlingly, she broke down.

"Oh…" Lois hesitated, at a loss for a moment, then put an arm awkwardly around the woman's shoulders and began to steer her to the Jeep. "Why, don't we sit down over here, out of the rain, and you can tell me all about it," she said. "Do you mind if I talk to you? I'm from the Daily Planet…"

The woman nodded, looking at her gratefully.

Lois had found her angle.

***

Karen yawned as she emerged from the bathroom and wrapped her terrycloth robe more securely around her still shivering body. She put a hand to the radiator in the corner of the living room and sighed, making a mental note to nag Mr. Mazetti again about the lack of heat.

As she straightened away from the radiator, chill fingers brushed their way across the back of her neck. She spun around with a soft gasp, clutching the neck of the robe against her throat, and then let loose a low breath. She stalked across the floor to the bedroom window, shaking her head as she pushed aside the billowing gauze streamers of the drapes and hauled the window closed. After a pause, she locked it for good measure, even as she chided herself for over-reacting. She looked pensively out of the window for a moment, but saw nothing but the usual shadows among the pools of lambent lamplight. A lone cat sashayed across the empty street, tail held high and proud, before it disappeared into the shrubbery of the garden opposite.

Karen turned her back on the window and headed for the living room.

She was halfway across the room when the shadowy figure leapt at her out of the darkness. Karen jerked violently away, and barely managed to suppress the instinctive scream that bubbled up into her throat as she realized in the same instant that panic took her that it was merely her own reflection pacing her >from the iced glass of the tall mirror beside the mantle. She leaned heavily against the wall, clutching a hand against her chest as her heart slowly slowed from its mad, frenzied leaping and settled into something more like its normal rhythm. In the mirror, her doppleganger image did likewise, staring back at her with wide, white-rimmed eyes and a wild expression. After a moment, the insane urge to giggle overtook her and she clapped both hands to her mouth.

"Idiot!" she told herself, when she managed to get herself under control.

She'd forgotten all about leaving the dumb thing there. She'd woken late that morning, had been in a frantic drive to leave before eight in the hopes that she might still catch the early train, with none of the time she usually took to tidy things away before she left for the office.

"What you doing?" she added, disgustedly, aloud. "Trying to give yourself a coronary?"

Drawing her robe closer, and still calling herself seven kinds of idiot, she padded across to the refrigerator and hauled out a six-pack of soda. Laying the pack down beside the arm of the sofa, she settled herself and snapped on the TV with the remote.

After a few moments of idle channel surfing, she left it on a local news channel and ran down the sound to near mute, but not quite - the soft backswell of voices provided some company at least. Karen rarely switched off the TV these days, whether she watched it or not. Not since her fiance, David, had moved out to set up three blocks away with that redhead from accounting, three months previously. Tuning out the TV to a background murmur in her mind, she reached almost simultaneously for the folders which Richard had given her earlier and a can of soda from the six-pack on the floor.

Her groping hand closed around something soft and furry instead of the can's slick surface. She shrieked, jerking back her fingers and ending up in a huddle on her knees, staring at the sofa's arm. Her mind filled with an image of something dark and very large crouched in hiding on its other side. She was almost sure, as she knelt there, rigid and unable to move, that she could hear a faint squeak and scurrying in the shadows. Behind her. She whipped around with a gasp and almost overbalanced. But there was nothing stirring in the dark. Still, it took her a time to turn back and slowly lean over the sofa's arm. She clutched the flimsy weapon of a file in her hand, half raised in anticipation, and then let it fall as she expelled a soft, relieved breath. The pink furry mule, another leftover from her displaced morning, lay innocently on its side beside the sixpack.

Shaking her head, Karen picked it up and tossed it with a little more force than was necessary to the other side of the room. What in the world had gotten into her this evening?

What had gotten into her yesterday, she presumed. And the day before that. She frowned. Just lately, she seemed to be jumping at non-existent shadows more and more often. She had barely avoided making a monumental fool of herself in the office yesterday when she'd glanced up from her computer screen and been sure, for just one heart-stopping moment, that the shadow of the lamp on the desk beside her had been that of an intruder's hand reaching for her throat. She had had to think fast to convince Mr. Andrews that she had only been startled by an especially large spider when she'd yelled out like that and, even then, he had looked at her as though she was one can short of a sixpack.

Sometimes, her heart began racing all on its own, till it seemed that she had to scream or her head would burst apart under the pressure of its drumbeat thudding in her ribs. Sometimes, she felt as though something dark and malevolent was crouching on her shoulders, bowing her down with the weight of some future horror, which she could neither see nor avoid. The sensation that something dreadful was about to happen had crept up on her over the past couple of days and now seemed like an insidious part of her, which she could neither escape nor dispel.

"That's ridiculous!" she told herself impatiently and then, with a sigh, she took herself in hand, steadying her nerves and focusing her mind on more important matters. She refused to let this nonsense distract her any more.

As she picked up the collection of folders, one slipped from the bottom of the pile and fell to the carpet. With a frown, she bent to retrieve it and raised a brow, before she sighed. Looked like Richard had messed up again. The file, slim and red-bound, was obviously one of Andrews' confidential production reports. It had probably been on his desk, with the others, she realized. Richard just hadn't noticed that it wasn't part of the pile. Andrews would notice though. She put the report on the table in front of her and wondered if she could make it into the office early enough in the morning to put it back before Andrews arrived for the day, or noticed its absence. She could save Richard one bawling out tomorrow, at least.

She snuggled further into the sofa and flipped the first of the Gillens expenses folders open. Nibbling thoughtfully at the tip of her pen, she was quickly engrossed in working over the figures for the monthly accounts.

So engrossed was she that she missed the first, tentative knock at the door. The second, a touch louder and more impatient, jerked up her head, startling her. She put the files down with a glance at the clock above the TV and frowned as she saw how late it was.

The frown deepened as she looked cautiously through the peephole. She pulled the neck of her robe closer around her throat and then opened the door on its safety chain, just enough to peer around its edge.

"Mr. Andrews?" she said, puzzled. "What are you - is something wrong?"

"Karen." He smiled at her. "No, no not at all. Well, hardly enough to be bothered about really. It's just that - well, it's rather urgent, I'm afraid. May I come in? It'll only take a moment."

"Well - " Karen looked flustered. A hundred thoughts flashed through her mind. Uppermost, her state of undress, the fact that she hadn't gotten around to clearing away the remains of her supper and she hadn't vacuumed at all today…

"Karen?"

She started. "Oh." She glanced behind her at the apartment. "Oh, yeah, sure. Hang on." She closed the door, dragged a rough hand through her unruly hair and snicked clear the chain, before hauling it wide. She tugged at the neck of her robe again, self-consciously.

"Come on in."

***

The brownstone was mostly in darkness by the time Superman landed on the sill of the living room window; dimly lit from within by the hazy flicker of the TV and one single lamp. He entered the room carefully, closing the windows behind him as he glanced across his shoulder to the sofa.

Settled deep into its corner, legs tucked gracefully beneath her, his wife was asleep. Brief blue flashes in the glow of the screen lit the burgundy satin of her robe and played color and shadow against her skin. A half-open book had slipped from her lap and onto the floor.

Clark smiled slightly as he spun out of the red and blue suit. Burgundy. He loved that color on her. But then he liked her in anything she wore. The smile became a crooked grin. And in anything she didn't too.

He leaned over to switch off the TV and then bent to pick up the book. He glanced briefly at its cover before he laid it on the coffee table. It was a heavyweight text - 'Religious Evangelism in Rural America: A Study of Sects and Sanctuaries' - by a well known historical psychologist, whose name he faintly recognized. As he put it down, a glossy eight by ten fluttered out >from between its pages. Clark retrieved it from the floor and raised his >brows at the darkly handsome man featured on the print, before he glanced at his sleeping wife. He turned the print over and shook his head with a smile as he found the blue inked stamp mark on its reverse: 'Copyright of the United Church of Salvation.'

He placed it carefully with the book and less than half a dozen heartbeats later had settled onto the sofa beside Lois. He studied her face for a moment, relaxed and softened in sleep, and put a hand against her cheek before he leaned forward to place a soft kiss against her temple, her cheek, the line of her jaw, then lowered his head to trail more across the side of her neck. He was rewarded almost instantly as Lois stirred, with a quiet sigh.

"Hey," he said softly as her eyelids flickered and lifted and he found himself the focus of those beautiful, deep and soulful brown eyes.

"Hey, yourself." She hooked her arms around his neck as he gathered her close and closed her eyes again as he continued those tender caresses. His hands traced soft circles against her back as he kissed the side of her throat. The satin had picked up her warmth as she slept. He wrapped her tight, one arm rising to cradle her shoulders as he made his way in a heated trail towards her ear. He nuzzled delicately at the soft patch of sensitive skin behind its lobe.

"Sorry, I'm late," he took breath to murmur against her skin.

"Late?" she repeated absently, already much more interested in what he was doing and in the way that her body was responding to it. She stretched her neck with a frown, as he set to intently exploring the shell of her ear with a darting, lapping tongue, and lifted the arm draped around his, trying to see her wristwatch across his shoulder. "What time is it?"

"Almost three."

"Three…?" She drew back, fixing him with a suddenly alert gaze, hands against his shoulders now, holding him at bay as he looked at her, surprised. "You were out on the town with Mike Atwell and his buddies till three in the morning?"

He raised a brow. "You really want to get into a discussion about what you can get up to in the city at three in the morning?"

The words emerged more absently than he'd intended as his gaze slid away from her face and down the exposed length of pale, honey-colored skin at her throat, to where it seemed to find something of intense interest. He trailed one finger of the hand still cupped against the side of her neck down along the froth of coffee-colored lace that formed a deep V against her skin and let it come to rest at its lowest point. He hooked a finger into the lace and tugged gently. "This is nice," he approved.

Lois ignored that - though not without considerable effort. She tapped him against the chest with one finger as he leaned forward, bending his head to place a small, gentle press of his lips to the swell of one breast above the lace trim.

"*I* was working. And you were - ?"

He grimaced. "Actually, if you must know, I've spent most of the evening stuck in an elevator. And the rest of it giving police statements." He caressed the soft skin beneath his lips again and then lifted his head to look at her.

"Superman was stuck in an elevator?" She looked as though she might laugh.

"I'm serious," he told her, aggrieved. He sighed. "It's a long story and I promise I'll tell you all about it later, but right now - "

He pulled her against him again, one hand moving determinedly to brush the satin from the sculpted curve of her shoulder. Then, as he let his eyes feast on the satisfying expanse of warmly glowing flesh he'd bared, his hand dropped lower to tug free the loose knot of the robe's belt. Lois smiled.

"Right now…" she agreed, kissing him. A kiss that caught fire all at once, flaring into passion.

Clark groaned, pressing restlessly against her lips as he slid the robe open and discovered, not entirely to his surprise, that there were no further barriers to exploring the satin warmth of her skin, that she was naked beneath it.

"Oh God, honey…"

He lifted his head, found her mouth to kiss her briefly and thoroughly in promise of granting every desire she cared to name and then laid his cheek against hers, breathing hard and shallow against her neck. Lois whimpered, burrowing tighter against him. "Clark…" she murmured urgently.

He chuckled softly. "Come on."

He slipped his arms beneath her, lifting her with him as he rose from the sofa. Lois tucked her head into the curve of his shoulder as he carried her up the first of the stairs to the lower landing. Her hair smelled faintly of lemon and ginger from the shampoo she'd used; a scent he'd always associated with her, right back to the days when they'd first met. He inhaled it gratefully, feeling the deep welling sense of rightness with the world he always had when he was with her.

He sighed softly, a small, thankful sound, and pressed his lips lightly to the soft fall of that hair. He didn't think he'd ever needed her so badly to take his mind off of an evening. He thought about the last few hours and suppressed a shudder. The hotel thief had recovered consciousness long before security had rescued them from the elevator and they'd had nothing left to gag him with. (Though Atwell had sardonically suggested the Peke as a solution at one point - an idea that had provoked an inevitably raucous response from its owner.) Spending several hours listening to thief, dowager and convention Chairman trade insults hadn't been Clark's best idea of an interesting evening. Even the Peke had thrown in a snarl or two - mostly at him.

"You smell like Smokey the Bear," Lois suddenly roused herself to murmur, half-accusing.

He laughed. "I spotted a big warehouse fire on the way over here; made a detour. No one was hurt."

Lois lifted her head, the fog of desire fading as her eyes sharpened. "Another one? Like last night?"

"Nope. Same one." He grinned at her, almost able to see her nose twitch as she scented a take. "Nothing to interest us any. No arsonists at work or insurance scams on the make. The fire department thought it was out, but it'd gotten under the floorboards and flared up again, that's all. It happens."

"Oh," Lois said, sounding disappointed. But her nose wrinkled again, visibly this time.

"Don't worry, I'll shower when we get upstairs," he promised.

His wife nipped gently at his ear. "You won't you know," she told him, lifting her head to meet his lips and devouring them in a heady, potent kiss that sent him light-headed and dizzy all at once. "I'm not waiting one more second to be with you tonight."

***

He awoke with a start, disorientated. He looked down at the sleeping angel snuggled into his arms. Her head was tucked tight beneath his chin and her breath tickled at his throat as she slept the warm, sated sleep of the pleasantly exhausted. He smiled slightly and eased the arm around her shoulders to give him a view of the alarm clock. He'd been asleep for almost an hour.

Clark shifted further and then paused. He had intended simply to make her more comfortable, ease her beneath the covers, properly dispense with the satin robe and then snuggle up against her warm curves until he reclaimed sleep. But she was completely irresistible as she lay there in his embrace, palely glowing in the darkness, an enchanting, Lorelei siren he simply couldn't resist.

He eased her into the supporting curve of his arm and put the back of one soft hand against her throat, stroking lightly at the smooth skin. He nuzzled his way in a warm trail across the line of her jaw and up to tug gently at the lobe of her ear before retracing his path and finding her mouth. He kissed her lazily, pulling her closer against his chest as he probed his way between her lips and into the damp warmth of her mouth.

He felt her stir against him and her arms lifted to enclose his neck, her hands plunging into his hair as she came to slow, sultry life against him, moaning softly and then eagerly as she came fully awake.

Their bodies moved electrically in a slow, languid dance for a time, their hands engaged in slow exploration and then he pulled back slightly to look down into her flushed face and shining eyes. He lifted a hand to stroke an errant strand of hair away from her cheek and behind her ear and then leaned in again to reclaim her lips in another sweet, heady kiss. He was in no hurry.

Afterwards, he bundled her close against him, sighing softly, and felt her echo that murmur of contentment against the skin of his chest.

"I'm glad you broke your promise," she murmured drowsily, before sleep claimed her for the night. Clark tilted his head to smile down at her, amused, before he tightened his hold around the small hand fisted into his own, pulling their joined grip higher to lie against his chest. He slid his free arm further around her waist, took a moment to gently pull the edges of her robe back around her cooling body and tied the belt firmly around her waist.

He stroked a slow, soothing thumb against one silk covered hip as he pulled her closer, content to simply hold her like this against him, letting the cooling beat of her heart and the soft, rushing whisper of her pulse lull him into his own warm dreams.

***

"Culver? Hey, Culver! I know you're in there! Culver!"

Crouched in the corner, between the balcony wall and the glass sheeting of the door, Karen Culver ducked her head into the shelter of her arms, shivering.

"Go away…go away…go away…"

"Culver! Hey! Hey, you listening in there?" Another flurry of thuds shook the door in its frame. Karen huddled further into herself. She put her hands over her ears, face tightening, trembling.

The pounding stopped abruptly, replaced by a rising grumble of voices from the door's other side, one of which suddenly rose sharply enough to become half- coherent.

"- then, just butt out! You want me to handle this or what? I mean, me, I'd just as rather go back downstairs and watch another hour of Jeopardy!"

The complaint brought another rumble of protest and then there was a moment's pause before the swishing sound of Mazetti's oversized carpet slippers faded down the corridor and into silence.

Karen rocked slowly back and forth, murmuring.

After a time, her eyes darted to the railing. The voice in her head whispered slyly at her. It urged her to her feet. It told her there was only one way to stop the fear.

She glanced fearfully behind her once as she clambered upright, pulling herself erect with one hand against the decorative ironwork wall banding the balcony.

She stood for a moment, knuckles bone-white as they gripped the rail. Oblivious to the chill wind as it whipped her robe into streamers around her thighs, Karen tilted her head to one side, listening. Down below, far down below, the lights of the city twinkled up at her. For an instant, they seemed like eyes, watching her. Then they spun, brightly welcoming, encouraging…

The sound of keys rattling in the lock startled her, jerking her around.

"Culver?"

A virulent muttering followed Mazetti's tentative call as the door jammed up tight against the tumbled collection of furniture that had been piled haphazardly against its other side. As a barrier it proved less than successful as Mazetti shoved harder, pushing both door and barricade steadily aside, leaving a sliver of space, enough for him to slide his bulky frame through. Wedged in the doorway, he shoved again, until the door lay fully ajar. He mumbled again as he fumbled for the lightswitch by the door.

"…dumb broad…what the hell she been playing - oh, there you are!" He started as light flooded the room, enabling him to catch sight of her, framed in the open doors of the balcony. His eyes flicked over her, taking in her robe-clad figure interestedly, before they rose to her face. Behind him, a small, curious crowd peered around the doorframe. Most of them were wearing nightclothes.

"I been gittin' complaints." He frowned at her. "All that thumpin' an' bangin' going on. It's three in the morning, you know! What the hell you doin', moving things around this time of the morning. Folks're wanting to sleep. Those that can." He rubbed a heavy hand at the small of his back with a grimace and scowled at her again.

Karen stared at him. Her hands clutched the robe close around her. She backed up against the balcony railing, moaning softly.

"Hey…" Mazetti's annoyance faded slightly as he realized there was something more going on here than he might have supposed. "Hey, you okay?" He took a step forward and jumped, startled, as she shrieked. "What the - ?"

She flew at him, hands flailing, still screaming. She hit him like a squalling, clawing cat. Stunned, he could do nothing to defend himself as her nails slashed at his face. She was spitting curses at him, wild accusations among violent sobs that made no sense. Something about drapes and rats.

They spun in a brief dance as he fought himself free of her, finally succeeding in getting enough of a grip on her that he could shove her clear. She hit the edge of the balcony door and, losing balance, came up hard against the wrought-ironwork wall. Mazetti put a hand to one stinging cheek as he watched her warily and stared wide-eyed at the bloody smears on his fingers.

"You crazy - " he whispered and broke off as she began to wail. That pure, rising sound of terror lifted the hairs on the back of his neck. He backed off, holding out shaking hands. "Look, I don' want no trouble here. You understand me?" She ignored him and he shook his head, lips twisting with disgust. "I don't know what you're flying on, lady," he muttered. "But I'm outta here. Okay? You hear me? I'm going!"

He turned his head for the open door. None of the curious spectators seemed anxious to help him out though. He looked back, helplessly, at Karen.

She clung, sobbing, to the rail and then doubled over, hands clutching at her stomach as she began to retch.

"Aw, sweet - " Mazetti stared at her, angrily. "I'm calling the cops. You hear me? I ain't gettin' in on this! No way! I'm calling the cops!" He turned his head, searching the living room, and then came back, impatiently, "Where you got the — oh, sweet - " His eyes widened. A small, shocked scream came from the doorway. "Hey! Hey, get down from there!"

Karen Culver whipped her head around at his yell. For a moment, the barest instant, their eyes met as she clung on the very edge of balance, crouched atop the balcony's narrow ledge. Her eyes were wild, like a hunted animal's. Yet, far down deep in their depths, there seemed to be a plea too, a plea for him to save her, stop her. Mazetti took a step forward, hand lifting automatically.

"Now, look…I don't know what's going on here, but there ain't no need for — no!"

He yelled the useless demand as Karen turned back, her hair swirling in a cloud around her pale face, fingers knuckling white as they briefly tightened their grip and then pushed her clear.

Whoever it was in the doorway that was screaming did it again, shrilly this time, a piercing screech that drilled its way through his skull.

"No!" Mazetti yelled again. He checked his forward rush, standing on the empty balcony, hands fisting at his sides.

Another shrill scream floated up to him, from the sidewalk below this time, as some passer-by unexpectedly found the crumpled, bloodied heap lying in their path. It was followed by the rise of a male voice, urgent and demanding. Others joined it. Mazetti, gray-faced now, walked out onto the balcony and looked over the ledge.

Behind him, someone was talking about calling the cops.

Murmurs of gossip and rumor already began to rise in his wake.

Mazetti - streetwise, hard-nosed, seen it all before and couldn't care less anyhow, Mazetti - staggered away from the balcony and into Karen's pink and lilac tiled bathroom, where he disposed of his supper of bologna and beans in a matter of somewhat messy moments.

***

"Hey - why didn't you wake me?"

Lois smiled at her husband in the mirror as she molded herself to his back and ran her hands across well-formed chest muscles, still damp from his early shower. Warned by the faintly reddish tinge to her husband's eyes, she was careful not to get in the way of the narrow beam of heat being reflected off the mirror and onto his jaw. Clark smiled back as he left off shaving and turned his head to kiss her briefly as she stretched up to bring herself into reach.

"You looked so peaceful. Besides," he grinned at her as he picked up the bottle of cologne from the shelf above the sink, "I figured you could probably do with the rest."

"Mmmmm." She rested her cheek against the warm skin of his shoulder and sighed softly, stretching languidly against him. "Well, that's one of the hazards of having a husband who doesn't wear out too easy."

Clark chuckled. "Anyway," he teased, replacing the bottle and turning to gather her into the circle of his arms. "Awake, you're *much* too much of a temptation."

He kissed her lightly. Then, mock stern, fended her off — somewhat ineffectually - as she lifted herself on her toes to trail her lips across the line of his jaw, enjoying the newly applied scent of spice and woodsmoke clinging to his skin.

"And, I have *got* to get back to the hotel before those streets start filling up with the morning rush."

She got in his way as he put an apologetic hand to her shoulder, blocking him as he headed for the door. "So…I can't *tempt* you into another reunion then?" She glanced across her shoulder for the bedroom and gave him a smoky smile as her fingers walked a meandering path across his chest and onto his shoulders. "You could make us one of your famous Kansas breakfasts and we can…"

He fought a smile, maintaining a solemn facade as he tilted his head to view her, considering. "Last night's reunion wasn't enough?"

She shook her head, reaching up to entwine soft fingers in his dampened hair. "One reunion with you is never enough." Her voice was a low, throaty murmur that almost dissolved his willpower there and then.

"True." He closed the fraction of distance necessary to meet her lips. "Hey, I thought I was supposed to be the one with super-stamina in this family?" he teased as she met him eagerly, fire and heat in her lips as they moved vigorously against his own.

"Well, exactly," Lois all but purred. She shifted to plant one long finger in the center of his chest. "You're a challenge."

"I am?" He sounded almost startled by this declaration.

"Sure! To every red blooded female in the country." Her finger began a slow, meandering and thoughtful path downwards. "I've made it my life's work to wear you out."

"Really?" A curious note entered his tone. "How? Exactly?"

"Oh, I have my ways…"

He grinned. "You certainly do." He took hold of her exploring hand and brought it up against his chest again, entwined in his own. "Have I seen all of them yet?"

Lois smiled. "Uh-uh - not even close." She nuzzled her way across his bare chest. "Want me to show you some of the others?" she said, raising her head to kiss him again.

The kiss deepened, lingered, and then he drew back regretfully, with a sigh. "Honey, I'd like nothing better. But, if I don't get back to Boston before nine, Mike's gonna come looking to find me."

Lois pouted up on him. "I'm beginning to dislike Mike," she confided.

He laughed and kissed her again. "Mike's one of the good guys. He thinks you have a cute name," he added, a mischievous twinkle coming into his eyes.

His wife arched a sharp brow at him. "*This* is supposed to endear him to me?"

He chuckled. "He's read some of your work."

"Mmmmm-hmmmm?" the inquiry came from the region of his left shoulder as she began to tease a trail of soft, open-mouthed kisses against his skin.

Clark closed his eyes. His hands lifted to stroke their way through the thick spill of her hair, pressing her closer to the firm muscle contracting under her lips. "He thinks you're one of the best reporters he's ever read."

Lois paused. "One of?"

"Hey, honey, he's from Boston, cut him some slack."

"Hmmmph…" Lois snorted, unimpressed, but she seemed more interested in her explorations now anyway.

Clark sighed. "Sweetheart - "

"Mmmmphhh…just…ten…more…minutes…" She punctuated the soft plea with whispering caresses across his collarbone and against his jaw, where the tight twitch of muscle gave testimony to his struggle to resist her. "Please?" She lifted her head and hit him full force with the soft, entreating glow of her dark, bewitching eyes.

"Ten?" he said, the word seemingly drawn up out of the pit of his belly and against his will. Lois moved to position her lips within an inch of his. Her breath tickled at his skin, distracting him as he continued, almost absently, "Just ten?"

Even he was able to hear the disappointment in his tone. He winced, knowing he'd just handed her a weapon in this battle of wills that she'd use to beat him into submission without the slightest compunction.

"Well…" She gave him a coquettish glance from beneath those impossibly long lashes and smiled her siren smile. "I suppose we *could* in ten…if we're really…energetic."

That provoked a bark of laughter from him, half rueful, half awe-struck. His eyes filled with soft affection as he looked down at her. He considered that she had probably secured two hours sleep at most, yet here she was, fresh as a daisy, ready…willing…he groaned, the thought drifting as his mouth closed warmly over hers and her hands began a soft exploration of the muscles of his chest and back.

He struggled, distantly, to recall why this was a bad idea.

"Lois…" He pulled free with a sigh and paused as his eyes caught on her robe, which had been pulled back off one shoulder, exposing the smooth curve. He found her shoulders irresistible. He drew in a deep, heavy breath. "Sweetheart, really, I…can't…"

Lois narrowed her eyes. "Wrong answer, farmboy," she growled as she reached up, splaying her fingers firmly against his cheeks, pulling his head down to meet her halfway as she rose up onto her toes and kissed him ferociously.

His lips surrendered immediately, just ahead of the flag waving from the rest of his body, opening obediently beneath the firm pressure of hers. His self- control headed for the nearest exit, along with good sense and quite a few other things besides. He groaned as she let him loose and turned her attention to a distracting trail of hot little kisses along the line of his jaw and throat.

"Oh, God, I knew this would happen… My Mom was right. I'm a complete pushover, aren't I?" he complained, letting his head fall forward until his forehead rested on her shoulder.

His wife's soft, triumphant laughter against the base of his jaw thrilled him, in ways he was almost certain she had no idea she was able to. He loved the way she took delight in winning the argument, victorious in battle - even the little, trivial ones. And he loved letting her win, savoring her delight - especially over the little, trivial ones.

He faked a mournful sigh. "If the card carrying members of the Arch Villains of Metropolis Union could see me now…

Lois was nibbling at his earlobe now, giving the task as much solemn attention as she would have a guaranteed, smack you in the face, Pulitzer Prize winning story.

His hand brushed its way higher against her back to cradle her, easing her closer against him still, while the other gently ran the curve of her other shoulder, baring it. His lips traced a line of fire against the pulse-line of her throat, his breath flooding harshly against her skin as his heartbeat rushed thunderously to join hers.

Lois took time out from nuzzling gently at the sensitive patch of skin just behind his ear to whisper a few provocative, teasing words, which made him pause in his own ministrations and then smile against the warm skin of her shoulder. Was that anatomically possible, he wondered? He didn't know. He didn't actually care. It was going to be fun finding out. His hand left its comfortable perch and, ignoring her soft, wordless protest at the loss, he reached to scoop her into his arms. She lifted her head and met his kiss as he headed for the bedroom, their lips melding in a heated caress.

He was halfway through the door when he suddenly paused.

Drowning in a haze of desire, it took Lois a moment or so to realize she'd lost him. Then she left off teasing the shell of his ear and raised her head to look at him, enquiringly. She suppressed a sigh - barely - and pushed up with her hands on his shoulders to look at him more steadily. "Go."

"Huh?" His eyes cleared, came back from the distance - a far distance and one that didn't include her - and turned immediately contrite. "Lois, I'm sorry — - "

She shook her head. "Go," she said again, softly, and smiled at him.

He hesitated, then nodded and adjusted his grip to ease her down the length of his body to the ground, fingers enclosing her upper arms tightly, as though reluctant to loose their hold. Despite her exhortations, Lois clung to him when she made the ground and he enclosed her in his arms, pressing her tighter to him in sympathy and regret, before he released her.

"Listen," he said hastily, "I called Triple A. My plane's still on schedule. It should get in around one. How about I meet you at Cinchesko's for lunch?"

"Well, it's a little on the public side for a reunion…" She smiled, letting go of him. "But, sure. Sounds good to me. If you're delayed, I'll order you a very *large* helping of pasta," she promised archly.

He grinned at her. "Okay. Good. See you there then." He kissed her quickly on the forehead and vanished into the bedroom.

"Be - " Lois called, but a sudden backwash of cool air that stirred her hair against her neck told her he'd already gone. " - careful," she finished in a rueful murmur, before she undid the tie of her robe and turned on the shower.

***

"Ah, there you are." Andrews grinned up at his partner. He waved the red-bound folder at him. "I got it."

Gerrord stared at the report and then fixed that dark look on him. "So you did. The question is, Joe," he said thoughtfully, watching his partner as though suddenly viewing a stranger - and one that he was particularly wary of to boot, "just what exactly did you do to get it?"

Andrews grin slipped. "What do you mean, what did I do? I did what you said. I went over to Karen's apartment. I told her Richard had probably given her the report by mistake and that I couldn't wait until morning for her to bring it back, that I needed to bone up on it before a meeting at eleven. I don't think she'd read it any. She didn't seem interested - more bothered about Richard getting into trouble over the mistake. I promised her I'd let it lie and then I left. You can ask her yourself when she comes in." He frowned, glancing at his watch. "She should have been here half an hour ago."

"Difficult. She's dead, Joe."

Andrews, flicking through the report, his manner still self-congratulatory, froze. He lifted his head. "What?"

"Karen is dead," Gerrord spaced the words out as though explaining to a child. "She jumped from her balcony last night." He paused. "At least…that's the story so far."

"The story so - ?" Andrews' bewildered repetition faltered. His mouth fell open, worked soundlessly for a moment as Gerrord continued to fix him with that clinical stare, then finally recovered to blurt, "Wait a minute… My God! You think I - you think I *killed* Karen to stop her talking about the report?"

Gerrord was still for a long moment. Then he shook his head. "No. No, I can't say I do think that," he admitted. His lips twisted in a sneer. "Clearing up after your own mistakes isn't really your style, Joe, is it?"

Andrews was shaking his head, oblivious to the slight as he murmured, "But why?" He looked shaken. "She was fine. She was just fine when I left. Just like always." He glanced up sharply. "You have to believe me, Malcolm! I - "

"I believe you."

Andrews nodded sickly. "But…" he started, after a moment's thought, "what are we going to do? There'll be questions, won't there? The police will be here and — "

"Yes, they will be. And you'll answer them."

"But - "

Gerrord sighed. "Listen to me, Joe!" he snapped, killing the panic rising in Andrews' face. "It's simple. You listening? You tell them what they want to hear, understand? You don't know any reason why a bright girl like Karen would want to go jumping off balconies. Just the simple truth."

Andrews nodded and then hesitated a moment before he said slowly, "Actually, there might have been. That guy she was shacked up with…" His face twisted and then he snapped his fingers, triumphant, "David…David Galloway. He walked out on her, dumped her for that little redhead in accounting. What's her name…?" He frowned impatiently and started as Gerrord said sharply,

"It doesn't matter! That's fine, stick with that then. She was upset about it. Terribly upset. You caught her crying a couple of times. Say what you like about Karen, Joe. Say anything you think will keep them happy and close that case. But you keep your mouth shut on anything else. You got that?"

Andrews nodded.

Gerrord echoed it. "Good. Oh, and Joe?" he added, turning back in the doorway.

"Yeah?"

"Get that report under lock and key, better still, shred it. I never want to see it again."

***

" - so now she figures my idea of a romantic night out is the latest porn flick," Jimmy finished.

"It wasn't really a *porn* flick, Jimmy - " Lois tried soothing him, but he was too sunk in maudlin self-castigation to be that easily distracted. He glanced through the glass of the conference room and sighed.

"She thinks I'm a jerk."

Lois followed his gaze to where Leanore was diligently filing on the other side of the office and then came back to view him sympathetically >from her perch on the opposite corner of the table.

"Well, the air was just a little frosty this morning, when you asked her if she wanted a coffee and danish," she admitted. She leaned across to put a hand to his arm and squeezed gently. "Hey, she'll get over it."

"You think?"

"Sure. Jimmy, it was an honest mistake. Could've happened to anyone."

"It ever happened to you?" he asked, glumly.

"Well…no. But these new Movie-Plexis are confusing places at times. How were you to know the program changed after ten?"

He gave her a less than convinced glance.

"I guess, it would have helped if screen three had been showing something just a tad more…spiritual…though," Lois agreed, with an apologetic shrug.

"Well, it wasn't showing Bambi, that's for sure," Jimmy said mournfully. He gave her a pleading look. "So, what do I do now?"

"I don't know. Leave an anonymous note on Carol's desk?" she suggested flippantly, referring to the Planet's resident advice columnist and, then as he gave her a wounded look, "Sorry. Why don't you just tell Leanore the truth? Maybe she'll accept an apology first and an explanation later. Why don't you invite her over for the evening, cook her a meal?" Lois leapt to her feet, suddenly inspired as she snapped her fingers. "Clark has the *greatest* recipe for beef and mushroom casserole. She'll love it!"

"Really?" Jimmy looked dubious.

"Sure!"

"I dunno. I'm not much of a cook."

Lois put an arm lightly around his shoulders and leaned conspiratorially close. "So, *I'll* cook." She sighed as his doubtful look deepened. "Okay, okay, I'll get *Clark* to cook. You collect. Half an hour to warm it up before Leanore arrives, add a bottle of wine, and you'll be laughing over last night before you know it." She patted him on the back and moved back around the table to pick up the files she'd been working on when he'd interrupted her.

Jimmy looked thoughtful. "Isn't that kinda…sneaky?" he said, after a moment.

She hitched her shoulders at him, dryly ingenuous. "Hey, sneaky's why I'm the best reporter the Planet's got! Now go. Ask!" She pointed an imperious finger at the door.

Jimmy gave her a mock salute. "Absolutely! And, Lois?" He paused in the doorway. "Thanks."

She smiled. "Anytime." The smile faded as she caught sight of the clock on the far wall. "Oh! I'm late for lunch!" She hurried to her desk and dumped the files as she grabbed for her purse and jacket, waving a hand at him. "But we'll talk later, huh?"

"Sure."

***

Lois took the stairs instead of the elevator to save time and arrived at the cafe slightly harried and ten minutes overdue. She still found herself arriving before Clark, however.

The smiling waiter lead her to a table set beneath the tall, arched windows and, after offering her the menu and taking her order for cappuccino, retreated to leave her alone.

For a time, Lois occupied herself with idly watching the bustling crowd outside.

By the time half an hour had passed, however, this entertainment was wearing a trifle thin. There was only one person she wanted to see and where he was was anyone's guess. She broke off her pensive following of a red-coated woman, with a child in tow, and glanced at her watch for the third time in so many minutes. She sighed and took another sip of coffee. She wished she was near a TV or radio. Sometimes, she thought, with another inner sigh, listening to the news updates was her best chance of discovering where her husband was.

She finished the coffee and, picking up her coat and purse, went to pay her check.

The day, which had started overcast and threatening rain, had turned pleasantly sunny. Drawn by the hot, spicy scents wafting towards her - and prodded by a sudden low grumble in her stomach to the reminder that one cup of cappuccino did not constitute lunch by its standards - she picked up a chili dog from a streetside vendor and liberally loaded it with onions and cheese.

Threading her way through the press of the crowd towards the Planet, she tangled briefly and spectacularly with a well-dressed executive type coming in the other direction. She rebounded from him with a sharp grunt and ended up landing hard on the sidewalk.

"Hey!" All of Lois' hard bitten, let-'em-get-away-with-nothin' city instincts leapt to the fore at this assault and she glared up at her attacker from her position at his feet.

"Oh, good Lord - I'm terribly sorry! Here, let me…"

Lois growled ungraciously as he stuck out a hand to clasp hers and dragged her to her feet. She snatched back her fingers and brushed at her coat.

"I really should have been paying more attention to where I was headed. But —"

"Yeah, you bet, buster!" Lois snapped furiously. "Next time, why don't you - " She paused. A soft flush took over her cheeks and she looked discomfited. If Clark were here, she knew, she'd be getting Mr. Congeniality Lecture No. 53: the one about lightening up and giving the twelve million or so other inhabitants who shared the city with her a break. 'Hey, what more you want the guy to do, Lois? He said he was sorry. He admitted it was his fault…'

"Yeah, yeah…" Lois muttered crabbily under her breath.

"Excuse me?"

She looked back at the city gent and then patted at her coat pockets with a suspicious scowl. /Nuts to trusting your fellow man/, she growled at the disapproving mental image of her husband. Having judged that the man watching her was no pickpocket, she deepened the scowl on him.

"Just…just watch it next time, okay?" she said through clenched teeth.

"I certainly will." He nodded, ignoring the edge to her acceptance of his apology and gave her a polite smile before heading on his way.

Lois watched him go for a moment, then rolled her eyes. "Idiots!" she growled as she spun around on her heel, narrowly missing another collision before stalking on her way. "This city's populated by idiots!"

Despite her annoyance, by the time she reached the intersection she had forgotten one small incident in an otherwise crowded day.

Standing by the cluster of tables outside Cinchesko's cafe, the man watched her cross the street. The faint smile was still on his face as he rubbed the palm of his right hand against his thigh, smearing clean the black stain spreading on his skin. When he was sure the hand was clean, he meandered on his way, whistling tunelessly beneath his breath.

***

Entering the lobby of the Daily Planet building, Lois walked to the elevators and reached out to press the call button. It was only then that she spotted the smear of black crossing her palm. Clicking her tongue in exasperation, she rummaged in her purse, sure she'd find a leaking pen. But the interior and its contents were unmarked.

Shaking her head, she fished out a tissue and scrubbed at the ink stain studiously until she cleared it best she could. Entering the elevator, she got off a floor early and made a quick detour for the rest room, where soap and hot water and more, vigorous scrubbing, reduced the stain at least to a gray blur. She deposited the tissue in the trash and took the single flight of stairs to the next level and the newsroom.

"Thought you were meeting C.K. for lunch?" Jimmy said, surprised, as she came through the open double doors from the stairwell and headed for her desk. He eyed the chili dog with a grin. "He's not working to a budget, is he?"

She ignored that, taking another bite of her impromptu lunch as she dropped her purse at her feet. "'Were', being the operative word. I guess he got delayed. Anything come in while I was gone?" she added casually, keeping her eyes on the pile of papers on her desk as she flicked through them.

"You missed Superman. Scaffolding collapsed on a building site on Walnut and Main; couple of the workmen were hurt. Superman took them to the hospital, but they were just shaken up, mostly. Perry sent Eduardo down to cover it. Nothing else seems to be happening out there. I guess we got slow times on the news front."

Lois nodded. "Uh-huh." She finished off the dog and dropped the wrapping into the wastebasket. "How about on the romance front?"

He looked abashed.

"Jimmy?"

"Well, I haven't had a chance to - "

"Jimmy…"

"I will, I will. Swear to the Great Ghost of Elvis!" He held up surrendering hands and then his face broke into a broad, welcoming smile as his eyes shifted across her shoulder. "Hey, C.K.!"

"Hey, Jimmy," Clark greeted him genially as he came down the stairs. He put the travelbag he was carrying down beside his desk. "Lois," he said, almost warily.

She smiled at him and opened her arms. He grinned as he gathered her to him in a hug and she wrapped her arms tight around his neck, pressing her cheek to his.

Clark wondered idly if there would ever come a time when he didn't feel that familiar shockwave of arousal sweep him on entering a room and catching first sight of his wife. Personally, he thought with a quiet smile against her hair, as he nuzzled lightly at its softness, he doubted it. He tightened his grip, his hands spread flat between her shoulderblades and against the small of her back, pressing her closer against him as he sighed softly.

His smile broadened into another, irrepressible grin. "Missed me?"

"Of course."

It wasn't entirely a charade for the benefit of onlookers. Their passionate rendezvous of the previous evening may have assuaged some of the loneliness and longing for her that being separated from his wife had settled in him, but passion wasn't all there was to being with Lois, and there'd been little time for quiet companionship or snuggling and talking over their day, or just plain catching up.

He'd still missed her in the few hours he'd spent between leaving her and coming back to the Planet. Though they might only have parted a scant few hours before, Clark felt as though he hadn't seen her for days. And she felt so good, smelled so good, in his arms as he held her tightly against him. He began to think about that interrupted, early morning romp again and shifted, suddenly uncomfortable. Lois heard his small sigh of regret as she eased herself from his arms and smiled up on him, commiserating.

/Later…/ she mouthed a promise at him that set a steady flame burning in the deep, chocolate colored eyes fixed on her face.

Beside them, Jimmy was grinning fit to bust. "I missed you too."

They looked at him, startled out of the private moment, and then began to laugh. Jimmy's grin widened. "Hey, guys, I'm not kidding here! Lois takes on more stories when you're outta town, C.K. A fella could get run ragged doing research before you got back."

Lois aimed a mock swipe at him with the folder she was holding and he ducked away, diplomatically leaving them to their reunion. Even Jimmy Olsen could sometimes take a hint.

Clark watched him go with a smile and then turned his attention back to his wife. "Sorry about lunch. I - "

"I heard. Jimmy said no one was badly hurt?"

"Just minor cuts and bruises; couple of broken bones. It was a miracle no one got killed. But by the time Superman had taken them to the hospital and made that broken scaffolding safe…"

Lois nodded. She hitched herself to sit on the edge of her desk and tugged playfully at his tie, tightening its knot as she used it as leverage to pull him closer to stand before her. "Well, you can make it up to me later," she whispered, leaning forward invitingly.

"Ooooh. If you insist." He took the invitation, exploring her lips with a soft, gentle kiss, then put a hand to her shoulder as he reined himself back >from the edge. /Later…/ he reminded himself firmly as he slipped into the persona of inquisitive journalist, his glance drawn to the clutter on the desk behind her. "What you been working on?"

"Oh - "

"Digging up the dirt, by the looks of it," he interrupted with a smile. "Literally."

"What?"

He took hold of her wrist and lifted her hand, turning it inwards so that she could view her palm. Lois growled in disgust and reached over to jerk a wad of tissue from the box beside her computer.

"I thought I'd gotten rid of this," she muttered, scrubbing violently at the dark patch still staining her skin.

"What is it, anyway?" He leaned over to take a closer look. "Ink? Paint?"

"I don't know. I must've picked it up outside somewhere. I didn't notice." She scrubbed a little more and then dropped the tissue into the wastepaper basket with a grimace.

"Anyway, I haven't been scooping you out of anything exciting, so you shouldn't worry," she said finally, when she was satisfied she'd gotten as clean as was possible to get. There was still a faint stain, but it was barely noticeable, she was sure.

She picked up a scatter of papers among the abandoned heap on her desk, which, ludicrously, Clark had often heard her call a filing system, before handing them over. "Perry's got me on light duties," she added disgustedly.

She picked up another handful and waved them at him in emphasis with the complaint as Clark settled himself absently into her chair and began to peruse the paperwork. After a moment, a smile spread on his face. "Bi-Annual Expenses Review? Since when did this have to be in by April 1st?"

Lois gave him a helpless shrug, tone scathing. "Mmm-hmmm. You'd be surprised at how many admin. jobs have suddenly acquired urgent attention since I tangled with Valley Vale. I swear, he's gonna have me running amok with an axe through here if I don't get something to sink my teeth into soon!"

Clark chuckled. "Here," he put out a hand for the rest of the papers. "give 'em to me. I'll work through them. I'm better at mental arithmetic than you are."

"Are not!"

"Am too. And I can count faster as well," he added with a grin as she gave him a mock offended look. Despite it, she handed over the paperwork with celerity, before he could change his mind, although she couldn't resist adding, tartly, "Anyway, God invented calculators so people didn't have to *do* mental arithmetic."

"And He invented superfast super-vision for when the calculator batteries run out," Clark countered, winking at her before he glanced down at the sheets in his hands.

"Mine is solar-powered," Lois muttered.

"He sure is," Clark drawled an agreement and heard her give up her pique abruptly and chuckle softly as he began to scan the scrawl of figures.

Lois picked up a newly opened file and began to read through it idly, chewing fitfully at one corner of her lower lip.

Clark finished first, by which time Lois was pretty much engrossed in her reading. He settled back against the chair to wait her out, indulging himself in watching her. Taking a few quiet moments out to appreciate his wife's sleek form was always one of his favorite parts to the day and he always managed to find some time out for the indulgence, no matter how hectic their day became.

She'd dressed to impress, he realized suddenly with a small, inward chuckle, his eyes thoughtfully roaming her slim curves. Very obviously with this reunion in mind - a two-piece little rust number that he recognized instantly. His eyes softened. She knew it was an especial favorite of his. Had been ever since the first time he'd seen her wearing it - on the night he'd returned >from New Krypton sooner than either of them had ever hoped to think of and >had been waiting for her outside her apartment. The only thing he didn't usually like too much about the ensemble was that the skirt was just a mite too long for his tastes as it nudged her ankles.

He almost laughed out loud, as he noted now that she'd taken care of that objection and teamed the simulated suede, rust-colored vest top and the suit jacket with a skirt that was several inches shorter than its predecessor. A whole *lot* shorter than its predecessor, he amended approvingly as his eyes traveled up along the glorious, enticing and shapely curves of his wife's legs. Short enough to expose a generous length of smooth, firm thigh to his appreciative gaze as she perched on the edge of her desk.

She'd dispensed with the fitted jacket before he arrived. It was slung across the back of the chair he was sitting in. He let his eyes wander over the bewitching way that the sleeveless top molded itself to her curves.

Elsewhere too, he observed, she'd dressed with perhaps a more intimate reunion in mind. There was a distinct and tantalizing hint of silk and lace beneath that top. Clark shifted slightly in his chair, paused for an instant, and then lifted a hand to shift his glasses surreptitiously down onto the bridge of his nose.

"Don't even think about it, farmboy," his wife said, without taking her eyes >from the file she was reading.

Caught in the indulgence, Clark flashed her an entirely unabashed grin and then pushed on the arms of his chair to bring himself up to stand. He planted his hands on either side of her, against the desk, leaning close until their lips almost touched.

"Who, me?"

He brushed a feather light touch of his lips against the line of her jaw and, as she tilted her head slightly in appreciation, took the file from her unprotesting hands and laid it back on the desk. He straightened to put his hands at her waist and lift her from her perch to stand close against the lean length of his muscular body.

"Yes, you, Mr. Innocent. We wouldn't want you to go spoiling your surprise, now would we?"

"Surprise?" He dipped his head to nuzzle softly at her throat and then bit gently at her ear.

"Mmmmm-hmmmm." Lois' eyes sparkled up into his as he lifted his head. "So - " She trailed one finger down the length of his tie and then let it hover, just a few short delectable inches shy of the waistband of his pants, as she went on huskily, " - see anything you want?"

He grinned. "Yup. But, I'll take a raincheck…" He reached to hook a finger into the edge of the vest top as it lay at her shoulder and used the leverage to tug her gently forward, bringing her in close enough for another kiss.

He didn't have to tug too hard.

"Otherwise, people might talk," he added a low whisper, after a moment.

Lois looked up on him with adoring eyes and he smiled. She lowered her head to press her lips briefly and softly to his and then planted them against his cheek. "Are you kidding, Kent? I think by now we're beyond office gossip," she told him wryly in a breathy murmur against his skin. "We could do the horizontal lambada on my desk right now and no one would bat an eye."

He laughed quietly. "I wouldn't be too sure of that, Lois. Although, it might be fun to - "

"Lois!

Lois jumped guiltily at that bellow from the other side of the bullpen. Clark wasn't far behind her.

"You still working on that Karvin deal?"

She looked up as Perry came across the room. Clark let her loose, stepping back a small pace as he cleared his throat softly. Lois smoothed at her skirt as she smiled, warmly and entirely guilelessly, at the approaching editor.

"Clark," he said, reaching out to clasp his reporter's hand briefly. "Good to see you back. You pick up any good ideas out there?"

"Hey, Chief. Sure. There was a lot of interesting stuff floating around."

"Yeah? Well, good. Uh, we'll chew it over later, huh? Right now, I got a problem I need your help on. Lois?" He turned back purposefully. "Karvin?"

"Sent it down to copy before I left for lunch."

"Good." He gathered both of them with a look. "Uh, I just got off the phone with an old golfing buddy of mine. Jake Culver. Used to be a real big name in the newspaper business, till he decided he liked the smell of rum more'n he did ink an' paper." Perry gave them a rueful shrug. "Anyway, I owe him a favor or two and he just called in to collect. You see this on the news this morning?" He held out a black and white print for their inspection.

Clark took the picture and gave it a quick once-over before handing it on to Lois. She viewed the high school yearbook picture of a shy smiling brunette with a seriously cute overbite and pursed her lips.

"A little. Suicide case, isn't it? Didn't she jump from her apartment building?"

"From the eighth floor balcony." Perry nodded. "She was Jake Culver's niece. He hadn't seen her in a time, Karen lost touch with the family when she moved to Metropolis and there was some rift there, but he's convinced there's more to it than suicide."

"When he hasn't been in touch?" said Clark, doubtfully. "Has he had any contact with her at all?"

"Nope. But he's still sure. He says the reason for the estrangement between the family and Karen was the reason he knows she didn't kill herself."

"Which was?"

"She took up with some Church group. Christian Fundamentalist, I think. The family was strictly Methodist. They didn't approve of the association. Karen moved out after some big bust up on the thing."

Lois gave him a sardonic glance. "And what? Christians don't throw themselves off balconies?"

"Well, you know…suicide's a sin," Perry said, shrugging.

"So's most anything, you get right down to it," Lois sniffed. "But most people seem to ignore that when it suits."

"So, this friend of yours thinks, what?" Clark asked with a frown, taking back the photo and studying it more intently. "That she was murdered?"

"He wasn't too clear on that one," Perry admitted. "He just says those old newshound guts of his have been playing him up since he heard."

Clark looked at him, considering. "And you, Chief? What are your instincts saying?"

"I dunno. Jake always had a nose for trouble. At the moment? I'd say it's a waste of my two best reporters' time. But…Jake Culver is an old friend. And I do owe him one. And" he plucked the print from Clark's hand and shook his head over it, "if there is something an inch shy of shady on this deal, you two are the ones that are gonna find it."

Clark looked to Lois. She hitched her shoulders at him, deferring the decision. He nodded at Perry. "We'll get right on it, Chief."

***

Karen Culver's apartment building was situated in a neighborhood on the outskirts of the heart of the city. It was like a thousand others: modestly neat, running slightly to seed, but holding onto its respectability with a grim determination. Paint in a subdued shade of blue was peeling from the outside door and one pane of the side window was boarded, but there was a freshly mounted intercom security system on the wall and the little stretch of front yard between the entrance and the sidewalk was neatly tended.

Lois reached out for the first buzzer and then paused. She pushed the door and gave her partner a meaningful glance across her shoulder as it opened easily: so much for security. Clark followed her closely as they entered the gloomy entrance hall. Before them, a steep staircase ascended. A small line of mailboxes filled the wall to their left. Other than that, the hall was empty.

Lois tapped at his arm and nodded beyond him. "The super," she said, indicating the door set into the wall opposite the stairs, with its faded scrap of paper tacked haphazardly to its surface: 'Leo Mazetti - Superintendent'.

"Mazetti? Hey, I - " Clark started and then the door opened and a short, tubby man with a receding hairline came out, pulling the door shut and locking it tight behind him.

"Mr. Mazetti?" Lois asked.

"Yeah?" he answered disinterestedly, before glancing around to view them. He took them in, in a head to toe inspection that lasted a fraction of a second. "If you're from Welfare - "

"Um, no." She stuck out a hand. "I'm Lois Lane, this is Clark Kent. We're reporters for - "

"Metropolis Star!"

"Uh…no." Lois withdrew her hand coolly. "Daily Planet actually."

"Oh," Mazetti said. "Too bad. You know that Tania Sherman's real good. Never go to a movie without checking out her reviews."

"Really." Lois fielded a glance from Clark before turning a sugarcoated smile on the landlord. "Well, we don't know her." The smile congealed. "At all."

Mazetti sniffed.

"Uh, Mr. Mazetti - " Clark got back on track hastily and was interrupted as Mazetti frowned.

"Hey, don't I know you?"

Clark smiled. "Yeah. I rented one of your apartments? 344 - "

" - Clinton!" Mazetti shot back. "Right! I remember. Sold those last year. That was a good building. I hear County's pulling 'em down though; building a mall." His eyes flickered. "So, you looking for something else? Hey, listen, you're in luck. I got one free here. Ain't even advertised yet. Just got empty last — "

"Oh no, that's okay." Clark half lifted a hand to stop the flow of sales pitch. "I'm married now and — "

"Oh. Oh…!" Mazetti's eyes flashed over Lois and he grinned. "I gotcha. Well, hey, listen…Kent…" He took an over-familiar hold on Clark's sleeve, hustling him to the other end of the hallway, by the stairs, and lowering his voice to a conspiratorial hiss when he got him there.

"These apartments here are just what you've been looking for. Outta the way, real discreet." He glanced back across his shoulder to where Lois was trying hard to overhear and just as hard to avoid looking as though she was. Mazetti lowered his voice a notch further. "No one'll ever think of tagging you two together way out here. Little woman back home'll never suspect a thing, believe me. Rest of the office? Won't have a clue."

Clark blinked. He glanced across the hall at Lois, trying hard to hold back a smile as she hitched a curious brow at him. "Um…" He smiled tightly at Mazetti instead as he turned the man around with a light hand at his shoulder and guided him back along the hall. "Mr. Mazetti, I'd like to introduce you to my *wife*…"

Mazetti looked up on him and then fixed that gaze on Lois. "Oh."

Clark avoided catching the coolly questioning look that Lois gave him for the introduction. As a matter of long-standing habit, it was an unwritten rule between them that when they were working on an investigation she was his partner. Not his fiancee. Not his wife. Too often, too many people…well, too many men, if he were honest about it…reacted to those labels by relegating Lois to the background. Lois, of course, never one to accept being pushed aside lightly, had never been circumspect about bringing herself into the foreground again, usually by way of some caustic put-down that quickly corrected the offending individual's attitude some. But it had always been simpler to just bypass the problem all together. Especially when they were on shaky ground, as now, and keen to keep the subject of their questioning sweet in the hope of gaining some co-operation from him. He gave Lois an 'explain later' frown and she eased up on him, slightly, though her eyes said she'd expect one.

"What's she got a different name for then?" Mazetti asked, looking away from Lois and onto him, curiously. "If she's your wife?"

Clark winced. "Uh, we're investigating the death of one of your tenants?" he said hurriedly as Lois' lips tightened into a visibly thin line. "Karen - "

" - Culver. Yeah. Crazy kid. You know I blame these rock bands they got on TV these days. I mean most of 'em got names would give your maiden aunt a seizure."

"Rock bands?" Lois repeated, dubiously.

"Yeah, you know. I mean she had to be loaded to go out like that, right?"

"Drugs?" Clark frowned.

"Well, not that I ever saw, I gotta admit. She kept herself to herself, you know. Quiet. Never caused no trouble. But, it just stands to figure, don't it? You don't go taking a high dive without no warning you don't got cause. Right? And the way she looked at me, like I was some kinda psycho killer — "

"Wait a minute. You were there? When she jumped?"

"Sure I was there! I'd been hearing all that banging and thudding for hours. I been havin' trouble sleeping, nights," the landlord said sourly, rubbing a reflexive hand at the base of his spine. "Back's been playing up. Old war wound," he added hopefully. "Took a bullet in 'Nam. Ain't been the same since."

Clark traded a glance with Lois and tried not to look too skeptical. Mazetti had offered various explanations for his recurring back pain to him in the past, and had, in fact, he was almost sure, told him at one point that he'd taken the injury while working on his no-good cousin's Dodge without a jack.

Mazetti, perhaps belatedly recalling that he was talking to someone who knew more about him than he might have supposed, cleared his throat roughly and changed the subject. "Anyway, might have gone up to see what was going on myself, 'cept its none of my business what they get up to, nights. But then the other tenants started calling, wanting to know what I was gonna do about it. So I got no choice."

Clark nodded, sympathetic with the onerous duties of a landlord. "And when you got there?"

"Well, she wouldn't open up. I was hollering an' poundin' on the door and I knew she were in there. She'd called down earlier mouthing off about the heating being on the fritz again. You know that ain't my fault. I been onto half a dozen plumbing companies already and — "

"Yeah," Clark interrupted hastily. "So, you knew she was there. And you let yourself in, I guess. With your key? When she didn't answer?"

"Sure I did. Well, I was getting worried, you know? Actually, just between you an' me, I was getting spooked. I could hear her in there, muttering to herself, carrying on. I thought maybe she was having some kinda fit or something. I mean, I mind - "

" - your own business," Clark agreed, with a faintly sardonic smile. "Yeah, I know. And she was?"

"Out on the balcony. Looked pretty whacked, if you ask me. I asked her if she were okay, if she needed a doc, and, like I say, she looked like I was gonna…well, she looked pretty scared. She went for me like a spitting cat. See?" He prodded a finger at the fresh line of scratches marring his cheek and winced. "Just for no reason at all! Anyway, next thing I know she's acting like she figures she's Superman. I called the cops. That's all I can tell you."

Lois hitched a brow at him. "And they believed you?"

"Hey I got witnesses!" Mazetti said, stung. "Half the damn building was out there, watching. Best entertainment most of them got for weeks. Anyways, I got nothing to do with her going over like that. Ask anyone, they'll tell you! Cops took statements and everything."

Clark pursed his lips. Lois shook her head slightly. He knew what she was thinking. This story looked to be getting slimmer by the second. There seemed little mystery to Karen Culver's death. In fact, it was becoming all too depressingly and pitifully familiar a tale. Still…he raised a questioning brow at her…since they were here…?

She nodded. "Uh, Mr. Mazetti, we'd really like a look at Karen's apartment, if — "

"No deal," Mazetti shook his head firmly.

"Well, I know it's still cordoned off, but I'm sure the police have finished with - "

"I already promised that guy from the Star I'd let him in first. Said he'd be on over later this afternoon."

"Oh." She smiled. "Well, a promise is a promise, right? So…how about we promise you more?" She fished in her purse.

Clark nudged at her elbow. "Lois…" he murmured reprovingly.

She frowned at him.

"The Star offered me a hundred," Mazetti said helpfully.

"A hundred!"

He shrugged. "Most of the kid's stuff's still in there. He probably figures he can pick up something worth the cash. He says he's bringing a photo guy along," he added.

"One twenty," Lois said promptly.

"Lois - "

"Make it one fifty, you got a deal."

Clark took firm hold on his partner's arm and held up an interrupting finger at Mazetti. "Could you excuse us for just one moment?" he told the landlord, giving him a tight smile.

"Clark - " Lois hissed as he trotted her over to the staircase.

"Lois, this is ridiculous. What are you gonna find in there that's worth a hundred and fifty bucks?"

"*You* might want to let The Star scoop us on this one, but I'm - !"

"Scoop us on *what*?" he protested. "There's no story here!"

She glared at him and hitched herself free of his grip before setting off back towards Mazetti, heels clicking a staccato rhythm against the board floor.

"Lois - " Clark rolled his eyes and followed her with a sigh.

"One fifty."

"Make it two hundred and you're in."

"You said one fifty!"

"That was before you started yammering about it. Hey, take it or leave it, makes no difference to me. But make up your mind fast. I got things to be doing, I can't be standing around here all day."

Lois paused, hand fisted around her wallet, conflicting emotions warring on her face. Clark raised a brow at her. She sighed, pushing the wallet violently back into her purse.

"Okay, that's the way you want it." Mazetti hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "Door's that way. Nice seeing you again, Kent," he added blithely.

Lois opened her mouth hastily, taking a step after him as he turned to go. Clark put out a restraining hand against her arm and she looked up on him defensively. "We can't just — "

"Hey, Floyd!"

Mazetti looked around and scowled at the stocky figure that had just come through the door. "What you wanting, Carl?"

Carl looked surprised. "Two fifteen. You said you'd pick up Louie at the gym."

"Floyd?" Lois leaned against her husband's shoulder and queried out of the corner of her mouth.

Clark shrugged and bent his head closer to murmur back. "Leo's a big boxing fan. All his friends call him Floyd. After Floyd Patterson, you know? His hero."

"Oh," Lois said, obviously losing interest - and abandoning her sudden suspicions that Leo - Floyd - Mazetti might be a career criminal with a string of felonies and half a dozen aliases to his name - if she were lucky.

"Oh. Oh, yeah." Mazetti said, disgruntled. He glanced back at Lois. "So, you folks leaving or what?"

Lois paused, then stalked past him and out onto the sidewalk. Clark gave Mazetti a commiserating smile as he followed. Mazetti pulled the door shut behind him as he left.

"Okay, so what do we do now?" Clark asked his partner as they watched Mazetti drive off. Lois walked back to the door and pushed experimentally. It remained firmly closed. She sighed, putting a hand to the voicebox mounted on the wall beside it. Most of the apartment numbers were disconnected and unlit and the others she tried simply buzzed out, unanswered. She returned to Clark's side with a shake of her head.

"We'll never get in now." She tilted her head back, shading her eyes with one hand as she scanned the windows overhead.

Pushing casual hands into his pockets, Clark leaned over until his cheek was almost touching hers and followed her gaze. "I wouldn't," he judged, solemnly, after a moment. "No ivy."

"What?"

He grinned at her. "I figured you were thinking about climbing on up."

Lois took away her hand and gave him a withering glance. Which promptly became intensely speculative. "I don't suppose - ?"

"Don't even think about it." He shook his head firmly. He glanced upwards. "We don't even know which window it is." He lowered his voice to the merest murmur as he ducked his head close again, "And I am *not* laying Superman open to some indecency charge, peeking in some old lady's window, trying to find it."

Lois' lips twitched.

"Anyway, it doesn't look to me like there's much of a story here, so maybe we should just - "

"The Star's interested," Lois said firmly. "They must have sniffed out *something* to be willing to pay for it and - "

"Can I help you folks?"

They turned to face the young, bearded man who'd stopped by the door to watch them. He was wearing faded Levi's and a grayed out T-shirt that might once have been black, under a studded leather jacket. A red bandanna kept his tangled hair from out of his face. He looked them over enquiringly.

"You here for the apartment?"

Clark shook his head. "Oh, no, we're not looking to rent — "

"Oh, now don't be so hasty, sweetheart," Lois cooed, startling him as she hooked her arm deftly through his. "I'm sure it's real nice inside. It is out of the way and you were saying just the other day how living right in the middle of the city is just impossible. Weren't you?" Her grip on him tightened as she smiled sunnily up at him.

"Was I? Oh! Yes…yes, I was." Clark shrugged at the newcomer. "Smog. Traffic up and down the street. Can't sleep all night. Um…so, we were thinking, something just a little further out might be — "

"Only, we were supposed to meet the landlord - Mr. Mazetti? - so he could show us around. But he hasn't turned up and — "

"Oh. Well, no sweat. Benny Mazetti," he introduced himself, leaning forward to extend a hand with a smile. "Leo's my uncle. You folks want to come on in, I can get the key for you in a coupla shakes. Course," he went on as he unlocked the front door, "things are in a bit of a mess right now. You know about the last tenant?" He glanced across his shoulder and went on with a hitch of his shoulders as they nodded, "Police still haven't cleared up. But you can take a look, if you want."

"We sure do," Lois said. "Right, honey?"

"Can't wait," Clark murmured, ushering her ahead of him and into the gloom of the building.

***

"So, you're figuring Jake Culver's got his wires crossed on this one," Perry turned from where he'd been staring out of his office window and fixed them with a tight stare.

"It's beginning to look that way." Clark told him. "We're waiting for a copy of the pathology report to come in from the Medical Examiner's Office. We'll know for sure then whether Karen Culver was doped up on something when she went over that balcony."

Perry mulled that over. "Okay. Well, maybe we shouldn't pin this down to anything yet. Till that report comes on in. Keep an open mind."

They nodded.

"I gotta tell you though," Perry added solemnly as they made their way out of his office, "I'm sure not looking forward to telling Jake Culver his favorite niece was involved in this sort of thing."

Clark picked up coffee for them both on the way to Lois' desk and perched himself on its edge as he took his first sip. Lois drank absently, eyes distant and fixed on the blank page of her screen. Clark watched her for a time and then sighed heavily. He knew that look.

"You don't think Mazetti got it right at all, do you?" he asked at last.

"Hmmm?" She looked up on him, jerked out of her thoughts and then leaned back in her chair, fingers tapping a faint, irritated rhythm on the side of her cup. "I don't know, Clark. It just doesn't…hang together right."

"What doesn't? That Karen Culver was an addict? That she OD'd and tripped out enough to think taking a high drive from her balcony was a real bright idea? Or that Mazetti told us the truth about the night she died?"

She shook her head. "Maybe all of the above. Maybe none." She gave him a steady look. "You know Mazetti. I'd have to go with your assessment of him. Anyway, he did have witnesses."

"We didn't talk to any of them," Clark offered up, though doubtfully.

"They're not going to tell us anything different," she confirmed his own feeling on that. "But…there's still something…" She kneaded a light hand at her ribs. "I've got this nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach…"

"Chili dog you had for lunch?" he suggested, in mock sympathy.

"Reporter's intuition," she corrected, just as bland.

"Ah," he said, amused. "Of course."

The phone rang at her elbow and he leaned a casual arm against the desk partition as she answered. He listened idly to her half of the conversation, which didn't give him any clues, and tried and failed to decipher the scrawl she noted down on her pad at one point. He might have listened in, but Hank distracted him as he stopped by the desk to ask his opinion on a new set of proof negatives which would accompany the Culver take that evening and by the time he'd finished checking them over, Lois was winding up the call.

There was a familiar light in her eyes as she replaced the receiver that made his own intuition suddenly sit up straight and perk up its ears.

"That," she told him, triumphantly, "was the Medical Examiner's Office. They're faxing through a copy preliminary report on the bloodwork right now, but Adams was able to tell me one thing right off."

"Let me guess. Karen Culver's bloodwork came back clean."

"Nope," she said, surprising him. "Karen Culver's blood was loaded with adrenaline."

"Adrenaline?"

"In massive amounts." She glanced at her notepad. "Almost two hundred times normal accepted levels."

"But, you can inject adrenaline, right?"

"Yes. But Karen didn't. Adams didn't find any puncture wounds on her."

Clark lifted a considering brow. "Looks like I owe that chili dog an apology. Anything else?"

"No sign she'd been using and abusing. They picked up traces of something called TDR, a few other pollutant chemicals… won't bore you with the full pedigree on that." She squinted at the notepad again. "I couldn't even spell it. It's a standard industrial defoliant."

"Weed-killer?"

"Yeah. But the levels they found in Karen's blood were tiny, hardly worth mentioning."

She made a slight grimace of comment and Clark smiled, recognizing it instantly. Pete Adams was a known stickler for procedure, firmly of the old school. He shunned the modern trend in forensic medicine for shorthand. Consequently, you could tell an Adams autopsy report simply by its trademark attention to detail. There was currently no legal requirement to stipulate chemical content found in the bloodwork of an autopsied corpse over .001 parts per million. Most modern ME's saved time by simply grouping together harmless chemicals under that amount in one miscellaneous group on the form. Adams, however, rigidly maintained the old conventions of his university days, carefully scribing each and every tiny anomaly found, whether important or not. It was a habit that was, by turns, infinitely useful and exceedingly irritating. Or so Lois maintained. Clark actually preferred Adams 'dot to the last i' habits. At least with Adams, you couldn't miss anything. But his eyes twinkled on his wife as she went on:

"Adams says, with the amount of industrial facilities there are in Metropolis and the current DPH listed pollution levels, we've probably all got some levels of something similar in our blood."

"Nice to know," Clark grimaced.

"Mmmmmm."

"Is Adams offering any theories on the high adrenaline levels?"

"No. He says it could be the result of a dozen different things. He'll have to do more tissue work before he'll go out on a limb with any firm diagnosis. He did say that he'd never come across recorded levels that were so high before, though. He thought it was…intriguing," she added, meaningfully.

Clark made a moue of interest. If Adams thought it was intriguing, it was certainly something they should consider looking into. This was, after all, he reminded himself, possibly the only man on the planet who could merit an exclamation point after laconic. A man who cheerfully maintained that nothing tasted better after a good autopsy than pepperoni pizza and root beer, and who had once been sporting a tee-shirt emblazoned with the legend: 'Read the Book…Seen the Movie…Wore the T-shirt…Cut up the Cadaver…' when he and Lois had arrived to question him about the story they'd been working on. He had, he was fond of saying, seen just about everything the world could possibly throw at a fella - with a few side-trips into the land of strange and unusual to boot - and he hadn't seen anything yet that was worth getting excitable over. For Adams, 'intriguing' was like a yell of 'Eureka!' from the rooftops.

"Lois!" Jimmy trotted over to slap a sheaf of fax paper on her desk in passing. "Just came in," he yelled back across his shoulder.

"Thanks, Jimmy." Lois picked up the faxed report and scanned it. "Nothing else out of the ordinary," she commented. "Some readings for other chemicals, but nothing worth mentioning. A couple of antibiotics…Malatheron…" She pursed her lips. "She must have been out of the country recently to have been taking anti-malarial protection. Analgesic derivatives…estrogenic birth control…a few others. Pretty much run of the mill stuff. *All* under legal ppm," she added a grumble. "Why can't he just group these? Do I have *time* to go through eight page lists?" But the complaint had little heat to it, as though it was more habit than irritation and something she just couldn't resist.

Clark might have pointed out that there were considerably fewer pages in that section of Adam's report than eight, but his mind was currently elsewhere. "Flight or fight," he murmured.

"Excuse me?" she glanced up from the report to view him curiously.

"Adrenaline. The body produces it as a response to certain emotional stimuli: extreme fear or violent anger; aggression or terror."

Lois shook her head slightly. "I don't see where you're going."

"Think about it, Lois, they're not emotions you usually associate with a suicide statistic. Depression, despair…a rainy Sunday afternoon…the Metropolitans down ten points in the final quarter…" He shrugged. "That's what drives people over the edge. What this says is that Karen Culver was either furious or almost paralyzed with fear when she jumped off that balcony last night."

"She was on a short trip down from a very long height, Clark. That can be pretty terrifying. Believe me, I know." She covered his hand briefly with her own. "And Superman wasn't around to break her fall."

"Still… And what Mazetti said. About her attacking him like that. He said she acted like she was - "

" - terrified," said Lois, quietly. She got to her feet, suddenly decisive. "Come on."

"Where're we going?" Clark said, hitching himself from his perch to follow.

"Gerrord-Andrews Pharmaceuticals. Let's just see if we can't figure out what Karen Culver was doing with her life before last night. And, maybe, what tipped her over the edge."

***

"Miss Lane, I really don't know what more I can say. Karen was efficient at her job. It's going to be tough to replace her." Joseph Andrews stared at them over the top of steepled fingers and gave them a bland, apologetic smile.

Lois leaned forward. "She worked for you for…what? Six years?"

"Near enough that, yes."

"So, you must have known her…well."

Andrews looked nonplussed. "As I've said. She was - "

"Efficient. Yes." Lois slipped Clark a small glance. They were getting nowhere here but round in decreasing circles. She rose to her feet with a brisk smile. "Well, thank you for taking the time to see us."

Andrews nodded, moving past them to open the door and usher them out. "Entirely my pleasure, Miss Lane. Mr. Kent."

"Well, there's an epitaph for you," Lois murmured as they made their way back towards the reception area. "Poor girl."

Clark grimaced an agreement. "Well, at least we got some background on Karen >from her colleagues. We can write up a fairly decent bio for the evening edition."

"I didn't join the Planet to churn out pre-prepared obits, Clark," Lois said testily. "Why do I get the feeling we're being kept out of the loop here? Missing something impor - "

"Did you know Karen?"

Clark turned his head at the interruption. Beside him, Lois flinched slightly, a soft, barely heard gasp sticking in her throat. Clark put a hand to her shoulder as he shook his head. "No, we - "

"Richard!" A sharp voice called from further along the corridor. "Aren't you supposed to be making coffee for Mr. Gerrord?" The dark-suited, middle-aged woman gave them a small smile as she reached them. "I'm sorry. He wasn't supposed to be — "

"No, that's okay." Clark put out a reassuring hand and then focused his attention back on the boy. "Richard? Did you work with Karen?"

"Karen was my friend."

"Can we talk to you? About her?"

"Oh, I don't think - " Mr. Gerrord's secretary began, but Lois smiled at her.

"We'd like to, if it's okay. Mr. Andrews did promise us we could talk to anyone who knew Karen."

"Oh, yes, but Richard wouldn't know - "

"It's breaktime," Richard spoke up suddenly. "I made coffee. I got my break now."

"Well, yes, but - "

"I got my break." There was a sullen finality in the reiteration, which reduced the woman to sudden helplessness. Her mouth puckered, impatiently. "Well, all right then. But don't be too long, you hear?" She gave them a steady glance before walking off.

"Why don't we go sit over there?" Lois indicated the small hospitality area to one side of the reception desk. A cluster of padded leather sofas had been arranged in a half moon and a low table set against the wall behind them held a varied selection of complimentary, non-alcoholic beverages.

Richard followed them, meekly now. His earlier flash of defiance gone, he seemed ill at ease as he sat on the edge of the nearest sofa.

"So…" Lois said brightly, seating herself opposite. Having drawn Richard's attention, though, she seemed at a loss as to how to continue. "You want some soda?" she asked finally.

"I'm not supposed to have soda." The brief flash of his eyes as he looked up at her and then quickly away was wary.

"Oh. Well…" She glanced behind him at the display of bottles, slightly nonplussed.

"I like water," Richard helped her out. "I'll get it!" he added quickly, half rising again and looking abashed. Clark's hand on his shoulder stilled the motion.

"That's okay, Richard. I got it," he told the boy with a smile.

Richard looked after him worriedly. "God's water," he said. "That's best."

Clark paused then put down the bottle of Evian water he'd automatically reached for and picked up something he thought looked more like Richard's choice. 'Blessed Spring', the label said. It was marked with an elegant black cross, edged in gilt. Richard accepted the offered bottle with a nod, confirming his theory. He drank noisily as Clark seated himself next to Lois and then eyed them warily again as he drew the back of his hand across his lips.

"Do you know what happened to Karen?" Clark asked him quietly.

The brightness on Richard's face died. He looked at the floor. "Karen died. Mr. Karvin told me."

"Mr. Karvin?" Lois straightened. "Dale Karvin? The Evangelist?"

"Mr. Karvin looks out for me." Richard's face was suddenly animated, his voice quickening. "He…he's my…" he floundered, face twisting as though trying to remember something important.

When he began to look distressed, Clark said calmly, "That's okay, Richard. Mr. Karvin looks after you, right?"

"Yes. The law says."

Clark nodded. "He's your legal guardian," he guessed.

"Yes! Like the law says," Richard agreed, nodding vigorously.

"That's good."

"I like Mr. Karvin."

"A lot of people do," Lois murmured, tone only slightly wry. Richard missed the dryness and nodded, pleased.

"Yes, they do." He seemed to find the floor fascinating once more.

Lois opened her mouth, but Clark's hand on her arm stopped her from voicing whatever she'd been about to ask. He shook his head at her slightly, content to wait the boy out. Finally, Richard murmured, "Karen did a bad thing."

"Is that what Dale Karvin told you?" asked Clark. "That she did something bad?"

Richard glanced up on them fiercely. "I know. I'm not *stupid*." He dropped his gaze. "It was a bad thing. It wasn't right. She was supposed to *know* that!" he spat out. Tears filled his eyes. "She was supposed to know. God says it's a bad thing. Mr. Karvin says."

Lois had begun to frown. Now, an inspirational light bloomed in her eyes. "Karen was a member of Dale Karvin's Church?" she blurted out in a guess.

Richard glanced up at her, puzzled. "Sure." He made it sound as though everyone was. Or should be, at least. He lapsed back into silence. "Karen was - a good person," he said after a moment, as though reconciling her lapse of judgement with this opinion. "I dunno why she…" He darted a troubled look at them. "She…she wasn't in…she didn't get in any trouble, did she?"

"Trouble? What sort of trouble?"

Richard shrugged.

"Richard?" Clark prodded gently. "Why would Karen be in trouble?"

The boy's unhappy stare deepened. "It was my fault. I gave her it. I didn't mean to get her in trouble. Mr. Gerrord and Mr. Andrews though, they were real mad. It wasn't Karen's fault. It was mine."

"You gave her what? What were they mad about? Richard?"

He frowned, as though considering he'd already explained that. "The report. I gave Karen the report. It was just a mistake. I didn't mean — " the soft voice had begun to rise as he grew agitated, all at once. All the words, all the concerns that had been churning inside him, spilling out in a flood now, "I didn't mean it! I - !"

"Hey." Clark lifted a calming hand. "That's okay. We know it wasn't Karen's fault. Or yours."

Richard was still. "You think?"

Clark smiled at him. "Sure, I — "

"Richard, Jennifer needs more green files. Why don't you go take some down to her?"

Richard glanced up as that voice interrupted them firmly and rose quickly to his feet. Clark and Lois followed his lead, eyeing the newcomer reservedly.

"Malcolm Gerrord." He extended a hand with a smile. "I'm a partner with the company. Richard? The files?" he added as Richard hesitated and Clark took the offered hand with a brief nod of acknowledgement. The boy gave them a sideways glance and then hurried off along the corridor.

Clark watched him go and then brought his attention back to Gerrord.

"Richard can get upset very easily," Gerrord said smoothly. "Especially about things he doesn't completely understand. Karen's death was a great shock for him. He was very attached to her."

Clark frowned at the reproof. "I'm sorry, we didn't think there'd be any harm in asking — "

"I think you've probably gotten all you can here, don't you?" Gerrord suggested and, without waiting for their response, "Karen was a nice girl. Everyone here's sorry for what happened to her. But she was very…reserved. She didn't socialize with other staff members much. I'm sure that her family would be better able to give you an insight into her life. If that's what you're truly after." He sounded dubious about that last.

Clark gave him a perfunctory smile. "Yes. I'm sure they could."

Gerrord nodded. His stiff manner unbent. Just a little. "I'm sorry, but I'm sure you realize that this has all been very upsetting for our employees. We want to keep that disturbance to a minimum." He looked after the retreating boy. "Just what was Richard getting wound up about now?" he asked.

Lois paused. But she saw no reason not to tell him, and every reason to do so. Bald statements could gain you unexpected answers, if you caught someone off balance enough. "Oh, he seemed to think he might have gotten Karen into trouble over some mistake on a report?"

Gerrord disappointed her. He sighed. "Oh that. A misunderstanding, that's all." He smiled slightly. "Richard gets things twisted very easily and quite often. He picked up a confidential client file from Joseph's desk and gave it to Karen by mistake. It included a production report for a particular project. I had to…well, we were concerned about losing such sensitive corporate information. About it getting into the wrong hands. You understand. I had to impress on Richard that we have to be careful, have to protect our client's interests. He took the reprimand hard, I'm afraid."

He frowned. "Although I hadn't realized until now that he'd assumed he'd gotten Karen into trouble over it too. Of course, there was no question of that. I didn't actually get a chance to talk to Karen about it at all, what with…" he stopped and then, "…well, I'm sure you understand. I'll have another talk with him, try to get him to see that it was nothing more than a storm in a teacup. And, now," his manner turned brisk as he turned to them once more, "if you don't mind, we have a very busy afternoon ahead and I have an important meeting with some clients to attend. So, if you'd like to come this way, I'll escort you out."

"Is Dale Karvin one of them?" Lois asked as they followed him along the corridor.

Clark gave her an inquisitive glance that was quickly aped by Gerrord.

"One of what?"

"A client."

"Our client portfolio is confidential, Miss Lane. However," he added, condescendingly, "I rather doubt Mr. Karvin has any need or use for our products."

"But you do contribute substantially to the business end of Karvin's Ministry, don't you?" She gave him a small smile. "The Celestial Foundation? Right?" she prodded as he looked taken aback.

"How do you know - ?"

"Well, it's no secret. Is it?"

"Well, naturally not," he recovered smoothly with a laugh. "We're one of a number of companies who do. And Dale is just one of our many charitable commitments. As I'm sure you also know. You'll find little to investigate there, Miss Lane, I can assure you."

"I'm sure. Is Karvin a friend of yours? You called him Dale," she said as he looked at her questioningly. "I assumed you must be…close."

Gerrord looked just a little irked at being so easily second-guessed. "He's a friend of my partner. Dale has a long association with the company. He's supported us in many ways over the past few years as his ministry has grown. In research."

"Chemical research?" Clark asked, interestedly.

Gerrord's rich laugh sounded again. "We're not talking about global domination here, Mr. Kent. No - medical research into the most virulent diseases that afflict us. Dale is a great humanitarian. We share his ideals. And his hopes for a better world, through increased medical knowledge."

Clark exchanged a dry glance with his wife behind Gerrord's back. The man sounded like a promotional brochure.

"So, you'd call it something of a mutual partnership?" Lois went on.

"I'd say so, yes. We contribute to the Foundation, which in turn awards us the occasional research grant, along with many other similar facilities of a charitable standing. And we run an Employee Care Program with Dale's help. Bringing the disadvantaged and disabled into the working environment; giving them a chance to contribute they might not otherwise achieve."

"Like Richard?"

"Yes. Like Richard. Dale can always find us a few…misfits to employ," a new, sour note entered Gerrord's voice. He gave them a sardonic smile. "It's something of a hazard in his…profession."

"But Richard's a lot more than just a charity case, isn't he? He told us he was Dale Karvin's ward?"

"Richard was placed in county care, downstate, when he was three years old. When he was sixteen the county, having fulfilled its legal obligations for care, gave him ten dollars, packed him a suitcase and stuck some other kid in his room. A local charity found him an apartment and a job, but Richard didn't like the job. He took off a week later. Quite what he did in the following two years until he wandered into one of Dale's rallies in Michigan is something of a mystery, but it wasn't doing him any good, whatever it was. He was twenty pounds underweight and a mess of bruises when Dale picked him out in the crowd and decided to rescue him. I guess he felt slightly more obligation with Richard than the usual refugees, given the boy's…obvious disadvantages. He applied to have himself declared Richard's legal guardian six months ago and that was approved shortly after. Ah, here we are."

He opened the glass-fronted doors, gilt marked with the Gerrord-Andrews logo, and stepped back pointedly.

"May I say, Miss Lane," he said abruptly as they passed him, "I don't know quite what your interest is in Dale, though I can guess." His lips pursed distastefully. "The disgraceful witch hunt you press people conduct against men like Dale, and evangelism in particular, is rather simplistic, I find. And insulting. I don't know what you expect to find, but I can tell you that if you're looking for dirt to dig up against Dale you'll be disappointed. And I can assure you, you'll find no one in this company who'll help you any with the search. Now, if you'll excuse me…"

"Thank you. For your…time." Clark produced a business card from his pocket and handed it over. The omission was obvious. Gerrord hadn't really given them any help at all. "If you can think of anything else…"

Gerrord regarded the offered card and then took it reluctantly. He offered them a dismissive nod and then let go of the door and stalked away. Clark caught it with one hand as it began to swing to a close and allowed Lois to move ahead of him before following her into the parking area.

"So, you still figure there's something sinister going on?" he asked, giving her a thoughtful, sidelong glance as they crossed the concrete lot.

Lois pursed her lips as he unlocked the Jeep door and opened it for her. "I don't know. I thought we were onto something for a minute there, when Richard mentioned the fuss over that report…" She shook her head as she eased herself gracefully into the driver's seat and took the keys from him. "I don't know," she said again. "Maybe we're on a wild goose chase after all."

She looked out of the window and past him to where the imposing glass and steel framed facade of the Gerrord-Andrews building reared impressively skywards. "Karen did have a reason, it seems, for being depressed; losing her fiance like that. What a louse. They spend two weeks on a romantic trip, cruising down the Nile, and then he walks out the day after they get back? Sounds like she was pretty down about it all."

Clark turned to follow her gaze. "Well, doesn't look like we're going to find much else here, anyway. What about her family, like Gerrord suggested?"

"We're not going to find anything there. None of them had even traded Christmas cards with her since she left home. She might as well be a stranger to them. I asked Jimmy to do a detailed background check, but nothing's gonna come of that."

"So, unless Jimmy does turn up something or Adams comes up with a reason for those high adrenaline levels, we put this one on the back burner?"

"Don't see we've got any other choice. Jake Culver might not like it, but it's looking more likely by the minute there's just no other story here to cover, aside from the fact that Karen Culver was just another lousy statistic."

Clark studied her, hearing something in her tone which seemed to cast doubt on that and understanding that, no matter what she said and no matter that there was little evidence to support the effort, for some reason, she wasn't going to let go of Karen Culver quite that easily. But he said nothing as he closed the door of the Jeep and made his way around it to slide into the passenger seat alongside her.

***

"Why not?" Bob Addley turned from the small corner bar where he'd been mixing himself a stiff shot of bourbon.

"Because I've given my quota of interviews already, Bob." Karvin gave him a disapproving look, which Addley ignored. He was well aware of the preacher's long held views on liquor, but he saw no reason to agree with him on them any. Certainly not when they were out of the public eye and, definitely not when they were in Karvin's sumptuous hotel suite - with its ample supply of complimentary booze, just laying around, begging to be drunk.

"Steven?" He held out the glass in offer to the room's only other occupant. Karvin's press aide hesitated, took a look at Karvin, and then shook his head.

"A little early for me, Bob."

/Brown nosed, toadying little ape/, Addley thought. But he shrugged as he added ice to his own glass and walked across the room to seat himself on one of the leather sofas.

"Exactly. And all of them looked at you like you were something they just scraped off their expensive Italian leather shoes," he told Karvin caustically. "And then they went away and churned out all the old 'Hooray Halleluiah' garbage they always do."

"You set up the approved list, Bob." Karvin sat back in his seat and put both hands over his eyes for a moment, trying to rub his face into some semblance of wakefulness, before he dropped them to his lap with a grimace. "I don't choose them. I just talk to them."

"Actually, Steve worked up the list."

"From your recommendations," Thurst said quickly.

"Boys…" Karvin doused them, tiredly. "The point is, I've talked to every journalist and prime time correspondent I was supposed to in this city and I'm not talking to any more."

"The point is," Addley corrected him, "this one's different." He leaned over to snatch up the copy of the Daily Planet from among the pile of newspapers spread on the low table between them and held it up with a snap of his hands, so that Karvin could view the page it had been folded to. As though he needed another look. "I've been doing some digging on our Miss Lane. She's perfect."

"Perfect?" A new sharpness entered Karvin's voice, "Perfect for what?"

Addley showed him a sharp-toothed smile. "Dale. As if I would." He shook his head at his employer, amused. "I simply meant Miss Lane is someone who should have been at the top of our publicity list. Last two years out of three, as one half of the Lane & Kent team, she's been right up there on top of the poll of Metropolitans: The reporter they most trust to give it to them straight. You get her on your side, she gives you a favorable press, we could double our contributions in this town. Triple them, maybe. They trust her, you understand that? Ticket sales could go through the roof by the end of next week! This could be our stepping-stone up to the heights, Dale. Next month you could be playing in concert halls and opera houses, not just marquees in shopping mall parking lots, next to the local Save It All!"

"I don't want that. I never wanted that." Karvin looked at him helplessly. "You know I didn't. Bob, this is going too far. We have to call a halt. We have to stop it here. Now. I - "

"Ah-ah." Addley wagged a reproving finger at him. "Can't deny the faithful their day with God, Dale. Not sporting. All those thousands of sinners out there. Millions of them. You owe them. The Lord gave you a talent to use. It ain't right for you to deny it to anyone in need of succor and the healing faith of Jesus, now is it?"

Karvin was silent.

Addley smiled. "Steve, why don't you contact Miss Lane? Arrange an interview. That okay, Dale?"

Karvin sighed. "Yeah. Yeah, that's okay. Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to lay down before I get ready for the rally tonight."

Addley took a slow sip from his glass as he watched him cross the room and disappear into the adjoining bedroom. "You know, Steve, my boy," he said softly as the door snicked to a close, "I think our Super Preacher's finally beginning to lose it."

"He's just tired, that's all." Thurst gave him a glance. "You pushed him too hard."

"When he needs pushing, I push." Addley returned the look, steadily. "That's what the man pays me for." He drained the glass in one, long draught and rose to his feet. "Why don't you go make that call?" he said as he began to prepare himself another shot. "And Steve?"

Already en route to the door, Thurst turned back to look at him.

"While you're there, why don't you tell Miss Lane how personally touched Mr. Karvin was by her article on the child? Tell her he's inviting the mother over for a private consultation. See if he can help there. Do what he can."

Thurst looked doubtful. "Dale's got a pretty tight schedule, Bob. I don't know when - "

"Fit it in."

"Okay. Whatever you say. You're the boss."

He closed the door gently behind him, leaving Addley staring after him, glass frozen halfway to his lips, his expression perplexed.

"I am?" Addley murmured. He pondered it as he took a rough swallow of the liquor and then he smiled broadly. "You know, I think I am. I really do."

Laughter bubbled in his chest. He took a glance at the bedroom door and squashed it firmly. But, still, a soft chuckle escaped him as he settled himself on the sofa.

***

Lying fully dressed atop the king-sized bed, Dale Karvin listened to the soft murmur of voices from the other room and tried to unwind the twisted, tangled skeins of his life enough that he could find the route back to where he'd gone wrong. When - exactly - *had* it been? Six months ago? Last week? Last year?

He no longer knew.

There had been a time when what he was doing, what he wanted, had been a clear, shining path opening up before him. How he'd wandered off that path; tumbled into the dark, overgrown pit he now inhabited, he would have been hard put to say.

There had been a time when everything had seemed so simple. When the Lord spoke to him gently, guiding him; suffusing him with the will to do good, to help the people who seemed to hear the voice of their God in his words. Where had that will gone, these past years? Where had that voice gone?

Addley had been a part of that change. And Stacy. She had been his rock, his guiding light. Far more than any Bible or God could ever be. Without her, he'd been rudderless on a stormy sea, cast adrift and lost. He supposed that was why he'd been so grateful to lean on Addley increasingly as time had passed. He knew Bob saw him as a weak man. But he wasn't. He was just…adrift…and fighting his way back to land.

He rolled over and fumbled on the nightstand for the bottle of Excedrin he always kept handy. His head was beginning to throb again. He took three of the painkillers and lay back, closing his eyes, brow furrowed slightly in pain.

He wished he could go back. Back to simpler times.

But you can never go back.

He knew that.

The pain in his skull thudded into retreat and he began to drift.

He dreamed of Stacy. And of days spent preaching at the local fairs and church halls of his youth. The days when the Church had meant something more to him than another buck in the collecting tray and another sixty second soundbite on TV. Days when he'd meant something to the Church, and to the people who listened to him talk of God. And believed.

And, dreaming of these things, he smiled.

***

As she came downstairs, still dressed in her robe and fresh out of a relaxing bath, Lois smiled to find Clark hunched over a spread of papers on the coffee table before him. He was casually dressed in jeans and navy polo shirt and sipping thoughtfully at a glass of white wine as he scanned an open file.

"Hey," she greeted him and he looked up at her with an answering smile.

"Hey." He handed her a glass, already poured, as she settled herself on the arm of the sofa, beside him. "Oh, hey, wait." He pulled it back as she reached for it and blew gently against the glass before offering it again with a wink. "Freshly chilled."

"Thank you." She smiled as she relaxed back against the sofa's plump cushions and took her first sip of the delicious, cool California wine. "Decided what's for dinner?"

"Huh? Oh, no, I thought I'd wait for you. See what you were in the mood for."

"Oh. Okay." She nodded and then leaned across him with a frown to pick up a squat plastic bottle from the table. "Where'd you get this?"

"What? Oh, that. It was in the refrigerator; thought I'd give it a try." He made a small moue of distaste. "It's kinda stale though. Anyway," he smiled up at her, taking the bottle of Blessed Spring and replacing it on the table, before indicating her glass, "thought you'd prefer this."

"Yes!" she agreed cheerfully, taking another sip. "Actually, I meant to throw that out."

"I didn't even notice you pick it up. At Gerrord-Andrews," he elaborated as she gave him a puzzled look.

"Oh, I didn't. I got it at Karvin's rally, Sunday night. You're right, it's a little lacking in taste. You'd think, for $9.89 a bottle, they'd flavor it at least!"

"$9.89?" Clark raised a brow at the offending bottle. "The wine cost less than that."

Lois laughed. "Well, don't worry, I didn't pay for it. Karvin was giving out free samples like it was straight from the faucet. Didn't seem to be stopping the faithful buying it up by the crate afterwards though. Even at that price."

"Well," he said lightly, putting down the file and reaching over to pick up the Planet's early edition from the table, "steep or not, it might be worth buying in more if it can inspire you like this." He looked over her article approvingly. "This piece you did on Karvin is real good stuff. What made you think of taking the human interest angle, instead of just the usual straight run-down on Karvin?"

"Oh, it was just an idea that came to me." She glanced at the paper, sadly. "It's such a shame. Denny's such a sweet kid. But the doctors that Merle's taken him to in the last year don't hold out much hope."

Clark nodded absently. "It's very…balanced. Gives Karvin a fair deal. Here, where you say he can't really be held to account for the hopes and dreams of the people who follow him? That he can't cure everyone who comes to him for help?"

Lois frowned. "Shouldn't it?"

"No. No, absolutely not! Actually, it's nice to see someone step back from the edge a little. Evangelism's gotten a real bad press over the last ten years. Most people would just have gone digging for dirt and left it at that."

"Well, I'm not most people." She smiled as she leaned over to kiss the back of his neck.

He lifted his head automatically, momentarily distracted as he kissed her in return. "True," he agreed, before he went back to skimming her article.

"Maybe I should send a copy to Joseph Andrews," Lois suggested snippily.

He laughed. "Well, it's probably not what he'd expect of the big, bad press corps, certainly. He has a point too, though, you know. Most everyone else seems to have written Karvin off already as just this year's scam artist. But this piece of yours really gets down to the heart of the matter - scam artist or not, set yourself up as a surrogate God and you end up disappointing a lot of people. Even if you don't set out to and your intentions are good."

Lois looked over the article herself. "Maybe he is just working the crowd." She shrugged. "As far as this reporter's concerned, the jury's still out on that one. But he's right on this issue. No matter how much time he spends on petitioners like Merle he'll never be able to find time for all of them. There are just too many. They do the best they can - giving out the passes in advance so no one turns up at these rallies uninvited and they do say that there's still a chance that numbers will prevent pass holders seeing Karvin at all. Oh, I almost forgot to tell you though, Karvin's press aide called me this afternoon. He says Karvin wants me to interview him. He read my article and he's personally asked that Merle and Denny be given a private healing session to see if he can help."

"Really? Well, that's good news." He glanced at her, as she stayed silent. "Isn't it?"

She sighed. "I don't know. Maybe. I can't help feeling that offering Merle false hope isn't really helping her at all. Or Denny. Karvin's certainly got an impressive record on healing the sick, but reports of his successes are largely anecdotal - impossible to pin down to facts and figures, difficult to distinguish between fantasy and genuine cures and just plain wishful thinking."

Clark looked up at her. "Honey, hope is just hope. There's never anything false about it, no matter how brief a time you have it."

"It's just…well, I'd hate to be responsible for setting Merle up for another fall. The way things are with Denny right now, she just doesn't need another disappointment."

He smiled as he laid a reassuring hand on her arm. "Lois, this article of yours got them there. It's up to them to take it from here. You should be proud of yourself for getting them just a little further along the road. Time to let it go, put it to bed," he advised. "Let them get on with it. This interview why you've got so much background lying around?" he changed the subject slightly, indicating the file.

"Be prepared," Lois told him. "Old reporters' motto."

"*Are* you an old reporter? I hadn't noticed. Besides," he added with a grin, "I thought that was the Scouts?"

"We stole it."

"Oh." He picked up a sheaf of papers, clipped together at one corner, from the file. The corporate logo of the Foundation that backed Karvin's Ministry was gold embossed in the top right-hand corner. "You know, this is pretty radical stuff. Even for a backstreet preacher like Karvin. Have you read some of the things he's planning on?"

"You think that's impressive, you should see his web site."

'Web site?' Clark mouthed. He grimaced. "Guess God needs a helping hand getting the message across these days, huh?"

"Oh yeah. And cable can get you into fifty million homes across the nation."

"Cable?"

She tapped the press release. "Page eight. He's planning on starting up his own ministry on the Rhapsody Channel, next month."

"Smooth," Clark murmured, lifting a darkly admiring brow. He plucked the agency style photograph of Karvin from the file and examined the clean-cut features. It was debatable whether he was commenting on the man himself or his ambitions. "He seems to have gotten ambitious awful fast," he went on. "Up to just a couple of years ago he seemed happy enough being a local celebrity. congregation of his own. Little house in the suburbs. Then, all of a sudden…" He waved a hand over the spread of papers on the table. "Web sites…cable ministries…" His lips quirked suddenly. "And every merchandising gimmick you could mention, from coffee mugs to stationery, all with the divine seal of approval. Not to mention spiritual copyright."

Lois gave his shoulder a brief, consoling pat. "Jealous of a little God-given superhero competition?" she teased.

He gave her a dry glance.

She reached across him to take hold of a corner of the print, tilting it her way. "Fame and fortune aren't the only things he's been God-given either. Don't you think? Scam artist or not, he *is* sort of handsome…"

Clark pursed his lips, making a good pretense of considering the question seriously, then shook his head. "Really? I can't see it."

Lois grinned at him and rose to her feet. "Well, I've had enough of Dale Karvin for one evening. How about I use up the last of the chicken for dinner?" she suggested, dismissing the evangelist as she made for the kitchen. "I can make cornbread and sweet potatoes?"

"Sure. Whatever. Oh, by the way," he glanced up with a wry, congratulatory smile as she paused, turning to face him, "the early news from LNN reported that Darren Peters has retracted on that murder one charge against Merkovian."

"Really?" Lois looked enormously pleased with herself as she vanished through the kitchen door.

"Actually…" Clark tossed down the papers and followed, catching up with her as she opened the freezer. He tugged the door gently from her, closing it, and took her shoulders lightly in his hands as he kissed her before continuing, "Since we missed out on lunch, why don't we go out to dinner? Take the night off. We could take in a movie?"

She looked up on him, archly. "Any movie? I get to choose?"

His lips twisted as though he'd just tasted something sour. He knew what was coming. "Antonio Banderas?" he ventured, reluctantly, sounding as though he was suggesting a trip to Hades itself. They'd been having a mild, running battle on that one for weeks now - he wasn't a fan, even if she seemed to be - and he'd thought, until now, that he'd just about won it on points.

"It got good reviews. And Jimmy loved it."

He sighed, not exactly considering that a recommendation. But he had missed her; his resistance was low. Besides, she was giving him that look. The one that always somehow made him feel that he was going to be the meanest jerk and lowest form of life on the planet if he even considered arguing with her over something so trivial. The one he'd never yet been able to form a defense against. He sighed again. "Okay, fine. Antonio Banderas."

She grinned. "Thank you." She kissed him pertly and whirled away. "Give me half an hour to change?"

Clark rolled his eyes. "Why does it *always* take you so long to get dressed?"

"Because *I* don't have the benefit of superspeed. Besides," she came back to drape herself seductively against the doorframe and give him a smoldering look, "you know it's worth the wait."

Viewing that provocative pose with interest, Clark made a quick move for her. Laughing, she darted away; through the kitchen doors, into the living room - and cannoned into him at the bottom of the stairs. She yelped as he took firm hold of her arms, capturing her and tugging her close.

"Well, I can't argue with you on that one," he agreed, before he kissed her - somewhat thoroughly. He took his time about it.

"That wasn't fair," she complained, just a little breathlessly, when, finally, his lips left hers. "Don't you know the rules?"

"Rules?" He nuzzled softly at her neck.

"Rules. If you're going to chase me, you have to let me get away." She ran her hands into his hair and brushed her lips across his temple. "At least for a while."

He chuckled softly and lifted his head to glance upwards, considering, as he settled her into the circle of his arms, rocking her ever so slightly. "Does to the top of the stairs count?"

"It might. But," she narrowed her eyes, suspiciously, "you promised me a movie. This wouldn't be your way of welching on the deal, would it?"

"As if I would. Besides, it's early yet. We could still make the late show…?" It became a question as his grip shifted, pressing her to him, his lips molding themselves to hers in a slow, languid caress.

Lois drew back after a moment, took hold of his hand in answer, and, with a secretive smile that was full of promise enough to make the pulse beneath her fingers rise markedly, began to lead him upstairs.

The phone rang as they reached the first landing.

Clark sighed and pressed regretful lips to the back of her neck, before loosing his hand from hers. "Go on up," he told her as he headed back downstairs. "Whoever it is, I'll get rid of them."

"Don't take too long." She smiled and then jogged up the second flight.

Clark paused to watch her disappear onto the landing, enjoying the smooth way she moved, before he expelled a low breath and shook himself mentally to return his thoughts to matters at hand - and the phone now shrilling its impatience on the low table beside him.

"Hello? Oh, hi, Ji - what? Well, sure, she's right — uh-huh…" his tone became slightly bemused as he listened. "Okay, well, hang on, I'll ask." He put a hand over the receiver and raised his voice. "Lois? Lois!"

"Yeah?" She appeared at the top of the stairwell.

"It's Jimmy. He says Leanore says yes and what time can he collect that casserole?"

***

"Don't you think you had enough, lady?" The bartender viewed the disheveled woman slumped against his bar with barely concealed disdain. "I mean, not that I care, but - "

"Great. 'cos I missed the sign saying you served up opinions along with the liquor, when I came in." Estelle glared up at him. "Just do what I'm paying you for." She held out the empty glass.

The bartender shrugged. "No skin off my nose." He poured her another stiff shot of brandy and stalked off.

Estelle downed half of the sweet, cloying liquid in a couple of gulps and nursed the rest, sitting on the barstool at a definite list. After a moment, she began to mumble viciously under her breath. It eventually resolved itself into something barely louder than a growl as she drained the glass defiantly.

"…gonna do. I'll sue the ass off the creep. You see if I don't!"

"Yeah, you do that, lady," the bartender agreed, disinterestedly.

"Sue the ass — " All at once the threat dissolved in a sob. More followed, great, wracking whoops of pain and desolation.

"Aw, jeez…" the bartender reached for the empty glass beside her, disgust heavy in his voice and face.

Estelle recoiled sharply. "Don't you touch me!"

He snorted. "Honey, believe me, I wouldn't touch you from fifty paces out with that pool cue over there."

Estelle opened her mouth and caught sudden sight of her reflection in the mirror opposite. She stared at the rat's tails of dark hair, shot with salt and pepper streaks of gray, that straggled around her shoulders; at the smeared makeup and ruined lipstick; the blotchy, tear-raddled face. She watched that stranger's face twist into sudden fury and bewilderingly, all at once, it became her face, her arm that swung up sharply, her fist that stuck the bartender a wild, glancing blow against the cheek.

"You son of a bitch!" she screamed and then she pushed herself violently away >from the bar counter and ran for the door.

Outside she held onto the wall, hauling in great breaths. She felt dizzy and nauseated.

"Hey, lady, you okay?"

She jerked up her head and shook off the hand that had taken hold of her arm with a snarl. "Get away from me!"

"Hey, Whoa!" The young man held up surrendering hands and then, taking a closer look at her and at the fury swimming among liquor bleary eyes, shook his head, hurrying off with a backwards glance and a mutter.

Estelle stood, swaying slightly, in the middle of the flow of the crowd that streamed past the bar. As though alerted by some lemming like sixth sense, it parted around her and reformed at a safe distance beyond, giving her a wide berth. Estelle glared around her. She wanted to pound them all. Every last one of them. What did they know about anything? What did they know about her?

Nothing, that's what.

She'd show them. She'd show them all what Estelle Pinchenski was made of.

She made a weaving path to the edge of the sidewalk and peered muzzily at the traffic streaming past. Her heart was racing. Fit to bust, she thought, wonderingly. And she was floating again. Floating on a sea of liquor and rage as the blood pounded a rapid drumbeat in her ears. She glanced up at the lights, at the red square of light that ordered her to wait.

But she couldn't wait. She'd been waiting half her life.

Waiting for something to change.

Waiting for the old witch to die.

Waiting for…for…

Waiting!

Just waiting! And, dammit, she wasn't gonna wait no more.

No more!

She'd had it with waiting.

She was going.

And the Lord help the first, sorry soul who tried to get in her way that was all.

First sorry son of a bitch got in her way, she'd sue the ass off 'em!

She stepped off the sidewalk and marched determinedly into the road ahead.

***

"You know," Clark mused as, companionably entwined, they made their way lazily through the throng of people emerging from the movie theater. "I never really liked that guy since he sent you that bouquet, but I gotta admit he wasn't half bad." He tilted his head to where hers lay against his shoulder, pressing his cheek to her hair, and then added, "Still think he plays the action hero far better than he does the romantic though."

Lois glanced up on him with a small smile. "He sent the bouquet to UltraWoman, not me."

The reminder failed to cut any ice with Clark. "It was still you he was after."

There was the faintest tang of jealousy in that, even now. Lois shook her head slightly over it. "Oh, I think Lois Lane's probably too tame for him," she assured him.

"Well," he smiled down on her as he tightened the arm hung loosely across her shoulders, drawing her closer against him. "She's not too tame for me."

Lois laughed softly.

"What?"

"Oh, nothing." They'd reached the Jeep now. She loosed her arm >from around his waist and faced him, taking both his hands lightly in hers. "It just occurred to me that I must be one of the very few women in the world whose life is actually much more exciting than anything Hollywood could come up with." She paused, giving him an irreverent grin before adding, "And whose leading man is *much* more romantic and heroic than any movie star."

"Oh…" He kissed her in reward for the compliment. "Well, I guess that makes two of us who got lucky, because there isn't a leading lady in the world can hold a candle to you." He pulled her closer and kissed her again. Slowly. Lingeringly.

She tasted of white wine and peppermint from dinner, earlier, and of chocolate >from the dessert he'd insisted on sharing with her, since they were 'celebrating' his return. She had laughed, shaking her head as she tried to decline, complaining that he was trying to make her fat. But her laughter had turned to a soft choke of dismay and her eyes had widened slightly, as he'd had unexpectedly responded to her accusation with a murmured, 'Busted!' and a heartfelt sigh.

He'd settled back into his chair, letting the spoon laden with Chocolate Cream Surprise rest back in its dish, in the wake of this outrageous admission. Then he'd added, after a pause and with a provocative wiggle of his eyebrows at her, that he hadn't been trying with *chocolate*, however.

The confession - and the darkly wicked gleam of his eyes across the table's soft candlelight - had made her splutter into her wine, laughing all the harder and completely helplessly again. But she'd gotten her own back, leaning across the table and, when he obliged her by moving forward to intercept her halfway, whispering in his ear, 'Down, boy!' and, a seductive and by now all too familiar promise, 'Later!'

It seemed that 'later' had overcome them before they reached home. Again. Clark smiled, a little ruefully, as he looked down into his wife's upturned face. Her eyes were sparkling, lively with excitement and just a little hazed still with desire. The light evening breeze picked up slightly, tugging gently at her hair and sweeping a few strands across her cheek. He reached out automatically to brush them back behind one ear, causing her to smile and focusing his attention on her lips, reddened by the fierce longing which had been in his kiss a moment earlier.

Her perfume, warm, rich and slightly spiced, enveloped him in a heady cloud, setting his pulse on a wild curve as his heart raced to match hers. She was captivating…bewitching…and he wondered if she'd be persuaded to let him drive. He was certain that with just a little application…and perhaps some superfast reflexes…he could make the journey home to the brownstone through the busy evening streets in half the time she could.

He bent his head to kiss her again.

After some moments, he shifted to rest his cheek against hers, breathing somewhat harder than he had before. "Maybe we should finish this conversation back home," he murmured at her ear.

Lois chuckled as he released her and fumbled in her pocket before raising a hand to dangle the car keys invitingly at him. He laughed, shaking his head at her ability to second-guess him every time. Taking the keys and rewarding her for her insight with another gentle brush of his lips against hers, he moved to tug open the Jeep door, allowing her to slip into the passenger seat before he closed it after her.

The sharp blatt of a car horn turned his head. He took in the scene further down the street in a fraction of a second, a snapshot series of pictures. The woman struggling with the man in the middle of the intersection; the checkered yellow Metrocab that was bearing down on them, the driver giving them another irritated blast as they continued to fight, ignoring that warning; the blue flash of a second car as it moved out to over-take the cab, its driver unaware of the two pedestrians in his path.

There was no time to think about it. The crowd behind him had thinned now, barely a hindrance as he darted past and between them and into the darkness of the store doorway behind him. He could do no more but trust to those shadows and the fact that most people's attention was on the developing drama, to conceal what he was about to do. In another instant, Superman burst out of the darkness in a blur and along the street to pluck the arguing couple into the air and deposit them safely on the sidewalk, out of harm's way.

To his surprise, the woman left off fighting the man she'd been with and turned on him instead.

"Let go! Let go, you - "

"Hey!" He took the brunt of her fists stoically. "Whoa, calm down! Just - "

She ignored him, jerking furiously out of his grip before he could realize her intent. Losing balance, she staggered back and straight into the path of the oncoming traffic. A gray station wagon ploughed into her before even super reflexes could save her a second time. Superman was just a microsecond too late in reaching her side.

He dropped to one knee beside her. She was alive, but she wasn't going to stay that way for long. His X-ray vision catalogued a mess of broken bones and there was a crush injury to her spine that would have made him hesitate to move her, even if her injuries hadn't made it pointless. He tried to take hold of her hand, to offer some comfort at least, but she jerked it clear of him. She gasped, twisting as pain raged through her broken body.

"Easy…just lie still," Superman urged her, softly.

Her eyes opened and he frowned at the venomous hate in that dark glare as she stared up at him. "You tell him," she hissed. "You tell that…" Blood bubbled thickly from the corner of her mouth and she coughed, but she persisted as he tried to still her again, "Tell him I'll sue the ass — "

She coughed harder and the hands she'd twisted into the front of his suit fell away. Her face, frozen in a rictus mask of rage, twisted in a snarl.

Superman shook his head sadly as he got to his feet. He stood for a moment, looking down at the dead woman, and then turned away. He moved to tug open the door of the station wagon. The driver was slumped forward into the wheel, fingers gripped white-knuckled around the leather-bound frame. Superman put a hand to his shoulder and pulled him carefully upright.

"Sir, you okay?"

The driver, clearly shaken, shook his head, eyes fixed on the red-starred windscreen before him. "She just came straight out…straight out…"

"I know. Are you okay? Sir? Are you hurt?"

"What?" He seemed to gather himself all at once. "Oh. No. No, I don't think so."

Superman nodded and turned his head to where the man he'd rescued was standing staring at the dead woman, gray-faced. He held up a hand as the stern faced figure in blue and red stalked towards him, steely eyed.

"I wasn't doing nothing, I swear!" he blurted. "I didn't even know her!"

Superman stopped in front of him, arms folded. "What was going on here?"

"Nothing! I saw her step out into the road. I tried to stop her, pull her back, and she went nuts on me, kicking and screaming all over the place. Crazy broad. I was just trying to get her out of the way. You can ask them." He pointed back into the watching crowd on the sidewalk. Several of them were already nodding confirmation. "Ask any of them."

Superman sighed. "Okay. Look, why don't you stay with him?" He indicated the station wagon's driver. "Till the ambulance arrives. And," he glanced across his shoulder, "see if you can't find something to cover her."

The man nodded, hurrying for the car.

Superman turned to survey the street. And the world turned gray, shattered into a million pieces around him, shards of his life splintering as cold, black and frightening pain sliced into the pit of his belly. His heart clenched tight in his chest as terror kicked it hard against his ribs.

The cab driver, swerving to avoid the couple in his path, had collided with the blue Buick over-taking him. Although he'd managed to recover control of his own vehicle, halting the cab some distance away without further incident, the Buick had been less fortunate. It had slewed across the road, dragging along the side of several of the parked vehicles - which showed its trail in buckled fenders and scraped wings and shattered head-lamps - and had come to rest, right front wing buried in the driver's door of the last in line. The Buick had struck the vehicle with such force that it had slammed it sideways across the sidewalk and up against the storefront on the other side, where it had ripped it open like a shark nosing through paper; buckled the metal into a twisted wreck as easily as though it had been set in a vice.

A wreck that had once been a Jeep. Their Jeep. The Jeep which had, only seconds before, been safely parked by the roadside, with his wife —

"No…" Superman whispered, the word emerging jagged and torn from the depths of his throat and then, a soundless cry of fear and panic, "Lois!"

He launched himself into the air, to land on the frame of the shattered store window in a heartbeat. The Buick's driver had emerged, hanging onto the door of his wrecked vehicle. Blood was leaking weakly from a thin gash on his forehead. He seemed dazed, but otherwise unhurt.

"Get out of the way!" Superman bellowed.

The man stared at him blankly, but two figures detached themselves from the watching crowd clustered on the sidewalk and pulled him quickly to safety.

Superman put his shoulder to the edge of the Jeep and pushed it clear of the storefront. It went with a tortured screech of tearing metal, taking most of the windowframe's aluminum supports with it. When it collided with the Buick, both vehicles ploughed together across the street to come to rest in the center of the road. Superman tore the Jeep's passenger door free and tossed it aside, leaving it to clatter on the sidewalk, and —

— and the Jeep was empty.

Straightening, he glanced desperately around him, heart jolting sickeningly tight against his ribs…oh, god…if she'd been thrown from the car on impact — and found the familiar white-coated figure only a few dozen yards away. Lois was kneeling beside an elderly woman who was sitting, slumped, on the edge of the sidewalk, head in hands.

In the blink of an eye and a blur of red and blue, Superman was beside them. Startled by the suddenness of his appearance, Lois jerked up her head with a soft gasp.

"Oh! Superman…"

He pulled her to her feet.

"Are you okay? I thought - "

She followed his glance for the ruined Jeep and her eyes widened. She shook her head. "I got out when you - " she paused, lowering her voice to a murmur as she looked warily around her, "You didn't think I'd just sit there when something like this was going down, did you?"

He shook his head, wonderingly. She felt so good in his hands. He wanted to crush her to him, tight enough to feel the steady beat of her heart against his, the warmth of her against him. Something of that urge must have shown itself, naked, in his face, because hers became alarmed. He realized he was still holding on to her shoulders and let her go abruptly. The elderly woman was watching them, curiously.

He cleared his throat. "Uh, well, if you're both okay…" He hooked a thumb over his shoulder to the carnage behind them. "I'll just go see if the police need any help."

Lois nodded. "It's just a nick," she said, confusing him before he realized she was talking about the woman she'd been helping. She hunkered down to apply the scarf in her hands, already bloody, to the shallow line of fresh blood trailing the woman's throat and glanced around her at the wash of broken glass littering the sidewalk. "Lucky no one else got hit."

He nodded. "Well, I'll just - " He glanced to where blue strobe lights were already filling the darkness.

"Sure. Go." She smiled up on him.

That smile was like the sun: warming and sustaining him all at once.

He carried it with him as he went to help clear up the mess Estelle Pinchenski had left as an epitaph.

***

"You're sure you're okay?"

Clark handed Lois the mug of chocolate he'd carried through from the kitchen and settled beside her on the sofa as she sipped at its welcome warmth. He laid a hand against the knee of the leg she'd drawn up beneath her, as though needing the touch, that contact, as reassurance.

"Because you'd tell me if you weren't. Right?"

She nodded, and put a hand to his cheek as he continued to study her, concern filling his eyes. "I'm fine." She gave him a faint smile. "And, don't think I haven't noticed you've X-rayed every bone I've got at least twice since we got home, when you thought I wasn't looking."

A definite exaggeration, Clark thought, giving her a reproachful look. It had only been the once. And even then, with her refusing to sit still for more than two minutes at a time, he'd been unable to really get a lock on —

"There's nothing wrong with me, Clark. You want to worry about something, worry about the Jeep."

"I don't care about the Jeep."

"Well, you should. Me, I loved that Jeep." She buried her nose in the depths of her mug. "It was the first thing I bought after I got my first big front page scoop at the Planet - the Griffin expose - and I remember - "

"Lois…"

She paused, and then lifted her head to regard him soberly. "It's okay. *I'm* okay. Really."

"When I saw it lying there, crushed up against that window, all twisted up like that - " He stopped, an echo of the stark fear he'd felt then rising in his face now. His throat tightened and he shook his head, unable to force the words through.

She put down the mug and allowed herself to be drawn into his arms. Letting him know, in the best way she could as she snuggled close against his side, that she was there with him; real and warm and unharmed. "I'm here," she whispered into his shoulder.

"But you might not have been. Lois - "

She drew herself back to look up steadily into his eyes. "Clark, we've had this out before. You can't always be there. Not all the time. You just have to accept that."

"This is different. Lois, you were right there! Just yards away from me. And I had my mind on other people, so many other things, I didn't even *notice* you were in trouble!"

"I wasn't in trouble."

"But you might have been. It was sheer luck you weren't. Lois, if you'd been hurt because I thought someone else was more important — "

"Clark, you do what you can. That's all. I can't ask for any more than that >from you. No one could. You can't keep watch on me twenty-four hours a day. And, right beside me or a million miles away, you're there for me when you can be. That's enough for me. It should be enough for you too."

He smiled wanly at her, knowing she was right. He put a hand into her hair and she pressed her cheek to his fingers.

"Why did she do it?" she asked, trying to divert him as she drew away and picked up her mug again.

He heaved a sigh. "I don't know. That guy who tried to stop her before I did said she was crazy. He said…" He frowned. "He said she was yelling all sorts of wild things; threatening him if he didn't leave her alone. A few people in the crowd said she'd been drinking pretty heavily in a bar nearby for most of the evening." He shook his head. "I guess, we'll just never know."

"I guess…" Lois murmured, eyes distant as she cradled the mug in both hands and took another sip.

With one knee brought up against her chest so that she could use its ledge to rest an arm on, one leg crossed beneath her, barefoot, and dressed as she was in plain leggings and an over baggy sweatshirt, she almost looked like a little kid, Clark thought, watching her. There was a bruise smeared across the bone of her right cheek that was already turning dark. She insisted it was nothing. She also insisted she couldn't remember at which point in the melee that Estelle Pinchenski had caused that she'd gotten it. It gave her an illusion of vulnerability which made him want to simply pull her into his arms, kiss her hard, and promise her he'd never let anything hurt her again. Not ever.

"As I think I might just have mentioned in the past, I'm not a six year old, Clark."

He started, pulled from his thoughts to find himself staring into her solemn eyes. "What?"

She shook her head. "So…" She placed the mug carefully on the table and shifted to draw both legs beneath her, facing him as she sat back on her heels. "You can just take that look off your face. I don't need coddling from you. I need *something*, but it's not coddling."

He gave her a sudden grin. "Yeah?" He hitched himself nearer, close enough to feel the cool touch of her breath against his cheek, as he looked into her eyes. "So, what, exactly, *do* you need from me?"

"Well, now, let's see." She smiled, threading her fingers together at the back of his neck. "The number of a good auto body repair shop would do for a start," she told him.

***

As it turned out, a good vehicle repair shop was more difficult to find than they'd supposed.

Clark heard the familiar rising voice of his wife clear across the newsroom floor as he came down the iron staircase from the research section. As he approached, he noted that there was suddenly a very wide area of clear space around Lois' desk, as their colleagues all at once found other things to do that kept them out of her line of fire. He had to admit that, even for Lois, that voice was loud…and extremely annoyed.

He winced as he reached her desk in time to watch her slam the telephone receiver down in a fit of furious pique.

"Bad news?" He put a soothing hand to her shoulder as he stopped beside her chair.

"They're talking at least a month till we can get the Jeep back." She stabbed her pencil at the offending page in her notepad, where she'd jotted down the relevant details of her conversation with the garage, before she tossed both onto her desk. "A month! And that's including the two weeks it'll take them before they even get started on repairing it! I've gone through every garage I can find in the Yellow Pages and none of them will touch it any quicker than that. That's if we had the chance to choose. I should've noticed that small print clause tying us down to a garage of our insurer's choice," she added a disgusted mutter. "What an idiot!"

Clark tightened his grip slightly.

"God, those guys make my head ache."

She reached to haul open the desk drawer, unscrewed the cap on the bottle of aspirin and shook out a couple, before dropping it back and slamming the drawer shut. She chased the pills down with a quick gulp of coffee and then leaned back against the backrest of her chair. She kneaded at her temples with irritable fingers.

"You know the worst thing about this?"

"We miss out on our last one hundred discount stamps before the gas station promotion ends?" Clark ventured. He made a vaguely disappointed gesture. "We don't get the full set of matching luggage, after all?"

She smiled, despite her annoyance. "No." She reached up and tugged him down to her level with one hand clenched in his tie. "If we could use a certain superhero repair service," she whispered, "we could have it back by this evening."

"True." He grinned at her and straightened, smoothing a hand down the tie and drawing it neatly out of her grip in the process. "But I guess the loss adjuster would be surprised when he came out to look it over. I'll get back on to the insurers about that rental car, meantime," he promised as she looked downcast and then, distracted suddenly as he frowned, "Looks like we're not the only ones with problems though. Hey, morning, Jimmy," he raised his voice cheerfully as the researcher slouched his way down the ramp and headed towards them. Jimmy looked just a trifle disheveled, as though he'd spent half the night sleeping in the rumpled clothes he was wearing. "You okay?"

"Huh? Oh." Jimmy pulled a hand through his hair and threw himself into a nearby chair. "I…didn't get much sleep last night."

Lois grinned across at him as she looked up from the mail she'd begun to sort through. "I take it Leanore liked the casserole then?"

Jimmy lifted his head from where he'd dropped it into tired hands and gave her a long, steady look.

"No," he said at last. "Actually, she *would* have liked the casserole, if you'd put a hold on the beef and made that mushroom sauce just with mushrooms and without the hint of peanut oil," he went on, oblivious to the small glance which Lois darted at her husband and the quirk of Clark's brow at her in response.

Lois flushed a little, but she didn't correct Jimmy's misconception that she had been the cook as the photographer continued, "She's a vegan. And she's so allergic to peanut oil that just the hint you put in sent her into a fit of anaphylactic shock on the floor of my apartment. I had to dial 911. I've spent most of the night down in an Emergency Room."

"Well, is she all right?" Clark said, startled, both by this and by the determinedly mild tone Jimmy had used in the telling of it.

"Oh, yeah. Soon as I told them what it was, they gave her an injection. She usually carries an anti-allergic kit with her, with a hypo in it, you know, for emergencies, but she'd forgotten to bring it with her. I guess she didn't expect me to try and kill her that particular evening. They gave her an adrenaline shot; said they'll keep her in today for observation, just to be sure, but she was fine when I left. She seemed to have a lot of…energy…anyway," he concluded dismally. "And she sure hadn't lost any of her vocabulary."

"Well, it wasn't your fault, Jimmy - " Lois started and he shook his head. "No, sure it wasn't my fault," he agreed calmly. "Course, Leanore did *ask* me if there was anything she should know about the casserole before she ate it and I said no…so, right now, I think it's probably fair to say she rates me on about a par with Jeffrey Dahmer."

"You let her eat the casserole, knowing she was allergic to peanuts?" Clark said, appalled.

"I didn't know it had peanut oil in it! I couldn't exactly tell her I didn't know what was in it, because I hadn't cooked it, could I? Not after telling her how I'd been slaving over a hot stove all afternoon, 'specially for her. And I couldn't think of any reason *why* someone would put *peanut oil* in a beef and mushroom casserole! So, I said it was perfectly safe!"

His head swung towards Lois with that last. Since there was blame being apportioned here, Lois gave up any pretense that she'd done the cooking and looked to Clark.

"It was in the recipe!" Clark protested, defensively. "It was only just a drop of peanut oil," he added, holding up thumb and forefinger just a smidgen apart to indicate how tiny an amount it had been.

Lois nodded, backing him up now that the blame had been firmly laid where it belonged. "And it *was* just a mistake, Jimmy. It could have - "

" - happened to anyone. Tell me about it. Anyway, strike two for the romance of the year." He dropped his head to his hands again with a heavy puff of breath.

"Sorry," Lois said.

Clark gave him a sympathetic glance. "Not working out like you hoped it would, huh?"

"Let's just say, last night, we weren't laughing at the 'Hollywood Biker Chicks from Hell' any."

"'Hollywood *Biker* Chicks'?" repeated Clark, bemused.

Lois waved a hand at him. "Don't get him started," she warned. She gave Jimmy an apologetic shrug. "Maybe this is a job for Carol after all."

"Hey, the way my love life is going right now, it's a job for Superman."

"Well, what can I say? Maybe you could - ?" she paused as he held up a quick hand.

"Uh, no, Lois. Thanks, but no. That's okay."

Lois looked wounded.

Jimmy looked sideways, awkward all at once. "But…um, I was just wondering…C.K., could I talk to you?" He glanced at Lois again. "In private?"

"Me?" Clark gave him a startled glance. He was never comfortable with people using his name in almost the same breath as Superman's. But he shrugged obligingly. "Well, sure." He followed Jimmy for the conference room, exchanging a wry glance with Lois as he left.

"Listen, Jimmy," he started as he closed the door behind him, "if you're going to ask *me* for advice on how to get the girl of your dreams — "

"Well, why not? You did something right with Lois, didn't you?" Jimmy glanced through the glass windows as he spoke.

"Well, yeah, but that was only because Lois was smart enough to figure out where I was going wrong and put me right," Clark told him, sardonically.

"Yeah, but you know…how to get a girl interested," insisted Jimmy.

"Jimmy - "

"Come on, C. K. What should I do? Flowers? Candy?"

"Just be yourself."

"I was myself. I was an idiot! Twice!"

Clark gave him an even look. "Jimmy, flowers and candy…well they're okay. Any girl would appreciate those things. But, in the end, it just comes down to whether you're right together, or not. Believe me, if you are, it'll work out." He put a brief hand to the young man's shoulder and gave him a helpless shrug before he left the room.

"Yeah," Jimmy grumbled, glumly. "Superman told me the same thing once. And look what happened there!" he raised his voice in a yell, drawing several curious glances before he slumped into the chair beside him. "Penny dumped me for a Pro-Am International Federation Kick-Boxer! *And* he was two inches shorter than me!" he added in a disgruntled mutter.

***

Retreating, Clark found Lois at the coffee station, pouring herself a mugful of the thick, dark newsroom brew one handed as she frowned over the sheaf of papers she was holding in the other.

"What you got there?" He tilted his head, trying to read across her shoulder.

"Police report on the accident last night." She handed him a photograph. He recognized the woman he'd failed to save.

"You asked for a copy of this?" He glanced at the papers she was holding and frowned. "Background reports too? Witness statements? Why?"

"I was curious. Coffee?"

"Yeah. Thanks."

"Estelle Pinchenski," she told him, pouring a second cup. "She lived alone on 87th Street. Quiet. No trouble. Neighbors hardly knew enough about her to give the police any decent background, even though she'd lived there almost ten years. With her mother, before the woman died."

"Recently?"

"Um," Lois flipped back through a few pages and shook her head, "no. Ten months."

He raised a brow, looking back at the picture. "Maybe recent enough."

"Well, it seems the police think so too. They've more or less closed the case as a suicide, already. They still have no real idea why she did it though. Not that they seem especially keen to know."

"And, let me guess. You don't think they're right. And you *do* want to know why."

"Like I said, I'm curious."

"So, what else is new?"

"I've got an inquisitive streak; so sue me. Besides, apart from this interview with Dale Karvin this afternoon, we've got nothing much else on right now. It's been a real slow week, newswise. So…" she gave him a sly sideways glance and lowered her voice, conspiratorially, "…unless Superman wants to provide me with a red hot, five alarm exclusive for tomorrow's front page - "

" - unlikely at the moment - "

" - I've got nothing else to sink my teeth into right now. Don't…" she warned as he opened his mouth, his eyes twinkling mischievously, "…even consider it. I'm talking strictly business here, Kent."

Clark shrugged and inched his way significantly closer, nudging her slightly with his hip. "Well, Superman *could* give you an exclusive…but I doubt you'd want it printed on the front page," he murmured wickedly against her ear just before he caught the lobe between his teeth and nibbled on it lightly before letting it go again.

Lois' fought a smile, lips twitching as she studied the papers in her hand slightly more intently than they deserved. "Business, Kent," she repeated sweetly. "Remember?"

He sighed softly. "Okay. Anyone else we can talk to?" He glanced down at the photo in his hands again. "Apart from the police or those neighbors? Anyone who might have known her?"

"Oh, yes."

Clark took his eyes from the printout, alerted by something in her tone on that last. She looked up on him.

"In the last few months, Estelle Pinchenski was spending her days out and about charity collecting."

He didn't see what was coming. "Charity?" And then a glimmer got through. "Which charity?" he asked, interestedly.

She smiled grimly. "United Church of Salvation."

Clark paused, taking that in as she walked off, and then followed. "And?"

She glanced at him. "What do you mean, 'and'? It's obvious."

"It is?"

"Clark, we've had two young women kill themselves in the past two days. You've read Karen Culver's background report and Richard said she was a member of the United Church of Salvation."

"And…because they were both members of the same Church, you figure there's a connection between them? Lois, do you know how many people follow that Church? Do you know what the suicide rate is in this city? It's a *big* city. People get lonely, you know?"

His partner gave him one of her withering glances.

"It happens, Lois. It's tough, but it happens."

Her bottom lip jutted mulishly.

"Lois - "

"I'm just saying, it's…unusual." Lois said airily as she took a sip of her coffee and nudged her mouse to eliminate her SuperShield screensaver. "It's unusual. That's all."

He perched on the corner of her desk, put down his mug, and folded his arms to study her. "And the unusual aspect is…?"

"Well…you know…"

"Ah," he tossed the word into the air before him with a faintly superior smile, before tilting his head to view her again. "Now that is unusual, I'll admit. Okay," he picked up the grainy photo of Karen Culver from the open file on her desk, "let's see. She left Molasses, Iowa for the big city when she was seventeen. She was young. To have left her folks, I mean," he elaborated defensively as she hitched a knowing brow at him. "Small town girl in the big city?"

Lois flashed him a meaningful look as she slipped into her seat. "Not all small town folks are spooked by the big city, Clark."

"I had you to keep me occupied. I didn't have time to get lonely. Half the time, those first couple of months here, I felt as though I'd been wrestling with a bear by the time I got home. I was too exhausted to worry about being on my own."

She looked startled and then laughed, putting a brief, companionable hand to his arm. "Well, if I'd known I had that effect on you…"

"You'd have been ten times worse." His eyes showed his amusement as he bent his head to engage her in a brief, sweet kiss. She traced the line of his jaw with light fingers as he drew back and then her eyes turned purposeful. Back to all business now, she pulled Karen's photo easily from his grasp. After a moment spent studying the youthful face, she dropped it back to the desk.

"She had a successful career. She was PA to the junior partner of Gerrord- Andrews Pharmaceuticals." She ticked them off on her fingers like points won on a scoreboard. "A position she seemed happy with. We know she'd been headhunted by three other major corporations in the past four months and she turned them all down. And, you don't have to tell me," she added quickly as he opened his mouth, "being happy in your career choice doesn't stop you being lonely. But she *had* friends. Here in the city. She wasn't painting Metropolis mauve with her social life, but she seemed to be getting on well. Uh-uh," she decided. "Doesn't jell."

She leaned back in her chair and looked up on him steadily, pencil balanced delicately between her index fingers.

"You were the one who pointed out that her fiance had left her for another woman just three months ago," he countered. "Joseph Andrews said Karen was having trouble coming to terms with that. Especially when both the fiance and the other woman worked at Gerrord-Andrews too. Estelle Pinchenski was mourning the mother she'd nursed for half her life. Losing someone like that, after all that time, it leaves a pretty big gap. She had no other family, no friends; she was alone for the first time in ten years. And, probably, lonely."

Lois' stare didn't waver. After a moment, as he refused to be intimidated, she clenched the pencil in one fist, stabbing it out at him in pointed emphasis. "You're forgetting that connection they both have to Dale Karvin."

"To the United Church. Not Karvin."

"Don't get pedantic with me, Clark. You know it's the same thing."

"Karvin can't possibly know every single member of his Ministry personally, and - "

"He must have known Karen though. He'd have seen her around when he met with Gerrord or Andrews. And Estelle Pinchenski was more than just a member of the Church; she was an active fundraiser. Karvin's schedule here in Metropolis included a cheerleader meeting with several of the most prolific of those. Estelle *could* have been one of the honored few invited to hail the leader. That's not impossible. It's not even improbable."

Clark looked even more skeptical than he had before. "That's pretty slim, Lois. Even for you."

"It's a connection," Lois insisted sweetly, as she rose to her feet. "Danish?" she added over her shoulder.

He sighed and followed her.

"All right, so it's a connection," he admitted as he leaned against the stair railing and watched her choose two apple and almond pastries from the box. "Not *much* of a connection, but…" He accepted one of the pastries with a nod of thanks and then raised surrendering hands as she quirked a challenging brow at him.

He guessed she was right, after all. Karvin's name, and the name of his Church for that matter, had already come up just once too often in this investigation to be easily dismissed. It was sheer coincidence, of course; no reason to doubt otherwise, but Lois believed in coincidence with about as much faith as she did fairies at the bottom of the garden and he had to admit he wasn't that far behind her in that. Too many roads, it seemed, led to Dale Karvin for him not to have become their greatest lead and they'd chased down leads that were slimmer and tracked their way to the truth on less, in their time.

Lois was watching him, expectantly.

"Okay…" he gave in, doubtfully. "Let's check it on out."

***

Herrera stood on the bank of the river, watching the Metropolis PD cruiser angle its way towards him.

There was an air of tense expectation in the men with him and around him. A splutter of radio-talk came from somewhere behind him, but he didn't take his eyes from the approaching craft. Engines shut down, it glided slowly through the backwash of the murky water.

"We got positive, Inspector. They're bringing her in now."

He turned his head. Detective Saul Pearson, he always thought, looked far too young to have earned himself that shield he carried in his pocket. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, of tanned, athletic build, he should have been more at home on the college track than cruising the seedy downtown of Metropolis. He was carrying a two-way radio in his left hand.

"Where they said?" was Herrera's only comment.

"Tide took her under the break, just like they figured."

Herrera nodded. The cruiser had nosed its way gently up against the bank now. He stuck his hands deep in his pockets and took an unhurried walk towards its prow. One of the river cops helped him aboard with a grip against his sleeve and then stood back to let him view the plastic shrouded heap in the middle of the deck.

Herrera went down on one knee beside it and twitched the edge of the plastic sheet back. He took a long, lengthy look into the wide, brown eyes of the dead girl and then let the sheet fall. His left knee protested with a needle sharp prickle as he straightened and he tilted back his head to stare up into the blue, cloudless sky a moment, before he turned away.

He was getting too old for this.

He rooted in the depths of his pocket for a stick of the gum he always carried since giving up on his favorite cigars two months before, and stripped it of its silver foil before popping it into his mouth.

"I.D.?" he asked.

The cruiser's pilot nodded. "Sure. She left everything she had up there on the bridge before she jumped." He handed over a tooled leather wallet. A pair of linked initials - GB - was worked in gold in the lower right-hand corner.

"Everything?"

"Pretty much." The pilot looked back across his shoulder to where the Medical Examiner's Assistant had arrived to carry out his initial examination before the body was taken to the city mortuary. A police photographer was obeying his directions to record the body from angles of interest as he noted them. "Well, just like you saw."

Herrera nodded. The girl had been nude when she'd apparently felt the urge to take a late night swim. He looked up at the high arches of the Memorial Bridge, further along the river.

"So, what's the story?" He thought he already knew. But he asked anyway as he flipped open the wallet and flicked through a plethora of credit cards to find the I.D.

"Kinda weird. Ginny Bolt. Twenty-six. College grad. Lives with her parents in Armstrong Park."

Herrera raised a brow. "High rent." He looked at the solemn face of the girl in the photo. There was little resemblance to the girl he'd viewed a moment earlier. But then there rarely was when they'd been in the water a while. Even as short a time as Ginny Bolt had been. He grunted. "They been informed?"

"Got two uniforms on their way."

Herrera nodded. "Good. I'll want to talk to them later." Glancing up from the wallet he caught sight of a familiar figure ambling for him. He returned his attention briefly to the pilot. "Okay. Thanks." He tapped him on the arm in dismissal with a nod, before he jumped from the cruiser's edge to the bank and went to meet the approaching figure halfway.

"Hey, Inglewood. What you doing here? This is kinda outta the 24th's patch, isn't it?"

"Hey, Dutch." Inglewood clasped his colleague's hand briefly and then glanced beyond him to the cruiser. "Actually, I was in the neighborhood when I heard the call come in. Thought I'd just take a look, see what was going down, since I was passing." He cast a glance at the stretcher with its cargo swathed in its black body bag, as two of the coroner's staff wheeled it past them and loaded it into the plain, black van parked beyond the police tape.

"Look at this," Herrera said, wonderingly, tipping the wallet so he could see it. "Kid had gold cards. Go figure."

"Rich *and* pretty," Inglewood noted, glancing at the photo on the wallet's opposite side. He raised a brow. "Looks like it's open season on pretty brunettes."

"Huh?" Herrera looked up at him with a frown.

"Got one of my own. That's why I'm down here. Just been informing Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Harrow that their one and only daughter, Tracy, checked out on them last night."

"Homicide?" Herrera asked, curiously.

"Uh-uh." He looked across his friend's shoulder at the bridge looming black in the distance. "I hear your girl decided to go midnight skinny-dipping."

"Yeah."

Inglewood shrugged. "Well, maybe mine wasn't so much of an exhibitionist. She kept it simple. Tried to deep roast her skull on medium high at her apartment building. One of her roommates found her when she got home with her date. I guess that killed that romance, stone cold," he added blackly. "Nothing like coming home to find your room-mate deep fried to put the kibosh on your love life."

"Suicide? Really?"

"Yeah, and they ain't the only ones. The 21st picked up another three yesterday and this morning. And the 8th got one last night." Inglewood shrugged as Herrera stared at him. "What can I say? Maybe we just hit the silly season early. Go figure."

***

"How long did you say Estelle'd been living here?" Clark glanced around him at the tidy little room, with its sparse, mismatched collection of furniture and meager scattering of personal effects. Although neat, in its Spartan way, there was a faint odor of sickness in the room, just barely noticed beneath the stale air and fainter tang of Lysol.

"Almost ten years. She moved in to nurse her mother when she took ill. Not a lot to show for all that time," Lois judged, sadly, echoing his own thoughts. She picked out a book from the case in front of her - a glossy backed bodice- ripper of the sort you'd find in any train station or airport living room - and flicked aimlessly through the pages for a moment, before replacing it. She glanced over at Clark as he rooted just as worthlessly through a pile of unopened mail on the low table beside an overstuffed sofa. "Find anything?"

He shook his head. "Circulars, mostly; a couple of bills."

Lois frowned. "What'll happen to her things?"

Clark shrugged. "I guess maybe Welfare…"

"Who are you? What are you doing in here?"

Lois glanced up to where the owner of that new voice was standing in the apartment's open doorway, keys dangling uselessly from his hand and a suspicious look on his thin, pallid face. One arm was wrapped around the grocery bag he was cradling against his chest.

"We're reporters. From the Daily Planet?" Clark gave him a reassuring smile. "The landlord let us in. We're investigating the death of Estelle - "

"There's nothing for you to find in here. She was a good woman. She did her best. She nursed her mother, did you know that?" He stopped, backing up against the door as though he'd said too much. "I think you'd best leave."

"Mr. - ?" Clark paused, holding out the invitation. When it wasn't accepted he went on, "Look, we're really not here to hurt Estelle in any way. We just want to find out why she died."

The stranger glanced between them for a moment. "The Planet…" he repeated, thoughtfully, as though trying to come to some decision in his head, then he sighed. "Why?" The thin face wavered for a moment, on the verge of something undefined. Then its owner sagged against the doorframe. "I think," he said softly, "she died because of me."

Lois blinked. "You?" she looked him over, dubiously.

A long, wavering sigh came from the man slumped in the doorway. "I - please, if you don't mind…I have to sit down." He made his way shakily to the sofa under the window, dropping the bag at his feet.

"Sir? Are you all right?" Clark said, faintly alarmed. He glanced around him and then made his way to the little kitchen nook off the living room's far end. "Here," he said, returning with a glass and offering it. "Drink this. It's just water," he added as the glass received a wary look.

"Thank you." Their guest drank sparingly and, after a moment, leaned his head back against the sofa's backrest with a low breath. "I'm sorry, I really must apologize. It's just that it's all been such a shock and - "

"Did you know Estelle Pinchenski?" Lois asked, taking a seat on the chair opposite and leaning slightly forward to view him.

He snorted. "Not as well as I'd imagined I did, it seems. And not as well as Estelle apparently hoped for either."

Lois exchanged a glance with Clark, who raised a brow.

"I'm sorry," their guest said again. He leaned forward suddenly, extending a hand. "This must be very confusing for you. I'm Martin Gipe. Reverend Martin Gipe." There was a slight emphasis on the honorific.

"You were a friend of Estelle's?"

"No, not really. Well, yes, I guess." He gave them a helpless look. "I'd only known Estelle for a very short time, you understand. I wouldn't have said we were friends. She was a colleague, a volunteer collector for the Foundation. But I suppose, in many ways, I was the closest thing she had to a friend. She was lonely." He trailed into silence, looking thoughtful.

"The Foundation. That's the Celestial Foundation for International Peace and Spiritual Enlightenment?"

Gipe nodded with a smile. "Yes. It's a wonderful project. I'm the local coordinator." He looked at her, curiously. "Are you a member of the Church?"

"No. No, I wrote an article on it."

"The Planet!" Gipe blurted. "You're Lois Lane!"

She nodded. Gipe glanced enquiringly across his shoulder and Clark held out a hand. "Clark Kent. Miss Lane's partner."

"Ah." Gipe shook it firmly and then turned back to Lois, suddenly animated. "Well, why didn't you say? That was a marvelous piece you did on the Church, Miss Lane. Marvelous!"

"Well, thank you." She shrugged off the praise as Clark grinned at her suddenly. Clearly, in Martin Gipe's eyes, she'd just been elevated to near- sainthood.

Gipe confirmed it as he launched into more, ecstatic praise. "Wonderful! You have no idea how very few of your colleagues take a sensible view of the Church, Miss Lane. Why most of them are quite appallingly blinkered in that respect and as for the Star," his mouth pulled down in a disapproving moue, "well, the least said about *that* the better. Do you know they had the unmitigated gall to suggest that Dale — "

"Uh, yes. Mr. Gipe? Sorry, Reverend Gipe — "

"Oh, Martin, please."

Lois smiled, though barely. "Martin. You were telling us about Estelle?"

"Oh. Oh, yes." Gipe's enthusiasm deflated in an instant. "Yes," he said again, reluctantly.

"You said she was a volunteer…"

"Yes. I called in about…oh, now let's see. Almost three months ago now. I try to collect for the Church at least once a month. Door to door, you know? Estelle asked me in for coffee, she seemed very interested…" he paused and then, continued hastily, "Yes. Yes, most interested. I left a few flyers for her to look at and she called me the following day, asking what she could do to help. She did very well. Until — " he came to an abrupt halt and gave her a concerned look. "This is off the record, Miss Lane. I mean - "

"Absolutely," Clark said quickly.

Gipe looked up at him. "Yes," he said, doubtfully. He looked back at Lois and, seeming to come to a decision all at once, "As I said, she was lonely. Anyone could see that. She'd spent most of her life cooped up here in this apartment, nursing her mother. When she died…well, I guess the rest of the world had just about passed Estelle by, by that point. She told me once she'd taken a trip to Tunisia about seven months back. Just checked out most of the money her mother had left her and blew it all. Took the first flight out; picked her destination pinning a map. Her Big Adventure. That was the way she said it - you could almost see the capitals hanging in air."

He sighed. "Sad thing is, I don't think she enjoyed it. Not one little bit. I think travelling scared her. All those places, people she didn't know, strange food, too hot weather. I think she was glad to get back here, to where she felt safe. You know, she spent half her life wishing she was free of this place and then, when she got the chance to escape, she couldn't wait to come back and hide here. I guess by then it had gotten its hold on her, so she just couldn't shake it free. Certainly, she wouldn't be persuaded to sign up for any of our voluntary work programs. We do a lot of missionary work overseas; we're always on the lookout for volunteers. But Estelle wasn't interested. I think, until that night I came looking for donations, she hadn't much stepped out of this room for months, other than to take up her job and get food and suchlike. Yes," he added, face turning thoughtful. "I think she must have been very lonely."

Lois' face flooded with sudden understanding. "And you were the first person to come along in a long time and give her just a little…friendship?"

Gipe flushed. "No! It was never like that." He sighed. "At least not for me. Estelle…I swear to you, Miss Lane, I had no idea she felt that way. If I had…" He shook his head. "Oh, I suppose I was a blind fool, really. She'd asked me to have dinner with her, here at the apartment, a couple of times. I always declined. I'm a very busy man, you understand? And, besides…" His flush deepened.

"You didn't really like her, much," Clark finished for him, astutely.

Gipe gave him a swift, unhappy glance. "Not much of a Christian attitude, is it?" he confessed. "I don't know. There was just something about Estelle. Something…sometimes, she didn't seem quite…balanced. She had a quite extra-ordinary temper." His mouth twisted. "I found that out last night."

"Last night? You were there? When she died?"

"No. She'd asked me to dinner again. I was going to refuse, just like the other times, but…well, she looked so…pathetic really. And I thought if I gave in, perhaps she'd be satisfied, give up asking."

"But she wasn't."

"Hardly. Oh, at first it was fine. A little boring, perhaps. We spoke about the Church for a while. And then she…" Gipe's lips tightened into a prim line. "Well, I wasn't interested in *that* sort of relationship with her. I told her so."

"And she took it badly."

"She threw one of those planters at me!" Gipe said, pointing to a small collection of pots on the side table. "She was shrieking and hollering - it was just…quite dreadful." He looked distraught for a moment, remembering. A man, Clark saw, who found the slightest deviation from the quiet, ordered life he led as shockingly distasteful. Any hint of a public scene would have appalled him. "I left. And, then, this morning, I heard about what she'd done."

Lois said, startled, "And you got to thinking she'd killed herself because you rejected her?"

"Well, what else?" Gipe looked surprised. And, for the barest instant, something flickered in his face that gave Lois as clear an insight into the man as anything that he'd said. For a moment, he'd shown pleasure in the thought. She understood that, for Martin Gipe, the idea that he might exist in the mind's eye of lonely women as a romantic hero, to be languished over like some Victorian lothario with maidenly sighs and tragic self destruction, was a fantasy dear to his heart. Looking over the thin, stick-insect frame, scrubby hair and weak, hazel eyes, Lois shook her head, wondering, as she often did in the course of her work, at the depths of self delusion the human soul could stoop to.

"Well, I don't think you have anything to worry about. The police don't appear to think you were a factor in last night's events," she consoled him smartly, and, ignoring the faint flash of disappointment that crossed his face as she rose to her feet, "Thanks for telling us, though. We appreciate your help."

Following her rapid stride for the door, Clark turned back suddenly as a thought occurred. "Can I ask - you knew she was dead. What did you come here for?"

"Oh," Gipe reached into the bag at his feet and pulled out a container of spray detergent and a sheaf of heavy-duty polythene sacks. "I came to pack up Estelle's things, maybe clean up a little. It was what she wanted," he added, half defensively. "She often said, she'd leave everything she had to the Church, if she could. And she had no one else."

"Right."

"Not that she had much to give." Gipe looked around the spartan room, somewhat sadly. "Poor Estelle."

Clark nodded, anxious to leave now as he continued for the door.

"We don't know that she didn't, you know," he commented, giving his partner a curious glance as he caught up with her on her way down the stairs. "Estelle sounds pretty…intense. She might have done it because of that fight. You read those witness statements. The bartender said she was a whole lot mad at someone last night. It could have been him."

"Yeah." Lois frowned irritably. "Well, that may well be. I just couldn't let Don Juan back there get to being happy about it." She hitched her purse around and began to fish in its depths as she strode for the edge of the sidewalk.

"Oh," Clark said. He stopped at the foot of the stairs and shoved his hands in his pockets, watching her. "Where you going?" he asked.

Lois came to an abrupt halt, and then turned back to face him with an exasperated mutter. Looking at the keys in her hand, he knew she'd automatically been heading for a non-existent Jeep. He grinned at her.

"Subway?" he invited.

"Do I have a choice?"

"Well, it's a nice enough day, I guess." He glanced upwards judiciously into the cloudless sky overhead. "And the Planet's only halfway across town." He brought the glance down to cover the street, which was empty in both directions. "Difficult to get a cab in this district. So, I guess we could always - " He paused, smile fading.

Lois knew that look all too well. "What?"

"Electricity sub-station," he told her absently, still listening to something only he could hear. "Someone's in trouble." His eyes sharpened on her abruptly. "I gotta go."

"Sure. I'll meet you back at the Planet." She nodded and he leaned forward to kiss her quickly against one cheek before he sprinted off, already tugging at his tie.

Lois stood for a moment, watching after him, and then glanced down at the redundant keys she was still carrying. She bounced them distastefully on her palm. "Subway it is," she said.

She didn't sound happy about it.

***

Superman saw what the emergency was as soon as the sub power station came into view.

At first, he assumed that the slight figure clinging to the electricity pylon, several feet in the air above a crowd of onlookers and quite clearly in trouble, was part of a maintenance crew. But his perception changed as he flew closer.

He barely heard the faint, excited murmur that rose from the crowd as they caught sight of him homing in on the young woman. He stopped, floating gently just yards away from her, careful not to startle her. Her face was pressed to the metal of the pylon, hidden from him. His enhanced hearing picked out her soft murmur though. It sounded like some kind of prayer, a litany of terror, mumbled repeatedly and reduced by fear to being almost nonsensical.

"Miss?" he said carefully.

She shook her head, moaning softly, pressing herself tighter to the metal strut.

"It's okay. I'm going to get you down now. Just stay calm. I - "

She shrieked as he reached out a hand and laid it on her shoulder and her head whipped up, her eyes reflecting stark terror back at him. Madly, recklessly, she began a frantic, scrambling climb further up the pylon, trying to get away >from him.

A chorus of shrill screams floated up from the crowd as her grasping fingers closed on the power line overhead. Superman, already seeing the danger, reached it first. The surge of manmade lightening coursed through his body harmlessly, arcing around him and the woman in a violent fireburst of sparks and light. Shaking with fear, the woman screamed again and, losing grip, plummeted off the pylon.

Superman caught her out of air before she'd fallen more than a few yards. The angle was awkward and the jolt was enough to spin him around in mid-air before he could correct himself. He maintained his grip though. The woman lay limply in his arms, her head lolling against his shoulder. Her long, dark brown hair fluttered in the slipstream as he landed on the ground with barely a jolt.

"She's okay. She just fainted, I think," he told the EMT who approached him at a run, dragging a mobile stretcher behind him. Superman set the woman down gently and the EMT drew a foil blanket over her unconscious form before he wheeled the gurney back to the ambulance at rapid speed.

"Superman! Superman, did she say anything? Did she tell you why she did it?"

He found himself facing a barrage of mikes and questions as the small knot of media crew among the onlookers pressed forward around him.

"No. No, she said nothing," he told them. "Now, if you'll excuse me, gentlemen…ladies…" He pushed his way through them, politely, leaving them behind as he approached the ambulance. Though frustrated in their quest for a juicy quote, none of the hacks followed. They knew well enough that when Superman said 'no comment' he meant it.

"Excuse me? Sir?" Superman waylaid one of the EMTs as he emerged from the back of the ambulance. "Which hospital will you be taking her to?"

The EMT looked across his shoulder. "Bill?"

"County General's nearest for this catchment area," his colleague obliged him. "It's only ten minutes or so away, on Pilmington and Third. Is there a problem, Superman?" he added with a frown.

"No. No, that's fine. Thank you."

Satisfied that Clark Kent would be able to trace the woman later, he lifted himself skywards.

He was certain that Clark wouldn't be the only one wanting to ask her a few questions when she woke up, either.

***

Most of his colleagues were gathered around the bank of TV screens that kept them in touch with their rivals around the world, when Clark came out of the elevator and down the ramp into the bullpen.

Firming up the knot in his tie with one hand, he dumped the brown bags he was carrying on Lois' desk and then slipped casually through the back ranks to the front of the crowd and up beside his partner.

"What's going on?"

She barely gave him a glance.

On the screen before him, the local LNN news report was in mid-roll.

" - have already been dubbing the phenomenon, 'Lemming Spring'," a primly coiffured Katrine Wallace told them, almost gleefully. She had an air about her, Clark noted, of delivering the 'final word' - something kooky or lightweight to round off the more serious news and make the viewers forget the depressing catalogue of wars, homicides, muggings and gangland crime that had gone before. But then, he also noted, with a thin twist of his lips, Katrine habitually adopted *that* particular tone no matter what the news was, or how serious its content. Which was one of the reasons why she'd never gotten beyond local daytime news reporting.

"…from our minicam on the scene. The unnamed woman was later taken to County General for treatment…"

He brought his attention back to the report and was surprised to find himself watching Superman's rescue at the sub-station.

"That was quick," he murmured.

"…Metropolis Light & Power refused to comment on their security procedures or to speculate on the woman's reasons for climbing the pylon, but did issue a statement denying any liability for her actions. Our reporter, however, spoke to one MLP employee who claimed that the woman was part of a local environmental action group intent on protesting over power utility connections with the new, planned nuclear processing facility at Rockmount Promontory. However, this station has been unable to confirm that the woman or the other fatalities were members of the same alleged action group or that they were the participants in an alleged bizarre suicide pact. Meanwhile, power to the entire downtown area was interrupted for over an hour while Superman repaired the damaged transformer…"

"Huh?" Perry White turned a glance on him, attention attracted by his murmur, and then scowled. "Kent! Where the hell were you when this was going down?"

"Huh, Chief?"

"I gave you advance word on this suicide business yesterday and you still couldn't join up the dots before every dime a minute news station in the city! Judas H. Priest, what kinda reporters I got working for me these days!" White threw up his hands in disgust and headed for his office.

"But, Chief - !"

Clark winced as the door slammed behind Perry in a rattle of glass and wildly waving blinds.

The crowd around the TV screens thinned out almost by magic, keen to put distance between themselves and the object of Perry's annoyance, just in case any of it rubbed off on them. On screen, Katrine was putting the finishing touches to her report. Local police sources were refusing to comment on the fact that over half a dozen pretty, young brunettes had taken their own lives in the past few days.

"They scooped us!" Lois was doing a slow burn as she stalked back to her desk. She kicked out viciously at a wastepaper basket on the way and Clark hurried after her.

"No, they didn't. Well," he amended with a glance back at the screen, "not entirely. They've figured out there's something going on. But they don't know what."

"*We* don't know what!" Lois said, in what was barely far removed from a snarl.

"Well, no. But we're closer to the solution than they are."

She gave him a steady look. "How do you figure that one out? We didn't even know that the Metropolis PD's had another six cases like Karen and Estelle since yesterday."

"We're still ahead of the pack on points," he insisted. "I'm telling you, Lois, this isn't about some lunatic fringe group of protesters trying to attract attention to the cause." He lowered his voice. "That woman Superman rescued from that pylon was terrified. So terrified, she didn't even seem to know where she was or what she was doing any more."

Lois dropped into her chair, throwing up frustrated hands. "What's going on in this town? Suddenly it's like we're living in L.A.!"

Clark gave her a commiserating look, understanding her exasperation. "Maybe this interview with Karvin this afternoon will give us something more to work on. That is, if you still think he's in the picture?"

"Let's just say, he hasn't taken himself out of the picture. So far, at least."

He nodded. "Okay. And, meantime," he reached out for her phone, decisively, "maybe we can get Herrera to talk to us on this one." He dialed in the number of the 6th floor operator at the 26th, bypassing the main switchboard.

"Good luck," Lois said, morosely. She knew, just as he did, what Katrine Wallace meant by no one being available from the police department to answer reporters' questions on the case. The switchboard down at the 26th had probably been jammed solid for the past hour. Either that or Herrera had gone into hiding.

Clark had an edge on Katrine and her colleagues, however. He used his name.

Over the years, the Daily Planet's ace reporting team of Lane & Kent had amassed something of a reputation, not just in Metropolis, for straight talking, straight dealing and fair, unbiased reporting, which hadn't gone un- noted or unappreciated by city officials. As a result, they had friends and sources in places that most other reporters would have given their eye-teeth for: In local and federal government offices, police departments, business and finance houses, security agencies…right up to the Presidential office itself. People who were agreeable to letting them call in a favor now and then. People who often gave them information before they were asked to, just on the off-chance they might find it useful, people who were willing to help. The bottom line was that they weren't only trusted - by people who had no reason to trust the press at all - they were respected too. And that respect often got them a foot in the door that had just been slammed in the faces of their colleagues.

This time, it got him past the bland, 'no comment' of the operator and a connection to Herrera's desk.

Not that it did him any good.

"In a meeting," he told Lois as he left a message with the operator, thanked her for her help, and hung up.

"Great. Maybe he'll get back to us in time to tell us what he'd like for Christmas this year," she said, sardonically.

"Yeah. So," he lightened his tone. "You want the good news?"

"Is there any?"

He reached to pick up one of the brown bags he'd put on her desk when he'd come in and handed it over with a smile. "I got you lunch. At that little deli you like on - " he stopped as she gave him an unreadable look and then rummaged in her purse to produce a couple of bags of her own.

"Great minds think alike." She sighed as she handed one over. "Chicken salad and fries from the Happy Eater, downstairs."

"Oh," he said, taking her offering, ruefully.

Lois shook her head. "We have *got* to get coordinated," she told him, firmly, before she opened the James Street Deli bag to examine its contents curiously.

"Roast beef and sweet pickle on rye," he informed her, helpfully. Her current fad.

"No coleslaw?" she complained, looking up on him.

"Lane! Kent! What you two still hanging around here for?" Perry's sudden bellow from the other side of the room made her jump. "Only suicide statistic you're gonna find in this office is when they find your editor hanging from the light fixture, clutching the latest batch of circulation figures! Now, get!"

"On our way, Chief!" said Clark, hastily.

"Right on it, Chief!" Lois yelled in the same moment, dumping the bag on her desk and grabbing for her purse instead. "So much for lunch," she murmured at Clark as she headed for the stairs.

Less inclined to abandon good food, especially when it smelled as mouth- watering as that chicken sandwich, Clark took a moment out, and risked his editor's wrath, to pick up the abandoned bags and detour to the refrigerator with them, before he caught up with Lois. They hustled for the elevator, Perry's low scowl following them every step of the way.

"Well, you never know," Clark grinned at her as he reached past her to punch the call button, "maybe Karvin'll do something spectacular with a couple of loaves and some fishes, if we ask real nice."

***

Clark regretted the flippancy of the remark as soon as he met Dale Karvin. The man was so obviously and relentlessly sincere, in his devotion at least, that it seemed just a little mean to have been mocking him.

"Miss Lane? A pleasure to meet you." Karvin's grip was firm and cool on hers, before his eyes flickered curiously across her shoulder.

"My partner, Clark Kent," Lois did the introductions and Karvin nodded.

"Ah, yes. And your husband too, I understand?"

Lois exchanged a glance with Clark. "Yes."

"The Daily Planet isn't the only organization with researchers, *Miss* Lane." Karvin sounded amused. "Please, take a seat, both of you. Would either of you like something to drink? Coffee? Tea? Juice?"

"No, thank you."

Clark followed Lois' declination with a shake of his head.

"This is my aide, Robert Addley," Karvin indicated the slim, neatly dressed man standing slightly to one side. Addley inclined his head marginally at them.

"We've met," said Lois. "Haven't we?" The addition was slightly hesitant as though she'd changed her mind between one moment and the next.

"Have we?" Addley shook his head. "Not that I recall." He smiled thinly at her. "And I'm sure I would."

To Clark's surprise, Lois flushed slightly.

Karvin glanced between them and then covered the small, awkward moment of silence that followed with a bright, "And this is Steven Thurst. Steve's my publicity hound." He gave Thurst an affectionate smile before returning his attention to them. "You've already spoken to him on the phone."

"Yes." Lois recovered poise. She returned her attention to the preacher. "I wanted to thank you. For your interest in Merle and Denny Turano. I don't know if you'll be able to help them, but I do know they'll be grateful for anything you can do."

Karvin gave her a puzzled look and then turned it on Addley and Thurst.

"Uh, Dale's just grateful your article brought the boy's dilemma to his attention," Thurst interjected quickly. "He's looking forward to meeting both of them in the next few days."

Karvin's puzzlement cleared. "Yes! Yes, indeed. Whatever I can do."

Lois turned a cynical look on Clark, briefly, as the preacher took a seat in the sumptuous leather sofa directly opposite theirs. He studied them, the faint smile still hovering at his lips. But his eyes were cool and measuring, wary.

"I have to say that your invitation was a little unexpected," Lois began smoothly, as she set out her tape recorder on the low table between them. Steven Thurst was holding a recorder of his own, ready to record his own copy of the conversation. That paranoia didn't surprise her any.

"Really? May I ask why?"

"Well, I was under the impression that you only granted interviews to an approved list of reporters. And neither of us seemed to be on it."

"That sounds a little…insular of me, Miss Lane. Yes, I do limit the interview circuit. But it's purely for considerations of time. I'm quite willing to talk to anyone about God. Anyone who wants to listen, that is."

Lois quirked a brow slightly at the low note of censure in that.

"I'd have thought you'd have been more anxious to talk to those who won't," Clark suggested quietly.

Karvin gave him a glance, almost as though he'd forgotten he was there. "I beg your pardon?"

"Well, isn't that your mission?" Lois continued the thought. "To bring the word of God to the unenlightened? The uninitiated? Talking just to the believers seems to be a done deal."

Karvin was silent a moment, then he chuckled quietly. "You know, I rather like you, Miss Lane. Surprising really, because I didn't think I would." He leaned forward, elbows on knees, with an air of rolling up his sleeves for battle. "You're right, of course. Preaching to the converted is deathly boring. It brings in the dollars, though." He paused, allowing them time to react to the cynicism and then added, eyes narrowing, "Is that what you want to hear?"

"What we want to hear, Mr. Karvin, is the truth. Not publicity-speak. We can get that at your press office."

"The truth. Ah. The truth about what?" Karvin mocked her again. "God?"

Lois was holding down her temper now with an effort. And it showed. "As you see the truth about God, yes, if that's what you'd like to tell me. We want to know about you. The Church we can find out about from anywhere."

"I published an excellent biography just last year. If I say so myself. You can purchase it at any of our rallies for $39.95. Or from our mail order address. Plus $1.70 mailing charge, of course."

"Actually, I picked it up from the local library. No cost." Lois took back the tape recorder, snapping it off and leaning forward to face him. She was getting tired of this verbal fencing. Despite her determination to keep the tone congenial, the man seemed bound and set to rile her up. He'd just about succeeded too.

"You invited me here, Mr. Karvin. Now, if you've changed your mind about this interview that's fine, but we're very busy, so if you don't want to talk to us on a sensible level, that's just fine with me too. If you'll excuse us…?"

She got to her feet. Taken slightly by surprise by her move, Clark was slow to follow suit. Karvin's bald attempts to rile them had irritated him too, but Lois was usually more professional than to terminate an interview just because the subject wasn't co-operating. Not to mention just plain bulldog persistent. Usually, she saw such obstruction as a challenge to her abilities, rolled her sleeves up to her elbows and pitched in to fight dirty. Quitting ahead of the game just wasn't her style. He rose hurriedly, but Robert Addley stilled both of them, before he could properly make his feet.

"No! No, please." His hand came down lightly on Karvin's shoulder. "You're right, Miss Lane. You were invited here. And Dale is only too happy to answer any questions you'd like to ask. Isn't that right, Dale?"

Clark might have been mistaken, but he was sure that Addley's hand tightened, just a touch, on the shoulder beneath it. Certainly, Karvin's hesitation was only too plain. Then, the preacher seemed to take stock.

"Yes. Yes, please, sit. Both of you. You're right, Bob. I'm sorry," he offered the apology to them. "Sometimes, it's hard to drop my guard. Bob tells me that you have an unparalleled reputation for honesty, Miss Lane." He glanced up at the dark-suited figure hovering by his shoulder. "And you too, Mr. Kent. He tells me that if I'm straightforward with you, then you'll play fair with me. I have to say that integrity's not something I've often met when dealing with others of your profession. In fact, just this morning, I had something of an unpleasant run-in with a photographer from the Metropolis Star." He paused. "But…I *am* willing to give it a try, I assure you."

"We're not interested in publishing smear campaigns, Mr. Karvin," Clark said. There was an undertone of sympathy in his voice.

Karvin nodded. "Then," he looked at Lois and drew in a low breath, "shall we begin again?"

She gave him a long, steady look, less inclined than her partner was, it seemed, to give the preacher the benefit of the doubt. "All right," she agreed at last, reseating herself and placing the reactivated tape recorder back carefully to the table. "Why don't you tell us what you hope to achieve with this tour?"

Karvin was true to his word. The rest of the interview progressed congenially enough, even when they dropped the mediocre questioning about Karvin's plans and got down to what really interested them; Karvin's connection to the dead girls.

The preacher's manner was unperturbed as he admitted to having met Karen at the Gerrord-Andrews offices. A pleasant enough girl, he maintained, such a tragic loss to the Church. He claimed not to recall Estelle Pinchenski at all.

It was only when Lois moved on from there to ask about Richard that Karvin seemed to grow uneasy, and then Robert Addley smoothly interceded. Aping idle curiosity, he enquired as to where these questions were leading, since they appeared to have no relevance to the subject matter and were not, in any case, matters which the preacher could hold an opinion on, having no connection to them.

For a moment, it seemed as though Lois might dispute the point, then she gave it up. But, fielding Addley's quick glance, Thurst smoothly interrupted Karvin's response to Clark's following question and thereafter dominated the interview. He had a publicity agent's natural knack of sliding sideways through a question he didn't want to answer, responding to it without ever getting to the core of what had actually been asked, though deftly enough that he couldn't be challenged on evading it either. A familiar sleight of hand that rapidly began to irritate.

Clark caught Lois' eye and then eased himself back against the sofa, opting out completely of what was proving to be a monumental waste of their time. It would write up to a fair and interesting portrait of an evangelist, he thought dryly, but it wouldn't get them one step further to solving the deaths of Karen and Estelle. His casual withdrawal was more than an indication of his boredom, though. Taking the cue, Lois took over the session completely, even going so far as to up the ante just a little with a more provocative line of questioning. While she did the distracting, Clark was free to use every enhanced sense he could muster to furtively study their surroundings and the people in the room - a gambit that had often worked for them in the past.

This time, however, he found nothing out of the ordinary. There were no physiological signs in any of the men in the room that would indicate that they were anything other than at ease, nothing to indicate that they were being evasive or less than truthful. Their pulse rates were steady and low, their respiration even. In fact, he discovered to his surprise, there was only one person in the room who was showing an unusually high level of stress. Attuned as he was to his surroundings, much more than he normally would have been, Clark was able to pick up on his wife's growing unease as though it had been marked out for him by a beacon.

Her pulse rate was up, markedly so, her temperature too.

Clark frowned. Strange as it might seem, Lois was pretty much rattled about something.

It didn't take him long to figure out the cause.

Karvin's aide hadn't taken his eyes from her since the interview had begun.

Clark was pretty much easy in the main with his wife attracting casual attention from other men. Just so long as they didn't push it any. She was, after all, a beautiful, confident woman. She was bound to catch the eye. But there were some men who made themselves hard to ignore or stay easy with and the attention with which Addley was currently favoring Lois was much more than a normal, natural male response to viewing a pretty woman. There was something darker than appreciation in that unnerving, unblinking stare - something predatory, proprietary - and something more than Clark was prepared to let lie, unchallenged.

He settled his own eyes on the man, darkly, but Addley was paying him about as much attention as a gnat crawling on his sleeve. Clark glanced back at Lois, but, to the casual eye, she was seemingly unaware of anyone but Karvin, every ounce of her attention fixed on the preacher as she continued to question him coolly. She took notes with professional deftness, but it was the very rigidity of her attention on the preacher that enhanced Clark's initial impressions of her mood. She was more than nervous. She was…frightened, he thought, confused. He didn't need his heightened perceptions to tell him that.

He was aware that she was sitting very close against him and, almost without intent, had shifted closer still during the course of the interview. Close enough that he could feel the steady tightening in the long muscle of her thigh as it pressed lightly against his own, that he could see the tremor in her fingers as she wrote on the pad, could hear the hard beat of her heart drumming taut against her ribs. She ducked her head as Karvin answered her question on his healing gifts at length, her fingers tucking her hair behind one ear, a nervous gesture he recognized of old.

It was all more than enough as far as Clark was concerned. Lois was upset by Addley's unwelcome attention and he had no intention of allowing him to spook her any further.

He knew he trod a fine line with regard to looking out for his wife - what Lois was apt to term his 'over-protectiveness'. He also knew that she was more than capable of slamming to the mat any man who stepped over the line - and him too, if he got in her way. Well…figuratively, at least. Which, with Lois, was usually worse than physically anyway. He didn't. Well, not often. But, just sometimes, some things were simply beyond toleration.

Straightening abruptly to interrupt Karvin, interjecting himself into the conversation all at once, he smoothly turned it to a conclusion, brought it to a close, and then rose to his feet, one firm hand at Lois' elbow drawing her with him. She looked puzzled, and just a little annoyed, as he made their good-byes cordially and then ushered her easily from Karvin's suite. The entire operation had taken no more than fifty seconds, tops.

"What are you doing?" she hissed at him as he kept that hand on her arm to steer her for the elevator.

"Getting you out of there, before I lose my temper," he told her grimly, as he pushed the call button.

"What?"

"Lois, I couldn't just sit there letting that guy get to you like that."

"What guy?"

"Lo-is — "

Lois looked away, flushing slightly. But her jawline tightened stubbornly all the same. She folded her arms and fixed hot eyes on the elevator's indicator lights. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Okay, fine. Maybe it was time to get out of there anyway. Karvin wasn't giving us anything." He stepped into the empty elevator as it arrived and shook his head. "And you complain about us," he muttered under his breath as he punched the lobby button.

"What?"

He lifted an exasperated hand. "Us. Me. Men. You're always complaining - we don't show our inner feelings, we're always trying to do the 'manly' thing, play the macho card, keep everything inside…"

"Your point being?"

"My point being that it's all very well being the tough, streetwise reporter, Lois, but you're just as bad at not admitting to it when something upsets you, when some creep like Addley unnerves you like that."

"Clark, creeps like Addley are two to a dime in this town. I've met them more times than I've had pastrami for lunch. Most of them — *that's* where I've seen him before!" She changed tack abruptly, clicking satisfied fingers in the air as the memory hit her, all at once.

"What?"

"Addley! I knew he was familiar. Yesterday, when you didn't turn up at the cafe. I was heading back to the Planet and I bumped into him. Actually," she went on, musingly, "it was more a case of him bumping into me. He knocked me over. But, anyway…" Her thoughtful expression vanished. "*Anyway*," she changed direction firmly, returning to her complaint of a moment before, now that the small puzzle which had been tugging at her memory had been solved, "I don't need your help in dealing with — "

"I'm not saying you need my help," he denied. "I know you don't. I'm just saying it wouldn't hurt you, just once in a while, to admit to being upset by that kind of thing, that's all. And don't tell me you weren't upset," he added as she opened her mouth to do just that.

"Well, I wasn't."

"Lois, you were upset." He gave her a quick glance. "You still are. Not admitting it doesn't change that, you know."

"There's nothing to admit!"

"So…you're *not* upset?"

"No!"

"And, if you *were* upset, you'd admit it?"

"Yes!"

He snorted. "Yeah, right!"

She turned her head to view him levelly. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Lois, clams can't close up quicker than you can when you're upset over something."

Her lips tightened. "That's ridiculous."

He opened his mouth.

"Can we just drop this subject now?" she interrupted smartly. "And get back to discussing what's important?"

"Maybe, I happen to think some guy upsetting my wife *is* important."

"Clark — "

"Sure," he said, laconically. "Whatever you want."

Lois gave him an exasperated look. "Why is it," she demanded, "that every man I know can make an agreement sound like he just won the argument?"

He shrugged. "Just talented, I guess."

Her eyes flashed heat.

"Or, maybe, they learned it from you," he went on, before she could work up to an answering retort. He gave her a slow smile, the sort that turned her heart over. "I know I did."

She couldn't hold on to her annoyance in the face of that smile. Her lips quirked and then, with the quicksilver shifting of mood which often left him bewildered and not a little lost in her wake, she melted, putting a hand to his sleeve and chuckling softly. "Well, in *that* case, you learned real well," she told him. Then, changing the subject briskly as the elevator doors slid aside, "So…where to now?"

He glanced at his watch as she slipped an arm through his. "Well," he said thoughtfully, "there's a brunette with a death wish down in County General who should be awake by now, and visiting starts in ten minutes."

"Okay. So, let's go visit."

***

The brunette turned out to be called Mary-Ann Moakes. Twenty-three, worked in a diner, getting married in three weeks. If she could persuade her fiance she hadn't gone nuts, she confided. She was ashamed of the fuss she'd caused, embarrassed by the publicity, and couldn't come up with a reason for her behavior any more than they could. Except that, for a while there, she'd been so scared she couldn't think *what* she was doing any more.

So, what - exactly - had she been scared of?

She hadn't known that either.

Lois wasn't impressed.

"She didn't mean to!" she muttered, slamming her way through the swing doors and out of the ward. "How can you not mean to climb halfway up a twenty foot pylon?"

Clark sidestepped smartly, narrowly avoiding being hit in the face by the rebounding doors. The bulky security guard, who'd been positioned at the other end of the corridor to prevent the reporters who'd been milling around since Mary-Ann's admittance from entering the ward, eyed him narrowly. Clark smiled casually at him. The guard looked unmoved. Clark quickened his step and caught up with Lois as she stalked for the exit.

"Well, that's what she says. I guess she hasn't got any reason to lie."

Lois grumbled something unintelligible, which even his enhanced hearing couldn't catch. Which, he figured, was probably just as well. She took time out from her blackening mood to lift a hand in passing to a young orderly who was standing at the duty station.

"Thanks, Jeff!"

He nodded, dropping her a sly wink as he half lifted a hand in response.

Clark glanced across his shoulder at him as they passed the desk and then turned that speculative look on Lois. "Is he how you got us in there?"

She nodded. "Jeff Levitt. He was in my year at high school." She smiled.

"What?" Clark asked.

She inclined her head closer to confide, "He thinks I'm a little kooky. I was prepared to have to offer him some hot tickets for the Tigers' next game if he forgot to notice us going in, but he was so sure I was playing some practical joke on someone, he couldn't wait to be in on it. Said it was just like old times."

"Oh," Clark said.

"I don't know where he gets that idea from."

"Yeah. I wonder."

She gave him a sideways glance and then frowned as the thought of their visit to Mary-Ann Moakes brought back her irritation. "I don't know whether she's lying or not," she told him. "But I do know that you can't just climb over a six foot high fence, work your way to the top of a pylon and try to fry yourself on a high voltage wire and then say you can't think why! I mean, what's she trying to tell us here? 'It just seemed like the thing to do'?!"

Clark stopped with a jolt in mid-stride as the echo on that hit him and turned back to look at her.

Lois was way ahead of him. She shook her head smartly, eyes widening. "No. No, it couldn't be."

"Not Tempus, no," he agreed. "But he *was* able to make that security guard jump from that window and he almost killed you by persuading you it was a good idea to drive the Jeep over a cliff. If *he* could do it…?"

She stared at him. Then shook her head again. "No," she said slowly. "No, Clark, that's crazy."

"Is it?" he shot back.

"Yes! Tempus was using future technology that hasn't even been invented yet! How could anyone else get hold of something like that?"

"Maybe they didn't have to. Come on, Lois, think it on through - we've seen ways to change a person's opinions, their judgement, their perceptions, before. Arianna Carlin did it with subliminal messages. Tempus used the subliminator. And there was that sound generator Lenny Stokes used too. It made people go to sleep, but we know it could just as easily have sent them rushing off to do whatever he wanted, with just a change in frequency. And there are all kinds of drugs out there that alter perception; heighten the emotions. Let's face it, when you get right down to it, making people do what you want them to just isn't that hard. Dr. Mendenhall managed to use that machine of his to brainwash you and who knows how many others into acting as his assassins. If he'd told you to jump off the Memorial Bridge instead, wouldn't you have done it? You didn't balk at trying to kill Perry when he told you to."

"Maybe I would have though, if he'd ordered me to kill myself," Lois disagreed. "Tempus' subliminator was one thing, it was powerful enough to overwhelm an entire city. Perhaps even an entire world. But as for the rest…I don't think they could have done it, Clark. Getting someone to kill for you, persuading them to take up against someone they admire - like Superman - that's all very well. But the instinct for self-survival is a strong one. I doubt the likes of Lenny Stokes or Mendenhall could have gotten around it."

"Under the influence of Tyceon, Jimmy jumped from your apartment window without a second's thought," Clark reminded her, grimly. "And Bob Fences didn't have any trouble persuading you to put yourself right in harm's way whenever he wanted you to, just to make sure Superman stayed out of his plans."

Lois was silent, unable to dispute that.

"Maybe Mazetti wasn't that far off the mark, after all," Clark went on, thoughtfully. "Maybe Karen *was* loaded when she jumped off that balcony. Maybe, we've just been looking for the wrong drug."

"Adrenaline can't make you suicidal, Clark."

"True…but what about adrenaline in conjunction with TDR?"

"The traces of TDR were negligible. Adams said so. At that level it couldn't make any difference to the autopsy results."

"Yeah. But — " Inspiration lit his eyes all at once. He glanced across his shoulder to the bank of pay phones over in the corner and then came back briefly to lay a light hand against her shoulder. "Give me a minute."

Lois watched him amble off across the room and then glanced at the duty station. Her eyes turned thoughtful. She set off purposefully.

By the time Clark returned to her side, Lois was perched on one of the high stools behind the desk, sipping at a mugful of coffee, and she and Jeff had gotten down to talking over old times. She glanced up with a smile as Clark put a hand to her shoulder.

"Jeff, this is my husband, Clark. Clark, Jeff Levitt."

"Well, hey! Great to meet you!" Jeff offered him an easy smile as he extended a hand.

"You too." Clark accepted it in the same friendly manner. He glanced down at his wife. "Lois tells me you were friends in high school?"

Jeff grimaced. "Oh, wow, no." He grinned. "Lois ran with the wild set. Too way out for me."

Clark looked interested. "*Wild*, huh?"

"Oh, sure! The things they got up to." Jeff leaned conspiratorially across the desk. "You know there was this one time they — "

"Uh, we really should get going," Lois leapt to her feet, practically dragging Clark with her as she clutched at his arm. She smiled brightly at Jeff. "Great to see you again. But — " she laughed airily, " - got deadlines to keep. You know how it is!"

"Yeah. Sure." Jeff's grin widened. "Got a few bedpans to go deliver myself."

"Right!" She snapped her fingers at him, in agreement, as she backed off further.

"Hey, Clark, give me a call?" Jeff raised his voice after her. "Lois says you play ball. We can have a coupla beers, huh? Shoot a few hoops?"

"Sure!" Clark nodded with a grin, half lifting a farewell hand.

"You dare!" Lois warned as she hustled him for the exit.

"Well, he seems a likeable enough guy," Clark told her. He slipped his hands into his pockets, adopting a laconic manner as he added casually, "I'm sure we'd find lots in common to talk about."

"Well, that's where you're wrong. He's mixing me up with Leanne Holmes. I was *never* part of that set. And I certainly never — " she stopped, tone scandalized.

Clark gave her a sideways glance. "What?" he prodded, curiously.

"Never mind."

Her color seemed to have heightened a touch. Clark hid a smile.

"So, you going to tell me who you were calling?" she said sharply, noting it, despite his best efforts.

"Well, I called Pete Adams first. And guess what?" He pushed open the exit door and ushered her ahead of him. "He's completed the autopsy on Estelle Pinchenski and — "

" - her blood is way high on adrenaline levels. Ah-ha!" Lois told him, triumphantly, as they stopped in the parking bay.

"How'd you know that?" he asked and then, interestedly, "Ah-ha?"

"While you were on the phone I thought about asking Jeff if I could have a look at Mary-Ann's medical chart."

"Ah." Clark allowed himself a self-congratulatory smile. "And her adrenaline levels are?"

"Almost normal. *But* - " she went on as his smile began to fade, "when she was *admitted*, they were right off the scale."

Clark nodded. "And…now she's not scared any more."

"But she was terrified, up on that pylon."

They shared a telling glance.

"TDR?" Clark asked.

"Right on cue, right on her chart. Estelle?"

"Trace residue. Just like in Karen."

"And half of Metropolis, if Adams is right," Lois pricked the bubble slightly. "Taxi!" she added a yell, stepping forward with a raised arm to hail the passing cab. It stopped with a jolt and a screech of brakes, just a few yards away. "Who else?" she turned her head to ask as they headed for it.

"Huh?"

"Who else did you talk to? You said you called Pete Adams first."

"Oh. Dr. Klein. Well, his office, anyway."

She gave him a surprised look as she swung open the cab door and hitched herself gracefully into the rear seat.

He shrugged as he followed her in and pulled the door to a close behind him. "Who else is gonna tell us all about TDR contaminants and adrenaline poisoning?" he said.

"So, we're heading for S.T.A.R. Labs?"

"Uh, no."

"No?"

"Well, I didn't actually get to speak to Dr. Klein. He was…out of circulation. But I spoke to his assistant. I told him we'd fax everything we had on the case, when we get back to the Planet. He says Klein should be out okay by tomorrow. He can look it over then and get back to us with anything he turns up."

"Out okay? Out okay from where?"

Clark cleared his throat. "Well…Klein locked himself into a sealed environmental pod for twenty four hours to test the differences in gravitational stresses on the skeleton and exoskeleton? He was due out this morning."

"But?"

"But when the electricity went down earlier, after that stunt Mary-Ann Moakes pulled, up on that pylon, S.T.A.R. Labs lost its main power supply. They switched to backup - they have their own emergency generators - but the interruption to supply triggered a time lock on the pod, before they could. They can't get him out and they can't break through. He's stuck in there till it releases in, oh…" he checked his watch, "…about eight hours from now."

"Gee," Lois said acidly. "Those guys have so much fun down there."

"Yeah." He chuckled softly. "Anyway, it'll be tomorrow at least before he'll be able to help."

She shook her head.

"Hey, buddy," the cabby hollered back at them, suddenly. "You plannin' on goin' anywhere, anytime soon? Or we gonna just sit here watching the pretty blue flashing lights all day?"

Clark shared an amused glance with Lois.

"Daily Planet," he told him.

"Oh, and one more thing," Lois said, half smugly, as the cab took off. "Mary- Ann Moakes' medical chart? She lists her religion as Christian; UCS, in parentheses."

"UCS?" Clark's eyes widened marginally. "United Church of Salvation?"

"That'd be my guess."

The cabby swung a right at the intersection up ahead, just ahead of the red panel truck coming from the opposite direction. The driver of the truck leaned heavily on the horn. The cabby hollered a laconic obscenity back at him and flipped him a gesture through the cab's open window to match, before stepping on the gas.

Clark's cellphone burred softly and he reached into his jacket to retrieve it.

Up front, the cabby watched him suspiciously through the rear view mirror and eased up marginally on his speed. In his vast and world-weary experience, calls to passengers usually meant a change in direction, nine times out of ten.

His intuition wasn't disappointed.

"The paper?" Lois asked as Clark murmured a last agreement into the phone and then pressed the disconnect button.

He shook his head as he snapped the phone closed and replaced it in his inside pocket. "Herrera," he said and, leaning forward to redirect the driver for the 26th precinct, "Looks like Christmas just arrived early."

***

"Lois. Clark," Herrera greeted them genially as he came down the staircase and into the police reception area. "Sorry I kept you." He glanced over his shoulder at the raucous crowd of young men in studded leathers and matching bandannas and tattoos, who were being herded through the reception area. "We had Operation Nightshade go down earlier this morning. Major drug bust. D Street Gang turf. It's a little…tense here right now."

"That's okay." Clark smiled at him. "Thanks for getting back to us so quickly."

"Uh, yeah." The detective looked across his shoulder as a sudden uproar flared in the corner of the room.

Two of the D Street gang members were trying to tear each other apart. Since their hands were handcuffed behind their backs, they were proving to be highly inventive with feet and teeth in the process. One cop was bitten badly in the hand and another almost lost an eye to a wildly waving elbow before the men were dragged apart again, spitting curses and threats.

"Listen, let's get outta this and go somewhere where we can talk," Herrera said.

Lois gave Clark an inquiring look. He shook his head slightly as they followed the detective. Being mysterious wasn't Herrera's usual play on things. Neither was being on edge. It was clear he was being both now as he led them up the flight of stairs to the interrogation rooms.

"Take a seat." He gestured at wooden chairs gathered haphazardly around the scarred and battered table and then took his own advice, settling himself on its opposite side to face them.

"What's going on, Dutch?" Clark said curiously, intrigued now.

Herrera looked between them and then sighed. "You're not going to like this one. In fact, and this is strictly *off* the record, Lois," he frowned disapprovingly at the tape recorder she'd just fished out of her purse and planted on the table between them, "I didn't call you over here because you asked for an interview, Clark."

Lois traded a glance with her partner and then reluctantly picked up the recorder and pushed it back into her purse.

"Okay," she said easily. "Why did you call us then?"

Instead of answering, Herrera raised an expectant brow at her.

Lois stared him out innocently for another moment and then, with a heavy, put upon sigh, reached back into her purse and snapped the recorder off.

"Thank you, Lois." Herrera said, sardonically.

She glared at him.

"Dutch - " Clark hesitated as the detective lifted a quick hand.

"Excuse me, just a minute," he said, getting to his feet and heading for the door. Halfway there he deftly plucked Lois' purse from her lap and, ignoring her protests, opened the door to yell, "Hey, Boomer! Git over here! Give this to Tracy and tell her to keep hold, will ya?" he told the detective who answered the summons, handing him the purse. "Miss Lane can pick it up on her way out."

Lois glowered at him a touch harder as he shut the door and made his way back to his seat. She jammed petulant hands into her jacket pockets. Clark settled himself back casually against his chair and hid a smile behind a hand.

"Pays to be careful," said Herrera. "So, we're off the record," he reiterated firmly. "Right?"

"You got it. You know that. So," Clark leaned forward, setting his elbows to the table as he studied the man. "If this isn't about these suicide cases, why did you call us on over?"

"I didn't say it wasn't." Herrera hesitated and then said, roughly, "Pete Adams says you've been investigating a couple of deaths which might be related."

"Karen Culver and Estelle Pinchenski," Clark confirmed.

"Right. So, how did you get onto this in the first place?"

"Hold it!" a still seething Lois suddenly butted in. "Let's get something straight here, Herrera, right off the bat. We're reporters. You're a cop. Generally speaking, when someone agrees to be interviewed, it's the reporters that ask the questions."

Herrera gave her a brittle look. "Lois, has it ever occurred to you to wonder why they call this an interrogation room?" he drawled.

Lois' eyes narrowed. She leaned back against her chair and folded her arms. "We get one phone call, right?" she said, snippily.

Herrera sighed. "You're not under arrest, Lois."

"Good. Then I don't have to answer any questions, do I?" She set her lips tight together and fixed him with a stubborn look.

"*I'll* answer your questions," said Clark.

Lois gave him a sidelong glance that had 'traitor' written all over it. He lifted a half protesting hand. "Well, watching you two sparring with each other is always a lot of fun, but at this rate, we could be here all week!"

Lois' pique collapsed as she looked abruptly abashed. Herrera was right behind her. The detective cleared his throat softly and then spread his hands at them. "Okay. Look, bottom line is, there are a lot of people spooked by this one. People with a lot of pull, if you get my drift. There are questions being asked, in corners these people would rather not have a flashlight shone on. At least…and you understand this one isn't my opinion, Lois…not by amateurs, who don't know what kind of can of worms they might be opening up. Who might just be about to create a panic among the Metropolis populace with a misplaced story or two. And, just between you and me, some of these people…the ones that sign my pay checks…suggested I call you two on over and tell you to butt out on this one; leave it to the experts."

"Really?" Lois started heatedly. "Well, why don't you go tell your cop buying friends — "

Clark's hand on her arm stilled her. "So…are you?" he asked, watching the detective shrewdly. "Warning us off?"

"Would it do any good?"

"No."

"That's about what I figured," said Herrera. He smiled suddenly. "So…you wanna trade? I'm still interested in how you two fell into this one. And I never was much one for letting desk-bound pencil pushers shove me around."

"That's about what I figured." Clark smiled back at him. He looked at Lois. She shrugged.

"Okay," Clark said. "We started looking into Karen Culver's death as a favor to an old friend of Perry White's, that's all. He didn't think her death was suicide. And Estelle Pinchenski…well, she sort of brought herself to our attention."

"Yeah, so I heard. Glad you got out of that one in one piece," Herrera told Lois, soberly.

"We were lucky Superman was on the scene." Her hand covered Clark's for the briefest instant. "It could have been worse without him."

Herrera nodded. "But, Culver's death *was* suicide. Right?"

"Well…we're working on that one."

"Really? You got doubts?"

"Let's just say that we've got no evidence to suggest they weren't suicides. Yet. There were witnesses in both cases and, as far as we know, no one pushed Karen off that balcony. Or forced Estelle Pinchenski out into that traffic. You said you wanted to trade. What've you got?"

Herrera lifted a tired hand. "Not that much to tell. With your two, we got eight cases in the past two days. Not counting the attempted that Superman pulled off that pylon this morning."

"We know that," Lois said. "Are you counting them as suicides?"

"Got no reason not to."

"Just how *did* they die?" Clark asked, curiously.

Herrera grunted. "Any way they could." He pushed at the file papers in front of him with a dismissive hand. "Ginny Bolt took a midnight high dive off the Memorial Bridge. Tracy Harrow used the gas oven in her apartment. A concerned neighbor found Geraldine Samansa after the mail piled up. In her bath; used a steak knife on her wrists." He shrugged. "Just the usual round, really. Run of the mill stuff. If they didn't jump, they slashed, mostly. Whichever and whatever, the quicker the better, to get it done. I can rustle up copies of the files for you; you want. Should have them on your desk this evening, 'fore close of business at the latest."

"Thanks. And you've no reason to think anyone else was involved?"

"Plenty of witnesses to say otherwise. Autopsy reports bear that out, where there aren't. Adams hasn't any reason to think they were helped along the way."

"Run of the mill? I don't think so." Lois shook her head. "Run of the mill doesn't get us warned off a story. You said people were spooked. So, what's spooking them, Herrera?" She cast a small glance at her partner. "I've been told that eight cases in one week isn't that unusual a suicide rate for any city. You know that, better than any of us would, right? You see the results every day. These deaths must be hardly causing a blip in the statistics."

"No, they aren't. But, Pete Adams says you'll know what I'm talking about when I tell you that the autopsy reports on those six cases show increased adrenaline levels. And trace amounts of something called…TDR?"

His lip quirked as he watched the sudden leap of interest in their eyes.

"It's in all of them?" said Clark.

"Actually…no." He paused, observing them for a moment over steepled fingers. Then he said, slowly, "It seems that Adams might have been just a little…premature, in making his original diagnosis."

"Which means…what?" Clark frowned.

Lois eyed the detective suspiciously, as though half convinced he was about to embark on some kind of diversionary tactic with them.

"That TDR isn't the problem." Herrera seemed to be choosing his words carefully now. "It never was."

"But there is a problem? Right?" insisted Lois. "So, if it's not TDR…?"

Herrera shook his head. "Sorry. That's about as far as I take it."

"Herrera - "

"Don't push me where I can't go, Lois. I'm sticking my neck out way too far on this as it is. I've told you more than I should have already."

"You haven't actually told us anything at all!"

Her protest produced a moment's silence, then the detective sighed. "Okay. Let's just say," he said, reluctantly, "that Bureau 39 still has long arms, it seems. Even now."

Shock flared in her eyes. "Bureau 39?!"

"We buried the Bureau," Clark said grimly, looking just as disturbed as his partner was by the casual reference to their old nemesis. "It's been dead and gone a long time, Dutch."

"True. But, the thing is, sometimes the dead still manage to mess up the living. They leave little…legacies behind them. You know?"

Clark lifted a brow, considering that. "There is no TDR," he said, after a moment's thought. "But there is some kind of chemical contaminant involved here. Are you telling us that something the Bureau was developing before it was disbanded is at the heart of this?" he asked, startled.

"Me? I'm not telling you anything. Except that those people I mentioned earlier? Well, quite a few of 'em are running around down at City Hall like chickens trapped in a coyote den. There's talk of getting the EPA down here, handing this one over to federal agencies. Metropolis Department of Public Health thinks we could be looking at an epidemic any day now and the Mayor doesn't want to be left holding the baby if that's the case."

"Eight deaths don't make an epidemic." Clark gave the cop an astute and level look. "So, the DPH is sending a report to the EPA saying, what? That these women were all poisoned, somehow, with some kind of under wraps chemical contaminant? Something that should never have been let out of its cage," he added, tone turning thoughtful as he continued to muse aloud. "Something that got out there by accident."

"Something that mimics the properties of a fairly harmless weed-killer enough to temporarily fool the ME's Office into a mistaken diagnosis, off the bat," Lois overtook him. "And which promotes huge rises in adrenaline levels, leading to paranoia, rage, terror…and, eventually, a self-destructive urge?"

Herrera watched them in silence. But then they didn't really need an answer >from him.

"So, the real question is," Clark went on in a considering murmur, "how did that contaminant get out? Where did it come from?"

Lois nodded distantly. "And why these women in particular?"

"And why have we had so few cases? So far?"

"Not to mention, why are they all real pretty brunettes?" Herrera added thoughtfully. "Well," he looked at the spread of photos before him, "most of 'em anyway."

Brought rudely out of her reverie by what she considered the inanity of that remark, Lois gave him a quick, withering glance. Clark's own look held a great deal less feminine contempt, but it still seemed to reprove the detective for letting his mind wander onto irrelevancies.

Catching it, Herrera held up a defensive hand. "Hey, it might be important! Who's to tell?"

"That they're not all young and pretty? Sure it is." Lois awarded him a sweetly contemptuous smile as she got to her feet and leaned across the table to suggest, "Tell you what, maybe you and the rest of the boys could help us out just a little more and go compare measurements down at the morgue too? See if they share anything else. Just the pretty ones, of course. I wouldn't want to spoil your lunch."

She looked down at him, imperiously, cutting him off as he began to splutter a defense to that. "Save it, Herrera. Where can I pick up my purse?"

***

"The thing is, it's just so frustrating not being able to talk to Klein. He's the only one who can get us access to those classified files of Bureau 39. Still, maybe those records of Herrera's will show up something we can work with. They should include the full pathology reports, at least."

Clark finished off his chicken sandwich and pushed his plate to one side. He picked up his glass and took a sip of iced water, then looked curiously across the cafe table at his wife. "Don't you think?"

"Huh?" She looked up, startled, from where she'd been idly pushing at the plate before her with a fork. "Oh." She nodded, distractedly. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess."

"Found a bug in the salad?"

"Hmmmm…?" She looked up on him again and then frowned. "What?"

"The salad." He indicated her plate. "You've hardly touched it. And you were the one who said if we didn't stop for something to eat, you were simply just going to *die* of malnutrition right there, outside the precinct. Remember?"

"Oh." She dropped her fork to the plate and nudged it aside. "Well, I guess I'm not as hungry as I thought."

His slightly amused air faded. He reached across the table to take her hand gently in his. "Honey, are you okay?" he asked, concerned. "You've hardly said anything since we left Dutch. You know, I'm sure he didn't mean anything with that brunette remark. He was just trying to point out the obvious, that's all. He might have phrased it just a little better, but — "

"I know." She gave him a small smile as she squeezed reassurance into his fingers. "I'm fine. I was just thinking, that's all."

He frowned slightly. "About the story?"

"No." She hesitated, looking just a little uncomfortable. She drew her hand clear of his and picked up her fork again, seemingly finding new interest in the salad, all at once. "About Lucy, actually," she said, keeping her attention on the food as she picked over it listlessly.

"Lucy?" he said, surprised. "Your sister, Lucy?"

"How many Lucys do we know?"

"Well - " About four he could count off the top of his head —

"Yes, *my* Lucy," Lois confirmed snippily as she watched him do that mental arithmetic.

"What about her?"

"Oh, nothing really. I was just thinking about how long it's been since I called her, that's all. You know, maybe we should invite her over for dinner? Some evening?" She glanced up on him, flushing slightly.

"Sure," he agreed easily. "It has been a while. I just thought you were letting things cool down a little. After last time," he added, half warily.

The last dinner invitation - which had ended in an explosive argument over Lucy's latest career choices, his sister-in-law storming out of the house, and Lois in tears of anger and frustration - had been something of a touchy subject so far. Neither of them had been receptive to his attempts to heal the breach, though, naturally, neither of them would admit to being as stubborn as the other, either. If Lois was proving willing now to extend an olive branch and if he could persuade her not to go trying to tell Lucy, again, that she was being stupid to throw over her degree course, then they might just have a chance of making up, he thought wryly.

Lois blushed a little deeper, as though aware of his thoughts.

"Why don't you give her a call tonight?" he suggested quickly. "Ask her when she'll be back in town?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I might do that."

She settled into silence again. Clark's frown returned as he continued to watch her. There hadn't been a whole lot of agreement in that. But the subject appeared to be closed again. He sipped thoughtfully at his glass as she finished off another few mouthfuls of the salad, not about to push her any further on it. He knew that it was something she had to sort out for herself and in her own way and he had faith in her to work it out right.

She didn't disappoint him.

"How about next Thursday?" she said casually as she put down her napkin and got to her feet.

"Next Thursday's fine," he agreed as he followed her lead.

"Tentative, of course," Lois went on offhandedly. "I'll have to check with Lucy."

"Great." He put a hand against her shoulder. "Stay here. I'll go pick up the check."

Silence settled between them again as they set out to walk the few blocks between the cafe and the Planet offices. But this time it seemed less fraught in nature, Lois more thoughtful than brooding.

"Do you think they were murdered? Karen and Estelle? Those other women?" she said suddenly as they waited on the sidewalk edge for the lights to turn their way.

"Murdered?" Clark gave her a quick glance. "What makes you say that?"

She shrugged. "Well, what Herrera said. He didn't say that that contaminant got out there by accident."

"He didn't say it didn't either. Why would anyone want to release something like this deliberately? It's so…random."

"Bureau 39 was never random. Besides, that's what crazy people do, Clark. Crazy things. It's like a union requirement."

"Still…" He shook his head slightly. "It doesn't add up. Besides, the Bureau isn't - really - involved. As far as we know."

"Maybe. Perhaps it's not so random. You were the one who brought up Tempus. Sometimes, you can hide a pattern in what looks like chaos. If you're smart enough. Did you ever see that old TV movie, 'The Alphabet Murders'? Now, *they* thought they were tracking down a random serial killer. The first four victims' names followed the alphabet: Askquith, Bascombe, Caldwell, De Angelo …they didn't have anything else in common. But, really, the killer was after Bascombe. The rest were just camouflage. To hide the motive; make the police think they had some crazy on their hands."

"Our brunettes don't follow the alphabet," Clark noted, pedantically. "And wouldn't 'Dee Angelo' come under 'A'?"

Lois gave him a faintly exasperated glance. "Clark, this is Agatha Christie we're talking about here. No one said it had to be logical! And, no, De Angelo wouldn't come under *'A'*! It'd come under *'D'*, like I said and - "

"Those weren't the names of the victims. I saw that movie. They were called - "

"What's it matter what they were called? Now, I'm supposed to remember the names from some dumb TV movie I saw two years ago when I wasn't paying attention anyway? The point is — "

"Uh, I get the point, Lois," he told her with a smile. "Wheels within wheels."

"Right. And one thing Trask was good at was sleight of hand."

"You're not seriously suggesting Trask's behind all this? Lois, you saw Rachel Harris shoot him. You saw the man's body."

"I saw Luthor's body too," she reminded him. "What does that prove?" But she shook her head. "No, I don't think Trask is who we're looking for. I…oh, I don't know what I think! It just seems too pat to be accidental. Like you said back there, if this is a pollution problem, why just these women? It's too selective, Clark. We should be seeing more cases."

"Well, that one I'll give you."

"You know, there was a story the Planet covered a few years back…in Seattle, I think. Fenderbender on the Interstate Bridge. Nothing major; nothing you couldn't swap insurance over. But, the drivers began to argue over who was at fault; the traffic was backed up; other drivers got impatient. Things got a little heated, fast; a crowd gathered; tempers wore out; things went from bad to worse. And in one moment, everything changed." She snapped her fingers. "The crowd became a mob. One of the drivers found himself being blamed for the entire incident. He scuffled with the other driver, and that incited the mob even more. Then he ran. And, when he did, they took after him. He jumped from that bridge, Clark. He jumped because he was absolutely convinced that, if he stayed, they'd kill him. He was so driven by terror, he just couldn't see any other way out. Witnesses said later that they just couldn't understand how everything got bent out of shape so fast. But that man was still dead."

"And, you think, maybe someone chased these women off their particular bridges?"

"Maybe. And what *would* you call that driver's death? Suicide? Or murder?

He considered it. "I guess it depends on how you term murder."

"Pushing someone who doesn't want to be pushed," Lois responded, smartly. She sighed. "Anyway, Karen's not going to tell us either way. Which is why we're going to have to find out all on our own."

There was a note of grim determination in that which bothered him. He studied her in silence for a moment. Then he said, "Karen. Not Estelle. Not any of the others. Just Karen."

"What?" She slipped him a small, puzzled glance.

"It always comes back to Karen, for you. Why? Why are you so fired up about this?"

She looked confused. "Why wouldn't I be? It's our story."

"No, it's beyond the story. It has been, right from the start.

His interest seemed to be making her uneasy now. She glanced away from his questioning frown and brightened. "Oh, look. Our light." She stepped briskly out onto the crossing.

Clark watched her go and then, sighing heavily, jogged after her.

"Come on, Lois," he persisted as he caught up on the other side. "I know the routine. This is more than just a take for you. It always has been. You just weren't going to give it on up, even when we had nothing more to go on. You never for one minute wanted to believe that Karen was just another drug statistic; you were determined to bring her out of this clean. What's the connection?"

"No connection," she denied. "Don't you feel sorry for Karen? Don't you want to find out what happened to her?"

"Well, sure, but…why just Karen? Why not Estelle Pinchenski? Or Ginny Bolt? Any of the others?"

"Well, I feel sorry for them too! Of course I do. But they don't…I was just using Karen as an example, that's all."

"But they don't what?" he said, ignoring that last. "Lois?"

She shook her head.

He took hold of her arm, pulling her to a halt. "Lois, please," he insisted. "Karen?"

For a moment, he thought she wouldn't answer, then she said quietly, "She was…young, that's all. Bright; going places…"

Something in the way she said it sparked a memory; their earlier conversation, her sudden concern over a younger, wayward sister, and he made a small, impatient sound in his throat for not having put it together sooner.

"Just like Lucy," he said, ruefully. "And the rest of them - they don't remind you of her."

His mind brought up a memory of Karen Culver and he found himself agreeing with Lois' assessment. She did have something of a look of Lucy about her. Her hair, her eyes, in the hint of youthful arrogance and buried mischief in her face… He put his hands to his wife's shoulders.

"Lois, Lucy is just fine," he said, gently. "Nothing is going to happen to her. You know I wouldn't let it."

Lois drew in a small breath. "I just can't help thinking how easily it could have been Lucy. Every time I see Karen's picture…she reminds me of Lucy so much. It isn't fair that she had no one to fight for her. If something…if something did happen to Lucy…if she had no one…if I wasn't there for her…I'd want there to be *someone*. Do you understand? Someone to fight for her, just like she was their own. And I want to be that someone for Karen. It just seems…right. I want to find out the truth, Clark. I want us to fight for her just as hard as we can. Just like we would for Lucy."

His grip on her tightened a fraction, reassuring. "Then we will," he promised solemnly.

Lois looked up, into his eyes, measuring the strength of that vow, and then she nodded. "Whatever it takes."

"Whatever it takes," he agreed. He gave her a faint smile and then put a soft hand to her cheek. "You okay?"

"Sure." She smiled back.

He nodded and then his smile faded as his expression turned to something more intent. There were mere inches between them now as he held on to her.

"Lois…?" he murmured.

"Yes…?"

"Your jacket is beeping."

"What?" She drew back from him with a quick frown. It hadn't been what she was expecting him to say.

"Your jacket?" He pointed an intrigued finger at her left pocket. "It's beeping."

The frown became startled realization. "Oh!" She delved into the pocket to emerge with a tape recorder. "I forgot all about that!" She took note of the blinking red light that was bleeping slowly to itself, almost too low to be heard. "Battery's low." She glanced up on him. "Remind me to put in fresh, will you?"

He stared at her. He could quite clearly hear the soft whirring now as the tape recorder's spools spun slowly. "How did you - ?" he blurted and then, "How many of those things are you carrying with you these days?!"

"Just this one. And the one in my purse. Pays to be prepared," she misquoted Herrera in a mimicking of his own smug tones.

Clark took his eyes from the recorder and took note of her expression, which matched that tone perfectly. "Wait a minute. You're not thinking of using that. Are you?" he asked, worriedly.

She shrugged.

"Lois — "

"Well…"

"We promised Dutch it was off the record."

"Strictly speaking, Clark, *you* promised it was off the record."

He raised a reproachful brow at her. "Lois…" he said again, more dangerously this time.

She sighed. "Okay, okay, I know. Partners. Your word is *my* bond." She snapped off the recorder and then rewound it, wiping it clean. "I just hate being told what to do by cops," she said, regretfully as she pushed the offending recorder into her purse, beside its companion.

"But, you know what?" she went on, gripping Clark by the sleeve and practically dragging him with her as she quickened pace, her mood brightening in another instant to a familiar, driven excitement he'd seen in her more times than he could count. "With or without it - I think we just got ourselves a story!"

***

"Lois, you don't *have* a story."

"But, Perry - !" Lois protested and then lapsed into sullen silence as the Planet's Editor-in-Chief shot her a bullish glance from under his brows.

"Lois, how many times are we gonna have to have this conversation before you take it on board? Sources don't make stories. If they did, they'd all be reporters and you'd be out of a job! Sources - if you haven't figured it by now - provide the little crumbs of cheese for a reporter to follow. Now, where that trail of cheese leads to is the job of a good reporter to figure out. But crumbs, all on their own, just don't make Cheddar! What this trail leads to, so far, is hearsay, rumor, with just a side-pinch of speculation thrown in for good measure, and, until you bring me something more solid to chew on, I ain't making a sandwich outta it. Now, you got that?"

Lois resisted giving him an agreement until it was impossible to avoid, then did it as sparingly as she could get away with. She shrugged.

"Good. Then git. Go cheese hunting." He waved her out of his office.

Lois mooched out and over to where Clark was just finishing up on a call. He put down the receiver as she approached and grimaced as he got a look at her face.

"Didn't buy it, huh?"

She threw down her notepad and perched on his desk. "No," she agreed morosely. "But, I think he just solved the problem of what to get him for his birthday this year," she added, darkly. "You can put a mousetrap at the top of the list. Giant-sized."

"What?"

She sighed. "Never mind."

"Well," he reminded her sardonically, as he reached for a nearby file, "I did - "

"Clark, if you're about to tell me you told me so, you can just make that two traps."

He looked up at her with a faint, sympathetic smile and then put the file back down.

"Okay," he said, encouragingly, instead. "Look, it's not that bad. And, maybe Perry's right. We should get these adrenaline levels checked out before we go around causing panic in the streets. Talk to Klein first. We don't even have a name for this contaminant yet. Never mind know just what it's capable of."

"I'm not causing a panic! If there's a problem out there, then we've got a duty to let people know about it, Clark."

"Which problem?" he asked, pointedly. "Specifically?"

"Well…I don't know!"

"Exactly."

"I'm not a doctor, Clark. It's not my job to know."

"But it is our job to make sure we're not chasing shadows when that evening edition hits the stands," he countered. "We can't just go around crying wolf; throwing words like 'epidemic' and 'chemical pollution' around without knowing what it is we're dealing with here. And just who it might affect."

She gave him a dark stare and then got to her feet.

"Where you going?"

"To write up the story on Karvin," she said tightly as she sat down at her desk and switched on her computer. "That is, unless you and Perry want to censor that one too!"

She began to hammer at the keyboard, with a deal more violence than the task strictly warranted.

Clark sighed and gave up, shaking his head as he went back to his own files.

"Did I hear someone mention that word?" a rough voice said from behind him.

"What word, Chief?" he said absently, scanning another paragraph before he glanced up on the editor.

"The word that doesn't get mentioned in a newsroom. The 'C' word."

"Oh. *That* word. Well," Clark looked warily over his shoulder and lowered his voice, "she's just a little upset about the Culver story being pulled, Chief."

Perry grunted, watching Lois beat all kinds of hell out of her keyboard. "So, what's your take on my decision?" he asked, after a moment.

Clark shrugged as he opened a new file. "I dunno. Maybe you're right, Chief."

Perry's gaze shifted onto him. "Maybe?"

"Uh, definitely right," Clark glanced up again and gave him a wide, agreeable smile. "No doubt about it."

"The Chief's always right," a new voice put in cheerfully. "Right, Chief?"

Perry gave Jimmy a steady, sidelong look. "Have I ever told you how much I hate sucking up, Olsen?"

"All the time, Chief."

"Then take heed and quit," Perry warned, before he headed for the coffee station.

"Quitting it right now, Chief," Jimmy agreed smoothly, unabashed. "Uh, C.K., Carol said to tell you she took a message for you while you were out. From Herrera's office? Says he should have that information for you by six."

"Great. Thanks, Jimmy. Oh," Clark stopped him as he moved away. "How's Leanore?"

Jimmy hitched his shoulders at him. "How would I know? She still won't accept my calls."

"Oh."

"But, you know, I'm going over to visit this evening." He shrugged again. "I figure I'm harder to ignore in person."

"Jimmy!"

"And, talking of hard to ignore," Jimmy added in a murmur, as he loped off in response to that bellowed summons. "Right with you, Chief!"

***

"Dale?"

Robert Addley hesitated on the threshold of Karvin's suite, peering into the darkness. Then he stepped inside, closed the door softly behind him and snapped on the light.

He started as he caught sight of Karvin seated on the sofa.

"Dale?" He frowned as he walked on over. "I thought you were out. Didn't you hear me? Why you sitting in the dark?"

"I heard you." Karvin said quietly. "I was just…thinking."

"If you were trying to work up an apology, forget it," Addley said blackly. He threw the evening edition of the Daily Planet down on the table before the preacher. "Lois Lane doesn't seem to have taken offense."

Karvin reached for the paper half-heartedly, scanning the article.

"'Man with a Mission'" Addley quoted the headline with a sardonic quirk to his lips. In his mouth, the words sounded mocking. "Sounds good to me. It's not completely the unqualified endorsement I was hoping for, of course, but, hey, you go with what you get, right?"

Karvin nodded slowly, his manner still distracted.

"Better than Steve and I figured we'd get anyway, after that performance of yours this afternoon. What the hell were you playing, Dale? Trying to ruin everything we got?"

Karvin put down the paper and pinched tiredly at the bridge of his nose. "I told you I wasn't in the mood to talk to them," he said, sullenly.

He jumped as Addley stretched out a hand and twisted it into the shoulder of his shirt, jerking him up slightly to within inches of his furious face. "And I told *you*, you *get* in the mood! And you *stay* in it! You hear me, Dale? I didn't invest time and effort turning you around to lose it all now because you can't keep your mind on what's important."

He let the preacher go with a shove and Karvin stared up at him for a moment before Addley turned away with a contemptuous twist of his lips and headed for the bar. Karvin watched him go. He could almost understand his aide's rage. In all honesty, he didn't understand himself what had prompted his rudeness earlier that afternoon. He had his suspicions, of course. But they weren't ideas he was comfortable with. Or proud of.

"I already said I was sorry," he said, defensively. "I don't know. Maybe, just for a moment, I got sick and tired of having to justify myself to a reporter. They've got no right to judge me."

"I didn't hear her making any judgements. I just saw her looking surprised that you'd decided to savage her before she got the chance to ask you more than a couple of questions! I mean, just what *were* you trying to do, Dale? Really, I'd like to know. Ruin the entire show? We've got the chance to make good here! And you have to go trying to mess it all up because you happened to be in a pretty lousy mood when Lane arrived!"

Karvin looked up on him. "You make it all sound just a little petty, Bob."

"Wasn't it?" Addley cursed softly and sloshed half as much whiskey again onto the counter as he managed to pour into the glass. He was pretty much liquored up already, Karvin realized, uneasily.

Maybe that was where Bob was getting his unusually sharp perceptions from.

Because he was right. It had been petty. Petty and small. He had spent much of the time since trying to convince himself that his rudeness hadn't simply been because he knew how important it was to Addley that Lois Lane and Clark Kent be kept sweet during that interview. He didn't want to think that he could be that mean-minded. But he rather suspected too that it was the truth. He had done it to spite Robert and for no other reason. That realization concerned him. It concerned him deeply.

"The only reporter to give us a halfway fair shake in this town without having a handout first, and you have to go antagonizing her without any rhyme or reason at all!" Addley went on sourly. He swallowed down most of the whiskey in one rough gulp and then held the glass aloft in a mocking salute at the preacher.

Karvin was only half listening.

Other things concerned him more though.

He glanced again at the newspaper that had lain, half forgotten, on his lap for the past hour. The Metropolis Star had been less circumspect than its rival. Grainy photos of the dead women adorned its front page, below a thick banner headline. Karvin looked up at Addley.

"I smoothed it over," he said, dismissively. "More than you did. Maybe you ought to look to yourself first, Bob, before anyone else. I'm not the one that had Kent terminating the interview ahead of time."

Addley paused as he picked up the whiskey bottle a second time. "What's that supposed to mean?" he turned back with a frown.

Karvin snorted derisively. "Oh, please. Don't play the innocent. It hardly suits you. You know exactly what I'm talking about. Lois Lane. Remember her? I doubt you've forgotten. You couldn't take your eyes off her the entire time she was here."

Addley took another swig from his replenished glass. "That's ridiculous."

"Her husband didn't think so."

His aide stared back at him in stony silence. Then he put the glass down carefully on the counter. "Anyway," he said quietly. "It seems that Miss Lane will give us what we want."

"What we want? Or what you want?" Karvin sneered and was inwardly appalled at his seeming desire to prick the man as cruelly as he could manage. What in God's name was the matter with him lately?

This time Addley's silence was thunderous.

And, still, something in Karvin wouldn't let up. "I saw the way you were looking at her."

There was a moment's pause. And then, suddenly, startlingly, Addley flashed a sharp grin at him. "I *can* still look, Dale," he said, sounding amused now. "That's no crime."

Karvin didn't smile back. "You gave me your word, Bob."

"And I haven't broken it yet."

"Haven't you?" Inside his mind now a small, frightened voice was screaming at Karvin to shut up, to give it up, babbling that he was cracking open a barrel of questions he didn't really want to know the answers to. But, somehow, he couldn't stop. He just couldn't stop. "Where were you last night, Bob?" he asked softly.

Addley regarded him levelly. "In my suite."

"Not in your suite. I called your suite. I wanted to go over the new hymns Polly suggested we include. I didn't get an answer."

"Perhaps I was in the shower."

"Until two a.m.? I called several times."

"I couldn't sleep. I went for a walk."

"Where?"

"Around."

Karvin's eyes were troubled. "Bob - "

Addley smiled. "Dale, lighten up. You worry too much. I needed some fresh air, that's all. I was safely tucked up in bed by three." He held up a hand. "I swear."

"And the night before that? Every night this week?"

Addley shrugged, unfazed by the continuing interrogation. "A little night insomnia. Not a crime either, Dale. Last I heard."

Karvin stared at him, miserably.

"Anyway," Addley filled the silence that fell between them, briskly. "I only came by to make sure you were awake. You'd best be getting ready. I'll pick you up at six thirty, as usual."

"Bob — "

Addley paused, his hand tightening marginally around the door handle as Karvin's low voice chased after him again.

"Don't push it, Dale," he said coldly, not turning back. "Don't push *me*."

"But - "

"The deal was, we don't talk about the past. We don't talk about the past, ever. Not mine. Not yours. It's not good for either of us, Dale. Trust me on that. Now, I'll see you later. Be ready. We can talk about those new hymns of Polly's on the way, okay?"

Karvin paused. Then, defeated, he muttered, "I'll be ready."

"Good."

But it was a long time after the door of his suite had closed behind his aide, before Karvin stirred himself and began to prepare for the evening's performance. For a time, he simply sat there, in the empty, extravagant room, staring blindly at the gray print faces of dead women, displayed on the front page of the Metropolis Star, until they blurred together and ran into others. Others he had never known, but whose faces had lately begun to haunt his dreams. As these would haunt his dreams.

Blurred until he could no longer see the fear in their faces.

Or the pain in their eyes.

***

Clark took a brief taste of the basil and tomato sauce, already simmering nicely in the pan, and then reached to turn the gas burner down low. He lifted his head as he heard the key turn in the front door. Putting down the spoon, and giving the water level in the accompanying pan of pasta a quick check, he picked up the nearby cloth, wiping at his hands as he pushed through the kitchen doors and into the living room.

"Hi!" Lois looked surprised as she dumped her purse and shrugged out of her coat. She hung it on the peg and crossed the room quickly to meet him halfway as he came towards her with a welcoming smile.

"False alarm?" she asked.

It had only taken her fifteen minutes, at most, to walk the couple of blocks >from the subway station to their brownstone. It had only been five minutes before that Clark had picked up the faintly shrilling automated alarm and had left her at the station exit to go investigate.

"No. Couple of would be art collectors trying to liberate some rare prints >from the museum. They gave up almost right away."

Lois made a small sound in her throat, half in exasperation, half blackly amused. "You think they'd have learned Metropolis is off limits by now," she said, shaking her head before she reached up to kiss him warmly in greeting.

As she drew back she held up a considering finger, tasting her lips thoughtfully with the tip of her tongue. Her brow furrowed lightly as she tapped the finger against his shoulder in absent decision. "I think that pasta sauce needs just a touch more salt," she advised, heading purposefully for the kitchen.

Still wrapped in the soft afterglow of her kiss, Clark looked after her with a sloppy smile - that faded abruptly. "Salt?" He followed hastily in her wake. "Not in *my* pasta sauce!"

He reached her in time to rescue his creation, deftly plucking the carton she'd retrieved (from the darkest recesses of the overhead cupboard, where he'd pushed it way back weeks before, cheerfully certain it would never be discovered any time soon) from her and substituting it for a smaller, curved glass bottle. "Oregano," he admonished. "Much healthier. And not too much," he added as she rolled her eyes at him and began to sprinkle the herb into the slow bubbling pan.

The outraged chef in him satisfied, Clark moved up close behind her, settling his hands against her shoulders briefly, before he pressed light lips to the side of her neck and put his arms around her waist, entwining his fingers against her ribs. He rested his chin against her shoulder to watch as she sampled the results of her interference.

"Mmmmmmm," she approved.

"Good?"

"Perfect."

She returned the spoon to the pan and stirred it another turn. Enjoying the feel of her settled against his chest and not inclined to move, Clark continued to watch her lazily. Her softness and warmth, coupled with the sweet fragrance of her perfume, settled a responding, indolent heat, deep in his belly. He sighed slightly, a small sound of contentment as he gathered her a little closer into his easy embrace.

"I called Lucy. This afternoon," Lois said, after a moment.

"Great." His arms tightened on her in an approving hug. "And she said?"

"She'll be in town next week. We made it a date. Thursday, like I said. Still okay for you?"

"Sure." He bent his head to nuzzle at the soft skin behind her ear. "So long as the rest of Metropolis stays quiet for the evening, of course."

She smiled. "Maybe we should take out an ad. Ask them to give Superman the night off."

"Mmmm-hmmm. Oh!" He lifted his head, remembering. "Almost forgot. Those background reports came in from Herrera just after we left. Jimmy dropped them off."

"He did? Why didn't he just send a messenger with them?"

"Well, he was in the neighborhood."

"This isn't his neighborhood. He lives way on over on the other side of town."

"Yeah, but he was on his way to visit Leanore."

"Leanore? I thought they were just keeping her in for observation?"

"Well, she's still there. Maybe they have to observe her some more."

"Oh. Well, it was sweet of him to bring them, anyway. Trust Herrera to add an hour to his delivery time. You know, that man probably couldn't make his own funeral without being late."

"He's not always late," Clark disagreed, feeling obliged to defend the detective.

"Clark, he is *always* late."

"Well, okay. Sometimes, he's late. But, he didn't have to give them to us at all," he reminded her. "He's sticking his neck out for us on this one, remember?"

"If someone says they'll do you a favor, the least they can do is do it on time," she told him, primly. "Otherwise, they might just as well not bother doing it at all."

Clark's soft, sudden laughter tickled at the side of her throat. "I don't know why you're always ragging on Herrera," he said, as she shifted her head slightly to view him, surprised. "And he's just as bad. You both know you adore one another."

"That's a lie," Lois sniffed, stirring the pot more briskly.

"Personally," he told her solemnly, "I think it's some kind of reverse hero worship."

"Bite your tongue."

"Or should that be perverse hero worship? You know Dr. Friskin would have a field day with you two. A classic, textbook case of masking your true emotions with aggression."

She gave him a single, low burning glance across one shoulder that warned him he was in trouble if he kept on with this one. He grinned at her, disarmingly.

"Did you leave them with Adams' copy report on Estelle?" she asked, pointedly changing the subject. "The reports?" She put the spoon down on the counter.

"Whoa - hold it…" He tightened his grip marginally, enough to hold her where she was, as she tried to move away.

"What?"

"The reports can wait." He jerked his chin at the stove. "My pasta sauce won't."

"But, I could just — "

"Lois. Dinner first. Okay? We can look them over later."

"But — "

"Honey, it's been a real tough day," he pleaded, tightening his grip on her and burrowing his face lightly into her hair, inhaling its mild scent. "I just want to spend a quiet hour or two having dinner with my wife. Relax. Wind down a little. Is that so bad?"

"Well…"

It sounded reluctant, but he could tell she was weakening. He set himself to further sabotage of her resolve, running a trail of kisses across the side of her neck and rubbing the tip of his nose gently against the lobe of one ear. Lois sighed softly, closing her eyes, then squirmed, just a little, as his hands went off on an exploratory path across her curves.

"Thought you were hungry?" she murmured a half-hearted protest.

"I am hungry. Just not for pasta." He kissed the nape of her neck and then began to nuzzle softly at the soft, sensitive skin behind her ear.

Lois smiled as she closed her eyes again and tilted her head back against the strong curve of his shoulder. She put up a hand behind her to pat softly at his cheek. "Yes, I know, sweetie, but…oooh," she gasped, "…that…that feels so…"

"Good?" She felt his grin against her skin with the hot whisper of breath at her ear and then sighed as he pulled lightly at the lobe of her ear with his teeth. He intensified his caresses.

Lois sighed out an answer. "Perfect…"

"So, my talents aren't just confined to being a great cook then?" he teased.

She turned in his arms. "You," she murmured, as her fingers busied themselves seductively in the buttons of his shirt, teasing the material aside with frustrating slowness to explore the warm, muscular flesh beneath, "have many talents."

She drew a soft finger down his chest, studying its path curiously and feeling the hard ridge of muscles across his stomach contract delightfully in its wake, until it came to rest on the edge of his jeans. She smiled, as she hooked a couple of fingers into the waistband. "And, I expect you to employ all of them…to the best of your ability…real…soon…"

Clark smiled, his hands running softly up and down her arms as he shifted himself imperceptibly closer against her. He pressed his mouth firmly against hers, savoring her salt taste, as he pushed her back and up against the hard enamel behind her. His tongue probed its way gently into the warmth of her mouth as her lips parted obligingly beneath the faint pressure of his own and his world contracted sharply, all of his senses focused on the woman in his arms, leaving no room for other distractions.

Of course, he'd forgotten they were standing in front of the lit stove.

A fact of which Lois became all too aware, all at once, as she was distracted from the slow melting heat of his lips, the way that his hands were roaming her body…as a soft, slow and over-warm heat, which had nothing to do with any of that, spread its way across the small of her back…

She yelped, jerking away from the stove and startling Clark, who let her go, surprised.

"Oh, God - Lois! Are you okay? Did you get burned? Lois? Lois!" He pulled her hastily clear as he realized what he'd done, contrite and mortified as he babbled an apology, as he gathered her up against him. She was clinging tight to him and trembling, shaking almost. Oh God, if he'd hurt her, he'd never -

He grabbed hold of her, made short work of divesting her of her blouse and worriedly examined her. There was a brightly scarlet patch of skin at the lowest point of her spine, but nothing that would be especially painful. Rather it was more in line with the effect of sitting too close to a warm fire for too long a time. It would fade in a couple of minutes or so and there was no sign that she'd been scalded or seriously burned.

Yet, she was still shaking as he held her tight and —

His panic faded as it occurred to him all at once that she was giggling helplessly from the depths of his shoulder.

"Lois?" He paused to pull her slightly clear of him, putting the edge of his hand beneath her chin and hitching it upwards. "Are you okay?"

She answered him with a weak nod through her laughter and then buried her face in his shoulder again as her giggles overcame her.

"Lo-is…"

More giggles.

Clark sighed. Looked like there was going to be only one way to stop her. Which was okay. Which was very okay. He didn't mind that in the slightest. He set the backs of his fingers beneath her chin, tilting it firmly upward again and ducked his head to capture her lips firmly beneath his, stopping her giggles cold with another kiss.

After a surprised intake of breath, Lois melted into his arms, savoring the kiss with every fiber of her body.

He was careful about it. There had been the odd moment, early in their relationship, when, in the blazing heat of his own passion and inspired by hers, he had all but forgotten that his wife was less talented in holding her breath than he was. But Lois still swayed slightly when he released her, looking up at him wide eyed. She hiccuped faintly and then swallowed hard. "Wow…"

Clark smiled and lifted a hand to trace the contours of her lips with an index finger before he bent to kiss her again.

A sudden sharp burr startled both of them into breaking the moment's passion. Lois turned her head to view the little pasta timer sitting on the counter and then came back to regard Clark with a thoughtful expression. "Looks like the pasta's ready," she informed him blandly.

Clark looked at her. "It's not all that's ready…" he murmured, adjusting his stance to gather her up against him. He reached out a blind, unerring hand to bop the timer sharply, stilling its insistent alarm in an instant. "And willing…"

He let her go, cupping her face in his hands in prelude to a heady kiss that held all the promise of pent up passion that had been smoldering in him through the long day. His hands drifted to her hips. He lifted her easily. Lois wrapped her arms loose around his neck and darted tender, teasing kisses against his lips as he carried her the few yards to the little breakfast nook.

He paused beside the table, taking a moment to kiss her restlessly. They explored each other lazily for a moment or two, caressing and stroking…and then Lois tore her mouth free of his, her head lifting sharply.

Disorientated, Clark emerged from the haze of heat and desire that the soft feel of her curves pressed tight against him had risen in him and looked down at her, puzzled. It didn't occur to him, but he was experiencing something that Lois had had to endure often - the sudden, sharp switch of attention from a partner distracted by the outside world and no longer held in thrall by the pleasurable caresses of their lover.

Her eyes, which had drifted closed, snapped wide. "Ohmigosh - Clark! The pasta!"

His own eyes widened as his senses cut away from studying her and caught a whiff of what she had just seconds before him. The acrid billow of smoke filled the air. He dropped Lois unceremoniously - though gently - to the padded bench beside the table and made a super dash for the stove.

He snatched the pot from the flame and twisted the dial to off, then stared down into the molten sludge bubbling sluggishly within. He sighed.

The sound of Lois gulping for breath snapped his attention away and onto his wife. His anxious glance turned to resignation as he saw she was doubled over, arms wrapped tight around her ribs and faint, whooping breaths hitching in her throat through uncontrollable laughter.

"Lo-is…" he reproved with another sigh.

Lois shook her head, her eyes sparkling with a laughter all of their own, and waved a hand at him helplessly, trying to explain without much success.

Clark followed the wave of that hand downward and his own lips twitched as he took note of his state of dishabille, clothing disarranged, visibly aroused…and the pot of smoking one time pasta in his hand.

Lois collapsed against the table, shoulders shaking as she buried her head against folded arms.

"It's not funny," Clark said, trying not to laugh himself now and attempting a stern expression.

If anything, his wife's giggles got wilder. Clark dumped the pot to the far side of the stove, straightened his clothing and buckled up, then strode for her determinedly.

Lois lifted her head as he pulled her back into his arms and hefted her lightly against his chest. Her eyes, shining with merriment, looked into his as she quivered delightfully in his embrace.

"Gonna…gonna…use the…patented Clark Kent method…for stopping a fit of…the giggles an'…kiss me…again?" she challenged, breaking up between the words as they emerged in gasps for breath.

"I'm gonna do more'n that! With a fit of the giggles as bad as you got, looks like you need the patented method phase two," Clark promised, carrying her into the living room, and she squealed, delighted, as he headed for the stairs.

***

Jimmy paused in the doorway of Room 221. In contrast to the bright, sterile lighting of the corridor, it was draped in shadows, with only the small, lambent pool of light from the lamp on the nightstand, relieving the blackness.

"Relation?"

He jumped and turned towards the owner of the brisk voice.

"Uh…" He glanced into the room again. "No…no, just a…a friend."

The dark-haired matronly figure of the station nurse smiled wickedly at him. The oblong plastic pin on her breast announced her as 'Marion Hollander, RN'. "Boyfriend, I suspect, huh?"

"Uh, well — "

"Well now, isn't that just fine? You go on in, lad. She's asleep right now, of course, but why don't you take a seat? What pretty flowers!" she added, looking at the bouquet of carnations he was carrying.

Jimmy blushed.

She bustled into the room, leaning over the bed to take a quick look at the sleeping figure and then gave him another bright smile as she pulled across one of the chairs set against the wall. She patted its back in invitation and put a conspiratorial finger to her lips in a shushing motion.

"Uh," Jimmy backed up a step or two. "You know, maybe I should just — "

"Nonsense!" She advanced on him and steered him relentlessly for the chair with a firm grip on his arm. "Now, you just sit right down there. I'm sure she'll wake up in just a few moments. And she'll be ever so pleased to see you, I'm sure."

"Will she?" Jimmy ventured, doubtfully. He took a quick glance at the bed. Leanore was all but invisible, burrowed into the covers, with only the thick spill of her dark hair spread across them to show there was anything human in there at all.

"Why don't I put these in some water for you?" Nurse Hollander said, taking the bouquet from him. "Though, it's a shame to throw these out," she went on, crossing to the nightstand and removing the bunch of mixed flowers from the vase. "Did you give her these too?" She set them aside and replaced them with the carnations, arranging them briefly and then stepping back with a satisfied nod.

"Uh, no. No." He shook his head, clutching the box of candy he'd brought in nervous hands.

"Oh. Oh, well. I dare say she'll be pleased with these anyway. Since they're from you."

Jimmy could almost have sworn she winked at him as she bustled off. A suspicion that was confirmed as she cast a roughish glance at him across her shoulder. "Now, don't you two be getting up to nothing energetic in here on your own, you hear? She'll not be up to that sort of thing for a while yet."

She closed the door behind her with this advice.

Jimmy closed his eyes with a small groan. He was feeling very warm, all at once.

Despite Nurse Hollander's assertion, Leanore continued to sleep peacefully for the next twenty minutes. Jimmy rapidly grew bored. He shifted in the uncomfortable chair and jerked his head up with a start as he found his chin had a tendency to gravitate towards his chest. He yawned.

"Who the hell are you?"

He woke with a start as that annoyed voice startled him out of a dream where he and Leanore had been enjoying a picnic on the beach at her favorite nudist colony.

"Huh?" He blinked up myopically at the figure standing in the doorway. "What?"

"I said, who the hell are you?" The figure resolved itself into a rather burly young man, about a year or so older than him. The guy had muscles on muscles, Jimmy saw with a sinking stomach as he also caught the ferocious scowl that this newcomer was currently favoring him with.

"Uh, I don't know - " Jimmy rose to his feet. He indicated the bed. "I just came to visit - "

"Oh! You did?" The newcomer's eyes dropped to take in the box of candy Jimmy was clutching at his lap and then drifted around the room. A scowl formed. "Where's my flowers?"

"Um — " Jimmy's gaze followed his to the vase. "Those are mine," he confessed.

"You brought her flowers? Okay, fella." He stepped forward, belligerently. "You wanna tell me just what the hell you're doing buying flowers an' candy an' *visiting* my fiancee?"

"Your - ?" Jimmy squeaked. He took another glance for the bed and then raised defensive hands. "Now, wait a minute, she didn't say nothing about having a fiance! I mean I'm not really involved here. Uh, that is, we only went out a coupla - well we didn't really go out at all, as a matter of fact - " he amended hastily as the scowling face darkened still further. "Look, there's obviously been a mistake here."

"Damn right. And it's gonna get sorted." The belligerent fiance took another step for him, hands fisting at his sides.

"Now, look÷" Jimmy backed off rapidly, and almost fell over the chair directly behind him. "Can't we just talk about — "

"Wass goin' on?" a sleepy voice broke in. "Alan?"

They turned their heads towards the bed, whose occupant was now sitting upright, clutching the covers to her and staring at them blearily as she ran a hand through mussed brown hair.

Jimmy found himself staring at a stranger.

And then the lights went out.

***

Lois, dressed in loose peach satin lounging pajamas and matching robe, paused as she reached the bottom of the stairs. She ran a hand through her hair and smiled dreamily as she glanced at the kitchen doors, then sighed softly, before she yawned and headed for them.

She sniffed appreciatively of the warm, tantalizing scents as she entered the room. Clark looked up from the pan he was stirring and smiled at her. "Hey, honey. Have a good nap?"

Lois nodded. "Mmmmmmm."

Clark put an arm around her waist as she stretched up to kiss his cheek and then went back to the stirring she'd interrupted as she set her cheek against his shoulder and watched, lazily.

"You saved it," she said, surprised. "How'd you do that? Heat vision? Or did you try cooling it a little first? How'd you stop it drying out? Do you have some kind of super-power I haven't figured out yet?"

Clark looked sheepish. "Actually," he said, "I started from scratch and threw the last lot in the trash. It was pretty much irredeemable."

Lois sighed. "Oh. Well, there go my illusions. I thought you'd just been extra clever."

"Cooking pasta and special sauce twice in one evening in less than five minutes isn't pretty smart?" Clark asked her, mock offended.

"Well…I guess."

"Not to mention all the other…activities I managed in between times," he added, somewhat smugly, his wife thought. "I thought I was pretty smart in those areas too." He gave her a sideways grin and then chuckled as a soft flush of color tinted her cheeks. He took an appraising glance across her soft curves, shrouded in peach satin, and smiled as he pulled her close against him. He ran one long finger to follow the neckline of her pajamas.

"Have I ever told you how good this color looks on you?" he murmured, his eyes contrasting the peach against the warm, honey glow of her skin.

Lois smiled. "I think you might have mentioned it. Once or twice."

He smiled too. His hand paused and then lifted to grasp the nape of her neck lightly, tipping back her head to allow him access to her lips.

Lois enjoyed the slow, languid kiss, but when his hands began to wander softly she shook her head and pushed against his chest until he released her.

"Hey, enough already!" She laughed, looking up into his abashed eyes as he withdrew his hands. "I'm not missing out on dinner a second time," she warned.

"Okay, okay." He held up surrendering hands and sighed, mock devastated.

"Do you know how much our grocery bills have skyrocketed, since we got married?" Lois complained lightly now with a smile as she crossed to the other counter. She removed a stick of French bread from the basket it found a home in. "The amount of food we've had to throw in the trash because it burned while we were…otherwise engaged…could feed an entire Third World nation."

She glanced across her shoulder and then, catching the look of chagrined apology in his eyes, came back, cradling the bread against her. She reached up to pat at his shoulder consolingly as she put the bread on the counter and searched for a knife.

"Not that I'm complaining," she added, as she cut the bread into rounds and dropped them in an oval wicker basket. She looked around at him and smiled, reaching a hand to his cheek and planting a kiss against his lips. "It's kind of nice how…eager you are. It makes me feel…wanted. Secure."

"Really?" He was watching her curiously now and she nodded.

"Uh-huh." She directed a grin at him. "Makes me feel sexy too."

He gave her a sloppy grin back. "It does?"

"Mmmmmm-hmmmm." She bumped up against him slyly, nudging him with her hip. "To know that I drive you insane with desire," she said, in a dramatic, bodice- ripper sort of way. "Wild with passion. To know that you just can't get enough of me. That you want me night and day…and night and day…and - "

He grabbed her around the waist with a growl. "You got that right!"

Lois shrieked, squirming to get free. He wrapped her tighter and she stopped struggling in favor of hooking her arms around his neck and kissing him.

"That's pretty heady stuff," she said after a moment, looking up at him solemnly. "For any woman. I think the sauce is burning," she added calmly, as he looked down at her, a soft, tender glow beginning to burn low in his eyes.

"Huh? Oh!" He went back to stirring, but he kept an arm hooked loose around her waist, holding her against his side.

Lois took another taste of the sauce as he checked and then added a little more water to the pasta. She gave the pan another brisk stir. There was a small silence. Then, she said, wistfully, "Will this be ready soon?"

Clark chuckled ruefully and let her go, giving her an affectionate swat against the hip as he moved aside. "Go," he ordered. "You can pour us out some wine, if you like. Give me five seconds. I'll be right there. And don't touch those reports!" he raised his voice as she vanished into the dining room.

"You know I forgot to ask," she yelled back. "Did you get a chance to phone the insurance people today?"

Clark paused in the act of draining the pasta. "Ah," he said.

There was a moment's silence. Then Lois came back through the doors, carrying the opened bottle of wine and with a newly suspicious look on her face. "Ah?"

"Yeah. Well, you see, the thing is…" He seemed suddenly engrossed in what he was doing. Very engrossed. "They…uh, they already delivered. This afternoon, actually."

"Already?" She turned around in the doorway, clutching the bottle against her. "Really? I didn't see it when I came in…" She walked across to the living room window and peered out into the darkness. "Clark? I can't see it. In fact," she added dryly, "I can't see anything. There's nothing out there. Well, except for that tatty old Ford Taurus with the dented fender. You know I noticed that when I came in. Have you seen it? Wonder who it belongs to? Has to be someone lacking a few taste cells in the brain. Burnt ochre? Who, in their right mind, would paint a car burnt - "

She froze. Then she turned, wide-eyed, to where Clark was watching her warily from the kitchen doorway.

"You've got to be kidding."

"Honey - "

"This is a gag. Right? Any moment now we're gonna be guesting on 'America's Funniest Home Videos'."

"Uh, well — not as far as I know."

She stared at him. "That…heap of *tin* out there is *our* rental car?" she hissed.

"Well…" Clark considered asking her to put down the bottle before he answered that one. Then he drew in a hard breath and gave her a sudden, wide and bright smile. The widest and brightest he could muster. "Yeah!" he agreed.

It was his happy smile. The one that said, 'Yeah - it's ours! Isn't that just great?! Aren't we lucky?!'

Lois fixed him with a grim stare until he stopped it. Then, she glanced across her shoulder and back again. "Are you sure?" she asked, half-hopefully

"They left the registration documents and the keys in an envelope in the mailbox. I picked them up when I got in."

"Well…maybe they made a mistake. Maybe they delivered them to the wrong address."

"They had our name on the envelope…and the papers…and the key tab. I don't think it's a mistake."

Her eyes hardened. Then, without another word, she dumped the wine bottle to the ledge of the window and marched across the living room.

"No, Lois - !" He hurried after her and plucked the telephone receiver smartly >from her as she began to dial. He raised a soothing hand. "Now, honey, calm down…"

"Give me the phone, Clark."

"I already called them. I just got their message service." He put down the receiver firmly.

"Did you *leave* a message?" she demanded, managing to insinuate that, even if he had, it undoubtedly wasn't the message *she'd* been about to give them.

"Yes. But I'll get back on to them first thing too." He took her by the shoulders and steered her purposefully for the dining room. "Okay?"

Lois narrowed her eyes on him. "First thing?"

"I swear."

She paused. "Well…okay then."

"Good. And we're not going to mention it for the rest of the evening," he insisted. "Right?"

Lois sighed. "Fine."

"Okay. Good."

"*But*…if they *think* I'm going to drive around in that — "

"Lo-is…!"

She gave him a mulish glance and then shimmied out of his grasp and went to retrieve the wine.

***

"Well, if the answer's in here…I can't find it."

Clark finished skimming through the preliminary pathology report on Ginny Bolt with that disgusted verdict and dropped it back to the table among the untidy scatter of papers. He rubbed a hard hand across the back of his neck and glanced sideways. "You?"

Lois shook her head, absorbed in paging through the bundle of Xeroxed sheets on her lap.

"Great." A soft, frustrated sigh escaped him.

Lois echoed it. "Well, if there is an answer, it's in here. Somewhere."

"You think?" he said dubiously.

"Definitely."

"Why?"

"Because it has to be?" She gave him a shrug and he sighed again.

"How about some coffee?" he suggested tiredly.

"Sure."

She put down the sheets as he headed for the kitchen and rose to her feet, kneading rough fingers at the small of her back and stretching her spine slightly as she wandered to stand before the living room window. Folding her arms, she stared out listlessly into the darkness.

"Okay…" Clark returned with two mugs and offered one up as she turned around. He reseated himself, having redesigned his mood into cheerfully determined optimism between kitchen and living room. He put down his mug and spread his hands across the table, sorting the papers out in his own mind, thinking aloud. "So, we know that all of the victims were members of Karvin's Church. And we know from the checks which Herrera's task force carried out on their movements in the past week that they *all* attended Karvin's rally on Sunday evening. All of them, that is," he corrected himself, ruefully, "except Karen Culver."

He began to sift through the files and reports littering the table, seemingly in the hope that he might find something they might just have overlooked the first time.

"You know, if it wasn't for that, I'd have said that the source of contamination had to be at that rally. It's the only thing that makes sense. But Karen wasn't there. How did she become contaminated if she wasn't there?"

"According to Adams," Lois said thoughtfully over the rim of her mug as she reseated herself beside him, "she'd have had to have been infected with that contaminant at least forty eight hours before her death. Maybe more than that." She stretched past him to pick up the clutch of trace reports. "That's two clear days before the rally. In fact, she didn't attend any of the rallies. Maybe she was intending to go later in the week. I don't know. It's unlikely she'd have missed seeing the Founding Father himself. Isn't it?"

Clark tilted his head in a gesture of agreement. "About as likely as Perry missing out on an Elvis revival," he concluded.

"She must have been intending to go. But, anyway," she replaced the reports with a shake of her head, "it would seem to rule out the rally as the source." She took another, considering sip of coffee.

"Which," Clark said, darkly ironic, "is no bad thing. Because, if it *was* a likely source, I, for one, would have to be getting *pretty* worried right now."

"Worried? Worried about what? That we might see more cases?"

"No. About the fact that *my* favorite brunette was at that rally too." He leaned over to kiss her lightly and then smiled, showing her he wasn't really *that* concerned. Not now that they'd eliminated the rally as a possibility anyway. "Remember?"

"Oh," Lois said. "Right."

"Right," he agreed, sobering slightly. "So, believe me, Lois, I'm not that unhappy it's not panning out as a source."

"It has to mean something though. Doesn't it? The fact that all of these women were there on the same evening?"

"I guess. I don't know. Maybe it is just coincidence." He gave the littered table a disgusted glance. "This one sure does seem to have its share."

"'Coincidence is a myth in the minds of the mundane'," Lois quoted her second year journalism professor back at him, smartly. "I don't believe in it."

He grimaced. "And, so were a lot of people. At the rally, I mean. Around fourteen hundred or so, according to Karven's press office, just on that one evening alone. If it was the source, why wouldn't more of them have been infected by now? On that night or on any of the others, for that matter? They must have kept more or less to the same routine each evening. Anyway, it's about the only connection we've come up with, so far. I can't see anything else. Three of them did missionary work for the Church in the past year. But none of them were based in the same country, or worked for the same group. Ginny Bolt was in Sierra Leone, Susan Tavener worked in Malaysia for a local based charity — "

" - and nine months ago, Emily Riess was in Rwanda," Lois finished. "Five of them were brown-eyed," she went on, considering.

"And three of them weren't," Clark countered. "Six of them were born right here in Metropolis, but none of their lives crossed in any way that's significant, apart from their involvement in the UCS. And, even then, there's nothing to suggest they even knew each other or met arising out of that."

Lois sighed, heavily. "Well, one thing's for sure." She reached to pick up Karvin's publicity photograph from the UCS file and stared at it, musingly. "He's behind all of this. I'm sure of it. Somehow, he is."

Clark had gone back to the Xeroxed sheets he was holding, lost in his own, black study. Lois glanced up at him, after a moment, drawn by his silence.

"Clark?"

"Huh?" He lifted his head, then took a look at the photo. "Oh. Yeah. Well," he put aside the sheets and took it from her, "if he is, he's not leaving a whole lot behind him for us to prove it with," he murmured, studying the smiling face of Karvin himself. "So…maybe we should go digging into his background some?" he suggested. "Instead of his victims?"

Lois considered it. "I don't know, Clark. I think we know most everything there is to know about Dale Karvin, Evangelist, already."

"Dale Karvin, Evangelist, yes. Dale Karvin, the man? I don't think so. We've got almost nothing on him before the point he started making a local name for himself, preaching at the Unity Church in Maine. Before then, he's been pretty elusive. Maybe, if we search a little further back, we'll find something."

"What - you figure he started his career as a serial killer in kindergarten?"

He chuckled. "No. At least, I guess not. But," he lifted a dogged hand, "grasping at straws is always better than grasping at air, right? And, you know - everyone's got their little secrets, Lois."

She favored him with a wry look. "Tell me about it."

He grinned back at her and then lifted the photo again, invitingly, raising an encouraging brow. "Come on," he coaxed, as she stayed silent. "It's better than sitting here half the night, trying to match up…toe tags." He waved a frustrated hand across the table.

Lois sighed. "Okay…" She shrugged and leaned forward abruptly to drag the computer towards her, enabling it to live up to its name as she dumped it unceremoniously into his lap. "Let's go digging!"

For the next few hours, he took her at her word, sending out feelers via the laptop to every government agency they could think of which might have crossed the path of Dale Karvin in his home state, while she scoured the files for every possible source she could find. Police Departments, Boards of Education, Colleges and University Faculty Boards, to name but a few. All would have heard from them by e-mail and fax by morning. They had no real idea what they were looking for, but they were equally certain that when it landed on their desks, they'd recognize it. And, like he'd said, it beat sitting around, blowing smoke.

Finally, he keyed in the last of the faxed requests and pressed down heavily on the send key. The laptop blinked a brief 'Please wait' message at him, followed by a confirmation that the fax had been dispatched. Clark grimaced, stretching slightly to ease grumbling back muscles, and stifled a yawn as it tried to overtake him.

"Well, that's about all we can do for now," he said, wearily. "With the time lag, we probably won't hear anything back till morning, at least. Why don't we call it a night and — "

He stopped, becoming aware, all at once, of the unexpected weight settled against his shoulder. He turned his head and smiled. It seemed that Lois was way ahead of him; somewhere along the way, as he'd become engrossed in working on the computer, the day had taken its toll on her. She was snuggled up against his side, head resting on his shoulder, fast asleep.

Clark closed down the laptop carefully and placed it cautiously on the table before him, not of a mind to wake her. Slight as his movements were though, they were enough to disturb her. She murmured softly and then opened her eyes. She lifted her head, yawning deeply.

"Hi," Clark said.

"Hi…" She looked around her, muzzily. "Oh…" She leaned forward, elbows on knees, to knit her hands at the nape of her neck, rubbing irritably at the taut muscles under her fingers. "What time is it?" she mumbled.

"Just after two. Here…" He hitched himself around, displacing her hands and substituting his own, thumbs digging out the knots at the top of her spine. After a moment, he directed a low sweep of heat vision across the taut muscles, warming the tension out of her further with his heat rub as his hands continued their soothing kneading at the nape of her neck.

Lois closed her eyes with a soft sigh of appreciation and leaned back against his chest, resting her head to his shoulder again. He set soft lips to her temple and then kissed her warmly as she lifted her head slightly to touch her lips to his. He left off his massaging of her neck and shoulders and put his arms around her instead, settling back against the sofa and closing his own eyes, contentedly.

After a moment or so of companionable silence, he tilted his head to look down at her and then straightened. He rubbed his hands encouragingly across her arms, rousing her again.

"Honey, you look beat," he said. "Why don't you turn in? I can clear up here and — "

"No. No, I'm okay." She straightened and reached out for the nearest file. Her eyes had taken on a determined look above the bluish shadows that darkened their sockets. "Where were we?"

"Lois, it's done." He took the file from her firmly and set it back down on the table. "I sent off the last fax a couple of minutes ago."

"Oh," she said.

He reached up to stroke the back of one hand against her cheek. "Go on." He smiled. "I'll clear up; be right with you."

She seemed about to argue it further, but another yawn overtook her, deciding the issue. She nodded instead and got to her feet.

"Maybe, I will. I've got a headache anyway."

Clark looked up as she wandered drowsily for the stairs.

"Want some aspirin?" he offered.

She shook her head. "No…just need some sleep," she mumbled.

Though it took Clark mere moments to clear up as he'd promised, she was already deeply asleep when he came into the bedroom. She didn't stir as he moved quietly around the room, readying himself to join her, not even when he eased himself carefully beneath the covers and leaned over to kiss her softly against one cheek, before settling himself down beside her and snuggling close. He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her gently back against his chest. He settled his chin into the warm hollow of her shoulder, surrounded by the familiar scents of her.

He found sleep almost as quickly, letting the steady, familiar tick of her pulse lull him as had become his habit. It had been a long day for him too.

***

She was screaming. Screaming as the Jeep ploughed sideways into the storefront. Glass plumed outwards in a spray, showering Jeep and sidewalk in a glittering, jagged-edged wash.

Superman stood on the shattered frame of the empty window and pushed the car clear. He ripped the door aside, hearing it clatter onto the sidewalk behind him.

Lois was slumped across both seats and he already knew he was too late as his fingers clenched in the red-smeared shoulder of the white coat, dragging her upright. Her head lolled loose against the headrest and her eyes, already filmed over, already dulling, stared up on him through the bloody mask of her face.

Too late.

But, still, she screamed. She -

Clark jolted upright, dry mouthed, his heart drumming a hard beat against his ribs, jerked abruptly out of his dream.

A dream in which she'd been slowly drowning as he tried frantically to save her, her threshing limbs hampered by the chains which bound her tightly, her mouth filling with dark, lake water even as she screamed.

Screamed.

A dream in which she'd been falling through clouds, slipping through his fingers every time he tried to catch hold of her, until the ground came rushing up to meet them and he knew he was too late and she screamed.

Screamed.

A dream in which she'd been dead in the twisted hulk of the Jeep, because he'd put another life above hers. Dead. And screaming into the dark.

Screaming.

She was still screaming.

With a shocked blink of his eyes that brought him fully awake, he reached out hastily for the bedside lamp beside him and the room flooded with light.

The bedclothes lay in a heap against the curved bedstead where her threshing legs had kicked them. Her nightgown, rumpled around her thighs, was drenched in sweat, peach satin clinging to the curve of her breasts and the soft swell of her stomach. Her hair clung limply to her cheeks and forehead, framing the chalky oval of her face around eyes that were fixed wide and open, reflecting stark horror back at him.

Her arms slashed at the air around her, fending off something or someone unseen. One of those flailing hands struck against the nightstand at the side of the bed and Clark winced. He leaned over hastily to grip her wrists, stilling that frantic clawing at air and pinning them with gentle force to the pillows before she could hurt herself more seriously than a few bruised knuckles.

When he'd been thirteen and just becoming aware of his strength; of how much stronger he was than those around him, of the implications of that advantage and the responsibilities it set upon him, Clark had made a point of poring over every book on anatomy he could find. Studying the human body in minute detail, learning its frailties, its weaknesses, schooling himself on how fragile a collection of bone and flesh it was.

He knew exactly how much strength he could use on any part of that body, how much pressure he could safely apply without marring the skin with even the faintest of bruises, let alone broken bones. But containing Lois' struggles now tested that strength to the limit, pushed him to within the barest fraction of the line he knew he couldn't cross before he managed to subdue her. She fought him like something possessed.

Or terrified.

"Lois!"

He paused for a moment, straddling her, pinning her down, taking a moment to gather himself and then shifted his grip, wrapping his fingers around her upper arms and dragging her up against him.

"Lois, wake up!"

He shook her once and she gasped, back arching, limbs rigid, like someone who'd been drowning finally finding air, before she shuddered, eyes opening to fix on him, blurry and confused.

"Lois? Lois, it's me. It's me, Clark!"

"Clark?"

She blinked and relief flooded into her eyes as panic died. She threw her arms around his neck, burying her face deep against his shoulder. Putting his arms around her, spreading a hand against the damp spill of her hair, he pressed her closer.

"It's okay," he murmured, rocking her gently. "It was a dream. That's all. Just a dream…"

She relaxed against him with a low sigh and then drew away from him. He smiled

down at her, though his eyes were concerned. He pushed back hair from her cheek with a light hand.

"You okay?"

"Fine." She shook her head irritably as she left the bed and entered the bathroom. He heard her turn on the faucet. The sounds of water running and vigorous splashing reached him before it was turned off. There was a moment of silence. It was followed by a piercing shriek.

"Lois!"

He was in the bathroom barely before that scream faded. He almost collided with Lois as she barreled through the door in the opposite direction. She clutched at him wildly, glancing back across her shoulder as though she was being chased by all the devils in Hell, and then ducked around him, clinging to his arm.

"Honey - " he protested as she dug a fist into the small of his back, hitching him on a step.

"Get rid of it!" she hissed.

"What?" He glanced around the door into the bathroom. He didn't know what he expected to see, but whatever it was, it wasn't there. The room was entirely empty, but for the two of them. "What?" he said again, mystified.

"There!" She threw out a quivering finger. He followed its route. And saw nothing. The towel she'd been using to dry her face and hands lay in a fluffy heap on the tiles beneath the sink. And beside it…

He lifted a sharp brow. "That?" he said, glancing at her in surprise before he looked back at the spider clinging to the side of the bath: just a common or garden spider, barely the length of his thumbnail.

Lois gave him a quick glare and squeaked as the spider began to move in a slow crawl for the floor. "Get rid of it!" Her nails dug at his arm. "Please, Clark!" There was a threat of tears in that plea.

He gave her a dubious glance, certain, for a moment, that this was some kind of joke she was playing on him. But the panic he saw in her eyes was real. He freed himself from her and hunkered down to scoop the offending creature into one palm, closing the other over it to trap it as he straightened. As he passed her in the doorway, Lois almost backed herself straight through the wall behind her in an effort to get out of his way.

"Don't drop it!" she blurted as she followed at a safe distance. Which seemed to be at least ten paces, no closer.

"I won't," he soothed her. "I got it," he added as she drew in a ragged breath. "Stay here. I'll let it go on the terrace."

When he returned she was standing where he'd left her: rigid, eyes hopeful and expectant.

"You didn't lose it?"

He shook his head.

"It's gone?"

"Yes. Okay? Hey…" He frowned, concerned, as he crossed the room to put a reassuring hand to her shoulder and realized she was shaking. "It really scared you," he said, utterly bemused by her reaction.

She flushed. "It startled me, that's all," she denied. "It was in the towel. I almost put my hand right on…" She shuddered and he tightened his grip on her, kissed the top of her head lightly.

"Well, it's gone now. Come on." He guided her firmly for the bed. "It's almost six thirty; we'll have to get up soon as it is. Let's just relax. Calm down. I don't know about you, but two scares per night is just about my limit."

Lois smiled at him, though distractedly, as she got into the bed obediently and rearranged the displaced covers. Clark settled himself back against the pillows beside her and gathered her against his side. She pillowed her cheek on one hand spread against his chest as he stroked a soft hand through her hair.

"Better?"

She murmured an agreement.

"I never knew they bothered you," he ventured after a moment or two, still disquieted by the strength of her reaction.

"It caught me by surprise, that's all. I guess I was pretty spooked anyway, before I even saw it."

He let that soak in. "Must have been some dream."

"Must have been." She shivered suddenly. "I…can't remember. I remember…I was trying to get out of a dark place and…someone…was pushing me back in, wouldn't let me out and I was so…*afraid*. So — "

Clark could feel her tensing under his hands again as she spoke and he shifted, startling her into silence as he eased himself to one elbow to loom over her. She raised her head to accommodate him as he kissed her firmly. She slipped an arm around his neck to hold him close, molding herself to the strong contours of his body.

"Forget about it," he told her as he drew back slightly to look into her eyes.

"Make me." She smiled a challenge and kissed him again.

His hands wandered her curves tenderly, heating her in a moment as he rolled her beneath him, eager to oblige.

And, for a time, he succeeded.

And, for a time, it was.

But, later, staring at the ceiling as the dawn-light slowly brightened the room, listening to her soft, even breathing beside him, he thought about that 'someone' again. Someone, she'd said. But there was that hesitation. And the way she hadn't looked at him when she'd said it.

*Someone*.

But he was sure, though he couldn't say how, that it had been him she'd meant.

*He'd* been hurting her.

He'd been blocking her escape.

She'd been afraid of *him*.

Beside him, Lois shifted restlessly, breaking his thoughts. Brows drawn into a fretful line, she whimpered softly. He reached to gather her back into his arms, settling her close against his chest. In the midst of whatever dream had found her, Lois burrowed closer, blindly seeking sanctuary in his embrace, her small cries muffled against his chest. Clark smoothed slow fingers across her cheek and murmured soothing nonsense until she settled once more, before putting his cheek against her hair and closing his eyes.

And, finally, he too found sleep.

***

The light in the room had shifted subtly when he opened his eyes again. Clark rolled over onto his side and found himself alone, the sheets beside him cool and holding no trace of warmth. He pulled himself to rest on one elbow with a quick glance at the clock on the nightstand. Habit, since his internal clock - more accurate besides to a degree - was already informing him that it was eight twenty three.

He turned over, expecting to hear that Lois was already well into her usual morning routine and knowing that he'd have to use every ounce of superspeed he possessed to catch up if they didn't want to arrive at work late. But there was no sound of the shower running and he paused as he caught sight of Lois standing before the small window, lit by the early morning light streaming into the room. Her eyes were distant and lost as she stared out through the glass.

"Lois?"

When he got no response, he pushed aside the bedcovers and climbed from the bed to pad across the floor.

"Honey?"

Lois started violently, a soft gasp escaping her as his hands closed gently on her shoulders. He chuckled, running his hands along her arms and then entwining them around her waist to pull her back against him, as he bent his head to press warm lips to the hollow of her shoulder.

"Sorry." He traced the line of her throat, the murmuring route of her pulse, beating strong and fast. Very fast. And growing faster. "I called you. You were miles away." It became a question and she answered it with a slow shrug.

"I was thinking about Dale Karvin."

Clark paused in his ministrations. He lifted his head to give her a sideways glance, before he laid his cheek to hers with a faint smile. "Honey, it is kind of traditional for a wife to think about her *husband* in the bedroom…"

She turned in his arms to stare up at him, her answering smile teasing. Her hands against his chest, pressed flat between their bodies, felt cold to him. Clearly, he thought with a flicker of concern, she'd been up and staring through that window for some time. So deep in thought, she hadn't noticed how chilled she'd become.

"Jealous?" Lois asked him, innocently.

"Oh…" He schooled his face to solemnity. "Absolutely." He kissed her.

"Completely." He kissed her again.

"Maddeningly." This time he forgot to pause, words forgotten, teasing forgotten, as desire overcame him.

Lois gave herself over to the moment's pleasure as eagerly as he did, clinging to him with soft murmurs.

"Good…" she said, breathlessly, when, at last, his lips left hers. She ran a coy finger across his chest. "I mean we have been married for…oh, months now. I wouldn't want you getting bored."

"Uh-uh…" He shook his head, shifting his grip to settle her companionably against his chest, fingers netted at the base of her spine to cradle her close.

Lois regarded him, quizzically. "So…?"

"So…" he repeated, uncertain what she wanted an answer to.

She grinned, hitching herself closer. "*So*…you want to prove to me you're not bored?"

"Oh…"

A sharp burr stopped his lips inches shy of hers.

Lois groaned and he gave her a commiserating glance before he reached around her to pick up the phone.

"Hello? Oh, hey, Jimmy."

Lois snuggled up against his side, the better to eavesdrop. He slipped an arm around her waist, drawing her closer as he continued the conversation. Absent though his attention was, distracted elsewhere as Jimmy continued to jabber in his ear, he was never completely shut off from her. The scent of her skin, the warmth of her body, continued to fill his senses as air filled his lungs: as natural and as necessary. That unique collection of breath and scent and pulsing heart that meant everything to him.

"Okay, thanks, Jimmy, we'll get right on it."

Lois looked up on him enquiringly as he hung up, noting the new grimness that had taken over his expression and feeling a dark, unwelcome sense of premonition take hold of her. "Did Jimmy say Herrera?"

"Yeah." He kissed her absently, before easing himself clear of her and moving across the room to pull back the closet doors, his mood newly purposeful. "He left a message at the paper. Looks like there's been another one."

***

Morning rush hour at the junction of East and Third, downtown Metropolis.

Usually, a gridlock of wall to wall traffic, commuters heading for offices and factories, mothers on school runs, kids on their way to class. A hustle of humanity, intent on getting where they were going and getting there fast.

Now, it was the forlorn aftermath to one moment of madness.

Police cordons held back the curious and yellow tape blocked the street, from either end, across a block-wide radius. Within that rectangle of empty street, carnage lay in twisted ruins and blood soaked pavements. More than half a dozen cars lay scattered like the abandoned toys of a destructive child. Two had been burnt out. The rest were barely recognizable remnants of torn metal and shattered glass. Empty now, they stood like solemn grave markers as figures in the bright plastic jackets of the accident investigators wove their way between them. The immediacy of their work over with, they now set about their own post-mortem, piecing together evidence and clues, in much the same way as the Medical Examiner would puzzle out the owners of those vehicles at a later time.

The scene held an unwelcome familiarity for Clark as he surveyed the mess of twisted vehicles. It instilled a coldness in him that prompted him to glance around uneasily, searching for Lois. And to feel an illogical wash of relief when he found her, safe, on the other side of the street, notepad in hand as she jotted down whatever the cop she was with was telling her.

As though aware of his attention, she lifted her head to glance across at him and then wound up the conversation with a brief nod of thanks at the man, before crossing back to his side.

"You okay?" she asked, watching him intently. "You look like you saw a ghost."

"Yeah. I'm okay. It's just - " He lifted a helpless hand to cover the street, shaking his head.

Lois nodded. "It's a mess, isn't it?" she said, looking around. "Our traffic cop friend over there says it's the worst case of road rage he's ever seen."

"Road rage?"

"Suzanne Hallier. He stopped her for a ticket, at the bus lane there." She indicated the spot, a few hundred yards further along the street, with her pen. "He'd been trailing her for a couple of blocks; picked her up coming off the airport sub-route. She was driving fairly erratically, which was what attracted his attention at first. Then she jumped a stoplight at the intersection. Said she was madder than a cat with its tail caught in a door when he pulled her over. She gave him some abuse and then took off. Drove down here at something just over 95 mph, right in the middle of the morning rush. I guess it was a miracle she didn't take out more of them before she hit that lamppost. As it is — "

"We've got three dead and another two who don't look likely to make it past nightfall," said Clark, grimly.

He felt his wife's hand come down lightly against his arm. "This wasn't your fault, Clark," she said softly.

Clark shook his head slightly, but he didn't answer. Although neither had spoken it aloud, he knew her thoughts had been precisely where his had in the moment they'd arrived on the scene and saw the aftermath of this carnage.

It had happened at seven oh six.

At seven oh six, he had been making love to his wife.

At seven oh six, he'd been listening to her soft exhortations and whispered cries of heat and passion.

And the cries of pain and terror, the pleas for help, the screams of the people now dead, had gone unheard.

"I spoke to a couple of the other drivers too," Lois went on huskily after a moment, the slight squeeze of her fingers against his sleeve her only acknowledgement of his silence. "They all say the same thing. That it looked like she was aiming to take out as many of them as she could. If she hadn't clipped that last car in passing and spun off, she might just have done it too."

Almost reflexively, with the words, her eyes rested on the bright yellow school bus which was parked at a skewed angle on the edge of the street, mercifully, unscathed. Clark's followed, then came back to her.

"They take Suzanne to the Morgue?"

"No. They took her to Our Lady of Mercy Hospital. She's alive, Clark. Or, at least, she was half an hour ago, when they finally cut her clear."

His gaze had returned to the burned out vehicles and she saw the haunted look take over his face.

"Clark?" she said gently. She tugged lightly at his sleeve, gaining his attention, pulling him back from where he'd retreated, leaving her behind.

He turned his head and Lois felt a small, sharp quiver of pain run through her heart in response to the bleak guilt in his eyes.

"I should have - " he started and she shook her head, put up her hand to place it against his lips before he could complete the thought.

"No. You can't always be there for me and you can't always be there for them," she told him firmly. She put her hands up, taking hold of his face and preventing him >from turning away, keeping his gaze locked on hers, pierced by the sudden fierceness in her eyes. "Clark, you can't feel guilty for giving yourself a life, for letting yourself be happy. You just can't. You do what you can. For all of us, for everyone. Don't beat yourself up whenever your life and what the rest of Metropolis needs you to give them come into conflict. If you do, you'll tear yourself apart." She paused then whispered, "You'll tear us apart."

"Lois - "

"Please, Clark," she pleaded softly. "Don't tell me that all you remember about being with me this morning is guilt. Don't tell me that you regret holding me in your arms and making love with me. Don't. You think I could stand to know you think of me, of what we have, of all the moments we have together, as just something that gets in the way of you being…who you are? Something that makes you feel guilt and regret? That you wish wasn't there to prevent you saving those people and keeping them alive?"

He was silent a moment longer and then he shook his head slightly and pulled her into his swift embrace, hugging her tight against his chest as he buried his face in her hair and closed his eyes.

"How could I?" he whispered after a moment. "I could never regret one moment spent with you, Lois. Not one. Don't ever think that I would."

She held him tight, letting him soothe himself in her and then gently drew herself away, before they could begin to attract too much attention from the people around them. She knew he hadn't truly taken her words to heart, but she also knew that he would. He would fret on this, brood on it, obsess over it until her heart bled tears for him…but eventually he would put it into perspective and he would let it go. It was the only way he knew how to survive. How to go on.

"Come on." She tapped him against the arm with the notepad and then turned smartly on her heel. "We've got a story to track down," she told him firmly over her shoulder. The only way *she* knew how to survive.

And go on.

Clark hesitated, taking one more last glance around the devastation of the street, and then followed as she ducked beneath the line of police tape. He caught up with her as she turned the corner at the end of the block. She stopped with a jolt. He followed her gaze and was provoked into holding back a small smile, despite his grim mood.

"You want me to drive?" he offered.

Lois stiffened her shoulders into a tight line. "No, I can drive just fine," she said, carefully off-hand. Despite the casual words though, she had an air about her of someone bracing themselves for a distasteful task as she marched for the Taurus, mumbling under her breath.

It sounded to Clark like an exhortation. The words 'car thief' and 'never around when you want one' seemed to figure prominently. She glanced up at him with a scowl as he walked around to the Taurus' other side. He shrugged.

"You know, we could have left this back at the house and — "

" — spent the entire day riding around in cabs and subways again." Lois opened the driver's door and slid behind the wheel. She reached across the seats and unlocked the passenger door for him. "Which is pretty dumb when we've got a…car of our own," she added as he got in. The hesitation was slight and her tone soured only marginally on the designation.

She jammed the key into the ignition, twisting it sharply. She might just have flinched as the Taurus' engine roared choppily into life. She put her foot to the gas and eased her way into the downtown traffic. Her fingers tightened, just a little, on the wheel as that roar settled into a broken snarl, interrupted occasionally by a faint cough. She turned right onto Central Boulevard.

"Aren't we heading for the hospital?" Clark asked, looking across his shoulder at the intersection not taken and left behind them.

She shook her head. "Suzanne Hallier isn't gonna give us any better a story than Mary-Ann did. That's if she can talk to us at all."

"So…where are we headed?" he asked a moment later, as it became clear that she wasn't making for the Planet.

"S.T.A.R. Labs. I think it's about time we talked to Klein."

"You sure that's a good idea?" he said, dubiously. "We only faxed that stuff through yesterday. He might not even have read through it yet, never mind found out anything we can use. Besides, maybe it'd be just a little more…polite…to wait for him to call us? We're not all he has to think about, you know?" he chided her lightly. "He does have other work to do."

"Polite doesn't get you stories, Clark. If he hasn't read the file by now, we'll just have to stick around while he does." Lois gave him a tight look. "I'm getting tired of fumbling around in the dark. It's about time we knew what we were dealing with. And, one way or another, Klein's going to tell us what we want to know. Suzanne Hallier's going to be the last of them," she promised him, grimly. "Or I'm hanging up my press pass."

***

"Actually, it turned out to be even more useful than the original time lapse experiment." Klein waved down Clark's commiseration over the previous day's upset with a dismissive hand. "The data we generated! It'll take us months to calculate it all."

"Oh. Well, that's good," Clark ventured politely. "Thanks for setting aside the research to help us out on this; we know how busy you must be and — "

"Oh, no trouble at all! I've passed that over to the lab. I was just cross- breeding pollinated African mirk-seed pods to pass the time." Klein lowered his voice. "Rampant little devils. But they only get around to mating once a year and even then it takes them about six months to get the mechanics right. Believe me, you want thrills and excitement, you'd be better off renting a video."

Lois nodded solemnly. "Uh-huh."

"Besides," he grinned up at them as he seated himself behind his lab desk, "you two always bring me such interesting problems to chew on. You and Superman, of course, that is." He spread his hands. "Always delighted to help."

"And…you've been chewing on this one?" Clark asked, hopefully.

"Ah. Yes, indeed. *Extremely* interesting. I started with those elevated adrenaline levels. Could mean anything of course, not much help there. But…" he swung his chair around to face his computer screen and began to tap vigorously at the keyboard, "…if you'll bear with me just a moment…this virulent chemical compound of yours took things in an intriguing direction…"

Lois tried to lean far enough forward to view the screen over his shoulder. The angle was awkward though. Clark reached out abruptly to snag her by one arm, steadying her just as she was in danger of knocking over several of the test tubes arranged on the table edge. She gave him an abashed glance and straightened up again, disappointed and holding her impatience in check with an obvious and not entirely successful effort.

"Well?" she demanded, after a moment.

"Hmmmm? Oh. Yes. Well, TDR, that's just a standard, common or garden defoliant. It's used widely throughout the industrial base. Not only here in the US, but in Europe and many parts of Asia too."

"We know that," Lois told him, impatience growing.

"Didn't you get our fax updating you on that?" Clark asked. "It's not TDR at all, it's — "

"Compound 21. Yes, I know."

"Compound 21?"

"What's Compound 21?" Clark echoed his partner's suddenly interested tone.

"Something much less clean than any weedkiller currently on the market and much more interesting besides. TDR is a researched 'clean' third generation offshoot of the original C21 compound. Which is why it was easy enough for the ME's office to misdiagnose in the first place. Naturally, they share characteristics. And with C21 supposedly out of circulation, diagnosing it or an outbreak of SPS was ludicrous. Like putting down bubonic plague or smallpox as the cause of death. Quite impossible. Hasn't been seen once in over twenty years. Once I'd gotten access to the classified files, though, I was able to backtrack TDR's pedigree to C21 and Siang Pheung. Very nasty - ah, here we are," he paused as the screen bleeped at him softly and began to fill with scrolling information. "Now, would you look at that? Incredible. Quite incredible." He shook his head slowly, obviously impressed.

"Uh, Dr. Klein?" Clark said and, as Klein looked up on him, startled out of his musing, "SPS?"

"What? Oh! Of course. Siang Pheung Syndrome. Now, *that* is interesting! It's undoubtedly what these women of yours died from, a by-product of C21 contamination. Of course, C21 is just an affixed prefix code, given it by the military. Its true scientific genealogy is — "

"Uh, why don't we just stick to C21 for now?" Clark told him hastily.

Klein looked disappointed. Then he sighed. "Right. Single syllable explanation?"

Clark gave him a fixed smile. "If you don't mind."

Klein sighed again. "Okay," he said, twisting around in his chair to face them. "C21 was originally developed for use in the Vietnam conflict. Its efficiency, in that respect, was well enough documented; it did the task reasonably well. It wasn't until it had been used in the field for a time that the military realized they had a problem with it. A rather nasty problem. About six months after it had been introduced, a routine patrol went missing in an area of forest close to a small village called Siang Pheung. When rescue patrols finally discovered the bodies, their first assumption was that the men had been caught in an ambush. The bodies were pretty much torn up. But the evidence didn't support the theory. Pathology on the bodies made it clear that their wounds were, largely, self-inflicted. It was an unusual enough incident to attract the attention of the military scientists, of course. Or, at least, of one particular section of the military in particular."

"Bureau 39," said Clark, softly.

"Yes. They had the bodies shipped back to the US for intensive study."

"And they found?"

"That seepage of C21 was a commonality in all cases. Seepage occurs with most defoliants, of course, but this was something much more insidious. Their conclusion was that, in large enough quantities and, in conjunction with certain, other factors, C21 residue promotes extraordinarily high levels of adrenaline in the human body through emotional stimuli - fear, anger, paranoia - some of the men in that lost patrol showed adrenaline levels which were off the scale."

"But Adams told us that the traces of TDR - of C21 - weren't enough to account for the adrenaline rise," Lois said, testily.

"And, normally, he'd have been right. Tap into the blood count of any city resident and you'll find a whole cocktail of chemical contaminants. Most of them are well within EPA safe limits. But, in *this* instance, the presence of C21 changes everything. Those trace results of C21 are entirely consistent with SPS contamination. Large quantities of C21 produce increased adrenaline production, as I've said. And in turn, the mix of C21 and adrenaline produces a chemical transformation, unique to SPS. The adrenaline somehow changes the structure of C21 itself, in ways that were never fully understood, or, at least, never fully documented, by Trask's clinicians. It reduces it to harmless blood oxygenates. Leaving behind nothing more than a trace in the host body, after death."

"So, the fact that C21 is present at all," Clark said slowly, "combined with the high adrenaline levels, would mean — "

" - that C21 was originally present in these victims in massive amounts, prior to death, yes."

"What other factors?" Clark asked thoughtfully. "You said, 'in conjunction with other factors'," he reminded the scientist as Klein looked blankly back at him.

"Oh, right. Yes, well, the truth is that the Bureau's data is pretty ropy on the subject. Appallingly ill-conceived lab results; little wonder they couldn't reach any satisfactory conclusions. Typical military thinking, of course, flawed from the outset and — " Klein paused as he caught the spark of exasperation blossoming in Lois' eyes, cleared his throat heavily and continued, "Well, like I say, their work was inconclusive. But, the truth is that C21 is nothing more than a catalyst. Although a powerful one, I'll grant you."

"A catalyst? Working with what?"

"That," Klein told him solemnly, "is the six million dollar question."

Clark raised a brow at him. "Can you find us a six million dollar answer?"

"I can work on it. The small victim base is a problem, of course, hard to establish a true pattern on such a small sample. The data could be off by a substantial curve."

"Tell us about it," murmured Clark wryly.

"But we do have some basis to work from. I'll get on it. Of course, I could do with a sample of C21 to compare forensics with, but that's likely to take time. It was officially taken out of circulation after Siang Pheung. Except for the limited stocks retained in a few government licensed labs, of course."

"Why of course?" Lois said. "With something this unpredictable - "

" - and useful, don't forget. You know these army types. Always looking to kill something."

They let that soak in.

"You said the information on C21 was classified," Lois said, after a moment. "Classified by who? Trask?"

"Well, it was from the outset. Siang Pheung was a major embarrassment, of course, at a time when most everything was under wraps, just on general principle. I had to go digging quite some way to find any trace at all of C21 *or* SPS. The military didn't want any lawsuits pending from the families of those soldiers, you know? Besides, from what I've read, it seems that there have been rumors among the military scientific communities for a long time that the men in that patrol weren't C21's only victims. Anecdotal evidence of shipments of bodies to the US for study has been around for years - if you knew where to look. And most of us didn't. That's a cover-up bigger than Roswell," he added drolly. "Although I guess it was easy enough to hide even a substantial number of victims among other fatalities. Just how many victims there were is impossible to tell. The Bureau didn't want any of that surfacing. And, after they were disbanded, I suppose the NIA didn't see any reason why it should change things either. Certainly, the F18 rating was never lifted. But then, you know the military mind. Once a thing's classified you might as well try shifting the moon than get its designation changed."

Lois nodded, well familiar with the obstructive nature of governments.

Clark though had his mind elsewhere. "So many," he murmured and, catching their inquisitive looks, "So many bodies. In Siang Pheung. Male and female too, probably. But not here. We've had just eight deaths in the past few days and all of them women. If this is so corrosive a contaminant, why haven't we seen more? And if it is the same contaminant why no variation in the victim pattern? Herrera was right; we should be seeing an epidemic by now. Right across the board."

Klein shrugged. "It's possible that C21 is working with more than one chemical source. That's not unheard of in any catalyst. It could even be that this version of C21 has mutated on a generation or two from the original. It might not be the same animal at all any more. As for your victim pool, there could be many chemical substances routinely ingested by the female population of Metropolis, not shared by their male counterparts. In fact, if you wanted me to make an off the cuff assumption right now, I'd say it's probably reacting with some form of birth control prevention. All of your victims were young, unmarried females: it's not improbable they shared the same source BCP."

"Estelle Pinchenski…?" Clark said, sounding doubtful. "She didn't seem the type."

"The type?" Lois favored him with a level look as Klein watched them, slightly befuddled. She folded her arms. "The type for what? Exactly?"

"Well…you know. I'm just saying…" Clark added defensively as her eyes narrowed on him.

"You'd probably be surprised," Lois told him snippily. "Besides, she was harboring dark thoughts on Reverend Gipe, remember? She may have decided now was the time. Or maybe she was taking BCP under medical advisement."

He continued to look doubtful. "There wasn't a history of medical problems on the preliminary path report." He glanced at Klein. "How high a probability quotient would you put on this one?"

"Out on a limb? Right now? About seventy per cent."

"That high?" Clark said, considering.

"That would be alongside the primary source, of course - the source chemical which was common to the previous victims, who weren't female. BCP wouldn't apply there. But, that's certainly where I'll start cross-matching when the ME's office faxes through the complete pathology reports."

"Doesn't the Bureau data help you out there? On the possible source for the previous victims?"

"No. The Bureau terminated its research long before it was concluded satisfactorily. From the lab notation, it seems they simply lost interest, found other things to occupy them. What conclusions they had reached are patchy at best. That C21 was a catalyst; that there had to be a secondary source in the bloodstream of the victims for it to work on to produce the adrenaline abnormalities. But what that commonality was, they apparently never discovered. They hadn't found any match to the victims, although they'd begun some investigative research on bloodwork, which was never completed. Anyway, as I say, it at least gives me a starting point. I'll put out a chemical hazard warning online and a request for a core sample, pick up where the Bureau's research left off, and," he spread his hands at them, "I'll get back to you, soon as I know anything else."

Clark nodded. "Thanks. We appreciate it."

"Oh, just one more thing." He raised his voice after them suddenly as they headed for the door. "You've been investigating these cases. That would include, I assume, visiting several locations common to the deceased?"

Lois exchanged a glance with Clark. "Well, yes. We've done some background work on — "

"Yes." Klein nodded thoughtfully and then rose to his feet. "Now, that could be useful. Maybe I should take blood samples from you both. It might help eliminate — "

Clark had begun to look alarmed. Now he shook his head vigorously. "Oh no, I don't think — "

"It'll only take a moment." Klein began to root in a plastic tray on the shelf behind him and came up with a couple of plastic coated sterile-sealed syringes. "I can do it right now and — "

"No, really, I couldn't." Clark held up a protesting hand, beginning to back off slightly as Klein advanced on him.

"I'll do it!" Lois stepped hastily between them, already hauling off her jacket and rolling up one sleeve. She smiled at Klein as he paused. "Clark's just a little squeamish about this sort of thing."

"Squeamish…" Clark brightened a little. "…yeah…"

"I mean, one look at a hypo and - " She hitched her shoulders in a 'isn't that so ridiculous, but what can you do?' gesture.

"Can be out cold for hours," Clark agreed. "In fact," he hooked a thumb across his shoulder, "I think I'll just wait outside, while you…you know…I'm feeling a little bit…" He headed rapidly for the door. Lois was intrigued to notice that he actually looked pale.

"I'd really need comparative samples," Klein yelled after him.

"You can compare mine with the victims'," Lois maintained firmly. "Besides, we've been everywhere on this together. Neither of us visited any site connected with Karen or Estelle on our own. Believe me," she took in a small breath and then firmed up her smile, "you won't find anything in Clark's blood that isn't in mine."

Klein paused and then shrugged. "Well, okay then, sure," he agreed. "All right, Lois, if you want to just sit down here a moment…"

He glanced back, looking after Clark with a slightly surprised expression, then shook his head, half wonderingly. "Well, I guess you learn something new about people every day," he remarked mildly, with a smile at Lois as he proceeded to take the blood sample from her.

***

They traveled back to the Planet in silence, each of them caught up in their own thoughts, mulling over what Klein had told them. In fact, the only thing to break that silence throughout the twenty-minute journey had been a burst of corrosive cursing and threats from Lois when the Taurus stalled on her at an intersection, while she waited for the light to change.

The curses had been very specific, the threats slightly less defined, although both the Taurus itself and their insurers had figured significantly in the midst of them. She had all but kicked the offending vehicle in its already dented door, after parking it in the Planet's underground bays. She'd seethed silently in the elevator and, by the way she stormed out of it to head for her desk and snatch up the phone, Clark had had a fair idea of who was going to be first on her call list.

He didn't envy them.

Keeping his head down and leaving her to it, he detoured to the coffee station and mixed them both some of the potent beverage. Loading his mug liberally with sugar and cream, he sipped absently at the brew as he settled himself in his chair, switched on his computer and began to flick through his mail.

His computer beeped softly and he raised his head. A yellow happy face greeted him. It was an especially *bright* happy face, with an especially wide and vapid grin, and the nauseatingly lime green background on which it sat didn't make it any the less easy on the eyes.

Clark sighed. "Lo-is…" he complained under his breath.

She'd been mounting a campaign for the past month to get him to change to the more vibrant, in your face images she favored for wallpaper. The happy faces, a bright red bouncing ball, a dazzling, eclectic collection of refractive metallic colored squares that should have required Raybans as a statutory health and safety regulation before viewing was permitted. All of these - and worse - had begun to greet him in the mornings, replacing the more sedate images he preferred; soothing, calming pastoral views of Tibetan mountains or rolling amber Kansas fields.

Sedate was boring, his irrepressible wife had insisted. And, worse, it stifled creative flow. Restricted the mental juices. Put you to sleep. A reporter needed something first thing in the morning that went - pow! And not that, she'd maintained firmly when he'd tried to change the subject onto one that interested him much more. Some pizzazz, some jazz, something to keep them awake. She'd waved a disdainful hand at his graceful and delicate Chinese water fountain wallpaper with the words.

When Clark had refused to be converted, she had grown more insidious. He had gotten used to finding his wallpaper subverted by a brunette gremlin whenever he switched on the screen. So far, he hadn't buckled under. He simply found an image more offensively mild than the one she'd supplanted and waited doggedly for his wife to realize she was beat.

Course, she hadn't shown much signs of comprehending that yet.

Grumbling, Clark reached for the mouse, fully intent on reconstructing the soothing image of an eclipsed sun which had been there only the previous day and reminded himself to change the encryption codes on his computer, hopefully locking her out again. So far, he'd only managed to succeed for a couple of hours before she somehow managed to over-ride his security codes and sneak her way back in. How did she do that, he thought, shaking his head and then started as a hand slapped at his, dislodging it from the mouse.

"Oh no, you don't!"

"Lo-is!"

Lois, having vented her spleen on the hapless insurers and looking decidedly more cheerful now, perched herself on the edge of his desk. Her eyes glinted, mischief written all over them. She glanced at the screen. "Don't you like it?" she said, injecting a wounded note into the question. As though it were an anniversary gift he'd just rejected.

"It's…" he waved a hand at the screen, at a loss. "It's bright."

"It's fun."

"It's garish."

"It's…stimulating."

Clark glanced at her. She looked back at him innocently. "Could be worse," she said.

He lifted a brow. That sounded like a threat. "It could?" he asked, a little uneasily.

"Sure, it could." She looked casually around her and then murmured, "I could use a certain shield in red and yellow next time."

Clark's eyes went wide. He glanced across his shoulder and then came back to hiss, "You wouldn't!"

"I wouldn't?"

"No…" Clark narrowed his eyes, relaxing slightly. "You wouldn't." Course she wouldn't. What had he been thinking?

"Oh, come on. Who'd notice? Really?" Lois smiled in a way that abruptly resurrected all of his doubts. "I've had a Superman screensaver for years and no one thinks that *I* moonlight in tights."

"That's different. Everyone knows you're - " He broke off, recognizing that he was drifting into dangerous waters.

Lois' smile faded. "I'm what?"

"Nothing." He went back to his mail, studiously.

"I'm what?" She nudged him firmly against one shoulder when he feigned deafness. "I'm *what*?"

Clark mumbled something.

"What?"

"Infatuated with Superman," he muttered again.

"I am not!"

He looked up. "You're not?"

"You know what I mean." She scowled at him. "Can we change the subject now?"

Clark hid a smile. Aha! Gotcha!

"Anytime, sweetheart."

Lois' eyes cooled on him. "I checked the fax machine, voice *and* e-mail. Yours too. Nothing's come in yet," she said tartly. "Anything in there?" She jerked her chin at the stack of mail and papers that had, as usual, appeared on his desk by mysterious means overnight.

"I haven't gotten through all of it yet," he told her. He gave her a glance >from out of suddenly twinkling eyes. "I got distracted by the Technicolor experience."

Lois' glared at him and he chuckled. "Okay…" He glanced furtively over his shoulder. Taking the cue, Lois moved her body to further shield him from the rest of the newsroom. Catching the motion, Clark looked up at her briefly. They exchanged a small smile. Then, in a blur of flashing fingers and tearing paper, he checked through the remainder of the mail in a matter of seconds.

He shook his head. "Nothing interesting. We got a couple of responses back >from the Unity P.D. in Maine, but nothing that helps any. Far as they're concerned, Karvin was the perfect candidate for Citizen of the Year: clean living, sober through the week, not as much as an outstanding parking ticket on record, and never missed a Sunday service."

"Hard to do, being the town preacher," Lois judged sourly. She kneaded an absent hand at her arm and grimaced slightly. "They throw you out of the Preacher's Guild for less, down in that neck of the woods."

"Yeah," Clark said. But he was distracted. "What's wrong with your arm?"

"What? Oh…" She eased the offending limb a little more. "It's just a little stiff, that's all," she said dismissively. But she rubbed at the arm again and bit down softly on her lower lip. "Let you in on a secret?" she ventured, after a moment.

"Sure." He looked up at her, expectantly, and a little concerned now, caught by the tentative note in that.

She hesitated, then confided, uncomfortably, "I *hate* needles."

"Really?" he said, surprised and, though he might never show it, just a little amused too. Given the solemn and reluctant nature of this confession, he'd half expected her to reveal some dire secret just a little darker than that one.

"Have done ever since I was a kid." She shifted uneasily, slightly flushed now. "I know - pretty dumb, right?"

"No, it isn't." He put a reassuring hand on her knee and patted it soothingly. "Everyone's afraid of something, Lois. And lots of people are afraid of needles."

"Well, I didn't say I was *scared*. Exactly. I just don't like them, that's all. Although, I will say I dread all those precautionary vaccinations that Perry insists we keep up with to keep the health insurance valid."

"Well, you know, we roving reporters have to be ready to catch a plane in a hurry. 'Wherever, whenever', remember?" he told her with a light smile, quoting one of Perry's favorite maxims. "Can't waste time in a waiting room catching up with our shots when we should be chasing a hot story overseas."

"Well anyway, I tell you, the guy who invented those little pills you take these days for anti-malarial protection is a saint in my book," Lois said thankfully. "Those shots were always the worst. Every time. I sure don't miss them." She regarded him curiously as a thought occurred. "How do you get away with that?"

"With what?" he said distractedly as he went back to searching through the mail.

"The shots."

"Oh, those." He shrugged. "I have my ways."

"Ways?"

He gave her an amused glance. "Lois, I only need to produce the certificate twice a year. I don't have to roll out any witnesses."

She gave him a half-scandalized stare. "You don't!" She glanced around her and then leaned forward slightly to hiss, "You *forge* your health certificates? Clark! Isn't that…well, just a little bit unfair?"

"About as much as the Planet paying premiums on health insurance I'm never going to use," he defended himself, laconically.

Lois made a thoughtful moue. "Never thought of that," she admitted. Her gaze turned mercenary. "You couldn't forge mine, could you?"

"Lois!"

"Okay, okay, forget I asked." She scowled. "But, you do owe me one. Big time. And don't think I won't collect. I think Klein forgot he wasn't taking a stab at one of his lab rats. Heavy-handed wasn't the word. And I swear he took twice as much from me to make up for not getting any from you," she grumbled, as she gave her aching arm another rub.

"Sorry." He grinned up at her and then glanced in both directions to ensure they were still alone, before he murmured, "Not quite what you expected to be part and parcel of being married to the Man of Steel, huh?"

"No. But," she leaned closer, eyes mischievous as she lowered her own voice to confide, "it does have its compensations."

"It sure does." He put a hand against her cheek, drawing her close as he kissed her. "Thanks for the cover."

She smiled. "Anytime," she breathed. A silken promise that seemed to encompass more than just the subject under discussion alone did. Her eyes were bright and soft on his. Losing himself in their dark, toffee-colored depths, he started slightly as the phone rang suddenly at his elbow. He cleared his throat roughly as he reached out to answer it. Lois watched him smugly, well aware of the effect she'd been having on him. Her expression turned more intent though as he listened, his own smile fading.

"I see. Well, thanks for letting me know. Really? Well, yeah, it's interesting. Okay. Yeah, sure. I'll be in touch. Thanks again, Sal."

"Something wrong?" Lois asked as he replaced the receiver carefully.

He dropped the pencil he'd picked up to the desk and leaned back tiredly against his chair. "My source at Our Lady of Mercy. Suzanne Hallier didn't make it. She died on the way in."

"Oh…" Lois held back a sigh as she put a commiserating hand to his shoulder. "You know, I'm beginning to hate this story," she said heavily. "She's going to tell us more dead than she ever could have alive, isn't she? Just like the rest of them."

"Well, she's told us one thing," he agreed. "Herrera's way off target. She wasn't a brunette," he elaborated as she gave him a questioning look.

"She wasn't?"

"Nope. Natural blond under all that dye. Green eyed." He shook his head. "I'd best call Adams. See how soon he can confirm she was one of ours."

But he made no move to pick up the phone. A distant look took over his face.

"Clark?" Lois asked, expectantly, noting his distraction. She knew that look.

"Suzanne Hallier," he murmured and then, puzzled, as he looked up at her, "Something you said?"

"Something *I* said?"

"Yeah. Something…back at the crash site…something about Suzanne…"

Lois shook her head, unable to help. "I don't — "

"Something about…" he trailed off, trying to catch up with the elusive thought, and then, sitting up straight, eyes brightening as it hit him all at once, "The airport!"

"The airport?" Lois repeated slowly, mystified.

"You said that the traffic cop who pulled Suzanne Hallier over picked her up coming off the airport sub-route! Didn't you?"

"Well…yes. But — "

Clark stalled her with a raised hand and snatched up the phone. He dialed quickly as she watched, barely tempering her impatience. By the time he'd finished up on the last of a flurry of calls, none of which had made much sense to her, she'd begun to frown.

"Okay." She glanced at the notes he'd made during those calls. "So, Suzanne had just returned from a business trip to Shanghai. What does that prove?"

"It's a link."

"It is?"

"Sure." He got to his feet earnestly, like a sales rep. trying for a major league sale, as she quirked a doubting brow at him. "Okay, okay…just go with me on this for a minute. Jennifer Alden - Gerrord's PA - said that Karen had been in Egypt just before she broke up with her fiance. That was what, three months ago?"

Lois nodded, cautiously.

"And Martin Gipe told us that Estelle had spent some of the inheritance she got after her mother's death on a trip to Tunisia. That would be around July or August of last year."

"So…?"

"Wait. Ginny Bolt, Susan Tavener and Emily Riess all worked overseas in the past year. In their statement to Herrera, Tracy Harrow's parents mentioned how happy she'd been just the week before. She'd just come home after a vacation with her roommates. She was taking a year out before starting her post- graduate degree course at U-Met. She was happy, they said. Looking forward to starting a new career. They couldn't understand why she'd want to kill herself. And Geraldine Samansa…"

He began a feverish search through the files on his desk. "Last night, when we were looking through…ah, here it is." Retrieving a sheaf of xeroxed sheets >from one of the files, he reviewed it rapidly and then thrust it at her, with all the air of producing a trump card.

"Her banking records?" Lois said, looking down briefly at the sheets and then up on him, dubiously.

"For the past twelve months. Look at the entry of November 12th last year."

Lois skimmed down the sheet obediently and then lifted that brow again. "She withdrew eight hundred dollars." Her tone hadn't lost that skeptical edge any, he noted. "A big purchase? She had a lot of bills to pay?"

"Nope. Spending cash. She went on vacation."

"Where does it say that?" Lois demanded, looking at the sheet again.

"It says that, right here." He handed her another sheet, on heavy, embossed paper this time and stamped with an official seal. "Confirmation of her passport renewal two weeks before. Plus," he took back the bank records and sifted through them, before turning them back to another page and returning them to her. "September 20th …?" He indicated the page, near the bottom, with one finger.

Lois bit thoughtfully at her lip. "She issued a check for eighteen hundred dollars to The Blue Horizons Travel Agency."

"Which puts eight out of our ten victims out of the country in the past year."

Lois frowned. "But not all visiting the same destination," she pointed out. "I mean all that we have here, really, is that they all went on vacation sometime during the past year. A lot of people do."

"Yes. *But* - "

"And, don't forget, it's not just a link to our victims, here in Metropolis, we need now. There's Klein's primary chemical source to consider too. That means those other victims, in Vietnam, have a connection to what's going on here. The soldiers."

"Ah. Now, they were *definitely* working overseas," Clark put in wryly.

"Clark - "

"Okay. But still - " he stopped the protest cold and sighed heavily, deflated under the weight of her steady gaze. "I'm reaching, aren't I?" he admitted, sourly.

Lois smiled, sympathetic. "Well…maybe, just a little. But, you know," she waved the Xeroxed sheets in her hand with an optimism which was as well intentioned as it was quite blatantly forced, "maybe it's…something we should check out anyway."

His disappointed look became just a little pained at this bald attempt to bolster him. He held out a hand for the sheets. "Please. Don't encourage me."

She laughed softly at his disgusted tone. "Well, you never know," she said, consolingly, as she handed them over. "It might pan out. We've got precious little else to go on right now. Besides, if it did turn out to be a link, it would mean that you could really give up on worrying about my being involved in this."

He frowned. "I could?"

"Sure." She hitched her shoulders at him. "I haven't been anywhere this past year, but right here in Metropolis. Not counting those two weekends we spent up in the mountains, of course."

"Ah." He smiled as he replaced the Xeroxed sheets in the Samansa file. "That wouldn't happen to be any kind of a hint. Would it?"

"No." She smiled back, eyes teasing, and then reached to take firm hold of his jacket lapel, tugging him closer as she went on, "But I *will* say that I hear Athens can be *very* nice, this time of year."

"It can?"

She nodded as he bent his head closer to hers.

"Lois!"

She glanced up. Perry crooked a finger at her from the doorway of his office.

Lois gave him an answering nod and let Clark go, reluctantly. "I'll be right back," she told him as she eased herself to her feet. "Meantime, why don't you find out where Patricia Radford and Mary-Ann Moakes went vacationing this year?"

He nodded as he reached for the phone.

"C.K., Donna gave me this for you. It was stuck in her mail."

Clark changed direction, putting down the receiver with the interruption. "Thanks, Jimmy. Ouch!" He paused as he took the slim, white envelope Jimmy was offering him, catching sight suddenly of the photographer's face. "What happened to you?"

Jimmy put up a finger to prod delicately at the wedge of puffy skin beneath his left cheekbone and winced. He told him. In quite a lot of detail.

"Turned out they'd sent Leanore home halfway through the afternoon," he finished. "I guess she kinda forgot to call; let me know. I figure the wedding's off," he added, morosely. "Alan and Amanda's that is. Least, they were still fighting on it, after Alan threw me out."

Clark was watching him solemnly from where he was leaning back against his chair, one finger laid across his lips in a typical posture of concentration. He dropped his hand to the armrest and raised a brow at his friend.

"Jimmy, has it ever occurred to you that this relationship isn't panning out the way you figured it might?"

"All the time. But, c'mon, C.K.," Jimmy put his hands on the back of the chair and swung it around slightly till it was facing the filing cabinets on the other side of the room. He leaned on crossed arms against its back to murmur, appreciatively, "you got to figure you have to go the extra mile for something that looks that good. Right?"

Clark studied Leanore's trim figure with him as she picked up another file. He couldn't disagree. Besides, he thought, with a small smile, when it came to putting effort into a relationship which seemed pretty much jinxed, impossible and was never going to work, he guessed he was the last person to be handing out advice on cutting your losses and leaving be. He glanced up into Jimmy's sunny grin. It was the smile of a man who was supremely confident. Mostly because he was just too dumb to know any better. Clark couldn't help but respond to its infectious conviction that things were going to turn out just fine in the end, even if he didn't exactly believe it himself.

"Okay, I'll buy it," he said, with the air of a man leaping headfirst into a decision he already knew he was going to regret. He spread his hands wide. "What's Plan D?"

Jimmy straightened purposefully and leaned across the desk partition. "Well, I know she's a real big boxing fan. So, I thought I'd ask her out to the big fight, you know, at the Metrodome?"

Clark considered it. He made a moue of grudging approval. "Sounds bombproof so far," he conceded.

"Yeah. I mean…what can go wrong? Right? Anyway, I remembered you saying you had some books about boxing, so I wondered if I could maybe borrow a couple? Bone up a little…?"

"You mean she's agreed to go? She's talking to you again?"

"Well, not exactly. But I'm sure if I can just — "

Clark held up a hand, stopping the earnest flow in mid-stream. "I don't want to know. But if you get her around to your way of thinking and you still need the books by this evening, then sure…no sweat. Can't you find what you're looking for online though?"

"C.K.! I'm not looking for facts here, you know? I'm looking for mystery, myth…heroes…the stuff of legend and - "

"…all the hard to find, little details you can impress Leanore with." Clark nodded sagely. "Okay, you got it. I'll get something together for you. Who's in the ring?"

"Who's in the ring?! C.K.! They've been billing this one for weeks."

"I've been kinda…busy…elsewhere."

"How could you miss all that hype? This is the fight of the century! Burston versus - C.K.? Hey, C.K.!" Jimmy prodded as a faraway look took over his friend's face, all at once.

"Uh, yeah," Clark rose hastily to his feet. "That's great, Jimmy. Um, I just remembered, I've got a couple of errands to run. But I'll look something up for you on that, okay?" he rambled quickly as he backed off, grabbing for his jacket. "I promise."

"Okay. Great." Jimmy shrugged easily, unfazed by this sudden change of direction. He'd known Clark long enough by now to be unsurprised by any of his seemingly frequent lapses in memory, merely accepting them as a character glitch he'd long since become familiar with. They all had, in the main. The man was famous for it, after all. Couple of years back, he remembered, Lois had presented Clark, somewhat ostentatiously, with a leather-bound organizer for Christmas. Or maybe it had been more of a hint than a gift. Anyway, to Lois' disgust, it hadn't seemed to make much difference to his ability to remember important appointments. Jimmy grinned slightly. He guessed she'd gotten used to it too. At least, she seemed to take it in her stride these days.

"Listen, tell Lois I'll catch up with her later, will you?" Clark said, hitching his way into his jacket as he headed for the stairs.

"Catch up to me where?"

Clark turned quickly around.

Lois stared at him, expectantly.

"Um, I'm just going out to…" He glanced sideways at Jimmy. "The drug store! Pick up that…prescription you asked me for."

"What prescription?"

He frowned at her. "The…uh, the *prescription*…?" He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "You asked me to — "

"Oh!" Her puzzled expression cleared all at once. "Yes. *That* prescription! Right!" She laughed nervously, giving Jimmy a sheepish glance. "I forgot!"

"Right," Clark said slowly. "So, I'll just go - "

"Right! Sure! I'll…see you later."

He nodded, giving her another curious look before he headed for the stairs at a fast lope.

Lois closed her eyes briefly, giving her head a small shake. "What is *wrong* with you today?" she muttered.

"Lois?"

"Yes!" She jerked up her head and smiled brightly at Jimmy.

"Are you okay? You're looking kinda pale."

"Yes. Yes, just fine. Fine." She nodded quickly. "I'm just fine." But her smile slipped a little as she sat down heavily in Clark's chair. "Just tired, that's all. I…didn't get much sleep last night."

"Oh. Right." He gave her a wide grin, which seemed to have read more into that than she'd intended him to. Lois frowned after him as he left and then sighed as she set herself to trawling through the mess of mail that Clark had abandoned.

Abandoned was right, she thought, a small, irrational spark of irritation rising in her as she went through it. You know, when you got right down to it, it just wasn't fair, the number of times he skipped out on things, leaving her to deal with them before anyone noticed he was gone. Wandering off without a by your leave…expecting her to pick up the pieces…make up the excuses… She rubbed irritably at her arm again, almost unthinkingly, with the thought. Leaving her to do everything…and, if there was one thing she just couldn't stand, it was someone who didn't pull his share of the weight around the —

She cut off the thought as surprise pricked her anger into shamed silence. What was she thinking, she asked herself, wonderingly. Blaming Clark for leaving to go deal with some emergency? What was wrong with her? A soft heat touched her cheeks. And not recognizing that prescription as an excuse to cover for his absence too - boy, was she slow this morning. She was *never* that slow. It was just ridiculous. But her head felt stuffed with cotton wool, somehow, and it was just that thinking was getting to be so difficult through the thick, growing pulse of pain that was beginning to band her forehead, like a vice. She felt nauseous, all at once. And hot. She was so hot. She closed her eyes, forcing her breathing to come deep and slow and then opened them again. The nausea passed. But the slow, vicious throbbing in her skull brightened.

Lois groaned softly. "Not again…"

She jerked open her desk drawer and fumbled blindly for the aspirin bottle she knew was in there. Dragging it free from among the unruly mess of papers, she paused and shook it slightly before muttering under her breath.

"Lois?"

"What?" She looked up sharply and promptly regretted it as the room spun wildly for a moment. She clutched harder at the arm of the chair, until it steadied.

Jimmy was back and studying her with that half concerned expression again.

For some reason, that irritated her too.

"What?" she said again, a touch more sharply than she'd intended.

"Nothing!" He held up peaceable hands. "I mean, I thought you said something, that's all."

"Oh. No. I think I need breakfast." She got to her feet.

"Huh?"

"Breakfast. You eat it, don't you?"

"Well, sure, I — " His uncertain grin faded as she walked abruptly away. "You want me to pick you up something?" he called after her.

"No. I need some fresh air too. I feel a little nauseous. I need…something to steady my stomach, I think." She turned back briefly to face him. "When Clark gets back — "

"I'll tell him where you've gone. The bistro, just like always, right?"

Lois nodded. "Oh," she added as an afterthought as she turned away. "What you *can* pick me up is more supplies."

She tossed the empty aspirin bottle at him and he caught it against his chest, double handed.

"Sure." he agreed easily.

Lois lifted a vague hand in absent thanks and headed up the ramp.

Jimmy looked after her a moment, frowning.

"Jimmy!"

He turned his head.

"Where's that research I ordered?"

Jimmy looked toward the elevator again and then back to where Diane Kerskey was waving at him, impatiently.

"Comin' right up!"

***

Lois wasn't paying too much attention to anything but the rough pounding in her skull and the growing queasiness in the pit of her stomach, so it took her a moment or two to realize that she had company as she stepped into the otherwise empty elevator. She turned her head and stifled a low sigh as she met a thick grin that would have scared seabirds into a major panic in the wake of a tanker disaster.

"Ralph," she said tersely. It wasn't entirely a greeting.

"Hey! Lois!" He cocked a finger at her as that oiled grin widened. "So, what's this I hear? Feeling a little under the weather, huh? I mean," he lifted quick protesting hands as she directed a frown at him, "not that I was eavesdropping or anything, you understand. Just happened to hear you saying, that's all. Nauseous, was it?"

Lois' frown hardened. "Ralph, not that it's any of your business, but — "

"Well, sure it is! Gotta look out for our fellow workers, huh?" He put out a hand, as though intending to give her a playful slap on the shoulder. Lois lifted an acid brow. The hand wavered awkwardly in air for a moment and then dropped back to his side. He shrugged instead. "Well, anyway, I was just wondering."

"Wondering what?"

"You know."

"No," she denied, tightly. "No, I don't."

"Well, it's about time, isn't it?"

That went by her for a moment. Then she said, suspiciously, as she looked him over, "Time for what?"

"You know…" He winked at her as she stared at him, completely confused now.

"Ralph, if you've got something on your mind - " her tone was both annoyed and unfriendly now and she just resisted adding that, in her opinion, it was doubtful he had a mind to have anything on.

"No…nuthin'. Well, just, you know. I've been trying to get a pool together, so a little bit of friendly insider information would be great. I figure we're gonna get an announcement any day now, right?" The grin did the impossible and became greasier still.

Lois growled under her breath and gave up on him, focusing her attention on the slow blinking countdown of the level indicator; which wasn't going fast enough, to her mind.

"I mean, you and Kent been married a while now an' here you are, feeling just a little green before breakfast…so, come on, Lois, you can tell ol' Uncle Ralphie. I swear I won't tell a soul. We're gonna be hearing the patter of little Kent feet soon, right?"

The elevator finally reached the lobby. Lois was halfway through the doors, hardly listening any more, when what he'd just said pierced the fog rolling over her thoughts. She stopped with a jolt and then swung back to fix on him dangerously, eyes suddenly smoldering a low heat.

"What?! What did you just say?!"

It was just a little unfortunate that Ralph had never been especially good at picking up on those particular danger signals. The appropriate response would have been to deny he had said anything at all, make his excuses, and beat a hasty retreat. Ralph, however, sealed his fate by waggling his fingers at her in a walking motion and flashing her a cheesy grin. "You know! Come on, Lois…spill! You are, aren't you?"

It was the grin that did it. The rest was incidental and she might just have been prepared to set it aside, being that this was Ralph and you had to expect that sort of drivel. But that grin was unforgivable…

Lois reached out a hand and thumped the parking level button, closing the elevator doors again.

"Hey, what you doing?!" Ralph protested. "I was getting off this floor! I'm not going to parking! Hey - !"

She ignored him, going back to the start of the conversation, all at once. She yanked at the stop button, halting the elevator with a jolt and effectively sealing them inside. She advanced on him, backing him into the corner as his eyes widened, belatedly becoming aware of his mistake.

"Are you saying," she snarled, "that you've been trying to set up a *pool* on when Clark and I will — " she stopped, indignation sticking the words in her throat.

"Well…hey, Lois…" Ralph's pallor had turned somewhat sickly now. He flashed a weak grin at her, holding up pacifying hands. "A pool? Course not!" He touched his fingers to his chest in a gesture of what he obviously hoped was seen as sincerity. "Would I do that?"

"That's what you said."

"Aw, c'mon…Lois…hey…I mean, jeez, can't you take a joke?"

Apparently, she couldn't.

As she'd made more than plain to him by the time she exited the elevator, some considerable time later; leaving him twitching behind her like a gopher unexpectedly run over by a freight train.

***

"Now, wait a minute. Okay, hold it!" Superman raised his voice to a soft yell as he was ignored. As yells went, it was barely much removed from his normally level tones. But then Superman didn't need to go much beyond that to get someone's attention.

This time the two elderly women stopped hurling insults at one another and eyed him, obediently.

"So, let me get this straight," Superman started slowly. He looked at the woman on his left. "*You* say this cat is yours — "

"Billy!" The woman nodded, gripping the glossy ginger tom tucked under her arm more firmly, as though he'd made a move to take it from her. "Bin with me six years now. An' she knows it too!" She snapped a glare at the woman beside her.

"That is such a bald faced lie!" the second woman protested. "My Tiger's been — "

"Tiger! Hah! *Your* dumb Tiger got run over by that county refuse truck in '92! Everyone knows — "

"He did not! You figure I don' know my own darned cat?!"

"Lily Belle Woodcote, you don't know the time of *day*, more times than you do! You wouldn't know — "

"Why you - ! Least, I know what day it is! You got that much liquor on the brain, you'd have trouble finding — "

"I ain't no drunk! I told you afore, you'd best quit telling folks I'm a drunk, Lily Belle, or I swear I'm gonna knock you sixways into next week!"

"Hah! You'd have to *find* next week first!"

"You - !"

"Okay. Okay, that's it!" Superman put gentle but firm hands to their shoulders and pulled them apart again as they waded in with more blows. "Is a cat really worth this?" he asked them sternly.

"My Billy's — "

"My Tiger's - "

" - a showcat!" they finished in unison.

Superman looked at the cause of the contention. It looked like a regular ginger tom to him.

"So, what you're really fighting over is the prize money? Not the cat?" he suggested.

"Of course not!"

"Don't be silly!"

"I wouldn't ask my Billy - "

" - to go into a showring. Not with — "

" - all those strange cats. Why he could pick up — "

" - anything! Just anything at all!"

Superman looked from one to the other as they burst into the tirade in tandem. He rubbed a suddenly tired hand across his forehead and then schooled his face into a sympathetic smile as they finished to stare at him again.

"So?" Lily Belle demanded.

"So…?" he repeated, warily.

"Well, you gonna tell her to give me my cat or not?"

"*Your* cat! You — "

They were off again in an instant. Superman watched helplessly, beginning to get the feeling he'd bitten off more than he could chew. The Man of Steel might deal in the blink of an eye with gun wielding bank robbers and grenade lobbing terrorists without breaking sweat, but these two were beyond him, completely.

"Lily Belle!"

A new voice entered the fray, stern and demanding obedience. Superman turned to view the middle-aged woman in the white starched uniform, who was showing every sign of annoyance with the two women. She did all but tap her foot impatiently as she stood studying them, hands on hips.

Lily Belle broke off her screeching and turned around with a start. All at once, a metamorphosis so fast it was startling, she looked like a recalcitrant child.

"What?" she said sullenly.

"Didn't I tell you not to leave the grounds? And you too, Maisie. You know you're not supposed to go on out without me."

"She said - " Maisie started, looking abruptly abashed.

"I did not!" Lily Belle denied quickly.

The woman sighed. "What on earth am I going to do with the pair of you? All right, come on. Let's get you on home." She glanced across her shoulder. "Thank you, Superman. I can get them home from here."

"Home?" Superman said.

"The West Pine Retirement Home." She pointed across the street. "It's just around the corner there. We don't usually let our residents leave the ground unsupervised." She sighed again, with another glance at the two old women that wouldn't have looked out of place on any mother studying her wayward children. "But Lily Belle and Maisie here just seem to keep finding a way." She smiled at him and then put an arm around the shoulders of the women, steering them away. "And you brought Toby with you too," she chided. "That was especially bad of you, Maisie. You know how upset everyone would be if he ran off."

"Wait a minute - Toby?" Superman said.

She looked back at him. "The cat."

"You mean…it doesn't belong to either of them?"

"Oh no! Toby's our resident house cat. He belongs to everyone at the home."

Superman stared after her, as she ushered the women on. Lily Belle looked across her shoulder at him and waggled her fingers in a sunny farewell that was accompanied by a gap-toothed grin.

Superman rolled his eyes skyward and then took off in a billowing swirl of red and gold.

If he'd been the man for it, he might have sworn a time or two as he took a course back to the Planet.

***

"Are you all right, dear?"

"What?" Lois looked up with a start and into the concerned blue eyes of the woman bending over her.

"I thought you looked dressed too smart to be a bag lady. I was over by the pond, feeding the ducks, I do every day, and…" the woman trailed off, uncertainly. "Well, like I say, you looked dressed so smart."

"I'm sorry…?" Lois said, confused.

"It just ain't that smart an idea to go sleeping on the benches round here. Too many muggers around, you know?"

"Sleeping…?" Lois glanced around her, automatically clutching her purse closer to her at the mention of muggers. She was sitting on a bench in the middle of the park. Well - she realized belatedly, reddening - more huddled into its corner, than anything else. "Sleeping…?" she said again.

"Have been for a while," the woman agreed. "I been feeding the ducks, like I say. I just thought I'd make sure you were all right. Sleeping in the park, that ain't a good idea," she reiterated.

"Oh," Lois said. "No. No, it's not. I mean…I wasn't. Really." She shook her head and then dredged up what she hoped was a normal enough smile to reassure the woman. "I was just…I'm okay. Really. Thank you."

"Ah. Well, I just thought I'd make sure."

"Yes. Thank you," Lois said again.

The woman walked away briskly, giving her only a couple of uncertain glances over her shoulder as she left.

Lois leaned back slowly against the curved ironwork of the bench. Her heart began a slow race. She was trying to remember just when - exactly - she'd come into the park. And why. She took a long, deep breath, beating back the faint pulse of panic that had begun to tighten in her chest. The last thing she clearly remembered was nursing a cup of coffee and an untouched plate of pancakes in a little street cafe, just around the corner from the Planet, and trying to beat down the simmering rage which Ralph had provoked in her with his dumb insinuations.

After that…

After that…nothing.

A brief and violent surge of air ruffled at her hair, pulling her from her confused thoughts, and she glanced up, reflexively, into the clear, blue sky overhead.

"Lois!"

She looked quickly around as Clark emerged from the thick shrubbery behind the bench, tugging haphazardly at his tie as he hurried for her. He took hold of her arm as she rose to her feet, relief and worry warring in his face.

"Lois, where you been?! I've been looking for you all over!"

"I - " She frowned. "I went to get breakfast. Didn't Jimmy tell you — "

"That was nearly two hours ago!"

"Really?" She glanced at her watch. It was almost eleven.

"Jimmy said you looked sick and, when I couldn't find you at the cafe, when I couldn't get a line on your phone — "

"Phone?" she repeated blankly. She pushed an absent hand into her jacket pocket and retrieved it. "I must have switched it off," she said, faintly surprised, as she inspected it.

"Must have? Well, don't you remember whether you did or didn't?"

"Well, I…yes. Yes, it kept beeping at me. It got annoying. I switched it off."

"Lois, it's supposed to beep at you. That's the whole point of having it with you, remember?" Clark complained, sardonically. But he'd relaxed a little, losing some of the tension that had been in him, now that he'd tracked her down. The panic that had been in his eyes had faded somewhat, although they still harbored a sharp concern as he watched her. His grip had shifted, his hands tight on her arms as though he felt that without that support to hold her upright she might just collapse on him entirely. Lois wished she didn't think he was probably right. Her nausea had gone, but the dizziness and feeling of detachment from her surroundings remained, confusing her. She shook her head slightly, narrowing her eyes against the bright slivers of sunlight that were blinding her, suddenly.

"Lois? Honey, are…okay? Jimmy said…felt…"

She rubbed a hand tightly at her forehead as his voice wavered in and out through the faint buzzing in her ears. "I'm fine." She put a hand to his sleeve and dredged up a smile for him. "I was feeling a little light-headed, that's all. I came out for some air. I was just about to come on back. I'm okay. Really," she added earnestly as he looked less than convinced. She was unaware of how pale she looked, of how bright her eyes were. He frowned and she took the initiative, pulling herself easily from his grasp and bending quickly to scoop up her purse from the bench. "Let's just get back to - "

The buzzing became a low, surging roar, all at once, and darkness rolled up and over her as she wavered on her feet. She darted out a hasty hand to clutch at the arm of the bench and thumped ungracefully to sit, before she fell. Clark was quickly beside her, his hand gripping her arm tight to keep her upright as he steadied her.

"Whoa…! Here…" His hand felt like ice as he pressed it to her cheek and forehead. "Honey, you're burning up! We should get you to a doctor and — "

"No!" She fended him off as he tried to pull her into his arms and, as he desisted, reluctantly, "I told you, it's nothing. I just felt a little dizzy, that's all."

"Lois, that's not all. Your temperature's way up and — "

"Okay!" She shook her head violently and then softened her voice as he looked wounded by what had almost been a yell. "Okay. So, maybe, I'm sickening for some virus or something. It's nothing serious. Look, why don't I just go back home, rest up a little. I'll be okay in an hour or so."

He opened his mouth and then bit back the automatic protest he'd been about to voice, under the weight of her level stare. He held back a low sigh.

"You don't look like you will," he said, doubtfully.

Lois smiled weakly. "This from the expert on colds and flu."

"I have *been* sick, Lois," he told her, dryly.

"It was hardly the same thing, Clark. You know, your problem is you need to remember we're not all Superman. We're not all invulnerable. Some of us go under now and then."

"I don't think everyone's — "

"It happens. We catch things. It doesn't mean that you should be picking out a headstone for me. Not yet, anyway. Okay? It's just some dumb virus at worst. And it probably isn't even that. Believe me, a couple of hours sleep and I'll be fine." She put her hands atop his and squeezed gently as she smiled, taking the sting from the words. "Now, will you please stop fussing?"

His manner had turned slightly hangdog now. "Well…okay, so maybe I am fussing…" She was right, he had a tendency to it, he knew. Not suffering >from human frailties, it was always difficult for him to judge just which of the seemingly myriad ailments that afflicted them were serious and which not; which he need worry about and which he could safely ignore. And, where his wife was concerned, he wasn't inclined to ignore any of them. "…just a little. But — "

"Yes, you are." She reached up to adjust the line of his collar and firm up the knot in his tie with deft hands before patting him soothingly against the chest. "Just a little." She leaned close and kissed him quickly, just to let him know that she understood, that she didn't mind really…so long as he didn't go overboard with it, of course.

Clark kissed her back, distractedly, but the anxiety didn't entirely fade from his eyes as he looked her over, searching for signs that she was feeling worse than she was making out. He knew how she could pull off a veneer of normality when everything was far from normal at all. But she did seem less pale and her eyes were clear and steady on his as she stared him out, challengingly; obviously well aware of what was prompting that close scrutiny and well prepared to fight him further on it, if he persisted.

"Okay. Fine," he said, half defensively. "It's just that…well, with you ducking out on me like that…I didn't know where you'd gone, how sick you were, and then, after last night, I was worried - "

"Last night?" she repeated, genuinely puzzled, and then, remembering all at once and with an exasperated murmur, "Oh, what? Clark, I had one lousy bad dream! So, what, you're gonna keep tabs on me for the next six months now?"

He flushed slightly. "Well, no, but…well, you were upset, and - "

"Sure I was upset! It was a bad dream. You said that yourself. I can't even remember what it was about!"

"Yeah, but - "

"Clark," she stopped him in his tracks with the firm interruption. "I am going back home. Just for an hour or two. I'm going to take some aspirin and I'll see you back at the Planet in a little while."

She stood, perhaps just a little cautiously and holding on to the arm of the bench just a fraction longer than she might have done. Clark followed her up hastily to hover protectively close, putting out a quick hand at her elbow to support her and leaving it there, stubbornly, as she lifted an acid brow at him.

"If that's okay with you?" she said waspishly.

He hesitated, then let go with another sigh. "You want me to drive you home?" he asked, resigned.

"No, that's okay. I can take a cab."

"You're not taking a cab."

"Clark - "

"Lois, please. Just let me take you on home?"

She held out an instant longer and then shrugged stiffly, as he stared her down. "Okay. Fine," she agreed, tone humoring.

Clark didn't care if she was humoring him or not, just so long as she let him. He glanced around him warily, ensuring that the park was empty, and then stepped back into the shadow of the shrub, for extra protection, before he spun in a tight circle.

"This is ridiculous," Lois told him, testily. "I could have gotten a cab. It's only a few blocks. Superman isn't some Metrocab service, you know."

He gave her a stern look as he lifted her into her arms, a look that foiled any further protest from her. Somehow, even now, she just couldn't form an argument against that familiar chiding look from Superman, like she could with Clark. From Superman, it always made her feel guilty. Though she'd never yet been able to reason out why it should. It seemed that stern frowns from Superman just had that effect on people. They had certainly encouraged more than one villain to give up their career in crime with celerity. She shook her head slowly. Maybe he just did it better than Clark could.

Superman took off with a leap that left her dizzy as she was considering that and deposited her safely on the top step of their brownstone, mere moments later.

"Well, you're faster than the average Metrocab," she said, as he set her on her feet. "I'll give you that."

He smiled. "And cheaper too." His expression grew serious. "You'll call me?" he urged her, unwilling to let her go, just yet. "If you need anything? If you feel any worse?"

"Yes."

"And you won't go anywhere without telling me first? You won't leave the house?"

"No."

"And - "

"Clark! Go! We've got a story to track down, remember? What did you find out about our other two victims?" she added curiously, nudged by the thought. "Did they go on vacation last year?"

"Oh," he shrugged. "No. Just like you figured, it didn't pan out. Patricia Radford was on safari in Kenya over the Christmas break. But Mary-Ann Moakes is looking forward to her honeymoon in three weeks time, not least because it's the first vacation she'll have had in the past three years. She hasn't been out of the country at all."

"Oh. Well, at least it was worth trying." She told him consolingly. "And Adams? Has he sent through the pathology report on Suzanne Hallier yet?"

He groaned. "I forgot about that! I'll call and remind him though," he promised hastily. "Just as soon as I get back to the paper."

Lois nodded and then pulled him forward, into the shadows of the lobby. She pressed her lips fleetingly to his, before giving him a light push. "So go. Call."

"Okay." He released her, reluctantly, and watched as she unlocked the front door. "I'll call you," he decided. "Check how you are."

She waved an absent hand at him, before vanishing into the house. He stayed on the step a moment longer, staring worriedly at the closed door, before he took off again with a low sigh.

***

He spent a frustrating couple of hours at the Planet.

"Well, yes, I do understand that, Officer," he repeated the assurance blandly, for the third time. "But, like I say, I'm not interested in writing any expos»s. Of Mr. Karvin or the evangelist movement."

He held back a sigh with an effort as he listened to the reply from the Unity P.D. Police Chief. After half a dozen calls spent chasing up their information requests of the previous evening, about all he'd managed to discover was that Dale Karvin was so universally popular among the twelve hundred strong population of his home town of Unity that not one of them was keen to talk to any reporters about him.

"My partner and I," he tried again, "are writing a series of articles on the United Church. You can call Mr. Karvin's press officer, if you want, Steven Thurst? He'll confirm we have Mr. Karvin's full co-operation. We have already interviewed him. Right now, I'm simply looking for background. Local color, you know," he added, mentally crossing his fingers with the half-lie.

"Clark? Lunch?"

He glanced up and held up a hand with a smile as Hank and Carol paused at his desk. Hank mouthed the question again and Clark shook his head lightly as he listened to the tinny voice on the other end of the line. Hank nodded and they moved on for the elevator without him.

"Okay. Sure, I'd appreciate anything you can come up with. Thank you, officer."

He replaced the receiver delicately in its cradle: as irritated as he was, it paid to be ultra-careful. He took a look at his watch and then reached to switch off his computer, relieved. He'd had about enough for the time being. He got to his feet and hooked his jacket from the back of his chair.

"Jimmy!" he raised his voice with a smile as he spotted the researcher on the level above him. "How are things going with Leanore?" he asked as Jimmy detoured easily in his direction.

"Well, she's agreed to go." Jimmy grinned broadly at him.

"Already?"

"Yup." Though Clark would have said it was flatly impossible, Jimmy's grin widened. "Hey, when you see Lois, tell her thanks."

"Thanks?"

"Well, she talked Leanore around. Explained about the casserole. And told her what a really nice guy I am too. She thinks it was kinda cute for me to go to all that trouble to impress her with my cooking. Uh, Leanore, I mean. Not Lois," Jimmy tacked on hastily, flushing a little.

Clark hid a smile. "Well, that's great. I'll be sure and tell her, Jimmy."

"Yeah." Jimmy glanced at Clark's blackened computer. "You not working lunch?" he said, surprised.

"Uh, no. I thought I'd get something at home. Check on Lois. You know."

"Oh, right." Jimmy frowned. "Didn't you call her earlier?"

"Well…yeah, I did. Coupla times. But…"

He shrugged and Jimmy picked up, with a sage nod, "You thought you'd just…check on her again."

"Right." Clark glanced at him with the firm agreement, as though slightly puzzled that Jimmy might consider he'd do anything else, under the circumstances.

"Uh-huh."

"Hey, listen, I'll pick up those books for you, while I'm there. Okay?"

"Great." Jimmy studied him, knowingly. "Need an excuse to go on over, huh?"

"No," denied Clark, and then, reluctantly, "Well…not exactly."

"Uh-huh," Jimmy said again.

Clark looked slightly sheepish. "Lois was a little…tense when I called last," he admitted as he shrugged absently into his jacket. "Anyway," he turned away, "I'll get something together for you and - "

"Hey! Look out!"

Diane Kerskey's warning came too late as he turned straight into her path and collided heavily with her. One of the half-full mugs on the tray she was carrying doused Clark liberally across the chest and arm with lukewarm coffee, as he reached out quickly to steady her.

"Sorry!"

"Oh! Clark!" Diane dumped the tray hastily to the nearest desk, clucking under her tongue as she snatched up a handful of tissues from a nearby carton. She dabbed feverishly at his shirt and jacket as he tried to protest that it wasn't anything to worry about. "I'm so sorry!"

"That's okay. My fault." He fended her off with a polite smile. "I should have heard you. I mean…" he amended, as she glanced up at him, surprised, "I wasn't paying attention. I should have been watching where I was going, I guess."

"Oh, but your shirt! Your suit!"

"Really, it's okay." He took the clump of already sodden tissues from her, firmly. "It'll wash out."

"But - "

"I was heading for home anyway." He glanced down distastefully at the damp, spreading patch on his shirt. "I can get the worst of it off in the restroom and change back home." He blotted half-heartedly at the stain himself.

"Just remember to dab," Diane cautioned. "Don't — "

" - rub." He grinned at her. "Yeah, I know. Really," he reiterated, as she looked doubtful. "It's no big deal."

"Well…okay. I guess." She gave him a reproachful glance as she picked up the tray again. "Just watch what you're doing though, huh? Lucky these weren't fresh." She nodded at the mugs.

"Yeah. I'll…be more careful, next time."

"You do that." She dropped the stern look as she sashayed off and gave him her usual, perky smile across her shoulder, instead. "Because, you know, Lois would've hung me by the ankles from the supply room window if I'd burned you!"

Clark left off wiping at his sleeve to look after her, startled, and then turned around at a familiar chuckle beside him.

"She would've too," Jimmy agreed.

"Uh, yeah. Look," Clark waved a vague, disgusted hand at his jacket, "I should go deal with this. I'll catch you later," he added, heading for the stairs.

"Sure."

Jimmy watched him go and then shook his head, a slow grin overtaking him as he went looking for lunch.

***

"Jen! Jennifer! What the hell is this?"

Jennifer Alden looked up quickly at her boss as he barreled out of his office and practically thrust a mauve square of paper under her nose. She took it >from him and squinted at it as he fumed impatiently beside her.

"Oh, Mazetti." She made a disgusted sound deep in her throat. "Dreadful little man."

"And he is?" Gerrord demanded impatiently.

"Well, he *was* Karen's landlord. He's been calling at least twenty times a day, since Tuesday. The police have given him permission to re-let Karen's apartment and - "

"That's very nice for him. What I want to know is why he's calling me about it?"

"Well, we're apparently the only personal contact for Karen that the police could provide him with. And - "

"Oh, for - " Gerrord interrupted her again, this time with a vicious curse. "We employed the woman, for heaven's sake! When did that make her *our* responsibility?" He glanced at the slip of paper she was holding. All of Gerrord-Andrews' memos were color coded by department and mauve represented Personnel. "You passed this…"

"Mazetti," Jennifer supplied, blandly.

"Yes. You passed him over to Personnel. So, why am I being bothered with it again? What does the man want anyway?" he added, annoyed.

"I think Geraldine needs permission to have Karen's personal effects stored before shipping to her parents," Jennifer said, referring to the head of the Personnel Department. "Mazetti wants the flat cleared right away and - "

"Oh, for goodness sake. Tell him to store them himself! It's not my problem, understand? It's not our problem. Karen's dead. She doesn't work here anymore. In case anyone's failed to notice that."

Jennifer wished he didn't make it sound so damned inconvenient.

"Yes, but, Geraldine thought - "

"I don't care what Geraldine thought! I have a meeting with Gillens in half an hour! And I don't want to be bothered with this nonsense any longer! Is that clear?"

"Yes. *But* — " she persisted, through his anger, with a cool determination which had made her invaluable over the years, "Geraldine thought it might reflect badly on the company, if Mazetti went to the press telling them how we refused to deal sympathetically with his request. He has threatened to. And, there's the possibility that Karen's parents might be equally upset about our failure to — "

"Bull! He can bleat to Capitol Hill, if he likes! In fact…" he dug deep into the inner pocket of his jacket and produced an oblong of white card. "Here! If he calls back, give him the number of The Daily Planet with my compliments!" He handed over the business card that Clark Kent had given him. "Let them deal with it! Let me know the moment Gillens arrives," he added brusquely across his shoulder as he headed for his office.

Jennifer sighed as she placed the card with the others in her Rolodex. "Sure thing, Mr. Gerrord. Whatever you say."

***

"What happened to you?"

Lois paused on the lower landing to give Clark a slow, interested once over as he pushed the front door to a soft close at his back.

He looked up, surprised. "Oh, hi. I thought you might be asleep."

"Fat chance. I'd have to take the phone off the hook first."

He offered her a mildly reproachful look. "Honey, I only called twice."

"Twice was once too many. So," she repeated, as she descended the remaining steps to the living room. "What happened? Your shirt?" She pointed a finger at him as he looked back at her, bemused.

"Oh!" He glanced down at the drying stain on his chest with a grimace. "Uh…I sort of zigged when I should have zagged," he told her, ruefully, plucking at his jacket sleeve.

She nodded, pursing her lips. "Oh. Okay, second question of the day…" She folded her arms to regard him severely. "What're you doing back - "

"Jimmy asked me to loan him some books he needs," he blurted an interruption, pointing at the bookcase in the corner for added emphasis as he headed for it. "I thought he might…ah, here we are."

He plucked a couple of volumes from the third shelf down and held them up for her inspection. It didn't occur to him to use the accident with Diane as an excuse for his early return to the townhouse. He knew she wouldn't buy it. That's what superpowers were for. It would have taken him mere moments in one of the restrooms to deal with the stain.

"Boxing," Lois said. "That's nice."

"Yeah," Clark said. "Right. He says thanks, by the way. For helping out with Leanore." He put the books down on the table beside the armchair.

Lois nodded. "That's nice," she said again. "And…you had to find them for him right now? The books?" she elaborated, pointing a slim finger in their direction as he tried to distract her by looking innocent.

"Yeah."

"Clark - "

"Uh, you know what?" he decided, hastily, "I think I'll just go get changed." He kissed her briefly on the cheek in passing, already tugging at his tie as he mounted the first of the stairs. "Be right back."

Lois turned to watch him as he took the rest of the stairs in a blur of motion that was hard for the eye to follow and then shook her head as she wandered through to the dining area. She made a few, idle adjustments to the laid out table and began to pour a glass of iced orange juice from the jug set in its center.

"So, how'd you feel now?" Clark came in after her to take hold of her shoulders, dressed in gray sweatpants and a casual, dark cotton shirt. He kissed her lightly against the side of her neck, noting surreptitiously as he did so that her temperature seemed to be down, her skin cooler than it had been.

"Fine. I guess it wasn't flu after all."

"Well, great." He frowned though, lifting his head to survey the living room behind him. He didn't need his super-senses to pick up the strong, almost overpowering scents of detergent and polish. "Have you been cleaning up in here?" he asked, surprised. "I thought you were supposed to be resting?"

"I couldn't sleep. Even when you *weren't* calling. Besides, it needed going over."

"It did?"

"Of course it did. You have to keep on top of these things, Clark. It's no good leaving them to pile up on you."

"Well, sure, but - " But the place had seemed perfectly fine to him when they'd left it that morning, neat as a pin as always, was what he'd intended to say, but she forestalled him, turning to offer him the glass of juice.

"Here."

"Thanks." He took it from her automatically and then, nodding past her shoulder as he took his first sip, "What's all this?"

"Lunch. Shrimp salad, your favorite. And there are potato chips too. With a side of coleslaw and that vinegar and lemon juice dressing Katie gave me, that you like so much."

He gave her a surprised look as he set his glass down on the table.

She returned it, dryly. "I figured you might just be…dropping by round about now. Taken a sudden notion to have lunch at home, just to break the usual routine. Right?"

"Oh." He looked just a little abashed at being so easily second-guessed. He put up a hand to cup at her cheek as he smiled an apology. "Sorry. I just wanted to check how you were."

"Well, now you know I'm just fine. Just like I told you last time you called. 99.6 degrees Fahrenheit, exactly," she added, watching the faint air of concentration which had taken over his face. "Just slightly above normal."

"What?"

"My temperature. I took it just ten minutes ago. That match with you?" She put up a hand to cover his and eased his fingers clear.

Clark managed to look both sheepish and stubborn, all at the same time. "Honey, I wasn't - "

"You weren't?"

"Okay," he conceded, defensively. "I was just checking. I just want to be sure you're okay."

"Never felt better. In fact, not only do I not have flu, but you know what?" She smiled, relenting and suddenly impish as she hooked her arms lazily around his neck and rubbed the length of her body teasingly against his. "My headache's all gone too."

Keen enough to play along with this new, almost kittenish, mood, especially as it seemed to be saving him from another lecture on how over-protective he was, he raised an interested brow. "It has?"

"Mmm-hmmm. Although, I'm pretty sure," she added archly, easing herself provocatively closer against him, "that you could make my temperature rise above 99.6 degrees…if you really wanted to."

"Well," he murmured, agreeably, pulling her closer still, "I can certainly try…"

His hands spread their way down the curve of her back in small, teasing circles. She giggled as he kissed her, before pushing him gently away.

"Lunch, first," she commanded. "Sit."

Clark let go of her, reluctantly, and obediently took his place. "Oh, before I forget, the insurers called. They said they'll get that replacement rental car they promised you out here before close of business. I spoke to the deputy manager? He apologized for the fact that the manager didn't get back to you himself, but, apparently, he had to go home sick. Migraine." He slid her a meaningful glance as he picked up his fork. "Came down with it right after he talked with you, it seems."

"Really?"

"Really. Aren't you having anything?" he asked, noting the empty place on the table's other side.

"I'm not hungry. Actually, I think I'll go clean up, upstairs."

"Clean up what?" He frowned.

Lois smiled, leaning close to place a lightly teasing finger beneath his chin and tipping his head to kiss him firmly. "Just things." She patted him on the shoulder as she straightened. "This and that. Besides, I need to shower and I have to find something to wear this afternoon. Now, eat. I won't be long."

"You're going back to the Planet?" He turned in his seat to look after her as she headed for the stairs.

"Sure."

"But - "

She gave him a look across her shoulder that warned him to think carefully about the rest of that sentence before voicing it.

He voiced it, doggedly, anyway. "I still think you should rest up a while."

"Yeah, right. So you can conveniently forget all about waking me and sneak off back to the paper all on your own."

"Honey, I wouldn't — "

"I'm going back to the paper, Clark."

He shrugged. "Okay."

"I mean it."

He held up peaceable hands, denying he'd ever thought anything different. "Fine."

"Right. And don't even think about leaving without me."

With that warning delivered, she made her way upstairs.

"Yes, ma'am," Clark muttered and then grinned at her retreating back.

Looked like his Little Tornado was right back on-line.

He took his time over the meal — if nothing else, Lois had always been able to 'cook' a mean salad and the special shrimp dressing which Katie had given her added a zing which made it just too good to rush. When he'd finished, he cleared the table. Dumping the dishes into the sink, he took a few seconds to clear up.

Picking up the pile of super-dried plates, still steaming faintly, with one hand, he reached up to open the cupboard to the left of the sink. He paused, then put the plates down, a faintly bemused expression taking over his face as he shut the cupboard door. He moved along the row of cupboards, opening doors and glancing at their contents, before closing them. Reaching the end of the line, he turned, hands rising to his hips, to survey the tidy room.

"Lois?"

Turning on his heel, his elbow caught the edge of a tall, fluted vase which shouldn't have been there and which was out of its accustomed place on the counter on the opposite side of the room. Only superfast reflexes stopped it short of the floor before it shattered, but not before green-scummed water had splashed across his pants' leg. He regarded this new stain with offended disgust as he set the vase to rights. It didn't really seem to be his day.

He strode through the kitchen's swing doors. At the foot of the stairs he called again, resting a hand on the newel-post, as he stared upwards.

"Lois? Honey?"

"What?"

He quirked a brow at the irked tone in that response, then jogged up the stairs and through the bedroom to where Lois was bustling around the bathroom in a thoroughly determined manner.

"Honey?" he said, from the doorway. "Did you rearrange things in the kitchen?"

"Yes."

"Oh. Only I can't find where you've put the — "

"You know, Clark, you might have thought things out a little more carefully in the first place, then I wouldn't have had to. It's okay for you, you can reach those top shelves. It's just a little more difficult for me."

He looked slightly taken aback. As he remembered it, organizing the kitchen when they moved in had been pretty much a joint effort.

"They're not that high," he noted and then, mildly, as she gave him a darkly accusing glare, "Well, it's no big deal. Honey, you can arrange things any way you want. I just need to find the - "

He stopped, suddenly becoming aware of the disaster zone of discarded towels and haphazard heaps of cleaning materials and toiletries that the bathroom had become. "What're you doing?" he said, looking around the room. "I thought you were getting ready?"

She glanced up, barely pausing in her furious rubbing at the denuded shelf above the sink.

"Well, I was going to have a shower, but I just couldn't ignore all this mess! I mean, look at all of this stuff! Do you really need all of this?" She swept the cloth she was holding disparagingly at the collection of bottles and jars piled in the sink. "You know we don't really have much room in here."

"Actually," he reached into the muddle and hooked out the nearest bottle, "most of this is yours." He held up the shampoo container like an exhibit in a court case, but his manner was amused.

Lois made an irritated sound between her teeth. "Oh, for goodness sake! Are you going to stand there, debating shampoo all day? I have got other, more important things to think about!"

He started as she snatched the bottle from him and tossed it into the wastebasket in the corner.

"There! It's gone! Now, can we get back to this?" She jabbed a hand at the cluttered room.

Clark followed the gesture, still confused. Like the living room, the bathroom had seemed perfectly tidy to him the last time he'd been in it. It seemed to him that she was getting all wound up about clearing up a mess she'd just created, all on her own.

"You know, I've got a career to take care of, just like you do. I could do with just a little help keeping things in hand around here. I work just as hard as you, and, to be honest," she pushed past him to vanish into the bedroom and returned at a clip, arms filled with a crumpled collection of clothing, "I'm getting just a little tired of having to pick up after you, all the time. Look at this! Why can't you put things away, instead of leaving them laying all over the bed, getting in the way?"

He opened his mouth, lifting a protesting hand as she dumped the clothes into the laundry hamper and slammed the lid down violently. So violently, in fact, that he promptly changed his mind about informing her that those particular clothes had been 'laying all over the bed' because they'd been the ones he'd intended changing into before he returned to the Planet that afternoon.

Lois had reverted to trying to scrub a hole through the shelf again, clearly less than interested in any response from him anyway.

Clark decided it was time he took charge of the situation. "Look, honey," he took her by the shoulders, turning her firmly to face the door as he plucked the cloth from her fingers, "I really think you should rest up a little. Relax a time. Why don't you go have some lunch? I can have this done in — "

"How can I rest? I've got too much to do!" She snatched back the cloth. "I told you, I'm going with you."

"Yeah, you said. But - " he looked around the room, "that doesn't mean you have to do this first, does it?"

"One of us has to," she snarled.

He smiled, but it had a faint, put upon edge to it now. "It doesn't have to be you."

"Yes, well, somehow, it always seem to work out that way, doesn't it?"

Clark felt a flicker of irritation at that. She was being unfair. And she probably knew it too. "I do my share. In fact," despite the fact that they were alone in the house, he cast a cautious glance across his shoulder and lowered his voice before continuing, "*Superman's* been doing most of the cleaning up around here since we moved in."

He didn't really mean it as a complaint - or anything to boast about. The uneven division of labor had become an inevitable result of both of them having high-powered, professional careers. When one of them could clean the entire house in a ten second burst of super-speed and when time was at a premium in their hectic lives, it didn't really make sense to adopt any other arrangement. He'd always been used to cleaning up after himself, his own apartment had been decidedly without any hint of bachelor-pad sloppiness, and, in that sense, nothing much had changed in his routine since he'd married Lois. Besides, him taking care of the chores left both of them more free time to spend on matters he considered far more important - and enjoyable. It certainly wasn't something that he normally felt worthy of a second thought. But it did make her accusations all the more unfair, to his mind, now.

Lois obviously took it as a grievance though. "Well, fine! I didn't know it bothered you so much that I wasn't pulling my weight in that department!" she exploded. "You know, I never promised to be the ideal housefrau when I said, 'I do'!"

She left off her scrubbing abruptly and stalked for the bedroom again, tears of frustration and outrage threatening to get the better of her. Clark sighed, turning to follow her. "Honey, I'm not complaining. If I can do it better and faster than you can, it just makes sense for me to — "

"*Better*?!"

He raised his eyes ceilingward as she rounded on him with that indignant screech.

"I didn't mean it like — "

She threw the cloth at him and spun on one heel to storm through the bedroom door with a growl as he twitched out an almost casual hand to catch it deftly out of air. Clark winced as the door slammed in her wake. He felt as though he'd just been tossed by a tornado that had ambushed him out of a clear blue sky, and with no idea of where it had blown up from either. Not that that was anything unusual, he hadn't bestowed that particular pet name on his sometimes volatile little wife without good reason. Usually though, she gave him some kind of storm warning in advance when her mood was set to blow.

He stared at the bedroom door, confused by the bewildering speed with which her mood had changed, as he followed her movements around the house. Not that he needed super-hearing for that. A series of audible thumps and clatters from the kitchen pinpointed Lois' whereabouts well enough all on their own. But he did hear one or two choice phrases, muttered underneath her breath, which didn't encourage him to obey his first impulse to go after her and find out just what was bugging her so badly. He knew a no-win situation when he saw it.

He loosed a low, heavy breath and stared at the ruin of the bathroom, which looked somewhat as though it had been overtaken by a tornado itself - and not a little one either.

He went back to the start of the conversation and ran it through again, but came up with no clearer idea of what he'd said or done to provoke her than he'd had in the beginning. He knew his wife well enough to realize that whatever had gotten her mad enough to storm downstairs, spitting feathers, and riled her up so fast too, it was unlikely to have been cleaning rosters. In fact, it was more than likely it had nothing to do with him at all. But as for what it was…well, maybe it would be as well to let her blow off steam a little before he followed her to ask.

Another thump and a couple of curses encouraged him in that.

He shook his head and launched into a super-fast clean up of the bathroom, setting it to rights before he crossed to the closet to pick out some new clothes to wear. He changed quickly. It was as he was shrugging into his jacket that he realized that the sounds of suppressed fury from the kitchen had ceased. He frowned, hooking his glasses from the nightstand in passing and putting them on as he emerged from the bedroom.

"Lois?"

He swept the downstairs rooms with a burst of X-ray vision, but he already knew that they were empty. He couldn't hear her anywhere.

"Lois?"

A faint sound gave him a clue. He headed for the lobby and hauled open the front door.

Lois was already firing up the Taurus' engine when he was only halfway down the stairs.

"Lois! Hey, wait up!"

She barely gave him a glance before she launched the car into the street with a fearsome roar of its engine. She took the corner like a Sidewinder missile, with a squeal of tires that set his teeth on edge. He stared after her, at a loss.

"Abandoned you?"

"What?" He turned, startled, and then broke into a smile. "Bertha. You snuck up on me again."

Bertha grinned up on him, delighted with her prowess. "Ah, I've told you already, these bones may be old, but they can still tread light when they want to."

"So, you did."

Once a day at least. It had become something of a private joke, which he was more than happy to encourage her in. She tried to ambush him at least half a dozen times a day and he pretended not to notice. She was a grand old lady, somewhat lonely, who'd taken to adopting both of them somewhat since they'd taken up residence as her neighbors.

Her own family had long since spread their wings far afield - two of the eldest sons lived overseas and her daughter had married a studio producer and set down roots in Florida - but neither he nor Lois minded the surrogate attention. They enjoyed the old woman's company and Bertha didn't push it. She was happy to be included in whatever time they could offer her, while giving them the privacy and time to themselves which - she often told them with a black twinkle in eyes that were at least ten years the junior to the rest of her - they needed.

This time, however, her success had been entirely genuine. He'd been so busy trying to follow the distinctive, choppy engine of the Taurus as it sped through the Metropolis streets, reassuring himself that Lois was heading for the Planet, that he hadn't heard Bertha approach him at all.

"So, have you been? Abandoned?" Bertha nodded out into the street, in the direction that Lois had taken.

"Oh. No. Em, we…Lois…has something to catch up on. A story. You know."

"Ah." She nodded, sagely.

Clark sighed, looking out along the street himself. "Looks like I'm taking the subway back to the Planet." Or Superman Express, he told himself, privately. If he was quick, he could make it into the office before Lois did. And, maybe, get to the bottom of what was bothering her so badly. Before she drove them both crazy with it. "I guess I'd best get going."

"Well, I'll join you then," Bertha declared, happily, hitching her purse onto her arm with quiet purpose.

"Excuse me?" Clark, already halfway up the brownstone's steps and jolted rudely out of his thoughts, paused to look down on her.

"On the subway." She patted the purse like a favorite lapdog and beamed up on him. "Got to get to the bank; get some groceries. We can keep each other company." She smiled at him.

"Uh, yeah." Clark paused, almost desperately, as he took on a hunted look and then forced an especially brilliant smile, before the old woman could notice his disappointment at this casual spiking of his plans. "Yeah! Sure." He hooked a thumb across one shoulder. "I'll just…lock up."

She nodded, waiting patiently. She took hold of his arm as he returned to her side. "Now, why don't you tell me all about this story of yours?" she said, leading him along the street.

Clark suppressed a sigh. He was still anxious to catch up with Lois and not exactly pleased about the delay, but that was hardly Bertha's fault. He patted the hand clutched around his arm fondly.

"Bertha," he assured her, "it'll be a pleasure."

***

Most of the newsroom staff were still out at lunch, so there were few people around to see Lois emerge from the elevator and dump her things at her desk. Jimmy did, but he was in the middle of working up some research for Diane, so didn't pay much attention or pause to say hello.

Diane herself looked up briefly from her serious study of the vending machines as Lois marched past her.

"Oh, hey, Lo - " Her smile faded as Lois carried on without so much as a glance in her direction, face set tight in a scowl.

"Well, fine," Diane muttered, going back to her mission.

Which was to avoid the steady, siren call of anything stored in the vending machines that contained a higher calorie count than four hundred and a higher fat content than point two five. Which seemed to preclude most everything there was on offer, far as she could see. Diane was on one of her health kicks again. The bathroom scales had inched up another couple of pounds too high for her peace of mind that morning. She glanced, longingly, at the candy machine and then straightened her shoulders into a tight, purposeful line. She pushed a couple of coins into the machine in front of her with a hasty motion, as though in another moment she might lose the resolve entirely. She chose the healthy option.

The safe…boring…healthy…option.

She wondered, as she bent to pick up her lunch and wandered back to her desk, if she might just have stored up enough kudos by dinner that she might be able to ease up a little. Just a little. Maybe treat herself to dessert? She smiled happily with the thought. Aw, heck, what could it hurt?

Lois was prowling through the papers on her desk, when Diane passed by. She glanced up at the quick tick of heels.

"Hey, Diane, what you - that's it!" Her abstracted greeting was cut off sharply as her eyes snapped wide. All at once, she had the look of someone who'd just been zapped by a lightning strike. Diane could almost smell the ozone.

"What?" she said, startled. She followed the fixed route of Lois' stare, glancing down at herself worriedly, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.

"The water!" Lois waved the paper in her hand at her, excitedly. "It's in the water! Home," she added, as that air of startled revelation was replaced by sudden purpose. "I've got to get back home!" She dropped the paper back to her desk and, taking a swift glance at her watch, made a small sound of dismay. "Before the trash pickup!"

She leapt to her feet, gathering up her coat, and reached for her notepad. Scrawling a few lines, she ripped the page free and pushed by Diane to slap it down on Clark's desk, before she headed for the ramp at a run. "Thanks, Diane!" she yelled across her shoulder as she hit the elevator button.

"Thanks? For *what*?" Diane said, exasperated. Then, with the curiosity of a born reporter, she took a swift glance at the upper level and, judging Lois' attention safely distracted, leaned sideways, craning her neck to view the paper sheet discarded by her colleague. Upside down, it took her a moment to decipher what looked to be a list.

"…pack, bacon slices," she read it off aloud, in a murmur. "One quart bottle, milk; half full. One quart bottle, orange juice; half full. One bottle mineral water; full. One bottle mineral water; one third full. Four — " she stopped and took another wary glance upwards, before shaking her head. "Heavy grocery list?" she asked herself.

She reached awkwardly to tease a little more of the paper free of the others obscuring it. "List of Contents," she read, from the pre-typed line heading the sheet and, below it, another, hand-written in ink, "Contents of the Refrigerator of Karen Culver (deceased). 808(b) Mansion Gardens, West Metropolis. Provided for analysis - "

The date was obscured, as was the authorizing signature scrawled below, but by now, Diane had lost interest. Shoving the paper back into place among the others littering the desk, she headed back to her own. Putting down the sandwich pack and bottle of mineral water that constituted her lunch and taking her seat, she launched back into her own story.

***

Up on the upper level, the elevator arrived and Lois sidestepped the figure that emerged from it, barely granting it a glance.

The messenger shifted the pile of computer data sheets tucked precariously under his chin, easing their weight against his chest.

"Uh, Miss? Hey, Miss?"

Lois gave him an impatient look as she paused, finger poised on the lobby button.

"Clark Kent's desk?"

"Right over there." She pointed and he turned his head to follow the gesture, before glancing back at her with a smile.

"Thanks!"

The messenger negotiated the stairs down into the bullpen awkwardly, blinded by his burden, and then dumped it thankfully to the desk marked with Clark Kent's nameplate. He didn't notice the note he'd just buried beneath it and was completely unaware, as he set off for the elevator again, whistling softly and cheerfully, that he'd just ensured that no one else was likely to either.

***

There was no sign of Lois in the newsroom when Clark arrived, looking harried. Jimmy was passing the ramp at a clip as he descended it. He grinned up at Clark in greeting and waved a couple of scraps of memo paper at him.

"Hey, C.K.; got a coupla messages for you."

Clark took them from him, glanced at them sparingly, but he'd other things on his mind. "Jimmy, has Lois been in yet?"

"Lois? Sure. Barely though. She went through some stuff on her desk and headed out again."

"Out? You know where?"

Jimmy spread his hands, hitching his shoulders in a shrug as he back-pedaled away from him. "Sorry."

"Well, do you know which papers?"

Jimmy shook his head, already disappearing into the back offices. "Didn't notice!" he yelled back, with another shrug.

Clark ran a weary hand across the back of his neck, mystified now, and paused by his partner's desk. What was she up to now? The scatter of files and papers spread over the surface gave him little clue as to where she might have gone. Most of them were the Culver papers they'd been going over together. He stirred through them aimlessly and then went back to the messages Jimmy had given him when he'd come in. All of them were from Leo Mazetti, the second and third marked urgent. Clark raised a brow.

"Hey, Kent! Lost Lois again, huh? You know, you oughta put tags on that woman."

Clark's shoulders tightened as a rough hand slapped him on the back. Ralph. He wasn't in the mood for Ralph. But he was wearing a smile as he turned around. It wasn't one that most people who knew him would have taken as friendly, but Ralph, being Ralph, was oblivious to its chill.

"What do you want, Ralph?"

"Nothing. Just offering some friendly advice, is all."

"Great," Clark told him, through clenched teeth and in a tone that said it was anything but.

"You know, for partners," Ralph stirred through the papers on the desk, seemingly aimlessly as he spoke, "she sure can ditch you like a hot rock when she gets a sniff of something good, huh?"

"She hasn't 'ditched' me." Clark moved the papers pointedly out of reach. "She's working on a story. *We're* working on a story," he amended, irritated, both by the suggestion and by the fact that he felt he needed to explain himself at all. Especially to Ralph.

"Oh. Well, sure. Sure." Ralph leaned closer, glancing around him before offering somberly, "Hey, but if you ever want to work with a real partner again…you know, one who'd cut you in more often, you know you just gotta say the word. We were quite a team back there, right?"

He cocked a finger at him, before strolling off for the coffee station.

Clark stared after him, darkly. Then, drawing in a deep, steadying breath, he began to sift through the desk's clutter again.

"Clark…! Lost her again, huh, son?"

His fist clenched, crumpling the file he was holding. "We're working on a story! Together!" he snapped, turning on this new tormentor.

Perry brought himself up short, face blanking as he blinked, like a startled turtle retreating into its shell.

Clark sighed. "Sorry, Perry. I…" He straightened, one hand rising from his hip in a gesture of apology. "I don't know where Lois is right now." He took another breath. "Were you looking for her?"

"Well, I *was* wanting an update on what you two have tracked down on the Culver story. Remember?"

"Oh, right. Well…we…uh, we're making inroads. Chief."

Perry gave him a moment's stare. "Right. Well, okay. Just keep me on top of it, huh? Remember, we still got those fly-by-nights at LNN sniffing at our heels on this."

"Sure, Chief."

Perry nodded and started to walk away. Then, he paused, turning back. "Oh, an' son? Don't worry about it." He rested a brief hand in a soothing grip on the younger man's shoulder as he confided, caustically, "I never could keep tabs on her either."

Clark ducked his head, taking a moment to rein in his annoyance as the editor headed back for his own office, before he raised it again, jaw tightening.

"Yeah," he muttered.

He glanced down at the file still clenched in his hand and grimaced. It had been reduced to nothing more than a pulp of paper and smeared ink. He dropped it into the wastebasket, eyes like flint now as he went back determinedly to his search.

"Clark!"

"What!"

Across the room, Hank looked slightly taken aback by this uncharacteristically terse response. He raised the telephone receiver he was holding slightly, drawing it to Clark's attention. "Pete Adams? Line two."

"Oh…right…yeah. Thanks, Hank. Put him on through." Clark sighed and picked up Lois' phone, tapping the extension button. "Pete? What you got?"

"Well, actually, good buddy, I was hoping you might be able to help me," Adams' smooth drawl answered him. "I've had that pet rocket scientist of yours down here for most of the morning. Klein? Weird fish some of the time - will insist on getting all aerated over this Culver case. But, I gotta admit, he knows his path, all right. Anyway," he went on as Clark took a moment to recover from this description of the S.T.A.R. Labs scientist, which was, he could freely confess, not one which had ever occurred to him, "we've been going over his data and it's pretty much holding out like he thought. Now that we've got the full path reports on all nine victims, we've been able to establish that the enlargement of the adrenal gland is purely a by-product of the contamination, just like we figured. Instrumental in cause of death, naturally, but not the root effect. There's massive corrosion of the pituitary gland - it's looking good for proving Klein's link to the birth control pills the victims were using as the secondary contaminant source, all right. We've already established that seven of them were using the same brand."

"Well, that's good. Isn't it?" added Clark as Adams stayed silent.

Adams grunted. "Sure. But we're having trouble tracking the primary. We've been working on those Bureau data files but, I gotta tell you, we're getting nowhere fast. The plain truth is we may never find it - at least from a path point of view. We can't establish any commonality among the previous victims, or any link from them to our current problem. It could be something innocuous enough under normal conditions, any one of half a dozen chemicals your average American routinely ingests in a day. And, whatever it was, it's undoubtedly eroded in enough of them to the point where we'll never detect it now. Klein's been suggesting we go at it from another direction - through the victims' social and medical histories. So, we were kinda hoping you might save us some time there. Klein says you and Lois have been looking into their backgrounds, their movements. You come up with anything that might give us a kick-start on that?"

"Not that we've been able to find. We've been over it fairly extensively, but we couldn't find a causal link. Other than their connection to the UCS, of course. That was about it."

"Well, scratch that. Never met the bug yet that cared which God you worshipped. Well, it was worth a shot. Looks like we'll just have to get down to it ourselves, run it through the database, see what we come up with. Klein's got an idea or two for speeding up the process. I'll get back to you, we turn up anything."

"Yeah. I'd appreciate it. Thanks, Pete."

"Keep on rockin', buddy."

Clark put down the phone, studying the meager notes he'd taken during the conversation.

The primary source…

Something that connected their victims to a long forgotten and buried army patrol, hundreds of miles away and twenty years ago.

He sighed.

The phone rang. He picked it up, distractedly.

"Clark Kent."

"Hello? Hello? Hey, Kent, that you?"

It took him a second or so to recognize that nasal, slightly querulous voice. Then, surprised, he said, "Mr. Mazetti?"

"Hey, what's with this Mazetti crap? It's Leo! Right? I mean, we're long time buddies, Kent. Ain't no need to be getting all stuffy on me."

Clark lifted a brow. "Mr. Mazetti - "

"Leo!"

"Uh, yeah. Leo," Clark acquiesced mildly. "I'm sorry, I haven't had the chance to get back to you. You've left some messages — "

"Damn right, I did! I been leaving messages all morning!"

"Right. And…you wanted…?"

"Well, just like I told them - I got a story for ya. 'bout Culver."

"Karen?" Clark glanced at the scraps of paper. "I'm sorry, it doesn't say that here. Okay, so what've you got?"

Mazetti snorted. "I got her dumb stuff, is what I got! An' it don't look like no one's too keen to take it off me neither!"

"What? I don't — "

"I been trying to get that snot-nosed, high rollin' creep down at Memorial Plaza to work on his conscience some since…well, you know…and he just tells me to go take a flyin' hike! Now, Kent, you know me, huh? I ain't a guy gives no trouble to no one. I'm pretty much your peaceful sorta type. I get on with my life, mind my own - "

" - business. Sure, I know. I - "

"Right! And, I mean, I'm just as keen as the next guy to do someone a decent turn. But — "

"Uh, yeah. You're a real Samaritan. I always got that impression," Clark interrupted blandly. "Uh, Leo…we're kinda backed up here right now and — "

"Hey, you ain't the only one! You know, I got better things to be doing than trying to sort out dead folks' problems!"

"So, what is the problem? Exactly?" persisted Clark, doggedly.

"Culver's the problem, course. I got an apartment full of junk I don't need and I got new tenants wanting to move in Friday evening. I been trying to get that boss creep of hers to uplift her things, store 'em till her folks kin get them shipped out, back home, you know? I mean, me, I don't *want* to be tossing them personal things of hers on the street for them backstreet vultures to go picking over, but it looks like I just don't have no choice in that."

"Andrews won't help you with that?"

"Andrews? Who's Andrews? Fella I spoke to was…Gerrord. That's it. Gerrod. Regular pain in the — "

"Gerrord, right. So, he wouldn't help?"

"You bet your ass he won't!"

"Well, what about the family? Karen's family?"

"Yeah, that's what I'm thinking on, you know? I figure they're gonna be real upset they find their kid's stuff been just tossed on the heap like trash on a — "

"No, I mean, can't you ask them to pay for the storage? Or arrange to have Karen's things sent to them collect?"

"Don't have a number for 'em. Police wouldn't give me nothing but that place on Memorial Plaza, where she worked. And, like I said, her boss - the skuzzball - he ain't interested. So, I figured, maybe you could help out with that. Give him a reason to grow himself a conscience, you know?"

"You want me to phone Gerrord?"

"Nah, nah - he ain't gonna listen to you! Nah - I want you to do a number on him!"

"A…a number?"

"Yeah, you know. A story."

"A story?" Clark echoed.

"Yeah! You know - the whole works. Front page spread, great big headline - you know the kinda thing: 'No heart tycoon makes dead kid's family weep'."

"Oh. Uh, well…I don't know, Leo. That kind of thing, that's not really the kind of story the Planet usually gets involved in. Maybe the Star — "

"Wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole. Tried 'em just before I called you. They gave me the same high flying crap you just did, but, you ask me, it's cause they just don't want to go riling them high rollers any."

"Well, I'm sure that's not - "

"That Gerrord fella, he's a real big buddy of Marcus, did you know that?"

"Marcus? William Marcus? The proprietor of the Star? Really?" said Clark, interested despite himself.

"Sure as I'm standing here. So they ain't gonna be jacking up no friends, are they?"

"Well…I guess not. Look, Leo — " Clark made a valiant effort to get back on track.

"Aw, it's okay, Kent. Guess you gotta stick with the program too, huh? Can't say I really blame you none. Man's gotta knuckle down to the hand that feeds him, don't he?"

"Well, I wouldn't say - "

"Sure you do! Anyway, you say you can't help none, suppose I got no choice but to dump that stuff then. Guess I *could* give Welfare a call. 'cept that they take a regular 'coon's age to get on over an' do the clearing, an' I ain't got the time to spare on it. Gerrord…" he spat the name out disgustedly. "You'd figure a bum like that, with all them high 'n' mighty Christian speaking, Bible thumping friends of his, would be a bit more in the neighborly frame of mind, wouldn't ya? Willing to give just a little bit to help out?"

Clark murmured an agreement. Mazetti was obviously oblivious to the fact that the charges he was leveling at Gerrord could just as easily hold for him too. After all, technically speaking, Karen Culver had been more his neighbor than she had been Gerrord's.

"Community," Mazetti lamented. "Gone like a rat down a sewer. You know, I remember, back when I was a kid — "

Clark stopped listening. He was thinking about Karen Culver. And what Lois was going to say about her belongings being threatened with eviction. It didn't take him much longer to figure out what she'd expect him to do about it either.

" - scrawling all over the walls and then they got — "

"Uh, yeah - it's a dreadful reflection on modern society. Uh, Leo, about Karen's things?" Clark hesitated, then sighed. "Call a storage company. Get them to pick up Karen's things and then tell them to invoice me here, at the Planet. I'll contact her parents, get it shipped out to them."

There was a small pause. "You're gonna pay?" Mazetti said finally.

"Yeah."

Another pause, longer this time.

"Well, sure thing, that's what you want," agreed Mazetti uncertainly. He seemed to be trying to consider just what angle the reporter was covering here. "I'll go get onto it then. I'll send the bill to you?" he reiterated, as though uncertain he'd quite gotten the gist of the deal.

"To me. Right here."

"Okay. Well, sure…fine!" Mazetti was galvanized all at once, perhaps concerned Clark might come to his senses in another moment and change his mind. "You got it!"

"Yeah," Clark agreed as the burr of the dial tone sounded in his ear. "Question is, what am I going to do with it?" he told himself, ruefully. He started to dial the precinct. Herrera would probably have a contact number for Karen's parents on file.

***

The marquee belonging to the United Church of Salvation had been erected at the far end of a municipal car park, in the shadow of the vast Save It All mall it serviced. Karvin didn't miss the irony of that. In fact, he wondered, as he had every evening since they'd hit town, whether his aide had chosen the site by chance, or deliberately. It would suit Robert's darkly irritating sense of humor, he thought acidly, as his driver drove the sleek, gleaming limousine into one of the empty parking bays. A full four hours before the start of the evening's rally, there were plenty to choose from.

"Richard?" Karvin turned to the boy beside him and then smiled faintly. "Richard?" he repeated gently, tugging at the boy's sleeve and breaking his soft eyed gaze which had been fixed through the window and on something only Richard could view. Karvin had little doubt it hadn't been the slick, gray buildings of the mall and the vast, barren landscape of the parking lot.

Richard started and then nodded, hitching his way obediently across the seat to follow as Karvin exited the vehicle. He kept close as the preacher made his way to the marquee.

He had never asked Bob about that, Karvin returned to his morose thoughts. The mall. The site. He found himself musing over that, in one of his bouts of blackly loathing self-analysis which seemed to come on him ever more frequently now. He wondered what it said about him, that lack of questioning, that lack of control, over matters small and large. He wondered, more to the point perhaps, what it said about Bob.

Inside, the marquee was mostly deserted, still. Here and there, young volunteers, each wearing jeans and tee-shirts in red or white, with the UCS logo screen-printed in gold upon their chests, moved among the rows of plastic seating, setting out revised hymn sheets and making minute adjustments to the arrangement. None of them gave him more than a cursory glance.

He wondered if half of them even knew who he was, this thin, nondescript man, clad in jeans and dark coat. If he'd been dressed as Dale Karvin, Evangelist Extraordinaire, he considered sourly, they'd have been swarming around him by now. Keen to greet the Great Man. Keen to share in his aura of spirituality. Were the trappings of the personality they knew and adored really that important? Did they really obscure the man - plain and unassuming - beneath them that much? He was disturbed more by the fact that he knew so little of them. There had been a time, not that long ago either, when he'd known every one of the people he preached to. Every one. How long had it been since he'd been able to say that?

Up on the platform, at the marquee's far end, a slim, darkly pretty young woman in a print summer frock was setting up tall candles in softly gleaming holders of gilt. She carried a radiance about her, a spiritual sense of welcome and warmth, which made him forget his dark suspicions and darker doubts. He smiled.

"Polly!"

She looked up smartly and smiled back - a singularly startling gesture that transformed an otherwise studious face into that of a wayward child, a metamorphosis that never failed to surprise Karvin, no matter how many times he encountered it. He'd often considered, and knew it for a truth more blinding than any other, that if he was indeed the soul of this Church - and latterly he doubted that, above all else - then Polly Fretwell was its heart.

"Dale! You're here early. Hi, Richard. Come to help set up?" The smile lost its sparkle, just a little, as Richard offered a shy nod. "Nothing's wrong?" she asked Karvin quickly.

"No. No, relax, Pol. Everything's on track." He remembered his mission and glanced carefully around him. "I was just looking for Bob. I thought he'd be here. You seen him?"

"Not since this morning. He said he had things to do in town."

"Oh. Right. Well, I guess it'll keep."

"What's that?" Polly indicated the slim, black-bound volume he was carrying. "Something you want to revise before this evening?"

Karvin looked just a little discomfited. Almost…guilty, Polly thought. Then it was gone. "This? It's nothing." He shoved the volume deep into his pocket. "Listen, I have to go. Get…get ready."

He glanced across his shoulder to where Richard had drifted to the edge of the platform. He'd picked up one of the hymnbooks, had begun to hum quietly beneath his breath. Karvin knew he'd stay occupied that way for hours, happily content. Richard had a fascination for books of all kinds; even the most innocuous could draw him like a moth to a flame. Karvin, darkly aware of the faint, square bulge pressing against his hip, through the pocket of his coat, found a sharp irony in that, all at once. Richard's curiosity might well yet prove to be the downfall of more than one of them.

"Keep an eye on Richard for me, will you?" he turned back to ask Polly solemnly. "I might be…a little late."

"Sure." She nodded, but she frowned as she watched him cross to the engrossed boy, tap him on the shoulder, offer him a few words. Richard smiled up sunnily on his guardian and nodded, then settled himself cross-legged on the ground before the stage, returning to his own world, as Karvin began his trek back up the central aisle toward the square of darkness that was the marquee's exit. And it seemed to her, suddenly, that Dale was passing through more than a simple doorway to the world beyond, a doorway into something darker and more perilous than he might have supposed.

"Dale!"

He turned back, startled by the edge of panic in that call.

"I…are you okay?"

He stood for a moment, staring back at her. In the gathering shadows, his face was lost to her and, somehow, that frightened her more than the great swell of darkness behind him, which pressed at his back and surrounded him, like some black, malevolent cloud, silhouetting him in shadow. Then he nodded.

"I'm just fine, Pol. I think I'm just fine," he said quietly. He smiled at her.

And then he was gone.

As though that darkness had reached out and swallowed him whole.

Polly watched the space where he had been a moment longer and a soft shiver overtook her as she turned back to her preparations.

***

"C.K.? Hey, C.K., you in there?"

Clark started as a hand wavered in front of his face. "Huh? Oh, Jimmy. Sorry. I was — "

" - staring at that file there for the past twenty minutes. You okay, C.K.?"

"Yeah, sure. I'm fine." He straightened in his chair and gave Jimmy a smile that was slightly tighter than he meant it to be. "What can I do for you?"

"This just came for you in the afternoon mail." Jimmy handed over a thick, manila envelope. "It's got a Detroit postmark, so I figured it was that background stuff on Estelle Pinchenski you've been waiting for? Thought you'd want it right away."

"Oh. Yeah. Thanks, Jimmy." Clark took the package, interestedly.

"Listen, I know you're busy." Jimmy leaned across the desk as Clark began to tear open the envelope. "But…did you pick up those books? You know, like you said? Cause you know I could *really* use the — "

"Oh — " Clark made an exasperated sound in his throat. "Jimmy, I'm sorry - "

"You forgot."

"No, no I remembered to look them up okay," Clark demurred as he watched his young colleague's face fall. "I just forgot to bring them along. Um, tell you what," he added, distractedly, "why don't you come on back with me tonight, on the way home, pick them up then?"

Jimmy's look of disappointment lessened slightly. "Sure. Okay." He rubbed doggedly at his cheek as he spoke.

"That still hurting?" asked Clark, giving him a quick glance.

"Yeah, a little. I think that Excedrin I took this morning's wearing off fast. And I'm out."

"Oh, well, here…hold on…" Clark put down the envelope and pulled open the desk drawer beside him. "Lois usually has some aspirin…"

"No, she's out too. She asked me to pick her up some more. I haven't had the chance to get to the drugstore yet though."

Clark paused in his search of the drawer to look up on him, surprised. "Out? She can't be. She asked me to bring her in a fresh bottle just last week. She can't have gotten through it this fast."

Jimmy shrugged. "Well, it's empty now." He dug into his pocket and emerged with the bottle. "See?"

Clark took it from him with a frown. "That's odd."

"Well, maybe it isn't that bottle. The one you bought. Maybe she put it somewhere else. Taken it home? Put it in her purse? Bathroom cabinet?"

"I guess she must have…"

"Or maybe," Jimmy went on, flippantly now, "she's had a lot of headaches this week. Would sure explain a lot," he added wryly.

Clark, still mulling over the empty bottle, took a moment to register that. Then he glanced up on the photographer again, frown deepening. "What?"

"Well…you know, she kinda had a go at me yesterday. I mean, she probably had a right to," he admitted, embarrassed now. "She asked me to look out some public records for her on some guy called Addley an', well I got caught up in something else."

"Well, did you tell her that? That you'd been working on something else?"

"Never gave me much of a chance. Just reamed me off a strip five miles wide about having to wait. Actually," Jimmy leaned both elbows on the desk and softened his voice to confide, "she's chewed out more'n a few folks around here, past coupla days. And I don't know what she said to Ralph in the elevator this morning, but he came out of it twitching like a mouse in a rat- trap." Jimmy grinned at him. "You know, it's almost been like old times."

Clark exhaled a low breath. "Oh. Well…you know she's been under a lot of pressure lately, with this Culver story and everything, Jimmy. I wouldn't let it — "

"Clark, did Lois say whether she was going to be covering the Louis Merkovian hearing at the end of the week?"

"What?" Clark looked up at Perry as the editor appeared beside him, scowling over a work schedule board.

Perry glanced sideways at him. "You know - Valley Vale. I pencilled her in, but I have to know for sure, or assign someone else.

"Oh. Well, I'm sure she'll want to cover it herself, Chief."

Something of an understatement. In fact, he was sure Lois would rip the throat out of anyone who tried to take it from her. Jimmy grinned at him, obviously thinking much the same thing himself. Clark looked up at the Planet's Editor- in-Chief curiously, knowing that Perry surely knew Lois well enough by now to be aware of that.

"Oh. Okay." Perry made a notation on the board. "You still here, Olsen?" he observed mildly, as he did.

Jimmy's grin slipped. He cleared his throat. "Uh, I think Wilbur's looking for me," he said. "I'll just — " He took off hastily.

Perry let him get out of earshot and then looked down at Clark, with a frown. "I heard what you were saying. You know, if Lois has a tight schedule right now, if the pressure's starting to get to her, I can always assign someone else to this hearing."

"Oh, no…it's not the workload, Chief," denied Clark, hastily. "It's this Culver story, that's all."

"But you do seem a little…concerned…" Perry prodded.

"No…" Clark shook his head, somewhat unconvincingly. "No, not really," he amended, under the weight of Perry's steady gaze. "Actually, I think it might be getting to her. Just a little. Working on the follow up to Valley Vale might be just what she needs, help her take her mind off it a little."

"You think she needs the break?" Perry frowned slightly.

"Well, not as such. A little…distance, perhaps, that's all, something else to occupy her. She's been twitchy ever since we started. She's got Karen all tied up with Lucy; she's taking it so personal; it's just…driving her so hard. And then there was this morning…" Clark sighed. "…and last night…"

Perry's expression turned questioning and Clark paused, suddenly aware that he might have said too much on the subject. But then, Perry's little confidential chats just seemed to have that effect on people. Something Clark had had occasion to wonder at in the past. You could find yourself confiding all manner of concerns you'd never intended to, he thought ruefully. And frequently did. He sighed again.

"It was nothing really," he went on, as that interrogative silence of Perry's worked its usual magic and drew him on, no matter how unwillingly. "She…freaked out on me over some spider she found in the bathroom, that's all." He shook his head, still half bewildered by the events of the previous evening, despite his attempt to dismiss them. "I guess, even when you figure you know someone about as much as you can, there's always something they can still surprise you with, huh? I mean, I knew she didn't like *rats*, but — "

"Ah, well," Perry made a gesture of agreement. "Now, *there* you've worked out a fundamental constant of marriage, son. Now, Alice…she could always surprise the hell outta *me*, right up to the day she hit me with the divorce papers. The day women don't surprise you any more is the day they put you in that pine box and lay you in the ground! So I wouldn't — "

"What'd she freak out for? Lois isn't scared of spiders."

Jimmy was back and this time he ignored Perry's baleful stare as he leaned across the partition of Clark's desk to view him curiously.

"Jimmy - "

"Sure she is," Clark over-rode the editor's growl. "Last night - "

"Uh-uh." Jimmy shook his head adamantly. "Listen, five years ago? Lois did an investigative piece on endangered species? Busted up a gang violating CITES treaties, smuggling rare specimens into Metropolis Airport? You remember, Chief. Anyway," he went on animatedly, not waiting for Perry's agreement, "she tipped off the cops to a new cargo coming in and she made sure she was there when they opened it up and arrested those creeps. It was a regular zoo down there for a while. Snakes, lizards, all kinds of insects. And spiders? I took a photo, to go with her story, of Lois holding the biggest, meanest tarantula I'd ever been close to and, man, the way she was billing and cooing over it, you'd have figured it was a ten week old puppy from the local pound. She'd have taken it home with her, if they'd let her."

"Really?" Clark looked bewildered. "Well, I guess…people change," he murmured, doubtfully.

Perry didn't offer him any disagreement on that. "And some people ought to, before they find themselves outta a job," was his only comment, directed warningly at Jimmy, before he turned his attention to Clark again. "I wouldn't worry about Lois, son," he offered up the wisdom solemnly. "She's been landing on her feet running since she got here and she's never burned out yet. She can handle the pressure. Jimmy…" He crooked a beckoning finger at the photographer.

Clark watched them go and then sighed. Looked like his suspicions had been right. Lois was clearly a lot twitchier then he'd suspected, spooking at shadows like she was. He looked down at the aspirin bottle still in his hands and then grimaced. The follow up to Valley Vale was probably going to be the best thing for her. Let her back up a little. Gain some perspective on this one.

Clark resolved to work his way around to pushing her in that direction in the next couple of days, persuade her he could handle Karvin alone for a while until she was through writing up on Valley Vale. Subtly, of course. He smiled slightly. He had a healthy sense of self-preservation just as keen as the next man's and he wasn't a fool.

He dropped the empty aspirin bottle back into the drawer and picked up the envelope Jimmy had delivered. He emptied out its contents to the desk. He read the accompanying, hand-written note from Estelle Pinchenski's high school principal, which expressed the hope that the contents would prove useful and ended with an exhortation to contact him again if he could help in any way further.

Most of the contents were school class records, some pages drawn from the school yearbook. Some of the youthful faces surrounding Estelle's picture had been starred with heavy black marker. Classmates the principal considered might have been friends of Estelle, although he confessed to being less than certain. Estelle had been a quiet and withdrawn student, not prone to drawing attention to herself.

Clark sifted through them diligently. Then, frowning, he went back to pick out a color snapshot at the bottom of the pile: Estelle Pinchenski, looking uncomfortable and out of place, though very pretty, in the back row of a group of laughing teenagers. Still frowning, Clark slipped his glasses down his nose and narrowed in on the figure to the right of the group, who was standing slightly apart from the others, watching them and not the camera. A supervisor or project leader, Clark surmised. Not part of the group, but overseeing it. He tipped the photo over and ran along the typed list printed on its reverse that marked the people it portrayed. The name he was looking for was the last of them.

"'Camp Study Project Coordinator: William Harding'," he read quietly, aloud.

He turned back to the little group.

He studied the faintly smiling face of the project coordinator. There was no doubt about it.

It was Karvin's aide, Robert Addley.

***

"Run that by me again?" Perry looked up on Clark from the clutch of black and whites he'd been studying, out of the pile the reporter had tossed onto the desk in front of him moments before.

"Addley's the link, not Karvin." Clark reiterated impatiently. "When I spotted him in the study camp photo with Estelle I got Jimmy to run a background check on him. Ten years ago, Addley, under the name of William Harding, was implicated in the homicides of three young women in the River Rouge Park area of Detroit. Sandra O'Connell, Theresa Martin, Constanza Hernandez."

He laid a heavy finger on three of the prints in tune with the list.

"He was picked up twice for questioning, but there wasn't enough forensic evidence to give the Detroit PD anything more than the shakiest of cases against him. During his second interrogation, he confessed to the first murder - Sandra O'Connell - though he retracted soon after, and they put him on trial for that."

"They acquitted him?"

"Yeah. His defense attorney managed to muddy the waters enough on whether it was even murder at all to have the jury bring in a not guilty verdict. The way he played it, they didn't have a lot of choice. The evidence to pin it down to murder just wasn't there and the judge threw out the confession on a technicality over whether Addley was given proper representation when they brought him in. Addley didn't stick around long once the trial was over. He lit out of town about a month later, forwarding address unknown. It seems the rest of his neighborhood wasn't as snowed as the jury was by the legal arguments. He was hounded out of his work as a camp counselor and pretty much ostracized. No one knew where he'd gone and no one much cared. Apparently, where he went was Michigan. He discovered God, changed his name, and hooked up with Karvin when he attended a UCS rally there. But I spoke to some people who knew him back then, knew the dead girls. There wasn't a whole lot of doubt that Addley was guilty, just smart enough and had the cash to buy expert help to beat the rap. And the local paper whipped up a lot of hate against him; considering he was acquitted their reports stop just short of libel."

Perry shook his head. "But I still don't see why - "

Clark grunted. He snatched at another batch of prints and laid them next to the others. "Karen Culver, Estelle Pinchenski, Suzanne Hallier, Ginny Bolt…and the rest. Notice the connection?"

Perry frowned. "He's got a preference for brunettes?" was all he could think to say.

It seemed to be the right answer.

"Young, pretty brunettes," Clark agreed.

"Except for this one." Perry tapped Estelle Pinchenski's photograph dubiously. "Who isn't young or particularly pretty."

"But who *was* ten years ago when she knew Addley."

Perry grimaced. He picked up Suzanne Hallier's photograph out of the pack. "Well, I guess she chose the wrong week to get fed up being a blond," he noted.

Clark took the photo from him and pushed the group shot closer to him in reminder. He straightened, animated now. "Okay, let's say, ten years ago, Estelle Pinchenski was Addley's next target. She fit the profile. Right down the line. But he was arrested before he could add her to the list. After the trial even Addley retained enough common sense to realize he couldn't just pick up where he left off. Not in Detroit anyhow. And then, out of the blue, ten years later, he meets her again. Here, in Metropolis. At Karvin's rally. He *must* have seen it as a second chance. Maybe even God given. And once he started on his plans to finish what he started with Estelle…"

"He'd caught the bug again," Perry concluded grimly.

"And *all* of these women had met Addley at one point or another during their fundraising work for Karvin's ministry, or through attending Karvin's rallies here in town."

"So…you're thinking Addley's just been pretending to play with a full deck all this time? Or maybe he found God a disappointment?"

"Or maybe the moon's suddenly in Sagittarius," Clark said bluntly. "Who knows? I don't know what I'm saying. Just that, somehow, Addley's involved in this."

"But…none of these women were murdered."

"We don't know that. Addley's smart. Really smart. Back in '87, there wasn't enough evidence to properly attest that those women didn't kill themselves, although the PD is adamant it *was* murder. The official line is the cases remain open and the coroner's inquest recorded probable cause on all three." Clark shrugged. "Maybe he's just gotten a whole lot smarter in ten years. I've got Jimmy looking into the police files on the River Rouge Park homicides, see if he can't find any link with high recorded adrenaline levels in any of the victims."

Perry nodded. "So, what you want to do with this?"

"Call Herrera. See if we can't persuade him to pick up Addley for questioning."

Perry thought about it, briefly. "Okay. But you tread light on this one. We got no real proof. And, Clark? If Herrera goes for this, make sure you're in on the ground floor when he interrogates Addley."

Clark nodded, scooping up the file photos and heading for the door. Dumping the file to his desk, he tried calling the precinct, but the lines were busy. He grabbed for his jacket, deciding to save time by just heading over to the precinct in person. He gathered up the crime photos and Jimmy's River Rouge Park research and stuffed them into the manila envelope containing the background on Estelle Pinchenski.

"Clark?"

He turned his head and smiled reflexively as he reached to switch off his computer. "Hi, Diane. What's up?"

"I heard you were looking for Lois."

"Yeah." That gained her his full attention. "You know where she is?"

"Well, maybe. I guess." Diane shook her head and briefly related her earlier encounter with Lois.

"She definitely said she was going back to the brownstone?" Clark said with a frown when she'd finished.

"Yup."

"Well, did she say she was feeling nauseous?" he asked, concerned. "Did she say she had a headache? Did she look sick?"

"No, not really. Seemed pretty perky to me. She was just going on about getting water and having to get back before the trash pickup."

"Trash pickup?" Clark rolled his eyes. "What *is* it with her and cleaning right now?"

"Excuse me?"

"Uh, nothing. Did she say anything else?"

"Not that I remember. Sorry. I'm not being much help, am I?"

"No, you've helped a lot. Really. Thanks, Diane."

She nodded and walked back to her desk.

Behind her, Clark stood, hands resting thoughtfully at his hips, as he stared into air. After a moment, he reached to pick up the phone, but halfway through dialing the brownstone's number he replaced the receiver, remembering Lois' earlier irritation with his fussing when there was no need. And the way she'd taken off before. Now that he'd tracked her down - more or less - he didn't want to provoke her into storming off again.

But he did want to check that she was okay, make up with her some. He hated them being at odds, wondering whether she was still upset with him. Besides, he had the perfect reason to call her. He couldn't go out on his own with this. It was her story too. She'd want to be in on Addley's capture. He sighed and punched out the numbers a second time. The quick pulse of a busy signal was his reward.

"Great." He hit disconnect. "Okay, I guess the mountain goes to Mohammed," he muttered. Dragging his notepad close, he scribbled a rapid note to Herrera and then added it to the package of evidence.

"Hey, Clark!"

He glanced up with that yell. Across the room, Helen was waving a file at him to attract his attention. Getting it, the duty receptionist stabbed the file at the dark suited figure standing beside her and gave Clark a wry grimace, before she headed back behind her desk to resume her interrupted typing.

Abandoned, Dale Karvin turned his head to watch her go and then came back to stare nervously across the room at Clark.

***

"I suppose this makes it all just a little easier," said Karvin, as he put down the last of the photographs and looked up to where Clark faced him soberly across the conference room table. "Less of a betrayal."

The reporter stayed silent, studying the preacher intently. There seemed to be little left in Dale Karvin of the man he'd met in an elegant hotel room only the previous day. He acted like a man whose life had been shaken to its foundations, deprived of its main support. Broken and lost. His hands trembled visibly as they rested on the photographs. A man at a crossroads…about to take his first step towards salvation…or ruin. And less than sure which it was going to be.

"You have to understand, Mr. Kent, I never really - seriously - thought…I mean, I had my suspicions, but I never truly believed…" Karvin drew in a rough breath. "I've spent all night praying to the Lord for guidance. I couldn't bear false witness against any man. And there was really nothing Robert had done to give me cause to accuse him of anything. There was just - "

He shook his head. "If you'd asked me a month ago if I thought he was ready to rediscover the darkness in his soul, that he was capable of finding that darkness in him again, I'd have said you were insane. Even more recently than that. I've never truly been able to believe that he was that man once, let alone now. I've never seen that evil in him. To believe that he could be so again… But just lately, well, lately, he's been acting so… He doesn't listen anymore."

"You *knew*? About Addley? All along?" Clark's eyes pierced the preacher, coldly.

"No! Lord, no! Actually, I had no idea who he was, who'd he'd been, at all. Not until last month. Can you believe that? I was clearing out some old storage bins. I came across some old newspapers of the time. I - well, you can imagine my shock when I found the trial reports. But, you see, I didn't know what to *do*. When I confronted him…he confessed to me. Confessed before God. He told me that killing those women had been a blight on his soul. A darkness both God and I had erased."

The preacher gave the man sitting silently across the table from him a quick glance and then returned it to the hands knitted painfully tight before him on the table's edge.

"How could I betray him? My faith demands the succor of the fallen, Mr. Kent. I was almost duty bound to help. Judgement isn't mine, or condemnation. That's the province of the Lord. I've been lost, trying to do the right thing. I had a duty to those in my pastoral care and to the Foundation, to the Committee. I knew that this was potentially a disastrous coup for our enemies among the press and elsewhere should it ever emerge. But at the same time - can't you see how torn I was? My whole life has been based on tending the weak, the sick, those in need of aid. I couldn't betray Robert. He needed my help."

Karvin paused. "And, besides, I felt I owed him. Robert came into my life at a point where it was in turmoil. He simply…turned up." Karvin laughed softly. It wasn't because he was amused. "Isn't that how one always encounters the Devil? He tempted me, Mr. Kent. It's as simple as that. He offered to give me back my life. Or, at least, succor me with a new one to replace the one lost. And, poor, unfortunate sinner that I am, I fell." The sardonic twist to the preacher's lips faded, all at once, and his self-mocking manner drained into something weary and defeated.

"He was so full of energy. Even then. Life. Ideas. He was so charismatic. All the things I used to be and no longer was. Stacy…my wife had just died. She'd been sick for such a long time…" He looked up at Clark, hollow eyed. "Such things drain a man's soul, Mr. Kent. It's…difficult…to survive them. Without Robert's intervention, then, I might not have. I was…I was lost, I guess you could say. Robert picked me up, dusted me off, and set about reorganizing my life. And here I am." He smiled, spreading his hands wide as though inviting inspection and then plucked distastefully at one neat sleeve. "The remodeled Dale Karvin. Perfect in every way. Hero to the faithful."

Clark ignored the scathing tone. Karvin was a man who was hurting. And hurting bad. He could see that as clearly as though he was wearing a placard around his neck. He waited him out, and, eventually, the preacher came out of his black fugue to reward his patience.

"Of course, I can see now that his motives were never entirely altruistic. He wanted power, position - influence. But it was tempered by a genuine devotion to God. At least I always thought so. And his ideas were - most of them were - completely driven by the will to see the Church succeed in its aims and ideals. He pushed us ever further into growth, yes. Sometimes, the decisions that were made bewildered me, seemed nonsensical, entirely incompatible with the Christian ethos I'd lived my life to, before we met. But they worked. And…perhaps I harbored a resentment I never knew I carried. Against the values I'd kept to before Stacy was taken from me. Against…against God." Karvin made the admission painfully. "I think I did. Perhaps I was willing to stretch the boundaries of my morals some, where I'd never been before. I just didn't realize how far back I've moved the borders of that line drawn in the sand. Until now."

Clark was frowning. "Are you saying that Addley is in command of the whole UCS organization? That you're just the figurehead?"

"Oh no. Not at all. It's just, just lately, it's seemed so much easier to just let Robert have his way than argue over it. Like I say, he seems to have the knack for choosing the right path. It usually works out for the best. At least, it used to. Just lately though…well, things have gotten just a little muddled. There's no clear line. I hadn't really understood how far we'd traveled, how much the boundaries had shifted until that business with the water."

"Water?"

Karvin flushed. "I didn't know what Robert was up to until just a couple of weeks ago. We sell the water - pure spring mineral water - at our rallies. It helps offset the expenses of production. And brings in much needed cash for our good causes besides. I wasn't involved in the production or retail side. Robert handled that. That night, I found him just before the rally started. He was filling up the Blessed Spring bottles from the faucet. Pure, unadulterated tap water, Mr. Kent. Somewhat expensive. When I asked him what he thought he was doing, he said we'd been let down at the last minute by our suppliers. He'd gotten a batch of empty bottles and was running the scam as a replacement. He swore it was the first time, that it wouldn't happen again. I said I'd rather we didn't sell the water at all, lose the batch, but somehow he persuaded me it would be okay - just that once."

"Afterwards, I was ashamed of myself for not standing up to him. I realized how much things had gotten out of hand, how much what I believed in was being warped and twisted. And I'm tired. I am so tired of it all. Robert's the one who built up the dream and, I'll confess, for a while I was willing to go along for the ride. But I never really wanted it. Any of it. What I want," he whispered, half to himself now, "is to go home. I really do want to go home."

"Mr. Karvin — " Clark said gently.

The preacher held up a hand. "Yes. Okay." He sucked in a breath. "Okay. Like I say, if you'd told me the truth a month ago, less even, that Robert might be engaging in - this - again," he plucked at a couple of the photographs, distastefully, "I'd have laughed. But, lately, he's been - furtive, is the best way I can describe it. He takes off, no one can find him. When he comes back, he won't say where he's been. I know he's been out at night, in the early hours. I don't know if that fits with the times of any of the deaths. I've had my suspicions. But I didn't know what to do. For the best. I couldn't accuse him. I had no proof. Perhaps I didn't want to find any either. And then, this morning…I sent Richard to ask Robert to come to my suite. I had some concerns about the plans for the cable ministry he was setting up; I wanted to air them with him. When Richard didn't come back, I went looking for him. Robert wasn't there. Richard still was though. Thoroughly engrossed."

For the briefest instant, a faint smile played around the preacher's lips. "I think he'd forgotten about the errand I'd sent him on completely by then. Richard loves to read, Mr. Kent. Can't get enough of books, magazines - it doesn't really matter what. He doesn't much care. The material I've had to confiscate from him in the past."

Karvin shook his head, half amused, half scandalized for a moment, before he sobered, glancing down at his hands, and then up on the watchful reporter. He frowned. "I don't know if Robert got careless, forgot to put his things away, or if Richard simply went snooping when he found his suite empty. He's curious too. But, anyway, I found him with this."

He tugged a slim, leather-bound volume from his pocket and held it in both hands for an instant, staring at it as though at some especially deadly species of viper he'd just found. Then, he straightened his shoulders and tossed it across the desk to land with a soft thump in front of Clark.

"It's a journal. Of sorts. I doubt Richard realized the significance of it. He probably read it as some strange work of fiction, I guess. I probably wouldn't have taken much notice of it myself, except to take it from him, give him the usual lecture on invading someone's privacy. But the page he'd left off at caught my eye as I put it back on Robert's nightstand…"

Clark had picked up the journal carefully. "You've read it?"

"Just a little. Not all of it. The last few entries, towards the end. I couldn't read more." Karvin swallowed roughly as he watched the reporter thumb through the journal's pages. Clark glanced up at him.

"Why don't you summarize it for me?" he suggested quietly.

"I…all right. At first, it was nothing out of the ordinary. Thoughts on what he's been doing, his plans for the future of the Church, notes, ideas…but then I found his entry for the seventeenth. And that's when it all changed."

"The seventeenth. Three days before Karen Culver died." Clark flicked to the relevant page and lifted a considering brow. "And the day he met Estelle Pinchenski again," he murmured.

"It's so abrupt, the change in his mood. You can see that. After that, it's an outpouring of a blackened soul, Mr. Kent. The worse kind of madness. It's all in there. Everything he planned. How he decided to kill those women. And others. Right there, when he met Estelle and remembered her. Right from that moment."

Clark nodded, seeing that for himself as he scanned the following pages, sickly. The deranged ravings of a madman. "He couldn't stand that Estelle had gotten away from him all those years before."

"No. And once he'd decided she wasn't going to escape him a second time, it didn't seem all that far a leap downward to go on to the others either. But, so many, Mr. Kent. There are forty or so names in there that I counted. Maybe more than that."

"Does he specifically mention contaminating his victims with C21?"

"C21? He makes no mention of anything by that name. Not that I've found anyway. He's not clear on the specifics. He talks about marking out his victims, at one point. At another, of how it thrills him that they're unaware of their impending death. Walking dead, he calls them. Whatever he did, he clearly believes that, in the moment he marked them, they were doomed. But…it's vague. Rambling. It makes no sense."

Clark took his eyes from the journal and fixed them on him, curiously. "Mr. Karvin, why did you bring this here? To me? You understand the significance of it, of what you've read. You know Addley has to be stopped. Why didn't you take this straight to the police?"

Karvin hesitated. "I want you to act as an…intermediary, Mr. Kent. I don't want this to reflect badly on the Church. There are good people there, who've worked hard to help so many others, done so much good. I don't want them to suffer in this. At least, I want to contain it as much as possible. You and your partner have a reputation for integrity. Honesty. People trust you. And I know you have friends among the local police departments here, in Metropolis. I thought that, perhaps, if I brought this to you, you might agree to act on my behalf, take it to the police yourself…and, then, there's Richard. I don't want Richard hurt because of this."

"Richard?"

"He found the journal. I didn't. If I took this to the police, he'd have to testify to that fact. Wouldn't he?"

"I guess. But - "

"Please, Mr. Kent. Persuade them to let me take responsibility for this. Use your influence to persuade the police to leave Richard out of this?"

"Mr. Karvin, I don't think — "

"Please. You don't understand. How Richard is."

"I know he's a little confused at times, easily frightened, but - "

"It's not just that," Karvin said earnestly, "I don't know what happened to Richard in the years before God brought him to me to save. I do know that it wasn't an easy way of life. He doesn't talk about it much. I presume he spent most of it moving from place to place, begging what shelter or food he could. Vagrancy laws, in many states, can be harsh. The police sometimes aren't as gentle as they should be. When I took Richard to a doctor to have him checked over, he was nursing ribs that were only half healed from being broken months before, and wounds even older than that. He'd been kicked quite severely, the doctor said. I don't know the truth of that. What I do know is that Richard can't abide being near anyone in a uniform, even now. Having to spend time in a police precinct would terrify him. I can't - I won't - allow him to be frightened. And, besides, he wouldn't understand what was expected of him, what they wanted. The whole experience would be…most distressing for him. I'd spare him that, if I can." Karvin paused. "I know that you and your wife don't have children, Mr. Kent. I presume…perhaps, one day…?"

"Some day," Clark agreed easily. "In the future. We hope to, yes."

Karvin nodded. "Don't leave the decision too long, Mr. Kent. Stacy and I, there was always something in our way, always something to delay us. Next year, we said. Next year, we'll be secure enough, settled enough, to think about it. And then Stacy got sick, and…we never did. You know, when I looked out over the crowd that night and saw Richard, just this scrawny kid, filthy, bruised, looking like he hadn't slept or eaten properly in a week…I could almost feel Stacy standing beside me, her hand on my shoulder, like she was telling me he was the son we'd never had. That she'd sent him to me. Anyway, I love Richard as much as I could any son, Mr. Kent, and I won't let him be hurt over this."

He met Clark's eyes across the table, faintly pleading.

Clark measured him for a moment. Then he nodded. "I'll do what I can," he vowed simply. "As for Addley…" He gave Karvin a considering look. "Do you know where he is? Right now?"

"Now? He should be at the marquee, overseeing things for tonight's rally."

"The rally site. Where's that?" Clark rose to his feet with the question.

"West Fourth and East Main. The mall on — "

"Stay here," interrupted Clark as he pulled the evidence package across the table towards him and pushed Addley's journal inside. "Don't go anywhere till I get back."

"Here? But, I can't! I have to go get ready for - We have a rally to - !"

Karvin's protests fell on deaf ears as Clark headed rapidly for the door.

"Cancel it!"

"What! But - "

"Jimmy? Jimmy!"

"Hey, whoa! C.K.!" The object of his search turned on him with the protest >from where he'd been searching the filing cabinets nearby. "You could give a fella heart failure, hollering on him like that, outta the blue!" He grinned.

"Sorry," Clark offered the perfunctory apology before barreling on, with barely a pause, "I need you to get this on over to Herrera at the 26th - right away!" He thrust the evidence package at Jimmy in passing as he headed for the upper level. "And tell him to meet me at the UCS rally site! West Fourth and East Main. The mall. I think Addley's there right now! Tell him I think he's responsible for killing Karen Culver and the others!"

Jimmy looked down at the package in his hands speculatively, and then up to follow Clark as he took the stairs at a rapid lope. Then he glanced around the newsroom, searching it hastily. "Marvin!" he hollered, finding his quarry.

The messenger looked up.

"Need this to go to Detective Herrera, over at the 26th precinct. Now!"

"Herrera?" the messenger repeated, taking the package from him and then, with a compliant nod, "Sure, okay - no sweat."

"Great." Jimmy glanced back to the upper level. Clark had already vanished, but he was sure he could catch him by the time he got to the lobby. He grabbed for his camera in passing and made a dash for the stairs.

***

Right up until four twenty eight p.m. on that afternoon, the thing that Ariel Gould best remembered about that particular Wednesday was that it had been one pretty lousy day, all told.

She craned her neck, for the fourth time in as many minutes, above the tight packed shoulder of the commuter crowd, squinting to catch another view of the dark archway of the subway tunnel. The empty tunnel. Still devoid of anything even remotely resembling a train. She sighed. Her eyes touched on the gilded station clock on the wall above the empty tracks. As she watched, its minute hand ticked on over another notch to land on four twenty six. Which made the four p.m. Metropolis Central to West Troy Shopper's Special not - precisely - on time.

So, what else was new? Ariel had often considered that trains worked on a basic principle common to most forms of city transport - that being that they kept perfectly to schedule unless she was waiting to board them. She could write up a paper on it, she thought facetiously: Ariel Gould's Theory of Locomotive Relativity or Paranoia in Municipal Transport Passengers.

The thought failed to lighten her mood or amuse her in any other way but darkly. She was too frustrated, too tired and too keen to hear the solid click of the oak-lined front door to her apartment closing behind her to be amused. She hitched the bulky collection of grocery bags more securely against her chest as they began yet another inexorable downward slide.

The crowd pressed in around her like a restless sea, suffocating her, backing her up further against the snack machine, the corner of which was already digging its way malevolently into the space between her ribs. She shifted, wincing as she tried to gain a few more claustrophobic centimeters of space. To add to her discomfort, a dull beat thudded somewhere at the base of her skull. And her feet ached miserably. She wriggled the toes of her right foot, easing them against the pinching leather, and yelped as the crowd surged and ebbed and the brown, brogued heel of the stockbroker type in front of her came down squarely on them as he was jostled backwards.

He spared her a brief, automatic glance across his shoulder. "Sorry!"

Ariel gave him a tight smile, but he was already turning away. The heavy stench of stale pipe tobacco that enveloped him like a personal cloud clogged in her throat, stinging in her eyes. Thickly acrid, it made her headache brighten.

Oh yeah, this was one great way to be spending her one day off, all right. Couldn't have done better if she'd tried.

She was just going to kill Jason when she got her hands on him. Why couldn't he have turned up at the weekend like they'd arranged? Taken Sarah for new shoes, like he'd promised? He'd known how much she was depending on him, how long it was going to be, with this new merger going on at Webster & Graham, before she got time off to do it herself after today. He'd known she'd have to pick up the tab for his canceling at the last minute. Abandoned, promises unkept, Sarah had been out of sorts all week and, without Daddy to take it out on, had found Mommy an all too handy scapegoat. Ariel could feel the old anger tighten in her head like a vise as her thoughts ran on. What the hell had been the point of him dragging her all the way through family court just to get himself rights he was never going to pick up anyway, she told herself bitterly, not for the first time. The only point seemed to be that Jason got pleasure out of messing up their lives with his petty spiking of their routine.

"Mommy? Why can't we see the train?"

Ariel glanced down as that piping voice broke into her thoughts. And there was the source of much of the day's frustrations right there. Copper-haired, blue- eyed, clutching tightly at her coat with small pink fingers and looking just as sweet as apple pie. Sarah was her father's daughter all right, trouble with a capital 'T', and a face as innocent as any angel's.

Ariel sighed. She'd known it had been a bad idea to take her restless daughter shopping in the middle of the midweek rush right from the start. Even if she had been left little choice in it by her sleazeball ex. The fractious four year old from Hell who sometimes inhabited her perfect daughter's head had emerged with a vengeance from the moment they'd left home that morning and hadn't let up since.

Sarah didn't like shopping. And, especially, Sarah didn't like shopping in the middle of the week when she had been looking forward to spending the afternoon with her friends at the pre-school group. Sarah, like most four year olds, had a fine sense of routine - and more ways than a raccoon to show her displeasure when that routine was shaken up, most of which were loud in the extreme and all of which were acutely embarrassing. Sarah had emerged from her foot- dragging, sullen-lipped mood only briefly during the fraught and tedious afternoon, usually to devote her not inconsiderable energies to a full-blown tantrum.

"Mommy!"

A tug on her coat reminded Ariel that her daughter wanted attention.

"What, honey?" she asked, half-heartedly, too worn out to even go beyond exasperation now.

"The train! I want to see the train!"

"You'll see it in a moment. It'll be here real soon."

"I want to see it now!"

"Well, you can't see it — "

"Now! Now, Mommy!"

"Sarah…!"

Sarah looked up at her mother, well familiar with that tone. Her lower lip jutted in a pout as she ducked her head and scuffed one toe of her expensive new shoes across the dusty platform.

"Don't do that," Ariel ordered absently, taking another, almost pleading look at the station clock.

Sarah mumbled under her breath and gave the shoes one more defiant swipe before giving up.

"I want to see."

Ariel clicked her tongue as she was jostled violently. The bags slipped, one of them tipping dangerously and she clutched it back into place. For a moment, it was touch and go, but then gravity gave up its hold on the drooping sack and she heaved it back against her shoulder. She sighed.

"Sarah, I don't — "

She stopped. The space beside her was empty.

"Sarah?"

She looked around her, but there was no sign of her daughter.

"Sarah!"

Ariel began to thrust her way through the crush, blindly.

"Hey, lady, watch where you're pushing, will ya!"

"Hey, watch it!"

"Do you mind?"

She ignored the irritated protests, panic rising sharply in her now. One of the bags in her arms was knocked clear, but she paid it no heed.

"Sarah!"

All at once, she found herself propelled out into the clear space of the platform and her heart froze as she saw her quarry on the other side of the crowd. Sarah was standing with her head tipped back, the better to listen to what the gray-haired man bending over her was saying. He smiled as he took solemn possession of the gingham-clad doll that Sarah offered up to him to view - her beloved Gintzy.

There was nothing even remotely threatening about that tableau. And, besides what possible danger could her daughter be in, here on a crowded platform? How could she be spirited away with so many witnesses around? The elderly gent looked perfectly harmless as he smiled down at the child and then returned the doll to her with a few words. In fact, he seemed to be questioning her and, as he raised his head to glance around him, was obviously seeking a parent to attach to her.

Yet, in one mind searing flash, Ariel saw every mother's nightmare of her child being abducted arc across her mind and she reacted instinctively to the threat.

She screamed her daughter's name.

"Sarah!" Ariel jolted forward, beginning to run. "Sarah Gould, you come away >from there right now! Right *now*, you hear?"

Fear lent an edge of anger to that shrill call. It startled Sarah, who jumped violently and whipped around. Seeing her mother bearing down on her like an avenging angel, she stepped automatically backwards and the guilty, defensive expression on her face turned to surprise as her foot came down on air. The china blue eyes widened almost comically as her balance wavered. Her arms windmilled in a pantomime of panic as her mouth opened on a wide 'O' of astonishment and then she was gone.

The paper sack in Ariel's arms smacked onto the platform. Groceries spilled, cans rolled, vegetables scattered. A carton of eggs hit with an impact that sounded like a small bomb going off, splattering her legs.

Behind her, a soft and dreadfully familiar roaring gust of air whipped at her hair, prickling frigidly at the hairs at the nape of her neck.

Ariel turned her head, face gray as though a shroud was already passing over it, as she saw the baleful, yellow lights of the train emerge from the tunnel.

***

Clark was halfway across the Daily Planet lobby when he heard the first scream.

"*Sarah*! Oh my God - Sarah! Help! Someone help me! My *baby*!"

It was followed by a muffled, swelling rush of sound that pinpointed the location of that terrified shriek more perfectly than any map could.

And told him he had mere seconds in which to prevent disaster.

Clark sprinted forward, pushing his way through the revolving doorway and across the few yards of pavement to where the dark mouth of an alley beckoned him. He darted into the shadowed darkness behind the dumpsters parked within. Superman took off into the sky in a blue streak from the alley's blind end an instant later.

It took him only seconds to reach the subway platform. Reflexes, faster than any human's, took in the situation at a glance as he sped over the roof of the thundering train beneath him. Overtaking it, he spun in the air, getting his bearings.

He saw the approaching train, the woman struggling futilely in the grip of several people who were preventing her from rushing forward…and he saw the child - sitting bewildered and lost in the middle of the track below him, as the train bore down on her. The train driver had spotted her too. A wailing shriek pierced the air as he sounded a warning whistle. It swallowed up the answering scream from the child's mother as she collapsed, sobbing wildly, into the arms holding her tight.

The horrified watchers among the crowd saw only a brief flash of color and then the child was gone. The train rumbled past, screeling its way to a halt. The blond-haired woman screamed again, a piercing, terrible ululation of grief and terror as she was engulfed into the comforting, instinctive embrace of the stranger who was holding onto her right arm and preventing her from hurling herself onto the track after her daughter. She sank to her knees as the strength leeched itself out of her bones, her body shaking convulsively.

"Ma'am?" a low voice said. Something in it called to her. It was strong and comforting and commanded attention. She looked up. Superman smiled gently at her as he crouched at her side. Ariel's mouth trembled on a low cry as she stretched out her arms and grabbed at the child he was holding, tugging Sarah hard against her chest and all but crushing the life out of her daughter as she rocked her, weeping hard against the spun copper of her hair.

Superman laid a comforting hand against Ariel's shoulder, but wisely said nothing. Sarah - who had watched the approaching train bear down on her with the wide-eyed calm of shock, who had seen the tracks slope dizzyingly away >from her as she was hoisted up into the air and held in strong, protective arms and had done nothing more than hiccup slightly as she caught her breath - Sarah, now faced with her mother's distress, burst into wild, braying tears of sympathy and wound her chubby arms tighter around Ariel's neck.

Superman, and the members of the crowd closest to the woman kneeling on the platform with her child melded against her chest, shared a smile.

"Not much wrong with the mite, she's got the strength to wail," the gray- haired gent who'd been holding onto Ariel's arm said with a grin. "It's when they ain't wailing at all you gotta worry."

Superman nodded, knowing this as a wisdom from the many traffic wrecks and human disasters he'd attended in the past. A child with breath enough in its lungs to cry that hard and loud usually wasn't so badly hurt.

He reached out a hand and helped Ariel to stand. Noting the doll, that Sarah had dropped when she'd begun crying, still lying forlornly on the platform, he picked that up too.

Sarah, who'd quite recovered from her crying fit, squirmed determinedly in her mother's tight grip until she was able to face her rescuer. She surveyed the superhero with the unabashed and honest curiosity that children seemed to view him with almost as a reflex. He smiled and reached out, with a gentleness his wife would have recognized, to brush at a tangle of her hair, drawing it back from her cheek. Sarah, overcome by events now and overwhelmed by her close proximity to the superhero, wrapped her arms around the safe harbor of her mother's neck, stared solemnly and unblinkingly at the Man of Steel for a long moment and then stuck one thumb firmly into her mouth.

"I - I don't know how to - " Ariel blurted breathlessly, suddenly finding her composure - and her voice.

"That's okay. She's fine," Superman brushed off her gratitude as he reassured her. "Just a little shaken up."

Ariel nodded and clutched her daughter closer, struck dumb by a whirlwind of emotions, too heavy and violent to bear all at once.

Sarah removed her thumb.

"Superman!" she declared happily.

He smiled. "That's right."

"Did you see the train?"

"I sure did."

"It was big! It had a big whistle too!"

"I heard it."

"I like trains!"

"Me too. But, you know," he took hold of one, small hand and leaned forward to stare somberly into her eyes. "Maybe, you shouldn't watch them without Mom. You stick close to her when you're in town. And always hold on tight to her hand. Don't let go. Okay?"

Sarah considered it.

"You watch trains with your Mom?" she asked.

Superman nodded solemnly. "All the time."

"You hold *her* hand?"

He nodded again. "Don't let go," he reiterated.

Sarah took another moment to digest that. "Okay."

"Promise?"

She nodded, equally somber, a vow made between equals. Superman accepted it on that level too.

"Good girl. Oh," he looked down, remembering, and then handed over a somewhat dusty Gintzy. "Here you go. She's fine too," he advised the child, seriously.

Sarah took the doll firmly and then remembered her manners. "Thank you."

Superman smiled and brushed a hand through the tousled copper hair. He took off, before a shaken Ariel could recover her wits enough to offer him anything more in the way of thanks. She stared up with a look of awe in her eyes that was matched in her daughter's as they watched the superhero soar away from them and vanish into the black cavern of the tunnel in a blur of red and blue.

Superman didn't care about thanks.

It was enough that he could help.

Emerging from the subway entrance, he hurtled up into the bright sky overhead with a powerful stroke of his body and then swung around in the air, high above the station, before he headed for the mall on West Fourth and East Main.

He'd flown no more than a few miles when he heard the first burst of rapid gunfire.

He stopped, taking stock.

Another burst, the amplified sound of orders yelled through a bullhorn, some raucous yells of defiance in response. And, in the distance, the rising wail of a police siren.

All from the direction of Metropolis Securities and Gilt.

Superman sighed as he changed direction.

Looked like it was just going to be one of those days.

***

One gang of chastened armed criminals, a relieved securities manager and a thankful police captain later, Superman landed lightly on the asphalt parking lot at the entrance to the UCS marquee.

Although, just yards away, the nearby mall was filled still with bustling crowds, making last minute purchases before heading out to join the evening rush home; the marquee itself squatted silent and brooding in its corner of the lot, empty and abandoned. The volunteer workers had gone home to find themselves hot meals before returning later for the evening's rally and the lamps had been turned down to a flicker, awaiting their return.

The air within was heavy with that silence as Superman swept through the entrance awning and strode down the central aisle, the marquee eerie in its emptiness.

Yet he wasn't alone.

He caught the low groan as he paused by the steps leading to the makeshift altar.

A quick burst of searching X-ray vision found the source.

"Jimmy!"

He ran around the platform edge to its blind side, dropping to a crouch beside the figure sitting on the ground and moaning as it clutched at its face with its hands.

"Jimmy? Are you all right?" Superman reached out to help him to unsteady feet, and then guided him the few yards to the front row of seats, pushing him firmly down to sit. "What are you doing here?"

"Uh…" Jimmy shook his head, dazed. "Oh, wow…" He dropped his head into his hands as a sudden wave of dizziness overcame him with that abrupt and entirely too reckless motion.

A hand at his shoulder steadied him.

"Take it easy, Jimmy. You'll be okay in a minute."

Jimmy moaned again and then blinked blearily up on him. "C.K…?"

"Uh, no, Jimmy. It's me. Superman."

"Superman?" Jimmy repeated muzzily. He turned his head to search the empty marquee. "Where's C.K.?"

"Clark's not here. At least, I haven't seen him."

"But, I thought…I mean, I heard…him…I think," Jimmy added the faltering uncertainty.

"I think you're still a little woozy, Jimmy," Superman told him easily as he straightened. "You'll be okay. Just rest up. It's just a scratch," he judged, taking a closer look at the thin gash on Jimmy's forehead, just above his right eye, which was still leaking blood fitfully.

Jimmy grunted. "Doesn't hurt like a scratch," he complained and then, sitting up straight with a start, "Addley! You got to get him, Superman! He took off that way - I think he was heading for the mall…" Panic flared in the young photographer's eyes. "My camera! What happened to - "

"Hey, slow down." Superman's grip tightened marginally, pressing him back against the chair as he tried to rise. Superman glanced around him and found the camera lying back against the platform. He left Jimmy to scoop it up and presented it to the photographer who turned it anxiously in his hands, only relaxing when he'd reassured himself that the precious equipment was undamaged.

"And…Addley. He did that to you?" Superman asked, pointing to the wound in his head. "He hit you?"

"Yeah…I mean, no. Not exactly. I came after C.K. - he thinks Addley's got something to do with the 'Lemming Spring' suicides - but I couldn't find him when I got here. C.K., I mean. I followed him straight out you know, but, man, he must've really flown 'cos there just wasn't any sign of him when I got down to the lobby. Addley was here when I arrived, but there wasn't any sign of C.K."

Superman folded his arms, expression grim. "And you were here because…?"

"Well, I figured I could get a coupla shots…"

"Jimmy."

"Hey, a guy's got to take what he finds! I know you don't know much about the newspaper business, Superman, but, hey, you don't get front-page photos staying in the office! Anyway, I told Addley that the cops were on their way - "

Superman sighed. "You did. And?"

"And he took off. He threw one of those Bibles at me!"

Superman shook his head. He didn't look as entirely surprised as Jimmy sounded.

"Sure he did. Okay, stay here. I'll go pick him up. And don't get yourself into any more trouble." He added the admonishment over his shoulder as he set off back up the aisle.

Jimmy ignored that. He leaned back against the chair, closing his eyes, clearly not up to going anywhere just then.

Outside, Superman crossed the parking area quickly and entered the mall. Ignoring the curious crowds, he scanned the immediate area, grim-eyed as he stalked through their midst. The crowd, curious as they were, recognized that steely gaze and the purposeful mood of the superhero and stayed prudently out of his way.

It took him a moment or so before he found Addley up on the second level. The aide, apparently convinced he'd shaken any pursuit, was strolling at a casual rate along the boulevard above the superhero, aping the crowds around him as he feigned interest in the store windows he passed. He paused for a long moment before the window of a stationery store, ostensibly looking over the wildly colorful display it held: a selection of children's goods - everything >from pencil sets and lunchboxes to mugs and mini rucksacks - all adorned with the cartoon stars of a current big budget toon movie from Warner Brothers.

Clark, however, could tell that he was actually using the window's mirrored reflection to scan the crowds behind him and look out for any signs of pursuit. After a moment or so, apparently reassured, Addley walked briskly on.

He turned the corner at a brisk clip - and ran smack into the brick wall that was suddenly in his way.

The brick wall shot out a hand as he rebounded backwards and clenched it, none too gently, around his throat, lifting him into air. Addley squawked, threshing in that grip.

"Superman!" he squawked, as the steel collar around his throat loosened just a little.

"You were expecting Bugs or Daffy?"

Superman dropped the man to his feet. Addley put a hand to his throat, gasping. Superman ignored him as he lifted his head to watch the approach of two of the mall's security guards.

"Need any help, Superman?" the first of them said breathlessly, already hauling out the handcuffs at his belt.

"The police are on their way." Superman pushed Addley at the man and watched grimly as he was cuffed. "I'd appreciate you holding on to him until they arrive. He's wanted on suspicion of murder. And for assault," he added as he caught sight of Jimmy riding the escalator up to their level. He pointed out over the gathered crowd. "Your witness is coming up now. He'll fill you in on the details." He raised his head, as though listening. "I'm sorry, I have to go."

"Sure, okay. Thanks, Superman."

"Superman!" Jimmy yelled as he ran along the corridor, but the Man of Steel had already taken off, seemingly unhearing. Jimmy faltered to a halt on the edge of the dispersing crowd and swore mildly, but with feeling.

"Hey - you can tell us about this guy?" the guard holding on to a subdued Addley asked, and Jimmy turned back to fill him in eagerly on events, forgetting his disappointment in missing out on getting to talk to the superhero about Addley's capture.

By the time Clark pushed his way through the last of the onlookers, Jimmy was well into the swing of describing Addley's attack on him. The account, Clark noted, slightly amused, had seemed to gather pace and the addition of some lurid detail by this point. Jimmy broke off as he spotted the reporter.

"C.K.! Where you been?"

"Oh." Clark made an apologetic gesture. "My cab got caught in traffic. I saw Superman catch him from down in the lower mall though." He nodded at the police as they began to lead Addley away. Over in the corner, the familiar figure of Herrera was taking down notes as he spoke to the guard who'd been first on the scene. He looked up and caught Clark's eye. A scowl took over the detective's Basset Hound face.

"Yeah - pretty wild, huh? What route'd you take?" Jimmy added, with a frown.

Clark looked back at him. "Huh?"

"Your cab? I mean I was pretty much out at your back and the roads seemed kinda clear to me. Did you - ?"

"Oh. Well, I think — "

"Kent!"

Clark broke off, more grateful to the detective than Herrera knew as that angry yell preceded the cop across the mall towards them. Herrera's low glare didn't seem to share the feeling. Gratitude obviously wasn't on his agenda.

"Dutch," Clark greeted him, mildly, bracing himself for the storm.

He wasn't disappointed.

"Don't you 'Dutch' me! What the hell you an' the Boy Wonder here think you're doing, wading in trying to swat down killers without any backup! How many times I told you about that! If it ain't Lois, it's you! You know one of these days I'm gonna come along an' find you need zipping into a body-bag!"

Clark winced. Yup, he was ticked. Herrera's speech patterns only reverted to the pure Suicide Slum vernacular of his roots like that when he was mad as hell. "Dutch — "

"Aw, save it." Herrera snapped disgustedly. He turned to where Addley was being led away. The last of the crowd was being moved on. Herrera took a deep, calming breath, rocking back on his heels, and then said mildly, "So…you really figure he's the one, huh?"

"Don't you?" Clark said surprised. "You got the package I sent over?"

"Yeah. But I haven't had a chance to go over it much yet. You think we've got enough to hold him on?"

"Everything you need," Clark told him. "With Jimmy's statement you've got enough to hold him till you get the chance to look over the rest of the evidence."

"And yours too. I want it down on paper how you put this one together, Kent. Come on, I'll get you a ride down to the precinct; we can have your statements down within the hour. I want to get on a roll with this one before that skuzzball has a chance to start getting pally with his lawyer. And I don't want him walking out just because the paperwork isn't in place."

"Okay. But, we'll make our own way there. Jimmy's got his car, we'll tail you on in."

Herrera paused then nodded. "Don't go dawdling after donuts or anything on the way over, okay? You're more'n ten minutes behind me, I'm gonna be sending out the dogs."

"We'll be right there," Clark assured him.

"Yeah, yeah…" Herrera waved a hand across one shoulder as he walked away.

Jimmy looked after him anxiously. "Hey, C.K., think we can stop off at the Planet on the way? I've got some great shots and - "

"We'll send them over by courier from the precinct, Jimmy. Don't worry, they'll turn out okay. Where's your car? I want to run by our brownstone; it's on our way."

Jimmy shrugged. "Sure. We gonna pick up Lois?"

Clark nodded as he ushered the younger man through the press of the rapidly dwindling crowd and towards the parking level. "This was her story from the start. She's gonna want to be there, find out what she can when Addley's interviewed. I can bring her up to speed on the way."

"Okay. Hey, we can pick up those books too, while we're there. The boxing books?" Jimmy added, as Clark looked blank.

"Oh. Yeah. Sure," Clark agreed easily, following him onto the escalator. "Fine by me."

***

On most days, fair weather and traffic congestion permitting, it took thirty minutes to make it across town to Clark and Lois' townhouse.

Jimmy made it in just under eleven.

The cherry red Mustang squealed its way into an empty parking spot just a little shy of the entrance steps and slammed to a bone-bouncing halt. Jimmy reached out and turned off the engine with a practiced flick of his wrist as Clark took a deep breath and cautiously unclenched his fingers from the dashboard in front of him. He was surprised there weren't impressions left in the plastic when he did.

"Nice driving," was his only, laconic comment.

Jimmy glanced across at him and grinned widely as he reached to cut off the high decibel rhythmic pounding that was emanating from the radio. Clark sighed, just a little gratefully in the sudden silence, then added as an afterthought, "You really had to wonder how you made it across town before I did?"

Jimmy shrugged and exited the car by the simple expedient of vaulting over its door.

"You didn't used to work for Metrocabs, did you?" Clark continued as he got out of the Mustang in a more sedate manner, by way of the passenger door.

"Nope." Jimmy flashed him a wider version of that irrepressible grin. "Lois taught me everything I know."

"Oh. Yeah well that figures. I should have recognized the style." Clark smiled as he slapped Jimmy companionably against the shoulder in passing and then started up the stairs to the brownstone at a casual, athletic lope.

"Hey, nice wheels!" Jimmy's admiring whistle sounded at his back as the photographer looked over the bottle green Jeep parked tidily in front of the Mustang, its bodywork gleaming with a coating of freshly applied wax. He stepped up close and ran an almost reverential hand across the wheel arch. "A Trak Warrior! Man, what I'd give - "

"Yeah." Clark gave it a perfunctionary glance. "Uh, Jimmy - " He hooked a thumb across his shoulder.

"Huh? Oh. Yeah." Jimmy followed him reluctantly, taking another lingering look across his shoulder at the Jeep as he went.

Clark pushed through the lobby door. He heard Jimmy pause at his back as he unlocked the front door and then catch up to him as he entered the living room.

"Lois?" Clark raised his voice as he dropped his keys to the little side-table by the sofa. He looked around the empty room and then crossed through the dining room to push open the kitchen door.

"Lois?"

The kitchen was empty too. He came back into the living room, glancing up into the stairwell and bringing his super-hearing online absently as he widened his search for his wife, and Jimmy ambushed him, grinning and tagging along at his side like an eager puppy.

"Hey, C.K., what'd you say we dump my car here and you can give us a ride to the precinct? Man, I've wanted to take a ride in a Trak Warrior since they came on the market!"

Clark snorted, only half listening as he stopped in the center of the living room, hands resting easily at his hips. "Yeah, you and half of Metropolis, Jimmy. But they're just a couple of thousand dollars over my budget, so don't hold your breath." He put an absent hand to the younger man's shoulder in apology for his distracted air as he took another glance upwards.

"Maybe Lois took a nap," he said, knowing full well that she had. He could hear the slumbering beat of her heart from the bedroom above. For a moment, that low, drowsy pulse tugged at him and then he was diverted as he heard Jimmy clear his throat roughly.

"Uh, C.K.?"

Clark turned his head and felt the sudden weight of his friend's grin. Jimmy was holding out a sheaf of papers and a small plastic folder. Clark frowned as he took them automatically and then, registering what they were, he looked up sharply, eyebrows rising. "Where'd you get these?"

"They were behind the lobby door when we came in." Jimmy turned to look out of the living room window, wistfully. "Man, I gotta hand it to you, C.K., a top of the line Jeep. How'd you work that out of your insurers?"

Clark sighed, dumping the vehicle registration papers and keys to the coffee table. "*I* didn't," he said sardonically. "You know, for two days I talk to everyone from the manager down and they won't promise me anything better than a '92 Chrysler. Then Lois spends four minutes on the phone to them this morning and whatd'ya know - *that's* parked outside!" He waved a hand at the window and in the direction of the offending vehicle.

Jimmy's grin widened. "Was that four minutes talking or yelling?" he asked shrewdly.

Clark's grimace gave him his answer. Jimmy chuckled quietly and then his face took on that puppy dog look of hope again. "So, can we, huh? Take it in to the station? Or the Planet! We could take it to the Planet! Man, Ralph's face is gonna be - "

"Uh, I'll…think about it," Clark told him. He took a swift glance around the living room, looking for a diversion as Jimmy sighed, deflated.

"Looks like Lois tidied your books away," Clark said, trying to drag his thoughts away from the admittedly not unpleasant thought of Ralph Pereira's envious face when they drove up to the paper in a vehicle TOP CAR magazine had recently described as 'harder to get hold of than an eel that's just covered itself in body lotion'. "Give me a minute, I'll find them again."

"Oh hey, I can pick out a - " Jimmy glanced back across his shoulder quizzically as his eager, forward lunge for the bookcase was thwarted by Clark's hand reaching to his arm and bringing him to an abrupt though gentle halt.

"*You* are going upstairs," Clark corrected firmly. "Deal with that cut." He let go Jimmy's arm and pointed at the wound.

Jimmy put up an automatic hand in the direction of Clark's admonishing finger and grimaced as he touched the tender spot above his eye.

"You know where everything is," Clark added as he turned him around by one shoulder and prodded him in the general direction of the stairs. "You'll find iodine in the bathroom cabinet. There should be painkillers in there too, if your head's starting to ache."

Jimmy shrugged amiably. "Okay."

Clark watched him start up the stairs and then ambled over to the bookcase in the room's far corner. He took a passing look through the window as he went by and shook his head at the gleaming hunk of metal parked outside.

"Trak Warrior…" he muttered in disgust as he returned his attention to the bookcase and scanned its shelves. "How does she *do* that?"

He frowned slightly. The books he'd picked out for Jimmy earlier were nowhere to be found. He shrugged. In her current 'Housefrau from Hell' mood, Lois was likely to have 'tidied' them somewhere where they wouldn't be unearthed before the next century was out. He smiled a little at the thought and picked up a thick volume with a gold embossed title on its spine: 'Boxing Heroes of the Twentieth Century'.

He collected a couple of others as replacements for his original selection and crossed to lay them on the table next to the phone. He glanced up the staircase and thought that he might just give Lois another couple of minutes before waking her up.

He listened in again on that soft beating heart for an instant. Sounded like she was in deep. Briefly, he considered just leaving without her. She could do with the rest, whether she thought so or not - the very fact that she was napping in the middle of the day proved *that* theory - and there was really only tidying up to do at the precinct. Get what he could on Addley's arrest and then hotfoot it back to the Planet to get down his take.

*Their* take, a much wiser voice reminded him.

God, no, he thought, rapidly retrieving his senses and putting the moment of madness behind him. Leave her behind now and she'd be like to disembowel him with the nearest steak knife when she woke up and discovered he'd cut her out of one of the hottest stories of the year. And a little, niggling fact like him being invulnerable would hardly slow her down either. She'd probably take extra time to make sure it was an especially *blunt* steak knife, kryptonite coated.

Clark shook his head. Well, he'd give her a few more minutes anyway, he thought stubbornly. That wouldn't hurt. With Addley behind bars, there was no *real* need to rush, other than the pressure copy deadlines put on them.

Liking this compromise decision, he headed for the kitchen in search of a soda. All this superheroing and catching serial killers was thirsty work.

Taking the chilled can from the refrigerator, he popped its tab and demolished its contents in a couple of deep gulps before he crushed the aluminum in his fist. He turned on his heel to deposit it in the recycling bin under the counter.

Which was when he first noticed that the trashcan beside it had been tipped over onto its side and its contents spread liberally across the tiles. Several empty cans had rolled to lie beneath the cupboards on the opposite side of the room. A small, noxious puddle of something indefinable, which he didn't really feel inclined to examine too closely, leaked from beneath a sodden mess of cardboard packages in the middle of the heap, spreading its way slowly across the floor in a sticky flow.

Clark put the crushed can on the counter, rolling his eyes.

"Wes Craven," he growled and then, on a heavy, exasperated sigh, "Darn it, Wes…not today!"

He raised his voice a little as he put his hands to his hips and glared around the seemingly empty room. "Okay…I know you're in here." His tone firmed, commanding and brusque, "Come on. Get on out here. Front and center, soldier! You're busted."

Silence was the only response to this demand. Despite his irritation, Clark felt a smile tug at the corner of his lips. He hadn't really expected anything else. Wes never played anything other than hardball.

"Can't face it like a man, huh?" he taunted, falling easily into the by now familiar ritual, and then, voice softening warningly as he moved into the center of the room and slowly and purposefully rolled up his sleeves, "Okkkaaayyy…you wanna play it the hard way, you got it, buster!"

His grin widened and then he lifted his head to inhale sharply, filling his lungs with the betraying and unmistakable musk odor of

***

***

nothing.

Clark's grin faded, replaced by a frown. Now, that wasn't right. The Game he and Wes had embarked on these past months had definite rules and skipping out before being caught in this act of vandalism wasn't in the game plan. The entire point was the battle of wills that followed discovery of the crime.

"Wes?" he said, puzzled, taking another glance around him. He straightened >from the catcher's crouch he had automatically taken up in preparation.

But there was no sign of the aging tomcat that had plagued them for over three months now.

No one knew where Wes had come from, though Clark had made a pretty thorough search for an owner during their first week in the brownstone and after Wes had launched his first pillaging raid on their kitchen trashcan. He had been worried about the underweight, scrawny hunk of feline belligerence that seemed to delight in stalking them, sure that his frequent raids were motivated by hunger.

He had even for a time, and ignoring Lois' tight-lipped disapproval, left food out for the little beast in pity. After three days of this generosity, in which Wes had studiously ignored all offerings in favor of raiding the trashcan repeatedly, Clark had begun to get an inkling into the marauder's psyche and revised his opinion. Clearly, Wes raided because it was fun.

By the time Clark had figured out that what was even more fun was waiting around to be caught and then proving feline superiority over human reflexes by making a mad, careering dash for the outside world, he was pretty much suckered into the challenge. The gauntlet had been thrown down. Someone had to pick it up. The Game was born. And, somewhere along the line, entirely uninvited and against at least one will, Wes became a part of their lives by insidious erosion.

That will wasn't at all happy with events as they'd turned out of course. Lois just didn't understand The Game at all.

Well, she was a woman. Women didn't get these things. It was a guy thing. Clark was sure that Wes agreed with this sentiment on the occasions that he had lamented over it, while escorting his opponent hastily from the kitchen by the scruff of his neck to the backdrop of his wife's ominous mutters and the clatter of the trashcan being restored to its former pristine condition. On these occasions Wes's topaz eyes held a definite glint of commiseration with the sad inadequacies of the female mind that seemed to say, 'Know what you mean, fella. They drive you crazy. But what can you do? They give you something warm to curl up beside at night. Life sure wouldn't be fun without 'em.'

Which was, of course, a sentiment that Clark was heartily in agreement with.

The Game was perfectly simple, of course. It didn't take much understanding. Anyone - well, any *guy* - could understand that. There was something primal in it that appealed to both males - a battle of intellect and will that had gone on for centuries unchecked, in one form or another. Man against beast. Hunter against hunted. Prey and predator locked in combat.

Lois had listened to Clark's attempts to explain this with an expression that said she was measuring him for a heavy-duty straitjacket and finally she'd given up on trying to fathom it entirely. Clark would simply shrug when she reminded him that he was pitting himself against an animal which had considerably *less* intelligence than he had - and a scrawny, half-bitten one at that. This was hardly on the same par with Tarzan wrestling in crocodile infested waters. Clark's stubborn contention that it was harmless - and besides Wes got so much fun out of it that it seemed a pity to disappoint the little guy - she treated with the disdain such argument clearly deserved.

Clark and Wes had learned to keep their battles out of Lois' way…for the most part. Wes for one seemed to be of the opinion that taking on Superman was one thing…but that female of his was just plumb dangerous to be around.

He'd learned that particular lesson the hard way. It was Lois who'd named him…for his initial propensity to lurk in unexpected places and try scaring the hell out of the unwary by launching wild attacks on the ankles of passersby. Up till then, Clark had been prone to calling him The General because the battle-scarred, feisty little animal had reminded him of an in- your-face veteran he'd once met at a conference at the U.N.

Naturally, Lois' point of view prevailed - Clark's choice bestowed just too much dignity on the bedraggled hunk of feline testosterone to her mind. She usually delivered the name with all of the loathing she normally reserved for crooked Government officials and viewed the occasional prankster with considerably less amusement and much more irritation than Clark did. But then, Lois had never been fond of pranksters.

In any event, Wes had quickly learned not to try his kamikaze berserker lunges on Lois if he wanted to maintain more than five of his nine lives. By mutual consent, they avoided each other like the proverbial plague.

Clark though was different. Wes recognized an instinctive, kindred spirit in the superhero. They were raided often.

They weren't his only victims, of course. Wes was an equal opportunities marauder, dispensing his favors throughout the neighborhood and on any given day he usually had a busy schedule of rounds to keep to. Clark had, only the previous week, been witness to the battered tomcat being unceremoniously evicted from Stella's Coffee Shop at the business end of a broom. But he seemed to find 348 Hyperion Avenue a particularly easy mark and visited it more often than most. Perhaps because, with the arrival of Superman in the neighborhood, he was assured of easy egress. At least one window was always open, or at least unlatched. Wes had become adept at slinking through the living room and into the battleground without being spotted. His current average was six tries out of ten and he simply seemed to view the other four failures as just another assault on his integrity.

Which was why the tomcat's bailing out now was all the more puzzling. Clark guessed that there were a lot of things that could distract a free spirit like Wes. But the Game was invariably the same: no deviations.

Stage One - Wes demolished the trashcan and then hid to wait for discovery.

Stage Two - Once discovered and his hiding place rousted, Wes watched the approach of the large human as it stalked for him. At this point, he would exhibit all the signs of suppressed and tingling excitement of the impending chase that amused Clark so deeply. His chin would sink down onto his paws as he viewed his approaching nemesis, his haunches would rise slightly, wriggling in a dance of coiled tension as his tail twitched back and forth in response. At precisely the last possible moment before capture, Wes would launch himself like a projectile missile for the nearest escape route, darting around legs and ankles and in between chairs in an insane dash for freedom

***

***

which was the point at which he usually found himself dangling by the scruff of his neck in midair and looking into Clark's chiding eyes, on a level with his own. And at this juncture in proceedings Wes' round topaz eyes usually narrowed in a glare that said, "I don't know how you keep doing that, fella - but one of these days I'm gonna find out and when I do - "

Evicted onto the kitchen terrace, he would stalk off in high dudgeon to sit upon the low boundary wall, licking his metaphorical wounds with a studied nonchalance and scowling at his opponent with a steady calculation that said this war wasn't over yet. Not by a long shot, buddy.

Surveying the empty kitchen now with a deepening frown, Clark shook his head. Leaving midway through the battle just wasn't like Wes at all. But, he shrugged, seemed like he'd gotten distracted somewhere along the way before he was through, today. He bent to set the trashcan to rights. He guessed there was a first time for everything.

Maybe Wes had finally gotten a chance at that cute little Burmese he'd been stalking for weeks now, Clark thought with an inward chuckle, as he retrieved a mop and bucket from the cupboard and began to deal with the mess. He had caught sight of them pressed nose to nose through the glass of the Burmese' owner's apartment window just the other day.

He grinned. "Way to go, Wes," he approved as he got on with clearing up the mess.

With Jimmy in the house, he didn't risk a Super speedy cleanup. But it only took him a moment or so to gather up the scattered garbage and replace it in the trash can. He put it away tidily and mopped up the spillage, disposed of the crushed soda can tidily as an afterthought, cleaned up at the sink, put away the cleaning materials, and then headed for the stairs to wake up his wife.

As he started up them, the phone rang shrilly. He hooked an arm over the stair-rail and picked it up.

"Hello?"

There was a slight pause before a hesitant voice spoke. "Mr. Kent?"

"This is Mr. Kent," Clark answered cautiously with a frown. There had been a vague undertone in that voice that was hard to define, something a little out of sync.

"Ah. Good. Good…um, I mean," the disembodied voice paused again, a throat was hastily cleared, and when it resumed it was steadier, more firm. "This is Mandrake Helston, Mr. Kent. From Excelsior Insurance?"

Clark took a moment to put that in place then his frown cleared. He had it now, what had been in that voice when he'd answered - relief. The man was relieved to be talking to him and not

***

A grin spread over his face. "Ah, Mr. Helston! You were talking to my wife earlier…"

"Uh…yeah. Um…" Helston's tone dropped marginally.

Clark barely suppressed a chuckle. Lord, but it was amazing what reference to that woman could do to perfectly sane, healthy males. He just couldn't resist adding, "Uh, she's just upstairs. I can go get her if you - "

"No! Ah, no, no, that won't be necessary, Mr. Kent. No need to bother your good lady…"

After that mouse squeak of momentary panic, a rich vein of unctuous oil smoothed its way into Helston's voice. The same tone he might use to persuade some frail old lady that sure she really did need an eighty-year life insurance policy.

/Good lady…?/ Clark mouthed to himself. He rolled his eyes.

"…I was just…I thought I'd just make a follow up call, check that your replacement vehicle has arrived. It has arrived, hasn't it?" Helston added hastily, losing a little of what had become an almost patronizing pomposity for a moment.

"Oh, it's arrived." Clark had remembered something else now, Helston's name clicking smoothly into place in his mind. "Yes, it's parked outside. Thank you. I was sorry to hear of your…indisposition earlier," he said sympathetically, trying not to let his smile widen. "I hope you've recovered?"

"Recovered? Oh, yes. Yes, quite…quite recovered," Helston breathed out quickly. Clark had a sudden image of the man retrieving a large handkerchief >from his breast pocket and wiping hastily at the sweat that had begun to bead on his brow. He took pity on him.

"The replacement vehicle's more than satisfactory, Mr. Helston. Thank you for delivering it so promptly."

"Ah! Well, good. Good! And…Mrs. Kent? She's um…satisfied?"

Clark barely suppressed a chuckle. "Yes, I'm sure she is."

"Wonderful!" The relief was back with a vengeance. Helston's tone became one of forced jocularity as he concluded speedily, "Well, then, we'll be in touch when your claim is processed. Be assured that we at Excelsior have your best interests at heart, Mr. Kent! Your very *best* interests! Goodbye!"

"I'm sure you do," Clark murmured as he replaced the phone. "If you want to avoid another migraine."

His amusement finally blossomed into a deep chuckle.

"That's my girl. You beaned him good!" he noted approvingly as he jogged on up the stairs to wake his own personal, favorite little star pitcher.

***

Washing up at the bathroom sink, Jimmy took a last, cursory glance into the mirror above it. He leaned forward with a frown to make a few final adjustments to the Band-Aid applied to his temple at a skewed angle. Devoting as much care to the task as he would have done preparing for a hot date, he poked and prodded, smoothed and primped at the dun-colored, oblong patch.

Strictly speaking, the scrape wasn't worthy of that amount of attention. Although it had bled copiously for a time, it had, in the nature of such wounds, been shallower than it had looked. A quick clean up with some moistened tissue, some of the iodine Clark had recommended - applied sparingly (it stung!) - and its appearance improved markedly.

Jimmy was more concerned about the heavy shadow of bruising that surrounded the cut. He wondered if it would spread any and decided morosely that, typically and with the good old Olsen luck running as it had lately, he was bound to end up being mistaken for one of the combatants when he took Leanore to the big fight at the weekend. At this rate he was going to look like a panda by the end of the week. He sighed.

As far as the healing process went, the cut would undoubtedly have benefited more from an airing than from being covered with the Band-Aid, but Jimmy had been less concerned with cause than effect there. He hadn't worked as long as he had done for Perry White without at least learning the advantages of advertising. He had every intention of making capital on his afternoon's adventures as best he could, and emphasizing the battle scars wasn't going to do any harm to his reputation at all.

Finally satisfied, Jimmy straightened and eyed himself critically in the glass one final time before aiming a cocky grin at his image. He tossed the hand towel he'd used back on its rail and exited the bathroom, whistling under his breath.

He was already deep into his fantasises as he headed along the short stretch of corridor towards the stairs: surrounded by admiring colleagues - most of them of the young and nubile variety - as he related his heroism and (almost) single handed capture of Metropolis' most dangerous serial killer.

/Hurt? Sure it hurt! You see how *big* this Band-Aid is? But, you know, well, Superman needed my *help* here, no way I was gonna stay back there in that tent! So, wiping the blood outta my eyes so I could see…that's odd…/

Passing the half open door on his right, his thoughts were jerked off course as something caught at the edges of his vision. A flicker of motion or color, indistinct, but definitely something…that shouldn't be there.

His automatic, passing glance became a double take. His steps faltered and slowed as he came to an absent halt almost before he realized he was going to. He squinted into the bedroom through the awkward, narrow gap between door and frame as he tried to find the source of that tickle at the corner of his eye.

He frowned. Within, the room was dark, shades drawn, and silent.

As the grave.

Jimmy glanced back across his shoulder, in the direction of the stairs, feeling suddenly and curiously ill at ease, though he had no idea and less reason why there should be a sudden clenching in the pit of his stomach as he peered into the shadows before him. There was nothing there. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just a quiet, empty and darkened room.

Yet as he stood there he rubbed the palms of his hands fitfully against the legs of his jeans. He'd broken out in a cold sweat. He felt it trickle down the length of his spine and itch between his shoulderblades. Like the prickle of tension raising the hackles on the nape of his neck.

He backed up a pace. And still that something…some sense of just plain out and out not right…pulled at him instinctively.

But what?

There was nothing there.

But, somehow, he didn't move on. His attention was so rigidly fixed on the sliver of blackness within the silent room, senses straining to make sense of the jumble of shadows, that he started violently, a low, startled yelp of fright escaping him, when the telephone began shrilling suddenly, down on the lower level. He turned his head and then came back to the doorway again. He licked restlessly at his lips. Down in the living room the faint, familiar voice of C.K. drifted up to him.

Jimmy shook his head. Well, whatever it was calling to him within that room, best he left it to C.K. to sort out. That was the safest course. He'd be finished on the phone in another moment and probably heading this way right after. Let him deal with it. Yeah, Jimmy nodded firmly, that was the best thing.

He had no business snooping around in that room.

Yet, when he moved, far from heading for the stairs, he found himself taking his first step closer to the open doorway.

He peeked around the edge of the door. But there was still nothing. No smell, no sound, nothing to indicate danger, nothing to explain the scream of unease clawing at the back of his skull.

Now that he thought on it, hadn't C.K. said Lois might be up here napping? Jimmy's scan of the bedroom became more furtive, as though he expected that any moment the door would be hauled aside and the room's owner would ambush him, demanding to know what he was doing there, peeking through keyholes like some awkward adolescent.

Jimmy flushed with the thought.

The situation was fraught with embarrassing possibilities that he just didn't want to think about. Well, not entirely anyway. The high color in his cheeks brightened considerably as certain parts of his libido spoke up to point out that there were possibilities *it* wouldn't mind exploring at all. He quashed it with a frown. It didn't pay to think about his colleague in that way. He thought he'd gotten over that crush long since.

And then…sometimes it snuck up on him, reminding him that Lois hadn't stopped being hot just because she was married to C.K.

Jimmy sighed and shunted the unwelcome drift of his thoughts firmly back on track.

"Lois…?" he asked uncertainly of the darkness, delaying the decision to give up and retreat or advance and satisfy his curiosity.

No answer.

He rapped tentative knuckles briefly against the wood of the door.

No sound disturbed the thick, weighted silence in response.

He swallowed slightly and then sighed.

As he pushed the door fully wide, the light from the hallway behind him swarmed up and over the bed, enabling him to see that it was empty. Neatly made, throw pillows undisturbed.

Jimmy took a hesitant few steps further over the threshold, feeling as though he could actually sense the invisible line on the floor that marked the boundary of the hall's safety as he stepped over it and into the dangerous, uncharted territory beyond.

The spill of light showed him something else too, as he stepped past the frame of the door, which had been blocking his view. The cellphone lying on the comforter, the emerald glow of its display blinking an agitated pulse into the darkness.

Muscles in his neck and shoulders, which Jimmy was only just realizing were stretched taut as wire, relaxed slightly and he puffed out a relieved breath. Geez, was *that* all? He shook his head, cursing his over-active imagination for the horror movie spin it had put on a simple, everyday occurrence.

He picked up the phone idly, giving it a baleful glare as though his temporary fright had been entirely its fault. He switched it off, stopping the steady stutter of its pulse instantly, and laid it carefully on the nightstand.

Relief was replaced an instant later by the growing urge to leave before he was caught and had to explain himself.

Turning back for the hall, his eye was caught by a pile of books sitting on the dresser on the other side of the room. Their spines, illuminated by the shaft of light probing into the room from the hallway behind him, identified them as probable candidates for being the lost books Clark had looked out for him earlier. Jimmy took a single, furtive glance across his shoulder and risked another few moments of trespass as he moved quickly across the room, interest piqued.

Picking up the books, he shuffled through the pile, viewing the covers idly. Turning around, he began flicking through the pages of the top book as he headed back for the door, engrossed - and his foot snagged in something, something that skittered away from him, almost dumping him on his face. Arms flailing for balance, he dropped the books.

"Shoot!"

He winced at the heavy thud as they hit in a scatter of pages around him and then crouched to gather them. As he did so, he saw what he had stood on - a plastic bottle lay on its side just inches away. He had cracked it. The small amount of liquid it contained was seeping rapidly into the carpet, producing a dark stain.

Jimmy made a sound that was almost a yelp. He was not only clandestinely wandering around Lois Lane's bedroom without express permission, he was messing it up too. She'd kill him. He'd never make it out alive.

He grabbed at the bottle as these thoughts gibbered in his brain and to his relief found that the liquid was below the line of the crack when it was held upright. He suppressed a low sigh and began to get to his feet.

And that was when he saw the hand out of the corner of his eye.

Jimmy froze. He turned his head. His gaze fixed on the hand laying on the carpet there beside the bed, right beside him, half buried beneath the overhang of the comforter, pale fingers clenched into the thick fibers. Stunned, his eyes followed those fingers up to a royal blue sleeve, an elbow, a shoulder, a tangle of dark hair…

"Jimmy?"

White-faced, Jimmy turned his head to where Clark was standing in the doorway, looking confused to find him there. Jimmy blinked back at him, eyes shocked blank.

"It's Lois."

"What?"

A flash of conflicting emotions crossed Clark's face with the puzzled question. And then, as he looked at Jimmy, standing there by the dresser, as their eyes met, as he saw what was written on his friend's face, found the fear that had shocked it into a blank canvas, Clark's expression shifted abruptly. What had been consternation and concern, coupled with puzzlement at finding him here, became an answering thread of panic - and a sharp, questioning fear as he took in the room…the empty bed…the pale cast to Jimmy's face and worse…

He could hear nothing.

Silence.

Where had she gone?

Where had Lois gone?

She'd been there only a moment ago. He'd heard her. Heard her heart beating…beating -

The bottle clenched in Jimmy's fist fell from suddenly lax fingers and hit the carpet with a soft thud as shock suddenly translated into a flurry of activity.

"C.K., it's Lois!" he said again, more urgently this time as he landed on his knees beside the bed, and that seemed to make no sense at all.

But Clark was already moving, instinct propelling him forward, even as his tumbling thoughts began to catch up, weaving impossible, horrific scenarios in his head though he tried to shut them out.

Her heart. He started for the other side of the room, knowing what he'd find as he came around the bed, knowing now, too late, far too late, what it had been about that fading heartbeat that had tugged at him from downstairs. Before Jimmy and that dumb Jeep had distracted him.

It had been too slow.

Far too slow.

Too slow just for sleep alone.

And now…

His heart contracted sharply, pain lancing through his chest with the shock of realization.

…now it wasn't there at all.

Jimmy reached out a hand that froze inches shy of its target. As though wary of making actual contact with the figure lying sprawled in the narrow gap between bed and dresser, for fear of what the touch of skin on skin might reveal.

Swallowing, steadying himself with a hard breath, he reached out again - and Clark got there first, sliding to his knees beside him so startlingly fast that Jimmy jerked in surprise, and his hand met empty air as Clark pulled desperately at the body, turning it into his slow, rocking embrace. She flowed bonelessly and unresisting into his arms, her head thumping softly against his shoulder. Jimmy winced as the knuckles of one trailing hand rapped against the carpet with a sound that seemed loud and vicious as a scream in the room's stark silence.

"Lois? Lois!"

"Uh, C.K…maybe you shouldn't move her any…I mean — "

Jimmy's faint protest died in his throat as he saw the anguish in his friend's face, heard the frantic note in his voice as he cradled his wife close against him and murmured her name, begging for an answer. Though better known for his impetuosity than his tact, there were times when even Jimmy recognized that he wasn't going to be heard.

Clark wasn't even aware that Jimmy was still in the room. Terror and panic were blossoming like dark, bitter seeds in his chest as he looked down at the limp figure of his wife, lying unresponsive and pale against his supporting arm.

He put a swift hand to her cheek, fingers trembling against the touch of chill ice against his skin and then dropped it to her throat. His fingers met only an echo of the silence he heard, a stillness where life should be throbbing softly and gently beneath that frozen flesh, and with a small cry he crushed her to his chest, a sharp, agonizing grief welling up in him as he buried his face against her hair.

"Lois…" he whispered, brokenly.

He felt something touch him against one shoulder, light before it brushed away, but he ignored it.

"C.K…?"

He ignored that too. Dimly, he heard an echo of his own fear and grief in the tentative voice, but he couldn't deal with anyone else's pain right now, he couldn't deal with…

…any of it.

It wasn't real.

It couldn't be real.

"I'll call 911!"

Distantly, he was aware of Jimmy moving, of the sound of his voice, but nothing made any sense any more. Nothing but the feel of his wife in his arms. That was the only reality. A stark, cold reality that deadened his heart in his chest.

"It won't help," he said softly, his words stirring the soft, dark hair against which his lips rested. "She's gone."

"G-gone?" Jimmy turned back from where he'd picked up the phone. "She - she can't be *gone*…not…not *Lois*…"

Clark shook his head. He didn't want to talk any more, he didn't want to stamp this with words that would define it and made it real. He had faced this nightmare a hundred times, in a thousand different ways, and knew that he would wake soon. As he always had before.

Yet it was so real…

His senses filled themselves with the scent of her, with the softness of her body against his, and there was a howl of desperate denial wailing its way through the bones of his chest, tearing into his throat as he pulled her closer, as though he could crush life back into her if he only tried hard enough.

"Lois…" he murmured, hardly hearing what he was saying. "Lois…I should have — "

CPR.

He should try CPR. She hadn't been gone long. He had heard her heart beating just a few moments ago. A few moments? It felt like a lifetime ago, since he'd entered the room.

It had been too long, hadn't it?

No. No! He could still try! He could still try to get her -

"C…ark…?"

It was so small a whisper, barely nothing more than a faint fluttering of breath against the side of his throat, that for an instant he thought it was merely borne out of his desperation to hear it, that it had no more existence than that.

Then she breathed out his name again in a sighing hitch against his lips as he turned his head, wonderingly, hardly daring to breathe, to look into her face.

Trembling, he eased her a little clear of him.

"Lois…"

Still standing by the dresser, holding onto the useless telephone receiver, the dial tone burring in his ear, Jimmy saw the faint spark of relief twist across Clark's face in the gloom.

"Cla…"

"Ssshhh…" He put a quivering finger to her lips. "Don't talk. It's okay…I'm here. I'm here," he repeated, almost to himself, as he bundled her close again, barely stopping himself from weeping with relief into the dark spun silk of her hair. Without panic and fear to blur his senses, he realized that he hadn't missed a heart that was permanently stilled at all, but simply one that was beating much more faintly and more slowly than he'd been expecting, just beneath the threshold of his hearing. If he'd thought to delve a little deeper, listen just a little harder, he'd have found it first time.

Relief translated into action. He laid Lois down again gently, her limp body draped against one strong arm, which easily bore her weight. He put up a hand to rest tenderly against her cheek and then dropped it to take hold of the wrist lying limply across her ribs, checking out her vital signs.

Her pulse wasn't faint nor thready. It was just drowsy. She wasn't fevered. She wasn't overheated at all. In fact, she was just a little on the cool side.

"C.K.?" Jimmy said, tentatively, "You want me to call - ?"

Clark shook his head. "I think she's okay." He looked up. "It's too dark in here, I need more light. The - "

"Blinds!" Jimmy blurted, slamming down the phone, glad of something constructive to do, feeling the tension of the past few moments hammering in his chest like a curse. "I'll get them."

Light crept into the room as he yanked up the blind above the dresser, drenching Lois' body in its dim glow. He cursed as it speared into his eyes, but after the first rush of its entry, he realized that the gloom had barely been dispelled. The afternoon beyond the window was dark and brooding with heavy cloud and the day was wearing on. The room wasn't a whole lot brighter as a result. Jimmy headed for the French windows and the drapes there.

Clark turned his head briefly to follow him across the room, ensuring that he was distracted, and then turned quickly back to the woman lying in his arms, shifting his glasses as he did.

Keeping half his attention on the sounds of drapes being pulled from behind him, he ran an X-ray scan slowly across his wife's body, starting at her toes, his heart steadying as he found no torn flesh, no broken bones, no injuries at all…and then, quite suddenly and inexplicably, he paused as he reached mid- thigh. His gaze, dimmed now to normal, human vision only, drifted almost of its own accord to the flat plane of her stomach, sheathed in its royal blue skirt.

For some reason he found himself remembering Lois' hare-brained dashing around the bathroom earlier; Diane's voice recited her encounter with her in his head and one thing kept reverberating. The Housefrau from Hell.

Clark's eyes widened just a little as the startling notion that had just popped into his head jabbed at him, seeking attention.

He remembered, some years ago, before he had moved to Metropolis, his Mom had taken a late night call from a neighbor, Bess Sorenson. The young couple had only recently taken over the old Harper spread. Husband Jake had had to drive into Pacer to sign some final papers on their new home, taking the opportunity to pick up the brand new tractor at the same time, since the town was far enough away to make one trip easier than two. Bess, heavily pregnant with her first child, and waiting restlessly for her young husband's return, had fallen from a stepladder while cleaning the kitchen windows.

Clark remembered that his Dad had wanted to know what Bess was doing cleaning windows at ten thirty at night while eight months pregnant in the first place. And that his Mom, as she gathered herself with an indecent sense of calm in the opinion of her men-folk, had dismissed this non-sequitur with an absent 'nest feathering' as she'd put on her coat.

By the time he'd driven Martha to the remote farmhouse, ten miles away, his Mom refusing to let him take the risk of flying there despite his protests ("Bess said she was fine, Clark."), Bess Sorenson had been well into labor. Clark had found himself pressed into service to help with the delivery. The experience had later come in useful when Superman was called upon to help out at a similar emergency — and at many more since.

Clark looked back down at Lois, eyes full with wonder.

She couldn't be.

*They* couldn't be.

Could they?

/Why not?/ a pugnacious little voice spoke up in his head, as though insulted by his disbelief.

Well…no real *reason* why not, he guessed. Except that he'd just always supposed that it was unlikely, given his Kryptonian heritage. He'd hoped of course, but he'd never actually thought it was possible he'd be granted this dream too…he'd just assumed it wasn't going to happen, had hardly dared to hope that he could…they could…

A *child*…

/Assumptions are a dangerous thing,/ his wife's voice told him in much the same caustic manner she often used in reality.

Clark, still mulling over the startling thought, couldn't help but agree.

Still…was it really likely that…?

…and, besides, weren't pregnant women supposed to get the urge to prepare the 'nest' for the new arrival with a cleaning spree just before the birth and not in the first trimester?

Clark frowned a little.

Well, it wouldn't be the first time Lois had decided to fly in the face of established theory and do things topsy-turvy to the way anyone else intended them to be done. Clark didn't suppose even nature was immune from being balked by that particular Lois Lane trait.

But…a small, spoiling thought entered the fray…Lois was still taking the pill. Wasn't she? At least…she hadn't told him she wasn't. He glanced up into his wife's calmly reposed face. It would be like her to make the decision alone though, he considered. She knew how much he wanted children. And how disappointed he would be if they couldn't. Yes…it would be like her to take the decision on her own, telling him nothing until she was sure they could, until proof positive presented itself, rather than risk getting his hopes up and then dashing them.

His mind began to gather evidence in support of its newfound theory. There were the hot flashes and high temperatures he'd noted and Lois' sudden propensity towards fainting and feeling dizzy. A day or so back, he suddenly recalled, he'd met her coming out of the bathroom after coming upstairs to investigate the retching noises he'd heard her making while he'd been down in the kitchen preparing breakfast. She'd denied being ill at first, admitted to some slight sickness when pressed to it, but shrugged it off as just an upset stomach. She hadn't had much appetite though, he recalled now, his mind fixing on that fact like an eager lawyer displaying a damning piece of evidence to the jury.

This morning, she'd already been up when he woke. Had she been sick then too? Had she put things together the way he was doing? Recognized the signs of her…'bug'? Was that why she'd been so pensive? And had claiming she'd been thinking of Dale Karvin just been a blind to distract him onto the case and away from what had really had her staring into the distance, her mind miles away from him as he'd held her? Not wanting to give him false hope until she was certain of her suspicions?

And then there were the flashes of rage, the mood swings.

Hormones.

Clark grimaced. His mind took him back fleetingly to a time when he had overheard his father and some of his friends sympathizing in the barn with a young, impending father over his wife's inexplicable tantrums and crying fits.

Hormones.

To the six-year-old Clark, lying in the hayloft above them, afraid to move in case he was discovered, they had sounded like particularly vicious monsters. The type that lived in closets. And crept out to eat little kids in the dark. His boyish imagination, fueled by the hushed tones of the men and his guilt at listening in on his elders, had populated his head with what they might look like.

Martha and Jonathan, in the brief period of weeks that followed, puzzled over their son's sudden nightmares and his insistence that there were 'Omones' hiding under his bed. Clark had never enlightened them as to the source of his night terrors and in time those dark dreams had faded, lost to the lore of childhood and half forgotten, as such dreams often are.

Clark looked back down at his wife, his expression softening as fleeting memories and speculation gelled in his mind to produce a knowledge he had barely hoped for. His hand drifted absently to lie against the warmth of her stomach as he let this calm him.

He moved, a little guiltily, as he heard Jimmy return to his side, as though caught out in some secret he didn't want to share.

"C.K.?" Jimmy asked, tremulously.

Clark turned his head to view him, hastily tapping his glasses back into place with one finger as he did. The photographer was pale looking. Clark gave him a reassuring smile.

"She's okay, Jimmy," he said, turning back to Lois. He reached out and swept a tangled strand of her hair away from her cheek as he gazed down into her face. "I think she just fainted, that's all. She's been feeling kinda woozy all day. Some kinda bug going around, she said."

He looked up again. "She's a little chilled. Could you get her a blanket? There're some in the closet at the top of the stairs."

"Sure!"

Clark moved carefully to his feet, bundling Lois into the gentle cradle of his arms before he laid her carefully down to their bed. He settled her against the pillows, arranging her into a comfortable position, before perching on the edge of the bed beside her. Glancing at the door, he picked up his scan again, carefully avoiding her abdomen as he did so. No sense in taking any risks with…

…with his child…?

His *child*. The thought blinded him for an instant, like a flood of glittering, white-hot light in his head, forcing out everything else in the sheer intensity of its joy. He frowned, driving it back. Later, he admonished himself. You can think about that later. Concentrate on Lois.

He swept his gaze upward and then snapped off the beam, replacing his glasses as Jimmy returned at a practical gallop, panting as he handed over the requested blanket. Clark gave him a nod of thanks and tucked it around Lois with gentle hands.

She stirred as he eased it around her shoulders, moaning quietly, and he reached to take hold of one small, cold hand. He leaned forward, stroking at her hair as her eyelids fluttered and lifted and her dark, wounded eyes stared up into his, clouded with confusion.

"Clark…?"

"Right here," he said softly.

"H-he…" she frowned and then winced.

"No, don't." He put a hand against her shoulder, stopping her in her tracks as she tried to haul herself awkwardly upright. To his surprise, she gave in to the pressure and subsided, lying back against the pillows again and closing her eyes. She was still very pale, he noted, her strongly defined features china fragile and waxen against the dark cloud of her hair.

"What…?" she whispered.

"You fainted, I think. See," he smiled slightly, unable to resist some mild chiding. "Told you, you were sicker than you said you were."

Lois' brows furrowed. "No…I…" She struggled again, trying to sit and again he pushed her firmly back.

"No way, honey. You're staying right where you are."

"No…Clark…I…water…" she murmured. She sounded dazed. "Water…" she said again.

"I'll get her some."

Clark glanced up at Jimmy's retreating back and then down at Lois again. The light snapped on in the bathroom, brightening the gloom of the darkening afternoon that the light from the windows had failed to lift.

Clark leaned closer to his wife. "You're gonna be just fine, honey. Just rest up a little," he said soothingly.

"It…hurts…"

"Hurts?" Clark stroked a soft finger across her cheek. Her skin was clammy to the touch. He frowned. "Lois? Honey, what hurts?" he asked again, slightly more urgently now. He'd seen nothing to indicate that she was in pain during his earlier scan. He'd seen no injuries at all.

"Head…hurts…"

A headache. He relaxed. Not surprising really.

"Jimmy? There's aspirin in there too," he added at the muffled response from the bathroom. "Can you bring some out?"

"Uh-huh. Comin' right up!"

Clark smiled faintly at Jimmy's eager beaver busboy impression and then turned his full attention back to his wife.

"Clark…I need…the water…"

"Jimmy's just bringing it, sweetheart. Just - "

"It *hurts*…oh god…it hurts so bad…" she said again and this time it was almost a sob.

"Here…"

Clark glanced up sharply. Jimmy stood beside the bed, glass of the requested water in his hand. Distracted, Clark reached out for it automatically, offering it up to Lois.

"Thanks, Jimmy."

"No…"

To his surprise, Lois shook her head weakly, pushing the glass away from where he'd set it to her lips.

"Sssshhhh…" Clark soothed. "It's just water, honey…"

He tried pushing the glass on her again and again she shoved it clear, face twisting irritably, choking against the trickle that managed to invade her throat.

"Water…" she gasped. "…it's in the…"

Clark sat back in confusion, at a loss. Watching the small battle, Jimmy suddenly remembered the bottle of mineral water he'd stepped on earlier. If she'd had it with her, if she'd dropped it when she fell…maybe it was that she wanted?

He glanced around him, trying to remember what he'd done with it. He'd dropped it again. Hadn't he? When he'd found Lois - his mind shied away from that image and focused on the bottle again. Yes, he'd dropped it. He searched the carpet, but he couldn't see it. He did spot a small, dark patch on the carpet near his left foot. He winced. He'd obviously spilt more than he'd thought. Glancing up to where Clark had gone back to patiently trying to persuade Lois to drink as she resisted weakly, Jimmy slid a guilty foot onto the patch and rubbed at it surreptitiously.

He frowned. Even through the sole of his boot, he could feel the stickiness in the stain. He looked down again, pulling back his foot, and then crouched to touch the tips of his fingers to the patch.

"Oh, god…C.K…"

Clark looked away from Lois, hearing the sharp rise in that voice, even before he saw what had prompted it. In the light spilling from the bathroom behind him, Jimmy's face was suddenly gray. Clark's eyes darted reflexively to the hand the photographer was holding out before him. Puzzled, he stared at the bright red staining the tips of Jimmy's fingers, unable for a moment to fathom what he was seeing.

Blood.

"C.K., your jacket…"

He dipped his head, following the direction of Jimmy's shocked gaze. There was more of it on his lapel. Dark, crimson smears marring the gray.

Confused, for a moment he could only wonder when Jimmy had touched his jacket and where had he gotten that badly cut? His head? Had the wound opened up again? But it had been fairly shallow, Addley had only hit him a glancing blow…

And then the realization struck him, like a physical blow in the center of his chest, cutting off his breath and slamming his heart hard against his ribs.

His lapel…was covered in blood.

Where he'd held her against him.

Shaken, he looked back at Lois, a soft sound gathering in his throat. She'd closed her eyes. In the harsh, yellow light, her face seemed sallow and wan.

He had smelled blood as soon as he'd entered the room. But it had been heavily overlaid with the sharp, stinging scent of iodine in his nostrils and he'd naturally assumed that it was coming from Jimmy.

He had scanned Lois, but he hadn't thought to move her any while he did. His scan hadn't taken into account that half of her skull was out of range, lying against the pillow. He hadn't gone deep enough. He'd only gotten a cross section, the side of her head that was visible to him. And he'd missed something. He'd missed something vital.

Clark reached out to place a suddenly trembling hand against the line of his wife's jaw, using the slight pressure to turn her head gently to one side.

He saw the crimson smears on the pillow first, then found their match. He heard Jimmy draw in a hard breath as the matted, bloody patch of hair against her left temple showed clear. Blood still pulsed fitfully from the wound and a trail of dark rust across Lois' neck showed clearly where it had been flowing weakly for some time.

And there was blood now on the soft curve of her cheek, on her face…he pulled back the fingers pressed lightly to her throat, staring blankly at the blood smeared across them.

Panic flared through him like a brand. He moved convulsively, his hands taking his wife by the shoulders.

"Lois!"

She was silent, head lolling loose as he pulled her upright, desperately trying to keep her with him. Her eyelids flickered, but didn't open.

"Lois!" he cried out again. "No…Lois, stay with me! You hear me? Lois! Lois…listen to me, baby…you can't go to sleep. Not right now. You've got to stay with me. Lois? Lois, please - please, stay with me…"

Jimmy was used to Clark being open and comfortable with showing his affection for Lois. The tenderness and love he felt for his wife was clearly evident whenever he spoke to her - or spoke about her for that matter. But he had never heard that soft tone in his friend's voice before, that particular endearment, and despite the desperate circumstances he felt uncomfortably as though he was intruding on an intimate moment between these two people.

He jerked to his feet and made a grab for the phone on the dresser, face taut with fear.

Clark tightened his grip on Lois' arms, shook her hard, and felt his heart twist in his chest as she whimpered in protest. He knew that he was hurting her, but he also knew that he had to gain her attention, keep her awake. The sleep that was creeping up on her wasn't natural, it was insidious and deadly.

"No…" Clark moaned desperately. Her heart was retreating to a listless tick, her pulse was erratic, her breath shuddering weakly in her throat.

He hauled her abruptly into his arms and jerked to his feet, heading for the door. Jimmy hesitated, receiver in hand as he followed that exodus, ashen faced.

"What're you doing?

"Too long," Clark muttered.

"What?"

"An ambulance will take too long! She needs help now!"

"But - !"

"I can get her there faster."

Jimmy was unsure whether he was trying to convince him, or both of them.

"C.K.," he protested, uncertainly. "It's rush hour traffic out there. Even a top of the line Jeep isn't gonna get you — "

"I can get her there!"

Jimmy hesitated. His eyes flickered to Lois, lying limp and pale in Clark's arms. And still. She was so still…

"I'll call you from the hospital…" Clark threw over his shoulder at him as he went through the door.

"What? No way! I'm coming with you!" Jimmy slammed down the receiver and headed after him.

Clark spun around in the doorway, face clenching. "No! Uh, I mean…"

"You need help. You can't drive and - you can take care of Lois, while I drive and - "

"I can manage!" Clark snapped and then, because he saw the hurt well up in his friend's face, softened his tone, though impatience still bled through it. He didn't have time to deal with Jimmy's wounded feelings. But he did need him to get out of his way!

"Look, Jimmy, I…I need you to call…Herrera! Call Herrera. Tell him - tell him what's happened. Tell him that statement of his is going to have to wait!"

"But, C.K. — "

"Jimmy, just do it! Please? Addley's got to be stopped. Before he can hurt anyone else. And I — " He glanced down and there was anguish in his eyes as he lifted his head again, desperation taut in his voice. "I have to stay with Lois."

He hurried through the door before Jimmy could argue any further.

Torn, Jimmy watched him go and then shook his head violently as he turned back to pick up the phone again.

In the lobby, Clark paused to glance quickly across his shoulder, ensuring he wasn't being followed.

Had he turned, Jimmy might just have caught a brief flash of red and blue through the bedroom window as Superman lifted off into the sky. But by then, he was too engrossed in trying to get past the precinct receptionist to Herrera.

***

There were times when Senior Nurse Albie Russell wished that he'd chosen a career as a librarian.

Not many of them, admittedly. Four days out of five, he thrived on the controlled chaos and hustle that was the daily routine of ER at City Green Community Hospital. But just every now and then, on that fifth day…

This was definitely a fifth day.

Things had started badly when he'd come on shift that morning to find that three of his colleagues had succumbed to the flu virus that had been doing the rounds of the city, leaving a department that was already short-handed not looking forward to relief any time soon.

A screeching two-year-old, who'd managed - with the extraordinary dexterity known only to the young - to attach his pig-shaped moneybox to his lower lip had started off the morning well. He was out-screeched only by his panic stricken mother, who seemed determined to outdo the child in decibels.

Albie had extracted box from kid in a matter of seconds and assured the mother that cosmetic surgery was not required. Well, not for the lip anyway. The mother hadn't requested an opinion on the rest of the features on what was regrettably and undoubtedly the ugliest kid Albie had ever seen and Albie hadn't ventured to give one.

By mid-afternoon, he'd been thrown up on by a drunk as he helped stitch up the inch long gash in the man's arm - a wound received when he'd punched his way through the plate glass window of a liquor store, in the bleary minded, mistaken belief that his reflection was giving him a hard time. And verbally abused and badly bruised by a young girl high on amphetamines, as he'd set the two broken fingers her pusher had given her when she hadn't met her sales targets for the week.

Albie hadn't taken offense.

But these minor irritations paled in comparison to the one that had presented itself belligerently now in the middle of the crowded waiting room. Twenty minutes shy of the end of his shift and they'd been invaded by a visiting out of state ice-hockey team, whose victory carousing had been unexpectedly curtailed when a Metrocab ran a stoplight and ploughed into their bus. Their injuries were, quite frankly, minor, no one had been badly hurt. Although to hear the bleating of these star athletes you'd think most of them were nursing mortal wounds. How on earth did they survive on the ice, Albie wondered sourly.

Albie was tired. He'd been beaten up on, thrown up on and generally misused all day. None of these had bothered him because they were part and parcel of a career in ER. Attempts at line-jumping bothered him though. They bothered him a whole lot. There were plenty of broken bones and minor lacerations for the harassed medical staff to be dealing with already. As a result, Albie could find little sympathy in him for the players abusing his colleagues.

The situation wasn't improved by the fact that the players had drunk just enough during their celebrations, before they were so rudely interrupted, to be overly loud, overly impatient and out of control, crowded into the ER raucous and obstreperous as wounded bears.

In the center of the waiting room, two of the burly team members were conducting a rowdy argument with a weary intern, one of them cradling an arm he was insisting was definitely broken and hurt like hell. Albie, listening to the yelling from within the treatment room where he was working on dressing an elderly woman's foot, was pretty sure that the latter of those statements was true, but probably not the first. He'd been keeping half his attention on the developing situation as he'd worked on his patient and instincts formed over quarter of a century in working in ER had told him already that the set of the boy's arm meant a strained muscle at worst, maybe a joint sprain, if the kid was exceptionally unlucky.

He turned his head to check on the whereabouts of the rest of the team. Some of the more sensible members had taken seats among their fellow patients, seemingly resigned to a stoic wait for treatment. Over by the admissions desk, three of them were trying to persuade the young and pretty redhead stationed there to let them buy her a drink when her shift ended. Albie twitched a smile. Annabel could handle them in her sleep.

The smile became a frown as his attention swiveled back to the real candidate to cause disruption. The invalid's teammate was a burly ox of a boy, uppity with youthful arrogance and bellicose with alcohol-induced hostility. His voice had risen several bellows in the few moments Albie had taken to assess the waiting room and his stance was war-like, almost face to face with the intern who was barely half his weight and mass.

Albie glanced at the clock on the wall behind the admissions desk and then held back a sigh as he finished tying off the bandage wrap.

Five more minutes. That was all he'd needed. Five more minutes and he'd have been off shift, headed for home, and this two hundred pound chunk of testosterone causing mutiny in his ER would have been someone else's problem.

As it was…

"Excuse me," he said quietly to his patient.

He slipped from the room and approached the two oblivious combatants.

" - and *I'm* saying," the intern was saying now, testily, "there's worse than your friend to deal with right now." He glanced at the boy's teammate, who was looking fairly green as he huddled over the arm wrapped protectively against his chest and obviously incapable of contributing much to the discussion. "You're going to have to wait."

"Worse?! Worse! Man, you got *no* idea who this is, do ya?! This is our star left wing! We got a game to play, four days from now! We could lose the championship title here! I'm tellin' you, man, you best fix him up real good, *now*, or - "

"So," the intern continued, unimpressed and ignoring the interruption, "you don't sit down quiet till you're called, I'll get security to haul your ass outta here. You *and* your buddies. Including Wayne Gretzky here." He hooked a derisive thumb in the direction of the wounded player.

"Yeah? You wanna try making me, ya little geek? I'll - "

Albie saw the swing coming from two yards out. He winced. But before the hapless intern could feel the wrath of the defenseman's meaty right fist, a sudden commotion over by the entrance doors postponed the inevitable.

And when Superman strode through them in full, primary color glory and carrying the limp figure of an unconscious woman in his arms, even the most pugnacious of the Makin Bay Maulers made way.

It might have been the fact that the woman was uncommonly pretty that caused them to fall silent as the superhero cut a swathe through them. Or that Superman, at any moment, was an impressive figure, who attracted attention and commanded respect. Or it may simply have been the look on the Man of Steel's face - closed and taut around the eyes, a look that saw nothing other than his goal - as he passed them by without sparing them a glance.

Whatever the reasons, no one got in his way. The parting wave of interested spectators gave ground before him, melting into the crowded waiting area before he reached them, like a retreating tide.

"Superman?"

The superhero swung his head to focus on the white-coated figure that hurried for him and in his eyes Albie saw a mute and terrified appeal that froze his heart.

"Please, I need help…she needs help."

Superman bent his head to the woman he held and then raised it again to fix hopefully on possible salvation. A look that was as familiar to Albie as the one that met him every morning when he shaved. He'd seen it time and again >from those who brought in broken bodies for him and his team to mend. If they could. Hope. And fear. And panic that tore at the soul.

Emotions he hadn't ever expected to see in the face of Superman and which frightened him near witless because he did. Emotions that he couldn't let sway him if he was to do any good at all. Yet he couldn't help a flicker of curiosity as he gestured hastily at a nearby orderly and then took a look at the woman Superman held. Who was she, to have inspired such emotions in the normally stoic Man of Steel? And then he saw her face and he understood.

Lois Lane.

Albie didn't believe the rumors about Superman and the Daily Planet reporter. Both were good people. And honest. It shone from the pages of the stories written by one of them and in the deeds of the other. But he knew that this woman was more important than any victim the superhero had brought in to them in the past. It was there in his eyes.

All that mattered to Albie right then however was that she was hurt and needed attention. And, for this moment, that made her as important to him as she obviously was to Superman.

"Please…she's bleeding…her head…"

Ignoring Superman's ragged breathing and the look of appeal he flayed him with, Albie gave the woman a preliminary and rapid examination, checking pulse and respiration and the wound in the side of her head. He fished out his penlight and pulled back an eyelid, testing the reflexive pupil response to the flash of light. He frowned. Superman watched, hovering between impatience and anxiety.

"Sir - "

"Hold on, Superman."

"But - "

"How long's she been out?"

"I don't know…a minute…a minute and a half this time, but before…I don't know…please, she needs to see a doctor, right away."

The words were delivered in a low, almost even tone, but beneath that veneer of anxious calm, there was rising panic in Superman's voice.

More orderly's were on scene now; an intern dragged a gurney alongside them. A nurse accompanied them.

"Okay, give her here. Superman?" Albie questioned, as the superhero hesitated. Then he nodded, handing her over to the trauma team.

"Respiration's a little shallow, but steady," Albie said quickly to the orderly nearest him. "Pulse is fine. We've got PERL."

"Pearl? What's pearl?" Superman repeated. "Sir? Sir, what's pearl?"

Albie gave him a cursory glance as his tone rose sharply with the rapid-fire questions. "Pupils Equal Reactive to Light. It's good, Superman," he added quickly. "Don't worry. It's a good response."

Superman didn't look reassured. His eyes swung away from Albie and fixed on the team. The slick and practiced routine of the hospital swung into action. Lois was quickly loaded onto the gurney and they began to wheel her off.

"I want a blood sample drawn! CBC *and* electrolytes!"

"Right on it!"

"Start a line in her."

"Get X-Ray up here. Stat! And prep her for a scan. CAT and MRI."

"We need CBC, Blood Gas, Chem 7. And crossmatch for 4 units!"

Superman followed and glanced down, startled, as a hand caught at his arm.

"Sorry, Superman. You'll have to stay here."

"But - "

"You've done everything you can. We'll deal with it now."

Superman shook his head, more of a dazed, half aware response than genuine argument, but Albie - amazed at his audacity even as he did so - tightened his grip on the blue spandex sleeve he held. Superhero or not, regs were regs, and there were good reasons why they were there. The medical team didn't need the distractions of an anxious 'civilian' hovering over them as they worked on their patient.

He was aware of the absurdity of the situation. If Superman gave in to the impulse showing stark and naked on his face - to head after that gurney - Albie's hand on his arm was hardly going to stop him. He winced as he felt the already taut muscles tighten up another notch as though in response to his thoughts. Steel was an understatement!

"Superman?" he asked again, softly, feeling his heart kicking up a storm, enough to match the ragged pulse drumming beneath his fingers.

"Superman?"

***

"Superman?"

Clark stood immobile, hardly listening as he watched the gurney rumble down the corridor, growing smaller by the second, the medical team around it like a swarm of excitable locusts. Shouted orders and med-talk peppered the air like gunshots as they went, staccato and sharp with tension and speed, confusing and incomprehensible to his ears. His frantic gaze followed them. They were taking her away from him!

"No, wait…"

"Superman?"

He turned his head irritably, with a frown. The nurse - Clark blinked and focused on the man's chest for a moment, then lifted his head to look him square in the eyes.

"Albie? Is that your name?"

"Yeah."

"Albie, I have to - "

"Hey, you know," Albie shrugged awkwardly. "If you were a relative or something…" he paused, swallowing, looking contrite now, but holding his ground.

Clark opened his mouth…and reason asserted itself. He knew he couldn't wait around for a report on Lois' condition. He couldn't insist on being at her side as they examined her. At least, he couldn't as the Man of Steel. Superman saved lives. He didn't hang around trying to pick up the pieces, afterwards. Showing undue concern for Lois would simply attract attention he didn't want.

He hesitated, then stepped back, letting them take her.

The nurse watched him, cautiously, and then - as though suddenly realizing the presumption - snatched back his hand from Clark's sleeve. The ruddy color on his face deepened.

Clark was sorry he'd made him feel uncomfortable.

"I have to go now," he said quickly. "Uh, Miss Lane's husband is on his way. Will you tell him for me that she's being taken care of, please?"

"Sure thing, Superman." Relief colored Albie's voice and Clark realized how badly he'd scared the man, how close to being out of control he must have seemed to frighten him that way.

"He's my friend," Clark added, feeling suddenly that something was due to explain what he was already aware was uncharacteristic behavior - and as tacit apology. He glanced across his shoulder and came back to Albie with a small, self-deprecating smile. "They both are."

Albie nodded. "We'll…*I'll* take good care of her, Superman," he promised soberly.

Clark nodded, his smile warming slightly. He recognized a good man when he saw him. "Thank you."

He strode off quickly for the exit, cape swirling around his calves with the abrupt motion.

Someone stepped quickly into his path, bringing him up short. Startled, Clark recoiled slightly as a microphone was thrust in his face.

"Superman? Hey, there, big guy. Kevin Whiteley, Metropolis Star. Did you just bring in another victim of Lemming Spring, sir? Did she try to kill herself? How did you - ?"

Beyond the burly figure, he was aware of the whir of a camera, but Whiteley's words caught at his attention.

"What?" His head snapped back to the eager young cub reporter, who was shoving the mike closer. Superman pushed it to one side, trying not to let his temper rise. "I don't know what you're talking about."

He tried to sidestep the newsmen, but Whiteley darted into his path, blocking him again. The camera swung to follow them.

"The brunette you just brought in. She looked pretty out of it. Did she - ?"

The brunette. Clark jolted to a halt and the reporter stepped back an instinctive pace, faced with what was in the superhero's eyes as they blazed back at him. Clark held down the rage that bubbled in his chest. He wanted to grab the reporter and shake him like an insolent puppy. He wanted to scream at him: "That's my wife! Do you understand that? You're talking about *my* *wife*! Not just some lousy statistic!"

"I - I have to go. Someone's in trouble."

Clark turned blindly, striding rapidly away for the exit as he felt the world abruptly close in on him. He knew that the words had emerged more panicked than Superman would usually have uttered them, but he couldn't think about that now.

Grateful that, no matter how pushy the reporter, Superman was always treated with at least some wary respect, he pushed his way out of the doors, shaking off the few people who tried to follow, questions swarming around him like angry bees. Finding a momentary respite in a bank of industrial waste dumpsters in a side alley at the rear of the hospital, he leaned up against the wall, closing his eyes and steadying his harsh breathing until he felt he was under some kind of control.

Cautiously scanning the area, he determined that he was alone. Then he spun out of the Suit, squared his shoulders, and headed back to the ER.

***

"Clark!"

Perry yelled urgently at his reporter as he and Jimmy emerged into the waiting room and he caught sight of the dejected figure huddled on one of the chairs in the far corner. The waiting room was sparsely populated now. Clark didn't look up as they approached him, continuing his disconsolate stare at the hands clenched between his knees.

"Clark?" Perry lowered his voice and touched the younger man on the shoulder gently. "Son?"

"Huh?" Clark started and then gave them an automatic smile. It was a pale shadow of its usual warmth. "Sorry, I was…just thinking." He straightened, settling his shoulders into a taut line. "I didn't hear you come in."

"C.K.?" Jimmy asked tentatively. "Is Lois - ?" He swallowed hard, unable to ask.

Clark looked up on him with a frown. The photographer was still pale. Clark shook his head, miserably. "They haven't told me anything yet. They just keep saying she's being taken care of. They said they were doing some tests. That was a couple of hours ago."

"Tests?"

"Radiographs. CT scan. They're scheduling a MRI. They wanted to know if Lois was pregnant," he added, seemingly incongruously, his voice lowering almost to a whisper. "I had to sign a release form." He looked up at the editor, eyes lost.

Perry took the empty chair beside him. He glanced at Jimmy, at a loss for a moment, then started roughly, "Well, you know, they have to think of these things, with those tests. They're not good for women in that kinda…delicate condition," he said. He hesitated. "Is Lois - ?"

Clark gave him a pallid smile. "I know that. And she isn't. Pregnant, I mean. I thought maybe…" Something shadowed chased across his eyes and then he shook his head. "They did tests to be sure. It just…cut a little close to the bone. That's all."

Perry put out a hand to Clark's shoulder and squeezed, feeling the tense set of the muscles under his fingers. "You know that they're doing all they can for her. And, whatever this is, she'll get through. Hell, you know Lois - there ain't nothing can lay that woman low for more'n a minute! Great Shades of Elvis, I remember when — "

"Chief…"

He stopped at Clark's pained tone. Clark gave him a somber look.

"Oh," said Perry, uncomfortably. "Yeah."

Silence settled over them.

"Mr. Kent?"

Clark jerked to his feet, only half aware of his friends closing ranks around him as he faced the middle-aged man who'd approached them. The doctor glanced between them questioningly as Perry's steadying hand gravitated to Clark's shoulder. Clark hardly felt it.

"I'm Mr. Kent. Is Lois…? My wife — ?"

" - is doing just fine, Mr. Kent. I'm Reginald Patterson, the duty physician," he added, holding out a hand. Clark took it perfunctorily.

"Lois?" he prompted, a terrible eagerness in the question.

"She needs to rest for a day or so, that's all." Patterson frowned over the clipboard he was holding and then added blandly, "And I have some questions to ask." He looked up, briefly assessing the well-built, handsome man who'd identified himself as his patient's husband. "Mrs. Kent appears to have suffered a blow to the side of her skull recently. Do you know what caused that?"

"Yes, she was - she - " Clark was too tired to explain it in detail. "She fell," he said succinctly.

"I see." Patterson raised a brow and jotted something down on his notes.

His dry tone finally got through Clark's preoccupation. He looked startled, then shook his head sharply. "No, you don't - she was working on a story. She's a reporter - "

"For the Daily Planet," Perry put in. "I'm Perry White, the Planet's editor. I want Lois to have the best treatment. Even if that means transferring her to a private facility."

"There's no need for that, Mr. White," Patterson said smoothly, seemingly unfazed by what could have amounted to a doubting of his abilities. "The only treatment I'm prescribing now for Mrs. Kent is a period of complete bed-rest and she can do that just about anywhere. Mr. Kent?" he prompted. "This prior injury…?"

"She hit her head. On a gravestone," Clark finished, trailing lamely as he suddenly wondered just how plausible that sounded. He turned slightly, seeking more help from Perry, lifting a helpless hand. But Patterson's piercing gaze on him seemed to weigh him for a moment more and then, imperceptibly, softened a touch.

"Yes," was all he said however. "And that was, when?"

"Saturday evening. Well, more Sunday morning, really."

Patterson grunted as he scratched a quick notation, as though having his patients crack their heads on gravestones in the middle of the night was something he encountered most every day. "Even tighter an elapse time than I'd realized. Has your wife been suffering from increasingly violent headaches in the past few days, Mr. Kent? Since Saturday evening?"

"Yes."

"Nausea? Cramps? Temperature fluctuations? Dizziness?"

Clark began to shake his head, at a loss. "She was sick…she was a little heated up earlier, but - "

"Yeah!" Jimmy's quick interruption startled him. "She said she was feeling nauseous when she left the paper this morning."

"Increased irritability? And violent mood swings?" Patterson swept them interrogatively.

They glanced at one another. Clark shrugged. "Uh, hard to say. Dr. Patterson, what's this all about? What exactly is wrong with my wife?" he demanded, tiring of the questions.

"That blow to the head caused a concussion, Mr. Kent. Your wife suffered some localized cranial swelling. There's been a low blood seepage for days now and it had begun to clot. She's suffering from post-concussion syndrome. She really should have been checked over at the time."

"She was checked out at the scene," Jimmy blurted. "The EMT said she was fine."

"Yes. And I expect he also told Mrs. Kent to attend ER for a second opinion as a precaution," Patterson said blandly.

Jimmy looked abashed.

"I knew I should've insisted she get down here that night!" Perry spat out, disgustedly.

"But…she is going to be okay?" Clark said, watching the doctor closely and ignoring the editor's outburst.

Patterson gave him a faint and professionally distant smile. "I'm sure she will. As pcs cases go, your wife has gotten off fairly lightly. I'm sure that it looked much worse than it is when you found her, Mr. Kent, but really, the bleeding was minimal.

"Minimal…" Clark repeated distantly, remembering back to the gloomy bedroom and the blood smeared on his wife's face and on his hand, how drained she'd looked lying there…

"In the clinical sense, yes," Patterson nodded, responding with ingrained detachment to the disbelief he heard in Clark's voice. He was well used to the relatives of patients having differing opinions as to what constituted serious injury. It very rarely matched the medical professions' definition.

"It certainly hadn't progressed to the point where surgery was required, which is the most important thing. The cut in her head didn't even require sutures. We were able to use standard non-invasive procedures to relieve that slow build-up of pressure in Mrs. Kent's skull - medication mainly, and cooling. We'll keep her in overnight for observation. After that, you can take her home. She'll need at least ten days of complete bed rest before she's fully out of trouble. I can't stress that too highly, you understand. Any further trauma, emotional or physical, could result in a relapse of symptoms or worse. You should keep the room dark, well aired. And no undue stress. Or strain. And definitely," Patterson's smile loosened slightly, the first thaw in the remote professionalism of his demeanor, "no chasing around cemeteries in the small hours of the morning."

"Right." Clark nodded, taking this stricture more seriously than the doctor had intended.

Patterson sobered. "I won't try telling you that this hasn't been a serious event, Mr. Kent. In fact, your wife should thank whoever was looking out for her that she collapsed when she did. If that bleeding had gone unchecked for much longer, if there'd been much further delay in diagnosing the problem - I don't think I'd be offering as hopeful a prognosis now as I am. Mrs. Kent is an extremely fortunate young woman. You should thank Superman when you see him. Getting her here so quickly probably saved her life."

"Superman?"

Patterson glanced at Perry and then at his notes. "Yes, I have it noted here by the admitting nurse that she was brought in by Superman. Wasn't she?" He looked to Clark with the slightly questioning tone.

"Yes." Clark fielded the glances of his friends. "Uh…he…just arrived out of nowhere when I got outside the house. He said he could get Lois here faster than I could, so - " He shrugged.

"Thank the Lord for that man." Perry shook his head. "Strange how he always seems to figure out when one of us is in trouble."

"I heard him say one time he had some kinda sixth sense about people being in trouble. People he cared about mostly," Jimmy said thoughtfully. He glanced up at Clark. "That explains the Jeep."

"Jeep?"

"Yeah, you know. When I came out after phoning the precinct my car was still there, so was the Jeep. So, I couldn't figure what you were doing. I mean, you wouldn't have been carrying Lois down the street, would you? But, course, if Superman turned up, you know, to the rescue, like always?" Jimmy grinned at him, tone turning admiring, "That explains it."

Clark stared at him. In his panic to get Lois help it hadn't even occurred to him to concoct his usual alibi or wonder about how it might seem odd that he'd gotten to the hospital so quickly on foot. Silently, he blessed the nurse who'd given him an out without realizing it.

"I…said I'd follow," he said, before Jimmy could think to ask. "I didn't think about taking the Jeep. I…" he quickly calculated how much he could get away with and added hastily, "I don't remember much about getting here. I took the subway, I think. I was pretty out of it…worried about Lois."

Patterson was watching him. Clark shook his head. "I told her she should have gotten that checked out. I should have known something was wrong. This morning, when - "

"Your wife received medical attention at the scene of the incident," Patterson told him, unexpectedly sympathetic all at once, as he read further through the clipboard of notes. "Mrs. Kent herself didn't recall any period of loss of consciousness when she hit her head, but that's not unusual. Post concussion blackouts can take seconds or hours. And it's a difficult diagnosis to make, easily missed, even for the professional, never mind the layman. The symptoms are so common to many ailments, many of them extremely minor. Violent headaches, nausea, dizziness, as I've said. It would have been almost impossible for you to diagnose."

Clark didn't look entirely convinced. "Can I see her now?"

"Not right now. She's still out from the sedation and I want her to have complete rest for the next few hours. It's vital she isn't disturbed. I'll permit a visit later this evening. But very briefly."

For a moment, it seemed that he might have an argument on his hands. Then the tense set to Clark's stance loosened, and he nodded. "Okay. Thank you, Doctor."

Patterson nodded briskly. "Here, take this." He handed over a small laminated rectangle with 'Aftercare Card' written on it in red. "It'll tell you what to do and what to avoid. The nurse will give you another when Mrs. Kent checks out and she'll talk you through the salient points. It's important you read through it carefully and adhere to it. You've already experienced how easily the wound can begin to spontaneously bleed again, even after days of inactivity. Only complete rest will prevent the possibility of a repeat of that."

Clark glanced at the card and then looked back at the doctor, eyes anxious all at once. "She shouldn't be given aspirin?"

"Certainly not," Patterson said, frowning as he wrote on the clipboard. "Aspirin is a blood thinner, Mr. Kent. It would simply make any cranial bleeding more pronounced, encourage the flow. We recommend acetaminophen for pain relief, in cases of head trauma. Tylenol, that is. Is there something wrong?" he added as he looked up and noted the quick glance of concern that Clark traded with Jimmy.

"I think my wife may have taken large doses of aspirin to help with the headaches she's been experiencing all week."

Patterson made a moue of interest and made another note. "It may have had an adverse affect on the blood drain from that clot, it could have precipitated the event, started the bleeding. But it's nothing to worry about. We've stemmed the flow already. I've ordered a toxicology report, but it hasn't come through yet. I'll ask them to keep an eye on levels of aspirin in her bloodwork when it does." He looked up and smiled faintly. "Nothing to worry about, Mr. Kent. I assure you, your wife is in the best of hands."

Clark nodded and murmured a thank you as Patterson walked smartly away, white coat flapping energetically behind him.

"I should have noticed," he repeated to himself. "All those headaches she's been having — "

"Lois always has a headaches. Hell, that's why she keeps that desk of hers loaded with aspirin," Perry snorted, trying to divert him. "And you're not Superman, son. What were you gonna do - X-ray that head of hers yourself? You couldn't make her go get that crack to her skull checked out any more than we could. The man who could make Lois Lane do what she don't want hasn't been born yet, believe me. The King knows, you should know that better than anyone."

Clark looked back at him miserably. Then he sighed. "I just can't believe she's been going around with that thing ticking away like some kinda…time bomb…inside her head all this time. If she hadn't passed out like that…if we hadn't found her — "

"But you did," Perry interrupted, stopping him cold. "And she's okay."

"So…what now?" Jimmy asked, watching the doctor leave.

Clark shrugged. "I guess I wait, till they let me see her," he said, unhappily.

"You could," agreed Perry. "And drive yourself crazy by the time they do. Or," he added, as Clark looked around at him, surprised, "you could get on with wrapping up the Culver story. It's what Lois would do," he concluded, as Clark seemed ready to protest.

Clark paused. Then smiled wanly. "I guess she would at that," he admitted. He glanced across his shoulder, smile fading. "I just don't want to leave - "

"You heard Patterson. She's doing just fine. Out of danger. And they won't let you see her now. There's nothing for you to do here, son, 'cept a lot of thinking and worrying an' pacing you just don't want to be doing," Perry admonished him severely. "If Lois were here, she'd tell you to get that reporter's butt of yours over to Herrera, find out what's happening with the Addley arrest."

Clark hesitated again.

"Clark!"

They turned at the yell and Clark's expression tightened as he saw Herrera heading for them at an agitated trot. He glanced suspiciously at Perry, as though accusing him of arranging the timely interruption. Perry shrugged. He looked expectantly to the detective, willing him to come down on the side of the angels. And newspaper editors. Serendipity or not, he wasn't above using fate when it leant him a helping hand.

"How's Lois doing?" Herrera puffed as he reached them and then added sheepishly, "One of my guys was here in ER, waiting to take a statement from a mugging victim when he saw Superman bring her in. He gave me a call, said he figured I'd be interested."

Clark looked sharply to Jimmy, who shrugged. "I couldn't get through. The lines were busy."

Clark's expression said he wasn't that convinced about that one, but he had other things on his mind right then. He looked back at Herrera. The detective had reddened slightly, obviously chagrined at not only being caught in his concern for the reporter, but that it was obviously common knowledge around the precinct that he would be.

"So?" he asked tersely. "How's she doing? Is she okay? Harley said she looked pretty out of it. What happened?"

"They seem to think she'll be okay."

"Was it Addley? Did they find traces of C21?"

"C21?" Clark looked startled. "No. It was to do with that knock she took on the head after she tangled with Valley Vale. Why would you think it'd be Addley?" he said, a little more sharply.

"Oh," Herrera said. He shrugged. "Well, no real reason, I guess. Just that, well Addley seems to have…" He paused, looking uncomfortable, and then cleared his throat as he gave Clark an apologetic look. "Well, he seems to have developed something of an interest in Lois, that's all. And we've got something of a situation here, Clark. One of the boys let slip it was you who set us on his tail. For some reason that perked the creep right up. Now he's refusing to talk to us. Says he'll confess, but he's only gonna do it face to face with you…and Lois."

"Yeah? Well, he's going to be disappointed," Clark told him grimly.

Herrera sighed. "Clark, I think he will confess. If he gets what he wants. I came over to see if you'd come back with me, see if you can't get him to spill. It's Lois he really wants in there with him. But maybe he'll settle for talking with you. It's worth a try. We don't know how many other women he's infected, Clark. This could save more lives than we know."

Clark looked at him, helplessly, torn. Perry was watching him with his patented 'a good reporter gets the story, no matter what' look. The journalistic equivalent of 'the show must go on', Clark thought wryly.

"Lois is doing okay, son," he reiterated. "You can't do anything for her here, not right now."

Clark shook his head. "I want to be here when - "

"I can stay," Jimmy offered quickly. "Soon as they say it's okay to visit, I'll give you a call."

"Clark?" Herrera pushed.

"I thought you wanted that statement from your material eye witness?" Clark said pointedly as he hooked a thumb at the photographer, feeling as though he was being ganged up on suddenly.

Jimmy shrugged. "I can write it up while I'm waiting. It'll give me something to do." He grinned broadly, with a sly, sideways glance at the Planet editor. "'sides, it'll be good practice for getting down a take."

"Forget the practice, son," Perry said dourly. "I want that first hand account of Addely's capture on my desk, before the evening deadline. Got it?"

Jimmy's jaw dropped. "Got it!" he blurted automatic agreement and then, "You…you mean it? You're serious?"

"Miss that deadline, you'll find out how serious I can get," Perry warned. He glanced at his watch and grimaced. "I'll send a messenger over with a laptop, you send the story to me straight." He glanced over at the duty desk. "You should be able to fax it *and* that statement to the precinct from here. Ask nice and try some of that charm of yours, that'll get you by."

Jimmy nodded quickly, making it clear that nothing bar a rampaging ten foot grizzly was going to keep him from that fax machine, with his editor depending on him. And maybe not even that. A reporter got the story to his editor's desk or he wasn't any good as a reporter at all. He'd learned that one from Lois. Writing the story was only part of where tenacity, dogged determination, sheer guts and hell or damnation willpower came in.

"It'll be on your desk in an hour, Chief!" he vowed.

Perry grunted. "Make it an hour, ten. Check your facts before you hit send."

Clark couldn't suppress a smile, hearing the gruff affection in the editor's teasing and watching the sparkle of ecstatic fervor brighten in Jimmy's eyes. He turned to Herrera, resigned.

"You figure Addley will talk to me? Just me?"

"You might be able to loosen him up a little, yeah," Herrera agreed. "Maybe we can shake him up with this too…" He glanced beyond Clark. "If he finds out his sick little plans for Lois - whatever he had going in that twisted little brain of his - didn't work…" He shrugged.

"What's his lawyer say to that? To me talking to him?"

"He hasn't lawyered up. Says he doesn't want one."

Clark hesitated. "And I get to print…what?" he asked shrewdly. Beside him, Perry grinned.

"What I don't need to keep off the news stands."

Clark paused a moment longer, then sighed again, defeated. "Okay," he said. "Let's go." His gaze shifted wryly to Perry. "I want this one wrapped up and on the presses before Jimmy calls. Because *nothing* is getting in the way of my seeing Lois when Patterson gives the all clear."

Perry chuckled. "That's my boy." He put a hand to Clark's shoulder, turning him for the exit as Herrera ambled after them. As they reached the corridor end, Clark slowed his pace, and Perry dropped his hand, moving ahead to push open the heavy double doors, Herrera following. Clark paused to let them get ahead of him a little, before he glanced back across his shoulder. He twitched his glasses down to the end of his nose and directed a quick beam of X-ray vision across the corridor.

He found Lois almost instantly with that sweep.

And awake.

>From this distance, it was impossible for him to employ his super-powers to judge her physiological signs - heart rate, pulse, temperature - but he was relieved to see that she looked just fine. A little pale, perhaps, but otherwise okay. He wanted to be with her. He wanted to hold her, tell her how scared he'd been when he'd seen her lying there on the floor of their bedroom, when he'd realized she was bleeding, hurt…tell her how glad he was that she was safe.

But that would have to wait.

He studied her a moment longer, reluctant to break even that fleeting contact. As he watched, her shoulders lifted in a heavy sigh. She folded her arms above the line of white-banded blankets covering her and steepled her fingers against her ribs, thumbs moving restlessly back and forth as she gazed around the room. In fact, he thought as he went back to considering her condition and slightly amused now, if anything she looked…bored.

She looked very, very bored.

"Clark?"

He snapped off the beam and pushed his glasses back into place, before turning back with a grin.

"Coming, Chief."

Of course, if he'd been thinking straight he would have realized that a bored Lois Lane was not good. In fact, he really should have considered that a bored Lois Lane was something he ought to start worrying about and probably shouldn't leave alone.

But he didn't.

And that was his first - though not his worst - mistake of the evening.

***

"You ready to fire up the presses on this one?" Herrera asked Clark curiously as they made their way up the stairs to the interrogation rooms.

Clark shrugged. "Got the bones of it. Think Addley will confess to something that'll let me put the gloss on it? There's going to be some pretty worried people out there tonight when the edition hits the stands. A confession and a suspect in custody would go a long way to easing their minds. Especially if we can also tell them we've found the source of that contaminant and stopped it cold."

Herrera grunted sourly. "Who can tell what any of these sleazeballs will give up to?" he said, as he reached past Clark and opened the door. "I'll let you start, draw him out best you can," he warned. "But once you open him up - if you open him up - you take a back seat and leave the rest to me. Okay?"

Clark nodded agreement and followed the detective into the sparsely furnished room.

Taking his seat at the battered table, beside Herrera, Clark couldn't help but remember the last time he'd been here. With Lois beside him instead of the hard-nosed cop. He glanced sideways at Herrera's heavy-jowled profile and then the sound of the door being opened drew his attention back to the far side of the room. Addley was being ushered in, between two uniformed officers.

"Oh, hey," Herrera leaned sideways to murmur. "Almost forgot. You got any recording equipment on you, you'd best get it out on the table now. Don't want to violate the sick, twisted little pervert's constitutional rights any, you know?"

Clark held up innocent hands. "I'm clean." He wondered suddenly if Herrera's thoughts had been in the same place his had, if remembering that earlier meeting and his argument with Lois over the tapes had put the thought of recording equipment into his head.

"Good. Got a cellphone?"

"Yeah, but - "

"Then switch it off. Pager too, if you got one of those on you. I don't want anything interrupting us, just in case he decides to spill it here and now."

Clark hesitated. The cellphone was his link to finding out how soon he could go see Lois. But if Jimmy tried calling him and couldn't get through, he'd simply phone the precinct switchboard, he reassured himself. And, besides, it wasn't likely he'd be phoning any time soon. He nodded agreement.

Shackled hand and foot, Addley shuffled to the table and allowed himself to be pushed to sit, facing the two men on the table's opposite side. One of his two handlers set out some heavy duty recording equipment on the battered table and switched it on, then both guards backed off to take up station either side of the door as silence settled on the room.

Clark studied the preacher's aide carefully.

If Addley was holding a grudge, he didn't show any evidence of it.

"Mr. Kent," he beamed at Clark, across the length of the table. He glanced around the shabby, depressing little room with a cocky grin. "Well, I can't say it's as elegant as our last meeting place, but it has a certain…debauched charm. Don't you think?" The grin turned sly. "You haven't brought that pretty little wife of yours along with you this time. Pity."

Clark's eyes hardened on him like agates, but he didn't rise to the obvious bait.

"Let's cut to the chase," Herrera intervened. "You said you wanted to talk to Mr. Kent. Well, here he is."

"I said, I'd talk to *Lane* and Kent."

"Miss Lane is…busy elsewhere."

"Really? I'm disappointed. I would have enjoyed…talking…with her again. So…" Addley settled back lazily to lounge against his chair and eyed Clark, before he could form an answer to that one, "are you here to tell me what this is all about?" He glanced sideways, at Herrera. "No one else seems to want to answer my questions."

"Fair trade, Robert," Herrera said smoothly, ignoring Addley's obvious attempt to rile him with this dissembling - and the tacit ignoring of two interviews already conducted, as though they'd never existed. Not to mention the air of innocence they all knew was faked. Addley wasn't trying to fool anyone, he was just messing with their heads, Herrera thought sourly. Just once, he'd like a nice, simple day. With suspects who got the hint when they were caught and confessed to their sins right up without trying to play Mr. Wiseass.

"You answer ours, we'll answer yours," he said, playing along for now with the game.

Addley ignored him. He fixed on Clark again. "So, what is this about? What am I being accused of now? Dipping into church funds? Being just a little too friendly with the female parishioners?" He leaned forward to put his elbows on the table and smiled. "Dale's failings, not mine. If he's my accuser, I'd watch my step. He has a tendency to project his emotions onto others, blames them for his flaws."

Clark glanced at the detective beside him. Herrera shrugged, seemingly content to defer to him for now. Clark looked back at the smugly watchful face of Karvin's aide.

"Why don't you tell me what tales Dale's been telling now?" Addley asked lightly.

"Isn't it more a case of what you want to tell us?" Clark said carefully. "You want to tell us how you did it. Don't you? Tell us all how clever you've been?"

Addley said nothing.

"You have been clever," Clark admitted. "Much cleverer than you were at River Rouge Park, for instance."

Addley was silent a moment longer, but the ubiquitous smile had vanished and his face was taut all at once. Then he said softly, "A mistake. I paid for it."

"And look to be repeating it too. How did you infect those women?"

"At River Rouge Park? Well documented, I would have thought. Someone even wrote a somewhat tacky book about it, I believe. I didn't receive any royalties, naturally."

"We know about the water," Herrera said suddenly.

Clark glanced at him sharply, but Addley's puzzlement seemed just as genuine.

"Water?"

"Karvin's mineral water."

Addley looked blank, but something flickered, deep down in his wary eyes.

"Come on, quit stalling!" Herrera said harshly. "We already know that you spiked the water with C21. What we want to know, is how?"

Clark was lost now. He eased back carefully against his chair, watching the by-play between the two men cautiously, but saying nothing and trying to keep his surprise from showing on his face.

"How?"

Addley studied the detective for a moment with an unreadable look. Then he leaned back, folding his hands decorously at his lap. He might have been conducting another interview in his hotel suite. He even ignored the manacles binding his hands to flick an imaginary speck of dust from his sleeve before he spoke. His voice, when he did, was hushed. Almost reverential.

"By diabolical means. Ironic, isn't it?"

Herrera tensed, sensing they were getting somewhere at last. He leaned forward, intently. "What do you mean?"

"Domination. Damnation and domination. Two sides of the same coin. It's part of the ritual. Every meeting includes the drinking of the holy water, blessed by our Lord."

"Karvin?"

"By God, my friend. By God. Karvin is only His servant."

"Right. Holy water…"

"The water of the spring. Blessed and pure. They all drink of it." He giggled suddenly, startling them, the sound shockingly loud in the strained silence of the room. "Isn't that the best joke of all? The blessed water, pure and untainted. But it's not. It's poison. Don't you get it? They think they're cleansing their souls and yet they leave with the darkness of their sins laying dormant in their bellies."

"Are you saying you spiked *all* the bottles with C21? But, that isn't possible. There aren't enough victims. You had to target your victims, Estelle and the rest. How did you do that, Robert? How did you target them?"

Addley paused. Then he leaned forward slightly, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial hiss, with the air of a man imparting a great and wondrous secret. "The black spot."

"What?" Herrera said.

"Black spot. You know - like the book?"

"Book? *What* book?" Herrera's voice had taken on the tone of a man close to losing his temper now. "The Bible?"

But Clark had already made the connection. "Treasure Island," he murmured. "Blind Pew. The black spot…meant death."

Herrera's eyes gleamed and then sharpened on Addley. "The black spot was…what? Some kind of chemical introduced to the victims? Something that would be absorbed by them? React with the C21 already in them? After they'd drunk the water?"

Addley smiled.

Minutes ticked away with relentless care.

Herrera eyed his prisoner. Instincts gained over years of interrogations just like this told him that Addley had just clammed. He wasn't going to tell them any more. At least not right now. He was enjoying holding out on them too much, getting a kick out of playing the game. Herrera knew there wasn't anything to be gained in letting him get away with it. It put Addley in control, a dangerous place for them to be. Best break the interview now and let him stew for a while back in his cell, before bringing him back in. Let him get fed up with his own silence. Herrera didn't have to waste time listening to it.

He shifted in his seat and opened his mouth.

Addley rose to his feet before he could speak. "I think this interview is terminated, gentlemen," he said, pre-empting the detective before he could summon the guards and conclude it himself. "I'd like to go back to my cell now."

Herrera glared at him, not appreciating the slyly subtle way in which Addley had manipulated the moment, putting himself in charge of deciding when the interview was concluded, instead of his accusers. A subtle switch of power, but an effective one. Easy to achieve, but difficult to counter once done.

"You go back when I say you go back!" he snarled. "Not before! Now, sit down!"

Addley shrugged and obeyed the command with lazy grace. He looked back at the detective smugly, pleased with himself. Herrera's scowl blackened further, irked at allowing himself to be provoked into playing the power game.

"Introduced *how*?" he demanded, not giving up, trying to turn things back on track.

Addley stared back at him lazily. He folded his hands fastidiously on his lap.

Herrera cursed inwardly. Disgusted with the way things had progressed, he waved impatiently at the guards. "Get him out of here."

Karvin's aide rose to his feet again as they approached and shifted his unblinking gaze onto Clark. "One moment," he said. He held out an urbane hand. "I rather enjoyed our little chat, Mr. Kent. Do visit again."

"Addley - " Herrera growled dangerously, patience all used up now, but Addley's attention never wavered >from where his eyes locked with Clark's. In that intent gaze, there was challenge.

Clark looked grimly at the politely extended hand wavering between them. But he made no move to take it. Addley's expression hardened just a touch.

"Really, Mr. Kent, I did think you were more magnanimous than that." He smiled. "You have won the contest, after all."

Clark hesitated, then clasped the hand briefly.

Addley nodded approval, looking satisfied as he meekly allowed himself to be led away.

"Great," Herrera muttered, as he watched him go. He reached out and hit the recording equipment with a hard fist, stopping the whir of the tape cold.

"Still, least we got a confession on the water. Of sorts. We'll work on him again later and - hey, Clark. Clark? You with me?"

He jogged the reporter with an elbow and got no response. Clark was staring fixedly at his open palm. Herrera opened his mouth again and then closed it as he saw what had taken Clark's rapt attention.

There, in the center of his palm, was a smudged, black spot.

***

By eight fifty, Jimmy was beginning to doze and decided that another cup of the hospital's obnoxious lukewarm coffee was in order. The excitement of getting down his sidebar on the Addley arrest had faded, now that his story was safely winging its digitized way to Perry White's desk - and in considerably less time than the hour, ten, the Chief had allocated to it, too - and the strain and anxiety of the past few hours was making itself felt.

Things had begun to wind down around him and he was mostly on his own now in the private little waiting area he'd been directed to when the others had left. He rubbed hard hands across his face and got to his feet, wincing at his cramping leg muscles before he headed for that jolt of caffeine.

His route took him past Lois' room and he paused as he heard a distinct thump >from within. Something - no, several somethings - had just hit the floor. Hard. Jimmy glanced across his shoulder, but the nurses' station was empty. Another, louder crash came from the room and this time it was followed by a burst of corrosive cursing in a voice which was all too familiar.

Jimmy stepped up to the door and listened surreptitiously for a moment, but heard nothing further that would give him any clue as to how he should proceed. He hesitated and took another glance behind him as though wishing someone in authority would suddenly appear and take the dilemma out of his hands, but the corridor stayed disobligingly empty.

Jimmy sighed, took a small breath and cracked open the door.

"Lois?" he hissed, peering warily around its edge and then, abandoning all reluctance as his eyes widened, "Lois!"

He shoved the door abruptly wide and darted forward to where the Planet's ace reporter was leaning precariously over the edge of her bed and trying to fight off the sheets tangled around her knees.

"Damn this stupid - !"

He barely got halfway before Lois abruptly and somewhat unexpectedly freed herself - only to find herself tumbling unceremoniously towards the floor in a heap of sheets and blankets and pale, flailing limbs. It was the limbs that Jimmy noticed most of all, naturally. Lois yelped, clawing for grip on the blankets, which merely slid with her, offering no rescue.

"Lois!"

In an awkward forward tackle that proved he'd never been one of his high school's rising football stars, Jimmy lunged the last few yards and caught her bodily against him before she hit.

Unfortunately, his success was short-lived. The combination of gravity and Lois' weight, as he rapidly discovered, had already reached the point of no return and one hundred and thirty pounds of photographer wasn't going to make the difference. No matter how hard he tried.

Quite rapidly, he found himself forced onto one knee and then the other by that inexorable slide towards the tiles. Desperately, as the balance tipped - and not in his favor - he twisted, trying to push back. Moments later, he found himself sprawled in a heap on the floor, atop his damsel in distress, his nose buried deep in her cleavage. Lois grunted, trying to shove him from her. Mortified, Jimmy jerked up his head, trying to get his hands beneath him to lever himself clear and avoiding her eyes all the while as his cheeks burned.

Things quickly became more embarrassing still as Lois tried to heave him off of her. His body began to respond to the deliciously pliable, curvaceous flesh writhing under him and, struggling to free himself, Jimmy didn't dare think where his hands were right at that moment.

Lord, if she'd just keep *still*…

The situation was coming way too close to fantasies he had long harbored for his beautiful, poised and completely unattainable colleague. Not that he ever *really* wanted to obtain her. She had always been the purest form of fantasy for Jimmy - beautiful in its perfection and unsullied by reality - whose promise, if ever won, could never have measured up to the myth.

His mind traitorously became entangled in memories of the last time he'd lain sprawled atop the feisty, struggling reporter. He couldn't remember much of the event, but his subconscious mind had somehow stored every moment for replay later in dreams that had haunted him for months afterwards. Dreams that had brought him out of sleep trembling with frustration and limp with exhaustion, remembering that moment when Lois had been lying on the floor of her apartment beneath him. In his dreams, of course, he wasn't tightening the wire wrapped around her throat or trying to kill her in a hypnotic daze, but holding her, kissing her, and her arms were moving around his neck, pulling him closer against her curves, and she was whispering in his ear…

"Urrgh. Jimmy! Get off me!"

Huh? Oh! "Gosh…Lois, I'm…" He scrambled clear of her, blushing furiously now and held out a hand to help her up. Lois smacked it away with a growl and grabbed at the blankets, using them to haul herself to sit on the bed's edge.

"Ow!"

Her hair had gotten caught in the zipper of his jacket. Jimmy mumbled a litany of apology as he hastily tried to free her. The two were melded fast together.

"Sorry. I…hang on…"

He shrugged awkwardly out of the jacket, trying not to tug too violently on her hair as he did and trying to ignore her pained expression. Finally, he succeeded in disentangling the dark strands of hair. He tossed the jacket across the nearby visitor's chair and looked at Lois anxiously, while he tried to recover from a distressing few moments.

Lois grumbled under her breath as she dragged her fingers through her hair, settling it back into place. She rubbed at one elbow before directing a glare at the hapless photographer.

"What were you trying to do, finish what Valley Vale started?" she snarled.

Jimmy's flush deepened. "Sorry," he mumbled. "I was just trying to - "

Lois waved him down with an impatient hand, clearly having no time to listen to him splutter explanations or apologies. "Never mind. Help me find my clothes, I gotta get outta here. Did you bring your car with you?"

"Uh, yeah. Um, Lois - "

"Great. Then you can give me a ride to the Planet. Well, don't just stand there, get going!" she snapped as he frowned at her.

"Lois, I don't think — "

"No, you don't. Which is okay, since it's not why I'm keeping you around!"

Jimmy lifted his head and stared at her, surprise canceling out his lingering embarrassment. Lois could be pretty intense, times, and she had a temper like a grizzly with toothache when she got riled, one you didn't want to get in the way of any…but he'd never known her be deliberately mean, like she was being now.

Lois seemed to regret the outburst. She put out a hand and laid it against his arm. "I'm sorry, Jimmy. I'm just a little…this is so frustrating! I've got a story to write! I have to get out of here!"

"I don't think that's such a good idea."

She paused, then sighed. "Jimmy, I need you to *help* me. You want to help me, don't you?" Her hand stroked a soft path against his sleeve and her voice softened. "I thought you were my friend."

Jimmy gulped, caught in the high beam of those pleading doe-brown eyes. Moisture shimmered at their corners. She was going to cry, wasn't she, he thought, horrified. "Well, s-sure, but - "

"Well, okay, then." She took back her hand. "Let's - "

"But I can't, Lois."

"Can't?"

Jimmy flushed under the weight of one upswept brow. "C.K.'ll kill me if I let you out of here without the doctor's say so," he said wretchedly.

Lois fixed him with a Gorgon stare and he knew he was in trouble. "How about…I'll kill you if you don't?" she suggested sweetly and then sighed, mightily put upon as he began to blurt out another stuttering defense. "Oh, why don't you just keep out of my way, Jimmy! You can do that, can't you?"

"Lois - " He swallowed hard and then tightened his jaw, stubbornly. "Lois, I can't let you out of this room."

He backed up further against the door with that promise, trying to look determined. After a moment, he crossed his arms. It didn't help any. Especially in the face of the look that Lois was currently favoring him with. Jimmy thought, miserably, that plate armor probably wouldn't defend him against that.

Lois quirked that brow at him again. Jimmy was beginning to think that single gesture was more lethal and scary than a field unit of marines with rocket launchers trained on him. "Oh?"

"I told C.K. I'd…I'd look out for you until he got here."

"Look *out* for me?" Lois nodded. "Really? How sweet. Like a puppy or something." Her eyes chilled. "Jimmy," she said mildly, "in just under two seconds, I am getting out of this bed, walking over to that closet there and getting dressed. Now, you can stay there and watch - but I wouldn't advise it - or you can get outta here. Your choice."

Jimmy's defiant air crumbled. His long held crush on Lois Lane had matured in recent months. Working with her over the years had settled those burgeoning feelings into a deep-rooted respect and sibling affection. But it was the old Jimmy - the one whose sleep had often been tormented by impossible dreams of Lois' taking charge of his libido - who wasn't in any way prepared to stand there while Lois wandered around the room half dressed and wearing nothing but a skimpy gown. Panic began to beat its way roughly against the walls of his chest and he felt light-headed all at once.

Lois followed the threat with action, throwing aside the blankets. In an afterthought, and with a sharp glare in Jimmy's direction, she hauled the bedsheets around herself, augmenting the scant protection of the hospital gown she was clothed in. She got to her feet.

Jimmy swallowed roughly, defiance collapsing abruptly.

"Uh, maybe I should just go get the station nurse," he decided hastily, fumbling for the door at his back.

Lois wavered on her feet and then sat down on the bed with a hard thump. She dropped her face into her hands, groaning loudly.

Jimmy paused with his hand on the door. "Lois? Hey, you okay?" He hesitated. "Lois?"

She lifted her head, with an obvious effort, face creased with pain.

"I guess…maybe you're right," she told him. "Maybe I'm not up for it."

"See. Just like I said." He looked at her worriedly. "I'll go get - "

"No! Uh, no." She smiled wanly at him. "I'll be okay. Could you just…get me some water?"

"Sure!" He let go the door and headed for the nightstand. The jug sitting there was empty. "I'll just — " he indicated the en suite bathroom.

Lois nodded. "Right."

***

She stayed where she was for precisely two seconds after Jimmy disappeared through the bathroom door and then got to her feet. She moved quickly around the bed, pausing only once as a sickening wave of dizziness blackened her vision for a second or two. She gripped hard at the bed-rail for balance until it passed and then continued, a little unsteadily, for the nightstand.

It was of the type that sat on wheels for easy maneuvering and came equipped with a handy little foot lever that could be depressed to keep it in place once it had been positioned. She hauled it to the bathroom door, wincing more at the quiet squeak of unoiled wheels than at the throb of pain beating at her temples. She reached out and gently pushed the door shut, grimacing as the lock clicked into place. She pushed the nightstand against the now closed door and then pressed the lever.

Stepping back, she viewed the nightstand and then nodded in satisfaction, dusting off her hands and crossing the floor quickly to the closet. Her own cleverness made her feel stronger. The pain was still there, but the lightness in her head and the darkness flickering behind her eyes were receding.

The door handle turned as she hauled out her clothes. It was twisted again, a little more heavily, and then Jimmy's voice came from the door's other side. Just a little raised. "Lois?"

She ignored it as she climbed into the royal blue skirt.

"Lois? Hey, Lois - the door seems to be stuck. Lois?"

There was a pause.

"Lois?"

He rapped hesitant knuckles against the door.

"Lois!"

Lois paused as she buttoned up her blouse and grabbed for her jacket. She gave the bathroom a considering look. Any moment now, she realized, he'd figure it out. And then he'd start hammering on that door, yelling to get out. She bit down on her lip for a moment and then headed back.

"Jimmy?"

"Lois! Hey, I know it's kinda dumb, but I can't get it to budge."

She put her hip to the nightstand and pressed firmly against it as she rattled the door handle. "You're right! I think it's stuck." She paused. "I'll go get someone to get you out. Okay?"

"Okay," Jimmy said doubtfully.

"Won't be long."

Lois nodded and headed for the corridor. Halfway there she hesitated and then, with another, wary glance at the bathroom door, she went back to the bed.

Jimmy's jacket lay where he'd left it, draped over the back of the visitor's chair. It took only a moment for her to pat it down and find the car keys in his pocket. Smiling to herself triumphantly as she tightened her fist around them, she left the room and closed the door softly behind her.

***

"You sure you don't want to get that checked out?" Herrera asked, for the third time, as they made they way back to the reception area.

Clark shook his head. "I didn't drink any of the water. This isn't going to affect me. He was just answering our question, that was all. He has a flair for the dramatic."

"Tell me about it. You know, I've met some pure grade whackos in my time, but this one…?" He looked grimly at Clark. "Weird stuff, huh?"

"Yeah. Weird stuff. Here." He took a tissue from the dispenser on the reception desk and wiped it across his palm, before offering it to the detective. "Get this to Dr. Klein - he's down at Adams' office - get him to analyze it. Tell him I think it might be the primary source."

Herrera took it from him gingerly.

"If Klein or Adams can identify it, at least we'll have a link to the victims here. And possibly a means of tracking back to the others, twenty years ago."

"I'll get it couriered over there. Put a rush order on it." Herrera reached behind the desk and grabbed a clear, plastic evidence bag. He dropped the tissue into it and sealed it firmly. He scribbled the case number and details onto its label.

"It leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions though," said Clark thoughtfully. "C21's a restricted chemical. How did Addley manage to get his hands on it?"

"Well, we know that Gerrord-Andrews is the only licensed facility to hold it in Metropolis. You didn't know?" he said as Clark looked startled by this news. "They're holding the only stocks of the stuff in the entire state on behalf of good ole Uncle Sam. Got it locked away in a secure vault somewhere in there. Course, Addley *could* have gotten his supplies elsewhere, but what with his connection to Culver and her connection to Gerrord-Andrews - "

" - it'd be a big coincidence."

Herrera collared the on-duty sergeant and gave him instructions on the evidence bag and its delivery, before handing it over. "And get someone back in that detention cell, find out where that little creep is hiding this stuff," he added sour instructions. "Have a word with whoever searched him when he came in too. I want to know how they missed it."

"Don't believe in coincidence," he said shortly, returning his attention to Clark as the sergeant nodded.

"A myth in the minds of the mundane," agreed Clark, with a faint smile.

"Huh?" Herrera gave him a sharp look and then dismissed what he'd said with an offhand, "Yeah…yeah, that too. Anyway, looks likely Addley got to it through Culver. You know, we're starting to wonder just where she fits into all this."

"Karen? You think she was involved?" Clark said, surprised.

"Well, there's some evidence to suggest she had a visitor at her apartment the evening she died. Couple of hours before she jumped. There were a couple of coffee mugs among the washing up, she hadn't got around to. We found traces of sugar in one of them, which Culver didn't take. Mazetti says he didn't hear anyone go through the lobby that night, but he did admit, under pressure, that he *might* have fallen asleep in front of the TV for an hour or so. He could have missed any late night visitors."

"And you're thinking it was Addley?"

"Could be. We already got a connection between him and Culver. Maybe she wasn't contaminated for the same reasons the rest of his victims were. Maybe he just wanted her out of the way once he'd gotten what he wanted from her. The C21. Killed her to cover his tracks."

"Shades of murder by alphabet," Clark murmured, cryptically.

"Huh?"

"Oh, nothing. Just something Lois said. So Addley put pressure on Karen to steal him supplies of C21 and then included her in the victim list to cover his tracks?" He shook his head. "Unless security at GAP was worse than MegaHard's," he said, referring to the communications giant whose programs - according to urban myth at least - were a hackers' paradise, "how did Karen get clearance to a secure vault? She was a secretary, not a technician."

Herrera grunted. "Ask me, most secure vaults in Government facilities are nothing but glorified dumpsters. Who knows whether it's tight enough? Culver could have been making cutesy eyes at one of the night guards or maybe she was playing late night boogie in the office with that boss of hers."

"Karen?" Clark said again, doubtfully and then, because he realized he was basing his judgement on a woman he hardly knew, simply because Lois had encouraged a connection in his mind with Lucy, he backtracked. "Maybe. I guess."

"Never underestimate a woman when she's on the make," Herrera told him sagely. "They've got more tricks in 'em than David Copperfield, they want something outta ya."

Clark made a moue of agreement, unable to argue with that one. Although he was less cynical about it than Herrera apparently was. Or was pretending to be, at least. Clark sometimes wondered just how much of the detective's bluff exterior was genuine and how much habitual after years of adopting it for effect. Maybe the difference between them was simply that when Lois tried those kind of wiles on him these days, she was usually angling to get something from him he was more than willing to give her. A grin came close to breaking on his face as he remembered a certain attempt to prevent him from returning to Boston, on a morning not so long ago.

Something else occurred to him, jarring him from these happy thoughts. "How did you know? About the C21 being in the water? And GAP?"

He didn't feel offended or cheated that Herrera had apparently withheld that information from him before the interrogation. The detective was in the middle of a serious homicide investigation. He trusted and liked Clark and wasn't adverse to sharing information with him on a reciprocal basis, but that didn't mean he didn't have his own agenda and his own reasons for keeping things close to his chest on occasion. Clark understood all that. There were times he kept things close for his own reasons, just like Herrera had. And a man who deceived the entire population every time he donned a certain spandex suit - albeit for the most altruistic of reasons - could hardly fault anyone else for holding back on the truth a little now and then.

"Oh, we got word from the ME. Adams came up trumps with the analysis of the items we took from Culver's refrigerator. There were two bottles of mineral water in there. Branded to the UCS. Blessed Spring?"

"That's Karvin's own brand," Clark confirmed. "They sell it at their rallies."

"Yeah. Well both of them came back from the lab loaded with C21. Adams checked out the batch numbers. They match to a batch of two crates sold at the rallies. It's the same consignment, all right."

"But Karen didn't attend any of the rallies. How did she get - ?" Clark stopped abruptly as his eyes widened. "From Gerrord-Andrews!"

Herrera nodded. "Yeah. They buy it in bulk from UCS. Use it in their corporate hospitality. Staff use it too. Odds are, that's where Karen got contaminated."

Something was nagging at Clark now, something half heard, barely remembered, something important. If he could just bring it into focus…

But it danced away, out of reach, before he could grab hold and he shook his head.

"Listen, why don't you stick around till you get the word from the hospital?" Herrera suggested. "We might get another crack at Addley. And maybe Klein will come up with that analysis before you leave. We're closer to City Green than that paper of yours," he added blandly, with an air of being almost unaware of why he mentioned it.

Clark glanced at his watch. "Well, I'm chasing a deadline for the evening edition." He looked around him.

The precinct had been rowdy from the first, as always, but now what Herrera was apt to call 'the early evening theater crowd' was beginning to drift in. The working girls and their pimps, the drunks, the addicts, the pushers…the jetsam and flotsam of Metropolis' dark underbelly. The night crawlers and their victims. All of them protesting bitterly at being interrupted from their nefarious activities or, in the case of the drunks and the addicts and depending on how deeply under the influence of their substance of choice they were, howling at the moon. The reception area could only be termed raucous.

Clark grimaced. "You got a quiet corner I can hole up in? Where I could write up my story while I'm waiting?"

Herrera pursed his lips and looked at the notepad Clark pulled from his inside breast pocket. "Got even better than that," he said. "Come on."

He led the reporter to a tiny, glass and wood paneled office, way back along the maze of corridors that the old, dilapidated building bred like a warren. The cracked plastic sign screwed to the door said 'Records'.

"Carla's gone home by now. She won't mind you taking over her computer for a while. There's empty disks there, you can store your finished epic on one of them."

"Thanks, Dutch."

"I'd tell you to keep your hands off any department disks you find, but you're not Lois, so I trust you to keep the snooping around to a minimum."

Clark chuckled. "I'll tell her you said that."

"Yeah, well tell her I also said, she don't take it easy from now on, watch her back more, I'll slap her with a citation for reckless endangerment quick enough to make that head of hers spin faster than it is right now."

Clark laughed outright. "I think you can tell her that one yourself," he demurred, instincts for self-preservation firmly in place.

Herrera looked at him, soberly. "I'm glad she's gonna be okay. You know, if I'd known back at that cemetery that night - "

"Yeah, I know." Clark assured him quietly. "She *is* going to be okay. Everything is just fine."

There was a moment of silence and then Herrera cleared his throat roughly. "Yeah, well…I'd best go serve and protect. You write up a good one, huh? Help me put Addley where he belongs."

"I will."

Clark watched him go and then settled himself behind the bulky wooden desk. He worked steadily and efficiently for the better part of an hour as he transcribed the story from his notes and the draft in his head onto the screen. Occasionally - because he really didn't want to be caught wrong-footed if Jimmy called and no delays on seeing Lois, soon as he was permitted - he used super-speed on the keyboard, while keeping one wary eye out for unexpected visitors as he did.

Finally, he saved the file to a blank disk he found among a supply on the desk and closed down the computer. He scribbled a short thank you note to Carla, knowing how disconcerting it could be to return to the territorial space known as your office desk and find even the minutest traces that someone had been there like Goldilocks while you were gone. He'd met Carla a few times while at the precinct on business, both as Clark Kent and as Superman, and he liked her. She was a bubbly, perky little blond with a no nonsense air about her that made up a lot for her four foot nine inch lack of stature. He propped the note up against the keyboard and made his way back through the maze to reception.

He spotted Herrera talking earnestly to a couple of beat cops over on the other side of the room. The detective glanced up as he made his way towards them and then excused himself and came to meet him.

"You look worse than that down an' out they just dragged outta the bay and dumped in the morgue," he observed.

Clark gave him a surprised look and then shrugged tiredly. Now that he mentioned it… His fatigue was more the product of the emotional stress and strains of the past couple of hours, than borne out of physical effort, but that didn't make it any the less deeply etched. As though it had simply been waiting for permission to make itself noticed, Herrera's words seemed to double its weight on Clark's shoulders.

He rubbed at hand at the back of his neck, easing those shoulders a little out of the taut line they seemed to have settled into. "Any word from Klein?" he asked.

"Nope. And Addley's tight as a barfly. Only word I got from him was a complaint about the cheeseburger we bussed in for dinner being cold when it got there."

Clark sighed.

"Hey, Kent!"

Distracted, he glanced back at the police sergeant behind the reception desk.

"Message came in for you, while you were gone. Guy called…Olpen? Otsin?" The Sergeant peered at the memo sheet in his hand and pursed his lips, then shrugged apologetically. "Sorry. Maybe one day Boomer's gonna brush up on his writing some. Anyway, message was you should get back to the hospital, A-sap. Said he'd been trying to contact you on your cellphone, but he couldn't get a response."

He'd forgotten to switch it back on after the interview with Addley. Clark took the memo. "Thanks. He say anything else?"

"Nope. Just that."

Clark grinned, his mood lightening markedly. Suddenly, he didn't seem that tired after all. "Great! Dutch - "

Herrera waved him down. "Bail. I hear anything back from the analysis, I'll call you at the hospital."

"Okay. Thanks!" He included the sergeant in that last, with a nod.

"Anytime," Sergeant Zowalska said as he watched the reporter take the stairs jauntily, two at a time.

"Now, there's a man in a hurry," he noted, before he went back to filling out his reports.

***

"Gone? What do you mean, 'gone'?"

Clark stared blankly at the little knot of people clustered in the entrance to Lois' room, unable to comprehend what he'd just heard. Gone? His eyes flickered toward the empty bed, which seemed to suggest he hadn't misheard any.

"Gone where?" he demanded of Patterson, his voice emerging slightly strangled in his throat.

"Mrs. Kent simply walked out. We didn't - "

"Well, wasn't someone watching out for her? Wasn't there a nurse at the station? Why did you just let her - ?"

"Mr. Kent, this is a hospital, not a maximum security facility. We have other patients to attend to. We can't keep tabs on one of them, 24/7."

Clark took a hard breath. "No," he admitted, tone easing. "No, you're right. I'm sorry. When did you discover Lois had gone?"

"About twenty minutes ago, the duty nurse heard a commotion coming from Mrs. Kent's room. She called security," Patterson indicated the uniformed guard standing nearby, "and found this young man locked in the bathroom."

"She tricked me!" Jimmy burst out, with all the wounded offence of a groom betrayed at the altar.

Clark sighed, perplexed by this unwelcome news. "But, why did she leave? What was she thinking? I mean - "

"She said she was going to the Planet. To write up her story."

"What story?" Clark protested and then, as Jimmy shrugged helplessly, shook his head, resigned. He could ask Lois himself when he caught up with her. And a few more questions besides that one too.

"Okay. I guess we go back to the Planet, then. I've got a story of my own to LAN through for the morning edition anyway," he added. He looked up at Patterson. "Is my wife in trouble?"

"Depends on what she's doing right now," the doctor answered tersely. "If she went directly home and took a nap, then she's probably doing okay. But if she's out there doing aerobics - "

Clark held up a hand. "I get the idea," he said. "So, when I find her, I should persuade her to come back here?"

Patterson's lips twisted. "Mr. Kent, right now, I'd like to tell you to take your wife *anywhere* but here, but…yes," he added dryly, "it might be a good idea to get her back here, soon as you can."

Clark nodded bleakly. "I'm sorry for the trouble."

Patterson sighed. "Won't be the last we get this evening. Though avoiding this kind of thing was mostly why I transferred to Neurological out of ER," he added the barb as he walked briskly away, having judged this emergency over.

Clark glanced at Jimmy. But he didn't have the heart to question him. He was looking plenty hangdog enough as it was. Clark sighed. And it wasn't really Jimmy's fault. Lord knew, Lois could skip out on *him* easily enough when she got the urge and he had little success in preventing her from doing something once she'd made up her mind to it. Why should Jimmy be any more immune? If this was anyone's fault, it was his. He should have known better than to leave Lois alone. He should never have let Perry distract him with the story. Yes, this was his fault.

Not that he wouldn't have a few, quiet words to say to his wife too, when he caught up with her at the Planet. And she could say what she liked and give him any one of her looks too, but first thing on the agenda was going to be a short flight right back to this hospital via Superman Express. No matter what she came up with to delay him. Even if he had to tie her down to the bed when he got her here. One way or another, she was staying put second time around. If Superman had to mount a twenty-four-hour guard himself to ensure it.

Jimmy was watching him anxiously, he realized. Undoubtedly wondering if the suddenly hard cast that had overtaken his features with this run of thought was aimed at him for letting Lois skip out.

Clark eased up a little on the scowl. "You got your car?"

Jimmy nodded hastily, pushing a hand into his jacket pocket as he trotted after Clark, who'd already set off for the exit, trusting him to follow. After a second or so, his fumbling around became slightly more intense and his face changed to consternation. His muttering drew Clark's attention. He turned his head as he opened up the exit door to let Jimmy through and raised a brow.

Jimmy flushed. "I had them here just a minute - " he broke off and sudden realization dawned. "She stole my car?" he said, disbelieving. And then, dismayed, "She stole my *car*! C.K. - !"

Clark sighed at the wail of protest. "I'm sure she'll bring it back in one piece, Jimmy," he assured the hapless photographer. "Right now," he put a firm hand to Jimmy's shoulder and hustled him for the sidewalk. "Let's take a cab!"

***

Lois got out of Jimmy's Mustang shakily and stared at the fender, buried in the post of the ornamental Edwardian style lamp - one of a pair that graced either side of this end of the Bay Bridge. They had been specially made and flown over from England, Lois found herself remembering inconsequentially as she stood there. She'd been given the puff piece on it back when she started at the Planet. Hands across the sea and all that jazz.

The lamps were cast iron with pretty, square-paneled glass shades that emulated old-fashioned gas lamps and shone with a warm, enticing glow at dusk. And now, in the darkness, she was glad of this one's Old Faithful security.

"Takes a lickin', keeps on tickin'" she murmured admiringly, gazing up at the amber aureole above her with a soft, unfocused stare.

She'd always had a fond spot for these lamps. They reminded her, distantly, of old and fanciful stories that her father had read to her when she was a child. Of talking animals, wicked witches and…hiding in wardrobes? She shrugged. Whatever. The memory was a warm one, though painful, reminding her of a rare moment when everything was right in the world of her childhood, with no hint of the trauma and heartache to come.

Right now though, the main thing that struck her about them was that cast iron was fairly solid stuff and gave you one mean jolt when you hit it at speed. She moved her head cautiously, testing for whiplash, and winced as pain popped in the muscles of her neck with the movement. It wasn't as bad as she'd thought it might be though - bearable - a jarred muscle, that was all. Her seatbelt had taken most of the strain and the airbag had deployed with gratifying efficiency. Vince and Larry were right, she thought, amazed - you *could* learn a lot from a couple of dummies. She'd never doubt the wisdom of ploughing perfectly good tax dollars into government ad campaigns again.

She broke the hypnotic lure of the lamplight's glimmer and turned her head. Her eyes fixed on the crumpled fender again. Broken glass from one headlamp crunched beneath her feet as she moved closer and put a hand to the scraped paint and gouged-bare metal.

"Oh, nuts," she murmured, with a surprising lack of concern. And then, "Jimmy's gonna kill me."

Woozily, she made her way to the back of the car and wrenched open the trunk, with the hazy idea of effecting repairs before the damage got noticed. She rummaged around in the haphazard muddle of discarded fast food wrappers and Coke cans, photography magazines which looked suspiciously the same as porno mags to her jaundiced eye - interesting way to tell if your long range lens was working, she thought muddily, point it at those silicon boosted — ah, there you are!

She came up with a five inch screwdriver and made her way purposefully back to the front of the car.

For a moment, she stood there, swaying slightly, as she tried to connect screwdriver with damage in a way that would enable her to use the former to eliminate the latter. Strangely enough, nothing sprang to mind. She frowned, titled her head to one side, considering the paradox, and screwed up one eye, getting a fresh viewpoint, but inspiration still failed to strike.

"Hey, lady, what the hell you playing at back there?"

She whipped around, startled. A stocky, truculent little man confronted her. Across his right shoulder, she caught sight of a Metrocab, parked skew-sided against the curb. Its right fender showed a hefty dent. Lois vaguely remembered sideswiping it on her way to that date with the Narnia lamp.

Narnia! That was it. Strange little stories. Fun though.

The wistful thought blurred in her head and produced a grin of delight at her cleverness in finding the memory. The cabby glared at her.

Under the weight of that scowl, Lois sobered hastily. "It wasn't my fault," she blurted in answer to the accusation contained in that squint-eyed glower.

"It sure as hell was, lady!" the cabby disagreed. "That was a stop light you ran back there! What the hell you think you're - hey, where you think you're going?"

Lois had backed up a couple of steps as he invaded more of her space. The cabby darted out a hand to grip her arm, preventing her escape and wrenching her shoulder painfully, as he shook her in his frustration.

Lois moaned, trying to tear free of him. His yelling was beginning to frighten her now. She wished he'd stop. It *hadn't* been her fault! Why was he blaming her? Everyone blamed her! It wasn't fair!

"Let go! It wasn't my fault!" she repeated wildly as his grip tightened. "Let go!" That last came out on the verge of tears as they welled up suddenly in her eyes, hovering on the edge of pleading. Fright and pain tightened in her chest, making it hard to breathe all at once.

Still angry, the cabby ignored her, yanking her back as she tried to lever herself out of his grasp.

"What's going on? Hey, lady, you okay?"

She spun around with a startled gasp at the new voice behind her, a quick jerk that succeeded in shaking loose the cabby. Finding herself bracketed by strangers she didn't trust, Lois backed up unsteadily, her heart pounding hard against her ribs, until her retreat was cut off abruptly when she came up against the car behind her with a solid thump.

The new arrival wore the orange and yellow, wasp-striped jacket of a construction worker. Lois focused on the nametag sewn into the breast pocket, as though, somehow, it could rescue her. Albany Concrete it said, and beneath that, Mayhew. He put up a hand to push back the edge of the hard hat he wore as he studied her and the cabby with a frown.

"Saw you hit that thing," he said mildly, indicating the lamp with a jerk of his thumb. "Thought for a minute you were gonna keep on goin', end up in that hole we bin diggin' back there." He ran the back of a hand across his forehead, blurring the sheen of sweat forming there and then scrubbed at his skin with a couple of perplexed fingers when she didn't answer.

"You need some help? I can get one of my men to call 911," he offered, turning slightly to where the rest of the construction gang was torn between watching the developing drama as a diversion to break up a boring evening and continuing to work on the pedestrian walkway they were repairing.

"Truck went through the barrier last week," Mayhew noted idly. "We just about got finished fixing up that one. Thought for a minute there, you were going come sailin' on through and put us right back to square one! And, lady, much as my men there are happy with the overtime, working till midnight, six days a week for another week wouldn't have gone down too good."

Lois missed the humor in the man's heavy drawl; heard only accusation. Recrimination. She was causing trouble again. She didn't mean to cause trouble. It just seemed to…well, follow her around. Daddy always said she caused more trouble than a ring full of those fighters of his. Sometimes, she thought he preferred being at the gym than home with her and she knew that was her fault too. She didn't know why, but -

A sharp, irritated honk made her start violently. Several voices rose in the dark behind them, quick with raucous and irate suggestions on how they could best get their butts outta the road and out of the way. Trembling, Lois saw that a crowd of interested spectators had begun to gather on the walkway opposite. She shook her head, mutely, eyes flaring wide with panic. In their faces, shadowed and striped by the lamplight and the brighter arc lights strung across the construction barrier between road and walkway, warped by those shifts of light and dark into something threatening and malevolent, she saw accusation stamped clearly on nightmare features and bright in animal savage eyes.

Desperately, she turned, clawing at the door of the Mustang, seeking escape. She cried out as a hand covered hers, viciously twisting at her fingers until they released their grip on the door catch, forcing her hand away and holding her in place against the cold metal.

"Look, lady, you ain't going nowhere," the cabby grunted, impatiently. "Not till the cops get here. You hear me? I ain't getting stiffed for insurance with a runner again. You stay put."

His grip shifted to her wrist, crushing the small bones there as he saw the impulse for flight dart into her eyes.

"No!" Lois reared back, struggling with him. Her elbow smacked against the Mustang's mirror, sending a jolt of pain lancing up through her arm. "No!" she howled. "Get away from me! Let go! Get away!"

She lashed out, barely remembering the screwdriver she still had gripped in her fist, and the cabby let go of her with a surprised grunt of pain as a deep gash opened up in one muscular bicep. He staggered back with a curse, an automatic hand pressing itself to the sudden leak of blood down his wounded arm.

Lois didn't gave him a chance to recover. Whirling around, she took off at a run, sobbing harshly in her throat as she darted around the Mustang and out into the heavy stream of traffic on the bridge. Escape was the only thing in her head now, beating its way against her skull like the frenzied wings of startled birds. She ignored the yells behind her, a mix of anger and surprise. A shrill chorus of horns followed her weaving, reckless progress through the oncoming lanes of traffic.

To the surprise of the onlookers, she made the other side unscathed, though it was close. Mayhew's mouth dropped open as she began to haul herself laboriously onto the low wall of the bridge. "Hey, wait! What you doing? Come down from there!"

Up on the bridge, Lois ignored him, ignored all of them. She swayed lightly on the narrow ledge beneath her feet. Below her, the grimy waters of the river flowed. A chill blast of wind rose up out of nowhere to buffet at her clothes, her hair, seeming to pull her inexorably closer to those depths. She shook her head softly and then turned it to look further up, where the concrete wall gave way to the flaring steel supports of the bridge proper. A smooth and shining silver path that reared away from her in a gentle, inviting arc, until it speared the air, high above her.

Follow the yellow brick road, she thought, with a small giggle inside.

She darted forward, almost losing balance once or twice, but recovering quickly. It was just a matter of concentration, she thought woozily. All in a day's work for Stretch Lane: U-Met's high rising, high wire star.

High wire? No…no, the beam, she'd meant. That was it. She'd always been good at keeping balance on the beam. Unconsciously, with the thought, her movements adjusted to walking on the narrow gymnastic beam, although the stone ledge on which she actually walked was almost twice the width. Her steps narrowed, utilizing only a fraction of the space available to her. When she misjudged a step, her foot, toe delicately pointed in classic gymnastic pose, hovered in midair for a moment although there was safety beneath it, and her body wobbled dangerously for an instant or two, before she laid the foot down a careful inch ahead of its mate.

The wires were up there. Not in her head, she realized, as she lifted her gaze to the great, imposing silver structure that drew her. Cool air swept across her face and she lifted her chin to let it soothe her. She was so hot!

The wires. Great, coiled steel ropes, as thick as her wrist - the suspension system that held the bridge together in its spider's web and —

Lois paused. She didn't like spiders. And then she smiled. Up there, spiders couldn't exist. Thrust into the darkness, poised there on the clean metal, swept by the cool and soothing air, there was nothing she should fear.

Slowly, she reached up a hand and grasped hold of the nearest wire.

She started, a quick, high gasp of fear escaping her, as a hand closed around her ankle.

The construction worker was directly below her.

Lois ripped herself free and, for a moment, out of balance, whirled out over the edge of the ledge. She shrieked, arms flailing, and her desperately clutching fingers caught in the wire beside her. Crying out, her fingers convulsed around that salvation and she wound herself tight against the steel, clinging to it, shuddering, eyes closed.

Something lunged for her again, a feather touch brushed against her skin, but failed to catch hold, and, with thoughts of spiders, crawling, scuttling, rising in her head, she moved awkwardly to regain her balance and scramble up the slope ahead of her.

Once out of range, she glanced hastily across her shoulder as she made her way more cautiously up the remainder of the slope. But he wasn't following. The rough steel of the wires cut into her palms, but she ignored the pain as she hauled herself up, hand over fist until she reached the plateau.

At the top of the slope, the massive support strut flattened out to a small, pitted oblong platform. A waiting point for maintenance crews to pause at, while checking and adjusting safety harnesses before tackling the hard, upward climb to the top of the strut.

Light dazzled her and she stumbled, blinded, tripped, fell to her knees. She cried out as her hands, rubbed raw by the harsh steel threads of the support wires landed hard on the platform, breaking her fall. Blinking the red mist and darting shapes imprinted on her retina away as best she could she scrabbled forward, hands out to guide her and stopped when she hit the solid wall in her way. She pulled herself shakily to her feet, pressed tight to its surface for safety. Gradually, her sight grew better. The light was blocked out mostly here in the shadow of the strut. She re-orientated herself and looked up, searching for a way off the platform.

Her way was blocked by the thick, imposing central pillar that soared high over her head until she lost it in the darkness above. Four or five feet above her, the steel ladder attached to the pillar began. But the only way to get to it was to release the locking system that would lower it those last few feet. And that was firmly padlocked against her.

She could go no further; in no direction but down.

Lois huddled up against the pillar, glancing back down the slope to the bridge below. But no one was pursuing her. A crowd had begun to gather, but they were small and insignificant beneath her, no threat.

"We're so high up, those people down there look like ants!" "Those are ants. We haven't taken off yet!"

She giggled out loud at the old joke. Somehow, all at once, it seemed to be the most hilarious she'd ever heard.

Her laughter sounded flat and listless, echoing in the air and sucked from her lips by the wind that tried to snatch her breath with it.

A yellow and orange figure gesticulated wildly as it appeared to argue furiously with another. The other seemed to be wearing a coat with odd colored sleeves. The red one hung limply against his side as he gestured with the black. Lois frowned, her laughter shutting off abruptly. Now, what kind of stupid coat did that make? These fashion designers got more loopy by the day.

She slipped down the cold support of the pillar at her back and let herself fall to her knees.

Someone broke away from the crowd and ran towards the construction gang.

Losing interest abruptly, Lois turned her head away and fixed her eyes on the soothing ruffles of the water, far below.

~~ And at the closing of the day

~~ She loosed the chain and down she lay;

~~ The broad stream bore her…far away…

The words echoed softly in her head, dredged up from who knew where and drowsy with import.

~~ Far away…

Sounded so…good.

~~ Down she lay…

Yes…good idea. She was tired. And her head hurt.

She huddled up against the pillar and, pulling her knees up close against her chest, wrapped her arms around her against the chill. She laid her head to her arms and closed her eyes.

After a moment, she began to rock steadily and slowly, keening softly under her breath.

~~ Chanted loudly, chanted lowly

~~ Till her blood…was frozen…slowly

~~ And…and…her eyes were…were darken'd wholly

She sighed, a quiet, low sound that was taken by the rough surge and billow of the air around her and whipped away in the storm.

She was in the eye of the storm.

~~ The curse is come upon me…

The curse was on her.

But there was safety here.

For now.

Yes. For now.

***

The elevator pinged softly and the doors slid back, disgorging its two passengers out into the dimly lit and mostly empty Daily Planet city room.

"Come on - no *way*!" Clark said firmly as he loped down the ramp to the bullpen with Jimmy tagging at his heels. "Gordiano's got a busted knee that'll keep him on the sidelines till next year! There's no way they're gonna win the championship this season!"

"I'm tellin' you, C.K.," Jimmy insisted doggedly. "It's a done deal. My man's gonna be back on his feet, slam dunking the opposition, by the end of the month!"

Clark shook his head, pausing by his desk and turning on his friend with a condescending look of pity. "You know," he said, putting a commiserating hand to the younger man's shoulder, "the only thing you have to admire more in this world than a genuine hero is a guy clinging to false optimism in the face of disaster."

Jimmy gave him a wounded look for this slur and opened his mouth on a rebuttal. But he paused. Clark's attention had shifted as his head lifted to look around the room and the mocking grin on his face was wiped suddenly clear. Jimmy followed his gaze.

There was no sign of Lois.

Her desk showed no recent signs of habitation - not even one of her ever present half drained coffee mugs.

"Maybe she's in back, pulling some files for her story," Jimmy suggested.

Clark reached out and put a hand on the computer monitor. "Cold," he said. A faint cast of concern crept its way onto his face. He frowned.

A jangle of keys and cheerful whistling turned them both around.

"Hey, Eddie," Clark greeted the night security guard as he emerged from the stairwell on his rounds.

"Mr. Kent. Jimmy." Eddie paused to lean on the rail. "You looking for Miss Lane?" he asked, seeing them grouped around her desk.

"Yes." Clark brightened. "You know where she is?"

"Thought I saw her heading into the morgue when I came up," Eddie said. "That was, maybe, ten minutes ago?" He raised his head to look around the empty bullpen. "Anyone else in, up here?"

"Mr. White's in back," Clark said absently, his expression distant as he stood with hands fisted into his pockets, looking thoughtful.

"How'd you know that?" Jimmy said, giving him a curious look.

"Uh…" Clark straightened. "Well…the light's on in his office," he said lamely. "And I saw him heading back into the copy room when we came out of the elevator."

"Oh." Jimmy said, losing interest. "I didn't." He turned to Eddie with a grin. "Still on for the Metropolis-New Troy game, Thursday?"

"Sure thing."

Jimmy slid a sly look to his right. "C.K. thinks the game's a done deal. Centurions to win. He's a New Troy man." Jimmy added this confidence as though it was something just a little short of criminal. Or insanity. It wasn't entirely clear which.

Eddie snorted his opinion of that and Clark held up a hand before he could pile into the fray.

"Whoa! Time out! I know when I'm outnumbered," he said congenially. He fielded the smug grins of his opponents and glanced at his desk. "Look, Jimmy, call this up and LAN it down to Brenda, will you?" he said, fishing the story disk he'd completed at the precinct out of his pocket and handing it over. "I'm going to find Lois."

"Sure. I'll get right on it." Jimmy looked at the disk and then raised his head to watch Clark head for the stairs. "Uh…C.K.? You'll remember what that doctor said? About it being bad for Lois to get…upset?"

Or riled, he thought privately.

Clark seemed to hear the unspoken thought too. "I'll remember," he said, stone-faced. He stopped in the stairwell and turned back. "Um…I might be gone a while. You don't need to hang around waiting. I'll be in the morgue," he informed Eddie, grimly, seemingly for no good reason. "With Lois," he added.

"Right," Jimmy agreed. He watched Clark disappear and then shared a wry grimace with the security guard.

"In other words," Eddie said sagely, "if I hear a ruckus, it's not World War III or a riot erupting, so I can ignore it." He grinned at Jimmy and ambled over to the elevator to continue his rounds.

Jimmy chuckled. "I'll ignore it too," he said, fully confident that Lois' yelling would probably reach all the way to the penthouse level, never mind up here in the city room.

He slipped into Clark's chair and switched on the computer before pushing the disk home. Once the file lit on the screen, he scanned the story, ran a spell- check and pushed send, dispatching it on its way to the duty editor, as promised.

"Great Balls of Fire! Jimmy! I didn't figure giving you that sidebar would go to your head this quick! You've got a ways to go 'fore you can take over a reporter like Kent's desk and a half column on page three isn't gonna get you there!"

Jimmy started. He hadn't heard Perry approach.

"Chief! Ah…no." He got to his feet, waving a hand at the computer. "C.K. asked me to send down his take. I was just - " He pushed hastily at the vacated chair, neatly arranging it under the desk and carefully straightening Clark's mouse-pad as he spoke. "Uh, I should fix up - "

He leant over to close down the editing program and switch off the computer. As he did so, his elbow knocked against the pile of computer printouts that were haphazardly stacked on the side of Clark's desk. They pitched and, in an inevitable cascade, streamed their way, section by section, onto the floor, before he could move fast enough to stop them.

"Ah, shoot!" Jimmy exclaimed, heartfelt.

He crouched to begin scooping up the mess of paper. A slip of paper floated free from where it had come to rest precariously on the edge of the desk and began to drift to the floor. He made a mid-air grab for it before it landed and glanced at it idly. Noting Clark's name in Lois' bold, incisive script, he made to put it back on the desk unread. Then one word leapt at him out of the scrawl and he paused.

"Something wrong?" he heard Perry ask as he scanned the sheet of paper quickly and rose slowly to his feet.

"Yeah," Jimmy said distantly. "I think Lois is in trouble."

He held out the sheet for the editor to take a look.

"I think she's in a *lot* of trouble, Chief."

***

The morgue was its usual haunted lair of shadows and half formed pools of light. Like many repositories for musty records and ancient files, it held an air of dust and mold that even the strongest overhead lighting couldn't quite dispel. Along one wall, a row of simple tables were ranged, where files and documents and old copy could be read and the rest of the space was taken up with rolling stacks, painted on their ends with faded codes that mapped the information stored there into manageable chunks.

Clark stood for a moment in the gloom, listening and then set off to the end of one of the stacks as his ears caught the telltale mouse rustle of paper.

His steps faltered as he came near, what had been the quick and purposeful stride of a body tense with the anticipation of a battle of wills slowing and relaxing as he realized that the sounds he was hearing were a little off. The breathing wasn't right. This wasn't - "

"Cynthia," he said, blowing out the name in a disappointed breath as he turned the corner.

The young woman standing halfway up the box steps as she searched through the top shelf let out a high gasp and jerked around, pulling the heavy copybook she was holding protectively against her chest and almost overbalancing with the quick motion.

Clark reached out hastily and caught her by the elbow before she stepped back and into disaster. "Sorry," he said contritely, steadying her until she recovered balance - and poise.

"Oh, I - you startled me." Cynthia shoved the book back into its niche hastily and ran a hand through her disordered hair. "I wasn't expecting anyone else to be down here."

"I didn't think. I was looking for Lois." Clark looked around him. "Have you seen her?"

"Down here?" Cynthia frowned and shook her head. "No." She smiled nervously. "But then I missed you."

Clark smiled a little. "You'd hear Lois," he promised. He glanced over his shoulder. "Eddie said he saw her - " He stopped and looked back at Cynthia, comprehension dawning. She was slim and petite, with brunette hair cut short. He sighed.

"Clark?"

"Looks like Eddie made a mistake. Sorry I disturbed you. You ready to leave?" he added solicitously. "I can carry some of those for you." He nodded at the books.

Cynthia giggled. Clark raised a brow. "Sorry," she said. "It's just that I outgrew boys carrying my books a time back. But thanks," she added with a grin as he looked abashed, putting a quick hand to his sleeve before retreating. She looked back at the shelves. "I'm here for a while, I guess. Volume 328's gone AWOL again."

Clark nodded. "Okay, then. I'll see you later. 'night."

"Night, Clark."

Clark closed the morgue door softly behind him and headed for the elevator. He failed to hear the duty guard greet him as he passed the reception desk, wrapped as he was in a study of preoccupied concern. If she wasn't here…where was she?

The first thing he saw when he emerged from the elevator was Perry and Jimmy and the first thing he noted was the almost palatable tension that hung in the air between them.

"Chief?" he said, stopping at the top of the stairs, already sensing that something was wrong. He hoped that Jimmy hadn't gotten maudlin again, giving Perry an update on the situation with Lois. Nor that Perry had taken a stance that had suggested Jimmy was at fault in letting her get the drop on him.

Clark had tried to assure him on the way back from City Green…on the sidewalk, in the cab, in the lobby downstairs…that he wasn't to blame, but it had only been when he'd deliberately insulted Jimmy's basketball team heroes' chances in the upcoming Metropolis-New Troy play-offs that he had managed to get him off the subject and out of wallowing in his imagined failures. He didn't feel up to the task of starting from scratch on that one now.

"C.K…"

"Eddie mistook Cynthia for Lois," he started slowly, trying to weigh up the situation, get a handle on it as he spoke. "She wasn't down there - what's going on?" he changed tack with a glance between them, seeing something he didn't like in Perry's eyes and in the look his friends exchanged: quick and furtive, tense as though they'd been caught in something they didn't want to own up to.

Perry held out a sheet of paper to him. "I think you need to take a look at this," he said quietly.

Clark came slowly down the stairs and took the offered note, eyes full of questions that he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to ask. Or to hear the answers to. The look in Perry's eyes was beginning to conjure a flicker of unease in his chest. He gave the note a perfunctory glance and then granted it his full attention as its import caught at him. As he read, he grew still.

Clark!

C21 is in Karvin's mineral water. Blessed Spring? Gone back home - $9.89 might just have been the best bargain after all! If I can beat the trash pickup, see you at Star Labs! Klein should be able to analyze the dregs.

Me.

"$9.89 a bottle," Clark murmured.

"C.K…" Jimmy blurted, "there was a bottle of that water in the bedroom. When I found Lois. It was there on the floor. It was…half empty."

"Clark, did Lois drink any of that water?"

Perry's strained voice clamored for attention among a host of others that were buzzing suddenly in his ears, merging into the rain of jumbled images and half remembered voices that whispered and jibed at him. Things only half-heard and barely recalled, which had been filed away in his mind, now came together, coalescing like a flashflood behind his eyes and drowning out the rest of the world.

/God's water…that's best…/

In his mind's eye, he saw himself put down the bottle of Evian water and pick up the second bottle, its black and gilt cross etched clear in his memory.

"The rally," he said, half to himself. And then, looking up at them quickly, he reiterated, "Yes, she drank some of it. She drank it at Karvin's rally. We joked about it."

"So…you're saying Lois *is* infected with this…C21?"

"But that's okay, right?" Jimmy broke in hurriedly and, flushing as they glanced at him sharply, "I read your story. So it's okay. You said any women who'd met Addley personally in the past seven days should go visit their doctor for a medical check as a precaution. But Addley's the only one who could make the C21 live, right?"

Hope began to brighten in Clark's eyes. "Yes. Without Addley, it's dormant. It'll dissipate naturally in the blood without any discernible harmful effects over a 48 hour period."

"So, even if Lois did take the water, it won't hurt her any."

"But Lois *did* meet Addley," Perry said cautiously. "At the interview with Karvin."

"C.K. was there too," Jimmy countered. "C.K. wouldn't let him hurt Lois," he added, confidently.

"No," Clark shook his head in agreement. No, he wouldn't have. "Lois was never alone with Addley," he said steadily, as though the words were a charm against disaster. Something was prickling at him, distantly, on the edges of memory, but he ignored it doggedly. "I was with her when she met him at the interview. He never so much as shook her - "

/That's where I've seen him! Yesterday, when you didn't turn up at the cafe. I was heading back to the Planet and I bumped into him… Actually…it was more a case of him bumping into me…/

The echo of Lois' words burst full-blown into his mind and, quickly on their heels, came another startling image.

Lois…scrubbing at her palm with the tissue as she stood by her desk.

/What is that anyway? Ink? Paint?/

His own voice taunted him.

"The 20th…" he said dully.

The 20th.

The day he'd flown back from Boston.

The day he'd stood Lois up on their lunch date.

The day she'd encountered Addley on her way back to the Planet.

"Clark?"

"He tagged her then. On the 20th. Before I…we…even knew he was there." Clark looked at them, dismay and dawning horror on his face. "He poisoned her. Addley poisoned Lois. She's out there somewhere and that…that stuff is inside her!"

***

"And there's no trace of her?" Perry demanded, pacing another length of his office and eyeing his companions angrily.

Jimmy looked back at him guiltily from his position, slumped in one of the chairs. He'd begun taking Lois' disappearance personally back when Clark had confirmed she was in trouble and hours of fruitless searching hadn't eased his conscience any.

"Dammit! We're supposed to be investigators here! We can't find one woman in the whole dang-blasted town? How big is this city anyway?"

"Pretty big, Chief," Clark told him wearily from where he was leaning up heavily against the office door, hands jammed deep into his pockets.

Superman had flown over most of it. Although not yet all. He'd gotten through barely a third of his quarter by quarter search of the city when he'd heard the radio report of a train derailment in Chicago coming from a nearby apartment building. The report of dead and dying, people lost in the murky waters of the river into which three of the carriages had plunged, had brought him up short in mid-air, torn in two. Lois needed him, every second counted. Right then she could be…the possibilities terrified him. Let the emergency services deal with it had been his first thought. Just this once, let them deal with it. Let him care for his own loved ones.

He had almost convinced himself. But then, ten minutes later, had come the update. Of a young mother and her two children, still lost out there in the dark, in the freezing river, unable to be found, time ticking away from them. Someone else's wife. Someone else's children. Someone else. The children. He had told himself that he could fly to Chicago in a matter of seconds. Search the river around the train wreck in moments. He could save those lives with barely a pause in his search for Lois. But every second counted. Right now, Lois could be hurt…could already be…she needed him! Time was ticking away >from her too. He couldn't abandon her now. Not to save a million lives, he told himself grimly.

He had flown to Chicago.

It had taken him almost two hours to be able to leave, once he did. The woman and her children had been found almost immediately, once he arrived on the scene - cold and dazed, but alive and, mercifully, looking to make a full recovery. But there had been others crying out in the darkness, in pain and fear, others who needed help, emergency personnel who begged for his strength in lifting and tearing mangled metal and dragging out survivors who wouldn't last the hours it would take to cut them free with conventional equipment…he couldn't leave them. He couldn't let them die.

Finally, he had managed to tear himself away. He had chased the sun to China, over-flying the vast, Asian continent and coming back into Metropolis from the east. But the brief sojourn in the sun's warm and usually invigorating rays hadn't seemed to do much to lift the tiredness that ate into him, bone-deep.

He was tired enough that continuing his search without rest made no sense, he'd realized. Tired enough to make mistakes, miss what he was looking for as easily as he might find it. He'd decided to head straight for the Planet. Perhaps Lois had turned up safely by now. And if not, he'd rest up a few moments and then set out again.

Only…she hadn't been at the Planet. And now he was finding himself trapped here, with Perry mother-henning him and insisting he rest up. He was restless to continue and beginning to wonder how he could sneak out when Perry was distracted and without Jimmy noticing.

"That was a rhetorical question, Kent!" Perry snapped.

Clark blinked. Wrapped up in his thoughts, he'd forgotten what the question was, rhetorical or not. He sighed. "Chief, I should get back out there - "

"You stay put." Perry gave him a quick glance from under lowered brows. "I've got one reporter AWOL as it is, I'm not losing another. Look at you, you can barely stand upright."

He caught hold of Clark's arm and steered him firmly into the office, ignoring his weak protests. "Now, what kind of an employer would I be, letting you go running around when you're liable to fall flat on your face before you got to the end of the block." His tone softened, cajoling. "You've worn yourself out on it. Time you got some rest."

"But - "

"I'm not losing you both," Perry reiterated firmly. "Leave it to Superman, son. He can go searching for Lois all night, he wants. You know he don't get tired like us normal folks."

"Yeah, that's right, C.K.," Jimmy chimed in, hopefully. "With Superman out looking for her… He's bound to find her soon. She'll be okay."

Clark gave them both a helpless look. It wasn't exactly an encouragement, but he could hardly say so. He scrubbed a hand through his hair. "But - "

"Now, I mean it. You can lay down a spell on the sofa here. I promise I'll wake you soon as we hear anything."

"Perry - " Clark tried one last time.

"Sit!"

The barked command was delivered so fiercely, in what Jimmy was apt to call Perry's 'god voice', that Clark found himself sinking into the sofa in obedient response before he even realized he was doing it.

Once there, the fatigue he'd been holding desperately at bay seemed to leap on him like a ravening beast. Quite suddenly, with that one, small moment of surrender to it, he couldn't shake it off, couldn't have stood up again if his life depended on it.

He sank back against the sofa, laying his head against the tartan backrest and closing his eyes.

Course it was Lois' life that was on the line here, he reminded himself grimly.

"I should have remembered…" he muttered. "I should have remembered that bottle of Blessed Spring. If I had — "

If he'd put it together, back when Herrera had told him about the C21 being in the mineral water in Karen's apartment - water she'd gotten from GAP - then maybe he would have realized what was wrong with Lois, back when they'd found her at the brownstone. He'd *known* there was something. Why hadn't he put it together?

A small voice suggested that he was only as human as the next man, super-hero or not. He made mistakes. He shouldn't be so hard on -

He shook it off, irritably, not prepared to give himself an out.

Those symptoms Patterson had listed.

Increased irritability. Mood swings…

Symptoms of…post concussion syndrome.

Anger.

Rage.

And fear.

Irrational, heart-twisting fear. The kind of fear that had you screaming in the middle of the night. And made you afraid of things you'd never feared before…

Symptoms of concussion, yes. But symptoms *also* of C21 poisoning.

He should have seen it. My God, it was so close to what they were working on, the story, what he'd seen already in Mary Ann Moakes, those other victims…why hadn't he seen it right away?! Why hadn't he *known*?

Why hadn't he played join the dots as a kid, he thought, irrationally. And why wasn't real life like TV? With the clues and signposts presented in orderly fashion? And where the hero made the logical, instantaneous connections between them, just in time to find the heroine and save her from being —

Lois…

If she was hurt…somewhere…needing him…

/…just stay away! You hear me! Stay — !/

The shrill words exploded in his head as though in answer. They were followed by a sharp cry of pain.

Not from his wife, though the shrieking words had definitely been hers, but deeper, more masculine and guttural, and followed by a savage bout of cursing.

He jerked to his feet.

"Where you going?" Perry asked him sharply.

"Going? Uh," Clark jerked to a halt midway through his dash for the office door, turning on him with wide, startled eyes. "I think I'll go see if I can't take another look around — "

Perry's phone rang shrilly. Jimmy grabbed for it in the same instant the editor did, but Perry had seniority, snatching it practically from under Jimmy's reaching fingers.

"Yeah?" he barked into the receiver. He glanced up at Clark, who froze in the furtive act of backing out of the door. "Yeah, he's here. Hold it," he told the reporter. "Maybe this is news."

Clark gave him a frustrated look, as the editor turned back to the phone. Now that Lois had orientated him, he was almost able to focus on the right direction for those sounds. He could still hear the faintly wailing sirens, the rapid chatter of radio talk between the emergency services as they assessed the situation. He frowned. Herrera was there? He shifted impatiently as Perry spoke quickly into the receiver.

"What? When? No, okay, we'll be right there!"

Perry slammed down the receiver and looked at them, grimly.

"That was Herrera," he said. "They've found her."

***

The yellow and black checkered cab screeched to a halt inches shy of the dense crowd gathered at the head of the Hobbs Bay Bridge. Even before it had fully come to a jerking stop, the back door was thrown open and the tall, well- dressed man in the neat GQ suit and wildly flamboyant tie stepped out onto the walkway.

By the time his companions paid and followed, Clark had already woven his way deftly through the crowd and ducked under the line of yellow police tape before any of the cordon of guarding cops noticed him. He heard someone yell after him, but he didn't slow down as he ran across the wide, concrete roadway, which had been cleared of vehicles.

Behind him, Perry and Jimmy weren't so lucky, accosted by a uniformed cop before they could follow.

Clark arrowed his way towards a familiar, bulky figure standing close to the giant strut that held the bridge aloft. The detective was yelling furiously into the radio he held.

"I don't care! You hear me! You tell that son of a…you tell him to *ground* that thing! Now! Or I'll have him on a charge of reckless endangerment before his feet can touch the ground. You listening to - "

Clark turned his head, hearing the splutter of answer and the whir of blades to his right: the source of Herrera's annoyance. A trim, orange-banded helicopter hovered in the night sky, marked with the call sign of a local TV station. Clark sucked in a breath as he caught first sight of the figure - small and lonely - huddled on the strut platform, cowering in the blast of air >from those whirling blades, so close to the bridge. Too close. A powerful night light slung low under the 'copter's belly had been trained on the bridge, blinding her, and a video link cameraman hung precariously over the chopper's side as he tried to get the optimum shot on the woman screaming in fear and panic on the bridge.

A tight cast of anger flashed onto Clark's face. He blew out a hard, sharp breath, across the bridge wall.

The helicopter jerked and spun wildly for a second or two, caught in a battering tailwind. The cameraman prudently ducked back inside as it careened sideways, out of control, its pilot fighting the controls. Finally, it righted, and almost immediately banked around and headed back for the faint lights of its helipad among the skyscrapers on the other side of the river.

Clark, narrowing his hearing on the retreating machine, heard the reporting crew bitterly protesting the curtailment of their flight and the pilot stoutly maintaining he wasn't risking his chopper to a rogue malfunction he couldn't even begin to understand, let alone compensate for.

Clark took another look skyward. He cursed himself for ever having broken off his search to return to the Planet. How had he missed this? Well, that one was easy. He'd flown into the city from the east, clear on the opposite side of town. But if he'd just kept searching…if he hadn't let his tiredness get the better of him, if he hadn't let himself get distracted with the thought that Lois might already be safe and at the paper, he might have…he *would* have been able to save her as Superman. Now? Now he was caught, unable to find any excuse that would have gotten him away from Perry and Jimmy en route to the bridge and enabled him to bring Superman into play. What excuse could there have been? With his wife in trouble? Where else at that moment would have been more important for him to be than in that cab en route to here?

Helplessly, he shook his head. Okay, Superman wasn't here, there was no use wasting time on regretting that now. But he was. And he was all that Lois had.

He strode purposefully for the wall of the bridge.

And found Herrera in his way.

"Here." The detective handed him the bullhorn he was carrying. "Try talking to her, see if you can persuade her to come back down."

Clark shook his head and put a hand to Herrera's sleeve, pushing him firmly out of his path. Herrera's eyes widened slightly as he realized Clark's intentions.

"Kent…"

"If I talk to my wife - and I *am* going to talk to my wife - it's going to be from up there!" Clark stabbed out a finger in the direction of the floodlit bridge. "Not through some…"

He pushed the bullhorn hard against the detective's chest - though not as hard as he might have done - shaking his head as he continued for the wall. It was plenty hard enough for Herrera as he caught the bullhorn awkwardly against him. He sighed as he took after the reporter.

"Wait!"

Clark didn't stop.

Herrera swore softly as he tried to match his rapid lope for the parapet. "Aw, hell! Look, Kent, don't take me there. I can't take the heat for this if it goes pear-shaped on you. I'm Homicide, I'm not in charge of this. Commander Jamieson let me in because he thought I might be able to talk her down. It's not my call. Look, they've got experts — "

"Experts don't know Lois." Clark looked back to the bridge. "She'll listen to me."

Herrera reached out and took hold of his arm. "Kent, I can't let you do this."

"I don't *recall* asking anyone's permission," Clark told him, pausing only briefly and then hitching himself free of Herrera's grip with a tug of his arm.

Herrera grabbed for him again.

Clark stopped cold in his tracks. He turned his head and the detective swallowed hard at what impaled him from out of the reporter's dark eyes.

"Let *go*, Dutch," Clark said softly.

Herrera hesitated, then obeyed with a small sigh. "Okay, okay," he threw up his hands. "Fine! Get yourself killed! Get both of you killed! See if I care!"

Clark stared him out steadily. "Get ready for us coming down," he said and then he stalked away, out of the pool of harsh, white light that was thrown by the surrounding arc lights that the Emergency Response Unit had set up to highlight the area, and into the shadows swarming at the base of the parapet.

***

Herrera watched him go and then looked up briefly at the bridge. Looking into Clark's eyes he'd seen fear, but it hadn't tipped over into panic. Not yet. And it was mixed in with determination and a coolness under fire that he knew marked the man. He'd known Kent a long time, had a lot of dealings with him - and his partner. He knew he wasn't one to panic when a cool head was needed. Herrera couldn't recall the last time he'd really seen him lose it to fear.

He held in a small, uneasy breath as he followed Clark's steady progress up the slope of the support strut with anxious eyes.

"Herrera! What the blue-banded hell you think you're doing?"

He turned his head mildly as the ERU Commander approached him at a run.

"Are you crazy?" Jamieson stared at him. He turned back and waved a hand at a couple of his men, urging them onwards. "Get that idiot down from there!" he snapped at them. "Now!"

Herrera grabbed at his jacket and Jamieson turned back in surprise.

"Call them off."

"What? Listen, you - "

"That *idiot* is her husband. Now, call them off."

"I'm not having a civilian get in the way of this! There's procedure in - "

"Call. Them. Off." Herrera yanked Jamieson forward with a jerk, bringing the startled commander nose to nose with him.

"I'm your superior," Jamieson bleated, unconvincingly. "I'm not having you tell me what to - "

"Get over it," Herrera hissed. "And do it. Now. Or I'm gonna have to call Sandra and tell her about that little blond floozie of an admin. clerk who's been helping you out on the firing range."

Jamieson stared at him. "You wouldn't - "

Herrera said nothing. His fingers were beginning to ache from taking the weight of the commander, but he didn't show it.

Jamieson swallowed. "Okay. Okay, okay! Geez, you only had to ask," he added, recovering bluster, as Herrera dropped him to his feet with a jolt. Jamieson stared at him for a second and then yanked his Kevlar jacket back into place with sharp hands. He turned away.

"Okay, men, back up!" he yelled, waving an arm in a circular motion and gathering his troops. En masse, like a well ordered, well drilled armadillo, they retreated to the line of medical vehicles and personnel beyond the police line.

Herrera hawked in his throat, as though clearing something distasteful from it. "Vallance!"

"Sir?"

"Get those emergency services up here. Close as you can. I want as much backup as possible, ready to go, if he gets it wrong."

"Sure thing, sir." Vallance also looked to the bridge. "You think she'll listen to him? She didn't seem none too keen on letting the ERU get close."

The young cop glanced to where a Kevlar-suited figure sat on the edge of a nearby ambulance, having his broken arm attended to. The last man who'd gone up that bridge and tried to persuade the woman to come down.

Herrera shook his head. "Let's hope so. If either of them goes into that river…the cold and that slipstream are going to stack the odds against them getting out alive. That's if they survive the fall at all." He turned his head. "Now go on, get those medics up here."

Left alone in the pool of white light, he watched Clark's careful ascension with shuttered eyes.

"Take it easy, Clark," he murmured. "Take it real easy and slow…"

***

Behind him, as he hitched himself carefully onto the balustrade of the bridge, the crowd fell eerily silent, sensing that something was about to break the deadlock that had kept them eagerly milling around the police barrier for over an hour. For Clark, they might as well not have existed at all, as he gripped the steel suspension wires. He was unaware of the power struggle behind him, of the men running for him with the intent to pull him back down, or of Herrera's intervention on his behalf. All he knew was up there…was Lois.

His mind swept through the options that were available to him, trying to second-guess what might happen in the next few moments, trying to circumvent all possible avenues for disaster in advance. Lois' life might depend on him calculating all the odds, working out all the parameters, anticipating her responses, before he reached her.

There were too many variables. He couldn't calculate them all. One thing alone was clear. If it came down to a choice between saving Lois and revealing his powers to the crowd watching below then the world was just going to find out about him sooner than history had planned. Ever since H.G. Wells had confided that his descendants would found the Utopia of the future, he had known that one day, he and Lois' part in those foundations would be no secret any more. But he had always supposed - perhaps more wistfully than logically - that the world would be given that knowledge in retrospect, long after they were gone and dust and when revealing that secret could make no more difference to their lives. If he'd been wrong…he was about to find out.

Rescuing Lois - as Clark or Superman - was paramount. It had always been paramount. All that mattered. And whatever else was about to happen on this bridge could fall out as it willed. He'd live with the consequences later.

He'd reached the top of the strut.

Up here, on the heights, it was bright as full day. The huge beads of industrial lighting which strung their way across the metal risers and supports like festive lanterns, designed to be seen at distance and by the drivers of vehicles far below, up close blazed like glowing suns.

For a moment, as he topped the rise of the slope, as that stark, unforgiving light flared into incandescence from out of the dark, like a halo on the horizon, lancing into unprotected and unprepared eyes, he was blinded. He froze. Suddenly, without the visual stimuli to anchor him, it seemed as though there was nothing surrounding him but the buffeting wind, as though he were poised on the brink of an abyss with nothing before him or behind him or around him but air. It was a disorienting sensation.

Clark blinked rapidly and narrowed his eyes, his vision adjusting automatically and more quickly than any human's could to the change in light density. He hoped that Lois' eyes had adjusted too, since she'd been up here longer. The sensory deprivation and topsy-turvy world that that glare produced would otherwise hinder any attempts he might make to get her down to safety.

Even with the adjustment, the light bounced glitters and refractive splinters on the lenses of his glasses. He held a hand up before his face, shielding out the worst of it, afraid to move, afraid almost to breathe, not knowing where she was in the white cocoon that surrounded him, not daring to hazard a guess for fear it was the wrong one.

He took a small step forward, edging his way by touch on the wires alone. And then another. The heel of his shoe grazed what was a sharp edge and he pulled back a little. And then he was in the sheltering lea of the huge steel pillar that rose up before him and the light cut out as though a flashlight had been swung away from shining directly on him. It was still bright, but it was bearable.

He looked around the small, pitted platform. It was empty.

What the - ?

His heart rolled over in his chest, his breath clenching hard in his throat as panic began to hammer a wild and brutal tattoo against his temples.

And then a soft, furtive motion caught his attention. To his right, the platform turned the corner around the square edges of the support strut to form a right angle. Lois was huddled there, on her knees, crouched up against the blind side of the strut.

Perhaps she had heard his approach, although he thought it unlikely. The high wail of the wind, so much stronger up here than it had been below on the bridge, seemed to pull all sound to it, drowning and smothering it beneath its endless dirge. Perhaps she'd merely sensed him.

Maybe that stupid helicopter had frightened her so badly she'd been trying to get away from it. Anger darkened on his face again at the thought. If they'd spooked her into falling with their dumb stunts, he'd have… His fists clenched hard against his sides and he forced himself to ease his breathing, maintain his calm.

Maybe she had simply retreated, seeking better shelter. That last gave him more hope than the others. If she was beginning to regain her senses enough that the cold was bothering her, perhaps there was reason to think he might be able to reach her, persuade her to come with him.

And it was a little darker on the leeward side, with the bulk of the pillar acting as a shield, more shadowed. So the lights were bothering her too, he thought, worriedly. Under their glare, how difficult would she find it, without the benefit of super-vision, to judge distance and safety? Something he should guard against, plan for.

Clark glanced over the side to his right and down onto the bridge. The huge arc-lights set up by the ERU, standard procedure, wouldn't be trained on them. There were only there to be ready for the worst. To sweep the river, searching for survivors, should they fall. No one would be dumb enough to put them on the platform and risk spooking an already dangerously unbalanced and emotionally unpredictable woman.

Dangerously unbalanced…

The words echoed in his head and he pushed them back, savagely.

That wasn't his wife.

That *wasn't* Lois.

Don't get distracted by irrelevancies, Kent, he told himself grimly. Concentrate. Stay calm.

Harder to say than to do. But he had to. He *had* to. If they were going to get out of this one safely.

This one.

He was so sick of there always being one more threat, one more danger…one more risk to the woman he loved.

Sickness rose up in his throat like bile as he thought of the times he had almost lost her, had been convinced that she was gone. Times when he knew that his life had gone dark and cold and that he would never see her again. Times when he had been convinced that she was dead or been made to think so. When the odds seemed stacked against them and fate's hammer trained on them, a hairsbreadth away from tragedy.

So many times… When they had taken her from him as he stood helplessly in Spencer's cell, her life ticking away, counted in seconds, as the poison coursed through her veins. When he had sat desolate beside the stark, forensic evidence that marked the spot where she'd died as though visiting a grave, hardly daring to believe that the simple trappings of death, that he had seen so many times before, could have anything to do with her. Or him. When he had come around their bed and seen her lying there, chalk-white and limp in his arms when he held her and no sign of life in her.

Even back as far as the first week he'd met her. The fear and dismay he'd felt, turning to see her bleeding from the shallow scalp wound, the sudden realization that she had been there. There! Right in the middle of that explosion that Luthor had rigged to test him.

Even back then he had feared he would lose her. One day.

And yet - there she had been, in the end. Standing in the enclosed cage in the Lakes demeaning and infernal museum; in his arms as he landed on the roof of the building having scooped her from underneath the falling masonry; lost and alone in the city with Luthor's clone hunting her down like prey…in the end she had always been there. Just when the dead, cold grief and the pain were becoming unbearable, she was there. And everything was okay. Everything fled, like smoke drifting on the breeze. Like it had never been.

They always made it through.

But this time…this time he knew there would be no second chances. He had to get it right. There was still hope that he could come out of this with both Lois and his secret intact and safe. *If* he got it right, if he could make a connection, reach her from where she had retreated to. If not, then the only option left would be bringing her down bodily, against her will, probably kicking and screaming all the way…or she would leap, crazed with fear and rage, she would leap…and then all bets were off.

He knew that the odds were against him persuading her. Or reaching her at all. >From what he knew from talking to Mary Ann Moakes, the urge to jump would be beating at her now, the irresistible pull to self-destruction racing through her veins like wildfire, growing stronger, more vital, by the moment. That she hadn't already, that she had so far resisted that siren call in her head, was almost a miracle. She must be fighting so hard, among the confusion and pain.

If she lost the battle, if she jumped -

Guarding the secret of his identity was as much about protecting Lois as getting her down safely from this bridge was. Perhaps it wasn't as immediate or vital, but it still saved her life, in more ways than he could count.

He could live with the world knowing. Lois - and his parents - might not find it so easy. As Superman's folks, as his wife, they'd be in danger from every villain with a grudge or looking to stop him. The intrusion into their privacy would be impossible, their lives would be changed beyond anything they could imagine. Keeping his secret meant keeping them safe. And he'd protect both the ideal and the people he loved to his last breath if need be.

But, if it came down to it… If Lois' life depended on it… He *could* live with the world knowing. Not well - perhaps not as he'd always hoped for - but he could. He could lose Clark Kent to the world. And survive. Lois was indispensable to him. Without her, there was no living for him at all.

Carefully, making every motion small and cautious, Clark shifted his position until he could get a better view of her. He didn't want to crowd her, but the platform was small and there was hardly room for both of them on it. He kept to the very edge, leaning against the wire and wrapping an arm around it for the benefit of those watching down below, seeming to let it take his weight and enable him to keep slightly clear of his wife.

For a moment, he harbored the wild thought that he could use the shadows on this section of the platform to shield himself from prying eyes. He had no idea how hiding in the relative darkness could give him an edge, but it was better than being exposed out here, like an insect caught in a glass prism. Wasn't it? And maybe he could formulate a plan to use the advantage.

But *was* it an advantage? He glanced down the long drop to the bridge. The section of the platform that Lois had taken refuge on was directly above the crowd and parallel to the bridge below. And who knew who was watching them >from down there. How many eyes were fixed on them? And how clearly could they see? Clark felt the back of his neck itch with the thought. Photographers with zoom lens? The ERU would have night vision goggles and infra-red equipment. Were they trained on them now?

He dismissed the brief notion, knowing it was no help, and turned his attention back anxiously to his wife.

Her head was buried in the lee of the arms wrapped tight around her shivering body. She didn't raise her head, she hardly seemed aware of him at all.

"Lois…?"

She didn't respond.

She looked cold. The wind beat at the platform, tugging at her hair and her clothing. The suit she wore wasn't protection enough to keep her warm up here.

Clark felt his heart ache with longing to step forward and gather her into his arms, to hold her and tell her it was going to be okay, that he was there for her, that he wouldn't let anything or anyone hurt her. But he knew that he couldn't take the risk. Not right then. He needed to assess her state of mind, to understand what was driving her, what she was thinking - what she was afraid of.

Still moving slowly, he eased his way out of his jacket, keeping his eyes on her throughout.

"Lois?"

He tried to beat down the tide of frustration welling in his chest. He was making no impression on her at all.

"You look cold. Here. Put this on."

She shifted. Cowering further into the tight, rigid ball she'd made of her body, drawing back against the cold steel and away from him. It could simply have been an involuntary movement to keep warm. Other than that, she gave no indication that he was there or that she heard him.

Clark swallowed roughly. "Okay." He leaned forward a little, stretching out the hand holding the jacket and placing it carefully on the metal. "I'll put it here."

He straightened, giving her back the distance she'd set between them, invading it for only the briefest of moments.

Lois didn't move.

As Superman, Clark had talked down more suicide attempts than he could count. He knew the rehearsed lines to use, the rote of psychology, the tone of calm that was necessary. But this was different. This was someone he loved more than life itself. And he had no backup. This time he couldn't simply swoop down and pluck her out of air if she refused to listen to him and stepped off that platform, as he had with so many others before her. Or at least not without bringing their entire world crashing down around them. He *would*, if he had to, that decision had already been made. The lesser of two evils. But he'd rather find another solution if he could.

/You can't have your cake and eat it, boy…/

The disembodied memory echoed in his ears like an alarm bell. His throat felt raw, closed up tight. His voice sounded scratchy and taut in his ears as he forced it through the constriction blocking it. Aware that he was only going to have one chance at this.

"Lois…I want you to listen to me," he said warily. "Can you do that? Listen to me? Listen real close. Okay?"

Clark paused, trying to keep the strain out of his tone, keep it even. He didn't want her to hear the fear in it.

"I know that you're frightened…"

"Go away…"

The sobbed out plea was so soft, that without his sensitive hearing he would have missed it in among the howl of the wind nudging at him.

"Oh, honey…" he said helplessly. "I can't." He let himself settle into a crouch and then onto his knees on the platform's edge. Bringing himself down to her level, making himself smaller, less threatening.

"I can't, sweetheart," he said. "You shouldn't be here. I want to help you, Lois. Let me take you home. Please. You can - "

Warnings shrieked in his head and he knew he was slipping dangerously into getting too close, too fast, it was important to maintain his distance, at all levels, in his actions, his words, but the instinct to protect her, to hold her, to soothe her through the hurt, was impossible to hold back. Stilling that protective reflex, keeping his distance on her when she was hurting so badly was the hardest thing he'd ever done as he forced himself to remain where he was, to continue calmly.

"I know that you're scared. And I know…that you've got no reason to trust me. But…the thing is, Lois, you have to trust me. Do you understand? You have to let me help you. Can you do that? Trust me to help you? Lois? Let me - "

He had shifted as he spoke, an involuntary swaying forward of his body towards her as he was caught up in the earnest plea. Lois jerked up her head, catching that faint motion towards her and what Clark had intended to say fled, driven out by shock as he saw the blankness in the eyes that fixed on him. There was no trace of recognition there. Just a wary fear that he'd never thought he would ever see in her when she looked at him. She was terrified. Of him.

He told himself that it wasn't real. That it was a trick of the light or of the poison running in her veins. It wasn't his wife behind those terrorized eyes. It wasn't Lois. But pain flared in him like a physical blow. To see that fear in her eyes when she looked at him, where once there had been only love, to know that he was the cause of that terror…the knowledge twisted in his heart like a blade.

"Lois…" he whispered.

He stretched out a plaintive, pleading hand. Lois recoiled violently, jerking away from him and perilously close to the platform's edge in her panic. She scrabbled to her feet, whimpering, hands tearing at the pitted metal of the strut behind her, desperately searching for escape. Finding no way out, a low keen started deep in her chest, spilling from her lips like a dirge. She backed up further and Clark felt fear spear through him as there was suddenly nothing to keep her on the platform with him but the web of steel wires pressing into her back.

A chorus of collective, horrified cries reached them from the crowd below. Lois jerked her head around, looking down through the wires, and he could see how the crowd was spooking her, disorienting her, how uneasy their presence was making her.

"Lois, they don't matter," he said quickly.

She half-turned, clinging to the wires, watching him from out of dark, scared eyes. Clark's throat turned dry, his breath catching in his throat as he saw how heavily she was leaning onto their fragile support, how little balance she still had…if she slipped now, if her grip on those wires gave way…the gap was enough that she would fall between them in an instant with just the smallest of wrong moves.

"Don't listen to them. They don't matter," he said again. "It's just us, honey. You and me. No one else counts."

Something came into her eyes. "Together…" she whispered, as though she was tasting the words on her tongue as something strange and new. "Together…we're stronger…"

"Yes! Yes, sweetheart. We are." Clark felt hope well up in him and crushed it ruthlessly, aware it might be premature. And dangerous to rely on. He had to be careful. "We *are* stronger. You and me. Together, we're stronger than anything in the world."

Lois looked uncertain. She shifted against the supporting wires. Another murmur from the crowd caught her attention. She frowned down at them, biting at her lower lip.

"They want me to lose the trophy," she said.

Clark didn't understand the reference, but the meaning was clear. Down below, the crowd was the enemy. Part of what she feared.

"Honey, look at them," he said evenly. "They can't hurt you. They're too far away to count. Why don't you put on the jacket?" he urged, changing the subject, distracting her attention onto safer ground. If he could just get her to move away from the edge, back onto the relative safety of the platform again… "You must be cold."

She was cold. She shivered with his words, a reflexive response to the suggestion. He watched her eyes dart towards the jacket, lying in a pool of cloth at her feet, only inches away.

But to get it, she'd have to let go of the wires.

She trembled, eyes darting between jacket and him.

"I brought it up here for you, specially," he said. "I knew you'd be cold."

For a moment, he thought she was listening, thought that he'd reached her. And then she shook her head, turning to lay her head against the wires, her gaze distant and withdrawn and fixed on the waters below.

There was a longing, deep in her eyes as they studied the shifting drift of the river that scared Clark to the bone. It was a look that said there was peace down there, beneath the water. Peace and an end to the fear that was clawing at her.

"Lois…" he whispered helplessly and stopped as he saw her tense at his words, her shoulders hunching in against his voice.

"Lois…honey, please…don't do this. Lois, I need you. I need you to stay with me. Please…"

She whimpered quietly. Clark couldn't bear to watch her hang there, suspended in the web of wires, with nothing more than that to hold her there with him. Her body swayed precariously, on the very edge of balance, and his heart leapt into his throat. Yet he couldn't look away either. Silently, desperately, he urged her not to move, to stay still.

And there were other dangers too. The sudden rush to flight had brought her out >from the protection of the strut. She was caught in the crosswind that swirled around the platform, one heavy gust could take her over —

Even as he thought of it, Clark saw disaster take its inevitable course. A sudden bluster of wind sprang up from nowhere, ambushing them. It struck Lois hard as she clung to the wires, staggering her backwards, knocking her from her feet.

She screamed and Clark yelled out a helpless cry of denial as she went over the edge. Gray with terror, he sprang forward, but it was too late. He could only watch her long descent into the darkness…spinning and kicking and flailing, just like she had in so many of the nightmares that brought him jerking out of sleep, sweating and terrified, on so many nights. And he couldn't move. He couldn't…*move*! Shock glued him to the bridge, his body trembling, his mind shrieking at him to follow, to save her…but he couldn't…he couldn't…

…and her face was a white oval in the dark, eyes wide with terror, mouth stretched in a scream, her shrieks reaching him even up until the moment she hit the side of the bridge, striking the metal with a terrible, shuddering impact he felt resonate through his bones, even from so high above. And her screams cut off abruptly, leaving only silence as she fell…fell…until finally her limp body hit the water below and vanished beneath that liquid shroud. Clark clung to the wires, closing his eyes, his moans of grief and despair sounding a death knell in his ears.

Moaning…

He opened his eyes with a start.

Lois clung to the wires, trembling. The wind caught at her, but it wasn't enough to take her over. Quivering with reaction, trying to shake the frightening, terrible images that leapt and gibbered behind his eyes like phantoms and cursing an over-active imagination made terrible by fear and all too keen to show him the possible results of any error he might make, Clark moved, changing position, trying to anticipate from which angle it would next strike, sheltering her with the bulk of his body as he watched her.

His heart hammered up a storm against his ribs as he held up his hands, trying to reassure her. In his mind's eye, he could still see her spinning down into darkness, as though it was imprinted on his retina. He could still hear her screams tearing through his soul and ringing in his ears. Hear the horrifying thump of soft flesh and fragile bone striking hard against metal. Sickness welled in his throat and he swallowed repeatedly until he forced it back.

He couldn't back up any to give her more space, there was nowhere for him to go. But he adjusted his posture and stance as much as he could to give her the impression that he was backing off.

She seemed to realize she was on the brink. Her head turned, her eyes darting to the river below and then back to him. Torn in two as to which was the most threatening, which the greater danger. She was chalk white and her eyes were huge, dark caverns in the middle of a face stretched taut with tension and fear.

"Lois," Clark said desperately. "You're not scared of heights. You're not. And you're not afraid of me."

He put out the hand again.

She moaned softly, shaking her head. She clung tighter to the wires, screwing her eyes tight.

Clark waited, helplessly. He didn't know what else to do and he sensed, instinctively, that this was the moment of balance - in more ways than one. This moment would decide. And, all at once, as though he was suddenly in the eye of the storm, he felt his own fear subside and a calm detachment take hold of him.

"Lois, take hold of my hand," he said, quietly and firmly.

She opened her eyes. Turned her head. The fear hadn't calmed in her, it was still there, a small, cowering beast in the middle of her chest. But something in her - something deep rooted and calm - reached out to him, even so. She moved tentatively, loosing one hand from its death-grip on the harsh wires. Her fingers moved slowly to entwine themselves into his and he smiled, encouragingly, as he enclosed them firmly within his own.

He tugged gently, ready to let go again if she resisted. She winced and he could feel that her palm was damp. She let him pull her, inch by inch, from the safety of the wires and the edge and then she was in his arms as he swept her up close against him.

She was in his arms and everything was all right.

He crushed her to his chest, closing his eyes as he murmured against her cheek. "Lois…Lois…I was so scared. When you weren't at the hospital, when I couldn't find you…"

He gathered her closer still and then pulled back slightly. He glanced warily across his shoulder, over the edge of the steel parapet and down into the dark, choppy waters, far below.

He fixed his eyes back on his wife and put up his hands impulsively, cradling the cold, waxen pallor of her face in his palms. He smeared a touch of blood on her cheek as he did. He looked down quickly. Her hands. He turned them over, palms upward, and sucked in his breath as he saw the raw, leaking patches where the skin had been scraped off through clutching at the wires. He looked back up at her face. She must be in terrible pain, yet she didn't show it. He put up a trembling hand and grazed it across her cheek.

"It's okay, Lois," he said softly. "Just hold on tight to me, all right? We're gonna get you down from here."

He put an arm around her again, holding her securely against his side. He felt light-headed and dizzy with relief, knowing it was almost over, almost over and she was safe. She was *safe*! He took another, considering look down towards the ground, trying to work out the easiest and quickest route to safety.

He only took his eyes from her for a second, but when he turned back his wife had gone…and a stranger lurked behind the blank screen of her eyes.

In a hearts-blink, Clark saw the stark terror in those eyes shift into blind, raging fury.

"Lois…?"

She struck out at him, screeching and pummeling at him with her fists. Clark tried to keep hold of her, but they were too close to the edge to be struggling like this. He let her go, hoping she would calm if he did, knowing that it was being held by him that was scaring her, that she felt trapped. He could see it in her eyes, hear it in her screams.

For a moment, it seemed he'd made the better call. Released, Lois jolted back a step or two, her back up tight against the pillar behind her, her chest rising and falling rapidly, her breath flooding the air between them in panicked bursts and rough hitches. Her eyes were wild and fevered with rage and something more. Something cold and calculating. Something vicious as a cornered animal.

But she had stopped fighting him.

Back to square one.

Clark cursed himself viciously for his complacency, for believing that it was going to be that easy. When had it ever been that easy? For them? He took in a hard breath, steeling himself to try again. To start from scratch. To build up the small trust that had blossomed for a moment in her and then died as she'd found herself held prisoner in his arms. He'd frightened her, he castigated himself savagely. Of course he had. What else had he expected? That she would appreciate him spilling out all of the fear and hurt that he was holding inside him? That she would understand him pulling her close, wrapping her in his arms, holding her so tight that she couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't even scream? Reaching out, taking his hand, putting her trust in him had been enough of a leap of faith for her. He should have recognized that. He'd pushed her too far, too fast…and now he was paying the price.

"Lois, I'm - "

He got no further than that. With a guttural, animal snarl, whip-quick as a striking viper, Lois launched herself at him.

She hit him squarely in the chest. And rebounded from him, staggering back with startled eyes. Clark snagged her arm with a hasty hand as she teetered dangerously close to the edge. Lois struggled wildly, screeching in renewed panic, flailing at him, trying to tear herself loose. He tightened his grip…if she didn't stop she was going to take them over…

…over the edge.

…and it was then that Clark saw the bright flashing exit sign blink on in his head.

The way out.

What Lois needed, what they both needed, was Superman. It was clear to him now that she was never going to be persuaded to come down voluntarily and he couldn't force her safely off the bridge without a lot of questions being asked as to how he managed to manhandle a furiously struggling, panic-stricken woman down to the ground without taking them both over the edge. Superman was the only way out. He turned his head, glancing back across his shoulder and down into the thick, choppy darkness of the water, far below. And for Superman to appear on the scene, Clark had to vanish.

In an instant, he found his escape route.

No one would consider that someone could survive a plunge into the icy waters below. He knew that, from this height, hitting the surface would be like hitting concrete. But every day, newspapers made capital and filled up blank pages with stories of unbelievable escapes just like this one. Including their own. Toddlers tumbled from twelve story windows - and bounced unhurt. Climbers fell hundreds of feet from glaciers and mountains - and survived with broken limbs. This was just going to be one of those miracles, Clark thought grimly. A ten day wonder. Divine intervention. Something no one could explain.

He regretted that their friends wouldn't realize this until it was over, but their concern for him would be brief. If everything went according to plan.

Before he could talk himself out of the desperate plan, he turned back and this time, as Lois came at him again, swinging furiously, fists striking solidly against his chest, pushing him backwards…he let her.

He made a show of it for the watching spectators below, arms waving wildly for balance, reeling on the edge, before gravity won out and he toppled over the side. He heard screams and yells beneath him, but he felt a fierce exhilaration, knowing that it was working, that it would soon be over. For both of them.

He had it all figured out.

What he hadn't figured on was Lois.

He heard her scream, saw her face twist suddenly into horror, her eyes fill with sudden comprehension, felt her touch against his shoulder, but he didn't understand until he found himself falling that she had a death-grip on his jacket sleeve and was coming with him on that long plunge into darkness.

And, by then, it was far too late.

He heard her scream as they spun out into the darkness in a tangle of limbs. Desperately, Clark adjusted his speed, enough to slow their fall yet not enough to rouse suspicion from those watching their plunge. He twisted in mid- air, wrapping Lois tight against him, making certain that he was beneath her, that he would hit first and blessed the covering darkness as he did. It would take the ERU a moment or so to adjust the angle of the arc-lights and find them and it would make seeing what was happening difficult. He slowed another fraction, positioning himself to strike the water first, hoping frantically that his body would act as a buffer between Lois and the surface, deaden the impact.

They hit. He felt the shock of the blow shudder through him and then the water closed over him and there was nothing but darkness and cold and silence.

***

"C.K.!" Jimmy yelled frantically as he scanned the choppy waters. "Lois!"

He scrambled up onto the parapet of the bridge. "C.K.!"

"Jimmy, get down from there!"

He ignored that warning yell and the sharp tug against his sweater as Perry tried to bring him down bodily.

Desperately, Jimmy tipped back his head, cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled as loud as he could. "Help! Help, Superman!"

***

Clark spluttered and flailed in the water, desperately trying to get his bearings. Foul, oil-tainted water flooded into his throat and he choked, went under again.

He pushed himself back upwards, breaching the surface and then looked around him wildly.

Lois!

The impact and the current had torn her from him. He'd lost her!

"Lois!" he screamed out into the dark.

Stricken, he dove back into the water, piercing the rippling shadows with his augmented vision. Even super-vision was hampered by the thick darkness of the water. He could see no further than the hand in front of him, like traveling through smog. He struck out blindly, searching…

…and then his fingers struck against something soft and yielding. With a stifled cry, he lunged forward, gripping a handful of sodden material and pulling Lois into his embrace.

He bobbed in the water for a moment, exhausted, trying to make sense of his surroundings as he held his wife close against him, trying to leech some of the warmth from his own body into hers.

It had been in his mind to bring them both to the surface, attract the attention of the watchers on the shore, wait to be rescued, like any normal man would. But he knew the moment he hit the water that it wasn't going to work. Even if the ERU's rescue launch was ready and waiting to go, it would never reach them in time. Although it had no effect on him, he could feel the icy chill in the water. And in the body held against him. By the time any rescuers reached them, that cold would have killed Lois.

Striking out for shore wouldn't be any faster - he couldn't risk super-speed once those lights got orientated and began sweeping the river - and, besides, it would be difficult to explain how any man could fight against the strength of such a current, against the tide, dazed and disorientated from the fall >from the bridge and also fighting the leeching cold of the water. And too, he realized that trapping himself on the scene as Clark was dangerous. He would be the focus of attention, unable to slip clear. As he had learned all too bitterly back at the Planet, earlier.

No…better that Superman dealt with this one, that he was on hand when he got Lois to the waiting medics. If she needed transporting to the hospital, fast, if they had trouble reviving her. Just to be on the safe side.

Logical as the decision was…it still twisted him up inside to take the route he'd chosen.

He could sense nothing from Lois. She was still breathing, he knew that much. He could feel her heart against his own. Her body, carried sluggishly by the water, lay heavy against his chest. He thought that the impact of hitting the water had knocked her cold. He was wasting time.

Adjusting his grip on the limp body he held, he propelled himself through the water until he saw the faint shimmer of a man-made structure up above. He breached the water as quietly as he could, only the slightest of ripples marking his exit point. They were underneath the bridge. Clark lifted his head and directed a burst of x-ray vision through the concrete above them.

As he'd expected the scene was one of controlled chaos. Emergency personnel were running hither and yon, orders were being yelled, the police cordon was trying to hold back the crowd. Clark regretted causing such a fuss, but he knew it would be brief. Superman was about to fly to the rescue.

He rose upwards, water streaming from his sodden clothes and soaked hair as he hovered beside the wide concrete ledge formed by the base of the support pillar. Carefully, he laid the woman in his arms down on the cold, barren surface, wishing desperately that he had something warm to lay her on, to cover her with and to protect her from the cold.

Soaked to the skin, hair clinging to bone-white cheeks, her eyelids showing the tracery of faint, blue veins, she looked so fragile that his heart broke in two.

Clark put a hand to the side of her throat. The skin there was clammy to the touch and her pulse faint and erratic. He pushed back the tendrils of hair clinging to her skin, brushed at the rivulets of water that dripped from their ends and ran down her cheek like tears, and then bent his head to press his lips softly to hers. She was trembling so fiercely that her lips shivered against his, almost as though she was responding to the caress. He pulled back, startled, before he realized it was merely the tremor of ice in her that had created the illusion.

She was so cold, he thought, anguished.

Could he risk heat vision? But could he judge it enough that it would rouse no suspicions when he got her to the waiting ambulance crews? He put up his hand to that frozen cheek again and shook his head sharply, deciding he had to take the risk. Without some heat she might slip too far before he was able to return for her.

Carefully, he swept his wife's shivering body with the gentle balm of heat. He caressed her cheek a moment longer with trembling fingers, reluctant to leave her, logical as the decision was…necessary…the only one he had.

"I'll be right back, sweetheart," he whispered the promise.

Then he let himself sink back into the water.

Light flashed over him and away and, startled, he looked up at the surface above him. Their would-be rescuers were using the great floodlights to wash the river, searching for them. He looked back across his shoulder, once, but already there was no sign of Lois in the blackness. Then he set his eyes resolutely ahead, shutting down his mind, closing it to the fear and panic that were gibbering madly at him, urging him to go back. He stroked out strongly through the river's sweeping current, trying not to listen to the small, maddening voice in his head that told him he was leaving her behind him with every hard stroke.

Abandoning her to the ice cold dark.

***

"Superman! Help!"

"What're you doing?" Perry demanded, still trying to haul Jimmy back from the parapet's edge.

"It works for Lois, doesn't it?" Jimmy gulped breathlessly, filling his lungs for another yell.

"Yeah, well, when he turns up," Perry grunted, yanking him back firmly until he had no choice but to scramble back to the ground, "Let's try not to give him anyone else to rescue!"

Jimmy gave him a fretful glance. "Where *is* he?" he muttered. "What's taking so - "

"Look!"

A finger pointed skywards from the midst of the watching crowd, as a murmur of speculation rose. There were some scattered cheers. From the skyline of Metropolis City a familiar figure streaked, coming over the bridge and cleaving into the water with barely a ripple.

To Jimmy, watching from the safety of the bridge, his heart lodged in his throat, the wait for a glimpse of that familiar red and blue figure to reappear seemed interminable.

In reality, it could only have been a matter of seconds before Superman burst back out of the river in an explosion of spray. Jimmy let out a high, excited whoop as he saw the figure he was carrying, cradled carefully against his chest.

Heedlessly, he dashed towards the superhero as he alighted gracefully on the ground beside the cluster of emergency vehicles. By the time Jimmy got within yelling distance, the excited crowd had begun to close in on the caped figure, the woman on the gurney, and the knot of busy EMTs hovering around it. There was a startled murmur from those nearest the ambulance and Jimmy caught a flash of red. Superman was using heat vision on Lois, he realized, seeing it flare again, briefly, in the shadows.

Eyes fixed desperately on the little drama being played out among the cluster of emergency vehicles, Jimmy hit a barreled chest, hard. Looking up he saw a grim faced cop and then he was being shoved steadily and inexorably back behind the barrier with the rest of the crowd.

"Let's just give them room, sir, shall we?" the cop said evenly.

"But - " Jimmy was forced back another step or so, along with the rest of the crowd, by the line of cops and batons that was too thickly packed to dart around. The cop's eyes didn't flicker and Jimmy knew he wasn't going to be listened to from that quarter. He switched tactics.

"Superman!" Jimmy yelled at the top of his lungs. "Superman, it's me! It's Jimmy! Superman, over here! Hey, I'm with him!" he told the unimpressed cop.

"Yeah, yeah, that's what they all say." The cop snorted and then gave him a hard look. "Now, you wanna get back behind that barrier? Or you wanna spend the night down at the precinct?" He shoved the flat of his hand against the youngster's chest, propping him back another couple of paces.

"Superman!"

If the superhero heard him, or even recognized his voice, he gave no sign. He was talking rapidly to the EMTs. Jimmy squinted anxiously, while alternately giving the cop half blocking his view a frustrated glare or two. He saw Superman bend close over the gurney.

Jimmy swore later that he quite distinctly heard the moment that Lois revived, even above the chaos of the crowd, the yells and commands and the madness of it all. Over it all, he clearly heard her cough and splutter and come back to life.

The cop in front of him was distracted as a photographer that Jimmy recognized as being from the Star tried to break through the cordon. Jimmy briefly bemoaned the fact that his camera was back at the Planet - what a scoop this was going to be! He could have made front page! - and then took his chance while the cop was busy elsewhere.

He ducked under the baton to his left, feinted to his right as its owner made an abortive grab at his sleeve and ran like crazy for the ambulance.

***

Clark watched the EMT working on Lois shake his head and saw the frustration twist on his face as he stopped giving CPR. "She's taken in a lot of water. I can't get a stable rhythm. Try the fib again," he said over his shoulder to his companion.

"No, wait. Here. Let me."

Clark pushed the man gently aside and crouched beside the still form on the stretcher. Putting a hand to her cheek, cradling her jaw, he put his lips to hers and administered his own, more potent brand of life saving breath. And then another as he got no response. Lois coughed harshly. He raised his head as she began to splutter and then stepped back as the EMTs closed in again.

"We got her," one of them pronounced, relieved. He straightened. "Let's get her inside."

They quickly began to load the gurney into the waiting ambulance.

"Is she going to be all right?" Clark asked anxiously.

"We need to get her into the ER, stabilize her BP, respiration…but, she'll be just fine, Superman."

"I'll follow. Make sure you get through traffic."

He slammed shut the doors of the ambulance himself, taking one last glimpse of the small figure swathed in its aluminum blanket, oxygen mask obscuring the pale face. They'd said she was going to be fine, he reminded himself, doggedly, trying not to let his emotions overwhelm him, now that he no longer had the barrier of action and adrenaline to keep them at bay.

Clark thumped a hand on the side of the vehicle in signal to go and watched as it set off into the night, its siren shrieking. He prepared to leap, intending to follow.

"Superman! Superman!"

He paused, turning his head, scanning the crowd. Jimmy was haring towards him. A red-faced cop was in pursuit.

"Is she gonna be okay?" Jimmy ventured breathlessly as he reached the Man of Steel.

Clark forced himself to maintain the facade of his alter ego and gave the younger man a reassuring smile. "Lois is going to be fine, Jimmy. They were a little concerned about how long she'd been in the water, but they got her respiration under control. That's okay, Officer," he added as the cop reached them and clapped a heavy hand to Jimmy's shoulder, startling the youngster. "He's a friend."

The cop glared at Jimmy as the photographer gave him a 'told you so' look.

"Well…" he said, obviously reluctantly, "if you say so, Superman." He swept Jimmy with another glower and headed back to the police barrier.

Jimmy turned back swiftly to Clark. The anxious cast hadn't faded from his face, Clark saw to his surprise. In fact, if anything, Jimmy had gotten paler in the past few seconds. He glanced around him, as though searching for something, and then came back to the superhero, face suddenly stark, eyes shaken.

What was wrong with him, Clark thought impatiently. He'd just *told* him Lois was okay. Didn't he believe him? Everything had worked out just fine. Lois was safe, his plan had worked out perfectly, give or take a detour here and -

Oh…

Oh no…

He'd known there was *something* he'd forgotten.

"Superman…" Jimmy choked out. "What about C.K.? Didn't you…I mean didn't you get - "

Clark tried to keep his face clear of the startled look he was sure was growing on it. How could he have forgotten something as important as rescuing himself, he thought, disbelieving.

He was suddenly aware that Jimmy wasn't the only one watching him intently. With Lois dealt with, quite a crowd had gathered. The EMT's, the ERU, their commander frowning at him…he spotted Herrera on the fringes…all of them clearly anxious and eager to know what had happened to the second of the two casualties that had fallen from that bridge.

His mind raced.

"Uh…I couldn't…I didn't find him," he said, directing himself to Jimmy and hating himself for causing the sudden grief that welled up in his friend's eyes, the shock and pain. He put a quick hand to Jimmy's shoulder. "Yet. I'm sorry, Jimmy, I have to keep looking. I will find him. Don't worry. The way the current's running, he's probably been washed up somewhere along the bank. I'll find him," he reiterated, giving the younger man's shoulder a reassuring squeeze before he let go and raising his voice slightly to ensure the promise reached the group at large.

"Yeah, but - "

Clark launched himself into the air before Jimmy got more than a couple of words out, quickly rising higher than they could track him.

" - he's been in there too long," Jimmy said, miserably, watching him go.

***

Jimmy felt the numbness that had gathered in the center in his chest begin to spread, deadening his thoughts as he turned away. He hardly heard the murmurs of concern and speculation among the emergency crews as they watched the superhero vanish into the night sky. Tears lodged thickly in his throat as he stumbled blindly in the first direction he found. He was dimly aware of brushing through the crowd. He stopped only when the wall of the bridge got in his way.

He laid automatic hands against its rough surface and leaned heavily on his arms, bowing his head for a moment before he raised it again and stared out across the darkly swollen waters of the river beyond.

Across the mud flats, a plain of black darkness in the light thrown from the bridge behind him, a downed tree threw wind-bared fingers into the sky. In the clutches of those branches, an odd drift or two of discarded litter clung, showing white and stark among the blackness as they fluttered forlornly like torn pennants.

Jimmy heard movement beside him.

"Clark didn't make it?" Perry asked quietly at his shoulder.

Jimmy shook his head, dumbly. Somehow, it seemed to him that if he didn't voice the words aloud then it couldn't be true.

It didn't work. "It's not fair," he said finally. "C.K. can't - it's just - "

" - men like Clark don't check out this young." Perry nodded. "You told me that before." He paused then continued gently, "It's a harsh world, Jimmy. What's right don't always happen. Clark knew that. He spent his whole life fighting against it. But if he's gone now - "

"He can't be," Jimmy insisted dully.

"Son - "

"It's just that Superman's so strong…so fast…it just doesn't seem right when he doesn't make it, you know?" Jimmy said earnestly. He shook his head, leaning his arms against the low bridge wall as he stared out blankly into the dark night and the blackly glimmering waters of the river. Out there, somewhere…

He couldn't think about it.

"Maybe Lois coming out of this was all we could hope for," Perry ventured. "Maybe the odds of saving both of them were just too much this time round. Those two…" He shook his head. "…sometimes they seemed to have the luck of the gods on their side. But I guess it had to run out sometime, even for them."

Jimmy was barely listening. There were white scatters of litter across the mud too, he noted listlessly as his eyes ranged across them. C.K. had hated litter. Why couldn't people be more careful? Always -

He jerked his eyes back to the patch of moving white that he'd just grazed. Why was that litter moving like that? In the breeze? The trees and the bridge wall sheltered the bank. There was no real breeze down there. Not enough to set that white flicker to waving about like -

As he realized what it was that he was looking at, Jimmy's heart stopped.

"C.K!"

Perry jerked around, startled and then his eyes lit.

"I'll be damned…" he said.

Jimmy was already darting around the edge of the parapet, scrambling precariously down the muddy slope, slipping and sliding until he reached the bottom and began to stumble towards the figure struggling to wade its way up the riverbank, sodden white shirt gleaming fitfully among the mud patches covering it.

"C.K.!" For a moment it looked as though Jimmy might throw himself bodily at his friend, then he settled for grabbing at a mud-splattered sleeve. "C.K., are you - ?"

"I'm okay." Clark gave him a reassuring smile.

And then Perry was beside him. Between them, they helped Clark up the bank as he coughed fitfully.

"Here, son. Sit down." Perry urged him. "Jimmy, go get one of those EMTs over here!"

"No…no, I'm okay…" Clark shook his head, as he slid to sit on the paved flagstones of the bridge. "I'm fine. Just need to catch my breath, that's all."

"C.K., what happened? Superman - "

"I guess the current took me up onto the bank. I just remember falling and then…where's Lois?"

"She's just fine, son. They've taken her to the hospital. Superman came through for her. Just like always."

Clark nodded. "Like always…" he whispered, half to himself. He struggled to his feet. Perry reached out a hasty hand to his arm, helping him along. "I think you should get checked out yourself," he said. "You're soaked to the skin. Not so cold mind you," he added, sounding surprised. "But that water isn't exactly the spa baths at Graceland. Lord knows what you swallowed down out there."

Clark nodded. "I'll get there, Perry. But I have to go find Lois first. I'll get checked out at the hospital, once I'm sure she's okay."

Perry didn't look too happy with the suggestion, but Clark already seemed to have recovered his breath, the faint wheeziness that had marked his breathing down on the bank was gone and he wasn't coughing any longer. He seemed steady enough on his feet. In fact, he seemed remarkably hale and hearty for a man who'd just survived an ordeal like he had. He might almost have just strolled onto the bridge as a spectator. Perry frowned.

"I'm not so sure you - "

"Hey!"

They turned, startled by the interrupting yell. Jimmy's eyes had widened suddenly, caught by something over Clark's left shoulder.

"Hey…that's my car… Hey!" he hollered again, suddenly galvanized by the realization. "That's my *car*!"

Perry and Clark turned to see the familiar Mustang hanging forlornly from the cable of a tow-truck, looking somewhat the worse for wear as it swung at a crazy angle. Jimmy darted off across the empty roadway as they watched and began to gesticulate furiously at the tow-truck driver. The driver shrugged and waved a hand in a wind-up motion to his companion operating the winch.

Perry sighed out a long, low breath and dug his hands into his pockets. "Well, I guess *he* won't be driving you to the hospital any time soon," he mused.

He jerked his chin at the clutter of emergency vehicles.

"Come on, son," he said firmly in a no nonsense tone that brooked no argument. "Let's hitch you a ride with one of those EMTs."

***

The lights in the room had been dimmed to a lambent pool amid restful shadows. Lois looked peaceful, though wan, in the middle of the starched, pristine linen of the bed. Clark sat beside it, chair drawn close. Both elbows rested against the blanket and his fingers were wrapped around one of Lois' bandaged hands as he watched her sleep. But he turned his head and smiled quietly at his friend as Perry cleared his throat softly to gain his attention.

"Perry."

"How's she doing?" Perry nodded at the bed as he made his way diffidently closer.

Clark looked back at Lois. "Okay," he said, optimistically. "She's been drifting in and out. But she recognized me the last time she came round."

"Well, that's good. What about those adrenaline levels?"

"Dropping fast. They want to keep her in for a day or so, just to be sure. But they think the worst is past."

"Good." Perry gave him a searching glance. "How about you?"

"Me?" Clark looked up at him, faintly surprised and then shrugged. "I'm okay."

His gaze drifted back to Lois and settled on her pale face as Perry watched him. After a moment he said, softly, "I was just sitting here…thinking." He shook his head, bewildered, "All those times…all the things we go through…" a faint smile hovered at his lips, "…and she comes through with barely a scratch. I guess…" he paused, looked down at the small hand clasped carefully in his own. His lips twisted, self mocking, before he continued, "I guess I was just wondering how long our luck is gonna last."

"She'll keep coming through, son. She's Lois Lane."

Clark shook his head angrily. "Not if she keeps on taking risks! Look at what she did this afternoon! She made the connection, Chief - she realized that the C21 was in the bottled water Karvin was selling. Water she'd drunk from at the rally, Sunday evening. And what did she do? Did she go get herself down to the nearest emergency room? Uh-uh…she goes straight to our brownstone to get the bottle she used to take it to Klein for analysis."

"Well, she does seem to have an 'it won't happen to me' attitude, I guess," Perry admitted. "But then, you have to admit, she does seem to have a charmed life. And with Superman around, she's usually right about that."

"But, I can't be - " Clark broke off, knowing he couldn't tell Perry what he'd been thinking on most. Yes, Lois was loved and protected by the Man of Steel. The strongest man on the planet. So how did they keep coming back to this? How did she keep getting hurt? Yet he knew also the paradox was that it was because of that protection she survived the dangers that continued to plague them at all. She survived. Bruised and battered maybe, but she did survive. Still, he couldn't help but feel that somehow he'd failed. That he should be able to protect her better than this.

He sighed. "The strangest thing," he said after a moment's silence, "is we never talk about it. Oh, we joke a little…but we forget real soon. Maybe sooner than we should. It never seems to faze her. And we never mention just how *close* we came to losing…everything."

He was silent again and then, a small, stricken whisper, "I don't think I can do it anymore, Perry. I just can't."

"Do what, son?"

"Pretend. I can't pretend that it's okay anymore. Every time it happens, you know, Lois…she just bounces straight back. Right onto the next story. And I go along with it. I go along because…well, because it's better than having her scared or worried or…any of that. But I can't do it any more, Perry. I can't keep on pretending that it doesn't matter. That this was a brush with a moving vehicle or a sprained ankle. She almost died. I almost lost her. I can't pretend any more that that means nothing to me. That it doesn't hurt."

"Yes, you can. And you will."

Clark lifted his head, looking up at his friend in surprise.

"You'll keep on with it, son, because it's all you can do. Doing anything else…well, it'd be like taking something away from her she doesn't want to lose. Something fundamental. A part of her that drew you in, like a moth to a flame. A spark you saw in her right from the first. A part of her you love. Without it…she'd be damaged beyond repair. Irredeemably changed. And you'd have lost her, son. Just as surely as if she'd died right there in that river this evening."

Clark shook his head. "You don't know what it was like…up on that bridge. The way she looked at me. She was so afraid. Of me. I never thought I'd see that in her eyes when she looked at me. Never wanted to see that. It made me feel…" he broke off, sharply. "She's my wife, Perry and I love her. I'd never hurt her. Not in any way. I'd rather - "

"She knows that, son."

"Not up there."

"You didn't scare her. It was what was inside her that did that. It wasn't real, son. It was just the C21. That's what you got to hang on to. It wasn't real."

Clark sighed. "No," he agreed. He looked up at the editor again and gave him a wan smile. "I - I know. You're right. I know that. It's just - "

"It's been a rough few hours." Perry's hand rested itself on the younger man's shoulder in understanding and squeezed gently. Then the editor cleared his throat gently. "I - uh, brought you in the early edition." He brought out the paper tucked under his arm and held it up so Clark could view the front page spread and the banner headline.

Clark smiled a little as he gently replaced Lois' hand to the blankets and took the paper from him. "Thanks, Chief."

"I just thought Lois might want to take a look at your take. When she wakes up."

"I'll keep it for her."

"Yeah."

"Think she'll forgive me for writing it up without her?" Clark asked as he folded the paper carefully and put it aside.

"You…wrote up our story without me?" an unexpected voice said weakly from behind him and he turned, startled by that whisper.

"Lois…"

"Lois! Honey - "

"I'm just fine, Perry," Lois said, automatically and then fixed her gaze interrogatively on Clark again. "You wrote up the story? That was our story. Geez, a person takes a little nap for a coupla hours and next thing you know she's been aced out of her own story!"

Clark grinned at her. "Sure it's yours," he agreed. He handed her the paper and indicated the byline. "That's why your name's on it."

"Oh," Lois said, mollified. She took the paper from him and then lifted a brow. "'Poison Penned!' - neat headline," she approved.

Clark's grin widened as she became engrossed in reading their take.

"Uh, well, I'll best get back to the paper," Perry excused himself, realizing he was getting in the way of the young couple and becoming something of a fifth wheel.

Clark looked around at him. "Thanks, Perry," he said, and he wasn't necessarily talking about bringing in the newspaper.

Perry nodded, looked to an oblivious Lois, and smiled slightly before he let himself out, easing the door to a discreet and gentle close behind him.

Lois had finished reading their take now.

"So, it was Addley. Not Karvin," she said, looking up on him.

Clark nodded and then, catching the slight fall of her face and remembering how ferociously she had gone after the preacher, "Disappointed?"

"No…But…Karvin *did* know about it?"

"Well, yeah…"

"Hah!" Vindicated, Lois returned to another perusal of the paper.

Clark couldn't seem to stop grinning. He leaned his elbow on the edge of the bed, dropped his chin into the palm of his hand with a low sigh and just watched her.

It didn't take long for Lois to become aware of the attention. She glanced at him and then came back for a more studious look at the wide smile and the intent gleam in the dark eyes fixed on her. She raised a brow. She might have asked, "What are you grinning at, Farmboy?" But she didn't. She knew. Instead, she smiled back and let the paper fall to her lap, tapping it with a flourish.

"Nice take, partner."

"Thank you," Clark said, taking gentle hold of her hand again and raising it until he could place a soft kiss against the skin of her wrist. The rough edge of the bandages grazed his skin, darkening his eyes for a moment.

"What happened to Perry?"

"He left while you were reading."

"Oh." She sighed, relaxing back against her pillow. "Are we going home now?"

"No. They want to keep you here for a couple of days. Just to be sure your adrenaline levels are back down. Besides," he said firmly, "you're already on pcs observation. They want to keep an eye on that head wound a while. Why don't you rest up some?" he suggested soothingly.

"I've rested all I'm going to," she muttered. "Don't we have follow up on this?" She indicated the paper.

Clark gave her a censorious look.

She sighed again, petulantly.

"You broke your promise," he said reprovingly, running small, light circles against her skin with one finger.

She frowned. "What promise?

"When I called you from Boston, Sunday evening. Don't do anything dangerous, I said. And you swore you wouldn't. And then, there you go, attending Karvin's rally…drinking contaminated water…" He shook his head, mock exasperated.

"Oh," Lois said. "That promise. Well, that wasn't my fault. How was I supposed to know?"

"No," he agreed with a faint smile. "I guess you couldn't. This time."

He took tighter possession of her hand suddenly, wrapping his fingers around hers as she stared at him, pensively. Being careful not to hurt her, but enough to communicate his sudden resolve. "You know, I've been thinking. About that trip to Athens. Sounds like a good idea."

"Athens? Dinner…?" she said, sinking lower into the pillow and closing her eyes. She was losing her battle against sleep, Clark saw with a faint smile.

"No, I was thinking more of a vacation. Perry wouldn't mind if we took some time off. Just a few days — "

"A vacation…sounds nice…"

Clark lifted the hand enfolded between his own and pressed soft lips to the backs of her bandaged fingers.

"Athens…" he whispered. "Rome. Europe. The World. Wherever you like." He stroked his free hand against her cheek softly with a faint smile as she slipped deeper. "We'll go wherever you like, honey," he promised.

"Mmmmmmm…nice…definitely Europe…" she murmured. "No shots…"

And then she was asleep.

Clark kissed the hand he was holding again and then laid it carefully against her ribs. He watched her sleep for a moment, his fingers stroking absently across her arm, but, all at once, his thoughts seemed to be curiously fixed on what she'd just said.

No shots.

A vacation…

Definitely Europe…

No shots…

No shots because…

"Mr. Kent?"

He turned his head with a start.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Mr. Kent," the young candy-striper said in a whisper as she eased her way tentatively a little further through the door. "But there's a call for you. From a Dr. Klein? He says it's important. You can take it at the station, if you like."

"Thank you." He cast a backward glance at his peacefully sleeping wife as he followed the nurse out quietly.

She indicated the phone and he thanked her as he reached to pick up the receiver. "Clark Kent."

"Clark? Klein. These samples you had sent over for analysis - "

"Yes," Clark said eagerly. "You've got the report?"

"Well…yes. I have to ask though - is there any way these could have been

confused? Somewhere along the line?"

"Confused?"

"Well, I understood we were looking for some kind of contaminant. The primary source?"

"Yes. That's right. Addley - "

"Oh." The note of bewilderment in Klein's voice deepened. "You were there when the sample was sealed at source?"

"Yes. Dr. Klein, what's going on?" Clark asked somewhat impatiently. "I was with Herrera when he bagged the sample. There's no way it got 'confused' with anything else. Is there some kind of problem with the sample we sent you?"

"No, no problem. It's just - " Klein cleared his throat. "Your sample contains a mixture of hydrocarbons - carbon 12 mostly, with coal tar and creosote derivatives. Water, a glutinous gel binding agent, some traces of calciums phosphate and carbonate - that's animal bone. Bovine, mostly - "

Clark had been listening intently as his mind worked furiously and methodically back through his grade school chemistry lessons. He frowned as Klein's list continued in his left ear. "Wait a minute! That's - "

"Lampblack ink. Yes. Exactly," Klein confirmed.

"Ink?"

"Common or garden black India ink. Of the sort you can pick up from any art shop."

"Just ink?"

"Nothing but."

"I don't understand," Clark said.

But, inexplicably, he found his mind drifting back again to what Lois had said a moment or so earlier. And, all at once, he did. He understood everything.

No shots.

No shots because…

…because, if you vacationed in Africa or Asia…

…if you were engaged in a war in the steamy, mosquito infested jungles of an alien continent…

…you had to make sure you were protected first.

"No shots…" he whispered.

And it all flooded in on him.

Just how wrong they'd been.

"He didn't do it," he said aloud. "Addley, didn't do it!"

"What?" Klein's bemused voice said tinnily into his ear. "Hello? Hello…Clark are you still there?"

"It wasn't where they'd *been*! It was what they *did* before they went!"

"Clark - ?"

"Uh, listen, I'll get back to you, Doc," Clark said hastily. "I got to go!"

"What? But - "

Clark put down the phone. He had to find Herrera.

But first, he thought as he headed along the corridor at a sharp clip, he had to pay a visit to a certain brunette.

***

"You again?" Mary-Ann glanced up at the light rap of knuckles on the open door of her room and smiled, before her expression turned curious. "More questions?"

"Just a couple. If you don't mind," Clark added, as he noted the open bag on the bed. "Getting out of here?"

"Yup. Finally. And not a minute too soon either." She grinned up at him as she added some toiletries to the contents of the bag. "I've got a wedding to finish organizing."

"And a honeymoon. Which is what I wanted to ask you about."

"Oh, yeah?" Mary-Ann blushed slightly as she zipped the tote bag up. She glanced distractedly around the room, checking nothing had been missed.

"Yeah. You didn't say, the other day, where it was you were going."

"Oh. Well, personally, I've always figured I'd be lazing around on a desert island beach. You know? But, Gary, well he's always wanted to go see those dipsy little temples, so Bangkok it is."

"Bangkok? Thailand."

"Yeah." She looked back at him, as though questioning why it should be a matter of import.

"So…you'll both have arranged for anti-malarial protection in the past couple of weeks."

"Well, sure. I mean, you hear all these stories, don't you, 'bout — "

"Do you remember which course of treatment you took?" Clark interrupted eagerly.

"Oh…well, gee, I just took the pills. Hold on, I should still have them in here…" She picked up her purse and rummaged in it for a moment or so. "Yeah, here."

Clark took the offered packet. "Malatheron," he said, in a tone that said it wasn't any great surprise. He paused, but he didn't think that Mary-Ann would understand if he quizzed her about which form of birth control she was currently using. He handed back the packet.

"Thanks. Oh," he turned back as he headed smartly for the door, "and good luck. For the wedding?" he added, as she looked perplexed.

"Oh! Yeah. Thanks."

He smiled at her and then he was gone.

***

"Innocent?" Herrera groaned, leaving off his haphazard attempt at shaving and snapping the electric razor off as he stared mournfully at his friend through the fly-speckled glass of the little mirror in his office.

"Clark, what the hell you got to do this to me now, for?" he complained bitterly. "Isn't it enough we got a confession outta the guy? You phone me up at five a.m., drag me outta bed, tell me to haul butt over here…first decent night's sleep I got in a week shot to hell and I look like - " he paused, studying himself in the mirror again with a grimace of disgust. "Well, anyway. And you…"

He turned to stalk for the door, casting a sour glance over the neat pressed suit and gabardine coat of the reporter in passing as Clark lounged easily in his chair.

"*You* - who took a flying high leap off the Bay Bridge this evening and came out of it lookin' like a drowned rat - *you* got the unmitigated gall to sit there at this ungodly hour, lookin' like you just stepped outta a cologne ad! Hey! Hey, Boomer!" he added the yell, hauling open the door.

"Yeah, detective?"

"Coffee. Black. Strong as you can make it. You?" He turned his head briefly to catch the shake of Clark's head and then back again. "Just the one, Boom. And make it snappy, huh? My head feels like it's had a cat sleeping in it all night."

"Right on it, detective."

Herrera grunted and closed the door.

Clark ignored the tirade, leaning forward earnestly to press home the point. "Dutch, he didn't do it."

"You said that already." Herrera lowered himself into the chair at the table's end and ran heavy hands across jowls that still felt like sandpaper, before fixing bleary eyes on the nuisance opposite, who was threatening to get his day off to a real bad start. "So…what you gonna tell me that's gonna make me believe you any more now than I did five minutes ago?"

"Well, first of all, Addley didn't confess to anything and — "

"Are you nuts? You sat there and listened to him confess to it."

"No, he didn't. You told him he'd spiked that water. He just agreed with you."

Herrera grunted. "You been talking to that cheap shot PD he got assigned? That's his theory too."

"Besides, it doesn't matter whether he did or didn't. Because, the truth is, he had nothing to do with the C21 getting into that mineral water."

"He didn't." Herrera settled back against his chair with a sigh. "Okay," he held up surrendering hands, "I'll bite. Who put it into the water?"

"No one. Well, not directly or with intent anyway. At least, I don't think they did." Clark shook his head as the detective glared at him. He straightened earnestly, determined to convince him. "Karvin told me that the water in those bottles of Blessed Spring came straight from the local faucet."

"Not from a little mountain stream, near a holy shrine?" Herrera said dryly.

"Not even close. South Metropolis Water Utility. They were cutting corners on the cost of supply. Got in some cheap supplies of bottles and that was that."

Herrera spread his hands. "So? You want to file a complaint against the Church for scamming its sheep, hand it in at the desk downstairs. I'm a homicide cop, Kent. I don't deal in fraud."

"You said that GAP was the only source of C21 in the entire State," Clark reminded him, ignoring that.

"Yeah. So…" Herrera paused. He sat up straight. "And the C21 was in the bottles of Blessed Spring. Not mineral water. Tap water." His eyes brightened. "You think GAP messed up the supply? That they accidentally ran off a load of C21 into the water table?"

"It makes sense. Where else would the C21 have come from but GAP? We were looking at it from the wrong end, Dutch, trying to track it *from* the bottles *to* GAP. Make the connection. But we were going at it from the wrong direction, right from the start. GAP was the starting point, not the UCS. If you lean on Gerrord or Andrews I'm pretty sure you'll get them to admit they were using the C21 for purposes they had no license on. And somehow, in the middle of those illegal experiments, some of it ended up in the city's water. And from there, into the Blessed Spring."

Herrera was silent as he mulled that over. Then he sat back in his chair, studying the reporter with jaundiced eyes.

"Come on, Dutch," Clark urged. "You said yourself, you've been trying to work out how Addley managed to get the C21 into those bottles without breaking the seals on them."

"Hypo," Herrera muttered.

"Dutch - "

"Well, it's not *so* unlikely. There was a case back in New England just last - " he stopped under the weight of Clark's skeptical gaze and then scowled.

"Well, it still doesn't explain how Addley's innocent," he said. "Okay, maybe he didn't know about the C21 getting into the water supply. But maybe he did. Maybe *he* was the one cozied up to Culver. Maybe she spilled about the accident. And he saw his chance. He had the primary source, remember, and he was the one used it on those women. Without that - or him - the C21 would have been harmless and we wouldn't have a full morgue."

"Addley didn't have anything. That stuff he went around palming onto his 'victims' was nothing more than plain ink. We found the primary source, Dutch. It's Malatheron."

Herrera frowned. "Malatheron? The malaria drug?"

Clark nodded.

"The malaria drug," Herrera said again, this time in a tone that said he was just about to call time on this nonsense. "The single, biggest selling, most widely used malaria drug currently on the market. That Malatheron?"

Clark nodded again.

"And we only have nine fatalities. Out of millions using this stuff every day."

Clark ignored the patronizing tone and leaned forward intently. "Take a read at the drug company's leaflet next time you buy a bottle, Dutch. Among the known possible side effects to look out for you'll find heart rate irregularities, aggression, panic attacks - sound familiar?"

Herrera paused. "Adrenaline fluctuations?"

"Right. Malatheron isn't the problem, not on its own. But mixed with the secondary source - the BCP those women were using - and C21…it was a cocktail of chemicals bouncing one off the other that was just enough to tip our victims over the edge. Here, look."

He pushed the sheaf of autopsy reports he'd brought out earlier, and had been trying to persuade Herrera to read over ever since, further along the table towards the detective.

Herrera gave him a steady look and then sighed, pulling them closer with a reluctant hand.

"The same BCP in every case," Clark said, helping him along. "And Malatheron - in every case."

Herrera frowned. "These aren't the same as the copies I have on file," he said, tapping at the records of Emily Riess, Ginny Bolt and Tracy Harrow.

"No, I had to get copies faxed to me at the hospital," Clark agreed. "The originals for Riess, Harrow and Bolt didn't include Malatheron. That's why we couldn't find the link. It just wasn't there on the records."

"Well, why the hell not?" Herrera demanded.

Clark shrugged. "Individuality."

"Huh?"

"There's no legal requirement for it. The Malatheron in all three cases was under the legal ppm. Adams marked it down on his records - you know what a stickler for details he is. The technician who did the Riess, Bolt and Harrow autopsies grouped it under miscellaneous, like he was taught to. Both of them were right. But Pete's old fashioned habits provided the clue the others missed." Clark grinned for a moment. "Pete can't wait to tell Lois he broke the case by being pedantic."

Herrera grunted. "Been giving him a hard time, huh? Thinks she's an ME as well as a cop?" he asked and at Clark's grin, smiled.

"So…?" Clark asked.

Herrera shook his head. "I don't know, Clark…it's flying on a thin wire. We've got no proof your theory on GAP being the source of C21 is right, and Malatheron…some of these women took it months back. It couldn't still be in their bloodstream all this time later."

"You'd be right with most anti-malarial treatments. But Malatheron's different, Dutch. It was developed originally for use among Vietnam troops. The aim was to reduce the time lost by bringing them in for repeat treatments. When they mass marketed it afterwards, they made that one of its main selling points. It stays in the blood longer, so you need less dosage than most rival brands." Clark shrugged.

Herrera pursed his lips. "I dunno - "

A tap on the door distracted them and then Boomer popped his head around its corner as it opened.

"Your coffee, sir?"

He entered the room and then hesitated, tentative, picking up something of the air of tension in the room.

"Thanks, Boom," Herrera took the offered mug. He glanced at Clark as Boomer nodded and began to leave and then sighed. "Boom?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Get me Milano at the D.A.'s office."

"Right away, sir."

Herrera nodded and then took his seat with another sigh.

"Thanks, Dutch," Clark said with a small smile.

"You'd better be right about this," the detective warned.

"Count on it." Clark assured him. "If I'm not, I'm going to have Lois to answer to, and, no offense, Dutch, but I'd take less risk on having her mad at me than I would you."

Herrera chuckled.

***

"Chief! Gregg says the lab's backed up!"

"Again?" Perry turned around irritably at the yell and then, turning to survey the bustling newsroom, his voice rising several octaves. "Marvin!"

"Sir!

"Pick up that film from Gregg, take it over to Hanson's. And wait for it. I want it back and on my desk in the next hour. You got it?"

"Got it, sir."

"You got your story down yet?" Perry turned his attention to a nearby staffer with a scowl, as though ready to jump on anyone else who might give him problems with his deadline.

"Dotting the i's, crossing the t's," the reporter assured him hastily.

Perry grunted, mollified. "Well, don't take too long about it. I want this done and dusted by six at the latest, no heel dragging, capisce?" He added, giving his reporter a meaningful look. "Six. That film too, Marvin!" He raised his voice to a bellow. "Six! Understand?"

"Yes, sir!" Marvin tossed over his shoulder as he hared for the elevator with the package of precious film bundled against his chest.

Perry grunted, swept the bullpen with a final, threatening stare and then strode back to his office.

Halfway there, he paused as he spotted the two men standing in the doorway of the conference room. The taller of the two, lean and gaunt, was familiar and he realized that it was the preacher - Karvin. He'd only ever seen him on TV and in photographs previously. In real life, he thought, Karvin was less charismatic, less vibrant, but somehow…strangely more content. Yeah, he looked content.

As he watched, Karvin reached out a hand with a smile. Clark took it easily, giving him a nod. Jimmy came out of the copy room as Karvin walked away and crossed to stand beside Clark, watching the preacher go. They exchanged a few, easy words.

Perry headed for them. Jimmy gave him a wary glance as he approached and then judged from the clues in the editor's casual stride and body posture that he was in congenial mood and not likely to bawl him out for loitering. He'd grown adept at reading the signs of Perry White's mercurial moods by now. He settled back to perch on the edge of the desk behind him.

"That looked pretty…sociable," Perry commented.

Clark gave him a glance, trying to second-guess his mood as much as Jimmy had - though with less success. Perry had his bland face on. The one that could go either way, if you answered the question wrongly. "He's not so bad. I like him. He's a decent man. He just lost his way a little, that's all."

"Uh-huh. And his being this decent human being," Perry said musingly, "that would be why there's no mention of that bottled water scam in this?" He held up a copy board of Clark's follow-up on the GAP story.

Clark faced him, warily, but fully determined to defend his standpoint. "Chief, I think we've got a big enough share of the front page this week already. What good would it do? The Church has a lot of good people in it, they've done a lot of good things. Printing that scam story could damage them. And most of them don't deserve it."

Perry grunted softly, non-committal. "And Addley - he's got nothing to do with this at all?"

Clark relaxed with the abrupt subject change, knowing that he wasn't about to be asked to do any rewrites.

"Looks like it. He's been released, pending further investigation. Karvin's had him checked into a private sanitarium and arranged with the UCS board to ensure he receives regular counseling. Which is about all he needs, really. He was seriously misdiagnosed. He's a chronic confession freak, that's all. Fantasizing about being the World's Greatest Serial Killer is about as far as he gets. Herrera thinks it's probable he didn't even kill those women back in '87. He's backtracking on the previous cases, investigating a possible match. But to be honest, no one's going to be at all surprised if they don't find one."

"So, where'd he get such a loony tunes idea from in the first place?" Perry asked. "Mysterious poisons, deadly handshakes - sounds like something out of a Bond movie."

"The Champions. Circa 1967."

"What?"

"Addley's a big fan of 1960's British spy/thriller series. Most of them. But that one was his favorite. Its premise postulates that three agents of an international organization formed to fight global crime are endowed with…" Clark paused and almost seemed to wince before continuing, "'super powers' after they have a plane crash in Tibet and are rescued by a mysterious cult. They agree to keep their powers and the existence of their benefactors secret and go back to fight for - "

"Truth, Justice and the American Way!" Jimmy blurted. "Cool!"

"Well…the Global Way," corrected Clark, mildly.

"Hey, maybe that's where Superman got his ideas — "

"I doubt it," Clark interrupted blithely as he saw the lightbulb go on in Jimmy's head. "I don't think Superman watches much TV."

"Oh," Jimmy said, deflated and then, enthusiastically, "Hey, yeah! I remember that one! There was this hot blond babe in there, wasn't there! There was this one episode where she had to go undercover and she was wearing this hot pink mini dress with leather boots all the way up to here and this cute little feather wrap and — "

"Uh, yeah. I think," Clark agreed. "Anyway, the show's been repeating on syndication recently. On the TNT network."

"I like that network," Jimmy interrupted again. "It broadcasts some cool shows."

"Well, anyway, in one episode a spate of suicides among the organization's agents was discovered to be caused by a chemical poison. Its main point of delivery was a handshake. Left a black stain on the palm. The chemical seeped into the skin and began to work on the mind as a hallucinogen. Sound familiar?"

Perry grunted. "I always said TV was cotton candy for the brain."

Clark grimaced, not about to disagree with him. "Somehow it all got mixed up in Addley's head."

"And Karvin?"

"He's decided he's had enough of fame and fortune. He's going back to Unity - he's been granted a pastoral position there with the local UCS chapter. He's taking Richard with him."

"So, who's heading the UCS?"

"Woman called Polly Fretwell. She seems nice. I think she'll do okay. Another reason I think the Church should get a break. The scandal was Karvin's and Addley's not Polly's. It's not fair she should carry the flak for it. She deserves a fresh start. They all do."

Perry gave him a steady look. "Don't push it, son," he advised. "But, as it happens," he added briskly, "I agree with you."

Clark smiled. "Thanks, Chief."

Perry made a grumbling noise in his throat. "Just don't make withholding good material a habit, Kent. You got that take on GAP yet?" he added pointedly as Clark's smile broadened.

Clark nodded. "Just waiting on official confirmation of the arrests from Dutch. Everything panned out though, just like we figured. He got a search warrant for the plant and brought out some interesting records. And picked up Gerrord and Andrews. It didn't take long for Andrews to buckle under and give a confession."

Perry nodded, mollified. He picked up the copy board again and looked it over. "And Lois put this all together?"

"Couldn't have gotten there without her."

"Well, I always said that woman could grab a take in her sleep," Perry said proudly. "Looks like I was hot on the button with that one! How's she doing?"

"They're letting her out this afternoon." Clark said and smiled his thanks at a passing clerk who handed him some messages.

Perry nodded and then made a slight moue. "Right. And she…uh, I guess she won't be back till - "

"Wednesday," Clark said, looking over the memos. He glanced up at his editor firmly. "At the earliest."

"Right. Right!" Perry nodded again. "That's what I thought."

He walked away from them. By the time he reached his office, he was grumbling under his breath. A moment later, they heard his voice rise.

"Ellie! Ellie! Where the dang-blasted - ! Meyerson! Get in here, now! *Now*!!"

Jimmy grinned at Clark. "Good thing we don't have a cat," he judged.

Clark grimaced and then put down the memos and looked up at him, aware that he hadn't seen the younger man any more than in passing for two days, tied up as he'd been with getting out his stories and being at the hospital with Lois.

"So…you persuade Leanore to go to the fight this evening?"

"Yup!" Jimmy's grin widened. "She thinks I'm a hero. Getting hit on the head was a real boost," he confided as Clark questioned him silently.

"Um…yeah. I guess it could be," Clark agreed doubtfully.

"Ol-*sen*!"

Jimmy sighed. "Break over."

"Good luck!" Clark called after him as he ambled away. Jimmy turned back and gave him a jaunty thumbs-up.

Clark crossed to his desk and closed down his program, switched off his computer, picked up the phone, put it back down, grabbed for his jacket, turned around and almost fell over the short, tubby little man who was standing beside him.

"Mr. Mazetti!" he said, startled. "What you doing here?"

"Brought this." Mazetti held out a slim envelope and then looked at him expectantly.

Clark glanced at it and his eyebrows rose as he noted the watermarked logo. "The invoice from the storage company?"

"Yeah. Well, uh, I didn't want it going missing in the post or nuthing. I mean, you know what these things are like."

"Yeah," Clark said dryly.

"I mean, not that I figured you were gonna stiff me for the cash. I just figured I'd bring it along. Be neighborly."

"Right." Clark nodded sagely.

Mazetti cleared his throat and glanced away. Then, remembering, "Oh, an' they gave me this for ya too."

"What is it?" Clark took the package curiously. It was a bundle of paper, bound up in elastic.

"Culver's papers. Mail and suchlike. They didn't want to put that stuff into storage along with the rest. Case it were important, you know. Oh, they wanted me to point out this, specially." He pointed to a single sheet of paper on the top of the pile. "You see there, where it's torn round them punch holes? They figure it's came loose from something. I guess they didn't want to be blamed for losing the rest of it, whatever it was. They said that was the only sheet they found. It was under the coffee table."

Clark pursed his lips as he pulled the sheet clear and then his expression tightened as he scanned it. The single A5 page was marked with the logo of the Gerrord-Andrews Corporation. It was headed as a production report and obviously the concluding page. The conclusion GAP's lab staff had come to, he saw, was that they were in big trouble. The accidental spillage of C21 they'd been - illegally - experimenting on had undoubtedly gotten into the water table in Metropolis. Contamination could be widespread. Recommendation? Recommendation - cover up, Clark thought grimly. They might fancy it up with a lot of words, but that was what they'd intended. He looked up into Mazetti's curious face.

"And they found this under the table?"

Mazetti nodded.

"It's been there all the time." Clark shook his head, wonderingly. "From the evening Karen died."

All the proof they'd ever needed. The whole story right there on one A5 page. If they'd only known where to look.

"It important?" Mazetti was craning his neck now, trying to view the page.

Clark sighed. "No," he said. He folded the paper carefully and stuck it back in the pile. "I guess it's not important at all."

***

Mondays, Clark Kent thought with a wide, beaming smile, could be beautiful things. He sighed happily as he sat down at his desk, switched on his computer and began to gather the notes and mental impressions of the day's visit to the Superman Foundation's new Health Care 2000 Center into a story in his head, ready for transcribing to the screen.

The Center had been opened by the Mayor and attended by a fair proportion of the City's great and good - who normally wouldn't have been seen in the deprived slum area that it was situated in if their lives depended on it. Such was the drawing power of Superman's involvement. None of them had gotten out of there easily without having their bank balances considerably lightened by a determined support group, who touted for funds like sharks went through chopped meat. Superman had briefly appeared on the podium with the appointed Medical Board to thank everyone who'd contributed and had spoken to the ecstatic Head of the Pediatric Unit, who'd been overwhelmed by the support.

All in all, the Center looked to be getting off to a…well, a flying start. If you'd excuse the pun. Clark chuckled. Lois was doing just fine, enough that he'd had no compunctions about leaving her alone on this, his first, full day back at the paper since she'd left the hospital on Saturday afternoon. They had gotten a raft of front page stories out that had the upstairs management team crowing and hadn't done their reputations as first class reporters any harm at all and there had been no more cases of C21 poisoning since the story had broken and women at risk had begun seeing their doctors as advised.

Clark settled back in his chair, in self-congratulatory mood as he played idly with the pencil in his hand.

Yup, life was pretty good, he thought with a smile, taking another warming sip of coffee. His computer beeped. He looked up from his mug and was greeted by a sunshine yellow happy face on a lime-green background. His grin broadened. He'd forgotten all about that. He hadn't had a chance to fix it, what with everything that had gone on in between since Lois' sabotaging it, earlier in the week. He looked at it critically for a moment and grimaced. Eeesh. He reached for the mouse…and paused. He took back his hand and sat back again.

Maybe he'd just leave it. For now.

"Clark…"

He looked up and smiled a greeting. "Hi, Perry. Have a good day off yesterday? I heard rain stopped play on the game," he commiserated.

"First Sunday off I've had in three months? I was just happy to get the time, game or no game. Haven't seen you all day," Perry added. "Thought you hadn't come in."

"I was covering the Health Center project. Just got back."

"Oh. Not that I was expecting you," Perry said mildly. He gave the reporter a curious look. "Thought you weren't coming back until tomorrow?"

Clark shrugged. "I came in yesterday anyway. Just for a couple of hours, to tie up some tips one of my sources came up with. On the Macklin story. I wasn't planning to come in today, but Lois said *one* of us should be working. I think I was supposed to hear, 'since I can't' after that one. Also, that if I didn't stop hovering and making her chicken broth one of us was going to die. So…" he sighed theatrically. "Here I am."

Perry chuckled. "Lois isn't the world's best convalescent," he agreed. "And, speaking of my favorite reporter - how's she doing?"

"Well, you know Lois. Champing at the bit to get back here. I practically had to lock all doors and windows before I left this morning and steal her keys to stop her coming along with me. I figured it wouldn't work though," he added. "She'd just pick the lock on the bedroom windows and absail down the terrace wall. Or call the fire station and get them to come get her out."

Perry grunted, amused at the reporter's exasperated tone. "But the doctor's given her the all clear, right?" he said.

"Sure. She'll be back Wednesday, no problem."

"Mr. White? These look good to you?"

Perry turned his head to find Carl, one of the photo lab technicians at his shoulder, holding out a negative sheet for approval.

He stepped slightly away from Clark's desk to hold them up to the light and peruse them. He began noting changes and choosing those that would eventually become prints. Carl took notes and added a suggestion here and there.

"Well, look who it is! Our resident superhero! Hey, Clarkie, boy!"

"Huh?" Clark jerked up his head, startled, as a familiar figure swaggered towards him and hitched an ample buttock to the edge of his desk. "S- superhero?" he stammered.

"Yeah, you know. 'Miracle Man Survives Bridge Plunge!'" Ralph put the words into the air one by one with a flamboyant hand as he spoke them. And then grinned slyly. "Hey, relax, Kent. I mean, geez, we all know you're no Superman."

"Right!" Clark agreed fervently. He hoped Ralph would change the subject. The wild and salacious press coverage of their ordeal on the bridge embarrassed him. Luckily, it had soon been forgotten in the midst of some other three day wonder.

"So…how's Metropolis' Finest?"

"Fine." Clark gave his colleague a terse glance, which Ralph ignored. Not the subject he was looking to change to, but… Clark happened to agree with the appellation as applied to his wife, but Ralph's tone had a sly edge of sarcasm to it that irked him.

Ralph nodded. He glanced around him, interest visibly waning. "Okkaaay."

Clark began to type, hoping his colleague would get the hint. But he looked up as Ralph whistled; long, low and salacious.

"Man, that is *hot*," Ralph said appreciatively. "You think I'm in with a chance now that Olsen's out of the picture?"

"What?" Clark looked up with a frown and then across the room to where the object of Ralph's sudden, drooling attention was chatting animatedly to Ellie Crompton, Perry's secretary. At least, Clark assumed it wasn't *Ellie* that was the focus of the attention. Being that she was almost old enough to be Ralph's grandmother. On the other hand…with Ralph, who knew?

"Leanore?" he said, startled. "What do you mean, out of the picture? She dumped Jimmy? What happened?"

Ralph snorted. "Geez, for a reporter you don't keep up with the news, Kent, do you?" he said scathingly. "Didn't you read the Sunday sports pages?"

"Sports pages?" Clark shook his head, bewildered, and Ralph grunted derisively and fished around on the desk behind him where old copy was bundled. He dragged out a paper and handed it over.

Clark turned it over to view the back page.

RIOT! the headline screamed.

"Metropolis Boxing Commissioners were tonight investigating unprecedented violence at the Century Twelve 'Roar of the Champions' Fight at City Hall this evening. Riots broke out among the 3,000 strong crowd after a controversial decision awarded the bout to featherweight out of state champion 'Bone Breaker' Burston on points…" he read aloud.

"Oh yeah, I saw it on the news, yesterday morning," he said, not adding that he hadn't paid much attention. He'd had more important things on his mind. "Is Jimmy okay?" he asked worriedly.

"He got beat up a little. Bruised. They thought he'd broken his jaw, but it's okay," Perry assured him, re-entering the conversation as he caught the topic and Clark's concern. He handed over the negative sheet and dismissed Carl with a nod, before continuing, "He's over at the hospital now, getting a couple of last minute x-rays. But they say it's just a precaution. He'll be fine in a month."

"A month?!" Clark blurted and then he sighed. "I thought he'd have more sense to get involved in a brawl," he said, going back briefly to the newspaper report.

There had been some speculation among the press as to why Superman hadn't arrived to break up the melee. The city's Chief of Police however, a bluff and burly bear of a man whom Clark - and Superman - had a lot of respect for, maintained soberly that Superman couldn't be expected to be on hand to sort out every little drunken brawl.

"Why, if he did, me and me boys here would be feeding our families on welfare checks," he was quoted as saying. "And that blue boy of ours would be one mighty exhausted superhero."

He'd gone on to add that he was confident Superman would have arrived had the brawl gotten out of hand and taken longer for Metropolis' finest to contain.

Clark winced at that, glad that Chief Sorenson hadn't known how close he'd come to being disappointed in that expectation. The only thing that Superman had been focused on, Saturday evening, had been persuading a wife confined to bed to stay there and stop insisting on junk food for supper instead of the nourishing and healthy soup he'd just made her. That had been Herculean task enough for a weary superhero to have been spending time on.

In the middle of the argument, he'd been called out to a grocery store hold-up and when he'd returned, barely twenty minutes later, it was to find she'd ignored his last minute instructions to eat up the soup before it cooled and had snuck down into the kitchen to fix herself up something she considered more appropriate to her appetite.

She'd been emerging with a loaded tray, just as he entered the living room.

Caught in the act, Lois had pouted up at him and as she was dressed only in one of his old shirts, which was rather on the large size and therefore only served to accentuate how fragile she still looked - not to mention other things besides, like those long, long legs of hers - he hadn't found the heart to yell at her.

He'd raised an inquiring brow instead. The kind that demanded an instant explanation. And further insisted that said explanation better be good.

"I just wasn't in the mood for soup," she'd said lamely, looking down at the foot digging its toes into the carpet.

Clark had sighed and given her a small prod in the direction of the stairs, whilst relieving her of her stolen loot. "Go back to bed. Classic Movies is running Imitation of Life in ten minutes. You know it's one of your favorites. I'll bring you up something just a little more nutritious than - " he'd glanced down at the tray and grimaced. "Crackers and cheesewhip, doritos and …chocolate ice-cream, Lois?" He'd held out the indicated carton at her, disapprovingly. "For supper?"

Lois had paused halfway up the stairs and then come back to trail him into the kitchen. "This from Mr. Nutrition? What happened to life's too short, eat what you want?" she'd reminded him, sulkily, watching wistfully as he'd put the purloined carton back into the freezer and began dismantling her supper.

"You're sick, Lois. You need good, healthy - "

"I am not sick! At least - yes, I *am* sick!" She scowled as he made a familiar moue of agreement with this pronouncement and continued, tartly, "I'm sick of being treated like an invalid!"

"You *are* an - "

"I'm not some Victorian maiden, wasting away from fever, Clark! I can get my own supper!"

Yup, he mused now with a heavy sigh, Lois' mood in the wake of her release >from the hospital - frustrated at her inactivity and jealous and piqued at >his working without her - had been what could only be described as on the cool side of ticked.

"He didn't," Perry said dryly, taking his attention. "He got out of there, just fine. It was Leanore that hit him. He tried to get her out of the fray, made a poor right turn and left them with no choice but to crawl through a trash service duct into a back alley. Leanore wasn't pleased at having a two hundred dollar dress ruined by six week old coleslaw residue."

Clark grimaced. "Not many women are," he said wryly, his mind flashing back to a ripely odorous dumpster and a wildly kicking partner.

He grinned to himself as Perry concluded, "I guess this sounds the death knell for the romance of the century." The editor rolled his eyes as he left them to it.

"Well, one guy's broken jaw," Ralph declared, standing up abruptly and straightening his tie, "is another's golden opportunity to rock…'n'…*roll*…!" He delivered that last in what Clark was sure he presumed was a sensual drawl, and then headed for the chattering women with a cocky swagger.

Clark shook his head and went back to his story. He'd never been one for getting his kicks out of watching someone be abjectly humiliated.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, Ralph slunk off towards his desk and began typing at his computer in a determinedly casual manner. Like a cat that had just had a bucket of water tossed on it and was pretending it didn't care. Up on the upper level, Leanore flayed him with flashing eyes and went back to her conversation.

"Hey, C.K." a mournful voice turned his head.

"Jimmy! You okay?" Clark got to his feet hastily and put a hand to his friend's sleeve. He took a sympathetic glance at the dark shadow of bruising running the line of the photographer's jaw. "Been through the wars this week, huh?"

Jimmy gave him a 'forget about it' shrug and then winced. "I'm gonna be sucking soup through a straw for a month," he said dolefully, putting up a wary hand to prod at his jaw and flinching again.

Clark fiddled with his glasses a moment. He didn't think it looked so bad. It wasn't broken. But Jimmy was obviously in maudlin mood.

"Jimmy!"

"Chief! Aaaah!" Jimmy cradled his jaw, screwing up his eyes as pain lanced through it with that injudicious, automatic yell in response to the barked summons. "Chief…" he repeated, more cautiously in greeting as the editor came briskly towards them.

"You get that checked out?" Perry demanded.

Jimmy nodded. "It's…it *was*…okay…"

"Good! Good, son!" He slapped the younger man on the shoulder heartily. Jimmy cringed.

"Um…I think I'll just go…" He hooked a thumb across his shoulder, gave them a sickly smile and headed for the print lab. Halfway there, he found himself passing Leanore, who was all but draped around Carl now. By the looks of them, Clark considered, it wasn't an entirely new level of intimacy either. Jimmy barely gave them a glance, hardly seeming to notice.

"He doesn't seem too upset," Clark mused. "About breaking up with Leanore."

"Ah - " Perry started, "Well - " and then he stopped as Jimmy made an abrupt about turn and came hastily back towards them.

"Uh, Chief, I forgot to ask…you think I could finish up early?"

Perry looked him over, knowingly. "You wouldn't be trying to persuade that pretty little nurse of yours to give you some personal medicare, would you?" he said, mock disapproving.

Jimmy looked abashed, flushing.

"I'm sorry about Leanore, Jimmy," Clark offered his sympathies.

"Oh, yeah." Jimmy glanced up to where Leanore had gone back to her filing. "Well, we decided it was better just being buds, you know? We kinda figured that with everything that happened, it was best just to forget it. It's tough to beat a jinx. Anyway, I figured if we'd kept on, one of us would've been dead inside a month. It was getting way too freaky."

"Oh." Clark said. Privately, he thought that if he and Lois had given up as easily, they wouldn't be where they were now. "You don't seem too upset," he ventured carefully, repeating his earlier thought.

"Ah, well, actually," Jimmy glanced at Perry. "That's why I need to finish up early. Kelly's gonna be waiting for me at the Ice Palace. She wants to go skating this evening." His look turned sheepish and hopeful all together.

"Close up shop at four thirty sharp," Perry told him, sighing. "Soon as you finish up that batch of photos for the late edition, you can hightail it out of here. Never let it be said this old houn' dog stood in the way of true love."

Jimmy brightened. "Thanks, Chief!" He gave them one of his irrepressible grins and then shut it off abruptly as he clapped a hand to his face and headed rapidly for the print room again.

"Kelly?" Clark turned a wondering look on the editor. "Kelly who?!"

Perry grinned. "Cute little candy-striper that let him out of the bathroom your wife locked him in." He laughed at Clark's expression of absolute confusion.

"I can't keep up," Clark decided. He sat back down in his seat.

Perry watched him type for a moment or two, then laid a hand on his shoulder. "Son, why don't you pack up too once you LAN that down, get on home. I can put this one to bed," he said as Clark glanced up at him, surprised. "You go make sure that wife of yours is staying put in hers."

"Well - " Clark hesitated and then said, gratefully, "Thanks, Chief."

Perry nodded. "Cos, if I know Lois," he opinioned, as he moved off with a hitch of a reproving brow, "she's playing music on that laptop of hers right now like the King in Vegas."

"She'll have to find it, first," Clark murmured sardonically, as he went back to his typing.

Perry's rough chuckle trailed him into his office.

***

Lois, it seemed, hadn't discovered the laptop from where he'd carefully secreted it that morning before he'd left for the Planet, after all. And if she'd made the attempt to use the computer on the bureau downstairs and discovered that it had somehow developed a mysterious glitch, she wasn't saying.

But then, it appeared that she had far more important things on her mind.

"I've got just one thing to say to you, Clark Jerome Kent!"

Clark eyed his wife warily with this pronouncement as he casually shed his overcoat and hung it on the rack beside the front door.

She was curled up on the sofa, looking heartbreakingly pretty in a midnight blue sweater and short, gray, pleated skirt which had always been a favorite combination of his.

His eyes narrowed.

One of his favorites, huh?

This was a trap, wasn't it?

He knew that she was tired of him avoiding intimacy with her. In the past four days, he had determinedly banned himself from anything more than the most chaste of kisses and the odd snuggle on the sofa. Her attempts - often blatant - to tempt him into more than that he'd resisted with that infamous stubborn streak of his that drove her insane. Or so she told him. He sighed. He wasn't that happy with the situation himself. But Dr. Patterson had said rest and that meant no unnecessary excitement or exercise to Clark's mind.

It was just that he and Lois had slightly differing opinions on what constituted unnecessary exercise and what didn't.

And his refusal to agree with her on the subject had lead to an increasingly devious round of attempts to change his mind. Yesterday, as frustration had apparently gotten the better of her, she had even resorted to phoning Dr. Patterson to gain his expert opinion on the matter and then had emailed the verdict to his computer at the Planet, while he'd been there.

Clark flushed with the memory. Of course it would have had to be Ralph who sauntered by just as he'd anxiously opened up the message to read:

Dr. Patterson says - JUST DO IT!!!!

strobing on his screen in large, crimson and impossible to miss letters. While a celestial choir in the background warbled:

#Birds do it #Bees do it #Even educated fleas do it…

Clark winced, cheeks reddening further as he recalled his frantic dive to close the message down and his following, awkward and stammering attempt to explain it to his colleague as something innocuous. He wasn't sure that he'd entirely succeeded either. Ralph had eventually slouched off with a definite glint in his eyes.

And now it seemed that she'd gotten tired of the 'subtle hints' and carefully contrived temptations she'd been tormenting him with these past few days and decided to up the ante on him. She hadn't exactly been pleased when he'd refused to accept Dr. Patterson's 'permission' as carte blanche to toss his wife to the bed and ravish her unmercifully - as she'd suggested, batting her eyelids at him in outrageous invitation. No matter what Patterson said, Clark was waiting until he was sure she was fully recovered and that was all there was to it. He wasn't taking any chances.

He studied his wife with a jaundiced eye.

The magazine she'd apparently been reading just prior to his arrival still lay on her lap. Her pose - just a smidgen too calculated, obviously carefully choreographed for maximum effect - meant that the edge of the skirt framed a generous portion of firm hip and thigh and showcased the long, long curvaceous length of her legs. The sweater molded itself to her soft curves, its off the shoulder neckline emphasizing the slim sweep of her throat and the paleness of her skin.

Clark found his eyes drifting over her body as she sat there, watching him >from out of too innocent eyes. His thoughts drifted into dangerous waters. Then he blinked, gave himself a mental shake, and came back online.

Down, boy, he told himself. He sighed again, musing that he really ought to have the measure of celibacy by *now*. Desperate for inspiration, he tried to cast his mind back to their engagement, when he had wanted her so badly and yet, then as now, he couldn't allow himself to give in to the temptation she presented him with. How had he done it? Looking at her now, he had absolutely no idea.

He guessed that it was definitely a case of never missing what you'd never had. And when you'd had it…he sighed again…man, you definitely missed it *bad*.

Clark shook his head slightly. Well, she was just going to find that he wasn't that easy to seduce, he thought.

Ignoring the small, doubtful voice in his head that questioned this commitment, he moved across the room towards her.

"No," he said firmly, pre-empting her and deliberately changing the track of the silent conversation that had passed between them, there in the room: her confidence that she had him on the ropes, his determination not to cave in. He bent down to brush his lips lightly across hers as she tilted her chin expectantly to receive the greeting.

"Dr. Patterson said you need at least another two days rest and that's just what he's gonna get. You too."

The warning was doubled edged, and she knew it, but he chose to continue on the safe track, letting his refusal to make love to her remain as unspoken, subtle subtext. "You're not setting foot within a five mile radius of the Planet till Wednesday, Lois, understand?"

Lois looked up at him, mulishly, as she set aside the magazine. "Or what?"

"Or, I'll just have to tie you down to that chair over there for the rest of the week," he threatened, inwardly delighted that his distraction had succeeded in riling her up enough to make her forget her seduction.

His smugness was short lived. Lois wasn't going to be put off that easily. She'd had four days to work herself up to a head of sexually frustrated steam.

"Oooooh. Promises, promises." She startled him by grabbing at his tie, fingers clenching tight and jerking him slightly off balance as she tugged him towards her. "We'd be more comfy in bed though," she confided with a sultry grin.

Clark cleared his throat. "Well…if keeping you occupied in bed for the next two days is what it takes…" he teased, the closeness of her body against his making him careless for a moment as he made it sound as though he were considering making the supreme sacrifice. Then he frowned as though remembering something. "Except that Dr. Patterson said no undue stress or strain either, remember?"

Lois sighed and let him go.

"Dr. Patterson…Dr. Patterson…" she mimicked tartly and then, as he gave her an admonishing look, sighed again. A tad more heavily this time. "So, what are you doing back here, anyway?" she asked snippily. "Slow day at the office?"

"Actually, Perry sent me home to make sure you were in bed."

"Well, hooray for Perry."

"And you're not," he added reprovingly as he pulled himself clear of her, adding a censorious look for the ambush as he straightened up his tie.

"Well, I just wasn't sleepy."

"Lois - "

"Maybe I need something to tire me out?" she tried, hopefully.

Clark sighed. "Sweetheart - "

She pouted up at him. "Clark Kent, you haven't done anything more than kiss me in four days and I'm tired of it!"

"Lo-is…" he protested that. Did she think it had been easy for him, resisting her?

As though she'd heard the thought, Lois changed tactics abruptly. She let herself settle back against the arm of the sofa and folded her arms decorously behind her head. She stretched slowly, like a languid cat, and her smile turned heavy and smug with satisfaction as one which had just devoured cream as she watched him cover her hungrily with his eyes.

"Lois," Clark tried manfully, although he had to work his throat several times before he managed to produce the words, which rather spoiled the effect of resolution. "You know you've got to rest."

"Well, you can do all the work if you like," she negotiated. "I'll just lay back here and enjoy."

He gave her a stern look. But he was trying not to laugh now, she could tell.

"Lois - " he tried.

"Please?" She gave him the full beam >from wide, pleading eyes. She slid herself further down the sofa until she was reclining fully on the plush cushions. The move rucked up the skirt as she went, enabling Clark to get a clear view of legs that just didn't want to quit and a lot more besides.

She shifted, the leg lying closest to the back of the sofa rising to bend as she let a wandering hand slip slowly down across her thigh to rest on the peak of her knee. She straightened the leg slightly, pointing an elegant toe at the sofa's arm and then bent it again. Clark watched these suggestive aerobics with darkening eyes as she repeated the move a couple of times more for good measure.

Lois let her foot trail back downward and smiled as he caught it in mid descent, his large hands gripping her thigh tight, almost completely enclosing its circumference as he let himself drop to sit on the other end of the sofa. He used that firm grasp to tug her forward until she was dragged onto his lap. He snaked an arm around her back, pulling her up to sit and against his chest as he kissed her fiercely.

He laid her back down, moving with her, until his familiar weight lay heavily atop her. Lois closed her eyes as his lips returned to crush hers, savaging them beneath his own and then moved on to explore the rest of her face, her cheek, her brow, her jaw…

"So, big boy…" she murmured against his ear as his lips moved restlessly against the skin of her throat. "Wanna break the fast?"

"Lo-is…" Her name emerged as a tortured moan, which rather undermined his intention, which had been to demonstrate rock hard resistance to the temptation she was offering. He grimaced.

He stopped caressing her with his hands and lips, levering himself onto his elbows to look down at her in exasperation. "Lois…you think I don't *want* to? Honey, you have no idea how hard it's been, not - "

Lois put a finger to his lips. "Shush," she whispered. "I'm here now."

Clark groaned a protest, but it was impossible. She was an irresistible force and he had no defense against her. He never had.

He surrendered himself to the inevitable as her lips brushed fire and heat against his own and his eyes burned with a fierce longing that had been too long denied as he bundled her close and returned that kiss in kind.

He made love to her gently, without the heat of their usual encounters, their bodies melding in a familiar slow and easy dance.

At last, Lois burrowed into the damp warmth of his shoulder with another sigh and felt his lips brush against her hair. They lay there for a moment, enjoying the embrace and letting the heat of the moment cool. Then Lois began to apply light kisses, barely a flutter of touch against his skin, to his throat and jaw and then up onto his cheek. She paused and smiled, somewhat self-conscious, as she caught his intent expression on her.

"What?"

"Nothing." He smiled and stroked back her hair. "I was just thinking, if any of those villains who seem to delight in popping up to try to kill me now and then ever managed to persuade you on to his team, I'd be a goner. You're deadlier than kryptonite."

Lois chuckled and hooked her arms around his neck. She didn't deny the charge. "You'd best make sure I get what I want then, FlyBoy - keep me sweet and on your team."

"Bribery and corruption," Clark sighed.

"All the very best marriages are founded on it," she told him solemnly. And then, smile flashing though that facade. "Except ours. Which doesn't mean," she added, rubbing her nose gently against his, "that you get out of giving me gifts now and then."

He grinned at her and then, wrapping her tight against him and elevating them until they were upright, he held her easily on his lap. "Talking of which…"

He stood, giving her an affectionate pat against one hip as he set her carefully on her feet, and kissed her swiftly. Then he vanished.

Lois barely had time to adjust to the fact before he zipped to a halt in front of her again, bundle of clothing draped over one arm. He grinned at her as he handed over the midnight blue sweater and gray skirt, together with lingerie purloined from the upstairs closet.

"…get dressed, I've got something to show you."

He zapped back upstairs as she obeyed, curious, and returned wearing gray linen pants and a casual black sweater. His eyes swept over her, appreciative, and he reached to take her hand. "Come on," he said with a smile, tugging her along with him as he made for the front door.

Curious, Lois allowed herself to be lead outside and her lips formed a soft, wondering 'O' as she followed him down the stairs and onto the sidewalk.

There, in place of the dark, bottle green rental Jeep, stood another in a more familiar silver-gray livery. Lois freed her hand from her husband's and walked slowly around to view the double 'L' license plate. Clark watched as she rested a gentle, almost affectionate hand to the Jeep's left fender and ran it along the hood.

"Clark! But…how…?"

"Superman had an attack of conscience," he told her with a slow grin, enjoying the delighted reaction his surprise had generated.

She turned around with a faint frown. "What?"

"Well, he did do quite a lot of damage to it himself. You know, tearing the door off it like that and the rest. So he went to the garage this morning, had a little chat with the mechanics. Couple of photos here, a few autographs for the kids…and they were happy to help move it up the list. Superman even help