By Jenni Debbage <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted January 1999
Summary: Holiday-season stresses of adjusting to new work and family responsibilities pale for Lois and Clark when their children are threatened by the actions of a terrorist group seeking retribution against Americans. Events are complicated by the couple's new friends and the homecoming of newly-wed Jimmy Olsen. The fourth story in the author's "Kent Family" series.
This is my fourth story in the continuing lives of 'my Kent family' and although it may stand alone it's best read following 'The Master Race'. This story deals with the tragedies wrought by terrorists and involves a serious 'wham'. However I hope I have balanced the sadness with a little humour and, as always with my tales, Superman and his family finally triumph. My terrorist gang is purely fictitious and I hope not to tread on any toes.
As before the main characters belong to W B, T N T etc and I am only borrowing them for a time. Please read and hopefully enjoy and let me know your opinion. I love hearing from you.
Julian Kent was looking forward to his first Christmas in Metropolis. In fact it was his very first 'real' Christmas. When his grandfather was alive and he lived with him in England at Sheringham Hall, the festive season had always been an expensively elaborate affair with his guardian playing the bountiful 'Lord of the Manor' to the hilt. Yet for all that, the opulent, traditional festivities had never seemed sincere to the sensitive young boy. This year with his new family, Julian knew that things would be much better. At least so he had thought in the beginning, but as 'the big day' approached his mom grew increasingly tense and his dad seemed to be disappearing a lot. Actually he did that quite frequently, but as the holiday season came ever closer so his dad's vanishing acts increased. Maybe his dad disappearing more often had something to do with his mom's crabby manner. Lately, from personal experience, he had discovered that when she was in one of her 'moods' it was better to keep out of her way.
The disintegration of the loving atmosphere of the family circle worried Julian. Since he had arrived in Metropolis in the summer, he had been happier than at any other time in his young life. The ambience of a caring family had soothed Julian's deprived soul and had brought out his natural personality. To experience laughter and light-hearted teasing was entirely new and heartwarming and to feel himself loved for just being himself was the greatest gift he had ever been given. Only now with the happenings of the past few days, Julian was afraid that his venture into contentment was falling apart and he anxiously believed that he might be the cause. After all he was the new addition to the family equation. Julian did not know that Christmas in the Kent household was traditionally a fraught period. Lois Lane had never quite thrown off her distrust of the season, a response ingrained on her soul by her own unhappy experiences during childhood. With the advent of her own children a more maternal Lois had sought, with some success, to minimize her feelings of insecurity, but nonetheless she could not totally dismiss her irrational irritation.
So too, the lead up to Christmas due to the frenzied preparations undertaken by the citizens of Metropolis meant that accidents and unfortunately incidents of the criminal variety increased, creating additional work for the super hero. Clark suffered pangs of guilt over this forced neglect of his family, yet at present he found it almost impossible to ignore a cry for help. He recalled the silent promise he had made to himself and to his family while he had sat by the bedside of his injured son during the horrifying incident of the summer and in the ensuing months he had held to his decision and reined back on his Superman actions. At this particular time however, when everyone's expectations of happiness were so much greater than normal, he buried his misgivings, vowing to redress the situation later, and expanded his range of duties once more. His biological children, knowing his dual identity, took it all in stride. Not so Julian, who was thoroughly baffled by his new father's constant absences.
Also this year, the stressed-out couple had an additional work-related problem to contend with, namely that of filling temporarily the position of editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet. Superman had been shocked and saddened to find, while attending yet another traffic accident, that his 'chief ' Perry White had been the victim of a driver who had clearly been celebrating the holiday season too liberally and who on his drunken way home had run a red light and crashed into the editor's vehicle. The tough, conscientious newsman was thankfully not seriously hurt, but his broken leg and ankle combined with back injuries meant that he would be confined to bed-rest over the holiday period. Lois had stepped into his shoes many years before when she and Clark were newlyweds and, because the added responsibility of the position had created such havoc in their marriage, she had promised herself that never again would she assume an editorial post. However, she had been unable to resist Perry's pleas when she had visited him in hospital the day after his accident. Obviously in pain, the older man had been willing to put his own needs aside for the sake of his beloved newspaper and struggle from his bed against his doctor's orders, unless he could safely leave his job in the hands of someone in whom he had complete trust. Lois, seeing the additional appeal in the eyes of Alice White, could not resist their supplication. With the proviso that Clark should share a joint editorship, Lois consented to fill the post while Perry was indisposed. Of course, both Lois and Clark knew that there was little chance, given the seasonal increase in his Superman duties, that Clark would have the time to pay more than lip-service to his new partnership in the editorial field, but Lois was adamant that she would not be promoted above her husband again. The situation was the only available option though it was far from ideal and it meant that Lois shouldered most of the added responsibility at a time when she was at her most vulnerable. Thankfully Martha and Jonathan, as ever, were there to step into the breach and the younger couple once again felt very grateful and humble to have such a wonderful and reliable backup.
But then Julian was unaware of all these facts and he desperately hoped that his new parents were not regretting having adopted him. When the family had returned from England the adult Kents had been fairly apprehensive that Julian, having spent most of his life in the sheltered environment of the Norfolk countryside, would be overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of life in Metropolis. All their fears had been groundless, as the young country boy was excited but unfazed by the teeming city streets with their busy, often brash citizens. Even the prospect of starting his first semester ever at school had not been sufficiently intimidating to upset his overall contentment. And though a few of the more unkind kids had, in the beginning, made fun of his strange accent, with the support of Joel and Clara he had succeeded in shrugging off the insults and within a few weeks he had been accepted as another of the popular Kent children. The teachers and their assistants had been impressed from the outset by the quiet boy's good manners, his intelligence and his obvious joy in his new life and country.
Settled into his brand-new life style, Julian had assumed that the coming holidays would be a particularly joyous occasion, but this had proved to be untrue and the disquieting thought that he was the reason for the strained atmosphere haunted his dreams. Racking his brain for a solution to this problem, Julian had settled on a course of action that he prayed would reverse his supposed fall from grace. If he could prove to his parents just how much he treasured all that they had given him then perhaps harmony would be restored. In the past, his English grandfather had always shown appreciation by the giving of a gift and though Julian had never valued these presents, that was mainly because the old gentleman had employed his secretary to carry out the actual buying and had never made the time or the effort to discover what his grandson would most enjoy. Julian would not make the same mistake. He intended to personally find that special gift for each of his parents and he had set about this pleasant task with gusto. The first hurdle he had encountered was the realization that his small amount of pocket-money would hardly cover the cost and this had seemed to be an insurmountable problem until several days ago when the family had received a formal greetings card from the firm of 'Beckworth and Blackwood', the trustees of the Sheringham Estate. Inspiration struck the troubled child as he remembered the words which Clark had spoken to him when telling him of their adoption plans; 'The title and heritage will always be yours.' Which meant that all the money that belonged to Grandfather was now his and though Julian didn't really understand the value of his inheritance, he felt sure that there ought to be enough money for his needs. He had only to ask Mr Beckworth to send him some of the money now, but that posed another puzzle, how to contact Mr Beckworth without revealing his plans to Mom and Dad? After some consideration he had decided to recruit the help of his grandma Martha, since his understanding grandmother seemed capable of solving any problem. When first he had broached the subject, Martha had assured him that there was really no need for such a gesture, but with her remarkable insight, she had quickly perceived that Julian needed to show his parents how much he treasured the life they had given him and that he would sincerely enjoy finding special tokens to embody his appreciation. Recognizing all of this Martha enthusiastically chose to aid him in his quest. The weekend before, the two conspirators had phoned Mr Beckworth and asked the executor to release a certain amount of money (mainly Martha's estimation of what would be suitable) for the youngster's purpose. Once the reasons for the request were explained, the solicitor readily complied and the money was transferred with surprising speed. That evening, after school, Grandma and he were going Christmas shopping.
The streets and stores of Metropolis were filled with bustling shoppers, with the less fortunate members of society hiding in doors and alleyways hoping to beg or steal from their more affluent counterparts. Christmas lights and garlands were strung throughout the shopping malls and brightly decorated trees adorned every available space, while scarlet-clad Santas called out seasonal greetings and welcomed prospective buyers into the stores they fronted. Seasonal music was piped out into the throng and an occasional small choir added their voices to the cacophony. It was the type of scene that Lois Lane most abhorred, yet Martha derived a great deal of pleasure from witnessing Julian's wide-eyed wonder as he gazed around himself, thoroughly bewitched by the colourful, noisy pageant. His trance was, however, short-lived, as he determinedly dragged his grandmother in the direction of a small and sparsely decorated jewellery store. A little discreet probing previously had uncovered the fact that Lois had a penchant for cameos and whenever the two entered the shop, the boy headed unwaveringly towards a showcase which held a variety of the items in question. Slowly browsing through the display case to find the exact one that would best suit his mother, he eventually chose a small but exquisitely cut pendant hanging on a fine gold chain, which was, Martha discovered with relief, well within the limits of Julian's finances. An attentive assistant wrapped the gift and, dropping it into a small bag, handed it to the excited child, who now turned his attention to selecting a present for his father. This task proved to be more difficult and Julian and Martha searched the cabinets for sometime before the boy's eyes were drawn to a glass counter where, displayed beneath a gilt-edged poster which proclaimed 'For the Superman in Your Life', there rested a gold watch with a tiny replica of Superman's famous 'S-Shield' embossed in silver on the watch face. Immediately Julian's mind settled on the timepiece. Superman was his hero and the boy could think of no better compliment than to bestow on his father a gift bearing the hero's crest. A bemused Martha could only stare open mouthed as Julian swiftly enquired if there was enough money left to cover the purchase and when he received a blank nod he proudly instructed the salesclerk to gift wrap the watch. The older woman pondered the question of whether she ought to persuade Julian to choose another gift, but seeing his glowing face as he accepted the package, she hadn't the heart to suggest that this was not an appropriate present for Clark. Besides, her sense of humour relished the irony and she couldn't wait to see her son's face when the gift was unwrapped.
Their purchases made successfully, Julian happily discovered that he had a small amount of money leftover so he proposed that they find a cafe where he could thank his grandma for her assistance by treating her to her favourite coffee and danish. Hand in hand they left the jewellery store and crossed the mall to a festively hung coffee house pleasantly unaware that their movements were being carefully tracked by a pair of ice-cold, angry eyes.
Christmas was not a religious festival that was celebrated by those of the Muslim faith yet Umar ibn Said's current and beautiful mistress would expect nothing less than diamonds and, as money was not a problem to the enigmatic billionaire, he had chosen to indulge her desires, this time. He was not foolish enough to believe that he and the blond-haired, desirable woman shared a deep or meaningful relationship, rather each used the other to assuage their disparate needs. For the present he required the cover that an association with a white female provided and she enjoyed the prestige that being known as his 'girlfriend' supplied, hoping that it would aid her in her dream of breaking into the movie business. Unfortunately, although the female was a highly successful supermodel, she was sadly lacking in acting talent and not even his vast wealth could help her to attain her goal, but that was not a concern for ibn Said. He used her body in more ways than one and though his traitorous sexual desires were satisfied by her ministrations his mind and soul cringed at each encounter.
No one in the western world knew of his true origins or of the hatred that blazed, hidden deep in his heart for the Caucasian races. How could these unbelievers understand the hardships and the horrors that he had witnessed whilst growing up in a country that was held in a stranglehold of isolation by the rest of the world? Some years previously the U N had declared sanctions against his homeland that had effectively cut them off from their traders and their foreign investments, leaving them to struggle alone in an ever-mounting morass caused by a state of siege. And all because his countrymen remained staunchly loyal to their chosen leader and followed faithfully the one true religion. Over the years his people continued to fight to produce enough food within their own borders but, due to unnatural weather conditions and the lack of fertilizers to enhance the parched soil, there were never sufficient supplies to go round. So they survived in a perpetual state of almost tolerable hunger. But when disease hit the population as it had just a few short months ago, its weakest members, the very old and the younger children, none of whom had enough stamina to ward off the ravages of sickness, died by the thousands. Of course the pious self-righteous member states of the United Nations had decreed that both medical and essential food supplies should be exempt from the embargo. A more than useless resolution as they had not taken into account the avaricious traders who wholly took advantage of an opportunity to swell their bank accounts at the expense of a nation who had no venue in which to air its grievances. His countrymen were forced to accept the poor quality grain that eventually arrived at their ports and more disastrously the medicine that was bought and paid for, but which frequently was never delivered. While the rest of the world went successfully about their lives so ibn Said's compatriots continued to suffer and die.
The brown-skinned, elegantly dressed man followed the two objects of his study into the busy cafe and, finding an empty table in an obscure corner beneath a tall fern-like plant, continued unobtrusively to survey his quarry. He had recognised at once the small boy who during the summer had been the focus of the western world's media while the stories of his aristocratic grandfather's abduction crimes and subsequent death filled every newspaper and T V screen. As ibn Said's gaze remained glued to the hereditary 14th Viscount Sheringham the watcher recalled in detail the follow-up news report that the child had returned to Metropolis with the couple who had rescued the young nobleman and that the very rich orphan had in fact been adopted by the said couple; the renowned reporting team of Lane & Kent.
Clearly the child was thriving in his new environment if his unconcerned gaily chatter were any measure of his well-being and the elderly woman by his side was obviously besotted. Why was it that the fates should decree that one child should be so fortunate in his life while others were consigned to a life of heartache and death? The fair-haired youngster would be of a similar age to his own nephew Kali. Then he corrected his musings, the age that Kali would have been if he had lived. The latest covert report from his homeland had contained a personal and heartrending missive, one that informed him of the death of his oldest brother's child. The poor boy was amongst those who had died of the devastating virus that had swept through his land in recent months. A simple influenza virus that in this modern world with its range of antibiotic drugs should have never taken a life, had killed so many and left the broken families behind to grieve. Ibn Said's hand tightened around the coffee cup as he thought of his small nephew who had been a happy, healthy toddler when he had been sent from his country.
His emotions in a turmoil of sadness and anger, ibn Said let his mind wander back over the years to that far-off monumental decision that had formed his life and created his alter-ego of successful businessman and billionaire playboy. In the old country his family's standing was one of wealth and considerable prominence, but more consequentially his elder brothers were important members of an imperious and devoutly religious sect 'The Hand of Retribution'. It had been this faction which had been instrumental in the placing of their president on his seat of power and of keeping him there in the face of the battles and the worldwide opposition that had followed. After the monumental and vastly humiliating defeat at the hands of the unbelievers, the circle concluded that fighting the infidels in open battle was futile and that the only option left to them in their war to convert the world to the rightful path of Allah was one of covert action. Terrorist groups were distributed about the world to create death and destruction and though they had been initially successful, as worldwide security was tightened, more and more of their 'pods' were being apprehended and imprisoned. Recently their only successes had been in suicide missions, though death in the service of Allah was a welcome fate. More regrettably, never yet had they succeeded in assaulting the arrogant Americans in their home country. For that reason, a number of years ago, the ultimate plan was conceived and Umar ibn Said was created. Originally the young man had not wanted to abandon his family and country to their sorry fate, especially since his proposed life would be one of luxury and comfort, but finally he had been persuaded that he was the chosen weapon of Allah with which the faithful would humble the high and mighty Americans and their allies the British who had long been an enemy of the Arab nations since the days of the Empire when they had sought to rule their land. Assenting to the intricate, long-term plot the young Muslim had been smuggled into a neighbouring country whose close ties with the West could be manipulated to assist the cause of 'The Hand' and with the help of the local clandestine group the persona of Umar ibn Said was created, complete with birth certificates, passports and pedigree. In the ensuing years aided by the advice and financial backing of the all-powerful clique, coupled with his own talents and ambitions, Umar had been incredibly successful, much more than his patrons had ever dreamed. As his power and wealth increased and his decision to ingratiate himself with his enemies made him a popular confidant of the West, the information he had been able to supply and the cover he had been able to provide his fellow partisans had led to the fulfilment of many mass killings. The time for his warriors to strike at the heartland of America was fast approaching and the nefarious plan that was even now taking shape in his vengeful mind would soon strike terror at the heart of this country and make its people weep just as his countrymen did as they stood by helplessly and watched their offspring die. Suffer the little children…
Meanwhile there was much preparation to be done to ensure the success of this ultimate mission and he would need a liaison between himself and the undercover group of terrorists who were awaiting his call to arms. He quickly paid his tab and exited the cafe, passing the objects of his long vigil who were completely oblivious of his attentions, and hurried to his penthouse residence (he would never refer to it as his home) where he immediately contacted his masters and laid before them his future design which was approved, as he had expected, with great acclaim.
The next evening at the Lexor Metropolis Hotel, Umar attended the annual 'Man of the Year' dinner. The Hotel was the city's finest and had been built over a decade ago by one of Metropolis' greatest sons, Lex Luthor, who it had transpired was also one of America's greatest rogues, having reached the pinnacle of his power by employing every devious and murderous subterfuge that was known to man. After a number of years of reigning supreme at the top of Metropolis' V I P list, his empire had been finally destroyed by the skill and tenacity of Lane and Kent and the man himself had been killed during an attempt to kidnap Lois Lane. Over the years various endeavours to recreate the Luthor Empire, usually by a member of his family, had been tried and thwarted by the same investigative team, with the help of their friend Superman. Despite the infamous connotations, the present owners had chosen to retain the name of the Lexor, mainly because the name was synonymous with luxury and style, and partly because native Metropolitans and visitors were still intrigued by the memory of the long-dead anti-hero. Umar was certainly one of this number and although the man had not been a member of the true faith, he had sought to emulate Luthor's career and with the fulfilment of his revenge, those who had brought down Lex would be themselves destroyed.
Now the prestigious award banquet was taking place in the hotel's sumptuous dining room which had been set out with a large array of tables, each one occupied by the rich and influential citizens of Metropolis. Later, when the accolade had finally been bestowed, the great mirrored doors on the east wall of the room would be drawn back and the guests would spill into the ballroom to enjoy an evening of dancing and celebration. This year the award was surprisingly but thankfully not granted to Superman, perhaps because the citizens of Metropolis were at last becoming blasi about the exploits of the super hero or more likely because lately, for some reason as yet unknown to the public, the Man of Steel had assumed a lower profile. Because of this, there was a greater air of anticipation amongst the invited throng. The field, of course, had been narrowed to the four nominees, but the competition was fierce and each of the chosen was accompanied by his own supporters, lending a more partisan ambience to the proceedings than in previous years.
Sitting at a table with some other members of the business community whom he falsely declared his friends, his glamorous woman by his side decked out in the diamond necklace and bracelet he had purchased the previous afternoon, his eyes alighted on a neighbouring table where the contingent from the Daily Planet sat, waiting in optimistic expectation of their editor Perry White being installed as Metropolis' Man of the Year. The staff of the paper were pleased and excited by the anticipated award that at last recognised the wily newsman's contribution to apprising the city residents of the facts and the truth behind many news-worthy stories and scandals. Perry White had long been acclaimed by his contemporaries so it was good to know that the general public now acknowledged his hard work and dedication to the truth. Sadly, Perry had been injured in a traffic accident just a few days ago and was unable to attend the banquet, but his stand-in editors were here to accept the prize in his name, should he be nominated as the winner. Lois and Clark were looking extremely handsome and relaxed this evening, enjoying the company of their colleagues. As neither of them were the actual recipients of the award, there was no reason for them to suffer pangs of apprehension and unknown to any other member of the audience except his wife Clark was well practised in accepting this particular award, though in the persona of his alternate self.
Dinner, which had been surprisingly good, was now over and the compulsory meet-and-greet hour began, where guests mingled and renewed old friendships and acquaintanceships and hopefully founded new ones. It was during this time that Lois found herself alone in the crowded room, her husband having been snagged by an old friend, Grant Gandell, and the two were now deep into a conversations about the 'Bills'. To tell the truth Lois was not really having a good time. This was not the kind of occasion that she enjoyed, not that she didn't enjoy award ceremonies; the Kerths were fantastic and not only because she or her husband, or jointly, frequently won the investigative journalist category. No, at the Kerths she was amongst her own people and even those she didn't particularly care for at least shared her interest in the newspaper business. Here she was surrounded by strangers and though Lois Lane was a prize-winning newswoman, a loving and supportive wife and mother, while adrift in a sea of unknown faces who smiled politely, yet she surmised artificially, her deeply ingrained insecurities rose to the surface. Besides, purely on principal, Lois felt an antipathy for 'The Man of the Year' award. It was just too sexist to suit her independent feminist personality. Lois hypothesized that she might not object so strongly if it had been reconstituted as Metropolis' Person of the Year and considered women in the nominations for the accolade. Indeed, if she had not been asked to act as Perry's proxy, she would have given the affair a wide berth. Lost in her musings, she did not notice the expensively jewelled woman attempt to negotiate around her in the pressing throng and she started in fright as her arm was jostled and the contents of her champagne glass spilled onto her dress. Her eyes immediately flew to her husband who on hearing his wife's gasp of shock turned swiftly towards her, ready to rescue her if she was in danger. Lois gave an almost imperceptive shake of her head and directed her gaze downwards to the skirt of her dress where the champagne had left a trickling trail as it heeded the laws of gravity and Clark, after sending her a small commiserating smile, returned to his conversation. Meanwhile the woman was vocal in her apologies as she fished some tissues from her beaded evening purse and began dabbing at the champagne traces.
"I am so sorry. I am really such a klutz." She smiled in contrition at Lois as she continued to wipe at the wet mark. "I don't think it will stain, but I'm afraid it must feel very damp and sticky. Perhaps we could pay a visit to the cloakroom and the attendant could have the laundry room fix that for us."
Studying the penitent face that stared up at her from the woman's crouched position on the floor, Lois decided that she really didn't like what she saw. The strikingly beautiful face was framed by a fall of sleek blond hair, which lay like velvet against bared shoulders and the green eyes that returned her stare were openly candid though at the moment slightly rueful. There really was nothing in this stranger's demeanour that Lois could take exception to and yet she felt strangely threatened. Perhaps it was the shimmering beaded dress that clung so precariously to the body it sheathed, or the glittering jewels that the woman wore with such confidence, that caused the alarm bells in Lois' brain to ring. Which was all pretty crazy, Lois told her inner-self. She was in the middle of a crowded ballroom and this person had accidentally spilled some wine down her dress and was now acting very contritely and trying to set matters aright. What could possibly be wrong? Lois forced her suspicions to the back of her mind and set to answering the woman's suggestion.
"No really, there's no need. I'm sure that you're right and that there will be so stain," she looked down at her burgundy-coloured dress. "And besides, in the heat of this room the damp spot will soon dry." Lois did not add the information that she had a very handy husband who could help her with that problem.
"Well, I'd agree with you there. It definitely is over warm in here. I think it might be due to all the hot air that is being spouted." The unknown female rose to her feet and laughed as she gestured round the room at all the gossiping guests.
Lois could not repress a grin. She concurred wholeheartedly with that thought. Maybe her first impressions of this woman had been a little extreme, especially when she heard the next statement.
"I don't know about you, but this whole male bonding scenario makes me a little uncomfortable."
"I feel exactly the same way," Lois agreed. "To tell you the truth, ordinarily I would steer clear of these affairs, but I'm here to accept an award on behalf of a friend, if he should win."
"Perry White, the Daily Planet editor, yes I know. He is an acquaintance of a friend of mine, who holds him in high esteem," the blond-haired beauty confided. "And you are Lois Lane. Although we've never met I am a great fan of your writing. And the fact that you have reached the top in an extremely male-dominated field fills me with admiration."
Sycophancy had never impressed Lois Lane, but the woman's praises seemed genuine and her latter statement was certainly true. During her internship at the Planet and even in the subsequent years Lois had to fight tooth and nail to gain the recognition that her talents so richly deserved. So often in her life she had been passed over in favour of her male counterparts and by those too who where her nearest and dearest. Fortunately for the sake of her career and her sanity, Perry White was not concerned whether his staff wore skirts or pants, just that they should get the job done to the best of their abilities and the astute editor had quickly learned to appreciate Lois' skills. Under his editorship, Lois had quickly mounted her chosen career ladder, but getting in on the bottom rung had not been easy. This woman's empathetic comment reached through the barriers of reserve that Lois had never wholly abandoned. Because of this, she found herself responding in more friendly terms.
"Thank you for your compliments. You don't know the half of it. Thankfully male dominance in the work place seems to be decreasing, although this shindig is a bastion of male chauvinism." Lois' words were said less fiercely than once they had been. Years of being in a relationship with a partner who treated her with equality in all walks of life had mellowed her views on the male species. And indeed, the particular male in question had really no equal here on Earth. Yet never since she had known him had he belittled her or made her feel less than she was, except perhaps that one time long ago when he had been perfectly justified in humbling her and in doing so had gained the respect that she was very meagrely in bestowing.
"I'm glad that I'm not the only female here who is less than impressed," the stranger continued as she offered her hand to Lois. "I'm Paula Raine. I'm a model. Perhaps you've seen my photographs in one magazine or two." This last was spoken with a self-depreciating laugh.
"I'd have to have been living on Mars to have missed them," Lois admitted with an answering grin, at the name she was finally able to place just where previously she had seen this face. She was beginning to enjoy her meeting with the gorgeous Paula, which only proved that first impressions were not always reliable, when the two women were joined by one of the most handsome men that Lois had ever beheld, and Lois was a harsh judge being married to an extremely gorgeous man.
"There you are, Paula. I've been looking all over for you." The Adonis took hold of Paula's hand and raised it to his lips and the look he sent her was close to reverential. "I missed you," he finished simply and sexily.
"Umar!" The blond woman almost melted under his warm gaze. "I was on my way back to you when I'm afraid I clumsily spilled this lady's drink. We've been attempting to repair the damage. Lois, I would like you to meet my friend, Umar ibn Said" there was a slight emphasise on the word 'friend', as if Paula was declaring her possession of this desirable male and warding off possible rivals, "Umar, this is Lois Lane, she works for the Daily Planet."
"Of course she does. I recognise you from your pictures. 'Lane and Kent', the Planet's star reporters." Ibn Said held out a hand to Lois and when she offered hers he took it in a firm yet friendly shake. "In my humble opinion the Planet is the best newspaper in America, perhaps in the world, although I do share an affinity with the top English journals. I also consider that the Planet owes much of its success to the endeavours of yourself and your husband and the sterling editorship of Mr White. And I'm very hopeful that tonight he will be rewarded for all his brilliant work."
"Didn't I say that I had a friend who was a firm supporter of Mr White?"
"Mr White has the good fortune to have such excellent staff," the handsome Arab spoke with mock admiration, which made it difficult for him to force the words passed the bile that rose in his throat. Normally he was so practised at his deception that the lies came easily and swiftly to his lips. For instance, he had little trouble in persuading Paula that he held her in high esteem, but then he understood Paula and she plied a trade, that for all the influences of the western world, was involved in the gratification of the male of the species. This Lois Lane worked in a man's world and even held a position that ought to have been filled by a member of the dominant gender. The teachings of his religion made it clear that women were the chattels of men and this woman would be better employed taking care of her husband and children. Umar's contempt spilled over to this female's husband who would allow her this amount of freedom. Clearly he was a weak individual who had no right to his manhood. His mental reasoning was interrupted by the Master of Ceremonies calling the audience to order. The time of anticipation was over and the recipient of the accolade was now to be announced. In the ensuing scramble as the guests hurriedly returned to their places, Lois said her goodbyes to her new acquaintances and echoed Paula's hope that they would meet up after the presentations. If Lois had only heard the words that the woman whispered to her escort as they made their way back to their table, she would not have felt so sanguine.
"How did I do?" Paula stared into the almost black eyes of ibn Said. "And why were you so desirous of meeting Lois Lane? You 're not growing tired of me?" This last was spoken with a certain amount of trepidation. Her association with Umar was very important in the continuation of her career. "Besides, from all I've heard Lois is a happily married woman. So if your interest is beginning to wander, I suggest you search elsewhere."
"Don't be afraid, my jewel. My tastes do not run to brunettes or for that matter to older women. My silver-haired temptress is still my only desire." Yet for all his assurances he did not divulge his cause for the staged incident with Ms Lane.
Perry White duly became Metropolis' Man of the Year and Lois and Clark graciously accepted the award. The choice proved to be extremely popular as throughout the ball the couple received many congratulations which they promised to pass on to their editor.
Sometime later in the night, having just concluded a slow dance on the crowded ballroom floor, the Kents found themselves standing by Paula and Umar. At first, Lois, lost in the warmth of her husband's embrace, did not recognise the couple next to them, until Paula stretched out an arm and tapped her shoulder. Dragged from her reverie, Lois at once renewed the acquaintance and introduced Clark to her new friends. Surprisingly, the two diverse couples hit it off. Clark admired the blond woman's good looks, but not excessively so, and more importantly he enjoyed her wry sense of humour, that same quality that Lois had begun to perceive and appreciate earlier. Paula's companion was less easily defined, yet as the couples continued their conversation back at the Planet's table, Lois and Clark were pleased to discover that ibn Said shared that streak of the ridiculous and was far more down to earth than they would have supposed for a man of his enormous wealth. Both the Kents recalled with distaste the grandiose ambitions of a similar multi-billionaire that had almost led to their destruction, but there seemed no similarities in the Arabian's character. Unlike Lex, this man held no secrets about the source of his wealth. As he had explained in many news articles, his riches lay in the soil of his country, the black gold which was still stored in abundance beneath his homeland. He was the chosen ambassador of his family; his country's main contact with the western world's business and financial centres. And though at the outset of his almost exile, when he had been sent to university in Oxford, England, he had found the people and customs of this world extremely perplexing, he had acclimatised and soon learned to value its relaxed lifestyle and its freedoms. So much so that on the short occasions when he returned home he found the devoutly regulated traditions too constricting and anticipated with pleasure his return to these shores. Umar had not wholly renounced his faith but exposure to other cultures had bred in him a more lax and tolerant view. All this was in fact the false resume that had been publicised to the western press and never before tonight was it so important that it be believed.
Watching closely the couple he had chosen to befriend, he could discern no obvious signs that they doubted his forthrightness. By the end of the evening the Kents had accepted an invitation to attend ibn Said's New Year Ball. Of course, they would first have to put in an appearance at the Planet's celebrations, but they would be more than happy to join their new friends later. Umar enquired what arrangements Lois and Clark made for their children (he had read somewhere that the couple were blessed with quite a brood) on these occasions and was assured that the children's grandparents were only too happy to babysit. Then too the school which the children attended were holding a party for the kids the next day, so that parents who were perhaps recovering from the festivities would be able to do so without the added challenge of supervising energetic youngsters. Both Lois and Clark were touched by the man's concern and totally believed his explanation that in Islamic culture children were held in high importance and that he was happy to note that the Kents clearly thought the world of their children, a circumstance that was sadly not always the norm in the U S. Too many children, in this Arab's opinion, were what was commonly known as 'latch-key kids' in this thoroughly modern nation. It was sorrowfully the one aspect of his adopted country which he had never come to accept. When the couples parted at the end of the evening's merriment, they found themselves in so much accord that they both looked forward to furthering the acquaintance.
It had been quite a hectic Christmas Eve for Lois and Clark having four very excited youngsters to contend with and having to prepare for the family reunion of the next day. The children and their parents had enjoyed a carry-out dinner, but this time from the Chinese restaurant down the street from the Planet building, which the couple had picked up on their way home. Unfortunately but as normal, they had left their work later than planned. The annual Christmas party had run much longer than intended and both Lois and Clark felt that in their temporary roles as editors, they ought to outstay the rest of their staff, but eventually they had installed a rather inebriated Ralph, the last worker to leave, into a taxi and instructed the driver to take the now very sleepy reporter home, wondering just what sort of reception the tipsy reporter would receive from his wife and mother. It was a never-ending yet ironic puzzle to all his co-workers that the once self-professed womaniser would end up married to a harpy of a woman who browbeat him almost as much as his mother. Lois and Clark had exchanged amused glances as they anticipated the scene awaiting Ralph, then hand in hand they had returned to the car park to find their Jeep (not, of course, the original, but Lois could never bring herself to buy another model and besides the Jeep provided lots of room for a large family) and had driven to fetch their children who were staying for the day at their Lane grandparents, Martha and Jonathan having taken time out from their usual child-minding routine to finish off their own gift shopping.
After dinner the family had wrapped up well, the night being particularly cold with a promise of snow in the air, and walked the short distance to the nearby park to join an outdoor carol concert. Joel had protested to his mother as she had tied a scarf round his neck that he didn't feel the cold. This was probably another manifestation of the boy's escalating powers, his father too was oblivious to changes in temperature, however to maintain his cover Clark had always dressed according to the weather and Lois, ignoring her son's protest, surreptitiously pointed this out. At last dressed to their mother's satisfaction, the children spilled out of the house and hurried down to the park where the trees were strung with coloured lights and a stage had been erected for an orchestra and choir. The concert was already underway and the beautiful carols were filling the night as the audience sang with those on the stage. Numbers of vendors had set up their stalls and during the evening Lois and Clark relented to the requests of their children and bought them tempting snacks, including hot dogs and candy and, as they sipped at their own hot coffee, each silently prayed that tonight not one of the children would suffer the consequences of the varied contents of their stomachs mixed with a large dose of exuberance.
While they were strolling along the paths perusing the booths, they heard their names called and turned around to find a warmly clothed couple walking towards them.
"Paula! Umar! This is a surprise." And indeed it was. These two were the last people Lois had thought to find at a local Christmas festival.
"Not the sort of thing that you thought we would enjoy, eh?" Paula asked, her blond hair covered by a dark wine velvet hood, which joined an ankle-length coat trimmed with sleekly black fur. This woman managed to dress immaculately where ever she went. Lois looked down over her own serviceable wear and tried to fight off a feeling of dowdiness. Normally Lois was a very stylish lady, but in the company of her family both she and her husband liked to relax in less formal attire than was required for their work. Now confronting this couple who appeared to have stepped from the pages of a style magazine, she felt unsure. Help was at hand from an unexpected source.
"Is that real fur?!" Clara, who had moved closer to her mother's side, inquired with a heavy measure of disgust.
"Oh no!" The lovely lady also appeared to share the girl's sentiments. "I could never wear real fur. Believe me. And fake fur looks just like the real thing."
Starting to nod her head sagely Clara decided to smile upon this vision who seemed to be a friend of her Mom and Dad and as the 'fur' in question was held out for her inspection she stretched out her had and ran her fingers through its softness.
"Feels real too," she declared.
Clark, deeming that his daughter had investigated quite enough, pulled her hand into his.
"It's nice to meet you again. Please forgive my daughter's forthrightness, but she's a firm believer in animal rights." As he spoke, he smiled with his remarkable combination of apology and admiration and once again Clara bridled. She tolerated that special look when bestowed on only two other females, neither of whom was this woman. Her small hand slipped into that of her mother's in a gesture of support, while her father continued talking. "We didn't expect to meet you here."
"Did you think that the entertainment might be too unsophisticated for our tastes?" Paula grinned back teasingly, the question disconcerting Clark somewhat. "I may live in Metropolis and work in a supposedly glamourous profession, but believe me, my roots are firmly in Kansas."
This announcement caused Clark's mouth to drop in astonishment. "You originate from Kansas? Which part?"
"Which is near Smallville?" Lois commented and received an affirmative nod of the head from both Clark and Paula who were regarding each other with the new warmth of near neighbours. The unease that had assailed Lois on first meeting this woman returned with added force. There were just too many coincidences.
Until this moment ibn Said had been standing quietly in the background, now he came forward, "Smallville?" He asked.
"Clark's hometown," Lois explained.
"Who would have thought?" Paula was still smiling benignly on Clark.
"Exactly!!" The response came from two female Kent voices which brought Clark's attention back to his wife and daughter. His eyebrows rose questioningly when he recognised the note of scepticism in the twin tones.
"That makes you fellow exiles," Umar supplied happily, but his thoughts were troubled, sensing the suspicion in Lois and Clara. Since his interest had first been drawn to the boy and in turn to the family who had adopted him, ibn Said had conducted some research into their backgrounds, which had not been difficult as Lane and Kent were quite prominent citizens of Metropolis. On discovering that Kent was raised in Kansas he had felt the rightness of his chosen quest, as his mistress too had begun life in a small farmland community. When he had made the decision to get close to the couple, he had considered the tenuous link between Paula and Clark Kent to be an added bonus. Now, witnessing Lois' reaction to that revelation, he was not so certain of his assumption. He had not considered that jealousy might be a particular trait of the reporter, but then according to his research she had not formerly had cause. The pair appeared to be extraordinarily close, both in their professional and private lives.
"How cosy!" Lois' voice dripped with sarcasm as she returned her husband's questioning look with one of her own. Umar was correct in his assumption, though wrong in his reasoning. The annoyance Lois was experiencing was prompted by a distrust of coincidence. In the past, those who introduced a kinship, however minimal, with her family frequently had ulterior motives. Clark, being a more trusting soul, would prefer to give Paula the benefit of the doubt. Sensing the hidden currents that were flowing between the couple, Umar sought to repair the damage.
"Still, Paula, as you told me that you moved from Kansas when you were five years old, I hardly think that qualifies you as a farm kid."
"Well, they do say that a child's informative years have a great influence on the adult they will become." Clark stepped in to defend his new-found compatriot.
"In that case," Paula's eyes drifted over the children who clung closely around their parents. "Your kids will grow into wonderful adults. You have such lovely children, Lois. You don't know how much I envy you." A wistful smile sparkled in her almost emerald eyes and Lois' emotions went on a roller coaster ride. Only a moment before her reporter's instincts had been screaming at her to beware, now she completely believed in the sincerity of the blond beauty's sentiments. Nevertheless, Lois was not about to ignore her instincts. They had served her too well. When they returned to work after the holidays, she determined to ask Stephan Janik to do a little investigating into Paula Raine's background. Of course, she would have to warn the young assistant not to let Clark find out about her request. Her husband was still far too trusting for his own good.
"They do seem to be on their best behaviour, for the moment," she answered brightly. "But, believe me, there are times when being a mother is not a particularly enviable position. Especially a working mom, though I am very fortunate in my in-laws. They are our greatest support and we couldn't manage our lives without them. Perhaps someday you both will experience the joys of parenthood. " And Lois gazed enquiringly at the man and woman before her.
"Perhaps," Umar spoke dismissively. One day he hoped to have children, but the prospect of begetting a child with an infidel filled him with disgust. He determined to finish this speculative conversation and proceed with his machinations. Turning his attention to the children, he queried. "Have you visited the funfair yet?" And when the children shook their heads. "May we Clark? It will be my treat."
The children jumped about expectantly, eagerly adding their entreaties to that of Umar.
"It's getting late, but I think we have some time to spare." Clark's permission was greeted with shouts of excitement and they all headed off in the direction of the music and the lights of the fair. The group spent a harmonious hour sampling the rides and trying to win numerous stuffed toys at the side shows. The youngsters' joy and exhilaration of Christmas Eve, being highly contagious, enthused the adults with childlike energy. Lois and Clark were accustomed to the thrill but for Paula and Umar it was uncharted territory, which unexpectedly they both found themselves savouring. For a short moment the Muslim experienced regret that his plan would destroy this family's happiness forever, then he remembered his own kin and the numbing sorrow from which they were still suffering. A sorrow that was all too common in his homeland. He reminded himself that he was the chosen one, the instrument to punish this evil country for the horrors they had perpetrated on his people. To carry out his 'fatwa' he would have to be strong, to strip himself of all warmth and emotion, to become a weapon for the 'Hand of Retribution'.
Eventually even the ebullient kids began to weary and it was time to take the children home. Again the Kents parted from the fashionable pair with amiable warmth. Surprisingly, the more time Lois and Clark spent with the unusual duo the more their fledgling relationship seemed to bloom. It was unexpected, but it was also satisfying. Since their nightmare experience with Bob and Carol when they had been newlyweds, both Lois and Clark had tended to withhold committing themselves to a close companionship, preferring to enjoy the company of those in whom they could completely trust. As a result, the number of those they counted as friends was small, though that was more than compensated for by the depth of those friendships. Presently, although Lois' feelings for the supermodel and consequently her boyfriend were ambivalent, they were clearly well down the path towards adding to that sparse list. On parting they all exchanged best wishes for the holiday, the children, in their merry mood, even accepting hugs from the silver-haired lady and Lois and Clark reaffirming their assignation for the New Year party.
Back in Hyperion Avenue tension was mounting as four hyped-up kids were persuaded to ready themselves for bed. They quickly assured their parents that they wouldn't sleep a wink. However their protests fell on deaf ears and Clark sternly escorted each one upstairs to bathe Nathan and dress him in his night clothes and oversee the other's bath-time. Listening to the noisy splashes and squeals emanating from the main bathroom, Lois discerned that it would be quite some time before Clark could restore order and join her in the household cleaning. She wistfully let her thoughts drift back to previous years when a small application of superspeed had hurried bath-time along, but with Julian's presence that opportunity was out of the question. It had been the one very minuscule downside to taking the orphaned boy into their family and Lois now regarded the adoption as one of the best things that she and Clark had ever achieved together. With a sexy grin she reflected that Superman would be available when their children were asleep and not only to do the housework.
Yet the children were no more cooperative even when dressed for bed. Exhilaration mixed with increasing tiredness led to frayed tempers and a threatened argument between the three elder children was quickly subdued by their father ordering them to bed with the age-old declaration that Santa did not visit the homes of naughty children. This announcement silenced the quarrel, not because they truthfully believed that they would miss out on getting their presents, but because they seldom heard that adamant tone of voice from their dad. It was a tone that usually was reserved for Superman and it brooked no disagreement. Four very chastened kids kissed their parents goodnight and settled down to attempt to sleep, which amazingly happened within a very short time.
When Lois and Clark finally settled into bed, it was way after midnight. Nevertheless, the house was all tidied up and sparkling clean and the turkey with the stuffing was prepared and the vegetables chopped, all ready to be cooked later. Martha was in charge of providing dessert and Lois was hoping for something very chocolatey. The most enjoyable part of the preparations had been the placing of the numerous gifts beneath the Christmas tree and both parents were anticipating the joy on their kids' faces as they unwrapped their presents. Laughingly Lois had suggested that Clark should wear a Santa suit while stacking the piles of gaily wrapped and beribboned boxes, but he rejected that request out-of-hand. Barring a complete catastrophe, Clark did not intend to don a suit of any colour in the next twenty-four hours. Now that their work for the night was done the two snuggled close to each other beneath the quilt, content to just relax into each others' arms, exchanging light lazy kisses, but Lois had something on her mind and she decided to broach the subject before she drifted off to sleep.
"What do you think of our new friends, Clark?" For a few moments there was silence as her husband tried to comprehend where her obvious trepidation was coming from.
"Well, Umar seems to be a straight-up guy. Different from what I expected of a multimillionaire oil sheik. Unassuming… more down to earth." He felt Lois' head nod against his chest in agreement of his assessment of the man, yet he felt the tendons in her shoulders tighten at his next words. "And Paula is very beautiful."
"You noticed that?"
"Lois, I'd have to be blind or in my dotage not to notice. She is also intelligent, witty and seems a very nice person. However, this gentleman does not prefer blondes." He began massaging the tension from her shoulders as he lifted his head to stare into her upturned face. "He has a penchant for feisty brown-eyed brunettes." Gazing deeply into the depths of her lovely eyes, he wondered if Lois, even after all these years, could seriously doubt his faithfulness or was there something more fundamental in her distrust of Paula Raine. He certainly appreciated his wife's gut instincts for rooting out trouble, he had a fair share of those gut instincts himself, but in this instance they were not showing any signs of alert. Whatever the cause, Lois was upset and he was quite willing, in fact eager to allay her worries. "Perhaps I should just show you on whom my preference really falls."
And Lois uttered a throaty chuckle as her husband's lips closed over hers in a kiss that was neither light nor lazy.
Christmas day was a great success in the Kent household, from the minute the four children had wakened their mom and dad with the dawn; through the early arrival of the grandparents when everyone had excitedly opened their gifts; through the consuming of the remarkably appetising meal, to the moment when they all went sleepily to their beds. There had been a slight glitch when Nathan had opened his present from his Lane grandma and grandpa to reveal a gaudily painted Superman doll and the little boy had consternated the couple by bursting into a fit of the giggles. His grandmother plainly could not understand what the cause of the unrestrained laughter might be and as it could not be explained to her, she chose to take umbrage at the child's disparaging behaviour, huffily stating that most children of Nathan's age would be thrilled by the toy. Fortunately for the peace of the day a distraction occurred in the arrival of Clara's godparents, Bernard and Beth Klein. Everyone was happy to see that Beth was looking so much better since her contact with a terrible poison during the summer. Her return to full health had been a long and painful process but at last she had regained her fitness and recently had resumed her profession as a doctor. In the greetings and well wishing that followed Ellen allowed her ruffled feathers to be smoothed and was gratified to see that her grandson, after his initial unexpected reaction, refused to be separated from his doll and was seen to be surreptitiously carrying on private conversations with the model of his hero throughout the day. Conversations that even the super hero, employing a little of his eavesdropping skills could not understand.
Both adults and youngsters thoroughly enjoyed their day which culminated in a team game of Scrabble, one of Lois' favourite board games. The adults divided themselves haphazardly into four teams with each team partnering one of the children. It wasn't the most serious or competitive game that Lois had ever played and in fact ended up fairly hilariously as the teams sought to outdo each other in the creation of new words. Finally it all became a little too much for the youngest Kent and he ended up with his head slipping very drowsily and a little tearfully onto his mother's shoulder at which point Lois took him off to bed, the red and blue figure still clutched tightly in his arms, while Clark cleared away the Scrabble board and Martha and Ellen went to make supper for the rest of the party.
Soon after supper, the guests excused themselves and, thanking Lois and Clark for the lovely day, they made their way home, happy and tired. Martha and Jonathan were however staying the night in the newly redecorated guest bedroom, a room which had in past years, with the growing family, become the boys' bedroom. When first they had brought Julian back with them to Metropolis, Lois and Clark had found themselves in a quandary. The bedroom was not big enough for three active boys and they had run out of rooms. It seemed that the only solution was for the family to move house, yet Lois had fallen in love with her beautiful brownstone from the very first and now it was full of warm comfortable memories which she would hate to leave behind. So instead, Clark had cleared out the attic and with the help of his father, had installed some large skylight windows and created two new bedrooms in the large roof space, one to be shared by Joel and Julian and a second smaller room for Nathan. The children were crazy about their new domain and the abandoned bedroom was quickly redesigned for its original purpose.
Leaving Clark to tidy up the downstairs rooms, Martha and Lois took the rest of the children to bed, a task which that night was accomplished with unusual alacrity, all the children being particularly worn out from their exuberance. Afterwards, Lois accompanied her mother-in-law to the guest bedroom but instead of leaving Martha by the door she ushered the older woman inside and closed the door, there was something on her mind that needed to be discussed, something that had occurred very early on in the day at the present-opening ceremony, but which Lois had chosen to leave until the two women were alone and would not be interrupted. It was a delicate subject and Lois chose her words carefully.
"Martha, I'm assuming that Julian had your help in acquiring the gifts he bought for Clark and me," Lois watched as her mother-in-law nodded in agreement. "Why would you do that? Julian had already contributed his pocket-money to the children's communal gift. There was no need for him to buy other gifts and such expensive ones too."
Martha pulled Lois over to the bed and sat them both down. Her explanation would perhaps take a while and she sincerely hoped that the younger woman would understand her motives. "Yes Lois, there was every need. At least, Julian thought so. And when he came to me and explained how confused he was feeling, I couldn't refuse to help."
"Confused?! Martha, I don't understand. I was sure that Julian was happy with us." Total bewilderment suffused Lois' face, mixed with a twinge of fear. Had she been so busy with her work and the Christmas preparations that she had misread the state of Julian's mind? Seeking to allay her daughter's anxieties, Martha quickly took Lois' hand into her own.
"My dear, on the whole Julian is very happy and he loves you and Clark very much, but lately he's been a little concerned with everything that's been happening… your insecurities about Christmas…" Lois was about to deny that statement, but stayed silent as she acknowledged the truth of Martha's insight. "Your extra workload. Not to mention Superman's extra activities. Julian did tell me that he tried to confide in Clark, but the poor boy must have chosen a bad moment, because Clark excused himself and hurried away, promising to talk later. Of course, later never materialized. Now I know that the other kids understand about Clark's swift exits and that they're used to your… dislike of Christmas…"
This time Lois could not hold back her objection, although she did look rather sheepish. "I don't dislike Christmas. Well not 'actual' Christmas… just the crass commercialism. In fact, I've come to quite enjoy the holiday, at least the part I share with my family. But I might have been a touch preoccupied…"
"Lois, Julian is a very sensitive child, who has known so little love in his life. Both you and Clark have changed all that, but it is very early days and he is still fairly insecure about his right to be loved. This is his first Christmas with us and he has no frame of reference, so he automatically assumed that the downturn in atmosphere must have something to do with his presence. He thought that if he could show both you and Clark how much he appreciated all you have done for him, then perhaps you would be happy with him again."
Lois was awash with feelings of guilt and familiarity as she recognised the heartrending emotions of self-doubt and frustration that had beset her since the deterioration of her parents' relationship during her childhood. In truth she had never totally conquered these damaging sentiments until the advent of Clark Kent in her life. How could she have let herself, albeit unintentionally, be responsible for engendering those same emotions in another child? The knowledge filled her with remorse, yet nevertheless she was still uneasy about Martha's encouragement of the child's corrective methods.
"But buying his way back into our affections, Martha? Whatever were you thinking? Even if it was necessary, which you well know it isn't." Lois was in full babble-flow. "That's not the way this family works."
"I know that. But Julian had his heart set on this course of action, after all it's highly likely that's what he was accustomed to from his grandfather. Given time, I'm sure he'll come to realise that in this family we value people much more than possessions. And that's up to you and Clark to teach him." Martha was being perhaps a little more brutal with her daughter-in-law than was usual, but she felt that, for Julian's sake, both Lois and Clark should be made aware of the problem. "Besides, I thought that for the moment comforting Julian was more important than considering your or Clark's sensibilities. Mr Beckworth was quite agreeable to forward us the money and they were *not* excessively expensive gifts, when you consider how rich Julian is. He chose both gifts, not I might add because of their value, there were a lot more expensive ones on offer, but because he thought they were right for you, and he was so pleased with himself thinking how much you would like them."
Lois accepted this mild castigation meekly, if Clark and she had been too busy to notice their child's upset then they deserved to be chastised. Martha was still holding her hand and was watching her intently for signs that the famous Lane temper was about to blow. She quickly set about reassuring her mother-in-law.
"I'm sorry Martha, you're right. Julian's feelings are paramount here and I'm ashamed that we were completely oblivious to the problem. And it is a beautiful cameo and I will always cherish it… but a Superman watch…?"
"I did think to persuade Julian to change his mind about that, but his heart was set. He may not know the truth, but to him Clark is the 'super' man in his life and it is a very 'tasteful' Superman watch…" A laugh was struggling to break through Martha's concerned expression and seeing this Lois also started to giggle.
"Clark's face was a picture when he unwrapped the gift and saw what was inside. Clara and Joel thought it was hilarious. I felt sure they were about to give the game away. And Clark realises that unless he wants to hurt Julian's feelings that he will have to wear the watch. I never thought that I'd see the day when Clark Kent would wear Kal-El's shield in public. Jimmy will just love it and no doubt will dash out and buy one."
"He and no doubt a few thousand others. I'm surprised that after all he's seen of the world that Jimmy should still hero-worship Superman."
"Well, we'll soon find out if that is still the case. Jimmy and his new wife arrive back home the day after tomorrow. Clark and I haven't seen him since before Nathan was born, except Superman did talk to him a few months back when he went to help out rescuing the people trapped in the bombed embassy in Africa. Jimmy was there covering the story and they shared a few words but things were chaotic and there wasn't much time for a chat. We've had some phone-calls and exchanged a few e-mails but we're really looking forward to having him home and to meeting his bride."
The two women were a lot more comfortable now that they had dealt with the difficult question and they settled down to gossip cosily about their young friend's marriage.
"That was quite a surprise wedding. I take it that he hadn't told either of you beforehand?"
"No, Martha. We didn't even know that he had a girlfriend. The first we heard about Kiaya was when he phoned us directly after the marriage ceremony."
"And that was two days ago?"
"That's right. I'm still trying to come to terms with the fact that Jimmy is married." The sounds of disbelieve were evident in Lois' voice. "Perhaps when we meet her it will seem more real."
"Do you know much about her?" Martha's curiosity overcame her.
"Not really. It appears that he met her just a few days ago… a whirlwind courtship, so to speak. But he tells us that she's beautiful and wonderful and that they are in love. I pray that he hasn't made a mistake." Lois was obviously concerned for one of her dearest friends.
"Where is she from?" Martha prompted, thinking that it would do Lois good to air her apprehensions.
"From Beirut, the Christian sector, I understand. She was assigned to Jimmy as an interpreter, when he was in that city for an interview or some such thing. According to Jimmy it was love at first sight and when they approached the American Embassy it appeared that she has some very influential friends, because all the impediments to their marriage were taken care of and their wedding took place the day before yesterday. And that is all that we know of the whole affair. Still, it should be interesting to find out more about Kiaya Olsen."
The airport on this post-Christmas day was teeming with commuters arriving back home after the holidays or jetting out to their homes and workplaces. People pushed and pulled their bodies and their luggage carts through the abounding crowds, hurriedly intent on reaching their proposed destinations. Amongst this sea of activity the Kent family stood close to one of the solid square pillars that lined the large entrance hall as if seeking an anchor in the stormy currents. Whilst busy folks eddied around them, Lois and Clark held the perimeter while the children sheltered in the lea of the pillar's structure. The noise levels in the giant terminal were almost unbearable, particularly if you had super hearing. Clark being accustomed to the uncomfortable consequences such raucous environments had on his over-sensitive ears, simply tuned out the background noise, but poor Joel, his powers still in the development stage, had not yet learned to cope with the clangorous assault on his delicate eardrums and was quickly developing a headache.
Noticing his son's acute discomfort, Clark sent an informing glance towards his wife then drew Joel off in the direction of the nearest men's washroom. This locality was also fairly busy but once locked into one of the stalls with the door shut behind them the noise became vastly muted. Clark squatted down in front of his son and spoke in hushed tones.
"You have to try to shut out the surrounding noise, Joel and just listen to the people closest to you. I know it isn't easy, not at first, but it does get better, believe me."
Joel searched his father's face with troubled questioning eyes. "It's all happening too fast, Dad. It's too much for me. I want it to stop. Please make it stop."
Those feelings of desperation and terror Clark remembered oh so well and he fervently wished that he could take all the pain from his son, but that wasn't possible. Joel had inherited his father's genes and the process of creating a new super hero had begun. Pulling the distraught child into his arms for a comforting hug, Clark spoke soothingly.
"I'm sorry son. I can't do that, no one can. But you won't always be overwhelmed by the powers. Pretty soon and with some help you'll be in control. Lately I've been pretty busy sorting out the city's holiday problems, but things will soon be back to normal, whatever 'normal' means for this family, and you and I will take sometime out to try to make you a little more comfortable with your new skills."
The young boy returned his father's hug with more strength than should have been available to an eight-year-old, yet Superman hardly noticed. "Promise me, Dad. Promise me that you'll stay with me. The powers don't scare me half so much when you're here."
Listening to the pleading note in Joel's voice, Clark was directly attacked by a very guilty conscience. He understood that over these past weeks he had neglected his family, as the self-appointed guardian of Metropolis he had little choice, but it pained him that Joel and, recalling his conversation of yesterday with Lois, Julian were suffering because of his lack of attention. Of all of his jobs, being a father was proving the most difficult, though he admitted contentedly, the most rewarding. However, he and Joel could not remain locked in an airport toilet forever. The people awaiting their turn outside might reach a totally wrong conclusion. Clark reached out for his boy's hand.
"We have to get back to your mom now. Uncle Jimmy's plane will be arriving at any moment. Just remember, try to concentrate on my voice and forget about all the rest."
Joel solemnly nodded his head in agreement, but as his father unlocked the door he pulled back against the leading hand. Clark tried to suppress a fleeting exasperation.
"Come on Joel. We can't stay here. It won't be so bad."
"No Dad!! I just need to go… you know…" And Joel rolled his eyes towards the toilet bowl.
"Oh! O K ! I'll be right outside." Sometimes being a father wasn't so difficult.
By the time the two returned to the group by the pillar, Lois informed them that flight 511 from Cairo had arrived and the family made their way to the announced arrival gate, through which, they hoped, it would not be long before one of their oldest and dearest friends emerged. Lois could hardly contain her curiosity and although Clark was more level headed than his wife he also felt a degree of inquisitiveness regarding Jimmy's new bride.
After a substantial period of time the now-famous freelance journalist James Olsen came through the exit, a leaner, older and shorter-haired James but still retaining the ready grin and mischievous sparkling eyes. Leaving the baggage cart behind, he quickly closed the intervening space and threw his arms about Lois.
"Lois Lane Kent! It is so good to see you again after all this time. And looking not a day older than when I saw you last." Jimmy had stood back from Lois and was regarding her with eyes that were blinking back tears.
"Quit the flattery Olsen," Lois tried to hide her own emotion behind a tease. "You obviously haven't noticed the grey hairs."
"No! Not a one," he spoke after a close study of his friend. "Actually I thought to find those grey hairs in Clark's head after having to put up with you for all these years."
Jimmy found himself on the receiving end of a swift slap.
"Oh, I see that you haven't mellowed a bit Lane," he laughed. "However do you put up with her, CK?"
"Sometimes I'm not sure, but life with Lois does have its compensations. I'm glad you're home, Jimmy."
Each man regarded the other for a moment; then, putting their inhibitions aside, they enveloped each other in a bear hug. These two had been through so much in the past that they were almost as brothers. This time tears really did threaten to fall and to avert such an emotional scene Jimmy turned to the expectant children.
"Joel, Clara! And all grown up too. When I left, you were both just little kids." The children were smiling up into his face and he turned his attention to the smallest. "Hey, you must be Nathan. We've never met, but I'm looking forward to getting to know you. What have you got there?" Jimmy reached out and touched the figurine that Nathan clutched to his chest. "A Superman doll! Hey, I'm a big fan of Superman's too."
The toddler grinned back at his uncle. If this new relation liked Superman, then he had to be a good guy. "Daddy got Supaman 'atch'." Nathan confided.
"He has. Well, I shall have to see that. I bet that it's real smooth."
"Julan gived." The little boy announced pointing to an older boy who stood attentively beside Clara. A boy whose fair head stood out starkly amongst the dark-haired Kents.
"Jimmy, this is our newest son, Julian Kent," Clark stated proudly. "We found him when we were on vacation in England this summer and we all liked him so much that we had to bring him home. Fortunately, he quite likes us too. So we adopted him."
"Good for you kid, though I take it that being part of this family is pretty spooky. There's never a dull moment when you're around Lois and Clark."
Julian grinned self-consciously, not quite knowing how to take this ebullient stranger; however, he offered his hand courteously and was gratified to have it accepted warmly, albeit with a twinkling eye.
Lois watched the interaction between her friend and her children while a warm and pleasant glow filled her whole being. It was good to have Jimmy home again, even if only for a short time. Nevertheless, her rampant inquisitiveness began tugging at her consciousness and she hurriedly looked around for the source of her curiosity. Standing a little way back and almost hiding behind the piled luggage trolley, she spied a young woman of Arab extraction. Her first thought was that James Olsen must be clearly smitten, as to describe this female as 'beautiful' was certainly an exaggeration. The girl was youthful with long black hair, pulled back into a ponytail and her complexion was sallow. Kiaya was slim, practically too slim and her eyes reminded Lois of a startled fawn. That last fact was not in itself unexpected. Metropolis during rush hour could confuse even a hard-bitten reporter like herself and she had been born and raised in the city. Lois cleared her throat noisily to attract Jimmy's attention and sent an encouraging smile in the nervous woman's direction.
"Haven't you forgotten someone, Jimmy?" she reprimanded gently.
"Hmmm? Oh, yes!!" Olsen turned shamefaced to his wife and stretched out a beckoning hand. "You can tell that my manners haven't improved much over the years," he said apologetically. "Kiaya, I'd like you to meet my dearest friends, Lois and Clark Kent and their children."
An expressive eyebrow was raised at this introduction. Jimmy was well aware that Lois still retained her Lane surname, but then she reflected that perhaps Kiaya may not understand the western females' ongoing quest for independence. In the part of the world that the Arabic girl came from women were still subservient to their husbands, which meant that Kiaya Olsen was in for a fairly big culture shock. Making a silent promise to assist Jimmy's bride adjust to the monumental changes that living in Metropolis would bring, Lois warmly greeted the strange girl.
When the introductions were finally over and the suitcases loaded into the car, Lois and Clark drove their friends to the Lexor Hotel (the Olsens' financial status had clearly taken a turn for the better) and saw them settled into their new temporary abode. The Kents had offered to have Jimmy and Kiaya stay with them in Hyperion Avenue but Jimmy had declined on the premise that, with such a large family, the house was already overflowing. Perhaps he thought that his wife would be swamped by the lively children. However, they did accept an invitation to dinner later that evening. In the meantime, Jimmy had another introduction to perform. He was determined to visit his old mentor and surrogate father, Perry White, now installed belligerently in a hospital room.
Later in the day, having banished the kids to the play area in the attic while they prepared dinner, Lois and Clark discussed their impressions of the new bride.
"If my memory serves me right, she's not exactly the type that Jimmy used to prefer," Lois stated doubtfully.
"People's preferences do change with time, honey," her husband suggested as he washed and drained the spinach at the kitchen sink. "And a short meeting at an overcrowded airport terminal is barely enough time to form any definitive opinions. Perhaps she improves on closer acquaintance."
"Improves! Huh, you said improves!" Lois seized on his choice of words. "Which means that you were hardly taken with Mrs Olsen, either."
"Not exactly, no!" Clark dried his hands and crossed to where his wife was peeling the rest of the vegetables. Placing his hands lightly on her shoulders, he turned her to face him. "But this is Jimmy's wife we're talking about. For his sake we have to make an effort. She is very young and in a very strange environment. Also, Beirut might not have been an ideal place to grow up in. We have to give her a chance."
"You're right! Of course, you're right. She's probably shy. And I will make an effort to befriend her." Lois gave a determined nod of her head and resumed her task, emphasising her resolution by waving the veggie-parer in Clark's direction. "Poor girl, she needs all the help she can get in this crazy city. I wish I had more time to spend with her, but we have our own problems at home, what with Julian…"
"Joel!! Is something wrong with Joel?" The decibel levels of Lois' voice increased.
"Hush, honey. Remember that he can very easily overhear you. It isn't anything earth shattering, he's just experiencing a little difficulty with the 'powers'. Nothing that a little coaching and a large amount of confidence boosting won't take care off. Just be careful how you handle him, O K?"
"Great! Two of our children are in need of tender loving care and we start back to work tomorrow. I think I need a little confidence boosting myself."
"You can cope, honey. You're Mrs Superman. You're pretty spectacular," To reinforce his words he leaned in and kissed her encouragingly. Lois returned the embrace and it seemed that dinner preparations were about to take a back seat, only one of the partners was still holding a very sharp paring-knife and the other, although invulnerable, still felt a smidgen uncomfortable with a blade resting below his left ear.
"Dinner, sweetheart," Clark reminded her as he broke the embrace.
Dinner, regrettably, was not a great success, a circumstance that had nothing to do with the quality of the food that was served. Due to Clark's vast experience of international cuisine he had, with Lois' assistance, concocted a selection of dishes, many of which would be familiar to a middle eastern palate. But the excellence of the meal could not rescue a night that quickly deteriorated into a social disaster.
In the earlier part of the evening Lois attempted valiantly to endorse her resolution, but each approach was repulsed and each invitation declined. In point of fact Kiaya had hardly spoken during the entire visit, seeming to prefer to talk through her husband. Lois had on occasion interacted with shy people before, indeed when first they met, her husband might have been regarded as reserved. However, this woman took shyness to new uncharted levels. Morose would probably be a more suiting description of Kiaya's character and eventually even the renowned Lane persistence was daunted. Watching her mother's growing discomposure, Clara concluded that she didn't much like her Aunt Kiaya. Being inured to decisive, competent ladies, the youngest of the female Kents found the foreign woman too timorous for her taste and she spent most of the time pointedly ignoring the visitor. Her older brothers were a little more polite in attitude but they too, by an by, succumbed to the awkwardness of the situation and lapsed into silence. Only Nathan continued to chatter obliviously to his new uncle who seemed to share the small boy's feelings of hero worship for the Man of Steel. Yet neither was this a comfortable conversation. Both parents too well aware that Nathan could blurt out the truth of his father's secret identity at any moment. The fact that this didn't happen was the only bright spot in the evening. It was finally left to Jimmy and Clark to trade travel stories and everyone was relieved when the visitors, pleading jet-lag, excused themselves earlier than anticipated and set off for their hotel. The 'dinner from Hell' was over.
Defeat was not something that the temporary joint editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet viewed with equanimity, so Lois had already determined to assault the citadel that was Kiaya Olsen one more time. Nonetheless, as she chaired a progress meeting with her 'heads of departments' on her first day back at work, she reckoned she had set herself an extremely formidable task, a conclusion borne out by Perry White when she had paid him a lunchtime visit in his hospital suite. The chief was needless to say surprised at Jimmy's choice of wife and Lois and he had spent sometime reminiscing of years gone by when Jimmy had been a cub reporter and an incorrigible flirt, with a string of pretty, vivacious girlfriends. Somehow his current amour did not fit the profile, unless both Perry and she and, more significantly, Clark, who optimistically tried to see the good in almost everyone, had completely misread the girl's character. She sincerely hoped that in marrying in haste Jimmy would not repent at leisure.
"Ms Lane! Ms Lane!!" The head of the sports section recalled her attention to the meeting. The decisions on which storylines should be given the lead and those on which more research was needed had already been reached before Lois' excursion into 'la-la-land' and the meeting had pretty much run down while Lois was daydreaming. Shaking off her distractions she speedily summed up and sent her staff off to their respective jobs, confident that the Planet's workforce were the best in the business.
Lois lifted the phone, intent on making good on her decision, when she was interrupted by a visit from James Olsen, who experimentally stuck his head into her inner-sanctum.
"Hi, Lois! Got a moment for an old friend?"
"Of course, Jimmy. You're always welcome. Come on in and take a seat. I'm really busy, but I can always make time for you, especially since you are only around once every two years or so. Would you like a coffee while we talk?"
Jimmy accepted the offer of the seat and the talk, but declined the beverage. There was obviously something on his mind which he wasn't comfortable with discussing. Lois chose to encourage him.
"I'm afraid that you've missed Clark. The kids are on holiday so he's taking them out for an extended lunch. I don't expect him back anytime soon."
"That's O K, I can catch him later. Actually Lois, it was you I wanted to speak to."
"About?…" Lois prompted as a reluctant Jimmy seemed to have difficulty in continuing.
"About… Kiaya and about apologising for last night's debacle. You and Clark must have though that my wife was the rudest dinner guest you've ever entertained." And when Lois tried to refute that statement Jimmy hurried on. "Lois, I know what you were thinking. It was written clear across your face and I don't blame you, Kiaya's conduct was easy to misunderstand. She isn't ill-mannered, but she is nervous and frightened and pretty overwhelmed by Metropolis. And when you consider that just two weeks ago she was a single girl with no prospects of a serious relationship, not to mention a husband, happily working away in her home city, which is believe me nothing like Metropolis, and with her family, at least what she has left of her family, and her friends all around her, it really isn't surprising that she feels a little out of her depth." It appeared that James Olsen could also babble with the best of them.
"I agree, Jimmy, not surprising at all."
"That's why I was about to call your hotel suite," Lois indicated the phone which she had just reset in its cradle. "I thought I might invite Kiaya to lunch tomorrow. You know, just two girls together. No added pressures of children and husbands."
"You were! Thanks Lois, you are fantastic. Kiaya knows no-one here and she really needs a friend. She's been through a whole lot in her life. I mentioned her family; her mother was killed in a bomb attack when she and her brother were just little kids. Then her father disappeared a few years later. They never did find out what happened to him, though he was probably a victim of the death squads. He became just another statistic. Kiaya and her brother were raised by their grandparents and I guess they came to terms with what had occurred. God knows there were a lot of their peers in the same position. Of course, Beirut is a lot quieter now and the people have started to rebuild, but the scars still remain… and the bitterness."
A heartrending sigh escaped from the worldly-wise newswoman. "We are really very lucky here in the U S and we don't appreciate it. Too many children still live in war zones and watch helplessly while their families are blown apart. I'll call Kiaya and invite her out and I promise to keep all that you've told me in mind, but I won't disclose this conversation, unless you want me to."
"I'd appreciate that, Lois. I'm on my way to meet with my dad. He's on a stopover in Metropolis on his way back to Washington. Maybe I ought to have taken Kiaya with me, but I got this gut feeling that the introductions could wait until we all have more time to sit down and get to know each other. My dad is a pretty colourful character to accept in a short meeting and Kiaya was relieved to put it off for a more propitious occasion. Anyway I left her in our hotel room channel-surfing and browsing through fashion magazines. Like women everywhere she feels she might be ready to face Metropolis if she had something chic to wear."
"Great idea, Jimmy! I can offer to take her clothes shopping."
A plan was formed that the friends thought would help Kiaya adjust to her new life as the wife of a successful journalist. Lois even mentioned hers and Clark's plans for New Year's Eve and suggested that the couple might like to accompany them to the Planet's party and then on to the more up-market 'do' at ibn Said's. At the mention of Umar, Jimmy had let out a low whistle. As a free lance foreign-correspondent Olsen had covered a great deal of the turbulent happenings in the middle east and ibn Said's name and reputation was very well known to him.
"How did you and C K swing that invitation? Ibn Said moves in very high circles."
"And you are insinuating that Clark and I don't?" Lois teased with mock indignation but when Jimmy turned a few shades of pink she relented. "Actually we met quite by chance a few nights ago. He and his girlfriend were at the Man of the Year bash and we happened to get acquainted. They are both very nice people and we hit it off right away and they invited us to their party. I'm sure they won't mind if we bring along two friends, but if it will make you feel better I can check with Paula."
Watching the puzzled frown that had settled on Jimmy's face at the mention of Umar, Lois had assumed that he felt uneasy about gate-crashing the party. However, that was the least of Jimmy's concerns. Aware of the Arab's powerful standing in the world (he had himself attempted to procure an in-depth interview with the man only to be told that ibn Said did not interact with the media), Jimmy found it difficult to assimilate his knowledge of the oil-sheik with someone with whom his old friends would be comfortable. Besides, he also knew that Lois and Clark because of past encounters, preferred the company of those they trusted. Unless they saw the possibility of a story. Lois would do almost anything for a story and if they snagged an interview with this illusive V I P then they would have the interview of the year and possibly snag another Kerth Award. Whatever, Jimmy resolved to be there when Lois breached the lion in his den. This visit to his home city was proving to be interesting in more ways than one.
Immediately after Jimmy vacated her office, Lois had placed a call to the number that Jimmy left with her and had been very surprised when the number rang out. During the next half-hour she repeated her call twice but with the same result, which was unexpected because according to Jimmy his wife should be home. Perhaps Kiaya had gotten fed up with T V and magazines and taken a walk through the hotel's shopping mall, so Lois phoned the Lexor front desk and asked that Ms Olsen be paged. This resulted in another failure, so Lois left a message with the receptionist, asking Ms Olsen to return her call. It appeared that Kiaya Olsen was braver than her husband suspected and that she had left the hotel. Weird, Lois thought, and then she shook herself. This job was really getting to her and she was letting her suspicions spill over into her private life, which was not a good thing. Thankfully a diversion was at hand that halted Lois' self castigation. Clark Kent walked into the office that he now shared with his wife and, crossing to her side, he leaned over and kissed her briefly on the lips. As their children seemed to be suffering from a lack of parental attention both Lois and Clark had determined that while the kids were off school that one or both of them would spend lunchtime with their family and since it was Clark who had been repeatedly disappearing on them, he had volunteered to take the first break. He had also made up his mind that during this time the police or emergency services could deal with any interruptions. He had been neglecting his family too much recently and now it was time to repair the damage.
"Hi honey," Lois smiled brightly upon him, all thoughts of Kiaya leaving her mind as she welcomed Clark back. "How was your lunch with the kids?"
"Great! They enjoyed themselves anyway and I did too, apart from the fact that the actual lunch tasted like cardboard. Can anybody tell me why kids love junk food?"
"Ah, there you have one of the mysteries of the universe. Ranks right up alongside why when you put socks in the washing machine in pairs they always manage to come out singly or why you wait forever at a bus stop and then three buses come along at once? I think that it's obligatory. Never mind, baby," she said patting his cheek consolingly, "I'm sure that the kids will grow out of it. Here let me get you a coffee to make up for it." So saying she pushed herself up from her desk and, picking up her empty cup, she proceeded to fetch the coffee. Clark put up a hand to intercept her but she stepped aside. "No! No! I'll get it this time. I feel like I've been stuck behind that desk forever and I need to stretch my legs."
Of course, Lois could have played the boss and called her assistant, but neither she nor Clark chose to pull rank for the incidental things and the hard-working secretary was far too busy to fetch and carry.
While Lois was gone Clark crossed to the smaller desk that had been brought into the office for the duration of their stint as acting editors, which might be longer than they had first surmised as Perry's whiplash injuries now appeared more severe and the doctors were suggesting corrective surgery. It wasn't an ideal situation, they were happiest in their positions as investigative reporters but they couldn't let Perry or the paper down and it was promotion with an enhanced salary. Clark was about to boot up his P C and check his e-mail messages when the phone rang.
"Good afternoon," he spoke pleasantly, "Clark Kent here. May I help you?"
The caller seemed to hesitate for a few moments, then a soft accentuated voice answered. "Hallo Clark. This is Kiaya Olsen speaking. I believe that Lois was trying to reach me."
"She was?" Clark was surprised by this information as Lois had been decidedly displeased by the Arab woman's behaviour of last night. Nonetheless, he knew that Lois was scrupulously fair and exceedingly loyal and he realised that she must be willing to go the extra mile for the wife of one of their dearest friends.
"Clark?! Clark, are you there?" The voice at the other end of the phone sounded anxious.
"Yes! Yes, I'm here, Kiaya… er, Lois has just stepped out of the office for a moment. Perhaps I can take a message." As he talked, his wife came back through the door, balancing two steaming mugs and a stack of files. "Ah, Kiaya, Lois has just come back in… I'll put her on." Mouthing a warning to Lois, he passed over the phone.
"Hi Kiaya," Lois interjected a note of cheer into her voice, "I'm glad that you returned my call."
"I'm glad that you called me," came the quick answer. "It gives me a chance to apologise for my bad manners. I'm afraid that I was exhausted after my trip, but that doesn't really excuse my behaviour. I felt sure that you and your family would disown me and that made me sad. Jimmy thinks so highly of you and your husband and I would be dishonoured if I was instrumental in creating a rift between you all."
"Kiaya, you're taking this all too seriously." Lois soothed taken aback by the depth of the girl's emotions. "Being a stranger in a strange land would make anyone act a little crankily. I understand and I'd like to start again if you would?"
"Yes, please," Kiaya exclaimed eagerly. "I do feel somewhat out of my depth, but I've decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and acting like a timorous mouse. Metropolis is my husband's home and so it is mine. It is time I started to explore."
To say that Lois was surprised by this transformation was an understatement and she could not resist yielding to a little probing. "Is that what you've been doing this afternoon?"
"Right. Jimmy had to go out and I was bored alone in my room, so I went out walking. I felt that I would be safe in a busy street in broad daylight. And you know, Lois, I found that I was enjoying myself. Metropolis is so… vibrant… exciting. If you could spare the time, I would love for you to show me around. And if… no I couldn't ask… Jimmy tells me that you are such a busy person… I couldn't impose."
"You would like to go shopping?" Lois queried. "That's not an imposition, Kiaya. In fact I was going to suggest lunch and an afternoon visiting the malls."
The two women now seemed to be in perfect accord and the phone call closed pleasantly after they had made arrangements to meet at noon the next day.
Staring thoughtfully at the phone, Lois tried to assimilate the new and improved version of Ms Olsen with that of the reclusive dinner guest of the previous night.
"Penny for them," Clark's voice cut into her reasoning.
"Clark, would you describe me as paranoid?" And when her husband's eyebrows lifted, she quickly explained. "Over the past week I have met two women, both of whom have set my nerves on edge and yet neither one appears to have any suspicious connections."
Clark chose to ignore his wife's question. Instead his mind latched onto her last statement and the connotations which followed. "You've run background checks on Paula and Kiaya?" The look of shock on her husband's face warned Lois that perhaps she had over stepped the mark and she had the grace to blush guiltily.
"Well yes, on Paula and I do think that we ought to find out a little more about this woman whom Jimmy met and married without seeming to know much about." As Clark rolled his eyes in horror at this piece of information Lois sought to excuse herself. "I was concerned for our friend's happiness. That's perfectly understandable."
"Lois, not everyone we meet is a criminal. This is Jimmy's wife, for God's sake!"
"Exactly! And she is acting very strangely."
"She's extremely shy, but that is not a crime."
Lois shrugged her shoulders. "Well, it seems that Kiaya Olsen is no longer shy. We're having lunch tomorrow and then we're going shopping."
"As a friend I hope, Lois." And when his wife would not meet his eyes. "This is not a story, Lois. Promise me that you'll drop this investigation."
When Lois finally lifted her eyes to her husband, she was surprised to see herself looking into the stern face of Superman, not that the suit was in evidence, but there was no doubt that the Man of Steel was present. "Promise me, Lois." And that was a command.
Lunch and the shopping spree passed off astonishingly well, with Lois deriving a considerable amount of pleasure at showing off her well-loved city to a star-struck newcomer. Kiaya adopted the role of a younger sister who prized her mentor's opinion and the two women spent a comfortable afternoon in each other's company. However, Lois did have some lingering reservations and during the next evening after the kids had gone to bed, she ventured to voice her concerns to her husband, even though she recognised his continued annoyance with her suspicions. Yet for all his disapproval, she could not wholly dismiss her instincts. Clark was doing some re-writes for a human interest story on how the new local bylaws on vagrancy had turned the holiday season for the homeless community of this cosmopolitan city into a time of exceeding loneliness, fear and extreme discomfort. He had originally planned to publish his story in the Planet's special Christmas edition, in his 'letter from the editor', but his new responsibilities and his job of super hero had intervened, so now he was determined that it should appear in the last edition of the Daily Planet for the year 2005.
Knowing that Clark would not be too enthralled with her interruptions she tread warily. Stepping up behind him, she slid her hands gently onto his shoulders as he sat at the desk, busily typing at the keyboard. Reflexively her fingers began to massage the muscles of his broad shoulders and he moaned appreciatively at her ministrations. Lois loved the feel of her husband's warmed silken skin that so effectively hid the steel-like muscles beneath and Clark more than loved the effect that her actions were having on his body. Still he had a job to finish and then he had a son to attend to, having already informed Joel that when the rest of the family were asleep, the little boy had an appointment with Superman. The two were going to Smallville where Superman was intending to coach Joel in the use of his budding powers. Nighttime was not ideal but with his current workload Clark had little time to spare and there was an upside to the chosen schedule; the rest of the children would not be aware that they had gone; and darkness would hide their actions from any prying eyes. Aware of all these pending tasks, Clark disappointedly shrugged off Lois' gentle hands.
"Honey, much as I'm enjoying what you are doing to me, I'm going to have to take a raincheck," he twisted in his seat and gazed up at his pouting wife. "Remember that I promised to take Joel to the farm tonight and if I don't finish this," he indicated the screen of his laptop with a wave of his hand, " in the next few minutes I am not going to meet deadline and I really want this article to go out in tomorrow morning's addition."
"I could take a look at it for you and wire it through to the office, if you need more time with Joel," Lois suggested helpfully.
"That's kind of you Lois, but I don't want you editing out the touchy, feely stuff." Well did Clark realise that his wife was uncomfortable with 'emotional pieces' although she had mellowed through the years and occasionally when she chose to champion a cause she could wring tears from her readers. However, on the whole she left these 'mood' editorials up to her husband.
Lois raised her hands, palms outwards to Clark. "I promise that I will not change a single word… well hardly a single word. And I will certainly not change the mood of the story. Trust me, sweetheart."
"You're being very supportive, Lois." He was thoughtfully searching the beautiful face before him for some clues. Due to past experience he recognised that his wife had something on her mind and she was wondering how best to approach him, which meant that this was something that he wouldn't like. "Out with it Lois. What's bothering you?"
A soft hand slipped round his shoulders again and she leaned into his body. "I realise that this is a taboo subject with you Clark, but I'm sorry I just can't leave it alone." She paused for a moment then with customary gusto she dived right in. "Do Christian and Islamic Arabs actually like each other?"
"Hmmm, back to Kiaya again." Thankfully Clark sounded more resigned than annoyed as he contemplated his answer. "At the moment they're not killing each other, but I suspect that there's a lot of bitterness left over from the massacres, even though they happened years ago. But now they are working towards reconciliation, which has to mean something. On a more personal level, I'm sure that there are some who get along, perhaps are even on friendly terms. Why do you ask?"
"You know that I invited Kiaya and Jimmy to Umar's party," when she received an affirmative nod, she continued. "Jimmy was all for it, but I had reservations about Kiaya's acceptance and yet I couldn't have been more wrong. She was over the moon. Practically drooling."
"Umar is something of a celebrity in that part of the world."
"Clark, he's a celebrity in every part of the world. Yet I somehow thought that since her family was nigh on wiped out by Muslims that Kiaya might not be too keen on socialising with a prominent member of their religion."
"Sweetheart, that is precisely the kind of thinking that started the whole deadly debacle." Taking Lois' hand he pulled her down onto his lap. "Perhaps Kiaya and Umar are adult enough to move on. And I wish that a certain tenacious reporter would do the same." When he saw that she was not completely convinced. "I don't know, maybe she fancies him."
"But she's married to Jimmy." After a few seconds of consideration, however, she rejected his suggestion. "Nah, that's not it. I doubt that Kiaya is fickle." Lois was contemplating the evening gown which the girl had eventually chosen. The grey velvet dress was remarkably plain and from the high neck to the long clinging sleeves and the ankle skimming skirt, it cloaked every inch of Kiaya's undoubted attractions. No, Kiaya Olsen could in no sense be described as a flirt. A brush of soft lips across her cheek broke through her contemplations.
"Lois, you are overreacting to all this. Now, while I understand that we have both been under a great deal of pressure lately, let's not go looking for trouble. Let's just enjoy a happy New Year party with our new friends. And just to prove that I do trust you implicitly, I'll take you up on your offer to edit my copy." Clark turned his attention from the lovely woman sitting on his knee, to his children tucked safely in bed in the upper-reaches of the brownstone. "The kids are all asleep, even Joel, maybe I should just forget about Smallville tonight."
"You can't do that, Clark." The mother in Lois objected even knowing that Clark would have to wake their son. "You did promise Joel and he would be very disappointed if you broke your word. Besides, the kids will be returning to school soon and who knows when you might get another chance."
"O K, baby. We won't be gone so very long. I promise that I'll have him back before midnight. A couple of hours should be enough for a superboy to start off with."
Lois slid off his lap as he abandoned his story to her care and, stepping back, he spun into the suit. Moments later Superman was standing by Joel's bedside gently shaking his son awake. The little boy came quickly to his senses.
"Hi Dad, are we ready to go?" The underlying excitement that infused Joel's words reinforced Lois' estimation that her son would definitely have been crestfallen if his father had sought to postpone this trip.
Putting a finger to his lips Clark shot a warning glance towards the other bed in which Julian lay relaxed in sleep. As Joel emerged from under the covers, a smile hovered on the hero's lips when he saw that the boy was prepared for this excursion, being fully dressed in his darkest clothes. Superman lifted Joel into his arms and without a sound the two floated out of the room, leaving behind one extremely shocked and wide-awake young boy in the opposite bed, hiding under the refuge of his quilt, his eyes as round as pennies.
Happily unaware that their departure had been witnessed, the two only super-powered beings on this earth hovered in the night sky above the Kansas farm, whilst the boy sheltered from the chill winter air, cosily wrapped in his father's cloak. Ascertaining that they were all alone in the close vicinity, they alighted by the barn and quickly went inside. Superman lit the storm lanterns, carefully shielding the glow from the outside world. The dim light threw weird shadows against the wooden walls and cast into unfamiliar relief the old agricultural equipment that littered the barn (there were some parts of Jonathan Kent's former life with which the retired farmer was unable to part). Some nooks and crannies of the structure remained in darkness and the overall effect was somehow eerie, yet both man and boy felt comfortably at home in the familial surroundings. Besides, each was intent on the task at hand.
"What now, Dad?" Joel demanded, anxious to begin.
"This is your lesson, son. You choose." When the child seemed undecided Clark concluded that a little suggestion would not go amiss. "Which of your new powers gives you the most trouble? Because that would be a good place to start."
"I don't like the noise, Dad. Sometimes I hear too many things and all at once. It makes my head ache and I can't shut it out."
Clark empathised with the boy but at present he was here not to coddle but to teach. In learning how to control the powers, Joel would gain the greatest relief. Superman listened to the silence of the dark countryside, which when you took time to listen wasn't really silent at all. He smiled encouragingly as he turned to his son.
"This isn't exactly the ideal location for learning about noise control, but maybe we could go about it from the opposite angle. Coach you how to focus only on certain sounds."
Tilting his head up, Clark became aware of the winter wind whistling through the denuded branches of the tall trees that surrounded the farmyard and the different sound it made as it ruffled the icy surface water of the lake nearby. Clark selected to start with the closest and hopefully graduate to a wider area of sound.
"Listen, Joel," he whispered softly, not wishing to offend his son's over-sensitive ears. "Do you hear the wind?"
Joel copied the directional tilt of his father's head. Whilst concentrating fiercely and slowly the small boy's eyes lit from within as enlightenment dawned. Watching closely the expressions flit across the young face Clark prompted again.
"What do you hear, Joel? How does it sound?"
"Like it was sad… as if it were sighing in the trees. And the branches… they're creaking and squeaking." Joel continued to listen raptly but the noises that came to him this time were separate and distinct. He went on wonderingly. "The wind's blowing up the pond. There are waves lapping against the rocks at the edge… it sounds a bit like a swish and a gurgle… and Grandpa needs to make some repairs 'cos there's a shutter banging somewhere on the house."
Clark laughed at that last response but decided to set his son a small test. "Can you tell which shutter is broken?"
Joel's eyes widened in surprise. "You can tell?" And when Superman nodded a yes, the boy closed his eyes in concentration. After a moment he responded. "I think it's round the back of the house, maybe one of the kitchen windows."
"That's really good," Clark encouraged. "It's the one by the left of the back door."
Father and son exchanged satisfied grins, then Joel continued with his voyage of discovery. All in all, Joel overheard a dog barking on the Irig property, next door to the Kent farm; a decidedly noisy and rowdy party a few miles closer to Smallville and the subsequent visit that the revellers received from the local police patrol; the steamy and escalating encounter of a young couple who had parked their car up on the bluff, a favourite and enduring spot for Smallville's courting couples. Here endeth the first lesson. There were certain things that Clark decreed that his son was just too young to learn. However, judging by the giggles which his son could not quite suppress, he understood that Joel was sneaking a quick preview. Superman growled sternly.
"Joel! Super heroes do not eavesdrop on other peoples' sex lives… private lives! I mean private lives." It seemed a diversion was required. "I think that we should do a little work on your heat vision."
"That's cool, Dad. Ever since the summer I've been scared that I might set something alight when I didn't mean to. What if it happened at school?" Joel's voice was full of horror. "Then everyone would know about me."
This was a fear that was shared by Lois and Clark, yet frightening Joel further would not improve matters. A blue-clad arm sneaked around the child's shoulders and drew him in for a hug. "Let's not worry about things that haven't happened and concentrate on teaching you control. And you can always wear glasses."
"DAD!!" His son's aggrieved tone informed Clark exactly what Joel thought about that suggestion.
"O K, let's get busy."
The next hour was spent in Joel trying to burn holes in pieces of board that Superman held up for him. Very slowly the aim of the laser-like beam became more accurate though only powerful enough to leave a charred ring behind. Superman was not unduly worried about the intensity of the power, assuring his son that it could take some years before he attained the full strength of his powers and abilities. Most importantly was the fact that the child had under control the forces that were available to him. Before leaving for home Clark scoured the barn and found a box of old bottles which would make ideal practise targets. Three of the bottles were set on the top spar of a wooden stall and Clark stood Joel only a short distance from the targets and instructed him to try his skills. Two of the bottles toppled from their resting place as Joel burnt the wooden rail beneath the objects, but the third slowly began to glow then cracked loudly as the heat increased. Joel shouted in triumph at this small success and he continued to train his vision on the wooden stall. Clark was also proud of his son and, picking up the fallen bottles, he repositioned them for another attempt. Unaware that Joel was still employing his laser-beam he stepped into the line of fire. Within a few seconds an acrid smell wafted through the gloomy sepulchral like barn. Joel screamed a warning and clamped his hands to his eyes. The Man of Steel swiftly assessed the situation and brought it under control, the only casualty being the red cape which now sported a small but noticeably blackened hole just below the bright shield. The thinner and more susceptible material had fallen victim to an evolving superboy and Clark's famous aura did not always protect the cape, as unlike the suit it did not cling so closely to his body.
Joel was standing rigid with fear unable to tear his hands away from his face. This scenario was exactly what had most worried him; the fact that he would start a fire and hurt some innocent bystander. Of course, he recognized that he couldn't really hurt his dad, but what if it had been someone else in his family or perhaps one of his school friends. Maybe glasses were the answer. Clark's first intention had been to read the riot act to his son, yet as he witnessed the frozen stance of shock and fear, he concluded that Joel didn't need to be instructed about his wrong-doing. The small boy was obviously well aware of his misdemeanour and had been scared very badly by how easily it had occurred. Crossing the barn floor Clark knelt by the forlornly frigid figure and pulled the hands from the child's face.
"It's all right, Joel." He gathered the boy into his arms and soothingly rubbed his hands up and down the now trembling back. "No one got hurt. And the barn is still in one piece."
Gulping down his sobs, Joel pushed back to stare intently into his father's eyes. "And you're not mad at me?"
"For a nano-second, perhaps a little. But I think that you appreciate just how dangerous a mistake you made. You must never, ever trigger your heat vision without first checking that the sight is clear." Clark could not forebear to remind his son. "And I ought to have been paying more attention."
"You're not to blame, Dad. *I* did wrong and you won't always be around to put things right. I'm so sorry." The tears were now flowing profusely down Joel's cheeks. "Maybe I do need to wear glasses."
"Mmmm… you *are* taking this badly." Deciding that a little light relief was in order, Clark pulled the cloak from his shoulders. "You know, son, the only thing that got hurt here was the cape." And holding it up he poked a finger through the singed hole. "That's a small price to pay for learning a very important life lesson. Except your grandma might not see it that way. This is my newest cape. She made it just last week to replace the one that got burned in the oil-tanker fire. I guess she's going to have to get out her sewing machine again."
"You couldn't repair it?" Joel hopefully questioned.
Assessing the damage for a few seconds, Clark finally shook his head. "Afraid not! This cape is a goner! So looks like you better save your apologies for your grandma." The red cape was wrapped round Joel and, ruffling the thick dark hair that was so like his own, Clark swept his boy into his arms. "Come on, let's go tell your mom how we did."
The pair arrived home to find an anxious mother restlessly stalking back and forth across the living-room floor, a dog-eared romance novel long since abandoned on the coffee table. When they came to rest in front of her Lois warmly embraced her super heroes, quickly sensing that something had occurred.
"Is it particularly cold outside," she indicated the cocooned body of her son, "or is there some other reason for not wearing the cape?"
Clark could swear that his wife was telepathic. "We had a small accident."
"No! *I* had a small accident." Joel was swift to speak up. "I burnt the cape."
Picking up on the tiny warning glance that Clark bestowed on her, Lois continued, hoping that she had interpreted the look correctly. A look that said 'I've already dealt with this, now it's your turn to make it better'. "Oh dear! Well you're in exalted company, son. Didn't that Old English King Arthur burn the capes?"
"No, Lois. It was that Old English King *Alfred* that burnt the *cakes*. King Arthur was the one with the round table."
"Smartypants!! Is there anything you *don't* know? Anyway what's so remarkable about burning cakes that it should be chronicled forever. *I* do it all the time."
"I don't think that the actual burning was the significant part, but the fact that even important men, like kings, can sometimes make mistakes." Clark pointed out helpfully.
"I know that, Mr Wise-guy," she teased and at a muffled giggle from their son, both parents deduced that their strategy had been successful. "Let me have a look at this burn and see if it can be rectified, then you are going off to bed, young man."
However, after a quick study, Lois came to the same conclusion as her husband; the cape was irreparably damaged. Which mishap, because of his parents light handling of the matter, Joel no longer viewed as the catastrophe of the season. He decided to push his luck and requested a glass of hot chocolate and a cookie; after all, practising super skills really took it out of a guy. Laughing brightly together the three went arm and arm into the kitchen. So concerned were they in dealing with Joel's problems neither one of them had spotted the blanket-clad boy on the stairs, watching and listening in growing horror to what he had witnessed.
When Superman, with Joel in his arms, had departed from the boys' bedroom he had left behind a very distraught child. How could Mom?! How could Joel?! How could Superman?! The thoughts tumbled through Julian's shivering body. He had lain awake in his bed for hours, debating whether he should tell his parents that Joel had flown off with the super hero… and had called him Dad! If that were true and Joel was the son of Superman, then it meant that Mom and Superman had… But here the eight-year old boy's suppositions ground to a halt. It wasn't that he was completely naive about the things that married people did and sometimes people who were not even married. Billy Sheldon's big sister had a baby and she wasn't married. It had been the talk of the school a few weeks back and Billy had got real upset when the kids had teased him about it and said the baby was illegitimate. Of course Mom was married but if she had a baby to someone who wasn't her husband, did that mean that Joel was illegitimate? What was illegitimate? Laying in his darkened bedroom the troubling questions had whirled in his brain, but one thought had arisen from the confusion; he wouldn't tell his Dad because he understood how much it would hurt Clark to know that his son belonged to someone else, especially since that someone else was Superman. That knowledge was making Julian feel sick and maybe he had misheard the words. He shouldn't make any decisions without first giving his Mom a chance to explain. Pulling a blanket from the bed he slid it round his shaking shoulders, he felt so cold inside, and went downstairs to question his mother. Only he never made it to the living room. A gentle 'woosh' heralded the return of the super hero and Julian looked on in growing torment as the scene played out beneath him.
The child's instincts were to seek the comfort of his father, who he assumed must be already asleep in his room, but a stronger inherent compassion held him still. Clark Kent had saved his life and brought him to a new world. Julian could not now destroy the world of the man he loved so much.
The Daily Planet's New Year party began at 9.30 p m and was proving to be a great success. The desks in the newsroom had been pushed aside to allow room for dancing and two large tables, ranked along the side wall under the big window that was regarded by most as Superman's entrance, were groaning with food and drink. Young Stephan and his friend had been nominated as Deejays for the evening on the strict premise that they would play a selection of 'golden oldies' amongst the current crop of top discs and if Stephan appreciated what was good for his career, then some of these classics would include a number of Elvis hits. The atmosphere was one of friendship and relaxation and though Lois considered that she and her group, due to their attendance later at Umar's more elite gathering, were a trifle overdressed, she was determined to have fun. There had been a point during the day when it appeared that she had little chance of attending either celebration.
From the moment that Clark had switched off the alarm in their townhouse the day had been fraught with frustration. As Lois had struggled to wakefulness, she had heard a child crying and it did not take a lot of investigation to discover that the baby of her family was a very sad little boy. Pulling herself from her warm bed she intercepted Clark coming from the bathroom, a towel wrapped round his damp body, on the same mission of comfort as herself. Instructing Clark to dress and see to the rest of the children's breakfast she padded barefoot into Nathan's bedroom. The sniffles that had started the other day had developed into a full-blown head cold and her son was now a very hot and tearful toddler, who only wanted to cling to his Mommy for comfort. She enfolded the sweaty-skinned child in a blanket and carried him downstairs, reflecting that her older children had never been sick and wondering if this was a sign that in Nathan the human genes predominated. Somewhere on the top-shelves of the kitchen cupboards she kept a variety of children's medicines (just in case), ones which Bernard and Beth had determined would not harm these unique children. It certainly seemed that in this case a dose of 'Calpol' might be beneficial.
Clark, at once assimilating the woeful state of his baby, crossed to the mother and child as Lois sat at the table rocking her son gently and, taking care that Julian was not attending, he blew a cooling breath over Nathan's heated body.
"I believe he's running a temperature, honey. Maybe you should give Beth a call and have him checked over."
Lois nodded and smiled her thanks for Clark's helpful action. "I intend to and I'll stay home with him today, but that means rescheduling our plans." She sounded a tad disappointed at this last thought. So was he. He had been looking forward to having Lois all to himself tonight and not as the mother of his family, albeit a well-loved family.
"Oh well, sweetheart, that's the joys of having children." He squeezed her shoulder in commiseration as he spoke.
"I still think that the rest of you should go to Grandma Martha's," she reiterated. "There's no point in ruining all of our plans." Lois was well aware how much her children loved their grandparents company and staying over for the night was a great treat. The joyful shout that greeted her decision was proof of that thought. The original plan had been that all the children would spend the night as well as the usual day with Martha and Jonathan and that the older Kents would deliver the children to their school's New Year party, being held the next afternoon. That way Lois and Clark could enjoy themselves without worrying unduly about the welfare of their kids.
"Good idea, honey." Clark measured out a dose of the pink medicine and handed it to Lois, who encouraged Nathan to drink, telling him that it would make him all better. Thankfully the medicine was pleasant tasting and the toddler complied with his mom's request, sinking back into her arms when he had drained the last drop. Satisfied that Nathan was not in imminent danger, Clark turned his attention back to his older children. "Come on kids, finish your breakfasts and hurry up and pack for your stop-over at Gran and Grandpa's. If your mom's staying home today it means that I'll be twice as busy. So the sooner I can drop you lot off the sooner I can make it into work. And remember and pack for tomorrow's party too." Lois sincerely hoped that the clothes her children chose to take with them would be appropriate, but for the moment dressing-up the children was the least of her worries.
Pleased that they were still getting to attend the school party, Joel and Clara, answering their father's instructions, jumped down from their places at the table and rushed upstairs. Julian, on the other hand, sat very still, gazing off into space, completely oblivious to all that had taken place. Lois raised enquiring eyes to her husband, who shrugged and bent down to whisper in her ear.
"He's been like that all morning. I asked him if something was bothering him but he just looked at me as if he would burst into tears. It's not like him to be so inattentive, so I figure that there's something wrong. I guess that he'll tell us in his own time."
This was a worrying turn of events as both parents had concluded, after their long talk with Julian about the 'gift incident', that they had laid to rest the boy's fears that they regretted the adoption and indeed with a lot of added attention Julian had seemed to return to his customary contented nature. Now this strange behaviour.
"Don't worry, baby," Clark continued in hushed tones, "he's probably just contracted Nathan's cold."
Well of course, what else could it be? She was so used to her older children being inordinately healthy (if you didn't include contact with poisonous substances) that she never considered illness, but Julian was totally human and therefore prone to succumbing to earth-type germs. Lois really had to stop herself from seeing bogey-men round every corner. She reached a hand over to cover the boy's hand that rested on the table. There were two reasons for her action; the most obvious to gain his attention and the other a clandestine means of discovering if he too had a mild fever.
"Julian, sweetheart, do you feel all right?"
The hand beneath her's was snatched away and the boy turned horrified eyes towards her.
"I'm not ill!" Julian almost shouted and he turned and ran from the room.
Clark went to follow, but Lois raised a hand to still him. "I don't think he'll tell you anything right now." Trying very hard to retain her composure in the face of the disintegrating day, Lois advised her husband. "Explain to Martha what has happened, though we don't really know what has happened, if anything. Julian confided in her before and maybe he will do again. Maybe we're making mountains out of molehills and he just doesn't want to admit to feeling unwell. Maybe he's afraid that he'll be stuck here with me if he is ill."
"That's a lot of 'maybes', honey."
At that point Nathan uttered a sigh and, turning their gazes on the child, they realized in relief that he had fallen asleep. Lois rose to carry her youngest son upstairs to bed and when she at last had settled him comfortably and returned downstairs, the others were ready to leave. Bidding each other goodbye, Clark noticed that Julian refrained from planting his usual kiss on his mom's cheek and listening to the change in Lois' heartbeat, he discerned that she was also well aware of this omission. Promising to call later for an update on Nathan's condition, Clark herded his other offspring out of the door.
As it turned out the day was not quite the disaster that Lois had dreaded. Beth Klein had stopped by on her way to her clinic and after a quick exam had pronounced that Nathan was suffering from nothing more serious than a bad cold and that with a little care he should soon be back to his hyper-active self. Shortly after the doctor's departure, Ellen Lane had descended on the brownstone to take charge of her ailing grandson, decreeing that she and her husband were more qualified to care for a sick child. The organising woman had phoned her daughter at work only to be informed by her son-in-law that Lois was home baby-sitting Nathan. Ellen swept into the living room at Hyperion Avenue and, taking control of the situation, which this time Lois was happy to allow, she bundled her grandson into a thick quilt and carried him off to her home where Lois was sure the baby would receive the best of care and pampering. If Lois, as a child, had suffered from the lack of parental attention she had to admit that as grandparents both Ellen and Sam had improved beyond recognition.
Now that she was at a loose end, Lois took a leisurely bath and dressed for work. The morning had proved to be traumatic; however, as her mother had offered to keep Nathan overnight, it appeared that she and Clark could go to the party after all. This redevelopment probably meant a late night, so she elected to have her lunch at home and go into the office later. And there her life took another downward turn. Arriving in the newsroom she found Clark in the middle of a deepening crisis, not of the super hero variety. The pressmen and the truck drivers had just been informed that their negotiated generous remuneration for working the holiday would not be paid to them this year because the exalted bosses who resided in the upper reaches of the Planet building had adjudged that their current profit margins were too slim and that in order to improve the situation the manual staff would have to take a pay-cut. This information had not been viewed with equanimity by the workforce and an immediate walk-out had ensued. When Lois arrived she found her husband desperately trying to placate the men, whilst remonstrating with the accountants whose callous and untimely directive had precipitated this disaster. She instantly flung herself into the fray and the joint-editors chose to divide their efforts. Clark, who shared a common bond with the workmen, having grown up helping his father doing hard manual labour on the farm, would tackle the job of persuading them to return to work, while Lois cajoled or bullied the 'suits' upstairs to change their resolution. It had taken all of their energy and their arbitration skills (skills which Lois was surprised that she possessed) before the situation was resolved. Finally in the early evening both sides agreed that while the triple hourly rate would not be used an additional holiday bonus would be paid. The presses began to roll and the truck drivers prepared their vehicles for the delivery to the news vendors of the early edition of the Daily Planet and once again the foremost news journal would be the first to hit the streets on the first day of the year 2006. With a workable peace if not total harmony restored, together Lois and Clark finalised the layout of tomorrow's edition, then, turning their work over to the night editor, who would put the paper to bed slightly earlier than usual due to the festivities, they left for home.
Utilising 'Superman Express', they called in on both sets of their children. Nathan was found dosing in the arms of his Grandfather Sam, watching his favourite video, 'The Lady and The Tramp'. There had been other more current films which had taken his fancy but he always fell back on this old and trusted story. A number of other video boxes lay piled next the machine and Nathan clutched his Superman doll to his chest and the old careworn blue blanket that had accompanied Clark to earth so long ago was tucked round his small form.
Ellen had opened the door to the couple and, drawing them inside, had put her fingers to her lips and led them through the living room into the kitchen.
"Nathan's doing fine," she whispered not wishing to disturb the man and boy snoozing in the front room, "His head and throat still hurt and his little nose is all red and tender, poor baby, but his temperature is almost normal and there really is nothing for you to worry about. These head colds take time to burn themselves out and you can be sure that your father and I will take good care of him."
"We know, Mom. We just wanted to see him for a moment." Lois re-assured her mother but on her next words tears filled her eyes. "It's just so hard to see him ill and not be able to help him. He is my baby, Mom."
"I know, dear." Ellen's arms slipped round her daughter's shoulders and she squeezed sympathetically. "But it is just a cold, believe me. You've been very lucky with your children, Lois. Apart from that horrible man poisoning Joel this summer and of course, that terrible time before Clara was born and her having to have a blood change and all, your children have been very healthy. Nathan will be fine, trust me." Slipping her other arm about her son-in-law's waist she forcefully began edging them towards the outside door. "Now off you go and enjoy your parties. Sam and I have everything under control."
The older woman had always had a tendency for snobbishness and she was particularly pleased that her daughter was now mixing in the circles of the rich and famous. Many years ago it had seemed that her eldest child would make her entrance into the hallowed halls of the elite of Metropolis at the side of Lex Luthor, but that man had turned out to be a monster and thankfully Lois had realised her mistake at the alter and had refused to go ahead with the wedding just minutes before the police had arrested Lex for numerous crimes. The whole episode had been a total disaster but finally Lois had found happiness with Clark and though she liked and respected her son-in-law, there was something so wholesome about him, she did wish that he was not quite so unassuming. Now Ellen was determined that nothing should stand in the way of Lois and Clark's attendance at the city's most elite party. Within minutes the couple found themselves standing outside the Lanes' apartment. Not quite sure how to redress the situation, they shared a weak grin and took to the air to visit with their other children.
Here they received a warmer greeting, though the problem with Julian was not resolved. During the visit the boy had clung very close to his father, but had shunned his mother's attentions. Obviously Lois had done something to upset the child, only she had no idea what that something might be. Martha had shrugged apologetically but confessed to being unable to get Julian to talk about what was bothering him. She added that Jonathan's attempt had also failed. The couple had stayed while the kids ate dinner; then, wishing them goodnight and instructing them to mind their grandparents and enjoy their party next day, the two had flown home to dress for the evening.
From her vantage point on the balcony in front of the elevators, Lois reviewed her revelling staff, completely content with her life, apart from the mild worry about her youngest son's health and the intriguing question of what was going on in the head of her adopted son. Oh well, a girl couldn't have everything and when you considered the problems she and Clark had encountered in the past, life was fairly calm at present. Tomorrow she would attempt to solve these small puzzles, but tonight she intended to carouse and to do that she needed her husband, who was at this moment dancing with Judy, a new recruit to the Planet's stable of journalists. And a very pretty one who to Lois' sharp eye seemed a tad too comfortable in Clark's arms. Judy appeared to be regarding her boss with pretty much the same amount of adoration with which Lois used to regard Superman in the early days of their relationship. Of course, Clark wouldn't notice and would even laugh at the suggestion, but Lois was sure of her facts; she recognized hero-worship when she saw it. Lois pushed her way down the crowded ramp, negotiating her way round Ralph, who was surprisingly sober tonight and was holding a glass of orange-juice in his hand. However, when she noticed the woman who stood possessively by the reporter's side, she found his sobriety not so unusual. Ralph's wife had chosen to accompany him to the party. After a quick greeting to the couple, Lois made her way across the crowded floor, passing Jimmy and Kiaya locked in each others' arms. Kiaya spied Lois over her husband's shoulder and the new bride sent her mentor a smile which said that she was enjoying herself immensely. Returning the warm glance Lois surmised that perhaps the Arab girl would fit into this life more smoothly than she had first considered. Dismissing the Olsens' problems for one of her own, Lois determinedly bore down on Clark, her face taking on a predatory look, and as she reached him she planted a firm hand on his shoulder.
"Excuse me, Judy, but this is where I claim back my husband." The voice was territorial but not unfriendly. "I'm sure that there are lots of other male staffers here that are just dying to dance with our pretty new apprentice journalist."
Both dance partners turned in the direction of the voice and Lois was surprised to see a tinge of thankfulness in her husband's gaze.
"Hi, Lois. Did you want me?" Even his voice sounded eager.
Lois decided that perhaps a tangible demonstration of their love for each other might be in order here, so wrapping her body around his and pressing close she said huskily. "Always, sweetheart." And accentuating the point, she kissed him very thoroughly. After a long moment, Clark lifted his head and absently smiling in Judy's direction he apologised.
"Sorry, Judy, but when my wife calls…" He left the sentence suspended in the air as he swept his wife into his arms and danced off. "Thank you, honey," he said wholeheartedly. "You know, baby, you might be right about that girl." Lois had reported her suspicions about the nature of Judy's feelings for Clark once or twice in the past. "She was getting far too close for comfort there. I don't know where she would get the notion that I might reciprocate these feelings."
His wife just smiled indulgently at him. Too often in the past Lois had tried to explain that there were some people who misinterpreted his genuine concern and caring for others to mean something more, but Clark just never understood the message. He would never change, thank goodness.
The Kents and the Olsens witnessed the countdown to the New Year at the Planet and then shortly after took their leave to attend their next venue. When they arrived at about 1.00 a.m., the celebrations were well underway and though the party was not quite so raucous as the one they had just left the atmosphere was convivial and friendly. Paula Raine had been standing in the hallway of the sumptuous apartment waiting to welcome the new arrivals, whom she had witnessed arrive at the entrance of the 'tower' on the security T V screens. She stepped forward and warmly bade them best wishes for the new year.
Following the introductions Paula escorted her new guests into the heart of the apartment and Lois and Clark, although now accustomed to the homes of the rich and famous were impressed by the quiet elegance that graced Umar's home. Even more impressive was the gathered company. Politicians mixed with influential businessmen and exalted churchmen rubbed shoulders with military generals'. Paula made the rounds, introducing the couples to those they had never met and it quickly became evident that not only Metropolis' elite were in attendance. The field widened to include the whole country and as Umar came forward to make his apologies at having been delayed in meeting his personally invited guests, the scope extended to embrace the world. Umar explained that he had been deep in discussion with the Israeli ambassador when Lois and Clark had arrived, reminding the Planet editors that this man was one of the few eminent negotiators who kept alive the fragile truce between the Palestinians and the Israelis. This night they were indeed mingling with some of the most influential beings in the world and Lois wondered with ironic amusement how these people would feel if they knew that they were in actuality conversing with *the most* influential man on the planet, albeit in his other guise. It was a strange phenomenon, but most people changed personality slightly when talking to the guy in the red cape, assumed their best behaviour, as it were, and thus Superman did not always get an accurate picture of events. How often had Clark used his own persona to gain an insight into that with which the hero was involved? Most folks opened up to his friendly openhandedness and he had used his dual identity frequently in the past in carrying out both of his jobs.
Tonight, however, everything was off the record. Neither Lois or Clark was interested in work and they found themselves enjoying enormously the congenial gathering. Thankfully both Jimmy and Kiaya appeared to be having just as good a time. Finishing a slow dance to the strains of a highly talented jazz combo, who had set up their instruments by the large picture windows that filled one wall of the large room, Lois planted another kiss on her husband's delectable lips and excused herself to find the ladies' cloakroom. She spotted Jimmy talking with Paula and another woman who Lois recognised as one of Paula's gorgeous working colleagues. So, Jimmy had not lost his eye for beautiful women. Marriage hadn't changed him all that much, Lois thought as she slipped through the washroom doors. She only hoped that Kiaya would not be upset by the sight of her husband in rapt conversation with the two sexy models. Then she forgot about the Olsens as she noticed with dismay the waiting queue for the use of the facilities. Lois was in a hurry, perhaps due to the amount of champagne that she had consumed this evening or more likely due to the fact that with the thought of being all alone with Clark at home she had scarcely been able to leave him be and had spent most of the night glued to his side. Whatever the cause, her situation was now quite desperate. She very intelligently deduced that a grand apartment such as this would most certainly have other bathrooms, even if they were private. This small point did not deter her; after all, guests could hardly be expected to resist an imminent call of nature. Undaunted, the slightly tipsy investigative reporter continued to explore and her persistence was rewarded when she found a quiet bedroom with an adjoining bathroom. Lois quickly availed herself of its loo and on silent feet sneaked back to the rest of the party, passing a slightly open door to a dimly lit room as she retraced her steps. Only this was not the way she had come. She would have recognized before the slightly lilting voice of the woman which she had heard for the first time a few days ago at the airport. Stealthily creeping to the side of the doorjamb she pressed her eye to the crack, allowing a few moments for her vision to adjust to the gloom. There were two people in her field of sight and judging by the voices the other occupant was male, but she couldn't quite make out whether she knew the man or not and what was more frustrating they were talking quietly and in a foreign language. Where was Clark when you most needed him? For all that, she didn't need to know what they were saying to understand that they were arguing. Their voices rose a little and the male tones swiftly brought the conversation to an end with what seemed like a command. Kiaya emerged almost at a run through the door and Lois flattened herself against the wall behind the door. Almost afraid to move, Lois delayed a few minutes before returning to her spying, but the room was empty. Damn! There must have been another exit to the room. Hurrying back to the main gathering, Lois surveyed the guests hoping to spot those who were missing and those who had just returned. That task was nigh on impossible. There were too many people in attendance and this was not the only room in the apartment being utilised for the festivities. Lois' glance swung swiftly towards Jimmy, but Kiaya was not by his side. Paula on the other hand had been joined by Umar and, judging by the rapt look on her face, was thoroughly enjoying his attention. Two strong arms slid round Lois' waist and a familiar voice whispered suggestively in her ear.
"You know, sweetheart, I would dearly love to take this party somewhere a little more exclusive," and he joined his words with actions as he nibbled and licked the sensitive spot behind her ear. "How do you feel about saying our goodbyes and flying home with Superman Airlines?"
Lois could feel herself melting into his embrace, but much as though her thoughts followed his own, she had to impart what she had witnessed. She turned in his arms and took hold of his lapels.
"Clark! You'll never guess what's just happened."
"Is it a job for Superman?" He was immediately on alert, though his heart sank at having to abandon his night of passion with Lois for the sake of a super hero job.
"No, silly, it's Kiaya. I spotted her having this conversation with an unknown man in a darkened room all on their own."
Relieved that his plans would not be thwarted, Clark had no real interest in Kiaya's actions. "Well, Lois, it isn't a crime to be talking to a strange man at a party."
"In a private room," Lois reminded him. "And they were talking in a foreign language, so I couldn't really overhear what was being said."
"Lo-is, you had no right to eavesdrop." He was beginning to be annoyed. "Besides, it may have escaped your attention, but Kiaya is foreign. So are a lot of the other people here, including our host. It's highly probable that she met someone from her own neck of the woods and that they reverted to their own language."
"It wasn't Umar. He's with Paula. And as much as I want to like Jimmy's wife, she can't compare to Paula…"
"Honey!" Clark touched a finger to Lois' lips, stopping her in mid-babble. "So you saw Kiaya in a room talking in her native tongue to an unknown man. That's hardly an offence."
Put like that, even Lois had to admit that she was reaching, however she wasn't prepared to give up just yet. "They did look very suspicious."
"Right at this moment everything looks suspicious to you." Taking her hands from where they had fisted into his tuxedo, he gently soothed them. "Baby, this holiday season has you in a frazzle. What with Joel and Julian and now Nathan, you're in need of a little distraction and I know just the way to distract you. Let me take you home and I promise you that I'll make you forget all your troubles."
At the blaze of desire that scorched its way over her body, following the trail of his heated gaze that slowly travelled down her curves then retraced its path to her eyes, Lois found herself completely losing interest in any topic that did not involve her husband, herself and a bed. "Yes please. Take me home, Clark."
And for the rest of the night and the early morning hours she forgot the fact that had first triggered her suspicions. The fact that Kiaya had professed to having no acquaintances in the U S and that meeting and conversing with a male stranger was an act completely out of the character she had shown to her husband's friends.
It was late morning before Lois Lane finally struggled from sleep into the land of the living. She felt deliciously tired and satiated and a 'Cheshire Cat' grin spread over her face as she relived the erotic images of the past night. From the downstairs kitchen floated the aroma of a farmhouse-type breakfast and regrettably her stomach rebelled at the smell, probably due to the consumption of too much scrumptious food and far too much bubbling champagne. Clark, however, was not effected by any of the above excesses and after his sensual exertions he must now be hungry and in need of one of his gigantic Kansas-style breakfasts. While not sharing his desire for food, a mug of dark restorative coffee would go down well, so Lois dragged her pleasantly tired body from bed and, pulling on her robe, she went downstairs to join her husband. Her husband was at the stove preparing his meal, but the table was already laid and what she saw made her smile. Clark knew her so well. Her place was set with a plate of crispy toast, a tall glass of fresh orange juice and a steaming cup of hot brown liquid, just the way she liked it. Turning to her as she shuffled into the room and seated herself at the table, Clark gave her a beaming smile edged with just a tinge of smugness.
"Good morning, honey. I made you breakfast," he spoke indicating the toast and coffee, "But I reckoned that maybe your stomach wouldn't be up to the whole works."
"How right you are. This will do fine." Lois, after taking a couple of sips from the brimming cup, took an exploratory bite of the hot buttered toast, then sighed in relief as her stomach accepted the offering gratefully. "Have you called the kids yet?"
Clark carried a large plate filled with bacon, eggs, mushrooms and practically anything else that you could possibly fit onto one plate and, setting it on the table, happily dived right in. "Not yet, sweetheart," he ground out through the mouthful of food. "I though that I had best wait until you woke up. We can phone them together after we finish eating. Or we can go visit them if you prefer."
Lois considered this option for a moment then rejected it. "No! I've got to give up this habit of being the over-protective mother. They are perfectly safe with both of our parents. A phone call will do."
And later the couple found out that this premise was certainly true. Nathan was improving steadily and it was Sam Lane's expert medical opinion that his grandson would be restored to perfect health within the next couple of days and if his parents didn't object he and Ellen proposed to keep Nathan for another day and perhaps treat the poor little soul to an outing to Metropolis' Museum of Childhood, to make up for his having to miss the party. Lois and Clark both agreed to this proposal and confidently left their youngest child in the care of Sam and Ellen.
The older children were happily enjoying their stay with the Kent grandparents and looking forward excitedly to their school party of that afternoon. Martha, however, had still not been able to extract the reason behind Julian's taciturnity. He had been very quiet and withdrawn all morning, though thankfully he did seem to derive some comfort from his Grandma's attention. The only request the troubled child had made was that he not attend the party but when Martha enquired if this was because he felt unwell, he had forcefully denied the suggestion and reversed his decision not to go with the others to the school. All the adults were totally baffled by his continuing conduct but after a short discussion it was decided to leave things be for the moment in the hope that Julian would talk to them in his own time.
At Braeview Elementary School in New Troy the teachers and the few parents who were in attendance were very pleased with the way the party was progressing and if the volume of noise and the amount of energy that was being expended were any sort of yard-stick then certainly the children were having a ball. But for all that, there was one member of the enthusiastic pack who appeared not to be taking part in the merriment. Sitting on the sidelines, his blue gaze hazed over by the inner contemplation of the nightmare that he had witnessed and his private dilemma over whether he should pass along the disquieting evidence to his father, Julian was unaware of his sister's scrutiny. Clara Kent was vastly troubled by Julian's behaviour. She had enquired that morning into the cause of his unaccustomed silence but when he had turned his heart-breaking glance on her, she had been unable to continue with her cross-examination. The eyes that surveyed her were the same eyes she had witnessed that first night at Sheringham Hall when the big house was ablaze and the 'old man' had leapt to his death amid the flames. She had hoped never to see that face of sadness ever again. But Clara was not Lois Lane's daughter for nothing and she was not content to let the problem lie. Clutching her resolve she crossed to Joel and inquired what his knowledge was of the situation. His answer, however surprised her.
"I don't know what's wrong and when I asked him he almost spat at me and walked away." Joel admitted. "I figure I must have done something very wrong, but I don't know what and he's not talking to me."
"Joel, we can't just leave him. We have to try again."
"O K. Have you any bright ideas, 'cos I'm fresh out?"
At that moment the grownups called for a game of musical statues and both children watched as Julian's teacher crossed to his side and persuaded him to join, albeit listlessly, the others collecting on the floor. During the game Joel chose to approach his brother and under the cover of the hilarity that was developing and the loud music that was playing, he sidled up to Julian and bumped into him in a playful manner and was extremely startled by the response from the other boy. Julian pushed back with all his strength at his sibling and snarled quietly but with dreadful force.
"Get away from me! Don't you dare touch me!"
Normally Joel could withstand any physical force from that quarter, but so stunned was he by the riposte that he landed on his backside on the floor, gazing up in complete confusion at the amount of disgust that coloured Julian's words. Scrambling up from his position he returned his brother's anger.
"Enough Julian! I don't know what your problem is but you're going to tell me, now!"
Clara, hovering nearby keeping a judicious eye on her siblings, quickly inserted herself between the quarrelsome young males.
"Stop it!" Her voice was a fair imitation of her parents' when they demanded instant obedience. "The teachers are watching. We have to sort this out but not in front of everyone."
Remarkably it appeared that the two protagonists agreed with her because they immediately subsided, regarding each other with silent scorn.
"Let's get out of here." And as she turned and left the hall her brothers followed in angry compliance.
Clara marched resolutely down the corridors toward the brothers' schoolroom, instinctively deducing that Julian may be more inclined to unburden himself in a familiar setting. Once inside and the door closed against intruders the young girl demanded emphatically, yet not unkindly, "What is with you, Julian? Why are you acting so crabbily? And don't try to get out of answering, because if you don't tell us then it can't be sorted."
"I don't think this can be sorted," the child muttered, staring down at the ground as his foot traced a pattern on the floor.
"Then tell us and maybe we can help." This time Clara's tone held warmth and understanding.
Julian's head rose and his glance passed back and forth between his siblings. Within seconds he seemed to have reached a decision and he gestured with his chin toward his brother who was standing with his arms crossed over his chest, reminiscent of his father the super hero. "Ask Joel. He knows."
Throwing Clara a puzzled look, Joel shrugged his shoulders. "Believe me, Julian, I haven't a clue what you're talking about."
"Don't tell lies. I saw you the other night when you flew off with Superman. And when you came back. I heard you call him Dad!!" Sister and brother exchanged consternated glances. What were they to do now? But Julian wasn't finished with his accusations. "I saw your mother hold both of you. And if Superman is your Dad then Clark Kent isn't, which means that *your* Mother…"
It was synonymous with Julian's feelings towards Lois at present, that he chose to disown her. Even so, whatever further indictment that was about to be levelled was fated never to be spoken. A gigantic clap of thunder reverberated about their heads and a horrific shockwave of hot air propelled them across the room. Slivers of wood from splintered desks and shards of disintegrating glass accompanied them as they were swept along in a massive explosion. The wall where the three came to rest crumpled behind them and the roof, no longer held aloft, split into pieces of concrete and plaster and began, seemingly in slow motion, to obey the law of gravity. Three pairs of staring eyes looked upward as a large slab headed in their direction, threatening to crush their tender young flesh. Clara screamed as Joel threw his sister and brother to the ground and cast his body over their cowering forms. The weight that crashed onto his shoulders was almost too much for his burgeoning strength but the brave boy braced his arms and legs either side of the pair he sheltered and determined to keep them safe until help arrived. As the broken building settled in a cage about the children, Clara was the first to find her voice.
"Joel! Julian! Are you all right?" Squeezed close against both her brothers, she could barely discern through the dust and gloom just how treacherous was their position. Feeling a trickle of warm sticky liquid pool beneath her head, she realized that she was hurt but her main concern was for Joel and whether he could continue to hold back the threatening debris.
Gritting his teeth against the compressing weight, the human prop stilled his shuddering breath. "I'm O K. I think. How about you two?"
Thankfully he received reassuring nods, letting him know that they were still in one piece.
"What happened?" Clara's voice trembled with shock.
"I think the school exploded." Joel informed them. "We were lucky, but I don't think the others were. I can hear children crying."
At the bottom of the pile, Julian, splayed out on his back, peered up at the body above him and beyond to the shattered cement beam that balanced so precariously on Joel's shoulders. The events of the past few minutes adding another disturbing fact to those already confusing him. He swallowed hard and managed to whisper.
"You saved our lives! You took the weight of the roof!" Julian freed a hand and pointed shakily behind Joel's head. "You're still holding it up."
"Not for much longer," the small hero stated, feeling his sinews and muscles grow numb under the stress.
While he spoke a further rumble echoed his words as debris and rubble spilled into the space occupied by the children. For a moment it appeared that they were in danger of being engulfed, but in fact their situation had improved slightly. A solid large portion of wall had slipped forward and landed at an angle against the slab that Joel was supporting, taking some of the strain from his body. All three suffered from a fit of coughing as the swirling grit filled their lungs. Slowly the dust settled and Joel attempted to x-ray the broken structure around him only to be distressed by what he discovered. The mangled building was still in a very perilous state and further off he could hear there were children and adults injured and dying amid the carnage. Julian's words broke into his concentration.
"No ordinary boy could have done that. You must be Superman's child," he charged once again.
Exasperated with Julian's continued accusations, especially under these terrifying circumstances, Clara concluded that it was time to set the record straight.
"Of course he is, Julian." Her tone held a note of annoyance. "This isn't exactly the time or the place for you to hear this, but we are all Superman's children. Even you!!" Twisting her face to fix him with a penetrating stare she continued with her confession. "Clark Kent is Superman!!"
A number of expressions passed over Julian's countenance as he reviewed her announcement. Disbelief and denial were rapidly replaced by enlightenment as the pieces of the puzzle dropped into place.
"It's the truth, Julian," the junior super hero simply reinforced their sister's declaration. "And we need him here, now!"
More rocks fell into the shelter and three desperate voices rose in unison.
Within seconds Joel raised a hand to still his panicking siblings.
A sob broke through Joel's iron-held control. He was, after all, only eight years old and had for too long single-handedly held back a mountain of bricks and mortar. His ensuing whispered plea was all child.
"Daddy, please help us. Daddy, we need you."
Hovering above the smoking ruin that a few short minutes ago had been his children's school, afraid to alight in case he should send the already shaky pile crashing down onto the survivors trapped within, Superman surveyed the wreckage with escalating dread. That there were a number of survivors he had already established from the soul-rending sounds that drifted up to his listening super ears as he strove to distinguish three particular sounds that meant the whole world to him. That his children were amongst this number he also knew, but exactly in what state of health he wasn't yet sure.
He and Lois had been unconcernedly watching the annual New Year pro-celebrity ball game, cheering for opposite sides and thoroughly enjoying a carefree afternoon of child-free isolation, when his super-hearing was alerted to a huge explosion. Not wholly sure of the exact location or yet the cause of the disturbance, he was nevertheless acutely certain of the direction and area in which the catastrophe had occurred. And as the cold hand of fear gripped his heart there was little doubt within him that his children were in terrible danger. Lois had sent him off immediately, not even wanting to slow him down by insisting that he carry a passenger. She would follow in the Jeep as quickly as she could.
Superman had arrived in the moments following the disaster and before any other help reached the area. Jagged stumps of outer wall still stood askew, pointing crookedly up into the sky like some sparse drunken grave stones. The Man of Steel shook that horror-filled analogy out of his head and continued his frantic search. The interior of the building had folded like a pack of cards and amongst the carnage he could see the crushed flesh and bone of those who had already gone far beyond his help. When Joel's sobbing cry alerted him to the whereabouts of his own kids and when a swift x-ray had informed him that they were at least alive, he was infused with an almost guilty overwhelming sense of relief. A relief that was short lived as additional study alerted him to the precarious state of their situation.
Two patrol cars arrived with sirens blaring and as the men exited their vehicles, dread clearly warred with disbelief in their minds while they surveyed the tragic scene. Pictures like these they had never expected to witness in New Troy and in their confusion they automatically turned to Superman for instructions, little knowing that the man from whom they sought leadership was operating under the considerable strain of personal involvement.
The alarm bells of approaching fire and accident tenders jangled the now still air and warned those few witnesses who were now venturing out from the surrounding houses that the city's help was now at hand. Aware of how much damage well-meaning but untrained rescuers could unwittingly commit, Superman was forced to take time out to relate his intentions to the four cops who thankfully obeyed his dictates without question. Two of the officers strode away purposely to cordon off the area and hold back any over-eager private citizens until such time as they could be properly organized by the emergency services and their efforts channelled into worthwhile actions. Then, accompanied by the other pair of uniformed police he flew a few feet above the structure towards the place from where he had heard his son's cry, telling the men that he had heard voices and that his x-ray vision had revealed the forms of three children who appeared to be alive but in an extremely dangerous location. If, way back in his subconscious a nagging small voice questioned his ethics in rescuing his own offspring first, he paid absolutely no attention, reasoning that any normal man would do the same. Besides, his little tornado would kill him if he allowed their children to die. Then too, these three were in a position to be saved, a circumstance that he was not certain applied to the others buried deeper at the centre of the explosion.
Carefully lifting the chunks of shattered building from the mound that encased the kids, he worked as swiftly as he dared, all the while sending hushed comforting messages to Joel.
"Son, I'm right here and I'll have you all free as soon as I can, but you have to stay strong for another little while. Be brave and you'll all be safe. Your mom and I love you very much."
The policemen who were receiving the shifted rubble and discarding it at a safe distance were amazed to witness Superman mutter beneath his breath as he moved ever nearer to the trapped children. The two assumed that the hero was invoking whatever god in whom super-beings believed.
It was during this time that Lois drove up, her arrival coinciding with that of the fire department and the ambulances. Abandoning the Jeep further back than she would have wished, but recognising that she stood a better chance of getting nearer on foot, she strode determinedly towards what was left of the school. Fear rose like bile into her throat as she advanced on the wreckage, her gaze fixed on the beacon of the blue and red clad figure who seemed to be working diligently on an act of succour.
"Clark?!" She could not contain her question. The whisper could barely be heard above the sounds of the emergency crews as they deployed their equipment about the site, yet the man in blue halted his activities momentarily and turning to his wife sent her an encouraging though fleeting glance, before bending once more to his labours. That one optimistic look raised Lois' spirits and gave her the strength to endure the interminable wait while Superman continued to move numerous bricks and concrete slabs, passing them to a line of men that had formed beneath him on the mound and who in turn passed the boulders back along the human chain until they could be disposed off safely. The boulders were awkward and heavy and sometimes it took more than one human man to accomplish the task, yet no-one desisted or broke the momentum, each person dedicated to the rescue of the entrapped youngsters.
Finally the fire-crew chief at the head of the line called for silence as Superman lay lightly alongside the hole he had so patiently uncovered. The immobile watchers waited with indrawn breath while he stretched inside, then shouts of exuberance, borne out of a relief of tension, filled the gloom of approaching twilight when a small child was espied, clutching to the hero's neck, as he raised her from the tomb. Clara could not forbear to cling to her father for a moment longer than was necessary, but knowing that he had a job to do she allowed herself, after a brief touch of his lips on her bloodstained cheek, to be handed over to the chief fireman who gently carried her down the slope to the waiting paramedics and more preciously to the open arms of her mother. Earlier, Lois had persuaded the officers who manned the perimeter to let her pass the police tape. One or two of the uniformed cops on duty recognised the well-known reporter and had even worked with her and her partner on occasion . When they were appraised of the fact that Lois' children were inside the school, they were eager to offer assistance, handling her with unaccustomed carefulness in their pity, which now turned to joy at the discovery of her daughter alive and hopefully well.
Tears spilled down Lois' face as she hugged her beloved girl to her chest and laughter bubbled up in her heart as she understood what Clara was trying to tell her through a jumble of tears and smiles and more distressingly the pain that was threatening her daughter's consciousness. Reluctantly, Lois gave up her precious bundle to the care of a waiting doctor, one of a team of emergency medical staff who had arrived to treat the casualties on the spot and with the help of the paramedics, Clara was carried into a waiting ambulance which had been kitted out like a small E R department. After examining the child as thoroughly as the circumstances allowed, the doctor astoundingly announced that apart from suffering a mild concussion the only other injury she had sustained was a nasty gash on her forehead which he expertly stitched up and for which he administered pain killers and a mild tranquillizer. She was now resting comfortably. Of course she would receive a more extensive examination when she reached hospital but the doctor was fairly sure of his diagnosis and as it seemed they were about to bring another child from the wreckage he left Clara to the tender ministrations of her mother.
The two boys were brought out together. The fire fighter nearest Superman, having found a place of comparative safety on the other side of the small gap, managed to aid Joel to scramble from the hole whilst Clark lifted out a stunned and staring Julian, who placed his mouth close to Superman's right ear and murmured so softly that only someone with super powers would hear.
"Thank you, Daddy. I love you."
Eyes widening in surprise, Clark glanced in the direction of his other son. Joel answered the unspoken question with an almost imperceptive shrug of his shoulders, but his mouth curled up at the corners as he started down the rough incline. However the younger super hero had overestimated his strength and mid-way to the solid ground he stumbled and would have fallen had not the fireman grabbed his arm, then hoisted the child into his arms. Within moments the two brothers joined their sister in the temporary clinic and were surrounded each with their own medical team, both intent on finding out what injuries they had sustained and treating these injuries.
Superman had saved his children but his task was far from over. His super senses told him that there were others still living under the wrecked edifice and they were most probably in a far worse condition than his own kin. With a dejected slump of his shoulders, over the heads of the assembled rescue workers, he watched the ambulance with his wife and children on board drive out of the school grounds. Under the guise of being a concerned rescuer, he had succeeded in having a few words with Lois during which time the medics had examined the boys and after returning to his task of assisting the emergency teams, he had eavesdropped on the conversation between his wife and the physicians and discovered that all three of the kids had been injured to some degree. He already knew about Clara, but he learned that while Joel was clearly very strong his skin was not completely invulnerable and his back and shoulders had been very badly bruised. This was nonetheless a fairly minor hurt and judging by the experience of the summer, Joel would quickly recover. Clark was more concerned with the state of Julian, who the doctors were certain had received internal injuries from the blast. Listening intently, Clark discerned that Julian's blood pressure levels were falling fast and that he was slipping in and out of consciousness and when the ambulance switched on its emergency siren as it sped off down the street, Clark had to force himself to remain, all his senses longing to be with his son in his hour of need. This was not an option for Superman and it was at times like these when Clark was dreadfully torn between the love and responsibilities of fatherhood and his love of the people of Metropolis and his sworn duty to help and protect the world. As always the super hero put his personal life on hold, at least his children had one parent in attendance, and after conferring with the fire and police chiefs that now proliferated the scene, they set about the task of rescuing the others trapped beneath the rubble.
It was a long, arduous and gruesome task. For the rest of the night Superman spent his time listening for faint signs of life and then tentatively uncovering the source of these signs. As he worked it became clear to him that his children had been separated from the other revellers, therefore further from the heart of the blast and though the reason for this escaped him he was very thankful that this had been so. Moving ever closer to the epi-centre of the explosion the injuries received by those inside the building were growing ever more horrific and it soon became apparent from the increasing lines of small sheet-covered bodies that lay on the grass, interspersed here and there with the form of an adult, that there would be few other survivors.
Carrying the body of his sons' school teacher to rest with the other martyred children, Superman dropped to his knees by the side of the once friendly woman. He had met her a number of times at parent-teachers' meetings or simply when he had picked his kids up from school and found her to be a warm and dedicated tutor. Now she was nothing more than a lifeless bundle of torn flesh and broken bone and looking out over the line of corpses that stretched into the dark, the hero felt the hot sting of tears behind his eyes. How many of the covered bodies were known to him? These were his children's friends. A surprised shout brought him out of his morose musing. An infra-red heat seeker had found what seemed to be someone who was still alive and entombed within the wreckage. It had been some time since they had uncovered a living being and the excitement was raising the spirits of the rescuers. They needed Superman's help immediately. Squaring his shoulders he returned to the task.
With the dawn came the certainty that they had pulled everyone that was possible from the mangled building. The medical teams and the ambulances carrying the injured to hospital had long departed the scene. Now came the task of loading those no longer living into the coroner's vans for transport to the morgue and those assigned to this labour, even the most hardened of policemen, did so with tears running down their faces. There were just too many bodies.
Superman did a final scan of the edifice, just to be sure, but it was only a token gesture. There was no-one else inside. The investigation crews took over. It was their job to discover the cause of this terrible disaster. Normally the Man of Steel would help with this process, only he was too exhausted and obviously too distressed by the tragedy. The men taking over were not astounded by his demeanour. They knew him to be a kind and compassionate man as well as a powerful one and they also understood how the destruction of innocent children would affect him. The head of the team crossed to where the super hero stood gazing with empty eyes at what was left of the school and, laying a hand on the blue-clad arm, sent him home, to wherever that might be, to rest and recuperate, assuring him that he and his men would be here for quite some time and that if Superman could see his way clear to returning when he felt more able then the investigators would welcome his help. Nodding silently, Superman lifted slowly into the early morning sunshine. The air was crisp and clear, but the hero did not notice. There was a place where he had to be.
Down at Metropolis General Hospital Lois had spent the night alternating her visits between Joel and Clara, both of whom were resting comfortably though very distressed by their ordeal, and waiting outside the corridor of the emergency operating theatre where the surgeons were fighting to save Julian's life. After a further more intensive examination the doctors had discovered that the boy was indeed haemorrhaging internally due to a small wooden splinter having pierced his body during the explosion. Amazed that this had not been diagnosed in the emergency clinic Lois listened intently as the doctor explained that while the object had been so tiny that it had made little damage at the point of impact it had caused more extensive trauma inside. The surgeons were certain that the offending projectile could be removed and the damage repaired, but the loss of blood was critical and the boy was in an extremely serious condition.
Martha and Jonathan had arrived soon after the news had hit the media and Lois was grateful for their comforting support. More surprisingly, as night crept toward the day, Jimmy and Kiaya appeared at the hospital, full of concern for their friends' children. Although not astonished by Jimmy's presence, down through the years their friend had often been a witness to the trials that had beset the couple, Lois was astounded by Kiaya's shocked, pale face as the woman followed her husband into the waiting room. Yet it was an expression that Lois was to see reflected in the faces of most of the hospital staff throughout the dreadful night as more severely injured victims were brought into the emergency unit.
Coming into the room, Jimmy had approached the stressed mother and enveloped her in a consoling hug.
"Lois, we came as soon as we heard the news." he explained. "How are the kids?"
Quickly Lois brought him up to date on the state of her children and the relief that Jimmy and especially Kiaya felt was obvious. Then his eyes had travelled round the room apparently searching for something or someone.
"Where is C K?" He asked, clearly amazed that Clark was not by Lois' side.
This was a difficult question to answer as it was not untoward to assume that a father, under these circumstances, would wish to be close to his offspring. Sometimes excuses for Clark's absences were hard even for Lois' inventive mind to fabricate, particularly when she herself had ambivalent feelings about his conflicting duties.
"Clark stayed at the site." She spoke blankly then after a moment she added an explanation. "He knew that the kids were safe and he thought that he might be able to help. Oh, Jimmy, we knew these children. They're our kids' friends. They've visited our house. Some of them have even slept over. And now they're buried under all that rubble…" Here Lois' voice broke on a sob. "Who could have done this?"
Jimmy Olsen shot a sharp questioning glance at the reporter who had been his icon since his early days at the Planet. Did Lois have some inside information or had her extraordinary sixth sense prompted that question? And was that why the other famous member of the investigative team was not in attendance? Did Lane and Kent sense a sinister story behind this tragedy? Before coming to the hospital, Olsen had paid a short visit to the disaster scene and had taken a few pictures; after all, this was news and the film in his camera would be worth a few dollars. The money was not important, but this was his job and even although his closest friends were personally involved with this story, Jimmy had learnt a long time ago that the show must go on. He had not actually spotted Clark at the site, nevertheless he surmised that Clark had remained behind not only to help, but to discover the reason for the explosion and perhaps even to get an exclusive from Superman. The free-lance photo-journalist had seen the hero and had gotten a few good shots of him as he went about his grim task. The point was that this time Jimmy had some inside information and he was prepared to share it with the Planet's top reporting team. However, watching Lois cry into her mother-in-law's shoulder he resolved to wait until Clark arrived to impart the damning facts.
Fear strode with Clark into the Metropolis General waiting room. Fear for the safety of his children and unbelievable horror of all that he had witnessed that night. Of all the catastrophes that he attended, the ones that involved children, specially the death of children, were the ones that most disturbed him. Death and destruction that came in such a terrible form and that he had beheld too much of this night. All he wished for now was the company and solace of his family. Yet none of his family was present. He had been told at the front desk that he would find his wife and parents waiting in this room, but the only people he was familiar with were the Olsens. In fact this was not totally true, because he vaguely recognised some members of the other groups who shared this room. Probably the families of some of the school children he had pulled alive from the wreckage, his disconnected thoughts informed him. Almost unable to function, he was glad when Jimmy rose and crossed to his side.
"C K, thank god you're here." The younger man's voice held a strange note of concealed anxiety and Clark immediately leapt to the wrong conclusion.
"What has happened to my kids? Are they all right?" The vice-like grip that enclosed Jimmy's arm was beginning to hurt like hell and the squirming man wondered again, as he had so long ago, just how strong C K really was? Noticing the grimace, Clark loosened his clasp and Jimmy's other hand came up automatically to stroke his wincing arm.
"Hey, C K! They're fine! I didn't mean to scare you. Joel and Clara are doing great. Your Mom and Dad are with them." His eyes fell for a moment before he went on. "Julian gave us a bit of a scare, though. But he's going to be O K," he added quickly at the look of panic he saw dawning on his best friend's face. "He was bleeding internally. Some bit of debris had gotten blasted inside his body, but the surgeons operated successfully and barring complications the prognosis is good. Lois is sitting with him in the recovery room."
"Thanks Jimmy." Clark placed his hand soothingly over Jimmy's. He really had to be more careful when he was distracted. With an apologetic smile he turned to leave the room.
"C K, wait!" The worried appeal that underlined Jimmy's tone halted him. Not wanting to linger, Clark looked exasperatedly at the other man, but Jimmy's mien reminded him so much of the cub reporter who once had so desperately wanted to be involved in his seniors' investigations that Clark delayed his exit. Closing the space between them, Jimmy drew Clark to the far corner of the room where they could talk undisturbed.
"This is important, C K."
"I'm listening, only make it quick."
With a nod Jimmy plunged ahead. "Did you get a chance to talk to Superman?"
A sigh escaped from Clark's lips. Right at this moment he wasn't interested in discussing a super-hero fixation. Correctly interpreting the cause of Clark's irritation Jimmy quickly proceeded.
"Bear with me, Clark, please." The fact that Jimmy had addressed Clark by his given name did not go unnoticed and he resolved to listen to whatever the younger man had to impart. "Does Superman have any idea what caused the explosion?"
Clark answered guardedly, not wishing to voice his suspicions prematurely. "I think that Superman was more interested in rescuing the children who were still alive and then helping to bring out the bodies. As I was leaving the investigative team was just setting up. It's much too early to speculate about the cause."
"I lied to Lois when I told her that I came here after hearing about the explosion on the news." This comment brought him under close scrutiny from Clark who was trying to second guess where Jimmy was going. "My dad called me."
Jack Olsen was employed by the National Intelligence Agency. For years he had been one of their most respected and successful field operatives, until more recently when he had accepted promotion to a desk job in their headquarters in Washington. Knowing Jack, Clark perceived that the active man would probably have considered this a 'demotion' but even this physically fit individual had to recognise that the years had caught up with him and that to continue in the field might place himself and his associates in jeopardy. Be that as it may, Jack Olsen was clearly privy to many of this nation's secrets and Clark's instincts sharpened at the mention of his name. Jimmy lowered his voice until it was almost a whisper.
"He told me that the school was bombed." Afraid of the rage that flared momentarily in Clark's eyes, Jimmy nevertheless continued. Hell!! If it had been his kids that had been caught up in such an explosion, he would be furiously angry too. "The agency received a call just minutes after the school blew from a terrorist group calling themselves 'The Hand of Retribution', claiming responsibility for the explosion. They're a group that the N I A and the C I A have been investigating for sometime. I've come across them myself a time or two during my work in the Middle East. Believe me, these are not *nice* people. They are probably accountable for most of the atrocities that have been committed in these last few years throughout the world, if not directly then they will most certainly have provided training and assistance. These are not a bunch of misguided crack-pots… well, I guess that they are that too, but they are a highly organised and well-trained force. They also have access to high-tech weaponry and communications, so there is definitely money behind them. Up until now they have confined their operations to targets overseas; this is the first time that they've struck in this country."
Clark had remained very still while he contemplated all that Jimmy told him. The fact that the explosion was due to a bomb did not wholly surprise him. During his searching through the mounds of brick and cement he himself had found evidence of this; however, he had pushed this deduction to the back of his consciousness as he went about the more pressing task of freeing the children. Now he could no longer ignore his suspicions. Some obsessed religious zealots had brought their war into Superman's home city and he pledged to himself that they would be brought to justice for their inhuman actions.
"Does the N I A know who is behind these terrorists?"
Jimmy shook his head negatively. "A few insubstantial ideas, maybe, nothing concrete. C K, if you're thinking of going after these guys on your own, I feel that I should warn you that you are dealing with an extremely deadly force. Most investigators that have gotten close to them have wound up dead. My dad said to warn you that this is not a job for two reporters no matter how good or effective they are."
"Has he forgotten the ace up our sleeve?"
"Yeah!" Clark dropped his own voice so that Jimmy had to strain to hear it. "I only spoke to him for a moment, but let me tell you, Jimmy, Superman is incensed more than I have ever seen him before. He intends to make sure that whoever perpetrated this monstrous crime will pay for all this suffering." As he talked his eyes travelled over the other dejected people in the waiting room, some silent, some deep in prayer for the safety of their little ones and some sobbing inconsolably. "Someone will pay."
For a fleeting moment Jimmy could have sworn that the super hero was there in the room and he reflected again how sometimes C K could resemble the Man of Steel; then as Clark relaxed back into his familiar guise, Jimmy put aside his fantasising. Against his better judgement, the acclaimed photo-journalist heard himself saying.
"If there is anything I can do, C K, you know that you only need to ask."
"Jimmy!" Clark returned. "You just warned me off. Remember! This could be a life-threatening story and you want a piece of it?"
"Hey, C K, it will be like old times. When were stories not life-and-death situations with you and Lois involved?"
Smiling at the obvious attempt from Jimmy to lighten the prospect of the job ahead, Clark hugged his friend and, struggling against the tired tears that threatened to fall, he walked quickly from the room.
Thankfully all the Kent children were safe and would in time recover from the nightmare of the first day of the year 2006. Other children had not been so lucky as the morning's banner headline from the Daily Planet revealed.
"SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN"
<Twenty-nine school pupils along with three of their teachers and six assistants and volunteer helpers died tragically at a party given by The Braeview Elementary School here in New Troy yesterday. A further forty-seven casualties remain in Metropolis General Hospital, many of them in a critical condition. The celebrations to mark the beginning of a new year turned to cataclysm when an explosion ripped through the school. An unnamed terrorist organization has claimed responsibility for this explosion, informing the investigative departments that it chose this city to open its unrelenting fight against our country, which has repeatedly thwarted its progress to intimidate the world by its repeated atrocities.>
Clark also took the time to write an accompanying article from Superman's point of view. Over the years he had discovered that committing to paper the details of his more harrowing rescues, those that robbed him of his peace of mind and awakened him sweating in the middle of the night, had become his catharsis. And if ever he needed to release his emotional torment, it was most definitely now. The news columns were highlighted by some of the pictures snapped by Olsen on his visit to the site soon after the bombing. The boy had grown into a man and the man was good. The front-page picture of a child's blood-stained teddy-bear, lying forlornly among the debris, awaiting forever the return of its precious owner, captured not only the horror but the sadness and the poignancy of this awful deed, and even more so pointed towards the difficult and grievous times that lay ahead for the bereft families.
Metropolis was stunned. Yet slowly the citizens of this thriving and oftentimes uncaring society banded together in their shock and grief. United by this terrible affront to their own, Metropolitans gathered those families to their communal hearts and vowed to care for them and to track down those fanatics who had wrought such havoc on the children of their city. The M P D went into overdrive and officers volunteered to work extra shifts to patrol the streets in case another such atrocity was planned. Detectives were inundated by phone calls from the public informing them of any suspicious behaviour no matter how inconsequential which they may have witnessed from neighbours and strangers alike. The memberships of local Neighbourhood Watch schemes soared and so diligent had the people of Metropolis become that ordinary crime became for a short spell non-existent. The criminal fraternity of the city were also horrified by this heinous crime and every snitch in the city and even those to whom such an action was an anathema were busily delving into the city's 'underbelly' to uncover the perpetrators. But this was no ordinary organisation. Its members were as ghosts in the city and now they had disappeared.
The family Kent was fragmented in locale if not in emotion. Joel and Clara had been discharged from the hospital within 24 hours and were now recuperating at home, Martha and Jonathan having moved back to Hyperion Avenue to look after them. Bernard and Beth Klein, who had chosen to take a vacation in Hawaii over the New Year and who had flown out only a few hours before the catastrophe, had phoned to enquire whether their expertise was required, but on being assured of their favourite children's safety they were persuaded to remain on the holiday island for their second honeymoon.
Nathan remained in the care of his Lane grandparents and the flu that had once been considered a setback was now regarded as a godsend. It had at least kept Nathan from being present at the seat of the explosion.
Taking advantage of the facilities of Metropolis General, Lois had elected to stay with Julian while he recovered and Clark commuted between the various locations and in between super hero appearances attempted to preside over the Planet newsroom. The discovery of Superman's identity by Julian had been explained to both parents by his siblings and although this caused Lois and Clark a certain amount of trepidation, by this time they had become so accustomed to *the* secret being shared and kept by their kids, that they regarded the fact of Julian's awareness philosophically.
For his part, Julian, realising that he had cruelly misjudged his mother, took the opportunity of their time alone together to rebuild bridges, which up until being warned by her other children about Julian's excusable misapprehension, Lois was unaware had been broken. Now however, comprehending the reason for Julian's strange behaviour, the relieved mother was quite willing to enjoy her son's attention. As they relaxed in each others' company, Lois encouraged his stumbling attempts to confide his unhappy experiences of life in Sheringham Hall. Julian had made the decision, on coming to America, to close the book on his past life and start anew, but in doing so he had unwittingly sealed over scars that were not quite healed, leaving him prey to feelings of insecurity. Listening to her son as he retold the story of his growing up in the shadow of a frigid and strict disciplinarian, Lois was reminded of her own childhood and she was quick to offer sympathy and unconditional love to the child who had come so dramatically into their lives. During these days spent in hospital Lois and Julian formed the closest of bonds.
Under the care of the dedicated medical staff and his mother's empathy Julian grew stronger and though the nightmares of the ordeal plagued all three Kent children, wrapped in their family's love they were each learning to deal with the consequences.
While Julian was visited by other family members, Lois took the opportunity each afternoon to relieve Clark at the office and with typical Lane resolution she was determined to discover who was behind this terrorist gang.
The investigation, however, regardless of the extra vigilance of the citizenry, was not going well. All the government bureaus' and the M P D's inquiries had hit a brick wall and the Daily Planet team was also coming up empty. Five days after the incident the various agencies finally got their hoped-for breakthrough and the information they received was, at first, extremely distressing. Could their old enemy be rearing its mistrusted head once more? And even at the height of the 'cold war' their communist adversaries had never targeted children nor actually ventured into the heartland of the enemy. Nevertheless, there was no avoiding the facts. Superman had been among the first to hear the evidence while making one of his frequent visits for updated information to the forensic department of the bomb squad. Marco Assenti, a tall burly middle-aged man of Italian descent and the man who had sent an exhausted hero home to rest that first morning at the crime scene, headed a team of dedicated operatives who had painstakingly searched the destroyed building for sometimes minuscule fragments and clues. Spurred on by their horror of the crime they had worked practically night and day until they had pieced together enough of the device to determine its origin… namely Russian.
Superman had arrived shortly after the squad had made their breakthrough and after being brought up to date on the findings, he wholeheartedly shared Assenti's view that the Russian government had neither the ill-will nor was, in fact, due to its massive financial restraints, in a position to commit such a monstrous act of war. Unless, of course, a band of 'old comrades' had decided to take the law into its own hands, a situation that Superman seriously doubted. The Man of Steel had no boundaries and his work of rescue often took him into other countries throughout the world where he interacted with the ordinary population. He recognised that the people of Russia had too many problems at home without looking outside their own sphere. Besides, Superman was not about to discard the information he had learned from Jimmy Olsen; that this was a group of Arab fundamentalists intent on causing havoc in the country which they saw as their greatest enemy.
It appeared, soon after the bomb's origin was made public, that the Russian government not only concurred with Superman's judgement but were wholly upset and insulted that a country whom they now considered and ally and friend should even consider that Russians would commit such a terrible crime. Further than that, in a fit of pique, they would make no other comment. Conversely, when Superman paid a visit to the Russian ambassador, that gentleman, off the record, chose to be a little more forthcoming, perhaps because the hero spoke his own language or perhaps because Superman had the previous year rescued a village in the vast Russian countryside from a collapsing dam, a village of which the ambassador had fond boyhood memories, his grandparents having lived there almost a lifetime ago. Whatever the cause, the aging diplomat unbent enough to inform Superman that, while his government would have categorically nothing to do with such an action, there was at present in Russia a very powerful Mafia and that these ruthless individuals would think nothing of selling the weaponry that they seemed so easily to acquire to the highest bidder without thought of the consequences. As a parting shot, he also added that this black-market frequently operated down through the Caucasus Mountains, along the shores of the Caspian Sea and into the countries of the Middle East. At last, the connection had been made with the trail of the hardware, now they had to discover how the explosives had made their way from the Arab world and into the United States.
This could be a monumental task and to ease the proceedings Olsen gave up his job as a photographer and reverted to his old profession, or hobby, of computer researcher. The Planet's current incumbent, young Stephan, was both keen and competent, yet he did not aspire to Jimmy's genius in the computer field, so he welcomed the help. Together they hacked into shipping companies' manifestos, especially those that originated in the Middle East or who had dealings with that part of the world, to trace the schedules of consignments arriving in this country during the past year. They traced the arrival and the destinations of cargoes that could have been used to hide the contraband. Similarly, they checked on the air freight companies, but the field was massive and even with Superman's help they soon became overwhelmed. It was akin to tracing a needle in a haystack. So they were all surprised and appreciative of assistance from an unexpected source.
A few days after the story of the miraculous escape of the three Kent children was headlined by the media (every newspaper and T V station in the country pleased to report on a story with a happier ending) Paula Raine and Umar ibn Said had shown up on the doorstep of the townhouse. They had come to visit the children and also to express their shock and horror at the bombing. Fortunately both Lois and Clark had been present when the couple called.
"May we come in?" Umar asked of Lois as she answered the door.
"Paula! Umar! This is a surprise." With the events of the past few days, it seemed an age since the glitzy New Year gathering and to Lois this cosmopolitan couple belonged in a different world to the dark one into which she and her family had been cast. These visitors were the last she had expected to show up at her door and for a short space she floundered while her brain fought for recognition and her manners returned. "Oh yes, please do. This is so nice…" Lois held the door wider to offer them greater access, but the dark-skinned man hesitated.
"I felt that perhaps I might not be welcome." Her mind was still surfacing from the surprise and this statement puzzled Lois for a moment. Seeing this Umar added an explanation. "I am a Muslim, after all."
"And you thought that we might find you guilty by association?" Clark had joined his wife by the doorway. "That's not the way Lois and I work, Umar. Believe me, you are welcome." As he spoke he led the way into the living room and offered the couple a seat on the couch. "Can we get you anything? Tea, coffee, something stronger perhaps?"
Paula and Umar remained hand-clasped as they sat down together. As always they were immaculately dressed and amongst the toys and empty video cases that littered the floor they looked more than a little incongruous. This time it was Paula who answered.
"No thank you, Clark. We really just came to see how the children were doing." She beamed at Joel and Clara, who were sitting on the couch opposite staring wide-eyed at the glittering pair. "I can see that these two are doing just fine and we're so happy that they are safe."
"We read though that one of your other sons was still in the hospital," Umar interrupted. "We hope that he is not too seriously injured."
Sitting on the arm of the sofa next to her children, her arm comfortingly draped over Clara's shoulder with the tips of her fingers just touching Joel (since the incident the kids had not come in contact with many outsiders and they were suffering from a certain lack of confidence), Lois was pleased to be able to assure the concerned couple. "Julian is doing just fine. He did give us quite a scare at first but the doctors are pleased with his progress and hopefully he will soon be allowed to come home. Actually I was just about to leave for the hospital. I've been living in with him, but Alice White was visiting her husband and she stopped by and offered to sit in for a couple of hours while I came home to freshen-up and take advantage of my mother-in-law's cooking. Hospital food is dire."
From deep down in a secret compartment that ibn Said held within his heart, a cold sick feeling was threatening to rise and choke him. This was the boy who had been at the core of the attack and to know that he had survived filled him with an overwhelming anger. Nevertheless, to continue with his holy war he must rein in his rage, present the concerned face of a friendly, tame Arab gentlemen to these infidels. The visit too served a dual purpose, that of finding out how much was known to this couple who were the confidants of Superman. Assuming his westernized persona, he asked with only a passing concern.
"Do the N I A have any idea who was responsible?"
Clark was taken aback by Umar's question, wondering how the man could possibly know that this particular agency was dealing with the investigation, then he remembered the guest list at the party. A man who associated with senators, top brass defence personnel and foreign diplomats would probably be privy to any number of confidential inquiries. This was not a subject, however, that Clark was prepared to discuss in front of his children. As previous experiences had shown, these two kids were perfectly capable of conducting their own investigations and this was far too dangerous a situation for them to meddle with. Throwing Umar a warning glance he addressed his children.
"Come on kids, it's bedtime. You two may look 100% fit but the doctors say that you need to take it easy. Say goodnight to our guests and go upstairs…now. Your mom and I will be up to tuck you in later."
A mulish look had settled on both young faces. They were the ones who had been caught in the explosion and they felt that this entitled them to know what was going on. Be that as it may, they recognized that their father's tone was the one that demanded and received instant obedience. Politely saying their goodnights they turned to leave, each more than just a little sulky. The situation was rescued by Paula who fished behind her on the sofa and drew forward two gift bags.
"Umar and I thought that you might be confined to the house during your recuperation so we thought that perhaps these might help stave off boredom."
The bags were found to contain a selection of the latest books and videos and both children were distracted by their presents. With the promise that Lois would be up to say goodbye before she returned to Julian's side and Clark's pledge that if the two roomed together for the night he would watch one of the videos with them, Joel and Clara left in a happier frame of mind than had been anticipated.
When the kids had disappeared upstairs with their contraband Clark returned his attention to Umar's question.
"Apart from the fact that some subversive group calling itself 'The Hand of Retribution' claimed responsibility for the bombing the N I A is completely in the dark, as far as we can tell. However, we are not at the head of the 'need to know' list, so they may have more than they're letting on."
Rising from the couch, Umar took a turn about the room. It seemed as if he were controlling a barely concealed anger. His hands clenched into tight fists as he faced the three adults.
"You cannot perceive how maddened I am by this sort of thing. How some of my people could ever believe that they have the right to indulge in this type of horrendous assault? No matter how just they think their cause, there is no justification for such action. And it is so frustrating. It may be true that there has been dissension between our peoples in the past, but this atrocity only makes the task more difficult for men of peace to resolve these disagreements." Ibn Said's head had sunk lower and for a few seconds he could not look Lois and Clark in the face. "I know that it is insignificant compared with the suffering you have had to endure, but please accept my heartfelt apologies and be aware that there are those in my world who wish you and your race no harm."
Lois could not resist the appeal in the almost black eyes that lifted to her face in mute regret. Almost uncharacteristically she crossed to the man and took her hand in his.
"You do not have to apologise, Umar. We understand that you have nothing to do with those murderers. Please do not upset yourself so."
The term murderer almost derailed the Arab's carefully controlled subterfuge. Just which race were the murderers here? His countrymen only sought revenge for the decimation of their own children. Swallowing hard he went on with his act, smiling gratefully at Lois as he continued.
"Which brings me to the other reason for our visit. In my position I sometimes hear things to which the government agencies may not have access. Rumours, on occasion, find their way to my door from my home country about certain covert activities, unfortunately this usually happens after the event and no matter how trustworthy the sources, they remain largely unsubstantiated hearsay. I believe that I would not be wrong in assuming that two such renowned journalists like yourselves have begun your own investigations." When Lois and Clark did not confirm or deny his statement, he plunged on. "I would like to offer you my assistance. I have no experience in this field but any information I have I will share with you and as head of my organization I also have access to international import data. I assume too that you would be interested in discovering how the explosives arrived in this country."
The Kents exchanged glances, communing silently on whether to take these two into their confidence. Twin infinitesimal nods showed agreement and Clark spoke up.
"Both your assumptions are correct. We are looking into things, in particular shipping and air-freight manifestos, but either we're not looking in the right places or we don't recognize what we see. Its a huge task and we don't know how far back to take it. We would certainly appreciate the help."
"I am at your service." And Umar executed a small bow.
The days that followed had been sad and unsettling ones for Lois and Clark. They had attended too many untimely funerals and whilst witnessing the overwhelming grief of the respective families, the couple had shared conflicting feelings of relief and guilt that their family was still intact.
The only bright spot had been that morning when they had brought Julian home from hospital. The Kleins had returned from their Hawaiian idyll and they were both confident that as the boy was making a good recovery they could take over caring for Julian at home. Obeying medical instructions, Clark had gently carried Julian inside the townhouse and directly upstairs to his bedroom where Lois had immediately installed him in bed. This circumstance didn't please the youngster and he complained disgustedly about exchanging one bed for another; however, it was his own bed in his own room and that was a marked improvement. Joel and Clara had followed the cavalcade upstairs, eager to welcome their brother back home, although they had been warned previously by the grown-ups against overexcitement. Julian was still a very weak young boy who would require a lot of attention. However, now he knew the truth about his father's alter-ego and having unburdened himself of his disturbing and sorrowful past to his mother, emotionally Julian felt more stable than ever before. There was only one thing that troubled him and he determinedly instructed his parents to get back to the Planet and find out who had done this terrible thing to him and his friends. He was perfectly safe here at home with his Grandma and Pop to watch over him and besides, if he had any little needs he just had to shout 'Help Superman', wasn't that the way it went? This brought a smile to his parents' faces, glad to see his sense of fun was resurrecting itself. Willing to play along in this piece of nonsense, Clark donned his sternest Superman mein and reminded his son not to call if one of these 'little needs' involved being taken to the bathroom. After all, there were certain tasks that were beneath a super hero's dignity. Considering the fact that Clark had changed dirty diapers, been spat-up over and helped toilet-train three of his children both in and out of the 'suit', this statement was hardly credible and his children, visualizing a harassed Superman with his famous blue and red covered in patches of sick-up or pooh, burst into fits of giggles. Oh how the mighty had fallen, as a once-awesome figure was reduced to mere domesticity and Clark reflected that if ever he did fall prey to delusions of grandeur, he only had to remind himself of his children bent double with laughter at the super hero's expense. Their laughter was as music to Lois and Clark, but unfortunately for Julian laughing only brought on a nagging pain from his healing insides and he begged them to stop the hilarity, only he was so delighted to be home that he couldn't stop himself from chuckling. Satisfied that three of their kids were content and their nightmarish ordeal was fading into the recesses of their minds, the investigative reporters went to do Julian's bidding, a job that was proving to be more difficult than they had ever supposed.
Now it was close to midnight and five very tired and frustrated adults lounged in varying states of exhaustion around the Planet conference room. Earlier in the evening they had sent Stephan Janik home, knowing that other newsroom staff still expected him to act as their gofer. Jimmy sat hunched over a keyboard, scrolling through various screens, but his movements were lethargic and undirected and it was doubtful if any of the information appearing on the monitor before him was actually registering in his tuckered-out brain. Paula and Umar shared the couch along the back wall, leaning heavily against each other, their eyes closed, as Lois poured them all another dose of caffeine.
"No more for me, Lois," Paula remarked as her eyelids fluttered open. "I think if I have one more coffee I will just float away."
"Me neither, honey." Clark pushed his glasses up on his nose and rubbed his eyes wearily. Even Superman was developing a headache from having ploughed through too many shipping lists. Because of the others in the room he had not been able to employ his speed-reading as much as he would have liked. The printouts had not been helpful. Most of the cargoes had legitimate destinations; a few they had not been able to trace because the companies had gone bust, but on the whole they had come up with zero. Of course, they each realised that perhaps certain shipments might have had hidden contents that hadn't shown up on the manifestos and of which the traders themselves were unaware, yet that didn't help their research one iota.
Lois handed round the coffee to those who wanted it then crossing to the long table, pushed the reams of paperwork aside and hitched herself up to sit on the smooth surface close to her husband. She kicked of her shoes and settled one foot on the chair by his side and wiggled the other in front of him, inviting him to administer one of his delicious massages. He complied with less than his usual enthusiasm, but Lois seemed not to notice. Stretching her head backwards she studied the lights on the ceiling, then making up her mind she sat forward and, pulling her foot from his hands she rested it on his thigh, clenching her toes against his strong muscle. Clark's eyebrows rose in perplexity. Whatever was Lois up to? Her foot was very close to… and normally he wouldn't object, but they were not exactly alone. His eyes rose from his wife's toes which she had now decided to wiggle and transferred to her face, but Lois wasn't looking at him. Instead her gaze was turned inward as she contemplated some as yet unannounced notion. She blinked twice and, coming out of her trance, regarded Clark with a fresh gleam in her eyes.
"Clark, do you remember over ten years ago when we had a run in with those born-again Nazis?" Clark's senses went on alert. "They had followers all over the place and many of them had been placed as sleepers in this country for years."
Jimmy too sat up. "I remember them, Lois. They had bankers and politicians and lots of other high-up mucky-mucks."
"Yeah! And you think that this 'Hand of Retribution' might have moles in this country too? Just waiting for the call?" Clark asked, tuning into her thoughts.
"Exactly! Maybe we are looking for the wrong thing. Maybe we should be looking for the people."
"And cross reference them with the work forces of these companies we've been checking." Clark's tiredness was receding as he warmed to his wife's suggestion.
"How would we do that?" Paula joined in the conversation as she rose from her seat on the couch and joined Lois and Clark at the table.
"By hacking into the files of the Immigration Department." Lois said triumphantly.
"You can do that?"
All eyes swung round to Jimmy.
"It may take a while," that individual responded. "But hey, I've never found a department yet whose system I couldn't break." A huge yawn split his face as he spoke and Clark looked round at the fatigued faces that surrounded him. They'd all put in days and long nights of research while still trying to keep up with their normal workloads and the strain was showing in their pale faces and their sagging body posture. Umar, who had been true to his word and had turned up every night at the Planet to assist them, especially appeared almost ashen beneath his tanned skin; being the head of a multi-national organization was obviously not as taxing as the job of investigative journalist.
"Honey, you know I think you may be on to something, but checking this out could take a long time and in my opinion we could all benefit from a good night's sleep. We'd be a lot fresher and able to work harder if we started first thing tomorrow morning."
About to protest, Lois swiftly reversed her decision when she caught a warning glance from her husband.
"You're right Clark. And I'm anxious to get home to see how Julian is holding up." Both Lois and Clark had spent their lunchtime at Hyperion Avenue and as Nathan had been brought home by his Lane grandparents, the whole family had been re-united for the first time since the explosion and it had felt tremendous. But lunchtime had been hours ago and though she had phoned earlier in the evening to check on the current state of her family she was not averse to going home… at least for a time.
So it was agreed that they all would meet up early next morning for their renewed assault at cracking this case. The five exchanged warm goodnights as they exited the Planet building into the quiet of the night to return to their respective homes. Normally at midnight, downtown Metropolis was a thriving hive of activity of people enjoying a theatre visit or dining out or of those more noisy soles bent on carousing into the wee small hours of the morning. Only since the bombing the citizens of this great city hadn't really felt like entertaining themselves or perhaps they were fearful of inhabiting a public place where there was a possibility of being caught in another similar tragedy. Whatever the reasons, those five, standing alone in the street beneath the huge globe that adorned the Planet's edifice, communed in silent regret over the cause for the change in this remarkable city. Friendships had been forged during the time they had spent, thrown together in their dedicated quest to find the killers of Metropolis' children.
Immediately the Kents were left alone, heading to their Jeep in the underground parking lot, Lois placed a hand on her husband's arm and demanded what he was up to.
"What was that all about?" Her tone informed him that she was not amused by his putting a stop to her promising line of enquiry.
"Sweetheart, everyone is worn out. I definitely believe that you all need a break…"
"Except Superman!" Lois interrupted. "You're going back?" Her husband offered no answer. "Clark!! I know that you don't need so much sleep as the rest of us, but this whole ordeal has affected you far more than you're willing to admit. Please come home with me."
"Lois, I'll be fine and I can work much faster alone," he told her gently as he began to pry her tightly clasped fingers from his arm. "Go home. Get some sleep and I'll be along later." He'd begun backing towards the elevator doors. His wife followed him determinedly.
"What are you not telling me?"
Blushing a little at her forceful question, he wondered why he repeatedly kept on trying to hide things from Lois. She saw through every subterfuge. Yet if he passed on his suspicions there wasn't anyway he could get her to go home and she was so in need of a rest.
Fudging was not going to deter 'Mad Dog Lane'.
"Geesh, Lois , won't you ever just let things alone?"
"Not when you're hiding something important."
"I don't even know if it is important." Lois rolled her hand over to indicate that he should continue. "I just know that there were three very similar… and strange reactions to your brainwave." The imperious hand kept rolling at his slight hesitation. "Three sets of heartbeats almost shot off the scale. And they weren't yours or mine."
"But why should that be?"
"Think about it Lois. Umar, Paula and Jimmy are all closely associated with immigration and the Middle East. Now it was probably an innocent reaction, maybe a rush of adrenaline at the thought of making a breakthrough, but I thought I'd prefer to do this particular research without an audience."
"Present company excluded."
"Lo-is, I thought you wanted to go home and check on the kids."
"The kids are fine. Your mother would have called if there was anything to worry about."
That statement was undeniable so Lois proceeded to the elevator doors and punched the call-button and Clark, admitting defeat, entered behind her when the doors slid open. They rode up to the newsroom floor in silence, both deep in thought. The large office was dimly lit, those on night duty preferring to work with just their desk-top lamps illuminating their own space. Stalking through the unusually quiet newspen Lois kept her own council, not wishing to disturb the few staff members who were sitting at their desks, intently concentrating on their own stories. No-one paid any undue attention to the couple's return. Lois and Clark burning the midnight oil during this past week was not an uncommon occurrence.
Lois led the way back to the conference room, their own office being utilised at present by the night editor. Directly the door was closed behind them, affording them some privacy, and she swung round to face Clark, placing a hand on the centre of his chest.
"What's the real reason?!"
"What real reason?!! I've already told you."
"Only partly! Why are we really here, skulking round this place in the dark… alone?"
"We're not exactly alone, Lois," Clark remarked his gaze sweeping the newsroom outside, but when his wife's brows drew down in a frown and the look he was receiving would have drawn blood had he not been invulnerable, he resolved to come clean. Sitting down in front of the computer he booted up the machine and ignored the whirring and clicking it made as it powered up. "I decided that just in case my vague suspicions were correct that I'd better download these immigration files before anyone has a chance to tamper with them."
With her senses perking right up at those words, Lois slipped into the chair next to him.
"Who do you suspect, honey?"
A derisive laugh met her question. "That's what I'm not actually certain of."
"You can't mean Jimmy?"
The screen began to fill up and for a few moments Clark turned his attention to the keyboard. "Of course, *not* Jimmy!! We've known him for ever and he's probably my closest friend, excluding Perry. And even though we haven't exactly been in contact in recent years, I'd stake my life that he doesn't have a duplicitous bone in his body." Lois was nodding in agreement as he spoke. "But there is Kiaya…"
"So you finally came round to my way of thinking." Normally Lois would feel justified at Clark's compliance, only this time if she were proved right it would break their best friend's heart. She sadly laid her head on her husband's strong shoulder. "Poor Jimmy. You know this is one time when I wouldn't mind being wrong."
"Which is a strong possibility," Clark reminded her. "Kiaya is supposed to be a Christian and if that's true I doubt she would have much contact with 'The Hand of Retribution'."
"But she has been acting strangely. And the school did blow up a few days after she arrived in this country…"
"And marrying Jimmy would have gotten her into this country and have provided her with excellent cover…"
"But would she have had time to set up the bombing in the few days that she was here?"
The dialogue snapped back and forth in the typical way that they had of bouncing ideas off of each other.
"Well, I doubt very much if she was working alone here. Perhaps it was already set up and all they were waiting for…" A horrifying thought struck Clark. "All they were waiting for was the hardware. Lois what if she brought the triggering device for the bomb into the country? That would mean that we loaded it up in our car and took it to her hotel."
"That's impossible, Clark. I mean wouldn't the luggage have to go through security? Don't they have x-ray equipment or something?"
"Yes!! But don't you recall how I joked with Jimmy about all the baggage they had and he explained that a lot of it was photographic equipment; cameras and lenses and time-shutters and remote controls. There could have been similar devices but with a more sinister purpose hidden amongst that lot. It would be pretty hard for a non-expert to tell the difference."
"That's awful, Clark," strangely, it was Lois who began to refute the idea. "We're just hypothesizing here. Aren't we? Maybe it could be Paula or Umar. Didn't their pulse rate increase too?" Despite the babbling Lois and Clark both recognized, as had Julian on that fateful night, that the truth has a certain rightness about it.
"I'm not sure why that happened, but Paula is American and disregarding her obvious romantic link to Umar, she doesn't seem to have any other interest in Islam, or any other religion for that matter. And haven't you already checked into her background?"
"Well, yeah." Lois was loath to answer, knowing that was a sore point between them.
"So, what did you find?"
"Nothing conclusive. She and Umar have been an item for close on a year, but they don't live together, although she seems to spend a great deal of time at his penthouse. Her work schedule is pretty busy, but unlike other models she seems to pick and choose her assignments. I guess that's the perks of having a mega-rich boyfriend." That observation drew a disapproving scowl from her partner. She raised her hands in submission. "O K! Anyway she burst onto the catwalk only a couple of years ago. Took the modelling world by storm, as it were."
"Wasn't she the 'Face' of 2004?"
"You remembered that!?" Sometimes mild-mannered Clark Kent surprised her.
"Honey, I do not walk around blindfolded." He softened his declaration by placing a kiss on her shocked lips. "What else did you discover about the lovely Paula?" Only this time his mention of her name was purely professional.
"It's pretty sketchy. She was born in Brookersfield on the 28th July 1979, but just as she said the family left there when she was five. I lost track of her after that until she surfaced in Chicago a few years prior to her modelling career. She worked for a public utilities company then she won a beauty pageant and she signed up with a local agency. The rest they say is history."
"So, nothing to tie her into this case. What about Umar?"
"Only what I've read in the PR publications."
"Then let's see if we can find out a little more about our man about town."
"Can you hack into the department's files?"
Clark sent her an incredulous glance. "Trust me, sweetheart. I've been watching Jimmy do this all week. A photographic memory comes in handy sometimes and I have an advantage when searching for a password."
Lois looked on in amazement as Clark's fingers flew across the keyboard at super-speed. Fortunately the new breed of computers were catching up to Clark's celerity, which meant he had fewer burnouts. The various screens scrolled by until they halted on the one which he was seeking. His wife's eyes nearly jumped out of her head when she read the title.
"The National Intelligence Agency!? Clark, I thought we were researching immigration?"
"All in good time, honey. First, I thought it might be advantageous to find out what the N I A has to say about ibn Said."
True to his word, Clark followed the methods that he had studied his friend employing and after a considerable amount of trial and error, all operated at super-speed, he opened up the desired file. Glancing at his wife he silently asked and received permission to speed-read the data base and Lois' sight blurred as the words rolled up the monitor in mere seconds. When they reached the end, she could no longer contain her impatience.
"What does it say?"
"According to the agency the man is a saint. He has helped the U N forge a peace of some sorts in the Middle East, acting as an arbitrator between the different factions and smoothing the way when it seemed that the negotiations were failing. He has passed covert information to the Intelligence agencies that have enabled them to put away a number of particularly deadly terrorists. However, he has always looked after the interests of his own people and has managed to gain concessions for them from the western governments and has even fought his own rulers to alleviate the lives of ethnic minorities."
"When does he manage to walk on water?" Clark couldn't restrain a laugh at his wife's cynicism. "I'm sorry, Clark. I know how much you want me to see the best in everyone, but I just don't buy it."
"Neither does the N I A."
Deep in thought, Lois failed to hear her husband's last assertion.
"Perhaps he may have done all these estimable things, but it all seems too good to be true. And would his own government allow him to remain in his prominent position if he were passing secret information to the West?"
"Lois, honey, relax. The agency agrees with you. There's an addendum to the file. Very short and very hush-hush, but it seems that recently they've been checking into ibn Said."
"Good! Of course, his government may not know that he's passing secrets."
"Or they are aware and are instructing him to do so. Umar's country has always been on friendly terms with the West. This might be their method of assisting to rid the world of terrorists. In their precarious position they have to walk a narrow line between the two worlds."
"You really are a boy-scout." After all the trials they had been through in their lives it still astounded Lois that her husband was so credulous. However, this time she was wrong in her estimation.
"Only playing devil's advocate, sweetheart. I agree that Ibn Said isn't exactly what he appears and he would be perfectly placed to co-ordinate such an assault."
"But if the N I A have him under surveillance wouldn't they have linked him to this crime before now?"
A confused sigh broke from Clark's lips. "Who knows, Lois? So far we've managed to incriminate two of our friends and without any hard evidence. Maybe we're just too close to this case."
The black limo that had been patiently waiting across the street drew into the empty thorough fare and parked at the curb by the Planet's exit the moment the owner and his partner parted from their friends. Ibn Said and Paula slipped into the dark recesses of the back seat as the driver deferentially held open the door. Briefly Umar talked quietly to his employee in their native tongue then settled himself next to his lover's warmth in the comfort of the soft leather interior, and yet for all their physical nearness, Paula sensed that the essence of the man had gone far from her.
James Olsen, hunching the collar of his topcoat up around his ears and digging his hands deep into his pockets seeking a refuge against the cold, strode off in the direction of the Lexor. He had been offered a ride home by the couple but declined in favour of a brisk walk to his hotel, hoping that the exercise and the cold breeze would clear his head, before he had to face the anxious interrogation by his wife. The interest that Kiaya was showing in this investigation was at first wholly understandable, since it involved very personally the few people that she had met since coming to this new country. However, as the days passed and much to Jimmy's bemusement, her focus centred less on the condition of the Kent children and more and more on whether the reporters were any closer to discovering the perpetrators. Originally, he had not been concerned by the direction of her pre-occupation but as she gradually became more obsessive the doubts grew in his mind. Was her haunted attitude some throwback to her similar childhood traumas and, if this was so, what could he do to reassure her that she was safe and secure in his love and in her new life as his wife? Her terrors from her past in a war-torn city were obviously deep-rooted and perhaps still unhealed, but surely with love and patience she would succeed in laying them to rest. This was his hope, though he had to admit that it was her wistful air of vulnerability and her almost instant faith in his ability to take care of her that he had found so attractive when they had first been introduced. Jimmy hurried through the dark streets, steeling himself to answer all her questions and to offer her comfort. A smile lurked about his lips as he imagined just what form that solicitude might eventually assume. They were, after all, newly-weds. Somehow Jimmy didn't feel quite so cold or tired anymore.
Meanwhile the limo drew to its first destination and Paula was helped by the chauffeur to alight outside her own apartment block. She tried to hide her disappointment as she kissed Umar goodnight. Paula had employed all her considerable assets both mental and physical to persuade her boyfriend that she should spend the night at his penthouse, but this night Umar had remained immune to her entreaties, using the excuse that they were both fairly exhausted and more than a little depressed by their as yet unsuccessful efforts to help Lois and Clark. He believed that a good night of uninterrupted sleep would be restorative and there was certainly less chance of diversions if they spent the night in their respective homes.
Watching the car speed off downtown, Paula swallowed her frustration. Earlier in the Planet offices, she like Clark had sensed Umar's uncharacteristic agitation at Lois' suggestion. The couple had been sitting cuddling on the sofa when Lois had spoken and although Umar had immediately buried his reaction, Paula had noticed his muscles tense and the furrowed lines of concentration appear between his brows. All her detection instincts sprang to a state of alert. Could the proposal to search the Immigration Dept.'s data-banks have touched a raw nerve? Yet surely the agency would have pursued this line of enquiry already, though maybe with not quite the same zeal as the reporters. Paula was surprised by the computer-hacking skills of James Olsen and amazed by the experience and insight that Lane & Kent brought to a case. Individually the two were both highly intelligent and intuitive beings, but together they were almost awesome. Lois provided the fire and the drive and Clark was clearly the anchor and the foundation. Together they were a formidable team and that was without the help that they always seemed able to conjure up from their super- powered friend.
The limo disappeared into the Metropolis night and Paula squared her shoulders and hurried inside. If she couldn't stick with Umar tonight then she had best report on these new developments to her superior at the bureau and have the green-card info rechecked, because judging by the Arab's reaction there could clearly be data buried there that might link him to the terrorists.
Way over town, in the glass tower penthouse high above the rest of Metropolis, ibn Said gazed unseeingly down on the myriad twinkling lights. He was filled with a gut-wrenching, frustrating ire. Damn the woman!! From their initial meeting he had known that the Lane bitch would be trouble!! Until she had interfered he had remained confident in his ability to side-track the journalist researchers down whichever path he deemed safe. But now with the spotlight firmly on the immigration files he was uncertain that they would not make a connection between his sleepers and one of his varied subsidiary companies. The tie would not be easy to find as he had used every trick in the book to disguise his many holdings, yet having watched the reporting team at work he recognised that they were perfectly capable of digging through the twisted trails. And if that link could be traced here to Metropolis and even closer to home… to The Braeview Elementary School and the catering firm they had employed for the children's party. A small local and trustworthy firm, a few of whose workers had been hit with an unexpected bout of sickness the day before the booking and whose bosses had been thankful to find an ethnic employment agency whose employees did not mind working on a holiday and who did not even require the extra remuneration normally sought after by those working a holiday. Of course, the M P D had already established that the job agency, along with its staff, had miraculously disappeared and so far no-one had been able to discover their whereabouts and very shortly the men who had planted the bomb would be spirited safely out of the country. However, ibn Said was not prepared to risk even the slim chance that Lois and Clark would expose his involvement and to that end he promptly set about creating a diversionary plot. He had used this ploy in the past and though his method would mean the premature loss of a highly valued operative, whose placement had required a deal of intricate planning and expensive bribery, that circumstance could not be avoided. Besides, there was one advantage to the offering up of the sacrificial lamb; once again he could ingratiate himself with this corrupt government and its inept intelligence bureaus by his willingness to assist in the apprehension of the terrorists.
But first he needed the permission of his masters, so to that end he powered up his own private communications system. Those monitoring his call overheard a boring fiscal report on one of Said's smaller subsidiaries which appeared to be in financial difficulties and his ideas for its rescue. At the close of the conversation there was a short and concerned query about the state of health of his second cousin. Sadly the girl seemed to have a terminal illness and the prognosis was not hopeful. The eavesdroppers were not privy to the pre-arranged code which sanctioned ibn Said's plan to muddy the waters and protect his secret identity and if there was any question in the minds of the listeners it was purely a transitory thought that the man must be a workaholic, discussing a business deal at this ungodly hour of the morning. Smiling sarcastically as he closed his call, Said reflected that if the intelligence network had found a way of bugging his highly sophisticated satellite system they would have been gulled by the seemingly innocent conversation. Though, truth to tell, he was convinced that the degenerate Americans were fooled by his brilliant duplicity. Still, it was wise not to become complacent; his watchword from his masters was always to go carefully. Many a grandiose scheme throughout history had failed, simply because the founder had begun to believe in his own infallibility. Umar ibn Said would not make that mistake. 'The Hand of Retribution' would not allow such an aggrandizement. He was only a weapon, but an extremely well-honed weapon and he would survive to strike again at the heart of his enemies.
Plunging the apartment into darkness, Umar left by the staff exit and took the service elevator down to the underground garage, only this time he by-passed the shiny black limo and walked to the far corner of the parking lot and to one of the cheap little runabouts that he kept specifically for use when he wished to remain anonymous. Once inside the car he pulled a cell phone from the glove-box and dialled the number of the Olsen suite at the Lexor. He only hoped that James had not yet reached home and when the soft female voice of his second cousin answered he heaved a relieved sigh. Succinctly he issued his orders for her to meet immediately with the new group to plan their next assault. He returned her goodbye with only a transient regret as a long-ago image of the younger sister of a boyhood friend, following worshipfully the handsome boy she adored, surfaced fleetingly in his memory. The memory was firmly squashed. His god demanded many sacrifices. Setting his jaw determinedly he drove from the garage and headed towards the Daily Planet to put into effect the first stage of his plotting. Somehow he knew that this was where he would find Lane & Kent. He doubted that either reporter would be willing to wait till morning before continuing the search.
Within the half hour he was escorted up to the newsroom by a Planet security guard who had informed him that his supposition had been correct and that the two reporters were working on into the night. The security officer took his job very seriously and apologised for his diligence to the foreign gentleman whom he had seen lately in the company of Ms Lane and Mr Kent, but in these troubled times it was more than his job's worth to allow visitors to wander unescorted around the office in the dead of night. Umar assured the man that he understood perfectly and thanked him for his assistance as he was deposited outside the conference room doors. Knocking lightly he entered as Clark swung round, interrupted from his intense study of the computer screen.
Clark decided he must indeed be over tired as he had been taken completely unawares by the Arab's arrival. Either that or he was totally bemused by the screeds and screeds of data that scrolled up the monitor. Lois had given up about ten minutes ago and was now curled up asleep in the corner of the couch, the tartan blanket thrown across her for extra warmth. She looked so comfortable lying there that for a moment, Clark had been tempted to join her for a short nap. However he suspected that he was so done in that if he closed his eyes at all he would not waken up till morning and the opportunity of getting a jump on the enemy (whomever that might be) would be missed. The arrival of Umar back at the Planet seemed to answer that question, or did it? The younger man came conspiratorially into the room and seated himself by Clark. The almost black eyes slid over Lois' sleeping form, a guarded mein masking his thoughts, and then returned to her husband. When he spoke his voice was the barest whisper.
"I'm sorry Clark, but I appear to be the bearer of bad tidings. I hoped that I would find you here, but I wish that I had better news to impart. I'm not sure that I know where best to begin." His face was a perfect study in consternation.
"It's been my experience that bad news is best just spoken right out," Clark encouraged. "Take it easy, Umar and start at the beginning." But then he had a thought. Lois would not be at all pleased if she were allowed to sleep through an important development. "However, Umar if you don't object I'd like Lois to hear what you have to say."
"Of course, how could I object? Lois has every right to listen to this news first hand." An amiable expression set like concrete on Umar's face, while inside his emotions seethed. How long could he uphold the pretence that he considered this female a friend? Fortunately he was given a few moments to compose his wayward feelings, as Clark concentrated on waking his wife, a task that was proving difficult. Finally Lois responded to her husband's urging and she fought to surface from a disturbed sleep, full of images of broken buildings and even worse… broken bodies and flitting ghost like through the nightmarish aspect the dark faces of Kiaya and Umar. With great relief Lois opened her eyes on her husband's anxious face.
"You all right, sweetheart?" His voice also showed his concern.
Pulling herself upright with the help of an arm around his neck she offered him an apologetic smile. "Just a bad dream. Sorry, I didn't mean to fall asleep on you."
"That's O K honey, we're all a little tired." He passed a silent warning to her with a roll of his eyes, then spoke aloud for the benefit of the man waiting in the shadows. "Umar is here. He has something he want's to tell us. I thought that I should wake you."
"You're darn right, you should wake me. This could be the break we've been looking for." Pasting a welcoming look on her face as she used Clark as a lever to stand up, she walked round his solid form and crossed to their visitor. "Hi, Umar! Judging by the look on your face you're onto something big… but the news isn't good."
"I'm afraid that it might upset you. I'm sorry, but sometimes the truth is not palatable."
"Don't worry, Umar. Over the years Clark and I have grown a very thick skin. Now what is it?" And she pulled up a chair and sat down expectantly waiting for Umar to begin his tale. The man did not disappoint her.
"When I arrived home there was a message awaiting me from my family back home, urgently requesting me to get in touch with them. You see I had told them of my new friends and of the terrible catastrophe that had befallen their children. They were most distressed. I also told them how I had made it a point of honour to help my friends in their quest to find who had done this to their family. My own family promised to help me and they have been busily searching for information back in my country. They have discovered that a very active member of a group known as 'The Hand of Retribution' entered this country only a few days ago." Umar searched the faces of the two people before him trying to gauge their reaction to his narrative. "This… person brought with them instructions for an attack so horrifying that the group hoped would jar the American people out of their complacency and make them aware of what is happening to the children in the organization's home country."
"I don't think that Americans are blowing up children in any part of the world." Lois interjected.
"Nevertheless, children are dying; of hunger; of disease; of the antipathy of the western world."
"I think, honey, that Umar is referring to the children caught up in those countries that are suffering from trade sanctions." Clark offered. "You know Umar, you sound as if you sympathise with this organization."
For a moment those dark Arab eyes blazed with passion then Umar shrugged. "I understand their pain… but not their actions. Violence is never the answer. We must find ways to bring about peace and understanding between the different cultures and then there will be no need for sanctions."
Those were sentiments with which Clark wholly concurred, yet somehow he got the feeling that ibn Said was spouting them only by rote. Bringing Umar back to the reason for his visit Clark spoke soothingly.
"But you're not here to discuss the rights and wrongs of sanctions. You have something more specific to tell us."
"You're right! I digress!" Umar forced back his rising anger and returned to his revelation. "It seems that this person did not only bring with them the plans for the assault but also a sophisticated triggering device…"
"Hidden amongst very similar high-tech camera equipment." Clark finished the statement. He was beginning to be irritated by Umar's cultured tones and he could sense through his fingertips that rested lightly on Lois' shoulders her rising tension. "I take it that you are referring to Kiaya Olsen."
Umar bowed his head in acknowledgement, trying simultaneously to contain his shock that the couple already suspected his acolyte. "The reputation of Lane & Kent is well deserved. But whatever led you to her?"
"Female intuition, Umar. Lois can spot a phony in almost any circumstance."
His wife blushed rosily at this compliment of her skills then continued to question Umar. "Who is Kiaya, really?"
"That my family has not yet been able to discover, but I assure you that they will continue their search. All they have learned at present is that Kiaya Olsen is not what she seems."
"Kiaya must belong to a very powerful organization if they could create a false identity which could so successfully fool the authorities." Clark mused, his mouth forming a silent moue of grudging admiration.
"In my experience 'The Hand of Retribution' is a very resourceful circle. In Asia their influence is extremely far reaching."
"Perhaps they even created your personae, Umar," Lois teased.
"Lois!!" That was a warning from her husband. At the moment Clark did not wish to alert Umar to their suspicions. This man had for the past few years duped the whole western world into believing that he was an ally, a feat which had required a tremendous amount of guile and he would not easily be bested. If they were to build a case against him then they needed to lull him into a false sense of security in the hope that his arrogance would lead him into carelessness.
"I beg your pardon, Lois?!" Umar tried to act hurt by her accusation whilst internally his brain spun with thoughts of exposure.
"I'm sorry Umar. I was just supposing." Lois decided to heed her husband's warning for the present, but her dislike of this duplicitous rat was increasing with each passing moment.
"Believe me, Lois, The Hand's influence does not extend into my country, which has always maintained friendly relations with Western governments. Why else would I be so keen to help you?"
"Why indeed?!" Lois fought to conceal her sarcasm.
"And we do appreciate all that you are doing, Umar." Clark strove to placate the Arab's susceptibilities. "Please accept our thanks for all your time and effort."
If Lois considered that Clark's effusiveness was a little over the top, at least she kept her disapproval to herself and she had to admit that his tactics were working for ibn Said's body language showed that his customary aplomb was fast reasserting itself.
"I am happy to help, Clark." Umar concluded that for his peace of mind he would continue his conversation with Kent and ignore that 'woman'. Pointedly facing Clark he continued his probing. "What will you do now? Will you inform your police department?"
"Probably," Lois was quick to answer, unwilling to be closed out of the conversation," but first we'll talk to Kiaya. Try to find out what she knows. She obviously couldn't have done this alone. She had to have accomplices and that's what we mean to find out. Getting rid of one rotten apple is not going to do much good when it's clear that the whole barrel is spoiled."
"Lois is right. And besides we only have your word that Kiaya is involved."
"You disbelieve me?!" Umar's words were almost a snarl.
"No! Indeed not!" Clark was quick to reassure. While he felt that a little unsettling might force Umar into making a mistake, he didn't wish to push the alien into a rash act of aggression. "I'm sure that your information is correct, but at present it is unsubstantiated. We need to find proof."
"I understand! Innocent until proven guilty! That admirable concept of the American justice system." Ibn Said did not sound as if he approved. Turning to view the clock on the conference-room wall he discerned that he was already late for his fateful meeting. Swiftly he changed tactics. "Well, it's almost morning and I have a business to run and an appointment for lunch with your estimable foreign secretary, to discuss the dismantling of trade embargoes. I leave you to your investigations. Good hunting!"
Bowing his head fleetingly he turned and stalked from the room with all the feline grace of a large beast of prey. Lois and Clark watched in silence as he crossed the newspit and entered the elevator, but as the closing doors hid him from sight Lois could no longer contain her anger.
"That murderous two-faced snake. Not only does he master mind the attack on our children but then without a qualm he throws his colleague to the wolves in an effort to save his slimy skin. We may not have any corroborating evidence but that… that monster is as guilty as sin."
"I agree, sweetheart. He was probably giving Kiaya her instructions at the New Year's party at his apartment and I only wish that I had listened more carefully to you when you spotted Kiaya in that room. I could have put an end to their plots and all these children would still be alive."
Once again Clark was assuming responsibility for all the ills in the world. Lois slid her arms beneath his jacket and began to rub her hands up and down his spine in a gentle act of comfort.
"Don't be too hard on yourself, sweetheart. No-one could have foreseen what they were up to. Even I only suspected that they were indulging in a lovers' tiff. All we can do now is make sure that the whole nest of rats is brought to justice."
Wrapping his arms around her in response to her tender stroking Clark sighed heavily.
"That may not be easy, sweetheart. Umar has everyone convinced that he's a real good guy. Hey, up until this evening, even the top team of Lane and Kent were completely fooled."
That caused Lois to grimace; the fact that this man had been able to pull the wool over her eyes only increased her revulsion of him but it also made her more determined to nail him. An audible sigh escaped from a very frustrated female reporter which characteristically changed to a whoop of inspiration.
"The N I A agent. Didn't it say in Umar's file that an agent had been assigned to track him down? We have to find out who that is and maybe if we compare notes we'll have enough to convict him."
"We could ask Jack Olsen. He might be prepared to co-operate."
"I don't think that will be necessary." A soft sultry voice joined the conversation and Clark and Lois turned simultaneously in the direction of its source. Framed in the doorway, her blond hair glowing dully in the dim light like a muted halo around her lovely face, stood the person they were searching for. Clark was the first to regain his composure.
"Actually that's Agent Raine." She began rummaging through her purse as she came into the room. By the time she reached the table she had her badge in her hand and she held it up for the couple to peruse. Lois was astounded.
"You work for the N I A?!"
"For over a year, yes! Actually I was recruited by Jack Olsen. This may take some time. May I sit down?" she asked the couple and Clark pulled up a chair which she immediately settled into, crossing her shapely long legs. Lois and Clark deposited themselves beside her, Clark sitting back in his chair and Lois again making use of the table. Both reporters listening intently to what she had to relate. "A little over a year ago the Agency was tipped off by the British Secret Service that Umar ibn Said was suspected of being a member of a very old and secret society. It appeared that this almost mythological cult has been a thorn in Britain's side since the days of the Empire. They lost sight of it for many years as their influence in the Arab world diminished, but they never completely forgot it. This cult is driven by the urge to bring the world under the influence of its own religion and place themselves in a position of world domination. The society is headed by a group calling themselves the 'Inner Circle' and entrance into this elite company is by right of birth. According to the U K information, ibn Said's true family is an important part of this group. However, being such a covert society, few facts are known about it and no actual member has ever talked or been allowed to talk to the outside world, so all is speculation. In the past decade, the organization has become more concentrated on its goal and with that in mind the cult has spent a deal of time and effort into placing a mole into the heart of the Western world. Ibn Said is suspected of being that mole, but neither the British nor ourselves have any proof of this and to accuse someone who can name Presidents and Princes amongst his list of friends is not a feasible prospect. And that's where I come in; the agency needed someone who was not associated in the past with the N I A to get close to their suspect and as Umar was beginning to show some romantic interest in me, Jack Olsen decided to ask for my aid."
"And you, out of some sort of patriotic duty, decided to embark on a life of double dealing and danger?" The incredulity in Lois' voice was obvious.
"Something like that," Paula answered, a grin lurking in her tone at Lois' barely disguised disbelief. "Actually I'm not a disinterested observer. When I was a little kid my parents split up. It was a particularly messy split and as there were a number of us kids neither my mom nor dad could take care of us." Lois looked sympathetically at this seemingly self-composed woman, knowing exactly where she was coming from. "Anyway my sister and I were the youngest and we were placed in a foster home until my mom was settled and able to provide proper care for us. My foster parents were real nice people and I kept in touch with them through the years, until the were tragically killed a number of years ago. They were a devoutly religious couple and always wanted to visit the Holy Land and when they retired they were so happy to realise their dream. Unfortunately for them they were in Jerusalem when The Hand decided to make another strike at their hated enemies and my poor foster relatives were caught up in the blast and killed outright. Jack Olsen found out about this and decided to utilise the knowledge to persuade me to work for him. Actually I didn't need much convincing. I'll be happy to be part of bringing to book those responsible for such callous acts."
"That's exactly how Clark and I feel. And I think we can help."
And for the next few moments Lois and Clark reviewed their recent visit from Umar and added their opinions on his information for the benefit of the Agent Raine. Paula's face suffused with disgust as she listened to the tale of ibn Said's treachery.
"Lois, you seem to have formed a relationship with Kiaya Olsen. Do you think that you could sway her into fingering ibn Said?"
"Maybe if she knew that he had betrayed her. We can only try."
"And I think that we should hurry," Clark interjected. "We've already informed Umar of our intention to question Kiaya and he might not be prepared to rely on her silence. She might be in great danger."
"But she's with Jimmy. Umar is hardly going to blow his cover by marching into their hotel room and killing them." Lois reasoned.
"I agree with Lois. That's not his style. I doubt that our cultured gentleman has much hands on experience. He has plenty of willing minions to do his bidding, but let's not take any chances. We should visit the Olsens now." Paula's actions suited her words as she rose and crossed to the door, waiting for Lois and Clark to gather their things. Superman would dearly have loved to utilise his speed to arrive at the Lexor in double-quick time but he could think of no reasonable excuse to part company from Paula and besides, the agent was probably correct in her assumption that it would take Umar some time to set up an assassination. None of the three were aware that this process was well underway before Umar had returned to talk with Lois and Clark and that the killer was already in place… Kiaya Olsen herself.
Even without the use of super-speed the trio were soon standing outside the Olsens' suite and Lois was knocking loudly on the door, as she thought that they would, at this dark hour of the night, be fast asleep. To her surprise the door was snatched open instantaneously by a very stressed out Jimmy.
"Where have you been?" He demanded querulously almost before the door was fully ajar, as anger warred with worry in his mind. "Lois!! Clark!! What are you doing here?"
"We're sorry to bother you at this hour, Jimmy," As he came through the door Clark apologised. "But it's really important that we speak to Kiaya."
Holding the door open for the two women to follow Clark into the room Jimmy's frown deepened. "That's not possible C K. She's not here. When I got back from the Planet the place was empty and I don't know where she could have gone. It's not like she knows anyone in Metropolis. And it's the middle of the night. Where could she have gone?"
Clark didn't know the answer to that but he had a fairly strong notion that where ever she was Kiaya was in deadly danger. They had underestimated ibn Said yet again and he wasn't relishing telling his friend what they had discovered about Kiaya and her association with Umar. And what was more, he ought to be out searching for the girl before ibn Said had a chance to be rid of her. Yet without a lead on her whereabouts it could take hours for Superman to search the city; hours that he was sure Jimmy's wife did not have. It could very well be already too late to save her. Lois understood Clark's dilemma and she stepped in with an impromptu plan.
"Clark, I know that it's premature to report Kiaya as a missing person to the police, but maybe you could get in touch with Superman and have him look for her."
Paula too had her own ideas and she flashed her badge to Olsen as she crossed the room and picking up the phone she dialled the local police headquarters and asked to be put through to the officer in charge. Her conversation was short and very succinct, but at the close of her explanation there was a search and apprehend order issued on Kiaya Olsen. Jimmy listened to the proceedings with mounting confusion and foreboding, his head turning questioningly from one to the other of his friends.
"What's going on guys? Why would Superman and the police be interested in finding Kiaya? I mean she probably couldn't sleep and went out for a walk and got lost. She doesn't know her way around the city. She'll be home any minute."
"Jimmy, I don't think that's so." Lois placed her hand on his arm and drew him down onto the couch where she dropped closely by him. "We have something to tell you and I just wish that it weren't true…"
"But we're afraid that it is." Clark concluded. Torn between the desire to be with his friend while they broke the news of Kiaya's deception and the need to search for the girl while there was still a slim chance that she might be found alive, Clark let himself be influenced by his wife who was indicating by a small motion of her hand that he ought to be out flying.
"Clark, get out of here and find Superman. Paula and I will look after Jimmy." And as her husband disappeared out the door Lois turned her attention back to the man sitting in worried expectation by her side. "Jimmy we have something to tell you about your wife…"
As gently as she could Lois related all that they had found out since Jimmy had left them at the Planet; about Kiaya's false identity and her membership of 'The Hand of Retribution'. Jimmy's stunned expression grew ever wider as he strove to comprehend the consequences of Lois' revelation. This could not be true, because if it was it meant that his wife was not in love with him, was in truth not his wife. And yet why would his oldest and dearest friend be lying to him when she knew that her words were breaking his heart? Lois wasn't that cruel and besides her explanation answered a few doubts that had been forming in his mind regarding Kiaya's occasionally strange behaviour. Only once he questioned Lois' narrative when she spoke of how the triggering device had been smuggled into the country inside his luggage.
"That's not possible, Lois." His voice was adamant as he refuted her suggestion. "I never let anyone else touch my camera equipment. It's far too valuable and complicated. I make a point of packing the gear myself for long-distance travel. You never know how careless the airline baggage handlers are going to be with…" Suddenly his voice tailed away as he recalled the day of their departure from Cairo.
"What have you remembered, Jimmy?" Lois could always read him like a book. He took a few minutes to answer her question, wishing that this particular memory had remained buried.
"Very early on the morning we were leaving, I received a phone call from one of my sources. I'd been trying for some time to obtain an interview from an ex-bomb-maker called Rashid. He'd been pretty active for a number of years but some time ago he had gotten too close to one of his own explosives and ended up minus his hands and life was proving pretty difficult for him since he had lost the ability to earn his living. So he put the word out on the street that he would be prepared to spill his guts if the price was right. I thought it strange at the time because normally these people never divulge what they know. Anyway I wasn't prepared to look a gift-horse in the mouth so when I was told that if I wanted to talk to him I had to come now, I left the packing up to Kiaya. As it turned out the contact never showed up even though I hung about for as long as I could. Luckily Kiaya had everything under control; the bags packed; our passports and tickets packed. We barely made the plane." Jimmy rose from his seat beside Lois and crossed to a framed picture of himself and Kiaya on their wedding day. Picking it up his fingers strayed across the image of his wife's face.
"It was a set up, wasn't it? So Kiaya could hide the device amongst my things?"
"That's the way I see it. I'm sorry, Jimmy, this can't be easy for you to hear this."
A mirthless laugh escaped from the bewildered man. "That's an understatement. What about this ibn Said? Are you looking to arrest him too?" This time it was Paula who answered his question.
"That all depends on what Kiaya can tell us. We have no proof that he is involved."
"Kiaya won't be telling us anything." A very subdued Clark had come back into the room. The explanation to Jimmy had taken a considerable time but still Lois was surprised to see her husband returning so soon. "James, I am so sorry but we found Kiaya at the Rainbow Hotel. I was with Superman when the police got a call about a gunshot overheard from one of the hotel rooms. Superman and I flew right there, but it was too late. Kiaya was dead. I'm sorry but we couldn't save her. She died instantly."
Jimmy stood mutely staring at the man he had admired for most of his adult life and wished that Clark and what he was trying to tell him would just disappear. He fought the sickness that was rising into his mouth as he attempted to ask another question. Lois did it for him.
"Who killed her?"
This query seemed to make Clark even more uncomfortable. For some moments he too looked as if he wanted to disappear. Then with a resigned sigh he replied.
"It looks like she took her own life. The gun was still in her hand and she left a letter for Jimmy, admitting that she had been brought to this country with the sole purpose of committing a terrorist act and that now she could no longer go on living with her guilt."
The nauseousness that had been threatening Jimmy's composure now erupted and he ran for the bathroom. Outside his friends waited in sympathy for him to recover.
"Clark, are you sure that it was suicide?" Lois asked in desperation.
"Superman and the police definitely thought so. Lois, the gun was still in her mouth and her hand was on the trigger." Even super stomachs were not immune when they recalled the blood and bone that spattered the dingy grey walls of the room at the Rainbow Hotel and Clark pressed his hand hard against his mouth while he swallowed. "Of course the gun will have to be tested but from what Superman could make out there was only one set of prints on its surface. The suicide note only bore the same fingerprints and it looked genuine."
"It's not unusual for these fanatics to take their own lives when they are faced with arrest." Paula added to the conversation. "They fear the wrath of their God and their own people much more than they fear us. And they would rather die than betray their compatriots."
"Perhaps Kiaya was frightened into suicide," Lois offered.
"By ibn Said? I guess that isn't entirely impossible, honey. But there just isn't any proof that he was in that room with her."
A pale yet somewhat composed James Olsen came back into the room. In a short time he had seemed to age visibly. Clearly he had overheard part of their conversation.
"Guys, I know you mean well but I guess the police will be looking for me to identify the body. So maybe we could hold the investigation until that's done."
As if on cue Inspector Henderson came knocking at the open door. Walking into the room he seemed surprised as his eyes alighted on Clark.
"How did you make it over here so fast, Kent? Oh, I see! You got a lift from your buddy the super hero." And the policeman made a flying gesture with his hand. Superman had been at the crime scene when the police had arrived and he had done his best to assist the police with their investigation; however, when Superman had left he had put in a short appearance as the reporter, knowing that both Paula and Jimmy were aware that Clark had gone off to find Superman and Kiaya. Also he wanted to be the one to break the bad news to Jimmy and be there for him if the younger man needed his support. Sometimes it was very difficult to keep track of his dual personalities and especially at distressing times like these. He was lucky this time to get away with it.
The bereaved widower picked up his coat from the chair where he had discarded it earlier and slipping it on he addressed Henderson. "I know why you're here, Inspector. Lois and Clark have told me the whole story. I expect you want me down at the station."
If the police officer was taken aback by Olsen's abrupt attitude he hid his surprise well.
"I'm afraid that there is some paper work to be taken care off and your wife's body will need to be I D'd. I'm sorry but it won't be pleasant for you. Perhaps you'd like Lois and Clark to tag along."
"That's O K Inspector. I'm a big boy now. I don't need anyone to hold my hand."
If the policeman was surprised at Jimmy's almost callous behaviour, the husband-and-wife team were completely dumbfounded. They could not know that the man they both thought of as a younger brother was struggling to hold himself together and that if he allowed either Lois or Clark to break through his hard-held composure then the veneer would crack and he would fall into a million pieces. Watching the shocked and slightly hurt demeanour of the Kents, Jimmy added guilt to all the other emotions that burdened his mind. Unbending slightly he placed a hand on each of their shoulders.
"Go home, guys. Your kids need you. I'll be fine and I promise to call you later today."
Life would go on but for James Olsen life would never be the same again.
Sorrow seemed to hang like a cloud over the house at Hyperion Avenue. Since the first of the year the residents had suffered from continuing traumas and although the children, with the natural recuperative powers of youth, were able to lift their parents' spirits occasionally, very often the mood in the brownstone was one of depression and frustration. Lois could not find it in her heart to forgive the deceased woman, but her heart was heavy for the man Kiaya had used and then had left behind. The frustrated anger was caused by the realization that ibn Said could not be implicated in either the bombing or the apparent suicide. Both Superman and Henderson's men had gone over the hotel room with a fine-tooth comb and had come up empty. Neither had there been any witnesses to place the Arab in the vicinity and as ibn Said's valet was prepared to swear that his master had returned home soon after the time he had left the Planet offices, he was completely vindicated. Nevertheless, both Lois and Clark were completely certain that Umar had persuaded his disciple to do her honourable duty and die for the cause.
Paula Raine had tried to stick close to her lover in the hope that, with Kiaya Olsen taking all the blame for the terrorist action, he may have grown a little more careless. But if anything the opposite had occurred and Umar had grown more insular. He had taken her to dinner a couple of times and together they had attended a charity night at the Metropolis Ballet. However, other than those very public meetings and a few phone calls Paula had felt herself somewhat abandoned and she fretted that her cover had been blown. This was not so, yet ibn Said did believe that for the moment it was best for the continuance of his secret life that he remain aloof.
Whichever path the authorities chose to chase the alleged criminal down seemed to come to a dead end and the reporters had no more success. On the day of Kiaya's death they had later returned to the newsroom and Clark had accessed the computer files once more only to find, not unexpectedly, that any data that linked immigrants with Ibn Said's business empire had been deleted. Damn!! They had never really had any proof that it existed in the first place, as they had been distracted from their search by Umar's visit and the tragic events which followed. Normally at times like these Lois relied on her husband's buoyant nature to rescue her from her despair, only this time Clark was wallowing in his own bitter thoughts. Both were suffering from the recognition that the book on 'The Hand of Retribution' was not yet closed, at least not to their satisfaction. They hated to see the bad guy walk away free as a bird.
Those same authorities were, however, prepared to close the case with, it seemed to those involved, undue haste. Was this a manifestation of ibn Said's influential friends? The coroner's hearing on Kiaya's death was held within days and the verdict was one of suicidal death and James Olsen was given permission to bury his wife. The morning of the funeral had dawned both grey and cold and later in the day as the small group of friends gathered at the cemetery the heavens had opened and doused the mourners with a freezing steady downpour. Lois, standing close to her husband for comfort and warmth, was glad that the Arab had not shown up at the grave side. She was sure that she wouldn't have been able to contain her anger and confront him with her suspicions and this was certainly not the place for such a showdown. As it was she had swallowed her rage at the large wreath of white lilies that had been sent by his corporation and just managed not to tear it apart. Clark, reading her thoughts, had wrapped his arms around his angry wife, for restraint as much as for support. The Kents had been surprised to find that Paula had attended with Jack Olsen, but as Lois' conflicting feelings towards the blond woman were coalescing into a mutual friendship, she was glad that Paula was there. The small company was made up by Martha and Jonathan and by Alice White. These three left quickly after the short ceremony, Alice White to visit her husband in hospital where he was recovering from his surgery and the elder Kents to pick up two of their grandchildren from school. Joel and Clara had resumed their schooling just a few days earlier, much to the trepidation of their parents who were sure that going back to a similar environment would invoke frightening memories for their offspring. However, with youthful resilience, they each had taken it in stride and had even enjoyed meeting up with a few of their school friends. Indeed Julian had been envious that he was not yet fit to return to school and was chomping at the bit for that day to arrive. The surviving pupils of The Braeview School were for the moment scattered throughout other local schools, but the Board of Directors along with the teachers and the parents were determined to find an alternative location until such time as a new school could be built. Everyone concerned was united in their resolve that The Braeview Elementary School would rise from its ashes.
Lois and Clark with Jack Olsen and Paula returned with Jimmy to his hotel after the funeral. Nobody questioned Paula's presence since she had been involved in this tragic affair since the beginning. The mood in the suite was sombre but none of the four were willing to leave the grieving man to his own gloomy thoughts. James ordered coffee and a light repast for the group and the four made polite but stilted conversation while they waited for it to be delivered. A loud knock heralded the arrival of the porter but surprisingly he and the trolley were accompanied by the manager of the hotel who was holding a large brown envelope which was addressed to Mr Olsen. According to this gentleman, the late Mrs Olsen had placed this package in a safety deposit box in the hotel's safe a few days before her unfortunate demise and had given him strict instructions not to reveal her actions to anyone. He had assured Mrs Olsen that the Lexor Hotel's management understood the need for guests' confidentiality and that she needn't worry that her deposit would be exposed. It was clear that the man had been taken aback by her next request but being a discreet proprietor he had kept his own council and following instructions he was now delivering the package to Mr Olsen as the poor lady had wished… after her funeral.
When the manager had gone Jimmy stood holding the envelope like it were a ticking bomb and Clark, surreptitiously lowering his glasses, quickly x-rayed it, just in case, but the missive was what it appeared, another letter. Taking Lois' hand and giving it a soft reassuring squeeze, he encouraged the other man to open his message. Steeling himself for another body blow, Jimmy crossed to the desk and slit the envelope with the opener supplied. After a swift perusal he turned to the others and began reading aloud. His voice cracked on the first words, but he cleared his throat and tried again.
<To my husband,
If you are reading this letter then it means that I am dead and that I have gone far beyond the reach of The Hand.
My dearest Jimmy, I call you that because that is what you have become to me. My dearest, I do not ask you to forgive me, for my sins there can be no forgiveness, but perhaps I can in some way atone for my grievous actions.
Since I was a child I have lived always in the shadow of 'The Hand of Retribution'. This is not like any other terrorist organization, where members are recruited because they are aggrieved by their state of lives. The Hand is a state of life and those who belong have been indoctrinated from birth, as have generation after generation for hundreds of years. To be chosen for active service is an honour and I, like any other, was happy to obey the call.
Then I met you and though we were only together for a short while, you gave me a glimpse of a different life. A life that involved freedom and choices and individual responsibility, a heady brew for one who had been raised on a daily diet of obedience and commitment to the cause. You cannot know how tempted I was by all that you offered me. Yet the ties to my old life were too strong and too deeply ingrained upon my spirit and I was too afraid to break them. The Hand does not deal kindly with those who stray.
For the love you gave me, I thank you and hope that it gladdens you to know that for a short space in time you made me happy.
Tell your friends Lois and Clark that I was most pleased when their children survived the blast and that perhaps by helping them bring those responsible to justice they will in some measure think more kindly of me.
In the envelope enclosed they will find a list of names and addresses. These are the members of my group who have been smuggled into this country over the years and who are awaiting their call-to-arms. I have also supplied their dates of arrival and their corresponding true identities.
The last name on the list is the most important; Umar ibn Said. He, however, is not as the others. Umar is a member of the 'Inner Circle', the elite and policy making heart of the brotherhood. Many years ago he was chosen to be a sword that would strike at the heart of the Western world and his covert life since has had but one purpose: to fool the enemy and place ibn Said in a position where he could safely orchestrate a reign of terror without fear of discovery. He is very powerful and the rest of my people would willingly die to protect him. Warn Lois and Clark to go carefully if they mean to bring him down. I wish them well in their endeavours.
Take care, Jimmy and may God grant you a peaceful and happy life.
Your wife, Kiaya.>
Tears spilled down Jimmy's face as he read the last missive from the girl he had thought he loved and yet had discovered that he had never really known. The others too in the room found their eyes moist with unshed tears as they contemplated the life and the untimely death of that lost soul. Wordlessly Jimmy held out the letter to Lois who took it without much thought and instead wrapped her arms around his tense body and kissed his cheek in silent commiseration. Clark, who had been holding his wife, simply extended his hug to take in his friend.
"Are you O K, Jimmy?" he asked when he finally found his voice.
"Yeah! I'll be fine. Just give me a moment, C K."
"Jimmy, you can't stay here alone. Why don't you check out and come home with Clark and me," Lois suggested, thinking that her busy household would distract Jimmy from his black mood.
"Thanks, Lois, but if you don't mind I'd rather be alone for now. Maybe in a day or so I'll take you up on your offer, at least until I can line up a new assignment." James Olsen had already decided that work was the best remedy to help him forget this disastrous episode in his life. "Now why don't you and C K take the information Kiaya…" his voiced stilled on her name, then gulping back his hurt he continued, "…that Kiaya left you and go kick some butt!!"
"Actually, Jimmy!" Jack Olsen interrupted, "I think that's my job. So if you don't mind, Lois, I'll take that list." And he indicated the envelope that Lois still held forgotten in her grasp. The emotional moment had passed and it was now back to business but she was not prepared to give up her scoop without assurances.
"Only if the Planet gets the exclusive publication rights."
"Deal!!" That, Jack reflected was easier than anticipated but he was quick to agree. Seeing what Lois and Clark had been through it was only right that they be the ones to report on the indictment of ibn Said and his gang of killers. "We wouldn't want to alert these terrorists to their arrest prematurely, but just as soon as we have them in custody I'll fax you a copy and that's a promise."
Hating to wait but recognising the wisdom of the senior Olsen's words, Lois handed over the documents and received a sympathetic squeeze from her husband. Jack prepared to leave but took time out for a personal moment with Jimmy. Like the others he had been moved by his daughter-in-law's missive.
"I have a job to do, son, but I'll be back just as soon as I can. Maybe we could have dinner later and a talk?" he asked tentatively, unsure of his son's reaction. Parenting had never been his forte, but this time he was determined to be there for his boy.
"That would be good, Dad. Why don't you give me a call when you're free and we can work something out." Father and son made their way to the door and after bidding each other a warm good-bye Jack, accompanied by Paula, who had been content to remain in the background while the family shared these moments of comfort, left to set in motion the wheels that would hopefully bring ibn Said to justice.
In the emotional maelstrom that had followed Jimmy's reading of his letter, no-one, not even Superman had been aware of the silent witness, hidden in the darkened bedroom. The unknown listener, who had been set the task of watching Olsen for just such further developments, had followed the manager up to the suite and had quietly let himself into the adjoining bedroom with his security pass. He had eavesdropped with mounting dread as the consequences of Kiaya Olsen's revelation bloomed in his thoughts. There were two options open to him; should he attempt to retrieve the damning letter from the two agents who had just left or should he escape and warn his master of his impending exposure. The hotel was very busy and the people he was contemplating tackling were no doubt highly trained operatives, which meant that his chance of succeeding with the first course of action was very slim and if he was apprehended then his second option would be destroyed. The hotel security guard was aware that his name would appear on that list and he had better vanish smartly if he wanted to avoid prison, but first he had to warn his master.
Back in the hotel suite Jimmy felt the need to be alone. Although he appreciated the fact that Lois and Clark were fussing over his well being because they cared for him, he required time to think about this latest development. Without being too brutal about it, Jimmy escorted the couple to the door and sent them back to the Planet with orders to turn in a Pulitzer-prize-winning article.
James Olsen had thought himself in love and yet if that were so he ought to have been heart-broken at Kiaya's death. But, though he did feel stunned and saddened by her demise, after the initial mind-numbing shock had worn away he had not felt that his heart was breaking. Had he been caught up in the idea of being in love? And had some part of him already recognised that he had never taken the time to know the real Kiaya? Had he perhaps begun to wonder if their precipitate marriage was a mistake? His male pride had been dealt a cruel blow when it seemed that she had never loved him and that he had merely been a pawn in her deadly game. Now even that pain was being assuaged by the understanding that she had come to care for him. If they had met under different circumstances then mayhap the considerable attraction they had felt for each other would have blossomed into a truer love. But Jimmy well knew that what ifs had little bearing in the cold light of day. If he were brutally honest with himself then he would have to admit that guilt was one of his over-riding feelings. Guilt that he had allowed himself to be used, however unwittingly, to transport part of the bomb into the country and that therefore he was in some way responsible for the deaths of all those children. Lois and Clark had thought he was being over-critical of his involvement and had informed him in no uncertain terms that no-one, least of all themselves, blamed him for the explosion. And as the days passed and he could turn a more logical eye over his conduct he had come to accept that there had been no reason to suspect his wife of being mixed up with Arab terrorists. Alone with his thoughts Jimmy concluded that the life lesson to be gained from this whole cataclysm was that next time he would look before he leaped. And eventually there would be a next time. One thing he had discovered about himself was that he had enjoyed being one half of a couple. It might take time but James Olsen was being resurrected by his own irrepressible spirit.
Lois sat idly in front of her computer, biting worriedly on her bottom lip in a habitual action that she had picked up from her husband. The story of 'The Hand of Retribution' and its leader was there locked inside her head, she was just having difficulties transmitting it to paper. This time maybe she was too close to the story. Perhaps she should assign another reporter to the piece, but this she knew she would never do. She wanted to do this. She felt that only she and Clark could do it justice. After all, they knew from first-hand experience what devastation had been wrought by the terrorists' actions and if Clark had been an ordinary man and not a 'super' one and if Joel had not already begun to inherit his father's capabilities then things could have been so very much worse. That was the problem! Clark wasn't here! She needed his input on this to free up the logjam of words in her head. Where was he?
It had been two hours since he had left her in the Lexor Hotel parking lot and had gone off to find somewhere quiet where he could spin into his alter-ego. Clark had concluded, and she had to agree, that Superman ought to pay ibn Said a visit before someone could warn him and he had a chance to disappear. Knowing the man's vast range of contacts it was conceivable that word of his impending arrest might reach him. But that had been ages ago and surely there should have been some word of how things were proceeding, if not from Clark then surely there should have been some information breaking over the wire.
"Where are you, Clark?" Lois spoke her words aloud, hoping that he would hear her from wherever he was at and almost on cue the elevator doors opened and spilled a very dejected-looking husband into the newsroom. By the slumped position of his shoulders and the way he too was chewing on his bottom lip, Lois deduced that the news wasn't good. Rising involuntary from behind her desk she met him at the door and the two indulged themselves in a comforting embrace, after which Clark closed the door behind him and pushed her back into her chair. As he knelt in front of his questioning wife, he almost grinned at her barely suppressed impatience, only the situation was too serious for levity.
"Sweetheart, I don't how he did it, but when Superman arrived he was already gone. " Exasperation filled every nuance of his voice. "His computer was switched on, I think he might have been trying to delete some files; there was a hot cup of coffee on his desk… but the bird had flown. I searched the whole building and found a private elevator from Said's office directly to the underground car park, so I checked out the surrounding area, but without anything to go on I came up empty. Henderson and Jack arrived shortly after I did and the police have put out an A P B on Umar, but I don't hold out much hope. If Superman couldn't find him…"
"Clark, you're not completely infallible. And the police have the time and the manpower to keep on searching. Maybe Umar will make a mistake and then they'll arrest him and we can write our story and put an end to this horrible episode."
And with those words Clark would have to be content.
"You're right, honey, as always," he allowed himself to relax. "Now how is our Pulitzer prize coming along?"
True to his word Jack Olsen had delivered Kiaya's list a few days after most of the terrorists named had been arrested. There had been a few exceptions, namely the leader of the group and not surprisingly a man who had worked in security at the Lexor Hotel, which solved the problem of how ibn Said had time to escape. Mainly those held in custody refused to talk to the authorities but a few were slowly being persuaded into telling what little they knew. Nevertheless, although these few all spoke of a supreme leader, none were prepared to divulge who that mysterious person might be. However, if the human sources remained tight-lipped, the technical ones after a great deal of searching began to give up their information. Teams of computer boffins from the N I A had descended on ibn Said's office and home and had confiscated all his computerised files and paper records and had spent long days and nights studying what they had found. Superman had been right in his assumption that the Arab had tried to delete this data but he had not had time to do more than scratch the surface of this task before he had to flee and the authorities, using the data that was slowly being revealed, were building a case against the ultra-rich business man. Those prominent individuals who had once been content to be connected to ibn Said began to fade into the background and if the police could only apprehend the alleged terrorist he would find himself devoid of allies. But in order for justice to be done they had at first to catch him.
Having spent the last decade as Superman and Clark Kent, investigative reporter, foiling crimes and catching a multitude of criminals, from the petty thief to the psychotic killer, from the members of large criminal organizations to the cruel and selfish conman, it shouldn't have been too difficult to find just one man. Yet for all that, Clark had discovered when one individual was determined to remain at large there was little that even a super hero could do to thwart these efforts. The sprawling city of Metropolis with its vast population afforded the felon with many hiding places and searching without the slightest clue of his location was an impossible job. Ibn Said had disappeared; no-one had seen or heard of him since he had escaped from his office and while, with the majority of his gang languishing in prison and his influential friends deserting the sinking ship like a plague of rats, there seemed little chance of him finding a refuge, the police were unable to apprehend the illusive Arab. The authorities were beginning to wonder if ibn Said had been smuggled from the country but neither Lois or Clark shared this view. Those instinctive alarm bells that both relied on were sounding loud and long… the terrorist leader was still out there.
The days passed and routine life returned to the Kent family and the pupils of the stricken school. The Braeview School had taken up residence in an old abandoned church just a few blocks away from the Kent townhouse. It wasn't an ideal location but with the committed work of the teachers and parents, aided on occasion by an eager Superman, some renovation and redesign transformed the open body of the church into a number of small and intimate classrooms. The local council and various charities, among them the Superman Foundation, had helped out in the provision of equipment and furniture and the school had reopened for the purpose of educating its pupils, albeit a much-reduced student body. Everyone concerned, most of all the children, were happy to be together again.
Julian too had returned to school with the opening of the temporary building and was over the moon to rejoin his brother and his classmates. The sadness of that first day of the year was still there, etched forever in the minds of those who had survived, but life goes on and, although for some the horror of that night still revisited them in nightmares, counsellors, teachers and parents all shared the opinion that the survivors needed the routine of normal daily life to distract them from those terrible dreams. Thankfully, youngsters have a capacity to live life for the moment and children's voices raised in laughter and excitement soon were to be heard filling the old church and surrounding yard.
Lois Lane stepped from out of the shower and wrapping, a bath robe about her damp body and picking up a towel to dry her dripping hair, she walked slowly to stand by the bathroom mirror. Life over the past week had been particularly hectic. Lois had helped put the final touches to the redecoration of the old church, and was continuing in her post as co-editor of the Daily Planet whilst co-ordinating all that with her most important role in life as wife and mother. Sometimes there just didn't seem to be enough hours in her day and certainly not enough hours to finish her Sunday Editorial for the paper. She had spent the evening, since the children had gone to bed, attempting to pull together her column on the increasing volume of computerised fraud in the city's banking world, a not too exciting concept and one which, she had to admit, left her unusually devoid of ideas to commit to paper. This was one topic which she would willingly leave to her co-editor and she would give him the good news just as soon as he returned. Clark had left about an hour earlier in the guise of Superman to help out with a giant mudslide, which was threatening a small town somewhere unpronounceable in the southern continent of America. It might prove to be another long and lonely night, yet she could hardly complain when her husband's help meant the difference of life or death to those living in the path of the relentless mud.
Vigorously towelling dry her hair, she wrestled with a few unexpected feelings of pure selfishness. These attacks of frustration and chagrin with her husband's other job were few and far between, but occasionally she wished that the world would not demand so much of Clark's time. Yet the Superman duties were part of the package and she would not change one whit of the life she shared with her partner and soulmate. Smiling ruefully at her ambivalent musings, she dumped the used towels into the laundry basket and strolled into the bedroom and found herself in the dark. That was strange. She was sure that she had left her bedside light on. Could Clark have returned and was playing some sort of trick on her? Would she in a few moments feel his arms enfold her? But when the strong arm did slide round her waist and drag her back against a hard male body, she knew that this was not her husband. She would recognise his arms; his scent; his presence and this was definitely not Clark. She also recognised the object of cold steel that was pressing deep into her side, the barrel of a gun and she was not surprised when she heard the soft lisping voice with just the hint of an accent whispering into her ear.
"Good-evening, Lois. Did you think that you had seen the last of me?" Umar was so close, she could feel the heat of his breath on her neck. Unaccustomed fear crept over her as she thought of what this man might want from her and almost as if he could read her mind, he gave a disparaging snort of laughter. "Don't flatter yourself Lois! I'm not here for that! Strange as it may seem to you, I am not attracted by overly independent women…"
"What's wrong, Umar? Are you intimidated by them?" Lois interrupted and as she did so, she could hear Clark's voice in her head warning her not to antagonise a man who was holding a gun close to her body. Oh god, Clark! Where are you now when I need you?!
"You don't frighten me, Lois," her assailant continued, "but I do find you… distasteful. Where is Clark?" Umar echoed the question she had asked silently of herself. "I would have expected him to be home at this late hour of the night. Perhaps he is not quite so in thrall to you as I once thought. Perhaps he is out finding a little solace from your domineering ways with a woman who knows how a man should be treated. But I digress. You are probably wondering why I am here?"
"Not particularly, yet somehow I feel you are aching to tell me." Lois could not conceal the sarcasm.
"Silence, woman!" The arm that had gripped her waist, moved to encircle her throat and still the gun barrel pressed into her ribs. "You will listen! I am here to kill you. To exact retribution for the ruination of all my plans. Thanks to you I have lost everything, my money, my power, my contacts, but most of all my cover. Now you are going to pay for your meddling with your life. Your family is going to experience the loss of a loved one. Your children will grow to adulthood without their mother's love. But only if you do as I say. We are going to leave here. But you must be silent. Do not waken your children or I will have to kill them as well. Do you understand?"
The hold upon her neck tightened perceptively and for a moment Lois felt that she couldn't breath. She certainly couldn't speak, so she nodded her head in affirmation.
"Good! Then let's go!"
Umar half pushed, half dragged Lois to the door and toward the stairs. Anxious not to enrage this madman unduly, she only put up a token resistance. This man was a fanatic and he had no regard for human life, not even that of children. She was so afraid that he would finish what he had first set out to do and murder her little ones. And while she was fairly certain that Joel could withstand a bullet, the others were not invulnerable. She had to get him out of the house. Unaware that her disturbing thoughts were written clear across her face, Lois was shocked when Umar's taunting voice sounded soft in the night.
"Maybe I will kill your children, Lois. After all, that was the plan in the beginning. How they survived is quite a mystery. Maybe I will continue with my mission when I have disposed of you. Poor Lois, you will never know if your children followed you into death…"
This threat was too much for Lois and throwing all caution aside she kicked back at her captor and struggled to break the tight hold around her neck. Reflexively Umar pushed the gun ever deeper into her flesh and pushed his knee into the small of her back, bending her body into a painful arc. Then he propelled her forward down the stairs. Yielding to gravity, Lois' tender skin hit off every step in her tumbling descent and as her attacker followed swiftly after her he repeatedly kicked her on her way. Near the bottom of the stairway her head came heavily in contact with the stair rails and she groaned aloud in pain. By the time she hit the solid floor at the stair's foot, Lois was drifting into blackness.
High up in the top-story bedroom of the brownstone, a young boy stirred at the muffled sounds drifting upstairs. He shook himself awake, realising that there was danger lurking somewhere in the house below. Joel quietly left his bed and crossed to his brother, gently shaking him into wakefulness. Blue startled eyes stared up into brown as Joel's hand lay compellingly across his mouth and Julian had to strain to hear his brother's soft words.
"Julian, someone is downstairs with Mom."
"Well of course there is. Dad's there." Julian sounded more than a trifle miffed to be woken from his slumber, but his brother's answer brought him to full alert.
"No!! Dad left a few hours ago to go and be Superman."
"Who is it then? Can't you use your x-ray vision and see who it is?"
"No!! I've tried but my vision isn't that good yet, not in the dark." Joel spoke with frustration. "But I can hear that there is a man downstairs…"
Pushing himself upright, Julian queried with a hint of outrage, "Mom has a strange man in her bedroom?!"
"Oh no, Julian. No more of that! And besides I think I recognise the voice… I think that it's Umar!"
Julian's wide-eyed gaze froze in shock as he understood the implications of his brother's words. The children had watched the news reports on T V about the police search for their parents' erstwhile friend and Lois and Clark had explained that ibn Said had been the mastermind behind the bombing and was also responsible in some way for Aunt Kiaya's death.
"That's not good. What can we do?" There was fear building in Julian's chest but he fought it back. If they were to help Mom then he needed to be calm.
"Well, Superman's not here and we don't know when he'll get back, so we will just have to save Mom ourselves."
Swiftly Julian got out of bed, ready to do battle with whatever horrors lay outside their bedroom. The two boys tiptoed out of the room and down the narrow attic stairs, carefully treading so that they would make no noise that might alert their enemy. Joel placed a hand on Julian's arm, bringing them to a halt before they reached the final turn in the main staircase. Enveloped in the darkness both strove to listen to what was happening in the living room, the super boy having somewhat more success than his sibling. Hearing his mother's weak groans, he was at least relieved to know that she lived and with an encouraging smile he tried to convey this information to Julian. However, both boys sense of relief was short lived and soon transmuted to anger as they heard a muted thump from below and their mother's sharp cry in response. Floating out of the darkness came the Arab's enraged voice as he delivered another kick into Lois' stomach.
"Bitch!! She-devil!! Don't try any of those moves again or I promise you that I will kill you here and now and then I'll go upstairs and shoot your kids."
Another blow fell on the prone woman's now defenceless flesh and Lois curled herself into a ball to shield herself from the assault. If only she didn't feel so dizzy. Once or twice in the past Lois had suffered from traumas to the skull and she disappointingly discerned that she had probably received a concussion on her headlong tumble down the stairs. Her other injuries she hoped were superficial, but she was unsure of how long she could withstand the continuing pounding from this crazed man or how she could stop him from carrying out his diabolical threats against her family. Lois felt the cold steel of the gun touch her forehead and she gazed up into what she now knew was certain death…
"Clark," she whispered his name as her last thoughts sped across the intervening miles to be with her beloved husband.
On the stairway two small boys held their breaths, shocked into stillness. Then Joel felt his body fill with determination. He would not allow his mother to die. Nudging the stunned boy by his side, he made the gesture for the use of his vision gizmo… two splayed fingers from his eyes pointing in the direction of the scene enfolding below. Julian smiled slightly to show his comprehension, but he also understood from watching Joel practice that it took the apprentice super hero some moments to build up the heat vision and time was running out for their mother. Moving away from Joel who had his eyes closed in avid concentration, Julian yawned loudly and stretched whilst he turned the last corner of the stairs.
"Mom!!" He protested in a querulous, sleep filled voice. "What's going on? This loud noise wakened me up. What are you and Dad doing?!"
Grinding his fists into his eyes in a fair imitation of one struggling to stay awake, Julian sidled down the wall towards the living room, carefully keeping out of Joel's line of sight. This sudden turn of events surprised Joel but he was aware of why his brother had taken this risky course of action, so he continued with his part of the rescue and prayed that it would all work out. From below he heard ibn Said turn and recognise the source of the interruption.
"Well, well! Little Lord Sheringham, himself." The gun swung away from the woman huddled on the floor. Beckoning to the approaching boy with a small wave of his gun Umar backed off a step from Lois. "Were you aware, Lois, that this was the young man who started the whole affair. I saw him with his grandmother before Christmas. They were at the mall and they were buying you and your husband gifts. Very tasteful too, if my opinion counts for anything. He was laughing and seemed so well and happy and I got to thinking of the children from my homeland who were hungry and dying. Do you know Lois, there is so little justice in this world. So I decided to set the record straight and extract my own justice… what does it say in your Christian Bible… an eye for an eye. Only it didn't quite work out right and this rich young infidel survived, but now I have a second chance at revenge…"
The wavering gun steadied, pointing towards Julian as he reached the bottom step and ibn Said's finger tightened on the trigger. Lois watched in terror and threw herself at the interloper as she screamed in horror. But amazingly, the vengeful man began screaming even louder as severe pain engulfed his hand in a burning haze. The flesh on the finger that tried to pull the trigger melted away as the molten metal fused with his hand. Three pairs of eyes stared in shock at the glowing gun, but Lois was quickest to recover. She understood who was hiding in the shadows of the stairwell and with her super boy attacking her assailant she felt her own spirit revive. From her position on the floor she kicked up at the man writhing in pain before her, just as Julian picked a heavy paperweight from the desk at the foot of the stairs and launched it at ibn Said. In these past few months Julian's aim had vastly improved and the solid object hit the target full on the chest, knocking the breath from Umar.
Ibn Said could scarcely comprehend what had happened. One moment he had been in control, smugly anticipating his revenge and the next second his gun was a useless object that burned its way into his hand, sending incredible pain coursing up his arm; the squealing harpy at his feet was kicking at his legs and coming uncomfortably close to that particularly sensitive spot and while his body struggled to be rid of these twin attacks, he took a direct hit on his chest which threatened his consciousness. Adrenaline coursed through his body in the age-old reaction of flight or fight and aware that he was now dreadfully outnumbered ibn Said chose flight… only to meet with the solid blue-clad wall of Superman's chest who stood in the doorway of his living room arms akimbo, coldly furious at the sight that met his eyes. The fleeing man was hoisted into the air and disgustingly discarded at the threefold thankful shout from the super hero's family.
This was the scenario that haunted Clark's dreams; the fact that some crazed criminal would invade his home and attack his family while he was off helping out at some disaster in another far off part of the world. Lois had obviously suffered the most and was still in a lot of pain, but listening to the garbled version of the night's events from three excitable voices who insisted on talking all at once, Clark perceived piece by piece that his family had successfully fought off the bad guy without his assistance. Although, after a quick study of what had once been a powerful automatic handgun, clearly some super power had been applied.
Taking advantage of the comatose state of ibn Said, a condition brought about by the felon's cranium connecting with the dining room doorpost, ending his flight from the super hero's hands to the other side of the room, Clark spun swiftly out of his uniform and placed an emergency call to the police.
Soon the Metropolis P D swarmed over the Kent household at Hyperion Avenue and ibn Said regained consciousness to find himself handcuffed and taken into police custody, charged with the attempted kidnap and murder of Lois Lane Kent and her two sons; further charges would certainly be brought against the alleged criminal at a later date. For now, thankfully, the charges were only of attempted crimes, due to the timely arrival of Superman. The hero had left the scene, called to another rescue, soon after Clark Kent returned from visiting his parents, Martha having caught the flu virus that was still infecting the population of the city. This was not a total untruth, Martha was sick and Clark had visited earlier in the evening, but more importantly both his parents would automatically give him an alibi should any nosy reporter query Kent's whereabouts while his family was in deadly jeopardy.
Under the circumstances, Joel had been relieved that the disintegration of the gun had been accredited to Superman, though privately Inspector Henderson had been puzzled by the third-degree burns that had covered the suspect's hand. Normally the Man of Steel was not so sloppy with his use of his laser vision. On the other hand, considering the affection in which the super hero held this family, it wasn't so strange that Superman should sacrifice accuracy for speed. Judging by the unhealthy state of Lois and the statements that had been given by her and her boys the situation must certainly have been dire when their saviour had arrived. Inspector Henderson had a closer acquaintance with the super hero than had most other cops in the city, in fact he considered the alien man a friend and had implicit faith that Superman would never willingly hurt a human soul.
The detective was not privy to the guilty apology that Joel had made to his father later, while they waited outside the E R unit of the nearest hospital, about his lack of control when employing the heat vision. The startled child had been pulled into his father's arms for a warm hug and been informed unconditionally that his dad was only happy that he had been able to use his super powers so effectively. Clark was extremely proud of both his sons who without thought to their own safety had saved their mother's life and he quickly widened his hug to include Julian, who sat on the waiting room couch at his other side.
The three sat in quiet communion as they waited for the doctor's verdict on Lois, which fortunately for their already strained nerves was not long in coming. Crossing the waiting room the emergency doctor notified the family that Mrs Kent was suffering from a concussion and various contusions to her person and that her injuries required that she at least spend the night in the hospital, in case of complications, something which Mrs Kent was most unhappy to do. Recognising the haunted look on the young physician's face, Clark was quite sure that his wife had made her displeasure known to this junior doctor and he only hoped that the poor man would regain his self confidence soon. Meanwhile he took both the children's hands and went to visit Lois, prepared to withstand her entreaties, both persuasive and demanding, to be taken home against doctor's orders. So it was that he was pleasantly surprised to find his wife exceedingly sleepy and mellow and bidding her family a peaceful goodnight with extra kisses for her two very brave boys. With an amused smile that the pain-killers and the sedation that had been administered were clearly having a beneficial effect on Lois' temperament, Clark kissed his 'little tornado' goodnight and made a hasty retreat, grateful that for the moment his 'little whirlwind' had blown herself out.
At home he found Inspector Henderson, who had unexpectedly volunteered to stay with the two younger children while the others had visited the hospital, dosing on the couch with Clara and Nathan draped sleepily across each of his knees, the family's favourite video of 'The Princess Bride' playing to an unresponsive audience.
Clara's initial response to the affair had been one of fright and shock which had quickly given way to indignation that she had slept through the entire proceedings and that her brothers had not seen fit to avail themselves of her much-needed assistance. For such small mercies her father was extremely thankful but felt it advisable to keep his own council on that subject. Nathan had been very scared and tearful when he had seen his mother's bruised face, but after a few maternal hugs and kisses he let himself be convinced that his mommy would be all right.
Now it seemed that all his children were exhausted by the traumatic events; the two by his side almost falling asleep on their feet and those already snoozing on the couch. Clark woke the inspector with a gentle hand on the man's shoulder and between them the adults saw the kids safely into their beds. When finally Henderson bade him goodnight Clark lay down in his unusually empty bed, tired and lonely yet forever grateful that his family was secure.
The morning sun rising over Metropolis found a defeated though unrepentant ibn Said at last locked in a holding cell in the M P D headquarters, his injured hand bandaged, guarded zealously by two strong and dedicated uniformed officers. The suspect had been questioned by the local police throughout the night and Henderson was now awaiting the arrival of the N I A agents. He only hoped that they would have more success with the tight-lipped Arab than had he and his officers. Terrorism wasn't his normal field of expertise and in this instance he would be satisfied to hand the suspect over to the intelligence agency and close his investigation into this tragic case.
In Hyperion Avenue Lois Lane Kent was escorted solicitously to her bed by her whole, anxious family. Ordinarily that energetic and tenacious lady would have balked at spending any daylight hours in bed, but this time her aching body and persistent headache rendered her amenable to the doctor's advice that she spend another twenty-four hours abed. The painkillers that had been administered before leaving hospital were starting to take affect and she nestled snugly and contentedly into her bed. Soon sleep would claim her but for a few moments she reflected on the last chapter of the book of 'The Hand'.
According to Jack Olsen, who had come to dinner with Jimmy a few nights ago, the N I A's diligent computerised search had uncovered enough incriminating evidence to put the terrorist thugs and their leader behind bars for any number of life sentences. Of course, at that time ibn Said had still been at large. The evening had been muted but enjoyable; old friends comfortable in each others' company. During the night Jimmy had revealed his intention of taking an assignment in the Far East, a part of the world of which he had only a passing acquaintance and, though Lois and Clark would be saddened to lose their friend again, they recognised his need to move onto fresh pastures.
Clark had that morning, before picking up his wife from the hospital, written his account of Umar ibn Said's last attempt at revenge and the Arab's subsequent capture by Superman and his arrest by the police. After Lois' quick perusal of the article, with a few added details from his somewhat drowsy wife, he had wired the story through to the office for publication in the next edition of the Daily Planet. Neither Lois or Clark was naive enough to think that they had destroyed the ancient religious sect of assassins but at least they had cut off the branch that had reached into their homeland and caused so many children to suffer.
Now, as the muffled voices of her offspring interspersed with the deeper tones of her husband drifted up the stairs, Lois, smiling satisfyingly, succumbed to the healing arms of Morpheus.
(Or until some fresh dangers threaten)