By Nan Smith
Summary: The third in the author's Home series. Lori and Clark grow closer together as they report on the theft of the Westhaven diamonds. But will Clark be able to tell Lori about his past before it's too late?
This story is part of Nan Smith's "Home" series. See a list of all the stories in this series and get links.
Ready for the next story in this series? Read Home IV: Honeymoon. Need the previous story? Read Home II: Beginnings.
This is the third of the Home series. In order to understand what is happening, you need to read the two previous stories: Home, and Home II: Beginnings. As always, the familiar settings and characters don't belong to me, and I have no claim to them. The story, however, and the new characters are mine.
"Well," Clark said, "the Mayflower's been on its way for nearly fifteen hours now. It's going to be a long trip. I don't think I could stand being cooped up in a ship — even one that big — for five years."
"I'm going to miss him," Lori said. The elevator doors in the lobby of the Daily Planet opened, and she and Clark entered.
"I know," Clark said, "but this was what Brad wanted to do. It's the realization of his dream. I'll miss him, too, you know. I like your brother. I got to know him a lot better, this last three weeks. I wish I'd met him a few years ago. I think we'd have been friends." The doors slid shut and he added, "Newsroom."
Lori nodded. "Yes, and I'm happy for him too, but it will be years before I see him again. Even Superman can't fly to Alpha Centauri."
"That's true. It won't be forever, though. And it's no worse than what colonists from any country and the people they left behind faced in the past." He laid a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. "At least the ship is safe, and they can thank you mostly for that. Of course, Gaia's Children will be expecting the end of the world any day."
"They already are," Lori said. She suppressed an unladylike snort. "Did you see those guys with the signs that we passed in the park? They were predicting Armageddon in five years when the ship gets there."
"I saw them," Clark admitted. "What's a little thing like having almost the entire leadership of your organization in jail, charged with terrorism, espionage, sabotage, attempted murder, kidnapping and multiple federal crimes beside the incredible danger of a colony on another planet?"
"Nothing, of course," Lori said. "What do you think they'll do when it doesn't happen?"
"The same thing they did when we put a colony on the moon, and then later on Mars," Clark said. "Nothing will change. There's the old saying about a man convinced against his will."
" — 'Is of the same opinion still'," Lori quoted ironically. "You're right, of course. I said they were nuts."
"You were right," Clark said. The elevator doors opened on the newsroom and they exited. "Wonder what we've got going today."
"I hope it's something interesting." Lori glanced, as she always did, at the framed photograph of the first Clark Kent and his wife Lois Lane in the row of photos on the wall beside the elevator. Something about it inevitably drew her attention. It wasn't the remarkable resemblance between the first Clark and the one beside her; she'd gotten used to that. It was something else she couldn't quite put her finger on, but it nibbled at her every time she saw the picture, an annoying little feeling, as if she'd forgotten something important.
"Hi, Clark, hi Lori." Barry Marston, the business columnist greeted them as they arrived in the Pit. "John said to tell you when you got here that he wants to see you in his office right away."
"Thanks, Barry," Clark said. He raised his eyebrows at Lori. "I wonder what's up?"
"Let's go see," Lori said. She caught the glare the copy boy turned on her and gave him a sweet smile in return. "Fred isn't very happy with us today."
"I'll bet he isn't," Clark said. "He's just lucky John didn't have enough evidence to fire him."
"Well, at least the morgue is all nice and organized," Lori said innocently. Clark turned a snort of laughter into a not-very- convincing cough.
Their boss was leaning back in his chair, heels planted firmly on the desk top, and arms folded behind his head when Clark and Lori entered the editor's office.
"You wanted to see us, John?" Clark asked.
"I certainly did," John said. He sat up, casually dropping his feet to the floor. "I wanted to give you an official pat on the back for the Gaia/U&B expose, in the first place. We scooped every other news service in the country with it. Circulation's increased a good ten percent since the whole story appeared two days ago. I guess the Feds can work pretty fast when it's necessary, although after the dirt you two dug up three weeks ago, they could hardly miss it." His expression told them louder than words his real opinion of the federal investigators. "Good work, both of you. How did everything go yesterday?"
"Pretty well," Clark said. "Lori's whole family was at EPRAD in Houston to see Commander Lyons and his family off in the last shuttle. That's when we got that pre-launch interview. They let the crew's families and guests into the viewing room a few hours later to watch Mayflower break orbit, too. It was pretty impressive."
"I'll expect a sidebar on part of that from you, Lori," John said. "Something on the perspective of the family of a colonist, if you think you can manage it."
"I'm already working on it," Lori said. "I'll have it by this afternoon."
"Very good," John said. "I also wanted to let you know that you're off probationary status. You've more than proven yourself as far as I'm concerned. I must admit, I don't usually expect a scoop of this magnitude from the office intern during her first month of full-time employment."
"Well, Clark had a lot to do with it, too," Lori objected.
"But I couldn't have done it without your help, either," Clark pointed out.
"Exactly," John said. "It was a joint effort. You've proven that the two of you perform well together, so I'm assigning you to work as a team until further notice. Clark, I expect you to help Ms. Lyons achieve her obvious potential as an investigative reporter. And Lori, I expect *you* to try to learn how to avoid getting beaten up in the performance of your duty, so to speak. Do you think you can promise me that?"
Lori had to work to keep from giggling. "Yes, sir!"
"All right, that's all I had to say. Get on out of here, now. Blake's Jewelers was robbed last night. We've got the bare bones of the story, but I want all the facts for the afternoon edition."
"On our way, Boss," Clark said. "Let's go, Lori."
"Blake's?" Lori said as they exited the Daily Planet and boarded the slidewalk that headed west. "Isn't Blake's one of the businesses with a display at that charity thing next week?"
"The annual Metro Charity Art Show," Clark said. "And yeah, they're going to display the Westhaven diamond collection, worth about twenty or thirty million dollars."
"How do you know?" she asked.
"They brought it in a couple of days ago," Clark said. "The insurance company requested that Superman stand by while it was transferred to the store's vault."
"Oh," Lori said. "Well, maybe it wasn't the diamond collection that was taken."
"I hope not," Clark said.
"How come you don't know?" she asked. "Weren't you out on patrol last night?"
"Yeah," he said, "but I don't cover the whole city, you know. Besides, there was a cruise ship in trouble off Peru. I didn't get back until after three."
"Oh," Lori said. "Was everyone okay? I mean — "
"Fortunately, yes," Clark said. "We change directions here."
They left the westbound slidewalk and boarded the southbound one. Within ten minutes they had reached Blake's Jewelers.
The store was a small, elegant establishment in the business district. Shatterproof glass and metal bars protected the display windows, and within on a background of black velvet, was presented a glittering and gleaming sample of the wares offered for sale inside.
Harrison Blake, the owner of Blake's Jewelers, was a tall, distinguished man in his late fifties at a guess, with silver hair, and an air of dignity and competence about him that was visible even distressed as he was. When they introduced themselves, he signaled to an elderly man who had been moving around behind one of the counters.
"David, could you come here for a moment, please?" He turned back to Clark and Lori. "David can tell you what happened far better than I can," he explained. "He was the witness."
"Oh?" Clark glanced at Lori, then both turned their attention to the small, thin, grey-haired man making his way toward them.
"Yes, Mr. Blake?" The little man paused respectfully beside his boss, glancing at the two reporters with a tiny smile.
"This is David Merrick, my senior clerk," Blake said. "David, these are Mr. Kent and Ms. Lyons from the Daily Planet. David can answer all your questions about the robbery. I'm sure you understand that we're all very upset about what happened."
"Of course," Lori said. "We'll try not to take up too much of your time."
He left them facing each other. David Merrick gave a small, tight smile.
"Mr. Kent, Ms. Lyons." He glanced around. "Perhaps you'd like to come back to my office. We can all be more comfortable there."
Lori glanced at Clark. Her partner nodded infinitesimally, and together they followed David Merrick into the back of the store. He waved them toward a glassed-in cubicle that contained a small desk and a pair of hard, wooden chairs.
"Please, sit down," he said. "I'll be glad to answer your questions. Perhaps it will help capture these dreadful people and recover the diamonds."
"Then it *was* the Westhaven diamonds that were taken?" Clark asked.
"I'm afraid so." The little man settled himself behind the desk and clasped his hands on its surface. Clark and Lori took seats, and Lori glanced alertly around the small, box-like room.
The senior clerk's office was neat and prim, much like the man, himself. A computer, probably about a year old, occupied part of the desk, and an in/out box held several printouts of some sort. There was a container to one side, holding a pen and several pencils and markers. An empty wastebasket sat neatly in one corner of the room, and a briefcase was set precisely against the wall.
"What can you tell us about the robbery?" Clark asked. "Mr. Blake said you were here?"
"Yes," Merrick said. His mouth tightened for an instant. "Do you understand that this is very unpleasant for me? To have been instrumental in this horrible business — "
"You can hardly be to blame," Lori said. "If you had been, you'd be in jail."
He fixed her with a reproving stare. His small eyes were a bright blue, she noted irrelevantly. "Wait until you hear the story, young woman." He leaned back in his chair and gripped his hands together. "Last night we closed as usual at seven. We began summer hours at the end of May, you know, so we're open an hour longer than our hours for the rest of the year. I had several errands to run, so for the next two hours I was occupied. About nine, I went to the Green Gourmet, a favorite restaurant of mine, to eat, and an hour later, when I emerged, two men held me up."
"Did you see their faces?" Clark asked.
"Oh yes, Mr. Kent, I saw their faces." The little man shuddered. "Needless to say, I was frightened," he continued. "I offered them all my valuables, but that wasn't what they wanted. They took me to their groundcar and forced me into it. Once there, they explained that they knew I was the senior clerk of Blake's Jewelers and that they wanted me to open the store for them, disable the alarms and open the safe." He looked indignant. "They were utterly brazen!"
"What did you do?" Lori asked.
"I refused, of course!" Merrick said. "I told them I didn't have the alarm codes, but they said they had been watching me open the store for the last three days, and knew better. The bigger man, whom the other one called Sal, explained that if I didn't do as I was told, he had many ways of persuading me." Merrick took a deep breath. "At last, I acquiesced."
"It sounds like you did the right thing," Clark said, quietly. "Jewelry is insured. Your life was more important."
"Perhaps, but I felt like a traitor, young man!" Slowly, Merrick regained his composure, and continued.
"It was, by then, past ten-thirty. They waited until midnight, then came here. They forced me to unlock the door and shut off the security system, even the cameras, and open the safe. They knew that a security patrol comes by here every ten minutes and appeared to have it timed perfectly. Somehow they also knew I had the override code for the time lock." Merrick seemed unaware of the fact that he had begun to wring his hands. "They took the entire Westhaven diamond collection — the necklace, the tiara, both bracelets, the brooch and the ring, as well as the shipment of uncut diamonds we received yesterday, worth another twenty million." The man closed his eyes and lowered his face into his palms. "I could only think of one thing to do. There is a trigger for an alarm in the back of the store. I was terrified that they would kill me if I tried to reach it, but I was equally afraid they would kill me once they had what they wanted." He shuddered. "There really wasn't a choice. I waited until they were occupied with scooping the jewels into their bag and crept backward to the alarm." Merrick swallowed convulsively. "I almost didn't make it. As I reached the alarm, the second man, Jack, Sal had called him, noticed. He started to fire his stunner. I knew — " His voice rose almost to a squeak. "I knew if he succeeded that I'd never wake up. I lunged for the alarm and hit it with my hand as he fired. The stunner beam grazed me, and I fell, but I heard the alarm sound. They didn't take the time to fulfill their threat. They ran, taking the jewelry with them, but I was still alive. Within a few minutes, the security patrol had arrived, but Sal and Jack were long gone." He shook his head. "I feel so guilty that I wasn't able to prevent the robbery."
"You mustn't blame yourself, David." Harrison Blake was standing at the entrance to the cubicle. "You did your very best, and you stayed alive. That was the important thing. If you had died it would have been a much greater loss than the diamonds."
Clark stood up. "I agree with Mr. Blake. Your life is far more valuable than the jewels. You did the right thing."
Merrick nodded, but he still looked subdued.
"The diamonds were insured, of course," Harrison Blake said. "And the police have the description of the two men. We have some hope of recovering the collection." He sighed. "The Westhaven diamonds are valued at thirty million, but the collection is worth so much more. It will be a tragedy if it's lost."
As they stepped off the elevator in the newsroom of the Planet, Lori glanced at the picture again, frowning. The nagging feeling of having forgotten something important had returned full force, and it was maddening because she had no idea what it could be.
"What's the matter?" Clark asked.
"You look irritated. What's the matter?"
Lori shrugged uneasily. "I don't know — nothing, really, I guess. Have you ever had the feeling you've forgotten something really important, but have absolutely no idea what?"
"Sure," Clark said. "I guess probably everybody has. Why?"
"It's been bugging me for a couple of weeks, now, and I haven't got the slightest clue what it is."
"Oh." Clark grinned in sympathy. "Try not to think about it. It'll probably come to you eventually."
"I hope so," Lori said. "So," she added, deliberately turning her mind from the annoyance, "what do you want me to do?"
"Well, try to dig up some information on the Westhaven collection, and a picture, if possible. We can use it for background, and to illustrate the article. I'm going to try to get hold of my contact at the 13th Precinct and see if she can send me a copy of the police report."
"So," Clark was saying to John Olsen a short time later, "the police already have two suspects identified — Sal Vicente and John Thompkins. I thought we could put their pictures with the article."
"That was fast," John said.
"Well, they fit the descriptions Merrick gave the police. The guy must have a near-photographic memory, they were so accurate. And the two of them have used this technique before."
John shook his head. "What a story. At least Merrick kept his head and managed to survive it. It sounds like he was the real hero of the night."
"It sure does," Clark said. "He was pretty upset about it, though. He blames himself that they got away with the jewels."
"That sounds like someone else I know," John said. "Send me the piece as soon as you're finished, and remind Lori that I need that one of hers. We'll try to get it in the afternoon edition."
"Consider it done," Clark said. He glanced at his junior partner. She was leaning forward to study something on her screen but, almost at the same instant, she looked up to meet his eyes and smiled.
John was smiling slightly when he turned back. "I guess the old link is working, huh?"
Clark felt himself turning red. "Yeah."
"When are you going to tell her the rest?"
"Later," Clark said. "Not too much later, but later."
"Okay. I guess you know what you're doing." John dropped the subject. "Don't forget about the conference day after tomorrow. Have you got your presentation ready?"
"Don't worry about it," Clark said.
"I have to," John said. "I'm the editor."
Finished with her research for the jewelry theft, Lori pulled up the article she had begun the night before about the departure of the Mayflower and the perspective of the relatives left behind. She was nearly through with it. It was merely in need of some streamlining and judicious editing before she sent it on to her boss. She glanced at Clark, with the intention of requesting his input, and saw him raise his head in the characteristic listening pose she had seen before. Quickly, he rose and approached her desk to lean over her shoulder, as if looking at her computer screen.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I just picked up a news bulletin. The bullet train from Paris to New York is stalled under the Atlantic. I may be awhile."
"Okay. I'll cover for you if anyone asks," Lori said. "Go."
"Thanks." Clark smiled at her and strode quickly toward the exit.
Lori watched him disappear into the stairwell, and heard the characteristic sonic boom a second later. She turned back to her article and was soon engrossed in it. She was going to have to do this without any help from Clark, so she wanted it to be as polished as possible. She was working on the concluding paragraph, with which she was not quite satisfied, when she became aware of a presence behind her.
A glance over her shoulder revealed Fred, simply standing directly behind her, rather obviously reading what she had written.
"Do you need something?" she asked pointedly, without much of an effort to hide the irritation in her voice.
He shook his head, his eyes still focussed on the screen. With a decisive motion, Lori minimized the article. "If there's nothing I can do for you, do you mind going away?" she asked. "It's hard for me to concentrate with you looking over my shoulder like that."
The copy boy's eyes narrowed slightly. "I guess you must feel pretty good about that scoop you and Mr. Kent got," he said. "About the Mayflower and all."
"As a matter of fact, I do," Lori said. "What's your point?"
"No point," Fred answered.
Lori studied him for several seconds. His body language was at variance with the casual words; it was almost threatening. She suppressed a crawling feeling on the back of her neck. She had been aware, ever since the first part of the Gaia/U&B expose had appeared three weeks ago, that her coworker was unhappy with the results of the investigation she and Clark had conducted. As a member of the Earth cult that had been deeply involved in the plot to destroy the Mayflower, he probably believed that what she and Clark had done would ultimately bring about the end of the world, she thought. Well, it was unfortunate, but she wasn't at all sorry that things had turned out the way they had.
"In that case," she said, "would you please go look over someone else's shoulder? I've got an article to finish, and I don't have Clark here to check it."
"Lori!" John's voice said from somewhere behind her, "I need that piece in ten minutes!"
"I'll be done in five, sir," she said, quickly. She looked back at Fred. "You heard the boss," she said. "Please go away, Fred."
Fred turned without a word and walked away. Lori firmly suppressed the faint crawling feeling on her scalp and concentrated on the final sentence. Done just under the wire, she transmitted it to John Olsen's computer and leaned back in her chair to stretch her neck and shoulders. Clark made it seem so easy, she reflected wistfully, but it was a lot harder than it looked. Still, she thought she'd done pretty well and with any luck, it would pass John's scrutiny, anyway.
A little over half an hour later, Clark returned as unobtrusively as he had left. Lori had heard about Superman's rescue of the bullet train during the previous minutes from the newscaster currently speaking on the big monitor screen, so his return wasn't a surprise. He gave her a thumbs-up gesture before sliding into his desk chair to write up his exclusive Superman interview. Lori smiled and went to get herself a cup of coffee, heavy on the chocolate.
It was just past four-thirty when the note from her boss popped up on her screen, requesting her presence in his office. As she got to her feet, she saw Clark also rising from his chair. Together, the two of them headed into the editor's office for the second time that day.
John was frowning at the vidscreen when they entered.
"Is something wrong?" Clark asked.
"Nothing insurmountable," John grunted. "Clark, I'm afraid you're going to have to deliver both addresses at the conference on Saturday. There's been a minor change in plans."
"What plans?" Lori glanced at Clark, mystified.
"The International Conference of Investigative Journalists starts in two days," John began without further preliminary. "Clark was one of the representatives. Pat Harrelson was supposed to be the other. Pat can't make it."
"Is Pat okay?" Lori asked, at once. Pat was a big, quiet man whom she had met occasionally during her brief employment at the Planet. She had talked with him a few times, and noticed the holocube of his wife and three kids sitting on his desk. She certainly hoped nothing serious had happened to him.
"More or less," John said. "At least, he will be. Pat called in sick this morning — a touch of the flu, he thought. I just got a call from his wife. He's at Metropolis General, in emergency surgery — an acute appendicitis. He won't be going anywhere for a few days, so we're short a representative. I've got his presentation here, Clark. Do you think you can handle it?"
"Sure," Clark said.
"Good. And since Pat's not going to be going, unless you have an objection, I'm going to send your partner with you. The ticket is already paid for, and the experience will do her good."
"No problem," Clark said. "Unless you have something better to do this weekend, Lori. I know this is kind of short notice."
Lori felt slightly breathless at the thought of attending the prestigious conference, but she simply nodded. "I didn't have anything important planned," she said. "This will be wonderful!"
John smiled at her enthusiasm. "Fine. You leave tomorrow afternoon. That will put you in Alta Mesa by tomorrow evening. You'll have the opportunity to socialize with the other delegates before the conference actually starts."
"What an incredible opportunity," Lori was saying to Clark as they exited John's office. "I'm sorry Pat got sick, but this is unbelievable!"
Clark grinned. "I know what you mean," he said. "Pat's a nice guy, and I hope he gets well quick, but I have to admit I prefer your company to his." He turned his head as his vidphone chimed. "Oops. I better get that. Excuse me."
Lori nodded, running over in her mind what little she knew about the conference as she made her way back toward her desk.
She remembered Clark mentioning that it was being held in Alta Mesa this year in honor of the tiny country's newly independent status, and she had looked it up later out of curiosity. Alta Mesa was *very* tiny, she had discovered, approximately the size of West Virginia, and situated high in the Sierra Madre mountain range in Central America. That was exciting in itself. Her only venture outside the continental United States so far consisted of a single, short trip to Baja California during the summer following her high school graduation. True, she didn't speak much Spanish, but fortunately Clark was fluent in a lot of languages, and Spanish was one of them.
She was thinking so hard about the upcoming trip that she nearly bumped into Fred who was standing squarely in the way. "Oops, sorry, Fred." She moved sideways to avoid the copy boy, but he also moved deliberately to block her passage. Lori stopped in her tracks, staring at him.
"Excuse me," she said, after a startled moment.
Again, Fred moved to block her as she attempted to pass him. Lori glanced quickly around, but no one appeared to have noticed the incident.
"What do you want, Fred?" she asked, quietly.
The copy boy's expression was hostile. "You think you're pretty smart, don't you, Ms. Hotshot?" he said in a low voice.
"What the devil are you talking about?" she asked, sharply. Andrea Waltham, a few feet away, glanced curiously at them.
Fred's voice was barely audible, but the volume level couldn't disguise the venom in his words. "You think you're better than the rest of us, don't you?" he said. "Partnered with Kent, getting big scoops, probably sleeping with him, too. Is that how you did it?"
Lori flushed bright red with anger and humiliation. Fred didn't like her and resented her promotion, that much was obvious, but he wasn't stupid enough to let someone else overhear what he had to say. He might have guessed his assignment to reorganize the Planet's morgue was somehow connected to her too, but that was no fault of hers, quite the contrary, in fact. Outrage stiffened her knees and caused her voice to ring more loudly through the newsroom than she'd intended.
"Nothing I might or might not do is any of your business, Fred! Now, let me past!"
There was a sudden silence in the newsroom as heads turned in their direction. She caught a glimpse of Clark's surprised expression out of the corner of her eye, but fixed her gaze squarely on Fred's sullen face.
"Let me past," she repeated, "or I'll take this straight to Mr. Olsen, Fred; don't think I won't."
Fred stared at her as if he couldn't believe what he'd heard, his cheeks turning a dull red, and then he slowly stepped aside. Lori swept past him without a sideways glance; not even pausing when her heel descended squarely on his toe. She took her seat, conscious of the silence and the watching eyes of everyone in the room, and ordered her computer to bring up the history of the Westhaven diamonds. The move was purely bravado, but no one else needed to know that. She was trembling with anger and hurt pride from Fred's unexpected verbal assault, but that, too, was something no one else needed to know, though Clark, with his super senses, probably already did.
"Are you all right, Lori?" Clark's voice said softly in her ear. She glanced up. He was leaning over her shoulder, looking concerned.
She drew a shaking breath. "I'm fine," she said. "The nerve of that little twerp!"
The concerned look disappeared, and Clark chuckled, softly. "I think Fred is jealous. That wasn't the smartest thing he could do." He glanced around at all the interested faces. "Show's over for now, everyone. As you were."
There was an immediate murmur as people quickly made a show of attending to business. Clark turned back to Lori. "That was my contact at the police department. The police upstate arrested Sal Vicente and Jack Thompkins about half an hour ago. They've recovered the diamonds, and the insurance company is sending a representative to check them over. Come on."
"Upstate. If we hurry we can beat the insurance guy there." He glanced at Fred, who now appeared to Lori to be a little worried. "If you'd like I can have a word or two with Fred when we get back."
Lori shook her head. "If I need to I can handle him," she said. "He's an idiot. Come on. We've got a job to do."
"What did your contact say?" Lori asked, as they ducked into the stairwell. Clark's form shimmered briefly beside her, and an instant later Superman scooped her into his arms. The walls of the stairwell blurred momentarily around her as he shifted into high speed, and then they were launching from the roof of the Planet.
Lori laid her head against his shoulder, enjoying the moment and forgetting her question for the time being. She had finally admitted the fact that she was attracted strongly to Clark, after he had let her know beyond the possibility of a mistake that the feeling was mutual. What he saw in her she wasn't sure, but it was obvious where his interest lay.
During the short reunion of her family yesterday in Houston, Marcy had made a determined effort to engage his attention, but though he remained perfectly courteous, and as charming as he always was, Clark had made it clear that he had no interest in Lori's sister. Later, Marcy had said as much to Lori, in her own backhanded way. Sometimes Lori thought that maybe Marcy might want what was best for her after all.
"I don't know how you did it," she'd remarked, when the two of them had adjourned to the ladies' room for a few moments, "but hang onto this one, sis. He's gorgeous, successful, and he's obviously crazy about you. If you let Mom chase him away, you'll be the big loser."
Mariann Lyons had watched Clark suspiciously, Lori recalled with some amusement, but he behaved like a professional, with enough propriety when in her mother's presence that Mariann hadn't been able to find a single, legitimate criticism to level at him, and not for lack of trying. Even Marcy was impressed.
Lori rested her head against Clark's shoulder as they flew through the afternoon sky toward the small town where Vicente and Thompkins had been apprehended. Clark held her securely, and didn't seem to object to the position. Once, he turned his head and she felt him press the lightest of kisses into her hair. She had to admit it felt good.
They'd clarified their relationship somewhat while Lori had been recovering from the minor concussion given her by Edwin Gossett, three weeks ago. She'd awakened in the motel room from a nightmare about being his captive to find Clark holding her, and when it became obvious that she wasn't going to sleep again, at least for awhile, they'd talked.
They had decided that before they leaped into anything closer, they would get to know each other better as friends. Lori, always cautious about close relationships with a man — even one as nice as Clark — had been relieved by his willingness not to rush things. The few dates she'd had up until now had always been marred by the guy pushing for sex as a payment for taking her to dinner, a show or a party. Lori just couldn't see how one merited the other, which was why, at twenty-one, she was still — to Marcy's complete incredulity when Lori had admitted it — a virgin. No one, her sister stated flatly, was a virgin at twenty-one. No one!
Clark hadn't even brought the subject up, for which she was grateful. Their first, tentative "official" date had been two weeks ago, and he hadn't mentioned it, although she had half expected him to do so. The complete lack of pressure almost made her feel giddy at times, especially on those occasions when — like now — he made it clear that he did indeed regard her as more than just a friend.
Below them, the open country was giving way to occasional small houses that gradually grew denser, and became a small town.
"That's it," Clark said. He seemed to recollect that she'd asked him a question some fifteen minutes earlier, for he added, as he brought them down in the tree-shaded park, "Minnie just said that they'd picked up the suspects and they had the diamonds on them."
"Let's hope this settles it then," Lori said, as he reluctantly put her down. "It would be nice for once to have things turn out all right without any complications."
"I hear you there." Clark spun back into his civvies. "Let's head over to the police station and see if they'll give us a look at the loot."
The police captain was willing to let them speak with the arresting officers, but refused to allow them to see the recovered diamonds without the consent of the insurance company's representative. Fortunately, however, the man wasn't long in arriving. They occupied the time by interviewing the arresting officers, an older police veteran and her rookie partner. Young Officer Woods seemed perfectly happy to relate the events to Lori while Clark spoke with his partner, and they had barely completed the interviews when the insurance company rep arrived.
The man, a tall, businesslike Asian, raised his eyebrows at the sight of Clark. "I take it you're here about the Westhaven collection, Clark?" he said, sounding resigned.
Clark grinned slightly. "I always said you were psychic, Ben. This is my partner, Ms. Lyons. Lori, this is Benjamin Tang. He works for Metropolis United Insurance, and has an office right down the street from the Daily Planet."
"Pleased to meet you," Lori said.
Tang extended a hand. "I'm pleased to meet you, Ms. Lyons." He glanced at Clark questioningly. "Didn't I read that you and Ms. Lyons cracked the sabotage attempt on the colony ship?"
Clark nodded. "You did. I have to give Lori at least half the credit for it, too."
"Nice work," Tang said. "Anyway, to business. I gather you'd like to see the recovered property."
"If it's not too much to ask," Clark said.
"No problem." Tang went over to the desk sergeant to present his credentials, and a few minutes later an armed officer escorted them into a small room. A second police officer stood by as two more brought in the missing diamonds.
From his pocket, Benjamin Tang produced a computer pad and keyed in a code. Slowly and deliberately, he unlocked the case and set aside the small bag of uncut diamonds. With great care, he removed the pieces of the Westhaven collection, checking each against the pad: a glittering tiara, a brilliant necklace, a brooch, one bracelet and then another. Lori mentally reviewed each piece as it emerged and compared it to the holos she had seen of the collection.
Then Tang stopped, frowning. Meticulously, he checked each zippered inner pocket of the leather bag once more before looking up with a grim expression. "Officer, was anything removed from this case between the time of the arrest and the time it was brought into this room?"
"No, sir," the young man said. "There's been at least two officers present at all times whenever it was out of the safe."
"That's what I was afraid of," Tang said.
"What's the matter?" Clark asked.
Lori spoke up. "The ring is missing, Clark. According to the research I did, it's worth 2.7 million dollars."
Clark's dark eyebrows rose. "Two point seven million?" he said, incredulously.
"Yeah," Lori said. "It's beautiful. According to the history I read it's made of gold and platinum and set with perfectly cut blue diamonds all around the band. There's not another one like it in the world."
Clark whistled softly. Benjamin Tang was checking the leather bag of uncut diamonds to ascertain that it didn't contain the missing ring. He glanced up at the silent officers standing by the door.
"I need to speak to your captain," he said. "I want that car you impounded gone over with a fine tooth comb, and I'll need to call my office…"
Several hours later, the ring had not surfaced. Clark and Lori finally left when it seemed as if no more could be done for the present. They took off into the evening sky, lit faintly in the west by the rapidly fading colors of sunset. Overhead, the stars had begun to brighten, and to the east, a crescent moon was rising. Beneath them, the small town was a patch of glittering lights surrounded by the darkness of the open country. Here and there, beyond the town, an isolated patch of light below marked a single house in the surrounding countryside. Lori snuggled next to Clark's warm body against the faint chill of the breeze in her face.
"Cold?" he asked.
He drew her closer. "Is that better?"
"Mm." She nodded.
They flew in silence for several minutes. Finally, Lori said, "What happens now, Clark?"
"Now we file our story, such as it is," Clark said. "And the insurance company and the police start their investigation."
"That's all?" Lori asked.
There was a grin in his voice. "No, of course not. I called Blake's awhile ago to try to talk to Mr. Merrick again, but they were closing. Merrick agreed to meet with us tomorrow morning at eight, at the Green Gourmet."
"Oh," Lori said. "That's a good idea." She slipped her arms around his neck. "Clark, is it possible they did something with the ring before they were caught? It's small and easily concealed."
"Anything's possible," Clark said. "When we get back from the conference, if nothing's surfaced in the meantime, I'd like to look into it."
"So would I," Lori said. She lifted a hand to run her fingers across his jaw, feeling the faint rasp of bristles. His body tensed slightly as she did so. "I'm glad I'm going with you to the conference, Clark."
"So am I," he said. The grin had disappeared from his voice. "I can't think of anyone I'd prefer to be with."
Again, they flew on in silence. Far ahead on the horizon, Lori could see the glow of lights that marked the city of Metropolis.
"Are we going to the Planet?" she asked, finally.
"No. I'll file the story from my apartment. I thought you might like dinner at my place tonight."
"That would be nice," she said. "Do you mind stopping at my flat so I can change into something else? I don't have many business suits."
"No problem." She could see the flash of his teeth in the darkness. "As soon as we get to my place it's jeans and a T-shirt for me, too."
That, of course, was also something to look forward to. She touched his cheek again, a little timidly. "Clark?"
"Yes, Lori?" He seemed to sense her mood. "Is something bothering you?"
"Fred all but accused me of sleeping with you to get my promotion," she said. "I don't really care about that, but it's something you never brought up, and I kind of expected you to. I mean — " She fumbled a little with the sentence, unsure of how she should phrase it. "I mean, don't guys expect — um — "
"Lori, it's okay," he said. "I'd never ask for anything from you that you don't feel right about giving."
That almost took her breath away, in spite of his behavior on their first date. He'd implied on the night he'd saved her from Edwin Gossett that he might be in love with her, but he hadn't pursued it since, letting her set the pace of their relationship. Clark was something pretty special, all right. "I wondered," she said, slowly. "Other guys I've dated always wanted — well, you know what they wanted." She could feel herself blushing. "It isn't something I'm ready for — yet, anyway. Thanks for being so understanding about it."
"Any time," he said, and there was a smile in his voice. "I care for *you*, Lori. Pushing you into something you feel is wrong wouldn't say much about me, would it?"
Wow! And this was the guy her mom wanted her to discourage? Not for the first time, it occurred to her that Mariann Lyons' view of men and marriage might be inaccurate, to say the least. "I care about you, too, Clark. More than just as a friend."
He turned his head, and she had the feeling that he was looking at her intently in the darkness, but he merely said, "I'm glad."
Clark unlocked the door to his apartment and let Lori precede him into the room. He always did that, Lori thought. It was something she had noted about him early in their acquaintance. He held doors for her, helped her with her coat and pulled out chairs for her with unusual courtesy, but he'd never once treated her as if she was incapable of taking care of herself.
"There's soda in the fridge," Clark said, opening his bedroom door. "Back in a minute."
She started toward the kitchen, pausing for a moment at the bookshelf where the fertility statue sat. Something about the odd little statue caught her attention as it always did, with a twinge of déjà vu. She shook her head a little before going on into the kitchen. That sort of thing was happening to her a lot lately. If she hadn't had a great deal of faith in her sanity, she'd have begun to wonder about it.
When she returned, Clark was already sitting at his computer and working on their report about the capture of the jewel thieves, the retrieval of most of the Westhaven collection, and the concern over the missing ring. When he had finished, he glanced at her. "Want to check this and see if I've left anything out?"
"Sure." She slid into the chair he vacated and read the article over with close attention to detail. "It looks okay to me," she said when she had finished. "Your writing is always so vivid, it's almost like being there. How do you do it?"
"Practice," he said. "You're already picking it up."
"I've tried to imitate you," she explained. "You make it look so easy, though."
"It will be for you too, before long," he assured her. "Your writing wasn't bad to begin with — just in need of a little polish."
"Well, this is fine," she said. "Shall I send it?"
"Go ahead." He ambled over to the wine rack and stood studying the labels for a moment, before selecting one. "I'll get dinner started. Would you like stir fry or steak?"
It was just past eleven when he took Lori home.
The day had been a busy one, but Clark wasn't anxious for it to end. The things Lori had told him during their flight back to Metropolis were still fresh in his mind, and left more uncertainty in their wake.
They walked slowly through the darkened streets, her hand in his. Lori's little flat was only a few blocks from his own apartment and parts of the neighborhood weren't of the best, but Lori had suggested they walk. Clark harbored the hope that it was because she didn't want the evening to end, either. She'd said she thought of him as more than a friend, and that she enjoyed being in his company. That was a hopeful sign. The fact that she had practically admitted to being a virgin was almost a little scary, although he wasn't entirely surprised. It did, however, tell him that his instinct had been right when he'd made the decision to follow her lead in the advancement of their relationship, but it also told him that he was going to have to tell her the rest of the truth about himself, and soon. He couldn't let her invest too much in this until she knew everything.
The dilapidated old apartment house where Lori lived loomed ahead. She looked up at him in the darkness.
"What's wrong, Clark?"
"You're awfully quiet."
"Oh. I'm just thinking. We need to take time to talk sometime soon. I want to tell you some things about me that you should know."
She squeezed his hand gently. "You're actually a criminal on the lam, right?"
He chuckled. "No, I'm afraid not."
"You're dying of an incurable disease?"
"No. There isn't much that can hurt me."
"You've got three wives in three different countries?"
He broke out laughing. "Lori, you're outrageous! No, I've only been married once."
"Well, what else could be so earth-shattering, then?"
"You have no idea," he said.
She squeezed his hand again. "Well, I'm not too worried, since I know you and the kind of guy you are. You'd have to be a serial killer or something for me to change my mind."
"It's the 'or something' I'm worried about."
"Well, maybe we can talk tomorrow if we have the chance — or maybe at the conference we'll have a little time for ourselves."
"Yeah," Clark said. "We can go somewhere in the mountains where you can scream at me without witnesses."
She nodded. "Good idea. If I'm going to yell at you, I don't want spectators."
"You're not taking this very seriously."
"I just don't see what could be so awful," she said. "I guess I'm finding it a little hard to take seriously."
"How much wine did you drink?" he asked.
"Two glasses, but it was with food."
"Okay, I guess that's not it," Clark said.
She whacked him with her free hand, then shook it. "Ouch!"
"Hitting Superman isn't a good idea," Clark said.
"Yeah, I noticed," she said, but she didn't sound upset.
He opened the door to her apartment building and since the place seemed deserted, whisked her up the stairs rather than taking the time to wait for the creaky elevator. Within a minute, they were at her door.
"I'll see you in the morning," Clark said. "Superman has to tee off at a charity golf event at seven-thirty, so I'll meet you at the Green Gourmet as soon as I can get there, okay?"
"Okay," Lori said. "If Mr. Merrick arrives before you do, I'll tell him you were unavoidably delayed."
"Thanks." He lifted her hand and kissed the knuckles lightly. "Good night, then."
She didn't let go of his hand. "We had our first date two weeks ago. Don't you think it's about time you kissed me good night? You can carry this chivalry thing too far, you know."
"I didn't want to pressure you."
She made a little face. "Just shut up and kiss me, Mr. Kent."
He smiled a little. "As you wish, Ms. Lyons."
Lori looked up at Clark's handsome face, waiting. He was certainly the best friend she'd ever had, and maybe more. Since the flight back to Metropolis when he'd put into words the fact that what she wanted was more important to him than what he wanted, she'd felt this way. He'd taken away even the imaginary pressure that she'd imposed on herself, and she was suddenly ready to be a little bolder. She probably was falling in love with him, a sneaky little part of her brain acknowledged. She just wasn't ready to say it out loud yet — not until he told her whatever he was afraid she'd be mad about. The seeds of doubt sown by Mariann Lyons couldn't be brushed away so easily. But…
Clark's arms slid around her and she lifted her face. Very gently, his lips came down onto hers.
Lori closed her eyes. She'd been kissed by guys before — a few high school kisses, one or two in college. Her heavy academic schedule hadn't left much time for a social life, and the kisses had always been marred by the apprehension that inevitably went with them — was he going to want more? And what should she do if that happened? But this time —
Her mind ground to a halt and all she was aware of was the feeling of his arms around her and his lips covering hers. And most of all, the incredible feeling of rightness, that this was where she belonged.
Several eternities later, he released her. Lori came slowly out of her trance.
"Wow," she breathed.
He was looking a little shaken. "Yeah," he agreed. "Wow."
The Green Gourmet was a small, cubbyhole of a restaurant in a row of older buildings in the business section of Metropolis, barely two blocks from Blake's Jewelers. It was tucked between a dance studio on one side and a high fashion boutique on the other.
Lori entered the little establishment glancing around for any sign of Clark or David Merrick. She didn't really expect to see either of them, yet. It was only quarter to eight; she had made a point of getting there early to be sure she was available to sub for Clark on the chance that he might be late.
A hostess appeared within moments, a young woman dressed in green, wearing a pair of earrings that might be jade as well as a ring that bore a large, pale green stone. "Table for one?" she inquired, reaching for a menu.
"Um, no," Lori said. "I'm supposed to meet a Mr. Merrick and a Mr. Kent here at eight."
"Oh, yes, of course," the hostess said. "Neither of them has arrived yet. Would you like to wait here where you can see them when they come in? Or, if you like, I can seat you at the table Mr. Kent reserved."
"I'd like that," Lori said.
"Fine. This way, please." The woman picked up the menu, and led the way into another room. She indicated a corner table. "Will this be all right?"
The room they had entered was about half full of customers, even this early in the morning, and Lori could smell the delectable scents emanating from the kitchen. She slid into a chair and dropped her bag to the floor beside her.
"Would you like a cup of coffee while you wait?" the hostess asked.
"Yes, thank you," Lori said.
"It'll be just a minute." The woman walked briskly away.
Lori leaned back in her chair, looking around the room.
The place had an unusual décor, attractive in its own way; she had to give it that. The walls were painted a light green and the floor was covered with a carpet of the same color, four or five shades darker. Here and there about the room sat pots containing growing plants, and, hanging from the ceiling on ropes made to look like green vines, were containers of bright green ivy. Even the chair cushions were green, and so were the outfits worn by the employees.
She relaxed back in her chair, and for a moment let her mind drift back to the night before. That kiss had been like no other she had ever received. It had been sweet and gentle and passionate, and left her with such a feeling of belonging that she had been literally shaken. And the thing that hadn't struck her as strange until later was the sensation of familiarity, as if sometime Clark had kissed her before. He hadn't, of course. She would certainly have remembered.
They had said good night then, and after she entered her little flat she'd watched him turn and walk back down the hall. And last night she'd dreamed of that kiss over and over, reliving again and again the sense that somehow she belonged with Clark, and he with her.
"Miss?" A waitress was standing beside her, holding a coffeepot, and Lori blinked, rousing herself from the very pleasant daydream.
"I guess you were somewhere else," the waitress said. She wore green, too, Lori noted, and her white nametag, edged with green, identified her, in dark, green letters, as Sandy.
"Yeah, I was," Lori admitted. "I guess I better get my act together, huh?"
"Oh, I don't know. You looked like whatever you were thinking about was pretty nice."
"It was," Lori said.
Sandy grinned. "Marie said you're waiting for someone. Would you like some coffee?"
"Sure," Lori said.
The woman set a cup and saucer in front of her and poured a stream of coffee into it. The bracelet on her wrist caught the light, flashing bright green. It was a continuous band of what appeared to be some sort of green crystal, and in the illumination from the overhead lights it almost seemed to glow.
"What a pretty bracelet," Lori remarked. "I've never seen anything like it."
"Oh, thanks." Sandy held out her arm for Lori to examine the piece of jewelry. "My husband made it for me."
"Really?" Lori ran a finger over the ornament's surface. It was cold and slick, and the green tinge turned her fingers pale green. Something almost like a chill lifted the hairs on the back of her neck, and she pulled back her hand. That was no reflection — the crystal was actually glowing.
"Yeah," Sandy said, oblivious to Lori's reaction. "He makes natural jewelry. He made this out of a piece of crystal — some kind of phosphorescent quartz, he thinks. The management encourages us to wear green accessories, so when Andy gave it to me for our first anniversary I couldn't resist wearing it."
"Where did he get it?" Lori asked.
"Oh, a friend of a friend of Andy's found it in some farmer's field out west, years ago. Isn't it amazing what weird places you can find real treasures like this?"
"Yeah, it is." The longer she looked at the bracelet, the less attracted she was to it. Now the pale, green glow seemed almost sinister. She couldn't explain it to herself, but the thing made her skin crawl. She clenched her hands in her lap and forced a smile. "Well, it's certainly unique. Thank you for letting me look at it."
"No problem. Andy runs 'Andy's Creative Designs' down in Old Town. They sell all kinds of natural jewelry there."
"Maybe I'll drop by," Lori said. A movement at the corner of her vision attracted her attention, and she turned her head. "There's Mr. Merrick. He's one of the people I'm supposed to meet. Maybe he'd like some coffee, too."
"I'll bring a coffee cup," Sandy said.
The hostess escorted David Merrick to the table. Lori got to her feet. "Hello, Mr. Merrick."
"Ms. Lyons? I understood your partner, Mr. Kent would be here."
"Mr. Kent called to tell me he'd been delayed, but he'd be here as quickly as he could," Lori said. "Won't you sit down and have some coffee while you wait?"
"Thank you." Merrick took the place across from her and waited while Sandy poured coffee for him. "Thank you, Miss."
"Just signal me when you're ready to order," Sandy said.
"Thanks, Sandy," Lori said. She turned to Merrick, who was meticulously measuring half a teaspoon of sugar into his coffee. "I'm sure you know about the recovery of the Westhaven collection?"
Merrick nodded. "Metropolis United contacted us at once, several hours before Mr. Kent's call. Mr. Tang has already spoken to me about the missing ring. I must say, I'm relieved about the recovered jewelry, but I'm very distressed about the ring."
"Mr. Merrick, did you actually see the thieves take it?" Lori asked. "Is it possible it wasn't there when you opened the safe?"
Merrick sighed. "I know it was there when I opened the safe, because I saw it, and it was gone after they fled, but part of the time — while I was attempting to reach the alarm — their bodies were between me and the safe. I have no idea what they did with it."
"No, I can understand that," Lori said. She shifted in her chair. One foot struck her shoulder bag and upset it. She reached down to set it upright once more. "Sorry."
Merrick took a cautious sip of his coffee. "Of course, Mr. Tang must investigate all the possibilities," he said, calmly. "I completely understand his mandate on the matter. Still, it's ironic that I should fall under suspicion, after what occurred."
"I'm sure it's just a formality," Lori said, carefully. The scrutiny of the man's small, blue eyes, fixed unwaveringly on her made her slightly uncomfortable.
"Of course it is," Merrick said, a little testily, "but naturally I worry about what may be happening to the ring while they're wasting their time with me."
"It's such a beautiful ring," Lori said. "I saw a picture of it in a history I read online."
"The photos don't do it justice, Ms. Lyons," Merrick said sincerely. "If the wrong person finds it, it could be broken up into its component parts and thereby lose half its value."
"That would be awful!" Lori said.
"Yes, it would." Merrick took another sip of coffee. "Ah, Mr. Kent seems to have arrived."
Lori glanced around to see Clark crossing the room toward them.
"I see everything went all right," she said.
"Yeah. Sorry to be late, Mr. Merrick," he said. "Something unavoidable came up."
Merrick nodded. "Perfectly all right, Mr. Kent."
"So," Clark said, "what's the insurance company have to say?"
"They're attempting to trace the path the thieves took after they left the store," Merrick said. "And, of course, they're investigating the remote chance that it could have been taken by someone else at the store."
"Well, that's to be expected."
"Of course," Merrick said. "By someone else, of course, they mean Mr. Blake or myself. We are the only two persons who have the combination to the safe and the code to override the time lock. I assure you, however, that I've been an employee of Mr. Blake's for thirty years! I'm due to retire within a few months. I wouldn't jeopardize my retirement with such a crime, even if I were of the bent to do so. And I have complete faith in Mr. Blake's honesty."
"We understand," Clark said. "It's normal to be upset, but if you're innocent, I don't think you need to worry. It's just company policy." He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and shook his head suddenly.
"Are you all right, Mr. Kent?" Merrick said. "You look ill."
Lori looked at Clark in alarm. He had gone white, and sweat had broken out on his forehead.
"I…need some fresh air," Clark said. He started to rise from his seat.
"Is everyone ready to order?" Sandy appeared at Lori's elbow, a smile plastered on her face.
To Lori's horror, Clark staggered a couple of steps from the table, gave a faint groan, and collapsed to the floor.
Lori leaped from her chair to rush to his side, only vaguely aware of other people hurrying to crowd around him. This couldn't be happening! she told herself. Nothing could hurt Superman! But there was Clark, face down on the floor, slipping into unconsciousness even as she and Sandy rolled him over.
"Someone call the paramedics!" Sandy said.
Paramedics? Lori didn't know what to do, but she had to do something. She couldn't allow a doctor to examine Clark, or the fact that he was one of the supermen would be discovered.
In the face of emergency, inspiration struck. Rhonda! Rhonda Klein, Ultra Woman, whom she had met three weeks ago, was also the super family's physician, Clark had told her.
Someone was trying to open Clark's collar. She couldn't allow that, either.
"Don't touch him!" she ordered, brushing the helping hands away. "I'm calling his doctor! Please, everyone, stand back!" Lori desperately punched the relay code for Rhonda's private number into her wrist talker.
Barely ten seconds passed before the woman's voice answered. "Rhonda Klein."
"Rhonda, it's Lori! Clark's collapsed!"
"What? Where are you?"
"In a restaurant in Metropolis called 'The Green Gourmet'."
"Are there other people around you?"
"A whole crowd."
Lori described the events leading up to the situation, and Rhonda's voice dropped so she had to hold the little communication device up to her ear in order to hear. "Try to get everyone to move back as far as possible, whichever way you can. I'll be there as fast as I can get there."
Lori looked up at the curious faces around her. "Could everyone move back, please? Give him some air."
Reluctantly, people shifted about, but did not retreat. Lori felt a flash of anger. Clark's welfare was more important than the wish of onlookers to satisfy their curiosity. "Everyone, please! Just move back! I appreciate that you want to help, but his doctor is on the way! Please, go back to your tables!"
Slowly, the crowd began to break up. Sandy said, "Is there anything I can do?"
Lori shook her head. "I don't think so. Just get everybody away from him, could you?"
"Sure." Sandy got to her feet and began to politely, but firmly chivvy the restaurant's patrons back to their tables.
Clark groaned softly and opened his eyes. For a moment, he looked blankly up at her. "What…?"
"Oh, Clark!" Lori heard the break in her voice and forced it under control. "Lie still. Rhonda's on her way."
"Got to…get out of here," Clark murmured.
There was a whoosh outside and an instant later Rhonda Klein stood in the doorway, impressive in the costume of Ultra Woman.
"Is there a problem?" she asked, in a clear, carrying voice.
"My partner's collapsed," Lori called. "I need some help."
Clark was feebly trying to push himself upright.
Rhonda glanced quickly around the room as if checking for something, although Lori couldn't imagine what it might be, then strode quickly to Clark.
"I'll meet you at Clark's" she whispered to Lori. Quickly, she scooped Clark up in her arms and was gone.
Lori sat back on her heels and blew out her breath. Slowly, she got to her feet, trying to ignore the stares of the other diners.
David Merrick was standing behind her when she turned, holding her bag. He handed it to her.
"I certainly hope Mr. Kent will be all right," he said, "But I need to get to work. Mr. Blake will be expecting me."
"I understand." Lori took a breath. She was in a hurry to leave, too, but she still had a job to finish. "Would it be all right to contact you in a few days to see how things are going?"
"Of course," Merrick said. "If you like I can call you, myself. That's the Daily Planet, correct?"
"Yes," Lori said. "That would be fine." She was anxious to get to Clark's apartment and find out how her partner was. Something definitely out of the way had happened, and she wouldn't be easy until she knew what it was.
David Merrick departed. Lori glanced around for Sandy. The waitress was pouring coffee for another patron across the room, but when she saw Lori looking around, she hurried over to her.
"Is your friend going to be all right?" she asked.
"I…I think so," Lori said. "He wasn't feeling well, yesterday. It might be that virus that's going around." There was always a virus going around, she reflected. "Could I have the bill? I'd like to get to the hospital and see how he's doing."
"Oh, honey, it's on the house," Sandy assured her. "It was only a couple of coffees. Go on and make sure he's okay."
"Thanks. Here." Lori tucked a credit token into the other woman's hand. "Thanks a lot for your help."
Sandy slipped the token into the pocket of her skirt. As she did so, the strange, green bracelet caught Lori's eye. Was it possible? No, that didn't make sense. How could a bracelet hurt Superman?
"Don't mention it," Sandy said. "Come back some other time, okay?"
"Come on in, Lori." Rhonda opened the door to Clark's apartment.
Lori slipped quickly inside. "Is Clark all right?"
"He will be." The superwoman closed the door behind her. "He's already feeling better."
Clark was sitting on his sofa, looking pale and drawn, but much improved over the last time she had seen him, twenty minutes ago.
Lori hurried to him. "Clark, what happened? I was so scared!"
He reached out and took her hands. His own felt abnormally warm. "I'm sorry, Lori. It wasn't intentional."
She put a hand on his forehead. "You're burning up! Clark…!"
"I know, but I'll be all right, thanks to you. Your quick thinking may have saved my life. You certainly saved my secret."
"But, what happened?"
He looked past her at Rhonda Klein. "I think we need to explain about Kryptonite."
"What's Kryptonite?" Lori asked.
Rhonda moved forward to seat herself on the sofa beside Clark. "Lori, Kryptonite hasn't been seen in almost a century, but it's the only substance we know of that can actually hurt one of us."
"What is it?" Lori asked.
"Well, we think it's part of Krypton. That's where the name comes from," the tall superwoman explained. "We believe that when it exploded, some pieces of the planet were caught in the field of the ship that brought Superman to Earth and were dragged along. They
turned up after he grew to adulthood, but it was thought that all of them had been found and destroyed. We may have been wrong. Clark's reaction was typical of Kryptonite exposure."
"You didn't react, though," Lori said.
"I checked before I came into the room," Rhonda said, matter-of- factly. "By the time I got there it wasn't nearby, and Clark was beginning to recover. I think I felt it, very slightly, which was why I got out of there as fast as I could. Tell me, did you see a green crystal anywhere around about the time Clark collapsed?"
Lori stiffened at the description. "Does it glow?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
Clark nodded. "It has a green glow," he affirmed. "You *did* see something?"
Lori nodded. "I think so. Sandy, the waitress, was wearing a bracelet. She said her husband made it out of some kind of green, phosphorescent quartz. She'd just come over to take our orders when Clark collapsed."
Rhonda and Clark looked at each other. "You asked her about it?" Clark asked, looking at her oddly.
"Yeah, I noticed it. It was pretty, but for some reason it gave me the creeps." Lori sank down on Clark's other side. He put an arm around her.
Rhonda was frowning. "It gave you 'the creeps'?" she repeated. "Why?"
Lori shrugged. "I have no idea. It just did."
Lori saw Clark and Rhonda exchange another glance. "What?" she asked.
"Nothing," Rhonda said. "Clark, I'd say we better let the others know about it — and to stay away from the Green Gourmet in the near future."
"That's only a stopgap measure, though," Clark said. "We have to figure out some way to get hold of that bracelet — without letting on why we want it. Kryptonite has almost been forgotten. The last thing we need is for people to find out about it again."
"Or connect it with you," Lori said. "We'll think of something. Clark, what about the conference? Are you going to be well enough to go?"
"I think so," he said. "Fortunately we're flying by shuttle, though. I couldn't get us there, right now."
"I don't have any super powers," Clark said.
"What are you talking about?" Lori stared at him in shock. "What's the matter?"
"A heavy exposure to Kryptonite can knock out our super powers for a while," Rhonda explained. "It isn't permanent, but for the next couple of days or so, Clark will be the same as any other man. No flying, no catching crashing aircars." She winked at Lori. "I'm counting on you to keep him out of trouble."
The chime of the vidphone punctuated the sentence. Lori glanced at the I.D. displayed on the screen. "The Planet's calling."
"I better go," Rhonda said. "I'll spread the word about the bracelet. Call me if you start feeling worse, Clark."
"I will," Clark assured her. Rhonda rose to her feet and was suddenly gone.
Lori blinked. "I never get used to that."
The vidphone chimed again. Clark glanced at it. "Screen block on," he said. "Yes?"
"Mr. Kent?" It was Fred's voice.
"Mr. Olsen wanted to know if you and Ms. Lyons were coming in today."
"We just finished meeting a source," Clark said. "Ms. Lyons and I will be in soon. We have a few things to get done before we leave for the conference."
"Okay, sir," Fred's voice said. "I'll tell him."
"And Fred," Clark said easily. "I'd like to have a short word with you, later."
A note of apprehension crept into Fred's voice. "About what?"
"We'll talk about it when I get there," Clark said. "Goodbye."
Lori couldn't help smiling. "I thought I told you I could handle Fred."
"What makes you think I'm going to say anything to Fred about that?" Clark said, looking innocent. "He cast aspersions on *my* character, too, you know."
"When he accused me of taking advantage of you."
"Huh…oh, yeah, I guess he did." Lori noticed that he hadn't removed his arm from around her shoulders. "Somehow, it never occurred to me that a guy would care about that."
"Well, that depends on the guy," Clark said. "I don't like his insinuation. Besides, it'll do Fred good to worry a bit. We may not be able to pin any of the things we know he did on him, but that doesn't mean we have to take any of the garbage he's handing out, either. It's not your fault he got himself in trouble, and it's not your fault that you're a much better journalist than he'll ever be."
"I guess not," Lori said. She felt his cheek again. "Are you sure you're feeling well enough to go in, Clark? You're still too warm."
"Yeah, I'll be all right. My body temperature is a little higher than a human's anyway, so it's not as bad as it seems."
"Maybe, but not this high." She hadn't removed her fingers from his cheek. "Clark, I was really scared. I don't know what I'd do if something happened to you. I think — " She paused and took a deep breath. It was still just a little too frightening to say. "I don't want to lose you," she substituted.
Clark removed her hand from his cheek and kissed the back of it. "I never want to lose you, either, Lori." He sighed. "I was hoping to have some time to talk to you before we went in, but I guess it'll have to wait."
"You can't do it now?"
He smiled briefly. "I have the feeling I need to set aside a good-sized chunk of time for it. Especially for the groveling part."
"I don't want you to grovel!"
"Well, maybe not now, but you never know." He brushed back the dark hair from her face with gentle fingers "Maybe it won't matter. I hope not, but I don't want to take the chance." His face was completely sober. "If you decide you can't handle what I have to tell you…then I'll have to live with it. But…"
Lori stared at him, finally understanding what he meant. Clark was afraid! It was that profound and that simple. *Superman* was afraid of losing her — her, Lori Lyons, a moderately attractive, perfectly ordinary woman, without anything special to recommend her — when he could probably have any woman he wanted just by lifting a finger! Was it possible that she meant *that* much to him?
"In that case, maybe you shouldn't tell me," she said. "Is it really that important that I have to know it, or could I live without knowing?"
"You could," Clark said. "But you deserve to know the truth. It wouldn't be fair not to tell you."
"Then we'll set aside some time after we get to Alta Mesa," Lori said. "We'll go somewhere that we won't be interrupted and we'll talk, and work the whole thing out. Deal?"
He smiled. "Deal. Now, let's head for the Planet and finish up our business. We have a shuttle to catch in a few hours."
Fred was nowhere to be seen when they arrived at the Planet.
Clark headed for his desk, regretting sincerely his inability to use his super powers to locate the copy boy. If he was any judge, Fred wasn't going to drop his harassment of Lori just because her partner didn't like it. Not that Lori couldn't handle the man on her own. He was certain she could, to be truthful. His soulmate could be tough when necessary, and Clark suspected that if Fred went too far, he wouldn't know what hit him. It simply went against his instincts to stand back and let a bully get away with that kind of obnoxious behavior toward the woman Clark loved.
Because he did. That kiss last night had shaken him more than he expected. The same sense of belonging he'd known with Lois was there full force with Lori, and reinforced what he already knew — without her he would be only existing, because it was she who made his life truly worth living. The possibility that she might reject him after she learned the truth was terrifying, but he would respect her wishes, whatever she decided. He simply prayed to whatever, or Whoever, might be watching over the universe — and him — that she wouldn't.
"What the devil did you say to Fred when he called you?" John asked. His editor's voice behind him startled Clark, because he hadn't heard him approach. "He took off out of here like a scared rabbit right after he talked to you. Said something about taking one of his sick days."
Clark suppressed a smile. "I only told him I wanted to have a word with him when I got in," he said, innocently.
"I see," John said. "So why did he have a guilty conscience?"
"You'll have to ask Lori about that," Clark said. "I only caught the tail end of it."
"Uh huh," John said. "I think I can add up two and two." He looked grim. "I think I'm going to have a word with Lori — and with Fred. I won't tolerate harassment in this office."
"Good idea," Clark said.
"On another front," John said, "how are you feeling?"
"Oh," Clark said. "Rhonda got hold of you, huh?"
"Yeah. You're sure it really was…it?"
"I'm sure. Lori saw it, and even though she didn't know what had happened, she got me out of the situation. I'll be fine."
"Thank God for that," John said. "I had my doubts about her in the beginning, but not any more. She's one in a million, Clark. You're lucky to have found her."
"I know." Clark bit his lip. "I only hope she'll have me."
John smiled. "I think she's going to surprise you. Have a little faith."
"I hope you're right."
"You're going to tell her?"
"Yeah. As soon as we get a breathing space. Maybe we'll have time at the conference."
"Good idea. I'll work on the bracelet matter while you're gone. I've already made a few inquiries. The waitress's name is Sandy Timmons. Her husband runs 'Andy's Creative Designs' down in Old Town."
"John, be careful. It's perfectly possible that the stuff could affect you, too."
"I know. Give me some credit, will you?" His great grandson grinned. "I've got several resources at my disposal. Trust me." He glanced at Lori, who was busy reading something on her computer screen. "Excuse me. I have a few questions to ask your partner."
Some time later, Lori finished straightening her desk and shut down her computer. A glance at the chronometer on her wrist talker informed her that they had two and a half hours before their shuttle was due to leave. The Metropolis to Buenos Aires shuttle had a stop in Santa Lupita, Guatemala, and from there, they would take the smaller, local shuttle to Alta Mesa. Clark had told her that they would arrive at the hotel in time to get settled before dinner, although the actual conference didn't begin until tomorrow. It would give them a chance to socialize, and he could introduce her to some of the other journalists. The conference lasted through Saturday and Sunday, but their flight didn't arrive back in Metropolis until late in the afternoon on Monday, so they wouldn't return to work until Tuesday. If things went all right, Clark would have recovered his powers by then, and hopefully they would have had time to talk about whatever was bothering him.
A thought occurred to her, and she opened the bottom drawer of her desk. It might not be a bad idea to take along a recorder. Most of the speeches would doubtless be blather; they usually were, but every now and then, there was something useful to be heard. Her little recorder and enough disks to last through the presentations wouldn't take up much room in her bag, and would enable her to record everything the speakers had to say. She would just have to be sure she removed it before they scanned her bag at the shuttleport checkpoint so as not to ruin the disks. The big, leather shoulder bag was brand new and very roomy. It had been a goodbye gift from Brad and Sharon just before they departed on the colony ship and Lori already loved it.
She snapped on the recorder to test it and muttered under her breath when the machine failed to work. Quickly, she opened the little door on the bottom of the device and popped out the power cell. The tiny blue dot on the bottom had turned red. Out of power. She sighed and hunted around in her top drawer until she found a fresh cell and snapped it into place, then slipped the recorder and tapes into an inner pocket of the bag. After picking up several loose credit tokens that had somehow wound up on the bottom, she dropped them into the half-open change compartment and pulled the zipper completely closed. There was a small rip in a side seam where a few stitches had unraveled, but fortunately, a needle and thread could fix it without any difficulty. Still it was annoying. She'd only had the bag for two days.
She shook her head in mild exasperation. Maybe today wasn't such a good day for flying after all. This series of minor mishaps was getting downright ridiculous.
She glanced around to see Clark rise from his desk. The usual spring in his step was missing as he came toward her, in spite of his claim that he felt much better than he had an hour and a half before. A couple of months ago she wouldn't even have noticed. Now it worried her.
"Ready to go?" he asked.
Lori got to her feet. "All set."
"Then let's stop by the lockers, get our stuff, and we're on our way."
"Clark, do you feel okay?" She rested a hand against his cheek. "You're still a little warm."
He smiled slightly. "I'll sleep on the shuttle. I'm just not used to feeling sick."
"I guess that would make sense," Lori said. "I'm sorry, Clark. I don't mean to hover; I'm just worried about you."
"I don't mind," Clark said. "Come on, let's go."
As they waited for the elevator, Lori looked automatically at the framed photo of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. It was uncanny how much that other Clark looked like the one beside her. He even had the same little birthmark on his lip. Lois Lane was smiling brightly, and he was looking at her with an expression Lori had seen on her Clark when he looked at her. Something about that ancient picture touched some note deep inside her every time she saw it.
"Lori?" Clark said. "Is something wrong?"
"No," she said. "I just get the strangest feeling when I see that picture. I can't figure it out. It's like it should mean something to me, and of course it doesn't."
Clark didn't reply, and the elevator arrived at that moment. Clark let Lori enter first. "Lockers," he said.
The Metropolis Shuttleport was crowded and chaotic, as Lori expected. They checked their bags, picked up their boarding passes, and proceeded on to the security checkpoint. Lori removed her earrings and wrist talker, fished the recorder and disks from her purse, and turned on her portable computer for the security men in order to prove that it was actually what it purported to be. She passed through the scanner while her purse proceeded through the x-ray and was checked for any signs of weapons. She reclaimed her property while Clark went through the same ritual, and rejoined her on the other side.
Clark glanced at his wrist talker. "We have a little under an hour until boarding. I just thought of something."
"It's past one. I'm hungry. I missed breakfast this morning. Shall we wait an hour and let them feed us on the shuttle, or shall we pay the exorbitant prices here and get ourselves a snack to tide us over?"
"Let's get a snack," Lori said. "I didn't get anything to eat, either."
The Metropolis to Buenos Aires shuttle was late, which wasn't surprising, Lori thought, as the failure of the shuttle companies to keep their schedules had been the subject of editorials recently in a number of news publications. Clark and Lori were not traveling first class; they found their seats in the coach section, tucked their computers and Lori's leather shoulder bag into the overhead compartment, and settled down in the places assigned to them.
Clark pointedly did not take the window seat. As soon as the shuttle was airborne and the "Fasten Safety Webbing" sign went off, he tilted his seat back and closed his eyes. Lori could tell, however, by the rigid set to his jaw that her companion was not asleep, or even relaxed. After a moment, she slid her hand over his. "Clark?"
He didn't open his eyes. "Yeah?"
"Do you feel all right?"
Now he did open them. He smiled slightly. "Yeah. I just…don't like flying…in shuttles."
"Huh?" She certainly hadn't expected that.
"It just seems…well, unnatural."
She didn't laugh, in spite of the circumstances. Trying to look at it from his perspective, she could see how that might be so. For a being who propelled himself through the air under his own power, being powerless, and having to depend on one of the man- made devices that he had several times had to save from a fiery end must be frightening. She entwined her fingers around his. "Does this help?"
He smiled a little. "It doesn't hurt."
"In that case, just keep holding my hand until you feel better. They're supposed to serve something to eat in a little while, I think. And then you can try to sleep."
He chuckled softly. "I'm not coming across very well today, am I?"
Lori squeezed his hand gently. "You don't have to try to. I'm glad to see that even a guy as perfect as you has a few flaws."
He laughed again, very softly. "Lori, I'm anything but perfect."
"I know; I was joking, Clark. You don't have to be perfect for me. You just have to be you."
This time he squeezed her hand. "Thanks."
A flight attendant came by a few moments later, and Lori flagged him down. "Can we have a blanket and pillow, please?"
"Sure." The man produced them in short order. "Is there anything else I can get for you?"
"What time will we be eating?" Lori inquired. "Both of us missed lunch, except for a snack at the shuttleport."
"We'll be serving an afternoon snack in about an hour," the man told her.
"Thanks." Lori shook open the blanket. "Here, Clark. Get comfortable. We've got awhile to wait."
Clark accepted the pillow and blanket with a slightly embarrassed smile. "You don't have to baby me, you know. I'll be fine."
"I promised Ronnie I'd keep you out of trouble, and I take my responsibilities seriously. Settle back and go to sleep."
Clark made a wry face. "I should know I'm no match for two pushy women. You win."
"I'm glad you know your limitations," Lori said. She glanced at the attendant. "What's the show today?"
"'The Thing That Stalked the Moon Shuttle'," the man told her.
"I've seen it," Lori said. "I guess it's just as well I brought along a book."
The shuttle landed in Santa Lupita, three hours later.
The warm, tropical air of Guatemala had a soft, damp quality that had not been present in Metropolis, Lori thought, when she and Clark disembarked along with several other passengers. They waited in a holding area for persons changing shuttles, and Lori listened to the chatter of people around her. Most of the conversation was in Spanish, however, and incomprehensible to her. While Clark went to one of the snack bars to negotiate for food, she gravitated to the window to look out at the scenery beyond, since this was probably all she would get to see of Guatemala. The afternoon sky was a deeper blue than it had been in Metropolis, but to the west, heavy, black storm clouds were gathering. A brisk wind tossed about the leaves of the coconut trees at the edges of the field.
Behind her, an announcer on a vidscreen spoke fluent Spanish. It appeared to be a weather report, but it meant nothing to her. While she was trying to interpret the symbols on the screen, Clark appeared at her side with a small cardboard tray containing two very ordinary hamburgers, a small bag of fries, another of onion rings, and two sodas. They sat close to the windows, looking out and eating.
Lori licked grease off her fingers. "I never thought a second- rate hamburger could taste that good."
"Well, there's no sauce like appetite," Clark said. "That snack on the shuttle wasn't very substantial."
"You can say that again," Lori agreed. "How much longer until we board?"
"About thirty-five minutes — if it's on time."
Fortunately, their connecting flight was punctual. Since they hadn't left the holding area, there was no need to pass Customs. Half an hour later they boarded a much smaller craft, and a short time after that were headed southwest toward the tiny country of Alta Mesa.
Sitting in the passenger section of the little shuttle with Clark and three other passengers, Lori glanced out the window as they climbed toward the clouds. Below them, the dancing fronds of the jungle trees were a testament to the strength of the growing wind. In spite of that, however, the trip was uneventful, until the last minutes of the flight.
The first indication was a sudden, sharp jolt of the shuttle. Lori grabbed her chair arms. "What was *that*?"
"Wind," Clark said. "Feel the vibration?"
Now that he had drawn her attention to it, she could feel it, all right. The safety webbing sign lit up suddenly.
"This is your Captain speaking," the intercom announced, almost simultaneously. "We are encountering some unstable weather conditions. For your safety, please fasten your seat restraints." The shuttle bucked suddenly, and Lori gasped.
"Downdraft," Clark said. "It's okay."
Clark would know, she reasoned. He had plenty of personal experience flying, after all. All the same, she could see that his knuckles had gone white from gripping the arms of his chair.
"I'll be glad when this is over," she said.
"Me too," Clark said. He pulled the webbing across his lap and chest. "According to the weather report I saw back at the shuttleport, there's a tropical storm moving in, but I don't think it's really going to hit Alta Mesa before we get there. This is just a little wind. We probably won't get the actual storm until late this evening."
The shuttle shook again, and Lori grabbed Clark's hand. Her partner didn't look any more comfortable than she did, but said, "It's going to be all right. Better strap down, though."
They could feel the buffeting gusts of wind shaking the shuttle. Lori pulled the safety webbing across her body and fastened it with trembling fingers. For some reason the picture, almost four weeks ago, of the London Shuttle coming in toward Metro Shuttleport out of control, and its subsequent rescue by Superman popped up in her thoughts. Only, Superman was sitting here beside her, powerless to do anything. Resolutely, she pushed the unsettling memories out of her mind. Scaring herself to death with what-ifs certainly was not productive.
A flight attendant came down the aisle, gripping the backs of the seats to keep her balance. She glanced at the two passengers, both obviously nervous, and smiled cheerfully. "We'll be in ahead of the real storm," she said, with a reassuring note in her voice. "We get a lot of wind over these mountains when there's any kind of weather disturbance out in the Pacific."
Clark nodded. "We'll take your word for it. How long before we land?"
"About ten minutes," the woman said. "They'll be announcing it in a moment. If you look out the window, you can see the ocean from here."
"I think I'll pass," Clark said.
Lori glanced out the shuttle window and saw that they were turning. Far below and to the west she could see the choppy, dark blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, looking darker because of the layered mountains of purple storm clouds massing in the sky and hiding the sun. One, small break in the clouds allowed a single beam of gold light to illuminate a streak of ocean, turning it to aquamarine, and far out, almost on the curve of the horizon, the black silhouette of a ship was just barely visible. It was a picturesque scene, but the shuttle was continuing its turn and now the view consisted only of blue sky with streamers of clouds beginning to creep over it. Try as she might, Lori couldn't ignore the vibration of their craft, caused by the gusts of wind.
True to the flight attendant's prediction, the intercom came to life, warning passengers to prepare for landing, and Lori let out her breath in relief at the proof that the trip was almost over.
Alta Mesa's single shuttleport was tiny in comparison to the others she had seen. Lori followed Clark down the ramp and onto the field. Here there was no direct connection to the terminal that she could see a short distance away. They descended onto the tarmac and approached a gate where two uniformed individuals and a large, German shepherd dog awaited them. Lori watched as the men examined the passports of the passengers ahead of her, and the big dog sniffed in a disinterested fashion at a their carry- on luggage.
Apparently, they contained nothing of interest, for the passengers were allowed to pass and the attention of the men shifted to her. Lori presented her shoulder bag for examination, eliciting no interest from the animal. One of the officers riffled through her bag, assured himself that she was carrying no weapons or contraband, and gestured her through.
The air here was slightly chilly and drier. It must be, Lori thought, because they were so high in the mountains. The wind was brisk, however, and she was just as happy to accompany Clark across the blacktop to the low, stone building that was the terminal, to reclaim their luggage.
The capital of Alta Mesa, Ciudad del Sol, wasn't large in comparison to Metropolis or any of the other big cities of her own country, but Lori found herself staring around in fascination at the thriving, little city when they emerged from the terminal. In the far distance on all sides, shadowy mountain peaks rose up, many of them capped with snow. Wind whipped through the streets, foreshadowing the coming storm, tossing the fronds of the big palm trees that seemed to line every thoroughfare.
Beside her, Clark whistled shrilly, and a taxi about the size of a breadbox screeched to a stop in front of them where they stood on the sidewalk. The driver leaned out the window. "Adonde va?" he inquired.
Clark spoke rapidly in the same language and the man nodded vigorously. He jumped from the cab and hurried around to open the trunk for their bags, and a few moments later the little vehicle sped forward over streets paved with grey mountain stone, headed for the Mesa Grande Hotel.
The driver spoke volubly as he drove, gesturing right and left, apparently indicating points of interest. Lori tried to look in all directions at once, although she didn't understand a word the man said and he spoke far too quickly for Clark to even attempt to translate.
Within twenty minutes, the taxi was pulling up at the entrance of a large white building. Three wide steps led up to an awning- covered entranceway, where a doorman, wearing the livery of the hotel waited to welcome guests. Beside the door on a brass plate, modest lettering announced "La Mesa Grande". They had arrived at their destination.
"La Mesa Grande", Clark told her, meant "The big table", a puzzling name, unless one realized that the hotel had originally been a restaurant. He had naturally read the hotel's brochure that had come with the travel packet several weeks ago, when the reservations had been made. That was just what she should have expected, Lori thought with inner amusement. The new owners had taken the building and expanded it, turning it into very comfortable hotel, where the restaurant was only part of the services offered. It didn't compare to the Lexor in Metropolis, but it was elegant and surprisingly modern for an establishment in such a remote and tiny country. The staff, Lori thought, seemed efficient and helpful. They directed Clark and her to the front desk, where a tall man in a neat suit, bearing the logo of the hotel on its jacket pocket, met them with a friendly smile.
"May I help you?" he inquired pleasantly in lightly accented English.
"Yes," Clark said. "We're with the journalists' convention — from the Daily Planet in Metropolis."
The man — his nametag informed them that he was Eduardo Sanchez, the assistant manager — turned to the computer on his counter. "Mr. Kent or Mr. Harrelson?"
"Mr. Harrelson was taken ill at the last moment," Clark explained. "Ms. Lyons is his replacement."
Sanchez frowned. "That presents a slight difficulty, Mr. Kent. Between our regular guests and the convention, every room is completely booked. You and Mr. Harrelson were slated for one room with twin beds. I'm afraid I don't have a room for Ms. Lyons."
Clark glanced at Lori and then back at the man. "Is it possible for me to double up with someone?" he inquired.
"I'm afraid not. Every room intended for double occupancy is booked. There are no spares. Or," he amended, "there won't be when everyone arrives. If it should happen that someone fails to claim his reservation by midnight — "
"In that case," Clark said, "Ms. Lyons can have the room. I'll find another place in town. I'm sure that — "
"Clark." Lori touched his arm. "I don't want to throw you out of your room."
"Well, *you* can't wander around town looking for a place to stay," Clark said. "Your conversational Spanish is limited to about five phrases."
Lori couldn't help laughing. "True. Look, Clark, if anyone is a gentleman, it's you." She glanced at Sanchez. "The room has twin beds, right?"
"Then Mr. Kent and I will share the room," she said firmly, overriding Clark's instinctive protest. "We're professional colleagues, Clark. I don't have a problem with it if you don't."
He looked worried, but finally nodded and glanced at Sanchez. "I guess we'll take the room."
"Very well, Mr. Kent." The man turned and gestured to a bellboy, who hurried over.
"Take Ms. Lyons' and Mr. Kent's bags to room 238."
Clark completed the check-in procedure and looked at Lori. "Shall we go get ready for dinner, Ms. Lyons? I don't know about you, but I'm famished."
Lori nodded. The hamburger and onion rings nearly two hours ago were long gone, as far as her stomach was concerned. "That sounds wonderful, Mr. Kent."
The room was airy and spacious. A vidscreen on one wall was easily four or five times as big as the tiny one in her flat, and the twin beds were big enough for two people each, she thought. There were a couple of big, comfortable armchairs, a large, mahogany dresser, and on the wall was a big timepiece modeled after a stylized sun. A window opened on a balcony overlooking the picturesque street outside, and the rug underfoot was thick and soft. The bellhop had set their suitcases down next to the closet.
Clark glanced hesitantly at her. "Would you like the bathroom first?"
"Why don't you go ahead?" she suggested. "I'll probably take longer. We women always do."
Clark gave her an odd smile. "You know, I've never understood why someone as attractive as you thinks she has to work to look that way."
Lori felt herself blushing. "You don't know what it takes to *keep* looking that way."
"Yes, I do," Clark said. "You know, Lori, before my wife died…she was very concerned with her appearance, but to me she was as beautiful as the day I married her."
Lori fell silent. She had wondered about Clark's wife. No one at the office seemed to know anything about her, at least those to whom she had spoken. An online search for records had come up dry. She had concluded that the marriage had taken place in some remote area where records were not computer accessible. Such places *did* exist, in spite of the reach of technology. A few countries didn't allow it, and records from the Lunar Colony, and Mars were only available by special request.
She found herself looking up into his face. It had been only seconds by the wall chronometer. She surprised herself by saying, "You miss her, don't you?"
He nodded. "A little. But since I met you…" He sat down on one of the beds. "It's different."
She came to sit beside him. "How is it different?"
He folded his hands in his lap. "When she died, Lori — I felt like the best part of me had been torn away. I felt lost. I don't feel like that anymore. I feel…complete again."
She laid a hand over his. "Do you?"
He freed one hand and put it over hers.
"Yes. I love you, Lori. I've loved you from the second I saw you."
The breath caught in her throat. "Clark, I…"
"Before you say anything you might regret, though, I have to explain something. You see…you know I'm Superman, but I'm not just — "
There was a knock at the door.
Clark broke off with a sigh. "We'll get back to this later." He got to his feet and strode to the door. "Yes?"
The man on the other side had raised his fist to knock again when Clark opened the door. A big smile split his face.
"Clark! Hey, long time, no see, man! I heard you'd just gotten here!"
"Hi, Vane. Come in." Clark smiled. "Lori, this is Vane Williams."
"From the Chicago Sentinel?" Lori stood up. "I've read your work."
Williams looked surprised. "I'm sorry. Did I interrupt something important?"
"Oh, no," Clark assured him, quickly. "Pat Harrelson wound up in the hospital at the last minute, so my editor sent Ms. Lyons along with me instead. Only, the hotel didn't have an extra room, so — " He shrugged. "Vane Williams, Lori Lyons, my new partner. Vane and I worked together for a few weeks a couple of years ago, Lori."
Williams stuck out a hand, looking her over critically. "Nice to meet you, Ms. Lyons. Congratulations on the Mayflower scoop."
Lori took the hand, feeling herself turning pink. "You saw that?"
Williams laughed. "Every journalist in the country would have willingly murdered both of you for that story. I'd say it's an easy Kerth nomination for you."
"Yeah. If you'd like to dump this guy and come to work for the Sentinel, you can partner with me, any day."
"Forget it, Vane," Clark said, a grin on his face. "She's *my* partner. Look, Lori and I barely got here. We'll be down in a bit, after we've had a little time to get ready."
"Oh, sure." Vane nodded. "I'll get out of here and let you change. Happy hour's just started. See you in a few minutes."
When Williams had gone they looked at each other and simultaneously began to laugh.
"We're cursed, I think," Clark said. "Go on, get fixed up. We'll come back to this a little later."
Lori sighed. "You're right, of course. If we don't show up — "
Clark groaned. "I hate to think what Vane will be saying to everybody else if we don't. The guy's got an overactive imagination, not to mention he was always trying to fix me up with some woman. But I swear we'll talk about this after dinner. I just don't want to rush through it."
"All right, but Clark, it will have to be something pretty earth- shattering to make me think less of you."
"I hope it isn't earth-shattering enough," he said.
Forty minutes later they entered the hotel's bar. Vane spotted them as they came in and waved. "Hey, Clark, over here!"
Clark and Lori made their way over to the group of five persons of which Clark's friend was one. Vane introduced Clark and Lori to the others.
"You don't have to introduce me to Kent." Margot Ryerson, the only other woman in the group said. "How are you, Clark?"
"Doing pretty well," he said. "I'm working for the Daily Planet, now." He surveyed Margot thoughtfully. She would be about forty by now. She had always been a tough, no nonsense journalist, but she looked older than she had the last time he had seen her. Her hair was still dark and curly, but there were lines in her face that he didn't remember even from two years ago.
"So I gathered from the byline," she said. "Is it permanent or just another short term job?"
"It's permanent, this time," he said. "Ms. Lyons and I are partners."
Margot turned to look Lori over critically. "So you're Lyons," she said, briskly. "Your reputation precedes you."
Lori looked surprised. "It does?"
"Your paper scooped the lot of us," she said. "I expected a hard- bitten pro. New out of school?"
"Lori was the office intern," Clark explained, calmly. "If it hadn't been for her we wouldn't have gotten to the bottom of the story, though, at least not before it was too late." He added, "Lori, this is Margot Ryerson from the Kansas City Constitution."
Margot shook Lori's hand briskly. "Nice to meet you. Clark, why don't you get both of us a couple of bourbons? I want to get acquainted with your partner."
"White wine for me, Clark," Lori interrupted quickly.
"All right," Clark said. He left the two women and crossed the room to the bar. It was an indication of the quality of the hotel that the bar had an actual human bartender instead of the usual computerized serving equipment. He had to wait for several minutes for his turn to order the drinks, as there were several persons ahead of him. While he waited, he surveyed the room, keeping an eye on his partner. Margot Ryerson and he had known each other for several years, on and off. The woman was a very sharp reporter who had been his rival in more than one investigation, but he respected her for her reporting skill and integrity. On the other hand, she had the instincts of a predator when she thought there might be a hot story in the offing.
Quite a few of the persons in the bar, of course, had nothing to do with the convention. A short, balding man, waiting just ahead of him in the line glanced at him, shifting impatiently from one foot to the other. "You one of the guys here with the journalists' convention?" he asked, in English, with a decidedly New York accent.
"Yes," Clark said. "Are you here for it?"
"Me? Naw. I just got in half an hour ago. The shuttle almost didn't make it — at least it seemed that way. The wind was knockin' us all over the sky. I was sure I was gonna meet my Maker." The man shivered. "I'm just here on business. Tom Myers, from New York. I'm an architect for Mechtel Corporation." He thrust out a hand.
"Clark Kent, from the Daily Planet," Clark said. "My partner and I got here a little over an hour ago. The wind was pretty bad then, too. I'm told the storm is temporarily stalled out over the ocean. It's expected to move in early tomorrow morning."
"Well, at least my feet are on solid ground again," Myers said. "I just hope it'll be finished blowin' us around before I have to leave."
Clark grinned. "I'm with you there. I don't like flying in shuttles." He added, "It's your turn."
"Huh? Oh, thanks." Myers turned to give his order to the bartender. "Bourbon, on the rocks."
The bartender didn't even hesitate, but whipped the glass onto the bar, dropped in ice cubes and poured the liquid all in the space of ten seconds. Myers paid him, picked up his drink and departed with a friendly nod to Clark.
When Clark returned to Lori, Margot accepted her bourbon with a grimace of thanks and downed half of it in one swallow. Clark suppressed a wince, and handed the white wine to Lori. He, himself, was drinking soda water. Normally, Superman could drink nearly any amount of toxic substances, but without his powers the effect of alcohol on his system was less predictable. He preferred not to take chances.
Margot said, "I like your partner, Clark. Sharp young woman." She nudged Lori with an elbow. "Keep an eye on this guy, sweetie. Every time I've competed with him, he always got to the story before I did, no matter what. Maybe you can figure out how he does it. If you do, let me know his secret."
Clark smiled blandly. Lori sipped her wine and didn't comment.
Happy hour was beginning to break up. Clark touched her elbow. "Shall we go get something to eat, Lori? That wine will sit a lot better on a full stomach."
"Okay." She turned to the newswoman. "We'll probably see you later."
"Enjoy your dinner," Margot said. "I expected to see Pete Swanson here. I heard he arrived this afternoon, just before I did, but I haven't seen him yet. Oh, well, he never did handle shuttle travel very well. He's probably in his room sleeping off the free drinks." She swallowed the rest of the bourbon and eyed the empty glass wistfully. "I suppose I'd better have something to eat, too." She glanced around. "Vane! Are you sitting at my table?"
Lori tucked her hand lightly into Clark's elbow as they left the bar and entered the waiting area of the restaurant. Half the room had been roped off, and a sign read ""Reserved for Conventioneers". A hostess approached them after only a moment.
"Table for two?" she asked cheerfully. Lori found the young woman's light accent very attractive.
"Yes," Clark said. "We're with the convention."
"This way." She led the way into the roped off area and indicated a small, two-person table near the rear of the room. "Will this be all right?"
"This will be fine." Clark pulled out a chair for Lori, then took his own place. The hostess set two menus on the table. "Someone will be here in a moment," she said.
Lori looked over the menu and made her selection, then folded it and laid it on the table in front of her. The muted lighting of the room made it more difficult to see fine details, but she saw Vane Williams and Margot Ryerson sitting with two other persons a short distance away. Movement near the door caught her eye. She glanced up to see a little man standing there, half obscured by the leaves of a tall, tropical plant. There was something familiar about him, but before she could pin the feeling down he had stepped backward into the doorway and out of sight.
"What's the matter?" Clark asked.
"Huh? Oh, nothing, I guess. I just thought I saw someone I knew, but I guess I was wrong." Lori dismissed the impression and smiled at her companion. "This is nice. It's been a hectic day."
"That's an understatement," Clark said. "I hope the rest of the evening is a lot quieter."
"Me, too." She looked up as a uniformed waiter approached. "A little peace and quiet will be nice for a change."
"If a little unusual," Clark said. "I really want to make time for us to talk."
The waiter stopped by their table. "Have you decided?"
While they waited for their appetizers, Lori sat back in her chair, simply enjoying the relative quiet and admiring the man who sat across from her. Clark had fortunately lost the tired look he'd had immediately following his exposure to the Kryptonite bracelet, although he told her quietly that his powers had as yet shown no sign of returning. Presumably, Rhonda knew what the effects of this mysterious mineral on Superman would be. He hadn't appeared to be worried either, but Lori wasn't as confident as the others seemed to be that his powers would return before long. A substance that could rob Superman of his powers frightened her. How could they be sure of its ultimate effects?
Lori looked around. A short, stocky man with a florid complexion and a big smile ambled up to the table. Lori could smell alcohol on his breath as he slapped her partner on the back with unnecessary force, causing Clark to cough.
"Hi, Barney." Clark turned in his chair to face his assailant. "How are you doing?"
"Just great, ol' pal. Is this that pretty li'l partner o' yours I've heard about? You lucky dog!"
Lori glanced at Clark in time to see him roll his eyes. "Sorry," he mouthed at her. "Yes, Barney, this is Ms. Lyons. Ms. Lyons, this is Barney Rundle, from the Miami Vanguard."
The obviously tipsy man smiled, continuing to ogle Lori in way that reminded her uncomfortably of a dream in which she had come to work far too lightly clad for the professional image she tried to cultivate. She could feel the flush rising from her collarbone and up her neck. Clark got to his feet.
"Lori, would you excuse us a moment? Come on, Barney, I think I saw your wife around awhile ago. I haven't talked to her for a couple of years. I'd like the chance to say hello again." He winked slightly at Lori and led Barney away.
Lori breathed a quiet sigh of relief. She couldn't blame Barney, but she was glad Clark had sprung to her rescue so quickly. Superman, it seemed, was on the job, powers or no powers, she thought whimsically.
A waiter appeared at the table with glasses of water and the coffee that Clark had ordered. Lori picked up the glass he set before her and sipped, feeling a comfortable fatigue in her body. It *had* been a busy day, and it had left her more tired than she realized. She caught herself in a yawn and covered her mouth with one palm.
Motion at the corner of her vision caught her attention. She turned her head, to see a short, balding man standing next to a leafy, potted tropical plant of some sort a short distance away, apparently watching the entrance to the restaurant. From the doorway, he would be only partly visible, and completely inconspicuous Lori thought idly as she watched over the brim of her glass. There was something almost furtive about the balding man's attitude.
He glanced at her and saw her watching. With a slight smile, he nodded to her and strolled away toward the restrooms, turned the corner beneath the small, tasteful sign, and disappeared. Lori found herself frowning after him curiously. He hadn't done anything all that unusual, but something about his attitude wasn't quite right. Her reporter's instinct stirred, and she continued to watch the spot where she had last seen him, but he didn't reappear.
It was nearly ten minutes before Clark returned. He sat down and wiped a hand dramatically across his brow. "Sorry about that," he said. "Barney's a nice guy, but he does tend to party a bit hard. I left him with his wife. She'll keep him under control."
She laughed. "It's okay, Clark. Thanks for the rescue."
"Don't mention it." He looked around. "Here come our appetizers."
In spite of the fact that Lori remained alert for the balding man again, she saw no sign of him, although how he could have gotten out of the hallway to the men's room without being visible to her she couldn't understand. Something about the situation stimulated her curiosity, what Brad had called her "reporter's instinct". Lori had to admit she was far too nosy for her own good, but awareness of the fact didn't change it. She decided to keep an eye out for him for the remainder of their time at the hotel. It was perfectly possible that there was nothing at all out of the ordinary, but that pesky "instinct" said differently. Whether it was something important, or just a personal indiscretion, it told her that something was up, and Lori was curious.
Lori and Clark weren't allowed to return to their hotel room immediately following dinner, to her disappointment. Although the actual journalists' banquet wasn't until Sunday night, no one apparently was willing to leave for the evening without an unscheduled gathering in the lounge adjoining the bar. They were a group of professional people who knew each other either by personal acquaintance or at least by reputation, and the temptation to postpone the end of the evening was too great. Friends of Clark's both male and female, acquired over the past few years, appeared to Lori to be selectively seeking him out. She could understand his popularity, however. Her partner was a very likeable man, who apparently made friends even among his rivals, but the fact made it difficult for them to slip away.
Lori was standing quietly at Clark's side, listening to the chatter when an ear-shattering clap of thunder shook the room and made everyone jump. The lights flickered sharply.
"What was that?" someone, a woman, gasped.
"Sounds like lightening struck right over us," a man's voice replied. "It must be that tropical storm they were talking about on the shuttle."
Margot Ryerson, at Clark's elbow, said, " I hope this place has its own power supply. I don't feel like being without power because of a storm!"
"Me, either," Vane Williams said.
Lori glanced at the big window in the reception room's far wall as lightning flashed brightly. Thunder crashed again, and she winced. Water was streaming almost horizontally across the glass, obscuring the garden beyond and they could hear the wind, even through the walls of the hotel. Somewhere above, something fell with a loud clatter. The storm had arrived, full force.
"I guess it didn't stay stalled as long as the weather forecasters thought," Clark said in her ear. He glanced at his wrist talker. "It's only ten-thirty."
Lori yawned. "I'll be right back, Clark."
Lori headed toward the powder room. She was tired and it looked as if they weren't going to get back to their room for another hour, at least. Inside, she splashed water in her face and leaned forward to repair the damage to her makeup. Two other women were just departing, talking rapidly to each other in Spanish. Behind her, the door opened and Margot Ryerson entered. She winked at Lori. "You look tired, honey. Rough day?"
Lori nodded. "Rough two days. Clark and I have been following a jewel robbery in Metropolis since yesterday. We were out late last night, covering the capture of the thieves, and this morning we interviewed the senior clerk of the store that got hit. They found everything except one ring."
"Oh? Anything special about this ring?"
"Yeah. It's worth 2.7 million dollars."
Margot whistled. "That must be *some* ring."
"It is. I've seen a picture of it. It's gorgeous."
Lori shrugged. "The police and insurance company are investigating. That's all I know, so far. If the bad guys hid it somewhere before they got caught, there may be some chance of getting it back but as of this morning, there wasn't any new information. If nothing turns up before Tuesday, we're going to look into it. The whole thing may be over by the time we head back, though."
"Bad timing," Margot said. "I have to congratulate you, though, on your ingenuity."
"Getting put up in a room with Clark. The guy has a reputation for being impossible to seduce. With that body, don't think a lot of women haven't tried."
"Oh? I didn't know." Lori fiddled with the strap on her purse, wishing that Margot would drop the whole subject. She was sure that Clark would find it as embarrassing as she did.
"Well, you know what they say about the quiet ones. I expect a full report and a rating on him when it's over."
The older woman laughed. "Take it easy, honey. It's only natural to be curious. Whatever it is you did, I have to give you credit. I just hope you're not too sleepy to enjoy it."
Lori could feel the infuriating blush suffusing her cheeks. Margot laughed. "You don't have to be shy. You should know you're the object of considerable envy among most of the woman and a couple of the men here." She glanced at Lori's scarlet face and took pity on her. "It's okay; I won't say another word. Have a nice evening, though." She winked.
Lori fled with as much dignity as she could manage.
As she ducked out into the hallway, Lori heard another rumble of thunder and the building quivered slightly. She winced and headed quickly back toward the lounge where she had left Clark. There had been several more thunderclaps in the last few minutes, none of them as loud as the first two, and the lights didn't flicker again. With luck, they could make their excuses and get back to their room soon. Not only was she tired, she wanted to hear what Clark had been going to say when Vane interrupted them. She turned the corner into the adjoining hallway…
And the lights went out. The hallway was plunged into pitch- blackness.
Lori stopped moving at once and held perfectly still, trying to regain her bearings, then she felt to her left for the wall.
The darkness was complete, but it wasn't silent. From the room up ahead where Clark and the other journalists congregated she could hear the confused chatter and gabble of alarmed people. She oriented herself by it. The wall was farther away than she had first thought, at least a few inches beyond her arm's length. Slowly, feeling her way by sliding her foot along the carpet, she moved sideways until her reaching fingers contacted the smooth surface of the corridor wall. She leaned against it for a moment and took several seconds to catch her breath. Her heart was pounding uncomfortably hard, her nerves jittering from the suddenness of the power failure.
Lori froze completely, hugging the wall as she realized that the power wasn't out. From the room up ahead she could hear the sounds from the vidscreen as an announcer matter-of-factly recited the weather report. The words were in Spanish, but the cadence of the voice was unmistakable. Very faintly, now that her eyes had begun to adjust, she could see a pale flicker of light from the vidscreen outlining the rectangle of the doorway. It wasn't enough to illuminate her surroundings, but it was there. But if the power wasn't out, why had they lost their lighting?
She held her breath, listening, tuning out the voices from the room up ahead. She had no real reason to feel apprehensive, except the instinctive alarm at being suddenly unable to see and at the knowledge that the lights should still be on. What was happening?
It was that primitive sense possessed by small, helpless creatures hunted by the bigger and more vicious predators in their environment that was more alert than her conscious mind, for it was aware of danger before she was. There was motion here in the blackness not far away, stealthy movement of something nearby that roughened her skin, and all the hair on her head tried to rise from the roots. The muffled sound of a shoe scraping softly across the surface of the hall carpet told her beyond doubt that it *wasn't* her imagination. She squinted into the blackness of the hallway behind her, trying to see. There was a slightly darker bulk back there, or could that vaguely darker blotch be her imagination after all, working overtime? But then she heard a soft indrawn breath. Someone was there.
Common sense told her to speak up, to demand to know who it was. Most likely, she told herself, it was only another guest who had been just as startled as she was by the sudden darkness, but a more basic sense of self preservation kept her silent. She began to slide quietly along the wall toward the noise and safety of the crowd only yards away. Straining her ears, she was sure she heard very softly, another muffled footfall behind her, and then the scratch of nails along the wall.
Lori held her breath, willing herself not to panic, to move slowly and carefully, and as noiselessly as possible.
She could hear breathing behind her, only a few feet away now. Then a hand reached out of the darkness behind her and caught at her arm. Lori jerked away and the hand gripped her blouse. Instinctively, she screamed and struck at the hand as it yanked her backwards. The fingers loosened; she felt fabric tear as she twisted about. Suddenly she was free. She swung her bag as hard as she could with both hands gripping the strap. It struck something heavily and there was a muffled exclamation.
And suddenly the voices from the room were louder. Clark's voice called, "Lori! Is that you?" A small hand light, dazzling to eyes adjusted to the pitch darkness, flashed over the scene. Lori caught a blurred glimpse of a dark shape that vanished quickly down the hall. Clark's voice said, "Lori, are you all right?"
"Clark!" Lori took another step forward, and felt his arms go around her. "He tried to grab me!"
"Who tried to grab you?" Clark demanded.
"I…I don't know. Someone was there. He tried to grab me in the dark."
Clark trained the light on the dark hallway, but now nothing moved within the range of its beam.
"Whoever it was is gone, now," Clark said. "Are you hurt?"
"No…no. Just a little shaky." She didn't try to move away from the comforting circle of his arm. "Clark…"
And at that instant the lights came back on, showing an empty hallway, and a crowd of people in the lounge beyond, all trying to shade their eyes from the sudden light.
It was after midnight when they finally made it back to their room.
Hotel Security invaded the area within minutes after Clark reported the attempted assault, and the mystery of the lights was explained, but not in a way that made Lori feel any better. The circuit breaker for the lights in that section of the building had been tripped. A hotel bellboy had found it and switched it back on.
Lori huddled next to Clark wearing his jacket to cover her torn blouse while Hotel Security questioned her about the hallway incident. Clark acted as interpreter for them, one arm around her, unperturbed by the impression it created with observers. Lori could only be grateful. The thought that continued to run over and over in her mind was that someone had deliberately laid a trap for her. If not for Clark she had a pretty good idea what would have happened. When they finally allowed her to return to her room, Clark led her away without a word.
"Do you think they believed me?" she asked.
"Shh." Clark didn't loosen his grip. "Yes, I think they did. They just don't have enough facts yet."
"Clark," she whispered, "why me?"
"I don't know," he said. "Opportunity, maybe. But we can't rule out a more direct reason."
"Someone cut off the lights," she said. "Why?"
He guided her into the elevator. "Come on. You need to go to bed. You're worn out."
"We still have to talk," Lori said.
"We will. After you're in bed, I'll explain everything."
Lori crawled into bed, yawning widely, and pulled the blankets up. Outside the window, she could see the rain beating heavily across the glass, and lightning flickered every minute or two, followed by the rumbles of thunder heard faintly through the walls. She could hear the rush of running water through the bathroom door as Clark prepared for bed, and she smiled at the sounds. Clark had been there for her again when she needed him most, just as she had been there when he needed it this morning. It wasn't all one way, she reflected. If she hadn't seized control of the situation, Superman might have died. His secret would certainly have been exposed. Whatever he was worried about telling her, he was willing to abide by her decision. He had willingly handed all the power over to her.
Lori relaxed back against the pillow to wait.
When Clark emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, he glanced at his roommate and sighed. It looked like their talk was going to be postponed again. Lori was sound asleep. The sheer fatigue of the day's events had caught up with her — not surprising, considering everything that had happened today, and the hour. It was almost one o'clock in the morning.
Quietly, he slipped into his own bed and lay down. The lights went off obediently, and the window automatically frosted over. He would talk to her in the morning, he thought. He was pretty tired, himself.
When Lori woke the next morning, the first thing she saw was Clark. His blankets were kicked off and he was sleeping on his stomach, his face buried in the pillow. She sat up slowly and simply stared at her partner. In his sleeping shorts, Clark looked…wow. He was certainly worth looking at, that was for sure. Sure, she'd seen him in his skin-tight spandex suit, but this way…Lori swallowed and tore her eyes away.
Muted light came through the window glass, which had cleared when she sat up, and Lori could see that the storm still raged. Raindrops beat against it like bullets, and she could see the palm trees tossing wildly in the wind. Well, it looked as if that tour of the city after today's presentations was out.
The time readout on her wrist talker informed her it was just before seven. The first presentations started in an hour. Well, there was no reason Clark couldn't sleep while she showered. She selected a few items from her suitcase and, with a last look at Clark, she hurried into the bathroom.
By the time she came out, fully dressed and combing her hair, he was awake. He looked at her guiltily. "Sorry I overslept."
"That's okay. We've got about forty-five minutes until the conference starts."
"I better hurry." He ran a hand over the stubble on his chin. "Good thing I thought to bring something along to shave with. I usually don't have to use them."
"How *do* you shave?" she asked, curiously.
"Heat vision," Clark said. "I bounce it off a mirror. I better get moving. This is going to take longer than usual."
"There's no sign of your powers?" Lori asked.
"No, not yet."
Other than a minor mishap with the sonic razor, it took Clark twenty minutes to shower, shave and dress. They hurried down to breakfast with only a short time to spare. Lori settled on a glass of milk and a piece of fruit for a quick meal, and Clark chose a donut and juice. Lori briefly envied him his Kryptonian metabolism. In a few years, she was sure, her ability to eat whatever she wanted would undoubtedly disappear and she would have to fight to maintain her figure. Oh well…
She wondered if a guy as obviously attractive as Clark would be interested in her if she got fat and developed white hair and wrinkles. She rather thought he would, judging by what he had said about his wife yesterday. Her appearance had apparently worried her before her death, but it hadn't made a difference to Clark. She wondered idly if the superheroes ever developed wrinkles or got fat.
None of the ones she'd seen in person or on the vidscreen ever seemed to. Rhonda had looked about Clark's age, although she knew Ultra Woman had been around several years longer than Superman.
She looked suddenly at Clark as he downed his donut and juice. Just how old was Clark, anyway? She'd looked up his journalistic history a while back; he had a formidable resume, and apparently the respect of the journalistic community, but she hadn't been able to find out much else. It was as if his personal history had been deliberately obscured.
Just how fast did the supermen age? Was it as the same rate as regular humans? The question had never occurred to her before, but now that she'd thought of it, it seemed a reasonable question to ask. They were, after all, only part human.
Clark glanced at his wrist talker. "Oops, we better hurry. The first presentation starts in about five minutes."
Lori got up quickly, grabbing for her bag. "Let's go, then."
They were nearly the last people to arrive at the hotel's Dolphin Room. They took seats in the rear of the room, and Lori caught sight of Margot Ryerson eyeing her speculatively. She smiled politely, but didn't approach.
"What's the matter?" Clark asked. Honestly, the man seemed to read minds!
"Is telepathy a Kryptonian talent?" she asked, softly. "You always seem to know!"
"Only for some of us," Clark said, unexpectedly. "And only with other Kryptonians."
"Yes. And," he amended, "to a degree, with people who are very close to one of us. Why do you ask?"
"You always know. Just don't leave me alone with Margot, please!"
Lori could feel her face turning pink at the memory. "She thinks you and I are — well, she thinks I convinced you to share my room because — and then, when the lights came back on last night, you had your arms around me, and Margot — "
"Oh," Clark said. He grinned and ostentatiously lifted her hand to kiss the back of it, well within view of Margot. "We might as well give her something to think about. We'll never convince her that nothing's happened. It'll probably be good for both our reputations."
She couldn't help laughing, in spite of her embarrassment. It was true; the thought of being in a position to do exactly what Margot had been implying last night was starting to appear more attractive — as long as it was with Clark. For Lori, unlike Marcy with her numerous boyfriends and her string of husbands, sex just for the sake of sex wasn't attractive. But with Clark, now…
Remembering his seemingly uncanny ability to know what she was thinking, she determinedly turned her attention to the man now walking across the podium. It was starting to look as if trusting Clark to behave had never been the problem. Making her own libido behave, on the other hand — now that was another thing altogether.
The presentations went on for the next three hours. Clark's first presentation was scheduled for the afternoon session and the other for tomorrow morning. Lori was careful to record the speeches, though from what she heard, her first guess had been right; a lot of the presentations were just blather, but here and there was something worth preserving. When they broke for lunch, she dropped the recorder back in her purse, and the little rip in the seam caught her eye and she reminded herself to repair it as soon as possible. The hotel room had an emergency repair kit included with its other supplies. It would do until she got back to Metropolis.
"Thinking about anything in particular?" Clark asked. They had strolled out into the hotel lobby with the rest of the crowd. Lori glanced at the big windows beside the entrance, from which they could see the rain pounding down on the pavement outside.
"Not really," she said. "It's a shame this storm had to hit just now. It's really the first time I've been anywhere but the states — except for two hours in Baja California right after high school."
Clark smiled. "I promise that I'll bring you back next week if you like. And maybe we can have dinner in Paris or somewhere else you choose. Will that help?"
"That would be wonderful," she said.
"And after the presentations are over for the afternoon we're *going* to talk if I have to hide us both in the cellar to keep from being interrupted. It's past time that you knew."
"All the dark secrets of my past," Clark said. "You have the right to know the whole truth."
"You make it sound disreputable," she said lightly.
"Well, not disreputable exactly, but not your ordinary history, either."
"Nothing about you is ordinary, Clark…ohmigod, here comes Margot."
Clark put a hand on her arm. "Steady there…hi, Margot."
"Hello, Clark." Margot Ryerson's dark eyes were sparkling with curiosity. "So, how are you this morning, Lori?"
"Much better," Lori said. The expression on the other woman's face, and the knowledge of what she obviously thought she knew, was the final straw. The little devil that controlled her sense of humor prodded her. Marcy could have warned Clark about this aspect of her younger sister's personality, but Marcy wasn't there. Lori threw caution to the winds. "I had a good night's sleep," she added. "We were both…tired."
She sensed rather than saw Clark's dark eyebrows fly up, but she didn't look at him; instead she moved a little closer to him and felt his arm tighten slightly. "Clark was really wonderful about helping me feel better after all the things that happened last evening," she continued recklessly. Clark gave an odd-sounding cough. She stepped on his toe. "So," she continued, "did you enjoy Harold Bertie's speech?"
"It was pretty good, actually," Margot said. The curiosity on her face had sharpened, and Lori fought the desire to giggle. "Were you going to have lunch?"
"We were just on our way there, now," Clark said. "Lori wanted to see the town after lunch, but it looks like that's out of the question for the present."
"Only if you want to come back looking like a drowned rat," Margot said, distastefully. "Why don't we all go in together? I wanted to ask you about what happened when the lights went out last night. The Hotel Security guys weren't talking."
"I think they're waiting until they have some more information," Clark said.
"Maybe," Margot grumped, "but I'm a reporter. What *did* happen last night?"
"I'm not really sure, anymore," Lori said, untruthfully. "Besides, I don't want to think about it right now."
"Well," Margot said, "maybe we could talk about it later when we can get together, just us girls. What do you think?"
'Not in this lifetime,' Lori thought. "Maybe."
"Okay." Margot seemed to accept the answer, but Lori wasn't fooled. "By the way, I was wondering if you'd seen Pete Swanson this morning. He was supposed to be here yesterday, but I haven't seen him yet."
"No, I haven't," Clark said. "Maybe one of us should go check on him. He might have gotten sick or something. What room is he in?"
"I don't know. I guess we could ask at the desk."
"He doesn't answer his page," Clark said, some time later. "Maybe we better go check and see if he's all right."
"He could just be sleeping off a hangover," Margot said. "He hates flying," she added, for Lori's benefit. "He always ends up barely able to stagger off a shuttle."
"Still, we better check." Clark turned and spoke to the desk clerk in rapid fire Spanish.
Margot shook her head. "Wish I could handle foreign languages like Clark," she said, enviously. "I've never once seen him at a loss in all the time I've known him."
"Clark's very good at languages," Lori said.
"I'll say." Margot eyed Lori curiously. "Is he as good at other things?"
"Clark's good at a lot of things," Lori said noncommittally, and firmly stifled the urge to laugh at the flicker of annoyance that crossed Margot's face.
The desk clerk was speaking rapidly, first to Clark and then to a bellboy. A moment later, the bellboy headed for the elevator with the three of them trailing along.
Pete Swanson's room was on the second floor, but instead of turning into the hall where Clark and Lori's room was located, the bellboy turned left toward another hallway. Halfway down it they stopped, where a "Do Not Disturb" sign hung prominently on the knob. Clark and Lori looked at each other.
"I hope we're not disturbing him too much," Clark murmured.
"Me, too, but no one's seen him since he got here," Margot said. "If there's something wrong and we don't find out…" She let the sentence trail off.
"Senor Swanson?" the hotel employee called.
No one answered. The young man frowned and called out again.
Still no one answered. This time the bellboy knocked sharply
No sound from beyond the door. Another knock.
Silence. Without further ado, the man produced an electronic key and unlocked the door.
"Senor Swanson?" he inquired, opening the panel a crack.
No answer. The bellboy cautiously opened the door wider.
The bed was visible from the door. It was neatly made and a pair of suitcases sat next to the bathroom door. Other than that, there was no sign of occupancy. Still, the suitcases were monogrammed with an "S" and when they checked the bathroom, Lori could see a sonic razor sitting on the counter. Pete Swanson had been here, it seemed, and wasn't here now.
"I guess he must be all right," Margot said, sounding relieved. "I guess I just missed him. He'll probably show up after awhile."
"Just one of those things," Clark said. He turned to thank the bellboy, who nodded and spoke back in the same language.
Lori stood in the center of the room, looking around. She didn't know what it was about the situation, but something struck her as wrong about this room. The neat suitcases sitting there — a piece of cloth was sticking out of one as if it had been closed and left that way. That wasn't an unusual thing. Many people left their clothing in a suitcase upon arrival at a hotel. Only, that looked like the material for the jacket or slacks of a dress suit. Wouldn't a man who expected to wear such a suit to a formal dinner at least hang it up to avoid wrinkles?
Lori crossed the room almost on automatic pilot and knelt, fingering the material. "Clark…"
"What's the matter?"
"Why would a man cram a dress suit into a suitcase like this?"
"What? Oh." Clark also crossed the room, Margot on his heels, followed quickly by the bellboy. He also knelt to examine the material, then, without a word he unsnapped the catches of the case.
The suit had been rolled up carelessly and thrust into the suitcase. Lori stared at it. "Nobody packs formal clothes like that."
"It looks like it was yanked off a hangar and just shoved in here," Margot said.
Lori stood up, a horrifying idea suddenly crystallizing in her mind.
The hotel closets weren't large; they barely had room for more than four or five hanging items at a time, with no room to spare. Considering the hotel room's need for space, it was reasonable. But what if the reason the suit had been removed from the closet was to make room for something else?
Lori turned and hurried to the tiny closet. With a quick move, before she could change her mind, she yanked the door open.
She was expecting something, what she wasn't sure, but because of it, she was able to confine the scream that tried to rise in her throat to an odd-sounding yelp.
Crammed tightly into the tiny closet was a short, balding man who looked horribly familiar to Lori. He was the man she had seen in the restaurant the night before, and he was quite dead.
Clark knelt beside the body of the man he had met briefly in the bar last night, careful not to touch anything. A shadow fell across him, and he glanced over his shoulder.
"You're blocking my light, Margot. Could you move back a little, please?"
Reluctantly the woman edged back a few inches. Clark examined the dead man visually. "It looks as if he was stabbed."
"No kidding," Margot said, sarcastically. "I can see that for myself."
Behind them, Clark could hear the bellboy at the vidphone, speaking almost hysterically to someone. Lori simply stood back, watching without a word, her face a peculiar shade of light green. His partner might be an investigative journalist, he reminded himself, but she was new to the business. She had probably never seen a dead man anywhere but on the vidscreen before, certainly not one who had been brutally murdered. He had seen far too many, but the fact didn't make it any easier. He got to his feet again, still careful not to contaminate the crime scene by touching anything, and moved over to her. "Lori, I think you better sit down."
She didn't object when he pushed her gently into one of the room's armchairs. "Are you okay?"
She took a couple of deep breaths and nodded. "Yeah. I'm okay."
"Good. Just stay where you are for a few minutes, all right?"
She nodded jerkily. "Is he…your friend?"
"No," Clark said. "His name is Tom Myers, but that's all I know. I met him for about two minutes at the bar last night."
"I saw…I saw him, too," Lori whispered. "He was just standing near our table. Then he went down the hall toward the restrooms and I didn't see him after that. But why should he be in the closet of your friend's room?"
"That," Clark said, "is the million dollar question."
"Then where is your friend?"
"That's another one." Clark sat down on the arm of the chair and reached out to take her hand. "We'll find out, Lori." He glanced at Margot and the bellboy. "Hotel Security should be here in a minute. How did you guess about the closet?"
She gulped, looking distinctly green. "I didn't. It just seemed like there had to be a reason the suit wasn't hanging in the closet, so I looked to see why."
"Good old common sense," Margot said. "You've got a smart partner, Clark."
"I know." He squeezed Lori's hand reassuringly. "I've got an incredible partner."
Margot's eyes narrowed slightly and then widened. "Well, well," she said, after a short pause. "That explains a lot." She looked cryptically at Lori. "Now I'm really envious, sweetie."
"Not now, Margot," Clark said. "We've got bigger problems here."
"That's for sure. Where are those Security people?"
"I'm sure they'll be here in a minute. I better call the front desk and have them tell whoever's handling the scheduling that I may be late for my presentation."
The wind whipping through the streets of town was too violent even for the police to make it to the hotel. The weather services reported that the storm was just sitting off the coast, spinning. It had been upgraded to a category one hurricane, and Alta Mesa was catching the edges of it.
Clark and Lori were the last of the four to leave the Security Office, two hours later. They had spoken to a Homicide detective over the vidphone, and he had interviewed all four of them, one at a time. The interview — except for Clark's and the bellboy's, of course — had been hampered by the official's limited command of English, and Lori's almost nonexistent Spanish. Margot spoke the language haltingly, but they had waited until an interpreter, a young policewoman, had been summoned, as the man had wanted to hear Lori's version of events without Clark acting as intermediary. Since all four persons who had found Tom Myers' body told essentially the same story, it wasn't very helpful to the detective who had apparently been put in charge of the case.
"Did you overhear anything about what they plan to do until the police can get here?" Lori asked.
"Yeah. My hearing seems to be improving. My powers may be starting to come back," he said. "They're going to start searching for Pete Swanson. He checked into the hotel — I saw his signature and photo on the hotel register page that the desk clerk called up before we went up to his room. It was his, all right, so he got here. What happened to him after that is another question, but if he's here anywhere, he can't leave even if he wants to. Even the police are stuck while it's blowing so hard."
"Do you think he would have killed Myers?"
Clark hesitated a long moment, obviously considering the question seriously. "Unless he's changed a lot from the man I used to know, no, he wouldn't. The Pete Swanson I knew wouldn't hurt a fly."
"Could something have happened to him, too?"
Clark smiled wryly. "Who's the telepath here?" he asked. "I've been thinking the same thing." He glanced at his wrist talker. "I've got that presentation in a few minutes. Look, if we've still got communications we can try hooking into the Queenstown Courier. His picture is always next to his byline. I'd like to do a little checking around, too. Maybe someone saw him last night, even if Margot didn't. And while we're at it, maybe we can dig up some background on Mr. Myers. When we talked, he told me he was from New York and that he worked for Mechtel Corporation."
"Queenstown?" Lori asked curiously. "Where's that?"
"New Zealand. Pete's a second generation New Zealander. Awfully nice guy; he just has this problem with flying in shuttles. I couldn't exactly blame him."
"Oh," Lori said. "All right; it's a good idea. I'd rather be doing something than just sitting around waiting. If they don't figure out who killed him before long, we could be stuck here."
"Well, they haven't charged us with anything," Clark said. "Unless they tell us we can't, there's no reason we can't go home on Monday. Still, I'd rather be doing something, too." He paused for a moment, thinking. "When you saw Myers last night, what was he doing? You said before that he was just standing near our table."
"Yeah. He seemed to be watching the entrance to the restaurant. I looked, too, but I didn't see anything unusual." She frowned, obviously making an effort of memory. "Only earlier, something did happen."
"Not much, actually. It just struck me as a little odd. You and I were sitting at the table, reading our menus, and I happened to look at the doorway. There was somebody standing there. I couldn't see him very well, but for some reason, he looked familiar just for a second. It was the strangest feeling of déjà vu."
"Did you see his face?"
"No. He was standing by that big, leafy tropical plant next to the door. I just had the funniest feeling that he was watching me. Imagination, I guess."
"Not necessarily," Clark said. "Remember what happened to you a few hours later. It could be that whoever it was *was* following you."
Lori shivered. "Do you really think he could have been?"
"Maybe. Or it could be connected to this murder. Myers was in the bar when I talked to him, but he could have gone in to dinner before you saw him."
"Do you suppose there could be a connection?" Lori asked. "Maybe we've got a psychopathic killer on our hands."
"Mmmm…" Clark didn't sound convinced. "Maybe. I guess it's possible, but it's too soon to be making guesses. Let's do some digging and see what we turn up. I have the feeling that there's a lot more to this than meets the eye."
"So do I," Lori said.
"And don't go off alone into deserted areas, okay? After what happened last night, I don't want to risk something happening to you. If it wasn't related to this business, good, but I don't like coincidences."
Clark's presentation was received with more enthusiasm than many of the previous ones had been, at least in Lori's opinion. It had actually been interesting and occasionally humorous. In the meantime, with her portable computer braced firmly in her lap, she connected with the Queenstown Courier, searched out a photo of Pete Swanson and downloaded it into her own computer. Finished with that, she contacted Personnel for Mechtel Corporation, looking for Thomas Myers in New York City.
When Clark concluded his presentation accompanied by modest applause he left the podium and hurried straight to Lori where she sat, by special request, in the front row.
She looked up from her computer. "Nice job, partner."
"Thanks. Did you come up with anything?"
Lori glanced around. "Let's get out of here and I'll tell you."
They made their way out of the Dolphin Room, and Clark glanced at his wrist talker. "I just thought of something. The only thing I've had to eat today was a donut and a glass of juice. It's past three. Why don't we grab a light snack of something while we talk?"
Lori's stomach grumbled at the thought of food. When they'd found the body of Tom Myers it had effectively killed any appetite she'd had at the time, but that was now over four hours ago. "I could use a sandwich or something," she admitted.
"Okay. Let's go."
At Clark's request, they were soon seated in a booth in the far corner of the restaurant's coffee shop, and a young woman took their orders for light afternoon snacks. While they waited, Lori set her computer on the table, pulled up the picture of Pete Swanson and turned the screen so Clark could see it.
"Luckily for us, the storm hasn't affected our communications yet," she said. "Will this do?"
"Can you enlarge it a bit?" Clark asked.
Lori turned the computer back and worked on the picture for a moment, then turned it back. "This is the best I can manage. I'll lose resolution if I make it any bigger."
Clark examined it. "I think it's adequate. You didn't have the best picture to start with. We'll need hard copies."
"No problem." Within a few moments, she had produced them.
Clark took his and looked it over critically. "Nice job. Any luck on Thomas Myers?"
"No," Lori said, "but what I *didn't* find is almost as instructive. There's a Thomas Meyerson who works at Mechtel in New York, but no Thomas Myers. I tried every possible spelling of his name. Meyerson's picture doesn't look anything like our victim, either; I checked. So, who is Myers, and where did he really come from?"
"Good question," Clark said, thoughtfully.
"I contacted Research at the Planet and sent them the information we had. They're going to make some inquiries. Myers had to have gotten here via shuttle. Where and when did he book a flight, for instance, and who paid for it? If he used a credit account, maybe we can trace him from that."
"Smart," Clark said. He glanced around. "Uh-oh. Here comes Margot. Watch it. She's a barracuda when she's on the trail of a story."
Lori turned off her computer and set it on the floor beside her. "Hi, Margot."
"Hi." Margot glanced curiously at the computer, then at the pictures of Pete Swanson. "Find anything?"
"No," Clark said. "We thought we'd ask around and see if any hotel employees or other guests might have seen Pete since last night."
"Not a bad idea," Margot said. "He checked in about half an hour before I did, according to the desk clerk, and I got here a little while before you. We'd planned to get together last evening," she added. "He and I have been working on a story about an international ring of jewel thieves that's been operating for about ten years or so — at least that's how long Interpol's been after them." She picked up a chair from a nearby table, sat casually down across from Clark and grinned suddenly at his stunned expression. "I wouldn't be telling you this, Kent, but I know you don't steal stories, and I'm worried about Pete.
"Anyway, recently some pieces that were stolen in California turned up in New Zealand, and a local dealer was arrested in connection with the ring. It was the first big break in the case, and that's where Pete got involved. I was on the California end, and Pete was following it from his, and we were going to get together here and compare some of our notes. He never called me after I got here, and he never answered his phone. At first, I figured he was just drunk, but this morning I started to get worried."
"I think I remember reading about the jewel thing," Lori said. "We were in the middle of the Mayflower investigation at the time, though."
Clark nodded agreement. "Lori, can you whip me up another picture of Pete?" He handed his picture to Margot. "Here, you take this one, and we'll ask around as soon as we've had something to eat."
"Sure," the bartender said, examining the paper Lori had handed him. "I remember this guy."
The bartender was a tall, broad, muscular man with the unlikely name of Angelo MacGregor. Not only that, but he didn't look in the least Scottish. His face shape, brown skin and slightly Asian eyes suggested ancestry possibly from the Philippines or that same general corner of the world. He not only spoke perfect English; he spoke it with an unmistakable Brooklyn accent.
"What time was that?" Lori asked.
"He was here about five-thirty, with some other guy," MacGregor said. "I didn't think he ought to be drinking, because he'd already had a couple too many from what I could tell. He was staying here at the hotel, though, and his friend said he was just going back to his room, so nobody saw any real harm in it."
"What did the friend look like?" Lori asked.
MacGregor handed the paper back to her. "I didn't notice him in particular, Ms. Lyons. He was a little skinny guy; that's all I remember."
"Do you remember how he was dressed or anything?"
The man shook his head. "I'm afraid not. Just like everybody else, or I would have noticed."
"Okay," Lori said. "Thanks. You've been a lot of help. I don't suppose you noticed when they left or where they went?"
"They left just before happy hour started at six. They went out toward the lobby, I think, and I didn't see them again after that," MacGregor said.
Lori folded the paper and stuck it into her purse. "I really appreciate this, Angelo. If you remember anything else, Mr. Kent and I will be around until Monday morning at least."
"Sure." MacGregor frowned. "I heard about the body you guys found upstairs. That must have been bad."
"That's one way of putting it," Lori said, drily.
"Yeah. If I think of anything else, I'll be sure to let you know."
"So, the only person who saw him after he checked into his room was Angelo," Clark said. "Nobody saw him after that. I talked to the housekeeping staff. Room Service delivered a meal to the room last night, and Housekeeping made up the bed this morning. The maid said the room looked okay at the time. Of course, she didn't check the closet."
"Then he was there last evening, and slept in his bed," Lori said. "Unless…"
"Unless it was someone else."
"What?" Clark glanced at the lounge door at the smash of breaking glass in the bar beyond. Happy hour was in full swing, and someone had dropped a tray of drinks. "What do you mean 'someone else'?"
"Well, he went out with this 'little skinny guy' and nobody ever saw him again," Lori said. "I know this is a stretch, but what if the 'skinny guy' did something with him and took his place? What if he's our killer?"
"Why would he take Pete's place?" Clark asked, trying to follow her logic.
"I don't know. Unless he needed to be here in the hotel for something."
"I'm not sure I understand," Clark said.
Lori shook her head. "Neither am I, but it makes a weird kind of sense. Look, for the argument, let's say he needed to be here for something, but there were no rooms, right?"
"Okay, whatever this hypothetical reason is, it's life or death to him. So, he gets a guy who's already tipsy into a bar and makes sure he has another drink or two. Then he takes him outside, where the storm is already starting to blow stuff around and hits him over the head or stabs him or something, leaves him in an alley someplace and takes his keys. How's that for a scenario?"
Clark looked at her in awe. At times like this Lori's reasoning was exactly like Lois's had been. She made leaps of logic that seemed to make no sense, and yet more often than not turned out to be right. It had to be something that was part of her persona, that went with her from life to life, one of the things that was part of *her*. Okay then, it was time to trust her instinct.
"If that's what he did, he doesn't have the room to hide in anymore," Clark said. "And why would he kill Myers?"
Lori was looking thoughtful. "Clark, here's another really wild idea. Myers didn't work for the people he said he worked for. What if it was a cover story? What if he was after our killer and the guy caught him by surprise?"
"You mean like a cop?"
"Maybe, or a detective, or something."
"But he hadn't killed anyone, yet."
"We don't know that, and even if he hadn't, maybe there was some other reason a law officer was after him."
Clark thought it over and nodded. "Okay, assuming you're correct, we need to try to confirm who Myers really was. See if Research has had any luck with the shuttle companies that had flights into Alta Mesa on Friday. I already found out from the manager that he checked in yesterday, so we can probably assume that he arrived here then, too."
Lori grinned. "On it, Boss. And, in case the company won't give it out, let's ask Ronnie if she can get Oliver to get it for us. Do you think he would?"
Clark couldn't help laughing. Lori had realized pretty fast, that Rhonda could get Oliver to do just about anything she asked if she had a good reason for it. She might not know that Police Inspector Oliver Brent was Rhonda's oldest son, the only child who hadn't inherited his mother's super powers, but she had figured out the rest.
"Good idea. They'll probably do things for an officer of the law that they won't do for a news service. Let's get on it."
"Any sign of your powers coming back yet?" Lori asked.
He shook his head. "My hearing is starting to pick up, like I told you before, but so far nothing else. It would be useful if they would, too. We could really use them right now."
"That's for sure," Lori said.
"Oh, and while you're doing that, I'm going to check with the local hospital to see if Pete might have been admitted as a John Doe. If he was mugged by 'the little skinny guy'…" He paused and added, quietly, "And, of course, I'll have to check the city morgue."
Calls to both local hospitals and the morgue turned up no unidentified men matching the picture that Clark sent them. Research had been unable to worm the information out of the shuttle companies. Clark contacted Rhonda Klein and explained the problem. She promised to contact Oliver at once and reply to them as soon as possible.
Margot Ryerson entered the lounge while Clark was speaking on the vidphone, his privacy screen on. She raised an eyebrow at Lori. "What's going on?"
"Clark's talking to a friend of ours with some connections," Lori said. "We're trying to get some information from the shuttle companies about their passenger list." In spite of the fact that Margot was Clark's friend — or at least a friendly rival, she amended — her reporter's instinct told her not to give away too much to anyone she didn't really know.
"Myers wasn't who he said he was," Lori said. "We're trying to figure out where he really came from and who he really was."
"Any ideas?" Margot asked.
Lori shrugged. "Guesses, that's all." She rubbed her face. "I've got a headache."
Clark shut off the phone. "Come on, Lori, let's go get some dinner. It's been a rough day. I think it's time you had a chance to relax."
Margot followed them out and headed for the bar. Happy hour was winding down, and people were drifting toward the restaurant. Clark guided her through the bar without pausing, one hand lightly on the small of her back, and Lori glanced up at him, mildly pleased at the gesture. "A little time to relax sounds nice. I just hope it's not followed by a bomb threat or something. We've had everything else, so far."
Clark made a face. "Don't even think about it."
"Maybe I should knock on wood," she said. "I didn't really think of conventions being like this."
"They usually aren't," Clark said. "I've been to a lot of them, and there's never been a murder at one before that I can remember. We did have an earthquake once, when I was in Istanbul, but it was only a little one."
Lori found herself giggling. Clark's sense of humor was certainly offbeat at times, but he knew how to take the tension out of a situation, even if only for a little while.
A short time later, they were seated in the same corner of the restaurant they had been in the night before, and Clark spoke quietly in Spanish to the hostess. The woman nodded and departed.
Lori directed Clark's attention to the doorway. "The man last night was standing next to that plant," she said. "You can see why I couldn't see his face."
"Too many shadows," Clark agreed. "Low lighting may be romantic, but it's definitely inconvenient for making out fine detail. Don't worry about it for now, though. There isn't much we can do until Rhonda gets back to us anyway. Do you know what you want to eat?"
A waiter appeared beside them, set two wineglasses on the table and presented a bottle to Clark for his inspection. He examined it and nodded. Lori watched in bemusement as Clark and the waiter engaged in the time-honored ritual that Lori had seen only a few times in fine restaurants before Clark solemnly approved the vintage, and the man filled their glasses.
"What's going on?" Lori asked.
Clark smiled. "Does anything have to be going on just because I want to treat my best friend to a nice dinner?"
She glanced uncertainly at him. Clark lifted his glass. "To friends."
She touched the rim of her glass to his and sipped the wine. Her eyes widened. "This is really good!"
"It's a favorite of mine," Clark said. "I thought it was appropriate for tonight."
He smiled. "Here comes our waiter. Have you decided?"
Clark deliberately kept the conversation light while they waited for their dinner. Soft music played in the background, and he watched as his partner relaxed under the influence of the low lights, wine and music. Lori had been on edge ever since her discovery of the body in Pete Swanson's room this morning. If they were going to have the time to talk a little later, he didn't want her so keyed up that she
reacted badly to what he had to tell her.
"Hi buddy! Long time no see!" Clark glanced up in mild irritation at the sound of the brash, cheerful voice. He saw Lori wince. The owner of the voice, Rob Braddock, had been a friendly rival of his for some years when he had lived in Europe. Rob was a free lance investigative journalist like he had been until recently. Clark made introductions. "Lori, this is Rob Braddock. Rob, my partner at the Daily Planet, Lori Lyons."
"Oh, yeah. Somebody said you'd gone to work at the Planet. Getting tired of free-lancing, huh?"
"Something like that."
"I heard the two of you stumbled over a big story this morning…"
"Rob," Clark said, "we've had a rough day. I'd rather not talk shop right now."
"Don't blame you. What happened to Pat? His name is on the schedule for tomorrow."
"Pat wound up in the hospital at the last minute," Clark said. "My editor assigned Ms. Lyons in his place."
Rob grinned. "Nice to meet you, Ms. Lyons."
Lori nodded and smiled mechanically at him. Clark said hastily, "Rob, we'll talk after dinner, okay? Lori and I need a little decompression time."
"Sure." Rob glanced at Lori and then back at Clark's face and suddenly seemed to catch on. "See you later, Clark."
After Rob had gone, Clark glanced at his partner. "After dinner, let's not hang around, okay? I'd just like to go back to our room and talk."
This time the smile was genuine. "I'd like that." She looked past him. "I think this is it coming now."
Dinner was, for once, undisturbed. When they finished, the waiter brought Lori a decadent chocolate confection that made her eyes light up. When the man had set it in front of her and departed, she looked at Clark with a smile.
"Was this your idea?"
"Of course," Clark said. "You looked as if you needed it."
"I did. You must have read my mind. You didn't did you?"
He shook his head. "We don't read each others' minds much. It's not easy, and it's considered rude. And I couldn't read yours if I wanted to. When one of us is very close to someone else, we can sometimes tell strong emotions, but that's all. You'll never have to worry about your mind's privacy from me, Lori."
"Can you tell my emotions?"
"Sometimes. When Gossett had you prisoner, I could tell you were afraid and in pain, but I couldn't communicate with you. I was able to tell direction, though, if not your exact location. That's why Rhonda and I arrived so quickly when you signaled. We were already on our way."
"Oh. I didn't think of that."
"I know. You weren't in any condition to do much thinking by the time we got there." He looked sober. "I came awfully close to giving him a taste of his own medicine. The only reason I didn't was that I knew what you'd think of me if I did. It was one of the few times I've ever come that close to doing something I'd regret."
She reached across the table and put her hand on top of his clenched one. "I'm glad my opinion means that much to you. I'm not sure I'm worth it."
He subdued a spark of anger for the mother who had so damaged her self confidence.
"Don't ever say that, Lori. You're worth more to me than you have any idea of. I just wish you'd stop undervaluing yourself."
He turned his hand over and slipped it around hers. "I know you think your sister is prettier than you are, and that your mom told you that you talk too much when you're nervous, as well as a lot of other things, most of them not true. Brad and I had a conversation about it the day after we caught Gossett and his goons. I want to tell you something. In my opinion, your sister doesn't hold a candle to you, and I like the way you talk when you get nervous. There isn't anything I don't like about you, except your habit of putting yourself down. Nobody puts down the woman I love."
Lori was staring at him, wide-eyed. "Clark…" She gulped, and even in the dim light, he could see her blinking back tears. "I've never heard anything so beautiful in my life." Again she gulped and gave a watery smile. "I guess love really is blind."
"Maybe." He released her hand. "Go ahead and eat that thing. I want to have that talk before something else happens."
They left the restaurant ten minutes later and made their way through the lobby toward the elevator. Lori looked at the grim expression on Clark's face and remembered what she had discovered a few days ago in Metropolis. Clark was about to do something that frightened him badly. He was going to tell her…something, and whatever it was he was afraid it would drive her away from him. That took courage and character; whatever he intended to tell her could, at least in his estimation, cost him something he had already made plain was precious to him — and yet he was going ahead with it because he felt it was necessary to be fair to her. Her welfare was more important than his own. Lori wasn't sure she wanted to hear it. Was it so important that she know whatever this awful secret was if it made her change her mind about him?
Clark glanced down at her and gave her a tight smile. "I thought this would be so simple," he said. "It's as hard as it was the first time."
"The first time?" Lori asked.
"Yeah." They came to a stop before the elevator and paused. "When I decided to explain the fact that I led a double life to…" He broke off as the elevator doors slid open and two persons emerged and headed toward the restaurant. Clark and Lori boarded.
"Second floor," Clark said.
"Your wife," Lori said.
"Yes, my wife." Clark smiled a little sadly. "It turned out that I was interrupted and she found out on her own. She was furious that I'd kept it from her for two years. She felt I'd made a fool of her; I think she was as angry with herself as she was at me, and she was as afraid of making a commitment as she was angry. Eventually we straightened it all out, though, and we were married."
"But I already know," Lori said. "I wasn't angry."
"It's not the same secret," Clark said. "You know the first part- -the fact that I'm, well, you know. The second part is a little harder to explain, but I can't let things go any farther without you knowing all of it."
The elevator braked to a halt on the second floor and they headed straight for their room. Clark opened the door with their electronic key, gestured Lori through and quietly hung the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.
"I don't care what people think," he said. "This time we're going to talk without interruptions."
Lori shrugged. "I don't care what they think, either. Everyone already thinks I'm sleeping with you. Most of the women and according to Margot at least two men are jealous. Besides, the only person who would care is my mom, and she's not here."
Clark smiled fractionally. "Good attitude. Lori, before we go any farther, I'd like you to remember that I'm not asking anything of you. If you feel like you can't handle this, you have every right to walk away, but I hope we can still be friends. If I have to, I can live with that."
"Clark — "
"But before you make any decision, pro or con, I'd like you to take at least a day to think over whatever choice you're going to make. I don't want you to ever be sorry you didn't make the other."
"Clark, you're scaring me. Nothing can be that bad."
"I hope not." He sat down on his bed and folded his hands in his lap. Lori sat down on her own bed, facing him. "You know I'm different from an ordinary human in several obvious ways."
"Well, there are several differences that aren't obvious. One in particular is what I'm worried about. How much difference can you live with?"
"What do you mean?" She frowned, trying to understand what he meant. "You're not saying that — physically — I mean, you look like a man."
"Huh?" Clark looked startled. "Oh, no. That's not it. Physically I look the same as any other guy."
Lori ducked her head. "Sorry. I thought you meant…"
"Lori, we Kryptonians have had children with human men and women. We look exactly the same as humans. But, besides our powers there's one big difference." He stopped, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "It's our molecular structure."
"Our molecular structure is dense. It slows the aging process to a crawl. I'm older than I look — a lot older."
"How much older?" she whispered.
"Physically, I'm what you see — a man of about twenty-nine or thirty. Lori, I'm Superman, but what you didn't know is that I'm not just a Superman. There's only ever been one — the original. I'm the Clark Kent who came to Earth from Krypton as a baby — in the year 1966."
For long minutes after he had finished speaking, Lori was absolutely silent. The silence stretched out for what seemed forever. Her face had lost color, but her expression was impossible to read, even for him. He had to fight the urge to reach out and take her hands, to beg her to say something, but he forced himself to remain silent until his nerves had stretched so thin he was sure they would snap.
"Are you angry with me?" he whispered.
She looked slowly down at the hands she had clasped tightly in her lap, then slowly up again to his face.
"No." The word was almost inaudible, and dismayed, he saw tears gathering in her eyes. "No. I wondered…but I didn't expect this."
"Lori, please don't cry. I can't stand to see you cry."
"Why did you fall in love with me, Clark?" she whispered. "My parents — my grandparents — were children when you were grown and married…even had children of your own. You're so far beyond me…"
"Lori, I'm not. I'm just a man who has the same hopes, dreams and feelings as any other man — including love." He reached out hesitantly to touch her hand, but she didn't pull away, and he took the hand in his. "'Why' isn't something I can answer. It just is."
A tear rolled down her cheek. "Your wife was Lois Lane, wasn't she? That's *your* picture at the Planet."
He nodded. "I missed her every day for over twenty years — until I met you."
"You'll outlive me, too, Clark."
"Maybe," Clark said, gently. "And maybe not." He was holding both her hands now. "Lori, I nearly died yesterday morning. It's because of you that I didn't. My entire family owes it to you that our secret wasn't revealed for the whole world to see, and all our lives ruined. I don't know what will happen tomorrow; none of us does, no matter who we are or how long we *expect* to live. However many years we have, I want to spend them with you, if you'll have me. I don't want to waste them." He felt her hands tighten slightly in his. "The number of years doesn't matter anyway, because they don't exist. All anyone ever has is *now*."
"It isn't fair," she said in a small voice. "I was going to get my career started, get myself established, and *then* maybe make time for marriage and a family. I never expected to fall in love with you."
His heart jumped but he kept his voice level. "Does that mean you'll consider it?"
"I can't *not* consider it," she said. Her voice broke and she began to cry in earnest. "Darn it, Clark! Why did I have to fall in love with you?"
He moved over to sit next to her. "I'm sorry, Lori."
She didn't answer. Hesitantly, he put out his arms and pulled her to him. She didn't resist. He held her and stroked her hair while her tears soaked his shirt, until the emotional storm blew itself out.
When the tears had subsided to an occasional sniffle and hiccup, he spoke again.
"Lori," he said quietly, "you don't have to make any decision now. Take as long as you need to work it out for yourself. I'll wait. I don't want you to ever regret anything you decide to do."
She nodded against his shoulder.
"But," Clark said softly, "if you do decide you'll have me, I promise you I'll never stop loving you, and I'll never leave you for as long as both of us live, unless you throw me out."
"I know." Her voice was muffled. "You're a good man, Clark."
She moved to free herself and he let her go at once. "Okay now?"
"Well, maybe not okay, but better." She gave him a shaky smile, and rose to her feet. "I need to wash my face. Thank you, Clark."
"For telling me the truth. I need time to think; you were right about that, but I promise that whatever happens, I'll never stop being your friend."
"I appreciate that." He subdued the desire to drop to his knees and beg her to make a decision in his favor right now. It was *her* welfare that mattered; he had to remember that, but he couldn't help the fear that gripped him at the thought that she might decide against him.
Lori splashed cold water on her face, then soaked a washrag in cold water and held it across her eyes. She really looked horrible right now, and she didn't want anyone to see her like this. Her sister and mother had always emphasized physical appearance in a woman; her mother had been a strikingly attractive woman in her twenties and thirties, and even now in her late fifties she still turned heads. Marcy took after her. Lori and Brad resembled their father, with their dark hair and brown eyes, a point frequently deprecated by Mariann Lyons. She didn't want Clark or anyone to see her looking this way with her eyes red and swollen and her nose running.
Clark. What was she going to do? Clark was Superman, the man from Krypton who had started the whole line of supermen. Every one of them was his descendent. He was the legendary Kal-El, the most honored of all the superheroes, who had fought his own people to save the Earth when the New Kryptonians had invaded a century ago. The story of that invasion was in the history books. When Superman had disappeared fifty years before, everyone had assumed that their hero was dead, and an enormous memorial had been erected in Metropolis to honor him. But he wasn't dead — he was sitting in their hotel room waiting for her to come back out. Why on Earth did he want *her*? And more importantly, how could she possibly live up to the standard of the woman who had been the mother of the new race of Kryptonian/humans whose avowed mission was to protect humanity?
And yet, for some reason, he did want her, and wanted her badly. She had seen the fear in his face when she walked away from him a few moments ago. Clark loved her, and she loved him, in spite of all the reasons it shouldn't have happened. The question was, could she live up to the challenge of being Superman's wife?
No, not Superman's wife, Clark Kent's. He was Clark first; he had made that abundantly clear. Superman was his way of being able to help, of using his incredible abilities without sacrificing his private life to public scrutiny every minute of every day.
Lori found herself staring into the mirror at her reddened eyes, and remembering what he had said to her earlier in the evening. "There isn't anything I don't like about you except your habit of putting yourself down."
For some reason, to him she was something special and unique. No one had ever made her feel that way before; even Brad hadn't gone so far as to say the things Clark had — after all, he was her brother, not the man who loved her and wanted to marry her. That was obviously Clark's intent. But was it a role she could fill? Was it something she even wanted?
There was a light knocking on the door. Clark's voice said, "Lori? Are you all right in there?"
She'd been in here for twenty minutes, she realized in surprise. "I'm all right, Clark." Her voice was steady, in spite of the knot that clenched in her stomach. She was going to have to go out and face him sometime — she wasn't going to make any life altering decision in here, that was for sure. "Let me just fix my makeup and I'll be right out."
When she emerged from the bathroom ten minutes later, she looked almost fearfully at him, but he hadn't changed. He didn't look like the demi-god who had been portrayed in the history books that she had read in school. He looked like Clark, a nice, ordinary (although incredibly good-looking, a sneaking corner of her mind interjected) — man who at the moment appeared very worried.
"Are you all right?" he asked again.
She nodded. "I'm all right, Clark. Are you?"
It was a lie. Clark didn't lie very well, and that was definitely one. She examined his face, seeing the lines of tension there, and her heart melted. Clark was as upset as she was, but he was determined not to pressure her. This might be the godlike Superman, but it was also Clark who had become her best friend, who had saved her life at least two or three times in the last six months, and who was putting her welfare ahead of his own no matter what it cost him. Certainly, he deserved some consideration.
"Clark, I think we should just go about our business like we were doing before," she said, suddenly. "We don't need to sit up here being uncomfortable with each other. I'll think a lot more clearly after I've had a while to digest all this, anyway. Let's go downstairs, talk to your friends and try to relax. What do you think?"
He gave a slight smile. "I think that's probably a good plan. Let's go."
Quite a number of the journalists had gathered in the bar since they had been upstairs. Lori saw Margot eyeing her knowingly, and was surprised to find that it didn't bother her in the least. Let Margot think what she wished. It wasn't important beside the momentous decision that faced Lori. She let Clark get her a non- alcoholic drink and sipped it as he introduced her to journalists she had not met the night before, and exchanged small talk with them. Angelo, the bartender, and two of his assistants were busy serving drinks; she didn't envy him his job, she thought. On the other hand, he seemed to enjoy conversing with his customers and she had found him to be a friendly and gregarious person when she had spoken to him earlier, so maybe this was the kind of job he enjoyed. Tending bar in a nice hotel, after all, must be far superior to the same position in some of the seedier sections of Metropolis.
"Ms. Lyons?" It was one of the young women carrying a tray of drinks. "Angelo asked me to tell you he remembered something else. Would you go to the bar, please?"
"Sure." Lori excused herself to Clark and crossed the room to where the bartender was pouring a drink for a customer. The man nodded to her.
"I'll be right with you," he said. He turned and filled a beer mug, set it in front of a tall, lanky man, collected the money and turned his station over to an assistant. He beckoned Lori over to the end of the bar.
"I've been thinking about the little skinny guy," he said, "trying to remember something about him, like you asked. There wasn't a whole lot — he was one of those people who kind of fade into the background, you know? He was barely taller than you, though, a little prissy kind of guy, maybe sixty or so. That's mostly what I remember about him."
"Do you remember any particular features or anything?" Lori asked. "Any scars, eye color, anything?"
Angelo squinted into the distance, obviously making a real effort to recall. "I'm not sure; he kept his face down mostly, but I think his eyes were blue. I don't remember any scars, though. I'm sorry I can't help any more than that."
Lori shook her head. "Don't be. That's more than we had before. Thanks."
"Don't mention it." Angelo's smile flashed. "Glad I could help."
Lori glanced around the room. Clark was standing in a corner speaking to Rob. The information could wait, she thought. Nothing was going to happen in the next few minutes. She glanced around, looking for a place to sit down where she could think in private. There was an empty booth in the far corner, and she made her way quietly toward it.
She slid into the seat, making herself as inconspicuous as possible and sat back, watching her partner from a distance. He stood in a circle of men and women who were laughing and talking, but he wasn't laughing. He smiled occasionally, but the smile seemed forced to Lori, although no one else appeared to notice anything wrong. He answered someone's question, and there was a general laugh among the others. One of the men clapped him on the shoulder and turned away toward the bar. She frowned as she realized what she was seeing. In spite of his obvious popularity with his colleagues, Clark was oddly alone. But he hadn't seemed that way when he had been with her.
Her wrist talker beeped softly, and she touched the little button at the bottom to activate it. "Lori Lyons."
"Lori, it's Rhonda."
"Rhonda?" The woman must be relaying through at least four booster stations to reach her via wrist talker, and the connection was riddled with static. "Is that really you?"
"Yes." Rhonda's voice was terse. "Old Hurricane Harry is really kicking up a fuss where you are. Oliver had to pull special priority to get me through. Just listen. We could lose the connection any second. He got the information for you. Myers was a passenger on Western Shuttle Lines. He boarded in Metropolis, and arrived in Alta Mesa at five-thirty yesterday. You were right; he doesn't work for Mechtel Corporation. His company paid for his shuttle ticket and his reservation at La Mesa Grande, but the reservation wasn't made until after he arrived in Alta Mesa. He works for Metropolis United Insurance Company, as an insurance investigator." The last word trailed off, and Rhonda's voice was drowned in static.
An insurance investigator. Lori thought about the information Rhonda had given her, turning the facts over in her mind. They should be telling her something, she thought. There was a pattern here and it wasn't a pretty one. An insurance investigator for Metropolis United Insurance had come to Alta Mesa and had been murdered. Last night, someone had tried to assault her in the hallway outside the lounge. Pete Swanson had left the bar in the company of a skinny little man with blue eyes and never been seen again, and the murdered man had turned up in his room. Less and less did she believe that it was simply a coincidence. There was some common thread here, if she could just see it.
Metropolis United was the company that insured the Westhaven diamonds. Pete Swanson had been investigating a ring of jewel thieves. Was that a connection? She didn't know, but she and Clark had been reporting on the theft of the diamonds, and a ring was still missing. The common thread here seemed to be jewels.
But why would anybody assault her? And who was the mysterious little man who might be their murderer?
The answer hit her suddenly, almost breathtaking in its simplicity, and with it what was very possibly the solution to their mystery. Suppose — just suppose — that someone had been afraid the police, investigating him for the possible theft of the missing Westhaven ring, would discover it in his possession, and he had known that she and Clark were leaving the country for a few days. Clark could have easily mentioned it to him when he made the appointment for them to meet him that morning for breakfast and an interview. And she had been terribly distracted for a few vital minutes…
Lori's eyes fell on her purse. She had discovered the torn seam that afternoon and been annoyed that her brand new purse had already developed a tear in the seam. But what if it hadn't been shoddy manufacture? It shouldn't have been. The bag Brad and Sharon had given her was expensive and of good quality.
Lori opened her purse and ran a hand down inside, pawing through various items and felt in the bottom. Under the lining was a distinctive lump.
Casually, she withdrew her hand and fastened the catch of the bag securely. Feeling as if she was carrying a hot coal, she slung the purse onto her shoulder and, gripping the strap tightly, stood up. Where was Clark? He had been there before Rhonda's call, but now he wasn't anywhere in sight.
She looked around, trying to spot him. Clark wasn't in the room. Where had he gone?
"Lori!" Margot called. She appeared at the table, a drink in one hand. "We still have to talk, honey! I wanted to hear all about it!"
"Margot, where did Clark go?" Lori asked urgently.
"He went looking for you," Margot said. "I figured maybe you were trying to avoid him, so I didn't tell him you were over here. What's the matter? Did you two fight?"
"No, I just have a headache. Too much wine," she improvised. "I'm not used to drinking much. I need to find Clark. I want to go back to my room and lie down."
"Okay. He went out into the hall," Margot said. "Come on, we can probably catch him."
Together the two women hurried out of the bar. There was no one in the hall but a bellboy, who disappeared through the door to the lobby at the same instant she noticed him. Lori looked around. "I don't see him."
Something cylindrical and cold pressed into her back: the muzzle of a stunner. Margot said, "Don't look back, sweetie. Head straight down that hall. There's an elevator for the hotel staff at the end. Don't do anything stupid and you might live through this."
Clark glanced around the crowded, dimly lighted room, lamenting the loss of his enhanced vision. Music blared from hidden speakers on the walls, and the chatter of conversation was loud in his ears. Where was Lori? She had gone to the bar ten minutes ago and had not returned.
He excused himself from the circle of other journalists and moved to the bar, scanning the room as well as he could in the low lights. There was no sign of his partner.
Angelo, the bartender, was mixing a drink, and one of his assistants approached Clark. "What'll it be?"
"I need to speak to Angelo," Clark explained. "It's urgent."
The assistant raised an eyebrow, but nodded. "I'll tell him."
While Clark waited, he drummed his fingers restlessly on the counter. The assistant spoke to Angelo, his voice inaudible to Clark over the noise of many voices and the blare of the music. The bartender nodded.
Clark looked around again. It was possible that Lori had just gone to visit the powder room, but the fact that she had been so upset, and the unexplained attack last night warred in his mind. Whether she chose to accept or reject him was immaterial at the moment. What did matter was her physical safety, as long as the assault of the night before remained unexplained.
"You wanted to talk to me?" Angelo was standing before him.
"Yes. I'm Clark Kent — Ms. Lyons' partner. She was just speaking with you. Did you see where she went?"
"Yeah. She went over to sit in the corner booth over there." He pointed. "Looks like she's gone now, though."
She had been sitting in the booth. Clark scanned the area once more. Two figures were moving toward the door, and even in the low light, he recognized Margot, with Lori's shorter figure at her side. Quickly, he started after them, but they vanished through the opening seconds before he could reach them.
Clark shouldered his way through the crowd. Something wasn't right. Why should Lori leave the bar with Margot? She had wanted to avoid being alone with the woman. Margot hadn't been exactly subtle in her desire to worm any juicy details of their sexual relationship out of his partner, and he was well aware that Margot's obsession with every possible salacious detail would not allow her to accept a denial of any such relationship from Lori. Lori must know it, too.
He reached the door in time to see them turn left down a hall that branched away from the main corridor, apparently having ignored the entrance to the lobby directly across from the bar. That was odd. That hall led to the parts of the hotel frequented by staff and management of the establishment, according to the floor plan he had studied in the lobby. Something most definitely wasn't right. All his instincts said so, and tugging persistently at the back of his mind was a strange feeling that he recognized- -it was the part of his telepathic ability that picked up the strong emotions of his soul mate. Lori was scared.
Instinct told him to rush to her rescue, but common sense triumphed. He didn't know exactly what was going on, but it couldn't be good. If he went barreling into the situation, he could conceivably make things worse. He moved quietly after them, ready to charge Margot if she made any move to harm the younger woman.
"Where are we going?" He could just make out Lori's voice, strained with fear.
Margot's voice was casual. "To see someone who wants to meet you."
"Because you have something that belongs to us. Move!"
What did Margot mean by that? His hearing was definitely coming back; he could hear Lori's heartbeat faintly, light and fast, but when he tried to float, nothing happened. His hearing had always tended to come back before his other powers after exposure to Kryptonite, he recalled, although he hadn't been exposed to the stuff in over ninety years. He couldn't count on any of his powers this time; that was becoming very obvious. It was going to have to be human ingenuity and human ability, and if any of his other powers came back in time, it would be an unexpected bonus.
The elevator door opened and Margot pushed Lori into it. Clark ducked into the stairwell seconds later and ran up the stairs as fast as he could, heedless of the noise, but his progress was painfully slow to a man used to super speed, and he didn't know on which of the hotel's three floors Margot's room was located. Of course, that might not be where they were headed, but Margot was taking Lori to see someone, and their "little skinny guy" had to be hiding somewhere, assuming he was the one Lori was being taken to see. Of course, this might not be connected to the murder at all, but Clark didn't believe in this kind of coincidence. Somehow, whatever it was that Lori was supposed to have that they wanted was connected to the murder of Tom Myers, the disappearance of Pete Swanson, and the assault on Lori last night.
He paused at the landing and peered out of the small window set in the door. There was no sign of Lori and Margot, and he was just about to start up the remaining flight when he heard the faint 'ding' of the elevator. The doors slid open, and the two women emerged.
From this angle, he could see that Margot held a stunner pressed firmly to Lori's spine, directly between the shoulder blades. He swallowed. Stunners were designed to temporarily jar the nervous system and render a target unconscious, but they were not completely harmless, at least in certain circumstances. A maximum stun blast right against the spine had been known to cause spinal trauma, and although modern science could repair damaged nerves and spinal tissue, an injury to that portion of the spine could cause her death from asphyxiation before help could arrive. He wasn't about to risk Lori's life like that unless there was no other choice.
He forced himself to remain absolutely still until they had passed beyond his range of vision, then eased the door open a crack. Lori and Margot were just rounding the corner far down the hall to the left. He waited until they had disappeared, pushed the door open and followed.
When he rounded the corner, they had disappeared, but on the floor, as if dropped and kicked carelessly aside, was Lori's handbag. He scooped it up one handed without pausing, and hurried to the next corner, but there was no sign of them. Clark stopped and listened.
Lori's heartbeat was distinctive to him; he could have distinguished it from among a thousand others. It came from behind him. Clark retraced his steps, listening carefully as he passed each door. There it was.
There were three heartbeats in the room, Lori's, Margot's and a third that seemed familiar. Then a man's voice spoke, and in a flash, he recognized it.
David Merrick. Clark's hands balled into fists, as a great part of the mystery they had been trying to unravel grew suddenly clear. Trying to look as innocent as possible, should someone pass by, he stood in the hall, listening.
Margot herded Lori down the hall toward the elevator. She didn't resist. Her chances of escape were slim, and getting shot by a stunner in the back was not appealing. Even if it didn't seriously injure her, it would be unpleasant, and the aftereffects were said to be very uncomfortable.
Where was Clark? What she wouldn't give to have him appear on the scene right now! Unfortunately, she had hidden from him and he had gone looking for her. She was going to have to try to talk her way out of this, or at least confuse things as much as she could. One thing she didn't do easily was give up. At least she had information that Margot couldn't know she knew. She had no illusions about this. If, as she now suspected, the "little skinny guy" was David Merrick, he and possibly Margot had already killed at least one man. Killing her wouldn't make the penalty any worse than it already was.
She had one hope. Clark had said he could feel intense emotions from her. Maybe, just maybe he would be able to tell that something was wrong, and would come looking for her. It was a thin thing to base a hope on, but it was all she had.
The elevator opened within a second of their arrival, and Margot herded her in.
"Second floor," she said.
"Where are we going?" Lori asked. "Why don't you just ask me for whatever you think I have? I don't take things that belong to other people, and neither does Clark."
"Be quiet," Margot said. "Has anybody ever told you that you talk too much?"
"Yes," Lori said. "My mother."
"She was right. Just shut up."
"Okay," Lori said. She fell silent, trying to decide what to do next. The ring was in the bottom of her purse, but did Margot know that? If she did, wouldn't she have shown more interest in the handbag? Why was Margot helping Merrick, if that was who was behind this? How did she even *know* him?
There was, as Clark had said, much more to this than met the eye.
There was the group of international jewel thieves Margot had spoken about earlier. They did exist, Lori knew. She remembered reading about them while she and Clark had been in the middle of the Mayflower investigation. What a spot for Margot, if she were a member of the group! An investigative journalist, with perfectly legitimate reasons to go from country to country without any questions being asked. She would make a perfect courier for stolen jewels. But Merrick…if he had stolen the ring, and Lori was now certain he had, and planted it on her to get it out of the country…
Assuming that she was right, Merrick's whole set of actions had been strange if he was trying to smuggle out a fabulously expensive piece of jewelry for them. If the theft of the ring had been for this group, why had he used *her* for a courier? Anything could have happened to the ring; she and Clark could have discovered it, for one thing. It seemed like a very chancy thing to do. Wouldn't they have used one of their regular couriers? And would someone in his position attend to the actual recovery of a piece of smuggled jewelry personally, or would he simply alert his bosses so another member of the gang could take care of that part? It certainly seemed to make more sense that way.
So, maybe, just maybe, Merrick was in this for himself.
So, why was Margot helping him? Especially since she didn't seem to know that the ring was in the bottom of Lori's bag.
Lori's mind was racing, stringing together a few half-formed ideas that all of a sudden made a terrible sense. She was coldly afraid, but it didn't seem to affect her ability to think. What if Margot didn't know that Merrick meant to double cross his bosses and keep the ring for himself, perhaps to disappear and retire in luxury to some country that had no extradition treaty with the United States — even if anyone could ever find him? He might have recruited her to reclaim the ring he had hidden in Lori's purse, but if what she was guessing at was true, that meant Margot's life expectancy would be almost as short as her own promised to be.
And he might not have told Margot where he had hidden the ring. It didn't seem likely that he would trust another person, even a supposed ally, with that information. Somehow, 2.7 million dollars or not, she had to get rid of it. Once Merrick got what he wanted, he had no more reason to keep her or Margot alive.
The elevator braked to a stop and the door slid open. Margot nudged her with the muzzle of the stunner between the shoulder blades. "Out. Walk straight down the hall until you get to the first intersection and turn left."
Meekly, and very conscious of the stunner muzzle pressed between her shoulder blades, Lori obeyed. For a brief moment she almost felt as if someone were watching her, but dismissed it as imagination. If only Clark had realized that she was in trouble and would come to help!
Another thought struck her, and she was briefly glad that he didn't know. Clark had no super powers right now. He would be as vulnerable as she to any weapons Margot and Merrick had between them. There was no doubt whatsoever in her mind that he would do everything in his power to protect her, which meant he would very likely get himself seriously hurt or killed. This way, if she didn't manage to get away, he might mourn her but he would survive. Above all, she didn't want Clark to fall prey to this murderous duo, not even if it would save her life. She loved him far too much for that.
It was a revelation, although it hadn't come to her the way she'd wanted it to.
As they rounded the corner, she shifted the purse off her shoulder and gripped it in front of her.
"Uh uh," Margot said. "Don't even think about it, sweetie. You're too anxious to hit people with that thing."
Lori dropped it on the floor of the hallway. "Were you the one I hit?"
Margot laughed shortly. "No, but I know what you did to David. He's not happy with you."
Lori didn't answer. She'd pushed the subject just about as far as she thought was safe.
"Stop," Margot said. "Knock three times, stop and knock twice."
Lori obeyed, and after a few seconds the door opened. Before her stood a little man with bright, blue eyes. On his head, he wore a white bandage stained with dried blood. David Merrick stood back, a tight, prim smile on his lips. "Come in, Ms. Lyons. Please shut the door behind you."
Lori entered the hotel room, her eyes riveted on his face. She was about to embark on the biggest bluff of her life. All she could do was to stall and hope that something would happen that would allow her to get away. "Merrick, " she said, softly. "So it *is* you. Clark and I thought it might be when we found the ring."
The little man's face hardened. "You *found* it?"
"This afternoon," Lori said. "It was in my purse, under the lining. You put it there that morning at the Green Gourmet, didn't you?"
Merrick didn't answer. "Where is it?"
"In the hotel safe," Lori said. "Well out of your reach. As soon as communications clear, Clark is going to call his friend Superman to take it back to Metropolis."
"Well, then, we'll have to get it back before then, won't we?" Merrick said.
Lori's heart was pounding suffocatingly in her chest, but she wasn't going to show him any fear. "And what are you going to do after you get it — if you can figure out *how* to get it? I'm sure you're going to kill me, but how about Margot?"
Margot laughed. "Sweetie, don't be an idiot."
"I'm not," Lori said. "He's planning to keep the ring, Margot, don't you see? He wouldn't have stuck it in my purse in the first place, and he wouldn't be here personally trying to get it back from Clark and me if it was just business as usual. Think about it for a minute! How many people have been killed over ten dollars, much less for 2.7 million dollars? Nobody else but you, Clark and I know the whereabouts of the ring. If we're all dead, who's going to know?"
For an instant, doubt flickered on Margot's face. Then Merrick laughed.
"A very nice scenario, Ms. Lyons," he said. "Ms. Ryerson knows what happens to persons who betray our organization. I wouldn't be such a fool." He turned to Margot. "We're going to have to find Kent. He'll get the ring for us if he thinks it will save Ms. Lyons. Can you do it?"
Margot nodded. "Sure, I can."
"Then go ahead. I'll take care of Ms. Lyons here. We need her alive until we have the item. After that, she becomes a liability."
"I suppose you betrayed Pete Swanson, too," Lori said. "It must be nice to know what sort of person you really are, underneath. How many deaths are on your conscience, Margot, or don't you have one? Is this what you became an investigative journalist for?"
Merrick held out his hand for the stunner. "No one is listening to you, Ms. Lyons, so I recommend you save your breath," he said. He took the stunner and gestured with it. "Sit down in that armchair, where I can watch you. I have no hesitation in using this, so unless you wish to wake up with a severe headache, you will not resist." He added quite casually, "Do you know, Ms. Lyons, the result of the repeated firing of a stunner at close range? The cumulative effect is brain damage. I won't need to kill you. Of course, by then you won't care, so it would be best if you behave."
Lori moved to the chair and sat down. "Is that what you did to Pete Swanson?"
Merrick ignored her. "Go, Ms. Ryerson. The sooner we conclude this business the better."
Outside the room, Clark listened in growing horror to the conversation. Lori was spinning a tale he could have appreciated if the situation had not been so serious. If he had had his super powers, there would be no problem; he could have burst into the room and even if Lori were hit by a stun beam, a normal one would be relatively harmless, barring one from inches away. The worst she would have to face would be the post stunner headache and nausea that inevitably followed such an event. But if he charged in there now, all he would be doing would be delivering himself into the hands of the enemy without helping Lori in the least. He was as vulnerable to a stunner as she.
He knew Lori had to be lying; they had not found any ring at all. Of course, he had not heard the beginning of the conversation, so he didn't know where the ring was supposed to be, but considering that David Merrick was here, he must have planted it on Lori somewhere, at some time and the only chance seemed to be the time at the Green Gourmet. What had Lori had with her that would be a safe place of concealment for a tiny item like a ring?
He looked down at the purse that Lori had dropped in the hallway. Why had she discarded it? Was it possible? This was the only item she had brought with her that she had had in her possession that day, and it certainly filled the bill. Could she have discovered something during the short period they had been separated in the bar?
He heard Merrick's command to Margot and the words spurred him to action. Quickly he strode to the corner of the hallway and ducked around it. He could search Lori's purse later; right now he definitely didn't want Margot to see him while she was still within hearing of David Merrick.
He heard the door open and close, and then Margot's distinctive footsteps came down the hallway toward him. He glanced around.
No one was in sight, although that could change any minute. How could he explain this to Security in time to save Lori? If Merrick became too desperate, what would he do? The man was clearly ruthless. Lori was merely a tool for him to use to complete his plan. Her life meant no more to him than the life of Tom Myers, whom he or Margot had killed. As Lori had said, 2.7 million dollars was a real incentive to kill someone. He didn't want that someone to be Lori. There was, however, one possible chance to get her out of this unharmed.
Margot's footsteps came closer. Clark flattened himself against the wall. His hearing was tuned to any sound that might indicate the approach of someone. There were a few people in some of the rooms nearby, but it seemed that the majority of them were empty. Probably most of the journalists were downstairs socializing in the bar and lounge.
Assaulting a woman went against the grain, but it was Lori's life that was at stake here. To save her, there was very little he wouldn't do. He drew the line at killing, but assault was another matter. As Margot turned the corner, Clark grabbed her.
Margot struck expertly at him, but he blocked her as expertly, silently thanking Ching for teaching him Kryptonian combat techniques all those years ago. He was stronger than he expected; perhaps his strength was beginning to come back as well, but only slightly. He pinned Margot's hands behind her and smothered her instinctive scream with one hand. Margot bit him, and he gritted his teeth against the pain. No, he definitely wasn't invulnerable yet.
"Hold still!" he whispered sharply.
Margot rolled her eyes toward him and suddenly stopped struggling.
"If you scream, I'm going to turn you in to Security right now," Clark told her, in no uncertain terms. "I don't think they'll have any doubts about you for long, with Lori as Merrick's prisoner."
Jerkily, Margot nodded. Clark removed his hand, ready to clap it over her mouth again, but she didn't make a sound. Clark regarded her coldly.
"I saw what you did to Lori, and I overheard you and Merrick in there," he said. "I swear to you, Margot, if Lori gets hurt because of this there won't be a spot on the Earth that's safe for you."
"You can't prove I'm involved," Margot said.
"I don't need to," Clark said. "Once the suspicion's been raised, I'm sure an investigation will tell us all we need to know. If your bosses are anything like Mr. Merrick implied, you know where that will put you. You'll be a loose end." He paused to let her digest that. "And you should realize that Lori was probably right, anyway. Merrick's going to keep the ring and you, Lori and I are all liabilities. Your organization may not look kindly on that sort of behavior, but if you're dead and they never find out, what will it matter to him? Either way, you're finished, Margot."
Margot was silent a moment, then she seemed to gather her nerve. "We want the ring," she said. "You're the only one that can get it for us. If you want to see Ms. Lyons again, you'll do what you're told."
"I heard what Merrick said. He has no intention of letting her go." Clark shook his head in disgust. "What happened to you, Margot? Where is the idealistic investigative journalist I used to know? You can't even be the same person if you'd allow this to happen to an innocent young woman. She's barely twenty-one; she has her whole life in front of her, and you're willing to let her die over a piece of jewelry."
Margot didn't answer. Clark considered. Calling for super help was out unless one of his telepathic relatives was passing within a couple of hundred miles or so. He'd attempted to make contact with any one of them several times and gotten no response. He could call Security, but valuable time would be wasted explaining and convincing the authorities that there really was a crisis. Not to mention, a hostage situation — with untrained negotiators — wasn't exactly guaranteed to get Lori out of there in one piece.
He slung Lori's bag over his shoulder. "Come on," he said.
"I want to talk to Mr. Merrick." He pushed her toward the room, gripping both her wrists behind her back with one hand.
"Ow!" Margot said. "Watch it, Kent! You don't know your own strength!"
He raised an eyebrow, but loosened his grip very slightly. "You're not going to get away, Margot. And you're not going to get the ring if you don't do exactly as I say." With his free hand, he seized the doorknob, twisted it and pushed the door open. "Mr. Merrick?"
Merrick's head whipped around and for a second Clark saw shock on his face, then he rose to his feet. Lori's wrists had been tied in front of her and a rope looped around her chest and another around her waist bound her to the chair. Merrick stood in front of her, facing the two intruders. Clark saw that he held the stunner in one hand, aimed directly at him. A long-bladed butcher knife lay on the table beside Lori's chair — quite possibly the weapon that had been used to murder Tom Myers. It would have been very easy, a macabre corner of his mind considered, for Merrick to stab the man once he'd been stunned.
"Mr. Kent," Merrick said. "I trust Ms. Ryerson conveyed my demands to you."
"More or less," Clark said. He shoved Margot into the room ahead of him, kicked the door shut behind him and let Lori's bag slither down his arm to the floor. "And the answer is 'no'."
"I see. You realize, of course, the consequences to Ms. Lyons if you fail to obey."
"I realize the consequences to her if I give you what you want," Clark said. "I'm here to make a different deal."
Lori was looking directly at him. Her gaze flicked to the bag then moved up to fasten on his face. Her lips moved to shape his name but no sound emerged. He moved another step closer, holding Margot's wrists tightly.
Merrick looked nonplused for a moment, then picked up the butcher knife. "What sort of deal?"
"A trade," Clark said quietly. "Me for her. I'll be your hostage, and she can get you your ring."
"Clark, no!" Lori burst out.
Clark shook his head at her and pushed Margot forward another couple of steps. "That's the deal, Merrick," he said. "Take it or leave it."
"No closer, Mr. Kent," Merrick said. He rested the knife against Lori's cheek. "I wouldn't want to cause unnecessary damage to Ms. Lyons' appearance."
Clark stopped. "Let her go," he said.
Merrick chuckled. "And have you refuse to fulfill your part of the bargain once she's free?" he asked. "I propose a trade. Bring me the ring, and I will release her."
"I guess we're at a stalemate," Clark said. "The ring stays where it is until Lori walks out of this room unhurt."
Merrick blinked at him. "Don't be foolish, Mr. Kent."
"Foolish?" Clark said. "Not at all. We can stand here for a long time debating this and get nowhere. I want Lori out of this, and that's the only demand I make. You can have your ring — as soon as she's safe."
The two men stared at each other across the seven feet of space separating them. Suddenly Merrick nodded. "Very well." I'll release Ms. Lyons. I hold her here until you're tied in the chair. Then Ms. Lyons will go with Margot to retrieve the ring from the hotel safe." He lowered the knife. "Does that satisfy you, Mr. Kent?"
"She goes first," Clark said. "And she goes alone. You're holding the stunner; I can hardly escape. Otherwise no deal." He shifted his weight cautiously, still gripping Margot's hands. "Cut her free, now, and let her go."
Merrick smiled. "You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Kent. What if I choose to decline?"
Clark didn't answer directly. With all his strength, he shoved Margot straight at Merrick, in a direct line between himself and the stunner.
Margot careened against Merrick, and Clark landed on the two of them hard, one hand striking at Merrick's knife hand. With or without powers, he was still heavier than a human man, and he heard the breath whoosh out of Margot in a long, agonized grunt. Merrick had dropped the knife, but the stunner rose and fell, striking Clark's shoulder in a paralyzing blow. He cried out at the pain, and his left arm dropped helplessly, completely numb. Merrick tried to follow up on his advantage, striking at Clark's face with the heavy little weapon, but with his good hand, Clark grabbed for the stunner, striving to immobilize it, and realized at the same instant that Margot was groping for the butcher knife.
Lori's foot came within his range of vision, and she kicked the weapon across the rug, out of reach.
Merrick's finger contracted on the firing stud; he heard the whine of the stun beam, and felt it brush him like a breath of ice along one cheek. The part of his body that it touched should have instantly gone numb, he should have fallen unconscious, but nothing happened. Why it hadn't stunned him, he didn't understand, but he didn't pause. He seized the stunner one handed, wrenched it free and hurled it away. Something smashed in the background. Margot's fist struck him across the cheekbone and he saw stars, then suddenly the woman was slumping beneath him. With only one adversary left, Clark seized the much smaller man's flailing left hand and pinned it to the floor. Avoiding Merrick's right hand, which was clawing at his eyes, he rolled his struggling opponent over onto his face. His own left hand and arm were full of pins and needles and nearly useless, but he planted a knee in Merrick's back, breathing hard. The little man writhed furiously if uselessly, spitting obscenities, all his previous decorum abandoned.
"Clark, are you all right?" Lori's voice sounded slightly constricted, and he looked up to see her wiggling against the ropes that bound her to the armchair.
"Yeah. Just winded. Can you get out of those?"
"Now that he's not standing over me, I can!"
As he watched, she wormed her way under the cord that held her upper torso to the back of the chair, using her bound hands to force it over her head. She scooted downward, squirming lower and lower in the seat and, with a certain amount of contortion, slid out of the remaining rope. She dropped instantly to her knees beside him. "Are you sure you're okay? Margot hit you!"
"I'm all right," he said again. "What happened to her? I didn't do anything to her."
"I know. I did." Lori got to her feet and hurried to the vidphone on the opposite wall. With her bound hands, she punched the red emergency button with unnecessary force. "When I saw her hit you I was so mad I kicked her in the jaw."
"Oh. Good job." He found himself laughing, albeit a little breathlessly. The pins and needles in his left arm had not subsided, and the limb hung uselessly at his side. "I hope Security hurries. This is going to be a lot of fun to explain…"
Lori sank down onto the floor beside him and leaned against him, resting her face on his shoulder. "I hope it doesn't take too long. I've got a few things to say to you. I've been an idiot, Clark."
"No, you haven't," he said, softly. "Not ever. I love you, Lori. Haven't I told you not to put down the woman I love?"
"Yeah," Lori said. Clark saw her look down at David Merrick. The little man had stopped struggling and now lay still, glaring balefully up at them. "And I think I finally realize how much."
After they had given their stories to the Security personnel, Lori and Clark were confined to their room until the police could arrive to investigate the whole mess, whenever that might be, and neither minded particularly. When the door closed behind them, Lori walked straight to Clark and put her arms around him, burying her face in his shoulder. With a certain amount of care for his left arm, which seemed to have been only badly bruised, Clark wrapped his arms around her as well.
"Clark, I'm so sorry," Lori said. "I should have realized right away…"
"No, you shouldn't have," Clark said. "You had every right to be upset. Someday I'll tell you what happened when Lois discovered that I'd been fooling her for two years with a pair of glasses."
She gave a shaky laugh, and he realized all at once that she was crying. "Lori? Honey, what's wrong?"
"Nothing." She hugged him tighter. "It just scares me to think what I could have lost."
"Well, you didn't. And more important, I didn't lose you. Come on. Let's sit down over here. Much as I enjoy hugging you, I'm getting a cramp in my shoulder."
"Oh! I should have thought!" She released him at once. "Is your arm any better?"
"Some." He sank down on his bed, and Lori seated herself beside him. He took her hands in his. "It will be fine when my powers come back. Are *you* sure you're okay?" He ran a forefinger over the faint bruises on her wrists where the rope Merrick had tied her with had been.
She nodded. "Nothing that won't heal. Do you think they'll let us go?"
"Yeah. Merrick was already under suspicion for theft in Metropolis, remember, and there's all the other evidence besides. And, you gave them the ring. I think they'll believe us all right."
"That's good. I don't like the idea of going to jail for something Merrick did." Her hands squeezed his. "Clark, was I imagining things, or did he fire that stunner at you during the fight?"
Clark shook his head. "You weren't imagining things. It just didn't seem to have any effect. I'm not really sure that I understand why, either. I wasn't invulnerable. Margot hit me right after that, and it hurt. The only reason I can think of that it didn't work is that I'm not human."
Lori's eyes widened. "I'll bet that's it! Stunners are supposed to affect human nervous systems, and yours isn't!"
He looked at her with a touch of misgiving. "Does it matter to you, Lori — that I'm not even part human?"
"Of course not! If you were, we'd both be in a lot of trouble right now." She leaned forward to slide her arms around him and to lay her head against his chest. Automatically, he rested his head atop hers and closed his eyes. Lori pulled him closer. "I love you, Clark," she said. "I don't think I could ever love anybody else. I want to spend my life with you — if you really want me."
"No putting yourself down, remember," Clark said. "Not anymore." He smiled into her hair. "Is it a deal?"
"It's a deal," Lori said. She straightened up and looked into his face, a puzzled expression on hers. "I'm having the strangest feeling of déjà vu. Like I've done all this before, somewhere."
"Maybe you have," Clark said softly. "Maybe I asked you this in a previous lifetime."
"Asked me what?"
He slipped from his seat on the bed to kneel at her feet. "Will you marry me, Lori?"
She looked completely taken aback for a split second, and then her face broke into a smile. "Yes, Clark, I will."
The Daily Planet newsroom had never looked so good to Lori. They had arrived in Metropolis on Monday evening via Superman Express, after a side trip to Paris and a jewelry store Clark knew. Now, walking into work, she looked down at the glittering stone on her hand, wondering just what to do with it. She felt conspicuous, but at the same time, she wanted to show it off, to let the world know that Clark had given it to her. She looked up at Clark, walking at her side and caught him smiling at her.
"What?" she asked.
"Nothing," he said. "I just like looking at you."
She felt her face growing warm. Clark could definitely be good for a girl's ego. Her gaze swung to the picture of Clark and Lois Lane on the wall by the elevator. It still gave her an odd déjà vu-like feeling, but at least part of it was explained now.
"Clark! Lori!" John's voice sounded over the early morning chatter of people getting themselves organized. "In my office, now!"
"Oops," Clark murmured. "Nothing like a yell from the boss first thing in the morning."
They crossed the Pit to John's office and Clark let Lori precede him, closing the door behind him. "Yeah, John?"
John turned from the vidphone and looked them over. "Can't the two of you go anywhere without stirring up a fuss?" he inquired.
"Fuss?" Clark said, innocently. "I thought you liked the exclusive we sent you."
John grinned. "Actually, I do," he said. "Good work, both of you. At least Lori didn't wind up with a black eye this time." He dropped into his chair. "I thought you'd like to hear, Swanson's paper called to let you know he's going to be all right. Did anyone ever figure out how he wound up in somebody's house in the town with a big lump on his head?"
"Nothing anyone can prove," Clark said. "He told Superman the last thing he remembered was sitting in the bar talking to Merrick. We think Merrick took him outside, slugged him and left him in an alley. It was a good thing somebody found him and took him home before the storm really got going, or he'd have been dead. It was nice of his paper to call us. We were kind of worried."
"Yeah," John said. "I notice that a story isn't the only thing you brought home from Alta Mesa." He nodded at Lori's hand. "Congratulations, Clark. You're a lucky man."
"I know," Clark said. "Thanks."
"Oh, and Lori, welcome to the family," John said straight-faced.
Lori gaped at him. "What?"
"I'll explain later," Clark said, hastily. "Any word on the Kryptonite bracelet, by the way?"
"Yeah, both good and bad," John said. "The Superman Foundation financed the purchase of the bracelet, and it's now history. That's the good part. The bad part is that it was cut from a larger chunk, and it was only one of four pieces of jewelry made from it. We're still trying to track down the other three."
"Great," Clark said.
"We've got people working on it," John said. "I'll keep you updated."
"Thanks," Clark said. "I feel like there's a ticking time bomb out there waiting for me."
"For us," John said. "We'll find them. Now, I want you two doing a follow up on the Westhaven story. You're both going to be going to the Metro Charity Art Show tonight, and I want an interview with the owner of Blake's Jewelers about the theft. Clark, a human interest story about the betrayal of a long time employee…"
Clark laughed. "Say no more, boss. We're on it."
"Oh, and Clark — "
"I'll expect an invitation to the wedding."
"You'll get one," Clark said. "Come on, Lori, we've got a job to do."
Together, they hurried out the door.
(To Be Continued in the Final Story).
Ready for the next story in this series? Read Home IV: Honeymoon. Need the previous story? Read Home II: Beginnings.
Stories in Nan Smith's "Home" series, in order: Home, Home II: Beginnings, Home III: Memories, Home IV: Honeymoon, Home 4a: A Valentine Vignette, Home: A Christmas story, Home: On the Fourth Day of Christmas, Home: New Year's Wishes, Home V: Obsession, Home: Circle of Fate, Home: Vendetta, Home: Family Party, Home: An Evening to Remember, and Home: Murder by Earthlight