By Nan Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org
Submitted: June 2000
Summary: The 'what comes next' after the author's "A Night at the Office." Lois and Clark deal with the repercussions of the revelations from that 'Night.'
This is the sequel to "A Night at the Office". As was pointed out to me in an e-mail, "Night" was only half a revelation, and given that it came at a fairly crucial point in the Lois and Clark saga, what came next was important, too.
As always, the familiar characters and settings in the story are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions, etc. and no infringement of their copyright is intended. The situations borrowed from the episodes "Barbarians at the Planet" and "House of Luthor" are credited to the writers of the show. The story, however, is mine.
At three o'clock in the morning, Harry's All Nite Diner rarely had many customers and tonight was no different. Except for the few regulars who worked odd hours in nearby areas, the little establishment was nearly deserted.
The one exception to the rule was the couple seated in a booth at the farthest corner of the room. The man wore jeans and a T-shirt, which showed a truly impressive set of shoulders. His dark, slightly wavy hair had been raked back carelessly with his fingers and one heavy lock fell across his forehead, giving him a somewhat piratical appearance. Yellow light from the ceiling fixture glinted from the lenses of a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.
The woman, in contrast, was dressed in evening wear, but her hair was mussed, her makeup slightly smeared as if it had been some hours since she had availed herself of the opportunity to look in the mirror. Both were drinking coffee and Millie, the lone waitress, had just delivered an order to the surprised cook for two extra-large breakfast specials.
Lois Lane relaxed back on the padded bench and for the first time in several hours felt the tension begin to leach from her body and mind. Clark sat across from her, both hands wrapped around his coffee cup, staring into the liquid. He almost looked as if he was half-asleep, but then he sat back and smiled at her.
She smiled back, until the smile turned into a small yawn, which she covered with the back of her hand. "Sorry."
"That's okay." He glanced at his watch. "In two hours I'll have been up a full twenty-four."
"Me too." She took a long swallow of coffee. "I plan on sleeping until noon, at least, when I get home, so I figured I'd better have breakfast first."
He nodded. Lois sipped her coffee again, watching him. It was an almost dreamlike feeling sitting here in the little diner with Clark at such an early—or late—hour, she reflected.
He looked up and met her eyes. "What?"
"Nothing much," she said. "I was just thinking, you're my partner, and really my best friend, and I don't know that much about you. You probably saved a lot of lives tonight when you grabbed that bomb, and I don't even know what kind of music you like, what your favorite color is, what you like to read, or much of anything, really. All I know about you is what you're like to work with. I've never taken the time to get to know you better, and now I wish I had."
Clark smiled a little. "My favorite color is blue, I like all kinds of music and I read just about anything. What else?"
"Not that way. I found out tonight there was a lot more to you than I thought. You're kind of a surprising guy, you know? You're from a Kansas farm, but you prefer to live in one of the biggest cities in the world. You're a nice, trusting person, yet you're a successful investigative reporter who's traveled the whole planet." She smiled. "And you're a lot smarter than I gave you credit for in the beginning."
"Thanks…I think," he said.
"It was a compliment," she said. "I've gotten so I trust your judgement. That's why I wanted to ask you a question."
"What kind of question?"
She hesitated for an instant, inhaled deeply and took the plunge. "You've never liked Lex, have you?"
His expression became slightly wary. "Do you want the truth?"
"Yes, I do."
"All right. No."
"You don't trust him, either. I want to know why."
He looked down at his coffee. "Lois—"
"No, really. I know you wouldn't feel that way without a reason. You're not that kind of person. It's not just jealousy, is it?"
He looked up at her, and his expression startled her. She had never before considered the possibility that Clark Kent could have emotions as strong as the ones that warred on his face at that moment. If she'd ever wondered about the strength of his feelings for her, that one look would have killed any doubts stone dead. She'd known he had a crush on her; she'd chosen to ignore it, but now it gave her a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach at the realization that the man from Krypton, the most powerful being on the planet, wanted her so intensely.
Then the look was shuttered. He said mildly, "No, it's not jealousy, although I admit I am jealous of him, Lois—for having something I would give almost anything to have, myself. But, no, that's not why I don't trust him."
"Will you tell me why, then?"
He closed his lips together for an instant. "The problem is, I know certain things about him—things that scare the hell out of me when I see you with him. But I can't prove any of it—none! The hard evidence has all been destroyed. The rest is just—things I saw, or heard, which made sense in context with what I already knew. But there's no proof."
"Why don't you tell me, anyway? I can make up my own mind, you know."
"You won't like it," he warned her.
"Tell me, anyway." She set down her cup. "I'm a big girl. I don't need to be protected from the truth—and I know you'll tell me the truth."
He nodded. "The truth, then." He glanced sideways as the waitress arrived, a tray balanced on one hand. They waited in silence as she set their plates in front of them, made sure their coffee cups were filled, and left them to their own devices.
Clark put his napkin into his lap. "You want the worst?"
"All right." He picked up a slice of toast and spread it liberally with butter and jelly. That figured, Lois thought. No wonder he could eat like an eight-year-old and look like Mr. Hardbody, as she'd once told him. Superman ate bombs, for heaven's sake!
At the thought, the vision of her first meeting with Superman rose in her mind, how he had swallowed the detonator of that bomb in the Messenger rocket and saved her life. It had been Clark who had done that—the man who was casually sitting across the table from her, buttering his toast.
"Well," he began, "do you remember the Messenger incident, and Space Station Prometheus? Luthor was behind the attempt to destroy it. Antoinette Baines was his partner. Together, they were responsible for the deaths of Commander Lattimer and Dr. Platt. He was almost certainly behind the death of Dr. Baines as well."
"Do you know that for a fact?"
"Some of it. The rest is a guess based on the evidence that no longer exists."
Lois nodded. She could feel the blood draining from her face at the realization of what he was telling her. "Is there anything else?"
He took a bite of toast, chewed and swallowed. "Plenty. Are you sure you want to hear this? It's not very pleasant."
She nodded. "I want to know what you know about him."
He shrugged. "All right. Do you remember the 'tests' someone subjected Superman to shortly after he arrived in Metropolis? Luthor was that someone. He almost succeeded in driving Superman away by threatening the lives of innocent people."
"You know this?"
"Luthor essentially admitted it to Superman, but hearsay isn't evidence." Clark took a mouthful of scrambled eggs while she thought that one over.
"I see," she said. "Anything else?"
"Do you want a list?" he asked, quietly. "He was behind the Mentamide 5 formula, too, Lois, and the experiments on the kids. And he very probably made sure the doctor couldn't talk, by—"
"Overdosing him." Her lips twisted in distaste at the thought. There had been so much more going on than she knew. Clark hadn't told her, but even if he had, would she have believed him? Regrettably, the answer was probably "no".
They ate in silence; Lois was aware that Clark was watching her with a concerned expression. At last she looked up and met his worried, brown eyes. "I'm all right, Clark. Really."
"I was afraid to say anything. If you were in love with him—"
"I'm not. And I never was."
"Are you upset?" he asked, quietly.
She gave him a little smile. "Only because I was so gullible."
He closed his eyes and exhaled suddenly. "Thank God."
"Why didn't you tell me before?" she asked, after a moment.
"What could I say? I knew a lot of things but I couldn't prove them and I didn't want to lose your friendship over it. The only thing I could do was to try to get some hard evidence; something I could show you to prove what I said was true. But he's very good at covering his tracks."
"Is that what you've been trying to do?"
He nodded. "I was afraid for you. The man's a sociopath. He may say he loves you, but—"
She nodded slowly. "But that can change in a second. I know." She reached across the table to touch his hand. "Thank you. For caring enough to try."
For a second time, she caught that expression in his eyes, but the thought occurred to her that she had to move slowly. This time she would get to know the real man before she jumped into a relationship with him. Clark might be Superman, he might want her, but if he thought she wanted him because of his alter ego, she had the suspicion it could ruin things before they got started. Take it slow, Lane, she warned herself. There's a lot to lose on this one if you blow it. Clark is Superman, but Superman is also just Clark Kent, the country boy from Kansas. There were plenty of things she needed to think about and straighten out in her mind before she could make any progress. But one thing was clear. Whatever it was that Clark felt for her, it was far different from what others before him had felt, and that gave her a warm feeling that warred with the butterflies in the pit of her stomach.
Well, first things first. She finished the last of her bacon and eggs with unladylike speed and swallowed the now tepid coffee.
"Well," she said, noting in the corner of her mind that Clark's plate was also clear, "Let's go home. After I've had some sleep, we'll talk more about this. We have to decide what to do."
Clark raised an eyebrow. "'Do'?"
"Of course. You're trying to get evidence on him to expose what he's doing. We'll be more effective if we work together."
"Do you want to bring him down or not?"
"Well yes, but—"
"Then, that's settled. I'm ready to go."
She saw him smile and shake his head, then he picked up the bill, frowned thoughtfully for an instant and deposited a modest tip on the table. "All right. Let me just pay the tab and we're off."
"I'll see you this evening." Lois pushed open the door to her apartment and stepped inside. Turning to face her partner, she continued, "We need to talk more about this after I've had a little sleep."
"You and me, both." He smiled at her. "I tell you what. Why don't I come by about six with some takeout, and we can hash it out. I can bring what little I *have* managed to find, and we can decide what to do next."
"Sounds like a plan," Lois said. "I'll see you at six." She closed the door and listened to his retreating footsteps. Then there was a sound like rushing wind and a moment later a distant sonic boom.
Slowly, she walked back toward her small bathroom and the lure of a hot shower, but her mind was on the sounds she had just heard. How often had Clark vanished from the newsroom and a few seconds later she'd noted the sonic boom that marked Superman in flight? And it had only served to perpetuate the illusion in her mind, she thought, ruefully.
She gave a soft laugh. Simple country boy, hah! And yet, he'd told her he wasn't your typical male. She snorted to herself as she turned on the water and waited for it to warm. Getting to know Clark from this new perspective could be an interesting experience. And maybe she could figure out some of what really made him tick along the way. It wouldn't be boring, anyway.
When she crawled into bed fifteen minutes later and closed her eyes she was still considering her partner, her mind casting back over the months she had known him, looking at each puzzling little incident. A lot of them were explained now, and she felt like kicking herself for not putting the clues together before. The evidence had been sitting right in front of her and she'd refused to see it, just as some of the things about Lex were sitting in the open as well, from her standpoint. Little pieces of overheard conversations, inconsequential actions, were beginning to make sense with her new knowledge, the most obvious his sheer love of playing with his power.
Something he'd said when she'd first met him came to mind now—something about his home being at the top of the tallest building in Metropolis and how he liked it that when people wanted to see him they had to look up. She'd taken it for humor, but Lex had been deadly serious. Well, she wasn't going to miss any more clues. The conversation with Clark had opened her eyes.
A small, irrational part of her mind still insisted she should be angry with Clark for not telling her about himself—it was embarrassing in a way to remember how she'd told him confidently that she'd figured him out. But another part, the part that insisted upon being annoyingly fair when she would have preferred to be as unfair as possible brought up the counter arguments that she couldn't refute, the chief one being: Why should he have told her? They were partners and friends, sure; he was probably the best friend she'd ever had, but she hadn't told him all her own secrets, either, and this was a big one. Not to mention the fact that in dating Lex she had been closely associated with a man whom Clark knew, at least to his own satisfaction, to be a criminal. No, Clark had excellent reasons to keep who and what he was a secret even from her, as humiliating as the realization might be. But it didn't have to be that way. And, on that comforting thought, fatigue finally had its way and Lois slept.
Clark arrived punctually at six that evening. Lois had resisted the impulse to set a formal table; she opted to dress casually and to greet her partner in the usual manner.
He was carrying a large, cardboard box with Chinese characters on the sides, and several containers packed tightly therein were releasing aromas that made her mouth water.
"Come on in." She inhaled deeply. "This smells wonderful, Clark. Just set it on the coffee table."
He obeyed and Lois went to get the plates and silverware. When she returned, he had removed the smaller boxes and was opening them.
"Here's a plate for you. Let me just get the glasses and the wine and we can sit down and eat."
"I'll get them. Why don't you sit down?" Clark went past her into the kitchen and was back a moment later. "Here we go."
"Okay." Lois leaned forward to serve herself from the little basket-like containers. "You always know the best places to go for food, Clark. This smells fantastic."
"Thanks. It's a little family-owned restaurant I know."
They ate in silence for a few moments. After the sharpest edge of her appetite had been blunted, Lois opened the subject that had been occupying her mind since that morning, and even invaded her dreams. "About Lex—you say you don't have any evidence?"
"Basically, yes, except for some very minor stuff." He took a sip of the wine Lois had selected. "I have plenty of suspicions, and I've seen things with my own eyes, but hard evidence has a way of disappearing where Mr. Luthor is concerned."
"Yeah." Lois frowned thoughtfully at her sweet and sour shrimp. "We need a way to get close to him, and I'm the way. I visit his penthouse regularly, and I do a certain amount of wandering around in there."
Clark looked faintly alarmed. "Do you know what would happen to you if he caught you spying?"
"Yes. If he's done what you say he has, I have a pretty good idea. But if he's that good at covering his tracks, we're going to need to exploit any weakness he has, and it looks as if that's me. I can be careful, and I promise I will be. In fact, I've got an idea for gathering evidence. Do you think Superman would help us?"
Clark raised his eyebrows. "Maybe. It depends on what you want him to do. Superman wants to expose Luthor as much as I do, but—"
"Well, let me talk to Jimmy, first. I'm thinking about the possibility of a little electronic surveillance. If I can plant a bug in his office, somewhere…"
"It'll be all right," she assured him. "I'm not going to take any stupid risks."
His expression told her he wasn't so sure of that, but he nodded. "All right, I'll ask Superman. You're right that it's probably the only way we can get the goods on him, but I don't have to like it."
"Good, then that's settled. I have a date with him this Friday night. We'll need to get everything ready by then."
"Lois! Clark!" Perry White's voice echoed over the other sounds present in the Daily Planet newsroom on Monday morning. "There's been a bomb threat at the Metropolis Mercantile Bank. Get on over there, now!"
"Right, Perry! Jimmy, grab your camera!" Lois jumped to her feet, wondering what Clark was going to do in order to slip away. She didn't have to wait long. As the elevator doors opened and she and Jimmy boarded, Clark snapped his fingers.
"I forgot something. You go ahead; I'll meet you there." Lois looked after him, slightly bemused, as the doors closed. Then she laughed and shook her head. A lot of Clark's odder behavior was becoming perfectly clear to her, now. Jimmy looked at her questioningly, but she didn't explain.
The scene in front of the Mercantile Bank was one of confusion, she saw as they stepped from the taxi some ten minutes later. She caught a flash of red and blue through the glass of the door and smiled. Superman was already in there, as she should have expected. She waved a hand at her companion.
"Better get some background shots. Be sure to get some of Superman when he comes out, though."
"Right." Jimmy lifted his camera and began snapping pictures. Lois moved forward to a police officer who was attempting to control the movement of the inevitable crowd of spectators.
"Lois Lane, Daily Planet." She waved her press pass at him. "What's happened, officer?
The man glanced over his shoulder at the bank. "Someone phoned in a bomb threat. It might be a false alarm; there's been a number of them lately, but naturally no one wants to take the risk."
"I see…" She glanced past him as Superman and a single police officer emerged from the building. "Superman!"
He glanced at her and smiled, continuing his conversation with the man. After a moment he nodded and strode over to her. "Hello, Lois."
"What happened in there?" she asked. Looking at him now, it was incredible to her that she had never before noticed that this was Clark Kent. It was obvious, and yet no one else seemed to realize it. "Did you find a bomb?"
"It was a false alarm." He shrugged. "This has happened several times the last couple of weeks. Someone evidently has a very twisted sense of humor."
"That's disgusting," she said.
"Yes, I…" He faltered and raised a hand to his eyes.
"Superman, are you all right?" Lois put a hand on his arm. He shook his head as if trying to clear it. "Superman?"
She saw him sway slightly. "Superman? What's wrong?"
As abruptly as it had happened, he straightened. He rubbed his face. "I'm all right."
"Are you sure?" she asked.
He glanced around the area quickly as if looking for something, then back to her. "Yes, I'm fine. Excuse me, Lois, I'm needed somewhere else." He lifted into the air and was gone, leaving her blinking at his sudden departure.
"Lois!" Clark came hurrying across the street toward her. "What happened?"
"I'm not sure." She looked searchingly at his face, trying to see any sign of the distress that she was sure she had not imagined. There was no trace of it, but something strange had happened and she didn't like it at all. For just a second there, she had seen fear on Superman's face.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"I'll tell you later. Do you see Jimmy anywhere? Superman said it was a false alarm."
"There he is." Clark pointed with his chin toward the crowd of spectators that was just beginning to break up. Jimmy came trotting toward them, waving his camera.
"I got some good shots, Lois," he called.
"Did you get the ones of Superman?" she asked.
"Yeah. I got everything." Jimmy nodded at Clark. "Hi, CK."
"Good. Someone's been turning in fake bomb threats," Lois said. "I think we could do a good article on how it pulls the emergency services away from genuine emergencies, and sometimes costs lives. What do you think, Clark?"
"Sounds good," he said, but his voice seemed distracted. He was surveying the departing crowd again, looking for something, Lois was sure. An idea hit her suddenly but she didn't voice it. Whatever had happened, it was obvious Clark wasn't eager for her to find out what it was. Well, two could play at that game. It wasn't until they had returned to the Planet and Clark was on the phone to his source at the police department that she was able to take Jimmy aside and speak to him privately.
"You say you got pictures of the whole area?"
"When you develop those prints, I want duplicates of them. In fact, I'd like you to blow them up for me."
"Sure." Jimmy looked at her strangely. "Any particular reason?"
"I'm not certain. Just do it for me, will you?"
"No sweat. I'll have them finished later today."
"Good. And when you finish, bring them to me, not Clark, okay?"
"Sure." He turned his head as someone shouted for him. "Gotta go. I'll get them to you as soon as I can."
Lois watched him thread his way through the maze of desks, chairs and other hazards to navigation in the newsroom, then turned back toward her desk.
Clark had been looking for something—that much had been obvious. And whatever it had been, it had scared him. Maybe she could find out what it was.
"What are you looking for?" Jimmy asked her a couple of hours later. Lois glanced up from the stack of photos that he had deposited on her desk a short time earlier.
"I don't know, exactly." She laid the big magnifying glass that she had been using to bring small details into focus to one side and wiggled the fingers of her left hand. She hadn't realized how tightly she had been gripping the handle, or how tense her shoulders had become. "What do you know about electronic surveillance?"
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"Well—" She glanced over at Clark's desk. Her partner had run out of the newsroom approximately half an hour ago and she hadn't seen him since. "Suppose I needed to gather information on somebody—say, I suspected him of some sort of criminal dealings. How would I bug his office without him knowing it?"
"Oh, you mean you want to bug somebody?"
"I thought I said that."
"Yeah." Jimmy frowned. "Would you want to listen in, or would you want to record conversations for evidence?"
"I'd like to record it if I could," Lois said. "Clark and I are investigating someone pretty important. We suspect some of his business deals might be unethical. Anyway, I want to put a bug in his business office. How can I do it, and what do I need?"
"Hmmm…" Jimmy frowned thoughtfully, rubbing his chin with a forefinger. "I think…look, I know this little novelty shop called 'Spys 'R' Us'—it sells all kinds of surveillance equipment. I know it sounds stupid, but some of the stuff is pretty good. If it works out, maybe we can get the Planet's discretionary fund to pay for it…"
"Maybe. Clark and I will cover it in the meantime."
"Sure," Jimmy said. "I'll give them a call and find out if they have what you need."
Lois turned back to the pile of photos. When Jimmy said he had photographed the entire area he hadn't been kidding, she thought, but she was just as pleased that he'd been a little over-enthusiastic. With any luck, she might find what she was looking for.
"What are you doing?" Clark's voice said behind her.
She almost jumped out of her skin. "Clark, don't sneak up on me like that!"
"Sorry." He glanced at the stack on her desk. "Are those the pictures Jimmy took?"
"Yeah." She held up her magnifying glass. "While we were at the bank this morning something happened, Clark. It was as if something hurt Superman. I think he was almost frightened for a moment, and I could tell he was looking around for something. Anyhow, Jimmy took a lot of pictures. If he happened to catch it on film, and we can find it, maybe we can help Superman out."
"Are you sure?" Clark looked a little uneasy. "Did he tell you so?"
"No, of course not," Lois said, impatiently, "but I'm not stupid. Look, I'm not going to splash it all over the front page. If this is something that can hurt him, the less people know about it the better. All I want to do is to try to help him."
"Well…" Clark looked at her oddly. "You're probably right. Let's take them into the conference room. Maybe one of us will see something the other doesn't."
A short time later, the photos were spread out on the table in the conference room. Lois pointed out the ones she had already checked and Clark bent over them, studying them intently. Watching him out of the corner of her eye, Lois noted how he lowered his glasses; evidently, his super-vision gizmo didn't work through the lenses, she concluded. Or, maybe it just didn't work as well. She'd have to ask him about that some time after she'd convinced him that her interest in him wasn't because of his incredible powers. The thought brought her up short. What was her interest in him? Was it the powers?
No, she realized, the super powers didn't make Superman. Lex had tremendous power of his own, and look what he did with it. If he'd had Superman's powers… . Even the thought made her shudder. It wasn't the powers; it was the man who had them. Even without the super powers, Clark would still be a decent, caring guy who would move heaven and earth to help people in need. And now that she was looking past the flashy suit to the man wearing it, it was a revelation to realize that. Clark would have been worth her attention whether or not he was Superman, and she'd been blind not to see it before. So much for her incisive reporter's instinct.
She had the feeling she'd been staring at the photograph for several seconds before it registered. The tall, attractive woman in the photo was familiar. Now where…
Then she had it. She had seen this person at Lex's penthouse. She was some sort of assistant to him—Mrs. Fox or Cox or something. She was smiling, fondling a pendent that hung around her neck. Lois squinted at it. What was it, an emerald? If so, it was the biggest emerald she'd ever seen. Behind her she could see herself and Superman, and the Man of Steel's eyes were closed; this was the instant when whatever had affected Superman had, well, affected him.
"Clark," she said, "come look at this. I think I might have found something."
"This woman. She works for Lex. I've seen her at the penthouse."
Clark picked up the photograph and lifted his glasses to examine it closely. "You're sure?"
"Yes. Her name's Fox or Cox or Sox. She's an assistant, I think. I've never really been introduced to her. It just seems funny to me that she was there just at that minute. What do you suppose she did?"
"I don't know. I'll tell Superman about it, though. If Lex Luthor is involved…"
"Yeah." Lois bit her lip. One more little piece of evidence, as if she needed any more, that Lex wasn't the philanthropist he seemed to be, she thought. He was up to something that involved Superman, and she couldn't fool herself into thinking that he meant any good at all. She wondered for a moment if the phony bomb threats could be his work, too. Someone who would do the things Clark claimed he'd done wouldn't hesitate to pull the emergency services away from genuine emergencies in order to provide camouflage for himself.
Well, at least Clark and she were now warned to watch for something, and if Jimmy could provide her with the things she needed for some electronic snooping, perhaps they could find out what it was.
It wasn't until the next day that Jimmy appeared beside her desk with a small package in his hands. "Lois?"
She looked up from her research on Lexel Real Estate Investments. "Yes?"
"I think I've got what you need. The surveillance stuff."
"Okay." Lois glanced at the paper-wrapped box. "Is that it?"
"Yeah." Jimmy tore open the paper. "It comes in two parts. Here's your mike."
She examined the little silver pen carefully. "A pen?"
"Yeah. And it even writes if somebody happens to find it. It's actually a radio transmitter. It'll transmit to an earphone if you like, or…" with a flourish he produced a small, black box about four inches long by three wide, from the bag, "…to this. It's a tape recorder. The pen runs on a watch battery and lasts about a week without a replacement. The recorder is voice activated, but you need to replace the batteries about once a day, and it's only effective within about five hundred feet. It's the best I could do."
"You mean the recorder has to be within five hundred feet of the pen?"
"Yeah. Anything more powerful would have cost a lot more. Oh, yeah, and the pen will only pick up sounds within about twenty feet. Sorry."
"That's all right." Lois regarded the items thoughtfully. "I think I can manage."
When she told Clark her plan, she watched with interest as his thick, dark eyebrows rose incredulously. "You're going to bug Luthor's office?"
Lois displayed the pen. "This is the microphone. The tape recorder has to be within five hundred feet of the pen, and I can't hide it inside the penthouse. I was thinking, do you think Superman could plant it somewhere on the outside of the building?"
Clark frowned. "Maybe. With this sort of transmitter, it might be better if it was within line of sight, though. If you can plant your pen near a window, maybe he can put the recorder nearby. It's not very conspicuous."
"Just as long as no one can see it without hunting for it."
"I'll tell him. Give me the recorder. When do you want him to do it?"
"Well, it won't do any good until I get the microphone planted. I'm having dinner with Lex on Friday night. I'll put it in his office then. Superman can place the recorder any time after that, unless I can find a reason to visit Lex sooner."
Clark looked at the little recorder, then back at her. "Be careful. If he realizes what you're doing, I don't know what he'd do to you."
"He won't realize it." She put a hand on his arm. "Trust me."
Clark smiled crookedly at her. "I do. But I worry about you all the same. Luthor's smart. He didn't get where he is by being careless."
"I know. I won't get overconfident. I promise."
As it turned out, Lex called the next evening to invite her for lunch the following day.
"Lois, be careful. If he even suspects your feelings for him have changed he'll be watching you like a hawk." Clark, Lois thought, was obsessing. Well, that was a good thing, wasn't it? It meant he was worried about her and therefore he cared about her.
Of course, Superman cared about everyone in the abstract, but his feelings for her ran a lot deeper if she read the signs accurately. Only, how was she supposed to convince him that she was over her schoolgirl crush on Superman? For that matter, when was he going to stop hiding and tell her the truth?
She was at an impasse. The unflattering comparisons she'd made of the two men within Clark's hearing back when they'd first met made her squirm now, even though she knew that he'd intended for no one to notice the resemblance between himself and Superman. They'd been unnecessarily cruel even then, when she didn't know him very well, but she'd been driven and very competitive—not that she was any less so now—and had resented Perry's foisting him on her as a partner. And, of course, she'd regarded the "country boy" from Kansas with contempt. It had taken a visit to Smallville and a meeting with Martha and Jonathan Kent to shake her smug convictions of superiority. Martha and Jonathan might be country folks, but they were anything but unintelligent. That was when she'd realized the fact that "from the country" did not automatically equate with "stupid." After all, how many complete idiots swarmed through the streets of Metropolis every day?
"Lois, did you hear me?"
She nodded. "Sorry; I was thinking. I promise I won't do anything careless. If we want to get the evidence we need I can't afford to get caught."
"You can't afford to get caught, anyway!"
She gave a slightly nervous laugh. "Sorry. You know what I meant. I've done dozens of undercover investigations before I met you. I'll be fine."
He nodded, but still looked worried. "I know, and I do trust you. It's Luthor I don't trust."
"Take it easy." She patted him on the hand and glanced at her watch. "Oops, gotta go. He's sending a car for me."
Lunch in Lex Luthor's penthouse, at the very top of Lex Tower—as Lex had said proudly many times, "the tallest building in Metropolis"—was as usual, excellent. Lex's French chef had prepared a delicious light meal with Lois's low calorie preferences in mind. If she hadn't known that Lex admired her trim figure, she would have suspected Andre of sneaking one of the luscious cream sauces for which he was famous into the dish.
Lex's office, from which he conducted most of his business, was part of the penthouse—a luxury he could afford since all of Lex Tower below them amounted to the nerve center of his vast business empire. After the meal was finished, it took only an expression of interest from Lois for Lex to escort her to her goal.
She didn't even have to simulate her awe; she stared around the room, wide-eyed. Even familiar as she was with the lavish penthouse and it's many treasures—Lex had hired only the best to decorate his home—the sheer size of the place took her breath away. After a moment of silence, she said lightly, "Wow. Your desk is almost as big as my living room."
He chuckled indulgently. "I hardly think so. So, what do you think?"
She moved into the room, admiring the objets d'art that were arranged tastefully here and there, and the brilliant Picasso that hung on one wall. "It's a little…overwhelming. You actually conduct business here?"
"All the time." He looked amused at her wide-eyed astonishment. She glanced down.
"I suppose this is a genuine Persian rug, too."
"It is." He took her arm, steering her to the picture window to the left of and behind his desk. "And when I wish to I can look out over m…the city. The view from here is quite spectacular, don't you agree?"
"Very," Lois said. "I can even see Centennial Park from here."
"Yes, that was one reason for choosing this location for my office." Lex turned as someone came to the door. "Yes, Mrs. Cox?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, Lex, I didn't realize you and Ms. Lane were here," a woman's voice said. Lois turned.
The newcomer was the woman in Jimmy's photograph. Lex smiled and made introductions. "Lois Lane, Mrs. Cox. Mrs. Cox is my personal assistant, Lois."
"Pleased to meet you," Lois said.
Mrs. Cox nodded her head and her lips smiled, but the smile didn't reach her eyes. "I was only bringing you the report on the progress of the Series K project." She moved forward to lay a slim folder on the huge, mahogany desk.
"Series K?" Lois asked.
"Just one of LexCorp's many projects," Lex said. "Excuse me one moment." He moved to the doorway with his assistant. Lois couldn't hear what they said, but it looked as if now was the only chance she was likely to have.
Standing next to the window was a tall, potted palm. Lois withdrew the slender metal pen, which was her bug, from her pocket and leaned forward as if looking down from the high window toward the sidewalk far below. With an apparently casual motion, she rested her hand on the edge of the pot and let the pen fall softly to the rug between the big container and the window, which reached from ceiling to floor. For once the Fates seemed to favor her, for the little cylinder rolled slightly when it struck the rug and stopped just beneath the rim of the wide dish that prevented water from leaking from the pot onto the expensive carpet. To all but the most careful of observers, the pen was out of sight.
Slowly, she straightened and smoothed her skirt, then glanced up as a glimpse of motion beyond the window caught her eye.
That hadn't been her imagination, she thought. The red and blue flash had been Superman, hanging around nearby, just in case.
"What are you looking at?" Lex's voice said, behind her. Her heart leaped, but she maintained her position for another five seconds before she turned casually to him. "Just admiring the view. I hadn't realized how much higher Lex Tower is than even the Moritomi Building, next door."
He nodded and smiled at her. "Lex Tower is the tallest building in the city. I like to be able to look down on the roofs of all my neighbors."
"Well, it's a magnificent view." She glanced down at her watch. "Oh, heavens, look at the time! I'm going to be late getting back to work."
"I'll have Nigel drive you back," he said easily. "It was a pleasure having you here today. I enjoyed it immensely."
"So did I." She turned to survey the office one last time before preceding him out the door. "And the lunch was wonderful."
He escorted her to the elevator. "Don't forget our date tomorrow night. I thought we'd make up for missing Madame Butterfly last week."
"That sounds perfect," she said.
It was only when the elevator door closed behind her that she exhaled a huge sigh of relief.
"It's safely planted," she told Clark, twenty-five minutes later as they stood waiting for the elevator at the Daily Planet. "It's just under the rim of a big potted palm next to that enormous picture window in his office. Superman can put the recorder in place any time."
"He already did," Clark told her. "He had an eye on you the whole time."
"I guessed that when I saw him," she said, just a trifle smugly.
"You saw him?"
"Just a glimpse, but he was there. Lex didn't see him, though. He was talking to Mrs. Cox."
"Oh. That's good, then." Clark looked relieved. "He didn't suspect anything?"
"Not a thing," she said. "We're going to the opera tomorrow night."
"All right, but be careful," he said.
"I can handle Lex," she said, quietly. "You have to trust me."
"I do," he said, as quietly. "I wish—" He broke off as the doors opened and they boarded. Two other newsroom employees raced to catch the elevator as well, and Clark politely held the doors for them.
When the doors opened again on the newsroom and they exited, Clark spoke again. "I've had Jimmy doing some digging. We'll see if he has anything for us."
"It seems to me that any evidence we get that way is going to be circumstantial at best," Lois said.
"True. But considering who we're investigating, anything we can find to bolster our case, even circumstantial evidence, shouldn't be ignored. Besides," Clark added, "it might give us an idea where else to look."
"That's true," Lois agreed. They descended the ramp, still talking.
"There's also this," Clark said. "Superman tells me that just about every criminal element in the city pays protection money to a shadowy character they call 'The Boss'. Most of them have no idea who he is, and the ones who do are too terrified to talk. The rumor on the streets is that 'The Boss' is behind the recent spate of fire bombings and arsons of businesses on the south side. That's where Lexel Development is buying up all that property for its strip mall project. Lois, what if 'The Boss' is Lex Luthor?"
"I guess it wouldn't be beyond the realm of possibility," she said. "We'll probably be in a better position to judge in a day or two. In the meantime, let's see what Jimmy's got for us. And then, I'm going to get hold of Bobby Bigmouth."
Clark raised an eyebrow. "Bobby Who?"
"Bobby Bigmouth. He's one of my snitches. Since we're partners, I think it's about time I introduced you to him. Just be sure you always bring something for him to eat when you're looking for information. He's not called Bobby Bigmouth because of his chosen 'profession'."
"Yeah. He must have a metabolic problem or something. He's skinnier than a rail and eats constantly. You pay him with food."
"I'll take your word for it, but do you think he'll come through?"
"Maybe," Lois said. "He has to watch out for his own skin, though. He doesn't want to end up at the bottom of Hobb's Bay."
"That's for sure. Well, tell him we'll take whatever he can give us, but to be careful." Clark turned his head. "Hey, Jim! Did you get that stuff I asked you to look up?"
"Some of it." Jimmy was headed across the room toward the Sports desk. "Just a minute and I'll show you."
The information, Lois thought, looking at what Jimmy had found some time later, wasn't proof. But it was certainly consistent with the pattern that was beginning to emerge: lists of business contracts that had gone to LexCorp because of the sudden and convenient death of a business competitor, coincidental acts of sabotage against the rival, or fortuitous acts of nature; acquisition of land at reduced prices after the real estate value in targeted areas suddenly and inexplicably lost value—many, many coincidences that somehow always favored LexCorp, but no proof. She looked at Clark with a sick sensation in the pit of her stomach.
"It's a definite pattern, isn't it?"
"What kind of a monster is he?"
Her partner's expression was sympathetic. "I think you know."
"And he likes to project this picture of himself as a philanthropist. It makes me want to throw up. Why didn't I see any of this before?"
"Because he was very careful around you." Clark's tone was neutral. "He wants to impress you."
"I'm impressed, all right," she said, dryly. "Thank you."
"For not saying 'I told you so'."
"I didn't tell you so."
"Well, yes and no. I knew what you thought of him. I just didn't know why."
"Well, you know now."
"Yeah, I guess I do."
Friday afternoon, Clark appeared beside her desk with a microtape. "Here's the first recording. Superman told me he replaced the batteries and tape with new ones."
Lois opened her desk drawer and removed her recorder. "Let's see what we've got."
"Lois! Clark!" Their editor's voice cut through the noise that was constantly present in the newsroom. "Get over to Lex Tower! Lex Luthor is giving a press conference over his redevelopment plans for the south side business district in twenty minutes."
Lois dropped the tape into her bag. "I guess we'll listen to this later. Let's go hear the latest."
"So, as you can see from this model," Lex Luthor was saying, "The results of redeveloping the old business district with a modern, planned enterprise, will result in revitalization of a deteriorating area and thousands of new jobs for the citizens of Metropolis…"
"Mr. Luthor!" Clark lifted a hand. "What about the business owners who are being displaced by this project? There have been rumors of coerced sales of some of the businesses as well as increased gang activity over the last few months that has resulted in lowered property values and therefore bargain prices for Lexel Development. Do you have any comment on that?"
"I never listen to rumors, Mr. Kent." Lex smiled suavely. "Any more questions?"
Several hands waved in the air and there were more shouted questions from other members of the press. Lois remained silent, watching Lex's performance as he smoothly handled the reporters, dodged inconvenient points, and emerged unscathed at the end. Everything he did seemed somehow…slimy, now that she knew, or had a pretty good idea, what lay behind that pleasant fašade. He met her eyes through the mob of press and smiled, and she smiled automatically back. How could she not have seen his sheer arrogance before?
Because she'd been dazzled by the attention of a man as wealthy and powerful as Lex Luthor, so dazzled that she had never once looked to see what lay behind the face he presented to the world at large. In a way, the situation was similar to the one with Superman. She had never looked past the super-hero to see the kind and decent man behind the flashy costume. She had been discovering a number of things about herself ever since last Saturday night, much of which she was not particularly happy about, but at least she could learn from it.
She glanced sideways at Clark. He apparently loved her in spite of her faults, and he could hardly be unaware of them. He wasn't perfect either, by a long shot, but somehow that didn't seem to matter. Maybe that was something else she should think about. It might not be a case of finding perfection. Maybe it was more one of finding someone with the qualities that did matter and faults you could live with. When she looked at it that way, maybe some of the things she was beating herself with weren't as important as she thought, at least not to her partner.
Maybe this time the right man had found her in spite of herself. It wasn't as if she hadn't tried to discourage him in every way possible and he still stayed, for some reason. Evidently, he hadn't given up hope. That must mean something. Of course, that didn't mean she couldn't try to change some of her more unpleasant characteristics. And she still had to convince him, somehow, that her interest was really in him and not the powers. She still had no clue how to do that, but she really hadn't had the time to think about it what with the investigation. Maybe something would come to her on its own.
Lois Lane Kent. The name didn't sound so bad, come to think of it.
"Lois?" Clark waved a hand in front of her eyes. "Are you all right?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah. I was somewhere else. Are we done?"
"We're done. Let's get out of here." He looked at her oddly. "You were looking at me with the strangest expression. Is something wrong?"
"Sort of, but not really. I just have a small problem I'm trying to figure out how to fix."
"Anything I can help you with?"
She shook her head and smiled wryly. "Not this time, I'm afraid, but thanks for offering."
"Good night, Lex. It was a lovely evening." At the door of her apartment, Lois looked up into Lex Luthor's handsome face. "I enjoyed it very much."
The multi-billionaire looked earnestly down at her. "So did I. You *will* think about it, won't you?"
She smiled at him, shyly. "Of course I will. It's just that it's such a big step. I need time to adjust to the idea."
"I understand completely." He leaned down and kissed her lightly on the lips. Lois forced herself to accept the kiss, although every instinct she possessed urged her to pull away. Under no circumstances must she allow him to guess her true feelings. Let him believe her nervousness was due to the extra-ordinary proposal he had made to her this evening at dinner. Marriage? He was in love with her?
A week before the idea would have dazzled her. Now it produced nothing but a sense of pure horror. Afterwards, she had smiled appropriately, laughed at his jokes and allowed him to display her on his arm as they made their appearance at the opera. If Lex chose to believe her slight abstraction was due to visions of a possible life with him, he was free to do so. She smiled warmly at him as he bade her a graceful good night and he waited until she had entered the apartment to turn and make his way back toward the elevator.
Lois closed and locked her apartment door, then leaned back against it and closed her eyes. *Now* what was she going to do?
After a time she straightened up and walked into the bedroom, pulling off her heeled shoes as she went. She tossed the footwear in the general direction of her closet and glanced at the digital clock on the nightstand. The time was one-thirteen a.m. Slowly, she pulled the pins from her elegant coiffure and shook out the hairstyle. It was a relief to be able to relax after the evening with Lex. Her eyes fell on the bag she carried to work. The tape was still inside. She and Clark had been kept busy all afternoon and hadn't had time to listen to it yet. There was no time like the present. At least she could hear a sample of what they had managed to record.
She extracted the microtape and recorder, inserted one into the other and punched the play button, then continued her preparations for bed.
Five minutes later she was hovering over the recorder, finger on the rewind button. Biting her lip, she replayed the conversation, straining her ears to hear every word.
"…Finished. The Kryptonite bullets are ready, and the cage is completed." Mrs. Cox's voice spoke with appalling clarity. "All we need now is the right man for the job."
"I trust you have that person selected?" Lex's voice sounded faintly bored. "Someone who will do the job for a cash payment, and who won't be missed afterwards?"
"Yes. His name is John Black. We've been employing him for a number of the arsons on the south side. Very useful man, no scruples to speak of and willing to do any job for the right amount of money." Mrs. Cox's voice sounded matter-of-fact.
"It's unfortunate we'll have to sacrifice him, then," Lex's voice said. "But after this job he'll know too much for our safety."
"There are plenty more where he came from," Mrs. Cox replied. "Shall I make the call?"
"Yes. Be sure he understands that he is not to shoot to kill. A hit on the body anywhere should suffice to incapacitate Superman enough for our purposes." His voice dropped, and Lois felt a chill crawl up her spine at the sheer venom in it. "I want to watch him die."
"I will, Lex. When do you want it done?"
Something creaked. "Tonight."
Whatever else might have been said after that, Lois wasn't listening. She grabbed the phone and dialed Clark's number with shaking fingers. She had to warn him before it was too late.
The phone began to ring. "Come on, Clark, pick up the phone!" she whispered.
The phone continued to ring. Nobody answered.
The phone had rung twenty-five times by actual count before she put down the receiver. Clark manifestly wasn't home. Well, maybe there was another way to contact him. She walked to the window, opened it wide and shouted at the top of her voice.
And she waited.
After five minutes had passed, she was forced to acknowledge that he wasn't coming.
She paced. The chances were good that nothing was wrong. He might be absorbed in some emergency situation where he couldn't break away.
Except that when she'd yelled for help there had never before been a time when he failed to answer.
She glanced down at herself. Clad in her night clothing, she really wasn't dressed for the cold weather if she were to decide to go out and look for him.
The sheer impossibility of the task struck her forcibly, followed swiftly by an idea. She turned on the television and switched the channel to LNN. The irony of the situation would have made her laugh if she hadn't been so worried. While she waited for the commercial about the virtues and efficacy of the latest exercise machine to finish, she pulled on sweats and a pair of running shoes.
When the news program returned, there was a spot report on the water main break in front of City Hall early that afternoon. Lois waited, biting her thumbnail. The picture finally shifted again and an announcer came on with breaking news about the fire bombing of a small mom and pop grocery store on the south side. The camera showed a blazing building and fire fighters in full gear, and the announcer's voice told her that it had taken place barely twenty minutes before.
Lois scooped up her purse. It was a shot—not a good one, but at least it was a chance.
She was at the door when her phone rang.
She raced across the floor to the instrument and picked it up in the middle of the second ring.
At first, there was only the sound of harsh breathing on the line.
"Hello?" she repeated.
More heavy breathing. A crank call. She had made up her mind that was all it was when she heard her name whispered.
"Yes? Who's this?"
The whisper was a little louder. "Super…man." A whistling, indrawn breath. "Need…help."
"Where are you?" she demanded urgently.
She could hear him panting with effort. "South…side." He breathed heavily for several seconds. "Fire."
"You're near that fire on the south side?"
He began to cough, but managed to rasp out one more word. "Evans." His voice dissolved into more coughing.
"Hold on. I'll be there as fast as I can."
She had no memory, later, of getting to the Jeep. She supposed she must have locked her apartment door, but that period was a blank in her mind. She probably broke every speed law on the books as well, and it was certainly a miracle that no traffic cop stopped her before she reached the south side.
The fire was a brilliant blaze against the sky, a glory of red, yellow and gold, with glowing sparks rising on a cloud of smoke. Embers drifted across her windshield and white ash sifted down endlessly.
The map Lois had extracted from her glove compartment told her Evans Way was two streets over to the east of the fire. Lois drove around the block, avoiding the blockades erected by the emergency services and the seething, shifting crowd of rubberneckers who had shown up even at this hour in the morning to gawk at the flames. The whole area had a scorched smell to it that made her wrinkle her nose.
Evans was a narrow, brick street, one of the few such remaining in Metropolis. By day, the street would attract tourists to the quaint, old-fashioned stores and open-air markets where merchants sold overpriced souvenirs and other merchandise to the unwary. The street was part of Metropolis' Old Town, where the residents had preserved the atmosphere of the city as it had been a century ago as a monument to the past—and a lucrative tourist trap.
Two blocks away, the sky was brilliant with the fire, but this area was dim and quiet. All those who might frequent Evans at this hour had gone to watch the show.
She was directly opposite the fire, now, peering hopelessly around at the shadowy buildings. No sign of life greeted her eyes.
No, wait—there was a phone booth. She pulled up next to it on the wrong side of the street, looking around. Nothing.
Motion caught her eye; the ever so slight swinging motion of the receiver, dangling from its metal cord. Lois grabbed her map-reading flashlight and shone it on the booth.
Ominous splotches of a rusty, red color dotted the sidewalk below the phone. Quickly, she flashed the light along the cement, following the trail left by those smears of drying blood that marked where someone had crawled.
Some six feet away, an alley opened up between a souvenir shop and an old fashioned soda fountain. Cautiously, she flashed her light into that dark interior, and her heart leaped into her throat as it flickered over the toe of a very familiar red boot.
For an instant she was frozen in horror, then she acted. The time for nerves and hysterics could come later when she had the time. Right now, Superman's life might depend on what she did next.
With a skill she didn't know she possessed, she backed the Jeep up to that narrow entrance and cut the lights. If someone was watching, she didn't want witnesses to see what happened. Quickly and precisely, as if the actions were programmed in, she unlocked the rear door closest to the spot where Superman lay, half-propped against the rough, brick wall. She opened her door and got out, glancing around warily in the darkness.
Nothing moved. As her eyes adjusted to the much lower light level, she was more able to reassure herself that no one lurked in the darker shadows. In the quiet of the alley, she could hear Clark's harsh breathing. It was a relief in a way because it told her he was still alive, but in another it was frightening to hear him in such distress.
She swung the rear door open and hurried to kneel beside him on the cement.
"Cl…Superman!" She kept her voice down, reminding herself sharply that this was *Superman* not Clark. "Can you hear me?"
His eyelids fluttered and he raised his head with an effort. "Lois?" he mumbled indistinctly.
"It's Lois. You have to help me. I can't lift you. Can you move if I help you?"
"Try…" he managed.
She got his arm over her shoulders and put one of hers around him. Her hand encountered something warm and sticky, and he gasped. Quickly, she adjusted her grip, fighting to control her fear. First things first. Superman obviously didn't want this incident to be known, but if he was hurt too badly, she intended to take him to the emergency room, objections notwithstanding. Somehow she got him on his feet, and guided his unsteady progress to the Jeep.
Afterwards she couldn't have said how they did it but when she was finished, Superman lay on his face on the rear seat of the Jeep.
There was nothing she could do at the moment and every reason to get out of the area as fast as possible. The shooter could still be around, possibly looking for his victim. Lois scrambled into the driver's seat and started the engine. A few moments later she was driving sedately away from the Metropolis gas lamp quarter, avoiding the roadblocks and stray pedestrians still filtering in to gawk at the flames. Behind her, the burning building sent black smoke and bursts of glowing embers into the sky. The thought occurred to her that something must be fueling the flames besides the material of the grocery store, and if the fire fighters didn't get the situation under control soon it could very well spread and Lex wouldn't have to negotiate prices very hard at all. She was willing to bet he was behind this as well as the shooting of Superman. It might even be what was used to lure him in. Why hadn't they taken time to listen to that tape sooner? She wasn't going to make that mistake again. Thank heavens tomorrow was her day off, and Clark's as well. Their absence from the newsroom wouldn't be remarked on at all.
"Superman!" she called sharply over her shoulder. "Can you hear me?"
A faint, affirmative mumble answered her. Lois checked her rearview mirror. There didn't appear to be anyone following her. The Jeep emerged onto one of the well-lighted main streets of the city, and she zeroed in on the parking lot across from Metro PD's headquarters. If anyone bothered her now she intended to blow her horn and scream bloody murder for help. There was no way she would allow the would-be killer, probably the "John Black" named on the tape, to complete his mission.
She hoped it wouldn't come to that. If she could, she wanted to help Clark continue to conceal the existence of Kryptonite for as long as he could. Lex certainly wouldn't be doing much talking about it, or Mrs. Cox either.
Of course, all that depended on how badly Clark was hurt.
She cut the engine and squirmed around to look between the seats at her passenger. The red cape was blotched with darker red patches of blood, and she shoved it impatiently aside.
The wound was high on his back, directly over the right shoulder blade. The bullet must have struck the bone, she thought. Was there anything vital in that area? She didn't know, even for a human. How was she supposed to have any idea for a man from another planet?
"Lois—" The word was a breathy whisper. "Kryptonite…poison." He inhaled and seemed to gather his resolve. "You…have to take it out."
*She* had to do it? "I…"
"Please!" The word was spoken more strongly.
She gulped. At least he didn't appear to be bleeding so heavily, now. Maybe he hadn't been hurt as badly as she first thought. Maybe most of the problems came from the poisonous nature of the bullet rather than the physical damage. Lex had seemed to imply that much in his order to Mrs. Cox.
Drawing a deep breath, she made her decision. "We need to get back to my place. I can't do it here."
Quickly, she started the engine, put the Jeep in gear and backed out of the parking spot. The Metropolis traffic was at its lowest ebb right now, although there were still plenty of cars on the street. The trip to her apartment seemed to take forever, but it was actually less than fifteen minutes before she pulled the Jeep into a parking place behind her apartment building.
There was a back entrance to the building, next to a big, utilitarian dumpster, although it was certainly locked at this hour. Taking Superman in by the front way hadn't seemed like a good idea, so she hoped she could pick this lock as easily as she had the ones on the handcuffs last Saturday night. Lois jumped out and hurried over to it.
Picking the lock was easier than it had been for the handcuffs. As she ran back to the Jeep, she made a mental note to speak to Mr. Tracewski about building security. If she could pick the back door lock with her as yet new skill, what could an experienced burglar do?
The struggle to get Superman into the building, to the elevator and up to her apartment was a nightmare. The Man of Steel leaned heavily on her and she could tell he was exerting all his willpower to stay on his feet but, for all that, they nearly didn't make it. When she kicked the door shut behind them, Superman collapsed forward onto the rug. All she could do was break his fall.
He was breathing hard. "Help me, Lois."
"Stay right there." She swallowed nervously. "I'm going to get some things."
She turned and automatically slid the door chain into place, then half-ran into her tiny kitchen. What on Earth was she supposed to use to dig a bullet out of Superman? The whole idea made her stomach lurch, but he was counting on her. She couldn't fail him.
The best candidate seemed to be a small paring knife. She swallowed nervously, selected a couple of clean dishtowels from a drawer and returned to the living area.
He hadn't moved. He was lying on his face, eyes closed, his forehead resting on his left arm. His face was shiny with a light coating of perspiration. Lois dropped to her knees beside him.
"Superman," she ventured, "can you hear me?"
His eyes came open and he turned his head to look at her.
"I'm going to try to take the bullet out, but it's going to hurt."
He nodded, and she could see him shudder slightly.
Carefully, she felt with her fingertips around the wound. She could *feel* the thing! It was lodged against his shoulder blade. It was something of a miracle in itself, she thought, that it hadn't broken the bone and damaged who knew how many vital things underneath, but maybe this wasn't going to be quite as bad as she'd first thought. With the tip of the knife she probed into the wound as carefully as she could, biting her lip at Clark's gasp of pain, and found the bullet. She slipped the point of her paring knife under the hard, little object and pressed gently upward.
There it was. With one of the dishtowels, she picked up the bullet. It was stained with red, but when she wiped away the blood, it glowed green in the light of the apartment.
Green—like that pendent worn by Mrs. Cox in Jimmy's photograph, when she and Superman had been talking in front of the bank. This had to be Kryptonite: the substance Jason Trask had believed would kill Superman.
With a quick scramble she was on her feet, the only thought in her mind to get this stuff away from Clark as fast as she could. What could she do with it? She had no idea what distance was safe for him, and besides, she wanted to be sure that no one would ever find it again. Well, the best solution seemed to be the sewer system. The likelihood of its ever being found there seemed pretty remote. Lois flushed it down the toilet, and followed the initial flush with a second one, just to be on the safe side, then hurried back to Clark.
The removal of the Kryptonite seemed to have improved the situation already. His breathing was easier and he was trying to push himself up on his arms.
"Superman, don't move," she told him. "You're still bleeding. I'm going to bandage your shoulder, all right?"
He nodded and lowered his head to his forearm again.
Lois thought. Normally, her first aid supplies around the apartment consisted of a box of Band-Aids and a bottle of iodine. But a few months ago the local Cub Scouts had had a fundraiser, selling small, individual first aid kits, and Lois had been unable to resist the two young boys who had shown up at her door. The little first aid kit had gone into a closet, never to be thought of again until now.
It was still there, sitting between a desk fan and the dust buster. Clutching it like a life preserver, she returned to Superman.
The shirt was definitely ruined. Even if there was some reasonable way to patch spandex—and somehow the idea of Superman flying around in a patched uniform just didn't seem right—it was unlikely the blood would ever come out. She removed the cape and took a small pair of scissors out of the kit.
"Superman, I'm going to have to cut this off," she said. "I can't get at the wound any other way."
He nodded, eyes closed. She snipped away the cloth, trying to disturb him as little as possible. She had never seen Superman look so exhausted. The wound had begun to bleed sluggishly again when she removed the bullet. She blotted it up with the remaining clean towel and proceeded to bandage the damaged shoulder as well as she could. When she had finished, the result wasn't exactly the most professional in appearance, but she figured it would do the job.
Superman was still resting his head on his good arm. She sat back on her heels and wiped away the perspiration that was running into her eyes. "Superman, are you all right?"
"Yeah." The word was muffled and he didn't raise his head. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. How do you feel?"
He was silent for a moment and when he spoke his voice was stronger. "Better, actually. Where's the Kryptonite?"
"In the sewer system by now."
"Good." He seemed to relax a little. Lois checked her work on his shoulder. In spite of her amateur doctoring, it seemed to be holding well enough.
"If I help you, do you think you can stand? I'd like to get you off the floor."
"In a minute."
"Okay." She continued to sit beside him, wondering what to do now, and what she would do if he fell asleep. She couldn't leave him on the rug.
"Superman?" she said, finally.
"Are you awake?"
"Mm…yeah." He shook his head slightly. "Sorry."
He had dozed off, then, she thought.
"If I help you, can you get up? You can't sleep on the rug."
"Yeah, I think so."
"Put your arm over my shoulders." She braced herself to take his weight, but he was able to support himself better now. Lois glanced at her sofa and rejected that notion in the same instant. She was sure he would object but she realized, glancing at his strained face, that he was concentrating so hard on staying on his feet that he hadn't noticed where she was leading him. It wasn't until she was helping him to sit down on the edge of her bed that he seemed to become aware of the fact.
"I'm not going to argue about this," she said, in her best no-nonsense voice. "You're in no shape to go anywhere tonight, and if you try to sleep on my sofa you'll probably get blood on it. Lie down. I'm too tired to discuss it at this hour." She pulled the sheet and blankets down. "Get in."
He opened his mouth, closed it again and nodded.
"Okay," he said, meekly, and let Lois help him to stretch out on the bed, face down. She pulled his boots off without getting an argument from him and pushed his feet fully onto the bed.
"I probably should take you to the emergency room," she said, pulling the covers over him, but leaving the bandage exposed, "but I know why you don't want anyone to know. I warn you, though, if you get any worse during the night, I'm calling the paramedics. Is that clear?"
He nodded, eyes closed. "Yes. Thank you, Lois. You saved my life."
"We'll talk about it in the morning," she said, more gently. "Good night, Superman."
Lois woke at nine the next morning, after a very disturbed night of repeated trips into the bedroom to check on her super-patient. She glanced at the clock, figuring she had probably managed to accumulate as many as five full hours of sleep over the night.
Quietly, she tiptoed into the bedroom. Clark was sleeping soundly, his face all but buried in the pillow, and she took a moment to admire the torso now fully exposed from the waist up. Wow. And to think that was what her partner had been hiding under his suits with their flashy ties. Well, no more accepting people at face value for her. She'd thought that she knew better than that, too. Last Saturday night had been a wake-up call in more ways than one.
She crept across the small room, collected clothing from her dresser and retreated to the bathroom for a quick shower, trying to make as little noise as possible. She must have succeeded for when she emerged ten minutes later he was still sleeping. She tiptoed past him into the living room. Clark liked tea better than coffee, she recalled. At least she could make that.
It was a few minutes later that she heard him stirring around. She walked to the entrance of the bedroom and knocked softly.
"Come in." If she'd heard his voice, not knowing it was Superman, the cat would have been out of the bag long since, she thought, as she entered the room. Clark was sitting on the edge of the bed, feeling his shoulder experimentally.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
He glanced up at her and smiled cautiously. "Better. You saved my life. Thank you."
"You're welcome." She moved toward him uncertainly. "Do you need any help?"
"Well—" He dropped his gaze. "I could use a hand to the bathroom."
"Sure." She moved around the bed and helped him to stand. He staggered a little, and Lois put an arm around his waist. "Put your arm over my shoulder. I don't bite."
Tentatively, he obeyed and rested some of his weight on her. "I appreciate this, Lois."
"You don't have to keep thanking me," she said, quietly. "I'd have done it for anybody."
"I know," he said. "But thank you, anyway."
"No problem. Come on, now." She helped him the short distance to the little bathroom. "Do you think you can manage? There are plenty of things to hang onto in there."
"Yeah." He was panting slightly. "I guess I'll just have to forego brushing my teeth this morning," he added with a slight smile.
"There's a spare in the drawer," she told him. "It's still in the package. Go ahead and use it."
"I didn't mean—"
"Just go ahead," she said. "I can always get another one. I'll put something you can wear on the foot of the bed. I have a pair of Clark's sweats that he loaned me a couple of months ago and I forgot to give back." She pushed the bathroom door open. "There's towels on the rack. Yell if you need any help."
After he had closed the door she went to the dresser and found the sweats. She glanced thoughtfully at the bathroom door as she heard the water come on. The situation was a delicate one. That was Clark in there, and she wanted badly to help him all she could. But, at the same time, fawning over Superman wouldn't be such a good idea, because it would reinforce his conviction that her crush on Superman was intact.
Well, it would only be reasonable that she'd want to check his injury, wouldn't it? She returned to the living area and found the little first aid kit where she had left it last night. She would simply treat him the way a friend would treat any other friend, she thought. That decided, she spent the next twenty minutes trying not to fret and pace.
The tea water boiled and she dropped in leaves, hoping that she didn't get it too strong or too weak for Superman's taste, and, as an afterthought, set out bowls, spoons and dry cereal. At least she didn't have to prepare that, so she couldn't ruin it.
The creak of the bathroom door hinge—she really had to oil that thing, she thought, irrelevantly—alerted her to the fact that Superman was emerging from the bathroom. She knocked on the partition between the rooms. "Need any help?"
"Um—no, I think I can manage." Superman's voice sounded slightly embarrassed. "Are these the sweats?"
"Yeah. Right on the foot of the bed," Lois said. "Don't put the shirt on yet. I want to check your shoulder."
"All right." She could hear him moving around, occasional muffled thumps and once a softly spoken exclamation that might have been a mild cuss word. She smiled to herself. One didn't think of Superman, or even Clark, as ever swearing but he probably did at least occasionally. He was just too much of a gentleman to do so in the presence of others, and she doubted he was much in the habit of it, anyway. Superman couldn't afford to accidentally let slip such language in the wrong company.
"Lois," he said, finally.
"I guess I'm ready for you."
"Okay." She picked up the first aid kit and entered the room.
He was sitting on the bed wearing the sweat pants. His feet were bare and so was the wide expanse of chest. She felt her eyes widen slightly at the sight but kept her voice steady. "So, how does the shoulder feel this morning?"
"A little stiff." He moved it cautiously. "Everything seems to work, though, so I don't think any serious damage was done."
"Well, I don't know if I'll be able to tell anything," she said, "but I'm going to take the bandage off and put a fresh one on, and in the meantime I might as well see what it looks like. Okay?"
He gave her one of those beautiful smiles. "Okay."
She sat down behind him and began to carefully remove the bandage.
The whole area around the bullet wound was bruised and discolored. The puncture itself, however, appeared to have closed sufficiently and there didn't seem to be any signs of infection. Could Earth germs affect Superman? She didn't know, but considering all the bleeding he'd done last night, even if they could he'd probably washed them out of his system.
"It's looking pretty good," she said, finally. "I'm just going to tape one of these big pads over it and I think it will be okay."
"I'm sure it will." He turned his head to watch her work. "I really owe you a lot over this, but I didn't know anyone else to call that I was completely sure I could trust."
"Thank you." She smiled a little. "I won't tell anyone about the Kryptonite, you can be sure of that. I tried to get hold of you last night, to warn you, but it was already too late." She patted the last piece of tape into place. "There, all done. You can put the shirt on now."
"Thanks." He picked up the article of clothing and began to wiggle his way into it. "Uh, Lois…"
"Hold still." She stood up and held the sleeves for him, and he slid his arms carefully into them. She pulled it down. "Okay?"
"Yeah. Thanks again." He looked embarrassed. "Once my powers come back, this should heal up quickly."
"You don't have any powers?"
He shook his head. "Not right now. They should come back after while. I've only been exposed to Kryptonite once before and then it took a couple of days to get back to normal."
"Oh. But they *will* come back?"
"I'm pretty sure they will. I don't know for sure, of course." He looked very sober for an instant. "But what did you mean you tried to warn me?"
"Clark and I didn't have time to listen to that tape, yesterday—the one you retrieved for us? After my 'date' with Lex last night, I listened to some of it. I heard him tell Mrs. Cox to hire a hit man—let me play it for you." She went to pick up the recorder from her dresser, and rewound the tape. "The recorder's voice activated, so there isn't hours and hours of nothing—there."
She pushed the "play" button and they listened to the critical section of tape.
"I called for you, but it was too late," she said, when it had finished. "I'm sure there's a lot more on this that we should hear, too. I'm going to listen to the rest of it after breakfast. Speaking of which, I have it ready in the kitchen. Don't worry," she added, "I'm only serving cereal from a box."
He chuckled. "I'm not worried."
"Well, if you're not invulnerable, maybe you should be. Can you make it all right?"
"I think so." He stood up carefully. "So what's on the menu this morning?"
While they ate, Lois asked, "What happened to you last night? John Black was supposed to take you prisoner. How did you escape?"
"Mostly luck." He took a cautious sip of tea. "Good tea. Anyway, I was over the south side. I've been doing more patrols of the area recently because of all the arsons, you know. I saw the fire literally explode, and figured it had to be a fire bomb."
"Reasonable conclusion," Lois said.
"Yeah. I flew down to investigate, and to try to put it out. I was in the air over the building when a cop came running up. I'd turned to get the best angle to blow it out when I heard the gun go off."
"A *cop* shot you?"
Superman grimaced. "I doubt that he was really a police officer."
"Anyway, I was hit, and started to fall." He took another sip of tea. "Let's say, I didn't have any illusions about what would happen if the guy got hold of me. I guessed Luthor had to be behind it when I realized the bullet was Kryptonite."
"You knew that day in front of the bank."
"I suspected it. Then you found that picture of Mrs. Cox with the pendant. Clark showed me what you'd discovered and I knew right away what it had to be. I'm sorry. I should have told you."
"You're darned right you should have!" She glared at him for an instant. "You should know by now that you can trust me. Clark and I aren't going to do anything to hurt you!"
"I realize that." He smiled apologetically at her. "I *am* sorry."
"I guess I can forgive you, if you promise not to do it again. Anyway, after you were shot, how did you get away?"
"I was still in the air," he explained. "I had a little power left and used it to get as far away as I could before I crashed. It was about two blocks."
"Oh," she said. She swallowed.
"Then," he continued, unaware of her reaction to his matter-of-fact recital, "I tried to make it to the phone, but it took a while. I had to hide once because he showed up looking for me. By the time I made it, I didn't have much strength left. After that, I hid, just in case he came back. That's all. You got there a little while later."
She smiled briefly. "Well, let's hope I don't have to do that again. You heard what they're planning to do with John Black."
Superman nodded. "We need to find him."
Lois paused, spoon halfway to her mouth. "If we do, won't the information about the Kryptonite come out?"
"Maybe. He isn't likely to admit what he did unless we bring it up, though."
"Maybe not to the police, but he might brag to his friends," she pointed out.
"Agreed, but we can't just let Luthor kill him. Besides, when his friends see that I'm alive and unhurt they probably won't believe him. It's pretty far fetched if you don't know the whole story."
"True. And Lex and Mrs. Cox have good reasons not to admit anything," Lois added. "I have an idea. I'm going to phone Jimmy."
"Yeah," she was saying to Jimmy ten minutes later, "the guy's name is John Black. He's been used to start a lot of the fires in the south side in the past few weeks, including the one last night. Do you think you and Jack can find him?"
Jimmy sounded enthusiastic. "We can sure try! Jack's got the contacts for it."
"The guy will do any job for enough money," Lois said. "We need some leverage with him. I'm trying to get evidence on the people who hired him—the ones really behind the arsons."
"You mean Lex Luthor," Jimmy said, lowering his voice.
"Jimmy, how did you—"
"Let's say I've heard a few rumors," Jimmy said. "Besides, I know CK doesn't trust him."
"Yeah, well don't say that out loud again if you want to stay healthy," Lois cautioned. "And be careful. There's a good chance Luthor may try to eliminate him after last night. He knows too much."
"Gotcha," Jack's voice said. He was on the conference room extension. "Leave it to us. We'll call you back when we've got something. This is gonna be fun."
The rest of the tape contained no remarks about Superman. There was one comment from Mrs. Cox indicating that Black had been contacted and had accepted the assignment, and Lex had authorized the release of four K-tipped bullets to him. Lois and Superman looked at each other at that revelation, but neither commented. Several other conversations were apparently in reference to various business ventures and tactics to use in securing the desired results. Lois took notes.
Around noon, Lois gave her houseguest a lift over to Clark Kent's apartment. Superman hadn't wanted to impose on her a second night, and told her that Clark would let him stay at his place as long as he needed to. Lois, who had her own plans for the afternoon, was willing to oblige.
"Are you sure you'll be all right?" she asked.
He nodded. "Yes. The last time I ran into this stuff, it took about two days to wear off. Besides—" he looked at the tape recorder, "something tells me I should keep a low profile for awhile."
"At least until we can get hold of the other three bullets," Lois agreed. "And Lex may have more Kryptonite, too. We don't know how much there originally was." She added, "There isn't any chance anyone can see the recorder, is there?"
He shook his head. "No. Clark told me it had to be within five hundred feet on a line of sight from the microphone, if possible. I put it on the ledge that runs around the Moritomi Building, about ten feet down from the roof. It's completely out of sight, and only about four hundred feet away from Lex Tower. It'll be safe until I can recover it."
"That's a relief," Lois said. "It's Saturday, so he probably won't conduct much business today, anyway."
"Probably not," Superman agreed. "Lois, you *are* being careful around Luthor, aren't you? The man's perfectly capable of killing you if he thinks you've betrayed him."
"Yes, I am," she said, reassuringly. "But we need to gather the information quickly."
"Well…" She glanced up at his face. Why, she questioned herself again, why hadn't she recognized him as Clark long ago? The half-comical, half-worried expression on his face at just that moment was so…so *Clark*! "He asked me to marry him last night."
"Yeah," Lois said.
"You didn't accept, did you? I mean, in order to keep in contact with him or anything?"
"Of course not!" she said, indignantly. "I don't think I could stomach it, to tell you the truth. I told him I needed time to think about it. But I won't be able to stall him very long."
"No, I can see that." Superman frowned. "Well, Jimmy and Jack may come up with something, and you have those other leads, too. After tomorrow, we'll have the next tape. If we can pin these arsons on him we'll have a pretty good start."
Lois nodded. "I agree. Well, are you ready?"
He smiled wryly. "I guess."
"We'll take it slow," Lois said. "If you need to, just hang onto me, Okay?"
"You're sure Clark won't mind if you come in while he's gone? I tried calling a while ago and got his answering machine."
He hesitated, started to say something, and apparently changed his mind. "He won't mind. We're friends."
I'll bet, she thought, but that hesitation and the look on his face stayed in her mind. What had he been going to say?
She opened the door to the hall and they exited the apartment. One of the older tenants was passing by with a bag of groceries in her arms, and the once-over she gave Clark, then the one of combined envy and disapproval for Lois was one for the books, Lois thought. As they made their slow way toward the elevator, she couldn't help the chuckle that escaped.
"What?" Superman asked.
"Mrs. Adams," Lois said, by way of explanation. "She's the biggest gossip in the building."
"Is my being here going to cause you trouble?" he asked, obviously concerned.
"No. It may enhance my reputation, though. Did you see her look you over?" They paused by the elevator and Lois rang for the car. He glanced after the retreating tenant.
"Don't worry about it," she said. "I'm of age. Who I have in my apartment is nobody's business but mine."
The elevator doors opened at that moment and they boarded. Mrs. Tracewski, the manager's wife, was in the car. She glanced at Lois, then looked Clark frankly up and down. "Hello, Ms. Lane. Is this a friend of yours?"
"Yes," Lois said. "Mrs. Tracewski, this is, um…"
Clark stuck out a hand. "Kal," he told her. "Pleased to meet you."
The plump, little woman shook Clark's hand and looked at Lois with a distinct twinkle in her eye. "He's a nice, big boy," she told Lois. "Good grip, too. I like him."
Clark, Lois noticed, was rapidly turning an interesting shade of pink, which undoubtedly convinced Mrs. Tracewski of the truth of her assumptions. Well, after all, Clark *had* spent the night in her bed…alone, and definitely not in any shape to think of anything but sleep. Oh, well, maybe some day…Maybe she'd keep the toothbrush, just in case.
After Clark entered his apartment, using the spare key that he kept on the ledge above the door, she returned to the Jeep. She had business to take care of, and Clark wasn't in any shape to help, even if he didn't object—which she was sure he would, if he knew about it. That was why she hadn't told him.
She returned to her apartment for a change of clothing and the supplies she might need. The Moritomi Building was open on Saturday, although the traffic through it was considerably lighter than during the week. Getting in, wearing a generic, white coverall and cap, and carrying a toolbox, elicited no attention from anyone.
She rode the elevator to the roof, stepped out onto the gritty surface and looked around.
It was a cloudy day and rain had been threatening since last night. The breeze was damp, this far up, and brisk; occasional gusts threatened the hat she had jammed down tightly over her head.
Orienting herself by the position of Lex Tower, four hundred feet away, she removed a small pair of binoculars from the toolbox.
At the edge of the roof, she lifted the binoculars to her eyes and scanned the ledge running a mere ten feet below her for a small, black recorder. There it was, about forty feet to her right. She lowered the binoculars, unable to believe her luck. Superman had placed the recorder against the wall under a small, decorative protrusion, which rendered it virtually invisible to observers unless, like her, they were specifically looking for it. But, barely ten feet away, a fire escape ran down the side of the building. That made her job easier.
She double-checked her pockets. The batteries and replacement tape were secure in one zippered pocket. She replaced the binoculars in the tool kit and removed a coil of nylon rope. This should do nicely. She'd figured she might have to do some climbing, but the fire escape's presence was a stroke of luck. Quickly and neatly, she descended the metal ladder until she was at the level of the ledge. Careful not to look past it to the drop below, she tied her rope to the railing of the fire escape, then knotted it a second time for security. The other end she looped around her waist and knotted it twice as well. Clark always complained that she took too many unnecessary chances. Well, this time he wouldn't be able to say that.
Cautiously, she made her way onto the ledge. It felt narrower than it had seemed when looking at it from above. It must be, she assured herself, at least eighteen inches wide. If she was careful there should be no difficulty, as long as she didn't look down. The recorder was barely ten feet away. This should be a piece of cake.
Well, she amended, a few minutes later and a couple of feet farther along the ledge, if not a piece of cake, at least not very hard. For a second she let her gaze slide past the ledge to the drop beyond. Hastily, she brought her focus back to the stone surface in front of her, breathing hard. She was still there!
If she decided against this now, a small portion of her brain pointed out, she could back up, reach the safety of the fire escape, and then wait until tomorrow for Clark to retrieve the tape.
But, another part pointed out, that might be too late. Even if she slipped, the rope would catch her, and her goal was now only eight feet away. She edged forward another inch, pressing hard against the wall to her left.
Moving one hand or one knee at a time, she crept forward by inches, eyes fixed on the ornamental projection beneath which Superman had placed the recorder. One foot, two, three…She moved slowly, cautiously, making sure each hand and knee placement was secure before lifting the next to edge forward another fraction of an inch.
It seemed to take hours, and the ledge seemed to grow narrower by the second, but her goal moved slowly but steadily nearer, and at last the projection was within reach.
Moving slowly and with great care, she unzipped the pocket which held the new tape and batteries, then she slipped the tiny recorder from its hiding place and pressed the lever that popped open the top. Delicately, she removed the tiny microtape, slipped it into her breast pocket and zipped the pocket closed. Still moving by fractions of an inch, she substituted the new tape for the old and closed the little compartment. She drew a deep breath. Next, the batteries.
The compartment that held the recorder's batteries stuck for an instant, and she felt perspiration break out on her forehead in spite of the chilly breeze, as she tugged one-handed at the catch. Her balance was precarious at best; she couldn't make any sudden move or she could upset it and fall. True, the rope was there, but this far above the street and this far from the fire escape, her trust in it was less complete than it had been on solid footing. Funny how much farther ten feet could seem from this position than from the safety of the fire escape. Besides, if she fell, she could lose the recorder.
The catch came free. Drawing a deep breath, she removed the old batteries, stored them in the pocket, and took out the new ones. Batteries were small, but if one fell from this height anyone struck by the object could very well be seriously hurt or killed. One by one she slipped the new batteries into place and, with a gasp of relief, snapped the cover shut. In another second, the tiny recorder had been replaced beneath the projection.
Now, to back up.
She began her backward trip, moving a fraction of an inch at a time. Her heart was pounding suffocatingly in her chest.
When she had planned this earlier, it hadn't seemed nearly as intimidating as the actual deed. Once more she made the mistake of looking down and froze in sheer terror. Quickly, she brought her gaze back to the ledge.
She couldn't even look around to see how far away the fire escape was, for fear of upsetting her very unstable balance. All she could do was to back up, inch by agonizing inch.
A drop of rain hit her cheek. That drop was only the precursor, for to her dismay, the drops began to patter around her, striking the ledge, the wall beside her, everywhere. Water hit her in the eyes and she didn't dare reach up to wipe it away. A gust of wind blew a flurry of drops into her face and she gasped, sucking in water. She choked, coughed…
And felt herself slip. She grasped desperately for something to hold to and only succeeded in further destabilizing her position.
Then she was falling. Only a tremendous exercise of will prevented her from screaming. She grasped the nylon rope with fingers gone stiff from the chill and tension, desperately hoping it would save her now. The last thing she saw was the fire escape coming at her like an express train, and then her head struck the metal railing with a burst of stars. The lights went out.
The first thing Lois was aware of was a blinding headache. The fact that she seemed to be swinging back and forth in the air, and being splatted by large drops of water didn't help, either, and the ringing in her ears made it worse.
Something about the situation seemed vaguely wrong, but with the pain in her head and the nausea roiling in her stomach, it was hard to think.
She wasn't going to open her eyes yet, she decided, firmly, not until she'd figured out what she was doing here. If some villain was behind this…no, now memory was coming back between the waves of pain and nausea. She'd come up here after the tape, and there had been the ledge. She'd fallen, and the rope had saved her. That must be what was cutting painfully into her middle as she swung back and forth in the cold breeze. She'd hit the railing of the fire escape; that was it.
Well, she'd certainly hit something. She opened her eyes, only to close them again at the sight that met her eyes. After a long count of ten, she opened them a second time.
She was hanging by her waist from the twenty-foot length of rope tied to the fire escape, and staring down at least a hundred stories at the pavement so far below that the cars looked like toys and the people, ants.
Her vision had a disturbing tendency to blur on her but, from what she could see, no one had noticed her; at least there was no crowd gathered below. She rotated slowly at the end of her rope. Something red ran across her face and dripped off her nose to fall like a scarlet raindrop toward the ground. Blood. She must have cut herself when she hit her head.
Her body slowly rotated, and her hand struck metal. The fire escape. She grasped the railing and hauled herself toward the thing, hooked one foot on a rung and pulled herself upright.
The sudden change of position caused her head to swim alarmingly and her stomach abruptly revolted. She began to retch, clinging desperately to the fire escape.
When the waves of nausea receded, she looked cautiously up.
Thirty feet above her was the roof. She had descended ten feet to the ledge, and the rope was a good twenty feet long beyond that. The distance looked impossible to her, but she couldn't stay here. Shaking in every limb, she began to climb.
Her progress was painfully slow. She had to stop every few rungs to close her eyes against the dizziness, which accompanied every motion of her head, and her vision would blur, clear and blur again. Nausea made her stop several times to retch. Dimly, she recalled an article she had read somewhere that had detailed the symptoms of a concussion. They matched.
Resting every couple of rungs, she climbed. Blood ran into her eyes, mixed with rainwater and she wiped it away. She must be a real mess, she reflected grimly. Well, one step at a time. First, she had to get her feet on solid ground and then she would deal with the other problems.
At last she crawled over the edge of the roof and sank down on the rough surface, resting her head back against the low wall that ran around the roof. The big drops of rain fell, not that it mattered. She couldn't possibly get wetter if she tried. Runnels of blood mixed with the water ran onto the saturated, formerly white coverall. Her vision blurred again, then cleared slowly. She began to shiver as the effects of her exertion started to wear off, now that she was safely on the roof. No matter how much she wished to simply stay here, she had to move. Slowly, she got to her feet, picked up the toolbox and started for the door to the elevator.
A tug at her waist stopped her. She had completely forgotten to remove the rope. With fingers that felt like limp spaghetti, she tugged at the knot.
The rope was wet and she had tied it tight in the beginning; at first, she made no progress at all. Finally, she recalled the pocketknife she kept in the tool kit, opened the box and found it.
Getting it open wasn't easy. She had already torn two nails in her attempts to loosen the rope, but at last, and at the cost of a torn thumbnail as well, she managed to open the large blade and, after fumbling a little, the rope around her waist fell away.
Not even bothering to close the knife, she thrust it back into the tool kit, closed it and started for the elevator again. If she ran into anyone, she'd just tell him she'd had an accident and was going to the emergency room.
That was it. Something seemed wrong with that, but she was in no condition to think too hard about it.
The elevator arrived at last, mercifully empty, and she boarded. The sudden cessation of the cold rain and gusts of wind was almost disorienting in itself; her head swam unpleasantly and she had to grasp the safety rail to stay on her feet when the car went into motion.
The elevator went to the ground floor without pausing; that was strange, she thought, and glanced at her watch. It was half past six. The Moritomi Building had closed half an hour ago. Considering that she had arrived about one thirty, between the time on the ledge, the time she had spent unconscious and her slow climb up the ladder, almost five hours had passed. She only hoped she could figure out how to get out of here without much trouble. She wasn't in any shape for anything complicated.
As it happened, an elderly janitor was in the lobby when the elevator arrived on the ground floor. He turned at the sound of the doors opening and stared at her in shock. "What happened?"
"I was doing work on the roof," Lois said. Her voice sounded hoarse and cracked. "I slipped and knocked myself out. Can you let me out?"
"Do you want me to call 911" the man asked, staring at her blood-streaked face in fascination.
"No, thanks. I'm…my assistant is with the truck. He'll drive me to the emergency room to get this stitched up," she managed, aware of how strange she sounded. "It was my own fault. Would you please let me out?"
"If you're sure you don't need help…"
"It looks much worse than it is," Lois assured him. "Scalp wounds bleed a lot more than you'd think."
"Yeah, I guess…" The old man went to the door and took out a big bunch of keys. "Okay, here you go. You go straight to the doctor, now."
"I will. I feel so stupid about this." She made her way out the doors and down the steps, trying to walk as steadily as she could. The Jeep was parked around the corner and all she could think of was to get to it and sit down. If the guy had second thoughts and called the cops she didn't want to be anywhere they could find her.
Her head was still swimming unpleasantly and the last half block was accomplished more by sheer determination than anything else. Her keys were in one zipped pocket and her fingers were so stiff she almost couldn't unzip it to get at them, then she almost dropped the ring while trying to fit the key into the lock. In a way, the rain was fortunate for her; between that and the dusk that was beginning to fall, no one gave her more than a cursory glance as she struggled with the lock. At last the door swung open and she clambered inside.
The cab of the Jeep was only marginally warmer than the air outside, but at least it was dry. She leaned forward, crossed her arms on the wheel and leaned her head on them. There was no way she could drive like this. Like it or not, she was going to have to call for help.
Her cell phone was in the map pouch on the driver's door, close to her foot. She retrieved it with stiff fingers and pushed the speed dial for Clark's phone.
If she had been thinking more clearly, she would probably have called someone else, but she wasn't. Her instinct when she was in trouble was to call him, whatever guise he happened to be in. After three rings her partner's voice answered. "Hello?"
"Clark?" she rasped.
"Lois? What's wrong?" His voice was instantly sharp with anxiety.
"I need help," she whispered.
"Where are you?"
Her head was throbbing as if it were being beaten with a sledgehammer. "Moritomi…Building."
"Stay where you are!" he commanded. "I'll be there as fast as I can!"
She was awakened, sometime later, by someone opening her door. Clark's horrified face was staring at her.
"Good Lord, Lois! What happened?"
She blinked at him, dazed. "I…fell."
"Off what? The building? No, never mind. Can you move to the other seat? No, let me help you."
With his assistance, she moved clumsily into the passenger seat. Clark leaned across her and pushed the lever to tilt it back, then, when she relaxed back into a semi-reclining position with a sigh of relief, he pulled the seat belt across her shoulder and lap. "Sit still. I'm going to drive you to the emergency room. Where's your keys? Oh, wait a minute—" He retrieved them from the door lock. She heard the door slam and the engine start up, but was content to lie back in the seat, eyes closed against the anvil chorus playing inside her head, as the Jeep moved out into traffic.
She was aware of the swaying of the vehicle and Clark's voice as he drove, speaking to her.
"Lois, wake up! You mustn't go to sleep on me!"
"Mm awake," she murmured. "My head hurts."
"I'll bet." Her partner sounded scared. "Stay awake, okay? The traffic's pretty heavy. It's rush hour. What happened?"
She didn't answer, preferring to lie back, eyes closed.
"I'm awake," she managed, startled into full wakefulness by his voice. "Sorry." She opened her eyes and turned her head gingerly to see him squinting through rain-blurred glass at the oncoming headlights, distorted into multi-colored rainbow patterns by the pelting rain. It was dark. Where had the sunlight gone?
"What happened to you?" he demanded.
She closed her eyes again. "I went to get the tape," she said.
"I went to get the tape. Lex already tried to kill Superman once. I was afraid he'd try something else, so I went to get it. I tied a rope to the fire escape in case I slipped."
"I guess you slipped," Clark said. His voice sounded shaken.
She nodded, and winced at the pain that instantly shot through her head. "I must have hit my head on the fire escape. I sort of remember."
"Good grief, Lois, what were you thinking?"
Lois lifted a hand to feel her forehead gingerly. The skin was sticky with drying blood. "I needed to know what Lex was up to," she said in a small voice.
"Lois, Superman can take care of himself. He wouldn't like you taking this kind of risk for him."
"It's not just Superman," Lois said. "It's you, too. I don't trust Lex. I've only just begun to realize what he's capable of, and it scares me." She felt the tears she had suppressed until now begin to leak from her eyes.
"Lois!" Clark's voice sounded horrified. "Don't cry! I didn't mean to upset you!"
She wiped her face, opening her eyes to see his distressed expression. They were in a line of traffic stopped by a red light. Rain streaked the windows.
"I'm sorry." She made an effort to reassure him. "I didn't mean to cry; it's just my head hurts, and I didn't get much sleep last night. Lex asked me to marry him at dinner, and I'm…I'm afraid of what he might do."
"I understand," he said. "I won't say any more. Just lie back, close your eyes and relax, okay?"
"Okay." She reached out and grasped his hand. "Clark?"
"Yeah?" He still looked worried.
"Thanks for coming."
"You needed help," he said, quietly. "That was all that mattered."
"Oh, Clark." She squeezed his hand lightly. "What did I ever do to deserve someone like you?"
"I really think you should have stayed for observation," Clark protested for the fourth time as he helped her into the passenger seat of the Jeep, some three hours later.
"Clark, it's nothing! You know how I hate people poking and prodding me," she replied. "I'll be fine."
"But you have a concussion!" Clark closed the door and hurried around to the driver's side. "That's hardly nothing! I'm going to stay with you until your mother gets there, anyway."
She gingerly felt the place on her scalp where they had cut her hair in order to put in six stitches. "My mom's in Albuquerque, visiting her best friend from college."
"But you told the doctor—"
"Oh, that was so they'd let me go," she said, airily. "I'll be fine."
"Lo-is!" Her partner looked sternly at her. "In that case, you're coming home with me. You've got to have somebody with you."
She opened her mouth to protest, then thought better of it. It might not be such a bad idea after all. "Okay," she said, meekly.
He glanced sideways at her, and one dark eyebrow went up. "No arguments?"
"No." She was careful not to shake her head. "You're right. Besides, I'd rather be with you than anybody else."
He looked a little surprised. "Really?"
"Sure." This time she wasn't even surprised at herself to realize that she meant it.
"Okay. Then you just take it easy," Clark told her, sternly. "We'll go past your apartment and I'll go in and pick you up a change of clothes and something to wear tonight. You can tell me what to look for. As for you, you're not lifting a finger. Is that clear?"
She smiled. "If you say so. Really, I'll be good."
"See to it that you do," he said. "You really scared me this evening."
No more than you scared me last night, she wanted to say, but didn't. She relaxed back into the seat. Her head still hurt, though not as fiercely as earlier, and she was just as happy she didn't have to move around much. Clark seemed to have improved a good deal since this morning, too, although she noticed he still moved his right shoulder with caution.
The stop by her apartment didn't take long; he picked up jeans and a blouse for her, and even a change of underthings, although from his expression she expected to see Superman break a sweat when she mentioned her need for those. He also found her a pair of flannel pajamas, suitable for the chilly fall weather, as well as a robe and the fuzzy slippers Lucy had given her for her last birthday. They stopped by his favorite all night deli to pick up thick sandwiches for dinner, then he drove them to his apartment. By that time it was past eleven, and Lois was half-asleep when they pulled up at the apartment house.
Inside, he sent her into the bathroom for a hot shower to counteract the soaking she had experienced earlier, although she was long since dry, while he busied himself in the kitchen. When she emerged some ten minutes later, in pajamas, robe and slippers, he had the food and two tall glasses of milk ready for them both.
Lois sank onto the sofa with a sigh of relief and picked up the hearty sandwich. Her stomach had been rumbling for the past hour. She was only glad that Clark's super-hearing was probably still not working, so he was unlikely to hear it. She sank her teeth into the sandwich and chewed rapturously. "This is good. Why do you always know the best places for food in Metropolis?"
"Just lucky, I guess." He, too, took a large bite of sandwich. What was it Superman had told her once? "I don't have to eat, but I like to," or something like that. Well, judging from his appetite, he liked very much to eat. It was a good thing he was Superman or he'd have had weight problems by now. Clark was, in many respects, a very normal guy if you discounted the super powers, she reflected in sudden understanding. He wanted to be normal; that was why being his real self, as Clark Kent, was so important to him. Clark Kent was his key to fitting in, being like everyone else, rather than the alien who could lift rockets into orbit and swallow bombs. He was also the most fun to be around. How could you have a relationship with Superman, always serious, always with his mind on his duty? But Clark laughed and joked with her, teased her when she was feeling down; Clark was the real, three-dimensional person with strengths and flaws, and more humanity than some truly human men she knew. Falling in love with Clark Kent wouldn't be a difficult thing at all. Not when the job had already been mostly accomplished before she'd become aware of it.
"What are you thinking about?" His voice broke through her thoughts.
"Not much," she said, untruthfully. "Do you have a tape player around here? I'd like to hear what's on that thing I went through all this for."
"Sure." He rose and disappeared into the bedroom. A moment later he returned with the requested item. "Will this do?"
"Yeah." She produced the microtape. "Let's see what we've got."
The first conversation revolved around some business venture, followed by another, which aroused more interest in both listeners.
"What do you think," Mrs. Cox's voice said, "of using Black for the other assignment as well?"
"That's a possibility," Lex's voice said, briskly. "As long as it's done quickly. There would only be one tool to dispose of afterward, and that much less inconvenience. Very well, do it."
"Yes, sir." The ringing of a phone interrupted Mrs. Cox's voice. A moment later she said, "There's a Mr. Simon Truesdale on line two, sir."
"Ah, yes. I'll take it here." A pause. "Mr. Truesdale, so nice to hear from you. Have you thought about my offer?" Another, longer pause. "I'm sorry to hear that." A faint chill had crept into his voice. "Are you certain you won't reconsider? I have had some information from a confidential source that the Planet's advertisers may soon be switching their accounts to other papers. I'd appreciate it if you'd think about it a little longer. Perhaps we can discuss this again in a couple of weeks. Excellent. I'll speak with you then. Goodbye."
"The Planet?" Lois whispered. "What—"
"Sh!" Clark leaned forward. "Listen."
"What will you do if their Board of Directors won't cooperate?" Mrs. Cox's voice asked.
"They will," Lex's voice said. "All I need to do is determine their price. Come, Mrs. Cox. I believe you and I had plans…" The voices faded away, and then there was a faint click on the tape, indicating that time had passed.
Mrs. Cox's voice was speaking as the voices approached. "Black reports that he was definitely hit, Lex, but he apparently propelled himself for some distance before he came down. Black hunted, and the other team did as well, but they weren't able to find him. There was a good deal of confusion because of the fire. He may have dragged himself off somewhere."
"But there's been no sign of him since." Lex's voice sounded faintly annoyed. "Well, if my informant was correct, it may not matter. Retain the cage, in any case. If he does survive, we may have a use for it yet."
"Of course, Lex."
Lex's voice became very businesslike. "Have the area searched again. Tell them to be sure they go over it inch by inch. In the meantime, I have other things to occupy my attention. What's the status report on Kent?"
"He apparently didn't come home last night," Mrs. Cox said.
"Hmm." There was a creaking sound as Lex apparently settled into his desk chair. "In that case he'll just have to try again. He's to be sure there are no witnesses. It must look like a suicide."
"Of course, Lex. Or, it could be a mugging that turns fatal."
"Only as a last resort," Lex said. "A mugging might be investigated more thoroughly by his partner. Ms. Lane isn't to be given any cause for suspicion, is that clear?"
"Of course, Lex," Mrs. Cox's voice said, sweetly. "Tell me, is one woman really worth all this?"
"One woman?" Lex's voice held a faint coldness. "No, of course not. But Lois Lane? Definitely. You needn't fear, Mrs. Cox. It won't change our relationship in the least. Lois need never know. Still, I must overcome her reluctance to accept my proposal, and that means I must remove my rivals in her affections as expeditiously as possible."
"Superman?" Mrs. Cox asked.
"Yes. As well as her partner, Kent. And the Daily Planet. Sometimes I think Kent may be the most critical of the three. Tell Black to report back to me at once when his assignment is completed, and then you know what to do about him."
"Of course," Mrs. Cox murmured.
The conversation shifted then, to a discussion regarding offshore accounts, but Lois was staring at Clark in sheer horror. "Clark! He's going to try to kill you!"
Clark moved over beside her and slipped an arm around her shoulders. "Don't worry. He won't be able to. Not now that we're warned."
"He must have been watching your apartment!"
Clark nodded. "I was out all last night," he said. "If he's watching tonight, he saw me come in with you. You heard what Luthor said. No witnesses. He won't do anything tonight."
"He's going after the Planet, too," she whispered.
"Yeah. He must be trying to destroy your support structure, so you'll go to him," Clark said, slowly. "That sounds like his style."
Lois stared at him, stricken. "Maybe I should tell him I'll marry him. Then he'd stop."
"I doubt it," Clark said. "I think he wants to be sure you don't have anything to go back to. Never underestimate him. I don't think I've ever met someone more completely evil in my life than Luthor."
She shivered. Clark put his arms around her and held her close. "I won't let him harm you, no matter what," he said, quietly. "I promise."
They sat there for some time, listening to the tape run through. There were more conversations, mostly regarding various business ventures, and one status report on the attempt to acquire the remaining property on the south side at fire sale prices, as it was humorously referred to.
At last, Clark switched it off.
"We'll listen to the rest tomorrow," he said, firmly. "You need your sleep. It's past one. I shouldn't have let this go on so long."
"I don't think I'll be able to sleep," Lois said. "Clark…"
"Yes, you will," he said. "You're sleeping in the bedroom tonight. I'll take the sofa, and if anyone tries to come in, I'll make him sorry he was ever born." He got to his feet, drawing her with him, and steered her toward the bedroom. "Come on, you're worn out."
"I can't take your bed!"
"Yes you can," he informed her, calmly. "Doctor's orders."
"What doctor?" she asked suspiciously.
"Dr. Kent. Don't argue. Besides, it'll be just as well if I don't sleep too soundly. I'll be coming in every now and then to check on you, to be sure I can wake you up. And nobody's getting in here without my knowing it."
Somewhat reassured, she allowed him to lead her into the bedroom, and a short time later, the apartment lights went out except for a small, reading light in the living area.
Lois lay back in Clark's bed, watching the multicolored lights from the window play across the ceiling. Her head still hurt, and the revelations on the tape churned about in her brain, but the pain was more a dull throbbing now than a heavy pounding, and Clark's words had insensibly reassured her. Together they would stop Lex before he could do what he was planning.
She shifted about. Clark's bed was comfortable, but the aches and bruises kept her from relaxing completely. After a time, she drifted off into an uneasy slumber where once again she crawled along the ledge. Ahead of her was the recorder with the tape, which somehow suddenly became Clark, and behind her she knew that Lex waited, smiling, with a chunk of something green and glowing in his hands. She tried to reach Clark, but he retreated ahead of her, while behind her, Lex was coming closer, and she tried to hurry. Suddenly she was slipping, grasping for the ledge, which turned to nothing under her fingers. She felt herself falling and screamed…
And was sitting up in bed in the dark with a cry of terror on her lips. Where was she? For a moment she was unable to separate the dream images from reality, and when a shadowy figure loomed in the doorway, she gasped.
"It's just me," Clark said.
"Yeah. You're at my place after your accident, remember? Are you okay?"
She drew in a breath and tried to calm her pounding heart. "Yeah. I had a nightmare."
"I figured. I was coming to check on you and heard you scream." He sat down on the side of the bed. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I think so," she said. "I was dreaming. I was trying to get to you on the ledge, I think. Lex was behind me, and I slipped…" She shivered. "It doesn't make much sense, now, but for some reason it scared me half to death."
"Well, you're safe now. Lie back down; you need your sleep. It's nearly five. The sun will be up in another hour. I'll be right in the next room if you need me."
"No…" She reached out and caught his hand as he started to stand up. "Stay here with me."
"Huh?" He sounded slightly startled. "You want me here?"
"There's room enough for both of us," she said. "I'll feel safer with you than by myself."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah," she said. "I know it's silly, but…"
"No, not silly." His voice was low. "All right."
He lifted the edge of the blanket and slipped in next to her. "No funny business, now," he said, with a slight chuckle. "Just sleep."
She found herself laughing softly. Leave it to Clark to defuse a potentially embarrassing situation.
"I promise," she said, solemnly. "Just sleep. Your virtue is safe for now."
She turned slightly, as if it was the most natural thing in the world and snuggled into the curve of his body. He was wearing sweats, she noticed as he put his arm over her. Naturally. He wouldn't want her to see the bandage on his back. The thought that she was cuddling up next to Superman—something she could only dream about a little over a week ago—crossed her mind briefly, only to be dismissed. Far more importantly, this was Clark, her best friend and trustworthy protector.
Almost instantly, she felt herself relaxing and within less than a minute she was asleep.
It was the sound of someone knocking on the door the next morning that woke Lois. She opened her eyes and glanced at the other side of the bed.
Clark was gone, although the indentation of his head was still on the pillow. The alarm clock on his nightstand said 08:35.
She smiled to herself. After Clark had gotten in with her, she'd slept soundly, and if there had been any dreams, she couldn't remember them. Maybe that should tell her something, she mused.
The knocking came again, followed by Clark's quick, light footsteps across the living area and the sound of an opening door.
"Hi, CK!" Jimmy's voice said. "We got it!"
"Sh," Clark's voice was kept low. "Come on in, both of you, but keep your voices down. Lois is asleep."
Silence. Clark added, quickly, "It's not what it sounds like. She was in an accident yesterday and I insisted she stay here in case she needed help."
"Is she okay?" Jimmy asked.
"Yeah. She got some bruises, but the doctors at the emergency room thought she'd be all right." There was the sound of a door closing quietly. "Just try to be quiet. She needs all the rest she can get."
Lois got out of bed and grabbed her robe and slippers. Undignified or not, she wanted to hear this. Wrapping the robe around her and jamming her feet into the slippers, Lois padded out of the bedroom.
"Clark?" she called, "is that Jimmy and Jack?"
"Yeah." Clark turned as she entered the living area. "How do you feel this morning?"
She rubbed a tender place on her ribs. "Sore. I never realized before how many muscles the human body has. I can count them individually, now." She caught Jimmy's stunned expression. "What's the matter?"
"CK wasn't kidding! Wow!"
"You have a black eye," Clark said, "and a bruise down the side of your face."
"Not to mention six stitches in my scalp," Lois said, dryly. "I'm going to have to change my hairstyle until it grows out."
"What happened?" Jack asked. "You get mugged?"
"If I told you, you wouldn't believe it," Clark said. "Come on into the kitchen. You can have some coffee while we talk."
"That'd be great.
It's a little chilly out this morning," Jimmy said.
The four of them trailed into the kitchen and Clark poured coffee all around.
"The cream's in the little pitcher," he told them. "Here." He handed her a small container. "I made a trip to the corner grocery this morning for your non-fat creamer and sweetener."
"That was nice of you."
"No problem." He finally sank into one of the kitchen chairs. "So, guys, what have you got for us?"
"We found John Black this morning," Jack said. "He was coming back from somewhere. We talked to him and his brother, Pete, about a job, and Jimmy got it all on tape."
Jimmy held up the tiny recorder. "You were right, by the way—they'll do just about anything that they're paid to do…break in, plant explosives…just like they've been doing on the south side for a woman named Mrs. Cox, in the last several months—burning out businesses. That includes the one night before last. A couple of transients died in that one. He even gave us her number as a reference."
Lois's eyes met Clark's. "We've got her."
"Looks like it. Good work, guys." Clark clapped Jimmy lightly on the back. "I want you to take this straight to Inspector Henderson. He'll be very interested in meeting Mr. Black and his brother—what's his name again…Pete?"
"Yeah. He's about my age." Jack sounded disgusted. "What a loser!"
"Assuming Lex doesn't have them killed before Henderson finds them," Lois said.
"I doubt it. He hasn't killed me, yet," Clark said, calmly. "Superman and I listened to the rest of our tape this morning, Lois. There was one more conversation between Lex and Mrs. Cox—all about financial inducements to the Daily Planet's Board of Directors. I made a copy. I think Henderson should hear it, too."
Lois nodded, and winced at the instant protest of sore neck muscles. "So do I."
"I'll get it," Clark said. He returned with the microtape a moment later. "Here you are."
Jimmy took it and stuck it in his pocket with the other one. "Was this what you wanted that stuff for?"
"Yeah," Clark said. "Get it to Henderson, now. Lois and I need to see a certain Mr. Simon Truesdale as soon as he gets out of church, about Lex Luthor's offer to buy the Planet."
When the two had gone, Lois said," Luthor wants to buy the Planet? Was that what that conversation with Truesdale was about?"
"Yeah. It was made pretty clear in the last conversation. My guess is it's a step in one of his schemes. He did say he had to eliminate his rivals for you, remember."
"How could I forget?" She shivered involuntarily. "I feel like I'm the prey in some kind of perverted hunt. We have to stop him."
"We will," Clark said.
"How's Superman, by the way?" she asked. "I forgot to ask yesterday, with everything that happened, but if you talked to him this morning you must know how he's doing. Have his powers come back, yet?"
"Not yet, but he's feeling much better," Clark said. "In case you're wondering, it was his idea to send a copy of the tape to Henderson. There's that one, small reference of Mrs. Cox about Black shooting Superman, but they didn't name any names. I don't think it will give away anything."
"I think you're right." She finished her coffee and stood up. "I'm going to shower and dress. I'd like to stop by my apartment for something a little more professional if we're going to call on Mr. Truesdale."
"Sure. I'll finish getting breakfast in the meantime. Are bacon and eggs okay?"
"Fine. And, Clark—"
"Thanks for being such a great friend."
He smiled briefly. "You're welcome, Lois. Any time you need your big brother to help—"
She turned, suddenly serious. "I haven't thought of you as any kind of brother for quite awhile. It's just as well I really *did* have a headache last night." And with that, she hurried toward the bedroom to hide her instinctive blush, leaving him staring after her with his mouth open.
Breakfast was an uncharacteristically quiet meal. Clark seemed preoccupied, and Lois guessed he was thinking over her remark to him. She probably shouldn't have said it, but it was true and it was out, now. Maybe it would shake him out of his "best friend and partner" mode. She still remembered what she had seen on his face in one unguarded instant that morning he'd told her about Lex. If that was really how he felt about her, things could get very interesting if he decided to act on his feelings.
The thought of marriage to Lex, before she had known about his true character, had crossed her mind occasionally, but it had never been accompanied by the thrill that ran through her when she contemplated that state with Clark. He might not be a billionaire, but she had no doubt how he felt about her, and it had been gradually dawning on her for some time now that she didn't want a life without Clark Kent in it.
When they finished breakfast, Lois stood and gathered the dishes. "I'll take care of these while you change. It'll only take a few minutes. Then we can drive over to my place."
He looked at her soberly. "Did you really mean what you said awhile ago?"
She glanced up at him and then back at the sink that she was filling with water. "Yes."
He drew a long breath. "After we've spoken with Mr. Truesdale, you and I need to talk, too."
"Okay," she said. She looked quickly at him and back at the sudsy water. "The quicker we get this done—"
"Right." He turned and hurried toward the bedroom.
A short time later, they were walking out to the Jeep. Clark offered her the keys. "Do you want to drive?"
"You go ahead," she said. "I'm still pretty sore. Besides, the doctor told me I shouldn't drive for a few days after a concussion."
"How's your head feeling?" he asked. "I didn't realize…"
"Not bad. I still have a little bit of a headache, but it's much better than it was."
"Good." He opened the passenger door for her, then went around to the driver's side. But, when he turned the key, the engine sputtered for a moment, and died.
He frowned and tried again, with the same result.
"That's odd. It was running fine, last night." He tried the key once more, with no more success.
"I just had it in for a tune-up last week," Lois said. "If they messed with my car—"
"If they did, they'll have to fix it," Clark said.
"It's Sunday." Lois scowled, unhappily. "I'll have to wait until tomorrow to take it in."
"I guess we call a cab," Clark said. "If you like, I can take a look at it later. I used to help Dad with the farm machinery. It it's something simple, I might be able to fix it."
"Thanks. That's really nice of you." She felt her scowl melt. "We don't need to take a cab. It'll only take fifteen minutes if we take a shortcut through the park."
"Okay," he said. "Why not?"
Centennial Park was brilliant with its autumn foliage this morning. The air was cool and crisp after yesterday's rain, and the sky was the almost impossibly clear blue that is only seen in late October.
"In another week the ghosts and goblins will be out," Clark said.
"Yeah," Lois said. "I guess I'd better stock up on Halloween candy pretty soon. I always wait until the last minute because if I buy it too early I always eat all the chocolate bars and then have to diet like crazy for months to lose the extra pounds. And since Thanksgiving is right around the corner, it's hard to do."
Clark laughed. "How would you like to spend Thanksgiving in Smallville with me, this year?" he asked.
She sneaked a glance up at him. He was looking apprehensive, but determined. She swallowed nervously and gathered her courage. "That sounds nice. But won't you want it to be just a family occasion?"
"I'd love to have you there," he said. "I know Mom and Dad would, too. They really like you."
"I'm glad they do," she said. "Okay."
His face lit up in one of those brilliant smiles. "Good. I'll let them know I invited you."
They walked along in silence for several minutes. From the direction of the children's playground Lois could hear the sound of young voices giggling and shouting, but the immediate area around them was deserted.
The two masked figures that stepped out of the shrubbery took Lois completely by surprise. One was tall, about Clark's height, and burly; the other was shorter and, in his hand, he clutched a long, switchblade knife. By his skinnier build and long arms and legs, Lois guessed him to be a teenager. Lois and Clark froze, and Clark instantly pushed Lois behind him.
"Give me your money!" The taller man's voice was a harsh rumble in Lois's ears. "Hurry up! You too, lady. Everything in your purse!" He approached several steps, waving a handgun. "Now!"
Surprised, Lois saw Clark go deathly pale and begin to sway. He pulled out his wallet and held it toward the smaller man. Lois thrust her purse at him as well. What was wrong with…
"Ten bucks?" The shorter mugger had ripped open Clark's wallet, scattering credit cards on the ground.
"That's all?" The taller man raised his gun, and Lois knew all at once that this was the mugging Mrs. Cox had suggested to Lex. This had to be John Black and his brother, Pete, and somewhere on him, perhaps in a pocket, he carried three Kryptonite-tipped bullets.
"No!" Almost before she thought, she reacted. They were going to kill Clark and he couldn't stop them. Lois was all that stood between him and death. She shoved the shorter mugger as hard as she could into his older brother.
John Black staggered sideways and the gun discharged into the air.
Pete Black scrambled to his feet and lunged at Lois. Clark lurched into his path, and the two men went down in a tangle of arms and legs.
Lois knew her chances against a gun were slim; John Black wouldn't know who she was, or that Luthor wouldn't want her dead. She had only a tiny margin of time to act, and then it would be all over. As John Black staggered, trying to regain his balance, Lois kicked him as hard as she could on the knee, the only portion of his anatomy she could reach that might be vulnerable.
She was only a few months short of a brown belt in Tai Kwan Do, and she had studied hard. The kick was perfectly placed. Black howled in agony as her foot connected with his knee, and he sprawled on the graveled walkway, clutching the injured member. Behind her, she heard Clark's cry of pain. She kicked again and Black's gun went spinning, to vanish into the tall hedge to their right. A third kick to the jaw finished the battle.
For a split second, she hesitated, then she knelt by her victim, patting his pockets. It was in the back pocket of his dirty jeans that she found the three green-tipped bullets. Without hesitation, she removed them, ran to the duck pond, fifty feet away and, without a pause, hurled them into its center.
When she returned to the scene of their mugging, she found that the character of the fight had changed dramatically in just those few seconds. Pete was on his face on the ground, and Clark knelt on his back, pinning his hands behind him. John Black still lay face down in the gravel, unmoving.
Clark was breathing hard and one of his coat sleeves was torn and stained with blood. The back of his coat, in the area of his bullet wound two nights ago, was also blotched with red. Lois hurried to him. "You're bleeding!"
He looked up at her with a grim smile. "It's nothing. Do you still have your cell phone in your purse?"
"Yes." She bent to pick it up from the ground. "It looks as if Inspector Henderson will get to meet Mr. Black a bit sooner than we expected."
"I guess so." His smile wobbled slightly. "And after that, I guess we really need to have that talk."
"Yes, I guess we do." She looked him straight in the eyes. "I think it's time both of us explained a few things."
The drive home from the police station in the back of a squad car was accomplished in silence. The cut on Clark's arm was a minor one that had already quit bleeding by the time the police arrived at the park in answer to Lois's 911 call, but while they were making statements at the police station Clark kept shooting questioning glances at her.
Henderson had also delayed them somewhat. He called them into his private office and, after making sure that Clark didn't want medical attention, brought up the subject of the tapes delivered to him earlier in the day by Jimmy and Jack. The tapes themselves were inadmissable as evidence, but they had given the investigators information they could use, and John Black, when faced with the tape (and the news that the police had the two witnesses who could incriminate him) was singing loudly and in detail.
The Inspector's dry voice had become almost animated when he referred to the imminent arrest of Mrs. Cox and Lex Luthor, and then cautioned them against printing anything prematurely in the Daily Planet concerning the case. They had helped him tremendously, he admitted, and would have first claim on any story, but Henderson had no intention of losing his quarry, or the D.A. his case, through giving their suspects advance warning.
Clark opened the door of his apartment for Lois and followed her in. When the door closed behind them, they stood looking at each other. For one of the few times in her life, Lois felt tongue-tied. Something had to be said, but she had the feeling that if she didn't say it just right, the whole promising beginning of this morning could be destroyed.
Clark broke the silence first. "Do you want some tea?"
"I'll make it. And you should sit down. You've had a rough couple of days."
"Clark." She reached out and grasped his hand. "Forget the tea. Let's just sit down, okay?"
He nodded. She led him to the sofa and seated herself beside him, looking into his worried face. At last, Clark broke the silence.
"Thanks for getting rid of the…"
"Kryptonite," Lois finished for him. "You're welcome. Black had the bullets in his pocket. I threw them in the duck pond."
"I didn't see what you did with them," Clark said. "I only knew you must have gotten rid of the stuff, somehow." He slowly removed his jacket and regarded the bloodstains on the right shoulder. "So…how mad are you?"
"I'm not mad." She searched his expression, trying to make sense of the question. Then the light dawned. He didn't know! He thought she'd just discovered his secret.
For an instant, she was tempted to let him believe that, then she rejected the choice. It wasn't something she would be able to keep a secret forever, and if they were to have a future together, it must not be based on a lie. This wasn't the way she'd envisioned the moment of truth, but the moment was definitely here.
"Take off your shirt," she said, suddenly. "I want to see how that thing on your shoulder is doing. You broke it open again."
She looked at him in mild exasperation. "Look, let me fix it up for you, okay? It's the least I can do, after all the times you've saved me."
"All right," he said, obviously puzzled at her attitude. He removed the shirt and turned slightly so she could check the damage.
"Hmm," she said, after a moment. "I don't think it's too bad, but you've broken the scabs open. Do you have any first aid stuff around here? No, of course not. Why would you?"
"Actually, I do," he said, unexpectedly.
"I bought a kit from a pair of Cub Scouts during a fund raiser a few months ago," he explained, looking sheepish. "I think it's in the top of my closet. What's so funny?"
"I'll explain later," she said. "Stay right there."
A few moments later, dabbing the wound with iodine, she began. "Clark, I need to explain something."
"Don't you mean 'Superman'?" he asked, quietly.
Lois winced at his tone. He was operating under a set of false assumptions, and she needed to correct them at once.
"No," she said. "I don't mean 'Superman'. I mean Clark—my best friend, my partner, and the man I fell in love with months ago…if I'd only been willing to admit it. If he chooses to moonlight in blue tights every now and then, that doesn't make him any less Clark."
"What?" he said. His voice sounded almost choked.
"Just shut up for a minute and let me explain, will you? This is hard enough without all the interruptions."
"Okay," he said, softly. "I'm sorry. I should have told you before this."
"Yeah, probably. Hold still while I tape this down."
Obediently, he remained statue still while she smoothed the adhesive into place. "There. You can turn around, now."
Slowly, he turned and met her eyes. She smiled at him shakily. "You better put your shirt on," she said, "or I'll be too distracted to concentrate."
He picked up the torn shirt and slipped it on, then began to slowly button it up. "I don't understand," he said. "Aren't you angry?"
Lois reached out and gently removed his glasses, shaking her head slightly as Superman's face emerged from behind the horn-rimmed spectacles. Still, it wasn't exactly Superman, either, because he had Clark's hair, and certainly Clark's expression.
"You know, this explains how I could have such a mad crush on Superman, and yet fall in love with my partner at the same time," she said, thoughtfully. "Even though I didn't admit it to myself for ages."
He opened his mouth, but she put her fingers to his lips. "Quiet. I have to say this now, before I lose my nerve. I first discovered the truth a little over a week ago—that night at the Daily Planet."
His eyes widened slightly and he opened his mouth to speak. She held up a hand. "I'm not finished, yet. When I realized it, I *was* angry. And I was hurt, too. No, don't talk. But after that I had time to think, and I figured out a lot of the reasons you hadn't told me. I have to admit I was annoyed, too, that you let me make such an idiot of myself over Superman…but you never took advantage of me, and you could have—easily. I've watched you all week—both as Clark and as Superman—and I realized something I didn't understand before."
"That my all-powerful, perfect idol, my 'god in a cape', was just a man. He wasn't anywhere near perfect."
"Does it make a difference?" he asked.
"Sure it does," she said. "It's a relief."
"A *relief*?" The look on his face told her he hadn't expected that.
She dropped her eyes to her hands, which were clasped almost painfully in her lap. "I started realizing that Clark Kent, my partner, was the real man behind Superman, and that he was a kind, decent guy who would have been an incredible person with or without Superman's powers." She glanced timidly up at him, then looked back at her hands. "When you called me for help two nights ago, I was terrified. The only thing I could think of while I was breaking every speed law ever written, was that if I lost you I'd lose everything that mattered to me. I don't want a future without you in it whether your powers ever come back or not." She raised her eyes finally to meet his, steadily, fighting the butterflies that danced under her ribs. "I had a schoolgirl crush on the perfect hero that didn't exist," she said. "But that doesn't last. The person inside the suit is a man I like, and trust, and who's the best friend I ever had. He's not a bit perfect, and I'm glad. Though," she added, thoughtfully, "the fact that you look like every woman's fantasy in those tights doesn't hurt your appeal."
He gave a small choke of laughter. "So, what *do* you want, Lois?"
"I guess," she said, "I'm asking if we can start over—without Superman knocking out my good judgement this time."
Clark shook his head. "I don't want to start over."
Her heart dropped into her shoes at his reply, but he hadn't finished. "I don't want to go through all that again." He took her hands, gently separated the tightly laced fingers and held them in his. "But I would like to go on from here, if you can forgive me for not telling you the truth before now. Do you think you can do that?"
She nodded, ignoring the tears that she could feel beginning to roll down her cheeks. "I'd like to try."
He fished a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped them away. "Maybe we could try dating," he suggested. "And there's Thanksgiving in Kansas, too. My Mom's going to love talking to you…and probably embarrassing me half to death," he added, with a slight smile. "All I ever wanted was for you to care for me—for myself. None of the other things matter."
"I'm not the easiest person to get along with," she warned him, determined not to gloss over the drawbacks. "We might decide it's a bust, or we could find out we're pretty good together. You never know."
"I'll vote for the second option," he said. "But there's one thing I've been wanting to do again ever since we stayed in the Honeymoon Suite at the Lexor."
"This." He leaned forward and kissed her.
After her ears stopped ringing, she drew in a deep breath. "You know," she said, "I think I could get to like the new Clark Kent."
Clark was smiling at her, and the sheer joy in his face couldn't be disguised. "I think we should give it our best shot, then."
She nodded. "I agree. Let's try that again. We want to be sure to get it right."
Clark pulled her into his arms. "They do say practice makes perfect, you know."
And after that, neither one of them had anything to say for a considerable period of time.
The arrest of Lex Luthor, the billionaire owner of LexCorp, blared from the front page of the Daily Planet on Monday afternoon, accompanied by articles under the byline of Lane and Kent.
The overwhelming evidence of his complicity in crimes too numerous and heinous to mention, that had been supplied by his personal assistant, Mrs. Cox, led the judge to deny bail and bind him over for trial. It looked for once as if Lex Luthor's tremendous power, wealth and influence would not win his freedom.
Two weeks after his arrest, he vanished from the cell where he was awaiting trial. Inside help was suspected, but nothing could be proven.
(To be continued in the final story)