By Jude aka Judith Williams <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: September, 2001
Summary: A continuation of the author's "The Circle Game," this story, revised from the version that is on Zoomway's Fanfic Board, follows Lois and Clark as they continue their attempts at reconciliation, puts Lois in terrible danger and solves the mystery of Laura and Jack's relationship.
This is a revised version of a sequel to "The Circle Game" which I posted on the Zoomway's Fanfic Board in July. In response to some suggestions made there, I have added quite a bit of new material and re-written several things.
It is the second entry in The Circle Game trilogy. You don't need to have read "The Circle Game" to know what's going on in "Secrets", but reading it may enhance your understanding. For continuity, I've used song lyrics as chapter markers just as I did in TCG.
This is a different kind of story from TCG. Here I've attempted to write a mystery, suspense thriller. I have no idea if I've succeeded, so I hope you'll let me know. Please send feedback to the e-mail address above.
I couldn't have finished this without the help of my excellent beta readers — Gerry Anklewicz, Anne Carlson and Becky Bain — who have been rigorous taskmasters. Any problems still in the story are there because I wouldn't take their advice. Additional thanks go to Sherry Murphy and Anne Carlson for expertly beta reading the new material.
The characters from the Lois and Clark television series are not mine. I have only borrowed them for a while. The characters and incidents I have created belong to me and may not be used by anyone without my permission.
< > enclose direct thoughts; * * indicate emphasized words.
October 17, 2032
*Once you held me so tight
I thought I'd lose my mind
You said I rocked your world
You said it was for all time
You said that I would always be your girl.*
*All I ask
Don't tell anybody the secrets
Don't tell anybody the secrets
That I told you.*
<He knows our secret. I thought I could trust him. Can I, still?> The thought worried at her brain.
In Metropolis, New Troy, USA, it was after midnight, in that dark interval between 'last night' and 'this morning' when those who cannot sleep reflect mournfully and regretfully on their pasts and fearfully for their futures.
Laura Lane Kent Forrest was not sleeping.
<Where is the man I fell in love with? What happened to us?>
The man she had fallen in love with and married five years before had just made love to her with fierce intensity and was now sleeping beside her in exhaustion. Having spent himself renewing the passion that had once been their second natures, he lay, arms still around her, his head on her breast.
There had been a time, long ago, when she would have been happy and contented holding him. Tonight she felt miserable and frightened.
After dozing for a moment, she woke suddenly to find that Jack was no longer in her arms. He had turned on his side, his back to her.
She thought <Yes, that's just the way it happened. One day we were together, the next, he was gone. >
He had turned away from her, *left* her to be a stranger sharing their house, occasionally their bed, but they were not together. And she had never known why. From that moment, he had no longer been a vibrant presence in her life.
<Did I make a mistake trusting him so soon? Should we have waited to get married? He's so different now. I don't really know him anymore. >
He would sometimes return from one of his many business trips abroad, strung out and on edge. Seeking comfort, he would make love to her almost violently. It was during one of these interludes that their daughter, Carla, had been accidentally conceived.
When they were in public, he played the buffoon, a southern clod with the sensitivity level of a stud bull. Her parents were confounded and bewildered. Her brother, Chris, who had thought that he and Jack could be great friends, pitied her.
She didn't know what had happened, she didn't know what to do about it, and her mother's hints that they should talk about it were becoming more and more frequent and more and more obvious.
<He knows our secret. I could trust Jack. Can I trust this stranger? I don't know…I don't know. >
The one thing she *did* know was that tonight she would have to celebrate her mother's birthday and pretend to be happy. She only hoped Jack wouldn't ruin the party.
At just after 7:00 a.m., the Daily Planet newsroom was almost deserted except for one night man still on call in case there should be any break in the usual boredom that preceded the arrival of the morning shift. One other occupant of the room sat at his desk firing up his computer and looking at the research that had been left for him the night before.
Christopher Kent glanced briefly at some information he had uncovered about a mysterious figure named Ferret who was apparently the head of a shadowy organization that unearthed, stole and sold to the highest bidder, secrets from the governments of the world. He had little more than the name and some rumors, and right now his editor wanted him on the trail of what looked like corruption in the dispensing of overseas aid to countries in need.
His editor expected him to show that he had the 'stuff' that made his parents the great award-winning reporters they had been. He turned to his task. He had a lot to do before his mother's birthday party tonight.
It was after 8:00 a.m. in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where Maria Escobar, CHILD's administrative representative in the country, was unlocking the door to her recently acquired office.
As an adviser to Lois Lane, the head of CHILD — Communities Helping Innocent Lives Develop — she was frequently sent on assignments to Spanish-speaking countries because of her bilingual upbringing. Now she was in Ecuador to oversee the distribution of food and medical supplies to families displaced by the volcanic eruption of a few days earlier.
She wasn't happy about what Lois had told her. <So, I have to work with Hector Alejandro Guzman. I know all about him. He's one of Clark Kent's assistants at WERC. Another Harvard graduate. I'll just bet he's one of those old country types. And he's Peruvian too. That'll be a real help in a country that's always fighting with Peru about something.>
The World Economic/Environmental Recovery Council (WERC) would also be funneling funds to help Ecuador recover from the devastating damage to its environment, and Clark had assigned Hector, a bookish, mild-mannered man to keep an eye on the money.
Maria considered this about-to-be-formed working relationship with disgust. <He probably thinks because I'm a woman, I should give over to his leadership. Boy, does he have another think coming!>
She was an intelligent, vivacious, aggressive *Metropolitan* woman, a cum laude Harvard graduate herself and the daughter of Ecuadorian parents emigrated to America. She was certainly not some shy se¤orita waiting for her se¤or to tell her what to do. Well, she would waste no time before setting him straight when he arrived.
Up in the highlands at Quito, Francisco Arroyo del Rio gazed out the window of his expensive high rise apartment at the snow- capped sierras ringing the city. His mind, however, was not on the beauty of the vista before him. He was, instead, mentally counting the millions of $ucres being diverted to his Cayman Island bank account from the volcanic disaster relief funds he administered. He speculated on how long the theft would go undetected and how soon he should transfer his gains to his numbered Swiss account. Taking a last sip of his chocolate, he breathed in the cool morning air and thought <La vida es buena.>
Back in Metropolis at 9:15 a.m., Marshall Stewart was waking from a dream in which he possessed his beloved, Lois Lane, and the objectionable Clark Kent was past and forgotten. All he needed was a chance, a toe in the door of opportunity, so to speak, and he could make that dream into a reality. He did not understand his obsessive love for this woman, but he knew he could not find happiness without her.
By 10:30 a.m. Henry Forrest was in his Washington D.C. office reading the report from his son, Jack. <For once the boy has done well. He's completed his assignment without making a mess of things.> He would never, of course, perform as well as Jeff; that was a pity, but that chapter was over. One had to cut one's losses and move on.
Ferret caught a noon flight to Yucatan. He was meeting with a contact arriving from Cuba. How annoying that the man could not enter the United States without attracting suspicious eyes. It was vexatious finding excuses for these trips. <Ah, well> Ferret sighed. <There is that excellent little restaurant in Merida.>
JANUARY 13, 2033
*Were we in Tahiti; were we on the Nile
Long, long ago, say an hour or so,
I recall that I saw your smile.*
*I remember you;
You're the one
Who made my dreams come true
A few kisses ago.*
*I remember you;
You're the one
Who said I love you too,
I do, didn't you know.*
*I remember too a distant bell
And stars that fell, like rain
Out of the blue;*
*Well, when my life is through
And the angels ask me to recall
The thrill of them all;
Then I will tell them
I remember you.*
It had been three months since Lois's ill-fated birthday celebration. Since that unpleasant night, Laura had seen her parent's happy marriage break apart, her father almost die only to be saved through the cooperation of his family, a dear friend, and a woman attempting to find absolution for her previous misdeeds. Her parents were together again, rebuilding their lives, but her mother was still intent upon finding out what was wrong in Laura's own troubled marriage and was, in true Lois Lane fashion, relentlessly presenting her daughter with increasingly pointed invitations to 'talk'.
Clark had forcefully handed Jack an ultimatum about his public treatment of her, and Jack no longer drank too much and made a fool of himself or embarrassed her. But in their private lives they were still separate from each other, strangers going about the routine of their daily lives — she at her STAR Labs research office where she presently sat in contemplation, he at his father's office in D.C. or traveling for him on assignments abroad.
How had they come to this point in their lives after such a hopeful beginning?
Five years before, on a ski holiday in St. Moritz, she had walked blindly around a corner in the hotel where she was staying and stumbled into the arms of the man she thought she'd never meet.
"Judas Priest! How clumsy of me. Ah hope you'll forgive me for bein' so thoughtless." He had just a touch of the South in his voice — not enough to be a drawl, but hinting that it had once been his natural speech. He bent to help gather up the files she had dropped, work she had brought for when she wasn't on the slopes.
Scrambling to retrieve the final folder, she rose, saying "Oh, no, it was my fault, I should have looked before I cut the cor…"
She looked up and looking back at her were the clearest blue eyes she had ever seen. They were set in the face of a blond Adonis — well over 6 feet tall, lithe and muscular. She was suddenly hit by a jolt of what must have been static electricity.
He was occupied with appraising her short black curls, expressive milk chocolate eyes framed by long, luscious black lashes, a pert nose, a voluptuous mouth <needing to be kissed> and, on quick glance, a figure of perfect proportions, tall with long legs. <How lucky can I get?>
"I take full responsibility, beautiful lady, and I insist on helping you take this paraphernalia to your room as penance. Now you can't deny me that, can ya?"
Laura had acquaintance with every line thrown by every manner of man and boy Metropolis had to offer, so she recognized one when she heard it. But she liked this one; in fact, she found it charming.
"How very gallant of you, sir. Do I detect a note of the Southern Gentleman in your voice?"
"Why yes, ma'am. You truly do. At least there was one hidin' in there somewhere, once-upon-a-time. Now, if you'll just lead the way."
She did, and by the time they reached her room, she knew that he was as talkative and outgoing as she was quiet; that he was in advertising and public relations, and would she please prove that she had forgiven him for being such a big ox by having a glass of wine and dinner with him "this evenin'."
Normally, she would have refused him politely, retired to her room for a hot bath and room service while she pored over those files. But he* was* charming, and that bite of static electricity still tingled.
"Tell you what. Why don't we meet in the bar for a glass of wine at 7:00, and we'll go from there." <Pretty cool, huh, Mom. Kept my options open, didn't fall completely for those gorgeous blue eyes and that dimpled chin. >
"You don't mind if I'm hopeful and go ahead and make dinner reservations for 8:00? Don't suppose I could persuade you to have that glass of wine at 5:00? Seven o'clock seems such a long time away. By the way, my name's Jack Forrest."
She laughed. "If I drank wine with you for three hours, I'd never make it to dinner. I'll see you at 7:00, Jack, and I'm Laura Kent."
Chanting her name, he salaamed his way out the door to run down the stairs thinking <And I don't need even one glass to be intoxicated by you, Laura Kent.>
They met in the bar at 7:00, had a glass of wine and then another as they sat near the huge fireplace watching the heavy snow swirling outside a large plate-glass window, and went in to dinner, talking and laughing and never running out of things to say.
He told her that he'd been working in his family business, but had recently decided to strike out on his own, which had disappointed his father. That he was from a proud, old southern family who were transplanted Charlestonians now living in the Virginia hunt country to be near their business in D.C. That his full name was Jackson Bedford Forrest and his older brother was called Jeff, short for Jefferson Lee. That he had graduated from The Citadel, number 1 in his class as had his brother and father and a line of male Forrests stretching back as long as there had been a Citadel.
She had sat listening, laughing in the appropriate places, or looking serious in others, but saying very little.
"I guess you don't volunteer a lot in the conversin' department," he said.
"'I'm a good listener."
"I can see that, but now *I'm* goin' to listen. So start talking. Tell me about yourself. What do you do when you're not skiing? Where do you live? What's your family like? And how did you get to be so beautiful?"
She gave him a wide grin, and he thought he would need resuscitation. <God, what a woman. >
"I'm from Metropolis."
He gazed at her with admiration. "What's the matter with all the men in Metropolis that you're still walking around free…unattached…single?" Then he gave her his best charming, boyish smile. <Maybe I'm assuming too much.. Is she free, unattached, single? > He listened as she continued, ignoring his unabashed adoration.
"I have a Ph.D. in Bio-Chemistry and do research at STAR Labs. My full name is Laura Lane Kent and my parents are Lois Lane and Clark Kent who…"
"Are just about the most famous investigative reporters and columnists in the world."
"You've heard of them, then?"
"Who hasn't? But go on. Do you have any brothers or sisters? Boyfriends?"
"I have a younger brother, Chris, Christopher James, and my boyfriends are none of your business."
"Feisty, aren't you?"
"Nosy, aren't you?"
"Where did you get such a sassy <beautiful> mouth?"
"You should meet my Mother."
"I agree. When do we leave?"
Things were beginning to move much too fast! "I think I'd better leave this conversation and go up to bed. It's getting late and I want to be on the mountain early."
"Wait, you didn't finish telling me all about yourself."
"Another time, maybe? Come on. You can walk me to my room."
After they exchanged the obligatory "thank you for a lovely evening" he asked her which run she was skiing the next day. She replied that she didn't know; she wanted to wait to see what the conditions were. He said that he might see her, bade her goodnight and left.
As she watched him go down the stairs, she realized, with surprise, that she wished the evening had not ended so soon. <Get your head on girl. He's a nice guy but a big flirt. It was all meaningless. You'll probably never see him again. > And she was again surprised by a little tug in her chest where her heart lay beating.
On the way downstairs, he was thinking <Cagey aren't you, Foxy Lady. Well, I've been fox huntin' all my life. You don't slip away that easy. >
The next morning the wind and snow had stopped; a glorious sun shone on deep new powder. <Today is the day for La Longue Portee,> she told herself.
She dressed in her black ski pants and boots, white turtleneck, a Nordic patterned sweater in Scandinavian hues of green, blue and white with flecks of deep red, and topped it with a burgundy ski jacket, knit cap and leather gloves. She regarded herself carefully in the mirror before leaving, making sure her eye makeup was just right, her hair not too Little Orphan Annie-ish, her lipstick unsmeared and just the right shade. <Well, I *might* see him again. > Then she picked up her skis and poles and headed for the cable car that would take her to the top of Corvatsch Glacier, the most difficult skiing challenge at St. Moritz.
The ride up the mountain was incredulously exhilarating, as the ski lodge dropped below her and the valley spread out under her gaze. Miniature huts with glacier green or rust colored metallic roofs looked like so many Monopoly houses thrown randomly about across a deep snow field pierced by the green tops of trees poking upwards trying to snag the cable as it passed them by. Small figures became tiny and then black dots zipping about the mountainsides. The air was cold and clean, the sun, blinding as she neared the top.
The cable car eased into its landing and stopped. She stepped out onto the top of a remote white world peopled with an exclusive group of expert skiers. As she glanced around she spotted a blonde head turned away looking over the ski trail wending downwards. Her heart bumped. <Don't be absurd. It's not him. How would he know you'd be here? > Then he turned, and his smile sent a beam of warm light into her chest filling the corners of her heart, which began a tap dance to a rhythm that Tommy Tune could only wish for. She was lost and there was nothing to be done about it.
He said, "I was right about you. You're not the kind to stick to the lower slopes on a day like this. Let's go. Last one down buys lunch."
She managed to gasp out something affirmative and then they were flying down the mountain, initially schussing away from the top, then turning into long traverses, carving endlessly back and forth across the face of the glacier, until they finally reached the tree line. Then the broad reach of the snow disappeared into narrow paths between groves of trees only to open and widen again. They stayed together for most of the way but she lost him when one of the paths divided, and he went one way and she the other.
After that she didn't see him again until, almost at the bottom, she swept the area with her Super vision and caught a glimpse of him waiting in a grove of trees off to the side.
<He's going to let me finish first! Hmph. *That's* different for a man. If winning isn't number one with him, wonder what is? > She liked that and toyed with the idea of falling, so that he would have to come out to her and they could finish together. She was concentrating so hard on him that she didn't see the young intermediate skier coming from her left, and they almost collided. To avoid hurting the boy, who shouldn't have been where he was, she *did* fall <can't use the levitation thing>, and when she looked up she saw Jack hurrying toward her, yelling at the other skier who hadn't even stopped.
"Are you all right? What a dumb thing for that kid to do!"
"I'm fine. And just what were you waiting for over there?"
He looked sheepish. "Okay, you caught me. We finish together, but I get to buy lunch."
They laughed, as he helped her up, and they skied to the end of the run.
After eating a lunch neither of them remembered, they spent the afternoon on the sun deck, laughing and talking. They had wine and dinner. Afterwards they had a brandy in the bar and went back to her room where he kissed her once lightly, twice warmly; then they stopped counting as she returned his kisses with an eagerness equal to his own.
He pressed her to him so that he could feel her delicious softness against him, and she molded herself against his muscular body. Their kisses deepened and eager tongues were exploring and tasting, exciting feelings that were both old and new.
Laura was not inexperienced sexually, but what she had known stemmed more from her scientific curiosity than her emotional reactions. Now she was feeling new sensations, intense tingles in places in her body that had been only mildly aroused before. She wanted more, quickly and without thinking of consequences. Her tongue explored demandingly and she moved her body against him sensuously.
Jack's response to her grew with her every motion against him. He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the couch before the fire, settling her on his lap. She was kissing his face and neck, running her hands over his chest and back. Her body was aflame with acute sensations heightened beyond any of her previous encounters. An unknown world was opening for her, promising unpredictable delights she had only imagined. Her breath was coming rapidly in short almost inaudible gasps as she gave herself over to his desire.
Without either of them being aware of it, they began helping each other remove articles of clothing, and her gradually revealed beauty was overwhelming. The effect she had startled him. Exploratory hands were followed by hungry devouring kisses as they mapped each other's bodies with the eagerness of a Burton or Speke searching for the headwaters of the Nile.
Jack had known many women, some as a part of his work, others as easy conquests readily available to while away a boring evening. He had made use of them, but they had left no lasting emotional impression on him, and he quickly forgot them all. He was unprepared for the unexpected rush of emotions Laura provoked in him.
She had a sweet innocence that he found refreshing and somewhat intimidating coupled with a wanton abandon that expressed her intense reaction to him. It was a fascinating and intriguing combination that inflamed his senses to a peak he could not remember ever reaching.
With any other female, he would have shown no reluctance. But with this incredible woman he hesitated. He wanted to make no mistake in this, their initial lovemaking, for that was how he thought of what they were in the midst of. Not only were they truly 'making love', but it was the first of what he wanted to be many times, maybe a lifetime. It was a thought with a potential that puzzled and even scared him a little.
"Jack, please," she gasped.
"I know," he answered, and lifted her in his arms to carry her to the large bed across the room. Was it his imagination, or did she feel lighter than she had the first time he carried her — almost as though she were floating?
He laid her down gently and lifted himself over her, as she continued urging him to commence their dance of love. He responded seeking the collaboration that would lead them to unity, and found a fantastic new world where pleasing her was all that mattered. He reveled in striving to send them both into an orbit culminating at an apogee of perfection.
She was flying as she had never flown before , higher and faster in a dizzying and uncontrollable whirlwind of sensation, light and sound until she burst into showers of tiny sparks exploding into the sky like a giant fireworks display, then descending gently, gradually, luminescence slowly disappearing.
They lay, returning to themselves, gradually realizing who they were and where they were and marveling at the ferocity of what they had created together. And as the shining remnants of their explosion faded away, they knew at last what it was to love with body, mind and soul and to want to give and receive everything, holding back nothing.
They never left each other again.
For two days they made love and lounged in the hot tub at the spa, ordered room service or went to the dining room, sat on the sun deck or walked into town. It didn't matter what else they did as long as they were together — except skiing, which was out of the question because they couldn't touch each other, or look into each other's eyes or hurry back to his room or hers to make love again.
By the end of the second day, he had asked her to marry him 19 times, and 19 times she had demurred, first saying "I can't", or "We need to get to know each other", or "Why do you want to marry me", and then "I'll think about it", and "Maybe". He persisted, saying, "I love you" in as many different ways as he could, and she would answer, "I love you too, but…"
Then, at 4:30 in the morning of the third day, after they had made particularly sweet and passionate love, he looked into her eyes and said, oh, so seriously, "Laura, darlin', I've told you I love you every way I know how. I've *shown* you I love you every way I know how. Please say you'll marry me. We can't just stay here in this room makin' love for the rest of our lives. <Wondrous thought! > We have to make a decision. I know you love me. We could be married tonight and spend the next two weeks in Paris having a sensational honeymoon. Or we can fly out of here and back to Metropolis and plan whatever kind of ceremony you've always wanted. But please, just tell me you'll marry me, so we can start living the rest of our lives together."
Without answering, Laura got out of bed, put on her robe, and went to sit on the couch by the fire. He followed and sat beside her.
She regarded him with grave eyes, and began to speak hesitantly. "I do love you, Jack. I really don't make a habit of picking up adorable men on my vacations and spending days with them in sexual abandon." Her discomfiture was apparent.
She continued nervously: "And I *do* believe that you love me. That's why I have to tell you something before I answer you. And you need to know that what I tell you will give you incredible power over my family. I don't believe you would use that power, or reveal what I tell you to anyone else, but I don't know if you'll still want to marry me after I tell you; and that's all right, because I would understand, but you need to tell *me* if I'm right about you, and that if you know this thing, even if you don't want to marry me any more, that you won't use it and you won't tell." She was almost pleading with him, now.
For the first time in her 29 years Laura had lapsed into "Lois babble", so she was as surprised by it as he, who had never heard anything quite like it before.
"Do you practice that?"
Re-asserting her Kryptonian control, she continued, "I'm serious, Jack. Be serious with me. Don't make jokes. Tell me what you think."
"I think that unless you and your family are vampires preying on innocent blood victims, there is no way that I would *not* want to marry you or that I would ever betray your secret, whatever it is."
"Well, we're not vampires, but what we are, is almost as hard to believe."
"Then just tell me, sugar. It can't be as bad as you're afraid it is."
She took a deep breath and began.
"My father is a very special person."
She went on. "He isn't from Metropolis. He grew up in Kansas. But he wasn't born there, either. In fact." She took another deep breath. "He wasn't born anywhere on Earth."
He looked at her expectantly, waiting for a punch line. "So he was born on a space ship, or a space station? There's nothing wrong with that. He isn't even disqualified from being elected President, if they're U.S. territory."
"Think for a minute, Jack. We're not talking about my brother; we're talking about my Dad. When my Dad was born, we didn't have any space stations or any space ships big enough to carry families. At least Earth didn't."
"What are you saying? That your Dad…Wait a minute. C'mon. You're kidding. You're saying your Dad is some kind of alien?"
"I suppose there are a lot of different kinds, but yes, my Dad is an alien. He came here in a space ship as a baby in 1966 from the planet Krypton. He was adopted by Martha and Jonathan Kent of Smallville, Kansas, where he grew up. Later he went to Metropolis to work at the Daily Planet, met my Mom who wrote about him, and he became…Superman."
"Your Dad is Superman." He looked skeptically at her.
"Yes." She nodded, soberly.
Still looking at her, now warily, he said, "Okay, let's say I believe you. How could that make any difference about whether or not I want to marry you?"
"Because there's more. You know how there's not just Superman any more? There are other Super heroes."
"Yes, there's Ultra Woman and there's The Defender." She could see incipient comprehension his eyes. He gaped at her. "You mean you… you're…"
She nodded, watching him apprehensively. "I'm Ultra Woman, and my brother Chris is The Defender." She stopped, waiting.
He stood dumbfounded, staring at her, his mind moving in ten different directions at once. He eyed her up and down, looking for some physical evidence of Super being. She was beautiful and sexy and an incredible lover, but he saw nothing supernatural about her. He walked over and kissed her. No, that was the same kiss he'd tasted for two days, but he didn't think it was Super power that made him feel the way he did about it.
He walked around her, observing her in minute detail. She sat, composed, enduring his scrutiny.
He continued circling, his mind working. "Nope", he said. Her heart lurched and she let her head drop slightly as a look of disappointment fleetingly passed over her face. She closed her eyes briefly, then opened them, and raised her head again resuming her stoic countenance.
"Nope" he said again. "No difference I can see. Still the same woman I fell in love with. Still the same woman I want to marry, even if she can beat me up if she wants to. Gosh, honey, promise you'll be gentle."
She stood and ran to his arms, and for a few minutes, there were smiles, soft murmurs and sweet kisses. Then he said, "Wait a minute. I've taken this on faith, but I think you better prove it to me. Do something spectacular."
"You can do that many spectacular things?"
"Well, more than one. I think this is probably the most spectacular. At least it's the most fun." And with that she floated up to the ceiling, lifting him with her.
"Whoa! What a great sensation! You must save a lot on airfare."
"Actually that's true. We could go to Paris this way." She descended lightly and placed him back on the floor.
It took a minute for her words to sink in. "Are you saying 'yes'? That you want to get married today and honeymoon in Paris?"
"Yes, my love, I'm saying "yes" to you for the rest of our lives."
He picked her up and whirled her around, yelling, "Yeee-haaa!" He put her down and kissed her hard. Then he kissed her softly; then again, passionately; then hungrily. Then they celebrated their impending nuptials in the way of all lovers since love began.
"Dr. Forrest?" Laura's reverie was interrupted by a lab assistant asking her to sign off on the data from a completed experiment. She looked over the material, recognized it as something she had already critiqued and signed, sending him on his way.
Returning to her thoughts, she remembered how happy they had been when she had called home to tell her parents about Jack.
When they had hung up the phone after breaking the news to Lois, Jack had looked at her and said, "Well, that was a masterful bit of manipulation if I ever heard one. Are you sure you're not in *my * field?"
"I was just practicing a bit of the art I learned at my mother's knee, and believe me, *she* knew exactly what I was doing. I didn't fool her for a second. But by the time we get back, she'll have Dad happy and ready to meet his new son-in-law."
They had been living a dream when they came back to Metropolis from their honeymoon. Clark was over being angry, but he was wary on first meeting Jack. Jack, with his innate charm and obvious love for Laura, soon made a friend of Clark, and even managed to overcome Lois' inherent skepticism about his frequent compliments to her. They were a happy family. And when Laura became pregnant in their second month together, they were sure that they had found paradise.
But when Laura was in her sixth month, Jack's brother, Jeff, was killed in a hit and run accident in Prague, and at his funeral, Henry Forrest had taken Jack into his study for a long discussion. When Jack came out, *he*, her Jack, had disappeared.
In his place was a cold and distant Jack, who was going back into the family business to take his brother's place. That was all he would tell her. And she was suddenly shut out of the central part of his life.
He continued to be concerned for her in her pregnancy. He very much wanted their baby, even if he no longer seemed to want her. She hoped that after a while, the loss of his brother would be ameliorated and he could ease himself away from his father's influence and come back to her. But that didn't happen.
Then their son, whom they called Lee — Jeff's middle name — was born, and Jack was overjoyed. He seemed to once again be the man she had met in Switzerland. In the hospital, he called her "sugar" and "darlin'" and held her hands and told her how much he loved her and how proud he was of her and their son — how they made all the difference in his life.
And then Henry Forrest came to see his grandson. She knew they were quarreling in the hospital corridor, but, preoccupied with breast-feeding Lee, she only caught fragments of what they were saying:
"… already registered… Citadel …"
"…grandson will…won't stop it"
"… *will* keep…safe…"
"…killed your brother…"
"…I can do…"
And they walked away down the corridor so that she couldn't hear if they did reach an accord.
When Jack came back into her room he looked somber and troubled, but when he saw her still holding Lee to her breast and cooing sweet nonsense noises to him, his face softened, and he gazed at his wife and child with a winsome tenderness. She had watched his face change as he saw her, and her heart reached for his as they shared this moment of warm affection.
But it was only a moment. His troubled gaze returned as he asked her, "Does Lee have your Super powers, do you think? Is he safe from harm the way you are?"
She had looked at him in surprise as she answered, "I don't know, Jack. I hadn't thought about it. I would guess that he probably doesn't have any powers now. Chris and I didn't until we reached adolescence, and neither did Dad. Lee could be different in his development, but it wouldn't seem likely. Eventually he could have powers or no powers or some and not others. Why do you ask?"
"Well…you know…well…" He paused, his face showing an embarrassed flush, and then he continued hurriedly, "Fathers get very protective when they see how small and defenseless little babies are. I'd just never thought about it until I saw the two of you together just now." He gave her a brief, self-conscious smile.
She grinned at him, delighted that he felt such strong emotions for their child. He smiled back, and after another pause went on. "I worry about you too. Are you and Chris and Clark completely invulnerable?"
Pleased at his concern, she replied, "As far as I know, we are. Chris and I have never come up against anything that affected us, but I've heard Mom and Dad talk about something that was a problem for him before we were born…what was that called?" She thought for a moment. "It was something about Krypton…oh, I remember, Kryptonite. It was a kind of green glowing rock that came along with his space ship when Krypton blew up. But I don't think there's been any of that around for years."
"And nobody knows about your Super powers or about Kryptonite except the family?"
"A few other people have known in the past but I think they're all dead now. My, you really are into this protective father thing, aren't you?"
"Believe it!" She saw the serious set of his face as he continued, "So Clark doesn't think anybody around knows about Kryptonite or has any?"
"Ask him. I told you as far as I know there's none around anymore. It's all gone."
"It had better stay gone," Jack stated firmly. "I don't want anything or anyone hurting my family in any way." The way he said it made her wonder if its meaning went beyond what they had been talking about.
They had passed a pleasant afternoon and when he kissed her goodbye, she had been sure that their troubles were behind them. But the next morning he had stopped by only briefly because he was on his way out of the country again. The light was gone from his eyes, and he was once more that remote person she felt so distanced from.
Laura's sad eyes regained their focus and she saw that another packet of research data had been placed in front of her but she had no idea who had left it there. Her private unhappiness was beginning to dominate her life and she couldn't ignore it any longer. Maybe it *was* time to talk with her mother.
*Last night I thought I found you;
I saw it in a dream:
I was tangled in the rushes, baby;
You were caught up in the stream;
And the more I tried to reach you
The more you slipped away;
And when I woke up in the darkness
I was callin' out your name.*
*There's a shadow in the garden,
And it's coiled around our hearts.
Won't you help me to believe you, baby?
Won't you show me where to start?
The more I try to reach you
The more you slip away.
I want to wake up in the darkness
And hear you callin' out my name.*
*You and I we dance around it;
Why is the truth so hard to say?
We long for true love, well,
We've found it.
It's one belief away.*
Bonne Raitt, Paul Brady, Dillon O'Brien
In the Kent townhouse kitchen, Clark poured two cups of decaffeinated coffee, added cream and 4 lumps of sugar to one and two teaspoons of sucreme to the other. Lois had gratefully received this calorie-less fat free, all natural substitute for sugar and cream when it had been introduced several years earlier, at precisely the time when she had begun to find it harder to keep her weight in check and had begun to worry more about the artificial ingredients she had been using. He smiled as he remembered her elation when she realized that she wouldn't have to give up 'doctoring' her favorite beverage. How he wished they were as at ease with one another now as they had been then.
The change was mostly his fault. He had wanted to protect her from watching his painful death. Dr. Klein had told him, just after Lois's birthday in October, that he would die in a particularly unpleasant way because of Veda Doodsen's youth- sucking experiment, and he had acted stupidly — running away from the woman he loved and cruelly telling her to start a new life without him. Fortunately, Klein, Doodsen and Laura had figured out a way to save him when he finally returned to ask for help, but Lois had not forgiven him easily for showing a lack of faith and trust in her love for him. They had talked things through on a December day at the farm, and she had admitted to being partly to blame because they had fallen into complacency in their marriage, practicing on each other what she called the Seven Deadly Sins of Lois and Clark: pride, anger, arrogance, nobility, silence, subterfuge and fear.
Even though she had taken the lead in their reconciliation, and they were working to put their lives together again, there was still a watchfulness, a hesitancy on her part that kept them from completely returning to the affectionate ease which had characterized their relationship for so many years. He missed it; he wanted it back, but he didn't know how to get it. Indeed, he didn't know if it was possible to return to something they once owned but had, between them, managed to transmute. Wisdom counseled that you can't go home again, but oh, how he wished they could! The circle of life allowed one to look back, perhaps even repeat one's mistakes, then learn and maybe change oneself in the future, but it did not allow a return to the past. No use yearning for what could not be; better to concentrate on how to move their lives toward the symbiosis he longed for.
He heard her emerging from the shower and went up the stairs with their coffee. As he entered their bedroom, he smiled, said "Good morning!" and placed the cup on her dressing table.
She turned briefly from the mirror to smile back and say, "A-a-h, coffee!" She sipped, then continued, "You've saved my life, again."
"That's what I'm here for," he answered, watching as she toweled her short hair into a mass of wet curls. He bent to kiss the back of her neck and while she didn't visibly stiffen, he felt a cloud separate them, a cool, invisible haze which sometimes formed between them. He hadn't been able to figure out what triggered it or how he could prevent it.
There were times, like last night, when they were as passionate with each other as they had ever been. There were other times, like now, when she was cordial and friendly, but a shadow would fall between them. <Patience,> he told himself. It would take time. And, after all, he was a very patient man when it came to waiting for what he wanted.
Later that morning, Lois rode into work alone. The town car that usually took the two of them to their respective offices in Gates Tower seemed icy in the grey morning light of a cold January day, and she burrowed deep into her heavy coat. But she knew that her chill was due more to her reaction at Clark's show of affection after she came out of the shower than to the snows of winter. She was dismayed by her inability to overcome…what? She didn't understand why she could not regain the sense of amiability she once had with Clark, an amiability born of long years of love and trust. Heaven knows she loved him and she had forgiven him for losing faith in her last October. Hadn't she? Intellectually, she understood the reasons for everything that had happened and she wanted to put the whole experience behind her. But apparently she was still wary emotionally. There was just a tiny corner of her heart that was not yet ready to trust completely. <Oh, Clark. This isn't fair to either of us, but I don't know how to get past it.>
The car stopped at a concrete, glass and exposed steel skyscraper on Bridge Boulevard in downtown Metropolis. She got out and hurried inside where she caught the elevator for the 52nd floor, home for CHILD headquarters.
The decision she and Clark had made to work with different organizations after their retirement from the Daily Planet had been a good one. If he had worked with her here at CHILD where she was president and chair of the board — a legacy from CHILD's founder, her Aunt Liz — he would have had to be her employee not her partner, but they knew from experience that such an arrangement didn't work. And CHILD was too important to her, personally, for her to consider doing anything else.
Clark had chosen to ally himself with WERC, using his skills and talents to do what was important to him: bringing countries of the world together to save the earth and its people by working toward common economic and environmental goals.
Even though they no longer worked side by side, their offices were on adjacent floors and they frequently were involved together in finding solutions for common problems.
As she stepped off the elevator, Lois thought, <Oh, Clark, I missed you this morning. I don't like riding in by myself. Damn it! I've got to get rid of this hang-up or whatever it is that's keeping us apart. I want our life back — together>.
Clark had made a detour to pick up his dinner jacket for a social event they were attending that evening — a charity auction and dance benefiting Metropolis services for the homeless. He usually had appropriate clothing in the dressing room at his office, as she did, but his jacket was at the cleaners after a waiter had dumped a tray of canap‚s on it at a recent dinner.
She really wasn't looking forward to this evening. Marshall Stewart would be there, and his presence was sure to exacerbate the already strained state of affairs between the Kents. Clark had never liked the playboy millionaire, and was angry when she gave him a place on CHILD's board of directors. But Stewart was wealthy and influential, and, regardless of Clark's apparent jealousy, which had become worse since the events of last fall, she needed his contacts for CHILD fundraising. Once she would have blithely used her sexuality to cajole her husband into a good mood, but after they had admitted, while talking at the farm, the manipulative ways they had dealt with each other in the past — their seven deadly sins — she thought twice these days about using her wiles to turn him around to her point of view.
Arriving at the 52nd floor, Lois hurried into her office, pausing at her executive assistant's desk. "Good morning, Caroline. Your cheerful face is a real treat to see. Has the mail come yet?"
Caroline, giving her boss and friend a happy smile, replied, "Good morning to you too, and yes, the mail is here. You have some phone messages too. I put them on your desk."
"Way ahead of me, as usual," said Lois, heading for her office door. "Please tell me the coffee's ready and waiting."
Laughing, Caroline shot back, "I wouldn't dare tell you it wasn't. I'd be out on my ear."
Inside her executive suite, Lois hung up her coat, poured a cup of coffee, sat at her desk and sorted through the phone messages first. Most were concerning administrative details that Caroline could handle, but one was from Laura. She turned on her visi- phone and punched the insta-com for her daughter's private line at STAR Labs. Almost instantly the face of a younger version of Lois appeared on the screen.
"Laura Forrest. I'm away from my desk right now. Leave a message with your com number and I'll get back to you as soon as I can."
Lois punched in Laura's personal communicator number and waited.
In a moment she heard, "Laura Forrest here."
"Laura, it's Mom. What's up?"
"Oh, Mother. Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I'm in the middle of something pretty complex right now, but could we have lunch and would you mind making the arrangements and leaving a message for me? I've really gotta go."
"Sure sweetie. One o'clock okay?"
"Just let me know where. See ya."
"Click." Lois heard the disconnect and turned off her visi-phone screen. She tapped her intercom and said, "Caroline, could you come in for a minute."
Caroline entered with a formidable stack of computer printouts, which she placed in front of Lois saying, "These are the accounting reports from the National Bank of Metropolis, the Bank of America and the National Bank of Ecuador concerning their receipt and dispersal of funds for volcanic disaster relief."
Lois regarded the hundreds of pages of tiny type with dismay. There went most of her day. She picked up her mail and the remaining telephone messages and, turning to Caroline, said, "I haven't looked at the mail, yet, but unless it's from Maria in Guayaquil, I don't think I need to see it. Would you take care of it as well as these phone messages. Looks like I'm going to be spending most of my day immersed in the finances of Ecuador."
Caroline took the material, saying, "Don't worry about it, Lois. I'll take care of this stuff," and she turned to leave.
"Thanks, Caroline. Oh, yes and would you make a lunch reservation at Julia's for Laura and me? One o'clock. Also leave her a message at STAR Labs about the place and time. And no calls except for my family…or the President," Lois finished with a chuckle.
"It's done," said Caroline, closing the door.
By 12:15 she had barely touched the stack of data, but had consumed a pot of coffee and was on her second. She leaned her head back, removed her reading glasses and rubbed her eyes. <Boy, could I use Superman's speed-reading, about now.>
Caroline poked her head in and said, "Lois, shall I call a Town Car for you? Your luncheon appointment is coming up and it will probably take half an hour to get to Julia's because of the traffic."
"Yes, please, and thanks for the reminder, Caroline. I need a break from these tedious figures. I may take a little extra time since I'm meeting Laura. Have there been any calls?"
"Nothing important. Marshall Stewart left a message that he was looking forward to seeing you tonight. That's about it."
Ten minutes later Lois was on her way to the elevator, stopping to tell Caroline, "If Clark calls, tell him where I am and that I'll talk to him as soon as I get back." With that she was out the door and in the elevator down to the Bridge Boulevard entrance level and her waiting Town Car.
Lunch at Julia's was special for Lois and Laura. Mostly vegetarian, it had flourished for many years through the patronage of healthy diet-conscious Metropolitans. Beginning with Laura's sixth birthday, Lois had made it a habit for the two of them to have a 'ladies lunch out' appointment at least once a month at Julia's. It had made her daughter feel very special and had given the two of them time for bonding conversation that wasn't possible in the noisy Christopher-imprinted Kent domicile.
As the airfoil glided past familiar Metropolis landmarks, Lois wondered if Laura was finally going to confide in her about her problems with Jack. Her mind went back to the night when she first learned about her daughter's love for the man who was now her husband.
It had been 1:00 a.m. when the telephone rang at 348 Hyperion Avenue. Lois had woken in bewilderment to find her reading lamp on, her book overturned on the bed and her husband gone. "Brrrrng" <What an awful sound> "Brrrng." "Okay, okay." She reached for the porta-phone.
"Hello" she said, uncordially. <This better be important.>
"Mommy? Did I wake you? I'm so glad *you* answered."
<Mommy? That was a little girl word that Laura only used when she was getting into something that could have unpleasant consequences. And why me? Why not Clark who was programmed to be much more indulgent with her? It must really be serious. >
"Laura? Is something wrong? Are you back already? Do you *know* what time it is?"
"It's about 7 a.m. here, I think. Everything's fine. In fact, it's perfect! I …we just couldn't wait to tell you."
'We'. The word leaped out and hung in the air like an Olympic competitor in a perfect swan dive, just before turning down to enter the water. Lois caught her breath.
"You're still in St. Moritz then? What's up?" She waited for the splash.
"Oh, Mom, I met someone, and it was just like Dad always said it was when he first met you; I didn't think I could ever feel this way, and I'm so happy, I just couldn't wait to tell you; I know you'll love him as much as I do."
<She'd met someone and she's in love. Nothing wrong with that. No loss of points with that entry into the water. Was she babbling?!?>
"We love each other so much, and we just couldn't wait; well, it just seemed so practical, since we were here…" She paused, then went on in a rush, "so we got married last night and we're going to Paris for two weeks for our honeymoon."
<Oh my god, a cannonball pool emptier. > "Well, I…I…I don't know what to say."
"Say you're happy for me, Mommy. Say you're glad I finally found Jack and that you've always wanted me to find the man I can love forever."
"I am all of those things, sweetheart, if you *have* found the man you can love forever, and Jack is that man; it's just that I don't know him."
"But I do, Mom. Trust me. Show me that you trust me to know my own heart and make this decision, even if it might seem hasty."
Lois sighed inwardly. She knew her very Kryptonian Laura would not do anything without being sure that it was right. For 29 years she had hoped for her daughter the joy and happiness that loving someone completely could bring. If Laura thought this Jack was the guy… no, if Laura believed this Jack was the guy, then he must be. All that remained was to welcome him into the family, and <…Oh god…tell Clark!>
"Oh, sweetie, I'm so happy this has finally happened for you. I've wanted it for so long. It might have been kinda fun to plan a Metropolis wedding, though. Give your Dad a chance to get used to the idea? How *do* you plan to tell him? And when do we get to meet Jack?"
"Oh, Mom, I love you. Thank you for understanding. We'll be in Paris for two weeks and then we'll be home in Metropolis. And you'll love Jack, really."
"So you will be living in Metropolis. If you're staying on at STAR Labs, can you be gone that long?"
"I still have a lot of accumulated vacation time plus some emergency time. I think this is an emergency, don't you? I'll call Uncle Bernie and arrange it. There shouldn't be a problem. Anyway I brought some work with me, so he shouldn't complain too much."
"Honey, if you can work during your honeymoon in Paris, you married the wrong man."
Very seriously she said, "No, Mom. Believe me…I didn't."
"I believe you, my sweet Laura. But you're ignoring an important question I asked you, and it has to be answered. How are you going to tell your Dad? Or is that why you were glad I answered the phone, because you want me to do the dirty work?"
"Oh, Mommy, that would be so great if you would. You know you can do it so he won't get all mad and punch holes in walls the way he did sometimes when I was a teen-ager. And I couldn't bear it if he treated Jack suspiciously, especially since Jack knows all about us."
"You *told* him?"
"I wasn't going to marry him under false pretenses. You should understand that better than anyone."
"Yes," Lois sighed. "I certainly do. All right, I'll get you off the hook, but you owe me big time."
"And I always pay my debts with interest, starting with, say, five pounds of Swiss Chocolates?"
"I'm not sure my waistline will be happy about it, but I won't turn them down. Now, is that husband of yours handy so I can welcome him to the family and tell him what will happen if he ever makes you cry?"
"Yes, he's here. You can welcome him, but no threats!"
And so Lois spoke for the first time with her new son-in-law, making the appropriate remarks, and liking the way he sounded, especially when he talked about Laura. He seemed as much in love as her daughter and that eased her mind. But she still had a big problem on her hands.
After hanging up, Lois had confronted that problem. How was she going to tell Clark without setting off an explosion of nuclear proportions? His enlightened attitude toward females disappeared whenever his daughter was involved.
He would come home tired from whatever this current emergency was and he would want to sleep. Tomorrow was Saturday. <Maybe a long leisurely morning in bed with coffee and blueberry pancakes and lots of other yummy things. That would put him in a mellow mood.> She sighed. This was *not* going to be easy.
But she had managed and Clark had even liked Laura's young man until…What could have happened to change him so and to make Laura so obviously unhappy. <Maybe I'm about to find out> Lois thought as the Town Car came to stop in front of the restaurant.
"I know you're disappointed. So am I." Laura was speaking to her research team at Star Labs. "We thought we won, today. That we solved the puzzle of the Ristocki Virus, but we didn't. We were almost there, but we missed."
The Ristocki Virus was named for the careless and ill-fated space investigator who had disobeyed protocol and removed a glove to touch a furry object while exploring an asteroid. When he had returned to Earth, the parasite virus, which had burrowed into his hand, had bred rampantly, finding this planet's atmosphere most congenial for reproduction, and had literally devoured its host for sustenance.
"What do we do now?" asked Nancy Miller, the group's lead virologist. "Do we start over or do we concede that we can't beat the deadline?"
Laura quickly replied. "We know that our research colleagues around the world have worked for months to discover a way to kill this bug. No one has succeeded. Earth Consortium is demanding that someone find the antidote by April one. Well, we're on the verge of isolating its DNA. As soon as we do that we'll be able to meet that challenge. We're not giving up. We can do it, but we need to step back and rest for a bit. So it's time to take a break."
"This could put us way behind everybody else. What's the point?" demanded Danny O'Brien, one of the new biologists under Laura's supervision.
She looked around at the downcast faces. They were tired and out of sorts. She wasn't going to let them stay that way.
"You're tired and you need some personal time. I want you all to go home and forget about the lab for a while. Relax, have some fun. See a movie, eat a gourmet meal…make love," she paused and grinned at them. There were chuckles all around, and she sensed the relaxing of the tension they had been under.
"Then get a good night's sleep and come back here at 8:00 in the morning prepared to go eighteen hours straight if we have to. We have the brightest and best team in the world working on this problem, and we're going to lick it!"
She gave them a confident smile, nodded her head and ordered, "Go!"
Smiling in return, the members of the team scattered in twos and threes, beginning lively conversations and animated debates.
Glancing at her watch, Laura saw that it was quarter to one and realized she would not have time to take a taxi in the noon traffic. She could have just flown herself to the restaurant, but she needed a little while to unwind from the morning's pressures and to think about what she would say to her mother. She decided to catch a Bubble Trolley, the transparent lighter- than-air transport that regularly made scheduled stops on the roofs of the major Metropolis buildings. It provided a people- moving alternative to the crowded public street and subway level services. The one o'clock would deposit her at the roof dock of the Amerasian Trade Tower by 1:10 where a five-minute elevator ride would place her at the door of Julia's only a little late.
After running up the stairs to the STAR Labs roof, Laura opened the door and saw she was the only one there. She ducked into the waiting shelter grateful that there was no one to distract her so she could concentrate on how to broach the subject of her marital problems with Lois.
Lois knew that she and Jack were having problems. Laura's whole family knew it. But they had no idea about the kind of home life her marriage had deteriorated into. How should she begin? She let her mind go back to this morning's events, and how pleasant things had been for a while.
"Gotcha," Lee was yelling, as he pushed down on Jack's shoulders with his whole body. He almost had him pinned on the family room floor, but Jack was moving and rolling to prevent that from happening. They were wrestling, a favorite game, and passing time before breakfast.
Hot, non-fattening vegetable oil sizzled as Laura cubed tofu and dropped it into a skillet while carrying on a conversation with Carla who was sitting in her high chair smooshing bananas in a bowl. "Sweetie, you're getting very good with that spoon. Can you show Mommy how to put the bananas in your mouth instead of your hair?"
Carla responded by scooping a spoonful and turning it over into her hand so she could push it between her fingers. Then she held up her hands so Laura could see them and gave her mother a beatific smile.
"Oh, yes, you're very accomplished," said Laura as she turned the tofu to brown on all sides, "but are you big enough to spoon those bananas into your mouth?"
A tiny pucker appeared between Carla's eyes as she considered the idea that she might not be able to achieve this feat. At that moment she bore a strong resemblance to her Gran, another lady who did not like to think there was something she couldn't do.
"Now I've got you," shouted Jack, who had rolled over and was about to pin his son. But Lee was too wiggly to allow Jack's final victory, and, feigning great effort, the big man gradually succumbed to the boy's elusiveness and fell away.
Laura removed the now crisp tofu, drained most of the oil, and reduced the heat in the skillet. After setting root vegetable sausage patties into the oven to warm, she beat six free-range eggs adding a little soymilk and a touch of vanilla and waited for the heat of the frying pan to lessen.
Watching Jack and Lee as they laughed and tumbled, she was aware of how very gentle the tall, rangy man was with the boy. The love Jack felt for his son and the trust that Lee invested in his father were clear to see, and Laura's heart felt a hollow pang of longing for the similar relationship she and Jack had once shared.
At moments like this one, she was reminded of how much she had loved him…still loved him…and of how much she wanted their previously warm and loving relationship back. Sometimes she believed there was a similar yearning in his eye when he thought she wasn't looking, but they were both paralyzed by uncertainties and unable to act in any positive way. They had adopted a watchful, distant dance, skirting each other carefully and politely, avoiding discussion of any real issues between them.
"See, Mommy. I do it." Carla was apparently ready to shovel bananas into her mouth, and was finishing her fruit with gusto.
"Oh, what a wonder you are!" praised Laura. "You are Mommy's wonder girl. Daddy will be very proud of you, too."
Carla's banana-filled smile epitomized the happiness that Laura felt at the way the morning was going.
Noting that the pan was now cool enough for the eggs, Laura called out, "I'm putting in the eggs." Jack, with a final cry of surrender, allowed Lee the ultimate triumph as both shoulders touched the floor. "C'mon champ, let's go wash our hands and straighten up. Mom won't like it if we sit down to eat her terrific breakfast lookin' like street urchins."
"What's street urchins?" asked Lee as he trotted after his dad.
"Little boys with dirty hands and faces, messy clothes and uncombed hair," answered Jack as they disappeared around the corner in the direction of the bathroom.
Back atop the STAR Labs building, the sound of the Bubble Trolley, or 'the Bub' as it was generally called, dropping onto its landing pad, recalled Laura from her reverie.
Looking like a transparent ball, the Bub contained seating for about fifty people. Outside on top of the vehicle was the bow or link that in the 20th century would have connected to an overhead electric cable or ground track that provided power for trolleys. In 2033 there was no cable. Instead the bow was a receiver for a magnetic radio beam whose varying frequencies emanated from the rooftop landing pads around the city. The bow automatically shifted to the next frequency when it reached a pad.
Suddenly a loud electronic voice intoned, "Board now. This trolley will depart in 30 seconds. Mind the gap." The voice repeated itself in a countdown at five-second intervals.
Laura rose and climbed aboard, inserting her all-purpose pay card into the slot as she did so. "Welcome aboard, Dr. Forrest," a cyber voice responded.
She found a seat and looked through the transparent side of the module. As it silently lifted up and floated away, her mind floated also — returning to that morning.
After they had finished their breakfast, Laura had activated Kama, their nurturing cyborg nanny, and left her with Lee and Carla to clean up the kitchen. Under Kama's supervision the children helped with the chore, clearing the table and carrying the dishes to the sink.
Two-year old Carla insisted on 'helping' by pulling at dishes she could barely touch standing on tiptoe. "Please be careful, Carla," instructed Kama. "Don't forget to help your sister, Lee."
Lee, who was always very watchful over his sister, would catch the plate or cup before it tumbled and hand it to her to carry to the sink.
Laura had gone off to the bedroom to finish dressing for work and Jack had come into the room behind her beginning to remove his sweatshirt and pants as he prepared to shower.
Releasing his breath, he spoke, "I have to go down to D.C. today; Henry wants to see me. Don't know how long it'll take. I'll let you know if I have to stay over." He said this, head down, not looking at her as he removed his sports shoes and socks.
She replied also looking away, "Okay."
Standing with her back stiff and straight, on guard against him, she heard him say, "When I come back, maybe…"
The tone in his voice had alerted her and she had turned to watch him. "Maybe?" There was a softening in her voice and even a touch of hope.
"Life is full of maybes, isn't it?" he answered lifelessly as he went into the bathroom. "See you tonight or tomorrow." The door closed behind him. And that had been the end of what she considered a 'good' morning between them.
Refocusing her thoughts to the present as the Bub arrived at the Amerasian Tower, Laura disembarked, hurrying to the elevator, which would take her to the street level where her mother waited at Julia's. On the ride down she reflected that she hadn't worked out any strategy for discussing her domestic problems, but it really didn't matter since, she supposed, once she mentioned the subject, Lois would take charge and ask enough questions to lead them where they needed to go.
Over the years, Laura and Lois had developed a friendly relationship with Julia's staff, who welcomed them warmly and seated them in a pleasant, well-lit but out-of-the-way booth where they could enjoy their privacy but not be seen by the lunchtime crowd. Both women were well known in Metropolis and might have spent their entire lunch hour greeting friends and acquaintances were it not for the consideration of Julia's employees.
Julia herself always stopped by to say hello, take their orders and determine how much privacy they really wanted. Today their disinterest in the menu told her that serious conversation was in the offing, so she saw to the quick preparation and serving of their meal and left them to talk with only unobtrusive visits to refill coffee cups. She instructed the attendants to wait for clearing until the two women had departed.
Mother and daughter had greeted each other with affectionate hugs and settled into chitchat as they carefully worked their way toward the agenda of their meeting. Lois mentioned the charity ball that evening and asked if Laura and Jack were attending. Laura replied that Jack had gone to D.C. to meet his father so she would be staying home. Lois asked about her grandchildren; Laura related an amusing little tale about Carla trying to catch ducks in the park and crying because they ran away from her.
They both laughed, then paused. The pause lengthened and became empty silence. Lois watched her daughter intently. Laura looked away. Finally Lois said, "Was there something in particular you wanted to talk with me about, Laura?"
"You know what I want to talk about, Mother. Help me out here. Where are those famous penetrating Lois Lane questions that I can answer and we can get on with this?"
"This isn't an interview, Sweetie. I'm not here to pry; I'm here to listen to whatever you want to tell me. The quicker you say it, the easier it'll be."
Laura looked down for a moment and then into her mother's eyes. She saw the love and concern she had seen all of her life and realized that she could just let it spill out, that her mother would never judge her wrongly and would support her in whatever way she needed. "Mom, you know Jack and I have been having problems. You know, Dad knows, Chris and Helene know; everybody knows. I'm surprised I haven't read it in Metro Mattie's gossip column. I've tried to work through it by myself, but we seem to have reached a dead end; I don't know what else to do." Her tone signaled the misery she had been feeling for so long.
Lois reached across the table and covered Laura's hand with hers. "Tell me what it's been like for you, Laura. Has Jack verbally abused you? Is he seeing another woman? What is it?"
Laura's eyes were startled as she quickly replied, "Mom! Oh, no, it's nothing like that! Before your birthday party, he drank a lot and made a fool of both of us in public, but since then he hasn't been drunk and he's treated me with complete respect. He's a wonderful father. You can see, when he's with the children, how much he loves them. But with me…oh, he's polite and considerate…but he's just not there any more. We've reached a point where we just kind of ignore each other."
"Do you think something happened to make him change?"
"I've thought about it over and over again. What could have happened? Did I do something? Was his brother's death such a shock that he couldn't get over it? I know he's unhappy working for his father…argues with him, but I don't know why that should affect us?" She stopped for a moment, looked away thinking, shook her head in bewilderment and continued. "It started right after Jack's brother was killed, and he went back to work for his father. It was like a light was turned off. We were in love and together; everything around us was bright and happy. Then without any explanation, Jack was gone. We weren't together anymore; he was off in the dark somewhere and I was all alone. After that we were each living in separate little spaces, occasionally bumping into each other, overlapping and pulling apart. Now we say only what we have to and hardly even look at each other. It's awful and cold and lonely."
Lois thought for a moment; she didn't want to suggest it, but it needed to be said openly. "If you don't love each other any more, would it be better to acknowledge that and split up?"
Laura was very still, her face closed and frozen. At last she spoke. "Maybe I made a mistake about Jack. I've asked myself that a hundred times, afraid of what the answer might be. Was I wrong to trust him? Was I wrong to love him? But the answer that comes back to me is always the same — a strong and unswerving conviction that he is the man I was meant to spend my life with, to give my life to. Regardless of what he feels for me, I love him. I can't imagine loving anyone else.
"He may have changed from the way he was, but in some ways he's still the man I fell in love with. I know without asking that he's been faithful to me. Whenever he's hurt or unhappy, it's me he wants. He's known our secret since the beginning, and he could have betrayed all of us years ago, but he didn't. He's been steadfastly honorable about that.
"Whatever has come between the two of us, every now and then I get a powerful feeling that he still loves me and wants us to be as we were; but something strong and terrible is preventing that. I wonder if it has something to do with the work he does for his father, and if he could back away from that maybe we could put things back together. But other times I think perhaps that's just the way marriage is, and I want too much from it."
Lois looked down at the table for a moment and then full into Laura's eyes. "Relationships do change after you've been married for a while. You get used to each other, and you make mistakes because of that, because you forget that you have to work just as hard at keeping your relationship solid when you've been married 35 years as you do when you've been married five."
"Is that the voice of experience I hear speaking?" asked Laura.
"I'm afraid so, and it's an experience I would have preferred to forego. But let's deal with your problem. It doesn't sound to me as though Jack is taking your relationship for granted. It sounds more like he might be unsure of his commitment. Is that a possibility?"
"I don't know, Mom. That's the problem. I don't know!"
"What do you want to do, sweetheart?" asked Lois.
"I want to know what happened to us. I want to close this separation and make us happy again, be a real family for Lee and Carla."
"Do you know how you're going to do that?"
Laura smiled faintly at her mother saying, "I was hoping you'd be able to tell me that."
Lois smiled back wryly. "You have way too much faith in my abilities to make things right, honey. The best advice I can give you is what your Gramma Martha used to tell me whenever your Dad and I were at loggerheads. She would say that we had to talk with each other about it. Her favorite words were, 'Communication is key'. She was usually right. We learned that all over again when we talked at the farm in December. It can't hurt and it might be just what you need."
Hesitatingly, Laura asked, "But what if I find out something I don't want to hear? What if he doesn't want me anymore? What if he's just been trying to find a way to tell me?"
"Yes, there's always that possibility. But if that's the truth, then isn't it better to know than to continue believing in a concealed lie?"
Laura sat absorbing her mother's gentle and loving nudge toward reality. It was good advice and was nothing she hadn't known herself, but something she had avoided acknowledging. "You're right, Mom, but it's pretty scary to face. I don't know if I can."
Lois was now on very solid ground. "You can do whatever you put your mind to, Laura. You're strong and brave; and whatever happens, you'll be able to handle it. And you know your Dad and I will support whatever you decide you have to do." Mother, wanting so much to reach out and make everything all right, watched daughter struggle inwardly, thoughts vacillating. Finally Laura came to a decision.
"Thanks, Mother. As soon as Jack comes back from D.C., I'm going to sit down with him and make him talk with me." She stopped for a moment, testing her emotions and continued, "Isn't it funny? Now that I know what I'm going to do, I'm not so afraid anymore. I'm sure I can do it. In fact, I feel certain everything's going to be okay. Talking with you has turned out so much better than I thought it would!"
Lois laughed. "Sounds just like Gramma Martha and me." She sighed, wishing that Martha were still around to hand out advice.
The quiet in the restaurant called Lois's attention to the time. Her watch told her she needed to go back to her office. "I don't know about you, sweetheart, but I have some work on my desk calling me. Let me know right away, how things go, will you? Remember, I'm your mother. You can always cry on my shoulder or share a chocolate sundae to celebrate your happiness."
With a promise to talk by phone later, the two parted as they had met, with a loving hug and hurried away to return to their professional worlds.
*I was born under a bad sign,
I've been down since I began to crawl.
If it wasn't for bad luck,
I wouldn't have no luck at all.
Bad luck and trouble's my only friend,
I've been down since I was ten,
'Cause I was born under a bad sign. *
Booker T. Jones and William Bell
Entering the revolving door of a small, shabby hotel in Washington, D.C., the tall, fair-haired man crossed to the stair door, eschewing the entrapping confines of the elevator. Taking the steps two at a time, he lightly ran up to and around the first floor landing, continuing on until he was out of sight of the ground floor entrance. There he waited for a few minutes, barely breathing, as he listened for sounds of anyone else in the stairwell. There were none. He continued up again with light, silent steps until he reached the fourth floor. Once more he paused, listening. Reassured, he cracked the door to the hallway and checked both directions for human presence. The hallway was empty. Slipping silently through the doorway, he turned left and paused before the door of 427.
He stood, rethinking his resolution to make the final break with this business that he abhorred. He thought about what he had learned from Laura the day Lee was born: of Lee's complete vulnerability to Henry's threats; of Kryptonite, which could harm even Super beings; of Lois and Helene, dependent on the protection provided by their Super husbands who were frequently away, leaving them open to Henry's vengeance. Even if Henry had no knowledge of their Super personas and of Kryptonite, he could still destroy the Kents' reputations. Henry's contacts were so varied that it was conceivable that he not only could destroy their good names, but also could learn of their alter egos, expose them to the world and obtain Kryptonite to destroy them physically.
Jack was courageous and strong-minded, but he feared what his father could do to the people he cared about. If he were crossed, Henry was capable of the worst kind of retaliation. Jack loved the father he remembered from long ago, but the man on the other side of the hotel room door was a stranger who had begun exhibiting unusual and unpredictable behaviour.
Because he had decided that it was time to break away, Jack was nervous about meeting with Henry. When they had made their initial bargain, his father had promised to let him go after five years, and the five years were almost completed. Jack knew he had to stop leading a double life — deceiving Laura, neglecting their relationship, giving his allegiance instead to his father and the company that dominated his life. He couldn't go on with it; he was destroying himself and had probably irrevocably destroyed Laura's love for him. He had to stop what he was doing, and he had to persuade — somehow convince — his father to let him go. But Henry Forrest was not a man easily persuaded to do anything he didn't want to do.
The two of them never met at the company or in one of its well maintained offices and hotel rooms in the D.C. area or Metropolis. Henry liked to keep his business operations as secret as possible from his superiors, explaining that administrative red tape just got in the way of success. And he was very successful at what he did, handsomely rewarded monetarily and accorded well-deserved accolades in terse but complimentary memos circulated throughout the company and on up the chain of command, some going to the very top. He kept even those who worked for him at a distance and relied completely on only a chosen few. In the last several years the reliable had dropped to a solitary digit — Jack's brother, Jeff.
Since Jeff's death, Henry Forrest had demanded that Jack return to the business and assume Jeff's responsibilities. Henry had used threats and coercion to bring him back to a life he had rejected and had been determined not to return to. In the end Henry had won, but Jack had insisted that he would only work with his father for a limited time and Henry had agreed. Now Jack wanted to call in that promise.
The door was unlocked as expected and, turning the knob, Jack entered a small room containing a bed, a nightstand and lamp, a small chest of drawers, and a single wooden chair. One narrow window overlooking an airshaft allowed a minimum amount of light, which was enhanced slightly by a dim bulb contained overhead in a dirty, fly-filled receptacle. The worn carpet on the floor documented the footsteps of hundreds of previous occupants crossing to the bed and into the small adjacent bathroom.
Henry Forrest was seated on the chair reading, his briefcase on the floor beside him. Looking up at his son, he said, "You're late, boy. Lock the door." The tone in the rebuke and the command brooked no explanation or argument.
Gesturing peremptorily for his son to sit on the bed, an inferior position to his own, Henry Forrest continued, "I have a top priority assignment for you, and it must be completed at once, without tardiness or your usual bungling. I must be able to depend on you to handle this with the alacrity and expertise that your brother would have exhibited."
"I do my best, sir, but I'm not Jeff." Jack spoke with grim sadness. "I try but I can't be him and I can't take his place with you."
Henry Forrest's words were short and sharp. "No you can't. But we must both make the best of it. Now, about your assignment. We have some assets in Russia, the Ukraine and the Czech Republic that must be liquidated. It must be done without arousing any governmental interest or suspicion. I leave the means to your discretion, but for god's sake take care to do it properly. Everything must be untraceable! Do you understand?"
Jack was looking at his father with horror in his eyes and he rose from the bed in agitation. "Papa, this will destroy many people who have been our friends, who have risked everything to help us."
"They've served their purpose. It's time for us to withdraw."
"I can't do this, Papa. We have to talk. I came today to ask you to let me go as you promised. I can't live this life anymore. I'm destroying everything important to me, and I won't inflict any more damage on people who have been my friends."
Henry Forrest regarded the other man with contempt. "I've always known you were weak and soft. You're just like your mother. I indulged her and she repaid me by making you worthless to me."
Trying not to wince at the words, Jack said, "Mama taught me the value of love and what it means. I found a love like that with Laura. It's very strong in her family. I hope I haven't thrown it away because of what I've done for you."
Glaring at Jack, the elder Forrest said, "I made a mistake with you by allowing you to spend time with your mother instead of teaching you to be hard, the way I taught Jeff, the way you must be to survive in our world. Well, your mother became ill and escaped my retribution by dying, and Jeff had to be sacrificed because of his unanticipated negligence. That means you'll have to fulfill my plans."
"Let me go, Papa! There are people better than I am at doing what you want. You'll be retiring in just a few months. You don't need me any more. Let me go."
"There will be no retirement," Henry Forrest replied in a matter of fact tone. Then he spoke in cold simplicity, "Do I need to explain to you again what will happen to your wife, your children, her family if you don't comply with my wishes?"
Jack faced his father angrily. "No, I won't do it. Not any more. I won't live this life anymore. I won't run any more errands for you, I won't liquidate any more assets for you, and I won't cut myself off from my wife and children anymore for you. I'm going to live my life the way Mama would have wanted me to and if that makes me soft and weak in your eyes, then you won't have to see me anymore."
The older man continued with icy calm as though the younger man had not spoken. "Very well, I will reiterate the inevitable consequences of your obstinacy in this matter. Your wife's professional reputation and that of her family will be ruined; you will be an outcast with no family and no job. Your wife and her parents will be killed in an unfortunate accident, and I will become the guardian of your children who will then be properly trained to continue what I and my father and his father before him have built. The Forrest legacy in the service of the company will go on. And you'll be helpless to prevent any of this. You know I can do what I say, and that I *will* do it unless you comply with my orders!"
Jack slumped down on the bed, wishing that he did not believe that his father would carry out his threats. His mind raced through the alternatives he had calculated so often since his father had first warned him of his dire intentions.
He could tell Clark, Laura and Chris and enlist their help, but what if Henry knew their secret and he had obtained Kryptonite? What if Henry moved against Lois, Helene, Lee and Carla before they could stop him? What if Henry had a plan already prepared to expose the Kents' secret to the world. And even if he did none of that, what if he destroyed their reputations, trampled their integrity and turned their carefully constructed well- respected lives into despicable trash? There were too many unknowns.
Jack had decided long ago that his fealty to Henry was a small price to pay for securing the safety of this remarkable family. Now that he knew that his father would not live up to their bargain, he was prepared to do what was necessary to break with him, even though his action would endanger the Kents. He thought he could stop his father from carrying out his threats, but he believed he would have to do it alone.
Jack needed time to think. He had to get out of here and away from Henry Forrest. It was better to let his father think he was defeated and compliant. It was always better to let Henry think he had won. Jack feigned a weak reply. "Yes, Papa. All right, Papa."
Henry Forrest nodded and handed Jack a thick manila envelope. "Here are the details. You can fly out of here, tonight."
"Please," Jack pretended to plead. "I'd like to see my family before I go."
"Very well, as long as you don't take too long. It can't hurt for you to be reminded of what you have to lose." Turning away from his son to take up his briefcase, he said absently, "You may leave this hotel first. I'll stay a while longer. I have some reports to read."
With that dismissal Henry Forrest gave his attention to the briefcase papers, now oblivious of his son's presence. Jack left the hotel, as he had come, in silence.
He decided to take the bullet tube back to Metropolis, as he did not have a flight reservation. Crossing town, applying Moscow rules to elude anyone who might be following him, he entered the transport station and hurried down to the lowest level, again taking precautions to evade followers. Noting on the overhead schedule screen that another train was due in ten minutes, he stood on the platform and concentrated his thoughts on what his immediate tactics should be. He had made up his mind about his strategy before he had seen his father, and he wasn't changing it. He wanted his life back. *His* life — a life that included Laura and his children and excluded Henry's twisted world and what he proclaimed as important.
He had to begin with the assumption that his father could make good the foreboding consequences he had so frequently held over his head. What could he do about that? He couldn't tell Laura anything yet, but maybe Chris would help. Yes, he would go to see Chris when he got back to Metropolis. He glanced at the clock on the wall and saw that it was 4:15. He would be in Metropolis in 30 minutes and with any luck, Chris would still be at the Daily Planet.
Seeing his train pulling in, he stepped away from the stone pillar against which he had been leaning. As he did so, someone bumped him from behind, said "Sorry", and moved quickly away and up the stairs to his right. He just noted the shadow of the figure as he turned and raced for the quick-closing doors of the speedy transport.
*Our love is kind of stalled, Baby,
But it ain't about the sex;
I'd trade the roses and the negligees
If we could just connect.*
*I go deeper when you look into my eye;,
There's a place
Where neither one of us can hide.
And it's up to us to reinvent the game;
Love it when you call my name and,
Meet me halfway,
Ain't no doubt about it, baby,
Meet me halfway
And we're halfway home.*
Bonnie Raitt, Annie Roloff, Beth Neilson-Chapman
It was almost three o'clock when Lois finally got back to her desk at CHILD. Her lunch with Laura had been wrenching and she wasn't sure how productive. She wondered if Laura would follow through on what she had decided to do. This speculation could have occupied her for the rest of the afternoon, but those accounting reports were still staring at her and she felt an urgent need to get back to them, if for no other reason than that she had a niggledy impression that something about them was not quite right.
She stood up to fortify herself with another pot of coffee but decided that she couldn't face more caffeine after the espresso permeated lunch and chose to make herb tea instead. Ten minutes later, her cup filled with a strong aromatic brew of her favorite chamomile, she donned her glasses and began, again, to peruse the columns of figures.
By five o'clock her unease had grown, but she couldn't put a specific name to the cause. Time for a Super consultation. She buzzed Caroline and asked her to ring Clark. He was in a meeting and not available until 5:30. Leaving a message for him to call her, Lois returned to those pesky figures. <I'm good with numbers>, she thought. <What am I not seeing? >
Clark called at 5:32. "Hi, honey. You rang?"
"Well, you sound cheerful. Must have been a good meeting. And you'll be even more cheered to know that I can't get along without you; I need your help with something."
"I keep telling you that. Shall I come down now?"
"Well, we have to eat before going to the Black and White Ball — you did remember to pick up your dinner jacket, didn't you? Anyway, we have to eat so why don't we have something sent in and we can talk then. Come down after you dress, say around 6:30. We should be at the Pan-World ballroom by 8:30."
"Okay. I'll take care of getting the food; what would you like? And yes, I have my dinner jacket, Mom."
She smiled and said, "Chinese from that little place you-know- where would be great, but it might be a little messy for our evening clothes. Why don't you just get a pizza from Guiseppi's? I had lunch with Laura and I'm not all that hungry."
"Sounds about right. I think I can handle anything you don't eat. You want a salad too? You had lunch with Laura? Is that the subject for our discussion?"
"No, we'll save that one for later. It's business. A salad? Sure. See you at 6:30…Clark?"
She paused for another second as she corralled her thoughts, and then said, hesitantly, "Sometimes I forget to tell you how much I love you. I think I forgot to do that this morning, but I do, you know. Love you. More than anything." Her voice had dropped and her words were soft with emotion.
"I know," he said huskily, "but it's nice to hear, especially when I love you so much more every day." He spoke quietly, "See you at 6:30," and hung up. Standing very still for a moment he recalled the morning chill between them and said to himself <You see? Patience…it just needs patience. >
Lois held the receiver to her heart for a moment, bending her head over it and closing her eyes to stop the tears. Then she straightened, set the phone in its cradle and walked over to her dressing room to shower.
*What goes up must come down,
Spinning Wheel got to go around.
Talkin' 'bout your troubles is a crying sin;
Ride a painted pony
Let the Spinning Wheel spin. *
*Someone is waiting just for you;
Spinning Wheel is spinning true.
Drop all your troubles on the riverside;
Catch a painted pony
On the Spinning Wheel ride.*
David C. Thomas
When Jack walked into the bullpen of the Daily Planet, Chris had just finished sending an article to his editor. One more exciting story about the water department's concerns that rainfall was low for the last six-month time period and there maybe could be a drought. Or maybe not. It was not the kind of thing he really cared about, but he had given it the good old Kent try, so he figured Eli would fill some space with it. What he really wanted to work on was that story about the erosion of foreign aid funds. He was pulling the file up on his computer screen when he realized that someone was standing almost out of range of his peripheral vision. He looked around and was surprised to see his brother-in-law.
"Jack! Hey, man, good to see you. It's been a while."
"Yeah, Chris, that's what I'd like to talk to you about. Have you got some time?"
Chris had liked Jack when he had first met him; and he had always felt that there was an explanation, one that no one knew, when Jack's personality and his feelings for Laura had seemed to change. The serious look he now saw on Jack's face was enough to get his attention. This was not the foolish, shallow man he had seen for the last few years. "I'll make time for you, Jack. I have a couple of hours before I have to get home. There's a big society bash tonight and Helene is expected to make all the young Metropolis males happy by attending. You wanna get a bite? There's a great Thai place down the block that's mostly take-out. We can get a booth in the back and be virtually alone."
"Sounds perfect. Can you go now?"
"Let's do it."
The Thai Kitchen was empty when they arrived, so they ordered at the counter, took a couple of beers and settled into a booth in the back. They saluted each other with their bottles and drank, then were silent. Chris waited expectantly as Jack gazed into the distance, apparently putting his thoughts in line. Finally, he spoke. "Five years ago, my brother was killed in a hit and run accident. He was my father's favorite and it was a great blow to the old man. For six generations my family has been an essential part of a certain business and our involvement has been at the center of my father's entire life. It's not a business I ever wanted to participate in, but my brother and I were expected to join and we did.
"When I found Laura, I had broken away and was trying to lead the life that I always wanted. When we met, she became the keystone of that life. But when Jeff died, my father demanded that I return and take his place."
Jack paused, took a swig of beer to wet his throat, and continued. "My brother's death was no accident. Death is an occupational hazard in our business. I can't tell you what that business is — at least, not yet. Maybe never. But you have to understand that it is very dangerous and my father is a very powerful man in it. He can arrange for things to happen…" He stopped again as though girding himself for battle.
"When I said 'no' to my father's demand that I return to take Jeff's place, he threatened to ruin and then kill Laura, Lois, Clark, Helene and you. Laura had told me about Kryptonite, and I was uncertain if the three of you would remain invulnerable to anything physical he could do, and I knew Lois and Helene would be easy prey. And he could destroy your reputations. Remember Othello? 'Who steals my purse steals trash…' The company can easily ruin a person in that way. I thought about going to Clark, but I didn't see how Super powers could protect your family name against slander and defamation or even some kind of criminal charges that could be trumped up. I had to cope with Henry on my own.
"And finally Henry threatened to isolate me in such a way that the courts would take my children and award custody to him.
"I know all that sounds far-fetched and melodramatic, but believe me, he can do what he threatens to do. I had no choice but to agree to his terms. But I made demands of my own — that when he retired, I could leave the business for good. He consented with the proviso that, in the meantime, I withdraw from being close to Laura and your family. He wouldn't budge on that stipulation, so I had to comply. He said that my only family had to be him and the company.
"I hated what I was doing. That's why my behaviour changed so radically, and why I've acted so badly. I had to withdraw and concentrate on the jobs he sent me on. In a few months he will face mandatory retirement and I've reminded him of our bargain. He says he isn't retiring and that neither am I. He has also sent me on a mission that I won't carry out. I plan to break with him completely. I'm telling you this because when he learns what I'm doing, he will follow through on his threat, and I hope to enlist your help in keeping your family safe until I can take certain steps that will stop him. Will you help me?"
Chris answered immediately, "Of course I'll help you. Why wouldn't I help protect my family…our family? You're one of us too, Jack."
"You wouldn't want me to be, the way things are right now." Jack paused and finished, "Maybe I can earn my way back."
"What will you do?"
"I can't tell you specifically. What I can tell you is that I'm leaving for London on the midnight flight out of Dulles and before I go I'll be calling my father to tell him that not only am I not going to do what he ordered, but I'm going to ensure that no one else can either," Jack answered. "It's probably a stupid thing to do, but he is my father. It's the last time I'll honor him in any way."
"What do you want me to do?"
"After my father hears what I have to say, he'll begin to take steps to harm your family. You need to become the eyes and ears that track what he's doing. I'll give you the names of some people who have access to lines of communication in every city and every business in the world. My father is powerful, but I've made a lot of friends who have reason to dislike him. Working with them you have to discover anything that might be a danger to the Kent family."
"And if something turns up?"
"They will know how to get in touch with me. As soon as I hear from them, I'll contact you and we'll go from there. We'll wait to tell your parents until we know something definitive."
"Okay. Sounds like a 24-hour job. I could be called away as The Defender, you know."
"Unless it's a catastrophic emergency, try to beg off and let Clark and Laura take care of it. Just for a short time."
"What about Laura?" Chris queried. "Are you going to tell her any of this?"
Jack looked down at the table, and then full into Chris's face. Jack's expression of pain was visible evidence of his internal conflict. "I can't tell her, Chris. I hope someday I'll be able to, but I can't now. My father…I've done some horrible things. Things I don't think even you could accept. Until I can somehow atone for them, make up for what my father and my family have done, I can't let her know. I'm not afraid of very many things, but what I fear most is what I'll see in her eyes when I finally tell her the truth about me."
"She loves you," responded Chris. "Even with all that's happened, she still looks at you with love in her eyes. I've seen it there behind the hurt."
A shadow of guilt crossed Jack's face. "I know I've hurt her and it's one of the things I hate myself most for. I don't want to hurt her anymore. That's why I may never tell her."
"You'll still keep secrets from her?"
"No. There won't be any more secrets because there won't be any more me."
Chris started to protest, but their food arrived, and while they ate Jack diverted the conversation to give Chris the data he needed to put their plan into operation.
*Love walked right in
And drove the shadows away;
Love walked right in
And brought my sunniest day.
One magic moment
And my heart seemed to know
That love said hello
Though not a word was spoken.
One look and I forgot
The gloom of the past;
One look and I had
Found my future at last;
One look and I had found a world
When loved walked in with you.*
At 6:30, Clark and the pizza arrived at Lois's office almost simultaneously. He came first, with a happy smile and an eager question in his eyes, as he strode toward her. She thought, <Yes, me too> and was almost in his arms when she heard a discreet "A-hem" from Caroline and saw that she was carrying a flat box topped by a small square one.
"Shall I put this on your coffee table for you?" she asked.
Lois nodded, and Caroline, completing her task, turned toward the door saying, "I'll say good-night now. A car will be downstairs for you at 8:00. Enjoy your evening at the Ball!"
Lois said, "Thank you, Caroline. See you tomorrow," as the other woman closed the door.
She knew Caroline was gone because she heard the sounds, but she saw only Clark, and then she was in his arms and he was kissing her, not wanting to let her go until they were in danger of forgetting that they were dressed for an important engagement and had business to attend to. Reluctantly, she pulled away.
"We should continue that later…?" she asked breathlessly.
"Yes," Clark answered. "I think we should."
She busied herself getting plates and utensils from the kitchenette area, calming her galloping pulse. He was watching her and she felt the waves of tenderness mixed with desire. As she opened the pizza box, the waves broke and were replaced with another kind of hunger. She breathed more easily — emotional tension dissolved for the moment.
The luxury of Lois's executive suite, which was donated by the William H. and Melinda Gates Foundation, had proved to be a necessity for receiving the national and international politicians and celebrities she depended on for CHILD support. And on the many nights like this when she and Clark had to attend some important function, it meant extra work time that might otherwise be spent in going home and changing for the evening.
Clark started to sit down, then said, "Oh! I left a bottle of wine on Caroline's desk." He retrieved it, opened it at the wet- bar and returned with two wineglasses, which he filled. Looking at her, he said, "To later," and drank. She nodded, smiling and drinking. Then they attacked the pizza and salad.
As they were eating, Lois explained to him her concern over the financial reports from Ecuador. "I'm no dummy about financial reports, but there are hundreds of accounts here with ten or fifteen transfers every day over the last few months. I can't track all that in my head, and something doesn't 'feel' right.
After finishing her slice of pizza, she brought the stack of printouts from her desk.
Lowering his glasses, he quickly ruffled through the several hundred pages, then consumed another slice of pizza in three bites, staring straight ahead as his mind sorted through what he had seen.
Finally he spoke. "The numbers add up as they should. The computers would have caught any discrepancy there. But the results from that amount of money being pumped into the recovery don't seem quite right."
"Yes, that's just what I thought! There doesn't seem to be enough actually happening. By this time, shouldn't a lot more homes be almost completed and people out of those refugee camps and back in business?"
"Sometimes it takes a while to really get things underway," he replied. "Maybe we're expecting too much, too soon."
"I don't think so. You know how patient I am." He looked at her skeptically, one eyebrow raised. She smiled in response and amended, "Okay, so I'm not *always* patient, but I think this goes beyond reason. Something is definitely very fishy and I think we should go down there and see what's going on."
Clark took her hand. "Honey, I have to go back to the Congo for a few days to wrap up some loose ends from the trip last fall. If you can restrain yourself until I get back, we'll go down to Ecuador together."
"So, if I practice being patient, maybe we can mix a little pleasure with business?"
"A little time away together might be just what we need," he murmured, cupping her face in his hand and kissing her.
Wanting to deepen the kiss, but aware of their obligation and the time, she drew back, saying, "Deal," and stood to gather the dishes and carry them to the kitchen sink.
He watched her — oh, how he loved the way she moved — and thought that patience seemed to be a very important word in their lives right now. <Well, Patience thou art a Virtue, and Virtue is rewarded.> He sat back, relaxed and content, a satisfied smile on his face as he watched his wife move from counter to refrigerator. She gave him a meaningful look and, grinning, he stood saying, "Yes ma'am. Coming," as he picked up the food cartons and walked over to her.
Before catching the bullet tube back to D.C., Jack needed to go home and pack a bag. He looked at his watch; it was not quite 7:30. He didn't know if he wanted Laura to be there or not. Ambivalently, he hoped Laura would be working late because he wasn't sure he could face her; but he also wanted to see her one more time, in case something happened that would make it impossible for him to return. He hadn't lied to his father when he had said he wanted to say goodbye to his family.
Grabbing a taxi, in a short fifteen minutes he was at the door of the suburban house that he and Laura had found just after Lee had been born. Located on the outskirts of the city where there were tall trees and grass, it was the perfect place for children to grow up. He had known that Laura also hoped it would be a place where they could find themselves again, but he had had to steel himself against thoughts of that kind, just as he needed to now. He could not afford to think of happiness with her until this was over. And the things he would have to do might make that future impossible.
When he opened the door, he heard Carla chattering cheerfully. He found her in the kitchen with Lee and Kama, who was preparing dinner. The cyborg sensed his presence and turned to say, "Hello Mr. Jack. So nice to have you home this evening." Her melodic electronic voice was pleasant to the ear, although the speech patterns tended to be a little stilted. There were imperfections in these models that the robotic scientists were still tinkering with.
"DADDY," shouted Lee who launched himself into Jack's arms, as Carla, shrieking "D-a-d-d-e-e-e-e," wrapped her arms around his legs.
"We are always enthusiastic to see you," continued Kama, as Jack gave his full attention to his children for a few minutes. After an interim of bedlam, Kama spoke again. "Lee, Carla, it is time for you to set the table."
From his position at eyelevel with his progeny, Jack rose and asked Kama, "Is Laura home?"
"She is working late but we are expecting her…"she stopped, cocking her head as though listening, and finished, "now."
As she uttered the word, Jack heard Laura's key in the lock. Within seconds, she was kneeling in the kitchen door with her arms full of children. The joy and love in her eyes was the best thing he had seen since their days in St. Moritz and Paris. Then she noticed him and he saw her expression change, becoming guarded and blank.
"Hi," she said. "You're back tonight, after all. Everything go okay?" She had stood and was taking off her coat, not looking at him as she spoke.
"About the way I thought," he answered. "I have to go to Europe again." He watched, memorizing her every move. If things should go badly, he wanted to be able to recall this entire scene. Such memories had been his only shelter in terrible moments in the past.
She replied with the usual "Okay," going into the adjacent room to stow her coat and briefcase in the closet.
The Winter Haven Black and White Ball and Silent Auction was an annual charity event for the benefit of the homeless in Metropolis. All expenses were underwritten by Wunderkind Communications Alliance, a conglomerate of some of the most powerful companies in the world. Three hundred invitations were issued to the rich, the famous and the beautiful people of Metropolis. Lois and Clark, like many others on the guest list, were not rich, but they were famous and their presence, as leaders in the small community that makes up the movers and shakers of any big city, was expected. The monies received in the silent auction and from individual donations would go to provide food, warm clothing and shelter for the homeless during the cold winter months.
The silent auction was already underway in an alcove adjacent to a ballroom sparkling with the glittering jewels of Metropolis society when Lois and Clark arrived at the Pan-World Hotel. Since they were unlikely to be bidding on anything, they decided to bypass the auction items for now and circulate amongst the influential guests, cementing contacts who could benefit their respective organizations. Separating, they agreed to meet in the alcove just before the dancing started.
Lois spotted Howard Morgan and his new wife, Veda Doodsen, and went over to say hello. Ever since she had been instrumental in saving Superman's life during the crisis in December, Veda had become active in the social and philanthropic milieu. She and Lois were now friends and Lois considered her a co-member with Howard of the CHILD Board of Directors.
Clark was talking with Phil Ackerman, one of the top men at Wunderkind, when he saw Marshall Stewart enter the ballroom from the auction alcove and head in Lois's direction. He suppressed the stirrings of jealousy he felt, knowing Lois would not be happy if he had a confrontation with Stewart tonight.
Watching them kiss in December still burned his memory, even though he knew she was, at the time, sending him a message to stop hiding and come home to get the help he needed. Knowing why she did it didn't make it any more palatable and his initial mistrust of the man was deepening into something more truculent.
Trying to maintain an outward pleasantness with Ackerman, he was, nevertheless, totally aware of every move Stewart made. He began to steam when he saw the man run his hand down Lois's arm and place a longer than necessary kiss on her cheek. He excused himself from the group around Ackerman and was making his way over to Lois, when he saw her break away and head for the auction alcove, and he realized that the orchestra was beginning to play.
Lois entered the auction area, relieved to be rid of the oily attentions of Marshall Stewart and began to inspect each of the items. She had reached number five, a beautifully carved ivory figure when she suddenly became aware of what she was seeing. Bending over, she looked more closely to be sure her perception was accurate, and then she straightened, shocked and dumbfounded. Reading the card describing the object, she saw that it was a nineteenth century piece done by a whaler turned artist who had begun working with scrimshaw and had graduated to more complex figures. From the Leffingwell family collection, the piece was valued at $20,000.00.
"Oh my god!" she gasped.
Clark came into the room saying sarcastically, "Well did you enjoy your little…" but got no further when he saw her face. Alarmed, he approached her. "Lois, what is it? Are you all right? Did that jerk say something…?"
Turning to him she said, "Clark, look," and pointed to the ivory miniature.
"What's wrong? Has it been damaged?" Then he too bent over to take a closer look at the intricately carved figure of a naked woman poised to step from a gigantic clamshell like Venus rising from the sea. She was instantaneously recognizable to him in every intimate detail. He looked up at Lois, his mouth gaping open. "Honey?"
She nodded. "Clark…that's *me*!"
They both continued to gaze in horror at the item Finally, Clark said, "Well we'll just buy it. It's really very beautiful, and it would make a great family heirloo — "
Lois interrupted. "Clark, we can't afford that!" She was almost wailing.
He looked at the bid sheet. "Yeah, we'd have to use an equity loan on our townhouse…Look, honey, nobody else has bid on it. Maybe we could just lowball and get it." He wasn't very optimistic because the donor had probably put a minimum price on it and would reclaim it by giving the charity the bid amount for it.
She knew that as well as he and she gave him a dour look. He went on. "Well, honey, nobody's bid on it which probably means that nobody's really looked at it because if they had there'd be a lot of …" The look she gave him now could have withered the metal-filigreed flower garden that was item number three. He tried again, "Maybe nobody will notice the resemblance," he said in a comforting tone.
"You think?" she asked hopefully.
He nodded reassuringly. "Why don't we get away from here for now so we won't call attention to it." The worried and unhappy look on her face didn't quite smooth out at that suggestion, but she did let him lead her away.
*I'm gonna love you
Like nobody's loved you
Come rain or come shine.
High as a mountain
And deep as a river
Come rain or come shine.
I guess, when you met me,
It was just one of those things;
But don't ever bet me
'Cause I'm gonna be true
If you'll let me.
You're gonna love me
Like nobody's loved me,
Come rain or come shine.
Happy together, unhappy together
And won't it be fine.
Days may be cloudy or sunny,
We're in or we're out of the money,
But I'm with you always,
I'm with you rain or shine*
After Laura and Jack had finished their supper with Lee and Carla, they spent some time with the children, reading a story together and laughing. Later they tucked them into their beds, kissing them goodnight; then Jack called a cab and quickly packed a bag, while Laura sat on the couch reading some data from her briefcase.
Finally, he was ready to leave. How would he do this — say a goodbye that might really be goodbye? She saw him hesitate as he approached her and looked directly at him. "Do you have some time, or do you have to leave right away?"
"I'm catching the midnight out of Dulles. It's going to be pretty close. I can't miss the 9:15 bullet."
She looked away for a moment, and then turned to him again, determination in her eye. "I had lunch with mother today. She helped me get some things clear in my mind. We have to talk, Jack. If not now, then when you get back, and not when you're in a hurry to go somewhere else."
He remembered how he had felt that morning when he had watched her, wanting so very much to put his arms around her, taking time to hold her gently until she had filled him with the serenity and self-assurance that she always seemed to radiate. But he had known that if he approached her, she would become more wary, triggering the guilt that already undermined his confidence. His need to hold her was greater now than it had been this morning. <No. Not yet. Not until it's done.> His faith in his ability to be strong enough to complete this break from his father was high, but he had hurt her too often. He did not want to raise expectations that he might not meet.
Putting his bag down, he said, "I know. We can't go on with this sham. There's so much you need to know."
"Is our relationship a sham, Jack? I don't think so. Something is terribly wrong, but I think we still care for each other."
"*Care* for each other? Is that the way you feel? You *care* for me?" He whispered the words he knew he shouldn't say but he couldn't stop himself. "I *love* you. I love you so much I ache with it, and not telling you so every hour every day is like being in hell."
She was next to him, pulling his arms around her, putting her arms around him, holding him and saying she loved him too, had never stopped loving him, would never stop loving him no matter what.
He held her, letting the vehement force of her emotion encompass and fill him. But he couldn't ignore her last words.
Reluctantly he pulled away as her puzzled eyes looked into his.
"I wish I could believe that could be true, but some things are very hard to get past, Laura. I've done a lot of things I'm not sure you can accept. If I come back, we'll talk and you'll have to decide."
Surprised she shot back, "What do you mean '*if* you come back'?"
"You have no idea where I go or what I do. It's almost always dangerous. This time it could be deadly."
"Jack?" At that moment the taxi horn sounded outside. After kissing her hard, he grabbed his coat and suitcase, and ran out the door saying, "If I can come back, I will."
He heard her call after him, "Don't you dare let somebody kill you, Jack Forrest. That pleasure's reserved for me!" As he got into the cab, he smiled and thought: <Courage, tenacity and a smart mouth; her mother would be proud.> His mother would say, 'Hang on to her, Jack. Hang on with everything you have and never let go.' He hoped he would be able to do just that.
On the way to the bullet station, he automatically checked all of his pockets for the essential items: International identi-card, wallet, money cards; in one jacket pocket he found a note he hadn't seen before. Opening it, he read, "Jack, old friend. Haven't seen you around for a while. What's up these days? Am back in the country for a quick info check. What have you been doing since you left? I'll be gone on a job for a while. Maybe we can get together later." It was signed, "Alex."
A company man Jack had worked with, Alex was known as a smooth mover who was able to penetrate almost any operation undetected. He had a straight identity that was a well-hidden need-to-know facsimile. Not even Henry Forrest had access to that information.
<Smooth is right> he thought, realizing that Alex had been the man in the bullet station in D.C., who, in a brush pass, had placed the note in Jack's coat pocket without his feeling anything.
He read the note again, puzzling over the comment, 'since you left.' What did that mean? Doesn't he know I've been back for five years? He must have been a deep mole if he hadn't heard that. <If everything goes okay, I'll try to contact him later. That is if I can still talk to anybody in the business then.>
*There's a howlin' at my window, baby,
I hear him closin' in.
That green-eyed jackal's got the scent,
Knows I'll let him in.
He slinks in by me at the fire,
More bitter than the cold.
And it's a rage as old as Hades
That'll sputter on these coals.
I'm callin' on the Furies
To let the toast begin,
I'm roastin' on the spit of love again.*
At the Ball, Lois and Clark danced and chatted with friends, but he noticed that she kept glancing nervously at the alcove.
They saw Helene surrounded by male admirers and Chris, as always, watching from the sidelines. Society gossips noticed the young couple too and made them the subject of their speculations, as they repeated the rumor that the beautiful, brilliant young psychiatrist was unhappy in her marriage.
Then Lois and Clark ran into Lucy and Jimmy, and while Lois was involved in a 'slight disagreement' with them about the advantages of daycare versus a nurturing cyborg, Clark slipped away to check out the bidding on the objet d'art. It was no longer on the table.
Disaster! Someone must have entered a private bid beyond the appraised value, which had been accepted, and the artwork removed from the auction. There was nothing he could do. Even if he went to the auction administrator, there was no way he could outbid the purchaser for it. The sculpture was gone and Lois was going to be devastated.
When he returned to the ballroom, Lois was dancing with Marshall Stewart, in what, to Clark's eyes, was much too close an embrace. He approached them with a thunderous face, which Lois spotted over Stewart's shoulder. <Oh, Clark, please don't. Not tonight> She pleaded with her eyes, and he calmed down. They had other, more urgent problems.
He tapped Stewart on the shoulder saying, "You don't mind, do you?" as he smiled insincerely.
Stewart took his time, still holding Lois in his arms, finally replying, "You have the advantage," and then added so softly only Clark could hear, "for now." He ran his hand across Lois's back and down her arm before finally releasing his touch at her fingertips. "I'll look forward to a longer dance, next time, Lois." He turned and walked away.
Lois clutched Clark to prevent him from following and whispered, "Thank you for staying calm, sweetheart. I know you would never want to leave me alone on the dance floor," and she began dragging him along in a kind of wrestling dance. Finally he relaxed and cooperated with the beat of the music. "So, Clark, where have you been?" she asked through slightly gritted teeth fronted by a fake smile.
Rejecting his impulse to confront her with what seemed to him to be her continuing interest in having Marshall Stewart touch her, he turned instead to the unpleasant news he had for her. "I was checking out the *object* of our concern." He paused.
"And…" she prompted.
"It's been removed from the auction. Apparently it's been purchased privately."
She stared at him, aghast, her eyes reflecting her misery.
"I don't know what we can do, honey. I can find out who bought it, but do we really want to have contact with that person? I mean, maybe he or she hasn't figured out the resemblance. We don't really want to give the buyer an opportunity to notice, do we?"
"No," she sighed, "we don't. I just wish we could find out how it could have happened in the first place. I mean how could a Nantucket whaler back in the 1800's have carved something that is so much like me?"
He nodded agreement. "In *every* detail." He thought for a moment. "Well, we are soul mates, you know, and H.G. Wells has shown us two past lives, so there were probably others. Maybe I was the whaler and you were my wife…or a mistress my wife didn't know about," he teased.
She looked at him scornfully and said, "Or maybe you were just some lowlife, peeping tom, pond scum."
"A very artistically gifted one. Too bad we're famous and not rich. I would really have enjoyed acquiring that little piece," he added suggestively.
"Why would you want that when you have the real thing?" she enquired, morosely playing the game. "Which reminds me, how much longer do you think we need to hang around here?"
He wanted to tuck her under his arm and fly out of the room, but that, of course, was out of the question, as it was much too early for them to leave. It would be a definite faux pas to disappear before midnight.
When the dance ended, they separated again, he to join a group surrounding Richard King, owner of the Metropolis professional basketball franchise; and she to discuss the deterioration of press reporting with publishing magnate Lauren Kellerman.
An hour or so later, she was making her way over to Lucy, when she found herself seized around the waist and dancing in the very close embrace of Marshall Stewart who said, "I've been looking forward to this." She was unsuccessfully attempting to put a little space between them when Clark appeared. <Uncanny how that works>she thought. Lucy, right on Clark's heels, grabbed her by the elbow and said, "C'mon, Lois, let's go freshen up," and dragged her off to the ladies room, leaving Clark and Stewart appraising each other.
Clark spoke first. "Why don't we go out on the balcony and get a little air."
"My thought, exactly," Stewart replied.
When they had stepped outside, Stewart took out a cigar case, proffered it to Clark who shook his head in refusal. After he had lit the tip to flame and achieved a glowing ash, Stewart remarked conversationally, "Smoking a cigar is one of life's sybaritic pleasures, don't you think? I'm relieved we haven't banished this delight to second and third world nations with all the other tobacco vices."
He paused, puffing, and went on, "The Cubanos really do know how to produce a premium product. So superior to all those struggling countries who doctor their wares with dependency inducing leaves and grasses to provide an additional kick to their 'smoke'. Nicotine should be sufficient, don't you think?"
Clark made no comment but waited for a moment and then spoke directly to the point. "Exactly what is your fascination with my wife, Stewart?"
"I should have thought that one need only look at her to understand that."
"Back off, Stewart. She doesn't want your attention and I don't like it. You may not have any morals, but she does."
"I haven't heard any complaints from her."
"Look, you're on her Board of Directors; she doesn't want to offend you. But she's my wife; she loves *me*. Forget about any lecherous ideas you've been hallucinating."
"I don't think you want to go there." Clark was barely managing to hold his temper.
"See here, Kent, you're a decent enough fellow, but you lack the social stature or the measure of wealth that Lois deserves. She belongs on yachts and in sophisticated salons. She should wear diamonds and adorn penthouses, not preside in boardrooms, and that is where I intend to take her. You would be well advised to stay out of my way."
So, it was out in the open. Clark was relieved that there was now something tangible for him to attack. One part of him was ready to grab Stewart and let him know, forcefully, how filthily unscrupulous he was, while another was noting how little the fellow knew about Lois. She would loathe being someone's ornament and would probably deck the guy if he actually suggested it. For a moment, Clark was close to laughing aloud at the picture in his mind.
But Stewart had not finished. "I do not allow anyone to get in the way of what I want, Kent. Be advised that if you try to thwart me, you will suffer the gravest penalty. And now that we understand one another, I believe I shall return to the party."
Clark watched Stewart saunter away, pausing to extinguish his cigar and take in a few deep breaths of the night air. Shaking his head at the arrogance of the man — arrogant, but dangerous — Clark wondered what connections Marshall Stewart had that made it possible for him to make such threats. Who exactly was this wealthy troublemaker, and what was the source of the riches he spent so casually? Clark's reporter's instinct told him that he should find out more about Marshall Stewart's background.
Re-entering the ballroom Clark saw Lucy but not Lois. He approached her and asked, "Lucy, do you know where Lois is?"
Lucy spoke absently, "I don't know Clark. I think Marshall Stewart took her into the auction room, something about an item he wanted her to see."
<No!>he shouted inwardly and hurried across the ballroom floor, weaving in and out among the dancing couples. When he entered the alcove, Marshall Stewart was explaining to a defiantly proud Lois, holding the delicate ivory carving in her hands, "When I saw it, I recognized what it was immediately, of course, and knew how embarrassed you would be if it were left to be gaped at by everyone; although its beauty is so great that any person of fine sensibility would find it aesthetically pleasing not sensually titillating. I wanted to save you any concern, so I bought it as a gift for you and had it removed from the auction table. The likeness should belong to the original."
By the end of this unctuous little speech, Clark had reached the two of them saying, through clenched teeth, his jaw rippling, "Thanks, but no thanks, Stewart. We couldn't accept such generosity."
Marshall Stewart regarded him coolly. "Oh, really? Perhaps you might ask Lois about that."
"My wife agrees with me. What makes you think you can…"
Lois interrupted dully, "I've already accepted it."
Lois continued, "Thank you for your thoughtfulness, Marshall. Now, I think I'm very tired, Clark. Would you take me home, please?"
Clark stuttered. "Wa-wait a minute. What do you mean you've accepted? You, you can't take an expensive — "
Stewart interrupted smoothly. "I'd be honored to escort you home, Lois. My car can be here within moments. I'll just get your wrap." He started for the door.
Clark grabbed him by the arm, "Wait a minute, buster. You don't take Lois anywhere." He thrust his face close to Marshall Stewart's speaking very quietly, "Stay away from my wife. You really don't want me to lose my temper."
Lois said urgently, "Clark, don't. Let's just go."
The stricken tone of her voice returned his attention to her distress, and he took her arm to escort her away. His parting words were, "This isn't over, Stewart."
"You could not be more accurate," Marshall Stewart replied intensely.
They arrived home not speaking, neither of them wanting to interrupt the silence that was hanging between them, buffering them from the quarrel that each knew was precipitous. The 'later' that they had toasted so optimistically earlier in the evening was going to be angry and painful, and they wanted to hold it off as long as possible.
Clark helped Lois remove her coat and hung it with his in the closet by the door. He watched as she mounted the stairs, then followed her slowly. Inside the bedroom he untied his black tie and unbuttoned the collar of his shirt as she removed her shoes and pantyhose. On her dressing table rested the beautiful ivory figure.
Finally, he spoke, demanding, "How could you accept that from him?"
Her tone was low and lifeless. "What was I supposed to do Clark? Refuse, and spend the rest of my life knowing that he could hold me naked in his hands any time he wanted? He already makes my skin crawl. I don't think I could have stood knowing that."
His heart heard and understood her unhappiness; and if it had been in control, he would have taken her in his arms, comforted her and ended the quarrel. But his brain was suffused with the corrosive fumes of jealousy and anger, poisoning the words he reflexively threw back at her. "If he's so repulsive to you, why are you always hanging on to him? You seem to enjoy it."
She spoke impatiently, as though she were tired of explaining the same thing over and over. "Clark, you're being absurd. You know why I put up with him. Your jealousy is completely unnecessary, and you know that too. I love *you*. I'm married to *you*. We're not teenagers. I'm not a sex object for Marshall Stewart's fantasies."
"That's not what he says."
"What are you talking about?"
"O-o-o-h, baby, does he have big plans for you — yachts, penthouses, diamonds…"
His use of that despised diminutive added oxygen to smouldering embers.
"The two of you discussed me?" She didn't like that idea.
"More like he talked and I listened, but you *were* the subject."
She wasn't lifeless anymore. Her angry words spilled out. "How dare you discuss me with him like I was some…some …object like…like…*that*," she pointed to the sculpture, "that you can bargain over!"
"Now, who's being absurd? Don't worry; he ignored my objections. You'll still get plenty of attention from him. *Now* you owe him. I have no doubt how he'll want to collect on that obligation."
"I can take care of him, and I'll decide just what the extent of my obligation is."
"Well, I'm sure he'll be eager to suggest how you can take care of him."
"What are *you* suggesting?"
"I've seen you take care of him before." He knew that he was way out of line, but he wasn't going to back down; the memory of the kiss he had witnessed still festered. This anger had been building for too long. "You know I don't like the guy around you, but that doesn't seem to matter. Go ahead; throw yourself at him. He's ready to reward you handsomely. And of course, now he has that picture of you in his head, of what you look like — "
Her anger was controlled and dangerous. "Clark Kent, there have been only a few times in all these years that I've wanted to slap you, but this is definitely one of them. If you really believe what you just said, then why hang around? Go to the Congo and let me get on with my gold digging plans."
"Maybe I will."
"So do it. And you can forget about any cozy little jaunt to Ecuador because I'm not waiting around to go there with *you*!"
"Fine, I'll leave tomorrow! Go to Ecuador without me. Marshall Stewart's ready to take my place. All you have to do is say the word."
With that, he stormed out of the bedroom, slamming the door behind him and heading down the hallway to the guest room.
He slammed that door too and jerked off his tie, wishing he had something to hit, but he'd put enough holes in the walls of this room when it had been a teen-age Laura's. Besides he'd learned not to let his temper go. Oh, yeah, he'd learned that.<Way to go, Kent. All you needed was a little patience. Now you're in the middle of a stupid quarrel that neither one of you wants, and you'll have to eat crow to get out of it.>
Their lives together had been peppered with many such arguments, some her fault, some his. They had reached a stage where they usually recognized what was imminent and laughed it off, choosing instead to joke about it and taste the joys of their long relationship. But occasionally, the dogs of war would get loose, reason would fly out the window and there they would be — in a moronic fight like this one. Passion has many sides; together, Lois Lane and Clark Kent knew them all.
Removing his clothing except for his undershorts, he crawled under the sheet and thought about how he would get back in Lois's good graces. <How long would it be before she would be willing to make up?> As he wrestled with his thoughts, he turned over and over until the sheet was wrapped around him in mummy-like fashion. Fighting his way free, he realized he wasn't going to get any sleep until he burned off his frustration. Getting out of bed, he tramped to the stairs, hesitated at their bedroom door then continued downstairs to the secret compartment where he kept the suits. Five minutes later he was airborne, threatening to become a flaming ball in the sky.
When Clark exited from their bedroom, Lois took his pillow from the bed and threw it after him, bouncing it off the door to leave it resting on the floor. Then she tore off the rest of her apparel, frenziedly throwing the items around the room, and stalked into the bathroom. Ten minutes later she returned in her nightgown, make-up removed, and went around patiently picking up each article and placing it where it belonged — closet, dirty clothes hamper, dresser drawer.
She looked at the pillow for a long time, then retrieved it, took it into the bed and hugged it to her. <Here we go again. And just when we were maybe going to get down that cold wall between us. Why do I have to antagonize him about this? I should have just dumped Marshall Stewart off the Board a long time ago. Why can't I let him be right when he's right?> She heard a noise outside the door and looked up, hoping he was coming back so they could both apologize and sleep together as they should. But she heard the footsteps moving away, and a few minutes later a sonic boom told her Clark was cooling off in the stratosphere. She sighed. <Humble pie again, Lois.> Somehow, tomorrow she would figure out how to make up with him.
JANUARY 14, 2033
When Lois went downstairs for coffee the next morning, she found a note from Clark: "Sorry, I forgot to tell you that I have an early morning conference. You looked so beautiful sleeping; I didn't want to wake you. Could we talk later, please? I love you. C."
<He wants to make up too. That's a relief.> She smiled, thinking that today's 'later' could get them back on track with yesterday's 'later.' Taking her coffee and the note she went back upstairs. With the cup safely on her dressing table, she reached into her closet for a letter file case. Opening it, she placed the note on top of a stack of letters and notes, closed and returned it to its place on the shelf.
She had kept every scrap that Clark had ever written her since, all those years ago, she had begun to realize how necessary he was to her life. On those nights when she was having trouble sleeping because he was away, at first crime fighting and now on WERC assignments, she would take them out and re-read them to feel closer to him. There was a host of similar containers on shelves in the storage room, carefully marked with dates, 'From x to y', so she could pick her reading material to match her reverie. The boxes were worn from use and battered from occasionally being thrown like that pillow.
Arriving at her office, she immediately called Clark, but he was still in conference, so she left a message that yes, they would talk later.
She had been at her desk about an hour looking at those bank reports again, when Caroline interrupted her.
"Lois, I know you said you didn't want to talk to anyone except Clark, but Marshall Stewart is on the phone and he won't be put off."
Lois groaned, her forehead in her hands. <Oh, god, is there no getting away from the man! He's the last person I want to see or talk to today.> Caroline was waiting, expectantly. Lois sighed. "Okay, Caroline. I'll take it"
Taking a deep breath and refusing to turn on the visiphone which she would ordinarily do for one of her board members, she punched a button on her portaphone and said, "Marshall, good morning. How nice to hear from you."
"Lois my dear, I had to start my day with the sound of your lovely voice. Last evening was so enjoyable."
"Well, it was certainly a success for the Winter Haven Foundation. Is there something I can help you with?"
"Ah, yes. The little executive. We *must* stick to business. I believe you could help me enormously, if you would have lunch with me today. Say 12:30? I'll send a car for you. I won't keep you any longer," he murmured, "but my life will wait in limbo until I see you again. We have so *much* to discuss. Until then, lovely Lois."
Lois stared, mouth open, at the phone in her hand. The man was insane! Clark was right. Marshall Stewart was a boor, no, make that boar as in very large male pig. That bag of rancid pork rinds had come on to her, treated her condescendingly, and then spoken seductively as though they shared a similar and secret view of their relationship.
<Face up to it, Lois and bite the bullet. It's time to wipe away that piece of slime.>
Setting aside the Ecuadorian reports, she concentrated on how to get Marshall Stewart out of her life. First she needed to settle the matter of his expensive gift. The easiest way would be to reimburse him for it, but she didn't know how much he had actually paid for the ivory figure.
Calling her friend, Albert Switzer, head of Winter Haven Foundation, she learned that the piece, called 'Whaler's Dream', was valued at $20,000, had been purchased for $25,000 and that Stewart had instructed them to put the Certificate of Ownership, which they had dispatched to her by messenger only ten minutes earlier, in her name. She made certain to explain to Switzer, a notorious gossip, that she was reimbursing Marshall Stewart for the purchase; otherwise, by tomorrow the entire town would have had them in bed together. Now she had to figure out how to get hold of $25,000 between now and 12:30.
Wayne Buffet had been Lois and Clark's financial counselor since their marriage. The young twosome, investigative reporters more interested in their Diogenous search for truth and justice than in amassing wealth, had not wanted to spend the time necessary to prepare themselves economically for the future; so they had hired Buffet, who had become a friend as well as adviser. He was that precious gem amid the gravel of investment brokers — an honest man.
Punching his speed dial number, Lois wasted no time when he answered the phone. "Wayne, I need $25,000 by 12:30. How can I get it?"
Accustomed to Lois's frontal assault on any problem that she regarded as paramount, he didn't stop to ask questions yet. "Hello Lois. Nice to hear from you. I could probably arrange an equity loan on the townhouse and get a check to you by then."
"Is that the only way? The townhouse belongs to both of us, and I'd like to get this money on my own."
He was a little surprised at that. Sooner or later, with most of the couples he advised, one would want to have access to funds without the knowledge of the other, but he hadn't expected that occasion to arise for Lois and Clark, although Clark had insisted…but knowing Lois, she'd probably forgotten all about that.
"Well, Lois, there is the money your father left you. Clark instructed me to keep it as separate property for you."
"Oh, yeah," she replied with vague recognition. "How much is that?"
He blinked. <So typical.> "Your father left you and Lucy $50,000 apiece," he said dryly.
"I have $50,000 that's all mine and not Clark's too?" She was astonished.
"Yes, Clark insisted that it be set up that way. Tell me Lois, do you ever look at those quarterly reports I send you?"
She opened the bottom right drawer of her desk with her foot and looked at a stack of unopened envelopes. "Of course I do, Wayne. I'm looking at them right now."
"Well if you had ever read them you'd know that in the ten years since your father's death, through my very careful investment strategies — ones which, I might add, you have chosen to ignore — that sum is now at $100,000. It could have been more, but I stayed on the conservative side because of your non-involvement."
She was having a hard time believing this. "Let me get this straight. I have $100,000 that I can do anything I want with and Clark doesn't have to know?"
"That's right, Lois," he replied patiently. "Read your quarterly statements. You should really pay more attention when I send you tax returns to sign."
"So I could just write a check and it would be covered?"
"If you want to do that, I will have the funds in your account within an hour. May I ask if you're planning a purchase of some kind?"
She began to smile. "Yes, I am. Is there anything I need to do to make sure the transaction is legal and binding?"
"Just be certain the recipient signs and dates the back of the check. You should also have that person sign a statement saying that he or she had accepted the money as payment for whatever."
"Just a simple statement, no lawyer mumbo jumbo?"
"Simple and straightforward."
"Wayne, I love you," she chortled. "I think we should give you a big bonus this year!"
"Lois, I'm already paid very handsomely for what I do for you and Clark, WERC and CHILD. However, if you want to do me a favor personally, my wife's not very happy with me right now and — "
Lois interrupted. "I'll send Georgia a dozen roses with a note saying what a great guy you are. Will that help?"
"Thank you, Lois. It couldn't hurt. I'll deposit the $25,000 for you immediately. Hope everything works out for you."
"You too, Wayne. 'Bye."
Clasping her hands behind her neck, she leaned back in her chair and sat smiling broadly. Now she could look forward to lunch with pleasure.
Several times during the morning she reached for her phone to call Clark and tell him what she was up to. She actually made the call once, but he was still in his meeting, and his secretary, Maggie, told her it could last all morning. Council members had come in complaining about press coverage of derelictions in Zaire, and Clark had his hands full trying to placate them.
Lois could have called him directly on his personal communicator, but they had both agreed not to do that during working hours because the wealthy and powerful with whom they dealt did not like to be interrupted with personal business, except for their own, of course. They were annoyed by the sound of communication devices intruding into what they considered their time. Annoyance frequently translated into financial or political non- support and neither CHILD nor WERC could afford that kind of alienation.
Shortly before time to leave, Lois considered calling once more, leaving Clark a message if he were still embroiled, but she decided against it. If he knew what she was doing, he would want to be present, and if she refused, then he would skulk around hiding and spying with his Super powers under the guise of protecting her. It would only serve to prolong their disagreement. She really wanted this to be a surprise for him, a kind of peace offering to accelerate patching up their quarrel.
By 12:30, when she left, taking with her the legal statement and a personal check made out to Marshall Stewart in the sum of $25,000 with the designation at the bottom: 'For 'Whaler's Dream — paid in full', she had sent Georgia Buffet an effusive note praising the many admirable qualities, both personal and professional, of that lady's husband, along with a dozen red roses. She had also asked Caroline to acquire materials for packing away a fragile object standing 18 inches tall and 10 inches wide. Once the statuette belonged to her, it would be stored where only she and Clark could see it for as long as she lived.
At one o'clock, Clark appeared, striding toward the door of Lois's office, single red rose in hand, calling, "Is she in?" over his shoulder as he walked past Caroline's desk.
Caroline halted his progress as she said, "Sorry, Clark, she's lunching with Marshall Stewart."
His body became totally still as he absorbed her words. He turned slowly and walked back to Caroline's desk, stopped and said very quietly, "Marshall Stewart?"
"Yes, he called shortly after Lois came in this morning. She was apparently anxious to see him about something."
<I'll just bet she was.> A slow burn was igniting within him.
Caroline went on. "She said she'd be back by 2:30. Shall I have her call you?"
"No, I'll leave a note if I may." He quickly scribbled on the pad she gave him, tore it off, folded and placed it in an envelope, which he then sealed. "Thank you, Caroline," he said calmly as he walked away.
When he reached his office he realized that he still had the rose. Handing it to his executive secretary, he said, "A token of my gratitude in advance, Maggie, for getting me on the three o'clock flight to Kinshasa."
Although he had promised the Council members that morning that he would leave as soon as possible for the Congolese Republic, he had planned to delay a day so that he and Lois could settle their differences. There didn't seem to be any reason to wait, now. He went into his office to gather the materials for his trip before he headed out the door to go home and pack.
As he left, he instructed Maggie about the letter he had left on his desk.
Mid-day traffic in Metropolis on that January Friday was horrendous. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to run personal errands during the lunch break in preparation for what had been forecast as a wet weekend. An unseasonable warm front was moving in, raising temperatures, turning snow to slush and promising a deluge of cold rain and blustering winds for anyone who thought about leaving home to perform routine chores.
The car taking Lois to her luncheon appointment had taken 30 minutes to complete what was normally a 15-minute trip, so it was 1:00 p.m. when she finally approached the very prominent table at The Flowering Garlic, current restaurant favorite with the elite of Metropolis.
As she arrived at the table, Marshall Stewart rose and greeted her loudly, "Darling Lois," grasping her hand and turning it over to place a lingering kiss in the palm. Then he personally helped her into her chair, waiving the maitre d' away. Once seated, Lois leaned over and in a soft voice said, "Take it easy, Marshall. We really have to be more discreet. Half of Metropolis is watching, and I *am* married you know." But she gave him a radiant smile to soften her reproach. And then she watched in astonishment as he preened, moving his head in a self- admiring, congratulatory manner, and shrugging his clothing to readjust his jacket to a perfect drape on his shoulders. He re- aligned his arms in his sleeves, 'shot' his cuffs and finished by smoothing back his hair with his hand and touching his tie to ascertain that it was not out of place.
<Omigod. I never believed that people actually did that. Of course, if anyone would, it would be him. Clark, forgive me for this. Thank goodness you're not around to see it.>
Continuing, she said, "It's really too bad you had to choose this table. If we were in a booth, we could sit next to each other and be out of the way where no one could see or hear us." She smiled coyly.
Looking around for the maitre d', he said with growing excitement, "Perhaps we could move…"
"Oh, no, not now!" she exclaimed hurriedly. "Everyone's already seen us. It would be too obvious." Her face was beginning to ache from the phony smile. "Let's just go ahead and order. The traffic is terrible and I have to be back by 2:30."
"Oh, my little Lois! So dedicated. You should be spending your days shopping and pampering yourself in spas and beauty salons. I want to provide you with those opportunities. Do you ride? But of course you do. I am eager to have you join me for a Hunt weekend."
"I've never really been interested in riding behind a bunch of dogs bent on catching a small helpless animal and tearing it to shreds," she said distastefully.
"Not for the killing, my sweet, although that can be invigorating. No, for the sight of you after the ride, cheeks glowing with excitement, your charm captivating every man, every woman envying you, and all of them congratulating me for possessing you. I have great plans for us, my precious."
It was getting harder and harder not to gag. <Thank you, Mother, for those hideous hours you spent trying to teach me how to 'land a man'. Enough of it rubbed off to help me with Planet assignments, but none of those was as important as this.>
"It all sounds like a dream come true, dear Marshall."
He gestured for the waiter, and after they had ordered with instructions that they were pressed for time, he again spoke, this time seductively. "When we finish here, I'll take you back to your office and in the car we can 'explore' the new dimensions of our relationship." He licked his lips, envisioning his hands on a voluptuous naked body he had already seen in miniature.
<Hold on to yourself, Lois!> Throwing up was becoming more imminent. <You can pull this off.>
"Darling Marshall, before we move on to, aaah, a new and, mmm, , more pleasant, uuuh state of affairs…" She looked up at him through lowered lashes. "…I was hoping we might come to an agreement about something that would make me very happy. You do want me to be happy, don't you, Marshall?"
"Of course, my dear. Just name it and if it is within my power, I will make it so."
"I'm so glad you said that because, you know, that sweet sculpture you gave me…well, you see, I can't be comfortable displaying it without reimbursing you and feeling that it truly belongs to me."
"But my dear Lois, it *is* yours. I gave it to you." He was getting a stubborn look on his face.
"And it was a very 'loving' gesture, Marshall, one that communicated your true feelings in a way that nothing else could. But we can't ignore my marriage or what Metropolis will make of my accepting such a gift from a man other than my husband. I can't *bear* the idea of our new relationship being compromised by your darling token of affection. You do understand, don't you? I just don't see how we can move forward without taking care of this bothersome little matter."
His eagerness to 'move forward' outweighed any other consideration in his mind; so smiling indulgently he consented. "As you desire, Lois, so it shall be."
"Marshall, you are totally wonderful!" Opening her purse, she removed a pen, the check and the statement of sale. "Would you just sign and date the bill of sale and the back of the check, and we can be finished with this whole boring thing and never have to mention it again. I'd much rather concentrate on us," she pouted, then turned her smile on full force when he picked up the pen.
Basking in the glow from that beam and the future it promised, he hastily signed the statement and returned it to her. She turned the check over and pointed and he endorsed it without looking at the amount. Then he covered her hand with his and whispered, "Must we stay to eat our lunch? I'm hungry for so much more than food."
She removed her hand and replied in a brisk manner. "I don't intend to stay, Marshall." His smile was bordering on rapacious. Hers disappeared. "You and I no longer have any reason ever to see or speak to each other again. Please send your resignation from the Board of Directors to the CHILD office by 5:00 p.m." She placed the check and receipt in her purse, and taking it up, rose from her chair.
She watched his smile become steely, as he said, "You are making a very big mistake, Lois. No one makes a fool of me."
"Oh, not me, Marshall. I didn't make a fool of you. You managed that all by yourself. And you don't frighten me. Send that resignation. If you don't, I'll have to speak to the Board about your behaviour, and you know that, if I ask, they'll boot you off without a second thought."
His demeanor was turning nasty. "You will regret this, you and that husband of yours. I can visit suffering on you that is beyond your imagination."
"I don't respond to threats. Save them for the timid little woman you thought I was. I'm leaving now. It hasn't been nice knowing you."
He watched her walk away, his eyes narrowing to slits of icy malevolence.
It was after 2:30 when Lois finally got back to her office. Her taxi had found congestion no matter which route it had attempted. Still feeling the glow of satisfaction from dumping Marshall Stewart, she really hadn't noticed the delay. Laughter bubbled inside her. She could hardly wait to regale Clark with the story. And how pleased he would be. Now there was a man worth spending her life making happy. He would never expect it or ask for it, which made giving it all the better. <Be there, Clark. I want to show you how much I love you.>
Dropping the check on the desk and breezing past Caroline in the outer office, Lois said, "Transfer this check over to Marshall Stewart's bank for deposit in his account and give me about 15 minutes, please, Caroline; then bring in any messages."
"Uh, Lois, Clark was here…" The door closed cutting off the rest of her sentence.
When Maggie answered Clark's personal line, Lois realized with disappointment, that he wasn't there. "Maggie, where is he?" she asked.
Noting that it was almost three o'clock, Maggie responded, "Why, he's probably sitting on a plane waiting to take off. Didn't he tell you? That must be what this letter is about. I was supposed to hold it until three, but I'll go ahead and send it down."
Lois stared at the dead phone in surprise. <On a plane? For where? What was going on? Had something happened?>
As she put the phone down she noticed an envelope with her name on it lying on the desk pad. Recognizing Clark's writing she quickly opened it and read, "Don't bother waiting for me to go to Ecuador!" There was no signature.
Caroline poked her head in. "Lois, I know you said fifteen minutes, but there's a messenger here with a letter from Clark."
Lois looked up. "Yes, bring it in please."
As her very efficient assistant approached with the envelope, Lois asked, "Caroline, when Clark left this other note, did he say anything?"
"He just asked if you were in and I told him that you were having lunch with Marshall Stewart, so he wrote the note and left."
Lois felt her heart drop into her stomach. She took the letter, and opened it slowly as Caroline left the room. She looked at it for several minutes, before removing the single page and reading, "Did you enjoy your lunch? I see you've wasted no time in getting on with 'handling' Marshall Stewart. I'm trying very hard not to be angry, but I think we need a little cooling off period. I'm going to the Congo and you should go to Ecuador. I hope you'll be going alone. Maybe we'll be able to talk when we're both home again. I do love you, C."
<Damn, Damn, Damn! Our timing is just rotten these days, Clark. And what do you mean you hope I'll go alone? No fair taking a potshot like that and not giving me a chance to shoot back.> She sighed and turned her chair to stare out the window at a sky of darkening grey. The adrenaline high of her victory over Marshall Stewart had been replaced by a tar pit depression. She needed to deplete herself physically and get a good night's sleep. She couldn't possibly concentrate on work any more today. She might as well come in tomorrow and finish looking over those financial reports from Ecuador. There'd be no one at home to distract her with enticing pleasantries.
Directing Caroline to ticket her for an afternoon flight to Guayaquil, Ecuador, on Monday, she put the note and letter in her purse, and gathered it and her coat, noting that the expected rain had begun to pelt her window. Before she could get away, she had a call from Laura telling her that she had been unable to talk with Jack and of the strange turn their conversation had taken before he left. Wondering what else could go wrong that day, a dejected Lois collected the packing materials from Caroline and hurried off to the gym to rid herself of disappointment and hurt.
*And the shark he has teeth
And he carries them in his face
And Macheath he has a knife
But the knife, nobody sees.*
*On a beautiful blue Sunday
A dead man lies on the Strand
And somebody goes around the corner
And that somebody is called Mack the Knife.*
*And Samuel Meyer has disappeared
And many other rich men
And Mack the Knife has all his money
Though nobody can prove it.*
*Jenny Towler was found with a knife in her breast
And on the dock strolls Mack the Knife
Who knows nothing about it.*
*And the great fire in Soho
Seven children and one oldster
In the crowd stands Mack the Knife
Whom nobody asks and who knows nothing.*
Bertholt Brecht (translated from the German as sung by Lotte Lenya)
Ferret sat in the darkened room, anticipating his revenge served cold and sauced with cunning. He had many enemies and his designs would strike them all. Some had attempted to destroy his life's work and make him insignificant. They would be visited. But he would begin with the two who had struck closest to his heart, who had taken away his chance for happiness and fulfillment.
Outside a cold winter rain swept the window and the weak grey light, filtering through the evergreen trees that protected his privacy, cast a verdant hue on the river of water that covered the panes, passed through the glass, and gave the room a strange green glow.
Lightning flashed, momentarily revealing a face twisted with hatred, as the man wrote on a pad lying on the desk in front of him. It was a good plan, he thought. It would bring his enemies down; they would die unpleasantly and he would be able to sleep again. His only regret was that they would not know who was responsible. Ferret was a name known throughout the secret world of clandestine operations, but few knew his real identity; those who did were among the ones who would eventually die.
These two, the immediate focus of his malevolence, had never heard of Ferret, but they knew him in his other life. Perhaps he could find a way to reveal to them who was responsible for their misery, before they expired. Yes, he would work on that, and he laughed softly at the thought of the pleasure it would bring him.
Lightning flashed again, briefly illuminating his eyes glittering with a hint of something oddly out of kilter, not quite normal. Once more shrouded in gloom, he continued to write in the circle of light from the desk lamp, occasionally mumbling to himself and chuckling venomously. It would all fall into place just as he planned.
Ferret wrote through the night and into a morning whose watery dawn had produced a ghostly sun bravely struggling through the vestiges of raggedly dispersing clouds to send dim rays through the window and bathe the room with a pale green light. Carefully arranging his pages, he placed them in a binder, which he returned to a drawer of his desk. Next he locked the drawer and dropped the key into the bottom of the small replica of a hunt cup, which he used to hold pens.
Checking the time displayed by the grandfather clock on the opposite wall, he inhaled with sharp anticipation and picked up the porta-phone to set in motion the events that would eradicate his unsuspecting victims. His time had come.
JANUARY 17, 2033
The office of the International Aid Liaison Officer was located in the headquarters of the Banco Central de Ecuador in Quito. Its present tenant, Francisco Arroyo del Rio, was a weasel-faced man whose salient features were patent leather black hair and gold wire-rimmed glasses. His primary aim, as the controller of every American dollar now being funneled into Ecuador to aid its recovery from the latest volcanic catastrophe, was to sluice as much of it as possible into his own pocket. His innate avarice made him precisely the kind of human tool that Ferret sought out in every country to further his surreptitious agendas.
Arroyo del Rio faced his visitor now across the desk in an office whose appointments bespoke a luxury of the ruling class. There was leather in every conceivable place that leather could be used — deep comfortable chairs, a sofa, and desktop. Where no leather existed, there was wood — rich, dark, the natural product of forests that until only recently had been razed without thought of preservation for the future. The two commodities combined perfectly on the bookshelf-lined wall filled with leather-bound volumes.
Ferret spoke softly but with a natural command in his tone that left no question as to who controlled this meeting. "Se¤or Arroyo del Rio, I appreciate your seeing me on such short notice. You are an important man and I know that your time is valuable, so I will come right to the point. You and I have common interests in, shall we say, diverting certain monies entering your country from the United States. If we work together we can further our interests to a conclusion that will be of benefit to both of us."
Arroyo del Rio was taken by alarmed surprise at this stranger's apparent knowledge of his secret activities. But he did not appear to be from the polic¡a; therefore panic was unnecessary. "And how can you assist me in achieving what I am already managing successfully without you?" the banker enquired politely.
"I can see that suspicion concerning the erosion of funds is directed elsewhere, leaving you to reap your profits without threat of retribution." Ferret was easy and courteous with the man. There was no reason to remove the velvet glove for someone whose mendacity would require that he readily fall prey to persuasion.
"You can guarantee this? There would be no repercussions?"
The man's English was excellent, Ferret thought. Educated in the United States, no doubt — the privilege of wealth. He did not like this greedy little vermin who needed to steal, who wanted to accumulate 'more' even though his birthright had already granted him riches beyond the grasp of 99% of his countrymen. The tone of his reply, however, did not betray his true feelings. A tool does not need to know what its owner feels. "Do you question my power?"
"Forgive me, but I do not know you, Se¤or …a-a-h…"
"Hyde. Mister Hyde." Ferret smiled inwardly at his little joke. "And you are quite right, Se¤or Arroyo del Rio, you don't know me. But I know you very well and I am here to help you in return for a small favor which you can render to me."
"What kind of small favor? I see no reason for helping you and I can see nothing that you can guarantee for me. My plans are already in operation and no one can discover them. I am in no danger of retribution."
"Your scheme is well thought out, Se¤or, but it is not impenetrable."
Arroyo del Rio started to speak, but Ferret held up his hand and spoke peremptorily, "You'd better hear me out, or you could have cause to regret it." He paused to give the Ecuadorian a challenging look. Then he continued.
"The funds you oversee come into your country through the Bank of America here in Quito. From there they are transferred to your Banco Central for disbursement to areas of need. Some funds are deposited to the checking accounts of CHILD and WERC in Guayaquil for access by their representatives to pay for administrative costs and the expenses of Doctors Without Borders. The rest are divided between the Banco Ecuatoriano de la Vivienda and the Banco de Desarrollo de Ecuador. The BEV distributes money for refugee care and re-building homes lost in the volcanic eruption and the Bede sends funds to rural credit cooperatives to aid local farmers and artisans in restoring their livelihoods.
"At each level of movement there is slippage to several fake numbered accounts. The funds in those accounts, minus a small fee taken by the computer employees you enlisted, are sent on by them to a blind account in the Cayman Islands. Your account. These small cogs in your machinations have never met you or seen you. They have no idea who their benefactor is or what they are involved in. They are grateful for the supplement to the wages they earn and willingly keep their mouths shut. When they are caught, as they will eventually be by a quarterly review or annual audit, they will not be able to identify you. But I did. And if some enterprising journalist should choose to investigate, so could he…or she. You are *not* safe, Se¤or Arroyo del Rio; but I can make you safe. I can prevent anyone from tracing the theft to you."
Arroyo del Rio looked at him in stunned disbelief. How did this gringo penetrate his perfect scheme? What power did he have that enabled him to infiltrate his layers of protection and trace the monetary irregularities to him? Could he have miscalculated the density of his carefully jungled maze of defense? Perhaps he did need this man, after all.
"What is the favor you require?"
"It's really very simple. You will have to give up some of your profit, but you will find that preferable to losing all of it."
"Por favor, you no longer need to suggest a threat, Se¤or, I am ready to accept your terms."
"I thought you would see it that way. I think we can assume a first name relationship, Francisco. Call me…" He smiled to himself again. "Edward. Now here is what you will arrange. There is another bank account in the Caymans under these names." He slid a small piece of paper across the desk. "You will send one-half of the stolen money to that account."
"Now, now, Francisco. Remember, half a loaf is better than none. Surely that is a saying familiar in any language."
Francisco regarded him with resignation. "Si, I understand. It shall be as you say …Edward. This is your account then?"
"Oh, no. The account belongs to the names you see there, and believe me when I say that they are very real people."
"It is not your own profit that you seek? These are very fortunate people." Francisco viewed his new partner quizzically. "I find it difficult to regard you as a philanthropist, Edward."
Ferret made a sound resembling laughter as he bared his teeth in a skeleton-like grin, but the tone of his glee, resembling madness more than mirth, caused a chill to pass over Francisco. Someone walks my grave, he thought.
Ferret regained his composure answering, "You are quite right. Everything *is* about profit, and I am, like you, a profiteer; but my reward comes in metaphorical coin. These people are emphatically not objects of my philanthropy. And I think that is all you want to know, Francisco."
Arroyo del Rio nodded affirmatively. It would be better for him to be distanced as far as possible from this dangerous man.
Ferret relaxed in his leather chair, smiling expansively. "I think we should seal this bargain with some brandy, don't you, compa¤ero? You must have an excellent bottle in your cabinet there. Oh…and you wouldn't happen to have some Cuban cigars in that humidor on your desk, would you?"
*Look under the floorboards, Mama;
I don't trust his silly grin.
He's got a beat up Rambler, Nebraska plates
And I ain't getting in.
I don't like the way his pinky ring
Picks up the dashboard light
Or his short little piggy fingers
Or the way his belt is cinched too tight.*
*Check under the floorboards. Mama,
I don't like his suggestive tone,
The way his words drip from his mouth
As he asks, "Can I take you home?"*
When Lois arrived in Ecuador on Monday afternoon, she was picked up at the airport by Maria who suggested that they meet for dinner after Lois had checked into the Grand Palace Hotel and the heat of the day had somewhat subsided. Saying she would pick her up at 8:00, Maria left Lois to unpack and rest before dressing for the evening.
Shortly after eight, Maria, accompanied by Hector Guzman, called for Lois and they drove through the streets of Guayaquil, busy again after the afternoon siesta time. After they passed by the Parque Centenario, a 200-metre square containing the requisite patriotic statues and a lush greenbelt crisscrossed with walking paths, Lois spotted the tacky golden arches along with several other ugly American imports. They moved along the boulevard finally arriving at La Preferida, a place, as the name implied, popular and offering a wide menu selection. While her companions were used to the local comestibles, Lois usually took a few days to let her stomach settle in to the flavors and food sanitation practices of her new surroundings. Traveling as much as she did, she found life was much easier if she followed a few precautions when she first arrived in a new country. She would ease carefully into her beloved spicy edibles, even in this country noted for having a dish of ajo (hot sauce) on every table, representing each caf‚'s unique specialty of the house.
Seated in a pleasant corner of the noisy restaurant, they quickly ordered — Maria choosing a chicken merienda (set-plate meal) and Hector, one of beefsteak. While the evening meal was traditionally a heavy one in this Hispanic country, Lois preferred to eat lightly, selecting some soup and fresh fruit. She by-passed some local favorites — tronquito (bull penis soup), yaguarlocro (potato soup with sprinklings of blood), or caldo de pata(broth of boiled cows' hooves) — opting for a savory lacro sopa made with cheese, avocado and potato, and a fruit bowl containing oranges, bananas and pineapple.
Once the waiter was gone, leaving them with a large, cold bottle of water, they turned to a discussion of the apparent evaporation of CHILD aid funds.
Lois apprised Maria and Hector of the suspicions she and Clark had developed after reading the recent financial reports, concluding with, "What do you think? You're here on the spot. Have you noticed anything that doesn't seem quite right?"
Hector opened his mouth to speak, but Maria answered unhesitatingly, ignoring his presence. "I've noticed that the amount of money available doesn't seem to be as large as it should, so I had Hecky look over the balance sheets and the expenditure reports. He's a banker, you know. He keeps telling me that something is wrong, but he can't really be sure without an audit, and since he's a Peruvian in a country that doesn't get along with Peru, nobody's gonna pay any attention to him."
Lois was amused at the offhand manner in which Maria treated the quiet, courteous, very formally dressed young man, but made no comment as she replied, "So you haven't done any checking on it?"
"No," Maria continued. "When you said you were coming, I decided that you would want to visit the refugee camps near Quito, anyway, and the guy who initially handles all the money is in Quito, so you can see for yourself if he's as crooked as Hecky seems to think he is."
There it was again — 'Hecky'. The conservative banker seemed to take it in his stride, but Lois would bet anything, he'd swallowed his tongue a lot getting used to it. "Then I should go right on to Quito?"
"Yes. I hope it's all right that I made a flight reservation for tomorrow. I would go with you to interpret, but I have to stay here for a meeting with several vendors, so I'm sending Hecky. He'll look after you and won't get in your way, right, Hector?" Hector nodded, his face showing no reaction.
Lois had to choke back her laughter. Apparently Maria had decided to view Hector as her assistant and not her equal as he was supposed to be; and, polite fellow that he was, he had chosen the expedient course of conceding her the lead. Lois was instantly reminded of another headstrong young woman, years ago, who tried to keep a very patient hack from nowheresville in his place, and look where that ended. She was really going to have to keep her eye on this relationship. "What time is the flight?" she asked innocently.
January 18, 2033
It was cooler in Quito than on the coast. Almost two miles high in the Andes Mountains, surrounded by snow-capped volcanic peaks, its thin air was choked in the daytime with the gasoline and diesel fumes from old cars, trucks and motorcycles. Oil rich in a world where consumer nations had abandoned fossil fuel as a propellant for their transport, Ecuador, like most other third world counties, was a dumping ground for left over combustion engine vehicles.
Its petroleum reserves fed its refineries, which propelled its transportation, which fouled its air.
Even thick with odorous smoke, the ozone of this city in the sky was thin enough to make Lois dizzy and light headed when she stepped off the plane. By the time she and Hector arrived in downtown Quito, she was becoming acclimated and was ready to meet the question mark man — Francisco Arroyo del Rio. An apprehensive Hector insisted that he should accompany her, but she didn't want to scare the object of her investigation by arriving with a banker in tow; and it was hard to believe, looking at him, that Hector was anything but a banker. She sent her would-be protector off to find accommodation for the night in anticipation of their next day early morning departure for a tour of the refugee camp located some miles southeast of the city.
At the Banco Central de Ecuador, Lois presented herself as an American looking for help in investing some considerable funds in the country to which she was newly retired. When Arroyo del Rio was informed of her presence, but not her name which she had avoided giving, he was delighted and eager. She represented another opportunity to gild his foreign bank accounts. He told his secretary to bring the lady in, took in her confident ease and fashionable clothes and smelled big money. "Ah, Se¤ora, welcome to Quito. If I understand your situation correctly, I believe I can provide the expert assistance you need."
"Oh, I do hope so, Senior uh…ah…de Rio, is it? I don't know anything about Ecuador, and I don't even speak Spanish, but my husband always said this was the perfect place for us to retire, only Clark died just after his birthday and so I'm just left with having to manage on my own." She batted her eyelashes helplessly, at him.
<Es manjar> he thought, but then reflected that since his intended quarry would have no acquaintance with an Ecuadorian dessert made from condensed milk, a phrase he had learned from his American school friends would be a more appropriate. <It would be a piece of cake!> he thought, mentally estimating the amount of the lady's nest egg he could make off with. "You need worry no more, Mrs. …but I don't know your name, my dear." He had taken her hand and had led her to a leather chair, where she dropped as though exhausted from the difficulty of walking and thinking about taking care of herself and her money at the same time.
"Kent", she said. "Lois Kent."
His eyes froze for an instant as his mind flashed on a small piece of paper on which had been written the names 'Clark J. and Lois Kent'. His eyes glazed over with nascent panic as his thoughts scurried in frightened directions: What did she want? Had she found him out? Was she going to expose him, have him arrested? Or did she want more money? Was this some game she was playing to get him to betray himself? <Dios Mios! What am I to do?> He dropped her hand and sidled away.
A surprised Lois watched him retreat behind his desk and grasp the back of his leather swivel chair with white knuckled hands. What had happened? He had been almost slobbering in his eagerness to lure her under his influence, and now for no apparent reason, he was backing off.
"Forgive me, Mrs. Kent, I have just remembered that I must be in a bank meeting in a few minutes. If you will leave my secretary your telephone number, I will have her call and set an appointment for you to see our investment manager." He had buzzed for his secretary while he was speaking and she entered as he finished. "Dolores, please show Mrs. Kent out, and be sure to get her telephone number."
And with that, Lois was dismissed and hustled away. <Well, whatya know. This guy is not only hiding something big time, but he's scared to death at just the mention of my name. He obviously knows something about who Lois and Clark Kent are. Hecky, I think you're right. Francisco is in the thick of whatever's going on.>
As soon as the door closed behind Lois, Arroyo del Rio was on the phone dialing the number he had been given to contact Edward Hyde. The only answer was a machine. "You have reached 052-734- 8881. Leave a message at the tone."
The frightened man was spilling out a frantic cry for an immediate call back when Ferret came on the line. "Quiet, Francisco, what's wrong with you. You were told never to call me at this time of day. Our business must be conducted in the dark. What is going on?"
A relieved Arroyo del Rio was almost sobbing, as he reported that Lois Kent had come to his office, pretending to be an innocent American with money to invest in Ecuador. "She knows, Edward. She has tracked me down and I am going to be arrested. What can I do? I must not go to jail. Do you have any idea what those places are like down here? I do not even know if I have time to get out of the country."
"Control yourself," said Ferret. "Did she accuse you of anything? Did she threaten to turn you over to the police?"
"No, she pretended to be helpless and stupid."
"Then she has probably just begun to suspect. Stop sniveling and have her followed to find out whom she contacts. Meanwhile, don't see her again, but find some excuse to meet with her in Guayaquil. I have assets there, which you can use. If you are quick, you will be able to handle her before she learns anything important." A man who never involved himself personally in the execution of the deaths he unhesitatingly ordered, Ferret spoke clearly and calmly.
Arroyo del Rio blanched. "What do you mean 'handle her'?"
"Don't pretend to be dense, Francisco. You know perfectly well what must be done. Go to your office in Guayaquil at once. Two men, Carlos and Jos‚, will contact you. The three of you will plan how to remove Mrs. Kent as a threat to your embezzling scheme. You will remain in Guayaquil until this mission has been accomplished. Carlos and Jos‚ will know how and where to do it, but you will know the details. When they inform you that everything has been cleared up, you will return to Quito."
"But…but…I am not a killer, Se¤or! I steal a little from those who can afford it. I do not kill!"
Ferret snorted impatiently. "Yes, yes, I know. You are harmless. A Robin Hood who steals from the rich to benefit your poor self. Listen to me. You are in this up to your neck and you will stay in it until I say you can leave. And know this: Carlos and Jos‚ will have orders to see to you. If you cooperate they will protect you. If you do not…"
Arroyo del Rio shivered at the cold certainty in Ferret's voice as he left the threat implied but unspoken. "Yes, yes. I understand. Do not worry. I will cooperate. I will leave for Guayaquil this afternoon."
"I was certain I could count on you, mi compa¤ero. Now, don't call me again at this time of day." With that he hung up the receiver and Francisco Arroyo del Rio was left with static in his ear.
PRAGUE, THE CZECH REPUBLIC
JANUARY 19, 2033
*Hope you got your things together;
Hope you are quite prepared to die.
Looks like we're in for nasty weather;
One eye is taken for an eye.
There's a bad moon on the rise.*
John C. Fogerty
Jack had successfully visited his friends in Russia and the Ukraine. So far he had managed to extract them from harm's way before Henry's agents could wreak any damage. The Czech Republic was proving to be another matter. When he made phone calls they were not answered, even when the numbers had previously been secure. Every safe haven he visited was closed tightly. People he had known for years had disappeared without a trace. He was standing at the window of his hotel, unable to sleep, staring into the black heart of a foggy 2.a.m.city, when his phone rang. Hoping that, at last, one of his friends was surfacing, he eagerly hurried to answer it. "Hello?"
"Now you know, Jack," said a soft voice. "Henry always wins in the end." The click that followed the words was as ominous as they had been.
He had failed and good men and women were dead. He gently set the phone in its cradle and lay down on his bed, eyes open, staring at the ceiling.
Clark had been in Kinshasa for almost a week and had accomplished very little of his mission. During his first few days, he had spent his time at the WERC administrative offices and seeking out the informants who had previously tipped his organization to the destruction of up-river rainforest. He quickly learned that not only had there been massive wasting, but that it still continued. He at once set about putting together an investigative team, calling in key members of Earth Consortium and the Zairian government, which stubbornly insisted that no razing whatsoever had taken place. Meeting repeatedly with the Zairians brought no change in their stand, so he prepared to move the entire team up- river, hiring guides and making arrangements for transport in between meeting the in-coming officials and diplomats at the airport.
When he thought of Lois, he was calmer and more rational, and somewhat regretful that he had acted so hastily. She had tried to call him several times, and he had tried to call back, but they had kept missing each other. Finally she had left a message: "We have to talk, face to face not by telephone. Am going to Guayaquil. See you when we're both back home. Lois" He would have liked something a little warmer but knew the problems inherent in leaving telephone messages with hotel clerks. At least she didn't seem angry, and he had hoped that they could straighten things out quickly.
He turned his full attention on getting his expedition underway, but the full brunt of the rainy season descended, making travel up-river impossible by either hover watercraft or hover plane. Debris swept downstream in the burgeoning floodwaters swamped anything on the river, and impenetrable visibility created by the murky wall of rain made air travel impossible. There was no point in doing a Super flyover because he wouldn't be able to discuss what he had seen with the appropriate officials without having to reveal how he had seen it.
As he stared out the veranda doors of his hotel room, he knew he was bored and tired of dealing with Zairian bureaucrats intent on blowing enough smoke to divert him from investigating the alleged digressions from their agreements. He wanted to go home. He wanted to find Lois. He wanted to talk with her, to get past their quarrel, to make love with her. But she was busy in Ecuador. Alone? <Of course, she's alone, Clark. Your paranoia is dumb. Lois loves you and you love her. She might do something drastic to teach you a lesson, but she'd never betray you, and you know it. But you have to keep beating yourself up about it, don't you? And worse beating on her.> If only it would stop raining so he could finish this job and go find her in Ecuador.
His phone rang, and he heard, to his elation, that the rain was going to stop for a few days, which meant that on Friday morning they could fly into the territory in question, and finally complete their investigation. At last! He should be ready to leave Zaire by Sunday.
JANUARY 21, 2033
Summer at the Equator was just too much heat for Lois. Even though it was the rainy season, it didn't rain constantly, and when it wasn't raining the sun was bright and…well…hot! And even when it did rain, it didn't cool off enough so that you could tell.
Not being able to walk off her frustrations was beginning to get to her. But it was too hot to be out walking during the day and not exactly safe at night. So she had risen very early before the sun was too high in the sky and was working out in the nearby Parque Centenario alternating between power walking and race walking.
On this particular morning, having, the night before, returned from meeting with Francisco Arroyo del Rio and visiting the refugee camp near Quito, she had a lot of anger and frustration to get rid of. Her mind was returning again and again to that slippery rodent financier with his phony concern about helping the poor widow and his evasive answers about meeting with her.
Why had he changed so suddenly when she gave him her name? Did he know that Lois Kent and Lois Lane, head of CHILD, were the same person? Or was he frightened for some other reason? When she returned to the hotel, she would set Chris after him, investigating to find out just how crooked he was. She wanted to be ready for Se¤or Arroyo del Rio when they met on Monday in his office here in Guayaquil.
The refugee camp had been as comfortable as such places could be, and she had spent two days visiting tent after tent, holding babies, playing with children and trying to assure parents that they would soon be able to begin a new life in their own homes. But she could not forget their eyes — resigned and disbelieving — or the hypocrisy of her words, designed to give comfort but lacking real hope.
She had returned to Guayaquil , her heart heavy with concern for the refugees and their children, and her mind angry with the person or persons who were getting in the way of returning those families to the lives they hoped for. At this point she was certain that the chief roadblock was manned by Francisco Arroyo del Rio. Here in the park, she focused the energy of her workout toward ameliorating the bitterness she felt toward that slimy snake.
After moving her feet at a rapid clip equaling her mind's pace, she shifted downward to power walking mode, pushing off from each planted step and swinging her arms in great arcs punching the sky where she imagined the point of Arroyo del Rio's chin to be. Rounding a turn where the path entered a grove of trees, she paid little attention to a runner who was rapidly approaching except to move to one side to allow him to pass. As the runner came even with her, she suddenly felt a movement from behind as someone entered the path from the trees and, with large hands, clasped her arms halting their motion. Struggling to kick backwards, she opened her mouth to yell when a sharp prick on her bare bicep stopped all conscious action and she dropped into a black hole.
EN ROUTE TO METROPOLIS
The fastest airliner in the world was moving at the speed of molasses and Jack, who was never a contented flyer, fidgeted and moved about in his first class seat, giving alarm to the flight attendants who wondered if he were ill, or maybe even a mental patient.
He was on his way back to Metropolis after receiving a call, the night before, from his friends informing him that Chris had found something serious. He had wanted to stay longer in Prague, but he knew he would literally find only dead leads. The Wednesday morning call had made that excruciatingly clear. He had failed his Czech friends, they were dead and he had been followed, occasionally by a face he thought he recognized. He knew he needed to leave before he had an accident like his brother.
His added guilt did not make the flight a pleasant one or make it go faster. He had to get back to help the Kents. He didn't think he could live with another failure — especially not one that would destroy Laura.
*Check under the floorboards, Mama,
'Cause that razor's not just a threat to me.
He'll be slicin' tiny crescents from your heart
Without layin' a sweaty palm to your cheek.*
*Don't accuse me of runnin' scared,
Listen to what I'm sayin';
It's a messed up old world
And I ain't givin' in. *
When Lois woke, she was lying on a cot in a small, bright hot room. Her mouth felt dry and cottony and her tongue was too big. Her eyes still half closed, she groped for the small waist pack containing the bottle of water she always carried when she was walking. It wasn't there. She opened her eyes some more, blinking against the brightness and realized she was looking directly into a skylight that framed a fireball sun. She quickly turned her head to one side, precipitating a sharp stab of pain behind her eyes; blinking, she saw a wall of barred windows revealing white heat- splashed light. Carefully turning to the other side she saw a splintered, sagging door almost closing off something that flies buzzed in and out of and from which a foul odor emanated. <Ugh> she thought, her stomach churning slightly, and she averted her gaze, looking straight ahead to see more windows with bars and more hot light. Her fuzzy brain worked to sort out what she had seen. Three walls, no outlet. At least she was pretty sure that slightly ajar door didn't hide a way out of the room. She hoped not. <Please god let the entryway be behind me.> She really didn't want to have to go through what was behind that opaque enclosure on her right.
Not yet ready to try sitting, she shifted again on the bare mattress of the cot. No restraints. Except for the absence of ropes binding her, it was all too familiar; she knew what she would find when she sat up. The hoped-for door behind her would be locked and she would be trapped in this furnace with no way out. She uttered a strangled curse. <It's always something! Well, Clark, you're too far away to get me out of this jam. Even I can't yell loud enough to be heard in the Congo. I guess I'll have to take care of this myself.> Only this time, who was after her and what had she done to make them mad? <Have to sort that out later; more immediate priorities, right now.>
It was time to sit up and reconnoiter her prison, if that was what it was. She gingerly raised her head and shoulders and then the rest of her torso. Dizziness and nausea prevailed for a moment; then her head began to clear. How did she get here? Trying to focus she vaguely remembered a runner, being grabbed from behind…and a sharp prick. <Drugged! But why? And who?>
<Easy, Lois. One thing at a time. Right now you have to do something *really* hard. Slide your legs over the side of this cot, plant your feet on the floor and STAND UP!> Well, her brain was ordering so why wasn't her body obeying? Her eyes began to close again and her body swayed. <So hot in here; so much easier to rest, sleep. Sleep, 'swhat need. Need gather m'strength li'l longer. G'up later. Jus' fall back, black hole. Go'n, dive in; maybe cooler there.> Her body began to drift backwards. <NO!> She jerked, opened her eyes and thrust her legs sideways, feet landing on the floor. Sleep could be as dangerous under this hot sun as it was in zero cold.
She really didn't want to end up like a large piece of dried jerky.
She shook her head to clear the cobwebs and placed her hands firmly on the edge of the cot to push herself into a standing position. <You can do this. It's not hard. Even a two year old can do it. Not impossible. Not even hard. Not as hard as childbirth…but, right now, pretty close.> Well, she'd successfully gone through labor twice! Of course, she could handle this. Only…she needed some time. Just a few more minutes rest with her eyes closed. The room was so bright and she was languid from the drugs and the heat. Where's all that energy you're famous for, Lois? Where's that adrenalin surge when you need it? Maybe it *is* too soon to get up. <I just need a few more minutes of rest, sleep, darkness.> Her mind hit out and primed the adrenal pump. <Who the hell did this to me?> No answer came to her. <Lois Lane doesn't give in to somebody's deadly scheme. She investigates, discovers the answers and figures a way out!> she told herself. Only she usually has Clark helping her…but not this time. <No, you had to be stubborn and provoke a quarrel, didn't you? Now look what's happened. And talking to yourself in the third person isn't going to change that. Well, I think I can still take care of myself if I have to.> With that thought as a spur, she shot to her feet. <There, Lois, see. You're standing up. That wasn't so hard after all, was it?>
Swaying on widely spread legs, she held for a moment as the swirling room rotated around her. Unhurriedly she raised herself to full height and adjusted to being vertical instead of horizontal. <Breathe Lois, deep breaths. Inhale…exhale. That's it, everything's beginning to slow down; pretty soon everything will be in its place and standing still. Just a few more breaths of this stifling hot air. Why is it so hot? With all these windows, you'd think one of them would be open to ventilate this broiler.> Sweat was beading and running down her face: her tank top was soaked and clinging to her; her arms were slick with moisture. <Ogod, I'm thirsty. Why did they have to take the water bottle?>
The sun was beating down making her head pound. Her scalp was beginning to experience waves of chill as her body mechanism attempted to cool it. Where was the baseball cap she'd been wearing while she was walking? That would provide a little shade for her head and face.
She slowly turned her head so she could see the cot. Nothing. Cap gone with the water.
Hesitantly, a horrible understanding was forming in her mind. <No, nobody could be that cruel.> She hadn't done anything to call down that kind of heartless, callous…Who are you kidding? All the fiendish ways devised to kill you in the past? Why does this one surprise you? <Yeah, but I haven't *done* anything!> Later, Lois, think about that later. Right now, survey this place and figure out how to get out!
She took off her tank top and wrapped it around her head to protect it from the direct force of the sun's rays, and its dampness helped for a short time; but the heat quickly dried it and it just became a stifling cover, adding to her feeling of being baked in a slow oven. Her sturdy exercise bra was soaked as were her snug fitting walking shorts and her body was dripping with perspiration from the effort of investigating the room.
She went first to the windows in front of her, staggering more than walking, still under the residual effects of the knockout drug. As she had anticipated, the windows were all closed and the bars would prevent her from escaping through them, even if she could open one. Escaping through them would not be very practical anyway, as she discovered, in looking out, that she was on the third floor of a grey stone building in the midst of many similar buildings.
The bank of windows to her left revealed a view of the docks and the river opening out to the bay beyond. The docks and the buildings looked old and ill repaired and she surmised she was in a little used warehouse area. She did not see anyone walking around that she could call out to, but judging from the angle of the sun, it was probably siesta time. She automatically looked at her wrist to check the time, but her watch/timer was missing too. <Well, whoever they are, they're thorough…and sadistic. No letting me figure out how much time I have before I die of heat and thirst.> How long had she been here, anyway?
Continuing her examination of the perimeter, she found herself at a rectangular recess that contained the expected egress, a door — thick, rough, unpainted wood… and locked.
By this time she was almost passing out again from the heat. It was not just the blazing sun, but the fact that the 95% plus humidity and higher temperatures at the equator during the rainy season made the air so heavy as well as hot, that it almost hurt to breathe.
She stumbled to the cot, sprawling on it, exhausted. But it was not a place she could stay for long unless she was ready to give up and die sooner rather than later. Shade, Lois, shade. You need shade. <There isn't any, dummy. Except maybe in that little room and I'm not going in there unless I'm almost dead.> Her eyes closed and she drifted off for a second, or was it a few minutes…an hour? Her mind was still working, though, as it presented her with an alternative for the moment. <Get under the cot, Lois. There's shade under there. Roll off the cot and onto the floor. Get under the cot!> She was now awake enough to obey and she found herself in a sunless but almost airless hideaway. Her exertion had left her breathing rapidly and shallowly, but eventually everything slowed, as did her heartbeat. She dozed briefly, then regained conscious thought to assimilate what she had learned about the room and to set her priorities.
Closed, barred windows; locked door; shadeless, almost airless, the room contained: 1 metal cot and ticking-covered mattress filled with what felt like cornstalks, 1 rough wooden chair and, on one side, 1 cubicle containing unknown filth.
First priority: create some air and shade. Where were the air sources? The exit door was old, but it was thick and well seated in its frame. She looked at it from her position on the floor. There were no cracks in or around it. It had felt cooler to her touch than the rest of the room, but there was nothing to indicate a breeze or any stir of wind. She doubted that the unspeakable cubicle was any kind of air conduit either. It would have to promise air-conditioning to get her to check it out. That left the windows. Could she raise one of them?
The casements were old and had long since been painted over. Besides, the bars were in the way. She would have to lean too far over to get any leverage on the window handles. That left breaking the glass as her best chance to open up the room. She needed something long enough to reach the panes through the bars and heavy enough to break the glass.
She looked at the chair. How sturdy was it? Was she strong enough to break it up, wrench loose one of the legs? She would have to try. Or was there an alternative? Her eyes flitted around as she conjectured. They landed on the cot above her. It had tightly wound metal coils for springs. The coils were hooked to the metal bars that formed the side of the frame and they were almost three feet in length. She reached up and touched one. It felt heavy. She pushed. The hooks at either end were old and rusted. She thought she could get one of these coils off fairly easily. It might work better than a chair leg. Yep, she'd try that before attacking the chair. She might have need for that upright seat later.
She planned her strategy. <Get the coil off, break out panes in each wall of windows setting up a cross flow of air, and do it with the least expenditure of energy and loss of perspiration.> She had already lost too much moisture to the heat. She couldn't afford to increase that loss through exertion, not if she wanted to extend as long as possible the time she could stay alive.
She thought about that cross flow. She not only needed to set air moving across the room, but she needed to create an opening in the skylight to allow the hot air gathered at the ceiling to escape. The glass in the windows was old and fragile. The skylight probably was too. If she had something small enough to throw and heavy enough to shatter the glass…but what?
Once again she surveyed the floor level of her domain. Bare. The cot? Nothing. She started over, moving her eyes from the floor up the walls as far as she could see from under the cot. Plain walls, windowsills, bars, windowpanes, nasty cubicle, cubicle door…doorknob. Metal doorknob! Round and heavy looking, it was already hanging half out of its hole in invitation. Her hand itched to grab it. Shortstop Lois ought to be able to throw that through the skylight. How high was that skylight? Shortstop Lois hadn't thrown anything for a long time. <Oh, Clark, this would be so much easier if you were here. Don't be silly, Lois. If Clark were here you wouldn't need to do any of this. You'd be out of here already. Are you so dependent on him you can't do anything for yourself anymore? No time for self- doubts, Lois. Think positively. You're the original little Lois who could.> She would find a way.
<Okay, now, here's how it'll go.> She would remove the coil from the bed frame, go directly to the cubicle, pick up the doorknob, proceed to the nearest set of windows, and break the pane at the bottom on the far right.
Walk over to the other row of windows on the dockside and break a pane as high as she could on the far left. Then go to the center of the room and throw that doorknob through the skylight. Get back under the cot. All within 2 or 3 minutes max and without moving too fast, working too hard or sweating too much. <I can do it. First step: get the coil off this cot.>
*I see the bad moon a-rising;
I see earthquakes and lightnin';
I see bad times today.*
John C. Fogerty
It had been a week since Jack had left for Europe, and now he was back because Chris and his information network had uncovered a Cayman Island bank account in the names of Clark J. and Lois Kent — a very rich bank account. The two of them were at Chris's newsroom desk, after the day shift had gone home, discussing the import of the find which seemed to have no ties with Henry Forrest but rather appeared to be a convoluted embezzlement scheme designed to line the Kent pockets with money stolen from the foundations in which each influenced expenditures.
"I've looked at the evidence," Chris was saying, "and it's damning. But I know it isn't true, because I know my parents."
"Unfortunately, that doesn't count in either a court of law or the court of public opinion," replied Jack. "Show me what you've got."
Chris pointed to columns of figures showing Ecuadorian receipts and expenditures, and deposits in the Cayman account.
"Money seems to be disappearing from Ecuador, and mystery funds seem to be showing up in Mom and Dad's bank account, or the account that's in their name but they're not equivalent amounts. Somebody else is involved. And look here. Mom recently wrote a $25,000 check for something called 'Whaler's Dream". Where'd she get that kind of money to spend on whatever 'Whaler's Dream' is?"
"Well, further digging will turn up the truth, but if this were made public now it might be too late for Lois and Clark to save their credibility. Too many people believe that where there's smoke, there's fire."
Jack looked at the Ecuadorian report again and said, " Looks like the answers, or some of them anyway, are in Ecuador. Maybe I should go down there."
"My mom's down there now looking into something. Maybe it has to do with this."
"Or it could be construed that she's looking after her personal cash flow," responded Jack.
Suddenly Chris's head jerked upright, as he listened intently. Then he turned to Jack. "There's been an earthquake in Turkey. The earth has split open and people and buildings are disappearing. I have to go, Jack. Dad's in the Congo, and Laura needs me. We'll have our hands full for several days, probably."
"Go. I'll head down to Ecuador to see what I can find out; my nosy friends will keep me informed if anything else turns up."
Chris had no sooner left the newsroom, than his phone rang. Thinking it might be one of his informants, Jack answered. It was Maria looking for Chris and reporting that Lois had disappeared.
"Have you let Clark know?" Jack asked.
"The number I have for Clark doesn't answer. I tried their home and just got a machine. My instructions from Lois are to try Clark first, then her daughter Laura and her son, Chris. You're the first human being I've been able to raise. Why don't these people leave forwarding com numbers. This is an emergency and nobody is doing anything." The shrillness of Maria's voice grew harsher as her agitation increased.
Explaining that Clark was on an assignment in the Congo and probably out of touch only temporarily, Jack made excuses for the unavailability of both Chris and Laura.
"Maria, my name is Jack Forrest. I'm Laura's husband. Laura is in a quarantined lab experiment for a few days, and Chris has been assigned to cover an earthquake in Turkey. I'm here at his office to pick up a, uh, some information he left for me. I'll take care of notifying everyone about Lois, and I'll catch the next flight to Guayaquil to see what I can do to help. What you need to do is stay calm. Is there someone there with you?"
"Yes, Hecky…Hector Guzman from WERC is here, but he isn't much help. All he does is tell me not to get upset. That I should get some sleep and that everything will be all right."
"That sounds like good advice to me. Take it easy and I'll see you as soon as possible."
Jack was certain that Clark's investigative group would have a satellite telephone with them, but he didn't know the number. It was probably a company owned instrument, since only a few wealthy individuals could afford or would need these devices.
Satellite telephones had been available at the turn of the century, but had not yet become as ubiquitous as the cellular telephones of that era which had depended on the line of sight technology of cell towers. Those old cell phones certainly didn't work in the jungle; they didn't even work everywhere in the United States. They had been replaced by the personal communicators in use now, but these were still short range and dependent upon tower relays for longer distances.
Satellite relays were now used for overseas calls to every major city in the world, but further relays to smaller in-country towns and cities were still tied to landlines.
High Frequency radios had become almost as small as the old cell phones, but they required an antenna set-up to be reliable and were subject to disruption by atmospheric conditions. Satellite telephones were reliable but their miniaturization had not yet been perfected. Clark's party would have a solar battery operated apparatus in a small briefcase, but they would have to have it turned on to receive anything and even if it were turned on, Jack had no number to call.
Jack looked through Chris's phone file until he found a home number for Clark's secretary. He hit the auto-dial and heard the ringing, but there was no answer. Next he looked for the number for Lois's assistant and tried it. No answer. It was a Friday night and he needed to locate one of two attractive single women in a city where the single workforce celebrated TGIF at length. It might take a while.
He called the airline and made a reservation for Guayaquil and tried the other numbers again. Still no answer. This time he left messages saying who he was and that he needed to contact Clark because of a family emergency. Leaving his home number, he indicated that if he didn't hear back, he would try again the next morning.
After leaving a message about Lois for Chris on his vox-com, Jack ran for the elevator. With Laura gone, he would go home to see his children and try to contact Clark again as soon as he got the number.
Everything had worked the way she wanted…until she tried to throw that damned doorknob. It went up all the way to the skylight, but hit one of the frames and dropped back. She needed to be a little bit closer to her target, and it would still be touch and go whether the projectile's momentum would have enough force to break the glass. Hot! It was hot! Her energy was depleting fast. She looked around for some way to elevate herself closer to the skylight. The chair. Would it hold her weight? Would it be stable enough to give her a platform to push off from when she threw? Only one way to find out. She dragged it under the center of the skylight. She wasn't sweating so much now, but she felt even hotter than she had when perspiration was streaming out of her. So hot! She had removed her walking shorts and had wrapped her tank top around her head again after using it to wipe the wetness off her body. It was barely damp and drying quickly.
As she pushed the chair into position, she stumbled and fell over it, knocking the wind from her lungs temporarily and bringing an ache to her ribs. <Clumsy!> Her strength was waning. She had to punch a hole in that skylight!
Regaining her breath, she righted the chair and climbed up on it, steadying herself against its back. <Last chance, Lois. This has to be a good one. Concentrate. Focus. It's a Tae Kwon Doe move. All energy on the breaking point.> She began a low hum that increased in intensity and pitch. Her arm was cocked and she sighted in on a point in the glass as she gathered her energy in the center of her being. As the hum reached its climax, she simultaneously shouted with an outward explosive force, and threw the sphere. It rolled off her fingers in a straight line and catapulted upward, smashing through and carrying with it most of the glass of a small partition that sloped away from the top of the skylight. A few small pieces of glass dropped to the floor and shattered.
Lois didn't see it; her launching platform had gone over sending her crashing to where her head snapped against the floor as she tumbled with the chair. She was unconscious, face up to the deadly rays of the sun.
When she woke, she was unsure where she was or how long she had been there.
The sun was now low on the horizon and no longer beating directly down on the room, but it was still sending beams through the windows, and the room was still hot. She licked her lips. They were dry and cracked; above her upper lip was a rime of salt. Her face felt stiff and was beginning to hurt from sunburn.
<Find the shade, Lois.> Her body hurt and she wasn't sure she could get up. <Can't walk? Crawl, then. FIND THE SHADE, LOIS!> Turning her head she looked for the cot. Dizziness overwhelmed her as the room spun angrily. She closed her eyes until her inner gyroscope leveled; then she carefully opened them again. She could see the cot.
<It's so far away. Stop being a wimp, Lois. It's an easy crawl. Start moving.> She forced her body to respond in spasms and jerks as she dragged herself across the floor. <It hurts! Okay, it hurts. No pain, no gain.> "Couldn't we do 'No pain, no pain'?" <Very funny. Now you're arguing with yourself. Move your arms and legs, slowpoke. You're almost there.> She rolled under the cot and dropped into unconsciousness, her energy completely spent. She woke again almost immediately because she was still in the sun. It was now at such an angle that its horizontal rays were gleefully pulsing under the cot taunting her head with 'No shade, no shade!'
<Where now? Leave me alone you big, yellow bully! Think, Lois. There's gotta be an answer.> Once more she visually circumnavigated the room, finding no place to hide except…unthinkable! She wasn't that far gone yet. She turned toward the locked door and saw that the recess where the door stood was in shade. <There it is! All you have to do is push the cot into that recess and you can recline in comfort on top of it. That's all, huh?>
Painfully pushing first the legs at one end, and then the other, changing positions underneath, scooting tortoise-like across the floor, she maneuvered the cot against the wall but clear of the offset door in the recess. She was too spent to attempt pulling herself onto the mattress and she collapsed. Her eyes closed and she was asleep almost instantly, finally free of the sun's omnipresence.
Little by little, awareness seeped back into her brain. It was pitch black and she was enclosed in something! Was she in a coffin? Did someone think she was dead and they'd put her in a coffin? She flailed out with her arms, hitting the metal springs of the cot, scratching her forearms. <Ouch!> The pain cleared her head and she recognized where she was. She was gasping and panting, but she forced herself to breathe in and out in a regular rhythm, calming her terror.
The second thing she noticed was that there seemed to be a movement of air in the room and as she breathed it felt damp. Still hot, but damp. She pushed herself from under the cot and saw through the window that the rainy season was living up to its name. A curtain of water rippled outside the windowpanes. <Water! Ogod, water!> All she could drink was right out there. She tried to stand, but every naked part of her body burned from exposure to the sun. <Ignore it. Get to the window. Get some water!> It took some time and a lot of hurt grunting but she reached the windows only to find that the pursuit was fruitless. She could just get her hand through the broken pane on the bottom right, but she couldn't lean over far enough to clear the roof overhang and feel the rain. <So close! Just a little moisture on her hand to her mouth.> She pushed closer, trying to get her shoulder through the small square. Glass shards scratched at her. <Can't reach it.> Despair brought tears to her eyes. She slumped to the floor, pressing her forehead against the interfering bars. For the first time she gave in to the thought that she might die here, alone. Without seeing Clark again. Had there been enough moisture in her tear ducts, they would have loosed streams down her face as she sobbed.
Bit by bit, she became aware of a thump, thump, thumping. She raised her head and looked around for the source. The room was completely dark and she could see nothing. What was that sound? It seemed to be coming from the middle of the room. The skylight! The hole in the skylight! Water must be dripping through it. She crawled toward the sound, moving her arm back and forth across the floor in front of her, searching for the wetness. She came up against a wall. Nothing! Take a different angle. She crossed the floor again. Nothing but bits of glass scraping and scratching her arms and legs. Back and forth she went, searching for that life saving point of dripping water. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun. "NO!" she cried out and continued crawling desperately, until…at last…a large damp area where the dry wooden floor had soaked up the rain. She turned her face upwards trying to find a drip…just a drop or two. A few miserable splashes were all she caught, and then they stopped. She remembered that the skylight had sloped away where she had punched her hole. There would be no puddle to continue dripping. She lay in the middle of the floor, unmoving. She had no will left. "Clark," she moaned softly.
SOMEWHERE IN ZAIRE
Standing on the edge of an illegal jungle clearing on a hot muggy Saturday morning, Clark was incensed with what he saw. A large area of rainforest had been deliberately burned to make room for a compound of geological engineers searching for rare mineral deposits. The economic gain of such a find to the resident country was so small compared to the danger to the world environmental balance caused by new rainforest devastation! The WERC agreement would have more than recompensed them for not being able to develop the minerals. He was disgusted with the officials who had made the decisions that let this happen, and he was annoyed because now he had to figure out a way to get them back on board with the idea that they couldn't have everything, and it was better to give up just a little so everyone could gain immeasurably. That would take time, and he wanted to go home.
As he stood there, apart from the group that had come out from Kinshasa, he heard a voice, calling out to him. It was faint and very hard to hear. "Clark." Automatically he responded aloud, "Lois?"
From behind him an angry female voice continued. "Clark, this is completely reprehensible. These people must be punished severely, beginning with the total cessation of all payments. We should propose an immediate economic blockade to the members of Earth Consortium."
It was Matilda Thacker, the bellicose representative from Great Britain and current president of E.C. Standing almost six feet tall and a bulldog by nature, she was both imposing and intimidating. She didn't just demand the Old Testament eye-for- an-eye retribution for transgressions. She would clamp on to something and shake it until she had inflicted extreme punishment, imparted a lesson, and imposed compliance.
Clark sighed inwardly and turned his complete attention to soothing her and diverting her towards another solution. "Now, Matilda, it's the government who've done this, and you know if we cut off aid and impose economic sanctions, it'll be the people who'll suffer, and they're not to blame. We're not a political organization trying to foment unrest and rebellion. Let's leave that to the CIA." He took her arm and led her back to the campsite where they joined the other E.C. representatives and the Zairian officials.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said Clark. "What we've seen here is certainly proof that Zaire has reneged on its agreement. I don't think you can argue with that, Mr. Mbutu."
He looked directly at the Economic Minister of Zaire who opened his mouth to protest, but Clark went on. "Our informants have told us that this is just the first of several illegal clearings. I think we should move on to view at least one more today. Tonight in camp, we'll discuss what we can do to salvage the jungle and our agreement."
Mbutu spoke defensively. "I must speak with my government immediately. I deny prior knowledge of any of this activity. Zaire is not to blame for the irresponsible actions of a few criminals. You must allow — "
Clark broke in. "No. I'm instructing our com officer to turn off our communication devices until we settle this problem. I don't want any outside influences distracting our focus. Minister Mbutu, you have the authority to come to an agreement without speaking with your government or you wouldn't be here."
Turning, Clark motioned to his assistant and strode toward the waiting amphibious hover plane.
JANUARY 22, 2033
When the sun began to peer into the room on Saturday morning, Lois was lying enervated on top of the cot. She had slept though the night, but it was not a healthy sleep, and cognizance was not in the forefront of her awakening state. Her eyes hurt when she looked at the sunlight streaming from the ceiling and reflecting off the floor, so she kept them closed, drifting in and out of sentience as her body reserves dropped lower and lower. It would be a long day.
The investigating delegation had moved eastward along the river in its search for additional ravaged territory. Having entered another time zone, they were now seven hours later than Ecuador instead of the six-hour time gap at Kinshasa.
Flying above the swollen river, Clark and his companions watched for signs of man-made destruction, but saw nothing. As he gazed at the wild beauty that powered the Earth's fragile eco- structure, he felt a malaise pushing at the edge of his attention. Something was not right somewhere. He reached out with his mind to find the source, but there was nothing. <Was it Lois? Was she in trouble?> He searched for her heartbeat. She was so far away! Could he find her at such a distance? Ah, there she was. She was probably asleep. The heartbeat was faint, but steady. <What was this disturbing feeling?> His thoughts were interrupted by Ken Kiratsu's shout, "Look, there, on the right." They had found another patch of destruction.
Hovering over the tropical wilderness, they saw that their informants had predicted accurately; they had found another wasteland. When they landed they discovered that it was one with more severe implications than the first. A primitive native tribe had been displaced and the forest that had sustained their lives had been disrupted to build a camp for workers who had begun clearing a path for road construction from Mbandaka. Roadways though the jungle would allow the government to more easily exploit the natural resources, and the homeless aboriginal population would become a cheap labor source for lumber mills, pottery factories and cultivated crop fields. No one seemed to care about the loss of an indigenous culture or the life style change that had been imposed upon these primitives without their consent.
Clark was becoming angrier by the minute at the cavalier regard with which the accompanying government officials shrugged off the fate of the natural flora and its inhabitants. The unease that had crept into his consciousness during the journey to the new location was forgotten as he focused on his immediate problem — control the more aggressive members of the E.C. delegation and scare the hell out of the Zairians so that they would be willing to adhere to their agreement.
Dusk was dropping quickly and they needed to make camp. The negotiating that evening would not be easy, but he was determined to put an end to the ruination of the natural and human assets of this country.
They had not used their radio or satellite communicator except for quickly touching base from their first camp on Friday. Clark had not wanted to allow anything to distract them from their mission. For a moment he considered whether he should have their com operator check in with Kinshasa in case there was an emergency of any kind and to assure them that the party was, in this most dangerous of areas, unharmed and working at their task. <No, better not. We're in a perfect position, here, to keep everyone just a little uncomfortable. Maybe that'll encourage them to listen to reason so we can find a tentative solution and get back to civilization to finish this.>
Unable to get a flight from Metropolis until Saturday afternoon, Jack had spent the morning obtaining the number for WERC's satellite telephone. Unable to reach Clark, he left a message to be forwarded from WERC headquarters at Kinshasa.
When his plane touched down, in Guayaquil, he went immediately from the airport to CHILD headquarters. By the time he reached midtown, the sun was beating down relentlessly, the temperature had climbed upward from the previous day's high of 88 degrees, and the humidity was above 95%.
As soon as entered the office door, Maria, after ascertaining that he was Lois's son-in-law, immediately assaulted him with a rapid repetition of what she had told him over the telephone. Allowing her to run down, Jack nodded to the man who was hovering behind her. Finally running out of angry recriminations aimed at the police and the American embassy, both of whom seemed to believe that 36 hours needed to elapse before they should become alarmed, Maria swerved her attention to introduce Hector Guzman.
"I'm sorry we're meeting in such unpleasant circumstances, Hector," said Jack. "I've heard a lot about you."
"And I, you," replied Hector, nodding.
"Will you stop acting like this is a garden party!" harangued Maria. "Lois is in trouble and we've got to find her. She could be in real danger if she's in the wrong place in this heat. She's not used to it. And I wouldn't put it past that rat Arroyo del Rio to be behind this!"
That got Jack's attention. He had seen the name on the paper Chris had shown him, the one with the columns of figures.
"What does he have to do with Lois?"
Maria told him of Lois's meeting with Arroyo del Rio and their suspicion that he was stealing aid money. "He's here in Guayaquil, now, and Lois was supposed to see him again on Monday."
"Where can I find him?"
She answered, "He has an office in the downtown financial district, but I doubt he'd be there on a Saturday afternoon."
Hector interposed. "Give me a few minutes. I'll find out where he is."
Maria regarded him in disbelief. "You? How could you find him? If you can find somebody, why haven't you found Lois?"
He ignored her insult as he picked up the phone. Holding up one finger he said, "One moment." Then he punched in a number. He said, "Arroyo del Rio?" and listened.
When he replaced the instrument, he turned to Jack. "Francisco Arroyo del Rio has been in his office all day. He seems to be waiting for a telephone call."
Jack nodded, as Maria spoke sharply, "How can you know…"
Hector interrupted her. "Hush, Maria. Not now. Jack and I have to go see this man."
"You and Jack? What's going on, Hecky!" she demanded.
Hector walked over, took her by the shoulders and spoke very quietly. "If you want Lois to be returned safely, then give me your car keys, stop talking and let Jack and me go see Arroyo del Rio. I'll explain later, but right now we have to move fast." This was a new Hector to Maria and she didn't quite know how to react to his strength and self-composure. She watched in silence as they left.
"Hecky?" Jack said looking in amusement at Hector.
Hector looked sheepish. "She's an impetuous and imperious woman. It's easier to let her have her head and not fight about it."
"Yeah, especially when you're in deep cover with such a good looking companion. So, tell me, Alex, is this your assignment, or is this that straight identity you've been hiding for so long?"
"It's a little of both, Jack. Come on. We've got to find out where Lois is."
The discussion was not going well. At eleven o'clock, Clark finally allowed a break for a few minutes. The latrine was the immediate destination for most of the delegates. Others sought the night air and stretched their cramped legs. All stayed within well-lit, populous terrain.
In the Congo rain forest the darkness belongs to its many predatory animals, and for incautious humans to venture into it alone could be suicide. Their guide had insisted that no one take the path to the latrine alone and he had assigned several bearers to stand guard there during the night.
Clark stood outside the common tent trying to relax. Nearby was the personal guard that Earth Consortium and WERC had insisted be assigned to accompany him everywhere on this trip. The last time he had ventured into the Congo, they had almost lost him. For two months the world had believed that Clark Kent was dead, killed by crocs when his hover watercraft had overturned. Matilda Thacker considered it a miracle that he had survived the months he was supposed to have spent alone in the jungle, and she refused to chance a similar occurrence. He had protested but was unable to move her from her Gibraltar-like stance. He was stuck with this unnecessary protection.
As he breathed the clear air, he wondered if he could ever persuade these misguided politicians to listen to reason. The Zairians, as he had expected, refused to be bullied by the more belligerent members of the E.C. who therefore became even more belligerent. Sometimes he wondered why he bothered. But then he would remember how destructive the alternative would be to his adopted planet, and he would resolve again to find a way to end the quarreling.
As he stood there, disquiet once more nibbled at the edge of his perception. His mind reached out.
Suddenly he heard Lois's voice calling to him. It was faint and very hard to hear. He projected his thoughts toward her channel. <Lois? I can barely hear you. What is it?>
Her voice was weak and sounded hoarse, cracking with effort as she called out to him. What was she saying?
It was after dark when Francisco Arroyo del Rio finally received the phone call he had been waiting for. Lois Lane would be dead within a few hours, the voice assured him. He was told to go to his hotel for the night. He should receive final confirmation in the morning. Relieved, he turned out the light in his office and walked to the elevator.
Jack and Alex were watching from concealed positions outside, and as they waited, Jack asked Alex about the comment in his note. "What did you mean, 'What have I been doing'? I've been working with my Dad in the company for five years. You must really have been out of sight not to know that."
"No, I haven't, Jack. Your Dad has been out of the business ever since you left six years ago. I don't know what the circumstances were, but I heard that the guys at the top insisted that he take early retirement."
"What are you talking about? Henry's still running his organization. I've been working for him doing what I always did with most of the people I always worked with."
"I don't know who he's working for, Jack, but it isn't the company."
Before Jack could completely assimilate what Alex was saying, they saw the lights go out in Arroyo del Rio's office and placed themselves so that they could take Francisco when he emerged from the building. Having been trained to leave nothing to chance, they had scouted an alley close by and decided that they would talk to him there.
To anyone watching, Francisco Arroyo del Rio appeared to be greeted by two old friends when he emerged from the building. Laughing, they escorted him down the block in the direction of a popular bar. They rounded the corner and disappeared into the night as, under cover of momentary darkness, they hustled him into the even blacker alleyway.
Alex stood at the alley entrance, keeping an eye out for anyone who might walk by, while Jack, seized the frightened Ecuadorian and shoved him against the wall, saying, "You don't know who I am, Francisco, but you are right to be afraid because I know how to do very unpleasant things to you; and, right now, I'm angry enough to be unusually creative, so you'd better answer my questions fast. Where is Lois Lane?"
Scared as he was, Arroyo del Rio wasn't going to dissolve as long as he could dissemble. "Please, Se¤or, let me go. You have made a mistake. I know nothing of Se¤ora Lane except that we are to meet on Monday. Has something happened to her?"
"Don't get cute with me, you slime bag. I know all about your sneaky little thievery and that Lois was on to you. Trying to get rid of her was not a smart move. She has many friends prepared to do *anything* necessary to protect her, so you'd better come clean now, or you'll be dead before she is." With that, Jack's hand, holding a Special Forces knife, moved perilously close to the banker's face. The helpless man's eyes grew wide with terror and he instinctively flinched away.
"I wouldn't move suddenly like that, if I were you, scum. My nerves are all upset because I'm worried about Lois. My hand might jerk in response to your move, and I couldn't guarantee that I could control it this close to your eye. It wouldn't kill you, but you'd feel terrible pain, not to mention the loss of vision. No more lying. Where is Lois Lane?"
Francisco knew the game was over. He sagged against the alley wall and gave up the information.
As soon as Jack and Alex learned of Lois's jeopardy, they pushed Francisco into the car and hurried him to the CHILD office. Maria greeted them with relief, then anger. "Thank God you're back safely. But what's the big idea bringing this crook here? You were supposed to be finding Lois, not buddying up to him."
Jack laughed. He *did* like independent women. He hoped Alex knew what he was getting into.
Ignoring Maria's belittling remarks, Alex thrust Francisco into a chair and taking some duct tape out of a nearby supply cabinet quickly strapped down his prisoner except for his right arm. Removing a pair of handcuffs from his desk, he secured that arm to one of the sturdy iron bars protecting the windows.
"Hecky, what are you doing with handcuffs?" Maria asked.
Ignoring her, Alex turned to Jack and said, "What's your plan?"
Jack smiled again at the very intelligent Alex's assumption that he had already made a plan. Alex was right, as usual.
"First, will it be safe to leave Maria here with Arroyo del Rio? He ought to be watched until we get back."
He had spoken to Alex, but Maria answered, "Of course it'll be safe. You think I'm gonna let him go?"
"No, Maria," said Alex, patiently. "He wants to be sure that you won't let Don Francisco here sweet talk you into getting close enough to allow him to grab you with his manacled hand and force you to let him go. It's okay, Jack. She's immune to sweet talk."
"If you say so, Alex."
Maria reacted to that. "Alex? Who's Alex? This is Hector."
Alex pointed out that his middle name was Alejandro. "Many of my friends in America call me Alex," he explained evasively.
Maria was now even more curious than ever. "You two knew each other before today? What's going on?!"
"Later, I'll explain later," said Alex. "Jack?"
"We'll need night operation clothing and some sort of vehicle. Can you get them?"
"Yes, of course. But we have Maria's car."
"No, you don't want to use anything that can be traced to her, do you? In case things go wrong?"
"Right. Of course." He thought for a moment. "I know where I can get a couple of beat up old motorcycles in about five minutes. They're noisy as hell, so we won't be taking anybody by surprise. On the other hand, if someone's there, they won't expect the marines to announce themselves that way either. If you want stealth, that'll take longer."
"Yeah, that might work, and we need to move like five minutes ago. Get the motorcycles. You'll be my backup as usual. Unless Francisco here was lying, Lois should be the only one there anyway."
Maria had been listening to this exchange, her mouth slowly dropping open. "Who are you guys?"
Alex looked at her, then spoke gently, "Later, please? We don't have time now," and he picked up the phone, making another of his compressed phone calls. "Two motorcycles; civilian extrusion gear; night operation clothing; weapons; here; now!" He hung up. "They're on their way."
Jack nodded at Maria, questioning, "Will it be safe to leave a weapon with her? Can she handle a pistol?"
Infuriated Maria demanded, "Will you stop talking about me like I'm not here, or worse, like I'm a stupid child? Yes, it will be safe, and yes, I know how to shoot a pistol. My father was a small arms target expert and he taught everyone in my family how to use and be safe around handguns."
Alex unlocked his desk drawer again and took out a Smith and Wesson .38 Special, removed the trigger lock, snapped open the cylinder and handed the weapon to Maria along with a box of cartridges. Taking them, she placed everything on her desk and proceeded to load and lock the gun.
As she was finishing, they heard the motorcycles outside.
Jack said, "I'll leave you to say goodbye. Don't be too far behind me. I won't wait for you before I go in. Do we have water?"
"There should be some in the saddlebags. Ask the boys outside. I'll have them stay here just in case somebody comes nosing around. And don't worry, Jack. I won't leave you out there hanging."
*All day I face the barren waste
Without the taste of water,
…with throats burned dry
And souls that cry for water
Cool, clear, water.*
*The nights are cool, and I'm a fool
Each star's a pool of water
But with the dawn, I'll wake and yawn
And carry on to water;
Water, water, water.*
Lois had spent the day on or under her cot, crawling and moving it when she needed to find another spot for shade and air, dozing and dreaming when she wasn't pushing herself to accomplish this small task that further depleted her scant energy.
It had been hotter than the previous day, in spite of the cooling provided by the overnight rain, and her body no longer had the capacity to perspire to reduce its temperature. It now resorted to waves of chill that produced shivers and accompanying bumps on her dry skin, but did not reduce her inner heat.
Occasionally she would waken with some semblance of rationality, afraid that she could not continue to withstand the oven-like temperature of the room. Even the air circulation that she had created only served to act like a convection cooking device. Any physical movement was defeating and her mind was beginning to fall prey to hallucinations in order to keep from slipping into despondency. If her spirit began to die, the end would be swift and inevitable.
In one of her dreams, she thought she saw Clark and she called out to him, but he seemed to slip away without answering. Her mind returned to him over and over, the single bright point of hope in her struggle through deserts and wastelands filled with monsters and demons. She searched for him as the oasis of her life, a well of water that would re-invigorate her body and her soul. But he was an elusive wraith, like a mirage — one moment a cool shimmering sanctuary, the next another pillar of sand.
Off and on she called out, "Clark?", her voice a hoarse croak. Once she thought she heard him answer, "Lois? I can barely hear you. What is it?"
Had she found him? She began to babble a plea for help all mixed up with an explanation of where she was and what was happening to her. At least she thought that was what she was saying. But the signals were broken as though the sun's occupation of the room was a powerful solar flare interfering with radio wave propagation. The words were transmitted brokenly, randomly. "Clark. Are you there? Can…hear me? Oh…hope so. Talk t' me, please? …need… hear… voice."
These were the messages that kept going out. But nothing came back after that first faint reply. She began to say disjointed words. "So hot…no water…why is this happening…too far away…help in time…s'bad this time…need you…can't last…longer…"
SOMEWHERE IN ZAIRE
It was shortly after midnight on Sunday morning, when Clark decided to adjourn the meeting. They had finally begun to make some headway in solving their problem, but not before he'd had to speak harshly to both sides.
"Madame President, Minister Mbutu, you both have embarked on paths that can only lead to mutual destruction. You've been appointed to work toward saving this Earth, not destroying it, but you seem to have forgotten that. Even my friend Superman would lose patience with you and regard your behaviour with disgust." He saw that his somewhat formal and diplomatic speech was having no effect.
"Matilda, unless you give up your insistence on excessively punishing Zaire, you'll be responsible for leaving almost half of the world's rainforest to development and destruction and that will doom the people of Earth to a suffocating death."
From the corner of his eye, Clark saw Mbutu smirk. "And you're not innocent in this, Kikotu. There's plenty of guilt to go around. With your encouragement, your government has unnecessarily violated its word and engaged in wanton pillaging of its countryside and the people who live there. You've shown no honour, and you've ignored the Universal Code. You've placed the survival of the world in question and all you can do is sit there and smirk.
"If the two of you don't start cooperating and agree on the preliminaries for a settlement, then I will recommend that WERC withdraw its economic support from both Zaire and Earth Consortium. I think that action might end up in toppling both of you from your positions and open the possibility for replacing you with less intractable representatives for us to work with."
It had been a tirade that he would have preferred to avoid, but it had worked, and now he could go to bed knowing that, in the morning, they would all go back to Kinshasa. There he could, he hoped, leave the mop-up to his assistant, Winston, and get off to Ecuador in search of Lois.
As he lay sleeping on his cot, Clark was awaked by the sound in his head of her pleading voice, babbling disjointedly. Where was she? What was happening to her? He could hear only disjointed words. "Talk t'me, need hear voice. Bad this time. Can't last longer."
What was she talking about, 'can't last longer'? He tested her vital signs. They were weak but steady. <Hang on, honey. It's okay.>
He continued to reach out to Lois, to touch her mind. Her responding signal was intermittent but it was there. He thought it was not urgent.
And then he heard her again.
"Don't wan' die th'out you. So hard stay 'wake. Wan' tell you love you…" "love you…" "love you…"
Had he misjudged the situation? Desperately his thoughts went out to her. "Don't you die on me, Lois! I'm coming. It's not time for you to die yet. I'm already with you, honey. Hold on to me."
She heard him! <Hang on, honey. It's okay. >
She could barely mumble. "Oh, Sweetheart…found you. Sorry, Clark…so sorry. Don't wan' die th'out you…slip away. So hard stay 'wake." She was drifting in and out of sleep, her mumblings marking the intervals: "Wan' tell you love you…" "love you…" "love you…" She fell into that black hole of unconsciousness again. Just before she dropped over the edge, she heard, "Don't you die on me, Lois! I'm coming. It's not time for you to die yet. I'm already with you, honey. Hold on to me."
This was insane! She needed him and he was deep in the Congo River rain forest with a party of international diplomats and officials he couldn't get away from. Everywhere he went his friendly shadow followed. He couldn't even go to the latrine by himself.
He kept reaching out to her. Sometimes she was there, other times she was not. <Lois, what's happened? Are you ill? How serious is it? Is there a doctor with you? Lois, please tell me what's wrong!>
He had to figure out a way to get out of this camp alone so he could fly to Ecuador. If he couldn't get away unseen, he would have to face the choice of perhaps letting Lois die or revealing his identity as Superman and, in turn, the truth about Laura and Chris. But worst of all, he would expose little Lee and Carla to dangers and threats from criminals all over the planet. <They're just children. They don't have any Super powers. We don't know if they ever will. They're just innocent children, human and vulnerable!> How could he deliberately endanger them? But How could he leave Lois in what might be a deadly plight?
He reached out again for Lois? <Where are you? How bad is it? Do I have any time?> There was no answer. He checked for her vital signs again. Faint but steady heartbeat, rapid pulse, erratic breathing.
*You can spend all your time making money;
You can spend all your love making time.
If it all fell to pieces tomorrow,
Would you still be mine?
And when you're looking for your freedom
(Nobody seems to care),
And you can't find the door
(Can't find it anywhere).
When there's nothing to believe in,
Still you're coming back, you're running back,
You're coming back for more.*
*So put me on a highway, and
Show me a sign,
And I'll take it to the limit
One more time.*
Randy Meisner, Donn Henley, and Glen Frey
The motorcycle was a beat up vintage BMW circa 2003; but when he swung his leg over it, the saddle was comfortable, and when he started the motor, it purred with the sleekness of a pampered pet. He let the engine turn over, revving the rpm's as he got the feel of the choke, clutch, accelerator and brakes. He had donned the night mission one-piece black coverall before climbing aboard. Now he slipped on the black long-necked balaclava and pulled his helmet over it. As he accelerated away, he dropped the clear plastic shield over his face.
The bike leaped in response to his touch and the 90 HP motor felt equal to the advertised 120 MPH top speed for this model. Alex had chosen well.
He geared down until he had cleared the central section of Guayaquil, then gradually let the motorcycle go as autos and people became scarcer.
Nearing the dock area, he wound his way through a circuitous route until he had bypassed the tenanted buildings and working piers. When he reached the deserted area that Arroyo del Rio had described, he immediately recognized the building where Lois was being kept. As he approached it, he hit the choke lever with his left thumb, bouncing on it several times, causing the motor to cough and sputter. He continued this until he was almost beyond the next building. Then he pushed hard on the lever; the bike gave one great cough and stopped. If anyone was guarding Lois, they would think that a biker had gone on past and then had a choke-out.
Pushing the now dead motorcycle around the far side of the last building, Jack peered at his target, but saw no activity. There was no moon; all the streetlights in this area had been broken out long ago and never replaced. It was relatively easy for him to remain in darkness as he trundled the bike to the side of the grey stone building where he hoped to find Lois Lane…alive.
Turning the bike to face the road, he pulled it up on its center stand so that when he brought Lois out, he could put her aboard and then climb on himself without having to worry about balancing the machine. If they needed to hurry, he would be able to ride off the stand and into the street quickly.
He removed his helmet and set it on the seat. Taking a bottle of water and a light stick from the saddlebag, he attached them to his belt. The stick was the convertible kind that would supply a powerful focused beam or could be opened up to shed 360-degree lantern illumination. He checked to be sure that he had the G 26 Glock 9 MM subcompact in the holster on the inside of his left ankle and strapped the sheath encasing his Special Forces knife low on his right thigh. Patting the left cargo pocket of his coverall, he verified that the pistol silencer was there. Finally he stretched the band of his night goggles over his balaclava and adjusted them against his face. Then, easing around the corner of the building, after checking for signs of another presence, he swiftly and silently mounted the stairs and entered the front door.
The building was dark and relatively cool in the entryway. To his right was a staircase that went to a landing and proceeded upwards. The center of the structure was open all the way to the roof, a hollow surrounded by balconies marking, as best he could tell, three floors. Lois was supposed to be on the top floor.
As he stealthily made his way up, unwilling to alarm even the ghosts that might inhabit this dead place, he heard a motorcycle go by. Alex had arrived.
The higher he climbed, the more stifling the air became and he feared for Lois who had been here without water for almost two days. At the top he found a single door and pressed against it. There was no sound. That didn't mean anything. He slowly turned the knob. Locked. There could be five thugs waiting inside. He didn't want to tell them he was coming. He took out his lock pick and set to work as quietly as possible.
When Lois surfaced again, the cot was back in its shady corner, but the sun was gone and the room was dark. This time there was no soothing rain. She woke thinking about Clark, cradling and holding the thought, holding on to him. Sluggishly, she became aware of where she was.
Funny, she didn't remember pushing the cot here and leaving it like this, perpendicular to the door with the end sticking out past the right angle of the wall. Her feet would have been in the sun this way, but the thought at this point was immaterial. She wondered where her shoes were…her tank top and shorts. "Clark, have you seen my clothes?" she asked hoarsely.
<They're here, somewhere, Lois. Somewhere out there in the room. Can't you see them?>
"Somewhere…out there…under the pale no-moonlight." .She giggled soundlessly. "Sfunny Lois…funny lady." This last was almost soundless. She whispered, "Could die laughing." She tried to rally thoughts in a fragmented mind gone walkabout in all directions of the compass.
She inched her way up on the cot, her back against the corner of the rectangular ingress, peering into the room to see if she could spot her clothes. The effort was almost more than her energy could sustain. She noticed the bedspring at the foot of the cot. Where had that come from? Her shoes and clothing would be more useful. She drifted away again. Then she heard something. "Clark, did you find my clothes?"
She became aware of a faint scratching at the door and was suddenly alert. Someone was doing something around the lock! Were they coming back for her? Did they think she was dead already, or just coming to check her progress? Maybe the bedspring had use after all. She clutched it and wondered how much damage she could do to them in her weakened state. She wished she had her clothes back. Wearing only panties and a bra put her at a psychological disadvantage. <You're thinking very clearly, Lois. Amazing. Must be an adrenaline thing.> She tightened her hold on the bedspring and waited in the dark corner.
In the safari tent, Clark sat frozen on the edge of his cot, balanced on the horns of an incomprehensible dilemma — to place his grandchildren in jeopardy for years, perhaps for life by publicly flying off to save Lois, who might be dying, or to wait until he could get away quietly, taking the chance that she would remain safe until he got there.
It had been so much easier when they were young. She was everything to him, and he would have sacrificed his life, his hopes his dreams — anything — to save her. He had almost done that when he had rejected their life together because he feared she would be hurt just by being with him. She had taught him a hard lesson about the difference between protecting and controlling, including which one is a part of love and which isn't.
Several times he had helped her deliberately risk her life for what had seemed like good reasons, and he had always been able to make it come out all right. When you're young, all risks seem like opportunities.
They had their life together, but everything changed, as they grew older. Their love expanded to include Laura and Chris, who added a whole new dimension to the idea of who meant everything to him. Fortunately when the children were small, Lois had been more circumspect in her adventures, and he had never had to make a choice between exposing his family to the criminal element or letting Lois die.
Now Laura and Chris were adults and they could figure out for themselves how to deal with their alter egos becoming a hot topic for Hard Copy. But Lee's and Carla's lives, which had hardly begun, would be ruined, No one knew how this might affect their development. They would become targets for every criminal in the world who would try to kidnap them or, perhaps, kill them. What if Laura had to take them away and create new identities for her entire family to prevent them from being harmed? What if he and Lois were never able to see them again? How could he make this decision?
He tried to make contact but there was nothing. Why was he so far away from her! Was she still holding on? She must be…had to be… He would know if her spirit was no longer on the planet. Lois could be unbelievably stubborn. She would never give in easily. <Lois, are you there?>
She said, "Clark, have you seen my clothes?"
<What? Why was she talking about clothes? Was everything okay now? She sounded weak but not like she was dying.>
"Have you seen my clothes?"
<They must be out there somewhere,> he answered. <Can't you see them?> Was she giggling and singing? This didn't sound as imminently dangerous as he had feared. Suddenly he felt apprehension and fear overtake her. <Lois?> She was angry and anticipating danger. He abruptly got to his feet.
"Clark, is something wrong?" his tent mate, Winston, called sleepily.
"I thought I heard something," said Clark as he headed to the tent door opening. But just as suddenly as he had felt her fear spike, it disappeared, and in its place a kind of pleasurable joy, as though she'd just found the biggest, most delicious piece of chocolate in the world.
The tumblers of the lock clicked into place one by one and Jack slowly turned the knob and pushed. The door moved slightly and cracked open with only a small sound. Returning the lock pick to his pocket, he reached down and pulled the Glock from its holster on his ankle. He removed the silencer from his left pocket and screwed it onto the weapon. With his left hand he began to push the door carefully until it was just wide enough for him to slide through to the right and drop to a crouch. There was nothing to his immediate right except a square corner.
Looking through his night goggles, he studied the room carefully, watching for signs of anyone who might be waiting in the dark. He saw no evidence that anyone was there. That left only the space to his left, which he couldn't see because it was behind the door.
He pushed hard against the door with his left hand to disable anyone who might be hiding behind it, while at the same time he jumped out into the room facing the blind spot, gun at the ready.
He saw a figure on a cot sitting huddled in a corner. He called out, "Lois?"
The figure stiffened a raised an arm that seemed to have some kind of extension attached to it.
"Lois, it's all right. Look." He took the light stick and opened it into a lantern. Flipping on the switch, he set it on the floor. The sudden glare of light made both of them blink.
When Jack removed his night goggles, what he saw made his hand clench the grip of his gun with rage as he mentally cursed Francisco Arroyo del Rio. A disheveled apparition clad only in panties and bra — frail from dehydration, lips cracked and bleeding, skin reddened and swollen by sun and heat — faced him emitting waves of anger, aggression and defiance. She had bruises everywhere and dried blood-caked scratches on her shoulders, arms and legs.
"Lois?" he said again. "Are you all right?"
She planted her back firmly against the corner and waived her arm threateningly. She was holding what looked like a bedspring, but she was ready to use it as a weapon. Her eyes were huge in her gaunt, reddened face.
"Lois," he repeated. "It's okay. You're safe."
She continued to look at him and cocked the bedspring, preparing to hit him if he came close. Then Jack realized that he was still wearing his head covering. She had no way of knowing that he wasn't one of her captors. In fact, holding a gun and dressed all in black, he probably resembled her idea of what her kidnappers would look like.
Temporarily sticking the weapon in his belt, he quickly pulled off his headgear and said, "Lois, it's all right. It's me, Jack. I've come to take you out of here."
"Jack?" she croaked. "What are you doing here? How did you find me? How do I know you're not one of them? Look at you."
"Details are for later. Is it enough that I have water? I'm coming close; don't hit me."
He moved in as he spoke, but the magic word 'water' gave him safe passage as she dropped the bedspring and clutched at the bottle he held out. He wouldn't relinquish it, but grasped her around the shoulders and held it to her lips saying, "Slowly; not too much at first. You'll just throw it all back up."
She tried to do what he said, but she wanted to pour it down her throat and wallow in it. He wouldn't let her and she started to struggle, trying to grab the bottle away from him.
"NO!" he said loudly, forcing her to listen. "You have to drink slowly. Here, take a few more sips." Then he removed the bottle from her lips and gently sprayed water all over her face. "Mmmmm," she moaned, "feels good. 'Nother drink!" she demanded. He complied but only let her have two swallows.
He was still holding her, and she felt almost boneless in his arms. "We need to get you dressed and away from here. Where are your clothes?"
"Don't know. Somewhere out there." She gestured with her arm and giggled inexplicably. "Clark was looking for them. Maybe under cot." She tried to look knowing and helpful.
He found the shoes and socks underneath but nothing else. "What were you wearing?" She mumbled briefly, "Tank, shortstop," and giggled again. "Water?" she asked.
He let her hold the bottle this time, but jerked it away after three swallows. Even if he found them, a tank top and shorts would not be adequate protection on the motorcycle. He had to put her in something that would cover her. He took off the black coverall he was wearing and began to slip it on her legs. She had dropped off again and didn't fight him. As he was attempting to zip the garment, she came to and began pushing and slapping at his hands, yelling, "No way; cut it out." He backed off until she recognized the situation. She finished the zipping and said sheepishly, "Sorry."
Smiling he said, "Can you put on your shoes and socks? I need you to walk down the stairs if you can. I'll carry you out if I have to, but if you can help…?"
"We're going out?" She seemed to find it hard to grasp that she was actually going to get out of that room.
"Yes. I'm taking you back to your hotel where you can lie in a tub of water and drink iced liquids until you burst. Wanta go, or would you rather stay here and wait for your kidnappers?"
Slipping on her shoes and rolling up the legs of the coverall, she gave him a disgusted look and said, as she slowly and carefully made the bows and knots to tie her shoes," Just show me…way outta here. I wanna be…fighting trim when…see…guys 'gain." She was out the door and on her way downstairs as she said the last words.
She managed to get almost all the way to bottom on her anger, but midway down the last flight of stairs, she sagged to the step. Jack picked her up and carried her to the motorcycle, even though she continued to protest that she could walk.
As he placed her astride the passenger seat in the back, Alex appeared out of the night. Lois cried out and flinched at the masked dark figure. Jack said, "It's okay, Lois. He's with me," as he helped her drink from the water bottle again.
Alex bowed slightly, removed his balaclava and said, "It is I, Hector, Mrs. Kent. I apologize for frightening you." He turned to Jack and said, "You were a long time; I was beginning to worry. We need to get out of here before we push our luck too far. What can *Hector* do now?" The slight emphasis on the word reminded Jack that he needed to think of his friend as an innocent civilian.
"Just cover our rear, Hector. And help me figure out how we can tie Lois on this motorcycle some way. Her condition is pretty bad. She's very weak and incoherent. She keeps dropping into semi-consciousness."
"I'm in perfect condition, thank you," mumbled Lois. "Don't need help staying on some silly old motorcycle." She straightened her body and flung out an arm, gesturing at the bike, and almost fell off as she temporarily drifted off again. Jack caught her as he said, "See what I mean?"
Alex nodded and reached into the saddlebag. "You asked for civilian extrusion gear — that includes a climbing harness."
They strapped Lois into the harness, then, after Jack was aboard the bike, tied the safety belt around him. Alex pulled Lois up against Jack's back so that while she might rock around, she wouldn't fall off. Then he slipped a helmet over her head and fastened the chinstrap.
"Her hotel?" asked Jack.
Alex told him how to get there, and Jack and Lois roared away with Alex in pursuit.
*Longer than there've been fishes in the ocean,
Higher than any bird ever flew,
Longer than there've been stars up in the heavens
I've been in love with you.*
*Stronger than any mountain cathedral,
Truer than any tree ever grew,
Deeper than any forest primeval,
I am in love with you.*
*I'll bring fire in the winters;
You'll send showers in the springs.
We'll fly through the falls and summers
With love on our wings.*
*Through the years as the fire starts to mellow,
Burning lines in the book of our lives,
Though the binding cracks, and the pages start to yellow
I'll be in love with you.*
When they reached Lois's hotel, it was almost ten o'clock, Saturday night. There was still much to be done to ensure that she was safe, beginning with having a doctor examine her to determine what needed to be done for her immediate recovery.
On the way to the hotel, Alex, using his personal communicator, had contacted the head of his network, setting in motion the summoning of a well-respected physician who could be trusted not to report anything to the police. It was not yet time to bring in civil authorities. After instructing the guards to keep Arroyo del Rio under close watch, he let Maria know that Lois was safe, and would probably want to have her around to help with her recovery.
By the time Jack and Alex had Lois in her suite, the doctor was there to examine her and Maria was there to provide comfort. Lois herself was much calmer but still drifted in and out of awareness.
The doctor pronounced that, in spite of the bruise on her forehead, she did not appear to be concussed, but that she was dehydrated and close to heat stroke. He indicated that they could avoid sending her to the hospital if they put her in a tub of cool water to lower her body temperature and helped her to drink the electrolyte balancing liquids he provided. He also left antiseptics for her scrapes and scratches. Once she was out of the tub, she would probably want to sleep, and he left a spray that would stop the pain from her sunburn for a few hours to allow her to rest. But he insisted that she be wakened frequently to check her awareness and to drink more liquids. He left predicting that she should be recovered in 24 hours.
After he had felt her fear and anger spike then drop away at about 3:30 in the morning, he was certain that Lois was out of danger. Clark kept reaching out to her and noted that she continued to be calm and relaxed rather than anxious. For the rest of the night he kept checking her vital signs and touching her life force with his mind. She would exhibit occasional surges of agitation, and then resume a stable tranquility.
When he returned his group to Kinshasa in the morning, he would set up the talks that would cement Zaire's return to its pledge of environmental cooperation, turn everything over to Winston and speed away to Ecuador.
JANUARY 22, 2033
Leaving Maria to handle the therapy, Jack and Alex went out into the hall, where Jack informed his friend that he was going to visit Arroyo del Rio again.
"Jack?" questioned Alex. "You're not going to…"
"Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt him. Going to prison will be a much worse punishment. But I think this guy is too small a fish to have concocted this scheme, and too cowardly to have deliberately planned to kill Lois. I think someone else is behind the whole thing, and I'm going to follow up until I find out who."
"Do you need me?" asked Alex.
"No, you need to continue your cover here and let the authorities in on what's happened when the time comes. I think your paramount task is getting the money back…and," nodding toward the suite, "handling that young lady helping Lois."
Alex sighed. "Yes, I do have to explain some things to her." He thought for a minute. "Maybe it's time I left the company and became just a regular citizen. What do you think, Jack? Can a danger junky like me live a normal life?"
Jack laughed. "If your life includes Maria, I doubt very seriously if you'll ever be able to call it 'normal'." Then he said soberly, "It all depends on what you want, and how badly you want it. You can only try."
Alex nodded in somber agreement. Then asked, "Have you found what you want with your wife, Jack?"
"I've found what I want. It's keeping it that's hard. I'm still working on that." He looked away for a moment, then said, "My wife and her brother, Chris, will probably show up here in the next few hours. Tell Chris that I need him to meet me in Quito. I have a hunch that Arroyo del Rio's office has a surveillance camera that may show us who the mastermind is in all this."
"What about your wife?'
"Tell Laura I'll see her back in Metropolis. I'm going to try to wrap this whole thing up in the next 48 hours."
"I'll tell her. Good luck, Jack," Alex replied and watched as Jack headed down the stairs. Then, shifting personas, he went back into the suite and became Hector again.
Inside the suite, Maria tended to Lois, keeping her in a cool tub of water while supplying her with the cold drinks that the doctor had left. Lois drank them eagerly until she wasn't thirsty any more, all the while telling Maria about her ordeal, at first, in a rather incoherent manner, and then, as her temperature receded and her body gained liquids, in a more Lois-like, babbling but lucid, fashion.
"I can't believe I'm really out of that place; this bath is heaven and that drink, whatever it is, the doctor left is like the best thing I've ever tasted; and Jack! How did he get into this? Who knew he could do search and rescue? He hasn't exactly been in the family's good graces lately, but I should have known Laura wouldn't fall in love with just any guy even if he didn't come across the way we'd hoped; o-o-o-h, I could stay in this lovely cool water forever, but I think I'm starting to get pruney."
After about an hour, Lois washed her hair and soaped all over to rid herself of the remnants of dust and sweat from the warehouse, and rose from the now tepid water, saying, "Maria, there's a lightweight nightgown in the bureau by the bed. Could you get it? I'm beginning to feel pretty tired. I should probably get out of here and try to get some sleep."
She toweled herself carefully, wincing at her sunburn, scratches and bruises. She allowed Maria to apply antiseptic where it was needed, and welcomed the anesthetic spray that deadened the pain from her tender skin because she really wanted to get some normal sleep. After creaming a soothing emollient to her reddened face, she donned the clean nightgown and went to lie down on the bed.
At about 1:00 a.m. a sonic boom disturbed the air outside as Maria settled Lois with just a light covering and turned toward Hector, who was sitting on the couch. Maria sat beside him and they watched while Lois dropped into sleep.
"Okay, Hector. What's this all about?"
Maria's angry and questioning eyes did not seem too receptive to the explanation Hector needed to make, and he was mentally making his way through a minefield of approaches, when he heard a knock at the door and saw a young man enter the room.
Although they had never met officially, Hector recognized Chris from having seen him around Metropolis and with his parents at Gates Tower. Chris barely acknowledged Hector's and Maria's presence in the room. He was only interested in his mother.
He saw a sleeping woman lying covered — except for her arms, shoulders and head — by a light sheet. Her face, red and swollen from exposure to the sun, showed a dark bruise on her forehead. There were blue shadows under her eyes, and her arms were covered with bruises and scratches. The sight filled him with anger for whoever had done this to her, but he kept it leashed. He was Superman's son and he had learned early how to control his emotions when he needed to. He knelt down beside her and took her hand. She was breathing softly and evenly and her skin felt cool. Leaning over, he kissed her forehead, rose and turned to the two others in the room.
"I'm Christopher Kent. I'm guessing you're Hector Guzman and Maria Escobar. What happened to my mother?"
Maria opened her mouth to reply, but Hector took charge. "She was kidnapped and an attempt was made to kill her. Jack rescued her."
Maria interceded. "Jack and Hector," she corrected calmly. Hector looked at her in surprise. There was no sarcasm or petulance in her voice, just an air of righteousness.
"Jack was able to pull it off then. He left a message on my vox- com for me not to worry, that he would take care of things down here. Thank god he followed through. How is she?" Chris enquired anxiously.
"She's suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration — came very close to heat stroke — but Jack got to her in time."
"Jack and Hector," Maria corrected again. Hector was puzzled by her insistence on including him. "Mostly Jack. I just helped out a little." He heard Maria make a harrumphing sound, but she said nothing.
"Will she be all right?" Chris pursued.
Now Maria took over. "Yes, Hector and Jack brought her back here and a doctor has seen her. We lowered her body temperature and now she just needs to be monitored to be sure it stays down while she rests and drinks liquids. She should be back to normal in a few hours."
Hector noticed that he had now taken precedence over Jack as the rescuer. Perhaps explaining was going to be easier than he had thought. But that was for later.
"So you both saved her? How did either of you know what to do? I know Jack is involved in some pretty complicated and dangerous stuff. Are you a part of that too?"
Hector had enough trouble trying to explain to Maria. He didn't need to include Chris. And he had a message to give to him.
"You should really ask Jack about that. He's gone to interrogate the man who apparently ordered this crime. He thinks there's someone else behind it. There are things I have to take care of here so he needs your help. He asked me to tell you to meet him in Quito, but he hasn't had time to leave town yet. You can probably find him at CHILD headquarters a few blocks from here."
Chris nodded. "My sister should be here before too long. If you're sure my mother is all right…?"
"Don't worry," said Maria. "We'll take care of her."
"My dad's probably on the way too, so I think it'll be okay for me to go help Jack. All of us will want to find who's responsible for this."
After getting directions to the CHILD office and taking a last look at his mother, Chris left the room and hurried downstairs.
Once again, Maria turned toward Hector. "Okay, Hector, I'm waiting. Or should I call you Alex now?"
"No!" Hector spoke with hurried alarm. "That's a name I use only under certain circumstances and never publicly. You should never call me that."
"I guess you prefer Hecky then."
He winced at the name and groaned inwardly. This woman was going to give him a lot of trouble. "If you have to call me Hecky, do me a favor, please, and only call me that when we're alone?"
She looked at him speculatively, considering the different ramifications of what that remark might mean, and finally said meekly, "All right, Hector. Whatever you say."
Her docile acquiescence caught him by surprise. Maybe she wasn't going to be so much trouble after all, but even if she was, he thought she would be worth it. He would find out soon enough. As he opened his mouth to begin his explanation, the phone rang.
With an apologetic shrug to Maria, Hector answered it and found himself talking to an upset and alarmed Clark, who said that he had received a message from Jack about Lois's kidnapping.
"She's okay now, Clark. Jack rescued her, and Maria and I are looking out for her while she's recovering. She just needs to rest."
"Jack and you rescued her," Maria mumbled in the background. Hector gave her a look that said, 'Quiet'.
"How did Jack get involved with this? I don't understand."
Hector tried to explain without revealing too much. "Jack was at the Daily Planet when Maria called to tell Chris about the kidnapping. Chris and Laura were unavailable and he came down here to help out."
"And you're positive she's all right?"
"Yes, Clark. Everything is under control. Also, Chris was here. He's gone to help Jack catch up with whoever did this, but before he left he told us that Laura should be here soon."
"She's on her way," said Clark, "and I'll be there before too long. But I still don't understand about Jack."
"We'll get together for explanations after you're here. It's too complicated over the phone." Explanations seemed to be an inescapable part of Hector's immediate future.
I'm counting on you to take care of Lois, Hector," Clark concluded firmly.
"I will." Hector spoke with firm resolution. "See you soon."
At first light Clark's group had been airborne and heading for the capitol city. As they traveled, the com operator contacted their base, and Clark had learned for the first time, from Jack's waiting message, that Lois had been kidnapped.
Arriving at his hotel overwhelmed with fear and guilt, he immediately put though a call to the CHILD office in Guayaquil. Even though it was the middle of the night there, he was certain that, if there were an emergency, there would be someone around to answer the phone.
After completing several calls, he arranged for a conference room at the Kinshasa hotel where they were staying and explained to Winston and Matilda Thacker that he had to leave because of a family emergency. His assistant quickly made a reservation for him on the earliest flight to Metropolis — 11:00 a.m. — thus forcing him to stay an additional hour, which he spent bringing the delegations together and setting them to their task.
Finally he was able to elude well-meaning friends and was quickly on his way to Ecuador where it was 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning.
JANUARY 23, 2033
Another sonic boom sounded outside as Hector hung up the phone. He turned and saw Maria regarding him with annoyance. "Why do you keep on ignoring your part in rescuing Lois? You're a hero, Hector. Don't you want people to know it?"
"It would be better if they didn't. And it would be better if you stopped pushing my name into it."
"That's part of the explanation."
"Well get on with it, then."
Once again, Hector opened his mouth to speak, and, once, again, there was an interruption. A knock at the door announced the arrival of Laura. She entered and went immediately to her mother. Examining Lois carefully, Laura looked at the bruise on her forehead, checked her pulse, and gauged her temperature. She looked at Hector and Maria. "Has a doctor examined her?'
Hector nodded yes as he rose by the couch. Maria stood beside him. Laura approached them, saying, "Tell me what he said."
This time it was Maria who jumped in first. "I assume you're Lois's daughter, Laura. I'm Maria Escobar, CHILD representative in Ecuador. Lois is suffering from heat exhaustion and was very close to heat stroke. The doctor says that if we keep her temperature down and give her liquids she should recover after a few hours rest. Thanks to…" She hesitated only slightly, then went on, "your husband who rescued her just in time."
Laura looked at her in surprise. "Jack saved her?" She looked around the room. "Where is he?"
Hector answered. "He and your brother have gone to find out who was responsible for putting Lois in this condition. Jack asked me to tell you that he would see you back in Metropolis. I'm Hector Guzman, by the way, one of Clark's assistants at WERC."
Laura mumbled a polite "nice to meet you", but her elated mind was dancing with the thoughts that Jack had saved her mother, that Jack was somehow a hero and that he would be back to see her in Metropolis. A warm glow starting in her heart erupted throughout her body. Her mind hugged the thought: Jack — her Jack — had saved her mother and was coming home!
Lois stirred, moving her head back and forth restlessly, murmured, "Clark?" and settled again.
Laura came back to the present, saying, "Thank you for looking after her, but I can take over now. My Dad should be here pretty soon to help, and he'll have a million questions. Why don't you two go home and get some rest, and we'll talk later this afternoon."
Hector and Maria gratefully agreed to her request. Maria admonished that Lois should be given more liquids in another couple of hours, and she and Hector went into the hallway.
Once outside, Maria said, "If I didn't know better, I'd accuse you of planning these interruptions so you wouldn't have to tell me anything."
"Oh, I'm going to tell you. Can you cook? Make me breakfast at your apartment and I'll tell you everything."
"Of course, I can cook," she retorted, "and I'll serve you this time, but I expect you to return the favor next time."
<So, she's expecting a next time. I wonder if she means another breakfast? At *my* apartment, next time? Things are looking up,> thought Hector.
As they went down the hall to the elevator, there was another sonic boom outside. As they stepped over the threshold, Maria said, "I didn't know they allowed the air force to do fly-bys this close to the metropolitan area."
Seconds after the elevator door closed, the emergency stairs door opened and Clark stepped into the hallway. He strode purposefully to the door of Lois's suite, opened it without knocking and went in.
It was almost 5:30 on Sunday morning and Lois was still sleeping soundly. Hurrying across the room, Clark was only peripherally aware that Laura was there also. He moved quickly to the side of the bed and dropped to his knees, putting his arm across his sleeping wife. The fear in his eyes became relief as he realized that she was breathing regularly and sleeping peacefully. Then he took in her swollen face, bruises and scratches and his eyes became angry. It was probably very fortunate for Francisco Arroyo del Rio, at that moment, that Clark did not know who he was or where he could be found.
Lois stirred again, turning and reaching out toward him, as she murmured, "Clark, is that you?"
He almost couldn't bear it. "Yes, honey," he said, taking her hand. "It's me. I'm here now." He felt Laura moving to stand behind him and looked up at her, pain in his eyes.
"She's fine, Dad, thanks to Jack. I'm going to leave you two alone and go check into a room. After we've all had some sleep, we'll talk with Hector and Maria this afternoon about what happened."
"Yes, I want to hear all about that. And how Jack got into this," Clark responded.
Laura nodded agreeing, "So do I, Dad," and continued. "She's safe, now. The hows and wherefores can wait for a little while. The doctor who examined her left some liquid replacement for her to drink. It's in the fridge. See you later."
He nodded gratefully, and when she had left, he removed his outer clothing and crawled in beside Lois, holding her in his arms.
As he lay there berating himself for not getting to her as soon as he knew she was in trouble, he vacillated between his own guilt and his exasperation with her for going off without him. What did he have to do to keep her from putting herself in danger like this? <But you're the one who left, who told her to come down here without you. Don't forget that. It isn't completely her fault.>
True. And she had pulled back when Laura and Chris were born, but as the children had grown older, she had returned to her freewheeling ways. Then when the two of them had retired from the Planet and were no longer in the public spotlight, neither of them seemed to be a target anymore.
They had both grown complacent. But she knew how he felt about her taking chances. It didn't seem to matter. She ignored him just as she ignored his warnings about Marshall Stewart. Well, it had to stop! Only, how did you stop Lois from doing something she'd made up her mind to do? They had to talk about this when she was feeling better.
He sighed. Loving this beautiful, independent woman was a challenge, but, this time, he would prevail, and she would have to compromise because they were getting too old to take these chances anymore. He never again wanted to feel the way he had when he was afraid she might die before he could reach her.
About 7:30, Lois began to wake, feeling warm and thirsty. As she became aware of her surroundings, she realized someone was holding her. She pushed and kicked frantically against whoever it was and opened her eyes expecting to see the warehouse. Instead she saw Clark holding his arms away from her so that she was no longer confined and whispering, "Honey. Honey, it's all right. It's me."
"Clark, is it really you? This isn't another one of those awful dreams I had when I was locked up?" She reached out and touched him. "It is you," and she launched herself back into this arms, holding him tight, not wanting to let go.
He murmured soothing words that sounded like, "You're okay. I love you. You're safe now. I'll never let this happen again. I love you. Don't ever scare me like that again. I love you." He was scattering soft, gentle kisses across her face and on her neck and she was trying to return them as best she could with her injured lips.
Then she stopped and pulled away. "Sweetheart, ordinarily nothing could interest me more than what we're doing right now, but I really need to get out from under this warm sheet and drink something cold."
In one motion, he swept away the covering and grabbed a glass off the nightstand. He went over to the wet bar, retrieved the liquid replacement from the refrigerator, poured some into the glass and returned to the bed carrying both glass and jug. It was then that he saw the bruises and scratches on her legs.
<Stay calm,> he told himself. <You can't possibly get her to see your point of view if you get mad because she'll get mad and you'll end up fighting. So just stay calm.> He handed her the glass.
She took it and drank thirstily. When she finished she looked up at him and smiled, saying, "Thanks. I really needed that. You know, I don't think I'll ever take water or air-conditioning for granted again. "
And then she hit him with what her lips could manage of that mega-watt smile! When he saw her pain, he clutched the container he held so hard he almost broke it. "More?" he was finally able to ask.
"I think so. Yes, please." He refilled the glass and watched as she downed the liquid. "That's better," she said, placing the glass on the nightstand and holding out her hand to him. "Come back to bed; I need your arms around me again."
"Right with you," he said in a strained voice as he returned the jug to the refrigerator and hopped in beside her almost as quickly as he said the words. She came into his arms and he kissed her forehead briefly, gently, holding her carefully so he wouldn't inflict pain to her damaged body.
They were both silent for a moment, just holding each other, and then he said, "Honey, I'm sorry," in a voice heavy with disconsolate regret.
She quickly took in the miserable look on his face and reacted with a surprised, "Why?"
"Because I didn't just drop everything and come to you when I found out something was wrong. You might have died while I was trying to decide how bad your situation was."
"But I'm all right. Jack came to the rescue, although I still don't understand how he got involved, or how he knows how to do all that covert stuff."
"I'm very curious about that too, but it's unimportant right now. We got lucky, Lois. We can't always count on Jack being around. I thought I couldn't leave our jungle camp without revealing Superman's identity, and I was worried about the consequences for Lee and Carla. I should have been worried about you."
"No, you shouldn't! Deep down, you know that." She spoke with passionate vehemence. "Lee and Carla are our future, and, if we can believe H.G. Wells, their lives will be steppingstones to a beautiful Utopian world. We have to protect them at all costs until they can protect themselves." She stopped for a moment and then continued with calm assurance. "Honey, you can't worry about me all the time, and you can't protect just me. We've had a full, rich life together, and I'm very grateful for every minute of it. But I'll tell you now, even though you should have known it, if you have to choose between them or me, then I want you to choose them."
"Lois, how can I deliberately — "
She broke in firmly. "Clark, you have to. Our life together would be meaningless, damaged beyond repair if we bought it with their lives."
He looked at her his mind slowly acknowledging the truth of her words. She gazed back, and their eyes verified an agreement that they both understood must be.
The silence between them extended as he reaffirmed to himself that they had to make some changes in their lives. <We can't be caught half a world away from each other anymore. We have to figure out a way to be together when we're involved in what could be tricky situations. We're flexible; we can make changes in our lives; we can compromise.> Of course, they could…only every time they tried, he seemed to be the one doing most of the changing and compromising. Well, if they couldn't find a compromise, he would simply have to put his foot down.
<Oh, yeah, that's gonna work, Clark. You're really good at that.> He had, on rare occasions, not done things her way, and it had always ended with her being very angry with him for an uncomfortably long time. He would just have to reason with her <uh-huh> until she had to agree with him. He might as well start now.
They spoke simultaneously. Another moment of silence was broken by Lois saying, "Clark, we have to talk."
"Honey, I'm so glad you said that, because there are some things — "
"I think we need to make some changes in our lives."
"Huh?" He was totally surprised.
"We know it doesn't work if I'm your boss, or if you're my boss, but maybe it doesn't have to be either way. We can keep the jobs we have, but work together on suspicious problems. A lot of the things we do intersect anyway, so we could just plan to be together more. I could travel with you, you could travel with me and we could avoid being so far away from each other most of the time."
Was he hearing her correctly? She wanted to make changes, to be together more? She wanted what he wanted without his having to persuade her to it? If this was a dream, he didn't want to wake up.
"Sweetheart," she continued, "I know we'll have to compromise a lot and delegate, but we can do that. We're both doing important work, we just need to do it together more." She was turning on her persuasive mode full force, placing one hand on his chest and caressing his check and shoulder with the other. He was loving it. "I can help you with some of those grumpy old presidents and premiers because I can be very ingratiating if I need to be. And you maybe can help me soothe some of the macho beasts I run into."
"Yes, I like it when you're ingratiating."
She gave him an exasperated look. "I'm serious about this." She paused for a moment, and continued in a low voice. "I was really scared this time, Clark. What scared me the most was that I might die without saying goodbye to you and telling you, one last time, how much I love you. I don't know if it was real or part of my hallucinating, but I heard you tell me to wait for you, and I knew I would endure hell to see you and touch you one more time. I don't want to be afraid like that again."
"I'll never let us be in that kind of situation again, I promise," he said. "I don't care how mad we are at each other, I won't go away, and I won't let you go either."
She framed his face with her hands and kissed him lovingly. "I don't want to be mad at you anymore," she said.
"Me either," he answered, "but you know we'll disagree, and sometimes we just seem to let go at each other. I know I always regret it, and I think you do too. But maybe it just goes with the territory. When two people are as passionate about life and each other as we are, I guess we have to learn to handle the good and the bad."
"At least now we seem to know what's going on when it happens." She paused for a moment and continued, "But I don't want you running away from me, and I don't want to run away from you so we're just going to have to stick around and work things out."
"And compromise?" he asked.
"And compromise," she agreed.
"Lois," he said softly, "you had lunch with Marshall Stewart when you knew I wanted you to stay away from him."
Tilting her head back and looking into his eyes, she said without rancor, "Yes. And you should have trusted me to handle it. I bought you a present and dumped him. I wanted to tell you as soon as I got back to the office, but you were gone. I wanted to tell you that you were right about him all along. I wanted to tell you how much I love you, and that, no matter how stubborn I sometimes am, that isn't going to change. Ever."
"You bought me a present?"
"Yes, and I'll tell you all about it, but I don't want to talk about that right now. I don't want to talk about anything now." She stroked his face with one hand saying softly and tenderly, "I want us to make love now."
"Honey, are you sure you're strong enough?"
She chuckled, saying, "If it's not being irreverent, I think I'll want you to make love with me on my death bed. Being together makes us stronger. Remember? It's not my strength that's a problem. It's the fact that my lips hurt and my sunburn is just barely not hurting. I don't think I could be as enthusiastic about it as I'd like to be. But Clark, I want to feel that I'm alive and that you're here with me and a part of me. I want you to know how much I love you."
"I know. And there'll be plenty of time for you to show me, in your own special way, when you're better."
She laughed lightly, yawned and snuggled into his arms, saying drowsily, "Then I think I'll sleep for a little while now. We have a lot to talk about, but it can wait till later. Don't go 'way."
He brushed his lips lightly across the bruise on her forehead and said so softly she could barely hear as she drifted away, "Don't worry, honey; I'm here, and I'll always be with you." He wanted her to know what was in his heart, but he didn't quite know how to say it. He struggled to find the words. "We're a part of each other. Wherever you are, I am; wherever I am, you are…and nothing can ever change that." He looked down at her red and swollen face, smiling faintly. "I love you always and forever."
She was asleep. He held her, his heartbeat adjusting to hers as his body attuned to her rhythm. His soul aligned itself, docking and attaching to hers. His last waking thought was <No one can come between us and nothing — not distance, not time — will ever break the bond we share.>
*Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel,
Never ending or beginning, on an ever-spinning reel,
Like a snowball down a mountain or a carnival balloon.
Like a carousel that's turning running rings around the moon.
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes of its face,
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space,
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind.*
*Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own,
Down a hollow to a cavern where the sun has never shone,
Like a door that keeps revolving in a half forgotten dream,
Or the ripples from a pebble someone tosses in a stream.
Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel,
Never ending or beginning on an ever-spinning reel,
As the images unwind like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind. *
Marilyn and Alan Bergman
Jack was just completing his questioning of Francisco Arroyo del Rio when Chris walked into the CHILD office. The frightened Ecuadorian was pleading with Jack, "Please Se¤or, I have helped you. Help me avoid prison. I would not survive there. I will do anything you ask, but I'm begging you, save me from that horrible place!"
Jack was not sympathetic. "You didn't care about what 'horrible place' you condemned Lois Lane to, did you? I really don't care what happens to you." He stopped for a moment, saw Chris, and continued, "This is Lois Lane's son. Maybe we should let him decide how you should pay for what you've done."
"Please believe me, Se¤ores, I did not want to kill Mrs. Kent. He forced me into it. If you give me a chance, I can atone."
"You mean this Edward Hyde forced you to carry out his orders?" asked Jack.
"Yes, yes! The proof is in my office in Quito."
"So you've told me. We'll check it out. If there is proof of that, and a visual of your meeting with Hyde, and we can identify and take him, there might be a way for you avoid prosecution. But you will have to return the money you stole. Hector Guzman, the man who was with me before, will be talking with you and with government officials. The more cooperation you give them, the better your chances. But first, we verify your story about being coerced." He turned his back on Arroyo del Rio and said, "Let's go, Chris. We have a lot of ground to cover."
Chris flew the two of them to Quito with Jack explaining on the way that Arroyo del Rio's office had a surveillance camera which had monitored the meeting in which a man named Edward Hyde had enlisted the banker in a scheme against Lois and Clark. Hyde was a shadowy figure apparently unknown to everyone concerned. If there was a record of his visit, Jack hoped to be able to use it to find him and take him into custody.
No one was around Arroyo del Rio's office building on a Sunday afternoon. They entered using the alphanumeric code supplied by Francisco to circumvent the outmoded security system.
Opening the executive office door, Chris went in first, quickly finding and turning off the camera so there would be no evidence of their presence. Uncovering the safe Arroyo del Rio had described as hidden in the bookcase, they opened it with the combination he had given them.
Inside the safe they found two postage stamp sized pieces of opaque plastic — electronic storage files. Placing one of them in the playback slot of a nearby computer, they stood back to watch the monitor.
There was no picture, but there was sound. It was an audio copy of the call Francisco had made to Hyde after 'Mrs. Kent's' visit to the bank office — proof that Hyde was the instigator of the plan to kill Lois.
"Looks like Francisco gets a break on this one," said Jack. "Let's see if the other plaston is really a video."
They replaced one plaston with the other and watched as the meeting between Arroyo del Rio and Edward Hyde played out on the screen in front of them.
Chris was fascinated. "Wow! That guy is some piece of work. But who is he? He looks a little familiar, but I can't place him."
"That's because he's wearing a disguise," Jack said evenly, "but he was so sure of himself that he didn't bother to make it a very good one."
"You recognize him then?"
"Oh, yeah, I recognize him. He's a renegade CIA officer who's apparently committed I don't know how many crimes."
"CIA?" questioned Chris.
"That's right, Chris. My former employer, the Central Intelligence Agency. When we leave the Company we're never supposed to talk to anyone about our involvement there, but I think I have to tell some people about me now, starting with you."
"You knew this guy there? Does this have something to do with what you've been doing since you stopped working for them? I don't understand."
"You will. But for right now we have to take these transcriptions to Langley, Virginia, and I have to talk with some old friends at CIA headquarters."
As they were en route, Jack realized how handy it could be to have a brother-in-law who could move about the world so quickly and secretly. Chris was smart, ethical and had very useful special powers. He could make a very good intelligence officer — except that his freckles, auburn hair and green eyes would make it tough for him to disappear in a crowd and would require a lot of disguising for covert operations. The newspaper business was probably the best place for him. <Anyway, Jack, you're not planning on staying in the spy business.>
WASHINGTON, D.C. AND ENVIRONS
They landed behind a hangar at Dulles airport in D.C. and made their way to a car rental agency from which they set out for Langley. The campus, as its inhabitants called it, was not open to the public, and visitors had to be on official business and accompanied by CIA employees at all times. Very few were allowed beyond the lobby.
Jack left Chris there while he obtained entry to the office of the Deputy Director of Operations who knew the identities of both Hector Guzman and Edward Hyde and with whom Alex had arranged an emergency meeting.
While he waited, Chris looked around at the details designed to impress and inspire: the large and colorful mosaic of the CIA seal set in the granite floor of the foyer, the photographs of the current U.S. President and former agency directors, the stark wall panel of unidentified, chiseled, black stars — each representing an agency officer killed in the line of duty. Ever inquisitive, Chris tried to draw the receptionist into conversation but found the man to be courteous, pleasant and tight-lipped. So he spent most of the two hours that Jack was absent sitting on a bench at the side observing the people who came into his view and speculating on their identities.
Jack finally returned with instructions that they were to drive over to Middleburg where they would be joined by FBI agents and local police.
"Is Hyde in Middleburg? And why FBI and local police? Why not CIA?" asked Chris.
Jack replied. "CIA officers have no legal jurisdiction within the United States. We need official authorities to arrest Hyde when we find him. He isn't in Middleburg, but he lives near there. We're hoping he'll be at home."
They drove through the green rolling pastures and old horse farms of the Virginia hunt country arriving in Middleburg just at dusk. They quickly assembled their team and made their way to a pre- Revolutionary War era farmhouse a few miles south and west of town, stopping just short of the place and out of sight of anyone in residence.
A low, stone wall fronted the entrance to a long drive winding past the horse barn to the front door of the old grey house, which was surrounded by various deciduous and evergreen plantings. The authorities had been ordered to allow Jack and Chris, whose standing they did not quite understand, to enter first and, if he were there, confront the man they were looking for. They placed themselves where they could observe and help if their quarry attempted to escape.
Jack and Chris ran low behind the stone wall past the drive entrance until they were behind a large magnolia tree, at which point they hopped over the wall and moved stealthily around to the back of the building. They could see a dim light shining through a window almost concealed by evergreen trees. Motioning Chris to stay put, Jack moved carefully in among the trees until he was hidden but could see in the windows. The man they sought was sitting behind a desk, writing.
Returning to Chris, Jack led him in the opposite direction to a back door that he opened with a key from his pocket. They silently traversed a hallway of polished wood until they were in front of a solid oak door. Indicating that Chris should stay behind him, Jack took a deep breath and turned the handle of the door.
Ferret was sitting at his desk writing and muttering to himself. The grey-green light of dusk filtering through the trees dimmed the room to a watery gloom. Only the luminescent circle of the desk lamp penetrated the shadows as Ferret wrote hurriedly, furiously.
He heard the door open and looked up. "So you're here at last. Come in. I've been expecting you since I heard from my people about the muck up in Ecuador." Reaching for a 9 MM Beretta automatic pistol lying on the desk, he aimed it at Jack, who was advancing into the room. "That's far enough, I think. Stop where you are."
Behind Jack, Chris stood speechless as he recognized the man who was Ferret, but when the gun appeared he whispered, "Jack, do you want me to — " Jack's loud "NO!" stopped him. "Interfere only if there's no other way."
"Jack, are you sure?"
"Yes. Stay in the hallway, Chris. This is between him and me."
Ferret smiled grimly. "A very wise choice, boy. No need to place any one else in harm's way. It's purely a family matter. You've disappointed me for the last time, Jack. The Forrest family will end its service to the Company here and now."
To distract the man, Jack pointed to the desk-top asking, "What have you been writing, Papa? It must be something very important. Is it something you want the Agency to know about?"
Henry Forrest's attention turned to the pages on his desk, and Jack edged forward, almost within arm's length.
"I've written it all out," said the older man. "It's a plan absolutely vital to our national security. We could face grave international consequences if I don't put it into operation. But of course it's too late for that now." He looked up and noticed Jack's movement. "I *will* shoot you, Jack, if you get too close. You know that don't you? I can't let you endanger the plan."
"Yes, of course, Papa. I know the plan comes ahead of anything. And we can still put it into action. The Deputy Director knows how important it is. He wants you to explain it to him."
"Ah, no, Jack. Someone else will have to put my plan in motion. It's all laid out very clearly. Even you could do it. But of course you won't be around either."
"Think for a minute, Papa." He put a hand out toward Henry, and the gun came up to aim unswervingly at his chest. Jack held completely still but continued speaking. "DD-Ops needs you to exec this operation. It's too important to leave to someone less experienced."
"It's too late, Jack. You and I have plans of our own. We'll be leaving the Company permanently in a moment. It's the only honorable thing left for us. Our family is in disgrace; everything we've done through the generations has been forgotten. You and I must pay for betraying our family destiny. It will be very quick and relatively painless — first you and then me." Taking careful aim at his son's chest, Henry began to squeeze his hand around the grip and trigger of the automatic.
Chris tensed, preparing to try to intercept the bullet if one were fired. He wondered if Jack had cut too fine a line by telling him to wait in the hallway.
"Wait, Papa!" Jack's voice was compelling. "Don't you understand why I'm here? The Deputy Director needs you. You've won. He sent me here to take you to him because he realizes he needs your counsel. There's a crisis that can't wait, and you're the only one who can help." Jack was speaking rapidly while he inched closer to the desk.
Henry hesitated, conflicting emotions playing across his face. Jack was close enough now to grab the automatic. They looked at each other across the desk, father and son in a battle of wills. The only sound was the ticking of the grandfather clock that had belonged to that Forrest who, long ago, had first entered the spy game.
Tick-tick. Tick-tick. Tick-tick…
Chris stood poised at the doorway, ready to move if he heard the mechanism of the gun begin its firing process.
Tick-tick. Tick-tick. Tick-tick…
Jack saw his father's face become still and composed. "It's too late for me, Jack. But perhaps you can carry the family banner to the glory it deserves." He looked his son full in the face, challenging him. "You must try. Make our family name a symbol of excellence in the service again! It's up to you now." And his hand began to turn the weapon toward his mouth.
Jack didn't hesitate. He leaped, grabbing the gun hand and diverting it toward the wall. The old man struggled wildly, crying, "NO! NO! DON'T STOP ME!" as the weapon discharged several times.
The father was compelled by maniacal frustration, as he fought his son for control of the gun, but the struggle was short lived. Jack clubbed the gun hand against the back of the desk chair, forcing Henry to drop it. All fight went out of him and he slumped down almost shrinking into the chair.
The sound of a 9MM Beretta discharging is harsh and loud, and it brought the men outside running. Chris, still in the hallway not interfering as Jack had requested, blocked anyone from entering the study. He had watched the painful confrontation to its conclusion, always ready to help but recognizing that Jack needed to gain control over his father and put to rest any lingering patriarchal demons that could remain to haunt him.
Jack, placing the weapon in his pocket, examined his father. The old man seemed to have removed himself from the present, sitting unaware of his surroundings and what had just transpired. Jack lifted Henry from the chair, set him on his feet and turned him toward the door. "It's time to go, Papa. We shouldn't keep the Deputy Director waiting."
As though a switch had been thrown, Henry was present again. "Yes!. I knew he would eventually change his mind. The agency can't operate during periods of crisis without consulting a Forrest. It was only a matter of time until they realized what they had lost by putting me out to pasture."
They began to move around the desk to leave the room. As he reached across to turn off the desk light, Jack saw that there were perhaps twenty pages of writing spread out. Looking closer, he saw that his father had written in careful precise script, filling each page with the same three repeated words, "Family. Honor. Duty." There was nothing else written on the paper.
As they left the room they passed the now silent clock, smashed and destroyed by the errant bullet.
Jack and Chris slowly guided the older man out the front door to the covered porch and waited for the approaching car.
When the car arrived, Jack said, "You and Chris wait here a minute, Papa. I need to be sure these officers have been given proper instructions."
Then Jack went down the steps to the other side of the waiting car where, using his personal communicator, he talked with the D D-Ops. "I think he should be taken to Bethesda Hospital, sir. He's completely lost touch with reality." Jack paused, trying to control his voice, then continued, shakily, "He's very ill, Simmons. He needs to be kept under watch and evaluated by a Company psychiatrist. De-briefing at Langley would be valueless at this point."
Jack listened as the other man spoke, and then replied, "I'm glad you agree. We'll meet you at Bethesda in about an hour."
Returning to the porch he ushered his father to the car, introduced him to the men who would be 'protecting' him and explained that he and Chris would follow in their vehicle.
Chris watched Jack maneuver their car into the space behind the van transporting Henry Forrest and said quietly, "I'm sorry about your Dad, Jack. It must've been really devastating for you when we saw that plaston file in Quito. Did you suspect him at all?"
"Yes and no. I knew he would try something, but I thought it would be more overt. I should have known that such a master spy wouldn't use a frontal approach."
"To have to arrest your own father." Chris stopped and shook his head. "That must really be tough! I know you worked for him, but you never seemed to be that close personally. Maybe that's a good thing."
Jack looked sideways at his passenger and then focused on the road ahead as he spoke in hollow, measured tones. "When Jeff and I were kids, our dad loved us and spent a lot of time with us. He, my mother and the two of us were really close. We'd laugh and joke, go on vacations and outings. We were a happy family. Jeff and I knew that our parents loved each other and us very much. Papa was a big baseball fan and he taught Jeff and me how to play the game. Back then he was a field operations officer, and when he wasn't overseas, he never missed our little league games.
"And then a terrible thing happened for my father. My grandfather was the wunderkind at the agency, and everyone expected him, with his record as DD-Ops, to be the next Director. But several things went wrong — a setback in China, a public humiliation in Iraq, a blunder in Columbia — and he was passed over, locked out and forced into early retirement. He believed that the Company he had given his life to, that his family had committed itself to for generations, had betrayed him. He became a bitter, vituperative old man who quickly enlisted my father to his way of thinking. Because of my grandfather, Henry became an entirely different person with a single agenda, a monomania to return our family to the prominence it deserved at the agency and for one of us to become Director. From that point on, everything he did, every contact he had with my brother and me, was aimed at that target.
"Jeff was the golden boy and I was the disappointment, but I never stopped trying to be what my father wanted, never stopped trying to gain his approval. Just before I met Laura, my mother died and my failure to meet Henry's expectations had touched bottom. Somehow I found the strength to walk away, and I found Laura. But then Jeff died, and you know the rest.
"I try to remember Papa as he was a long time ago, as the father I loved. I don't really know who the man is in the car ahead of us except that he's been responsible for some terrible legal, moral and ethical crimes, and he's come close to ruining my life."
Chris didn't know how to react to what he had heard. It was so foreign to the kind of family that he had grown up with. He tried to imagine how Jack might be feeling, but he knew he couldn't really know. He wondered what direction Jack would take next in his life. He hoped it would be a positive one. "What will you do now? You *are* going to try to patch things up with Laura, aren't you?"
Jack maintained that level, noncommittal tone he had adopted since he had recognized his father on the plaston playback. "I plan to try, but I don't know how successful I can be. Some of what I have to tell her may be beyond her ability to forgive."
"Hey, Jack, you just saved Mom's life! That goes a long way toward making up for anything you could have done in the past. And, besides, I know that Laura has never given up on you. She still loves you. You've got a lot going for you."
They were approaching Bethesda Hospital, and Jack concentrated for the moment on wending his way through the traffic toward the front entrance where the van they were following was just coming to a halt. He pulled in behind the vehicle and stopped. Before getting out of the car he replied to Chris, "I hope you're right, Chris, but I think I'll need a lot more help than that."
Jack went to assist his father as he entered the building, explaining that the DD-Ops was there for some medical tests and thought they could meet while he was waiting for results. They went down a hallway to a room where the Deputy Director was waiting. Several men in white coats stepped between Jack and his father, separating them. The last thing Jack saw was the puzzled look on Henry's face as the door closed between them.
JANUARY 24, 2033
*The wind is a warning
The fields turn to sand
My family will not answer me now
Damned, damned, damned I am
Loving the highwayman.*
*Don't say where this ring came from
Don't say from whose shaking hand
Don't say who lies bleeding for me
Damned, damned, damned I am
Loving the highwayman.*
*There's a hole in the ceiling
There's no pleasure in my gain
My heart is in prison
Damned, damned, damned I am
Loving the highwayman. *
Laura's kitchen, an aroma of roasting chicken rubbed with rosemary, sage and garlic permeating every corner, was bright and warm. Lee and Carla were sitting at the table coloring while Kama and Laura prepared vegetables. Laura was humming softly, under her breath, something she had not done for a long time.
Jack had called and was coming home for dinner.
Every time reason had forced her to doubt him, every time fear had told her that she had been wrong to love him, the compass of her heart had set her back on her true course. Like her father, she had fallen in love with the one person who was meant to be hers, and she would not be diverted from those feelings. And now Jack had proved himself. He had saved her mother's life. <I was right to love him.>
Tonight, after they put the children to bed, they would put aside whatever it was that had kept them apart for so long and begin their lives together again. They would have to talk through the cause of their rift, but she was certain that they could close the gap between them.
The doorbell rang and when she answered, he was standing outside looking in. She drew him inside and kissed him quickly, almost shyly, and took his hand to lead him into the kitchen. "Don't you have your key?" she asked curiously as they crossed the living room.
"I didn't want to come in without being invited," he replied.
She stopped, looking back at him in surprise. "Why do you need an invitation to come home?"
At that moment the kitchen door burst open and Lee and Carla ran to Jack, noisily demanding his notice. He lifted Carla into his arms, kissing her and hugging her a little tighter than usual. Taking Lee by the hand, he led him to the couch where he sat with Carla in his lap, patiently listening as the two children tried to tell him about their latest escapades, interrupting each other as they wove a strange, barely comprehensible story. Jack smiled his pleasure at the sound and sight of them; and Laura, after kissing the top of his head, went back into the kitchen leaving father and children to enjoy their family time.
The meal was a great success, and afterwards they dropped easily into their usual nightly routine ending with the children tucked sleepily in bed as the adults returned downstairs.
Laura was eagerly looking forward to reclaiming Jack's affectionate attentions, but he kept her at arm's length, searching her face with a serious gaze.
"There are some things I need to tell you," he said gravely.
"Can't it wait, Jack? We have so much lost time to make up for," she answered moving closer to him.
"No!" he cried urgently, backing away. "You have to listen to me now. You may not want to make up for lost time after you hear what I have to say. You have to hear me out without interrupting and then we'll go from there."
"Jack, you saved my mother's life. What better place to start is there than that?"
"Sit down and listen," he directed, tension evidenced by his posture and tone.
"All right, all right. I'm sitting and I'm listening." But she was still caught in the glow of his heroic actions and her feelings for him. Hope for reconciliation had become certainty, her heart's emotion transcending her reason and shutting off her normal sensitivity to Jack's inner tumult.
"The story I have to tell you begins in the Civil War when Allan Pinkerton recruited my great-great-great-great-grandfather to spy for the Union. Although they were South Carolinians, my family were Union sympathizers and they agreed. That began a Forrest tradition of betraying friends and living a lie to maintain a relationship with the government that has lasted until now. In every generation, a Forrest has been involved with intelligence- gathering operations. In peacetime and in war, that was our profession.
"The pay was very poor, but my predecessors' dedication was complete, and it was ingrained in all male descendants to graduate from the Citadel, marry wealth and serve in the Bureau of the Army Intelligence Corps.
"In World War Two, my great-grandfather transferred to the Office of Strategic Services and was Allen Dulles' right hand man in Switzerland. After the war the OSS morphed into the CIA and that's where we've been since."
He had been pacing as he talked, but he stopped to gauge her reaction to this point. Watching her face, he saw only the interest she would display while hearing a fascinating story told by a stranger. He went on, continuing his pacing.
"When I met you, I had left the Company because I couldn't do what it required anymore. Serving the Company was my father's obsession in life, but not mine. As Jeff and I grew older, my father spent more and more of the time he was home with my brother. My mother, who was a gentle person, became my mentor. She was a cultured woman who loved literature, poetry and music. She taught me to ride; my father taught me to hunt. She taught me to love; he taught me to manipulate and deceive. When she died I knew I had to leave. Then I met you, and everything was perfect."
Now Laura was looking at him with sympathy on her face, and she said, "How awful for you, Jack, but we did find each other. It was perfect for both of us." She made a move to get up, but he put out a hand to stop her.
"I haven't finished. You have to hear it all."
She sat again and waited as he turned his back, gathering his courage. Turning once more to face her, he began again.
"When Jeff died, my father blackmailed me into rejoining the Company. He told me I had to return my allegiance to him and the Agency, or he would ruin your family's reputation and kill all of you. I wasn't sure who he could harm and who he couldn't, but I knew he could *ruin* all of you, and he could destroy Lois and Helene. I couldn't let that happen. I went back to him. His terms included never telling you why I was doing the things I did. I hated it, and my misery made me treat you badly.
"I was a field operations officer, and you have to understand what that means. If I went undercover with terrorists, I had to become a terrorist, doing everything that terrorists do. If I recruited citizens in foreign countries as information gathering agents, I had to be willing to force them to do whatever was necessary to get the information, even if it meant their torture and death. If someone endangered my operation or threatened to expose me, I had to…get rid of them."
He stopped to look at her face again, but it was clear that she had not comprehended what he had tried to tell her. He would have to be blunt.
"Laura, do you understand? I planted bombs that killed innocent civilians. I killed people or let them be killed for some government's secrets that were probably worthless within a few months.
"I recruited people, befriended them and sent them to die hoping their deaths served some higher purpose. The more I did it, the easier it got, and I stopped questioning the meaning of that 'higher purpose'."
Now he saw uncertainty and disbelief on her face. Her expectations of happiness were wavering, beginning to slide away. He had to show her the complete depravity of it all.
"When I came back last October for Lois's birthday, I had just been in Russia trying to find out if their Science and Health Institute was working on germ warfare. I had recruited a sixteen-year-old boy who was crazy about everything American. His big dream was to live here and work in a video store. He worked at a dacha where scientists from the Institute went for weekend rest and relaxation. They caught him trying to photograph some papers from their briefcases.
"The scientists turned him over to their bodyguards who tried to get him to tell them who he was working for. I was undercover at the Institute as a driver for one the top researchers, and because he had decided to go along that weekend, I was there. Vasily knew I was there. He could have turned me over to them, and they might have let him live. But he'd seen too many American spy movies. He died without giving me away. They beat him to death in front of me, and I didn't do anything to help him. When he was dead, I helped carry him into the woods where we left him for the animals."
For the first time he saw her expression register horror and then disgust.
But he still had one final blow to deliver. "Do you know what finally convinced him to work for me? I told him I knew Superman and maybe he could meet him one day."
"Oh, dear god, how could you have done that to that poor boy." Her eyes now regarded him with the expression he had hoped he would never see — an abhorrence that was akin to hatred. "How can you come here and face me, knowing that my father and brother and I would never hurt anyone that way? That we would do anything to keep that boy from death!"
He still hoped to persuade her to understand. "You can't despise me any more than I despise myself. When I watched Vasily die, I realized I had become what my father wanted — the perfect machine for carrying out his assignments. That's when I knew I had to get away from his influence, before I became him. That's what I've been trying to do since then. But no matter how hard I try, circumstances keep pushing me back into the betrayal and the lying and the deceit. Today I committed the greatest betrayal of all. I turned my father over to the CIA so they can destroy his brain and punish him for the crimes he's committed in their name.
"I want to stop, Laura. I want to be what my mother wanted me to be. I want to care what happens to the people I love and keep them safe so that they know only good in their lives. I want to be a loving husband and a good father, but I can't do it without your help. You're the best thing in my life and I need you to forgive me and help me make up for what I've done." His voice cracked with emotion as he pleaded with her, but he hadn't the courage to look at her as he spoke.
As she watched him, her mind registered what he was saying, but she was still trying to comprehend it and cope with it. How could she have been such a fool? Why hadn't she seen what he was really like? She had fallen in love with a man who was everything she opposed — a liar, a thief, a con man, a criminal…a killer. She, who spent her life fighting for truth and justice, loved a man whose life opposed those concepts.
Her hopes for reconciliation and happiness were gone. Her mind reeled with hurt and disillusionment, and she struggled to cope with the emotional residue from her turmoil.
The silence between them lengthened, and he turned to watch her, waiting for her reaction.
Finally she replied in a low, remote voice, one even she hardly recognized. "You need to go away now, Jack. You need to leave me alone for a while. You want me to forgive you, but I don't know if I can even look at you again without wanting to hit you, and I don't want to hit anyone. When I'm clear-headed, I'll think about this, and what it means for Lee and Carla and for us. But right now I'm too shattered and sickened by what you've done to think. Please, just go away."
It was the reaction he had dreaded, and even though he had tried to prepare himself for it, it struck him like death. The life he wanted was forever out of reach. He was expendable. His life was worthless, and he might as well risk it doing penance for the grotesque misdeeds that made up his past.
Jack turned and walked out of the house, down the steps, and into the black night.
JANUARY — MARCH, 2033
*Spring will be a little late this year,
A little late arriving in my lonely world over here.
For you have left me and where is our April of old?
You have left me, and winter continues cold,
As if to say
Spring will be a little slow to start,
A little slow reviving that music it made in my heart.
But time heals all things so I needn't cling to this fear.
It's merely that spring will be a little late this year.*
Jack was gone.
Laura had talked with Chris about what Jack had told her. He sent her to Clark, who called in Lois, and they all sat down to discuss the 'problem of Jack'.
Chris and Laura each shared what Jack had revealed to them. To Laura's surprise, Lois and Clark expressed sympathy for him and for his attempts to leave his former life.
Chris told her straight out, without pulling any punches, that he thought she had treated Jack badly.
Her parents allowed that if a person expressed remorse for wrongdoing and wanted to atone, that person should be given a chance.
Lois reminded Laura of Veda Doodsen's role in saving Clark's life.
Clark pointed out that Super heroes had options. They didn't have to kill to stop evil or tragedy, but that humans didn't have the same choices.
Lois reflected that she would never want to kill anyone, but to protect her family, she would do whatever she had to do.
By the time the family discussion had ended, Laura thought that maybe she had reacted hastily and that she needed to find Jack and sit down with him to see what they could work out. She knew that no matter how shocked she had been, or how much she hated the things he had told her, she still had very strong feelings for him. They had a lot to talk about. But he had gone away, and he hadn't come back.
Cold, white January snow turned into dirty, wet February slush followed by brown March mud, all accompanied by hovering grey skies occasionally pierced by the weak yellow rays of a winter sun. Time moved slowly, imperceptibly, and Laura's life went on without change.
Chris would occasionally tell her of reports that came in about rescues of dissidents from repressive regimes in countries like Iraq and China, or expos‚s of laboratories creating tools for waging biological warfare, or thwarted terrorist attacks between ancient cultural enemies. He believed that Jack was at work keeping his promise to make up for his past.
It had to be very dangerous, and at work Laura often found herself staring into space, worrying about his safety instead of checking the data sheets for a waiting lab assistant. She felt that her life was on hold, waiting for him to come back to her.
Henry Forrest had disappeared into the mental wards at Bethesda Naval Hospital and was forgotten by almost everyone who ever knew him. Laura tried to visit him, but was allowed only to observe through a one-way glass. His dementia appeared to be deep-seated and permanent.
She got up in the morning, spent time with her children, went to work, came home, spent time with her children, and went to bed. There she stared into black space thinking about the seriousness of Jack's transgressions. She presented arguments for and against forgiving him. But the more she debated, the more she returned to the position she had clung to for so long. She had pronounced it to Lois as truth, and it continued to reaffirm itself. Jack was the man she was meant to spend her life with, and she loved him.
Her routine was broken briefly in February when she and her research team finally solved the riddle of the Ristocki virus and she became something of a celebrity as the spokesperson for the group whose feat was hailed as having 'saved the world'. The entire team was feted at celebrations and she appeared on television talk shows and scientific programming. Ultra Woman found that achieving fifteen minutes of fame for her scientific work was amusingly ironic. In other circumstances, she would have laughed merrily at the joke.
It was no fun without Jack.
At several of the celebrations, she was approached by Marshall Stewart who hovered around her, tried to converse with her in more than friendly terms and generally became a nuisance. He invited her to dinner. She politely refused. He sent her flowers and candy at work. She forwarded them to the children's ward of the Star Labs hospital wing and sent him a note thanking him for remembering the sick little ones. He sent her some solitaire pearl earrings along with a note asking her to join him for a day at his farm in Virginia. She returned the jewelry, courteously declining both the gift and the day in the country. He was persistent; she was obdurate. She finally delivered the coup de grace by sending him a note telling him that she was happily married <LIAR> but that she was flattered by the attentions of a man who reminded her so much of her father. <Another lie, he was nothing like her father.>. He didn't bother her again.
Where was Jack? Wouldn't he ever come home? She went out on routine rescues, toiled in not so typical disasters, stopped robberies, disarmed terrorists, but there was no one to talk to when she got home. She would make forays to foreign countries where Chris believed Jack was under cover, hoping to see him so she could scoop him up and carry him home, but she had no luck.
March spent its days leaving no promise of spring and gave way to an April that was as bleak and cruel as T.S. Eliot's description. Despair was Laura's constant companion, but she began to push herself away from it. She could put her personal feelings on hold, but she had two children and until Jack came home, she had to be both mother and father to them. She, Chris, Lois and Clark would be their family. But she would never stop believing that Jack would come home, and until he did she would be waiting.
*It's very clear our love is here to stay.
Not for a year but ever and a day.
The radio and the telephone and the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies, and in time may go.*
*But oh, my dear, our love is here to stay.
Together we're going a long, long way;
In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble,
They're only made of clay, but
Our love is here to stay.*
It was raining, not unusual in April, but this was a cold and blustery late winter storm rather than a steady spring drizzle preparing the world for fresh growth and renewal of life. Rain rattled against the windows calling Lois to come watch and listen to its malingering protests against nature's inevitable stride into spring.
Since her ordeal in Ecuador, she had frequently found it difficult to sleep, her rest interrupted by dreams of the warehouse; and the fears from those desperate hours alone would engulf her. She would become especially disturbed when it rained. The sound still recalled the hellish frustration of experiencing wracking thirst while abundant water was falling just out of reach. If she could, she would go out and stand or walk in the downpour, even though it might be as chilling as it was tonight.
Wrapped in a wool afghan, she sat in the window seat, knees hugged to her chest, watching as the wind played with the falling drops, sending them swirling, then ignoring them only to return suddenly gusting and disrupting their ordered descent. She heard a deep breathy sigh and looked over at Clark who lay sleeping in their bed, his arm outstretched where she had lain only a few moments before.
In the middle of the afternoon he had called her, saying, "If you don't have any pressing appointments for the rest of the day, how about conferring with me privately at home, in, say, half an hour?"
"That sounds delicious, but what brought this on?"
He answered huskily, "Well, I was downstairs about 1:30 saying goodbye to one of the Council representatives, when I saw this gorgeous babe come through the lobby to the elevator. I can't get her out of my mind. I've been thinking about her all afternoon, and I was hoping you might be able to substitute for her."
"She was just my type — a brunette with short curly hair and the most fantastic dark eyes I've ever seen. And her body…wow! It had to be the greatest body in the world."
"She was wearing this burgundy suit that was perfect for her coloring. The only thing is, I didn't get a look at her legs. You know, I'm really sorry women have stopped wearing skirts so much."
Lois looked down at her burgundy jacket and trousers and laughed. "You'd better be talking about the right woman in the right burgundy suit," she threatened.
"So how about it, gorgeous? Think you're babe enough to fulfill my erotic fantasies?" Underneath his teasing was a breathless sexuality.
"Mmmmm, I love it when you talk dirty. Meet you downstairs in half an hour."
In the car that was taking them to the town house, they sat allowing the nerve endings of their legs lying side-by-side to remind them of how even the most innocent of touches could quickly become titillating invitations to more exciting caresses.
She watched him out of the corners of her eyes and saw that he had begun to shift uncomfortably. A-a-h, she knew what that meant. The front of his trousers was hidden by his coat, but she could guess what was happening.
Smiling secretively, she leaned forward and closed the panel that separated the driver from the passengers. Next she pushed the button controlling the white noise that soundproofed their enclosure. He looked at her questioningly.
She answered by sliding against him and beginning to kiss him along his jaw line and on his neck.
"Lois," he said huskily. Shouldn't we wait till we get home? You don't know what you're doing to me."
"Don't I?" she murmured, beginning an exploration of his ear and the back of his neck.
"Honey, if you keep this up, I'll have to wait ten minutes before I'll be able to get out of the car when we get home."
"No you won't," She purred. "Just hold your coat together. And what happened to gorgeous or babe? I thought you wanted your fantasies fulfilled?" she teased. "Haven't you ever had a fantasy about making out in the back of one of these town cars?"
She covered his mouth with hers prying it open until she could touch his tongue with hers and suck it into her mouth. He greedily tasted her, sweeping his tongue around hers, touching the roof of her mouth and the soft inside of her cheeks.
"U-u-u-n-n-h-h." It was no longer a protest but a moan of pleasure.
She responded with soft, helpless sounds deep in her throat. Abruptly his mouth left hers. "H-u-n-h-ho-ney, I'm not…sure I can…take …this," he groaned.
She giggled, trying to suppress the glee that she felt. It was contagious and he shook trying to control his guffaw. Then the two of them let go in exuberant celebration.
He pulled her against him and said between laughs, "You are one sexy babe, gorgeous!"
"That's right, and don't you forget it, next time you're tempted by some hot number in the building lobby."
"I'm only tempted by you," he said, reaching for the buttons on her blouse.
"Ms. Lane, Mr. Kent, we've arrived at your townhouse." The disembodied voice of the driver coming from the speaker interrupted, and the two of them hastily rearranged their clothing, making themselves presentable so they could disembark from the car.
After stepping from the vehicle, Lois leaned toward the driver, eyes twinkling, saying, "Thanks, Eugene, that was a perfect ride today. You have a good weekend. We're looking forward to a repeat real soon."
Clark grabbed her hand, muttering "Lo-is, Enough!" and pulled her toward the steps.
She burst into laughter as he hurried her up the stairs and into the house. When they were inside, he pushed her against the door holding her there with a full, deep kiss while he pulled off her warm coat and jacket and dropped them on the floor. His topcoat and suit coat followed.
He commenced opening the buttons of her blouse and she went to work on his shirt when they came up for air. He saw that she still had a gleam in her eye. "You are bad, Lois Lane. You'll have to pay for that bit of mischief."
"You talk big, Kent. Let's see a little action," she taunted. He picked her up and ran up the stairs to the bedroom. When he placed her beneath him on the bed, they had lost all of their clothing except their underwear, and their bodies welcomed each other as they melted together.
"Now you're getting there," she said and inhaled sharply as his hands roamed familiar places. "Which fantasy is this?" she asked.
"The one where you and I are in love forever and never have to leave this bed again."
She laughed. "I'm game if you are."
He smiled and tilted his head so that his mouth met hers. She opened her lips underneath his, drawing him deeper into the kiss. Her tongue lightly tasted him and he reciprocated. Slowly, lovingly, they allowed the sensations radiating from the kiss to build, as they became aware of body parts touching body parts, of desire gradually overtaking affection, of emotions and desires synchronizing with tingling touches on familiar erotic areas.
Finally their mouths reluctantly parted, and he moved his lips over her cheek and neck, making his way with light feather touches, down to her collarbone and across it to her shoulder.
Her eyes were closed, her body receiving these small caresses with increasing appreciation. She turned her head so that her lips touched his bicep, and she kissed and tongued the delicious taste of him. As her breath became shallower and more rapid, she took a tiny wrinkle of his flesh between her teeth and bit delicately.
They were moving at a slow and deliberate pace that each instinctively knew the other wanted to continue. His hand found the womanly curves he knew so well and breathlessly re-discovered each time they made love. Familiarity assumed control as they moved — hearts, bodies and souls together — into the one being they always became. With jubilant elation, she clasped him to her, murmuring over and over, "Oh, yes, that feels so right, so right."
Finally, he began to relax against her. He tried to move his weight off her, but she held on tighter pleading, "No, don't leave me. Not yet."
They lay together, nuzzling each other, for a few more minutes whispering.
"I belong here, like this, with you," he murmured.
"Yes… yes…" she sighed. "You complete me…I feel empty without you…don't ever leave me."
"I couldn't. We belong together."
Finally he kissed her and rolled over. They stayed in each other's arms until they had to touch and kiss again, blood heating to fire, and desire capturing both of them.
They had made slow, sensuous love all afternoon, renewing their delight in touching one another passionately, coming together again and again until they had exhausted themselves and, even though it was early in the evening, had drifted into sleep holding each other. But the elements outside had roused her summoning her to the window, and she had left him to sit across the room, her thoughts whirling with the wind and rain.
She wondered if Laura would be able to get on with her life, setting aside her love for Jack and trying to find some kind of happiness without him. Looking at Clark, she knew that she would find it almost impossible to do something like that, and knowing the depth of Laura's feelings for Jack, she thought it was probably just as impossible for her.
What was going to happen to Chris and Helene? What was it that kept them from being happy when they seemed to have had a beautiful life served up on a plate for them?
Her mind jumped to Marshall Stewart, who, having had no luck with her, had made a run at Laura only to be rebuffed with a courteous but firm refusal to play the game. What would he try next? Lois didn't think he had forgotten or forgiven what she had done to him, and whatever he concocted was sure to be nasty and destructive. Whatever it would be, she and Clark would handle it. But she really didn't want to dwell on unhappy things tonight.
She'd rather think about Hector and Maria, still in Guayaquil and embarked on a tempestuous relationship that was making them both deliriously happy and half-crazy. Hector and the Ecuadorian government had recovered the stolen money with the cooperation of Francisco Arroyo del Rio who was paying his debt to society by working in the refugee camps and doing manual labor in the rebuilding of homes. <All's well that ends well,> she thought and was reminded that she and Clark had tickets for the latest Shakespearean revival on Saturday night.
She heard a stirring from the bed as Clark turned on his side reaching out with his arm to where she should have been. He sleepily called out, "Lois? Honey?"
"I'm here, Clark," she answered.
"It's raining, sweetheart. I just came over here to watch it for a while. Go back to sleep; everything's all right."
"Come back to bed, honey. You'll get chilled and catch cold. And you know I don't sleep very well when you're not here…" His last words drifted away as he dropped into slumber again.
She smiled with wry affection as his action, as usual, belied the familiar words. With one last look out the window at winter's lingering tantrum, she took the afghan from around her shoulders and placed it on the window seat. Unfolding her legs, she moved from her position with a dancer's grace and crossed to the bed, sliding into her place beside her husband. Without waking, he took her to him. They would sleep for a while longer, she thought, and then he would wake hungry for food. They would make pasta, heating sauce for it from the freezer, and after they had eaten, he would be hungry for her again.
Everything was the way it should be between them. No more cold, dark shadows waited to jump in unexpectedly. Their minds and emotions were once more attuned to each other, back in sync. Relaxing, here, against the length of his body, she didn't care if it rained buckets. Secure in the arms of the man she loved — her husband, her lover, her best friend — she was safe from bad dreams. There would be no more jealous quarrels, no more angry separations. They were together, right where they belonged.
*Well, hello there, good old friend of mine.
You've been reaching for yourself for such a long, long time.
There's so much to say, no need to explain,
Just an open door for you to come in from the rain.*
*It's so good to know my best friend has come home again.
And I think of us like an old clich‚,
But it doesn't matter 'cause I love you anyway,
Come in from the rain.*
*And it looks like sunny skies now that I know you're all right.
Time has left us older and wiser; I know I am, anyway.*
*It's a long, long road when you're on your own,
And a man like you will always choose the long way home.
There's no right or wrong, I'm not here to blame,
I just want to be the one to keep you from the rain,
Come in from the rain.*
Melissa Manchester and Carole Bayer Sager
It was not the first time he had stood hiding in the cold rain, watching a house for the sight and sounds of its inhabitants; but it was the first time that love had been his driving motivation, and the emotions that welled in him were dizzying. The pain he felt as he saw what he could not have urged him to leave, never to return, never again to subject himself to the agony of being so close to what he wanted so much. But like a child pressing his face against a store window at Christmas time, he had to stay to observe, to imagine what might be — to imagine walking to the door, opening it, being welcomed and loved again by his family, loving them without shame or regret and living again in a house of warmth and love.
He was no stranger to the wind and rain. He was used to them with their soaking, chilling ways. But there in the warmth, he would be a stranger who would bring terrifying elements from the darkness outside into the bright interior of the house and into the safe, secure lives of those he should be protecting.
Movement behind the windows caught Jack's attention as Laura, carrying Carla, herded Lee toward the stairs, all of them laughing happily. It was bedtime. <You can leave now. No one will be there for you to see> But he stood, playing over in his mind their bedtime activities — baths, putting on pajamas, Laura reading a story, the good night kisses and tucking in — he was smiling as he imagined it. He saw upstairs lights go out, and then Laura, once more pictured in the living room windows.
Before he knew it, waves of love and yearning rolled from him toward her as she slumped on the couch lowering her face to her hands. She snapped to attention, looking straight at the windows. Knowing the powers she had, he quickly ducked behind one of the great oak trees in the park, hoping she wouldn't penetrate it to find him there. He waited. Cautiously, he peered around the tree. She had disappeared. <Must have been an emergency call,>he thought. Then he saw her come out of the front door to stand on the porch.
He ducked back again. She would be gone in a moment on whatever errand of mercy called her. Then he would leave and not return. He waited and then stepped out from behind the tree. She was standing in front of him in the rain, hands on her hips.
They stared at each other for a millennium until, putting out a hand and brushing the rain off his forehead, she said wistfully, "You're soaked. You'll catch cold."
Shivering from her touch, he replied, "I'm used to it. It doesn't bother me." He wanted to take her hand, kiss the palm and gather her close. He didn't. Instead he shrugged her touch away.
She continued in a practical, matter-of-fact tone, "It's time for you to come home now, Jack. You can't do anything more to make up for the past. You need to move on and take responsibility for the future. Lee and Carla miss you. They need their father."
<What about you Laura? Do you need me?> "Could you stand to see me near them? How do you know I won't infect them with the poison I carry?"
"Jack you're not poisonous," she said in an exasperated tone. "You're a good man and a good father. What you did, you did because you thought it had to be done. You did those things for what you believed were good reasons, not because you're evil." She paused, watching the rain drip from his hair and his saturated clothes. "We should be having this discussion inside where it's dry."
"Why? The rain doesn't affect you, and you made it clear last time we talked that I don't deserve to be there."
"Jack, I was wrong. What you told me was horrifying and I was in shock from it. I didn't know what to say. But that didn't mean that I wanted you to leave forever or that you shouldn't come back."
"Didn't it? It was all very clear in the way you looked at me. Don't apologize for it, Laura. Why shouldn't you look at me that way? It's the way I see myself." He turned and began to move away. "This conversation is useless. I'm leaving."
She grabbed his arm. "No, I won't let you go, and you know I can stop you if I have to. We need to talk this through. You have to stop condemning yourself for things that are not your fault."
"Not my fault?" He regarded her with astonishment. "Weren't you listening when I told you what I did? These past five years, I haven't even been working for the CIA, for my country. All the reasons I used to excuse my actions didn't…don't exist. My father has been in business for himself, double-crossing, deceiving and betraying everybody. Don't you realize that I've spent the last two and half months doing the same things? I haven't changed my behaviour. I'm still spying and manipulating and lying…and killing if I have to. I betrayed my father and turned him over to the CIA and their psychiatrists. They locked him in a rubber room and threw away the key. They don't want him out ever again. I did that and walked away from him. You should be afraid of what I'd do to you."
"The only time I've ever been afraid of you, Jack, was when I didn't know why you were pushing me away. I'm not afraid now."
"Oh, really? What if I'm like my father? What if I keep pushing you away and then pulling you back again? What if I hide a secret life the way he did? What if I end up treating our children the way he treated his? He ordered Jeff's death, you know. That's one of the things I learned during these last months. Jeff was going to leave him the way I did. Death was his punishment. Henry thought I would be easier to control."
"Your father is a sick old man, Jack. I visited him, or rather observed him, in the hospital. I don't think it's possible for him to recover. I don't know, maybe Helene could do something. We could ask her. What I do know is that you didn't make him the way he is; he did that to himself.
"You went to see my father after all he did to us? Why?"
The initial tone of her reply was impatient. "Because he's your father! Because I wanted to see for myself how he was. Because I thought someone in the family should visit him." She stopped, then went on in a slow, quiet voice. "Because I thought you'd want me to. But it wasn't any good. He wasn't capable of recognizing anyone."
"So you saw, first-hand, what I could turn into."
"What I saw was that you're nothing like him. You were tempered by your mother's influence. You told me how gentle and loving she was, and that's the way you are when your father isn't interfering."
"Am I? Mama would never have forgotten her humanity and killed someone in cold blood."
"Have you deliberately hurt anyone in the last few months, Jack?"
He looked away from her. "Except for my father, no," he said shortly. "But I might have."
"I don't believe you. I don't believe you would intentionally harm anyone, anymore, unless you had no other alternative, unless you had to do it to save yourself or someone else. And that's not evil, Jack. It's not evil to protect yourself or those you love, or the things that you think are honorable."
"Your family doesn't believe in killing for *any* reason."
"Well, Dad and Chris and I don't have to. Our powers give us alternatives. Ordinary humans don't always have those choices. I'm pretty sure Mom would do whatever she'd have to do to protect herself and those she loves, including killing someone if it came down to that. If there was no other way, she'd do it."
"I haven't always looked for alternatives or choices, Laura. I've done what was expedient."
"Maybe you did a long time ago. But I don't think so now, not any more. Tell me, Jack. Could you…would you kill without thought now, just because somebody got in your way?" She waited for him to answer, but he looked away instead. As the silence lengthened, she began to understand. "You've faced that, haven't you? And you haven't done it."
The way he looked back at her told her that she had guessed correctly. She was watching him with determination on her face. This was a battle she refused to lose.
Jack wished she were right. That he could change, that he had changed, and that he could be forgiven. Could he take a chance? Or would it be too dangerous for her…for Lee and Carla? If there were the slightest possibility that they could be harmed by his past, he wouldn't do it.
"No, Laura. I won't let even the slightest risk of harm touch any of you. It's better if I stay away from you."
"You see? You're only thinking about protecting us, even if it means sacrificing any chance you might have. That's not wrong; that's how you're supposed to feel about the people you love. It's wrong to go away and leave them when they need you."
"Do you need *me*? I'm sure there are men who would gladly take my place as your husband, who could be a good father for Lee and Carla, men who would be safe and comfortable as a part of your family. You wouldn't be taking such a dangerous risk."
She wanted to shout at him angrily. It took a lot to make her lose her temper and she could feel it slipping away. "Stop it, Jack! Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Damn it, I'm fighting for my life here, for our life together. And don't pretend it doesn't matter to you because I know it does. You wouldn't be standing here in the rain hoping for a glimpse of our ordinary lives if you didn't. Of course we need *you*. It took me almost thirty years to find you, and if you think I'm willing to replace you that easily, then you're not nearly as smart as I thought you were."
"Laura, I'm asking how you feel. I don't want to come back because Lee and Carla need a father, or because you pity me for the life I've had. I need to know if you can forgive me and love me again, even if it's only a little."
She ached to hold him. She wanted to put her arms around him and comfort him, but she knew that wasn't what he wanted. He didn't want a mother, and she already had two children. He wanted a wife; she wanted a husband. But more than that, each of them wanted to love and be loved for the rest of their lives.
She spoke slowly, her voice full of emotion but no longer angry. "I don't need to judge you or forgive you, Jack. I love you. I fell in love with you and made a commitment to you. We Kents only fall in love, that way, once. But if you can't forgive yourself, then I don't think you can love me the way I need you to love me. It's all up to you.
"You've been reading things in my eyes. If you have any doubts about how I feel, look into them now, and make your decision."
They were still standing in the dark rain, and he had to move next to her to be able to see her face. She looked at him directly with eyes that steadfastly communicated many emotions. Those beautiful eyes conveyed love and hope, the promise of peace and contentment, and the future he thought he had lost forever.
He gathered her into his arms, holding her tightly as he felt his fears disappear. She pushed herself fiercely against him, sliding her arms around his neck and laying her head on his shoulder. They stood that way for a few minutes, silently re- committing their love and devotion to each other. Then she framed his face with her hands and kissed him. At first it was tender and gentle, but the feelings they had hidden for so long were too strong, their hunger too great. Electricity began to leap between them.
Finally she pulled back gasping, "Jack, I know kissing in the rain is supposed to be romantic, but don't we have more romantic things to do in a better place than this? Please? Let's go home?"
So, turning their backs to the cold and dark, they walked across the street with their arms around each other and climbed the steps, taking their love into the warmth and light of home.
1. When I first researched the Ecuador material, the sucre was the unit of currency used there. In one instance I found it spelled with a dollar sign, $ucre, and thought that was appropriate so I used it. Since then, Ecuador has revamped its whole economic system. They now use the dollar as currency, and the banks I have referred to apparently no longer exist. I decided to stick with what I had because it fit the story, and, who knows? As the circle of life turns, Ecuador could return to its previous banking system one day.
2. References to two literary quotations appear in the story, one from Othello, and one by T.S. Eliot. For those unfamiliar with them, here are the texts:
*Good name in man and woman, dear my Lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls;
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.*
Othello, Act III, Scene 3
*April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.*
The Waste Land, opening lines
3. Would Clark take a chance with Lois's life? I know this is the most controversial point of view in the story, but for me, it represents how their relationship would evolve through the years, their love and concern coming to encompass more than each other. The Lois and Clark in this story are projections of what the characters might become, and they are the products of many untold life experiences I've tried to explain my pov as best I can within the confines of the plot. I hope you, the reader, can go along with it, and still enjoy the story.
4. The final story in the Circle Game trilogy will be about Chris and Helene, but, of course, Lois, Clark, Laura and Jack will be involved. And Marshall Stewart. And maybe Hector and Maria will show up again.
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