By Nan Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted March 2001
Summary: When a super-hero has a bad day … he *really* has a bad day.
The familiar characters and settings of this story are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros. December 3rd Productions, et al. but the story is mine.
Suicide Slum at three in the morning wasn't the place for a stroll, Clark Kent reflected, grimly. He eyed the open space before him with acute suspicion. The sight of a man in halfway decent clothing around here was an open invitation to a mugging, but what else was he supposed to do? There really wasn't much choice. He had to find somewhere that he could get help.
He zipped up his leather jacket against the chilly mist that rose off the bay and permeated the air, still searching the darkness. Nothing appeared to be moving except for the shadowy form of an alley cat that streaked across the broken sidewalk and vanished between two buildings.
The streetlights ahead of him were out—vandalized, he thought. The glow of the lamps apparently made good targets for rock throwers, and the only pay phones he had found so far had been in an equivalent condition. Ancient tenements rose on all sides, their windows long since broken and boarded over. A "Condemned" sign hung by one corner from its nail on the door behind him. The sign was almost as old as the building. Tearing down these decrepit structures apparently wasn't high on the priorities list of the city planners.
His joints still ached from the Kryptonite exposure. How long it would take for his powers to return was anybody's guess. It had been all he could do to get away; Lois would kill him when she discovered what a chance he had taken but what he had learned had been worth it, even if things hadn't gone exactly as he had planned. Only, now he had to survive to reach civilization again.
Somewhere not far away, he could hear the strains of rap music, the bass booming away at a frequency designed to vibrate through his bones, and with it the roar of engines. That would undoubtedly be the drag racers he'd busted a few nights ago. They'd simply moved their location…again.
Taking a deep breath, he moved out onto the sidewalk, walking at a brisk pace calculated to discourage would-be muggers. Mist curled in the air about him, chilly and damp. The dark alleys that opened between the buildings loomed menacingly, each a possible place of concealment. He kept a good distance from them and passed each one quickly. Here and there, drunks slept in doorways and between trashcans, and an occasional dark figure staggered or slunk away into the darkness. Clark gave each a carefully wide berth. He wasn't looking for trouble right now. All he wanted to do was get out of this place as fast as possible with his skin relatively intact.
The rusted hulks of cars, stripped and left to disintegrate by the side of the street were also places of concealment, he realized belatedly, avoiding one ancient shell as he hurried down the uneven sidewalk. The place was eerily quiet, except for the distant throb of the bass speakers. Across the street, he could see a pair of shadowy figures fade into an alleyway, and somewhere not far away a cat squalled. There was a clatter of aluminum trashcans and a skittering noise. Something—a rat, he thought—squealed sharply. The sound was followed by a second yowl, and a third. Tomcats squaring off, he told himself; there were plenty of stray cats in this section of town.
Where were the police when you needed them? The answer was, of course, that they weren't here. This section of Suicide Slum was an area where the cops didn't come in groups of less than six, and they avoided it whenever they could. That was why Superman made it a priority to patrol around here more often than in other, more affluent sections of town. Unfortunately, Superman was now the one who needed help and there wasn't anyone to help him.
He increased his pace until he was jogging, but that couldn't last long, weakened as he was by Kryptonite exposure. Panting, he leaned against the nearest wall. He wasn't in any shape to do this, that was certain. He'd better hoard his strength in case he really needed to run. Around here, that was a distinct possibility.
This close to the harbor, mist hid the sky and its moist tendrils floated visibly in the air. One brighter spot in the greyness told him the moon was up, but it shed little light on the scene. A pale circle of illumination given out by a lone, unbroken street lamp lighted the dark street far ahead, but the rest of the area was cloaked in blackness.
Maybe it would just be better to find a place of concealment, he thought, and then wait until the sun came up. That would be in about three hours; it wouldn't be all that bad to wait— except he could as easily be found by the denizens of this place and murdered for the clothing on his back.
The sound of the rap music had been growing slowly but steadily louder, and the roar of engines was increasing. The racers weren't far away. It had been a growing problem in Metropolis for months now; young, bored kids, turning the streets of Suicide Slum into their dragstrip. Whenever the police managed to close down one group another sprang up somewhere else.
There was a screech of tires, and the sound of racing engines was suddenly overpowering. The music burst upon his ears, the deafening beat of the bass pounding through him, powerful enough to make the bones of his skull vibrate as three rattletrap cars rounded the corner on two wheels, one after another, each jockeying for position.
One car nudged the fender of the one in the lead, and the driver nearly lost control. His vehicle swerved and two wheels bumped up onto the sidewalk. The battered front grill connected with the equally battered form of a mailbox, knocking it sideways. Clark jumped back to avoid the flying objects and heard the mailbox impact the corner of the building behind him as he hurled himself headfirst into the nearest alleyway. The car roared by, its wheels crunching on the deteriorating pavement and scattering fragments behind it as it tore past. He heard war whoops from the occupants and glass shattered against the concrete sidewalk, inches from his face; a thrown bottle, he thought. The bass throb swelled to thunderous proportions, and then they were gone, racing away into the dark, leaving behind the stench of gasoline fumes. All he could see were the retreating taillights as they dwindled in the distance and vanished. The ear-shattering pulse of the music decreased rapidly in volume, until it was again only a faint and distant vibration on the air.
Slowly, he picked himself up from the ground to discover standing before him a pair of men clad in dirty, mismatched garments, one of them brandishing a switchblade that must measure no less than eight inches in length. Through the scraggly beards that coated their chins and upper lips, he could see two identical, unpleasant grins.
"Hi," he said.
The two men looked at each other. The nearer one spoke. "Gimme your wallet."
Slowly, Clark reached into his back pocket and removed the wallet. Trying to fight these two in his current weakened condition didn't seem like a very good idea.
The unarmed man snatched it from his hand and tore it open. "Twenty bucks?" he demanded. He dropped the wallet on the ground. "Gimme your watch!"
Clark removed the watch and handed it over. The mugger grabbed it and stuffed it into a pocket of his ragged coat. "Empty your pockets out!"
Clark obeyed. There was nothing of value in them. His cellular phone, of course, was gone, or he would have called for help an hour ago.
The knife wielder grunted. "Awright, take off your jacket. I want your clothes."
Lois Lane awoke suddenly and with a jolt. The clock on her bedside table said it was just past three a.m. and the room was quiet. Clark's side of the bed was vacant; there was no sign of him moving around in the bathroom.
What had awakened her?
She blinked up into the dark, trying to pinpoint what it was.
The room was completely silent except for the fluttering of an insect's wings against the windowpane. There was nothing that should be producing this sense of unease.
Lois turned over, trying to get comfortable. Surely, Clark would be back soon.
Ten minutes later, she was still wide awake. Her pillow seemed to be full of previously unnoticed lumps and the brand new, extremely comfortable mattress had developed them as well.
Resigned to the inevitable, she sat up and reached out to turn on the table lamp. Something was bothering her; a vague feeling of alarm, of something not right. Again, she glanced at the clock. It was nearly three-fifteen. Clark was usually back long before this unless some kind of emergency had come up.
Well, she wasn't going to get any sleep this way. With a sigh, she reached for the TV remote control and switched on the television, searching for a news channel. Maybe she could find a report of Superman's activities to tell her what was keeping him.
Apparently, there were no major disasters of any sort tonight. A 3.4 earthquake in California, which had caused only the most minor of damage, didn't seem to qualify. But there had been a holdup and subsequent riot and fire at the Alley Cat Bar near the docks. Hadn't that been the place Clark said he was going to stake out this evening? The bar was in the roughest section of town, where Suicide Slum impinged upon the bay. Surely, he'd be helping out there if there were lives at risk.
But in spite of the news report, she could find no mention of Superman. The fire had gotten a good hold, probably due, she thought cynically, to the fact that the fire fighters and police were reluctant to venture into that section of town. It looked to her like Metropolis's Finest had shown up in force and heavily armed. She hadn't seen that kind of a concentration of police cruisers since the President had visited Metropolis a few years ago. The blaze had spread to several other rickety buildings, and sparks were threatening structures across the street.
So, where was Clark? She'd warned him to be careful. The theft of Kryptonite from STAR Labs two days before, almost certainly an inside job, should have been enough to make him cautious, and he'd promised her faithfully that he would be. Besides, he had pointed out, he was going there as Charles King, the deck hand. There would be no reason for anyone to pull out Kryptonite on him. So where *was* he?
Well, she could try calling him. She hesitated only for a moment, then reached for the phone. Even if he was busy, he'd understand. It wasn't as if she made a habit of this.
The cell phone's answer function was her only reply. Lois left a message for him to call her and hung up, unsatisfied. The nebulous sense of something amiss that had woken her was growing. After a moment, she made a decision and slid out of bed. She certainly wasn't going to get back to sleep anyway. It wouldn't hurt for her to simply drive over to the fire. She'd be safe in the Cherokee. At the very least, she might get a story out of it, and maybe she'd find Clark.
Satisfied with her rationalization, she began to dress.
This wasn't funny at all, Clark decided. The muggers had taken all of his outer clothing, leaving him in his bare feet, T- shirt and briefs, and nothing else. The month might be June but this close to the water it was chilly! The only thing of value that they hadn't taken was his wedding ring, and that was only because they hadn't seen it. He retrieved his wallet after some search, and most of the contents. The loss of the money wasn't important. At least he was unhurt, but the next person who tried to mug him wasn't going to find much worth taking.
And it was going to be embarrassing showing up at a police station or anywhere else in his current condition. On the other hand, he couldn't stay here. That was pretty much guaranteed to get him into worse trouble. Maybe his powers would return soon, he thought, hopefully. As it was, this was going to be a long, cold walk—unless one of these tenement clotheslines had something he could borrow for a little while. It seemed unlikely that anyone would open a door for a man in his underwear at this time of night. He could always return anything he took later, along with some kind of compensation for the inconvenience.
Assuming he didn't manage to get mugged again.
Cautiously, he peered out of the alley. No one appeared to be in sight, and at least it was dark. He hadn't expected to be grateful for the lack of lighting, but a lot of things hadn't gone as he'd anticipated this evening.
First, there had been the surveillance in the Alley Cat Bar. Timothy Breen, was a petty thief and occasional courier for Intergang and Clark had been keeping an eye on him for weeks. The man had met his contact, all right—a prominent member of the Metropolis City Council; one of the few Clark would have sworn was clean. He'd eavesdropped on their conversation and now possessed a great deal of information that should lead, eventually, to a lot of people losing their positions in the city government. All that remained then was to return home.
Only then the unexpected had happened.
The Councilman had opened his briefcase, removed a familiar metal box and lifted the lid. Clark, seated in the shadows, two tables away, had had no time to move without drawing attention to himself and struggled to control his reaction to the chunk of Kryptonite. He could feel his powers draining away as he sat there, but he didn't dare attempt to leave. His legs would have given way instantly if he had so much as tried to stand. The two men had talked for nearly ten minutes, the green stone sitting in the open container between them, shielded from the view of other customers by the body of the Councilman. Only Clark, seated in the shadowed corner, could see the evil, green glow of the object on the table. Then, at last, Breen closed the box and tucked it into the capacious pocket of his baggy coat.
And at that minute, two men who had been sitting at the bar announced a holdup.
They had lined up the patrons, many of them seamen who had just received their pay, and proceeded to relieve them of every item of value in their possession. Clark, at the end of the line, watched as they worked their way toward him, knowing that if they drew the attention of Councilman Pearson to him, the jig was up.
One of the men took the metal box out of Breen's pocket, tried futilely to open it, and then tossed it onto the pile of loot that was steadily growing by the door.
He never knew how the fight started, but all at once the mass of big, burly men surged forward, and the two holdup men went down under a wave of bodies. One of the guns fired, and a ceiling light exploded in a shower of glass and sparks. A bottle flew across the room, and someone else threw a chair. One of the female employees screamed and ducked under a table.
Clark made for the pile of belongings, his goal the lead box. The last thing he needed was for Intergang to get hold of a chunk of Kryptonite. As his hand closed around it, someone hit him on the side of the head and he went down, but managed to land on his hands and knees. The door was just beyond him, and he crawled toward it, avoiding the solidly intertwined mass of cursing, struggling bodies. Once outside, he could use his cellular phone to call the police. He was certainly in no condition to do anything about the barroom brawl that had suddenly erupted, but at least he could summon help.
He made it out the door at last, accompanied by a pair of men, who lurched after him, straining and swearing as they fought. Clark staggered to his feet and stumbled away, to come up gasping against a crumbling brick wall. A pile of garbage bags, leaking garbage, was stacked against it, and he leaned back, panting, against the damp bricks.
After a moment, he groped for his phone, only to discover that it was gone. He must have lost it when he fell, he thought, and there was no way he was going to try to go back inside to get it. Maybe he could find a pay phone to make a call.
The heavy little lead box in his hand drew his attention. This was the Kryptonite that had vanished from STAR Labs two days ago. The symbol on the lid was unmistakable. Somehow, Councilman Pearson had gotten hold of it; he might even have been behind the theft for all Clark knew.
The box was too big to fit in the pockets of his jacket or of his jeans. Gripping it in one hand, he started down the street, looking for a pay phone. The area wasn't good and for the first time, his vulnerability dawned on him. It was one in the morning, and between him and civilization lay Suicide Slum. As Superman, he was invulnerable but without his powers and with no transportation but his feet, he was as easily hurt as anyone else. He had to get out of here, and it could be a very long walk.
At least the muggers hadn't done anything worse than relieve him of his belongings. Clark pulled his T-shirt down as far as it would go and moved out onto the sidewalk, hugging the building. Dressed as he was, his feeling of being exposed was more acute than ever. True, he flew about every day in a skin- tight red-and-blue outfit, but at least then he was *covered*, and it was by his own choice.
The skin on the back of his neck and shoulders prickled as he moved along, feeling as if unfriendly eyes watched his every move. He strained his ears for the slightest sound that would warn him of an imminent attack. The sounds of the nightlife in Suicide Slum weren't reassuring. Somewhere a dog howled and the noise was joined by several others, until a chorus of canine song was going full blast. Here and there, he could hear the sounds of cats challenging each other, or the occasional tomcat serenading his current lady-love. A huge, rusted dumpster in one alleyway gave out odors he could detect a block away, even without his enhanced sense of smell, and passing it, he could hear the stealthy sounds of motion as scavengers moved about among the decaying garbage. The form of a man slumped against it, and Clark heard the clink of glass. The smell of cheap booze was strong in his nostrils.
At least, the ache in his joints was fading. That had to be some kind of improvement. Still, it had been a good idea to stash the lead box under a pile of broken cement chunks barely a block from the bar. If he'd still had it when the muggers held him up, it would now be in their hands. He could come back for it tomorrow when his powers had returned.
Something struck the edge of the dumpster from above and burst open; a plastic garbage bag, he realized belatedly as he jumped back from the flying debris, dropped from an upper story window in the general direction of the big container. His heel snagged on a piece of broken pavement and he staggered backward. One foot met nothing and he was suddenly falling. He flailed out with his hands and caught the edge of the opening with one hand.
For a moment, he swung by his fingers, breathing hard, and managed to grasp the edge with his free hand. It was an open sewer manhole, he saw. He hauled himself slowly and painfully from the hole, grimacing at the fragrant aromas that drifted upward from the aperture. When he regained the surface, he got painfully to his feet, brushing dirt and gravel from his hands and knees. The sooner he got out of here, the better, before he managed to kill himself, he thought, unhappily. Somewhere in the distance, he could still hear the vibration of the rap music. Recalling his previous encounter with the racers, he hoped fervently that they would stay away.
To the east, the sky was brighter. Could it be so late that the sun was coming up? He was sure that much time couldn't possibly have passed. The color seemed wrong for a sunrise, anyway, and now that he thought about it, there seemed to be a faint smell of smoke on the night breeze. It must be a fire over by the harbor, he realized. And Superman was in no shape to help.
He stifled a soft swear word. This whole night had been one disaster after another. Sometimes he thought the Fates had it in for him.
Well, he could head for it and try to get help from the fire fighters. On the other hand, the part of Suicide Slum that lay between him and the harbor was the roughest section of the slums. It had taken him two hours to work his way through it, unharmed. Regretfully, he rejected the option. It would be wiser to go on and get to a better section of town. In his current state of dress, a cop was bound to spot him when he got out of this place, even this early in the morning. It might be embarrassing, but it was a lot better than getting killed.
His mistreated wallet was lying on the sidewalk. Once more, he picked it up and with a final glance at the malodorous pit, started west again, looking around alertly. One of his hands had been scraped painfully in the mishap, but all in all, he'd gotten off lightly. If he'd fallen down the manhole, he could have been seriously hurt.
Bare feet, he discovered shortly, were not suited to walking on the broken pavement. Within a few minutes he was limping painfully and trying to spot objects on the sidewalk that he should avoid. Streamers of mist drifted past him, looking like ghosts in the dimness. If he got out of this alive, nothing Lois could say to him could possibly be as harsh as what he was saying to himself, he thought. It was not only dangerous, it was humiliating.
He passed another gap between buildings. Something rustled and he heard stealthy movement within. All his senses went on alert.
"Hey, buddy." It was a man's voice, and another voice laughed. The sound sent chills up Clark's backbone. "Hold on a minute."
Clark turned to face the new threat. "I don't want any trouble…" he began.
"Whatcha got there?" A short, husky man with a bush of dark beard streaked with white emerged from the darkness, and Clark saw the glint of metal protruding from one grimy fist. Behind him, a taller figure loomed menacingly.
Clark ran. Across the street, a six-foot fence barred his way, but he went over it as if he were flying, to come down in a small, cluttered, back yard. A dog began to bark frantically, and he didn't pause but raced for the opposite side of the yard.
As he went up the wooden planks, something warm, wet and filled with sharp teeth closed on his ankle. He shook his leg and the teeth let go. Never pausing, he scrambled over the top of the fence and dropped into the adjoining yard.
Inside the shabby little house, another dog began to bark, loud and deep. He ran across the yard as a light came on at an upstairs window. Halfway across the grass, he encountered a clothesline at neck level and nearly hung himself. As he recovered, a voice from above shouted unintelligible words at him. Clark disentangled himself from the line, regained his equilibrium and sprinted for the fence.
Other voices were raised behind him as he went over and landed on his feet in knee-deep grass. His ankle turned under him, but he recovered and staggered through the underbrush, intent only on putting distance between himself and the growing ruckus behind him. None of the residents of the place were likely to listen to him at this point, even if he tried to explain.
He barely dodged another clothesline, and a robe of some sort tried to wrap itself around his neck. Behind him, he heard a deep, savage growl, and a frantic glance over his shoulder showed an enormous animal about the size of a small horse charging at him, jaws wide open.
He reached the fence, inches ahead of the dog and went up it in what might be mistaken for levitation. Jaws closed on the back of his briefs and bit into the skin, but he kept going, feeling the fabric tear. Then he was falling, to land on his hands and knees amid tools and buckets of some kind, with a tremendous clatter. Thick liquid spattered across his hands and legs; paint, he realized, too late.
Behind him the noise was growing, a cacophony of yelping, howling canines and the hoarse shouts of men. Another dog began to bark, this time with the high yapping of a smaller breed, and the house's upstairs light came on. Clark scrambled to his feet and headed for the opposite side of the yard. The neighborhood had to end somewhere, he told himself, hopefully before somebody with a shotgun showed up. It would be terribly ironic if Superman were to end up shot by an irate householder, the victim of a simple misapprehension.
He went over the fence, panting. The rush of adrenaline—or whatever served Kryptonians in place of it—was beginning to wear out. His legs were wobbly, but he came down on the cracked sidewalk again. Without pausing, he half staggered, half ran, striving to put as much distance between himself and the small community as he could.
Somehow, he was still clutching the robe that had attacked him during his flight. The sickly light of a flickering street lamp revealed it to be a hot pink, terrycloth garment that had seen better days. Here and there green smears of paint dotted the rough, pink cloth but judging by the breeze that was suddenly sharp and cold on the seat of his pants, he needed it, the color notwithstanding. He slipped his arms into the sleeves that came up to his elbows and dropped his battered wallet, which he had miraculously managed to retain, into the pocket. Knotting the worn sash around his middle, he slowed his steps slightly, striving to regain his breath. The robe strained across his shoulders, failed to meet in the front by a good three inches, and the length was just barely enough to be decent, but it was amazing how much less vulnerable he felt with even this much covering.
A shout behind him made him glance back. Several dark figures had emerged onto the street, and the same streetlight beneath which he had passed just moments before, revealed them to be men clad in pajamas and robes, clutching various implements. How had they found him?
Clark looked down in sudden realization. Both feet and his left leg halfway to the knee were still coated in sticky, green paint, and traces of the substance dotted the street behind him.
He ran. Behind him, he could hear the shouts of the pursuing crowd of men, and tried to summon the energy to out-race them. His twisted ankle twinged warningly, and he knew with a sinking sensation that he couldn't keep this up for long. The yells grew closer and he glanced over his shoulder. The crowd was gaining. He looked desperately around.
To his right, an alley opened up, dark and forbidding. He dodged down it, trying to ignore the sharp objects that dug into his feet. The sound of raised voices to his rear told him the crowd had reached the entrance to the alley and spotted him. Shouts rose behind him as he ran toward the six-foot stone wall that barred the end.
A glance over his shoulder revealed the men pelting toward him, all of them shouting. He seized the top of the wall and boosted himself up. The men were almost on him as he jumped.
A yell tore itself from his throat as he realized what he had done.
On the other side of the stone wall was empty space, and he hurtled through thin air toward the oily surface of the river, thirty feet below.
The building that had housed the Alley Cat Bar was still smoldering, and in places flames continued to lick at the frame, Lois saw when she pulled up at the police roadblock. Buildings on both sides were blazing merrily, and the decrepit businesses across the street had begun to burn. Fire trucks crowded the street, and streams of water were directed toward the crumbling structures.
The fire had gotten a lot farther than she had seen on television; television crews covering the blaze had been kept back where they couldn't interfere with the fire fighters. Lois could tell that the situation was far more serious than it had appeared. The ancient, wood-framed structures were dry— tinderboxes just waiting for a spark to ignite them. Once the fire had taken hold, they burned with abandon. Metropolis would be lucky if the fire didn't spread to the whole section.
She descended from the Cherokee, locking it carefully behind her, and sought out one of the police officers at the barricade.
The man was young, barely more than a boy. Lois held up her press pass and smiled at him. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet. Do they know how the fire started, Officer?"
The man glanced at her, then gave her a second, longer look. "There was an attempted hold-up in the bar," he told her. "The customers overpowered the hold-up men, but apparently one of them fired his weapon and shot out a light fixture. According to the bartender, that started the fire."
"How bad is it?" Lois asked. "Have they got it under control?"
The man shrugged. "I don't know. Every time we think they've got a handle on it, it flares up again somewhere else."
"Any sign of Superman?" she asked, casually.
The man shook his head. "Not so far, ma'am. He's probably taking care of an emergency somewhere else. I'm sure he'd help if he could."
"I'm sure you're right," Lois said. "Thanks, Officer."
"You're welcome, ma'am. Be careful. This isn't the best area for a lady to be in by herself."
This wasn't an area for anybody to be in by himself, Lois thought, but she didn't say so. She avoided several scraggly- looking characters as she moved back toward the Cherokee. Where was Clark? The stolen Kryptonite popped into her mind again, but she firmly dismissed the thought. There would be no reason for anyone to use Kryptonite on a deck hand. Something else must have happened to him.
The nagging feeling of something wrong had not diminished. She unlocked the door of the Cherokee and got in, locking it behind her, and sat still, staring at the burning buildings. The last thing she wanted was to become the sort of wife who worried constantly about her husband, demanding to know every second where he was, but this was genuinely odd. If Clark had known about the fire, surely he'd be here.
He hadn't called her back. Without much hope, she extracted her cell phone from the side pocket of her purse and called him again. The phone rang several times, then to her relief, someone answered.
"Hello? Who's this?"
The relief vanished. It wasn't Clark's voice.
"This is Lois Lane. I'm trying to get hold of my husband."
"Oh. Look, lady, this is Officer Ferguson. Some guy found this phone on the floor of the Alley Cat Bar. If you want it, come down to the 57th Street Station tomorrow. I don't have time, now."
"Wait…!" There was a click of finality as the officer shut off the phone. Lois cussed softly under her breath.
Well, that explained why he hadn't answered, earlier. He'd lost his phone. But where *was* he? The presence of the phone told her he'd been here. It wasn't like him to take off like this when there was a genuine emergency. *Something* had happened, that was for sure, and it was beginning to look as if it was more serious than she'd at first estimated.
Well, maybe he was following Breen. She considered the possibility briefly and finally rejected the notion. Superman could easily have retrieved his phone and not lost his quarry. Besides, he would never have gone off trailing a suspect when there were lives at stake, and this fire certainly threatened lives. Her gut feeling said he was in some kind of trouble.
But, what kind of trouble could Superman have gotten into?
The thought of the stolen Kryptonite resurfaced, and she felt a sinking sensation in her gut. What if he *had* encountered it? Okay, it seemed unlikely that Timothy Breen had the resources to break into STAR Labs, but he was, after all, a courier for Intergang. Suppose the person he'd been supposed to meet tonight had been the one behind the theft? Intergang had tentacles everywhere and one of their unstated but ongoing goals was to eliminate Superman.
Without another thought, she dialed Bobby Bigmouth. If anyone could help her, he was the one to ask.
The phone rang half a dozen times before someone picked it up. A familiar, surprisingly alert voice said, "Bobby here. Who's there?"
"Bobby, this is Lois. I need some help."
"Lois?" Bobby sounded surprised. "Do you know what time it is?"
"Yeah. It's four-twelve in the morning. I've got a problem. Can we meet somewhere?"
Bobby sounded doubtful. "I dunno. I'm over by that fire in Suicide Slum. Mebbe I could meet you at the Mandarin Palace in a couple of hours."
"Bobby, I'm sitting by the barricade in my Jeep. Where are you?"
"Huh?" Bobby's voice trailed off. "Oh, I see you. Stay where you are. I'll be right there."
"Bobby, since when did you have a cellular phone…?"
Fifteen seconds later, there was a rap on her window and in the flickering light of the fire, she could see Bobby's face through the glass. She pointed to the passenger door, reaching across to unlock it. A few seconds later, Bobby had climbed into the seat beside her. "What're you doin' here, Lois?"
"Bobby, Clark was in the Alley Cat Bar this evening— surveillance," she added at his raised eyebrow. "Something's happened to him. He was watching an Intergang courier named Timothy Breen. Do you know anything about it?"
"Breen? Sure. He was meetin' some guy there tonight."
"Do you know who it was?" Lois asked.
"Naw. I saw him, though. Big, tall guy with a bad toupee, wearin' a business suit and a trenchcoat. The guy, not the toupee. He gave Breen a box about this big." Bobby made hand motions. "I couldn't see what was in it."
Lois felt her eyes widen. "You were *in* there?"
"Sure. I was sittin' next to the jukebox. I ducked behind it when those guys held up the place. Then the fight started, and this guy grabbed the box."
"Away from Breen?"
"Naw. One of the holdup guys took it. They had a pile of people's stuff. This one guy grabbed it and got out the door."
"Then it's gone," Lois said.
"Nope." Bobby looked smug. "I followed him. Didn't wanna stay in there and maybe get killed. I saw what he did with it. Figured it was probably good for a Chinese dinner from you and Clark, or somethin'." He reached under his jacket. "Here."
Clark flailed at the air, trying to force himself farther out over the water. Thirty feet or so wasn't a killing fall, assuming that he struck in the right position and that the water was deep enough. His tumble towards the river seemed to take forever and conversely no time at all. He could see the shimmering, oily surface rushing toward him and found himself praying for just a tiny amount of good luck on this incredibly unlucky night.
He hit feet first and his body plunged deep under the water. His feet actually touched the sandy, weed-filled bottom of the river, and then he was shooting toward the surface, trying hard to suppress the almost overwhelming urge to breathe.
Just as the feeling became unbearable, his head burst from the water and he sucked in a huge lungful of air.
For several seconds he floated, struggling to regain his breath. The air smelled of decaying fish and rotten eggs, with a piquant hint of sewer. Clark tried not to think of the sludge in which he was immersed and treading water, attempted to spot the shoreline in the darkness.
The pale glow of the sky outlined the riverbank. In this place, the banks of the river rose straight up, black against the sky. There was no way he was going to climb out here. He swam slowly upstream, resting frequently and looking for a place where he would be able to make it back out onto dry land. The pink robe clung to his arms and hampered his movements, but he was reluctant to discard it, considering the condition of his briefs. If he ever managed to make it out of the water, he would need it in order to avoid a charge of indecent exposure.
How long had it been? He didn't know. It seemed as if hours had gone by since he had plunged into the water, but it was still dark so it couldn't be that long. The banks of the river didn't seem so high, now. Maybe he could find a place low enough to pull himself out. In the movies, the fearless adventurer always found a tree limb or a log or something to grab onto, but the Hobbs River didn't seem to have such conveniences available to the unlucky individual who happened to fall in. Clark rested, treading water with as little effort as he could manage. He hadn't been in such great shape to start with, and the smelly, dark water was cold, to boot. He was getting tired.
A pier extended from the side of the riverbank. For a few seconds he stared at the dark silhouette, uncomprehending, and then, with new energy, altered his direction toward it.
The heavy, ancient pylons were slimy, covered with moss or algae or something, and he couldn't climb them. He swam along under the rough, wooden planks, hoping that there would be some sort of ladder he could use to get out of here. For all his exertion, he was beginning to feel chilly.
His foot struck bottom. Cautiously, Clark lowered his other foot and an instant later was standing with his chin barely out of the water.
For a few seconds he stood still, just resting, but it was too cold to do nothing for long. He struck out toward the bank again, floundering and flailing his way forward. Once, he stepped into a hole and went under again. He surfaced, trying not to think about what was in the water, and paddled forward. Then it was suddenly waist-deep, and a couple of steps farther, knee-deep. There was a narrow beach here, under the pier, and in the dim light, he could see that the beach became a steep, but climbable riverbank.
When he clawed his way up the muddy, six-foot bank, he discovered he was inside a chain-link fence that separated him from a city street. A locked gate barred his exit, but a short, painful climb up the fence, careful negotiation of his way over the three strings of barbed wire at the top, and he came down onto the scratchy grass that lined the roadway. He sank down on the nearly flat top of a yellow fire hydrant, breathing hard, and surveyed the most recent damage to his person. His briefs had acquired another tear, not that it mattered now, and he sucked absently on a cut in the heel of his hand inflicted by the wire, but at least he was back on dry land. Now the question was, where was he?
He was obviously somewhere in the riverfront district, still within the fringes of Suicide Slum, but the better sections of the city weren't far away. With luck, maybe he could flag down a cop and get some help.
He shivered. There was a light breeze blowing, and as wet as he was, it felt like the breath off a glacier. He looked around for a windbreak of some kind.
On the other side of the street were buildings. The street here was deserted. The feeling was eerie, but he told himself that most of the residents in this district were probably still sleeping. With a last glance at the dark river behind him, he crossed the thoroughfare and stepped out of the wind behind the wall of a battered shed.
A glance to the east confirmed that it wasn't yet quite dawn, but it must be getting close to five a.m. There was the very faintest hint of a lightening of the sky on the horizon. Before long, the sun would be coming up. In spite of his attire, Clark welcomed that. Things wouldn't seem nearly so bad by daylight.
In the shelter of the old shed, he removed the robe and wrung it out as well as he could. A whiff of the odor rising off the fabric made him wince. The terrycloth seemed to have soaked up a good deal of the river's stench, but he didn't have much choice. He was going to have to wear it, at least a little while longer.
He slid the robe back on, shivering at the feeling of the wet fabric and knotted the sash around his waist. His wallet was still in the pocket. He hoped there wasn't much irreplaceable in it that could be damaged by the water. The quicker he got into relatively safe territory the better off he would be.
The soles of his feet were abraded, bruised and sore from his journey over the rough pavement. Some of the green paint had washed off, but his feet were still tinted with green. He was a mess, he admitted unhappily. Explaining it to Lois wasn't something he was looking forward to. Upon thinking it over, however, he acknowledged to himself that it probably didn't matter. She was going to kill him whatever he did.
The light to the east was growing stronger. Well, there was no point in putting this off any longer. Clark took a deep breath, stepped out of his sheltered spot and strode forward.
Lois took the heavy, little box from Bobby. On the lid was the unmistakable logo of STAR Labs. She felt her breath catch. Judging by the weight, this thing was made of lead. Unless she was greatly mistaken, this was the box containing the Kryptonite that had been stolen two days ago—no, three days, now—from STAR Labs.
She shook it lightly. Something clunked inside.
Bobby raised his brows. "Is this the Kryptonite STAR Labs lost the other day?" he inquired.
It figured that Bobby would know. "Probably." She tugged at the top. "It's locked. Hold on a sec." She fished in her handbag. "Where's my lock pick…ah." She withdrew the item. "Just a minute."
Bobby sounded surprised. "You carry a lock pick in your purse?"
"Sure, doesn't everybody…there!"
There was a satisfying click. She withdrew the lock pick and opened the lid. The chunk of Kryptonite glowed pale green in the darkness.
"I guess that settles that," Bobby said, after a stunned second. "Y'know, I've never seen Kryptonite before. Nasty- lookin' stuff."
"Yeah." Lois snapped the lid closed again and set the box on the floor.
"I'd like to know who the guy was that grabbed this," Bobby said. "I guess it coulda been Clark. He had the right build, but I couldn't see him very well. He took off west, walkin'."
"What was he wearing?" Lois asked.
"Jeans, and a black leather jacket," Bobby said. "I couldn't see his face. He had black hair, though."
Would Clark have done that? Lois frowned, thinking. "That's what Clark had on. Did the man who gave Breen this box open it?"
"Yeah, I think he did. Like I said, I couldn't see what was in it. 'Sides," Bobby added, "in that business they don't trust nobody. Breen'd have insisted."
"I suppose so. If Clark saw it, he'd have tried to get it," Lois said. "Superman's his friend."
"Yeah, I know," Bobby said. "But harin' off on foot in Suicide Slum is crazy. He'll get himself killed sure."
Lois bit her lip. Could Clark have been close enough to get exposed to this stuff? Darn him, anyway! She'd told him to be careful, and now he'd lost his phone and disappeared. He might be walking through the worst part of the slums without his super powers. What should she do?
She glanced at Bobby. "I have to find him," she said. "I owe you a Chinese dinner, Bobby. Thanks."
"Y'know, Lois," Bobby said, "I think marriage is good for you. You haven't insulted me once. Look, I'll show you the most direct way outta here. You can drive an' I'll look. Maybe we'll find him. He's got about a three-hour start on us, but he can't have gone too far on foot around here. He went down that street, there, headed west." He pointed. "If it was me and I didn't have a ride, I'd make tracks away from the docks as fast as I could."
"Okay." Lois started the engine, backed up and swiveled the Cherokee around. "Let's go."
The horizon was definitely brighter. A pale, pink glow was slowly growing, turning the dark water of the river a muddy pinkish color. Clark hoped it would warm up quickly. He was cold, wet, tired and filthy-dirty, and smelled to high heaven. All he wanted to do was go home, take a hot shower and fall into bed.
Here and there, a shabbily dressed figure shuffled by. Clark glanced down at himself and sighed. When he got into the more civilized sections of the city, he was bound to face embarrassing questions at the very least. As it was, this neighborhood was still bad but nothing like the area he had traversed during the night. He passed a liquor store advertising beer, a metal grate covering the door, and the windows shuttered. The wind on his back was cold and he found himself shivering. He had to clench his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering. As Superman, he tended to forget the kind of discomforts endured by ordinary humans, but it would be a long time before he forgot again after this past night. When he could take the chill no longer, he ducked into an alley between a grocery store and an old corner gas station for the meagre shelter the ancient building offered. The gas station was closed; the lights in the small, adjoining convenience store were off and the door appeared to be securely locked. Maybe if he waited here, the owner would show up before long and he could make a phone call from the pay phone he could see through the cracked window glass.
It was still cold but once out of the breeze, even the wet terrycloth provided some small amount of insulation. This couldn't last, however. He had to get help before he froze to death. The temperature was probably around forty-five degrees, but wearing wet clothing—what there was of it, anyway—the effective temperature was lower, at least to him. His fingers and toes felt like ice and his lips were numb. He huddled against the wall, reluctant to step back into the wind. Besides, he was tired. A few minutes of rest couldn't hurt, could it?
He had almost slipped into a doze when the sound of raised voices jerked him awake. Cautiously, he rose to his feet and peered out of his inadequate shelter.
The sun hadn't yet risen, but the eastern horizon was ablaze with the pink light of pre-sunrise and fluffy pink clouds dotted the sky. An elderly man, his back to the door of the gas station's run-down convenience store, was facing two, burly men. One of the two held a baseball bat, and the other a knife, and both were grinning.
"Open it up, Pops," the taller of the two said. "We got business we wanna transact."
"But I'm telling you, I don't have any money in there," the older man protested. "I took the receipts to the bank last night."
"Open it," the second man said. "Don't give us a hassle, Pop."
"Hey," Clark said.
The two men turned and both jaws dropped. As one, they began to laugh.
"Beat it, mister," the shorter man said, between snickers. "It *is* 'mister', isn't it?"
Clark didn't give them a chance to regain their composure. He charged, knocking the bat-wielder back against the wall with his shoulder. The breath whooshed out of the mugger in a pained grunt. Clark wrenched the bat from his hands and spun in time to meet the man with the knife.
The blade glanced along his arm, but Clark used the end of the bat to ram his second assailant in the solar plexus. He went down on his rear on the ground, the knife clattering away. Both men scrambled to their feet and ran.
The store's proprietor stared at him, clearly unsure whether Clark was a rescuer or another mugger. Clark dropped the bat, suddenly aware of a hot line of pain down his forearm, and the fact that blood was leaking from a deep slash that extended nearly from his elbow to his wrist.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
Mutely, the man nodded. His eyes were fixed on the wet, pink robe. "Who…who are you?"
"My name—" Clark felt the need to lean against the wall. "I'm Clark Kent. I got—mugged. They took my clothes." He subdued a slight wave of nausea.
"Oh, my Lord. Just a minute." The elderly man opened the door hastily and gave him a hand. "Come on inside and sit down."
Lois steered slowly through the broken, dirty streets, peering anxiously about. Bobby Bigmouth sat alertly beside her, looking in all directions. It was just after five in the morning, and to the east, the sky was turning a brilliant pink and gold color. So far, they had seen no sign of Clark.
The cellular phone tucked into the top of Lois's purse shrilled. Her heart leaped into her mouth at the sound and she dug frantically, one-handed, in her bag for it.
"Just keep your eyes on the road," Bobby said. "I'll get it." He fished the phone out of her purse and flipped it open. "Here."
Lois took the phone. "Lois Lane."
"Ms. Lane?" an unfamiliar voice said. "Are you Clark Kent's wife?"
"Yes! Yes, I am. Is he there?"
"This is Bob Gilmore. I'm the owner of Bob's Filling Station on the corner of Rose Street and Paradise Drive. Your husband's here with me."
"Oh, thank God! Is he all right?"
Gilmore hesitated. "Here, I'll let you talk to him."
There was a rustling sound, then Clark's voice said, "Lois?"
"Clark! Are you all right?"
"Um…more or less. Could you come and pick me up?"
"I'll be there as soon as I can!"
"Uh—can you bring me some clothes?"
"I'm in the Jeep—clothes? Why do you—no, don't bother to explain. I'll be there in a few minutes."
Bobby looked at her, grinning slightly as she hung up. "He's okay?"
"I don't know. He didn't sound quite right. Can you show me how to get to the corner of Rose and Paradise?"
"Bob's Filling Station? Sure," Bobby said. "Me and Gil are buds. Turn left at the next corner…"
Clark, sitting on a hard, plastic chair, wrapped in Bob Gilmore's jacket, winced slightly but endeavored to hold still while the filling station owner swabbed at the cut on his arm with antiseptic from the establishment's first aid kit. A coffeepot perked noisily in the background.
"When your wife gets here, you have her take you straight to the doctor, you hear me?" he told Clark. "Wouldn't want this cut to get infected, and that river's polluted pretty bad. I'm surprised it didn't kill you outright."
"Sure. Thanks, Gil, you're a real life saver," Clark said. "I owe you a lot for this."
"Shoot," Gilmore said, "you don't owe me nothing. You didn't have to charge in that way. You coulda stayed out of it."
Clark shook his head. "No, I couldn't."
Gilmore grinned slightly. "That attitude could get you killed, son, but thanks for helpin' out. You sure saved my bacon." He wrapped gauze around the injury with surprising skill. "You're lucky I used to be a medic in the army. There you go. That'll hold you 'til you see a doctor." He straightened up and glanced at the coffeepot. "Looks like the coffee's ready. You take sugar?"
A few minutes later, Clark finished his second cup. "Ah, that's better."
Gil fetched him a third. "Feelin' any warmer?"
"Yeah," Clark said. He took another swallow of the hot liquid. "I'll feel even better when I can get a bath and some clothes."
"I'll bet." Gil glanced over his shoulder as the silver Cherokee pulled up outside with a screech of tires. "That your wife?"
"Yeah." In spite of the fact that Lois was undoubtedly going to kill him, the release of tension was so great he felt a little light-headed. He drained the coffee cup and set it down. "I'll probably need a doctor after she gets hold of me."
The old man chuckled. "'Fraid I can't help you there." He went to the door and unlocked it as Lois opened the Jeep's door and jumped out, followed by Bobby Bigmouth. "Come on in, Ms. Lane. Mr. Kent's a bit worse for wear, but he'll be okay. Hi, Bobby."
Bobby followed Lois into the room. "Hi, Gil." He looked over at Clark and both his eyebrows went up. "Wow, Clark, you're a mess. You fall in the river or somethin'?"
Clark looked down at himself and the sodden pink bathrobe and T-shirt that lay on the floor beside him. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you, Bobby," he said. "I'm not sure *I* believe it."
Lois looked him up and down. "Well," she said acerbically, "I want to hear it, anyway. I'll get the blanket out of the Jeep."
She returned with the car blanket within a moment. Clark got to his feet and staggered slightly as his head swam. Gil and Bobby grabbed him. "Easy there, Clark," Bobby said. "You look a little wobbly."
Lois wrapped the blanket around him. "Come on, Clark, let's get you in the Jeep. I think I can wait to hear what happened."
It was an hour and a half later. Clark pulled the plug, rose carefully from the hot water of the tub and stepped out onto the thick bathmat. The bathroom was full of steam, but he didn't care. He was finally warm. Lois handed him a towel, glancing approvingly at her husband's muscular body. "Well, you smell a lot better."
"I feel a lot better, too" Clark said. He glanced at his bandaged arm and grimaced. "I'm sorry about all this, honey."
Lois giggled. "It's okay, Clark, I think you've been punished enough. Now that it's over it's funny, even if it wasn't at the time. The thought of you in a hot pink bathrobe…I always said you looked good in pink."
Clark groaned. "Don't remind me. I'm going to have to replace it. That one will never be the same again."
"How are you going to explain it?"
"I'm not. It's a gift from a friend, and that's the end of it."
"Well, at least wait until you get your powers back before you go into that section of town again," Lois said.
"Don't worry, I will," Clark said. He yawned. "What a night. It was probably good for me, though. It reminded me not to take my powers for granted. Did you call Perry?"
"Yes. I told him you had a little accident on your stakeout last night. You're on sick leave until tomorrow."
"And you say I'm the master of understatements. Get that box back to Dr. Klein, will you?"
Lois shook her head. "I already talked to him while you were soaking in the tub. We're keeping it in the secret compartment, with Dr. Klein's blessing until they've got a safer place for it. He doesn't want to take a chance that it might get into Intergang's hands again."
"You're probably right," Clark said. He yawned a second time and opened the door to the bedroom. "I'm beat. We can start work on the Councilman Pearson connection tomorrow."
"I'll have Jimmy start researching his background as soon as I get to the office." Lois watched as Clark put on his pajamas. "I owe Bobby a Chinese dinner, too. He really helped me out."
"Yeah. I guess you never really know who your friends are until you need them," Clark said. He crawled into bed and pulled the covers up to his chin. Lois leaned over him and kissed him lightly. "Good night, Clark. I'm glad you're home safe."
"Me, too." Clark was struggling to hold his eyes open. "Good night, honey. I'll see you this afternoon." He turned over, and closed his eyes. He was already asleep when Lois turned off the light and tiptoed from the room.