By Tank Wilson <TankW1@aol.com>
Submitted: March 2002
Summary: What is the probability that Clark would have ended up in Metropolis after his encounter with the Nightfall Asteroid? Stricken with amnesia, he could have landed just about anywhere and perhaps somewhere no one would ever suspect. A Tank rewrite of an old favorite, the episode "All Shook Up."
Author's notes: Okay, recently a spate of 'All Shook Up' rewrites hit the message boards. So, of course, I had to think up one of my own. Thus was born this story. As sometimes happens, this story seemed to go the way it wanted to, and it wound up deviating a bit from my original intention. Whether that turned out to be a good thing is for the gentle readers to decide. Special note: The chapter designations represent the breakdown of the instalments as they were posted on Zoomway's message boards.
As always, are characters are copyrighted and trademarked to their respective owners. Any and all feedback is welcome at TankW1@aol.com
Lois Lane's brow was furrowed as she pulled her jeep out of the Daily Planet's parking garage. It had been one crazy day. First there had been the unexpected solar eclipse this morning on their way to work. Then her partner, Clark Kent, had been hit by that runaway car. Thankfully he hadn't been hurt. She had been surprised by that. The impact had thrown him quite a distance, yet he seemed no worse for wear than a little dirt on his clothes. It wasn't till later that morning that they found out the eclipse had been caused by some huge asteroid that no one had ever heard of. The scientists called it Nightfall.
Once she and Clark got back from the EPRAD press conference Perry had called a staff meeting. He had been in rare form, like some eager general in his own personal war room. Lois had to smile as the memory of the look on Cat's face came back to her. Perry had suggested that Cat use Applegate to help her on a sidebar story. A 'Where Were You When the Lights Went Out' piece involving whatever local celebrities that Cat could get to talk. Needless to say, she declined the help.
Her smile turned to a frown as she recalled her surprise when the story conference broke up and she went back to her desk. Clark had left the meeting so he could start writing up their story about the EPRAD press conference. But when she'd gotten back to the newsroom, he was gone. He'd left her a message that said he'd be back soon, but he never came back. The article had been finished and was on his computer so she could just add her input and send it off to Perry. Still it rankled that he'd ducked out on her.
Her frown deepened as she remembered the phone call. Just before she was about to leave for home Clark called her. He gave her some line about needing to speak to her, that it was very important and could she please come over to his place as soon as should could. When she asked him what it was all about, he just claimed he couldn't say anything over the phone and pleaded with her to come. Lois shook her head. It would serve Clark right if she didn't come over. Teach him that she wouldn't just come at his beck and call. But her curiosity had been aroused, and she knew that she had to find out what he wanted. The thing that galled her the most was — she knew that Clark knew it too.
Lois guided her Jeep onto Clinton Street and found a parking spot very near Clark's front door. She grabbed the rear view mirror to take a quick check on her appearance, then immediately wondered why she had done so. It was just Clark. She purposely slowed her walk up his outer steps and waited a few extra moments before she knocked on his door.
"Come in; it's open."
Lois pushed the door open, while shaking her head in exasperation. "Clark, how many times do I have to tell you about locking… Superman?"
Standing in the middle of the living room, where she expected Clark to be, in all his colorful glory, was Superman. He smiled when he saw her and motioned her to come in. Lois closed the door behind her and quickly took the couple steps down into Clark's living room.
"Superman, not that I'm not glad to see you, but what are you doing here? Where's Clark? He asked me to come over."
Clark gestured for Lois to sit. "I know. I wanted to speak with you." Clark let his Superman persona slip for the briefest of moments. "I have some favors to ask."
Clark watched her as she approached and quietly sat on the couch facing him. She was so beautiful. It nearly took his breath away every time he saw her, but that was only a small part of what attracted him to Lois. She was brilliant, and so full of fire and passion one couldn't help but get carried away by her determination and enthusiasm for what she loved.
Once Professor Daitch had outlined their plan for dealing with the Nightfall asteroid, Clark knew he had some serious thinking to do. He knew that there was a very real chance that he wouldn't be coming back from this vital mission. There wasn't any choice, really. It was something that he had to do, but it also made him aware of certain things. If this truly was to be his last mission, there were things that Lois needed to know. If he died in this planned action against the asteroid, he didn't want his relationship with Lois to end the way it stood now.
Lois had a schoolgirl-like crush on Superman. He knew that. But he also knew that she considered him more than just her partner. She considered him her friend, possibly her best friend. He remembered the look on her face when he said goodbye the time that the unnatural heat wave was forcing Superman to leave the city. She had been truly hurt by his leaving. Also there was that time with Miranda's pheromone spray. Afterward they found out it didn't create feelings, but merely lowered the inhibitions and allowed for deeply buried feelings to come forth. Lois had gotten a face full of the stuff, as had most of the others, but she hadn't gone running after Superman. She had come on to Clark.
He couldn't gauge how deep Lois' feelings for her partner were, but she was *his* best friend and she deserved to know the truth. She was also the one person he trusted to carry out some last requests that he felt would be necessary should he fail to return. It was a tough situation that he found himself in, and it would help ease his mind if he knew he had a 'partner' in this. He would call his folks tonight but would downplay the danger and his doubts with them. There was no sense in causing them any undue worry. They would have enough to deal with if the worst should happen. It may not be totally fair to her, but Lois was the only logical choice. She was also the only emotional choice.
Lois stared up at her hero, as she gnawed on her lip. She couldn't help but feel a bit nervous. He looked so serious. But he should know that he could ask her anything. "Anything, you know that," she said quickly.
Clark sighed as he tried to think of the best way to broach the subject matter he wished to discuss. "You should know that EPRAD's Professor Daitch asked to see me tonight."
Lois cocked her head as she searched Superman's face for clues as to where the conversation was going. "Is that why he took Clark aside after the news conference, to have him contact you?" Lois frowned as Superman just nodded. "So why didn't he tell me that? Why cover it up with that ridiculous comment about Daitch enjoying our Superman coverage?" Lois folded her arms across her chest. "What's going on here?"
Clark couldn't help but smile at Lois' impatience. "All will be explained, but first I have to have your promise that what you hear from me tonight you can't publish." He held up his hand to forestall her complaint. "Part of what I tell you will become public knowledge tomorrow with an announcement by the President, but it can't get out before then. As for the rest, it's highly personal and I'm asking you to keep it to yourself. I'm sure you will understand why."
Lois eyes narrowed as her lips drew into a tight line. "If it's going to be public knowledge, why can't I have an earlier exclusive?" Lois saw the look on Superman's face. "Okay, I'll be good and just listen. And as far as any personal stuff you want to share with me? You know you can trust me, don't you?"
Clark smiled a sad smile. "Yes, I know I can." He came over and sat at the other end of the couch and faced her. "Tonight I found out that this Nightfall asteroid poses more of a threat than just causing unexpected solar eclipses."
"What kind of threat?" Lois shifted uncomfortably in her corner of the couch.
Clark tried not to look too grim. "Nightfall is seventeen miles across and… in about four days it will collide with the earth."
Lois stifled a gasp. Her mind immediately flashed on old sci-fi films depicting the end of the world, then she switched over to memories of documentaries on the destruction of the dinosaurs. Her hands clenched and unclenched several times. After composing herself with a deep breath she searched out Superman's eyes.
"This could wipe out civilization as we know it, couldn't it?" The look on Superman's face was answer enough. "They can't keep this a secret!"
Clark almost smiled at her words, and how they mirrored his own thoughts when he found out. "No, the President will make an announcement tomorrow morning at a world wide press conference. They just wanted to make sure that I was on board first, before they made their announcement."
Lois raised her brow. "On board?"
Clark sighed. "They expect me to fly out into space and destroy the asteroid."
Lois' eyes grew very wide. Her voice was whisper soft. "Can you?"
Clark avoided looking at her directly. "I'll be outfitted with some communications equipment, and probably some sort of extra oxygen supply. Then I'll fly off to rendezvous with the Nightfall asteroid in deep space."
Lois reached over and, with her hand, redirected his face toward hers. "That's not what I asked."
Clark stared into Lois' eyes for several moments. "I don't know." Clark sighed. "Lifting a space shuttle into orbit is nothing compared to this. This asteroid is the size of Metropolis and I have to fly a million miles out into space and strike with a force greater than I've ever exerted before." Clark shrugged. "The scientists think that if I hit precisely the right spot with enough force, the asteroid will be shattered into pieces. Most of those pieces will then miss the earth, and those that don't will be small enough so they'll burn up in the atmosphere."
Lois just shook her head back and forth as Clark was explaining things. "It sounds way too dangerous for you." Lois grabbed his hand. "You've got to tell them you can't do it. It's much too risky." Lois found herself having trouble taking a breath. "You could… you could be injured, or even…"
Clark placed his finger against Lois' lips. "Lois, you know I have to do this. If this asteroid isn't stopped, or at least deflected off course, it could literally mean the end of the world." Clark shook his head sadly. "Measured against something like that, my life isn't really too much to ask."
Lois pulled back, clearly in an agitated state. "Of course it is. There must be another way. Couldn't they just shoot some atomic missiles, or something, at it?"
"Well, we did discuss that possibility, but it has to be held back as a last resort only."
"The effective range of our nuclear arsenal is such that they would have to let the asteroid get awfully close in order to ensure they would have a strike with the needed accuracy, and they couldn't even guarantee that. But the main problem is the payload would have to be such that the fallout from the blast would blanket a good portion of the Northern Hemisphere, which I think you'll agree, is something to be avoided if at all possible."
Lois chewed her lip as her mind worked furiously. "Why do you have to smash into it? Why can't you just fly up and give it a nudge. You know, push it off course."
Clark marveled at how Lois kept bringing up all the arguments he and the Professor had gone through while working out their plan of action. "I wish I could, but it's a matter of mass and inertia." He smiled when he saw the confusion on Lois' face. "Lois, Nightfall is huge and is traveling at nearly 30 thousand miles an hour. Now, while I can exert more force than my body mass would normally allow due to my powers, even I would find it impossible to slow, and change the course of, that much momentum in the time I'd have to do it."
He saw that she still wasn't entirely with him. "Let's say that you had a bullet in your hand and in a fit of anger you threw it at someone. Now that bullet is just a little piece of lead, weighing only ounces. Backed by the force generated by your throw, when confronted with a big massive person, it would just bounce off. At best you might raise a bruise. But if that bullet were fired from a gun, it would tear into that person destroying tissue and muscle as it passed through. Like that bullet, I need the added advantage of great speed to augment the force I can bring to the asteroid."
Clark picked her hand back up and rubbed the back of it with his thumb. "Do you understand?"
Lois bit down on her lip and nodded. "Yes. I do understand. And I understand the danger, but…" Lois took a deep breath, not truly believing she was about to say what she was going to. "Why are you telling me this — now. You obviously don't want any of this to get out before the official announcements tomorrow, so why did you want to see me?"
Clark sighed and released Lois' hand. He stood and paced for a few moments before he turned back to face her. "As I said earlier, I have some favors to ask. But beyond that, there are some things, well, some *thing* that I want you to know."
Lois felt a slight chill creep up her spine. "And as I said, you can ask me anything."
Clark nodded. "This mission is one that is going to test my limits like they have never been tested before. I'm fairly confident that I can produce the necessary force to achieve the results the scientists want, but I'm not so confident in my ability to survive the impact. There's a very good chance that I won't come back from this mission."
Lois jumped up from the couch and stood in front of him, her hand on his chest. "Don't say that. You're invulnerable. Of course you'll survive." Lois stared down at her feet and whispered under her breath. "You have to."
"Believe me, Lois, I'm not suicidal, but I am realistic." Clark led her back to the couch and the two of them sat again. "If I should — not — come back, I need you to do some things for me." Clark took a deep breath. "And in order for you to do these favors for me, I have to share a secret that I've been keeping from you… from everyone."
Lois' heart began to hammer. If it weren't for the seriousness of Superman's attitude she'd be thrilled at the prospect of him sharing his secrets with her. As it was, she couldn't completely stifle a spark of excitement.
Clark almost smiled when he saw that he had Lois' rapt attention. He took one last breath before he began his confession. "Superman has only been around for a few months now, but I have been on this planet since I was a baby. I was found and raised as the adopted son of two very wonderful people."
Lois gasped. "What you said to Amy Platt," Lois blurted out, remembering that first time she met Superman. "You said your mother made your suit for you!"
A sardonic smile forced its way onto Clark's face as he joined Lois in the memory. "That's right, I did, and she did." Clark took Lois' hands in his as he captured her eyes with his. "Superman is just a facade. He's a character I created in order to help people and still be able to have something that resembles a normal life. Superman is this larger than life super hero, but me, I'm really just a farmboy from Kansas."
Lois thought her heart was going to stop beating as her lungs forgot how to breath. "You, you mean… " Her mind refused to wrap itself around the obvious that he'd just revealed to her. "You're…"
Superman stood up and stepped a few feet away from the couch. He began his spin. The gaudy suit blurred into a swirl of primary colors, then quickly blended into a more sedate combination of black and tan. When he stopped he was dressed simply in a pair of tan slacks and a black pullover shirt. He slipped on a pair of glasses.
Lois' mouth hung open. "… Clark."
Lois' mind threatened to explode. It was too much. A huge asteroid was going to crash into the planet. Superman was going to fly out and crash into it at super speed, and hope that it would be destroyed, and hope that he wouldn't be killed. Now, this selfless hero tells her that he was really just a farmboy from Kansas. A person she had worked beside on a daily basis for the last several months. A person who she had grown to respect as a partner and come to think of as good friend. And she never guessed.
What kind of investigative reporter was she? Why hadn't she seen it? Her emotions were all tangled up. She was shocked at his admission. Yet she was also angry that he had kept this from her, and she was hurt that he had lied to her to do it. She thought they were more than just work partners. She stared at him as he came over and sat next to her, taking her hand in his. She stared down at their hands, then shifted her gaze back to his face.
"Why?" It was all she could think to say.
Clark cocked his head and gave Lois a combination grimace and smile. "Why a secret identity? Why am I telling you? Why didn't I tell you sooner? Why am I telling you now?"
Lois, still slightly in shock, nodded her head. "Yes."
Clark sighed. He knew this wasn't going to be easy. "Lois, I hope you can believe that, besides my parents, you were the only other person who I ever wanted to share this with. I had hoped that the time would come when I could share my dual identity with you. I have hated having to lie to you about this, but I had to be careful. I had to be sure."
Lois was close to tears, but she sniffed them back and forced herself to glare at Clark. "Really? Care to explain? I thought we were friends, yet you felt it necessary to lie to me."
"Lois, we are friends. You are my best friend." Clark's voice took on an added note of sincerity. "But we haven't always been." Clark ran his hand through his hair. "I've… had feelings for you ever since I first saw you in Perry's office that day, but at first you merely tolerated me." Clark paused as he saw her blush.
Lois jumped into breach. "But I got over that fairly soon." Lois began to use her hands to emphasis her words. "Even if I haven't told you enough, I do respect you. You are a good reporter, a great writer, and the only person I've ever been able to stand to be partnered with." Lois took in a deep breath. "We're friends, close friends."
Clark raised an eyebrow. "You say we're close friends, but how close? Are we close close?"
Lois squirmed under his gaze. "Well, maybe not close close, but close." Suddenly she sat up straight, as if just remembering something. "Wait a minute! I've never made it any secret how I felt about Superman. You've always known about that — and you're Superman!" Lois blushed, embarrassed, as she realized how silly her dual feelings for this one man must seem.
Clark, sensing Lois' discomfort, still couldn't hide his own grimace. "That's another problem." He stood and began to pace again. "Lois, Superman isn't real. He's just a disguise I wear in order to help people. I'm really Clark and do you know how frustrating it was to see you moon over a cartoon cut-out while practically ignoring the real person?"
Lois turned away from him and stared at her hands for several moments. Her own frustrations over Superman's inconsistent behavior toward her sprang to the forefront of her mind. She did understand Clark's frustration. Even more so now that she was beginning to realize that Clark's feelings for her might be a bit stronger than 'just friends'. The thought scared her and excited her at the same time.
Loving Superman seemed like the ultimate expression of love between a man and a woman. It was pure, chaste, and safe. She could admire him for all his admirable qualities, marvel at his incredible powers, and lust after his exceptional good looks. Yet, no matter how much she wished that he would sweep her off her feet and fly her to some exotic love nest, a small, practical part of her mind knew that such thoughts were fantasy and one could never be hurt by their fantasies.
Clark was a different matter. He had all of Superman's wonderful qualities, heck he was Superman, but he was also Clark. He was the guy who put up with all her moods. He was the guy who brought her coffee, just the way she liked it, every morning. He was the guy who came over and had pizza and watched bad videos with her when she was lonely. He was her friend, and he was real. And that was very scary.
She bit her lip. There was a lot for her to think about, but she knew that right now she had to focus on the present. There was a serious threat facing the world and Superman — Clark — needed her help. They would have time to talk this out later.
She turned her gaze back to his face. "I believe you might be selling your *creation* a bit short, but I think I can understand how you feel. Let me just say that once this is all over we will have to sit down and discuss this whole Superman, Clark, and Lois triangle in great detail. We both have a lot of questions to ask… and to answer." Lois allowed herself a little sly smile. "And you just might be surprised by some of my answers." Lois patted the cushion next to her and waited for him to sit next to her. "So, I accept that *maybe* this might have been earlier than you would have liked to confess your secret to me, but you have. Now, I guess, is the time to tell me… why?"
Clark first broke into a shy smile, but then quickly lost it for a more grim look. "What it comes down to, Lois, is that I might not come back from this and if that is the case I didn't want you wondering about what happened to your friend and partner. You deserved to know the truth."
Lois bit her lip. "Don't talk like this."
Clark shook his head. "I have to, Lois. Trying to live a normal life was just one reason to keep Superman and Clark Kent separate. In the relatively short time that Superman has been on the scene he's managed to make more than a few enemies."
Lois gave him a puzzled look. "Do you always refer to yourself in the third person when talking about Superman?"
Clark chuckled briefly. "Now, you sound like my mother." He turned serious the next moment. "But if it were known that Superman was, in fact, really Clark Kent, my folks, you, Jimmy, Perry, anyone known to be a good friend or loved one of mine would be in danger. Criminals wouldn't hesitate to strike back at me through them. I can't take that risk. The secret must be protected."
Lois nodded warily in agreement. "Yesss, I can see that. But what does that have to do with this?"
Clark's tone was apologetic. "Lois, I know this isn't fair to put on you, but if… the worst should happen, I'm counting on you to help preserve my secret. Just because I might be gone wouldn't mean that my loved ones wouldn't still be in danger."
Lois found herself staring into his earnest face. A tear slowly slid down her cheek. "Clark, nothing is going to happen to you."
Clark reached over and placed his hand against her cheek. "I hope you're right, but in case something does, I have another favor to ask." Clark saw Lois' lips tighten but she said nothing. "My parents think the world of you and I know it would be a great comfort to them if you could…"
Lois jerked back. "Could what? Visit them? Talk to them? Clark, do you honestly think that I could be any comfort to them if they lost their only son?" Lois couldn't help but wonder who would comfort her. Didn't he understand that his parents wouldn't be the only ones affected by his not coming back. Just the thought of that happening was like a sharp stab in her heart. How could he ask this of her? She shook her head slowly but couldn't look him in the eye. "Your parents are great people, but they hardly know me!"
"Believe me, Lois, my parents admire you, and my mother already takes your side in all the arguments I've mentioned to them."
"Well, I could see that your mother was a bright woman." Lois managed a small grin but it never reached her eyes.
"Yes she is, as are you. I need you, and them to perpetuate the myth." He recaptured her hands. "The world may know what happened to Superman, but it will be up to you and my folks to come up with a reason as to Clark's disappearance."
Lois pulled away from Clark. She stood and it was her turn to pace. "Clark, I can't accept your doom and gloom. I'm not the type to comfort anyone. You can't ask this of me."
Clark sighed. "Lois, you can do anything."
Lois voice became more animated as her denial grew stronger. "No, no way that I can do such a thing." She shrugged her shoulders. "So I guess you'll just have to come back."
Clark couldn't help but give her a resigned smile. "Okay, Lois, I guess I'll just have to come back."
The sun shone down brightly on the crowd gathered at the EPRAD center the next morning. If one could forget the reason they were all gathered there, it would seem the start of a truly beautiful day. Lois hoped that it would prove to be a wonderful day, but for reasons that had nothing to do with the pleasant weather.
The President had made his announcement about the Nightfall asteroid and its apparent impending collision with the earth. He hadn't minimized the catastrophic effects that such a collision would have, but he had emphasized the positive. The positive was Superman. The President had used examples of many of Superman's phenomenal exploits in the past to calm any obvious fears that the public might have. He had presented the image of a man supremely confident in Superman's ability to handle the crises in his typically proficient manner. From the general buzz of the crowd milling around, he'd done a good job of communicating that confidence. Of course, this was Metropolis, where people were more used to Superman routinely saving the day.
Lois nervously licked her lips as she pushed her way up to the front of the crowd being held back by the ropes placed to keep the reporters and gawkers out from under foot. Lois soon managed to find herself right at the front of the crowd, and not surprisingly just in front of the restraining ropes. She looked around for Superman. Within moments, he came from the back, as the crowd parted for him, and passed next to Lois.
She turned as he reached her spot. "How do you feel?" Her voice betrayed her anxiety as thoughts of last night flashed through her brain.
Superman looked confident as he glanced around and nodded. "This will work."
Lois sighed and smiled at him. "That's a relief. Why are you so sure?"
"Because it has to." It was almost, but not quite a question.
Lois kept her feelings in check, but just barely, and gave him another nod and smile. "The power of positive thinking, huh?"
They stared at each other for a few awkward moments. "How are you feeling, Lois?"
"Scared enough for both of us," she said in a much softer tone.
Superman's lips drew into a tight line. "I'll be back." He stepped forward and caressed the side of her face with his hand. "We'll go flying," he finished in a comforting voice.
"I hope so." She felt a sting in the corner of her eye as she repressed the tear that wanted to fall.
"I have to go." His concern was clearly written on his face, for the mission, and for her.
Lois tried to put a lighter tone to her words. "Good luck."
She watched as he turned to go, suddenly, impulsively, she reached up and turned him back to her. Without a thought as to the appropriateness, or how it might look to the assembled crowd of reporters, she rose up and captured his lips with hers in a kiss that was both desperate and longing. It communicated her fears along with her desires. Though she wouldn't allow herself to think of it in that context and instead would claim it was a good luck kiss, it was very much a kiss goodbye.
She watched as the military, and Professor Daitch outfitted Superman with some communication equipment and an additional six hour air supply. Lois' heart was in her throat as Superman calmly rejected the general's tactical nuke offer and reiterated the plan that the scientists had come up with. True to who he was, Superman felt they should try this plan first. In his mind it was better to risk his life than to risk a massive nuclear fallout potential.
Superman purposely strode to a cleared spot in the middle of crowd. He glanced around, his eyes landing last on Lois and holding there for several meaningful moments. With a final sigh, Superman launched himself into the sky to the audible gasps of the crowd. Within seconds he was out of sight.
Lois, up until that moment, had been holding her emotions in check. She was a professional reporter as were most of the others gathered there, and she couldn't let them see what Superman… no, Clark's departure was doing to her. Now that he was gone, the dam threatened to burst as the true realization hit her — hard. That wasn't just the hero of millions who had taken off on a potentially deadly mission only moments ago; it was Clark, her partner, and her best friend. She hurried away from the crowd so no one could see the tears which had begun to force their way from the corners of her eyes.
Lois hurried back to the Daily Planet and soon found herself part of the crowd of Planet staffers who were crowded around the television watching the coverage of Superman's desperate mission. No one seemed too concerned about their own pending tasks at that moment. Everything seemed trivial in light of the possible end of the world.
Lois had managed to take control of her feelings before she entered the newsroom, though no one would have noticed any extra apprehension on her part since everyone was in a somber mood as they watched the drama unfold.
Suddenly the television anchor said that they were going to be able to take a live feed from Superman. Lois' insides did a little dance as she heard Clark's exchange with mission control. He sounded so confident. Lois just wished she were as confident.
The voice of mission control cut through the stillness of the room. "Impact in five — four — three — two…" There was no sound for several moments. "This is EPRAD control. We have lost transmission with Superman."
A fist closed around Lois' heart as her co-workers gasped and began murmuring amongst themselves. She fought off the fear that threatened to overwhelm her. Instead she forced herself to deny that there was any problem.
"Well, his microphone went out," she said in her most logical sounding voice. "He's fine." She looked about her at the shocked faces of the Planet staffers. "He has to be." She wasn't nearly as sure as she sounded, and she didn't sound all that sure.
Lois numbly went back to her desk and sat down. She stared at her blank computer screen as her mind tried to sort out what she knew and didn't know. She knew that Perry was bellowing orders in the background, but she didn't really hear him. Clark had told her that the impact was going to be comparable to that of a 50 megaton bomb. Surely no mere communications equipment would be able to survive a blast like that. It only made sense that the transmission would be lost. Why couldn't people realize that and just accept that it would take a while for Superman to return and tell everyone he was all right? Why couldn't she?
"Lois!" Perry's bellow cut through her musing. "You and Clark get down to EPRAD pronto. We need to know exactly what happened. Did Superman smash the asteroid like he was supposed to? Is the danger over? And try to find out if anyone knows what happened to Superman."
Lois had to shake her head to refocus on her editor's words. "Okay, Chief, I'm on it." She rose to go.
Perry peered around the office obviously looking for something or someone. "I told you and Kent to go. Where is Kent anyway?"
Lois had to swallow before she could effect a nonchalant look. "I don't know, Chief." She shrugged. "Maybe he's already down there? Maybe he stayed there to cover the mission?" The last was hurled over her shoulder as she hustled to the elevator. The elevator doors opened and she jumped in. "If he shows up here, tell him I've already gone." The doors closed.
Perry stared somewhat bewildered at his favorite reporter as he watched her disappear into the elevator. He hoped that Superman was all right. Perry was well aware of Lois' feelings for the Man of Steel, and he could tell that Lois was very worried about him. If this, indeed, had proved to be Superman's last mission, Perry wasn't sure how Lois would cope. He shook his head sadly. She would need her partner more than ever if that was the case. He pursed his lips. Where was that boy anyway?
Lois sat in a chair just staring out her window into the ever darkening sky. The brilliant reds and oranges of the sunset were now gone, replaced by the ever deepening blues and purples of the coming night. She brushed a single tear away as she looked out into the part of the sky where the Nightfall asteroid used to be.
The news from EPRAD had been both good and bad. The Nightfall asteroid had been, for the most part, destroyed, and, thanks to Superman, the world was no longer faced with the threat of extinction that had claimed the dinosaurs. Still the scientists pointed out that there were still several large pieces that could possibly survive a plunge through the atmosphere. As many as a dozen large chunks of the asteroid were projected to still be on a collision course with the planet. None were of a size that could cause widespread devastation. Meteorites merely the size of a football to a few yards across might survive reentry, but the localized damage could be significant. There was no way to plot exact courses for those errant meteors, but indications were that the east coast of the United States was most likely. The hope was that most would fall into the ocean. They would know for sure in three days.
There had been no word of Superman. Professor Daitch had speculated that perhaps Superman had been rendered unconscious by the impact with the asteroid. If that were the case, he would not be flying back under his own power but be dependent on the rebound momentum created by the collision for his return velocity. This could mean that it might take an unconscious Superman several hours to effect a return from a point that only took him about a half an hour to reach under his own power.
Lois asked about Superman's air supply and if it was likely to have survived the collision impact. The professor had shrugged apologetically when he said that he didn't know. He did point out that Superman had been given a six hour air supply and if it had survived the impact it would allow him several hours of additional time to return. Daitch added that, if Superman were in an unconscious, or semi- conscious state, he was likely to require less air as his respiration would be lowered. That could effectively extend his air supply by a respectable amount.
Another reporter had, to Lois's dread, brought up the question of whether Superman would make it back at all. Was it possible, she had asked, that Superman, if unconscious or injured, might miss the earth entirely. Lois clenched her fists as Professor Daitch explained that while it was possible that Superman could have been deflected on a course that might miss the planet, he felt that it was equally likely that he could have been sent on a path that would send him back to earth. Just where he might come to earth was anyone's guess though.
Lois had chosen that moment to leave. She had enough for her article and didn't need to hear any more talk of Superman being forever lost in space. She brushed back another tear as she glanced at her watch. It had been over nine and a half hours since Clark took off earlier that day. Lois couldn't help but glance over at the phone. She had called Clark's apartment the minute she had gotten home. There had been no answer. She had called three more times, leaving a more desperate message each time. Still, there had been no return call.
If it had only been Superman who was still missing, Lois might have been concerned but not terribly worried yet. After all, it wasn't as if she would expect Superman to check in with her whenever he completed a mission. But this was different. This was also Clark, and she knew that if Clark hadn't checked in with her, or the Planet by now, it was because he couldn't. Something had gone wrong.
Turning her eyes once more to that section of the sky that had once held such a catastrophic potential, she saw only the normal stars twinkling in their innocence. She surrendered to her tears as her heart seemed to shrivel, and her mind succumbed to the fear that had been nibbling at its corners the entire day. Lois sobbed in silence as the night marched inexorably on.
Lake County Sheriff Lauren Larson slowed her Ford Bronco as she caught sight of a shooting star streaking low across the horizon to the north. She was on her way home and looking forward to her day off tomorrow. The streak across the sky had been quite bright as it lit up the early evening twilight. Wondering if it might not be a piece of the Nightfall asteroid that Superman had destroyed, she watched as it seemed to disappear behind the tall pines of the Superior National Forest. A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth as she fought the urge to 'wish upon a star'. Wishing wouldn't change anything. Her life was what it was, and she didn't think that any sort of divine intervention to magically change things was 'in the stars'. She sighed as she turned onto the old logging road that led to her home.
It wasn't as if she hated her life or anything. She liked being a county sheriff. Law enforcement was what she went to school to learn. It was just that she had hoped to ply her trade where the action was a little more exciting than dealing with drunken tourists. Lake County, Minnesota was about as far from the hustle and bustle of a large metropolitan area as you could get and still be considered a part of civilization. It wasn't the end of the world, but you could definitely see it from here. There weren't even eleven thousand residents in the entire county, let alone in any city or town. The two largest cities nearby were Ely and Duluth, neither of which was even in the county.
Lauren had enjoyed growing up in northern Minnesota. She loved the outdoors. The beauty of the lush pine forests, the crystal clear lakes, and the fast rushing rivers and streams were a balm to an energetic, but lonely young girl. Her mother had died when she was only ten, and she'd lived with her father, a former logger, in their small three room cabin outside of Isabella.
He had been very proud of her graduation from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, majoring in criminology. Unfortunately, before she could take her new skills and attitude out into the real world, her dream had to be put on hold. Her father took ill, and she had no choice but to stay and take care of him.
In one respect she had lucked out. A retirement in the ranks of the county sheriff's department gave her a job close to home. Even though the county offices were in Two Harbors, about sixty five miles away, the job required the sheriffs to have areas of patrol in various parts of the county, so she was able to draw the area along Highway 1 from Isabella north to Winton, White Iron, and Silver Rapids. It wasn't exactly what she had in mind when she graduated, but she had figured it would be good experience.
Unfortunately, fate didn't agree with her plans. Her father had lingered for several years, finally succumbing late last winter. Now that she was supposedly free to do whatever she wanted, she didn't know what to do. Seven years as a sheriff had become a comfortable pattern for her, too comfortable. She knew that she was getting into a rut, but she also knew it was a rut that she had dug for herself. The only question that remained now was — did she really want to climb out of it?
Suddenly she caught some movement out of the corner of her eye. One always had to be alert for deer or other wildlife darting across the roadway. These old logging roads were cut out of the forests themselves and any animal would be literally in the road before you could see them. Lauren had learned early to be particularly wary while traveling these routes, especially at night.
When she eventually caught sight of the 'animal' she nearly drove off the path, Lauren slammed on her brakes as she stared, completely confused, at the sight before her. Standing on the side of the road, blinking in the glare of her headlamps stood a man. A completely naked man.
Still in a state of bemused bewilderment, Lauren slowly opened her door and exited her vehicle, leaving the headlights on to illuminate the scene. The fellow seemed a little old to be the victim of a fraternity prank from UMD. Never having actually seen an incident, she had heard tales of hapless pledges being stripped naked and left out in the middle of nowhere to find their way back. But this was winter, and a person could quickly suffer from extreme exposure being out in this weather in such a state of undress.
Other possibilities flashed through her mind as she approached the mystery man. They weren't close to any of the local motels, or resorts, but she supposed it was possible that he was a lost tourist. It wasn't uncommon for cross-country skiers to get lost, especially if they wandered off the marked trails. Of course, that didn't explain why the fellow was naked!
"Can I ask what you are doing out here — like that, sir?" Lauren sniffed the air but didn't smell any indication of alcohol.
The fellow shaded his eyes from the bright lights of her car's headlamps as he seemed to try to focus on her. He was an incredibly good looking man. He was a little taller than she was, with thick dark hair and dark eyes. He was obviously either a fitness nut, or blessed with spectacular genes because he was very fit looking. *Very* fit looking. She had to consciously force herself to look up at his face and not let her gaze stray to the hard planes of his chest and his washboard abs. Not that staring at his face was all that much of a chore either.
He didn't seem ready to talk. "What's your name?" she asked, hoping to get a dialog started.
He finally appeared to realize that she was talking to him. "I… I don't remember." His look spoke of confusion and frustration.
Going against common caution, Lauren, stepped a little closer. "You don't remember who you are? Do you know where you are, or why you are out here… er, undressed?"
The man stared at her for several moments, not seeming to really notice that he was naked. "No, I can't seem to remember anything." His breathing began to quicken.
Lauren could tell that the man was beginning to panic. His agitation over his loss of memory was showing clearly on his face. She had to think that he would be freezing also. Luckily there wasn't much of a breeze that night, but it still was well below freezing and he had to be cold. She noticed him looking all around him, as if trying to find something that he might recognize. Then he started to shake. His level of agitation was increasing.
"Where am I? What's going on?" His voice raised in pitch and volume.
She wasn't sure how much exposure he'd already suffered from, but she thought she recognized signs of shock setting in. She rushed back to her vehicle and grabbed the emergency blanket out of the back. By the time she had returned he had collapsed. She wrapped the blanket around his shoulders and tried to hoist him to a standing position.
"Damn, you are one heavy sonofagun!"
Lauren grunted as she half lifted and half dragged the mystery man toward her car. It took some effort, but she finally managed to bundle him into her back seat. She positioned him as best she could, with his head resting against the back of the seat and his body covered the best she could. Her training told her that she had to keep him warm if it was indeed shock he was slipping into. She cranked the heat to the maximum as she shifted the vehicle back into drive and spun her wheels on the gravel of the road.
Proper procedure would have been to call in the incident and head for the nearest medical facility. But against what should have been an automatic response on her part, she instead continued toward her home. She was only a few minutes from her house and the most important thing was to get this man out of the weather and into a warm bed. At least that was her rationalization to herself. She could always report everything in the morning.
It did cross her mind that she knew absolutely nothing about this man, and here she was taking him to her home. It really didn't make any sense, but for some reason, she just knew that she could trust this mystery man. After all, he didn't seem to know any more about himself than she did.
It was another serious workout getting him into her house. She left him on the couch while she made up the bed in what had been her father's room. Within minutes she had some clean linens on the bed and a thick comforter rolled back. She then dragged him into the bedroom, which like her own, opened to the combination kitchen /living room.
Once she had settled him into the bed she took his temperature. Having had to take care of an ill parent for many years had left Lauren with many minor medical instruments. She was puzzled by the fact that despite having been out in the cold for what must have been a considerable time, and the fact that she had originally thought shock might be setting it, his temperature was fairly normal. Maybe a little higher, but nothing out of the ordinary, or at all dangerous. His pulse rate was strong, and he seemed to be breathing well. By all appearances he just seemed weak and exhausted. She was no doctor, but it seemed that sleep would be the best medicine for her strange visitor.
As she turned to go she was stopped by some mumbling. She went back over to his bedside and listened intently. Most of it was too soft for her to understand. Actually she only understood three words that he spoke. Two were names, Lane and Kent; perhaps one or both were his. The last was a bit more of a puzzle since there was no understandable context to put it within. She didn't know what he was saying, but the word 'sorry' came through quite clearly.
Lauren shook her head once again in wonderment at what she was doing. She was considered a fairly conservative, good girl, by those who knew her well, which in this part of the country was nearly everyone. Yet here she was bringing some strange, good looking, amnesiac into her home without a second thought. Maybe the cabin fever was setting in early, or maybe she was just tired of her predictable life and saw this mystery man as a chance for a little excitement for a change. Whatever her reasons, they could wait until the morning for further study. She turned out the overhead light as she left the room heading for the kitchen and a late supper before bed.
Lois dragged herself into the Daily Planet the next morning. There were dark circles under her eyes from a lack of sleep, and her eyes were still a bit red and puffy from crying. While the rational side of her told her that she'd probably never see Superman… or Clark ever again, her stubborn side wasn't quite ready to give up on her partner and friend.
"Lois! You and Kent, in my office." Perry's bellow greeted her before she could even boot up her computer.
Lois dragged herself toward the Chief's office. She wasn't looking forward to this, but she'd promised Clark that she'd help him keep his secret. Trouble was, she had no idea what she was going to tell Perry.
"You bellowed, Chief?" Lois tried to put a humorous edge to her voice, but it didn't work, and she could tell that Perry wasn't fooled by it.
"Sit down, honey." He indicated the chair in front of his desk with a wave on his hand, not waiting to see if she complied. "I notice that Clark is not with you. Mind telling me why?"
Lois avoided his eyes for several moments as she clenched her fists. Finally, after a small sigh, she unclenched her hands and looked up into her editor's expectant face. "He didn't call you?" Lois bit on her lip as she watched Perry silently shake his head. "Well, that surprises me. Clark is usually much more conscientious than that." Lois took another deep breath. "You know how it was, Chief. Nobody knew what was going to happen, whether the world was going to come to an end or not. You know how close Clark is to his folks. He hopped the first flight out to Kansas to be with them during this time." Lois shrugged. "He told me before he left, I'd just assumed he'd told you too."
Perry's eyebrow had raised itself during Lois' little speech. He folded his hands in front of him on his desk. "Didn't you tell me that you thought he might be down at the EPRAD center yesterday when I asked? If you knew that he'd already gone home, why didn't you say so?"
Panic began to well up in Lois. She was already making mistakes! How did Clark ever think that she could cover for him, and why did he have to make it necessary for her to do so! Lois tried to put her most innocent look on her face as her hands seemed to flutter about furtively.
"I guess I forgot," she finally answered with a weak smile.
Lois made a vague gesture over her shoulder toward the general vicinity of her desk. "Do you want me to call his folks, out in Smallville? See if he's on his way back yet?"
Perry leaned back in his chair. "Yes, why don't you do that, Lois. I do appreciate knowing where my reporters are." Perry leaned forward again and fixed Lois with a stare that made her uncomfortable. "Tell him I'll cut him some slack this time. Hell, I would have liked to have been with Alice and my kids yesterday too, if they had been around." Lois started to get up, but Perry stopped her with a hand on her arm. "But just this time."
Lois quickly nodded her head and left Perry's office. It was all she could do not to run. Once back at her desk she had to clasp her hands around her arms to keep from shaking noticeably. She knew she had to take the next step. She had to call the Kents. But what would she say! What would they say? She had only met them once, and she had to admit that she had liked them. But who was she to them? She was only their son's partner at work. Yet now, because of her promise to Clark, she had to confront the parents of Superman and tell them that their son might not be coming back.
Suddenly her nerves took another jolt as her phone rang, startling her. Lois just stared at the phone for a couple of seconds before her mind reengaged and she picked up the receiver.
"Lois Lane," she said with a bit less conviction than one would think.
"Lois, it's Martha Kent. Sorry to bother you, but Clark didn't answer his phone." Lois could hear the hesitation in Martha's voice. "I was wondering if you might know where he was. We, ah, need to get a message to him… about a sick aunt."
It felt like someone had just punched her in the stomach. Lois had a hard time catching her breath. It was Clark's parents. They wanted to know where he was. They knew what their son had been forced to do, but they didn't know where he was. They hadn't heard from him. She wasn't ready for this!
Lois tried to calm herself. "Ah, Martha, Clark's not here. I don't know where he is right now." Lois paused. She really needed to talk to the Kents but this was not the time or the place. "I can't really talk now. Can I give you a call back later… after I get home? There are some things I think we need to discuss."
"Okay." Lois could tell that Martha sensed something was wrong, but she was willing to let Lois dictate the situation. "Jonathan and I will be home all night. Do you have our number?"
Lois breathed a short sigh of relief. "Thanks, and yes I have your number. Clark gave it to me in case I ever needed to reach him when he was visiting you." Lois swallowed a small just forming lump. "I promise to call you soon. Bye."
Lois' hand shook just slightly as she hung up the receiver. She turned her attention to booting up her computer, not really knowing what she was going to do. She already gave Perry her story from the press conference yesterday. Her attention was suddenly grabbed by the television in the newsroom. Someone had turned up the volume as LNN announced a special report from EPRAD.
The impeccably groomed newscaster gave the camera his best grim look. "We are here at EPRAD with Professor Daitch, who has some news regarding the remnants of the Nightfall asteroid."
The microphone was stuck in the professor's face. He backed away a half step before answering. "Yes, well, after numerous calculations and precise tracking of the larger pieces, we are confident that no more than three or four remaining chunks of Nightfall will survive their descent into the atmosphere."
The newscaster pulled the microphone back. "And do you have any idea where these rocks might hit?"
Daitch's mouth formed a tight line. "There are too many variables for us to be able to predict with any real accuracy. Our best guess is somewhere along the east coast in an area roughly from Metropolis to New York. Hopefully they will fall harmlessly out to sea, but there is a chance that one or more might strike inland."
"Professor, what kind of damage could that cause?"
"Well, that depends on how large a piece actually survives to strike the planet. Nothing on a world-wide catastrophic scale, but a local strike in a heavily populated area could cause significant property damage and heavy loss of life. We are continuing to monitor the progress of those rouge pieces, and as we get more data, we hope we can get a clearer picture on where they might strike."
"Do we know when they will hit?"
"They should begin entering the atmosphere in approximately 36 hours."
"One more question, Professor Daitch." The newscaster stopped the professor who had turned to leave. "Any word yet from Superman?"
The professor just shook his head sadly and turned away. He walked quickly off camera and into the EPRAD building. The newscaster presented himself back to the camera his well rehearsed, concerned face firmly in place, but someone mercifully turned off the set before he could speak.
Before Lois could turn back to her computer screen Perry, who'd come out to watch the newscast with the rest of the bullpen, turned to her. "Lois, get down to EPRAD and see if you can get any more details out of those scientists. If they have any idea where those rocks might hit, I want the Daily Planet to know about it." Perry came in close and spoke at a volume only Lois could hear. "Honey, I know he's a friend of yours. Have you heard anything from Superman?"
Lois bit her lip and shook her head. "No, Chief."
Perry nodded. "Okay, you get down to EPRAD and see what you can find out." Lois turned to grab her bag. "Oh, Lois, did you get in touch with Clark yet?"
Lois was about to shake her head when she was suddenly struck by an idea. "Well, I did just talk to his mother. She called to tell me that Clark fell off a ladder helping his father doing some… you know, farm stuff. Apparently he broke his leg. He'll be laid up for a while. Won't be able to travel for at least a week or two."
"Great shades of Elvis, doesn't anyone bother to call me anymore? It's not like I'm the boss or anything." Perry threw his hands up in annoyance. "It's a good thing I have you to take messages for me, Lois. Maybe I should take you off the city beat and hire you as my personal secretary."
Lois had to grin sympathetically at her harried boss. "Sorry, Chief, you couldn't afford me." Lois hurried up the ramp toward the elevator, leaving her editor sputtering incoherently in her wake.
Lauren dragged herself out of bed in disgust. She hadn't slept much all night. She kept tossing and turning, her thoughts constantly straying back to the mysterious stranger sleeping in the other room. She had checked on him a couple of times, but he seemed to be sleeping peacefully. Early on he had continued to moan and mutter, but after a few hours, he'd settled down to what appeared to be a deep sleep. Only one other word had been recognizable coming from his mouth. He'd mentioned the name Lois several times. Lauren wondered who Lois was, a friend, a girlfriend… a wife? She didn't think that it was *his* name.
She sat up on the edge of her bed and ran her hand through her sleep tangled locks. She pushed the shoulder length hair out of her eyes and stared at the wall that separated the two bedrooms. What was she going to do? She knew what the logical thing to do would be. That was to take him into Two Harbors, Ely, or better yet, Duluth and drop him off at a competent medical facility and wave bye bye. But she couldn't.
There was something about him, something that touched her. He almost seemed familiar somehow, yet so different. He was a mystery and she was supposed to be an officer of the law. She was supposed to solve mysteries. Would it be so wrong to try and help this fellow find out who he was, and where he was supposed to be? Wouldn't he be better off with a friendly partner to help him rather than some stuffy, officious bureaucrats shuffling him from one department to another?
Lauren frowned as she got up and dragged herself into the kitchen to make some coffee. She needed the coffee to get her brain cells firing. Thinking this early in the morning just wasn't her thing.
After starting the coffee, she popped a couple of slices of bread into the toaster and ambled into her father's old bedroom. Her guest was still sleeping. She stared at him for several moments. The panic of the night before was no longer etched onto his face. He seemed at peace. She was mesmerized by the gentle rise and fall of his chest as he breathed easily in his slumber. Sometime during the night he had tossed the covers partially off him. His bare chest was exposed as was his stomach. Only the lower half of him was still covered, which was a good thing since he was still naked under that blanket. Well, he might think it a good thing.
She went over to the dresser, which still had most of her father's old clothes in it, and pulled a drawer out. Her father had been a big man, but the disease had taken much of that from him as the years dragged on. He had been a shadow of his former self before he died. Most of the things in the dresser hadn't been worn in years. She was sure there was something in here that the stranger could wear, at least for now.
Pulling out a soft, well worn, flannel shirt and a pair of very broken-in blue jeans, she tossed them on the end of the bed. She then turned her attention to the top drawer. The infamous underwear drawer. Somewhere in the back of her mind was the memory of several pair of brand new undershorts which she had bought for her father years back, but he'd never worn. She had accidentally bought him briefs, but he was strictly a mid-length type of guy. In later years he took to wearing his long underwear nearly all year around.
With a sigh of relief she found a package of those shorts still in their store wrapper. She threw those on the bed with the shirt and pants. With a bit more exploration she came up with a pair of heavy woolen socks. Considering how cold it got up here, and especially how cold the wooden floor could get, a nice pair of heavy, comfy socks were a must.
Lauren edged back toward the door. "Hey, buddy, time to get up if you want some breakfast." The stranger continued his slumber, giving no indication that he'd heard her. She walked over and shook his shoulder. "Hey, friend, up and at 'em. It's a new day." She was answered by his gentle snoring.
Lauren frowned. This was one heavy sleeper. She knew that he'd been through some sort of trauma, though he bore no physical signs of any injury or distress. She shrugged. Maybe his ordeal just took a lot out of him. She turned away figuring he'd wake up when he woke up. In the meantime, she'd put a call in to headquarters to see if there had been any reports of missing persons, or just unusual happenings in the last day or two. Might as well start her investigation sooner, as later.
She punched the remote to turn the television on as she munched on the toast that she'd forgotten about and was now burnt. A couple swallows of coffee and she was able to focus on what the morning newsman was telling her. The local anchor was giving some sort of update on the Nightfall asteroid. Apparently the scientists felt that the real danger of the asteroid was over. No thanks to them, Lauren thought sourly. It was Superman who had sacrificed everything for them and the rest of the world.
The news program then showed a clip from some press interview with a Professor Daitch who warned that a few pieces of the asteroid might still hit the earth. He said they would impact somewhere along the east coast. Lauren hoped that no one would be hurt by any falling asteroid pieces, but that was far away and she didn't concern herself much with it. She was saddened to hear that there had been no word yet from Superman. She, like many others, was convinced that Superman had been killed while destroying the asteroid.
The closest anyone from these parts ever got to Superman were the specials that occasionally aired on television. It wasn't like he ever spent anytime out here in the middle of Nowhere, Minnesota. Still, like any prominent public figure, it was a shame when they died before their time. And in this case, Superman died saving the world. Not a bad legacy.
Lauren turned off the tube and made her way over to her two-way radio, which occupied a prominent spot on a side table in one corner of the living room. It took a couple of minutes for the older set to warm up, but soon it crackled to life. With practiced ease she dialed the familiar frequency and pushed the call switch. Within a few moments she heard a familiar voice.
"Lake County Sheriff's Department."
Lauren smiled. "Hey, Marty, it's Lauren."
"Hey beautiful, what's up? I thought it was your day off?"
Martin Mackey was the grand old man of the department. He had turned sixty-five just last week but had no intention of retiring. He was like a father to the small close knit group of sheriffs. Lauren had often suspected that she was his favorite though. Marty and her father had been friends growing up together in Ely, but had taken different career paths. Still they had managed to stay friends. Lauren was sure it was Marty's influence that got her the job in the first place.
"Oh, it is, but you know how it is. Can't stand the thought of missing something big. Anything exciting or interesting come across your desk in the last day or so?" Lauren tried to make it sound casual but her more than normal curiosity must have been evident in her voice.
"No, nothing of any consequence. Some kids trying to steal some city signage from Beaver Bay, and a couple got separated from their snowmobile group, but they were found a few hours later. Any particular reason why you're asking?"
"No, not really." Lauren forced herself to chuckle. "Just wondering if I might be rescued from having to clean my place today. You know how much I love housework."
"Uh huh." He didn't sound convinced. "If I hear of any major prison breaks or international intrigue taking place in our area, I'll be sure to call you in."
She could only shake her head, grinning. "Okay, you be sure you do. I mean who else would you trust on the big ones."
"Nobody but you, sweetie. Gotta go now. Funny, even though we don't have a lot of crimes to solve, we still seem to have a lot of paperwork to fill out."
"Ain't that the truth. Take it easy, Marty. Talk to you later." She flipped the switch turning her radio back to its standby status. It was never completely turned off if she was home.
Lauren wondered why she hadn't told Marty about her house guest. Perhaps he could have helped her by doing some checking for her. But for some reason she just wasn't ready to share the stranger with anyone else. She tried to tell herself that she needed to talk to him more fully before she would be able to formulate a plan of action. Truth was she didn't know why she didn't want to tell Marty, but for some strange reason she wanted to keep the handsome newcomer a secret, at least for now. She glanced back toward the bedroom where her guest continued to sleep. "So exactly what is your story, my mysterious friend?"
Lois sat numbly in the chair as she unconsciously placed the phone receiver back on its cradle. She had just finished a lengthy conversation with the Kents and it had left her drained, yet strangely hopeful.
She had been very nervous about calling them up. What would they think? What would they say about her knowing 'the secret'? Well, on that score Lois needn't have worried. Martha was delighted that Clark had told her. Lois could tell Jonathan wasn't quite as enthusiastic about her knowing, but he supported Clark's decision. He did make a point of stressing that knowing about Clark being Superman did put her in extra danger, and that might not have been fair to Lois.
The conversation quickly took a serious tone as Lois explained the conversation she'd had with Clark the night before. Martha had been adamant that 'her boy' was not dead, that she would know if he were. Something else must have happened to prevent him from showing up. Jonathan had tried to interject some pragmatic caution, but didn't try to dash his wife's hopes too much. Lois got the impression that Martha often listened to Jonathan's homespun practical advice, then went ahead and thought what she wanted to anyway.
They discussed possibilities. Martha had mentioned that it was conceivable that the impact had been such that it used up most of Clark's energy reserves. Perhaps he was back on earth, but lost and powerless. It could take days for the sun to recharge him sufficiently to get back to Metropolis, or even Smallville. Maybe longer if he was in a place where the sun didn't shine a lot. It was doubtful that he'd have any money or means to get around other than by foot. Being little more than a vagrant, it would be difficult for him to get word to either of them.
That cheered Lois somewhat, but being who she was, she had to broach the subject that he might be lying injured somewhere. Jonathan assured her that even if that were true, once his powers kicked back in he would heal very quickly and be okay. None of them wanted Clark to be suffering, but if he wasn't dead they were confident that he'd be all right soon.
When Lois tried to tell them about the press conference where Prof. Daitch mentioned that it was fifty-fifty as to whether Superman would even land back on the planet Martha interrupted her. She scolded Lois for thinking negative thoughts. There was no reason to dwell on such things now. If Clark didn't turn up after several days then they could deal with such ideas, but for now they must think positive and be ready for when he does come back. And that meant keeping the secret.
The Kents had complimented Lois on her cover story to Perry, and Martha promised to call Perry in the morning to lend more credence to the story by giving him an update. The trio agreed to regular calls to keep each other informed of any happenings that might affect their ability to safeguard the cover story. That way they could also keep their story 'straight'.
After that the conversation began to shift into more small talk, or more accurately, girl talk. Jonathan sensing the shift, excused himself and hung up the extension, leaving the two women to talk in private. It had been nice for Lois to have such a talk with Martha. It was the kind of conversation she wished she could have had with her own mother but never did.
They talked about inconsequential things like, fashion trends and how thickheaded men can be. Martha asked about Perry and Jimmy and had laughed when Lois told her how frustrated Perry had been that no one seemed to think he needed to be called about anything anymore. Lois asked how Maise was doing and to have Martha tell her not to expect that novel anytime soon.
Finally Lois got up the courage to ask Martha the one question that had been eating at her the whole night… why. Why had Clark decided to share his secret with her? She still remembered the reasons he'd given her, but she wanted to know what Martha thought. Martha had surprised Lois when she chuckled at the question. The words still echoed in her mind.
"It's simple, Lois, really. He trusts you."
Lauren put the book she had been reading down as she finally heard some movement coming from her father's old bedroom. She leaned back in the comfortable old recliner as she followed his progress with her ears. She heard the wrapper being torn off the underwear she'd left him. Then the soft rustle of the shirt and pants going on. She felt a brief flash of embarrassment as she realized she hadn't tried to find him a belt. She hoped the jeans fit well enough so he wouldn't have a problem. She turned her attention to the doorway as her 'guest' shyly exited the room. He had a strange look of entreaty on his face.
She laughed as she guessed his question before he could ask it. "Down the end of the hall, to the left." She pointed, her grin getting wider seeing his grateful response.
She watched him as he came slowly back into the main room, idly tucking his shirt into the jeans while looking around. "Lane?" she said while his attention was focused on inspecting his surroundings. There was no response. "Kent?" she tried. There was a slight twitch to his shoulders at the mention of that name, but no definitive response.
He ran his hand along the wood paneled walls, and along the natural granite counter tops. "Very nice, " he said as he turned his attention to her. Suddenly it struck him that she had spoken. "I'm sorry, did you say something?"
She smiled at him. Her father had built this house with his own hands, and it had always held a special place in her heart. Not only was it a pleasant and cozy place to live, but in a sense it was like keeping a piece of him alive for her by just being here. She indicated that he should come over and sit in the other chair.
"Nothing important. How are you feeling?" She watched him closely as he seemed to search for an answer.
"I feel… okay. I slept very well, and I don't seem to have any injuries, or even any aches or pains." He took a moment to look around the cabin. "But I can't remember anything. Nothing looks familiar."
Lauren loosed a short bark of a laugh. "Well, I certainly hope not, since you've never been here before." She favored him with another smile. "I think I would have remembered if you had."
He blushed. "That's not what I meant."
She chuckled. "I know, and I'm sorry if I embarrassed you." Lauren replaced her smile with a look of sympathy. "So, you still don't remember anything? Not where you come from, or who you are? Not why you were wandering around in the woods totally naked?"
He colored again. "No, it's just so frustrating. But I can't remember."
Lauren nodded, then proceeded to play a game of twenty questions with her mystery guest. He got the date wrong by a day but he knew who the President was, how to do simple math, and that Minnesota was a state in the U.S.A. It was typical of what her advanced first aid courses told her about amnesia victims. They retained a general memory of places and events, but their personal life and identity were missing. She also knew that in such cases, the memory often came back on its own. From his confusion over the exact date, Lauren assumed that whatever trauma induced his condition had happened sometime yesterday. Marty hadn't mentioned any reported discovery of an accident or abandoned vehicle, but she'd check back later. It was possible that it just hadn't been discovered yet. If it had happened far enough out in the forest, back on one of the old abandoned logger roads or lesser used snowmobile trails, it might not be discovered for several days.
She reached out and took one of his hands in her own. "If I'm going to help you, I'm going to need to call you something. In your sleep last night you called out the names, Lane and Kent. Do either of those names mean anything to you? Are one or both of them yours?"
He shook his head slowly. "It seems like I should know them, but I don't."
"Okay then, do you mind if I pick one?" She saw the shrug of his shoulders. Remembering how he reacted earlier she made her choice. "How do you feel about Kent? If anyone asks, your name is Kent… Kent Lane."
He shrugged. "I guess that's as good as any." 'Kent' favored Lauren with a smile. "Not that I don't appreciate your help — but why am I here and not in some cell, or hospital room?"
It was Lauren's turn to blush, then shrug. "I'm not really sure. It was late, and you looked like you needed help. I am an officer of the law, and as such it's my job to help people." She shrugged again. "Besides, you just struck me as someone I could trust, and for some reason it was important to me to help you." Lauren shook her head in irritation. "Does that make any sense to you?"
Kent shook his head in wonderment. "No, but I have to say I'm glad you did. I'm feeling particularly in need of a friend right now. It's very scary not knowing who you are, or why you were out in the woods of northern Minnesota… you know." He blushed again. "I can't say for sure why I feel this way, but I don't think I've ever been here before."
"Really!" Lauren glanced up at the clock on the wall. "Well, there's still plenty of time before we have to worry about any dinner. Perhaps you'd like to take in a little sight seeing, Minnesota style."
She grinned. "Yeah, when was the last time you were on a snowmobile?"
Kent shook his head in confusion. "I can't say as I've ever been on a snowmobile." He smiled at her. "But then, I'm the one with a faulty memory."
"Well then, you are in for a treat. Nothing like seeing the real beauty of Mother Nature at 50 miles an hour as cold snow and wind tear at your face."
Kent raised an eyebrow. "Sounds great." His voice belied his words.
Lauren laughed as she stood up. She reached down and dragged him to his feet. "Come on, let's find you some warm clothes."
The sound of the stylist's shears was unnaturally loud in Lois' ears. Her level of anxiety rose as she watched more long, silky, dark locks join the ever growing pile of hair on the salon floor.
"I don't think this is such a good idea." Lois' voice betrayed the nervousness she felt.
"A little late for that now," her stylist, Cindy, laughed. "You were the one who said you wanted to try something new and different. Believe me this will be different."
Lois sucked in another breath as more dark tresses fell into her lap. "Yeah, but I didn't expect to look like a Marine recruit when you finished." A little exasperation crept into her voice.
"Oh pooh, it's not going to be *that* short, Lois, so relax. Trust me, you'll look great." Cindy couldn't help smiling at her long time client and friend's imagined fear. "Now sit quietly while I finish. We're almost done here."
Lois pulled her lips tight together as she watched her final transformation in the big mirror. It had been a strange day. There had been nothing new on Superman's disappearance. EPRAD had no new details on the still coming chunks of Nightfall, but they had promised to hold a news conference if there was any new data to report.
Lois had managed to avoid discussing Clark with Perry, but the continued absence of her partner had led her to mope around the newsroom, depressed. She didn't know what to do with herself. There was literally no news out there. It was like the city was on hold, just waiting to see what finally would happen with the last remnants of the asteroid. The call from Lex had come as a complete surprise.
Ever since that strange dinner interview she'd had with Lex, she'd had the impression that Lex liked her. It was flattering to have someone as rich and powerful, not to mention handsome, interested in her. They had gone out on a couple of dates, but at the time she'd not thought much about it. She'd still been carrying her torch for Superman so anyone, even Lex, didn't quite measure up. But then Superman had never asked her out, so a date with Lex was a nice diversion. They always went to the finest restaurants and saw only first run shows. Perhaps she was a little guilty of using Lex, but then it wasn't like she'd ever promised him anything beyond pleasant companionship for the evening's festivities.
She knew that Clark, for some reason, didn't like Lex. After the traumatic discussion of the other night, Lois now knew that Clark had stronger feelings for her than she had originally thought. Maybe Clark was jealous of Lex's attentions? It was something that she hadn't thought of before. Of course, she now knew that Clark had been… no she wouldn't think like that. Clark *was* Superman, and he still was, wherever he may be. But if Clark didn't like Lex, that meant that Superman didn't like Lex.
Was Superman jealous of Lex too? How could Superman be jealous of Lex? He knew how she felt about him! But then, he was also Clark so he could be jealous, or was there something more? Something that only Superman knew about? Lois put the thought out of her head. It was just too confusing. Lois didn't think that anything serious would ever come of her and Lex. They were too different. Lex was just a friend… wasn't he?
So, if he was just a friend, why was she going to all this trouble just to go out with him? Simple, she told her irritating little voice of conscience, she needed a diversion right now. Something to take her mind off the distressing fact that Clark hadn't resurfaced yet, if only for a night. No big deal really, she'd gone out with Lex before. It's not like they were serious about each other or anything. So why did she have this nagging feeling that she was betraying Clark in some way?
Lex had called this morning with an offer to take her to the opera tonight. Her first impulse had been to decline. She felt like she should be doing something to find Clark, but she didn't know what. All her snitches had been instructed to let her know as soon as they heard anything that could possibly be about the missing super hero. She hadn't heard anything back from any of them, and all she could do was sit around, wait, and be depressed. So, she had decided to take Lex up on his offer. A night out on the town wouldn't solve anything, but it might give her a few hours of reprieve from all the worry and fear.
Since there was nothing happening at the Planet she left early. Deciding to do the night up right, she'd gone to her favorite dress shop and picked out an entire new outfit for the evening. Then she then found herself at Cindy's salon. Why not go the whole nine yards, she'd thought. A new dress, some new accessories, and a new hairstyle. Nothing like a complete makeover to take one's mind off one's troubles. Problem was, it hadn't helped. She was still depressed and worried, and she wasn't looking forward to her date tonight either.
Lois was pulled out of her musings by Cindy's triumphant tone. Lois stared at the stranger who looked back at her from the other side of the big mirror on the wall of the salon. The familiar chin to shoulder length page that had defined Lois Lane's look for so long was now gone. Most of it was lying on Cindy's floor. Instead the face staring back at her was framed by a soft, layered, helmet of dark hair. The long line of her neck was now exposed, and her eyes seemed even bigger.
"Soooo, what do you think?" Cindy had a smug smile on her face.
The corners of Lois' mouth twitched upward on their own accord. She nodded. "I like it."
After paying Cindy, Lois exited the shop fingering the short ends of her new style. She couldn't help wondering if Clark would like it.
The past two days had been torturous for Lois. She sat at her desk staring at the blank screen. The only stories of note were ones about the impending strikes by the few pieces of the Nightfall asteroid that were expected to survive their trip through our atmosphere. EPRAD had released a bulletin stating that they were fairly certain that three of those meteors would definitely strike the planet somewhere along the east coast, but they still couldn't narrow it down to an area smaller than a circle a hundred miles in diameter. According to Professor Daitch and his crew, the meteors would enter the atmosphere around nine o' clock tonight.
The light show should be pretty spectacular. The progress of the space debris would be quite visible as they heated up and burned due to the friction of their passage through the air. The city had reopened a few of the old air raid shelters that still existed from World War II. Those, along with the subway system would be available for any citizen who wished to avail themselves of their protection.
Many scoffed at those who planned to 'hide' underground, and instead figured that the incredibly long odds of a meteor striking near where they were made it unnecessary to seek such shelter. It was their intention to be out in the streets, watching the show. For all that EPRAD counseled caution, there were many more 'experts', being touted in the various media, who claimed that the pieces of Nightfall would most likely fall into the ocean and not even pose any threat to the citizens of Metropolis at all.
Perry had 'suggested' that Lois go to one of the old air raid shelters this evening to cover the thoughts and attitudes of the people who chose to wait out the coming meteor strikes in apparent safety. Lois had looked her boss directly in the eye and told him, in no uncertain terms, what she thought of his idea. She then informed him that her plans were to stake out the roof of the Daily Planet with a camera and her tape recorder. She would dictate her thoughts and observations into the recorder as she watched the progress of those possible bringers of destruction. It was likely she would only get a human interest story out of this, but she wanted to be prepared if there was more.
Lois accessed EPRAD's news data base to see if there had been any updates. There weren't, so her mind began to wander. Her date with Lex had gone very badly. He'd had the nerve to suggest that if he'd known Lois was looking to have a makeover that she should have come to him first. He could have had the finest designers provide a special ensemble just for her. And rather than allow some 'common' barber butcher her beautiful hair, he could have secured the top stylist in the city for her. It had gone downhill from there.
The opera had been wonderful, at least she thought it had been. She continued to fret about Clark most of the evening and barely paid any attention to the stage, or to Lex. She knew he could tell that she was preoccupied when he continually tried to get her to tell him what was wrong. She put him off with one word answers or unintelligible grunts. The evening ended early and it hadn't been too soon for Lois. She gratefully escaped to her apartment and a tub of Choco-Fudge Ripple.
She didn't even know why she was upset. True, Lex had been rather insensitive with his remarks, but that was Lex. He thought he was being helpful. Heaven forbid that anyone would think that they could do anything better than Lex could, even for themselves. A wry smile found its way onto Lois' face as the memory replayed itself. She didn't think that Lex would be asking her out again anytime soon. And that was just fine with her.
She turned her computer off. There was nothing there. She had spent part of the morning searching for any odd news reports that might indicate the presence of Superman. Remembering Martha's contention that Clark might have been hurt and was somewhere out there trying to get back, Lois scanned the news wire for any odd mentions that might relate to a missing or injured Superman. She had turned up nothing.
Reaching down for her bag, Lois got ready to leave. Since she planned to be back here for the big sky show tonight, she figured she would go home now and grab a bite to eat and dress appropriately for the chill of the evening. Flinging a 'see ya later' at Perry as she passed him on the ramp, Lois pushed the call button for the elevator and was soon gone.
The wind was biting as its chilling breath played with the short strands of hair around Lois' ears. She cursed herself for not remembering to bring along a hat to keep her now less protected head warm. She pulled her coat tighter around her as she scanned the sky.
Luckily it was a clear, moonless night. According to EPRAD's estimates, the fragments should become visible anytime now. Lois glanced down at her watch, then back up to that part of the sky where the meteors where expected to show.
Many of the rooftops of Metropolis held folks all doing what Lois was doing, watching for the arrival of Nightfall's last threats. The sky was filled with a myriad of quick, bright flashes as the tiny pieces of the Nightfall asteroid burned briefly in incandescent splendor as they entered the Earth's atmosphere. It was a pretty light show, but those momentary streaks of light weren't what Lois was up on the roof to watch for. Her concern was for the light show that wouldn't disappear almost immediately.
Suddenly a collective gasp from the building to her right reached Lois' ears. She quickly gazed over to see several people pointing up into the northeastern portion of the sky. Looking up herself, she could just barely see the tiny streaks that were now making themselves visible. Unlike their transitory brethren, these luminescent trails didn't disappear after a brief moment.
Lois watched, fascinated, as the tiny, glowing streaks became brighter. There was little perception of motion since the meteors were basically heading in their direction. They continued to grow brighter as time passed. There were definitely three separate glowing trails.
The brightest and most probably the closest, Lois reasoned, seemed to be veering away from the others. All three were brighter than the surrounding stars but the wandering fellow was actually bright enough to cast a shadow. All eyes were glued to the first visitor. Lois hurriedly readied her camera and snapped several shots of the meteor as it appeared to pass off to the east. Within a few more moments a bright flash could be seen quite far out past the harbor into the open ocean. It was several more seconds before the sound of the explosive impact reached their ears.
Lois had been giving a running commentary of her impressions as the small meteor had passed by and struck out to sea. She now turned her attention to its two brethren which had perceptively grown quite a bit brighter and larger. Lois began to get nervous as the two other pieces of space debris didn't seem to be veering off in any sideways motion. The only indication of their movement was their growing brightness and size. Her anxiety was being mirrored by the mutterings and exclamations of the crowds on the streets and other rooftops. Lois knew with an utter certainty that one or both of those rocks were going to strike Metropolis.
Sounds, like that of a jet plane, were becoming noticeable. Lois had to speak louder into her recorder as she snapped more pictures of the flaming guests. It became apparent that the two remaining meteors were noticeably different in size. It was possible to perceive the closest one was also the smallest. Lois began to notice a side movement as a tail stretched out from behind the closest meteor.
The small meteor made a noisy impact down in the Hobbs Bay area. Lois was easily a half mile or more away yet the sound of the explosion washed over her as she watched the flames burst into life amongst the old warehouses on the waterfront.
She was busy snapping pictures of the blaze when she became aware of it getting warmer. She turned and nearly dropped the camera. Her eyes grew wide as the fiery ball that filled nearly half the sky seemed to be coming right at her! Instinct forced Lois to duck but she held the camera up and kept snapping pictures as the meteor roared a couple of hundred feet over her head. She could hear the screams of the people as the crowds began to panic.
Lois watched in horror as the meteor descended, zeroing in on the uptown area of Metropolis. She would have screamed if she could've found a way to make her lungs work. Her entire body was frozen in a state of shock and terror. Disbelief warred with denial as she watched the ball of fiery destruction smash into the tallest building in Metropolis. The explosion of the impact knocked her off her feet and shattered windows for blocks around as flames enveloped the top floors of the LexCorp, LexTower.
LexTower was the heart of LexCorp and Luthor Industries. While there wouldn't be as many people in the building at this time of night, still it was a 24/7 type of facility. There could be hundreds of support staff and night shift workers inside. Also, the upper floors of LexTower contained many apartments. Most of the senior management of LexCorp lived right in the tower, including…
Lois stared at the rapacious nature of the flames that engulfed the upper floors. Lex lived in the penthouse of that tower! Lois had a hard time catching her breath as she wondered if Lex had been home. She closed her eyes briefly as the likelihood of Lex having been home forced its way into her mind.
Tears streamed down Lois' face as she crawled to the edge of the Daily Planet roof. Finally finding her voice, Lois, between sobs, described the devastation she was witnessing and snapped the pictures that would end up lending the visual impact to her words.
Clark kicked the snow off his boots at the front door of the little cabin in the woods. He was tired from his walk, but the peace and serenity of the deep woods was like a calming balm to his troubled mind. He still had no idea who he was or why he was here, but the beauty of the forest allowed him to put those thoughts behind him for a short time while he just enjoyed the natural splendor around him.
The lush, fragrant pine woods filled him with a feeling of harmony. The clean white snow and the crystal clear streams that burbled nearby were like something from a different world. The troubles of the larger world seemed remote and insignificant when measured against the tranquility of unspoiled nature. He smiled at the memory of the few deer he'd seen scamper away once they realized his presence. For some reason he was able to 'sense' a great many of the small furry creatures that made this forest their home. He would have thought that they would be harder to detect in their native habitat.
The only thing that would have made his walk more pleasurable would have been some sunshine. The cloud cover had been quite extensive. He'd yet to see the sun since he'd woken up in this part of Minnesota. And a part of him missed it.
He began to unbutton the coat he'd worn on his stroll. He was surprised that he hadn't felt the cold more than he had. True, the longer he'd been out there, and the more tired he became, the more he felt the cold, but it was almost like he really didn't feel it unless he focused on the fact that he should be cold. He dismissed the thought as he turned his attention to the small kitchen.
He knew that Lauren had to work a bit late tonight. She was covering half of a shift for one of the other sheriffs who was out sick. Aside from her normal patrol she had to go into the County Sheriff's office and take a few hours shift at the dispatcher's desk. The night dispatcher would then come in early to take the rest of the shift for the missing person. Apparently it wasn't a big deal. It wasn't like they had a lot of emergency calls to respond to. Still, it was a tourist area, and they did have to have twenty-four hour coverage.
She had mentioned that she'd probably be home between eight and eight-thirty, so Kent decided that he'd have something ready for supper when she got in. He wasn't sure why he was confident that he knew how to cook, it just seemed natural to him to prepare a meal. Was he a chef of some sort or just a single guy used to cooking for himself?
While rummaging through her cupboards seeing what she had available to fix, his thoughts strayed back over that last couple of days. A smile tugged up the corners of his mouth. He had been incredibly lucky to have run into someone like Lauren. Rather than just turn him over to the nearest authorities to deal with, she had, instead, befriended him. They had spent her days off just getting to know each other. Well, at least as well as he could not really knowing who he was.
They had gone on quiet walks out in the woods. They'd played cards, watched television, a few old videos, or just sat up and talked. He found himself attracted to her. Maybe he was just partial to pretty brunettes, with a great figure and a dazzling smile. But then who wouldn't be? He grinned as his reaction to Lauren as a beautiful woman assured him about at least one aspect of his missing life. He definitely liked women.
Lauren seemed so much more than her physical appearance though. She was bright, and funny. She seemed more worldly than having lived her entire life in one area would suggest. Kent also sensed a certain sadness about her too. He knew she missed her dad, but he suspected that deep down there was some buried resentment against him also. His illness had effectively trapped her in her present existence. An existence that he felt she wasn't entirely satisfied with.
She had talked of some of the dreams she'd had when she'd graduated. She was going to make a splash in the 'real world' as she called it. Go down to the 'cities', which Kent later found out meant the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and make a name for herself in law enforcement.
Cop shows had always been her favorites growing up in the calm, quiet environs of the north woods. The hustle and bustle of the big cities and the danger and excitement that seemed to lurk around every corner had had a profound effect on the lonely young girl. They had laughed together when she'd shyly revealed that she'd had a secret crush on James Darren while watching T.J. Hooker with her father when she was a teenager.
He'd asked her why she hadn't tried to pick up her dreams once she had been free to do so after her father's death. She had just shrugged, given him a sad smile, and replied that she was older and wiser now. Sometimes a young woman's dreams didn't stand up to the harsh light of day in the real world. Kent was saddened by her admission as it spoke of a certain lack of self confidence in her ability to actualize those dreams and a fear in even trying.
It wasn't too long before Kent had the makings of a simple, yet tasty, stir-fry going. He was going to have to have a word with Lauren about her pantry. She was woefully lacking in many of the staples for even the most basic cooking, though he did find a lot of frozen dinners in the freezer section of her refrigerator. Kent shook his head in wonder as he set the table. He was almost afraid to ask Lauren how she ate, since she obviously didn't get a lot of delivery out here in the middle of the north woods. He shrugged, maybe that was how she kept herself so slim and fit.
Knowing that she should be home soon and that the meal would be able to be heated up within minutes after her arrival, Kent turned his attention back to the tiny television stuck back in one corner of the small living room. He clicked on the set and was just about to surf around the channels looking for something interesting when the picture was replaced by a grim-looking national new anchor.
"We break into your regular programing to bring you these late breaking developments regarding the Nightfall meteors. We take you out to Metropolis, and Bonnie Devlin… Bonnie?"
Kent was shocked by what he saw. A young woman was standing in the street in what was undoubtedly downtown Metropolis. Behind her a mass of confusion of firemen and their equipment was seen hustling about. It was evident that something horrendous had happened by the panicked nature of the first responders.
"This is Bonnie Devlin in downtown Metropolis, where just minutes ago the last three fragments of the Nightfall asteroid made their final assault on our planet. The first meteor struck far out into the ocean, merely causing some higher than normal wave action. The second, and the smallest fragment, struck in a little used section of the waterfront. There are reports of a couple of abandoned warehouses currently burning." The young reporter moved over to one side as the camera shifted its focus.
Kent let out an involuntary gasp as the camera panned up to show the inferno that was the LexTower burning brilliantly against the darkness of the night sky.
"As you can see, the final, and by far the largest meteor impacted some seventy stories up on Metropolis' most famous building, LexCorp's LexTower. Engine companies from all over the city are still responding to the call." The camera swiveled to show several more fire trucks screaming onto the scene, then switched back up to the skyscraper blazing like a torch in the inky blackness. "As of now it's not known how many people might have been injured or killed by this tragic collision, but some folks estimate as many as seven to eight hundred people could have been in the building at the time of impact, though many of those who were on the lower floors can be seen streaming out of the building as I speak." The camera panned to a shot of the front entrance and the chaotic crush of people running from the doomed building.
So transfixed by what he was seeing, Kent didn't hear the front door opening, nor feel the cool burst of air which accompanied it. Lauren took in the set kitchen table and the ingredients all laid out and ready to heat up. She stuck her nose over the preparations and took a whiff.
"Hey, someone was busy." She grinned as she took in the basket of fresh bread on the table. "Smells wonderful… what's that?" She had just noticed what had been holding Kent's attention. She came over and sat on the arm of the chair he was sitting in. "Omigod," she said, her voice dropping to a whisper.
Kent merely nodded as he, unconsciously, reached for her hand.
Lois fiddled with the lapel on her coat. She didn't want to be there. She hated funerals, but she knew that she had to attend this one. Not only was it necessary from the standpoint of her job, and even though her last evening with him had led her to some conflicting thoughts, Lex was still a friend… sort of, and she felt duty bound to attend.
The tragic night was still indelibly etched into her mind. After describing the horror she'd seen into her little hand held recorder while waiting for the fire crews to arrive, she then went directly down to the newsroom to begin writing up her story. No surprise, Perry had still been there.
It had been hard to write up the story as she constantly had to wipe tears out of her eyes so she could see the screen. Jimmy had been called in from his assignment at the old 5th street air raid shelter to develop the pictures Lois had taken. She had been able to capture a couple of dramatic shots which companioned well with her prose for the full effect. Of course, by the time the morning edition came out most folks had been inundated with the video coverage of the LexTower blaze, but Lois was able to put into words what everyone was feeling. While the average citizen of Metropolis could only wrestle with the conflicting thoughts and emotions over what they had witnessed, Lois was able to give voice to those sentiments.
Lois had given her readers a hard-hitting eyewitness account, factual and terrifying in its depiction of the coming of the Nightfall meteors and the destruction they wrought. She accurately described her feelings watching the approach of the flaming fragments and the horror in seeing the last meteor slam into the proud symbol of LexCorp, the LexTower. Lois had also painted a vivid picture of the shock and confusion that immediately followed the impact. It was her gift.
What had been missing from the article was an examination of the tragedy's cost in human terms. The suffering that was to come. The victims and the terrible price that would be exacted on their surviving loved ones. That had been Clark's gift and Lois missed him. She not only missed the contributions to their joint articles, but she missed his presence. The support he was always able to provide. The grounding he gave her during particularly trying times, like these last few days had been. Even given how he felt about Luthor, he would have been here at the funeral with her… for her.
That meteor had taken a terrible toll on LexCorp. Not only had it left one of the largest business conglomerates in the world leaderless, but it had also stripped LexCorp of many of its senior management. The company was in chaos.
Unfortunately, there had been many symbolic funerals all over the city. The impact had happened approximately two thirds the way up the LexTower, somewhere around the 70th floor. The inferno that had followed that impact went up from there. While most of the regular, blue-collar support staff escaped serious injury, the luxury apartments occupied the top floors and that's where most of the LexCorp's ranking management lived. The intensity of the blaze had totally destroyed much of the upper third of the building, and in many cases there wasn't enough left to identify the casualties. Authorities in many cases had to rely on the security records to know whether or not the occupants had been home at the time of the event. This had been the case with Luthor also.
Lois pulled her neck down into the collar of her coat, turtle-like, trying to block the effect of the chill wind against her exposed cheeks. The priest had finished his eulogy over the ornate, but empty, coffin a few minutes ago and Lois just stood amongst the crowd staring at the casket. She could hear the growing murmurs of the crowd. Most of the people there were admirers and supporters of Lex. Folks who included: the mayor, most of the city council, the governor of the state, and many dignitaries from all over the country… and the world.
Lois tried to ignore the comments, but she couldn't help but hear the anger in the voices around her. Voices that were caught up in their own uncertainty and fear of what was to come now that Luthor was gone. Voices that were looking for some reason for this to have happened, for someone to blame. That someone was Superman.
"How could Superman have let this happen? Wasn't Metropolis supposed to be his city too?" a woman to Lois' left complained.
"He's dead, isn't he? Didn't the Star, just this morning, print a story stating the the odds of Superman having survived his collision with the asteroid as a hundred to one, or less?" This came from someone behind her.
Lois' ears burned as another fellow chimed in. "I dunno. It was no secret that Superman didn't really like Lex. I think he was jealous of all the good that Luthor was able to do without any of those fancy powers. I wouldn't be surprised if Superman was just hiding out, that he knew that a piece of the asteroid would take out his chief rival."
She whirled around and stuck her face close to that of the blowhard. "That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard! Superman just saved the entire world. It might have cost him his life to save us all, yet you stand there and bad mouth him for it? Only a fool would think that Superman would have let this happen if he could have stopped it."
"Yeah, well he may have saved the world, but he sure didn't save Metropolis. His inability to do the job right the first time has cost this city dearly." An ugly sneer crossed the fellow's face. "I, for one, hope Superman is dead. It wouldn't seem right for him to have survived and Luthor to have died because of his gross incompetence. If given a choice, I'd take Lex Luthor over Superman any day of the week, and I think most of Metropolis would too."
Lois was enraged beyond belief. She swung her arm and slapped the offending person's face. The loud crack of her blow shattered the respectful silence of the place as shocked mourners turned their attention to the crazy woman near the front of the crowd. Without uttering another sound, Lois turned and stalked off toward where she had parked her jeep, ignoring the shocked mutterings that followed her. She knew that several people there knew who she was and that they were shocked by such behavior by someone who had been dating Luthor. She didn't care. Anyone who thought like that idiot didn't deserve any consideration from her.
The really terrible part was that Lois could almost understand where that jerk was coming from. While her own personal opinion of Lex Luthor might have been changing somewhat, to most of the people in this city he was their greatest benefactor. Superman may have fought crime and stopped disasters from taking as great a toll as they could, but Lex Luthor signed most of their paychecks. All they really knew was that Luthor employed them and allowed them to live their lives on a day to day basis. But now that day to day existence was threatened. Their livelihood was threatened. Without Lex Luthor and a sound LexCorp, the future looked very uncertain to many Metropolis citizens. They feared that uncertain future, and fear made people do and say things they may not truly mean.
Lois jumped into her jeep, brushed a stray tear from her eye and fired up the engine. She had to get away from there, the sooner the better. She stared at the city traffic as she pulled away from the cemetery, not looking back. It was time to get back to work.
"I don't believe these people!"
Kent turned away from the pot he had simmering over the stove and looked over at Lauren, who was frowning at the television screen. "What is it?"
Lauren looked over her shoulder at her handsome houseguest and gave him a look of confused exasperation. "These idiots they keep interviewing on the news. Superman really went to bat for this planet, probably saved the world from the Nightfall asteroid, at the cost of his life. Yet these yahoos from Metropolis are all bad mouthing him just because a couple of hunks of the rock got through and smashed into some buildings in their town."
Kent shook his head sadly as he came over and began to massage Lauren's tight shoulder muscles. "Well, I'd hardly call it just smashing into some buildings. If I understand the articles I've read, one hundred and sixty two people died when the meteor collided with the LexTower, including Lex Luthor himself." Kent had to fight off a frown. For some strange reason just thinking about Lex Luthor gave him chills, yet he had no idea who the man was, beyond what he had recently read.
Kent gave Lauren's shoulders a couple of more squeezes. "It also put Metropolis in a state of financial chaos. It's really a shame what happened. I know I'd hate to have those deaths on my conscience."
Lauren glanced up, again, at the gentle man sharing her cabin in the woods. "You don't think Superman survived Nightfall do you?"
Kent shrugged. "I don't know. I don't remember anything about him, but from what I've seen and read over the last few days, he seemed virtually invulnerable. Could a collision with a giant rock be enough to kill him?"
Lauren thumbed off the television and got out of the chair. "I can't say I'm any expert on Superman. Never met the man myself, nor have I ever met anyone who has, but I do know one thing." She reached out and put her hand on Kent's chest, gently rubbing it as she spoke. "He has to have either died from the collision or was lost forever in space."
Kent cocked a brow at the confident Ms. Larson. "Really, and why is that?"
"Because if he were alive, he never would have let that meteor destroy that building or hurt those people." She tapped her index finger against his nose to emphasize her point. "That's why. Now, let's eat. I'm hungry."
Kent obediently followed his friend back to the kitchen table, but his mind was troubled by her words. He didn't doubt the veracity of her statement. Actually it made perfect sense. He had himself felt very bad about what had happened, very bad. The depth of his own despair over the tragedy made him wonder. He was reacting almost as if he knew those people personally. Had he ever been to Metropolis? He didn't know. Maybe he was just the sensitive type. He knew he should feel bad and have sympathy for the survivors, but it wasn't as if there were anything he could have done.
Dinner conversation, at first, revolved around what Lauren had done on her patrol that day and what Kent had seen on his daily walk in the woods, amidst Mother Nature's serene beauty. Kent had again told her how lucky she was to be able to be surrounded by such natural splendor every day. She laughed and told him that, like all things, you got used to it. He shook his head not being able to understand such a thought, but he did grump to her about the continued cloudy conditions. Did the sun ever shine here, he whined to her. It only made her laugh louder.
Finally the conversation wound down, away from the daily small talk. Lauren toyed with her food, not looking at Kent. He let the silence build for a time, giving her the space he thought she needed. It was obvious to him that she had something on her mind but wasn't quite ready to talk about it. They were overdue for a serious discussion about the situation the two of them found themselves in, but Kent felt a bit skittish about bringing it up just yet. She had been so wonderful to him. Helping a total stranger, bringing him into her home, just trying to help. He didn't want to seem ungrateful, and he *knew* that she was trying to find out what had happened to him and find a clue to who he really was.
"Kent?" Lauren's voice was soft and hesitant. "I know you think that I'm not doing a very good job at finding out who you are."
He shook his head. "Don't say that. I'm sure you are doing all you can."
It was Lauren's turn to shake her head. "No, I'm not. If I were to go 'by the book' I'd have your description and maybe even a picture sent through the police and FBI wire services days ago. It would be the quickest and most logical way to proceed if we wanted to hook you up with someone who was looking for you."
Kent stared at the tentative look on her face. "But… ?"
Her shoulders sagged. "But I just keep thinking about the strange way I found you. Wandering naked through the deep woods, in the midst of winter! That just wasn't normal. And there weren't, nor have their been, any reports of missing snowmobilers or skiers. There have been no reported accidents of any kind!"
Kent spread his hands in confusion. "So?"
Lauren sighed, then bit her lip, an affectation that looked surprisingly familiar. "I can't help but wonder if, maybe, you might not want to be found. That maybe you were running from something or someone?"
Kent leaned back in the chair studying the uncertain woman in front of him. "Are you trying to say that you think I'm some criminal on the run from the law?"
Lauren suddenly became animated. She reached over and grabbed his hand. "No, no, no. You can't believe that! I would never think that of you! I'm a cop remember. I'm also a fairly good judge of character. No, I don't think that you are some escaped criminal." She licked her lips before speaking again. "But that doesn't mean that maybe some criminals aren't looking for you! What if you are some protected federal witness or something? I couldn't take it if I thought I was putting you in any danger, even inadvertently."
Lauren clenched and unclenched her hands nervously. "That's why I've been taking it slow. Rather than putting you out on the circuit to see if anyone recognizes you, I've been checking into all the police and federal data bases to see if anyone is looking for someone answering your description."
A sardonic smile crept its way onto Kent's face. "Are you sure that's the only reason?"
Lauren couldn't stop the bright crimson blush that flamed her cheeks. She lowered her head and peered up at him through a curtain of dark hair that had fallen in front of her face. "I admit that I like having you here." She shook the hair out of her face. "But it hasn't been so bad for you, has it?"
He reached out and caressed the ruby cheek with his hand. It was a gesture that felt very natural. "No, actually it's been really quite pleasant. I'm not sure what would have happened to me had you not come along. But I can't just sit around your house waiting for my memory to come back… if it ever does." Kent allowed a little of his frustration to slip into his voice.
"So you still don't remember anything?"
Kent shook his head. "Sometimes it seems like I'm close to remembering something. Something I read, or something I see on television sparks a reaction, but before I can grasp its meaning, it just slips away." Kent sighed. "It's very frustrating."
Lauren reached across the table and recaptured his hand. She gave it a squeeze as she bit her lip again. "Who's Lois?" she asked, her voice dropping to nearly a whisper.
Kent was surprised by the question. His face betrayed the chaotic nature of his thoughts. Lois? It wasn't exactly a common name, yet it seemed quite familiar. It was another one of those instances where he felt that he should remember something, but he couldn't. It was still just a name. Agitated, he looked up at Lauren.
"I don't know. Why?"
Lauren took a deep breath. "Well, the first night you were here, remember I told you about your speaking the names Kent and Lane in your sleep?" Kent nodded but didn't speak, so Lauren continued. "Well, you said one other thing that was intelligible. You spoke the name Lois."
Kent shook his head, disappointed. "Nope, nothing."
The two of them sat in silence again for several minutes, each letting the evening's conversation replay in their minds. Kent, finally rose and began to clear the dishes away from the table. Lauren rose to follow suit when she suddenly set them back on the table.
"Hey, I just remembered something." Her voice held a note of anxious optimism. "This might be a solution to your creeping boredom?"
Kent leaned against the sink and watched her fumble for the right words. "And that would be?"
"Well, I was talking to Pete Marshall today." Her hands began to move of their own accord as her speech speeded up. "He's the guy who owns the Antler Inn in town. It's not a big place, but it is the main restaurant and motel in Isabella. He caters mostly to the tourist trade, but many of the locals eat there also."
"And… ?" The eyebrow went up.
She swatted his arm with her hand. "Let me finish." She took another breath. "Apparently his cook is retiring in a few days, and he's in the market for a new cook." She gave him a coy look. "I thought since you are wondering what to do with yourself while we try to find out more about you, and since you have shown yourself to be such a good cook, that maybe…"
Kent chuckled. "You thought that maybe I would be interested in a job as a cook for your friend Pete?"
Lauren smiled up at him. "Are you?"
Kent laughed. "Let me sleep on it." He turned, grabbed a towel and a dishcloth, then turned back to her. "Wash, or dry?"
Lois stormed off the elevator as its doors opened for her at the newsroom's floor. She had a paper clutched in her angry fist. She slammed the offending newsprint into the nearest trash can. She felt like she was the only sane person left in the asylum that Metropolis had become.
The banner headline from the Metropolis Star was left crumpled and ignored in the trash can where she had so abruptly deposited it. But, unfortunately, not forgotten. "Did Superman's Blunder Doom Metropolis!" it had screamed in 72 point type. She would have passed it by, not giving it a second glance, if it had just been one of the Star's typical sensationalistic, yellow-journalism inspired headlines. If it had been the lone braying of discontent in a crowd of reason she could have dismissed it as the aberration it deserved to be. Woefully, that was not the case. Over the past week there had been entirely too many headlines, newscasts, talk shows, and just plain chatter on the streets that echoed similar sentiments.
Lois threw her bag onto the floor as she dropped heavily into the chair at her desk. She punched the button to boot up her computer. She had written several articles and opinion pieces taking those who expressed such thoughts to task. Granted, Metropolis was experiencing some tough times while the effects of the recent disaster played themselves out. LexCorp employed, either directly or indirectly, over half the people in Metropolis and the loss of nearly all its senior management staff had to have consequences.
Lois began to furiously pound away at her keyboard. Sure, things were rough right now, but they'd get through it. It was an unfortunate, cruel twist of fate that had sent that meteor into the LexTower. Superman had nothing to do with it! Didn't these idiots realize that they wouldn't even be alive today to be complaining now if it wasn't for Superman's heroism. Hell, there probably wouldn't even have been much of a planet left for anyone. Her brow furrowed as she glared at her screen. If some of them thought her articles had been hard-hitting before, they hadn't seen anything yet. The kid gloves were off.
"Lois, in my office, please."
Lois jerked away from her screen and looked over her shoulder at her boss, crooking his finger at her from the door of his office. She frowned, glanced back at her screen, then sighed. Pushing the save key, Lois quickly got up from her chair and marched into her editor's office. She sat in the chair Perry indicated, sitting ramrod straight with her hands clasped tightly in her lap.
"What's up, Chief?"
Perry sat silent for several moments studying his favorite reporter. He noticed her stiff posture and how her hands couldn't seem to relax. She continually clenched and unclenched them while trying to keep them still lying in her lap. He took in the dark circles under her eyes and knew that she hadn't been sleeping much, if at all, for that last couple of weeks. Her hair was often unwashed, and she had on several occasions worn the same outfit on successive days.
"What were you working on, honey?" Perry watched as Lois' lips drew into a tight line. "Another op-ed piece?"
Lois' anger broke through her pretended calm exterior. "Did you see the latest claptrap that the Star is trying to pass off as news! If Superman were here now, he could sue them for libel!"
Perry closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them Lois' stare was still defiant. "But Superman isn't here, honey. He's gone, and I think it's time you accepted that."
Lois let her eyes drop to her lap. She watched herself wring her hands. "We don't know that." Her voice was barely a whisper.
Perry nodded. "No, we don't." Perry leaned back in his chair, his gaze never leaving his prize reporter. "Talked to Clark lately?"
Lois was visibly taken aback by Perry's abrupt switch of topic. She fumbled for her words. "Ah… no, not recently. I've been real busy, as you know."
"Yes, I know. That's how you always cope with problems isn't it? When things get rough in your life you wrap yourself up in your work, like it's gonna save you." Lois was about to protest but Perry held up his hand to forestall any comment. He fixed Lois with a sympathetic look. "I had a long conversation with Jonathan and Martha Kent this morning."
Lois had to stifle an exclamation of surprise. "Oh, really? That's nice. What did they have to say?"
Perry's eyes gave away the fact that he wasn't going to like what he had to say to her. "They agreed with me that maybe it's time for you to get on with your life."
A single tear slipped unnoticed from the corner of Lois' eye. "What are you saying?" Her voice was soft, almost little girl like.
Perry reached over his desk and grabbed one of Lois' hands and held it in his own. "I think you know what I'm saying. Honey, it's been no secret that Clark would walk on water for you, or drown trying. If he were able, he'd be here for you now. But he's not, is he? And we both know that he's not in Smallville either, don't we?" Perry gave her hand a compassionate squeeze. "It's time to accept that he's not coming back."
Lois' heart thumped loudly in her chest. He knew! There would no longer be any reason to feed him the false reports she and the Kents had cooked up about Clark. Perry knew the secret. It didn't matter to Lois whether he had worked it out for himself or if the Kents had confided in him while they talked. It was enough to know that he knew and that he was telling her that Superman… Clark, was not coming back to her. It was not something she wanted to hear.
Tears flowed freely from her eyes now. "No." It was more a plea than a denial.
Perry got up and came around his desk. He eased Lois out of the chair and over to the comfortable old couch which occupied the corner of his office. He just held her tightly as sobs wracked her nearly exhausted body. Perry gently stroked her hair in tacit empathy as his own heart ached both for the devastated young woman in his arms and the loss of another whom he cherished like a son.
After several minutes Lois's sobs finally began to subside. Perry reached into his pocket and handed her his handkerchief. She accepted it gratefully, giving him a tight, sad, smile. She wiped at her eyes and cheeks, then handed it back.
Perry pulled back, his arms outstretched, but still holding Lois in a gentle embrace. "Lois, I want you to forget all about these idiots and blowhards who are spewing all this nonsense right now. They're just scared. Once LexCorp gets itself back running close to normal, all this foolishness will go away."
Lois sniffed loudly one last time. "So, what am I supposed to do?" Her voice betrayed the pain she obviously felt.
Perry tried to switch to his gruff editor-in-chief mode, but it came off more fatherly than authority. "Lois, I want you to go home and try to get some rest." Perry sighed when she shook her head. "Lois, take a pill if you have to, but you have to get some rest. Then, in a day or two when you feel ready, I have another assignment for you."
"What?" Her response was flat and disinterested.
"I've arranged for you to interview Vincent Winninger."
"Winninger? Isn't he that reclusive scientist who claims to have discovered some incredible secret during his studies down in the Amazon?" Despite herself, Lois' curiosity was slightly piqued.
Perry smiled for her. "Yes, that's the one. Now just do as I ask for once, without any fuss. Go home and get some sleep."
Lois sighed deeply. "Okay." She shrugged her shoulders. "It's not like I have anything else to do." Lois got up and slowly dragged herself out of her boss's office.
Perry watched as she left, his heart breaking for her. He had known what he was doing when he had paired Lois with Clark. She had been alone for a long time. Her work had been everything to her, but Clark had begun to change that. He had managed to slip through some of her defenses and become not only her partner, but her friend.
Together they had been a terrific team. Individually they were still the best in the city at their craft, but together they were unbeatable. Now that team had been broken, forever, and it was hurting Lois even more than she knew. Perry hoped that time would allow Lois to regain that spark that had driven her in the past. That passion for finding the truth that had allowed her to become the best investigative reporter that he ever knew. They said that time heals all wounds. He prayed that it would be true in this case too. He hoped that she would be able to heal. But somehow, he wasn't sure that she ever would. He suspected that Clark Kent had been more important to Lois Lane than anyone realized, Lois included.
The loss of a Superman and what it meant to the world at large was obvious. But the loss of Clark Kent had no less an impact on those who knew him. In the short time he'd been around he'd managed to touch many lives, and all those lives would be diminished by his passing.
Three days later Lois Lane was in the hospital fighting for her life, after having been shot in front of her apartment building by an unknown assassin.
"Hey, Kent, table six sends their compliments to the chef."
"Thanks, Pete." Kent smiled as he checked on the thick steaks he had sizzling on the grill.
He'd been working for Pete Marshall and the Antler Inn for a little over a month now. It wasn't a particularly exciting job, but it did occupy his days when Lauren was at work, and Pete was good about letting Kent try new dishes every so often. It was a pretty basic restaurant, but Kent's weekly specials were becoming a treat for the locals.
He'd been worried at first about how he could take a job when he didn't have an official identity. No driver's license, no social security number, nothing. Lauren had interceded with her friend. She claimed Kent was an old boyfriend from college staying with her for a while. She made it clear to Pete that this wasn't someone looking for a permanent job, but just something to keep themselves busy while here. Pete was disappointed, but he was desperate, and even a temporary cook would give him the time to find a competent full time cook. Especially a temporary cook this good.
So Kent had gone to work for the Antler Inn as their cook. He was paid in meals and a little cash under the table. It wasn't a perfect situation, but for the time being it would do.
Kent absently scratched his bearded jaw as he turned the heat down on the potatoes. The morning after he'd been found by Lauren, Kent had tried to shave using one of her disposable razors. It had been quite a struggle. Getting his face scraped smooth had been an ordeal. He was amazed at how tough his beard actually was. He was sure he had ruined the razor. He had decided then that, if it was going to be that much of a battle to shave every morning, he was going to grow a beard.
He had been surprised at how slow his facial hair grew, but his beard was now thick and full. He wasn't sure how he liked the look, but Lauren had said that she liked it, so he decided to keep it. Besides, he didn't look forward to trying to shave again.
He was also, finally, feeling better. He'd been so weak and easily exhausted those first couple of weeks that he began to wonder if he wasn't suffering from some debilitating disease. Lauren had suggested that he'd probably been through some significant trauma, especially considering his amnesia, and that rest was probably what he needed most.
Maybe she had been right because he'd begun to feel stronger a few weeks ago. It didn't escape his notice that he began to feel better when the sun finally decided to make its appearance after a long absence. It made him think that part of his physical problems were tied to his mental outlook. The sunshine had definitely improved his mood, and he was sure that had a bearing on how he felt physically too.
He smiled as he overheard a commotion out front, in the restaurant. Lauren had come by to pick him up. Pete was giving her a hard time about coming in too early. Kent's shift wasn't supposed to be over for at least another half an hour, and he often had to stay a little later to finish up whatever he might have started before Pete was forced to come back and close up the kitchen for the evening. He and Lauren often ate their supper here before they left for her home for the evening.
His relationship with Lauren had grown in the couple of months that he'd been staying with her. After the first few days he'd suggested that it was probably time for him to find someplace else to stay. While he'd appreciated her hospitality, he couldn't keep imposing on her like he was. She'd quickly put a stop to that notion. She had, quite logically, explained that he had no money, no way to get around, and no real place to go. She didn't mind his staying there. In fact, she had countered, his presence was a help to her.
He had taken to keeping the place cleaned up and fixing meals. And she really did enjoy his company. It hadn't taken too much of an argument from her for Kent to agree to stay. She'd been right. He didn't know what else to do, and staying with her while they tried to find out his identity was just something else he didn't have to worry about. He also found himself drawn to the dark-haired beauty, and he guessed that she was experiencing feelings for him too.
Kent was sure that Lauren would be willing to share her bed with him if he'd ask, but something held him back. He had to admit that the prospect of making love with Lauren was an appealing one. He liked her. He liked her a lot, but he just couldn't bring himself to become intimate with her. He reasoned it was probably because of his amnesia. It wouldn't be fair to make love to a woman when you couldn't be honest with her about who you really were, since you didn't know yourself. Also he didn't know if he'd left some significant other behind. Granted, he wasn't wearing a wedding ring, but considering he was found naked, that didn't mean much. Lauren argued that the fact that no one seemed to be actively looking for him suggested that there had been no significant other. Still, Kent figured that until he regained a significant portion of his memory that they'd have to be contented with just the simple signs and acts of affection which they allowed themselves.
He'd discussed this with her several times. She had been willing to risk moving things ahead faster even though she didn't know who he really was. She argued that she'd already seen the kind of person he was and that was good enough for her. Still, she saw how much it bothered him so she relented and allowed Kent to set the pace in their relationship.
He began to slice up a tomato for their salad. He was still eavesdropping on their conversation and wasn't paying too much attention to what he was doing. Suddenly the knife slipped and the sharp blade sliced across his index finger. Startled, Kent quickly dropped the knife and clutched at his finger with his other hand. While holding tightly to his finger, he realized that there was no pain. He slowly withdrew his other hand and was bewildered to find… nothing. There was no wound, no blood, no mark of any kind. Kent allowed himself a sigh of relief. He wasn't sure how it had happened but he'd lucked out that time. He was sure he'd suffered a nasty cut.
He frowned. This wasn't the first time in recent weeks that something unusual had happened, something that went against normal explanations. Just last week he'd been helping the delivery driver bring some cases of red table wine into the restaurant. This driver was a big burly fellow, well over three hundred pounds, and he liked to show off his 'prodigious' strength. While Kent didn't try to carry more than one, or maybe two of the heavy cases at a time, this man had decided he could easily carry three at one time.
During one such trip, the fellow didn't notice a particular patch of ice, and when his foot hit it, physics took over. Kent saw it all begin to happen as if it were in slow motion. He watched as the foot hit the icy patch. He saw the man lose his balance and begin to fall backwards. Kent had rushed over and had caught the large gent and righted him before he could hit the ground. Not even a drop of wine was spilled. At the time Kent had just chalked it up to adrenaline, but now he wasn't so sure. There had been a couple of other weird incidents, but before he could replay those events, his musings were suddenly interrupted.
A pair of hands snaked around his waist. "Hey, Cookie, what's for supper?"
Kent turned to look into the smiling face of his beautiful roommate. "I was thinking of a nice, tasty eggplant souffle."
Lauren wrinkled her nose up at him. "Ewww, I don't think so. Got anything else to offer a starving gal."
Kent made a show of thinking hard, then shrugged his shoulders. "I'm sorry, but the only other food I have ready is a couple of thick filet mignons."
"Perfect." She leaned in, rising up on her tiptoes to plant a kiss on his smiling lips.
Kent busied himself with their food and the last few meals for the few diehard customers who were still out in the main room. Lauren took it upon herself to set the small table that sat against the wall of the pantry in the back. They usually ate in the back. That way they had their dinner, and Kent was still able to handle any last minute 'food emergency' that might crop up.
"Any new information?" Kent asked as he set a plate down in front of Lauren.
"This looks delicious." She poked at the steak with her fork, then shook her head. "Sorry, no. I did manage to spend a couple of hours at the office today and did some more checking, but apparently nobody is missing you. At least no one who is using official channels to try and find you."
Kent sat down next to her, setting down his own plate as he did. "Is that usual?"
Lauren spread her hands in a helpless gesture. "I really don't know. This is the third time in as many weeks that I've run a search program using your basic description against all reported missing person cases for the time period in question."
She shrugged again. "Just like before, nothing." She chewed on a juicy slice of filet. "Oh, this is wonderful. Not too rare, but still tender and not over-cooked."
Kent grinned at the lady across from him with her mouth full. "You always say that about my steaks."
"Yeah, but it's true. You have a gift with — well, everything. Are you sure you aren't actually a chef?"
Kent knew she was joking with him but his face betrayed his frustration. "I don't know, maybe I was, but it doesn't feel right. Cooking seems more like something I would do for my own enjoyment."
She reached out and cradled his chin with her hand. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be insensitive." She sighed. "I heard you moaning again last night. More dreams?"
The look on Kent's face became more frustrated. "I don't know if you can really call them dreams. Mostly just flashes of bright colors, some sort of explosion, and a woman I can only assume is you."
"Me?" Lauren was clearly taken aback.
Kent shrugged. "Well, I don't see her face, but she is slender and has shoulder length dark hair. So I can only guess that it's you filtering into my dreams somehow."
Lauren bit at her lower lip. What she wouldn't give to be in Kent's dreams, but somehow she thought that the mystery woman in his nightmares wasn't her. "I don't understand why you aren't remembering things. Why you haven't started to get your memory back."
Kent sighed and leaned back in his chair, his meal lying forgotten on his plate. "Well, I have been doing some reading up on the subject." Kent picked up his knife and tapped it on the table. "Apparently, in most cases, the subject regains his memory over a period of time as common places, people, and things jog his recall. I told you that I didn't think that I'd ever been here before. Maybe there's nothing here to jog my memory?"
Lauren felt the sting behind her eyes. "Are you saying that you want to leave here… me?"
Kent's expression softened. He reached out and cupped her face with the palm of his hand. "No." He smiled for her. "No, I don't want to leave… you."
She dropped her head allowing her hair to hide her face. After a few moments she looked back up at him, her eyes glistening in the light provided by the single bulb overhead. She turned her head and kissed his hand. They stared at each other for several moments.
Kent smiled, then sighed. "It's just so darn frustrating. I don't know what to do or even what to think."
Lauren bit her lip, using the back of her hand to wipe at an errant tear that had escaped. "You know," she started hesitantly. "There could be another reason why you aren't regaining your memory." She saw him raise his brow, questioningly. "Maybe you don't want to remember. Maybe you are running away from something. Maybe, just maybe, the reason you aren't regaining your memory is because, deep down, you don't want to."
Kent started to pull back, but she grabbed his hand and her voice became more animated. "Think about it. Think about the strange way I found you. You were lost in a place where you've obviously never been. You were naked. Nothing to indicate who you might have been." She looked into his eyes. "It might be Freudian to think so, but it was almost like you were trying to start over. A clean slate, so to speak." Her look of entreaty was almost comical.
Kent shook his head sympathetically. "That seems to be a bit of a reach, don't you think?"
Lauren's hands began to flail, wildly. "I don't know, is it? Do you have any better explanation?" She reached out and grabbed both Kent's hands, squeezing them fiercely. "Let's go away, just you and me. We can both go somewhere, start all over. Just the two of us." She pulled her hands back and clenched her fists. "The past is the past. We can let the future be now. You and me, we can leave this place. We'll find someplace where we can be together and say to hell with the rest of the world."
Kent stared at the distraught beauty sitting across from him. "I could never ask you to do that… for me." He put his finger against her lips to silence her next outburst. "Besides, contrary to what the romance novels would lead you to believe, it's not that easy to just pick up and go. You need to settle all your outstanding affairs, you need to have a plan, and…" Kent smiled a sad smile. "You need enough money to get you where you want to go and keep you going until you can reestablish yourself in the new location."
"I could get some money. I could sell my house. I could…" Her agitated rambling was cut off by the shaking of Kent's head.
"No, you can't do that. I know what that house means to you." He patted her hand, then stood and began to remove the forgotten meal from the table. "Why don't we just continue the way we have been for now. You keep trying to find out what you can. And hopefully, my memory will begin to reassert itself."
Lauren stared at his broad back as he deposited their cold, forgotten meal into the trash and rinsed off the plates under the faucet. Her voice was an inaudible whisper. "I love you, Kent."
"Ladies and Gentlemen, Lois Lane is in the house!" Jimmy's animated announcement was met with enthusiastic applause.
Lois had to smile as she accepted the welcomes and good wishes from her fellow Daily Planet staffers. She had just gotten off the elevator and hadn't even gotten to the ramp that would take her to her desk when Jimmy had spied her and made his declaration.
Lois was still a bit weak from her hospital stay, but she felt obligated to shake everyone's hand or thank anyone who came up to her to offer their best wishes. It was gratifying to know that so many of her co-workers actually seemed to care about her well being and her recovery from the assassination attempt.
"Lois, in my office, please." Perry stuck his head out of his office door and quickly ducked back in.
"Right, Chief." Lois reluctantly disentangled herself from an unusually sincere Cat Grant and headed for her editor's office.
"Aren't you supposed to be at home recovering still?" Perry asked her as she sat in the chair in front of his desk.
Lois grimaced at her boss. "I was going nuts just sitting around my apartment. I needed to get back to work. I'm fine, really."
Perry leaned back in his chair and cocked one eyebrow at her. "Uh huh." Finally a big smile broke through. "Well, I can't say it's not great to see you."
Lois shook her head in amused irritation. "Chief, you just saw me a few days ago when you visited me at the hospital." Her expression softened. "And thanks for that, by the way. If it weren't for you, Jimmy, and the Kents, I'd surely have gone over the wall weeks ago. I really looked forward to your frequent visits."
Perry nodded. "I got that impression, and I was happy to visit. You know how important to me — and the Planet, you are." He folded his hands in front of him. "So, did your folks get there much?"
Lois' lips drew into a tight line. "Well, you know how busy Daddy always is. I understand that he called my doctor a couple of times to see how I was doing. I guess I should be thankful for that much interest." Lois sighed. "Mom came by a couple of times, but thankfully she couldn't stay long. In the short time she was there she was her typical self. She managed to even criticize how I wore my hospital gown. I swear, Martha and Jonathan acted more like you'd think parents would than my own folks did."
Perry rubbed his jaw. "It was nice of the Kents to come and visit you so frequently. It must have been hard for them to leave Smallville so often."
Lois swallowed the lump before it could form in her throat. "Yes, it was. They tried to downplay it, telling me that little real work would need to be done on the farm until spring." Lois bit her lip. "They stayed at Clark's apartment. I — I think they were closing it up."
Perry nodded, knowingly. "They're good people. So, how are they doing?"
Lois lowered her head for a moment before she raised her eyes back to her boss's. "They are doing as well as can be expected… I guess. How about the staff? What did you tell them?"
Perry sighed once. "Nothing much. I just let it be known that Clark wasn't coming back. No official announcement. I let the office gossip spread the word."
Lois nodded. "Jon and Martha said something about telling the folks in Smallville that Clark was off traveling the world again. They even bought a ticket in his name to Paris. Then at some point he could just go missing."
Perry nodded his approval. "Seems like a good plan. That way they can let quite a bit of time go by between Superman and Clark's disappearances."
Lois shrugged. "I suppose that was the best way. Clark's secret still needs to be protected."
Perry studied his wounded protege for several moments. "And how about you? How are you doing, Lois?"
Lois took a deep breath. "Well, I'm still a little sore, and I still have to take pain killers every morning, but I'll be fine in no time."
Perry smiled sadly at Lois. "You know what I mean. How are *you* doing?"
Lois frowned and began to wring her hands. With a deep breath, she stilled her hands and composed herself. "Not great. I miss Clark terribly, but I had a lot of time to think while in the hospital. I did a lot of crying, but most of that, I'm ashamed to say, was for me. I realized that the self pity I allowed myself to wallow in served no purpose. It didn't help me, and it didn't honor Clark's memory." Lois' voice remained remarkably calm as a sad smile found its way onto her face. "I know that Clark cared for me and he wouldn't want me to sit around wondering what might have been and wishing for what can never be. I can honor his memory best by just trying to be the best reporter I can be for the best newspaper in the county." She shrugged. "I'm sure it was what he would have wanted."
Perry nodded again. "I think you're right." He reached over and gave her hand a squeeze. "I know it will be tough, but I think you will be all right too."
Lois' smile was sad but held a sincere note of affection for her mentor. "I hope so." Lois stood. "Can I go to work now?"
Lois waited on the corner of Swan and Jurgens for her contact to come. She had been waiting for more than a half an hour, and she was beginning to think that she had been stood up. She was just about to leave when the passenger door of her jeep opened, and a slightly out of breath young man slipped in.
Lois frowned at her guest. "Well, it's about time, Bobby. I thought you weren't coming for a moment there."
Bobby Bigmouth gave Lois a self-effacing smile. "Sorry, Lois, couldn't be helped. By the way, it's nice to see you up and around. You had me worried for a while there."
Lois blushed briefly. "Thanks, but it will take more than a single bullet from some assassin to keep me down."
Bobby chuckled. "No doubt. Well, I imagine that you'll get more chances for page one headlines once the criminal element in this town becomes convinced that Superman is going to stay gone." Bobby tried to peek at the bag of take out that Lois had brought. It smelled delicious. "Say, where is your partner these days? I haven't seen him around since before you were shot."
Lois stared at her favorite snitch. Bobby was more than just an informant, he'd become a friend. She didn't know what to tell him. She couldn't tell him the truth, but he'd probably see through any elaborate story she could make up. She sighed, then took a deep breath. A tear forced its way out of her eye and rolled slowly down her cheek.
"He's… He's gone." Lois turned away as more tears threatened to fall.
Bobby appeared surprised. "Gone? What do you mean, gone? Did he quit the Planet? Has he left the city? Where did he go? "Why didn't I hear about it?" Bobby shook his head in wonderment. "Truth, Lois? I figured the only way that Clark would ever leave your side would be when they were throwing dirt in his face."
Lois closed her eyes to regain her composure, then wiped at her cheeks with the back of her hand. She flipped the bag of culinary delights at Bobby. "I don't want to talk about it." Lois quickly changed the subject. "So, what do you have for me? I've been gone for a while and I need something juicy."
Bobby stared at Lois for several moments. From the look on her face he decided that now was not the time to press the issue. "Okay, Lois, whatever you say. Clark was a good guy, and I'm sorry for your loss, but I won't push it." Bobby took a breath, then got down to business. "You've obviously heard about the rash of recent drug deaths."
Lois nodded. "Yes, I was still able to read the paper while in the hospital you know."
Bobby grinned at Lois' rising irritation. "Well, word on the street is that a new player has come to town with some new, bargain priced stuff. They call it Highlife. It's some pretty nasty stuff. Just the right amount can give you an incredible high, but too little and you just get a headache, too much, and wham, you're history."
Lois was definitely intrigued. "What do the cops think?"
Bobby knew he had her hooked now. "That's the interesting part. They are chasing their tales looking in the same old directions they always do. But, like I said, this is a new group pushing this stuff, and get this… they aren't using the normal supply routes."
Lois studied her informant carefully. He was enjoying this too much. "What do you mean… normal supply routes?"
Bobby shrugged. "Think about it, Lois. Most of this stuff is cooked up in back room labs down in Central or South America where they can hire an entire village for pennies."
Bobby couldn't help but grin at Lois' impatience. "Well, I got it from a pretty good source that this stuff comes out of the Great White North."
Bobby nodded. "Yep, this stuff is cooked up somewhere in Canada, then smuggled across that great unguarded border to the north."
Lois frowned as she thought over what Bobby had told her. She bit her fingernail as she figured how to approach what she had been told. "So, do you know where it's coming across?"
Bobby's smile widened. "Normally this kind of information would cost you more than a single bag of take out from Ralph's Pagoda." Bobby held up his hand when he saw the black look on Lois' face. "Don't get me wrong, I like Ralph's Pagoda, but this information is hot."
Lois noisily expelled a breath in agitation. "Well, what do you want?"
"Bobby suddenly sobered up. "I said, normally. This time you get this for free. Call it a welcome back present. I missed you girl."
Lois rolled her eyes. "So, tell me already!"
Bobby grinned again. "The stuff is being smuggled through the Boundary Waters up in northern Minnesota."
Lois eyed her contact carefully. "Minnesota? Why — how would they get their stuff across the border up there in the wilderness? It's not like there is access to, to… anything?"
Bobby clutched his bag close to him as he opened the door of Lois' jeep and slid out of the seat. "That's for you to find out. I can't do everything for you, Lois. Have a nice trip, and be careful. We almost lost you once. I can't afford to lose one of my prime sources of nourishment." Bobby grinned again as he closed the door and disappeared down the alley.
Perry White scratched his nose as he reread the story that Ralph had just submitted. Perry circled a couple more incorrect phrases and suspect conclusions with his red pencil. In fact, there was very little on the page that didn't have red marks on it. Unlike with most of his reporters where he could just read over their lanned stories right on his screen, approve or make a couple of comments, and move on; with Ralph he had to print out the story so he could work it and give it back to Ralph in a form that the guy could see what he was doing wrong. Perry cursed the day that Ralph's mother had been appointed to the Board of Directors.
He was grateful for the interruption of his phone ringing. "Perry White." He smiled as he recognized the voice on the other end. "Lois, good of you to check in. Where are you? What… a story? Of course, I know about the recent spate of drug fatalities. What…where? Minnesota!" Perry pulled the receiver away from his ear and stared at it, as if he couldn't believe what he'd just heard. "Now you listen to me, young lady. You are not going to just fly off to someplace in Minnesota. You are going to come right back here to my office and explain what the heck you are talking about. Lois, do you hear me? Lois… Lois?" Perry slammed the phone down in annoyance. "Darn that girl, she is going to be the death of me yet."
Lenny Dirks and Arnie Starkins were busy packing small white bags of powder into larger plastic bags and sealing them with duct tape. The main room of the small log cabin was quite cluttered with the resealed bags. Lenny set the last bag into a large pile over in one corner of the room.
"I'll be glad when the weather breaks and shipping on the lakes begins again," he said, stretching his arms and back. "It'll sure be easier taking this stuff out by boat through the Lakes than to have to drive it down to the Twin Cities, then run it out to the coast by car and truck."
Arnie eyed his lanky partner. "I dunno, every port keeps a pretty good watch on its shipping traffic. Even the pleasure boats are kept tabs on. It might be slower, but nobody stops a car traveling across the country." He winked at his compatriot. "Once that stuff comes across the border, through the wilderness, and is received by us, it's cake from that point on."
Lenny frowned. "I'm not so sure about that. If anybody caught us with all this stuff…" He waved at the piles of plastic bags around them. "…We'd be on our way to prison quicker than you could say drug bust."
Arnie snorted at his associate and waved off his concern. "Who's going to find us up here. Crap! We're in the middle of nowhere. This old trapper's cabin hasn't been used since the fur trade disappeared nearly a hundred years ago. No one knows we're here." Arnie walked over and flopped down into one of only two upholstered chairs that the tiny cabin possessed. "Besides, by the time spring comes, we'll be out of here and another pair of dummies will be transporting the stuff from somewhere else… probably North Dakota or Montana. I can't wait to get paid and head for some exotic locale."
Lenny stared at his crony, not willing to accept his optimism. "I don't care, you can never be too careful. We've been lucky so far, but something can always go wrong." Lenny sat himself into the other chair. "I think we should change our route out this run. I think that sheriff in Ely is getting suspicious of us."
Arnie shook his head. "Whatever. I think you're being paranoid, but if it would make you feel better, we can do that… next time. I've already got some…" Arnie cleared his throat and gave his companion a knowing nod. "…appointments scheduled along the route."
Lenny sighed. "You and your stupid urges. Your sexual appetites are going to get us into trouble yet." Lenny fretted. "What about that sheriff?"
Arnie smiled as he reached into his waistband and pulled out his nine millimeter pistol. "Then I guess we'll just have to deal with that problem when we come to it… won't we."
Lois spread the map of northern Minnesota out on the large double bed in her hotel room. She had arrived in Duluth via a small commuter flight early that morning. Her plane from Metropolis had arrived at the Minneapolis airport last night, but she had already missed any connecting flight to Duluth. She had briefly toyed with the idea of just renting a car right then and drive the three plus hours it would take to get her to the largest city in the northern half of the state.
Instead she had rented a hotel room near the airport and had spent the evening getting as much information about where she was going as she could. Playing the tourist, Lois had managed to acquire several brochures and maps indicating much of the area in and around Duluth and the North Shore parks and resorts. She also gathered as much material on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and the surrounding Superior National Forest as she could. She was surprised to find that there were still places left in the country that were trying to be preserved in their unspoiled state as much as possible. She did note though, for all the stringent rules and regulations for travel and camping in the area, that it was an awfully large expanse of land, and it would be relatively simple for someone to sneak their way through the area if they knew where the official campsites and such were located and stayed away from them. It was literally going to be a needle in a haystack kind of search. She was going to need some of the Lane luck to help her with this story.
Once Lois had arrived in Duluth and had secured a nearby motel room, she had rented a four wheel drive Bronco and had acted the part of tourist. She spent the day seeing the sites of Duluth. She had visited the former train depot that now housed the County Heritage and Arts Center. The exhibits and the four museums there had been interesting. She also took in the Lake Superior Maritime Museum on Canal Park and took a tour through the SS William A. Irvin, a former Lake Superior ore boat now permanently grounded and acting as a museum. She had been denied one of the more typical sites that tourists to Duluth liked to take in. Since most of the shipping traffic was laid up until the winter gave way to spring, she missed any chance to see the Aerial Lift Bridge being raised to allow the large tankers into port.
While a part of Lois found her 'tourist actions' interesting and enjoyable, another part was very attuned to her surroundings. She watched and listened to the people around her hoping to pick up some unusual behavior or a scrap of conversation that might give her a clue as to how to proceed now that she was here. Unfortunately, if there was anyone 'in the know' about these drug runners around, she didn't run into them.
It was a mildly frustrated Lois Lane who pored over the map laid out on her bed wondering where to go next. In was then that fortune smiled on the determined reporter. The television was on, tuned to a local newscast, and a breaking story caught her attention. Lois focused on the anchor's description of a murder of a local county sheriff. Based on the emotional nature of the report, Lois figured that such things didn't happen up here much. The sheriff's body was found a few hundred yards from where his vehicle had been parked along the road about fifteen miles outside of Ely. He'd been shot once in the head. Authorities had no comment, which Lois knew meant that they had no clues.
Lois turned back to her map and placed a finger on the black dot labeled Ely. There was nothing to indicate that the sheriff's murder had anything to do with her investigation, but it was the most promising lead she had. Something in her gut told her that if murder wasn't so common up here, as it would be in a big city, chances are that it would be tied to other illegal dealings — like drug smuggling?
Lois folded up her map and made ready to retire for the night. She'd have to be up early the next morning. It was a long drive to Ely.
Kent immediately noticed the distressed look on Lauren's face as she came through the door. He hadn't worked at the Inn today so he was home. One look at her face told Kent that all was not right in her world.
"What's wrong, Lauren?" He stood and enfolded her in a compassionate hug, then leaned back to look her in the face.
She sniffed once, but there were no tears. "Oh, I'm just upset. I found out today that a friend of mine was murdered."
Kent was stunned. "What! Who? How did it happen?"
Lauren made her way over to the chair and flopped bonelessly into it. "It's been all over the news. A pretty big deal for up here."
Kent shook his head. "I haven't had the television on all day."
"Well, the local Ely police found a St. Louis County Sheriff murdered a little ways outside of town. His name was Danny Hanson."
Kent picked up one of Lauren's hands and began to rub the back of it with his thumb. "Was he a close friend of yours?"
Lauren shrugged. "I wouldn't exactly call him a *close* friend. I've known him for a few years. We dated once or twice a couple of years back, but nothing ever came of it. We didn't really stay in touch, but our jobs brought us into contact with each other on occasion." Lauren looked at Kent helplessly. "He was a nice guy. Who would want to murder him?"
Kent lifted Lauren effortlessly from the chair and moved her over to the old comfortable couch. He sat next to her with his arm around her. "Why does anyone murder anyone? It's beyond understanding to me."
Lauren looked into her boyfriend's face. She could see the caring and compassion there. "You don't understand. This kind of stuff doesn't happen up here." She shook her head in disgust. "I've always chafed at the quiet nature of the job up here. How the most 'exciting' things I ever have to deal with are drunks and domestic disturbances. I've always dreamed of what it might be like to have 'real' crimes to investigate and deal with. Now that one has happened, I don't know how to handle it."
Kent nodded in understanding. "I can imagine it's tough for you. This is new to you, and suddenly it's very real, not just something you've heard or read about happening elsewhere. The fact that it happened to someone you know makes it that much more difficult to deal with." He reached up and stroked her cheek with his fingertip. "Give yourself a little time to adjust to this. You're a good cop, Lauren, you'll do the right thing." He gave her a sardonic smile. "You doing the right thing for me, aren't you?"
Lauren, pushing down a quick stab of guilt, sighed and laid her head against his chest. "You're really too good to be true, you know that?"
Kent didn't respond but just combed through her dark locks with his fingers. He felt her sigh again as she reached out and snaked her arm around his waist. The two of them were content to sit there, in silence, for some time.
After about an hour of just sitting together Lauren forced herself to get up. She stood and looked at her roommate. He smiled up at her and she mustered a smile of her own.
"I have to get out of these clothes." She moved toward her bedroom. "I hope you don't mind, but I don't feel much like eating tonight. I think I'll just shower and go right to bed."
Kent stood and kissed her on the forehead. "I understand. Don't worry about it, I'll clean up." He watched her as she went into her bedroom to change.
Kent didn't bother to eat anything either. He listened to the sounds of Lauren's shower as he placed the untouched dinner into storage containers and placed it into the refrigerator. It went against his grain to just throw out perfectly good food. He knew it would heat up fine at a later time.
Kent was doing up the few pots and pans he'd dirtied up in the preparation of the unwanted meal when Lauren passed by on her way to her bedroom. She stopped at the doorway.
"Thanks. Good night, Kent." Her eyes pleaded with him. She then turned away and entered her room, switching off the light as she did so.
Kent sighed and not for the first time wondered why he was still there. It was true that he didn't have anywhere else to go, but would he have been better off going to a hospital, or some other official agency where they might be able to help him find out who he was? Still, Lauren was an officer of the law, and she was as plugged in as anyone around here would be. And, he was still really confused as to why he was found, naked, wandering the wilds of northern Minnesota. There must be a reason why he was found here, so it seemed logical that he should stay in the area until he knew why.
His lips curved into a sad smile. If he was being honest with himself, he would have to admit that if he had to be 'lost' somewhere, being lost up in the natural beauty of Minnesota with someone like Lauren wasn't all that bad. She had been wonderful to him and now she was the one in need. Her friend had been murdered and she was hurting over it. Kent felt a bit ashamed that he'd been thinking of himself when she obviously needed him. But what could he do? She knew he would be here for her… if she needed to talk, or… whatever.
Kent wiped his hands on the towel and looked over toward the television. He then turned and stared long and hard at the blackened doorway to Lauren's bedroom. She'd left her door open. The look of entreaty in her eyes as she passed him wasn't lost on him. Flipping the light switch for the kitchen overhead light to off, Kent plunged the entire house into darkness, save for the moonlight coming through the undrawn curtains. Unerringly he made his way to her bedroom door. With only the slightest hesitation, but without turning on her light, he slipped quietly into her room.
Lenny threw his hat against the far wall. He paced around the room like a caged cat. Every so often he'd throw his partner a look of disgust, then he'd resume his pacing.
"Will you settle down!" Arnie snorted in exasperation. "I don't know why you are all worked up anyway?"
"You don't know why I'm all worked up!" Lenny stared at Arnie in wonder. "You just had to kill him, didn't you? "
"Hey, you're the one who was all worried about the guy. And don't forget that you were the one driving, too fast I might add, when he stopped us. If you hadn't panicked I wouldn't have had to shoot him." Arnie shook his head at his jittery companion. "Geez, I didn't know you were so squeamish. I thought you knew something like this could happen on this job. Better him than me is the way I see it."
"I'm not squeamish. I just don't like the extra heat this brings down on us. And I did not panic. He just caught me off-guard, that's all."
Arnie's laugh was low and without humor. "If you say so." Arnie made a show of picking up a map and gazing at it for several moments before he spoke again. "Don't worry about the heat either. I've got some ideas in that area too. First, I think we should change our route out of here."
Lenny stopped pacing and glared at Arnie. "Didn't I say we should do that last time?"
Arnie shrugged. "Okay, so we're doing it now. Instead of working our way west through the forest to the highway outside of Ely, we can find a way south and catch the road outside of Isabella, then head southeast through Finland to Illgen City. From there we just blend in with all the tourists along the Lake. There must be a half dozen state parks along that North Shore Drive. We'll be just one of many winter tourists. Heck, we can even trailer the snowmobiles and drag them along behind us, just for effect."
Lenny's shoulders sagged as he finally sat down in the old chair that he'd long ago claimed as his. "Still, murder is not a common thing up here. All the police and sheriff's departments will be on the alert for anyone who seems at all suspicious."
Arnie smiled at his associate. "As to that, If need be we spent a little more of our employer's money and recruit us some additional help."
Lenny shook his head. "I don't know. How will you know who we can trust?"
Arnie chuckled. "There's always someone who needs money for something. We can buy their trust. No, make that rent their trust. We won't be up here much longer, and I don't intend to leave any loose ends behind." Arnie's grin got wider. "Feel better?"
Kent and Lauren ate their breakfast in silence. There seemed no need for words, or maybe no one knew what to say. The night they'd spent together, their first, had been both comforting and painful. They had spent the night in each other's arms. He, offering her succor in her time of confusion and heartache, and she, clinging to him like a lifeline to an imagined happiness that she wasn't sure she could ever have.
Lauren knew she would have given herself to him, freely and gladly, any time he chose to avail himself of her. She'd also known that last night was not going to be that time. He had come to her because he knew she was hurting, and she was vulnerable. She needed the comfort of a good friend, and he had selflessly provided that. She also knew that what she wanted, he still wasn't able to give.
She watched him as he ate his food. Neither had said more than ten words to each other since they had gotten up. The silence wasn't awkward or uncomfortable in any way. Actually it would be more accurate to call it companionable. What it really meant was that neither wished to discuss the night before. Neither wished to bring up those barriers which still existed between them. Those walls, both real and imagined, which kept their relationship from moving on to the next level.
Lauren had hoped that time would eventually lower Kent's reluctance. He was aware of how she felt about him. It would be impossible for him not to be. But he still insisted that it wouldn't be fair to her until she, and he, could be sure who he was. It was a point he stayed stubborn on. She often wondered if there wasn't more to it. Perhaps, somewhere, in his subconscious, he knew that he belonged to someone else. This Lois person he'd cried out to in his dreams. Perhaps that was why he couldn't make that commitment to her like she was willing to make to him.
Lauren stared at her plate, pushing the last bit of egg around with a piece of toast. It didn't make sense to her. Why wasn't anyone looking for him? If there was a special someone out there. If there was a 'Lois' who had such a hold on him, where was she? Why hadn't she been looking for him?
She had continued to check all the resources at her disposal, looking for some clue as to who Kent could be, where he had come from, and why he'd been wandering naked in the wilds of a northern Minnesota forest in the middle of the night. Well, pretty much. Lauren had long ago admitted to herself that she really didn't want to find those clues to Kent's past. She feared that once he knew who he really was, that he'd lose her. That he would readily return to that past he'd lost. A past that didn't include her.
Still, she loved him, and because she loved him she couldn't not help him. Okay, maybe she wasn't doing quite as much as she could, maybe she was being paranoid, and maybe she chose to believe the possibility because it suited her purposes, but she still worried about Kent's safety. She still refused to initiate any missing persons reports just in case he was on the run. She didn't for a minute believe that he was or could have been involved in anything illegal. That just wasn't the man she'd had come to know. But that didn't mean that he wasn't running from something, or someone. Lois?
Lauren stood up, carrying her now empty plate to the sink. "I guess we should be going. I'll drop you off at Pete's." She walked over to the coat hooks near the door and pulled her jacket from the center hook. "I'm not sure exactly when I'll be off tonight. Danny's murder has all the law enforcement agencies up here really spooked. There's a special meeting that's been called for all the local sheriffs today at 11:00. I'm sure there will be some changes in assignments and patrols."
Kent reached over and took the jacket that he'd taken to wearing recently from its spot on the coat hooks. "If there is anything I can do to help, let me know."
She smiled at him. "Just being as understanding as you are is a big help. I'll call the inn if it looks like I'll be real late. As it is, I wouldn't wait dinner for me."
Kent placed his arm around her shoulders as he opened the door for the two of them. "I'm not sure I'm too happy about that. I don't want you wasting away from not eating."
Lauren snorted at her smiling roommate. "I don't think there's much chance of that happening. As it is, I've gained too many pounds since I've met you. The guys down at headquarters are beginning to make cow noises when I come around."
Kent chuckled. "I'm sure."
She flipped him the keys. "You drive."
Kent settled in behind the wheel, started the engine and pulled out of the garage next to the log cabin that has been his home for the last several weeks. Winter was on the wan, but up in this part of the country there was still plenty of cold and snow left. He'd be glad when the winter would end and the spring would bring forth a bright, warm sun and the emergence of new life in the surrounding forest.
He gave Lauren a sidelong glance as he pulled the Bronco out onto the old logging road which connected her residence to the main highway. Kent knew that she was upset for all her talk of wanting to get away, to be a part of the excitement of the big city. This little reminder of the evil that can exist in the world had bothered her more than she wanted to admit. The fact that it happened to someone she knew was obviously a big factor.
Kent also suspected that she had wished that he would have done more than just hold her last night. In truth, when he'd gone to her in her bed, he had thought to let nature take its course. She had snuggled close and had clearly invited him to share an intimacy that she had long wished for. But something held him back. He kept telling himself that it was because he couldn't totally share himself with someone until he knew who he really was. It just wouldn't be right.
He also knew that she didn't care, but she continued to respect his indecision and wordlessly allowed him to take the lead. She would be satisfied, well maybe not satisfied, but content with what he was willing to give. So they had lain together through the night. He held her in his arms as she, her head resting against his chest, spooned against him.
They were only a few minutes away from Isabella and the Antler Inn when Kent sighed and turned to her. "Lauren, look, about last night, I…"
She placed her gloved finger against his lips. "No, don't say anything. I understand, and I will wait until you are comfortable with… us." She gave him a sad smile. "I've never felt about anyone like I do for you. I don't want to risk losing you by rushing things, or by pushing. Hey," she said, giving him a playful punch. "Some things are worth waiting for."
Kent blushed as he pulled into town and spied the driveway to the inn. "Thanks. I hope you know that I think you are pretty terrific, but I just can't get around this not knowing who I am." Kent shook his head. "It's just so frustrating. Sometimes I think I'm on the verge of remembering something, then it just slips away like water through your fingers. I just wish I knew who I was!"
Kent pounded on the steering wheel in an act of frustration. Lauren gasped and he nearly lost control of the vehicle as a large chunk of the wheel shattered beneath his blow. Quick reflexes allowed him to bring the SUV back under control and he soon had them stopped in the Antler Inn's parking lot.
"What the heck happened?" Lauren stared at the damaged steering wheel in wonder.
Kent shook his head in amazement. "I don't know." He turned to look at her, a bit shamefacedly. "I guess I just don't know my own strength."
"I'll say." She reached over and fingered the broken edges of the wheel, then reached down and picked up the missing pieces off the floor. "Well, I don't think I'll be gluing this back into place."
Kent's face was red with embarrassment as he took it from her. "I'm sorry, I guess there must have been a flaw in the plastic… or something." He ran his hands along the slightly twisted wheel with the large chunk missing out of the top. "Is there someplace that you can get this fixed around here?"
Lauren glanced at her watch. "There's a small filling station that also does some mechanical work, but I don't have time for that. I've got to get going." She pushed Kent out the door and slid over on the seat. She placed her hands on the remains of the steering wheel. "I don't think I'll have too much trouble getting down to the sheriff's station. The shop guys there can fix it while I'm in the meeting." She looked up and saw the guilt on the face of her handsome friend. "Don't worry about it. It's not like it's my own car. The taxpayers of this fair county will take care of it."
"What will you tell your superiors?" Kent asked.
Lauren shrugged. "What you said. Probably some defect in the plastic of the wheel." She shooed him away from the car. "I'll take care of it. You just go and make Pete's customers happy with the delicious meals you prepare." She stuck her head out the car window. "I'll try not to be too late. Now say goodbye and go inside before Pete wonders what we're doing out here."
Kent grinned at the lovely lady behind the disfigured steering wheel. He leaned in and gave her a quick kiss on the lips. "Take care."
She waved and gunned the engine purposely spinning the wheels and throwing some snow up onto his legs. Shaking his head, but grinning, Kent watched her pull away and move on down the road. She truly was a wonderful woman. She was smart, beautiful, and compassionate. And she wanted him. It didn't matter to her that he couldn't remember his true name. She claimed she knew all she needed to know about him. So what was his problem? What kept him from giving this incredible person the love he knew she wanted from him? Kent frowned. He knew what the problem was. He had no past, and until he did… he had no future.
Shaking his head in disgust, Kent turned toward the inn and another day of cooking for the tourists and the locals. He was suddenly struck by the absurd possibility that if his memory didn't return, he might be stuck here as the inn's cook for a long time. No, that wouldn't happen. While he didn't mind acting the part of chef, something told him that, in the long run, he wouldn't be satisfied with just being a cook.
Lois wondered if there really was any civilization up here. She'd been traveling north on County Road 2 for sometime and hadn't really seen much in the way of human habitation. She'd passed a couple of other county roads which had made claims of towns, with people, along them a few miles down the road, but you couldn't prove it by anything Lois had seen in the last couple of hours. She was approaching State Highway 1, where she would turn basically northwest, which would lead her to Ely, when a light on her dashboard flashed its warning.
The oil light had come on, meaning that her oil pressure was dangerously low. Typical of car manufacturers and their use of 'idiot lights' rather than true gauges, you never knew you had a problem until it was a 'real' problem. She knew she had to get some oil in her vehicle as quick as possible or risk serious damage to the engine. She didn't relish the idea of being stranded out in the middle of nowhere Minnesota in the cold and snow of winter.
Keeping one eye on the road, she used her other to glance at the map she had haphazardly spread out on the passenger seat next to her. She only had two options. She could turn the way she had planned and hope she'd make it the thirty odd miles left to her destination of Ely. There were no other towns along the way in that direction. Her other choice was to turn the opposite way and hope to reach Isabella, which was only about ten or so miles along the road.
Lois sighed as she halted the car at the intersection where County 2 ended at State Highway 1. She had no choice. Silently cursing her luck, Lois took the turn to the right and headed for the little resort town of Isabella.
Lois' luck hadn't deserted her entirely, for she did make it to Isabella and managed to pull into a small service station. She hopped out of the vehicle and approached a gangly youth who seemed to be in charge. Lois wasn't encouraged by that. The fellow couldn't have been more than twenty.
As it turned out, he was only minding the till. His dad owned the station, and his brother was the chief mechanic. Both of those people weren't there at the time. Lois made it clear that she would 'very much' appreciate it if his brother the mechanic could come over and look at her vehicle before she lost any more time than she had to. The kid just grinned as he called.
The kid, whose name was Ronnie, hung up the phone. "Ted is just finishing up his lunch, and he'll be over in a few minutes." Ronnie indicated a hard plastic chair over by the corner. "You can wait there if you want."
Lois' smile was frigid. "Thanks so much."
Ted showed up a few minutes later, but to the impatient reporter it seemed like hours. Ronnie wasn't much of a conversationalist, nor did Lois appreciate his choice of music on his CD player.
She followed Ted out to her vehicle and then watched as he moved it into the garage and opened the hood. Lois had no idea what he was doing, but she didn't like how much time he seemed to be taking.
"It just needs some oil, right?" She wandered over to stand next to the tall young man.
He wiped his hands on a rag that stuck out of his back pocket. "Yes it does, but we had to find out why this car needed oil. It might have been a leak, it might just have been low, or as in this case it might be more serious."
"Oh." Lois' head snapped around. "What do you mean, more serious?"
Ted grinned, but his tone was apologetic. "I'm afraid your oil pump is shot. It will have to be replaced."
Lois bristled. "What do you mean, the oil pump is shot? It can't be shot. This is a rental. They can't rent defective vehicles… can they?"
Ted just shrugged. "I don't know anything about that. All I know is, I wouldn't drive this Ford again without a new oil pump."
Lois frowned, then sighed. "Okay, I guess you'd better replace it." She looked up at him quickly. "You can fix it, can't you?"
Ted chuckled. "Sure… if I had the parts."
Lois' eyes narrowed in expectant dread. "Meaning?"
"I'll have to go down to Silver Bay to get the oil pump. We don't carry oil pumps in our stock. Not enough call for them."
Lois first impulse was to attack. She wanted to read this country bumpkin a riot act. How could they call themselves a service station when they couldn't provide a stranded motorist with basic service? And did he know how important it was for her to be on her way. She didn't have time to waste in this little one horse town.
She held her tongue though. She knew that her problem wasn't this fellow's fault, and whatever inconvenience this was causing her was of no concern to him either. Also she suspected that her anger would only be answered by a polite apology and a smile. Were all small town people like Clark?
Lois sighed again. "So what are we looking at here?"
Ted shook his head and glanced at his watch. "Well, there's not too much going on here. I suppose if I leave now, I can get down to the parts store before they close." He rubbed his chin like he was deep in thought. "I can work on the Bronco tonight after I get back. I guess I could have it ready for you first thing tomorrow?"
Lois nodded. "Thanks, I'd appreciate that."
Ted cleared his throat to recapture Lois' attention. "I'm afraid I'll have to charge you the retail cost of the pump, and a few bucks for my gas to get back and forth."
Lois couldn't help but smile. "Whatever you have to do is fine. I'm sure that you'll give me a fair deal." Her smile broadened as she saw Ted grin. "Is there anywhere in town here where I can get a room for the night and a meal or two?"
Ted nodded. "Oh, sure. Pete's place, the Antler Inn. He's got some rooms in the motel in the back, and the new cook he hired for his restaurant is the best he's ever had. The guy really knows how to cook."
"Sounds good, thanks."
Lois gathered her bag and briefcase from the back seat of the car and allowed Ted to point out where the Antler Inn was located a few blocks away. Thanking Ted again, Lois schlept her way down the street to the large log-built edifice which was to act as her residence for the night.
Once inside the door to the front lobby of the inn, Lois was greeted by a pleasant, middle-aged man in a flannel shirt. She assumed this was 'Pete'. His eyebrow raised slightly at the sight of her trudging through his door, having obviously come on foot, but his smile was genuine.
"Welcome to the Antler Inn. How can I help you." Pete's tone was devoid of any polish, or professional phoniness. He seemed to be sincerely interested in how he could help her.
Lois pasted on one of her noncommittal smiles. "Hi, I've run into a bit of car trouble and the mechanic down the street won't be able to have my vehicle fixed until morning." Lois shrugged. "I guess he needs to gets some parts. When I asked where I might find a room for the night he recommended this place."
Pete's smile got bigger. "Well, bless his heart. Sure I've got some rooms available. Since the holiday season has been over for a time, I've plenty of room. Occupancy will be light until the early spring tourists begin to show up next month." Pete glanced down at the luggage that Lois was toting. "I see you have a laptop computer. Do you need a room with a modem access?"
Lois jerked her head back, startled. She hadn't expected to find that up here in the 'wilds' of northern nowhere. "That would be great if you've got one."
Pete laughed at her surprise. "Sure, I've got a few set up that way. We may be on the edge of the wilderness up here, but this is a tourist town and we get guests from all over the country. Many of them are big shot executives who can't stand to be cut off from their umbilical life line to their jobs."
Lois nodded in understanding. Maybe this wouldn't be such a wasted night after all. She'd be able to connect up with the Planet's database and check on any recent developments back in Metropolis. Between that and a few calls on her cell phone, she should be well armed heading into her investigation tomorrow.
Lois began to fill out the registration card. "I hear you have a pretty good cook here. Is the dining room open yet? I could sure use something for lunch." Lois looked up with a sheepish smile. "I was in such a hurry to get going this morning that I skipped breakfast."
Pete nodded knowingly. He had Lois pegged as a career driven type. Someone who wouldn't let little things like proper nutrition get in the way of her work.
"You're lucky you came today instead of yesterday," Pete chuckled good naturedly. "Yesterday was Kent's day off. But he is in today. I'm sure you'll like his cooking." Pete leaned down and whispered in a mock conspiratorial manner. "Don't tell him this but, he's the best chef I've ever had here."
Lois' froze at the mention of the name Kent. She knew she was being ridiculous, but even now, Clark was never far from her thoughts. "Kent? Just out of curiosity, what does he look like?"
"Kent? Oh, I guess you'd say he was a good-looking guy. Nice build, dark hair and beard." Pete eyed Lois speculatively. "I don't know why you ask, but you should know that Kent is spoken for. He's the boyfriend of our local county sheriff. They were old friends in college down at UMD, and if I read things right, they might just be more than friends now."
Lois blushed at Pete's misunderstanding of her interest. It had been a foolish thought, but something made her ask. There probably were lots' of guys named Kent in the world. And if she interpreted Pete's answer correctly, Kent was actually this cook's first name. Even if he was tall, dark and handsome like a certain missing partner of hers, Clark would never wear a beard. Nor did he ever attend UMD, which Lois knew, from her reading, was the University of Minnesota, Duluth.
Lois thanked Pete as he handed her the key to her room. She declined his offer to help her with her bags and merely asked for directions to the room. A few minutes later Lois was sitting on the edge of a large queen sized bed staring at the rustic, yet not overstated, decor of the room. She contemplated a shower as she spied the roomy, modern bathroom off to the one corner, but her stomach chose that moment to audibly remind her of her hunger. Giving in to her more basic urge, Lois decided that the shower could wait until after she had sampled some of this 'fabulous' chef's cooking.
Lois wasn't sure if she'd ever been surrounded by so much exposed timber in her life. She felt like she could get a splinter by just looking at the walls in the restaurant. The log cabin exterior had been carried through in the interior. The exposed timbers were huge and the room seemed cavernous, mostly due to the exceptionally high, open ceiling.
The wooden tables and chairs were made in a style that matched the rest of the building. Not the finely carved and highly polished elegance of an expensive dining set. This furniture was purposely designed to look a bit primitive. Many would find the place 'charming' in its 'woodsy' look and feel. Lois was just overwhelmed by so much outdoorsiness.
A pleasant-looking older woman came up to Lois and handed her a simple paper menu. She had the aura of competency that many long time waitresses often had. The name 'Mary' was typed neatly on her name tag. Lois glanced around and noticed that there weren't too many others in the restaurant at the moment.
Mary, noticing Lois' glance, smiled at her. "We don't get much of a lunch crowd during the week. The tourists are off doing whatever they came up here for, and the locals usually save a trip to the Inn for a special occasion or a big deal weekend meal."
Lois returned the smile. "Oh. From what a few people had told me about your cook, I'd have thought that the place would be packed all the time."
"Well, he certainly hasn't hurt business, that's for sure." The waitress laughed. "He's really quite good. Today's special is a Chinese chicken stir fry."
Lois returned the menu without even glancing at it. "That sounds good to me."
"Anything to drink?"
"Just coffee, and some water would be fine… thanks."
Mary wandered off to place Lois' order with the kitchen. Lois pulled a pad and pen from her bag and began to scribble some notes to herself. She needed to order her thoughts before she tried to contact the Planet tonight. She wanted to make sure that she didn't waste any time while she was either online connected to the Planet's database or was on the phone to Jimmy or Perry. She figured the charges might be a bit expensive, and she didn't want Perry getting upset over her expenses for this story. A story, she had to admit, that she didn't have any real leads on.
It was only a few minutes later that the waitress was placing a large plate of food in front of Lois. The smells were enticing. It looked delicious, and Lois' couldn't wait to dig in. Picking up her fork, she tried a large mouthful.
"Oh my!" Lois exclaimed.
It was heaven. It was just they way she liked it. Lois' fondness for Chinese food and oriental take out was well known amongst her friends. She had most of the better places that delivered in Metropolis on her speed dial. But this was different. She hadn't had stir fry that tasted this good since… since Clark had cooked for her.
Suddenly her appetite faltered. She bit her lip as she stared at the plate of delicious food in front of her. Lois couldn't stop the tear that slipped down her cheek. She silently admonished herself for her sudden weakness. She thought that she had put these breakdowns behind her. She would never forget Clark, but she still had a life to live. As nice as it would've been to still have him in her life, he was gone, and she had a job to do. And right now it was lunchtime, and she needed food to sustain her.
Lois scooped up another forkful of the tasty entree and stuck it in her mouth. Chewing determinedly, she forced herself to swallow it. She tried to eat it so quickly that she didn't register the delightful flavor, and the subtle blend of seasonings which reminded her so much of Clark's cooking.
It was no use. Every mouthful just brought back memories of Clark and times now past. It had taken losing him to make Lois realize how much he'd meant to her, how much she'd gotten used to his being there for her. Used to him being her best friend. Something that she'd never had before and doubted if she ever would again.
With a silent sob, Lois dropped the fork and pushed the plate away. It was stupid, really. To be reminded of Clark because a plate of food tasted good to her. Was she ever going to be free from the pain?
Mary, having observed Lois' actions rushed over. "Is there something wrong, Miss? Is the food not to your liking? I can take it back."
Lois wiped her cheek with the heel of her hand and shook her head. "No, no, it was really very good. My compliments to the chef." Lois tried to smile for the confused waitress. "I was just… er, I think I might be coming down with something. Perhaps I'd better just head back to my room and rest."
"I'm sorry to hear you're feeling poorly. I hope you'll be feeling better after a nice nap."
Mary handed her the check and Lois quickly wrote her room number on it and added a nice tip. Her only thought was to get out of there and to her room where she could immerse herself in her work.
Lois, got up and swiftly left the restaurant without another word. Shaking her head in wonder, the waitress shrugged and took the still loaded plate back to the kitchen.
Kent noticed Mary dumping a plateful of his stir fry into the garbage. He strolled over to her.
"Hey, don't tell me I'm losing my touch already? The patrons didn't like my stir fry?" Kent leaned against the refrigerator and smiled at her.
Mary just shook her head at Kent, and shrugged. "Strangest thing. This young woman, pretty thing — reminded me a bit of Lauren, came in alone and I could tell she was hungry. I even heard her stomach growl when I set the plate in front of her. But after a couple of bites, she pushes the plate away and is fighting back tears."
Kent looked at Mary, his own confusion apparent. "I know that my stir fry isn't to everybody's taste, but I never figured it would make people cry?" Kent's tone was light and playful but held a bit of real concern also.
"That's just it," said Mary. "She said she liked it. She offered her 'compliments to the chef' but for some reason she couldn't eat it." Mary frowned. "She tried to cover it up with some story about coming down with something, but I think her problem had nothing to do with any cold or flu. I think your stir fry brought back a painful memory."
Kent raised his brow. "Oh?"
"Trust me on this, young man. That gal's problem was one of the heart." Mary patted Kent on the chest and returned to the restaurant floor.
Lauren filed out of the meeting room at the Lake County government building. She and most of the other county sheriffs had just sat through a long and involved briefing on the murder of Danny Hanson, the St. Louis County Sheriff who had been found dead a few miles outside of Ely the other day. She knew that a lot of new procedural information had been given to them, but Lauren couldn't seem to remember much of it. Her mind had been unfocused and was wandering onto other, more personal, subjects.
She'd been greatly spooked by Danny's murder. It wasn't just the fact that she'd known him either. She was finding out some interesting things about herself. Mainly that she wasn't the excitement junkie she thought she was. She had long chaffed at the placidness and routine nature of her job up here, far away from the real action of the big cities. Now, it seemed that she had been fooling herself all along. Perhaps she really was just a small town girl at heart and wasn't really cut out for the 'thrills' of big time crime as she had once thought. She didn't know how to deal with what was happening. She was afraid. But as much as she was scared of what might happen if she were to meet up with the killers, her mind kept wandering to another topic. One which held another real fear for her.
More and more she was becoming convinced that Kent would leave her once he regained his memory. It wasn't from anything he'd done since she'd known him. On the contrary, he'd continued to be sweet and understanding with her. He hadn't even complained about her lack of any real progress in finding any clues to his identity. They had continued to enjoy each other's company as any two real good friends would. No, it was the things that he wouldn't, or couldn't, do. Something kept him from taking that next inevitable step in their relationship. She was sure that something was someone else, someone named Lois.
Even if he never regained his memory, she wasn't sure if he'd ever be able to overcome that subconscious barrier which kept him from returning the love she was so ready to give him. She knew that it was foolish of her. After all, she'd only known him a couple of months. And actually she didn't really know who he was, but his name and history didn't matter to her. Just being with him every day was enough to know that he was a special man, truly that one in a million type of guy. The type of man that she never thought she'd meet and now that she had, the thought that she could lose him was killing her. It was obvious she had fallen hopelessly in love with him.
The only answer she could come up with was to convince him to run away with her. This area might be a place that was new and strange to him, but it was her home, and he knew that. Perhaps if she could get him to go away with her. Go someplace that was new and unfamiliar to both of them. They would only have each other, and together they could start fresh. Never worry where they had come from but build an entirely new life from scratch, together.
It was a wonderful dream, but as Kent had told her that one time she had brought it up, it wasn't that simple. He hadn't taken her too seriously when she'd mentioned the idea, but he did point out that such drastic measures would require a significant amount of money to pull off. If only just to buy one the time to find a desirable place to go.
Lauren's thoughts were interrupted by a hand on her shoulder. "Hey, beautiful, what's up? You seemed a million miles away in there." Martin Mackey gave her a smile of encouragement, but his concern for her was easily seen.
She tried to return his smile, but it didn't quite take. "I don't know, Marty. I guess I'm just spooked by this whole murder thing. It's causing me to reevaluate my priorities, and what I want to do with my life."
Marty leaned back and eyed his favorite co-worker. "Oh, what sort of changes are you thinking about?"
Lauren shrugged. "I'm not sure I'm cut out for this stuff anymore. I think that maybe I'd like to get away." She looked into the face of her friend. "I think that maybe I'd like to go somewhere else. Somewhere warm, perhaps? Try something new?"
Marty slipped his arm around her shoulder as they continued to walk down the hall together. "Would this sudden change in your attitudes have anything to do with that new boyfriend of yours?"
Lauren stopped causing Marty to nearly stumble. "How did…"
Marty laughed. "Come on, Lauren. It may be a large county area wise, but we are still a small, tight knit community here. I've talked to Pete a couple of times. Just to make sure that this Kent was treating you right."
Lauren leaned against Marty and poked him in the ribs with her elbow. "Don't you worry about Kent. He treats me just fine." Lauren gave her friend a sly half smile. "Actually, he treats me too well. If he'd let me I'd ravish the guy every night."
Marty gave her a quick hug. "That may be all well and good, but you just tell him if he ever makes you unhappy, he'll have to answer to me."
This actually got Lauren to laugh, which was the intended effect. "I'll be sure to tell him." Lauren sobered. "But really, I'm serious about this. I'm thinking of selling my house. Do you know anyone who might be interested?"
Marty stared at Lauren for several moments, as if assessing her resolve in this matter. "You've got a nice little place, Lauren, but it is out of the way and the market is pretty depressed right now." He noticed her frown. "But I'll check around if you like. I know a few people who might be able to help you in that regard." Marty placed his finger against her chin. "I'll help where I can, but just promise me that you'll think about this some more before you take that final step. You're a good cop, Lauren, and this is your home. But, bottom line is, if it's what you want, then I'll help. I just want to see you happy."
Lauren dropped her head so her hair fell forward to hide her face before she was able to look Marty in the eye again. "Thanks, Marty. I appreciate the offer, and I promise to think about it."
Lauren sighed as she watched the man who had become her surrogate father, after her own father had died, walk away. She pursed her lips into a tight line. She would definitely think about it, but her mind was made up. She and Kent had to get out of here. Somehow, she would find a way to get the money they needed. Whatever it took, Kent was worth it.
Lois hadn't gone back to her room to rest. A nap was the last thing on her mind. Whenever Lois Lane was troubled, she threw herself into her work. She had used the room's modem hook-up to connect herself to the internet and was able to access the Daily Planet's database. She found that there had been two more deaths attributed to the Highlife drug but no other leads.
She spent some time on the phone with Jimmy, asking him to see if he could hack into the Metropolis Police Department and see if they had anything they were keeping from the public in the way of clues. Jimmy had been skeptical, but Lois was able to bully him into trying. She then had called Bobby Bigmouth, but he had no additional information for her. Lois was getting a bit frustrated.
She was also still quite hungry, but she was too embarrassed to go back to the restaurant, no matter how good their cook was. Her little scene with the waitress precluded any trips back there anytime soon. She was a bit annoyed that this particular hostel didn't include a room service option to dining in their restaurant. Apparently people up here thought that their patrons should actually go into the restaurant to eat rather than hide out in their rooms.
After getting the information from the front desk, she walked a couple of blocks to a small corner grocery where she loaded up with bottled water, some snack crackers and cheese, and an apple. She figured that would be enough to keep her stomach from continuing to make a nuisance of itself. She did thank the gods of motels and hotels for the in room coffee service that was provided. It was only instant coffee and a small pot to heat the water, but it would prove to be salvation for her come the morning.
Lois spent most of her evening munching on the last of her crackers and cheese and continually surfing through the four channels offered on the television bolted to the dresser opposite the bed. Luckily they did have LNN so much of her time was spent watching different anchors rehash the same news stories over and over again. The TV watching did have the desired effect; it made her sleepy.
She gathered everything that she'd been working on up off the bed and dumped it on the small side table. She shed her clothes and left them on a pile on the dresser. She opened the small overnight bag that she had brought with her and pulled out the overly large T-shirt that she often used as a nightshirt. It wasn't until she pulled it out that she realized which shirt she had brought. She had to close her eyes briefly and steady herself before she could pull the Smallville High T-shirt over her head. It had been an old shirt of Clark's which she had borrowed once and had never given back.
It was a well worn shirt, soft from many washings and the color faded to a nice pale pinkish red. With a sigh, Lois pulled back the coverlet and slid under the blankets. She set her travel alarm, not willing to trust any wake-up call in a hotel. With one last glance down at the writing on her chest, Lois sighed again, then turned out the lights.
Lois rose early. She started the little pot of hot water as she stumbled into the shower, leaving a trail of her sleeping clothes in her wake. The shower was tepid at best and didn't do much to help bring her out of her morning grogginess.
With a towel wrapped around her hair and another around her body, Lois eagerly spooned some instant coffee into the styrofoam cup so thoughtfully provided by the hotel.
The coffee was terrible, but it was hot. And it was strong. It did what it was supposed to do and within a few minutes Lois felt the synapses in her brain finally begin to fire.
With the cup in one hand, Lois proceeded to dig through her small bag for the necessary clean change of underwear needed to start a new day. Lois figured she could get by with the same outfit that she had worn yesterday since she figured she'd spend a lot of time in the car.
In less than a half an hour since crawling out of bed, she was ready to go. With her laptop in one hand and her overnight bag and purse slung over her other shoulder, Lois was ready to leave. She shook her head in wonder as she took one last glance around the room she'd stayed in last night. Lois was not an outdoorsy type of person. She'd be very glad to get back to the comfort of the cool glass and steel of the impersonal big city.
Lois had just closed her room's exterior door and had started off toward the building which housed the inn's lobby and front desk to pay her bill when she noticed a vehicle pulling into the parking lot in front of the restaurant portion of the inn.
Lois was not one to normally give in to a large breakfast. Coffee and maybe a donut had always been good enough for her. But even if she'd been starving for something, she wasn't ready to face that place again. She'd embarrassed herself too much to risk being seen in there once more.
Lois glanced at the vehicle as it pulled up close to the main door of the restaurant. Must be a couple of tourists, she thought. The large, four-wheel drive pick-up was towing a trailer with two shiny snowmobiles on it. The snowmobiles looked new, like they hadn't even seen the snow yet. Two men got out of the truck, heading for the restaurant door. Obviously they were there for breakfast. Suddenly, Lois ducked behind a nearby tree.
She stared hard at the two men as they, unaware of her scrutiny, headed into the Inn's restaurant. Lois let out the breath she hadn't been aware that she'd been holding. One of the fellows was tall, thin, and dark. Him, Lois had never seen before. But the other one. The nasty looking one, with the graying beard and dirty blond hair, she could swear that she knew him. It had been a few years ago, but she was certain that it was Arnie Starkings.
What was a two-bit Metropolis thug doing up here in Moosefart, Minnesota? Lois was startled, but she was sure that it was him. It was Arnie Starkings. She remembered him well because he was one of the members of the car theft ring that she'd broken. The story that had resulted in her first Kerth Award.
Lois hustled over to the main building, had paid her room bill, and was back out the door within a couple of minutes. She then nearly ran down the street toward the small garage where she prayed that her car was ready for her.
She burst through the front door of the small gas station/garage seeking out the young mechanic, Ted. "Hello! Is anyone here?" Lois poked her head through a door leading to the garage itself. She walked over to where her vehicle was sitting. "Hello? I was wondering if my car was ready. I really need to get going."
"Oh, hello." Lois jumped when she heard the voice coming from behind her. "Don't worry, Miss, I was able to get that oil pump taken care of last night. You're all ready to go."
Lois turned and was confronted with the smiling face of the mechanic. "Thank you," she said, composing herself. "I hope you take plastic." Lois followed the young man back into the front of the station.
He laughed. "Of course we do, Miss. This is a tourist town." He rummaged through a drawer and pulled out an invoice, making some notations on it. "We also filled up your gas tank for you."
Lois looked up at the earnest young man. "Thank you." Surprised by the consideration, it was all she could think to say.
He just grinned. "Here you go." He handed her the invoice. "I'd get the rental company to reimburse you for this. There is no reason why you should be responsible for this repair. This should be a part of maintaining their vehicles. If the rental company has any questions they can reach me at the number on the invoice."
Lois handed Ted her card, waited while he ran it, then signed the receipt he handed her. "Thanks again. I really do appreciate your efforts."
He just smiled at Lois as she gave him a little wave and rushed through the door to her car. Sliding behind the wheel she had to force herself to carefully navigate backing out of the garage stall. Once she was back on the city streets she sped back toward the Antler Inn. Please don't let him be gone, she prayed to herself.
Driving by the parking lot of the Inn, she noticed that the pick-up was still there. Circling around the block, Lois pulled over to the side of the road several yards away from the inn, but where she had a good view of the parking lot, and the four-wheel drive pick-up and its trailer. It had started to snow.
Lois pulled out her cell phone and quickly dialed a familiar number as she kept her eye on the truck. She fumed when the person she called didn't pick up immediately. It was an hour later in Metropolis. He should be there by now.
"Daily Planet, this is James Olsen."
"Jimmy, Lois. Look I need you to check out the whereabouts of Arnold Starkings. Last I heard his was doing time in New Troy State Penitentiary."
"Good morning to you too, Lois."
Lois frowned at her phone. "I don't have time for chit chat, Jimmy. This is important. Just find out and call me back on my cell phone. Hurry." Lois thumbed off her phone and leaned back in the car seat, watching the restaurant's parking lot and the pick-up truck, waiting for Jimmy's call.
While she sat there Lois noticed the side door of the restaurant open. A tall well built fellow stepped out carrying what was obviously a bag of garbage. Lois couldn't see his face much because his back was mostly turned to her. She could tell that he had dark hair, worn fairly long, and a thick, full beard. His back was broad, stretching the fabric of his shirt as he lifted the lid of the garbage dumpster and threw the bag in. Based on Pete's description of the other day, this was obviously the infamous 'new cook' for the Antler Inn.
Lois found herself smiling in appreciation. He definitely had a rugged outdoorsman thing going for him. If he was even moderately attractive, Lois could see how that local sheriff would definitely want to stake her claim on the man. Lois' sight-seeing was interrupted by the ringing of her phone. She quickly thumbed the on switch.
"What have you got for me?" she asked quickly.
"Okay, Lois," Jimmy held back a chuckle over her eagerness. "Seems your boy Starkings was a guest of the state up until four weeks ago. He was paroled and no one has seen him since. Can I ask why you want to know?"
"Because he's here." Lois' attention was drawn to the front door of the restaurant. "I gotta go. Talk to you later."
Lois watched as the two men exited the inn and got into their vehicle. Starting in up, they casually backed out of their spot and pulled onto the street, heading out of town. Lois started her own vehicle and slipped it into gear, following the same route Arnie and his friend had taken.
"So, Arnie," Lois said to herself. "What's Metropolis' hired muscle doing up here in the middle of nowhere? Somehow I doubt you and your boyfriend are merely vacationing. I think that maybe it would be a good idea for me to find out just what it is you're up to." Leaving a fair distance between her and Arnie's truck, Lois followed the two men out of town.
Kent was sitting at the small table in the back by the kitchen planning the Inn's menu specials for the day when Pete Marshall poked his head through the doorway. Kent noticed he had a cryptic look on his face.
"So what's this I hear about you and Lauren going to up and run away on me? People in these parts are going to be real disappointed if *I* have to become the cook around here." Pete's tone was light and mocking, but there was a real note of disappointment in it also.
Kent's forehead creased in confusion. "What are you talking about?"
It was Pete's turn to look confused. "Hey, if Lauren is trying to sell her house you have to tell people. You can't keep it a secret and expect people to know that the place is on the market."
Kent got up out of the chair and came over to stand next to his boss. "I have no clue as to any of this. Lauren isn't planning to sell her house."
Pete rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. "That's not what Marty told me. She mentioned it to him the other day and he called me to see if I might know of anyone around here who might be interested. He said she sounded pretty sure of herself. Sounded like the sooner the better." Pete studied the bewildered look on Kent's face. "Do you mean to tell me that she hasn't mentioned this to you?"
Kent flashed back to their dinner conversation of a few nights ago. He hadn't taken her suggestion seriously then. He'd told her that he didn't want her selling her home on his account. Apparently, she'd decided to go ahead and do it anyway. She did have a stubborn streak in her. He frowned. He didn't like what this implied. He thought that he and Lauren had worked out an understanding.
"Well she did mention the possibility, but I didn't realize that she was serious or that she would take action so quickly."
Pete shook his head in commiseration. "I think you two need to talk. It seems there's been a communication break down somewhere."
Kent nodded. "I think you're right."
Kent hadn't said much during their dinner together. He'd allowed Lauren to lead the conversation, offering little beyond comments on something unusual or responses to direct questions. He wondered if she would bring it up? He didn't plan to until they got back to the cabin. As it turned out, that must have been her plan also. Dinner passed quickly and the ride back to the cabin passed in virtual silence.
"How about some hot chocolate? I'm in the mood, would you like some?" Kent asked as he shrugged off his coat and moved toward the cupboards.
"That would be great, thanks." Lauren hung her jacket up on the hook near the front door and reached for the television remote.
"Let's leave the TV off tonight, okay?" Kent tossed over one shoulder as he started to heat up a pan of milk and began to measure out the chocolate powder.
She put down the remote and sat on the couch, wringing her hands nervously. "Sure, whatever you want."
Kent pulled a couple of large mugs from another cupboard. "I had an interesting conversation with Pete this morning," he said, not turning to look at her.
"Yeah, he said that Marty had called asking if Pete knew anyone that would like to buy your house." He turned and caught the surprised expression on her face which quickly turned to resignation.
Lauren sighed, shaking her head. "Well, that didn't take long, did it?" She met his eyes. "I had hoped to bring it up to you tonight."
Kent filled the two mugs from the pan on the stove and brought them over, setting them on the small coffee table in front of the sofa. "Why? I thought I told you that I didn't want you to make that kind of sacrifice for me, that we had an understanding of sorts."
Lauren stared at the handsome stranger that sat next to her for several moments. This wonderful man who in such a short time had turned her world completely upside down. A man of contradictions. He was strong yet gentle. He had firm convictions yet was always fair and considered everyone's point of view. He was the most caring and compassionate man she'd ever known, and she was hopelessly and desperately in love with him.
She'd rehearsed her speech to him all afternoon, but sitting here, staring into those sincere brown eyes, caused her planned words to flit away without any consideration for her predicament.
Taking a deep breath and Kent's hand in hers, she smiled. "I know what you said, what we sort of agreed to, but believe me I'm not doing this for you… well, not *just* for you." She gave his hand a squeeze. "I'm doing this sort of for you, but mostly I'm doing this for me… for us."
"Shhhh," she said, placing her finger against his lips. "Let me finish." She took another breath. "You know that Danny's murder has me spooked, and I find myself praying that I won't have any reason to stop anyone on my patrol. Kent, I'm scared. I don't want to die at the hand of some hopped up crazy. Especially now that I have so much to live for."
Kent reached over and cupped her cheek with his hand. "Lauren, it's only natural for you to be scared. If you weren't, I'd be worried. But you can't let this throw you. Your whole life is here. All your friends are here. Your father built this house. You can't just give them up because times are a little rough, and you think that there might be something better just over the next hill." He let his finger slide down her jaw as he reached for her hands. "I'm your friend, and I'll help you through this, but they'll catch this guy and your life can return to normal."
She shook her head violently such that her hair flew in her face, forcing her to reach up and push it away. "Don't you see? I don't want my life to return to normal. My normal life didn't include you." She stood up and began to pace in front of the couch. "Oh I know that I said I'd be patient and that I'd wait until you were comfortable with who you were, or might be. But more than anything, I want to have a life that includes you. We can go someplace completely different or maybe just travel the world — together. Who we were in the past wouldn't matter, we would live in the now and just be us. Would that be so horrible?"
Kent shook his head sadly. "No, Lauren, that wouldn't be horrible at all. But I'm just afraid that you aren't thinking this through. You're caught up in some romantic fantasy. You think because you've met someone you have feelings for that it means that you and he should just ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after in some mythical land yet to be discovered."
A tear slowly crept down Lauren's cheek. "And why is that bad?"
"It's not bad, but it is unrealistic. Lauren, you don't even really know who I am."
Lauren grimaced and looked toward the ceiling. "I'm so sick of your 'you don't know me' schtick. Okay, so I don't know your real name. Is that so important? I've come to know you better than people I've known all my life. I know all that matters." Lauren paced some more. "I want to do this. I want to go someplace else and start over again. Preferably with you by my side… but I'm going to do it regardless."
More tears began to slide down her cheeks. "I guess there really is only one question that needs to be answered here. You have to know that I'm totally in love with you. So the question is? Do you love me?"
It had started snowing as Lois had left Isabella, tailing Arnie Starkings and his partner. The snow had been coming down quite hard for the last hour. If it weren't for the lightness of traffic, and the fact that she was trailing a truck hauling a pair of snowmobiles, Lois might have had a hard time keeping them in sight. She had stayed as far back as she dared so as not to seem obvious to the two petty criminals, yet not lose track of them on the unfamiliar roads.
Arnie and his buddy had only stayed on the main highway for about thirty minutes. Then they had taken one of the many unpaved roads that intersected the highway at various points. Lois knew from her reading that the area was riddled with little used county roads and many nearly forgotten old logging roads. Some of them were little more than two tire ruts in the middle of the wilderness. Lois thanked whatever fates that were paying attention for the foresight to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle. Though, when she thought about it, she didn't remember too many other types of automobiles in the rental lot. SUV's must be the vehicles of choice up here.
Lois stared intently through the windshield trying to catch a glimpse of the truck and trailer. The ever thickening curtain of large, wet snowflakes was making it difficult to see more than a few yards ahead of her car's own front end. She cursed silently as she couldn't make out the bright blue of the truck, or the red of the snowmobiles anywhere up ahead. They must have turned off somewhere.
Lois slowed her speed and concentrated on watching for anything along the side of the road which might constitute another road, or path, or even a driveway of some sort. All the while Lois also found herself fighting the hypnotic effect that the falling snow was having on her. She hadn't slept well. Her dreams had been chaotic and she'd woken herself up several times during the night only to find that the unnatural quiet of her peaceful surroundings made it hard for her to fall back asleep. She felt her eyelids droop and had to shake her head to snap herself back to awareness of her surroundings.
Unfortunately, that momentary lapse was all it took. Lois felt the steering wheel jerk suddenly in her hands as the car lurched violently to the right. Lois was thrown, hard, against her seat and shoulder belts as the car plunged into the shallow ditch along the side of the road.
Momentarily shaken, Lois closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She then looked out the passenger side window only to see it covered by a deep drift of snow. She wouldn't be getting out that way. She unlatched her safety belt and reached for the door handle on her side of the car.
The slope at which the vehicle had come to rest made it difficult for Lois to get the door open and climb out. After a couple of tries she succeeded in getting the door open enough to fall out of the car into a two foot snow drift. The cold of the snow and the biting wind woke Lois up in a hurry.
Lois got unsteadily to her feet, gasping for breath. The sudden chill had momentarily taken her breath away. Sloughing through the deep snow in the ditch Lois fought her way back onto the roadway. Great, she thought, what was she going to do now?
It was still snowing hard, but out in the open it was easier to see. She knew that the smartest course of action at a time like this would be to stay with the car. She could try to call for help on her cell phone and wait for it to arrive. Unfortunately, she had no idea where she was. Usually, Lois had a keen sense of direction and had often had to keep a mental track of the twists and turns of a route being taken so she could find her way back somewhere. The snowstorm had made a big difference. Also, there had been no distinguishing landmarks, let alone any road signs. How did people find their way around out here anyway?
Lois didn't figure that she could count on anyone passing by on this road anytime soon. There was probably a reason that Starkings and his friend had their hideaway out this way. From the looks of things, this roadway hadn't been used much in recent years. Probably the only people beside Arnie and his buddy that came this way were the DOT snowplows, and it didn't look like they came too frequently.
Sighing, Lois looked back the way she'd come. She'd been driving several hours following Starkings. Their speed had been greatly reduced due to the storm so she had no idea how far they'd actually traveled. Even if she could remember well enough to accurately retrace her route, she doubted if she could stand the cold long enough to make it back to someplace that might actually have some human inhabitants in it. And with the heavy cloud cover it was getting dark quickly. That left only one choice.
She peered at the road before her. The snow was rapidly beginning to fill them up, but she could still see the tire tracks of Starkings' truck in the road ahead. She figured that they must have turned off not too far up the road. Why else would she have lost sight of them? If she followed the tracks till they turned off, then maybe, if she was lucky, it would lead her to their hideout before she froze to death. She could then find out what they were doing up here, steal their truck, and then high tail it back to town.
Lois pulled the collar of her coat up and her hat down as she scanned the roadway ahead. As she began following the tracks, she pulled out her cell phone. She figured she'd call Jimmy, let him know what she was up to just in case. Also he could track down the numbers of the local constabulary for her so she would know who to call if she came upon anything juicy.
The snow was proving to be a bigger nuisance than she had originally figured. For some reason her phone just gave her static. It must have something to do with the thick cloud cover and the moisture in the air she reasoned. Lois trudged on.
She had smartly worn boots, but her lightweight driving gloves weren't doing much to protect her fingers from the cold, and her ears were freezing. What had possessed her to cut her hair?
Morbid thoughts of her frozen body not being found till spring, or worse yet, being eaten by wild animals, intruded onto her consciousness. She knew that this area was well known for its timber wolf population. That thought made her look around, suddenly uncomfortable by her aloneness in the too quiet surrounding wilderness. She just as quickly shook off the thought. No animal would be stupid enough to be wandering around out in this storm… except a human animal.
Lois was having a harder time following the tire tracks as the falling snow kept filling up the tracks making it harder to discern where they were as time went on. She was just about to give up and head back to her stranded vehicle, where it at least might be warmer, when she saw the tracks veer off into the woods to the north side of the road. It could hardly be called a road, not more than a barely worn path. The snow cover made it nearly impossible to tell that it was indeed some sort of drive. If she hadn't been able to just make out the tire tracks as they had swung off the road she would have missed it completely.
Lois was more cautious as she followed what she hoped was just a long driveway. She kept close to the trees on one side, ready to duck behind them if need be, as she followed the tracks deeper into the woods. The heavy curtain of snow and the ever darkening skies made it hard to see more than a few yards in front of her.
She fell twice as she continued to follow the drive, getting herself covered in snow in the process. She rounded a bend in the path and nearly walked into the back of the snowmobile trailer. Actually, she did walk into it, bumping her shin against the rear of the trailer. Cursing under her breath, she let her gaze wander until she spied the dark shape of the small cabin off to her left.
She crept closer to the cabin, keeping her eyes on the dimly lit small window at the side of the cabin. Warily, she made a beeline for that window. Within a few moments she found herself crouching under the window, her ear pressed against the cabin wall. She couldn't hear anything. Ever so slowly, Lois raised her head just enough to see through the window into the cabin.
She could see one man wandering around in the cabin. It was hard to tell what he was doing; the window was incredibly dirty. It appeared that he was setting out a bunch of bags of some sort onto the one table that sat in the middle of what she assumed was a kitchenette of some kind. The fellow turned so that Lois was able to see him in profile, which allowed her to see that he was the guy that she'd seen with Starkings at the inn. She looked harder, wondering where Arnie might be.
Lois soon found that out. So intent was she on her observing what was going on inside the cabin that she didn't think that someone might still be outside the cabin. She never heard Arnie sneak up behind her. She never knew he was there until the cold steel of the muzzle of his pistol was placed against the back of her head.
"What have we here? A nosy tourist?" Arnie grabbed her shoulder and spun her around. "Well isn't this interesting. If I'm not mistaken, I've been blessed by a visit by Lois Lane, crusading reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper." He leered at her. "Where are my manners? Please come in out of this miserable weather, Ms. Lane."
"That's okay, I was just passing by. I think I'd best be going." Lois gave Starkings a weak smile and tried to slip past him.
Arnie gripped her shoulder tighter. "Oh no, Ms. Lane. May I call you Lois? I wouldn't think of it. What kind of a host would I be?" Using his gun, he waved her toward the door, his grip on her shoulder never loosening.
The two of them stepped through the door into the relative warmth of the little cabin in the woods. Lois quickly took in her surroundings in a wide sweeping glance. It was a simple cottage, a couple of what she assumed were bedrooms off to one side. The rest of the cabin was the one larger main room. One end held the small kitchenette and the table Lois had seen earlier. Two simple wooden chairs were tucked up against it. The other end had a couple of casual chairs, with badly worn upholstery and a small corner table with a combination television-radio upon it. The other corner of the main room held a bumped out closet like construction, obviously added after the original cabin had been built. She figured it might be a recently added bathroom.
"Hey, Lenny, we've got a house guest." Arnie grabbed one of the wooden chairs and shoved Lois down onto it. "Meet an old friend of mine, Lois Lane, investigative reporter for the Daily Planet." His gaze on her shifted from a mocking smugness to hatred. "And the reason why I spent that time in prison."
Kent's lips were pursed in a tight line as he looked up into the anxious face of the distraught woman. She had every reason to be upset. She had been wonderful to him. She'd taken him, a complete stranger whom she found under dubious circumstances, into her home and into her heart. She had never pressured him nor had she ever doubted his character even though she didn't know who he really was.
There was a nagging question of how diligent she had been in searching out his lost identity, but he had to admit to some guilt in that department too. He'd allowed himself to become complacent to a degree. He was in peaceful surroundings in a pleasant situation. In many ways it had seemed like an extended vacation. While he was anxious to find out who he really was, he'd allowed Lauren to take the lead and done little to help with the search. Somehow, that didn't seem like him, so he could hardly blame her for their lack of progress in that area.
Any ordinary guy would be thrilled to hear words of love and desire directed at him by a woman like Lauren. She was what every man dreamed of, but few ever got the chance to attain. Her outer beauty was obvious, but she had an inner beauty as well. Her choice of profession showed that she cared about others. She was smart and funny… and giving.
That wasn't to say that she was perfect. No one was. She had her little foibles and faults. But those just made her more endearing and more… perfect. She was everything that a man could hope to have in a woman, so why couldn't he say those words back to her? What was it that prevented him from returning the love she seemed so willing to give him?
"You haven't answered my question."
Lauren's voice broke through Kent's internal recriminations. He let his eyes recapture hers. He patted the spot next to him on the old, comfy couch. With just a hint of reluctance, Lauren slowly settled in next to him. Her eyes glistened as her gaze locked in with his. He took her hand.
"Lauren, you are a wonderful woman, and you know I think the world of you. You've been generous to a fault with a stranger you hardly know. Any man in his right mind would jump at the chance for love that you're offering."
Kent sighed. "But I'm not in my right mind. You say it doesn't bother you to not know who I really am. But it bothers me. I'm very fond of you, *very* fond, but something inside won't let me make a true commitment. It's like deep in my subconscious I know that there is a reason why we can't be together… that way."
Tears began to again track across Lauren's cheeks. "Do you think you have a wife somewhere? Perhaps this Lois person?"
Kent shook his head. "I don't know. It doesn't seem like I was married. I mean… oh, I don't know what I mean!" Kent flopped back against the back of the couch. He ran his hand through his hair. "I just know that *something* is preventing me from giving you what you want and deserve from me." He straightened himself back up and took her hand again. "I hate to keep harping on this, but I have to know who I am, and what my past was before I can move on." Kent shook his head sadly. "You say it's not important to you, that you already know enough about me, but it is important to me. I have to know."
Lauren, using the back of her hands, wiped at her tears. She forced a tight little smile onto her face and gave Kent a short, brief nod of her head. She then stood and walked into her bedroom, gently shutting the door behind her.
Kent stared at the door for several moments, a few tears of his own trailing down his cheek. Abruptly his head jerked around and he stared toward the door to the outside. It was weird, but he'd suddenly gotten this gut feeling that something was wrong — terribly wrong. He'd had a feeling just like this several weeks ago. He couldn't explain it, but he knew that it had nothing to do with him or Lauren. He just had the feeling that someone was in terrible trouble. Something deep down inside of him felt like he should be doing something about it, but for the life of him he had no idea what. He felt so helpless.
Lois licked at the trail of blood that trickled from the corner of her mouth. Her teeth had cut the inside of her mouth during one of the several backhand blows that Arnie had delivered to her face. Her cheek also dripped a little blood from the cut it had suffered from the heavy ring he'd been wearing.
She struggled once more with her bindings, but the duct tape that had been used to secure her hands and feet was more than adequate to the task. She looked up into the face, flushed with the exertion, of her tormentor. Arnie sure was enjoying getting his pound of flesh.
He'd repeatedly asked her what she knew and who she had told, then would hit her before she even got a chance to answer. Though she knew very little, Lois refused to tell him anything. It was a matter of principle. It wasn't like he would stop hitting her if she did tell him anything. He was getting too much pleasure out of beating her up.
Lois peered at Starkings through her one good eye, the other having been blackened and swollen shut. "Since you are going to beat me to death anyway, how about granting a last request to the condemned?"
Arnie sneered at her. "What might that be?"
Lois spat some blood out of her mouth so she could talk. "I know that a couple of losers like you can't be behind this drug running operation up here." Lois had taken the chance that they were involved in the story she'd come up to investigate. Arnie's snarl only confirmed it. "Why don't you let me in on who the big man really is? It's not like I'm going to be able to tell anyone."
Arnie's laugh was chilling. "A reporter to the last, eh Lois? All right, I'll grant your wish since you are, as you guessed, a dead woman."
Lenny reached over and grabbed his partner's arm. "Hey, Arnie, I don't think you should be telling her anything."
"Shut up!" Arnie shoved Lenny against the far wall. "You ever hear of Intergang, Lois?"
Lois stared up at her captor. She had heard rumors and whispers of the large organized criminal organization that had been growing and working its way across the country. For some reason they had never bothered with Metropolis. At least, it seemed, until now.
"Just rumors," Lois said, "but there has never been any hint of them operating in Metropolis, and I know the drugs are going back into Metropolis."
Arnie smirked. "Among other places, but yes it has only been recently that Intergang has decided to make its move into our fair home town. Seems that crime in Metropolis was previously under the tight control of someone that was only referred to as 'The Boss'. Only a few people knew who he really was, but rumor has it that the asteroid took him out of the picture." Arnie laughed again. "I don't know if that was true, but only a few days after the 'tragedy'…" Arnie used his fingers to denote quotation marks. "…Intergang decided to move in. Word went out for some extra help and the rest, they say, is history."
Lois pondered his words. She too had heard the murmurs and whispers of some all powerful, godfather-like figure who controlled most of the crime in Metropolis. But how could he have been 'taken out of the picture' as Arnie put it? she wondered. The damage and death toll from the largest fragment to strike had been significant, but it had only hit the LexTower. What would 'The Boss' have been doing in LexTower? Her thoughts immediately went to the most logical conclusion, but she instantly rejected it. Not possible, she thought. She had dated the man. She would have been able to tell if he was a criminal. Wouldn't she? Well, it would make for some interesting investigations, if she thought she'd ever see Metropolis again. The fact that Superman was no longer around to pull her out of tight spots like this made that possibility seem quite remote.
Lois shook her head sadly. What she was about to say was probably not the brightest thing she could say, but she needed to get in one last shot. "Well, if Intergang has indeed moved into Metropolis, I don't see much of a future for them. Any organization that hires a couple of three time losers like you can't have too much going for them."
Her comment elicited the expected response. Arnie savagely backhanded her again, only this time it knocked the chair completely over. The chair landed with a loud crash only to be followed immediately by a louder scream from Lois' lips. Her left hand, which had been taped to the leg of the chair, was sandwiched between her and the floor when the chair landed. The pain was intense. She was sure she had broken a couple of fingers.
Arnie gave her a disgusted look, then turned his black gaze over to his partner. "It's time."
Lenny, still backed against the far wall, looked a little green. "You're not going to just kill her, are you?"
Arnie smiled at his partner. It was not a smile that inspired comfort. "No, I'm not. You are."
Lenny was shaking his head. "No, no, I can't."
Arnie reached over and grabbed Lenny by the shirt front. "Look, you're the one who said he wasn't squeamish, that you could do what had to be done. Well, our friend the reporter knows who we are and why we are here. I think that qualifies her for an early 'retirement', don't you?"
Arnie handed Lenny his gun. Lenny stared at the gun for a moment, then at Lois. He raised the gun hesitantly. Arnie pulled the arm holding the gun down.
"Not here, you idiot. We don't want to have to clean up a mess." Arnie shook his head in irritation. "Use one of the snowmobiles and take her out into the middle of nowhere. Someplace far from here. Someplace where no one will find the body before the wolves do." He pushed Lenny toward the door. "You get the snowmobile ready. I'll get our guest ready."
Lois was dragged unceremoniously off the floor. The tape was ripped from her hands and legs and she was hustled out the front door. The pain in her hand and her face was incredible, and she wondered if she didn't have a concussion. She was finding it hard to think, even hard to stay awake.
Lenny had one of the snowmobiles off the trailer and running. It was a big, powerful machine. Lois was tossed in front of Lenny, like a child would ride. His arms trapped her body against his as he reached for the controls on the handlebars. With a roar of its engine, the snow sled took off in a cloud of white spray.
With the cold wind burning her face, and the jolts and sudden shifts the sled took, it was hard for Lois to focus on her surroundings. The snow had stopped and the clouds were thinning. She could see stars beginning to shine through, giving the landscape an eerie silvery aspect. She knew she would never be able to find her way back, but that didn't seem the paramount problem. Survival was.
The snowmobile was fast, and within minutes they had covered a significant distance. It was quite dark and Lois hoped that would work in her favor. She had been fighting the whole time to get her thoughts in order. She had to ignore the pain, and banish the grogginess in her head. Their mistake was going to be in thinking that she was in too weak a condition to resist. They were almost right. She was only going to get one chance, and she had to make it count.
Lois was aware that they were nearly across a small lake and the tree line up ahead looked to be pretty dense. As she felt the machine start to turn away from the trees she knew she had to make her move. Summoning everything she had left in her for one push, she braced her feet against the side running boards and forced herself back into Lenny.
Her actions had the effect she had hoped. Startled, Lenny lost control of the snowmobile. It spun sideways and flipped over on its side, the engine dying in the process. Lois heard Lenny's cursing but ignored it as she did her best to scramble to her feet and lit out in the direction of the woods ahead of her. She prayed that if she could get into the thick growth of trees, under the cover of this darkness, she could slip away from Lenny.
Lenny extricated himself from under the overturned snowmobile. His leg was bruised from where the sled landed on it, but the deep snow underneath kept him from any serious injury. A little unsteady, he got to his feet. He groaned in misery as he saw Lois running toward the woods off to his right. He pulled the pistol out of his waistband.
"Ms. Lane! Stop! Please stop!" He had been hoping against hope that he wouldn't have to kill her. Lenny was a criminal but he really wasn't a killer. He hated the idea. He had thought that he might be able to frighten the woman enough so that she would promise not to say anything. But he realized that Lois Lane was not that type. She was trying to get away, but she would be back, and with the police. Calling out to her was just a reflex in hopes that she would stop, but he knew she wouldn't. "I'm sorry," he called out to the rapidly retreating form.
Lenny raised the pistol and lined the sight up with Lois' shoulder blades. One shot rang out to disturb the quiet stillness of the evening. The impact of the bullet pitched Lois forward, face down into the snow. Lenny watched for a few moments. Lois didn't move.
Lenny grabbed a flashlight from the sled and began to trudge forward, knowing he had to finish the job, just in case his first shot hadn't been enough. He stopped when he saw a pair of bright, feral eyes reflected in the glare of his torch. He stopped. He wasn't sure, but it looked as if a wolf was watching from the edge of the wood. If there was one wolf around, it was possible that there were more. Lenny wasn't about to find out. He'd let them finish the job if he hadn't.
Lenny quickly righted the snowmobile, pulled the starter cord, and hopped back on. With a quick twist of his wrist he gunned the engine and sped away.
Lois had felt the impact of the bullet like a hammer blow to her left shoulder. It had hurt like hell and had knocked her to the ground, but she knew it wasn't a fatal wound. Not that it mattered. She was face down in the cold and snow, and she was too weak to move. If she didn't bleed to death, she would likely freeze to death. She just didn't have the strength to move.
The cold managed to numb the pain somewhat, and it seemed like an easy thing to just let sleep overcome her. She didn't try to fight it. Her last thoughts before unconsciousness overtook her were of Clark. Even though Lois held to no specific organized religion, she hoped that she'd be reunited with Clark again. But her little inner voice also told her that he'd be angry with her. It was such a stupid way to die.
Unknown to Lois, the pair of eyes that Lenny had seen did indeed belong to a wolf. But what Lenny hadn't seen was that a second pair of eyes had also observed what had happened, and this pair of eyes was about six feet off the ground.
Lauren pushed in the alarm button on the clock that sat on the nightstand next to her bed. She hadn't slept all night, but now that it was time to get up she was suddenly very tired. It was a real effort to just sit up and stare blankly at the far wall.
She'd lain awake all night, her mind churning over her life and the events of these last two months with Kent. Her thoughts were jumbled and confused, to say the least, but she did manage to come up with one inescapable fact. She was being selfish.
She pushed some hair out of her eyes as she wallowed in her guilt. She claimed to love Kent. She wanted him and wanted him to want her. That much was true. But how could she truly call it love if all she could think about was her own needs and wants. Was she really that shallow?
She knew Kent was worried about his loss of identity. It was important to him to know who he'd been. She feared that knowledge and tried to hinder his finding his lost memory. She was afraid that once he knew who he'd been that he would leave her.
But if she truly loved him, his concerns should be her concerns. Didn't love mean that you put the other person's welfare above your own? She should be able to willingly and eagerly help him reclaim his past. And then have the confidence to let whatever they have shared be strong enough to survive the reemergence of whoever Kent really was. It was obvious that he would never return her love until he knew.
Lauren dragged herself off the edge of the bed and decided that things would change, starting today. No more half- hearted attempts at helping. From now on, her 'friend' would get the best help she could offer. She resolved to help him regain his memory and his past, no matter what it took… or what it cost her.
Reaching for her robe, Lauren got herself ready to shower and face another day. But this day would be different. This day she would begin to prove the love she claimed to have for the man occupying the other bedroom in her small home.
Kent listened to Lauren as she moved about in her bedroom in preparation for another day. He heard her door open as she headed down the hall toward the shower. He'd heard her tossing and turning all night long. Obviously she hadn't slept much either.
Kent sighed as he placed his hands behind his head and stared up at the wooden ceiling. He was lying in bed but he hadn't bothered to get undressed from the night before. He knew he wouldn't be able to sleep.
His mind was no less a jumble of conflicting thoughts and emotions than he figured Lauren's was. He knew that she thought that she loved him. She as much as said so on more than one occasion. But how could she really love him? She didn't know who he really was. He didn't know who he really was! It was the sore spot that kept them apart. But was that all that kept them apart?
Kent had done something last night that he hadn't done in all the time he'd been with Lauren. Something he should have done long before this. He had examined his feelings for Lauren. In hindsight, it seemed kind of ridiculous that he hadn't done so from the first time that he was aware of how deep Lauren's feelings for him went. He had no excuses, but it was better late than never.
There was no denying that Lauren had been a wonderful friend to him. She had taken him in and, in a real sense, protected him during his time of weakness and confusion. She had shown him compassion and had generously shared her life with him. He considered her a friend, a very good friend… but did he, or could he consider her more?
Kent knew he was attracted to her physically. Who wouldn't be? Her trim athletic figure, her nearly flawless features framed by that soft, glossy dark hair made for quite an alluring package. Combined with her quick wit, good humor, and a natural kindness and empathy for the plight of others, Lauren Larsen was a very appealing woman. Yet he knew that he didn't love her. At least not in the way that she wanted.
Kent and Lauren had done their share of cuddling and kissing over that last month or so. It had been a natural extension of the deep friendship they had been building. And it had been a pleasurable experience for him, as he hoped it had been for her… but it wasn't magic. Maybe he was being foolish in his expectations, but he didn't feel that electricity with her that he hoped for. There wasn't that ache of longing every time she wasn't with him.
Kent didn't know how he knew, but deep down he believed in the fairy tale romance. That he would know the person he was meant to love at first sight. It wouldn't matter if that person returned his love or not, he'd know once he'd found her that she would be the one true love of his life.
Now that Kent had managed to be honest with himself, and to some degree last night honest with Lauren, he wasn't sure what he should do. He truly did have no place to go. The meager funds that he'd managed to get from working at Pete's wouldn't go very far toward staking him to a life on his own. But how could he stay here? It just wasn't fair to Lauren.
"I'm out of the shower. You can have it now," he heard her call through the door.
"Thanks," he replied as he levered himself up out of the bed.
Lauren heard Kent heading toward the shower as she quickly got dressed for the new day. She knew that they were going to have to face some issues this morning, and she wanted to be ready for them.
Knowing Kent the way she did, she expected that he'd make noises about moving out. That it wouldn't be fair to her if he continued to stay there. She would nip that little bit of nobility right in the bud. It didn't matter that he couldn't return her love; she loved him and she would continue to be his friend. As long as he stayed up here in Minnesota, he would stay with her.
He might not be able to make a commitment to her with his past still a mystery to him, but she still held out hope that, perhaps, once his memory returned there still might be a way that they could be together. She was serious about wanting to get out of here and she was willing, if he was, to go anywhere he wanted to go. She still prayed that once he regained his lost life that there would still be room in that life for her. She sighed as she forced herself to acknowledge how poor the odds might be, but until the door was shut completely, she'd hang onto hope.
Lauren, having dressed, wandered out into the kitchen and began to pull some cookware out of the cupboards. Kent walking by from the bathroom stopped and grinned at her.
"What's this? You're going to fix breakfast?"
She turned and gave him a mock scowl. "I do know how to cook, you know. I may have allowed you to do most of the cooking recently, but I can find my way around the kitchen when I have to." She shooed him toward his bedroom. "Now go and get changed. It won't take long to have something ready." She watched him smile and go into his bedroom.
True to her word Lauren had eggs, bacon, and toast ready to eat within a few minutes. The two of them ate in relative silence, neither ready to broach the subject that needed to be discussed. Finally, once the dishes were cleared from the table, they had no more excuses for delay.
"Lauren, I…" Kent started hesitantly.
Lauren shook her head. "No, don't say it. I know what you're going to say. You're going to get all noble on me and suggest that maybe you should move out. That maybe you could talk Pete into giving you a room in exchange for a little more time behind the stove."
Kent shrugged his shoulders sheepishly. "Well, yeah. I didn't think it would be fair to you for me to…"
Kent was startled. "What?"
Lauren smiled at her bewildered roomie. "I — said- shut up." She grabbed his hand and led him over to the couch. "Kent, I know that you think that last night's confessions made things awkward between us. And I know that you think maybe you should move out because you can't return the feelings I have for you." Lauren paused while Kent nodded. "I appreciate the concern for my feelings, but I've done a lot of thinking and I've come to a rather unflattering conclusion that I've been way too selfish in this whole thing."
Kent shook his head. "No, you haven't been selfish. You've done more for me than anyone would have."
It was Lauren's turn to shake her head. "But I haven't done as much as I could. I was only concerned about my feelings and never really took into consideration what losing yourself must have been like for you. I can't blame you for not wanting to commit to me in any significant way. You don't know what it was that you had before or what you may have back there, waiting for you." Lauren stared at her feet for a moment before looking back into Kent's eyes. "It was selfish of me not to have realized how important knowing who you really were would be to you. For that I apologize and hope you can forgive me."
Kent gave her hand a squeeze. "Lauren, there is no need to apologize. I've made more than my share of mistakes along the way too. I should never have led you on the way I did. I knew how you felt about me, but I let my own confusion keep me from being truthful with you and myself." He gave her a soft half smile. "Honestly, I think I was enjoying having a beautiful woman want me." The smile turned to a tight line across his face. "That's why I think it might be best if I move out."
Lauren studied Kent's earnest face for several heartbeats. "Answer me one question if you will? Do you still consider me a friend?"
Kent took her other hand in his, so that now he held both of them. "Of course I do. You've been the best of friends to me, you know that."
Lauren nodded. "Okay, well, friends help each other out. I promise that, starting today, I'm going to try to live up to that trust of friendship. There is no need for you to move out." She gave the hands that held hers a squeeze. "Together we are going to find out who you really are, and why you were found wandering the forests of northern Minnesota."
Kent's smile was warm and comforting. "That would be nice. But what happens once we do find out and I do regain my memory?"
Lauren reached up and stroked his cheek. "We'll just have to cross that bridge when we get to it."
Arnie Starkings stared at his sullen partner across the table from him. They were seated at a far corner table at the Antler Inn's restaurant. They had taken to stopping in during their runs back and forth to the Twin Cities because the food was good. They figured that their tourist cover would hold up fine if they just pretended to be snowmobile enthusiasts who liked to come up and roam the trails north of Isabella.
Arnie shook his head in disgust at his companion's moroseness. "Get over it, will you. You did what you had to do." Arnie raised his brow when Lenny flinched. "Tell me again that you did kill her?"
Lenny looked up at his surly partner. "I told you — she ran, I shot her in the back, and she went down."
"And you're sure that she was dead."
Lenny looked toward the ceiling then back at Arnie. "There was a wolf there staring at us. I left. I wasn't anxious to see her chewed up by a pack of timberwolves." Lenny made his own disgusted face. "I do what I have to do, but I don't have to enjoy it."
Arnie held up his hands. "Okay, okay. I just had to ask. It's good that the wolves got to her. Less chance of anyone coming across her body, at least in a recognizable form." Arnie's grin was sick. Lenny shivered.
They ate in silence for several minutes, just enjoying their food. Finally, Arnie leaned back in his chair and looked around before settling on his partner's face.
"What?" Lenny said defensively.
Arnie laughed. "Nothing, don't be so skittish. I was just thinking that we've only got about two or three weeks more here, then we're out of here and back to Metropolis and easy street."
"It can't be too soon for me. The more time we're up here the more nervous I'm getting. If anyone finds that reporter, the heat will really be on." Lenny looked around, making sure no one was close enough to hear them. "Things are hot enough because of that sheriff you killed."
Arnie scowled at Lenny. "Yeah, well, you did the reporter, so don't you get all high and mighty on me. But you're right. If we want to get through this to collect all of our beautiful money, we might need a little additional assistance." Arnie grinned, barracuda-like. "Someone who can help us circumvent the heat from the cops?"
"What are you talking about?"
"I overheard a couple of the waitresses talking." Arnie found himself looking around so as not to be overheard. "Seems the girlfriend of the cook here is the local county sheriff. She's got her house up for sale. Sounds like she's itching to get out of this cold wasteland, not that I blame her." Arnie chuckled. "Seems she and the boy toy need to get some money so they can run away together. I think that me and that lady should have us a talk. Perhaps I can show her a way to make some 'easy' money?"
Lenny frowned at his cocksure 'friend'. "I'd be careful about that. What if she doesn't go for it? We could just be sticking our necks in the noose."
Arnie laugh was low and evil. "Oh, I intend to be careful." Arnie glanced over toward the kitchen in the back where Kent could be seen conversing with one of the waitresses. "I think I know her soft spot."
It was near the end of his shift and Kent was just doing some cleaning up while waiting for Lauren to stop by and pick him up. He was dumping some garbage out into the back dumpster when he noticed Lauren out of the corner of his eye.
He turned, intending to shout a greeting, but remained silent as a look of puzzlement crossed his face. Lauren was deep in some sort of heated conversation with a couple of other guys. Kent didn't know who they were but from the way Lauren was gesturing, and the strange, almost panicky, look she had on her face, he gathered that she wasn't enjoying her conversation.
After watching them for a few moments it seemed almost like Kent could hear what was being said. He could swear that the thin faced fellow with the dirty blonde hair said something like 'you wouldn't want anything unpleasant to happen to lover boy, would you?'. He saw them look his way. Lauren looked strickened, while the one fellow just smiled and nodded at Kent. The fellow clapped Lauren on the shoulder and with a look that certainly seemed like a smirk from where he stood, Kent watched him turn, and with his friend, walk toward their pick-up truck.
Kent walked toward Lauren, as she slowly came toward him. He met her midway in the parking lot. She was shivering.
"What was that all about?" he asked.
Lauren waved her hand aimlessly. "It was nothing." She continued to walk toward the restaurant.
Kent reached out and held her arm. "Nothing? You seemed pretty upset back there."
Lauren shook her head but wouldn't look him in the eye. "No, it was nothing… they just wanted directions." Lauren pulled her arm loose. "Can we get inside, it's cold out here." She walked toward the open back door of the restaurant leaving a stunned Kent staring after her.
Kent was thunderstruck. She was lying to him! He knew it. Why, he had no idea, but he knew that she was keeping something from him. Either those guys or something they said to her upset her. But she wasn't willing to share it with him.
Kent slowly followed after his suddenly quixotic roommate and friend. He figured that he'd let her tell him when she was ready. Perhaps it was just something that she was embarrassed by. Though what that might be he had no clue. The only thing he did know was that no amount of badgering was going to get her to come clean if she didn't want to. Lauren did have a stubborn streak. Now why did that suddenly seem so familiar, Kent wondered.
When he finally closed the back door behind himself he saw that she was already sitting at their little table. Kent had previously set it, just awaiting her arrival. She gave him a shaky smile as he passed by her and began to dish up two plates of pasta. He set the plates on the table and grabbed a basket with some hot, crusty rolls and set that between them. Before finally taking his seat, he poured each of them a glass of red wine.
Lauren stuck a forkful into her mouth. "Whoa! This is great. You've outdone yourself this time." Her false ebullience quickly died and she bent down concentrating on her meal.
Kent toyed with his own food, not wanting to act like a sulky child, but he couldn't help feeling a bit hurt. It was true that he had no right to demand that she share everything with him, but he thought that they'd had reached a level in their friendship where there were no secrets. At least not any that he knew of. He raised his head and watched her for a moment. Maybe he was wrong about her feelings for him. Had his inability to give her the commitment that she desired somehow soured her on him?
He gave himself a mental shake. That thought was unworthy. Whatever passed between her and that fellow had spooked her, but he doubted it had anything to do with her feelings for him. For some reason she just didn't feel she could share it with him, and while it might hurt that she felt that way, he had to respect her decision. He hoped that she would come around and realize that she could share everything with him. Until then he would hold his peace and give her time.
"Kent?" She had finally looked up from her plate and made eye contact with him. "What would you say to a little trip down to Duluth this Sunday?"
Kent was curious as to the sudden topic of conversation. "I'm not working this weekend, something which you know very well." He gave her a challenging stare. "I thought you said you wanted to do down to Tettegouche State Park this weekend?"
Lauren blushed. "Yeah, well I'm going to be busy this Saturday… I, er, have some paperwork that I have to get caught up on, but I made some calls today. Got hold of an old friend from school who's now a clinical psychologist at Mercy Hospital in Duluth. She said that she was free this Sunday if we'd like to come down for a — talk?"
Kent leaned back at studied the beautiful woman across from him. "I thought that you didn't want people to know about my problem until you had some sort of lead to go on? Too dangerous, I think you said."
Lauren blushed again. "I know, but maybe I was being a bit too cautious." She furrowed her brow and tightened her lips. "I said I was going to do more to help you find out who you are, and I meant it. I think that means that we will have to trust some other people with this. She's an old friend… and I think she might be able to help?"
Kent scratched his beard, a habit he'd acquired when he had some hard thinking to do. "I guess I don't have any objections. I'm going to miss you if I have to bang around that cabin all alone all day Saturday, but I guess I'll survive." He grinned at her scowl. "So Sunday works for me, though I'm not too crazy about having my head shrunk."
She slapped his hand. "Oh, you." She shook her head at him. "Really, I think it might be helpful. She might be able to give us some clues as to why you might have lost your memory in the first place and why you don't seem to be regaining it after all this time."
"Sounds good." Kent took another forkful of pasta before speaking again. "You have any other ideas?"
Lauren shrugged. "Well, I told you that you spoke the names Kent and Lane in your sleep that first night. One of the first things I did was run a search on Kent Lane. Did you know that there are two thousand, three hundred forty seven Kent Lane's in the continental United States? There are slightly less than eighteen hundred Lane Kent's. Not much help there, I'm afraid. Even using your general description I didn't come up with anything usable." Lauren sighed. "Anyone who even remotely fit your description with those names was accounted for."
Kent nodded. "So, I guess that means that Kent Lane, or Lane Kent isn't my name?"
Lauren paused to take a sip of wine. "Probably not, which means that we really don't have anything to go on." She forcefully set her fork down in frustration. "For me the key is how I found you. Why on earth were you naked?"
Kent found himself blushing. "I'm sure *I* don't know. I don't suppose there is a nudist camp anywhere around here?"
Lauren raised her brow. "In northern Minnesota? Have you been oblivious to the weather we have up here in the winter?"
Kent shrugged. "I guess not, huh?"
Lauren smiled and nodded. "I guess not."
The rest of dinner passed pleasantly. Kent allowed his questions about Lauren's conversations with those strange men to be shifted into the back of his mind as, together, they tried to brainstorm other ways, both the logical and the ridiculous, to help him regain his memory. By the end of dinner, Kent was excited about talking to Lauren's psychologist friend. If she could shed any light on his problem, it would be a plus, and a place to begin their investigation into who he really was. It would be hard to have to wait till Sunday.
Lois groaned as she forced herself back to consciousness. Her body ached in more places than she thought she had places. A part of her fuzzy mind was amazed that she felt anything at all. She was supposed to be dead.
She was only able to compel one eye to open. She was on a bed, but she could tell that with her eyes closed. She could see a small, frosted over window set in a wall of wooden timbers not unlike those of the restaurant and inn she had stayed at; only much smaller. The ceiling seemed to be of the same log-like construction. Something that sounded like a 'woof' caught her attention.
Slowly turning her head, she tried to focus on a large mass of fur that seemed to be staring at her. Her mind was almost as fuzzy as her eyesight. She reached her hand out to the large 'dog'.
"Hey, fella, is this your home?" The large furry head lowered itself and allowed Lois to scratch it behind the ears. "Aren't you a big boy."
Lois continued to scratch the head of the large 'dog' as her eyesight gradually came into focus. Once it did her open eye grew wide in surprise and fear. She jerked her hand away and pushed herself back in the bed until she was up tight to the wall. Staring at her, with his big brown eyes, head cocked to one side, was a large silver gray wolf.
Lois swallowed the lump of fear in her throat as she raised her voice. "Is anybody here? Help? Is anyone out there?"
Lois watched the doorway to the small room. The wolf was seated in front of it, but that didn't stop a tall, angular man from entering. "What's up, Jocko? The pretty lady is finally awake?" He gave the wolf a couple of pats on the top of his head. "I see you've decided to come back to the land of the living, miss," he said directing his attention toward Lois. "How are you feeling? You were in pretty tough shape when I brought you in."
Lois scrutinized the tall man. His ruddy complexion and the fact that his skin looked like well-weathered leather marked him as a native American. He was an older man, his long, iron gray hair hanging down his back in a tight braid, but Lois couldn't begin to guess at his age. His brown eyes twinkled and his full-mouthed smile showed large white teeth.
He was dressed simply in jeans and a flannel shirt. On his feet he wore soft leather slippers which appeared to be hand made. He idly scratched at the head of the large wolf sitting next to him. He glanced down at the wolf and then grinned at Lois.
"I think Jocko likes you, miss." He nodded toward the wolf at his feet and smiled just a bit more.
Lois glanced warily at the animal. "Yeah, he'd probably like to make me his lunch."
This brought a gale of laughter from the man. "Actually, I think you owe Jocko here a debt of gratitude. I'm pretty sure his presence kept that fellow with the gun from following to the spot where you fell and finishing the job he obviously botched."
For the first time Lois noticed that her left shoulder was bandaged and two fingers on her left hand had been splinted and the hand bandaged as well. She also suddenly realized that she wasn't wearing her own clothes. She was dressed simply in a pair of too loose jeans and a soft chambris pullover shirt. The shirt was also too large which was fortunate since it didn't pull against her shoulder at all. She fixed the tall man with a careful glare.
"Since I don't think *Jocko* was responsible, I assume you were the one who changed my clothes?"
His grin was annoyingly infectious. "Yep, that would be me. Sorry, but your old clothes had quite a bit of blood on them and they were soaked so I thought it best if you got out of them." He chuckled. "I wouldn't worry much, miss, I'm old enough to be your grandfather, and I've seen plenty of naked females in my day… though I'd have to say that you are shapelier than most." He gave her a wink.
Lois blushed, strangely pleased that the old man had found her body attractive. "I'm sorry, I guess I don't sound very appreciative of someone who has apparently saved my life. My name is Lois Lane, and thank you."
The man gave his head an answering nod. "Please to meet you, Miss Lane. I'm Joseph Silvercloud, and you are in my home." His smile was warm and inviting. "Now, perhaps, you could tell me why that fellow was trying to kill you?"
Lois, with a bit of an effort, levered herself into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. She gave Joseph a wry smile. "I'd be happy to, but first I wonder if it wouldn't be possible to get something to eat. It seems like days since I've had any food."
Joseph laughed and reached over and took Lois' good hand and helped her to her slightly unsteady feet. She gave the wolf as wide a berth as possible as she let Joseph lead her from the room.
"I did an article on exotic pets once. Isn't it true that wild animals can never truly be domesticated?" she asked as she watched Jocko following behind them.
"An article?" His voice held a note of curiosity.
"Yes, I'm a reporter from the Daily Planet. That's a newspaper in Metropolis."
Joseph nodded. "I see. Well, yes I suppose you're right about that, but I raised Jocko from a pup. I found him alone and hurt several winters ago. I don't know why he was abandoned. Timberwolves generally have strong family ties. Wolves mate for life, you know." He smiled when the look on Lois' face indicated that she knew no such thing. "Anyway, Jocko thinks of me as, sort of, his mother. I suppose if I abused or starved him he might turn on me, but I have no intention of giving him any cause to do so. We're buddies."
"I see," Lois said, still keeping a wary eye on the big wolf.
He led Lois to a simple wooden chair at a small wooden table in the middle of his kitchen. "So, what's a big city newspaper reporter doing wandering around in the northern wilds of Minnesota getting herself shot?"
Lois gave the small cabin a quick once over glance. It was constructed of log timbers like practically every other building she'd encountered since she arrived in this part of the country. Hadn't these people ever heard of plaster?
Lois eased herself into the chair, careful not to jar her multiply bruised body too much. "I tracked a new illegal drug that has been showing up in Metropolis to here. It's being smuggled across the Canadian border to a couple of thugs hiding out up here. They receive the drugs and move it down to the Twin Cities, and from there to the east coast and Metropolis."
Lois didn't know why she was telling this stranger everything. It wasn't as if she even knew who he really was, aside from the man who probably saved her life. It just didn't occur to her to not answer his question truthfully. He was just someone that you instinctively trusted. A quick, sharp pain knifed through her as another person she instinctively trusted flashed into her mind.
Joseph shook his head in disgust. "Why do people trade in other people's misery?"
Lois nodded in agreement. "You sound like my old partner. He could never understand things like greed and cruelty either." Lois watched as Joseph pulled some pans from the bottom cabinets and began to rummage around in the upper cupboards and the refrigerator for something to prepare. "So, Mr. Silvercloud, fill me in. How did I get here?"
He looked over his shoulder at her and gave her a wink. "Call me Joseph." He turned back to his culinary chores. "Jocko and I were out for a walk in the newly fallen snow. A full grown, active wolf needs to be walked frequently. They are not quite as content to just sit around the house as a normal dog would. We were approaching Turner's Lake when we heard the infernal racket of that snowmobile. We stayed back into the trees hoping he'd hurry by when we saw your little dash for freedom." He sighed. "I saw him pull out his pistol and I saw you go down with the shot. When I saw him look to follow after you to check on his handy work I wasn't sure what to do. Jocko decided for me. He moved out to the edge of the woods and apparently the fellow saw him." Joseph let go a sardonic laugh. "The fellow nearly tripped over himself getting back to his sled and getting out of there."
"So, you didn't know if I was alive or dead then?"
"No, but what kind of a person would I be if I just left you there?" Joseph threw some stuff that Lois couldn't see into the pan and set it on the stove as he continued his story. "Jocko and I came over and found that you were still alive but looking a little worse for wear so we brought you back here." Joseph threw her another glance over his shoulder. "You were one lucky young woman. You must have been bent over as you were running because the bullet hit your shoulder blade at such an angle that it just tore a nasty furrow in your shoulder but basically just grazed you."
Joseph pulled three plates from the cupboards and put two on the table and one on the floor. "It was obvious that you'd been beaten up, so I did the best I could to patch you up and put you to bed." He pulled the pan off the fire and dished out large helpings onto all three plates. "And now you're up." He put some glasses on the table. "Sorry, all I have to drink is water."
"That will be fine."
Lois looked down at the mass on her plate. It looked to be some sort of fried hash. She picked at it with her fork for a moment before finally taking a small bit of it and placing it in her mouth.
"Hey, this is good," she said, surprised. "It had a bit of a tang to it. What kind of meat is this? It doesn't taste like beef."
Joseph sat down opposite her and dug into his own plate. Jocko had already finished his plateful and was watching the two of them, occasionally licking his mouth. "It's venison."
Lois nodded, then dug in with a bit more enthusiasm. She hadn't realized how hungry she was, but she hadn't eaten since she had that junk food in the hotel room back…
"So, Joseph, how long was I out?"
"The better part of a day." Joseph laughed at her look of surprise. "We found you last night and night has fallen once again. I'd say you've been unconscious for about twenty hours."
Lois shook her head in wonder. If she'd been out that long, why was she still so tired? She plucked at the soft chambris shirt. "They're a little big for me, but I'm guessing that these clothes aren't your's."
Joseph smiled. "No, those belonged to my daughter. You were in her old room."
Lois sensed some long buried pain in his voice. She was reluctant to ask. "So, your daughter is… gone?"
Joseph had to chuckle over Lois' guarded comment. "Yes, she moved out many years ago. It was shortly after her mother died. She didn't want to be stuck out here in the middle of nowhere, so she left to make her way in the big city."
Lois didn't reply but she could certainly understand the woman's sentiments. If she had to spend much time up here in all this peaceful and quiet outdoors she'd be climbing the walls in short order.
The rest of the meal passed in small talk as Lois pumped Joseph for as much information about himself and the area as she could. But before long she found herself telling him all about herself and working at the Planet. She managed to avoid talking about Clark much. She only mentioned him as her former partner who was now gone. She didn't have to say so, but she could tell that he could tell that she missed him.
Near the end of the meal she finally recounted her experiences with Arnie Starkings and his associate Lenny. Joseph seemed to be angered by the fact that they had invaded his pristine wonderland, and he was even more angered by her description of their treatment of her.
As Joseph cleared away the plates, he seemed to be in deep thought. "Well, there's not much that can be done tonight. Tomorrow, we'll have to see what we can do to get you the help you need."
Lois brightened. "What did you have in mind. Are we going to go back to Turner's Lake and backtrack those snowmobile tracks?"
Joseph shook his head and laughed softly. "I see you are the determined type. No, the wind will have drifted those tracks over by now. I think our best bet is to contact the authorities and let them know what you've found out."
Lois looked around eagerly. "Oh, you have a phone? Starkings took my cell phone away from me."
Joseph's laugh was full of mirth. "No, I don't have a phone, but I do have a radio." He pointed to a short wave set over in one corner of the big room. "I can contact the sheriff's office and have them send Lauren up here. You'll like our sheriff. She's a nice gal. Except for the hair, she looks a lot like you."
Lois just frowned. She wasn't too anxious to have to face Arnie and his friend again with only this area's female version of Barney Fife as backup.
Arnie put down the cell phone, a thoughtful look on his face. He turned to his associate, noticing the nervousness there he just smiled. He would be glad to be rid of his milk sop of a partner. The guy had no steel in him at all. Arnie was amazed Lenny'd had the guts to finish off Lane.
"It seems," began Arnie, "that the powers that be have decided this area is becoming too hot. Tonight we make one last really big pick-up, Friday we get it ready to ship, and Saturday we bring it out of here and never come back."
Lenny swallowed, then nodded. "That sounds good to me. All this killing is bringing us too much heat."
Arnie laughed at his companion. "That's why we've taken out that insurance policy." Arnie paced around the room a bit. "Only I think we'll have to insist that our pretty little sheriff does more than turn a blind eye to our operation."
"What do you mean?"
Arnie shook his head. That man could be so dense sometimes. "I mean, my dear, moronic friend, that our pet sheriff is going to have to take a more proactive roll. She'll have to take point for us, have her eyes and ears on so she can help us avoid any potential problems."
"Do you think she will?"
Arnie gave Lenny a look that did little to inspire comfort. "I think we'll have to make sure that she is cooperative as long as we need her, and that means we'll have to use our leverage."
Lenny frowned. "I don't know if just threats will sway her. She seemed pretty resistant to your arguments, at least until you mentioned her boyfriend."
Arnie grinned his barracuda-like smile. "Exactly! I think we'll need a little extra motivation for our friend the sheriff." Arnie walked over and stuck his face close to Lenny's. "Which means we'll have to pay that cook boy toy of hers a little visit."
"A visit? Why?" Lenny obviously wasn't catching on.
"Why? To invite him to partake in our hospitality, of course." Arnie chuckled. It was an evil-sounding laugh. "Once the pretty sheriff-lady is made aware that her boyfriend is our guest, I think she'll fall all over herself doing whatever we ask of her." Arnie leered at Lenny. "Wouldn't you agree?"
Lauren had her hands on the new steering wheel of her vehicle as she guided her car into the parking lot of the Antler Inn. She knew that Kent was hurt by her refusal to talk to him about her 'conversations' with those two creeps in the parking lot the other day. She was aware that he was aware that she had lied to him. Being the understanding man that he was though, he was giving her the time to tell him herself rather than badger her about it. The only problem was, she didn't dare tell him. He was just noble enough to discount any possible danger to himself and talk her into doing 'the right thing'.
Last night had been wonderful. They had spent a lot of time tossing about ideas on ways to possibly find out who he was. It hadn't taken long for the ideas to go from serious and thoughtful to silly and preposterous. She especially liked her idea for a full frontal nude ad in 'Playgirl'. A, sort of, have you seen me type of ad. After all, she had joked, she had found him totally naked. She couldn't help but smile as she remembered his reaction.
"I shouldn't be too late tonight," Lauren said, as she leaned out her window to give Kent's hand a squeeze. "I'll pick you up at about the normal time."
Kent leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. "I'll look forward to it. I think we'll have Chinese tonight."
Lauren grinned at him. "Sounds like a certain man I know. Two hours later and you're hungry for more." She laughed at his blush. "See you later, handsome."
Lauren couldn't help but watch Kent walking into the restaurant in her rear view mirror as she pulled away from the inn and headed for the highway and the beginning or her normal patrol.
Now that Kent was gone, so was her smile. Her mind kept going back to those two men she met yesterday. They had offered her a tidy sum of money, ostensibly for her house, but it was obvious that they had no interest in her home. The money they offered was a great deal more than the place was worth, and there were conditions on 'the sale'. They casually mentioned that they might be passing through her territory on Saturday and they would very much appreciate her not bothering them in any way.
Even the most naive would realize that those two were involved in something illegal. She wouldn't let herself speculate as to what it might be. Obviously they were transporting something that they shouldn't be, but Lauren didn't want to know what. She knew that folks sometimes tried to smuggle Canadian whiskeys across the borders to avoid the import taxes, but the money they were throwing around would necessitate an incredible amount of whiskey to make it pay.
She couldn't help but think that they might have been responsible for Danny's death. It was only logical, and even though they scared her with their veiled threats, normally she would have either taken them in right there or played them for time to find out more. At least that was what she hoped she would be likely to do. That was until they threatened Kent. Somehow they knew that he was important to her, and they made it clear that even if they should be caught, they had other colleagues who would make sure that their threats would be carried out if things were to go wrong.
That had shaken Lauren up. When the one fellow had noticed Kent watching and had smiled and waved at him, she knew that her decision was made for her. There was no way she could risk Kent's safety.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the crackle of her radio. She absently reached over and dialed in the proper frequency a little tighter.
"Lauren, you got your ears on?"
"Right here, Mike. What can I do for you?"
"Just got an interesting call from Old Joe Silvercloud. He would like you to stop by his place this morning if you could. Seems he's got a guest that he thinks we'll want to talk to. Claims she was shot trying to escape from some guy out by Turner's Lake and was left to die."
Lauren's brow furrowed. "Okay, I'll head out there right away. Out."
What was going on up here lately? There hadn't been this much big city type crime in this area the whole time she'd been a sheriff. Lauren wondered if this might not be related to Danny's murder, or her particular problem, or both. Since Lauren felt that those were related, it was possible that this was also. Of course, it could just be a domestic problem gone very wrong. She sighed. She'd find out soon enough. Watching for the proper county road, Lauren turned her car onto the seldom used highway and headed for the deep woods and Joseph Silvercloud's place.
It took Lauren nearly two hours to get to Silvercloud's place. The last several miles were on little used logging roads and routes not much more than animal paths. There were reasons why the vehicles of choice in these north woods were four-wheel drives. Still, Lauren made it there with little difficulty.
Her father and Joseph Silvercloud had been friends. The older man had been a favorite of all the local boys. They used to surround him whenever he made it into town. He'd then spend hours spinning tales of woodland adventures for his young audience.
As he'd gotten older, her father had stayed in contact with Silvercloud, and a real friendship had grown. Joseph had helped her father build his house, which was now her home, which was why as she approached the small cabin it looked so familiar. Except for a fireplace chimney at one end of the cabin, it was very similar.
She pulled her car as close to the front door as possible. Her gaze went quickly to the old shed that occupied a spot some yards away. She knew that Joseph's old truck was stored there. It barely ran in the summer time, when he would make his few trips into town for the supplies he'd need to get through the next fall and winter. There was no way that he'd ever get that old rust heap to fire up in the winter. There had never been any question as to whether she would have to come out here. If Mohamed couldn't go to the mountain…
Lois woke early; the unnatural quiet made her restless. She couldn't understand how people could fall asleep without the comfort of a constant drone of vehicles and nightlife in the background.
Seeing the grayness through the window told her that the sun hadn't risen yet. Reaching for the robe that Joseph had found for her, Lois poked her head out the door of the small bedroom. She saw that Joseph was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair reading a book in the feeble light of a small table lamp. Jocko was lying on the braided rope rug at his feet.
He looked up when he heard her enter the main room. "Good morning. I assumed you'd probably sleep in a bit more than this."
Lois gazed at the cool grayness of the room and an involuntary shiver coursed through her. "I couldn't sleep anymore. What time is it?"
Joseph just peeked out the window facing east. "Probably not more than a half an hour till dawn." He pointed down the hall toward the bathroom. "You can go ahead and take a shower if you like. There should be enough hot water."
Lois clutched the robe closer to her. "Thanks."
The bathroom was like something out of a handyman's nightmare. The toilet was obviously the newest fixture in the place and it looked like a refugee from a fifty's bathroom. The sink hung off the wall and had a couple of steel pipes holding up the front of the basin. The tub was an old claw-footed, free standing model. A pipe had been attached to the top of the water spigot and a showerhead had been attached to it.
It took Lois a few moments to realize what seemed wrong. There was no shower curtain. There was a metal ring hung from the ceiling which looked like it had held a curtain at one time, but there was nothing there now. Lois shrugged. She guessed that if you lived alone you didn't need such things. Oh well, she thought, when in Rome…
She didn't take long in the bathroom, but when she emerged she saw and could smell that Joseph had already started breakfast. She ducked quickly into the little bedroom and closed the door behind her but not quick enough. Jocko had slipped by before she could get the door closed. The large wolf walked over and laid down on the rug next to the bed. His large head laid flat on his front paws as his big dark eyes followed her moments.
Lois didn't think that she was in any real danger from the wolf, but his presence did make her a bit uncomfortable. She tried to put him out of her mind as she rummaged through the simple homemade dresser that sat in one corner of the room. It still held some of Joseph's daughter's old clothes. Grabbing a soft flannel shirt, Lois shed her robe.
Lois gave Jocko an annoyed glance as she stood naked in the small bedroom holding onto the shirt and picking up the jeans she wore the other day. "You getting an eyeful there, Jocko? Is that your thing? You like watching ladies get dressed?" Lois shook her head in disgust. She was losing it.
Dressing quickly, she stepped around the wolf and made her way into the main room. The smells coming from the stovetop were enticing, and Lois felt her stomach rumble. She quickly sat in what she had come to think of as 'her chair'.
"Joseph, again I have to thank you for taking me in. I would have died had you not brought me back here and patched me up."
Joseph grinned his toothy smile. "It wasn't anything that anyone wouldn't have done."
Lois shook her head is disbelief. "You really haven't been out in the real world much, have you?" His answer was to just grin wider. "I feel a little guilty here. I'm sponging off your hospitality and I haven't done thing to help around here." She held up her left hand and involuntarily winced at the pain that caused in her shoulder. "Even though I'm a bit constrained here, I'm sure there is something I can do to help around here?"
Joseph turned and looked at Lois as if in deep thought. "Well, I could use some wood chopped for the fireplace."
Lois looked at Joseph like he'd lost his mind. "Chop some firewood! I hardly think that I… oh," Lois blushed as Joseph's laughter cut through her flare of indignation.
"No, Miss Lane. You are my guest. I'm enjoying what little time we have together. I don't have a lot of visitors, as you may imagine."
"I guess, but I still feel like I'm mooching off your generosity."
Joseph set a plate of eggs and thick slice of buttered bread in front of Lois. "While you were in the shower I contacted the sheriff's department. They were going to send Lauren over as soon as possible."
Lois started. "I guess we'd better hurry. Don't want to keep this sheriff waiting." Lois scowled. "And I don't want Arnie and his friend to get away before I have the pleasure of seeing them head back to jail to rot for the rest of their lives."
Joseph sat down and forked some eggs into his own mouth. "Well, I wouldn't be in too much of a hurry. It will take Lauren a while to get here. I'm going to take Jocko for a walk after we finish here." He gave her a wink. "I'd ask you to come along if you'd like, but I don't think you're up to a long walk just yet. You should try and rest some more." A look of real concern came over Silvercloud. "Are you in much pain?"
Lois' laugh was ironic. "You can't begin to know the pain I've been living with for the last few months. A little physical pain is a nice distraction."
Joseph looked like he was about to ask her a question but decided not to. "I'm just sorry that I don't have anything you can take. I don't believe in drugs of any kind."
Lois shook her head but was smiling. "Of course you don't," she chuckled. "Don't worry about it. I'll get by. Once this is over I'm going to go home and drug myself into such a stupor that it will be weeks before I'm aware of anything again."
Joseph cocked his head and studied Lois. His eyes seemed to penetrate her whole being. It almost made Lois uncomfortable. "Lois Lane is a survivor, isn't she?"
Lois didn't answer right away. Instead his words forced her to replay in a whirlwind of memories and emotions the horror that had been her life the last two months. Her smile was bittersweet as her memories also included some special moments that came before the Nightfall asteroid changed her life forever.
"Yeah, I'm a survivor."
Arnie Starkings and his partner, Lenny, just finished up their breakfasts. They were the only customers in the place. They purposely had come in a bit later than normal for the breakfast rush, yet too early for the lunch crowd, for just that reason. Arnie gave the waitress a phony smile and watched as she cleared the plates from the table. In another couple of minutes he saw what he wanted to see. The waitress headed for the restrooms.
Arnie elbowed Lenny. "Go get the truck and bring it around to the back door of this place." Arnie glanced toward the back kitchen area. "I'm going back to compliment the cook, and invite him to come with us."
Lenny left without a word as Arnie, checking that no one was around one last time, made his way to the kitchen.
"Hey, cookie, " he said, as he slipped through the swinging door to the kitchen. "That was some good french toast you made us this morning. I just wanted to let you know that."
Kent had been puzzled by the appearance of the familiar looking fellow. "Uh, thanks. I'm glad you liked it, but I'm afraid that patrons aren't allowed back here. State regulations, you know."
Arnie nodded as he pulled his pistol from his coat pocket. "Well, I guess they have those rules for a reason, don't they." Arnie waved the gun toward the rear door. "Let's go. I'm inviting you over to my place."
Kent stared at the gun; strangely, he wasn't immediately scared by it. "What's this all about?" Suddenly it hit him. "Hey, aren't you the guy who was talking with Lauren the other day?"
Arnie chuckled. "Aren't you the bright boy? Now, if you don't want your gal pal to be without her boyfriend anymore, you'll shut up and do as you are told." Arnie waved the gun toward the door again.
Kent walked slowly toward the back door, all the while keeping his eye on the fellow with the gun. He was contemplating his chances of rushing the man and getting the gun away from him before anyone could get hurt. Unfortunately, from the look of him, this guy knew how to handle the weapon and the only one likely to get hurt was Kent. He also didn't know where Mary was at the moment and didn't want to risk having her life be put in danger if she were to walk in on this.
Kent offered no resistance as he opened the back door and reluctantly walked toward the pick-up truck, whose engine was running. Arnie was right behind him, yet not close enough for Kent to try any move to disarm him.
Deciding that this was not the time or place for a confrontation, Kent quietly got into the truck and allowed himself to be pushed into the back. It was one of those extra cab type of trucks with that small additional bench seat behind the regular seats. Being crammed back into that small space effectively limited Kent's movement… and any hope that he might have had to overpower his captors. It looked like he was going to have to wait until they got where they were going.
Lauren had to admit that her curiosity had been piqued by the message that she'd received. She wondered if the woman that Joseph had found was really involved with all the chaos that had been going on lately. And, if she was, how was that going to affect what Lauren was going to have to do for those two jerks she'd met the other day?
As Lauren got out of her car she noticed Joseph coming toward the cabin from the deep woods to the north. Jocko was bounding along beside him. Lauren smiled. Apparently even a mysterious shooting victim as a guest didn't keep Joseph and Jocko from taking their daily walks. She waved to the elder man as he became aware of her.
"Hey, Joseph, it's good to see you again." The wolf hurried over to Lauren demanding attention like a little puppy. She reached down to scratch the big timberwolf behind the ears. "And how are you, Jocko?"
Joseph offered a smile to the young sheriff. "It's nice to see you too, Lauren. I'm just sorry that it has to be under such circumstances."
Lauren fell into step beside the man. "Yeah, what is the situation? Mike said something about a shooting victim?"
Joseph nodded toward the cabin. "I'd best let my guest explain it to you." He grinned at Lauren. "I think you'll like her. She reminds me a bit of you." Joseph idly reached down and gave Jocko a pat on the head. "Jocko likes her too. Don't you, boy?" Giving the old rusty knob a quick twist, Joseph open the door and the three of them entered the small cabin in the woods.
Lauren was immediately greeted with a sense of deja vu. She felt it every time she came here. Except for the fireplace that occupied the center of the far wall, it was exactly like her own place. Her examination of the familiar building was interrupted by a woman coming out of the smaller bedroom. Lauren sucked in a breath of surprise when she saw her.
The woman had on clothes that obviously didn't fit her well. Lauren guessed they were some old things of Joseph's daughter. Even in the baggy clothes Lauren could see that the woman was of a build similar to her own. Their general coloring was similar as was their hair, except this woman wore hers shorter than Lauren. And she grudgingly had to admit that it looked quite good.
The most compelling physical aspect of the woman was the unmistakable signs that she had been ill-treated. Because of the oversized neck opening in the shirt she wore, Lauren was able to see the bandages on the woman's shoulder. Her left hand was also bandaged. There were signs of a beating also. Her cheek had a nasty scratch on it, and one eye was still puffy and beginning to color. It was going to be one vivid black eye, and Lauren didn't doubt that under her shirt the woman would have bruises and other black and blue marks. Lauren could only shake her head in disgust that someone could do such things to another human being.
Joseph clapped Lauren on the shoulder, extending his hand toward the other woman. "Lauren Larson, I'd like to introduce you to Lois Lane."
The world seemed to blank out around her as a sharp chill knifed through Lauren. Lois Lane? Lois! A hand grabbed Lauren's heart and gave it a squeeze. Could it be? she wondered. It had to be, the coincidence was just too incredible, but still, there were other women named Lois. Just because this woman was a Lois, and she was up in northern Minnesota at the same time that Kent was… that didn't mean that she was Kent's Lois, did it?
Lauren suddenly realized that someone was talking to her. "I'm sorry," she said, trying to focus her mind back to the matter at hand. "I was momentarily elsewhere. What did you say?"
The woman, Lois, had her hand extended. "I said — pleased to meet you, Sheriff Larson."
Lauren mechanically reached out and accepted Lois' hand. "Um, thanks. It's a pleasure Ms. Lane… and call me Lauren."
"Okay," Lois smiled. "And you can call me Lois."
Lois watched the play of emotions that flashed across the lady sheriff's face. Something was a bit off here. When Joseph introduced them, Lauren suddenly seemed… Lois wasn't sure, but she'd swear the sheriff seemed almost afraid of her.
Lois allowed Joseph to guide the two of them to a couple of chairs at the table. "I suppose," Lois started, "that you're going to want to hear my story?"
Lauren nodded dumbly. Lois shrugged and began.
"It started back in Metropolis. I'm a reporter for the Daily Planet," Lois added when she saw that Lauren needed the background to help her understand why she was there. "One of my contacts tipped me to a drug trafficking scam. One where the drugs were brought into the States from across the northern border rather than from down south."
"Drugs! Up here?" Lauren shook her head in disbelief. "Why?"
It was Lois' turn to shake her head. "Who knows? Maybe they just figured that it would be easier given the large expanse of unguarded border that exists between the U. S. and Canada. What I do know is that the organization these scumbags work for is one nasty piece of work. That is, if the rumors about them are true."
Lauren ran her hand through her hair, causing Lois to bite her lip at the familiar gesture of frustration. "I think I'm kind of out of my depth here. You seem to take all this in stride."
Lois grinned at the sheriff. "Well, I have to admit, life in Metropolis was never dull."
Lauren stared hard at Lois for a few moments before suddenly sitting up straight, her face becoming more animated. "Metropolis! Isn't that where Superman was from?" Lauren's face immediately fell when she saw the pained look on Lois' face. "I'm sorry, did you actually know him?"
Lois had to take a moment to compose herself. "Yes, I knew him quite well. We were… good friends. I miss him very much." Lois absently wiped at a tear that had slipped out.
Lauren's brow furrowed as she appeared to be deep in thought. "Of course, Lois Lane! You were the one who wrote those first articles about Superman, aren't you?"
"Yes, that was me… and my partner, Clark. Can we get back to the matter at hand?" Lois let a little exasperation creep into her voice.
"Sure, sorry. It's just that you are, sort of, a celebrity." Lauren mentally breathed a sigh of relief. This was Lois Lane, famous reporter and friend of Superman. She was up here on a story. She had nothing to do with Kent. It was just a weird coincidence, though the fact that her name was also Lane was a bit disturbing.
Lauren was definitely worried about this drug smuggling thing, though. She had a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, thinking that she might have had to make a deal with drug dealers. It was one thing to look the other way when someone was trying to evade the import taxes on something like a little booze, but illegal drugs were another matter entirely.
"Anyway," Lois continued. "When I recognized Arnie Starkings the other morning, I knew that I had found my connection. He and his quiet friend are the receivers of the drugs that come out of Canada. They move them down to the Twin Cities, then out to the east coast and cities like Metropolis."
Lauren was feeling overwhelmed. "Wait a minute, how do you know all this?"
Lois grimaced. "I paid for the information. Once I recognized Arnie as a creep I busted on a car theft ring a few years back I knew that I had to follow him to see what he was up to." Lois sighed as she remembered her unpleasant encounter with Arnie and Lenny again. "Unfortunately they found me snooping around their little log shack out in the woods somewhere. Arnie is a mean bastard, but not the brightest bulb on the planet. It was easy to goad him into telling me everything while he was getting his jollies beating me up."
Lauren was shaking her head in wonder. Her mind was reeling from the incredible story that she was hearing. But more so from the matter of fact way in which Lois was telling it. It was like this kind of thing happened to her all the time.
"So how did you and Joseph hook up? How did you escape?"
Lois' laugh was bitter. "Sheer luck. Arnie told his stooge of a partner to take me out someplace where I wouldn't be found for a while and shoot me. Along the way I was able to capsize the snowmobile and started to run away, hoping I could get lost in the trees before he could kill me." Lois frowned. "Unfortunately, I didn't get very far before he shot me. Fortunately, I don't think the guy was much of a shot because it only grazed my shoulder."
Lauren snorted. "Only, she says."
Lois shrugged. "Hey, compared to that assassin's bullet a couple of months ago, this was nothing." Lois had to grin at the look of disbelief on Lauren's face. "Though, truth be told, if Joseph hadn't found me I would have either bled to death or died of exposure. So I owe this man my life."
"Can you describe these men?"
"Of course, and if you can hook me up with my newspaper I can have a co-worker fax you the rap sheet of one of them." Lauren raised her brow at Lois, but Lois continued. "Okay, both guys are lean and a little above average height. Maybe six one, or two. Lenny is a plain looking guy. Dark hair and oily complexion. Arnie Starkings is thinner, but definitely meaner. His hair is lank and a dirty blonde color. He has a thin face covered by a beard and moustache with a lot of gray in it."
The sinking feeling returned as Lauren realized that Lois had just described the two men she had meet in the Antler Inn's parking lot. The two 'criminals' that she had entered into a deal with. She felt sick to her stomach.
Lois watched Lauren curiously for her reactions. She figured that a small town sheriff like Lauren hadn't had much experience with crime on the level that they were investigating. Suddenly Lauren's cell phone buzzed. Lauren only spoke a few words into the receiver but whatever was being conveyed to her didn't sit well with the young woman. Lois saw the color drain from Lauren's face. Her hands were shaking as she thumbed the phone off and stuck it back into her pocket.
Lauren got unsteadily to her feet. "Well, Ms. Lane, I'd best take you to our headquarters where you can swear out a complaint. We'll have to take your deposition and then…"
"Wait just a minute." Lois raised her hand to stop Lauren's rambling. "Aren't we going after these guys? I think with your help I might be able to find my way back to their hideout."
Lauren shook her head, not really thinking about Lois at all. "No, too dangerous for a civilian. I'll drop you off at headquarters and once you give us the information we need, you can make whatever arrangements you need to get you home."
Lois raised her brow. There was definitely something not right going on here. For all her seeming naivete when it came to big time crime, Lauren was hiding something. She knew something that Lois didn't, and that didn't sit right with her.
Lois forced her voice to remain neutral. "Listen, I don't care what you think I should do, or not do. I'm going back to that cabin, with or without you. So why don't you just tell me what it is you know that I don't, so we can get this show on the road and arrest us a couple of drug dealing bad guys."
Lauren shook her head a little too violently. "No, I can't take you there… it's too dangerous, I tell you."
Lois reached out, grabbing Lauren's arm she swung the young sheriff around to face her. "Listen, I've probably faced more danger in the last year than you've faced in your entire life. Heck, I've nearly been killed twice in the last couple of months, so don't give me that 'too dangerous' crap. Now I don't know what you know but you'd better tell me, and tell me now." Lois paused for a quick breath. "These are killers we are dealing with. I'm sure they killed that sheriff up in Ely, they tried to kill me, and they would kill again if they needed to."
Lauren pulled away and backed up to the door. "I know, I know they're killers. That's why I can't tell you. I can't risk it." Tears streamed down her cheeks.
Lois fixed Lauren with a penetrating stare. "What do they have on you?"
Lauren just kept shaking her head. "I didn't know. I thought they were just customs evaders. I never suspected drugs before you brought it up, but I still can't let you go after them."
Lois shook the distraught young woman. "What do they have on you?" Lauren wouldn't look Lois in the eyes. She kept her head down. "Not what, who." Her voice was barely above a whisper.
Lois stepped back, understanding dawning on her face. They had kidnapped someone, someone close to her. Lois felt a pang of sympathy for the conflicted young woman. She could understand how she felt. Lois remembered a couple of times, before she knew he was Superman, when she thought Clark had been in danger and how she felt about it. If this person was as important to Lauren as Clark had been to her… of course! Lois had to make an effort not to smack herself in the head. It was that cook, Kent. It was obvious once she had put the pieces together. Lauren was the local sheriff whose boyfriend was the cook at the inn.
Lois took a deep breath. Even if she could empathize with how Lauren felt, she had to make her realize that they had to stop them. "They have Kent, don't they?"
Lauren nodded, defeated. "Yes." She clenched her hands in helpless fury. "So, you see now why we can't go after them. They're leaving tomorrow, and I have to help them get through. After that they promised they'd be gone, and Kent will be fine. If I don't cooperate they'll kill him." Lauren, tears still streaming down her face, implored Lois. "I won't risk his life."
Lois sucked in her breath. This woman was desperately in love with her old college friend, but she wasn't thinking straight. Lois knew what she was dealing with here; she didn't.
"Look, Lauren," Lois began, keeping her voice calm and steady. "I understand how you feel, believe me I do, but you have to know what you are dealing with here. I know Arnie Starkings, and I know that he has no intention of leaving Kent alive once he's gotten what he wants from you." Lois reached out and gently touched the young woman's arm. Lauren flinched as if burned. "I doubt if they intend to leave you around to identify them either."
Lauren bit her lip and shook her head, her hair swinging wildly. "No, I told them I wouldn't say anything."
Lois' bark of laughter was hardly amusing. "Come on, use that pretty head of yours. These two guys are career criminals working for a large, shadowy crime organization. They don't survive or prosper by being sloppy. Loose ends are something that are tied up." Lois softened her tone. "You and Kent are loose ends."
Suddenly Joseph reached over and took Lauren's hands in his. "I'm afraid Miss Lane makes sense, Lauren. I know what it's like to love someone so much that you'd do anything for them, but in this case I think the only chance you and this Kent fellow might have is to take these two crooks down."
Lauren sniffed back a few tears and used the back of her hand to wipe her cheeks. She looked at Lois, then over to Joseph, then back to Lois. Still shaky on her feet, Lauren half stumbled over to the chair. She sat down hard and placed her head in her hands. She clutched handfuls of her hair, like she was going to tear it out by the roots. She was so confused. Taking several deep breaths to try and quell the little voice of fear that kept screaming at her to run and hide. Sniffing back one more tear, she raised her head and looked at the concerned pair.
"So, what's your plan?" she asked softly.
It had taken them nearly two hours, with Lauren's knowledge of the area and Lois' hazy recollection of where she had been going while tailing Arnie and Lenny, to come across Lois' rental vehicle. It was still resting in the bottom of the deep ditch, but now it had a several inch coating of snow on it. Since Lois had tailed the two creeps from Isabella, the two women had to go nearly back to the small town until Lois could pick up on a familiar road.
Once at Lois' Bronco, she took a couple of minutes to run down and get the rest of her luggage and bags out of it and threw them into the back of Lauren's vehicle.
"You'll be able to tell someone where the car is so they can come out and tow it out of there, won't you?" Lois wasn't anxious to explain that little problem to Perry.
Lauren gave Lois a sympathetic smile. "Yeah, I can do that."
When they had left Joseph's place he'd wanted to come with them, but both Lois and Lauren convinced him to stay behind. If anything should happen to the two of them, there needed to be someone who knew what was going on. Joseph volunteered to use his radio to call ahead to the County Sheriff's office to arrange for back up. It would take a while for the headquarters to contact other officers, and some local police, and get them headed in the right direction. Once Lauren knew where they were going, she would call in the exact location and they could wait until help arrived to storm the cabin.
The description Lois had given of Arnie's cabin made it sound like one of the old abandoned trapper's cabins. Several of which were still standing in various spots in the deeper forest even though they hadn't been used in years. Unless they were unlucky enough to have one of the bad guys either outside or looking out the window of the cabin at the wrong time, Lauren felt they had a good chance to approach undetected. The tricky part was to burst in and subdue the pair before they could harm Kent or anyone else.
"Okay," Lois began. "This, obviously, is where I had to walk. I'm sure that I hadn't gone more than half a mile or so when I stumbled across their tracks going off into the woods to the right."
Lauren drove along the little used roadway very slowly, keeping her eyes peeled for any drive that might show up. Lois was doing the same.
Suddenly Lois shouted. "There! That's the drive."
Lauren brought her car to a stop. She peered at the barely visible pair of ruts that might or might not represent some sort of drive. "Are you sure?"
Lois was already out of the vehicle staring into the deeper woods, her hand over her eyes shielding them from the weak glare of the late winter sun. Lauren switched on her radio and, using forest service markers, gave the County Sheriff's headquarters her location. There were three cars en route, two should be there within fifteen to twenty minutes.
Lauren got out of the vehicle. She came up beside Lois. "We'll leave my car here as a marker for our back up. We'll walk in the rest of the way and keep an eye on the cabin from cover, just to make sure they don't go anywhere while we're waiting for help."
Lois nodded, more to herself than to the woman beside her. "Sounds like a plan."
As they slowly walked into the woods toward a small cabin which was only now just becoming visible in the distance, Lois watched Lauren as she pulled her service revolver. Lois couldn't hold back a grin as she saw the look of anticipation and perhaps just a touch of excitement on Lauren's face.
"It's always exciting when you're just about to bust the bad guys." Lois smiled at Lauren's surprised response. "I don't imagine you've had to deal with this level of crime much up here, but trust me, there are few feelings better than the one you get from being responsible for putting scum like this back behind bars."
"No, we don't see crime like this much up here, but you're right. Now that I'm here, and there's no choice in the matter, the fear… well, it's not exactly gone, but it has been pushed back and now I'm just anxious to get in there and bust that slime."
Lois grinned. "Careful, you'll become an adrenaline junkie like me."
Lauren lifted her eyes heavenward briefly. "Oh, god, I hope not."
The two women shared a silent chuckle as they were now within a hundred and fifty feet of the little cabin. They had stayed close to the trees so that no one who might casually look out a window would see them. Lauren glanced at her watch.
"We shouldn't have to wait more than fifteen minutes."
Abruptly the calm of the quiet forest was shattered by the sound of gunshot.
"No!" Lauren screamed as she took off toward the cabin running as fast as the heavy snow would let her.
Lois was momentarily shocked by the sound of the shot. "Hey, wait for me!" she yelled as she hustled after the panicked sheriff as best as her bruised and battered body would let her.
Kent sat in the hard wooden chair, trussed up like a Thanksgiving Day turkey. Arnie and Lenny had used thick ropes to tie his hands behind his back and his legs to the legs of the chair. Seeing the size of the ropes, Kent didn't even struggle against the knots; he knew that he'd never be able to burst those bonds. Instead he watched and waited for his chance. His chance for what, he wasn't sure, but he knew that he had to do something. It just went against the grain to sit on the sidelines.
Kent scowled at Starkings and his partner as they laughed at the 'big strong cook' who was now just a helpless 'little man' waiting to be rescued by his 'girlfriend'. He watched as they called Lauren on the phone and was appalled at what he'd heard. No wonder Lauren hadn't wanted to tell him what had been going on in the parking lot the other day. She had sold her soul to protect him. He didn't know what they were going to require of her, but the one thing he was sure of was that they had no intention of keeping their part of the bargain.
He battled some guilt over what Lauren was being forced to do because of him. Not that he'd had any input in her decision, but he was certain that she would have told these two scumbags to take a hike if they'd just threatened her. It was her concern for him that had gotten them into this situation, and it was up to him to get them out.
Starkings and his crony had spent most of the afternoon hustling around the small cabin transferring what Kent realized was some sort of drug from larger bags and boxes into smaller bags, which were then cartoned and sealed. Kent still didn't have a memory of his past, but he doubted he'd ever seen that much illegal drugs in one place at one time.
Now that Arnie and Lenny were being occupied, they paid less attention to him, obviously thinking him safely tied and out of the way. Kent began to surreptitiously test his bindings. He was hoping that the thickness of the ropes might have made it hard to tie the knots real tight and perhaps he might be able to loosen them enough to slip out of them. If he could free himself before either of them knew it, he could possibly surprise the two crooks and overpower them before they could react. Of course, it was possible that he could get himself killed too. It didn't matter. He wasn't going to allow himself to be used as a lever against Lauren.
As Kent twisted his wrists against the tightness of the knots, he watched for any sign that Arnie or Lenny would notice what he was doing. So intent was he on keeping tabs on the two drug smugglers that he didn't realize, at first, when the ropes no longer bound his hands. A quick peek over his shoulder showed the pieces of ropes lying on the floor at the back of the chair. Not exactly sure how that had happened, Kent wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. He cautiously reached down to the ropes binding his legs, hoping to untie them before his captors noticed what he was doing.
"Hey, what the…" Lenny had happened to glance Kent's way and saw him bent over, grabbing at the ropes around his ankles.
Kent quickly clutched at the ropes and miraculously they parted under his fingers. Not wasting any time to figure out how he'd managed that, he stood and in one motion whipped the chair around, launching it at Lenny. The chair struck Lenny full in the face and was thrown with such force that it propelled him back into the far wall before breaking up. Lenny was out like the proverbial light.
Kent glanced around, rapidly locating Arnie. His stomach clenched when he saw the thin man staring at him, pistol drawn and aimed at Kent's midsection.
"You surprise me, cookie." Arnie's grin was cold and predatory. "I guess our little sheriff is going to lose her boyfriend a bit sooner than planned." Arnie raised the gun. He was going to enjoy killing Kent.
In a flash, Kent sized up his situation. Lenny was out, probably for hours. Arnie was only about ten feet from him, but his gun was in his hand and leveled at Kent. It was certain that Arnie was going to pull the trigger. He'd never planned to let Kent live anyway, so it was no big deal if he killed him now or later. It might make it a little more difficult to control Lauren if she couldn't talk to him and know that he was all right, but Arnie probably figured he could bluff his way through. Kent's action was born of desperation. He threw himself at Starkings, hoping to hit him before he could fire the gun. The retort from the firearm was exceptionally loud in the small cabin.
Kent and Arnie crashed to the floor in a heavy pile. Kent quickly rolled off Starkings and, grabbing him by the shirt front, threw him into the far wall where he slumped down next to his unconscious partner.
Kent stepped back and stared at his chest and stomach. There was no blood, but how could Starkings have missed at that range? Kent's jaw dropped as he found a burn mark on the front of his shirt surrounding a small hole. He stuck his finger in the hole. It lined up perfectly with his heart. He should be dead!
At that moment the front door crashed open and Lauren rushed in, her own weapon drawn. Kent stared at her in shock and surprise.
Lauren looked around the room, taking in the two recumbent villains and an apparently whole and hearty boyfriend. She grinned at him as she reholstered her weapon. "I guess you didn't need my help after all."
Lauren's laughter died off when Lois came barging through the door. The reporter and the cook locked gazes, neither saying anything. Lauren's unease grew at the intensity of the look passing between those two. At first glance, it seemed merely looks of confusion and uncertainty were on the faces of Lois and Kent, but on closer inspection it appeared to go deeper. It was as if they both seemed to be reaching for something… remembering something? A silent sob welled up from Lauren's chest.
Kent stared at the young, obviously battered, woman who'd just burst into the cabin. His hand seemed to reach out toward her head. "You've cut your hair."
Lois involuntarily reached up and touched her short locks. "Yeah, I…" She stopped and sucked in a gasp as her eyes grew wide. "Clark?"
Kent closed his eyes briefly as he shook his head slowly back and forth. When he opened his eyes again, a new light of understanding seemed to shine from them. "Lois?"
Heedless of her injuries, Lois launched herself across the intervening space between them and into Clark's arms. She felt his arms close instinctively around her. She thought her heart was going to burst with joy. She couldn't imagine how he had survived the asteroid, nor why he would be up in northern Minnesota cooking at a tourist resort, but at that moment she didn't care. It was against all logic and reason, but her prayers and dreams had been answered. Clark, her Clark, was alive!
Tears flowed down Lois' cheeks as she placed her hands on either side of his face. "Oh, god, Clark, I thought you were dead." She kissed him, her lips desperately seeking something she thought she'd never have again.
Lauren watched the scene as it unfolded in front of her. A feeling of pain and loss deepened more as each moment passed. Watching Lois kiss Kent, and the way he responded and kissed her back, left no room for doubt. She was his Lois, and he was hers.
Kent pulled back and stared hard at Lois' face. His own expression was full of wonder. "Lois, I remember! It's all coming back to me."
Lauren had to turn away and in doing so managed to see movement out of the corner of her eye. Arnie apparently hadn't been rendered completely unconscious, and Lauren saw him locate and pick up his gun.
"Time to die, cookie," Arnie spit out as he leveled his pistol on Kent's back.
"Kent! Look out!" Lauren screamed while at the same time she launched herself at the murderous criminal lying a few feet away from her.
Lois had heard Arnie's voice, and looking past Clark's shoulder, she saw the thug level his gun at Clark's back. She also heard Lauren's cry and immediately figured what the young woman had in mind. It was easy to see. Lauren thought she loved Clark and was going to throw her body in front of the gun to protect him. It was something that Lois could have seen herself doing given the same circumstance.
Lois had an advantage over Lauren, though. She knew that Clark was Superman and that simple pistols and bullets weren't a threat to him. The same instant that Lauren attempted to interpose her body between Arnie's gun and Clark Lois acted. She gave Clark a hard shove in the direction of Starkings and Lauren.
The gunshot echoed loudly in the tiny cabin as Lois looked on anxiously. Clark had stumbled forward and, colliding with Lauren, knocked her to one side as the pistol in Starking's hand went off. Clark quickly swatted the gun out of Arnie's hand and then gave him a gentle tap on the jaw that sent the confused criminal to lullaby land.
"Lauren!" Clark hustled over to the young sheriff as she tried to pick herself up off the floor.
Clark helped her to her feet. She seemed dazed and confused. "Are you all right?" Clark asked, his concern clearly evident.
Lauren shook the hair out of her eyes. "Yeah, I'm fine. A little shook up, but otherwise I'm fine." She looked up at Kent, then over to Lois. "What happened?"
Lois quickly joined the pair. "When Starkings threatened Clark, I tried to shove him out of the way, but apparently I shoved him into you instead," Lois lied glibly.
"Well, I guess it's lucky you did." Suddenly Lauren placed her hand on Kent's chest. "Are you all right? I heard the gunshot!"
Clark shook his head. "I'm fine. My body must have been turned just right because he missed me."
Lauren narrowed her eyes. "How could he miss at that range?" She began to use her hand to probe Kent's chest.
Lois quickly stepped between the two of them. "There's no time to worry about that now. Let's just be thankful that he did miss." Lois glanced at the doorway. "Where is that backup help you called for?"
As if on cue, two of Ely's finest came charging through the door. Lauren reluctantly disengaged herself from the other two and went over to fill in the local police. Before addressing the officers she looked back over her shoulder.
"Once this is wrapped up, I think we need to have a long talk." She looked pointedly at Lois. "All three of us."
Lois was confused. It was clear to her now that Clark was the Antler Inn's cook, Kent, and the man she had seen from a distance that day. The beard made quite a difference, and from a distance she probably wouldn't have recognized him. But when she walked through that door and their eyes locked, she knew. She would know Clark's eyes anywhere. Once she had stared deeply into those soft brown windows to his soul, there was no doubt who he was.
But Kent was supposed to be Lauren's old college chum. Why the story? What was it Clark had said about… remembering? Suddenly pieces began to slip into place for Lois. It only made sense. The reason why Clark didn't come home, the reason why he hadn't contacted anyone, it was clear; he'd been hurt, but not in the way she and the Kents had thought. He'd lost his memory.
Lois was remembering things that Prof. Daitch had said. That it was just as probable that Clark would be hurtled back to earth on the rebound from his impact with Nightfall as miss the planet entirely. That didn't mean he had to come back to earth in Metropolis. Actually, if one thought about it, the odds of Clark coming down in Metropolis were no better than anyplace else.
Clark must have made planetfall somewhere around here, and Lauren must have been the one to have taken him in. It was something that Lois could understand. Clark had a way of making people trust him, even if they didn't want to. It was clear, in just the short time Lois had known the woman, that Lauren had fallen in love with Clark, not that Lois could fault the young sheriff. A rueful, sad smile managed to curve Lois' lips just a little. It had taken the loss of Clark for Lois to realize how much he meant to her.
All the little odd details, like why he was going by the name Kent, would have to wait. Right now, her joy over knowing that Clark was alive was enough. Though she did wonder just how much Lauren meant to Clark. Lois placed her hand on Clark's shoulder.
"I think that talk is a good idea. I have a few questions myself." Lois allowed Clark to put his arm around her and lead them over to where Lauren was conversing with the other officers.
"So let me get this straight." Lauren set the cup of coffee down in front of her as she studied the pair sitting on the other side of the table. "You're actually Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet."
Clark nodded his confirmation. "That's right. Once I saw Lois again, everything came back to me."
Lauren nodded toward Lois. "And she's?"
"Lois Lane, my partner, and… "
"The woman you love." Lauren smiled at Clark's blush. "Well, I guess I can see where the Lane and Kent names came from you muttered in your sleep." Lauren fixed Lois with a hard stare. "And what about you, partner… do you love him too?"
"Well, you see, it's sort of complicated…" Clark began, but Lois cut him off.
"Yes, I do." Lois smiled as she felt Clark's eyes on her. Turning, seeing the look of surprise on his face, she smiled wider. She stroked his cheek with a feathery touch of her fingertips. "Thinking I'd lost him forever made me realize just how important he was to me and how lost I was without him in my life anymore." Lois sighed. "It's not a feeling I ever want to have to deal with again."
Watching Clark return the loving cheek caress, it was Lauren's turn to sigh. "I guess even cutting my hair like hers won't be enough to convince you to stay with me, will it?"
Clark tore himself away from Lois and took Lauren's hands in his. "I'm sorry, Lauren. You know I think you are a terrific person, but when we discussed this I told you that there was something keeping me from being able to commit to you in the way you wanted me to." Clark glanced over at his partner, then back to Lauren. "Well, now I remember why I couldn't. I've always been in love with Lois, and I guess my subconscious knew that, even if my conscious mind was on vacation."
Lois took pity on the young woman. If Lauren's feelings were anything like the ones she'd finally allowed herself to admit feeling for Clark she could empathize. Lois had to admit to herself that she was secretly very touched that even though he had amnesia, Clark still resisted the advances of an obviously beautiful woman. It gave her a warm feeling deep inside to know that Clark's love for her was that strong. She only hoped that she could prove worthy of that love.
Lauren leaned back in her chair. "You know, you two still didn't explain how Clark got here in the first place." She cocked an eyebrow up at Clark. "Or why you were completely naked when I found you."
Clark swallowed and looked to Lois for support. She shrugged at him.
"Do you trust her?" she asked.
Clark sighed. "Yeah, I do, and I think she's earned the right to know. I don't think she'd do anything to hurt me."
Lauren looked at the cryptic pair of reporters. "Of course, I wouldn't. Heck, I was about to take a bullet for you. Now would you kindly tell me what the blazes you're talking about?"
Clark ran his hands through his hair. "Well, you see there was this asteroid…"
"Well everything is set back home. Perry is holding page one for the drug smuggling story. I'll LAN it to him in a little while. I just need to work out a few details." Lois joined Clark on the couch in his parents' home.
"Yeah, we need to decide just what part a certain 'cook' plays in this little scenario." Clark slid closer to Lois.
"Yeah, that's true. Perry also said he'd wait until we decided how and when Superman and Clark Kent are going to return before he makes any announcements to anyone else." Lois gave Clark a smile. "And by the way, he's thrilled that you are alive and well too."
"I'm glad that the folks and you and Perry decided to send me traveling the world again rather than tell everyone that I'd died. It will make it less of a problem for me to return. Superman might be a bigger problem."
"We'll figure that out too." Lois looked around the comfortable living room. "By the way, where are your folks?"
Clark nodded his head toward the stairs. "They went up to bed. I think they wanted to give us some time to be alone."
Lois grinned. "I really like your folks." Her grin faded and her look turned pensive. "Are you okay with Perry knowing… you know, about you being Superman?"
Clark snaked his arm around Lois. "Yeah, I'm fine with it. Actually, I'm surprised he didn't know before now. I've always suspected that he knew. Why else would he put up with one of his reporters always ducking out with such lame excuses?"
"I guess it's possible." Lois shrugged. "Maybe he just suspected, but never allowed himself to think about it too closely." Lois shifted herself on the couch so that she was facing Clark. "Speaking of revealing secrets; how do you think Lauren took it?"
"Before or after her jaw hit the kitchen table?"
Lois laughed. "Yeah, I guess you could say she was surprised. Actually, I think it helped her get over losing you."
Clark frowned. "What do you mean?"
Lois pursed her lips into a tight line. "Well, I know that she was madly in love with this handsome, naked hunk of a man that had magically appeared in her life." Lois suppressed a smile at the crimson flush in Clark's cheeks. "But I think that once she knew who you were it changed things. There is something just a bit daunting about the idea of a relationship with a superhero. Maybe knowing that you weren't just a gorgeous, nice guy, but really the hero of millions, put her off."
Clark raised his brow at Lois. "That never seemed to bother you."
Lois grinned. "Oh, it did, but I hid it well. You have to remember that I didn't have much of an opinion of men in general so it took an exceptional man to even measure up."
Clark shook his head, a slight grin on his face. "Well, I hope I can measure up."
Lois placed her hand against his cheek. "Oh, I think you'll do just fine."
Clark's eyes narrowed, looking at Lois as if just remembering something. "So what were you two talking about when I was being interviewed by the local Ely police?"
Lois' eyes took on a mischievous twinkle. "Not much."
"Okay, it was just girl talk really." Lois turned away and looked at Clark sideways from beneath lowered lashes. "She just wanted to know how you were in bed."
"Lois!" Clark was shocked. "What did you tell her?"
"What did I say? You think I wanted her to know that I wasted all this time we've known each other by holding you at arm's length? That I had you in love with me all this time and that I was too stupid to know my own feelings?" Lois gave Clark a sardonic grin. "I said you were 'super'."
Clark stared at Lois, stunned. "I can't believe you said that."
Lois just batted her eyelashes at Clark. "What can I say?" Lois raised her brow. "Besides, you two were awfully chatty there together this morning before we left for here. What little secrets were you two exchanging behind my back then?"
Clark took Lois' hands in his. "No, big secrets. She told me she really liked you and she shared some of her future plans with me."
Lois was only partially mollified. "What future plans? They didn't include you, did they?"
Clark smiled. "No, they didn't. It seems that Pete Marshall is interested in Lauren's house. She's still determined to spread her wings and leave small town life behind. She wants to see some of the world."
"Sounds like another small town guy I knew."
"Yeah, well, she plans to take the money and do some traveling. Ultimately she intends to wind up in Hawaii. I guess she has a friend down there she'd like to see again."
"Another old college boyfriend?" Lois asked, sarcastically.
Clark chuckled. "No, this guy is a bit older. He came up and gave a series of lectures at one of her investigative classes once. They saw each other a few times while he was up in Minnesota." Clark shrugged. "I guess he's some big deal private investigator. Name's Magnum, I think."
Lois nodded. "Well, good, I hope it works out for her. I liked her."
"Yeah, me too." Clark sighed.
Lois got up and moved over and knelt in front of Clark, taking his hands in hers. "Okay, give. We both should be doing cartwheels. I found you alive and well, and you claim to love me… "
"And I do." Clark hurried to assure her.
"And I've come to realize that I love you. So why all this depression. You've been pretty quiet since we left Minnesota. Is there something that went on back there that you aren't telling me?"
Clark shook his head. "No, Lois, nothing like that. It's just that…"
"All those people in LexTower. I should have been there. I should have done something."
Lois felt the good mood drain out of her. If there was ever any doubt that Clark had recovered fully from the effects of the asteroid, it was answered now. He was back obsessing about things he couldn't do rather than take comfort in those that he'd done. Lois wanted to cry, to shake him, and slap some sense into him, but she knew that logic didn't always fit into Clark's thinking. He had these great powers, so of course he should be able to save not only the entire world, but everyone in it too.
Lois took a deep breath. "Clark, the world, the entire world, was on the brink of destruction and you, with no thought to your own safety, went out and saved the planet. You didn't know if you could stop the Nightfall asteroid. You didn't know if you would survive your encounter with it, but that didn't stop you. You went anyway, and billions of people are still alive because you did."
Clark looked into Lois' eyes. "But hundreds died because I wasn't there."
"You're right." A tear slipped from the corner of Lois' eye. "Hundreds did die. And do you know what? Hundreds more will die over the course of the next months and years. It's tragic, but there is no escaping one very telling fact. A fact that you seem to be forgetting." Lois pulled her hand away from Clark's and moved it up to his cheek. "You are a very special man. A man gifted with powers far beyond those of normal men… but you are still just a man. You are not a god. You are not omnipotent. You can't be everywhere."
Clark tore his glance away from Lois' loving gaze. "But I should have been there."
Lois, using only the slightest pressure, turned Clark's face back in line with hers. "Why?"
Clark frowned at her. "Because I could have done something. I could have saved those people."
Clark was confused. "What do you mean, how?"
Lois placed both of her hands on either side of Clark's face. "How could you have helped? Those people needed a Superman, but there was no Superman. There was only a weary, confused man who didn't know who he was. Everyone, including you, thought that Superman was dead."
Clark reached up and stroked Lois' cheek with his own hand. "You are amazing, do you know that?" He smiled when she smiled and nodded. "I understand what it is you are telling me, but I guess I just need to hear it again sometimes."
Lois leaned in for a quick gentle kiss. "Well, I'll always be here to do the job whenever you need reminding. It's what I do." Lois went back in for another quick kiss, then grinned at Clark. "Oh, and before I forget, thanks for pulling my rental car out of the ditch for me."
Clark couldn't stop the chuckle that rose in his throat. "You're most welcome, Lois." Clark pulled Lois from her knees on the floor in front of him up into his lap. "Tell me again, how you managed to be up in northern Minnesota just when I needed you most?"
Lois leaned her head back against Clark's chest and began to play with the fingers of his right hand. "I've been thinking about that myself. I mean, it's true that I was following up a story, but why did I have to go to northern Minnesota for it? And why just then? It's not like I've ever had to come this way for any story before." Lois paused for several moments, seemingly fascinated with Clark's large hands. When she spoke again her voice was soft, almost hesitant. "Clark, do you believe in fate?"
"Fate? How do you mean?"
"I mean, do you believe that some things are just meant to be?"
Clark began to play with Lois' hair. "Is this the Lois Lane I know talking? The modern, independent woman who believes that nobody or no one can, or should, be able to tell her what to do." Clark chuckled. "Aren't you the champion of self-determination?"
"Normally I am. And when it comes down to it, in nearly all things I believe that we are creatures of choices. Choices that we make for ourselves." Lois sighed. "But when it comes to you — and me, I sometimes wonder."
Lois couldn't see Clark's grin. He was enjoying Lois' little trip into the world of the metaphysical. "Really?"
Lois could tell Clark was humoring her. She swatted his arm. "Oh you! But seriously, Clark, think about it. You disappear and everyone, including me, thinks you're dead. Yet not two days after I get out of the hospital I'm running off to the wilds of northern Minnesota to investigate the most improbable story to fall into my lap in years."
"Well, sometimes coincidences are…" Clark stopped, and stared down at the remarkable woman lying against him. "Wait, what do you mean, when you got out of the hospital? What happened?"
Lois waved her hand idly in the air in front of her. "It was nothing. Some assassin thought I witnessed his killing of Jason Winninger so he decided to kill me too. He didn't succeed."
"It was nothing? Lo-is."
"Never mind that now. I'm on a roll so don't interrupt unless you have something constructive to contribute."
Clark shook his head in wonder. "Okay."
Lois took another breath, then continued. "Anyway, as I was saying. Here I am in a part of the U. S. I've never been, nor ever had any reason to go to, following up the slimmest of leads trying to find some elusive drug smuggling operation with nothing more to go on than Bobby's word that the drugs are coming through northern Minnesota." Lois tilted her head back until she could see Clark. "Do you know how big an area that is up there? Yet I just happen to run into you, who a couple of months earlier just happened to come crashing to earth a few miles from where all the action is."
Clark went back to twirling Lois' hair around his finger. "I admit that is a pretty amazing set of circumstances to have come together. So, what is Lois the skeptic's mystical conclusion to all this?"
"You're going to laugh at me."
Clark leaned down and planted a quick kiss on the top of Lois' head. "I've laughed with you, Lois, never at you."
Lois brought Clark's hand to her lips, kissed it quickly, then gave it a squeeze. "Well, given my past history with men, yet the ease with which you were able to insinuate yourself into my life. Add to it the horrible loss I felt when I thought you were gone from my life, and how it made me realize how I truly feel about you; and to top it off, the improbable — no impossible coincidences that led to our finding each other. I can only come up with one conclusion."
"And that *is*?"
Lois shrugged her shoulders. "That on some mysterious, cosmic level we were meant to be together." Lois sat up and turned so she could face Clark. "What do you think?"
Clark smiled, then placed his finger under her chin. Lifting her head up with the slightest of pressure their faces closed the distance between them. Their lips met in a sweet kiss of promise.
When they broke for air Clark looked deep into Lois' eyes. He saw the love and longing that he knew were in his eyes, mirrored there in hers. "Lois, I never doubted it."
Instinctively, their lips sought out each other again.