By Nan Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: April 2002
Summary: During this third of a trio following "Mystery" and "Getting to Know You," Lois and Clark try to keep their developing relationship on track while dodging tabloid "reporters" and trying to nail Intergang.
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings in this story are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December Third Productions and whomever else can legally claim them. The new characters and the story itself are mine.
Perry White was worried.
He stood at the window of his office, looking out at the newsroom where his star team of investigative reporters was currently working on a follow-up to the capture of Diana Stride, and the testimony of Michael DiSanto, the Mr. X who had been her partner when she worked as an assassin for Intergang.
The unsupported allegation she had made at her arraignment, that Clark Kent was in actuality, Superman, had been virtually ignored by the responsible media and pounced on by the tabloids in order to sell their rags. And that was what worried Perry. With the others, he had laughed publicly at the statement, but he, alone—at least he hoped he was the only one—had realized that she was speaking the absolute truth.
When he had heard the story, a thousand little pieces had clicked neatly into place in his mind and what hadn't made sense before suddenly added up perfectly. He wondered if Lois knew. It was probable that she did, he thought. She was his partner and if she hadn't figured it out on her own, he'd probably told her by now.
Perry was aware that, from the early days of his employment, Clark Kent had been strongly attracted to his partner. Lois, on the other hand, had barely given Clark the time of day. More recently, the relationship appeared to have changed and that worried Perry a little. Office romances were a chancy thing and more than one great partnership had been a casualty of such a relationship. Still, there wasn't really anything he could do about it, except hope that things worked out.
And then, they had returned from their weekend at the Mystery Mansion. Something was drastically different after that. He wasn't sure what it was, but *something* had happened that they weren't telling him, that was certain. He wondered now, if that was when Lois had discovered—or been told—the truth.
He hoped they would figure out some way of dealing with Diana's bombshell. He'd ordered Security to throw that sleazebag from the Whisper—Leo Nunk?—out of the building twice in the last two days. The man left an almost visible trail of slime in his wake, Perry thought. He gave genuine reporters a bad name. Hell, he made other tabloid reporters look good in comparison and that took some doing. The trouble was, Nunk was like a weasel. He locked his teeth on something and didn't let go until he'd wrung every drop of sensationalism that he could from it. He was going to keep after Clark until Clark managed to discredit the allegation beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Perry discovered that he was pacing, recalling a remark made by one of the members of the Planet's Board of Directors on the subject. He laughed along with the others and made a joke out of it, but it made him nervous. Still, there was an old saying: "Least said, soonest mended". He hoped it held true, but Clark had better watch his step while negotiating the inevitable pitfalls ahead.
There wasn't much he could do to help unless Clark asked and that wasn't likely to happen. Perry wasn't even sure he wanted to let his top male investigative reporter know what he'd figured out. All he could really do would be to run interference if the opportunity or necessity presented itself.
With that resolution in mind, he seated himself behind his desk and turned his attention to Ralph's latest scandal. Two paragraphs into it, he sighed and got to his feet. Ralph was by the coffee machine, hitting on Louise from the Planet's Food Section again, he saw as he opened the door to the newsroom.
"Ralph!" he barked. "In my office—NOW!"
At that particular moment, Clark wasn't thinking about the nuisance presented by Diana Stride's allegation or by Leo Nunk of the National Whisper. As it happened, he was thinking about taking Lois to Sirino's that evening.
"What do you think?" she asked him.
"Huh? Oh, the article." He rested a hand on the back of her chair and leaned forward to read what she had written. "That's 'alleged' assassin," he pointed out. "Otherwise, it's good."
Lois rolled her eyes. "Right. 'Alleged' it is, as if Perry wouldn't have spotted it. There. Happy?"
He merely grinned at her. "How about dinner, tonight?" he inquired.
"Okay," she said. "I've had enough of my own so-called cooking to last a long time—especially after eating your mom's food this last weekend."
"Hey," Clark said, "I'll cook for you any time you like."
She glanced up at him. "You don't have to try so hard, Clark. Really."
"I know. But can I help it if I'm completely in love with you?"
Her cheeks had turned slightly pink. "I guess not—only I still don't see why. You could have any woman in the world that you wanted. Why me? I treated you like dirt and practically swooned over Superman. I couldn't see the really wonderful guy working right next to me."
Clark grinned. "But my sterling character finally won over all the obstacles," he said.
She swatted him. "Right; joke about it. What time, tonight?"
"Well, I have reservations for seven at Sirino's. Why don't I pick you up at six-fifteen?"
"All right." She glanced around at Perry's bellow. "Looks like Ralph is in for it, again."
"If it's about his latest article, he should be," Jimmy said. "I told him it wasn't a good idea but of course he didn't listen. Naturally, *I* have no idea what I'm talking about."
Clark grinned. "Give it time, Jim. How are you feeling, these days?"
"Pretty good." The young photographer made a face. "The incision scar on my back itches but the doctor says it's supposed to. I guess I got off pretty lucky."
"Well," Lois said, "you're alive. I'd say that was lucky."
"Good point." He turned his head at the yell of "Copy boy!" from the direction of the Sports editor. "Oops, gotta go. I'll have that stuff on Theodore Hurst for you by this afternoon, Lois."
"Hurst?" Clark asked, as Jimmy headed for the Sports desk.
"Yeah," Lois said. "Since we know the guy is some kind of boss in Intergang, I thought an investigation on him might turn up something we can use."
"Not a bad idea," Clark said. "Got any ideas on that other thing?"
"Sort of. Martha and I were talking about it, yesterday. She had kind of an idea—we'll just have to figure out how to set it up."
"Care to let me in on it, or is it a secret?"
"Later," Lois said. "When there's not so many people around. Here comes Louise."
The junior member of the Food Section's two employees stopped by Lois's desk. "I've got those recipes you wanted, Ms. Lane."
"Oh, thanks, Louise," Lois said, taking the sheets the young woman held out to her. "You're sure these are foolproof?"
"Well, they're meant for a ten-year old," Louise said. "That's about as close to foolproof as you can get."
"I guess that will do, then," Lois said. Clark had the feeling she was deliberately not looking at him. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." Louise glanced at the window to Perry's office where Clark could see Ralph wilting under their editor's scathing monologue. "I better get back to work before Mr. White gets mad at me."
When Louise had returned to her desk, Clark raised an eyebrow at Lois. "Recipes?" he asked.
"Well," she said, a little defensively, "I thought it might be a good idea to learn some basic stuff."
"I don't mind," he said with a smile, "but you don't have to if you don't want to, you know. I'm not asking you to make any changes."
"Oh, I know. I just thought I could try something easy. I ought to be able to cook something besides macaroni salad and chocolate desserts."
"Okay," Clark said. "If you need help learning to cook, though, I'm sure my mom would love to teach you."
"I just might ask," Lois mumbled. She was looking over the recipes. "What's a tsp?"
"Teaspoon," Clark said. "The capital T is for tablespoon."
"I guess that's simple enough. My mother wasn't into cooking, much. At least, she never got around to teaching Lucy or me anything about it. To tell you the truth, I never even took Home Economics in school. Small engine repair was much more interesting."
The door to Perry's office opened while she was talking and Ralph exited, looking pale. Without a word, he hurried to his desk, grabbed a notebook and headed for the elevator.
"I wonder what that was all about," Lois remarked, distracted from the subject of cooking. She looked at him with a speculative expression. "I bet you could tell me."
"Lois, Ralph was getting bawled out about something. You know I don't eavesdrop on things like that," Clark said. "Jimmy knows, though. You could ask him."
"Sure, you do. You eavesdropped on Diana Stride, didn't you?"
"That was different," Clark said, patiently. "Ralph isn't a criminal. He's just inexperienced."
"With a talent for muckraking," Lois said. "He'd be a good replacement for Cat Grant."
"Probably," Clark agreed. "But I didn't eavesdrop on Cat, either. At least, not when she was in trouble with Perry."
"Do you have rules for everything?" Lois asked.
"Well, when it involves ethics; yes," Clark said. "Think about it this way, Lois. Superman has to have unbreakable ethics. The minute he showed that his ethics might be negotiable, everyone would lose trust in him. With the kind of power he has, he can't afford for people to have any doubts. Look at Mayson Drake. She does have doubts—and I think that's really what's behind her dislike of Superman, not his alien origins."
Lois looked thoughtful. "Yeah—I think I get it," she said, finally. "But Clark Kent isn't in the same position—is he?"
"Yes and no," Clark said. "What Superman does and what Clark Kent can do are two different things, but ethics have to be something intrinsic, not subject to convenience. Trust can't be negotiated; it has to be earned. My informants and sources wouldn't trust me if I didn't have my journalistic reputation. It's the same with you."
"Yeah," Lois said, reluctantly. "But, that doesn't stop me from eavesdropping."
"But you don't go gossiping about what you hear to everyone, do you? You keep it to yourself unless it has to do with criminal activity. So do I."
She stuck her tongue out at him. "You're right, but I hate it when you're logical."
He smiled. "I hope that doesn't mean you're backing out of dinner."
She pretended to consider. "I guess not. I'll give you a chance to make it up to me."
"That's a relief," Clark said. "It's a date, then."
"Here's everything I could find," Jimmy said, some hours later. "If you need more, let me know."
"Thanks, Jimmy." Clark accepted the printout Jimmy produced. "We know this guy is with Intergang—Superman heard him say so. We're hoping we'll find something in his background that we can use to get a line on the organization."
"Well, just be careful," Jimmy said, seriously. "I'd hate to lose two of my best friends."
"We will," Clark said, slightly surprised at his young friend's concern.
Jimmy grinned nervously. "I hadn't really thought much about it before," he admitted. "I mean, the worst they ever did to me up until three weeks ago, was splash me with yellow paint. But after Diana Stride shot me, and tried to kill Superman—"
"It puts a whole new perspective on things," Clark agreed. "We'll be careful, though. Intergang is one of the biggest criminal organizations in the world—even bigger than LexCorp was. They've got their fingers in every kind of corruption in just about every country. They didn't get that way by being careless, but this might be the key to finding out how they operate, and who's involved. Even Lois will want to go carefully on this one."
Jimmy snorted. "Her idea of 'careful' two years ago was hiding in some drug dealer's back seat so she could follow him to his supplier's hideout. I'd just started work here a week before. She won her third Kerth for the investigation, but, wow—I don't know why she's still alive."
"I'm just glad she is," Clark said. "Anyway, we're partners now. That might make a difference."
Jimmy looked skeptical. "I hope so. Anyhow, let me know if you need any more stuff on Hurst. I went back ten years, but if that's not enough—"
"I'm sure it'll do, at least to start with," Clark said. He glanced at the clock. "Oops, I have an appointment with a source in twenty minutes. I better go."
"See you later."
Clark took his overcoat from the rack, glancing around as a chime announced the elevator's arrival. He hurried up the steps as the doors opened and a tall, dark, slender man emerged, glancing around the newsroom with a familiar air. Courteously, he held the door for Clark.
"Thanks," Clark said.
"Don't mention it." The deep voice was tinged with a faint accent. "Is Mr. White in his office?"
"I think so. It's that way," Clark said, pointing.
"I know where it is. Thank you." The man gave the slightest of bows, and turned toward the stairs.
Ten minutes later, Lois stepped out of the elevator, glancing around. Her gaze froze on the tall, dark man standing patiently by the door to Perry's office. Through the half-opened blinds, she could see Perry speaking to Jim Foxworthy, the Entertainment editor. Her gaze returned to the man waiting at his door. What was *he* doing here? She had last seen him five years ago and had fervently hoped never to set eyes on him again.
As she watched, the door to Perry's office opened and Jim emerged. The man strolled casually past Jim and shut the door behind him. Lois glanced around, looking for Clark. He was nowhere to be seen. She looked back at the window to Perry's office in time to see the blinds close.
Slowly, she turned to descend the ramp and make her way to her desk. Why was it that her partner was never around when she needed him? Glancing up at the monitors, she saw why. The dedication of the new Senior Center was in progress and Superman was cutting the ceremonial ribbon. He'd be back soon, but by then it would be too late to find out what was going on in Perry's office. Again, her gaze returned to the blank window of the Editor's office and she bit her lip. Life in the newsroom was going to be uncomfortable in the immediate future. For a moment, she was tempted to take the vacation that she'd been putting off for months, but finally rejected the option. Lois Lane never ran from a challenge. She wouldn't do it this time, either.
Clark stepped out of the cab and walked briskly toward the entrance of the Daily Planet. Leo Nunk and his cameraman were waiting, of course; he'd been aware of that when he was still a block away. The guy would be taking pictures, so he made his posture as casually un-Supermanlike as possible, behaving as if he were completely unaware of the presence of the two tabloid snoops.
As expected, as he approached the entrance, Nunk oozed out of his concealed position and blocked his way.
"Clark!" he said, smiling. "We still haven't had time for that interview."
"We're not going to, either," Clark said. He used the notebook he was carrying to prevent a close view of his face by the ubiquitous cameraman, as he would be expected to do. "Believe me, Nunk, if I could fly, I'd make sure you never got anywhere near me." With one hand, he signalled the security guard in the Planet's lobby. "Now, if you'll let me by, I have to get to work."
The reporter from the Whisper didn't move. "Look, Superman, we both know who you really are. Why don't you just give up the game?" he inquired.
Clark rolled his eyes in as close an imitation of Lois when she was exasperated as he could produce, but didn't answer. At that moment, two security guards emerged from the Planet's lobby.
"Sorry, Mr. Kent," one of them apologized. "We were on our break. Look, Nunk, you and your buddy here better beat it or I'm gonna have you arrested for loitering. You give the place a bad name."
Clark circled the men and made his way to the entrance. Nunk made a move to follow him but was stymied by the second guard, who stepped squarely in his way. Clark ducked through the revolving doors and gave a long sigh of exasperation. Bill, the snack vendor, grinned in sympathy. "Nunk giving you a bad time, Mr. Kent?"
Clark glanced back at the four men. "He's just trying to manufacture a story."
"Yeah." The man shook his head. "The guy's an idiot. My wife buys the Whisper, but I think it's a waste of money. It makes good lining for our parrot's cage, though."
"Well," Clark said, "you never know. They could warn you about an invasion of the mole people when the powers that be ignore all the signs."
"Oh, right. I'll remember that." The man chuckled and turned to a customer. "Can I help you?"
Clark walked into the newsroom five minutes later. He knew Lois was here; had known it since he entered the building, as a matter of fact. He could also tell that she was upset. Her heart was thumping harder than usual and he could hear her familiar typing pattern as she punched the computer keys with unnecessary force. Unobtrusively, he descended the ramp and crossed to her desk.
She didn't look up. Clark leaned quietly over her shoulder.
"Hi, honey. What's the matter?"
"Is it that obvious?" He could hear the tautness in her voice, despite the fact that she pitched it very low.
"No. But I can hear things other people can't. What's wrong?"
"You see that guy sitting at the table in Conference Room 3?"
Clark glanced obediently in the indicated direction. "Sure. He came in when I was leaving."
Clark frowned. "'Claude'?"
"*The* Claude. The one I told you about."
"The one who stole your story?"
"The one I thought I was in love with," she clarified, baldly. "The one who—"
Clark put a hand on her shoulder. "Lois, it doesn't matter. He had his chance and he blew it." He glanced back at the man in the conference room and made a quick policy decision. "Come on. Let's go talk somewhere a little less public."
Perry watched from the haven of his office as his top investigative team talked quietly. He'd been aware that Lois was upset, although he didn't quite understand why. It seemed to be connected to the arrival of Claude Chabert and he dredged up what little he knew of Lois's acquaintance with the man.
They had been co-workers when Claude had worked here, five or six years ago. Lois had been a brand new employee, but just as much of a workaholic then as she was, now. There had been the office gossip that he vaguely recalled about the two of them, right about the time the man had won his Kerth. Perry hadn't paid much attention to the talk. Chabert had left Metropolis shortly thereafter and returned to France and the Paris branch, where as far as Perry knew, he'd sunk into relative obscurity, certainly not fulfilling the promise he'd shown with his award-winning story. Still, it wasn't like Lois to let herself become upset over any man, colleague or not, unless it was Clark. He'd never actually given much credence to those rumors anyway.
Still, something was wrong. He hoped Clark would be able to soothe down her ruffled feathers, because Chabert would probably be here for a few weeks, at least, judging by the story he'd told Perry.
Perry remembered the incident well enough, of course. About a year ago, the Colombian government had been on the verge of arresting Juan Arista, the head of one of the biggest drug cartels based in Colombia. A few days before the planned operation, Arista had gone out on his yacht and died in a massive explosion that had taken the lives of everyone on board. No bodies of passengers or crew had ever been recovered. It was assumed that Arista had been the victim of one of his many competitors, or possibly even of his oldest son who had assumed leadership of the organization.
Six weeks ago, Arista had turned up alive in France wearing a new name and face, with a new background and apparently running a legitimate business—which, of course, turned out to be a front to launder money and distribute drugs for his cartel, of which he was predictably still very much in charge. The man had been there for months, and only a freak accident had revealed his presence. The rest of Perry's information had come from Chabert.
The French police, in cooperation with the FBI, had managed to discover Arista's last location before his arrival in Paris: Metropolis, of course. It was there that his new identity had emerged. That was why Chabert was in the Metropolis office today, and would be for the near future as well.
As he watched, Lois rose to her feet, and Perry grimaced as he got a glimpse of her frozen expression. Storm clouds were brewing, that was for certain. Clark took her gently by the elbow and together the two of them headed for the elevator. Hopefully, Perry thought, Superman would be able to handle her, because no one else had a chance of dealing with Lois in her current mood. Things could get very dicey for the upcoming few weeks at the office if Clark wasn't able to smooth things over somewhat.
Perry sighed. He never regretted becoming the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Planet, but there were times when it gave him heartburn. Like today.
Determinedly, he returned his attention to his computer. He still had to finish editing several more stories, including Lois's follow-up on Diana Stride. Hopefully, Clark had done most of that particular job for him. Even if he hadn't known the boy had been the editor of his hometown paper, Perry would have guessed that he'd been one somewhere. Once you'd been an editor of a newspaper, no matter how small, you never lost the instincts, he thought. Clark must have the newspaper business in his blood—which was funny, when you considered Superman hadn't even been born on Earth. For a crazy instant, he wondered if Krypton had ever had newspapers; then he dismissed the thought as absurdity and got down to work.
Clark said nothing while the elevator bore the two of them to the parking basement. At least, he thought, Nunk and his shadow probably wouldn't be hanging out down here. He hoped the security guard would carry out his threat to have the guy arrested if he didn't leave, but didn't have much hope that it would keep the two away for long.
Beside him, Lois shifted her weight off the athletic cast that she had been wearing since Friday. It made her considerably more mobile, but walking around with her bare toes sticking out the front didn't exactly thrill his partner. The weather wasn't particularly warm, yet. He'd suggested a sock to cover her foot, which was an improvement, but she wasn't going to be really satisfied until her ankle had healed.
And now, Claude had reappeared. The man had romanced Lois and then betrayed her trust by stealing her story. That certainly didn't predispose him to like the guy much and his presence sure wasn't making Lois happy. Maybe it was time Superman did some detective work and found out just why he was here. The sooner he left, the better it would be—for all of them.
"I'm sorry, Clark," Lois said, suddenly. "I was determined I wasn't going to let it get to me."
"Lois, it's all right. You were in love with him and he—"
"No," she said.
"But you said—"
"I was never in love with him, Clark. After I fell in love with you, I saw the difference for the first time. He was older than I was and I was dazzled that such a handsome, sophisticated man would find me attractive—but I wasn't in love with him. And then, he stole my story." She grimaced wryly. "I never told anyone until I met you—not even Perry. I knew no one would believe me if I told the truth—I was a rookie; Claude was an established journalist. He used my crush on him to get what he wanted and when I confronted him, he told me that all was fair in journalism, and he'd done me a favor—that I should learn a lesson from it: to trust no one. I never forgot."
"I know. You told me the same thing. I hope you know now that he was wrong."
She nodded. "I don't know how you ever forgave me for doing what I did to you—I used your trust to steal your story, just like Claude did to me."
"Well, not quite."
"The principle is the same. At first, I couldn't understand why I felt so guilty. But after you paid me back, I realized what a—a terrible thing I'd done and that I deserved everything I got. That was why I came back to the office instead of just going home. And when you admitted that you set me up, I realized I didn't want to fight with you. That was when I started to respect you." She stared at her feet. "I think one reason why what Claude did hurt so much was that I realized he didn't respect me at all."
The elevator doors slid open and they stepped out together. Clark lowered his glasses, glancing around for any sign of Nunk, but the man was nowhere to be seen. Slowly, they walked toward the entrance to the garage.
"I respect you, Lois," he said, quietly. "Everyone in the newsroom does—even Ralph, believe it or not. You're the best journalist I've ever known. And Claude had to have some respect for your writing or he wouldn't have thought stealing your story was worth it—although I'm sure that's cold comfort."
"He might have thought the story was good," she said, "but he didn't respect *me*. He didn't even apologize." She paused. "I guess I never did, either, did I? I'm sorry, Clark. I know that it's nearly two years too late, but I *am* sorry."
"I think that's water under the bridge," he said. "Don't keep beating yourself up over it, honey. It isn't important."
"Yes, it is," she said. "I don't want to be in Claude's class. What I did put me in it. I didn't think so at the time, but I owed you a lot for showing me it was something I didn't want to be."
"Lois, you could never be in his class." He stopped walking and turned to face her. "Is that why you're so upset?"
"That's part of it," she said. "When I saw him, it all came back and I saw that I'd done the same thing to you that I hated when he did it to me."
"There's a difference," Clark pointed out. "You were ashamed of what you did. He never was."
"I guess." She scuffed the athletic cast on the rough concrete of the garage. "Another part of it was the gossip about us. Things like that get around, you know."
"People like scandal," Clark said. "Remember the rumors about Cat and me? No one would believe me when I told them it wasn't true—not even Jimmy or Perry."
"Claude didn't deny it," Lois said. "He embellished it. It was just that one time, Clark, I swear it—but you'd never have believed it if you heard the gossip."
"I believe you," he said. "Lois, you don't owe me any explanations. It doesn't matter, really."
"I know," she said. "It was pretty horrible at the time, though. Anyway, Claude went back to France, and after a while the gossip died down. But, now he's back."
They had started to walk toward the entrance again. As they emerged into the street, Clark glanced quickly around, but Nunk was nowhere to be seen. He was probably still hanging around the entrance, he thought. "Lois, the situation is different, now," he said. "You have a reputation as a brilliant journalist—and three Kerths under your belt. I doubt Claude can say the same. If he tries to revive any of the old rumors, just treat him like you do any jerk who thinks he can patronize you. You sure put Pat Barrington in his place at that last press conference we attended. Do the same to Claude."
She appeared to think that over and finally nodded. "You're right. You're absolutely right."
"Of course I am." Clark kept his voice light, not wanting her to see how angry the whole thing had made him. Claude had some things to answer for, that was certain.
"Where are we going?" Lois asked, unexpectedly.
"I thought we'd drop by Rita's Cappuccino Corner," Clark said, nodding at the small establishment halfway down the block. "It's a little too far to walk to the Fudge Castle. I figured you could use some caf‚ mocha, and maybe a hot fudge sundae."
"You're right about that. How come you always know what I need?"
Clark grinned. "It doesn't exactly take a detective. You've had a lot of things to put up with for the last few weeks."
"It's not so bad," she said. He raised an eyebrow. "Well," she amended, "it's been inconvenient."
Lois glanced at her ankle. "Okay, it's been a royal nuisance. I'll be glad when I'm through with this thing, too. It figures that my car would be on the fritz today. I can't figure it out. It worked fine on Friday."
"I have my suspicions about that," Clark said.
"Would you put it past Nunk or one of his 'colleagues' to sabotage your Jeep to see if Superman would fly you to work?"
"Not for a minute," Lois said. "That's why you wanted to take a cab this morning."
"We really have to do something about those parasites."
"Well, you said you and Mom were working on something."
"Did you see that holographic art project of hers while we were in Smallville?"
"I think we can use it."
"A hologram, you mean?"
"Yeah. We've got to work out some details; we can't have anyone trying to touch the hologram or something."
"Not a bad idea…" Clark turned his head sharply. "Talk about a bad penny."
"See that van that just came around the corner?"
"The guy at the wheel is Nunk's cameraman."
"Great." Lois grabbed his elbow. "Come on, let's get inside Rita's. I'm not going to let that scuzzball cheat me out of my sundae."
Fortunately, Rita's was only a few feet away by now. By the time Nunk and his cameraman appeared in the doorway, Lois and Clark were seated in a booth near the back of the room and a teenager in a white outfit was taking their order. Lois glanced at the two and sighed. "Clark, guess who's here?"
Clark turned, rolled his eyes and turned back. Nunk and his companion moved up to the table and the cameraman raised his camera. Clark put the menu in front of his face. Lois did the same. "Go away, Nunk."
"Here's your ice water, Ms. Lane." The teenager was back, carrying a large pitcher of water. Chips of ice tinkled softly against the glass. "'S'cuse me, sir." He squeezed past Nunk and appeared to stumble. "Oops!"
Ice water cascaded over Nunk's shirt and the front of his slacks. The teenager scrambled to his feet. "Sorry, dude!"
"You idiot!" Nunk brushed vainly at his shirt and swore. An ice chip slipped down inside his collar.
"Hey man, I said I'm sorry!" The boy looked offended.
Lois handed the red-faced man a paper napkin. "Here. Maybe this will help."
The cameraman had managed to escape all but a few drops of the water. Clark could have sworn he was struggling to hide a smile, but an instant later his face was completely sober as he helped his boss remove his soaked jacket. Nunk wiggled out of the dripping garment, still swearing. "I demand to see the manager!"
The teenager didn't look particularly worried. "She's in the office. I'll call her, sir."
When the two men had finally gone, Lois looked up as the manager approached the table. "Thanks, Sharon."
"You're welcome. I've been waiting for a chance to pay Mr. Nunk back ever since he wrote that so-called 'health expose' about our shop. We do *not* have 'mutagens', whatever they are, growing in our coffee machine!"
"Or Benjamin Franklin in your blender," Lois said, drily. She glanced around as the teenager appeared behind his boss. "Thanks, Danny. Here's the twenty I promised you."
The boy grinned. "Any time, Ms. Lane. I'll have your caf‚ mocha and sundae ready in a few minutes."
It was nearly five by the time they got back to the Planet. Claude was nowhere to be seen, a fact Clark regarded with some relief. Meeting the man, as he would probably have to do, tomorrow, was not something he anticipated with any pleasure. Clark tidied his workspace and shut down his computer in preparation for leaving, aware that Perry was watching them unobtrusively from his office.
After walking Lois home, Clark continued on toward his own apartment on foot. Behind him, he could hear the heartbeat of the tail that they had picked up when they left the Planet. He had been fairly sure that the man was following him, not Lois, and when the sound of the heartbeats continued after he had dropped her off, he was certain of it. Walking briskly, he kept track of the man, making sure never to outpace him or to let him become aware that his quarry knew he was there.
At his apartment door, he clumsily fumbled his door key and dropped it deliberately, then spent thirty seconds or so looking for it, before he retrieved the article and unlocked his door.
At once, he was aware that his apartment had had a visitor. Some of his possessions were not quite where he had left them, and the scent of the intruder's cheap cologne lingered faintly in the air. The scent was familiar: it was the same one he had smelled on Leo Nunk, earlier in the day.
Clark smiled grimly to himself, looking covertly around the place with his super-vision as he had done every time he entered his apartment since the tabloid surveillance began. He had no illusions about the sanctity of his home where tabloids were concerned.
Sure enough, there were two cleverly concealed listening devices, one on the underside of a bookshelf in his living area and one on the base of the reading lamp in his bedroom. Well, that was easily handled. Whistling, he walked into the bedroom, located a rock station on the radio sitting on his nightstand next to the lamp and turned it on full blast. If any listener could discern anything over that, he had better hearing than Superman.
An examination of his closet told him that the intruder had rifled through his clothing as well, but there was nothing to find there. Clark had taken special care this morning to be certain the secret panel in the back could not be opened by accident. Still, the man's behavior was becoming more than just an irritation. It was really too bad he didn't have any concrete evidence of Nunk's trespass. He could have had him arrested and charged with breaking and entering.
He paused for a moment, and his eyes narrowed at the thought. Normally, he would have let the whole thing pass but he'd become convinced over the last week, ever since Nunk's pursuit of him had started, that the man stood in dire need of a sharp lesson. What it might entail, Clark had no idea yet, but he'd think of an appropriate one, eventually.
Well, he had a date with Lois to prepare for. Maybe they could discuss the problem over dinner.
He went into the bathroom and began to undress at normal human speed. The man following him would notice if he managed to prepare for his date too quickly; he had no doubt of that, so he would just have to make sure that nothing seemed out of the way at all. Whether it was Nunk, or one of his co-workers at the Whisper—or even some other so-called journalist from one of the other tabloid rags—he was about to be treated to a very dull evening. At least, Clark reflected while pouring shampoo in his hair, it would be dull from an outsider's perspective. He had no intention of his date with Lois being dull in any shape, fashion or form.
Ready at last, he glanced at his watch. He had just twenty minutes to walk over to Lois's apartment. Her Jeep wouldn't be ready until tomorrow morning, so they would have to call a cab from her place. Calmly, he switched off the radio and left the room.
His tail was still there, he noted as he locked the door to his apartment. In fact, he spotted the man standing in the shadow of a doorway across the street. It was the cameraman, and he still held his camera. Clark started briskly up the street toward Carter Avenue.
Tony's was still selling flowers and he stopped to buy a bouquet for Lois, then proceeded on, whistling softly, until he reached her apartment house. Without a glance in the direction of the cameraman, he entered the building and rang for the elevator.
When he knocked at the door, Lois's voice called, "Just a minute, Clark!"
He waited. He could hear her footsteps inside and a moment later, the door opened. Clark almost stopped breathing.
Lois looked spectacular; that was the only description he could think of. She wore a simple, low cut black dress that hugged her curves. A string of milky pearls and a pair of pearl earrings set off the dress and her hair and makeup were perfect, as well as quite different from her professional style at work. The changes might not be all that great, but somehow the combination was enough to dazzle him. Or, maybe it was just the expression on her face. She looked a little nervous, but she was smiling. "Hi, Clark. I'm almost ready. Come on in."
He obeyed and shut the door behind him. "Here, I got these for you."
"Oh." She took the flowers. "They're beautiful, Clark. Thank you."
While she went to put the flowers in water, he lowered his glasses and scanned the apartment, half-expecting to find it bugged.
It was. There was one under the edge of the coffee table and another in her bedroom. An unexpected, cold anger took hold of him. It was one thing for Nunk to harass him, but to go after Lois as well was too much. The man was going to pay for this.
Lois re-entered the room. "I guess we can go. It's too bad my car is still in the shop."
Clark picked up the note pad by her telephone and scribbled a message at super speed. She raised her eyebrows, but the expression of surprise vanished when she read the message. She glanced around, questioningly.
Clark silently indicated the listening device. "Do you want to call a cab or do you just want to take the chance of flagging one down?"
"I guess you better call. Let me get my wrap."
Outside the apartment a few minutes later, she finished locking her door and fastened the deadbolt as well. "Don't tell me—Nunk?"
"Probably," he said. "I smelled his cologne in my place and his cameraman followed us from work and trailed me over here."
"I think I've had it with that guy," she said. "Do you suppose he's going to follow us around for the whole evening?"
"Probably. Nunk's behind it, though."
"I don't know why someone hasn't murdered him before this," Lois said. "He can't even leave us alone on our date. He's going to pay for this."
"That's for sure," Clark said. He rang for the elevator. "In the meantime, let's just go to dinner and ignore our shadow. I can't imagine anything more boring than watching somebody else's date."
Lois nodded. "Good idea."
"It's too bad I couldn't take you dancing," he said. "Once your ankle's healed, we'll do that, too."
"I liked the kind of dancing you showed me, that night in my apartment," she said. "Dancing on air. Unfortunately, we can't do that either, as long as Nunk and his flunky are bothering us."
"Well, hopefully we can deal with that in the near future," he said. "Until then though, we're just going to have to behave like any other normal couple. And, we can always plan our revenge on Nunk in the meantime. Nothing harmful, just humiliating and inconvenient."
"Speak for yourself," Lois said. "I'm thinking in terms of boiling in oil."
"I had a wonderful evening, Clark," Lois said. They stood in front of her apartment door. A glance at his watch on the way up in the elevator had told him that it was nearly midnight.
He smiled down at her. "So did I."
"Would you like to come in?" she asked. He hesitated, recalling the bug, then nodded. The listener or listeners would expect it. He followed her inside.
Lois gestured to the sofa. "Sit down and I'll get you some coffee."
Clark smiled. "I've had enough coffee." He moved closer to her. "It seems like we never have time just to relax together and enjoy each other's company. I had a great time."
She let him slide his arms around her and lifted her face to his. Taking that as an invitation, Clark kissed her.
After an interval during which time seemed to stop, he pulled his face back about an inch. "I love you, Lois."
"I know." She brushed her fingers across his cheek. "I love you too, Clark. When I think of all the time that I spent hero-worshipping Superman, I could kick myself. Why I was so stupid as to want someone who belongs to the whole world when I had someone like you working right next to me, I have no idea."
He kissed her again, more slowly. "I'm not complaining." A third kiss followed. "I have you now and Superman doesn't."
Lois didn't answer, but merely kissed him again.
When he left, twenty minutes later, it was with great reluctance and the knowledge that if he hadn't left then, he probably wouldn't have at all. It was just as well, he thought, that they had both been at least peripherally aware of the listener or things could have easily gotten carried away. They had been careful about what they said, though. Nunk and his cronies would have no idea that he and Lois knew the bugs were there. There had been a certain amount of acting involved, but not much. Tomorrow they would take care of the things and the ones in his apartment, too.
Clark was awakened early the next morning by the ringing of his phone. Blearily, he glanced at the clock on his nightstand. The device informed him blandly that it was five a.m. Still half asleep, he fumbled for the receiver. "H'lo?"
"Clark?" Lois's voice said, and something in her tone brought him awake. "Perry just called me. There was a breakout at the Metro Detention Facility two hours ago."
A sense of foreboding tugged at him. "Who?"
"Diana Stride," Lois said. "She apparently had outside help."
"Probably Intergang," Clark said.
"Look, make sure your doors are locked. I doubt she'll try anything against you. The DA has your deposition and she's going to be too busy hiding from the police, anyway." He glanced at the bug stuck unobtrusively to the base of his reading lamp, picking up every word he spoke. "Do you want me to come over?"
"No, I just thought you should know what happened. The police are setting up roadblocks, looking for her. My bet is she's already gone to ground and no one's going to find her. At least, not tonight."
"You're probably right," Clark agreed. He glanced through the wall at the figure of his tail, still doggedly parked on the steps of the deli across the street and two doors down the block. It figured that Nunk would assign somebody else for the duty. The cameraman was huddled in an overcoat, his head drooping sleepily. Nunk, himself, was probably sound asleep in bed, he thought. He couldn't do the job he did if he were very concerned about the feelings or comfort of other people.
"Are you sure you're all right?" he asked Lois.
"I'm sure, Clark," she said. "I'll see you in the morning."
"All right. G'night." He waited until she hung up and set down the receiver. Thoughtfully, he turned off the bedside lamp and sighed. If he left to help in the hunt for Diana Stride, whoever was listening would probably know it. He didn't think he snored, but the bug had almost certainly been placed where it was to pick up the sounds of his breathing and alert the listener if he left.
He told himself Lois was probably right. It had been two hours since the breakout. Diana had undoubtedly gone to ground by this time so in that context, there was no immediate need for him to leave but it wasn't likely that he was going to get any more sleep tonight, anyway. He was too wide-awake. It was just as well that he'd never needed as much sleep as most people.
After a few moments, he got out of bed and padded barefoot into the living room. Turning on a low light on his way, he grabbed the remote and turned on the television.
An infomercial touting the benefits of SuperCreme, guaranteed to melt inches off the waistline, met his gaze. He switched channels to a Metropolis news station but an advertisement for some kind of breast enlargement product was showing, followed by one for bail bonds. He flopped down on the couch, waiting impatiently.
When the news broadcaster came on, the news concerned the peace talks going on between two small countries that had been scrapping over their mutual border for centuries. He rose from the couch and went into the kitchen to make tea. Minutes later he was back, sipping the vigorously steaming liquid. The local weather forecaster was predicting cool, breezy conditions for tomorrow with scattered showers, heavy at times and a 20% chance for a thunderstorm.
At last, the subject turned to local news. The picture switched to the inside of a building, numerous uniformed police coming and going and a small knot of reporters surrounding a grey-haired, harassed-looking man. A voice-over informed the viewers that the former host of Top Copy, Diana Stride, now believed to be an international assassin for Intergang, had escaped. The Metropolis Detention Facility where she was currently being held had been infested with noxious fumes that forced the evacuation of the building and when the air had been rendered breathable again and the prisoners rounded up from the exercise yard, it was discovered that Diana Stride was gone.
Clark finished his tea and glanced at the living room clock. The time was now a quarter to six, almost time to get up, anyway. He might as well shower and prepare for work.
He was just stepping out of the shower, ten minutes later, when the phone rang. This was probably the one he'd been expecting.
He padded across the bedroom and picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Clark? It's Lois again. Check your apartment. I just found something that looks like a bug in my living room."
It was the call they had planned last night at dinner. "Lois, slow down. What kind of bug? A cockroach?"
"A microphone. A listening device! Actually, two of them. There's one in my bedroom and after I looked around, I found another one in my living room. I'm going to look again before I go to work and see if I can find any others."
"Nunk," Clark said. "Thanks for the heads up, Lois…well, well, what do you know? There seems to be something sticking to my lamp. You know, I think I'm getting a little upset with Mr. Nunk."
"You and me, both. We'll talk about it when you get here."
"It'll take me about twenty minutes. Don't forget to look around. You might call for Superman and have him check the place."
"I don't want to bother him; he might be busy. I'll see you soon. Love you."
"Love you, too." Clark hung up and spoke to the microphone. "The game's up, Nunk."
He pulled the listening device off his lamp, dropped it on the floor and crushed it with his bare heel.
Twenty minutes later, Lois was waiting for him when he knocked. They rode the elevator down and began their walk to work.
"I'm supposed to call about the Jeep," Lois said. "My mechanic said it would be ready this morning."
"I hope so," Clark said. "In case you're wondering, we still have a tail. Somebody I've never seen before replaced the other guy just before I started over here."
"I wonder if we could get an injunction against the Whisper for harassment," Lois said.
"Maybe, but I doubt it. We'd have to present evidence it was their people who planted the bugs and are following us around. There's no law against their using the same street as us."
"Yeah. Well, let me think about it," she said. "There must be something we can do until we work out how to set up the other thing."
"Just don't break any major laws, okay?" he said.
"I'll do my best. Oh, by the way, did Jimmy ever get back to you with that information on Theodore Hurst? I never thought to ask, what with Claude showing up, and Nunk bothering us."
"Yeah, he did. I didn't have a chance to look at it. I was going to dig it out when I got back from the ribbon-cutting ceremony, but it kind of slipped my mind. It's in my desk."
A short time later, they approached the Planet. As might have been predicted, Leo Nunk was waiting on the corner. He started toward them with a smile. "Lois, Clark."
The two reporters looked at each other and then Lois put two fingers in her mouth and produced a shrill, loud whistle. People turned to look, including a Planet Security officer who was approaching the front door of the building. Instantly, he hurried over to the two reporters.
"Ms. Lane, Mr. Kent. Is Mr. Nunk bothering you?"
"He sure is," Lois said. "Could you do something about him, please?"
"No problem." The man turned to the tabloid reporter. "Scram, Nunk. If I see you hanging around here today, I've got orders from my boss to have you arrested for loitering."
"You can't hide forever, Superman," Nunk said.
Clark sighed. "Have you ever heard the old saying about barking up the wrong tree, Nunk?"
"Come on, Clark," Lois said. "Unlike Mr. Nunk, we've got a job to do. Thanks, Don."
The security man nodded. "No problem, Ms. Lane." He folded his arms and stared at Nunk. "Just what part of 'scram' didn't you understand, pal? Beat it!"
When they entered the newsroom a few minutes later, Lois glanced around nervously. She knew she shouldn't; that as far as she was concerned, Claude Chabert should be just another, not very important colleague, but she couldn't help feeling slightly on the defensive where he was concerned. Clark must have noticed because he put one hand lightly in the small of her back in an almost possessive manner. She found the gesture oddly reassuring.
Claude was nowhere to be seen this morning and she recalled that when he worked here, he had never been one for early arrivals.
Perry was already here, as might be expected, and others were still arriving. As they turned toward the ramp, the stairwell door opened and Jimmy Olsen emerged, a large box of what were probably doughnuts in his hands. He went past them with a hurried greeting, descended the ramp and crossed the Pit toward Perry.
Lois and Clark followed at a more sedate pace.
"I'll get our morning coffee while you get set up," Clark said. "Then I'll find that stuff on Hurst."
"Bring me a doughnut, would you?" Lois said. "All I had this morning was black coffee."
"Sure," Clark said. "What kind?"
"I don't suppose they have low cal doughnuts, do they," Lois said. "How about one with icing?"
"Icing it is." Clark said. A few moments later he returned with the promised items. Lois took her cup carefully from the hand that held both cups and freed the requested doughnut from the other. Clark was left with his own. He went over to his desk, set them down and opened a drawer, hunting for the printout, licking sticky icing from the fingers of his left hand as he did so.
"You know," he said, laying the paper on her desk, "it's just barely possible that this might give us some kind of lead on Diana. He was her contact before she was arrested. He might be the one that handled her escape."
"I was wondering about that," Lois said. "Let's see—he arrived in Metropolis three years ago. Well, we know from our research on Intergang that they move into an area gradually and prepare the ground before Cost Mart arrives. At least, that's the pattern they've shown in other places."
"True. And at the time, Luthor was the crime boss in Metropolis. They had to know he'd be hard to deal with," Clark said. "It seems to me that they were always very careful to avoid anything The Boss had a hand in, anywhere in the world."
"That's true. Hmmm—" Lois frowned at the printout. "He's married. Wife's maiden name: Mary Elliott. He's a Cost Mart senior manager—started at Cost Mart ten years ago in New Jersey, stocking shelves. He's sure come up in the world. I think we should go visit Mr. Hurst's place—when no one is home."
"Elliott," Clark said. "Where have I heard that name, recently?"
"I don't know. Who do we know named Elliott?"
Clark was frowning at the paper. He raised his head. "Jimmy!"
Jimmy arrived at Lois's desk slightly out of breath. "Man, you don't waste any time getting started in the morning, do you?"
"This stuff on Theodore Hurst you gave me, yesterday. Did you find any information on his wife?"
"You didn't ask for it," Jimmy said. "I can get it pretty easily."
"Would you, please? As fast as possible?"
"Sure," Jimmy said. "Give me a few minutes."
As Jimmy headed for his own desk, the bell announced the arrival of the elevator. Lois looked up in time to see the doors open. Claude stepped out.
Lois froze. The Frenchman surveyed the room with that casual manner of his that she remembered so well. His eyes met hers with an almost audible click. He smiled very slightly.
Lois raised her eyebrows fractionally and turned to Clark. "Claude's here," she said.
Clark glanced up at her warning. Claude Chabert was descending the ramp in a leisurely manner. As he watched, the man reached the floor of the Pit and crossed the room toward them.
Oh, boy, here it came. He glanced apprehensively at Lois.
Her expression surprised him. She was looking calm and faintly amused. With a silent plea to all the gods, past and present, that this didn't mean Lois was about to murder the man in front of over thirty witnesses, he took a firm grip on his courage and nodded pleasantly as Claude arrived beside Lois's desk.
"Hello, Claude," Lois said, briskly. "I heard you were back."
"Lois, ma cherie," Claude said, in a tone that made Clark bristle instinctively. "You're looking even more beautiful than I remembered."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "Cut the flattery, Claude," she said. "What do you want?"
He looked faintly surprised. "Why, nothing, cherie," he protested. "I only wished to say hello to an old friend."
"In that case, I suggest you find one," she said, her tone about as welcoming as ice water. "I have work to do."
"I hoped," Claude said, "that we could put that trivial incident behind us and remain friends. It has been such a long time."
"Five years, two months and four days," Lois said. "Definitely not long enough. There's an old saying: If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. That about covers it—and don't call me cherie."
"Perry hoped that you might give me a starting point for my investigation," Claude said, his smile disappearing.
"Not in this lifetime," Lois said. "Find some other sucker to leech off of. I don't make the same mistake twice." She rose to her feet. "Excuse me, Clark. I'm going to get more coffee."
The two men were left standing and looking at each other uncomfortably. At last, Claude shrugged. "I suppose I should have known better than to expect her to be reasonable."
Clark's hackles went up. He spoke softly. "Lois is my partner," he said. "Don't ever say something like that about her again, where I can hear you. Is that clear?"
The other man looked surprised but he didn't miss a beat. "My apologies," he said. "I spoke out of turn." With that, he turned on his heel and departed in the direction of the conference room. Clark thrust his hands into his pockets and followed Lois toward the coffee machine, aware that everyone within hearing distance had been watching the little tableau with interest and that Ralph was now staring at him, open-mouthed.
Perry watched the confrontation between Lois and Claude from his office and debated whether to step in. If he ordered Lois to help the man out she probably would, but one look at her face as she crossed to the coffee machine made him decide against it. Reporters like Claude Chabert were a dime a dozen, but the Lois Lanes of the world were few and far between and this didn't seem to be an ordinary disagreement.
He didn't think asking Clark to assist the man would be a good idea, either. For an instant, he'd thought Clark was going to punch the other reporter right there in the newsroom. He hadn't, but it was clear that it had been a close thing. Whatever was between Chabert and Lois had to be pretty serious, he thought. Clark didn't get that angry over a trivial argument.
He scratched his chin with one finger, thinking. Ever since yesterday, when he'd realized that Lois was extremely upset over the arrival of the French reporter, he'd been unable to completely dismiss the matter from his mind and this latest incident simply reinforced it. There had been those rumors that Chabert and Lois had been involved during the first months she had been at the Planet. He'd ignored them at the time—Lois was an adult and it hadn't been any of his business. But even if there had been something, and if their breakup had been an unpleasant one, it seemed unlikely that she would continue to carry that much animosity five years later, particularly now that she showed all the signs of having developed an interest in her partner. And it was highly unlikely that it would upset Clark that much, if at all. Something else had to be behind it.
He scowled at the people moving around out on the newsroom floor. Lois had returned to her workstation and she and Clark were apparently reading over the information contained on a strip of printer paper that lay on Lois's desk.
Should he ask Lois what the problem was? He considered that for a moment and rejected the idea. She wasn't likely to tell him. But, he'd been an investigative reporter before he'd moved into the position of editor. Maybe he could figure it out on his own.
He returned to his desk, still thinking. If the conflict wasn't because of a romantic relationship that had gone wrong, then it was probably professional. That was the only other thing that was likely to set Lois off that way. But, what could it be? Lois had been a rookie and Chabert an experienced reporter. What would cause Lois to hold onto a grudge that severe for over five years?
It was time to do some research into Claude Chabert's career at the Planet over the months where it coincided with Lois Lane's. The man had been a decent but mediocre reporter up until the brilliant investigation and outstanding story that had won him his Kerth. It had taken Perry completely by surprise, but now an unwelcome suspicion had begun to intrude itself into his mind. He hoped he was wrong, but all his instincts said it was something he should double check.
Instead of sitting down behind his computer, Perry went to the door of his office and opened it. "Jimmy!"
"Sorry it took so long, CK." Jimmy set a computer printout on Clark's desk. "The Chief had me doing some research for him."
"No problem, Jim." Clark picked up the paper and glanced over the information. "Good; this is just what I needed."
"You think this Mary Hurst is involved with Intergang?"
Clark shrugged. "Maybe. That's something we'll have to find out. One thing that interested me was her maiden name."
Clark nodded. "I knew it sounded familiar. Her brother is Neville Elliott."
"Who's he?" Jimmy asked.
"Neville Elliott was at the Mystery Mansion when Lois and I attended the kick-off fundraiser a few weeks ago. Lois met him at the opera when she went there with Luthor, last year. He's a cosmetic surgeon."
"That's weird," Jimmy said. "I guess it could just be a coincidence."
"It could be," Clark agreed. "It's interesting that his name should turn up just now, though. The first night there, we had a kind of strange conversation with him." He was silent for a moment. "Um, Jimmy, I hate to ask you this but—"
Jimmy gave a long-suffering sigh. "Don't tell me. You want information on this Elliott guy."
Clark could see that under the put upon appearance, he was hiding a grin. "If it's not too much trouble."
The grin broke through. "I'll try to have it for you by this afternoon."
"Have what for us?" Lois asked. She had approached during the conversation.
"More research," Jimmy said. "I think I should ask the Chief for a raise."
"Probably," Clark said. "Hazardous duty pay, at the very least."
"No kidding." He turned his head. "Oops, Eduardo wants me for something. See you later."
Lois picked up a nearby chair and sat down in it next to Clark's desk. "Tell me something."
"Did I or did I not quote Disney to Claude, this morning?"
"Well—kind of. Bambi—and it wasn't an exact quote."
"I guess that's something. It just popped into my head."
"I wouldn't worry about it," Clark said. "Look what Jimmy found."
"Remember, I said I'd heard the name Elliott recently? Theodore Hurst's wife is Neville Elliott's sister."
Clark shook his head. "Nope. Of course, it might not mean anything. Jimmy's going to research him for us."
"I always knew there was something weird about that guy," Lois remarked.
"Well, admittedly he was pretty rude to you that night at the Mystery Mansion, but that doesn't mean he's involved with big time crime. He might just have been a friend of Luthor."
Lois shook her head. "Lex didn't really like him. They were just polite to each other."
"Well, I guess that's one thing in his favor," Clark said.
"Yeah, but after we met him, Lex said something funny to me about him."
"He said—" Lois wrinkled her brow, obviously trying to recall Luthor's exact words. "He said that Elliott was 'a blight on the social landscape, but he has his uses'. What do you make of that?"
"I don't know, but I'd say you're right. Luthor definitely didn't like him. On the other hand, he didn't like Superman, either."
Lois smacked his shoulder. "Yes—but I wouldn't compare Neville Elliott to Superman!"
"I'm glad of that," Clark said, grinning. "Seriously though, maybe we should check him out along with Hurst. If Luthor had a use for him, it probably wasn't for anything good."
It was about two hours later that Lois saw Clark lift his head in the way that meant that he was hearing something no one else could. He looked straight at her and made a little gesture with one hand that she knew meant Superman was needed. She nodded and watched as he headed toward the stairs.
"Kent returning a library book again?" Ralph's voice asked from beside her.
"He's just going down to the morgue to dig up some old files," Lois said, turning her head to glare irritably at him. "You know, Ralph, that line's getting old, really fast. Clark's a better reporter than any man in this room—with the possible exception of Perry. So drop it, will you?"
"Sorry, Lane." Ralph rolled his eyes. "Geez, It was just a joke!"
"Yeah, well it's not funny anymore!"
"Don't you have a story you're supposed to be working on, Ralph?" Perry's voice said. Lois glanced over her shoulder to see her boss come to a stop behind her chair as Ralph scurried away. He rested a hand on the chair back and lowered his voice. "You okay, honey?"
She sighed. "Yeah, I'm fine. It's been a rough few weeks."
"It sure has." Perry glanced at the stairs where Clark had disappeared. "No wonder Clark's in such good condition with the amount of stair climbing he does."
"It's one way he keeps in shape," Lois said, wondering where this was leading.
"It's good to see one of my people trying so hard to stay fit," Perry said. "This morning, I thought he was going to punch Chabert. I'm glad he restrained himself."
Lois hadn't seen that. She started to reply, but Perry was continuing. "Not that I blame him, actually."
"I spent some time this afternoon re-reading that story that won Chabert his Kerth. Not his usual style at all."
"In fact, up until then, his writing was pretty ordinary. I had Jimmy dig up some of his other work and took a look at it. That one story was an outstanding piece of journalism. If I didn't know better, I'd think it was yours."
Lois could feel her jaw drop. Perry continued in a meditative way, "It's interesting, really. Before you came to the Planet, he was a decent reporter. He never set the world on fire, but he was a good workhorse. Then, a few months after you got here, Chabert turned in this incredible, front page story that rightfully won an award for investigative journalism. I've only seen that kind of work and that kind of writing from one other reporter since then—and that reporter has since won three more Kerths. Even the writing style is yours." He paused for a second and when he spoke again, his slight Southern accent had become more pronounced. "Is there anything you'd like to tell me, Lois?"
She could only stare at him in shock. Perry's expression didn't change. "It was your story, wasn't it?"
"I thought so. He stole an award-winning story from you. You were a rookie, and you figured no one would take your word over his. Am I right?"
Again, she nodded, unable to speak.
Perry smiled slightly. "And that award should rightfully have been yours. I don't know if there's anything we can do about it at this late date, but we'll see. In the meantime, tell your partner not to punch him, would you, honey? I don't want Clark thrown in jail on an assault charge."
Lois could only nod wordlessly and stare after him as he turned and made his way back to his office. One thing was for certain, she thought, after her brain finally started to function coherently again. Perry sure hadn't become the editor here because he could yodel.
Clark returned to the office nearly an hour later. Lois had heard the report on the radio about the explosion of the cabin cruiser just outside Hobs Bay and the presence of Superman, so his return wasn't a surprise.
"Hey, Kent—find anything down in the morgue?" Ralph inquired. "Like lost library books, maybe?" He laughed heartily at his own joke.
Clark continued on to his desk, ignoring the man. He didn't look as if he was in the mood for Ralph's humor at the moment, Lois thought. From what she'd heard, not even Superman had been able to locate any survivors. He'd told her once that he knew he couldn't save everyone—that it was Lois, herself, who had shown him that. But to Clark, anyone's life was important. He didn't like it when he was too late, even though he might intellectually accept his limitations. After a second, she rose and went over to his desk.
"You okay?" she asked, softly.
"Huh? Yeah, I guess so. By the time I got there, it was too late. I hunted for survivors but from the size of the explosion, it had to have been a bomb. I scanned the whole area—nothing."
He shook his head. "No sign of anyone, alive or dead. The only thing I found was a suitcase floating in the water. The police have it—they hope it might give them a clue to who was in the boat."
She waited for him to continue. When he didn't, she prodded. "Didn't you look it over? You know—buzz-buzz?"
He smiled reluctantly. "Yeah. There was a passport in it. The name was Jocelyn Monroe."
"I've never heard of her," Lois said.
"I've never heard the name," Clark agreed, "but I recognized the picture. It was Diana Stride."
"Any sign of Nunk?" Lois asked in a whisper.
Clark lowered his glasses and glanced around. "I don't see him. Maybe Security had him arrested."
"His paper would bail him out before the paperwork was finished," Lois said. "He might be hanging around the garage entrance, since we sneaked out that way before."
Clark pushed open the side door of the Planet building and the two of them made a hasty exit. "The bus comes by in five minutes. We're going to have to hurry."
"I'm just glad Perry let us go early enough to get to the repair place before it closes," Lois said. "I miss my car."
They walked toward the bus stop as quickly as Lois's athletic cast would permit. True to the weather forecast early that morning, a light, spring rain was falling and Clark found himself wishing he had brought an umbrella. They were both wearing light coats but the little drops of water speckled the lenses of his glasses, distorting his vision and making it harder to see.
As they arrived at the bus stop, the bus pulled up to the curb with a groan of brakes, a spattering of water droplets and a thick belch of exhaust. Lois made a face. "Whew! I'm glad I don't have to ride on these most of the time!"
"Me too." Clark gave her a hand onto the high step. "Watch it; it's a little slippery."
"There's Nunk," Lois said, nodding out the window that faced the street as she pushed her way down the central aisle. Clark glanced around as the battered van rounded the corner. He lowered his glasses slightly to verify her identification.
"Yep, it's him, all right. I'm starting to wonder how come he's always right on top of us, every time we leave the Planet."
Lois grasped one of the overhead straps to steady herself as the bus lurched into motion. "Amazing coincidence, isn't it? I wonder if someone in the newsroom is notifying him when we go somewhere."
"They'd have to follow us to know which way we're using," Clark mused. He pulled the handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped water drops from the lenses of his glasses "I think I'll watch, the next time we leave for some reason and see if we have a tail. I'd hate to think that someone at the Planet is helping Nunk but it's happened before."
"My question is how we're going to avoid him when we get off the bus," Lois said. "I think he's following us."
"We might have to put up with him," Clark said. "The guy's persistent, I'll give him that."
"Too persistent," Lois said, crossly. "How are we supposed to conduct any kind of investigation with him practically hanging onto our ankles?"
"We'll think of something to distract him," Clark said. "I think it's too late this time, though. Here. Use this to keep off the cameraman." He picked up a copy of the Whisper that lay on the floor. A picture of himself, his face mostly obscured by a notebook, adorned the front page. Examining it critically, he had to admit to a slight satisfaction. What could be seen of him looked nothing like Superman. For one thing, he was slouching and the horn-rimmed glasses he had taken to wearing since the pursuit by Nunk and the other tabloid reporters—admittedly nowhere as persistent as Nunk—made him look like a slightly rumpled version of the math teacher whose class he had attended in ninth grade.
Lois took the paper from his hand and examined the picture on the front. "Nice picture."
"Isn't it," Clark said.
Lois took several sheets from the inside and handed them back to him. "Here's your cover."
"Thanks." He arranged the pages neatly together.
The bus made several stops before it reached the street closest to the repair shop. As they descended from the vehicle, Clark glanced cautiously toward the white van, now several cars back. The driver was looking frantically around for a parking space.
"Hurry," he said. "Before he finds a place to park."
They arrived at the office of Jake's Auto Repair with Lois slightly out of breath and dodged inside. She gave a sigh of relief as the door closed behind them. The man behind the counter looked up in surprise. "Can I help you?"
"Yeah," Lois said, wiping water from her face. "I'm Lois Lane. I'm here to get my Jeep."
"Oh, right. I've got your paperwork right here."
"Could you hurry, please?" Lois said, glancing out the wide, front window.
The cashier produced a sheaf of papers, stapled at one corner, and looked curiously at her. "Is there a problem, Ms. Lane?"
"Kind of," Lois said. "There's a creep from the Whisper following us."
The man raised his eyebrows. "Leo Nunk?" he inquired.
Lois stared at him. "How did you know?"
"He was here, earlier. He wanted me to let him see your car and look inside. He offered me a hundred dollars, too," the man added, regretfully. "I didn't, though. I could have gotten fired."
"I'm glad you didn't let him," Lois said. "He's been following us around for a week."
The man glanced at Clark, who was leaning against the wall, waiting and trying to look as un-Supermanish as possible. "Yeah, I read all about it. That Nunk guy should be writing fantasy novels or something. If you'll pardon me, Mr. Kent, you don't look anything like Superman. No offense, but you're not tall enough, for one thing."
"No kidding," Clark said.
"Well," Lois said, opening her checkbook and beginning to write, "it would sure be some trick. Clark and I interviewed Superman last week. Do you remember the water main break in front of City Hall—the one that just about swallowed that tour bus? Superman pulled them out of the sinkhole, you know. Even he can't be in two places at once."
The clerk snorted. "That's for sure." He looked up as the jingle of the door opening announced the arrival of Leo Nunk and his photographer. Clark lifted the section of the Whisper that he'd found on the bus and blocked the photographer's view.
"Here you go," Lois said, handing the check to the clerk. She glanced at Nunk. "Don't you have rules against vermin in your office?"
"Very funny," Nunk said. "And don't think I've forgiven you for that ice water trick."
"I haven't a clue what you're talking about." Lois held her own section of the paper in front of her face. "Can somebody bring my car around, please? I want to get out of here before I catch something contagious."
"It'll be here in a minute, Ms. Lane." The man behind the counter smothered a grin and turned to the two reporters from the Whisper. "Is there something I can do for you?"
"Uh, uh." Nunk was holding his microphone toward Lois. "Reading my work, Lois?"
"No, just looking for a bird cage." She picked up her checkbook and turned, nearly bumping directly into the man. "Would you mind moving back an inch or two? Your breath smells really bad."
Clark broke into a series of coughs and cleared his throat loudly. Everyone knew that Superman didn't get sick. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lois's Cherokee pull up outside and began to edge out the door. The photographer stepped in his way, thrusting the camera into his face. Clark had had enough. He put a hand firmly over the lens and gripped the device, twisting it out of the other man's fingers.
"Hey! You can't take my camera!" the cameraman protested.
Clark opened the back, shook out the film, tossed it to the floor and ground the heel of his shoe into it. "Sue me," he said. "Here." He thrust the camera into the photographer's hands and pushed past him through the door. "And the next time I find my apartment bugged, you're going to regret it, Nunk. Come on, Lois."
"Wow," Lois said, as she slammed the driver's door. "You don't usually lose your temper like that."
Clark didn't answer at once. Lois put the Jeep in forward and pulled away from the repair shop. At last, he sighed. "I suppose I shouldn't have."
"No, I think that's exactly what you should have done. Superman doesn't lose his temper but you did."
"You think so?"
"I'll take your word for it. We're going to have to do something about him. I've had it up to here."
"I kind of guessed that," Lois said. "I think we should talk to Perry about an injunction against the Whisper for Nunk's harassment. This time we had a witness—and it will be more convincing for anyone who wonders about the Superman/Clark Kent connection." Suddenly, she put a hand over her mouth. "Ohmigod, I didn't think. Do you suppose he bugged the car?"
"No, I already checked. Although that's probably why he tried to bribe the clerk for a look at it."
"Probably," Lois said. She glanced over her shoulder. "That—" She bit off the word. "They're following us."
Clark looked back and at once identified the battered white van, four cars behind them. "I guess it takes a lot to discourage tabloid reporters. I imagine we're not the first people to get irritated at being trailed around."
"I'm sure we're not. But he's going to find out he made a mistake tangling with us. Nobody interferes with me when I'm following a story." She stepped on the gas, maneuvering through the crowd of rush hour traffic with more than her usual aggressiveness. Clark ignored the blare of horns from irritated drivers.
"Where are we going?"
"Back to the Planet. I want to talk to Perry and you need to sneak out via the roof and find out if the police have learned anything more about Diana Stride. You really think that was her in the boat?"
"I can't see any other reason why a suitcase with her passport in it was floating out there in the water."
"Then she's probably dead."
"Probably. Maybe Intergang decided she was too much of a liability."
"Well, it sure wouldn't surprise me," Lois said.
"Me, either." He debated a moment. "Could I ask you something kind of personal that's off the subject?"
"Maybe. I don't promise to answer you, though."
"How did you know how long it's been since Claude stole your story?"
"Oh, that." Lois grinned. "I didn't. I figured he wouldn't remember exactly when it was, so I bluffed."
That surprised a laugh out of him. "Good for you." He glanced in the rear view mirror. "Nunk's only two cars back, now."
"Oh for James Bond's car. I'd love to throw an oil slick out for him." She glanced back over her shoulder. "Okay, pal, you want to make this into a contest? You're on."
"Just hang on, Clark. I'm going to show this guy how to *drive*!"
Clark resisted the urge to roll his eyes and instead took a firm grip on the armrest, reflecting that Superman could rescue them if they got into too much trouble.
Lois glanced alertly about as they entered the intersection and then made a sharp U-turn into the opposing lane. Horns honked, brakes screeched and water sprayed. A gap opened in the line of cars as a horrified driver saw the Jeep headed right for him and slammed on his brakes. Lois neatly inserted the Cherokee into the open space. Clark gritted his teeth, trying to appear casual, and glanced sideways at Nunk's van.
The cameraman was twisting his head frantically, looking for a space to turn. Lacking Lois's iron nerves—or borderline insanity, Clark reflected—he was having difficulty accomplishing the feat. Lois didn't give him time to find one. She made an immediate right turn into the cross street and then turned right again down an alley. A stray cat leaped from the top of a trash can to the four-inch ledge that ran around the corner building as the Jeep lurched and bounced its way over the cracked cement of the alley, splattering water from the gathering puddles as it went. In less than a minute, they had reached the alley's exit onto a narrow back street. Lois turned left. Clark released his grip on the armrest and let out his breath.
Lois glanced at him, a satisfied grin on her face. "Do I make you nervous?" she inquired, innocently.
"A little. Where did you learn to drive like that?"
"I took a course in police driving."
Naturally. "I'm not even going to ask how you wangled that. Let's get out of here before Nunk and his sidekick catch up to us."
"You have to remember; I know guys who know guys. Being able to drive like that saved my skin a few times before I met you, too." Lois proceeded at a much saner speed down the narrow thoroughfare. "Anyway, I'm going to stick to the back streets. I think they'll be a lot less crowded than the main ones."
Her prediction proved to be correct and a short time later they were pulling into the Planet's underground parking lot.
"I don't see Nunk anywhere," Clark reported.
"He's probably still stuck in traffic." Lois opened her door. "Let's go up to the newsroom and talk to Perry and then Superman can head over to police headquarters and see if there's any more information on that explosion."
Predictably, Perry hadn't left yet, even though the time was now quarter to six. What was more surprising was that Jimmy Olsen was still there. He looked up from his computer screen as the two of them descended the short flight of steps into the Pit. "What are you guys doing back here?"
"We forgot something," Lois said. "Is Perry busy?"
"Probably, but I think he'd be willing to talk to you," Jimmy said.
"How are you doing after your first full day back?" Clark asked, pausing by his desk.
"Kind of tired." Jimmy made an unsuccessful attempt to scratch the healing scar on his back. "Those half days were great but I was getting bored, you know?"
"Yeah, I think I do." Clark glanced at the clock. "Why are you still here, anyway?"
"Just finishing that research you asked me to do. I'm just about done."
"I'm sure it can wait for tomorrow," Clark said. "You look like you need a rest."
"I'm ready to go home," Jimmy admitted. "Anyway, I hope it's what you need."
"I'm sure it is. Why don't you say good night?"
"I will in a minute…ah! There!" He leaned back in his chair. "Just wait until this prints up and then I'm outta here."
Clark grinned. "If there's anything else, I'm sure it can wait until tomorrow."
Jimmy nodded and stretched. "I just want to nail these Intergang types if we can. The printout will be ready in a couple of minutes."
"Just don't wear yourself out over it," Clark said. "It's not going to happen all at once. Intergang is multinational and bringing it down is going to take time." He slapped Jimmy lightly on the shoulder. "I better go talk to Perry. See you tomorrow."
Lois was already speaking to their boss when he entered the editor's office. Perry glanced at him as he opened the door, a frown on his face.
"Is Nunk being as much of an irritant to you as he is to Lois, Clark?"
"At least as much," Clark said. "She told you about the bugged apartments?"
"I hadn't gotten to that part, yet," Lois said. "I'd just finished with what happened at the repair shop."
"He bugged your apartments?" Perry's face was a study in annoyance. "I don't suppose you can prove that, though."
"Of course not," Clark said. "We can prove they followed us to the sandwich shop, though, and to the repair place. Not to mention, they're always waiting when we come in to work in the morning."
"And we both saw the cameraman following us last night," Lois added. "Um—Clark and I went out to dinner. Nothing fancy, but—"
Perry held up his hand. "Honey, you don't have to explain. I know you're dating. Look, I'll talk to Legal about this and see if they think we can get an injunction against harassment or somethin'. It's got to be interferin' with your ability to do your jobs."
"To say the least," Lois said. "Not to mention, I'm probably going to kill the slimeball if it doesn't stop soon."
Their editor grinned. "I'll see what I can do. And by the way, Lois, the lawyers heard what I had to say about that other matter. They're looking at the evidence and want to know if you're willing to sign an affidavit that the story was yours and that Chabert won his award under false pretenses."
"You bet I am," Lois said. "Do they really think there's a chance?"
"Well, it depends. The Kerth Committee will have to look at the samples of writing from both of you and compare them—and you have a track record to back you up, now. We'll see what happens. At the very least, it'll cast some doubt on whether or not he actually wrote the story."
"I'll settle for that if I have to," Lois said. "And Clark knows all about it, too."
"I figured he did," Perry said. "For a minute I thought you were gonna punch the guy, Clark."
"He insulted Lois," Clark said. "It made me mad. I wouldn't have punched him, though."
"I don't think he was sure of that," Perry said. "Anyhow, please don't. I don't want to have to bail you out of jail."
"Now, is there anything else?"
"No, that about covers it," Lois said.
"Not completely," Clark said. "We think somebody in the newsroom might be tipping Nunk off whenever we're on our way out. He shows up within a few minutes, every time we leave—even when we sneak out a side entrance or something."
Perry frowned. "I'd hate to think somebody from the Planet might be helping the Whisper," he said. "Still, it wouldn't be the first time. You got any suggestions what we should do about it?"
"We're going to try to watch," Clark said, "but, maybe we could get someone here in the newsroom to help—someone we know isn't the spy—and have him watch to see if anyone leaves right after us."
"Not a bad idea. You have anyone in mind?"
"Well, yesterday when Lois and I left, Nunk showed up when we went out via the basement parking lot. That was in the afternoon—and Jimmy had gone home at two."
"That sounds like he's safe," Perry said. "I'd have been surprised if he wasn't. Has he left, yet?"
Clark glanced out the window into the newsroom. Jimmy was just setting several sheets of paper on Lois's desk. "He's on his way out." He quickly opened the door of the office. "Jim, could you come here a minute, please? We'd like to ask you for a favor."
A short time later, the evening shift wasn't surprised to see Lois at her desk, reading the notes Jimmy Olsen had so carefully prepared for her, and her partner nowhere to be seen. Harry Williams passed her desk on the way to his own, the ever-present cup of coffee in his hand. "Hi, Lois. Another late night?"
"Sort of," she said. "I probably won't be here much longer, though. I'm waiting for a phone call from Switzerland."
That wasn't unusual, either. Harry ambled on over to his desk and plopped into the chair. The late evening shift in the Planet newsroom usually didn't have a lot to do, which was why he preferred it. He had only six months left until he retired and moved to the little place in the country that he and his wife had bought ten years ago. A year from now he'd be raising vegetables in his backyard garden and cussing the rabbit and gopher populations. It would be much better for his blood pressure, he knew, and he doubted he'd miss the city at all.
The ringing of the phone on Lois's desk interrupted his pleasant daydream and he glanced in her direction. She reached out to pick it up and he saw her sit up straight, instantly all business. She made several notes on the pad of paper by the phone, thanked the caller and signed off. Now, Lois was a great reporter, he thought. Not to mention, easy on the eyes. For a moment, he envied her partner. Kent had the right temperament and anyone who ever saw them working together knew he was crazy about her, anyway.
Aware that his wife would disapprove, he looked away in time to see the elevator doors open.
The man who entered looked familiar and it took Harry a minute to recall where he'd seen him before. Claude something-or-other had been part of the Planet staff several years ago. Harry had never liked him much; it had always struck him that the guy was too smooth to be genuine and Harry had no use for con artists of any stripe. Somewhere along the line, he recalled vaguely, there had been a spate of rumors about him and Lois. Harry had disapproved of the arrangement, if true; Lois had been about twenty-one or two, a good fifteen years younger than the fellow and the phrase "robbing the cradle" came to mind, but it hadn't been any of his business. Just the same, he hadn't missed the man when he'd abruptly transferred back to the Planet's Paris office.
The Frenchman came across the office to Lois's desk and paused beside it. She looked up, apparently startled.
"Lois, my dear, I wondered if we could talk." The man's voice was deliberately low and Harry surreptitiously turned up his hearing aid. He didn't like the guy's tone of voice or the expression on his face and Lois obviously wasn't happy to see him.
"I have nothing to say to you, Claude." Her voice was completely expressionless. "And I'm not your 'dear'."
"Obviously not. However, it's come to my attention that some unpleasant rumors are circulating about the situation involving my Kerth award. I thought we should straighten them out."
"*Your* Kerth? That was my story, and you know it."
"But no one else does. In any case, if you insist on pursuing this course, I can make life very unpleasant for you, Lois. Our relationship wasn't entirely unknown five years ago."
"'Relationship'? You used our so-called relationship to steal my story!"
"And I'm perfectly willing to use that relationship to defend my position. I have a very good imagination, my dear." He used the endearment deliberately. "Unless you wish your reputation to be completely destroyed, you'll give up this childish pursuit."
Lois stood up suddenly. She was considerably shorter than the man standing beside her, but he moved back a step in the face of her anger. "Claude, you never did have any ethics and I learned that the hard way." Her voice was loud enough that Harry didn't need his hearing aid to overhear, and he saw Ben Jacobs glance curiously in her direction. "I didn't fight you five years ago because I didn't think anyone would believe a rookie. I should have then, and I'm going to make up for that now. If you think you can ruin my reputation, take your best shot and we'll see who convinces whom."
The man reached forward to grasp her by the wrist. "I'm warning you, Lois—"
Harry was on his feet and walking toward the two before he realized what he was doing. He stopped behind Claude. "Is this guy bothering you, Ms. Lane?"
Both combatants seemed to notice him at the same time, and Harry could see relief on Lois's face. Her opponent half-turned, his dark face contorted in a scowl. "This is none of your business, old man."
"I think it is," Harry said. "And I think you better get your hand off Ms. Lane's arm before I call Security."
Claude slowly released her wrist and Harry could see the red marks left by his fingers. "There, are you satisfied? This is a private conversation."
"I will be when I see you walking away." Harry stood his ground.
For a second, Claude hesitated, clearly debating whether to give in, then he gave a half-shrug. "Remember what I said, my dear. I'm not through with this, yet."
"And you remember what *I* said," Lois replied. Harry had to admire her attitude. "If you want to fight, I'll see you in front of the Kerth Committee."
When the man had disappeared into Conference Room 3, she turned back to Harry. "Thanks."
"No problem. I heard what he said to you. If you need me to back you up to Mr. White—"
She started to answer and then paused. "You heard all of that?"
Harry could feel himself turning red. "Yeah; every word. I didn't like the way he was acting toward you, so I turned up my hearing aid and I heard him threaten you. I probably shouldn't have been listening. Sorry if I—"
"No, that's all right. You're a reporter. I'd have probably done the same thing." She was looking thoughtful. "I might need you to tell what you saw and heard if he tries to carry through, though. Would you?"
Harry nodded. "Sure. That kind of thing gives every journalist in the business a bad name."
"Yeah, it does." He could have sworn she was looking embarrassed. "I appreciate your help, Harry."
"Anytime," Harry said. "I never liked the jerk, anyway."
Clark landed on the roof of the Daily Planet building, moving too fast to be seen by normal eyes and ducked through the door to the stairs. A second later, he emerged into the newsroom.
Lois was obviously waiting for him, and the relief on her face surprised him. "Is something wrong, Lois?"
"Yes and no." She reached out to ring for the elevator and the doors opened almost immediately.
Clark glanced around the newsroom, trying to spot whatever might have upset her. At once, he became aware of an additional heartbeat issuing from Conference Room 3. He lowered his glasses to confirm the presence of Claude in the other room.
"Come on, Clark," Lois said. "I can't hold this thing all day."
She was holding the door for him. He quickly boarded the elevator and a moment later they were proceeding downward.
"I take it, you and Claude had words?" he asked.
"You could say that." Lois matter-of-factly tucked a big manila envelope under her arm. "He threatened me."
The elevator slid to a stop on the first floor and several people crowded in. Clark resisted the urge to make an exit and fly up to the newsroom as Superman to scare the wits out of Claude. Superman was above that sort of thing, he reminded himself, sharply. Besides, he didn't have all the facts, yet.
At a snail's pace, they descended toward the parking garage once more, and finally the doors popped open with a sigh of compressed air. Lois and Clark hung back, allowing the others to exit ahead of them. Clark lowered his glasses and glanced around. "No Nunk. What do you mean, Claude threatened you?"
"He threatened to ruin my reputation if I didn't back off trying to prove that he stole my story."
Clark reminded himself not to grind his teeth. "And you said?"
"I told him to do his worst, but I wasn't backing down."
"Good for you," Clark said.
"Yeah, but now I need to do something about it. I think it would be best to let Perry know the whole truth. It'll be embarrassing, but that way he can operate with all the facts."
"Are you sure, Lois?"
She gave a determined nod. "I'm sure. I never said anything before—except to you. You have a way of inspiring trust, you know? But I didn't want Perry to know what an idiot I'd been. I mean, it was over and done with, Claude had the story and I didn't have any proof, so why let anyone know the sordid details?"
"I can understand that," Clark said.
"But, it's different, now," she continued. "Claude's not going to win this one, no matter what it takes. Even if it means humiliating myself in front of Perry and the Kerth Committee as well, I'm not going to let that scuzzball win."
Lois Lane in fighting mode was an impressive sight to see, Clark thought. "I think you're right," he said. "Who cares about a five-year old piece of gossip, anyway? I'd say it's not worth worrying about. Besides, if you ask me, the one who'll look bad will be Claude. That was a pretty crummy thing to do."
"He'll claim that I'm just doing this for revenge because he dumped me," Lois said. "All the more reason to get to Perry first with the details. Tonight."
They headed for the Jeep. Clark glanced around again, assuring himself that Nunk wasn't waiting by the garage exit for them. "What do you want to do?"
"I called Perry while I was waiting for you. We're supposed to meet him at his house. I told him I needed to tell him the whole story."
"I think you're being smart," Clark said, "and I think Perry will think so, too."
"I hope so." Lois took out her key as they approached the Jeep. "Any bugs?"
Clark lowered his glasses. "No," he said, after several seconds. "I guess Nunk hasn't found us, yet."
"If I ever find out he's bugged my car, he's history," Lois said. "My apartment was one thing, but my Jeep is something else altogether."
Clark grinned slightly. The whole attitude was just so Lois.
In the Jeep, he took the envelope she had brought from the newsroom. "What's this?"
Lois pulled the safety harness over her shoulder and fastened it. "Oh, that's the stuff Jimmy got for us on Neville Elliott."
"Maybe." She started the engine and backed smartly out of the parking space. "Elliott came to Metropolis about six to eight weeks before Hurst did, set up his clinic and became well known within a few months. Jimmy dug into his background. He graduated from a prestigious medical school in Europe and did his specialty work in Switzerland."
"The hospital where he supposedly worked burned to the ground a couple of months before he showed up in Metropolis. The medical school lists a Neville Elliott as one of its graduates but whether it's the same guy is anybody's guess."
"The name isn't a common one—and Elliott's a skilled doctor. If he wasn't, he wouldn't be such a success."
"True." Lois pulled the Jeep out onto the street. A light spray of rain across the windshield made her turn on the wipers. The sun had been down for some time and the streetlights were on. Light reflected wetly off the asphalt and the headlights of passing cars were dazzling.
"I wonder where Nunk is," Clark said.
"Probably staked out by one of our apartments, waiting for us to show up," Lois replied. "I suppose it's too much to hope that he'll get discouraged and go home."
"Probably. So there's nothing really unusual in Elliott's past?"
"Well—maybe. I called an acquaintance of mine over there for more information. I got a call back a little while ago. It seems that the cause of the hospital fire was arson."
"I thought so."
"Did Jimmy find out anything else on him?"
"Not much. Just a few dry facts; where he was born, where he went to school and so forth. Why?"
"Just my suspicious nature, I guess," Clark said, ignoring Lois's incredulous snort of disbelief. "No, really. Look, suppose for a minute that he's connected with Intergang. The business about the hospital makes me wonder. Look what they did with Diana Stride. They took a little-known TV reporter, pulled her out of obscurity and turned her into a star—so they could use her as an international assassin. There's a parallel here. Maybe he's the Neville Elliott who worked in the Swiss hospital and maybe he isn't but he's really good at his job. He comes here, sets up a clinic and within months he's a prominent plastic surgeon who caters to the rich and famous of Metropolis and is on friendly terms with most of them."
"He should be," Lois muttered, weaving her way through the moderately heavy traffic of the late evening. "He's got before and after pictures of most of them. Talk about blackmail material. But what use would a plastic surgeon be to Intergang?"
"Arianna Carlin had a use for one."
"Yeah, I guess she did." Lois began to slow the Jeep as they approached a stoplight. "And Lex said he had his uses. I guess I can see why they might want someone like that on their payroll. If things were getting too hot for some Intergang big shot and he needed a new identity, and a new face to go with it—" She broke off suddenly. "Oh my God…"
"He's Hurst's brother-in-law."
"Hurst was Diana Stride's Intergang contact. And you didn't find a body."
The driver of the car ahead of them slammed on his brakes and Lois brought the Jeep to a stop inches from its bumper but they hardly noticed. They were staring at each other in complete comprehension.
"Diana Stride's not dead," Clark said. "At least, she probably isn't."
"Probably. And we're the only ones who have any idea where to look for her."
They were silent for a minute until the honk of a car horn from the irritated driver behind them jarred Lois out of her abstraction. The car in front of them was moving forward at a snail's pace and ahead, Clark could see a long line of bumper to bumper traffic. "I think there's an accident up there," he said. "I can see flashing lights about six blocks up, and a cop is directing people around a couple of cars. Looks like a fender bender."
"Great." Lois twisted her head back and forth, looking for an escape route. "We're stuck. I love rush hour in Metropolis."
Clark opened the door. "I'll be right back."
"Where—" She broke off as he literally disappeared and shook her head. All this time, she'd had Superman for a partner and she'd never suspected it because of his ability to move so quickly that it often seemed Clark and Superman were in the same place at the same time. The actual fact that she'd never seen them together had never occurred to her.
The rain was beginning to come down a little harder. Maybe they were going to get that thunderstorm after all, she thought and hoped sincerely that any employee of the Whisper who was staked out at either Clark's apartment or hers would pay for it by getting soaked and hopefully be stuck in bed with the flu for a week or so.
Clark opened the passenger door and got in. "The jam's about to clear," he reported. "Superman moved the cars out of the way."
"That was nice of him," she remarked.
"I thought so." He looked so smug that she smacked his arm lightly.
"You rat! When I think of all the times in the last year and a half—"
The cars were beginning to creep forward again and she began to inch ahead. Within a couple of minutes they were moving at the normal rush hour speed, which wasn't much of an improvement, but at least they *were* moving.
Clark was glancing around. "Pull into the parking lot over there," he said, pointing. "I think Superman Express can get us where we want to go faster than this, if you don't mind a few raindrops."
Lois pulled into the lot. Having had experience flying in Superman's arms, she wasn't very worried about getting wet. Besides, Clark could dry her off in seconds with his heat vision, if necessary. A few moments later, they were taking off from a shadowed corner of the lot, headed for Perry's home, located in one of the upper middle-class neighborhoods of the city.
As she expected, Clark didn't make her put up with the rain. He made a fast ascent until they were flying above the cloud layer and looking up, Lois could see a black sky spangled with stars. After a moment, she realized one of the stars was moving, and belatedly identified it as a passenger plane headed out to sea.
"That's the NorthEastern Airlines New York to Miami flight," Clark said in a matter-of-fact tone. "They're a little behind schedule."
"I suppose you would know," she said.
"Along with a lot of other trivia," Clark agreed.
"I always wondered why you were so good at Trivial Pursuit," Lois said. "Who would have thought Superman collects trivia as a hobby?"
He laughed. "Superman is just a normal guy, except for a few extra qualities. Why shouldn't he do the same things that other guys do?"
"Well, the first time I hear you wolf-whistle at some babe, you're dead," she warned him.
"Hey, I said I was normal, not suicidal," he said. "Besides, the only 'babe' I want to wolf-whistle at is you. And, you'll notice, I've never been stupid enough to try it."
Lois began to giggle. The mental image of Superman doing such a thing—and the result it would have—was so incongruous that she couldn't help it.
They had been flying only a few minutes when he brought them down in the shadow of a high hedge. Quickly, they ran to the covered front porch of a modern, two story home, and Lois felt Superman's heat vision sweep her from head to toe. Belatedly, she realized he was standing there in his Clark Kent attire although she hadn't seen him change. He pushed his glasses back into place and rang the bell.
"Sit down, kids." Perry White gestured Lois and Clark to seats in his den and closed the door. "Can I get you anything to drink? Coffee?"
Lois shook her head. In the warm light of his desk lamp, her mouth looked tight. She was about to do something she didn't want to do, Perry thought, but she would do it because she thought it was important. Lois could be volatile and temperamental at times but when the situation warranted it, she could be tougher than any man in the newsroom, her partner and his alter ego included.
"I need to tell you the whole story of what happened five years ago," she said. "Claude apparently got wind of what's going on—maybe someone on the legal staff said something. He spoke to me tonight and threatened to use it—and his imagination—to ruin my reputation if I went ahead with the Kerth thing."
"Bill Ross wouldn't have said anything," Perry said.
"Well, somehow Claude found out. Anyway—" Lois drew a deep breath and appeared to gather her courage. "Five years ago, I thought I was in love with Claude Chabert—"
Perry listened in silence as Lois spoke, explaining clearly what had happened five years before that had allowed Claude to steal her story, and then what had happened this evening. As she spoke, he watched the expression on her face, which revealed probably more than she realized what it cost her to tell him the full story. When she had finished, he nodded slowly.
"I can't say I'm surprised," he said. "Honey, I know why you didn't, but I wish you'd come to me at the time."
"So do I," she said, unexpectedly. "I just didn't think anyone would believe me."
"I know, but I still wish you had. Still, better late than never, and to tell you the truth, I'd kind of figured it was something like this. Do you still want to go ahead? If you do, you're going to have to tell this story to a lawyer—and the Kerth Committee."
Lois nodded. "I know."
"You're willing to do that?"
"After this evening, you bet I am."
Perry found himself grinning slightly in sheer admiration. "Good for you. You say Harry overheard the whole thing?"
"That's what he said."
"Good. It sounds like Claude may have miscalculated a bit. I'm going to make a few phone calls, and I'll get back to you after I've talked to some people about it." He paused a moment, watching her face. "Lois, what you told me tonight took a lot of courage. Personally, I think Claude Chabert is a first class louse. He took advantage of your youth and inexperience to win an award he didn't deserve, and now he's willing to try to destroy your reputation to keep it. I've met people like him—fortunately not often—and they make me sick. I re-read that article, yesterday, and I knew as soon as I saw it who had written it. Your style is very characteristic. The only thing in that article that's his, as far as I can see, is his name. I'm willing to testify to the fact and I think once the Kerth Committee sees samples of your writing style and Claude's, they won't have any doubt about the real author—but we'll keep Harry in reserve, just in case."
"Thanks, Perry." She glanced at Clark. "I guess you were right."
"About what?" Perry wanted to know.
"She was worried what you'd think of her," Clark said. "I told her what happened says more about him than her."
Perry gave a bark of mirthless laughter. "That's for sure." He got to his feet, glancing at his watch. "Alice is at her bridge club meeting and probably will be for a while longer. I still have time to make those calls."
"I guess we better get out of your way, too," Clark said. "Lois managed to shake Nunk this afternoon, and he's probably staking out my apartment, waiting for me to come back. We shouldn't disappoint him."
"Check for bugs," Perry advised.
"You two and Superman need to get together and think of something to convince the Whisper's publishers that Nunk is wasting their time and money," Perry said. "I'm sure the, um, three of you will think of something, eventually." He saw Clark cast a sharp look at him and hoped his veiled message had gotten through. "When his readers lose interest, he'll have to drop it, you know." He met Clark's eyes for a bare instant. "If I can help any—besides with legal matters—let me know, okay?"
"We will," Lois said.
A few moments later, he ushered them out and walked slowly back to his den. He wasn't sure he'd been right to hint to Clark that he knew, but at least now, the boy would know that he could ask for help if he needed it. Now, for those phone calls…
"He knows, Lois," Clark said. Somehow, the knowledge wasn't as scary as he thought it should be.
Lois glanced back at the house. "If he does, he won't say anything."
"I know." Clark also turned to look back at Perry's home. Lights glowed softly behind the shuttered windows and he saw his boss's shadow cross one of them as he headed back toward the den. "For a minute I wasn't sure, but the way he looked at me—"
"Well, if anybody would figure it out, he'd have the best chance," Lois said. "He can see most of the newsroom from his office and he's had to notice how you take off at strange moments."
"I just hope nobody else has," Clark said.
"I doubt it. Even Nunk must be starting to have his doubts by now, if he ever really believed it in the first place."
"I don't think he did. I think it's just the usual sensationalism as far as he's concerned." Clark moved into the deeper shadow of the hedge and spun into Superman. "Let's go get your Jeep, shall we?"
She let him pick her up and a few moments later, they were above the clouds. Lois snuggled against him.
"Mm, you're nice and warm."
He grinned. "Maybe I should take you flying in cold climates more often."
She laughed. "Men! You're all alike."
"We…ll, maybe not exactly. I have to admit you were right. You're not a typical male, even if you have a lot in common with most of them."
"Do I?" he asked.
"You bet. Like you said, you're a normal guy except for a few extras. Must be that Kansas upbringing."
"Well, I was a pretty ordinary kid—at least until I first noticed my powers starting to come in. Then things got anything but ordinary."
"I'll bet. Still, in everything but your super powers, you're normal even if you're not exactly ordinary now. You know, there's still a lot I don't know about you. I guess I'll have a long time to find things out, though."
"All your life, if you want to."
"I do," she said.
"Just keep that phrase in mind," he said, daringly. "I want you to remember it when the time comes."
She was silent for a long moment and he was beginning to wonder if he'd said too much when she spoke again. "I'll try to—if you're sure you really want me."
"Is there still any doubt?" he asked. "There's only one woman in the world for me, and that's you. No one else even comes close to measuring up."
"What about Mayson?"
Clark shook his head. "I like Mayson. She's a good person—but if she knew the truth, you know she'd be afraid of me. Besides, I don't love her. After I saw you, there was never a doubt of which woman I wanted for the rest of my life. It's not something that's going to change."
"You mean it, don't you," she said, wonderingly. "I guess I just don't understand why."
He gave her a hug. "I can give you about a million reasons if you have the time to listen, but I think one's good enough. I fell in love with you the moment I saw you. There's no other woman on Earth like Lois Lane. My mom knew right away that I'd fallen hard. Ask her, sometime."
She touched his face with one hand. "Are other men this irrational?"
"I don't know. But, I'm not 'other men'."
"That's for sure. I guess I'll have to remember that 'I do' thing."
"Don't think I'll let you forget," he told her.
They flew in silence for a moment, then Lois spoke. "Tomorrow, I'd like to start a little closer examination of Hurst—and Neville Elliott's clinic, too. I think there's a good chance we could get a lead on Diana. If she's about to get a new face from Elliott—"
"Yeah," Clark agreed. "I keep thinking I've heard something along that line happening to someone else recently."
"You did," Lois said. "You might not have paid much attention. I didn't either but I've been thinking about it and I finally figured it out. Remember Juan Arista?"
"*That's* what I was trying to remember," Clark said. "The Colombian drug lord who turned up in France a few months ago, right?"
"Right. New identity, new face, new job. Everyone thought he was dead."
"Maybe we've stumbled across a bigger story, here."
"I was wondering about that," Lois said. "Lex did say Elliott had his uses. Giving criminals new faces would be a pretty lucrative sideline."
"It might get a little dangerous—unless you had a syndicate like Intergang behind you," Clark said. "I guess we'd better start snooping around tomorrow. I hope your ankle doesn't slow you down."
"It won't if I can help it," Lois said. "All we have to do is figure out a way to shake Nunk again."
It was now late evening and rush hour traffic had begun to diminish somewhat. When they reclaimed Lois's Jeep from the public parking lot, the crush of cars had thinned out enough that she had no difficulty making her way back to Clark's apartment in reasonable time. As she pulled the Jeep up to the curb, Clark lowered his glasses and glanced around. "There he is."
"Where?—Oh, I see him. I guess he decided to bring the van this time, huh?"
"Well, it's still raining," Clark pointed out.
"Who's inside?" she inquired.
Clark lowered his glasses and checked again. "Nunk and the cameraman. They've spotted us, too."
"Remember what Perry said. Check for bugs."
"You bet I will." Clark leaned over and kissed her lightly on the lips. "Be careful driving home on these wet streets."
"I'll be fine," she said. "If you-know-who needs to go out, can you do it without him seeing you?"
"Yeah, I'll go out the back. I'll just have to be sure there aren't any bugs around to tell him I'm gone. Call me when you get in, would you?"
"Clark, you're being a mother hen."
"Sorry. I worry about you."
She rolled her eyes, but he could tell she was trying not to smile. "Okay, I'll call you. Happy now?"
Lois sighed gustily. "Men! Kryptonian men!"
Clark grinned slightly. "Sorry."
She began to laugh. "Good night, Clark."
Clark waited on the front steps until Lois had driven off, studiously not looking at the unobtrusively parked van containing Nunk and his cameraman. In spite of his apparent lack of awareness, however, his super-hearing was trained on the occupants of the van.
"What's he doing?" Nunk's voice demanded, impatiently.
"Just standing there, watching Lane drive away," the other man's voice replied. "Look, boss, I think we're wasting our time. This stuff about him being Superman is stupid and we both know it."
"If you'd get that mike working, we might have been able to hear what they were saying!" Nunk snapped. "Where did you get your certification in this stuff—out of a Cracker Jack box?"
"It *is* working," the other man's voice snarled back. "In case you hadn't noticed, it's raining pitchforks out there, we're at least three hundred yards away, the car motor was on and their windows were closed. All I could pick up was engine noise. Besides, what did you want to do—listen to a pair of lovebirds while they bill and coo? Next time *you* can listen in when they get back from a date! You'd get some kinda charge out of that, wouldn't you? You know, you're really sick, Nunk."
"Are you working for the right paper, Michaels?" Nunk's voice said. "We're here to make a story. Kent's going to sell a lot of papers for us. Trust me, he'll never find the bug this time."
"Yeah, right. You're going to look like an idiot when he turns out to be a normal guy. Kent's no more Superman than I am."
"Who cares? If he is, we're gonna find out and plaster it on the front page. If he isn't, we'll cook up something between them. Either way it'll sell."
"In other words, you're trying to ruin the guy's life."
"So? It'll sell papers. We'll get hold of Hank's Photo Lab and have 'em doctor up some pics of Kent, Lane and Superman in bed. It'll make a scandal that people will want to buy."
Silence. Then Nunk's voice said, "Where do you think you're going?"
"It's raining out there, stupid."
"Yeah, well if I don't get out of here I'm gonna throw up. This isn't journalism. I quit; you can do your own dirty work."
The rear door of the van opened and the photographer emerged, wrapped in a raincoat. He splashed off into the darkness without looking back.
Slowly, Clark unlocked the door of his apartment and went in. A thorough scan of the place located Nunk's bug on the overhead brick arch near the window seat. Well, it wouldn't do for him to find it too soon but that didn't mean he had to let Nunk listen in on his activities. He switched on the television and located an ancient grade B, late night horror movie marathon. Then, with a delicate touch, he removed the bug from the arch, laid it next to the television and turned up the sound. Satisfied that Nunk would have his fill of screaming damsels-in-distress, man-eating zombies and killer slugs over the next few hours, he very quietly changed to Superman and departed by way of a rear window. It was time Superman was seen about town and if he happened to drop by Lois's apartment on the way, that wasn't such a bad thing, was it? Besides, he needed to let her know the latest development. Things seemed to be careening out of his control and how they were going to deal with Nunk's latest brainchild he didn't know. Maybe Lois could figure out what to do about it.
Lois had barely entered her apartment when she heard the tapping on the window and a quick glance showed her the silhouette of a tall man floating just beyond the glass.
She dropped her purse on the nearest chair and went to open the window. "Checking up on me?" she inquired as Clark floated through and dropped to the rug.
"Nope. Just a minute." She saw him turn his head and realized he must be scanning her apartment for listening devices. "The place is clean," he said, at last. "I guess we can talk. I wanted to let you know what I overheard before I take off for a patrol of the city. I eavesdropped on Nunk while you were driving away—" Quickly and concisely, he repeated the conversation between the two tabloid reporters. "I stuck his bug next to my TV and left Nunk listening to Invasion of the Moss Men. Do you have any ideas about how to deal with this?"
Lois was frowning. "Hank's Photo Lab? I've never heard of them, but if the Whisper deals with them, they can't be very reputable. They're probably one of those places that manufacture phony pictures of aliens talking to the President and stuff. Jimmy would be able to find out. I'm going to give him a call."
Clark glanced at the wall clock. "It's past ten."
"My bet is that he's still awake. Besides, this is important."
Jimmy answered on the second ring. "Hello?"
"Hi, Jimmy, it's Lois."
"Oh, hi." Jimmy's voice was slightly thick as if he were chewing something. She heard him gulp. "Sorry, I was eating popcorn. What's up?"
"Clark and I need some information. Have you ever heard of Hank's Photo Lab?"
"Hmm—no, I don't think so. Why?"
"Well, we think we have a little problem. You know that tabloid snoop who's been following Clark around?"
"Leo Nunk? Yeah, he tried to get me to talk about Clark, yesterday morning. I wouldn't, though."
"Well, Clark heard him talking to his photographer—"
When she had finished, Jimmy didn't speak for several seconds. When he did, his voice had taken on an angry note. "That piece of—" He bit off the last word. "I'll find out about this Hank's Photo place for you. Will tomorrow morning be soon enough?"
"That would be great. I hope I didn't wake you up."
"Nah, I napped a while ago. I'm watching an old horror marathon that's supposed to run until three in the morning. My favorite is just coming on right now—Queen of the Killer Swarm."
"Sounds interesting," Lois said. "Try to get some sleep too, though."
"I'm going to bed when it's over," Jimmy assured her. "I always try to see it whenever it's on. The plot isn't much, but the beach scenes are great and the actress who plays the queen is really sta—"
"I think I get the picture," Lois said. "Good night, Jimmy."
Clark was sitting on the sofa behind her when she hung up, still wearing the bright red, blue and yellow of Superman. He gave her a half-smile. "Well?"
"Didn't you hear what he said?"
He shook his head. "No."
"He's never heard of the place, but he'll find out about it for us by morning. If it's one of those shops that make fake photographs, at least we're a step ahead of Nunk. We'll be ready for the Whisper if they do something like that."
"So, what do you think we should do?"
Lois sat down next to him. "I think the first thing is to prove to the satisfaction of everyone that Clark Kent and Superman aren't the same person. Then, if the Whisper tries a sleazy stunt like Nunk was talking about, we get the evidence that it's a fraud and prove it. I think Perry would go along. You know what he thinks of the Whisper."
Clark grinned. "That's true. I feel a lot better, now. I knew I could count on you."
"I do my best."
"I know. I don't know what I'd do without you." He got reluctantly to his feet. "I suppose I'd better go. I want to make sure a lot of people see me tonight while Clark Kent is supposed to be asleep in his apartment."
Lois stood up and followed him to the window. "Are you going to get any sleep tonight?"
"Yeah. I don't need as much as other people but I'll sleep for a couple of hours when I get back."
She leaned forward and kissed him lightly. "Be careful."
He slid his arms around her and turned the kiss into something a good deal more intense. When he lifted his head, she drew a deep breath. "Wow."
"Yeah." He released her. "I need to get going. Are you picking me up tomorrow morning?"
She took another breath, still feeling slightly light-headed. "I'll be there at the usual time."
He frowned slightly. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah. You pack quite a wallop, you know?"
He kissed the tip of her nose, smiling a little. "So do you. I better get out of here while I'm still thinking straight. There isn't anybody listening, tonight."
She watched a few seconds later as he disappeared into the darkness, and closed the window against the pounding rain. Outside, lightning flashed and was followed a few seconds later by a rumble of thunder.
She'd wondered for a while if she could handle the challenge of being the partner and wife of Superman, but she was beginning to see why he thought she could. He needed and depended on her far more than she had realized.
Slowly, she walked back toward her bedroom for a quick shower before bed, still thinking hard. She knew she wanted him, but had hesitated because of her doubts. Filling the role of Superman's partner was a challenge, but when had she ever backed off from a challenge? He had more confidence in her than she did, it seemed. If he was that sure he needed her, maybe he was right. Besides, why shouldn't she be a little selfish? She wasn't going to be happy without him and he'd made it pretty clear that he wasn't going to be happy without her. Wasn't it important to keep Superman happy and motivated? The world would certainly benefit from that, after all. It was almost her duty, if she thought about it that way.
She was rationalizing, she knew, but this time the activity didn't leave her with that faintly uneasy feeling that it usually did when she knew underneath that she was wrong. This felt right.
"Okay, Clark," she whispered. "If you're willing to take the chance, I am."
The movie marathon was just winding up when Clark returned to Clinton Street. Nunk's van was still parked down the street and he checked the inside of the vehicle with his x-ray vision. Nunk was still there, all right, sound asleep, with a recorder running. Clark grinned slightly, slipped back into his apartment and snapped off the television. He picked up the bug and crushed it in his hand. When Nunk woke up, he'd have a nice audio recording of a bunch of low grade monster flicks but that was all. With luck, his enthusiasm for chasing the team of Lane and Kent around the city would suffer a setback.
Quickly, he showered, pulled on a pair of sleeping shorts and slipped into bed for a couple of hours' sleep. It was going to be a busy day.
Nunk's van was gone when Lois picked him up the next morning. The storm had diminished to a light mist and the clouds were already breaking up overhead. The day promised to be brisk but sunny. Lois drove through streets washed clean of debris by the overnight storm, and past the front of the Daily Planet.
"See him anywhere?" she asked.
"Not so far," Clark said. "I hope he's finding Attack of the Brain-Sucking Parasites entertaining."
Lois giggled. "Me too. He's got a lot in common with them. I'm going to park in the lot on Bailey Street, though. I know it's kind of a long walk, but maybe he won't find the car if it's a ways from the Planet. All I need is for him to mess with it again."
"Don't blame you," Clark agreed. "How does your ankle feel these days?"
"Better," she said. "I'm supposed to get it x-rayed next week. It's too bad they won't let you do it for me."
He glanced at the ankle and lowered his glasses. "It's getting there. Another couple of weeks and you can probably progress to a sprain wrap."
"That'll be a relief," she said. "Darn, it looks like the lot is full."
He looked over at it. "I think so. There's another lot over on Hill."
"That's two blocks farther," Lois said. "Oh well, we're early—"
As might have been expected, Perry was already there when they entered the newsroom some time later but there was no sign of Claude. Their editor was speaking to a slender, grey-haired man when they stepped off the elevator and he beckoned to them at once.
"Who's that?" Lois wondered as they hurried down the ramp.
"Bill Ross from Legal," Clark said.
"How do you know?"
"I met him when you got suspended that time."
"You didn't say anything about that."
Clark shrugged. "It turned out I didn't need to. You got yourself out of it."
"Lois, I want you to meet William Ross, from Legal," Perry said as they approached. "Bill, this is Lois Lane."
Ross extended a hand. "It's nice to finally meet you, Ms. Lane. I've heard a lot about you." He nodded to Clark. "Good to see you again, Clark."
"Bill wants to hear the story you told me last night." Perry said. "You can use my office."
Clark took her hand. "Do you want me along, Lois? Or—"
She shook her head. "I can do it on my own, this time. It doesn't seem as scary, now."
He nodded. "Okay, but if you change your mind, all you have to do is yell."
"I know. Thanks, Clark." She released his hand and turned determinedly to the lawyer. "Let's get this over with."
Clark watched as they made their way to Perry's office. His boss gave him a reassuring nod. "She'll be okay, Clark. She's got more guts than any guy in the office."
"I know," Clark said.
"So, anything new on the Nunk front? Or the death of Diana Stride?"
"Uhh—" He hesitated. "Actually, a little of both. Could we talk somewhere private?"
"Sure. We've got a meeting in twenty minutes but until then Conference Room 2 is clear."
He glanced once more in the direction of Perry's office, but Lois didn't seem in need of help, so he followed his editor into the conference room. When the door closed, he shoved his hands in his pockets. "I overheard Nunk talking last night—"
Perry knew how to listen, he thought as he described what he had heard. He asked no questions until Clark had finished. "Jimmy's going to hunt down this photo lab?"
"He said he'd have it by this morning."
"Well, he's not in yet, but that doesn't mean anything. I agree with Lois. First things first."
"So do I. I haven't seen Nunk this morning. He wasn't in his usual spot."
"Oh, that. I guess I forgot to mention it," Perry said, offhandedly. "I told Security to have him arrested for loitering if he showed up. It might take a little while for his paper to bail him out—especially after his 'expose' on the local police station a couple of months ago. I hear he isn't in very good odor with them."
"I don't want to know," Clark said with a faint grin. "On the subject of Diana Stride, Lois and I need to do a little snooping. We think Diana may still be alive."
"You got any evidence to support that?"
"Some," Clark said. "First and foremost, no one ever found a body. Even Superman searched and nothing but the suitcase turned up. The police and Coast Guard are still searching, too. Lois and I think it may be an elaborate scheme to convince everyone that she's dead. She's a skilled assassin; they might think she's too useful to dispose of, and they almost certainly don't want her in prison. If she talks, she could do them a lot of damage."
"They could just kill her," Perry said. "It wouldn't be unusual."
"True," Clark agreed. "It could be like that, but they went to a lot of trouble to break her out when they could just have eliminated her. We think it would be worth it to do a little checking. If it doesn't pan out, we can still use our lead on her contact to dig into Intergang."
Perry nodded. "That sounds reasonable. Keep me updated."
"We'll do that, Chief."
His boss smiled slightly. "I want you to know, Clark, that anything you say to me about—well, you know—that other thing won't go any farther unless you tell me it can. I know a little about keeping secrets, too."
Clark nodded. "I know that. I don't think I ever doubted it."
"I just wanted to tell you."
"I appreciate it, sir. In a way, it's a relief. I don't like to lie, even when it's necessary."
"I know, son, but I think you've been right to do what you've done. Media attention wouldn't help what you're trying to accomplish, at all. They'd be all over you, every minute of the day. If you think Nunk is bad, it's not even a tenth of the trouble that people knowing would cause. If I can ever help you, don't be afraid to ask."
Clark looked at his shoes, trying not to grin. "Thanks, Chief. I won't. I might need to—when Lois and I put our plan into action."
"Just let me know." Perry glanced at his watch. "We better mush. It's almost time for the staff meeting. I hope Lois is done talking to Bill Ross."
"She just finished."
"How do—oh, right. Well, if there's nothing more you need to tell me, I'll get things started here. Any sign of Jimmy?"
"Yes, sir. He just came in a minute ago. He might have been checking out Hank's Photo Lab."
"Yeah, probably. Why don't you go talk to him? Meeting starts in five minutes."
Jimmy was coming down the ramp when Clark left the conference room. Clark beckoned him over to his desk just as the door of Perry's office opened and Lois appeared, followed by the lawyer. The man shook her hand and headed toward the ramp. Lois was looking much better than she had after the interview with Perry last night, Clark noted with relief. She was even smiling.
"Staff meeting in Conference Room 2 in three minutes!" Perry's bellow announced.
Jimmy arrived at Clark's desk with a triumphant look on his face. "I found the photo lab, CK," he said, without preliminary. "The shop's on Third Street. It's not real legit, but they do good work—you know, fake passports and so forth. I pretended I was looking for a job and got a chance to see some of what they have. It's exactly the kind of place Lois thought it was."
"What was?" Lois asked as she came to a stop by Clark's desk.
"Hank's Photo Lab," Jimmy said. "Here's the address." He handed Clark a slip of paper. "They've got all kinds of stuff there to manufacture any kind of document you want, and their computers are something else. If they don't have digital compositors for faking pictures, I'm Superman."
"Better watch it, saying stuff like that," Lois said. "You'll have Nunk breathing down your neck."
"Let me at him," Jimmy said. "I'm not as nice as you, CK." He glanced at the stream of employees heading into the conference room. His gaze lingered on Louise whose skirt, this morning, bordered on the illegal. "I better get to the meeting. I'll tell you more about what I saw, later."
He turned and headed for the conference room. Lois took the slip of paper. "This place might be ripe for an expose after all this is over," she said.
"Maybe. But let's wait—If Nunk uses it to fake a photo of us—"
"Right. We don't want him to have to find another place."
"Exactly—" Clark raised his head. "Uh oh."
"They've got a problem at the airport. There's a small plane that's circling, and can't get its landing gear down."
"Go," Lois said. "I'll cover for you at the meeting."
"Nice of you to join us, Lois," Perry said as she entered the conference room. "Where's Clark?"
"He had to return a video," Ralph piped up, looking innocent.
Lois ignored him. "There's an emergency at the airport and he took off to cover it. I said I'd take notes for him."
"Oh, okay. Too bad some of my other reporters aren't as gung ho as Kent," Perry said, casting a significant look at Ralph. "If you'll have a seat, Lois, we'll get on with this."
Lois took the one remaining seat that happened to be beside Ralph—or maybe it wasn't such a coincidence, she thought an instant later. Perry was speaking.
"Now, regarding the recent elopement of the Crown Prince of Tabulistan and his stripper girlfriend—"
Louise choked suddenly and started to cough. Ricardo, sitting next to her, slapped her on the back but her coughing only became more violent and her face began to turn red. She stumbled to her feet and made for the door, managing to gasp out a promise to return before she made her exit, still coughing.
Lois glanced after her, and saw her heading toward the water cooler. "I hope she's all right."
After a moment, Perry resumed speaking. "Okay, back to business, everyone."
Jimmy raised a hand. "Chief, I'd like to go see if she's okay."
Perry nodded. "Go."
Jimmy got quickly to his feet and departed.
"Ricardo," Perry continued, "I thought you were following up on the elopement story."
"I'm waiting for a call back from my contact," Ricardo said. "He's supposed to get back to me in about half an hour."
Perry nodded. "I need it in time for the afternoon edition."
"You'll have it."
"All right. Lois, you and Clark are still following up the Diana Stride story?"
"Yes," Lois said. "Clark talked to Lieutenant Billings yesterday. The police are still searching for survivors. Superman hasn't given up yet, either."
"Okay. Now, the explosion in the homeless shelter…"
Jimmy opened the door to the conference room and held it for Louise. The girl entered, eyes fixed on the toes of her shoes. Jimmy followed her in, a grim set to his mouth. "Chief, we've got our spy. When I got out there, she was talking to Nunk on her phone." He held up a cellular phone. "Here. All you need to do is hit redial."
Clark still hadn't returned when the meeting let out. Lois walked slowly back toward her desk, Jimmy beside her, while Louise was marched firmly into Perry's office with their boss. Jimmy glanced over his shoulder after them in time to see the door close. "I can't believe Louise was spying on CK."
"Nunk tried to bribe my repairman to let him open up my Jeep," Lois said. "Not everybody withstands temptation the way he did."
"Yeah, but she liked CK!"
"Evidently, not enough," Lois said. She stretched out her uninjured leg. "Have you seen Claude this morning?"
"Claude? Oh, you mean the French guy? Nope, not since yesterday, about noon. He was talking to some scuzzy looking character in front of the deli, when I was bringing back doughnuts for the office."
"He was here last night," Lois said. "Any chance he's gone back to France?"
Jimmy grinned. "Who knows? The Chief could probably tell you. Why?"
"Oh, I just wondered."
"Hey, look at that!" Ralph said. He was staring at the newsroom monitors. Lois turned, in time to see Clark, in full Superman regalia and with a look of grim determination on his face, emerge from a burning building, a small child wrapped in his cape. He handed the wailing toddler over to a paramedic and turned to dive back into the fire once more. A voice over described the tenement building on the edge of Suicide Slum and the rickety structures around it. Fire fighters trained streams of water on the flaming building and a hodgepodge of bedraggled figures watched the scene from behind police lines, some hugging small children or pets, others gripping a few meagre belongings that they had been able to grab.
That was *Clark* walking through those flames, rescuing people, Lois thought as Superman emerged again, this time carrying an old woman, who in her turn clutched a small, frantically yapping poodle. It was her partner saving those people's lives. This was the man who wanted her as his wife, who relied on her to help him deal with problems that couldn't be solved with invulnerability or super speed. It was about time she gave him a solid answer, she thought. She'd implied a lot, but never given him a firm yes or no.. She'd do it as soon as he got back to the office. But, in the meantime…
After a moment, the monitors shifted to another scene, this one involving some kind of marathon race in New York. Lois turned to Jimmy. "If I know Clark, he's probably covering the fire—if the problem at the airport is over," she said. "Come on."
"Where are we going?" Jimmy asked.
She took her coat from the rack and slid into it. "Neville Elliott's clinic," she said. "Grab your camera. We're going to do a little snooping. I'll fill you in on Clark's and my theory on the way—"
The New Beginnings Clinic was situated in a small valley located in the rolling hills west of Metropolis proper. An hour after leaving the Planet, Lois pulled the Jeep to a stop on a low promontory, looking down on the facility. She got out, speaking over her shoulder to her companion. "Jimmy, there's a pair of binoculars in the glove compartment. Get them for me, will you?"
"Sure." Jimmy opened the metal door and had to catch the flood of papers that cascaded into his hands. "Sorry—wow, what a lot of traffic tickets!"
"Parking tickets," she corrected him absently. "Hurry up, will you?"
"Just a minute." He ruffled through the tickets and several maps before locating the binoculars at the very bottom of the pile. "Here."
"Thanks." She accepted the binoculars and lifted them to her eyes, leaving Jimmy to pick up the tickets. She really had to pay those off, she reflected absently, before the traffic court issued a warrant for her again.
There were several buildings below them, surrounded by a stone wall enclosing a section of land perhaps the area of a city block or slightly more. Across the compound, the wall appeared to have been built against the side of the hill itself. Inside, Lois saw perfectly manicured lawns dotted by tall, graceful trees and low-growing shrubbery, and she counted the tiled roofs of four small structures. Behind them, a long, low, white building stretched half the length of the enclosure and beyond its tiled roof, she could see a pleasantly landscaped patio and lawn. Gardens just beginning to leaf out were separated by white, brick- lined walks and small, shaded tables with white, metal chairs were placed here and there on the patio, and some of them were occupied.
Lois had selected these binoculars for their power, not grudging the price, and now she was glad she had. She adjusted them and the scene below her leaped in close. There were a number of figures moving around the garden or seated by the tables and she focussed on them.
Two of them were either nurses or attendants, she thought. They were women dressed in white uniforms, wearing light sweaters against the chill of the early spring air. She identified a tall, thin man who was walking along one of the paths as Neville Elliott, himself and as she watched, he stopped to speak to one of the persons sitting at a table.
It was a woman, she realized, but only by her shape. She wore slacks and a blouse, but her face and head were swathed in white bandages. As a matter of fact, there were a number of persons wearing bandages, although many did not. Some wore ordinary street clothing and others bathrobes, and moved with care. Those were probably the ones who had had cosmetic surgery in other places than their faces, she thought, cynically, and wondered if the day would come when she would want to resort to such measures—not that she'd be able to afford to do so. Cosmetic surgery was a little out of her income bracket, at least at the moment. Not, she thought, that Clark would mind. She had the feeling that to him, she would remain beautiful to the end of her days.
Jimmy was peering downward as well and after a moment, she passed him the binoculars. He lifted them to his eyes,
"Wow," he remarked, after a moment. "If Diana Stride is down there, how will we ever know?"
"If she is, they might not have done anything to her face, yet," Lois said. "She escaped from jail just yesterday morning. They may not have been able to finish all the preparations yet, and I can't see Diana wanting to risk her face to even the most skilled plastic surgeon without adequate preparation."
"That's for sure," Jimmy agreed. "So, if she's there, we might be able to find her."
"So, what do we do?"
"We're here to interview Dr. Elliott," Lois said. "Let's go."
"Are you kidding?" Jimmy asked.
"No. I want to get a look at the place from the inside. The Planet does puff pieces on prominent citizens of Metropolis every now and then. If we show up and pretend we're here for an interview, my bet is that he'll agree just to get rid of us as fast as he can without making us suspicious."
Jimmy looked doubtful. "I don't know, Lois. He's going to be nervous if Diana's there—especially with your reputation."
Lois gave that all the attention it deserved. She got back into the Cherokee. "Come on. Remember, we're just doing an interview."
"Thank you, Superman." The fire chief's face was smeared with soot and perspiration, but there was an air of triumph about him. "We appreciate the help. I don't think we'd have gotten everyone out if you hadn't been here."
Clark wiped soot from his face. "I'm happy I could help."
"There's one fire fighter whose wife will be pretty grateful," the man said. "Thanks to you, Brown is going to be all right. They took him to Metro General for smoke inhalation and some minor burns, but it was just a precaution. He would have been dead."
"I'll try to drop by and see him this evening, if they keep him," Clark said. "I'm just glad no one was killed." He glanced at the milling crowd of suddenly displaced people and the volunteers moving about among them. "I wish I could do more to help these people."
"You've done enough," the man said. "Let someone else take over, now. Thanks again."
"You're welcome." He looked down at his filthy clothing. "I'd better go get cleaned up."
It was just noon, he noted as he arrowed up from the scene of the fire. Clark Kent couldn't possibly return to the Daily Planet looking like this. He was going to have to make a quick stop at his apartment for a shower at the very least, then he and Lois could head for the New Beginnings Clinic. Briefly, he wondered if Nunk had managed to get out of the local jail yet, but acknowledged that his paper had most likely bailed him out hours ago.
A quick check of his place reassured him that no one was there and that no listening devices had been planted since this morning, and he whisked quickly inside. A ten-second shower was just what he needed.
He was just stepping from the shower, drying his hair, when he heard the rattle of his door and knew, even before he checked, who it was. Leo Nunk was working quietly on his door with a lock pick.
It took less than a second to dress and only a few more to dial the police on his cellular phone. This was one time that Superman was not going to make the capture if he could help it.
Lois was nowhere in the building when he returned to the Daily Planet rather more than an hour later. He came down the ramp in a businesslike way, looking around for Jimmy. Hopefully the young photographer could tell him where she was.
Jimmy wasn't to be seen, either, but Perry was speaking to the editor of the Sports section and looked around as Clark reached the newsroom floor. "Clark, come into my office."
That was fast, he thought, but obeyed. Perry closed the door behind them. "Nice work on those stories," he began, referring to the articles Clark had phoned in from the airport and some time later from the fire. "Good Superman-saves-the-day stuff. Good quotes, too."
"Thanks, Chief," Clark said, wondering where this was heading.
"Jimmy caught our spy," Perry continued. "Apparently Nunk bribed Louise to let him know when you were leaving the newsroom."
"Louise?" Clark said, slightly dismayed.
"Yeah. She confessed the whole thing. Apparently she's having some financial problems and the temptation was too much," Perry said. "And, before you say it, no, I'm not going to fire her—but I gave her a warning. If she screws up again, she's out."
"I guess that's fair," Clark agreed, relieved. "I have another article to write up, Chief—probably just filler material."
"And that is?"
"The arrest of prominent tabloid reporter Leo Nunk for breaking and entering."
Perry's eyebrows flew up. "Do I want to know what happened?"
Clark shrugged. "He broke into my apartment and I called the cops. They're holding him on suspicion of a string of burglaries in the neighborhood. That part wasn't my idea, by the way."
Perry laughed. "Good work, son. He'll be out on bail again before you know it, but it's worth it, even just for the irritation factor."
"I thought so." Clark said. "By the way, where's Lois?"
Perry shrugged. "She took off out of here with Jimmy, right after the staff meeting."
Clark glanced at his watch. "That was over four hours ago. Did she say where they were going?"
"No. They'll probably be back soon."
"I told you, I don't have any record of the appointment," the receptionist was saying, stubbornly. "Dr. Elliott is a very busy man."
"Look," Lois said, allowing a note of annoyance to creep into her voice, "I'm not responsible for your hospital's errors. This appointment was confirmed two days ago! My editor is going to be upset if I don't come back with an interview. Why don't you just ask Dr. Elliott if he'd be willing to see us? It won't take more than fifteen minutes of his time and it'll save me the trouble of coming back again. This interview is supposed to be in the Sunday edition's 'Famous Citizens of the City' feature."
"Well—" The woman's resolve was clearly wavering. "I suppose I could—"
"I'd appreciate it," Lois said. "And could you ask him if my photographer can take a few pictures, just to illustrate the article? One of him, and a few of the clinic, say? And maybe one of some of his staff?"
"I guess it would be all right," the receptions said, still looking a little doubtful. She pushed a button on the console in front of her. "I'll page him, but Dr. Elliott will have to make the decision."
"Of course," Lois said. "That's all I'm asking for."
She sat down in one of the comfortable chairs provided in the waiting room and leaned back, relaxing. Jimmy copied her, looking less at ease. Silence fell as they waited for Dr. Elliott to answer his page. Five minutes passed, and then another five. The receptionist smiled mechanically at them and picked up a magazine.
There was a soft chime and she set down her reading material. "Yes? Yes, Doctor, they're waiting right here…Right away, sir." She looked up at Lois and Jimmy. "Dr. Elliott has a few minutes. Go right through that door." She pointed. "His office is on the left."
The door led to a long, empty hall. Doors on either side were closed and faintly, Lois could hear the faint murmur of voices from somewhere.
"Maybe I'm being paranoid," Jimmy said, softly, "but I have a question before we go in there."
"How did Dr. Elliott know what the page was about? The receptionist didn't say a thing to him about us except that we were waiting here. She didn't even say we were reporters."
Lois paused. He was right. Sometimes Jimmy surprised her.
"You have a point, Jimmy." She frowned, thinking. "I have an idea. There's a men's room down the hall. Here—" She handed him her cellular phone. "Call Clark's desk phone and leave a message. Tell him where we are. Then come to Dr. Elliott's office."
Jimmy nodded and headed for the men's room. Lois continued on to Dr. Elliott's office and, taking a deep breath, raised her hand and knocked.
"Come in," Elliott's voice said.
Lois opened the door. "Dr. Elliott?"
"Ah, Ms. Lane." Elliott's cadaverous face wrinkled in the caricature of a smile. "How can I serve you?"
"Um—yes." Lois took her recorder from her bag. "As you may know, the Daily Planet has a monthly Sunday feature: 'Famous Citizens of the City'. We try to do our interviews a couple of months ahead of time, to allow for problems. I was told this was arranged in advance, but your people don't seem to have any record of the call."
The doctor shrugged eloquently. "We've had some staff turnovers, Ms. Lane. It's possible the call was taken by a new employee."
"I suppose so. In any case, do you have a few minutes to answer a few questions?"
"Certainly. But didn't you have a companion?"
"My photographer," Lois said. "He needed to make a detour to the men's room. He should be here in a minute."
"Very well. Why did you pick me, Ms. Lane?"
Lois smiled. "Well, you're a very successful member of Metropolis's business community," she pointed out. "I thought of you for this feature that weekend at the Mystery Mansion, actually. So, why did you pick Metropolis?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"What made you choose Metropolis for your practice?"
The doctor smiled again, reminding her of a grinning skull. "For the same reason many businesses are based here, Ms. Lane. Metropolis is a center of commerce and culture—and many people in need of my services."
"I see." Lois glanced around at the sound of a knock on the door. "That must be my photographer."
Jimmy came in, nodding at her. "Sorry, Lois. I guess you were right about that fast food place. I'll never have one of their breakfast sandwiches again."
"Or anything else," Lois said. "I think the Board of Health should have closed them down months ago."
"Yeah." Jimmy managed to look embarrassed. "Before you go on, could I get a photo of you, Dr. Elliott? We'll want to feature it with the article."
"Of course." Elliott sat up straight and smiled in what Lois supposed was a friendly way. Jimmy snapped a picture and then moved sideways to get another shot from a slight angle. "I'll want more, later, if that's all right."
"Certainly." Elliott glanced at his watch. "If you don't mind, I need to make a tour of my patients on the patio. Three of them are scheduled to have their bandages removed this afternoon. If you'd like to come along, be my guest." He rose to his feet and turned toward a door that opened off the side of his office. "Why don't I give you a short tour of the clinic, as well? You can ask any questions you have on the way."
Lois glanced uncertainly at Jimmy and then back at Elliott. It seemed as if the doctor was being nothing more than a gracious host, but a nagging voice in the back of her mind told her not to let down her guard. "That would be perfect."
"Fine. Come this way, please." Elliott opened the door and gestured them ahead of him. Lois glanced at Jimmy again and proceeded through the door, Jimmy on her heels.
Elliott closed the door behind them and the lock clicked.
The room had no windows, and another door on the opposite side was locked as she discovered within seconds. When a fine mist began to fill the room from a vent high on the wall, she knew that the trap had snapped shut.
Lois stirred uncomfortably. She was lying on a hard, cold surface and her body was chilled and stiff. Her head felt muzzy and the traces of a headache throbbed behind her eyes. She couldn't seem to think.
Somewhere, someone was breathing harshly and after a moment, she realized that she was the one making the sounds. She opened her eyes to complete darkness, but just the motion made her head spin. With a faint groan, she closed them again. For a time, she floated on a tide of misery. Her stomach roiled and complained and for a little while she thought she was going to lose whatever remained of her breakfast, but slowly the nausea receded and with it the muzzy, confused feeling. Gradually, her ability to think began to return and she lay still, listening.
The silence around her pressed in on her and she could feel the blood surging in her ears with every beat of her heart, but slowly, the feeling of normalcy was returning. Somewhere, not so far away, she could hear breathing.
She held her breath, trying to determine if this was just another auditory illusion, but the faint sound continued. Someone was breathing only a few feet from her. She lay still, trying to piece together her last memories. They had been talking to Neville Elliott and he had tricked them into that closed room, and then there had been gas…
She and Jimmy had been neatly trapped and the person breathing nearby was probably Jimmy. At least, if it was Jimmy, they were both still alive, although that might not be for long…
There was a scraping noise. Light blazed suddenly in the room, painful to her eyes even through her closed lids. She wasn't sure what was happening yet, but if whoever was coming thought she was still unconscious it might give her a slight advantage.
She lay still, trying to breathe heavily. Footsteps came toward her—two sets of footsteps. Then Elliott's voice said, "I told you. They're still out cold."
"I wanted to be certain," a woman's voice said and Lois had to exercise all of her will not to jerk open her eyelids. It was the voice of Diana Stride. "You're sure their editor has no idea where they are?"
"If he does, it doesn't matter. They'll be found dead in a ditch on the way back to Metropolis, the victims of an automobile accident." Elliott's voice was indifferent. "Some on my staff have spoken to them so they have to be seen driving away. It will be the perfect opportunity to dispose of the first snoop at the same time."
"You think ahead," Diana's voice said.
"Of course I think ahead." Elliott's voice sounded testy. "The French reporter was a fool, but I couldn't take the chance. He was snooping around the edges and knew just enough to be dangerous. He might have made the connection, eventually. Then, when my guards spotted these two spying on us from the hill, I knew we'd have to take care of them at once. If they were looking for him, it would be bad enough that they traced him here. I don't believe it was just by chance that they turned up here at just this time. In any case, by the time we stage the accident, all traces of the drug will be out of their systems and any head trauma they sustain will be attributed to the crash. Even if someone is suspicious, no one will be able to prove a thing—and, of course, as a prominent citizen of Metropolis, they won't dare accuse me without some solid proof."
"Just make sure they can't get out of here," Diana said. She nudged Lois with her toe. "I have a score to settle with this one. I'll take great pleasure in knowing that she's dead."
"And a month from now you will have been relocated, with a new background and a new face, having left all this behind."
"Just make sure you do a good job," the assassin's voice said, tartly. "I have no intention of going through the rest of my life as a crone."
"You needn't worry," Elliott said. "It would be a pity to make you less than the work of art you already are, my dear."
"Why, thank you, Doctor." Diana said. "Let's get out of this depressing place, shall we?"
The footsteps retreated, the light went off and Lois heard a door open and close. She was left in darkness again.
She pushed herself up on her elbows, straining her eyes. It was utterly black; not the faintest beam of light penetrated the room. She lay still, trying to get her bearings and thinking.
"The French reporter" sounded very much like Claude. Why *had* Claude come back to Metropolis, anyway? There had been that Colombian drug lord who had turned up in France with a new face. Could there be a connection? Had he been trying to find the source of the new appearance and background for Juan Arista? It sounded as if he had been at least sniffing around in the general area—and perhaps asked the wrong people the wrong questions.
The breathing was coming from her right. Slowly, she rolled to her hands and knees and began to feel her way forward, listening intently. The breathing paused for an instant and she heard the faintest of moans then the sound resumed.
She had fought the gas, she now recalled, trying to breathe through her handkerchief, trying to breathe shallowly as the stuff settled around her. She had seen Jimmy fall, and finally the world around her had faded out. In any case, for some reason she had awakened before him. Maybe she simply hadn't reacted to the gas like he had but whatever the cause, she was awake before they expected her to be. Maybe she could use that fact to better their situation. If she didn't figure out something, she and Jimmy, and probably Claude were going to be dead—if Claude wasn't already. Probably he wasn't, she thought. If Elliott intended to fake an accident for all three of them, he had to be alive. A difference in the times of death would give them away for sure.
And all was not lost. Jimmy had phoned Clark and left a message. If Clark checked his phone calls, he'd be here to look for them when they didn't turn up—assuming, of course, that Superman wasn't kept busy all day. There were times when she chafed at his protectiveness, but now she hoped and prayed that he would become worried about their prolonged absence and start to look for them. Even if he didn't check his phone, he knew that she had wanted to check out Dr. Elliott's clinic, today. He might figure out that that was where she and Jimmy had gone.
She moved forward another few inches, feeling blindly ahead of her, and her fingers came in contact with a shoe. The shoe was on a foot and she felt her way up the leg and body to the leather jacket that Jimmy had been wearing earlier today. Jimmy was lying on his face and as she shook his shoulder as hard as she could, he moaned again.
"Jimmy! Wake up!"
No response. She shook him a second time with no better results.
Stymied for the moment, she sat still, thinking. Jimmy would wake up, given time, but if she was going to use the narrow advantage she had, she needed to do something else besides sitting here, or crawling around blindly in the dark. Was there any way she could get some light without alerting those outside that she was moving around?
Her purse was gone, of course. Elliott or his goons probably had searched both of them for anything they might be able to use for escape, which meant her cellular phone was also gone. Cautiously, she began to feel in her companion's pockets for anything she might be able to use. There was his wallet. His key ring was clipped to a belt loop, containing keys, the little metal tag stamped "Daily Planet", and something that felt like a plastic dog head. His front pockets were empty, except for a handkerchief.
Discouraged, she sat back on the hard stone of the floor. It looked as if she was going to have to explore this place by touch…
"Jimmy!" she whispered, hopelessly. "Please wake up!"
The rhythm of his breathing faltered again and he moaned, softly.
"Jimmy!" she whispered again. With more determination now, she shook his shoulder again and felt him stir under her hand. "Jimmy!"
A long, indrawn breath. Then he gave a faint moan that resolved itself into her name. "Lois?"
"Jimmy!" It was with difficulty that she kept her voice down. "Take some deep breaths," she directed in a whisper. "You've got to wake up!"
Silence for a long moment, then Jimmy's voice said, faintly, "What happened? Where are we?"
She had to remind herself of how she had felt when she first woke up. Jimmy would be feeling sick and disoriented right now. "Just breathe," she directed. "We're in trouble and I need your brain firing on all cylinders."
Silence again. "I feel dizzy," Jimmy mumbled, his voice just barely audible. "They gassed us, didn't they?"
"They did," Lois said, consciously keeping her own voice low. "They're going to kill us, too, if we can't figure a way out. Take some more breaths."
She could hear him inhaling deeply. Other than that, there was no sound but the humming of blood in her ears. Time seemed to stretch interminably, although she was sure it had actually been only a few minutes. At last, Jimmy whispered, "Where are we?"
"I don't know. Locked in a room, without any light."
Silence again. "There's a penlight on my key ring," Jimmy said. "It looks like a wolf's head." She could hear him fumbling clumsily for the ring and an instant later, a blinding beam of light made her clap her hand over her eyes.
The light went out. "Sorry," Jimmy whispered.
"That's okay. Give it to me and concentrate on feeling better." Lois felt around until she found his hand and he pressed the key ring into her palm.
She took it and felt the wolf's head carefully with her fingers. No wonder they had missed it, she thought. The plastic wolf's head felt like one of those things people put on their key rings to make them easier to locate. No one would have guessed the wolf's head was actually a flashlight. The beam of light it produced probably wasn't even all that bright, in actuality. It merely looked bright to them because their eyes had adapted to absolute darkness.
"How do you turn it on?" she whispered.
"Push the right ear forward," Jimmy said. He took another deep breath. "I'm starting to feel a little better."
Lois shaded her eyes with one hand and pushed on the wolf's ear. The light wasn't quite so blinding to her shaded eyes and she squinted, letting them adjust.
She had been right, she thought. The little penlight wasn't really very bright, but compared to the utter darkness of their present location it was more than enough. She flashed it around the room.
They weren't in the room where they had been gassed, she saw. These walls were bare of wallpaper and looked like rough, concrete. The roof was perhaps a foot or two higher than a tall man and cobwebs clung to it everywhere. Lois shuddered as she saw a good-sized spider scurry along a strand, fleeing from the light.
Quickly averting her eyes from the spider, she flashed the pale beam over the walls. The room was perhaps ten feet by ten feet with a single door in one of the windowless walls. There was no way out. They were still trapped.
"We're stuck," Jimmy said, bleakly. "I sure hope CK gets our message before it's too late."
"Me, too." Lois went to the door and turned the knob. Locked, of course. Hopelessly, she flashed the pale beam of light around the room once more. The little penlight was terribly inadequate, but it was sure better than nothing, and besides, it was all they had. From above, a dangling strand of spiderweb brushed her neck and she shivered. She didn't want to look up at the collection of webs and their inhabitants. Besides, there was nothing up there to see.
"Lois, shine the light on the wall near the ceiling," Jimmy commanded suddenly.
"Over there—opposite the door," Jimmy said, pointing.
She obeyed. The pale beam barely illuminated the stone and she knew the little battery wouldn't last long. This thing was more a toy than anything else.
"To the right, just about a foot," Jimmy said.
"To the right," Jimmy insisted. "I think…Look, Lois, I think it's a vent."
In the dim illumination, with the cluster of cobwebs, it was difficult to tell, but there was a shadow of something there. Lois moved closer, peering up at the wall. A grating covered a dark, square hole, perhaps two feet by two, in the wall a foot or so above her head. She looked at it doubtfully. "It's awfully small."
Jimmy got uncertainly to his feet, and it was obvious that he was balancing precariously as he made his way to her across the stone floor. He looked up at the hole and then at her. "I think my shoulders are a little too wide to make it through," he said, "but, I think you could do it."
Lois studied it for several seconds, measuring it in her head. Jimmy was right. It would be a tight squeeze but she would probably be able to fit. Barely.
"Do we have anything to get the grating off with?" she asked.
Jimmy nodded at the keys. "Those." He sank down onto the floor again and leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes. "Give me a few minutes and I'll be able to help you."
Lois reached up. She would be able to reach the fasteners of the bottom of the grate but not the top. She could work on those, though, at least until Jimmy was steadier on his feet. The fasteners were some kind of rivet, she realized, peering at them in the gloom. Placing a finger on one, she switched off the pale, little light. By touch, she located the longest, thinnest key on the ring and brought the tip to the rivet. This was going to have to be done blind. The battery of the wolf head light wasn't going to last long under any circumstances. There was no point in wasting it. With great care, she began to pry at the rivet, trying to work the tip of the key under the thing.
It was easier than she had thought. The rivet came loose and fell to the floor with a soft ping.
"What was that?" Jimmy asked.
"A rivet. The stone seems pretty soft." Lois was feeling along the bottom of the vent as she spoke and an instant later encountered another rivet. This one was a little harder to pry loose but it finally came grudgingly free. Now, the third…
There were a total of four rivets holding the bottom of the grating in place and Lois had pried them loose within minutes. Standing on the tips of her toes, she felt carefully up along the sides but found no more of them. Checking with the tiny flashlight, she saw that her fingers fell perhaps an inch short of the top. "Jimmy, are you feeling any better? I can't reach the ones on the top."
"Some." Jimmy got slowly to his feet, balancing with one hand on the wall. "I think I can reach it. Give me the key."
Lois obeyed. Jimmy reached up, locating the rivets and let the light go off. Lois stood still, shifting her weight nervously between the athletic cast and her good foot, listening to the faint scraping sounds Jimmy made with the key. After a moment there was the familiar clink of a rivet hitting the floor and a short time later, another. Lois tried to count the seconds in her head, but in the dark, time was a relative thing. She found herself wondering how long they had been unconscious in the dirty, little room. The dial of her watch was invisible in the utter black. Perhaps, by now, Clark had gotten Jimmy's message and was on his way to save them. It wasn't something they could rely on, however.
Another rivet hit the floor with the now-familiar clink and suddenly there was a grating, metallic screech that made her hair attempt to rise from the roots.
"What was that?" she whispered while her ears were still ringing from the sudden sound.
"The grate swung down on the last rivet." The pale beam of the flashlight came on, showing her that what he said was true. The grate had pivoted on the remaining rivet, half-tearing it from the wall. It hung precariously by one corner and as she watched, the grating wobbled slightly and came free.
Jimmy caught it before it could fall noisily to the floor and set it carefully down, then stood up again and flashed the rapidly dimming light into the hole. "Looks clear."
Lois swallowed. The hole looked smaller than ever and the thought of possibly getting stuck in the cramped space made chills run across her scalp. Still, there was no other way out of this trap. She couldn't count on Clark finding the message before it was too late.
"Now we find out if I've got the guts I always thought I had," she said. "Give me a boost, Jimmy."
The young man smiled crookedly. "You do," he said. "Here." He handed her the key ring and laced the fingers of his hands tightly together. "Here you go."
Lois swallowed again and nodded. Bracing one hand on his shoulder and gripping the edge of the hole in the wall with the other hand, she stepped into the makeshift stirrup and hoisted herself headfirst into the narrow passage. Jimmy's hands shoved her from behind and she wormed her way forward. She felt her foot leave his hand and heard his final whispered words. "Good luck."
She didn't answer, but wiggled her way into the narrow hole. This had to be the scariest thing she had ever done, she thought. If she got out of this alive, she would never complain about Clark's overprotectiveness again.
Slowly, she squirmed forward, inch by painful inch. It was completely, utterly black and she felt as if she was being crushed from all sides. The rough surface of the tunnel floor scraped her fingers and knees raw within the first few minutes and the only thing that gave her the courage to force herself through this dark hole was the knowledge that there must be an exit somewhere. Air got in so there had to be an entrance for it, didn't there? Besides, staying in the small, pitch-black room meant certain death, if Clark didn't get their message in time. Of course, she might be crawling straight from the frying pan into the fire, but any chance was better than none. She hoped.
She pushed herself ahead through the tight, rectangular space, pausing every now and then to breathe. In one way the darkness was a blessing because she couldn't see the painfully narrow passage through which she was inching, propelled by her fingers and toes but in another it was a curse because it gave her the illusion that she was being smothered, and that was far too close to reality. Claustrophobia tugged at her nerves and she forced it down. This definitely wasn't the time to panic. Her life and Jimmy's depended on her ability to keep her head.
The boy had surprised her, she thought, deliberately turning her thoughts to her companion in this mess. He hadn't hesitated for an instant in helping her to escape, even when he knew he couldn't. He had to be as scared as she was but all he had done was wish her luck. He was counting on her to get them both out of this. She wasn't going to let him down. She wasn't going to let herself or Clark down, either. If she died before she was able to give him his answer, she'd never forgive herself.
She must be getting a little crazy; she reflected a moment later. That last thought had made no sense at all.
Doggedly, she continued to force her body forward, inch by hard-won inch, breathing in short gasps. There wasn't room in here to take a deep breath. Then, suddenly the wall on one side of the tunnel was gone. She explored the gap cautiously with her free hand. It was a square opening about two feet by two feet, just as the entrance to this painfully tiny tunnel had been and not a trace of light leaked in from it. It almost certainly led to another small, dark room, very possibly locked from the outside.
Reluctantly, she rejected the possible escape. If she dropped down into another room like the one she had left, she would never be able to get back into the tunnel.
She squirmed on by, forcing herself forward flat on her stomach, pushing with her toes, fingers and knees. How long had she been at this, she wondered. It seemed like hours had passed. Had they found out yet that she had escaped, and if they had, what would they do to Jimmy? Would they be waiting for her at the exit?
At this rate, she was going to drive herself crazy wondering about unanswerable questions. She just needed to concentrate on pushing herself ahead; each inch gained a small triumph.
Another two by two passage opened to her right and again she passed it by. Escaping into another sealed room would do her no good.
After another long, unmeasured period of wiggling forward flat on her stomach, she paused, blinking her watering eyes against the blackness. It felt as if she had been pushing herself along in the awkward imitation of an inchworm for hours on end. Colored sparks danced crazily in the air before her, the product of her own mind, she was sure, but was she imagining things or was there the faintest easing of the darkness in the passage ahead of her?
Fixing her eyes on that very faint square patch that was more a lessening of the black than actual light, she crept gradually onward, panting, stopping when she had no breath left to breathe. Sweat rolled down her face, with the feeling of tiny insects crawling on her skin and she couldn't bend her arm back to wipe it away. She blinked as it ran stingingly into her eyes and wormed her way doggedly on.
It was light, she thought, finally close enough to be sure. It was coming from the right, from another two foot by two foot square opening in the side of the ventilation shaft, very dim and indirect, but it was light. She stopped again to breathe, aware that the period of time between rests was becoming shorter. She was getting tired.
The faintest murmur of sound echoed softly down the passage. She froze, listening. There was a faint click and then a regular, muffled noise that might be footsteps. All of them came from the right.
Aware that if she could hear sounds, anyone out there could hear any sound that she made, she began to move forward again, very slowly and carefully, pausing every few seconds to listen. At last, she reached the opening.
Peering around the corner, she could see a square of dim light at the far end, obscured by another grating like the one that she and Jimmy had removed. It looked like her best chance for escape. Praying silently that she wasn't making a mistake, she began to wiggle and squirm her way around the right angle and into the side passage.
It was a very tight squeeze. Lois left shreds of both clothing and skin on the surface of the vent, but she rounded the corner at last and paused, still lying flat on the floor of her terribly narrow escape tunnel—at least, she hoped that was what it would turn out to be. Places where she had scraped skin hurt and sweat ran freely into her eyes. She blinked vigorously, trying to listen for any other sounds that might tell her what waited for her in the dimly lighted room beyond the grating but now there was no sound at all except for—
A gentle breeze of air holding a faint scent that she couldn't identify brushed her face. There was a low humming sound ahead of her, but nothing else. Cautiously, more determined than ever not to make any sound at all, she scooted toward the grating.
Clark left Perry's office, frowning. Ralph, passing by, nudged him in the ribs. "Get that video returned on time, Kent?"
He turned to regard the other reporter with a raised eyebrow. "You know, Ralph, that joke was old a week ago."
The other reporter simply grinned, shrugged and continued on his way. Mildly irritated, Clark crossed the room to his desk. Maybe Lois had left him a note, he thought, without much expectation of finding one. A glance at the desk, however, killed that very slight hope. His partner had never gotten into the habit of leaving notes. As he concluded that she hadn't left one this time, either, his phone shrilled. Hope surged again and he snatched up the receiver. "Clark Kent."
"Clark?" his mother's voice said, "I tried to call Lois earlier, but they said she was out. I wanted to let you know that the 'project' that we were talking about last weekend seems to work fine."
He had to shift mental gears. "Oh—right. I'll be out to pick it up as soon as I can. Thanks."
"Is something wrong, Clark?" Martha asked.
"Yes—no—I'm not sure," he admitted. "Lois has been out of the office for over four hours and nobody knows where she went. Maybe I'm imagining things, but I can't shake the feeling that she's in trouble."
"Didn't she tell anyone where she was going?" she asked.
"She never does."
"Well, try her cellular phone," Martha said. "She carries one, doesn't she?"
"Yeah. I was just going to. I just don't want her to think I'm trying to keep tabs on her."
"Well," his mother said, "it's up to you, but if you're worried, I'm sure you can think of some reason to be calling. I'll hang up now and let you call her."
He had to grin. His mom was probably the most practical person he'd ever known. "Thanks, Mom. I'll get back to you about the project."
However, a couple of minutes later, he put down the receiver, having to remind himself not to squeeze the thing too hard. It would look funny if he left finger marks in the plastic. There was already far too much attention being paid to the connection between himself and Superman. Lois's phone was turned off. That was bad, he thought. She almost never turned the thing off, except at night.
The blinking light that notified him that his phone's recording function had taken a call caught his eye but he ignored it for the moment, trying to think of some way to locate Lois. The conviction that she was in trouble was growing by the minute and he had to tell himself firmly not to let his imagination get the better of him. Where might she have gone? They had planned to investigate Theodore Hurst and to visit Neville Elliott's clinic today. Could she have gone to the Cost Mart manager's home or office? Or, just possibly, could she have taken Jimmy with her to visit the clinic?
The light's blinking was annoying, and with a sigh of resignation, he lifted the receiver and punched the code to retrieve his calls. An instant later, he hit stop and repeat. Jimmy's voice, low and cautious, emanated from the speaker.
"CK, It's Jimmy. Lois and I are at Dr. Elliott's clinic. Lois is going to interview him, but there's something screwy about the whole situation. I'm calling at—" a pause, "just after ten-thirty. We wanted you to know—just in case. Bye."
He glanced reflexively at his watch. It was nearly one-thirty. He got to his feet, strode to Perry's office and knocked. Not bothering to wait for an invitation, he opened the door. "Chief, I think Lois and Jimmy are in trouble."
Perry looked up from his computer screen. "What makes you think so?"
"Jimmy left me a message. They were at the New Beginnings Clinic at ten thirty. He said he thinks there's something wrong."
"Now, Clark, what could happen to them at a clinic?" Perry said. "Besides, this is Jimmy you're talking about."
"But, Lois is there too. I don't have time to explain, Chief. We think the clinic is connected with Diana Stride and the attempt to convince people that she's dead. If she's got Lois—"
"Hmmmph." For the first time, Perry looked worried. "You're right. The way Lois attracts trouble, you'd probably better go see. Just, be careful."
"I will be." Clark turned and headed for the stairs. Ralph glanced after him.
"Got to check out a hot library book, Kent?"
Clark didn't pause, but disappeared through the door to the stairs. It took all his willpower not to shift into super speed right there in the stairwell, but a sonic boom at this point might not be such a good idea. Ralph had become too aware of his abrupt exits for him to willingly give the man any reason to connect him with Superman. He ran up the stairs, holding himself to a speed less than that of sound and a moment later, launched himself from the roof and headed directly west.
She was looking down into a room filled with machinery of some kind. Peering through the grate, Lois could see the shadowy forms of big, bulky nondescript things, all humming quietly. Air conditioning? She doubted it. She'd never seen an air conditioner that looked like that. Power generators? Maybe. Wouldn't a hospital that performed a lot of surgeries need its own power, just in case? She didn't know but it seemed likely. More importantly, there was no one there. The room was lit only by a couple of tiny lights on the walls. If she managed to get out of this place, there would be no one to give the alarm.
Speaking of getting out, that was going to be a real trick. Still, if this grating was held on the same way the other had been, it might not be so difficult to remove. The hard part was going to be getting to the ground without falling on her head. It was a good six foot drop, at least.
Well, one thing at a time. She had hung onto the key ring for her entire journey through the vent. Now, she pushed the tip of the longest key into the space between the grate and the wall. Her leverage was bad and she hurt her hand but finally the key was positioned as she liked it and she put pressure on it.
The rivet at the corner of the vent popped out with relative ease. The resulting gap made the other rivets successively easier until the entire bottom of the grate was loose. She pushed on it with her hands and the thin metal bent slowly outward until she could look straight downward. Her heart jumped. Directly below her, a heavy cart had been parked against the wall, covered with some kind of plastic sheeting. That made it easier.
She slithered out of the ventilator shaft on her stomach. The metal of the grate scratched her back and tore her clothing—not that it mattered, as this suit would never be wearable again, assuming she survived this situation, anyway. Reaching ahead of her, her hands came in contact with the handle of the cart and she gripped it, praying the thing wouldn't roll, but apparently it had some kind of brake, for it jiggled only slightly. Hopefully, no one would come in at this moment because she would be absolutely helpless, hanging head down from the vent with half of her body still inside it. Slowly, she slid forward, trying to brace herself with her hands and direct her fall.
She came down with a jolt across the cart, knocking the breath from her lungs, but she was out. Above her, the metal of the grate sprang back with a loud clang. Gasping for breath, she rolled off the cart and scurried into the shelter of one of the looming machines. Looking back, the traces of her exit from the shaft weren't particularly obvious. The metal of the grating was slightly bent, but that might not be noticeable unless someone looked hard at it and by that time, she intended to be out of here.
For a moment she rested, crouching down behind the nearest machine, regaining her breath after the tremendous effort she had been putting forth. She could feel her heart beating light and fast in her throat with exertion and the awareness of danger.
There were footsteps outside the room and a moment later the door opened, letting in a burst of light.
"I know I heard something," a voice was saying. "If that thing is having another problem, I think we should take it offline. There's plenty of backup."
"I don't hear anything," a female voice said. "Maybe it just burped again."
"Maybe. You're right; it looks okay."
The door remained open for another few seconds and then closed. Lois let out her breath.
Still, it was obvious she couldn't stay here. On the other hand, she couldn't just walk out there, either. Her clothing was utterly filthy from her trip through the ventilation system. How was she going to get out of this place?
Quietly, she crept forward to the door and put her ear against it. Except for the humming of the machines in the room and the faint sound of retreating footsteps, there was nothing. She was reaching for the handle of the door when she saw the orange jumpsuit hanging from a hook on the wall next to it. Protective gear of some kind? Whatever it was, it would provide her with cover for a few minutes until she could figure out what to do next. She pulled it from the rack and held it up against her body. A bit large, but all she was looking for was camouflage for a few, vital minutes. There was a hard hat hanging on the hook behind it. Even better. Her hair had to look as if she had been in a high wind after that trip through the vent. Quickly she unzipped the suit and jammed her feet into the legs.
It was just as well the thing was too large for her, she was thinking a moment later. She should have removed the athletic cast, but fortunately the legging was big enough for her foot to slip through it and it covered the telltale cast well enough—just as long as she didn't stay out in the open long enough for people to get a good look at her. It was all very well to read spy novels about people wearing disguises and blending in with their surroundings, but in a small community like the clinic, it was quite probable that someone would realize it if a stranger appeared in their midst. She didn't intend to take the chance. As fast as she could manage, she shoved her arms through the sleeves, pushed them up to a reasonable length and zipped up the suit.
Hmm, baggy, but it would probably do. Belatedly she fastened the cloth belt that dangled from the waistband, cinching it as tightly as she could. That was better. Clapping the hard hat on her head, she took a deep breath. Well, here went nothing.
Cautiously, she opened the door and stepped out.
She was standing in a hallway, brightly lit by fluorescent lights and for a moment she had to squint while her eyes adjusted to the new level of lighting. At the end of the hall, someone—a man, she thought—also in an orange jumpsuit, crossed the space and vanished into what was probably a connecting hallway.
Where was she, she wondered. This didn't look like a hospital.
Well, standing around wasn't going to do her any good. She took a moment to get her bearings, judging where the room where Jimmy was still located must be and started down the corridor to her right. It had to be in this direction, somewhere, but what on Earth did that small, dusty room have to do with this modern, brightly lighted hallway? There were no windows by which she could see out to identify her location, but this certainly wasn't the place where she and Jimmy had been when Elliott trapped them. If Clark was on his way, how was he ever going to find them?
Resolutely, she shoved the worry away. One thing at a time, she told herself. Take it as it comes.
Striving to maintain a casual attitude, she hurried down the hallway. The time she had spent in the vent and the distance she had covered were a little unclear in her mind. She was aware that her sense of time and distance might have been distorted because of the circumstances. Still, the room where they had been imprisoned had to be in this direction and the crossing at the end of the hall probably led the right way.
Wherever she was, there obviously weren't many people around. Way back in the direction from which she had come, she heard footsteps and the closing of a door. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw no one and concluded someone had entered one of the rooms along the hallway behind her. A moment later, she reached the corner and turned right. The hall was surprisingly short with a door at its end. Certainly, she had crawled farther than the distance of this hallway after she had rounded the corner in the ventilator shaft. The room must be beyond that door, she concluded.
It was locked, of course, she discovered a minute later, and footsteps were coming her way.
A single door opened to her left and she twisted the knob without much hope. Surprisingly, the knob turned and the door opened inward. Lois stepped inside and pushed it shut behind her.
Pressing her ear against the panel, she could just hear the footsteps approaching and prayed they weren't coming here. The sounds paused just beyond the door and she heard a clicking noise. Whoever it was, it appeared he was unlocking the end door.
Quickly, she glanced around her hiding place. If whoever was out there decided to check on Jimmy and her, they were going to realize pretty fast that she was gone and start looking for her.
Like the room where she had emerged from the vent, this one was lit only by the two small bulbs in the wall but there were no humming machines in it. Instead, there were shelves stacked with anonymous, green- and blue-wrapped bundles of some kind. Cabinets with glass doors stood on one side and inside were packages and boxes of what appeared to be medical equipment—so, maybe she was still in the hospital after all. She hoped she was. It would make it that much easier for Clark to find them. Here and there, sheet-covered objects stood about the room—some kind of machines, she thought. Maybe this was a storage room for surgical equipment or something.
Outside the room, she heard the other door close sharply. The unknown person had gone through it. She plastered her ear against the door, listening. There was no sound out there, now.
Cautiously, she opened the door a crack and peeked out. Nothing. The hall was clear.
She glanced around the room again. Was there anything here that she could use as a weapon, just in case? The cabinets drew her attention. If the stuff in those packages really was surgical equipment, there ought to be a number of possibilities in the weapons department. Now, if only she could lock this thing for just a measure of security…
Just below the knob was a simple latching mechanism. She had been listening so hard she hadn't even seen it. With a small gasp, she turned it and felt the bolt click solidly home.
The tight feeling in her middle relaxed, although she hadn't been aware of it until then. At least, now she had some small measure of defense against the searchers. Quickly, she hobbled over to the cabinets. The wrapped instruments were labeled and so were the thin, plastic boxes. Those paper-sheathed items on the third shelf were scalpels—the thought of using a knife on someone made her stomach feel queasy and she rejected the thought. But there on the lower shelf was something called a probe. That might be useful on the door lock—assuming whoever was in there now left soon. Quickly, she opened the cabinet and appropriated the probe, ripping the paper from it with suddenly trembling hands. The lessening of tension had let some of her tightly-held control relax as well and she was suddenly aware of the quivering feeling in her gut: the result of fear and tension too long restrained. Well, when this was all over, she could let herself fall apart, but not now. She turned her attention back to the search for some kind of tools to use to defend herself and Jimmy.
Rubber tubing from one of the shrouded machines might be useful, too. She took that and tucked it into the front of her coverall. As for a weapon—short of the scalpels, she didn't see anything she could use. Well, there was no law that said she couldn't use them for other things, was there? Gingerly, she picked up one of the surgical knives, the razor-thin blade safely sheathed in its disposable cardboard cover, and tucked it into one voluminous pocket of the coverall along with the probe. Tiptoeing, now, she returned to the door and listened once more.
For a moment there was silence, then sudden sounds of motion. A door slammed and footsteps departed down the hallway at a near-run. Whoever it was, she was willing to bet that he had discovered her absence, which meant the hunt for her was going to begin momentarily. Involuntarily, she glanced at the watch on her wrist. It read 11:14.
For a moment, she couldn't believe it, and then she saw that the second hand was not moving. The watch had stopped. Somewhere along the line, it had broken. There was no way at present for her to tell how long she had been here.
Well, the time to get Jimmy out was now. As soon as the sound of footsteps disappeared, she opened the door and peeked out.
No one. Quickly she stepped out into the hall and tried the end door. It wasn't even locked. Whoever that had been, he had been in so much of a hurry that he had neglected to lock the door.
She pulled it open and stepped within. Instantly, she understood the contrast between the modern hallway outside and the dirty little room where she and Jimmy had been confined. There was construction in progress here. The hall floor was of unfinished concrete with neither carpeting nor linoleum to cover its nakedness. The walls were unpainted and at the far end, it looked as if the hallway simply dead-ended. Several closed doors in one wall looked new and completely out of place amid the dirt and raw material on every side. This part of the building, whatever it was, couldn't be part of the modern hospital she had seen, she thought. Or could it? On second glance, the end of the hall wasn't stone or concrete. It was some kind of temporary material, the same color as the bare wall.
But, she was wasting time and there might be very little of it at her disposal.
There were five doors along one wall, all of them closed. Still, there was one way to find out which one Jimmy was in. She walked up to the first and knocked sharply.
No answer. She proceeded to the next. On the third door, Jimmy's voice answered.
"Leave me alone."
"Jimmy!" she whispered.
Silence. Lois inserted the probe into the door lock and felt for the tumblers. The lock wasn't a difficult one but the skin on the back of her neck and shoulders was crawling with apprehension. Someone could come back at any second. The search for her had probably already begun.
The lock clicked back and she pushed the door open.
Inside, Jimmy crouched on the floor, holding up one hand to shield his eyes from the light. He squinted at her for a startled instant. "Lois!"
"Come on!" she whispered. "They're probably looking for me right now!"
Jimmy was already on his feet. "Some guy was here a minute ago."
"I know; I heard him. Let's get out of here!"
Still shielding his eyes against the light, Jimmy stumbled toward the door. He paused in the doorway, looking quickly in both directions. "Which way?"
Lois glanced back at the closed door and nodded toward the other end of the hallway. "That way. Just a minute, though. If they come back, maybe we can confuse things a bit."
Having unlocked it, relocking the door was easier. She felt the lock snap closed on the first try and withdrew the probe. "Come on."
Jimmy didn't ask questions but followed her obediently. They reached the end and Lois stopped, examining the material that blocked their way. "I thought so. This stuff is canvas held on a light plywood frame with some kind of heavy tape." She fished out the scalpel and knelt "Let's see if we can get through it."
"If we have time." Jimmy glanced over his shoulder. Lois couldn't afford the luxury of even looking back. She concentrated on carefully cutting away the tape where it held the canvas to the bottom board, refusing to think about the time that was passing. If they could slip out without causing too much damage, maybe no one would realize that they had gone out this way. So far, there had been no sign of pursuit but Elliott was bound to have his people out looking for them in force, very soon. Hopefully, the locked door and the open vent would mislead the searchers for awhile.
The sharp, little scalpel had been a good choice, she was thinking a short time later. The thin blade went through the tape cleanly and within a few minutes, she had freed one side of the canvas at the bottom from the thin slab of wood. Taking great care not to make unnecessary noise or to tear anything else loose, she pushed it gently open and peered out.
A screen of tall, carefully manicured bushes, growing only a few feet from the opening, met her gaze. Where the heck *were* they? Still, there didn't seem to be any people within view. She slipped the cardboard safety sleeve back onto the knife blade. "Let's go. And for Pete's sake, be quiet!"
Jimmy nodded. "You first," he mouthed silently, glancing back down the hallway again. "Hurry."
Lois dropped onto her stomach and slid through the gap. Keeping down, she crawled out of the way, holding the heavy material back for Jimmy. He slid out quickly and rolled away from the hole. "Hurry," he breathed. "I think I heard footsteps."
Hastily, Lois pushed the canvas back into place, straightening it as well as she could until it was relatively smooth. Hoping that it wasn't obvious from the other side, she turned back to her companion.
"Keep down," she whispered. Now that they were out, even crouched down behind the screen of bushes, it was obvious where they were. They were in the hospital enclosure next to the part of the wall that was built into the hill, on the opposite side from the spot where they had first looked down on this place. They had come out of a door-shaped hole in the wall itself, one that would be invisible to anyone on the patio because of the close-growing bushes.
It was obvious that Jimmy had figured it out, too. Lois glanced back at their exit. What was going on in there? Why would the hospital need a secret complex built into the hill itself? This place was going to make a fascinating expose—if she lived to write it.
A glance at the sun told her that she and Jimmy had been held captive for some time. It was already past noon. They had to get out of here somehow, she thought. Clark evidently hadn't gotten Jimmy's message yet, or Superman would have been here by now and if the two of them hung around for long, they were bound to eventually get caught. She had parked her Jeep in the visitors' lot in front of the main hospital building. Chances were good that it was still there; hadn't Elliott told Diana Stride that they had to be seen driving away? But they needed to get to it, and that was going to be difficult.
Jimmy touched her arm and pointed silently. The row of bushes extended in both directions along the wall for some distance. They could use it as cover for part of the way. Lois nodded and began to crawl to the left. The direction would get them away from the populated area of the patio most quickly.
It took perhaps ten minutes to work their way around to the part of the enclosure opposite the north wing of the main hospital building. So far, there hadn't been any sign of a search out on the hospital grounds. They were probably still looking around inside for her, but that wouldn't last, she knew. Sooner or later, they were going to realize that she had somehow gotten outside, someone would figure out what had really happened and the jig would be up. She and Jimmy had to get away from this area before it was too late. Peering through the bushes, Lois could see several men in white uniforms—orderlies, nurses or just hired muscle in disguise? she wondered—drifting toward the patio area. Time was running short, it seemed. It looked to her as if they intended to herd the patients inside so as not to alarm them when they started a full-scale search.
On hands and knees, she continued to crawl forward. Their safety margin was disappearing fast, that was for sure.
She nearly cried out when her hand came down on a large, jagged chunk of granite half buried in the soil and she stifled a gasp of pain. A bruised palm was nothing compared to what was waiting for them if they couldn't get away.
"What's the matter?" Jimmy's whisper drifted up from behind her.
"Nothing." She examined her hand. It was bleeding slightly, but the damage was only superficial. She sucked on the injury, peering ahead alertly. Ten feet in front of them, the hedge ended by a small grove of the tall trees that dotted the enclosure, shading one of the four, smaller structures. The searchers would probably expect Jimmy and her to try to hide in one of them, which was why she was headed for it. If they didn't give away their presence, they might be fortunate enough to find some camouflage for Jimmy…
Aha! Lois congratulated herself tentatively. She'd been right. One of the white-coated men, holding what appeared to be a cellular phone in one hand, was crouching in a clump of three evergreens in the very center of the grove—a spot that would give him a clear view of anyone approaching the small building. If she hadn't been very alert, she might have missed him entirely. The search had definitely moved outside. Cautiously, she nudged Jimmy and jerked her head at the mostly concealed man. "Ever mugged anybody?" she whispered.
"You need his clothes."
Jimmy looked horrified. "I can't—"
"Yes, you can. This is what you're going to do…"
A few minutes later, Jimmy was inside the small grove of trees, circling slowly and cautiously around behind his target. The thin screen of branches seemed a very frail layer of protection from anyone who might be within sight of them, although the little cottage was mostly between them and the main part of the hospital enclosure. Trying not to envision what would happen to them both if he failed, Jimmy resolutely clamped down on the panic that tried stubbornly to rise in his throat. He had little doubt that they were both going to die. This plan of Lois's was likely to get them both killed but it was probably the only one that had the ghost of a chance of succeeding. There was no way they were going to get out of this place with all these guards around unless they had some kind of disguise. If only CK had gotten his message! He could have called Superman to come help them when they didn't show up back at the Planet in a reasonable amount of time. Not many people were aware of it, Jimmy knew, but CK and Superman were good friends and Superman was crazy about Lois—anybody with eyes could see that. If CK had called him for help, Superman would be here by now.
But he wasn't. They were going to have to do this by themselves, or die trying. He wondered how CK managed it. He and Lois had gotten into and out of dozens of deadly scrapes since he'd come to work at the Planet and somehow he never seemed in the least unsettled by any of them, not even that crazy government agent he'd had to fight, last year. The only thing he ever seemed really worried about was Lois's safety. Jimmy wished he had CK's self-confidence.
He moved forward with infinite care. If he rattled a branch, crunched or rustled a dry leaf or cracked a twig, he and Lois were done for. He was about ten feet from the man, now. If Lois hadn't pointed him out, Jimmy would never have seen him, crouched where he was. In position at last, he froze, trying to breathe softly. It was a darned good thing that there was a light afternoon breeze blowing. It was producing just enough sound that the guy couldn't hear him breathing and the faint rustling of the pine needles drowned out any other tiny noises. What seemed really surprising, though, was the fact that the guy couldn't hear the pounding of Jimmy's heart. It sounded like drums in his own ears, but it probably wasn't really audible to anyone else. It just seemed loud.
Ready at last, he waited. The next part was Lois's.
A moment later, he saw the orange jumpsuit come into view. Lois was creeping toward the private cottage or whatever this place was, trying to be quiet. He saw the guard stiffen and start to lift the cellular phone. He leaped forward and struck the man with the rock Lois had handed him a short time earlier, hoping that he didn't kill the guy, but determined that he wasn't going to give the alarm.
The man went face down in the dirt, moaning. Jimmy landed on his back, intent on muffling any yells for help that he might make. Then Lois was kneeling beside him holding some kind of rubber tubing in one hand and the scalpel in the other. Where the heck had she gotten that stuff?
"Pull off his pants," she directed in a whisper. "Then his coat. His undershirt, too. I'm going to need it." She placed her mouth next to the man's ear. "If you so much as peep, it'll be the last sound you ever make, whether or not we get caught. Is that clear?"
The half-stunned guard nodded weakly, and Jimmy could see that he was looking at the scalpel. Lois wouldn't use it, Jimmy was confident, but their prisoner didn't know that.
A short time later, they had relieved their victim of both his concealed handgun and his cellular phone and he was tied hand and foot with his arms around the trunk of one of the smaller trees in the grouping and gagged with his own undershirt. Jimmy made a face at the thought. That would be nasty, but they didn't have time to worry about such niceties at the moment. He finished buttoning the white jacket and made a last inspection of his new outfit. "Is that tubing going to hold his feet okay?"
"I think so. It doesn't stretch." Lois tightened the man's belt another notch around his wrists and nodded in satisfaction. "That ought to keep him out of trouble long enough for us to get away." She reached out and retrieved the cellular phone. "Right now, I'm going to make a call. Watch for anyone coming."
Jimmy nodded. Maybe they would manage to make it out of here alive, after all.
He stayed crouched low, watching and listening as Lois punched in Clark's number. Silence followed, stretching his nerves so tight that he jumped slightly at the sound when she snapped the phone shut. "Clark doesn't answer. All I got was his recorded message."
Footsteps were jogging toward them. Their prisoner gave a muffled grunt, jerking suddenly and Jimmy clamped a hand over his already gagged mouth. "Do that again and you're history!" he whispered.
The bound man subsided. Lois and Jimmy remained still and silent as two men in the uniforms of orderlies hurried past barely fifteen feet away. When they had disappeared around the side of the cottage, Lois stuck the cellular phone in her pocket. "That was close. We need to get out of here. We can call Henderson as soon as we're safe." She rose quietly to her feet and Jimmy copied her. "Let's go. They might expect us to head for the Jeep, so we won't." She picked up the handgun. "I don't think it would be a good idea to leave this where he can reach it, do you?"
Jimmy glanced at the other man and maintained his silence until he and Lois had cut through the small stand of trees and were out of earshot. Lois paused momentarily to discard the weapon under a low-growing bush and kick leaves over it.
They peered out of the little grove, and Jimmy asked the question he had been waiting for the right moment to ask. "If we're not going to get the Jeep, what are we going to do?"
"There are other cars out there," Lois said, quietly. She held up a key ring. "Looks like that guy drives a Toyota."
The section reserved for employees' parking was a small area in front of the hospital, connected to the visitors' lot by a narrow driveway. Lois stood back by the corner of the building, trying to remain inconspicuous as Jimmy strode openly toward the lot.
There were a number of cars parked there, none of them nearly as fancy as most of the ones in the other lot. From her vantage point, Lois could see the entire lot and out of some thirty cars, counted three Toyotas. At least Jimmy didn't have to check a lot of different vehicles to find the one that matched the key.
The first car, of course, was the wrong one. Jimmy continued to the second and Lois let out her breath as he pulled open the driver's door. Trying to walk unhurriedly, she headed for the parking lot.
She was nearly to the car when she heard the yell.
A quick glance over her shoulder showed her three men in the white uniforms charging toward her across the lawn. The one in the lead was waving a handgun. Lois jerked open the driver's door and scrambled inside. The key was already in the ignition and Jimmy had scooted over into the passenger seat. The kid was learning, she reflected, absently. Nobody drove Lois Lane around, except possibly Clark, and certainly not in what promised to be a car chase. Where the heck was Clark? She started the engine and backed hurriedly out of the parking space, scraping the fender of the Ford in the adjoining space. Of course, her partner had no reason to expect her to be in trouble, but it would have been a good idea to check on her, just in case, she thought, blithely disregarding the fact that she frequently reminded him that she was a grown woman and capable of taking care of herself.
The men were less than ten feet away as she jammed the gearshift in drive and gunned the motor. The little car leaped forward and Lois headed it straight for the exit.
"They're after us," Jimmy said, a few seconds later.
As she had expected they would be. Emerging from the narrow drive into the main lot, Lois slewed the Toyota past a guest's Mercedes. The shocked man at the wheel slammed on his brakes, but she barely noticed the squeal of the tires. The metal gates had begun to swing shut. She aimed directly for the opening, disregarding such irrelevant obstacles as the flowerbeds and rammed the accelerator to the floor.
The little car responded with a burst of speed. They bounced vigorously over the curb, tore across a narrow stretch of grass and back onto the asphalt of the driveway, leaving deep ruts behind them. The sides of the car actually scraped the metal gates with an uncanny screech and then they were through. There was a clang behind them as the doors swung shut. It would give them a few seconds, but that was all. Lois glanced in both directions to assure herself that no one was coming but barely slowed the car as she took the corner on two wheels out onto the road that wound down from the hills to the east. In the open, she floored the accelerator again, determined to make as much of those few seconds as she could.
Beside her, Jimmy let out a small gasp and a quick glance at him showed her that his eyes were squeezed tightly shut.
She smiled grimly, returning her gaze instantly to her driving. The road ahead of them wasn't something she could afford to take her attention from at this speed.
"Jimmy, open your eyes. I want to know what they're doing!" she demanded. The speedometer said that she was pushing eighty, which wasn't bad for a Toyota on an uphill track.
Silence. Then, Jimmy turned cautiously in his seat. "They're just coming out the gate," he reported.
"Good. That's better than I expected. Take the cell phone out of my pocket and call Henderson," she directed, tersely, "and let's hope it's not time for his coffee break."
"It's one-twenty," Jimmy said. She could feel his hand reaching into the pocket of her coveralls. "Do they have coffee breaks at one-twenty?"
"Who knows? Just hurry up and call him! Tell him that Diana Stride is at the hospital. That should get him moving!"
The road curved sharply ahead of them and she concentrated on taking the turn as safely as she could without slowing appreciably. The hill was rising more steeply now and in spite of the fact that the accelerator was pushed flat to the floor, they gradually slowed to barely more than sixty-five. This could get exciting, she thought, ironically, when they got to the hairpin turns a few miles ahead. The only consolation was that the people chasing them would have to slow down, too, and she doubted that any of the hired help could drive like she could. As she thought that, they reached the top of the small hill and the road plunged into a valley. Their speed picked up at once and she had to consciously keep it under ninety. The tires of a light car had a tendency to lose traction at that speed and she didn't want to become suddenly airborne.
Jimmy was talking on the cellular phone, trying to explain to the police operator, she thought. It didn't really matter as far as she and Jimmy were concerned. If they couldn't get away from their pursuers, they would probably be dead long before the police got here.
The road turned again and she gritted her teeth as they screeched around it. Rock wall was suddenly on their right and she pulled them into the tight curve as it swept sharply the other way and was suddenly headed up the mountain.
It wasn't really a mountain, she told herself. They were only in the foothills but it might as well be a mountain. To the left, the edge of the road was barely five feet from a cliff that dropped sharply away into space. To her right, the rock wall was nearly vertical, leaving her no margin for mistakes.
"They're gaining," Jimmy reported.
She risked a quick glance in the mirror. The car following them was the Ford that she had scraped when she backed out of the parking space. Its engine was undoubtedly more powerful than the Toyota's. If she was going to keep ahead of them, it was going to have to be because of her superior driving skills—and a fair amount of luck.
"Superman, where are you?" she murmured, half to herself.
"I wish I'd kept that watch," Jimmy said.
"What watch?" She skidded them around another turn.
"The signal watch. Remember when we were in Smallville?"
"Oh, yeah." She glanced in the mirror again. The car was closer and gaining steadily. It wasn't a matter of driving skill. The fact was that the Ford simply had more horsepower than the Toyota.
Jimmy had glanced back, too. "We're not going to make it."
Lois didn't answer. She simply gritted her teeth and drove.
The Ford was pulling up behind her, now. The driver leaned on his horn and in the side mirror, Lois could see him gesturing for her to pull over. She ignored it. There was no way she would let them get their hands on her and Jimmy. If she pulled over, they were done for. If she didn't, they would probably be killed, but there was always the chance that something would happen to save them at the last second.
A jolt from behind nearly made her lose control. She fought the wheel, forcing the Toyota to stay on the road more by sheer determination than anything else.
Another jolt. Jimmy was hanging onto the handhold of the door. "They rammed us! They're trying to push us over the edge!"
Lois didn't answer. She hung onto the wheel as the car lurched leftwards and managed to avoid going over, even though her left rear wheel hung over space for a split instant. She bore to the right. A glance in her rear-view mirror showed her the Ford plunging toward her again.
At the last instant before impact, she swung hard right. The Ford connected with her left taillight and spun the Toyota around. Amid the whirling confusion, she had a glimpse of the Ford as it rocketed over the brink, then the rear fender of the little car slammed into the side of the mountain. The lights went out.
Clark headed directly west toward the clinic. It wasn't quite one-thirty, but too much time had passed. Lois and Jimmy should have been back by now. Silently, he berated himself for not checking on his partner sooner. Lois didn't like it when he played mother hen, but surely he could have made a cautious check on her whereabouts without letting on what he was doing.
When they got married, he was going to have to be even more careful, he thought. Lois was simply the kind of person who took chances. She had done it before he came to Metropolis (and why she was still alive was a mystery he hadn't yet solved) and she wasn't about to change. If he wanted her in his life, he was going to have to accept it.
Even the thought of not having her in his life sent cold chills down his back. He was over the beginning of the foothills now, almost to the clinic, and motion below him caught his eye. Two cars, a Ford and a Toyota, bare feet apart, were racing toward him at a high rate of speed. As he watched, the Ford rammed the Toyota, nearly sending it over the edge. He gulped. He couldn't let that go on or somebody was going to get killed.
He arrowed toward the speeding cars. As he did so, the Ford rammed the Toyota again and the little car turned sharply, spinning around to collide with the stone wall that rose sharply on its right. The Ford plunged over the edge and rolled.
He dived after it, seeing flames spurt from under the hood, seized the car and righted it. A blast of frigid breath put out the fire.
The three men inside seemed to be unconscious, but they were all breathing and their heartbeats were steady. When they came to, they had some things to answer for. He set the car firmly on a spur that protruded from the cliff side. It would be safe here until he got back to it. This car had been trying to run the other off the road. He could hear the heartbeats of the occupants of the Toyota as he flashed up the side of the cliff and one of them—
The little Toyota had been spun about by the tail end collision with the Ford and slammed into the rock of the cliff side. He already knew before he arrived who the occupants had to be.
Lois and Jimmy.
He landed by the car, appalled at the sight of the crumpled metal, but on a second glance, he saw that the damage had been mostly confined to the rear of the car. That had been thanks to Lois's superior driving skills, he thought. She had saved her life and Jimmy's although she hadn't been able to prevent the crash entirely. He checked quickly. There was no indication of leaking fuel, and the two had been fastened in with their safety belts. As he pulled the driver's door from its frame, Lois opened her eyes.
"Superman?" She started to lift her head.
"Don't move, Lois. Let me check for any injuries." He swept his x-ray vision over her. "One cracked rib—assorted bumps and bruises. I don't see any serious damage." Quickly, he turned to Jimmy and repeated the procedure. "About the same." He closed his eyes for an instant in relief and tried to regain his composure. "What happened?"
Jimmy opened his eyes, blinking, and raised his hand to rub his face. Lois sat up in the seat, wincing slightly. "Superman, you have to get to the New Beginnings Clinic. Diana is there and she might try to get away—"
"Lois, I need to get you to a doctor!"
"You said we're not seriously hurt!" She glared at him. "Hurry! All you have to do is keep them from getting away until the cops get there!"
He hesitated another long moment. "All right," he said, finally, " but you have to promise not to move. I'll be right back."
"I promise—now go!"
"Lois, are you sure—"
Still rebellious, but obedient, he took off in a rush of air. At his normal cruising speed, the elite little hospital was only seconds away. As he approached, he could see unusual activity in the parking lot. Several men in white uniforms were swarming over the lot, piling into cars and he saw a large, black limousine peel away from the gate with unusual speed for a car of that type. He scanned it automatically. Well, well—Lois had been right, as usual. He swooped down and landed in the road directly in the path of the car.
The driver slammed on the brakes and swerved. Superman seized the car, swung it into the air and returned to the hospital's parking lot exit, where he pushed the metal gates together one-handed and jammed the car up against them.
No one could say he hadn't learned how dangerous the Intergang assassin was, he thought, wryly. Even he could figure it out, given enough time and sad experience. He used his heat vision to flatten the limo's tires and weld the doors shut. That should keep them out of trouble for the present and foil the mass escape of their underlings at the same time. He didn't see any sign of Kryptonite, but he'd discovered that it wasn't a good idea to assume anything where Diana Stride was concerned. She and Neville Elliott could sit in their car at a safe distance from him until the police arrived and he could get back to Lois and Jimmy.
"Superman didn't need to wait very long," Clark said. "Henderson apparently called the nearest Sheriff's station and they arrived about ten minutes after he did, so Diana's back in custody and Dr. Elliott is in the cell right next to hers. Lois and Jimmy's statements were enough to bring the DA's Intergang task force into it. Intergang's bosses are not going to be happy."
It was late morning of the next day. Lois and Clark had arrived at the Planet later than usual this morning, as had Jimmy, since the two accident victims had spent the night under observation at Metropolis General Hospital—in Lois's case, under vociferous protest. Clark had been busy following up on the front page article that had appeared in the morning edition of the Planet under the Lane and Kent byline.
"And we've got the jump on all the papers with Lois's story and your exclusive interview with Superman, to boot," Perry said, looking extremely pleased. "It's hard to believe they were running something like that right under the noses of every law enforcement agency in the state—new faces and identities for wanted criminals. It's a good thing you went to find Lois when you did, Clark. Between you and Superman, it landed you right into the middle of a breaking story. Of course, there's plenty of room for follow-ups and further investigation. I'm putting the two of you onto it as soon as Lois is back up to par. If you need Jimmy here to help you, just say so."
"We might, I think," Lois said. She smiled at the Planet's junior photographer. "I'd never have gotten us out if not for him."
Jimmy grinned cautiously. His right eye was swollen shut and the side of his face was black and blue where he'd hit it on the door of the car but, like Lois, he had emerged from the accident with only minor injuries. "I'm awfully glad you finally got my message, CK."
"So am I," Clark said. "Thanks for helping Lois out when I couldn't, Jim. We both owe you a lot."
"No sweat, CK. Besides, I figured that by helping Lois, I was helping myself. Still, I never figured I'd be mugging an Intergang thug. It's not something I want to do again."
"I don't blame you," Clark said. "I'm not even clear on how you knew he *was* Intergang."
"I recognized him," Lois said. "You remember Martin Snell, don't you?"
"The Intergang lawyer who was threatening us so he could keep Superman out of the South Side?" Perry asked. "Isn't he dead?"
"He's dead," Lois said. "But they brought in a bunch of flunkies when Superman figured out how they were targeting us. That guy was one of them. I tried to interview some of them, including him, but no one would answer any questions. He should still have been sitting in jail, except that Intergang lawyers got the whole batch out after Snell's death."
"Intergang takes care of its employees," Clark said. "Even low level ones. That probably explains their loyalty to the organization."
"Yeah," Perry said. "It's a hard nut to crack, that's for sure. It's got to have *some* weaknesses, though. I'm relying on you two to find them."
"We'll do our best," Clark said.
Lois shifted uncomfortably, favoring her hurt rib. "And Claude?"
"They found him," Clark said. He couldn't help grinning slightly, although it wasn't really funny to see a man that humiliated. Or, it shouldn't be. "He had no idea where he was. All he knew was that he'd gone to meet a source who might be able to direct him to 'guys who knew guys' and the next thing he knew, he woke up in the dark."
"He tried to file a story after the police let him go," Perry said. "I had to tell him you'd beat him to the punch. We did put in a bit about what happened to him, though."
"I'm sure he appreciated that a lot," Lois said.
"Well, Lois and CK *did* figure it out before he did," Jimmy pointed out.
"By the way, a spokesman for the Kerth Committee called yesterday evening while you were still at Metro General," Perry said, rising from his seat on Lois's desk. "He said he'd be calling back this afternoon to talk to you, Lois. I said you'd be here."
Jimmy looked admiringly at Lois but didn't say anything until their editor had returned to his office. Then he spoke up.
"Are you up for *another* Kerth?"
"Maybe," Lois said, noncommittally.
Jimmy shook his head. "Man, I don't think there's another reporter in the world who's been nominated as many times as you have—not even CK. I hope someday I'll be half as good as you are."
"Thanks, Jimmy," Lois said.
After their young companion had gone to start his morning tasks, Clark took Perry's place on the corner of Lois's desk. "Rib still hurting?" he asked.
"Some," she admitted. "I don't want to take any more painkiller than I have to, though. I had enough of it when I broke my ankle."
"Lois, I'm sorry I didn't get there sooner," he said, quietly. "If I had, I might have been able to prevent the accident."
"Clark, it's not your fault you didn't get Jimmy's message earlier. You were doing some pretty important things of your own," she pointed out. "And, of course, you caught Nunk breaking into your apartment. Henderson told me this morning that they were going to have to release him, though. They got the guy who's been burglarizing people's homes in your neighborhood. Anyway, I think it's time we 'proved' to everyone's satisfaction that Nunk's barking up the wrong tree." She reached out to take the hand he had rested on his knee. "I want to get all these details out of the way—before we start planning our wedding."
Clark had thought he'd faced every shock of the last two days with reasonable equanimity but this one took him like a clip in the stomach. He stared at her with his mouth half-open. "You mean, you—"
"I mean I'm saying yes." She patted his cheek lightly. "Now, let's take care of Nunk so we can pay attention to the important things in life."
Suddenly he was grinning so widely he thought his face would split in half. "Yes, ma'am!"
"We've reviewed your claim, Ms. Lane, and the evidence presented by your editor and your representative." David Schubert, the Kerth Committee spokesman, had a deep voice that made her want to clear her throat, just listening to him. "Mr. Chabert challenged the claim, of course."
"Of course," Lois said.
"The full committee will be meeting tomorrow afternoon to make a final judgement on the matter. Will you be available to testify?"
"I'll make time," Lois said. "When and where?"
"The meeting will be in the business offices of the Daily Planet at one. Mr. Chabert will also be there."
"I understand," Lois said. "Thank you."
"Very good. Until then, Ms. Lane."
Lois hung up and looked over at Clark, who was tidying up his desk in preparation for leaving. "Tomorrow at one, I have to talk to the Kerth Committee."
"Remember what kind of person you're up against," Clark said. "You'll do fine."
"I hope so." She glanced at the clock. "I'm ready to go home. Just let me shut things down here and we can go."
Perry looked up from his computer screen when Clark stuck his head in the door.
"'Night, Clark. I don't suppose I could talk you and Lois into staying for the poker game, tonight?"
Clark grinned. "Not tonight, sir. I've got dinner plans for a very special date."
"Oh?" His boss raised an eyebrow. "I guess she'd have to be. Have a good time."
"We will. I'll let you know about that other thing."
"You do that. I'm ready to string Nunk up by his thumbs after the trouble he's given the Planet."
"Well, I don't think we need to go that far, but I think it should be awhile before he targets us again."
Perry grunted. "I'd rather string him up, but I guess we better do it your way. Jimmy called about half an hour ago. He got the job, and starts tonight, so we're all set whenever you say go."
"Just as soon as the right opportunity presents itself," Clark said. "Good night, sir."
He joined Lois by the elevator just as the bell rang and held the doors while she moved slowly inside. "Doing all right?"
"Yeah." She grasped the safety rail as the car started downward. "Thanks for getting my Jeep back, by the way. I wouldn't want to walk home today."
"No problem." Clark slipped an arm around her waist. "Is this okay? I'm not hurting your rib, am I?"
"No. It actually feels better when you do that," she said.
"Good." He fell silent, enjoying the feeling of closeness to her. She leaned against him without saying anything as the elevator descended toward the basement lot. As they passed the first floor, Clark lowered his glasses, glancing at the area in front of the Planet. "Nunk's van is parked out on the street," he reported. "I don't see him anywhere, though."
"He's probably staked out the Jeep," Lois said.
"Probably," Clark said. "At least Louise isn't reporting to him, anymore."
"At least," Lois said. "I had a few things to say to her, myself, after Perry got through with her."
"That's probably why she ran when I said good morning," Clark said, thoughtfully.
"Could be. I don't think she'll make the same mistake again."
"Well, that's something, anyway." Clark wouldn't have wanted to be in Louise's shoes for anything when Lois found out about her treachery, but he felt it wise to drop the subject. "Do you feel like putting up with my cooking tonight? I'm going to need to stay in practice. Somebody's got to be the family cook when we get married."
"Well—I guess we could order a lot of takeout," she said.
"Hey, my mom taught me to cook better than that," he protested. "Or don't you trust me?"
"Well—I don't know. I've tasted your mom's cooking, but not yours."
"In that case, I'll have to prove myself," he said. "Are you up to the challenge?"
"All right, you're on," she said, "but this better be good."
"Done." He grinned down at her as the elevator slid to a halt. "All we have to do is run the Nunk gauntlet."
She made a face. "I'm not very fast today."
"Don't worry," Clark said. "I'm not feeling very charitable with him, right now." The doors slid open as he spoke. "Yep, there he is—next to the red van." He took out his cellular phone and punched in six of the seven numbers that dialed the Planet's security office. "This might be our chance. Walk straight to the Jeep and get in. I'll handle him."
Nunk had another photographer with him, today, a skinny, young man with a prominent Adam's apple. He made an attempt to step in front of Lois as she headed for her car and Clark barred his path with one arm. "What are you doing in here, Nunk? You were told to stay away from the Planet."
"What are you going to do? Arrest me?" Nunk inquired with a sneer.
Clark grinned. "You mean you didn't like spending the night in jail? That's too bad." He punched the final number. Someone picked it up on the second ring.
"This is Clark Kent," he said. "I'm in the basement parking lot. Mr. Nunk and his photographer are here, trespassing again and harassing Ms. Lane and me. Could you send someone to pick them up, please?"
"Right away, Mr. Kent."
"Never mind!" Nunk snarled. He turned toward the exit. "You're going to regret this, Kent!"
Clark smiled slightly. "Not as much as you are, Mr. Nunk," he murmured, under his breath. He waited, watching the two as they headed for the exit, smiling even more widely when two Security men appeared before they were halfway there. A moment later, driving past them at the wheel of the Cherokee, he waved cheerfully to them. With luck, it would make the man mad enough to execute his second scheme. Then, Jimmy could do his job. After that, it would just be a matter of proving to the world that Clark Kent and Superman were two different people. That might not be exactly a piece of cake, but by the time they were done, not even the most gullible person on Earth would ever take Leo Nunk seriously again.
If he hadn't known it already, he'd have said Lois was a genius. This was going to be fun.
"Have a seat, Ms. Lane." The chairman of the Kerth Committee was a tall, grey-haired man whom she had met a number of times before: three times while receiving Kerths of her own and several times at the award ceremonies for other journalists, including Clark. She took her place next to her lawyer, Bill Ross, who nodded reassuringly. A moment later the door opened again and Claude entered the room. He cast a frosty glance at Lois, who stared directly back at him, and took a seat next to a thin, predatory-looking woman with a hawk's beak of a nose. Probably his lawyer, Lois surmised. The four other members of the Committee were seated, two on either side of the chairman, but if they noted the byplay, none of them chose to comment.
The chairman folded his hands. "Since it seems everyone is here, let's begin…"
Bill Ross raised a hand. "Excuse me, Mr. Chairman, but we're expecting one more person."
The other lawyer spoke up. "Unless this person has a bearing on this situation, I'm going to object."
Ross smiled. "I assure you, Ms. Bentley, he does have a bearing."
There was a knock on the door and it swung open. Harry Williams entered the room. Bill Ross continued smoothly. "Here he is now. I guess we can proceed."
The chairman cleared his throat. "Ahem, yes. The committee has reviewed all the evidence and taken testimony from Perry White on this subject. The articles by Ms. Lane submitted as samples are quite similar in writing style to that used in the article in question and would be otherwise convincing. However, Mr. Chabert has made the allegation that Ms. Lane's claim is motivated by revenge. Ms. Lane, do you have anything to say to refute Mr. Chabert's claim?"
Bill Ross glanced at Lois and nodded. "Yes, Mr. Chairman. My client has a witness to a disturbing incident that took place three evenings ago between Mr. Chabert and Ms. Lane, regarding this situation."
Lois glanced furtively at Claude. The smug expression he had worn while the chairman had been speaking had disappeared and a slight frown had replaced it.
Claude's lawyer jumped to her feet. "I object to this! This can't possibly be relevant to an incident that took place five years ago!"
The chairman looked at her over the tops of his glasses. "Ms. Bentley, this is not a court of law. The Committee will hear the witness and then decide if the information is relevant." He turned back to Bill Ross. "Proceed, Mr. Ross."
Ross nodded to Harry. "This is Horace Williams, a long-time employee of the Daily Planet. Harry—"
Harry nodded. "I'm on the night shift," he explained. "I knew Mr. Chabert slightly when he worked at the Planet, and I'm casually acquainted with Ms. Lane. Three nights ago, I came to work and Ms. Lane was still there, working late."
"Did you speak to her?" Ms. Bentley demanded.
"Ms. Bentley, the committee will ask the questions," the chairman said, mildly. "Did you speak to Ms. Lane, Mr. Williams?"
"We said hello and I asked if she was working late," Harry said. "Then I went to my desk. A few minutes later Mr. Chabert came in and went right up to her."
"I object!" Ms. Bentley exclaimed. "Mr. Williams is obviously hard of hearing! How could he overhear—"
"Ms. Bentley," the chairman said. He was looking slightly irritated. "You and Mr. Ross are here by special permission only. If you continue to interrupt, I'll have to expel you from the proceedings. Go on, Mr. Williams."
"Thank you." Harry nodded at the chairman. "I didn't like the expression on Mr. Chabert's face, and Ms. Lane was looking a little scared, so I turned up my hearing aid so I could hear what was going on."
Ms. Bentley opened her mouth again, but the chairman cast her a warning glance and she subsided. "Go on," he said.
"Well," Harry said, "Mr. Chabert told Ms. Lane that he'd heard she was challenging his Kerth award and that she'd better drop it or he'd ruin her reputation. He said he had a good imagination. Ms. Lane looked kind of mad. She said she'd written the article, and he said, yes, but nobody else knew. That was pretty much it."
Ms. Bentley was on her feet. "This is hearsay! Mr. Chairman, I object!"
"That was what they said!" Harry was on his feet, too. "Chabert threatened Ms. Lane if she didn't back off. I don't exactly know what it was all about, but I was there and that's what I saw and heard!"
"Sit down, please." The chairman was frowning. "Ms. Bentley, I repeat, this is *not* a court of law. Mr. Williams, would you be willing to take a legal oath on what you observed?"
"You bet I would!"
There was silence in the room. Finally, the chairman nodded. "Thank you, everyone. The committee needs to talk this over in private. Thank you all for coming. We'll let you know when we reach a decision."
Lois stepped out the door of the offices and found Clark waiting for her. "Were you here the whole time?"
He nodded, coming forward to take her hands. "How did it go?"
The door opened again to disgorge Claude and Harry. The French reporter gave the older man a venomous look, which Harry ignored. He smiled at Lois and Clark.
"Good luck, Ms. Lane."
Lois managed a shaky smile in return. "Thanks, Harry."
"No problem." He glanced at Claude's seething expression and grinned slightly. "You should be more careful who you threaten, and where, buddy. You never know who might be listening."
Claude spat a phrase in French that made Clark raise his eyebrows but Harry ignored it. He turned and made his way down the hall toward the row of elevators.
Claude turned his glare on Lois. "I didn't think you'd have the nerve, you—"
Lois looked him straight in the eyes. "I never let bullies and thieves intimidate me, Claude. Ask any of the people I've put in jail since you went back to Paris."
Claude took a half step forward and then seemed to think better of it when Clark cleared his throat. Lois turned back to her partner.
"Come on, Clark, let's get back to work. The Committee will let us know when they've made their decision."
They started toward the elevators. Clark put an arm carefully around her. "Perry told me to take you to lunch. How do you feel about Jose's?"
"That sounds good," Lois said. "For some reason, I feel like having an enchilada combo."
"Whatever you like. My treat." They had missed the car that had arrived for Harry a moment ago. Clark rang for another one without releasing her. A glance backward showed her Claude glaring after them, but the man didn't try to follow.
"Hmm—no sign of Nunk," Clark said as they left the Daily Planet. "I wonder if they kept him in jail all night."
"I doubt it," Lois said. "Still, bailing him out might be getting a little expensive for the Whisper."
"Think how many lawsuits they must have to deal with and how many so-called reporters they must have to bail out of the pokey on a regular basis," Clark pointed out "It's just the cost of the Whisper doing business."
Lois snorted. "Some business!"
He chuckled. "There will always be those who appeal to the worst in people, Lois."
"Oh, I know. I just wish we didn't have to swat so many bloodsuckers all the time."
"If you want my opinion, you did a pretty good job of swatting one, today. You know, it wouldn't surprise me, after this thing about your Kerth is settled, if a few claims from other people come out. You don't think your story was the only one he ever stole, do you?"
"I didn't really do anything, Clark. Harry Williams and Perry did the most."
"You didn't back down when Claude threatened you. That took a lot of courage."
"Like I said to Claude, I don't back down to bullies."
"I know and that's what impresses me. In fact, *you* impress me. You have from the day I met you."
She was about to answer when they passed a newspaper stand. A colorful picture caught her eye and she stopped to stare. "Clark, look!"
It was the National Whisper. On the front page, the headline blared: "ALIEN SEX TRIANGLE!" The picture that had caught her attention was of far better quality than the Whisper usually produced and it showed Leo Nunk cuddled in bed between two classic aliens straight out of a UFO-phile's dream. Lois dropped money in the required receptacle and snatched up a copy. The outrageous article she had produced for Jimmy's use the day before met her gaze. That part had been satisfying. She had let her imagination run wild and produced a story as unlikely as any she had ever seen in one of the tabloids, written with a serious and straightforward tone that gave it the ring of truth. Her eyes returned to the photo again. Jimmy had done a marvelous job. She began to laugh, and if the laughter held a slightly hysterical note, she didn't think anyone could blame her.
Clark was reading over her shoulder. She heard him snort and looked around. He was trying not to break out laughing and it was the first time she had ever seen Superman's face literally scarlet as he tried to suppress his mirth. The expression on her face must have been too much, for he gave up the battle suddenly. Passersby were staring at them, Lois knew, but she literally didn't care. This was one copy of the Whisper that she intended to preserve for the rest of her life.
Jimmy was in the office when they returned from lunch and several copies of the National Whisper had found their way into the newsroom. Clark could hear muted laughter from employees perusing Lois and Jimmy's masterpiece. The junior photographer and newsroom computer expert sauntered casually up to them as they reached their desks.
"Hi there. I see you have a copy of the Whisper."
"Jimmy, this is great," Clark said.
"Thanks, CK," Jimmy said.
"I guess Nunk decided to go with his Superman scandal, last night?" Clark asked.
"Yeah." Jimmy grinned. "Whatever you did yesterday, he was pretty ticked off when his boss bailed him out again, last night. They handed us a pic that had been doctored up to look like you and Lois and Superman were all in bed together, CK. Their editor approved it and everything. Of course, they didn't realize I'd already rigged the computer program that handles the front page layout to wipe their stuff and substitute ours once it was sent down for mass printing. I just hope they don't ever manage to track down the new night computer tech they hired yesterday. I'd hate to have Nunk on my case."
"He never saw you, did he?" Lois asked.
"Good. Just make sure he doesn't get a look at you again until that bruise goes away. I think you should be pretty safe," Clark said. "Superman said to tell you thanks, by the way. He liked your work."
Perry opened the door of his office. "Hey, what is this?— Happy hour at Buckingham Palace? You people can admire that rag on your own time." He waved an arm at Lois and Clark. "In my office, you two."
"Talk to you later, Jim," Clark said, quickly. "Duty calls."
Lois gave him a nervous look and he squeezed her hand. Perry waited while they made their way to his office, gestured them past him and shut the door. "The Kerth spokesman called," he said.
"And?" Clark couldn't read the expression on his face. Perry regarded Lois for a long moment, and Clark felt his heart sinking. They had decided in Claude's favor, after all.
Perry's face broke into a broad grin. "Congratulations, Lois. The Kerth Committee unanimously revoked Claude's Kerth. You are now the proud winner of four Kerth Awards for investigative journalism."
Lois gasped. Perry's grin widened. "Claude left right after the verdict," he added. "He's on his way back to Paris as we speak."
Clark felt himself grinning in triumph. "You did it!"
Lois nodded, seemingly unable to speak. "Oh, Clark!" she squeaked, finally. "I can't believe it!"
Perry reached out to hug her. "Congratulations, honey. I'm proud of you."
"Everybody will be proud of her, when we tell them," Clark said. "I sure am."
Perry released her. "That's what I wanted to talk to you two about," he said. "I think we can use this to kill two birds with one stone."
"What do you mean?" Lois asked.
"The Annual Metropolitan Journalist's Ball is coming up next week," Perry said. "I think we should arrange a little ceremony to be held at the event. I'm going to have you present Lois with her Kerth in front of every news organization in the city, Clark. And, if Superman could find time in his schedule to show up and congratulate her during the presentation…"
Lois's eyes brightened. "Clark, it's perfect!"
Clark nodded. "Chief, you're a genius."
The Metropolitan Journalists' Ball was an annual social event in Metropolis. It always drew a crowd that included most of the employees from every newspaper in the state, from the editors down to the most lowly of copy boys. Lois glanced at her reflection in the full-length mirror that decorated the entranceway hall and debated—again—if the slim, black dress and the simple string of pearls were the best choice she could have made for the event.
She had graduated from the athletic cast to an elastic ankle support the day before and this evening was wearing a pair of dressy, flat black shoes. As a result, she felt shorter than ever beside her partner, who towered over her, looking handsome (as usual) in a tux. Of course, Clark looked handsome in anything, including a pair of ragged jeans and a worn T-shirt, as she had noticed this weekend while he helped his dad with chores around the Kansas farm.
Clark looked down at her and smiled. "I'm going to be the envy of every guy in the room."
"Well, I'm going to be the envy of every woman," she said. The ring on her finger still felt unfamiliar but she regarded it with a little tingle of excitement as the diamond caught the light from the chandelier overhead and split it into tiny rainbow lights. "You're all mine."
"I always was," he said. "You just didn't know it."
"Well, I know it now. I only wish I could dance with you tonight and I can't—not with this foot."
Clark smiled. "We'll dance later, when we get back to your place. My kind of dancing doesn't put any strain on the feet."
She giggled. "It's a good thing I know what you're talking about," she said. "Otherwise I might take that the wrong way."
"Well, it's true!" She was in a giddy mood tonight. The Kerth Committee chairman had explained to her the day of the critical decision, that the committee had personally been convinced by the evidence Perry White had presented to them that she had written the award-winning story, but that, to be absolutely fair, they had been forced to take Claude Chabert's accusation into account. This afternoon, Perry had told her that Claude was already immersed in two legal battles in Paris, one involving a colleague accusing him of theft of his material and another concerning some other, unspecified charge. How Perry had found that out he wouldn't say, but just the knowledge was invigorating. It seemed that they had done the journalistic world a favor when she and Perry had brought Claude's perfidy to light.
In spite of that, though, a little bit of uneasiness nibbled at her nerves. She wouldn't be completely comfortable until the last part of their plan was finished. Diana Stride's accusation that Clark Kent was Superman had to be refuted beyond the shadow of a doubt. The other tabloids were still running the occasional article claiming to have seen Clark Kent doing amazing feats, and though she doubted anyone took them seriously, it was still necessary to prove to the world that the Intergang assassin had been lying. Somewhere in this building, with line-of-sight access to the ballroom, Martha and Jonathan Kent were concealed, awaiting their cue. Martha Kent's "project" was all set up—the holographic projector that she had been playing with for her art project two weekends ago when Lois had visited their farm was ready to go. After this evening Diana Stride would be completely discredited, assuming nothing went wrong.
The ballroom was brilliantly lighted by gleaming, crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and beneath them, the guests were moving about, chatting with people they hadn't seen for a year and generally enjoying themselves. Music played softly in the background and more than one pair of appreciative eyes followed the two of them as Clark escorted her proudly to the table set up for the Daily Planet and pulled out a chair for her.
Perry and Alice were already there, as were most of the members of the newsroom. Ralph, she noted, as she sat down, had already had one or two drinks too many. His face was flushed, and in his hand, he held a half-full glass of beer. The man looked her over and wolf-whistled softly between his teeth. Lois saw Clark stiffen slightly. She put a hand on his arm.
"Hey there, Kent," Ralph greeted them. "I thought you were gonna be late."
"Why would we be late?" Lois asked, taking her seat by Alice. Clark sat down beside her.
"Didn't Kent have to return a video, or somethin'?" Ralph snickered at his undoubtedly lame joke.
Clark rolled his eyes but didn't answer.
Alice White turned to Lois, ignoring Ralph as if he didn't exist. "Is that an engagement ring, Lois?"
Lois nodded. "Clark asked me to marry him. I said yes."
"That's wonderful!" She turned to Clark. "Congratulations, Clark!"
Clark smiled, looking very slightly smug. "Thank you," he said.
"I'd say it's about time," Perry said. "There's been an office pool runnin' for months over how long it was going to take."
"Perry!" his wife chided. "That's terrible!"
"Oh, I wasn't in it," their boss assured them with a broad grin. "I wasn't even supposed to know about it."
"I guess we were the only ones who didn't know," Clark said, mildly. "I don't mind. I'm the big winner, after all." He smiled at Lois and she felt herself blushing.
Perry glanced at his watch. "It's about time to start. Looks like mostly everyone is here."
There was a rustle on the podium and someone tapped the microphone. "Can everybody hear me? Okay then, let's get this show on the road. We'll be serving dinner in a few minutes, and we have a wonderful program for everyone tonight. Our first speaker will be—"
Lois listened with half her attention as the program rolled forward. Waiters were circulating around with appetizers and Ralph ordered another drink. She wondered how many more of those he could manage before somebody had to escort him out of the room. Glancing around, she tried to spot where Perry had arranged for Martha and Jonathan Kent to hide, and couldn't. That was good. If she couldn't find them, knowing they were here somewhere, then it was highly unlikely that anyone else would.
"And now," the announcer was saying, "we have one unexpected event added to our program. We all heard last week about the Kerth Award decision, I'm sure. Tonight, that award is going to be presented to its rightful recipient by her partner. So, without further ado, would Mr. Clark Kent come forward to handle this important presentation?"
This was it. Clark squeezed her hand and got to his feet. He strode to the elevated platform at the front of the room and mounted to the podium with his usual casual grace. Lois couldn't help admiring the way he looked so completely at ease, even in front of several hundred people. The master of ceremonies shook his hand and stood aside. Clark took his place.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of the press," he began. "As we all know, one of the most prestigious awards a journalist can win for investigative journalism is the Kerth. Five years ago, a rookie journalist wrote a story worthy of that award but another reporter stole her story and claimed it as his own. As proof of the quality of the work, it won a Kerth for him that he didn't merit. The rookie journalist believed that no one would take her word over that of a seasoned reporter if she told the truth, so she said nothing. Five years later, that rookie is, in my own completely unbiased opinion, one of the best investigative journalists in Metropolis."
The mild joke brought a general chuckle and a scattering of applause. Clark waited until it died down before he continued.
"Tonight, although it was long delayed, she is finally receiving the recognition that her story should have given her five years ago. Lois, would you come up here, please? We have something here that belongs to you."
Lois got to her feet and walked slowly toward the podium, careful not to strain her slowly healing ankle. The last thing she needed to do was slip and twist it again in front of most of the journalistic community in the city. Somewhere, someone started to applaud, and the applause grew until it seemed to fill the room. Surprised, she realized that everyone in the place was standing, and the other journalists, even the ones who had been her biggest rivals over the past five years, were grinning widely.
She mounted the stairs, and the master of ceremonies reached out a hand to help her. Clark met her eyes as she crossed the platform toward him, looking as if he might burst with pride.
When she came to a stop beside him, he held up the award. "I believe this is yours, Ms. Lane. Congratulations."
Lois took it, surprised to realize that her vision was blurring with tears. "Thank you," she managed.
Clark leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. "You deserve it."
From above, a gust of wind brushed her face and a very familiar voice said, "May I add my congratulations as well?"
She looked up to see the figure of Superman descending slowly toward the platform. He paused, hovering only inches above the surface and his eyes seemed to be focussed on her face. She knew it was only a hologram, but if she hadn't known, she wouldn't have been able to see any difference.
"When I came to Metropolis," Superman said, "the first person I spoke to was Lois Lane. I couldn't have chosen a better person to tell the world who I was and why I was here. Since then, as well as the dedicated journalist who told my story to the people of this city, she's come to be a valued friend as well. Metropolis is fortunate to have you, Lois."
While he was speaking, she had managed to regain some of her equilibrium. Her voice was commendably steady as she replied, "Thank you, Superman."
He smiled at her. "I can only stay a minute. I'm needed elsewhere, but I wanted to extend my congratulations to you on your award. You deserve it." The familiar whooshing sound filled the room and Superman was gone.
Clark stepped forward again. "Well, how can I do better than that? Although, I'm sure the local tabloids will have some ingenious explanation for how I managed to be in two places at once…"
There was a general laugh. Clark continued, "Would you care to say a few words, Lois?"
Lois leaned forward. "Only that I'd like to thank my editor, Perry White. If not for him, I wouldn't be where I am today—and I wouldn't have this, either." She held up the award. "Like a true investigative journalist, he figured out the truth about what happened and helped me to prove it. Thank you, Perry."
Amid the applause, she turned and started for the stairs. Clark said, "And that concludes our award ceremony, ladies and gentlemen. You may now return to your dinner."
Scattered chuckles followed them as Clark joined her and helped her down the steps.
At the table, Perry leaned toward her. "That went well."
Lois nodded. "I meant what I said, too, Perry. Thank you."
"Aw, honey, it was the least I could do."
Ralph put an end to the conversation by dropping his beer and sliding slowly off his chair onto the floor. Lois stared at him for a shocked instant and bit her lip to smother a laugh. Perry raised an eyebrow. "Clark, why don't you and Jimmy help him into the lobby?" he said, in a matter-of-fact way. "There's a bench there where he can sleep it off."
Martha and Jonathan were waiting for them at Lois's apartment when they returned, two hours later.
"How did it go?" Jonathan asked, before they had even closed the door. "Was everybody convinced?"
"It went fine," Clark said. "I don't think anyone will have any doubts after this. Nunk has been trying to gin something else up ever since last week, you know, but no one is taking him seriously anymore—although last week's issue of the Whisper was one of the biggest sellers they've had in a couple of years. Between Jimmy's picture and Lois's article, I heard they had to go for an extra printing. Rumor said Nunk objected, but his editor over- ruled him. They were making too much money."
Martha laughed. "Serves him right," she said. She turned to Lois. "I haven't had a chance, with everything going on the way it has, to tell you how happy I am about your engagement, Lois. Do you know how long my son has been in love with you?"
Lois could feel herself blushing again. "Now I do."
"I always wanted a daughter," Martha said. "Now it looks as if I'm finally going to get my wish."
Jonathan was smiling at her, too. Lois touched the ring on her finger very gently. "Thank you—both of you. I only hope I can make him happy."
"You already have," Jonathan said, unexpectedly. "Welcome to the family, Lois."
Lois blinked away tears for the second time that evening. Suddenly, she realized that the strains of "Fly Me to the Moon" had begun to play. Clark bowed to her. "Since you weren't able to at the party, would you care to dance, Ms. Lane?"
She nodded. Clark slipped his arm around her waist and she felt her feet lifting from the floor. Martha turned to her husband. "Jonathan?"
"Now, Martha, you know I don't dance very well—oh, all right."
Lois looked down. Almost directly below them, Jonathan and Martha were moving slowly in time to the music. She looked back at Clark to see that his face was within inches of hers and he was smiling at her. She smiled back, but neither of them said a word.