By Irene Dutch <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: March 2002
Summary: When she discovers the man she has been seeing is engaged, Cat is devastated. But when the man becomes the victim of a brutal murder, she must work, with the help of Lois, Clark and her new friend Joe, to find his killer and solve a mystery that presents a grave danger to the world.
This story is dedicated to merry — LnC fanfic's biggest supporter. Thank you, merry, for all your support and nag… um, encouragement. I especially like it when you tell me that real life is no excuse for not writing! ;)
Also, thank you, Wendy and Laurie, my fabulous beta- readers. Your comments, criticisms and suggestions are more than welcome! Thank you as well to my editor, Sarah Murray, for all her assistance.
A huge thank-you to the queen of A-plots, Nan Smith, and her devoted consort, er, hubby, for their very helpful suggestions and brainstorming. Things wouldn't have progressed very far without them.
I also have to thank Tank Wilson for helping me figure out how Lois might react in certain situations. Sometimes she's an enigma to me, and it's a huge relief to be able to count on someone like Tank who understands her so well.
Thanks, too, to Alicia, Dharsh, and Amber for their help with Indian culture.
Finally, of course, I have to thank the readers who frequent Zoom's message boards. Your support and suggestions were invaluable as always.
WARNING — In this fanfic, one of the characters is quite racist and uses racial epithets in casual conversation. This is NO way reflects my own personal beliefs. I strive to be tolerant of all people, regardless of race, creed or gender. I'm sure that I sometimes fall short of this goal, but I will never stop trying to achieve it.
MILD PROFANITY WARNING
VIOLENCE WARNING — My villains really aren't nice people.
All standard disclaimers apply.
The tall, blond man laughed heartily. Unbelievable. This was just unbelievable!
Life was funny. And fun. Very, very fun. To think this all started because his grades in high school had been rather uninspired. They would have been better, but there had always been so many other things — fun things — to do that took precedence over studying.
And it was because he'd had such a good time in high school that he'd ended up at UNW. UNW had been lots of fun, too, but let's face it—it wasn't known for the quality of its diplomas. But who cared? He'd kept his paterfamilias happy, and with all that lovely inheritance at stake, that had been important. Too bad his father hadn't left as much as anticipated upon croaking. But he had plans to make up for that shortfall.
If he hadn't attended UNW, he'd have never met Bobo. And if Bobo weren't getting married, he'd have never bought Bobo a wedding present. And if his last mistress hadn't thought she was an artist, he would have never bought that ridiculous statue from her to send to his friend. And if he hadn't used Lex-mail because that ridiculous statue needed special packaging… If, if, if.
And the final 'if'. If Luthor hadn't employed a clumsy klutz…
True, life was good. But it was about to get a whole lot better!
In Cat's Corner By Irene Dutch
Cat Grant stretched languidly as she lounged against the tousled pillows, a sheet wrapped haphazardly around her, barely covering her naked breasts. She watched, contented and appreciative, as Brandon neatly fastened his gold cuff links.
"You're sure you can't stay longer?" she purred, her voice husky with pleasure.
He smiled briefly at her over one shoulder before returning his eyes to the mirror. As she watched, he twitched his tie into place.
"No. I wish I could, but I have a pressing engagement that I can't miss."
"Mmmm, I can think of something 'pressing' I'd like to do," Cat drawled as she stretched again. In the mirror, his eyes watched her move. She was pleased that she continued to fascinate him even when he was physically sated.
As was she.
Not only was he a fantastic lover, but Brandon was just so much fun! He wasn't just the most playful man she'd ever been with, he was also sensitive and sensual, and he cared for her. She knew that. He cared for her with an honest heart, seeing her not just as a prize but as someone to be cherished. And he was someone to be cherished, too.
For the first time in her life, Cat Grant could honestly say that she was in love — full-blown, true-blue, head- over-heels in love. And it felt good!
She'd never been open to the possibility of love before, but her experience with the Nightfall asteroid had clearly shown her just what was missing in her life. It was scary being so vulnerable emotionally but after having time come so close to literally running out, she couldn't hold herself aloof any longer.
Brandon moved to sit down on the edge of the bed. He reached out to cup Cat's cheek in a large, warm hand. "I'll call you tomorrow."
She nodded as she pressed her lips against his palm.
"We'll have lunch if that's okay."
She nodded again and accidentally on purpose let the sheet slip.
His breath caught. Bending, he kissed her lips fervently. "If I didn't have to go…" he breathed.
"I know," she murmured, sliding her hands up his muscled arms.
"I have to, though. I don't have a choice."
His gaze was hot on her skin.
"You've been so mysterious about your business. Will you be able to tell me more after your meeting?" Cat took pity on him and gathered the sheet back into place.
With an effort, Brandon looked up to meet her eyes. "No. Not really. All I can tell you is that it has to do with a friend that's getting married. In an indirect sort of way." He chuckled and kissed her once more and then with a visible effort, stood up. "Oh, by the way," he said, his voice light and teasing. "I have some gossip for you for 'Cat's Corner.'"
He smiled down at her. "I've decided to get married."
"Really?" Cat purred, her heart turning somersaults upon hearing his words. She hadn't realised that he'd been thinking as seriously about her as she had about him. "But isn't it customary to ask the lady first?" she said with a triumphant laugh.
He turned away and shrugged into his overcoat. "I have. Julia Hawthorne. She has impeccable breeding. It's a good solid match. We'll give you the exclusive."
No words came to Cat's lips as she stared up at the stranger wearing Brandon's body.
He turned back to her, the same easy smile on his face. "See you tomorrow," he said as he dropped a kiss on her gaping mouth. "This was fun! I can hardly wait to do you again."
And he left, with Cat still frozen and staring in shock after him.
"All men are scum!"
Lois Lane looked up from her computer and watched in awe as Cat Grant stormed into the newsroom. Sparks were flying from the gossip columnist's eyes, and her high heels rapped out an angry staccato on the tile floor.
Jimmy and Ralph fled into the stockroom in the face of her wrath.
"They're the lowest form of life!" Cat continued as she flung her purse onto her desk. "They should all be drowned at birth! They should all be fixed so they can no longer propagate their species! I don't want to see a man, talk to a man, or listen to a man ever again!"
Eduardo slouched down in his chair.
Lois and Clark exchanged shocked and incredulous glances.
"Um, Cat, are you all right?" Clark asked tentatively.
"Didn't you hear what I said?" Cat snarled. "Didn't you hear me say that I don't want to talk to men any more?"
"Well, correct me if I'm wrong," Cat asked sarcastically, "but you're a man, aren't you, Clark? At least, you look like a man. So, leave me alone unless you want me to change that for you!" She punched at the on switch on her computer and threw herself into her chair.
Clark looked at Lois. Lois looked at Clark. Neither one of them had any idea what to do. Clark made a cryptic motion with his hands. Lois grimaced, but Clark motioned once more. She glared at him, angrily, but he just waited patiently. Finally, Lois sighed, slowly pushed herself to her feet and walked over to Cat.
"Is there anything I can do?" Lois asked softly.
"No!" Cat exclaimed. She took a deep breath and repeated herself. "No," she said more calmly. "Thank you for asking, but no."
"Okay," Lois replied. "I… Uh… If you need anything, I'll be at my desk working with Clark."
"Lucky you," Cat retorted sarcastically. "I sure hope he's paper trained!" She turned to her computer, her fingers flying over the keys at a fast and furious pace.
Lois sat back down at her desk and regarded her partner solemnly. She held her hands out palms up in a placating gesture. "I tried."
"I know," Clark replied. "Just promise me something."
Lois grinned. "It's a deal. Now, getting back to this murder — what do your notes say about the cause of death?"
"Blood loss. A huge blood loss."
"Oh. Do they have any idea who this guy is, yet?"
"Not yet. It could be a while seeing as all his teeth were pulled and his fingers cut off. No dental records, no fingerprints, and whatever he looked like before, he sure doesn't now!"
"Ouch!" Lois shook her head. "All I can say is that I sure hope he was dead first."
"Me, too, Lois. Me, too."
The newsroom gradually approached normal over the next few minutes although it was obvious that the men were giving Cat a wide berth as they moved about. The employees were more nervous than usual, flinching when the elevator dinged or a phone rang. Ralph and Jimmy slunk back to their desks.
"Sending you a story, Perry!" Cat yelled as she emphatically hit 'send.'
Ritchie jumped and knocked over his mug of pens. He scrabbled on the floor for them as they rolled every which way.
Cat made her way to the coffee area and poured herself a cup. She stood at the top of the stairs looking out over the newsroom, her eyes like flint.
"What is this?" Perry stormed out of the office waving a sheet of paper. "Cat, we can't print this!"
"Why not? It's the truth!" Cat stomped down the stairs to confront her boss. The two of them ended up meeting beside Lois's desk. She and Clark watched with open mouths and wide eyes, their heads swivelling to face Perry and Cat in turn.
"I don't care if it's the truth or not! I just can't print this. I've never read anything like it! Now, write it up again and write it properly this time!" Perry screwed the paper into a ball and threw it into Lois's garbage can.
"Fine! If I have to, I guess I can fake it. It's not like I've never done that before!" Cat retorted bitterly, casting a scathing glance at the room. She cast herself back down in her chair and started typing once again.
Lois glanced around surreptitiously. With the exception of Clark, everyone in the room was staring at Cat. As he watched, Lois casually reached down and extracted the paper from her garbage can. Holding it below the level of the desk, she smoothed it out. He quickly pulled his chair a little closer and leaned over her shoulder so they could read the story together.
"Oh my," Lois muttered under her breath.
"I've never…" Clark shook his head.
"I can't believe…"
Lois looked at Clark. Clark looked at Lois. Clark and Lois looked back at the paper.
Clark would never have believed it possible, but Lois's eyes were even bigger than they'd been earlier.
"I know," he replied while blushing furiously.
"She, uh, she really has a way with words," Lois said valiantly.
"Uh huh. Interesting vocabulary," Clark replied. "I, uh, am particularly impressed by the part where she said… um…" He pointed. A fresh wave of colour flooded into his face.
"About his… Yeah. Very creative. I've never thought of describing … it that way before."
"I don't think anyone's ever thought of describing it that way before!" Clark grimaced.
"I thought Brandon Chesney was seeing Cat."
"Obviously so did Cat," Clark replied softly.
"Obviously." Lois shook her head and glanced over at the angry gossip columnist. "I never thought I'd say this, but I feel sorry for her."
"So do I."
"Chesney's going to have to watch his back. Her claws are out."
"Hell hath no fury…"
"You know anything about this Julia Hawthorne?"
"Not much. Just that her family has a lot of money and a lot of connections. Poor Cat." Lois shook her head, glanced once more at the angry woman and then turned back to Clark. "So, we better get back to work. We have a lot of stuff here. I vote that we do a sidebar to the main story."
"I don't know, Lois. We don't have all that much. And I hate to say it, but the man is a John Doe. We still don't know much about him. A sidebar might make the main story a little flimsy. Maybe we should talk about this."
"No can do, Clark! If you want to work with me, you have to respect my instincts. Remember what I keep saying — I'm the senior journalist; your job is to follow my lead."
"Don't you think that's starting to wear a little thin? We've been working together for months!"
"Hey! When you have a row of Kerths, we can rethink this. Until then, I make the final decision, and I say sidebar. So let's get started."
And for a time, things got back to normal. Shortly before lunchtime, Cat got a phone call, snarled into the receiver, and pounded it on her desk for a bit before slamming it into its cradle emphatically. No one felt brave enough to ask her about it. Afterwards, Cat stalked to the vending machines, bought a sandwich and defiantly ate it at her desk, her white teeth audibly snapping together as she took voracious bites. No one particularly wanted to speculate what she could possibly be imagining while she ate so ferociously. She glared around the newsroom, but those who were left kept their heads down to avoid eye contact. Both Eduardo and Jimmy who normally brought their lunches to the newsroom were conspicuous by their absence.
About two in the afternoon, all noise stopped when Cat pushed her chair back from her desk and sprang to her feet. Her heels clicked loudly in the sudden silence as she headed to Perry's office.
"I'm leaving early," she said, sticking her head in his door. Turning on her heel, she stalked to the elevator, punched the down button and waited, fuming, until it opened. She entered, jabbed her finger at the control panel, the doors closed, and she was gone, the atmosphere lightening by several degrees in her absence.
A buzz of noise started once more as, all at once, everyone speculated madly about what could have provoked the gossip columnist to such a degree.
"Lois! Clark! My office. Now!"
The two reporters got to their feet. Clark started moving towards Perry's office, but Lois paused. She surreptitiously slipped Cat's story into her pocket before following her partner. She didn't want any of the others to read it. It would only fuel the gossip that was starting to fly fast and furious around the office.
"Yeah, Chief. You got something for us?" she asked as she followed Clark into Perry's office.
"Shut the door. I want to run something past the two of you." Perry waited patiently until Lois and Clark were settled in chairs in front of him. "I, uh, want to ask you something."
"Well, you're probably wondering what exactly happened earlier when Cat blew up, and I shouldn't tell you, but, oh heck, there's a problem …" Perry fell silent when Lois pulled the crumpled story out of her pocket.
"You did throw it in my garbage can, Perry," she said, shrugging her shoulders.
He sighed. "So I did. I should have known better. But it's saved me from a lot of talking." Perry shifted in his chair. "Cat's covering the Symphony Benefit tonight, and Chesney's going to be there. He's on their board. He'll probably have this Hawthorne woman at his side. Do you see where this could be a problem?"
"Oh yeah," Lois breathed fervently.
Clark nodded emphatically.
"So anyway, I know I've been working the two of you pretty hard, and I know that tonight's the first night you've had to yourselves in a while, and I know that probably the last thing you two want to do is get all dolled up, but …"
"But you want us to go to the benefit and keep an eye on Cat," Clark finished.
"Well … Yeah," Perry agreed.
"Sure. At least, I'll go," Clark said. "She definitely needs someone to watch out for her!"
"Boy Scout," Lois muttered under her breath.
As one, Perry and Clark turned to her.
"Why do I have to go, too?" she asked defiantly. "Clark already volunteered."
"Because if you don't, Clark here would stick out like a sore thumb," Perry answered. "It's a dance. The tickets are being sold in pairs."
The two men waited silently, their eyes never shifting from Lois.
"Oh, all right," she finally said begrudgingly.
"Just remember, Lois. No funny stuff!" Clark grinned at her.
"So who's going with Cat if Chesney's tied up?" Lois asked, totally ignoring her partner.
Perry grimaced. "Jimmy. The plan was, she'd talk to the celebrities, he'd take their pictures."
"Ouch!" Clark exclaimed.
"Watch out!" Lois shook her head. "I hope someone warns him, and he rents a bullet-proof tux!"
"I'll talk to him," Perry said, wincing. "I'll let him know what's what. He'll be on his toes."
"He'll have to be!" Lois replied. "If he's not, you'll be looking for a new photographer."
"I guess you'll just have to keep an eye on him, too." Perry looked down at his desk and shifted some papers around. "All right. Back to work. I need that story. Get cracking!"
"On it, Chief. We'll have it for you in a couple of minutes."
"Send Eduardo in on your way out, okay? I want to check what he's got on the latest round of verbal sparring between India and Pakistan." Perry looked down at his desk, immersing himself in his paperwork once again.
"Will do, Chief."
"Need an award-winning story? Ask Lois. Need a slimy politician pinned down? Ask Lois. Need corruption at city hall uncovered? Ask Lois. Need an out-of-control gossip columnist sat on? Don't ask Lois. Clark, why the heck did I let you and Perry talk me into this? I have better things to do than babysit!" Lois took the ticket from the coat-check woman and tucked it into her purse.
"We didn't have to talk that hard, Lois. You're worried about her, too. Admit it." Clark handed over his own overcoat.
"I'll admit no such thing. She's a grown woman. She can look after herself. We're not even friends. We don't like each other!" She tucked her hand into his arm as they headed into the ballroom.
"Come on, admit it. Somewhere deep down inside, you like Cat — at least a little bit. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here no matter what Perry or I said." Clark grinned at her, his eyes twinkling.
In spite of herself, her lips twitched in response. "All right. I guess it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that somewhere, buried deep inside — so deep I'm totally unconscious of it — I might have the teeniest, tiniest inkling of liking for Cat. But you're not to go blabbing about it. I have a reputation to protect."
"Your reputation's safe with me, Lois."
"I've heard that one before!"
The two reporters stood within the grand ballroom, surveying the hordes of elegantly dressed people, searching for a tall, angry woman with claws out and hackles up.
The room was crowded with Metropolis's richest, most connected, most aristocratic, all preening for each other.
Lois looked a little sour as she regarded the milling throng.
"I'm surprised you're not out on a date with Lex," Clark said.
"He had other plans," she answered absentmindedly.
Clark's expression brightened at the news.
She glared at him, irked by the pleasure on his face. "Do you have to look so happy to be here?"
"I am happy," he assured her. "Great food, good music, dancing, a beautiful woman on my arm — what else could a man ask for?"
Lois's expression softened. "Thanks, Clark. I should have told you — you look pretty nice, yourself."
"I clean up okay, then?"
Her eyes travelled across the breadth of his shoulders, and up and down the length of him, noting the crisp tailoring of his tuxedo and the soft waves of his dark, shiny hair. Even his shoes had been polished to a high gloss.
"Tolerable, Clark. You clean up tolerable."
He laughed. "Gee, thanks! Such high praise."
She giggled and patted him on the arm before turning back to the throngs of people. "Any sign of her?"
"Not yet," Clark answered as his eyes scanned the room. "But isn't that Chesney over there?" He discreetly pointed to a man standing on the sidelines watching the dancers. "That must be Julia Hawthorne beside him."
Lois looked at the good-looking, blonde man for a second before moving on to regard his companion. Well, they were certainly a gorgeous couple. She, too, was blonde and elegant and striking. She looked hard as nails, Lois thought. Cynical, sophisticated and snotty.
The two of them edged nearer but didn't see any sign of Cat.
Clark focused his hearing to hear what Chesney was saying.
"… a lovely woman! I'm thrilled for him."
"It's a long flight, but my Brandon is just determined to be by his friend's side when he says 'I do' or whatever they say in that rather bizarre ceremony!" Julia gazed fatuously at her fianc‚.
"It is bizarre, isn't it?" Brandon asked rhetorically. "If it were anyone other than Bobo, I wouldn't go. But he's not like the rest of those rag-heads. He's one of the good ones. When we were at UNW, he fit right in." He sniffed delicately. "Except for his complexion, of course. Can't help that he's not white, poor fellow."
"But doesn't he…smell funny?" one of the other women asked.
Brandon shook his head. "No, not at all. His hygiene is impeccable. Of course, it helped that he avoided curried food like the plague. That's what carries the stink, you know."
Clark was aghast listening to this conversation. He guessed that this Bobo, whoever he was, was from India, and Clark had the fondest memories of his time there. The people were wonderful. Yes, it was a poor country, but with such a rich history and culture. Well, cultures, really, as there were so many divisions, but even so. And well-prepared Indian food had a succulent aroma; it didn't stink!
He wondered what this blue-blooded snob would think of his Kryptonian lineage. 'Superman might look white, but we all know that he's not. He just doesn't fit in. Too flashy equals too trashy." Clark could hear the words now.
"Hey, there's Jimmy!" Lois exclaimed.
Clark winced. He had still been focused on Chesney's conversation, and Lois's voice had just about pierced his eardrum!
She grabbed Clark by the hand and dragged him across the room. Obviously he wasn't moving fast enough for her. He had to laugh. Trust Lois. Even Superman wasn't speedy enough to suit her.
"Hey guys! Isn't this fantastic? I've got some great pictures!" He patted his camera fondly. "Did you try those little stuffed mushrooms yet? I had a ton of them. They were great."
Lois and Clark exchanged a quick glance, sharing their amusement at their younger colleague's exuberance. It was infectious, as was his ear-to-ear smile.
"Nah. We left them all for you. Eat hearty!" Clark clapped him on the back. "Any idea where we could find Cat?"
Jimmy leaned forward a bit to talk directly to them without others overhearing. "Well, you might want to check out the bar, but before you do, you better trade that tux in for a flak jacket, CK."
"She hasn't calmed down then," Lois said.
"Not hardly! I was lucky to escape with my life!" Jimmy grinned. "The only thing that saved me was her catching sight of that actor — oh, what's his name? — the one that's been married about nine times. She said a guy with his track record must have something totally bent about him, and she took off trying to get an interview."
"And did she?" Clark looked worried.
"Nah. His bodyguard took one look at her coming and steered his client in the other direction. That's when I saw her heading to the bar."
"That doesn't sound good. We better go look there. Try to find us if you spot her first, okay?" Lois asked.
"Sure thing, guys."
"I have a really bad feeling about this," Lois muttered under her breath as she and Clark continued searching for their errant colleague.
"So do I," he answered absentmindedly.
She shot him a startled glance, surprised that he had heard her soft comment.
The bar was even more crowded than the ballroom.
"I guess when you arrive by limo, you don't have to worry about being the designated driver," Clark said as he sidestepped a man who already looked three sheets to the wind.
"I guess not," Lois replied as she futilely tried to look over various people's heads. "You're taller. Any sign of her?"
Clark craned his neck and stood on his toes, wishing he could float above the horde of people. "No. I'm afraid not." As he turned around, he caught sight of Jimmy pushing his way towards them.
A cacophony of noise from the ballroom drowned him out.
Jimmy grimaced and then with a resigned expression on his face continued. "… back there."
The three of them pushed and shoved their way back to the ballroom only to end up stumbling as they emerged into a clear space that surrounded an inebriated, angry gossip columnist and her chosen prey — Brandon Chesney with Julia Hawthorne at his side. Their eyes widened as they listened.
"Be reasonable, Cat," Chesney said in a soothing tone of voice. "This is not the place to discuss our personal affairs."
"This is exactly the place," Cat retorted. "What better place is there than here where all your friends and colleagues can find out exactly how scummy you are?" Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes flashing fire. Cat took a step forward, Chesney backing away as she approached. "Did you tell your precious fianc‚e about us? How does she feel knowing that she's been sharing you with another woman?"
Chesney shot a quick glance at Julia Hawthorne before turning back to Cat. "Actually…"
"Actually, Ms. Grant, I feel fine," Julia said, her face an expressionless mask. "Well, except that I have to face the fact that my future husband has execrable taste." She turned to Chesney. "I mean, really, darling, I understand that you had urges, but did you really have to sink this low?" She gestured at the stunned gossip columnist.
"Oh no!" Lois exclaimed, moving towards the motionless tableau. "I'll take him…"
"You take him…"
"… you take her."
"… I'll take her," Clark finished.
"Did you guys rehearse that?" Jimmy asked as he followed in their wake.
With an incoherent shriek, Cat flung herself towards Julia Hawthorne. Chesney pushed his fianc‚e behind him and braced for Cat's onslaught.
Clark caught Cat around the waist and half-lifted her off the floor. Her arms were swinging, her legs flailing, but somehow, he managed to prevent her blows from landing.
Chesney moved forward towards her, but Lois pushed him back. "I think you've done enough, don't you?" she asked sarcastically. "Why don't you let my partner and me look after our friend?"
Chesney took a deep breath, slowly exhaled and nodded. He took Julia's arm and turned to guide her out of the room.
"I do hope that you've made an appointment with your doctor, darling," his fianc‚e purred. "You never know — you might need a prescription for penicillin. Who knows what vile germs you might have been exposed to?" She glanced back over her shoulder at Cat and shuddered.
"I'll kill you for that!" Cat screamed. "I'll kill both of you!" She fought so hard to get free that even with his enhanced strength, Clark was hard-put to hold on. He didn't want to hurt her. He finally shifted her around so that she was scooped into his arms and pinned against his chest.
Carrying Cat, Clark made slow progress out of the ballroom, even with Lois and Jimmy pushing people out of his way.
By the time the four of them had arrived at Lois's Jeep in the parking lot, Cat had stopped fighting. Instead, she lounged in Clark's grasp, staring straight ahead with her arms folded defiantly across her chest.
"If I put you down, can I trust you?" Clark asked.
Cat tilted her chin up even more, her eyes not meeting his.
He gave her a little shake. "Can I trust you?"
She remained silent for a long moment before taking a deep breath. "Fine," she muttered. "I'll behave."
"Good. Where's your car?" Clark asked as he gently placed Cat on her feet.
Cat didn't answer, instead making a general gesture to the left.
"Lois, why don't you drive Jimmy home?" Clark suggested. "I'll look after Cat."
Lois eyed the gossip columnist warily. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, we'll be fine." But he maintained a tight grip on her upper arm, all the same. The two of them watched Lois and Jimmy drive away before he turned to her once more, his hand turned palm-up. "Keys, please."
Cat muttered angrily under her breath as she rummaged in her purse. After overhearing her calling him a 'controlling, overbearing, patronizing Boy Scout,' he made a point of tuning her out. She plunked her keys angrily in his hand and followed reluctantly as he led her to her car.
She didn't say anything on the ride home, instead looking steadily out the front windshield. A couple of times, Clark tried to get her to open up, but she remained steadfastly silent.
It only took a few minutes for Clark to pull up in front of Cat's apartment building. "Are you sure you don't want to talk?" he asked as he opened the passenger door for her.
"Thank you. No," she answered, her words clipped short.
Silently, he escorted her inside and accompanied her onto the elevator. They got off at her floor, Clark unlocked her door for her, and then handed her keys back. She slid them into her purse and started to close the door behind her.
"Cat, please?" Clark said.
"I just want to know if you're going to be okay."
She glanced back at him, her eyes flat and lifeless. "I'll be fine."
She nodded and closed the door in his face.
She'd looked so defeated. Not only that, but her behaviour had been lacking all those flirtatious glances and sly innuendoes that were so much a part of her personality. Clark wasn't convinced that she would be fine, but he couldn't exactly force himself into her apartment when she patently didn't want him there. Instead, he turned and walked back to the elevator. By the time he reached the street, he had already decided that he'd make a point of checking on Cat when he flew his patrol later.
Cat stood alone on her balcony.
After Clark had walked her to her door, she had gone straight into the shower. She had scrubbed all her makeup off and washed all the hair spray out. It had sobered her.
She had brushed her hair and pulled it back into a stark, limp ponytail, all the while careful not to look in the mirror. She didn't want to look herself in the eyes. She'd been afraid of what she might see. Then, eschewing all the exotic, exciting choices in her wardrobe, she had reached to the farthest corner of her closet to unearth an old, well-worn flannel nightgown.
It was soft and warm. She hugged it to her body, but it brought no comfort. And it was no protection from the cold wind on her balcony. Nothing was. There was nothing to protect her. She had been foolish to think that there ever could be. She should have known better. She had to look after herself. No one else would.
It would be so easy, she thought, looking down at the dark street below. Cars whizzed by, their taillights gleaming like jewels, sparks in a starry night. It was beautiful, she thought, beckoning. Welcoming.
Cat took a step closer and yet another, and slowly, carefully, clambered up to stand atop the rough cement wall. All it would take was one step more… One step over the metal railing, and it would all be over.
She couldn't do it.
With a rush, she scrambled down from her precarious perch. She bit at her fist as hot tears overflowed and scalded her cheeks. She was a coward. It would have been so easy… It would have been the right thing to do, to be rid of this pain once and for all. It would have been the courageous thing to do.
She'd made a mess of everything, and she'd made a mess of this, too.
And now, the tears came in earnest, the fist still blocking her mouth as if to block the guttural cries from emerging. She stumbled back and, more by instinct than anything else, found herself huddled in the corner. Her sobs were ugly and rasping, her breath coming in great, glottal gasps. Her head dropped to her knees, her arms rising up to encircle it as she curled into a tight, aching ball.
A loud noise would not have had the impact of that soft voice. She sat up with a start.
He stood, a dark figure silhouetted by the pale haze of the city lights, his cape fluttering in the light breeze.
"Superman." Her voice quavered and broke to her chagrin. "What are you doing here?"
He took a step forward into the light that spilled from her open balcony door. "I was flying by and saw you…" He paused, one hand outstretched. "Are you all right?"
Cat shoved the rampant hysteria to a place deep inside. "I'm fine," she prevaricated. "Or at least, I will be."
"Will you?" he asked. "It would be natural for you to be devastated." At her look of surprise, he explained. "I heard about it. Clark told me."
Cat looked away, feeling ashamed and small. A wave of anger rose against Clark. She was the gossip, not him. How could he have told Superman about her? It wasn't fair. It wasn't right.
"He was worried about you," Superman continued. "You wouldn't let him stay so he asked me to check on you."
Her anger at Clark was gone in a flash, as if it had never existed. "He was? He did?" She sounded surprised, even to her own ears.
"Yes." He was firm. "You're his friend. He cares about you."
"My friend," she repeated in wonder. "I didn't know. I don't have many friends."
A gentle smile crossed his face. "You have more friends than you think. Do you really think that covering a benefit is the type of story Lois Lane would do? And Jimmy. I think he's been worried about you, too."
Superman nodded. "From what Clark told me, even though they were happy to go, it wasn't his idea or Lois's to go to the benefit to keep an eye on you, it was Mr. White's."
"I didn't know." For a second, Cat couldn't even see Superman as he stood before her. Instead, with her mind's eye, she pictured Clark, Lois, Jimmy and Perry in turn. Her friends. She hadn't realised they felt that way about her. Suddenly she didn't feel so cold anymore.
"So, since lots of people care about you, what do you say we get you inside where it's bright and warm before you get sick?" Superman tugged her to her feet and gently led her through the open balcony door.
When the warm air of her apartment hit her, she became conscious of how chilled she really was. She shivered.
Superman was quick to close the door. "Hold still," he said before his eyes swept from her toes to her chin. A wave of warmth followed his gaze. "Heat vision," he told her in response to her unspoken question.
"You're welcome. Now, to keep you warm…" Superman looked around the apartment. "There it is. I'll be right back." He strode into her bedroom and was back a second later to drape her fuzzy chenille robe over her shoulders. "I think a cup of tea might be in order, too." And he headed into her kitchen.
She fingered the robe that he'd found so quickly. Right. X-ray vision. She drifted after him and watched, as in a blur, he moved about, unerringly unearthing her mugs, her tea and her sugar. "Why are you doing this?"
"You've had quite a shock to your system tonight. Strong, hot, sweet tea will make you feel a lot better."
"No! I mean, why are you doing this for me? You must have better things to do… There must be others who need you more than I do. Why are you doing this for me?"
Superman stopped dead, putting all the tea paraphernalia down on the counter. He strode over to her and firmly grasped her shoulders. Looking her straight in the eye, he said, "I'm your friend, too, Ms. Grant. I'm in your corner."
These tears were cleansing.
Cat found herself cuddled like a little girl in a secure embrace. Her head dropped to his shoulder as she gave herself up to her emotions. His words had been so simple, but so powerful. It was too much to know that others cared. It was too devastating. There was no reason for anyone to care for her.
He rocked her and crooned in her ear, but her tears didn't stop until she noticed with a half-swallowed laugh that his spandex uniform did nothing to sop them up. They shimmered on the shiny fabric like jewels. "Sorry," she said as she brushed the moisture from his suit.
"Just part of the service," he told her as he used the edge of his cape to wipe her eyes.
Her nose was running causing her to sniffle. He eyed her wryly and then his cape and with a 'Be right back' disappeared yet again. She couldn't help but smile when he returned with tissues.
"Much more appropriate," she said after heartily blowing her nose.
He smiled. "Well, we might be friends, but there are limits!"
"So, what about that tea?"
"All right," Cat answered shyly.
He smiled once more, cupped her cheeks in his large hands and ran his thumbs under her eyes wiping away the last of the moisture. And then he turned into a blur once again.
It was only a few seconds later when he presented her with a steaming mug. He had a second mug in his other hand.
"You don't have to stay," she was quick to say.
"I want to."
"But you must have other things to do."
He cocked his head to one side, listening. "No, nothing's going on that I need to concern myself with. I'll stay as long as you want, if that's okay, Ms. Grant."
"Oh, yes, I… That's great. Please call me Cat. Um. Would you like to sit down?" she asked, trying to act normal.
"That would be nice, Cat."
She sat down on the overstuffed couch, and he sat down opposite her in an easy chair.
They sipped their tea in silence. Cat didn't know what to say or where to look. She was a master when it came to certain types of man/woman scenarios. This one, however, left her feeling at a loss.
Superman leaned forward to eye her intently. "I am very sorry that you were treated so poorly. You didn't deserve that."
"Thank you," she whispered. "I guess I was too na‹ve… I was too trusting…"
"Forgive me if I'm wrong, but this man meant a lot to you, didn't he?"
She nodded. It took her a moment to marshal her thoughts, but then she started to speak. "The Nightfall asteroid was hard on you, I know." She glanced quickly at the colourful superhero before dropping her eyes once more. "But it had a profound effect on me, too. It made me think about what's been missing from my life…"
She explained to Superman how she'd felt alone, and how she'd felt that she had wasted a good portion of her life chasing physical intimacy while keeping herself closed off from emotional intimacy. It was humbling, unburdening herself to him, but she didn't whitewash her actions. The truth of the matter was that she was ashamed at having reduced herself, at having denied herself a full spectrum of emotion. In her former life, the life she'd recanted, a physical expression of love had had all the emotional importance of a slap and tickle session.
"…and then when Brandon came along, well, I must have been especially vulnerable because I fell head-over-heels in love with him. But all he wanted was a tawdry affair. I was so stupid… I should have waited… But, no. I wanted to rush into being in love, the same way I always rushed into an affair. So in a way, this mess is my fault."
"You're being too hard on yourself. Don't forget. This is all new to you." He paused and studied her intently. "Why did you keep your emotions locked up? Why didn't you ever let yourself fall in love?"
She looked down at her linked hands. "I had a rough childhood… My dad left when I was six. There was just my mom and me. We were poor — unbelievably poor. Many times I remember my mother making us ketchup soup because there was literally nothing else for us to eat. I was always hungry, always dressed in rags, always dirty. I didn't want that. I didn't want to be like her. She'd been dependent on my dad for money and when he left, she couldn't cope.
"I always vowed I'd stand on my own two feet and fend for myself, and that I was never, ever going to trust a man to look after me. But then, when we all thought the world was going to end, everything changed for me. I can't even begin to explain what it felt like to realise that, yes, I had money and things, but that they meant nothing because I had no one to share them with. It was the worst moment of my life."
Superman leaned forward and laid his hand gently over hers. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"Well, it's not really the kind of thing I share. I mean, what am I going to say? 'Hey there, I'm Cat Grant, and I'm a needy, selfish, materialistic woman. I'm only out for myself, so what can you do for me?'"
"You're too hard on yourself."
She shook her head. "I don't think so."
"Well, I do. When I look at you, I see a bright, attractive, strong woman who's made her own way in the world."
"You don't look down on me because of my past?"
"It's not up to me to judge you, Cat. Actually, you're doing a pretty good job of judging yourself, I think."
"Yeah, I guess." She paused. "Did you really mean it? When you called me attractive?"
Superman smiled. "Yes."
She thought about that for a moment. "Am I the kind of woman that someone like you could go for?" She hastily added, "I'm not making a pass. Don't worry. I just want to know." Cat held her breath waiting for his answer.
He chuckled. "I'm not worried about a pass. I think I could defend myself. And yes, I like strong, intelligent women. But it doesn't matter what I like. I can't allow myself to be interested in anyone. It wouldn't be fair."
"What do you mean?"
"Think about it," Superman said. "A woman in my life would be vulnerable. Criminals would come out of the woodwork to target her. Not only that, can you imagine what the press would do? In fact, imagine what you would write if I started seeing someone. I mean, think about it. For example, what would people say if they knew that I was here? And this is totally innocent. Imagine if it weren't. Imagine if I really did have romantic feelings for someone."
"I see what you mean." Should she ask? she wondered. Why not? she decided. He was being so open and honest. "Is that why you don't pursue Lois?"
"What?" He sounded shocked.
"Let's face it," Cat said. "You have feelings for her. It's obvious."
"I don't know about obvious…"
"It is — at least it is to me. Your expression changes. Heck, your whole body language changes when you're around her." She took pity, seeing the panicked look on his face. "Superman, remember. This is what I do in life. This is my career. I don't think it would be that obvious to anyone else. Don't worry. I won't tell anyone. I won't even tell Lois."
"I… I didn't know." Superman shook his head. "I'll have to be more careful."
"You have a couple of rivals, you know. Lex Luthor is after her."
Superman grimaced. Obviously not a Luthor fan. Neither was she, actually. Granted, the man was attractive, but at the same time, there was something about him… Something a little off.
"I think Clark's crazy about her, too."
"Clark? I don't think…"
"He watches her all the time. He has this way of looking at her…" Cat paused. "Maybe he knows how you feel about her and never mentioned it. He is a good friend of yours. That could be why he's never asked her out. Maybe he thought you'd be upset."
A stunned expression on his face, Superman didn't say anything.
"You know," Cat said thoughtfully. "If being with you is dangerous because of who you are, you could think about disguising yourself."
"What?" He sat up straight.
"This is probably a dumb idea," she said slowly, "but it's being with the superhero that's dangerous. If you were an ordinary guy, there'd be no problem. Okay, yes, you'll never be ordinary, but that doesn't mean you can't pretend to be ordinary."
"I don't think that's a good…"
"It could work!" Cat exclaimed. "Maybe a wig — no, that could get dislodged really easily. Or you could grow your hair — wear it loose as Superman and tied back in disguise. But it would take too long for your hair to grow so that wouldn't work. A fake beard! No, same problem as the wig." She thought hard for a second more. "I know! You could wear glasses."
Cat narrowed her eyes as she tried to picture him in regular clothes and glasses.
He shifted, his hands fiddling with his cape.
Hmmm, she thought. If he had glasses on and rumpled his hair and wore regular clothes, he'd look a bit like… Nah. Imagine Superman acting like a regular guy! It just couldn't happen. "Actually, I don't think it would work."
"You don't?" He sounded hopeful.
"No. I don't see how you could possibly keep the two identities straight. It would be too easy to make mistakes. Besides, you're a superhero. You'd have to be crazy to want to be a regular guy with regular problems! You don't look crazy to me."
He smiled. "Thanks."
She grinned. "You're welcome. Hey, do you think I'm starting to get the hang of this friendship thing?"
He laughed heartily. Almost as if he were relieved. "Definitely!"
He had a nice laugh; it sounded… familiar.
As they continued to talk, this crazy idea kept flitting in and out of her head, but she kept it to herself. First of all, it was a nutty idea, the nuttiest. And second, if it was true, she didn't really want to know, not for sure. She had a feeling that some things really were better left unknown.
Brandon Chesney's eyes darted nervously back and forth in the deserted underground garage. With the exception of his car, it was completely empty.
He cleared his throat and heard the slight sound echo hollowly in the big open space.
His heart skipped a beat when he heard something behind him. He whirled around in time to see a rat scurry along the edge of the wall, its shadow wavering eerily as it scuttled along.
Silently, he chastised himself for his fears. Everything was going to be okay. Everything was going to be just fine. When Luthor got here, he'd get his money, and it would all be over. He'd be home in half an hour. An hour, tops!
All that money! What was he going to do with all that money?
He hadn't asked for much — didn't want to appear greedy after all. And if he decided that it hadn't been enough, well, he could always ask for more. Let's face it. His demands must seem quite modest to the third richest man in Metropolis. Five hundred thousand dollars wouldn't even make a dent in Luthor's coffers.
And what Chesney knew was really worth oh-so-much more!
If it hadn't been for that cack-handed, clumsy, klutzy oaf of a fellow…
To think that he had been furious when he'd been told what happened. To think that he'd been angry to learn that his wedding present for Bobo had been dropped on the loading dock. When he'd been told, he'd been so incensed that he'd stormed down to the Lex-Mail office to confront the idiotic employee in person.
But what they'd found when they'd opened the box to check the damage… That had made everything worthwhile.
Chesney grinned happily as he remembered. He'd reached into the open box and pulled out one of the smashed machine components that had been packed around the broken statue. Neither he nor the clerk had known what it was, so he'd reached in again, and this time… this time, he'd struck gold.
His fingers had touched paper. When he'd pulled it out, he'd stared incredulously at it for a long moment.
It had been an instruction book — assembly instructions for a neutron bomb. And the jackpot — the crowning glory — had been the scrawled note across the cover, thanking Bobo for his business and signed Lex Luthor!
It had been Luthor's bad luck that it had been found, but his own good luck!
Brandon didn't know much about the United States military, but he knew enough to realise that this was an illegal arms shipment to a foreign nation. Not that he cared about the ethics of the situation. He had a suspicion what Bobo was going to do with the weapon, and that didn't bother him either. Good riddance to bad rubbish. No, what mattered was that Luthor was going to have to pay.
Chesney heard a muffled scrape on the chipped cement. He craned his head to see a shadowy figure approaching him.
"Good evening, Mr. Luthor," he said, politely. No point in rubbing Luthor's nose in his misfortune by sounding too cheerful!
"Mr. Luthor couldn't make it, I'm afraid," a sultry voice purred. "He sent me instead. I do hope that's all right."
The woman came into view. She was stunning. Dark-skinned, dark-haired, exotic. Beautiful, he thought. Gorgeous legs. Couldn't tell about the rest of the figure as she had on a trench coat, her hands tucked into the pockets. But if she worked for Luthor, he bet the rest of her was just as stunning.
"Of course," he answered gallantly. "Did Mr. Luthor send my payment?"
"Oh, yes," she answered, her voice amused and a knowing smile on her face.
"Ah, good." Chesney rubbed his hands together briskly.
"Before I pay you, I wished to ask if you've read tonight's paper."
"Yes." He was puzzled by the question.
"Did you read about the murdered John Doe?"
"Yes. Why do you ask?"
She pulled her left hand out of her pocket and casually inspected her nails. "You've met him."
Chesney shook his head, not understanding. "I have?"
"Yes." She smiled, showing her teeth. "He worked for Lex- Mail. He handled your package. He failed Mr. Luthor."
"How do you know? How do you know that was him?"
Her smile got even broader. "I know because I killed him, Mr. Chesney. Just like I'm going to kill you." Her right hand came out of her pocket holding something sharp and pointed that gleamed in the dull light of the parking garage. The empty, deserted, isolated parking garage.
Superman left Cat's apartment at four in the morning, after having stayed with her for almost five hours. They had talked about everything under the sun. It had been the most wonderful night of her life. Unbelievable, especially since no hanky panky had been involved! Who'd believe it of Cat Grant? Heck! Who'd believe it of Superman?
Holding the balcony door open with one hand, he paused and turned back to Cat. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I am now. Thank you for being there for me. I don't even have the words to tell you what it's meant."
"Like I said before, I'm your friend." He grinned broadly, kissed her lightly on the forehead and disappeared in a blur.
He looked different when he grinned. Not so stern. Not so bland. She stayed at the door for a long time, thinking about the evening, thinking about how kind he had been. He was a gentle man, a sensitive man, much like another man she knew… Another man she knew… But Superman could fly. He had heat vision and super-strength and super-speed and… "Cat Grant, that has to be the craziest idea you've ever had in your entire life!" she muttered before heading off to bed.
As she drifted off to sleep, she promised herself that if Superman ever needed a friend, she'd be there for him.
"Listen up, everyone!"
All eyes snapped to the tall, leggy, gossip columnist who stood by the elevator.
"You guys better pay attention because you'll never hear me do this again, but… I have to apologise for my behaviour yesterday. I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable. I was out of line, and it won't happen again."
The other workers shuffled their feet and glanced at each other.
Cat smiled. "I brought doughnuts!" She held up a couple of large boxes before placing them in the coffee area.
Clark watched as people started to approach Cat and thank her. He never would have thought that she'd have it in her to come to the office and hold her head up high. After last night's fiasco at the benefit, rumours were flying fast and furious. He had overheard a myriad of conversations pertaining to her now public personal life. But here she was, looking flamboyant and happy and as exotic as ever, although he did have to admit that her current outfit was not as revealing as some. She had surprised him yet again.
He still couldn't get over the change in her that he'd seen the previous night. She had revealed an emotional depth that he would have never believed existed. Her honesty had been staggering.
Perhaps he had stayed too long, but he had at first been extremely worried about her emotional stability. Then, after they had started to talk, he had been intrigued by the strength of her personality. She kept a lot of herself well hidden. He had been pleasantly surprised by how bright in actuality Cat really was. If only she didn't dress like a Frederick's of Hollywood ad!
She had scared him pretty good when she'd suggested that he disguise himself. For a moment, he'd really thought that she had guessed his secret. Thank goodness, she'd backed away from that idea! He didn't know what he would have done if she had figured everything out.
Ever since he'd adopted the Superman persona, he'd had to bend the truth. When he had to rescue someone, he'd had to 'return a video' or 'talk to a source' but at least he'd never had to out-and-out lie. Well, when he thought about it, his excuses really were lies, but all the same, denying who he really was would have felt different. He knew that.
It would be nice, though, to have someone that he didn't have to lie to. Oh, not Cat. It was true that she had impressed him. It was true that he had liked her more last night than ever before. But all the same, she wasn't the woman he wanted to share his life with. She wasn't the woman who made his heart beat faster and his head swim all at the same time. She wasn't Lois.
Clark was crazy about Lois, and Lois was crazy about Superman. Sometimes life wasn't fair. It also wasn't fair that Lex Luthor had taken her out a couple of times. Clark wanted to be the man with Lois Lane on his arm, but he didn't know how to convince her to give him a chance instead of Lex.
Lois was too good for either of them, but at least Clark was closer to her level than Luthor was. The man was a snake! And how she didn't see it was beyond him.
A stray thought entered Clark's mind, making him hide a smirk. It was a good thing that Lois didn't know about Superman's long visit with Cat. If she'd known, she would have hit the roof. She considered Superman to be her personal possession, and for another woman to encroach on her territory… No way would she have ever believed that it had been purely platonic.
Clark wished that he could spend more time with Lois outside work. It really had been nice talking to Cat, but to talk to Lois that way? It would have been a dream come true. Again, getting back to the dichotomy that was his life, as Clark, she didn't want to spend any time with him, and as Superman, he couldn't take the chance of spending that kind of time with her. It would be too dangerous. She'd have him figured out and finger-wrapped in no time!
But oh! What a way to go!
"Are you feeling better?" Lois asked brusquely as Cat approached the desk where she and Clark were working. She stood up to face her.
Cat smiled. "Yes, I am. Thank you. Last night I did a lot of thinking, and I sorted some things out in my head."
"I'm glad," Lois said, shocked that she actually meant it. She had never exactly been fond of Cat, but her behaviour yesterday had worried her a great deal — not that she'd tell Cat that!
"Clark, I wanted to thank you. You were just great."
Other than the fact that her skirt was quite short, Cat was dressed fairly conservatively. No cleavage, no midriff cut-outs, no big jewellery. Even so, she looked more like herself. Obviously some of her confidence was back.
"I wanted to thank you, too, Lois," Cat said earnestly. "I didn't make it easy for you, but you really helped me a lot."
"You're welcome. You would have done the same for me if I was that upset."
"Actually…" Cat's eyes dipped down shyly, before she looked back at Lois. "I would. I really would do the same for you any time you need me to."
"Thanks." Lois's voice softened.
The two women stared at each other for a long moment.
"Anyway, I should get back to work. I'm sure you have things to do, too," Cat said before walking away from Lois's desk.
She paused and looked back at Lois.
"I can't believe I'm asking you this, but… Would you like to have lunch with me today? If I don't get caught up in a story, that is?"
A big, broad, happy smile spread slowly across Cat's face. "I'd love to," she said softly.
"Okay, talk to you later." Cat made her way to her own desk.
"Feelings… whoa, whoa, whoa, feelings… whoa, whoa, whoa, feelings… from the bottom of my heart…" crooned a male voice to Lois.
"Stuff it, Kent! I'm not amused. Plus your singing hurts my ears. You croak like a bullfrog!" She playfully shoved his arm.
"Now I'm hurt, Lois! Devastated. How am I ever going to trust you again since you've insulted my fine singing voice?" Clark gazed at her, a woebegone expression on his face and his hands clasped over his heart.
"Fine singing voice?" she retorted. "More like chalk on a blackboard. Next time you feel like breaking out in song, warn me. I'll buy earplugs!"
He laughed, she giggled, and they got back to work.
About an hour later, two men got off the elevator. They caught Lois and Clark's attention right away by their serious, official demeanour.
The two men walked down the ramp into the middle of the newsroom, all the while carefully studying their surroundings. As Lois and Clark watched, the men approached Cat's desk.
"Yes?" Cat looked up at them.
One of the men held up a shield. "Detective Rizzo. Metropolis PD. I need you to come to the station house to answer some questions."
Lois didn't know how he did it, but whenever anything out of the ordinary happened in the newsroom, Perry was right there in the thick of it. It was almost as if he had a sixth sense. He emerged from his office and headed over to Cat's desk to join the group.
"What's going on here?" Perry asked.
The other man stepped in front of the editor, blocking his access to Cat. "I'm sorry, sir, but it's none of your concern."
"It most certainly is my concern. Ms. Grant is my employee, and this is my newsroom!" Perry pushed past the other man to face Detective Rizzo.
Lois and Clark got up and drifted over to join the knot of people. Other employees did the same.
"If you just told me what's going on…" Cat started to say.
"Back off!" Detective Rizzo told Perry, pointing an index finger at him. "This is official police business, and nothing to do with the Daily Planet. We just have a few questions…"
"Go ahead and ask them!" Cat exclaimed, pushing her way between Perry and Rizzo as they faced off. "I have nothing to hide."
"Are you sure, honey? I can get the Planet lawyer here in a few minutes. Maybe we should wait." Perry White moved to her side.
"No, this is fine, Perry. I'm fine. Go ahead," she said to the two men.
Rizzo and the other man glanced at each other, before Rizzo turned back to the columnist. "Where were you between 1 and 3 a.m. this morning?"
"I was at home," Cat answered, her eyes shifting from one man to the other. "Why?"
"Was there anyone with you who could vouch for your whereabouts?"
Lois felt Clark tense beside her.
"Yes…" She glanced quickly at Lois — or was it at Clark? — with a strange look on her face. "Well, actually, no. I can't say."
"What's that supposed to mean? Either someone was with you, or you were alone. Were you alone?"
"So, who was with you? We'll need to speak to that person to get their statement."
Cat crossed her arms and gazed straight ahead, a stubborn look on her face. "I can't say."
"Was it a man?"
Cat didn't answer.
Again, she didn't answer.
"You leave me no choice!" Rizzo exclaimed. "Catharine Grant, you're under arrest for the murder of Brandon Chesney."
"What?" Perry exclaimed.
Cat's jaw dropped. "Brandon? What? How?"
"No!" Clark exclaimed from his position beside Lois. "There's no way… Cat's not a murderer."
Rizzo turned to face Clark. "She was heard threatening him at a benefit last night."
"But she didn't do it. No way!" He glanced quickly at his watch. "Um, I have to go. I have an appointment. Lois will tell you." He turned to his partner. "Tell him, Lois. Tell him that you know Cat didn't do it."
Clark dashed for the stairs.
Cat's eyes pleaded with Lois.
"I… This is ridiculous. Cat couldn't kill anyone. I mean, yes, she was upset, but it was completely understandable. The guy was scum. He deserved to suffer." Lois suddenly realised what she was saying. "But not to die. Oh no. He didn't deserve to die. That's too drastic. But suffering would have been good. Cat probably felt the same way. There's no way she could have killed him without making him suffer first. So you see, she didn't kill him."
"Gee, thanks, Lois. Want to strap me in the electric chair, too?" Cat drawled.
"I'm sorry! I'm nervous," Lois blurted out. She could feel her cheeks heating as she blushed.
"Nice theory, lady. But I never said that the guy didn't suffer." Rizzo turned back to Cat. "You have the right to remain silent. If you give up that right, anything you say…"
Superman swooped through the window and landed with a thud in front of everyone.
"Superman!" Lois exclaimed, taking a half step forward to gaze at him adoringly.
"Hi, Lois," he said, off-handed, all his attention focused on Cat and the police officer. "What's going on?"
"Nothing. Not a thing," Cat said, her words clipped, her tone nonchalant. "Why do you ask?"
Superman smiled gently. "Officer?"
"Superman, I've placed Ms. Grant under arrest for the murder of Brandon Chesney."
"When did this happen?" he asked.
Lois sidled a little closer to her hero, but Superman didn't seem to notice her. She sighed.
"We've narrowed it down to a couple of hours. Between 1 and 3 this morning."
"Cat didn't do it," Superman said adamantly.
"How do you know, Superman?" Rizzo asked.
"Superman…" Cat made a face at him, wiggling her eyebrows and grimacing.
He ignored her. "Because she was with me. We were together from about 11 to 4, give or take a few minutes."
"What?" the officer exclaimed.
"Judas Priest!" Perry sat down suddenly on Cat's chair.
"Way to go, Superman!" Jimmy exclaimed.
Lois felt all the breath whoosh out of her body. She felt dizzy. Had she just heard him say what she thought she'd heard him say? Superman and Cat? No way!
But then she heard Cat protest, and she had to believe.
"Why'd you say anything? I would have gone to the station house and got this worked out, and no one would have known about last night."
"I have nothing to be ashamed of, Cat," Superman said. "We have nothing to be ashamed of."
Lois had heard enough. She turned on her heel, stumbled back to her desk and threw herself onto her chair.
Superman was having an affair with Cat Grant. Life as she knew it was over.
Clark, still in his Superman persona, glanced surreptitiously at Lois through the half-open blinds of the conference room. She looked upset. Actually, she looked beyond upset. She looked furious. He winced as he heard her snarl at Jimmy.
It was obvious what she was thinking. She had drawn her own conclusions as to what had happened last night at Cat's apartment. He had to admit, it was the obvious conclusion. But it just wasn't true.
He sighed. He'd have to try and explain everything to her later. But for right now, he had to make sure that Cat was completely exonerated, and that the police had no lingering doubts.
With an effort, Clark dragged his eyes away from Lois and focused his attention back on Detective Rizzo who, with the unnamed other man, sat across the table from Perry, Cat and Superman.
"So he didn't tell you who he had a meeting with the night before last?" Rizzo sipped his coffee.
"No. But I know he had some kind of deal he was excited about. I just don't know what kind of deal it was." Cat's eyes filled with tears. "I was so angry with him… I was so completely devastated by how he behaved… But I never wanted him to die." Perry patted her on the shoulder. Clark gently squeezed her other arm. She dabbed at her eyes and managed a watery smile of gratitude.
Detective Rizzo's companion finally spoke. "Ms. Grant, I'm going to ask you to think really hard. Is there anything, anything at all, that he said about this deal?"
Cat gazed off into space, concentrating hard. "He said that it had to do with a friend who was getting married," she said slowly. "Except that it was indirect. I haven't a clue what that means."
The two men exchanged a cryptic glance.
Clark's eyes narrowed as he watched them. He suddenly realised that they'd only been told one of the men's names. "You never did say who you are," he said to the unidentified man.
Detective Rizzo and the stranger exchanged another glance.
"Frank Conroy, at your service, Superman."
"You're with the Metropolis PD also?"
Conroy slowly shook his head. "No. I'm NIA."
"NIA?" The words exploded out of Perry's throat. "What gives? What is the NIA doing looking into Chesney's murder?"
"It's classified, sir."
"Classified? What the heck did Brandon do?" Cat shook her head.
"I'm afraid we can't tell you, Ms. Grant."
"Now hold on here…"
"Mr. White, this is a matter of national security."
"Is there anything I can help you with, Mr. Conroy?" Clark asked politely.
Conroy's eyes narrowed as he studied the colourful superhero. "Maybe there is," he said slowly. "But I only want to talk to you. No one else other than Detective Rizzo. If Mr. White doesn't mind us using the conference room, we'll tell you about the situation right now." He looked over at the editor. "Mr. White?"
Perry grumbled, but he and Cat did leave the room.
Once he was sure that the door was closed behind them, Conroy turned to Clark and studied him intently. "Until today, I would have had no problem trusting you implicitly, Superman, but now, I'm not a hundred percent sure that I can."
"Why?" Clark asked, puzzled.
"Like practically everyone else in this country, I've always believed that your code of ethics was more highly developed than most, and that you were completely above reproach in your behaviour. During the Nightfall Asteroid crisis, you acted with a great deal of bravery and honour. But now that you've revealed that you're having an affair with Ms. Grant…"
"I'm not having an affair with her!" Clark exclaimed.
Conroy didn't respond, instead regarding him steadily, with one eyebrow raised in speculation.
"She was emotionally distraught… I was concerned about her well-being…" Clark shook his head, striving to regain his composure. "I don't have to justify my actions to you, but I will assure you that I've always treated Ms. Grant with respect, and I resent your implications."
"Sorry!" Conroy held his hands up, deflecting Clark's irritation. "You have to admit — my assumption's a reasonable one."
"I don't have to admit anything!" Clark smacked his hand down on the arm of his chair, only to have it snap off. "Oops!"
Detective Rizzo dragged his gaze from the broken chair with a visible effort. "Frank, what do you say we cut Superman some slack? Why don't you just tell him about it?"
Conroy nodded. "Yeah, okay." He took a deep breath before continuing. "Here's the problem in a nutshell. The NIA is investigating one of India's bigwigs — a guy named Bobohinder Rahsanjani. He's sort of India's equivalent of Lex Luthor — a rich socialite with fingers in every pot and many loyal followers. He has charisma and influence and a business empire. But unlike Luthor, he's completely amoral. He's a real zealot, and unfortunately, he has a cause."
Clark snorted, but didn't say anything in rebuttal. Obviously these guys didn't know Luthor that well if they thought he had morals! "If this guy is a criminal, wouldn't he be an internal problem for India?"
"Yeah, except for one thing. Through sources, we've discovered that he has a contact in Metropolis who is acting as an arms dealer for him. And we also think that this arms dealer has provided him with restricted technology."
Conroy grimaced. "Like some of the components for a neutron bomb."
"The bomb that destroys all organic life yet leaves buildings intact?"
"Not a completely accurate description, but yes, that's the one. Furthermore, intelligence sources say that he plans on using it on Pakistan. I'm sure I don't have to describe the animosity between the two countries. They have a hostile history, to say the least. If the government of Pakistan were to get wind of Rahsanjani's plans, we could have an even bigger problem."
"Bigger than a whole country being wiped off the map?" Clark asked incredulously.
Conroy nodded. "Yes. There's no way that the neutron bomb could destroy the whole country at once. Attacks would have to be staggered which means there would be time for Pakistan to make an armed response. I have to tell you that Pakistan is also a nuclear country…"
"They'd bomb India."
"Yes. And then China, India's ally, would get involved, and that would drag in the Russians, and the U.S. would feel obligated to respond, which in turn affects our allies, and… Well, I think you probably have the whole picture now."
"Yes, I have the whole picture." And he did. There was a distinct possibility that if things progressed the way Mr. Conroy had projected, when the dust settled, Clark just might find himself to be the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust. "So where does Chesney fit in? Do you think he was the arms dealer?"
"We don't know. It doesn't fit with what we know about him, but on the other hand, Chesney was a very close friend of Rahsanjani, and they've always kept in close contact. In fact, at the end of this month, Chesney was booked to fly to India to participate in Rahsanjani's wedding."
"What can I do to help?"
"We need to determine if Chesney was the supplier. If it wasn't Chesney, we have to find out who it really was. To the best of our knowledge, Rahsanjani only has half the components he needs to build the bomb. The United States government would prefer that he doesn't get his hands on the other half! I have other leads I have to follow. I can't spend my time on a dead man who can no longer harm his country. I have to go after live traitors. But time is running out. If you could thoroughly check out Chesney — even if it's just to rule him out — it would be a huge help."
Clark sat lost in thought, gazing off into space. He had to help. That was a given. But this was going to take an awful lot of his time. How was he going to explain his absence, Clark's absence, to Lois or Perry? Plus, he wanted Lois in on this. She was discreet, knowledgeable, a genius at generating leads, had fantastic sources, and was the most exasperating, enchanting woman he knew, to boot. He made a decision and looked back at Conroy.
"I'll help on one condition."
"I can't do this alone. I need help. I'd like to get Lois Lane and Clark Kent in on this. We'd probably have to tell Perry White, too, so that he'd assign them to help me, but I definitely need Lane and Kent's help."
"Superman, they're reporters! We can't afford any leaks! People would panic, information would disappear — it's just not worth it."
"Lane's different," Rizzo interrupted. "Everyone in our department knows that her word can be trusted. She's tough — a real hard case — but ethical. I don't know this Kent very well — he's still pretty new in Metropolis — but he's the first guy who's ever been able to deal with Lane on a regular basis. That means he's got something solid going for him."
Conroy shook his head. "I don't know."
"The thing is those two have a lot more experience at investigating than I do. Plus I might need someone in, um, shall we say, plain-clothes to help. It's hard for me to be surreptitious." Clark smiled.
Conroy thought for a long moment. "All right," he said, finally. "But they report to you, not to White. He has to stay out of the loop."
"He could probably live with that as long as he gets a story at the end of it all. He'll want your guarantee that you're not going to kill any potential story due to 'national security.'"
"Well, there might be a couple of details that I don't want in the paper, but on the whole, I think I can live with that." Conroy stood up, Clark followed suit, and the two men solemnly shook hands. "I'll let you brief Lane and Kent, if that's okay, Superman. I'll talk to Mr. White and get his okay to let them be your helpers."
"That's fine, sir. I'll brief them tonight." 'Assuming I can get her to listen to me,' Clark thought. 'That's definitely not something I can take for granted!'
Clark found himself flying slower and slower the closer he got to Lois's apartment. She had been so cold and stern when he'd spoken to her as Superman at the Planet. In fact, she'd only been slightly warmer when he, Clark, had reappeared to work with her.
After his meeting with Conroy and Rizzo, he'd approached Lois — feeling as though he had his cape tucked between his legs! — and told her that he needed her help as well as Clark's. 'Fine' had been her response.
Then he'd said that he wanted to meet with her at her place around eight that evening if that was acceptable. Again, she'd said 'fine.' He'd thanked her for her willingness to help. 'Fine,' she'd said yet again.
He'd hoped that she wouldn't mind, but he wanted to talk to her separately — he'd fill Clark in later — because there were things that he needed to say to her alone.
He figured it would take a lot of talking to get more than 'fine' out of her this night.
Hovering outside her window, he took a deep breath, slowly blew it out, and tapped lightly on the glass. She approached, her face set in such an unmoving mask that she looked like a statue. 'And they call me the man of steel,' he thought. 'She looks more unyielding than I could even at my most superheroish.'
"Hi." The word was clipped and short, and he was surprised that steam wasn't coming out of her ears.
"Thank you for agreeing to see me."
Clark swooped through the open window and landed lightly in front of her. "How are you, tonight?"
"Fine." Her arms were crossed, and her eyes were icy cold.
He sighed. She sure wasn't making this easy. "Lois, as I said earlier today, I need your help. But before I ask for it, and before I explain what's going on, I want to tell you that nothing untoward happened between Cat and me last night."
"I realise that it looks bad, but Cat and I are not having an affair."
"You don't believe me?"
"It doesn't matter what I believe, Superman. You say nothing happened? Fine. Nothing happened. Except something must have happened. You did spend almost five hours with her."
"We just talked. She was very upset."
"Fine. No problem. Not my business, anyway." Lois sat down on the small couch. "So what do you need?"
"Do you mind if I sit down?"
She waved an expansive hand in the air. "Fine. Suit yourself."
In an attempt to take some of the wind out of her sails, Clark shifted backwards and sat on thin air.
Her jaw dropped for just a second, but she recovered quickly. "So, you need my help. What for?"
Clark sighed again and gave up. He'd just have to try to talk some sense into her later. For right now, he had no other choice but to explain what Conroy had told him.
The expressionless mask cracked as she listened, her shock and horror clear for him to see.
"… I don't feel I can do this on my own. I need you and Clark to work with me."
"To be your assistants? Follow your orders?" Lois asked, her voice deceptively mild.
"No. To lead the way. Let's face it, Lois. I'm not a reporter. I don't know how to investigate. It's true; there are things I can do that no one else can. But this is something that you do better than anyone. Clark's almost as good. I'll be YOUR assistant, so to speak."
Her face softened for a split second before the mask snapped back into place. "Fine."
Back to 'fine!' He sighed yet again. This did not look promising. "So, any ideas?"
She gazed into space for a moment. "Let me think on it. If you could fill Clark in tonight, then he and I can come up with a plan of action in the morning. Will you be able to meet with the two of us first thing?"
'Now, wouldn't that be bizarre?' he thought. "I don't know," he answered stiffly, hating having to lie to her. "I'll try. But if I can't, Clark can fill me in later."
"Clark?" Her eyes narrowed. "Why Clark?"
"He knows how to contact me."
Her eyes narrowed further. "I know he does, but why does he? He's never explained."
"Well… we're friends."
"You and I are friends. At least I thought we were."
Clark found himself squirming. "We are friends, Lois, but it's different with Clark and me."
"Why?" Her eyes bored into him, hard as flint and just as cold.
"That's not an answer. Why is it different?"
"Because I have a key to his place!" he blurted out.
Clark sighed. He really hadn't meant to tell her that! "I do my laundry there."
"Think about it, Lois. I don't have a place to call my own. I don't have a washer. It's much nicer using Clark's than to find a stream and pound my suit against a rock."
"I have a washer," she said brusquely.
He sighed again for the umpteenth time since they'd started this conversation. "I know you do, Lois, but it wouldn't look right for me to fly in and out of your place all the time."
"And it looks better when you go to Clark's?"
"Well, yes." Clark shrugged.
"Um, well, you're a woman, and I'm a man, and people might get the wrong impression."
"Uh huh. Right." She didn't sound convinced.
"If people thought we were close, you'd become a target. You could say that my avoiding you is for your own good." Judging from the look on her face, Clark decided that hadn't come out right. "Um, that didn't come out right, did it?"
"I don't know, Superman. Did you mean it to sound incredibly patronising? If so, I'd say it came out just FINE!" she exclaimed.
"No," he said quietly. "I really didn't mean to sound patronising. I'm sorry."
"It's fine," she snapped.
"Lois," Clark said, taking a step towards her. "I am sorry. I didn't mean it."
She looked down. "What did you mean?"
"I don't know. I…" At that point, he heard the unmistakable squeal of brakes and cacophony of horns as cars collided on the freeway. "I'm sorry. I have to go. Someone needs me. We'll talk tomorrow."
As he swooped through the window, he heard Lois mutter under her breath. "Fine."
"Hey, Lois! How are you today?" Clark placed a cup of coffee and a muffin in front of his partner.
"Fine." She didn't look up at him.
His heart sank. She was going to treat Clark that way, too? "I think we should talk in the conference room, don't you?"
"Fine." She got up from her desk, grabbed some notes and stomped off without a backwards glance.
Clark sighed and followed in her wake. Obviously she was still pretty irritated at his alter ego and she was going to take it out on her partner! He sighed. This could be a long day.
Once in the conference room, she didn't hesitate in coming to the point. "There are a lot of questions that we have to find the answers to. I've made a list."
"For example, how long were Chesney and Rahsanjani friends? How did they meet? What were their common interests?"
"We should find out more about Julia Hawthorne and about Rahsanjani's fianc‚e. We need to know who the other major people are in their lives."
"Are you mad at me? We need to get along if we're going to work on this together." Clark pulled a chair out and sat down across from his partner.
Lois looked up from her notes and gave him a tight smile. "I'm not mad at you, Clark." She looked back down. "I also think that we should find out what is needed for manufacturing the components of a neutron bomb. I can't imagine that it's something the average machine shop could turn out."
"I really feel like you're mad at me."
"I'm not mad. Really. Okay?"
"Okay." Clark relaxed in his chair.
"Fine. Now then, it would also be good if we could find out what businesses Rahsanjani is involved in."
"But we're only supposed to be checking Chesney out."
Lois shook her head sadly. "Clark, you're missing the point. The world is in danger. I don't see how, in good conscience, we can only do part of the job. Do you?"
"Not when you put it like that."
"So, we're agreed. We're going to shut Rahsanjani down, discover who the arms dealer is, and if it's not Chesney, shut him down, too?"
Clark grinned. "I don't know why the NIA even bothered asking Superman for help. They should have come to you, first!"
Lois smiled back at him, looking natural for the first time in a day and a half. "Well, yeah, they should have. But Conroy's not from around here. If he were, he'd know better!" Her smile faded, all the animation draining out of her face once more. "I thought you could start with Julia Hawthorne. She might respond better to a man than another woman."
"That's fine." Clark winced. Was he going to start saying 'fine' all the time, too? He shook his head and continued, "Who are you going to tackle first?"
Lois's eyes narrowed, and her fists clenched. "I thought I'd start with Cat." She spat out the last word.
Oh-oh, he thought. Not a good idea. "Actually," he said slowly while he thought fast. "I think I should talk to Cat while you talk to Hawthorne."
"I don't think so, Clark! I said that I'd interview Cat, and I'm going to interview Cat! I'm the senior journalist here, and you're supposed to follow my lead!"
"Lois, please, I'm not trying to make waves. But you look pretty upset, and what's more you look upset with Cat."
"I'm fine," she snapped. "I'm not upset. Why would you say I'm upset?" She smacked her hand onto the table. "Okay, I'm upset. But I'm upset with you for questioning me. We don't have time for this!"
"No, we don't," he retorted, his voice calm and even. "In lieu of the fact that the earth might be about to be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, it doesn't make sense to hold on to grievances at all." He took a deep breath. "I'll tell you what," he said in a soothing tone of voice. "Why don't we let Cat decide who she'd be more comfortable with? That's what I'd prefer if I had to be interviewed by a colleague." Clark quickly crossed to the conference room door and hastily opened it. "Cat, would you come in here, please?" he called to her.
He saw a look of sheer fury pass over Lois's face, but she contained it quickly.
Cat Grant approached the room and paused in the doorway. "Hey, guys!"
She looked different today, he thought. Much more brittle emotionally and a lot less like her normal self. She wasn't dressed as provocatively, and that sensual overlay that normally permeated her speech and her actions, just wasn't there. She seemed like a changed woman — her self- esteem shaky.
"Cat, we need to interview you," Clark told her. "We want you to be comfortable so we'll let you choose who you want to talk to. Who would you feel more comfortable with, me or Lois?"
Lois glared at her menacingly.
Cat laughed nervously, her eyes shifting from Lois to Clark and back again. "Nothing personal, Lois, but you know I can't resist a handsome man," she said, her normally flirtatious drawl sounding jerky and tense. "I think I'll talk to Clark. Besides, you look like you're in a hurry to head out." She sidled a little closer to him as she spoke.
Clark didn't blame her for trying to seek shelter. His partner looked positively murderous.
"Fine!" Lois snapped as she hastily gathered together her notes.
"Hey! We never managed to have lunch yesterday. Do you think we could do that today?" Cat asked tentatively.
Lois stopped what she was doing and glared at Cat with burning eyes. "No. I already know I'll be too busy."
Cat flinched at the angry look but recovered quickly. "Too bad. Maybe tomorrow then," she said lightly, darting a quick anxious look at Clark.
Lois didn't say anything more, instead stomping past Clark and Cat. The door slammed shut in her wake.
"Wow!" Cat exclaimed.
"Tell me about it," Clark muttered as he sighed in relief at the release of tension.
Cat sat down at the table and glanced through the open window. She watched as Lois stormed onto the elevator. "Why do we let her get away with that stuff?"
"I guess because she's good, and she gets the job done," Clark answered, his eyes shifting back to Cat now that Lois was out of sight.
"That's why Perry lets her get away with that act of hers. But why does everyone else?"
Clark thought hard for a second. "Well, when all's said and done, we're her friends."
"Hmmm." She looked at him, a strange expression on her face. "We might be her friends, but there are limits, aren't there, Clark?"
Upon hearing her parrot Superman's comment from two nights before, his eyes darted to her. Was that a knowing expression on her face? Did she know? Had she figured things out? He sighed. If she had, he'd never know unless she told him. It wasn't the kind of thing that he could double check.
This must be what a mouse feels like in a cat's clutches.
'Cat prefers to talk to Clark? Fine! Clark wants to shove me out of the way to interview Cat? Fine. She just can't resist a handsome man? Fine! If fact, this whole 'gone to hell in a hand basket' world is just FINE! My life is fine! Superman's fine, Cat's fine, Clark's fine, and I'm JUST FINE!'
Lois expertly manoeuvred her Jeep through Metropolis's crowded streets. She had somehow managed to get through to Julia Hawthorne who had agreed to see her. But Julia had another appointment, she'd said, so Lois had to get to her home within the next hour.
It had already taken her twenty minutes just to get to Hawthorne's neighbourhood. That wasn't going to give her much time for the interview, but Lois figured she could work around that easily. She'd had to before, and she'd probably have to again.
The Jeep glided to a smooth stop at a red light. Lois's fingers tapped in their own rhythm on the steering wheel. The worst thing of all, she thought, was that Clark was right. There wasn't time to indulge in petty grievances; Cat should be interviewed, not attacked, and Lois was upset. But that didn't make it any easier to hear. In fact, it was worse knowing that her greenhorn junior partner was thinking more clearly than she was at this point in time.
The light changed to green. As she eased her foot onto the gas, she decided that she was just going to have to go with the flow for the time being. But when this whole 'world could be destroyed' situation was resolved, then she would have it out with Cat. And with Clark. And with Superman. And with anyone else who managed to tick her off in the next few days!
In the meantime, everything was just FINE!
As Cat talked about Brandon Chesney, Clark took notes to share with Lois. Unfortunately, he really didn't think that any of the information he was receiving from Cat was going to pan out at all. Basically, with the exception of a few exotic tidbits to do with Chesney and Cat's love life — that he'd have rather not known! — it was all pretty standard stuff. There was nothing to pique his interest or engage his reporter's intuition.
What concerned him more was the possibility that Cat had figured out his secret. Other than the one pointed comment, and the accompanying odd expression on her face, she hadn't let anything slip. Surely if she did know, she'd have told him. Subtlety was not exactly known to be Cat Grant's strong point!
"I'm afraid that I just can't think of anything else, Clark." Cat fell silent.
"That's okay," he assured her. "We have a lot of other places where we can check for info about Chesney."
"I just wish I could help more."
"Oh, no, you've been great!" he assured her.
"It's just that I didn't want to pry… I accepted what he told me. I might have been in love with him, but I figured he still deserved his privacy — even from me." She spoke intensely, her eyes meeting his for a moment.
"That's commendable," he said slowly. "I'm surprised, though. You are a gossip columnist, after all."
She nodded. "True enough, but you need to know something about me." She paused and took a deep breath before continuing. "I don't target my friends."
"Very loyal of you."
"But if one of my friends was blatant about a secret — a secret that was newsworthy — I wouldn't have a lot of choice. I'd hate doing it, but I'd splash their secret across the front page if it was big enough."
"So I'd really prefer for a friend of mine to be subtle. You know, not to rub my nose in anything. I'd sure hate to ruin a person's life because he or she gave me no choice."
"I'll keep that in mind. For future reference. If I had a secret. Which I don't." A smile spread slowly across Clark's face.
"Which you don't," she repeated firmly.
"I think that's a great attitude. Any person who can claim you as a friend is very lucky, indeed!" He gave her arm an affectionate squeeze.
"Thanks, Clark!" Cat smiled shyly at him. "Hey! I have an idea. It's almost lunchtime. You hungry?"
He grinned. "Starving! What are you in the mood for?"
A wicked look spread across her face. She raised her eyebrows, licked her lips lasciviously, and winked impishly.
"None of that!" he exclaimed, wagging his index finger at her, secretly delighted by her revived sense of humour. Now that he knew her better, it didn't make him uncomfortable at all.
She laughed, instantly abandoning her wanton pose. "How about the cafeteria?"
"Sounds good. Plus, it'll be quick. I got a ton of stuff to do," Clark said. "My treat, okay?"
"No way! I asked you!"
"But I want to."
"So do I."
He grinned. "We could always arm-wrestle to decide who pays!"
"Only if I get to search out all your ticklish spots first," she purred with a flirtatious glance.
"You win. Your treat!"
She laughed triumphantly as she led him out of the conference room.
What a waste of time! What a waste of effort! Hawthorne had been more interested in discussing Cat than Chesney. She hadn't provided anything substantial about him at all, instead preferring to rip shreds off Cat.
Lois had defended her colleague — not because she felt Cat was all that worthy of respect, but more because if anyone was going to dump on Cat, Lois wanted it to be her!
So, here she was, still at square one, sitting at her desk, none of Chesney's friends answering their phones, and of course, her partner was AWOL again, and she was starving, and the vending machines only had stale cheese sandwiches in them, and to top it all off, she couldn't focus on this story, because all she wanted to do was chew Cat Grant's head off — or Superman's. Either one would do!
As would Clark's. Superman's buddy, Superman's pal, provider of super-duper laundry services — she'd dearly love to chew his head off, too!
She stared off into space, thinking hard, only to hear her errant partner's distinctive laugh. Lois spun around only to gape unbelieving as Clark and Cat strolled off the elevator. The hussy had her arm hooked in his and smiled fatuously as she gazed adoringly at him.
Lois wanted to rip Cat's eyes out!
She got up and stomped over to confront them. "Where have you two been? I've been waiting for you!"
"We grabbed a bite to eat."
"There's no time to eat! This is important stuff, or have you forgotten, Clark?"
"Lois," Cat said soothingly. "Come on. Take it easy. We were only gone twenty minutes."
"Can't speak for yourself, Clark? What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?" Lois spun on her heel and stormed back to her desk.
"That's not fair, Lois! Clark can speak for himself," Cat protested.
"Fine." Lois turned to Clark. "So speak already."
"Cat's right. We were…"
"You just couldn't wait to get your claws into him again, could you?" Lois snarled at the other woman.
"Lois, nothing happened between Cat and me…" Clark glanced from one woman to the other.
"Fine. Nothing happened. Like I believe that! Do I look like I care either way?"
Clark didn't say anything. She just stood and glared, her arms crossed, and waited for his answer.
Finally he shrugged. "No, I guess not."
"That's right. I don't care what you do when you're not at work, but I need you here, now. I can't find anything out. I'm going crazy here. I really need my partner's help."
Clark's head tilted up, a familiar abstracted expression on his face. "I have to run," he said, hurriedly.
Lois started to protest.
"I have to meet a source. Sorry, I didn't have a chance to tell you before. I'll be back in a bit." And he dashed out of the room before she could say anything else.
"Lois," Cat said softly. "You have the wrong idea. All we did was grab a bite to eat. Clark and I are friends…"
"Hah! Friends. You don't know how to be friends with anyone, let alone a man. 'Good for only one thing' — how many times have I heard you say that?"
A tiny part of Lois flinched when she saw all the colour drain from Cat's face. But she ignored it, intent on one thing. She wanted to make Cat hurt as much as she did.
"I was wrong," Cat said, taking Lois by surprise.
"Yeah, well, I was wrong about a few things, too." Lois glared at the other woman.
Cat shook her head, staring helplessly back at Lois. "I'm sorry I've upset you, Lois," she said softly.
All the wind suddenly out of her sails, Lois sank down into her chair. "I'm sorry, too, Cat. I don't know what's got into me."
Cat grabbed Clark's chair and pulled it closer before sitting down. "I just want you to know that I want to help. I don't know what Brandon was involved in, but it must have been pretty bad if the NIA's involved. And it really makes me worry knowing that Superman's been asked to help, and that both you and Clark are investigating."
Lois gave Cat a shaky smile. "Pretty good deductive reasoning."
"Thanks." She grinned smugly. "So what do you say we forget all this petty jealousy and get back to work? Maybe I can help."
Lois's spine stiffened, and blood roared through her veins. "Jealousy? I'm not jealous! Like I need to be jealous of someone like you!"
Fiery sparks came to life in Cat's eyes. "What do you mean — someone like me?"
"Oh, don't ask me that question. You might not like the answer!"
"Too bad mean Lois shoved nice Lois out the window!" Cat sneered. "For a moment there, I really liked nice Lois even though she has no fashion sense."
"I guess you think short skirts and thong underwear are the height of fashion!"
Cat got up and started to sashay back to her own desk. "Only for those of us who have the equipment to wear them!" She looked back over her shoulder. "Stick to pantsuits, Lois. It's always better not to pretend to be something you're not."
"Better get back to work, Cat. What would become of the world if we didn't know what Fifi Foufou wore to her third husband's 97th birthday party?"
For a brief second, Lois saw pain and vulnerability lurking in Cat's eyes before anger overshadowed it. It made her ashamed. But Cat had provoked her. She'd set Lois off. Imagine, accusing Lois of jealousy! It wasn't jealousy! There was no way that she would ever be jealous of anything that woman did! No way! Ever! Just not possible!
Clark got back to the office as quickly as possible. He felt pretty good, having stopped the bank robber in his tracks with no one getting hurt.
He was surprised to find Lois absent when he re-entered the newsroom. Cat sat at her desk, pecking desultorily at her keyboard. She didn't look up as he approached.
Her eyes downcast, Cat paused in her typing. "Gone to interview one of Brandon's society friends. She said to tell you that she left a list of more people for you to try to track down. It's on your desk."
"Thanks, Cat!" Clark exclaimed before starting to head over to his workstation. But he stopped dead when he heard a tiny noise behind him. "Cat?" he asked incredulously. "Are you crying?"
She sniffed again. "No," she replied in a small voice.
He squatted on his heels and looked into her face. "Yes, you are." His hand reached out to awkwardly pat her arm. "Was it Lois? What did she say to you?"
Cat shook her head vehemently. "No, not really. She didn't say anything different from what she would have said this time last week. But today it hurt."
"You've had a rough couple of days."
She nodded slowly as tears slowly rolled down her cheeks. "All day I've been thinking about Brandon. I did love him — at least, I thought I did. And now he's dead, and I'm sorry."
"I know." He pulled a tissue from the box on her desk and handed it to her.
"Thanks, Clark." Cat looked at him with a wavering smile. "You really are a good friend."
He smiled back. "I try."
"At least you and Lois are going to find out who killed him," Cat said briskly.
"Maybe. Maybe not."
"What do you mean?"
"There's stuff we need to find out about Chesney, but it doesn't relate directly to his death."
"How do you know that? It might."
Clark grimaced. "There's stuff I can't tell you. But what he was involved in is a lot more important than solving his murder. There are other things we need to figure out that are bigger."
"But his murder could be related!"
Clark shook his head. "I don't see how."
"What does Lois think?"
"I'm not sure. She's not exactly talking much to me either." He and Cat exchanged a wry, amused glance. "But she hasn't talked about investigating his murder. We need to dig into his connections and his background first."
Clark's phone rang.
"Excuse me, Cat. I have to get that. Are you going to be okay?" he asked as he moved away.
"Yeah, just fine."
As Clark talked to Chesney's old high school buddy, he watched Cat as she worked. He couldn't help but be concerned. But she seemed to have pulled herself together so he turned all his attention back to his phone call.
He didn't see her leave the newsroom a few minutes later, an uncharacteristic look of steely determination on her face.
"You want to do what?" Detective Rizzo asked. He stared incredulously at the gorgeous woman who sat on the other side of his desk.
"I want to look into Brandon Chesney's murder."
"Look, Ms. Grant. This is a police matter. We don't encourage civilian involvement in our investigations."
"Never? I seem to remember quite a few matters that were resolved with the help of civilians."
She smiled tightly. "How about Kyle Griffin? Or Ray Henshaw? Susan Mortimer? Need I go on?"
"Those weren't murders."
"No, true. But what about Kevin Arnold?"
"Yeah, okay. But we had help from… Those reporters were…"
"What's wrong, Detective Rizzo?" Her eyes danced with amusement.
He opened and closed his mouth before finally speaking. "Those were specific exceptions. They were different from this."
He shook his head. "Okay, well, Lane helped us with two of those stories, and then that hot-shot, Carmichael, over at the Star helped us with the others…"
"They're real reporters! Not gossip columnists!"
Cat stood up and leaned forward across his desk making him feel trapped by her strong presence. "Are you saying that I'm not a real reporter?"
Rizzo glanced around. His colleagues weren't very good at hiding their snickers. A couple of them were blatantly eavesdropping. He didn't blame them. Cat Grant was some dish. So no help from those jerks! "No, but… Um, not experienced in the same way."
"Are you trying to say that I'm not experienced at doing investigative reporting?"
"Yeah, that's it," he said, relieved. She'd hit the nail on the head.
She smiled a smile that he didn't trust and sat back down. "But I am, Detective Rizzo. I'm very experienced. And I'm good at what I do."
"I'm sure you are, Ms. Grant, but…"
She studied her flawlessly manicured nails. "We met yesterday for the first time, correct?"
"Yeah. So what?"
"It was just a couple of hours ago that I found out Lois and Clark have different priorities from me and won't be directly investigating Brandon's murder."
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"So how's your dad feeling? Better, I hope. An ulcer is nothing to sneer at."
"How did you know about my dad?"
"And his dog, Buck? He's recovered from his run-in with that German Shepherd?"
"Hey! You checked me out!"
"Very good. I see why you made detective!" Cat grinned, her white teeth flashing. "It was no different from finding out which actor's cheating on his wife. I could go on if you wanted. I found out a lot in just a couple of hours. I know all about Emma Lou Sanderson and how you took her to the prom. I know your grades. I know that you wanted to be a fireman when you were thirteen. I even know about Freddie." She glanced at his amused colleagues. "Want me to share?"
She knew about Freddie? "No," he muttered, his mouth dry. If she told his buddies that he had slept with a stuffed giraffe until he'd been ten, he'd never live it down!
Cat Grant leaned forward again, causing his heart to thump and his blood pressure to rise. Man, she was one hot babe!
"I didn't target you to be malicious or anything. I just wanted to make a point. I'll be the first to admit that I've never looked into a murder, but I am a good investigator, Detective Rizzo. I could be a big help to you. I know it." She sat back and crossed one perfect knee over the other. "Please let me help you."
Wow! Her legs were really long. They seemed to go on for miles, shapely calves leading to perfect oval kneecaps and on to creamy white thighs that her short skirt did nothing to hide.
His breath caught in his throat. "I don't know." He forced himself to stand up. "I'll think about it."
She sprang to her feet and extended her hand. "Thank you. You won't regret this!"
He had to force himself to let go after a perfunctory handshake. "I didn't say 'yes,' Ms. Grant."
"But you didn't say 'no,' either. I appreciate that." She batted her eyelashes. "I'll wait to hear from you."
"Yeah." And you just might be waiting a long time, he thought as he watched her sashay out of the room. To be fair, though, she really had found a lot out about his personal life. He was impressed, in spite of his reservations. And she was gorgeous… But that had nothing to do with it. On the other hand, he was stuck with no leads in Chesney's death… Maybe there was something she could do… But he shouldn't even be thinking about this…
His hand tingled, still feeling the softness of hers, the warmth of her flesh.
Rizzo jumped to his feet and dashed out of the room. He caught up to her as she was about to get into a taxi.
She turned back and smiled at him. "Yes?"
He melted. "I just wanted to say…" He paused and took a deep breath. What else could he do? He had a weakness for tall, leggy, auburn-haired beauties. "All right. We'll try it."
"Thank you!" A broad incandescent smile spread across her face.
He felt dizzy. "You're welcome, Ms. Grant."
"Oh, please, call me Cat. I'll call you Joe if that's okay."
"I'll need to go over your files."
Rizzo sighed again. "Yeah, okay. But we can't do it here. My boss wouldn't be happy with me for letting you get involved."
She nodded solemnly. "I can understand that. How about my place? Six o'clock. You bring your notes, and I'll have supper ready. Sound good?"
Did it sound good? Having dinner alone with this fantastic sexy woman? Yeah, he had to admit it sounded great! "That'll be fine," he said quietly even while his stomach tried to tie itself in a knot.
"Good. See you then. You won't be sorry, Joe." She took a second to give him her address before climbing into the car.
Silently praying that she was right, he stood and watched as the taxi drove off with Cat Grant in its back seat.
Dinner with the sexiest woman he'd ever seen… Wow! Too bad a gorgeous broad like her could never be interested in a working stiff like him.
"I got nothing. How about you?"
"Nothing," Clark answered glumly.
Lois looked tired, he thought. And well she should. She had an impressive sheaf of notes in front of her. His pile was almost as large. He was amused in a way. Only Lois could outdo Superman!
She seemed a lot calmer, her bad mood a thing of the past, thankfully. Instead, she was focused on work. Clark was relieved that things were back to normal.
Lois, however, was feeling anything but normal. She had never been so depressed in her life. And what was most upsetting was that she couldn't even figure out exactly what was bothering her. It should have meant nothing to her that Cat and Clark had gone out to lunch together. She wasn't jealous. How could she be jealous of Clark? And she'd believed them when they'd said that they had only had lunch together, just like she'd believed Superman when he'd said that he wasn't having an affair with Cat. So what was the problem?
With a start, she brought her attention back to Clark and to her notes, not that it would do much good. They had nothing to go on. Chesney's friendship with Rahsanjani was nothing more than a coincidence. The man had been a rich, spoiled, socialite with the morals of a pack of wild dogs, but he'd not been an arms dealer.
So if Chesney hadn't supplied Rahsanjani with illegal weapons, who had?
"Want to grab a bite to eat?" Clark asked.
She shook her head. "No. I'm beat. I think I'll just go home and crash."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. I wouldn't be good company anyway."
A concerned Clark flew past Lois's window later that night. It was locked. He had never seen it locked before.
Through the drawn curtains, he could see the faint glow of her TV. He thought about knocking, but decided against it. She had made it pretty obvious she didn't want to see him. Either him.
Joe Rizzo wiped the sweaty palms of his hands down the side of his jeans before ringing Cat Grant's doorbell. He'd thought of dressing up a bit — after all, she must be used to a different kind of man — but he'd worn his jeans instead. He was too stubborn to try to change just to impress a woman, even if that woman was the most interesting and exotic person he'd ever met.
He hoped she wasn't going to feed him any raw fish or stuff like that. He also hoped she wasn't a vegetarian. Bean sprouts and celery sticks didn't do anything for him.
The door swung open, and Rizzo's mouth gaped open. "You look different!" he exclaimed.
Cat looked down at her oversized sweatshirt and her snug jeans and shrugged. "I felt like being comfortable. I know I look awful…"
"Oh, no, you look fantastic!" he hastily assured her as he followed her inside the apartment.
She flashed him a quick dazzling smile. "Thanks! I hope you like pizza. It just arrived about two minutes ago, so it's still hot. I ordered pepperoni and mushroom; I hope that's okay. I didn't know what you liked."
"Perfect! That's my favourite."
"Mine, too. I also have a cold six-pack. I figured you were off-duty so it would be okay."
"Sounds great." Rizzo piled his notes on the coffee table in front of her couch as she served up the pizza and snagged a couple of beers. Light beer. Oh well. Nobody's perfect, he thought philosophically as he took a healthy swig.
They didn't talk business as they ate, instead preferring to enjoy their food. Rizzo couldn't help worrying about what would happen later. He knew his own cast-iron stomach would have no problem when they started discussing Chesney's murder, but he was concerned about how Cat would react. She had dated the man — been intimate with him, Rizzo reminded himself with a grimace — and now he was dead. And he hadn't just died in his sleep. He'd been murdered in a particularly cruel and violent manner.
Rizzo swallowed the last bite of pizza, washed it down with a mouthful of beer and then scrubbed at his mouth and fingers with a paper napkin. Cat was only a few bites behind him, and he waited patiently while she finished. She sure hadn't eaten her food in the prissy delicate way he'd been expecting.
"I guess we should get started," he said, when he was sure she was done.
She nodded bravely, scooted a little closer to him on the couch and aimed her attention at the file folders on the coffee table.
It didn't take long for Rizzo to go over what little they knew. He described the murder scene and told her about the homeless kids who had found the body when they'd been looking for a quiet place to sack out. Forensics had found a blood trail leaving the place, but no other clues.
"That's it? That's everything?" she asked incredulously.
"Pretty much," he admitted.
"What about the autopsy report?"
He shook his head, grimly. "You don't want to know about that."
"Probably not, but tell me anyway."
Joe turned to face Cat. He reached out and took her slender hand in his. "Are you sure? It's bad."
"I mean it. It's really bad." His voice was grim.
He watched as all the colour drained out of her face. She nodded again, her lips pressed together in one tight line. He squeezed her hand gently before releasing it and turning back to the last file folder in the pile. Rizzo didn't open this file wide as he had the others. He didn't want her to see the photos. Instead, he picked it up and opened it carefully, only long enough to extract a single typed page — the autopsy report.
Upon seeing it, Cat recoiled, her spine hitting the back of the couch. Then she tucked her hands under her armpits as if she were cold and rocked forward to peruse it. One hand uncoiled to hover over the paper. She lightly touched one line of information and then laughed — one hoarse bark of sound with no amusement in it at all. "He was forty-one! He always told me he was thirty-five!" She shook her head. "He's dead, and I'm still tripping over his lies."
"Are you okay?" Rizzo asked, his arm slipping gingerly around her shoulders.
He'd rescued a newborn puppy once that some psychopathic scumbag had dumped down a storm sewer. The puppy had been soft and warm and frail and delicate, and it had trembled in the palm of his hand. That was what Cat felt like. She felt vulnerable and small and scared, and in need of protection. His protection.
"Why did he feel he had to lie about his age?" she asked, ignoring his question. "Did he think I'd like him better if he were younger? What kind of person lies about something so small?" She turned to Joe. "Have you ever lied about your age?"
"Only when I was a kid trying to buy beer! Didn't you?" he asked with a wry grin.
She laughed, her face lightening as she smiled at him. "Okay, when you put it like that…" Her smile faded as she stared into his eyes. "Thanks, Joe. I should be okay, now."
He nodded, squeezed carefully and then reluctantly pulled his arm away from her shoulders. His flesh tingled where it had touched her. He yearned to hold her once more, but instead he turned back to the autopsy report. "Tell me if this gets too gruesome for you to handle, okay?"
"All right then. Chesney died from massive exsanguinations."
"Blood loss. He was stabbed numerous times. Not once was it a killing blow."
"In effect, you're telling me he was tortured to death?"
Rizzo grimaced. "Yeah." He glanced at her to see her reaction.
Cat looked a bit green, as though she were regretting the pizza she'd eaten, but she seemed to be holding herself together even so.
"He had defensive cuts on his hands that tell us he saw this coming and he did try to defend himself. Whoever did this was just too good, though. A real expert."
"How do you know?"
"This was a very methodical attack. From what we've reconstructed, the first attack came from behind. It's possible Chesney had turned to run. He was hamstrung and then the killer took his time. It looked like the work of someone in a frenzy, but it really wasn't. Do you realise how difficult it is for someone to avoid stabbing a vulnerable spot? There were at least two hundred and fifty wounds, and not one of them was fatal on its own. That tells me that every cut was made with precision."
"Oh God!" Cat covered her mouth with a shaking hand.
Rizzo peered anxiously at her, but she motioned him to go on. "In fact the coroner said that there might have been more than three hundred wounds, but it was impossible to tell as some of them were so close together they couldn't be differentiated."
"A monster did this," Cat whispered.
Rizzo nodded. "Yeah. A sadist in the truest sense of the word. Someone who hungers for blood, and feasts on pain." He picked up the file folder in order to slip the autopsy report back inside. A photo slid out as he opened the folder a crack. It landed face-up on the table. Joe swore and reached for it.
Cat's hand snapped around his wrist as she blocked his move. "Sweet Mother in Heaven," she breathed as she studied the bloodied unrecognizable body of her lover.
He twisted his hand free and quickly picked up the picture, tucking it away, cursing himself for not having left the photos at work. "I'm sorry. I didn't want you to see that."
She looked off into space and spoke, as if to herself. "When I found out about his fianc‚e, I wanted him to suffer. I wanted his friends to laugh at him. I wanted his fianc‚e to dump him. I wanted him to come crawling back to me so I could smack him down and reject him. But this… I didn't want this."
"I know." Rizzo patted her awkwardly on the arm. He could feel her muscles trembling. She didn't relax into him, instead sitting tall, all rigid and tense.
She turned, pulling away from him, and he felt the full weight of her gaze. "You thought I did this? You came to the Planet, and you tried to arrest me for this? You thought I could do this?"
He winced hearing the horror in her voice. "Yes. No. I don't know. I didn't know you. And even if I had, I wouldn't have known. Not really. You don't understand the things that I see. Parents who murder their children. Children who kill their parents. Lovers. Husbands and wives. It's not a nice world, Cat. Evil doesn't always wear an ugly face. Sometimes it can look like the most beautiful person in the world."
"I thought Brandon was evil," she whispered. "But he wasn't. He was just a silly little boy who thought he deserved to get whatever he wanted. He wasn't evil. But he met evil, didn't he? He met evil."
As Rizzo watched, she hunched over, holding on to her ribs. Tears rolled down her cheeks. "Come here," he groaned as he tugged her into his arms.
She sobbed, her head tucked into his neck, and her hands fisting his shirt.
"Shhh," he crooned anxiously, his arms not wanting to ever let her go. "It'll be all right. Shhh."
Cat lay still, her body limp, in Detective Rizzo's arms. Her mind, however, was working overtime. It would be so easy to get comfort, she thought. At least it had been in her former life. All she had to do was sniffle a bit more, relax into him a bit more, and he would respond. She knew he would. Practically everyone she'd ever targeted had responded. Well, everyone except Clark, she thought with a hidden wry grin. But she would think about Clark later.
Men's bodies had always come cheap to her. Their hearts had never been a concern before. Not even Brandon's, she realised with a jolt of surprise.
She didn't have the right to go after this man's heart. He was special. He was different, and she didn't even know why.
Cat pulled herself reluctantly from Rizzo's embrace, embarrassed and saddened by her automatic response to his closeness. She sighed. She felt shaky and numb and terribly sad, but at least she had managed to stop crying.
How kind of Detective Rizzo to comfort her. These messy emotional responses of hers couldn't be what he was hoping for when he'd agreed to let her help. And she'd bet that he wasn't expecting her to try to seduce him either. Swallowing a lump in her throat, she took a deep breath and struggled to be professional. "Have there been any similar murders in the area?"
He nodded. "There was that John Doe that turned up a couple of days ago, but I don't think these cases are related. He was, um, a lot more mutilated than Chesney."
Cat looked down, hiding her embarrassment. "I didn't read about him. I guess I was too upset to keep up with the news."
Rizzo grinned. "Aren't you worried I might report that to Lane and Kent? It was their story."
Cat glanced over at him and giggled as she shook her head in response. His quick response had lightened her mood.
He was a really nice guy to try to cheer her up, and he was funny, sensitive, intelligent and not half-bad to look at either. In fact, he was pretty darned good to look at. Dark hair, dark eyes, a dangerous hint of five o'clock shadow, great build, tall, and he carried himself well — self-confident but not swaggering or arrogant. The guy had a definite presence.
But what did that matter? How in the world could a guy like Joe ever be interested in an over-the-top gossip columnist with way too many notches on her bedpost? He had too much machismo to ever forgive her past. She'd known guys like him before and, after a couple of messy scenes, had always avoided dating his kind of man.
If she wanted to, she could seduce him. She knew she could. If she wanted, she could have this man in her bed. He was attracted to her. She knew it. But it would be purely physical, and suddenly that wasn't enough.
Part of her ached for his warm solid flesh, desperate to lose herself in his embrace, anxious to swamp her feelings under, plastering them over with physical sensation. But she couldn't do it, she realised, fighting against the insidious tug of deeply ingrained habits.
She was in real danger of losing herself completely with Rizzo. Far better for her to back off and play it cool and professional. Safer.
This man could hurt her where it counted. He could hurt her heart. Chesney hadn't, she suddenly realised. He'd only hurt her pride.
"So, why don't you think the cases are related?" she asked, striving to regain some small amount of professionalism.
He shrugged. "Superficially, they do resemble each other, but there is one big difference. The first victim was much more mutilated." He grimaced. "He had his fingers cut off, and his teeth pulled. His face was unrecognizable, as he'd also been beaten to a pulp. Someone didn't want us to know who he was."
Cat shuddered. She thought hard for a moment. "What if," she asked hesitantly, "the only difference was that the killer didn't want anyone to know who the first guy was, but didn't care who knew about Brandon?"
Rizzo rubbed his chin slowly. "That's possible, I guess."
"Did the same coroner do each autopsy?"
"I bet Brandon's body hasn't been released yet."
"Yes, that's true."
"So why not ask the coroner who did the John Doe to have a look at Brandon to see if any of the wounds look the same?"
He smiled and pulled out his cell phone. "That's a very good idea."
Cat settled back on the couch and watched as Rizzo forcefully ploughed through red tape at the coroner's office. It took quite a few minutes, but eventually he switched off his phone and turned to face her.
"Lucky that the doc we need is on duty tonight," he told her. "He said he'd get back to me in an hour or two."
"That's great!" she exclaimed. "So, do you want to wait here for the call?" Her heart was in her mouth as she waited for his response, hoping that he'd be willing to stay. Scared that he'd want to stay.
Rizzo checked his watch and smiled. "It's still early. I'd love to."
"Good!" Her eyes met his for one brief exciting second, before she looked down. She felt heat flooding through her cheeks. She hadn't blushed since ninth grade! "Would you like another beer, or can I make you some coffee?
An hour later, they were both on their second cups of coffee. Their conversation had meandered from what it was like for Cat to work at the Planet to the everyday routine — or lack thereof — of a detective in the Metropolis P.D.
They had discovered that they'd gone to rival high schools, different colleges and didn't hang out at the same clubs.
He'd laughed heartily when Cat had started to compare the merits of her favourite rhythm and blues to Joe's country and western. She had laughed at the sour look on his face when she'd finished.
That seemed to exhaust the conversation for a while, both of them falling silent. She looked down at her hands, all the while conscious of his solid masculine presence beside her.
"How did you meet him?" Rizzo asked, his voice soft and non-judgemental.
She smiled a little sadly as she remembered. "At a party," she answered. "It was a real mob scene. It had been fun for a while, but I wanted to leave early. That's unusual for me, but I was just too uncomfortable."
At his silent questioning look, she expanded on her feelings. "It wasn't my bag. I can handle people drinking, but there was too much. And in practically every corner of the room, I could see people huddled together, sniffing coke or shooting up. I don't like that. It makes people too unpredictable."
"Yeah, I'll say!" Rizzo exclaimed, his words heartfelt.
"One guy — a very respectable stock broker — had already smacked his girlfriend because she'd been flirting with another man. It had changed the whole mood of the place. There was so much anger in that house I felt as though I was choking for air. "
She shook her head and glanced at him quickly before looking down at her clasped hands. "I was scared. And I got more scared when I tried to leave, and a lawyer who — well, I won't go into details, but let's just say I had rejected him once and he never forgot it. Anyway, I tried to leave, and he blocked the door — asked me what my damn hurry was.
"The other people around us, they looked awful. I looked at them and in their faces, I saw rage and lust and cruelty. They wanted something to happen to me just so they could watch! I've never been in a situation like that before, and I never want to again."
Rizzo reached out and gently took her cold hand in his.
She smiled at him weakly and continued. "I tried talking my way out, but that just seemed to make him angrier. I was just starting to panic when Brandon was there. He took my arm, said something mild — so mild I don't even remember what it was — and waltzed me out of there like I was a princess."
She gazed blankly at her hand, lost in Rizzo's warm grasp. "He made me feel special. He always made me feel special until the day he made me realise I really wasn't."
"Bull-feathers!" Rizzo exclaimed.
"Bull-feathers? Is that a word?" Cat reared back on the couch and stared at the detective.
To her surprise, he blushed. Grinning, he explained, "Well, it's a word now. Blame it on my sister having little kids. I can't talk like I want around them!"
She laughed in delight at the mental picture of this big, tough guy having kids crawl all over him. For a second, a wave of yearning swept through her. It was such a good picture, a normal picture.
But it wasn't for her.
Her smile faded and she tucked her hands into her armpits, feeling more naked and vulnerable than she'd ever felt before.
Rizzo reached out and lightly grasped her chin. Tipping her face up to meet her eyes with his, he repeated softly, "Like I said before, bull-feathers. You are special. You're the most special woman I've ever met."
She lost herself in the dark, warm depths of his eyes. "That's very kind of you…"
"I'm not just being kind." His hand touched her hair and then her cheek, a fleeting touch leaving heat in its wake.
She watched, her eyes locked on his firm mouth as his weight shifted. It was a small move, but he started to lean forward, towards her…
And his cell phone rang.
Rizzo muttered a muffled curse and answered it.
Cat pressed her cold hands against her warm cheeks, trying to regain her composure. She listened anxiously as he greeted the coroner.
He frustrated her by only answering in grunts and mumbled 'Mmmm hmmms.' She tried to read his body language and facial expressions, but he was so poker-faced and impassive, she couldn't get any sense of what he was thinking. By the time he ended his call, she was practically crawling out of her skin, her next to non- existent patience completely exhausted.
"So? What did he say?" she asked.
"You were right. The doc said it looked like it was one killer. He's going to analyse things a little more for us — measure wound depth, that kind of thing — but his preliminary findings say that the same guy did both murders." Rizzo shook his head. "Good thinking, Cat. I'm impressed."
He looked at his watch. "It's too late for me to go back to work and pull information on the John Doe. What do you say we get together tomorrow night and go over that file?"
She looked away. "I don't know."
"Is this because I nearly kissed you?"
She ran her hands through her hair. "Yes. No. Maybe. I don't know."
"I'm sorry," he said softly.
She gazed at him in surprise.
"It's too soon for you… You're still grieving for Chesney."
Was she? she wondered. She must be. He'd been such a big part of her life for months now. But had she really known him as well as she'd thought she had? Was she grieving the loss of Brandon or the loss of her dreams?
She must be. She couldn't be so completely shallow as to be over him yet. Which meant that these feelings she had for Rizzo were definitely rebound feelings, which meant that she really had to rein herself in. It wouldn't be right to use him only to make herself feel better. She'd done that in the past; she never wanted to do it again.
"I do want to work with you, Cat," Rizzo continued. "You've proven to me that you're a great investigator! You've come up with a whole new take on things. That's a huge help." He took a deep breath. "Say you'll keep working with me. I promise I'll behave."
The problem was Cat wasn't sure she wanted him to behave! "All right," she said reluctantly. Hopefully. Fearfully.
"How about we meet here again, and I'll bring dinner? Sound good?"
"Great! You won't be sorry."
She hoped he wouldn't be either.
"So what you're saying, Clark, is we have one middle-aged jerk who went to the University of North Weehawken because that's the only place he could buy himself a degree, and then after graduating, he didn't do anything more than attend a whole bunch of society wing dings, chase women and get pie-eyed every other night?"
"That's pretty much it, Lois," Clark admitted ruefully. "Except for the part about him being a dyed-in-the-wool schmuck who treated anyone who wasn't in his social circle as if they didn't deserve to breathe the same air as him."
She grimaced. "Hard to bring myself to care whether he got knocked off or not."
He shrugged and ran his hands through his hair. "I know what you mean. The only interesting thing about him is his friendship with Rahsanjani."
"But it wasn't as if they saw each other all that much."
"And when we look at his phone records, up until the last couple of weeks, they only talked sporadically."
"No. And Conroy said there wasn't that much mail between them either."
Lois nodded and chewed on the end of her pencil, her eyes narrowed in thought. "Chesney wasn't exactly a techno-nerd either. He didn't have a computer so no emails back and forth."
Clark shrugged. "I hate to say it, Lois, but I think we're at a dead end with this guy. We could investigate him until the cows come home, but we're not going to find out anything more than he was a world-class idiot who probably couldn't even spell neutron bomb, let alone put his hands on one."
Lois craned her neck so she could survey her partner, who paced back and forth in the conference room. "Until the cows come home? Where the heck did that come from?"
Clark laughed. "It's a Kansas thing, I guess. Anyway, I think we need to talk about our next plan of action. In my opinion, we're done with Chesney."
"I think you're right, Clark." Lois glanced back down at her notes only to look up when she heard a knock on the conference room door. It opened, and Jimmy stuck his head inside.
"Hey guys! Got that list of companies for you." He handed it to Clark and disappeared again.
Clark looked it over quickly and then gazed off into space, his eyes narrowed in thought.
"What's it say?" Lois asked eagerly.
He didn't even seem to hear her as he looked blankly at the wall.
"Clark? Come on. Hand it over!"
"What? Oh, sorry, Lois."
She grabbed the page from his extended hand and eagerly perused the names on the list. There were only four companies listed that could possibly manufacture the sophisticated software that a neutron bomb would need. "Hey! This is a break!" she exclaimed. "Argus Engineering is a subsidiary of Lex Luthor Industries!"
"I know," Clark answered grimly.
"What's wrong with that?" She looked up at him as he hovered over her. "I'll be able to ask Lex for more information."
He shook his head. "I don't think that's a good idea. You don't know Luthor like I do."
"What the heck is that supposed to mean? I'm the one who's been dating him. I'm the one who got the first one-on-one interview with him. How can you know more about him than me?"
"I have my ways." Clark crossed his arms. He looked uncharacteristically unyielding and adamant, and surprisingly forceful.
She didn't like it.
"Oh, so you have your ways. All right then, Clark. Tell me. Tell me what you know about Lex that makes talking to him a bad idea."
He looked away. "I can't."
"You can't," she repeated, her tone sarcastic.
"I don't have any proof. But he's not a nice guy, Lois. I worry about you when you're with him. You just don't know what kind of things he's capable of!"
She sprang to her feet to face him directly. "Oh really?"
"Well, for your information, Lex Luthor happens to be a friend of mine! He cares about me! He'd never do anything to hurt me. He's a kind, sensitive, charming man who's done a lot of good things for Metropolis!"
"He's an evil, manipulative man who's pulled the wool over everyone's eyes, yours most of all!" Clark ran his hands roughly through his hair.
"You're jealous!" she exclaimed.
"Yeah, jealous. He's good-looking, powerful, and people look up to him. Of course, you're jealous!"
"That's ridiculous!" he snapped in response.
Clark took a deep breath and then slowly exhaled. "I just know he's a bad guy. He's done a lot of damage, but he's really good at covering his tracks."
She folded her arms across her chest. "Where's your proof?"
"I don't have any!" He glared at her defiantly. "Please, Lois. I just don't think it's a very good idea for you to talk to Luthor about any of this."
"Well, Clark, I don't happen to agree with you," she replied, her voice snippy.
"You can't talk about this with him anyway," Clark said almost smugly. "Conroy asked us to keep everything confidential. You don't have a choice."
"Oh, ye of little faith," Lois replied, patting his arm. "Don't you know yet what a good reporter I am? Talking around something like this is child's play for someone like me. I can interview Lex, get the information I need, and be done with it, and he won't have a clue why I'm asking what I'm asking."
"Not unless he has something to do with it, himself."
"Now you're getting really silly. As if a man of Lex's stature would ever have anything to do with something like this!"
"Well, I might be silly, but you're blind!"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You can't see what's right in front of you. You're too dazzled by Luthor's position in society."
"What? That's ridiculous!"
"No, it's true, Lois. Plus that's not the only thing you're blind about!"
"What else am I blind about?"
"Like I'd tell you. It's only staring you right in the face!" Clark stormed out of the conference room, leaving Lois staring blankly after him.
"What the heck is that supposed to mean?" she muttered as she watched her partner stomp onto the elevator. "What's staring me in the face?"
"What did it mean?" Jonathan asked his distraught son.
"I don't even know. It's just one of those things that sounded good at the time but once I got in the elevator, I couldn't figure out what it meant."
Martha looked up from her 'artwork' although Clark privately thought that 'artwork' was far too charitable a description for what she was working on. "Freud might say it was a subconscious desire in search of a context. On the other hand, Jung would probably dismiss it as an anger- induced synaptic anomaly."
Clark stared at his mother, unable to believe what he'd heard emerging from her mouth.
"Adult education," his father said mildly. "It's a beautiful thing."
"The real question here is, do you really feel that Lois is in danger?" Martha asked, her voice worried.
"Yeah, I do, Mom. Lex Luthor is not a nice man. He is so completely twisted, and I can't get her to see that. Superman can't talk to her. She's not exactly listening to him at the moment. And she's not listening to Clark either. Which is really strange because while she's not always listened to Clark, she's always listened to Superman, but now she's not listening to either of them."
Martha stepped away from her… whatever it was, and peered intently into her son's face. "Oh, sweetie! I was afraid this might happen someday."
"You've started talking about yourself in the third person," Martha explained. "It's all the pressure. That's why I've started taking those psych classes, and not a moment too soon!"
"Martha, lighten up," Jonathan said, his tone long- suffering. "How else do you expect him to talk about himself? This isn't a huge problem. Don't make it into one."
"I do have another problem, though, Mom and Dad." Clark sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "And this one really might be huge."
The three of them sat down at the kitchen table, and Clark filled them in on the situation with Cat. He told them about Brandon Chesney's rejection of her, her drunken performance at the Symphony Benefit, Superman's late-night pep talk, her accurate perception of his feelings for Lois, and her astounding suggestion that he adopt a disguise. And then he told them about her aborted arrest for murder, Superman stepping in to provide her with an alibi, Lois jumping to the conclusion that Cat and Superman were having an affair, ("Which is why Lois won't talk to you, I suppose," Martha said. He nodded.) and finished by describing the subsequent conversations he'd had with Cat that led him to pretty well conclude that she had suspicions about Clark Kent and his secret identity.
"So now I don't know what to do. Should I confront her? Or would it be better to ignore the whole thing, and pretend that it didn't happen?"
"Oh, Clark! Your life is so complicated sometimes." She lovingly pushed his hair back off his forehead. "I watch you trying so hard to figure everything out, like when you were a little boy, taking Dad's new tractor apart and bending the axles into pretzels. Remember?"
"Who could forget?" Jonathan said. "Try explaining that one to the insurance company."
"I know you and Lois are having your ups and downs right now," Martha continued. "But I also know she really cares for you. Your dad and I saw that when the two of you were here. Eventually she'll listen to you about Luthor. But these things take time. This Cat, though. She worries me. Do you think you can trust her?"
"I guess, but it's going to drive me crazy trying to figure out if she knows or not."
"I'm not happy with the possibility that she might know," Jonathan said glumly. "She could make your life miserable."
"What else can I do, though, Dad?" Clark asked in frustration. "I can't come right out and ask her if she knows."
Jonathan sighed heavily. "I know. But this is going to be a worry."
"For me, too," Clark agreed.
"I don't know. I have a good feeling about her from what you've said. She sounds like she's got a lot of goodness to her." Martha giggled. "It also sounds like she's done her best to hide it and reveal other, um, assets!" She smiled warmly at her son. "Life is full of mystery. Sometimes we just have to accept it. Right, honey?"
Clark sighed yet again. "I guess so. Anyway, if I'm going to drive myself crazy thinking about this, I might as well enjoy myself in the meantime. Got any more pie?"
Martha laughed and slid another piece onto her son's plate.
Jonathan grinned and held up his own empty plate. "That's my boy! Like father, like son!"
"Lois! What a lovely surprise!" Lex Luthor got up from behind his large desk and strode over to meet Lois at the door to his office. "Come in! Have a seat. Can you stay for lunch?" He grasped her hand and led her into the room.
Lois smiled, pleased by her friend's exuberant welcome. "Lex, if I didn't know any better, I'd think you were trying to sweep me off my feet."
"But I am," he answered, chuckling. "How am I doing?"
She laughed as she sat on a small loveseat. "Wonderfully, of course. You're very good at it!"
"Why, thank you, my dear!" He perched on the arm of an easy chair across from her. "I am serious, though. Would you care to stay for lunch?"
"Oh, no," Lois answered. "I don't want to be any trouble."
"No trouble at all," Lex replied. He picked up the phone, dialled an extension and spoke into the receiver. "Mrs. Cox, Ms. Lane will be joining me for lunch. Please notify Chef Andre. Ask him to prepare something especially sinful for dessert. Perhaps it will tempt Ms. Lane into breaking her rules." He rakishly winked at Lois before hanging up the phone and turning back to her. "Good. That's settled."
"No, thank you. It's not often that I'm able to dine with someone so lovely."
She blushed, a wave of heat sweeping up into her face. Oh, this man was good for her ego. At least there was one person who wanted to be with her!
"Much as I'm delighted to see you, I don't suppose you dropped in for the express purpose of being invited to lunch. Is there something I can do for you, my dear?" Lex regarded her warmly.
Lois smiled ruefully. He knew her well, didn't he? "Actually, yes, there is, Lex. I need to ask you questions about some of your competitors, if that's all right."
"Of course." He motioned for her to continue.
She pulled the short list of company names out of her purse and handed it to him.
"My Argus Engineering's on this list," he said immediately.
"Yes, but it's the other companies I'm interested in. What can you tell me about them?"
Lex got up and walked to the large window that led out onto his balcony. He gazed out for a moment before turning back to her. "Is one of these companies doing something illegal or unethical?"
"I can't answer that, Lex. What I will say is that it's important for me to find out more about them."
He inclined his head in agreement. "All right, then. Markham Manufacturing is run by Anthony Markham. I've never heard anything untoward about the man or about his business. He's married — quite happily, I hear — and has two children. He primarily sells his software to the automotive industry — you know, for those little computers that tell mechanics what's wrong with the vehicle."
"When it comes to my Jeep, those little computers lie," Lois replied as she took notes.
Lex laughed in delight. "Yes, that is the biggest flaw in his software's design!" He glanced back down at the list of names. "And then there's Delta Designs run by a man from Sweden with the most unpronounceable name I've ever heard. Something like Engelbrocktilhencken." He shuddered delicately. "His company is quite prominent in small personal computers."
"Any idea how you spell Engelbrock-whatever?" Lois asked with her pen poised above her little pad of paper.
"No idea at all," Lex replied firmly. "You're on your own!"
She giggled and did her best to somewhat approximate the name Lex had given her.
"Finally we come to Comprehensive Software. It's my closest competitor. We both specialize in military software. It's run by Julius Grubner, poor man."
"Why is he a poor man?" Lois asked.
"He and his wife went through a bitter divorce — so bitter that his daughter, Julia, ended up taking her mother's maiden name for her own." Lex shook his head sadly. "Julia refuses to talk to her father, and he would so like to be there for her right now as she's had a major upset in her life. Her fianc‚ was killed a few days ago."
"What was her fianc‚'s name?" Lois asked, her eyes narrowing in suspicion.
"Brandon Chesney? He's the reason I'm here," Lois blurted out.
"Really?" Lex gazed at her, his expression questioning. "What in the world does an idiot like Chesney have to do with software companies?"
Lois gave herself a shake. She'd been indiscreet. No harm done, though. Lex couldn't possibly know why she was here. "I'm afraid I can't tell you, Lex. Confidentiality and all that. Please forget I said anything."
"Ah, yes. Your journalistic ethics. That's just one of the things I admire about you, Lois. Your high standards for yourself. Not to worry. I'll put it out of my mind."
She smiled, touched and completely charmed. "Thank you, Lex. I appreciate the compliment even more coming from someone who sets his own high standards."
There was a light tap on the door, it opened, and Mrs. Cox entered the room, wheeling a laden tea trolley in front of her. "Lunch is served, sir."
"Thank you, Mrs. Cox." Lex waited as his assistant laid out the plates of food on the small dining table to the side of his office. Then he turned to Lois. "Shall we see whether Chef Andre has lived up to our standards, my dear?" He extended his hand to her.
She smiled and placed her fingers in his as he assisted her to her feet. "I'd love to, Lex. Thank you."
"Clark! Wait till you hear what I've got!" Lois marched out of the elevator and down the stairs to the conference room. Her eyes were bright, her smile wide, and Clark could just about sense the electricity crackling from her. He grinned as he followed in her wake. It was nice to have things go back to normal!
He carefully closed the door and turned to face her. "What is it?"
She whirled to face him. "Comprehensive Software. It's owned by Julius Grubner!"
"So Julius Grubner is Julia Hawthorne's father."
"Wow!" He whistled lightly through his teeth. "I'd say that's a pretty solid lead."
"I know!" Her smile got even wider. "And Lex said…"
"Lex? You got this information from Lex?" Clark's heart sank.
She rolled her eyes, her happiness dimmed. "Lighten up, Clark. First of all, what do you care where we got this information? The important thing is we got it. Okay?"
"Yeah, I guess," he muttered, not really agreeing, but trying really hard not to argue.
"Anyway, I think we can eliminate Delta and Markham from our list. One manufactures for the automotive industry, the other for personal computers. Lex told me that Comprehensive specializes in military software."
"What does Argus specialize in, Lois?" Clark asked with his eyes narrowed in thought.
She winced and looked down. "Okay, it deals with military software, too, but I can't believe Lex could be involved. He's my friend. I trust him."
"But I don't trust him, Lois." He struggled to keep his tone reasonable.
"I think I would have noticed a reaction from him if there'd been something going on at Argus that he wants to hide. And I didn't, Clark. He didn't wince, grimace, shrug, or react in any way other than innocent."
"He's a very good actor," Clark said, his voice flat.
"Lois, please. I know that this is something we don't agree on, but I really want to check into Argus, too."
She sighed and sat down at the table, all her enthusiasm dimmed, her energy diminished. "All right. We'll keep Argus on the list."
"Thank you, Lois."
She glared up at him. "But when we don't find anything, when Argus is eliminated from our list of suspects, then I want you to drop this, Clark. I don't want to hear another word from you about Lex. Okay?"
"I mean it! You want me to investigate a friend of mine, then that's the deal. Take it or leave it!"
What choice did Clark have? He knew that Luthor was guilty of so much. Wasn't it probable that he'd be guilty of this, too? However, Julia Hawthorne's father running Comprehensive Software was a huge coincidence. What if it were more than that? If it were then Clark's hands would be tied. He'd have to back off and stop warning Lois. But warning her hadn't exactly got him too far so what was the difference? Maybe he needed to change his strategy. He'd have to think about this!
"I'm waiting," she said firmly.
"All right, Lois. You've got a deal." He just hoped he wouldn't regret this!
"I guess Conroy should know that we don't feel Chesney's his man," Clark said, deliberating changing the subject.
"Next time Superman's at your place pre-soaking his socks, why don't you tell him?" Lois asked, her words dripping acid. "He can let Conroy know. You and I have better things to do!"
Okay, so things weren't quite as normal as he'd hoped.
Cat paced from the living room into the kitchen into the entranceway and back, only to turn around and do it again. She paused in front of the full-length mirror near the door and smoothed her skirt, checked the buttons on her blouse to make sure none of them were gaping and ran her fingers over her hair, looking for loose strands.
Taking a step back, she surveyed her reflection. Not bad. Classy, elegant, professional, not flashy, conservative, and above all, completely different from most of the things hanging in her closet.
She'd gone shopping on her lunch hour. For some reason she had no desire to explore, she'd wanted to present a different image to Joe Rizzo than her usual one. It seemed important that he take her seriously and not dismiss her as did most of the other people she knew.
That had never been an issue before. In fact, she'd capitalized on being dismissed and underestimated. It was a valuable tool to place people at their ease and get fodder for her column. It had never been enough of an issue for her to get people to realise she had a brain. But it was now.
She wanted to do a good job helping Joe. It was important to her. She didn't want him to see her as an oversexed airhead bimbo like everyone else did. Well, everyone but Clark and Superman, she supposed. They both treated her with a great deal of courtesy, which would make a lot of sense if what she suspected were true.
Now that was a hypothesis she had no desire to test! While she wouldn't mind knowing that they were two separate men, she didn't want to confirm that they weren't! Cat found the whole bizarre notion quite scary, and she didn't even know why.
She didn't really have any evidence either way. Okay, so the two men did resemble each other, and Superman had really reacted oddly when she'd suggested he could wear a disguise, but that didn't prove anything. She supposed she could look for proof, but what was the point of that when it wasn't something she wanted to know about anyway?
It wasn't as though Clark would assume she knew his secret — if he had a secret that is, which she really didn't want him to have. She'd warned him — or at least, if it were true — she'd warned him to keep things to himself. If it weren't true, all she'd done was tell Clark that he was a friend and he had nothing to fear from her which was a nice thing to tell a friend anyway, and didn't have to mean anything more than that. Which she hoped it didn't.
Cat sighed. Whatever. She just wanted Clark to know that he could trust her, and she thought she'd done a pretty good job of expressing that to him. She hoped.
Because if it were true, it was just such a huge secret. And that secret would carry with it a great deal of responsibility. If it were true, and it got out because of anything she said or did, well, Cat would never forgive herself.
And, if it were true, and it became known to the world, Clark's life would be ruined. And that was something that Cat definitely didn't want to be responsible for!
She'd always had a soft spot for Clark. He'd been incredibly sweet and na‹ve when she'd been pursuing him. Cat flushed with embarrassment, thinking of some of the tactics she'd employed in the chase.
Even though he'd obviously been uncomfortable and not interested in a physical relationship with her, he'd never been cruel or disdainful. He'd always treated her with respect. That hadn't even changed when he'd been suffering from amnesia.
Being treated with respect by a man wasn't something she took for granted.
There was Superman, of course. He'd been wonderful to her — very kind, sensitive and caring. Amazing that Cat hadn't an inkling of interest in him physically. Well, okay, maybe she had an inkling — that spandex did cover some pretty fine muscles — but there wasn't enough desire there for her to try to seduce him and ruin everything! She'd just found out that he was her friend. She didn't want to wreck that friendship before it barely got started!
Which led her right back to the hypothesis she didn't want to test. If Clark and Superman were just one person, than Clark was just as much her friend as the superhero was and right now, the woman they… he… no, they liked wasn't happy with either one of them.
Cat could understand why Lois had pushed Superman away — it was pretty flattering to have her think that Superman was having an affair with Cat — but she couldn't quite understand the tension between Lois and Clark. Okay, she and Clark had had lunch together. That shouldn't have been enough to set Lois off, but it obviously had. Which meant, if Cat wanted to live up to the friendship she shared with Clark and with Superman, then it was up to her to defuse the situation.
Which meant that eventually she and Lois would have to have a talk, and Cat really hoped that the talk wasn't going to be as difficult as she thought it might be.
In the meantime, she was stuck waiting for Rizzo and worrying. She had to be on her best behaviour tonight. She just had to. She didn't know why, where, or when it had happened, but sometime over the last few days, his opinion had started to matter to her.
The security buzzer sounded, making her jump. After buzzing Joe in, she waited, her palms sweaty and her heart thumping.
Wow! Cat looked pretty hot tonight, Rizzo thought. Her very professional looking skirt and blouse weren't enough to disguise her shapely figure or hide her long, magnificent legs. She had done something nice to her hair. He didn't know exactly what, but it looked tousled and was kind of piled on top of her head and was sexy as hell. It looked kind of bedroomy, which was dangerous in his current state of mind.
As he brushed past her, he smelled her perfume, a heady musky aroma that stirred his senses.
Rizzo stifled a groan as he realised how difficult it would be to keep his hands off Cat tonight. After their near miss of last night, all he wanted to do was grab hold of her and never let her go! It had taken every ounce of his self-control not to.
But it wouldn't be right to make the moves on her at this point in time. She was upset, grieving for that scumbag of a boyfriend — which he didn't in a million years deserve! — and if Rizzo wanted to get together with her, he had to wait.
If he wanted to get together with her… Hah! That was a joke. If. He was nuts about her. If she'd only go out with him, he'd treat her right. No jerking her chain like Chesney had. She'd know how much he cared for her; he'd make sure of that. And if she needed time to learn to trust him, well, that would be just fine. He could be patient when he had to be.
Like now. He could be patient and wait until the time was right, until she'd stopped grieving and was ready for a new relationship.
Only one problem. How in the world was he going to keep his hands off her when just being around her was driving him nuts?
Rizzo smiled at Cat as he tried to shunt all his passionate feelings aside. "Hope you like Chinese?" was all that he said as he held up the paper sack of food.
Much later, Joe helped Cat scrape plates, load the dishwasher and stow the leftovers in her fridge. They quickly tidied the small table, and then it was time for them to study the John Doe file.
It was pretty thin.
The victim had been found purely by chance in a dumpster. A woman had been searching for her lost cat, and boom, there he was. Joe had talked to her, and he was pretty sure that if her cat ran away again, she wouldn't go looking for him. Instead she'd wait patiently for him to come home! Poor woman. He imagined that she was still upset; the body had definitely not been a pretty sight.
There was a short list of missing people stats. None of them were an exact match for the guy's height and weight. There were some very graphic photos, and there was the autopsy report.
The report didn't tell them too much that he hadn't already told Cat the night before. The mutilations — missing teeth and fingers — had all happened post mortem, thankfully. The battered face was also a post mortem injury. From that, Rizzo had indeed concluded that the killer had wanted to hide the victim's identi y. So logically, that meant there was a reason that this guy had been killed. Of course, the reason could be totally whacko Looney-tunes, but there was a reason!
"What's this all about?" Cat asked, pointing to a line in the autopsy report.
"There was scarring on his chest and his right arm. It travelled up onto his neck. It was pretty well hidden, though. He must have had pretty extensive plastic surgery. We asked the coroner, and he showed the information to some cosmetic guy at the hospital, but neither of them could pinpoint exactly what type of surgery it was."
Cat stared off into space, the report clutched forgotten in her hand.
Man! He loved watching her figure things out! "What is it?" Rizzo finally asked.
"I know the plastic surgeons at the hospital. They're good, competent doctors. But if I needed something extensive done — which is what this looks like — I'd go to an expert. I'd go to Vlad Miroslav."
"Is he in Metropolis?"
"Yes, he is," Cat answered. "Not only that, but I know him. I know him very well."
"The man does an unbelievably good facelift. I've only referred a ton of celebrities to him. He owes me. I know he'll be happy to help out."
"Good. Think we can see him tomorrow?"
She nodded. "I think so. I'd have heard if he was away. What time's good for you?"
Rizzo didn't even have to think. "How about around noon, and then I can take you out for lunch, too?"
She was silent for a long moment — long enough for him to begin to panic. He'd been impetuous… He shouldn't have asked her…
And then a glorious, sunny smile spread across her face. "That would be great."
"It would? Yes, it would," he stammered. He felt himself grinning like an idiot, but it wasn't something he could control.
Strangely enough, Cat looked as happy as he felt.
What Rizzo didn't know was that after he left, Cat kicked herself for accepting his invitation. She was angry that the predatory, amatory side of her had surged to the forefront. She had been trying to be more circumspect, but obviously old habits died hard.
The next morning, Cat discovered that all the best intentions in the world didn't mean a thing if the opportunity to follow through on them wasn't there. In other words, Lois wasn't in the office when Cat got there. According to Jimmy, she had an appointment on the outskirts of town in Metropolis's industrial park, and she wasn't expected back until late morning, early afternoon.
"Damn," Cat muttered. That meant that she couldn't even distract herself from the upcoming lunch date with Joe. And did she ever need distracting!
She'd been so nervous that she'd had trouble sleeping the night before. Her dreams had been full of a dark haired, slightly swarthy man with a dangerous five o'clock shadow and muscular arms and firm broad shoulders, and she'd awakened repeatedly just about whimpering because she'd wanted to be with Joe so much.
It didn't help after she had phoned her friend, Dr. Vlad Miroslav, and set up an 11 a.m. appointment because then she'd had to phone Joe and tell him about it. The husky sound of his voice had been enough to make her knees weak, and she'd been thankful that she'd been sitting down.
The morning hours seemed to pass slowly. Cat had hoped to have a private conversation with Perry and apologise for her behaviour the other day, but he'd been too busy with people dashing in and out of his office. She'd have to talk to him later.
Eventually it was a few minutes before 11, and Joe stood in front of her desk.
"Hi," he said with a boyish, charming smile.
She could only smile back, hoping her smile hid the pounding of her heart and the rush of blood through her veins.
The whole way to Dr. Miroslav's office, she was only too aware of his warm, solid presence beside her. It was as if he were surrounded by an electrical aura causing her flesh to tingle when they were in close proximity.
All too soon, they had walked the three blocks to the medical office. The receptionist only kept them waiting a couple of minutes and then her friend, the very charming, very urbane, very sophisticated doctor greeted them. He shook Rizzo's hand with his customary brusqueness and then greeted Cat with the two kisses on alternate cheeks that she'd come to expect.
Where other men might have treated the social greeting as something more than it was, with Vlad Miroslav it was totally natural. It was the way he had been brought up and it meant nothing more than affection and a charming way to say 'hello.'
All the same, Cat could feel Rizzo bristling beside her, tension rolling off him in waves. "How's that lovely wife of yours?" she asked quickly as Vlad motioned to them to sit down.
"My Valentina? Why, she's as beautiful as the day I married her. I'll say hello to her for you," Vlad answered, his mouth curling in a tender smile.
"Good! Please do so." Cat could almost feel Rizzo's muscles relax, and his tension dissipate.
She smiled to herself. Vlad was one man who'd always been off-limits to Cat's flirting and teasing. Not only was he the most happily married man possible, it just wouldn't have been professional what with all the celebrity referrals she'd sent to him. Plus, Cat truly liked Valentina and like Vlad, would never do anything to harm the very charming and totally gorgeous woman.
The three of them chatted briefly, following all the social niceties — wasn't the weather absolutely wonderful? Had she been invited to the Cassidys' latest gala? What did she think of the Nobles' newest renovation? — and then Cat deftly brought the conversation to the reason for their visit.
"Detective Rizzo has a problem, Vlad, and I think you're the only man who can help."
She turned to Rizzo and motioned for him to continue.
He took a deep breath and explained the situation to Dr. Miroslav about a John Doe being found murdered, and that the killer had attempted to ensure that the victim wouldn't be identified. Then he'd explained that the coroner had identified scarring from some kind of trauma that appeared to have been minimised by plastic surgery, and that the coroner had consulted with a plastic surgeon at the hospital with no resulting help, and Cat had suggested that instead, Joe contact her friend. He fell silent.
Vlad Miroslav pursed his lips and thought for a moment. "What was the extent of the scarring that the coroner noted?"
"Well," Rizzo said ruefully. "He thinks that it started somewhere below the rib cage, travelled up the chest, along the right arm and ended at the neck, but there were so many injuries, it's hard to tell for sure."
Vlad pursed his lips and looked off into space. Suddenly, as Cat watched, all the colour drained out of his face. "How old does he think the victim was?" he asked, almost visibly bracing himself for the answer.
"Anywhere from twenty-six to thirty," Rizzo answered.
"Was his hair brown?" Dr. Miroslav asked tentatively.
Rizzo referred to his notes. "Hazel is what's written down here."
Vlad grimaced. "Close enough," he said. "Would it be possible for me to see a photo of the chest and arms?"
Rizzo shuffled through the gruesome photographs until he located one taken after all the blood and dirt had been washed away.
Cat purposefully looked away, having had her fill of autopsy photos. Vlad's eyes widened, however, in mingled horror and morbid curiosity.
Rizzo silently handed Dr. Miroslav the picture and waited patiently while the man studied it. As he did, Vlad muttered under his breath. It sounded like his native Russian, Cat thought. And it didn't sound happy.
Vlad laid the picture neatly on his desk and then strode over to a bank of cherry-wood file cabinets tucked unobtrusively in a corner of his elegant office.
It took him a moment, but he finally located a file and moved back to his desk.
Rizzo and Cat exchanged a wondering glance as they waited patiently for the doctor to flip through the papers. Finally Vlad stopped and pulled a photo out of the file. He regarded Rizzo and Cat solemnly. "Normally, my hands would be tied because of doctor/patient confidentiality, but in my opinion, the fact that he's dead means that's no longer valid. I know this man." He handed the photo to Rizzo.
Joe took it and studied it intently, Cat leaning in to look at it, too.
It made her wince. It was a full frontal shot of a young man, modesty preserved by a pair of shorts. Other than that, he was naked, and the full extent of his horrendous injuries was revealed. His torso was raw and red looking, the flesh somehow looking unfinished. It had the shiny gloss of badly healed skin — barely healed skin. The wounds covered the entire chest, a bit of the man's left shoulder, most of the right arm and stopped at the neck.
"What happened to him?" she asked, unable to keep the shock and horror out of her voice.
"He tripped and fell into his campfire while camping. Unfortunately the windbreaker he was wearing was almost pure nylon. It flared up immediately. By the time he'd managed to jump in the nearby lake, the damage had already been done. Luckily, he did everything right. Even before he got to the water, he'd pulled one arm out of the sleeve — that's why his left arm wasn't too bad."
"But everything else certainly looks horrible enough!" Cat exclaimed.
Vlad smiled an odd tight smile. He shook his head. "You don't know the half of it, my dear." He got up and turned his back, looking out the picture window behind his desk. "He was alone when it happened. That young man had to paddle a canoe for what would normally be an hour trip. It took him six. And then he had to hike for another four just to get to a road."
"My God!" Rizzo exclaimed.
"Exactly. I suppose that's why this young man sticks in my memory so much. He never gave up, never stopped fighting. He was special. So many surgeries… Painful surgeries… And he never flinched, never complained." And then, in a low, intense voice, he continued. "I guess this time he met something he couldn't fight against. That makes me very angry."
It made Cat pretty angry, too.
"Who was he?" Rizzo asked softly.
"Jeremy Dobson," Vlad Miroslav answered. "I have an address, phone number and next of kin for you." He paused, and then in a pained voice said, "He was married. I went to his wedding. I don't get involved with my patients normally, but for him, I made an exception." Vlad looked away from them, seemingly almost ashamed of the depth of his emotions. "I heard that his wife's pregnant," he finished softly.
Cat blinked away hot tears. She and Joe waited in silence while Vlad copied out the information for Rizzo.
"Thank you for your help," Joe said sincerely, vigorously shaking the doctor's hand.
Vlad clasped Joe's hand in both of his. "This man was a good man. He didn't deserve to die like this. Please tell me that you're going to catch the monster who killed him."
"I'm going to do my damndest," Joe replied, a grim look of determination on his face. "I do have to ask you for one more thing. Please don't call his wife…"
"No, of course not. But when you talk to her, tell her that if she needs anything — anything at all — she can call me. I'd only be too happy to help."
"I will," Joe said quietly.
The doctor offered him a photo, and Joe tucked it into his file before standing and thanking Dr. Miroslav for his time.
Cat and Joe didn't talk as he walked her back to the office. They were both too shaken. Once they stood in front of the Planet, he said goodbye quickly and turned to walk away.
He faced her once again.
"Let me know what happens? Please?"
He nodded. "Don't worry. I will." Leaning forward, he gently kissed her cheek. "Thank you, Cat. You've been a big help. More than I can say." And then he did turn and walk away.
It was only after he was gone that she realised they'd both forgotten lunch.
Lois intently watched Julius Grubner's face as she introduced herself to him. He didn't react. No shock, no alarm, no hidden resentment. Instead he pressed her hand warmly in his and asked her to sit down.
It hadn't been difficult getting in to see him. His ridiculously friendly secretary hadn't even blinked at Lois's spur-of-the-moment story of doing a feature on prominent Metropolis businessmen. Instead, she'd told Lois she'd check with Grubner as soon as he was done with his phone call, and in the meantime, would Lois like a coffee and maybe a nice piece of peach strudel to go with it?
It had been pretty good strudel, too.
Grubner certainly didn't look like a criminal mastermind, although to be honest, most criminal masterminds didn't either. He had to be around fifty, she thought. Slender, not tall, not short, just average in height, he was an attractive man. He looked like a man who was comfortable in his own skin and Lois found herself liking him for no good reason.
That made her suspicious.
His hand felt odd in hers when she shook it. Her eyes dropped to it surreptitiously and she mentally revised his possible age upwards. His hands were the hands of a much older man. He'd obviously done physical labour at one time in his life, but it had to have been in the past. She hadn't felt a callus when she'd gripped his palm. A couple of his fingers looked curiously twisted, but she forced herself not to stare.
Lois spent a few minutes asking innocuous questions about Comprehensive Software — how many workers did it employ, and how long had it been in business? (Three hundred and fifty, and fifteen years, respectively.)
"Tell me about your company," she asked, her pen hovering over her notepad. She had found that asking a non- specific, non-threatening question was a good place to start a hardball interview. Generally, in the course of answering the question, an interviewee would provide her with a myriad of possibilities to be followed up on in her next set of questions.
Not this time, though. Grubner left her too flabbergasted to even begin to contemplate where to go with this interview next.
"Well, Ms. Lane," he said ponderously, in his slightly accented English. "It's hard for me to tell you about my company without telling you about me first."
"Why is that?"
"Because my company's philosophy comes directly from me, and is a reflection of my own beliefs. My company's actions arise directly from my life-experiences."
In spite of Grubner's somewhat dry way of talking, Lois found herself listening in fascination as he explained further.
"The most important thing for you to know about me, is that I was born in Germany in 1935. My mother died at my birth, and my father was a conscientious objector."
Wow! He didn't look like he was almost sixty, the evidence of his gnarled hands notwithstanding.
"By the time I was five…" he continued, "… my home was a concentration camp."
"Are you Jewish?" Lois asked.
He smiled and shook his head. "No. But my father had been drafted into the army, and he refused to go. We were pacifists. And pacifists were considered traitors to the Third Reich. The authorities tried to convince him to fall in with their plans for him. He refused. He held fast against the violence inflicted upon him. Then they found other ways to assert their influence." He held out his hands to her, displaying his deformities.
"They broke your fingers?" she asked in horror.
He shrugged, a wry smile hovering on his lips. "Only three. It didn't matter, though. He begged me to forgive him and still refused to fight."
Lois shivered. Like any other person growing up in the latter part of the twentieth century, she'd read a lot about Nazism. She'd seen documentary after documentary. She knew that in the grand scheme of the horror that had been the Second World War, broken fingers were really a ridiculously small atrocity, but this was the first atrocity that she'd been faced with, personally.
It hit home with a vengeance.
"Then they stuck us in a camp — one that was a couple of cuts ahead of what the Jews were afflicted with as it was reserved for those considered possible for rehabilitation — and they forgot about us."
"That was good, then," Lois said, still shaken by this man's story.
Again he smiled, a tight 'not-nice' smile that made her afraid to hear more. "My father's appendix burst. There was nothing I could do for him, and the authorities…" His calm veneer cracked for a second as he said the last word. "… they refused to help. I watched him die, screaming in agony for far too long. He was a strong man. It took days."
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
He pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his eyes, and then briskly continued. "No matter. It was a long time ago."
"But you still think about it."
He stared at her, but she could tell that he didn't really see her. "Not as much as I used to. No more than fifty, sixty times a day."
She nodded, understanding a little the intensity of emotion that drove this man.
"I'm sorry," he said softly. "I didn't mean to talk about this in so much detail. What I wanted to say was that I never forgot my experience there, and I never forgot that peace is something to struggle for, and that one must always be vigilant against evil and intolerance." He handed her a piece of paper. "This list shows all the potential applications for my software. Read it over and tell me what you see."
Lois perused the list quickly. Radar, airplane autopilots, missile defence systems… She looked at him and confessed that she didn't see the significance of the list.
"Nothing I make, Ms. Lane, can possibly be used to directly kill another person. It is important for a country to defend its borders, and my software can be used to that purpose. That is my philosophy for this company of mine. In the words of the Hippocratic Oath, 'first, do no harm.' I strive always to 'do no harm.'" He smiled wryly and shook his head. "Oh, I suppose that a plane that uses my auto-pilot might be used to drop bombs, or radar might be used to locate and target an enemy, but I try. I do my best."
Lois sat in silence for a long moment. She was at an uncharacteristic loss for words. She'd come into this man's office, expecting him to try and divert her attention or to confuse her through obfuscation, but instead, she'd been moved.
"Ms. Lane, what are you really here for?" he asked, interrupting her thoughts.
Her mouth dropped open. "I … I told you," she stammered.
He shook his head, a wise smile on his face. "But I've read your work. I know enough about you to know that writing an innocuous story about an unimportant businessman is not your style. You write hard-hitting stories, not, what are they called? Puff pieces?"
Lois couldn't help but laugh. "You're a very smart man, Mr. Grubner." She paused, thinking hard. She couldn't tell him what she was really investigating, but there might be a way to salvage something from this interview and get the information she needed. "To be honest, I'm investigating your daughter's fianc‚'s death, trying to talk to everyone that I possibly can who might have known him."
Grubner looked agitated for the first time since she'd entered his office. "But I didn't know him. Julia and I haven't spoken in over three years."
"I know it's none of my business, but why not?" Lois asked softly.
A grim look spread over his face. "My daughter feels that I am the cause of her mother's and my divorce. She lays sole blame on my shoulders. That is all that I am prepared to say, Ms. Lane. I don't see how it has any relevance to your investigation." "No, I agree, Mr. Grubner," Lois said, standing up and proffering her hand. "I want to thank you for your time."
"You are welcome, Ms. Lane." He hesitated, looking as if he wanted to say something more.
"Is there something else?" Lois asked.
"Will you see… When you see Julia, would you please tell her…" He smiled wryly. "Please tell my daughter that I love her, and I want to help her if I can."
"I'll try to let her know," she replied softly. About to leave the office, she paused and turned back to him to ask one final question. She was almost scared to hear the answer, but she couldn't shirk her responsibility. "How does Lex Luthor's Argus Engineering compare to your company?"
"Argus is on the cutting edge of technology. Its software can be used in all military applications, but the most sophisticated programs are those designed for aggression — missile guidance systems, smart bombs, things like that." There was no hesitation in his answer, no having to pause and think of the right thing to say. His words flowed freely.
"You don't approve," she said bluntly.
Mr. Grubner shook his head. "It's not up to me to judge Lex Luthor. I can only judge my own actions. His are between him and his conscience."
Lois nodded, said farewell and left with Julius Grubner's words ringing in her ears.
Clark, too, had a busy morning. After he got up, he flew a quick patrol of the city, and then checked in with Conroy, the NIA agent. Conroy hadn't exactly been pleased with the results of Lois and Clark's investigation. After all, it would have made his job just that much easier if he could have reported to his superiors that Chesney had been the arms dealer. But he was happy that Superman, Lois, and Clark had saved him so much time so that he could check into other possibilities. One thing he shared with Superman was that he now felt that Metropolis had only been a clearinghouse for the bomb components, and that they had originated somewhere else. Conroy was leaning towards California.
Clark couldn't bring himself to agree with the NIA agent's conclusions. He filled Conroy in on Argus Engineering and Comprehensive Software, but Conroy dismissed his suspicions. Neither Julius Grubner nor Lex Luthor were the kind of men who could possibly do anything so traitorous, he declared. Clark winced, knowing he had no proof of Luthor's baser side to present to the agent.
They talked for a couple more minutes. What did Conroy want Superman to do next? His answer — not sure. He had to think about it. And, when should they meet again? Conroy's answer again — not sure. Clark flew away, totally disenchanted with Frank Conroy, the U.S. government's response to a dangerous international situation. He figured that he and Lois had a much better chance of preventing the world's self-destruction than Conroy did.
After leaving the NIA agent, Clark helped sort out a traffic accident, a hit-and-run, and a mugging. Then he flew to one of his favourite places for some quiet time — the Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge in his native Kansas. There was something about the combination of water and gentle hills that always soothed his spirit. And he loved watching the ducks and geese as they fed. Today, he was lucky, catching sight of two different bald eagles as they soared through the air. They were really majestic. Flint Hills always gave him hope. It was unique. The wildlife was protected, and yet farmers were able to sharecrop certain sections of the refuge. Clark didn't know of any other place in the United States where this could be said. If only more of the world were like this.
And to think that it all might be destroyed!
He and Lois had to find the arms-dealer. They just had to!
He couldn't do anything about Rahsanjani and his hatred for Pakistanis, he couldn't do anything about the petty prejudices of many against Indians or blacks or Jews or Arabs, but with Lois's help, he hoped that Rahsanjani wouldn't be able to act out his hatred.
It was too much to ask for to eliminate strife in the world. All he could do was try to control it where he could, when he could.
Speaking of strife, Clark wondered how Lois was this morning. He sighed. What was he going to do? She'd been irritated with her partner before, but that had never prevented her from turning to his alter ego. Now, both parts of him were cut off from her friendship, and it hurt.
He'd told her a couple of times that Superman and Cat weren't having an affair. He didn't know what else he could do to make her believe him. And then for her to turn around and accuse Cat of coming on to Clark… Lois had made that same accusation a few months ago, but he'd thought that she had come to know him well enough since then to know that nothing was going to happen between Cat and Clark.
What could he say? What could he do to dissolve her anger? He wanted his partner back. More importantly, he wanted his best friend back. And he had no clue how to make it happen.
Clark sighed yet again and slowly launched himself into the sky, careful not to startle the feeding waterfowl. He found himself pacing an eagle for one solitary magical moment.
The cold, dispassionate look in the majestic bird's eyes stayed with Clark, giving him a feeling of deja vu. Oh, yeah, that was exactly how Lois had looked at him over the last day in either of his guises! How lucky could one guy get?
It only took him a few minutes to head home to Metropolis and change from Superman to Clark Kent. He thought about heading into the Planet, but then dismissed it. Maybe it would be better to beard the lion in his den, or rather the snake in his pit. Clark Kent might not have the cutest legs in the business, or the adorable flip to his hairstyle that Lois did, but he could be as persistent as the next person. Lex Luthor, look out! Clark Kent — and Superman — was on his trail.
Two and a half hours after his initial arrival, Clark slipped back into Luthor's waiting room after his 'visit to the men's room.' That had proved to be a handy excuse as a way to get out from under the disapproving gaze of Luthor's personal assistant, Mrs. Cox. She had made it very clear that her opinion of the media wasn't high.
Giving up and going away would have felt like admitting defeat, and Clark Kent was not going to admit defeat to Lex Luthor.
Besides, it was kind of fun to lounge in the waiting room, flipping through magazines, and listen in while Luthor got more and more frustrated by his presence.
"He's still there?" he'd heard Luthor exclaim about a half hour before when his assistant had entered the room.
"On his fourth cup of coffee," Mrs. Cox had replied laconically. "What if he's still here when you need to leave for your noon appointment?"
"Not a problem. Make sure Asabi has my car ready, and I'll take my private elevator."
"It might be easier to just speak with him, sir."
"I have no interest in speaking with that hack!" Luthor had exclaimed. "He's not worth my time. It's a matter of principle that I ignore him."
Clark had smiled and continued reading about fashion and new-age birthing techniques and other things that he had no interest in. He should have left, but there was something just perverse enough in his nature that was making him stay.
And then a few minutes ago, he'd excused himself to 'answer Nature's call,' and to perform another errand. But now he was back. As he returned to the waiting room, he quickly x-rayed Luthor's office to note that, yes, the man was still there. It looked like he was getting ready to leave.
"Oh, Mr. Kent," Mrs. Cox purred, her lips twisted into an insincere smile. "I'm so sorry. You've just missed Mr. Luthor. He's left for a lunch date. What a shame!"
"It is a shame," he agreed heartily, trying to suppress a laugh. "I don't mind waiting until he's back, though. Reporters are used to waiting."
"Suit yourself," she'd said, motioning to the leather couch across from her desk. He noted something that he'd missed earlier. Her one hand was bandaged. "What happened?" he asked, gesturing at her wrapped right hand.
"A kitchen accident," she replied. "None of your concern."
He obviously hadn't earned any points for politeness with Luthor's assistant! Clark sighed and sat down and listened, unabashedly enjoying the entertainment to be found in Luthor's office. It was hard not to laugh out loud. The language that the man used was frightful! Just disgusting!
Mrs. Cox's phone rang. Clark eavesdropped shamelessly.
"Is Kent still there?"
"My blasted elevator is broken! It looks like the wiring has shorted out! Please ask maintenance to fix it."
It was all Clark could do not to laugh. He knew he should be ashamed of himself, but he wasn't. He really didn't like or approve of Luthor. Plus, he'd been careful to make sure that the elevator wasn't in use when he'd applied a judicious amount of heat vision to it.
Luthor sighed heavily. "I suppose I have no choice."
"You may escort Mr. Kent in, but he's not to stay for more than a minute. Invent a phone call, page me, tell me you need my attention for something important, whatever, but he only gets a minute. He's not important enough for more."
She hung up the phone and turned to Clark with a delighted smile on her face. "Good news, Mr. Kent. Mr. Luthor can see you now."
As Clark followed Mrs. Cox to Luthor's office door, he said, "I thought Mr. Luthor had left already."
"He must have come back into the office while I was away from my desk," she said, her voice as sour as if she had been sucking lemons. She shot him an evil look that made Clark look at her twice. Strange that such an attractive woman exuded such an air of malice.
She tapped once at the closed door, opened it and preceded him into the room to announce his presence to the modern- day potentate inside.
Lex Luthor had always struck Clark as a man who would have been better suited to another time. He would have been perfectly at ease fawning over the insane Caligula in ancient Rome or being the paramour of the rapacious Lucretia Borgia. Clark disliked him intensely, but he never failed to respect Luthor's capabilities, even if he used those capabilities in the pursuit of personal power instead of to the benefit of others.
"Mr. Kent," Luthor said, his hand outstretched. He made it sound as though he were thrilled to see Clark once again. Hard to believe that this was the same man who had been cursing Clark's existence only moments before.
Luthor's hand gripped his in a knuckle-squeezing test of strength. Clark concentrated on applying a firm, gentle resistance to the man's overly aggressive handshake, surprising himself by managing to resist the temptation to respond in kind. But the last thing he needed was for someone like Luthor to develop suspicions about Clark only because Clark disliked the man too intensely to control himself.
"Mr. Luthor. So kind of you to see me," Clark replied, his customary politeness making him feel somewhat hypocritical.
"Well, you were so persistent, what choice did I have?" the other man asked, an oily smile plastered on his face. He laughed insincerely, as if to say he didn't need an answer to his rhetorical question.
"The Planet's doing a series of articles about prominent Metropolis businessmen," Clark extemporized, not realising that he was using the same excuse that Lois had come up with on the other side of town. "And there is no one better regarded in this city than you," he finished, consoling himself with the fact that he hadn't really lied. Luthor was well regarded. Okay, so Clark didn't agree, but that didn't render his statement a lie!
The door opened and Mrs. Cox entered. "Mr. Luthor, I'm sorry but you did ask me to remind you. It's time for your conference call."
"Ah, yes, Mrs. Cox. Thank you. I had forgotten. Mr. Kent, I am so sorry. I'm afraid we'll have to reschedule."
"Oh, I appreciate the moment that you were able to spare for me," Clark replied, once more shaking the man's outstretched hand. "No problem. Thank you again."
As he turned to follow Mrs. Cox out, he slid his glasses down and quickly surveyed the office, hoping to garner any evidence of Luthor's wrongdoings. He was disappointed, however, as his vision was clouded when it encountered the man's desk and file cabinets. It looked like the man had painted the inside of all the storage compartments with lead paint! That answered one question.
Obviously the criminal element knew that lead impeded Superman's x-ray vision.
That thought occupied him as he followed the exotic, yet coldly reptilian Mrs. Cox from Lex Luthor's sanctum sanctorum, allowing the door to swing close and hide a smugly smiling Luthor from sight.
It had been fun earlier, keeping watch in Luthor's waiting room, knowing that his own presence had been an irritant to the man's assistant and a thorn in the side to the man himself, but now, he felt overwhelmingly like he was in need of fresh air.
It only took him a moment to leave the building, and then Clark found a deserted alleyway and spun into his alter ego. Hovering high in the sky above Luthor's penthouse offices, he filled his lungs with clean air, almost feeling as though he were flushing an almost tangible evil from his body.
An inner demon prompted him to tune his hearing in once more. He couldn't help it. It was small and petty and his parents would have been disgusted with him, but Clark wanted to hear Luthor's reaction to the irritation of his elevator being on the fritz and having been forced to endure the presence of a reporter that he didn't like.
But Clark heard something he hadn't been bargaining for.
"Mrs. Cox," Luthor drawled lazily.
"I think it would be beneficial if my old friend, Julius Grubner, were to suffer an accident of some kind."
"A gruesome one, sir?"
Clark shuddered at the eagerness he heard in the woman's voice.
"No, not this time," Luthor replied slowly. "I think instead he should be overcome with remorse because some of his software got into the wrong hands. And, of course, he has been devastated by his marital breakdown and the resultant coldness between him and his daughter. Suicide sounds like a better option, don't you think?"
"If you say so, sir," Mrs. Cox replied crisply. "When do you want it done?"
"The sooner the better, I always say," Luthor answered cheerily. "The sooner the better."
Clark didn't waste any time. With a sonic boom hanging in the air behind him, he zoomed across the sky. If he had paused, however, he would have heard more that was of personal interest to him.
In the penthouse left behind, Lex Luthor paused in the act of lighting his cigar. He tilted his hand, listening to the fading sound of Superman's passage. "His turn will come soon," he purred to his assistant. He gazed at her fondly. "But not yet. Instead, I have another present for you, my dear."
"You do?" she asked eagerly, her whole body going on alert.
"I don't like that man who was just here. There's something about him… Plus, he's too close to my Lois. I think you should indulge yourself."
"Thank you, Lex!" She gazed at him, adoringly.
He chuckled. He did so like doing these little things for his friends.
Joe Rizzo wasn't looking forward to his upcoming interview with Amanda Dobson. The last thing he needed to deal with was a grief-stricken pregnant widow. But, he wondered, why hadn't she contacted the police to report her husband missing? Something didn't ring true. That wasn't the behaviour of a devoted wife worried by her loved one's absence.
He sighed and rang the doorbell of the tidy little bungalow located on the outskirts of Metropolis. It was an attractive home, the yard and garden well cared for, and the walkway swept clean.
The door opened a crack and he could see an attractive blue eye peeking through at him.
"Detective Rizzo, Metropolis PD," he announced as he held his shield up.
"Just a minute, sir," the woman said as she hastily unfastened the chain and opened the door completely.
Amanda Dobson wasn't a tall woman. To his practiced eye, she looked about five feet tall, no more. Along with her blue eyes, she had short blonde hair. She also looked like she was ready to deliver at any moment. Amanda Dobson was very, very pregnant. Rizzo had appeared at enough front doors to know when someone was anticipating bad news and when someone wasn't. Jeremy Dobson's wife wasn't.
"Is there something wrong, officer?" Amanda Dobson asked, a vaguely worried expression appearing on her face.
He nodded. "May I come in?"
She took a step back and led him silently into the tidy living room and watched apprehensively as he sat down on a small sofa across from the easy chair she had slowly lowered herself into.
"Have you heard from your husband recently?" he asked gently.
"No. He's away on a training course for his work. Some kind of nature retreat, he said." She smiled wryly. "He was really upset. They weren't allowed to take their cell phones, and he's worried he might miss everything." Her hand patted her swollen abdomen, making it very clear what she was referring to. "Why? What's wrong? Did something happen to him?" She leaned forward slightly and regarded him earnestly.
Rizzo grimaced. "I'm very sorry to tell you this." He paused and took a deep breath. "We found the body of a man a few days ago. Dr. Miroslav has tentatively identified him as your husband. He recognised the scars from the plastic surgery he performed."
"No." She shook her head vehemently. "That's not possible. He's away. I told you. He's on a retreat."
"I hope we're wrong, Mrs. Dobson, and if we are, I'll apologise, but in the meantime, do you have a brush of your husband's that I can take a hair sample from?"
"Just let me look at the body! I'll tell you it's not Jeremy!"
"The body was pretty mutilated," Joe said as gently as possible. "You wouldn't be able to tell if it's your husband or not."
She stared at him speechlessly for a long moment. He could see her visibly controlling panic. Finally, she struggled out of the chair and with a terse 'wait here' left the room. She returned shortly thereafter, clutching a hairbrush. She silently handed it to Rizzo who put it directly into a plastic evidence bag.
"Dr. Miroslav recognised the scars?" she asked plaintively.
"He said he did," Joe said softly.
"Do you think he was right?" She gazed at him, her eyes pleading for him to say no.
He sighed and said 'yes' instead.
"Oh." She sat down heavily in the easy chair once again and stared blankly off into space.
He watched her intently, knowing almost as soon as she did the instance her emotional pain was superseded by the physical. She gaped at him in shock as another contraction rippled across her belly.
Rizzo cursed and called for an ambulance.
She never did cry, all the time they waited. Rizzo was grateful in a way. Tears did him in. But at the same time, he felt that things might have been better for Amanda Dobson if she had. Anything had to be better than the bleak hell he saw written all over her face
When they got to the hospital, he called Amanda's mother for her; she wasn't home. At the devastated, panic- stricken look on Amanda's face, he sighed and took her by the hand. "I'm going to stay," he said simply. "You shouldn't be alone."
She looked up at him, lost and forlorn. "I should send you away… I don't know you. But I'm grateful. Thank you." Her grip on his hand tightened as her body was rocked with another contraction.
Many hours later, Joe dragged himself away from the hospital. Amanda had had a son, but at the moment, she wasn't able to feel any joy from it.
Rizzo delivered the hairbrush to the coroner who did a hair comparison right away. It was almost an anti-climax when he pronounced the hair samples identical to the John Doe's. A DNA analysis would take a few days, but all the same, the doctor was completely sure that the samples came from the same man.
Now he just had to figure out why a man who should have been away at a training course for LexMail employees wasn't, and why in the world anyone would want to murder him. Unfortunately he couldn't keep his thoughts focused on his true-life murder mystery. Instead, he couldn't help dwelling on Amanda Dobson who was even now struggling to focus her feelings on her new child. Her child who no longer had a father.
Lois entered the newsroom tentatively instead of in her usual 'take no prisoners' style. She had a lot to think about. Was Julius Grubner really the responsible man of conscience he had presented himself as or was he an uncommonly good actor? She sighed as she switched on her computer and sat down.
Her heart told her one thing, but her mind had this uncanny habit of protesting. In her experience, people weren't as good as they pretended to be.
Except for Superman.
Although… her faith in him had really taken a hit over the last couple of days. She did believe him, though, when he said that he and Cat were not having an affair. For one thing, Lois knew Cat. She didn't have the smug 'cat ate the canary' look of a woman who had nabbed the man that practically every female over the age of puberty drooled over.
So, why hadn't her faith in the man been completely restored, Lois wondered? He wasn't having an illicit affair, he had spent time with Cat due to concern for her well being, which was very laudable of him, and he had deferred to her judgement (and Clark's) when it came to this most recent investigation. So what was it that was nagging at her, making her stomach unsettled and her nerves jumpy?
She didn't know; she only knew that something was making her unhappy.
Could it be the situation with Lex? Maybe. It certainly wasn't helping. It didn't do wonders for her self- confidence to know there was a distinct possibility that the businessman had duped her, tricking her into believing he was actually a worthwhile human being.
Was she losing her edge?
Clark wasn't at his desk, which was a good thing. Lois didn't think she could face him and admit that he had been right to keep Lex's Argus Engineering on the roster of companies to be investigated. Just knowing that he was right was enough to irritate her. Admitting it would have been over the top.
Cat wasn't at her desk either. Instead Lois saw her sitting in Perry's office talking to the editor with a serious, sober, and totally out of the ordinary expression on her face. As Lois watched, Cat got to her feet. Perry, too, stood up and walked around his desk to face the gossip columnist directly. His face was concerned and caring. He said a couple of quick words and then pulled Cat into a short but intense hug.
First Superman, then Clark, now Perry…
Lois's fists clenched as her heart started to pound and her breathing quicken. How dare she? How could he? This was the last straw! She jumped to her feet, her chair rolling crazily backwards and banging into a desk.
Cat emerged from the editor's office only to have Lois grab her by the arm and tow her into the conference room.
"You've gone too far now!" Lois hissed angrily.
"You've taken Superman from me, and Clark, and now Perry's on your side. That's not fair!"
"Lois, you're not making any sense." Cat shook her head vehemently.
A wave of anger, red and hot and acid, flooded through her system. She stuck her forefinger in the air, practically under the other woman's nose and leaned in to physically confront her. "Okay! Let me spell it out! Stay away from Superman! He's mine. And stay away from Clark! He's also mine!"
"And Clark's yours?"
"I noticed you didn't warn me off Perry. Thanks. I do work here after all. Kind of makes it hard for me to avoid him." Cat's words dripped with angry sarcasm. "I hate to break this to you, Lois, but Superman and Clark have minds of their own and can make their own decisions."
"But they're making the wrong ones," Lois wailed, tears breaking through to roll down her cheeks. She collapsed into a chair, her grief making her legs too wobbly to support her. "What's wrong with me, Cat?" she blurted out. "Why don't Clark and Superman want to be with me? Am I such a horrible person? Superman spends five hours with you, and he can't even stay longer than five minutes whenever he comes to my place. And he does his laundry at Clark's place, and he and Clark have this whole relationship I didn't know anything about, and to top it all off, you and Clark are friends now, and I just don't know what to think. Am I that hard to get along with?"
"Do you really want me to answer that?"
Lois's head snapped up, and she glared at the other woman in shock.
"I'm kidding! No, you're not such a horrible person most days, and sometimes you're actually pretty okay to get along with."
"Gee, thanks," Lois muttered sourly.
"Lois," Cat said softly as she dropped into a chair beside the other woman. "It doesn't matter what I think. In this case it only matters what they think, and, well, I've seen how they both look at you."
"Like you're the only person in the room that matters. Lois, they both care about you. Ask anyone. It's obvious."
"Really?" Lois gazed plaintively at Cat.
"Really." Cat paused and then grimaced. "I'll tell you something else, too."
"Superman had a reason to be worried about me…"
"I know. You were really upset," Lois interrupted.
Cat stared down at the conference table, her finger tracing the abstract pattern of the wood-grain finish. "But what you don't know is that I completely fell apart. He found me outside on my balcony, sitting in the dark, crying my eyes out and mentally measuring the distance to the ground."
"You weren't going to…" Lois's voice trailed off. Her one hand motioned descriptively towards the floor.
"Yes. No. I don't know. And obviously neither did he. Superman took me inside, warmed me up, made me tea, waited till I drank it, and talked to me. He wasn't blatant about it, but I could tell he wasn't leaving until he knew that I felt better — until he knew I wasn't going to do anything stupid."
"Cat, I'm sorry. I didn't know. Did you love Chesney as much as that?"
The gossip columnist shook her head slowly, looking almost puzzled. "I don't know. I thought I did. But now, it seems like a dream what he and I shared. I mean, I remember everything. I remember how we were together. But I don't remember the feelings I had when I was with him. That's completely gone."
"From the shock of being betrayed?"
"No. I guess it's more because I'm reverting to old habits." At Lois's questioning look, Cat continued. "You know? The old me? Cat on the prowl?"
"With Clark?" Lois felt her heart turn over. It was only later that Lois reflected how odd it was to be worried about Cat and Clark and not have a single thought of Cat and Superman pop into her head.
"No!" Cat exclaimed, laughing carelessly. "Not Clark. He's a great guy and all, but he's pretty staid. Boring, even."
Lois bristled. Clark wasn't boring! How could she call Clark boring? He was the best friend Lois had ever had, and what was more, he was one of the most interesting people she'd ever met. He kept surprising her with hidden facets of his personality. Boring? Hah! But she didn't betray any of her thoughts, instead asking calmly, "If not Clark, then who?"
To Lois's surprise, Cat blushed. "Joe."
"That cop," Cat said.
"The one who tried to arrest you?" Lois asked incredulously.
"Well, yeah. But that was before he got to know me," the other woman hastily explained.
Lois mentally threw her hands in the air. Somehow she doubted that she'd be this forgiving under the same circumstance. "How did that happen?" she blurted out. "I mean it was pretty fast. One moment, he was trying to send you away for life, and the next, you and he are hot and heavy."
Cat blushed an even deeper red. "I might have misled you a bit there. We're, um, not hot and heavy. I don't think he thinks of me all that much. But I do think about him. He's such a nice guy, Lois!"
"How do you know? Have you guys spent time together?"
Cat looked really uncomfortable at the question. She glanced away from Lois, her one hand moving up to fiddle with her hair. "I was upset," she muttered.
Lois nodded noncommittally and waited.
"I mean you and Clark weren't going to look into it, and no matter what Brandon did to me, he deserved better. I hope you're not mad."
"I don't understand."
"I went to Joe and asked if I could help him investigate Brandon's death," Cat exclaimed, the words tumbling quickly out of her mouth. "What happened to him wasn't right. It was horrible."
"I know," Lois answered gently.
"I really didn't think Joe would say yes, but he did. And I have helped. We were able to find out a lot."
"Like the fact that Brandon was killed by the same guy who killed that John Doe — you know the one who was mutilated so badly."
"That was my story! Why didn't you come to me?" Lois bristled with fury. The audacity… The presumption… It was HER story.
"I know! I'm sorry. But you've been helping Superman and the NIA."
"Oh. Right." And all Lois's doubts and worries crashed back down over her. Was Clark right about Lex? Was Grubner sincere or some kind of con artist? Had she lost her edge? After all, a gossip columnist had just put two and two together to get four; that was supposed to be Lois's job!
"We think we know who the John Doe is, Lois."
Cat's words brought her attention back to the situation at hand.
"As soon as his identity's been confirmed, and the next-of- kin have been notified, I'll let you know. I know you'll want to do a follow-up."
"Thanks. I appreciate that." Lois regarded the other woman solemnly, feeling a new respect for her. "I'm impressed, Cat," she admitted, forcing the words out, thinking it would be dishonest not to tell her.
The gossip columnist beamed, her grin stretching from ear to ear and lighting up her face. "Thanks!"
"So when are you seeing this cop of yours again?"
The smile faded. "I don't know. He told me he'd let me know what happened after he saw the next-of-kin, but he'll probably just call. There's no reason for him to see me in person."
Suddenly feeling as though the tables were turned, Lois became the comforter, patting Cat awkwardly on the arm. "I wouldn't bet on that. There aren't many men who've been immune to your charms when you've gone out of your way to be with them." Cat grinned. "True enough." But then she regarded Lois solemnly, a serious look spreading over her face. "I do want to tell you something, though. Clark and I? It didn't happen."
"I know," Lois admitted. "You did just go out to lunch. I think I knew it all along."
"No. I mean it never happened. Ever."
"Clark's such a Boy Scout. I knew it would bug him when I spread those rumours, and I hate to admit it, but that's why I did. He's fun to tease."
"Oh. Well. That's okay then," Lois said awkwardly, all the while inwardly exulting. "Not that it matters to me."
Cat didn't say anything in response. Instead she fixed Lois with an unwavering stare until, to her own confusion, Lois found herself blushing.
The next two hours were very frustrating for Clark.
Julius Grubner turned out to be a surprise in many ways. What Clark hadn't been anticipating, however, was how hard it would turn out to be to convince the man that he was in danger.
It might have made it easier if Superman had been able to reveal the source of his information, but he couldn't. It wouldn't look good for Superman to admit to eavesdropping on a respected businessman, no matter how scummy that businessman actually was.
Even for someone as venerated as his alter ego was, it took a lot of fast talking for him to convince Mr. Grubner that he had to improve his security. And then after Grubner finally agreed to contact a private security firm, there was no way Clark was going to leave until their representatives arrived.
He spoke to the security experts and shared as much with them as possible, namely that he had found out about a physical threat to Mr. Grubner as well as a threat to the company's computer system, and that someone might try to infiltrate it and inject false information into it framing him for an unspecified crime.
Once Julius Grubner was convinced of the threat, however, he proved to be a capable and responsible man. He arranged for his staff to back up all company information and also arranged for a private team of auditors to come in and review them all. It was an excellent pre-emptive strike against Luthor's minions' possible attempts to frame the man.
Clark highly doubted that Mrs. Cox would have had the opportunity to formulate, let alone implement, any plans to harm the man so it looked like Grubner would be as safe as possible. One precaution that he did take, though, was to make sure that neither the security firm nor the auditors had anything to do with Lex Luthor.
After leaving Grubner, he debated how much he should share with Lois. He didn't want to use the 'Superman told me' excuse when he told her of the threat to Grubner, but she knew what his other resources were, and saying 'I heard it from a source' just wouldn't cut it.
For one thing, she'd introduced him to practically every source he had.
So, he guessed he was stuck with his tired old Superman line, but it stuck in his craw. He hated having to mislead her all the time. It just didn't feel right.
He just hoped that it wouldn't do anything to disrupt the fragile peace between the two of them. She was so overly sensitive to anything Superman-related that he worried this would send her over the edge.
Should he leave Luthor's name out of it or not? If he told her about Luthor, he'd have to admit that Superman had eavesdropped on the man. She was already angry with his alter ego. How much angrier would she be if she knew about this most recent aberrant behaviour? He'd have to think about this. It was a hard decision to make.
In the meantime, he had an egotistical, devious, sly would- be Machiavelli to see. A steely look of determination spread over his face as he arrowed his body towards Lex Luthor's penthouse office.
Lex regarded his assistant fondly as she took dictation for him. Incredible how happy it made some people to be told that they could utilise all their talents! Her mood had improved a thousand-fold upon being told of his plans for Kent, the hack reporter.
It had been a fortuitous find, hiring Mrs. Cox to work for him in her various capacities. She was a woman of multiple talents — only a few of which were legal. And how fortuitous it had been for her to have procured an employer who appreciated those talents.
Lex smiled and blew out a stream of smoke. How much better could life get?
The smile faded, however, as he heard a tapping sound from his penthouse balcony. He felt positively murderous when he turned to catch sight of his bumbling, muscle-bound nemesis waiting patiently to be acknowledged.
Lex snarled a muffled order at Mrs. Cox who serenely strolled over to open the door and let the pretentious Boy Scout in. She then quickly excused herself from the room.
"I've come to tell you that I know," Superman said, without any pretence of small talk.
"What do you know?" Lex asked.
"I know about you and your attempt to make a few paltry dollars from selling illegal weapons to an Indian businessman."
Lex smiled mockingly. "To be accurate, it was a lot of paltry dollars, but you'll never prove a thing."
"Maybe. Maybe not. But in the meantime, I've taken some precautions that you might be interested in."
"I doubt that you could do anything I would find of interest," Lex said, drawling his words, knowing that there was no better way to irritate the irritating superhero.
"Not even when I tell you that I've arranged for Julius Grubner to back up all his company records and hold them off-site in a secure location? Not even when I tell you that he's followed my advice and arranged for private security that even you and your bully-boys would have a hard time going around to get to him?" Superman crossed his arms over his chest and stared arrogantly at Luthor.
Lex felt his heart beating faster, but pretending to a calm he didn't feel, he leaned forward and eyed the big blue gnat intently. "Why in the world would I care about Julius Grubner?"
Superman smiled slowly. "Because Julius Grubner would be the ideal scapegoat. You know it, and I know it. You're becoming predictable in your old age, Luthor. Perhaps you should surrender. It's only a matter of time until you won't have the choice anymore."
"Leave!" Luthor's calm crumbled, and he leapt to his feet. "Leave now or I'll charge you with trespass."
His rival floated up off the floor. "Only if you can catch me. Oh, I'll go now, Luthor, but don't think this is over. I'll be watching you, and when I have proof that you're the slime I know you are, then I'll take you down. That's a promise." He turned to leave but then spun around to address the stunned businessman once more. "Did you know that flying is my favourite of all my superpowers?" Superman's voice was conversational in tone, all the acrimony from their previous exchanges suddenly gone, as if it had never existed.
"No, I didn't," Lex answered, forcing his lips to curl in a supercilious smile he didn't mean.
"It's wonderful," the other man said smugly. "It means I can get away from scum like you as fast as I want." And he was gone, papers flying off Lex's desk in every direction, and the balcony door slamming shut in his wake.
Lex stared, stunned, at the closed door for a long moment, before looking around at the paper-strewn chaos that had been his office. "Mrs. Cox!" he bellowed.
"Yes, sir," she answered demurely as she entered the room.
"Forget about Kent! He's not important. I need you to find me every scrap of information about Superman that you can. I don't care how insignificant it is. I want to know!"
"Yes, sir," she replied as she left the room once more.
Lex stood up and walked out onto his balcony. He leaned on the wall and stared off into the distance. "Just wait," he muttered through clenched teeth. "Just you wait."
When Clark finally got back to the Planet, he was pleasantly surprised by Lois's demeanour. She greeted him with a return of her normal friendliness, which was a relief. And she didn't question him as to where he had been all this time. Instead she focused on what he had to tell her. Should he tell her about Superman's encounter with Luthor? he wondered. No, he decided. Better that Superman share his suspicions about the man with her personally. He'd visit with her later.
"Did Superman tell you if he knew who was targeting Grubner?"
"No, he didn't say. But he was pretty busy," Clark said, so uncomfortable that he was just about crossing his fingers behind his back.
"Well, one thing," Lois continued. "When we find out who wants to frame Grubner for illegal arms shipments, then we'll know who the real arms dealer actually is."
Clark nodded, all the while wondering how he could legally find proof of Luthor's perfidy. There were some things that superpowers just didn't help with. He did feel better about the possibility of bringing Luthor down now that Lois was looking at the situation more critically. Knowing the psychopathic billionaire as he did, he knew he would need the help.
"It could be Luthor, I suppose. Or it could be someone who manufactures other components of the neutron bombs, or it could be someone else who is calling the shots," she surprised him by saying.
"What do your instincts tell you?"
"Really?" he asked incredulously. Where had this change of heart come from?
"Really," she confirmed, looking thoughtful. "I made a mistake, Clark."
She looked down, clearly uncomfortable admitting her error.
"When I interviewed Lex, I let Chesney's name slip by accident. If he really is guilty, then that would have been enough. He must know what we're looking into. Why else would Grubner have been targeted? No, Lex must have figured it out from what I said. It's not proof, but even so it's very telling, isn't it?"
Clark just nodded. There wasn't a lot he could say. He could tell that Lois was beating herself up over this, so there was no point in his saying anything further.
"You were right," she said, her face blank of expression. "I should have listened to you. I'm sorry."
"Lois, are you okay?"
"Why do you ask?"
"You never apologise to people; people normally apologise to you."
"Never?" she asked plaintively.
"Well, not never. But it's not something I've come to expect from Lois Lane."
"Am I really that bad, Clark? I'm sorry."
And to his chagrin, tears filled her eyes.
He quickly moved his chair closer to hers. "Lois, what's wrong?"
She shook her head. "It's just… I'm not… I'm having a bad day, Clark!" She burst into tears.
He awkwardly pulled her close, his arm slipping around her back. His other hand patted her ineffectually on the shoulder. At the same time, he glanced out through the half open blinds of the conference room. It was a relief to realise that no one was watching. Lois would be devastated if she were the target of gossip after all this.
"What can I do to help?" he asked.
She burrowed into him a little closer and his arm tightened around her, her actions giving him tacit approval to hold her close.
Lois muttered a few words in the general vicinity of his chest but they were garbled.
"What?" he asked.
"Clark, I'm a terrible person," she wailed. "I've been so hard on you and you were right about Lex. He's dirty. And I was so hard on Superman, and all he did was be a friend to Cat when she was in trouble. I just don't make allowances for my friends like they do for me."
"Hey, you're a great friend!" Clark exclaimed, twisting her so that she had to face him directly.
"How?" Clark repeated.
"Yes, how? How am I a great friend?"
He paused to marshal his thoughts.
"Ah hah!" she cried, pulling free from him. She pointed her index finger at his chest. "You can't tell me, can you? You can't tell me how I'm a good friend because I'm not a good friend. I'm not a good person at all."
"Lois," Clark said, his tone exasperated. "You didn't give me a chance to talk."
She dashed the tears from her eyes and sniffled for a second. "So talk already. I'm waiting."
"Well, you're a great reporter…"
"That doesn't automatically make me a good person," she pointed out.
He fixed her with a stern glare. "You're interrupting."
"See, that's another strike against me. I interrupt people all the time. That's rude. That's not sensitive. That's not…"
"Lois! You're doing it again."
"Oh, yeah, right. Sorry." Shamefaced, she looked down at the floor.
"Okay, so you're passionate about your work, and you stand up for people. You work hard to make sure that corruption is exposed and people get a fair break. That's good."
"Yeah, okay, but that's not very specific. Okay, I do good things for people in general, but so what. Why do you think I'm a good friend?"
"You make me think, you make me laugh, you challenge me. When I'm around you, I work better, I think better. It's like you're some kind of catalyst for good or something, because I'm a better person for knowing you." For once Clark found the words pouring out of his mouth, instead of fumbling for them the way he normally did.
"I… I… That's so sweet, Clark," Lois said, her voice shaking. "That's the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me."
"I meant it, Lois. Every word."
For a long moment, they stared at each other. Clark was mesmerized by the hidden depths of her rich brown eyes.
It was with an almost visible effort that she pulled her gaze away from his. As he watched, her cheeks reddened and her breathing quickened.
"So anyway, Clark, what do you think we should do next?"
"I'm hungry, and it is dinnertime. What are you in the mood for, pizza or Chinese? My treat."
"That wasn't one of the choices."
"I know." She flashed him a brilliant, albeit shaky smile. "You should know better than to try to pigeonhole me, Clark. That doesn't work. I'm one of a kind."
He smiled fondly as he followed her out of the room. "You are so right, Lois," he muttered. "Completely unique, that's you."
Cat opened her door a split-second after she heard the knock. Joe faced her, one fist still raised in the air. "Hi!" she exclaimed, a smile spreading across her face. It was just so good to see him.
And with that one word, Cat knew that this man was hurting.
"Oh, I don't know. Just the usual stuff. Get up, get dressed, go to work, tell a pregnant woman that her child won't have a father, hold her hand while she has a baby. That's all."
"I would think that's enough," Cat replied. She stepped back from the door and motioned him into the apartment.
He paused. "I shouldn't be here. You don't want me here. Sometimes things are bad, and… I'm a mess today."
"I know," she said softly as she slipped her hand into his. "It's all right. I'm glad you came to me." She tugged him into her cheery living room and helped him slip off his coat.
When she came back from the front closet, Joe was still standing in the middle of her living room, looking lost and forlorn.
"None of this is your fault, you know." She took him by the shoulders and gazed deep into his eyes.
She watched as he blinked back a hint of moisture.
"You're going to catch this guy. I'll help you." She gave him a little shake, trying to jolt some life back into him.
"I know." His eyes were bleak and so incredibly sad.
"Joe…" she said helplessly as she shook him again.
His hands moved up to grasp her arms. "Cat!" he gasped.
She waited, afraid that she knew what he was going to say, what he was going to ask of her.
"I need you," he blurted out.
She nodded. She'd known what he'd been going to say. She'd hoped that he wouldn't, but he was just like all the rest, wasn't he? Just another guy who figured that sex was good for what ailed him. A distraction from his problems, a few minutes' break from a bad situation…
"You want a woman," she said sadly.
Her hands fell from his shoulders, her grip lost as she jumped from the force of that exclamation. She flinched as he grabbed them firmly in his.
"I don't just want a woman. I want you, Cat. I need you."
"I… I don't understand."
"I don't want to play games with you. I don't want to waste any time." He pulled away and started pacing back and forth. "I don't know if I can explain."
"Try!" The word came out harshly, sounding like an ultimatum. She waited for his answer, barely breathing, not moving.
"Tonight, I watched a woman give birth to a child. A child that she'd created with a man she loved, a man who wasn't there tonight, and who will never be there again. I can't even begin to explain how it felt to watch her and know that the physical pain she was in was just a tiny fraction of the total pain she felt. I can't even imagine how it felt for her to suffer such torment at the moment her child was born, at the moment that should have been full of joy. But I can imagine how I'd feel if you weren't in my life." He stopped and gazed at her, his intense focus on her somehow scary.
"Stop!" she cried. "I don't want to hear…"
"I love you, Cat," he blurted out, ignoring her command. "I don't want to waste time tiptoeing around this. I love you, and I want you, and I need you."
"I… I…" she stammered, looking anywhere but into his emotion-charged face.
With one great stride he moved to her. She didn't have a chance to move away or to speak before his lips were on hers, and his arms held her tight. Almost too tight, his grip verged on pain. Sweet pain, she thought in a daze. She didn't have any choice but to respond to the raw, masculine need she felt emanating from his stocky frame.
His body was hard against hers as she melted into his embrace. A rush of heat, fierce and primal, flooded through her, making all rational thought impossible. Mine, she thought. This man is mine.
Her knees wobbled, but his arms were tight around her, like steel support bars holding her up as she pressed herself closer, his angry desire striking a spark in her, exciting her against her will.
And then it happened.
The raw, fierce neediness of his kiss changed, the rage and desperation bleeding away, until only tenderness and love were left. His grip changed, still holding her close, but gentler now, as if she were something to be cherished, something to be protected. His hand came up to touch her hair softly, and then to trail down her back to her waist. He touched her as if she were made of spun glass.
She gasped and shivered as his mouth moved away from hers and laid a shimmering trail of kisses down her neck. "Cat," he whispered into her hair. "I love you."
A wave of panic rose through her, carrying her along on its tide. "Get out!" She pulled herself away and took two careful steps back away from him, needing the physical distance.
"What?" Joe gazed at her with stricken eyes.
"You… You…" Tears started to flow. "You can't do this to me."
"You… You can't come in here and say that kind of thing to me. It's not fair. You can't do this to me!"
"I don't understand."
Cat buried her face in her hands, hiding herself, not wanting him to see her pain. "You can't tell me you love me. How could you love me? I don't understand. I'm not a good person. I'm not special. I'm nothing! How can you love me?"
"Don't talk like that!"
She flinched at the anger in his voice but when his hand took hers, it was gentle. Blindly, she let him lead her to the couch. He pulled her down beside him and held her close. She felt him take a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"Cat, what's this all about?" he asked, his voice soft and caring.
The tears poured out of her with a vengeance. How could someone so wonderful and caring and special as Joe fall for a woman like her? He deserved better. "I want you to leave," she blurted out.
"No," he said calmly.
"What? Leave now!"
"But… But…" She dragged her gaze up to meet his, her frustration causing her tears to dry up.
"You have to tell me why first."
"Because I'm not good enough for you!" she exclaimed, staring him in the face.
He leaned over and kissed her quickly. "Not true, try again."
"But I'm not! I'm not a nice person."
"I say you are." He regarded her intently.
She shook her head. "I've done things that I'm ashamed of."
"So have I. So what?"
"I've lied to get a story."
"I've lied to get an arrest."
"I've slept with a lot of men," she said, almost triumphantly, playing her trump card.
"Hmmm, I've never done that," he answered, looking like he was thinking hard. "But I have slept with a lot of women so I guess that's close enough."
"But it's different for men!"
"Why?" he asked.
"Because it is!" she stammered.
"Not good enough."
And he leaned over and kissed her yet again.
"I have a reputation."
"So do I."
"People think I'm dumb."
"And that I'm ditzy."
"They think I'm man-hungry."
"If you were, we'd be having this conversation in bed."
"Cat!" He grinned at her, an infuriating, irritating, annoying, utterly charming grin.
"Joe, you're just not listening to me."
He pulled her closer and laid his head on hers. "I am listening, but there's only one thing you could say that would make me leave, and you haven't said it."
"I hate you!"
"Nope, not it."
"What is it then?"
She could hear the amusement in his voice. "Do you think I'm stupid? I'm not telling you!"
It felt like ice melting, she thought in wonder. Her defences tumbling to pieces felt like ice melting, letting heat in, in its place. "Joe?" she said in a meek, mild voice.
"Yes." He pulled back to smile at her, his hand smoothing her hair back from her forehead.
Cat dropped her eyes, suddenly shy. "Don't tell me what it is, okay? I'm pretty fond of you, too, and I'd hate for you to have to leave because I said the wrong thing."
He laughed. But he soon stopped laughing when she launched herself at him, her lips finding his. Her hands came up to frame his face as she leaned into him, tugging him ever closer. "I do love you, Joe," she whispered.
"Good." He planted tiny kisses on her closed eyelids.
"And I want you."
The words hung in the air for a long, still, heart-stopping moment, and Cat began to regret them having spilled out of her mouth.
And then she saw a smile spread slowly across Joe's face as his eyes lit up.
"Even better," he answered as he gathered her close. He buried his face in her hair yet again, his breath warm against her skin and his mouth hot on her neck.
Her head fell back, her eyes closed, and with a delicious shiver, Cat surrendered herself completely to the man she loved.
What if Cat were right? Lois thought. What if Clark and Superman both had feelings for her? How did that make her feel?
She got up and put the remains of her chocolate ice cream back in the freezer and dropped her spoon into the sink.
'Okay, Lois,' she thought, 'let's think this through one man at a time.'
What if Clark really did have feelings for her? How would that affect their friendship?
It wouldn't be a good thing. Romance was like a… like… an elephant, she decided fancifully. Like an elephant sitting on a beach ball, romance squashed friendship flat. Once it moved on, the friendship — like the ball — would be impossible to re-inflate.
'Lane, that has to be the stupidest analogy you've ever come up with,' she thought. 'But accurate.'
Did she want to be involved romantically with Clark? No. Not at all. Probably not. Okay, maybe, but it wasn't a good idea.
Sure the man was gorgeous, and sure he looked great wearing just a towel, and sure he was the best friend she'd ever had, and yes, he was kind, caring and sensitive, and knew how she liked her coffee and made a point of fetching her chocolate donuts with those little sprinkles on them because he knew they were her favourite, and okay, whenever he'd kissed her on one pretence or another, even though they weren't real, those kisses did have the power to make her shiver and feel a bit like she had run out of air, but still, it just wasn't a good idea.
It wasn't a good idea because… because… Why wasn't it a good idea? Oh, yeah. Because it could wreck their friendship, and that was too important to take chances with.
Basically, she liked Clark far too much to allow herself to love him.
What about Superman? she wondered as she wandered back into the living room and sat down. For so many months, she'd been proclaiming to all and sundry her total devotion to the man — devotion to the point of obsession. What if he really did have feelings for her? How would that make her feel?
Upon reflection, Lois decided that it made her feel like running screaming out of the room. How scary was that thinking such a perfect hunk of manhood might actually want to be with her? What in the world did he see in her? If he saw something special, that is, because she wasn't actually one hundred percent convinced that he did, although sometimes she had wondered how he felt about her, and thought that there might be something special there but she'd always dismissed those thoughts as her imagination which had made her feel a lot more comfortable around him.
In other words, she liked Clark far too much to get involved with him, and Superman was too good for her. How weird was that? she thought, snorting in disgust. What dating options did that leave her with? If she followed that credo, she'd end up with someone she really didn't care for, that she could never be friends with, or be comfortable with. She'd end up with someone who wasn't good enough for her. How sad was that. Not for the first time, she cursed her parents for the many hang-ups they'd left her with.
But if she could get past the hang-ups and had to pick one of the two men, which one would she pick? Was she more comfortable with the ordinary guy or the superhero? Did she want to risk the special friendship she had with either of them?
She was comfortable with Clark. Sometimes they'd watch videos together. They'd eat together and talk and laugh, and that was really, really good.
She got tongue-tied around Superman, but that would probably change if they actually ever spent more time together. For a second a flash of anger over the five hours he'd spent with Cat rose to the surface, but she pushed it back under. That had been a good thing, she told herself fiercely. He'd done the right thing. Maybe if she told herself that enough, she'd eventually believe it, she thought, her lips quirking in a wry smile.
Superman was gorgeous, too, although Clark was nothing to sneer at. But that suit… Those muscles… Wow!
So, anyway, if she did spend more time with Superman, maybe it wouldn't be so scary if he really did like her. Maybe the whole concept of love from a 'Greek god' wouldn't be so terrifying, wouldn't make her want to…
A small scream emerged from Lois's throat as she gazed out her window directly into Superman's eyes. He had one hand raised, as if he were about to tap on the glass.
She closed her eyes for a second, blushing in embarrassment at her reaction. "Come on in, Superman," she called out once she caught her breath. "It's open."
He smiled at her warmly, slid the window open, and floated in to land with a soft thump in front of her.
"Hi." She felt her cheeks get even redder. Oh, God, she really hoped that he didn't read minds, because she wasn't happy with where her thoughts had been just a few moments before!
"Are you all right?" He gazed at her in concern.
"Fine. Why do you ask?" She couldn't meet his eyes.
"I startled you. I'm sorry."
"I'm fine. It's okay." Forcing herself to calm down, Lois waved at the chair facing the couch. "Would you like to have a seat?"
"Thanks." He smiled warmly as he sat, carefully arranging his cape as he did so.
"I wanted to tell you…"
"I wanted to say…"
They fell silent, eyeing each other warily.
"You first," Superman said, sweeping his hand out in a grand gesture.
"I'm sorry," Lois said simply. "You told me that you and Cat weren't having an affair, but I just didn't want to listen. I was rude and judgmental and thoughtless. I'm really sorry."
"It's okay," Superman assured her. "I know it did look bad, but I couldn't really tell you more because…"
"Because you didn't want to betray Cat's confidence. She told me how bad things were. She told me how upset she'd been."
He nodded. "I'm glad. She needs friends right now. I was really worried about her."
"She seems better. I don't think you need to worry anymore."
"Good. That's not what I came to talk to you about, though. I really came to talk to you about Lex Luthor."
"Clark's been telling me for a while that he's not a nice guy, I've started having suspicions of my own, and now you're here. I guess this is confirmation, isn't it? Lex isn't what he appears to be, is he?"
"No, he's not, Lois," Superman answered sombrely. "I'm convinced that the man is a sociopath. He's evil and manipulative, and I believe that he's the arms dealer that we've been looking for." Superman looked down at his hands.
Was that an embarrassed expression on his face? Lois wondered. Was he blushing?
"Why do I have the feeling there's something you're not telling me?"
Superman looked up and smiled. "I always knew you were a brilliant reporter!"
She grinned in response. "So there is something more."
He nodded, his smile fading. "Yes, there is," he said seriously. "I probably shouldn't have, but I confronted him."
"I confronted him. I told him I knew what he was up to, and that I was going to watch him from now on." Superman went back to staring at his hands.
"Are you nuts?"
His head snapped up at the acrimonious tone to her question.
She blushed as she realised exactly what she had said and who she had said it to. "Sorry. I didn't mean to snap like that, but Superman, that wasn't a very smart thing to do. If Luthor's guilty — and I'm beginning to think that he is — he's going to try to hide his tracks even better than he already has. He could… He could do anything. He might frame someone, or have someone killed, or… I don't know. He could do anything."
"I thought of that. I arranged for Julius Grubner to have protection. After what Clark told me you had said about the man, I thought he might be a target. I thought that Luthor might try to set him up to take the blame."
"Okay, so that was good," Lois replied. "But I have to say that it's a good thing you're not a reporter, Superman."
He fidgeted with his cape. "Why do you say that?" he asked, clearly uncomfortable.
"Because if you were, you would have understood how important it is not to let a suspect know he's under suspicion. He'll react differently now. It'll be harder to get the story."
"That's true," Superman answered. "But I felt there was something much larger at stake here." At her pointed look of inquiry, he continued. "We think that Rahsanjani has purchased half the components he needs to construct a neutron bomb."
"So do you really want Luthor to think he can get away with selling him the other half of the components? Don't we want Luthor to be on his guard, to lay low, to hold off, maybe to forget about it entirely? I thought the fate of the world was more important than just a story."
Lois shook her head. "That sounds like something Clark would say."
Superman shifted in his chair. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"
She laughed. "In this case a good thing. I respect Clark's opinion a lot, but don't tell him I said so. I don't want him to get complacent. You are right," she continued seriously. "This is more important than just a story. And if warning Lex off will help prevent disaster, then I guess I can't argue with you even if you've made my job that much more difficult."
"I'm glad you're not upset." Superman took a deep breath before continuing. "I didn't like it when you were. I value our friendship, Lois. It was upsetting to have you angry with me."
"I'm sorry. I didn't like being mad at you. And I value our friendship, too," Lois replied awkwardly. The emotion of the moment was uncomfortable. It was too intense and too reminiscent of what she had been thinking about. Please, God, don't let the man be about to tell her anything more, because she didn't think she could take it if he did.
"I better go," Superman said, getting to his feet.
"Okay," she replied, almost cheerfully. It felt strange to feel relieved that the superhero was leaving, but she did. She stood up and trailed behind him as he ambled over to the window. "It's a good thing you don't have any vulnerabilities," she said offhanded.
"What do you mean?" he asked as he turned to face her.
"Well, you've made a big enemy out of Lex Luthor. It's a good thing you don't have any weaknesses he could exploit. You don't, do you?"
"Actually, I do, Lois," he replied seriously.
She gasped. "You mean Kryptonite really exists?"
He grimaced. "Yes, it does. But that's not what I was thinking of."
"What were you thinking of then?"
Superman cupped her cheek with a large warm hand. "I was thinking about my friends. My friends are my weakness." And with a whoosh, he was gone into the night, leaving her standing, stunned, shocked and in need of oxygen, staring after him.
Had he said too much to Lois last night? Clark wondered. No, he didn't think so. Perhaps he shouldn't have admitted the existence of Kryptonite, but she had asked. And he knew he could trust her not to publicize its existence. She was a good friend.
He stretched and yawned, shoving the blankets aside, preparing to get up. It was only 4 a.m., but he didn't need a lot of sleep normally. Even so, last night had been much more restful now that he was more relaxed about Lois. It had been hell having her angry with him. What a relief that she wasn't angry with either Clark or Superman anymore.
Clark glanced at the clock. He didn't have to get up just yet, he realised, snagging the blanket and pulling it up again. Good, because he didn't want to. Life had been so hectic these last few days, and he hadn't had a chance to indulge in his favourite pastime — dreaming of Lois.
What would it be like if she were more than a friend? What would it be like to have her in his arms, to hold her close? He ached for her. If only she felt the same way about him. He could picture it now.
They'd be together… Where? Oh, yes, under the stars, gazing up at the moon. He'd pour her a glass of wine — she'd be wearing a simple dress with spaghetti straps, looking more alluring than he'd ever seen her — in burgundy, Clark decided. He liked that colour. Plus she really looked gorgeous in burgundy. And then she'd take his wineglass from his hand and put it down out of the way, she'd gaze into his eyes, and she'd say, 'Clark, I love…'
Clark's eyes snapped open, the romantic haze of his daydream vanishing in an instant. He stared at the golden light that spilled from the box on his bookcase shelf. He sprang out of bed, opened the box, took his globe out of it and then recoiled in shock when the globe, his globe, suddenly projected an image in front of his eyes.
It was the image of a man with Superman's S on his chest!
"My name is Jor-El," the man said. "And you are Kal-El, my son. The object you hold has been attuned to you. That you now hear these words is proof that you survived the journey in space and have reached your full maturity. Now it is time for you to learn our heritage. To that end, I will appear to you five times. Watch for the light, listen, and learn."
The view changed, showing an open-mouthed Clark a picture of what looked like a laboratory. His ship! Was that his ship in that laboratory?
"Time grows short and we continue to search. The immensity of space is both a blessing and a curse. In that near infinite variety there must be some place suitable. Hope and desperation drive us in equal measure."
A woman appeared by the man's side.
"Lara works by my side. She is tireless and endlessly patient. Considering what is soon to come, this is my greatest consolation: that we are together." The whole laboratory seemed to be shaking in the vision in front of him. As the picture disappeared, he could see Jor-El and Lara — his parents? — bracing themselves.
Lara. Was she his mother? And Jor-El his father? Had that been Krypton? What had they called him? Kal-El?
"Kal-El," he said aloud getting used to the sound of it. A good name. A strong name. His name? No. He was Clark Kent. He couldn't think of himself any other way.
He stared intently at the globe, quiescent now. Four more messages. He had to wait to hear four more messages. Clark shook his head. How could he bear to wait?
He forced himself to put the globe down long enough to spin into his Superman outfit. Snatching it back into his hand, he was up in the air and out the window in less than a second. He had to go to Kansas to see his mother and father. They needed to know about this!
When Lois got to work, Clark was already there. He wasn't busy typing or talking on the phone tracking down information like he normally was, however. Instead he was sitting motionless at his desk, gazing off into space.
"Earth to Clark? Hello?" Lois waved her hand in front of her partner's nose.
"What? Oh, hey. Morning, Lois!" His eyes snapped back into focus as he smiled at her.
"Morning, Clark." She paused. Making a fuss just wasn't her style, but she still felt that she needed to say something. "I wanted to thank you for dinner last night, and, well, and for the pep talk. I really appreciate it, Clark, and I guess I just wanted you to know."
That slow, warm, devastating smile of his spread across his face, his white teeth gleaming and his eyes twinkling. "You're welcome, Lois. I'm glad I could help. And I really enjoyed myself. Dinner was a lot of fun."
A sense of just how attractive and… and… how dangerous Clark Kent actually was suddenly struck Lois. A strong awareness of her partner as a sexy, desirable male surged to the forefront of her consciousness. "Of course it was fun," she forced herself to say lightly. "You were with me!"
"One of the things I love about you, Lois, is your modesty!" Clark exclaimed with a laugh. "It's amazing how a successful, influential reporter such as yourself could get to your position without getting a swelled head, but you seem to have managed it!" He winked and grinned at her rakishly.
Lois couldn't help giggling even as her heart thumped in response to that grin. Damn that Cat, anyway. If she hadn't brought it up, Lois wouldn't be looking at Clark in this new, very uncomfortable way. What was worse, she didn't seem to be able to stop looking at Clark. Which matched what he was doing because his eyes were locked on her, too. She swayed towards him before catching herself and pulling back.
His smile faded and she caught her breath as the amusement vanished from his face. He gazed at her intently, his eyes dark and unfathomable. "Lois," he whispered.
And that was enough to break the spell.
"I could really use some coffee, Clark. How about you? Here, give me your cup, and I'll grab you another. How about a donut? I'll be right back!" Lois found herself fleeing up the ramp to the coffee area, armed with two empty mugs. She busied herself preparing the coffee for the two of them, surreptitiously watching Clark from her new vantage point. He looked as confused as she felt, she decided. Good. Why should she suffer alone?
She made a point of avoiding his gaze when she plunked his full cup down on his desk. Instead, she moved briskly to her own desk, all the while conscious of his eyes following her every movement. "Any leads, Clark?" she asked as she booted up her computer.
"No." His voice was soft. "Lois…"
"We need leads. Have you talked to Superman today? Did he have any suggestions?"
"No." He paused. "Lois, I just wanted to say…"
Persistent, wasn't he?
"I think I'll put the word out on the street, Clark. Maybe talk to Bobby Bigmouth. Take him some burritos or something. I heard he was going through a Mexican phase this month."
She heard Clark sigh, a mournful sound that tugged at her heartstrings. But she didn't need this right now. The kind of emotion that she'd seen in his eyes was just too scary. She didn't know how to handle it. She didn't know what to do.
"That sounds like a good idea, Lois. Maybe I'll head out and see what I can find."
"That sounds like a good idea, Clark," she said, turning her back on him, picking up her phone and flipping through her Rolodex. But her mind wasn't on what she was doing. Instead she waited with bated breath. It seemed to take forever, but finally she sensed that he was no longer watching her. And then his phone rang, and suddenly things felt right again.
For a second, at least.
"I'll be right there," she heard Clark exclaim. He sounded tense.
"What is it?" she asked, dropping the pretence of looking up a phone number.
"My apartment's been robbed. I've got to go." He pushed himself to his feet.
"Clark, how awful!" she exclaimed. "I am so sorry. To be violated like that, to have absolute strangers pawing through your personal belongings… Do you want me to come with you?"
Clark paused. "Would you?"
She gazed up at him. "Of course. If you want me to."
"Thank you, Lois." His eyes were warm and expressive.
"You're welcome, Clark," she said softly. "You're my friend, you know that."
And once again, Lois found herself trapped in a haze, gazing at her best friend, seeing unfamiliar emotions on his face, feeling unfamiliar emotions for him. But this time, it didn't seem so scary. It didn't seem so threatening.
He extended his hand, she placed hers within, and he tugged her effortlessly to her feet. Lois bent down to retrieve her purse, and then her phone rang. She stared at it, ringing so emphatically on her desk and then looked up at Clark, feeling ridiculously disappointed at the interruption.
"You better get that," he said, his voice low and husky.
Lois swallowed roughly and yanked the receiver out of its cradle. "Lois Lane!" she snapped.
"Lois, it's Bobby. You need to talk to me!"
The confusing haze vanished as she came back to herself. "Just a second," she muttered into the phone. "Speak of our favourite source!" she told Clark. "I think I better take this. Do you want to wait? I might have to go out to meet with him."
He shook his head. "No, it's okay. I'll be fine. You better see him. This could be important."
"If you're sure."
He nodded. "Yes. I'm sure. Thanks anyway."
"You're welcome, Clark." Lois exchanged one last tender smile with her partner before turning back to the phone. "Okay, sorry. What have you got?" She watched as her partner jogged up the ramp and disappeared into the stairwell.
"Superman, Lois. I have information about Superman."
"Hey! You put the word out for information just after he arrived, and I didn't forget. If you still want it, I got it. What do you say?"
"I say you better tell me where you are," Lois said as she grabbed her pencil and paper.
"Corner of Duke and Carlson. Bring extra salsa."
"Got it. See you in fifteen."
Lois paused long enough to call El Diablo's and place a take-out order for the Burrito Grande platter and then she was off and running, chasing a lead. Okay, so it wasn't the lead she'd been hoping for, but at this point in time, she couldn't bring herself to be too fussy.
Clark stood in the wreckage of his living room, feeling more helpless, and more hopeless than he had felt in years. What a mess! It wasn't just the fact that his things had been taken; it was the wanton destruction that really grated on him, that really made him furious.
He bent down and retrieved a favourite hardcover book from the floor. Its spine had been cracked when it had been carelessly tossed aside. Sighing, he replaced it on the bookshelf.
Clark didn't phone the police. What would be the point? They would never be able to catch the guy, so why bother? He grabbed a few more books and dumped them with the first only to stop and catch his breath. The globe!
He ran into his bedroom and froze when he caught sight of the smashed storage box. It was empty. The globe was gone.
"What is it?" Lois asked. Her eyes were wide and greedily fixed on the colourful sphere sitting on the bench beside Bobby.
"I don't know," the snitch said, "but you have to see this." He put down his burrito, quickly wiped grease from his fingers and then carefully picked up the glowing object. It flared to life, and an image formed in front of them of a man dressed in white with Superman's S on his chest.
"This is the second of the five times I will appear," the strange man said.
Bobby put the globe down, and the light died.
"Where did you get it?"
"From a kid I know," Bobby answered. "He's kind of a borderline case. He and his brother have been on the streets for a couple of months, and I know he's trying to keep them out of the system. Normally they kind of scrounge to get by, but every once in a while, Jack does something really stupid. He stole it. I don't know from where or from who, but whoever it was must have been holding onto this for Superman. He figured it out pretty fast, and then he came to me."
Bobby grimaced. "I've been kind of looking out for them, helping them when I could. So when he got scared, I was the person he came to for help."
"Got scared?" What happened?"
"The word on the street is some very heavy-duty bad guys are looking for any and all information about Superman. Jack probably could have sold this to them for a lot of money, but he's a smart kid. He knew that this wouldn't be enough for these dudes. They'd pay him for this thing, and then if they didn't get enough info out of it, they'd squeeze him for more, and they wouldn't particularly care if he didn't know anything. They'd still try anyway."
"Do you know anything more about these bad guys? Who they are? Who they work for?"
Bobby shook his head. "No, and I don't want to know anything more. Word is, they're guys you REALLY don't want to mess with. So… You want it?" He gestured at the globe.
"Do I want it? Are you nuts? Of course, I want it!" Lois exclaimed. "How much do you want for it?"
"I don't want anything," Bobby said as he bit into another cheese-laden burrito dripping with sour cream. "But if you want to give me a few bucks, I'll pass it on to the kid. I know he and his brother could really use whatever you can spare."
Lois searched through her wallet. "All I got is forty bucks and a coupon for cottage cheese."
He snatched the bills from her hand. "Keep the coupon, Lois. You keep eating chocolate ice cream the way you do, and you might need it!"
Bobby grinned unrepentantly. "Just kidding." He crammed the last bite of food into his mouth. "It's been a real pleasure doing business with you, Lois. See you around."
She smiled at him fleetingly as he left, but her eyes were drawn back to the round object shimmering beside her on the bench. Glancing around surreptitiously, she grabbed it and quickly thrust it into her coat pocket before it could flare to life once more.
As she headed to the safety of her apartment, Lois knew she should call for Superman. This globe belonged to him; he should have it. She also knew she wasn't going to call Superman. This was too big an opportunity to find out more about him.
Huh! She just realised… It must have been Clark's place that kid, Jack, had hit. And Clark must have been holding this thing for Superman. Who else would Superman have trusted with it? Not her, anyway. She obviously wasn't fit to be trusted to polish his boots!
There Clark was, holding out on her again, keeping secrets from her with his good buddy, Superman. He was probably just storing all this information up so one day HE could write the definitive article about the superhero instead of her!
Hah! See if she told either of them she had custody of this globe! See if she shared any information with Clark!
Anyway, she should keep the globe. It probably had information on it that would help her figure out who was targeting the big guy. And it was possible that it might help her figure out how to counter any attack that might be made. That would show Clark if she were the one to save the day!
All the same, this wasn't the best time to investigate a plot against Superman. Somewhere in India, a man had half the components of a neutron bomb. She and Clark were helping Superman try to find out who the illegal arms dealer was and shut him down. They had their suspicions about Lex. That didn't leave her a lot of time.
But Superman was a target, and that was something she wouldn't sit still for. Should she tell Clark about all of this? Should she enlist his help? Maybe, she decided. If the situation warranted it. She'd tell them about the bad guys looking for information, but that was all she would tell them.
She stopped dead as a new thought suddenly struck her with hurricane force.
Superman had confronted Lex, and now bad guys were looking for information about Superman. It could be a coincidence… She thought about that for a long moment. "Nah!" she said to herself. "No way!"
Cat snuggled closer to the warm man sharing her bed and purred her contentment. It was just so nice to wake up this way! No one, not even Brandon whom she'd thought had loved her, had ever stayed the entire night before. She'd asked him to repeatedly, but even on their last night together, he had dashed away to his mysterious meeting.
Amazing that this was the first time she'd ever known exactly what she'd been missing.
Why, she'd never known before what a treat it was to watch a man sleep or listen to his soft breathing. Joe wasn't a snorer, thankfully! Instead he made cute little soft grunts every once in a while. It made her feel quite giddy and mushy when she heard them.
Cat laid her hand on his cheek, feeling his rough whiskers prick her fingers. He was such a solid man, she thought. No false pretences, nothing phoney about him, nothing bogus; he was an honest man, a man to be trusted. A man to be cherished.
His eyes flickered open, and he stared at her intently.
"Good morning," she said softly.
He gathered her into his arms, pulling her with him as he rolled onto his back. "Good morning," he murmured into her hair before tipping her face up to his so he could greet her with a kiss.
"Mmmm," she purred a moment later. "Where have you been all my life?"
"Waiting for you," he told her with a smile, stroking her hair back from her face.
His light-hearted words struck a different response from her than he might have hoped.
"I wish I had waited for you," she said soberly, her euphoria vanishing.
"No, no! Don't think like that." Joe's arms tightened around her.
"I can't help it," Cat said sadly. "I do feel that way. Especially now."
"Now that I know how it feels to be with someone I love." She pressed a tender kiss into the crook of his neck.
"Listen to me! You wouldn't be you if you'd done things differently. And I happen to love you just the way you are."
"Yes. So put it out of your mind. Besides, just think." He pulled back and looked at her with a cocky grin on his face.
"Well, last night when you told me how good it was… How good I was…"
"I can be totally reassured. You do have a basis for comparison! I must be pretty good if I got such rave reviews!"
"Joe!" Cat couldn't keep from giggling.
"Yes, dear?" He had a devilish twinkle in his eyes as he gazed at her.
"You know what I'm going to have to do now, don't you?"
"What would that be, dear?" He tilted his head to one side and pursed his lips in a pathetic attempt to look puzzled.
"I'm going to have to make you pay!" she exclaimed as she threw herself on top of him and pinned him down.
"I'm counting on it!" he blurted out a second before she captured his mouth with hers.
Cat's last coherent thought was that she was going to be very, very late for work.
"Did you put together an inventory list?"
"And you distributed it to the local pawn shops?"
"Yes, but the whole time I kept thinking 'Why bother?'"
Lois paced back and forth in the conference room. She was in one of her 'take no prisoners' moods as a defence against Clark finding out that she had involved herself in this whole thing. He seemed irritated by her at the moment, but she didn't care. Too bad, so sad.
He might not want to deal with his missing CD player or his old school ring, but he had to. He had no choice. Okay, he was probably upset about the globe, too — how in the world would he explain to Superman? — but still. He wasn't going to find anything if he just moped around.
"You have to bother, Clark! It's the only way you're going to have a chance of getting your stuff back!"
He ran his hand roughly through his hair. "Come on, Lois. You and I both know that I haven't got a hope of ever seeing my stuff again."
"Don't talk like that, Clark…"
The conference room door opened, and Jimmy stuck his head in. "CK, line one. Somebody from the 'Cash for Trash' pawn shop."
Clark snatched up the phone. After hastily greeting the storeowner, he pulled out his inventory list to start reading off missing items.
"A personal CD player?" He paused and listened, then crossed that item off before moving to the next. A few minutes later, he had finished reciting a list of his missing household goods, and had crossed all of them off the page.
"And a small round… ball. It's… like a kid's toy," he finished, his whole body tense and poised, as if he wanted to fly through the phone wires.
She watched as his shoulders slumped. "No, huh? Okay, thanks anyway," he said softly into the phone. "I'll come by later and pick everything up. I really appreciate you calling once you found out the stuff was stolen. Someone else might not have."
Lois might have smirked the whole time Clark had been dealing with the storeowner, but she wasn't heartless. Even she was moved by the rough emotion she heard in his voice. It didn't mean she was ready to relent, though, because she wasn't.
"That's great, Clark!" she said brightly, plastering a smile on her face.
"Yeah," he replied glumly.
"Is there still stuff missing?
"Just one thing — a personal item."
"A personal item?"
"A memento, that's all."
"Oh. I hope it's not valuable."
Clark shrugged. "No. It only had… sentimental value."
"Well, too bad, but at least you got everything else back. I guess you should head out and collect it all, so I'll get out of your way. When you get back, we can discuss leads." She started to move to the conference room door.
"Lois?" His soft voice stopped her.
Clark's eyes met hers for just a second before his gaze fell to his clasped hands. Then he looked back up at her. "Earlier…"
He swallowed heavily before continuing. "Earlier today, when you and I were talking…"
Oh oh! She hoped he wasn't going to talk about what she thought he was going to talk about.
"There was this really intense… moment between us. At least I thought there was."
"There was?" she asked nonchalantly.
"You didn't notice it?" He peered at her questioningly.
"I just thought… I thought…"
"What did you think, Clark? What?" The question came out in a sharper tone of voice than she meant it to.
"Nothing." He sighed and looked away. "Nothing at all."
She knew what he was talking about but didn't want him to know that she knew so she shot him one of her patented 'I haven't got a clue what you're talking about' looks.
"I guess I better go."
"Guess you'd better," she agreed cheerfully.
"See you later."
And at that, Clark left the room. Lois was left to stare after him and wonder just exactly what he would have said if she hadn't made it clear to him that she didn't want him to say whatever he would have said.
Then her stomach growled, totally derailing that train of thought.
"Jimmy!" Lois bellowed.
The young photographer stuck his head in the door.
"Feel like lunch?" she asked him.
His face lit up. "Yeah! That would be great."
"Good!" She smacked a few bills into his hand. "Grab me a pastrami on rye, okay? Hold the mayo, extra mustard, pickle on the side."
His face fell. "Okay."
"Oh, and Jimmy?"
He turned back, full of anticipation yet again.
"A diet cream soda would really hit the spot. See what you can do."
He sighed. "Sure thing, Lois. Oh, before I forget. Have you heard anything from Cat?"
"Perry's been looking for her. She's late, and she hasn't filed her column yet. If she doesn't show up soon, he's going to send out a search party for her, and I know who'll be elected to lead it."
"Jimmy, you're too good for these petty errands of Perry's! You need to stick up for yourself, take a stand, force him to see that you're more than just a personal errand boy."
"You think so?"
"I do. Why don't you tell him right after you get back from grabbing my lunch?"
He sighed again. "Sure thing, Lois. Good idea." And he trudged mournfully away.
She watched him go, shaking her head. What was with the guy? Why was he putting on such a sad act?
Dismissing Jimmy from her mind, she turned back to her pile of notes and started leafing through them. Somewhere there was something that she could follow up on. She just knew it.
By the time three hours had gone by, Lois had changed her mind.
There was nothing for her to follow up on! She'd gone through file after file, but Lex had covered his tracks too well. There was no link between Lex and Rahsanjani that she could find, and no link between Lex and Chesney that could have been exploited to contact the Indian businessman.
What was she missing?
"I'd miss you if you had to work today!" Cat exclaimed happily. "I'm glad you have the day off."
"I'd miss you, too," Joe said, leaning in to give her a kiss.
"We're being really disgustingly mushy, aren't we?" she asked, laughing.
He grinned. "Completely, but it's fun."
They both faced front as the elevator slowed to a stop and opened. They emerged into the busy newsroom.
"Cat! I hope you have your column ready to go, or you'll be in a whole heap of trouble!"
She grinned and waved a disk in her editor's direction. "Not to worry, Perry. I'm all set. Got an account of Samantha Ryder's charity auction right here."
"Good. Send it in to me right away, okay?"
Perry looked askance at Cat and Joe's linked hands, but only nodded formally at the police officer, before stalking stiff-legged back to his office.
"I won't be very long, and then we can leave," Cat whispered to Joe as they moved to her desk.
"It's okay. I don't mind hanging here. It doesn't matter as long as I'm with you."
Cat melted. "You say the sweetest things," she purred as she cupped his cheek in her hand.
It didn't take her long to download her story from the disk and send it to Perry for review. It wasn't one of her best stories — how could it be when she'd only spent twenty minutes on it? — but she refused to feel guilty. There were some things more important than work, and what she and Joe shared was definitely one of those things!
Perry called her in and asked her to clarify one detail, and then she was done. If only every one of her workdays could be so short. It really was a crime the leeway that she was given as a gossip columnist. Normally she didn't take advantage of that leeway, but she certainly intended to today!
As Cat shut down her computer, she saw Clark emerge from the elevator. He did a double take when he saw Joe, and then with his mouth tightening into an ominously thin line, he marched over to her desk.
"I hope everything's okay, Officer," Clark said forcefully.
"Fine. Why wouldn't it be?" Joe had a bland, mild expression on his face that Cat had already learned hid a devilish sense of humour. "You're fine, aren't you, Cat?" She could see the twinkle in her new boyfriend's eyes as he turned to her to ask his question.
"Sure, fine. Why do you ask?" Cat plastered a puzzled expression on her face as she gazed at her colleague.
"I just thought… I assumed… there might be more legal problems or something." Clark glanced from Joe to Cat and back again.
She took pity on him and laughed. "It's okay, Clark. Thank you for checking up on us. But Joe's right. Everything's fine."
"Joe?" The expression on Clark's face was priceless!
"Yep. That's me," Joe answered.
"Oh! You two are…" Clark paused, looking embarrassed.
"Friends!" Cat stated firmly.
"Good friends," Joe added, taking her hand in his.
"Oh. Good. That's good… Uh, I should go back to work." Clark turned away.
"Actually," Cat said with a quick sidelong glance at her boyfriend. "Joe and I need to talk to you and Lois. In private."
They followed him into the conference room where Lois was shuffling papers with a vengeance. She seemed to welcome the interruption, which was very telling. Obviously things weren't going well at the moment.
"Lois, Joe and I have some information for you and Clark about that John Doe."
Clark promptly sat down beside Lois and produced a pen and paper to take notes.
"His name was Jeremy Dobson, and he was killed by the same person who killed Brandon Chesney."
"You're sure?" Lois asked.
"Not one hundred percent, but close enough. We'll have to run a DNA match to be sure, but the preliminary tests are pretty conclusive on their own. The coroner matched hair samples from the body to a sample produced by Dobson's wife." Joe grimaced. Obviously, Jeremy Dobson's wife and child still preyed on his mind.
"As far as the killer being the same person, again, the coroner couldn't be completely sure, but felt that it was only a remote chance that we might be dealing with two different perpetrators. He felt that the same weapon was used in both instances — a very sharp, very thin knife — and the depth of the thrusts were, on average, the same. The killer followed the same pattern of cuts in both victims — a thrust to the solar plexus that we feel was intended to terrorise instead of incapacitate, followed by methodical attacks from behind to hamstring each victim, almost as if the killer were circling each person as he attacked." Joe recited the facts calmly and coolly.
"I don't know if you're aware," he continued. "But the attacker left blood behind at Chesney's murder scene. This is pretty common in a knife attack. The blood makes the knife slippery, and it can slip in the killer's hand causing a superficial wound. I'm waiting on the analysis. I should have it soon."
At that moment, Joe paused and gazed at Cat, who was feeling decidedly queasy. His words had been vivid, and she was able to imagine how it must have been for Brandon and Jeremy Dobson. They would have been shocked and panicked by the attacks and would have turned to flee, not that it had done them any good.
"Sorry, honey," Joe said to her. Cat saw Clark glance at Lois and mouth 'honey' to the other reporter, but she pretended not to notice.
"It's okay," she told Joe. "Go on."
"Okay. Well, I won't go into too many more details, but let me just say that I'm pretty confident that the same killer did both murders, and so is the coroner."
"Good enough for us," Lois said slowly. "But what puzzles me is what the heck is the connection between the two men? Why Dobson? Why Chesney? Why was it important to hide Dobson's identity, but Chesney's didn't matter?"
"From what we know of Jeremy," Cat said, "there was no connection at all between the men. Brandon was second- generation wealth. He didn't work for his money, but he sure enjoyed it. Jeremy Dobson was working class. They wouldn't have been in the same social circle at all."
"What did Dobson do?" Clark asked, still making notes.
"He worked for LexMail," Joe answered.
Clark and Lois's heads snapped up, and they exchanged a cryptic glance.
"That means something to you," Joe said, a suspicious look on his face.
Lois nodded. "It might. But — nothing personal, Cat — we can't talk about it with you in the room. It might have to do with our investigation, and that's classified."
Joe turned and studied Cat for so long that she felt like squirming under his silent scrutiny. "I think I want to bend the rules," he said slowly. "I was at a dead end in my investigations until I accepted Cat's help. I'd like to do it again."
Lois and Clark looked at each other again for a long moment.
"Fine with us," Lois finally said. "As long as you know, Cat, that this is really serious, cut your throat before talking, sensitive information that we're going to share with you."
Cat only nodded. "Fine. I'm in."
It didn't take long for Joe to update Cat on the serious situation that faced the U.S. government. And then it was Lois and Clark's turn to fill Joe and Cat in on their suspicions about Luthor.
"Luthor could have been using LexMail to send weapon components to Rahsanjani," Clark suggested.
"But the State Department monitored all of Rahsanjani's mail. There was nothing that went directly from Luthor," Rizzo pointed out.
"Was there anything from Grubner?" Lois asked.
"No. Rahsanjani didn't receive any suspicious packages, unless you count a bunch of wedding presents."
"What if the components were hidden in with the wedding presents? Luthor couldn't have accessed all of them, but if they were sent through LexMail…" Lois paused.
"And maybe Dobson found out and had to be eliminated," Clark finished.
"Brandon was going to send his friend a statue as a wedding present. I saw it. It was hideous, but he thought his friend would get a kick out of it," Cat added.
"We'll have to find out if he used LexMail. If he did, maybe something went wrong, and Chesney found out what was going on," Lois said brightly. "Cat, you knew the man. What would he have done if he'd found evidence of wrong- doing?"
Cat thought hard for a moment. "He would have probably tried to benefit from it in some way. He wouldn't have called the police, I know that."
"Blackmail," Joe said.
Clark nodded. "It fits. But how do we prove it?"
The four of them looked blankly at each other. There was something nagging at Cat, but she couldn't put her finger on it.
"We could find out how Brandon shipped the statue," Cat suggested.
"Yeah, but it doesn't really prove anything," Lois replied. "It's just circumstantial. Thousands of people use LexMail; it means nothing. Heck, I've used LexMail myself."
"Luthor didn't get where he is without being careful," Clark pointed out. "He would have hidden his tracks really well. We may never be able to prove anything."
"We have to!" Lois exclaimed. "There's more at stake here than just two murders. Somewhere in India, there's a man who's very close to setting things in motion so the world is destroyed. We have to take Luthor down before he sells this man more components."
Joe shook his head. "Every once in a while, I have a case that I know I'm not going to solve unless I get a lucky break. This is a case where we need a lucky break."
"This is just so frustrating!" Lois exclaimed, smacking her hand down on the table.
Clark reached over and laid his hand gently on her arm. Cat noted that Lois calmed down visibly at the gesture. She'd known for a while how Clark felt about Lois, but that told her a lot about how Lois felt about Clark.
Seeing the affection between her two friends made her think of her burgeoning relationship with Joe and how she felt about him. From there, her mind flitted to her friend, Vlad, and his lovely wife, Valentina. Which reminded her of Jeremy Dobson and his tragic widow, Amanda, and his new son, which finally helped her to figure out what had been nagging at her.
"Who told Jeremy?" Cat suddenly blurted out.
"What?" The three others looked puzzled.
"Who told Jeremy he was going away on a training course? Who made all the arrangements for the nature retreat? Whoever it was would know that he wasn't there. Why wasn't he reported missing?"
"Good question, Cat!" Joe exclaimed. "Very good question. It's definitely something we can check into." He checked his watch. "What do you say we meet back here early afternoon tomorrow? That will give me time to do some digging, and then I can let you know what I found out. Pooling our information has been very helpful today. I'd like to do it again. Agreed?"
"Agreed," Lois said, Clark echoing her.
"Do you want me here, too?" Cat asked tentatively, worried since she didn't normally do investigative reporting.
"Absolutely!" Clark exclaimed. Lois was nodding her approval, too, Cat noted, which made her feel pretty positive about herself.
"We're going to get out of here, then," Joe said, grabbing Cat's hand in his. "I promised you a home-cooked meal, and I intend on delivering."
"Sounds great," Cat replied.
"I also thought you might want to soak in my hot-tub for a while."
She felt a wicked grin spread over her face. "And I forgot my suit. Poor Joe, you're just going to have to suffer!" She turned to Lois and Clark. "See you tomorrow, guys. Hope your night's as good as mine's going to be." She winked broadly at them as Joe led her out the door. Lois looked annoyed; poor Clark was blushing.
"Nice to see Cat back to her old self," Clark said as he watched the unlikely pair leave the newsroom.
"I guess so." Lois grimaced.
He regarded her steadily. "What's wrong?"
"Come on, Lois. I know you. I can tell there's something bothering you."
"It's just that… I'm worried about her, Clark. She got hurt by Chesney and now here she is in another relationship, and she could get hurt again!"
"Have you seen the way Rizzo looks at her?"
She nodded slowly.
"He looks at her like she's the only person in the room. He's not out to hurt her or take advantage; it's obvious."
Lois didn't seem convinced. "That's no guarantee. People hurt each other all the time without planning it, Clark. Look at my parents."
"So it didn't work out for them. That doesn't mean it won't work out for Cat."
"But she was so upset. I don't know if she can handle more heartache."
"It's her decision whether she wants to take a chance or not. I think she's very brave," Clark said firmly.
"Look, Lois. She had two choices here. She could take a chance on a man who obviously cares for her a great deal, or she could close herself off from any and everyone who might possibly hurt her, and live a lonely, unfulfilled, but completely safe life. I mean it's obvious. Which would you choose?"
Lois didn't answer. She just stared at Clark for a long moment, her eyes dark and haunted.
"I better head home. It's been a long day," she said as she got up from the table.
"See you tomorrow, Clark."
"If I said anything to upset you…"
"No. Not at all. Have a good sleep."
He gave up. "You, too, Lois. You, too."
She was out of there fast, anxious to reach the sanctuary of her home. Anxious to be left alone.
What would she choose? A safe, boring life or the possibility of having her heart broken? Clark's question had taken her completely unawares.
It was obvious what Cat had chosen. Lois felt the woman was being totally stupid and na‹ve, but a tiny part of her secretly envied the gossip columnist. Oh, not specifically because of Joe — he wasn't Lois's type — but because Cat was so happy with him. Plus she envied Cat's ability to let herself trust even when she'd been hurt in the past.
Was there anyone who might make Lois that happy? And if there were, would she be willing to give him that chance?
Her thoughts turned to Clark and Superman as they'd been doing more and more over the last day or two, but she still didn't know what to think. She found both men attractive, both men interesting, both men enjoyable to be around albeit in totally different ways.
Clark was fun and comfortable, but Superman was fascinating. Although Clark had certainly had an interesting life. He could tell the best stories about his travels. Superman, however, didn't share anything personal with her, but there was something about him that made her knees shake and her breathing quicken. Although she'd had that reaction a few times with Clark, too.
Lois shook her head, full of self-disgust. Here she was trying to choose which man she wanted to be with when she didn't even know if she wanted to be with any man. She also didn't know for sure if either man was even interested in her. Just because Cat had said that she thought they both were, and just because Superman seemed to act as though she were a special friend, and just because Clark did follow her with his eyes, and he kept getting tongue- tied… None of that had to mean a thing.
But if it did…
Although neither man really shared much with her, when she thought long and hard about the situation. It seemed that Clark and Superman had this whole friendship thing going that didn't leave room for Lois Lane. Superman might as well move in with Clark for all the time he seemed to spend there. He certainly treated Clark's place as his own, storing his personal memorabilia there, and doing his laundry.
For a second, Lois felt intensely guilty about keeping the globe and not telling either man she had it, but she plastered over those feelings as thickly as possible.
It wasn't as if she planned on using any information the globe provided in order to harm Superman! In fact, she might be able to help him by listening to the messages. Heck, it was almost noble, keeping the globe at her place! Obviously neither man had been as careful as they could have been or it wouldn't have been stolen in the first place. She really should tell Clark a thing or two about the importance of a good deadbolt.
Speaking of the globe, she'd been waiting to have the time to properly study it all day. Now that she was home, she finally had that time. Lois retrieved it from the drawer she'd tucked it into and removed the silk scarf she'd wrapped it in earlier.
Taking a deep breath, she slowly reached out and placed her hand on the globe. It flared to life and the man she'd seen earlier reappeared.
"This is the second of the five times I will appear. You may wonder that I speak your language, and not my native Kryptonian: I don't. That is another property of the object."
As Lois watched, amazed and puzzled, the man and a woman worked on a strangely shaped metal object. It was obvious that it wasn't finished whatever it was. She couldn't figure out what they were doing to it. It was very confusing.
"Unmanned Kryptonian probes have explored every corner of the known galaxy and beyond," the man said. "For thousands of centuries we have received data back from those probes. I have every confidence that, given enough time, we can achieve the conversion to a manned vessel. But will we have the time?"
The background started to shake violently. The two people grabbed a table for support until the tremors ended. Then they examined their equipment — whatever it was — and looked worried.
The scientist — for that was what he appeared to be — continued, "The pattern of core disintegration continues to accelerate. Even I cannot predict where it will end."
The two of them looked at a baby who was wrapped securely in a blanket. The connection between the three of them was almost tangible. Lois could tell that it was strong.
"There is an ancient Kryptonian saying: 'On a long road, take small steps.' Precision and care are our watchwords. Yet we still have far to go."
And then the scene flared with a brilliant white light before fading away. It was over. The globe lay inert on the table in front of Lois.
She was left feeling more confused about Superman then ever. Who were those people? What had they been working on? They had mentioned a core disintegration? What core where and when?
Hopefully the next message would offer more information. Lois reached out and prodded the globe tentatively with her forefinger, but there was no reaction. It looked like she'd have to be patient and wait for the third message. 'Patient' wasn't something Lois Lane did well.
Should Superman head over to Lois's to check on her? Clark wondered. It had been pretty obvious that Clark had upset her. Unfortunately, sometimes he forgot exactly how much her parents' bitter divorce had affected her.
Maybe it wasn't such a good idea for Superman to go, though. Last night, she'd still seemed uncomfortable with him even though she was no longer angry.
So, should he go as himself? He wasn't sure. They'd been getting along better, although there was still a fair amount of tension between them. And there just might be something else between them, he thought, something more, and he didn't think he wanted to take the chance of damaging it.
He wasn't sure, but Clark thought that Lois might be seeing him in a new light. He hoped so. Playing the role of the best friend cheering on a romance between Lois and Superman just didn't feel right. Never had, even if that was the role Lois had assigned to him.
Clark flopped down onto his bed and rolled onto his back, his hands propped behind his head. It just wasn't fair.
Creating Superman had been a really good idea, but it had sure complicated his life. Just because he had so many special abilities, Superman was treated as if he were the fount of all wisdom. The public expected him to be perfect, the authorities counted on him to help, and Lois treated him as if he were some perfect, unattainable icon of manhood. Which was really flattering and everything, but it didn't bode well for Clark Kent's love life.
He wasn't complaining, really. Well, maybe a little. True, it was great knowing that he could make a difference to people. It was gratifying when he could prevent death or injury. It was satisfying when he saved the day and prevented wanton destruction. And it was a heady experience having Lois gaze adoringly into his eyes.
But it wasn't real.
It was hard, at times, not to buy into his own press. He had to constantly strive to keep his feet on the ground — metaphorically speaking. Thankfully, he could always count on his parents to keep him rooted in reality. And Lois was good at deflating Clark Kent when he got too full of himself. She was good at it even when he wasn't too full of himself!
It wasn't her fault that he wanted more.
He did want Lois to know the truth, didn't he? Yes… and no, he admitted. Yes for a whole bunch of reasons. Clark wanted Lois's love, and there was no way if it ever happened that it would be meaningful if she only loved half of what she saw. Look at how uncomfortable yet incredibly exciting he found her attention when he was dressed as Superman.
The 'no' was in response to his most basic worry. What if Lois started treating Clark Kent as special because he was also Superman? What would that say about how she saw Clark? He didn't want Lois to warm up to Clark only because he had superpowers. He didn't want to be loved for what he could do, but for who he was. Was that too much to ask?
Sometimes he thought so.
Clark jumped to his feet, too jumpy to stay still for long. What a frustrating day this had been. First the globe had tantalised him with the possibility of finding out more about himself, and then there had been a little something between Lois and him, and then the globe had been stolen, and then Lois had sloughed him off again, and his household goods had been found except for the globe, and Cat was dating the man who tried to arrest her, and they still had no proof that Lex Luthor was dirty! What more was life going to throw at him?
A second later he found out.
Even though the globe wasn't in his possession, he could still see the visual display it generated. He watched in mingled fear and excitement as the second message played itself out — excitement for what he was learning, and fear wondering who else was learning it along with him.
He felt cornered. How could he escape this trap? he wondered.
Lex Luthor reread the report on his desk. A smile spread slowly across his face. Gesturing at the small metal box on his desk, he asked, "Is that it?"
Mrs. Cox nodded and opened the box to reveal a crystal. A glowing, green crystal.
"Oh, that will do," Luthor said. "That will do nicely."
Lois and Clark both arrived at work in the late morning as they had planned. They were quiet and pensive as they busied themselves with the mundane — getting coffee, checking emails, and opening mail — just marking time until Rizzo and Cat were due to arrive for their planning session.
Lois found herself dwelling upon the amazing hologram she'd seen the previous evening. What had it all meant? When had the globe arrived for Superman? Was there some kind of intergalactic mail service from Krypton to Earth? Did he send them messages, too? Who were the two adults? Why did they have their baby in a laboratory?
It had raised a lot of questions and hadn't provided her any usable information.
She also found herself hypersensitive to her partner's every move. She'd watched surreptitiously as he'd prepared his coffee and snagged a donut. When he'd paused at her desk to ask her how she was today, she'd been incredibly attuned to his physical presence. She'd had to force herself to stop eyeing him as he'd booted up his computer and downloaded his email.
Darn that Cat! Why'd she have to say anything?
Lois had been perfectly happy with the way things had been before. Okay, so she'd always thought that Clark was fun, and that Clark was good-looking, and that time at the Lexor, they'd had a really, really fantastic time working together, not to mention what it had been like in Smallville — at least the part when they hadn't been at the mercy of a homicidal, alien-obsessed, pompous, jackbooted military dictator — and there had always been this sort of zinging connection between them — but even so, she'd been happy with Clark as a friend and only a friend.
Yeah, right, she thought sourly.
Superman was a different matter. She'd always thought of him as more, although she'd never really been sure just where she stood with him. Or where she wanted to stand.
Where had that last thought come from? she wondered. Of course she wanted to be more than a friend in Superman's eyes! Of course she wanted romance with him. Who wouldn't? Just because the media would target her, and probably any and all petty criminals would, too, (and some not so petty) and just because it would be near impossible to live up to Superman's incredibly high ethical standards, and just because she couldn't carry her own weight if she were in a relationship with him — who could when one party had superpowers and the other didn't? — just because of all those things, Lois had no reason to back away from the man!
Darn it all! When she put it like that, there were so many reasons why she should pick Clark over Superman — if she were going to pick anyone, that is — but she really cared for Superman, too. How in the world was she supposed to ignore the way she felt about him? But how in the world could she keep denying how she felt about Clark, either?
So where did that leave her? Crazy about two men, scared to be in a relationship with either of them, and unwilling to give up one for the other. Not too promising, she reflected.
Just another example of Lois Lane's sterling record when it came to romance!
Clark, too, had many things on his mind. The globe was important, of course. He was worried. Who had it? What were they doing with it? What would Jor-El say next? What if he said something that would reveal more information about Clark than Clark would be comfortable with? Would he ever get it back?
Would Lois ever fall for him as hard as he'd fallen for her? Would she ever give up her Superman obsession? Did he really want her to?
It was flattering the way she looked at him when he wore his suit. How could he give all that up? If she got over her Superman obsession and hadn't fallen for Clark Kent in the meantime, he didn't think he'd be able to bear it. At least one of his personas held her interest — unsatisfying as that relationship was at times.
He couldn't help but wonder how Lois would react if and when he ever told her his secret. He figured she'd be mad — that was a given — but would she be willing to forgive him? Would she be disappointed in Superman or impressed by Clark? And which would he prefer?
Things had become so complicated when he'd invented Superman. Sometimes he wished that he hadn't, but those thoughts never lasted long. It was too important that he be given some way to use these special abilities that he had.
Clark didn't go to church much, but all the same, he had a strong spiritual side, and his spiritual side told him that he might never know exactly why he could do what he did, but it was important that he always do his best and strive to help people in a way that no one else could. That was just as important for Clark Kent as Superman, he reflected. Otherwise Clark Kent might have become just another sensation-hunting journalist instead of the investigative reporter he was proud to be.
That was another reason to be totally impressed with Lois. She was so dedicated, so driven to make a difference. She revelled in digging out corruption and exposing it to the light of day. She never ever wrote a story to be sensational or without some higher purpose in mind.
Lois Lane had integrity.
It also didn't hurt that she was the most gorgeous woman he'd ever met! But it wasn't just her physical beauty that attracted him. She had an inner beauty that couldn't be ignored. She tried to hide it, but she couldn't hide her soft, sensitive side from him. Which only made him want her more, which only led his thoughts back to where he had started which was that he wanted more from Lois Lane, but he didn't know how to ask for it. He didn't know if he should.
He was with her so much, day in and day out, working together, laughing together, talking, sharing meals, arguing, discussing, and just plain being together, and he felt as if he were walking on a tightrope. He wanted to move forward, but if he did and he took a wrong step, that was it. Game over — except when it came to Lois, he wasn't playing.
He'd never been more serious about anyone or anything in his life.
Clark sighed. Well, one thing, he was so crazy about her, that for a few moments at least, he had totally forgotten about his missing globe.
Suddenly aware that he was mentally going over the same ground as he had the previous night, as he had for months now, he forced himself to stop dwelling on Lois, enchanting as she was. Instead, he got up to fetch himself another cup of coffee, arriving at the top of the ramp just as Cat and Joe emerged from the elevator.
They were laughing and smiling and practically joined at the hip. Cat certainly looked better than normal. She had on an outfit he'd never seen before, a dress with a high buttoned-up neckline. Clark thought she looked much better. Far more tasteful. It also helped that she was radiant.
Happiness suited her.
A wave of envy washed over him. He was jealous — oh, not of Cat; she wasn't his type — but to be with someone like that… To know a woman cared so much, to be able to actually show how he felt…
It all seemed pretty wonderful. And totally unattainable.
"You and Lois ready, Clark?" Rizzo asked.
He just nodded and led the couple to the conference room, catching Lois's eye on the way. She joined them a second later, closing the door behind her as she entered.
"Okay, last night was really productive. Any ideas as to how we should proceed?" Rizzo glanced around the room expectantly.
Lois eyed him warily. "You know, I just had a thought. You're a cop; we're journalists, and yet you're working with us. Why? I'm not complaining, mind you, but I'm not used to this either."
Joe smiled. "Good question. If my boss ever found out, he'd have my head. Yes, you are journalists, but you and Clark are journalists with a reputation. You two are good. Lois, last night you said this was more important than two murders, and you're right. I'm looking at the big picture, and if you can help me figure that out, then I'm not going to quibble about who you work for."
He turned to Cat, their eyes meeting. "Cat has shown herself to be a superb investigator, too. Her questions have pointed me in the right direction. We wouldn't be having this conversation if it weren't for her. How could I possibly shut her out now?" Cat smiled back at him. She didn't say anything, but both Lois and Clark could see that Joe's words had touched her deeply.
"Good answer," Lois said, nodding her approval. "Clark and I will do our best, you know that."
"I do," he answered.
"So, how do you want to proceed?" Clark asked.
"I think we should try to find out if Chesney did indeed use LexMail for Rahsanjani's wedding present. Lois, how about you and I interview Julia Hawthorne?" He winked at Cat. "Sorry, honey, but I think you should sit this one out."
Cat shifted in her chair. "Yeah, I guess I'm not exactly her most favourite person at the moment. What would you like me to do?"
"I want you to find out who Rahsanjani's other Metropolis friends are. Find out whether they sent him wedding presents, too. Ask who they used as a shipper. By itself, the use of LexMail won't be proof of anything, but we still do have to find out if Luthor did indeed have the capability of shipping components to Rahsanjani. If he didn't, we might have the wrong man. I don't think we do, but you never know."
Cat nodded. "I can do that. No problem."
"What about me?" Clark asked.
At that second, Joe's cell phone rang. He grimaced apologetically at the others before answering it.
The one-sided conversation was pretty interesting.
"I've been waiting to hear from you… What? … You're kidding… No way… You're one hundred percent sure… Okay, if you say so… No, I do trust your word. I know you're careful with evidence… Okay, thanks a lot."
He turned off his phone, tucked it away in his jacket pocket and turned back to the three journalists. "That was the coroner. He got the results back on the blood the killer left behind." Rizzo paused and cleared his throat. "It was a woman. The killer was a woman."
"Are you sure?" Clark asked incredulously.
Rizzo slowly nodded. "Yes. Positive. Not only that, but the coroner found hormones commonly found in birth control pills. It doesn't exactly narrow things down much, but it gives us an upper age limit."
Cat threw her hands in the air. "It wasn't me, I swear!"
Lois and Rizzo burst out laughing, but Clark was too busy thinking hard to pay attention.
Lex Luthor had arranged for Dobson and Chesney to be murdered; he was sure of it. The only woman he'd ever seen around Luthor — besides Lois — was…
"Mrs. Cox!" Clark blurted out.
"Lex's secretary?" Lois replied.
"Her hand was bandaged," Clark answered. "When I was there the other day, I noticed it. I asked her what had happened, and she glared at me. Said it was a kitchen accident. To be blunt, the woman gave me the creeps. I know it was her."
"I'll run a background check," Rizzo said. "I should be able to have the results in about a day."
"I want to go back," Clark said quickly. "I want to see if I can find anything else out."
"No. It's too dangerous." Rizzo was quick to veto this suggestion. He was even quicker than Lois and Cat, who had both opened their mouths to protest also.
"But I have an excuse," Clark pointed out. "I told Luthor that I'd be back, that I wanted to interview him for a story on prominent businesspeople. Neither one of them will have any reason to be suspicious." And even if they were, Clark thought, they wouldn't be able to act on their suspicions, but he wasn't going to share that with the others.
Rizzo thought for a moment. "Okay. But be careful."
Clark smiled broadly. "No problem."
"Do you think you'll have time to look into the LexMail connection, too? Find out who Dobson's supervisor was, who authorized the trip, why he wasn't reported missing," Rizzo suggested.
"Sure. I should have time to do both."
"Good. So, if there are no more questions, we should get to work."
The three reporters and one cop left the room. Clark dashed for the stairs, Cat moved to her desk, and Joe waited patiently as Lois retrieved her jacket and her purse. Her phone rang, and she looked at him in inquiry.
"Go ahead," Rizzo told her. "I don't mind waiting for a minute."
Lois smiled and picked up her phone.
Rizzo found himself drifting, without conscious volition, in Cat's direction. She had her Rolodex out and was diligently flipping through it.
"Come and meet me at the station when you're done with work?" he asked, resting his hands on her shoulders as he approached her from behind.
She tipped her head up to look at him, her eyes twinkling. "Absolutely. I should be done about four."
"You might have to wait for me."
She grinned. "I'm sure I can find something to think about to occupy my mind. Perhaps what I'm planning on doing to you later tonight?"
"Mmmm, hold that thought," Rizzo said hoarsely.
He spun her around in her swivel chair and leaned down to kiss her tenderly.
"Hey, Cat! Who's this? The flavour of the month?"
With one lightning movement, the man who'd spoken found himself spread-eagled against a wall, Rizzo's forearm across his throat.
"Who the hell are you?" Rizzo snarled.
"Ralph," the other man stuttered in answer.
"Apologise to the lady," he said through clenched teeth.
When Ralph gasped out, "Lady? You talking about Cat?" in an incredulous voice, Rizzo saw red and pressed harder against the man's throat.
"Apologise." The one word was icy and dripping with disdain.
"Sorry, Cat." Ralph choked the words out as he gasped for air.
Anger, red and hot and murderous, nearly derailed Rizzo. He was furious with the scum for apologizing so quickly. He would have liked nothing better than to have had an excuse to hit the guy, but this Ralph had apologized. Rizzo let his arm drop and then he watched as the gutter- trash struggled to catch his breath.
"Listen to me," he said emphatically. "If you ever say anything like that to me or Cat again, I'll come after you. You got that?"
"Yeah," the white-faced man stuttered before scurrying off like the rat he was.
Rizzo took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down. He turned back to Cat, a smile plastered on his face, only to find her staring at him, looking lost and forlorn.
"He won't bother you again," Rizzo told her.
"I know." Her voice was low; he had to concentrate to hear her.
"Are you all right?"
Cat stared up at him, her face pale, and her eyes bleak. "I will be."
"Don't think about that guy. He's not worth it."
"I love you." He touched her cheek lightly, trying to break through to her.
"I know. I love you, too." Tears welled up in her eyes as she stared at him helplessly. He watched as she struggled to control her emotions. "Joe, we have to talk."
That didn't sound good, he thought worried. That didn't sound good at all. "I didn't scare you, did I? I was pretty angry."
"What? Oh, no. Not at all. You could manhandle Ralph all day long and I'd be fine with it. No, it's not that." She looked over at Lois who, having hung up her phone, was moving towards them. "But we can't talk here. We both have to get to work. I'll meet you, okay? Just like we said."
"Okay," he told her, feeling troubled. He didn't want to leave, but Cat was right. They couldn't talk here, and they both had things they had to do. "See you later," he said, bending down to kiss her lightly.
His heart almost broke when he felt her flinch as his lips touched her. "I love you, Joe," she whispered.
It didn't reassure him. It didn't reassure him at all.
"I think we need some kind of a plan, sir," Mrs. Cox pointed out.
"I agree," Lex said, leaning back in his comfortable leather chair and puffing on his cigar. "Any suggestions?"
"I suppose we could just call for him."
He grimaced. "He has no reason to trust me. He might get suspicious and use his vaunted x-ray vision. I'd hate for him to discover the Kryptonite prematurely."
"He can't see through lead."
"No, but he can see the presence of lead. I don't think we can afford to underestimate him. He does have a certain amount of raw intelligence." He knocked ash from the end of his cigar. "I'll have to think about this some more, try to figure out what would be good leverage. In the meantime, would you mind typing up those letters I dictated to you earlier? I can't afford to let the day-to-day details pile up."
"Of course, sir. I'll get right on it." Mrs. Cox demurely left the room.
Lex watched his assistant as she closed the office door behind her. Not for the first time, he thanked his lucky stars for having had the good sense to hire this woman. Not only was she one of the most efficient assassins a man could ever hope to meet, but she was the most organized secretary he'd ever had. She was also pleasing to the eye, and appropriately grateful when he deigned to give her his personal attention. What a treasure Mrs. Cox was.
His thoughts turned back to his enemy. Other than Kryptonite, what weaknesses did the man have? He was faster and stronger than anyone else in the world. He could see danger before it arrived. No, Kryptonite was the only credible physical threat — at least at this point in time; things could change in the future as weapons became more sophisticated.
It was obvious. The only way to bring Superman down, to lure him into any kind of trap wherein he could be physically destroyed, was to prey upon his vaunted moral sense, and his soft, weak, underbelly — namely his concern for people, for those whom he considered 'friends.'
Luthor snorted contemptuously. 'Friends.' What did friendship and base emotion have to do with power? He, himself, had found it all too easy to let friendships die and family connections wither away to nothing when he'd started his climb to the top. It was better that way. There was nothing worth being distracted over, nothing that would keep him from achieving his goals, and no one who could be used as a weapon against him.
Superman, on the other hand, had developed more friendships in the past few months than Lex Luthor had in a lifetime. Perhaps one of those friendships could be used, he thought. It would be ironic if someone Superman cared for could be used to cause him harm.
He didn't want to use Lois, however. Lois was the one woman he'd met who tempted him to break his own rules. She was the one woman whom he found entirely captivating and charming. She was beautiful — feminine and yet still quite surprisingly capable. Intriguing creature. No, he couldn't use Lois in such a way. She was too valuable to be disposed of in such a trivial fashion.
Who would be a better choice? he mused.
Mrs. Cox buzzed him.
"Yes," he answered.
"Sir, Mr. Kent is here. He hopes that you might spare him a moment. Shall I ask him to wait?"
"No," Lex said slowly. "Tell him I'd be happy to meet with him tomorrow afternoon."
"You would?" He could hear the surprise in his assistant's voice.
"Why yes, of course," he answered, all the while knowing that there was no way Kent would be around to make the appointment. "Tell Mr. Kent that I'll be looking forward to seeing him again."
"Yes, sir," Mrs. Cox replied, sounding puzzled. "I'll tell him."
Lex propped his feet up on his desk and blew a stream of smoke into the air. He did so love it when a plan took shape. He was sure that Mrs. Cox would do her usual efficient job when it came to Kent's abduction. She would have to be prepared, however, in case the man managed to make an untimely fuss that might attract Superman's attention.
Lex turned to the lead box on his desk and opened it to study the glowing green crystal. It had the look of a gemstone, he decided. It would look quite elegant against Mrs. Cox's dark skin. Earrings? No, a pendant. He'd have to phone Signor Antonio and arrange for a rush job. Not too rushed, however. Nothing but the best for Mrs. Cox — and Superman.
When Clark left Lex Luthor's office complex, he wasn't terribly disappointed at not having been able to see the man. If he had his way, he'd never see Lex Luthor again. On the other hand he was pleased and a bit proud of his own ingenuity. He'd asked Mrs. Cox if she had any biographical information on Luthor. She'd said 'no' but she had located some glossy brochures about LexCorp.
He'd been happy to accept them from her, knowing that her fingerprints would be prominently displayed on the shiny paper. Rizzo should be able to do something with those!
As he'd watched Mrs. Cox in the office, he'd had to remind himself that she was probably the person who had brutally killed at least two men and who knew how many others. It was hard to believe. Clark couldn't even begin to understand that level of evil. He hoped that he never would.
"Let me do all the talking, okay, Lois?"
"Yeah, fine," Lois said dismissively.
Joe sighed. "I mean it. I could get in a lot of trouble taking a reporter along on an interview. I need you to cooperate."
"Okay, I get it," Lois replied.
He rang the doorbell. "You promise?"
"Enough already! I promise!"
The door opened, and Rizzo identified himself to the servant who'd answered it. They were shown into a sitting room, all formal and elegant and pristine. It didn't look like it had ever been used for anything but a setting for a period play.
Julia Hawthorne kept them waiting for ten minutes before she deigned to make an appearance. "What do you want now, Officer? Is this going to take long?"
"I'm sorry to disturb you," Rizzo said, his tone sardonic. "I suppose my visit isn't important. I'm only investigating your fianc‚'s murder."
Julia's cheeks reddened. "I'm sorry," she stuttered as she gracefully sat down on a couch. "Of course your visit's important. What can I do for you?"
Rizzo didn't acknowledge the apology. Instead he opened his notebook and started. It didn't take long to solicit the information he needed from Julia.
Yes, Chesney had purchased an unusual statue from a rather Bohemian artist who was currently on the fringe of the art world, but would soon be a full and active member of it judging by her talent. The statue had been a striking example of post-modernist angst yet the artist had chosen to express herself in a traditional medium. It had been fascinating. Julia had tracked down the artist and purchased other pieces of her artwork, although the statue had been the most interesting piece she'd seen. It had been a crime what had happened to it.
"What did happen to it?" Rizzo asked, his demeanour not changing at all. Lois was impressed by his equanimity.
"The shipper dropped it. Poor Brandon was so distressed when they called him."
"Was it badly damaged?"
"I don't know. I didn't accompany him to inspect the damage, but it can't have been too bad. He wasn't upset at all when he came back. In fact, I've never seen him so bubbly and so happy as he was that day. Strange. He was excited about something." Julia gazed off into space, remembering.
Rizzo and Lois exchanged a quick glance.
"Who did Brandon use to ship the statue?" Lois asked casually. "I'll have to remember not to use them."
Julia thought for a moment. "You know I'm not sure. But there's a LexMail outlet just a block away on Oneida Avenue. I would imagine Brandon went there."
Rizzo nodded, made another note and continued asking questions about Chesney's last days. Lois could tell, though, that he was only going through the motions so that his questions about the gift for Rahsanjani would be buried in the middle of a myriad of others.
Finally, he fell silent and stood up. "Thank you, Miss Hawthorne. You've been very helpful. Once again, I'm sorry for your loss."
Lois gathered up her purse and was halfway to the door when she stopped and turned to face the other woman. "I met your father," she said simply.
Julia's expression congealed. "And that concerns me how?"
"He asked me to give you a message if I saw you."
"He wanted me to tell you that he loves you and that he wants to help you."
"Fine. Thanks for telling me." Julia turned to Rizzo. "So, if there's nothing else, I'll say goodbye."
"No, that's it. Thanks," Rizzo answered.
"I thought he was a wonderful man," Lois said.
"Fine." She was curt.
"I really liked him."
"Oh, yes, good old Dad can be very charming," Julia replied, laughing dismissively.
"I also admired him a great deal."
"You admired him? Fine. Ask him to adopt you."
Lois took a small step forward. "Look, I know it's none of my business, but what happened? Why is there such a rift between you?"
"You're right, Ms. Lane. It is none of your business. I hope you will forgive me for not answering." Julia's lips tightened into a not-very-convincing smile. "Once again, if there is nothing else…" She waited in a tense silence.
Lois gave up. It looked like this was one of those times when she'd just have to give in and resign herself to not knowing everything. But she didn't have to like it.
She and Rizzo took their leave of Julia and left the room. After all, they had the information that they had been after. There was nothing else they could do here.
Julia Hawthorne watched the detective and the reporter go. She wished that Lois Lane hadn't said anything about her father. It brought back too many conflicted feelings.
Once upon a time she'd admired her father, too. He'd been her hero. But then her mother had explained how he hadn't taken his rightful place in society. Her mother had said she could have lived with him associating himself with a charity, but he hadn't done that, instead preferring to work with the unwashed masses directly. She'd explained how every time Julia's father had given away money he'd been taking money out of his own family's mouth. He'd been selfish, her mother had said. He'd not even bothered to get tax receipts! Obviously he'd loved grubby, pathetic, needy people more than he'd loved her or her mother.
But had he? Had he really? Julia wondered, for the first time questioning the sentiments her mother had drilled into her for years. What had he done that was so bad? They'd always had plenty of money, both before and after the divorce. They'd never lacked for any material possession.
Julia flinched, suddenly remembering the bitter, hateful things she'd said to her father the last time she saw him. And yet he'd told Ms. Lane to tell her that he loved her. He loved her still, even after everything she'd said. He'd said that he wanted to help her if he could.
Her mother hadn't. Instead, after Brandon had been so horribly murdered, she'd fussed about the scandal and the contact Julia had been forced to have with the police. Her mother hadn't put her arms around her and held her close.
Not that Julia was devastated. She'd never loved Brandon. But she had been fond of him, and it was very upsetting knowing that he had been murdered in such a gruesome way. She shuddered just thinking about it.
Oh, how nice it would be to be a little girl again. To have her father hold her in his arms, snug and happy on his lap, and hear him say that everything would be all right.
But it wasn't all right, and it never would be again.
Clark wasn't able to get any solid information from the Oneida LexMail outlet where Jeremy Dobson had worked. Dobson's supervisor had been 'unexpectedly transferred' just two days before, and the other employees had no idea where the man could be reached. No one knew whom he should talk to at the head office about it either. None of them had any idea why Dobson had been singled out to go on a training seminar. In fact, a couple of them were quite incensed, pointing out that they had more seniority than Dobson.
Clark doubted that they'd be quite so angry if they knew exactly what Dobson had been singled out for.
Finally, Clark gave up, realising that he wasn't going to get any useful information out of this crew of lacklustre employees. Cutting his losses, he headed for the Planet, detouring long enough for Clark to drop off the brochure to Rizzo for a fingerprint check and for Superman to check on Julius Grubner and make sure that the security arrangements were solidly in place.
Lois got back to the Planet in time to see Cat heading out in a taxi. Upon seeing Lois on the street, the gossip columnist stuck her head out of the window long enough to announce that she'd left notes for Lois on her desk, and then she was gone.
Cat had looked subdued, Lois thought as she waited for the elevator. She'd looked radiant earlier today, and now she looked like a pale shadow of herself. What had changed?
Lois was almost surprised to find herself quite concerned about the situation. It was amazing how fast things could change. Why, just a few days ago, Cat had driven her crazy, and there had certainly not been any kind of cozy friendship between them. Now, Lois was ready to tackle Joe if he hurt Cat in any way. Maybe being a friend wasn't as impossible as she sometimes thought.
The way she felt about Cat wasn't the only feeling that had changed. She now saw Lex Luthor in a completely new light. It was very humbling remembering how completely taken in she had been by his act. She had truly believed him to be the altruistic man of conscience that he seemed.
Why did the pursuit of money and power make people do such strange things? Did it make them any happier? She'd bet not. Upon reaching the top, then one would have to concentrate to maintain that position, always wary of being pushed out of the way, being dethroned, so to speak. It didn't sound like a fulfilling lifestyle.
It was obvious that Lex Luthor's fatal flaw was an overweening pride. He took great pains so that no one saw him as he truly was. Appearance was everything, but there was no substance to him. He was intelligent, charming and physically attractive, but that all masked a hollow core.
Superman, on the other hand, didn't ask for credit. He didn't publicize his good deeds. Instead he just swooped in, saved the day and whooshed off once more, sometimes not even stopping to be thanked. He didn't mind getting his hands dirty, either. She'd seen him covered in soot or mud many times, always unconcerned about his appearance, not caring whether he was doing any damage to his 'image' or not. (Although even when he was mud-covered, he was attractive enough to do dangerous things to her blood pressure!)
Why had she never seen the differences between the two men? It was disheartening to know that she was capable of making such a huge error in judgement.
She entered the newsroom and headed for her desk. Clark wasn't back yet, and Perry was busy with Jimmy in his office.
Into which philosophical camp did Clark fall? Lois wondered. It didn't take her long to realise that Clark was a lot more like Superman than he was Lex. He didn't seem to care about an abundance of money. He was the least power-hungry man she'd ever met — with the exception of Superman. He'd given her the by-line when they'd returned from Smallville, and it hadn't been a big deal at all. It had been a big story, and he'd just walked away from it.
Clark, too, wasn't overly concerned about his appearance. If he were, he'd have gotten rid of those ties! Actually, Lois mused with a laugh, those ties were proof positive he had a sense of humour! He was an attractive man, too. In his own way every bit as attractive as Superman, Lois had to admit.
There was something natural and not forced about Clark's good looks. Nothing too special with the hair. Glasses instead of contacts. His clothes weren't too pretentious. Superman's? Well, his suit wasn't exactly designed to intimidate or impress — unless it was to impress her with his muscle definition. No, she had the feeling it was designed for action — streamlined for aerodynamics. The colours were cheerful and reassuring. The only concession to fashion was the cape, and she had to admit it looked pretty snazzy when he was flying.
Yes, Clark and Superman were an awful lot alike. Maybe that was why they were such good friends.
Lois's mouth turned down. Such good friends. It really hurt being excluded from this special relationship. She hadn't forgotten about it, or forgiven either one of them for keeping her out of the loop.
Clark was right, though. They didn't have time to get distracted from their self-appointed task. She didn't have time to brood. But when this was over…
Lois sighed. It was time to stop analysing everything and get back to work. She ripped open the envelope Cat had left for her, and pulled out the notes.
Cat had talked to quite a number of Rahsanjani's friends and had made a list of the presents each one had sent and what mail outlet they had used. There was a long list of large gifts that had been shipped by LexMail. More than enough to camouflage neutron bomb components.
Lois was impressed. She didn't have a clue what story Cat had told to get this information, but it didn't matter. She had rooted out one more tiny crumb of evidence against Lex.
Sooner or later, there would be enough to stop him. There had to be.
In the meantime, maybe Superman could go to India and find Rahsanjani's cache of weapons and, oh, possibly… do something to them. On second thought, Lois knew better than to even suggest it to the man. He was too ethical to ever do anything underhanded like that.
By the time he arrived at the Planet, Clark was very frustrated. Frustration seemed to be his emotion of choice the past few days, he mused as he ran up the stairs.
There was the whole situation with Rahsanjani, and he still hadn't recovered from Lois thinking Superman had had an affair with Cat, and then his globe had gone missing allowing who knew how many criminals to learn about his history, and this investigation was moving forward, but it was doing so in such a slow manner that it felt as though they would never be able to put all the puzzle pieces together.
Saving the world didn't normally take this long.
As he emerged into the newsroom, he glanced over to see Lois at her desk. She seemed to be reviewing notes.
There was another frustrating situation that involved a lot of 'two steps forward, one step back.' He loved Lois, but a relationship with her sure wasn't a walk in the park. Not that he was complaining. But just once it would be nice to see her look at Clark with the same admiration that she normally showed to Superman.
One thing, she finally knew the truth about Luthor, and if he could carry a tune, he'd be singing 'Hosannas' about now. How long had he tried to convince her that the billionaire wasn't what he appeared to be? What a relief it was that she finally saw that!
Lois looked up from her desk, and her face lit up when she saw him. "Clark! Come here. I've got a couple of leads to share with you!"
Forcing his thoughts onto their investigation and away from his frustrating sense of being powerless, he followed her into the conference room.
It didn't take long for Lois to go over the results of the interview with Julia Hawthorne and Cat's notes. Then it was Clark's turn to share the paucity of data he'd gleaned from the Oneida LexMail outlet and his complete lack of useful information from Luthor's office. However, Lois, too, was hopeful when he told her that he had an appointment with Luthor for the following afternoon and that he had obtained Mrs. Cox's prints for Rizzo.
"I'm frustrated, Clark!" Lois exclaimed as she paced back and forth.
He laughed. "Welcome to the club."
"I feel like we're trying to run a marathon through a snowstorm. Every time we get a lead, we try to follow it, and it fades away to nothing."
"I know." Pushing his chair back, he leaned forward onto the conference room table and planted his chin on his hands. "Luthor's very good at hiding his trail."
"Boy! This whole Luthor thing just makes me furious, Clark!"
"Me, too," he agreed. "Selling restricted weapons of mass destruction is a whole different order of unethical behaviour."
"No, I mean, well, yeah, I am mad about that, but that's not what I'm talking about."
"What do you mean?"
She threw herself into her chair and sighed heavily. "He made me believe he was someone he's not, and that just makes me furious. He tricked me!"
Clark's heart sank. Luthor wasn't the only person who had tricked Lois in that way. "You really cared for him, didn't you?"
The question seemed to take her by surprise. He watched in fascination as a myriad of expressions crossed her face.
"I thought I did," she said slowly. "I mean, who wouldn't care for someone who's charitable, altruistic, ethical, intelligent, attractive, charming…"
"Fine, I get the picture," he interrupted, not wanting to hear this long litany of praise.
"But I didn't love him."
He peered at her quizzically. "You didn't?"
"I thought you did… I was worried… I was afraid…"
"What were you afraid of, Clark? That I was dating a monster or something more?" Lois regarded him intently, her gaze not wavering.
He felt himself flush. "Well, yeah, I was worried. Luthor is… He's pure evil. Your dating him bothered me."
"Did anything else bother you?"
"Wasn't that enough?" he asked.
She nodded. "Of course, but I just wondered…" To his surprise, she blushed and looked down, no longer meeting his eyes.
"What? What did you wonder?"
Lois busied herself straightening the paperwork in front of her. "Nothing, Clark. It's not important." Her fidgeting hands stilled and then she looked up with resolve in her eyes. "But I want you to know something. I did a lot of thinking about, well, about the men in my life. Lex and Superman and… well, and about you. You're important to me; you are my best friend."
"Yes?" He held his breath waiting for her to continue.
"I won't be tricked again."
"What do you mean?" Had she figured it out? Did she know his secret?
"When I think about it, Lex was the one who told me all about his 'good deeds.' He was charming and sophisticated, but that's only skin-deep. I know now that I have to look beneath the surface of a man to see his worth. That takes time, and it's a lot harder to do than taking someone just at face value."
"Yes, it is."
"Clark, I'm going to go all mushy and sentimental here, so brace yourself!" She smiled shyly. To his surprise, her eyes were moist and shining.
"Thanks for the warning," he said softly as he smiled gently at her.
"I thought about you and Superman, and I realised something."
"The two of you are the most honourable men I know. Neither of you care about social position or money. I've seen you and him be courteous to people I would dismiss out of hand, but you're both patient beyond words. It's obvious the two of you really care about what you're doing. Okay, Superman's flashier in the good that he does. How many men, after all, can literally fly to the rescue? But I've seen you throw yourself into a story to expose corruption, and it's not just a story for you. I can tell it's a way for you to achieve justice and order. And that's exactly what Superman does. You two are a lot alike, and it's taken me this long to see it, and to appreciate just what a good man you are, Clark. I'm sorry I was so blind." A tear escaped to roll down her cheek.
He moved to sit beside her. "Lois, I… I don't know what to say except thank you."
To his delight, she leaned her head against his shoulder. "You're welcome. I meant all of it."
"I'll try not to let you down."
She pulled back and gazed up at him in admiration. "I know, Clark. But don't worry. I don't think you could ever let me down."
As one, they sat silently, lost in thought, gazing out at the newsroom. Her head went back on his shoulder, and he slowly, tentatively wrapped his arm about her.
They had a lot of work to do, but for now, it was enough to sit and watch the world go by.
All too soon, Cat arrived at the police station. She paid the fare and reluctantly got out of the taxi. It was going to be difficult telling Joe, but she had no choice. It was something she had to do. She had to tell him that they had to stop seeing each other.
It was for the best. Really.
She slowly climbed the stairs and paused at the top. Seeing her reflection in the glass of the door, she realised that she looked awful, completely unlike herself. Of course, she'd looked different ever since she'd met Brandon. She'd held herself back, toned herself down, and she'd only done it more after becoming involved with Joe.
She couldn't do it anymore. She couldn't try to force herself into someone else's image of her.
But he wouldn't be able to handle it, she knew. He wouldn't be able to handle a woman who dressed flamboyantly, flirted easily and was frequently the subject of more gossip than normally saw the light of day in her column.
The way he'd reacted to Ralph told her that. Sure, Ralph had been out of line, but so many men were out of line with her; he couldn't intimidate them all. No, eventually Joe was going to become very embarrassed about being with her.
He wasn't going to accept her decision easily; she knew that. It would be hard to convince him that this was for the best, but she had to. It was for his own good.
Cat paused inside the front door, thinking hard. She needed to really drive the problem home to him, get him to see the truth, and then he'd have no choice but to acquiesce.
She marched up to the desk sergeant. "I have an appointment with Detective Rizzo, but would it be all right if I use the ladies' room first?"
The sergeant directed her to the small room; she entered and ruthlessly surveyed herself in the mirror.
Dowdy. She'd let herself become positively dowdy.
As if girding herself for battle, Cat went to work. She tinted her lips a deep red, added colour to the contours of her cheeks, lined her eyes with a dark eye-pencil, shaded her eye-lids and yanked a brush through her hair until it had the tousled look that she'd always liked. She smoothed her dress over her hips, unbuttoned the front of it until she was almost falling out and finished by spritzing herself with perfume. That was better. Now she was ready to see Joe.
The desk sergeant did a double take when she appeared in front of him again. His eyes travelled up and down her body, but she had been expecting that. In fact, she'd been counting on it.
As she waited for Joe to meet her at the front desk, Cat was the recipient of a great many male glances. For some reason, though, it felt different now. It diminished her.
Joe emerged from a side hallway. His eyes widened as he caught sight of her, and he emitted a low whistle. "Wow! Honey, you look… you look fantastic!" he exclaimed.
"Thanks," she said softly, her heart breaking. She hadn't known how much it was going to hurt seeing him again.
"Come on back to my office. I'm almost done. I'll introduce you to the guys, clean off my desk and then we can go. Okay?"
He grabbed her hand and led her down the corridor into a large open-concept office. It could have been an office in any corporation except for the preponderance of shoulder holsters. About a dozen men and women were at various desks, typing up notes or talking on phones. They all looked up when Joe led Cat into the room.
"Whoa, Joey! Who's your friend?" a balding, middle-aged man asked, getting up from his desk and approaching them.
"Hands off, Stevenson!" Joe exclaimed, grinning happily. "This so happens to be my girlfriend, Cat Grant."
"Cat Grant?" one of the women said as she strolled over to join them. "I recognise that name. You're a writer or something, aren't you?"
"Yeah, I'm the gossip columnist for the Daily Planet," Cat answered, feeling uncomfortable being the focal point of all eyes. She waited patiently, knowing that her reputation would be known to these people, knowing that someone was sure to say the wrong thing and make Joe upset. But he had to know.
He had to know what it would be like being with her, having men treat as a sex object, and him with contempt because he was with her. It had happened in the past, but it had never bothered her before. She'd revelled in her wicked reputation, but it wasn't so enjoyable now. She knew it wouldn't be tolerable for a man like Joe. It just wasn't possible.
"Joey-boy, what's it like?" one of the younger men asked.
"What's what like?" Joe replied.
"Having such a gorgeous dame on your arm. Every red- blooded man's going to be watching her!" He leered at her comically, not at all serious.
Joe smiled and squeezed Cat's hand gently. "I don't care who looks at Cat as long as she only has eyes for me. And you do, right, honey?"
She nodded dumbly, too stunned to say a word. She'd never thought of it that way.
"I got one thing to say to you, girlie," a pot-bellied man said, eyeing her dubiously.
"What's that?" She braced herself, knowing what was coming.
"You obviously got the right stuff 'cause you make our boy happy," he told her, taking her by surprise.
The heavy man ruffled Rizzo's hair. "We're all fond of Joey. It's obvious you're good for him."
"I… I…I don't know what to say…" she stammered.
"Knock it off, guys," Joe ordered, tugging Cat to his side. "Give the woman room to breathe."
"Aw, isn't that sweet? The big strong he-man's going to protect his girlfriend!" one of the women exclaimed.
"Give 'er a kiss, Joey!"
"Ooh, young love!"
"Look out, it's mushy stuff!"
The comments flew fast and furious until Cat didn't know where to look. She could feel the heat in her face as she blushed.
"Come on, guys! Give Cat a break! She's not used to you idiots. I have a hard enough time working with you animals; she's never met any of you guys before." Joe's voice was stern.
"Sorry, Cat!" she heard in a ragged chorus.
"It's… It's okay," she stammered.
An older man with an air of authority emerged from his office. He'd obviously been listening to the commotion — just like Perry, she thought. He smiled gently at her before turning to the room. "Okay, people. You've had your fun. Now get back to work." As the noise died down to a manageable level, he turned back to Cat. "Sorry about all that, but we all like to tease Joe. He's a good guy. I guess you got caught in the crossfire."
"That's okay," she replied, feeling overwhelmed.
He held his hand out to her. "I'm Lieutenant Robins, Joe's boss. It's really nice to meet you, Cat."
"Thank you." She mechanically shook the man's hand. "It's nice to meet you, sir."
"Boss, I'm about done. I'm going to clear off my desk and then I'm out of here. Okay?" Joe asked.
"Yeah, fine. Take your gal here out for a nice meal. Hope to see you around again, Cat." He nodded at her and moved back into his office.
"Come on," Joe said, leading her to his desk and holding a chair for her. "I'm almost done," he said as he moved to his own chair and started sorting papers.
"Fine." Cat glanced around the office. Everyone was back at work as if nothing had happened. As she surveyed the room, a few of the men looked up and met her eyes. In each case, they nodded, smiled and went back to what they had been doing.
Cat found herself blinking away tears. This wasn't what she'd been expecting. This wasn't what was supposed to happen.
"All done!" Joe exclaimed, looking over at her. His expression darkened as he saw how upset she was. "What's wrong?"
She looked around helplessly. "Not here. I can't talk here."
He took her by the arm and led her out of the room, down the hall and out the front door. It only took a moment before he'd opened his passenger door for her, and helped her into his car.
Taking his place behind the wheel, he turned to her and asked, "What's going on? What's wrong?"
Cat burst into tears. "They were nice to me!" she blurted out.
"Of course they were nice to you!" he exclaimed.
"They acted like they liked me."
"What's not to like?"
"I thought… I thought…"
"What? Honey, what did you think?"
"I thought they'd say something… they'd judge me…"
Joe took her hand in his. "What scares you, Cat?"
She took a deep breath before turning and looking him in the eye. "I think we should stop seeing each other."
"I'd drive you crazy, or I'd go crazy myself if we stayed together."
"You're going to have to explain exactly what you mean," Joe said, his voice calm — almost too calm as if he were maintaining iron control.
"I bought new clothes, I toned down my make-up, but that's just not me. I can't change to be who you want me to be. But I know how it's going to go if I don't. Guys flirt with me, they fuss over me, and it's going to bother you. It's only a matter of time."
Joe shook his head. "Cat, I'm totally confused. I haven't a clue what you mean."
"When Ralph asked if you were the 'flavour of the month,' I knew that my reputation would catch up to me. I've been the target of gossip — I never cared before — but I know that it's going to bother you. I've slept with a lot of guys, but you've never thought through what that means, I bet. You've never wondered what it would be like if a man greets me on the street. I know you'll try to figure out if he was a past lover. I know it will bother you. And I know that eventually you'll blame me for my past. You say you don't now, but that will change. It's inevitable." Cat bowed her head and waited for his response, a tear trickling down her cheek.
"Up till now, I never thought the woman I loved was an idiot!" Joe exclaimed.
"What?" Her head snapped up.
"When did I ask you to change?"
"You didn't, but…"
"You're not 'toned down' right now, are you?"
"I happen to like how you're dressed at the moment. You're pretty damned sexy."
He squeezed her hand. "So other men think that, too. Do you think it worries me? It doesn't. I want other men to admire you, only to know I'm the one you're going home with. I'm proud to be with you. I'm proud you're the most gorgeous woman in the world, and you picked me to spend your nights with. You think I'm upset because you've been with lots of men? Heck, no. I'm proud that out of all those men, you chose to be with me."
"But Ralph said…"
"Honey, Ralph's a jerk. You think I got mad about what he said about me? No. I got mad because he insulted the woman I love, and nobody gets to do that. Nobody ever gets to do that."
"I don't know what to say." Cat shook her head, feeling very confused.
"So don't say anything," he told her as he moved a little closer. Tenderly, he stroked the side of her face.
She closed her eyes, savouring his gentle touch. How had this man totally turned her feelings around? She never knew what to expect from him, but that was a big part of his charm, she realised.
His lips touched hers lightly. "I love you," he said softly.
"I love you, too," she answered.
"What will it take for you to learn to love yourself?" he asked.
"I… I don't know what you mean."
"You keep pushing me away. You keep putting yourself down. Don't you feel as though you deserve to be happy?"
"I don't know how to be happy," she whispered. "I haven't been happy in a long time, and I didn't even know it."
He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight. "I want you to be happy."
"I know you do."
"Let me make you happy, Cat. Please?"
She wasn't convinced, but even so, she couldn't resist the whispered entreaty. Blinded by her tears, she nodded. He took her into his arms and kissed her fervently. She couldn't help but respond even while her doubts multiplied.
Clark finally, reluctantly, let go of Lois after giving her one last quick hug. "I guess we should get back to work."
She smiled shyly at him. "Yeah, I guess so. Except we don't have a clue what to do next."
"True. So what now?"
"Well, we could go out for dinner again. My treat, this time," she said timidly, her eyes flicking up to his face and then away quickly.
Clark caught his breath. The way she looked at him… Something had changed between them, and he felt as though he were walking a tightrope. He didn't want to make a false step, because if he did, even his superpowers wouldn't be enough to save him.
"I'd love that. Thank you, Lois."
They quickly tidied up their notes, left the conference room and locked the papers in their desks. As they walked to the elevator, he was more aware than ever of her electric presence beside him. He could feel the warmth of her body. Her shoulder brushed his arm, and the casual contact with her was more exciting than anything more blatant from someone else.
They were silent during the elevator ride. Clark couldn't look at her directly. Instead he found himself sneaking peeks like a schoolboy. Every time he did, however, his eyes met hers as she, too, glanced at him quickly, then away again.
Emerging on the street, Clark took a deep breath, and then he did what was probably the bravest thing he'd ever done in his entire life. His hand reached for hers.
She didn't say anything, but he felt the firm pressure of her fingers in his.
It only took them a minute to reach the Chinese restaurant, but even so, he still felt a sense of loss when their hands parted.
Once they were seated in their booth, Clark couldn't stop looking at her. She was beautiful. Her eyes were downcast; the sweep of her eyelashes against the creamy skin of her cheeks was enough to devastate him. Her dark hair framed her face, shimmering even in the dim light of the restaurant. Her neck was like a swan's, he thought. Poised and slender and graceful. And her mouth… His gaze clung to her mouth. He loved her mouth. He yearned for her mouth.
She glanced at him quickly, her eyes mysterious and luminous, looking down again when she met his gaze. He could see a faint hint of red staining her cheeks. Meeting his eyes once more, she took a breath and said, "Clark…"
Before he knew what he was doing, he'd moved beside her and pressed his lips to hers. She froze for a second, and he had just enough time to panic, realising what he'd done, when her hands came up to bury themselves in his hair as she shifted closer to him. His heart nearly stopped.
She was slender, fragile, warm and infinitely precious. He tugged her closer and marvelled how she fit so perfectly in his arms. Her lips were soft against his, and he thought he just might swoon like a Victorian maiden. She took his breath away, which was no small feat considering he could hold it for twenty minutes at a time.
Clark didn't ever want this magical moment to end, but when he felt her tremble against him, he knew it had to. He pulled back a little, only enough to tuck her into the curve of his body. Resting his head on her hair, he whispered, "I'm sorry."
"You're sorry?" Her voice was low and husky and sent shivers to the tips of his toes.
"Yes… No… I mean I shouldn't have kissed you. I don't ever want to make you uncomfortable."
"Any kind of change is uncomfortable, Clark."
He carefully slid away from her until they were sitting on opposite sides of the table again. He couldn't meet her eyes; he was afraid of what he might see. "What do you mean?"
She sighed. "Clark, I'm really having to think hard about my life and choices I've made in the past and choices I'll make in the future, and it's scary. You know?"
"Yeah, I know."
"We've known each other for almost a year, but you remember what it was like in the beginning. I didn't want a partner, and I sure didn't want a best friend."
"I remember," he said softly.
"It was scary learning to trust you, but I did, Clark, and I'm glad I did. But it was uncomfortable at the time."
He nodded. She was right. It had been.
"Now, I'm seeing you in a new way, and it's obvious you're seeing me differently, too, and it's just as scary."
"Yes, it is just as scary, but, Lois, I don't see you any differently now than I did then."
He lifted his gaze to meet her eyes, knowing that he had to be honest about this, even if he couldn't be honest about anything else in his life. "I fell in love with you about a minute after we met. There's been nothing in the past months that has made me change my mind. The only thing that's happened is that I've fallen deeper and harder than I would have ever thought possible."
Her mouth hung open, a stunned expression on her face. "Clark…"
"Lois, I love you, and I can't hide it anymore. I wish I could because I don't want to push you, but I can't."
"I don't know what to say."
Her words stung, but he tried to ignore the pain. What had he expected — Lois to throw herself into his arms and make a lifetime commitment? He forced himself to retreat from her. "That's okay, Lois. I know I took you by surprise. You don't have to say anything. I shouldn't have told you…"
"Clark, stop!" She reached out and rested her hand on his. "The truth is that I do have feelings for you, strong feelings, but…" Her voice trailed off.
"But?" he prompted, his heart sinking.
She sighed. "You've been honest with me. I have to be honest, too. I have feelings for you, but I also have feelings for someone else." She glanced at him shyly. "I think you know who."
It was hard to think rationally when trying to cope with this flood of jealousy, but he tried. He wracked his brain, but he didn't have a clue who she meant. He'd just opened his mouth to say so, when she said something that made the whole thing clear.
"I should never have told you how I felt about Superman. I wouldn't have if I'd known how you feel about me. I shouldn't have anyway. It wasn't very sensitive raving about one man to another. I'm sorry, Clark."
A wave of relief washed over him, only to be followed by panic. How could he tell Lois his secret? She trusted him. She trusted both of them not to hurt her — not to trick her. She thought he and Superman were honest. She thought they would never hurt her. But she was wrong. He had to tell her, but it was going to devastate her. He knew it.
He took a deep breath. "I have something to tell you about Superman, Lois, but not here."
"You're not going to tell me something stupid like he leaves his dirty socks on the bathroom floor just to make yourself look better in comparison, are you?" she asked wryly.
"What? No. Of course not."
"Good, because it wouldn't work."
"Okay," he said slowly. "No. I want to tell you something different, but I can't do it here. It's not bad," he said hastily. "At least I don't think it is. You might, though, but I hope you don't," he couldn't help adding.
"Clark, you're confusing me."
"I know. I'm sorry. It's just that there are things about Superman you don't know."
"And you do?"
"Clark, don't you think Superman should be the one to tell me?"
"Not in this case."
A spark of anger ignited in her eyes. "Yes, in this case! Clark, I don't want you to tell me anything about Superman. That's his business. He'll tell me what he wants me to know."
"I never believed I'd ever hear Lois Lane, intrepid investigator, say something like that."
"Don't get used to it. I may never say it again. But Superman's my friend, and he's your friend, and I don't have enough friends that I can ignore how he might feel. No, you and Superman should discuss this, and then if he wants to talk to me, well, he knows where I live."
Clark knew it was wrong to feel relieved, but he did anyway, receiving this short reprieve from Lois. It was cowardly of him, but anything that delayed her inevitable anger wasn't necessarily a bad thing!
"Okay," he agreed.
"I'll talk to him."
"Fine." She picked up the menu and opened it. "So, what would you like to have?" she asked briskly.
Another kiss, he thought, but being an occasionally wise man, he held his tongue. "I don't know. What are you in the mood for? Cantonese or Szechwan?"
"How 'bout Hunan?"
Lois drifted dreamily into her apartment and closed the door. Wow! Who would have guessed that much passion lurked beneath Clark's calm exterior?
Once they'd got past the 'I want to tell you something about Superman' awkwardness, they'd had a wonderful dinner. Lois hadn't been uncomfortable at all. The conversation had flowed freely, even though they hadn't once mentioned work. Instead, she'd shared stories about her college days, and he'd talked about all the travelling he'd done. She'd had a really, really good time.
Why was she so surprised? she wondered. She always had fun with Clark.
Languidly she moved into the kitchen and put the kettle on to boil. A cup of that herbal tea Clark had given her would be nice right about now.
He hadn't held her hand or hugged her again, to her secret dismay, but when they'd arrived back at her apartment, he'd cupped her cheek in his large warm hand in the sweetest caress she'd ever received. "Goodnight, Lois," was all he'd said before he'd left, but the tone of his voice had told her more about his feelings than anything.
Suddenly the whole idea of being with Clark — really being with Clark — wasn't as scary anymore. She trusted him not to hurt her. She trusted him to be honest with her. And she knew he hadn't lied about his feelings. He really loved her.
Did she love him? Yes, and not just as a brother either. But did she love Superman, too? She thought so.
How could she love two men at the same time? And loving those two men, how could she choose between them?
She sighed and poured the boiling water into the pot.
What would Superman's kisses be like? she wondered. Would they reach into her soul and move her the way Clark's had? He'd be tender and gentle. Like Clark, she couldn't imagine Superman behaving any other way. But would his lips strike fire within her or leave her cold?
Superman had kissed her before but the circumstances had been unusual. She couldn't judge.
When he'd been about to launch himself into space to tackle the Nightfall Asteroid, Lois had launched herself at him in turn. He hadn't so much kissed her as been kissed by her. She hadn't given him a choice in the matter, and thinking about it still made her blush. And flush with heat at the same time, too, she thought with an embarrassed smile.
Then when he'd been under the influence of that pheromone, he'd kissed her senseless, but after, he'd never said another word about it. It was as if it hadn't happened. She had never been able to dismiss it from her mind so easily, though.
He'd been under the influence. Perhaps that kiss hadn't been representative of what his kisses were normally like.
The tea was ready, and Lois poured herself a cup to take with her into the living room.
The first time when she'd kissed him — before he flew off into space — he had responded, she thought, but his reaction had been somehow muted, dampened down as if he needed to hold part of himself back, separate.
Of course the presence of various notable Metropolis citizens, municipal, state and federal politicians, military leaders and not a small contingent of the press corps was enough to discourage anyone, she thought wryly. She hadn't let it stop her, though, but then Superman was more reserved than she was.
What was it Clark had wanted to tell her about Superman? Perhaps she shouldn't have stopped him, because the mystery was going to drive her nuts. But it wouldn't have been fair to talk about the man behind his back. Not in this case.
Clark had said that it wasn't bad — at least he didn't think it was bad — but that she might, although he hoped she didn't. Talk about confusing. What the heck was that supposed to mean?
All she could hope for was that Superman would need to do his laundry soon and would head over to Clark's place in the near future. She didn't figure she'd have to wait long. Judging from things the two of them had said, he was over there practically every spare moment, which wasn't fair because she'd be happy to entertain him at her place. What did Clark have that she didn't?
A stray thought struck her between the eyes, but it was so absurd it made her giggle out loud. There was one thing he had that she didn't, but no way! She knew that Superman and Clark weren't gay. She could tell from the way they both looked at her.
"What's so funny?" a soft voice asked.
Lois spun around and nearly fell off the couch when she saw Superman hovering outside her open living room window.
"What? Oh, nothing. Just a joke Clark told me the other day. Nothing to worry about," she said hastily, embarrassed by where her thoughts had taken her.
"May I come in?"
She swallowed nervously. "Yes, please."
He floated in and landed lightly on the floor in front of her. "May I sit down?"
He took a place beside her on the couch. He looked uncomfortable, not as stiff and formal as usual, but not relaxed either.
"Oh! Would you like something to drink? I can make coffee or tea." She was already half off the couch when his hand lightly grasped her wrist.
"No, I'm fine, thank you, Lois. I just wanted to talk to you."
"Okay." She waited, feeling nervous and ill at ease only to realise that it was much worse for him. He didn't look up, instead focusing on his hands as they twisted a corner of his cape into a tight coil.
"I have something I need to tell you," he said softly.
"It's something you don't know about me, and you really should. There are reasons that you should."
She couldn't think what those reasons might be, but she was willing to listen. "Okay."
"I've wanted to tell you for a long time, but I've been scared. What I'm going to tell you is going to change everything." He paused and took a deep breath. "But before I tell you, I want you to know that I've never wanted to hurt you."
Lois gulped as he turned to her and cupped her cheek in his large warm hand.
"I love you, Lois. I've loved you since I met you."
Now what was she supposed to say? What was this — National 'Confess Your Feelings to Lois' night?
"Superman, that's… I don't know what to say. I have feelings for you, too, but…"
"I know. You care for Clark, too. It's all right."
"He told you?"
"Yes… No… Sort of. He didn't have to. But I do know. And how I know is one of the things I have to talk to you about."
Talk about confusing. If he kept mixing her up, she wouldn't know if the sun rose in the east or the west!
"Okay," she replied, eyeing him warily.
He turned away and started fiddling with his cape again, only to stare at it in dismay when the corner turned to ragged threads in his hands. "Oops!"
She couldn't help but giggle. Poor man. He was so endearingly nervous, and he looked like nothing more than an adorable child waiting to be scolded for an innocent transgression.
Superman flushed a deep crimson, surprising her. His usual control was missing tonight. He wasn't acting like himself at all.
"I'm sorry," she said softly, lightly touching his arm. "I'm not really laughing at you."
He glanced at her quickly, his eyes twinkling for a second. "I know. It's okay. I'm being an idiot. You're allowed to laugh." And then his expression turned wary once more. "You know that Clark and I are close, right?"
"Well, what you don't know is that Clark and I…" His head tilted to one side as he listened to something only he could hear.
"What is it?"
"Come on, give me a break!" He jumped to his feet.
"I just heard a massive explosion. I think it's in the Industrial Park. I have to go. It sounds bad."
He turned to the window, and then in a flash turned back to her. With one swift motion, he pulled her up from the couch and kissed her quickly, no less fervent or passionate for its brevity. "If I can't come back tonight, Clark will explain," he said as he dashed to the window. "Talk to Clark tomorrow. He'll tell you."
And he was gone.
Lois's knees gave out and she fell backwards onto the couch. "Wow!" she exclaimed.
What the heck was she going to do now?
He'd been so close! One more minute and there wouldn't have been any more secrets between them. It was all so frustrating!
Clark split the air, roiling currents booming, in his frantic flight to the scene of the explosion.
She'd have been mad, of course. He couldn't expect her not to be, but he thought she'd have understood. Eventually. Once her anger had died down. In a day or two… or ten. Maybe twenty.
Perhaps he could go back tonight and tell her, he thought. Maybe the explosion wasn't as bad as it sounded. But that hope proved to be vain as he got closer to the Industrial Park.
It had only been a minute, but already the flames were lighting up the night sky. As he got nearer to Metropolis Petrochemical, he could see that one of their propane holding tanks had blown and three others were threatened. It was going to be a busy, busy night, he realised.
As he zoomed closer, he assessed the situation. His first order of business was going to be… There! Those men. The flames had trapped them in that metal storage shed and there was no way out. They couldn't stay there, though. It must be getting pretty hot, not to mention smoky. Good thing there was only two of them. The rescue would have been a lot more difficult if he'd had to juggle ten or twenty people. Two people, however — he could tuck one under each arm.
Matching action to thoughts, Clark swooped down through the roof of the shed and grabbed the two men. With a hasty 'hold on,' less than a second later, they were airborne, moving so quickly that the men didn't have a chance to be burned.
He landed them by the emergency vehicles that were just pulling up and turned back in time to see the second propane holding tank blow up. He didn't even bother trying to blow out the flames. His super-breath would just fan the fire, and it would burn even hotter. No, he already knew from previous experience that the most he could hope to do was help the fire department contain the blaze so it didn't spread. They had to smother it inch by inch with foam, all the while watching to make sure it didn't flare up again. It was definitely going to be a long night.
He zipped over to join the fire chief so they could do some strategic planning when it happened. His globe. It was projecting another message, but he couldn't concentrate on it. He was needed here.
Feeling almost sick to his stomach, he forced himself to pay attention to the firefighter's instructions, but all the time the man was speaking, Clark was simultaneously hearing Jor-El's words and seeing the pictures as they played out.
Lois sat still for a long moment after Superman had left, just staring at the open window. Finally, shaking her head, she tried to phone Clark. She needed someone to explain what was going on. But Clark wasn't home.
She walked over to the window and shut it. Feeling chilled, she went into her bedroom to grab a sweater when she saw it. The globe. It was pulsing with light, hovering over her dresser where she'd laid it. She really should stay away from it… She'd been feeling guilty about keeping it… It did belong to Superman, after all, but instead of walking away, Lois approached, took a deep breath and calmly laid her fingers on the glowing sphere. It flashed white light, and then it started.
The man, the Kryptonian, appeared again.
"There is no longer any doubt. The chain reaction has begun. As panic spreads, the population awakens too late to its fate. Our future is inevitable."
The whole scene shook. Lois almost felt as though she were there, feeling the tremors for herself.
An alarm began to sound. The man struggled to get to some kind of a console, and he did something that turned the alarm off. The woman she'd seen before appeared beside him.
He spoke again. "At last the computers have located a suitable destination. A planet physically and biologically compatible with Krypton, whose inhabitants resemble ours, and whose society is based on ethical standards which we, too, embrace in concept, if not always in deed."
An image of her world shimmered into view.
"The inhabitants call it simply Earth."
And then Lois saw something that made her gasp in shock. It was a small capsule with Superman's S on it; was it a spaceship?
The couple placed a small baby inside — a dark-haired, happy, gurgling baby. And then the picture died away and Lois was left in the dark of her bedroom, asking herself a lot of questions.
Many hours later, she had started figuring out a few of the answers.
When she coupled ominous phrases like 'core disintegration' with 'chain reaction' and 'the population awakens too late to its fate,' she didn't end up with a pretty picture. It was pretty obvious that Krypton no longer existed.
Did that mean Superman was the last of his race?
She'd figured something else out, too. Superman had been a really cute baby.
The implications of that were pretty stunning, however. Superman must have been sent here as an infant, and she was pretty sure the trip hadn't taken that long. Which meant Superman had arrived as a child, been assimilated into a family and had a whole other life she knew nothing about.
Was that what he'd been going to talk to her about?
Was that what Clark had been going to say? Had Superman already shared the details of his other life with him?
It was pretty humbling to know that Superman wasn't always the god in a cape, that sometimes he was just a regular guy. Imagine. It was possible she'd met him before and never even noticed. He could have sat behind her in geography class in high school, or brushed past her on the street or sat beside her in a movie theatre…
Her eyes narrowed as she thought hard. One hand lifted to touch the cheek that both Clark and Superman had caressed just that evening.
… or he could sit beside her in a crowded newsroom.
How could she have been so stupid? They… He'd tricked her, and he hadn't even had to try that hard. She'd never asked Superman questions. She'd never investigated. Instead she'd taken him at face value, and Lois Lane NEVER took anything at face value! How could she have been so gullible?
"Clark Kent, you are so dead!" she muttered through clenched teeth.
He must have had a good chuckle listening to her rave about his alter ego. It must have been flattering being able to render her speechless just by putting on some tight spandex.
How could he have done this to her? She thought they were best friends. Weren't best friends supposed to share everything? Weren't best friends supposed to be honest with each other?
He had been about to tell her. He'd… They'd… both personas had tried. Earlier, Clark had told her that they needed to talk, and she had refused, telling him she needed to hear information about Superman from Superman. So look who had showed up a couple of minutes after Clark had 'gone home.' Superman had tried. He'd even had the words half out of his mouth only to be interrupted by that explosion.
He wanted her to know.
That made her feel… Wow! A broad smile spread across Lois's face as she pondered the implications of that little tidbit. Clark wanted her to share his secret.
But it still irked her that she'd been fooled by a pair of glasses and some pretty wild ties! What kind of reporter was she to have been so blind? What did it say about her judgement that she had been fooled by Lex and fooled by Clark and fooled by Superman? What next? Was Perry going to turn out to be a B-movie actor in disguise?
On the other hand, Clark hadn't exactly given her a ton of clues. Neither had Superman. Okay, so Clark acted strange once in a while, but look at Ralph! There was one very weird guy! For that matter, look at Perry. How normal was it for a man to make regular pilgrimages to Graceland? Actually, more normal than a person might think, she thought wryly, as she remembered reading an article about the American heartland's obsession with Elvis.
Dismissing Ralph and Perry from her mind, her thoughts returned to Clark. Okay, so there were a few clues, but she hadn't been the only one to miss them. People's expectations of Superman created a pretty acceptable disguise for him. Who would expect someone like Superman to work in a newsroom at a regular job? So she supposed she could forgive herself for not figuring it out sooner.
Actually, her figuring it out at all from having watched two very cryptic inter-galactic messages was pretty impressive. No one else watching tonight's hologram could have learned the truth, she thought smugly.
Okay, so she'd forgiven Clark — probably far too quickly, but hey! That didn't mean she had to tell him he was off the hook! She intended to make him suffer, but just from mild torment, not total torture. That was pretty understanding on her part.
One good thing — she'd established that she was still one of the best — okay, THE best — investigative reporter around, so what now?
Obviously she and Clark had to have a very, very, very long talk.
She glanced at her watch. Four a.m.! Had she really been thinking and pacing and pacing and thinking for that long? Wow! It was kind of too late to call, but… To heck with it. Lois picked up the phone and dialled, only to hear Clark's answering machine on the other end of the line.
She switched on the TV and tuned it to LNN, only to discover that Superman — Clark — was going to be tied up for a while longer fighting the fire.
Was it ever interesting watching Superman in action knowing the truth! The news cameras had a hard time keeping up with him as he darted here, there and everywhere. It was amazing. She'd gotten somewhat blas‚ about Superman's abilities over the last few months, but knowing he was really Clark was enough to bring back her sense of awe and wonderment.
Her partner… Her best friend… He could fly! He could defy the bounds of gravity any time he wanted yet he chose to be earthbound most of the time. He was strong enough to land airplanes if required yet he was the gentlest man she knew. The most powerful man in the world yet he was happy making his own way, working hard for an honest dollar.
How could she have been so blind?
How could she have not noticed for so long that everything she loved about Superman was an integral part of Clark Kent? It was only in the last few days that she'd allowed herself to notice what a good man, a solid man, Clark was.
Not a perfect man, thankfully. He had some habits that drove her crazy although she suspected his vanishing act wouldn't anymore. But he was too protective and too much of a linear thinker. She, on the other hand, was, well, a little impulsive and very much an intuitive thinker. But the contrast between his personality and hers just made their partnership work that much better.
He recognised that, too. What had he said to her?
"When I'm around you, I work better, I think better. It's like you're some kind of catalyst for good or something, because I'm a better person for knowing you."
He needed her. And he loved her.
She loved him, too.
Okay, so now what?
The fire finally under control, Clark flew home in a daze. He stripped naked, showered in a flash, dressed in his sleep shorts and then examined his suit. He feared it was irrevocably damaged by the oily smoke and the chemicals the firefighters had used to battle the blaze. And his entire cape now matched the corner that he'd torn while talking to Lois. Even if he could get it clean, which he highly doubted was possible, it was such a holey mess that it wasn't even suitable to use as a dust cloth. Sighing heavily while reminding himself to buy his mother the sometime seamstress a really, really nice present, he stuffed the collection of rags into a garbage bag.
He walked out onto his balcony, enjoying the cool air nipping at his exposed skin. It felt fresh and clean and was exactly what he needed after the oppressive black cloud he'd been working in all evening. And all morning, he corrected himself after glancing into his apartment at the clock on the wall.
Five a.m. He really should try to get a couple of hours of sleep, but he wasn't ready yet. He was too wound up. It had been a very eventful day, and he was full of conflicting emotions. He'd been frustrated and happy and annoyed and confused and concerned and stoic and just about everything, all in the space of twenty-four hours.
He knew the investigation into Luthor wasn't going nowhere, but it sure felt that way. He couldn't remember ever wanting anyone to receive his just deserts as much as he wanted Luthor to. The man deserved to be locked up for the rest of his unnatural life.
The fire had been tedious and tiring, both physically and intellectually. It had been a challenge to try to stay one jump ahead of the flames — and not just a challenge for Superman either. Those firefighters he'd assisted had been pretty weary at the end of it all, too. Not only that, but they'd be sore tomorrow which wasn't something Clark had to concern himself with.
He'd been concerned about the globe's timing, too. If only the message had started when he'd not been tied up. He thought that just maybe he'd be able to track the thing down if only he were free to search for it during the playing of a message.
And then there was Lois. He felt an involuntary grin spread over his face. He'd thought holding her hand had been special. To kiss her and feel her respond to him, Clark Kent… Wow! That had been like nothing else on earth. Or off it, for that matter. And to know that she had feelings for him…
Okay, so she had feelings for Superman, too, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. He'd never wanted her to hate the superhero as that would be pretty counter- productive. He just wanted to know that Clark was important to her, too. He'd needed to know that she had strong feelings for Clark. And she did!
Tomorrow, no, today, he reminded himself, he'd confess, and she'd be furious, but hopefully she'd eventually relent and then maybe, just maybe, they'd be able to actually go out on a real date and, well, who knew where it would go from there. He knew what he wanted, but Lois, on the other hand, might not be so eager to commit to him right away. But he'd wait! He'd wait forever for Lois Lane. She was definitely worth waiting for.
So, now that he'd planned out his day — confess to Lois, bear the brunt of her anger, chase after leads, try to nail Luthor, yada, yada, yada, what next?
Bed, he decided as he suppressed a yawn. He was so tired. It had been an eventful day.
Clark left the balcony and headed into his bedroom. He was out cold within two minutes. Ten minutes later, he was oblivious when the front doorknob silently turned.
With an exasperated snort of disgust, Lois threw back the sheets and rolled out of bed. She looked at the clock. Five a.m. Great. It looked like the three and a half minutes of sleep she'd managed to achieve was all she was going to get.
This was all Clark's fault. If he had told her about his dual identities a month or two ago, she still probably would have lost a night's sleep but the trauma would have been over, and she probably would be sleeping just fine by this point. And she wasn't.
Was trauma the right word to describe how she felt? Confused, irritated, angry, excited, happy. She was a combination of all that and more. She really didn't know exactly how she felt.
Lois glanced at the clock yet again. Five oh two.
Okay, that's it, she decided. Not even bothering to change out of her pyjamas, Lois grabbed her coat, purse and keys and marched out of her apartment.
'Clark Kent, I don't care if you are sleeping,' she thought. 'We have to talk.'
It didn't take her long to drive over to his apartment — five minutes tops. There weren't many cars on the street. Of course, most sensible people were sound asleep instead of on their way to lecture a superhero.
As Lois swung her Jeep into a parking spot in front of Clark's apartment, she saw two men at a black van, slamming closed the back door of it. They were joined a second later by a familiar looking woman who glanced furtively around the street. Lois slumped down in her Jeep from sheer force of habit.
She peeked over the top of the steering wheel at the woman. If she didn't know any better, she'd swear that was Mrs. Cox.
The unlikely trio drove off, and Lois waited until they were gone before getting out of her vehicle.
It couldn't have been Mrs. Cox. That made no sense. What would she want in this neighbourhood?
Lois ran up the short flight of stairs and rapped firmly on Clark's door. She was taken aback, however, when the door swung open in response to her touch.
"Clark?" she called as she edged into the apartment.
There was no answer.
Perhaps he was sleeping. It had been a rough night for Superman and he must be really tired. That must be it.
She tiptoed through the living room and tentatively peeked around the corner into Clark's bedroom.
The room was in disarray. The lamp from his bedside table was smashed on the floor; the linens were thrown off the bed, and his pillow was shoved out of the way.
She turned on the overhead light and moved closer only to feel her knees wobble as she caught sight of the stains on the floor.
A trail of red droplets led back to the living room, dying away to nothing before it reached the front door. She hadn't even noticed it in the dim light when she'd entered.
How could this be? Had she been wrong? Were Superman and Clark two different people?
That had been Mrs. Cox! Obviously Clark had got too close to Lex when he'd investigated LexMail. Mrs. Cox must have been armed with Kryptonite. Did she and Lex know about Clark or had they just been prepared for the worst?
It didn't really matter, she decided, her thoughts bleak. Clark was in danger, and she had to save him.
Lois's eyes narrowed in thought as she forced herself to concentrate. This was not the time to panic. Clark needed her. She could fall apart if, no, when this whole thing was over, and he was free.
No way Mrs. Cox would have snatched Clark on her own initiative. She was totally devoted to Lex and always followed the man's orders. Therefore Lex must know about this.
So, that was the solution to Lois's problem. All she had to do was ask Lex where Clark was. Simple.
Lois ran out of the apartment and jumped into her car. As the Jeep's engine roared to life, she realised that maybe, just maybe, she should enlist some allies. Even though every instinct warned her to hurry, that Clark was in grave danger, she forced herself to turn the Jeep around and drive off in the opposite direction of Luthor's penthouse. She had arrangements she needed to make first.
"My dear, I have no idea what you're talking about," Lex said in that supercilious patronising drawl of his.
Lois leaned forward, planting her hands firmly on the smooth, silken wood of his desk. "I think you do, Lex. Mrs. Cox wouldn't have acted on her own initiative. You ordered her to abduct Clark, and I want to know where he is."
Luthor regarded her silently, a half-smile on his face. "It's amazing how many people underestimate you, Lois. It's not something I've ever done, you know. I can see so much potential in you. You have an inner grace."
"Right now the only thing inside me is a lot of anger. I want you to take me to Clark, and I want you to do that right now!"
"Temper, temper, my dear," he purred as he got up from his chair and rounded his desk to perch on the corner of it. "Remember, you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. So far, all you've shown me is 'vinegar.'"
She was forced to sit back as Lex slowly insinuated his body between hers and the desk. He straightened into a position of power, his legs slightly spread and his arms folded upon his chest. It was a horrible, unconscious mockery of Superman's normal stance.
"Lois, I am hurt that you could think so little of me. To abduct your colleague… I'm shocked that you could think me capable of something so horrendous."
"Come off it, Lex. You and I both know that Clark got too close to finding out about your business dealings with Rahsanjani."
He raised an eyebrow in silent inquiry.
"Oh, I suppose I can understand a little how exciting it must be to make so much money, but what I don't understand is how you could ignore the big picture so completely and totally?" Lois continued.
"Without admitting in the slightest that you're in any way correct about your suppositions, I will say that I'm not sure what you mean by that, Lois. Please, do enlighten me."
"If Rahsanjani manages to acquire neutron bombs and uses them on Pakistan, then he could trigger a nuclear holocaust that would wipe out much of the world. Were you so stupid and blind that you didn't think of that?"
That irritating, half-amused, smug smile vanished from his face. "Don't ever call me stupid."
"Don't ever give me orders." Lois met his stare with a steely gaze of her own.
Lex took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, the urbane, sophisticated mask creeping back over his face. "Oh, you're good," he said, admiringly. "You're fire, I'm ice. We'd make such a great team."
"In your dreams, Luthor."
"Always," he purred, his eyes lit with an unholy light.
His intensity and focus scared Lois, but she refused to let her feelings show. Instead, she concentrated on appearing cool, calm and collected, even while every part of her being was panicking over Clark's welfare. She had to stay calm for Clark, she told herself. Losing her head wasn't going to help him.
"Didn't you think of the consequences, Lex?" she persisted in asking.
"If what you say is true — and I'm not admitting it — but if I were to deal in illegal arms of this magnitude, then don't you think I might make some kind of arrangement so that the buyer didn't receive his full complement of components?"
"You're cheating Rahsanjani?"
"'Cheat' is such an ugly word, Lois. But, yes."
"What if he got the final components somewhere else?"
Lex shrugged. "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs."
"But we're not talking about eggs!" Lois exclaimed, staring up at him in disbelief. "We're talking about millions of innocent people."
"Innocent? Who really is innocent, Lois? Am I? Are you?"
"Forget semantics for a moment. I'm talking about people who haven't asked for this fate, or deserve this fate, or are in any way in control of this fate."
He shrugged again.
"Okay, then. What about you? If Rahsanjani were to trigger a nuclear holocaust, I have trouble believing that you'd be quite so nonchalant about it all."
"Don't be too sure. You've seen my shelter. It's quite comfortable. You know, it's not too late for me to add your name to the guest list."
"You can bite my…"
"Careful, Lois," Lex interrupted. "Don't say anything that might get you blacklisted."
Lois shook her head. Unbelievable. She'd never met anyone with such a warped worldview. Evil. The man exuded pure evil. How could she have ever believed him to be a friend?
But all this conversation wasn't getting her any closer to her goal. She needed to find Clark, and she needed to find him soon.
"Lex," she said as civilly as she could. "This has gotten off-topic. I'd like to see Clark. Please take me to him."
"You're very single-minded, aren't you?"
He leaned down, his hands on the arms of her chair, his body trapping her, and his face close to hers. "I could make you forget Clark."
"That's it! I've had enough!" Lois exclaimed. Her right knee snapped up. Lex's wide-open stance didn't offer an iota of protection. She scored a direct hit.
She waited — not too patiently, but she didn't have a choice — and eventually Luthor uncoiled from the foetal position he'd adopted with a near-silent shriek.
His eyes watering, his hands cupping his groin, he gazed up at her from his position sprawled on the floor.
Her foot poised in mid-air over his recumbent body, she asked, "Do I have to do it again?"
His hands clutched his body convulsively, and his complexion turned even greener. He didn't manage to make a sound, but his eyes spoke volumes as he frantically shook his head.
"You're going to take me to Clark?"
His head quickly bobbed up and down.
She smiled, crouched beside him and patted him delicately on the shoulder. "Good decision! That wasn't so difficult, was it?"
Clark squirmed and shifted as he tried to get comfortable. It was a futile effort, however, with his hands cuffed behind his back. It made it awkward, lying on his back on the cold floor.
He'd asked Mrs. Cox if she'd be willing to uncuff him, but she'd refused. It seemed he'd impressed her when he'd fought so frantically to get away from her and her cohorts.
It hadn't been a conscious decision on his part. Instead it had been an instinctive reaction to the presence of Kryptonite. He hadn't even been fully awake when he'd felt it, but it had been unmistakable. There was nothing else that could affect him like that.
Kryptonite set his bones on fire, his whole body writhing in agony from it. It wasn't a reaction that he could control. Thankfully, though, Mrs. Cox thought that his current aches and pains had to do with the beating he'd taken while she and her 'pals' had subdued him.
He didn't know what he looked like, but his nose didn't feel right. His nose, however, didn't compare to his right cheek. That felt hot and tight, and it throbbed in time with his heart.
Thankfully, Mrs. Cox was finally keeping her distance, and he didn't have to contend with the Kryptonite, too. He could still feel it — she hadn't left the room — but at least he could think.
He'd had a bad few minutes with her. He'd been drifting in and out of consciousness. Every time he'd passed out due to the close proximity of the deadly stone, she'd slapped him back to lucidity and pain. 'Call for Superman,' she'd ordered. 'Call for help.'
He hadn't complied, not wanting her to wonder why the superhero didn't show up to rescue his friend. Either she'd finally given up — or her hand had started to hurt from all the abuse she'd handed out to him. That was probably the more likely explanation, he decided ruefully.
Clark lifted his heavy head, forced his swollen eyes open and watched as Mrs. Cox slowly approached once more. Damn, he hated to be right, he thought as the familiar fiery burn of the Kryptonite rolled over him.
As Mrs. Cox stalked eagerly toward him, she displayed a gleaming silver shape that caught the light. "I hope you don't cooperate," she said in an excited, breathless voice. "I really hope you don't."
Lex had tried, but hadn't quite managed to recapture that slick, smooth veneer of his. Either he wasn't quite as charming, urbane or civilised as he normally was, or she was seeing the real Lex Luthor, not the man he appeared to be, Lois reflected with an inward smile of amusement.
Nothing like kicking a man in the groin to strip away false pretences!
She'd been searched — not by Lex, but by his driver. They'd confiscated her purse, leaving it behind in his penthouse office. Her coat's belt was gone, her shoes, even her watch, and now he kept a wary eye on her even though he was seated as far away from her as was possible in a limousine. It was almost laughable. She was handcuffed and belted in securely, he had a gun trained on her, and he still looked worried.
As he should, she thought defiantly. Hah! She'd taught him. No one underestimated Lois Lane and got away with it. Full of inner grace — yeah, right. What a line! She'd bet she'd managed to change his views — the supercilious, pompous jerk! She guessed she wouldn't be on his Christmas card list any more, the stupid idiot!
She really had gone a bit too far, though, she thought ruefully. That type of self-centred, egotistical, 'I'm doing you a favour just by letting you bask in my aura' type act was hard to take. But she had stepped over the line, which was why she wasn't saying a word. Quiet as a corpse.
No! No! Bad analogy! Quiet as a mouse. That's what she'd really meant.
The limo glided to a smooth stop in front of a nondescript warehouse. The driver opened the door and, with his pistol, Lex gestured that she should get out. Lois followed Lex's chauffeur's broad back as he led her up to the door. Lex followed behind, still keeping his distance.
She shouldn't have kneed him, but he'd made her so mad! How dared Lex imply that he was better than Clark? Clark was ten times the man Luthor was. A hundred. A thousand.
And exactly what gave Lex the right to use innocent people as pawns? Just because he could was no reason to do so.
Look at Clark. Look at how much strength he had — how much power he did have over people's lives. Did he use that power to benefit himself? Did he elevate himself above the rest of the world just because he was Superman? No. He did what he did with as little fanfare as possible. His superhero disguise was as close to anonymity as such an extraordinary man could achieve.
The door opened, and Lex motioned for her to enter, the driver taking up a position outside the entrance.
Oh God! Clark!
Mrs. Cox straightened and turned to face Lex and Lois. Lois stared in horror at the reddened blade of Mrs. Cox's knife. Her gaze darted back and forth from the sharp blade to the limp body of her partner.
"He's being stubborn," Mrs. Cox said, her voice high and breathless and almost giddy sounding.
Lois's gaze snapped back to Lex's personal assistant. Mrs. Cox was enjoying this, Lois decided, her stomach roiling in disgust. The woman was panting, with her chest heaving like bellows. Her eyes were bright and eager, and her face eerie and unearthly in the dim greenish glow of her pendant.
"What have you done to him?" Lois asked shrilly. She rushed forward only to be blocked by Lex and his gun.
"We're just playing," Mrs. Cox said, a Mona Lisa smile on her face. "Just having some… fun." The woman glanced back at Clark for a second and then licked her lips in a purely unconscious gesture.
Lois swallowed roughly, trying to quell her unruly stomach. She couldn't help but think of the autopsy reports Joe had shared with them. With difficulty, she'd managed to be objective — then. Now, though…
"If Mr. Kent won't oblige us, perhaps Miss Lane will," Lex said calmly, totally unaffected by the scene in front of him.
Lois shifted to face him. His dark eyes betrayed his true feelings. They burned fiery hot as he watched her.
"What do you want?" she asked, her voice shaking in spite of her best efforts to remain in control.
"It's very simple," Lex assured her. "We wanted Mr. Kent to issue Superman an invitation to meet with us — one that he couldn't refuse — but it seems that Mr. Kent has refused to do so."
"You wanted him to call for help?"
Lex inclined his head. "Yes, exactly. But it seems that Mr. Kent has a taste for needless suffering. If he had done what we asked, his pain would be over by now."
"If he'd done what you asked, Superman would be dead, and you'd have no more use for Clark, and you'd kill him, too," Lois replied, forcing herself not to dwell on the fact that she was actually talking about one man. She had to protect Clark's secret. If Lex were to find out…
Her breath caught in her throat as she contemplated that grim scenario. It might not matter, though. Clark could be dead or dying while they stood here discussing his fate.
"Perhaps. Or perhaps not," Lex replied, his voice like silk.
How could the man sound so sophisticated while discussing the possibility of murder? It boggled the mind. He was a psychopath or a sociopath or something like that. He had to be. No ordinary man could be this unaffected by such evil.
"Why would you think that I would call Superman for you? You're going to kill me anyway. Why should I drag him into this, too?"
"Well," Lex drawled thoughtfully. "That was the original plan — to lure Superman into a trap and then to kill Mr. Kent — but now that I have you, too, I'm thinking that I just might change that plan."
"I could subjugate him," Lex replied. "Bend him to my will. Put him on my payroll, so to speak. And the wages I'd pay would be the continuation of both your lives."
"But Lex, I wasn't done playing yet," Mrs. Cox interrupted petulantly.
"You could still indulge yourself, my dear. You just won't be able to play the game to fruition. As the saying goes, half a loaf is better than none."
"I guess," she replied, sulkily.
"Don't forget," Lex said, grasping Lois by the arm and moving her towards Clark and Mrs. Cox. "I'm adding a second playmate to the mix. Double the fun, so to speak."
Lois gulped as Mrs. Cox's expression brightened, and the other woman stared avidly at Lois as Lex propelled her ever closer. Her skin crawled as Lex pushed her past Mrs. Cox. He gave her one final shove, and Lois fell to her knees beside Clark. She gasped, partly in horror, but partly in relief. He was hurt; his face was bruised and swollen — his nose didn't look right — but that faded into obscurity compared to the obscenely delicate tracery of lines that had been lightly carved into the skin of his chest, following the line of his ribs. Remembering the autopsy reports, though, she knew it could have been much worse. And it could still get worse if Mrs. Cox had her way. "Oh God," she muttered under her breath.
His swollen eyes opened. "Lois?" he whispered. A panicked expression spread over his face. "You're here, too? No! Run!"
"It's okay," she said firmly. "I'm here to save you. Trust me."
He stared up at her for a long moment. "Thank you, Lois," was all he said.
"Enough with the Hallmark moment," Lex snarled. "Get on with it. Call Superman. Beg him to rescue you. After all, it is the man's biggest hobby."
Lois swivelled to face Lex and Mrs. Cox. She took a deep breath, nodded and opened her mouth. "Superman?" she screamed. "It's a trap! Kryptonite!"
Pain exploded in her cheekbone as Lex backhanded her across the face. "You're going to pay for that!" he exclaimed.
She forced herself back to her knees in time to see him grimly aim the gun at her partner.
Gasping, Lois turned and threw herself over Clark's prostrate body, slipping her cuffed hands over his neck. She felt him shudder at the impact against his wounds. "No," she gasped. "He didn't do anything."
"Killing him will be your punishment," he muttered. "Get her off him," Lex ordered Mrs. Cox.
Clark's eyes rolled back in his head as Mrs. Cox got closer.
She'd scream. She'd scream if that woman's bloody hands touched her, she thought, her mind gibbering in panic. God! Where were they? This would be a good time for the cavalry to arrive!
As if in answer to her unspoken prayer, the door to the warehouse exploded inwards. She lifted her head to see a veritable army of armour-clad police officers pouring through the gaping hole. They quickly took up positions, their guns aimed at Lex and Mrs. Cox.
"Drop your weapons!" a booming voice ordered.
Joe! Lois breathed a sigh of relief. The game wasn't over yet, but at least all the players were in place.
With the gun still aimed at Lois, Lex gaped at the officers, his face betraying his astonishment. "How?" he stammered. "I had her checked for tracking devices. She was clean."
Joe pushed forward to stand facing Luthor. "We knew you would. So we bugged the limo instead." He took a step closer. "Drop your weapon, Luthor. You're surrounded. You can't get away."
Lois's gaze shifted to Lex. From the unguarded expressions flitting across his face, she could almost see what he was thinking. His eyes hardened.
"Give myself up so I can live in a cage? I don't think so." He gazed into Lois's eyes, a sardonic smile slowly spreading across his face. Deliberately and methodically, he slowly adjusted his aim. He didn't even look surprised when a hailstorm of bullets tore through him in response.
And then it was over. Mrs. Cox was in handcuffs, Lex's body lay bloody and torn on the ground, and Joe was there, un-cuffing Lois and Clark and helping her to her feet.
"Is he okay?" he asked, staring down at Clark's battered form.
"He will be," Lois answered, hoping that her answer was true. She couldn't look at Clark. Not yet. There was something she had to do first. Something important. With Joe trailing behind, she stalked across the warehouse to confront Mrs. Cox.
"Excuse me," Lois said politely as she reached for the chain around the woman's neck.
The police officer guarding the woman made a move to stop her, but Joe reached out and stopped him.
With a mighty yank, the chain broke, and the Kryptonite was in Lois's hand.
"What's that?" Joe asked.
Lois ignored him, instead mesmerized by the slick cool feel of the heavy gemstone. It really was beautiful, she thought. Pity.
A wave of anger swept over her. How could she stand here admiring something that had hurt Clark? In a fit of temper, Lois whirled around and threw the rock as fast as she could. It hit the warehouse wall and exploded into nothingness. Her mouth fell open. She hadn't expected that… But… Good. That was one thing done. Now she could help Clark. Clark…
"Clark needs me," Lois interrupted. "I have to help Clark." And she turned to make her way back to her partner.
Over the next few minutes, she was vaguely aware of Joe's questions, but she ignored them, instead sitting on the floor with Clark's head in her lap, slowly stroking his forehead as she whispered words of encouragement to him. Joe eventually gave up, but it didn't even register with her. All her attention was focused on Clark. She didn't even notice the tears running down her face. Instead, she exulted when his eyes opened and his gaze met hers.
She wouldn't let him talk. He tried, but she hushed him. When he moved to sit up, she helped and then quickly pulled him back into her embrace, his head on her shoulder, her arms around his back. Slowly she rocked him back and forth, crooning in his ear.
She couldn't look — wouldn't look — at Lex's body. She didn't want to look and then remember that moment of decision, that moment when Lex had decided to die. Suicide by cop, it was called, and she didn't want to think about it right now. She didn't want to ever think about it.
There was a commotion by the entrance and someone pushed through the cops to rush to their side.
She couldn't listen to Cat right now. Clark needed her. She needed to look after Clark. How could she listen to Cat?
Joe said something to Cat — something harsh and angry sounding. The two of them moved away and kept talking. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered except the solid, warm, alive feel of her friend in her arms.
It didn't seem like long before Joe knelt down beside them. "Lois, the ambulance is here. You have to let go of Clark. The paramedics want to look after him."
She didn't answer, instead tightening her grip on him and continuing to rock him in her arms. And then she felt him shift. She clutched at him convulsively — he couldn't leave her. She wouldn't let him — only to relax when he pulled her to his chest and wrapped his arms around her instead.
His deep voice rumbled words to Joe, and Joe said something back but Lois didn't pay any attention, instead, carefully avoiding the oozing wounds on his sides, pressing her head close to his bare chest and listening to the steady thump, thump of his heart.
"Come on, Lois. Let's get out of here." Clark's voice was the only one that could have penetrated the shell around her. She reluctantly shifted away from the solid warmth of his body. She stared up at him for a long time, her eyes tracing the lines of his face, lingering on the bruises. His mouth was swollen, his nose puffy, his cheekbone raw, and he had never looked more wonderful.
"Oh God, Clark! You're alive!" The words exploded out of her. "I thought she was going to kill you!"
She felt the tears well out of her in a flood. He pulled her back into his arms.
"Don't leave me," she gasped. "Don't ever leave me."
"I won't, Lois. I won't."
She clung to his words as tightly as she clung to him. He wouldn't leave her. He couldn't leave her. She knew it was true. He'd said he wouldn't.
Clark gently led a still shell-shocked Lois Lane into the warmth of her apartment. He felt self-conscious, wondering how the heck he was going to get home when all he was wearing was his sleep-shorts and a police-issued blanket, but he figured he'd worry about that situation later. For now, he needed to deal with his best friend.
It had taken a lot of talking — with Lois clinging to him the whole time — but eventually the paramedics had agreed to leave him alone. He wasn't interested in going to the hospital. Instead he'd settled for one of them examining him quickly at the warehouse. His knife wounds had been slathered with antiseptic ointment and bandaged and were already feeling better. Thankfully, his nose wasn't broken, although it sure felt as though it were.
Cat and Joe had done their best to get him to the hospital, too, but eventually, they'd seen the light and given up. They'd finally agreed to drive Lois and Clark to Lois's place.
It had been an uncomfortable drive. There was tension between Joe and Cat — Joe hadn't been pleased with Cat when she'd shown up at the warehouse after promising to wait until Joe had contacted her — and Cat hadn't taken his criticism well at all.
Clark had sat in the back seat with Lois attached to his side, her head pressed against his chest. He'd felt her shivering. She was finally able to answer questions, but she did so in monosyllables which was totally unlike his babbling brook of a partner.
His heart ached for her. She'd been so worried — gratifyingly worried, in fact — and then it must have been terrifying confronting Luthor as she had. He wished he'd been conscious when Luthor had been killed. If he had, he might have been able to shield her from the worst of it, but he hadn't. It must have been horrifying to watch. It had obviously upset her a great deal judging by her current behaviour.
The whole experience hadn't been any picnic for him, but it was funny how old sayings could sometimes be true. He really hadn't had time to be scared. Until he saw Lois, that is. When he'd come back to himself in time to hear her voice and to see her face, he'd panicked. It still terrified him that his partner had nearly been the recipient of Mrs. Cox's attentions.
He couldn't believe the audacity of Lois's plan. She'd come up with some harebrained ideas before, but nothing like this. She'd walked up to a total sociopath, and told him she needed his help. No one but Lois could ever be capable of coming up with something so ludicrous and still manage to make it work.
Clark lightly ran his fingers over his bandages. He wasn't sure, but he thought the wounds had closed up and stopped oozing blood. He wasn't sure if it was the lack of Kryptonite that had caused the bleeding to stop or a perfectly normal physiological response. Probably it was perfectly normal because he sure didn't feel super at the moment.
His face ached from being slapped, his stomach ached from being punched, and his head ached from being hit. And he was cold. A blanket and sleep-shorts weren't really what he preferred to wear when he was out at night. All the same, he felt an enormous sense of relief.
Luthor was permanently out of business, Rahsanjani was out of luck and Mrs. Cox was in custody. Now all he had to worry about was his globe and his partner, and at the moment, his partner was more important.
"Lois, sit down, and I'll make you some tea." Clark guided her to a couch and turned to head into the kitchen.
"No!" she exclaimed, her icy fingers clutching his arm. "I don't want tea. I want you!"
Clark smiled gently as he sat down beside her. "It's a good thing I'm your friend. Someone else might misinterpret what you just said."
"I wouldn't have said it to anyone else, just you," Lois said quietly.
"Clark, I have to tell you something." She looked at him with an expression on her face that he'd never seen before. Her eyes pleaded with him, begging him for something, he knew not what.
"What is it?" He reached out to gently cup her cheek.
Lois's hand came up to hold his, and she turned her head to brush her lips against his fingers. Clark's breath caught in his throat.
"I thought I was going to lose you." She lifted her head, and her luminous gaze met his. "Clark, you could have died!"
"But I didn't."
"But you could have!" she insisted, her fingers convulsing on his. "You could have died, and I'd be alone, and you would never have known… I wouldn't have told you…"
"Told me what, Lois?" Clark felt as though he was balancing over an abyss.
She looked him straight in the eyes. "Told you that I love you."
"You do?" he barely breathed.
She nodded. A single tear welled up and overflowed.
"Lois, I love you, too!" The words burst from his throat as he gathered her carefully into his embrace. He pressed closer to her, breathing in the fresh clean scent of her hair. Her arms slipped around him, her hands splayed against the bare skin of his back.
"If you'd gone…"
"I'm right here," he assured her.
"You could have died…"
"But I didn't."
"Don't ever leave me…"
And suddenly, holding her wasn't enough. "Oh, Lois," he muttered deep in his throat, an instant before pressing his lips against hers.
Her breath was sweet, her lips were soft, and her body was pliant against his. Her hands seared a path up his back and neck to burrow into his hair and tug him closer.
She moaned his name as his lips kissed the soft skin of her neck.
Many minutes later, Clark forced himself to pull back a little. He needed to calm down because if he didn't now, he wouldn't be able to in the near future, and much as that was something he yearned for with every fibre of his being, he knew that there were things that needed to be said first.
Lois was breathing as heavily as he was, and it took a while for the two of them to collect themselves. He kept her close, though, his arms wrapped around her as if she were a treasure to be protected. Which she was, Clark told himself fiercely. She was the most precious person in the world, and she deserved to be treated right, which meant she deserved the truth.
"Lois, we have to talk. I don't think it would be right for this to go any further until we do."
"I know," she replied softly. "That's exactly what I expected you to say."
"What do you mean?"
She pulled back and gazed up at him lovingly, her finger tracing his bruised lips. "You always do the right thing, Clark. That's just one of the things I love about you."
He couldn't help wincing. How right was it to hide part of yourself from your best friend?
"Oh, did I hurt you? Your poor face! You must be sore… I should get you an ice-pack…" She pulled out of his arms and leapt to her feet.
"No," Clark said, tugging her back to his side. "That's not it. I'm fine. It's just there's something I have to talk to you about, something I haven't been honest about, and I'm scared."
"Oh! Stop!" She sat up straight, her cheeks visibly reddening as he watched.
"What is it?"
"Um, there's something I have to tell you, too. Or show you, that is."
"I should go first," he said reluctantly.
"No," she said firmly. "I'll go first. I'll be right back." And she dashed into her bedroom only to re-emerge less than ten seconds later. She had something cupped in both hands. "Clark, I did something awful, and now I feel terrible. This isn't mine, but I kept it anyway." And her hands opened, revealing his globe.
Clark knew his mouth was hanging open, but he couldn't seem to help it. He'd worried and wondered and obsessed about who had his globe, but never in his wildest dreams had he thought it would be Lois!
She quickly explained how she'd got it, how Bobby had called her, how he'd got it from the kid who'd knocked off Clark's apartment who had been scared of the guys who were looking for Superman information — and she'd bet anything they'd been working for Lex Luthor! — and how she'd rationalized that it would be safer with her than back in his apartment.
"I knew I was only fooling myself, but I was just so mad at you and at Superman, that I kept it even though I knew I shouldn't. I'm sorry," she finished meekly.
"That's okay," he quickly assured her. "I'm glad that… I mean I'm sure Superman's glad that you had it and not somebody I… I mean he didn't trust." He took a deep breath. "And he… I do trust you, Lois, which is why I want to tell you something…" He fell silent and stared at her helplessly. How could he tell her? What words could he use to make her understand why he'd done what he had?
"Clark," Lois said quietly, laying a gentle hand on his. "It's all right. I know."
"I know you're Superman," she said firmly. "And I understand."
"You know I'm…"
"The globe. There were some messages…"
"You saw them?"
"It took me a while to put the pieces together, but I did, and I figured it out."
"From the messages?"
"But there wasn't a lot of information in those messages."
"There was enough."
A blinding smile spread across her face. "I know!"
"No one else would have been able to figure it out."
She laughed in delight. "What can I say? I'm brilliant!"
"Yes, you are." Clark grinned at her. She was so adorable — so proud of herself, tickled pink, pleased as punch… His smile faded. "You're not mad?" he asked warily.
"I was," she admitted. "But I was more upset when I thought Superman — you — and Cat were having an affair."
"We weren't! We didn't."
She gazed at him lovingly. "I know."
"So are you still mad?" he asked persistently. She'd knocked him totally off-balance, but that was the one question he clung to. He had to know. He needed to know.
"No. You — both of you — did try to tell me. At least, I think that's what you were trying to do." She eyed him sternly.
He was quick to reassure her.
"I think I'd only be mad if it was obvious you didn't want me to know, and you did, so…"
"Good. Um, you're not disappointed to find out that Superman is really just me?" He tried to keep his voice light, but he wasn't able to. Even to his own ears, he sounded plaintive and worried.
"Clark, listen to me." Lois looked him straight in the eyes, her hands holding his arms firmly. "Superman's powers are pretty fantastic, I'll admit, but what's even more special is what he — you — do with those powers. Imagine if someone like Lex had powers like that, or Mrs. Cox, or just about anyone in the world except you.
"I fell in love with you — with both of you — not because of what you can do, but because of who you are. The things that make you special come from here…" She pressed her hand on his chest over his heart. "…not from these admittedly well-defined muscles." She grinned as she ran her fingers lightly over his biceps. "I mean I love your muscles, and wow, Clark! You really look good in the suit — actually you look pretty incredible most of the time — but that's not what made me fall in love with you." She gazed up at him with an impish twinkle in her eyes. "It's just a fringe benefit."
He blushed, then laughed in relief and pulled her into his arms. Their lips met, and all his doubts melted away to nothing.
"I love you, Clark," she said quietly into the nape of his neck. "Don't ever leave me."
"I can't leave, Lois!" he exclaimed with a grin. "How could I? Look at how I'm dressed." He gestured to the sleep-shorts and his bare chest. "I'm showing all my 'well-defined' muscles!"
She pulled out of his embrace, and to his embarrassment, proceeded to ogle him, thoroughly. "I am looking, Clark, and I must say — I'm really enjoying the view!"
"Lois!" he half groaned as he tugged her back to his side. "Behave!"
"How do you want me to behave? Naughty or nice?" she purred.
"Have you been taking lessons from Cat?"
"You want me to?"
"Lord! I may never survive!"
"Are you sure you want to?" she asked, playfully.
"Only if you're with me," he answered, his voice hoarse and all his emotions surging to the forefront.
"Always." Her voice was soft, all traces of amusement gone.
He stared deep into her eyes. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
He wrapped his arms around her and held her against his heart, more content than he'd ever been in his life. It had taken a long time, but he finally felt as though he belonged. He was home.
Lois had never been happier in her life. To be in Clark's arms, to know that she loved him and he loved her, was an answer to a prayer she didn't even know she'd made.
Oh, she was scared, too — who wouldn't be after the family life she'd managed to survive? — but she knew what she and Clark had was too valuable to waste. There'd always been a connection between them, whether he was walking by her side or soaring with her through the air.
Clark's globe began to pulse with light.
"I should go into another room," Lois said reluctantly.
"No," Clark said firmly. "This message we'll see together." He started to reach towards the globe, but the glowing sphere floated to his hand on its own.
The picture appeared of the two scientists standing over the ship. The man spoke, sounding wistful, almost plaintive. "I try to picture where you are now as you hear this last chapter. What do you look like? Are you alone? What have you become? Lara and I will never know. But that you should live to experience this… that is enough. We are content."
Clark's arm tightened around Lois's shoulders as the man started to seal the capsule. The baby reached for the woman, but the ship's door closed, sealing him within. They could see the laboratory start to shake.
"We give you to Earth, to a realm called America, and a place called Kansas. Remember us, but do not regret our passing. All is fate."
Lois heard Clark choke back a sob as the view changed and they watched the tiny spaceship dart away from the planet. He shuddered as Krypton exploded suddenly and the picture ended abruptly.
With tears in her eyes, Lois turned to Clark to see that he, too, was almost crying.
"I wasn't abandoned by my parents. I was saved."
"Why couldn't they save themselves?" Lois asked before pressing a kiss on his cheek.
He smiled at her tenderly. "I don't know. Maybe it does. Maybe it'll tell me someday."
Together they regarded the innocuous globe that sat sedately on Lois's coffee table, no longer pulsating with light.
"I do know one thing, though," he said.
"They'd be happy. Jor-El and Lara would be happy if they knew you were in my life."
"They didn't just give you to Earth; they gave you to me." She shook her head. "Amazing. There are billions of people on this earth, and you end sitting here with me."
"Like they said — it's fate. I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be."
"You know what, Clark?" Lois replied, gazing deep into his eyes.
"I think you're exactly where you're supposed to be, too."
Their lips met in a kiss so sweet, loving and passionate, that Lois nearly swooned.
Forgotten for the moment, the globe started to glow softly, its light casting a rosy hue over the couple as they kissed and cuddled, all the while murmuring quiet endearments to each other.
With a lump in her throat, Cat watched as a rather impressive near-naked Clark led Lois through the lobby of her apartment building towards the elevator. She'd never seen Lois so upset or Clark so gallantly concerned. Poor Clark. Poor Lois. This had been a really tough night for the two of them. At least they were together.
One thing — she'd finally had that nagging question answered. There was no way that Clark Kent was Superman. Superman was invulnerable. He couldn't be hurt. And Clark had nearly been killed. Thank God he was okay.
The car started to move, and she turned and studied the stern profile of her boyfriend who was at the wheel.
Joe's mouth was set in a thin, stern line, and he was pointedly not looking at her. He'd been furious with her, and obviously, he had not yet calmed down.
She didn't think showing up at the warehouse was out of line at all. This investigation had involved her from day one, and she'd been following this story as assiduously as Lois and Clark had. Plus, there had been a number of threads to the whole thing that wouldn't have been unravelled without her help, which Joe seemed to have conveniently forgotten.
But no, all Cat had heard had been 'civilian' and 'police matter' and 'procedural problems' and she was upset. One moment, he'd been treating her like she was integral to the investigation, the next she'd been shunted aside.
He'd used her. He'd used her contacts and her insights and then he'd taken over. Just like a man. Oh, she was still okay to warm his bed, but forget the rest. Forget being treated like an intelligent woman for just about the first time in her life. Forget being treated with respect. Forget being treated with dignity.
Well, to hell with him, then. She'd felt special for the first time in her life because of the person she was inside, not for the way she looked or acted, and she had a taste for it now. She wasn't going to let things go back to the way they'd been for so long.
"Where am I driving you?" Joe asked brusquely, interrupting her thoughts.
He nodded and didn't say anything more. They drove the rest of the way in silence. He pulled to a stop in front of the building, and she reached for the door handle.
"Cat?" His hand touched her arm lightly.
"Yes?" she replied coolly.
"We have to talk."
She nodded and braced herself.
"What the hell were you thinking?" he asked.
"I was thinking that I was doing my job," she replied heatedly.
"Your job? You could have been killed. You didn't know the situation when you approached the warehouse. If I hadn't had extra men posted outside, you could have pushed your way into the middle of everything and ruined it all. Luthor could have turned the tables on me, and it would have been your fault!"
"It was my story," she said stubbornly.
"Your story? Hah! Your story could have got you, me and a few other people killed, including the reporters whose story it really was!"
"I worked on it, too. I was there in that conference room tossing around ideas with you and Lois and Clark. I was the one who connected Brandon with Jeremy Dobson."
"So you got lucky!" Joe shot back at her, his face flushed with anger. "You still had no right…"
"It was my story, Joe! I had every right to follow up on it."
"It wasn't your story! It was Lois and Clark's."
"I was part of this, too. It was my story, too!"
"You're forgetting something!"
"You're not an investigative reporter. You're just a gossip columnist!"
The words hung in the air. Cat felt as though she couldn't breathe. It was as if a giant fist was clamped around her heart.
A panicked look spread over Joe's face. "Cat, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I was just so worried… You scared me… When I realised that you could have been killed, I lost it. I'm really sorry. You know I think you're brilliant." He paused and swallowed roughly. "Cat? Please? Say something."
"There's not a lot I can say," she said soberly. "I think you said it all."
"But I didn't mean it. I got so wrapped up in what might have happened that the words just fell out of my mouth without my control." He laid his hand gently on her arm.
She jerked away from his touch. "I have to go to work."
"Cat, please. We need to calm down and talk some more. Please? I'll call you, all right?"
"Fine." Like she planned to ever talk to him again! Thankfully, she didn't cry. She was too mad. But she was also incredibly hurt. 'Just a gossip columnist.' He was right; that was her job. But the way he'd said it… It had stung.
She didn't look back at the car when she marched into the Planet building.
"Hey, Cat!" a cheerful Jimmy Olsen exclaimed as he entered the elevator to stand beside her. "Looking good today!"
By the time they arrived at the newsroom, Jimmy was standing as far away from her as possible, and thoroughly understood exactly why it was sexual harassment of the worst kind to compliment a female co-worker about her appearance. After all, he would have never told Perry he was looking good, would he?
A tiny little part of Cat knew that she was being horribly unfair to the kid, but she squashed the small voice of her conscience. It just felt far too good to verbally decimate a man for her to stop.
The elevator doors opened, Jimmy scurried away, and Cat stalked through the newsroom to her desk. She threw her purse down and then busied herself getting a coffee and perusing the doughnuts to see if there was possibly one that wasn't cream-filled and covered with powdered sugar. No such luck, though.
"Some of us are professionals," she muttered. "Not everyone thinks it's a fashion statement to have fruit stains on our clothes or so much powdered sugar on our outfit that others think we have dandruff!" Irritated, she pushed the box away without taking a doughnut. "Little boys. I work with little boys. Ever heard of a croissant or a beignet? Hah! Probably can't even pronounce them, let alone know what they are."
She marched back down the ramp to her desk and sat down. Cat eyed her social calendar with a great deal of loathing. After being involved in something so important, somehow it didn't seem too vital to write yet another article on whether beige or taupe was the new, hot, neutral colour. And she had no desire to ever attend another fund-raiser hosted by an empty-headed, egotistical, primping has-been beauty queen turned actor in bad TV movies!
'Just a gossip columnist.' The words kept echoing through her whole being.
Her head cradled in one hand, Cat quickly flipped through her day-planner. Fashion show, fashion show, fund-raiser, benefit performance, fashion show, charity ball, by- invitation-only birthday party, swimsuit fashion show, fund-raiser. Well, the fund-raisers, the benefit performance and the charity ball were all important, but somehow she couldn't bring herself to care about the rest. Seeing as covering those events was Cat's job, it was pretty obvious that she had a big problem.
What was she going to do?
She glanced around the newsroom, idly noting that the men were avoiding her gaze. Hah! Maybe they were smarter than they looked!
The room didn't look right with both Lois and Clark being away. It was probable that they wouldn't be in at all today, she thought. Knowing the two of them, though, Cat figured that they'd have their stories written and sent off to Perry from home. But they didn't know about Mrs. Cox, she realised. Joe had got the information about her real identity after Lois had headed off to meet with Lex.
Joe hadn't been too worried about Lois, she thought resentfully. In her mind, she glossed over the whole fast- talking routine Lois had done and the forceful way Lois had pointed out that Joe didn't have the ability to stop her. No, he only got upset with 'the gossip columnist.'
Cat's eyes narrowed as she thought hard. She took one more look around the newsroom and then pulled her computer keyboard a little closer. Her fingers were slow at first, but it didn't take long until they were dancing over the keys.
About a half hour later, she printed out her story and reread it yet again. It was good, she thought. Solid. Hard-hitting.
Cat slowly made her way to Perry's office, piece of paper in hand. She knocked lightly on the frame of his open door and entered when he looked up at her.
"Perry, I'm not a hundred percent sure of the etiquette involved here, but I have some information that goes with Lois and Clark's stories about Lex and Mrs. Cox that they didn't have access to."
"Okay," Perry said. "I suppose I could write it up for them."
"I already did," Cat replied hastily. "I put Lois and Clark's names on it as well as my own because we did work together, but I wrote it." She tentatively extended the sheet of paper to Perry.
He took it, leaned back in his chair and started to read. After a moment, he shot her a startled glance and sat up straight once again. It didn't take him that long to read the whole thing, but Cat was on tenterhooks the whole time, the suspense totally unbearable.
"Judas Priest, Cat! You wrote this?"
"You don't have to sound so surprised," she replied, feeling a tad offended.
"But this is good. Really good."
"Really?" she asked wistfully.
He smiled up at her as he motioned her to sit down. "Really."
"Whew! That's a relief!" She heaved a big sigh.
"This is unbelievable," Perry said as he looked down at her story. "How in the world did a woman with this kind of record get released? She should have been locked up in that loony-bin for life!"
"I know. But you have to remember the state-run mental hospitals did a huge release of mental patients back in the '80's. They were trying to save money."
"Still… Didn't they use any kind of guidelines as to who was safe on the street and who wasn't?"
"It doesn't seem as though they did. I was thinking, though…" Cat paused nervously.
"This would make a great story. I think it would be good to find out what criteria was used, what type of patients were released. Obviously, some of them, like Mrs. Cox, did do other crimes, but how many? What's the rate of re- offending? Did their crimes escalate in violence? How many people have managed to stay on the right side of the law? I'd hate to see this be just one-sided. I'm sure that there are lots of people who were released who deserved to be, and who have gone on to lead happy and productive lives. I'd hate to see this turn into some kind of witch-hunt targeting the mentally ill…"
"Honey," Perry said gently. "It sounds like a great story, but were you thinking of writing it?"
"I was hoping that I could."
"Cat, I don't know exactly how to say this, so I'm just going to come right out with it, okay?"
She nodded soberly.
"I've got two of the best investigative reporters around on my staff. I don't have room for more, no matter how good their ideas are. Frankly, I'd love to see you write this, but it's not going to happen. I'm accountable to my board of directors and to the publisher, and you were hired to be the Planet's gossip columnist. I think you'd do a bang-up job — I really do — but my hands are tied."
"I can use this story, though," Perry said, waving the sheet of paper in the air. "It's hard-hitting, concise, well-paced, well-constructed, and, darn it all, grammatically correct. I don't plan on changing a word."
"Well, that's good, at least," Cat replied glumly.
"Aw, honey, don't sound so sad."
"I'm sorry, Perry. I should be glad that you liked my story, but I guess I just wanted more."
"You got a taste for it, didn't you?"
He grinned. "You got a taste for investigative reporting. There's nothing like it, is there?"
She smiled back. "It was fascinating — like putting a puzzle together without even knowing what the big picture looked like."
"Exactly!" he exclaimed. "And you didn't do half-bad, if the scuttlebutt I've heard is true."
"I did pretty damn good," Cat answered almost defiantly. And then, it was as if all the bravado and pride just leaked out of her, like air from a punctured tire. "And now I have to go back to writing about thong bikinis."
Perry winced. "Someone's got to."
"I guess, but I'm starting to think that maybe that someone isn't me."
Cat thought about it hard for a moment. She hadn't even been aware of questioning her career choice until this moment, but she realised that her decision had already been made. "I'm completely serious," she replied firmly.
"It'll be like starting all over again," Perry told her.
"You wouldn't be able to stay at the Planet."
"You might not even be able to stay in Metropolis."
"I don't think I want to stay in Metropolis," Cat said slowly. "I'm too well known here, and not for the right reasons."
Perry diplomatically let that statement alone. "I could see what I can do, maybe pull some strings."
"I'd like that." She nodded decisively and got up to leave.
She turned back.
Perry got up from his desk and came over to her. He patted her on the arm. "Good work!"
"Thanks, Perry." She kissed him lightly on the cheek and headed back to her desk, both warmed by his praise and chilled by the thought of ever leaving the Planet.
"You're moving where?" Joe asked incredulously.
"Whippany, New Jersey."
"To be an investigative reporter."
"Because the paper there had an opening, and they said 'yes' when Perry asked them if they'd be interested in me."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that."
"Is your decision final?" Joe asked plaintively.
She nodded, gazing down into her chipped white coffee mug. She couldn't look up to meet his eyes. He'd looked too upset — positively grief-stricken — when she'd told him.
"What about me? What about us?"
She did look up then and intently studied his face. The neon lights of the coffee shop didn't do justice to him; his face looked slightly green-tinged. His eyes were fixed on hers, a plea buried deep within.
"What about us?" she asked bitterly. "You're a good cop and a good man, Joe. What do you want with 'just a gossip columnist?'"
He winced. "Cat, please? I didn't mean it. I was just so upset thinking that I might have lost you, that you might have been killed, I didn't know what I was saying."
She hardened her heart. "Pretty ironic, then."
"You were so worried about losing me that you said something that would pretty much guarantee you would. Lose me, that is."
"I love you."
She glanced away from his pain-filled face. "But you don't respect me," she said quietly.
"Yes, I do. I think you're brilliant."
"You think I'm brilliant when it suits you to think I'm brilliant. The rest of the time you want me to hang off your arm as decoration."
"That's not fair! What I said — it was wrong. All I can do is apologise. All I can do is say I'm sorry. And all I can do is tell you that I said those things — that thing — because I love you, and when I saw you barge into the warehouse scant seconds after Lex Luthor killed himself and Mrs. Cox was taken into custody, all I could think of was that if you had been one minute earlier, you could have been killed, and I couldn't bear thinking that you wouldn't be in my life! I got scared, and I said something really stupid and really hurtful, and I'm sorry." Joe fell silent and looked at Cat helplessly.
"I'm sorry, too," she said quietly, her anger gone, forgiving him in an instant. "I'm sorry because I do love you, and that's why this is so hard."
"You're still going to do this, aren't you? You're still going to move away?"
She nodded. "I have to. Remember when you asked me if I could ever learn to love myself?"
"Well, this is part of that process, Joe. What you said — it was only an echo of what I'd been starting to think about my job. I don't like being 'just a gossip columnist,' and I need to make a change."
"But New Jersey?"
"There's nothing available in the Metropolis area, and let's face it. I'm starting over. But this is the path I need to take. Plus, who knows? Whippany's not that far from New York City. I just might end up there."
He sighed. "I'm going to miss you."
"You're not going to try to talk me out of it anymore?"
He glumly shook his head. "No. It wouldn't be fair. You're right. You have to do this. I just wish you could do it here."
"So do I," Cat answered, her words heartfelt. "I'm going to miss you more than I can say."
"I'm going to miss you, too." His voice was husky. He cupped her cheek in his hand. "You're the most exciting, sensual, surprising woman I've ever met, and I will love you forever."
Tears sprang to her eyes. "Thank you, Joe," she said simply, her anger gone and forgiving him in an instant. "I love you, too. You make me feel special."
"You are special! You're a full-fledged investigative reporter. Whippany, New Jersey better watch out. If there are any deep dark secrets there, I just know you're the one who will ferret them out." He wistfully smiled at her. The smile faded. "Goodbye, Cat."
Her throat felt constricted, but she managed to get the words out. "Goodbye, Joe."
Their lips met lightly, a gentle benediction of a kiss.
"And take care."
"Thanks. You, too."
"I will," he answered. And then he was gone.
Cat didn't watch him go. She couldn't. Instead she focused on the coffee shop's menu, intently studying it as if all the secrets of the universe were contained therein.
Bobohinder Rahsanjani walked briskly down the hallway of his Mumbai mansion, barely noticing the priceless works of art hanging on the walls. He normally gloated over each possession, treasuring each one as a measure of his success in his career, but right at the moment, he was too distracted. News of Lex Luthor's death had hit him hard. The shock was still there even after three days.
How was he going to complete his mission? His country wasn't going to be safe until the Pakistani threat was eliminated once and for all. It didn't matter that his own government was currently advocating negotiation and diplomacy; he knew what was needed better than they did.
At least he had most of what he needed. There were only a few components required… Perhaps he could contact Krueger of South Africa… Or Hagendorn in Holland… There was always Mahmoud in Turkey. Someone would be sure to have the final pieces necessary to construct neutron bombs. It was only a matter of time.
Rahsanjani approached his office door. To his surprise it was ajar. The servants weren't supposed to leave his door unlocked! He'd have to reprimand the staff.
The door opened a little more, and a woman appeared. She wasn't familiar to him. She wasn't dressed like a servant; her sari was a higher-class royal blue with gold threads running through it. "Who are you?" he asked sharply in fluent Hindi.
She looked at him helplessly, and then her eyes shifted over his shoulder and an expression of relief appeared on her face.
"Your pardon, sir," a man said as he approached from behind. He spoke Hindi with a slight accent. "My sister — she wandered away. I am so sorry that she intruded on your personal space." The tall man rushed past Rahsanjani to stand protectively beside the young woman.
He was a stranger, too. Tall, with dark black hair and eyes, he didn't look Indian to Rahsanjani's eyes. And he didn't look like the woman's brother. She, too, had dark hair and eyes, but where he had a darker complexion, she was fair of skin. Even though her forehead bore the traditional Bindi, she had to be European or American.
"Who are you?" Rahsanjani asked.
"Your pardon, sir. I am your new gardener, and this is my sister."
"She is not your sister," Rahsanjani said firmly.
"She was raised by my mother who found her abandoned in the street."
The young man smiled slowly. "Mother always said that my sister was unique and special and that a system of classification had no meaning when it came to her."
Rahsanjani intently studied the nubile woman. The gardener was right. She was special and very attractive. Just the thing to warm his bed tonight and every night until his wedding. Even after, there could be special arrangements made…
The young man spoke, pulling the wealthy businessman's attention reluctantly away from the very beautiful woman. "Unfortunately, sir, my sister is… deficient. She is like a child, not able to speak." He grinned suddenly. "She's impulsive and head-strong and insistent on getting her own way."
There was a bit of a confused look in the woman's eyes, Bobohinder decided. What a pity. Still, it didn't detract from that magnificent body of hers. His eyes roamed over every inch of her, lingering on every curve.
Her eyes flashed with anger, almost making her seem intelligent, but then the anger faded and the confused look spread over her face once more.
"Make sure she doesn't intrude on my home again," Rahsanjani said abruptly.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. You're very kind, sir." The obsequious gardener led the shapely young woman down the hallway.
Rahsanjani watched them go, his mind working overtime. He could invent an errand for the gardener, he decided. He'd have to see if there were other chaperones he'd have to deal with, but then that woman would be his. He vowed it!
He turned and entered his office. Nothing looked out of place, but it would still be prudent to check. He crossed the room and opened the locked cupboard on the far wall. He wanted to check the components again. And he wanted to gloat, thinking about the havoc he could rain down upon his enemies.
All the electronics were gone! Everything had vanished! But there was something there in its place.
Rahsanjani reached out a shaking hand and grasped the package within. There was a note in English attached. 'What would a wedding be without a fondue pot? We thought this was a much more appropriate gift. Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials.' It was signed 'Mad Dog and friend.'
A fondue pot? He helplessly stared at the package for another long moment before dropping it and racing for the phone to alert security. Twenty minutes later, when his security chief presented himself in person to make a report, Rahsanjani knew just from the look on the man's face. The 'gardener' and his 'sister' were gone, and so were all his hopes and dreams.
This man, 'Mad Dog,' he would hunt this man down, and he would make him pay. He vowed it, all the while knowing that this promise — like the promise to bed the attractive young woman — would be all but impossible to keep.
As Clark spun Lois around the dance floor, his cape swirled around them. They danced well together, their tango having attracted a lot of attention.
Clark dipped Lois, bending her backward and holding her in that pose for a split-second as the music came to a halt. The onlookers applauded and with a laugh, Clark and Lois straightened up.
"Thank you, kind sir," his beautiful partner said demurely, her twinkling eyes belying her mock-solemnity. She placed her palms together and bowed slightly in the traditional Indian manner. Her bracelets jingled with each move of her graceful hands, creating music with every motion.
"Ms. Lane? Is that you? It is!" exclaimed a man dressed in lederhosen.
"Mr. Grubner, it's a pleasure!" Lois replied.
"You look lovely, my dear."
And she did, Clark reflected. Her flowing sari did nothing to hide her curves, and the Bindi on her forehead made her seem quite exotic.
Lois tugged Clark closer. "Mr. Grubner, I'd like you to meet my partner, Clark Kent."
"Mr. Kent, it's a pleasure. I enjoy your work."
Clark pushed the cape back from his shoulders and extended his hand. "Thank you, sir. I appreciate the compliment."
"I also enjoyed watching the two of you dance together. It was wonderful. Even though your costumes are very different, when you moved together, it wasn't important."
Clark laughed and tugged on his mask, shifting it ever so slightly. He still wasn't sure about having left his glasses at home, but Lois had seemed to especially like this costume so what choice did he have? "No, I don't suppose Zorro ever did travel to India, but who cares?"
"Exactly. There's such a mishmash of costumes here, it doesn't matter." Lois gestured around the ballroom.
She was right. The charity costume ball was in full swing, with bunny rabbits dancing with hockey players, and ballerinas with bikers. It was a fun, raucous event, and Lois and Clark were enjoying themselves to the hilt. It helped that they had something else — something important — they were celebrating.
"There you are, Dad." An attractive blonde in a dirndl marched over to them. "Oh, Ms. Lane!"
"Ms. Hawthorne?" Lois's jaw dropped open as Clark watched. He understood her shock. She'd described the animosity between father and daughter and yet now, here they were at a party together.
Lois shook herself and then quickly introduced Clark to Julia. They chatted for a moment, and then Julia turned to her father. "Dad? I couldn't get near the bar. Would you mind getting me a drink?"
Julius Grubner was quick to assent, and Clark offered to get Lois one, also. The two men left. Clark glanced back to see Julia talking earnestly to Lois. It wasn't intentional, but he overheard the start of their conversation.
"I want to thank you. You really brought me to my senses," Julia said. "I was awful to my father, and he really is a wonderful man."
And then the buzz of the surrounding conversations cut in, and Clark could no longer hear what the ladies were talking about.
After the men returned, with drinks in hand, the four of them talked a bit more before splitting up to mingle.
Lois and Clark did talk to a number of other people, but mostly what they did was dance. The band was very versatile, and they ended up dancing swing, and cha-cha, and the rumba, and the waltz. Their bodies pressed sinuously together, they danced another tango that should have been x-rated, it was so steamy.
When the last throbbing strains of the music ended, Clark was staring intently into Lois's eyes. Her face was close to his, and he could feel the warmth of her breath on his cheek.
"Would you like to go?" he asked hoarsely.
"Yes," she whispered, brushing her lips so lightly across his, it felt as though a butterfly had kissed him.
It didn't take them long to leave. It was warm so Lois hadn't brought a wrap with her, and she'd left her purse at home, instead appropriating Clark's pockets for her keys and her lipstick. They pushed their way through the crowd to the door, danced their way down the stairs to the sidewalk, and disappeared around a corner. A moment later, they floated in mid-air, Zorro's black cape wrapped tightly around them.
Her lips were soft and welcoming, and her hands buried themselves in his hair, tugging him closer. His fingers curled around the curve of her shoulder, the soft silky skin warm against his palm.
They kissed for an eternity before she finally pulled away and tucked her head under his chin. He echoed her sigh of contentment.
Clark was satisfied to drift aimlessly across the sky, revelling in the wonder of Lois in his arms, gazing at the moon, entranced by the stars. And then he looked down at the woman he held, and forgot everything else.
Her eyes were mysterious, luminous in the moonlight. Her hair was dark and shining, and her face could have been sculpted from marble, it was so perfect.
"Oh, Clark," she said softly, her voice reverent. "Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?"
"No," he whispered, not taking his eyes from her. "Never."
She gazed up into his face, and he could see the hot wash of colour flood her cheeks as she realised what he'd meant.
Lois looked around the dark, starry sky and then smiled tenderly at him. "I'm a bit envious. You've had moments like this before."
He cupped her cheek tenderly. "I've never had moments like this. Sharing this with you, it's been wonderful. It wouldn't mean anything without you."
"I love you," she told him seriously, her words as always, a gift beyond price.
"I love you, too."
He kissed her lightly before pulling back and grinning. "So, how did it feel saving the world today, 'Mad Dog'?"
She laughed. "Good. It felt really good."
He nodded in agreement. "I know. The fondue pot was a nice touch, by the way."
When she stopped giggling, she asked, "How did it feel being the sidekick?"
He grinned. "Not bad at all. You do understand why Superman couldn't deal with the problem, right?"
"Yes, I do. It's okay, Clark. That's why 'Mad Dog Lane' handled it."
"And handled it well," he said admiringly. "In fact, I think I'll retire, and let you take over the superhero business. You're a natural!"
"Any time you want, Clark! Any time at all." She playfully swatted him on the arm before snuggling in closer to him once again. "Seriously, though, I feel different from how I thought I would after stealing Rahsanjani's components. I don't feel proud or arrogant or powerful, instead I feel humble."
"Yes, that's right! I feel humble. I felt as though I'd been given a gift — the ability to help. Is that what it's like for you, Clark?"
He nodded. "I guess. I don't know exactly how to describe it, but the one thing I know is that these powers were given to me for a reason. I have to use them to help others; I don't have a choice."
"Actually, you do, Clark, but the fact that you think you don't is one of the main reasons I love you." She turned her face up to his, and they kissed for one long dreamy moment.
"Tonight was fun," Clark said softly. "I loved dancing with you."
"You're a wonderful dancer, Clark."
He grinned. "Want to dance some more?" he asked with a wink.
"Here?" She looked down at the city lights so far below.
A broad smile spread across her face. "I'd love to."
Clark swept her into a tango, their bodies moving to music that only they could hear.
Epilogue — One Month Later
Cat read the letter from Clark, her faithful correspondent, one more time and then neatly folded it and tucked it back into its envelope. A smile hovered around her lips as she thought about what Clark had said, and about what he hadn't.
He hadn't said anything directly about dating Lois, but reading between the lines, it sounded like the two of them had definitely linked up romantically. Good for them! About time!
Her smile faded as thinking about Lois and Clark brought back memories of working with Lois and Clark, which brought back memories of Joe. She didn't want to think about Joe.
She didn't want to think about his dangerous good looks, or the devilish twinkle in his dark eyes, or the slight roughness of his five o'clock shadow against her smooth cheek, or the touch of his hands, or the feel of his lips on hers. She didn't want to think about his delighted laughter when she was wickedly outrageous and flirty. She didn't want to think about the dreams that came in the middle of the night jolting her awake, her hand outstretched in supplication only to discover he wasn't beside her in her bed.
"Damn it," she muttered as she grabbed a tissue and heartily blew her nose. Would this longing for him ever fade?
She did manage to cope during the day. Her new editor kept her hopping. She attended City Council meetings, and trials at the Courthouse as well as dog shows and craft fairs and library fund-raisers. It was all so different from what she was used to, but she loved it!
Her colleagues were nice. Most of them were married. They were all solid people, and they'd made her feel welcome.
She was pleased with her little apartment, too. It was cozy — not too big, but she'd taken a lot of care with it. It almost felt like a home.
No, she'd made the right decision, but she missed Joe. She missed him more than she'd ever believed possible. It was worse when she had time off. Her next couple of days were going to be awful!
What choice had she had, though? She could have stayed in Metropolis, doing a job she'd grown to loathe, being the subject of gossip, dealing with people who'd never believe that it was possible for her to change, and eventually becoming a beaten-down woman who didn't have anything to offer to anyone. No, this was the right decision. It didn't mean she had to like it, though.
The doorbell rang, and Cat grabbed her wallet so she could pay for her pizza. She'd already discovered that Mama Piccone's around the corner made pizza that would rival any Metropolis had to offer.
"Hey, Sal! How much do I owe… Joe!"
"Hi." He brandished a flat cardboard box and a six-pack of beer. "I ran into your delivery guy on the stairs." He smiled nervously.
Cat stood frozen in one place. "You're here… Why… What are you doing here?"
His smile faded. "I knew this was a dumb idea!" he exclaimed as he thrust the beer and pizza into her hands. He turned to go.
"No! I mean you don't have to leave. I have this pizza, and all this beer, and if I eat it all, I'll be as big as a house, and you don't want to know what I'd be like if I drank all the beer by myself, and… Oh God, Joe!" Cat launched herself into his arms, the pizza and beer dropping forgotten to the floor. At least one of the cans exploded, but she didn't care. She was too busy exploring Joe's mouth with her own.
He reciprocated, the strength of his embrace slamming her body into the wall even while his arms wrapped around her, protecting her from the force of their contact with the hard surface.
"I missed you," he muttered into her hair before nipping her earlobe with his sharp teeth.
Her back arched in response. "I missed you, too," she whispered before snaking her hands through his hair and tugging his mouth back to hers.
He pressed into her, getting as close as he could. She pushed back, almost grinding her body against his.
"Oh my goodness!" a paper-thin voice exclaimed.
Cat turned her head to see her frail elderly neighbour standing near the open doorway, staring in delighted shock at them.
"Mrs. Steinberg! I'm sorry. Uh, this is a friend of mine… from Metropolis… He came for a visit… I, um…"
Joe buried his face in her neck. She could feel his whole body shaking from suppressed laughter.
"It's all right, dear," the silver-haired woman assured her. "I was young once. In fact, I could probably tell you stories. But I won't because I can see you have other things to do at the moment. Perhaps, however, you might want to shut your door first." She winked rakishly at Cat.
Cat grinned and winked back. "Good idea. Thanks, Mrs. Steinberg. Have a good evening," she added as she firmly closed her door.
"Not as good an evening as the two of you will have, I'm sure," they heard from the apartment hallway.
Joe and Cat looked at each other for a long moment before simultaneously breaking into gales of laughter. It took them a long time to calm down.
"I missed you!" she exclaimed as she recovered the upside- down pizza box from the floor.
"I told myself I should stay away, but I couldn't, Cat. I just couldn't." He stared at her in admiration, dripping cans of beer in his hands.
"I'm glad you're here."
She smiled at him, feeling suddenly shy. "Why don't you have a seat in the living room, and I'll just clean this up?"
A few minutes later, they sat side-by-side on the overstuffed couch.
"Me first," Cat said, taking a deep breath. "Joe, I'm really glad you're here, but why are you here?"
"I had to find out — Cat, do you still love me?" he asked almost desperately.
She nodded. "More than anything."
"And I love you more than anything. I also wanted to know — are you happy here?"
"Yes and no," she answered seriously. "I love my new job, and I'm happy with my place, but no, I'm not really happy. I miss you too much."
"I hoped you'd say that. I figured that if you're not happy here, and I'm not happy in Metropolis, maybe we could figure something out."
"I'm not moving back."
"I'm not asking you to." He turned to her and took her hand in his. "There's an opening on the force a couple of towns over; I've applied for the job, and I think I stand a pretty good chance of getting it."
"But are you sure? That's a big step. Your family's in Metropolis, and you love your job, and…"
"And I love you. Plus, it's for a Lieutenant's position, which would be a step up for me. I've really thought this through. I just don't want to make you uncomfortable. If you want me to stay away, I'll withdraw my name from consideration."
Cat felt tears fill her eyes. He'd do it, she knew. If she asked him to, he'd walk away and stay away for good. "Joe," she said, carefully considering what she was going to say. "I told you that I had to travel my own path, but that doesn't mean I can't have company on the way. I'd love it if you got the job."
"I'd be happy to keep you company on your path for as long as you want, Cat. Personally, I'm hoping for fifty, sixty years. What do you think?"
Her mouth fell open. "Are you asking me… Are you saying…"
"Marry me, Cat. I don't want to live without you."
"But what if this job falls through?"
"There are other jobs. I'll find something. All I know, though, is I want you to be a permanent part of my life. I want to cherish you, protect you, support you, and above all, love you, for as long as I live. What do you say?"
She paused. "This is so sudden… We haven't known each other for very long… We should be careful." But then she grinned. "On the other hand, why waste time?" She launched herself into his arms. "Joe, I love you. Of course, I'll marry you!"
Many ecstatic moments later, she gazed into his eyes and asked something that she'd always wondered about. "Remember when I told you I hated you?"
"You wouldn't let me push you away. I said I hated you. I said I didn't love you, and you told me that there was only one thing I could say that would make you leave. What was it?"
Joe grinned, leaned over, and kissed her so passionately she felt her toes curl.
"Come on, Joe. Tell me."
He laughed. "The only way you would have been able to get rid of me would have been if you'd said you loved me like a brother. Of course, you'll never be able to use that line now. I guess you're stuck with me."
"Never be able to use that line? Why? Whatever gives you that idea?" She grinned impishly at him.
He got up, scooped her into his arms and looked around the apartment. "Which way's the bedroom? I'll show you why."
Cat wrapped her arms around his neck, kissed him thoroughly and pointed down the hall. "That way. And Joe? Hurry."
"Hurry? You got to be kidding. In order to give you proof, I'll have to be thorough. I'll have to cover all the possibilities."
"Convince me then, Joe. Show me. Take your time. I'll need a lot of proof."
Mrs. Steinberg wasn't really surprised at all when Cat Grant and her friend didn't emerge from her apartment for two full days. She was surprised, however, at the vast quantity of pizzas that were delivered over the course of that time. Whatever could that nice young couple be doing to build up such an appetite?
THE END ;)