By Nan Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: January 2002
Summary: Lois and Clark find themselves involved in more than they bargained for when sent to review Mystery Mansion's Charity Fundraiser.
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings of this story are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions and anyone else who may have a legal claim to them, and no infringement of copyright is intended. The story, however, is mine.
"Perry, you've got to be kidding," Lois said. "Why send *me*? These things are ridiculous! You get a bunch of people who don't know each other together and one of them's the bad guy—and the rest have to figure out the answer to some silly, manufactured mystery. I mean, really! I've got better things to do with my time!"
"No, you don't," Perry said. Lois's heart sank. Her editor was looking perfectly relaxed and casual, and she heard the implacable note in his voice that meant she could argue until the sun went cold without results. "I'm still the one who makes the assignments, if you remember, Lois."
"But, Perry—" She could hear the plaintive note in her own voice. "Can't you assign somebody else? I hate these things."
Perry waved the small, brown envelope at her. "No, I can't. This shindig is bein' hosted by one of our biggest advertisers. It's his idea to benefit the Metropolis Children's Fund this year, and he wants it written up in the Planet with all the big names who attend—and he wants somebody with name recognition and some investigative skills to write the story about his mystery. He's planning this as an ongoing stunt, to benefit local charities all year."
"And it won't do him and his business any harm, either," Lois observed, dryly.
"No objection to that as long as it benefits the kids," Perry said. "Here are the tickets. You and Kent should be there by six this evening."
"Wait a minute! When did *Clark* get added to this?" Lois asked.
"Since the invitation specified a *couple*," Perry said. "And you two were partners the last time I looked."
Lois stared in dismay at her boss. Sure, she'd stayed in places before with her partner, but that was before their almost-first date. And before Mayson Drake.
True, Clark still seemed interested in her, but he hadn't told Mayson that he wasn't available, and he still ran out on her with stupid excuses when she wanted to talk about personal matters. Of course, they had been getting along pretty well in the last week since Lex Luthor's miraculous return from the dead. On the other hand, since they were "sort of a couple" the objection to staying in the same suite with Clark overnight applied as much as it had last week. "Well, yes. But—"
"I could always assign Ralph to go along, instead," Perry suggested.
"*Ralph*? That hack?" Lois almost had to bite her tongue to keep from elaborating on her co-worker's other failings and the likelihood that if Perry sent Ralph with her he wouldn't return alive from the assignment. She could just see what would happen if the two of them had to spend the night together in the same suite!
"Well, he's the only other choice," Perry said. "Make up your mind."
"I guess I'll take Clark." She glared at her boss, who ignored it.
"Good. Now that we've settled that, why don't you go let him know what's going on." He handed her the envelope. "Where *is* Clark, by the way?"
Lois shrugged. "He said something about meeting a source," she said. "I haven't seen him for a couple of hours."
"That guy's got more sources than any two other reporters I know," Perry said. "Even you." He swiveled his chair around and stretched. "Tell him when he gets back. Have a nice weekend."
"Yeah, right." Lois left the office, making a conscious effort not to slam the door behind her.
When Clark stepped out of the stairwell, twenty minutes later, Lois was doing a slow boil. It wasn't as if she had anything important to do this weekend, but it hadn't included participating in an inane game for frustrated mystery buffs who happened to have the money to afford an expensive diversion like this. She glanced up as Clark approached, and he visibly hesitated before continuing on toward her.
"Where have you been?" she demanded.
"Sorry," he said. "I was on my way back, but I got a chance for an interview with Superman. He'd just stopped a bank robbery."
"Hmmph. Why do you always get the Superman interviews? So, what happened?"
Clark frowned at her. "Three guys tried to hold up the bank and he stopped them. No big deal. What's the matter, Lois?"
She thrust the envelope at him. "We have an assignment."
"Oh?" Clearly, he had no idea what was going on. He took the envelope and looked at it blankly. "What's this?"
"Yes. We've been 'invited' to attend the Mystery Mansion's weekend retreat for two days of chills, thrills and detective skills," she informed him, bitterly. "It's part of the Hartford and Jeffery's Sportswear fundraiser for the Metro Children's Fund."
"Lois, what are you talking about?" he asked.
"Perry assigned us to go. Robert Hartford apparently asked him to assign us to report on the whole thing—part of his publicity campaign for the program. He's set it up to raise money for various Metro charities through this time next year, by hosting these things every month. He wanted journalists who have experience in investigations to report on it, and you and I got the short straws!"
"Oh," Clark said.
"Is that *all* you have to say about it? 'Oh'? We're assigned to be Mr. and Mrs. Kent, the tycoon and his wife, for the weekend 'production'."
"Well," Clark said, "I didn't have anything important planned for the weekend, anyway—just hanging around my place and watching TV and maybe finishing up my taxes. Why are you so upset?"
Lois didn't answer for a moment. "I just don't like being roped into this kind of stuff. It's not as if it was serious, anyway—a bunch of socialites playing detective! Besides—" She dropped her voice. "They're going to put us in the same room!"
"Oh." Clark's smile disappeared. "It'll be all right, Lois. I'll sleep on the sofa again."
"Clark, it's not that I think you'd—" She fought the urge to squirm. "It's just that we're sort of—I mean we're—"
"Lois, it's okay, really." Clark was looking at her very seriously. "I understand."
"How can you understand when I don't?" Lois demanded. "I don't like not understanding how I feel! Besides, what if—" She broke off irritably. "Oh, never mind. We'll just do our job and get it over with."
Clark nodded. "It's not as if we haven't done things like this before, you know."
"That's what I'm afraid of," she muttered under her breath, and then wondered if he'd heard her, judging by the sharp look he shot at her, but he didn't say anything. Instead, he opened the envelope he held and studied the contents.
"It says we're supposed to be at the Mystery Mansion in Hobs Canyon at six this evening," he said, "with our passes. We're to bring regular clothing for two days, one formal outfit, outdoor wear—this looks interesting. Maybe we'll enjoy it, Lois."
"I'll believe that when it happens." She stood up. "Let's get out of here. I need to pack."
Clark packed within seconds, thinking about Lois's reaction to the news that they had to spend two nights alone in the same suite. It was encouraging in a strange way. She obviously didn't regard him as a brother anymore, which was definitely a step up. On the other hand, spending the night in the same suite with her was going to be a Chinese water torture for him. He was definitely going to need all his super-resolve and self control to handle it.
He had just closed the suitcase when the sound of an alarm burst upon his ears. In an instant, Superman launched himself out the window of Clark Kent's apartment in the direction of the sound. At least, it gave him something to think about besides the upcoming two-night ordeal.
Unfortunately, dealing with an ordinary holdup didn't take long. By the time he'd finished and returned to his apartment, written up the simple "Superman Saves the Day Again" story and sent it to the Planet, he still had a good half hour before Lois was supposed to pick him up. He plopped down in his favorite chair and grabbed the TV remote. Maybe he could listen to the latest sports report on LNN, or something. Anything to take his mind off the upcoming two nights.
The weather report was just finishing up. He waited, wondering for a moment why he was obsessing over the situation. It hadn't been nearly this bad when they'd gone undercover at the Lexor that time they were staking out Congressman Harrington and his arms dealer buddies. It hadn't even been this bad at the waterfront stakeout a little over a week ago when they were watching Lex Luthor's crooked lawyer and Lois had gotten sick on food from Ralph's Pagoda. So, what had changed?
He spent some time chewing over the question, but without any real answer. Maybe it was the fact that Lois was showing actual signs that she might be serious about him. Her reaction to Mayson Drake's obvious interest in him was encouraging. He was aware that he was getting his hopes up a little prematurely, but it had begun to look to him as if Lois regarded Mayson as a poacher on her territory and that was definitely a good thing. As gratifying as Mayson's attention was, he was uncomfortably aware that his interest in her lay merely in the fact that she was a charming and attractive woman, and it flattered his ego that she found him to her taste. He liked Mayson, but only as a friend. The problem was, he was pretty sure she was hoping for more, and there was only one woman with whom he wanted more. Breaking that to Mayson, assuming that she was serious, wasn't something that he was anticipating with any optimism. But, maybe it wasn't as big a deal as he was thinking. Maybe he was reading more into it than was really there. He sincerely hoped so.
He glanced at his watch. Lois was already a few minutes late. It looked as if he'd missed the sports report, too. On the TV, one of the little blurbs they had been running recently on the history of Metropolis caught his attention. It was on this day in 1926 that Metropolis's most famous gangster, "Big Billy" Moran had died in a shootout on the site that was now the home of the Metropolis City Fire Department.
Clark made a face. What a place to put the fire department! Still, he guessed the site was better used for that then the gambling hall that Billy was supposed to have run there. The old black and white pictures showed Big Billy and several others in his gang all standing in front of the building that had burned during the showdown.
There was a knock on his door and it opened before he could even check the identity of his visitor with his x-ray vision. Lois stood in the entranceway.
"Are you ready?" she asked.
"Yeah, sure." He nodded toward his bag. "I was just watching this thing about Metropolis's history." He picked up the remote control. Lois glanced perfunctorily at the screen.
"Oh," she said. "Big Billy. I did an article a few years ago about him."
Clark shut off the television. "*You* did a historical feature about Metropolis?" he asked, incredulously. "Are you sure you're the Lois *I* know?"
"Sure," Lois said, her manner slightly defensive. "I sometimes do other kinds of articles—well, sort of, anyway." Clark raised an eyebrow and she capitulated. "Okay, Perry ordered me to. It was kind of interesting in a sick sort of way."
"Interesting in what way?" Clark picked up his bag.
"Well, there are a lot of stories about the guy—probably most of them were dreamed up after his death," she said. She waited with ill-concealed impatience while Clark locked his door and then preceded him down the stairway to the street where she had parked her Jeep. "He's supposed to have murdered his girlfriend and her lover, but nobody ever was able to prove it. Another story has them running off to Mexico with the proceeds from one of his bank heists. I think I prefer the second story best."
"They sound about par for the course," Clark said. "Anything unusual?"
"Nah. The usual attempts to make him a hero. One version has him as some sort of Robin Hood of the Twenties, but I never bought that one. A gangster's a gangster. Look, if you're that fascinated by this guy, look him up yourself. We've got somewhere we're supposed to be." Clark set his bag neatly in the back of the Cherokee and went around to the passenger side. Lois already had the engine running, and the Jeep was in motion before he had completely closed the door.
"What's the big hurry?" he inquired, losing interest in Big Billy.
"We're supposed to be there at six, and the road to Hobs Canyon isn't exactly a six-lane superhighway."
"Lois, it's not that long a trip."
"Have you ever seen the canyon road at rush hour?" she demanded.
He forbore to mention that he had personally straightened out more than one traffic jam on that very road. Among other things, however, that tended to back up her assertion, so he dropped the argument without further comment. Lois accelerated through a yellow light and then had to brake suddenly to avoid tail-ending the car ahead of her. Clark remained prudently silent. In her uncertain mood, he was quite sure that she wouldn't appreciate any backseat driving from him.
It took half an hour to work their way out of the city proper. Clark kept his remarks to a minimum, letting her concentrate on her driving. Since this was Friday afternoon, the traffic was unusually heavy, as people hurried to get a jumpstart on their weekend. When the crawling traffic slowed to a complete stop a block from the parkway entrance, Lois's subvocal mutters erupted into a tirade on the stupidity of drivers in general and of Metropolis drivers in particular. Surreptitiously, Clark lowered his glasses to check on the cause of the problem.
"I think there might be an accident up there," he said. "I think I can see flashing lights."
"That figures," she grumbled.
Clark opened the door. "I'm going to run up there and see what's going on. Be right back."
"Clark, what if the cars start moving?" she objected.
"I'll be right back." He hurried off at a trot, well aware that Lois was glaring after him.
The accident was of a relatively minor nature, as he had seen when he checked. The problem was that one car had apparently sideswiped another, smaller one, and the smaller car was now blocking one of the lanes. A paramedic van was on the scene and the shaken driver was being examined as Superman touched down. The tow truck, however, had not yet arrived. Cars were inching cautiously around the accident and the surrounding flares. Two Metropolis motorcycle officers were trying to direct traffic until reinforcements could arrive.
"Can I help, Officers?" Clark asked.
"Yeah, thanks, Superman." One of the men gestured at the car. "If you could get that out of the way, I think that would help a lot."
"No problem." He proceeded to move the vehicle onto the side of the road. "Is there anything else I can do?"
"No, I think we've got it under control." The older officer grinned. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." Clark took off, and a moment later opened the door of the Jeep. "Superman just cleared the blockage. I think we'll be moving in a few minutes."
Lois nodded, shortly. "About time." The car ahead of them began to ease forward and she followed. Clark was silent while she maneuvered past the accident, and studied her profile. Even slightly disgruntled, she was beautiful. He hoped she wouldn't be in this mood for the entire weekend, though. If she did, it could be a very tense assignment.
They exited the parkway just past the sign that announced "Hobs Canyon Road". As usual, the traffic was fairly heavy here as well, because it was the main route to a popular camping area for the denizens of Metropolis. The road wound along the mountain for miles, and Lois gritted her teeth as the big campers lumbered slowly up the incline ahead of her, moving at a snail's pace and blocking any chance she had of passing them by their width. Of course, the road was a no passing zone, anyway. The twists and turns of the two-lane highway as it hugged the rock wall made it impossible to see any hypothetical oncoming traffic. On their right, the mountain dropped away, and below them tumbled the Snake, a deep, but narrow waterway that twisted through the mountains on its way to join the Hobs River and make its path to the sea. To her left, the wall of the mountain rose steeply at an unclimbable angle, and here and there tiny slides of mud attested to the rain they had been having this year.
Clark was silent in the seat beside her, so much so that she wondered for a time if he had fallen asleep, but a glance at him told her that he was watching the road ahead of them, a slight frown on his face.
"What time is it?" she asked abruptly, unwilling to remove her eyes from the road.
"Quarter to five," Clark said. "We've got tons of time."
"Not at this rate," Lois grumbled. In truth, she was feeling a little ashamed of herself, although she would have died before admitting it. The assignment hadn't been Clark's fault, and she was taking out her temper and her uncertainty on him. Clark, of course, was being his usual self. She wasn't really being fair to him, although that usually didn't matter with anyone else. Clark, though, was her best friend and didn't deserve the treatment she was giving him.
"Sorry," she said, abruptly, and rather ungraciously.
"Huh?" The surprise on his face made her more ashamed. Was she really so unreasonable that Clark would be surprised at an apology from her? No wonder he was being cautious with her. Maybe he was even rethinking his desire to date her after their disastrous almost-first date. No, she reconsidered the thought. Clark wouldn't blame her for getting sick on the food from Ralph's Pagoda. The place had been temporarily closed by the Board of Health two days after their stakeout. She'd never been able to understand why the food hadn't affected Clark, since he'd eaten the same things she had, but that probably went along with his annoying ability to eat anything and not gain a pound. She'd never even seen him work out, although she assumed that he must at some time or other. You didn't get a build like his from sitting around watching football and eating junk food.
"It's not your fault," she said, obscurely.
He looked puzzled for a moment, then his expression cleared. "Oh. Don't worry about it, Lois. It's just another assignment. We'll be okay."
"Yeah, I guess." She adjusted the sunshade uselessly for the third time in five minutes. The sun was sinking toward the horizon at just the right angle to reflect off the windshield and hit her directly in the eyes. "I just love driving west at this time of day."
"I know what you mean." Clark seemed relieved at the change of subject. "Don't worry. The road turns north a little farther ahead and we'll be past the worst of it."
Lois shaded her eyes with one hand. "I didn't know you knew this part of the country so well."
"I go hiking up here sometimes," he said. "I've never been to the Mystery Mansion site, though."
"Neither have I. I think it used to be a private estate that belonged to one of the 'old money' families in Metropolis. The last family member died about five years ago, though, and everything was sold off."
"And then Hartford and Jeffery's bought it up?"
"I guess. I don't really know." Lois glanced at him. "I think it was actually bought by Lexel Investments, but after Lex—" She hesitated for a moment, then continued, determined not to let the thought of Lex and all he'd done intimidate her. "After Lex committed suicide and LexCorp broke up, I think it went on the auction block again."
"Oh." Clark's voice sounded subdued. "I wonder what he wanted it for."
"I have no idea. Lex was a self-made man. Maybe he wanted to buy himself some connection to the upper crust of Metropolis."
"I suppose that's possible," Clark admitted. "If there was anything that distinguished Luthor, though, it was his love of power. I'd think that proving to them that he had more power and influence than they could ever hope to have would have been more his style."
"Maybe," Lois said. "Anyway, whatever it was, he died before he could accomplish it. And now, he's got other things to worry about."
"I imagine being in solitary on Stryker's Island would definitely give his attention another direction," Clark agreed.
"We're almost through the worst of this," Lois said, changing the subject abruptly. "I hope we get rid of most of this traffic when we reach the turn-off. They're probably headed for the campground, over in the national park."
"Probably," Clark said. "Even if we get there a little late, I doubt they'll throw us out."
"Oh, I know." Lois glanced briefly at him again. "I don't know why I'm being so cross. I'm sorry, Clark."
He had a smile in his voice. "It's okay, Lois. I don't mind."
"You're supposed to say I'm not being cross," she said, trying for a lighter note.
He laughed softly but didn't answer.
A mile farther along brought them to the summit and the rock wall slowly disappeared. They were abruptly driving through a cleft in the mountain where the road wound through tall evergreens that rose on both sides of them.
"The turn-off is along here somewhere," Lois said. "It's called Lakeview Road." She reached forward to snap on the headlights. They were now facing north and the sun, sinking to the west, was partially blocked by the trees.
"It's coming up, right around this turn," Clark said. Lois couldn't see how he knew that, considering the huge camper that blocked their view of everything more than ten feet ahead of the Jeep, but she slowed slightly, much to the annoyance of the driver of the car behind her who blew his horn at her. Lois ignored the sound and slowed a little more, which was just as well, as the turn-off loomed suddenly and sharply off to their right. She took the turn carefully, absent-mindedly giving the impatient driver a rude gesture as he tore past behind them with another long blast of his horn. The screech of brakes a second later told her that he'd encountered the big camper that had been impeding her passage all the way up the mountain.
"Idiot," she said.
"Huh?" Clark sounded startled.
"Not you, silly; the guy in the car. He's going to get himself killed driving like that on that road. He must have known the camper was up there just ahead of me." She snorted. "Get some people behind the wheel of a car and they lose their common sense—if they ever had any to start with."
"Oh," Clark said. "Well, as long as you didn't mean me."
She smiled slightly. "Not this time, anyway. You have your moments, though."
"There's the sign," Lois said. "'Mystery Mansion, twenty miles'."
The Lakeview Road was narrow, even by comparison with the one they had just left, and wound sharply down the mountain through more and thicker greenery. Far below, Lois could see the lake spread out before them, its surface stained pink by the rays of the setting sun. The small, resort village at its edge looked picturesque and peaceful from their vantage point. Docks reached out into the water, and she could see several motorboats and sailing vessels tied up at some of them, and a few more still dotting the surface of the lake.
"Looks nice," Clark said.
"I guess. According to the map, that's Lakeview. Imaginative name. The Mystery Mansion is a couple of miles past it."
Clark glanced at his watch. "It's five-twenty. Still plenty of time."
"Don't rub it in, Kent." She gave him a smile to take the sting out of the words and let him know she was joking. After all, it wasn't his fault they would be staying in the same room tonight. If she could count on anything, it was on Clark being a gentleman. Her partner was no Ralph. The only problem was the same one that had made her hesitate to accept when he'd asked her out. Clark was the best friend she'd ever had. Getting involved with him in any other way risked the relationship. If things went wrong, she could lose what they had and she didn't want to. The fact that he seemed to be interested in her was a little scary.
Unbidden, a memory surfaced suddenly—Clark, months ago, telling her that he was in love with her, and had been for a long time. Later, after the wedding fiasco, he'd taken it back, but in the light of their current situation, she found herself wondering. Had his first declaration been the truthful one, after all? Maybe he'd simply decided to approach her in a more traditional fashion this time, rather than the way he had initially. But, if so, what about Mayson? Where did she figure into this? The last thing she wanted to do was to make a fool of herself. On the other hand, Lois was quite certain that Mayson wasn't the right woman for Clark. Clark was such an innocent around a halfway attractive woman, and Lois was sure that Mayson was determined to get her hooks into him. Didn't she owe it to her best friend to try to protect him from a major error like that? Especially, a small, sneaky voice in the back of her mind whispered, since you might want him, yourself.
The narrow road twisted in and out through the trees as they descended toward the lake. The sun was no longer visible behind the mountain and the shadows around them had grown thicker. Lois switched on her headlights. "I thought you said we had plenty of time," she grumbled. "It's dark out here."
"We do," he said, calmly. "We're almost to the village. See, there's the sign. 'You are now entering Lakeview. Speed, 25 mph.'"
"I can barely read it in this light," she complained. "I thought you were the one with the bad eyesight."
"I'm not driving," Clark said with infuriating logic. "We've got another twenty minutes and the Mystery Mansion is only a little farther."
The road wound through town. Lois kept strictly to the speed limit because the little settlement was brightly lighted and people didn't seem to realize that it was after dark, or that the street might not be the best place for walking. There appeared to be some kind of dance going on at the local high school, and a crowd of younger kids seemed to be holding a bicycle convention in the middle of the street, with no awareness at all of the presence of the Jeep. When they finally made it through the town, the trees closed in again on one side, and on the other, the lake shimmered in the light of the rising moon. Lois swore at the lack of lighting. "Don't they know there are drivers out here? How are we supposed to see anything if they don't provide street lights?"
"Turn on your high beams," Clark advised with annoying practicality. "That's what they're for."
She didn't answer, but after a moment, she switched them on, just in time to see the sign that directed them to the left, up a side road to the gate of the Mystery Mansion.
When the "butler" opened the door, Lois knew this was going to be a disaster. The guy looked exactly like Boris Karloff. She glanced expressively at Clark, but he didn't appear to notice. He let her enter ahead of him and handed his coat to the man, who was obviously waiting for him to do so. After a moment, Lois did, also.
The butler opened the door to the coat closet and deposited the articles inside. "Mr. and Mrs. Kent?" he inquired politely. "You're the last to arrive. I'm Jeeves, the butler." (Of course, Lois thought). "Everyone is waiting in the sitting room. If you'll come with me…"
There were several couples sitting about in the small, cozy room. A fire burned merrily in the fireplace and overhead, a chandelier glittered in all its crystal glory. Lois looked around, identifying the faces of the other couples in the room. There was Dr. Neville Elliott, the prominent plastic surgeon who catered to the rich and famous of Metropolis, and his wife. She'd met them at the opera last year when she'd been there with Lex. The couple to his left was Marvin Eldridge and his wife. Eldridge had bought out Luthor Development and was making as much of a success out of it as Lex ever had. Lois had interviewed him a couple of months ago for a Planet article. Rutherford Watkins, on the other hand, was one of Metropolis's most eligible bachelors, and the plastic blonde with the frankly impossible figure sitting beside him must be his latest trophy. The last couple seemed slightly out of place here if one didn't know their background. The two elderly people were George and Allison Lini, whom Lois had met at several charity fundraisers. George was the retired CEO and co-owner of Pierson and Lini Industries, and also one of the wealthiest men in the city. His company had supported more research and development than any other on the eastern seaboard, exceeded only by LexCorp. George and his wife were active in the charities of Metropolis and had hosted a charity fundraiser every spring for as long as Lois could remember.
Jeeves indicated chairs and waited for them to be seated before he began to speak.
"As everyone has now arrived," he began, "the weekend's production may begin. Each couple has an assigned role, and a single person here has been designated as our villain. Our new arrivals are Mr. and Mrs. Kent. May I introduce Dr. and Mrs. Elliott, Mr. and Mrs. Eldridge, Mr. and Mrs. Watkins and Mr. and Mrs. Lini. You have all come to the Mystery Mansion to take shelter from a storm. That is our setting, and the rest is up to you."
As he spoke, thunder boomed and Lois could hear the sound of rain begin. Since the sky outside had been clear moments earlier, she could only assume that the storm was part of the production.
A young, attractive woman dressed like a French maid and carrying a tray of champagne goblets entered the room and began to distribute them. Jeeves smiled primly. "If everyone will follow me, dinner has been served."
Lois glanced at Clark as they walked into the dining room after the butler. Her partner, her hypothetical husband for the purposes of the game, rested his hand lightly in the small of her back, allowing her to precede him into the room.
There was an empty chair at the head of the table and another at the foot, presumably belonging to their host and hostess, who had not yet made an appearance. There were place cards for each of them, and the butler indicated that they should be seated in their designated chairs.
When everyone was seated, Jeeves took a spot at the head of the table. "May I present your host and hostess, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Hartford."
Lois glanced at Clark. The brochure hadn't mentioned who would be the host for the "weekend production", but it looked as if the man who was kicking off the charity fundraiser was going to be the host, too. Hartford was evidently very serious about his project. That was a point in his favor.
"Good evening." Hartford smiled in a friendly way at his guests. "I've met most of you, and since this is hopefully the first of a series of these charity fundraisers, I thought I'd take the time to introduce everyone, although you probably know one another at least casually. We even have two of Metropolis's best reporters here to compete, and hopefully write a good review of our fundraiser, so everyone be on your toes."
Lois was aware that everyone turned to look at Clark and her, and there was a light pattering of applause.
"They're going to be Mr. and Mrs. Kent for the duration of our little production," Hartford continued, pleasantly, "a business tycoon and his lovely wife. Dr. and Mrs. Elliott will be with us as the good village doctor and his wife."
There was a general chuckle from the guests. Hartford waited until it ceased and then continued, "Mr. and Mrs. Eldridge, for the sake of our mystery this weekend, are playing the part of a mediocre actor and his wife—" Again, chuckles interrupted Hartford's presentation. "And Mr. and Mrs. Watkins will be the young honeymooners."
He waited while the guests again applauded politely. "Last but not least, we have Mr. and Mrs. Lini, who have agreed to play the part of the local school principal and his wife, the schoolteacher. One of you is our villain and only he or she knows who that is."
He raised his goblet. "There will be a small reward for the couple who solve our mystery. I hope all of you will enjoy our little game, and will tell all your friends and acquaintances about our monthly fundraiser for the benefit of the charities of Metropolis. And now, let the game begin."
Lois joined in the applause as Hartford set down his goblet. Mrs. Hartford went to take her place at the foot of the table and her husband nodded to the butler. Clark had a slight frown on his face and Lois raised her eyebrows questioningly. He shook his head slightly and mouthed the word "Later", to her before he picked up his napkin.
The salad was already on the table and Lois poked at it. It seemed to be a regular, Caesar salad. Naturally, she thought. It had to be the most fattening salad available. She was still trying to lose the seven pounds she'd put on over the holidays. It seemed a cruel part of life that what took only a few weeks to put on weight-wise, took ten times as long to take off. Of course, Clark saw nothing out of the way, but then; he never seemed to gain a pound. It was a source of constant frustration to her.
Lois worked sparingly on her salad, watching everyone at the table. At her left, Neville Elliott caught her attention. He was a tall, dark man with an almost cadaverous face—the sort you expected to see on the movie villain. "So, Ms. Lane—pardon me, Mrs. Kent—" He smiled slightly at his little slip. "You have the reputation of being an investigative reporter of the first order. Do you think you'll be able to solve this one before the rest of us?"
"According to the rules, we're to stay in character," Clark said. "Since we don't know anything about the mystery yet, I don't think either of us can give you an answer to that, do you?"
"True, Mr. Kent. I was only making conversation. After all, Ms. Lane—I mean, Mrs. Kent—suspended her investigative abilities regarding Mr. Luthor—unless it was deliberate, of course."
Lois felt her face go pale. Clark's expression grew grim, but he said, "I think that subject was thoroughly hashed out at the time."
"But Lex Luthor has turned out to be very much alive," Elliott said.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Lois asked, bristling.
"Nothing, my dear. Nothing at all."
Lois deliberately turned her shoulder to the man. Clark was looking even grimmer, but he said nothing.
Elliott said nothing else either, but took a bite of salad, radiating innocence. Lois stuffed a forkful of salad into her mouth and chewed with unnecessary vigor. Since one of the guests here was supposed to be the villain, her vote was on him though why he'd brought up Lex Luthor so unnecessarily was beyond her. But hadn't this estate belonged to Lexel Investments? Could there be a connection?
'Easy there, Lois,' she told herself. 'Don't jump to conclusions.' She didn't know anything about what was going on here, yet—but she wouldn't forget Dr. Elliott.
A few moments later, a servant silently removed her mostly empty salad plate. Someone else refilled her champagne glass, and Clark's. A moment later, a dinner plate was set in front of her, bearing a superbly prepared meal. Lois eyed the fettucine with shellfish in alfredo sauce with a sinking heart. The aroma that rose from the food was heavenly and she felt her resolve melting.
Conversation around the table was necessarily desultory with the delicious food. Lois noticed that Clark had cleaned his plate in record time, and figuratively shook her head. He'd probably be doing pushups tomorrow morning, like he had that morning at the Lexor, but it occurred to her briefly that that was the only time she'd ever seen him exercise, and that had been only for a moment.
Dessert followed the main course, a calorie-filled chocolate creation that she found herself completely unable to resist. It was fortunate, she reflected grimly, that she only had one more large dinner here. She was going to have to live in her health club for a month to sweat off the pounds she put on at this place. Now, however, the real mystery would be revealed. She wanted, also, to check up on the history of this house. Elliott's remark had aroused her curiosity. He might have broken out of character and behaved boorishly to boot, but if he was the villain, there might have been another reason for his behavior.
When they adjourned to the sitting room again, Lois found herself studying all her companions minutely and observing her surroundings with close attention. The mystery should be unveiled shortly; she didn't want to miss the first clues.
As it turned out, she didn't.
Clark selected the ridiculously fragile loveseat for the two of them and took his place beside Lois. Neville Elliott and his wife occupied the sofa and the others took various chairs about the room. The French maid—Marie, Jeeves had called her within Clark's hearing—appeared with after-dinner liqueurs. Hartford was certainly going all out for his charity event kickoff, Clark thought. No expense had been spared to render the atmosphere that of a gothic mystery. Something was bugging at him, though. Elliott's break in character at the dinner table might mean nothing, but it had raised his hackles. He certainly didn't like the way the man had seemed to take pains to deliberately upset Lois. She hadn't given much indication of it, but he could tell she hadn't liked it. He'd heard her heart rate accelerate, and the note of anger in her voice hadn't been lost on either him or Elliott. Fortunately for himself, the man had dropped the subject before there had been a real murder, right there at the table. Still, the doctor would bear watching, he thought. It might be that Elliott, who had been an acquaintance of Lex Luthor, still bore her a certain degree of malice for the way things had turned out at the aborted wedding. Whatever his reason, he hadn't racked up any brownie points with Clark, either.
Jeeves switched on the television, to HNN News. Lois caught his eye and raised her eyebrows at him. To his knowledge, there was no HNN News anywhere in the area. This must be part of the production, Clark decided. That was borne out by the weather report, which informed them that an unexpected storm had struck the area and was flooding all the roads in and out of the canyon. The windows were streaked with water as well, and now and then, what appeared to be lightning illuminated the glass and thunder growled. Somehow, it all seemed just a little too convenient to be anything but part of the mystery setting. A quick peek with his x-ray vision informed him that the sky outside was clear and crisply cold. A light frost was settling on the lawn. He relaxed against the slightly uncomfortable seat back and awaited developments.
The presence of Robert Hartford and his wife had been a surprise, as had the introduction the man had given them, but it could very well be that he wanted the two reporters in the group to be thoroughly introduced to his idea. Still, it seemed a little like overkill. Hartford was standing by the fireplace where the flames had died down to barely glowing embers, holding his liqueur glass and smiling enigmatically at his guests.
'Oh, come on,' he told himself. 'Stop looking for ulterior motives. The guy just wants to get this thing off to a good start.'
The fictitious HNN channel departed from the weather report to another of the historical segments that had grown so familiar the last two weeks on LNN. At first, it seemed to be merely a repeat of the one he had seen earlier about Big Billy Moran, and he watched it thoughtfully. It was strange that they should encounter this little piece of information again. Then something new was added.
The black and white picture of an attractive, if somewhat voluptuous beauty, appeared on the screen, smiling toothily beside Big Billy. "One of the great mysteries of the Twenties," the announcer's voice intoned, "and one that was never solved, was the disappearance of Matilda Grover. Matilda was Billy's idol, the great love of his life. One day she vanished, along with her personal bodyguard, Pedro Rodriguez. Many theories were advanced about their disappearance. One story that was told was that Matilda betrayed Billy and was killed. Another holds that she and Pedro ran away together to Mexico. Whether it was true or not, they were never seen again."
The picture of Billy and his companions outside the gambling hall reappeared on the screen. "Billy Moran was one of the most colorful figures of Metropolis in the Twenties," the orator went on. "Bank robber, gambling hall owner, and oddly enough, a devout patron of the Metropolitan Opera, Billy entertained celebrities and men of power throughout the state of New Troy at his mansion near the resort village of Lakeview. Politicians answered to him, as did most of law enforcement. Ironically, it was his protegee, 'Pretty Face' Dragonetti, one of the most vicious gangsters during the Prohibition Era of Metropolis, who finally put an end to the career of Big Billy Moran…"
A flash of "lightning" outside the window and a crack of thunder punctuated the voice from the television, and abruptly, all the lights went out.
"Don't move, please," the butler's voice called out over the cacophony of raised voices. "We often lose our electricity out here in the country. We'll have the lights back in a minute."
Lois sat still in the darkness. She hadn't noticed before that the fire in the fireplace had been allowed to die down. Surely, that couldn't be an accident. She could hear Clark breathing softly beside her and reached out to touch his arm. His large hand came down lightly and reassuringly on top of hers and his voice breathed in her ear, "Interesting coincidence, don't you think?"
"Yeah, interesting," she whispered back. Something thumped and clinked, and there was a scraping sound. Lois strained her ears, trying to identify the noises through the confused babble.
Someone struck a match at that moment, and she saw Jeeves lighting a tall candle that stood fortuitously on the mantle in a gleaming, silver candlestick. A moment later, the maid entered the room, bearing two silver candelabra full of lighted candles, which she set on the mantle as well.
Lois looked around, trying to see through the dimness. There had to be a reason they'd put out the lights.
It was at that moment that the well-developed Mrs. Watkins screamed shrilly.
Robert Hartford had disappeared. His glass had fallen onto the rug, and lay on its side beside a long, serrated knife, its blade ominously stained with red.
"Veddy, veddy interesting," Lois said, a short time later. "I guess we're supposed to assume that somebody was murdered."
"I think that's a reasonable assumption," Clark said. "The question is, how about all that information we got on HNN? I think we can take for granted that this house belonged to Billy Moran, at least for the purpose of our mystery. You did that piece on Big Billy. What did your research say about him?"
"If I'd brought my computer, I could tell you," Lois said. "I'm sure there's a reason that the roads are supposed to be flooded out by this so-called storm."
"Well, this can't be too impossible," Clark said. "We're supposed to solve it by Sunday evening. I noticed that our host disappeared. I suppose he's the victim?"
"Since he's the only one missing, probably," Lois said. She looked around their room.
It was a good-sized bedroom, but it wasn't a suite. Twin beds were aligned side by side, so it looked as if they were going to have to sleep in the same room. Not, Lois reminded herself firmly, that she had anything to worry about. Clark was certainly a gentleman. Again, she thanked her foresight not to have been stupid enough to pick Ralph to accompany her. Not only would he have been no help at all in solving the mystery, she wouldn't have dared to close her eyes all night.
"So," Clark was saying, "we have a missing host, and this place is supposed to have been where Big Billy entertained members of the upper crust of Metropolis during the Prohibition era."
"And," Lois added, "they mentioned his girlfriend and her bodyguard. It's either a red herring, or something about them is important, too."
"Didn't you say they were supposed to have absconded with the proceeds of one of Big Billy's heists?" Clark asked.
"Yeah," Lois said. "I wonder if that's part of it? They didn't mention anything about it."
"Maybe they will, later. You know," Clark said, "this all seems a little too coincidental."
"Clark, it's a manufactured mystery."
"No," he said, slowly. "I mean that LNN has been running these little historical spots for two weeks, and the day we get volunteered—by request—to attend the opening of Mystery Mansion's charity fundraiser, it turns out the mystery is based on Big Billy—who just happened to have been killed on this exact day in 1926. Not to mention that you wrote an article about him a few years ago—and that you're an investigative reporter with a reputation that won't quit. Am I overly suspicious, do you think?"
"I don't know." Lois frowned, mulling over what he'd just said. Coincidence? "You know how I distrust coincidences. But if you're right, what do you think is going on?"
Clark shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's all part of the mystery setup."
"Maybe," Lois said, thoughtfully. "But I think I'm going to take this whole thing a little more seriously than I might have before. It won't hurt to be alert—just in case."
Somewhere, a grandfather clock chimed ten o'clock. Lois glanced at her partner, who was putting away the clothing in his overnight bag. "After everyone goes to bed, we can do a little snooping of our own."
Clark nodded, a slight grin on his lips. "How did I know you were going to say that?"
"You're psychic," Lois told him. She took out her cellular phone. "I know they didn't say we couldn't have these, but I kind of got the impression they were discouraged. I'm going to call Jimmy and see if he can dig me up any more information on Big Billy." She opened the phone and began to punch in a number. Clark started slightly and put a hand to his ear. "What's the matter?"
Lois shook the phone. "That's funny. My phone isn't working, but the battery's charged."
"Maybe we're out of the reception area."
"Maybe." Disgustedly, she shut the phone's cover. "I want to find out where Hartford went."
"Well, he's supposed to have been murdered," Clark pointed out.
"Maybe, maybe not. Call me suspicious, but I think there's a lot more to this than just a simple murder. Besides, maybe this so-called murder is supposed to be connected to the stuff on Big Billy."
"And one of the others is supposed to be the villain. He'll probably be leaving clues of some kind around. They haven't told us we can't look for Hartford. Unless they do, as far as I'm concerned, anything's fair."
"Sounds reasonable to me." Clark had raised his head as if he were listening, although Lois couldn't imagine to what. All she could hear was the faint rumble of thunder that had been going on all evening. Runnels of water ran down the windowpane and lightning flashed again. She still had strong doubts about this sudden storm but if it was a special effect, it was a good one. As a matter of fact, the whole production seemed a little *too* good. For a charity event, it certainly seemed as if Hartford was spending more money than he could possibly be making, and that was an inconsistency that bothered her. True, it was the kickoff event and this one was more for the publicity than anything else, but it still didn't seem quite right.
"Clark," she said, slowly, "I have a funny feeling about—"
He shook his head slightly and one eyelid flickered at her in an infinitesimal wink. She broke off, slightly surprised and then on her guard.
Clark smiled. "Let's go for a little walk and get used to this place," he suggested in a casual tone. "I don't know about you, but I'm all turned around."
Since Clark was never "turned around", he must have heard something, even if she hadn't, she surmised. He might have poor vision, but his hearing was unbelievably acute. She nodded. "That's a good idea. I'm a little confused about this place, myself. It's pretty big."
Clark's smile widened and he opened the door for her without another word.
Once in the hall, Lois turned to him, opening her mouth to speak, but he shook his head and took her elbow, gently. "I think the stairs are that way," he said, raising his voice just slightly. "Let's go the other direction and see what's here."
Lois let him guide her down the hallway, watching him closely while trying to act normal. They reached a turn in the corridor and Clark turned left without hesitation. "This place is huge, isn't it?"
"Mansions are usually huge, Clark," Lois said, dryly, maintaining her usual attitude in the face of Clark's odd behavior. "There must be at least fifty or a hundred rooms in this place if you count the ones on the next two floors."
"Closer to a hundred," Clark agreed, still a little more loudly than his usual speech. "I guess it made a perfect location for their mystery. If we give it a good write-up, it should be a great asset to the charity organizations, don't you agree?"
"Assuming that it's a decent mystery," Lois said. "So far it doesn't look bad."
"Well, it's a little melodramatic, but I think we both expected that," Clark said. He turned left again, and Lois could see him cocking his head in the slightest listening gesture. Quickly, he stepped to one of the unopened doors and twisted the knob. Lois could have sworn she heard a faint crunching sound as if something had broken, but the door opened easily and he gestured her inside.
They were in another bedroom, very much like the one they had left, except for the fact that the chairs and bed were covered with sheets, and a faint film of dust lay over everything. The room was dim, illuminated only by the light from the hall. Lois stood perfectly still as Clark closed the door softly. An instant later, a beam of light from a pencil-sized flashlight in his hand illuminated the room. She fished her own from the pocket of her skirt and snapped it on. Clark was flashing his light around the room, covering, it seemed, every inch of the walls, floor and ceiling, and she could see the expression on his face, dimly illuminated by the light from the two pencil flashes. He was smiling slightly as he turned to her, touching a finger to his lips.
By now, Lois's curiosity was almost overwhelming, but she bit it back while her partner continued to turn slowly about, obviously searching for something. At last, he stopped and seemed to relax. "I think it's safe to talk," he said, his voice low. "Just keep your voice down."
"What on earth are you talking about?" she asked, keeping her voice low.
"Our room was bugged," he said.
"Sh! Not so loud!"
"What do you mean, bugged?" she demanded, more softly.
"Exactly what you think I mean," he said. "There was an electronic bug in our room."
"How could you tell?"
He grinned. "I've got really good hearing," he explained. "It comes from living in the country away from most loud noises while I was growing up. I can still hear bats squeaking and hummingbirds, when they fight. When we walked into our room I heard a funny, high electronic squeal, almost on the edge of my hearing—kind of like what you hear when you go into a department store that has fluorescent lighting, only higher."
"I think I know what you mean," Lois said. "I can hear it, too, sometimes."
"It's the mechanism of the lights," Clark said. "Most people lose the ability to hear sounds that high after while. Anyway, I kept wondering what it was. It was pretty faint, but I hadn't heard it anywhere else in the house, so I kind of suspected what it might be and started looking around for it without saying anything. I found it. The microphone is about the size of a pencil eraser, and it's on the frame of that big picture between the beds. It looks like part of the carving unless you look hard."
"*What*? Why those perverts!"
"I don't think they're interested in eavesdropping on that kind of thing, Lois," Clark said, but she thought she could detect a faint pinkness to his cheeks in the pale light of the penlights. "They're listening in on us."
"Yeah, and I want to know why!"
"So do I," Clark said. "This seems to be going a little far just for a weekend murder mystery."
"Then, what do you suppose is going on?"
"I don't know, but we're going to find out. Are you game?"
"Do you even have to ask?"
His teeth flashed in one of his brilliant smiles. "Of course not. Still, this isn't exactly the way I planned this weekend."
"Me, either," Lois said.
"I'd planned on asking you out to dinner," Clark said, quietly. "I figured Perry couldn't mess it up if it was on my own time. Little did I know."
Lois looked down at her toes, barely visible in the gloom, well aware that she was blushing. "There'll be time when we get back. At least we're working on this together. That's kind of like a date."
"Not the kind I'd like." He put a finger under her chin and lifted her face until she was looking up at him. "I was thinking of dinner and dancing at Sirino's."
"I thought you had to have reservations a week in advance for that," Lois said, startled out of her embarrassment.
"You do. I know guys who know guys."
"Oh." She fumbled for a moment. "Well—maybe next week we can—"
"How about next Friday night?" he asked. "We both have it off."
"Umm—I think I have a Tai Kwan Do class that night, but I could cancel." She took a deep breath. "Okay."
"Good," Clark said. He rested his palm against her cheek for an instant. "With luck, we won't have a stakeout or something get in the way." At her raised eyebrows, he chuckled. "Let's get this mystery solved. Perry won't be able to ruin it for us if we bring him a big story from this thing."
"You can say that after more than a year at the Planet?" she asked.
"You have a point. Still, maybe we can make him feel guilty."
"The man doesn't have a guilt bone in his body, but we can only try." The banter made her feel less nervous. After all, this was Clark, her partner and best friend. They worked together as a smoothly operating team on assignments. Why couldn't they do as well in a closer relationship? With that settled, at least temporarily, in her own mind, she looked around the room. "You're sure there aren't any bugs in here?"
"Well, I don't *hear* any whine, and you can bet I've been listening, so I think we're probably safe. We can't stay here long, though, or they'll probably start looking for us. I kind of have the feeling that they might be trying to keep close tabs on us."
"I'm beginning to have the same feeling," Lois said, uneasily. "What was this? Some sort of elaborate trap to lure us up here or something?"
Clark shrugged. "Maybe. I still think there's more behind it, though. Why would they be sure we heard all that stuff about Big Billy if they just wanted to trap us, or kill us, or something? Not to mention the stuff about his disappearing girlfriend and her lover. Do you remember anything about your research on them?"
Lois frowned, trying to recall what she had read. "The last time anybody saw her—or admitted seeing her, anyway— was when she and Pedro drove away from Billy's gambling hall in one of his limos," she said, slowly. "Nobody could be found later who could remember if they said where they were going or not. Nobody could account for a lot of people that night, as far as I could find out. The rumor that circulated afterwards was that Billy's latest heist— something like forty million dollars in cash and jewelry— turned up missing right after that. The implication seems to be that Matilda and Pedro made off with it."
"Who else was missing?" Clark asked, obviously intrigued.
"Well, a lot of people," Lois said, trying to remember. "Billy's personal bodyguard, for one—only, he turned up later. He claimed he'd been visiting Rosie's—the local house of ill repute—and nobody could disprove him. There was a big party at Rosie's that night, and mostly everyone was drunk, so memories were necessarily a little fuzzy."
"Life back then seems to have been colorful, to say the least," Clark said. "Was there any mention of this place in any of your research?"
"I'm trying to remember. I think there was some reference made about some fancy house in the country where he entertained important people, but I don't think the stuff I read said exactly where. Besides, it didn't seem very important for the article."
"So it *could* have been this one?"
"I guess it could," Lois said, a little doubtfully. "Maybe Billy's heist is hidden around here, and they want us to find it for them?"
"You'd think," Clark said, "that if they thought it was around here, they'd have already turned the house upside down looking for it. Besides, Matilda and Pedro disappeared, and so did the money. If Billy caught them and had them killed, he'd have gotten it back."
"I guess so," Lois agreed. "Besides, I've never heard of any rumors that it might be up here. If there were any hint that it was, every treasure hunter in the countryside would have dug the place up by now. You know how rumors about buried treasures pull in everybody and his brother. It would have been nice if it had all turned out to be just a treasure hunt, though. Oh, well. I guess we'll have to look for something a little more sinister."
"You're probably right," Clark said. "We better get out there again, though. If they notice we're gone, they might watch us more closely after this." His teeth flashed again. "My, that sounds paranoid."
"Paranoia is a healthy thing in an investigative reporter," Lois said. She put her ear to the door, listening for any sign of life in the corridor outside. "I think we're clear."
Clark nodded. Quickly, they opened the door, stepped out into the hallway and closed it behind them.
"Now, what?" Lois asked.
"Well—we're supposed to be exploring. Let's explore."
They spent the next half-hour walking openly about the house. Twice, they encountered Jeeves, apparently on some mission on the second floor, and once Marie hurried past them, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to them. If Clark hadn't been absolutely certain of the fact that their room had been bugged, and that the mike was live, he might have doubted that anyone was particularly interested in them.
The whereabouts of Robert Hartford bothered him. It seemed as if the man had completely vanished, but he doubted that was so. It was probably part of the weekend mystery but since the mystery seemed to be pointed at the two of them and Lois in particular, it mattered to him. After Lois was asleep, he planned to x-ray the place thoroughly. It might be cheating, but something was definitely wrong with this situation and he intended to find out what it was.
"You realize," Lois said, "that they know we intend to snoop around after people have gone to bed."
"Yeah," Clark agreed. "They don't know exactly when, though. We didn't say anything too specific. They know we're a little suspicious, but that's all—if we give the appearance of having decided it's all part of the mystery, maybe they'll be less alert."
"So, what do you suggest we do?"
"Well, let's do our snooping now. Besides, we're supposed to be trying to solve their mystery. Let's let them think that's all we're doing—if they ask."
Lois blinked, thoughtfully. "Good idea. It wouldn't hurt if one of us were to make a remark about our earlier suspicions being silly, sometime this evening, either— within range of the microphone. Where do you think we should start?"
"I was hoping you'd have an idea."
"Well—how about the sitting room where the 'murder' occurred? That seems like as good a spot as any."
"Sitting room it is," Clark said. "The stairs are this way."
Marvin and Laura Eldridge reached the top of the stairs as Clark and Lois approached, and the developer grinned cheerfully at them. "Doing some detecting?"
"Sort of," Clark agreed. Marvin Eldridge was probably in his mid-fifties, an athletic, tanned man with a shock of silver hair that made him look distinguished, rather than old. His wife, Laura, was probably in her mid-forties and looked closer to thirty than forty. She was a dignified woman, whom Clark had never heard speak so much as a critical word about any of the other members of her social set—an unusual quality, he had learned. She smiled at them in a friendly way as Clark and Lois stepped aside to allow the two to pass.
"I'm afraid I'm not much of a detective. I haven't the slightest idea what to look for."
Lois shrugged. "We're not sure, either, but we thought we'd look around a little," she said. "There might be more clues for us to find."
"Good luck," Marvin Eldridge said. "We crawled all over the sitting room and didn't find a thing that looked useful."
Clark grinned at the image that presented. "You never know. We might as well check it out."
"Rob has the easy part of all this," Laura said. "He gets to play the body. Oh, well. Even if we don't solve the mystery, the weekend is for a good cause."
"That's true," Lois said. "Still, it's hard to resist the challenge."
"It might be for you," Laura said, "but you're good at figuring out things. I've often thought how exciting your career must be."
Her husband chuckled. "Good luck," he repeated. "I'm headed for bed. If the two of you haven't solved it by morning, maybe we'll have some fresh ideas—or fresh clues, then."
"Maybe," Clark agreed. "Good night."
"I guess we're not the only ones who decided to snoop," Lois said, a few minutes later.
"Yeah, but we're probably the only ones who are looking for something other than their mystery," Clark said. "I think I hear Jeeves coming."
Sure enough, as they reached the bottom of the stairs, the cadaverous butler emerged from the dining room into the hallway.
"Mr. and Mrs. Kent," he greeted them. "I trust you've finished familiarizing yourselves with the house. May I bring you some evening refreshment?"
"In a while," Clark said. "We'd like to look over the sitting room where Mr. Hartford vanished, if you don't mind."
"Not at all. Please refrain from disturbing the scene, if you would," Jeeves said.
"No problem," Lois said. "Jeeves, are there any sorts of reference materials here? I'd like to do a little research and my phone is dead."
"Certainly, Madame." The butler gave a correct, little smile. "You'll find our library to be most extensive. Follow the hall to the intersection and turn left. You'll see it at once."
"Thanks," Lois said. "We'll go there right after we look at the sitting room."
"Of course." Jeeves stood aside and allowed them to pass.
"Well, either he was listening to us or he figured it out from what we were doing," Lois muttered. "At least, we can check the library for information on Big Billy—if they have any."
"If the mystery is about him, they probably do," Clark said. "I should have thought of it, myself."
"That's why you have a partner," Lois pointed out. "Come on; let's check this place out."
Everything was exactly as they had left it several hours ago. On superficial examination, nothing had changed except the fact that there was no one here, now, except the two of them. The knife, it's blade ominously reddened, still lay on the carpet not far from the liqueur glass. The fire now burned in the fireplace, casting a reddish glow on the walls and furnishings. Careful not to touch anything, Lois leaned over the knife.
"I think this is tomato juice," she observed, at last.
Clark had never doubted the true nature of the substance, but he felt that it was unnecessary to say so. "What interests me is how he disappeared."
"Me, too." Lois moved to the spot in front of the mantle where Robert Hartford had stood. "He was about here, wasn't he?"
"Pretty close." He stood back, surveying the room. Ah, there was the panel. He hadn't been able to check for it earlier with all the confusion.
When the lights had gone out, his immediate impulse had been to look at Lois to be sure she was all right. It wasn't logical or even sensible, but that was always his first instinct. Lois would probably yell at him if he were foolish enough to admit this particular weakness, but he wasn't about to try to change it. It did have a drawback, however. In the second it took his eyes to adjust and the following few where he was looking at Lois, Hartford had simply disappeared. He knew there had to be some kind of hiding place close at hand, but he hadn't been able to do a real search with all the confusion that had followed the event.
There it was: a concealed cupboard to the side of the fireplace, but that was all it was—a cupboard, a hiding place where Hartford had concealed himself until the room was cleared out. There was no one there, now.
So, as they had deduced, this was only part of the manufactured mystery and Hartford was probably going to stay out of sight for the rest of the weekend. But something didn't jibe. Why all that information that had almost certainly been fed to them via 'HNN'? So far, they hadn't seen any connection to Big Billy with the little murder mystery that had been cooked up for the benefit of the charity donors. One might emerge later, but Clark had a hunch that if it did, it wasn't what was intended for them. He wasn't sure why, except that the others would have no reason to know—or care—much about Big Billy, and Lois did.
He didn't really know why all his instincts were on the alert about this. Perhaps it was only because the thing seemed to be aimed at Lois, and he was hypersensitive about anything that seemed to target her. And besides, something just didn't seem to add up. Maybe he was wrong—if he was, all the better. But, until he was certain that there was no undue threat to her, he would stay suspicious.
He stepped forward and examined the panel carefully, then reached out to touch the catch that opened it.
Lois saw Clark touch what looked to be an irregularity in one brick on the fireplace. Silently, the wall to its right opened, revealing a shallow cavity a little taller than her partner, with enough room for a man to stand inside.
"How did you know that was there?" she asked, stepping forward to examine the hiding place.
Clark shrugged. "I saw one of these once in England," he said. "This must be where Hartford disappeared to."
"Yeah, maybe," Lois said, "but he's gone, now. I don't think this was what we were supposed to find, anyway."
"Probably not," Clark agreed. He knelt to examine the knife again. "I imagine what we're supposed to find is this button." He reached out to retrieve what appeared to be the button off of someone's shirt cuff that lay tucked almost invisibly in the groove between the rug's edge and the brick of the hearth.
"I'd say you've got it, Mr. Holmes," Lois said. "Who do you suppose it belongs to?"
"Our villain, I guess," Clark said. He got to his feet and touched the spring that closed the hidden cupboard again. "No need to let them know we found that, I think. I guess we found what we're supposed to find."
"I'd guess," Lois said. "Let's go to the library. You know, I have the weirdest feeling that we've fallen through the rabbit hole into a game of Clue."
"I don't think 'Clue' had a sitting room," Clark said, "but I know what you mean. Come on; maybe we'll find something interesting in the library."
The library was dimly lit with a couple of nightlights. Clark found a wall switch and snapped on the overhead lighting. It was a cozy room, with several easy chairs and the walls were lined with books from floor to ceiling. A very modern computer was ensconced on a mahogany desk, but, as Lois quickly discovered, it was password protected. She cussed softly under her breath.
Clark, who had been standing back surveying the books, glanced at her. "What's the matter?"
"It's password protected."
"Oh." He joined her at the desk. "Well, let's look around, first. We can try cracking the password if there's nothing else here. There's a whole section on the history of Metropolis."
Lois felt her eyebrows climb. "You're kidding."
"Take a look." He pointed toward a far corner. "There's at least thirty books covering Metropolis's somewhat checkered past—even one about 'Famous Gangsters of Metropolis'."
He nodded. "I'm serious. Remember, I said something was screwy. I think someone's set us up."
Lois was beginning to think so, herself. "Let me see this book."
"Famous Gangsters of Metropolis" was a thick, leather bound volume by some author of whom she had never heard, but it did, indeed, have a fairly extensive chapter on "Big Billy" Moran, and another on Dragonetti. Another, somewhat less- impressive volume detailed Billy Moran's history from the point of view of one of his minor henchmen who had somehow survived the massacre at Billy's gambling hall. Lois appropriated both books and was searching for anything more relating to her subject when a chime from the computer and a soft exclamation of satisfaction from Clark drew her attention.
"Don't tell me you got it working!"
"Okay, I won't," Clark said, cheerfully.
"Don't be cute, Kent! How did you figure it out?"
Clark's smile faded. "The password was 'gangster'. Coincidence?"
Lois's amusement also disappeared. "I don't believe in that kind of coincidence. I suppose it could be part of the production, though."
"It could. But then what was all the stuff about the murder? I can't figure out how it's supposed to be connected to this thing about Big Billy. And nobody else seems to have made the connection to Billy from the history on HNN."
"Maybe it's too subtle for them," Lois suggested, but she didn't really believe it.
"Maybe." Clark's tone said he didn't either. "Let's see what I can dig up about Billy online. And, if I can get a message to Jimmy, maybe he can find out something more for us."
"If anyone can, it's Jimmy," Lois said.
"That's for sure." Clark bent to his task. Lois drifted to the door to play sentry, but no one ventured along to interrupt. A glance at her wristwatch told her why. It was six minutes after midnight.
"There," Clark said. "Message sent. He'll probably get it tomorrow morning." He, too, glanced at his watch. "Wow, it's late. Let me run a quick search on Billy, then we can take the books up to our room with us."
"Clark, where's your reporter's instinct? We've got an investigation going on here!"
"We're going to investigate, but we won't stand much chance tomorrow if we're falling asleep on our feet," Clark said, reasonably. "Besides, we need to convince them that we think it's all part of the production. They've given us separate beds and I promise not to look. "
"Well—yeah, I guess." She felt the infuriating blush creeping up her cheekbones. She'd managed to forget the fact that they would be sleeping in the same room while she had been concentrating on the puzzle before them. Resolutely, she pushed the embarrassment back into a corner of her mind and told it to stay there. Clark would do exactly as he'd said. She had absolutely no doubt of that at all. "I'm going to borrow a few other books, too, just to confuse the situation—in case anyone checks. Maybe I can find something about counterfeiting…"
Lois hadn't managed to find anything about counterfeiting, but she did manage to locate information on the manufacture and function of diesel engines. Clark eyed her choice doubtfully, but said nothing. He carefully rearranged the books so the gaps where Lois had removed the historical tomes were filled with other books and checked the computer for the results of its search. Several sites were listed, including histories on Billy Moran, Dragonetti, and three where the search engine had apparently been under the impression that he was interested in celebrity sites specializing in the display of unclothed actresses, although exactly why was unclear. Quickly, he scanned the relevant articles, removed all traces of his use of the computer, closed down the machine and stood up, leaving everything exactly as it had been before he had touched it. "Ready?"
He saw Lois swallow. "Ready."
The hallway was quiet and dim as they exited the library, and Clark saw that most of the other lights were out. Dim nightlights illuminated the passage and stairway; just enough to allow them to see and prevent falls but not enough to disturb the guests. From the direction of the back of the house, he heard the murmur of voices and a faint snore. From upstairs, the muffled sound of a male voice, followed by a female one, told him that some of the guests were still awake.
He followed Lois up the stairs and to their room. Lois, it seemed, was more agitated than she had been earlier at the thought of sharing a room with him, which was, in its own way, somewhat encouraging. Still, he didn't wish her to be uncomfortable. He was considering offering to sleep on the couch downstairs when Lois gave a little laugh.
"I don't know why I'm worried," she said. "If it were Ralph, now, I'd have a reason to worry."
"Yeah. Perry offered to send Ralph with me, if I didn't want to go with you. Believe me, it wasn't a choice."
"I *hope* not!"
"Clark—" She laid a slim hand on his arm. "It's not that I don't trust you. I don't know anyone I'd trust more. It's just—well, we're almost dating, and I feel a little funny about it, that's all. It's going to be okay. We've shared hotel rooms on assignments before."
Not quite this closely, a little voice in the back of his mind whispered, but he ignored it. "Sure, it'll be fine," he said. "It's just business. You can have the bathroom first. By this time, everyone else will have finished."
"Thanks," she said, and he detected relief in her tone.
Once inside their room, Lois found what she needed quickly and vanished out into the hall. The bathroom was to the right, four doors down from their room, so she didn't have far to travel, and the time she took gave Clark the chance to read the information she'd brought on Billy Moran, Dragonetti and the other members of the gangster's organization. It was interesting, and the information provided by the two books matched the information in the articles he'd found online but was more extensive. He was beginning to form a theory that he needed to discuss with his partner, but the presence of the microphone on the picture frame effectively prevented that, at least tonight.
A faint scream from Lois brought him up in alarm, and he raised his glasses instinctively to look in her direction to discover what had made her cry out. He caught only a quick glimpse of pale, creamy skin and quickly lowered his glasses again, feeling the heat flooding his face. Apparently, Lois had discovered the hard way that the hot water had been used up by previous guests. That was definitely one slip that he wasn't going to mention to her! On the other hand, that very brief look wasn't going to make sleeping in the same room with her any easier.
Some time later, after his own trip to the bathroom, as well as an ice cold shower, he opened the door to their room to find Lois already in bed with the covers pulled up and "Famous Gangsters of Metropolis" open in her lap. She glanced up at him as he removed his bathrobe and her eyes widened slightly. He wondered for a nervous moment if he should have worn a sweatshirt with his pajama bottoms.
"I guess we were being silly," Lois began, after a moment. "I mean, what kind of criminal plot are we likely to run across here?"
"Yeah," he agreed, relieved that she was following their pre-planned script. "I let my imagination run away with me sometimes."
"It's okay, Clark," she said. "We'll figure out what happened to Hartford tomorrow and why he's supposed to have been murdered. It's exciting enough, if you believe in melodramatic sleuthing. It should be a pretty good moneymaker for the charities when we write it up in the Planet."
Clark would have been more reassured if she'd removed her riveted gaze from his bare chest. Next time, he'd bring a T-shirt, at least, he decided. He dropped his robe on the foot of the bed and slid quickly under the blankets. "I think I can manage that," he said. "Are you finished with that stuff about diesel engines? I'd like to turn out the lights. We've got a busy day, tomorrow."
"Um—yeah." She laid the book down. "Next time Perry assigns me something like this, I'm going to threaten to quit, though."
He forced a chuckle. "Well, it doesn't seem to be exactly up your alley. Good night, Lois."
She reached out to snap off the light, almost reluctantly— or, maybe that was his imagination. "Good night, Clark."
Downstairs, the clock struck one and then two. Clark could tell by her breathing that Lois wasn't asleep and wasn't even near it. All over the house was silence. His super hearing picked up the occasional snore or restless stirring of the guests and staff. Now was his chance to do some snooping with his x-ray vision—and he couldn't do anything because Lois was wide awake less than six feet away from him.
A sudden rustling alerted him and he glanced at the dim form of his partner, who was sliding out of her bed. "Lois?" he whispered.
"Clark?" Her whisper sounded startled. "I thought you were asleep!"
"I can't sleep," he replied.
"Neither can I."
He could see her seated on the edge of her bed, pushing the hair back from her face. "Why don't I go get you a warm milk from the kitchen?"
"Does that stuff really work?" she asked, skeptically.
"Well, Mom always got me warm milk when I couldn't sleep, and it almost always did," he replied.
"Well, then—why don't we both go get a glass," she suggested.
Philosophically, Clark agreed. "Okay. I don't think there's any rule against it." He reached for his robe. "Let's go."
The hallway was dim, and passing the rooms of other guests, Clark could hear muffled snores.
"What time is it?" Lois whispered.
"About two-fifteen," Clark said.
"You mean it's only been two hours since I turned out the lights?"
"Less." They reached the staircase and he moved to let her walk next to the banister. "Watch your step."
"It seems longer," Lois said, ignoring the warning.
"Time always passes slowly when you can't sleep." Clark lifted his head. Someone else was moving around downstairs. He could hear, distinctly, the sound of someone's shoes as they crossed wooden floor in the direction of the dining room. "There's someone down there."
"How do you know?" she whispered. "Oh, yes, that terrific hearing of yours."
"Probably one of the other guests," Clark said. As he spoke, a faint light became visible, and a moment later a dark shape, holding a penlight in one hand and what appeared to be a glass of milk in the other, appeared in the hall below. "It's George Lini."
The elderly man reached the bottom of the steps and appeared to see them for the first time. "Who's there?" he whispered, sounding startled.
"Just us," Lois called, softly. "Is there any milk left?"
"Oh, certainly." The retired CEO's voice had an amused note in it. "Don't tell me you couldn't sleep, either? I thought only people my age had that problem."
'Not if you're sleeping in the same room with the woman of your dreams and can't tell her so,' Clark thought, but he said, "I guess the whole evening has been too exciting. We just decided to get some hot milk."
They descended the stairs, and the older man stood aside to let them pass him, halfway down. "I should think this would be old hat for the two of you."
Lois had an answer for that. "Not when it's a game. That makes all the difference."
"I suppose it would," Lini admitted. "Well, I don't have the energy you young folks do. I'm going to take my hot milk and go on to bed or Allison will come looking for me."
"Good night," Lois said, and Clark echoed her. The elderly man continued on toward the second floor, his bedroom slippers making soft, shuffling noises on the carpeted steps.
When they reached the hall, Clark caught the sound of a door closing, upstairs. A moment later, there was a faint click from another direction, entirely. Somewhere, on the first floor, someone had shut a door. So, George Lini and the two of them weren't the only people abroad tonight. He listened closely, but no other out-of-place sound reached his ears.
Lois had obviously heard nothing. She turned toward the right in the direction of the dining room, and from there, after a few false starts, they located the kitchen.
It was dim, lit only by nightlights. Lois flipped on the light above the stove and Clark went to the big refrigerator. "Here's the milk. Grab one of those saucepans, would you?"
Lois appropriated one hanging from a rack on one wall and a moment later, Clark was heating the milk carefully over a low flame. His partner hunted around until she located the glasses and set them on the small table against one wall.
"Will these do?" she asked, keeping her voice low. Clark understood. Something about the hour seemed to demand quiet.
"Sure. I'm not getting this hot enough to crack the glass." He removed the pan from the fire. "Here we go." He poured the warm milk carefully into the glasses, set the pan back on the stove and took his seat at the table opposite her.
Lois picked hp her glass and sipped cautiously. "Not bad. I wonder if the cook will mind us raiding his refrigerator?"
"Well," Clark pointed out, "they didn't tell us not to. Besides, Mr. Lini seems to have gotten some, too."
"I didn't see his pan in the sink. Do you suppose he washed it and put it away?"
"Maybe." Clark leaned forward, speaking softly. "At least we're away from the bug. I noticed a couple of things I read in the articles online that I wanted to discuss with you, but I couldn't because of the microphone. Did you notice the mention of Billy's safe, after the gambling hall murder?"
"What about it? The hall burned down."
"The safe was wide open when the police got there. Everything in it had been reduced to ashes."
"Why am I not surprised?" she said, rhetorically. "I'd expect that."
"Yeah—except that the safe should have been locked. Someone might have gotten to it before the fire burned up Billy's office."
"I think you're reaching a bit," Lois said. "Any money that someone took from that safe would have been long since spent by now."
"Oh, I know that." Clark made a dismissive gesture. "What I noticed is that it meant someone else may have survived the gambling hall fire besides Rat-Face Ron."
"The guy the author interviewed for that second book you picked up. Ron Sewell. He spent thirty years in the pen after Billy's death."
Lois frowned. "How do you know that?"
"He was mentioned in one of the articles I read," Clark said. "I'm a speed-reader, remember. It also mentioned the book you borrowed. 'The Life and Times of Big Billy Moran'."
"Oh." Lois frowned. "So you think someone else might have survived and robbed Billy's safe? I guess that's possible. But, what do you think it has to do with this situation?"
"I'm not sure—but, if it has something to do with it, it would make sense."
"But Clark—that was in 1926," Lois protested. "It was almost seventy years ago. Whoever it was would probably be dead by now—especially since gangsters' lives seem to be sort of short and violent, anyhow."
"I know, I know." Clark frowned at his glass of milk. "I know I'm kind of reaching, but we were brought up here for some reason that may involve Billy Moran. I keep trying to figure out what it is someone wants of us—you in particular. I suppose there could be a lot of things involved, but the big event that seems to stand out—since it was mentioned in all the articles—was that heist that disappeared and the possible connection with his girlfriend."
"Well," Lois said, "let's put together what we know with this latest piece of information and see what we get. Billy's girlfriend and her lover disappeared in one of his limos and were never seen again. One of the rumors was that they stole his heist and ran off to Mexico, but there was never any proof—only that they disappeared. The night that it happened, Billy's personal bodyguard wasn't accounted for. He was at Rosie's, or so he says, drunk out of his mind—only no one could remember because they were all drunk, too."
"Did any of the money ever turn up?" Clark asked. "Or, maybe the jewelry?"
"I don't think so. Of course, if they sold the jewelry and it was broken up into the separate jewels, no one would ever know. Especially back then. They didn't have the information network we do now."
"True," Clark agreed. "But, I've been wondering. What if they didn't take it? What if someone else did? You said several people were unaccounted for that night. Who else wasn't?"
Lois shrugged. "Billy's brother went off somewhere—he said he and one of the girls at the gambling hall got drunk and passed out in one of the offices, but no one knew it at the time. And—let me see—the others were just members of his gang. It was a pretty wild party, I guess. Did I mention that Rosie's was right next door to Billy's gambling hall? I guess the two parties sort of spilled over into each other—or maybe they were all one big party. They were all celebrating the success of their robbery. I guess forty million dollars was quite a lot of money back then."
"It's quite a lot of money right now," Clark said, a little dryly. "So, just for the argument, suppose Matilda and Pedro didn't take the money? Maybe they just seized the opportunity to run away while everyone was drunk. If that's so, someone else did it."
"And you think the money might be hidden up here?"
Clark shrugged. "Well, like you said, I never heard of any rumors it might be up here."
"True," Lois said. She was silent, sipping the milk. "Okay; say you're right. Here's a theory. Maybe Matilda and Pedro didn't take the money. Suppose it was Billy's bodyguard, for instance?"
"Okay, suppose it was. What then?"
"Well, the bodyguard was killed along with Big Billy and most of the rest of the gang. If he stashed it somewhere around here—maybe intending to come back for it later—no one would ever know."
"Then, how would anyone know, now?"
Lois shrugged. "You're the one who pointed out the mystery person who might have survived the massacre. Why couldn't *he* have taken it?"
"Because, then he'd know where it was," Clark said. "But maybe he knew who took it—maybe he even had some idea it was around Billy's mansion. Maybe he told someone—a son or daughter, maybe."
"That's an idea. But how on earth would anyone expect us to be able to find it in one weekend?" Lois said. "It must have been really well hidden."
"That's for sure. Where would you hide that much money so it couldn't be found in a house—even one this big?"
"It might not even be the money," Lois said. "Maybe it's a map, or written directions or something. But you're right- -where on earth could he hide something like that—and why hasn't he been up here before, looking for it, if he had some idea it was around here?"
"Maybe he couldn't," Clark said, slowly. "Didn't you say the house was sold?"
Lois nodded. "The house belonged to one of Metropolis's old money families. They must have bought it after Billy died. The last surviving family member died about five years ago and Lexel Investments bought it. When Lex temporarily died, it was sold and Hartford and Jefferys bought it. If the money is here, or even—" She grinned slightly. "Or even a treasure map, it would have been a little hard for someone to get in and search the place— especially if they didn't have any idea where it might be."
"Maybe that's why we've been brought here for 'two days of chills, thrills and detective skills'," Clark quoted. "Maybe whoever it is figured we could find it, even if he couldn't."
"Oh, Clark, this is all speculation," Lois said. "It might not have anything to do with the heist."
"Maybe, but you have to admit it's an interesting coincidence."
"Well, sure, but with all the people moving in and out, wherever it is would have to be really well hidden, or someone else would have found it a long time ago. And if it was stuffed in a couch or something, they'd have moved it out when new people bought the house. The place has probably been redecorated half a dozen times, at least!"
"No argument there," Clark agreed. "Unless, of course, it was put somewhere that was permanent—some place that wouldn't be disturbed when the house changed hands. Something that was an integral part of the house."
Lois found herself laughing softly. "Listen to us. We're acting like this is all fact instead of speculation."
"Well—we're here for some reason," Clark repeated. "And, I don't think it's just the weekend mystery. Maybe that's what it is. Or something like it."
"I guess it's possible," Lois agreed. "They put a bug in our room after all. That's not exactly your normal hospitality for guests. I guess we could go with the general theory until or unless some other information turns up. But who's behind it, then?"
"Hartford thought up the publicity stunt—and asked specifically for us. I guess he's suspect number one."
"Unless someone else put him up to it."
"In which case, it could be one of the guests."
"Our villain, maybe?"
"Maybe," Clark agreed. "Or maybe not. I guess that's another of those 'up in the air' things."
"There seem to be a lot of those," Lois said. She made a face at her empty glass. "You know, your hot milk didn't work. I'm more awake now than ever."
Clark grinned slightly. "I know. So am I—but I think the circumstances are unique."
"Well, yeah." Lois agreed. "What kind of place were you thinking about?"
"Where someone might have hidden the money—or something."
"I have no idea," Clark said, honestly. "It could be anywhere. It's a big house."
"Yeah." Lois said. She had rested her chin on her fist and was frowning at him. "It's a big house, but there have to be a few parameters here. If he—I assume it was a 'he'—came up here, he wouldn't want to be seen or his implied alibi would be shot. So, if he came into the house, it would have been after the staff was asleep, assuming anyone was here at all. If that's so, he probably wouldn't spend much time hunting around the house for a perfect spot. Most likely, he didn't go any farther than the first floor."
"Probably not. But how do we know it *wasn't* stuffed in a couch or something? If so, it's long gone."
"Well, assuming all this stuff is true, whoever wants us to find it must have some reason to think it's still here. I'm going to work on that assumption until we know differently. So," she continued, "it's probably on the first floor. Let's walk around and see if we can find any spots where something could be hidden that wouldn't have been moved out when the place was redecorated."
"Lois, it's nearly three in the morning!" The chime of the grandfather clock underlined his words.
"So what? I can't sleep, anyway." Lois picked up her glass and carried it to the sink. "I guess I should rinse this out. There's nothing as icky as milk rings in glasses that have been sitting around for hours."
Clark shrugged and gave in. Lois was definitely in Mad Dog mode. Besides, if he went back to bed, he wouldn't be able to sleep, anyway. An unbidden memory of that glimpse he had gotten of her in the shower popped into his mind and was instantly banished. He, too, picked up his glass and conveyed it to the sink. "Where do you want to begin?"
Lois was vigorously scrubbing out her glass with a vegetable brush. "I'm not sure. Maybe we should start in the sitting room again."
"Sure," Clark agreed. "I guess what we should look for would be permanent household fixtures. Like—oh, secret hiding places in the mantle, or carved statuary or something."
"Places that aren't movable," Lois clarified. "At least, that wouldn't normally be movable. Do you suppose that secret panel in the sitting room is new?"
"Maybe. Or, maybe it was always there and they discovered it and decided to make use of it."
"So, there might be more!" Lois said. "If there are, the money could be hidden in one of them! Do you think you could find them?"
Clark shrugged. "Maybe. I haven't seen *all* the ways people open these things, remember." He stepped up to the sink as she moved aside. "Let me just rinse this out and we'll start." He glanced sideways at her. She was wearing a shapeless, blue terrycloth robe over striped pajamas and a pair of fuzzy, bunny slippers, but he didn't comment. The outfit was unexpectedly very sexy. 'You've got it bad, Kent,' he told himself, 'when you think something like that is sexy.' On the other hand, he was uncomfortably aware that the sex appeal lay in the woman wearing the outfit, not the clothing. Lois could wear a potato sack and look sexy to him. 'Come on, Kent,' he admonished himself. 'Get a grip on your libido or this is going to be the longest sleepless night you ever spent!'
The sitting room was dim when they entered it, and Clark reached out to switch on one of the table lamps. Lois shielded her eyes and he took advantage of the split second to lower his glasses and dart x-ray vision about the room. Nothing. The hidden panel by the fireplace was the only one of its kind in the room. He gave an inaudible sigh. It was going to be a long night.
Lois glanced about the dining room and sighed. This wasn't exactly what she had in mind. It was simply an oblong room with a polished, wooden floor. The big, mahogany table shone in the light from the lamp she turned on as they entered the room, and darts of light reflected off the crystal chandelier above the table. There was nothing in here of a permanent nature—at least, nothing that wouldn't have been disturbed a zillion times since 1926.
"I think we can forget this room," she said. "Unless you think there's a secret passage in here."
Clark shook his head. "Nope. There's no room for one that I can see. Let's go on to the next one. I wish I had a flashlight, though. Turning on lights as we go from room to room isn't so great. We're going to disturb someone, sooner or later."
"I've got one in my purse," Lois said. "I'll go get it."
"Shall I come along?" he asked.
Lois shook her head. "No need. Why don't you check out the next room—what is it? The Conservatory?"
Clark laughed. "I don't think so. I think it's actually the pantry, next to the kitchen."
Lois snorted. "I still feel like I'm in a gigantic game of Clue. I'll be back in a couple of minutes."
He nodded, fiddling with his glasses. "Be careful."
Lois padded out into the hall again, headed for the stairs. Her bedroom slippers made a strange, muffled echo as she hurried across the overly wide hallway toward the long flight of carpeted stairs. Setting her foot on the first step, her bedroom slipper almost came off. She stopped to readjust it, and became aware for an instant, of the sound of footsteps somewhere above her. Someone, wearing hard- soled shoes, was moving quickly along the upper floor. The thin, hall carpet muffled it somewhat but not enough to disguise the distinctive sound. Then a door closed softly, the sound echoing faintly off the walls.
For an instant, Lois was aware of a chill running gently down her backbone, but then she stiffened her spine. One of the guests had simply gotten up to visit the restroom. That was all it was.
But, why was he wearing shoes? Bedroom slippers were so much easier to slip into for a quick trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
'Don't be silly, Lane!' she told herself. All this cloak and dagger stuff was making her imagine things. If someone tried anything, all she had to do was yell for help and her very well muscled partner would come rushing to her assistance.
*Very* well muscled, she thought, recalling the short look she'd had of Clark's upper torso when he had removed his bathrobe. She'd almost forgotten that brief view she'd gotten of him in a towel, that morning in the Apollo Hotel. It had been a disappointment when he'd slid under the covers, and certainly hadn't helped her ability to sleep tonight.
There was silence above her, now. Again, she set her foot on the first step and started upwards as quietly as she could manage, her ears cocked for any sound.
But, she reached the top of the steps without incident; in fact, the silence was almost eerie and she had to remind herself that it was nearly four in the morning. Just because she wasn't sleepy didn't mean that other people weren't. Her room was only two doors down to the right of the stairs and she opened the door quietly. She'd set her purse down on the chair that had been placed in the far corner, and she padded across the rug toward it. The window flickered slightly; lightning, she thought, and it occurred to her again to wonder if there was really a storm going on outside at all.
Her purse wasn't on the chair. She searched the floor all around it until, exasperated, she went back to the door to switch on the overhead light.
Her purse was on the dresser. It was funny that she didn't remember putting it there.
Quickly, she rummaged in its interior and located her mini- mag. A quick check told her the batteries were good and she tucked it into the pocket of her robe. She was about to retrace her steps to the door when she paused, glancing once more at the purse, lying innocently on the dresser. Her memory wasn't *that* bad. She certainly had put it on the chair before she went to bed. Someone had moved her purse—which meant that someone had almost certainly been searching it. But, why?
She riffled quickly through the contents again. Nothing seemed to be missing, but someone had apparently investigated the contents of her handbag. She picked it up and glanced around. She was almost certainly locking the barn door after the horse had been stolen, but after a moment, she tucked it as far under the bed as she could. If someone came back, they would see it was gone and probably figure she had taken it with her.
Still frowning, she turned out the light and left the room, closing the door quietly behind her. Clark had been right. Someone was definitely interested in her. The knowledge didn't make her feel particularly flattered.
The darkness downstairs seemed denser than ever, but Clark was down there. If anyone in this house was interested in her, she'd feel better close to her partner. Somewhere along the line, she'd become aware that Clark Kent would willingly give his life to protect her, and though a few years earlier she might have been insulted by the knowledge, right now it was the source of a tremendous sense of security. As softly as she could, she hurried down the stairs. In fact, she was in so much of a hurry that on the third step from the bottom, her slipper snagged on the carpet and she pitched forward with a cry, clutching wildly at anything to save herself. She snagged the solid, pineapple shaped newel post with one hand, swinging around it with the force of her fall. She grabbed at it with her other hand and felt the supposedly solid chunk of wood wobble suddenly under the weight of her body.
A pair of very strong and familiar hands grabbed her from behind. Clark's voice said, raggedly, "Are you all right?"
She pried her fingers from the newel post to clutch at her partner for a long, shaking minute. Clark didn't release her, but held her tightly, and she became aware that her heart was beating fast, but not only from the adrenaline produced by her near-fall.
He scooped her up and set her down on the steps. "Lois?" he repeated. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah." The word came out as a squeak rather than her normal tone. She drew a deep breath and repeated, "Yeah. Thanks, Clark."
Slowly, and almost reluctantly, he let her go. She glanced around in the dimness and back up at the stairs behind her. There was no one there, and the only sound she could hear was their fast breathing. "Where were you?" she whispered. "How—"
"I'd just left the pantry," he explained. "I heard you coming down the steps."
Still, he must have moved like lightning to have gotten there so quickly. Not that she was complaining. "Thanks," she repeated, releasing her grip on his bathrobe. The fabric had parted and now revealed several inches of broad, smooth chest.
"What happened?" he asked, apparently unaware of the direction of her gaze.
"I stubbed my toe on the rug," she admitted, a little ruefully. "You don't have to say 'I told you so'."
"When have I ever said that?" he inquired, with a little grin. "I'm not suicidal."
She gave a slightly nervous giggle. "Very wise of you, Kent." She drew a shaky breath. "I was in a bit of a hurry. Someone has been in our room, I think."
"*What?*" The echoes of his whisper bounced around the hall.
"Shh! My purse was on the chair when we went to bed. It was on the dresser when I went back just now. Nothing seemed to be missing, though."
"Well, I didn't bring anything all that important. My recorder and my cell phone were there, and so were my lipstick and wallet and keys. If there's a kleptomaniac in the group, they didn't find anything worth their while."
"I don't like this," Clark muttered. "If I thought you'd go for it, I'd be willing to give the whole deal up and go back to Metropolis."
"Not until we solve this thing!" Lois whispered back as forcefully as she could. "There's no way I'll let Mr. X, whoever he is, beat us!"
"Okay, you don't have to convince me," Clark said. "Far be it from me to stand between Lois Lane and the Truth. Did you get your flashlight?"
"Yeah. It's one of those mini-mags. Lucy sent it to me at Christmas. She said in her note that it might help me when I snoop in places I shouldn't."
Clark grinned, getting to his feet. "Lucy makes me wonder what it would have been like if I'd had siblings."
"Trust me, it's not all it's cracked up to be." She accepted his hand for a boost to her feet. Something was tugging at the back of her mind, and suddenly she had it. "Clark!" she whispered.
She turned to the newel post that had so unexpectedly failed her. The big pineapple was still perched atop the solid, mahogany post, but between it and the varnished surface was half an inch of rough, unfinished wood. She seized it with both hands and pulled. The pineapple wiggled slightly, but didn't loosen.
Clark took a grip on it and pulled. The pineapple came loose with surprising ease and they looked down into the cavity thus revealed. Very carefully, Lois reached down into it and removed a piece of brittle, folded paper, holding it carefully by one corner. Almost absently, Clark replaced the pineapple and settled it firmly down onto its base. Suddenly, the spot where they stood seemed horribly exposed.
Lois looked quickly around, aware all at once of the places an observer could stand. Clark must have thought of the possibility as well, for he was glancing up at the second floor landing and about the echoing, empty hallway even as he swept her toward the sitting room, one arm around her waist.
Shh." His voice was a bare whisper of sound. "I don't think anyone's around, but let's not take chances."
Lois closed her lips tightly together and made no further attempt to speak until the sitting room doors closed behind them. Clark turned the key in the lock without a word and Lois suddenly released the breath she hadn't even realized she had been holding.
"Whew!" Clark said. "I should have figured the Lane luck would find what we were looking for if it could cause trouble for us! What have you got there?"
Lois sank down on the sofa and laid the piece of folded paper on the coffee table.
The paper was yellowed on the edges and fragile with age. Carefully, she unfolded it and smoothed it out flat. It had been folded so long that it tried to close again and she had to hold the edges down. The part of the paper that had been folded inside had not yellowed so badly and the ink marks, although somewhat faded, were clear and readable.
"It looks like a hand-drawn map," she said.
Clark seated himself beside her and set several small objects down on the corners of the paper—a crystal paperweight and three cut-glass ashtrays. "It looks like it was ripped out of a book," he said.
It did. Someone had torn the flyleaf from inside a book cover and drawn hastily on it in ink. Lois reached out absently to turn on a second lamp and bent over the map. "I think this is the lake," she said, tracing the crudely drawn outline lightly with one finger. "This circle's the town, I guess…and this square must be the Mystery Mansion."
"Here—" Clark indicated a roughly drawn representation of the hills south of the lake. "These are the Twin Sisters."
"The what?" Lois asked.
"The hills are called the Twin Sisters," Clark said. "I've hiked in this area, sometimes. There's a Scout campground up there, and another, smaller lake. This must be the old road—see how it forks at the base of the hills?"
"What's this mean?" Lois asked, indicating a small, lopsided rectangle marked not far from the trail on the base of one of the Sisters.
"I don't know, but since it's the only thing not recognizable on this drawing—"
"It might be—" Lois also broke off and they stared at each other.
"*It*," Clark finished.
"Do you suppose it could be?" Lois whispered. "Clark we need to go see!"
Clark looked dubious. "Now?" He glanced at his watch. "It's four-seventeen in the morning!"
"Well, we're sure not going to be able to sneak out by daylight! Besides," Lois said, as if that clinched it, "I couldn't possibly sleep, *now*!"
If the situation hadn't had such a serious undertone, Clark suspected he would be laughing. It was times like this that one of the many reasons why no other woman could compete in his heart with his whirlwind of a partner was brought suddenly and vividly to his attention.
They crept into their room on tiptoe, trying not to alert anyone who might be listening on the receiving end of the bug—or, if there was a recorder, not to make any sound that would register on the recording. Lois opened the drawers of the dresser, removed several items of clothing and gestured for him to turn his back. Clark obeyed, resolutely banishing the image of Lois in the shower from his mind. He was *not* going to think of that picture! Lois would be furious with him if she knew, and Superman's morals and ethics didn't permit it. But Clark Kent was having a hard time forgetting it. He was hardly ignorant of the appearance of a nude female, but he couldn't imagine any woman on Earth who could possibly surpass her in that department. Just the memory made him feel distinctly warm all over.
'Come on, Kent, get a hold on your hormones!' He gave himself a mental kick. So, she was changing clothing right behind him—so what? It simply meant she trusted him not to peek and he had no intention of doing so. He fastened his eyes on the picture frame with the tiny, betraying bug and concentrated on the fact that someone—*someone*—was trying to spy on them; that someone had maneuvered the two of them up here to find that map. Someone wanted it, and was familiar enough with Lane and Kent to realize that with the most minimal of clues they could figure out that it was somewhere in the house and the mere challenge would drive them to locate it. Hopefully however, Mr. X hadn't counted on the fact that Lois and he had figured out what was really happening—or that they had actually located the map this soon.
At one time or another over the past year or so, he and Lois had met all the guests casually but they didn't know any of them really well. As for Robert Hartford, he'd seen him exactly once prior to this weekend, and hadn't even recognized him until "Jeeves" had introduced him at dinner. Who would know the two of them well enough to employ them so cleverly to solve a mystery that had waited nearly seven decades for an answer?
They hadn't had time to consider that before. Clark frowned, mulling the new thought over. If Lex Luthor hadn't been in jail, he would immediately suspect the man. It was exactly the kind of manipulative game at which he excelled. But, because of the danger he posed, Luthor was securely incarcerated on Stryker's Island until his trial, and—considering the evidence that Inspector Henderson and the DA had amassed after Luthor's "suicide"—it would be short, sweet and final. Especially, he thought irrelevantly, that since Bender's death left the man without a high-powered lawyer, he was going to be represented by one appointed by the court. That didn't rule out the possibility of legal gymnastics, but it lessened them considerably. Clark was acquainted with the man, a young and earnest attorney. After seeing the evidence, the counselor had advised his client to plead guilty, which did not seem a reason to offer Luthor much optimism for his case. So, Luthor was probably out as a suspect, but that didn't rule out a number of other people. Unfortunately, that left the field of possible suspects wide open.
He was concentrating so hard on the new idea that he nearly jumped out of his skin when Lois touched him lightly on the shoulder. She raised her eyebrows, but didn't make a sound. He signalled for her to turn around and changed quickly into jeans and a long-sleeved flannel shirt. This time of year, it was still chilly, especially in the mountains, and Lois would expect nothing less. His new jogging shoes would have to do for now, he decided. He wasn't about to take his good, leather, work shoes out into the rugged terrain around the Twin Sisters.
Lois was sitting sedately on her bed, facing the other way when he turned around, but was it his imagination, or had her heart rate speeded up slightly? Oh, well, it was undoubtedly the anticipation of what they intended that was causing her excitement. He moved quietly across the room and touched her shoulder as well. She started slightly and seemed about to speak for a moment before closing her lips firmly together and giving him a nod. Without a sound and, to his momentary confusion, she got down on her knees, reaching beneath her bed. Clark gulped as the denim of her jeans stretched tightly across her firm derriere for an instant, before she scrambled to her feet once more, clutching her purse. Without a sound, they headed for the door.
Clark collected his momentarily scattered wits, berating himself slightly for allowing his attention to be distracted, and paused at the door, listening. There was movement in the hallway, and he recognized the footsteps of Marie. The staff was apparently up early; a glance at his watch told him that it was a few minutes before five.
He signalled for Lois to wait while he listened intently, ear to the panel. Jeeves was moving around downstairs, and two or three other people. They would never be able to sneak out unobserved if they tried to do so by the normal way.
Lois was waiting, her eyebrows raised. He shook his head and raised a finger to his lips. She frowned and made an expression of frustration, which then changed to one he recognized with a slightly resigned feeling. Lois was considering something outrageous.
Lightning still flickered against the dark glass of their windowpane. Lois strode to it, a determined look on her face. Clark took a second to lock their bedroom door and hurried to join her.
She was examining the catch on the window. It appeared to be an ordinary window fastener, but when she moved to unlock it, Clark caught her hand. Over the top of his slightly lowered glasses, he could see what she couldn't— the wires that ran through the window frame and triggered an alarm if any of the guests tried to unfasten the lock.
It wasn't a very complicated alarm system, however. Superman had seen plenty such designs before in various places. Only, how was he going to keep Lois from seeing what he did? She was already scowling at him.
"Alarm." He mouthed the word silently at her. Her eyes widened slightly in realization and she nodded.
He pointed at the door and cupped a hand behind his ear, indicated her, then pointed to the lock and himself. Lois frowned for an instant before she made sense of his sign language and nodded a trifle reluctantly.
Clark waited while she made her way back to the door and placed her ear to the wood, then he lowered his glasses slightly once more, examining the wires more carefully. Mindful of Lois, watching him from across the room, he removed his key ring from the back pocket of his jeans and bent over the window fastener, careful to block the view of what he was actually doing from his partner's very sharp eyes.
It took a needle-thin beam of heat vision through the wooden window frame, and the critical wire was severed. Carefully, he scratched away the very faint traces of scorched wood over the site of the hole with the tip of his door key and patched the opening of the hole with the flecks of loosened paint. Then, before his partner could ask questions, he unfastened the lock and slid the window open.
Outside, the pre-dawn air was crisp, clear and cold. Stars shone down from a cloudless sky overhead, and below them, Clark could see the slight frost that coated the grass.
Lois was behind him when he turned, clutching the top sheets from both of the beds. She was attempting to knot the corners together, her purse tucked under one arm. Clark held out his hand and she surrendered them to him with a grimace.
He knotted the sheets together, making certain that there was no possibility of their coming apart at a critical moment. Lois was looking around, apparently for something to fasten them on.
Clark shook his head. There really wasn't anything in the room he would trust, except for the dresser, and moving it across the room would certainly make much more noise than either of them wanted. It was probably no more than fifteen feet to the ground—certainly not that difficult a drop for an athletic man. With a grin, he flipped the sheet rope out the window, gripped his end firmly and indicated to Lois with a jerk of his head that she should go first.
Lois hesitated for a moment, but being on effective silence certainly put a crimp in her ability to argue. Finally, she shrugged and put one leg over the windowsill.
She had to drop the last few feet to the ground. Before she had time to regain her breath, Clark slithered out the window, hung for a moment by his hands and dropped.
He landed beside her on the frosty grass, his knees bent, and allowed himself to go to the ground to cushion the shock. He rolled to his feet as Lois was opening her mouth to ask if he was hurt and shook his head. "Which way to the car?" he whispered.
"This way." She, too, kept her voice low. Trust Lois to keep her mind focussed entirely on their goal, once she knew he wasn't hurt. Clark followed her as she led the way around toward the side of the house and the parking lot for guests' cars.
It was still dark, fortunately for them. Lois could feel the fatigue of having spent a sleepless night, but was able to ignore it by keeping her attention on what she was doing, although she would probably sleep well tonight. Clark moved along beside her, silent on the brittle grass. It was definitely an asset to have a partner in as good condition as Clark, she mused. The look she'd gotten of his back as he changed clothes upstairs had certainly confirmed her opinion of his muscular development. Somehow, she'd never thought of him wearing black silk boxers, though—not that it hurt her opinion of him. She had yet to see one guy at the Planet who could match him when it came to—well, anything. Ralph certainly wouldn't have been up to all the things that had happened tonight, but nothing had fazed her partner except for her near-fall on the steps. She'd actually heard his voice shaking when he'd caught her.
They rounded the corner of the house and cut diagonally across the lawn to the parking lot. The Jeep was parked near the exit, but a chain barred their egress. It was fastened with a simple padlock, however, and Clark waved her toward the Jeep while he took care of the obstacle. A few minutes later, the Jeep was coasting down the slight incline toward the driveway, its engine silent. Clark opened the door and jumped in. "I think you can start the motor when we get to the road. We'll be far enough away that they won't hear us."
She nodded. "I hope you know where we're going."
"I know the area pretty well," he said. "There's a lot of wilderness, but I think I can follow the map all right."
"I hope so." Lois concentrated on her brakes, easing the Cherokee down the driveway toward the road. To the east, there was the very slightest lightening of the sky. Dawn wasn't far away. "I want to be out of here before they figure out that we aren't in the room."
The narrow highway loomed ahead of them. Lois eased them to a stop and turned on the engine. Clark inclined his head to the left. "Head south. The turnoff's about thirty miles or so, I think."
Lois obeyed and shoved her foot down on the accelerator. "We're off!" she said, triumphantly.
Clark grinned. "There's no need to advertise it, though."
"Huh?" It took her an instant to get the joke, and then she laughed and swatted his shoulder with her free hand. "Don't push your luck, Kent!"
The elderly, silver-haired man glanced at his companion. "They're on their way. I told you Lane and Kent would figure it out. Fortunately, they still think they've deceived us. Are you ready?"
"I'm beginning to understand how they've become so well- known in their field," his companion said. "I do apologize for my initial doubts."
"Accepted," the other man said. "Shall we go?"
They had been on the road for perhaps twenty minutes when Lois yawned widely and shook her head. Clark glanced quickly at her. "Are you sleepy?"
"A little. I'll be fine." The effect was spoiled by another wide yawn.
"Okay." Clark appeared to accept her assessment of her fatigue. Lois shook her head again slightly to ward off a mild wave of drowsiness.
Her partner glanced to the east where the sky was showing a definite lightening. "The sun's coming up. They're going to notice we're gone in an hour or so."
"Hopefully by then, it won't matter," Lois said, smothering another yawn. Clark still said nothing. Lois wrestled with her instinctive desire to be in control versus the knowledge that she was becoming unsafe behind the wheel. "Clark…"
"Are you tired?"
"You don't have to act so dense, Kent! You know as well as I do that I'm getting sleepy. Would you like to drive?"
"If you want me to."
Without another word, she pulled over to the side of the road. "In that case, take over."
Clark didn't even smile. "All right."
A few minutes later, rolling along the winding, uneven road, she had to admit that it had been the right decision. With a sigh, she tilted the seat backwards and closed her eyes. Normally, she didn't sleep well in a moving vehicle, but her fatigue must have caught up with her, for it seemed as if she had barely closed her eyes before Clark was shaking her shoulder gently.
"Lois, we're here."
She opened her eyes. The sun was up, flooding the sky with warm, golden light and a glance at her watch verified that she had been sleeping soundly for a good thirty minutes.
"Where's here?" she asked.
"We turned off the main road to the old road, and we're on the fork that runs up the right hand Sister. I've pulled us off behind some brush—just in case someone tried to follow us."
Lois yawned and stretched. Her partner regarded her with a slight smile. "Feel better?"
"Some," she admitted.
"Good. We've got some hiking to do."
"How far, do you think?"
"Maybe a couple of miles. Not far."
"I do more than that at the gym every evening," Lois said. She grabbed her handbag and opened the door. "Let's go."
The air was chilly, when she stepped out of the Jeep, even though the sun was warm. Lois reached back into the cab to retrieve her jacket. Clark, she noted, had slipped on his leather jacket, although it hung open in the front. He shaded his eyes and turned, surveying the area in a circle before he pointed to the southwest. "This way."
The area was thick with trees and undergrowth, and the scent of the pine trees was strong in the morning air. The birds were in full-throated song as each announced his ownership of territory and his availability for a mate.
Clark chose a path that avoided as much of the damp growth as he could and Lois followed, glad that she'd worn her gym shoes. Trying to hike through this stuff in heels would have been courting a sprained ankle. She concentrated on her partner's wide shoulders and confident stride as he broke a path for her through the rough terrain. Within a short time, they entered the pine forest, and the coating of sweat that was beginning to form on her upper lip was suddenly cold. In the shade, the warmth of the morning sun was gone.
Clark stopped, allowing her to pull abreast of him. "Doing all right?"
"Sure." She wiped the perspiration from her face, and noted to her chagrin that Clark wasn't sweating in the slightest. "Walking in rough country is a little different than a treadmill, but I'll be fine."
"I never doubted it." Clark's teeth flashed white in the gloom. "The foot of the hill is just ahead, and then we'll just follow it until we get to whatever it is that the rectangle on the map stands for."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Lois said. "Have you been here before?"
"Not in exactly this place, but I've been around here," Clark said. "Ready?"
They started off again, their progress marked now only by the faint crunch of their shoes on the pine needles that coated the ground. The pines were tall, blocking the sun, and the matting of dead pine needles made the ground soft under her feet. It was unexpectedly difficult walking, but she forged steadily ahead, refusing to complain of fatigue.
Fortunately, Clark seemed to guess, for he stopped in a small clearing where a fallen tree had crushed the lesser growth beneath it. "Want to rest a few minutes?"
"Sure—if you're tired," she couldn't resist adding. She saw her partner's eyes crinkle at the corners, but his voice was perfectly serious.
"Well, if you don't want to—"
Lois dropped onto the fallen tree trunk. "Shut up, Kent. I'm a city girl."
He settled onto the trunk beside her. "Hey, you were up all night."
"So were you."
"Yeah, but I got more sleep than usual night before last." He tilted his head as some sort of bird let loose a discordant squawk from the branches of the nearest tree. "He'll never get himself a mate at that rate."
She laughed. "He's probably telling us to get out of his territory."
"Probably," Clark said. He glanced up at the bird that was now peering indignantly down at them. "Keep your shirt on, fella. We'll be out of here in a few minutes."
Lois giggled. He had a perfectly serious expression on his face and spoke to the bird as if it would understand. He glanced at her and the corners of his mouth twitched. "Hey, we're scaring away his girlfriends. That's serious business for a guy."
"For a girl, too," Lois said.
"Yeah, I guess so." Clark's smile had disappeared, and for a second they looked at each other in silence, each waiting for the other to speak. Finally, Lois cleared her throat.
"I guess we better get going."
"Yeah." Clark got to his feet and extended a hand to help her. Lois took it and he pulled her to her feet. "I don't think it's very far, now."
His prediction proved to be right. The ground began to rise a short distance ahead, and all at once, they were facing a steep wall of rock that rose perhaps ten feet before becoming a gentle slope once more. The trees continued above them, and looking upward, Lois could see that this was actually the beginning of the hill. "Do we have to climb *that*?"
Clark shook his head. "I don't think so. Now, we just follow the base of the hill."
"That's a relief," Lois said. "Who would have thought yesterday that we'd find ourselves treasure hunting in the wilderness this morning? If we find anything, do you think Perry would let us go home?"
Clark grinned. "Maybe. We're supposed to be reporting on the Mystery Mansion mystery—but you'd think this would make even better publicity. If it didn't scare people off."
"Well, think what a way it would be to kick off the year's charity campaign," Lois argued. "A genuine buried treasure! Of course, I'd like to find out who set us up, too."
"So would I. I have the feeling that it's more than just someone who wants to find the missing heist. Who in that group knows us well enough to put that much faith in our ability to find it in one weekend—and with a minimum of clues?"
Lois thought that over. "None of them," she said, slowly. Clark held up a low-hanging branch so she could duck under it without difficulty. "I mean, I've met all of them but I don't really *know* them."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Clark said. "I've run into them at events like the Metro Charity Ball and that sort of thing, but I don't really know any of them."
"Someone spent a lot of money on this weekend," Lois said, thoughtfully. "Hartford asked for us by name, too—I wonder why."
"Well, he's one of our biggest advertisers."
"Yeah, I know," Lois said, "but I have the feeling it wasn't an accident. I mean, Perry's started this advertising campaign that calls us 'The Hottest Team in Town', but I don't think that would be enough to make him pick us out. I mean, *everybody* always claims to be the best. Somebody had to be awfully sure we could deliver what they wanted to invest this much in it."
"I know," Clark said. "I was thinking the same thing. Unfortunately, there's a lot of suspects."
"It kind of scares me, too," Lois said, finally admitting what had been nagging at her for some time. "If we find the heist and our Mr. X figures out somehow that we did—" She paused. "When he planned this, he couldn't afford to let us stay alive to tell the tale, if he wanted to use it. He must have intended—"
"Maybe he planned on trying to bribe us," Clark suggested.
"Maybe." Lois didn't really believe it and she knew her partner didn't, either. Whoever had planned this out, had almost certainly not intended for them to survive the experience.
"Lois, we're not going to be killed," Clark said. "Our Mr. X doesn't even know that we've left the house, remember. Or, if he does, he hasn't any clue where we've gone."
"I guess not," Lois agreed. "I don't really know why I'm worried. I've dealt with plenty of killers in this job— and put them away in prison." An idea struck her, suddenly. "You don't suppose he bugged the Jeep, do you? If he did, then he'll have some idea where we are!"
"Maybe, but I doubt it," Clark said.
"*Why* do you doubt it?" she demanded. "He certainly didn't have any qualms about bugging our room!"
"Well," Clark said, "I thought of that on the way, and kind of looked it over in all the obvious places while you were asleep. I didn't find anything."
"Oh. I hope you're right." Lois felt slightly more reassured. "Still, we should have thought of it before. We must be slipping."
"Well, we had a lot on our minds," Clark said. "Start looking for anything out of the ordinary. I think we're almost there."
Nothing was obvious yet. There was still the hillside to their left and the pine trees blocking out the morning sun. The pine needles still made a thick carpet under their feet, muffling the sound of their footfalls. A narrow stream snaked along the bottom of the hill and ran across their path. Clark jumped lightly over it and turned to assist her.
Lois eyed the stream. It was flowing briskly along its bed, and she could see various things under the surface, dancing in the current. It was a little wide for her to step over, but a white rock protruding from the water, perhaps three fourths of the way across and some ten feet downstream, looked like her best bet.
Without comment, she made her way to it and stepped cautiously onto the rock. Clark extended his hand to help her and she took it for balance.
Which was just as well. As she hopped to the far bank, a patch of grass that had looked to be on solid ground proved to be as slippery as the mud in which it was rooted. Lois's foot turned and she lost her balance. Clark's hand was all that saved her from a very cold bath.
"Are you all right?" Clark was holding her tightly against him and she wasn't sure how she'd gotten there. All she was aware of was the fact that her ankle felt oddly numb, with tiny prickles of pain tingling all over it.
"Ow," she said, faintly.
"Lois?" Clark scooped her into his arms and carried her to a clear spot. "What's wrong?"
"I turned my ankle a bit," she said. Now that the initial shock was wearing off, the ankle definitely hurt.
Clark set her carefully on the dry pine needles. "Let me look at it."
"Clark, it's okay. I just twisted it a little. It'll be fine in a few minutes."
Her partner scowled at her. "Look, let me just see if it's swelling, okay?"
"Oh, all right," she said, a little crossly. The fact was that it was throbbing slightly. "It's fine, Clark. I broke it on a ski trip a couple of years ago, and it tends to turn more easily than it used to. I've sprained it a couple of times since, but never seriously."
Clark nodded, but she had the impression that he wasn't really listening as he undid the lace of her shoe and removed both it and the sock. Lois bit her lip as his fingers carefully probed the injury, sending little tingles of pain up her leg.
"I don't think it's broken," he said at last, "but it's starting to swell a little. Maybe we better go back."
"Are you kidding?" Lois snatched her sock from the ground, shook it vigorously and began to put it back on, wincing slightly at the discomfort. "Give it up for this? You're out of your mind!"
"Forget it, Kent! We're not leaving until we've found what we're looking for!" She grabbed her shoe and pushed it onto her foot, yanked the laces tight and tied them. "Help me up!"
Carefully, he boosted her to her feet, frowning slightly. "Can you stand on it?"
Lois put her foot on the ground and rested her weight on it. The ankle twinged alarmingly and began to throb, but she nodded. "I think so. Try not to go too fast, okay?"
"Sure. Just hang onto me. Are you certain you want to do this?"
She nodded, gritting her teeth against the little darts of pain that ran along her nerves. She could do this, she told herself. They couldn't quit now.
"Lois?" he said again. She forced a smile to her lips.
"Come on, Clark. Lets go."
They moved slowly ahead. Lois gripped his arm so hard she was surprised that he didn't complain, but he didn't make a sound. Slowly, the pain ebbed to a bearable ache, and she began to rest more of her weight on the injured member. Clark made no more objections, but his supporting arm never faltered. Lois had no idea how much farther she could have managed, but she didn't need to find out. They rounded a turn in the rock wall and came upon the landmark that the small rectangle on the map had to stand for.
They had entered what had once been a small clearing in the trees, and here an ancient mine entrance opened up in the rock of the hillside, almost hidden by the trees and the heavy undergrowth. It had to have been there for over a century, Lois thought. She'd never heard of any recent mining in this area. She looked up at Clark.
"Do you think this is it?"
He nodded. "Looks like it."
"Do you think it's safe?"
Clark fiddled with his glasses. "Probably not, but why don't you sit down on one of those rocks while I take a look?"
She hesitated, reluctant to simply turn the exploration over to her partner and cursing the inconvenient timing of her accident. "Be careful."
Within a minute, he had her seated comfortably on a chunk of rock that looked as if it had come from the mine. She handed him her flashlight. "Here. You'll need this."
"Thanks." He took the offering. "I'll be back in a minute."
"Don't go in too far. If it collapses—"
"I'll be careful. Just rest your foot, okay? It's a long way back to the Jeep."
Without another word, he turned and ducked into the dark entrance.
The old mine wasn't in very good condition, he thought, flashing Lois's mini-mag around to aid his enhanced eyesight. Here and there, he could see places where water oozed muddily down the walls. Several of the supports within his range of vision were rotten and one had collapsed amid a pile of dirt and rubble. Little slides of gravel and debris dotted the floor where parts of the wall and roof had given way. A puddle of water coated with yellow scum adorned a low spot in the uneven surface. If the loot was here, it had better be close to the entrance because he had no intention of allowing Lois to venture very far into this death trap, no matter what she said. He lowered his glasses. With any luck, he could find it quickly—assuming that no one else had come along in the years since it had presumably been hidden here and taken it.
It was surprisingly hard to see. This had evidently been a lead mine, very likely abandoned around the turn of the century and the lead content in the rocks seemed to be high enough to impede his x-ray vision somewhat. From up ahead, he could hear the faint rattle of falling gravel. Yikes! The place was on the verge of falling down, just as it was. He hoped the mere sound of his footsteps wouldn't trigger a collapse.
Slowly, making sure he checked every inch of the floor and walls, he began his exploration, and after all that, the end of his search was surprisingly anti-climactic.
There was a pair of very dirty, leather briefcases tucked into a crevice in the rock wall behind a pile of rocks, barely ten feet from the entrance. Clark examined them with a sense of satisfaction and relief. This was *it*, all right. The cases were packed tightly with hundred dollar bills and a large wad of tangled jewelry.
Mindful of sound, he drifted toward the spot, his feet barely off the surface of the ground. The less vibration in here at this point, the better, he told himself. The briefcases were wedged, one above the other, into a narrow fissure in the wall, and he had to wiggle them loose, setting off another small cascade of gravel that raised the hair on the back of his neck. It was just as well that Lois hadn't been able to come in here. He was well aware that if he'd tried to tell her that it was too dangerous, that wouldn't have stopped her for a minute.
Moving as silently as a ghost, he drifted back toward the entrance to the mine. As his feet touched ground, he became aware of the murmur of Lois's voice, speaking to someone outside the cave. Quickly and quietly, he set the briefcases down and lowered his glasses. It was highly unlikely that anyone would be out here at this time of day, he knew, unless it was someone who had somehow managed to follow them after all, and he kicked himself for letting down his guard, even for a moment. His super hearing hadn't picked up the advent of whoever had arrived while he had been treasure hunting. He focussed his x-ray vision on the scene outside the mine.
The lead content in the rock and soil was still impeding his vision, for the scene was foggy, but the picture formed slowly. Two men stood in the little clearing in front of the mine entrance, and on seeing them, several pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. One was George Lini. And the other, holding a small .32 pistol, and pointing it directly at Lois's face—
Nigel St. John.
Lois had never felt so helpless. St John smiled at her with his usual prim, slightly superior expression and George Lini glanced hungrily at the mine entrance. "I see you found it," he said. "I never would have managed on my own."
Lois didn't answer. With luck, Clark would realize something was wrong and not come charging out to her rescue. Not that she had a lot of faith in that. Clark would willingly walk into the gates of Hades for her and she knew it but maybe, just maybe, this time he'd use his head.
"I gather that Mr. Kent has gone in to locate the money," St. John said. "We'll wait for him for a few minutes, if you don't mind."
"Clark isn't here,' Lois said. "I hurt my foot, so he went on without me." She didn't have much hope that Luthor's former henchman would believe her, but she had to say something. If Clark only had some warning, he might be able to figure out a way to help her.
St. John raised an eyebrow. "You expect me to believe that this cave was not your destination, Miss Lane?"
Lois stared him straight in the face. "Yes, I expect you to believe me, because it's the truth. The map marked the second mine, not the first. I twisted my ankle, so Clark went ahead without me."
Luthor's former butler smiled dryly. "I always believed that Mr. Luthor made a grave error when he chose to fall in love with you. You've been nothing but trouble from the start. Have I ever told you how much I dislike and distrust you?"
"You never had to," Lois said. "The feeling is mutual."
"I'm sure it is." St. John glanced around the clearing. "Assuming you are telling the truth, the good Mr. Kent will come back for you. I think we'll wait. It's really a very long and uncomfortable walk, don't you agree, George?"
Lini hesitated. "Suppose he doesn't come back?" he asked.
"You obviously have no understanding of Mr. Kent," St. John said, with the irritating little smirk that Lois had come to loathe in the man. "Mr. Kent is sickeningly honest; a trait I have always found to be a dubious virtue at best, and is nauseatingly in love with Miss Lane. My former employer found it an amusing circumstance, to say the least, but in the end it was this woman who brought him down as well." He seated himself on another rock and appeared to relax, but the .32 never wavered from Lois's face.
Lois bit her lip and said nothing. Nothing she said would matter, anyway, and she was tired of the mocking smile on St. John's face. She glanced at George Lini. He seemed to be in two minds about whether to believe her or not, so the less she said, the better. She could only hope Clark had realized something was wrong and was trying to think of some way to save her. St. John couldn't have any intention of letting either of them go. If she was realistic, he probably had no intention of letting George Lini survive, either.
There was a sudden flash of red and blue, and Superman was standing between her and the .32.
"Well, well," he said. "Nigel St. John, I presume. Drop the gun."
The former spy looked startled for an instant, and then the faint, supercilious smile returned to his lips. "I should have mentioned, George," he said, "that Miss Lane has the unfortunate quality of attracting powerful men of all kinds. It's one of her most irritating traits. However, as with my former employer, it could prove unfortunate for Superman as well." He tossed the weapon to the ground with casual negligence. "Very well, Superman. What do you propose to do with us? Hunting buried treasure is hardly illegal, is it?" He rose to his feet producing an engraved cigarette case with a careless gesture and flipped it open. "Did you really believe I would lay a trap for Miss Lane and Mr. Kent without preparing for you as well?"
Appalled, Lois saw Superman stagger backwards. She sprang to her feet and grabbed for him, attempting to break his fall. Pain shot through her ankle and she felt something give. Helpless to prevent it, she tumbled to the ground with him.
"How very touching," St. John drawled. She looked up to see that he had retrieved the pistol. The smile had vanished from his face. "Come, George, help Miss Lane drag the Man of Steel into the mine. I think it's about time we eliminated the nuisance he represents once and for all."
"That's murder!" Lini protested. "I never wanted anyone to die over this!"
St. John's expression didn't change. "Surely, you realized that Miss Lane and Mr. Kent would have to die if we were to use what they found for us, George. Hurry, now. Mr. Kent could be back any minute."
Lois tried to get to her feet, but the instant she put weight on the injured ankle, it gave again and she fell to the ground, barely restraining a gasp of pain. St. John raised an eyebrow. "How inconvenient. George, I suppose it's up to you to do the honors."
"Do it!" The ex-spy's voice was sharp and the smile on his lips had vanished. "I have no time to lose!"
Lini didn't argue. Through the throbbing agony in her ankle, Lois saw fear in his face. He approached her and gripped Superman under the arms, beginning to drag him toward the mine entrance. St. John followed, holding the cigarette case carefully before him.
It had to be Kryptonite, Lois knew—probably the piece St. John had taken from Rollie Vale a little over a week before. She rolled to her hands and knees and began to crawl toward the edge of the clearing in a vain attempt to escape. If St. John killed her and left Superman here to die, there would be no chance for Clark, either, when he came back. She had to get away and bring back help.
"Oh, no, Miss Lane." St. John's voice stopped her in her tracks. "You wouldn't want to leave Superman to die alone now, would you? George, kindly help Miss Lane into the mine—and bring those briefcases back out with you. It seems that Mr. Kent has found what we were looking for after all. But, he will find that retreating into the mine was a very serious error."
Clark turned his head weakly. George Lini had dumped him on the rocky floor of the mine, perhaps fifteen feet back from the entrance, and the Kryptonite lay a little over five feet from him, glowing a pale, sickly green in the gloom. He struggled to move away from the poisonous materiel. Nigel St. John undoubtedly had seen the condition of the mine, and probably meant to collapse the thing on them. With his powers gone—as he could tell they now were—he wouldn't be able to help Lois. But if they could survive the cave-in of the tunnel and he could get away from the Kryptonite, his powers would come back eventually and he'd be able to get them out. But his strength was gone. He managed to roll over, putting a few more inches of space between himself and the green rock, and lay still for a moment, panting. A commotion at the entrance drew his attention, and he turned his head with great difficulty to see George Lini dragging a resisting Lois into the mine.
He lowered her to the floor and dodged the kick she aimed at his knee with her good foot. The man didn't look happy, Clark thought. It was obvious he didn't wish to do what he was doing, but his fear of St. John was greater than his courage. He glanced unhappily at Clark and turned to pick up the briefcases. St. John stood in the entrance, the muzzle of the .32 waving impartially between Lois and Lini.
"Very nice, George." St. John's mocking voice echoed eerily in the enclosed space of the mine. "Please bring them out into the open…thank you." He smiled without humor. "Now, kindly step back into the mine."
"*What*?" Lini turned to stare at him.
"You heard me. Surely, you didn't really expect me to accept ten percent of the proceeds when I could have it all. I'm afraid our business relationship is hereby terminated."
Lini seemed stunned for a second, then he turned slowly, watching his erstwhile partner as he edged toward the mine entrance. St. John smiled slightly, his gaze shifting involuntarily to the dusty, leather briefcases that lay on their sides on the ground. Lini moved without warning, leaping for St. John. He struck the other man waist high, and they went down together on the ground. The handgun exploded.
For a moment, Lois couldn't tell if either man had been hit. Behind her, she heard the rattle of gravel and winced. The ancient mine was on the verge of falling down. Superman was moving feebly, trying to crawl away from the Kryptonite and she rolled up to her hands and knees, starting to make her way across the rocky floor of the tunnel toward him. If she could get the stuff away from Superman, they might have a chance. If Clark would show up, it would certainly help but the only thing she could think of was that something must have happened to him. Clark was anything but a coward, and she knew without a doubt that he would be here if he could. Could he have had an accident somewhere in the mine?
A yell of fury from St. John made her turn her head. The former spy and George Lini were rolling on the rocky ground, locked in each other's arms, grunting and swearing. St. John still had the gun, and Lini was clawing for it. Both men were smeared liberally with blood. One of them had been hit, that was for sure, but obviously, the wound wasn't immediately disabling, for neither showed any sign of weakening.
Lois got her good foot under her. If she could get that gun, the situation would change immediately. She boosted herself onto her foot and tried to take a step toward the struggling men, but her bad ankle gave beneath her at once with a burst of pain and she went flat on her face.
There was the sharp thud of a blow, and the sounds of combat ceased abruptly. Lois twisted around and, to her dismay saw that St. John had the gun and George Lini was stretched on the ground. St. John got slowly to his knees, his face a mask of anger and Lois saw that a patch of red on the left leg of his slacks was slowly spreading. At least, he hadn't escaped untouched, she thought. The man met her eyes and she saw the emotionless mask of the perfect gentleman's gentleman settle back over his features, but his eyes still blazed fury. He got awkwardly to his feet, seized the other man by his arms and dragged him into the mine, dumping him beside Lois. Lini groaned faintly.
St. John looked expressionlessly down at his erstwhile partner for several seconds and then, without the slightest change of expression, kicked him viciously in the ribs. Without another word, he turned and exited the mine.
Lois had managed to scramble to her knees. She seized Lini by the arms and began to drag him slowly toward Superman. If St. John did what she fully expected him to do next, she didn't want to be caught in the mass of falling rock. What they were going to do after that, she wasn't sure, but maybe, if they survived, Superman could somehow help them— but only if she got the Kryptonite to a safe distance from him.
The first shot echoed through the mine, and the rattle of gravel answered it. Timbers creaked, and shifted. Another shot followed, and another. More and larger rocks fell, and she heard an ominous rumble. Then, what she had feared finally happened. Timbers groaned and there was a hair- raising tearing sound, then the rocks at the entrance of the mine gave way and crashed down in a massive collapse that seemed to go on forever.
"Lois! Lois!" The first thing she was aware of, besides the chaos of falling rock, was Superman's voice echoing eerily through the mine, followed by another rattle as more rock slid. It was breathy and filled with pain, but the note of near-panic was what made her raise her face from where she had buried it in George Lini's coat.
The entrance was completely blocked and dust filled the air. She could taste it, thick on her tongue. The only light in the closed little space was the pale, malignant green of the Kryptonite, its glow somewhat subdued by the coating of dust.
"Lois!" Superman's voice broke the feeling of stunned incomprehension. "Are you all right?"
The echoes made her cringe. This whole place was on the verge of falling down, and the sound of their voices could very well be the final straw.
"Yeah." She kept her voice as low as she could, and the single word was broken by a cough. The dust in her throat triggered a string of them. She managed to regain her breath at last and whispered, "Superman, are you okay?"
"Not exactly." Superman was coughing, too. Lois had never heard him so much as sneeze before. In the distance, there was the ominous sound of sliding gravel, magnified by the echoes. "Can you move?"
She coughed, harshly. "Yeah. I can't stand, though."
"Can you crawl over here?"
Of course; the Kryptonite! The stuff was poisonous to him, and was killing him as she was crouching here, talking to him.
Orienting herself by the brightest spot, she rolled to her hands and knees and began to make her way across the rough, rocky floor toward Superman. Where was Clark while all this had been happening, she wondered, trying to suppress her fear for his safety. If he could have come to her rescue, he would have; she had no doubt of that at all. So, where had he gone? What had happened to him?
The loose rock gouged into her hands and knees, the dust made her break into fits of coughing and her eyes were watering so she could barely see but she kept going until she had reached her goal. Quickly, she scooped it up. "What should I do with it?" she was going to say, but she broke into another spate of coughs.
"Can you throw it?" Superman's voice was harsh and punctuated by his own coughs. "There's a high lead content in the rocks, here. It you get it behind some of them, it should help block the radiation." He coughed again. "Your flashlight—" Another cough "Your flashlight—here."
In the pale, green light, she could see him holding out her mini-mag. Numbly, she took it. Now wasn't the time for questions, but how had Superman gotten her flashlight?
She switched it on, with her thumb. The haze of dust made it hard to see, but she could make out a jumbled pile of rocks on the far side of the mine, ten feet away. With care, she threw the Kryptonite toward it. Even if she missed, she reflected, just getting it away from Superman would help and she was going to crawl over there and bury the dangerous mineral under those rocks in a minute, anyway.
The green crystal landed behind the pile, and the glow was instantly diminished. Superman gave a faint sigh of relief. "That's better," he whispered.
"Did it help?" she asked. A cough wracked her again. He waited until she had recovered before he replied.
"I can still feel it, but it's an improvement."
"Stay here. I'm going to bury it." She rolled back onto her knees and began to make her way across the floor again. Somewhere, she heard the rattle as more rocks crumbled and collapsed, but she could only concentrate on one thing at a time. It took her a couple of minutes to reach the spot. She found a crack in the wall of the mine, shoved the deadly green stuff as far into it as she could and jammed rocks in after it, completely filling the opening. As a final touch, she piled several of the larger chunks of rock in front of the spot. Hopefully, it would be enough to shield Superman from the radiation.
When she had finished, she turned back, shining her light on him. For a second, her heart tried to leap into her mouth. He was lying still with his eyes closed. Then, she saw him breathing and relaxed slightly.
"Superman," she whispered. The echo of her whisper bounced around the confined space. He opened his eyes at her whisper and began to shove himself upright.
It took her a couple more minutes to retrace her path to him, but at last she made it and paused beside him to rest. Superman had managed to push himself to a sitting position and was leaning back against the wall of the mine, breathing hard. He nodded toward George Lini, who so far hadn't moved. "Is he all right?"
"He's breathing," she said, as softly as she could. Every time she heard the sounds of more displaced rock her hair wanted to stand on end. Superman didn't act as if he was in much better shape than she was. If the roof collapsed now, he would probably die right along with Lini and her. "How are you?"
He grimaced. "My powers are gone."
With difficulty, she kept herself from crying out in panic. She closed her eyes and tried to take a deep breath, only to break into a series of coughs.
Warm fingers touched hers and she felt cloth pushed into her hand. "Breathe through that," Superman's voice whispered. "It will help."
She opened her eyes and found that the cloth in her hand was a handkerchief. In fact, it was Clark's handkerchief. The CK in the corner, carefully embroidered by Martha Kent's hand, was unmistakable.
"Where—" she was beginning, when he put a finger across her lips.
"Keep your voice down," he whispered. "This place could go any minute."
She nodded. "Where did you get this? Where's Clark? Is he all right?" The intensity of her whisper made echoes bounce around the mine again. A little rain of gravel answered it.
Superman bit his lip and Lois felt her heart sink. "He's all right! Say he's all right, Superman!" Appalled, she felt the prickle of tears in her eyes and a sudden ache in her throat. Clark couldn't be hurt—or— She couldn't even bring herself to think the word. "Please!"
He put a cautioning hand on her wrist to stem the flood of words. "Shh! He's all right, Lois. I promise."
The relief was almost overwhelming, and she felt the tears spill over. She wiped them away, fiercely trying to regain her self-control. "Where *is* he?"
"Here." The word was so low she wasn't sure she heard it correctly.
"He's here, Lois. *I'm* Clark."
Clark hadn't realized until he said it that he was going to tell her, but he couldn't let her think a second time that he was dead. He'd done that once and only realized afterwards what he'd put her through. He'd sworn to himself then that he'd never do such a thing again, and he wouldn't.
The color—what he could see of it through the dust and the smeared places caused by her tears, anyway—drained from her face and she was staring at him, wide-eyed. She opened her mouth a couple of times and closed it again, seeming to be at a loss for words. He figured he'd better seize the opportunity now. If Lini woke up, or she allowed her temper to get the better of her, he was done for.
"Lois, I'm sorry. I've never told anyone before and I was scared. I've been trying to figure out how to tell you for weeks—months, really. Every time, something would happen, or I'd chicken out—mostly chicken out, I'm afraid. But I've really wanted you to know for a long time."
She gulped and extended a hand to brush dust from his face. "Clark?" she whispered.
He nodded. "Just Clark. Are you mad?" he added, apprehensively.
"I'm thinking about it," she said. Her face changed. "You picked a great time to tell me! You idiot!" she said in a fierce whisper. "You *knew* Nigel St. John might have the Kryptonite he took from Rollie Vale last week and you came charging to the rescue in spite of it! Don't you have *any* sense?"
He ducked his head. "Not where you're concerned, I guess. Never have."
Somewhere behind them in the deep recesses of the mine, gravel slid. Lois flashed the light past him. "We'll discuss this later," she said, abruptly. "You're not off the hook yet, but it can wait until we figure out how to get out of here. You say your powers are gone? Will they come back?"
"Given time, probably," he said. "The problem is, we may not have the time."
"Yeah. And if they do, I'm not sure you could dig all that stuff away without collapsing this place on us anyway."
"Neither am I," he said. "Any ideas?"
As he spoke there was a sudden shower of small rocks and dust from above them. Lois flashed the light upward. Eight feet over their heads, a timber supporting the roof was cracked right across and sagging. As they looked, more debris sifted down.
"I've got one," Lois said. "I think we should get out of here—that thing is going to come down any minute."
He nodded. "You're right. Can you stand?"
"I don't think so."
Clark looked at her ankle. From what he could see of it, covered as it was by the sock and the leg of her jeans, it was swelling. He winced. That had to hurt! And Lois hadn't said a word.
"I'll get Lini," he said. "You crawl back into the mine."
"Can *you* stand?" she asked.
"I think so." In actuality, he wasn't so sure, but he couldn't leave the man here. Cautiously, he braced himself against the wall of the mine and boosted himself upright.
His head swam and his legs felt wobbly, but he was on his feet. With one hand on the wall for balance, he worked his way over to the older man and bent slowly to hook both hands under his shoulders.
Lois had crawled perhaps ten feet farther back into the mine, certainly not far enough to offer much safety, and turned to shine her light in his direction, providing him illumination. He said nothing, but it was obvious to him that she wasn't going to save herself at his expense. It was as much the counterbalance provided by Lini's weight as his own strength that kept him on his feet as he dragged the other man after him, deeper into the mineshaft. As he reached Lois, she rose to her hands and knees and followed him. Neither said a word.
The shaft narrowed somewhat as they proceeded and then widened slightly again. Water oozing down the wall formed a scummy puddle that he avoided. They had progressed some fifty feet more, when he lowered Lini's head and shoulders to the mine floor again and sank down beside him, leaning forward to rest his head on his knees. Lois shifted around to sit beside him and touched his shoulder. "Clar— Superman," she amended, quickly, "are you all right?"
"Just kind of wobbly," he said. "I'll be okay in a while."
"Then we're going to rest right here," Lois said. "Lean back and close your eyes."
He couldn't help smiling at the casual way she took charge, ordering him around without hesitation, but he obeyed. He heard a faint click and darkness closed down. It made sense, he realized. While they weren't moving, it was wiser for her to save her batteries. He opened his eyes and closed them again quickly. Pitch darkness was eerie, even though he could hear Lois breathing beside him and feel the warmth of her body right next to him.
From the direction they had come, there was a dull, crashing sound. The light came on suddenly. He could see it even through his closed eyelids, and he cautiously opened his eyes. What they had feared had happened. More of the roof had collapsed, leaving a pile of rock with broken timbers sticking from the pile. It wasn't as complete a collapse as the one that had sealed the mine entrance, but if they had been under it, it would have been quite as fatal.
George Lini moaned faintly and his eyelids fluttered.
Lois gently shook his shoulder. "Mr. Lini?"
The man blinked at her for a moment and then closed his eyes with a groan that turned into a cough.
"Pretty bad?" Lois asked.
"Could somebody shut off the anvil chorus?" Lini mumbled, faintly.
"Sorry," Clark said. He wasn't feeling particularly charitable at the moment.
Lini carefully didn't move his head. "He got away, I guess. I'm sorry. I didn't mean for anyone to be hurt." He coughed again.
"Then you picked a bad partner," Lois said. "Nigel St. John would doublecross his own grandmother. He did doublecross Lex Luthor. And you."
"I'm sorry," Lini repeated. "Where are we?"
"In the mine," Clark said. "St. John collapsed the entrance on us."
The old man opened his eyes cautiously. "Can we get out?"
"I don't know," Clark said, baldly. "If my powers come back in time, I'll try to get us out."
Lini closed his eyes again. "If you don't mind, I'll lie still for a while," he said. "I haven't been punched like that in years."
Clark had been looking around while Lini talked. At least here, the dust wasn't as bad and the mine supports looked a little more sturdy. "I think we're okay here for the time being," he said. "Just keep your voice down."
The other man nodded. Silence descended on the three of them and Lois clicked off her flashlight.
Clark closed his eyes as well, trying to ignore the utter blackness and the drip of water somewhere deeper in the mine. It was chilly in here, especially now that he was dressed in the thin spandex without his super powers to protect him. The silence lengthened.
He began to shiver. He pulled his cape around his shoulders and drew his knees up to his chest, but the light material made only a small difference.
"Superman, is that your teeth I hear chattering?" Lois's voice demanded suddenly.
"N-no," he replied.
The light came on again and Lois moved closer to him. Without a word, she removed her jacket and spread it over both of them.
"Lois, I can't take your jacket!" he protested.
"You're not. We're sharing it. Besides, I can't let you freeze to death. You're our only hope of getting out of here."
"She's right, Superman," Lini said. "I suggest you listen to Ms. Lane. She's always impressed me as a very intelligent woman. Far more intelligent than I, it seems."
Lois was holding his handkerchief over her mouth and nose against the dust still floating in the air but at this, she turned and surveyed him. "Mr. Lini, how on Earth did you get involved with Nigel St. John?"
The man sighed. "Billy Moran's money," he said. "I knew it was around here somewhere, but—"
"How did you know?" Lois asked.
Lini smiled a little, his eyes still closed. "Do you know how old I am, Ms. Lane?"
"Um—you're somewhere in your eighties," Lois said.
"That's right." Lini opened his eyes and gingerly rubbed his jaw where a colorful bruise had begun to form. "I was fourteen the night the money vanished—kind of Billy's gofer. Nobody noticed me much, but most of them liked me. Even Max."
"Max?" Lois asked.
"Uh huh. Max Rundell. Billy's bodyguard. He wasn't drunk that night—at least not until later. After he got back, I made sure he didn't know I'd seen him. But I listened real well a couple of nights later when he *was* drunk. People always talked to me, you know, even when they didn't talk to anybody else. He told me he'd hidden the map in Billy's mansion where no one would ever find it. He called it his 'retirement fund'. He didn't even remember he'd told me anything the next day."
"You were the other survivor," Lois said. "You robbed the safe."
The old man nodded slightly and coughed. "I was fourteen, Ms. Lane. A street kid. I didn't have any family except Billy and the others in the gang. What was I going to do? I did what I had to in order to survive."
"I guess I can understand that," Lois said. "But why Nigel St. John?"
"Debts. Bad investments. I needed the money. I was never able to find the map, you know. Nigel and I were acquainted from his days as Lex Luthor's right hand man and I knew he could solve the problem if anyone could. I promised him ten percent of the proceeds if he could help me find Max's 'retirement fund'. It was his idea to use you and your partner, Mr. Kent, to locate it. I suggested the fundraising idea to Bob Hartford, and recommended to him that he ask your editor for the two of you to report on it, but I swear I had no idea Nigel intended to kill you."
Against his will, Clark was beginning to believe the man. And in all truth, what he had done this weekend wasn't illegal. It was Nigel St. John who had violated the law. As for any crime he had committed as a fourteen-year-old kid—well, at the very least, short of murder, the statute of limitations had long since expired.
Lini began to push himself to a sitting position and Clark gave him a hand. To tell the truth, he was feeling better—in a normal human kind of way. Sitting close to Lois with the jacket spread over both of them had warmed him considerably, as well. How long his powers would be gone this time, however, was anybody's guess.
"Well," Lois said, "he's got the money, and we're not going to be able to stop him while we're stuck here. To tell you the truth, our odds don't look very good right now."
"That's certain," George Lini said. He fished in the pocket of his slacks and produced a white, linen handkerchief with which to cover his nose and mouth against the dust. "I know it doesn't help, but I'm sincerely sorry, Ms. Lane."
Sorry. Lini was right, it didn't help. She looked at Clark, huddled beside her in his Superman guise and figuratively shook her head. He'd said he was sorry he hadn't told her before, too, that he'd wanted her to know about him, and she believed him. It certainly answered a lot of questions—and if, by some unlikely chance, they survived this disaster, she intended for him to answer a lot more. At least she knew Clark was here with her and not hurt or dead somewhere, but she was worried about him all the same. He'd stopped shivering, anyway. What was it he'd said?—That he'd never had any sense about her. Could that mean what she thought it meant? And Nigel St. John had told Lini that Clark was "sickeningly honest and nauseatingly in love with Miss Lane". Although she wouldn't have chosen that way of describing it, could St. John be right? He'd also pointed out that Superman was attracted to her, and she'd been led at one time or another, to believe the same.
And Superman had come unhesitatingly to rescue her, in spite of the danger. No sense about her, he'd said. Oh, boy; this was going to take some real thinking. She'd wanted Superman when she thought he and Clark were two different people, and she'd been unwillingly attracted to Clark, even when she'd been afraid to let things go further for fear of destroying their friendship. The implications of this new knowledge were suddenly and shockingly clear. Clark—Superman—had been in love with her all along. He'd been telling the truth, last year, and then he'd lied when he took it back. Her partner was a lunkhead, all right, but she hadn't been much better. If they ever got out of here, she was going to have to approach this new situation very carefully.
He'd asked her if she was mad, she recalled, and she had to admit that she was—a little. At herself. For not seeing the obvious when it had been in front of her for nearly two years. For nearly marrying Lex Luthor, when the super man that Lucy had wanted for her was right there for the taking. For not realizing that the man who had become her best friend, in spite of her determined efforts to push him away, loved her, and probably had loved her (in spite of herself, she hastened to add) for a long time. He'd said so, hadn't he?
But, at least she'd had the sense to pull back, to not make the worst mistake it was possible for a woman to make. If she'd married Lex, knowing she wasn't in love with him, the situation might have been much worse. Although, considering where she was at the present time, she wasn't sure that was possible.
"You'd better turn off the flashlight, Lois," Superman said. "Those batteries won't last forever."
That was true. She clicked off the light and huddled tighter against Clark for warmth. Superman, she reminded herself. She had to think of him as Superman only, so as not to make an inadvertent slip in front of George Lini. All the other things she'd been thinking would have to wait for later, assuming there was a later.
She felt him slip an arm around her and pull her closer to him, probably for warmth. That spandex couldn't be all that warm, and this place was freezing! Without his super powers, he was undoubtedly cold. She put her arms around his chest and cuddled tightly against his side, trying to arrange the jacket so it covered as much of him as possible.
"How long does it ordinarily take your powers to come back after Kryptonite exposure, Superman?" Lini asked.
She felt him stir slightly. "I don't know. It's only happened to me a couple of times," he said, sounding slightly wary. "I hope it isn't long, but I have no way of knowing."
Of course—that time in Smallville when he'd gotten the paper cut. The night before, Clark had complained of allergies—but Superman didn't *get* allergies. Trask had been after Kryptonite. She hadn't seen any, but after the episode with Arianna Carlin and the Lois double, she'd discovered that it existed after all. There must have really been some in Smallville, and somehow Clark had run into it. But he'd said "a couple of times". When had the other time been?
"Mr. Lini," she said, "how did you and St. John find us?"
"Oh, that." Lini sounded uncomfortable. "He put a tracer in your purse."
"Oh." It made sense, she thought. It didn't matter, anyway. The purse was somewhere outside the mine. She must be slipping, though. The possibility of such a thing had never occurred to her. But, Clark had missed it, too, so it wasn't all her fault. It was a startling thought, though, to realize that even Superman made mistakes.
Of course he did, she reminded herself. Clark wasn't perfect by any means. It was going to take a while to fit together the two aspects of the guy, and realize that everything she remembered about both of them was all about just one man. Getting to know the real Clark was going to be an exciting adventure all by itself. If they survived.
That was a big if. At the thought, she clutched him a little tighter.
"Are you cold, Lois?" His voice sounded concerned.
"No. Just—" She wouldn't say the word, she told herself. Mad Dog Lane was never scared.
"Oh." His arm tightened a little, and she realized he understood. It didn't surprise her. Clark always understood her like no one else ever had.
There was a rattle of more sliding rock from the direction of the entrance. The collapse hadn't finished settling yet, she thought.
"I hope that stops soon," Lini said.
"The whole place is pretty unstable," Superman said. "Just about any sharp noise could set it off."
"Great. I guess it's a wonder it didn't collapse a long time ago," Lini said. "What were they mining, anyway? I never heard of any gold in these parts."
"They weren't after gold," Superman said. "This was a lead mine. It's probably at least a century old—maybe more."
"Oh," Lini said.
Silence once more, except for the faint drip of water from somewhere deeper in the mine.
"At least, the dust seems to be clearing," Lini said. "I shouldn't think it would settle this fast."
"Neither would I," Superman said. "I suppose there might be vents in here. If the shaft is deep, they'd need them."
"I think I feel a slight draft," Lini said, slowly. "There must be a vent nearby."
"Well, at least we won't die of suffocation," Lois said, a little sourly. "If we survive this, I'm never going to go near any mine again unless I know there's another way out."
Her words fell into a silence that could only be described as stunned.
"How do we know there *isn't* another way out?" Lini said. "Could there be another exit?"
"Maybe," Superman said. "I guess it couldn't hurt to look."
"Even if there isn't," Lois said, trying to suppress the sudden surge of hope, "we could hardly be much worse off. And your powers might come back in the meantime."
"Ms. Lane is right, as usual," Lini said. "If my vote counts for anything, I suggest we go look."
"Me, too," Lois said. She hesitated. "That is, if you can walk all right, Superman."
"I think so," he said. "I feel okay, now—just, no powers."
Lois snapped on her flashlight. "You'll need this," she said.
Superman gave her a startled look. "I'm not leaving you here!" he said.
"Look, let's be sensible," Lois said. "I can't walk. My ankle won't hold me. I think I might have broken it back there, when St. John brought out the Kryptonite. You're going to have to go without me. I'll be fine right here until you get back."
"No way," Superman said, and she was surprised to see the mulish look Clark got on his face sometimes when he was being stubborn. "I am *not* leaving you alone in this death trap and that's final."
She wasn't going to win this one. Once in a long while, Clark got an idea into his head and nothing anyone could say would make him change his mind. This was one of those rare times, and arguing wasn't going to get her anywhere; she could see that at once. She glared at him and he glared right back, refusing to let her intimidate him.
"Fine! Then, how are we going to manage?" she demanded.
"I'm going to carry you," he said, in a tone that brooked no argument.
"You can't carry me!"
"Why not?" he asked.
"Well—because you don't have your powers. I weigh too much!"
"Lois, just because I don't have my powers doesn't mean I'm not as strong as a normal human man. You're only about a hundred and ten pounds. You're not exactly heavy." He released her and got slowly to his feet. "Ready?"
"Oh, all right!" She pulled her jacket on and reached up. Superman gave her a careful hand to her one good foot, then stooped and lifted her in his arms.
"Am I too heavy?"
"You're fine." She could swear he had a smug look on his face. "You hold the light and Mr. Lini can follow right behind us."
George Lini had also risen. "Lead on, Superman."
The tunnel was a good deal longer than Clark had expected. The mine floor stayed fairly level, and the light of Lois's mini-mag continued to show the jagged walls stretching on ahead into darkness. He moved carefully, watching where he put his feet on the rough surface. Jagged chunks of fallen rock dotted their path and here and there, he could see small puddles of water—condensation, he thought, or maybe seepage from the local ground water. He had no intention of dropping his passenger because he hadn't been careful where he stepped.
They passed a place where water oozed muddily down one wall—rain runoff, he realized—and they carefully avoided the mine supports, which looked as if termites had been using them for lunch. That wasn't likely, he knew. The timbers were simply old and rotten. Here and there, small rockslides testified to the condition of the mine. He made his way carefully around the rubble, taking extra pains not to disturb anything or to make any unnecessary sound. Now and then, they could still hear the echoes as small slides of gravel and rock punctuated the near-silence. The collapse at the entrance had shaken things up, he thought, and hoped sincerely that they would settle down soon. The instability of the mine made him more nervous than he wanted either of his companions to know. His powers had shown no sign of returning yet, and Lois was growing heavier than she had first seemed. Not that he would have admitted it to her under any circumstances.
Then, so suddenly that it was shocking, the light of Lois's flashlight illuminated blank, rock wall.
For a moment of disappointment, Clark thought they had reached the end. Then, he saw that a tunnel crossed at the end in a rough T. Gently, he set Lois down on her good foot and held out his hand for the light. She gave it to him, maintaining her balance with one hand on the wall. He flashed the light down the tunnels.
The tunnel to the left went on for about thirty feet or so, only to be blocked by a rockslide that filled it nearly to the roof. The right fork continued on into darkness, considerably narrower and more irregular than the main tunnel had been.
"I guess we go right," Lois said.
"Let me take a look, first." Before the other two could protest, he moved on ahead into the passage, shining the light ahead of him. There was something different here, he thought as he moved slowly forward, a dead, musty feeling to the air. After perhaps twenty feet, he stopped. This wasn't the way; he couldn't say how he knew, but the feeling was strong. He turned and retraced his steps.
Lois and Lini were waiting patiently when he reached the T- crossing again.
"Well?" Lois demanded.
"Just a minute." The slightly fresher feel to the air around them was back, he thought. "Lois, shouldn't it be pretty stale and musty, this deep in the mine?"
She sniffed. "I'd think so. Come to think of it, the air here does seem fairly good. Why?"
"It feels dead down that way. Wait a minute." He licked a forefinger, held it up and had to firmly quell a surge of hope that tried to rise in his chest. It was probably just the vents that the miners must have put in here so they could breathe, he told himself but there was movement of air, all right.
"Mr. Lini, do you have a match?" he asked. If he remembered correctly, the older man smoked a pipe. He'd seen it at one of the charity functions he had attended as Clark Kent. With luck, Lini might have a book of matches in one of his pockets.
Lini rummaged in the pocket of his jacket and produced an engraved, silver cigarette lighter. "Will this do?"
"I think so. Light it and hold it up, would you?"
The man obeyed and for a moment, Clark shut off the mini- mag. This time they could all see what he already knew. The flame flickered.
The very slight breeze was coming from the area of the slide. Lini shut off the lighter and Clark clicked the flashlight back on. "Why don't you two sit down and let me check this out," he said. "The air is coming over the top of the slide. It's probably just another vent, but who knows…"
This rockslide must have happened years ago, he thought a few moments later, shining the little hand light over the pile. Everything had pretty much settled, unlike the mess back at the entrance. There was a space between the rocks on top and the roof—perhaps a few inches or so. Cautiously, he scrambled his way up the stairway of jumbled rock and examined the gap. The air was definitely coming from it. Shining his light through the hole, he could see perhaps three or four feet of stone, and darkness on the other side. The way unquestionably led through here.
Well, without his powers he certainly couldn't move a rockslide, but it was possible that he might be able to clear some room at the top—enough, anyway, for the three of them to squeeze their way through. It was fortunate, though, that none of them were fat. Carefully, he slid down the pile and returned to his companions.
"The air is coming through there," he said, without preliminary. "I think I can widen the gap so we may be able to squeeze through. Lois, could you hold the light for me?" He glanced at Lini. "How are you holding up, sir?"
Lini grinned slightly at the "sir". "I'll be fine. I walk two miles every day at home. Of course, it takes me longer than it used to."
Clark found that he was smiling at the mild jest. "Good. Both of you, find a place to sit out of the way of falling rocks while I see what I can do."
In the end, both sat on the floor. Lois took the light and aimed it at the top of the pile. "The batteries are getting low," she said. "Try not to take too long."
He nodded and scrambled carefully to the top of the eight- foot slide.
After studying it for a moment, he began with some of the smaller rocks that wedged in a somewhat larger one, prying them loose and letting them roll down the incline. When he thought he'd managed to dislodge enough of them, he tugged at the big one. It was solidly placed, but after a moment, he thought he felt it wiggle. Again, he set to work, prying more of the smaller pieces away from his goal.
Lois's light had definitely dimmed from its earlier brightness. The thought made him shudder. He had found a short time earlier that he didn't like total darkness, and worse, if it went out they wouldn't be able to see what they were doing. Lini's lighter wouldn't be much of a substitute, either. The lighter fluid wouldn't last long with such continuous use.
He pulled away a medium-sized chunk of stone, and a small slide of dirt and gravel answered him. Hoping he'd managed to clear away enough debris to loosen the bigger rock, he pried against it with his fingers, exclaiming slightly as he tore a nail. The rock was definitely looser and he exerted more strength.
It came free suddenly and rolled down the pile of rocks and dirt accompanied by a shower of pebbles and more dirt. "Look out!" Clark called.
The clatter of the rolling mini-boulder echoed through the tunnel and a shower of gravel down one wall made his hair stand on end, but nothing else happened and he managed to swallow his heart, which seemed to have crawled up into his throat. "Everybody okay?" he called softly.
"We're all right," Lini's voice said.
Clark paused to take a deep breath, marginally aware that he wasn't cold in the least, now. He wiped a layer of sweat from his forehead and turned back to his job. The rock and subsequent avalanche had created a space of perhaps a foot between the top of the slide and the roof. Heartened, but with even more caution, he began to tug at his next target, trying to pick stones that would dislodge others when they came free.
It was hard work, and drops of sweat ran down his face with the feeling of bugs crawling on his skin. He wiped it away absently with the back of his hand. He'd managed to tear most of the nails on both hands by now, but the progress he'd made was worth it. He was tugging in the last really large rock, when abruptly it gave. With the resistance suddenly gone, he slipped backward, and then jumped free as the whole pile began to crumble.
The slide didn't go far. When the clatter of falling rocks and sliding gravel ceased, he could see that a gap of at least three feet yawned at the top. Cautious of more loose rocks, he scrambled back up the pile to peer over the barricade.
A cool breeze, considerably stronger and fresh with the scent of the outer world brushed his face. The darkness beyond was complete, but it was with a renewed feeling of hope that he scrambled down to join his companions.
Lois was already struggling to her foot as he reached them. "Are you all right? she demanded.
"I'm fine. The tunnel goes on past the slide, but I can smell pine trees. Can you climb this thing with your ankle in that shape?"
"You bet I can," Lois said, a grim note of determination in her voice. "If you'll just give me a hand, I'll manage."
"Okay. Mr. Lini, you come after her and I'll help you as soon as she's through."
"You're the boss, Superman," Lini said.
Getting Lois over the rock pile wasn't easy, but she'd meant it when she'd told him she'd manage. As she squirmed through the gap he'd created, he heard her give a slight gasp of pain as she tried to brace her feet on the other side and inadvertently jarred her ankle, but she said nothing more, and he saw her scoot carefully down the incline of the ancient slide. George Lini came next and the older man was surprisingly agile as he negotiated the obstacle. Clark slid through after Lini, and a moment later they had reached the rocky floor of the mine once more. Without a word, Clark lifted Lois in his arms, and they started ahead.
Lois flashed the rapidly dimming light she held along the passage. It seemed to be the same as it had been, and it was possible that what they would find at the end of their journey was nothing but a vent, but it was with renewed hope that they forged ahead, guided by the pale circle of orange light.
All at once, the light flickered and went out, leaving them in total darkness. Clark heard something rustle, and then a faint click. He shielded his eyes against the sudden light. Lini was holding up his cigarette lighter, and after his eyes had recovered enough for him to look directly at it, Clark could see that the flame was dancing unsteadily. The breeze drifting through here was definitely stronger.
Suddenly, Lois gave an exclamation of exasperation. He stopped. "What's the matter?"
"I'm an idiot!" she said. "Put me down a second, Superman."
This had to be a momentous occasion, he thought. You didn't hear Lois Lane call herself an idiot more than once in a lifetime. He set her carefully on her good foot and braced her while she fumbled in the pocket of her jacket. With a gesture of triumph, she produced the tiny penlight that he had seen the night before in the empty bedroom of the Mystery Mansion. Lois, it seemed, believed in being prepared.
The penlight, of course, produced considerably less illumination than the mini-mag, but it was enough to see by. Again, Clark lifted her in his now aching arms and they moved cautiously on. The floor here was littered with more and larger rocks, and he saw one place where a runnel of water down the wall had formed a small lake. They had to edge by it, hugging the opposite wall, and ahead, one of the mine supports leaned across the passage at a crazy angle. Clark glanced upward at the sagging roof and winced.
Suddenly, he stopped. "Lois, turn off your light," he whispered.
She obeyed at once. They stood still, letting their eyes adjust to the darkness.
Only this time, the darkness wasn't complete. Far ahead, Clark could see a faint gleam of daylight.
It was a wonder, Clark thought later, that they hadn't managed to bring down the whole roof in their hurry to reach the place. The tunnel made a sudden, sharp left turn and they stopped, staring at the sight before them. The light was coming through an opening at the top of another pile of debris, twenty feet ahead. Only, this time, the gap was nearly two feet wide—more than enough to allow even him through—if he slid through carefully, flat on his back. Outside, he could hear the song of a mockingbird, proclaiming to one and all in the vicinity that this territory belonged to him.
"Come on!" Lois said, breaking the sudden silence of the two men. "Let's get out of this place!"
Clark had never been so glad to see the sun and the outside world. The air was chilly, but the sunshine was warm and welcoming. Images of sailors returning from months at sea, kneeling to kiss the land flashed through his mind, and for the first time, he knew how they felt although he refrained from a similar demonstration. Lois simply sat down on the ground in the middle of the somewhat overgrown clearing that adjoined the clogged mine entrance and lifted her face to the sun. George Lini sank down on a tree stump and wiped his dirty face with the now less-than-clean handkerchief.
"Do either of you have any idea where we are?" he asked.
Clark had already thought of that. "I think so. We're only a short distance from the road. As the crow flies, your Jeep is about a mile from here, Lois. That way." He pointed.
"You're not a crow," Lois said, dampeningly. "You can't even fly, right now."
He pressed his lips together to hide a grin. "Maybe not, but the sooner we get into town, the sooner we can call the police about St. John. Not to mention," he added pointedly, "the sooner we can get *you* to a doctor."
"And," Lini said, "there's the matter of your partner, Mr. Kent, who seems to have disappeared. I sincerely hope he hasn't run into Nigel."
"Clark can take care of himself," Lois said. "If he gets his hands on Nigel St. John, it won't be a contest."
"If he saw the cave-in," Clark said, "he'd know he couldn't rescue us all by himself. He might have gone for help."
"That's possible," Lini admitted. He glanced at Lois's ankle, which was now, Clark could see, about the size of a small watermelon. "Can you manage, Ms. Lane?"
Lois hesitated. "I can't walk," she said. "I'd probably better wait here until you can bring some help."
Clark shook his head. "We go together," he said. He flexed an arm. The ache in his muscles was beginning to diminish. "Do you think you can make it, if I help you?"
Lois sighed. "I suppose if I can't, you're going to carry me, right?"
He nodded. "I'm not going to leave you out here alone. Anything could happen to you."
"Superman, has anyone ever told you you're too noble for your own good?"
He felt his lips twitch. "A few. I never let name-calling influence me."
She stared at him for a long moment, then dissolved suddenly into laughter. He thought he detected a slightly hysterical edge, but that was understandable. When she finally managed to control herself, she made a gesture of surrender. "Okay, okay! You win! We go together."
"I'm glad that's settled." He reflected that she'd probably make him pay, later, but he would have to deal with that when it happened. Lois Lane, uninjured, could take care of herself fairly well. Lois Lane with a broken ankle was another story. Even if it wasn't broken, it might as well be, since it couldn't bear her weight.
"In that case," George Lini said, "I suppose we should get going. Perhaps I should warn you, we parked our car near your Jeep, Ms. Lane—but Superman probably already knew that."
Clark nodded. "St. John would have headed for it. We're going to need to keep an eye out for him. A man in good condition could have covered the distance by now, but St. John's not only overweight, he has a bullet in his leg. It might slow him down a bit."
"Really?" Lini's expression brightened. "I probably shouldn't say this, but I'm not particularly sorry."
The trip to the Jeep was a minor nightmare of its own, Lois reflected grimly, sometime later. She had an arm over each man's neck and they supported her weight without too much difficulty, but the route from the spot where they had emerged from the hillside was rough, heavily wooded and difficult to navigate, especially for someone with a bad ankle. If not for Clark's stubborn refusal to leave her behind, he probably could have covered the distance in half an hour or so. As it was, forty-five minutes later, Superman was lifting her carefully over the same stream that they had crossed on their way to the mine, albeit in a different location. They had chosen to cut through the forest in a nearly direct path to the Cherokee, but the way was considerably more difficult than the longer one had been. On the other hand, any route might have been almost as difficult for someone with a bad foot. She glanced at her partner's determined face and reflected that she had never seen Superman—or Clark, for that matter—sweat before, even during the Luthor-made heat wave that had struck Metropolis in the middle of November, the year he had come to Metropolis. The knowledge that he was really her partner was still new and almost unreal, but now that she knew the truth, she was starting to see Clark in everything Superman did, and wonder why no one else saw it. Of course, a good deal of it was undoubtedly a case of people seeing what they expected to see. No one expected to see Superman working as an ordinary journalist at a newspaper, even one as famous as the Daily Planet. A super-hero wasn't supposed to have a regular job or a boss — or pick up a paycheck and pay taxes, either, she thought with amusement, but Clark did all those things. She had begun to realize that he chose to be Clark Kent rather than Superman because that was what he preferred—to be like everyone else as much as possible. Superman was a—a thing he did. Clark was the real person behind the super-hero. Superman was simply a uniform he put on, like a fireman or a policeman, so he could do what he needed to do without the complications that would ensue if Clark Kent started lifting cars and foiling bank robberies.
Clark set her gently on her foot and pulled her arm over his shoulder again. "Doing all right?" he asked.
"Yeah." In reality, the ankle was aching almost unbearably, but she was darned if she was going to let him see it. He had enough to deal with right now. If the truth were to be known, she was glad that he hadn't taken her up on her offer to stay behind. Sitting alone in the wilderness wasn't something she could contemplate with any peace of mind. He probably knew it, too, she reflected, looking at his determined expression, although he'd never say so. She had begun to think that he knew her better than she knew herself, at least in some aspects. He was observing her now, and she saw him frown.
"I think I'd better let you sit down," he said, unexpectedly. "There's no rush."
"How far are we from Ms. Lane's Jeep?" Lini asked.
"Probably another fifteen minutes or so," Clark said. "I'd like you to wait here with Lois while I check the way ahead of us. If I can find an easier path, it will help."
Lini nodded. "All right."
Clark glanced around. "Is this okay, Lois?"
"This" was a tree stump, and at the moment it looked as comfortable as an armchair, the way her ankle felt. At her nod, he helped to lower her to the seat and straightened up. "Just rest for a few minutes, okay?"
To tell the truth, she was glad for the chance to sit. Clark—Superman, she reminded herself again—surveyed her closely. "I know your ankle hurts a lot more than you're letting on," he said, abruptly. "I wish—"
Lois grimaced. "It's all right, Superman," she said. "I know you're doing your best. Look, let's just hurry up and get back to the Jeep, okay?"
"Okay." He glanced at Lini. "I'll be back as fast as I can. Don't go anywhere."
Lini chuckled. "I don't know where we'd be going," he said. "Go ahead, Superman. Ms. Lane and I will be fine here for a few minutes."
He hesitated, then gave a nod. "Back in a minute."
Lois watched him vanish into the trees. Lini glanced around and settled himself on a fallen log. He sighed heavily and stretched out his legs. "I'm glad to get a chance to rest. How's your ankle, Ms. Lane?"
"It hurts," Lois said, briefly. "Don't tell him, though."
"I doubt I need to." Lini rubbed a knee. "I thought I was in pretty good shape for my age, too."
"You are," Lois said. "You probably don't do much hiking in rough country, though."
"I did until a couple of years ago," Lini said. "I gave it up after I slipped and hurt my back. Allison suggested I take up swimming for fitness instead. I still walk, though—just not in rough country."
Lois smiled. She had discovered that George Lini was quite a likable and interesting person. "Well, that's more than I can do, right now."
"Do you think it's broken?" Lini asked, surveying the swollen ankle critically.
"Maybe. I thought I felt something give when I tried to break Superman's fall."
Lini winced. "It makes my own leg hurt just looking at it. Superman's right—we need to get you to a doctor."
"I'll be all right," Lois said. "I broke this same ankle on a ski trip a couple of years ago. My editor carried me all the way down the mountain to the lodge." She grimaced. "Poor Perry. I gave him a hard time every step of the way, too."
Lini chuckled. "At least we don't have that far to go."
She glanced at her watch. It had only been a few minutes, although it seemed longer. "I hope Superman doesn't take long."
"So do I. I felt safer while he was here. Even without his powers, he's a very impressive young man."
"He's Superman," Lois said.
"Precisely," Lini said. "I'd never met him in person before, you know. In the beginning, the thought of a man with such tremendous abilities worried me. Very few persons can possess that kind of sheer, raw power and not be tempted to use it for selfish motives. Now that I've met him, however, those concerns are very comfortably laid to rest."
"I'm glad of that," she said.
Silence fell. Lois pulled her jacket more tightly around her and folded her arms. Here in the shade of the trees, it was considerably cooler than it had been in the open and now that she was no longer exercising, the air temperature was noticeably chilly.
"I know it's being repetitious, but I want to apologize again for this mess," Lini said, suddenly. "I didn't want anyone to be hurt. Nigel always seemed to be such a civilized person. I never dreamed that he was capable of violence."
"Don't blame yourself," Lois said. "Lex Luthor fooled me as thoroughly as St. John fooled you. I nearly *married* him—and he turned out to be a criminal. I don't suppose I'll ever quite forgive myself for making such a—an incredibly stupid mistake."
He nodded. "Luthor fooled a great many people, Ms. Lane. I suppose it's a reminder to us all not to take people so easily at face value. You'd think I'd have figured that out by this point in my life. Obviously, I still have more to learn."
Lois glanced at her watch. Superman had been gone for nearly fifteen minutes. She hoped he wouldn't be too much longer. The fact that Nigel St. John could very well be somewhere in these woods made her uneasy.
"How long has it been?" Lini asked. "I'm afraid my watch has stopped running. I must have broken it somehow, in the mine."
"Or when you were fighting St. John," Lois said. "It's been about fifteen minutes. I hope he hurries."
"So do I. I'm quite sure that if Nigel were to find us, he wouldn't hesitate to kill both of us." Lini shifted uneasily. "I must confess that I have no wish to oblige his desire to eliminate us. Allison would be very much distressed."
"How long have you and your wife been married?" Lois asked. She could hear only the forest sounds around them, but between the chill in the air and her concern over the whereabouts of Nigel St. John, she was beginning to shiver slightly.
"Sixty-three years," Lini said. "Since I was twenty. Allison's been the financial genius in our marriage, you know. We teamed up not long after Billy's gambling hall burned. She was seventeen—a pretty little thing, three years older than I was—one of the change girls at Billy's place. I'd had a crush on her since the first time I saw her. She was sick that night—probably the luckiest head cold anyone ever had." He grinned and shook his head. "After we got to be partners, she managed the finances for us and turned the nest egg I took from Billy's safe into our business. Smartest person I ever met, man or woman. If I'd left everything in her hands, I probably wouldn't have gotten into debt and this whole thing wouldn't have happened."
"Maybe you should tell her what the problem is and let her take over again," Lois suggested. "She might be able to help."
Lini chuckled. "You're probably right," he said. "She'll have my hide, of course, but she's always kept me in line. Talking her into marrying me was the smartest move I ever made in my whole life, bar none."
Allison Lini sounded like a hardheaded, practical woman, Lois thought. George Lini obviously thought the world of her. She'd met Allison at the occasional charity function and if she'd thought about her at all, had considered her a sweet, little, grandmotherly old lady. It was funny how someone you thought you'd figured out could surprise you so thoroughly—like Clark had. She shifted position on the tree stump for the fourth time, wondering where he was and wishing he'd come back. Silence fell again and the minutes ticked by.
A bird squawked suddenly in alarm and beat its way into the air in a precipitous retreat. Lois straightened up, instantly alert. Only the sounds of the forest met her ears and she was slowly beginning to relax when a faint rustling in the underbrush made her heart try to jump into her throat, but it was only Clark, at last. The bright colors of the Superman costume stood out against the brown and green of the forest undergrowth.
Carefully, he detached his cape from a thorny bush that seemed determined to acquire the garment and entered the little clearing.
"The Jeep is still parked there," he said without preliminary. "What worries me is, so is your car, Mr. Lini. St. John apparently hasn't arrived, yet."
Lini got to his feet. "I find that somewhat troubling," he said. "If he hasn't collapsed from blood loss, he could be anywhere."
"I was thinking about that," Superman agreed.
"Any sign of your powers coming back?" Lois asked, hopefully.
He shook his head. "I feel better, but in a normal way," he said. He held up a hand, where a thorn had left a long, shallow scratch across the palm. It occurred to her to realize then that, except for the time he'd gotten a paper cut in Smallville, she'd never actually seen Clark injured in any visible way. There had been the amnesia, of course, after Superman's attempt to stop the Nightfall asteroid, but… Her thoughts ground to a halt. *That* was why no one had been able to find Superman for those terrifying hours. He'd been with her for most of the time, unaware that he was the man for whom everyone was desperately searching! And, the day after Johnny Corbin had beaten up Superman, Clark had shown up at the office acting as if he was in pain. Why hadn't she put two and two together before, she wondered. And she called herself an investigative reporter!
"Well," Lini said, "waiting around here isn't gaining us anything. I suppose we'd better get moving."
"I agree," Superman said. He crossed the short distance to Lois and glanced briefly at her ankle. "How's that feeling?"
"Okay," she lied.
He raised an eyebrow at her, but didn't comment. "Do you think you can make it a little farther? The road's only a short way, now."
She held up her arms. "Give me a little help and I'll be fine," she said. "Let's go."
Clark led the way through the brush and down a slight incline toward the road where he had parked the Jeep several lifetimes ago. At least, it seemed that way. So much had happened in the few hours since they had left it that it surprised him to realize it wasn't even noon yet, although the sun was definitely getting higher in the sky and the sunshine that had seemed so welcoming when they emerged from the mine was now becoming uncomfortably warm. Of course, the effort that he, Lois and Lini were putting in, trying to get his injured partner back to the Jeep, was probably a big part of it. He glanced unobtrusively at Lois's face and grimaced. He was certain she didn't want him to realize how much pain she was actually in, but the set expression of her mouth, and the way she grimaced slightly when her ankle was accidentally jarred told him the whole story. If only his powers would come back, it would solve a great many problems, but so far they showed no sign of doing so.
That wasn't quite true, though, he realized a moment later. His hearing was beginning to improve. He could hear Lois's heartbeat, loud and fast, unlike its usual steady rhythm.
Carefully, he turned his hearing outward, searching for other heartbeats. If Nigel St. John was in the vicinity, he wanted to know it.
The amount of noise in the forest environment always surprised him, especially now, with his super-hearing barely functioning. It was difficult to filter out the extraneous sounds. The alarm call of a blue jay almost deafened him, and the heartbeats of local wildlife sounded like drums. Slowly, one by one, he eliminated the ones that couldn't possibly be human. The incredibly fast heartbeats of birds and small animals were easily identified as such and excluded. Those belonging to deer and other, larger animals were somewhat more difficult to sort out. St John might very well be nearby. He wouldn't be completely sure they were safe until they were in the Jeep and on their way.
Near the road, the trees began to thin, and he gave a slight sigh of relief. Ahead, still partially obscured by the intervening trees, but gleaming silver in the sunshine, was the tiny form of Lois's Cherokee.
"I just thought of something," Lois said. "The car key is in my purse."
"Don't you have a spare?" Clark asked.
"That *was* the spare!"
"That's a Jeep Grand Cherokee, right?" Lini asked, seemingly unperturbed.
"Then don't worry. I'll get it started."
"But Clark and I locked the doors," Lois said, looking stricken. "I don't even have anything to pick the lock with!"
"Believe me, I'll get in," Clark said.
George Lini gave him an amused look. "Before you break any windows, Superman, let me see what I can do," he suggested. "I haven't forgotten everything I knew as a street kid."
"There's an alarm on it," Lois warned him.
"You can shut it off after I get the door open, can't you?" Lini asked.
"Not without the car key."
"Then *I'll* shut it off. All I need to do is get the hood open." He flicked a wink at her and Clark grinned. George Lini was certainly full of surprises, but, after all, just because a man was in his eighties, it didn't mean he'd forgotten all the experience of previous years—and he had a lot of years and a lot of experience to draw on.
The sight of the Jeep was heartening to all of them. Lini and Superman were able to speed up their pace, half- carrying Lois over the rough ground. As they drew closer and fewer trees blocked their view, the second car, a dark green Ford that probably belonged to St. John, became visible as well. It had been pulled onto the side of the road in the middle of a patch of dead grass. There was still no sign of St. John, but with all the noise around them and his hearing as unreliable as it currently was, he couldn't be certain the man wasn't around.
Lini voiced the concern a moment or two later.
"I hope Nigel isn't nearby," he said. "I've been watching for him, but my eyesight isn't what it once was."
"I didn't see any sign of him when I checked the first time," Clark said, "but the last thing I want to do is take Nigel St. John for granted."
"Any sign of your powers coming back, yet?" Lois asked.
He shrugged. "My hearing's getting better. Unfortunately, I can't control it very well, yet. Mostly, all I can hear is a lot of noise."
"Well, the best we can do is keep our eyes open," Lini said. "It's only a little way, now."
They moved forward through the thinning trees toward the silver Cherokee. Clark's every sense was alert for any indication of Nigel St. John's presence on this last, critical leg of their journey, but there was no sign of the man. He told himself that there was every chance that St. John had collapsed somewhere on the trip between the mine and the road, but in the back of his mind something was gnawing at him, telling him that it couldn't be this easy.
They pushed their way through a mass of tangled, scratchy undergrowth and paused to let Lois rest. Her cheeks were pink with effort and perspiration had made little clean lines in the dirt on her face. She wiped away the sweat that was running into her eyes, leaving smudges that made her resemble a raccoon. Clark was aware that he didn't look much better. His torn nails were encrusted with dirt from digging with his bare hands, and the sweat that dripped from his chin onto his uniform left grey spots on the spandex.
George Lini leaned against the bole of a tree and wiped his face. Clark lowered Lois to the ground and knelt to examine her ankle. If it wasn't broken, it was the worst sprain he'd ever seen, and Superman had seen more than a few injuries of all kinds. "I think there's a doctor in Lakeview," he said. "We should probably take you there right away, and then go on to the police."
"On the contrary, I don't think anyone should go to the police."
The cultured, faintly ironic voice almost made him start. Clark looked up to see Nigel St. John leaning against a sapling, the little .32 pointed directly at Lois.
Lois glanced up at the sound of St. John's voice with almost a feeling of resignation. The man was leaning against a tree, and she didn't think it was because he wished to appear casual. Although his expression was its usual, unreadable self, St. John looked a little the worse for wear. His usually neatly combed hair was mussed and tangled with small twigs and leaves, and what she could swear was a fragment of spider's web hung from one earlobe. His tan trench coat was torn in two places, stained with fresh earth and smeared with blood in several spots. The left leg of his slacks was soaked with blood and he had tied what appeared to be one of the sleeves torn from his shirt snugly around his thigh. Nigel St. John might have left them to die in the old lead mine, she thought, but his trip back to the cars apparently hadn't been any easier than their own.
The ex-spy was looking at them through narrowed eyes and when he spoke, she thought she detected a hint of strain in his voice.
"Superman, I've come to believe that you and this woman have more lives than a cat. No one should have been able to escape from that mine."
"Have you forgotten who you're talking to?" Lois replied, instantly. "This is Superman, remember? Once I got the Kryptonite away from him, it wasn't even a contest."
St. John threw her a look of intense dislike. "Don't lie to me, Miss Lane. I've been watching your approach for some time and I'm well aware that Superman has no super powers. Fortunately for you, I happen to need his services. It will keep you alive for a few more minutes." He jerked his head at George Lini. "Come over here, George. You and Superman are going to help Miss Lane to her feet again."
Lois allowed the men to boost her to her feet. Nigel St. John's urbane, slightly supercilious courtesy was perilously close to cracking, she thought, and now wasn't the time to anger him any further. She could see the expression on Clark's face and it wasn't very reassuring, either. There was a faint line between his heavy eyebrows and she could feel the tenseness in his body as he lifted her to her good foot. St. John said nothing, preferring to lean against the tree, covering her with his weapon but Lois thought the whole situation was poised on the edge of a very thin knife blade. Clark—Superman—was very close to losing his temper, which could be disastrous. She had never seen Clark really lose it, and Superman, in ordinary circumstances, couldn't afford to, but these circumstances weren't ordinary. She gripped his wrist with all her strength until he turned his head to meet her eyes.
Nothing was said, but the look that passed between them was communication enough. Clark relaxed slightly and turned to face St. John, giving him his best "superhero" look. Nigel St. John inclined his head.
"Very wise of you, Superman. I really don't want to kill you or Miss Lane prematurely, but I will, if necessary. Now, you will leave the lady to my former colleague and step over here. I have something for you to carry."
Sitting neatly side by side in the bushes were the briefcases, and next to them, Lois's purse. She frowned a little when she saw that. Why on Earth would St. John bring her purse along?
The former spy nodded at the bags. "I need those carried to the car. Miss Lane's Jeep will do nicely. I want you to walk ahead of me where I can keep an eye on you. Make the wrong move and she dies. Is that clear, Superman?"
Lois didn't even want to think about the rest of the trip to the car. George Lini did his best, but by the time they actually reached the vehicles, she felt as if she had been through the proverbial wringer. Her ankle was throbbing painfully to the point of making her slightly nauseated. Fortunately, St. John wasn't in much better condition, and was forced to proceed slowly, but he never took his weapon off of her. The man knew exactly how to control Superman, she thought, miserably. That was probably one reason Clark had been reluctant for anyone to know his real identity—as if she would be stupid enough to let anyone know. She was forced to acknowledge on the other hand, that when Superman had first appeared, the knowledge would have certainly provided a real temptation to her. Clark had been right not to tell her in the beginning, much as it galled her to admit the sordid truth. The fiasco with Lex Luthor had certainly been utterly mortifying, but it had also brought a certain humility that had not been part of her before. Clark had been right about Lex all along, and she'd been dreadfully, blindly wrong. If it hadn't been for Clark, Perry, Jimmy and Jack, who had determinedly tried to dig up the truth in spite of everything, Lex would have permanently destroyed the Daily Planet—despite her last minute refusal to say "I do".
Now, however, Nigel St. John had figured out that she meant a great deal to Superman, even if he didn't know the whole truth. Lex's former butler was no fool, but there had to be a way to get around him and his weapon, if she could only have a few moments to think. The pain in her leg made it hard to remember clearly. There was something about this situation that was wrong. The feeling tugged at the back of her mind, nagging at her. She was forgetting something important; something that she could use, if she could only recall what it was.
St. John nodded at Superman. "Take Miss Lane's keys out and unlock both front doors."
Slowly, he complied. The ex-spy smiled tightly. "Put the money in the back seat. Miss Lane is going to accompany me. George, help the lady to the door, please."
Superman opened his mouth to speak, but Lois forestalled him. "No, Superman. Do what he says."
The faintly ironic smile left St. John's face. "Do it, Superman, or I'll kill her where she stands and you, too."
Again, that feeling of wrongness hit her, the conviction that she was missing something. At the mine, something had happened that should give her important information, a small, otherwise insignificant fact that she could use…
Slowly, she allowed George Lini to help her to the door of her Jeep. Clark made a sudden, convulsive movement and St. John jerked up the weapon to cover him.
That was it. The little .32 was a five-shot revolver, designed to be slim and easily concealable. And at the mine, it had been fired four times. There was only one bullet left.
Unless he had been able to reload it. But if she allowed him to take her as a hostage, he would never let her go, alive.
"Now," St John was saying, "take off your belt and restrain her hands with it. Miss Lane, turn your back and put them behind you. Cross your wrists."
Lini hesitated. Lois took advantage of the slight cover afforded her by his body, bracing one hand against the Jeep's doorframe, ostensibly for balance. St. John was standing only a few feet away, the pistol aimed directly at her face. She had one chance and one chance only to pull this off, but it was better than being St. John's hostage. George Lini was fumbling with his belt. With her free hand, she shoved him backward, directly into Nigel St. John.
Probably the fact that the ex-spy was none-too-steady on his own feet was the only reason she wasn't killed, she acknowledged later. St. John staggered, both hands flying upward in a desperate attempt to keep his balance. Lois hurled herself at the two men, both hands grabbing for his flailing gun hand. The three of them tumbled to the ground and the pistol went off in the air.
St. John was no softy, even wounded as he was. He pushed George Lini aside and wrapped his left arm around Lois's neck, jamming the muzzle of his weapon against her temple. Plunging toward them, Superman came to a sudden stop.
"Nice try, Miss Lane." St. John was panting and there was a trickle of blood down his chin where his lip had split. "Superman, if you move, she's a dead woman."
Her ankle was on fire. Lois fixed her eyes on her partner's face. He was staring at her, obviously desperate to help and unwilling to risk her safety. "Superman—"
With a silent prayer to whomever, or Whomever, might be listening, she made her choice.
With all her strength, she squirmed frantically, wrenching at St John's imprisoning arm and bringing a fist down as hard as she could on his wounded leg. "The gun's empty! Get him!"
Nigel St. John howled in agony. Then Superman was on him.
Lois would never be able to describe the events of the next few seconds, except to say that whatever actually happened, it ended with the .32 lying in the bushes and George Lini sitting on Nigel St. John's head—and Superman was clasping her in his arms as if he never intended to let her go.
"Get off me!" St. John's urbane manner had deserted him along with his control of the situation. George Lini laughed shortly.
"Lie still, Nigel. I can make this a lot more uncomfortable, if I want to."
"Are you okay, Lois?" Superman released her slowly.
She nodded shakily. "More or less."
He got to his feet and bent to help her to her one good foot. "Do you mind if *I* put you in the Jeep?"
She shook her head. He lifted her gently and carried her to the vehicle. When she was seated safely in the passenger seat, he turned sideways to look at the two men on the ground. Lois saw him grin.
"Mr. Lini, about that belt—"
The retired CEO laughed. "Delighted, Superman. Absolutely delighted."
The next few hours were filled with excitement, most of which Lois fortunately missed. After George Lini had driven the Jeep carrying Nigel St. John, Superman, Lois and the briefcases into town and to the local office of the county sheriff, one of the deputies had transported her immediately to the town doctor. The doctor, a cheerful man who maintained a small office in town, performed the necessary emergency treatment on her ankle and handed her over to his office nurse for an almost as necessary bath. Lois took advantage of a bathroom sink, soap, washcloths and hand towels, as well as a small bottle of shampoo supplied by the sympathetic nurse and emerged feeling considerably better than she had expected. A short time later, she made a call to the Daily Planet with the preliminary story, leaving Perry, who happened to be in when she called, invoking Elvis and Memphis and informing her that he was sending a photographer immediately to document the incredible story in pictures. Lois hung up and leaned back in the armchair in the doctor's waiting room, feeling suddenly very tired.
"Lois?" A large hand was gently shaking her shoulder and she opened her eyes to see her partner smiling down at her. She yawned.
"Hi, Clark. Where did you come from?"
"Oh, Superman found me a couple of hours ago and flew me to town," he said. "I was trying to thumb a ride out on the highway. Do you have any idea how few cars use that road?"
She blinked at him, wondering for a moment if she had dreamed the whole thing. Then he winked at her and everything that had happened came flooding back. "He flew you here—you mean his powers…?"
"His powers are back," Clark confirmed. "He said to tell you how much he appreciates what you did, back there in the mine."
"He's welcome," Lois said. She glanced at her watch. "I guess I fell asleep. What time is it?"
"Nearly five in the afternoon," Clark said. "Mrs. Lini showed up about half an hour ago to pick up George, and from what I overheard, he was explaining everything to her. If she doesn't kill him, I have the feeling they're going to be all right."
"I'm glad of that," Lois said. "I liked him."
"So did I," Clark said. "How are *you* feeling?"
She flexed an arm. "All right. I've got a few sore spots here and there, but nothing too bad."
"That's good," Clark said. "I wondered if you wanted to drive back to the Mystery Mansion for a change of clothes before you talk to the sheriff? He just wanted to clear up a few points."
Lois grimaced. "I think I'd rather do it now. Then we can go get something to eat. I'm starving. And maybe we could talk—if you want to."
"If *I* want to?" He lifted an eyebrow. She nodded.
"I figured a lot of things out for myself while we were going through all that—but I do have a few questions." At his skeptical expression, she laughed. "Okay, I have a *lot* of questions, but I want to be able to ask them without being interrupted."
He nodded. "That's fair enough. But, Lois—"
She couldn't read his expression. "What?"
"I just wanted to say—I'm glad you know. I've wanted you to know for such a long time. I wish we hadn't had to go through all that, and I'm more sorry than you can imagine that you were hurt like this—but it forced my hand, and for that, I'm grateful."
"So am I." She spoiled the effect with another small yawn. "Let's go get this over with, shall we?"
Fortunately, the sheriff's questions were simple and straightforward. Fifteen minutes after Clark had carried her through the door of the station, she was finished. Clark, who had vanished while she was speaking to the man, reappeared like magic as the interview concluded and glanced at the officer, questioningly.
"Will you be needing her anymore, Sheriff MacPhearson?"
The man shook his head. "No. I think I have everything I need. The Metropolis police will be picking Mr. St. John up shortly. You realize they'll probably want to speak to you, though."
"No problem," Clark assured him. "They'll know where to find us."
"That's what the gentleman I spoke with said," MacPhearson remarked. "He didn't seem at all surprised when I mentioned your names. Do the two of you know an Inspector Henderson?"
Lois couldn't help but laugh. Clark nodded solemnly. "We certainly do. Bill Henderson and Lois go way back."
"Then, that was probably why he said what he did," the sheriff mused.
"What did he say?" Lois asked.
"Nothing important," MacPhearson replied, though Lois could swear he was trying not to grin. "Good day, Ms. Lane. I hope your ankle gets well fast."
One advantage to having a broken ankle, Lois decided on the way back to the Jeep, was the fact that her partner had to carry her everywhere, at least until they got back to civilization. Now that Clark's powers were back, the difference in the way he did it was obvious and the sensation was very pleasant. She had flown in Superman's arms a number of times but, although she'd wanted to snuggle up to him, she hadn't quite dared. Now, however, she chose to do so just a little, and she noticed that he wasn't objecting in the slightest—if anything, he held her a little closer than was absolutely necessary. It was reassuring, because in spite of the things she'd worked out in the small lifetime they'd spent in the ancient mine, she hadn't been entirely certain of herself.
Clark set her carefully in the passenger seat of the Cherokee. "Is your ankle comfortable?" he asked.
"It's fine," she said. "Doctor Bryant gave me some stuff to take for pain if it got too bad. I'll probably take some more of it tonight before I go to bed."
"Good idea," Clark said. He shut the door and walked around to the driver's side. "It looks to me like I'm going to be doing the driving for at least a little while, though. Unless," he added softly, "you'd like to go flying with me, instead."
It was the first direct reference he had made about his other self since she'd awakened. She gazed at him, slightly bemused, while he climbed matter-of-factly into the driver's seat and pulled the seat belt over his lap.
"I'd like to," she said, finally. "Clark, can I ask you a question?"
"Why me? You said you've never told anyone before. Why tell me, now?"
He had started to reach for the ignition, but at that he pulled his hand away from the key and laid his palm over hers. "I hope you know the answer," he said, quietly. "Lois, I made the biggest blunder of my life, the night I let you think I was dead. I didn't realize until afterwards what I'd done to you—but I swore to myself that I'd never hurt you like that again, no matter what I had to do."
She opened her mouth to speak, but he was continuing. "I thought that night, that Clark Kent's life was over," he said. "Everything I'd dreamed about was gone—my life, my job, my friends—and you. That was what hurt the most, and the worst of it was, it was the second time it had happened. I've nearly lost you twice, both times because I was completely stupid—and yet I was given one more chance. I wasn't going to do it again."
She stared at him, stunned. He blamed himself for *that*? "Clark, it wasn't your fault that I nearly married Lex!"
He shrugged. "Maybe not. But I knew you thought I—that Clark—was jealous of him. You were right, too," he added with a wry smile, "but that wasn't why I told you I didn't trust him. I knew what he was. If I had told you—as Superman—you might not have attributed it simply to jealousy." He squeezed her hand lightly. "I behaved stupidly because I was angry and hurt. If I'd used my head instead of my feelings, things might have been different."
"People do crazy things when they're in love," Lois said, very softly. "I'm glad to know that Superman is no different from anyone else when it comes to that. You lied to me, that day in front of the Daily Planet, didn't you?"
"The day you told me you didn't love me."
He dropped his gaze to their hands. "Yeah. I didn't want you to feel uncomfortable with me."
"You're too noble for your own good," Lois said, for the second time that day. "That's something you and I are going to have to work on. I was going to tell you that I thought I might be in love with you—that I wanted to try dating, to find out. I stopped my wedding because of you. I couldn't go through with it."
He seemed to be struck speechless. She pressed her advantage. "I'm not going to sit here and argue with you over who was the stupidest, Clark. We've both done some pretty dumb things. But do you think we can make up for it, now?"
He gulped. "Do you want to?"
"I'd sure like to try." She smiled, feeling suddenly as if a great weight of confusion had dissolved and left her free for the first time in months. "That is, if you don't mind dating a woman with a cast on her ankle."
"I'd want to date you if you were wearing a body cast," Clark said.
She burst out laughing. "You sure know how to flatter a girl, Kent. Now, how about something a little more substantial? I'm starving!"
He smiled suddenly, and his whole face lit up. "Right away! I was scouting out places to eat while you were talking to Sheriff MacPhearson. How about the Lakeview Sandwich Shoppe? It's right down the way, and the food looked pretty good. There's also the Burger Rebellion, two streets over, and Valerie's Vegecatessin…"
"Now, that's what I call a headline," Perry White said, happily. "Not to mention, it's a great advertisement for Bob Hartford's charity kickoff, even if the first one didn't go quite as planned. A genuine buried treasure!" He clapped Clark lightly on the back. "Consider this an official pat on the back for you and Lois, Clark."
"Thank you, sir," Clark said.
"Speaking of which, how is your partner?" Perry asked. "And *where* is she?"
"I'm supposed to pick her up at Metro General in a little while," Clark said. "Her doctor wanted to do a second set of x-rays before he put on the permanent cast. Her ankle really took a beating out there in the woods."
"Yeah," Perry said. "That's the same one she broke on the office ski trip, just before you joined the staff. She can't afford to do that too many more times." He chuckled. "So, what are you two going to do with the reward?"
"What reward?" Jimmy Olsen asked.
"The one that was offered by the First Bank of Metropolis for the return of the loot," Clark said. "It was still on the books, after all this time. Lois insisted they give half of it to George Lini, since we wouldn't have found it if it hadn't been for him. She donated the rest of it to the Coates Orphanage." He glanced at his watch. "I need to go pick her up, Chief. I'm taking her to lunch straight from the doctor's, and we'll be back about two."
The newsroom of the Daily Planet was fairly quiet and most of the frantic activity of the day had disappeared. Lois glanced up as her partner rounded a desk and dropped into his seat opposite her across the chessboard.
"That fax from Iberia should be here in a few minutes and then we can finally get out of here." He glanced at the chessboard. "Okay, your move."
She saw him smile warmly at her. He'd been planning on taking her to his place this evening for a home cooked meal and a video, since the weather had suddenly turned cold again after the relatively warm snap that had graced the weekend. Now, though, it would probably be a pizza from the local—or, considering who her dinner date was, not-so- local—takeout place. She frowned at the little black and white pieces on the board, contemplating her move. Clark's head came up suddenly. "Oh, oh."
Lois quirked an eyebrow at him "This would be one of those times you had to return a video, right?"
"There's a fire at the Metropolitan Building Penthouse. I better go." He got to his feet. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Go," she said. "I'll be here."
He was gone in a gust of air. She leaned back in her chair to wait, absently contemplating her move. But her thoughts were more on her amazing partner. She'd thought, until the events of this weekend, that these sudden departures to return a video or library book were his way of avoiding personal issues. The real reason was so different from any she had imagined that it was breathtaking.
Now she knew that, no matter how often he had to run away, he would always come back to her as long as she wanted him to. There were still things they had to work out, although they had had several long talks over the past three days, but she was already sure that she always would want him to come back. She had her doubts about whether she could be an equal partner to Superman, but he seemed to think that she already was. Maybe he was right. Time would tell.
"Hey, Lane! Where's Kent? He off returning a library book again?" That was Ralph, on his way toward the elevators. He'd remarked on Clark's faulty memory several times in the weeks since he'd been hired, but he'd also expressed envy at the ability of Lane and Kent to always be in the right place at the right time to land the big scoops. She laughed to herself.
If he only knew.