By Nan Smith <email@example.com>
Submitted: January 2003
Summary: In the third story of the series beginning with "Four Days to Nightfall," Lois and Clark pursue the shadowy figure behind several criminal schemes as their relationship continues to deepen. Meanwhile, Clark's alter ego makes a splash in his debut, but secrets from the past could bring trouble for the reporting duo.
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings in this story are not mine. They are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions and whoever else can legally claim them. Part of this story contains scenes and dialogue from both the pilot and the episode "Strange Visitor". Any dialogue from those episodes, or any other episode of the series is hereby credited to the writers of "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman". Any new characters, scenes, dialogue and the story itself belong to me.
This is the sequel to Teamwork. It begins the morning after the capture of Barbara Trevino. Superman doesn't exist yet. Lois and Clark have gone to Smallville and Lois and Martha are in the process of making him a costume.
"I don't know," Clark said, studying himself doubtfully in the full-length mirror. At least, the red, yellow and blue costume wasn't as outrageous as the stripes or the leopard- skin pattern. That one had reminded him vividly of Cat Grant's coat.
Martha Kent surveyed her tall, muscular son in the skin- tight outfit and nudged Lois. "Well, one thing's for sure. No one's going to be looking at his face."
"Mom!" Clark protested.
His mother laughed. "Well, they don't call 'em tights for nothing!"
Lois grinned, looking him up and down. "She's right, Clark. I like this one the best of all of them."
Martha Kent stood back, examining the outfit clinically. "There's something missing. Something … " Abruptly, she broke off and hurried to the bed. As Clark watched, she dragged an old suitcase from beneath it and unsnapped the catches.
"What's that?" he asked.
Martha opened it and took a folded blanket from within. "The baby blanket we found you in so long ago. And this."
'This' was a roughly triangular shaped decal in yellow, and on it, a stylized S. Martha Kent held it up to his chest. "I think this is perfect."
"What is it?" Lois asked.
"It was in the ship," Martha said. "There was another symbol like it on the ship itself, so it must have meant something important, but I can't imagine what. Still, it's associated with your origins, so I think it's appropriate. What do you think, Lois?"
"I think it's a good idea," Lois said. "Just what the outfit needs."
"Okay," Martha said. "Go change out of it, Clark, and I'll put in the final stitching."
Clark hesitated. "Are you sure?" He fingered the scarlet cape. "I'm not so sure about the cape."
"I think it looks terrific," Lois informed him with a wide grin. She gave him a once over and her grin widened. "Very dashing."
"I love it!" Martha said, with enthusiasm. "It'll look great when you're flying!"
"Does it have to be quite so tight?" he asked, knowing how weak his protest sounded.
Martha nodded. "It cuts down on wind resistance," she stated, unequivocally.
Clark sighed and wisely gave up the battle. He knew when he'd been outvoted, and he was no match for two determined women. Sometimes there were disadvantages to having a mother and a girlfriend who were as strong-willed as these two, he thought. He took one more look at himself in the mirror and sighed again. Oh well, as his mother had said, no one was going to be looking at his face. He wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. The suit certainly left little to the imagination, and the thought of Cat Grant's reaction made him cringe.
Lois seemed to read his thoughts. "It's not a bit fair that you have such a gorgeous physique and you don't even have to work for it," she remarked. "Cat's going to step on her tongue when she sees you wearing that. I can't say that I'll be able to blame her, either."
"Lois!" he protested, aware that his face was bright pink.
She laughed again, looking him over in a way that made him blush more deeply. "It's okay, Clark. I won't tease you anymore. Seriously, you look wonderful. More than wonderful. Now go change so your mom can finish the outfit."
Obediently, he retired to the other room to change, aware that his mother and Lois were giggling in the bedroom. He peeled off the spandex, careful not to disturb the basting that held it together. It looked like his plan might work out all right, he thought. With the other alterations to his appearance, it didn't seem as if anyone was likely to recognize him. As Lois had pointed out earlier this morning when he'd put on that outfit that looked sort of like a modern day Robin Hood, it was as much the attitude as the clothing. He'd have to maintain a somewhat impersonal and distant air, quite unlike his normal self, but that would have to be his alter ego's personality to keep him separate from Clark Kent. With Lois to back him up, they could manage this, he was certain of it.
A moment later, he emerged into the bedroom again to hand over the suit. Lois had been looking him over speculatively since he'd tried on the first of the trial costumes, he thought, which was slightly intimidating. Then he reminded himself that she'd already seen him in considerably less and blushed again. He'd been doing that a lot this morning.
Martha took the costume. "This won't take long. Why don't you take Lois out and show her the farm, Clark? Or, you could take her to town. I know a small town Christmas isn't a match for Christmas in the city, but you might want to introduce her around to some of our friends."
"You want to?" Clark asked. "We could drop by Maisie's coffee shop. Everybody goes there."
"Well … "
"Go ahead," Martha urged. "Let Clark buy you a hot fudge sundae. Maisie makes the best hot fudge sundae in three counties."
That did the trick. "Okay, why not," Lois said. "But how are you going to explain being here when you're supposed to be in Metropolis?"
"We flew in for our day off," Clark said, breezily. "Everybody knows I have friends who are private pilots."
"Yeah, right," Lois said. "I remember when we were trying to find out if you knew anything about planes, last week."
"Actually, I do," Clark said. "A friend of mine really is a private pilot. He's given me some lessons. He said I was a fast learner."
"I'll bet," Lois said. "Why didn't you remember when you got in the cockpit, then?"
Clark shrugged. "I have no idea."
"Mm! This is delicious, Clark!" Lois dug into her hot fudge sundae with enthusiasm.
Clark nodded, smiling. "As long as I can remember, Maisie's has made one of the best hot fudge sundaes that I've ever tasted," he said.
"Clark!" a female voice said. "I thought you were in Metropolis!"
Lois glanced around, a spoonful of ice cream halfway to her mouth. A slender, blond woman wearing a sheriff's uniform was standing behind them, her fists planted firmly on her hips.
Clark also turned. "Hi, Rachel. I had a couple of days off, so I flew back home to pick up some of my stuff." He turned back to Lois. "Lois, this is Rachel Harris, our town sheriff. Rachel, Lois Lane, a colleague of mine at the Daily Planet."
Rachel Harris had raised her brows questioningly. "She came with you?"
"Sure. Lois and I are old friends," Clark said, blithely. "She's been looking forward to seeing Smallville and there was a free seat available, so … " He let the sentence hang.
Lois smiled at Rachel, wondering where the sheriff fit into Clark Kent's history. She obviously knew him and had very possibly grown up knowing him. Still, he'd already said that he'd never met the right woman for him until he'd met Lois, so it followed that Rachel wasn't a threat.
Rachel Harris was quite obviously evaluating Lois as well. She smiled reservedly. "Oh, I see. Strictly professional, huh? Well, Clark and I are old friends. He took me to his high school prom."
"How nice," Lois said. "He and I met a few years ago at a journalism convention in New Orleans. We're partners at the Planet, now."
She saw Clark hide a smile but he didn't comment.
"Wait a minute," Rachel said. "I saw that thing about the Rainforest Consortium on TV last night. That was you, wasn't it?"
"It was you and Clark that broke it open, wasn't it? I thought your name sounded sort of familiar."
Clark was nodding. "That's right. It was Lois who figured out that Barbara Trevino was selling out the rainforests for personal profit."
Was Clark bragging about *her*? Lois maintained a modest silence but she couldn't help feeling a little smug.
Rachel nodded approvingly. "Nice work. Well, I have to get back to work. We're organizing the police coverage of the Christmas Eve Parade. Are you going to be here this Christmas, Clark?"
"Wouldn't miss it," Clark assured her.
The conversation was interrupted by the squawk of the radio that Rachel carried on her belt and the sheriff excused herself to answer. Lois watched her as she left the little shop and then turned back to Clark. "I guess Smallville is more modern than I'd expected."
"Yup," Clark agreed, his Midwestern accent becoming more pronounced. "We even have real indoor plumbing and gen-u- ine telephone service to most of the outlying homes now. Before long we'll probably even have them new-fangled computers."
Lois jabbed him in the ribs. "You know what I mean, Kent. I wouldn't have expected a female sheriff."
"Smallville isn't that different from most small towns," Clark said. "Rachel's been the sheriff for a couple of years now. Her mom died when she was little and her father was the sheriff while we were growing up. She's wanted to follow in his footsteps all her life. She packs a mean left cross, too."
"Was she your high school girlfriend?" Lois asked. "She seemed kind of … well … proprietary."
Clark shook his head. "No, not really. We were friends for years, but I didn't actually have a steady girlfriend in high school. Lana Lang and I dated during my senior year and I'd invited her to the prom, but at the last minute she came down with a terrific case of poison ivy. Rachel's date had rolled his car out on River Road four days before the prom and was in the hospital with two broken legs, and she was kind of at loose ends, too, so we ended up going together."
"Oh," Lois said.
"How are you two doing?" Maisie asked. She glanced at Lois's sundae. "Is anything wrong with it?"
"Oh, no, not at all!" Lois assured her, quickly dipping her spoon into the softening ice cream. "This is one of the best hot fudge sundaes I've ever had. Clark was just introducing me to Sheriff Harris."
"Oh, I see," Maisie said. "Rachel's all business these days, ever since she and Roy broke up two days ago," she told Clark. "I hear they were fighting about her job, again."
"Roy Decker?" Clark inquired.
"Who else? You'd think that if he wants her to be happy, he'd get over being jealous of her being sheriff."
"I thought he'd finally given up trying to get her to quit," Clark said.
"You know Roy. 'A woman's place is in the home, not a squad car.' You'd think he grew up in the nineteenth century instead of the twentieth." Maisie mopped up a drop of ice cream on the little table. "I told Rachel a long time ago that she should dump him and find herself a man with a brain but you wait, they'll be back together in another week and fighting over her job again in two."
"They'll work it out," Clark said. He looked across at Lois. "Nobody's business is secret in Smallville."
"Oh?" she asked. "Then how come I haven't heard any dirt on you?"
Maisie laughed. "With Clark here, what you see is what you get. You wait, though. Everybody in town will know he brought you here to see his place before the day is out."
"'What you see is what you get,'" Lois quoted, after Maisie had gone to help another customer. "Interesting."
Clark shrugged. "So, do you want to come back here for Christmas?" he asked, deliberately changing the subject. "Christmas is always the biggest party in Smallville."
"I don't know," Lois said. "I'd be intruding into a family thing. I wouldn't want to do that."
Clark shook his head. "You wouldn't be intruding. Mom was asking me about it this morning while you were still asleep. Unless you have plans with your family."
Lois hesitated. "Not if I can help it. Mother will probably be out of rehab by then, Dad will be 'working' again, and the last I heard of Lucy, she was off in Northern California living in one of those religious communes and chanting for inner peace or some such thing."
"Then I can tell Mom you'll come?" Clark asked.
"Well … I guess so. If you're sure I wouldn't be in the way."
"It's a date, then," Clark said. "I'll tell Mom when we get back to the house."
Smallville, decked up for Christmas, reminded her of something out of a postcard or a painting, Lois thought as she and Clark strolled about the town. The storm two nights ago had coated the landscape in white. The snowplows had been busy and the main street was mostly clear but the roofs of stores and houses were thick with layers of snow and the park looked like a winter wonderland. Children were playing, building snowmen and snow forts, and they passed a group of kids in the middle of a spirited snowball fight. The air was chilly but the afternoon sun was warm on her face and she couldn't help wishing for a moment that she had grown up in a place like this. Metropolis was her home and she wouldn't want to stay away from it for very long, but if her father had been a doctor in Smallville, with the town grapevine as vigorous as it evidently was, maybe he wouldn't have found it so easy to conduct his extramarital affairs. Maybe her family would have stayed together instead of becoming the train wreck it had been.
Looking up at Clark, strolling beside her, she found herself envying him his childhood. He'd been a foundling whose origins were shrouded in mystery and yet he and his adoptive parents had been a real family. She shook her head abruptly. It wasn't the town or the city; it was the people. If they had lived in Metropolis, the Kents would have been no less a family than they were in Smallville.
And Clark wanted that kind of relationship with her.
She'd had a real family, once, but she'd long since given up the dream of ever having one again. Her mother and father had made a disaster of their marriage and her few attempts at a real relationship as an adult had been similarly disastrous. She'd concluded, after Claude, that she simply wasn't lovable and that that kind of thing wasn't for her. She'd resigned herself to it and thought that she had armored herself against those feelings and hopes forever — and then, Clark had literally dropped into her life and turned all that on its head. If she was willing to take the chance, it was possible she could have all the things that she had begun to believe were out of her reach. With Clark. If she committed to him, she was pretty certain that it would be forever.
Forever. It was a scary thought, but it was dazzling at the same time. It was taking the chance that was the hurdle. She'd taken that chance with Claude and it had all blown up in her face. Clark was no Claude but she had the feeling that the Fates were just sitting there, waiting and watching for the opportunity to ruin things again.
"Clark — " she began.
He looked down at her questioningly.
"For putting up with my superstitions."
"Oh." He dropped an arm around her shoulders and gave her a slight hug. "Well, as long as you admit it's a superstition."
"It's really silly, but I can't help it," she admitted, guiltily. "It's when things seem to be perfect that something always happens to ruin it."
"Just as long as it doesn't go on forever," he said.
"It won't, I promise. Just until I'm —"
"I know. Until you're a little more comfortable with it."
"More sure of it," she amended. "I just have this awful feeling that if we say it out loud, things will fall apart. Thanks for not saying anything. It *won't* be forever — I promise."
"Good things are worth waiting for," he told her, quite seriously. "I don't give up easily, once I've made up my mind."
"Oh, Clark … "
She slipped an arm through his, resting a gloved hand on his sleeve. He glanced down at her again, smiling, and she found herself smiling back.
"So, what do you think of my hometown?" he asked, changing the subject quite deliberately.
"It's nice," she said. "Not a bit like Metropolis, though."
"No. It's funny, you know. I love Smallville, but I already like Metropolis, too. There's something about the city that appeals to me … the excitement; everyone is going somewhere. Something is always happening."
Lois nodded. "I know. That's exactly how I feel. I've never wanted to leave Metropolis — at least not permanently."
"Then I guess it's a good thing I decided to settle down permanently there," he said. "When we get back, I need to find an apartment. I can't live at the Apollo Hotel forever — although I haven't spent a night there, since I was hired at the Planet."
"You've been too busy guarding me," Lois said, feeling guiltier than ever. Clark had protected her single- mindedly and she was letting her insecurities get in the way of the relationship they both wanted.
"Lois, it's all right. Really."
"No, it's not," she said. "I'll tell you what; I know guys who know guys. Maybe Big Louie can get you a deal on a good place. I feel like I owe you some help, considering that you've been too busy keeping me alive to do any apartment hunting. I'll contact him when we get back."
"'Big Louie'?" Clark asked.
"Yeah. His daughter was my doubles partner in college."
"Uh huh. Big Louie does — well, 'business' in Metropolis. He's one of my sources."
"Oh." Clark raised an eyebrow. "I guess you must know some real characters around the city."
Lois nodded, wondering for an instant if he was angling for her to give him the names of her informants, then she kicked herself mentally. If he was going to be her partner, as she intended, he had every right to expect that she would introduce him to her contacts. He wouldn't try to steal them. Besides, he'd never given her a single reason to mistrust him and every reason to trust him. Clark was neither Claude nor (thank heaven) her father.
"Yeah, I'll take you to meet Louie," she promised. "And Bobby Bigmouth."
"Bigmouth," Lois repeated. "I have no idea what his real name is. He's been Bobby Bigmouth as long as I've known him, and it's not because he's a snitch. He's skinny as a rail and eats practically nonstop."
"Maybe he has a tapeworm," Clark suggested.
"I don't think even that could explain it," Lois said. "The man puts away enough food for fifty tapeworms. I think he must have a black hole where his stomach should be."
Clark laughed. He had a nice laugh, she thought. His smile lit up his whole face and made her want to laugh with him. What had happened to the suspicious, prickly Lois Lane of a couple of weeks ago? That Lois was beginning to seem more and more like a bad dream, fading gradually away the longer she stayed in his company. She had been replaced by one who was uncertain, but hopeful. If this was being in love, then she had it bad for a man who had no idea where he came from.
Speaking of which …
"Clark," she said, "could you show me where your parents found you?"
"Sure," he said. "Shuster's Field is only a little ways from the farm. We can take a short detour on the way home."
Shuster's Field was a flat, snow-covered plain, dotted with trees and surrounded by a wooden fence. They pulled the battered Kent pickup truck up to the gate and Clark cut the engine.
"Mom and Dad were driving along this road when they saw what they thought was a meteor in the sky," Clark said pointing. "Come on."
"Where?" Lois asked.
"Dad said it landed just beyond that clump of trees. Let's go see."
"You've never seen the spot?"
He shook his head. "A couple of years after the ship landed, Old Man Shuster started using this pasture for pedigreed cattle. Nobody was allowed in here. He was paranoid about rustlers and anybody who even climbed the fence was in danger of getting hauled off by the sheriff for trespassing."
"Even his neighbors?"
"Yeah. He was kind of a grouch. It got to be a bit of a joke hereabouts. There was quite a flap a few years ago, when a couple of guys snooping around in there turned out to be from the DEA, looking for drugs. His stud bull chased them both up a tree. Shuster called the sheriff to arrest them — he didn't know who they were, of course — and the sheriff had to rescue them. It turned out they were in the wrong place, or so they said. The whole town was laughing about it."
Lois found herself grinning. "I'd like to have seen it. I don't want to get chased by a bull, though." She craned her neck. "How come I don't see any cows?"
"Well, for one thing, it's winter. You can't graze cattle in the wintertime," Clark explained. "Besides, Shuster died last year and his son sold off the property and the cattle. Dad bought the land. He says he's going to use part of it to raise corn. Anyway, the field's been empty ever since. Come on."
The gate was chained shut but Clark slipped an arm around her waist, took her hand and they floated easily over the barrier. He set her down carefully on the snowy ground and they started across the field toward the trees.
Lois found herself thankful that she had worn her boots. The field was rough and uneven under the deceptive layer of snow. Dead and broken stalks stuck through the crust, jabbing at her legs. After a few moments, Clark stopped. "Do you want to go back?" he asked. "It's not as easy as I thought it would be. There's probably nothing to see, anyway."
Lois shook her head. "No, now that we're here, I'd like to see the place."
"Okay." Clark kept a hand on her arm, obviously ready to catch her if she stumbled, and they continued across the field.
And in the end, it was Clark who stumbled. They were approaching the grove of trees that Clark had indicated was their goal when he suddenly staggered and nearly fell. Lois grabbed him. "Clark! What's wrong?"
"I don't know," he gasped. "I feel really weird."
"Weird how?" she demanded.
He leaned heavily against her. "Lois, something's wrong. Let's get out of here."
Lois put an arm around his waist and they turned to retrace their steps. They had gone only about ten feet when he stopped again. "I feel okay, now. Hold it a minute."
"Clark, what happened?" she asked. "What's wrong?"
He hesitated. "I don't know. I've never felt anything like that before."
"I felt … I don't know, exactly. Like my strength was draining away. My joints hurt, my muscles ached and I felt light-headed. It must be like how I've been told ordinary people feel when they're sick."
She was temporarily diverted. "You've never been sick?"
"And you feel okay, now?"
"Then what could have caused it?"
"I don't know." He was frowning, biting his lower lip.
"Could it be something about this place? How far are we from where your ship came down?"
"Dad said it was just on the other side of these trees — right by the big cottonwood tree."
"Okay, I'm going to go over there and look and see if there's anything to see. *You* —" She fixed him with a stern glare, "— Stay here! Understand?"
"Okay." He looked worried. "Lois, be careful. Whatever this was, it sneaked up on me gradually. I didn't realize it for a few steps, but the closer I got to the trees, the weirder I felt. And it worked the other way, when we backed up. I think there might be something here that caused it."
"Well, I didn't feel anything, so whatever it is may not bother me. I'll be right back." She patted his arm. "I'll watch my step, Clark. Trust me."
He nodded, somewhat reluctantly. "Be careful," he repeated.
She marched determinedly toward the small grove of trees. As far as she could see, everything looked normal — well, as normal as a snow-covered, country landscape could look to a city girl. Beyond the grove, a single tree stood. Nothing about it appeared to be unusual, but that was probably the tree under which Martha and Jonathan Kent had found the little ship bearing the baby whom they had made their son.
She stopped, looking around in all directions. Nothing seemed unusual. Slightly disappointed, she turned to retrace her steps to where Clark waited.
"You're sure you feel all right, now?" Martha Kent asked.
"I feel fine," Clark assured her.
"You don't seem to be running a fever." She felt his forehead. "What do you think it could have been?"
Clark shrugged. "I don't know. I've never felt anything like it."
Lois broke in. "Martha, you and Jonathan probably remember Clark's childhood better than he does. Was he ever sick?"
"No," Martha said. "He fell out of a tree once when he was six and broke a leg, but he's never been sick."
"Never? Didn't he ever have a splinter that got infected?"
"No," Martha repeated. "He got a few splinters from carrying wood sometimes, or when he was 'helping' Jonathan with the chores — " she smiled at her son, " —when he was small, but they never seemed to give him a problem."
"No cavities, even?"
"No," his mother said, shaking her head. "Our dentist was really pleased with the way he took care of his teeth. It was a good thing he never needed braces, though."
"I'll say," Lois agreed. "Anyway, I guess we can conclude that whatever the problem was, it's gone for now. But something about that place might have caused it. Could the ship have had something in it that might have been left behind?"
"I don't see how," Jonathan said. "We took Clark and his blankets and the decal — and I buried the ship the next night."
"In Shuster's Field?" Lois asked.
"No. I didn't want to hide it anywhere that there might have been traces of the landing, or anyplace where it might have been associated with us. I buried it out in Porcupine Gulch, where nobody ever goes."
"Still," Martha Kent said, "something caused it, and that something might be in Shuster's Field, since this happened there and has never happened before."
"I flew over the field from four thousand feet and x-rayed it, especially around that grove," Clark said, "but I didn't see anything unusual — especially since I didn't have any idea what to look for. The problem is, that field originally had one of the first settlements in the area on it. There's junk like you wouldn't believe down there."
"Yes, I know," his mother said. "I think there was a gambling hall there, originally, and a livery stable. They didn't establish the current town limits until 1809."
"Why?" Lois asked, diverted.
"The river changed course," Jonathan said. "Some settlers upstream dammed it up and there was a big flood. It completely washed out most of the town and killed a lot of people so when they rebuilt, they picked another spot."
"Hasn't it happened again?" Lois asked. "Why would Shuster graze his pedigreed cattle in a field that flooded?"
"The flood washed away the settlement upstream, too," Jonathan said. "I remember reading about the local history of Smallville in fifth grade. Anyway, a few floods later, it broke the dam and the river returned to its original course. But by that time, the town was already rebuilt on its new site."
"So whatever we're looking for could be buried somewhere around there?" Lois said. "I mean, it's been a long time since you found the ship."
"Not that long!" Clark protested. "I'm only twenty-seven!"
"Still, that's long enough to bury something pretty thoroughly," Lois pointed out. "Between the snow and dirt and rain and so forth, not to mention Mr. Shuster's pedigreed cows, it could get covered up pretty fast. Besides, we probably wouldn't recognize it if we saw it. If there's something there, it's dangerous. Clark almost passed out." She planted her fists on her hips and fixed him with the determined look that he was beginning to recognize. "I think you should stay away from Shuster's Field from now on until we can figure it out."
"I think that's a very good idea," Martha Kent said in a no-nonsense tone. "There's no reason for you to go back, is there?"
"I guess not." Clark looked at Lois. "Still, it's a little scary that there might be something out there that can hurt me."
"I don't see why," Lois said. "The rest of us have all kinds of things around that can hurt us, all the time. If there's only one thing that can hurt you, I think you're pretty lucky."
Clark laughed at her undeniable logic. Trust Lois to put everything in perspective. "I guess you're right."
"Of course I'm right," she said, somewhat smugly. "This is one mystery you're going to have to leave to us, though."
"I'll be cleaning up that field in a couple of months, getting it ready to plow and plant," Jonathan Kent said. "You can bet I'll be looking for anything unusual. We just don't want to draw any attention to it now by doing anything different than normal, if you're going public soon. I still remember those men who came around after your ship landed. We don't want them back."
It was fairly quiet on Wednesday morning when she and Clark returned to the city. Lois always liked the times when she had a day off in the middle of the week. The streets were less crowded than the time after work when she had to fight her way through rush hour traffic to get home. Another benefit was the fact that she was able to tend to business more easily than on weekends, when many of the places of business had abbreviated hours — and besides, every other person who worked during the week was trying to accomplish his or her own business at the same time.
A call to Big Louie produced the results that she had hoped for, and by eleven o'clock in the morning, she and Clark were climbing the steps to 344 Clinton Street, an apartment house in one of the older sections of Metropolis, only a few blocks from her own place. Floyd McDavitt, the manager, was an enormously fat man with a balding head who looked at them with a cynical expression in his brown eyes and made the mistake of addressing his questions to Lois.
Fortunately for the manager, Clark interceded before she committed homicide, by suggesting that he take them to look at the apartment. McDavitt hunted around for his keys and located them at last in a bottom drawer of his desk.
The apartment looked as if a Kansas cyclone had hit it, Lois thought as he opened the door and gestured them through. An F-4, at least, she amended. A short flight of steps descended into a sunken living room covered with debris. Dust and cobwebs coated every surface and the windows were so filthy that she couldn't see through the glass. A large, brown spider had constructed an intricate web in one upper corner and the remains of her victims hung pathetically from the strands. The carpet was torn and dirty, stained with what looked like coffee, and trash was scattered everywhere. The place smelled of mildew as well as other less pleasant odors, and Lois wrinkled her nose in distaste.
McDavitt gestured around. "Quietest building in Metropolis," he informed them, apparently unaware of the siren as an emergency vehicle tore past on the street outside.
Lois raised an eyebrow at Clark. McDavitt missed it, glancing around, apparently oblivious to the mess. "New to Metropolis?" he inquired, obviously sizing Clark up as an out-of-towner.
"Not completely," Clark said. "I've been to Metropolis on and off for years."
"Where do you work?"
"The Daily Planet." Clark's eyes met Lois's over the top of his head and his eyes gleamed with amusement. "I'm the new staff writer."
"Oh." The man regarded Lois, measuringly. "You married?"
Clark didn't hesitate or glance at Lois. "No."
This time, Clark did turn to give him a long look, a slightly incredulous expression on his face and Lois smothered the urge to laugh.
"I mind my own business," Floyd informed him. "Where you from?"
"Kansas," Clark said. He strolled into the kitchen. "Nice floor plan."
"A bit too open for my taste," Lois said. She opened a cupboard. The door fell off in her hand.
"A few screws is all," the manager said. Lois and Clark looked at each other. Clark moved to the sink and tried the faucet. A stream of murky brown liquid gushed from the tap.
"Minerals," the man said. "Good for the liver."
The balcony opened from one side of the living room on an empty alley with a thrilling view of a brick, windowless wall, Lois saw. McDavitt noticed her expression and spoke to Clark. "Nice view. You can see out, no one can see in. Walk around in the buff. I do."
The image produced by that remark was one Lois would rather not have envisioned and the expression on Clark's face nearly broke her control. She fixed her gaze on a peeling plaster wall and fought a masterly battle with the impulse to break into hysterical laughter.
"How much?" Clark asked.
"Nine-fifty," Floyd said.
"Nine hundred and fifty dollars?" Clark repeated, sounding slightly shocked.
"You want cheap, go back to Iowa."
"Kansas," Clark corrected.
"Whatever. This is Metropolis. Nine even. Take it or leave it."
"Maybe I'd better ask Big Louie about that," Lois said. "He might think nine hundred was a bit steep for this … " She peeled a ragged piece of plaster from the wall and looked at Clark. " … place."
Floyd gave her a sour look. "Eight-fifty. That's my last offer."
Clark took the plaster from her and crumbled it in one hand. "Do you mind if I make a few repairs?"
The man glanced at him and then at Lois, who raised an eyebrow at him.
"I guess not," he said, reluctantly.
Clark looked at Lois. She nodded infinitesimally. "Okay, I'll take it," he said. "When can I move in?"
"As soon as the check clears," the man said.
"Fine." Clark opened his checkbook and began to write.
"I'll have some extra keys made," Floyd said. He looked back at Lois, whom he appeared to realize was the more formidable of the two. "Is she gonna need one?"
"Of course," Lois said.
Floyd grunted. "Figures."
"Now what?' Clark asked as they emerged out onto the street again.
Lois glanced at her watch. "I guess we could go get some lunch. Or we could make some sandwiches at my place. I always have a few chores to do on my days off."
Clark shrugged. "If you have some supplies, I can make something for us," he suggested. "I'm not as good a cook as Mom, but I know my way around a kitchen. Then I can help you with your chores, since I don't have much to do right now. It's the least I can do after you helped me get the apartment."
"Sure," Lois agreed. "I need to call Henderson and see if I can pick up my car, too. My insurance company has to 'evaluate' the damage before they'll pay to fix it."
"Does your policy pay for assassination attempts?" Clark asked.
"No, but it covers vandalism," she said.
"Close enough. Okay, why don't we stop by a market and I can pick up some food, and we'll go to your place. How do you feel about chicken salad sandwiches?"
The trip to the corner market didn't take long and some fifteen minutes later, Lois was unlocking her apartment door. Clark glanced at the window that he had covered with cardboard when they had left, but apparently the manager had seen to the repairs, Lois saw. Her fish were all right, as Clark had assured her before they had gone to Smallville. One of the cushions of her sofa lay on the floor. She didn't recall leaving it like that, but in the confusion of the moment, when someone had fired a rocket- propelled grenade through her window, it could easily have happened. She picked it up and restored it to its place. Clark took the bag of groceries to the kitchen while she headed to her bedroom to change clothing.
And stopped in the doorway.
Her dresser drawers had been pulled out and her clothing was scattered across the rug. The stack of printer paper with the research that Jimmy had done for her a couple of weeks before had been strewn everywhere and her closet door gaped open. The contents had been dumped carelessly on her bed. Even the drawer of the bedside table lay upside down on the floor.
He was beside her so quickly that it startled her. She still hadn't accustomed herself to the speed of which he was capable. "What's the matter?"
"Look." She gestured around at the chaos that had been her bedroom.
Clark was silent for several seconds, taking in the mess. "It looks as if someone has been searching your apartment," he said, slowly. "I noticed the drawer of your desk was open, and your cupboards were, too. I guess we better call the police."
"Yeah, I guess so," Lois said, still stunned. "But what on Earth were they looking for?"
"Is anything missing?" William Henderson stood motionless, looking around at Lois's bedroom.
"I don't think so," Lois said, uncertainly. "None of my jewelry is gone and my other valuables all seem to be here, too. If they took something, I haven't noticed it yet. I think they might have been looking for something."
The detective frowned. "Do you have any idea what it might have been?"
Clark spoke up. "Inspector, do you think it could be tied to the Trevino case?"
Henderson didn't answer at first. "You said when you talked to me two nights ago that you thought there might be a connection to LexCorp."
Clark nodded. "Hobbs Mining and Lexwood Logging are both subsidiaries of LexCorp. If someone higher up is involved, he might have been trying to find out if Lois had any evidence of a connection."
"Did you?" Henderson looked directly at her.
"No," Lois said. "Nothing concrete, anyway. And none of it was here."
The dour police officer shoved his hands into his pockets. "Just as well. Officially, my report doesn't mention LexCorp. A word to the wise, Lois: if you're going to investigate them, don't let anyone know that you might suspect that they're anything but what they seem."
"Let's just say that there have been other investigations of LexCorp that have ended badly. Nothing has ever been found that ever implicates anyone of importance but some odd coincidences have been fatal for some of the investigators."
"Are you saying —"
Henderson shook his head. "I'm not saying anything. Just be careful." He turned toward the door. "I'll make a report of the break-in. If anything shows up missing, let me know."
"One question, Bill," Lois said. "Why didn't you just send a regular officer? Why come here yourself?"
One corner of his mouth twitched. "Let's say, I have my suspicions, too, and leave it at that."
After the officer had gone, Lois and Clark stood looking at the mess around them and at each other for several minutes, without speaking. At last, Lois bent to pick up a dress shoe that had fallen into her bedside trash basket.
"Was Henderson saying what I think he was saying?" Clark asked, slowly.
"That the criminal activity comes from the highest level?" Lois said. "I think he was."
"But that would mean Lex Luthor, himself. Isn't he supposed to be a philanthropist?"
Lois shrugged, looking around at the chaos of her bedroom. "As far as I know, there isn't even a whisper about his integrity, but he wouldn't be the first person with a supposedly spotless reputation who turned out to have some skeletons in his closet."
"I guess we need to do some closer investigation," Clark said. "If he isn't behind it — if it's one of his corporate officers — we need to clear him and nail the subordinate. And if he *is* involved, we need to find out. I've heard a little about him, and I read his unauthorized biography a couple of nights ago — all five of them. Rags to riches, wrong side of the tracks, self-made billionaire, owns dozens of companies, employs thousands of people. Man of the Year, every year, a finger in every pie but rarely appears in public. I can understand that part, I suppose, but if he dodges the media, it's going to be a little difficult to interview him."
"Maybe," Lois said. "Remember, I told you I've been trying to get the first one-on-one interview with him. I think I might have a way to do it."
"Yeah. The Luthor Foundation is sponsoring the Christmas Charity Ball this year. It's tomorrow night and everybody who's anybody in Metropolis will be at it. I'm going to call Perry and see if I can get a couple of the Planet's complementary tickets." She waded across her room to the telephone. "After that, I guess the first thing to do is to clean up this mess."
"I'll go finish making lunch," Clark said. "We can eat and then I'll help you pick things up."
"Thanks, Clark." Lois glanced around her chaotic bedroom. She had been somewhat suspicious of LexCorp before, of course, but now she was much moreso. In a way, she supposed, the break-in had been a good thing. It told her that someone was still worried about what she knew and the lack of any evidence might go some way to convincing Mr. X of her ignorance. Hopefully, she thought, the fact that the intruder had found nothing and that her article had made no mention of any LexCorp connection, would cause whoever was behind this to conclude that she hadn't added up two and two. She might not have decided to probe quite so deeply if someone hadn't chosen to tear her apartment to shreds. That last, she knew, wasn't very likely, but at least, now she was sure that someone still had something to hide.
"I think," Clark said, "that I'm not going to quit watching out for you, yet — until I'm sure that whoever our Mr. X is has decided that he's safe. I'm not going to relax and discover that he's blown up your apartment or something, tomorrow morning."
Lois sighed. "In that case, why don't you sleep in my living room tonight? I'd hate to think of you sitting outside on that bench all night. It's starting to cloud up again."
He hesitated. "Are you sure? I'd be okay. I don't feel the cold."
"Clark, even you need sleep occasionally," she said. "Besides, if it snowed, I'd probably feel so guilty I wouldn't be able to sleep. Now, you go and finish fixing lunch while I call Perry, okay? I'm not going to argue about it."
He looked for a moment as if he was going to protest, but she glared at him and at last, he gave in gracefully. "Okay, okay. Far be it from me to rob you of a night's sleep. I'll have lunch ready in a minute."
When Clark said a minute, that was literally what he meant, she thought. She picked up the receiver and punched in the number for the Planet's editor. As it rang, she heard the unmistakable sounds of Clark moving about at more than human speed, probably cleaning up her living room and kitchen from the aftermath of the search. A few seconds later, she heard the chop-chop-chop of a knife on a cutting board as he began to prepare the sandwiches. The chopping speed accelerated as she listened until it resembled the purr of a distant motor. She grinned slightly.
Someone picked up the phone on the other end. Jimmy's voice said, "Daily Planet, Editor's office."
"Jimmy, it's Lois. Is Perry around?"
"Oh, hi, Lois. Sure; he's in the conference room talking to a police detective."
"A police detective? Why?"
"We had a break-in last night."
"Where was the night staff?"
"Oh, Harry was out covering a fire and Martin has the flu. Anyway, they knocked our night watchman on the head and —"
"What did they take?"
"Well … they got your computer."
"Yeah. They took your computer."
"Oh, *great*! Everything was on that computer! Even my — " She broke off. "Jimmy, ask Perry to call me when he's finished talking to the detective. I need to talk to him about something important. Somebody broke into my apartment, too."
"You're kidding! What did they get?"
"As far as I can tell, nothing. I think I know what they might have been looking for, but they wouldn't have found anything about it. Give Perry my message, okay?"
Clark was standing behind her when she hung up. "Somebody stole your computer?" he asked.
"How did you … " she began. He tapped his ear and realization dawned. "Oh, right."
"What was on it?" he asked.
"My novel!" Lois said, indignantly.
"And all my contacts and research!"
"Don't you back it up on a floppy?"
Lois shook her head, angrily. "I never needed to before!"
Clark opened his mouth and closed it again, wisely rethinking what he had been going to say. "Did it have any of that stuff about the LexCorp connection on it?"
"No. I put all the information Jimmy got for me into my bag. It's still there."
"So they wouldn't find anything?"
"No. Not a thing." She glowered at the mess around her. Somebody was going to pay for all this inconvenience; that was for sure.
"That's lucky, then. You better write down as many of your contacts as you can remember, I guess. I don't know what else to do about it."
Lois growled deep in her throat. "I do. It's personal, now. Whoever is behind this is toast."
"A week!" Lois fumed as they left the repair shop three hours later. "How am I supposed to manage for a week with a subcompact while they fix my car? What's so complicated about replacing a broken windshield?"
Clark shifted uncomfortably in the tiny bucket seat. Soft, white flakes spatted against the windshield, leaving big globs of snow that began to melt upon contact with the warm glass. He didn't see how he was going to manage for a week crammed into this thing, either. He was discovering a completely unsuspected dislike for enclosed spaces, jammed in as he was with his knees pulled nearly to his chest.
Lois glanced at him, irritation written plainly on her features. "Clark, do you think if I park this thing at my apartment that we could fly to the Planet to pick up the tickets? I feel like I'm being squeezed on all sides."
"You took the words right out of my mouth," he said.
"I thought you looked a little uncomfortable," she said.
"That's an understatement," he muttered.
"Clark, are you claustrophobic?"
"You know, afraid of closed spaces."
He nodded. "I think maybe I am. A little."
"Why? I can't see your parents locking you in a closet for punishment or something."
He laughed shortly. "No, I don't think so. But Dad says the ship was pretty small. Maybe that had something to do with it, if I was in it for a long time."
She turned onto the main drag and cussed as a larger car tried to change lanes into her. The woman in the passenger seat gave them a rude gesture as the vehicle cut sharply in front of her, making her step hard on the brakes. "I'm going to get killed if I drive this thing for a week. Yeah," she added, returning to the previous topic. "That's something I hadn't thought of. I wonder how long you were in it? How old did you say you were when they found you?"
"The doctor told Mom and Dad that I was a little under three months. Maybe ten or eleven weeks."
Lois shook her head. "Who would put a baby that age in a ship and shoot it into space? And why?"
"I guess that's the million dollar question," Clark said.
"I'd like to see that ship someday," she said, a little wistfully.
"Maybe in a few years I'll dig it up for you," he said. "After we're sure that no one is looking around in Smallville for my origins."
"Yeah," she agreed. "That's something we definitely don't want." She made a face. "The darned snow is getting thicker."
"It's just another two blocks," Clark said. He glanced uneasily out the window. This little car was definitely *not* his cup of tea. The sooner he was able to get out of it, the better.
The light ahead of them changed to red and Lois stepped on the brakes but the car continued forward toward the intersection, sliding over the thin sheet of water that coated the street, courtesy of the melting snow. "I can't stop!"
Clark shoved his door open and thrust one foot out onto the street, dragging it along to slow the car's momentum. They skidded to a halt against the curb. Lois simply looked at him in silence for a moment.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"Yeah." Slowly, she released her death grip on the wheel. "Let me guess. Your favorite cartoon show as a child was 'The Flintstones'."
"Actually, it was 'Tom and Jerry'," Clark said.
"You could have fooled me." Lois leaned back as far as she could in the tiny seat. "Wait until my heart slows down. I want to get this thing to my place and get out of it. I've faced down mad bombers and assassins but this car really scares me."
"That makes two of us." Slowly, Clark drew his foot back inside and closed the door. People passing by glanced incuriously at them.
After a moment, Lois pulled cautiously out onto the street again. A large bus blew his horn at her and she jumped, but fortunately the remainder of the trip was marred by no further incidents. As she shut off the engine, in front of her apartment house, Clark opened the door and stepped out into the snow. A moment later, Lois joined him.
"Well, amazingly, we're still alive," she said, acerbically. "Let's go up to the roof and you can fly us to the Planet."
"I think the alley will do just as well," Clark said. "Nobody's going to see us in this."
Together, they ducked into the alley and a moment later they were airborne. Clark took them straight up until they were well above most of the buildings that lay between Lois's apartment and the Daily Planet. It was unlikely that anyone would see them, but still, he thought, the sooner he started wearing his outfit, the better.
Lois seemed to have the uncanny ability to read his thoughts, he was reflecting an instant later. There was no other explanation for her next question.
"When are you going to start wearing your new outfit in public?" she asked.
"I don't know. I need to pick the right time to, um … "
"Make your debut?" she filled in.
"Yeah, I guess so. How do you think I should do it?"
"Well, probably if you just show up at an accident or something, that would work," she said. "We'll have to talk this over. Remember, you promised I get the exclusive."
He touched down on the roof of the Planet. "You'll get it," he promised. "Just as soon as I figure out how I'm going to manage this."
"We'll come up with something," she said. "Let's go pick up those tickets and then go reserve a tux for you, unless you have one of your own."
He shook his head. "I'm afraid not."
Lois opened the door to the stairs. "No reason you should. Come on. I want to check over my desk and make sure the burglar didn't take anything besides my computer."
Perry White looked around as the door to the stairs opened and Lois and Clark emerged from the stairwell. He raised his eyebrows at the sight. He had never seen Lois Lane so comfortable with even a temporary partner before, but she seemed to get along extremely well with the new guy, and the fact was, Kent appeared to be a winner, even after only a few days. He'd saved Lois's life several times while she was being stalked by Finn and together they had brought in a headline story. He'd had a feeling about the young man when he'd interviewed.
Still, there had been the break-in last night and then the information that Lois's apartment had been ransacked. Something was definitely up.
"Lois!" he barked, as the two reporters descended the ramp into the Pit. "In my office!"
He saw her say something to Clark, who nodded, and the two of them separated. Lois turned toward his office and Clark headed across the room toward Jimmy.
He held the door for Lois and let her precede him into the office. "Lois, by any chance do you have any idea what the guys who broke in here were after?" he inquired, closing the panel after him.
She didn't answer at once. When she did, he was surprised to see a glint of anger in her eyes. "Someone very powerful is trying to be certain I haven't made the connection between Barbara Trevino and him."
Perry felt his jaw drop. "*What*?"
"You heard me, Perry. Clark and I think that there's a much bigger fish behind this thing than just Trevino — and a lot more going on. I think he doesn't want to kill me if he doesn't have to — that might make someone suspect that there's more to it than just the attempt to mine the rainforest. Fortunately, I didn't have the information they were looking for on my computer or in my apartment."
Perry stared at her. "Do you mind fillin' me in?"
She shrugged. "The Trevino thing just scratched the surface. There's a lot more. Clark and I have some leads, and we're following them. We have evidence of a tie-in to a business conglomerate here in the United States."
"I see. You don't want to tell me anything."
She looked directly at him. "Chief, you're safer not knowing anything about it, believe me."
He stared back at her, trying to read her expression. "You're serious, aren't you?"
She nodded. "As a heart attack, as I've heard you say. This is bigger than any of us had any idea in the beginning."
"Hmm." Perry frowned at her. "You're sure you can handle it?"
"We can handle it," she assured him. "Clark and I work pretty well, together."
He had to consciously think about not letting his jaw drop a second time. Lois had had four partners in the last year and all four of them had sworn that Lane was crazy and that he'd quit before he worked with her again. Her opinion of each of them hadn't been even that complimentary. "You want to keep Kent as a partner?"
She nodded. "He saved my life six times in three days, Perry, and I wouldn't have gotten the Trevino story without him."
"Six times." She looked straight at him. "I've never had a partner like him."
"I'll say. You usually chew them up and spit them out."
"They weren't Clark," she said, unarguably. "I needed a partner who could keep up with me, and none of the others could do that. They didn't have any imagination and they weren't willing to take the risks necessary to get the big stories. Clark does and he has the experience and skill to do what needs to be done. Our styles are different but they complement each other and we somehow manage to get along, even when we disagree. I want him as *my* partner, Perry. He'd be wasted on anybody else."
Perry grinned. "Lack of confidence isn't a big problem with you, is it?"
Lois shrugged. "I'm the best and you know it. Do I get him?"
"Who am I to argue with success?" He glanced into the newsroom where Kent was talking to Jimmy. "I guess he's yours."
"Thanks. By the way, can I pick up those tickets, now?"
"Oh — uh, right." He reached into his desk drawer and produced the requested items.
She took them and tucked them into her purse. "We have a few things to work on today, Perry. We'll see you in the morning."
"I thought this was your day off," Perry said.
"It was, until I walked into my apartment this morning. It's probably a good thing I wasn't there last night."
Starting to settle into his desk chair, Perry stopped. "Uh … do I want to know that?"
"Huh? Oh. I was staying with some friends. Clark suggested I shouldn't stay at my place alone until we were sure the hit man had been called off."
"I thought Finn was in custody."
"He is. I'm talking about the second hit man."
"*Second* hit man? Lois, what in the name o' Elvis's blue suede shoes is goin' on?"
"It's not important, now, Perry. What is important is that Clark and I attend the party tomorrow night. As soon as we have something more concrete, we'll let you know."
It wasn't until she was out the door that the next question popped into his mind. She was going to that party to try to meet Lex Luthor, the multi-billionaire philanthropist and businessman. Did it have anything to do with this mysterious figure that she and Kent were now linking to the Trevino case? Luthor?
The thought seemed beyond the realm of probability, but if Lois and her new partner were on to something involving LexCorp, she hadn't been kidding when she said it was big. For an instant, he considered the feasibility of calling her back and demanding an explanation, then rejected it. He wouldn't get one, if he knew Lois, until she was ready to talk. She worked best with the lightest of hands on the rein, as Perry had discovered early in her career at the Planet, and that technique had frequently resulted in stories for the Planet that left its competitors in the dust.
He glanced out into the newsroom again. Lois was rummaging through her desk drawers and he saw Jimmy hand Clark a large, thick envelope. Clark clapped the boy on one shoulder and crossed the room to Lois. His star reporter said something to her partner, who nodded and held up the envelope. Briefly, he thought back nostalgically to the days when he had been an investigative reporter. He had thrilled to the excitement of the chase, tracked down obscure leads that sometimes took him places he hadn't even considered. In many ways, Lois reminded him of himself when he had been in her place. That was one of the reasons that she had become his protegee.
He wondered for an instant if his behavior had ever been as frustrating to his own editor as Lois's was for him and then decided that it wasn't possible. That was one area where she definitely had the advantage.
With a sigh, he turned back to his computer. He still had Finkelstein's article to edit and as usual it needed a lot of help. Sometimes he wondered why on Earth he'd let Alice talk him into hiring her cousin's wife's brother. The guy's only talent seemed to be sniffing out scandals that belonged in the National Whisper far more than the Planet. He steeled himself for the task and began to read.
"Is that what I think it is?" Lois asked, looking up from the search of her desk drawers.
"These are the photos of the files I took at Hobbs Mining's Brazilian office," Clark said. "Jimmy developed them for me. My bet is that the originals disappeared as soon as the authorities moved in on them."
"I wouldn't take you up on that bet," Lois said. "Anything interesting?"
"I'd rather wait until we're in private," Clark said. "Remember what Henderson suggested."
"Yeah." Lois said. "Good idea. As far as I can tell, nothing's missing here except my computer so I guess we can go. We still have to reserve a tux for you."
"Okay," Clark agreed. He glanced over his shoulder and the slightest of frowns flickered across his features. "You know, Finkelstein is beginning to annoy me. Doesn't the guy know of any kind of relationship between a man and a woman that doesn't involve immediate sex?"
"In a word," Lois said, "no. Even Cat has turned him down at least twice that I know of." She stood up and shoved her chair under her desk. "I hope Perry replaces my computer quickly. I'm going to need it."
They left the newsroom via the stairs and a moment later were launching from the roof into a snowstorm that had grown heavier during the time they had been in the Daily Planet. Lois pulled her coat tightly around her body and snuggled up against Clark. He smiled, pulling her a little closer. "Have I told you that I'm in love with you, Lois?" he said, softly. "I am, you know. For the first time in my life."
"I think it's the first time you've said it right out," Lois said. "I think I'm in love with you, too, Clark. If I'm not, it's a darned good imitation. I don't think I've ever said how much I appreciate it that you haven't pressured me, though. I've thought I was in love before … but it wasn't like this."
"Is that a good thing?"
She nodded against his chest. "For one thing, I know you love me back; you aren't trying to get something from me."
"Well, I wouldn't say I'm not trying to get something," he said, a slight laugh in his voice. "I want *you*, for the rest of my life. Those are pretty big stakes for any guy."
"That's a little different," she said. "You know what I mean."
His arms tightened around her. "Yes, I do. I shouldn't joke. I know you're a little nervous about it — and you have every right to be. But Lois, even if the other guys in your life were incredibly stupid, that doesn't mean I am — at least about you. They didn't know what they had or they couldn't handle it; one or the other. It wasn't you that failed; it was *them* — for trying to make you something you're not, for being too blind, or just too self-centered to realize what they had. I may not be the world's most insightful man; I've done plenty of dumb things in my life, but I know that much."
Held tightly in his arms, it was impossible to raise a hand to wipe away the teardrops that had begun to fill her eyes. He glanced down sharply. "Don't cry, Lois! What did I say?"
His voice sounded faintly alarmed. She sniffled slightly. "Nothing, really. You're really very convincing, you know that?"
"Oh." There was a smile in his voice. "I mean every word."
"You've known me barely more than a week!"
"I know. So what? I was sure in less than an hour. The only reasons I didn't say anything then were because I knew you'd think I was crazy — and because I didn't know whether or not I was already married. I didn't really think I was, because I couldn't believe I'd fall so hard for someone if I were in love with someone else, but I needed to be sure."
She turned her face into his shoulder. "Maybe we could try that date thing you were hinting at the other day."
"Do you really want to?" She could hear the faint note of excitement in his voice.
She nodded. "Like I said, you're very convincing."
"Okay, how about Friday night?"
He certainly didn't waste time, she thought, and couldn't help smiling. "All right."
He had begun to descend, and a few seconds later, he set her gently on her feet in a narrow alley. The snow had become quite heavy and was beginning to collect against the walls and in the gutters. The sidewalk was lightly coated, as well, and the footprints of the few persons intrepid enough to brave the storm were starting to fill with fresh flakes. A brisk, slightly damp breeze blew more flakes into her face as they stepped out of the shelter of the alley.
"I hope we don't get snowed in," Lois said.
"Me, too," Clark said. He waved at a little shop halfway down the block. "There's Edgar's Tuxedo Rental. I've rented from them before."
"Really? I thought you said you're new to Metropolis," she said.
"I am. But I can go anywhere in the world to get things," he reminded her. "I've been in and out of Metropolis for years. I've even read your articles in the Daily Planet. I only wish we'd run into each other before."
"So do I," she said, wistfully. "That was you who saved Bertolli's Lear jet, wasn't it?"
He nodded. "Yes. I'd flown into Metropolis for a friend's wedding. I was on my way back to Smallville when I saw the plane hit by lightning."
Lois shook her head. She knew intellectually that he had pushed aside the Nightfall asteroid and most of the other, smaller ones in the swarm but it was still hard to wrap her mind around the fact that he was strong enough to land a jet plane. He *looked* like an ordinary, human man — an exceptionally well-built and good-looking one, to be sure, but still a man. On the other hand, she had seen the other things he could do, including not only surviving a fall from the roof of a three-story building (she still winced at the memory of that) to shattering the blade of a battleaxe that hit him on the head. Not to mention the flying. Maybe she'd be more able to absorb it when she saw it, sometime, she thought.
The bell tinkled as they pushed through the door into Edgar's Tuxedo Rental and the woman behind the counter looked up. The store was almost empty. A single customer brushed past them, tucking a receipt into the pocket of his overcoat as he left the store.
"Can I help you?" the woman asked.
Clark gave her his wide smile. "Well, I think I need a tux."
"Have you rented here before?" she asked.
"Yes. My name is Clark Kent," he told her.
"Let me check our records," she said. She went to the little desk that sat near the entrance and flipped through a thick book that lay open on the surface. Lois looked around. The shop was small and tasteful, with thick, soft carpet, now somewhat muddy at the entrance. In the display window, two mannequins modeled the wares offered within. Racks of formal clothing hung on all sides. The thought of Clark in a tux caused her to stop and take a deep breath. Just the mental image made her feel slightly breathless.
The woman was back. "I see you've rented here several times. Are there any changes we need to take into account?"
"No," he assured her.
Lois let her attention wander as the little ritual continued. The snow outside was still growing thicker. Traffic had slowed as vehicles moved cautiously through the blowing flakes and the stuff was now collecting on the street as well, wherever the wheels of passing cars weren't beating it into a muddy slush. She glanced at her watch. It was now past four in the afternoon. Rush hour was in full swing and this storm was going to make it difficult to get anywhere in decent time.
Except, she reminded herself, that she didn't have to worry about traffic. There were definitely advantages to traveling by air. Especially, when you knew the pilot.
"Okay, all set," Clark said in her ear and she almost jumped. He was tucking a receipt into his pocket.
"Be careful out there," the woman said. "It's snowing pretty hard."
"Christmas weather," Clark said. He opened the door for Lois and followed her out into the snowstorm.
The alley, which had been conveniently empty when Clark had landed, was now occupied by two transients and a large, cardboard box. The men had set up their makeshift shelter over a grating, from which arose a plume of steam. Lois pulled her coat more tightly around her, looking around for another place where they could take off. The snow was coming down steadily, tiny, glittering flakes that brushed against her face like ghostly fingers.
She leaned into the upward slope as the sidewalk began to slant uphill. Clark reached out to take her hand as they moved along the slippery walk — which turned out to be a good thing when her foot went out from under her a few steps farther on and she stumbled against him. He steadied her, instantly. "Are you okay?"
"Sure." She gripped his arm, regaining her balance. "I guess you don't have trouble on ice, huh?"
"Not usually, no."
"Mind if I hang onto you?"
He grinned. "Be my guest."
The light at the corner changed to green and they stepped into the street. Lois glanced at the rows of cars, each driver squinting impatiently out through the veil of falling snow at the traffic and pedestrians.
Halfway across the street, the blast of a horn interrupted her thoughts and she glanced quickly up the hill at the lines of stopped cars. A bus was careening toward them. As she stared, paralyzed, the driver swerved into the center turn lane to avoid crashing into the bunched vehicles, but it was obvious that the measure was only prolonging the inevitable. In an almost detached way, she watched its approach, thinking abstractedly that there must be a problem with the brakes. The bus swayed dangerously as the driver maneuvered frantically right and left, and Lois saw people pause in mid-step, frozen in place at the sight of the juggernaut barreling toward them.
A gust of air beside her should have alerted her, but it took a split second to realize what was happening. A streak of blue and red shot toward the bus and an instant later, he was standing directly in its path. Her heart seemed to jump into her mouth as she saw the huge vehicle plunging toward her partner. Even knowing that he couldn't be hurt, all her instincts screamed at her that he was about to be crushed.
She barely heard the chorus of screams, as she stood frozen, staring at the tableau for disaster that loomed in front of her. The bus struck her partner and bore him backwards, but now she saw that it was deliberate on his part. His hands were sunk deeply into the front section of the bus and he leaned into it, bracing his feet against the slippery asphalt, gradually slowing its forward rush.
All at once, the frozen scene unfroze. People scattered in all directions, diving out of the path of the oncoming monster.
But the bus was slowing down. Even as she watched, Clark brought it to a halt in the middle of the crosswalk that a moment ago had been filled with people. For a second, nobody moved, then the crowd converged on her partner. Recollecting herself, Lois rushed forward as well, only to see Clark lift into the air. There was a collective gasp from the crowd as he rose over their heads, his scarlet cape flapping in the breeze. For an instant, he hovered and she saw him wave, and then he was disappearing upward into the cloud of flakes.
Lois stared after him, marveling at his command of drama. A second later, Clark appeared beside her, placidly watching the crowd of suddenly milling people.
"Hi," he said. "How was that?"
She stared at him, open-mouthed, for a long second and then began to laugh.
He raised his eyebrows. "What's so funny?"
"You!" she said, still chuckling. "You do something that incredible and you act like there was nothing special about it!"
He shrugged. "The only thing special about it is that I did it in public. What did you think?"
She took his arm. "It was great. Now what?"
"Now we go back to your place. The next time I'm needed, I'll just show up again. Sooner or later, people will notice."
"I think they already did," she said, dryly.
"You know what I mean. And after that, you can interview me and get the exclusive, just like I promised."
"You're sure you don't want your name on the article?"
"Positive. The less I'm connected with the guy in the red and blue outfit, the better it will be."
"I see your point," she said. Suddenly, she stopped short. "That bus," she said.
"What about it?"
"Not this one," Lois said, waving at the bus, now blocking traffic in the middle of the street. "The one a few months ago that nearly crashed into a bunch of people, right in front of the Planet! The one with the handprint in the front of it! Jimmy got a picture of it. That was you, too, wasn't it?"
He looked guilty. "Yeah."
"One witness saw you but she couldn't describe you, and nobody believed her," she said. "*I* didn't believe her."
"Well," he pointed out, "it really is kind of unbelievable."
"Not anymore," Lois said. "Or at least, not for long."
"I don't know what Perry's going to think of these interviews," Lois was saying twenty minutes later as she and Clark walked away from the confusion around the bus.
"Mass hallucination?" Clark suggested.
"Maybe. But he won't be able to explain the picture I took of your handprints on the bus," Lois said. "And after you've been seen a few more times, he'll be gloating over the fact that I was there when you made your debut."
Clark grinned. This should be interesting, to say the least. He'd expected to be nervous when he made his first appearance in the suit, but when the event actually occurred, he'd been much too busy preventing a disaster to worry about what people were thinking. "Well, the first thing he's going to ask is if you've been drinking."
"Probably," Lois agreed. "But I wasn't just interviewing witnesses. I was a witness, too. There's a phone booth." She headed toward it with a determined stride, only to nearly slip in the icy deposit that coated the sidewalk. Clark caught her arm.
She regained her balance. "Yikes! Thanks, Char — Clark."
"That's the first time you've called me Charlie in a couple of days," he said, amused.
She ducked her head. "I still think of you as Charlie a lot of the time but I'm working at it."
"I don't mind," he said. "Just as long as you don't call me Charlie in front of Perry or Jimmy."
"Or Cat," Lois said. "I won't." She glanced back at the crowd milling around the bus. "Speaking of which, we're going to have to think of a name for you while you're in the suit."
"Sure. People are going to want to know what to call you. 'Hey you' isn't particularly impressive."
"Impressive?" he said. "I've never thought of myself as impressive."
"Take it from me, you are. I'll think of something," she said, determinedly. "Right now I need to make that call to the Planet."
Clark didn't let go of her arm. "It's pretty slippery. Come on, let's get in the air and out of here. You can call the Planet from your apartment while I get a couple of things from my hotel."
The police had arrived and the crowd around the bus hadn't dissipated in the least as they walked away. Clark scanned the area and located an alley halfway down the block from which he could launch into the air. A short time later, they stepped through the door of Lois's apartment.
Lois headed straight for the telephone and dialed the Planet. While she talking, Clark opened the window and looked out. The snow was still coming down heavily, of course. He debated a moment and then grinned. An instant later, he was wearing the blue and red outfit and had taken to the air. If someone saw him flying, all the better, and he could make certain that no one saw him enter the Apollo Hotel. As a matter of fact, a slight detour might be in order…
Suiting the action to the thought, he flew past the Daily Planet, making sure to slow down as he went past the newsroom windows, aware of the startled expressions on the faces of three of his co-workers, and a few seconds later, he was quietly entering the Apollo Hotel. Quickly, he gathered up a change of clothing suitable for the office on the morrow, and a loose-fitting sweat suit. Satisfied that he had the supplies he needed for the next twenty-four hours, he departed openly via the front lobby and a few seconds later was heading back toward Lois's place.
Lois was just hanging up the telephone as he stepped back through the window. "Very cute, Kent," she said with a grin. "Perry thinks half the newsroom has lost its mind. Ralph and Eduardo are swearing they saw a flying man in blue and red go past the window."
"They did," Clark said.
"I know they did. Now all we have to do is be sure other people see you, as well." She crossed the room to snap on the television. "It looks like the storm is the big story right now, though."
As she spoke, the picture shifted to a newswoman standing in the snow, clutching a microphone and speaking excitedly.
"To repeat, the unidentified plane collided with flight 642's wing tip barely ten minutes ago. There was never any communication between the Tower and the other plane, and no one knows where it came from, but the results may be catastrophic for the 797, which is attempting to make an emergency landing here at Metropolis International Airport," she announced. "Fortunately, all other planes have been routed to other airports because of the storm, and the passenger plane, which was headed to Chicago, was near Metropolis International when the accident occurred. The spokesperson for the airline has given us a little more information. The pilot is Captain Avery Grant, of Duluth, a former Air Force veteran and a seven-year employee of Eastern Airlines. His co-pilot is Jennifer Timmons, also a veteran pilot. If anyone can get this aircraft down safely, these two have the best chance. The damage sustained by the plane … "
Clark dropped the bundle of clothing. "Lois …"
"Go," she said, immediately.
Impulsively, he leaned forward and planted a quick kiss on her cheek and then he was out the window and headed for the airport, a sonic boom echoing over the city in his wake.
The 797 wasn't difficult for him to find, even in the nearly blinding snowstorm. For one thing, the snow might as well not exist as far as he was concerned, and for the other, it was the only aircraft in the vicinity. Clark poured on the speed, barely aware of the sonic boom that rattled windows all across the city as he exceeded the sound barrier in his hurry to reach the stricken jumbo jet.
The damaged wing was on fire, he saw, as he rocketed toward the plane, and part of it was gone. That the pilots were somehow able to maintain even marginal control was something of a miracle in his opinion, but the huge craft was making its approach when he arrived. Little pieces of the shredded wing were continuing to fall away, and it was going to take more than a miracle to get this bird safely on the ground without help.
Fortunately, the help had arrived.
Clark came up under the enormous belly of the plane just as another section of the wing came away and the aircraft began to slip sideways. Faintly, inside, he could hear the gasps and cries of the terrified passengers, but right now his real attention was on the plane, itself.
In a manner reminiscent of the Lear jet, he picked his spot, directly between the wings, and made contact. The smooth metal gave him no place to grab hold, but this time he had no reason to conceal his presence, so he literally sank his fingers into the plane, making his own handholds.
The huge craft was both heavier and more unwieldy than the smaller Lear jet had been but it was nothing next to Nightfall. Slowly, working with the plane's momentum, he steadied it and began the approach that it could no longer make on its own.
A quick blast of freezing breath put out the fire, thereby greatly lessening the chance of an explosion. Snow swirled around him and the jumbo jet; the remnants of the shattered wing groaned alarmingly in the wind, but he gritted his teeth and eased his burden toward the runway, forcing himself not to hurry. Any sudden move could cause more debris to fall off the already damaged structure and possibly hit someone or something on the ground.
Gently, as if he were carrying a baby, he descended, well aware of the confusion that must currently exist inside the cockpit. Well, that could all be explained later. Right now, the important thing was to get the plane and its passengers safely down.
Watching on the television, the first indication Lois had that Clark had arrived at the scene of the emergency was the appearance of the 797 through the thick veil of blowing snow. It was floating toward the ground as lightly as a feather, and in the background, she could hear the confused chatter of voices with the frequently repeated phrase "flying itself". The plane drew closer and at last she could see the little speck of blue and red midway between the wings that told her — as if she didn't already know — that Clark was there, and that he was responsible for the apparent miracle.
Carmen Alvarado, the LNN newscaster, seemed to be struck speechless at the sight. The gigantic aircraft floated forward, toward the news camera and past, and at last, the camera's focus zoomed in on Clark's figure as he guided his burden toward the hangar. The bright red of his cape seemed to blaze against the white background, and Lois held her breath as he set the jumbo jet gently down on its belatedly lowered landing gear.
Fire trucks were converging on the plane, and for an instant, Lois was afraid that the LNN news crew would get the exclusive that Clark had promised her. She should have known better, however, she realized a few seconds later. As the first of the emergency personnel arrived, he lifted from the ground and hovered for an instant just above their heads, as he had after saving the bus a short time ago in order to allow the witnesses a good view of him, and gave a little wave. Then, he vanished straight up into the snowstorm, leaving the news people and the rescuers gaping after him.
"Wow," she murmured. "That is just super." She stopped almost in the middle of the thought. "That's it," she whispered. "Clark, I've just figured out what to call you. And it even matches the 'S'."
It was over two hours later that he appeared in her window again, and Lois had been watching the television with growing bemusement. Some forty minutes after saving the jumbo jet, Clark had resurfaced, this time at a weather- related, multiple car accident on the expressway. After physically moving stalled traffic to allow emergency vehicles through, helping the emergency services extricate trapped drivers and passengers, and apparently rushing a number of the more critical patients to the emergency room, he had flown off once more.
Pictures of Clark bringing in the plane, lifting vehicles to clear the way for the paramedics and fire trucks and ripping doors and roofs off wrecked cars to free the injured were replaying every couple of minutes on the television, and commentators were speculating wildly about the mystery man in red and blue. She had just gotten off the phone with Perry for the third time when he stepped through the window and spun in place, emerging from the miniature whirlwind as her friend and partner.
"Wow," she said. "That's a new move."
"It's a quick way to change," he said. "I found something interesting, by the way."
"The other plane."
"Huh?" For a moment she was confused, then she remembered. "Oh, the one that hit Flight 642?"
"Yeah. I found it. It was a small jet. They haven't identified it, yet."
"And?" she asked.
"It was mostly in pieces, of course — scattered over about two miles of ocean floor. It must have hit the water at full speed — but somehow, the cockpit was pretty much intact. The thing that I don't understand was that there wasn't any sign of the pilot."
"Couldn't he have bailed out?"
Clark shook his head. "I don't think so. The cockpit was squashed, but it was still closed. I don't see how he could have gotten out. Were you able to see on the television how badly destroyed the wing of the 797 was?"
"LNN showed it."
"Take it from me, nobody could have survived that kind of collision. What amazes me is that the passenger plane managed to stay in the air as long as it did. The rescue crews and the Coast Guard were still searching the area when I left, but I don't think they're going to find anything. There wasn't anything to find."
"Are you saying there wasn't a pilot? That it was some kind of drone?"
"I can't think of any other explanation. Of course, something may turn up later. I talked to a couple of the guys running the search. They told me to come back after they've had more time to look things over and check out the cockpit section I dredged up, and they'd let me know what they found. But, Lois, I searched the whole area pretty thoroughly on the slight chance that the pilot was somehow thrown clear. I even scanned the water a couple of miles outside the search area. I didn't find anyone, dead or alive."
"Could he have — you know — sunk?"
He shook his head. "I looked."
"How could you — oh, yeah."
"As a matter of fact, I pulled the cockpit off the bottom of the ocean," he said. "There wasn't any way that I can see for the pilot to have escaped — even if by some miracle he survived the collision."
"I'll take your word for it." She thought it over for several seconds. "Okay, suppose it wasn't an accident. Why would someone want to ram a 797? Insurance? Or, maybe …" She broke off.
"To kill someone who was on it?"
"It sounds pretty farfetched, doesn't it?" she said.
"Still, I've seen less likely scenarios." She reached for the phone. "I'm calling Jimmy. We're probably completely on the wrong track here, but if it wasn't an accident, it won't hurt to know something about that plane — who was on it, who would profit if it crashed … and then you and I have to sit down and do that interview. I just got off the phone to Perry before you got back. He was practically incoherent. You're big news … Superman."
"Superman?" Both his eyebrows had crawled up.
"Well, the 'S' has to stand for something, and what you've been doing today has been pretty super. If you've got a better name, I'd like to hear it."
He looked for a moment as if he would like to protest, but at last, he shrugged. "Okay, you win. Superman it is."
Perry White leaned against a desk in the nearly deserted newsroom and resisted the urge to tear his hair out, since he didn't have much to spare anymore.
Outside, the snowstorm blanketed the city and he wasn't looking forward to the drive home, but at the moment, his attention was focussed on the newsroom monitors.
The man in the red and blue suit that Lois had reported on had made two more spectacular appearances since the bus incident and he hadn't had a single reporter on either scene. He watched the monitors replaying the rescue of the plane and the man's assistance at the chain-reaction accident on the Expressway and shook his head. Lois's first story had struck him as ridiculous but then it had been *Lois* reporting it, so he'd been forced to give it a few seconds of consideration. But, now …
He was still tempted to believe it was all some sort of elaborate hoax. A man who could fly, not to mention perform all the other incredible things he'd seen on television today, was almost beyond the realm of belief, but Lois had seen him in person, or so she said…
Through his open office door, he heard the beep from his computer that informed him that he was receiving a fax. With a sigh, he shoved himself upright and made his way back to his office, wondering who would be sending him anything at this time in the evening. Maybe he should leave it for the night editor …
Two minutes later, he was reading the fax a second time in tense excitement. How she had done it he had no idea, but Lois had produced another miracle for the paper. The exclusive interview with 'Superman', the mysterious, flying man whose image was still showing on the monitors in the other room, would be splashed across the front page of the Daily Planet in the morning. Once more, thanks to Lois, the Daily Planet had scooped the competition and run rings around every other paper in town. It was this kind of thing that allowed him to put up with her sometimes outrageous behavior, her occasional temper tantrums and the frustration that frequently tempted him to climb the walls of his office …
There was a knock on his doorframe. Perry looked up to see Jimmy standing there. He raised an eyebrow. "What're you still doing here?"
"Lois asked me to do some research on that plane that nearly crashed this afternoon. I thought I'd make a run to the corner deli and get some dinner, since I'm going to be here for a while longer. Did you want anything, Chief?"
Perry shook his head. "Thanks, son, but I'm just about ready to leave. Did she say why she wanted it?"
Jimmy shrugged. "When does she ever? She wants the passenger list and for me to find out who might profit if somebody were to crash the plane. Sounds like Mad Dog Lane might be on the trail of something big."
Perry glanced back at the fax. Was it possible that this Superman guy had told Lois something she hadn't put in the article? Trust Lois to turn the incredible super man into one of her sources. "Could be," he said. "I'll see you tomorrow, kid. Good night."
"Good night, sir." Jimmy grinned and turned away toward the elevator. Perry got to work, making a few, very minor changes to the story and wondering what more there might be to it that hadn't been said. Oh well, he'd talk to her tomorrow and tell her to try to find out more than the very sketchy amount of information on the man's background that was presented here, although the part about the rescue was riveting in its own right.
He finished and read it over one last time before sending it on to the printer. Getting to his feet a moment later, he reached for his coat, reflecting that it had been another normal, if interesting, day at the Daily Planet. Hopefully, Alice wouldn't have given up on him yet. He'd promised to try to make it home on time for once and he was at least an hour late. Oh well — that was the newspaper business.
He left the office, turning the light out behind him.
"Superman sure has made a splash," Lois said, glancing at the television, where the video of Clark's rescue of the 797 was replaying yet again.
Clark made a face. "I'm not sure I'm ready for all the notoriety," he said.
"You kind of have to expect it," Lois said, prosaically. "It goes with the territory. Just watch out for the teenage groupies."
Clark groaned slightly, dropping his face into his hands. "It's a good thing I'm fast on my feet."
"That's for sure. Being able to fly is a plus, too. I don't want a bunch of women slobbering over my guy — except maybe from a distance."
"Your guy?" He lifted his head quickly. "Do you mean that?"
She nodded, firmly suppressing the slight twinge of reluctance to admit it. This superstitious behavior wasn't her style, really. Why should acknowledging that she and Clark Kent were in a relationship, albeit a very early one that was already serious, be so scary? She took risks to get her scoops, didn't she? Those risks reaped big dividends, so to speak. If she refused to take them, just because some of them had turned out badly, she'd be no better than some of her colleagues who fancifully styled themselves as reporters. Previous risks she had taken with her personal life hadn't turned out well, but that was before Clark Kent had fallen into her life. He was completely different from the other guys, and more than just because of his incredible abilities. Was she going to throw away this chance at happiness because of a fear of risks? That would be cowardly and Lois Lane wasn't a coward. She'd almost given up on finding the right guy. Hadn't she been thinking since a day or two after she had found him that she wished they had met sooner? Was she going to shove away the man she had been waiting for all her life now that she had him — if she wanted him — because she was suddenly developing a case of cold feet?
"Yes, I mean it."
He smiled at her. "I'm glad."
How did he *do* that? One smile and her heart was fluttering like a teenage girl's.
"Clark," she said, "are you sure?"
"Sure of what?"
"About me." She picked up her copy of the Daily Planet that lay on the sofa and folded it carefully. "You don't know me very well. You've seen me at my best; you haven't seen me at my worst. There's a reason that they call me Mad Dog Lane."
"I know. I can hear pretty well, you know. I've heard more people then Ralph talking. Quite a few have been speculating about how long it's going to be before I annoy you and you annihilate me."
"And that doesn't scare you? I mean, they know me better than you do."
He reached out to remove the paper from her hands and she realized she had been shredding the edges and that newspaper confetti lay all over the rug by her feet. "Do they really know you better than I do? Do they know that the aggressive woman who works in their office, who scares her partners half to death, feels as if she isn't someone worth being loved, or even liked? Do they know that she takes the risks she takes because she feels like she has to prove she's worthy of respect? — a completely unnecessary task, by the way. And do they know she's loyal and courageous and intelligent, and absolutely fascinating?"
"They're too scared of me to even think of it," Lois said. "You're not?"
"If you decide to tear into me, I'm pretty sure I can take it, although I don't promise not to fight back." he said, quietly. "You don't just walk away from someone you love when you disagree, even if it's a pretty vigorous disagreement. You try to work it out. Mom and Dad have had fights, but they're still married because in spite of everything, they still love each other. They knew that even with all the anger and hurt feelings, the relationship was worth the effort and they managed to work things out." He rose from his chair and moved to sit beside her on the sofa. "That's how I feel about you, Lois. I don't know why it happened, but it did." He reached out to take her hand. "Maybe it's one of the differences about me; I don't know but I am sure of one thing: that it's for life."
She squeezed his hand. "You're incredible, did you know that? Somehow when you're talking to me, all the doubts sort of disappear. And Clark, I *want* you to fight back. I don't want a guy who lets me walk all over him. I want someone I can respect."
"I'll try to be that," he said. "And I promise to do my best to fight fair." Slowly, giving her the chance to move away, he slid an arm around her shoulders and scooted a little closer, pulling her against his side. Lois found herself relaxing against him, recalling the evening they had spent in front of the fireplace two nights ago.
"Can we watch something besides the news?" he asked. "I'm getting a bit tired of seeing myself in action."
"Okay." She picked up the remote control and switched the channel. "I think Lethal Weapon is playing. Is that all right with you?"
"No problem," he said.
Lois set the remote down. "It's kind of nice like this."
"Sure is." He pulled her gently back against him. "Do you mind this?"
"No." She rested her head against his shoulder. "It feels nice."
Silence descended on the room except for the chatter of the television. Lois glanced at him, wondering if he would try for more, now that they were alone together in her apartment, but he simply smiled at her, his arm resting lightly on her shoulders. Her return smile turned into a yawn. "Oops, sorry."
"That's okay." He glanced at the wall clock. "Do you know it's nearly ten?"
"The movie is half over," Lois said. She glanced at her window, but the darkness beyond was complete. Not even the usual glow of the city lights was visible through the falling snow. "It would just figure that we'd get snowed in when the Christmas Charity Ball is tomorrow night."
"It will probably be over by tomorrow," Clark said. "Hopefully, they won't cancel the party just for a little snow."
"I hope you're right." She yawned again.
"You're tired," he said. "It's been a busy day. Why don't you go to bed? I'll just settle down in here."
"Are you going to float in your sleep again?" she asked.
"If I do, I promise not to leave any dents in the ceiling," he said, solemnly, but his eyes were twinkling.
Lois found herself giggling. "I'd love to have to explain that!" She yawned again. "Why don't you take the bathroom first. You take a lot less time than I do."
"Okay." He stood up and gave her a hand up from the sofa. "Back in a few seconds." With one hand, he scooped up the bundle of clothing he had brought from his hotel and literally disappeared. Shaking her head slowly, she shut off the television and turned toward her bedroom. From the bathroom, she heard the water come on and a faint whooshing sound and then he was walking out of the bathroom, clad in the sweat suit, his hair ruffled and damp from the shower. "It's all yours."
"Wow," she said.
The sun was shining brightly on a transformed city when Lois and Clark stepped from her apartment building the next morning and she squinted her eyes at the blaze of light reflecting from the snow that coated every flat surface except the street.
The snowplows were busy, she saw, and snow was piled high on both sides of the thoroughfare. Pedestrians were bundled up in coats, boots and mittens, with thick scarves wrapped around their necks as they made their way along the sidewalks.
"Are you sure you want to walk?" Clark asked.
She nodded vigorously. "People are going to be paying attention to the sky today," she said. "It wouldn't be a good idea, at least for a while."
He glanced at her feet. "Well, those are very stylish snow boots, anyway."
"You think so?" Lois regarded the footwear critically. "I got them a couple of months ago. They don't give me much height."
"Why do you want height?" he asked.
"Image," she said, dryly. "I'm a lot smaller than most of the male reporters."
"Believe me, you don't need it," he said. "You're formidable enough just as you are."
She looked down at the toes of the boots again to hide a smile. "I have to admit, they're more comfortable than the heels, and definitely a lot more stable in the snow."
The walked along in silence for some minutes. Lois found that, even with the boots, the icy sidewalk was slippery and availed herself of her partner's arm for stability. She pointed to her usual shortcut through the park as they approached it. "Shall we go the short way? I doubt there are any muggers with battleaxes waiting for us, today."
"Sure," he said.
"Lois!" a voice called, and she looked back to see Linda King hurrying toward them down the sidewalk.
"Huh?" Clark glanced around. "Isn't that …?"
"Linda King. Watch your step."
The reporter for the Herald skidded to a stop beside them. "How did you do it?" the woman demanded.
"Do what?" Lois asked.
"Scored an interview with this Superman guy!" She glanced at Clark. "Do I know you?"
"No," Clark said.
"You were with Lois at the Trevino interview the other day, weren't you?" She held out a hand. "Linda King."
"Clark Kent," Clark said.
"Nice to meet you." Linda turned back to Lois. "How on Earth did you do it?"
"I was just in the right place at the right time," Lois said, truthfully, if unhelpfully. There was certainly no point in going into detail.
Linda stared at her. "You know what I mean. Every reporter in the city is willing to kill for an interview with him! How about an introduction? Professional courtesy, or something?"
"Sorry," Lois said, ironically. "I'm late for an appointment with my 'psychotherapist'. Can't miss any more of them, you know. I might suspect that something was going on with Barbara Trevino and the Rainforest Consortium. Oh," she added, snapping her fingers, "I guess something *was* going on with them." She raised an eyebrow at the other woman. "Too bad you didn't have a clue. Come on, Clark. We're going to be late if we don't hurry."
As they walked away, Clark gave a small grin. "Meow?" he suggested. "Do I sense a certain competitiveness between you two?"
"Just because I wouldn't have Paul on a silver platter, now, doesn't mean I've forgiven her for stealing my story," Lois said.
He laughed. "Whatever happened to Paul?" he asked. "Or, do you know?"
She shrugged. "I suppose he's on some paper or TV station somewhere, but I haven't heard of him since I graduated."
"I suspect he can't say the same of you," Clark murmured. "I heard about you even in Europe. I've seen your stuff in the international edition of the Planet. That thing where you saved the space station was amazing. It isn't surprising that Linda is jealous."
"You know," Lois said, "that's something I think I'd better look at again."
"What? Linda's jealousy?"
"The space program thing. Ever since we found the LexCorp connection to Barbara Trevino, it's been kind of bugging me. I didn't think of it at the time, but when the space station project got into trouble, there was an offer by Lex Luthor to build a private space station — Space Station Luthor. After this latest thing, do you suppose he could have had something to do with the problems that they were having?"
"Possibly," Clark said, slowly. "It's an interesting point, anyway. But wasn't there a scientist who died in a helicopter explosion that was supposed to have been the saboteur?"
"Yes. Antoinette Baines — just like Barbara Trevino was supposed to have been the ringleader in this latest thing. Somebody in LexCorp is behind this, Clark, I just know it."
"Maybe Luthor, himself," Clark said. "I'd say the evidence kind of points that way."
"Maybe. Or maybe some other high-ranking company officer. I don't want to make any specific assumptions until I have more information. I wonder how many times some scheme of our Mr. X has fallen through and a subordinate has taken the fall for whoever actually masterminded it?"
"That's a good question," Clark said. "He'd have to be very careful at covering his tracks, though."
"I'd call a helicopter explosion a pretty good way of getting rid of inconvenient loose ends, wouldn't you?" Lois said. "I hope Henderson is taking precautions with Barbara Trevino."
"Me, too. He sounded to me as if he has his suspicions, though."
"Maybe we need to do some research into Dr. Baines's associates in the weeks before she was killed in that accident."
"I think you're right," Clark said. "Did Jimmy ever get Barbara Trevino's phone records for us, do you know?"
"I think that once she was caught, he didn't think we needed them anymore."
"Well, I want them, too. And maybe Jimmy can hunt around and find Dr. Baines's phone records, if they're still available somewhere. I want to see if there's a connection … "
"Geez, you guys don't want much, do you?" Jimmy sighed. "Okay. Actually, I've still got Trevino's phone records. I'll get 'em for you, and I'll see what I can do about Dr. Baines. Here." He thrust several sheets of paper at Lois. "Here's the passenger list and the other stuff."
"Great." Lois took it and turned her head at Perry's bellow.
"Okay, everybody! Staff meeting in five minutes!"
"Gee," she said, "I wonder what that's about?"
"Three guesses," Clark murmured.
"I don't think I need them." Lois quirked an eyebrow at him. "Come on."
Perry had tacked the front page up onto the bulletin board along with several photographs taken from the LNN broadcasts and the one that Lois had taken with her 35 mm at the scene of the bus rescue. People filed in, all of them looking over the contents of the bulletin board as they took their seats. Cat Grant, she saw, was examining the picture of Clark in the red and blue suit, lifting a woman out through the roof of her crushed car. The gossip columnist was practically drooling. For once, she barely gave Clark a glance as he took his seat next to Lois at the conference table.
Lois considered that it was a refreshing change, but unlikely to be permanent. She leaned back in her chair, watching her coworkers as they filed in. Ralph gave the contents of the board a long look and then turned to whisper to Jerry Mitchell. The man glanced at him and raised an eyebrow. On the other hand, she saw Clark's brows snap together and he turned in his seat to direct a glare at Ralph.
"What?" she whispered.
"Ralph," he said. "Now it's you and Superman."
"*What*?" Her whisper was loud enough to draw a curious glance or two from persons seated nearby.
Perry hadn't missed the byplay. "Is there something you'd care to share with us, Lois?" he inquired.
She glared at Ralph. "I'll take it up with Finkelstein, later. My hearing is a lot better than he thought."
Ralph paled. Satisfied that she'd made her point, Lois turned back to Perry and smiled, brightly. "Never mind, Chief. I'm sure Ralph understands."
In the background, somebody snorted.
Perry glanced at the ceiling for an instant as if invoking Divine help and then jerked a thumb at the bulletin board. "I don't have to tell you people that this is the biggest story of the year. A man who can fly, lift a jumbo jet, rip doors and roofs off of cars — and, according to what he told Lois, is here to help. Our publisher called me at home last night. He wants to know all about this guy, not just what he sees fit to tell us. I promised him that we at the Planet wouldn't rest until Superman was ours. Are we clear on this?"
Clark moved convulsively and Lois spoke up. "Chief, this isn't fair. I should have the exclusive on the follow-up. Those are the rules."
"The rules are off," Perry said. "This is too big."
"Forget it, Lois. Superman's fair game. Every reporter for him or herself. Speaking of which, Kent, where were you while Lois was getting this interview?"
Clark hesitated for an instant and Lois jumped in. "Chief, it was his day off, too! I just happened to be at the right place at the right time! Clark has been needing to find an apartment and bodyguarding me since he got here hasn't left him a lot of time to do it."
"Oh." Perry glanced at Clark, who nodded briefly. "Hadn't thought of that. Okay, boys and girls, that's the word from on high. Find me Superman!"
The phone chose that moment to ring and he picked it up. "White."
The crowd of reporters was breaking up. Cat returned to her study of the photos of Superman and Lois stood up, tugging at Clark's arm. "Come on."
"Somewhere that we can talk."
He followed her from the conference room. Lois promptly marched to the adjoining one and locked the door behind them. "We should have expected this. I figure every paper in town has the same orders out to their people. They're all going to be after you."
"Yeah, I gathered that," he said, sounding resigned. "The problem is, I can't give anybody any more information about myself. I don't have any more — at least, nothing that I'm willing to talk about and I'm not going to make up something just to make Perry happy."
"I don't expect you to," Lois said. "I had to act a little upset when Perry suspended the rules. It wouldn't have been in character for me not to get mad but I'm not going to pursue you — except for current scoops, of course. You'll just have to make it a point to avoid the others."
"I'm not sure I can do that, forever," Clark said, "but I probably don't have a choice. I guess I didn't expect this much fuss."
"Well, now you know. We'll cope," Lois said. "It'll be all right. It might not be such a bad idea if you were to report on Superman once in awhile, yourself. You don't want to be the only reporter in town who never gets a scoop from him."
"You're probably right. What are you going to do to Ralph?" Clark asked.
"Give me time. I'll think of something artistic. Ralph's a gossip, which wouldn't be so bad if he'd confine it to his work but he seems to think it extends to his colleagues, as well."
Clark shrugged. "Mom always says the trouble with gossips is that while they'll talk to you about someone else, they'll also talk about you to others. Anything is fodder for a gossip, and if they haven't got anything to talk about, they'll invent something."
"Ralph should be working for the National Whisper," Lois said, crossly. "I have no idea why Perry hired the guy, but it was the worst idea he ever had." A knock on the door made her break off. Jimmy was waving several sheets of paper at them. Lois opened the door. "Are those Trevino's phone records?"
"Yeah. For the last six months. I'm working on the ones for Dr. Baines. It might take me a while, though."
"Thanks," Lois said, taking the offering. "Just get them for me as soon as you can. It's important."
"Will do. Um — " Jimmy hesitated. "The Chief wants to talk to you in his office."
"We'll be right there," Lois said. She saw Clark lift his head. Was he doing what she thought he was doing?
"Um, Lois, I just remembered, I have to meet that source —"
"Go ahead," she said, immediately. "I'll see what Perry wants."
"Thanks," he said, quickly and squeezed past Jimmy to hurry toward the ramp.
Lois left the conference room and headed toward Perry's office. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Clark disappear through the door to the stairs and an instant later, she heard a familiar sonic boom.
"What in Elvis's name was that?" Perry asked, as she entered his office.
"I think it was a sonic boom," Lois said.
"Some idiot pilot is going to be in trouble," Perry muttered. "That's illegal over the city."
"Um … that's the sound Superman makes when he exceeds the sound barrier," Lois said. "He did that, yesterday. I heard it."
"The guy can really fly that fast?" Perry asked, sounding slightly incredulous.
She nodded. "Superman is pretty incredible."
"I can see that. Where's Kent?"
"He was supposed to meet one of our sources," Lois said. "What did you need?"
"I wanted to know if you can arrange another interview with Superman. Your article was good but the information was pretty sketchy. Where did he come from? How did he get here? How long has he been here? Did he have anything to do with the way Nightfall changed course? That's seems awfully coincidental, if you ask me. I want some follow- ups. And," he continued, "what did he tell you that you didn't put in the article?"
Lois rolled her eyes. "Chief, that's a lot of questions. He suspected that the plane that hit the passenger jet was a drone and that the collision was deliberate. Clark and I are trying to verify that, and find out who might be behind it."
"He told you that? Why?"
"He said he knew my reputation," Lois said. "Should there be any other reason?"
Perry sighed. "That was a silly question, wasn't it? Next time you see him, see what else he'll tell you. And ask him about Nightfall, would you?"
"Will do," Lois said. "Is there anything else? I need to look over this stuff Jimmy got me."
She had barely closed the door behind her when Perry jerked it open. His bellow of "Turn on the monitors!" nearly made her jump out of her skin. Jimmy rushed to obey and the monitors came on with a blast of sound. Hastily, Jimmy moderated the noise level while the occupants of the newsroom stared at Superman as he whisked in and out of the upper floors of a burning building, rescuing trapped people.
Jimmy bolted for the stairs, camera in hand. Perry tugged instinctively at his hair. "Why is this happening? We *still* don't have anybody at the scene! Friaz!"
"On my way, Chief." Eduardo grabbed a notebook and pen from his desk and followed Jimmy. The door closed behind him.
Lois pursed her lips and crossed to her desk. The chances were good that Superman would be gone by the time Jimmy and Eduardo got to the scene of the fire, but Clark could write up the details. Having Superman as a partner was looking better and better.
The scene on the monitors shifted to the LNN weather forecaster, and she lost interest. Seating herself at her desk, she began to study the names on the passenger list. If Clark was right, someone on this list might very well have been the target of attempted murder. The chances were that she wasn't likely to spot anything just by looking at the names, but maybe Jimmy could find a little information on them, like addresses or jobs, or …
Her mental meandering skidded to a halt at the sight of one of the names on the list. Josef Carlin. Where had she heard that name before?
Carlin Investments, that was it. Hobbs Mining was a subsidiary of Carlin Investments, which was in turn a subsidiary of LexCorp. Was it possible there was some kind of connection between Josef Carlin and LexCorp? That was definitely something Jimmy was going to have to research for her when he got back. There might not be anything to it, but if someone on that plane had been targeted for murder, and might be connected to LexCorp, then she wanted to know what that connection was. If, for some reason, his continued existence could be awkward for someone in the upper echelons of the company, she might be able to pin down who it was — besides Barbara Trevino, that is — to whom she had posed a danger.
Clark returned well before Jimmy or Eduardo. Lois looked up from her study of the phone records and beckoned to him as he stepped off the elevator.
He made his way quickly to her desk. "Got something?" he asked.
"Maybe. A name. And Barbara Trevino called a couple of numbers quite a lot in the past six months — especially in the last couple of days before you caught her." She glanced briefly at the editor's office where, beyond the blinds, Perry could be seen pacing like a caged tiger and lowered her voice. "You should write up Superman's rescues at that fire. Better include a short quote. Perry's about to rupture a seam."
He had followed her glance. "Right. That shouldn't be a problem. What's the name?"
"Josef Carlin. It may be nothing but a coincidence, but do you remember Carlin Investments?"
"The company that owns Hobbs Mining? Sure. It's a subsidiary of … "
"The LexCorp connection again."
"Maybe," Lois said, cautiously. "That's what I want Jimmy to check out when he gets back. If we're going to take on LexCorp, we have to be absolutely certain of our facts."
"That's for sure," Clark agreed. "Look, I'll just write up the fire story and then we can get to work on this. Maybe the DataNet will have some stuff on him. Is there an address or anything else to go with that name?"
"Just where he bought the ticket. Jamaica. He had a round-trip ticket from Jamaica to Chicago. I wonder where he was going?"
"Well, if it turns out there's some kind of connection to LexCorp, maybe we can find out." He strode to his desk and dropped into the chair. A moment later, his fingers were flying over the keyboard almost at the limit of human speed. Finished in record time, he transmitted the article to Perry and leaned back. Lois rose and went to sit on the corner of his desk.
"Yep. Jimmy's photos should go well with it. He got there just as I was leaving. I think he may have gotten a couple of pictures."
"Did you see Eduardo anywhere? He left a minute or two after Jimmy."
He shook his head. "Nope. I'd have stayed but I heard a woman being mugged a few streets over and went to help."
In the editor's office, Perry had stopped pacing and was in his chair, leaning forward to read something on his computer screen. Lois felt her eyebrows climbing at the sight of a smile on his face. "Perry looks happy. Okay, let's get down to business. I wish I knew how to handle a computer the way Jimmy does."
"So do I," Clark said. "Still, I have a few advantages to compensate. Let's try the DataNet first …"
Jimmy returned some twenty minutes later, followed shortly by Eduardo Friaz. Jimmy was cautiously optimistic; he had managed to catch two good shots of Superman in flight as he left the scene of the fire, which, while not the dramatic photo he had hoped for, could at least be said to be more than other newspapers in the city had. Eduardo wasn't as pleased. His cab had been caught in a traffic jam and he'd only managed to arrive in time to interview the fire chief about the fire and Superman's assistance in evacuating victims. The superhero had been long gone.
Lois listened to Jimmy's breathless explanation and nodded. "Well, fortunately for you, Clark was talking to his source only a little ways off when Superman arrived, so between you and Eduardo and him, we're pretty well covered. As soon as you get those prints developed, Clark and I need you."
Jimmy winced. "Lois, I haven't even got the record of Dr. Baines's phone calls, yet. You need *more* research?"
"I'm afraid so," Clark told him, grinning slightly. "It's important, Jimmy, or we wouldn't bother you about it today. I know you're pretty swamped, but we really need the information."
"There's a name on the plane's passenger list that we need background on," Lois said. "We got some preliminary stuff on him from the DataNet, but we need you to find out more about him. His name's Josef Carlin, home of record: Jamaica. He's the CEO and part owner of Carlin Investments."
"Carlin?" Jimmy said, frowning. "That sounds familiar."
"Carlin Investments is a subsidiary of LexCorp," Clark said. "Believe me, this is getting more convoluted all the time."
"Everything sort of ties into LexCorp, doesn't it?" Jimmy said. "Trevino, and now this guy."
"Yeah, but don't talk about it," Lois said. "We aren't sure of anything, yet."
"My lip is zipped," Jimmy assured her. "Does this have anything to do with the break-in the other night?"
"Maybe." She hesitated. "Jimmy, this could be pretty big, if Clark and I are anywhere near right — and it could be dangerous if the wrong people think you know anything about it."
"You're not kidding, are you?" They shook their heads in unison. He whistled softly. "Maybe I'd better take a few security precautions of my own — other than my password, that is. I mean, nobody's likely to be snooping around on my computer, but —"
"If somebody knows you do the research, they might decide to see what you're looking into," Clark said. "A little security might not be a bad thing."
Jimmy shrugged. "Good point. Okay, as soon as I finish the pics, I'll get right on it."
"Ready for lunch?" Clark asked. Lois nodded, dropping the passenger list onto her empty desk.
"I sure hope Perry gets me another computer pretty soon. This is getting really inconvenient."
"I heard him talking to Accounting about that," Clark told her in a low voice. "He's trying to get them to come up with the money from the discretionary fund and one of the paper-pushers is giving him the bureaucratic runaround. She wanted to know if it was really a necessary expense. He was muttering all kinds of dire threats when he hung up."
"So do I get my computer soon, or not?" Lois asked. "I guess I could bring in my laptop from home, but it's really slow."
"I think so, but you can use mine if you need one until then."
Jimmy emerged from the darkroom and headed for Perry's office. Lois reached for her handbag. In the background, the "ding" of the arriving elevator sounded but she paid no attention until its doors opened and at least a dozen men, all carrying firearms, swarmed out, charging down the ramp and the stairs. Lois stared, mouth open, as they spread out across the room, blocking exits and covering the occupants, but not before, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jimmy duck into the supply closet.
A large man had remained by the railing and now he stepped forward, waving a paper over his head.
"This is a warrant issued by Federal Court!" he announced. "Everyone step away from your desks!" He turned from the railing and strode confidently down the ramp.
The door of the Editor's Office burst open and Perry emerged, looking as outraged as Lois felt. "Nobody comes busting into my newsroom like this!"
"Take it up with Washington," the man said, thrusting the paper at Perry.
Perry took it. "Order to produce evidence … compel testimony … Lois Lane?"
One of the invaders pushed her aside and began to rifle through her desk. Lois reacted instinctively and lunged at him. Her assault was so unexpected, the man staggered back and sat down with a bruising thump on the floor.
"Get out of my desk!" she snarled.
A second man grabbed her and found himself with an armful of twisting, fighting woman. A third man moved in, only to discover himself face to face with the very solid form of Clark Kent. The agent holding Lois, hampered by the necessity of not harming his prisoner, allowed her to twist free.
Lois straightened up and discovered a grim-faced Clark now standing still, facing the man whom he had blocked and looking down the muzzle of a semiautomatic pistol. There was a long moment of complete silence.
The leader broke the tension. "Put it away. He's just a reporter."
The man holstered his weapon. Lois whirled to face the man whom she considered to be the perpetrator of this outrage. "Yeah, reporter! As in protected by the Constitution!"
He didn't quite sneer, but he might as well have. "Impressive document, the Constitution. It gives Federal courts the right to issue warrants like this one — which says I get what I want!"
"And what exactly is that?" Clark asked.
The leader looked him over insolently. "You're Kent, correct? Lane's new partner?"
"I want Superman and I'm not leaving until Ms. Lane tells me where I can find him."
Lois pushed the instant fear out of her mind to deal with later. "Even if I knew, I wouldn't tell you!" she snapped. "I don't answer questions from nameless bullies. Who the hell are you people?"
"That isn't important, Ms. Lane. What's important is that the government find this 'Superman'' immediately. It's a matter of national security."
"Well then, I guess we're at a standstill," Lois said. "I don't talk to anybody unless I know who I'm talking to."
The leader strode forward to loom threateningly over her. "Some people might call that treason."
Undaunted, Lois glared back. "Yeah, and some people might call you a — " She glanced at Clark and bit off the sentence. "Forget it."
The leader gestured to two of his men. "In that case, we'll be taking your computer and your notes."
Lois grinned, nastily. "Be my guest, but you'll have to find it first. There was a break-in night before last and they got my computer. As for my notes, there's nothing there that I can't replace." She turned and raised her voice. "Somebody call the cops! No legitimate Federal agents would refuse to identify themselves!"
"Nice, Ms Lane," the leader said. "I'd advise no one to follow that order."
"Too late." To her surprise, she heard Jimmy's voice. The junior photographer stepped from the supply closet, a cellular phone in one hand. "I already did. They're on their way."
At that instant one of the men who had remained in the background stepped forward and spoke softly in his leader's ear.
Perry hadn't moved. Now, he cast an approving look at Jimmy and turned back to the bigger man. "Why don't you get the hell out of my newsroom now, buddy, so I can get our lawyers on the phone and start suin' your butts off!"
No one answered and the black-clad men were already moving swiftly and silently toward the elevator. As the Planet staff watched, motionless, they crowded quickly into the car and the doors closed behind them.
It was Cat who broke the silence. "It was horrible the way they treated us, Perry! That agent frisked me, twice!"
Perry grunted under his breath and turned to one of the other staffers. "Biederman, let's get Legal on this right away. Lois, you and Clark get out of here, now. Make yourselves scarce. If those goons come back with subpoenas, I don't want to know where you are and I don't want you anywhere they can serve you. Wear your beepers. I'll call you when we know something more."
"See anybody?" Lois asked.
Clark pushed his glasses into place. "Nope; no sign of them. Let's go."
Quickly, they ducked through the Planet's side door and made their way down the alley toward their pre-planned escape route.
"I wish we could just fly," Lois grumbled. "But right now it wouldn't be a good idea."
"No kidding. Who do you suppose those guys were? Government?"
"Maybe. But there was something wrong with that whole deal." Lois paused at the exit from the alley and peeked out.
"You think they weren't legitimate?"
"I don't know," Lois said. "I don't know what they were, but there was definitely something weird with that situation — or weirder than usual."
"Is life around the Planet always like this?" he asked.
"Not always. Sometimes it gets *really* strange." She looked over her shoulder at him. "Do you mind giving me some help here? I don't see anybody but that doesn't mean we're safe."
He lowered his glasses and swept the area. "No sign of them. Where are we going?"
"Back to my place long enough to pick up some clothes for me and then I guess we should find a place to hide out for awhile. But how about the Charity Ball tonight? I've been angling for a way to meet Lex Luthor for months and — on the exact day I'm going to the same event he is — these guys show up!"
"We'll go to it," Clark said. "You have to meet him. If that mob of goons decides to crash the party, we'll fly out a back window or something. The Lexor is a pretty big hotel. If we take off from the top floor, nobody's going to see us from the street — especially at night."
"Unless they're using night-vision goggles or something," Lois said, pessimistically.
"From over a hundred stories up? I think we can manage all right. Trust me."
He was rewarded when she threw him a slight grin. "Believe it or not, I do. Okay, let's go. Keep alert."
"My eyes are peeled," he said.
The street in front of Lois's apartment house wasn't deserted but the traffic was fairly light when they reached their destination. Clark checked the entire area for any sign of suspicious individuals but saw no one watching them.
"That doesn't mean they aren't," Lois said. "I'm sure whoever they are, they probably have more people than the ones that showed up in the newsroom."
"I'll be listening for them," he assured Lois. "If I hear anything suspicious, I'll have us out of there before they get to your floor."
"Okay." She nodded, looking around anxiously. "Let's go."
They crossed the street and hurried through the front door of the apartment building. Clark scanned the stairwell for occupants and then whisked them to the fifth floor without waiting for the creaky elevator.
When Lois unlocked the door, he lowered his glasses again, taking a closer look at the interior of her apartment. He put a hand on her arm and touched a finger to his lips.
Lois paused in mid step. "What?"
He pulled the door closed. "Watch what you say in there. Your apartment is bugged."
Clark's pager began to vibrate. He retrieved it and checked the number. "The Planet's calling. Shall I …?" He gestured toward her door. Lois bit her lip for a moment and then nodded. Quickly, he pushed it open and made his way to the phone.
Perry answered on the third ring. "Kent? Tell Lois to turn on her pager. And come back to the office, right away. The warrant's a fake!"
"It's as phony as a lock of Elvis's hair from a Memphis souvenir shop! Both of you get back here as fast as you can!"
"Um … right, Perry. Will do." Clark hung up.
"What?" Lois asked.
"Perry wants us to do something for him." Clark spoke to fill in the gap in the conversation while he indicated the bug he had spotted under the edge of Lois's coffee table. Lois bent to examine the little device and he could see her frowning. Without speaking, she stood up and crossed the room to her fish tank. Still in silence, she sprinkled food into the tank and thrust the little cardboard container into the drawer of the nearest table.
"Let me get a couple of things and we can go," Lois said. She disappeared into the bedroom and Clark heard her rummaging around. The sound of drawers being pulled open and pushed shut was followed by the click of a closing door and then the snap of a catch. Lois emerged from the bedroom, carrying a suitcase. "Okay, let's go."
Without further speech, they left the apartment and Lois locked the door behind her. "I don't suppose it matters, since it didn't stop them last time," she said, dropping the key into her handbag, "but I don't want to leave it open."
"At least it should stop the ordinary burglar," Clark said. "Perry wants us to come back. The warrant's a fake."
"Yeah," he said.
"Oh, well, that's a *whole* lot better," Lois said, her voice heavy with irony.
"Oh, definitely," Clark said, matching her irony. He held out a hand for the bag and Lois surrendered it. "What's in here?"
"Clothes for the charity thing tonight and night gear. I'm not staying anywhere near my place as long as some group of unidentified thugs is keeping an eye on it."
"Or an ear," Clark agreed. "Smallville, here we come for another night. At least they won't be able to find us there. Superman doesn't leave a trail."
"If your parents won't mind, I'd like to," Lois said. "In the meantime, though, we need to identify these people. If they think it's their job to hunt down Superman, we're going to find them first!"
"Land of the free, home of the under surveillance," Perry said. "This kind of stuff makes me sick. I think you're smart not to go back to your place until we figure out who these lunatics are, Lois. Our lawyers called Justice, FBI, State, CIA … They even called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The only answer we got was that there is no official government interest in 'the person calling himself Superman'. Nobody in Washington wants to claim these boys."
"Then who are they?" Clark asked. He was sitting on the corner of Lois's nearly empty desk, a somewhat worried frown on his face.
"That's what we're going to find out," Perry said, grimly. "There's apparently a bunch of loose cannons that no one will claim running around out there, who seem to think it's acceptable to go busting into newsrooms and hassling reporters. We're going to find 'em before they can do it again."
"Especially," Lois said, "since they seem to think that I'm the one to hassle."
"Well," Clark pointed out, "you interviewed Superman and they want to find him. Maybe it was Hobson's choice."
"Just because I interviewed him doesn't mean I know everything about the man," Lois said, somewhat crossly. She tapped a pencil eraser against her desktop. "I have an idea. If these guys really are government, the last thing they're going to want is publicity. We can write up a detailed story about the raid this morning and if anybody from Washington tries to bury the investigation, we can see where it goes from there."
"Be sure you give detailed physical descriptions," Clark said, thoughtfully. "If anybody knows these guys — if they've done it before — somebody might speak up."
Perry nodded. "I like it. Get on it right away."
"You can use my computer," Clark said. "I have to pick up my tux before they close, anyway. I'll help you with it when I get back."
"Maybe I should assign somebody else to that," Perry said, thoughtfully. "You're going to be busy with this new thing …"
"Oh, no!" Lois said. "Perry, I've been trying to get an interview with Lex Luthor for months! This is the first time I've had a real shot at it. It's important."
Perry hesitated. "Well …"
"Besides …" Lois glanced around and lowered her voice. "Clark and I think LexCorp might be engaged in some questionable business practices. We've found a possible link between it and the Rainforest Consortium, and the attempt to mine the rainforest."
"*Lex Luthor*?" It was a testament to Perry's professional instincts that, even startled, he kept his voice down.
"Not necessarily. It might just be one of his high-ranking subordinates. In any case, we need to either prove it or disprove it for certain. After all, Perry," she continued, "how often has some supposedly squeaky clean politician or businessman turned out to —"
"More times than I can count," Perry said. "This could be huge! All right, you can stay on it for now. If things get too hectic I can assign you some extra help if you need it."
"Well, we could use Jimmy," Lois said. "He has the computer skills that neither Clark nor I have, and anyway, he found the first link."
"The *first* link? There's more than one?"
"Yeah," Lois said. "We think it's tied to the break-in at my apartment and at the Planet. And, I've been wondering if it really was the goon squad that bugged my place. What if it was the other batch, trying to find out how much we know? I'm pretty sure it wasn't there earlier — Clark and I looked everything over pretty thoroughly — but they could have come back later. Somebody obviously did."
Perry pursed his lips in a silent whistle.
"And, speaking of which," Lois asked, "is there any progress on getting me a new computer? I'm going to need one, even if it's just to write my articles."
"I'm working on it," Perry said. "The Planet's had some budget cutbacks recently and Accounting is making unhappy noises about the expense, but if we get more headlines like the ones we've had in the last week, circulation should start to pick up pretty soon."
"In the meantime, you can use mine," Clark said.
"One more thing," Lois said, "if we can get hold of a sketch artist, we might be able to get an artist's rendition of that leader of theirs."
"That's a good idea," Clark agreed. "It wouldn't hurt to put it with the article. These guys can't operate in a total vacuum."
"Exactly what I was thinking," Lois said. "I'll hold on that until you get back, though. I'll want you to help with the description." She ignored the incredulous look Perry gave her at the admission. "You go on and pick up your tux and I'll get to work on the article."
"Okay." Clark gave her a look she couldn't quite read and pushed himself to his feet. "I'll be back as fast as I can."
A moment later, as she was taking a seat at Clark's desk, she saw the door to the stairs close behind him and a few seconds later, she looked up as a sonic boom rattled the windows of the newsroom slightly. Well, if Superman was on his way to a rescue, she'd find out about it when Clark got back. In the meantime, she had an article to write, in as colorful and descriptive terms as she could think of. Whoever those goons this morning had been, they were about to become famous.
"An armed robbery," Eduardo Friaz was saying, about an hour later. "They'd just got out of the bank when Superman dropped in on their heads. He caught the bullets and squashed them flat. The suspects were so stunned they just handed him their guns without a fight."
"Did anybody reliable see this?" Perry asked skeptically. "That's a pretty unbelievable story."
"Besides me, that is? Just everybody who was there — thirty or forty people, I guess, including the cops," Eduardo said. "Plus, they got it on the bank's surveillance cameras. The Security people promised to make the Planet a copy. This Superman guy is incredible!"
"Are you sure he's human?" Perry asked.
"I don't see how he can be, " Ralph said. "Maybe he's a robot or something."
"He's not a robot," Lois said.
"Then, maybe he's a space alien." Ralph said. "Maybe that's why those guys this morning were after him. Maybe he eats human brains or something."
Lois didn't dignify his remark with an answer, but the suggestion set up a train of thought. When she and Charlie had first met, after she'd gotten past wondering about supernatural possibilities, the thought that Charlie might be an alien had occurred to her. They had never disproved the theory.
Could that possibly be why those guys this morning had wanted Superman? What had Martha said — a few days after they had found the baby, some men claiming to be from the space agency had shown up, looking for what they said was debris from a Russian rocket or something. Hadn't that Air Force inquiry into possible alien contact been going on at about that time?
Turning to Clark's computer, she typed a phrase into the search engine: Project Blue Book. That looked like a pretty good place to start.
An hour later, she had graduated to a microfilm machine. She was peering at a photo of several Air Force officers at a news conference from the mid 1960s and a headline that read "UFO Sightings Really Swamp Gas" when Clark materialized suddenly by her elbow and set a cup of caf‚ latte down on the surface of the desk. "Any progress?"
She nodded, indicating the photo. "Project Blue Book. Take a look at that airman in the background."
He lowered his glasses for an instant. "That's …"
"The piece of work who raided the Planet this morning. His name is Jason Trask."
"*Nice* work!" Clark said.
"Thanks." She glanced at the sheaf of paper he was holding. "What's that?"
"You said you wanted these." He laid the papers on the desk surface. Lois picked them up.
The first page held two sketches: A very recognizable pencil drawing of Jason Trask, face on, and another in profile. The second page held a third, this one offset, and another one, this time of one of his subordinates. Lois riffled quickly through the stack, discovering that all of them were very accurately drawn renditions of the men who had invaded the newsroom earlier in the day. "Where did you get these?" she demanded.
"I drew them."
Naturally. "These are really good. We can include them as illustrations with my article. I don't think we'll include the name, though. If his bosses think we know too much, they might not see any point in trying to bury the thing. We want to see where they lead us."
He nodded. "I agree. We need to use just enough information to make them think a cover-up is urgent. Would you like me to look your story over and see if I can add anything?"
She didn't even wonder why it didn't bother her that a colleague thought he could actually improve on anything she did. She nodded and pulled up the document, waiting while Clark read it over.
"Very descriptive," he said at last, grinning slightly. "I like it. You might want to change this one line from 'The FBI says' to 'A spokesman for the FBI'. Other than that, I can't see any improvements."
"The FBI isn't a person. It can't speak."
She grinned. "That's why we have editors, Kent." Quickly, she made the alteration. "There. Happy, now?"
"Good. Then, let's get this stuff to Perry and I think we can get out of here. The party starts in two hours."
The Christmas Charity Ball, sponsored by LexCorp, was being held at LexCorp's corporate headquarters, specifically in the ballroom of the owner's luxurious penthouse at the very top of the tower.
It had begun to snow again very lightly and the tiny, feathery flakes coated their hair and clothing when Lois and Clark presented their tickets to the exclusive event at the door and were allowed inside. In the marble-floored lobby, a wide bank of elevators, occupying nearly one entire wall, waited to whisk guests swiftly to the penthouse to join the several hundred others who had preceded them.
He glanced at Lois as she removed her coat to hand it to the servant waiting to receive it. Dressed in a black, strapless formal, her hair swept into a high, elegant French roll, with a delicate diamond pendant glittering at her throat, she took his breath away. The perfume she had chosen, mixed with her own unique scent, wafted lightly around her as she moved and literally made him slightly dizzy.
"You look fantastic," he said.
"Thanks," she said. "You look pretty good, yourself. I always admire a handsome man in a tux."
"Hmm. Maybe I can come up with an excuse to wear it at work," he said.
Lois giggled softly. "Forget it, Kent. I have enough competition for you with Cat, now."
"You don't have *any* competition," he said. "It wouldn't be possible."
She tucked a hand into his elbow. "I think that may be the nicest compliment that I've ever received from anybody." She nodded toward the door to the ballroom. "Shall we?"
The enormous, sunken ballroom was decorated traditionally for Christmas, with holly and ivy and the big, red poinsettias. A twenty-foot, heavily flocked Christmas tree dominated one corner, gleaming and glittering with ornaments and tinsel and its myriad tiny, twinkling lights. The heavy, velvet curtains that would cover the huge, glass window were open, treating guests to a panoramic view of Metropolis's skyline and the millions of city lights, slightly blurred by the softly falling snow. A live orchestra was playing a waltz, and several couples were dancing in the middle of the room. As Lois had observed, everybody who was anybody was here tonight, Clark thought.
As they entered, Perry homed in on them, followed by Jimmy. "Lois! Clark! I thought for a bit there that you weren't going to make it after all."
"No chance, Perry," Lois said. "Where's Alice?"
"Over by the buffet tables talking to Henry Barrinson's wife. Henry got dragged off to the poker table in the library almost as soon as he got here." Perry gestured across the room to where a wide staircase led upward. "Keep an eye on that doorway at the top. Luthor makes his entrance from there."
Clark glanced at the place Perry had indicated as Lois released his arm. "Okay," she said, "wish me luck."
Clark gave her a thumbs up signal. "Go get him."
"Incredible, huh?" Jimmy watched her stroll away toward the grand staircase. "She's really something."
"You don't know the half of it," Clark said. "Luthor won't know what hit him. Have you ever met him?"
Jimmy shook his head. "No, but I read all five of his unauthorized biographies. Like it said in the blurb on the cover — 'The remarkable story of a modern genius — A man who went from rags to riches, from the wrong side of the tracks to become a self-made billionaire'." He added, "He's been Man of the Year, every year since he first came to Metropolis, and owns half the city, besides. If Lois can get an interview, it'll be a first." He stopped. "Hey, there he is."
A figure had appeared at the top of the stairs. Clark lowered his glasses slightly, allowing his better-than- human vision to zoom in on the mystery man.
First impressions are often telling, and his first impression of Lex Luthor was one of sheer, barely restrained power. Not physical power, although the man appeared to be in excellent condition, but the intangible power of a man in full command of himself and of everything around him. He was suave, handsome and somehow ageless; this man would be a dangerous and ruthless opponent and if it were actually possible for a man to raise his hackles, Clark knew that his would be raised as he watched Lex Luthor descend the staircase, a faint smile on his lips. It was as if some previously unrecognized instinct in him stirred and woke for the first time at the sight of the billionaire. What it was, he couldn't say, but he didn't like the man. It was as simple as that and as powerful, and for an instant, the sheer intensity of the emotion surprised him.
The newcomer reached the ballroom floor and was instantly surrounded by his guests. Searching the room, Clark saw Lois. She had somehow made her way to a spot only a few feet from Luthor, unimpeded by other guests.
"Lex Luthor!" Her voice rang clearly over the voices of the people around her. "Why haven't you returned my calls?"
For a startled instant, the chatter dropped to a few murmurs and Luthor turned toward her. Clark saw his expression change very slightly.
Easily, he turned back to the man whom he had been addressing at the moment of Lois's interruption and spoke a few phrases. Belatedly, Clark recognized the mayor of Metropolis. The mayor smiled and the two men shook hands.
Just as smoothly, Luthor turned back. Clark held his breath.
Smiling, he closed the distance between himself and Lois and took her extended hand, raising the knuckles gracefully to his lips, his eyes never leaving hers.
Lois acknowledged the gesture with a little smile of her own. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet."
Luthor's smile widened. "I can assure you, I'll never make that mistake again. Would you care to dance?"
"Yes, thank you." Lois allowed him to lead her onto the ballroom floor while Clark stood on the edges of the crowd of guests, listening.
"I hope you'll forgive me for being so bold," Lois said, "but …"
"Boldness is a trait I find very attractive in a woman, Ms. Lane," Luthor said.
"Thank you." Lois fluttered her eyelashes. "Anyway, I was wondering, Mr. Luthor …"
"Lex, then. I know you're hesitant to give interviews …"
"I hope you can understand, a man in my position," Luthor said. "I wouldn't want to be misinterpreted, and I have had one or two bad experiences with the media."
Lois looked up at him almost mischievously, through her lashes. "But, not with me."
Lex Luthor smiled again, in Clark's judgement both amused and charmed by Lois's direct tactics. "Why don't we make it dinner?"
Clark kept his face straight, but inside he was cheering. She had done it.
"You're right, Jim," he whispered. "She is *something*!"
The library of the penthouse was relatively quiet. Several men were seated around a table, playing poker, as Perry had mentioned, and Clark didn't disturb them. He passed unobtrusively through the library, rounded the corner of a tall, ornate bookcase and paused in the doorway opposite the door by which he had entered, lowering his glasses for an instant.
There was no one to be seen in the next room, which was apparently an office — a very large, luxurious office with a wide, mahogany desk and elegant furniture. Very likely, this was what he was looking for — the office of Lex Luthor, himself.
He wasn't looking at the furniture in the sense of admiring it. Clark Kent was well aware that this was probably the only time he would legally be in this building without supervision. If he was going to prowl around and look into some of the business conducted by Lex Luthor, now was the time.
Sneaking around in the house of his host wasn't something he actually enjoyed, but as he had told Lois a few days ago, he wasn't totally inexperienced in the subject of breaking and entering. A few years before, it had been the only way to learn enough about the extra-curricular business activities of a certain high-ranking government official residing in Manila, to allow the local authorities to shut down a drug-smuggling operation. Now, while Lois was exerting her considerable talent in keeping Lex Luthor's attention, was the time to find out what he could.
He scanned the room beyond the door carefully, noting the location of a pressure sensitive alarm in the floor. That was interesting in itself. Why should a man in a building as secure as this one feel it necessary to set such safeguards in his own office?
The door was locked, but he could handle that. The catch wasn't rigged with any alarm; apparently, Luthor didn't feel that more than the pressure alarm was necessary and there didn't seem to be any spy cameras anywhere. Cautiously, he checked the room behind him with his x-ray vision, to assure himself that the men playing poker were unaware of his presence. With the bookcase concealing him, he was out of their range of vision, and the low-voiced conversation of the men made it evident that their attention was completely on their game. Cautiously, Clark exerted a small amount of super strength and felt a satisfying crunch.
He waited, just on the off chance that he had missed some subtle alarm, but no one in the building appeared to be aware of anything irregular. Softly, he opened the door and entered.
No one but Superman could have accomplished the feat in quite the way he did. To the normal human eye, the room was dark but to his eyes it was not. The wide windows let in the lights of the city and the glow of the moon through the clouds. That was more than enough illumination for Clark Kent to see clearly. He drifted silently across the floor, his feet less than an inch from the carpet. The big desk beckoned, and that was his first goal.
The desk drawers were locked, not a surprising circumstance, but upon examining the locks of each drawer, he discovered the surprising fact that one, the bottom left drawer, was equipped with an alarm. Now that, he thought, was very interesting. Presumably, a big corporation would lock up its important papers, but why would one, single drawer in the desk of the CEO, himself, be specially wired with an alarm? It seemed that Lex Luthor considered the contents pretty hot stuff — which meant it was probably something he should know about, too. If it turned out to be harmless, well, he could keep a secret.
Clark floated silently in front of the desk and trained his x-ray vision on the contents of the locked drawer.
"He asked me to dinner here in the penthouse, Sunday night," Lois said, as she and Clark left LexTower a few minutes after midnight.
Clark nodded, soberly. "Do you mind if I hang around nearby?" he asked, keeping his voice low. "I don't really like the thought of you being with him, alone, especially since he might be the one behind Barbara Trevino, and the attempts to kill you."
"Clark, he isn't likely to try to kill me when he's invited me to dinner."
"Maybe he would," Clark said. "Would you really be anxious to bet that he wouldn't have an alibi, if he needed one, and people willing to swear that you never showed up for your date? A man who would hire an assassin to murder someone simply because she *might* have seen something she shouldn't, and *might* have made a connection to him, isn't going to be stopped so easily. It seems to me that Mr. Luthor has a lot to lose."
Lois cast an odd glance at him. "You've sure changed your attitude. What aren't you telling me?"
"I had a look in his office while you were keeping him busy. I'll tell you about it when there's no one to overhear us. Come on. Let's pick up your bag and head for Smallville."
Lois opened her mouth and then closed it again. She didn't speak until they had reached the little subcompact supplied by the insurance company and were pulling out of the parking space in LexTower's big, parking structure. "Okay, Kent, let's have it."
Clark wiggled around in the seat, trying to get comfortable and yet not put a dent in the dashboard with his knee. "There was a drawer in his desk rigged with an alarm," he said. "He had a bunch of very interesting documents in it."
"Get to the point."
"Yeah. One of them was a flight manifest for Flight 642." He paused. "There was also a bunch of legal papers drawn up by the company lawyers for some kind of legal challenge — no date on them. It seems that Josef Carlin owns 51 percent of the stock of Carlin Investments. The legal challenge was against the heirs of Josef Carlin, intended to enable LexCorp to acquire that 51 percent, or at least enough of it to give Lex Luthor a controlling interest in the company."
"His *heirs*?" Lois said, sharply.
Clark nodded. "That's right."
"So he was expecting Josef Carlin to die."
"I'd say that's pretty obvious."
Lois was silent as she maneuvered the small car out of the parking structure. As she pulled out on the street, she spoke again. "I thought Carlin Investments was a subsidiary of LexCorp."
"Not exactly. Apparently, 49 percent of the company stock belonged to Luthor's wife, Arianna Carlin Luthor. Luthor seems to have control of it, now."
"His *wife*?" Lois glanced quickly at him and then back at the street. Little snowflakes sprinkled softly against the windshield, breaking the glow of the streetlights into rainbow patterns, and were swished away by the wipers. Little crusts of ice had begun to collect at the edges of the windshield. "I didn't know he was married."
"From what I saw, she's not in the picture, anymore," Clark said. "Probably we should get Jimmy on it to find out what the situation really is. It sounds like this Josef Carlin might be some kind of in-law."
Lois nodded. "Probably. I'm still keeping the 'date' with him, Sunday night, though. I'm not supposed to know about the wife; besides, this is just business."
"Okay, but Superman's going to hang around outside, just in case."
"I think," Lois said, "that I'd feel much safer if he did. I wonder what happened to the wife that gave Luthor control of her share of the company."
"For that matter," Clark said, "I wonder why he suddenly wants this Carlin guy dead. Maybe that's something we should check on. Maybe there's some kind of power struggle going on between the stockholders. In any case, I don't think we're looking for a LexCorp subordinate behind all the things that happened this last week. I'd say our target is Lex Luthor, himself."
"Maybe it's just a case of Carlin refusing to sell," Lois said, slowly, "I wonder how many other acquisitions of LexCorp came about in a similar fashion.
"Maybe we should take a look at that," Clark said. "I also think we should try to find Josef Carlin. I'm betting this isn't going to stop with the plane accident."
Lois nodded, looking worried. "If Luthor was willing to murder everybody on that passenger plane to kill one man," she said, "it doesn't sound to me as if he'd draw the line at much to get what he wanted."
"Probably not." Clark said.
"In fact," Lois said, "this is eerily like the situation with the sabotage of the space program. I found a bomb in the Messenger replacement rocket — *after* Antoinette Baines died in that helicopter explosion. Everyone assumed that Dr. Baines was responsible, but why wasn't it spotted after she died? It's not as if no one was in and out of that rocket for the next twenty-four hours. What if she took the fall the same way Barbara Trevino is taking the one for the Rainforest Consortium? If the space station project had been abandoned, Luthor would have a private space station in the process of being assembled out there right now. Am I being unnecessarily suspicious?"
Clark shook his head. "Not a bit. I remember you mentioning that this morning. I think we should look into the whole thing as thoroughly as we can. It's sounding more likely every minute."
"I think I'll tell Jimmy to put tracking down her phone records on a priority basis," Lois said. "This could turn out to be huge, just like Perry said, but we're really going to need to nail down our facts. Lex Luthor has a lot of power and influence."
Clark nodded, frowning out into the darkness. "This scares me, Lois. If he was really behind the attempt to down that plane, and behind Barbara Trevino and the Rainforest Consortium, as well as the attempt to destroy the space program, all for his own enrichment, the guy is as completely amoral as it's possible to get. He could do anything." He shifted in the seat and barely stopped himself from putting a hole in the dashboard with his knee. The resulting dent was small, however. Hopefully, the rental company employees wouldn't notice. "I wish I'd been able to make copies of what I saw, but even if I'd had a camera, I couldn't open the drawer without setting off the alarm."
"That's why I'm going to convince him that I have no suspicions of him, whatever," Lois said. "If no hint comes out that anyone thinks someone besides Trevino was responsible, he'll probably leave me alone. He doesn't want further investigation into it, remember. And, in the meantime, we're going to start digging into everything that's ever been documented about LexCorp, from the time he founded it — and everything he's ever been involved in before that."
"Can Jimmy do that without leaving behind any traces?"
"Jimmy's pretty good with a computer," Lois said. "I'll be sure to let him know how important this is. He'll be careful." She turned the corner onto the street that ran in front of the Daily Planet. "I'm going to park this matchbox in the Planet's garage and we can head for Kansas."
Clark was silent as she brought the tiny subcompact into the subterranean garage and found a parking spot. There were only a few cars in the echoing space now, probably belonging to members of the night staff. Lois cut the engine and pulled the lever to release the trunk. "Let me just get my bag and we're off," she said. "I hope I can get back into my apartment sometime tomorrow. It seems like I've been living like a nomad ever since we met. We can't forget our friend Trask and his trained monkeys, either. I guess it just figures that there'd be some wacko group somewhere with little green men on their minds."
"I guess I should have expected something of the sort," Clark agreed. "It takes all kinds to make a world."
"Yeah, well that doesn't mean we have to put up with every group of nutballs with an agenda," Lois said. "Their rights end where they start infringing on ours."
Clark gave a soft laugh. "I like your style, Ms. Lane. And a lot of other things about you as well."
She grinned at him in the gloom. "Why Mr. Kent, are you by any chance trying to flatter me?"
"You bet. Let's go. I think we both need a break."
A few moments later, Lois was snuggled tightly in his arms as they launched from the roof of the Daily Planet and headed west, but in the near future, she would remember his remark with a sense of irony.
It was late when they arrived in Smallville, close to midnight local time, and the lights of the Kent residence were out. Clark quietly opened the door of the farmhouse and let Lois enter ahead of him.
"I told Mom we'd be arriving late," he said, softly. "She said just to come on in and go to bed."
Standing in the entranceway, Lois waited for her eyes to adjust to the lowered level of light. Outside, the sky was dark and clear and the stars had blazed down with intimidating brightness, reflecting off open fields covered with snow. Inside, the darkness was thick. Clark's arm slipped around her and she was aware of movement. Suddenly, they were standing at the top of the stairs where a tiny nightlight in a wall receptacle gave enough illumination for her to make out the door to Clark's room. Stepping softly, he led her to the door and opened it for her.
"Is this okay?" he said, keeping his voice to a whisper so as not to disturb his parents, only a short way down the hall, and set her bag down just within the doorway.
She nodded. "This is fine."
"All right, then. I'll see you in the morning. Good night." He started to turn and Lois caught his arm, tugging him after her into the room.
He followed the pull of her hand. "Are you okay?"
She closed the door behind them and turned back, sliding both arms around him. "Stay here a minute, would you?"
His arms encircled her, pulling her close. "Sure. Are you all right, Lois?"
She nodded against his chest. "I just — I just wanted to have a chance to be here with you without anything happening. It seems like everything in my life has shot into fast forward."
"Oh." He rested his cheek on top of her head. "I know what you mean. A little peace and quiet would be nice, wouldn't it — even if it's only once in a while."
Again she nodded. "I wouldn't trade my job at the Planet for anything but every now and then, I'd like a break. Between killer asteroids, murderous businessmen and crazy government agents, I've kind of reached my limits for tonight."
Silence descended on the room as she stood wrapped in his arms and she felt herself beginning to relax for the first time since she had discovered her ransacked apartment yesterday morning. Clark seemed willing to simply stand there, holding her as long as necessary, she thought.
At last she stirred and his arms loosened slightly. "Better now?"
She nodded and pulled away reluctantly. "Where are you going to sleep?"
"On the couch downstairs. I'll be right here if you want me."
She hesitated, reluctant for him to leave. "I suppose it's the best we can do. I just wish you could stay here. Not," she added, hastily, "for any — well, you know — but just to be here. But I guess it wouldn't look good, would it? Your mom and dad would think —"
"We could leave the door open," he said. "I think that would be all right."
"Oh, but what am I thinking," Lois said, kicking herself, mentally. "The bed's a single. Where would you sleep?"
He laughed. "You forgot again. I don't need to sleep in a bed — if you don't mind me floating around the room during the night."
"Sure." She heard the smile in his voice. "I'll just go change in the bathroom while you get your things. I have a pair of sweats in the dresser. That should make everything on the up and up."
By the time she had acquired her flannel pajamas and robe and was stepping out in the hall, toothbrush in hand, to find the upstairs bathroom, he was waiting by the door, clad in a set of grey sweats with the logo of MidWest U on the front. She looked him over, a little nervously. He noticed.
"Are you sure about this, Lois? I can still go sleep downstairs if you'd like."
"I'm sure." She was surprised how certain her voice sounded. "If you're here, I won't have any nightmares. I'll be right back."
When she returned ten minutes later, she entered the room, half expecting to find him floating near the ceiling but he was simply sitting in the room's armchair, looking out the window at the snowy fields. The little table lamp still burned on the bedside table, filling the room with a warm, muted glow. He glanced around. "Everything okay?"
She nodded. "Um — why don't you look out the window for another minute while I get into bed," she suggested.
"Okay." He turned to look out the window once more and she quickly shed her robe and climbed under the blankets.
"It's okay to look, now," she told him.
He matter-of-factly pulled the window shade closed and turned to face her. "If you're uncomfortable with this —" he began.
"No, really." She pulled the blankets up around her shoulders. "I want you here. I'm just not used to — I mean, ever since Claude — I mean —"
He smiled. "Claude was a heel," he said, firmly. "And a fool. I'm neither. Go to sleep, Lois. If you have a nightmare, I'll be right here."
"Okay." She found that she was smiling shyly at him.
He began to rise from the floor in the same unconsciously casual way that always amazed her, no matter how often she saw him do it, and leveled out horizontally in the air, his head resting on his arms. "Goodnight, Lois," he said, quietly.
She reached out to switch off the light and snuggled down under the warm, thick blankets. Clark's silhouette was a slightly darker shape against the pale starlight leaking in around the corner of the window shade and it was amazing how reassuring his presence in the room was. She closed her eyes. "G'night, Charlie," she whispered.
Lois woke to the mixed aromas of bacon, eggs and coffee — she could tell just be the way it tickled her nose that this coffee was of far better quality than the sludge she drank at the office — and pushed back the covers. Clark was gone, but she could hear his voice speaking cheerfully to someone downstairs.
The floor was cold to her bare feet but she discovered that someone — probably Clark — had placed a pair of somewhat worn bedroom slippers (four sizes too large) next to the bed and she quickly slid her feet into them, reaching for her robe that lay across the foot of the bed. A short time later, her morning routine done, she was descending the stairs, dressed for the office.
Clark glanced around as she entered the kitchen, a slab of toast laden with butter and strawberry jam in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. "Sleep well?"
"I don't think I moved all night," she said. "What time is it?"
"Almost eight. I called the office and told them we were going to be late this morning — that we had some things to check out. We have an appointment this afternoon to meet a guy from Washington —a George Thompson — who says he's here to investigate the crowd that invaded the newsroom yesterday morning."
"That was fast," Lois commented. "Do I smell fresh coffee?"
"You certainly do." Martha Kent had taken a mug from the cupboard and was in the process of filling it from the electric coffeepot that had been sitting on the drain board. "Do you take cream and sugar?"
Lois glanced around, noting the complete absence of sugar substitute or low fat creamer. "Um — sure." She took the cup, thinking that if she stayed around the Kent farm much, which seemed likely, she was going to have to increase her workout sessions at the gym. A sip of the coffee made her raise her brows. It was the best coffee she had tasted in a long time. "What kind of coffee is this?"
"It's just a brand from a local chain," Martha said. "Uh, Martello's Market Blend. Why?"
"It's really good," Lois said.
Clark grinned, dumping four heaping teaspoons of sugar, one after the other, into his own coffee. The toast had vanished in record time. "Maybe it's the real sugar and cream," he said. "Not one of those newsroom substitutes."
"Probably," Martha said, comfortably. Lois had the feeling Clark's mother hadn't been fooled for a minute.
"Anyway," Clark said, "before we head for Metropolis, would you mind if we go into town first? I want to talk to Rachel Harris. Mom says Rachel called her yesterday afternoon. It seems that Bob Martin was driving by Shuster's Field and saw four men walking around inside the fence. He told them that they were trespassing and when they didn't listen, he used his cell phone to call Rachel. She drove out and ordered them off the property. They gave her some kind of story about being interested in buying land hereabouts and asked her about the ownership of Shuster's Field."
Lois nearly choked on a sip of coffee. "*What*?"
Clark nodded. "Exactly. Rachel told them to talk to Dad, but they never showed up. I think it's something we should check out."
"And your dad needs to do something about keeping strangers out of that field!"
"He already did that," Martha said. The corners of her eyes crinkled with mirth. "Right after Rachel called, he moved Espresso into the field along with a truckload of hay. Would you like some bacon and eggs?"
She nodded absently. "Sure. Who or what is Espresso?"
"Dad's prize stud bull," Clark said. He took a plate from the cupboard and began to shovel bacon and scrambled eggs onto it. He added a slice of toast and placed it on the table. "There you go."
"Oh. But won't he get cold out in the open like that?"
Martha shook her head. "He's spent every winter outside since he's been grown. Espresso is bigger than Ferdinand, our last bull. He's jet black, the size of a small barn, has a mean disposition and looks it. If those boys come back, none of them are going to be too eager to climb the fence."
As she took a seat at the table and picked up a fork, Lois couldn't help grinning at the thought of Trask — or somebody — and his men fleeing in terror from the Kent stud bull. "Still, it worries me that somebody should be snooping around the field where your ship landed, just when Trask and his goon squad are taking an unhealthy interest in Superman," she said. "Was there anything about the ship that they could tie to you?"
Clark shrugged. "Never having seen it that I can remember, I can't tell you," he said. "Mom?"
Martha nodded. "The 'S'," she said.
"The one on the front of the shirt. It was on the ship."
"So if they were to find the ship, they'd know it was connected to Superman," Lois said.
"I'm afraid so," Martha said. "But the ship is buried miles away. They're not going to find it by snooping around in Shuster's Field."
"They could find whatever it was that hurt Clark, the other day, though," Lois said.
"Maybe," Clark said. "Whatever it is wasn't obvious, though, because I flew over the field, later and looked, and I didn't see anything unusual. With all the junk buried underground in that area, they're going to need a lot of luck to find anything. Espresso isn't going to give them much time to search. The thing is, if they're looking around here, it means they may still be suspicious about the 'space junk' that they were looking for when my ship landed. That's what bothers me."
"Clark," Lois said, "I think we need to stop assuming. We need to operate on facts."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, we're assuming that those men who came around never found the ship your dad buried in Porcupine Gulch. What if they did? We need to be sure. I know you don't want anyone to notice that you have an interest in anything there, but there must be some way of telling."
"Jonathan can give you landmarks," Martha said. "I think Lois is right, Clark. We need to be sure. You can fly overhead under cloud cover and x-ray the area. Your detection equipment is certainly better than anything they have."
Clark nodded, thoughtfully. "You're probably right."
"Right about what?" Jonathan Kent stepped through the kitchen door.
"Lois has an idea," Martha said. "We have to be sure what the situation is with Clark's ship."
"What do you mean?"
Martha explained. Jonathan listened, frowning slightly and when she finished, he nodded. "Let me dig out one of the topological maps of the area. I'll show you where I buried it and you can go check."
"Lois and I are going to go into town to talk to Rachel before we leave," Clark said. "I'll take a look when we get back, if that's okay."
"Good idea." Jonathan turned toward the stairs. "It might take a little while to find them, anyway. I think I put them in the attic. I should have them by the time you get back."
The Sheriff's office in Smallville was quiet when they arrived. Rachel Harris was seated at her desk, apparently filling out paperwork, and looked up at the sound of the door opening. "Clark! What are you doing here?"
"We caught a ride back from Metropolis for more of my stuff," Clark said. "Mom told me about the trespassers, yesterday. What happened?"
"Oh, that," Rachel said. "They were four city types. I've never seen them around here before. Bob Martin was driving by and saw them just inside the fence. He stopped and asked what they were doing and if they knew they were on private property, but one of them told him to buzz off."
"I'll bet that went over well," Clark said. "So, what happened?"
Rachel grinned. "Bob never did like being told what to do," she said. "Especially by outsiders. Anyway, he called me. I happened to be over at Wayne Irig's, checking out a break-in at his barn. He figured it was probably a drifter taking shelter during the night, but whoever it was broke into his tool shed, as well. Didn't take anything as far as he could see, but you might warn your dad that there may be a sneak thief in the area. Anyway, I was only five minutes away, so I drove over. The four of them had metal detectors and were walking around like they were looking for something. They didn't look much like treasure hunters, to tell you the truth. They were all decked out in that camouflage gear that a lot of city guys like to wear when they go hunting. Anyhow, I told them they were trespassing and if they didn't get off the property I was going to have to run them in. The big guy that seemed to be giving the orders apologized and asked who owned the field. He said they were looking for land to purchase in the area, which seemed kind of strange. They didn't look like the farming type, to tell you the truth."
"Hmm." Clark looked at Lois, who raised her eyebrows. He removed a folded paper from his pocket and opened it. "Um, Rachel, I have an artist's rendition here. Could you tell me if any of the four men looked like this guy?" He laid it out flat on her desk. The drawing of Jason Trask as he had appeared the day before stared up at them.
Rachel examined the sketch closely and when she raised her head to look at him, she was frowning. "This is the big guy that was doing the talking. Who is he?"
"His name is Jason Trask," Clark said, trying to keep the dismay he felt out of his voice. "He and a group of about fifteen other men barged into the Daily Planet newsroom yesterday morning waving guns and a fake warrant, claiming to be Federal agents."
Rachel looked back at the drawing. "What did they want?"
"They wanted information from me about Superman, since I was the one that interviewed him," Lois said. "I guess they thought he confided his deepest secrets to me, or something."
"You mean that guy that landed the jumbo jet?" Rachel was clearly skeptical. "Why?"
"We aren't sure," Clark said. "The only thing we've been able to dig up on him is that he was involved in the Air Force's investigation of UFOs back in the sixties. Whatever he wants, though, he was armed and impersonating a Federal agent."
"Just what I need," Rachel said. "Some kind of UFO nut running around the county. What's he want with this Superman fella, anyway? Does he think the guy's an alien or something? He looked pretty human to me, except for his taste in clothes."
"It's possible," Lois said. "I just hope Trask isn't dangerous. Whoever he is, nobody in Washington seems to have heard of him. We checked with every agency we could contact and none of them knew a thing about the guy or his so-called warrant."
"Hmm." Rachel glanced at the drawing again. "Would you mind if I make a couple of Xerox copies of this picture? I'd like to post it here in the station and circulate some copies to my deputies. If we've got an armed nutcase in the area, they need to know who to look for — especially if he's impersonating a Federal agent. But how did you guess he was one of the trespassers?"
"It was kind of a hunch," Clark said. "He seems to be a UFO nut and Mom told me there've been a couple of UFO hunters around the farm now and then. When you mentioned the metal detectors … "
"Besides," Lois said, "we thought it might be possible that he was checking out Clark's background, since he's my partner — if he thinks we're somehow mixed up with aliens. The guy's a wacko."
"Yeah, I get it. If any more of them show up, tell your mom to call me," Rachel said. "We get a few UFO types, now and then — mostly, they're harmless. They always seem to congregate out in the country so they can signal aliens without city lights to hide their spotlights and stuff — but they better not be trespassing and threatening people with guns or anything. I'll shut them down fast if they do."
"I don't want to tell you your job," Lois said, "but be careful if you run into Trask. He and his buddies were waving around a lot of guns, yesterday morning."
Rachel nodded. "I appreciate the warning, Ms. Lane. Armed lunatics make me nervous."
"You and me, both," Lois said.
Behind them, the door opened and Clark glanced over his shoulder. Roy Decker let it swing shut behind him. "Rachel, we need to talk," he announced.
"Not now, Roy," Rachel said, sounding slightly annoyed. "I'm working, or hadn't you noticed?"
Roy Decker pushed past Lois and she gave him a dirty look. "Hey!"
He ignored her. "Honey, this is what I'm talking about. This is a man's job. A woman shouldn't be doing this stuff. Her place is in the home, where she's safe. I don't want my wife to have to go out and risk her life chasing down poachers and housebreakers."
"Roy, we've argued about this for months." Rachel folded her hands on the desk in front of her. "I've been the sheriff for just over a year and I've managed so far without getting hurt or killed. If you can't handle that, then there's nothing more to say. Now, I'm busy, so why don't you go somewhere else? I'll talk to you later if you still think we have anything to discuss."
Roy opened his mouth to speak but Rachel cut him off. "Later, Roy. I have a job to do."
"But … "
"Later," she repeated, firmly. Roy closed his mouth with a snap, turned and left the office without another word.
A short time later, at the Kent farmhouse, Jonathan presented Clark with a map of Smallville and surrounding areas. "Here you go, son." He indicated a spot in one corner. "I buried the ship in Porcupine Gulch, back behind the sycamore grove, just about here. There should be a big, round boulder about ten feet north of the place. You might have to scan a little to find the exact spot, but you shouldn't have any trouble locating it."
Clark nodded, examining the map. "Okay. Look, considering what happened yesterday, I'm going to take off fast so no one can see me. I'll be back as soon as I can."
At the speeds of which Superman was capable, Porcupine Gulch was split seconds away. Hovering within the lowest layers of the snow clouds that covered the sky today, Clark again consulted the map and surveyed the territory below, comparing. The sycamore grove was easy to see and the big, round boulder was prominently in the open. Quickly and thoroughly, he began to scan the ground.
"The ship is gone," Clark said. "There wasn't even any sign of anyone having dug it up. It must have happened years ago."
"So they've been waiting for all these years for the 'aliens' to show up," Lois said. "Do you suppose it was Trask's group?"
"Probably. Who else would know where to look after I appeared?" Clark said. He glanced at his watch. "Still, they can't know for sure who buried the ship. Dad didn't own the field in 1966 and he only bought it last year. We need to get back to Metropolis. We have to meet Thompson in a few hours. It sounds to me like the cover-up is underway."
"Well, at least now we have a better idea what we're dealing with," Lois said.
"Yeah." Clark said. Oddly, he was feeling better than he had been since Trask had made his appearance. Maybe, he thought, it was exactly for the reason Lois had stated. They now had a much better idea of what was going on than they had the day before.
"What are you going to do?" Martha asked.
"Try to find out what we can about Trask and who he really works for," Lois said.
"I'd say our best lead is Thompson," Clark said. "He showed up awfully fast — none of the usual bureaucratic stalling and delay."
"I noticed that," Lois said. "Do we know anything about him?".
"Not much. Jimmy said some guy from Washington called and arranged for us to meet Thompson at two o'clock. He's supposed to be investigating 'the incident at the Daily Planet' yesterday morning. Jimmy said the guy described him as a government ombudsman — which could mean anything — and his name is so common that it's a little hard for him to do a background check."
"That's usually the term they use when they don't want to tell you what he really does," Lois said. "I wonder if his name is really George Thompson."
Clark shrugged. "Probably not."
"Both of you be careful," Jonathan Kent said. "If these government types get their hands on you, Clark, you could wind up in a lab —"
"'—Being dissected like a frog," Clark said. "I haven't forgotten."
"Well, I don't see how they could get you into a lab if you don't want to go," Lois pointed out, "or dissect you, once they have you there. As far as we know, nothing on Earth can go through your skin."
"Unless they find whatever it was in Shuster's Field that made Clark feel sick," Jonathan said. "That might be what they were looking for with the metal detectors."
"I'm inclined to think that they don't know about it," Lois said. "How could they, anyway? If they did, they'd have found it a long time ago. I think they were just looking for anything they could find, now that 'Superman' has appeared. You just be sure to keep Espresso in the field to discourage them from trying to search it. It's up to Clark and me to track them down and de-fang them, whoever they are. If they're some kind of secret government agency hunting down 'aliens', I think the taxpayers should know how the powers that be are wasting their money."
"Lois is absolutely right," Martha said. "There's nothing like a little sunshine to discourage these sneaky types."
"And we're going to figure out how to do it," Lois said. "Thanks for letting me spend the night again, Martha. Don't worry. I won't let Clark get into any trouble."
Clark's mother laughed. "Why don't I believe that? Try to be careful, anyway. And, if you need a place to stay, you're welcome here any night, honey."
"Don't think I won't take you up on that, if it's necessary," Lois said. She fastened the top button of her coat and tugged on her gloves a little more firmly. "I'm ready, Clark. Time to head for Metropolis to meet Mr. George Thompson."
Perry White was sitting at his desk when Lois knocked on his office door. As he glanced up, she opened it a crack. "Are you busy, Perry?"
"Just finishing lunch," he said. "Come on in. Did you find what you were looking for this morning?"
"Partly," Lois said. She entered the office, Clark on her heels. "Clark and I just wanted to check in to let you know we were here. We have that meeting with George Thompson in about an hour."
"Yeah. The 'government ombudsman'," Perry said, somewhat dryly. "He sure got here fast, didn't he?"
"You noticed that?" Lois said. "Can you say 'cover up'?"
Perry laced his fingers and rested his hands on the desk surface. "Could be. It sounds to me as if someone in Washington isn't happy about yesterday's incident. You two did a terrific job getting those sketches done. Who did you tap for the drawings? That's some of the best work I've ever seen."
"Um — " Lois glanced at Clark. "Clark's an amateur sketch artist. It's one of his hobbies."
"Really?" Perry looked approvingly at his newest hire. "That's nice work, Kent. I've seen worse by professionals."
"I had Lois to help," Clark said. "She has a good memory for faces."
"That's true. Well, you two better get going. Let me know what Mr. 'Thompson' has to say."
"We will. I just need to pick up a new tape for my recorder," Lois said. She glanced at Clark. "This is the kind of investigative journalism that gets my juices flowing."
"Keep an eye on her, Kent," Perry said, instantly. "I know that look. It always means trouble."
"Don't worry, sir," Clark said.
"Believe me, I worry," Perry said, but he was smiling. "I also smell a headline story. Just be sure you don't get into water that's too deep for you."
"We won't," Lois said. "Trust us."
Perry simply raised an eyebrow.
The government building where they were to meet George Thompson was neatly nondescript. Lois and Clark stepped out of the elevator and walked briskly down the hall, checking the numbers on the doors. "Room 26," Lois said. "This is it." She raised her fist to knock.
Clark caught her hand. "Wait."
She lowered her hand, watching him expectantly. Clark lowered his glasses, apparently staring over the frames at the blank surface of the door. Once, she opened her mouth to demand information, but he gestured quickly for silence. The silence stretched for what seemed hours, but a glance at her watch told her it had been barely a minute when he pushed his glasses into place.
"What was it?" Lois asked.
"It looks like we've hit pay dirt. He was talking to Trask on the phone." Clark's voice was barely above a whisper. "Keep his attention for me, would you? I want to do a little super-snooping." He opened the door and Lois saw a small desk with a female occupant. She glanced up questioningly.
"Lois Lane and Clark Kent," Lois said. "We're here to see Mr. Thompson."
"Just a minute." She pushed a button and Lois heard a faint buzz. "Mr. Thompson, Ms. Lane and Mr. Kent are here to see you." She paused, seemed to listen for a moment, then smiled perfunctorily and nodded in the direction of the door to her right. "Go on in."
Clark knocked lightly on the panel and a voice said, faintly, "Come in."
Her partner opened the door and let her precede him. Lois schooled her expression to one of polite interest as a slender, white-haired man rose to meet them.
"George Thompson?" she inquired. At his nod, she continued, "We're Lois Lane and Clark Kent from the Daily Planet."
"Of course, come in. Have a seat."
Lois took one of the hard-backed chairs, glancing around as she did so. It was a blandly uninformative government office, with blank walls and a desk with the usual generic accoutrements adorning its otherwise bare surface. Nothing here to give a clue to the man who occupied it, she thought. A briefcase sat next to the desk, closed and probably locked. She was going to have to rely on Clark's unique abilities if they were going to learn anything here. She'd be willing to bet her last dollar that "Thompson", or whoever he was, wasn't going to knowingly give them anything they could use.
Clark took a seat next to her, letting his glasses slip a fraction of an inch down the bridge of his nose. "So," he said, "you just flew in from Washington?"
Thompson seated himself behind the desk, assuming the position of authority, she thought. It was a subtle but effective ploy, designed to put his visitors at a disadvantage. He shook his head in answer to Clark's remark. "Bullet train. I'm not much for flying. You?"
Clark shook his head as well. Seizing the opportunity to grab the man's attention, Lois opened her purse and removed her cassette recorder. Thompson watched her without expression as she switched it on and set it on his desk.
"Who exactly do you work for, Mr. Thompson?" she asked.
Thompson smiled mechanically. "As I'm sure my secretary told your man at the Planet, I'm kind of a government ombudsman. I go where the problems are. Right now, my job is to get to the bottom of this 'incident' at the Planet."
"That's our job, too," Lois said, flashing him a smile. "What can you tell us? Do you have any idea who these guys were or why they wanted Superman?" Out of the corner of her eye, she was peripherally aware that Clark had glanced casually at the briefcase and smothered a small stab of excitement. Her partner was almost certainly reading the only documentation that would tell them anything about George Thompson and his real mission. "I mean," she continued, "I printed everything he told me. I don't know anything more about the man than anyone else, since my article came out."
Thompson shook his head. "I'm afraid not. The first step in our investigation process is to gather all eyewitness accounts. We don't take it lightly when someone passes himself off as an agent of the U.S. government. Can you give us a physical description of any of the people involved?"
"Actually, yes," Lois said. "Have you seen a copy of the Daily Planet, this morning? We managed to produce sketches of the people involved, including the leader. He was a big man, at least six feet tall, and very heavily built."
"I hadn't seen it, yet." Thompson, she thought, didn't seem particularly pleased at the revelation.
"Here." Lois reached into her bag and produced several pages of the Planet's morning edition. On the front page of the paper, prominently showcased, was the face-on sketch of Jason Trask that Clark had produced yesterday. She laid it on his desk and spread out the second and third pages, displaying the drawings of the men who had accompanied him in his raid for Thompson to see. "Fortunately, I have a very good memory for faces, and one of the people present, when the raid took place, was a sketch artist."
"Are they accurate?" Thompson asked. His face had gone blank, but she thought she could read a certain sourness in his tone.
"Very." Lois kept her voice level. "One of the so-called 'agents' frisked our gossip columnist, Catherine Grant, twice — although where she could have been hiding anything in the outfit she was wearing, I have no idea. She remembered him particularly."
Thompson was examining the drawings, and if Lois was any judge of body language, he was most unhappy with this development. It was too bad, she reflected, that he hadn't learned to control that as well as his expression. At least, for him.
Clark moved casually to shove his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. To anyone else, it would mean nothing. To Lois, it meant that whatever snooping he had been doing was completed. "I hope," he said, "that the drawings will help your investigators to track down these people. I'm sure that real government officials would have more respect for the Constitution than these men had."
Thompson's expression flickered for just an instant. "I'm certain they would have, Mr. Kent. Is there anything more you can tell me?"
"I'm afraid not," Lois said. "You have no idea who these people could be?"
Thompson shook his head. "No." He stood up and thrust out a hand. "Thanks for coming."
The interview was clearly over. Lois got to her feet, retrieving her recorder. "Well, thank you. You'll get back to us on this?"
"When we find out something, we'll contact the Daily Planet," Thompson assured her. Lois didn't answer as Clark shook hands with the man and a moment later, they were standing in the hall outside.
"'When we find out something, we'll contact the Daily Planet'," she quoted, sarcastically. "What bull!"
"Come on, let's get out of here," Clark said, softly. "As soon as he thinks we're gone, he's going to see Trask."
"How do you know?"
Clark led the way toward the exit. "I heard him on the phone. I told you, he was talking to Trask. He was furious."
"Both of them, actually. Trask is government, all right, but apparently his bosses didn't authorize the raid yesterday morning. The Director, whoever he is, sent Thompson here to clean up the mess Trask made —Thompson's words, by the way. They work for an agency called Bureau 39. Trask told Thompson that he'd deemed it necessary and it was none of Thompson's business, and Thompson told him that *he* called the shots for the Bureau and that he was coming to see Trask as soon as he buried the story with us. Trask hung up on him."
"This has possibilities," Lois said.
"I thought so. I x-rayed his briefcase. There's a folder in there with a bunch of files on UFO incidents, called Incident Analysis: Eyes Only. It's got stuff on Roswell, in 1947, White Mountains, Arizona, 1975, Gulf Breeze, Florida, 1986, Voronezh, USSR, 1989 —"
"Get to the point."
"And Smallville, Kansas, 1966."
"Bingo," Lois said. "The connection. Now we know who found your ship and who we're fighting. Keep your ears open. I want to know exactly when he leaves."
They were just exiting the building when Clark lifted his head. "Oh, no; not now!"
"There's a fire at Metro General. A big one. The Children's Ward. Lois —"
"Go," she said, at once. "I'll get a cab and follow Thompson."
"He's leaving his office now," he said. "Be careful."
"I will. Get going. The sooner you save the day, the sooner you'll be back. There's a cab." She put two fingers in her mouth and produced an earsplitting whistle and, like magic, the passing vehicle pulled sharply to the side of the street. "Go," she said, again.
"Thanks," he said, and daringly leaned forward to give her a peck on the cheek. Then he was ducking down the nearest alley. As Lois opened the cab door, she heard the sonic boom that told her that Superman was on his way.
"Where to?" the cabbie asked.
She pointed to the cross street. "Pull over there and wait for a minute."
"Okay, lady, it's your money."
It was barely four minutes before George Thompson walked out the double doors.
The man paused, Lois saw him glance casually around and then cross the sidewalk to a black, Ford sedan sitting by the curb. As he was getting in, she leaned forward. "See the white-haired guy getting into that car? I want you to follow him."
"Oh, sure," the cabbie said. "What do you think you are, lady — some kinda government agent?"
"I'm an investigative reporter," Lois said, shortly. "Can you do it?"
The man shrugged. "Sure."
The other car pulled out onto the street and Lois gritted her teeth, but her driver was more on the ball than she had given him credit for. He turned the corner casually, allowing several others to fill the space between their vehicle and the one they followed.
"I guess you don't want him to see you," he said, maneuvering skillfully through slowly moving traffic.
"Yes — I mean no, I don't."
"Thought not," the man said. "Okay, let's give it a shot."
His voice had developed a spark of animation, Lois noted, absently. She took a real look at him, noticing for the first time that he was a young black man, and his thin, narrow face had taken on an expression of interest.
Traffic was moderately heavy but somehow, they didn't lose their quarry. Her driver always managed to keep a minimum of three cars between his taxi and the sedan he and Lois followed, and Lois had to give him credit that he managed to do exactly as she had asked. When Thompson's vehicle pulled to a stop in front of a drab, nondescript warehouse in a row of similar ones on Bessolo Boulevard, which bore a battered sign, reading: "Bessolo Discount Used Office Furniture", he drove right past, pulled to the side of the street half a block down and stopped. "How's that?" he asked, sounding a little smug.
"Not bad," Lois said. Ordinarily, she would have withered such pretensions with a single sentence, but Clark must be having a softening effect on her, she reflected. Besides, she could hardly complain about the service.
The driver was watching the scene behind them in the mirror. Lois turned, also watching as Thompson got out, shut the door behind him and headed straight for the warehouse.
"Okay," she said, "what do I owe you?"
"Fifteen-ninety-two. Are you gonna stay here?"
Lois nodded, extracting the cash from her purse and as an afterthought, adding a little extra to the tip. "I want to see what happens next. Thanks. It's refreshing to meet a cab driver in this town who can really drive."
He accepted the payment, looking slightly worried. "Thanks, lady. You be careful, okay?"
She couldn't resist a slight grin. "You sound like my boss. I'll be fine."
Upon returning from the hospital fire, forty-some minutes after he had left, Clark saw no sign of Lois around the government building, which he had expected. She was probably still following Thompson, he reasoned, but the man had not yet returned to his office. A quick scan of the Daily Planet and of her apartment showed no trace of Lois. He landed on the flat top of an office building, trying to listen for her heartbeat but after ten, frustrating minutes had passed, he was forced to the unpalatable conclusion that there were simply too many people in the vast city of Metropolis for him to pick out a single heartbeat, even Lois's, without having at least a general idea of where to look.
Well, given that he couldn't locate her using direct methods, what other options did he have? She had taken a taxi, he recalled. Perhaps the driver could tell him where he had dropped her off. He cast back in his memory, visualizing the name of the company and the number of the taxi she had boarded, and a moment later, Clark Kent was waiting by a pay phone for a previous occupant to finish his call.
The man, who appeared to be in his mid-twenties, seemed to be having an argument with his girlfriend. Clark tried not to listen, but it was almost impossible not to pay attention to the raised voice. He glanced at his watch, seriously considering finding another phone, when the man slammed down the receiver and burst out of the booth, muttering under his breath. Clark glanced after him, one eyebrow raised. The guy was awfully mad over a choice of videos, he thought and shrugged, forgetting the incident.
The phone number for the taxi service was posted on the wall of the booth, probably for the convenience of customers, and a moment later, a feminine voice answered his ring.
"Metropolis Cabs, can I help you?"
"I hope so," Clark said. "My name is Clark Kent. I'm a reporter for the Daily Planet. I'm trying to find a particular cab that picked up a passenger, my reporting partner, at 95th and De Soto at about two thirty, this afternoon. It was cab number 139."
"Is there a problem, sir?" the woman's voice asked, sounding slightly suspicious.
"No, ma'am. I'd just like to ask the driver where he dropped her off. She was supposed to meet me a short time ago, but she hasn't shown up."
"Well … "
"I want him to drop me off in the same place. If you could send that cab here — cab number 139 — I'm at the corner of Granholm and Pitts."
"Well — all right, sir. But, if you want a specific cab, we'll have to charge you extra."
"That's not a problem."
"All right, sir. It will be about twenty minutes."
"Thank you," Clark said.
The taxi arrived fourteen minutes later. Clark knew that because he had checked his watch every fifteen seconds or so since the dispatcher had hung up. Cab #139 pulled to a stop at the curb and Clark reached for the rear door. The cab driver, a young black man, looked him over measuringly. "Are you Clark Kent?"
"Yes," Clark said, sliding into the back seat. "You picked up my reporting partner, Lois Lane, at DeSoto and 95th at about two thirty. She's a young woman, dark hair, brown eyes, very attractive. She probably told you to follow —"
"Yeah. She wanted me to follow this white-haired guy."
"That's her. Can you take me to the spot where you dropped her off?"
"Sure." The driver looked worried. "I kind of had a bad feeling about that. What happened to her? Is she okay?"
"I hope so," Clark said. "I'm trying to find her. I'm hoping you can show me where she went."
"Okay, hang on." The man glanced over his left shoulder and pulled smartly out into traffic.
Belatedly, Clark pulled the seat belt around himself. The driver cut through early rush hour traffic to round the corner and turn into one of the side streets, neatly avoiding the crush of traffic that was beginning to build on the main drag. "She said she was an investigative reporter," he remarked.
"She is. She writes for the Daily Planet," Clark said.
"Wait a minute — Lois Lane and Clark Kent? I thought your name sounded familiar. You broke that big scandal about the Rainforest Consortium. That was great work!" Clark saw the man glance at him in his rear view mirror.
"I didn't think anybody would remember our names," Clark said, feeling mildly surprised. Most people didn't usually notice the names of the reporters who wrote articles in the paper — not even the big ones.
"Well, most people might not, but I'm a fourth-year journalism student over at New Troy State. I only drive a cab part time to help with expenses. I notice that kind of thing."
That explained it. Clark glanced at the license clipped to the sunshade on the right side of the windshield. "You're name is Tony Daus?"
"That's right." He whipped the cab around a tight corner. "Who was that guy she was trailing … if you don't mind me asking?"
"We don't know his real name." Clark said. "Whoever he is, he's not up to any good. I just hope nothing's happened to Lois."
"Yeah, me too." Tony's mouth tightened. "I dropped her off by a big warehouse on Bessolo Boulevard. The white- haired guy went in and when I left, she was sort of looking around the place, maybe tryin' to find a way in."
"That's what I was afraid of," Clark said.
"Yeah." The man pressed down harder on the accelerator.
In spite of the growing rush hour traffic, it was barely fifteen minutes before the cab pulled to a stop beside the warehouse advertising "Bessolo Discount Used Office Furniture". Tony pointed. "That's the warehouse where the guy went."
Clark was thrusting a pair of twenties into Tony's hand almost before the cab stopped moving. "Keep the change, and thanks."
"Sure. Be careful — and find her, okay?"
"I'm going to," Clark said, pushing the door open. Without a backward glance, he hurried toward the warehouse.
The big warehouse was situated in a row of similar ones, but this one was separated from the others by an electronic locking system that the others lacked. Clark lowered his glasses.
The space behind the door was not, as might have been expected, the main body of the warehouse but instead, a small, metal-walled anteroom, and on the opposite wall was another lock, this one a combination. Obviously, he thought, this wasn't your ordinary warehouse.
Past the second wall was the actual storage space. It was crowded with objects smothered in heavy canvas, and a couple of massive file cabinets against the far back wall that instantly caught his attention. There was no sign of Lois, but if she'd been here, he wanted to know what the place contained. Maybe it would give him some idea of where to look.
But he wasn't going to get in this way and standing out here in front of the place was only going to make him conspicuous. Glancing back, he saw that Tony's cab hadn't left, yet. The young driver was watching him, a worried frown on his face. Clark scanned the blank row of warehouses. They presented a nearly unbroken wall along the block, but in one place, a narrow gap opened between two of them some fifty feet down the walk to his right. He trotted toward the opening, glanced once more back at Tony, lifted his hand in a half-wave and ducked between the buildings. Once out of sight, he moved fast, zipping down the space into the rear of the warehouses.
The area behind the structures was actually a narrow alley, providing a space buffer between them and the blank, dingy wall that marked the rear of another set of warehouses. That was an advantage, Clark thought, because no windows opened on the alley.
Quickly, he lowered his glasses again, scanning the interior of the wall that faced him.
If there was any kind of alarm system, he thought, it was probably at the entrance; it certainly wasn't here. Probably, no one expected someone to come directly through the wall. Carefully, he scanned the entire area behind the wall. There was no living thing to be seen except a colony of mice living in a stack of discarded crating material. It was now, or never.
His heat vision made an excellent cutting torch, as he neatly sliced a hole in the wall big enough for him to enter the building. Gently and silently, he eased the section out and leaned it against the outer wall, then turned and slipped quietly through the entrance he had created, into the warehouse.
The building was big and echoing. The place he had chosen to make his entrance was apparently a de facto office. A metal desk with a shaded light hanging above it and a rolling, metal office chair faced the interior of the warehouse. To the right and rear, the two heavy file cabinets stood against the wall and he scanned them quickly.
In the cabinet were folders, each containing written reports similar to the ones he had seen in George Thompson's briefcase — incidents that were allegedly the results of extra-terrestrial visitations. In fact, the ones he had seen in Thompson's briefcase were also there, bunched in the very front as if hastily crammed into the top drawer of the cabinet. Thompson had been here, all right, and now he wasn't — and neither was Lois. That didn't sound good, but as yet he'd found only this trace of Thompson to indicate that he'd been here. The fact that he had apparently left the contents of his briefcase behind worried Clark slightly. Thompson had impressed him as someone in authority and the way he had talked to Trask had sounded as if he felt himself to be Trask's superior.
But, maybe Trask hadn't thought so. The way he had spoken to Thompson over the phone certainly suggested that. What that indicated, he wasn't sure, except that perhaps there might be some kind of power struggle going on in Bureau 39. Trask didn't impress him as the most stable of persons. He had apparently gone outside the authority of his own agency yesterday morning, and faking a Federal warrant didn't sound like the best of judgement in Clark's opinion. From what he'd heard of the phone conversation, the man seemed quite obsessed with the possibility of an alien invasion. Just how far was he likely to take it?
Without hesitation, Clark opened the drawer and appropriated the files. Scanning the remainder quickly, he assured himself that nothing remained of any references to Smallville. There might be copies elsewhere, of course, but at least taking the entire contents of Thompson's briefcase might confuse the strange agency as to what the real goal of the theft really was.
Gripping them in one hand, he turned to survey the rest of the place. The room was dark except for the light that streamed in through the hole he had made in the outer wall, but with his enhanced vision, he could see the big, shadowy, canvas-shrouded hulks cluttering the floor beyond the desk and he began to scan them through their coverings.
The objects under their canvas coverings puzzled him at first. They seemed to be pieces of miscellaneous junk welded together haphazardly — until he saw the ship.
It was small and sleek and the padded interior was nowhere near a size that could possibly accommodate an adult human, but it could easily hold a baby. Along the sides, imprinted into the metal of the ship's skin, was a row of hieroglyphs of a type he had never seen before, and on the nose, was the symbol that Superman wore on his chest. He moved forward swiftly and above all, silently, his feet not quite touching the floor, and pulled back the canvas. The ship that had brought him to Earth lay there, solid evidence that Bureau 39, whatever that might be, had been behind its removal. Hanging prominently from a protrusion on the ship itself, was a bag, labeled "Smallville, Exhibit A" and Clark shook the contents into his hand.
It was a ball, about the size of an orange, made of some material he had never seen before and, as his fingers made contact with it, it began to glow with a soft, white light. Clark found himself staring at it as if hypnotized, unable to look away.
And unexpectedly, its surface changed.
It was a representation of Earth. The green and brown continents and blue oceans were unmistakable. For a long moment it stayed that way and then, before his eyes, the surface blurred and changed again. The entire globe acquired a reddish cast and on the side facing him, a single, large continent glowed a brilliant red.
Clark blinked, and a long-buried memory quietly surfaced.
"Krypton," he whispered.
Getting the ship out of the warehouse without being seen wasn't easy, even for Superman, but he had advantages others lacked. It was ten minutes later when Clark deposited the ship and globe in the bedroom of his new apartment. Sitting amid the dirt, trash and general debris, the sleek, little ship looked distinctly out of place.
Carefully, he locked the apartment door with the new keys that he and Lois had picked up on their return to Metropolis that morning, fastened the two mechanical locks as well and sat down in mid air, trying to think.
George Thompson had apparently had some kind of disagreement with Trask and was quite possibly in trouble. Lois had been hanging around the warehouse and might very well be in the same kind of trouble, even if he hadn't found any evidence of it. He'd restored the holes he had cut in the wall in order to enter and then to remove the ship as well as he could in the limited time available, and hopefully, with all the junk in that place, they wouldn't notice the missing files or the missing ship before he could locate Lois and get his property to a safer location. Just now, however, Lois was his top priority. How on earth was he going to find her if Trask had managed to get his hands on her? He didn't have any means of contacting her or she him — did he?
His pager beeped suddenly and he removed the device from his pocket, checking the number. The Planet was calling …
The answer to his problem was staring him in the face. Silently kicking himself, Clark left the apartment in a rush via the window. The Daily Planet had his pager's number, and Lois's.
He had to find a pay phone.
"Perry wanted me to check on you," Jimmy was saying. "He expected you and Lois to be back an hour ago."
Clark glanced out of the phone booth. Evening had descended on the city while he had been in the warehouse and engaged in removing his ship to safer quarters. "Jimmy, has Lois contacted you?"
"She hasn't called back," Jimmy said. "That's not unusual, though."
"Hmm. Do me a favor, would you? Page her again a couple of times. We got separated and I haven't been able to find her. I'm starting to get a little worried."
"You got it, CK," Jimmy said. "I've got that other stuff you wanted, by the way."
"Great," Clark said. "I'll look at it when I get back. Page Lois now, though, would you? If she calls back, page me again right away."
Stepping out of the booth a second later, he made a beeline for the nearest alley, but all his attention was focussed on listening for the distinctive beep of Lois's pager. There it was, and it was coming from above and slightly to the north. The only explanation for that must be that she was in a plane somewhere over the city. An instant later, Superman was in the air.
The sound of the plane engine was loud in her ears. Lois shifted uncomfortably on the hard seat and glanced sideways at George Thompson, who slumped in the seat next to her. His face was bruised and dried blood streaked his upper lip and chin. The older man met her eyes fleetingly and dropped his gaze to stare at the floor.
Jason Trask and two soldiers sat across from them. Trask's expression was shuttered, but she thought she could see traces of a smug smile on his lips. She instinctively glanced at her watch and then dropped her hands into her lap again.
It had been nearly three hours since Clark had left her to deal with the fire at Metro General. Surely, her partner would be looking for her by now. She prayed that he was, but even so, how was he going to find her? Surely, even his incredible abilities had limits.
"Sir." One of the fatigue-clad men who manned the plane summoned his superior's attention. Trask rose and moved a short distance down the aisle to where several men bent over some kind of electronic equipment. Lois watched them for a moment and then turned to glance once more at her companion in misfortune.
"They're going to kill us, you know," Thompson said. "You shouldn't have followed me, Ms. Lane."
"Why is he doing this?" Lois asked.
"He believes this 'Superman' is the advance guard for an alien invasion. And he thinks he can trap him using you as bait. Me — I'm an inconvenience."
"He's insane," Lois said, with conviction.
"Yes," Thompson said. "He is."
"Mr. Thompson — if that *is* your name — " Lois hesitated. "What *is* Bureau 39?"
Thompson didn't reply for a few seconds. "No one is supposed to know such an agency exists, Ms. Lane."
"You'd be surprised what I know," she said. "Personally, I think Bureau 39 should take a good look at some of its agents, if your Mr. Trask is a good example. I know he used to be with the Air Force's Project Blue Book, and it looks to me like Bureau 39 is a direct descendent of it — or maybe its crazy uncle that should have been locked away for its own good. Since we're probably both going to die, would you mind telling me if I'm right — and why Trask is so sure Superman is a threat? All he's done so far is help us. He even diverted the Nightfall asteroid. Why would he want to hurt us?"
"He's here to lull Earth into a sense of security," Trask's voice said. Lois turned her head to see the man standing next to her seat, the smile that she had decided three hours ago was incredibly irritating playing on his lips. "If the denizens of his world want to take over ours, they don't want it destroyed, do they, Ms. Lane? He may have fooled you, or you might be cooperating with him, hoping for favoritism when the others arrive — but it doesn't really matter."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
While they had been talking, two of the soldiers had begun to unlatch the door in the plane's side. Trask smirked.
"I assume you two are familiar with the scientific method."
Lois frowned. "I didn't take much science in college. I think it was something like 'Advance a theory and submit it to a test'."
"Very good, Ms. Lane." The man's smile widened and became a mocking grin. "My theory is that you know how to contact this alien creature."
"And how do you plan to test it?" Lois demanded.
Trask shrugged. "If you suddenly become airborne at twenty thousand feet, without a parachute, I have to assume you will focus all your energies toward contacting this Superman."
"And, if you're wrong?"
The man shrugged. "Pushing back the frontiers of science is not without risk."
"And, what happens if Superman does show up?"
A blast of air whipped hair into Lois's face as the soldiers threw the door open. Trask braced himself against the sudden turbulence. "Does the worm need to know if the fish is going to be fried or charbroiled?" He nodded to his subordinates. "Do you want to be first, George?"
On cue, the soldiers seized George Thompson by the arms and hauled him to his feet. The man struggled unsuccessfully as they manhandled him toward the open doors. Lois half started to her feet, only to have Trask grasp her by the wrist. "Don't worry, Ms. Lane, you're next."
"You're crazy!" she gasped out. "You can't do this!"
Trask smiled mockingly. "But I can, Ms. Lane. I know where my duty lies."
In her purse, Lois's pager began to beep. Trask laughed, shortly. "I'm afraid whoever's paging you is going to have to wait a while."
George Thompson screamed as he was hurled out the doors. Trask thrust Lois after him toward the soldiers, who seized her and proceeded to shove her through the opening.
Lois screamed; she couldn't help herself. She squeezed her eyes shut against the panic she felt as her body hurtled through space.
"Char… — Superman!" she screamed. "If you can hear me, drop everything and get over here! Superman — help!"
She didn't expect a response as quickly as it came. A pair of familiar arms closed around her and Clark's shaken voice said, "Lois — are you all right?"
"Charlie!" She wrapped her arms around his neck. "Oh, thank God!" She caught her breath. "Clark, Trask is using Thompson and me as bait for you!"
"I figured that," Clark's voice said in her ear. "Let's get Thompson and then I'll take care of Trask."
She nodded shakily, then found herself held close to his side, one of his muscular arms around her waist, diving headfirst after the tumbling body of George Thompson.
He was falling fast, gaining speed by the second, but Clark — Superman — accelerated after him so swiftly that Lois had to put both hands over her ears against the shriek of the wind. Somehow, she had retained a grip on her shoulder bag and it flapped behind them in the air. She let it slide up her arm until the strap reached the crook of her elbow. If she lost the entire contents, she thought, it didn't matter. She would never forget this flight as long as she lived.
They were overtaking Thompson, she saw. The man was struggling, his arms and legs flailing frantically and uselessly in the air. His mouth was wide open and she knew he was screaming, although she couldn't hear a sound. He hadn't seen them yet, she thought and then grinned as they neared him because she could see that his eyes were squeezed tightly shut. Clark drew even with the terrified man and closed his free arm around his waist. George Thompson gave a gasp that was half a yelp and wrapped both arms around his rescuer. It was a good thing Clark was invulnerable, Lois thought, or Thompson would have strangled him in his panic.
Then, they were leveling out in a long, straight glide above the city. Clark brought them down onto the sidewalk in front of the Daily Planet and set them on their feet.
George Thompson almost collapsed and Superman grabbed him. "Easy there." He lowered the man onto the bus stop bench a few feet away. "Are you all right?"
Thompson nodded, breathing hard. Superman turned to Lois. "Ms. Lane? Are you —"
Something moved in the air at the edge of her vision. Lois looked up, past his shoulder and gasped. "Superman! Look out!"
He glanced around and instantly took in what she had already seen. "I'll take care of it." And he was launching himself toward the missile that was homing in on the three of them.
Lois watched him arrow upward toward the menacing object. He couldn't be hurt, she reminded herself. Clark had slammed headfirst into the Nightfall asteroid and had lived to tell the tale. This puny weapon couldn't possibly harm him.
It was one thing to know something in theory and another to see it in front of her. The tiny figure in red and blue zipped toward the oncoming projectile so fast that her eyes could hardly follow it. As he approached it, he hovered for a split second and then changed direction, flashing sideways and around it. It followed, more slowly. It must be registering his heat signature, but Clark was faster than the missile, she thought with a rush of sheer relief. He simply didn't want it to impact in the city and hurt, or kill, innocent people.
"My God," Thompson said.
What he was reacting to, she wasn't sure but she didn't comment as she saw Superman slow his speed, keeping barely ahead of the deadly thing, leading it upward, beyond the point where it could cause harm to the city and its inhabitants. As she watched, the tiny figure paused in mid-air and waited. The missile seemed to accelerate toward him, and then, for an instant, a new sun blazed in the sky in the place where Superman had been.
The brilliance dissipated, leaving only black smoke behind. Shading her eyes, Lois stared at the spot, stunned. There was no sign of Clark.
"He let it hit him!" Thompson's voice was hoarse. "He could have gotten away. Why did he —"
"Look!" Lois said. She pointed at the little speck of blue and red that had appeared from nowhere, following the silver arrow of the plane that bore Jason Trask and his followers. "He's all right!"
Thompson stared at the vanishing speck and then closed his mouth with an effort.
"Well, that settles one thing," he said, at last.
He gave a short bark of humorless laughter. "If Superman's the advance man for an invasion, he has a funny way of showing it," he said. "If there are others like him, they wouldn't *need* to soften us up first."
"No kidding," Lois said.
"Not that it will make a dent in Trask's paranoia," Thompson continued, a trifle grimly. "The man should have been shut down years ago. In any case, I know what my report will say. Trask isn't stable; he's a loose cannon. His unit will be disbanded as soon as I can find a phone and he'll be under arrest before the day is out, Ms. Lane. You have my word on it."
"As long as he poses no threat — and it's pretty obvious that he doesn't — my recommendation will be that he's to be left alone," Thompson said. "He could easily have let me fall to my death and he didn't. That seems to speak for itself. Besides," he added in a meditative tone, "after that demonstration, I'm not sure there's anything we could do to him, anyway."
"Besides, isn't there some sort of thing in the Constitution about being innocent until proven guilty?" Lois knew her tone of voice had an acidic edge to it. "He hasn't committed any crimes that I know of."
"Well, there's a question of residency," Thompson said, "but that's not my jurisdiction. If Immigration wants to take it up with him, that's their business. Personally, I doubt there will be any problem. Our government wouldn't want to have someone like him working for anyone but us."
"Besides," Lois said, "we don't even know for sure that he *is* an alien. Trask simply assumed that he is. Maybe he's the result of some kind of scientific experiment or something."
"That would be *some* experiment," Thompson said, with a slight grin. "In any case, as I said, it isn't my jurisdiction." He boosted himself to his feet. "Can I impose on you to direct me to a phone, Ms. Lane? I have a report to make."
"Kids, this is incredible," Perry said. "This Trask nutcase must have really gone off the deep end to launch a missile like that right over the city. And to throw his superior out of a plane —"
"He was completely out of control," Lois said. "I don't think he'd have listened to the President, himself. Anyway, Superman turned him and his men over to Henderson and left it to Thompson's people to deal with the situation. Fortunately, Clark was nearby when the whole thing broke and he got the story, and the statement from Superman. I got the statement from Thompson and my end of the story."
Clark nodded. "The Feds arrived a little while later to collect Trask. They were pretty close-mouthed but I got the feeling they weren't very happy about all the exposure. Trask was livid, of course. He was calling Thompson a traitor, and Henderson, and the entire Metro police force. A couple of bystanders had cameras and I borrowed one. Jimmy's developing the pictures as we speak."
"And the warehouse?" Perry asked.
"Henderson got a search warrant before Thompson's people managed to clear it out — although they showed up with an Order to Impound half an hour later," Clark said. "Unfortunately for them, too many people had already seen the so-called 'UFOs' to pretend they didn't exist. I got pictures of them, too."
"Good," Perry said. "We'll print them and let the public make up its own mind. At the very least, it will raise some uncomfortable questions about how the government is spending our tax money."
"Good idea," Lois said. "Maybe they'll be a little more circumspect in the future. I mean, at the first sign that they *might* have a visitor from another planet, they try to kill him. It sounds just like those bad old science fiction movies on Midnite Theatre or something."
"It does, at that," Perry admitted. He leaned backwards in his seat, stretching his arms and shoulders. "Anyway, nice work, both of you. Now, on that other subject. You know — LexCorp?"
"We're on it, Chief," Lois said. "Jimmy already gave me a lot of the information I was waiting for. And I'm having dinner with Lex on Sunday night."
Perry nodded. "Okay, then I'll leave you to that." He made shooing gestures. "Scram. I've got editing to do."
After the door closed behind them, Lois turned to Clark. "Okay, Kent, what aren't you telling me?"
"You've been looking like the cat that just finished off the canary. What happened that you haven't told me about?"
"Oh, that." Clark allowed the slightest of smiles to hover on his mouth. "Now that you mention it, you know all those UFOs in Bureau 39's warehouse? There's one I'd like you to see…"
"A picture?" Lois asked, slightly puzzled.
"No. I've got it at my new apartment."
The light dawned. "You found it?"
He nodded. "That and some other information. Want to see?"
"You bet I do!"
"Well then, let's go."
"Why do we have to come in through the window?" Lois asked.
"Because I locked the sliding latch and hooked the chain from the inside," Clark said. "I don't know if Bureau 39 knows about this place yet, but I wasn't taking any chances of them looking for their missing ship here — if they've noticed yet that it's gone. Considering what's going on right now, it may be a while before they discover it's missing — and by then, I intend to have it in safer quarters."
Lois nodded vigorously. "Good idea." She reached out to pull the window open and Clark floated them through. He set her lightly on the floor and closed the window behind them.
"Let me turn up the heater, before you take off your coat," he said. "It's freezing in here."
"I suppose you can tell by the icicles hanging from the faucet," Lois said. "Where did you put the ship?"
"In there." He led the way into the bedroom of the apartment and Lois found herself staring in awe at the tiny ship that had brought Clark to Earth as a baby. "You say you remembered about this 'Krypton' when you saw the globe?"
"When it changed to — let me show you. Maybe it will do it again," Clark said. He opened the clear, plastic-like hatch and reached within to retrieve a milky-white globe. "This is it."
As he held it up, the object began to glow and the surface blurred in a swirl of colors that resolved themselves into a representation of the Earth.
"Wow," Lois said, softly.
"Yeah, that's what I thought," Clark said. "It changed to this other world and all of a sudden, I remembered about Krypton. A little, anyway. I guess a baby can't be expected to remember much."
"Probably n —" Lois broke off in mid word as the colors swirled again and the globe began to glow with a reddish hue. She watched, enthralled, as the surface became that of the world Clark had described. "That's your home world?"
"I guess so," Clark said.
"But, why did they send you here?" she wondered. "Why would anyone put a baby in a ship and send him off, alone, to another planet? There must have been a pretty compelling reason for something that drastic — like a woman throwing her baby out the window of a burning house to someone outside — because she couldn't escape, herself."
"Like an atomic war, or something," Clark said.
"Or something," Lois agreed. "It's as if someone was desperate to save you and that was the only way. It would have had to be a worldwide catastrophe of some kind. I wonder what happened to them."
"To whoever sent you here. They didn't come with you; that's obvious."
"We'll probably never know for sure," Clark said. "At least, now I know where I came from. No more of the 'failed Russian experiment' theory." He shrugged, suddenly looking a little worried. "Does it make a difference to you?"
Lois shook her head and reached out to take his hands. "I figured you'd worry about that, if you ever found out one way or another," she said, in a matter-of-fact tone. "Clark, I think I fell at least halfway in love with you back when you were still Charlie and I knew nothing about where you came from. All I knew was that you were a guy who couldn't remember a thing about yourself but who had all these weird powers. I guessed back then that you probably weren't from Earth — but it didn't matter. I kept thinking that it was a shame that we hadn't met a lot sooner. Does that answer your question?"
He nodded, tugging lightly on her hands, pulling her toward him. "Yes," he said. "I kept wishing the same thing. Somehow, I knew even then that I'd met the woman I'd been looking for without knowing it, all my life."
Lois freed her hands from his and slid her arms around his neck, even as his hands made their way around her waist, drawing her against him. "You know," she said, "for a spaceman, you're the most romantic person I ever met. Earth guys don't stand a chance."
"I guess I have a reputation to maintain, now," he said. "Too bad I don't feel the slightest bit romantic about anyone but you."
"You better not," she said. "You're mine, now. Cat can keep her claws to herself."
"And you're mine," he said. "Does that mean I get to kiss you again?"
"It means you'd better," she said.
Clark didn't hesitate, and the apartment grew very quiet for the better part of a full minute, the silence broken only by the thump and wheeze of the ancient heater as it labored to bring the air temperature of the room up to a decent level. At last, just as Lois was beginning to feel distinctly short of air, Clark lifted his head, smiling slightly. "I guess I'd better let you breathe," he said, "even though I'd like to go right on doing this for the rest of the night."
Lois inhaled, deeply. "Wow," she said.
"Yeah," Clark agreed. "Wow."
They were silent for another minute and then Lois glanced at the window where darkness had descended on the city. "I guess our dinner plans are put on hold for tonight," she said. "I'm glad the story broke, but it kind of messed up our date."
Clark shook his head. "No, of course not. I'll fly you to your apartment and then come back to take the ship to a safer place. I'll be dressed and ready before you are. Isn't nine o'clock a fashionable dinner hour? Besides, it's only about four in Honolulu. I thought we could visit Waikiki Beach and have dinner at a place I know. I was going to take you to Paris, but it's past midnight there, so we'll save that for another night."
"Dinner in Hawaii?" Lois felt her eyebrows fly up at the thought. Being Superman's girlfriend definitely had its perks. "All right, flyboy, you're on!"
In Smallville, Kansas, a blizzard was blowing in. The wind pounded against the sides of the houses in the little town, buffeting the branches of leafless trees and piling snow in massive drifts against every obstacle in its way.
Outside of town, the wind was even stronger. Martha Kent winced at the sound of the storm battering against the kitchen window and the rattling of tiny grains of snow against the glass.
The kitchen door banged open and Jonathan lurched into the room amid a cloud of flakes. With some effort, he pushed the storm door shut and closed the thick wooden door against the gale and then paused, breathing hard.
Martha hurried over to him to help him remove his thick overcoat and muffler. Clumsily, he stripped off his heavy gloves and laid them on the nearest table, followed by the knitted hat.
"Really blowing out there," he commented. "Looks like a bad one but all the livestock is safe. Even Espresso is under cover. He'll be fine, and nobody could possibly search that field in this weather."
Several miles away, Wayne Irig started up from his armchair. The fire crackled in the living room fireplace, and there was an occasional hiss as melted snow dripped from above into the flames. The faint crash in his back yard had been muffled by the sounds of the blizzard, but something had fallen, that was certain. He made his way to the back window to peer out into the darkness, but nothing was visible through the blur of blowing snow.
Heaving a resigned sigh, he reached for his overcoat. He'd better be certain that the animals were safe. Other than that, whatever had happened could wait until the storm blew itself out.
It was for this reason that for a considerable time, he wouldn't discover what had been exposed when the big sycamore tree in the rear of his house crashed to the ground. Nearly concealed in the disturbed dirt beneath the waving roots of the uprooted tree and rapidly being covered with a layer of snow, a chunk of crystal glowed brightly green.