By Terry Leatherwood <email@example.com>
Rated PG-13 (for violence)
Submitted: October 2004
Summary: Clark Kent applies for a job at the Daily Planet, but Perry White doesn't have anything available. So he follows an attractive reporter to an interview and gets involved in Lex Luthor's latest schemes to make money and gain power. But things are not what they might seem…
The characters contained in this story are the property of corporate entities other than myself. No resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, is intended.
It was early on Monday afternoon in the city. Clark Kent put his bags down on the sidewalk and looked around. He took a deep breath of Metropolis smog and smiled. He felt right. He felt good. He felt -
He felt ghost fingers clutching at his luggage. Quicker than a cobra, he snatched the very real wrist of the young street girl who'd intended to rob him. He stared at her sternly and forced his eyes to glow red, a trick he'd used a time or two in some very exotic places.
"Hey! Why don't you — Holy — !" Her facial expression leaped from anger at being caught to fear of the weird stranger. Clark allowed her to jerk her arm loose and sprint away, which was what he'd wanted in the first place. No sense getting involved with the police his first hour in Metropolis.
The screeching of bus brakes arrested his attention. He flashed in front of the bus and held it back until it stopped, just before it ran over the older woman in the crosswalk. She looked at Clark's handprint in the grill of the bus and began pointing to him and calling out that he'd stopped the bus single- handed and saved her life. Clark retrieved his bags and beat a hasty retreat, confident that neither the bus driver nor the passengers would corroborate her unbelievable story.
In order to stretch his savings, he rented a small apartment only slightly more upscale than the city dump. The manager nodded eagerly when Clark asked permission to replace the locks and dress up the place a little. It didn't hurt that Clark paid his rent three months in advance, in cash.
The call to his parents was brief, but pleasant. They exchanged verbal hugs and kisses, and they cautioned him, as always, to be careful about revealing himself publicly. Once again, he reassured them that personal publicity was among the last things on his mind. Then he made his way to the bus depot and erased the evidence of his uniqueness.
He slept little that night, due to unfamiliarity with his abode, nervous anticipation of the following day, and various noises in the night. He looked outside on three different occasions to see if he could help. Once he saw two drunks banging their way down the alley. A short time later, he witnessed a man and woman arguing loudly but not fighting, so he left them alone.
The third time, he whooshed outside to tap a mugger on the side of the head as his intended victim fought back and swung her tiny purse. When she opened her eyes again, she was amazed that such a soft blow could render the frightening man senseless, but she beat a hasty retreat without investigating further. The man aroused himself a few minutes later and stumbled away. Clark hoped he'd decide to pursue a more legal vocation.
He awoke early the next morning, full of energy. He grabbed a soft drink and a pair of donuts from the snack bar in front of his first destination. He paused outside the building and gazed up at the huge open metal sphere before him. He'd determined that he'd write for a major newspaper in a major city. He'd decided that he was more than qualified, by both education and by experience, and the position of reporter would allow him to help using his special abilities anonymously and remain in the background, as well as using his writing skills for the betterment of society. His father had convinced him that being a laboratory specimen was just one step up from a barn rat that was destined to be breakfast for the farm dog, and his rural upbringing had instilled a strong work ethic. Clark refused to sit on the sidelines, no matter where he was.
He arrived early, but he didn't care. It was a great place to be, a wonderful place to see. The Metropolis Daily Planet was a marvelous news organization with a world-wide reputation for accuracy and fairness. He saw it as a haven from his journeys, a harbor for his travel-weary soul. He wandered around the downstairs lobby until a security guard accosted him.
"Excuse me, sir?"
Clark turned to see the young, fit security man standing behind him. "Yes?"
"May I help you, sir?"
"Oh, no, I'm good. Thanks."
The guard stepped closer. "Sir, is there a reason for your presence here?"
"I'm supposed to meet Perry White this morning. I have a ten-thirty appointment and I'm early."
"I see. I hope you don't mind if I verify that."
"Sure, go right ahead."
The guard stepped backwards and picked up his phone without taking his eyes off the intruder. "Mr. White? This is Mark Bailey, chief of security. There's a man here who's been waiting in the lobby for some time. He says he has a ten-thirty appointment with you. Uh-huh." The guard lowered the phone. "Sir, is your name Norman Brown?"
Clark frowned in confusion. "No. I'm Clark Kent. Who's Norman Brown?"
Mark put the phone back to his ear. "Yes, sir, it's Mr. Kent. Shall I sent him on up to you? Of course. Yes, sir." He lowered the phone to its cradle. "Take the elevator to the fifth floor. That's the newsroom. Mr. White's office is down the ramp and to the left."
The guard smiled and tipped his cap. "All part of the service, Mr. Kent."
After handshakes and introductions, Clark sat in Mr. White's office, watching him peruse the clip folder. The editor finally looked up and said, "Mating habits of the Borneo chameleon?"
Clark brightened. "That's one of my better pieces. It was a big hit in the East Indies. I re-sold that piece four times to other nature periodicals here in the States."
White nodded. "I like that. Shows initiative. It's well written, too." He stood and handed the folder back to Clark. "Unfortunately, son, as much as I enjoy reading about the love lives of various Asian reptiles, I don't have anything open at the moment. We're fully staffed now."
"Mr. White, if you'd just give me a chance to prove myself -"
Perry shook his head. "I'm sorry, son. We just don't have any openings right now."
The door whirled open and a pretty young brunette whirled in. "Chief, is there anything else hot right now? If not, I'm going out again on that boxing corruption story."
"You get the mood piece on the theatre demolition?"
"Yep. It's in your directory now. You'll like it, I promise. I was in a really good mood for it." She finally noticed Clark and offered her hand, along with a smile. "Oh, hi. Sorry, didn't mean to ignore you. Lucy Lane, top-notch reporter. You new here?"
Clark shook her hand and shrugged. "I'd like to be, but Mr. White tells me there's nothing available right now."
She grimaced. "Ooh. Sorry, dude, but that's the newspaper business. You're only as good as your last byline."
Perry gestured to her. "Remember that the next time you turn in something you should have re-written once more."
She grinned at him. "I will, Chief. Did you have anything else for me?"
"Not right now, but don't be gone long." Perry turned to Clark and handed the folder back to him. "Kent, I wish you luck."
"Thank you, Mr. White." They shook hands.
Lucy smiled up at him. "Come on, I'll walk you out." They left Perry behind in his office, flexing his hand and wondering where Kent hid all his muscles.
They stepped into the elevator together. "Chief called you Kent?"
"Last name Kent, first name Clark."
Lucy offered her hand again. "Pleased to meet you, first name Clark. What's your next step?"
He shrugged. "I'm not sure. I didn't expect to start right away, but I also didn't expect to be turned down flat."
She punched the button for the lobby. "It's okay. You just have to show some initiative and keep plugging. I tried for almost three months before I caught on as a stringer. Hey, you hungry? I'll stake you to lunch."
Clark smiled. "Well, I'd hate to take advantage of a beautiful woman on my first day in the big city."
Caught in the nimbus of his smile, Lucy's knees wobbled slightly. "Oh. Don't. I mean, don't worry about it. My offer, my treat. How about it?"
He considered. "Sure. I don't know the city, so you'll have to pick the place."
"You got it! Hope you like dogs."
Clark examined the last of his lunch. "You know, when you said 'dogs,' I thought you meant woof-woof bow-wow."
Lucy chuckled. "I'll have you know, sir, that these are the finest hot dogs in captivity anywhere on the East Coast. They are the choice luncheon of on-the-go professionals any day of the week."
Clark wolfed down the final bite. "I'll make it a point to remember that."
They sat on a bench in the park, watching the pigeons fight over the last of Lucy's bun. She smiled at him. "You're a nice guy, Clark. Anyone ever tell you that?"
He smiled back. "Thanks. You're very kind."
"No, I mean it! You're almost too nice for this city."
"Really? Would it surprise you if told you I had a bit of a mean streak?"
"No. I wouldn't believe it, though." She looked at her watch. "Hey, I'm sorry, but I need to get going. I've got an appointment at one-thirty."
He stood and offered her his hand. "That boxing story?"
She stood also and nodded approvingly. "I'm impressed that you remembered. Yep, I'm meeting a fight manager. I think she's got some info I can use, if I can just get it out of her."
"Well, I'm sure you — the fight manager you're meeting is a woman?"
Lucy scowled up at him. "Whassamatta, Kent, ya got a prollem wi' dat?"
He blinked and took a step backwards. "No, I, uh, no, uh, no problem at all."
She laughed. "Easy, Clark! I was just joking. Don't get all PC on me, okay?"
He nodded. "Okay. Thanks for lunch."
"See you around."
He took a step and stopped, then turned back. "You said Mr. White likes initiative, right?"
She frowned at the sudden change of subject. "Yes. So?"
"So, how about I come with you on this fight story? Maybe I can dig up something you'd miss."
She scowled at him. "What do you think you can get that I can't?"
"An interview with a boxer in the shower room."
"Oh." She blushed slightly, and Clark smiled again. She melted in the glow and surrendered. "Yeah, maybe you'll come in handy after all. Let's go."
They caught an especially agile cab and arrived ten minutes early, despite the quick side trip to get Clark's workout clothing from his apartment. He carried the bag over his shoulder, still wearing his burgundy suit and his tie with geometric stripes. The gym was in the older part of town, worn by the passing years but not completely broken. Lucy waved to the old man at the door. "Afternoon, Elmer."
He smiled. Clark noticed several badly worn teeth and piercing black eyes that missed nothing. "Afternoon, Miz Lucy. She in the sparrin' ring."
"Hitting or yelling?"
"Li'l o' both, Ah think. You take care, now."
"I will, Elmer, and thanks. Come on, Clark, let's go stick our heads in the lioness's mouth."
"Elmer seems to like her. And you."
She grinned impishly. "Elmer's been around since before my mom died. He's been kind of a guardian angel for us, although my father doesn't like him very much. If you decide to stay in Metropolis, you might look him up, get to know him. He's a very interesting guy."
"That's good to know. I like interesting people."
"That's why you're sticking with me, right?"
Clark smiled back as they pushed through the metal gym door. The scent of so many unwashed bodies and stale towels assailed his olfactory glands. For once, he wished he suffered from either allergies or some form of nasal congestion.
Lucy led them past a half-dozen young men hitting various punching bags or skipping rope and went to another door. She pulled it open and immediately a razor-edged voice came into focus.
Clark winced as he heard the woman speak. Her tone could break glass by itself, and her vocabulary reminded Clark of dockworkers in Sri Lanka working unpaid overtime. The woman was trying to coach one of the boxers in the ring, and she was working up to a major league frustration fit.
Clark glanced at Lucy, who nodded to the woman. "That's her. That's the Mad Dog. Just don't call her that where she can hear you."
He leaned down and whispered, "The 'Mad Dog?' You're kidding, right?"
Lucy shook her head. "Don't say I didn't warn you."
They walked to a corner of the ring opposite the angry woman and waited. The woman whom Lucy had identified as Mad Dog spared them a momentary glance, then went back to haranguing the hapless pugilist. She was dressed in loose navy blue slacks, white running shoes, and a brown short-sleeved pullover top with a crew neck. Her shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a black scrunchie. Clark admired her narrow waist, topped by a pair of feminine but muscular shoulders, with matching arms expanding visibly as she waved her hands about.
Finally, her frustration overcame her, and she slapped the canvas with both hands, then easily jumped up onto the elevated surface.
"NO! Manny, do you not understand plain English? Throw the left jab and hit him! Don't just tap him! Hit him! HIT HIM! HIT! HIM! Okay? You got it?"
"I been tryin' ta hit him!"
The woman grasped her head on either side and screeched in frustration. "Then do it! The jab tells you where your opponent is, but if you just tap him, he'll throw a right hand over it and bust you in the jaw! You have to hit him!"
"What you think I been tryin' ta do? He move back!"
She walked to the other side of the ring, where she leaned against the ropes and grabbed her head again. She screamed inaudibly.
Clark stepped forward. "Excuse me. You know how you plant your back foot when you throw a right?"
"You're turning your left heel inwards when you throw the jab. Try turning it out just a little bit. It'll give you a little more reach and more snap."
He stepped onto the mat and tried it. "Like dat?"
Clark nodded. "Yes! See if that makes the difference."
The woman turned and stared at Clark. "Hey! You with the lousy tie! Shut your stupid mouth! Get out of here! Are you trying to ruin him?"
"Of course not! That's a technique I picked up in Thailand. The boxers over there stand —"
"I DON'T CARE!" she thundered. "Lucy! Get this moron out of here now! And don't bring him back!" She jumped down onto the floor. "Do it now!"
"But Lois, he came with —"
"ARE YOU DEAF AS WELL AS STUPID? GET HIM OUT OF HERE!!"
The sudden smack of gloves hitting flesh sounded behind them. "Hey! Dat work! Boss! Lookit!"
They turned to see the young man snapping jab after jab into the face of his sparring partner. "Hey! T'anks, man! Dat help!"
The woman whom Lucy had called Lois stared at Clark for several breaths. Then she called to the ring, "Okay, Manny, take five. You can try that jab against Kid Wilson on Friday night." She turned to Clark. "Do you throw punches too, or do you just talk a good fight?"
Lucy began, "No, Lois, he's not —"
Clark raised his hand. "Sure, I can fight a little. Want me to show you?"
Lois's eyes twinkled. "Yeah. You got togs?"
He lifted the bag. "In here."
"Go dress out. We'll see what you got."
Clark turned towards the dressing room. He hadn't taken two steps before Lucy grabbed his arm. "Are you crazy? You just brought that stuff for camouflage, remember? You can't trade punches with one of these fighters!"
"Sure I can. Just watch."
He tried to pull away, but she refused to let go. "I will not let you do this! You're only supposed to look like a fighter, not act like one! You'll get hurt and Perry will string me up by my heels! You can't get in that ring!"
"Sure I can. Just watch me."
She clenched her free hand into a fist. "You are completely crazy! Do you know that? You're totally insane! You are nuttier than a tree in squirrel season! You aren't playing with a full deck! You are dumber than a box of 4-bit CPU chips! Your elevator doesn't even get away from the lobby, much less get close to the penthouse! You are about the dumbest man I've ever seen or heard of!"
Clark stood there, listening, until she ran out of air. "Are you finished now?"
"No! I'm sorry I met you! I'm sorry I took pity on you and fed you! You're like a stray dog that gets a meal and won't leave and now you're acting like I own you or something! You go in there and he'll eat you alive!"
Clark turned to her and gently removed her hand from his arm. "Lucy, I'll be fine. Just trust me, okay?"
"I don't know you well enough to trust you!"
"You trusted me enough to let me come with you. Trust me now."
"It's not the same thing!"
"Look, you said Perry White appreciates initiative. Haven't you done some slightly crazy things before to get a story?"
"Of course I have, but —"
"Then let me be slightly crazy. You can't hog all the insanity in the city."
Lucy opened her mouth to protest again, but closed it without speaking. With deep misgivings, she released him.
She turned to Lois as Clark disappeared into the dressing room. "Look, just watch him stick and move, okay? Just get a feel for what he can do, whatever that is! Don't let that bruiser in there hurt him!"
"'S'matter, Luce? Your new boyfriend too pretty to get beat up?" Lois stared at Lucy for a moment longer, then sighed. She waved the second fighter down to her level. "Listen, Frank, just check him out, okay? I don't wanna get sued here, so don't mess him up and for cryin' out loud don't knock him out."
Frank grinned and nodded. "Gotcha. Be gentle with the little lamb."
"That's it." She turned back to Lucy. "Satisfied now?"
Lucy didn't answer. She just frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. A moment later, Clark walked out carrying a pair of boxing gloves. He handed them to Lois and put his helmet on.
"You don't need your glasses to see, do you?"
"I can see well enough without them. They're really just for fine detail."
"Good." She tied down the gloves and checked his helmet. "What's your name, pretty boy?"
"Clark Kent. And don't worry about the pretty part. I can take care of myself."
"Yeah." She stopped and put her hands on her hips. "Look, don't show off in there, okay, Kent? In fact, you really don't have to do this at all."
He looked her in the eye. "I don't? Really?"
"Yeah." She broke the stare. "Sometimes I, you know, pop off when I should, uh, shut up."
He grinned. "No problem. I've done the same thing a few times myself."
She exhaled. "Good. Lemme get those gloves back —"
He stepped up onto the ring and through the ropes. "Just as soon as I'm through with them."
"What? Hey! Get back down here!"
"Nope. I said I'd do this and I'm going through with it. Let's box."
Lucy's eyes widened. "Man oh man oh man!"
Clark stepped forward and tapped gloves with his opponent. They began shuffling around the ring. Frank sent a soft jab towards Clark, who slipped it and returned a quick right to the body. Frank grunted with surprise and stepped back, then came in more carefully. Clark blocked a half-speed left-right-left combo from Frank, slipped to his right, jabbed twice to Frank's head, then danced lightly away.
Frank glanced at Lois, who was staring at Clark with her mouth hanging open, so Frank bore in harder. He threw a hard left jab-right uppercut combo and tagged Clark solidly enough to move him backwards, but Clark stepped closer, clinched for a moment, and threw a sharp overhand right as they separated. Frank staggered back and snorted.
Lois suddenly yelled, "That's enough! Hold up!" She climbed up to the ropes and motioned to Clark. "Pretty good, Kent, but Frank was holding back. How'd you think you'd do if he went full speed?"
He grinned. "Only one way to find out." He turned to his opponent. "You want to try it for real?"
Frank looked at Lois for a moment, then nodded. "Okay. But I don't wanna hurt you. We go until the first knockdown or until you — until one of us gets tagged good. And only one round. I still got some roadwork to do."
"Sounds good to me. I promise not to hit you too hard."
Even Lucy smiled at that. Lois clapped her hands. "Okay. I'll call it. Lucy, keep the time. Three minutes, not one second more."
Lois leaned over, tossed a stopwatch to Lucy, and climbed into the ring. "You guys ready?" They both nodded. Lois lifted her hand between them. "Lucy, you ready?"
"I still don't think —"
"ARE YOU READY?"
Lucy sighed in exasperation. "Ready!"
Lois dropped her hand and backed away. Frank bore in and tried to score to Clark's head with jabs and hooks, but Clark skipped away. After a few seconds, Frank became frustrated and lunged at Clark with a left hook. Clark dodged and countered with a straight right that rocked Frank back on his heels, but he recovered quickly and began punching at Clark's belly. Clark took three hard shots and answered with a right cross and two left jabs to Frank's head. Clark danced away to one side, apparently unhurt, as Frank stumbled to his right.
Frank shook his head to clear it and cautiously approached Clark again. He faked a right, then jabbed twice with his left. Clark dodged the first one and blocked the second. Frank stepped close and unleashed an uppercut that Clark barely avoided, then Frank took a left-right-left combo to the head that left him woozy for a moment.
Lois shouted, "Hold it!" She took Frank's gloves in her hands and looked into his eyes, then she waved her hands above her head. "That's it! Fight's over."
Clark stepped forward and offered his hand. "Nice round, Frank. You almost got me with that uppercut at the end."
Frank hesitated, then shook hands. "Yeah. You're real quick, man. You got some power, too. You musta fought somewhere, but I don't recognize your name."
Clark shook his head. "No reason you should. I played defensive back in college. The backfield coach had all of us study boxing. He said it would help our hand-eye coordination."
Clark smiled. "We intercepted thirty-five passes in eleven games in my senior season. I think it helped."
"Hey, that's pretty good! You fighting anywhere now?"
"No. I just try to keep my reflexes sharp as I travel. I've been earning my living as a writer for the last —"
"A writer?" Frank's eyes bulged and he turned to Lois. "You set me up! You put a freakin' writer in with me and didn't tell me! I'd'a busted his head if I'd'a known!"
Lois put her hands on her hips. "I didn't know it either!" She looked pointedly at Lucy. "Although I should have known something wasn't kosher."
Lucy raised her hands. "Hey, I tried to talk all of you out of this, remember? Besides, he —"
Clark interrupted her. "Did you know that Ernest Hemingway was a boxer in his younger years? So was Louis L'Amour, the Western writer. Besides, uh, Lucy didn't know I was looking for a gym to fight out of." He paused. "Got any openings?"
Lois crossed her arms. "Maybe. You serious about fighting, or you just looking for inspiration for your next novel?"
"I'm out of a job. I'm looking for grocery money."
Lois flashed a sardonic grin. "Good answer. Okay, if you really want to give this a shot, you be here tomorrow morning at six AM sharp for some roadwork. If you're late, don't bother coming."
He nodded. "I'll be here. And thanks."
Frank took off his helmet. "I'll be here too, word boy. Don't get too sleepy and miss your appointment."
Lois pointed to Clark. "Go get changed and get some sleep tonight. You got a place to crash?" He nodded. "How about meal money?"
"Enough for a couple of weeks."
She nodded back. "We'll work something out. If you really want this, we both might make some actual cash here."
Clark and Lucy took a taxi back to the Planet, but they stopped and climbed out two blocks away from the paper due to traffic. Lucy found an ice cream vendor and bought a cone, then began walking towards her office.
Clark stepped in front of her and frowned. "You haven't said a word to me since we left the gym. Are you going to talk now or just stare at me?"
"Talk now, I guess. How did you do that?"
She sighed. "You out-boxed a veteran fighter back there. I'd kinda like to know how you managed that."
He shrugged. "I just reacted to what he was doing. He's actually pretty good for a sparring partner."
"Sparring partner?" She stared into his eyes. "Lois was right. You are a moron. That was 'White Hand' Meucci. He's a former middleweight contender. They say he's the hardest opponent there is for new fighters, because he's seen it all and can still give it back in spades!" She shook her head and started off again. "You've really put both feet in the brown applesauce, last name Kent."
"Hey!" He skipped around in front of her and stopped. "What's the big deal? His manager, Lois, seems to know what she's doing."
"Oh, yeah! She sure does. You know about her?"
Lucy's jaw dropped. "You mean you signed up to fight for her and you don't know anything about her?" She waved her hands and almost dropped her ice cream. "I was right about you! You're fractured in the head! You have no idea what my sister is like! You don't know what she's capable of! You don't even know why they call her Mad Dog Lane, do you?"
"Well, I assume it's because — wait, what did you say?"
"That you don't know why they call her Mad Dog!"
Clark shook his head. "No, no, I mean the part her being about your sister."
Lucy stared at him. "Oh, man! You don't know, do you? You don't know! You really don't have any idea!" She started laughing. She laughed so hard she leaned against a traffic signal and almost fell down, and this time she did drop her cone.
Clark helped her to the nearest bus stop bench and waited for her to wind down. "Whew! That's the funniest thing I've heard of in years. Wait until I tell Perry!" She suddenly grabbed Clark's arm. "Oh! Perry! We have to get back to the Planet before he leaves!" She jumped up and yanked him behind her as she ran. "Come on, slowpoke!"
They sprinted the last two blocks. At the crosswalk to the Planet, Clark had to physically hold Lucy out of traffic until the light changed. After they crossed the street, she yanked him into the Planet's lobby and up to the security desk.
"Mark! Mark, has Perry White left yet?"
The guard checked his board. "No, Miss Lane. He doesn't usually —"
She turned and sprinted for the elevators as Clark followed. "Call him and tell him to wait for me! I have to see him now!"
Perry looked at Lucy as she finished her story. He spoke quietly at first, but his intensity grew with each syllable. "Lucy, let me sit down and get comfortable. There. Much better. Now, I want you to very carefully explain to me why you took a complete stranger — one who is most definitely not employed by the Daily Planet — with you to an interview. And then I want you to tell me why you think getting him into a boxing match — which, by the way, makes us all liable for legal action — is even remotely a good idea!"
Perry slammed his hands down on the desk as he finished. Before Lucy could respond, Clark spoke. "Mr. White, it was all my idea. Lucy tried to talk me out of it more than once."
"I see. In that case, Mr. Kent, would you please explain to me why you thought this was anywhere in the neighborhood of a good idea?"
"I still want a job at the Planet."
Perry gave him a hangdog look. "Oh. Well, that certainly clears that up. You want to work for the Planet, so naturally you're going to box out of Mad Dog Lane's stable of fighters. Of course. It's perfectly understandable to me now."
Clark grinned. "I want to go undercover as a fighter. I can feed info to Lucy so she can approach the story from the outside while I look at it from the inside. What do you say, Mr. White?"
Perry stared at him. "Son, did one of those shots you took scramble your brains? You know how difficult and demanding it is to be a boxer?"
"Yes, sir, I do. I played football in college and worked out with the boxing team. They wanted me to leave football and box full-time, and they won the Tri-State collegiate championship my junior year."
Lucy spoke up. "Actually, Mr. White, he did pretty good."
"Yeah? What bum fell over for him?"
"No bum, chief. He was up against Frank Meucci."
Perry stared. "You fought Frank 'White Hand' Meucci? And you're still standing?"
Clark and Lucy started talking over each other. "We weren't going full speed —"
"— only at first —"
"— and he was already tired from sparring —"
"— Frank was warmed up and didn't ever hurt him —"
"— and he'd never seen me before —"
"— Clark almost knocked him out —"
"— it was a lucky punch —"
"— Frank got mad and almost tagged Clark but missed —"
"— I barely got out of the way —"
"— Clark whacked him a good one —"
"— it was only one round —"
"— you should have seen Frank's eyes roll —"
Perry stood and yelled, "Enough!" He panted twice. "If I want to watch a ping-pong match I'll turn on TSPN! Now. Sit down, both of you. And speak one at a time!" He watched them sit, then seated himself. "Lucy, you go first."
"Chief, he doesn't know about Lois."
Perry shook his head. "He just met her. What can he know?"
"You don't understand! I didn't tell him she was my sister and I didn't tell him about her black belt or about the championships or about her teaching in the dojo or —"
Perry lifted his hands. "Hold on! I get the picture. Mind if I fill Kent in?"
She nodded. "Sure. Go ahead. I wanna watch his face."
"Okay, Kent. You know who Doctor Sam Lane is?" Clark shook his head. "They call him the Boxer Doctor. Not because he fights, but because he works with fighters, and not in the ring. He's a guy who knows some guys, you know what I mean?"
Clark nodded. "I think so."
"Well, Lois and Lucy are his daughters. Lois is the older by, what, almost five years?"
Lucy nodded. "Four years, eleven months, eight days, five hours —"
"Close enough. They lost their mother in a car wreck about nine years ago. Lucy came to work for us not long after high school, and she's done a pretty good job, at least up until today." He glared at her for a moment, but didn't dent her enthusiasm. "Anyway, Lois joined her dad in his gym, working with his fighters. She was already into Tae Kwon Do, but after her mom died she dove in head-first and started fighting professionally. She was a women's finalist or semi-finalist three years in a row, then won the last two international open combat championships. She retired from competition after she won last year's International tournament. She was already training fighters and teaching, but now it's her full-time occupation."
"Okay, I got that. What does this have to do with her dad?"
"I'm coming to that. Lucy and her dad don't get along too well. In fact, she and her sister don't get along too well, either. Lucy had to have some dental work done last year because she bothered her sister at the wrong time." Perry tapped his jaw with his fist and raised his eyebrows.
Clark turned to Lucy. "She hit you in the mouth?"
Lucy ducked her head. "Well, I kinda hit her first."
"And that makes it okay?"
Lucy shook her head. "We were having an argument about Dad, and she said something and I said something back and she said something else and I whacked her in the side of the head and next thing I know I'm in the emergency room with Elmer."
"Wow." Clark shook his head. "I better not get her mad at me."
Perry pointed his index finger at Clark's face. "You got that right, son. They call her Mad Dog because she used to growl and snap at her opponents. She was even disqualified from a tournament for biting another fighter."
Clark's jaw dropped. "She bit her opponent? During a match? Wait a minute, I remember hearing about that! Didn't some writer use that to slam women's fighting, saying that the men would never do anything that juvenile?"
"Sure did. Some comic over on the fruits-and-nuts coast suggested that Lois and the writer bite it out jaw-to-jaw to see who had the best choppers. They didn't, of course. I don't think Lois has ever even met the guy."
Lucy added, "She'd kick his butt all over the state!"
"Be that as it may, Lucy, your sister has been seen in the company of some pretty shady characters, and the company of one very rich person of very uncertain character in particular. Kent, we think Sam Lane and his associates are trying to get control of boxing in the eastern U.S., and we don't know how deeply Lois is involved in it, or if she even is involved. If they do take over the fights — and the betting on them — they'll be able to manipulate the weight classes and the fighters and there won't be an honest match for decades. It would hurt a lot of people, not to mention funnel a ton of money to some pretty dishonest characters."
Clark frowned. "I understand the part about the shady characters, but to which particular rich person of uncertain character are you referring?"
Perry sighed. "He's the richest man in the state and he wants to be the richest man in the world. He started slower than Bob Fences, but he's catching up as fast as he can. He wants to be perceived as a philanthropist, but a few of us think he's as slimy as any five species of snail."
"I see. And his name is?"
Lois had just finished the last of her paperwork for the day when he spoke. "Knock, knock."
Without looking up, she answered, "Who's there?"
"Orange you glad to see me?"
She finally looked up as a smile played about her lips. "It must be love if you expect me to laugh at that lousy joke."
"Actually, I dropped by to ask if you'd be interested in accompanying me to the opera this evening. There's a late performance of Vivaldi you might enjoy."
"Ooh, Vivaldi? Aw, geez, I really wish I could, Lex, but I got fighters to train starting at six in the morning, and I don't want to be worn out from wrestling with you."
He frowned at her. "I'm truly sorry to hear that. I was really hoping to continue our discussion from the other evening."
She closed and locked the file cabinet. "Which discussion? The personal one or the business one?"
His mouth smiled. "In this case, my business interests and personal interests coincide."
"Don't they always, at least for you?"
He frowned. "Lois, my dear, that sounds almost — petulant."
She stood and gaped at him. "Petulant? Hey, Lex, honey, that's a real big word to use in front of a dis-educated fighter like me. Us fighters is kinda dumb, ya know. Our brains is scrambled and we don't thunk so good no more."
He moved towards her. "I'm so very sorry that you were insulted at my party last weekend. I assure you, the woman who said those things to you has been discharged from my employ."
"Yeah? As rude as she was, I remember she looked pretty good in that gown that cost more than my Jeep is worth."
He crossed his arms and tapped his toes. "Lois, I truly do love you and I respect you. Isn't that enough?"
She put her key ring in her pocket. "No, Lex, it isn't. I don't like being around people who reject me before they even talk to me. I resent being considered a Neanderthalian throwback by the women in your social circle and a target of opportunity by the men. Including you." She flipped open a box on her desk and pulled out a pair of long, thin cigars. She lit one with a cheap butane lighter and offered the other to him.
"Thank you, no."
"Oh, come on! Walk on the wild side for once."
He grimaced at the reek her cigar was producing. "I think I have a much more flavorful vintage in my office. If you'd like to sample a truly fine blend, I can arrange for a delivery here."
She blew smoke towards his face. "Don't bother. I like my stinky weed here." She tapped the ash from the end and pulled in another lungful. "Ahh! Total bliss." She slowly exhaled, then seemed to remember he was there. "Anything else you want?"
He controlled himself with a visible effort. "No. Not tonight." He turned to leave, then stopped at the door. "Oh, and good luck with your new fighter. I hope he works out better than the last one."
"Thanks, hon. Good night!"
He walked out, baffled by her behavior. A tall, dapper, white-haired Englishman opened the door to his limo, then entered behind him. The car glided away from the curb. Lex sat back against the seat and angrily slapped the car door.
"Shall I arrange an accident for the door panel, sir?"
Lex started, then smiled thinly. "No, Nigel. But thank you. Occasionally even I need to be reminded that control of any situation begins with control of self. You did that most tactfully."
Nigel St. John nodded slightly. "I take it, sir, that your — relationship — with Lois Lane is not proceeding as you had anticipated."
"No, it is not. And I'm somewhat at a loss to understand why." He leaned forward. "She seems to delight in taunting me, in making me believe that she feels more strongly for me than she actually does. And she still won't give me access to her files." He leaned back and shook his head. "It is a puzzle to me."
Nigel smiled coldly. "One which I am certain you will solve, sir, given time."
"Mmm. Time may be a problem. The plan involving the boxing promoters is coming to a head, and Lois Lane is the only manager still holding out so strongly. If she were to acquiesce, then the others would fall into line, but as long as she resists, it gives them some false hope."
"Surely you will be able to forestall any inconveniences."
Luthor shook his head. "Perhaps not. We've had to — ah, I would use the term 'borrow' — funds from the LexCorp retirement accounts in order to cover other unexpected expenses, including those involving the Messenger project. When the boxing plan culminates, we'll have more than adequate funds, but we must get the money before LexCorp's annual report is filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. They would not appreciate a fifteen million dollar shortfall in the worker's retirement accounts, and the resulting investigation would certainly depress the company's stock price, and — well, you get the idea, Nigel. It would be, to borrow a phrase, a 'domino effect' of the worst order."
"I see, sir. Is there anything I might be able to contribute?"
"Of course. If you could see your way clear to loan me the fifteen million? No?" Luthor chuckled. "Never mind. Thank you for the offer. No, the boxing and bookie scheme is our best bet to recoup our investment at this point." He sighed. "I wish Lois would be more cooperative."
"Perhaps this new fighter might be made an example of?"
Luthor grinned. "Ungrammatical, Nigel, but insightful as always. We'll wait a bit, I think, but we'll certainly keep that option open."
"Indeed, sir. I would hope that we would not be forced to make an example of Ms. Lane herself, as was recently done with Mr. McGowan."
Luthor lost his smile and stared at Nigel. The Englishman handed Lex a folder. "The latest data on the shuttle Messenger, sir." Then he turned his face to the window, lost in his own enigmatic thoughts.
Lois locked the gym doors, set the alarm, and headed for her quarters on the top floor. She liked living alone. She liked being close to the action in the gym. It reminded her of the good times with her dad, after Mom had died, before the gangsters had leaned on him so hard that he'd crumbled. Lucy hadn't bothered to understand, hadn't really even bothered to be around, but Lois had seen it all. She'd seen the hard expressions, the bulges under the armpits, and the casual brutality of the men who'd forced her father to work for them. True, they paid him well, but he wasn't free. He'd never be free until he got away from them, and as time passed it was less and less likely that he'd even try to get away. Maybe he'd gotten to the point where he'd rather finish his work on the wrong side of the law instead of being law-abiding and risk not finishing it. Maybe he just didn't care any more.
Lois still missed her mother. No one had ever said anything to her about it, not her father or the police or any of the cold- hearted men who hung around after her mother had died, but Lois had always believed that the accident that had taken her mother's life hadn't been an accident. Her mom probably was drunk, sure, but she'd always taken a cab or had someone else drive her home when she'd had too much. More than once, she'd even called Lois, a teenager at the time, to come and get her from a party or a bar or some girlfriend's house when she was too drunk to drive.
Lois had tried to talk to her father about it not long after the funeral, but he was either too grief-stricken or too scared of the gangsters to discuss it with her. So she kept it to herself, kept it secret, and only allowed herself to think about it when she was alone.
She was thinking about it now. For some reason, Lex Luthor reminded her of those emotionless automatons who thought of murder as a negotiating tool. She had no concrete evidence, just a feeling, like there was nothing down inside Lex Luthor but love for Lex Luthor. She'd even tried asking Lucy about Lex once, but before she could get her questions out, they'd had another violent argument, and Lois had finally punched Lucy. She had thrown just one punch, but it was enough to send Lucy to the emergency room with a broken jaw and three dislocated teeth. The sisters, by unspoken but mutual consent, had maintained a physical distance from each other after that, almost never coming close enough to touch each other. Their relationship had been one of armed neutrality and simmering hostility.
It suddenly dawned on her that she hadn't told Lex that she had a new fighter starting in the morning, just that she had to be up early. How had he known about him? She reviewed the people who'd been there that afternoon. Was it Frank who'd spilled the beans? She wasn't sure, but she didn't think so. She'd known him for six years and he'd never so much as stolen a towel. Lucy? No. Lucy was too honest to carry on a deception like that. Manny? He couldn't have done it. He was too eager to please her. His sole motivation was building his career and making money as a fighter. Or was it? She'd have to watch him.
Or maybe it was Kent? She knew nothing about him, except that he was really built, especially for a writer, and he could use his fists. He seemed almost too nice, like it was an act of some kind. And he had clear chocolate brown eyes, the deep kind of eyes you could drown in. Yeah, she'd have to watch her step around him. All she needed was another young, impressionable fighter puppy-dogging her steps, begging for her affection.
She smiled to herself. Lex had all but told her that he had someone in her stable giving him information, and he surely wouldn't want her to know that. He was cool, calculating, and subtle, but no one was that sneaky. She'd rattled him hard enough to shake loose one little piece of data. That meant that he really cared for her, on some deeply hidden personal level, and that she could use those feelings against him if it became necessary. But she'd have to be careful. That kind of leverage was usually only good for small things, and couldn't be used too often or it would disappear like her cigar smoke.
She frowned as she reviewed her thoughts. Somewhere along the line, she realized she'd lost the ability to trust people. It had been gone so long she didn't remember how it felt to trust someone. She didn't trust her father, her fighters, her sister, the man who claimed he loved her, the police, or any of the other managers she knew. She'd have to depend only on herself to do things, and on Elmer for advice, just as she had for years. But the burden was starting to wear on her. She wasn't even close to thirty yet, but she was already tired all the time and constantly looking over her shoulder. The lonely life was dragging her down. She dreaded being forty and living this way.
Time for bed. The alarm would jar her awake too soon, just as it did every day.
Clark dialed the phone, trying to decide just how much to tell his folks. He knew he wouldn't lie to them, but he wasn't sure he had to tell them the whole truth, not about the boxing. Especially not about the boxing. His mom might reach through the phone and yank his ear right off his head.
The phone rang several times at the other end. The answering machine finally picked up. Clark was both disappointed and relieved.
"Hi, Mom, Dad, this is Clark. Guess what? I got a job at the Daily Planet! Yeah, really! Starting tomorrow morning! It's temporary right now, but I think it'll turn into something more permanent soon. I'll keep in touch. I don't know how often I'll be able to visit, since this assignment for the paper promises to keep me busy, but we'll definitely talk. Bye for now!"
He hung up with a sigh. Perry hadn't wanted to take him on, even after all the angles that he and Lucy had tried, until Clark had casually mentioned that the Metropolis Star could always use real stories, especially juicy fight stories. Perry had caved, but only partially. Clark's name wouldn't be on the payroll, and he'd get a 1099 contractor report for his earnings the next year instead of a W-2 form. Perry had even agreed to deposit the money in the Kent's savings account in the Smallville Bank and Trust. That way, the money could only be traced to the Planet if a snooper already knew that the Planet was paying him. Clark was responsible for his own Federal and state taxes, and — most importantly, at least to Perry — the Daily Planet's insurance would not cover any of Clark's injuries should he get hurt in the ring.
Clark naturally hadn't mentioned that he never got hurt, that he'd have to be careful not to hurt anyone else. He didn't want to end up as some medical student's doctoral thesis.
Clark especially liked the last part of the arrangement. "Lucy," Perry had said, "you're the paper's contact on this. Clark can't exactly come back to the Planet or call us every time he has something to tell us. You two need to start dating."
Lucy had laughed. "What! Me, date last name Kent first name Clark? You've got to be kidding!"
Perry had stared her down. "For appearances only, young lady. This is for your safety as well as for his. If you two look like you're an item, then people won't get suspicious when you meet every couple of days. We've got to have a reliable way to get Kent's info back to this office."
Clark, feeling impish, had taken Lucy's hand in his and affected a bad Cuban accent. "Oh, my darling Lucille, my heart beats only for you! Our souls are knit as one! Let us flee to the hills and slake our thirst for each other!"
Lucy had snatched her hand away and stepped back in horror. "You try to slake me and I'll have you arrested, bud!"
Clark laughed at the memory. Then he opened his elderly refrigerator and took out a plate of Twinkies for dinner. He washed them down with a quart of high-caffeine soda.
He had a hard time going to sleep. He liked what he knew of Lucy, and he respected Perry White's reputation, and therefore by extension he trusted Lucy, because Perry trusted her. But his thoughts kept roaming back to Lois 'Mad Dog' Lane. The woman was obviously a fierce competitor, but she'd stopped the sparring match as soon as Clark had dinged Frank. A manager who thought of his — or, in this case, her — fighters as personal property or just as an asset wouldn't have acted so quickly. She'd have let the fight go on, expecting Frank to make a comeback and clobber Clark.
She hadn't. She'd looked into Frank's eyes, seen that he was stunned, and stopped the fight. Clark hadn't expected such a small thing to mean so much to him, but it did. Almost as much as gazing into her eyes as she grilled him on his intentions. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad. As long as he didn't hurt anyone, he didn't see how this could cause any harm.
And it would be fun, too. He could use his 'special' abilities, get the story, and get to know Lois better, all at once. He hadn't looked forward to morning this eagerly since the night before his fourteenth birthday.
Clark was waiting at the gym door when Lois opened up at quarter to six. "Hi! I just thought I'd make sure I was here on time. How'd you sleep last night?"
Lois growled low in her throat and turned away. Her eyes weren't completely open and her sweat suit was askew. Her coffee mug was half empty, and her uncombed hair pointed in every possible direction.
Clark bounced in and tugged the door shut. "Is Frank here yet? No? Okay. I have some Chinese warm-up exercises I like to do in the morning, if that's okay. Or would you rather show me what the other fighters do to stretch?"
"Good! Say, I'll teach these to you if you want. But I'm sure you know most of them already, being a black belt and all. I didn't eat much breakfast because I didn't know what you recommended. I can run down to the pastry shop over —"
"Shut up, Kent!"
Clark was stunned, and it took a moment for him to recover. He spoke to Lois's back as she refilled her coffee mug. "What's wrong? What'd I do? I'm just trying to make sure I fit in. I haven't always fit in, you know. I've been different all my life, but very few people have told me to —"
"Shut up right now, Kent!" She turned and stumbled towards him. "You are obviously a morning person. I, on the other hand, am not now, never have been, and almost surely never will be a morning person. I don't like mornings. I hate perky morning people. I believe that if God had intended for us to enjoy the sunrise, He would have scheduled it later in the day. So when you get here early in the morning, whether it's for roadwork or signing papers or a doctor visit or just to hit the bag, don't make small talk with me! You got that?" He nodded slowly. "Good. Can you cook?"
The change in subject threw him. "Huh?"
"I asked you if you could cook."
"Well, yes. I grew up on a farm. I can — " He saw her eyes flash. "You want breakfast?"
She waved to one side of the foyer. "Kitchen's through that door. Get a plate of scrambled eggs and toast. Bacon if you want it, but make it crisp and drain the grease."
He nodded. "Got it."
"And make another pot of coffee!"
He turned back. "Regular or decaf?"
She glared icicles at him. "If you have to ask —"
"Right. Regular it is." He disappeared into the kitchen. Lois heard plates and silverware clattering.
Frank walked in. "Morning. Any of Elmer's drain cleaner left?"
Lois pointed behind her, and Frank poured himself a cup. As he put the pot down, he heard tuneless humming and cooking noises from behind the door. He grinned at Lois. "New cook?"
She nodded. "For today, anyway."
He took a sip. "Betcha he's a morning person."
Lois turned her still-bleary eyes to look at him. "He's — perky."
Frank chuckled. "Whoa. Bet you enjoyed that."
She closed her eyes. "Can't imagine waking up every morning to someone that energetic this early in the day."
Frank didn't say anything, but he filed the comment away. They stood beside each other, sipping coffee, until Clark pushed out of the kitchen carrying two plates heaping with food. He looked around, shrugged, and put them on the desk beside the coffee maker. "Breakfast is served, madam, sir."
The caffeine was finally kicking in. Lois looked at the plates and said, "So eat it."
Clark frowned. "Mine's still in the kitchen with the bacon. These are for you and Frank."
Frank's face showed surprise. "Hey, thanks, Kent. You got silverware?"
"Watch this. Nothing up my sleeve, but presto!" Clark produced three wrapped settings from his shirt pocket and placed them beside the plates. "Be right back."
Lois shook her head. "He's like a puppy, eager to please."
Frank grinned as he sat down and dug in. "And that's a bad thing?"
"No, of course not. I just don't think he's mean enough to be a fighter."
"Won't know until he gets in the ring for real." Frank took a bite. His eyes bugged out and he gasped.
"What's wrong? Too hot?"
"No!" He filled his lungs and sighed deeply. "Those may the best eggs I've ever tasted in my entire life! I don't know how good he can fight, but he sure can cook!" He bent to his plate with gusto.
Lois frowned, then took a pinch of her eggs. To her great surprise, Frank was right. They were beyond delicious. Maybe Kent was a gourmet chef on the side.
Clark brought his plate, a platter of bacon, and another pot of coffee to the table. He grabbed a chair from the wall and sat down. They ate in rapturous silence as Lois watched Clark out of the corner of her eye. He seemed to take pleasure in their enjoyment of the meal. It was one more piece of the puzzle that Clark Kent had become in her mind.
Clark finished a slice of bacon and asked, "Hey, is Manny joining us today?"
Frank and Lois both stopped for a moment, then Lois answered, "No. He's working with Elmer today and tomorrow."
"Oh? Some special kind of training?"
"You could say that. You notice Manny isn't, uh, as pale as the three of us?"
Clark froze in his seat and fixed Lois with a glare. "Yes, I did. Are you telling me that it's a problem for you? Because if it is, I walk right now."
Lois's eyes popped open and she leaned back. "No! I don't care what a person looks like on the outside, it's the heart that counts. I know Manny's got the heart. I don't know about you yet."
Clark relaxed a bit. "Okay. So what's Elmer teaching Manny?"
"How to fight a white guy without losing his cool."
"Huh? What difference does that make?"
Lois folded her arms. "You tell him, Frank."
Frank sighed. "Look, Clark, Manny's an okay guy and I like him. I'm like Lois, I don't care what the man looks like on the outside as long as he's an okay guy inside. But you have to know that not everyone feels that way."
Clark nodded. "Yeah, I know. It's always baffled me how this country can harbor so much racial prejudice, except that I've found it in one form or another everywhere I've ever gone."
"Puzzles me, too. Anyway, Elmer's working with Manny to help him use the anger and channel it constructively."
"What anger? Is the crowd going to get on him?"
Frank's mouth dropped open. "You mean you've never fought a guy who said nasty things about you and your girlfriend and your mother and —"
Clark lifted his hands. "I get it now. Wilson's going to say things to Manny to throw him off his game, right?"
Lois leaned forward and picked up her juice glass. "I don't know, but I have to get Manny ready for it. If he loses his temper in there, Wilson will end his career the same night it starts. I don't want that."
Clark looked at Lois and nodded. "I understand. Hey, breakfast is getting cold! Dig in, you two, dig in!"
Lois and Frank finished eating at almost the same moment. Frank drained the last of his coffee and leaned back. "Kent, you're gonna be a real fine wife someday. You married?"
Clark choked on a mouthful of eggs. Lois laughed at him. "No, Frank, I'm not. How about you?"
"Me? Naw! I got divorced a couple of years ago. The old lady couldn't handle bein' a fighter's wife." He played with his silverware. "She got married to an architect in Gotham City a couple of months ago. Even invited me to the wedding, just to show there were no hard feelings."
Clark gazed at him sympathetically. "Did you go?"
He shook his head. "Uh-uh. Had a bout scheduled that night. Won in six rounds, too. Unanimous decision."
Clark nodded. "Good for you. Hey, what's the schedule for today?"
Frank pointed to Lois. "She's the trainer. Ask her."
Lois half expected Clark to draw back or stutter with embarrassment. Instead, he simply turned and asked, "Okay, boss, what's the schedule for today?"
She blinked, then recovered. "Twenty minutes stretching. Get your legs good and loose. Then we dress warmly and go out for a five-mile warm-up run. We come back and work on the speed bag and heavy bag. Then we do another ten miles. We come back and do ten rounds of sparring. Five more miles. We come back and finish with footwork and agility drills."
Clark nodded. "Sounds good. What do we do after lunch?"
Frank guffawed, and Lois frowned. "Maybe you think that's just a walk in the park, farm boy, but I promise you that you'll sleep like a baby tonight. You might not be so freakin' perky tomorrow morning, either."
Lois led them off on the first run. She set a quick but manageable pace, and both boxers stayed right behind her. Clark listened to Frank's breathing, and thought he detected a slight occlusion in his left lung. He'd have to figure out how to suggest that Frank get a complete physical soon.
The three of them ended up back at the gym door. Lois waved them inside and tossed towels to each of them. "Here. Dry off and change into shorts and T-shirt. Get some water and be back here in ten minutes."
Clark forced himself to mimic Frank's deep breathing. A five-mile run wouldn't have made him pop a sweat under normal conditions, so he'd had to force himself to perspire. He hadn't had to do that since his college football days, and he'd almost forgotten about it until Frank had mentioned how dry he still looked after two full miles.
Clark finished changing first and returned to the gym floor. Lois was working the speed bag, making it dance and rattle in an up-tempo shuffle. Clark watched her alternate hands, then repeat left and right, then only one hand and then the other, and then she went back to alternating hands. If not for his enhanced vision, he would have seen only a blur as her fists spanked the bag.
She stopped and stepped back. "Okay, Kent, since you're the first one out here, let's see what you can do."
Clark stepped up to the bag and began. Lois stood back and crossed her arms, watching at first, then she began calling out instructions.
"Two left two right go."
"One left two right go."
"Three left two right go."
Clark lost the rhythm for a moment, then regained it.
"Not bad. Most guys can't do that kind of off-kilter rhythm for several days. Go back to one left one right and speed it up."
Clark focused on getting it right. For some reason, he wanted to impress this woman, to make her notice him. A part of his mind recognized how odd that feeling was, that it was contrary to the way he'd behaved since the day he'd accidentally destroyed his mother's chicken coop with one angry punch. That part of his mind managed to break through and remind him that he wasn't supposed to be a physical marvel. He wasn't supposed to call attention to himself or to his gifts.
He forced himself to miss. "Sorry."
Lois nodded. "Keep at it. I'm going to work with Frank on the heavy bag."
She turned and saw Frank staring at Clark. She motioned to him to follow her. "Come on, Frank, let's work on that left hook of yours."
Frank followed her to the bag and began punishing it. "Good, Frank. Keep your elbow up. That's it." She forced herself to focus on the task at hand and ignore the devastatingly handsome young man making the speed bag dance. "Harder this time, Frank. Step into it. Harder! Snap it! Good! That's it. Keep it up."
"Kent. He's very good."
"Keep your mind on your own work, Frank."
Frank stopped and faced her. "Look, Lois, I know why I'm still here, why you're still working with me. I'm a thirty-five year-old light heavyweight and I'm not ever gonna be ranked any higher than fourth unless the three guys in front of me all step in front of the same bus. I'm too old and too heavy to move down a class and try to dodge those young stallions, and I'm not strong enough to move up and beat up on the big boys. I'm past my peak. I'm only here because you think you owe me something."
She shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not, but you won't get any better just standing here jawing at me. Hit the bag!"
He assumed a stance, then looked into her eyes. "I want to work in his corner."
She released the bag. "You what?"
"He ran those five miles at a constant pace and he didn't get tired. I had to work hard just to keep up with him. You see how quick his hands are. If Kent sticks, he's going to be very good. He may even have a title shot in a couple of years. I want to work his corner. You know I'm a good cut man."
"Don't be stupid! You got your own fight to get ready for just three weeks from Friday yourself. It's way too early to talk about what you're gonna do after you're done with the ring."
"Yeah, the ring." He smiled at her. "You know how they say a ring is a circle, with no beginning and no end? They call the boxing ring a squared circle, partly because it does have an ending. For some guys, there's nothing left at the end. I don't want to be one of those beat-up pugs who can't tie his own shoes or cut up his own steak. I've seen too many of them." He threw a slow left at her head and grinned as she slipped it and locked his elbow. "You still got it, Lois, but you walked away. You coulda kept on fighting. Why didn't you?"
Lois almost let her temper go. She almost cursed him for probing her reasons for doing what she did. But, at the last second, she dropped his arm and stepped closer. "My mother died because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. My sister and I can barely stand to be in the same building together. My father and I don't speak. I don't have anybody. I dropped out of high school to fight and I never went back. I need something to call mine, something I can say that I built, that I made important. This gym is it. The fighters that I train are it."
Frank nodded. "I never had anything like that. Penny told me it was one of the reasons she left me, because I didn't really have anything and she didn't think I ever would." He rolled his shoulders. "Let's go back to the big bag."
She nodded and grasped the bag again. Frank began throwing hard punches, blows that would have bruised his opponent's belly and rib cage. Lois listened for the speed bag and realized that Kent hadn't stopped. He'd even raised his tempo a bit. He alternated hands, changed his pattern, and somehow kept speeding up.
Frank threw a hard right that surprised Lois. She'd been distracted, listening to the speed bag, and Frank's punch shoved the heavy bag into her face. She bit the inside of her mouth and cried out.
Clark stopped immediately and rushed over. "What happened?"
Lois grabbed a towel and held it to her mouth. "Bi' mah mouf." She looked at the blood on the towel. "F'ank, he'p Kent wi' da hebby bab. Be ba' soon."
Frank slid to the back of the bag. Clark watched Lois stalk towards a bathroom. "That happen often?"
Frank shook his head thoughtfully. "Nope. Never seen that before."
"Come on, Kent, start hitting this bag. Impress me if you can."
Clark grinned. "Call them for me."
Frank braced himself. "Left hook. Right hook. Left to the body. Again. Again! Good. Left-right combo. Again. Harder! Whoof! Good!"
Lois finished rinsing her mouth and stopped at the doorway of the bathroom to watch. Frank was right about one thing: Kent was good. He was light on his feet, had excellent balance, snapped his punches and pulled back into good defensive position, and hit like a pile driver. She'd never seen anyone move the heavy bag that much when Frank Meucci was holding it. Most guys could barely budge it, but Kent was making Frank reset himself after almost every blow.
He was her ticket, she decided. He'd showed up on her doorstep like a gift from elves. He'd give her the chance to put herself over the top. He could be a cruiserweight champion, maybe even fight in the heavyweight class where the big money was. And then she could get away from Lex Luthor and his smarmy, snooty friends.
She answered the phone on the first ring. "Kent residence, Martha speaking."
"Hi, Mom? It's Clark."
There was an unusual click on the line, then another. "Clark? I'm glad you called. I was so glad to hear about —"
"Now, Mom, I know you didn't want me to fight any more, but it was just something I felt I had to do. It's in my blood, you know."
The code phrase surprised her. They'd used the fact that Clark's blood wasn't the same as theirs on rare occasions when one of them needed to maintain a deception about Clark's more- than-normal abilities, but it had been years since any of them had felt the need for such subterfuge. Martha waved to her husband.
"Oh, Jonathan? Jonathan, pick up the other phone! Clark's still fighting and he wants to tell us about it."
Jonathan Kent stopped in mid-stride and stared at his wife. She pointed her index finger at her ear and wiggled it. He nodded in understanding and picked up the phone. "Clark? I thought you were walking away from the ring."
"I thought so too, Dad, but I met a girl and she took me to a gym and the manager kind of teased me about being all hat and no cattle and —"
Martha broke in. "And you wanted to impress her. I know, Clark, it's the same kind of thing you've done for years."
"But, Mom, this is the real thing! Lois told me that I'm good enough to fight for money, real money, not just club fights. I've got a match coming up in six weeks. And they're actually going to pay me to fight."
Jonathan recovered first. "Who's Lois, Clark? Is she the girl you met?"
Clark laughed nervously. "No, Dad, she's my manager. The girl I met is her sister, Lucy. Lucy's real nice, Dad. Mom, you'd like her."
Martha chuckled. "Can she make biscuits as light and fluffy as mine?"
"Mom! I just met her! I don't even know if she can cook!"
Jonathan whispered, "More importantly, can she kiss?"
As his parents' laughter exploded, Clark implored, "Dad! Come on! And don't try to show her my baby pictures, either!"
"All right, all right! Your father and I want to come and see you soon, son. What would be a good time for you?"
Clark hesitated. "Uh. I really don't know, not right now. I'll have to let you know later. Maybe after my first fight."
Jonathan wasn't smiling now. "Clark, you know how we feel about you fighting. I want you —"
"Dad! Please! I promise not to get hurt!"
Jonathan paused. "No, Clark, that's not what I was going to say. I was going to say that I want you to be happy. If this makes you happy, then we'll back you all the way."
His smile reached all the way down the line to Kansas. "Thanks, Dad. That means a lot to me. I sure miss you two."
"Your father and I miss you too, honey. Be sure and call us after your first fight. You'll have to let us know how you do."
"I will, Mom. I promise. I need to get to bed pretty soon. Lois is expecting me at the gym at six tomorrow morning."
"Oh? She's letting you sleep that late?"
Clark laughed. "I don't think she understands how early the day begins on a farm, Dad. Besides, she's not exactly a morning person. But don't worry, she knows how to make us sweat."
"Okay, Clark. Keep your left up."
"Good-bye, Dad. Bye, Mom."
They each hung up. Jonathan walked into the kitchen and looked at his wife. "You think Clark's phone was tapped?"
"He thought so. That's good enough for me."
"I wonder who it was?"
Martha frowned. "Doesn't really matter. We have to assume that the government will have our phone tapped before tomorrow morning. We'll have to watch what we say, especially to Clark."
Jonathan sighed. "I hate that, but I guess it's better than having him dissected like a frog in a laboratory."
"I'll certainly vote for that! I suppose it's time to trot out the Hemingway story."
"The one about him boxing in his youth?"
"That's the one. I'll have to drop by Maisie's tomorrow and let them know what Clark's doing. If they find out from someone else, I'll never hear the end of it."
"Or hear any other gossip."
She grinned and slapped him playfully on the arm. "Stop that! Remember who found out about the price of wheat going up and where I was when I found out!"
Clark hung up the phone and frowned. Who could be tapping his phone, and why? He'd have to keep his eyes and ears open.
He picked up the Daily Planet and sat down to read it. Lucy's story on the shuttle Messenger was on page three of the main section. As he read, he realized that she had a solid style and presented the essential information in the right order. He grinned as he read the last three paragraphs and remembered hearing what his high school journalism teacher had said repeatedly: Make your story an inverted pyramid. Put the most important information in the very beginning. Let the last third of your story be optional, because the editor might have to cut it for space.
Clark saw that Lucy had followed the guidelines well. Lucy had relegated to the end of her story the information that the Luthor Foundation had provided the final supplies for the Messenger, and that they would be loaded in time for the launch in nine days. Lex Luthor, the president of the company, planned to watch the launch from his offices, along with his personal staff.
Clark frowned again. If this guy has put this much money and effort into the shuttle, why doesn't he want to be present at the liftoff? According to Lucy, he wasn't exactly shy about being seen. This would be a great photo op. It didn't make sense for him to stay away.
Perhaps it was time to quietly display some of his 'special' abilities. He could check out the shuttle and make sure there was nothing wrong with it. He almost hoped he could find something out of place, or some sabotage that would delay the launch.
Then he realized how little he really knew about space going vehicles. The chance of his recognizing sabotage was slight, unless someone was dumb enough to put a bomb on board.
The thought of possible sabotage sparked another thought. Luthor was pushing his own space-based initiatives, ones that were not quite in harmony with the national government program. If this shuttle launch failed, maybe Luthor could get some of the money from the Prometheus space station program pointed in his direction. If that worked out -
Clark's eyes bugged out. Lex Luthor could well own Earth's entire space program! It was a long shot, and he had nothing but speculation and deduction as a framework, but it fit what he'd been told about Luthor.
And if any of it were true, it meant that he had even less reason to trust Lois Lane. He couldn't allow her to be suspicious of his 'relationship' with Lucy. Lois had to believe it was purely romantic between him and Lucy.
Romantic, Clark thought. I guess I can handle that.
Lois was taping Manny's hands. "How's that? Too tight?"
Manny flexed his fists. "No. It jus' right."
Clark watched silently. Once again, he was impressed by Lois's total absorption in her work. She not only knew what she was doing, she made certain that everything was done the best way she knew how.
"Okay, Manny, this is your night. You got that?" He nodded. "Go out there and show Kid Wilson that you're the better man. Keep your cool. Don't forget that! And use that jab. Use it a lot! He won't expect it, cause he doesn't think you have it. Pop his face with the left jab and go after his body with your right. Don't let him pound on you. This is a four-round undercard, so don't save anything for late in the fight. Take him, but take him smart. Got that?"
Manny grinned and nodded. "Jab to head, right to body, let ref raise my glove."
Lois grinned and grabbed his head. "Attaboy! Let's go get him."
She led them out of the dressing area to the ring. There were still a number of empty seats, but they were fighting the first undercard fight and not many people gave newcomer Manny Hershovitz a chance against the taller, stronger Kid Wilson. Lois, however, believed in Manny, and was determined to give the young man the best chance he could get.
Clark was last in line. He'd been to prizefights before, of course, some of them in quite exotic locations, but never as a corner man. The peculiar institution of American professional boxing intrigued him, as did the cross-section of society that attended these combats. He quietly checked out the people in the first few rows. Most of them were men in their forties and fifties, dressed casually and arguing over the respective merits of different fighters, some current and some legendary. It was what any Friday night fight crowd would look like, outside Atlantic City or Las Vegas.
Then Clark noticed a tall, bearded man with white hair, sitting alone in the third row behind Kid Wilson. He was dressed like the people around him, but he carried himself with a quiet dignity which was evident even while he was seated. Clark assumed he was 'connected' with some gambler; an undercover police officer would never behave so distinctively.
Lois and Manny climbed nimbly up the steps and readied his corner. Clark watched Lois repeat her instructions to him — left jab, right to the body, repeat until the bell rang or the ref stopped the fight, then raise his gloves in triumph. Manny grinned and nodded. Clark knelt beside the ropes and watched.
They went to the center of the ring for instructions. It was a non-title welterweight bout, and it looked like the real fans were there. Clark scanned the thin crowd. Except for Lucy, the only media people in the audience were low and middle level print jockeys. She walked to the edge of the seats and waved enthusiastically at Clark. He smiled back and returned the wave, and she took her seat next to an older woman who seemed out of place. Clark couldn't tune his hearing to their conversation because of the noise level in the old gym, so he tried reading their lips. He was surprised to find that the slightly dowdy older woman was Manny's mother. Lucy apparently knew her already, and they shared a smile when Lucy pointed out Clark. Clark caught the words 'dating' and 'boyfriend' on Lucy's lips. The two women looked at him, so he smiled to Lucy and winked. Manny's mother nodded approvingly and said something to Lucy that Clark couldn't catch. Lucy blushed slightly as he turned back to the ring.
A hand grasped his arm lightly and tugged. "Hey, buddy, how's your boy?"
Clark turned to see a tough-looking man in his late forties. "Excuse me?"
The man's expression didn't change. "I asked you how's your boy?"
"Oh. You mean Manny." The man kept staring at him. "I think he's ready."
"You think so?"
Alarms were going off in Clark's head. "Yes. I think so."
"You think he'll win?"
Clark shrugged. "I don't know. I've never seen Wilson fight before. I don't know him."
"You think your boy has a chance against a white guy?"
"Yes. I think he has a good chance."
"Okay, four-eyes, you keep thinkin' that. You got action down on him?"
"A bet, dummy. You got a bet down on him?"
"No. I don't gamble."
"You don't? You're in the fight game and you don't gamble?"
"No." Clark smiled at him. "It's a bad bet."
"Huh," he snorted. "A purist. A funny purist, at that." The man released Clark's arm. "You wanna put down a bet, you come see me."
"Sure. Got a business card?"
A smile flickered in the man's eyes. "Nice one, kid. Come see Angel if you want to put something down. I'll take care o' you right." He walked away and disappeared into the crowd.
Lois and Manny came back to the corner. Manny sat on the stool that Clark had carried in. Lois checked the laces on his gloves one last time. The referee pointed to both fighters, pointed to the judges and waited for nods from each of them, and then pointed to the timekeeper and nodded himself. The bell rang and both men leaped to the center of the ring and tapped gloves, then began circling, each searching for an opening.
Lois turned to Clark. "Kent!"
"What did Angel want?"
"He asked me what I thought about Manny."
"And you said what?"
"I said I thought he was ready."
"You tell him Manny would win?"
"I told him I'd never seen Wilson fight so I didn't know."
"Good answer." She looked directly at him. "Don't talk to Angel, Kent. Not ever. He's a known bookie, and if the state boxing commission people see him around me or any of the corner people very often they'll start asking questions, and I don't need that kind of trouble."
Lois smiled and nodded. "You got that right."
The crowd roared. Lois snapped her eyes back to the ring and saw Manny chasing Wilson into a neutral corner and pummeling him in the belly. Wilson clinched and forced Manny back, then the ref separated them.
Wilson backed away, clearly trying to get his breath back. Lois clenched her fist and shouted, "Go, Manny! Good shot!"
Clark said, "He used the left jab to knock Wilson off- balance and he crushed him with a right to the ribs, just like you've been coaching him."
Lois yelled, "Again, Manny! Do it again!"
He did. The left landed cleanly, and Wilson stepped back again. Then Manny faked a left, and as Wilson moved to block the punch, Manny threw a right cross against Wilson's unprotected chin. Wilson went down and Manny jumped up and down and held up his hands.
The ref pointed Manny to a neutral corner, and he finally went. Wilson got up at the count of seven, but he was clearly shaken. He managed to stay away from Manny long enough to hear the bell ring.
Manny came back to the corner exulting. "Boss, I knock him down! I tag him good!"
"Yeah! Now sit down and get hold of yourself! This fight's not over!"
Manny looked at Clark. "I tag him good, yes?"
Clark smiled and grabbed Manny's arm. "You tag him good, very much yes! Now listen to Lois, okay?"
"Okay!" He turned back to her.
Clark listened as Lois outlined what Manny would do if Wilson adjusted to the newly lethal left jab. Clark had to admit that Lois knew what she was talking about. She was a good ring strategist, too, better than he was, and far more experienced. He decided that he trusted her to guide him in the ring. Beyond that, he wasn't yet sure, although he admitted to himself that he wanted to trust her.
Clark's attention was captured by something in the audience that wasn't happening, like Sherlock Holmes' dog that didn't bark in the night. He saw Angel reappear and speak into several men's ears. Some of them nodded, some waved him away angrily, but Angel didn't flinch until he stepped close to the tall man with the white beard. The man looked directly at Angel and made a come-closer motion with one finger. Angel's body language told Clark that he was apprehensive, almost scared. Angel leaned down to hear what the man said, then he shook his head slowly. The tall man frowned and motioned him close again. Angel's head obscured the tall man's lips, but whatever he said to Angel galvanized him. Angel stood up straight and nodded hard several times. The tall man then waved Angel on his way and returned his attention to the ring.
The odd thing about the tall man was that he didn't visibly react to anything that was happening in the fight. Clark watched him until the bell rang to begin the second round. Wilson came after Manny and tagged him with a left uppercut, but Manny came back with the jab-body shot combination and jarred Wilson again. The tall man steepled his fingers and watched the fight intently, but if he moved after that Clark didn't see it.
Lois jumped up, screaming encouragement to Manny, who had once again cornered Kid Wilson. Wilson put his hands on the back of Manny's neck to force his head down, but Manny bowed his neck and threw one hard shot after another into Wilson's midsection. Wilson finally clinched, but everyone could tell he was barely hanging on.
The ref separated them, looked in Wilson's eyes, and gave him a standing eight-count. The ref waved them back together, and Manny charged in to finish the bout.
It was his first mistake. Instead of dodging, Wilson stood Manny up with a straight left, then knocked him down with a vicious right cross. Manny fell flat on the canvas, woozy and unfocused, and Wilson stumbled to a neutral corner.
Lois screamed at Manny to get up. Clark added his encouragement, trying to tell Manny that Wilson was all in, and that all Manny had to do to win was to throw one more good punch. Manny managed to stand at eight, and the ref examined his eyes. Clark feared that he would stop the fight, but he stepped back and waved the fighters together again.
Wilson advanced slowly, his legs unsteady. Manny moved to his left and tried to angle for a good shot, but Wilson stumbled away, out of range. The bell rang before either man could land another telling blow.
Manny slumped down on his stool. Lois rubbed his neck and upper arms while Clark gave him water and wiped ointment on a swollen lump under his left eye.
Lois got his attention by tugging his face towards her. "Manny! You got to be patient! He's too strong for you to just bull rush. Now listen! Use that jab! Remember that jab! He doesn't like it and you can hurt him with it. Remember what you did when you faked the jab and hit him in the belly?"
Manny nodded. "Yeah. I 'member."
"Good! Do it again. Then, when I tell you, fake the jab, fake the right, and throw a hard left to his jaw! You'll know what to do from there. Okay?"
He nodded again. "Yeah. Okay. I take him this round."
Lois screeched, "No! Don't try for a knockout! Just keep jabbing him! Jab! Jab and body! Jab and body! Got that?"
Manny nodded. "Yeah. Jab and body. I got it."
"Good! Remember, Manny, a point win is still a win! Understand?"
He smiled slowly. "Yeah. I understand. I win on points."
The bell rang and Lois smiled at him. "Go get him, tiger!"
Manny jumped up and ran towards Wilson again, but stopped just out of range of Wilson's gloves. The Kid had leaned forward, anticipating a quick attack, and when it didn't come he took a step that put him off-balance. Manny threw a quick jab and stung Wilson. Then he faked a jab and landed a fierce blow to Wilson's short ribs. Clark heard Wilson's sharp exhalation and he shouted, "Now!"
Manny faked another jab, faked a right, and when Wilson broke down his defense trying to keep that hard right out of his belly, Manny threw his best left of the night. It caught Wilson full on the face and rocked him onto his heels. Manny came after him, hammering him with head and body shots, until the ref stepped in and called for another standing eight-count. This time, Manny headed for a neutral corner without being told, and Wilson stood there breathing hard as the ref counted to eight. Then he looked into Wilson's eyes, didn't like what he saw, and waved his hands over his head.
The fight was over on a technical knockout in the third round. Lois leaped into the air, and Manny threw his hands to the sky and shouted. The crowd, still filing in, roared their approval. Manny shook hands with Wilson, who was still reeling from the onslaught, then came to the center of the ring as the announcer proclaimed his victory.
The celebration moved down to the seats, where Manny embraced his mother and lifted her in his arms. Clark put his arm around Lucy and hugged her. She reached up and pulled his head down to hers and kissed him briefly.
"Gotta keep up appearances," she whispered. Then she gave him a soft smile and hugged him.
Stunned, Clark stopped where he was and looked up. Manny was approaching him with his mother in tow. "Mama! This man, he help me! He show me th' jab! Lois very smart, she show me how to use it! Thanks to them, I win tonight!"
The woman kissed Clark on either cheek and said something in a language he didn't quite recognize. He smiled at her and said, "Manny is a good fighter. He did very well tonight."
She nodded and said something else. Manny laughed. "She say we go to her restaurant and celebrate! We all go! Clark, you bring the young lady! We all go now!"
Clark looked at Lois, who had lost some of her glee at Manny's victory. He shrugged. "Whatever Mama wants, Mama gets, I guess. Come, we all go to her restaurant to celebrate!"
Lois smiled crookedly. "Right. We'll all go in my Jeep. I can take all five of us." She handed her keys to Lucy. "Manny will have to clean up and get checked by the doctor. Take about fifteen or twenty minutes. Luce, will you bring my Jeep around by the dressing room? Manny's mama can wait with you."
Lucy looked closely at Lois, then nodded. "Sure. See you soon, Clark."
Lois leaned towards Clark. He expected to get a warning about Lucy.
"You were absolutely right when you told Manny to use the double fake. I was about to yell it myself, but you beat me to it by an eyelash. You have a good eye, and that was exactly the right time for it." Her voice hardened. "But don't ever — and I mean ever — do that again. I'm the manager, not you. You were here for exposure and experience, and that's all. You will not — I repeat — you will not coach any of my fighters, in or out of the ring, unless you have direct instructions from me to do so. You understand me, Kent?"
Clark looked into her eyes. Another time, he might have seen tenderness and affection there, but what he actually saw chilled even him. He nodded slowly. "Yes. I understand."
"Good." She backed up and smiled brightly. "Now, we all go to Mama's restaurant and celebrate!"
Manny's mother was as good as her word. They ate delicious Greek and Italian food, drank small amounts of wonderful wine, and learned the words but not the melody to a Hungarian folk song. It didn't help that they laughed more than they sang.
Finally Lois stood up. "Folks, I really hate to break up this gathering, because it's the most fun I've had in months, but some of us have an early morning. Mrs. Hershovitz, you are the finest hostess in Metropolis by far! I hope we have lots of celebratory dinners here after Manny's fights. He's talented and determined, and if he keeps learning he'll make a name for himself in his weight class. Now, since it's already after midnight — " a chorus of groans arose — "we're going to push everybody's workout back to eight AM tomorrow. Manny, you be there too. I want to check you over and make sure you're as okay as you feel right now."
"Okay. I be there, Ms. Lane."
"You too, Kent."
Clark nodded. "I'll get there a little early and start on breakfast."
Lois smiled at him. "Sounds great! Just make sure my sister gets home safely. And Lucy, don't keep Kent up too late tonight."
Lucy blushed as the rest of the group poked gentle fun at her. Mrs. Hershovitz stood up and ran off a string of something and made her way to the door.
Clark stood and offered his hand to Lucy. "I suppose that means 'goodnight'."
Lucy stifled a yawn. "I hope so. I mean, I wouldn't have missed this for the world, but I have to go to the office tomorrow morning."
"Yep. Got to do a rewrite on an article on today's city council meeting."
"Then allow me to walk you to your sister's vehicle."
She smiled. "Thank you, kind sir, for taking care of a poor, helpless maiden such as myself."
Clark smiled back as she took his arm. They walked to the Jeep and climbed into the back seat. Lucy nestled her head on Clark's shoulder and exhaled contentedly.
Lois climbed in the front and started off. "Hey, Luce, you writing the story on Manny's fight?"
"Nope. Some new guy has it. Name's Jim, or John, or something like that. He was at the arena taking pictures."
"Maybe you could contribute some human interest angle or something."
Clark perked up. "Lois, I didn't know you knew anything about reporting."
She huffed. "What little I know rubbed off from Lucy."
"Still, that's not a bad idea. Lucy, you could at least offer to help this guy."
Lucy yawned. "Okay, Clark. I'll offer. Tomorrow morning."
Lois stopped at a traffic light. "Hey, Luce? You still awake?"
"Umm. Yeah. Sorta."
"Why don't you come to the dojo after work on Monday? See how much you remember of your martial arts training."
"Martial arts?" Clark looked at Lucy. "You two are always surprising me."
Lucy shook her head and put her hand on Clark's chest. "I only got to blue belt before I quit. I didn't have the time to keep it up."
"You do now, Sis. Tell you what, I'll even teach you for free for two months. If you want to keep it up, we'll talk about money then."
Lucy sat up and looked at Clark. "What do you think?"
"I think your sister is making you a very good offer. If you're interested in keeping fit, I think it'd be something worth exploring."
"What, you think I'm not fit?"
"Hey, Kent, you calling my sister fat?"
"I'm not fat!"
"I didn't say you were! He did!"
"No, you did!"
"He said you weren't fit!"
"For a couch potato, maybe!"
"Well, there's a snappy comeback!"
"Better than a snappy mouth!"
"Cut it out, Lucy, or I'll tell Dad!"
"Ouch! Yet another snappy comeback!"
"How about if I snap your — Clark, what are you doing?"
Clark had lifted the door handle. "I'm bailing out. I think hitting the asphalt at fifty miles an hour might be safer than being between you two."
"Kent! Get your butt back in here right now!" Lois brought the Jeep to a screeching halt. "I'm not risking my next prospect!" Clark closed the door. "And quit smirking!"
He put on his best innocent puppy-dog face. "Who, me?"
Lucy laughed and hugged his arm. Lois drove off again at a sane speed.
"Thanks for running interference between Lois and me, Clark. That's very sweet of you."
Lois chuckled. "Actually, Luce, we haven't had a sisterly argument like that for years. That was kinda fun."
Lucy laughed. "Yeah, it was. Thanks, Clark."
"You're welcome. Warn me next time and I'll bring a flak jacket and a helmet."
They shared a laugh as Lois glided to a stop in front of Lucy's apartment building. "Okay, Sis, here you go. Kent, you gonna walk her to the door?"
Clark raised his eyebrows. "I am now. Come on, Lucy, I'll try to protect you from stray cats and homeless puppies."
Lucy offered her hand. "I thank you, kind sir. Lois, I'll see you Monday night if not before."
"Be there by seven. That's the intermediate adult class. And review your stretching between now and then."
Lucy saluted. "Yes ma'am! Come on, Clark, walk me to my door."
Clark extended his arm once again and escorted her up the steps and into the front door of the brownstone. He'd expected that Lucy would let him go once they were out of Lois's line of sight, but she hung on to him until they arrived at her door on the third floor.
She fished her keys out of her purse and began the unlocking process. She was focused on the last lock as she said offhandedly, "Lois will expect us to at least kiss good-night."
Clark looked down at her and grinned. "True. But I don't want you to feel pressured into doing something you'd rather not do."
She opened the door and smiled at him. "Thank you." She pulled his face towards hers. "But I don't feel pressured."
The kiss was soft and enjoyable, and Clark ended it before Lucy would have preferred. "Mmm, that was nice, but a little short. How's about a second chance at the brass ring, sailor?"
Clark leaned down and kissed her forehead. "I think you had too much wine and not enough bread tonight. Get some sleep, okay?"
"What's that quotation? 'A loaf of wine, a jug of bread, and wow.' Am I close?"
"Not very. You need to climb into bed and close your eyes. Good night, Lucy."
She sighed. "Okay. Good night, pretty fighter."
"Go to sleep." He pulled the door shut from the outside and listened as she fastened the locks. He smiled to himself and headed down the stairway.
As he climbed into the passenger seat, Lois handed him a tissue. "Here. You look like somebody kissed you."
They drove in silence for a few blocks. Lois fidgeted and frowned. Clark finally said, "So, Manny did well tonight."
Lois threw a surprised glance at him, then smiled. "Yeah, he did. And you got to see how it's done in Metropolis."
Clark exhaled and stretched. "Yep. Hope I do as well as he did."
"Me, too. You've got three weeks to get ready."
Clark did a double-take. "Three weeks? I thought it was six. Are you serious?"
"Got the confirmation this afternoon. You're on as one of the preliminary bouts before Frank's fight. You're taking on a nineteen-year-old whiz-bang who's ranked third in the cruiserweight division. Name's Ben Piedmont. He's taller than you but thinner and not as strong, although he's no wuss. Still, I think you can take him."
He sat back and whistled. "Wow. Thanks."
"Don't thank me until you lift your gloves at the end of the fight."
"I'll remember that." He sat back. "Third-ranked cruiserweight. Hey, how'd I rate a ranked opponent? I don't have any record."
"Piedmont was supposed to fight somebody else, but the guy had to cancel. He fell down a flight of stairs and broke both his legs."
"Wow. That's a tough break."
"That's a lousy pun, Kent."
"Sorry. I wasn't trying to be funny."
"Don't worry, you weren't."
Clark frowned in thought. "He fell down all by himself?"
Lois shrugged. "That's what he said." Clark didn't respond. "Hey, Kent, this is a tough business. Not all the people in it are as sweet and gentle as I am."
"That's good to know."
She waited for what was, to her, the next obvious question, but it didn't come. Finally she said, "You're a little old to be so transparently naive, Kansas. Don't you even want to know about your payday?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah. How much do I get if I win?"
"It's a flat payment, not contingent on the outcome. You get seventy-five thousand for this fight."
Clark's eyes tried to push through his glasses. He turned to Lois and finally got control of his jaw. "Did you — did you say seventy-five thousand? Dollars?"
"Yep. You don't get to keep it all, of course. My standard is a sixty-forty split, and I get the sixty. I pay all training expenses, and you pay me back whatever I've advanced you before the fight. Since you haven't taken any advance money, at least not so far, you don't owe me anything."
"So my payday would be — thirty grand!"
"Don't forget about Federal and state taxes, Medicare, Social Security, and all that stuff. I can put you in touch with an honest accountant if you want. He'll help you stay clear of the IRS auditors. They love to go after fighters and managers, because it's so easy for us to cheat." She snapped her fingers. "Oh, I almost forgot. The state license fees and doctor's exams are also sixty-forty, so that'll cut down on your payday some more. But you should clear at least eighteen grand, if not more, which is not bad for five weeks of work. We can sign the contract tomorrow morning, unless you want a lawyer to look at it first."
"Naw. I trust you." He whistled badly. "Wow. I'll have to tell my folks. They'll think I'm rich."
"Just be sure and duck when Piedmont throws his hard right hand. I don't want to have to scrape you up off the canvas."
They drove the rest of the way to Clark's apartment in silence. As she pulled to a stop, Lois said, "Kent, I don't want to be the meddling big sister, but you'd better not hurt Lucy." She fixed him with a glare. "I hope I don't have to say anything else."
Clark looked directly into her eyes. "I have no intention of hurting Lucy. I like her. She's very nice."
Lois held his gaze for a long moment, then nodded. "Good. Then I'll see you in my office tomorrow morning at eight sharp."
The following Monday afternoon, Clark approached Lois in front of her office. "Hey, Boss lady, mind if I ask a favor?"
"You can ask. No promises, though."
"I'd like to observe your class tonight."
Lois lifted her eyebrows. "I thought you'd have your fill of this place for today."
He grinned. "I'd like to watch you put Lucy through her paces."
Lois frowned at him. "No coaching her, Kent. You got a bad habit of helping when you don't need to."
He raised his hands. "I'm a totally passive observer, honest. You won't hear a peep out of me. And neither will Lucy."
She stared at him for a moment, then nodded. "If it's okay with Lucy, it's okay with me."
"Thanks. I'm heading out to grab some dinner. I found a nice Chinese place that has excellent takeout. You want me to bring you back something?"
"Chinese, huh? Sure." She reached into her pocket.
Clark waved her off. "No, no, my treat. You want anything in particular or should I just bring back a sample of everything?"
She shrugged. "Sample, I guess. Just don't take too long."
"I won't. I'll be back by five-thirty."
He turned and trotted out the front door. Lois walked into her office and was startled to find Lex Luthor leaning back in her chair. Nigel stood beside Luthor's right shoulder, hands crossed in front of him.
"I'll have to talk to Elmer about who or what he allows in here."
"Please don't be vexed with Elmer, Lois. He really did try to stop us. Nigel convinced him that we had an appointment."
"I'll bet he did." She slapped the folder she was carrying down on the desk. "Lex, I've told you I don't like it when you just appear in my office like this! Why can't you knock on the door like a normal person?"
"I'm truly sorry, my dear. I came by to ask you two things."
"And they are?"
"Would you care to observe the Messenger launch with me this Thursday morning? I'll be hosting a celebratory brunch for my staff and some special friends." His rugged, tanned face smiled warmly.
"Thursday morning? What time?"
"The launch is scheduled for eleven-forty-five, I believe. We plan to begin our festivities at ten-thirty sharp."
"I dunno, Lex. I got two fighters to get ready for fights two weeks from Friday. One of them needs a lot of work. He's still pretty raw."
"I understand. I'll make sure security has your photo in their database in case you change your mind."
She was puzzled by his easy acceptance of her refusal. "Thanks. I can't promise anything, but I'll see what I can do."
"That's more than fair. The other question is much easier. Will you do me the honor of having dinner with me tonight?"
"Tonight? I have to teach a class at seven and I have legal papers to go over after that! I can't go out to dinner tonight! Besides, one of my guys is already bringing back Chinese takeout."
"Ah, yes, your new fighter, the Kansas Tornado."
Lois frowned. "He hasn't even fought yet, Lex. Let him earn his nickname."
Lex smiled and stood. "As you wish, my dear. Perhaps another night would be more convenient?"
Lois canted her hips and smiled fetchingly. "I'm free Wednesday evening."
Now Lex frowned. "That is indeed a charming invitation. Regrettably, I'm leaving before dawn tomorrow to be in Gotham City until late Wednesday. I have a number of meetings I must attend. Pressing business, I'm afraid."
"Gee, Lexie, I'm sorry. Maybe I'll see you at your launch party on Thursday?"
"I hope so. Since our schedules refuse to coincide, Lois, we'll leave you to your work. Good night."
"G'night, Lex. Watch him good, Nigel."
Nigel nodded to her and preceded Lex to the door. As he opened it, Clark walked in, carrying several containers, all of which emitted enticing aromas.
"Oh! Thanks, pal. Hey, Lois, I got it. Dinner's on."
She smiled at him. "Thanks, Clark. That smells delicious."
"If it's up to Madame Chung's usual standards, it is." He put the containers on the desk and wiped his hand on his jeans. "Hi. I'm Clark Kent. You must be Lex Luthor. Glad to meet you."
Lex hesitated, then took Clark's extended hand. Then he flinched as Clark squeezed. "Pleased — to meet you too — Mr. Kent." Clark let go, and Lex tried to hide the pain in his hand. "I'm sorry we can't stay. Ms. Lane has a class to teach soon, and I have business interests which cannot wait."
"Sure! I understand. Hey, you guys be careful out there. This isn't the safest neighborhood in town."
Nigel smiled condescendingly. "I believe that Mr. Luthor and I are safe enough."
Clark shrugged. "That's what I thought, too, but I just had a run-in with a wise guy around the corner."
Lois grabbed his arm. "What happened? Are you hurt? You didn't break your hand, did you?"
Still flexing his own offended limb, Lex said, "Lois, I can assure you that Mr. Kent did not break his hand."
"Good." She let him go and crossed her arms. "So what happened?"
"Well, the guy was tailing me when I left here, so I turned into an alley real quick, and when he followed me in I grabbed him. I called the cops and they took ol' Malcolm to the nearest precinct."
Lois squeaked, "What? You knew this guy?"
"Never saw him before. He told me his name."
Lex raised his eyebrows. "He simply volunteered his name?"
Clark crossed his arms over his chest and loomed at Lex. "After I encouraged him to, yes, he did."
"I — see. Well, Nigel, thanks to Mr. Kent, the neighborhood is a safer place. Shall we go now?"
Nigel nodded and opened the door. Lex kissed Lois's hand. "Good night, my dear." He turned to Clark, who offered his hand to be kissed also. The corners of Lex's mouth twitched downwards and he blinked twice. "Good night, Mr. Kent."
"Bye, Lex. Have a safe trip."
"Thank you." He swept out with Nigel in tow.
As the door closed, Lois burst out laughing. "I thought Lex was gonna lose his cool when you offered him your hand! You're walking a fine line, there, Kent."
Clark began opening the takeout containers. "Too bad he didn't take my hand. I was gonna curtsy."
Lois laughed again. As she did, however, she remembered that Lex had mentioned that he had business interests that couldn't wait. Yet he'd invited her out to dinner. It was one more brick in the edifice of suspicion Lois was building in her mind around Lex Luthor.
Lex sat back against the seat. Nigel sat across from him, frowning. Lex finally asked, "Was this Malcolm one of your recruits, Nigel?"
"No, sir. I believe he was three levels down. The worst he could do would be to point to a voice on the telephone which spoke with an American Southern accent. The telephone company records would reveal that the calls originated from a particular cell phone owned by a Mr. John Smith, whose subsequent calls will be answered only by the fish at the bottom of Hobb's Bay."
"The phone is there now?"
"Within the hour, sir." He held up another phone. "I made the call before we left the area of the gymnasium."
"Good." Lex turned and opened his briefcase. "How is the Messenger project coming?"
"We're completely ready, sir. The device will be placed on the shuttle Thursday morning, approximately four hours prior to liftoff. It will disable the fuel flow to the shuttle's engines once it reaches an altitude of eighty-eight miles."
Luthor smiled and nodded. "Much more dramatic than a bomb, eh, Nigel? Blowing it up on the launching pad would simply bring attention back to Platt and his allegations of sabotage. This will be much more dramatic. They will be too high and moving too fast to eject safely, and too low to achieve orbit. The resulting long fall and crash of the shuttle loaded with colonists will make for tragic television."
"And even more interest in Space Station Luthor, which is almost ready for deployment."
"Quite right, Nigel." He paused and thought for a moment. "I think we should make certain the good Dr. Platt doesn't make a nuisance of himself after this incident. Please make certain he's out of the picture."
Lex raised his eyebrows. "Try a financial solution first. If he refuses to see the light, well, then, make sure he — " Luthor smiled and cocked his head to one side. " — sees the light."
"Very well, sir. I will take care of it personally."
"Thank you, Nigel." Luthor rummaged in his briefcase and opened a folder, then frowned.
"The boxing promotion deal, sir?"
"I'm afraid so. Lois Lane is still inspiring resistance among the various fight managers in the region. The time has come to bring her into the fold. Nigel, will you arrange a — conversation — between Mr. Kent and one of our better operatives?"
Nigel blinked. "Mr. Kent, sir? Not Ms. Lane?"
Luthor's face hardened. "Kent. Ms. Lane is not to be harmed, either deliberately or accidentally."
"Of course, sir. Should Mr. Kent have an accident, or should this be a somewhat more obvious demonstration?"
"An accident. Wait!" Luthor pursed his lips and thought for a moment. "No. Have your operative threaten Ms. Lane. Mr. Kent will hear of it, and his chivalrous impulses will force him to offer his protection. Our operative — perhaps there should be a team, Nigel — the operatives will then separate Ms. Lane from Mr. Kent and administer to him a sound thrashing."
Nigel smiled slightly. "Well put, sir. I shall put the plan in motion this evening. Do you have a preferred time for completion?"
"Tomorrow evening, early rather than late, if possible. Definitely before we return from our summit."
"Very good, sir. I shall see to it."
"Thank you, Nigel. Oh, one more thing."
Luthor opened a panel in the arm of the car seat. He lifted out a large, menacing revolver and handed it to Nigel. "Please have the lead operative use this weapon. It's my personal favorite, actually, and it might bring the operation some good luck. Besides, the large caliber will help to cow an unarmed opponent. I know from experience that a man who looks down the barrel of a fifty-caliber pistol is far less likely to play the hero than a man facing a mere thirty-eight special."
"Very good, sir. An effective touch."
Luthor sat back, satisfied with the plan, even while regretting the necessity for it. He'd believed that Lois would fall at his feet after the first few dates; instead, she'd demonstrated a surprising amount of maturity and resilience. Instead of becoming angry at being snubbed, she'd smiled and responded in kind. Once, a half-drunken man had tried to pin her against a wall and force his attention on her. Luthor wondered if he'd recovered the use of his arm by now. Compound fractures were often quite nasty.
The plan he'd put into motion had the added benefit of getting rid of Lois's new fighter, which would both remove a source of income and confidence from her, and repay the young farmer for the unforgivable slight he'd delivered to Luthor. It worked out quite well all the way around.
Clark sat in a chair against the far wall and watched the class members drift in. Most of them went directly to the locker rooms to change. Elmer made sure that everyone's name was on the list. The old man intrigued Clark; he'd have to learn more about him. He acted dumb, but he surely wasn't.
Then Lucy came in, already wearing her uniform. Of the sixteen members of the class, she was one of the shortest. As it turned out, she also held the highest color belt in the class, even though she hadn't kept up her studies.
Lois led the class through stretching, then simple calisthenics, and then paired them off to practice specific kicks. Lucy was matched up with a tall, thin, rangy man with a green belt who carried himself like a bully.
Lois called out to them. "Okay. Everybody get ready. Front stance and rear leg round kick. Front stance is left foot forward, Glenn, even if you're left-handed. See if you can knock your partner back a step. But don't miss the target bag! And make sure you keep your hands up and ready to block. When you get ten kicks in, switch to reverse stance with ten more rear leg round kicks, other leg this time. Aim for the emblem on the bag. Okay, go!"
Lois wandered from pair to pair, making adjustments and giving encouragement. Clark was once again impressed with her teaching style. She was both approachable and authoritative, something that none of the Oriental masters he'd known had been able to achieve. They were either friendly and cajoling, or they were stern and forbidding. Somehow, Lois managed to be all of that. He admired her for it.
Lucy held her bag in front of her and waited for her partner to kick. It covered her body from neck to mid-thigh, and was wider than her shoulders. Her partner shouldn't have missed his target.
But he did. On the seventh kick of his second set, his foot skipped over the top of the pad and clipped a diving Lucy on the ear. Clark believed it was deliberate, but he restrained himself from interfering. Lois stopped the class and stalked over.
"Hey! Eric! You're not supposed to kick your partner! Kick the pad! The pad! Got it?"
Eric grinned and nodded. "Just got away from me. Sorry."
"Uh-huh. You hurt, Lucy?"
Lucy stood and flipped her braid over her shoulder. "No. Just surprised."
"Good. Eric, take the pad."
"Huh? Wait a minute, she's my partner, not you!"
Lois patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, tough guy, I'm not gonna touch you. She's going to show you how it's done."
Lucy's eyes opened wider, but other than that she didn't react. She set her stance and said, "Pad ready?"
Eric answered, "Yeah, it's — oof!" Lucy's kick was so fast that Eric didn't see it coming.
Lois called out, "Again!"
The pad bounced against Eric's chin. "Hey!"
This time she drove it against his chest. Eric took a half- step back. "Hey, this little gal can —"
This kick was harder yet. Eric staggered back towards Clark. He barely kept his balance.
Lois yelled, "Double!"
Lucy threw another rear leg round kick into the pad, stepped forward on that foot, and threw a rear leg round kick from a reverse stance, all in less than a second. Her left foot struck Eric in the middle of the back and dropped him to his knees.
Eric dropped the pad, held up his hand, and called, "Time out!" Then he grabbed his back and groaned.
Lois crossed her arms and stood next to him. "Blue belt is higher than green belt for a reason, Eric. She's just now starting up again, but she earned her rank. I'd advise you to stop trying to show off and start trying to learn."
Eric nodded and groaned again. "I think I need some water."
Lucy nodded. "I'll get you some. Come with me, tough guy." Eric rose with difficulty and followed her to the dojo's kitchenette.
Lois shook her head and wandered over to stand beside Clark. "The rest of you, get back to it. You probably forgot where you were, so start over. And make then snap like Lucy was doing!" To Clark, she muttered, "Lucy's gonna take in a cold coral snake one of these days."
Clark looked up. "Lucy collects snakes?"
"No, genius. You remember the song about the snake? A woman finds a pretty snake on the ground one day, almost frozen. She brings it home, lets it warm up by the fire, and then puts it on as a belt because it looked so cute. She doesn't realize it's poisonous. Naturally, the snake bites her. As she's dying, she asks the snake why it would do such a thing to her when she'd helped it so much. The snake tells her, 'You knew what I was when you brought me home. You shouldn't be surprised.'"
Clark nodded. "There's an old Native American folk tale about a frog helping a scorpion cross a stream. Same outcome, same moral." He looked up at her. "So, you think I'm poison for Lucy?"
Lois started. "What? No! No, that's not what I meant at all! You — I was just talking about her being so naive about people. Eric won't stop being a bully just because she gets him water."
"You never know. He might understand what you were trying to teach him."
"Yeah, maybe. I hope so. Anyway, Lucy isn't the most careful person in the world when it comes to relationships."
"I see. So, you think I should carry a snakebite kit?"
She pointed her index finger at his face. "Don't push too hard, Kent, or we'll have you out there in Eric's place." She looked up and saw that several of the pairs were finished. "Later. Gotta go back to work."
Clark was waiting for Lucy as she came out of the locker room. "Hey, Clark! Whaddya think of my big sister as a teacher?"
"She's very good. She knows how to do it and how to communicate it, and not many can do both equally well. And you're not bad yourself, you know." He smiled and touched her hair. "You took down your braid."
She smiled back. "Glad you noticed. It was just for the class. Sometimes I just pull it back in a rubber band."
"It looks nice like this."
Lucy's smile softened. "Why — thank you, Clark." She nestled against his arm, and he moved it around her shoulders.
Lois came out of the office and saw them standing together. She felt a pang of something she didn't recognize and didn't particularly like. Because of the difference in their ages, she and Lucy hadn't competed for the same boys when they were young, and they hadn't gotten along very well as adults until Clark Kent had entered their lives. Somehow, he had managed to soften both of them, and the sisters were getting along better than they had since before their mother had died. She was grateful for that.
But she also felt something akin to envy. Her sister had a nice guy holding her close, one who was apparently trustworthy in every sense of the word. He'd sat still, even when Eric had clipped Lucy. Lois didn't think anyone else had caught the sudden tension in his face, or the quick tautness of his hands, but he'd mastered his impulse to 'help' and let Lois handle the situation, just as he'd said he would.
And he was easy to talk to. He didn't condescend to her or patronize her, even though she could tell he had a much wider education than she'd had. He was willing to listen to her, and not many men fell into that category. Most of the time, she'd have to continually ask herself if a guy was trustworthy or what.
Like Lex. He was more in the 'or what' category, and getting deeper every day. After Kid Wilson's manager Mike McGowan was run down by a van a few weeks before, there had been rumors and murmurs that his near-fatal accident was really deliberate. Lois didn't know if the rumors were true, nor did she know that Lex was involved, but she trusted him less every day.
And every day, she trusted Kent a little more. What a crazy world.
She walked towards them. "Hey, you two, you need a ride? I'm about to lock up, but I can take you home if you want."
Lucy turned to Lois with glowing eyes and bright smile. "I'm gonna let Clark walk me home. Thanks, though."
Lois caught Clark's eye, and he nodded. "I'll protect her, Lois, if she'll protect me too."
Lois showed them a bright grin. "Okey-dokey. Just be here tomorrow at six for more roadwork. There's a lot more to boxing than romancing your manager's sister."
The two of them slowly and somewhat aimlessly meandered back to Lucy's brownstone. On the way, Clark told her about Kansas and some of the funny things that he'd seen and done on the farm. Lucy laughed at all of his anecdotes, and stayed close beside him the whole time.
"You know, Lucy, people in Smallville don't necessarily think this stuff is as hysterical as you do."
"But it's great! You should write it up and query a publisher. I bet they'd buy it. City people like to laugh at their country cousins."
"Oh. Well, maybe I should include some of the spectacularly dumb things city people do when they visit farms."
"Like trying to milk a ram."
Lucy stared at him blankly. "What's a ram?"
"A male sheep."
"Oh. You mean they — you mean someone actually — someone tried to —"
"Yep. Didn't work."
"Can you even milk a sheep?"
"You can, but it's a lot like teaching a pig to sing. You don't get very good results, and it just irritates the animal all to pieces."
They shared another laugh. Lucy looked up and found herself in front of her building.
"Hey. We're here."
He scraped the sidewalk with his foot. "Yep. Here we are."
They stood fidgeting at each other for several moments, then Lucy said, "Oh, Clark, come on in, willya?"
He stopped. "Lucy, you don't have to pretend now. No one's watching."
She stepped close to him and put her hands on his chest. "I'm not pretending, Clark." She took his hand and led him towards the steps. "Now come on in before dawn breaks."
"It's only eight-forty. It won't be dawn for hours yet."
"Gripe, gripe, gripe, that's all you do."
"Lucy, I've told you a million times not to exaggerate."
"You haven't known me for a million minutes yet."
"I know." He stopped and took both of her hands. "That's why — I think — maybe — maybe I shouldn't come in. Not tonight."
"Oh." Her face fell. "You don't — I mean, yeah, of course, you don't want to pretend all the time." She stepped back. "Sure, yeah. I understand. We're not really dating, it's just a ruse to protect us from the bad guys. I remember. It's just that you're such a nice guy, and they don't grow on trees, at least not around here. Maybe in Kansas they do but —"
"Lucy, I didn't mean to —"
"Go on home, Clark. Thanks for walking with me."
She turned and bounced up the steps. "It's okay. I'll talk to you tomorrow or the next day. Good night."
He watched her shut the outer door of the building a little harder than necessary. Great, he thought, I've just hurt her feelings, and just when I thought we were becoming friends. Maybe Lois was right about Lucy, that she trusted too easily. Maybe she gave her heart too quickly, too.
And maybe his own heart was a little unsettled.
Lois got out of bed the next morning more easily than usual. She flipped on the lights and started the coffee pot that Elmer had prepared before he'd left the night before. She caught herself humming tunelessly to no one and laughed. Then she saw the clock.
It was only five-thirty in the morning.
She smiled. She hadn't laughed or even smiled at five- thirty in the morning for years. She felt wonderful and didn't know why. She just knew that Clark was coming to make breakfast for them and do road work with her. Oh, yes, Frank would be there too, but he was just a friend and Clark was -
She stopped suddenly. Clark was her sister's boyfriend. She and Lucy were actually getting along for the first time in years. She couldn't mess that up. She needed some family contact, and for the first time in years she wanted it.
She refused to hurt her sister any more. She'd make sure Kent didn't get any mixed messages from her. No way, no how. It'd be all business from here on out.
The front door opened and she turned. Frank and Clark walked in together. Clark nodded and grunted to her, then headed directly to the kitchen. Lois looked at Frank and raised her hands, then pointed at the kitchen door.
Frank shrugged. "I picked him up this morning, like usual. He was carrying a bag of oranges, as is not unusual. He also brought down a half-dozen fresh donuts, as usual. He offered me my choice, as usual. After that, he clammed up and didn't say a word, as is totally not usual."
Lois frowned. "He walked Lucy home last night. I hope nothing's wrong there."
"Won't know unless he decides to tell us."
"True. Here's a cup of Elmer's best."
Frank frowned and refused. "I'll wait for Clark's coffee if you don't mind."
She gave him a warning look. "Elmer's the one you have to watch out for, not me. You're on your own there."
They sat at the breakfast table and waited. Soon, Clark brought ham and eggs, and today he'd made biscuits. He put the food tray on the table and added the seasonings for the breakfast from the other tray, including a carafe of coffee and a large pitcher of cold orange juice.
"Thanks, Clark. I really like that juice."
Clark nodded morosely. "Thanks, Frank."
"I can never get any this fresh-tasting except here. What's your secret?"
"Oh." When Clark didn't elaborate, Frank went on. "Where do you find them?" Clark didn't answer. "Clark? Hey, Clark!"
"What? I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"I asked you where you got your fruit so fresh."
"Oh." He shrugged. "You just have to know where to look, I guess."
Lois and Frank fell to breakfast with a will, but Clark just picked at his food. Lois finally said, "Kent, you don't eat, you won't have the energy to work out today."
Lois stared at Clark, who was moving his eggs around on the plate, and slapped her knife down. "Okay, out with it."
"Tell me what's bothering you."
"Oh, I don't think I should —"
"Wrong answer, farm boy. You train with me, you tell me when you have a problem. Now spill it."
"Lois, I really don't —"
"It's Lucy, isn't it? Lucy is the problem." He flinched. From Clark's reaction, she figured she'd nailed it. She sighed. "You spent the night with her last night and now you're worried about how I'll react." She forced her anger down. "Don't worry. My sister is an adult. She does what she wants to do, and she doesn't clear it with me. Just remember that I told you not to hurt her. You do right by her, you hear me?"
"But it's not what you think —"
She slapped her hand on the table. "I told you to do right by her!"
Lois glared at him. "You did right but still you're upset?"
"Yeah, I guess I am."
"You wanna explain that one to me?"
Her voice promised intimate pain. "Do it anyway."
Clark locked eyes with Lois, but he blinked first. "Okay. You asked for it. I walked her home. We had fun. We laughed and told each other jokes and I didn't want to leave. She invited me inside and I said no and she got —"
Lois's outburst startled both Clark and Frank. Frank stood and said, "Excuse me, I'm gonna make sure the stove is off."
"I already turned it off, Frank!"
"Can't be too careful." And he disappeared behind the kitchen door.
Lois stood and leaned over the table. "Tell me all that one more time, a little slower."
Clark sighed. "When Lucy and I got to her front door, she kind of invited me in. I told her we hadn't known each other long enough to — to be —"
Lois waved her hands in front of his face. "Wait. Let me get this straight. Lucy invited you in and you turned her down and now you're depressed?"
"No. I mean, yes, but effect doesn't follow cause."
Lois blinked. "What the heck does that mean?"
"I don't regret not going in with her. I regret that she didn't understand, that she took it personally. All I meant for her to hear was that I don't think men and women should be casual about sex. It's too important to be random or accidental. I like Lucy too much to treat her like a convenience. If I'm depressed, it's because Lucy's feelings got hurt, and that's the last thing I wanted to do."
Lois crossed her arms and glared at him. "Are you telling me you think Lucy was inviting you into her bedroom? You think she does this with every guy she goes out with? Were you expecting to follow a trail of her clothes through the hallway and to the bed?"
"No! I mean, I don't know, not for sure. I didn't want to get into a situation where that might happen, at least not until we know each other a whole, whole lot better." He leaned back and returned her glare. "Lucy is a nice girl. I want to be her friend. She's very intelligent, very sweet, and very trusting. I don't intend to betray that trust, not now, not ever."
"Oh." She sat down. "I see. I think."
"Maybe I should call Lucy and talk to her."
"Mmm. Or maybe you should let me. You know, sister to sister."
Clark's brow furrowed in thought. "You know her better than I do. If you think that's the best way to —"
"Yes. I do. Come on, finish your breakfast. I'll pry Frank out of the kitchen and we'll head out."
"You sure? It looked like a thunderstorm was coming in from the west. Lots of lightning."
She frowned. Running in the rain didn't bother her, but lightning could be a big problem. "I'll check the weather forecast. If it's like you say, we got stationary bikes and lots of jump ropes." Just then a huge streak of lightning speared the sky, accompanied by an express train rumble. Lois nodded. "Okay. Bikes and ropes today, fellas. Indoors we will stay. Hope you like to hop, Kent."
They did two hours of riding nowhere and hopping over nothing at a quick pace before Lois called for a ten-minute rest. Clark and Frank each grabbed for water and a place to sit down. Lois went into her office and closed the door.
She hesitated, then called Lucy's number at the Planet. Her sister was at her desk.
"Lucy Lane, Daily Planet."
"Luce, this is Lois."
"Oh. Hi. This is a surprise."
"Yeah. Listen, I really don't wanna interfere —"
"You don't even know what I'm gonna say."
"Doesn't matter. If you don't want to interfere, then you shouldn't."
Lois sighed. "If it was just me and you, Sis, I'd hang up right now, but this concerns one of my fighters."
Lucy hesitated. "I assume you're referring to Clark Kent."
"Well, duh. Unless some other boxer from my gym walked you home last night."
Her voice hardened. "What did lover boy tell you?"
"He didn't tell you about last night? Man, Lois, we were up past three, just trying new things on each other. I've never been so excited for so long in all my life! I think I just about used him up. Don't work him too hard today or he's liable to fall over dead."
Lois waited, listening to Lucy breathing into the phone. "You done now?"
"Done? Not me. He quit before I did. Lois, did I ever tell you about how he —"
"Stop it, Lucy. He told me he left you at the front door."
Lucy quit breathing for a moment, then said, "Yep, that's what happened, all right. Sex Kitten Lucy Lane, that's me. I can turn them off quicker than my desk lamp."
"You can stow the self-pity too."
"What am I supposed to think, Lois? I invited him in and he said no! He turned me down! How am I supposed to react?"
"You should thank him."
Lois blew out a breath. "Look, Lucy, the reason he didn't go home with you last night is because he respects you and likes you. If something does happen between you, he wants it to be special, and I think he'd also want it to be permanent."
Lois listened to Lucy breathe for several seconds. "Luce, are you still there?"
"I'm here, Lois. Are you on the level with this? You're not snowing me, are you?"
"Of course not. I told Kent I'd call you for him. He was gonna do it, but I figured he'd get too soft and squishy and mess it up. You should feel doubly lucky."
Lucy sniffed once. "Thanks, Lois. That means a lot to me."
Lois was both pleased and uncomfortable. "No problem. Hey, I gotta go to the jane. Talk to you later."
"Okay. Hey, tell Clark I'll call him later this afternoon."
"Sure. I hope he can stay awake that long, after you used him up last night."
Lucy laughed. "Oh, Lois! Now I'm blushing."
"Good. Next time don't try to lie to your big sister."
"I won't. Bye."
"Bye, Sis." Lois hung up and realized that they hadn't threatened each other with death, dismemberment, or exquisite torture. That hadn't happened for a long time, either. She hoped that Kent stayed around for a while, if only to help keep the peace between them.
She pushed the twang in her heart aside. She wanted Clark and Lucy to be happy together, if that was what they both wanted, and it sure seemed like it was what Lucy wanted. She wasn't sure what Clark wanted, but she believed now that he wouldn't try to play her or stay with her under false pretenses.
If only she could control her own feelings for him. The last thing she wanted to do was to break them up or cause problems for them. Kent was just such a whale of a nice guy.
She heard voices outside the office, more than should have been there. She walked out and saw two men talking to Clark and Frank. Clark was standing with his arms crossed, which seemed to be his standard leave-me-alone posture. Frank was gesturing with and at the other two men. The short, thin man was a stranger to her, but she knew the tall, gray-headed man with the mustache.
Joy of joys. Her father had come to visit.
Sam Lane was trying to play peacemaker between Frank and the short man. Lois didn't like their body language; they were all too angry.
"Hey! What's going on here?"
The four of them turned towards the sound of her voice. Sam turned to his companion and said, "Now, Shorty, let me handle this."
Shorty frowned and nodded, then turned to face Frank and Clark. They formed a rough triangle, with Shorty standing at the apex and trying to keep his attention on both of them at once.
"Lois, baby! You're safe! I'm so glad!"
"What? Why shouldn't I be safe?"
Sam goggled at her. "Haven't you heard? Someone's made a threat against you! It's all over the grapevine! I'm surprised no one told you."
She looked up and saw Elmer shuffle in, carrying what appeared to be a long stick in one hand. "Miz Lois, they a problem?"
"No, Elmer, I got this one. Thanks."
"If you say so." He hefted the double-barreled shotgun and broke open the action. Shorty stared at him. "Hey, she don't lemme carry the machine gun no more. Cain't let go o' the trigger quick enough. Like t' cut a man in half las' year." He flipped the weapon closed with one hand.
Elmer held Shorty's gaze for a moment, then smiled and shuffled towards the front door. He never took his eyes off Shorty, and Shorty was suddenly extremely nervous.
"Hey, Doc, let's get outta here, okay?"
"In a minute! Lois, be careful. Somebody doesn't like you, and whoever it is wants to hurt you."
"I think I can take care of myself."
He grabbed her elbow. "You don't understand! These guys don't play by the rules! They use nightsticks and brass knuckles and blackjacks and knives and they don't go to a neutral corner when you go down! Sweetheart, you could get hurt very badly."
Lois grasped her father's hand and twisted it in a direction the human hand wasn't designed to go. "Oww!" He gasped and backed away. "Lois! What —"
"Listen, 'Daddy,' you lost the privilege of taking care of me when you went to work for those goons you call your 'associates.' How many guys has Shorty here beaten up in the last six months? How many women have visited their sons or brothers or husbands or boyfriends in the hospital? Or the morgue?" Sam Lane looked stricken. "Get out. Thanks for the warning, 'Daddy,' but get out of my gym! And take your pet rat with you!"
"He's not a rat, Lois. He's my friend."
"You sure he's not one of your experimental subjects?"
Sam's expression told her she'd hit the bull's-eye. "That's why he wasn't worried about Clark or Frank, but he doesn't like Elmer and his shotgun. You've rebuilt him. He's a robot."
"No! He's a cyborg, not a robot! You should have seen him before I helped him! He couldn't —"
"I don't care what he couldn't do! If you really wanted to help people with lost or useless limbs, you'd be working in a hospital or in a major university or some huge research facility! But you want control! You want the patents! You want the money! And that's all you care about!" She picked up a cup of cold coffee and threw it on him. "Get out! Get out now and don't come back until you're free!"
"You're still so unreasonable! You just won't listen!"
Out of the corner of her eye, Lois saw Clark reach out and tug Frank away from Shorty. Then she heard the distinctive snap of the shotgun opening and closing. "Mistah Kent, you think two twelve-gauge double-ought loads might slow this little fella down some?"
Clark sounded amused. "I think it'd probably get his attention, Elmer."
Shorty tugged on Sam Lane's sleeve. "Doc, it's time to go. Right now."
Sam glared at his daughter for a moment longer, then spun around and stalked towards the door. Shorty managed to keep Sam between himself and Elmer's shotgun until after they were out of sight.
Frank shook his head. "That's not what I'd call a brave little man."
Elmer broke the shotgun open again. "He don't have to be. His kind do his fightin' in the dark and from ambush. You boys watch you'selves. He liable to come up behind you from a dark alley, carryin' a long, sharp knife."
Frank nodded. "I think you're right, Elmer."
"I know I am. That mean me 'n' Lucille here — " he hefted the shotgun " — gonna be real intimate in the foreseeable future."
Clark grinned. "I thought Lucille was B. B. King's guitar."
Elmer shrugged expansively. "Lady spread herself around, I guess."
The men shared a chuckle. Clark glanced at Lois. She had turned away from them and had wrapped her arms around herself. Her head was bowed and she stood unsteadily on one foot. It was the first time Clark had ever seen her emotionally vulnerable, and he desperately wished he could do something about it.
While he debated with himself, Lois took a deep breath and stood straight. She wiped her face with her hands and turned to them, all business once again. She clapped her hands twice. "Okay. Elmer, you keep Lucille handy. Frank, you and Clark get on the heavy bag. Frank goes first. I wanna see both of you move it at least six inches per punch."
Frank moaned. "Six inches! I can barely budge the thing when Clark holds it!"
Lois stared him down. "Six inches. And I don't mean five and seven-eighths." The men stood looking at her. "Why are you still standing here? Move it!"
"That was a good workout. I'll see you guys tomorrow morning at six, rain or shine. Both of you get some rest."
Frank nodded. "Sure thing." He slapped Clark on the arm playfully. "Hey, man, you wanna hit the clubs with me?"
Clark smiled. "I don't go to clubs, Frank. I can't afford it."
"Naw! Not clubs with girls and drinks, man, clubs that knock little white balls into little holes in the ground! Golf! Pasture pool! You know, a good walk spoiled?"
Clark laughed. "Where there's no such thing as an unplayable lie?"
"Yeah! And it never rains on the course!"
Lois put her hands on her hips. "If you guys are going golfing, get caddies and drive a cart. I don't want either of you in here tomorrow with sore shoulders from carrying heavy bags of clubs, or turned ankles from chasing a slice in wet weeds."
"Gotcha, Lois! Come on, Clark, I've got a five o'clock tee time. We can get in nine holes before dark for sure!"
Clark turned to Lois and shrugged. "I guess we'll see you tomorrow morning."
"I guess you will. You kids play nice, okay?"
Frank grinned at her and waved as he and Clark exited. Elmer walked over, still carrying Lucille. "That boy been good for you, Miz Lois."
"What, Frank? He's a nice guy, but —"
"Not Frank. Ah mean Kent."
Lois's jaw dropped. "Elmer! Shame on you for thinking like that! He's my sister's boyfriend!"
Elmer grinned. "Ah don't mean like romance, Ah mean like a cornerstone."
She gaped at him. "Cornerstone? What are you talking about?"
His voice deepened slightly, and he lost the 'dumb hick' accent. "That he is a man upon which a woman might build a life. He is not the most imaginative of men, but there is character and unexpected talent hidden deep within. You could do worse than to build a strong relationship with that one."
"But he's Lucy's guy, not mine!"
"Your relationship need not be a romantic one. It might be that of a strong support in time of need. It might be the deepest of friendships, one that confounds both Lucy and the man you will eventually wed. I say this only because, in all the years that I have known you, I have never seen you react to a man in this fashion. You are on the verge of opening your heart to him."
"C'mon, Elmer, I'm dating Lex! What do I want with a journeyman boxer?"
"You have not opened your heart to Lex Luthor. I suspect you never will." He reverted to his earlier persona. "An' now, Miz Lois, Ah think Ah'm gonna lock up and skedaddle on home. Mah feets is killin' me."
Lois grinned back at him. "Thanks, Elmer. You're a good friend."
"You don' f'git what Ah tole you?"
Another voice rang out. "You won't have time to forget it, whatever it was."
Elmer spun around and snapped the shotgun up. "Put it down, old man! You're covered from two directions."
Elmer looked left, then right, then opened the shotgun again and laid it on the table. "You mus' be so scared of a old black man 'n' a little girl."
A younger voice called out, "We ain't scared of no —"
"Shut up!" Three men holding pistols stood up from behind various crates. "Where's your newest phenom?"
The man who'd spoken with authority slid the huge pistol inside his waistband and walked closer. "Kent. The new young hope."
"He's not here. Look, I think you should leave before the police arrive."
"Don't worry. We'll be gone before they get here." He gestured to Elmer. "You move away from that scattergun, old- timer."
Elmer shuffled away. "You ain't gonna hurt me, is ya?"
"Not if you behave yourself."
Another man, much younger and very nervous, spoke up. "Let me take him! I can do it with one hand!"
"Shut up! We have a specific job to do and it doesn't include you showing off! Now take your position."
Lois crossed her arms. "I don't know, Mac. I don't think Junior over there can take Elmer bare-handed."
"Doesn't matter. You two —"
"I can take him, Bob! Lemme smack him around for a while!"
The man in charge flared up. "You idiot! I ought to leave you here in pieces! No names! I told you no names!"
The youth opened his mouth to speak, but before he could inhale, the front door banged open. "Come on, Clark, you don't need your watch to play golf!"
"Sure I do. I need to know how long you can keep from laughing at yourself on the second tee."
"I can concentrate as well as — " Frank's voice cut off and he stopped. Clark, who was several steps in front of him, stopped as well.
"Hey, Frank, what's the deal?"
Frank pointed at the gathering across the gym floor. "You know those guys?"
Clark looked. "No, don't think so. Let's introduce ourselves."
Lois tried to send Kent a mental message to 'stay away and leave now' but he just smiled his country-boy smile and kept coming. Frank looked wary, but he followed Clark. As they got closer, though, Frank moved away from Clark and put some space between them.
Junior got very nervous and lifted his weapon. "Everybody freeze!"
Clark and Frank dove in opposite directions. Junior fired three wild shots that ricocheted off the walls and the floor. Frank rolled to Junior's feet and knocked him down and out of the fight before Junior could react. The third man looked at Junior for half a second, and before he could turn back to Lois, she had kicked him in the head and broken his gun hand while relieving him of his weapon.
Bob reached for his pistol but Clark was suddenly in front of him, holding the man's wrist with one hand and clenching his other hand into a fist. Clark looked directly into his eyes and said, "It's time for you to quit."
The man grimaced and fell to his knees. He cried out and grasped his crushed wrist with his good hand. "You — you broke my arm!"
"You looked like you were going to hurt somebody." Clark reached inside his jacket and yanked his gun out. "Whoa. You play with the big toys, don't you?"
Lois brandished the pistol she'd taken away from the silent man. "My guy's down for the count. He was carrying a three- fifty-seven magnum revolver. Frank?"
Frank pointed the weapon he'd liberated from Junior at its former owner. "Nine millimeter generic bang-bang, high capacity magazine. Don't you guys know it's dangerous to play with guns?"
Junior groaned in response. Frank stood. "I think he'll keep until the cops get here. Clark, what'cha got there?"
Clark stepped back and lifted his prize. "This, my friends, is a fifty-caliber express revolver. It's more powerful than the gun Dirty Barry carries. This thing will kill a rhino with one shot if you hit it in the right place."
Elmer snapped his shotgun closed. "Ah say we dump 'em in Hobb's Bay and f'git 'em."
"No!" Junior gasped from his prone position. "Please no! Don't kill me!"
Frank looked down at him. "Kinda selfish, aren't you? You didn't mind if one of us got shot, but you don't want to share the experience?"
Bob snapped, "Tell them nothing!" Then he howled in pain as Clark thumped his damaged arm with one finger.
Lois dumped her victim beside Bob. "Frank, bring Junior over here."
"Right, boss. Come on, kid, let's go for a trip."
Frank pointed Junior's gun at him and nudged him towards Bob. Junior crawled painfully to his boss's side and lay there, moaning and begging for mercy.
Lois caught Elmer's eye, and he nodded in return. She reached out and grabbed the lapel of Bob's jacket and hauled him to his feet. "Okay, Elmer. We dump them in the bay. You wanna shoot them first?"
Junior's eyes almost fell out of his head. Elmer nodded. "Might as well. Be easier to move 'em. Dead men don't wiggle 'round."
Lois said, "Okay, Frank, take Bob here into the next room. He's the leader, let him lead."
"Gotcha. Come on, Lefty, let's go."
Bob stumbled under Frank's pushes, but he kept going. "You — you can't kill us! They'll trace it back to you. They'll find you! They'll kill you slow."
Elmer gave him a surprisingly strong shove. "Yeah, yeah, we heard that afore. Now git around theah so the blood don't splatter the front room."
Bob was quite agitated by this time. "No! You can't kill me! You can't — c'mon, don't let him do it! Don't let him!"
"Come on, Bob, be a man. Don't let Junior see how scared you really are."
Frank half-pushed, half-carried Bob around the corner. His protests grew more strident and panicked. Elmer nodded and said, "That's 'bout right. Set him in th' chair."
They heard a chair scrape. Clark stepped back and whispered, "Lois, you have to stop this! We can't kill them!"
She whispered back, "We won't. Trust me."
"Positive. Just play along."
He shook his head. "You're the boss."
Junior had managed to work himself to his knees as he watched his boss disappear around the corner. He saw Elmer aim the shotgun and step forward out of sight around the corner. He heard Bob scream for Elmer not to shoot. Suddenly he heard a huge BOOM! BOOM! and saw smoke waft from the next room. Then, silence.
Frank and Elmer sauntered back in. Elmer broke open the shotgun and dropped two smoking empty shells on the floor, then reloaded. "Man, tha's a rush! Wanna do that agin right quick!"
"We'll need another chair. That other one's nothing but splinters now."
Clark was staring, open-mouthed, when Lois elbowed him in the ribs. He turned to her in anger. "I thought you said —"
She cut him off. "They came after us, Kent! They deserve what they get!"
"But — but you can't —"
"We just did. Elmer, you want Sleeping Beauty over there next?"
Elmer curled his lip. "Ain't no fun to shoot a man when he don't know it's comin'. How 'bout I take Junior here next?"
Junior wet himself and started crying openly. "No, no, no! Don't kill me, please don't kill me! I'll talk! I'll tell you everything!"
Frank knelt down beside him. "What makes you think we want to ask you anything, boy?"
Junior looked up at Frank and wilted. He fell to the floor, broken. "The Englishman! The Englishman told us — told us to hurt Kent! He told us to s-scare Lane but don't touch her! He said — he said it'd be easy! Please don't k-kill me! Please!"
Lois stood over him. "You talked to this Englishman?"
"No! Bob did! Bob s-said the Englishman told us what to do! We were gonna get Kent and b-beat him up bad! That's all I got! I swear! Please don't kill me!"
Lois leaned over. "What's the Englishman's name?"
Junior reached up towards Lois in supplication. "I dunno! I swear I dunno! I never seen him! I never even talked to him! Bob seen him! Bob knew him! I told you everything I know! P- please don't kill me! Please! Please!"
The last word dissolved into sobs and tears. Lois stood up and motioned to Frank. "I think we got everything we're going to get."
Frank nodded and trotted into the next room. He came back, dragging Bob by the collar. Junior saw them and began moaning louder. Frank dropped Bob beside him and said, "Be quiet, Junior, or you'll wake him up."
Junior looked at Bob's body. It took him a moment, but it finally registered that not only was Bob still breathing, but there were no bloody wounds on his body. Junior sat up and looked at Lois. "You lied to me! You made me think you killed him!"
"Yep. It worked."
Clark leaned in. "Worked on me, too, Junior. They didn't let me in on this little trick before they pulled it. I thought Bob was dead, and that you were next."
"Yeah, well, before we accept the Academy Award for best acting in front of a doofus, we better call the cops. Elmer, will you do the honors?"
"Yes'm, Miz Lois. Oh, Junior, jus' in case you decide you brave, or mad, I ain't loaded with blanks now. Lucille got double-ought buck in her chambers again."
Junior paled again and lay back down on the wet concrete.
The police arrived quickly and took custody of the three invaders and their weapons, and sternly warned Lois and her crew not to play interrogation games any more. After the three were safely in custody, the detective in charge shook his head at Lois and folded his arms.
"Lane, I don't like involving you in this. You and Elmer should know better. That information you got from Junior is useless in court. The DA doesn't like the games you play, and he doesn't like you now any more than he did a few months ago."
Clark nudged Lois. "What happened a few months ago?"
Lois glared at him. "Never mind! Henderson, what's going to happen to those three clowns?"
Henderson sighed. "They aren't clowns. They're mid-level enforcers for some mob boss, and they're actually pretty good." He sighed again. "We'll charge them with assault, assault with a deadly weapon, forced entry, use of firearms in the commission of a felony, and whatever else we can put on them. At least those charges won't be tossed because of your little stage play. And before you ask, no, we don't know who the Englishman is."
Lois frowned. "You think he'll try again?"
Henderson shrugged. "Depends on what he wants and how bad he wants it. I think you'll be okay for a couple of days, at least, but after that you may have some serious problems. Kent, why were they after you specifically?"
Clark shook his head. "I don't know, but I suspect that it's related to the rumors about the boxing takeover. Lois is the last independent, and whoever's heading up this effort wants her to knuckle under. Maybe they were trying to take out her support so she'd fall."
"Good theory, Kent, but do you have any —"
Lois suddenly shouted, "Lucy!"
Clark's eyes grew wide behind his glasses. "Right! Henderson, send a car to check on Lucy Lane! If I'm right they may go after her!"
Henderson spun and grabbed a radio. He barked instructions for a car to check on Lucy's apartment.
Lois grabbed a phone and punched out her sister's number. Lucy picked up after the third ring. "Hello?"
"Lucy! Are you okay? Anybody there with you?"
Lucy sounded puzzled. "No. Why, should there —"
"Lock your doors now!"
"What? Lois, you're not making —"
"Just do it! Now!"
"Okay, okay! I'm setting the door locks now. You hear that? All three bolts shut."
"Good." Lois took a deep breath. "Lucy, some guys came after us. It's possible somebody may come after you. Sit tight and don't let anybody in but me or the police!"
"What about Clark?"
"What? What about Clark?"
"Yeah, your new fighter. Hey, I had a call at work today about him."
"What? Who called you?"
"I don't know, the guy just left a voice message. He said that Clark was not all that he seemed to be and that I should investigate him closely before I got too involved."
Lois stomped the floor. "What time was that?"
"Uh, about four-thirty, I think. Why?"
"That was about the time those clowns were here."
"Clowns? You had a party and didn't invite me?"
"Not now, Luce! What did this guy sound like?"
"Kinda deep voice, very precise pronunciation, English accent —"
"English? Lucy, do you still have that message?"
"Yeah. I saved it on the Planet's system. Why?"
"Here. You need to talk to Detective Henderson." She handed the phone to the detective. "Bill, Lucy has some info for you. Here."
He took the phone and turned away from her. Lois realized she was shaking and began rubbing her arms. Suddenly Clark was there, holding her shoulders from behind.
"Lucy's okay. Just relax. Take it easy." His hands replaced hers on her arms. "The police are on their way. She's fine."
"I know, Clark, I know. But if they hurt her, I swear I'll kill them!"
Clark turned her towards him. "Hey, take it easy. No one will hurt her. I promise I won't let anything happen to her."
She blew air between her lips and made a blubbering noise. "You shouldn't make promises you can't keep, Kent."
"You might be surprised at what I can do."
Lois looked into his eyes, and she believed him. She felt herself leaning towards those deep pools of soft brown. Then Elmer cleared his throat and Lois jerked herself away from him. "Yeah, maybe, Kent, yeah." She turned away, fanning herself. "Hey, Elmer, why's the heat up so high in here?"
He winked at Clark. "I jus' go 'n' turn it down. Don' want you gettin' all het up fo' nothin'."
Lucy nodded her thanks to the waiter who'd just seated them. "Thanks for meeting me so late, Clark. I — I was afraid you wouldn't want to see me again."
"Of course I want to see you, Lucy. I like you. You're a nice person."
"Thanks, but I don't really feel like one."
He lifted his glass. "Trust me on this one. You are a nice person."
She sighed. "Then why did I invite you into my apartment?"
"Because you are a nice person. Because you wanted to share some of your life with someone you care about."
"I have to confess. Time isn't all I was thinking about sharing with you."
He grinned. "I know. I guess this is kind of a role reversal, isn't it? The woman wants to move ahead, the man hangs back." He leaned over to her and fluttered his eyelashes. "Please, please be gentle with me."
Lucy tried not to laugh, but she couldn't help herself. The last of her guilt dissolved in Clark's unselfishness and forgiveness and irrepressible good humor. She was comfortable with this man. He was a really nice guy, and she thought that maybe she might be falling in love with him.
But she knew now that if she pushed him to get closer, she'd only push him away. She had to be patient and let him think it was his idea. She had the time.
As Clark leaned towards her, sharing their laughter, she impulsively kissed him. Not a lingering kiss, not a demanding kiss, just a kiss to tell him that she cared.
Clark's eyes focused on hers. She felt as if she were falling into them. Instead of retreating, her lips found his again, and this time the kiss did linger. She slowly pulled back and sat up, a smile pulling her face apart. Clark leaned back also, looking a little stunned. Good. She liked him stunned. He couldn't think as quickly in that condition.
"Clark, I think the waiter is ready for our order."
"What? Oh. Oh! Yes, yes, I'm ready. Uh, Lucy, what are you having?"
Lucy focused on the moment, on Clark's expression, and on the good time she was having. She sternly reminded herself that she'd drive herself home, without inviting him to accompany her, to prove to him that he was safe around her.
She smiled to herself. If only he knew how safe from her he really wasn't.
Lois and Elmer entered the restaurant, alert but relaxed. He'd finally convinced her to go out instead of hibernating alone in the gym.
"Miz Lois, this ain't mah usual eatin' place."
"Sorry, Burger Whiz isn't on my short list tonight."
"More yo' price range."
"This won't break us, I promise! We'll have plenty of money left for talcum powder and laces for the gloves."
A waitress approached them warily. "Ah, sir, ma'am, will that be — two for dinner?"
Lois flared at her. "Something wrong, honey?"
"No, no, o-of course not —"
"Because if there is, we could always talk to the Daily Planet about age and race discrimination on the part of your staff. I bet your manager would love to see an article about that part of your business operation."
"No ma'am! I just wanted — do you prefer a table or a booth?"
In a deep, melodious voice, Elmer replied, "If there is a booth available, miss, we would prefer that, please."
"Of course, sir." She flashed her plastic smile. "Let me make certain we have one ready."
Lois leaned close to him. "One of these days you're going to explain yourself to me."
"My dear Lois! That would evaporate the mystery. I refuse to destroy your cherished illusions."
"Ha! My cherished illusions — are — they —"
"Lois? Lois, what's wrong? You appear slightly pale. Lois?"
Elmer followed the direction of her gaze. He saw Clark Kent and Lucy Lane leaning into a soft, gentle, time-consuming kiss that drained the blood from Lois's face and tensed her entire body. He felt her squeeze his hand unmercifully.
The bouncy little waitress came back. "We have your booth ready, ma'am. If you'll follow me, please?"
Elmer shook his head and handed the girl a ten-dollar bill. "I'm very sorry, young lady. Through no fault of your own, or that of your fine establishment, we have changed our minds and decided to dine elsewhere. Please accept this token as an apology for our inability to enjoy your hospitality this evening." Elmer turned and led Lois past the other waiting patrons and out the door, leaving an astonished hostess standing in the foyer with ten dollars in her hand.
Once in the fresh air, Lois recovered and pulled away from Elmer's arm. They walked side-by-side down the street until Elmer pulled Lois to a stop at the intersection.
"Miz Lois, Ah'm sorry 'bout that. Didn't know you felt like that about that boy."
She folded her arms across her chest. "Neither did I, and that's the truth. I don't know why I reacted like that. He's a nice guy and Lucy sure seems to like him. I think they'll be good for each other. He can help her start trusting people again."
He nudged her elbow. "Light's green." They crossed and kept walking. "Maybe so. She need to learn to trust folk again. You too. Maybe you need to say somethin' to him."
"Oh, sure! 'Kent, I'd like for you to sit with me in a nice public place and kiss me until my shoes pop off.' Lucy'd love that."
"You never know."
From the alley they were passing, someone said, "No, you never do."
Three shaven-headed youths stalked out of the alley. The leader said, "Woman, you are polluting the purity of the Aryan race by associating with this sub-human black animal. It is our duty to teach you a lesson concerning the error of your ways."
Elmer shook his head. "Young man, go home and cease your efforts in playing at being a superman. Friedrich Nietzsche did not have you in mind when he penned his philosophy. You do not nearly fill the mold."
Lois raised an eyebrow. "Nietzsche?"
"They jus' playin' at bein' big men."
The young man bared his teeth. "Playing! We do not play at our superiority! We fight for the purity of our people! You will be punished for your insolence! Bring them into the alley!"
One boy reached for Elmer. Elmer flipped his hands free and shoved the boy back against a wall, then punched him sharply in the solar plexus with the heel of his hand. He slid to the ground, focused solely on his inability to breathe.
The leader and the third boy both went after Lois. She threw a spinning heel kick at the third boy's temple and he dropped to the ground, nerveless and unconscious. She twisted the leader's hand behind his back and up between his shoulder blades, dislocated his shoulder, then swept his legs out from under him with one foot. The young man landed on his damaged shoulder and screamed before he blacked out.
Elmer turned and looked around. "Ain't never a cop when you need one."
Lois pulled her cell phone out of her purse. "I got it."
As she punched the last number, Elmer asked her, "How you feel now?"
She made a face at him. "You took too long with yours. You're getting old."
Elmer smiled. He couldn't have planned this, of course, but a little action was just what she'd needed. She'd be okay, at least until she saw Kent kissing her sister again. He hoped he wasn't around when she decided she wanted Kent and tried to take him away from Lucy.
Workouts the next day were routine, except for the heightened awareness of their surroundings that each of them exhibited. The morning runs were uneventful, but all of them watched more carefully than usual. For the first time since Clark had joined them, Elmer followed the runners in an old sedan with Lucille on the seat beside him. Once, around eleven o'clock, a truck drove by the gym slowly. Elmer lifted Lucille. Lois, Clark, Frank and Manny all stopped what they were doing and listened intently until the truck drove off again.
Elmer looked out the window. "Clear. Just a trash truck."
Manny put his hands on his hips. "Boss, I don' unnerstan' why those men they come to shoot you. You not been bad."
Lois smiled. "I know, Manny. They were criminals. They were trying to hurt Clark and scare me."
"I shoulda been here! I take care of them! Jab-jab-jab and right to belly! They go down!"
Frank slapped him on the shoulder. "But if you had been here, it wouldn't have been a fair fight. All they had was guns. We had each other, and they didn't have much of a chance as it was."
Manny smiled. "Next time I get them for you."
Frank smiled back. "I just hope there isn't a next time, Manny."
Lois clapped her hands. "Okay, back to work. Get your ropes and start jumping. Let's see some high knee action here."
Thursday morning was overcast and drizzly. The weather girl gleefully forecast clearing skies by the time of the scheduled Messenger launch. Breakfast was up to Clark's usual standards. Lois decided not to try to make it to Lex's launch party. Instead, she figured it was time for a break in everyone's routine, so she ordered Mexican takeout for her crew and postponed the afternoon workouts so they could all watch the launch.
They squeezed in around the television set in Lois's office and waited. Clark stood in the doorway, wishing he could take a quick look around the shuttle. But there was no way for him to get away for long enough, so he told himself that the technicians on site would know if anything was wrong. There was no way they'd risk that many lives unless it was as safe as was humanly possible.
Clark picked up the morning paper and leafed through it. He found a small item in the metro section that Dr. Samuel Platt had committed suicide by electrocution. Dr. Platt had worked on the Messenger until a few months before, when he tried to spread a story that the Messenger was being sabotaged. Both the internal and the external investigations had found nothing. Platt had been fired, and, unable to find a job or even be taken seriously, he'd ended his life.
What a waste, thought Clark. So much to live for, yet so willing to give it up. It was sad. Odd way to kill himself, though, by electrocution. Not many suicides like that one.
Frank began teasing Manny. "Hey, you came over on a shuttle like that one, didn't you?"
"You funny man. You don' like you nose? I fix for you. Free. No charge, too."
"My nose is fine, Manny. I bet you could sniff out any aliens with your big schnozzola, though."
Clark stiffened, then realized that Frank was just kidding. Sometimes it was hard to remember that he was the stranger here, that there were people who feared him because he was from 'out there' somewhere. He'd already become accustomed to the feeling of acceptance and home here in Lois's gym. The other fighters accepted him, some as a friend and some as a competitor, but no one was afraid of him. He liked the feeling. He liked the way Lucy treated him, too. He wasn't sure how he felt about her, except that he liked her. Of course, he liked Lois too, but he was pretty sure she only cared about how good a fighter he could be.
They joked with each other as they watched the last of the countdown, and when the Messenger engines fired, they all cheered. They watched the shuttle lift for a few moments, then the TV showed the controlled chaos of the control room. Frank turned up the volume, and the voices from the communications link filled the room.
"One mile altitude, engines one hundred percent, you're right in the groove, Messenger."
"Roger, control. We confirm both course and speed are in the green."
"Messenger, you're at ten miles and accelerating. Engines one hundred four percent, you are exactly in the center of your projected path."
"Roger, control, course and speed confirmed. All indicators green, all levels at optimum."
"Messenger, you're at thirty-five miles, and everything's perfect. Tell me again, what did you need us for?"
"Roger, control, we need you to tell us what a wonderful job we're doing."
"That's a roger, Messenger. You're at forty-seven miles altitude and looking good."
"Confirm, control. We're in the groove. Approaching sixty-five miles altitude."
"Roger, Messenger, your course and speed are optimum. Engines at one hundred five percent, you are at eighty-five miles altitude."
"Roger, control. We — hold it."
There was a long pause.
"Control, this is Messenger. We have lost forward thrust, repeat, we have lost forward thrust."
"Messenger, this is control, we confirm. Your engines have deactivated. Please restart."
A pause. "Control, this is Messenger, negative on restart. Repeat, negative on engine restart."
"Messenger, try again."
Another pause. "Control, no go on restart. Repeat, no go on engine restart."
"Messenger, you are at altitude sixty-eight miles and losing altitude. Prepare for emergency water landing. Repeat, prepare for emergency water landing."
"Roger, control. We are preparing."
"Good luck, Messenger."
The silence in the office became deafening. Clark stared at the screen. He couldn't let all those people die! He had to do something. He slipped away from the office to the dressing room, sure that no one would notice his absence, and changed into his jeans and sweatshirt. He pulled up his hood and tied it under his chin, then tugged his hair down over his face as far as it would go. He was as anonymous as he could be. He slowly levitated up through the skylight in the dressing room and zipped southeast, climbing steadily.
Lois, Manny, Elmer, and Frank all stared at the TV. None of them missed Clark. The network switched to a view from a ship downrange, and they all watched the stricken shuttle fall from the sky. The audio feed from the ship also came over.
"There they are. We can see them. Altitude sixteen miles and still falling. Velocity over Mach three and accelerating. They're gonna hit like a piano on concrete. Altitude twelve miles. Altitude eight miles. Altitude — what the — they're climbing? Yes! They're climbing! They must have restarted the engines! Altitude eleven miles and climbing. Velocity up to Mach four and accelerating. Altitude over twenty miles. Twenty- five! They're back in the groove! Altitude over forty-two miles! I don't believe it! Where are they getting the fuel? I don't —"
The view suddenly switched back to the control room. The controlled chaos of before had given way to total anarchy. They caught snatches of puzzled shouts and repeated exclamations of "Inconceivable!" or "This is impossible!" Then a news commentator's voice overrode them.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I — what they're telling me is clearly impossible, but we have both electronic and visual confirmation that it is happening. The shuttle's engines have not been restarted. Let me repeat that. The Messenger's engines could not be restarted. We have no idea what has happened, except that the shuttle is back on course and moving towards its prescribed orbit. No one — wait, here is the comm link to the shuttle again."
The voices from earlier came across. " — on course. Repeat, Messenger, you are on course and approaching your optimum orbital path."
"Uh. Yeah. We confirm that, control. I don't know how, but we confirm it."
"Messenger, this is control, please confirm that your main engines are offline."
"That is a roger, control. Our main engines are offline and not functioning. Repeat, main engines are not functioning."
"Messenger, please give us a video feed to the rear of the shuttle."
"Rear view video feed, roger." The TV showed the back of the shuttle. "Panning from port to starboard now. We confirm that engines are shut off and — what the heck is that?"
The screen momentarily showed what looked like a man dressed in black, or perhaps dark blue, pushing the shuttle from behind. Almost as soon as he was visible, he shifted position and vanished from the screen.
"Messenger, this is no time to be funny."
"What! Mike, this is no joke! I don't know what that was! We didn't do that!"
"Messenger, please continue with your visual scan."
"Messenger, please repeat."
"Uh, yeah. I mean, roger, control, continuing with visual scan."
The camera panned throughout its range, but showed nothing else out of the ordinary.
"Messenger, this is control. We read that you have reached optimum orbital velocity and altitude."
"Control, this is Messenger. We copy and confirm, we are at optimum orbital altitude and velocity. We are on course to rendezvous with Prometheus Station in sixteen hours, twenty-four minutes.." There was a long pause. "Mike, what just happened to us?"
"Stand by, Messenger." There was another long pause. "Messenger, this is control. We don't know what happened either." Another pause. "Let's start by finding out what shut off your engines. We recommend that you run a full diagnostic on every system on your ship, beginning with your engines, starting now. Continue until you dock with Prometheus Station. They will assist you if you need more help. Do not, repeat, do not establish data links between yourself and the station until you have positive results. We don't want a virus or a worm sneaking onto the station."
"We copy, control. We are initiating diagnostics now. Exterior examination will begin in — fifteen minutes or less. Thanks for all your help."
There was a brief pause. "I think you should thank whoever really helped you, Messenger."
"Roger that, control. If you find out before we do, please let us know."
The scene shifted to a press conference. A tall, distinguished older woman walked to the bank of microphones, a shocked expression on her face. A short, bald man introduced her.
"Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present Dr. Diane Molson, head of the International Space Administration. She will answer your questions to the best of her ability."
Frank leaned back and let out a low whistle. "Wow! Have you ever seen anything like that before? Hey, Clark, can you see okay?"
"Sure. I can see everything fine. Thanks."
Lex Luthor sat in his chair, stunned by the morning's events. Nigel St. John sat down behind him. It was a measure of their astonishment that Nigel sat down in Lex's presence without an invitation, and that Lex didn't notice it.
The others in the suite began quietly cheering. One of the women grabbed each man in the room in turn and kissed him. When she got to Lex, he didn't resist, nor did he participate. She even kissed Nigel, who also didn't respond.
The men and women in the suite decided to leave Lex alone, apparently thinking that he was overcome with relief that the mission had succeeded. They filed out and closed the door behind them, searching for others more willing to celebrate.
Lex eventually turned to Nigel and spoke in a relaxed, casual tone. "Nigel, did we or did we not sabotage that shuttle?"
"Uh. Yes. Yes, sir. I believe — I believe the device deactivated the engines at an altitude of eighty-eight miles, just as was planned."
"I see. If everything worked according to plan, how did the shuttle achieve orbit?"
Nigel shrugged. "I have no idea."
They sat there, staring at each other, for several seconds. Lex finally shook himself out of his stupor.
"Well. Something, or perhaps someone, intervened. I want to know who or what it was. And I want to know why."
Nigel nodded. "If it is any consolation, sir, ISA does not know what happened either."
Lex turned his attention back to the screen. Dr. Molson was answering every question about what happened to the shuttle with variations of 'We are investigating, but we don't know anything yet.' Lex nodded. "At least we've all been taken by surprise."
"It will not be a surprise much longer, sir. The fuel flow override control package will be discovered soon."
"I assume it can't be traced back to us?"
Nigel hesitated. "Not directly, sir, but there are very few commercial or scientific entities capable of constructing such a device and employing it to best advantage. Suspicion is sure to fall upon LexCorp and Lex Labs."
"Hmm. We anticipated that the mechanism would be destroyed when the shuttle crashed. I didn't specify a self-destruct option on the specs I drew up. Did you happen to include one?"
Nigel hung his head. "No, sir, I regret that I did not."
Lex lit a cigar. "An oversight on both our parts, I'm afraid. Hard for me to blame you when I'm equally at fault. Well, into each life a little rain must fall." He took a deep puff and let it out slowly. "We will weather this storm also, Nigel."
Lucy listened to Perry yelling at the top of his lungs for everyone to "get the story now!" She didn't know if the glimpse of what looked like a man had been a person, an angel, a demon, an alien being, a technical glitch, or a practical joke, but it was the biggest story of the year and she wanted it! She grabbed the phone and dialed Lois's office number. Maybe some average- citizen-candid-quotes would help.
Lois answered on the second ring. "Yeah. I mean, Lane Gym and Dojo. May I help you?"
"Lois! This is Lucy! Did you see him? Did you see?"
"What? Lucy, slow down!"
"Did you see?"
"Luce, I don't know what I saw. I don't think ISA knows either."
"Is Clark there?"
"You still change subjects at full speed, don't you?"
"C'mon, Lois! Is Clark there?"
"Yes." Lucy heard rustling noises.
"This is Clark."
"Hey, Clark, isn't that fabulous? What do you think happened?"
The question startled him. "Uh. I don't —"
"Oh, come on, Clark! Guess! Take a wild guess!"
"Lucy, I don't — just what did you see?"
"Huh? Oh, pretty much the same thing everyone else did. I mean, it looked like a man in jeans and tennis shoes, but they didn't get a good look, and how could a man push the shuttle into space anyway? I think it was either an angel or an alien, but if it was an alien then why would he help Earth get into space unless he's supposed to help us get to space but if that's true then why are we supposed to be there in the first place —"
Standing helpless in the gym's business office, Clark held the phone away from his head and looked at Lois. She nodded sympathetically. "Full-out babble mode, I assume." Clark nodded once. "She'll run down in a few minutes. Just say 'uh-huh' or 'yeah' or 'sure' every once in a while so she thinks you're actually listening."
"Okay, I can — wait, I think she's back." He put the phone to his ear.
"— have to go now. Perry's going totally berserk on this. Can we meet tonight? I want to compare notes with you."
"My place." When Clark didn't answer, she huffed into the phone and said, "Oh, come on! This is business!"
"Um. Sure. Sure, I'll be there. What time?"
"Seven. No! Make it eight. Eight is better."
"Eight o'clock. I'll be there."
"And bring Chinese! I love Chinese food."
Clark chuckled. "Okay, Chinese takeout it is. My treat."
"Nope! We split it. And bring extra egg rolls! I love those things! Oops, gotta go! Bye!"
She dropped the phone in the cradle as Perry gave her a stack a papers and a barrage of instructions. She nodded and began the research for the sidebar article on the flight crew and their possible connections to either alien life forms or supernatural beings.
Lucy took a second to congratulate herself on staying focused on the story, despite the thrill Clark's voice had given her. Then she dove into her assignment, determined to get it perfect. She had two hours before the extra had to go to press, and she desperately wanted her name displayed prominently.
Clark walked through the door of the farmhouse and sat down at the dinner table. His mother brought him a plate of brownies and a huge glass of milk.
He pointed at the snack. "How'd you know?"
"I'm your mother, Clark. I just know."
He picked up a brownie and tasted it. "Perfect. Just perfect."
She leaned back and smiled. "So, this visit is just about my brownies?"
"Don't forget the milk."
"I can't forget the Messenger."
He stopped. "I couldn't let all those people die. I had to do something."
She patted his arm. "I know. I think you did the right thing. In fact, I don't know what else you could have done. It's just —"
"Well, you don't photograph very well in jeans and a sweatshirt."
"That's kind of the point, Mom."
"I know. But if you keep doing this sort of thing, someone's going to get a good look at your face and recognize it. You need some kind of disguise or costume if you're going to keep this up, and jeans won't do the trick."
"You think I need to wear a mask?"
"I think you need to decide how you want to approach this. Do you want to be this super-helper all the time? Do you want a normal life? Which is it?"
"I've been thinking about that. When a boxer goes into the ring, he usually wears a particular costume that identifies him. People look at the trunks and the robe as much as they do the face. Frank told me that he's made guys back away from him just by telling them he was Frank 'White Hand' Meucci." He stood up. "So maybe I should wear some kind of distinctive outfit. Besides, I had to change my clothes when I got back to the gym. They smelled of rocket exhaust."
Martha stood up. "Let me take some measurements. I've got some ideas, and maybe I can come up with something you can wear. Hmm. It needs to be eye-catching, loud, splashy —"
"Loud and splashy? Why?"
"So people will know it's you. Also, the more attention we can draw from your face, the less likely someone will spot you. Why don't you drop by Sunday evening? You can try on my creations then. Your dad will be here, and I'll want his input too."
Clark sighed. "Okay, but please don't make me look stupid."
She laughed. "I'll do my best. Would you like some dinner before you go, or will the brownies be enough?"
"Actually, Mom, I was hoping to take them with me. I'm having dinner with Lucy tonight."
"Oh, good! Clark, you've got to let us meet her soon."
"I've been thinking about that, too. Why don't you and Dad come to my first fight? It's two weeks from tomorrow night. I'm on the undercard with Frank."
"I don't know if we can, Son, but we'll try. Who are you fighting?"
"A kid named Ben Piedmont. He's a ranked cruiserweight. Lois thinks I can take him."
Martha patted his cheek. "You will. Just don't hurt the boy, okay?"
He smiled. "I promise. Hey, I have to stop by Madame Chung's for takeout before I see Lucy. Gotta go."
She pulled out a plastic bag and dropped the brownies in. "Take these with you. I don't know how they'll go with Madame Chung's egg drop soup, but you can let me know how Lucy likes them."
"I'm sure she'll love them." He kissed her on the cheek. "Bye for now."
Clark read the Daily Planet's extra edition as he waited for Madame Chung to bring out his order. He was impressed that Lucy's article on the shuttle's command crew was on page three center, just after the continuation of the front page story. She'd managed to track down Captain Richard Cunningham's mother and sister, get quotes from them about how level-headed and even- tempered he was, and assemble them in a story that flowed well. Clark nodded as he folded the paper. He'd ask Lucy to sign it. That would probably make her evening.
Madame Chung herself handed Clark the takeout boxes. He bowed to her and thanked her in Cantonese, and she wished him a pleasant evening with his friend. As he left, he reflected that he might not be able to come to Hong Kong for takeout too often. Someone in Metropolis might get suspicious of takeout boxes with no English words on them.
Clark landed in an alley about three blocks from Lucy's building. He checked his surroundings again and saw no one. He hurried to Lucy's door to preserve as much warmth in the food as was possible.
Lucy opened the door and grabbed his arm. "Get in here, mister! I'm starving!"
Clark smiled and put the boxes on Lucy's dining room table. She filled two large tumblers with ice water and plopped them on the table.
"I don't know, Lucy. What?"
"Go on! Guess! Never mind, I'll tell you. The Planet did a digital analysis of the video showing the guy on the back end of the shuttle. Turns out they didn't get his face or his hair color, but they did extrapolate his approximate height and weight. They think he's Caucasian between five-ten and six- three, and he probably weighs between one-seventy and two-twenty. What do you think of that?"
Clark was surprised. He thought he'd been quicker than that. "How'd they get the shot? I thought I — he was on camera for less than a second."
She was so excited, she missed his slip. "He was. The exterior camera is a new digital model that shoots sixty-four frames a second. They got about twenty good frames and about fifteen of him moving. He can move fast, too."
"Oh. Maybe he — that wasn't in your article."
"What? You read my story?" He held the extra edition up for her to see. "Wow! Did you like it?"
"Yes. I thought it was very good."
"Great! I'm hungry, let's eat." She popped open a box. "Egg rolls! Man, that smells so good! Where is this place, anyway? I might want to call them myself."
"Uh. It's a little shop not far from the Great Wall."
"That big, tacky department store in Chinatown? You'll have to show me where it is sometime."
"Sure. I, uh, my mom sent these along, too."
Lucy's eyes bugged out. "Homemade brownies? You're kidding! When did she make them?"
He shrugged. "I just picked them up today. Here, try one."
She tasted it and slowly sat down, marveling. "Ohh. I have got to get her recipe! This is absolutely marvelous! And they're so fresh! How'd she pack them? Wait. Mmm! Yummy. Tell her they go great with these egg rolls!"
Clark mentally kicked himself. He'd have to be far more careful in the near future. Lucy would eventually slow down and start asking those questions again, and next time she might not be distracted so easily.
Clark sat down and opened a box of rice. He split the contents between his and Lucy's plates, then laid strips of fried duck on the rice and doused them liberally with sweet-and-sour sauce. Lucy grinned widely around a mouthful of egg roll.
She swallowed. "Clark, you're going to make some lucky woman very happy one day. Hey, what's in here! Ooh! Is this egg drop soup?"
Clark sat back and watched her eat. He enjoyed making her smile, more than he'd ever enjoyed making anyone else smile, with the possible exception of his parents. Maybe she wouldn't react like Lana had. Maybe she wouldn't fear him. Maybe if she knew what he could do, she could cope with it and support him. Especially if he chose to wear some kind of costume. He'd need a support team then, and Lucy was the leading candidate for the job at the moment.
He shook his head. That didn't quite sound right to him. Besides, that was fodder for a future conversation, not for tonight. This was going to be a working dinner.
Her question brought him back to the present. "I'm sorry, Lucy, what did you say?"
She washed down a mouthful of rice. "I asked you how much this feast cost. I told you we'd split it. I insist."
He grinned. "Okay. Let's see, it was about ninety-one dollars —"
"Ninety-one bucks!" She dropped her fork. "Holy smoke! How much is it without the extra egg rolls?"
He laughed and waved his hands. "No, no! Ninety-one dollars Hong Kong. That's about eleven-fifty in U.S. currency."
She stared. "Hong Kong?"
He shrugged. "It's a kind of a game Madame Chung plays with some of her regular customers. She quotes the price in Hong Kong dollars, the customer says he doesn't have that much, and she makes a show of settling for the U.S. dollar equivalent. That way she saves face."
"I'll take your word for it. Anyway, will you take my measly little six bucks American and call it even?"
"Sure. Thanks." He folded the bills and put them in his shirt pocket. "So what do we talk about tonight?"
She shoveled more food in. "You tell me what you know about the corruption ring. I tell you what I've learned from this side. We compare notes and come up with a viable story. Okay?"
"Sounds good. I'm afraid I don't know much more than I told you the other day. Luthor is still trying to get Lois to agree to some kind of partnership, and she keeps putting him off. He's waving a lot of money in front of her, but she says she doesn't want to give up control. I don't believe Lois is in on the corruption deal, but somebody's trying to put pressure on her."
He nodded. "Him or his boss, whoever the Englishman is. That's assuming he's not top banana, which we don't know either. I still think your father knows quite a bit about it."
Lucy stiffened. "I know you think so. But I'm not talking to him about it."
"Easy there. This is a working dinner, remember? Comparing notes? Trying to come up with angles?"
She frowned. "I know, Clark. I'm sorry, but I just can't talk to my dad. I can't even talk about him."
"Will you let me tell you about his visit now?"
She leaned back and crossed her arms. "You already did."
"I didn't tell you about his buddy Shorty."
"What about him?"
"Your father told us he was a cyborg."
Lucy's frown disappeared. "Cyborg?" She stood up. "You mean he's done it?" She slammed her hands on the table. "That stupid — he actually did it?"
Clark sat very still. "I guess this isn't a complete surprise."
"Do you want to tell me more about your father's work?"
"Okay. What if I tell you more about Lois?"
"I thought you said she isn't involved!"
"I said I didn't think so, but now I'm almost certain about it. Your dad warned her that someone was after her. After he left, she worked Frank and me harder than ever, and she yelled a whole lot more." Clark rubbed the back of his neck. "I learned a couple of very interesting phrases that day."
Lucy almost smiled. "I don't doubt it. Lois always had a smart mouth."
"And later in the day, when those three goons tried to do whatever it was the Englishman wanted them to do, Lois wasn't all that upset until we realized you might be in danger. That's when she got very scared for you."
She stared at him. "Really?" He nodded. "Wow. That's — she didn't say anything to me. I just thought she was being her Mad Dog self over the phone." She sat down again. "She was really worried about me?"
"Yes. And she hasn't said much to me about you, but she has made it clear that if I don't treat you right I'll have to deal with her."
"Wow." Lucy flicked the beginning of a tear from her eye. "She — my sister and I haven't gotten along very well for a long time."
"I think what's going on between you now is an improvement, don't you?"
"Yes." She leaned forward. "Come on, we've still got brownies left. Can't tell your mom they got thrown away."
"Kent! I tried to call you about your fight strategy last night. Where were you?"
Lois glared at Clark. "She still smiling this morning?"
"I sure hope so."
She glared some more. "You're skating on thin ice, buster."
He gave her a crooked grin. "Relax, boss. We just had dinner."
"That was it?"
She nodded slowly. "Okay. Did the two of you have a good time?"
He frowned, thinking, then smiled. "Yep. We did."
"Good. You ready for today?"
"Good again. We're trying a new strategy for you. When you fight Piedmont next Friday, you're not going to go for his belly or his head. You're going to wear out his upper body."
Clark frowned. "Come again?"
"Look, this bout is scheduled for eight rounds. That's enough time to do this if you do it right."
"You're going to have to explain it to me, nice and slow."
"Okay, get in a stance."
"Right. Now reach out like you're throwing a left jab."
Clark slowly extended his left arm. Lois stepped outside the path of the punch and tapped the underside of his upper arm with her right fist as if she were throwing an uppercut against his arm.
"One way to defeat someone who fights with a strong jab, like Manny, or like Ben Piedmont, is to take the jab away from him. You do that by wearing out the triceps so the jab loses its power and snap. We're going to extend that to Piedmont's pectorals and deltoids. You're going to pound on his chest and shoulders and upper arms until he can't hold his hands up."
"And he's going to stand there and let me do it?"
"Of course not! Ben Piedmont is strong and he hits like a pile-driver, but he's not all that quick. You, however, are both strong and quick. You're going to dodge and weave and pound for eight rounds, and by then he won't be able to hold his hands above his waist, much less knock you down."
"I never heard of this strategy before."
Lois poked him in the chest. "That's why you're the boxer and I'm the manager. Now rustle up breakfast for us."
Lex Luthor stuck his head into Lois's office just before lunch. "Good morning, my dear. Or, I should say, good afternoon. Have you eaten yet?"
She closed and locked her file cabinet. "Frank is laying out the plates right now. Why do you ask?"
"I was hoping you could join me. You know, just the two of us."
She shook her head. "Can't today, Lex. I have to stay close."
He frowned. "Are you certain you can't break away?"
"Sorry, no." Then her face lit up. "Hey! Why don't you have lunch with us? I'm sure the guys won't mind one more."
"Oh, I don't know about —"
"C'mon, Lex! Man of the people and all that! Look, you can bring Nigel, too. We've got plenty."
"I wouldn't want to intrude —"
"Lex, do you care about me?"
The question caught him by surprise. "What? Lois, of course I care about you! How can you even doubt it?"
"If you really care for me, you'll eat lunch with me and my fighters."
Lex caught himself before he corrected her grammar again; he suspected it was a small trap. Not as large a trap as sharing a meal with several professional boxers, however. But he was confident that he could hold his own with a group of simple- minded fighters who'd had their brains banged around inside their skulls on a full-time basis for years.
He waited too long. "You're hesitating, Lex. Is it because your social circle wouldn't understand you eating with two non- palefaces?"
"Lois! I'm surprised at you. LexCorp has one of the best records in the country at employing members of minorities."
"I'm happy for you. Does that include eating with them?"
He nodded. "It certainly does. Nigel and I will be pleased to accept your kind invitation to have lunch with you and your associates."
Lois glowed. "Great! I'll have Frank set two more places for you."
Lex nodded and stepped outside. "Nigel, we will dine here today."
Nigel didn't twitch an eyelash. "Yes, sir. Shall I leave your briefcase in the car?"
"That would be best." Lex took off his jacket and loosened his tie. "I think the dress here is somewhat more casual than is the norm for us."
Nigel nodded slowly. "Of course, sir." He reached up and unfastened the buttons of his suit coat and let it hang open.
Lex looked at him and chuckled. "Elegant and efficient as always, Nigel. Shall we?"
"After you, sir."
Clark looked up as they walked in and waved to them. "Hey, Lex! Good to see you again! Just plop it down right there."
Lex sat in the chair at the end of the table where Clark had indicated that he should sit. Nigel cautiously made his way to the chair to Lex's right. Lex wondered idly if Nigel were aware of the irony.
Lois sat on Lex's left, across from Nigel. Elmer flashed a big grin at her. "Miz Lois, they too much man juice at this table today. You ain't got no chance a'tall!"
Lois sat up ramrod straight and snarled back, "I'll take you all on, one hand tied behind my back. One at a time or all at once, I'll whup ever' one of you! I'm meaner'n a riled up mama bear 'n' tougher'n a ten-cent steak. Bring it on, you side- windin' horse thieves!"
Frank tapped his plate with his knife. "No way, lady! You cain't be the root'nest toot'nest bronc-buster in these here parts! That's me!"
Manny slapped himself twice on the chest. "I jab-jab-jab wi' left and destroy wit' th' right! I am toot'nest!"
Clark looked at his hand. "Uh-oh."
Elmer put his hand on Clark's shoulder. "Give it to us straight, son, we-all kin handle it."
Clark looked stricken. "It's just that — this is so awful."
Frank pointed to him. "Spit it out, Kent! Let's hear it."
Clark lifted his hand and displayed it. "I think I broke a nail."
Lex jumped at the outburst of laughter around him. He wasn't sure what was so funny, and he was certain he didn't want to sustain the head injuries that would make such a display of crude humor understandable. But he managed a mild grin, hoping to be accepted, at least during the meal.
They began passing the protein-heavy plates. Nigel took a slab of meat and cut it, then offered Lex half. Lex nodded, hoping that he hadn't just failed some kind of test.
"You hear about the shuttle?"
"Of course I heard about the shuttle."
"What did you hear?"
"Which 'what' are you talking about?"
Frank picked up a biscuit and threw it at Clark, who snatched it out of the air with ease. "The reason the thing almost crashed."
Clark leaned forward. "No. I haven't heard about that. What was it, a potato in the exhaust pipe?"
Clark waited while Frank chewed a piece of steak and washed it down. "Naw, nothing that simple. They found a doohickey that cut off the fuel to the main engine when they got eighty-eight miles up. Wasn't on the original plans."
Clark's expression sharpened and he sat up straighter. "Really? That sounds like a very high-tech thing to put together. Hey, Lex, I bet your company could help the government figure out who put that thing there, huh?"
Lex nodded. "Perhaps. I'd have to check with my legal staff and my technical people to see if such a proposal has been put forth."
Frank nodded. "I'd hate to be the one involved with that stunt. If word got around that it was me that put that thing in there, I'd most likely get ripped to pieces by a very angry mob."
Lex raised one eyebrow. "Yes. Public opinion would likely make the lifestyle of the perpetrators most — uncomfortable."
Manny grinned. "I like you be here, Mr. Luthor. I learn lots of big words from you."
"Thank you, Mr. Hershovitz."
Manny's grin broke into laughter. "Yah! They don' pick on my accent so much if they hear you talk!"
With that crack, the banter was once again flying thick and fast. Lex found himself on the back end of several gently cutting remarks from Clark and Elmer, and he didn't know how far he could go in response. He didn't want to offend Lois, but he didn't want to appear weak in front of her, either. But as soon as he formulated a suitable riposte, the conversation would veer in another direction, leaving him in the verbal dust. He felt as if he were losing a contest he didn't understand, and it made him edgy.
Clark laughed at another of Elmer's witticisms, then turned to Lex. "Hey, Lex, you heard about our excitement the other day, didn't you?"
Lex paused and took a drink to wash down a mouthful of peaches. "I assume you mean the armed intruders?"
"Yeah, them! What do you think they really wanted?"
"Why ask me?"
"C'mon, Lex! You know some guys who know some guys, you know? Maybe you heard something."
Irritated and trying not to show it, Lex shook his head. "I'm afraid not. Have the police offered any further information?"
Manny slapped the table. "They lucky I not here. They don' walk out."
Clark pointed at Manny. "We'd've had to carry all of them out on stretchers. Anyway, Lex, Inspector Henderson told me that Bob, the ringleader, is trying to make a deal, Junior is busy telling them everything he knows about anything, which doesn't take long before he starts repeating himself, and the third guy hasn't said a word past 'I want my lawyer.' He'll be in the hospital for several days yet."
"Oh? Why is that?"
"Lois took him down pretty hard. The doctors are still trying to decide whether his hand is worse than his face. She really clocked the guy."
Elmer, Frank, and Manny all applauded briefly. Lois smiled and bowed from her seat. "Thank you, thank you. Just keep in mind what happened to that guy the next time I tell you lazy bums to run another mile."
Groans from all around greeted her. "Hey! Remember who the manager is, guys. Anyway, Lex, we're not hurt, any of us."
Lex nodded. "That's most fortunate, since they were all armed. I wonder about the leader, the one you called Bob. A fifty-caliber revolver isn't the most common weapon for a street thug."
Interesting, thought Clark. Details about their assailants' weapons hadn't been released to the public. Lucy wouldn't have known about it if Clark hadn't told her. How did Luthor know?
Clark glanced at Nigel. Nigel's eyes bulged for half a second, then relaxed. Clark heard his heartbeat increase, also, but he didn't think anyone else caught the slip.
Lois went on as if she hadn't noticed. "You have to aim a gun for it to do you any good. In close quarters, dependence on firearms can be a handicap instead of an advantage."
Nigel lifted his glass. "Hear, hear. Spoken like a true believer in the martial arts."
Lois dimpled. "Thank you, Nigel. Hey, you guys ready for some film work?"
Frank wiped his mouth with his napkin. "I'm good to go. Manny?"
"I go good too."
Elmer stood and began gathering plates. "Look like Ah got th' duty this week. Y'all get on, now, and let me clean this place up fo' a change."
Clark looked wounded. "For a change? Elmer, you could eat off the floor when I clean up!"
"Yo' cookin' taste like it come off th' floor, too."
Lex stood as the group laughed. "I fear I must take my leave of you. Thank you for a most — entertaining meal."
Lois stood up and kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks, babe. Come back again soon." She smiled warmly at him and mussed his hair.
Lex smiled back. "If my presence inspires this kind of response in you, of course I'll come back soon."
She kissed him briefly on the mouth. "It does. Now you go take care of your business while I take care of mine."
"Of course. Until next time, my dear."
Nigel opened the car door for Lex and climbed in after him. He clicked on the intercom. "To the main office, please, Josephine."
The limo slid away from the curb. Nigel sat back stiffly and watched out the window.
Lex smiled to himself for a moment, then noticed Nigel's posture. "Nigel, is something wrong?"
"I hope not, sir."
"Well? If you have some concerns, please share them with me."
He turned to Luthor. "Very well, sir. You mentioned the caliber of the weapon that one of our operatives was carrying."
"That particular piece of data was withheld from the news media. Only someone involved in the incident somehow could possibly have known it."
Lex froze. "I — see. My gun. Yes. Nigel, I may have made a serious mistake."
They rode on in silence for a few blocks, then Lex leaned forward. "We have to move up the timetable."
"Yes, sir. How far?"
"Next Friday. Kent is fighting his first fight that night. We'll make our move that morning."
"Yes, sir. Will we attempt to use Mr. Kent again?"
Lex shook his head. "No. That was a spectacular failure. We'll do this ourselves, Nigel. We'll approach Lois Lane from a more familial angle."
"Familial, sir? You mean Dr. Lane?"
"I doubt that Lois would flinch if we fed Sam Lane into a wood chipper in front of her. No, we'll make our move on Lucy Lane."
"Very well, sir. May I make a suggestion?"
"Perhaps Mr. Tuttle could help us with Mr. Kent."
Lex sat back and lit his cigar. After a long puff, he smiled. "Yes. That's an excellent idea, Nigel. Please contact Mr. Tuttle and make the necessary arrangements."
Lois watched Lex and Nigel drive out of sight. Clark walked close to her, but out of sight of the car. "You have him off- balance."
She almost said, Like you have me off-balance, but she held the words in. She didn't look at him. "Yeah. I wonder how he knew about Bob's really big popgun?"
Clark shrugged. "Maybe he has a source in the police department. Maybe he overheard one of us talking about it. Maybe it was a good guess."
The car was out of sight. Lois turned to him and said, "There's one more."
He scuffed his toe on the floor. "I didn't know if you wanted to hear me say it."
"I don't." She took a few steps towards the film room, then stopped. "It needs saying. Maybe he knew it because — because he sent them."
"Luthor isn't English."
"Nigel St. John is. And he's a former member of British counter-intelligence. He left under dubious circumstances."
Clark nodded. "It isn't proof."
She turned to face him. "But it makes sense."
"Maybe so, but Lucy wouldn't print a story on evidence that thin."
The mention of Lucy's name stopped her from stepping closer to him. "No. She wouldn't." She turned to walk to the film room. "Come on. We've got video to look at."
They walked into the room, Frank was loading a cassette into the VCR. "I figured you'd want to start with Piedmont."
Lois nodded shortly. "Good enough. Get it started."
Frank hit the 'play' button on the remote. After a moment, they watched as Ben Piedmont walked up to the ring and stepped through the ropes. Manny pointed to the screen. "What he have on his robe? Emeralds?"
Lois shook her head. "Some kind of green jewelry, that's all I know. That jeweled robe is his trademark, but I think real emeralds are a little out of his price range."
Frank leaned in for a closer look. "They look almost like they're glowing."
Clark added, "They kinda wave when he moves, too. It's pretty."
Lois clapped her hands angrily. "What is this, a makeup party? You clowns get your minds on track! We're here to watch this guy fight, not judge a fashion show!"
Sunday evening, after workouts, Clark flew to Smallville. His father greeted him at the front porch.
"Evening, son. Glad you could make it."
"Me too, Dad. I don't know how often I'll be able to visit after tonight. I think Lois wants Frank and me both to stay pretty close."
"Fight night this Friday?"
"That's the night. Will you and Mom be there?"
He shook his head. "Can't afford the air fare. However," he lifted his hand, "we did find a satellite channel that's carrying the fights live. We plan to invite some friends over to watch your debut with us."
Clark grinned. "Next best thing, I guess. Where's Mom?"
Jonathan pointed to the house. "In the living room. She has something to show you."
"Great. I'll go —"
Jonathan held up his hand to stop his son. "Wait. We need to talk first."
Clark frowned. "Okay. What about?"
"Are you going to keep on boxing after Friday?"
Clark goggled at him. "What? No! This is just for the story, Dad! Honest! I don't even plan to embarrass Ben Piedmont!"
Jonathan nodded. "I'm glad to hear you say that. I've been thinking about you for the past few days, and I think your special abilities could be used to better effect than to win a prizefight."
"I do too, Dad. I'm only doing this for the story."
"Oh? What about Lucy? The one you said called you 'all hat and no cattle.'"
Clark blushed. "That's not entirely true, Dad. She actually tried very hard to talk me out of it. I only wanted to get into the gym to help her with the story."
"What do you mean?"
"Clark, you talk a lot more about Lois than you do Lucy. I think you need to do some serious thinking about these two ladies before someone's heart gets splattered all over Metropolis."
"Dad, I wouldn't hurt either of them for anything!"
"I wasn't just talking about them. I'm a little concerned about you. You're going to have to decide on Lucy, on Lois, or on someone else, and you need to do it before one of them starts writing her first name followed by your last name on the notepads on her desk."
Clark turned and took a couple of steps away, then stopped. "You think I'm not being fair with them, don't you?"
"I think you need to be honest with yourself. Then you need to be honest with both of them."
"Okay." He turned and retraces his steps. "So, which one do you think I should pick?"
Jonathan chortled. "This isn't like bidding on a hog at the fair, son. You have to listen to your heart and listen to them also." He put his hand on his son's shoulder. "Now, young man, I think it's time to find out what your mother has created for you. And you can get in some really good practice at listening to women, too."
Clark sighed and followed his father inside. If anyone had been listening, he would have heard Clark's voice crying out, "Mom, you've got to be kidding! Orange and green?"
The next morning, after his roadwork, Clark stepped into the ring to spar. He looked up at an unfamiliar face.
"Lois? Who's this?"
The immense man extended his hand. "Name's John Tuttle. I'm your new sparring partner."
"Hi. Clark Kent."
"I know. You ready?"
Clark turned to Lois and cocked his head. She frowned in response. "Come on, Kent, you need the exposure. You haven't sparred anyone but Frank or Manny since you've been here. You need to know what it's like to face up to someone who's taller than you, like Piedmont."
"He is that. John, you're a bit over six-foot-six, aren't you?"
Tuttle grinned. "Six-eight in my boxing shoes. And I always box wearing my shoes."
Clark shrugged. "Okay. Let's get started."
Lois nodded. "You guys remember, we're sparring, not fighting, okay? Clark, let's work on defense first. Ready? Go!"
Tuttle began by throwing sharp lefts at Clark's head. Clark ducked or blocked them easily at first, but Tuttle's punches began hitting harder. Then he threw a sudden hard right that knocked Clark to the canvas. Instead of stepping back, Tuttle began flailing at Clark with both hands, not letting him get up.
Lois jumped in and grabbed Tuttle's left arm. "No! Back off! You're not — whoof!" Tuttle tossed her to one side and turned back to finish his opponent. But Clark had jumped to his feet, and as Tuttle turned to face him again, Clark unleashed a terrific right to Tuttle's jaw.
Tuttle's eyes rolled up into his head and he fell limply to his knees, then toppled to his right, out cold.
Lois looked at Clark's unmarked face and stared. "Do you know what you just did?"
Clark nodded. "I kayoed a guy who was trying to hurt you."
"Not just that. You knocked him out with one punch." Lois lifted Clark's right arm and examined it. "One incredibly fast, hard punch. You're built, Kent, and I already knew you were pretty strong, but that was — it was incredible."
"Incredible, as in you can't believe what you just saw?"
She looked into his eyes. "Yeah. It happened. I saw it. I just can't quite believe it. This guy makes heavyweight champions work hard. He's the premier sparring partner east of the Mississippi."
On the canvas at their feet, Tuttle groaned and rolled onto his back. Clark gestured to him. "Do you want to tell him he's fired or shall I?"
She managed a one-sided grin. "I'll take care of it. You've already softened him up for me." She bent down and shook the huge man's shoulder. "Tuttle? Hey, Tuttle! You hear me?"
He groaned again. Lois slapped his cheeks several times. "Wake up, sleeping beauty. C'mon, you stay down there much longer and I'll have to charge you rent."
Tuttle's eyes fluttered, then opened slightly. "Wha' happ'n'd?"
"You fell down and are currently occupying the floor portion of my sparring ring. I want you to get up."
"Because we want to use it for sparring and not sleeping."
She knelt down and pulled up his eyelids, then snapped her fingers in front of his face. "Follow my index finger, John. Watch the finger as it moves back and forth, up and down. That's it. Good. Let me look at you closely. Okay. I don't think you have a concussion, but you could stand to see a doctor. You want some water?"
"Can you get up?"
"Up. Yeah. Up."
Clark and Lois each grabbed an arm and hauled Tuttle to a sitting position. Tuttle looked around and managed to focus on Clark. "You got me, huh?"
Clark nodded. "Lucky punch."
Tuttle shook his head. It seemed to help. "Naw. That wasn't luck, that was quality. Wow. I think I can stand up now."
Lois took his chin and looked at his eyes again. "You sure? You're still pretty woozy."
Tuttle nodded. "Yeah. I'll just go change and go home. I think I could sleep until Thursday."
Clark held his arm to steady him. "Upsy-daisy."
Tuttle stood and stumbled to the ropes, then held on until he gained confidence. "Kent, that was a great shot. You got some real potential there, kid."
Lois patted him on the arm. "Before you go, John, I want you to tell me why you lit into Clark like that."
Tuttle lowered his gaze, like a kid caught with contraband cookies. "I was paid to."
Lois nodded, as if she'd been expecting that response. "Who paid you?"
"A guy with an English accent."
Clark caught Lois's eyes and nodded once. She went on, "What does this guy look like?"
"Don't know. I've never seen him. All I know is that he has a deep, kinda snooty voice. He calls me and tells me what he wants me to do and I do it. The cash is always in my post office box a day or two before. No return address, just 'John Tuttle' on a typed label. It's good money."
Clark stepped back. "You still want to earn it?"
Tuttle raised his gloved hands. "No way. I hit you with everything I had. I even knocked you down. You popped up like you were on a spring and hit me with a big building. I just want to go home now."
Lois nodded. "Okay. But I know a reporter who's going to want to talk to you."
Tuttle's eyes widened. "No! No reporters. I won't talk to them. The English guy said so."
Clark poked him in the chest. "It's the reporter or the police. Your choice."
"You want me to get killed? This guy plays for keeps!"
"So do we. You heard about the break-in last week?"
Tuttle gaped at Clark. "That was for real? I thought it was just a wild rumor!"
"It was very real, I promise." Lois crossed her arms. "Shall I call Elmer and Lucille to tell you how real it was?"
Tuttle's head spun towards Lois. "Who's Lucille?"
Clark said, "Elmer's twelve-gauge double-barreled shotgun. She's a beauty, too."
Tuttle lifted his hands. "Okay! I'll talk to the reporter, but he can't use my name!"
Lois began untying Tuttle's gloves. "Don't worry, she won't."
Nigel looked abashed. "Sir, I regret to report that Mr. Tuttle has failed to complete his mission."
Lex's eyebrows lifted. "Really? That is a surprise."
"Yes, sir. Apparently, Mr. Kent is more skilled than we had originally anticipated."
"Hmm. I think we shall have to employ more extreme measures, Nigel. Piedmont has to win this fight on Friday. Our entire plan will crumble if one of Lane's fighters wins when we want him to lose."
"Yes, sir. What did you have in mind, sir?"
Luthor smiled around his sip of wine. "Something most unexpected. We'll settle the details tomorrow, Nigel."
"As you wish, sir. Shall I pay a visit to Mr. Tuttle?"
"Yes, I think so. Perhaps an accident could be arranged."
"Of the permanent variety, I assume, sir."
"Very permanent, Nigel. These boxers have a kind of rough code of honor. Tuttle might decide to switch his loyalties to Kent, now that he's been defeated in combat."
"Not at all like the old days, sir."
"You mean in MI-6?"
Nigel smiled frostily. "Those days also, sir."
That Monday night, a mysterious man dressed in deep blue tights, a yellow cape, dark red boots and shorts, and wearing a narrow blue wrap-around mask which covered his eyes but not his slicked-down hair, began delivering criminals caught in the act to various police stations, interrupting public brawls, and preventing traffic accidents. Lucy Lane happened to be in one of the precinct stations, on business for the paper, when the stranger visited. She was as shocked as the rest of them when he floated in and announced that the two men he was carrying had broken into a pawn shop and still had some of the loot on them. He landed and asked the officers to take charge of the men, then he looked at Lucy and smiled.
She gasped and almost fainted. The stranger caught her before she completely lost her balance, then she grabbed him with both hands.
"Who are you?"
He smiled again. "I'm a friend, just trying to help."
She refused to let go. "But what's your name?"
He frowned. "Well — I really don't have one."
"What? You mean you can't remember who you are? You have amnesia?"
He grinned. "No, nothing like that. I'd simply rather not tell everyone my name. It would make my life busier than I want it to be, and everyone needs some privacy. Why don't you see what you can come up with? I'm open to suggestions, as long as they're polite ones."
"Wow!" She forced herself to breathe. "Are you serious?"
"Of course I am. But I need to continue on my rounds. I'd like my arm back, please."
She nodded and almost let go, then tightened her grip. "But — listen, mister, I'm a reporter for the Daily Planet. Can you give me an interview?"
He cocked his head to one side in thought, then nodded. "I have a few minutes."
"Good!" She released him and pulled out pencil and paper. "First — why the outfit?"
He grinned. "My mother made it for me. I possibly couldn't refuse to wear it." He turned as if modeling the costume. "Why? Do you like it?"
Lucy's breath caught. "Uh. Yes. Yes, I like it a lot!" She forced herself to exhale. "Where — are you from?"
"I'm not sure you'd believe me if I told you."
She frowned at him. "You're flying, you're carrying grown men like they're sacks of groceries, and you think I won't believe you if you tell me where you're from?"
"You might at that."
"You know, I'd really like to, but I don't think it's wise at this point. Why don't you just write that I really want to be a help to anyone who needs help?"
She cocked her head to one side. "You just want to help? That's it? No charge? No Ophelia shows?"
"Hmm. You know, I think I do believe you. Can I quote you on it?"
"Please do." He lifted his head. "Sorry, there's another burglar alarm going off."
"Wait! Can we talk later?"
He floated above her head. "How about some time tomorrow evening?"
"Great! Be at my place at — at whenever you can get there!"
"Okay. I'll call you at the Daily Planet later and get your address. Gotta fly now."
"Wait!" She yanked a small camera out of her purse. "One picture?"
"Just one, then I really have to go."
"Okay." The camera flashed. "Got it! Thanks."
He waved and slid into the darkness, gathering speed. Lucy watched him as long as she could still see him, then shook herself. "Call it in, girl, call it in! Perry will be ecstatic!"
Perry looked at the front page of the Planet, then held it up for the rest of the staff to see. "People, take a look at this. There's a new — somebody in town, a somebody who flies and is immensely strong and likes to catch crooks in his spare time. Our own Lucy Lane has the exclusive on this guy. Lucy, is there anything you've come up with since this went to press?"
She shook her head. "Nothing concrete, Chief, but I do have an appointment to see him again this evening."
One of the other writers laughed. "Won't Kent get jealous if you're seeing another guy, Lane?"
"Go spell-check yourself, Olsen."
The staff shared a laugh, then Perry gestured to them all. "Okay, okay, people! We need hard data on this guy. Lucy, you have anything on his name?"
"He wouldn't tell me his real name, Chief! All he said was that I could call him whatever I wanted to, as long as it was complementary."
Perry lifted his hands. "So?"
"So, I'm going to ask him if we can call him the Blue Angel. You know, because of his costume."
Olsen shook his head. "That's really a super idea, Lucy. You think the man will go for it?"
Perry frowned. "At least she has an idea! Look, we have the only exclusive interview with this guy so far, and the best picture."
"Even that's not very good. I could have done better."
"You weren't there, Olsen! Lucy was and she got the story and the photo! Now either go out and walk your talk or shut up!" Perry raked the rest of them with his withering gaze. "Anybody else? Good. Now go get some hard information about this guy. Check with every cop who's talked to him. I want the best physical description we can get. I want personal impressions. I want more interviews. I want better pictures! And I want this guy to be our personal property! The Daily Planet is going to be the only reliable source for news on this — this Blue Angel." He paused for breath. "Why are you all still sitting there? Let's go! Now!"
"No, Lucy, I understand. This is work. Yes, I'm sure this guy is really exciting. No, I'm not upset. It's okay, I promise! We'll get together later this week. Bye."
Clark hung up the phone and turned to Lois. "Beaten out by a headline."
Lois nodded. "That's Lucy. She can be pretty single-minded at times."
"Yeah. Must run in the family."
She frowned at him. "Don't push it, Kent. You're not famous yet."
He raised his hands in mock surrender. "I give! I won't say anything else."
"Good." Lois scraped the floor with her toe. "You, uh, you have any plans for dinner?"
Clark shook his head. "Nothing special. I thought I'd stay in, make some spaghetti and sauce at my place. Why?"
She hesitated, and while she did, Lucy's face appeared in her mind. "Oh, nothing. Get plenty of rest, and don't worry about Piedmont. He's yours to beat. Have a nice night."
He looked at her oddly for a moment, then nodded. "Thanks. You too."
Clark picked up his gym bag and walked out into the late afternoon. Lois watched him leave, then walked to the heavy bag and began assaulting it.
Elmer wandered by and watched for a few minutes. "You have good form and snap on your kicks. But do not let your anger get the better of you."
She rocked the bag with a perfect spinning back kick that would have decapitated a human foe. "I'm not angry!"
"Yes, you are. You are angry with yourself for allowing young Kent to walk away from you without his knowing how you feel about him."
She spun again and rocked the bag with a backfist and then threw a round kick. "Blast it! How can I tell him how I feel if I don't know myself? Huh? You wanna explain that one to me, Elmer?"
"I will try if you will stand still."
She forced herself to stop. She stood facing the punching bag, breathing deeply and dripping sweat. "Okay. I'm still."
Elmer shook his head. "Your body may be still, but your heart is not. You want to get closer to Kent, but you are afraid that you might hurt your sister if you do. You also fear that you might miss something very special if you do not tell him how you feel, but that in itself is a huge risk. Those whom you have loved have not often returned that love in your life. Your mother died when you needed her, your sister has been alienated from you for years, and your father is perhaps the least trustworthy man in your life. Lex Luthor vies for your affections, but you suspect he has motives other than romantic ones which drive him. I may have been your teacher in the martial arts, but you have surpassed me, and I am too old to be your love interest. Your dream of managing a champion is within your grasp, but you fear that you cannot be Kent's manager and also his partner in life." He reached out to embrace her. "You wish for so much, but you fear so many consequences. Ah, Lois, my dear child, I wish I could take away your pain."
She resisted him for a moment, then buried her face in his shoulder and let the tears flow.
Clark walked home, thinking of the upcoming interview with Lucy and how much he dared tell her. It was his first couple of days 'on the job,' as it were, and he was already regretting the necessity of pretending to be someone he wasn't when he was wearing the blue suit.
Then it hit him. He was already doing that. When he was at Lois's gym, he was a fighter, but when he was with Lucy, he was a reporter who was pretending to be her boyfriend. He was already well versed in pretending to be someone he wasn't. And he was starting to think of himself as a fighter first. He knew he'd have to come clean with Lois soon and tell her he'd been undercover from the beginning. And he didn't look forward to it. She might try to break his jaw, and he'd have to be extremely careful to neither spill his secret nor hurt her.
So who would he rather hurt? Lucy seemed to like him a lot, but he'd never really held romantic feelings in his heart for her. He'd only pretended to in order to protect her, and the fact that she wasn't pretending bothered him greatly. He thought he felt that way about Lois, but as long as she was his manager, there was no way for him to tell her how he really felt about her.
He was stuck on the horns of a dilemma. To use one of Lois's gentler phrases, he was windmilling over deep doo-doo.
Lucy came out of the bathroom for the fourth time in two hours. She'd never been this nervous, not ever. This man — assuming he actually was a man — of course he was a man, you dunce! He was the biggest story of her young career, by far. She'd barely remembered to call Clark and cancel their date for that night. Suddenly the boxing corruption story seemed insignificant. For a moment, she felt guilty at feeling that Clark was also insignificant to her, but she shook it off and tried to focus on the task at hand.
She looked at her clothes and almost decided to change again. She'd vacillated between casual and professional several times, finally deciding on a dressy pantsuit and low-heeled shoes. She checked the recorder and the camera again.
A tap sounded at her window. She spun and almost fell. Who could be tapping on a third-floor window? Then it hit her. Of course! The Blue Angel!
She ran to the window and threw open the blinds. He was floating just outside the window with his arms and legs crossed, wearing the barest hint of a smile on his face. She unlocked the window and backed away so he could enter.
He landed gently on the floor and looked around. Lucy suddenly realized that she desperately wanted him to like her place. She was relieved when he looked at her and said, "This is nice. It's homey."
His voice was deep and melodious and it made her toes twitch. "Yes! Homey! Thanks. Uh, uh, won't you sit down?"
He grinned. "Thank you."
She fumbled for the recorder and switched it on. "I hope you don't mind. I want to make sure I quote you accurately."
He nodded. "I appreciate your attention to detail."
"Yes, well, it kind of runs in the family. In fact, my sister — wait, I thought I was interviewing you."
He cocked his head to one side. "You are. Please, ask me anything you want. I want to warn you, however, that I can't answer any personal questions, like where do I live, where did I grow up, that sort of thing."
"Oh. Okay, I can live with that." She lifted a notebook and flipped past the first page, then gestured with the notebook. "I'm skipping the personal questions."
He nodded. She looked at the page and said, "We can start here. One of the things people have been asking is what you want to be called."
He shrugged. "I thought you were going to come up with something."
"I have, but I wanted to run it by you first. Um, would you mind if we called you the Blue Angel?"
He frowned in thought. "I suppose it's better than being an insect of some sort."
"Sure. Don't you remember that dumb TV series a couple of years ago with a hero called the Flea?"
"Oh, yeah. It was too stupid to last very long. Wait, you watch TV?"
"Sure I do. I have a life."
"Right, right, of course you do. What about friends?"
"I have some pretty good friends, actually."
"As the Blue Angel? I mean, do they know you wear those delicious — that you wear those tights and fly around at night fighting crime?"
He smiled and sat back. "No. I mean I have some friends who know me in my civilian life."
Lucy sighed. "I'd like to get you out of that costume and get to know you better."
"Sure I would." She sighed again, then realized what she'd said. Horrified, she sputtered, "Oh! No, I mean that I'd — I'd like to get to know the real you! The man inside the suit." She flinched and mentally slapped herself. "Wait, I mean, the, um, the person you really are."
"Hmm. Maybe that can be arranged." He turned on the couch and put his arm on the back. "What would you do if I told you my real name?"
"What? Your real name? Oh, man, that would be super! It'd be the biggest story of the century, bigger than — than — than anything!"
He nodded. "That's why I can't tell you. I want what I do and what I intend to stand for to be the story, not me. That's why I wear this mask, so people will focus on my actions and not on me personally."
"Oh. I see what you mean. Yeah, that makes sense. Uh, you mentioned something about what you intend to stand for. What would that be?"
He tilted his head in thought for a moment. "Justice and law and truth. I'm not a police officer or an investigator, just a citizen who wants to assist those folks if I can."
"So you're not going to be out and about all the time?"
"Only when I'm needed, and I hope I'm not needed all that often."
"I see. What kind of things do you anticipate doing?"
"Helping at natural disasters, accident sites, crimes in progress, that sort of thing. But make sure you also mention that I can't be everywhere at once, and I can't do everything people might like for me to do. I'm not here to replace anyone or any institution."
"What would you do if you caught somebody who'd just committed a murder?"
"I'd secure him or her and wait for the police to show up. I'm not a judge or an executioner. I don't ever want anyone to be afraid of what I might do."
"Okay, let's move on to some other topics. What's that symbol in the middle of your mask? The one that looks like an 'S' inside a shield?"
"That's the symbol for my family. It pretty much corresponds to a coat of arms, like the noble families of Europe."
"So you're from somewhere in Europe?"
He shook his head. "No personal info, remember? Nice try, though."
"Girl's gotta take a shot. Um. What's your favorite color?"
He flashed a smile. "Blue, of course."
She shook her head. "Sorry, that's a silly question." She flipped another page. "Here's one. If you could play on a baseball team, what position would you play, and why?"
"Hmm. That's interesting. I'm not a baseball player, but I think I'd like to play center field. That way I could see everything that was happening, have everything in front of me, and I'd never have to catch the ball going backwards."
"Oh. Neat. But why wouldn't you have to go backwards?"
"I'm very, very fast."
She took a sharp breath. "How fast?"
He shrugged. "I've never timed myself, but I could outrun any race car at any distance if I wanted to. I can fly faster than any aircraft in the skies right now. And remember, I caught the Messenger from behind."
"That's fast." She stared. "That's really fast." She looked at his legs and saw the display of muscle on them, even when he was sitting down. For a long moment, she lost focus. It was like being inside a blink but still being able to see everything.
The Blue Angel waved his hand in front of her face. "Miss Lane? Are you okay?"
She jumped. "What? Oh! Sure, I'm fine. Uh, my readers will also want to know about your flying ability. You know, how high can you go, how tight can you turn, how quickly you can accelerate, and so forth and so on."
He nodded. "Okay. Come on."
She looked closely at him. "Come on and what?"
He stood up. "Come on and I'll take you flying. That way you can write about it from a first person viewpoint."
"You — you're kidding!"
"Nope. Just stand up and we'll go up, up, and away."
Lois was jarred from her slumber by a raucous jangle. She groped for the phone and lifted it to her ear, growling, "This better be real good, pal."
"You know, Sis, most people just say 'hello' when they pick up a phone."
"Lucy?" Lois flipped on the bedside lamp and sat up. "What's the matter? What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong, Lois, nothing! Everything's fabulous! Everything's just wonderful!"
Lois looked at her clock. "Crap, Lucy, it's two-thirty in the morning! You couldn't wait until breakfast to call and tell me everything's wonderful?"
"He took me flying!"
Lois held the phone away from her head and looked at it for a moment. "Lucy? Who took you flying? You dating a pilot now?"
"No! The Angel took me flying! Oh, Lois, he's so strong and handsome and graceful and he looks fabulous in those blue tights!"
"Blue tights? What the heck are you talking about?"
"They guy who rescued the shuttle last week! He told me he wore jeans and a sweat shirt because he didn't have his uniform yet and he couldn't just let those astronauts die! His mother made his uniform and I named him the Blue Angel! He's out there in Metropolis right now, flying around and searching for criminals! Isn't it great?"
"Yeah. Sure. It's wonderful. Lucy, don't you —"
"I already sent in my story! I used that new wireless laptop Perry gave me! I wrote it last night at the highest point in the Appalachians! And I sent in the sidebar on the flying! Perry let me write it first person! It was great! We went up to about nine thousand feet and I wasn't cold at all and I saw geese and ducks and low clouds and Metropolis looked like a toy and he held me tight so I wouldn't fall and he did loops and figure- eights and he hovered right over my apartment! Lois, I think I'm in love!"
Lois finally woke up enough to think clearly. "Love? With some guy who flies around in blue tights?"
"Of course! He's really strong, he looks fabulous, and he's a gentleman. What's not to love?"
"You know, you could be describing Clark, too. He's a pretty nice guy, and you could do a lot worse."
"Oh, right! Like last-name-Kent-first-name-Clark could match up to the Blue Angel!"
Lois rubbed her eyes. Now was not the time to argue with Lucy over men, or over anything else, for that matter. "Lucy, you need to calm down and get some sleep. It's now — " she glanced at the clock again and sighed " — entirely too early on Wednesday morning to even be awake. We'll talk Thursday, okay? We can have lunch. My treat."
"Sure! That sounds great! Hey, Lois, he even let me take his picture! And I got one of both of us! I set the timer on the shutter and stood beside him until it snapped! Then he took one of me when he tossed me up into the air and then he caught me before I came down! You wouldn't believe how strong and how fast he is! You've just got to meet — " Lucy hesitated, then continued more calmly. "Lois, you've got to read my story about him tomorrow. It's full of juicy details."
"Okay, okay, I'll read it. I'm sure the guys won't have anything better to talk about at breakfast, anyway."
"Great! See you tomorrow if not before!"
Lucy hung up before Lois could reply. She shook her head at her sister's wild enthusiasm for a man she'd just met and whose real name she apparently didn't know. Lois got up and padded to the bathroom before going back to sleep. As she pulled the covers up again, she thought idly that if Lucy hooked up with this Blue Angel guy, maybe Clark would be lonely enough to look her way.
Or maybe not. Guys like him, the really nice guys, had their pick of women. He could do a lot better than a perpetually angry fight manager with family relationship issues out the wazoo. Yeah, she and Kent had no future at all.
Nigel handed the newspaper to Lex and stepped back. "The front page article in today's issue is most interesting, sir."
Lex unfolded the paper and read the headlines and the first few paragraphs. He lowered the paper and exhaled loudly. "So. Now we know what happened to the Messenger."
"Yes, sir. Will this Blue Angel person cause any immediate changes in plans?"
Lex leaned back. "I don't think so. He's certainly a wild card, but he's too new to the city to have any direct impact on my operations."
"Perhaps, perhaps not, sir."
Lex looked directly at Nigel. "You disagree?"
Nigel feigned humility. "Perhaps 'disagree' is too strong a term, sir. I merely counsel patience and caution in dealing with such an apparently powerful unknown quantity."
"Hmm. I think you're right, Nigel, perhaps I dismissed him too quickly. We'll certainly have to take him into account when we move against Intergang in a few months. I wonder if he can be bribed?"
"We cannot know until we try, sir."
Lex grinned. "Failing that, we can always kill him."
Lois unlocked the front door and dared it to squeak on its hinges. It cowered silently and refused her challenge. She poured a cup of Elmer's coffee and chugged it down without stopping. She refilled the mug and didn't turn around when the door did creak as someone entered. The unfamiliar footsteps, however, combined with other recent, exciting events, induced her to spin around and throw the hot coffee at the intruder.
"Hee-yaahh!" She shouted and assumed a combat stance, then realized that the young man who'd just entered was now sitting on the floor with his hands in front of his face, coffee dripping from his windbreaker.
"Wait! Wait! I'm a reporter from the Planet!"
Lois relaxed inwardly but didn't let the young man see it. "You idiot! Don't you know better than to sneak up on somebody like that?"
He slowly lowered his hands. "I — I'm sorry! I thought — is Clark Kent here?"
"Why? Who wants to know?"
"My name's Olsen. Jimmy Olsen. Can I get my ID out of my jacket pocket?"
"Real slow, Olsen."
"No problem, lady." He gently took his wallet out and showed her his press pass and driver's license. "Look, I really am who I say I am." Lois made a show of examining the documents, then handed the wallet back to him.
"Get up." She helped him stand. "What do you want with Kent?"
"I wrote the piece on Manny Horowitz's first fight. My boss wants me to follow the fighters in your stable. It's a good angle, you know, a woman alone fighting against the white male power structure and all. Besides, your new guy Kent's generating quite a buzz. Word on the street is that he's the main reason the arena is almost sold out."
Lois offered him a cup of coffee. "Want some inside you instead of on you?"
"So why is Kent such a hot ticket? He hasn't fought here at all. Far as I've been able to find out, he's never fought anywhere as a pro."
"Same here." Jimmy sipped his coffee. "But his sparring partners say they almost can't touch him, and when they do they don't hurt him. Rumor is that he kayoed John Tuttle the other day with one punch. That true?"
Lois nodded. "Tuttle was paid to work Kent over but it backfired on him. How'd you hear about that?"
"Somebody heard Tuttle say something about it in a bar Monday afternoon. He was telling people that Kent took his best shots and didn't even bruise. That true too?"
Lois frowned. "I know Tuttle didn't hurt Kent. I don't know about Kent not getting any bruises. I just checked him to make sure he wasn't damaged. Why don't you talk to Tuttle about it?"
Jimmy shrugged. "I would if I could find him. No one's seen him since Monday when he left the bar."
"Oh? Doesn't that make you the least bit suspicious?"
"Suspicious about what?"
Jimmy and Lois turned to see Clark at the door. Lois waved him in. "Kent, come talk to this guy. Jimmy Olsen of the Daily Planet, meet Clark Kent, the next cruiserweight champion of the world."
Clark's face changed for a moment, then he allowed himself to be pulled aside by Olsen, who began throwing questions at him. Lois wasn't sure why she'd mentioned Clark as a champion, but she was sure now that he hadn't thought about it himself. She wondered why. He had the tools, the skills, the attitude, and she couldn't understand why he wouldn't want to be champion. Maybe it had something to do with Lucy.
She glanced up as Frank nudged the door open. He stuck his head in and looked around. "Strange car outside."
"Come to predict my glorious victory, no doubt." He swaggered in. "Where is my adoring publicity machine?"
"Over by the sparring ring, fawning over Kent."
"Ah! Shot down in the prime of my career!" Frank's face fell, then he nodded. "I told you my time was over. I may be on the main card, but I'm old news. I want to be in Clark's corner from now on. This will be my final fight."
Lois crossed her arms. "If you say so. You do plan to go out a winner, don't you?"
"Sure. Then I can retire and live richly from my cash reserve garnered from a lifetime of pugilistic combat. I figure that'll last about three weeks, and then I'll have to find myself a real job."
She almost smiled. "I know what you mean. I have the gym and the dojo, but not much else. I don't really think Lex Luthor is marriage material. I doubt if my father and I will ever speak to each other again. Sometimes I wonder if it's really worth it."
Frank poured a cup of coffee. "Elmer's finest."
"I thought you preferred Kent's brew."
"I do, but it doesn't look as if he's available at the moment. You'll have to put up with my cooking today."
She nodded. "I guess I'll live through it."
He turned towards the kitchen, then stopped. "You've changed, Lois."
"Oh? How so?"
"You've become a lot less intense these last few weeks. You're still focused, but you're not mean about it. You're thinking about your future in terms of the people in it instead of the money and publicity. Kent's done that to you, hasn't he?"
Instead of blowing up at him, Lois just closed her eyes and stood still. "You and Elmer. I can't hide anything from either of you."
"It's not a bad thing, Lois. Fame and fortune are fickle lovers, no matter who they hook up with."
"I know. I just never thought about being lonely before. I mean, I've been alone for a long time, and I never let it bother me before, but now I feel lonely. It's not very pleasant."
"Hey. I'll always be your friend. You took me on when no other manager anywhere would even talk to me."
She stared into her coffee cup. "That's because you're a good man."
He raised an eyebrow. "I've always known you thought so, but that's the first time you've said that to me. Thank you." He stepped close and touched her arm. "Just for the record, I think you're a good woman, too. Things will work out, you'll see."
She lifted shining eyes to him. "Thank you, Frank."
"You're welcome. Breakfast will be served as soon as I can get the stove warmed up."
Clark looked up in time to see Frank touch Lois's arm. Something twanged in Clark's heart as she looked at Frank and smiled. He'd known they trusted and liked each other, but he hadn't realized how deep their relationship went. Maybe Frank was the guy for Lois. For that matter, it could be anybody, even this chirpy little kid reporter, as long as it wasn't that pond scum Lex Luthor.
He could only dream that he was actually the one for her.
Jimmy snapped his fingers in front of Clark's face. "Earth to Kent! Hey!"
"What? I'm sorry, what was the question?"
"I asked you if your parents were going to be here for the fight."
"No, they can't make it. But my dad told me it's going to be on a satellite channel. They're going to make an evening of it with some of their friends."
"Any old girlfriends coming?"
"Old girlfriends?" Clark thought of Rachel Harris, now Smallville's sheriff, and Lana Lang, working in Gotham City as a fashion photographer. He wondered for a moment what either of them might think about his being a boxer. "No. No old girlfriends. Sorry."
"What about Lucy Lane, current girlfriend? Will she be there?"
"I hope so. I don't know if she'll be working or not."
"Huh. She'll probably be waiting for the Blue Angel."
Clark's entire attention snapped to Jimmy. "What do you mean, waiting for him?"
Jimmy shook his head. "Aw, man, I think I put my foot in it again."
Clark took a step closer to him. "Tell me plainly what you mean, Olsen."
"Easy, pal, take it easy! That interview with the Blue Angel last night is hot stuff. They've already done an extra run of this morning's edition because of that article. Perry's already talking about a Kerth nomination. Lucy was still in the newsroom this morning, yammering ninety miles an hour about the guy. She didn't even go home last night. I've never seen anyone that excited over scoring an interview. I don't know how much attention you're going to get from her for a while, man. In fact, part of the reason Perry sent me here was to kind of take over for Lucy."
Clark stepped back. "Oh. You're taking over for Lucy?"
"Well, I've never dated a guy before, but if you're game, then —"
Jimmy looked horrified. "What? No! No, I'm not taking over that! No way no how, dude! Uh-uh! Forget it! We're talking story only!"
Clark nodded. "Okay, if that's the way you feel about it." He sighed deeply and put his hand on Jimmy's shoulder. "Of course, we'll always have this time together."
Jimmy stepped back and eyed Clark. "You are one sick puppy, you know that?"
"Part of my infinite charm. You'll get used to it."
Jimmy nodded. "Just give me some warning next time you get strange, okay?"
Workouts and sparring sessions that day were intense, but subdued. Everyone was occupied by his or her own thoughts of the future, and no one wanted to be the first to make any personal revelations.
They were all showered and dressed by three o'clock. Lois nodded as Frank walked by and touched her shoulder. Clark saw the gesture and misinterpreted it. He walked past Lois and said, "See you tomorrow. Anything special happening?"
"No. Wait, yeah, there is. We're only doing conditioning work tomorrow and light stretching on Friday. No sparring. You and Frank need to be physically ready, and I don't want to tire you out. Both of you have to be at the weigh-in at ten o'clock sharp Friday morning. And tomorrow will be a short day, too. I'm meeting my sister for lunch."
Clark nodded. "Tell her 'howdy' for me."
Lois frowned. "Why not tell her yourself? You know where she lives."
"I haven't seen her since she got that interview with the Blue Angel. And the last time I talked to her was when she cancelled our date."
She nodded. "Go see her at work. Let her know how you feel. Believe me, Kent, if you have a chance for love you shouldn't let it go by."
He stared at her for several moments before he spoke. "I guess you're right. That's good advice. See you in the morning."
She watched him walk out the door, then she turned and kicked the table several times. "Stupid, stupid, stupid! Why don't you take your own good advice, coward?"
Outside the gym, Clark hesitated, thinking over what Lois had just said, not to let a chance for love pass by. He almost walked back inside to talk to her, not as fighter to manager but as man to woman, but then he heard her kick the table and yell something angry and unintelligible. He decided that now was not the time to tell Mad Dog Lane about his tender feelings for her.
He walked to the Planet, nodded to Mark at the front security desk, and took the elevator to the news floor. Lucy was at her desk, typing furiously on her computer. He walked over and stood beside the desk until she noticed him.
She did a classic double-take. "Clark! Wow! I was just thinking about you."
He gestured to her computer. "I hope you weren't thinking about beating me up like you were your keyboard just now."
She grinned. "Naw! Sit down! I've got some news for you."
"Can we talk first?"
"Sure. Hey, you okay? You look like somebody stole your last nickel."
He sat. "No. Uh, it's about, uh, our cover story."
She frowned. "Cover story? Oh, yeah! You mean you and me, right?"
"Yes. I hope you understand, Lucy, that I —"
She put her hand on his arm. "I do. And I know what you're going to say."
He closed his eyes and sighed. "What am I going to say?"
"That you like me, but you don't love me."
His eyes snapped open. "What? How did you —"
She grinned. "I had a talk with Perry earlier today on this very subject. He pointed out to me that I was originally quite 'aghast,' as he put it, about pretending to date you, and that you've been a perfect gentleman the whole time." She blushed. "Even when you had the chance not to be."
"And you're okay with that?"
She shrugged. "As okay as I can be. See, when I flew with the Blue Angel, I realized that I was romanticizing our relationship. You know, boy meets girl, girl doesn't like boy, boy and girl have to work together, they fall in love and get married." She averted her gaze. "My therapist tells me it's — it's partly because of the lousy relationship with my father. Lois fights at the drop of a hat and I look for love in lots of wrong places at the drop of a smile. I tend to get deep into relationships before I should." She looked back at him. "I think you've helped me there. I've never dated — or even pretended to date — a guy who respected me as much as you do. Thank you."
He smiled. "You're welcome. So how do you feel about this Blue Angel fella?"
"About like I did with you."
Clark lost his smile. "What?"
She laughed. "Gotcha! Hey, what girl isn't going to fantasize about the Blue Angel, huh? He's an ideal. I don't even know for sure if he likes girls. I mean, if he's interested in dating at all."
"Oh." He nodded. "Might be a good article in that."
"Oh, hey, yeah!" She picked up a pencil and wrote a note on a pad, then pointed it at him. "My idea, okay? No poaching allowed!"
He lifted his hands in mock surrender. "Not to worry, Lucy. I don't think it's the type of article I'd do well anyway."
"Yeah." She sighed. "You know, when he held me in his arms and flew away, I felt safe and secure, like I could trust him with my life."
Clark frowned slightly. "You still feel that way?"
She shrugged. "Yeah, I think so, but not to live with forever and ever, you know? I trust him not to lie to me or mislead me, but not to love honor and protect me as long as I live. I've taken a hard look at myself in the last twenty-four hours and I'm not so sure I like everything I see."
"Hey, you're young, you're very attractive, you're gainfully employed, what more can you ask from life?"
She laughed. "That's a lot, I know. What I meant was that I fall in love too fast. Like I did with you."
"Lucy? You were in love with me?"
"Yeah, kinda, but I know it was because you were being a nice guy and I've been lonely for a long time and my dad's pretty much a creep and Dr. Friskin says I'm trying to replace him in my life but since I don't have a trustworthy male image I tend to pick losers because that's the male image I've got stuck in my mind which is why I'm surprised I fell for you but not really because you're outside my image and you've helped me understand that all guys aren't rotten and — what are you doing?"
He nodded. "Lois told me to nod and make noises like I'm really listening when you go into full babble mode."
She goggled at him for a moment, then slapped him on the arm. "I was wrong! You're a bad, bad boy!"
"Okay, okay!" He laughed with her. "You said you had some news?"
"About our original assignment. First of all, and I'm absolutely sure about this, Lois has nothing to do with the boxing thing except for being a target. Somebody's feeding someone else information from her gym, but it's not coming from Lois."
He nodded. "So Lois is clean."
"Right! But Lex I-can-buy-you-for-pocket-change Luthor is most definitely not clean. In fact, I think the Englishman who's been popping up all over the place is Nigel St. John, Luthor's personal assistant and permanent shadow."
Clark's eyebrow rose. "How solid is this information?"
"Less than rock but more than mud. I think I'll have it pinned down by the time you step into the ring on Friday night. Assuming, of course, you're still going through with it."
"Oh, I wouldn't miss it. Lois has too much time and money invested in this fight for me to cancel on her at the last minute. She'd rip my ears off and stick them —"
"Kent!" Perry bellowed. "You and Lucy in my office now!"
Lucy looked at Clark and shrugged. Clark let Lucy go first, and he shut the door behind them. "Is something wrong, Mr. White?"
Perry looked at them both in turn. "I've been getting some conflicting reports about the two of you. Kent, you call your parents a lot, but you rarely talk about Lucy. You talk a lot more about her sister. Lucy, you're totally enthralled with this Blue Angel fellow, and you're neglecting your cover relationship with Kent. This boxing story is coming to a head, and I don't want any of my people getting hurt over this. We're dealing with some folks who play very rough."
Lucy opened her mouth to speak, but Clark overrode her. "Mr. White, just how do you know about my conversations with my parents?"
Perry reached down and opened a desk drawer, then pulled out a bundle of wires. "I tapped your phone."
"You tapped my phone." Clark slowly leaned over and put his hands flat on the desk. "You, personally, tapped my phone?"
"Investigative reporters have a lot of skills, Kent, not all of them legal. For example, Lucy's a whiz at picking locks —"
"I'm not talking to Lucy about breaking into my apartment! I'm talking to you about illegally tapping my phone!" Clark flexed one hand into a fist, then forced himself to relax. "I'd like an explanation, if you don't mind."
"I had a good reason."
Clark's voice took on a hard edge. "I can't think of a single one."
Perry raised his hands. "Hold it right there, son! I had to know if you were on the level. Personally, I think you aren't telling your folks everything, but that's between you and them. The phone tap is gone and will stay gone. The tapes have already been destroyed, and no one listened to them except me. Lucy absolutely did not know about the tap, not until this very moment."
Clark held Perry's gaze for a long moment, then straightened. "I thought the Daily Planet had a high ethical standard."
"We do, son, we do! You tell me, what would you have done if someone walked in off the street, gotten friendly with one of your reporters, and wangled his way into working on the hottest criminal story of the year? Wouldn't you have done almost anything to make sure he was on the up-and- up?"
"I doubt I'd have done something illegal."
"Lesser of two evils, Kent. Break the law or risk Lucy's life. If you were on the bad guy's side, she might have been your next target. What's your choice?"
Clark didn't answer. Perry sighed. "You mull it over and get back to me on it. Lucy, what else do you need on this story?"
"Some time, some answers from the DA, and whatever else Clark has for me."
"Good! Kent, I'm assuming you have something for her?"
Clark nodded sharply. "Yes. I'll get it to her by noon tomorrow. Assuming that's soon enough."
Perry looked at Lucy. "It should be okay, Chief. I have to wait on the DA's office for verification on some stuff before I show it to you. Clark, did you ever get a computer?"
"Yes, but I couldn't get an Internet connection. The phone line in my apartment was too noisy. Thanks just a whole bunch for that, Mr. White. I'll give Lois a diskette to give you tomorrow." He hesitated and stared at Perry's desk. "If she forgets to give it to you, just tell her you're expecting a digital love note from me."
Lucy smiled and almost made a smart-aleck remark, but she caught herself just in time. She saw the distress in Clark's face, and realized it wasn't just anger over the phone tap. She put her hand on his arm. "After this is over, Clark, you need to tell Lois how you really feel."
He looked at her in amazement, then dropped his gaze to the floor. "How did you know? I haven't said anything to anyone."
She smiled. "It was the way you said 'digital love note.' You were thinking about how ironic it was to ask the woman you really care about to give your fake girlfriend something romantic from you. She should know, but don't worry, I won't tell her. That's your call. Just don't wait too long."
He put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a brotherly hug. "Thanks, Lucy. I appreciate this more than you can know."
"Hey, are you okay with this? I mean, with me feeling like this about Lois and not about you?"
She punched him lightly in the ribs. "I already told you! I like you, Clark, but I'm not thinking of having your babies or anything. I hope I meet someone like you in a few years, but I'm not really ready for a forever kind of relationship and that's what you're looking for. It's why you were so noble with me." She grinned wider. "You know, another girl might be insulted."
"You're not just another girl. You're a really good friend."
Perry smiled. "This is a lovely tableau, people, but it isn't getting the news out." His voice grew gruff again. "Kent, go home and type up everything you have and make sure it gets to Lucy. Lucy, you get everything you already have ready to print. We can drop Kent's details in later. Now get moving, both of you."
Lucy wiped her mouth and leaned back. "This was great, Lois! Thanks. I know Chinese isn't your normal lunch fare."
"Actually, I've grown to like it. As long as I don't try to eat it every day, I'm okay with it."
"Great! Hey, wouldn't it be just fabulous if Dad and Mom were here, just like the old days?" Lucy caught herself. "Oh, nuts! Lois, I'm so sorry! I'm so stupid! I just rattle on without thinking! Dad used to say that my mouth was always running but my brain was never in gear —"
"Luce. Stop. It's okay. In fact, I was thinking pretty much the same thing."
Lucy stared at Lois. "You were? Holy smoke. Wow. You really have mellowed out lately."
"Yeah, well, you can only be a mad dog for so long, and then you just run out of mad." Lois pulled her purse into her lap. "Here you go, Punky. Clark asked me to give this to you. Said it was a digital love note."
Lucy took the diskette. "Thanks." She looked Lois in the eye. "You haven't called me 'Punky' for years."
Lois cocked her head to one side. "Wassamatta, girlfriend, ya gotta prollem wi' dat?"
Lucy laughed. "No! I think it's neat. Hey, what do you think Clark's chances are tomorrow night?"
"I assume you mean in the boxing ring and not with you."
Lucy blushed and scowled. "Yes, I mean in the ring!"
Lois smiled a little. "They're very good. If you were a gambler, I'd advise you to put some dough down on him."
Lucy shook her head. "Wouldn't do much good. The odds are about one-to-eight on Clark to win."
"One to eight to win? They're that high?" Lois blinked twice. "Wait a minute. You mean you've checked out the odds on him?"
"Naw, not me! Olsen did. He was going to put a hundred on Clark, but he decided not to risk a C-note to try to win twelve dollars. He took great pains to let me know just how heavily favored Clark is. There's a lot of money on this fight because Piedmont's an up-and-coming contender. If Clark gets beat, there are going to be some very angry and very broke bookies from Metropolis to Miami to Vegas."
Lois nodded. "Yeah. I guess somebody could really clean up if Clark were to lose to Piedmont."
"Yep. Hey, wait a minute! You're not thinking of having him throw the fight, are you?"
"What? Are you crazy? Kent is my ticket to the big time! If I were a gambler, I'd be willing to bet he never loses a fight! He's going to be a world champion!"
"Whoa!" Lucy sat back and held up her hands. "Easy, Sis. I'm sorry I said that. I should have known better than to even suggest it. One thing you've always been is totally honest in the ring, and I don't see you changing now."
"You'd best believe it!" Lois stood. "I'm sorry, but I have to get back to the gym in about half an hour. There's some legal paperwork I still have to finish before the fights tomorrow. I'll grab the check."
Lucy stood also. "Gimme a hug before you go, Sis."
Shocked, Lois stood still while her sister embraced her. Lois slowly moved her arms around Lucy's shoulders and patted her awkwardly.
Lucy finally released her. Her eyes were shining. "I've missed that."
Lois smiled. "I guess I have too. Let's not wait another nine years." Lucy stepped towards her again, and Lois put her hands up. "Whoa! Let's also not try to make it up all at once."
Lucy giggled. "Okay. Take it easy. I'll see you at ringside tomorrow night."
"Clark's fight starts at seven. Don't be late."
Lucy waved at her sister until Lois turned the corner, then she sat down and booted up her laptop. She slipped the diskette in and checked for a wireless signal, then attached all the files on the diskette to an e-mail and sent it to herself at the Planet. As soon as the computer confirmed the transmission, she shut down the e-mail application and turned off the wireless link.
She opened one of the files on Clark's diskette and began reading. She whistled and talked to herself as she browsed through the information. "Wow." She read some more. "This is hot." Her smile grew. "Boy, this is good stuff."
"Is it as good as you had anticipated?"
"Sure is. In fact it's — " Lucy looked up at the man now seated across the table where Lois had been. Her smile vanished. "You're the guy who called me at work about Clark, aren't you?"
He nodded. "Alas, one of the disadvantages of possessing a singularly distinctive voice."
"You're Nigel St. John."
Nigel's eyes flickered and his mouth flattened. "You are not supposed to know my name."
"Perhaps, perhaps not. If you would allow me to examine your laptop?" Lucy shook her head. "Come now, Miss Lane, let us not make a scene. I will examine this machine with or without your acquiescence."
She hesitated, then pushed the computer across the table to him. "Sure. Knock yourself out."
Nigel began reading the file that Lucy had pulled up. After a few seconds, he said, "It is as I feared. I must insist that you accompany me, Miss Lane."
"And if I say no?"
"Then I shall be forced to kill you where you sit."
Lucy's eyes flickered this time. She believed that he meant it. "Well, sure, as long as you asked me so nicely."
He smiled a barracuda smile. "A wise choice, I assure you."
Friday morning, Lois had Frank and Clark eat a light breakfast of mostly protein. She promised a late lunch with plenty of carbohydrates, and threatened to pour water down their throats if they didn't drink plenty on their own.
She glanced at her watch. "Eight o'clock now. We'll all pile in my Jeep at nine-twenty and head for the weigh-in at the arena. You guys both feel okay? No colds or fever or anything?"
Clark nodded. "I'm feeling good. I'm ready for tonight. How about you, Frank?"
Frank grimaced and put the flat of his hand on his stomach. "I dunno, I think I'm coming down with some deadly and exotic disease. But I'll sacrifice myself for my art."
Lois glared at him. "Drama queens, all of you. Okay, here's the plan for tonight. Manny and I will be in Clark's corner for the first fight. After Clark wins, we'll —"
"Aren't we the cocky ones."
"Shut up, Frank. After Clark wins, Manny will take him back to the dressing room and help him get changed."
"I've been dressing myself for quite a while now, Lois."
"Shut up, Clark. The second fight between two nobodies will go on, and Frank will take center stage at about eight-forty- five. Elmer and Clark will both help me in the corner."
"Hey, I help Clark but I don' help Frank?"
"Shut up, Manny. After Frank wins, he gets changed, and we all go over to Manny's mama's restaurant to celebrate. Clark, you bring Lucy along, okay?"
Clark nodded. "If I can find her."
Lois stopped and looked directly at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I haven't been able to pin her down since you talked to her yesterday at lunch. You gave her that diskette, right?"
"Yeah, I did." Lois rolled her eyes. "Oh, I get it. She's probably trying to come up with a response to your 'digital love note.' You must be a killer writer to get that kind of reaction from her. She didn't mention the Blue Angel more than twice yesterday."
Clark nodded, but also frowned. Lois slapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, Kent, anybody who can make my sister happy is okay in my book. You just keep on doing right by her, okay?"
Clark stared at her for a moment, then nodded again. "Okay."
Lois clapped her hands. "Great! Okay, guys, let's get some stretching in. Manny, you still need to do your roadwork. I want you to do it inside today, okay? I don't want anybody off by themselves."
He moaned. "I don' like treadmill! I don' go nowhere on it!"
"It's that or the bike. Take your pick."
"Ahh, treadmill is better than stupid bike! My butt don' go to sleep on treadmill, at least."
Frank smiled. "Don't worry, Manny, we'll be in your corner for your next fight."
"Good! I watch for you. Boss, when I fight again?"
"It's still up in the air, Manny, but I'm aiming at about eight weeks. If it comes together, you'll be up against an older boxer with plenty of experience and some real power. You think you can handle Mo DeShayes?"
Manny's face lit up. "Yes! I beat on Mo until he give up! Left-left-right! Jab-jab-jab-belly until Mo he don' want no mo'!" Manny lifted his hands. "I win again!"
Everyone laughed. Lois pointed at him. "You keep that enthusiasm going, Manny! Maybe you'll have a positive influence on these kings of gloom and doom around here."
"I try, boss! I try hard!"
"Great! Jump on that treadmill and run it into the ground!"
"I run, boss!" He suited his actions to his words and started up the machine.
Lois turned to Clark and Frank. "You guys help each other loosen up. Kent, help Frank stretch out his back. He either does too little or too much if he's by himself. I'll be back to watch over you as soon as I make a couple of calls. Can't let you morons hurt yourselves on fight day."
Lois strode to her office. Frank looked at Clark and grinned. "I guess we know where we stand."
"I guess we do. You want to start on me or what?"
"You're younger and more flexible. Start with me."
Frank lay on his back on a padded table while Clark lifted his legs up to stretch out his hamstrings. "That about far enough?"
Frank grunted. "Yeah. Hold it there for ten, and we'll do the other one."
Clark counted to ten and lowered the leg. "Circus! Hup! Hup!"
Frank laughed and lifted his other leg. Clark stretched it also.
"Hey, Clark, you read about that Blue Angel guy this morning?"
"Nine, ten, switch back. No. What'd he do now?"
"He pulled a bunch of senior citizens out of a burning nursing home last night, then he helped transport them to a motel that put them up for free. I think — oww! Watch the calf muscle, okay?"
"Gotta get your legs loose. Can't have you cramping up in the second round."
"Sure. You're really a closet sadist. Anyway, I think the Blue Angel is the real deal. You talk much to Lucy about him?"
"A little. She seems quite taken with him. I think she's worked herself into a good position at the paper with all those stories about him."
"She's a good writer."
"Yep, and she's learning more every day. Turn over now and I'll work on your back."
"Yeah. Oof. Hey! Watch the spine!"
"Just trying to sharpen your reflexes."
"Thanks ever so much. Hey, what do you think about the guy?"
"You mean Piedmont?"
"No, dummy, the Blue Angel. What's your opinion?"
Clark shrugged. "I think he's a little flashy. And I hope he doesn't jump in every time he sees a problem. Those of us who are mere mortals need to work out our own situations ourselves as often as we can."
"You got that right. Ahhh! Kent, you have a golden touch. Don't forget the soles of my dainty feet. They need your tender loving care as well."
Clark pinched Frank on the back of the thigh. "Ow! What, you don't like compliments?"
Nigel had blindfolded Lucy and taken her somewhere quiet. Then he'd duct-taped her to a chair and taped her eyes and mouth closed and said, "I advise you to cooperate. You may choose not do to so, of course, but you should be aware of the consequences." Then he'd pinched her nostrils shut.
She'd been unable to breathe for over a minute. She'd thought he was going to suffocate her. He'd held her head still and her nostrils closed until she'd almost passed out. She was thankful she didn't suffer from sinus congestion, otherwise she might be dead.
Lucy heard the door to the room open and heard someone walk in. She'd been taped to the chair since mid-afternoon on Thursday, and she thought by now that it was some time on Friday, maybe mid-day or even later. She hadn't been able to loosen the duct tape holding her to the chair, nor had she been able to loosen the duct tape blindfold. The tape over her mouth had finally opened up enough for her to breathe a little better. At this rate, she figured she could free herself by just after next Easter, assuming she didn't die of dehydration first.
She was exhausted, too. Sleeping while taped to a chair was difficult in the extreme. On top of that, Nigel hadn't let her out of the chair to go to the bathroom since he'd kidnapped her. Her comfort was obviously not his top priority.
The second pair of footsteps stopped beside the chair. "Nigel, please! The young lady is a mess! Do be a good man and assist her in making herself presentable."
"Yes, sir. I apologize for her condition, but it was really quite unavoidable."
"I understand. But do let her clean up now."
"Of course, sir." She felt him cut the tape holding her arms and hands to the chair. "I would advise you to remove the tape over your mouth very slowly."
She tugged it until the edge of her mouth was free, then she ripped it off the rest of the way. The pain hit her lips immediately and she gasped.
"Here, allow me to free your eyes." Nigel gently took her head and expertly pried off the tape. She opened her eyes slowly against the sudden light, and saw the owner of the second voice.
She tried to speak but only croaked. Nigel handed her a bottle of water. She gulped it greedily until he pulled it away from her. "Not too much, Miss Lane, else your stomach will rebel."
She panted, then tried speaking again. "You're Lex Luthor."
Luthor smiled. "Nigel, you were right! She is both observant and direct. I'm sure Mr. Kent appreciates all of your better qualities." Luthor turned to Nigel again. "Nigel, please assist Miss Lane in getting ready for tonight's festivities. I'm certain she is more than ready to get out of those nasty clothes."
Lucy stood up and followed Nigel to a luxurious bathroom. "The shower stall is there. You may place your soiled garments in the basket to the right. We have the same soap and shampoo products which you use at home. There are two large towels hanging on the outside of the shower door. Please take all the time you need. You will have fresh garments to don when you are finished."
Lucy looked at him. "You don't think I'm going to undress with you standing there watching me, do you?"
Nigel looked into her eyes. "Perhaps you've already forgotten our little lesson from last evening. Would you care for a reminder?"
She shook her head quickly. "No! No, it — I don't need a reminder."
She turned away from him and quickly pulled her clothes off, then dropped them into the basket. She was thankful, at least, that the shower door was frosted glass, and that Nigel didn't seem to be leering at her. Maybe she was just an assignment to him. If that were true, it didn't help. It meant that he'd have no more compassion for her than he'd shown when he was smothering her.
She spent as much time in the shower as she dared. Nigel was still standing there, waiting, but the basket was gone. In its place was a small folding table with towels, underwear, low- heeled shoes, pantyhose, and a snazzy pantsuit, all in her size. Her purse sat on the vanity beside the sink. A hair dryer and brush lay next to her purse. She thought about getting dressed in the shower stall, but it was wet and slippery, and she didn't want to risk making Nigel come and get her.
As she dried herself and then dressed, she watched him move, watched how he stood, watched his eyes, and decided that she didn't stand a chance against him in a fight. He was too experienced, too well-trained, too skilled, and she'd never fought in the kind of full-contact tournaments Lois had always enjoyed and in which she'd excelled.
She decided to try talking to him. "What does Lex Luthor want with me, anyway?"
"Come now, Miss Lane, I read the files on your laptop. You have information on Mr. Luthor's attempt to corner the market on boxing and gambling on the East Coast. With the diskette you received from your sister, you have enough of the story to be more than merely an irritant. We will take the necessary steps to keep you from being a problem to us after tonight."
Oh, great, thought Lucy, that makes me feel so much better. At least the clothes fit well. She'd make a good-looking corpse when Clark or Lois came to identify her in the morgue.
The old joke wasn't quite as funny to her this time.
Elmer checked the tape wrapping Clark's hands. "That too tight? Feel okay?"
Clark nodded and punched each fist into his opposite hand. "Feels great, Elmer. Say, how long have you been doing this?"
"What? Gettin' you young pups ready for they first fight?"
"No. Pretending to be someone you aren't."
Elmer slowly looked up at him. "Since I discovered that most white men are more comfortable with black men who speak as if the fourth grade were but a distant dream. I have seen much in my life, Mr. Kent, but rarely have I seen any man who would refrain from judging me by my skin color. The ignorant white man places certain low expectations on me and becomes apprehensive when I exceed them. The angry black man expects certain premises to dominate my thinking, and he is baffled when I do not reason as he expects me to."
"So why admit this to me now? You could have kept on acting."
Elmer gazed into Clark's eyes. "Because I see in you an immense potential for good. I do not believe you are destined for the ring, Mr. Kent. I think you are bound for a more heroic path."
Clark raised one eyebrow. "What path might that be?"
Manny burst into the dressing room. "Clark! You are ready? It is already almost but not quite six-thirty! You are ready, yes? He is ready, yes, Elmer?"
Elmer assumed his former demeanor. "Yep, Manny, he be ready. We jus' puttin' the gloves on now."
Manny was almost hopping up and down with excitement. "Is very good! You will win, Clark! It is very good feeling I have. I go see Mama now."
And before either of them could respond, he was out the door again. Elmer smiled. "He sho do be happy fo' you, Mistah Kent."
"I'm sorry you feel you have to hide, Elmer. I think there's a lot about life that you could teach me."
"Ah does mah best, Mistah Kent, Ah does mah best." He straightened. "After your victory, will you end your own charade and reveal your true self to Lois?"
"Charade? What are you talking about?"
Elmer frowned. "Please do not insult me, Mr. Kent. I speak of your relationship with Lois and her sister. And of your true vocation, which, despite your obvious pugilistic skills, is not the squared circle."
Clark nodded. "Yes. I'll tell her everything. I would've done it already except she's got so much invested in this fight. I wouldn't want to let her down."
Elmer put his face inches from Clark's. "You had better not."
Clark nodded slowly. "I promise, Elmer. I won't let her down. Not tonight and not later on, and God willing, not ever."
Elmer held his gaze for a long moment, then nodded back and grinned vacuously. "Come on, we gets these laces good and tight. Cain't have yo' gloves be fallin' off in the ring, now, can we?" He tugged on them once more. "There. Wait here. I must meet with Lois in her office before the fight. She will be here soon." He put his hand on Clark's shoulder. "Respect your opponent. Fight well. Victory over yourself is more important than victory in combat."
Lois opened the manager's dressing room door and was startled to see Lex and Nigel there. Something in Lex's body language told her that it wasn't a social call.
And something in his expression told her that he was facing a crisis.
"Hi, Lex. Hey, Nigel, you walk into a door or something?"
Nigel lifted a hand to his damaged eye, but before he could speak, Lex stepped towards her.
"Lois, my dear. The time has come for me to share something with you."
"I have two fighters in the ring tonight, Lex, I don't have time for social pleasantries."
"Ah, but this concerns your fighters, or at least one of them. I understand that the betting on Kent's fight is quite heavily tilted in his favor."
"Yeah, well, I'm not responsible for how people waste their money."
"I'm sure you aren't. But you must understand something else. The bookies have a great deal invested in this fight also, and they stand to gain or lose a great deal, depending on the outcome."
Lois cocked her head, puzzled by the direction of Lex's conversation. "Given that what you say is true, I still don't see how it affects me."
Lex smiled and stepped forward. "Now we come to the crux of the matter! You see, Lois, I have been — shall we say — working behind the scenes to orchestrate the relationship between the bettor and the bookie for some time now, and I have chosen to focus on the sport of boxing. You see -"
"Lex, either come to the point or get out and let me get ready! I've got to meet Kent to finish his pre-fight prep. He's on in less than twenty minutes."
Lex looked a little disappointed, but nodded. "Very well. The point is that if Kent wins tonight, the average bettor will win twelve cents for every dollar bet on Kent, while the opposite is true if Piedmont wins. The ones who have wagered on him will win eight dollars for every one dollar bet." Lex spread his hands. "It's simple arithmetic. I have bet half a million dollars on Piedmont through the bookies here in Metropolis, almost a million in Gotham City, over four million in Las Vegas, three million in San Francisco —"
"Whoa! Stop! Lex, are you saying — you mean you've bet millions of dollars against one of my fighters?"
"With the prospect of winning eight times that amount of money!"
"But — how? How'd you rig the odds like that?"
He smiled thinly. "It wasn't easy. I had a number of associates place mid-sized bets with every bookie I could identify in all those cities and others, all at approximately the same time. They accepted the bets and locked in the odds before they found out how much was actually being wagered on Piedmont. That way, the odds did not shift as they would have."
"You mean like they should have! I can't believe I'm hearing this from you! You said you loved me —"
"Lois, my dear, I surely do love you."
"I don't think so! You bet against Kent! Lex, You bet against me!"
"You don't understand, Lois! I have to win these bets! LexCorp Industries is funding this venture from its retirement fund. That money has to be replaced very soon or the entire board of directors will be in very hot water, including me. Not only that, but this would mean a great deal of money for you if Kent were to lose. We could be partners in a fabulous business venture. You could have anything you wanted, do anything you wanted. You could live as a lady of leisure, or become involved in society, or —"
Lois shoved him across the room. He fell back against the wall. "Are you insane? There's no way Kent's going to throw this fight! And there's no way you can get me to tell him to!"
Nigel's only move was to lift a small tape recorder and press 'play.' A thin but recognizable voice came out. "Lois, they made me do this. I don't know where I am, but Nigel told me to tell you that you'll be an only child if Clark wins his fight. But don't worry about little Punky, okay? I'll be fine. You just do what's right."
Nigel clicked the recorder off. Lois resonated with anger at Luthor and fear for her sister. Her breath came in ragged gasps as Lex slowly walked to her side. "You see, my dear, we do have some leverage on both you and Mr. Kent. You just tell him about poor Lucy's predicament, and that he should lose the fight. It doesn't matter if it's a knockout or a decision, as long as the referee lifts Ben Piedmont's hand at the end. I hope you understand me."
He reached out to touch her shoulder and she exploded with an elbow strike to his kidneys and a sweeping kick to his legs. Lex fell to the floor in a heap of pain as Nigel leaped to intercept her.
Nigel maneuvered her away from Luthor and unleashed a torrent of blows learned in the nastiest kind of training and fighting. Lois took two punches to the head and one to the belly, then fell over a chair. Nigel skipped around it, but Lois rolled to her feet, then returned the blows, forcing him backwards. One kick landed beside his already damaged eye and split the skin. She splattered the blood from the cut with a spinning backfist and followed it with a round kick that Nigel barely avoided.
Lex left Nigel to handle Lois. He forced himself to his feet and moved towards the door. Lois tried to intercept him, but Nigel leaped between them with a powerful side kick that might have killed her had it landed. She countered with a front kick that knocked Nigel back, but Luthor took the opportunity to slip through the door and close it behind him.
They stood facing one another in the middle of the room, each trying to find a weakness in the other to exploit. Nigel's usual calm demeanor was hidden by an expression of cruel joy. He wiped his bloody nose, then flexed his fingers in anticipation of the kill. Lois's eyes were slits, focused on her opponent and ready to react to the slightest movement.
They each reset their stances in preparation for the other's next move. Nigel slowly grinned. "You are indeed highly skilled. This has been quite an instructive occasion for me, Ms. Lane, but I fear I must finish this now."
Lois snorted. "You're getting too old for this, Nigel. I can see it in your eyes."
"Really? My eyes were the last thing your servant Elmer saw. I was not too old for him."
Lois froze for a second, then skipped backwards a step. "You didn't take Elmer. No way! He's way too tough for you."
"He was indeed much more difficult than his appearance would have suggested, true, but I prevailed just the same."
"I don't believe you."
"Then glance behind the desk against the far wall."
Lois turned cautiously and looked. Elmer was motionless on the floor, his head tilted at an impossible angle. She looked back at Nigel. "You — Elmer was my friend! You killed my best friend! I'll make sure you get the needle for this!"
Nigel grinned wider. "You will have to survive the next few moments, Ms. Lane, and I sincerely doubt that you will be able to do so."
He flicked his right hand and a small dagger slid into his palm. He thrust quickly at Lois's belly, but she managed to twist away. He slashed at her face and made her fall over the chair again. This time he leaped over it and aimed the knife at her stomach.
Instead of dodging, Lois grabbed his wrist and twisted it. Nigel grunted in pain and fell away to one side, but didn't lose the knife. They both leaped to their feet, ready to attack or defend as needed.
Nigel feinted at Lois with the knife and she shuffled backwards. He feinted again and quickly thrust at her belly. She almost dodged it. The blade sliced through the fabric of her sweater and slid along the side of her stomach. He felt the blade slice through her flesh and shouted in anticipation of his victory.
He also dropped his guard.
Lois felt the cut and knew she only had seconds. Instead of retreating again, she crushed Nigel's nose with a hand heel strike, then grabbed his knife hand and broke his elbow across her knee. She tossed the knife across the room and then kicked Nigel straight in the crotch. His breath exploded from his diaphragm. He doubled over and tried to limp away to give himself room to recover, but she followed and kicked him again, full force, in the side of the leg.
Nigel's right knee bent directly inwards, tearing all the ligaments and cartilage in the joint to shreds. He fell to the floor, screaming in searing agony, unable to move, and Lois stomped both of his hands to useless fragments. The pain was finally too much for him and he fainted.
She moved back from the broken man and leaned against the wall. She reached for the phone, but her vision blurred for a moment and she lost her balance. She felt for the twinge in her side and realized that she was bleeding. Adrenaline reaction and blood loss, she thought. Lois pulled off the bloody sweater and found the medical supply cabinet, then fashioned a bandage that would keep the wound closed. Then she put on the T-shirt and blouse she'd originally planned to wear.
She checked herself in the mirror. Good. She couldn't do anything about the marks on her face, but at least she didn't appear to be bleeding. She walked over to the phone and reported an unconscious and damaged prowler in the room, and that he had killed Elmer. She deliberately didn't report Lex's threat, or the promise he'd made to kill Lucy if the fight didn't go his way. She'd take care of him personally.
Lois hoped she had the strength to get through Clark's fight. She refused to let Lex Luthor win this one.
Just before the police arrived, she stood over Nigel's moaning body and said, "You are definitely too old for this." She kicked him in the ribs and heard bones crack. "That was for Elmer!" Then she slipped out and headed for Clark's dressing room.
Clark looked up as Lois entered. "Hey! I was starting to get worried about you. I was hoping — whoa, are you okay? You look a little pale. And your face is bruised! Lois, what happened?"
Manny jumped up and down. "Who hurt you? I break him! Tell me where —"
"Manny! Calm down. I'll tell you both." She stood in front of Clark and put her hands on his shoulders. "Clark. Listen to me. Lex Luthor has kidnapped Lucy. He's threatened to kill her if you don't throw this fight." She held Clark back as he began to move. "No! You stay here. The police have Nigel in custody. Lex is alone now and he's hurt. He's not crazy enough to kill Lucy if he's alone. He'd rather be alive and in jail than dead. She'll be fine. You hear me, Kent? She'll be fine!"
Clark looked into Lois's eyes and nodded. "Okay. She'll be fine. Lucy will be fine. So what do we do now?"
She held herself back from him and shook him gently. "We go beat Ben Piedmont. We beat him bad. That will hurt Lex more than anything. It'll cost him tons of money and maybe put him in jail for a long time. He's got millions bet against you."
Clark's eyes bulged. "Millions? Is he crazy?"
"Yeah, more than just a little bit. He's also so greedy he makes Daniel Trump look like a Salvation Army officer. Now come on, you have a fight to win."
Lucy sat in the chair as she had been told and glanced at the man assigned to guard her. Nigel was dangerous like a cobra; this guy was more like a randy rhinoceros. She wasn't sure which man frightened her more. He'd been leering at her ever since Nigel and Luthor left the room, and she was almost ready to try to seduce him just to get away. Assuming, of course, that she could let him touch her without screaming.
The door burst open and Luthor limped in. "Karl! Bring her to the executive suite! And don't let anyone see you!"
Luthor picked up a leather satchel and limped out. Karl smiled cunningly and said, "Okay, honey, you come with me. You make any kind of sound and I'll kiss you until you pass out. You do it again and we'll take the scenic route to the executive suite, and you'll pass out for a different reason. You got that?"
Lucy nodded. "Yes."
"You gonna give me any trouble?"
"No. No trouble."
"Good." He grabbed her upper arm and pulled her along with him. As they entered the hallway, he shifted his grip and put his arm around her waist and his hand on her outside hip.
"Sweetheart, you just walk next to me and let me feel how close you are. You try anything and your lips will regret it."
Lucy didn't respond. In his own lewd way, Karl was as scary as Nigel. At least Nigel hadn't pawed at her like an oversexed gorilla.
They came to an elevator door, and Karl pressed the access button. The doors opened before Lucy could brace herself to run, and Karl yanked her into the car.
He turned and pushed her into a rear corner of the car. "You wanna give me a little show now?" He reached out and fingered the buttons of her borrowed top. "How about a slow tease first?"
She shuddered. "You sure Lex Luthor won't want first crack at me?"
Karl frowned and stopped. She watched his face churn as he processed the concept. It looked like thinking hurt him. "Maybe. Yeah, maybe you're right, honey. I guess I'll have to be satisfied with the leftovers."
He stepped back. Lucy tried not to let her relief show too openly. She felt like a death row inmate; anything that delayed her final sentence was welcome.
The elevator dinged and Karl embraced her as before. He led her to another room and showed her in. There were Venetian blinds across the windows on the far side of the room. Luthor was already there. He had placed the satchel on a table at the far end of the room and was rummaging around in it.
"Karl, good. Come in, come in. Miss Lane, please sit down over there. Karl, please come here and let me show you something."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Luthor. What did you want to show me?"
As Karl stepped up beside him, Lex snatched a combat knife with a blade more than a foot long out of the satchel and drove it deep into Karl's abdomen, then gave it another jerk up into his victim's chest. Karl grasped the handle of the knife and tried unsuccessfully to pull it out. He tried to inhale but couldn't. Luthor gave him a shove, and he fell to the floor across the room from Lucy's chair.
Horrified, Lucy watched Karl lie on the floor and bleed his life out between his fingers. She felt a strange compassion for this dying man who, only moments before, had threatened to rape her. She watched the light in his eyes fade and his body slump loosely.
This wasn't the Luthor her sister had described to her. To Lois, Lex had been calculating, cunning, slightly untrustworthy, but this man before her was a grinning, psychotic murderer. He seemed enlivened by Karl's death.
Lex smoothed his hair back and smiled. "That was — invigorating. We need no additional witnesses, especially not an escaped serial rapist. Now, all we need do is wait for Nigel to arrive."
"Nigel?" Lucy squeaked.
"Yes. He was about to dispatch your sister when I left to bring you here. Pity. She had so much potential. We'll have to see about your own potential, my dear."
Lucy went cold. Lois was dead? Impossible! No way her sister would lose a fight, even to someone as deadly as Nigel. More likely, Nigel was dead or busted up too badly to get back here, or else he'd already be reporting in. Lucy forced herself to seem even more frightened.
"Please," she whimpered, "please don't hurt me! I — I'll do anything you want! Please, please don't hurt me!"
Lex bought it. "My dear, please don't be afraid. The show is about to begin."
"Wh — what show?"
"Ah! This show."
He reached under the table and pressed a button. The blinds scrolled upwards out of the way, and Lucy looked out from the most exclusive luxury box in the Metropolis Sports Arena and Convention Center. Below was the ring where Clark was supposed to fight Ben Piedmont that night. She looked around and saw that the arena was nearly full already. She glanced at the clock above the window.
It was four minutes before Clark's fight. Luthor reached into the satchel again and drew out a plastic case. He flipped it open and picked up a huge semi-automatic pistol.
"Do you know what this is, my dear?"
Lucy tried to crawl backwards in the chair. "It's — it's a gun. It's really big gun."
Luthor laughed gently. "True. This is a fifty-caliber Action Express semi-automatic pistol with a ten-inch barrel, telescopic sight, and laser aiming. It is zeroed in at one hundred meters. The round it chambers is larger than the forty- four magnum round the San Diego police officer Dirty Barry uses. I actually prefer the revolver version, but one of my operatives had the misfortune to lose it." He lifted the pistol so Lucy could admire it. "This weapon will stop a diesel truck in its tracks. It has been used to kill elephants. And it will certainly do great damage to you, should you decide to misbehave."
She shuddered as Luthor slammed home the magazine and worked the action. "Please, please don't shoot me! Please don't!"
He smiled. "Of course I won't, my dear, providing that you do as you are told. Now come and stand beside me. On my left, of course, and not too close. While it would not be my first choice, I wouldn't hesitate to use this prize pistol as a club."
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this evening of professional boxing from Metropolis. We have three excellent contests coming to you tonight, beginning with a preliminary bout between the third-ranked cruiserweight contender Ben Piedmont and newcomer Clark Kent. Thanks again for tuning in the Straight Shooters. We always hit our targets. I'm John Colt, and right beside me for this telecast is my long-time partner and broadcast cohort, Sam Browning, for Total Sports Network television and radio."
"Thanks, John. This commercial-free broadcast and telecast is being brought to you by LexCorp Enterprises, the technology leader. We'd like to thank LexCorp for providing this commercial-free service to all of our subscribers. Please stay tuned for information about LexCorp at the end of each fight."
"Remember, that's LexCorp, the technologist's best friend. Now let's talk about the first fight tonight, Sam."
"This is an intriguing match, partly because no one knows very much about Clark Kent. About all we're sure of is that he's from Kansas, he has a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism, and he's fighting out of Mad Dog Lane's gym. Lane has a solid reputation for developing fighters, even though she hasn't been at it all that long —"
"A little over four years, Sam, and she won several championships during her own career."
"That's true, John, and that's why a lot of people, myself included, are looking for big things from Kent here in his first pro fight, despite his age. He's twenty-five already, and that's old to begin a career in the fight game."
"Sam, don't forget all the stories that Kent's sparring partners have been relating. He's supposed to be laser quick, extremely strong, and incredibly durable."
"Supposed to be, yes, but no one knows for certain. We do know that Ben Piedmont actually has both power and durability, and his record of eleven wins, eight by knockout, and no losses since turning pro is a very good one. Kent probably couldn't have gotten such a high quality opponent so early in his career if Piedmont hadn't needed this tune-up before his next fight."
"That's right, Sam. Piedmont wants a shot at the championship, and he needs one more solid win to push himself to the top of the list of challengers. The fighter who was originally scheduled to meet him tonight, Raoul DiMarco, is recovering nicely from those two broken legs, and we wish him a continued speedy rehab. I hope Piedmont's worked hard, because the buzz is that this won't be just a tune-up fight. There are some who are saying that he may have bitten off more than he can chew in Kent."
"It's strange that the odds on this fight are so tilted towards Kent. I've never seen a fight where a well-known quality boxer is such a heavy underdog to a newcomer with no history."
"Just a moment, Sam. We have to pause now for a brief station identification."
Lucy stood and looked out over the arena. She saw the crowd begin to move beneath them, and their cheers were audible even through the glass. She saw Clark walking down the aisle to the ring, followed by two people — and one of them was Lois!
She drew in a breath just as Luthor snarled. "No!" Then he composed himself. "Poor Nigel. I suppose the old Western adage that every gunfighter eventually meets his match is applicable here. Lois will simply have to be taken care of after the fight is over."
Lucy watched her sister work with Clark in the corner. She drew strength from the knowledge that she wasn't alone but that Luthor was. Nigel was out of the game, Karl was dead, and she was there with Luthor.
She edged closer to the maniac and waited for her chance.
"This is TSPN and the Straight Shooters, live from Metropolis with Friday Night Boxing."
"Thanks, Sam. From what I've been told, this Clark Kent deserves his nickname of the Kansas Tornado. The bettors sure think so."
"We won't know about that until the fight starts, John. Until then — hold it! Someone's coming out of the dressing room! I think it's Kent. Yes, it is Clark Kent! Listen to the crowd! He's definitely the favorite here in Metropolis."
"Yes, he is, Sam. And take a look at Mad Dog Lane, his manager. Wow! She's earning her nickname tonight! Just seeing her face makes me think she's the one heading into the ring tonight!"
"Not to mention Kent's expression. You'd think this was a life-and-death struggle from looking at him."
"They're up in his corner now, and she's still talking to him. I can't hear what Lane is saying to Kent, but you can see how intense they both are. Wow! I'd hate to get between them right now. I'd get crushed to a bloody pulp."
"John, I've seen Lois Lane manage fighters before, and I saw her win her last karate championship, and there's something wrong with her tonight. She's favoring her right side, and she's in some kind of pain. She also looks a little pale. She might be ill."
"It might be the lighting in here, Sam. It's really bright."
"That's true. I just hope it doesn't affect the outcome of the fight."
"I do too, Sam. And look! Here comes Ben Piedmont! He's wearing his trademark jeweled robe tonight, a sure sign that he's taking this bout seriously."
"That's a beautiful robe, John. He's got all kinds of gem stones dangling from it. I'm told that he's had insured for a cool two million dollars. Say, aren't those new?"
"Which ones are those, Sam?"
"The green teardrop gems around the cuffs of his sleeves, the glowing ones. I don't think those were there the last time I saw him fight."
"Well, we'll leave the fashion critique to Missy Spengler, our roving ringside reporter and current World Women's Professional Olympic Wrestling middleweight champion. Missy, are you there?"
"Yes I am, John, and thanks. Lane and Kent and Manny Hershovitz, another of Mad Dog Lane's fighters who's working in Kent's corner tonight, stalked past me in the tunnel as if I wasn't even there. In fact, they ignored all the media, including the Daily Planet reporter, who apparently knows Kent personally. If Kent were any more intense, he might explode. I think he's more than ready for this fight."
"Thanks, Missy. Did you get a chance to speak to Ben Piedmont?"
"Yes I did, Sam. He didn't have much time, of course, but he said he was glad to give Kent an opportunity to find out what it is to face a quality opponent. He also said he hoped Kent didn't get hurt too badly tonight."
"Oh ho! He sure sounds confident! You were at the weigh-in this morning, weren't you?"
"Yes, I was. Both fighters made their weight easily, and both of them look more than ready for tonight. Kent and Piedmont didn't speak to each other, but there were no problems between them or any unkind words exchanged."
"Thanks, Missy. We'll check back with you periodically during the fight."
"John, Sam, there is one more thing I'd like to mention."
"Go ahead, Missy."
"I bumped into one of the local bookies before the fighters came out. He gave his name as Angel and asked me if I had any money on either fighter. When I said no, he frowned and said that if Kent loses, a lot of bookies are going to be out of business, and not just here in Metropolis. Someone has taken advantage of the odds favoring Kent and put a great deal of money on Piedmont."
"Missy, are you saying that there might be something wrong with this fight? That it might somehow be fixed?"
"Absolutely not, Sam! No way! As far as I've been able to learn, neither Kent's team nor Piedmont's people have anything at all to do with the money bet on this fight. Given Ben Piedmont's reputation, along with Lois Lane's, I'd have to say that you'd need way more than a suggestion of collusion to convince me that this is anything more than a completely honest match."
"Thanks again, Missy. Sam, what do you think about the odds?"
"Well, John, we've already mentioned that the odds are way out of line, but it's obvious to me that anyone trying to fix this fight would have to be on the world's biggest ego trip ever. It would be way too hard to keep it a secret, and that's kinda the point of a fixed fight, not to let people know it was fixed."
"I agree, Sam. Besides, Lois Lane may be hotheaded, but she's also dead level honest. And no hint of scandal has ever been mentioned in connection with Ben Piedmont and his camp. I'd have to say both sides are as far away from a fix as they could be. Okay, let's switch to the ring announcer now."
"Ladies and gentlemen, pugilism fanciers all, welcome to the Metropolis Sports Arena and Convention Center for this evening's entertainment! Our first fight tonight is an eight-round, non- title bout in the cruiserweight class.
"In this corner, wearing blue trunks with red trim, standing six feet one inch in height and weighing one hundred eighty-six pounds, newcomer to the profession and Metropolis resident, Clark Kent!
"In the far corner, wearing black trunks with green trim, standing six feet five inches in height and weighing one hundred ninety-three pounds, the third-ranked contender in the U.S. cruiserweight division, hailing from Gotham City, Ben Piedmont!"
"Sam, the crowd doesn't hate Piedmont, but they sure love Kent! They are really cheering for him! There's a group of fans behind his corner chanting his name."
"You sound surprised about that, John."
"Not really. Kent's a huge local favorite, even though he's actually from Smallville, Kansas and not Metropolis."
"He's also traveled a great deal. His biography says that he's lived in both Africa and Asia since college. I wonder how much fighting he might have done during his travels."
"Maybe that's where his professional experience comes from, Sam. Okay, the fighters are in the middle of the ring now, getting final instructions from the referee, Juan Escobar, one of the top-rated boxing officials in the nation."
"John, take a look at Kent! His face was almost dry before, but now he's panting and he's really starting to sweat! You think the pressure is getting to him?"
"Could be. The fighters are returning to their respective corners. Just to review the rules for our listeners and viewers, the three-knockdown rule is in effect, so if either fighter goes down three times in any round, the fight's over. Any knockdown will be followed by a mandatory standing eight-count. The referee won't score the fight, but he can deduct points if the fighters violate the rules. Scoring will be by the ten-point must system, which means the winner of the round gets ten points and the loser gets nine or fewer, depending on how well he fought in that round. If the fight goes the full eight rounds, the combined scores on the judges' cards will determine the winner. And they can be saved by the bell. No knockouts after the round ends, except the last round."
"They're ready now, John, and there's the bell for the first round! Piedmont and Kent meet at ring center and holy cow! Kent threw just one vicious right and knocked Piedmont to the canvas! He's going to a neutral corner now. Piedmont is still down, wait, he's moving, he's up at six, the referee is looking at him, and here we go again!"
"That was a lighting move, Sam, really quick and powerful. Kent looks surprised that Piedmont was able to get up after that."
"I'm a little surprised, too, John. That was a tremendous punch."
"Here comes Kent again, jabbing and moving. Piedmont is back in his own corner now and Kent is really punishing him to the upper body! Wait, Kent is stepping back! I think he's hyperventilated, Sam! And now Piedmont takes advantage with a thunderous left-right to the head! Now Kent is on the canvas! Wow! What action! Two knockdowns in the first minute of the first round!"
"The ref is checking Kent now. He got up at the count of seven. Escobar is waving them together, and they're both a lot more cautious now. Piedmont is edging in, testing, testing, jabbing once, twice, there's a hard right that misses! Kent returns a straight left that rocks Piedmont onto his heels!"
"Oh, he missed a good chance there, Sam. Piedmont was vulnerable for a moment, but it looks like Kent's inexperience kept him from moving in and taking advantage."
"That experience of Piedmont's might be the deciding factor, John. Kent certainly isn't physically overmatched in this fight. It looks like the rumors of Kent's quickness and strength weren't exaggerated after all."
"They're still circling and jabbing. It's as if neither of them wants to risk being kayoed right now. Thirty seconds left in the round, and Kent goes after Piedmont again! The crowd is going wild! He's chased Piedmont back into his own corner again, and he's — wait! He's dropped his left and Piedmont is clubbing him with rights! Kent is down again, near the center of the ring! The referee directs Piedmont to a neutral corner, but he's having trouble getting there! Those body shots of Kent's have hurt him. Now the count starts. Kent is up again at six, and the ref checks him and says to go! Piedmont can end this fight right now if he knocks Kent down again, but he's being cautious, and so is Kent. They're moving but not punching, and there's the bell!"
"That's the first round. It has to go to Piedmont, John, simply because Kent went down twice."
"I agree, Sam, but Kent's not far behind. He's punished Piedmont pretty severely so far."
"I agree. Missy, do you have anything from Piedmont's corner?"
"Yes, Sam, I do. They're telling Piedmont to stay away from Kent and use his size and reach advantage against him. Kent is stronger than they had anticipated, and he's a much quicker puncher than they thought. That was the first time in Piedmont's career, pro or amateur, that he's been knocked down in the first round."
"Thanks, Missy. Just looking at Kent, I'd say he's got more bubble gum than he can chew right now. His manager is really talking to him."
"They don't call her Mad Dog for nothing, John. The second round is about to start. What do you anticipate for this round?"
"I think they'll both slow down a little, Sam, and Piedmont will try to stay away from that devastating inside power that Kent has shown."
"We'll know in just a moment, because there's the bell for the second round! Here they come now. They're both shuffling in slowly, moving counter-clockwise, and jabbing."
"Kent's trying to get close, but Piedmont doesn't want him there. Oh, there's a good shot to the head by Piedmont that knocked Kent sideways! Now he's boring in and Kent's in the corner!"
"They're in a neutral corner and Piedmont looks like he's trying to finish this right now! He's pummeling Kent's head — but there's a great left from Kent to Piedmont's belly! Piedmont staggers back and Kent throws a right uppercut and Piedmont is down again! Piedmont is down and he rolls over toward his corner!"
"Kent goes back to the neutral corner while the ref counts, four, five, and Piedmont is up again. Seven, eight, and the ref checks his eyes. I guess he's okay to keep going."
"John, I don't think I could have gotten up after that punch. Piedmont's gotta be tougher than a fifty-cent steak."
"Sam, it looks like Kent doesn't want to chase Piedmont into his corner. He wants Piedmont to come out the middle of the ring to face him. In fact, he just waved to Piedmont to come out and meet him."
"Piedmont doesn't want any part of that uppercut again! He's pacing to his right again, trying to stay away from Kent. He's jabbing, jabbing, and he comes in with a right but Kent backs away and jabs hard at Piedmont's belly! Piedmont covers up and moves away again."
"Piedmont is slowly closing again, circling to his right. Kent is just turning in the center of the ring. Piedmont is — Wow! Kent jumped in and threw a lightning-fast left to Piedmont's head! Piedmont is back in Kent's corner! Lane is yelling instructions and Kent is beating Piedmont badly! Piedmont tries to punch out of the corner but Kent won't let him go! Wow! Kent hesitated to take a breath and Piedmont shoved him back and stumbled away! Kent follows and hits him with a right to the head and Piedmont is down again! With eighteen seconds left in the second round, Ben Piedmont is down for the second time in the round!"
"The ref may stop this fight now, John. Piedmont is really shaky."
"He's up at the count of eight and Escobar checks him. Piedmont is really worn out now, but so is Kent. Kent stays in the center of the ring, waiting, waiting, and there's the bell!"
"John, Sam, this is Missy Spengler in Clark Kent's corner. I'm watching Lois 'Mad Dog' Lane talk to her fighter. I can't hear what she's saying, but her intensity level hasn't gone down since the start of the fight, and in fact I think it may have gone up a couple of notches. Kent is panting hard and his left eye is swollen and his nose is bleeding slightly. At that, he's in better shape than Ben Piedmont. Kent is —"
"Missy? Missy, are you still there?"
"Ah, yes, John, I'm still here."
"Missy, we lost you for a moment. What happened?"
"Ah, John, Sam, I just — stopped talking."
"You stopped talking? We're on the air! Why would you stop talking?"
"Because I've never seen a manager kiss a fighter just before the start of a round until now."
"Lois Lane leaned over the top rope and gave Kent a really good kiss. It looked like she meant it, too."
"John, Sam, the bell has rung. Are you guys still there?"
"Ah, yes, Missy, we're here. Piedmont and Kent are close to the middle of the ring again. Piedmont throws a pair of quick jabs and both miss. Kent tries to close, but Piedmont skips backwards towards his corner. Kent won't follow him. Why would that be, Sam?"
"I have no idea, John. Kent has shown he can corner Piedmont at will and hit him hard, but now he won't go near Piedmont's corner. It's almost as if Piedmont's corner itself is poison for Kent."
"Piedmont can stay away from Kent for the rest of the fight, but that won't win the bout for him. Kent definitely won the second round."
"I think that's what Piedmont's corner is telling him, to fight Kent. He has to mix it up with Kent or he'll lose this fight."
"The crowd wants him to fight, too. They're starting to boo Piedmont. Well, he must have heard them. He's moving out again."
"Halfway through the third round now. Piedmont circles to his left this time, a dangerous move if Kent can connect with a hard right."
"And there it is! Kent just threw a hard right but he almost missed and now Piedmont is battering Kent back to Piedmont's corner! Piedmont is pounding Kent at will! Head shots, body shots, and there's a hard right to Kent's ribs! Kent goes to one knee and the ref steps in! Piedmont goes to a neutral corner and Kent gets up and stumbles back towards his own corner. The ref follows and finishes the standing eight-count. He's looking at Kent's eyes, still looking, now he nods and waves them together again."
"Kent's looking a little unsteady now, and Piedmont comes close and Kent nails him with a hard left to the body! Piedmont stumbles backwards to his corner and Kent doesn't follow."
"Kent's waiting in the middle of the ring again, and Piedmont is slowly coming back out. I wonder if having all that room in the middle is part of Lois Lane's strategy for Kent."
"Could be, John. Piedmont's coming in again and bam! Kent hits him with a right to the belly and Piedmont folds up like an accordion! Kent goes to a neutral corner and Escobar starts the count, three, four, Piedmont is up on his feet but still bent over! Escobar might stop it now! This might be it!"
"Kent looks like he hopes that's it! He's bent over and trying to get his breath, just like Piedmont is."
"Escobar is checking Piedmont, and maybe he — no, he's waving them together again. Kent has really clobbered Piedmont all through this fight."
"Sam, there's definitely something wrong with Lois Lane, Clark Kent's manager. She's barely holding herself upright against the apron of the ring. I think — Sam, I think Lois Lane is bleeding! There's a patch of darkness on the right side of her shirt just above her waist."
"We'll have Missy check on her, John. Back in the ring, both Kent and Piedmont are just about worn out. Both of them are leaning over, exhausted. Piedmont's nose may be broken, and he's bleeding from cuts under both eyes. He's been hit harder tonight than he ever has before."
"Kent's no beauty, either, Sam. Those stories of him never getting bruised or cut were obviously just stories."
"Maybe so, but he's proved he's tough tonight. They're in the middle of the ring again, and they're both tired. Piedmont seems to be favoring his ribs where Kent just nailed him, and Kent looks like he's struggling just to stay upright."
"The crowd is yelling encouragement again, but with only fifteen seconds left in the third round, I doubt that we'll see much more action."
"I agree, John. They're staggering around, waving their gloves but staying away from each other, and there's the bell for the end of the round!"
"I'd have to give Kent that round, Sam, because of the way he came back and knocked down Piedmont."
"Kent went down too, but I agree with you, John. Piedmont can't be defensive for the rest of the fight. If he wants to win this one, he'll have to take the fight to Kent."
"I think you're right. Missy, do you have any news on Ben Piedmont?"
"Yes I do, John. Ben Piedmont is in rough shape. His nose is definitely broken, both of his cheeks are cut and bleeding, his right eye is swollen almost shut, and he may have a cracked rib. He's yelling at his manager now to let him finish Kent, but I'm not sure he has enough gas in his tank to do it."
"Missy, can they stop the bleeding? If they can't, the referee will surely stop the fight."
"They're working on his face now, Sam, and I think they'll be able to close his cuts. I'm heading for Kent's corner now to see if I can learn anything about either Kent or Lane. I'm almost there and — wow!"
"Missy? Missy, what did you see? What happened?"
"Wow! This time Kent gave Lane a kiss, and it looked like both of them meant it. That was a prize-winner of a kiss in any county fair!"
"Ha-ha! I've done fights with subplots and multiple storylines before, John, but I've never seen a romantic interest between a fighter and his manager."
"Do we have time? Yes, we do. Here's a quick station identification. Stay tuned, folks, or you might miss something!"
Luthor watched Clark and Lois kiss again. "Look, Lucille. You see! Your lover has betrayed you. And he has betrayed you with my own paramour!" He took a deep breath and winced. "Oww! Your sister, curse her vile name, kicked me in the leg the last time I saw her. I'll make certain she will never do that again."
Lucy took a huge chance and put her hand on Lex's elbow. "I understand, Lex, dear. You can't just let this happen. You must act."
He looked at her oddly for a moment, then grinned. "You do understand! Good! I wasn't sure you would, but you do." He embraced her with his left arm. "I'm so very glad. We will rebuild my empire, my dear Lucille, and you will stand beside me."
"Yes, Lex, dear. It will be wonderful."
He drew her to himself and kissed her. It took every iota of self-control she had to keep from vomiting into his mouth. If she was to survive the next few minutes, she had to stay under control.
Lex pulled back slowly, savoring the taste of her lips. "Ah, delicious. My dear, let us observe the finale together. No one can say that Kent threw this fight. All he needs to do is to let Piedmont knock him down once more, and then he can stay down. We will be rich beyond your wildest dreams."
Lucy caressed his chest and focused on pink llamas, Elvis with an orange Afro, immense fuzzy dice, anything but this insane man with a gun standing beside her.
"This is Sam Colt with his partner John Browning, and you're back with the Straight Shooters on TSPN and Friday Night Boxing."
"This is definitely a different kind of fight, Sam. Okay, there's the bell for the fourth round, and the ref is checking both fighters before he lets them go."
"I haven't seen that before either, John, but Juan Escobar is one of the best referees in the business, and he won't let a man get hurt if he can prevent it."
"He's waving at both of them to begin. Kent is staying closer to his corner now, and Piedmont is very slowly edging his way over to him. Kent throws a jab, then another. Both of them landed with no apparent effect on Piedmont. Kent may be punched out, Sam."
"Maybe. Piedmont is closing in and throwing more punches. Kent is backing up to his own corner again, and Piedmont is boring in. He needs to win this fight now, John, or he'll lose it later. He can't keep taking this kind of punishment all —"
"Holy cow! A hard right from Kent! And Kent just stood Piedmont up with a left uppercut! And now a right cross crashes in and Piedmont is down on the canvas! He's not moving! The referee motions Kent to a neutral corner and starts the count! Piedmont is up on his hands and knees at four! Five! Six! He's trying to stand up but he can't! He falls down again and Escobar waves him out! Kent wins! Clark Kent has won this fight! It's over! It's over!"
"That was an incredible fight, John! There was more action in three rounds and change than in most title bouts!"
"What a battle! What a battle! Clark Kent, a total unknown, beats Ben Piedmont by KO at one minute fourteen seconds into the fourth round! Nobody predicted this! Nobody!"
Luthor's entire face bulged. "No," he whispered. "No." He turned to Lucy. I wagered over fourteen million dollars on this fight. The LexCorp employee retirement fund will be insolvent. This — this will break LexCorp. I'll be hunted by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Federal Trade Commission will inspect my books. My entire empire will be destroyed." He turned to her. "All because of Kent! I cannot allow it! He must pay for this insult! He must die!"
Lex lifted the pistol with both hands and aimed it at Clark, who was standing in the middle of the ring with his hands raised. Lucy knew she'd have no better chance. She fell to the floor and scissored her legs, kicking out to strike Luthor in the back of his damaged knee.
She timed her move perfectly. Luthor yelled in pain and folded up like a broken mannequin. His aim ruined, the gun went off and fired high. The bullet exploded through the window and buried itself deep in the far wall across the arena.
Lucy rolled over the startled Lex as he fell and wrenched the huge gun from his hands. She leaped to her feet and pointed it at him. "Don't move, you slimy pond scum!"
"Lucille." He hauled himself to his feet and steadied himself against the desk. "Lucille, listen to me. The police are surely on their way. Look, everyone has heard the shot. We have time. We can still escape together." He reached for her. "Give me the gun."
"Yes, Lucille, give me the gun."
"Stay back! Don't come any closer!"
He stood as straight as his injured leg would allow. "You must give me the gun, my dear. We must work together in this matter, and we must do it now."
She stepped a little closer. "You're insane! You're out of your head! You were going to kill someone over money! Your stupid money!" He lifted his hand. "Don't! You move any closer to me and I'll pull this trigger!"
"Lucille, please —"
"You said it would kill an elephant! You're no elephant!"
"I am not. Please give me the gun."
"Don't! I warned you!"
"My dear, you must give me —"
Clark had never been so tired in his entire life. His trembling hands were raised in victory the center of the ring when he realized that Lois wasn't climbing in to join him. He lowered his hands and started moving towards his corner when a gunshot boomed out above everyone. He reflexively tried to fly up to help, but the mysterious weakness that had assaulted him during the introductions and every time he approached Piedmont's corner kept him on the ground. He looked up at the blown-out window of the luxury box, wondering what was happening.
Then two more explosions sounded. A man stumbled against the window frame, then fell backwards through the opening and lazily spun down the thirty-three feet to the concrete steps below. The crowd began panicking, and Clark stumbled to Lois.
She held onto the bottom rope, panting and trying not to fall. He slipped through the ropes and picked her up. For the first time in his adult life, he struggled to hold someone in his arms. "Lois! Lois, can you hear me?" She nodded, but her eyes were closed. "Are you okay?"
She lifted her head and looked into his eyes. "No." She touched her side where Nigel's knife had cut her. Her shirt was soaked with blood. "Hurt. Need — doctor."
Clark began striding powerfully towards the tunnel where the treatment room was. Two reporters shouted questions at him and tried to block his path, but Jimmy Olsen from the Planet and the muscular woman from the Straight Shooters broadcast team pushed them aside. He glanced at Lois, but she was barely conscious.
The doctor was right behind Clark as he placed Lois on the treatment table as gently as he could. "Hold on, Lois, hold on!"
"Young man, you've done your job, now let me do mine. Please go get cleaned up and I'll check you over as soon as I can."
Clark nodded and allowed Manny to tug him out of the treatment room. "Clark, you come wi' me. You get dressed. Lois be okay. Doctor say so."
Missy Spengler stopped Clark as he was leaving the room and started to ask a question, but when she looked into his eyes she lowered the microphone beside her leg and nodded to him. Manny led Clark to his dressing room.
She heard her companions screaming in her earpiece. "John, Sam, this is Missy. I'm at the trainer's room under the arena."
"Missy, what's going on? Where is Lois Lane? Have you found Clark Kent yet?"
"I'm sorry, John, but the doctor is working on Lois Lane now. I have no word on either the nature or the extent of her injuries. Clark Kent is already in his dressing room, and they've barred all media."
She heard John force himself not to say any of the words that the FCC says you can't say on the air, then she thought she heard him count quickly to ten. "Missy, can you tell us anything useful?"
I'll give him useful, she thought. "I think so, John. The state boxing commission representatives have postponed the other two fights scheduled for later tonight. There are no firm dates yet, and I'm sure the scheduling of the makeup fights will depend on facilities, availability of the fighters, and numerous other factors. I think —"
"Missy? Missy, we lost you. Are you still there?"
"Yes, Sam, I'm here. I'm sorry, but I just heard one of the commission members tell the manager of the arena the name of the man who fell out of the balcony. This isn't verified yet, but as soon as I can verify it, I'll get back to you with it, along with any details I can gather on exactly what happened to him and why."
"Thanks, Missy. We're going to a station break at this point. I think we really need it."
"Here from LexCorp, the technologist's best friend, is owner and founder Lex Luthor, with a personal message to you, the technology user."
Lois opened her eyes and glanced around. She saw white all around her. She heard the soft whirring of machines and the whisper of rubber-soled shoes on tile.
She thought about sitting up, but changed her mind when her body refused to respond to the commands she gave it. She managed to roll her head to the right. She spied a man sitting in a chair, looking out the window. She knew that his name was in her head somewhere, but it was hard to find it.
She made a noise of some kind and he turned to look at her. Seeing his face helped her retrieve his name. Clark! That was his name, Clark Kent. Somehow he'd saved her life. She wasn't real clear on just how, but he had. And she was very happy that he was here with her now. Just seeing him made her insides glow.
Clark smiled gloriously. "Hello. Glad you're back with us. First thing you should know is that Lucy is okay. Now let me call the nurse. They wanted to know as soon as you woke up." He reached out and pressed a button above her head and said, "Lois Lane is awake now." He lowered his hand and touched her cheek. She tried to smile back at him but she wasn't sure she had.
A nurse bustled in, wearing an impossibly perky plastic grin, and speaking in a shrill voice. "Well! We're awake, are we? Let's check our output. How are we feeling? Here, let's put this in our mouth. Sir, could you wait outside for a few minutes, please?"
Clark smiled at Lois again. "I'll be back soon." Then he left.
Clark let the door swing shut behind him. He looked up and saw Lucy almost running down the hallway. "Clark! I was at the nurse's station when you called about Lois. So you're still here?"
He nodded sheepishly. "Yep."
"Have you had any sleep?"
"Some." He stifled a yawn. "The doctors here fixed me up, too. They said I should heal pretty quickly."
"Yeah, the swelling around your eyes is almost gone. And thanks for finishing the story. Perry came to see me this morning and showed me. Front page banner! We make a pretty good writing team, don't we?"
"We do at that."
She looked into his eyes. "Clark, have you talked to Lois yet?"
He frowned. "No. I haven't had the chance."
"Oh. Make sure she knows about you and me, okay? Make sure she knows we aren't really dating or anything. Tell her I'm not really in love with you, despite your obvious good points."
He grinned. "Thanks. You're not really disappointed that we're not an item, are you?"
She sighed. "No, I guess not. Another busted romance for my memoirs. But I'm young yet! Maybe that new guy at the Planet is single, the one who wrote up your fight."
"You'll have to ask him. He's not comfortable around me yet." He lifted her bandaged right hand. "How's your wrist?"
She shrugged and managed a wan smile. "Sprained but not broken. That's a really big gun — " She broke off. "Luthor almost killed you, Clark! He had you in his sights."
"I know. The police told me about it. I haven't had a chance to thank you yet." He smiled at her. "You saved my life, Lucy."
Her hands began shaking. She held them up in front of her. "Look at that. J-just look!" She hugged herself to still her hands. "I can't stop sh-shaking. Every time I think about I s- s-start — I killed him! I told him to stay back! I didn't want to do it but I killed him! I can hardly stand it, Clark!" She started crying. "What am I gonna do now?"
He embraced her gently. "It'll be okay, Lucy, it'll be okay. You'll get past this."
She sniffled into his shoulder. "I hope so."
Just then a doctor turned the corner. "Lucy! There you are. Please come back to the ward with me."
Lucy wrapped her arms around Clark. "I want to see my sister! Please! I want to see Lois! I need to know she's okay!"
The doctor stood beside Lucy but didn't touch her. "Lucy, you know what we talked about. You can see your sister when she's feeling better. The nurses on the recovery floor tell me that she might be ready to have visitors this evening, but more likely tomorrow morning. But you will see her, I promise." She held her hand out to Lucy. "Please come back with me?"
Lucy slowly released Clark and took the doctor's hand. "I — I need to go back now. Will you help me?"
"Yes, Lucy, of course I'll help you."
"Can Clark come and see me?"
The doctor glanced at Clark. "That's up to him, but it's certainly okay with me."
"Clark? Will you come and see me?"
"Of course, Lucy. When would be a good time, Doctor?"
The doctor grinned at him. "After you get some real sleep. How about this evening after dinner?"
Clark grinned back. "I'll be there, never fear."
"Good. Lucy, do you want me to walk back with you?"
Lucy took a shuddering breath. "No. I — I can do this. I need to do this. I'll see you back at the ward."
"Good! I'll see you in a few minutes."
Lucy turned and walked unevenly to the intersection of the hallways, then turned back the way she'd come. The doctor nodded to a large male orderly, and he ambled down the hallway several paces behind Lucy.
"He won't hurt her, will he?"
"Of course not, Mr. Kent. He'll just keep tabs on her and make sure she doesn't try to leave the hospital."
"Will she recover? Will she get well?"
"Eventually, yes, but it will take some time. Killing a human being, even in self-defense, is an extremely traumatic event."
He nodded. "I'm willing to help her if I can."
The doctor crossed her arms. "Just treat her like someone who's recovering from a serious illness and be very patient with her. She told me about the fake romance you two had going. She likes you a lot, and she trusts you, so don't let her down."
"Uh, doctor, how much did she tell you about —"
She smiled. "About your stringent code of honor and yourself in general? Quite a lot, all of it positive. You've made quite an impression on her. You will come and see her tonight, won't you?"
He nodded. "I promised to come and I will."
She shook his hand. "Good. Your help will make our job easier. But I still think you should get some rest yourself. You look awful."
He grinned. "Thanks. I'll get some sleep in a little bit. I want to see Lois."
She nodded and walked away. Clark peeked through the hospital room door and saw the nurse heading out. He waited until she opened the door.
"You can go back in, sir, but just for a little while. You need to recover from that fight on Friday. Oh, congratulations on winning, Mr. Kent! When's your next fight?"
"I have no idea. That's my manager in there."
"Oh. Oh!" She giggled. "That's right. I forgot! Silly me! You go on in there, but don't tire her out too much!"
"I won't. I promise."
Clark pushed the door open and looked at Lois. She was sitting up with the bed raised, and she appeared more alert. "Hey."
"Hey yourself, farm boy. Pull up a chair and sit down."
He did. "You look better."
"I'll take your word for it. Did you tell me that Lucy was okay?"
"I did and she is."
"Did you tell me anything else? I don't remember it if you did."
"No. But I'm sure you have a lot of questions. Fire away."
She nodded. "Is it really Sunday? I've really been out of it for almost two days?"
"In and out, mostly out. Doctor Carson gave you three units of plasma in the arena before the ambulance got there. You were in surgery for nine hours. Who gave you that knife wound, anyway?"
She stared at him. "I thought you knew. It was Nigel St. John. He — he killed Elmer!"
Clark took her hand. "I know. I'm sorry."
She closed her eyes and forced herself to remain under control. "Elmer is — was — my best friend. He took care of me after my mom died. I wanted to kill Nigel but —"
"I know. You did a hard thing, but it was the right thing."
She rubbed her face with her free hand and looked at him. "Where — who's taking care of Elmer's — arrangements?"
"He has a niece in Ohio who's taking care of everything. She wants to bury him with the rest of his family. There's going to be a memorial service at the gym on Friday afternoon, assuming you give your okay."
"Of course it's okay. Whatever she wants to do is fine with me. And I'll do anything that she wants me to do. All she has to do is say so."
"I'll call her and tell her." He released her hand and stood up. "Feel like telling me what happened to you?"
Lois leaned back. "Nigel and I were fighting and I won but he cut me. I didn't think I was hurt that badly." She sighed. "I thought the bandage would take care of it."
"You were bleeding internally. I thought — I was scared you wouldn't make it."
Her expression softened. "It's okay, Clark. I did make it."
"Yeah. And Nigel is in this hospital, under heavy police guard. He's not going anywhere, even after his leg and hands heal. Hey, do you remember my fight?"
"Of course. You won by knockout in the fourth round. That's about the last thing I remember, though."
"So, you don't remember the guy falling out of the luxury box?"
She frowned. "What? Somebody fell out of a luxury box?" He nodded to her. "You can't just fall out of those boxes, Clark. There's some pretty thick glass on those windows and they don't open."
"Somebody did fall. There was a shooting in the most expensive suite and a bullet blew out a window. The guy renting it fell from the window to the aisle below. Lucky thing he didn't land on anybody."
"Wow! That's what, about thirty feet down? The guy's dead, isn't he?"
Clark hung his head. "Yes. I'm sorry, but yes, he is."
"Sorry? Why are you sorry?"
"It was Lex Luthor."
"What? What was — " and then she understood. "Clark! Somebody shot Lex? And now he's dead?" She put her hands over her face and shuddered. "Then somebody killed him to save Lucy!"
He took her hands gently. "There's more."
"What? How could there be more? You told me Lucy was okay!"
"She is okay, I promise. But there's a — a problem."
"What? What problem? Tell me right now, Kent, or I'll climb out of this bed and beat it out of you!"
He half-smiled. "Please, not that. No, it's just that Lucy put the lessons you've been giving her to good use."
Lois sounded more like her Mad Dog self. "Quit beating around the bush and tell me straight out what happened! Don't try to soften it for me! I'm not that badly hurt."
Yes, you are, he thought, but he said, "If that's what you want. Luthor was holding Lucy in the box at gunpoint. After you put Nigel out of commission, Lex had another of his goons bring Lucy to the box, and he killed the man. No one really knows why, except that maybe he was a little crazy at the time. He even thought Lucy would take your place in his life."
Lois stared. "Yeah, that was just a little bit nuts. Keep it coming."
He nodded. "When I knocked Piedmont down for the last time, Lex was going to shoot me, but Lucy knocked the gun out of his hand and took it away from him. He made a move on her and she shot him in self-defense."
Lois paled. "Are you telling me — you're saying my sister killed Lex Luthor? Is that what happened?"
"Yes. I'm sorry to tell you like this. I wish there were a softer way to say it."
She turned her head away and wiped her eyes. "He betrayed me. He wanted me to tell you to throw the fight so he could win millions. He would have been in control of both the boxing and the betting. Every major bookie in the nation would have owed him big time. He could have milked them for years and fiddled with the odds on all kinds of events." She sniffed. "I need — something."
Clark handed her a tissue. "Here you go."
"Lucy is here in the hospital too, in the psych ward. She voluntarily put herself in. She's having a hard time dealing with it."
"I guess she would. She was always the gentle one. You'll help her get through this, won't you, Clark?"
"Of course I will. I'm going to get some sleep after I leave here, then I'm going to see her this evening. Her doctor thinks she'll be able to come see you tomorrow morning." He leaned closer. "What about you? Will you be okay?"
She sniffed. "Oh, yeah, I'll be peachy." She gave him a thin smile. "I'm sorry I didn't make it into the ring to help you celebrate. You fought a great fight."
"Do you remember what happened right before that?"
"Do I remember — oh. You mean — the kisses."
"Yeah. I don't remember you kissing Manny during his fight."
She grinned and turned away. "Manny isn't as good-looking as you are."
He crossed his arms. "So. You just kiss the good-looking boxers, eh?"
"No. Just the ones I'm in love with."
He didn't breathe. He didn't dare. He'd hoped, one day, in the far, far, distant future, to hear those words from her, but not so soon. He wasn't sure how to respond, and he almost waited too long.
Lois looked up and her expression began to harden. "I'm wrong, aren't I? Those kisses — they weren't mutual, were they?"
Clark finally exhaled. "Oh, yeah, they sure were mutual. They were real mutual. You better believe they were mutual."
She frowned. "But — I don't understand. What's the problem?"
"Uh. There's a lot I still need to tell you."
"You mean about Lucy? Don't bother. You aren't in love with her, Clark. I know it, and surely she knows it. You can find a way to let her down easy."
He frowned back. "It isn't that simple."
"Sure it is."
"Lois, Lucy and I were never really dating."
Lois's eyebrows did flips. "What?"
"I told you it wasn't simple." He held his hands up. "Let me start at the beginning and don't interrupt. I met Lucy when I went to apply for a job at the Planet. Perry White turned me down, but I talked Lucy into letting me go with her when she went to see you about the boxing corruption story. You know what happened next. Anyway, we went back to the paper and I talked Mr. White into letting me go undercover as a boxer to get inside info for the story. He ordered Lucy and me to fake a relationship so no one would suspect we were meeting so I could pass her what I learned. By the time we — she was sure you weren't involved, I was committed to the fight, so I went through with it."
She looked straight at him. "Lois? Do you want me to repeat any of that?"
She put a lopsided grin on her face. "Naw, I got it. Just tell me who was getting information out of my gym to Lex."
She almost exploded. "Manny? Are you crazy? He'd never do anything like that! He's way too honest!"
"You're right, he didn't."
"Kent, either you tell me plainly what you mean or so help me —"
"Easy! Manny talked to Mama about everything that was happening in the gym, and Mama told Nigel all about it over the phone. Nigel is fluent in Hungarian, so Mama talked and Nigel listened. He'd send her money every once in a while, saying it was from some relative in the old country. When Mrs. Hershovitz found out who Nigel really was, she broke down and cried for almost an hour. She was so upset that she'd inadvertently helped Luthor to hurt you she offered to pay all of your medical and rehab expenses."
"Oh." She sat back against the bed. "I don't think that's necessary. I'm pretty sure Lex's estate will take care of all this."
Clark nodded. "The chief attorney and executor of his estate has already informed the hospital that any medical or rehabilitation expenses you incur pertaining to this incident, here or in the future, will be fully covered. I think they're also going to offer you a pretty nice cash settlement in return for not bringing a lawsuit against them."
"Cash settlement? They think that'll fix things? Like they can buy me off?"
"Easy, Lois, this is standard lawyer stuff. You do what you think is right."
She gritted her teeth. "Last time I did that I almost got Lucy killed."
"That was not your fault, Lois, and Lucy doesn't blame you in the slightest. That was Luthor and Nigel."
"Yeah." She relaxed. "So, tell me again why they're going to pay me off?"
"They're trying to do some major damage control on this situation, but I don't think it's going to do much good. Luthor's empire is falling apart, and there's no one person to pick up the pieces. I think they'll end up selling off the legit businesses a little bit at a time."
They sat there, silent, while Lois considered what she'd just learned. Then she sighed deeply. "Well. This is certainly no way to start a relationship. You've lied to me from the very beginning."
Clark was aghast. "What was I supposed to do, tell you I was undercover at your gym? That's the point of being undercover, that no one knows you're undercover!"
"And what about you? You didn't tell us about the knife wound, or about the fight with Nigel! And you didn't tell us about Elmer! Don't jump me for lying unless you're willing to come clean too!"
"I have to go. You need your rest." He stood and stormed towards the door.
"I love you."
He stopped as if he'd been lassoed. He turned slowly and faced her. "I really, really hope you mean that, Lois, because I love you too."
She reached out to him. Her voice trembled as she said, "Then come here and show me."
He leaned towards her and kissed her again like the first time. After a few moments, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
He turned and saw the perky little nurse smiling at them. "Mr. Kent, you've got to stop that. You just set off Ms. Lane's blood pressure alarm."
Lois chuckled low in her throat. "Later, farm boy. But not too much later."
"There's still a lot I have to tell you."
"It'll keep. Go get some rest."
"One more quick thing before I go?"
She touched his cheek. "Anything."
He smiled. "Would you mind — would you like to take a trip to Smallville when you get better? My parents would really like to meet you. And I'd like for you to meet them."
She beamed. "That would be great, Clark. I'd like to meet them, too. I hope they still have those naked baby pictures. I have to get some real leverage on you."
Clark chuckled. "I'll call ahead to make sure they're available."
"Besides, we have to spend some time getting you ready for your next fight."
"Next fight? I thought I was a writer who was working undercover as a fighter."
"Are you kidding? You took down Piedmont like you'd been doing this for years! We're not gonna waste that talent! With me managing you, the championship is just a few fights away! You'll be rich and famous! We could even — mmph! Clark, you — mmm. My blood pressure — mmm! Mmm, we'll discuss this later!"
# # #
— Epilogue —
Elmer's memorial service was attended by close family and friends. Lois, per doctor's orders, attended in a wheelchair, but she still spoke of her relationship with Elmer with love and tenderness. Elmer's niece and her husband stayed long enough to invite Lois to spend a few days with them at their home in Ohio to get to know each other better and to reminisce about Elmer. Lois gladly agreed.
After returning from Ohio, Clark and Lois spent a week in Smallville with the Kents. Three days into their time together, Clark broke the news to her that he was also the Blue Angel. She fumed for nearly a day, then forgave him, but only after he threatened to leave her in Kansas for the rest of her natural life.
Clark was hired full-time at the Planet and partnered with Lucy until she married. Neither Perry nor Lucy tumbled to his dual identity, at least not for a few years.
Lois and Frank reopened the gym and dojo. With the money and publicity generated by Clark's only fight and the LexCorp settlement, Lois was almost swamped with young fighters wanting to be the next Clark Kent or Lois Lane. She found three young men and two young women who had the talent and the desire to fight professionally, so she and Frank worked with them until they were ready. By common agreement, Lucy covered each combatant's first fight, with help from both Clark and Jimmy Olsen. Each of the five won his or her first professional match. Two eventually won championship matches in their weight classes.
Nigel St. John, despite his injuries, attempted to escape from the hospital before he could be transferred to a prison cell. He injured two nurses and a guard, but was shot to death by police before he could leave the hospital grounds.
LexCorp was about to vanish as a corporate entity when a mysterious multi-millionaire named John Tempus purchased all the outstanding stock, restored all the employee retirement funds, and promised a new era of prosperity for Metropolis and the people working for LexCorp and its subsidiaries. The company began promising revolutionary new products and releasing them on schedule. The local press hailed Tempus as a savior and a savant.
The Blue Angel made infrequent appearances at natural disasters and occasional crime scenes, but he kept to his stated purpose and never acted as judge or executioner against an accused criminal. Both Lucy's reputation and her writing skills grew over the years as she racked up story after story about the Blue Angel. He always treated her with respect and kindness, but he never hinted to her that his feelings went past friendship. And that was fine with Lucy. She was courted by and eventually married Drake Mason, an assistant District Attorney for the state of New Troy. Together they investigated and brought down a number of illegal enterprises.
Manny Hershovitz kept Lois as his manager, and three years into his career he took the middleweight boxing crown away from the reigning champion by knockout in the fifth round. Lois was ringside, of course, but she wasn't able to leap into the ring and help to carry Manny in the celebration. Her obstetrician had told her that women in their seventh month of pregnancy just didn't do that. Clark promised the doctor that his wife wouldn't try to lift Manny, but that if he wanted to stop her from managing the fight he was welcome to update his will and give it a try.
He didn't, of course, and Lois helped Mrs. Hershovitz celebrate with the rest of them.
Author's note: Thanks to the brutal, direct, intense, but always helpful and positive beta reading from Ray Reynolds. If you like the story, it's partly his responsibility. If you don't like it, well, it's nice to have someone to blame. Readers, please let me know what your thoughts are on this flight of fancy. Writers love to hear from readers, even when they have not-so-positive things to say. But I really hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for finishing!