By Nan Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: June, 2004
Summary: Fourth in the series started by "Four days to Nightfall," and sequel to "Buried Secrets." All of Metropolis is curious about its new superhero, while Lois and Clark are hot on the trail of Metropolis' biggest crime boss. But just who is on their trail?
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings in this story do not belong to me. They are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions and whoever else can legally claim them. Part of this story contains scenes and dialogue from "Never Ending Battle" and "The Foundling". Any dialogue from those episodes, or any other episode of the series that may appear in this story is hereby credited to the writers of "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman". Any new characters, scenes, dialogue and the story itself belong to me.
Clarification note: In the television series, the second richest man in the world was variously identified in two different episodes as Albert Chow of Hong Kong (Requiem For a Superhero) and Arthur Chow (Illusions of Grandeur). I attribute this to continuity glitches between the writers. For the purpose of removing confusion, I have combined the names to produce Albert Arthur Chow, who plays a small but significant part in the story.
This is the sequel to Buried Secrets. Superman has made his debut, brought Jason Trask to justice and discovered his origins, but the City of Metropolis still doesn't know much about its new superhero. And, of course, there's still Lex Luthor …
"Olsen!" Perry White barked. "Where are those blow-ups of Superman?"
Jimmy turned, clutching the armload of papers against his chest. "Lab's backed up. Turnaround might be a couple of hours."
"Turnaround!" Perry nearly wailed. "Great shades of Elvis! What are we, the Daily Planet or second stringers from the Weehawken Gazette?"
Jimmy cringed. Perry whirled toward Lois, who was standing with several other members of the newsroom, all of them looking over the shoulders of an artist, who was working industriously with a pencil and sketchpad.
"How's that sketch coming? And how come you don't have any close-ups of Superman, Lois? You interviewed him!"
"My camera was out of film!" she said, over her shoulder.
"Aaarrgh!" Perry threw his hands in the air. "Okay, staff meeting tomorrow morning at six!" He pinned Jimmy with an icy glare. "With blowups!" He yanked open the door to his office, entered and slammed it behind him.
Lois glanced after him, carefully controlling her expression, and then back at the drawing. "No, no, no! The color's wrong!" she said. "And his eyes are more almond-shaped."
"You said 'brown'," the man said.
The "ding" of the elevator announced its arrival, and she glanced over her shoulder to see Clark emerge. She turned her attention back to the sketch and shook her head. "Not *brown* brown."
Out of the corner of her eye she saw him coming across the Pit toward her. A little devil urged her to make the next comment. "Not dull, insipid mud brown, like Clark's. No offense, Clark," she threw over her shoulder as he arrived beside her.
His eyebrows went up. "Mud?"
"Bedroom eyes," Cat said.
"What do you know about it?" Lois asked, unreasonably annoyed. "You've never even met him!"
"I saw the photos you took when he saved the bus. I know bedroom eyes when I see them."
"From that far away?" Lois rolled her eyes.
"Hey," Jimmy said. "If he *is* an alien, maybe he doesn't get the old … you know, itch."
Was it her imagination, or was Clark's neck turning red?
"Mmmm," Cat almost purred. "One way to find out."
"A possible visitor from another planet arrives on Earth and all you can think of is hauling him off to your lair to try him out?" Lois demanded.
"Test drive, Lois," Cat said, unperturbed. "A couple of hours behind the wheel, I'd know for sure if we're talking import or domestic."
Lois rolled her eyes again, reminding herself that Cat could make all the advances she liked to either Clark or Superman, but she'd get precisely nowhere. She bent to look more closely at the face portrayed on the pad. It did look something like Superman, but the resemblance was only incidental.
"No!" she said, resolutely not looking at Clark. "The features are too coarse. Think noble. Think … Greek god."
Clark made a faint choking noise.
The man looked skeptically up at her. "A Greek god?"
"For example, the chin," she pursued, keeping her face straight with an effort. "It's square but not plain. The chin of a man who stands for something."
"Like Clark's," the man said.
She still resolutely didn't look at Clark. "This is *Superman* we're talking about. Not some Tom, Dick or —"
"You know," Clark broke in, "he didn't seem that special to me. Except for the flying and the uniform, he could have been any ordinary guy."
"Ordinary?" Lois said. Now she did look at him. "Jealousy is very unbecoming, Clark."
For all his bored expression, his dark eyes were dancing. "Why would I be jealous?"
Cat sidled up to him. "Mmm. No reason I can see. That offer of dinner is still open."
"Nope," Lois said. "He and I have … work to do, tonight."
Cat smirked and raised an eyebrow. "Now who's jealous?"
Lois deliberately ignored her.
Leaving the Planet some twenty minutes later, Clark held Lois's coat while she slipped her arms into the sleeves. "'Mud'?" he asked again. "'Radiant'? 'Greek god'? Are you *sure* we're talking about Superman?"
"Don't get a swelled head, Charlie," she told him in a low voice, digging an elbow into his ribs.
"Wouldn't dream of it," he said. "I got hold of Josef Carlin, by the way. It turns out that the flight to Chicago was a business trip. He didn't give any details, but apparently it involved the representatives of Mr. Albert Chow of Hong Kong."
"The second richest man in the world," Clark told her, his voice deliberately low. "He has business interests everywhere."
"*That* Albert Chow?" she said as she preceded him up the ramp toward the elevator. "Now I'd say that's a really interesting coincidence."
"I thought so. If it *is* a coincidence. You know, if our friend wants to get his hands on a controlling interest in Carlin's company, and Carlin were thinking of selling his shares to Chow, it might make it urgent to get rid of him."
"The thought had occurred to me," Lois said, keeping her voice low, as well. "But is it likely that he would commit murder just to get control of another relatively small company? He has dozens." She glanced casually around the newsroom, trying to determine if anyone was paying any attention to them, but no one seemed to be.
They had decided the previous day that Lex Luthor's name would not be brought up in connection with the current investigation, and impressed Jimmy with the importance of the safety measure by showing him the bug that Clark had found in Lois's apartment.
"He's not sure that he's safe, yet," Clark had pointed out. "We're pretty sure he was behind that second guy who tried to kill Lois, but if we aren't suspicious, it's safer for him to leave us alone. We have to make sure he thinks he's fooled us."
Jimmy had agreed. "I'll go along with that. I don't want anyone trying to kill me, either. My lips are sealed."
The thought that he might have someone keeping an eye on them had also occurred to Lois. So far nothing had seemed out of the way, but a spy wasn't likely to be obvious, so she and Clark had been alert to the possibility ever since.
"More like a couple of hundred," Clark said now. He also surveyed the newsroom, as the bell that announced the arriving elevator sounded. "How many other companies has he got hold of in a similar way? Did you read Jimmy's research?"
"Some of it," Lois said. "You're right. I'd say that to him, no company is really minor. Each one seems to be an important conquest in its own right."
The elevator doors opened and he let her enter first. "Exactly," he said. "It's as much a contest of power as it is the acquisition of a company. It almost seems like the contest is more important than the actual company. And, a lot of them seem to have come his way through a convenient death, or a sudden disaster that caused the stock to plummet so he could buy the investors out, or some sort of bad luck. It might be that we'd find out some of that bad luck wasn't luck at all if we dug into it. Just like it would have been this time, if it hadn't been for Superman."
"I think that's the next step," Lois said. "Jimmy can get started on it in the morning. He can check into the Carlin/Chow thing at the same time. If anybody can find anything, it's Jimmy. And, tonight, I've got that dinner date with Lex. Good thing Cat didn't know that, or you'd have had more trouble getting out of dinner with her."
"Yeah." Clark didn't look particularly enthused about the subject, but he didn't say so. "Superman will be waiting around, nearby, though. Don't think he won't."
"I'm counting on it," she said. "So what about Carlin? Did he go on to Chicago, or what?"
"The accident interfered with his plans," Clark said. "Apparently, the meeting's been rescheduled. He didn't say when."
"So he's still in danger."
"I didn't tell him that, but yeah, probably." Clark hesitated. "He wasn't too specific about when, though. I got the feeling he was being careful."
"Because he knows he's in danger, or just on general business principles?"
Clark shrugged. "I don't know. He may know more about his business partner than he lets on. On another front," he continued, "Jimmy gave me the list of numbers Dr. Baines called in the weeks before she died. I haven't had a chance to look at it yet, but he says some of them match the ones Barbara Trevino called. Now he's trying to find out who the numbers belong to."
"It'll be interesting to find out if they match any of his companies," Lois said.
"You know, I'm going to be surprised if there *isn't* a connection," Clark said.
"So am I," Lois admitted.
The elevator slid to a stop on the second floor and Ralph Finkelstein boarded. He gave Lois a once over and looked sideways at Clark. "You and Lois through for the day?" he inquired, nudging Clark with an elbow.
Clark moved away from him. "I'm going to be sanding and staining the cabinets in my apartment this evening," he said. That seemed about the dullest project he could think of. In actuality, his apartment was completely cleaned and renovated, and he had moved in his furniture the night before.
Lois didn't even deign to answer. The elevator stopped on the first floor and Ralph exited into the lobby, whistling. They continued on to the basement.
"There's probably going to come a time before long that I'm going to kill Ralph when he makes one of his insinuations," Lois said. "I know he's inexperienced, but he ought to at least know the rules about sexual harassment. I can't figure out why Perry hired him. One of these days he's going to get the Planet in legal trouble with a harassment lawsuit, or something."
"He's some kind of in-law of Perry's wife," Clark said.
"How do you know?"
"I overheard Perry muttering about him under his breath when no one was in his office. She apparently talked Perry into hiring Ralph."
"I guess that explains it. Sort of. Well, Perry needs to have a talk with him about Planet business versus personal business, or he's going to cause a problem."
"I think Perry knows that," Clark said. "I don't particularly like the rumors that he's been spreading about you and me, either."
"Neither do I!"
"Would you like to come up for a few minutes?" Lois asked, as she slammed the driver's door.
"Sure," Clark said. "I was going to ask. I wanted to at least do a sweep of your apartment for more bugs, just in case."
"I hadn't thought of that," Lois admitted. "It's kind of creepy having to watch my back every second of the day." She flashed him a grin. "Of course, with you around, it's a lot easier than it would be, otherwise."
"I'll just be glad when we get to the bottom of this whole thing," Clark said. "It's hard not to let people know what our real relationship is. Dodging Cat isn't as easy as it looks."
"If only you weren't so darned pretty," Lois said, teasingly. "On the other hand, there's nothing you can do about being male, and that's her main criterion."
"Lois …" he protested.
"On the other, other hand, I prefer you being male, myself," she added, as if he hadn't spoken. "Come on. Once we know my apartment is clear, we can at least use a few minutes in private to take advantage of our relationship."
Clark apparently had no argument with this logic, for he followed her up the steps of 1058 Carter Avenue, smiling. But the smile disappeared when the elevator deposited them on the fifth floor of Lois's apartment house. Lois saw him cock his head and then lower his glasses. "There's someone in your place, Lois. Young, dark hair, sort of petite. She's making coffee in your kitchen and there are two suitcases in your guest room."
A terrible premonition swept over her. "Oh, no."
"There's only one other person who has the keys to my place besides you and the manager. Lucy."
"My scatterbrained sister. The one I told you about. She dropped out of New Troy State and joined some cult out in Northern California to 'find' herself. I haven't heard from her for six months." Lois marched to her door and turned the knob. Sure enough, Lucy had neglected to re-lock anything when she had entered the apartment. The door opened easily and Lois stepped inside, pulling Clark with her. "Lucy!"
Her sister stepped out of the kitchen, looking surprised. "How did you know I was here?"
Oops! How *had* she known, short of admitting that her partner's x-ray vision had warned her?
"Mervin Tracewski saw you when you came in. You left my door unlocked," Lois said. "You can't do that here, even if that's the way they work it out in California."
"Oh. We didn't have any locks at the commune," Lucy said, absently, but her attention had immediately fastened on Clark. "I guess I forgot. Who's this?"
"This is my reporting partner at the Planet. Clark Kent, Lucy Lane." She continued, without giving either a chance to acknowledge the introduction. "What are you doing here, Lucy? The last I heard from you, you were still in California."
"Oh. I got tired of it," Lucy said, casually. "I figured I'd better come back and finish college. I'm enrolling for the semester that starts in January, but I don't have any place to live until then, so I figured you wouldn't mind if I moved back into your spare room in the meantime. Why?"
"Oh," Lois said. "Well, I wish you'd warned me, that's all."
"Sorry. I tried to call the other night, but you weren't here, and your telephone answering machine wasn't on, so I just decided I'd tell you when I got here." Lucy had turned to look at Clark again. "Since when have you ever worked with a partner, anyway?"
"Since this last week," Lois said. "Have you been reading any news recently?"
"Oh yeah, I think I remember seeing something you wrote about a bunch of government UFO nuts," Lucy said. "Did you work with Lois on that?" She moved forward until she was standing right in front of him. "Glad to meet you."
Automatically, Clark extended a hand. "Likewise. He glanced at his partner. "Well, since your sister is here, I guess I'll pass on the coffee, Lois. You probably have some catching up to do anyway, and you still have to get ready for that interview this evening. Nice to meet you, Lucy."
"Uh, yeah. Just a minute, Luce." She followed Clark out the door and shut it behind her. "Darn!" she said, softly. "I guess I'll see you later."
He nodded. "I checked your place, by the way. No bugs."
"Thanks," she said. Giving a quick glance around to be sure there were no observers, she stood on tiptoe and kissed him lightly on the lips. "Until tonight, then."
After he had disappeared into the stairway, she listened and a few instants later heard a distant sonic boom. Turning, she re-entered the apartment.
"Wow," Lucy said. "What a dreamboat! Are you and Clark dating, or anything?"
"Clark is my reporting partner," Lois said.
"Still the same old Lois," her sister said. "What's this thing you're going to tonight?"
"I'm having dinner with Lex Luthor," Lois said.
"You're kidding! Lex Luthor? The billionaire?"
"Lucy, it's an interview," Lois said. "I've been after the first one-on-one interview with him for months. You know that. He's sending a car for me at eight, so I'd better start getting ready. I'll probably be out late. I'll try not to disturb you when I come in."
"Oh, you won't disturb me," Lucy said. "I won't even be here. I've got a date too."
Why was she surprised? "How long have you been in town?" Lois asked.
"Since this afternoon," Lucy said. "I called Greg for a ride from the airport, and he asked me out to a party with some of his friends tonight. I'll probably be back by three or four."
Lois restrained the urge to roll her eyes. "I'm going to take a shower."
Approaching his apartment from the air, Superman, as he always did, checked his place of residence before coming in through the bedroom window to be certain that there were no witnesses. Judging by the nosiness exhibited by his apartment's manager, it was possible that the man might be snooping around the premises just to check up on his newest tenant. He didn't want to burst in on him unexpectedly as Superman and give the man something to really think about.
It was a good thing that he had taken the elementary safety measure, he was thinking, a few split instants later. His apartment did indeed have a visitor, although it wasn't Floyd McDavitt. In fact, it wasn't anyone he ever recalled seeing before, and he certainly didn't have any business in Clark Kent's home.
He was a teenager, dressed in mismatched and somewhat ragged garments, and was moving quickly and quietly around the apartment, collecting every small item of value that he could lay his hands on, depositing each one in a big paper bag. A petty thief, Clark decided. Quickly and quietly, he landed on his balcony, changing to Clark Kent as he did so, and stepped into the apartment.
The boy heard him as he did so and, faster than Clark expected, darted out the door and ran. If Clark hadn't been able to move literally faster than a speeding bullet, the young thief might have escaped. As it was, he intercepted him at the corner.
The boy tried to jerk away, but Clark held on, careful not to hurt him. On closer examination, he saw that the kid was skinny, as if he hadn't eaten well for some time.
"Hey! Take it easy! I won't hurt you!"
The teenager must have realized that he wasn't going to be able to break free, because he went suddenly still in Clark's grasp. Clark removed the paper bag from his hands. "This belongs to me," he said, quietly.
His captive stared sullenly at him. Clark kept a hand on his arm, looking him over. He might be fifteen or sixteen, Clark judged, and still had some growing to do. He wore a thin T-shirt and battered jeans, and in spite of the winter weather, his only concession to the cold was the checked flannel shirt that he wore over them. Clark's eyes narrowed as his super-hearing picked up the sound of his stomach growling. It might have been a while since the boy had eaten.
"You gonna turn me over to the cops?" The sullen, swaggering tone was a cover, he realized suddenly. In the question was fear.
"What's your name?" Clark asked.
The boy didn't answer. Clark looked at him, thoughtfully. "I probably ought to turn you over to the police," he said, and heard his captive's heart rate speed up. "Why don't you tell me why I shouldn't?"
"Come on, mister! You got your stuff back. Why don't you just let me go?"
Clark stared at the smudged, dirty face. The kid's cheeks were sunken, and his stomach growled again.
"When did you eat last?" he asked, suddenly.
"Why do you care?"
"Look, if you answer me truthfully, I might let you go," Clark said, meeting his eyes squarely. "Lie to me, and I'll hand you over to the police without another word. When did you eat last?"
The boy looked down at his shoes. "Yesterday."
"Where are your parents?"
The boy glared angrily up at him. "You don't want to know about my parents. They dumped us when —"
"'Us'?" Clark said. "There's somebody else?"
"Mister, you gotta let me go!"
Clark stared at the boy, frowning. "What's your name?" he asked again.
"Jack! Are you happy, now? Come on …"
"You're watching out for somebody, aren't you?"
"My brother! If you turn me over to the cops he won't have nobody to look after him!"
"Where are you going?"
Jack's expression closed up. Clark regarded him for a long moment, and he could tell the boy was holding his breath. "Okay," he said, finally. He reached in his pocket and removed a business card. "Look, here's my phone number. If you need help, call me."
Jack accepted the card and stuck it in his back pocket. Clark hesitated and removed his jacket. "Put this on. You're freezing." At the other's hesitation, he thrust the jacket into his hands. "Here, it's yours. And take this. Get yourself some food." He followed the jacket with a twenty-dollar bill. "Go on."
Slowly, Jack accepted the money, a wary expression on his face. Clark released his arm and stood back. "You're free to go."
Jack cast him another confused look, turned and ran.
In an instant, Superman was in the air, watching the fugitive from above. The boy ducked down a littered alley, emerged onto a back street, doubled back through a second alley and a few moments later was squeezing through a broken door into an abandoned building.
"Jack?" He could hear a younger voice speaking, and his former prisoner's voice replied.
"Yeah, it's me. How're you feeling, Denny?"
"Better. Is there anything to eat?" The voice belonged to another boy, this one about twelve or thirteen, Clark thought.
"Yeah. I'm gonna go get something. You stay here and I'll be right back."
Floating silently a hundred feet in the air, Clark watched as the teenager squeezed out the door again, his destination obviously the nearest fast food establishment. He waited, watching the younger boy until Jack returned with a hamburger and fries for both of them, then he turned and headed back to his apartment. He probably should alert the police to their presence, he reflected, but that seemed almost like a betrayal. He'd keep an eye on them, he decided, and try to figure out what he could do to help — without involving the authorities, at least for the moment.
A glance at the clock on one wall, when he walked into his apartment, told him that Lois would be on her way to Luthor's penthouse within twenty minutes. Quickly, he returned the pilfered items to their places and locked the doors and windows, although that seemed not to have done much good in the case of a petty thief like Jack. Seconds later, he was on his way to hover unseen above 1058 Carter Avenue. Lois wasn't going on her dinner date alone.
The dinner was delicious, Lois thought. Not that she would have expected anything else, considering the quality of help that Lex Luthor could hire. She wondered where her partner was. Glancing out the big picture window at the lights of Metropolis far below, she somehow knew that Charlie wasn't far away, although she had seen no sign of him since he'd left her apartment a couple of hours ago. It was almost as if she could sense his presence somewhere nearby.
The winter sky was clear tonight. The light pollution hid all but the brightest stars, but a half-moon shone down with milky brilliance. Now and then, a little shower of snow, blown from the roof by a gust of winter wind, fell past the window.
The billionaire was smiling at her across the table, his handsome face illuminated by the flickering candles. She smiled back. "The view is wonderful from here, Lex."
He nodded. "I often eat in this spot, looking down at m … the city. All of the people … all the possibilities … It's an awesome thought sometimes, even for me."
"All the people or all the possibilities?" she asked.
"Both." He regarded her with a quizzical expression. "I find people fascinating. The potential of every human being for good or ill. You, for instance … I've read your work. I envisioned you quite differently, you know. I realize now that I had fallen victim to mundane stereotyping. It astonished me to discover that you were the Lois Lane who has established such a formidable journalistic reputation. It has certainly taught me a lesson I shan't soon forget."
"And what was that?" she asked.
"That age is not necessarily a prerequisite for wisdom, nor does youth automatically preclude brilliance. I've read more of your work since we met at the Christmas Ball. I must admit that I'm thoroughly impressed."
"Thank you," Lois said. "A lot of men don't seem to understand that." She took a sip of the delicate white wine that accompanied the last course. "Tell me, what drives a man like you? What do you strive for?"
"Ah, yes. The interview." He leaned back in his chair. "Pleasure, Ms. Lane. The pursuit of pleasure."
He too sipped the wine. "Does that surprise you?"
"I would have guessed that you'd say 'power'."
"Power is a means, not an end." Luthor leaned forward. "Those without power know very little pleasure."
"And achieving power gives you pleasure?"
"Exactly." He nodded. "Very astute of you. Not many persons realize that. I see I chose well in agreeing to let you interview me."
"I've seen your unauthorized biographies, of course," Lois said.
"All five of them?" Luthor said, with a smile. "Let me tell you something, Ms. Lane. Every one of them had it wrong."
He reached forward and took her hand. "I know that to you, I'm merely a scoop, another feather in your cap. You wanted an interview, and I understand that. I rarely agree to interviews. I made an exception for you." He paused and his smile widened a little. "And not for the reason you might think. Not because you are a beautiful young woman. That wouldn't speak well for either of us. Very well, let me tell you about the man, the real Lex Luthor." He leaned closer. "My talent in life is not making money, or juggling companies. It's character assessment. I sense things about you. Possibilities. Potentials. You have the intelligence, spirit and vision to transcend the mundane." He paused. "And just so there are no misunderstandings … you are beautiful."
Lois smiled a little and lowered her eyes in automatic response to his words. Any woman would be charmed by the compliments he was paying her, and he would expect no less. Lex Luthor was incredibly smooth, she thought. He had undoubtedly hired an assassin to kill her a few days ago. If not for Charlie, she would have been dead, but here he was, flattering her and flirting with her. And it was up to her to let him think that she was completely deceived.
The slender Hispanic man who had served their dinner approached. "Would you care for dessert?"
Lois shook her head. "No, I never have dessert."
"Never?" Luthor raised an eyebrow.
"You don't know what you're missing," he said, clearly implying something other than part of the meal, but he didn't press the point. "Shall we walk on the terrace for a few minutes?"
Lois hesitated. "I need to get home to write up my interview for tomorrow."
"Just for a few minutes," Luthor said with a smile. "It will be warm enough. I have heating lamps set up there for my convenience."
"Well … all right." She let the servant pull back her chair and stood up. Lex Luthor took her arm, guiding her toward the French windows that gave onto the terrace.
He'd been correct, she saw, as they emerged out into the open. The air about them was comfortably warm, despite the occasional flurries of snow that still fell from above. In the background, soft music began to play, and Luthor bowed formally to her. "May I have this dance, Ms. Lane?"
She nodded, and let him sweep her into a waltz. It had a dreamlike feeling, as the billionaire guided her around the terrace under the stars. He smiled down at her. "I read your other interview of the week, you know."
"My other interview?"
"Yes. With the newest resident of Metropolis. The mysterious Superman spoke to you, although no one else has been able to get more than a few words from him. I knew when I read it that you must be unusual, and I must admit that it influenced my decision to allow you to interview me."
"I was just in the right place at the right time," Lois said.
"Is he as powerful as they say?"
"I was there when he stopped that bus and saved all those people from being killed," Lois said. "He's promised me a longer interview when he has the time, so maybe we'll learn more, then."
"The very concept of a 'super man' fascinates me," Luthor said. "Where did he come from, what drives him … I shall look forward to seeing that interview. I'm quite certain that if there is anything more to learn about him, you will learn it."
"I'll certainly try," Lois agreed.
The billionaire said nothing more, but continued to lead her around the floor until the last strains of the waltz died away.
Contrary to her expectations, Lex Luthor accompanied her back to her apartment house and walked her to her door. She was sure that Charlie wouldn't approve of the kiss he gave her before she went inside, but it was necessary for the part she played. Once the door closed behind her, she listened, and faintly heard his footsteps as he retreated down the hall. She scrubbed a hand across her lips.
"I think he was fooled," Clark's voice said from the direction of the window.
She almost jumped. "Char … Clark, you scared me!"
"Sorry." He parted the curtains and stepped fully into the room, closing the window behind him. "So, what did you think of him?"
"I think he's the slickest con man I've ever met," Lois said.
"So do I," Clark said. "Anyway, I don't think you're in danger from him anymore … as long as he keeps on thinking that he's got you fooled."
"Let's hope not," Lois said. "It really cramps my style when people are trying to kill me."
He moved up close to her, glancing at the spare bedroom. "Is your sister here?"
"Lucy? She has a date tonight. She said she'd be back around three or four." She rested a hand on his shoulder for balance and bent to remove her shoes. "I've been dying to get these off for hours. My feet are killing me."
He glanced at the items in question. "How do women walk in those without spraining an ankle, anyway?"
"Is that really what you want to talk about right now?" she asked.
"Not really." He took the shoes, set them on the coffee table and tugged her toward the sofa. "Wanna neck?"
She grinned. "Why, Mr. Kent, I thought you'd never ask."
Jack Brown — at least, Brown was the name that he and Denny were going by these days — moved quietly through the dimness of Metropolis at night.
Metropolis was never really dark. Even now, at one in the morning, the city was alive with lighted signs advertising the stores and restaurants that did business in the enormous city, but here in this neighborhood, where apartment buildings made up the majority of the structures, it was dimmer than the business district only a few streets away.
The independent gas station on the corner had a convenience store, and that was where the tall skinny guy that he'd been watching for several weeks always went to buy beer. He bought a lot of beer.
The guy was fairly well dressed for this area. The fact that he lived alone in a second floor apartment on the fringes of Suicide Slum would have been a mystery, if Jack hadn't known the real nature of his business.
This guy collected protection money from the businesses in the less well-policed sections of Metropolis, and he had just this afternoon completed his rounds of the West Side.
Jack knew his routine well. Tonight, he would go to the "business district" to the north, to the gambling parlors, strip clubs and other even more questionable night spots that the police officially knew nothing about, in some of the less- reputable areas right on the fringes of the slum. Those were big spots for wealthy citizens of Metropolis who wished to gamble and party, and indulge in other behavior that was generally frowned upon by the law in the more upscale parts of Metropolis. He would be gone for several hours, making the rounds of the clubs and doing business with the owners. The man worked for The Boss, the man who headed most of the organized crime in the city. Gambling, prostitution, guns, drugs, protection … The Boss ran his businesses with an iron hand, and you didn't talk about him if you valued your skin. Rumor whispered that the head of the syndicate was a well-respected leader of the community, high in the social circles of the elite of Metropolis, and Jack had a pretty good idea who that was, but you didn't say it aloud if you valued your skin.
Jack generally stayed away from all that stuff. If you were insignificant enough, they left you alone, and he had no intention of bringing himself to the attention of those who served The Boss. He and Denny only needed to amass enough money and then they were leaving Metropolis, never to return. They would set up somewhere in the rural Midwest, where no one was looking for them, where they could avoid the authorities that wanted to drag them back into the foster homes where his brother and he had been separated by faceless bureaucrats, crowded courts and well-meaning social workers. There had been good homes and bad homes, but none of them had allowed the brothers to live together. Denny was all that Jack had left and Jack was all that Denny had. He wasn't going to let the System destroy what remained of their family.
And that was why Jack was following his mark tonight.
He'd been watching the man for weeks, tracking his movements, mapping his schedule. He'd spied on him through the window with a pair of binoculars, not once but on numerous occasions, when he had opened the wall safe to store the receipts of his forays until he could deliver the funds to his contact. The safe wasn't visible through the window, but the mirror on the wall reflected his movements. It had taken Jack three weeks of close observation before he was certain that he had the combination correct. Now, unless something changed radically, tonight was the night for his big score. He and Denny would have enough money to get out of this place, permanently. Once away from the city, all they had to do was to hold out for two more years. Then Jack would be of age, and able to legally present himself as Denny's next of kin. He would be able to hold an actual job and support them both with something better than petty theft. Life might still be hard, but they would have a much better chance than they'd had up until now.
He had been a little worried today, because the guy's routine had varied slightly from his usual one. In between his tour of the little shops and businesses on the West Side and his return to his apartment, he'd taken time to visit Centennial Park and sit feeding the pigeons for half an hour. A second man had joined him for some ten minutes, ostentatiously reading a magazine on the other end of the bench, and then left, leaving behind a small, inconspicuous brown package sitting on the end of the bench.
As Jack had watched, Tall Skinny Guy had set his bag of popcorn down on top of it, and a moment later when he picked it up, the package was also gone. A few minutes later he had distributed the last of the popcorn in the bag to the well- fed birds, tossed the bag into a trash receptacle and strolled casually away.
Since then, however, he had done exactly what he did on every other day. He'd returned to his apartment and placed his day's collection in the safe. Then he'd switched on the TV and tuned in a football game.
Reassured by the resumption of his mark's routine, Jack had gone off to find something that he could sell to get money to feed himself and Denny. That guy — Clark Kent, according to the card he'd handed Jack — had caught him, but let him go, not only with a jacket, but with money. The guy was either a real soft touch or he was completely crazy. Jack didn't know how to classify him. The grip he'd had on Jack's arm had been powerful; he figured Kent worked out regularly to be that strong. Body builders weren't usually the understanding sort in Jack's experience. The husband in one of the homes where he'd stayed for a while had been a body builder. He'd been hard on his wife and two kids, and Jack as well. Jack had finally run away from the place and been on the street for a week before the Child Protection people managed to track him down. If Kent was anything like that guy, he wasn't likely to be very forgiving, so Jack tended toward the crazy theory.
Now, with his stomach full for the first time in over a day, Jack was ready to make his move.
Tall Skinny Guy came out of the convenience store with his beer and headed back to his place. Jack followed him at a safe distance. Sure enough, the guy went inside and after a few minutes he saw the apartment lights blossom into life. He could see the guy moving around the apartment and then, a few minutes later, the lights went out again. Jack waited.
The man emerged from the downstairs door gripping a rectangular briefcase-like bag and strode off down the sidewalk toward the more lighted streets, probably going to flag down a cab or something. Jack waited until he had disappeared and for a slow count of one hundred after that. Then, very quietly, he made for the route he'd already mapped out.
He couldn't just walk in the front door. He'd checked that out already. There was a camera in the entrance hall that recorded all the comings and goings of tenants and visitors, and when the guy's safe turned up empty he didn't want his picture to show up on the security camera. But if he came in from the roof, he should avoid that problem.
Jack made his way to the littered alley that ran behind the apartment house. The fire escape was up, of course, but that was no problem. He dragged out the wooden crates that he had stored in the dumpster yesterday. Garbage pickup was Monday morning, so he'd been fairly sure they would be safe. Tomorrow the garbage men would collect the trash and all the evidence would probably be long gone before anybody realized that anything was missing.
Quickly, he piled the crates under the ladder and scrambled onto them. The ladder was still a little above his reach, but he crouched and sprang, catching the lowest rung with one hand.
With a squeak of metal that lifted the hair on his head, the ladder descended. Without wasting time, Jack scrambled up the fire escape toward the roof and the ladder swung up behind him.
On the roof, his other supplies were waiting for him. A potato sack containing cut-up newspapers, and a rope were nestled against one of the ventilators, where he had left them the day before in preparation for this venture. He tied the rope to the metal railing, and gripping the bag in his teeth, he lowered himself toward the window that he had already marked.
It was only a matter of about ten feet, but by the time he made it, his hands were smarting from rope burn and he was breathing hard. If he'd been eating more regularly it would probably have been easier, he thought. Bracing his toes on the windowsill, and gripping the rope tightly with one hand, he bent slowly and tried to open the window.
It wasn't locked; he knew that from observation with the binoculars, but it was stuck. Determinedly, he planted the palm of his hand against the glass and pushed upward. For long, painful and frustrating moments, the window refused to budge, and then, just as he was about to give up, it moved a fraction of an inch.
With renewed determination, he dragged at it with the flat of his hand. It moved upwards another fraction and he was able to hook the tips of his fingers under the bottom edge. From there it was merely a matter of determination, and a few minutes later, he slid into the room.
It had taken longer than he'd expected, but he should still have plenty of time. Taking a few moments to regain his breath, Jack went to the wall where he knew the safe was located. It was concealed by a large painting of a grassy meadow with birds and flowers, in a dingy plastic frame, but Jack paid no attention to the picture, other than to remove it from its nail and set it against the wall.
There was the safe; a square metal door set flush with the wall. It was featureless except for the dial set into its surface. With trembling fingers, he twirled it a few times and slowly dialed the combination.
His fingers shook so hard that he had to dial the combination twice but at last he was reasonably certain that he'd done it right. He tugged on the door, and for one disappointing second he thought it hadn't worked. The door stuck slightly but he pulled harder, and it opened suddenly. Jack found himself looking at a canvas pouch.
Quickly and quietly, he removed the bag from its spot and pulled it open.
Even in the dimness of the unlighted apartment, he could see the money. The pouch was stuffed with rolls of bills held together with rubber bands. Protection money, he thought. This was big-time stuff. If anyone suspected what he had done it could get him killed but the risk would be worth it if it gave Denny and him a new start somewhere else. Slightly breathless from the sight of more money than he had ever seen before, Jack emptied the bag onto the floor and replaced the contents with the pieces of newspaper that he had brought. Then, he stuffed his own sack with the money and tied it shut. It was gratifyingly full when he finished. He was about to replace the now worthless pouch when he saw the little package lying innocently in the very back of the safe.
Why he did it he didn't know, but he reached in and appropriated it.
It wasn't heavy. It was about the size and shape of a small book. He stuffed it inside his shirt, shoved the pouch back into the safe and swung it closed. He was replacing the picture, when he heard the doorknob rattle.
No time to get out the window. Jack grabbed his potato sack and dived for the bathroom. Crouching behind the door, he prayed silently that the guy had simply forgotten something and wouldn't notice the open window.
The door swung open and the lights blazed on.
"Where did you put it?" The voice held a distinct English accent, but he had never heard it before. He scrunched against the wall, praying that the intruder wouldn't think to look in the bathroom.
"I tell you, I don't know what you're talking about." The Tall Skinny Guy's voice answered him. "I wouldn't be stupid enough to doublecross The Boss. I'm not suicidal."
"We already interviewed your accomplice," a second voice, cultured and definitely American, said softly, and its tone made a prickle run across Jack's neck. There was menace in it, and something else, a quality that chilled him far more than the snowy world outside.
"Whoever he is, he's lying!" Tall Skinny Guy said, sounding desperate. "I'm not a fool!"
"Open your safe," the English voice said. "That would be the logical place to store such a treasure."
"Please!" Tall Skinny Guy spoke frantically. "I had nothing to do with it!"
"Well, we can determine that quickly enough," the second voice said. "Open the safe, Joey. Now."
Silence for several seconds, and then Jack heard the faint squeak as the safe door swung open. Holding onto the doorknob in an effort to keep the door as far open as possible, to camouflage his presence behind it, he pressed one eye to the narrow crack where the hinges met the frame, trying to see. English Dude was rummaging around in the wall safe. He removed the canvas bag now containing the newspaper strips and poked around behind it.
"See! It's not here!" Joey said.
"Let's see what you have in the bag, Joey," the English voice said. "Take it out."
Jack remained still, breathing quietly. Once they opened the bag, they were going to discover his substitution.
"Newspaper!" Jack could see more of the man with the English accent, now. He was an older fellow with a narrow face, white hair and a small, closely cut white beard clinging to his chin like a coating of moss. "Planning a doublecross, Joey?"
"No!" Tall Skinny Guy was staring with consternation at the wad of paper strips in English Dude's hand. "You've gotta believe me! I'm not *that* stupid! Somebody's been here! I've been robbed!"
"Much as I hate to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, Nigel," the American voice spoke again, "I think we may have to. Look."
Jack could see the speaker, now. He was about six feet in height, slender, and wearing a trenchcoat, with a hat pulled down on his head, nearly concealing his light brown, curly hair. In the bright light of the room, however, Jack could see his face, and the image was burned indelibly into his brain. He had seen this man's face before, on the front page of the Daily Planet and other local newspapers. That was Lex Luthor, himself.
All the whispers he had heard concerning the identity of "The Boss" came together in a rush. The rumors had been true. The Boss was Lex Luthor … and if these men discovered him, he was dead. There was no doubt at all in his mind of that fact.
Luthor was pointing at the window, and the three men crossed the room to examine the evidence: the dangling rope, the fact that it was open on a winter night …
"There appears to have been a sneak thief," Nigel said. "It was very careless of you, Joey, not to lock your window."
"The catch is busted," Joey mumbled.
"One more error to chalk up in your column," Luthor said. "There is still the matter of Moran's confession. Before he died …" He paused to let that fact sink in, "he fingered you as the recipient of the diary, Joey. I want it back."
"Sir, he was lying!" Joey said, earnestly. "I'm not real smart, but I'm not a complete idiot! He must be trying to protect whoever he gave it to. I didn't have nothing to do with it!"
Nigel, whoever he was, and Luthor looked at each other for a moment.
"I wonder, sir, if we were remiss in so summarily terminating Moran," Nigel said. "Is it possible that he lied?"
Luthor seemed to consider. "I suppose there is that possibility," he said, at last. He looked at Joey. "Very well, Joey, you're not off the hook yet, but I'm giving you a small reprieve. Use your contacts. Discover who has that diary. And find whoever is responsible for this …" He glanced at the safe and then at the window. "… Situation. I repeat that. Find them. Your life depends on your success. If I don't have that diary back within a week, you're a dead man. Do you understand?"
"And, Joey," Nigel said, "don't even consider leaving town. Is that very clear?"
"Yes, sir! I'll find out what happened, sir. I promise!"
"Do that." Luthor turned and left the apartment, followed by Nigel.
Joey nearly collapsed into the nearest chair. In the sudden silence of the apartment, his breathing was loud, and Jack consciously kept his own respirations as silent as possible.
Now what was he going to do? Joey would probably decide to look around the apartment within a few minutes and then he would find Jack.
Joey got to his feet and stumbled toward the kitchen alcove. Jack heard him open the refrigerator door and a moment later he returned to drop into the armchair again, a beer in his hand. He took a long drink, and then another one. Jack remained still, watching the man drain the beer can. At least he hadn't started searching the place yet, but he probably would sooner or later, just in the hope that somehow his missing stuff was still here somewhere, and then he would discover Jack. How the heck was he going to get out of here?
There was a window above and behind the toilet, but if he tried to get out that way, Joey would certainly hear him and come to investigate. Besides, he was on the second floor! If he tried to jump, he'd probably break something, if the fall didn't kill him outright.
Joey threw the beer can in the general direction of a trash basket and went back to the kitchen. A few seconds later, he reappeared with another can of beer.
He must be using it to calm his nerves down, Jack surmised. He couldn't actually blame the guy, but if he drank too many of those, he was bound to have to come in here in a little while, anyway. Jack tried to think. How was he going to get out of this?
Joey was on his way back to the fridge again. Jack couldn't recall seeing anyone down a beer that fast, not even his mother, and she'd had a real thing for beer. When he returned from the fridge this time, he had the remaining four beers tucked under his arm. As Jack watched, he downed a third and then half of a fourth.
Joey set the can down on the arm of the chair and stood up. Jack tensed. This was it.
Joey crossed the room to the safe and stood rummaging around in it for nearly a minute, probably hoping that the package wasn't really gone, Jack thought. He picked up the canvas bag and shook it out. The newspaper strips littered the dingy carpet, but of course, nothing else emerged.
Joey returned to the chair, picked up the beer can and gulped down the remaining contents.
Jack held perfectly still, breathing lightly. A plan was beginning to form in his brain. A lot of it would depend on luck, and how well this guy could hold his booze. He'd had four beers in less than ten minutes. That had to have some effect.
Joey ambled toward the bathroom, weaving slightly. Jack tensed. This was really it, this time. As silently as he could, he shifted position. He was only going to have one chance at this. Then, he'd be either free or dead.
The man stepped through the door of the bathroom. Jack rammed the door into him as hard as he could.
There was a squawk and a crash. Jack came out from behind the door, ready to dodge Joey's hands, but the man was on his back on the floor, trying feebly to roll over to hands and knees. In a flash, Jack had leaped over his sprawling body and made a dash for the door of the apartment. He jerked it open and fled, not sure where he was going, but determined to escape. Some instinct made him turn to the right, and he saw the elevator, and beside it, the door to the stairs. He yanked it open, just as Joey emerged into the hall, one hand to his head. Then, he was half-falling down the steps, past a shabbily clad man who ignored him completely. He reached the first floor and burst through the exit, just as the door above him opened. Keeping his face down, he dashed through the small, grimy entranceway, hoping that the camera at the door wouldn't get a good enough picture of him to do Joey and The Boss much good. Then he was out on the sidewalk. He ran for it, dodging down the nearest alley and emerging onto another street. Quickly, he dived into a second alley and ran again.
At last he paused, simply because he couldn't run any farther, and ducked behind a dumpster, trying to catch his breath. For a long time, he simply crouched there in the cold and darkness, listening for the sound of a pursuer, but there was nothing.
"Mm. I still intend to figure out who taught you to kiss like that," Lois said. She leaned against her partner's chest, her head resting on his shoulder.
Clark's arms tightened slightly. "Umm … native talent," he informed her.
"Uh huh," Lois said, skeptically. "If the guys from your home town could all kiss that way, all the women in the country would be moving to Smallville. Still, I guess it isn't important … as long as you only practice on me, now."
"I could stand some more practice," Clark said, hopefully.
"Right. Can't let those essential skills get rusty," Lois agreed.
A long silence followed this remark. At last, Lois stirred. "I guess it's getting late," she said, reluctantly.
Clark glanced at the clock sitting on a corner table. "Yeah," he said, with equal reluctance. "I guess you do need to get some sleep. It's past two."
"Some," he said. "I don't need as much as regular people, but I do need at least a couple of hours. Besides, Superman should make an appearance over two or three trouble spots before I turn in."
Lois sighed and slowly extricated herself from his arms. "Yeah, I guess. Besides, Lucy could show up any time. We don't want to let anyone know about us, yet."
"Wouldn't Lucy keep it quiet if you asked her to?"
Lois shrugged. "Maybe, but she's just as likely to tell Mom, and the next thing you know, they'll be talking about it on LNN. Or worse, Mom will be here wanting to know all about you, who your parents are, how much money you make, what kind of prospects you have, and demanding your medical history from the time you were born."
"I hope you're exaggerating," Clark said.
"Maybe a little, but believe me, you don't want to tell Lucy anything about it until we're ready for everyone to know … and that means, *after* we've finished this investigation."
"You're right," Clark agreed. "I just don't like sneaking around, though. I want the whole world to know that we're a couple. We *are*, aren't we?"
She nodded. "Now that I'm over my superstitions, we are. We were before, really. I just didn't want to say it out loud. We'll let our friends know soon enough, Clark — as soon as we finish with … him."
He leaned forward and kissed her. "Just so we're clear on that point," he said.
"Oh, we're clear, all right." Lois stood up with him and accompanied him to the door. "Good night, Clark."
"Good night," he said. Another long kiss followed. It was the sound of a key in the lock that alerted Lois to the fact that her sister was back. They almost leaped apart as the fourth and fifth locks were unfastened and the door opened. Lucy stepped inside and gave a faint gasp at the sight of Lois and her partner.
"Oh! I didn't expect you to still be awake!" She glanced questioningly at Clark and her eyebrows went up.
"Clark and I got involved in a discussion about one of our investigations," Lois said. "We didn't notice the time. He was just leaving." She turned to her partner. "Good night, Clark. I'll see you at the Planet, tomorrow."
"Good night, Lois," Clark said. "Good night, Lucy." He stepped out the door and walked quickly down the hallway toward the elevator.
Lucy looked after him and then at Lois. "You're kidding me, right? It's nearly two-thirty in the morning. You mean to tell me he stayed here that long just talking about a *story*?"
"Yes, I do," Lois said, firmly. "Clark is a professional, Lucy. That's why we work so well together."
"And that's another thing," Lucy said. "I've never seen you work with a partner before — *ever*! What's so different about him?"
"Clark is willing to take risks," Lois said. "I've never had a partner who would take the necessary risks before. That's how we broke the Trevino story."
"Hmm," Lucy said, clearly not convinced. "He's one beautiful specimen, that's for sure. I don't see how even you could miss that." She began to remove her coat. "You know sis, if you don't get serious about a guy pretty soon, you're going to be just like Aunt Harriet. She shows up at every wedding at her church, even when she barely knows the bride and groom." She sighed. "I just want you to meet a super guy and live happily ever after."
"Luce, I'm barely twenty-six," Lois said, reflecting that Lucy didn't have any idea just how close she had come to the real situation. "I still have time."
"That's what Aunt Harriet thought and look at her now. She's a lonely old maid. So, how did your date with Lex Luthor go tonight? And did he ask you for another one?"
"It was an interview, Lucy. That's what Clark and I were talking about." Lois began to remove the dress that she had worn to the dinner several hours ago. "I'm going to bed. I'll see you in the morning."
"Lois, could I catch a ride with you this morning?" Lucy asked, as Lois downed her cup of strong breakfast coffee. After her late night, she'd made it as concentrated as she could in an effort to pry her eyelids open. It tasted terrible, but at least it was dissolving the cobwebs from her brain.
She poured herself a second cup and this time added artificial sweetener and skim milk. "Where?"
"Just by the university. If you can drop me across from the entrance, I'll walk to the Administration building, and I can catch a ride home with somebody later."
"Okay." Lois swallowed the liquid and set her coffee cup in the sink. The heavy dose of caffeine was working. She was awake, if not exactly chipper. But then, she had never been a morning person. "Let's go, then."
A few moments later, Lucy was eyeing the subcompact with raised eyebrows. "I thought you told me you were going to buy a Jeep Cherokee."
"I did. It's at the repair shop," Lois said. "I'm supposed to get it back in a couple of days. This is a loaner."
"Oh? What happened? Fender bender?"
"Um … Barbara Trevino's hit man shot out my windshield. Let's go."
Lois shook her head. "Wish I were. I had a real hassle convincing my insurance company to pay for it, too. They finally classified it under vandalism."
Her sister seemed dumbfounded for a few moments and when Lois pulled out onto the street, she glanced around a little apprehensively. "Nobody's likely to shoot at us today, are they?"
"I doubt it," Lois said. "Trevino's in jail, remember."
"And this didn't scare your partner off?"
"Clark? Of course not. He was in the Jeep with me. He saved my life."
"Oh." Lucy seemed slightly stunned. "Does Mom know about it?"
"No, and please don't say anything to her, either," Lois said. "You know Mother. She'd have to double her tranquilizer dosage and it wouldn't do her blood pressure any good."
"Yeah, I know," Lucy said. "Does this sort of thing happen a lot?"
"Not too often," Lois said. "I don't really go looking for people to shoot at me, you know."
"Could have fooled me," Lucy said. "Wasn't it that scientist who was trying to sabotage the space program that tied you up in the hangar and tried to blow you up?"
"Well … yes. But I got out of it by picking the lock on the chain. What's your point?"
"Lois, this happens to you all the time!"
"Not all the time," Lois said, trying not to sound defensive. "Just now and then."
"Do you know how often it's happened to me?"
"Weren't you there when Fontana and Pennyhaven's Jewelry got held up?"
"Yes, but they weren't threatening to kill me! They just had a bunch of us in the store while the police negotiated with them. Nobody got shot."
"Neither did I," Lois said, unarguably. "Don't play mother hen with me, Lucy. I get enough of that from Mother." She negotiated the corner under the nose of a cement truck. "Have you talked to her recently?"
"Mother? About a week ago, I guess. She's out of Rehab."
"This time she says she's going to stay sober."
"She said that last time, too. I'll believe it when I see it."
"Well, she said she met a guy while she was there. He's some kind of actor who was drying out. He got out at the same time she did, so they're going to try to support each other."
"Uh huh," Lucy said. "Who knows, maybe she'll succeed."
"I'll believe *that* when I see it, too," Lois said. "An *actor*?"
"Lois, you're cynical."
"Well, aren't you?"
Lucy shrugged. "Kind of, I guess. I'd just like to see her prove to Daddy that she can get along without him, without whiskey to help."
"Yeah," Lois said. "So would I."
"Have you heard from Daddy recently?"
"About six months ago. He's still working in athletic reconstructive surgery. He has a new girlfriend, too. Or he did."
Lucy rolled her eyes. "Let me guess. She's about twenty-five."
"Argh! When is the man going to grow up?"
Lois didn't answer. She figured Lucy didn't really expect one. The university campus was only a block away now, and within minutes she pulled up at the curb, just across from the Administration building. "You're sure you can get a ride back?"
"Yeah, pretty sure."
"If you can't, you have my phone number at work. If I'm not in, call my beeper. Perry's talking about getting us cellular phones. When he does, I'll give you that number, too."
"You're sure I won't be a bother?"
"I'm sure. Perry doesn't have Clark and me on a set schedule, anyway. We're investigating some … I guess you'd call it business corruption, right now."
"Okay." Lucy glanced at her watch. "I'd better go. I'm supposed to see the class counselor in twenty minutes to try to decide what courses I need to take this next semester." She opened the door and got out. "See you later, sis."
"Right." Lois made no move to pull away from the curb, waiting as her sister crossed the street and headed down the sidewalk toward the big, brick building. The day was overcast and a light sprinkling of snow was drifting down. The tiny flakes melted as they lit on the windshield.
Watching her, Lois heaved a small sigh. Inadvertently, Lucy had put her finger directly on the real problem, she thought. Only how did you deal with a father who was terminally an emotional four-year-old? No wonder she and her sister had the problems they did.
Lucy, at twenty-one, was having a great deal of difficulty finding a direction in her life. Lois, on the other hand, had always been very driven, always determined to do better than her best, and when she reached her goal, she inevitably found that it wasn't good enough for her own standards. There was probably some deep, profound meaning there, she thought, but she was darned if she could figure out what it was.
Lucy had disappeared into the Administration building. Shelving her thoughts as unproductive, Lois glanced back and pulled out onto the street again. She and Charlie had a billionaire criminal to catch.
Lois pulled into a parking space in the Daily Planet's underground garage and cut the engine. A glance at her watch as she shut and locked the door of the little subcompact told her that she was a few minutes early. She saw Jimmy's battered fixer-upper a few spaces down from her own parking spot, and the flashy, red sports car that belonged to Ralph parked next to it. The man was just locking the door as she rang for the elevator, and he joined her a moment later, whistling cheerfully.
"Hey there," he greeted her. "Where's Kent? You two have a falling out?"
Lois glanced indifferently at him. "Why would you think a thing like that?"
"You always come in to work together," Ralph said. He gave her an appraising, sideways glance. Lois consciously refrained from bristling.
"That was while he was my bodyguard," she said, coolly. "Since nobody's trying to kill me anymore, I came in alone."
Ralph's eyebrows climbed almost to the level where his now-receding hairline had once been. "Who was trying to kill you?"
"Barbara Trevino's assassin," Lois said. "And later, Trask threw me out of his plane. Don't you ever pay attention to what's going on in the newsroom, Ralph?"
He gave her a skeptical sideways glance. "If he threw you out of his plane, why are you still alive?"
"Because Superman showed up, remember? He caught me, as well as the government agent that got thrown out along with me, and then caught Trask and his goons. Not all the details were in the paper, but everybody in the newsroom knew it — except you."
"Hey," Ralph said, piously, "I mind my own business."
The elevator arrived just then, which was fortunate, Lois thought. It gave her time to recover from the effect of this manifestly false statement. They rode it to the newsroom in silence and Lois stepped out ahead of Ralph, glancing around for her partner.
He wasn't at his desk, she saw, but the monitors were on and showed the image of a hostage standoff. The familiar Administration building of New Troy State loomed in the background. As Lois stared in complete shock, and the announcer explained that a hostage crisis at New Troy State University had taken the occupants of the Administration building by complete surprise, she saw a blue and red streak shoot past the camera and into the building. A moment later, Superman emerged with a disgruntled young man held by the back of his collar, and a bundle of guns under the other arm. Police and paramedics streamed past him as Superman handed his captive over to a pair of police officers.
"Superman!" The announcer rushed up to the Man of Steel. "The hostages! Is anyone hurt? Any casualties?"
Lois waited, her heart in her mouth. It sounded to her as if the man was hoping that he would have some ghastly tragedy on which to report.
Superman shook his head. "No one was hurt," he explained, his voice sounding deceptively mild. "Some of them are a little shaken up, but they weren't physically injured. Excuse me." He disappeared from the camera's range, and Lois belatedly let out her breath. If Clark said no one was hurt, she believed him. It would figure that this was the day that Lucy had gone to the university. A little superstitious tingle crawled over the back of her neck, but she shook it off. Trouble didn't automatically find the Lane women, she told herself. It was just a coincidence, but at least maybe now her sister would refrain from pointing out how many times Lois had been in life or death situations in the last six months or so. Not that Lucy really knew, she assured herself. After all, that business with the Shockwave coastal defense system had been a one shot thing, and so had the situation with the gunrunners. And she certainly hadn't meant to get herself thrown into the Hobs River tied hand and foot. It had just sort of happened. Fortunately, she'd been working on the ropes and had managed to get them off her hands once she was in the water, and swim to shore. She hadn't mentioned most of those things in the articles she'd written, so it was unlikely that Lucy would find out about them.
There were the hostages now, emerging from the building. Lucy was about halfway back in the crowd, looking surprisingly unruffled. The camera shifted, and the announcer was speculating on the reasons for the incident as the police hustled the gunman into the back of a police car. Superman had vanished, but for a second, she caught a glimpse of someone who looked like Clark in the background.
Slowly, she descended the ramp and made her way across the Pit to her desk. A vase of long-stemmed red roses sat prominently on the far-left corner, and she picked up the card.
The writing was familiar; probably because of the number of documents she had been perusing in the last couple of days bearing this particular signature. It said simply, "I enjoyed last night. Love, Lex".
"Send yourself roses again?" Cat Grant's voice said behind her.
Lois smiled, continuing the act for the benefit of any hypothetical spy. Admittedly, it seemed unlikely that anyone was watching her, but it had also seemed unlikely that anyone would bug her apartment or shoot a rocket-propelled grenade through her window. Until she was certain that Luthor was completely deceived, she and Clark would continue to take precautions against his finding out that they harbored suspicions of his real nature. Lex Luthor couldn't have arrived at his present station in life by being careless.
"I had dinner with Lex Luthor last night," she informed Cat with just a touch of condescension, holding out the card to her co-worker. She didn't fail to notice Ralph's instant interest, either. She had no doubt that various rumors about her and Luthor would soon be circulating, fueled by his inevitably gutter- oriented mind.
Cat took the card and read it, her eyebrows climbing toward her hairline. "Nice," she remarked. "He's never sent me flowers."
"Lex and I have … dated upon occasion."
"This was an interview," Lois informed her.
"Naturally," Cat said. She shook her head. "I'll bet you didn't even have dessert."
"That figures." Cat gave her the card back and walked away.
Jimmy was standing by her desk as she turned back, a sheaf of printouts in his hand. "Here's some of that stuff you wanted me to look for," he said, keeping his voice low. "Companies belonging to … well, you know, and the circumstances leading up to their acquisition. It makes for interesting reading, I'll say that much."
"Any luck on the phone numbers?" Lois asked.
Jimmy nodded. "Some. One of them is the number to the switchboard to LexTower. The other is to a cellular phone, but I'm having trouble identifying who it belongs to. It's unlisted and none of my usual contacts seem to be able to find out."
"Keep trying," Lois said. "It would be interesting if it belonged to … him."
"Sure would," Jimmy agreed.
"I'll work at it from my end, too," Lois said. "I might be able to find out if it's his, if he wants to see me again." She glanced sideways at the bouquet.
Jimmy did as well. "That's an idea," he agreed. "Okay, I'm on it."
The elevator doors opened and Clark Kent stepped out. As he did so, Lois's phone shrilled. She picked it up, thinking that the day seemed to be getting started with a real kick. "Lois Lane."
"Hello, Lois." It was Henderson's voice. "You might want to come by the Precinct when you get the chance. I'd like to talk to you about that subject we spoke about the last time I saw you."
"Oh … uh, right. I'll be there in a while," Lois said. The last time they had spoken was when the Police Inspector had dropped by her apartment in response to her report of a break-in. The subject had been Lex Luthor. "Thanks, Inspector."
"Not a problem," Henderson said. "Always glad to do a favor for the Press." He hung up.
"Anything?" Clark's voice said from behind her. He propped a hip on the corner of her desk and set a cup of coffee on a clear spot.
"Yeah. Henderson wants to talk to us. About … that subject."
"Hmm." Clark's eyebrows went up slightly. "It seems to me as if the good Inspector is hoping we'll be able to turn up something he can use."
"Well … he may. If there's corruption in the Department …"
"The thought had occurred to me," Clark agreed. "If some of his men are on … *his* payroll, an outside investigation might be the only way he'll be able to find any evidence before it disappears. You trust him, don't you?"
"That's good enough for me. I need to write up this morning's hostage standoff for Perry, and then we can go see what he has to say."
Lois nodded. "I saw some of it," she said. "Lucy was okay, wasn't she?"
"She was fine," Clark said. "She took the whole thing in stride. I left her talking to the police."
"What was it all about, anyway?"
Clark shrugged. "Some student was upset because he's failing most of his subjects. He was claiming that the school had it in for him and wanted to talk to the media so he could present his case to the public."
"Well, he'll get his chance," Lois said, dryly. She picked up her coffee. "Better get it written up. Thanks for the coffee, by the way."
"Hey," Ralph said, nudging Clark in the ribs as he went by. "You better watch out. She's seeing Lex Luthor, now. Out of your class, Kent."
Lois rolled her eyes and Clark shook his head. "Thanks for the warning, Ralph."
Lois was still muttering dire threats against Ralph a short time later when she and Clark stepped into the elevator and Clark punched the button for the roof. Her objection to driving the subcompact still applied, and so did Clark's. At his suggestion, they took the aerial route to the Precinct to speak with Henderson.
Lois shaded her eyes against the tiny flakes that sifted down. "I hope this doesn't turn into another heavy snow," she said.
"The weather report is predicting less than a foot," Clark said. "Not too bad. Just enough for a Christmas atmosphere."
"This may be the first Christmas that I've enjoyed in a long time," Lois said. "I've dreaded Christmas for so long, it's something new to actually look forward to it."
"Why didn't you like Christmas?" Clark asked. "Your parents?"
She nodded. "For Lucy and me, it was always an ordeal to get through," she said. "Dad and Mother would always start out determined to be civil to each other, but they'd inevitably end up fighting. Then Dad would stomp out and Mother would start drinking. Lucy and I would always go up to our rooms with our gifts and pretend everything was normal. It wasn't fun."
Clark shook his head. "I can understand why you feel the way you do," he said. "But that's not the way we do things in Smallville. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised."
"You said that Christmas is always the biggest party in Smallville," Lois said.
"It is. You saw the preparations when we were there, last week. Rachel's been getting ready for two weeks and there's still almost two weeks to go. I hope she and Roy get things straightened out by then."
"You mean that Neanderthal of a boyfriend," Lois said.
"Well, it's none of our business, and she wouldn't thank us for interfering," Clark said. "Rachel's a smart woman. She'll work it out."
"I hope so," Lois said.
"She will," Clark said. "He didn't want her to become the Sheriff, but she did, and he's been trying to talk her into quitting ever since. She's still the Sheriff. Don't underestimate her."
"I guess I shouldn't," Lois said. "He just rubbed me the wrong way, that's all."
"He has that effect on a lot of people," Clark said. "We went to school together, but he and I weren't exactly close friends."
"Jealousy?" Lois asked. "You took Rachel to the prom, didn't you?"
"Yes," Clark affirmed. "Roy flipped his truck out on River Road and Lana somehow got a bad case of poison ivy, so Rachel and I ended up going together. He tried to pick a fight with me about it after he got out of the hospital, but we'd have looked pretty stupid trying to fight with one of his legs still in a cast. Besides, it wouldn't have been fair."
"I guess not," Lois agreed. "I suppose it wasn't easy for you while you were growing up, even in Smallville."
He laughed. "Sometimes I thought I was going crazy," he said. "All those strange things were happening to me. I remember, I accidentally saw through the wall into the girls' locker room when I first got x-ray vision, and I was so embarrassed I didn't go near Lana for three days. But Mom and Dad helped me through all the weird stuff, and after a while I began to realize that what I could do had its positive side. Then, when I was eighteen I found out I could fly. That was definitely a plus."
"Is that when you decided to travel?" she asked.
"No, first I went to Midwest U, and after I graduated I traveled the world for a couple of years. When I finally had my fill of that, I came home and joined the newspaper staff. Then last year we lost our editor in a car crash, and I kind of got pushed into the job. And …" He grinned. "Then, Nightfall showed up, and you know what happened after that."
"We've come a long way since the night we met," Lois said.
"That's for sure," Clark said. "Three of the biggest events of my life happened in just two weeks. I met the woman that I've been waiting for, for twenty-seven years, I got my job at the Daily Planet and I went public as Superman."
"And you saved the world from Nightfall," she reminded him.
"No, you did that," he corrected her.
"*We* did it," Lois said, refusing to argue. "It was a partnership."
"That sounds fair," he agreed. "'We', then. I like that better, anyway."
"So do I." Lois reflected that the speed with which she had gone from "I" to "we" had to be some kind of world record, but then, how many women who had their ambitions focussed solely on a career met a guy like Charlie? And that didn't even count the powers and saving the world.
They were slanting downward now, to land in the alley behind the police station. Her partner gave a last quick glance around and spun back into his civilian clothing. "Okay, let's go see what Henderson wants to talk about."
The desk sergeant was apparently expecting them, for he directed them into the back after a disinterested glance at them, and Henderson's voice bade them enter almost before Lois had finished knocking. The Inspector was looking intently at something on his computer screen, and barely glanced up. "Shut the door," he said, without preliminary. "I want to show you something."
Lois obeyed. "What's so urgent?"
"Urgent isn't exactly the word," Henderson said, keeping his voice low. "Normally, I wouldn't be telling this to anyone outside the Department, but you and I have a mutual interest here, and I can't do this on my own. I still thought hard before I called you, but I figured since you're already in it up to your necks, anyway, it couldn't do any harm and you might be able to find out some things I can't. Any kind of investigation I do involving that mutual interest is going to be reported to him."
"Are you saying …"
"There's going to be an investigation from here, of course," Henderson continued, as if she hadn't spoken. "The detective in charge of it will conclude that it was probably drug-related or some other connection having nothing to do with our mutual interest. Eventually, it will go down as another unsolved murder. Unless you're willing to help me. If we work together, I think it would be to our mutual advantage."
Lois and Clark looked at each other. "Go on," Lois said.
Henderson apparently took that to mean agreement. "A body washed up on the bank of the Hobs River this morning."
"What's so unusual about that?" Lois asked.
"Nothing, usually. His name was Enrique Moran. He'd been tortured to death."
"Oh?" Lois took a seat in one of the chairs facing Henderson's desk. "I take it this is leading somewhere."
Henderson nodded and waved to a folder that lay on one corner of his desk. "Take a look. It's not a pretty sight, but you may recognize him."
Lois glanced at Clark, then reached out and appropriated the folder. Clark sat down next to her, and for several minutes there was complete silence except for the rustle of them shuffling through the photographs. As Henderson had said, they weren't pretty, but there was a familiarity to the man's distorted features.
Clark spoke slowly. "I could be wrong, but I think I saw this man the night of the Christmas Charity Ball."
Lois nodded slowly. "Yes. He served dinner last night during my interview with Lex."
Henderson nodded. "He was one of the servants who worked in the penthouse at LexTower."
"Interesting coincidence," Lois said. "Still, it seems like an ordinary murder case. What has this got to do with us?"
"Let's say, I had a tip from somebody unnamed," Henderson said. "That's why I know who he is. I still haven't put it in my report. Whether I do or not depends on you. Moran stole something that he shouldn't have from the subject of our mutual interest."
"And didn't get away with it, I'd say," Lois said. "Being tortured to death is a pretty stiff penalty for theft."
"The item he took was apparently very hot stuff," Henderson said. "A personal diary. It wasn't recovered. Moran apparently passed it to an accomplice before they caught up with him."
"This is getting interesting," Clark said. "Do they know who he passed it to?"
Henderson shook his head. "Apparently, Moran pointed to a guy named Joey 'Fingers' McPherson as the man he gave the item to. We suspect Joey of collecting protection money for the rackets. For some reason he's still alive, but we don't know why."
"Do you have an address for this guy?" Lois asked.
Henderson rose from his desk and casually handed her a slip of paper on his way to the door. "I don't have to tell you that we never talked about this subject."
"What did we talk about?" Clark asked.
"The lack of progress on Lois's apartment break-in."
Lois nodded. "No doubt that was just a random incident," she said, getting to her feet.
"No doubt," Henderson said. "But watch your backs." He opened the door for them. "Sorry I wasn't able to be of more help, Lois," he said, and she was aware of the blue-clad form of a police officer at the water-cooler a short distance away. "There have been a bunch of petty thefts in that area of town. If anything turns up, I'll let you know."
"Yeah, right," Lois said. "You do that."
"Now that," Clark said, as they once more took to the sky, "was very interesting."
"Very," Lois said. "Henderson must not know who to trust."
"Except you," Clark said.
"So there must be a leak in the Police Department," Lois said.
"Or in the DA's office."
"Maybe both. Luthor's got somebody on his payroll."
"Probably more than one," Clark said.
"Yeah. Now, how are we going to approach this?"
"I'd say, the first thing to do is to check out this Joey McPherson," Clark said. "Moran fingered him as the recipient of the diary, but he's still alive. There has to be a reason."
"Before we do that, I need to talk to Bobby," Lois said.
"Bobby Bigmouth. My snitch. I need to call him and arrange a meeting, and introduce you to him, but before we go to meet him, I need to stop off at the deli and pick him up a meal."
Clark's eyebrows went up. "A meal? Is the guy homeless, or something?"
"No," Lois said. "You have to know Bobby. He eats enough to feed an army every day. The meal is his payment."
"Not your usual snitch," Clark observed.
"Definitely. But the guy must have microphones in every crime lord's den in the city. I wouldn't trade him for half a dozen other ordinary snitches."
"I've got to meet this guy," Clark said. "Why don't we stop and I'll pick him up a deli sandwich and salad …"
"Don't forget dessert," Lois cautioned. "Bobby likes his desserts, the more caloric, the better."
"I figured that. I know the perfect place. You can make the call and I'll get the food."
Making absolutely certain that he wasn't observed, Denny Brown slipped quietly through the broken door of the abandoned building that he and Jack had made their home for the last two weeks. Once inside, he carefully pulled the blanket that hung over the entrance into place to block out the icy wind.
It was dim inside the building. They had a kerosene lantern that Jack had acquired the second day after they'd found this place but it wasn't lit. They were running low on kerosene, Jack had explained. He didn't want to waste it when they got some light through the windows during the day.
Only now, Jack had pulled the ragged shades over the windows as well. It helped to keep the interior of the building marginally warmer than the outside, but Denny could barely see. Still, he knew the place pretty well. He and his brother had escaped from the last set of foster homes and had hidden in an abandoned subway tunnel for three days; then Jack had found this place. The Nightfall thing had kept the CPS people occupied for a while, and he and Jack hadn't seen any sign of them since, so they had stayed. Denny had no doubt that the authorities were still hunting for the two of them, but Jack and he were on the other side of Metropolis from his last foster home, so maybe no one would find them where they were — especially if they were very careful not to draw attention to themselves.
But something must have happened last night. Jack had shown up some time this morning before the sun had come up and hadn't set foot outside of the building since. He'd even sent Denny to get the food from the fast food place.
Denny shivered in the chill that permeated their home. Something was wrong. Maybe Jack had spotted someone looking for them, he thought, but that didn't quite make sense. Who would have spotted Jack in the middle of the night?
Well, he needed to find out what was going on. His brother tried to protect him all the time. It was kind of scary not to have somebody to watch out for them, but the time when they had really had a mom and dad was long since gone. Denny's father had been killed in a factory fire when Denny was three. He barely remembered the man. Their mother had gone through a succession of boyfriends after that, and none of them cared two cents for him or Jack. Three years ago, she and her latest boyfriend took off for Las Vegas and didn't come back. The CPS people showed up a couple of weeks later when somebody had notified them that the boys seemed to be alone. Then the System had stuck them first in an orphanage and then in separate foster homes. Neither Denny nor Jack had liked the arrangement. Denny had resigned himself to being shuffled from one place to another, but Jack had protested and fought, and earned himself the reputation of a troublemaker. He'd escaped twice, and the last time he and Denny had managed to get away. There was no way they were going to go back, Denny thought. If the authorities had finally managed to track them to this part of town, they would have to get out of here.
"Jack?" he called, softly. "It's me."
"Did anybody see you?" Jack's voice asked.
"No. I got the food here," Denny added. "Jack, what's going on?"
Denny felt his way into the back room. Jack was huddled on the old mattress covered with ragged blankets that the two of them used for a bed, wearing the jacket that he'd come home with yesterday afternoon.
"It's not nothing!" Denny insisted. "You're afraid somebody's gonna see you! What happened last night?"
"Nothing important," Jack said. "I just have to lay low 'til I'm sure the heat's off. What did you get?"
"Hamburgers and fries," Denny said, passing over the bag containing his brother's meal. "I got milkshakes, too. Look, Jack, you gotta tell me what's going on. It's not the CPS people, is it?"
"No. I saw something last night," Jack said. "They might have seen me, but they didn't get a good look. I just have to be sure nobody's looking for me."
"*Who* saw you?"
"Denny, trust me. It's better if you don't know about it."
Denny shook his head. "I want to know what's going on," he insisted. "I'm not a little kid anymore. I'm nearly twelve. What happened to you last night? Where did you go? And what's in that bag you stuck behind the wall?"
Jack heaved a sigh of exasperation. "That's our way out. As soon as it's safe, we're gonna buy us bus tickets out of town. I figure we'll head somewhere out west like Texas or Kansas or someplace like that. CPS will never find us there."
Denny thought about that. "Don't they have social workers there?" he asked, doubtfully.
"Sure, but they won't be looking for us," Jack said. "We just have to be sure to keep a low profile 'til I'm eighteen. Look, Den, as soon as I'm sure nobody's looking for me, we're gonna get a bus out of town. We're gonna take local buses so nobody can find a trail until we're a good ways away from Metropolis. It'll be okay. You'll see."
"Well, okay," Denny said. "But what about last night?"
Jack glowered at him. "This money is protection money a guy collected from some businesses, okay? I took it from a crook and nearly got caught. They might have seen me on a videocamera, but they couldn't have got a very good picture. I had my face down. Anyway, I figure I need to stay out of sight for awhile." He shifted around. "I got something else here," he added. "I think it's a book or something. Whatever it is, it might be worth a lot to somebody. Is the flashlight still working?"
"Yeah. The batteries are still good — some, anyway. We're gonna need some more, soon." Denny reached under the mattress and removed the flashlight.
"I want to see what's so important about this thing," Jack said. He reached under the jacket and removed a small package. Denny heard paper tear and then Jack took the flashlight from his hand. A pale, yellowish beam of light came on.
It was a small, bound book, Denny saw, and on the cover in florid gold printing were the letters LL.
Jack opened it, to reveal pages of neat, close-written handwriting. Denny wasn't very good at reading handwriting yet but Jack was. He waited patiently, helping to shield the yellowish beam of the flashlight. Probably nobody outside would notice anything, but he didn't want to take the risk.
"It's a diary," Jack said, finally. He was frowning at the writing. "I can see why he wants it back, too."
"You don't want to know. Denny, you gotta promise me right now that you won't tell anybody about this. I've gotta decide what to do with it." He frowned at the handwriting again, then flipped through the pages. At the top of each page, the date was written clearly in black ink. "Huh," Jack said. "Here's yesterday's date. There's some more pages, but they're blank."
"Whose book is it?" Denny asked. "Who's LL?"
"Don't ask." Jack snapped off the flashlight. "I'm gonna hide this thing with the money." He hoisted himself to his feet and crossed to a spot where a plywood board leaned against the wall. When he removed it, it could be seen that a large hole gaped in the cracked plaster, and he shoved the little book down inside. He leaned the plywood against the wall again, and returned to the mattress.
Denny munched his hamburger without saying anything. Jack dug into the bag of fast food and removed his own hamburger. He took a long slurp on the vanilla shake that accompanied it and then bit into the burger. For several moments, neither boy spoke.
"Den," Jack said, suddenly. "I got somethin' for you."
"This." Jack handed him a card. "The guy who gave me the jacket yesterday, gave me this. It's his business card. He said to call him if I needed help. I didn't figure I did, but now …" He took another drink of milkshake. "The guy's a reporter. If something happens to me, I want you to call him."
"Nothing's going to happen to you!"
"It won't if I can help it," Jack said. "But if something does, do it. Okay?"
Denny gulped, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Okay," he mumbled, sticking the card into his back pocket. "Don't let anything happen, Jack."
"I won't. I'm just being careful. Call it insurance."
Bobby Bigmouth was a thin, sharp-faced man who seemed to blend into the background.
It was a good quality for someone in his line of work, Clark thought. If Lois hadn't pointed him out, he might not even have noticed the man and certainly wouldn't have paid more than cursory attention to the drab, uninteresting figure slouching on a park bench, throwing popcorn to the hungry pigeons hopping around on the withered grass, pecking at the food. Every now and then, a handful of the popcorn went into his own mouth. Clark grinned as Lois's description of the informant came to mind. At a guess, Bobby's nickname wasn't related to his chosen profession.
He and Lois went on by and into an area devoted to children's playground equipment. It was past noon, but the weather conditions were not such as to induce mothers and babysitters to bring their small charges to the park. The area was deserted. Clark verified that by a quick glance around over the rims of his glasses. They strolled past the playground, and settled down at a wooden picnic table situated in the shelter of a small grove of trees. Clark quietly placed two brown paper bags containing a thick, deli sandwich, potato salad, a large slice of chocolate cream pie and a tall, insulated cup of cafe mocha on the seat of the picnic table a few feet from their own. In the warmer months, the little grove would furnish shade for picnickers, but now the branches were leafless and bare. Still, the tree trunks supplied a certain amount of cover, and Bobby had specified this spot as their meeting place. Lois opened the bag she carried and extracted the deli sandwich and coffee that Clark had bought for her. Clark did the same. To all appearances they were two persons who had decided to lunch in the park in defiance of the light sprinkle of snow that drifted lazily down.
"Anybody watching?" Lois asked.
"No. Not yet, anyway."
Lois pulled her coat more tightly around her and uncapped the cup of hot coffee. "Brrr. This stuff isn't going to stay hot long at this rate."
"If it gets cold, I'll take care of it," Clark assured her. He uncapped his own coffee and dipped a finger into it in a familiar gesture.
"Show off," Lois said, but she smiled at his re-enactment of the test that she had used to prove to him that he was impervious to heat.
He dumped four sugars and two containers of half-and-half into the coffee and took a healthy drink, then began to unwrap his sandwich. "Here comes your friend."
Bobby Bigmouth's thin, drab figure strolled into view, slouching slightly, anonymous and unremarkable. He drifted toward the grove, somehow not at all purposefully, and when he stepped into the trees, Clark was quite sure that any ordinary observer would have completely lost track of him among the trunks. He glanced around again, but could see no watcher. Still, he had to admire the man's consummate skill at remaining inconspicuous.
Bobby Bigmouth sank down on the bench of the picnic table where Clark had placed the bags and picked one up. Lois and Clark remained silent while the snitch opened the containers, removed the sandwich, unwrapped it and sniffed. "Whoa," he said. "This is a work of art! What deli did this come from?"
"It's called Jeanie's Snack Shop and Delicatessen," Clark said. "It's only been around a couple of months. This is their Deli Club Special."
"I gotta try this place," Bobby said. He took a healthy bite and chewed rapturously. "I like your new partner, Lois. He's got good taste."
"I'm glad you approve," Lois said, dryly. "Bobby, this is Clark Kent."
"Yeah, I know. I been reading your articles the last couple o' weeks. Nice work."
"Thanks," Lois said. She took a swallow of her cooling coffee. As she put it down, Clark lowered his glasses and shot a surreptitious beam of heat vision into the liquid. A curl of steam responded.
"The word," Bobby said, casually, "is that the diary is sort of a 'brag book'."
"What do you mean?" Lois asked.
Bobby took a swig of his caf‚ mocha. "You ever notice," he said, "how a lot of the really smart bad guys kind of like to document what they've done, kind of like an ego trip for them? You see it lotsa times. Some really twisted, smart serial killer who keeps souvenirs from his victims, or people like those guys out west who kidnapped and killed women, and videotaped all of it; that kinda thing?"
"I think I understand," Clark said. "This diary is …"
"A kinda private record of his accomplishments," Bobby said. "Names, dates, descriptions … everything. All in his own handwriting. Great blackmail material … at least, that's the word I hear."
Lois nodded. "Sounds like an ego trip that could blow up in somebody's face," she said.
"Plenty of them do," Clark said. "I'd guess that this particular somebody is pretty desperate to get it back."
"Yeah." Bobby took a bite of the potato salad. "Hey, this is great! It's even got egg in it, and I really like the hint of dill."
"Only the best," Lois said. "So why is Joey still alive?"
"Well, they don't know if Moran lied about who he gave it to," Bobby said. "Nobody found anything in his place. He'd been robbed, too, though. Some young guy broke into his safe and took all his protection receipts. Joey's got a week to get it back and find out who's got the diary; then …" Bobby drew a finger across his throat.
"Our other contact didn't say anything about that," Lois said. "How do they know?"
"The guy was hidin' in Joey's apartment," Bobby explained, inhaling the last of the sandwich and polishing off the potato salad in three bites. "I wouldn't put any big bets on Joey living past a week, even if he gets it back, though. If Moran wasn't lying, Joey mighta had the thing. Could be the thief got it, too." He began to open the container with the pie. "Whoa! This is great!"
"I guess they didn't catch the thief?" Lois asked.
"Nope." Bobby bit into the pie, and an expression of sheer bliss spread across his features as he chewed. "Tellya what," he continued, rather thickly around the pie, "I'll do some digging and try to get you more, if you bring me another meal like this one. I gotta be careful, though. This thing's red hot. It ain't just Joey tryin' to find it. Whoever's got that diary is dead if they catch him."
Lois nodded. "It's a deal," she said.
Bobby nodded and bit into the pie again. Clark glanced around, assuring himself that there were still no observers, as he and Lois wadded up the debris from their meal, stuffed it and the crumpled bags into a wire trash receptacle and walked off without another word, leaving Bobby to enjoy his dessert in solitude.
Lucy was sitting in Lois's desk chair when Lois and Clark arrived in the newsroom, attended by Jimmy Olsen and a young staffer from Classifieds, whom Lois vaguely recognized. Tim something, she thought. They glanced around as Lois approached her desk and reluctantly gave up their places. Her sister smiled at them, and Lois was amused to see the slightly glazed expression on Jimmy's face as he returned to his duties.
"Hi," Lucy said. "I got a ride with one of the guys at the hostage thing this morning, but I left my key at your place. Can I borrow yours?"
Knowing her sister, Lois wasn't even slightly surprised. She extracted the spare key that she kept in her desk drawer. "Leave it by the telephone answering machine."
"No sweat," Lucy said. "I have to change clothes. I have a date this afternoon."
That wasn't a surprise, either. "Anybody I know?"
Lucy shook her head. "His name's Brian. I met him this morning, and we got to talking after Superman caught the crazy guy with the guns. He's awesome."
"Superman is pretty awesome," Lois agreed.
"Well, him, too, but I meant Brian. He's a graduate student in business administration. He's going into his brother's business after he graduates. Did you know that New Troy State has one of the best MBA programs in the world? Even better than most of the private colleges."
"I think I heard that, somewhere," Clark said, and Lois saw the corners of his mouth quiver slightly.
"Anyway," Lucy said blithely, "Brian asked me out for a late lunch, and he's going to pick me up at your place about two, so I have to hurry. He's going to take me over to the college again tomorrow, too. The stuff they were going to do this morning kind of got messed up by the crazy guy, and they postponed it."
"Yeah, I can see that a hostage crisis might disrupt their schedule," Lois said, trying to keep her voice level. "You'd better hurry if you're going to make it in time."
"I'll cut through the park," Lucy said, jumping to her feet. "See you later, sis. Nice seeing you again, Clark."
When she had gone, Clark gave a soft laugh. "Your sister has the family energy, I can see that."
"I just wish she were a little less scatterbrained," Lois said.
"She'll grow up," Clark said. "Give her time. So, now what do you want to do?"
"Well, if 'Joey' was robbed, I'd like to talk to him."
"He might not be willing to talk to the press," Clark pointed out.
"Probably not. We'll have to think of something. At the least, I want to visit his apartment house and see what he looks like. We can't follow him if we can't identify him."
"You're right about that," Clark said. "Well, why don't we —" He broke off in mid-sentence at the interruption of one of the newsroom's police scanners.
"Attention all units. Code four. Possible jumper, Lexor Hotel. Crowd control and negotiation teams …"
Perry opened his office door as Clark headed for the exit. Lois grabbed her bag and followed him at a run. "We're on it, Perry!" she tossed over her shoulder.
Clark set Lois down in an alley half a block from the Lexor and shot directly upward, out of the confined space, headed for the Lexor. Lois hurried from the alley and sprinted the short distance down the sidewalk in time to see a tiny figure far above waving his arms at the crowd below.
A red and blue streak crossed the sky and landed beside the tiny figure. Lois peered upward through a pair of binoculars hastily fished from her shoulder bag and saw her partner grasp the man by one arm. He gently but firmly escorted the figure down from the ledge, and then, without warning, she saw his head snap about. In an instant, he had launched himself and was streaking away, faster than the eye could follow. Reacting quickly, she placed two fingers in her mouth and produced a shrill whistle, hailing a cab. A taxi screeched to a stop beside her. "Follow Superman!" she commanded, jumping into the rear seat. The driver pulled away from the curb with a screech of tires, performed a U-turn under the nose of an oncoming fuel truck as Lois pulled her door shut, and took off after the Man of Steel.
"It was really strange," Clark was telling her a short time later, as they walked slowly back into the Daily Planet. "I grabbed that guy's arm and got him down from the ledge, and heard a scream. That woman — Monique Kahn — was falling. I didn't have time to think; I just reacted."
"Does something strike you as not quite right here?" Lois said, slowly. "Two people jumping from buildings on a direct line of sight across the city, within seconds of each other. Almost as if it was deliberate."
"I can't believe anyone would take that kind of risk deliberately," Clark said. "That woman couldn't *know* Superman would be able to get there in time."
Lois shook her head. "I just have this weird feeling about it," she said. "I'm probably wrong."
"If it were anybody besides you, I'd think you were imagining things," Clark said, somewhat doubtfully. "But if *you* think something isn't right, maybe we should check it out a little further."
"Clark, don't give me too much credit," Lois said. "There have been plenty of times my imagination took me completely in the wrong direction."
"Yeah, maybe." He shrugged uncomfortably. "There isn't much we can do about it for now, anyway. Maybe we'll find out something when we see what the psychiatric report says."
"Yeah." She pushed the button to summon the elevator. "Well, let's get this written up. The afternoon edition is going to press in half an hour."
"You know," Perry White said, "sometimes, I think this city's losing its collective marbles."
Lois swept the contents of her desktop into a drawer and sprayed cleaner onto her computer screen. "Why do you think that, Chief? — aside from the usual stuff?"
"It just seems like the number of nuts is increasing," Perry said. "Two attempted suicides in one afternoon, and at about the same time some three hundred pound guy decides to take a stroll in the nude across the Metropolis Bridge and blocks traffic for miles in both directions."
"I'm just as glad I didn't see that," Lois said. She rubbed the screen dry with a paper towel, tossed the crumpled paper into her trashcan and dusted off her hands. "I'm heading home. See you in the morning."
Clark joined her as she took her coat from the rack. "Would you like to see a movie, tonight?"
She let him help her with her coat. "I don't know. I think I'd rather pick up some take-out and watch a video."
"How about at my place?" Clark suggested. "Your sofas aren't really made for relaxing on."
She laughed. "Yeah; they're decorative, not comfortable. I don't normally have any reason to sit on them for long periods of time, anyway — or I didn't, until now. First, I'd like to drop by my place so I can change, though."
The door to her apartment was unlocked when they arrived, and Lois could hear her sister moving around in the kitchen.
"Lucy! You forgot to lock the door again!"
"Oh, sorry." Lucy stuck her head out of the kitchen. "Your keys are by the phone. I'll be leaving in a minute. Brian said he'd pick me up at seven."
"I thought you went out for a late lunch," Lois said.
"We did. He asked me to a movie."
"Oh," Lois said. This was Lucy, she reminded herself. Naturally she had a date for the evening. She located the spare key and dropped it in her bag. "Okay, but if I'm not here when you get back, don't forget to lock the door!"
"Okay." Lucy gave her a curious look. "Got a date?"
"No," Lois said, and found herself crossing her fingers behind her back. "Clark and I have some work to do."
"Oh," Lucy said.
There was a knock on the door. Lucy hurried across the room to open it before Lois could react. "Hi, Brian! Come on in! I'm almost ready."
A tall, dark-haired young man stepped through the door. Lois blinked. Unlike most of Lucy's boyfriends, this one wasn't scruffy or fleabitten in appearance. He was actually wearing a suit and was really quite nice-looking, in spite of the fact that he was dating her sister.
"This is my sister, Lois," Lucy said, "and her partner at work, Clark Kent. Lois, This is Brian Chow. Give me just a minute, Brian, and I'll be right with you."
"Sure." Brian smiled at Lois. "It's nice to meet you, Ms. Lane. I've read your work."
"Thank you," Lois said. "You were at that hostage thing this morning?"
"That's right," Brian said. "I'm enrolling in the MBA program at State. This morning was certainly an interesting introduction to it, though. Nothing like that ever happened to me, before."
Lucy had hurried into her bedroom, and now emerged with her coat, purse and a fuzzy hat. Brian hurried over to help her with the coat.
"I hope that's the only time something like that happens," Lois said. "I take it that it didn't discourage you?"
"Not at all." Brian held Lucy's hat and purse while she buttoned up her coat. "Lucy was an inspiration to me, Ms. Lane. She had more courage than some of the guys there."
Lois didn't quite know what to say to that. Brian's manners were so completely at odds with every other guy that her sister had dated that she was still trying to take it in. Lucy took the hat, pulled it on over her dark hair, and reclaimed her purse. "We might be out a little late, Lois. I'll try not to wake you up when I come in."
"Don't forget your key," was all she could think of to say. Brian allowed Lucy to precede him from the apartment, and they disappeared down the hallway.
"You know, you've really fixed this place up since Friday night," Lois said, looking around at the apartment where she had last seen Superman's spaceship parked in an otherwise empty bedroom, surrounded by dirt, spiderwebs and trash. It was now Monday night, and she could have been looking at a completely different place. The trash had vanished, the torn, dirty rug had been removed and the floor beneath it cleaned and waxed, the walls and ceiling had been painted, the cabinets repaired, sanded and varnished, the glass of the windows was sparkling, the cobwebs were gone and the entire apartment was completely spotless. Even the smell of mildew had vanished. Throw rugs now decorated the shining wood floor, and several pieces of furniture, used, but in good condition, sat around the living room. A bookshelf against one wall sported books in several languages, and knick-knacks decorated shelves and tables.
"Well," Clark said, "I didn't want to live in that kind of mess a second longer than I had to. This place had a lot more potential than it looked like in the beginning."
"I can see that. What did you do, study home repair and interior decorating in your spare time?"
"Well, I learned to do a lot of repairs around the farm," Clark said. "And Mom actually did take a class in interior decorating."
"Naturally," Lois said. "I think your mother must be interested in just about everything."
"She is," Clark said. "Did I tell you she even does scuba diving in the summer? I used her air tanks when I went after Nightfall the first time."
"Why am I not surprised?" Lois asked, rhetorically. "But how did you learn about interior decorating?"
"Oh, one afternoon I was bored and sort of leafed through her textbook."
"I see." Lois regarded him thoughtfully. That probably meant that he had read the entire book in about two seconds, if it had even taken that long. "Maybe I should ask you for some tips on my place."
He shook his head and grinned. "Your place is fine, except for the living room chairs and couch. But I think we already covered that."
"We did. So," she said, "what do you want to order?"
"Actually, I thought I'd cook," Clark said. "Remember, I promised you that after I got my place fixed up, I'd invite you over for an apartment-warming dinner?"
"Can you really cook?" Lois asked, doubtfully.
Clark grinned. "I'll let you judge." He broke off. "Oh, no."
"Go," Lois said, immediately. "Dinner will wait."
Clark hadn't had time to explain before he took off. The scream he had heard was the voice of Lucy Lane. He threw himself through the air, moving fast enough that the sonic boom he left in his wake shook buildings across the city.
Martinique's was in the middle of a holdup. Four masked men were holding the staff and customers of the fashionable little bistro at gunpoint. As Clark arrowed toward the scene of the crisis, he saw one of the men seize Lucy's escort by the arm and yank him forward. He raised his handgun and started to strike the young man across the face. A gust of wind burst around them as Clark shot into the room. When it died, the four men were bound hand and foot with pieces of electrical wire and the colorful figure standing beside them was gripping their weapons. As they watched, he systematically crushed each handgun into a hunk of twisted metal and dropped it to the floor, then turned to Lucy's date.
"Are you all right?"
Brian nodded, looking stunned. Lucy rushed forward. "Brian, are you hurt?"
"I'm fine." He put an arm around her. Clark turned his head as the sound of police sirens came belatedly to his ears.
"The police will be here in a moment," he said, turning to a tall man wearing a name badge on his lapel that identified him as the manager.
The man nodded, looking slightly stunned. "Thank you, Superman."
Clark glanced sideways as the first of the police cars pulled up outside and officers clutching various firearms jumped from the vehicles and took up positions of cover behind them. "You're welcome. I'd better let the officers know that the problem is taken care of." He strode to the main door and opened it.
A short time later, he turned to William Henderson, who was supervising the removal of the holdup men. "If you don't need me anymore, Inspector —"
The officer regarded him, thoughtfully. "I think we have everything we need … Superman. Speaking for my men as well as myself, I'd like to thank you for getting here so quickly. I'd sure like to know how you always seem to turn up at the right place, though."
Clark tapped an ear. "I have excellent hearing — and I move pretty fast."
"So I've noticed," Henderson said. "All right, you can go. It was nice meeting you. Thanks again."
"You're welcome," Clark said, and was gone.
When he returned to his apartment, Lois was standing in his kitchen, examining the cupboards with a skeptical expression on her face. She turned at the sound of his arrival, just as he emerged from his spin dressed as himself.
"I guess everything's okay?" she asked. "What happened?"
He nodded. "Holdup at Martinique's. I disarmed the holdup men and detained them until Henderson and his men arrived."
"I'll want the story on that."
"I'll give it to you while I make dinner," Clark said, reaching for a saucepan. "Do you like Italian?"
"Sure," Lois said. "Do you actually know how to use all this stuff?"
"Sure, I do. Mom taught me the basics, and I had to do most of my own cooking while I was at college, and while I was traveling. I figured that if I was going to learn something, I was going to learn how to do it right." He began to gather his ingredients, moving quickly about the kitchen. "Lois, maybe you can tell me if I'm imagining something. There was that hostage crisis this morning at the university, and your sister was there. The holdup at Martinique's this evening …"
"You're not saying that Lucy was there, again," Lois said.
He nodded as he compounded his flour and herb mixture and quickly coated the chicken. A few seconds later, the smell of herbs and frying chicken filled the air. While the chicken was cooking, he began to prepare the fettuccine. "Yes, she was. Could it have been a coincidence?"
"I don't know." She frowned at nothing. "I don't like coincidences."
"Not that kind," Clark agreed. "Do you like Caesar salad?"
"Sure." Slowly, she extracted a notebook from her purse. "Why don't you tell me about it? We can write it up for the paper, and I can find out exactly what happened at the same time."
Clark complied while he cooked, and a short time later, Lois phoned the story to the Planet's rewrite desk. When she put down the phone, she went to his dish cupboard. "Want me to set the table?"
"Sure. It'll be done in a minute. There's a bottle of wine chilling in the refrigerator."
She was silent as she dealt with the table settings and the wine, obviously turning the story over in her mind. Finally, she said, "I don't see how it could be anything but a really weird coincidence. Why would anyone be targeting Lucy?"
Clark transferred the fettuccine to the plates along with the chicken and sauce, and set the salad in the center of the table. "Wine?" he asked.
She nodded. Clark poured a glass for each of them and then whisked out of the room, only to return with a tall, white candle in a cut glass holder. He set it in the middle of the table and lit it with his heat vision. "Would you care to eat, Ms. Lane?"
"Sure." She took her chair, and he sat across from her.
"I don't know if anyone would be targeting her," he said. "You know her a lot better than I do. Does she make a habit of this kind of thing?"
Lois shook her head. "Never. She's always on *my* case about the things that happen to me." She sliced off a bit of chicken and took a bite. Her eyebrows went up. "This is *good*!"
Clark smiled. "So, have I proven myself as a cook?"
"If this is any example, you certainly have," Lois said.
They ate in silence for several minutes. Clark finished before Lois and sat back in his chair, sipping the wine while she ate.
"So," he said, finally, "do you really think it's just a coincidence?"
"What else could it be?" she asked. "It isn't as if Lucy's involved with criminals or anything. If you knew my sister, you'd know that for sure."
"I'll take your word for it," he said. "Still, I think Superman will keep his hearing tuned for her, just the same. If it happens again, we might need to start looking for something besides a coincidence."
"If it happens again, I won't even argue," Lois said. "Speaking of criminals, we still have to check out that Joey guy, tomorrow." She set down her fork. "That was delicious, Clark. I guess you'll be able to make up for my lack of cooking skills when we …" she broke off, looking embarrassed.
"What?" he asked.
"I don't mean to assume anything," she said.
"Oh." He didn't smile. "I told you I've been looking for you all my life, Lois. Did you think I wouldn't want it to be a permanent arrangement?"
Both her cheeks had turned pink. "I …"
"*Do* you want it to be permanent, Lois?"
She looked down. "Do *you*?"
"I certainly do!" He leaned forward. "Lois, I can't imagine feeling this way about any other woman. It took me twenty-seven years to find you. I'd be pretty stupid to decide I wanted to look for someone better. Especially," he added, "since that's not possible!"
"You're absolutely sure about this?"
"You bet I am. Are *you*?"
"I think so," she said. "I'd begun to think all this true love stuff was a myth. That was before I met you, though."
"Do you think it is, now?"
"I'm beginning to change my mind," she said. "You're very convincing."
"Well," he said, rising from his chair, "until you're completely convinced, I guess I'll have to prove how useful I am to have around. I made a Devil's Food cake for dessert tonight before I came in to work. Do you think you can stand the calories?"
She stared open-mouthed as he removed the cover from the cake plate, revealing his masterpiece. "You *made* that?"
"I told you my mother taught me to cook," Clark said. "I figure a little bribery can't hurt."
She didn't speak, watching as he cut the cake and presented her with a modest slice. When he had seated himself across from her with a wedge of cake considerably larger than her own, she spoke again. "You make a very persuasive argument, Mr. Kent. If I said I wanted a permanent arrangement, what would you say?" He could tell by her heartbeat that she wasn't nearly as calm as she was trying to appear.
"I'd say that I was going to hold you to it," he replied. "Mrs. Kent didn't raise any stupid kids."
She took a bite of the cake, and closed her eyes for a moment to savor the taste. "I think I'm going to have to triple my workouts," she observed. "So, Mr. Kent, you want to be the cook for …" She hesitated.
"For the two of us," he said, daringly. "If you want me to."
"Believe me, if you ever tasted anything I cooked, you'd definitely want to be," she assured him. "I know how to make four dishes, and in three of them, the main ingredient is chocolate."
"Sounds like a good deal to me," he said. "Why don't we take our dessert into the living room? I rented Lethal Weapon 2 for you on my way back, since you mentioned that you liked it."
They were silent as they made their way into the living room, and Lois set her cake and wine on his coffee table. "Do you have coasters?"
"Sure." He returned to the kitchen and was back instantly. "Here you go."
They settled onto the sofa and he picked up the VCR remote. He fast-forwarded through the previews and settled back on the cushions beside her as the title came on.
Lois took a sip of wine and glanced at him again. "You're that sure, already?"
He nodded. "I was sure the evening we met, Lois. I already told you that."
She set the wine down. "I wish I thought you were getting what you deserve."
"I am," he said. "That is, if you think you could …"
"Oh, Clark …" He saw her wipe away a teardrop. "You know, once you've made the commitment, I'll never let you go, don't you?"
"I'm counting on it," he said, sliding an arm over her shoulders.
She hesitated. "I'd like to say yes right away, but I want you to be sure you know what you're getting into. I'm not the easiest person to live with, you know. How about we date for awhile … after we've taken care of Luthor, of course. And then if you're still sure after six months …"
"Sounds like a plan," Clark said. "But I'm not going to change my mind. And in the meantime, I promise to do all the cooking. Deal?"
"Well, unless I can convince your mom to teach me how," she said. "Do you think she would?"
"I'm sure she'd love to," Clark said. He gently tugged her against his chest. "I'd be glad to give you some pointers too, if you really want to."
"Well, I just don't want you to have to do it all," Lois said.
"Lois, it's totally up to you. I'll be happy to do the cooking if you don't want to bother. You have a pretty important job to do, anyway, as Metropolis's best investigative reporter. I plan to learn a lot from you."
"Clark, you're a great reporter!"
"But not as good as you."
"Well … almost, anyway."
He grinned. "Care to practice some investigation of a more personal sort?"
"Definitely," she said. It was the last word either of them said for some time. Unwatched, Lethal Weapon 2 continued to play.
When Lois opened the door of her apartment some minutes past midnight, there was an immediate rustling sound, and a glance into her darkened living room showed her the silhouettes of Lucy and Brian scrambling hastily upright.
She walked in, snapping on the light and turned to Clark. "Thanks for seeing me home safe, Clark. I'll pick you up on the way to work tomorrow."
"Thanks, Lois, I appreciate it," Clark said, his voice sounding completely bland. If she hadn't noticed the corners of his mouth twitch, she would have thought he hadn't seen a thing. "Good night."
"Good night," she said, and watched as he walked back down the hall. As he disappeared through the door to the stairs, there was a sound like rushing wind, and then silence. She turned back to the living room, to see Brian and Lucy standing by the sofa, looking innocent. Brian turned to Lucy.
"Well, I'll see myself out," he said. "I'll be by at seven to pick you up." He started toward the door, and Lucy accompanied him.
"Hello, Brian," Lois said. "Did you and Lucy enjoy the movie?"
"It was pretty good," Brian said.
Lucy nodded vigorously, following him out the door. Lois wasn't surprised when she pulled it closed behind her.
She walked slowly toward her bedroom, unfastening her jacket as she did so. It was at least five minutes before Lucy re-entered the apartment.
"Have a nice evening?" Lois asked, casually.
"Yeah," Lucy said, "but it started out weird. Martinique's got held up! Can you believe it?"
"Quite a coincidence," Lois said. "I knew about it, by the way. Superman told me what happened."
"You know this Superman?" Lucy asked.
"Yes. I met him when he first appeared a few days ago."
Lucy shook her head, and after a moment she sank down on the couch. "They acted crazy, Lois. It was almost as if they weren't really there to rob anybody."
"What do you think they were there for?" Lois asked. She sat down on the sofa beside her sister.
"I don't know. It was like they were looking for something, or somebody."
"Did they find him — or her?"
"I don't know. I don't think so. One of them nearly hit Brian, but your friend Superman showed up and stopped them. How do you do it?"
"Deal with people like that and not have nightmares. I didn't want Brian to know how scared I was, but it did scare me."
"It scares me, too," Lois said. "I try not to think about it, that's all."
"I don't know if I can," Lucy said. "You have to promise not to tell Brian, though. I really like him."
"You just met him this morning, Lucy."
"I know. But he's really cool, and he's not the usual kind of guy I attract."
"You mean he doesn't have a pink Mohawk and a ring in his nose?" Lois said. "Maybe your taste is improving."
"I always had that kind of taste," Lucy said. "At least, I thought I did. I like the clean-cut image; they just didn't seem to like me. I don't want to disappoint Brian and maybe make him decide to leave."
Lois regarded her sister. Maybe there was hope for her, after all. "I don't think admitting that you're scared by what happened will make him want to leave. If it does, he's not worth it."
"Maybe," Lucy said, but Lois could tell she didn't believe it. "Just don't say anything in front of him, okay? Something like this will probably never happen again, anyway."
"Okay, I promise," Lois said. "I doubt admitting that you were scared would make a difference, though."
"Well, I don't want to find out," Lucy said. "Maybe after we get to know each other better I won't want to see him anymore, or he won't want to see me — but in the meantime —"
"I get the picture," Lois said. "My lips are sealed." She glanced at her watch. "It's nearly half past twelve. I'm going to bed. Did you lock the door?"
"What?" Her sister turned to look at the door. "No, but I will."
"Never mind," Lois said. "I'll do it." She proceeded to do so. "Remember, this is Metropolis, not the wilds of Northern California. I'd think that what happened this evening would make that obvious."
"Northern California's not wild," Lucy said. "Its just not heavily urbanized like the southern part. There are plenty of little towns there."
"Where was your commune?" Lois asked. "In one of the towns?"
"Well, no, not exactly. We were a few miles east of Crescent City, not far from the Oregon border. It was kind of a semi-permanent camp, in the woods. I just got out of the habit of locking anything."
"Well, you need to get back into the habit," Lois said. "Even if those holdup guys are in jail, there are still burglars around, you know, and I don't want to make it easy for them."
"I'll try to remember," Lucy promised. She turned toward the kitchen. "I think I'll get some hot milk before I go to bed. Maybe it'll help me sleep."
Morning dawned cold and clear in Metropolis, with a good eight inches of snow coating the ground.
As he had done the morning and night before, Superman took time to check on the two boys in the abandoned building a few blocks from his apartment. Both Jack and Denny seemed to be all right; they were dressed in heavy garments and covered with a mountain of blankets, and monitoring their vital signs, he could tell that they were apparently warm enough in their ramshackle shelter. Crumpled fast food wrappers stuffed in a paper sack residing in one corner told him that they had at least been eating regularly, if perhaps not as nutritiously as one might wish.
He still hadn't decided what to do about them. If he reported them to CPS, they would undoubtedly be taken back to whatever situation they had tried so determinedly to escape, and would probably escape again as soon as circumstances permitted. In that case, they might be worse off, because he wouldn't know, and wouldn't be able to keep an eye on them. Still, the situation could not be allowed to remain as it was. Maybe Lois would have some ideas, or maybe his mom and dad could come up with something. He'd have to think about it. At least there didn't appear to be a tremendous amount of urgency as long as they seemed to be relatively safe.
He shook his head in exasperation as he made a quick return to his apartment to get ready for work. If he knew more about the boys' situation, he might be able to be of more help. But how was he going to get them to talk to him? Jack had made it clear that he didn't trust Clark Kent — or anybody else. If he even let on that he knew where they were living — in either of his guises — they would undoubtedly change their location, and the next one might not be either as comfortable or as relatively safe as this one seemed to be.
Back in his apartment, he readied himself for work, downed a cup of coffee and a fried egg, and quickly cleaned up the minimal debris of his breakfast, still mulling over the problem. He was no closer to a solution when Lois knocked on the door.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi." He resisted the temptation to give her a kiss on the cheek, reminding himself sternly that they were supposed to be no more than partners, at least in public. "You're here early."
"I wanted to get started," Lois said. "We need to check out Joey McPherson's apartment house for future reference. I also have Jimmy trying to find us a good picture of him."
"Do you have the address of this place?" Clark asked, accompanying her back to the little rental car.
She nodded. "Got it from Henderson. The picture of him in the police files is at least two years old, and he was wearing a beard, so I want a more recent one of him." She fished in her purse and handed him a typical shot of a man in a police lineup.
He looked it over. "All I can see is hair."
"My feeling exactly. If he's shaved since, you could walk past him on the street and never know it."
"Don't they have some pictures from jail?"
"He never went to jail, except for a few days in the local lockup about two years ago. A lawyer showed up and got him out."
"Any information on who hired the lawyer?"
"An anonymous benefactor," Lois said. "Henderson says there are a lot of those around when it comes to any hint of connection to the local rackets."
"I'll bet," Clark said. He pushed his glasses down his nose and scanned the little car for listening devices, as he had been doing to both it and her apartment since the one had turned up in her living room. Satisfied that it was clean, he opened the driver's door for her and she got in. By the time he climbed into the passenger seat and slammed the door, she had the engine running. "Does Bobby Bigmouth have any information on who runs these rackets? Somebody must know something about it."
Lois checked over her shoulder and pulled out onto the street. "As a matter of fact, he does," she said. "A little, anyway. It's more than a rumor, but nobody says it out loud. Bobby called me this morning and made me promise not to tell anybody I didn't completely trust, or it could get both him and me killed. I owe him a meal at the Peking Palace in the near future — and you need to bring him another one of those deli things you gave him yesterday. I had to really pull out all the stops to get him to talk. He was pretty scared, but he trusts me."
"Okay," Clark said. "What was this high-priced information?"
Lois turned onto the street that led to their place of work. "Just about every criminal element in Metropolis pays protection money to a shadowy figure they call 'The Boss'. Most of them don't know who he is, and the ones who do are too afraid to talk. Bobby didn't exactly say who he thinks it is, but I don't think he'd have given me the information if he didn't think there was a connection to the diary. With that, and what we've figured out since the Barbara Trevino thing, I'm thinking that there's a good chance this 'Boss' is Lex Luthor."
Clark whistled softly. "I'd say you're probably right. So, the 'brag book' that Bobby talked about could be even hotter than we thought."
Lois nodded. "If he *is* the Boss, it might have information about more than just his corporate crimes," she said. "If we can get hold of it, it might send him up for a very long time."
"The trick is to find out who has it," Clark said. "If Moran really gave it to Joey, and it was stolen along with the protection money the other night, he might be the only one who can give us a real description of the person who took it. And my bet is that he's not going to want to talk to us."
"Of course, he's hunting for the thief, too," Lois pointed out. "Maybe we should watch him for awhile. He might have some ideas where to look. Luthor evidently thinks he might have the contacts to track this guy down. Bobby's right, though. I'd say his life expectancy isn't promising."
"He knows that, if he isn't completely stupid. Maybe if we promised to get him out of town safely and not leave a trail, we could coax some information out of him," Clark mused.
"How are you going to do that?" Lois asked.
"Superman doesn't leave a trail," Clark pointed out. "McPherson's a petty criminal, sure, but he's practically harmless compared to the person we're after."
"That goes without saying." Lois pulled into the entrance to the Planet's basement parking lot. "Anyhow, let's see what Jimmy has for us, and then we can decide what to do next."
"I had to do some digging," Jimmy said. "The photo on the guy's driver's license had a beard the size of Texas, and so did the one from the line-up he was in a couple of years ago."
"I know about that one," Lois said. "The guy looks like the Abominable Snowman."
"Except the beard is brown," Jimmy said. "Anyway, I dug up a passport photo he had taken a year ago, last August. He went to Brazil for about a month in November of last year."
"Brazil?" Lois said. "Why would a guy like him be doing any international travel?"
Jimmy shrugged. "I have no idea. Anyway, he shaved for the picture. You can tell by looking at it. The upper part of his face is tanned, and the lower half is pale. So, anyway, this is it." He handed Lois the printout of a balding man who smiled at the camera in a way that looked to Clark as if he wasn't used to the expression.
"Is that a smile, or is he grimacing in pain?" Cat had come up behind them while Jimmy was exhibiting the picture.
"Maybe both." Lois glanced at her. "Need something?"
"No. You've got a message on your desk. Lex Luthor called just before you got here, wanting to talk to you." The gossip columnist raised a plucked and penciled eyebrow. "And I used to think he had good taste. Oh well, live and learn." She sashayed away, leaving Lois to glare after her.
The message was a simple one. It was a number to call him back, and a request that she do so.
"Do you think I should?" she asked.
Clark gave a reluctant nod. "I hate to say it, but yes, I do."
She shrugged. "So do I," she said, with a small grin. "Okay, here goes."
Clark picked up the picture of Joey McPherson, memorizing the features. He wanted to be certain that he would recognize the man when he saw him. In the background, Lois was speaking, and he couldn't help deliberately listening. His hackles rose at the sound of the billionaire's voice on the phone. He had instinctively disliked the man at first sight; now the mere sound of Lex Luthor's voice, knowing at least some of what he was capable, made Clark's skin crawl.
"Why, I don't know what to say," Lois said. "The opera?"
Clark deliberately turned his attention elsewhere.
Ralph was watching him and the man shook his head knowingly. "Too bad, Kent. I'll bet she'd be real hot in bed, too — if you could ever crack the ice maiden image. Too bad you'll never —"
Clark raised an eyebrow at his co-worker. "Y'know, Ralph, you shouldn't confuse that stuff you write with your coworkers' lives."
"Huh?" Ralph said.
"You know, there are relationships between men and women that don't involve casual sex, as unlikely as that might seem," Cat said acidly, brushing past the man. She paused. "Oh, wait. I forgot who I'm talking to. Mr. 'Safe-Sex- means-a-padded-headboard'." She continued on her way and disappeared into the storeroom. Ralph stared after her as if he couldn't believe his ears. In the background, Eduardo snickered.
Lois put down the phone, picked up a pencil and jotted down a note on her desk calendar.
Perry opened his door and stepped out into the newsroom. "Okay, staff meeting in the conference room in five minutes."
"Chief, Clark and I have to meet a source," Lois said. "Can we talk to you about our progress later?"
Perry threw up his hands. "Why not? It's not as if we've got anything new on Superman, anyway. And why haven't you managed to get me a more in-depth interview, Lois? I thought you had an inside track with him."
"Not an inside track, Chief," Lois said. "He just thought I was the best person to introduce him. I'll see what I can do as soon as I get the chance, but …"
Clark had been aware of the sounds of sirens growing nearer for some seconds. Somewhere below an emergency vehicle tore past the Daily Planet, its warning siren blasting loud enough to make him wince. Perry dodged back through the door of his office like a Jack-in-the-box in reverse. Everyone else rushed toward the windows to look out, except Clark and Lois. They had started toward the exit door when Perry re-emerged. "There's a bomb in the lobby of the Carlin Building at Third and Ordway."
"I'm on it, Chief," Lois said, instantly. "Clark, you meet the source. I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Take a photographer with you," Perry said, as Clark headed for the stairs with Lois on his heels.
Lois didn't hesitate. "Come on, Jimmy, let's move."
The last thing Clark thought before he ducked through the door into the stairwell and changed into Superman, was that this masquerade would be much harder without Lois to back him up. Then he was on the roof of the Daily Planet and headed toward the scene of the crisis.
Fortunately for Lois and Jimmy, the Carlin building was only a few blocks from the Daily Planet. They had taken a taxi in the interests of not having to find a place to park, and as the cab pulled to a stop, Lois flung the fare and the tip at the driver. "Keep the change. Come on, Jimmy!"
A line of uniformed police held off the crowd of spectators who were gawking at the scene, pressing recklessly close to the building. Members of the Metropolis Bomb Squad stood in a group to one side, obviously waiting for something.
William Henderson was standing not far from the entrance, and as Lois hurried toward him, she caught the words of Linda Montoya, the television announcer who was standing as close to the scene as the line of police would allow and speaking excitedly into the microphones and cameras in the hands of her news crew.
"… Report of a bomb planted in the lobby of the Carlin Building has now been confirmed. Currently the Bomb Squad is awaiting the arrival of what they term a 'containment blister' as well as a team of deactivation specialists …"
A sudden roar of excitement from the spectators made her look around to see Superman coming in for a landing. He strode toward Bill Henderson, hesitating when the newswoman intercepted him. With a shake of his head, he continued on in the direction of the Police Inspector.
"Jimmy, get some shots of this," Lois commanded. "Don't get too close," she added, starting to run toward the place where the two were now speaking. As she did so, Superman nodded briefly, turned away from the officer and headed purposefully into the Carlin Building.
Lois sprinted toward Henderson, who was watching the Man of Steel as he disappeared through the main doors.
"Henderson!" she called. "What's going on? What's happened?"
A tremendous explosion drowned out the last word. The front of the Carlin Building burst violently outward and Lois found herself pushed to the sidewalk by a pair of male arms. A muscular body pinned her painfully to the ground. Henderson's voice said in her ear, "Get *down*!" Bits of debris rained on her back.
The reverberations of the explosion hadn't died away when he let her go. "Are you all right?" he demanded. "Dammit, Lois! That was a stupid stunt! You could have been hurt!"
"Aw, Bill, I didn't know you cared," she said, trying to brush off the sudden knot of shock in her gut. "What's going on? What happened?"
"That's what we're trying to find out." He grasped her wrist and pulled her unceremoniously to her feet. "Let's hope your friend Superman is as invulnerable as you said he was in your article."
At that moment, Charlie stepped from the shattered building, brushing soot from his face. The cape of his uniform was slightly tattered, but other than that, he was unhurt.
"The explosion was radio-controlled," Henderson was saying some time later, "activated from an unknown point of origin within a two-mile radius of this site. Also, there were videocameras installed in the lobby that were not part of the building's security system, or any other system that the management company knew about. We think the two are connected."
Lois stared at him, appalled. "You're saying that someone waited for Superman to appear, watched him enter the building, and then detonated the explosives?"
The Inspector nodded. "That's our theory."
"So, somebody tried to kill Superman," Lois said. "Who would do a thing like that?"
Henderson raised an eyebrow as if the answer to that was obvious. She frowned suddenly as the memory of certain events the day before came into her mind. "I wonder …" She broke off quickly. "Thanks for the quote. If we have any more questions, I'll call your office."
"You do that, Lane." He turned as an officer trotted up. "Yes?"
Lois walked away from the site of the explosion, frowning at the notebook in her hands. First those strange suicide attempts, yesterday, and now this situation today. What was going on? Outside of the obvious, that somebody wanted Superman dead, it seemed as if that somebody wanted to see for himself exactly what the hero was capable of. Was it possible that that somebody could be Lex Luthor? He would certainly have the incentive.
Jimmy came trotting up, waving his camera. "I've got plenty of shots, Lois. Some of them ought to turn out pretty good."
"Good," she said, absently. Something was tugging persistently at her mind but she couldn't quite put a finger on it. "Jimmy, you know the investigation Clark and I are doing. I wonder if you could do a little research for me."
"Is that really a question?" Jimmy asked.
"No, not really. Henderson said the bomb was radio-controlled, and the transmitter was somewhere within two miles. How close is LexTower to the Carlin Building?"
"That's easy. It's about a mile and a half. Do you think …"
Suddenly it clicked. "Carlin!"
"Josef Carlin! Find out about the ownership of the Carlin Building for me, Jimmy. Josef Carlin owns 51 percent of the shares to Carlin Investments. You- know-who owns the other 49. There may be a connection."
"You don't think *he* tried to …"
"Maybe. Or maybe there was another motive behind it." She put two fingers in her mouth and produced a shrill whistle. A taxi made a U-turn in the middle of the street and screeched to a stop beside them. They climbed in. Lois leaned forward. "Daily Planet. And step on it."
Clark was waiting when they climbed out of the taxi in front of the Planet.
"How did it go?" he asked. "I heard the news report about the explosion."
"We think somebody deliberately set Superman up," Jimmy said.
"Oh?" Clark said. He glanced at Lois.
"Yeah," she said. "The police found videocameras in the lobby of the Carlin Building, and Henderson says the explosion was triggered by a radio signal. Clark, somebody deliberately waited until Superman went into the building after the bomb and then blew it up." She grabbed his elbow and steered him toward the Planet's front doors. "Come on, I don't want to talk about this in public."
Clark didn't say anything, but he was frowning. Once they were in the elevator, he said, "So, somebody tried to kill Superman? I guess whoever it was didn't believe the stuff in your article."
"Or, maybe —" She glanced at Jimmy. "Jimmy," she added, "this is part of our investigation into 'You-know-who', okay? No talking about it."
"Not a word," Jimmy said. "I like living too much to say anything about him."
"Remember that," Lois said. "Clark, I'm wondering about those two so-called 'suicide attempts', yesterday."
"What about them?"
"Well, this is just speculation, but what if somebody is trying to find out for himself exactly what Superman is capable of? You know, sort of setting up tests, or something?"
"So, today's bomb might have been a test?"
"It's a possibility," she said. "Hopefully, they'll get back to us today with the information about the jumpers. That might tell us more."
"In the meantime, I'd like to know who the two of them work for," Clark said.
Jimmy sighed. "Say no more. I'll find out for you right after I track down who owns the Carlin Building."
Clark laughed. "Sorry, Jim," he said. "I know it's a lot to ask, but we really need the information. By the way, how are you doing with that other stuff?"
"The acquisitions? Let's say some of it is making pretty interesting reading. I've never seen such a string of bad luck result in so much good luck for one company."
"That kind of 'interesting', huh," Lois said. "I wish I could say I'm surprised, but at this point all I am is frustrated. How anybody can pull the number of dirty tricks this guy has and not leave any traces …"
"There are traces," Clark said. "We've found some of them; we just haven't got enough for proof — yet. But we will. Even that much money won't protect him forever."
"Well, I'm going to the opera with him Wednesday night, since he has some big business meeting in Paris on Thursday, and a something else in Japan on Friday," Lois said. "Maybe I can come up with some way to find out his cellular phone number — or at the very least keep my ears open," she added. "If he's interested in me, it's a potential weak spot in his armor. I plan to exploit it."
"Just be careful," Clark said. "If he has even the faintest suspicion that you aren't completely taken in by his act, he'll have his hired guns after you again in no time."
She patted his arm. "Don't worry, Clark. I'm not a newbie at this. I've dealt with killers before."
"I know," Clark said, quietly. "While I was traveling around the world, I used to read your articles and dream of being half the journalist that you were someday. But I think Lex Luthor is in a class by himself."
"So am I," Lois said.
"No argument there," Clark agreed. "But be careful anyway, all right?"
"If he thinks you might be onto him — or did," Jimmy amended, "why does he want to take you to the opera?"
"It's possible that he's trying to do the same thing that I am," Lois speculated. "There's an old saying: 'Keep your friends close and your enemies closer'. He may be trying to decide if he really has me fooled."
"That could be a real cat and mouse game," Jimmy said.
"You let me handle that," Lois said. "I've played plenty of cat and mouse with the bad guys before. I'll be the perfect date, and if I can manage to get a look at his cellular phone number, we'll be able to either rule it in or out as the number Baines and Trevino called. Trust me."
She saw Jimmy and Clark exchange a look and laughed. "You two have exactly the same expression that Perry gets every time I come up with a really good idea. Relax. I'll be fine."
The elevator came to a stop and the doors slid sluggishly open. The first thing that became evident to all of them was that Perry was in full rant mode, and the target of his commentary was Ralph.
"Evidence!" he roared. "This is a newspaper, not a gossip rag! That kind of reporting may make it in the 'Whisper', but not here! This paper has standards to uphold! Bring me evidence; you got it, Finkelstein?"
Clark winced. "Glad that's not me he's mad at," he murmured.
Lois grinned. "His bark is worse than his bite."
"For you, maybe," Jimmy said. "I better get these pictures developed before he gets on my case."
Lois waited until he was out of earshot before she spoke. "So, did you get a chance to check out Joey's place?"
"Yeah." Clark cast a wary eye at their editor as he descended on his next victim. "I x-rayed his apartment house while you were talking to Henderson. No sign of Joey; he's probably out on 'business' for his boss."
"Probably," Lois agreed. "We have to figure out some way to find him and get him to talk to us."
"I'm going to stake out his apartment tonight and follow him when he goes out," Clark said. "Maybe I can figure out something while I'm watching him. He must be starting to get a little scared by now. It's been two days, and at least so far, he hasn't found either the diary or the guy who stole it."
"If I were him, I'd be scared whether I found it or not," Lois said. "Maybe more scared when I found it. It would mean his usefulness to his boss is over, and the possible liability he represents is still there. I get the feeling that more people than Trevino and Baines may have taken the fall for our friend at one time or another."
"Probably." Clark bit his lip. "Remember though, where Joey's concerned, we may be able to exploit that. It's sure worth a try."
She nodded. "We'll just have to figure out the right time to spring it on him."
Clark's desk phone rang at that moment. He hurried down the steps to the Pit and picked it up on the third ring. "Kent." A pause. "Dr. Newman? Thanks for returning my call." He started to write as Lois arrived beside his desk. "Yes … uh huh … really? That's unusual, isn't it? I see. Okay, thanks very much; you've been a big help. No, that won't be necessary." He hung up, frowning.
"That was the guy who did the psychiatric evaluations on the jumpers?" Lois asked, unable to contain her impatience.
Clark nodded, still frowning.
"So?" she prompted him. "What have we got?"
"They've both been released," Clark said. "Jules Johnson was released immediately. They don't think he ever meant to jump. Monique Kahn, on the other hand, was hysterical. Turns out she's afraid of heights."
"She's afraid of heights, and she jumps off a thirty-story building?" Lois said.
"Yeah." He looked up at her. "Doesn't sound right, does it?"
"Not if she really meant to jump. Anything else?"
"No. Maybe she didn't really intend to jump, though," Clark said. "I'm beginning to think you may be right."
"Well," Lois said, "if you were in his position and somebody like Superman showed up …"
"Yeah," Clark said. "It makes sense all right. Superman is an unknown quantity. He wants to know what he's dealing with."
"I'd say so," Lois said.
"Lois!" Perry demanded. "Where's the stuff on that bomb in the Carlin building? We've got a deadline in half an hour!"
"I'll have it for you in a few minutes," Lois said. She sat down at her desk and fished the notebook out of her jacket pocket. "Let me take care of this, and then we can talk about that stakeout tonight, okay?"
"Sure …" Clark raised his head in what was becoming a very familiar gesture. Lois didn't even pause.
"Clark, you'd better go meet that guy while I'm doing this. Take good notes."
"I will." Clark was already on his way toward the exit.
As Clark shot through the chilly air toward the call for help that he had heard, he pushed himself to the limit. The scream had again been that of Lucy Lane.
The snowy expanse of Centennial Park was the scene of a mugging, he saw as he approached. One bearded figure held Lucy with an arm crooked around her neck and a knife to her throat. Another had backed Brian against one of the big evergreen trees with which the park was so generously supplied and was waving another knife inches from his eyes. As Clark spotted the scenario, Brian lunged for his attacker, grasping the wrist of the man's knife hand, and the two of them staggered sideways into a clump of thorny, leafless shrubbery. Lucy screamed again, as her captor released her to lunge at the two struggling figures. She jumped after him and landed squarely on his back, so unexpectedly that her assailant lost his balance and fell face-first onto the graveled path with a grunt of pain.
As brave as Brian and Lucy were, the two muggers were armed. Clark plunged into the fray and instants later both men were disarmed and tied with their own belts.
Brian got to his feet and gave Lucy a hand up. He turned to Clark.
"Thank you, Superman," he said. He took a deep breath, trying visibly to regain his composure. "This makes three times in two days that you've rescued us, and I don't think I've thanked you, before."
"It's not necessary," Clark said. "If you have a cellular phone, you might want to call the police."
Brian nodded and produced a phone from his coat pocket. Clark turned to Lucy. "Are you all right, Ms. Lane?"
Her eyes widened. "You know my name?"
He nodded. "I heard you identify yourself to one of the officers at the restaurant, last night. Is there any reason that you can think of for someone to be targeting you? Three incidents of random violence in two days is kind of straining the laws of probability."
Lucy shook her head. "No, unless they might be trying to scare my sister. My sister is Lois Lane. You probably know her."
He nodded. "Yes, I met Ms. Lane several days ago."
"But she said the guy who was trying to kill her is in jail, so I don't think it could be —"
"And no one has tried to threaten either of you since you've been in Metropolis?"
Lucy shook her head. "No. I really think it must just be coincidence. They do happen, you know."
Clark wasn't convinced, but it seemed unlikely that she would be able to give him any further information. A moment later, a police car drew up to the side of the street some distance away, and two police officers emerged. While they waited for the officers to arrive, Clark looked the two muggers over. Could it really be merely a coincidence? All his instincts said it wasn't. He and Lois were going to have to take a closer look at the seemingly random attacks on Lucy Lane.
"Their names are Rufus Newman and Aloysius Dane, no kidding," Clark said, resting his hip on the corner of Lois's desk. "Both unemployed, address of record is one of the condemned buildings in Suicide Slum."
"Basically, they're homeless," Lois said. "Very convenient."
"I thought so," Clark said. "I made some inquiries over at the precinct before I came back. According to Henderson, the men who held up the bistro yesterday have a history of petty crime and the occasional mugging. The guy who took the Administration building at New Troy State hostage is a perennial student. He doesn't have a job, and has been taking undergrad courses for seven years with a student loan and still hasn't quite finished his GE requirements. Not to mention, he's been arrested twice in a couple of Metropolis's illegal gambling parlors."
"Another loser," Lois said, unfeelingly.
"He's also had a high-priced lawyer show up today, to take his case pro bono," Clark added.
"Since when do lawyers offer their services for free?" Lois asked.
"Well, it's happened occasionally," Clark said. "Usually those are fairly high- profile cases, though, where the lawyer is looking for publicity."
"Which isn't this case," Lois said. "He isn't famous, and a guy whining about his grades isn't going to capture the public's interest for very long."
Clark shook his head. "Not exactly."
"Why is this pattern sounding familiar?" Lois said.
"It does have a familiar feel," Clark said. "I take it we're agreed that there might be more to this than we thought at first."
"I think we should at least check it out," Lois said. "I can't quite see anyone going after Lucy for any reason, to tell you the truth. She just doesn't get involved in criminal stuff. She never even served a detention in high school."
"So, if she hasn't got any idea what might be behind it, where do we go from here?"
"We'll just have to go at it from another direction," Lois said. "Who is this lawyer, anyway?"
"A guy named Gerald Wilson," Clark said. "He's an Associate with the Law Offices of Sheldon Bender. I looked him up."
Lois turned her head. "Jimmy!"
"Just a minute," Jimmy said. He did something to his computer keyboard and the printer started to hum. "There."
A sheet of paper began to emerge from the printer and a moment later, a second. He picked them up and crossed to her desk. "Here's your stuff on the two jumpers." He lowered his voice. "Also, the Carlin Building is owned by LexCorp. At this point, I can't say I'm surprised."
Lois accepted the papers. "Jimmy, find out as much as you can for us on the Law Offices of Sheldon Bender. See if you can find out who some of their clients are."
Jimmy looked surprised. "It's interesting that you should mention them," he said, keeping his voice down. "Bender's law firm works for LexCorp. Their name is all over the stuff I'm researching."
"What are you three whispering about?" Ralph inquired. He craned his neck, trying to look over Clark's shoulder at the papers in Lois's hand.
She folded them over. "Background on the Superman story," she said. "None of your business, Ralph. There's no sex scandals involved."
Clark raised an eyebrow at her, but she didn't react. Ralph looked curiously at the now-folded papers. Lois glared at him. "You're lucky I don't hit you with a harassment suit, Ralph. I heard what you said about me. And my relationship with Lex Luthor is none of your business, either."
Ralph seemed taken aback. "Aw, Lane … I didn't mean …"
"I don't care what you meant," Lois said. "If I hear you make another remark like that about me, expect Perry to hear about it, too. And I'm still not going to show you my information about Superman. Go away."
Ralph stared at her, open-mouthed and then moved reluctantly toward his desk with a last, curious glance at the now-folded papers.
"'Superman'?" Clark asked, after Ralph was out of earshot.
"Well, I sure wasn't going to tell him what it really was," she said, keeping her voice as low as Jimmy had. "It just occurred to me, Clark, maybe somebody doesn't have a spy on us, per se, but might be talking to some of our more loose-lipped colleagues."
"Like Ralph," Clark agreed. "Jim, if I were you, I'd transfer any information you have on this subject to a floppy and get it off your computer. Immediately. And hide the floppy."
Jimmy nodded. "Actually, that's what I've been doing," he said. "If somebody hacks into my files, I want to be alive afterwards."
"Smart boy," Lois said. "I know the security measures seem a bit extreme, but with this guy, I don't think any security can be too much."
"Neither do I," Jimmy said. "I've been sleeping with a bunch of pots and pans rigged over my apartment door ever since you started the investigation — just in case." He carefully didn't look at Ralph, who was still casting curious lances at them. "Anyway, was there anything else that you wanted me for?"
"No, I think that's …" Lois began, when Clark interrupted.
"Maybe," he said. "Jimmy, Lois and I have kind of a puzzle we're trying to solve. Maybe you can give us a different perspective on it."
Jimmy shrugged. "Shoot."
"As you may know, Lois's sister, Lucy, is in town and yesterday morning …"
"So," Jimmy said, "she and this Brian guy met at the hostage thing, and then there was a hold-up at the restaurant where they went on their date, and then a little while ago they got mugged in the park?"
"That's about it," Lois said. "It just seems a little too coincidental, that's all."
"Yeah, it kind of does," Jimmy agreed, scratching his head. "You got any identification on the guys who held them up? Maybe I could do some research online and see if there's anything on them."
"A little," Clark said. "Names and kind-of addresses. There's more on the hostage-taker."
Jimmy snorted. "I saw a blurb on him last night on the news. I used to know a guy like him."
"Oh?" Clark asked.
"Yeah. We had a neighbor whose kid was going to college when I was about eight or nine. The last time I went home to visit my mom, his sister told me he's still there, full-time — still working on his bachelor's degree, she says."
"You're nineteen, aren't you?" Lois asked.
Jimmy nodded. "I guess it's easier for some people to stay in school forever, than to get a real job. I'm not talking about the ones who get two or three degrees or anything," he added hastily. "That's different. It just seems that there are some guys who want to mess around in school taking stuff like Advanced Basket Weaving, and be big man on campus 'cause they're too scared they can't hack it in the real world. Anyway, if you'll give me the names, I'll see what I can dig up for you and if I think of anything in the meantime, I'll let you know."
Clark scribbled the names onto the back of an envelope. "Just to save you time," he said, "our student friend is the one with the free lawyer from Bender's law firm, so there's at least some kind of connection to the other subject. I suppose it could be a coincidence." Lois raised an eyebrow at him and he couldn't restrain a slight grin. "Okay, I realize that coincidences involving You-know-who seem a little unlikely."
"That's putting it mildly," Lois said. "If there's a connection between this and my sister, I want to know what it is."
"Don't blame you a bit," Clark said. "If he's after your sister, it could mean he still suspects you and is looking for leverage. At least nobody's been hurt, so far."
"I'll be glad to get my Jeep back," Lois said, as they left the Daily Planet an hour later. It was just past noon, and the lunch hour crush was thinning out. Lois had chosen to take a late lunch break so that she could use part of the time to pick up her car and turn in the tiny subcompact that had been her main form of transportation for over a week, not counting that provided by her private pilot.
"So will I," Clark agreed. "No offense, but the rental makes me nervous. It's so … crowded."
"I think you're claustrophobic," Lois said. "A little, anyway. It would make sense, you know. If you came all the way from your planet in that tiny little space ship, I can see how it might have happened."
"I suppose," Clark said. "I don't think it's very serious, but if I can avoid closed-in spaces from now on, I won't mind."
"Doesn't the elevator at the Planet bother you?" she asked, as they got into the subcompact.
He shook his head. "No. I guess it's not small enough — or I'm not in it long enough, or something."
"Probably," Lois agreed. "It doesn't scrunch you up like the car does."
The trip to the repair shop took only a few minutes in the thinning traffic, and she didn't fail to notice the sigh of relief from Clark as he stepped from the little vehicle for the last time. Yes, her almost-fiance was definitely uncomfortable in tight spaces, she thought. Not that she thought any less of him because of it. In an odd way, it was just another of the qualities that made him human, in spite of his extra-terrestrial origins and amazing abilities. Charlie might be an alien, but he was more human than a lot of the ordinary men that she knew.
"You're looking at me that way again," he remarked, as they strolled across the parking lot toward the office.
"Like I've grown another head."
"Oh. I was just thinking how incredibly lucky I was to meet you — and not because of what you can do," she said. "Are you sure you're really for real?"
He looked down at his shoes, and for an instant she wondered if he was actually blushing. "I'm nothing special, Lois. Not really."
"No? You mean, outside of being smart and sweet and understanding, not to mention charming and fun to be with —" Now he really was blushing, she saw, with an inward grin. "And," she added, bravely, "mine. Nope, nothing special at all."
His eyes flicked toward her and he grinned, still looking a little pink-cheeked, but he said nothing. A moment later, he pushed open the door to the repair shop for her, and they joined the line of four other patrons in front of the cashier's counter.
Lois tapped her fingers on her arm, waiting while the customers ahead of her argued interminably with the cashier over insignificant issues. What could possibly be so important to take up so much time? She glanced at her watch and tapped her foot on the thin carpet. At this rate, she and Charlie weren't going to have any time to grab lunch before they had to be back in the newsroom.
Clark glanced down at her tapping toe and back at her, but said nothing. She could have sworn he was trying not to smile.
At long last, the woman in front of her wrote out a check and slapped the pen down on the counter. The clerk took his time with the paperwork, and eventually handed her the receipt. "I'll have the car brought around to the front for you, Mrs. Johnson." He turned to Lois. "May I help you?"
"I'm Lois Lane. My car was the one with the damaged windshield."
"Oh yes." The man looked at her closely. "The Jeep with the bullet holes." He reached into a drawer. "We'll need the fifty-dollar deductible. Other than that, everything's taken care of."
Lois grunted and took out her checkbook. At this point, she would have paid a good deal more, but she wasn't about to say that. "Your rental is right outside," she informed him.
The clerk accepted the check and the subcompact's car key. "Thank you, Ms. Lane. It's been a pleasure doing business with you. I'll have your car brought around." He typed something into the computer and turned to the man standing behind Clark. "May I help you?"
"I guess we'd better wait out front," Clark said.
Lois wouldn't have believed a week ago that she could have an emotional reaction after not seeing the Cherokee for more than a week, but she almost ran toward it as it came into view around the corner of the building. She heard Clark laugh and glanced back at him. "It's not funny! I love my Jeep!"
"I love it too, after a week with the loaner," he said, "but I don't think you should run out in front of it like that."
He had a point. She waited impatiently while the shop employee brought it to a stop and hopped out, leaving the engine running. Lois started around the Jeep when her partner's hand closed on her wrist. She glanced at him, slightly annoyed. "What?"
He tapped the frame of his glasses with his free hand and drew her back a few feet. Lois glanced at the Jeep and then back at him. Something was definitely up. "What?" she asked again, more softly.
"I just checked to be safe; I figured that if your car was in the shop for repairs, it would be a perfect opportunity to plant a listening device. There's a bug in it, all right. It's been installed just under your dashboard."
"What?!" she whispered, keeping her voice down with an effort.
"Shh! You heard me. I'd say it's been installed professionally and recently. It sounds like someone here may have done a small job for our … friend."
Lois gaped at him for a long second, taking in what he'd said, and beginning to do a slow boil. Her Jeep had been bugged, probably on the orders of Lex Luthor. She'd almost let herself believe that he had been completely convinced that she had no suspicions about him. Obviously, she had been wrong, and if it hadn't been for her partner's extraordinary abilities, she might have given herself away. Well, two could play at the innocence game.
"Come on," she said, softly, underlining her annoyance with a toothy grin. "If we wait too long, someone might get suspicious. We're going to have a conversation in there that's bland enough to make vanilla pudding interesting!"
He cocked an eyebrow at her, but obediently climbed into the passenger seat.
Lois scrambled into the driver's seat and revved the engine. "What a relief to get out of that breadbox they called a loaner. I've missed my car!"
"Don't blame you," Clark agreed, blandly. He glanced at his watch. "We've got the Mayor's press conference in forty minutes. Do you want to catch a quick lunch at the Burger Hutch, or would you prefer to eat in the car?"
"Nobody's eating anything in my car, Kent! I just got it back!"
"Okay, okay! Sheesh! Don't make a Federal case out of it!"
Lois cast him a sideways look with one eyebrow raised. He was grinning, too. She told herself sternly that this was serious. "On another, more job-oriented subject, did you manage to get a quote from Superman for your article?"
He raised both eyebrows, this time. "Yeah; about four words. He was in a hurry to go stop a mugging or something."
"Well, did you pass along my message? I still need to get a more in-depth interview for the Planet's Sunday feature. Perry was all over me about it this morning."
"I told him. He said he'd try to fit it into his schedule."
"Great," Lois said. "Perry isn't going to like it."
"Well, it's not like I could follow him," Clark grumbled. "The guy is *fast*. Not to mention, airborne. What was I supposed to do; borrow a nearby helicopter?"
"In this business, you're only as good as your next story, Kent. We're going to have to get more about him, before the Star or the Herald beats us to it."
"The National Whisper already has," Clark said. "Didn't you see the headlines last week? 'I'm Having the Alien's Baby'? 'Superman Roosts On My Skylight'? 'I Visited Superman's Spaceship'? Not to mention the alien colony he hopes to establish in the Gobi Desert."
"You missed the part where the babe that supposedly gave Leo Nunk the spaceship interview met Superman's parents, stayed for dinner and was subjected to bizarre sexual rituals involving hypnotic chants and intelligent alien lobsters, before they implanted the mind control device in her brain."
"I didn't miss it," Clark said. "The artist's depiction of the lobsters as Superman's relatives reminded me of something out of a Disney movie, though. Only, they were waiters in the movie, I guess."
"It sounds to me as if she might need a mind control device," Lois said, dryly, "assuming, of course, that she has one to control. The attendants at the rest home are probably hunting all over Metropolis for her." She broke off. "You mean actually *saw* that movie?"
"I took my cousins to see it when they visited, once," Clark explained. "Besides, the alien lobsters in the spaceship were a kind of fluorescent pink. With glowing red eyes."
"At least we're pretty sure Superman's not living in an electric blender with Ben Franklin," Lois said. "Did you know Leo Nunk once actually interviewed at the Planet? I'm not sure 'interviewed' is the word, though. He waltzed in without an appointment, walked into Perry's office and four minutes later Security arrived to throw him out. End of story." She pulled the Jeep to the side of the street, a short distance from Jeanie's Snack Shop. "This looks like a good place to grab some sandwiches. We'll just have time to eat and make it back to the office."
Neither said anything else until they were several yards from the Jeep. Then, Lois said in a low voice, "If that conversation doesn't convince him I've gone around the bend, nothing will. Now what do we do? Do I have to wreck my Jeep to find an excuse to get the bug out of it?"
"Leave it for a while," Clark advised. "We can take cabs most places, or fly. Sooner or later, we'll find a good excuse to get rid of it, but if we do it too soon, he'll smell a rat. Maybe we should come up with some subjects to bore his people with for a few days. This investigation won't last forever. I just don't want him to have any suspicions about you. Not after what happened when Winninger died."
"Yeah." She heaved a disgusted sigh. "Well, while we know we're not being listened to, I have an idea about that cell phone number. You know, the one where Jimmy is having trouble finding the person it belongs to," she clarified, when he looked blank.
"Oh, that," he said. "This doesn't involve anything too risky, does it?"
"No risk at all," she said. "You know whose phone we suspect has the number. Well, this might rule it in, anyway. While I'm at dinner with him tomorrow night, you're going to call the number. If he's carrying the phone and it rings, that will tell us it's his. You can pretend it's a wrong number, or something. If he's not carrying it, but it's in his penthouse, you can listen and see if it rings, or if a servant answers it. You can hear it, if it's in the building, can't you? That will at least give us some idea if it's associated with him."
Clark blinked, listening to her involved explanation, and she watched his face as he threaded tortuously through her logic. He nodded, slowly. "Not a bad idea. At the very least it's a shot. If it vibrates, of course, you won't know it, but I will. Of course, in that case, it won't prove anything, but I can call several times and see if his phone vibrates each time I call." He pushed open the door to Jeanie's and held it for her. "We should probably pick up that lunch you promised Bobby while we're here, along with our lunches. We can leave the Jeep at the Planet and take him the food, then drop by Joey's apartment again. We still have a stakeout tonight to talk about."
"Good idea." She walked up to the counter, beginning to read the list of the items available. "How about a Pastrami Special with coleslaw instead of chips, and a hot coffee, for me, and a Deli Club Special to go. What do you want, Ch … Clark?"
Denny waited while the scrawny kid with the zits behind the counter prepared the burgers and fries, added two capped containers of chocolate milkshakes and shoved the food into bags. He thrust a handful of ones at the cashier and waited for his change, shifting restlessly from one foot to the other and trying not to look at the thin, creepy guy standing beside the soda machine.
The same guy had been here the last two times that Denny had come in for food, and the way he watched while Denny was buying the burgers made the boy nervous. He reminded Denny of the pervert at the last place that CPS had placed him. The guy had constantly looked him over whenever he saw him and Denny had been afraid of him. It had been a creepy feeling to know that the guy was watching him like that, and he'd never been so glad in his life to see anybody as he had been when Jack had come to get him out. Whoever this weird guy was, he was much too interested in Denny for his liking. For all he knew, the guy could be some kind of informant for the CPS that he and Jack were trying to avoid. Or, he could be part of the reason Jack had been hiding out since Sunday night.
Neither possibility was exactly calming. The next time he went out for food, he was going to go to that sandwich place three streets south. He was getting tired of burgers and fries, anyway.
The cashier handed him several coins. "Enjoy your meal, sir," she said. Denny smiled mechanically and started for the door.
Tall, skinny guy moved quickly, obviously intending to intercept him this time. Denny scrambled through the lunchtime crowd, pushing past a mob of giggling teenage girls. He threw a quick glance at the skinny guy and the grim expression on his face. The man was going to get to the door first. Denny wiggled his way through the high school kids, muttering apologies when he accidentally trod on toes or bumped too heavily against bodies in the crowd. The man trying to beat Denny to the door was not so courteous, shoving his way rudely through the closely packed people, and in the end, it was the standard behavior of the lunchtime crowd of high school seniors that saved him.
Two muscular boys, both of whom looked to Denny like members of the football team, were horsing around, jostling other students, playfully throwing punches at each other, weaving and dodging, to the imminent peril of their fellows as they awaited their turn to order food. A punch went wide as the intended recipient ducked, causing the boy behind him to jerk sideways. His abrupt move brought him directly into the spot where the tall, skinny guy had just set his foot and the two bodies collided forcibly. Tall, skinny guy lost his footing and went down on the floor, amid a puddle of spilled ice and soda. Denny didn't wait to see any more. He ducked out the door and ran.
With a caution that living on the streets had drilled into him, Denny did not head directly back to his hideout. He dodged down the nearest alley, emerged onto a narrow back street and ran a second time. A short distance away, he ducked down a second alley. Protected from the direct sunlight by the tall buildings on both sides, the trickle of water that habitually ran the center of its cracked, concrete surface was still crusty from the below-freezing temperatures of the night before. Denny avoided the slippery patches and emerged onto another, slightly wider street, slowed to a casual walk and made his way to a narrow cross street. Halfway down it, he saw the ramshackle fence that enclosed the tiny area of a tenement's back yard and noted the fact that there seemed to be no observers. He squeezed through a space barely larger than himself, provided by the circumstance of a loose board, and pushed the splintery, wooden panel back into place. Concealed behind the row of battered and dented garbage cans provided for the convenience of the tenants, he waited, counting slowly to five thousand. After he was sure that no one had been able to track him, he would re-emerge from his hiding place and make his way via a circuitous path back to the abandoned building where his brother awaited him.
Things were getting too dangerous to stay where they were. They were going to have to change locations, and soon.
"That had to be the most uninformative press conference I've ever heard," Lois said crossly as they climbed back into the Jeep. "Not to mention boring, and that's saying something. I can just see the headline in the morning edition. 'Mayor Announces Dramatic Initiative for Repair of Aging Sewer System'. As if they haven't been promising the same thing every year since I joined the Planet — and probably before that, if I cared enough to look."
"They had to say something after that sewer blow-up in front of the courthouse," Clark said.
"Yeah. They'll fix the break and then conveniently forget about the rest — especially when some politician needs money to buy votes with."
"That's awfully cynical, Lois," Clark said.
"Just realistic, Clark. They've been starving city infrastructure for years in order to keep politicians in office. Something happens and they put another Band-Aid on it, but the fundamental problem never really gets fixed."
"Maybe after we've nailed down the Superman story we should do an expose on the subject," Clark said. "If we could bring it to the public's attention, it might actually do some good."
"Corruption in City Hall," Lois said, thoughtfully. "Not exactly in the same category as busting drug syndicates …"
"But almost as important," Clark said. "One of these days the breakdown will be a lot worse than a sewer explosion. What if they let the maintenance on the Hobs Bay Bridge slide and something collapses during rush hour? That could be bad. Besides, political corruption is always fun to expose, especially with an election year coming up."
"That's true. Perry always likes to make the stuffed shirts in City Hall squirm," she admitted. "He says you can't ever let the guys in charge get to feeling too secure. They get arrogant and start playing games with the public's money. Personally, I don't think they ever stop playing games with it. They're just more careful not to get caught when the press starts watching them too closely."
"You mean you don't think any of the politicians in office are honest?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Have you ever heard the definition of an honest politician, Clark?"
"Maybe not the one you're thinking of," he said. "What's your definition?"
"Well, it's not mine," she said, "but it fits. An honest politician is one who stays bought. I don't know where that particular saying came from, but it's probably pretty accurate. After all, don't most politicians start out as lawyers? That's two strikes against them right there!"
Clark shook his head, but he grinned. Right or wrong, Lois certainly made no effort to hide where she stood on an issue. It was one of the things he loved about her.
It was nearly four when they walked back into the newsroom, and Jimmy Olsen passed them, bearing a stack of printouts in his arms. "I found some of the stuff you wanted," he said. "I'll tell you about it as soon as I take care of this stuff. In the conference room. Ralph has been bugging me all afternoon about your 'Superman story'. Doesn't he have anything else to do?"
"I guess writing about sex scandals probably gets boring after a while," Lois said. "I'd think it would get pretty monotonous. Maybe he's trying to turn into a real reporter."
"In that case, let him get his own story," Jimmy said. "Be right back."
Lois glanced after him and then back at Clark. "It sounds like Ralph has been bugging more than just me," she remarked.
"I think Finkelstein bugs quite a few people," Clark said, his voice unusually expressionless.
Lois cast him a curious glance. "What aren't you telling me, Kent?"
"Believe me, Lois, you don't want to know. There's a lot of gossip about both of us floating around this office, most of which originated with him."
"Really." Lois carefully did not look at their colleague. "In other words, Ralph's imagination really works overtime."
"That's one way of putting it."
"Which means that if by some chance someone is getting information from him, they must be hearing some pretty strange stuff. Maybe we should take care of that the next time we're in the Jeep."
"Not a bad idea," Clark said, thoughtfully. "And, in case he managed to get something right, we can cast doubt on anything he said."
"I think I may enjoy that," Lois said, forcibly subduing a highly uncivilized impulse. "It's about time we gave Ralph a little of his own back. Come on, let's reserve the Conference Room before somebody else gets it."
Barely a minute after the door of the Conference Room closed behind them, it opened again and Jimmy entered, a folder clutched in one hand. He closed it once more and ostentatiously turned the lock.
"Ralph," he said, at Lois's questioning look. "Somehow, he's got a real bee in his bonnet about your Superman story. I think he's upset about the raking down that Perry gave him right after you left."
"What was it about?" Lois asked, curiously.
"I'm not exactly sure. I only caught a few words, but Perry was really yelling. Something about being sure of his sources. I think the guy that Ralph was quoting might have got himself arrested this afternoon for planting evidence or something. Perry deep-sixed the whole article."
"Ouch," Clark said. "That has to hurt."
"Ralph should work for the 'Whisper'," Jimmy said. "Then he wouldn't have to check his sources. Once in a while they actually even print something true, like the invisible guy you helped catch back in October."
"I'm inclined to think that was a mistake by their editorial staff," Lois said. "What have you got for us?"
He laid the folder on the conference room table and opened it, removing the top sheet of paper inside. "Here's the stuff on Pete Monroe, our college student friend," he said. "I thought I'd better check up on his gambling arrests, first. He was up to his ears in debt to a group called the Fanfare Loan Corporation."
"Never heard of them," Lois said.
"They're one of those companies that specialize in high-interest loans to people who can't qualify for one with any other company," Jimmy said, removing the second sheet from his folder. "The interest rates give 'extortion' a whole new meaning. Anyway, I did a little background on them. Their corporate headquarters is in Colombia."
"Why am I not surprised," Lois said. "I take it this is leading somewhere?"
Jimmy nodded. "It's a subsidiary of a second company called Typhoon Investments, based in Brazil."
"I'm starting to have deja vu here," Clark said.
"Me too," Lois said. "Go on."
Jimmy handed her the paper. "Curiously enough, Typhoon Investments is a subsidiary of Care International, which supposedly helps to distribute aid to third-world countries. It's not a non-profit organization, in spite of its name. It, in turn, is a subsidiary of LexCorp."
"Really," Lois said. "What a coincidence."
Jimmy nodded. "And, in another interesting coincidence, Pete Monroe's debt to Fanfare was paid in full yesterday by a gentleman named Gerald Wilson, representing him during his … incarceration."
"Bender's firm again," Clark said.
"And through them, Lex Luthor," Lois said, glancing quickly through the windows at the newsroom. Ralph was still watching them, looking resentful and sulky. Eduardo brushed past him and Ralph said something to him. Eduardo glanced casually in the direction of the conference room, raised his eyebrows in the effect of a shrug and went on his way.
Clark was frowning when she turned back.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
Clark glanced at Jimmy. "Finkelstein seems to think we're wasting our work time."
"How do you know that?" Jimmy asked.
"Clark reads lips." Lois glanced back at Ralph again, and blinked when her partner stepped past her to pull the blinds deliberately closed. "I wonder …"
"What?" Jimmy asked.
"I just wonder if part of Ralph's problem is that he's jealous."
"Oh, sure," Jimmy said. "He's always complaining that Perry gives you and CK all the headlines, and never gives him a chance. I tried to explain that murders and super-powered aliens usually beat out City Council sex scandals as front page news, but he just kept muttering about you two being teacher's pets."
"No wonder he keeps coming up with all those neat little insinuations," Lois said. "Well, at least now we know why he's obsessed with me and everything in pants that comes along." With a shrug, she dismissed her loose-lipped colleague. "Anyhow, what do you think our next step should be?"
Clark pushed his glasses into place with one finger. "Did you get anything on the other people on that list, Jim?" he asked.
"Petty muggers and homeless," Jimmy said. "The judge released both sets of guys on bail this afternoon."
"Naturally," Lois said. "Who supplied the bail?"
"An anonymous donor," Jimmy said.
"There seem to be a lot of those," Clark said. "Lois, if this was just a plot to intimidate you, I can't see anyone going to all this trouble, or this much expense. Besides, planting a bug in your Jeep seems to me to be an attempt to find out where you stand without arousing your suspicions. Something doesn't connect here."
Lois nodded, biting her lip. "You've got a point," she admitted, "but then why are all these things happening to Lucy?"
"What if it has nothing to do with Lucy?" Clark said. "What if there's a completely different reason?"
"And that is?" she challenged.
"Well, it suddenly occurred to me that Lucy wasn't the only common factor in all of the incidents. Brian was there, too."
"You mean, Luthor is after *Brian* for some reason? But he hasn't been hurt. If he had any idea that someone would be trying to hurt him, don't you think he'd be more careful?"
"Superman arrived before something happened," Clark said. "Besides, Brian might not have any idea of what's going on, any more than we really do. Jimmy …"
"Say no more," Jimmy said. He slid behind the Conference Room computer and began to type. "Let's see what we can find out from the Data Net, for starters …"
When Denny finished speaking, Jack remained silent for long enough that the younger boy began to grow more nervous than he had been at the beginning of the story.
"Look," he began, "I'm sorry if I blew it …"
Jack gave a quick shake of his head. "No, you did great, but they're getting close. Describe this guy again. Everything you can remember."
Denny thought back, trying to picture in his mind the man who had been watching him. "He was kind of tall, and sorta skinny," he told his brother. "Had his hair — what there was of it — cut short. I think his eyes mighta been blue, and he had a big, black mole next to his nose. Ugly sucker."
"Sounds like Joey," Jack said. "Luthor said he was supposed to use his contacts to find his diary and the money. Looks like he's smarter, or luckier, than I thought."
"Who's Luthor?" Denny wanted to know.
"Never mind." Jack looked a little cross, but Denny suspected that it was because he'd let slip something he hadn't intended to. "Don't even say that name out loud if you want to stay alive. You're right, we gotta get outta here."
"Where are we going?" Denny wanted to know.
"I'm not sure, yet." Jack paced, striding back and forth across the littered floor. "I'll think of something. Anyway, we can't go anywhere until after dark. We'd better get our stuff together so we can carry it, because once we leave we can't come back. It won't take them much longer to find this place."
"Who are 'they'?" Denny wanted to know. "CPS?"
Jack shook his head. "I don't think so. I think this is the guy I ripped off on Sunday night. The one who collects protection money for the rackets. CPS is nothin' in comparison."
"You mean for the Boss?" Denny asked. "*The* Boss?"
"Where did you hear about him?" Jack asked.
Denny didn't answer. Everybody who lived on the streets knew that you didn't mess around with the Boss's business if you wanted to live. "You took his money?"
"I figured I'd be out of there before he came back," Jack said. "Anyway, there's nothing we can do about that now. We gotta find some other place to hide out. In a few more days, we're gonna get us a bus out of town. I've been checking the bus schedules you got me. We're gonna take the subway to the 45th Street station. There's a bus station there, we can catch the local westbound bus to Monte Vista, on the west side of the city, and from there we'll get another one to Pierson's Junction. After that, we'll have to see."
Denny found himself nodding. "Okay, but where are we gonna hide out in the meantime?" he asked.
"I'm thinking," Jack said. "If we go down into the subway tunnels, we'll be out of the worst of the cold weather. It's kind of drafty, but we can wear two sets of clothes, and there's plenty of places where nobody'll be able to find us. We just gotta stay away from the subway cops. In another week, the crowds are gonna be real heavy with the last minute Christmas shoppers. It'll be harder for anyone to spot us."
"Okay." Denny gulped nervously. "What should we take with us?"
"Mostly our clothes, and the money. And the book. That's our insurance policy."
"What's in the book?" Denny asked. It had to be pretty important for Jack to want to take along somebody's diary.
"Nothin' you need to know about," Jack said. "It's safer for you not to know, believe me. But if something happens to me, remember, I told you to call that Kent guy. He's a reporter. Give him the book. He'll know what to do with it. Got it?"
Denny nodded, a cold knot beginning to form in his stomach. Jack wouldn't be talking like this if he weren't pretty scared, he knew. He was trying to get the two of them out of danger, but he wasn't sure he could do it.
"Maybe we oughta call Kent anyway," he suggested. "Maybe he could help us."
"No!" Jack said. "He'll report us to CPS. He pretty much has to. If I thought we'd be safe, I might even go for it, but we won't be. The Boss can get us whether we're in the system or not."
"Maybe if we give back the money, and the diary, they'll leave us alone," Denny said, hopefully. "I mean, if they have it back, they won't have any reason to hurt us, will they?"
Jack shook his head. "Doesn't work that way," he said, curtly. "For one thing, they'll want to teach anybody else that's thinking about stealing from them a lesson. Second, they ain't gonna take a chance that one of us hasn't read the diary."
Denny stared at him. It was *that* important? A terrifying thought occurred to him, and suddenly he was sure that he knew why Jack was so scared. "It's *his* diary, isn't it? The Boss," he said.
Jack didn't answer.
"It's *his*, isn't it?" Denny insisted. "And you know who he really is, don't you? Jack, you gotta tell me. Is it this 'Luthor' guy?"
His brother shrugged. "Yeah," he said. "That's why we can't let 'em catch us. He won't care if we're kids."
That was for sure, Denny knew. He'd heard stories about The Boss, and they were enough to give him nightmares. "Maybe we should get rid of it," he suggested.
Jack shook his head vigorously. "If he gets his hands on one of us, that might be the only thing that keeps us alive," he said. "You understand me, Denny?"
Denny nodded, reluctantly. Carefully, he checked his pocket. The card that Jack had given him was still there. What was the guy's name? Kent?
Carefully, he shoved the card more deeply into his pocket. It was beginning to seem a lot more likely that he was going to need it.
"There are fourteen Brian Chows listed," Jimmy said. "I limited my search parameters to men under twenty-five, with at least one older male sibling. Do any of these pictures look familiar?"
Lois waited as he flipped through the photographs produced by the search engine. None of the photos were of the man she had met.
"That's only thirteen," Clark said.
"Yeah. The last one —" Jimmy produced the profile lacking a picture. "— Is Brian W. Chow, the only brother of Albert Arthur Chow of Hong Kong. There wasn't any picture available."
"The second richest man in the world?" Lois said.
"Technically, the richest. The only person richer is Elena Pappas of Greece, and she's a woman."
Lois brushed aside the technicality. "Can you find a picture of Albert Chow?" she asked.
"Yeah, I think so." Jimmy worked for a minute and swiveled the monitor screen toward them. "Here you are."
Lois and Clark found themselves looking at a slightly older version of Brian Chow.
"Bingo," Clark said, softly. "Brian is Albert Chow's brother. That might explain a lot of things."
"I get it," Jimmy said, putting the information together at once. "Josef Carlin is the majority shareholder in Carlin Investments and according to all that research I did about it, Luthor has been trying to acquire a controlling interest in the company."
"Exactly," Clark said. "And, as all the information we've found so far has more or less shown, he isn't above some pretty dirty tricks when he can't acquire a company the legal way. He was probably behind the near crash of that 797 last week when Superman made his first appearance. Carlin was on that flight, and Luthor had legal papers drawn up to challenge Carlin's heirs and their inherited shares of the company."
"How do you know that?" Jimmy asked.
"I did some snooping the night of the Charity Ball, while Lois kept Luthor busy," Clark said. "Unfortunately, I couldn't get hold of the papers, but I saw them."
"And Carlin is in negotiations with Chow to sell him his shares of Carlin Investments," Jimmy said. "I sure as heck would in his place. If he doesn't get rid of his company shares, he'll probably end up dead."
"That's what we figured," Lois said. "It's possible that Luthor has hit on this way to put pressure on Albert Chow, instead. If he can keep Carlin from selling to anyone else, Luthor might be able to pressure Carlin into selling to him, cheap. By hook or by crook, he gets the company. He doesn't give up easily."
"No," Jimmy agreed. "That's pretty obvious."
"Jimmy," Clark said, "See if you can find out the current whereabouts of Carlin, and if possible, Chow. We need to warn him about the threat to his brother. And we need to find out where Lucy and Brian are right now."
"You got it, CK," Jimmy said.
"I'll try calling my apartment," Lois said. "She's probably not there, but it's a place to start." She snatched up the nearest phone and dialed for an outside line.
As she did so, she saw Clark lift his head. He gave her a quick glance, clearly torn between his wish to help find Lucy and the emergency that he was undoubtedly hearing.
"Clark," she said, instantly, "you head out and check over at the university. They may still be there." In the abstraction of the moment, she couldn't think of a better excuse, but it seemed to suffice. Clark nodded and left the office with barely restrained haste.
The sight of a collapsed overpass, precariously held up by the slowly crumpling roof of a school bus, was a horrifying sight. The nose of the bus was completely buried; it was a miracle that the driver hadn't been killed, but the man lay on the floor, one of his legs trapped by a huge piece of broken concrete that had smashed its way through the windshield. The man was bleeding heavily. If he were not rescued soon, he certainly would not survive. Emergency vehicles jammed the scene around the collapsed structure, where the rear of the bus protruded a few scant inches from the debris. Men milled around, trying desperately to wrench open the tightly jammed escape door in time to evacuate the terrified passengers. He could see clearly that their attempts were hampered by the fact that every time the bus shifted slightly with their efforts, the roof creaked and gave a little more.
Speeding toward the scene, Superman took in the sight with his telescopic and x- ray vision as he scanned the situation, looking for the best way to handle it with the least danger to the trapped children. It became evident that there was only one way that had a chance of working. Burrowing into the concrete would trigger the very collapse that the rescuers sought to avoid.
He came to a tight, fast landing behind the emergency workers.
"Everyone back away!" he ordered, in a voice calculated to inspire instant obedience. "Quick!"
Even the man in charge of the emergency team obeyed, although he would later wonder why on Earth he had done so. That commanding voice had seemed to override all possible protests. Superman moved so quickly that to outside observers he seemed no more than a blue and red blur, wrenching the door out of its frame with irresistible strength. The roof quivered and started to fold inward as the slight amount of support offered by the door was removed, but the Man of Steel was faster. In the blink of an eye, he was inside the bus, both of his hands supporting the crumpling metal, holding up the mountain of concrete and steel that was trying to flatten the school bus and its passengers.
"Everyone file out, now," he ordered the stunned children. "Hurry. One at a time."
The evacuation was more orderly than might have been expected. Two of the older boys moved into action, seizing the smaller children and forcibly swinging them down to the waiting hands of the emergency workers. Clark spoke to one of the rescue workers who was in the process of passing a small boy back to the paramedic behind him. "The driver's alive, but he's trapped and bleeding. I can't let go here, or the whole thing will collapse. Get a couple of men up there, and hurry."
The next few minutes were controlled confusion, but he had the satisfaction of seeing the driver pulled to safety, and assured himself that other than a slashed leg and a fractured tibia, the man was not seriously hurt. As the last of the rescuers left the bus, he released the roof, stepped quickly out, and watched as the solid metal of the school bus crumpled and folded under the weight of the overpass.
"Good work, Superman." The familiar voice made him turn his head. Inspector Henderson had arrived some time during the drama, and was now watching clinically as the bus was systematically turned into a fair approximation of a metal pancake. "I guess the citizens of Metropolis have one more thing to thank you for."
Superman scanned the tons of broken concrete and metal one last time and then spoke to the officer.
"Could I have a moment with you in private, Inspector?"
Henderson looked curiously at him, and then nodded. "Certainly, Superman."
He placed an arm around Henderson's waist and floated straight up until they hung a hundred feet in the air above the scene of the near disaster. Most men would have been startled. Henderson's expression seemed to tighten for an instant, but his voice, when he spoke, was characteristically deadpan. "When you say private, I guess you mean private."
"Sorry for the dramatics, sir," Superman said. "I wanted to be certain that no one could overhear."
One eyebrow crawled up. "And what would be so important that you need to be that careful, Superman?"
"When your investigators clear that mess away, they're going to find that the cause of that collapse was sabotage. There were videocameras installed down there, as well. Inside the overpass. In fact, there were several installed inside the bus, before it was crushed. The ones inside the overpass were installed in such a way that at least two of them were still functioning after the collapse. Someone was watching to see what happened, the same as at the bombing of the Carlin building this morning."
Henderson's face remained deadpan. "That so?"
"Inspector," Clark said, "Lane and Kent trust you, and that's good enough for me. I know that you have a good hunch about who would do something this callous — risk all those children's lives — simply to see what I would do. We're on the same side, here."
Henderson didn't reply at once. "How did you know?" he asked, finally.
"Let's just say, I have some abilities that aren't obvious. I've been watching the gentleman in question for some time and I wanted you to know what I'd seen here. Is there some way that I can get in contact with you in a hurry — just in case?"
Henderson's mouth twitched and he reached into his breast pocket, to produce a card. "Take this, Superman. The number is my personal cell phone number. If you need to call me, use it — but make damned sure it *is* an emergency."
"I will," Superman said. "Thank you." He began to descend. "And now, if you'll excuse me," he added, "I have a short confrontation to attend. It's high time for me to get personally acquainted with a certain multibillionaire. I want him to know that I know what he's up to."
Henderson frowned. "I don't want to tell you your business, Superman, but watch your step. This guy is dangerous."
"Thank you, Inspector," Clark said, seriously. "I know … and I will."
Lex Luthor was seated at the wide, mahogany desk in his office, the one that Clark had X-rayed on the night of the Christmas Charity Ball. Clark scanned the area quickly but thoroughly, once more verifying to his own satisfaction, that there were no monitoring devices to record what was about to happen. He wanted no outside observers to this meeting; just him and Lex Luthor. He drifted undramatically down to land on the balcony outside the French windows, his shadow, cast by the westering sun, falling across the billionaire and his desk.
The only sign that Luthor had noticed his presence was the sudden cessation of movement. His hand stopped moving across the paper in front of him, and he slowly lifted his head. After a moment, he swiveled his chair around and the two men looked directly into each other's eyes.
Silently, and with the grace of the predator that he was, he rose from his chair. "Superman, I presume. Come in. To what do I owe this pleasure?"
Clark opened the doors and stepped through, his gaze never leaving Luthor's. He crossed the room to remove an antique broadsword from its display case on the opposite wall.
"Alexander the Great," he said. "It was with this sword that he defeated Darius the Third and was proclaimed King of Asia."
Luthor's eyebrows rose. "You surprise me, Superman. I wouldn't have expected an alien to know Earth's history."
"You'd be surprised what I know about your planet," Clark said, still never removing his gaze from Luthor's. "I've also recently become aware of your interest in me."
"My interest … ?"
"You want to know how strong I am, Luthor?" Clark said. He gripped the sword blade with his bare hands, twisted it into the shape of a pretzel, and tossed it aside. "Do you want to know how fast?"
He reached into another wall case and withdrew an antique six-shooter. "How convenient. It's loaded." He leveled it at Luthor's chest, watching the other man's eyes widen, and pulled the trigger.
Before the echoes of the shot had faded, he had intercepted the bullet an inch from the billionaire's nose with his bare palm. "I don't think I need to further demonstrate my indestructibility." He thrust the still smoking bullet into Luthor's hand and watched with an impassive face as the other man flinched back and dropped it to the floor.
For long second, Luthor stared first at him and then at the twisted sword. With a deliberation that Clark could see was largely forced, he removed the handkerchief from his jacket pocket and carefully wiped at the smudged spot on his offended palm. "Does that conclude your demonstration?"
Clark raised an eyebrow. "If that's what you want to call it. The tests stop now."
"Really. But what if they don't?"
Clark looked him over. "Make it happen."
"But what if they don't, Superman?" Luthor smiled suavely. Clark heard the rapid beat of his heart, betraying anger, fear, or both, but he covered it well. "You can't be everywhere at once. As long as you stay in Metropolis, innocent people will die. Are you willing to accept that responsibility?"
Clark was silent for what was, to him, time enough to think through the entire argument, but was in actuality less than a second. "If I hadn't been here, innocent people aboard that jet would have died last week. Because of you." He stared straight at the other man. "I know you, Luthor — far better than you know me, it seems. I know who you are and what you are. Whether I'm here or not, you will kill the people whom it benefits you to kill and commit the crimes that it benefits you to commit, so I choose to stay. Be careful, Luthor. Be very careful, because I'll be watching you. You know from personal experience what a difference may exist between a public image and the truth. If you push me too far, you have no idea exactly what I am capable of or what I may do." He tossed the six-shooter carelessly to the mahogany desk, indifferent to the scratches that it left on the varnished surface, and departed in a gust of air, making no attempt whatsoever to prevent the small hurricane that he left behind from scattering the papers on the desk widely about the room.
Moments later, Clark Kent walked briskly back into the newsroom of the Daily Planet. Let Lex Luthor chew on that for a while, he thought. He, after all, had no way of knowing how much of what Superman had said was a bluff, or what his real intentions were. Jason Trask had ascribed his own morals to Superman, as it was natural for most persons to do. It was certainly possible that Lex Luthor would do the same and it might stop the tests long enough to give Lane and Kent the breathing space that they needed. At the very least, it might make him nervous, and if he became nervous, maybe — just maybe — he would make mistakes.
There was another possibility, however, he reflected. Luthor was arrogant. The gauntlet thrown down by Superman might prove too much for him to resist. He almost certainly wouldn't suspect what Lane and Kent had figured out, and the temptation to prove Superman powerless to stop him might drive him to be just a little careless. Either way, they had to be ready to take advantage of any opening he gave them. Lois and he had been on the defensive with Lex Luthor for too long. It was time they took the initiative.
Lois was sitting at her desk and as he came down the steps she set the phone's receiver down in its cradle with a force just short of a slam. "I can't get hold of her, Clark. I hope she's all right!"
He came to a stop beside her desk. "I've been listening for her," he said, keeping his voice down. "And for Brian, as well. So far, nothing."
She looked slightly reassured. "I guess he isn't going to have muggers jumping out of every doorway at them, is he?"
"I doubt it. There's been a new development, though. I'll tell you about it as soon as I write up the story."
"I saw the thing with the school bus," Lois said. "It was on LNN."
He nodded. "A school bus coming back from a field trip. Another test; but there's more. Let me get this to Perry and we can take off. It's past quitting time, anyhow. Then we'll see what we can do about hunting Brian and Lucy down. Did Jimmy manage to come up with a location for —" He glanced out of the corner of his eye at Ralph at his desk, "— Brian's brother?"
"We're not getting any answers," Lois said. "Just the runaround."
Clark nodded. "Let me get this done. Maybe we can try a slightly different approach …"
The breeze was chilly with the damp bite of a coming storm when Jack and Denny moved silently out the rear door of the abandoned building that they had called home for nearly three weeks.
The sun had set behind the tallest of Metropolis's skyscrapers and a deep dusk had descended upon the city. Unless the man searching for them looked very closely, it would be difficult for him to spot, or recognize, either Jack or Denny, bundled up as they were.
Both boys carried backpacks and wore two sets of clothing, and Jack had made Denny wear the leather jacket that Kent had given him.
Jack glanced carefully around and beckoned to his brother, and the two boys slipped down the alley nearest to the ancient building. The closest subway entrance was six blocks away. Denny regarded the trip as probably the most dangerous that they had ever made, except for the one through Suicide Slum three weeks back to make their way to the hideout that they had just left. Even that hadn't really been as bad, he amended. That time there hadn't been anyone looking for them but the cops. At least they wouldn't have hurt either him or Jack the way the guys looking for them now might.
Each boy carried part of the proceeds from Jack's burglary of Joey's safe on Sunday night, and Denny carried the diary tucked down inside his shirt. If something happened to the backpack, Jack had wanted to be certain that their insurance did not go with it.
Maybe, Denny was hoping, as they made their way through the dingy back streets, Jack was just being too careful. Maybe they could just get on the subway and head over to the 45th Street station, and take the bus out of town. Then they'd be away from the city and all the different people looking for them. Denny fervently hoped that things would work out that way. He was tired of living in crumbling buildings with no heat and no running water, of running and hiding, of being afraid every minute that someone was going to recognize them and take them into the custody of the System again, or worse. He just wanted to crawl into a hole someplace and not come out again until everyone had forgotten about him.
The alley through which they were currently making their way opened on one of the more brightly-lighted streets of the city, and Jack paused at the exit, looking around with great care before he beckoned Denny after him.
The multicolored strings of lights that celebrated the Christmas season looped from pole to pole above their heads, glowing softly through the light dusting of tiny snowflakes that were just beginning to filter down. The sidewalks were crowded, although the damp, chilly air had discouraged many Christmas shoppers. Jack and Denny hurried along with the mobs of pedestrians and commuters, trying not to draw attention to themselves. It wasn't likely that anyone would try to do anything to them right out in the open, Denny thought hopefully, but being this exposed made chills that had nothing to do with the December air crawl down his spine. He was relieved when they reached the crosswalk and were able to follow a crowd of men and women in heavy coats, carrying briefcases, across the street.
They reached the opposite side of the street and Jack led the way straight down the sidewalk away from the busier section, headed for an alley that opened up not far from a bakery. The smells emerging from the store made Denny's mouth water, but Jack went right on by and ducked down the dark, narrow passageway beside it. The two boys paused in the shadow and Jack wiped his forehead.
"How much farther?" Denny asked.
"We're about halfway," Jack said. They stood close to the brick wall of the old building to avoid the sharp, damp breeze that gusted down the street. A cat yowled in the big metal dumpster a short distance down the alley and an instant later another cat answered the first. The pair commenced a duet of feline challenges. Jack ignored it and wiped again at the dampness on his face. "Looks like it's starting to snow."
Denny could have told him that. The little flakes were coming down more thickly now, tiny specks of cold brushing against his face as they floated lazily downward in an unending descent. He started to reply when Jack clapped a hand over his mouth and pulled him back to crouch in the deeper shadow of the dumpster. "Shh!"
Two men passed the entrance to the alley, and the street light illuminated them clearly for the fraction of a second. Denny froze in place as he caught the distinct profile of the man who had nearly caught him earlier in the day.
"They're around here somewhere," the man said. "I saw them come this way. Check the alley."
Denny felt Jack tense beside him. A flashlight beam illuminated the cracked pavement and flashed over the walls and then the dumpster. The margin of shadow where they hid grew smaller and smaller; in another few seconds, he would see them …
With a howl that should have raised the hair on his head — if he hadn't already reached the limits of frozen panic — something small and black shot out of the dumpster and dashed between the legs of the approaching man. Denny heard a spate of cuss words.
"What was *that*?"
"Cat." The word was short and to the point. "They're not here. Check the next alley, down that way. I'm gonna phone Vic, tell him to have his people hang out around the subway. Looks like they're heading that way. Pete's guys are already covering the bus stops."
Denny held his breath as the footsteps retreated. At last, he stirred. "Did you hear what he said? They're watching the subway! What are we going to do now?"
"Shh, I'm thinking." Jack was silent for several minutes. Finally, he said, "There's just one place I can think of. Come on, and for Pete's sake, don't make any noise! If they see us, we're dead!"
Denny obeyed. He wanted to ask where Jack was going, but knew better than to speak. They reached the end of the alley where a rickety wooden fence crossed it and spent several minutes getting over the barrier without undue noise.
Denny sucked on a splinter in the heel of his hand but said nothing as Jack dropped beside him. They stood in the shadow of the old apartment building for long minutes, avoiding the yellow puddle of light cast by a street lamp while Jack looked slowly back and forth, then scurried forth and crossed another narrow street.
"Where are we going?" Denny asked, at last.
Jack didn't answer. A moment later they stood beside another apartment building, looking up at a flight of unlighted steps. From somewhere not far away, a flashing sign partially illuminated a window that was too high for either boy to see in, but judging from the darkness behind the glass, no one was home.
"Stay here." Jack scuttled up the steps and Denny could hear a faint scratching noise, a soft exclamation of pain from Jack, and then his brother called down to him. "Come on. Quick!"
Denny obeyed, and the two boys slipped through the opening into a darkened room. Jack closed the door softly behind them, then, for several minutes they simply stood still, soaking in the unaccustomed warmth. "I think we're safe for now," Jack said, finally. "They won't think to look for us here."
"Where are we?" Denny asked.
"Kent's apartment," Jack said. "He said he wanted to help us; looks like he's gonna get the chance to put his money where his mouth is."
"Well," Lois said, "I guess it's just as well. At least he isn't in any doubt about where Superman stands, now."
"Lois, those tests are endangering innocent people! There were over thirty kids on that school bus!"
"I know." Lois rested a hand on his arm. Tiny snowflakes drifted thickly past them on the late evening air. It was dark, and the Christmas lights strung from the buildings made her companion's face a patchwork of red, orange and green. "It was the right thing to do, Clark. Confronting him was necessary. Now he knows that Superman's onto him, and from what you say, I think it scared him. Besides, you're absolutely right. Trask assumed that Superman would do what he would have done in the same position. Luthor probably will, too. That's an advantage for our side."
"But he's on guard, now," Clark said. "I guess I probably shouldn't have warned him, but the way things were going, sooner or later somebody was going to get killed. When I realized that the school bus accident was just another *test*, I wanted to wring Luthor's neck!"
Lois shrugged. "You don't get where he is without being on guard all the time, anyway. At least he doesn't know you and I are involved, and it probably really shocked him to realize that Superman had figured out who was behind the tests — or even that they were tests. He has no way of knowing how Superman knew or what his resources are. We've made it pretty clear that our only contact with Superman has been in the course of our job."
Clark nodded. "After all, why should someone like him tell what he suspects about Metropolis's leading citizen to a couple of reporters, especially without any solid proof?"
"Exactly." Lois extracted the car key from her purse and inserted it into the passenger door of the Cherokee. "Okay, we're on."
Clark opened the door and climbed in. "One of these days," he said, mindful of the bug, "Finkelstein is going to get a punch in the mouth when he comes up with one of his insinuations."
"Clark, the man's mind has been in the gutter from the day he was hired," Lois said, as she got into the driver's seat. "I mostly ignore him."
"Yeah, well I don't like it," Clark said. "The guy's a gossip. First it's you and me, then it's you and Lex Luthor, just because you had dinner with him, and now it's you and Superman, of all people. Doesn't the man think about anything but sex?"
"Conspiracy theories," Lois said. "He's got a million of them. He even thinks Superman is a robot, which I'm sure he isn't, because I saw him breathing. I wish I knew as much about him as Ralph seems to think I do, though."
"Keep thinking 'exclusive'," Clark said. "Sooner or later, one of us will get a chance at an interview with him. We need to come up with a few questions to ask, though, instead of getting caught flat-footed."
"Something that he can answer in the few seconds before he leaves," Lois said, trying to sound frustrated. "Doesn't he ever stop moving?"
"If he does, it's not where anyone can see him," Clark said. "I haven't been able to get more than one question in edgewise before he's off to another rescue or something."
"Outside of that first interview, neither have I," Lois said. "It seems to me that Superman doesn't want us to know a lot about him."
"Yeah, I get that feeling," Clark agreed. "Oh well, the only thing to do is to keep plugging."
"Yeah." She concentrated on negotiating the rush hour traffic for some minutes.
"Do you mind walking the rest of the way home from my place?" she asked, after a time. "I'll get you those notes, and then I have some things I need to get done."
"Not a problem," Clark assured her. "It's only a few blocks."
"Thanks," she said. "I haven't had a chance to finish a bunch of stuff, considering how busy we've been."
"I know exactly what you mean," he agreed. "I'm still finishing moving in, myself, and I still have to make some repairs."
Lois pulled the Cherokee up to the curb by her apartment building. A few moments later she was unlocking her door, and Clark lowered his glasses to scan the rooms beyond.
Inside, she closed the door and looked questioningly at him.
"It's clean," he informed her.
"Whew!" She let out her breath. "I guess he decided the Jeep was a better place to overhear us."
"Probably," Clark said. "And after all, we already found one bug in your place. It's more likely that we'd look around in here." He glanced around. "Your answering machine has a message."
"Maybe it's from Lucy," Lois said, hopefully.
It was from Lucy. Her sister's cheerful voice emerged from the machine accompanied by the sounds of rock music, the clink of glassware and the gabble of conversation in the background.
"Hey, sis, I just wanted to let you know that Brian and I are at a big Christmas party with a bunch of his friends. I'm probably going to stay here tonight, 'cause we'll most likely all be too drunk to drive by the time it's over, so don't worry when I don't come home. You should *see* this house! It's a *huge* place out in the country. It's gorgeous! It's even got an indoor swimming pool and we're all going skinny-dipping after dinner! Well, see you tomorrow, sometime!" A squeal and a giggle punctuated the final word, and then there was nothing but a dial tone.
Lois stared at her partner. "A party! I don't believe it. Now, of all times!"
"Well," Clark said, philosophically, "at least we know she and Brian are okay for the present."
"But they don't know that Brian's been targeted by you-know-who. How are we going to warn them?"
"I guess," Clark said, "that we're going to have to wait until tomorrow — assuming that they're not too hung over, then. How many big houses out in the country are there around Metropolis?"
"Enough," Lois said, pessimistically. "Do you suppose they're at Albert Chow's, or one of their friends' places?"
Clark shrugged. "Does Chow have a house around Metropolis?"
"Maybe." Lois frowned, trying to recall if the information had ever come up. "He supposedly lives in Metropolis for part of the year, so maybe he does. He doesn't seem to me to be the type who would rent. Maybe Jimmy can find it for us."
"I'll call him while you get ready," Clark reached into a pocket and removed a cellular phone. "I figured that since the Planet won't supply cell phones to the employees, that I'd better get one for occasions like this. If we can find out where Chow's house is, I can fly over after dark and have a look. Of course, if the party is at somebody else's place, it won't help a lot."
"I guess it's worth a shot," Lois said. "In the meantime, what should I wear?"
"Something warm," Clark specified. "There's an apartment building across the alley from Joey's, but they don't heat the units that aren't occupied."
"Yeah." Lois looked thoughtful. "We should probably take some hot coffee, too — and maybe a blanket. You're not going in that suit, are you?"
"No. I thought I'd fly home for a change of clothes. I don't really need to worry about the cold."
"You left the sweats from the other night here — and a jacket. Those should do. I'll get them out for you as soon as I change."
"Good idea," Clark said. "Go on. After I talk to Jimmy, I'll call D'Angelo's for some take out, and we can eat after we get there. Don't forget your binoculars."
The inside of the little apartment was almost as cold as the outside, Lois thought as she and Clark entered via the window.
They closed the glass behind them. Lois brushed the light coating of snowflakes from her hair and shoulders and trained her flashlight around the small, chilly room.
It was a furnished apartment, she saw, with what appeared to be two armchairs and a sofa, shrouded in dust covers. A somewhat battered coffee table sat, slightly askew, in front of the couch, coated with a layer of dust.
Her partner looked around, obviously unaffected by the low lighting and, with the casualness that always astonished her when he performed one of his super- human feats, inhaled sharply. The dust simply disappeared.
Clark turned to the window behind them, opened it a crack and exhaled, and Lois gaped at the long plume of dust and water vapor that condensed in the icy air without.
He closed the window, walked forward to set the bags containing their takeout meal on the coffee table, and vanished for a moment through a door that probably led to the kitchen. For an instant she heard water running and then it shut off. Clark reappeared beside her. The trace of dust on his lips had vanished.
Slowly, Lois pulled the dust covers from the furniture and dropped them behind the couch. She set her own bag on the floor. "Well," she said, "I'm guessing your mom made you do the dusting."
He grinned. "After I was a teenager, yes. It was a big timesaver."
"I can see," she said, "that you're going to be a big help around the house." Quickly, she put a hand over her mouth. "I mean, if …"
"You should see me take out the garbage," he said, apparently unaware of her slip. "I figure I can do a lot to make myself indispensable."
As if he hadn't done that, already. She looked up from the coffee table to meet his gaze, her cheeks burning. "I don't mean to assume —"
Clark crossed the space between them in two steps. "You can assume anything you want, Lois. You know how I feel."
They were standing practically touching one another. "You're sure, Charlie — really sure?" She studied the front of his sweatshirt. "Really, really sure?"
"I'm so sure that I'd marry you today, if you'd go for it," he said. "Lois, I've never felt this way about anybody before. With you I feel … as if I belong. I've never felt that way before. I've always been an outsider, even when other people didn't know it."
"That's funny you know," she said, trying hard to swallow the sudden lump in her throat. "I've always been an outsider, too; even in the newsroom, I was always on the outside. But when I'm with you it's different. I don't feel that way. Do you suppose that means something?"
"I don't really care," he said. "Maybe we can be outsiders together. I could live with that."
"So could I," she said. Somehow his arms had snaked around her and she hadn't noticed. He leaned down, giving her plenty of opportunity to protest, but she didn't.
After several uncounted minutes while her brain seemed to have completely stopped working, he lifted his head and looked down at her. "Will you marry me, Lois Lane?"
She gulped. "Charlie, are you sure you're sure?"
"Absolutely, unquestionably sure. Will you?"
"What about the six months?"
"That was an arbitrary figure," he said. "Besides, we can be engaged for six months if you like. Will you?"
He really meant it, she thought. She knew he'd said that he was serious over and over, but almost subconsciously she'd kept expecting him to change his mind. Well, she'd given him enough chances. "Yes," she said.
It was the last thing she had a chance to say for some time. When he finally let her go, they were seated on the apartment's slightly battered sofa and he reluctantly released her long enough to reach for the blanket she had had the forethought to bring.
"It's freezing in here," he said. "Put this around you. I don't want you to catch pneumonia."
She let him tuck it around her. "You're very persistent, Mr. Kent," she said.
He grinned. "My dad always told me that if I wanted something badly enough, I should go after it single-mindedly. My dad is a smart guy."
"He must be," Lois said, sincerely. "He married your mother. Really though, Charlie, are you absolutely sure that —"
"Hey," he said, "you've agreed. I'm not letting you wiggle out of it, now."
"I just wanted to be sure that you're sure …"
"I'm sure," he said.
Silence for a time. She snuggled into the curve of his arm, and decided that being in a cold apartment with Charlie definitely had its positive side.
Finally, he stirred. "I think I'm going to have to heat up the soup and the coffee before we eat," he said. "Are you ready for dinner?"
Surprisingly, she was hungry. She nodded, and waited while he laid out the meal on the coffee table. "Hot coffee sounds good," she remarked, as he handed her the styrofoam cup. "What's going on over in Joey's place?"
Clark lowered his glasses and glanced in the direction of the other apartment building. "Nothing, so far. He's not home yet."
"I'd like a chance to look around in the place," she said. "Maybe when we're sure he isn't coming back for a while …"
"Maybe, but let's wait for now. We don't want to be there when he walks in."
"I said, 'when we're sure he isn't coming back for a while'," Lois said. "I'd sure like to know where he kept the money that got stolen."
"There's a wall safe opposite the window behind that picture," Clark said. "Ten to one he stashed it there."
"Is there anything else in it?"
Again, he lowered his glasses. "Looks like a bag of money."
"Protection money," Lois said.
"Probably. I wouldn't keep fifteen thousand-odd dollars in a paper sack."
"Neither would I," Lois agreed. "So, now I guess we eat our dinner and wait."
They were just finishing their meal when Clark's cellular phone produced a rendition of the first notes of "Fly Me to the Moon". Lois raised an eyebrow at him but didn't comment. Clark flipped it open. "Kent … oh, hi, Jimmy. You did? Hmm. That figures. Well, if you come up with anything, let me know, would you? Okay, thanks."
"I take it he couldn't find the address," Lois said.
"Not yet. He's going to try a couple more things and call us back if he gets any results," Clark said. He lowered his glasses and glanced at the apartment. "It would be just our luck if Joey decides not to come home tonight."
"Yeah," Lois said. She held out her coffee. "Could you heat this up again?"
Clark obliged. "Maybe I should have brought some games for us to play."
"I don't know. Board games by flashlight might be a little difficult," Lois said. "Is anybody likely to check on this place at this hour?"
"I doubt it, but if they do I'll have enough warning for us to hide," he said.
"I guess we'd better get rid of the debris," Lois said.
"No sooner said than done." Clark scooped the wrappers and cups into the large bag. "I'll just stick this in the kitchen for the time being. Let's hope Joey doesn't take too long."
It was nearly midnight when the chimes of Clark's phone jolted Lois out of a light doze. She stirred as he unwrapped an arm from her shoulders to flip open the little device. "Kent." He listened for a moment. "Good work, Jimmy. Thanks."
"I guess he got the address?" Lois asked.
"He did. I think Superman needs to fly over and see if he can get in touch with Brian and Lucy. Can you hold down the fort here while I take a look?"
Lois straightened up, shaking herself a little. "Sure, no problem."
Clark stood up and became a miniature tornado, to emerge in his blue suit. "Back in a few minutes." With a gust of air, he was gone.
Lois stood up, the blanket wrapped around her shoulders, and reached for the binoculars.
The other apartment was still dark; Joey hadn't returned, of course. She sat back on the couch, rubbing her arms. Without Clark beside her the room seemed considerably colder than it had a few moments before. After several minutes, she had to shake herself awake.
This would never do, she thought. She was going to fall asleep or freeze to death if she didn't do something.
She glanced again at the dark apartment across the alley. Surely if the guy hadn't come home yet it wasn't likely that he was going to show up in the next few minutes. Moving quietly, she got to her feet and tiptoed across the rug and cautiously put her ear against the door to the hall, listening.
Silence. With even more caution, she eased the door open. The hinges squeaked in protest, but the hallway beyond was empty. Moving quickly and silently, Lois slipped out into the hall. Closing the door, but leaving it unlocked, she headed toward the stairs. This should only take a few minutes, she thought. Better than wasting the whole night in a freezing apartment. Sometimes, Charlie was much too cautious. This was just what she needed to wake up, and who knew what kind of evidence or information she might find in Joey's place?
The Chow mansion was lit up like a Christmas tree, Clark thought as he approached from above. If the party that Lucy had spoken of wasn't being held here, a bunch of housebreakers had certainly gotten much too carried away. He'd seen plenty of Christmas decorations on a lot of homes during the holiday season, but this one had gone all out. He could hear splashing and shouts coming from one of the wings of the building, but he refrained from using his x- ray vision on what was almost certainly the indoor pool. Lucy's description of the entire group going skinny-dipping after dinner made him cautious. A swimming pool full of drunken skinny-dippers had the potential to present all kinds of embarrassing situations for a well-intentioned super hero. He just hoped that somebody sober was acting as a lifeguard.
Still, he had to talk to someone about this situation. A moment's consideration made him reject the option of presenting himself at the door in his civilian guise. People like Albert Chow had servants that were well-trained in dealing with the media in all its guises. The only way he was going to get in would be as Superman, and even that wasn't assured.
After due consideration, he circled back the way he had come and approached a second time at supersonic speed, producing in the process a satisfying sonic boom. Landing on the front doorstep of the mansion, he avoided a pair of German shepherds by the simple expedient of floating horizontally a few feet in the air and reached down to ring the doorbell.
From inside the house, he heard a musical chime that played out the first two lines of "Silent Night". While he was waiting, an individual dressed in the uniform of a security guard approached: to all appearances the dog handler. The man gaped at him for a long five seconds and then called off the barking, jumping canines. Clark dropped to the ground with a word of thanks.
The doors swung slowly open, and a man clad in the formal garb of a butler stood in the opening. He raised his eyebrows infinitesimally at the sight of Clark, in all his colorful glory.
"May I help you, sir?" he inquired, in a voice devoid of all human passion.
"I hope so," Clark said. "I'm looking for Mr. Albert Chow, or, failing that, his brother, Brian."
"And who may I say is calling?" the butler asked.
"Superman," Clark said, keeping his face straight with an effort.
"Your business, sir?" the butler continued.
"That's confidential," Clark said. "It's very important that I speak with one of them."
The butler regarded him for several seconds. "Very well, sir. If you will follow me …" The man stood back to allow him entry and closed the doors behind him. He escorted Clark down a hallway large enough for a small parade to pass, decorated with Christmas garlands and a thirty-foot Christmas tree that glittered against one wall. Clark was aware that a number of persons, mostly in the uniforms of the serving staff, were peering at him from various vantage points, but he gave no sign that he had noticed. At last, the butler stopped and opened a door. "Be kind enough to wait in the Library while I inform Mr. Chow of your arrival," the man said, still without the slightest sign of interest in his voice.
The Chow library, Clark thought, rivaled the public library a few blocks from the Daily Planet, at least in size. He stood silently with his arms folded across his chest, presenting the picture of the staunch, emotionless superhero for the benefit of any observers, but with his super vision and hearing, he followed the progress of the butler to an office some distance across the big house. He knocked, and a moment later, entered.
A man was sitting at a desk, working at a computer and, from his picture, Clark recognized him immediately. He looked up as the butler entered. "What is it, Jacob?"
"Sir, Superman is here and wishes to speak with you."
Albert Chow's eyebrows climbed perceptibly. "Superman?"
"Did he say why?"
"He said it was a private matter, sir."
"Hmmm." Chow frowned briefly. "All right, Jacob, since he wants to speak with me privately, bring him here."
Clark waited, monitoring the butler's progress back to the library. The man opened the door. "Mr. Chow will see you in his office, sir."
"Thank you," Clark said, and followed him out.
Lois moved quietly through the darkness. Tiny flakes sifted down, lightly coating her hair and shoulders. The moon had not yet set, but its radiance made only a slightly brighter spot in the clouds that covered the sky. The decrepit apartment house was mostly dark. One window on the second floor glowed with a dim light, but otherwise the darkness was complete.
She glanced at her watch. The palely glowing numbers told her that it was quarter after twelve. Clark would probably be back before long. She had to make this fast.
Slowly, she circled the building, looking for a less obvious method of entrance than the front door and halfway around her diligence was rewarded by the sight of a rusty fire escape dangling a couple of feet beyond her reach. A wooden crate some feet farther down the way caught her attention, and she appropriated it without further internal debate.
Standing the box on end for the greatest lift, she stepped carefully onto it, grimacing at the unsteadiness of her footstool but, standing on tiptoe, her fingertips now just brushed the lowest rung. There was no help for it; she was going to have to jump.
Carefully, she bent her knees, trying not to unbalance her rickety support. One of the slats under her foot cracked ominously. This was likely to be her only chance; if she didn't break the box when she jumped it would be a miracle. For several seconds she looked upward, trying to gauge her actions as closely as possible, and had to brace one hand against the rough wall of the building as the box wobbled precariously. If she hesitated much longer, she was either going to fall or break the box. Taking a deep breath, she straightened her knees in as powerful a leap as she could manage.
The box tipped as she jumped, and she heard the splintering of the wood, but one of her hands caught the rusty, metal rung, and she swung for a second before managing to grasp it with her other hand.
With a screech that lifted the hair on her head, the ancient metal ladder descended. Lois helped it along, grasping successively higher rungs until she could get a foot onto the lowest, and began to climb.
The metal rungs were slippery, and she had to make her way carefully up the side of the building, but the fire escape passed a window on the second floor as it continued on to the building's roof. Lois stopped and examined the window carefully.
There was darkness beyond the uncurtained glass. Two pale night-lights glowing ineffectually in wall plugs did little to dispel the gloom but from what she could see there appeared to be a hallway on the other side. This would be a perfect way in, if she could get the window open, she thought, but it would probably be too much to hope that the pane would be unlocked.
There was no window lock. For a moment she didn't realize what she was seeing. The lever that was supposed to slide into place to secure the window was completely missing. Lois fished in the pocket of her jeans for the lock pick that she always brought on surveillance jobs and began to pry at the wooden pane. She would most likely have to replace the instrument later, but if it got her in, she could stand the minor expense.
It took several minutes, but finally, at the cost of several deep gouges in the wood, the pane moved upward half an inch. She got splinters in her fingers, and tore a nail, but the window slid slowly open with a minimum of noise. The ancient wood crumbled somewhat under her efforts, and she suspected that termites might have been busy, but at last she was able to squeeze through the gap on her stomach.
She caught herself on her hands, slithered to the floor and scrambled to her feet. Quickly, she slid the window shut and hurried to put distance between herself and the fire escape. If anyone came out to investigate the noise, she didn't want him to find her there.
Judging by the window count, Joey's room should be the fifth door down the hallway, on her left. Lois hurried down the dark, narrow passage, her footsteps muffled on the threadbare carpet. The fifth door was closed and anonymous, just like all the others. She pressed her ear against it, listening.
Silence. Joey still wasn't home. Lois glanced up and down the darkened hallway. No one was in sight, although a dim light could be seen beneath another door farther along the passageway. Quickly, she extracted her lock pick again. Hopefully, prying open the window hadn't done too much damage to it. Holding her breath, she inserted the pick and the little piece of flat metal and felt around, jiggling the inner mechanism and aligning the shear points.
The lock certainly wasn't a fancy one, she was thinking a moment later. If she had lived in a place like this she would have replaced it with one of her own on the day she moved in. As cautiously as she could, she turned the knob and eased the door open, wincing at the squeak of hinges that sounded like an emergency siren to her ears.
Darkness met her gaze. She slipped through the door, closed and locked it behind her, and leaned against the wooden panel for a moment. At least this way she would have some sort of warning if Joey should inopportunely return home.
The window had no curtain; she dug in the pocket of her jacket for her penlight. Conducting a search by its narrow beam wasn't exactly ideal, but she had done more difficult things. Her first target was the bedroom. The room was small enough to give her claustrophobia, but it had no windows to the outside, and she was able to turn on a single table lamp, battered and minus its shade, to assist in her search.
The single dresser held underwear, four T-shirts, several pairs of socks, a bow tie, and nothing else. The doorless closet revealed several shirts, slacks and one sports coat hanging from the rack. A single valise sat alone on the shelf above it, and it was quite empty. Methodically, Lois searched every possible storage place, making certain that when she finished everything was as she had found it.
The drawer to the scratched and peeling bedside table yielded a pack of cigarettes, a book of matches and a handgun that she carefully didn't touch. Frustrated, she turned back toward the living room, switching out the lamp before she opened the door. Shielding the beam of her penlight with one hand, she looked around the living space. The big picture on the wall concealed a wall safe, she knew, but Clark had already said there was nothing but a paper sack of money inside. The coffee table had no drawers, and neither did the end table, but the kitchen alcove had drawers aplenty.
Carefully cupping her free hand over the beam of the penlight, she examined the contents of the kitchen cabinet. Silverware, of course, and cooking implements. An oven mitt with a dark, charred spot on the end. Two kitchen towels that were, surprisingly enough, clean and neatly folded. Lois paused, looking around. This place was turning out to be a major disappointment.
There was a small, narrow drawer beside the stove that she hadn't checked. Considering how barren the rest of the place was her expectations weren't exactly high at this point, but she opened it on principle.
The drawer seemed to be living up to her non-expectations she thought a moment later. It appeared to be half-filled with odds and ends of junk. Without much hope, Lois flashed her light over the contents. The only thing that might be of interest was an unsealed envelope that had been shoved into the back, on top of the rest of the junk. She extracted it and opened the flap.
There were photographs inside, and fairly recent, she thought. She took them out, and examined them with a growing sense of discovery.
They appeared to be a series of grainy photos taken by a security camera, if she was any judge. It showed an indistinct image of what was probably a teenage boy, his face down, and obviously running, clutching a large sack in one hand. The image resolution was definitely not of the best, but in one photo the camera had caught the fugitive's profile. The surroundings behind the indistinct figure could have been any small entranceway to a building but she strongly suspected by its appearance that it belonged to this building. Now what on Earth …
Lois stared at the prints, her mind racing. Why would the man have a set of pictures like this, unless …
… Unless this was the thief who had robbed Joey's apartment and taken his protection money … and possibly the diary.
The longer she looked at them, the more certain she became that that was exactly what she was looking at. The fugitive's features were somewhat blurry, but she thought that if she met the person in question, she might very well recognize him. Quickly, she stuffed the photos back into their envelope and shoved it into the pocket of her jacket. Clark had to see these. With his enhanced eyesight, he might be able to tell more about the thief than she could. In any case, she had pushed her luck far enough this evening. It was time to leave.
It was then that she heard the rattle of a door key in the lock.
"What can I do for you, Superman? May I offer you some coffee or tea?" Albert Chow rose to his feet as the butler exited, closing the door of the office behind him. The man's faint accent told Clark that English was not his native language, but he doubted that anyone else would have noticed. Chow was a slender, good-looking man of about average height, who appeared to have a combination of Asian and Caucasian in his ancestry, and possibly some Pacific Islander as well, but his air of assurance made him seem taller and more imposing than his physical appearance. Clark took the hand he extended, and found himself responding to the other man's smile.
"Actually, it's something that I can do for you," he said.
"Oh?" Chow waved to an armchair on one side of his office. "Would you like to sit down?"
Clark smiled. "Thank you." He swept his cape backwards and sank into the chair. "Mr. Chow, I'll get right to the point. I've had to rescue your brother and his friend, Ms. Lane, from several acts of apparently random violence in the last couple of days, and I have some reason to think that the incidents aren't as random as they might seem."
Chow regarded him thoughtfully. "He told me. You say that you think the attacks weren't random? I have to admit, I wondered. When you're in my position, seemingly random happenings often aren't."
Clark nodded. "I suspect that someone may intend to use your brother as a lever in an attempt to put pressure on you. If there's any way you can take steps to protect him …"
The billionaire didn't speak for a moment. "I see. I can't say I'm particularly surprised. If you suspect something of the sort, can you tell me who you believe to be behind it?"
Clark restrained a shrug. "I have some strong suspicions, Mr. Chow, but no proof. Not yet, anyway."
Chow looked at him without expression long enough to make him want to squirm. He controlled the impulse with difficulty, and nearly jumped when Albert Chow spoke suddenly. "Superman, let's be honest. You're talking about Lex Luthor, aren't you?"
He should have been surprised, Clark thought, but somehow he wasn't. Albert Chow was one of Lex Luthor's business competitors, after all, and in spite of Luthor's ruthless style, still managed to maintain his position as the wealthier and more successful of the two. He had probably had occasion to watch Luthor in action, at least in a business setting. "Yes."
The businessman smiled dryly. "I appreciate your caution, but you don't get into a position like mine without learning a few things about your business rivals. Mr. Luthor and I have locked horns a few times in the past. This revolves around Carlin Investments. Am I right?"
"Yes, Josef Carlin was quite frank with me on the subject." Chow smiled again. "I hadn't, however, considered that Luthor might attempt to use Brian as a lever, and I should have, being familiar with some of Mr. Luthor's other — shall I say, somewhat original — methods of persuasion. Like you, I know certain things, but have no proof. However, forewarned is forearmed. You can safely leave the rest of the matter in my hands. I appreciate the warning, and thank you."
Clark stood up. "In that case …"
Chow also rose. "I'll have Jacob show you out. I find it encouraging that someone else seems to understand Mr. Luthor like I do. It's quite frustrating to be aware of certain facts and to be able to prove none of them. You give me reason to hope." He smiled at Clark, an expression of genuine friendliness. "I hope to see you again, Superman. If I can ever be of help to you, don't hesitate to ask."
Lois crossed the floor of the tiny apartment with a speed that would have done credit to her partner and dived into the pocket-sized bathroom. She had barely ducked out of sight when she heard the squeal of hinges as the door to the hall opened. The living room light came on.
"Really, Joey, I don't understand how you can live in such squalid quarters," a man's voice said.
"Never mind the criticism of my interior decorator," a voice that must belong to Joey said. "You can tell your boss that I've got a lead on his money."
"And the diary?" The cultured, British voice was soft, but the words were underlined with menace.
"Maybe. There's rumors about it," Joey's voice replied, uneasily. "As soon as we get our hands on the guy, we'll get it out of him."
"And who is this person?" the British voice inquired.
"A kid," Joey's voice said. "A petty thief."
"And how would a petty thief acquire the diary?" The other man's voice dripped frost.
"I meant the money," Joey said. "There's a rumor about the diary, but it's more whispers. They say somebody's got it for protection."
"Possession of that diary is more of a death warrant than protection," the cold, British voice said. "I hope, for your sake, that you can acquire it very soon. The Boss —" The voice paused for emphasis. " … Has sent me with a message. His patience is running out. Don't waste time. You have very little of it at your disposal."
"I told you, I'm working on it," Joey said, his voice perilously close to a whine.
"Very well, we'll say no more about it for now. Where are the pictures of which you spoke?"
"In here." The voice had changed its location, Lois thought. Joey seemed to have moved toward the kitchen alcove. "I had to pull some strings, but I got the film from the camera in the lobby. I've seen this kid around for three or four weeks. Homeless, got a brother that lives with him. Nobody'll notice if they disappear."
"That, of course, is always a benefit," the other voice said. It sounded faintly familiar, Lois thought, as if she had heard it somewhere before, but she couldn't identify it. She heard a soft, scraping sound, and a sudden exclamation. Something rustled.
"What is it?" the British voice asked.
"Yeah! They were right here! Somebody's taken them!"
"Really, Joey … another robbery? This is becoming rather farcical, don't you think?"
"I'm not kidding! Somebody's taken the envelope! I put it right here, just this morning!"
"I grow tired of your mistakes." The voice had become colder and more menacing than ever. "I suspect my employer will say the same."
"It wasn't a mistake! I've been robbed!"
"Your security measures leave a good deal to be desired as well," the British voice said. There was an extended silence, and Lois could feel the danger hanging in the air. At last, the voice spoke again. "To use a hackneyed metaphor, this is your second strike. Another mistake will be your last. Is that clearly understood?" More silence, then there was the sound of muffled footsteps. A door opened and closed. In the other room, Lois heard a string of swear words and then silence.
Lois flattened herself back against the wall of the bathroom, hoping against hope that Joey, now that he was alone, would decide to go to bed or something. What was it with these bad guys, anyway? Didn't they ever sleep? Of course, after that conversation, she acknowledged, he might be too scared to sleep. It seemed that for Joey, things were rapidly becoming more than a little pressing.
If the guy came in here, he was going to find her for certain, and he wasn't likely to be very understanding about her presence, since the fatal missing photographs were in her pocket. A half-hearted glance at the shower told her that it offered no concealment worth the name.
Footsteps crossed the floor and she heard the refrigerator open and close. More footsteps, and springs creaked. She heard Joey muttering under his breath, and the pop of a can opening. She sneaked an eye past the doorframe. Joey was sprawled backward on the couch, a beer can in one hand and a second can sitting on the table. He hadn't even bothered to remove his jacket, and as she watched, he downed the contents of the can in five swallows.
He pitched the can at a trash receptacle across the room. The object bounced off the rim, but he was already opening the second one. Lois lifted a brow. That certainly wasn't going to improve his ability to think.
He took slightly longer to finish the second, threw the can at the trash with even less accuracy and hoisted himself from the sofa with a grunt. Lois pulled quickly back behind the doorframe, her heart pounding.
Footsteps crossed the rug and again the refrigerator door opened. Something clinked, and then there was the sound of breaking glass. Joey cursed.
More clinking, and the rattle of something metallic. She peeked again, but could see nothing but the top of his head above the sofa back. He must, she thought, be sweeping up whatever had broken.
He hoisted himself clumsily to his feet, his back toward her, and she heard him dump something into the kitchen trashcan. A moment later, the refrigerator door opened again.
What was she going to do? The faint hope that he would decide to retire to bed was growing fainter by the moment. Sooner or later, those beers were going to catch up to him and her presence would be discovered.
Joey emerged from the refrigerator with another beer. Without leaving the kitchen, he popped the top and took a long drink. Setting the can on the drain board he turned back to the refrigerator.
The loud shrilling of a bell almost made Lois jump out of her skin. Joey jerked upright, seemingly befuddled for a moment, then rushed into the living area. Without pausing, he shoved aside the picture that hung on the wall.
He was opening the safe, Lois thought in surprise. Then the significance of the bell penetrated to the thinking portion of her brain. It was the fire alarm.
The safe door swung open. Joey grabbed for the contents and dashed for the door.
The hall was full of smoke. Lois saw him hesitate in the opening and then exit into the greyish haze that was now pouring into the apartment. The fire must be down below, she thought, and decided that now wasn't the time for caution. The fire department might be on its way, or it might not, but there was one emergency service that she knew could get there more quickly than any other.
"Help!" she screamed. "Help! Superman!"
Clark was already on his way back when he heard Lois's scream.
He had heard the clanging of the fire alarm, and was homing in on it, but he could have picked the voice of his partner out of a million louder sounds and distinguished it from those of uncounted other similar voices. He put on a burst of speed toward the apartment where he had left her.
He was there in less than five seconds, leaving a sonic boom that far dwarfed the one he had made on his way to the Chow mansion echoing in the air behind him.
A hasty peek showed him that Lois was no longer in the apartment where he had left her, but her voice had come from somewhere close by, and smoke was pouring from the lower windows of the apartment building that housed Joey McPherson. Knowing his partner, she was probably in the middle of it.
A quick scan with his x-ray vision showed the rug in the downstairs hallway to be ablaze, and flames were licking hungrily at the floor and walls. The building's sprinkler system was leaking thin streams of water from the sprinkler heads, but it was obvious that they were completely inadequate to fight the fire.
There were flames on the second floor as well. At one end of the hall — the one that opened on the fire escape — the rug was also blazing. There was fire in the inner stairwell and if there were sprinklers anywhere, they certainly weren't working. He could hear the panicked screams from the residents of the upper floor as they realized that they were trapped.
Something was wrong with the scenario, he thought. The distribution of the burning areas seemed odd, to say the least, but he didn't have time to follow up on the thought. He yanked open the window that gave onto the fire escape, took a deep breath and blew. Icy cold air extinguished the flame almost instantaneously. He flew through the opening over the heads of frightened people crowding toward the window, aware of the distant sound of sirens growing rapidly closer, and yanked open the door to the stairs.
The stairwell was an inferno, but it had caused surprisingly little damage for a fire that had managed to get this far. Another blast of freezing breath put out the flames, and as he did so he smelled it. Gasoline. The fire had been set.
Outside, the sirens had swelled to a deafening crescendo, and began to cut off as emergency vehicles pulled up outside. The rug in the lower hall was also blazing, he saw as he stepped out of the stairwell on the first floor, and flames were licking at the walls and ceiling. The odor of gasoline was almost overpowering. Expeditiously, he put out the fire here, as well, then looked around, scanning the building with his x-ray vision. Lois had to be somewhere around here, he thought. He could hear her heartbeat.
A firefighter was standing in the doorway when he turned, fanning at the smoke. He eyed Clark with an awed expression on his face. "What happened?" he demanded.
"The fire was set," Clark said. "I put it out."
The man sniffed. "Yeah. I can smell the gasoline. Is anyone hurt?"
"I haven't had a chance to check," Clark said. "It seemed like a good idea to put out the fire before it got any farther."
"Yeah." The man turned and gave a whistle that made him wince. "Hey, Chief! Superman's put out the fire! Let's get some help in here!"
Lois was above him, Clark thought, and if he were a betting man, he'd be willing to wager a considerable sum on exactly where she was. His x-ray vision confirmed his guess a second later. His partner was crossing the living area of Joey's tiny apartment, toward the window. Clark lifted over the heads of the firefighters and the half-hysterical residents of the building, flew up the stairs and whisked into the room.
Lois turned at the sound of his feet hitting the carpet, an expression of alarm on her features that quickly turned into one of relief. "Superman!"
He looked around. "I suppose," he said, "that it would be silly of me to ask what you're doing here."
"Of course it would," Lois said. "Get me out of here, would you?"
"Joey's vanished," Clark said.
Lois jammed her hands into the pockets of her jacket. Snow fell, the tiny, glittering flakes sifting down endlessly, clinging to her eyelashes and coating the shoulders of her coat with a layer of white that didn't melt. "Why am I not surprised? I take it you're sure he isn't dead or something."
"I scanned the whole building," Clark said. "No bodies. I'd say that he took the opportunity to vanish, along with his protection money. We know he was scared of what they were going to do to him. All that confusion would be a perfect opportunity to get away without being seen by whoever was watching him."
"Yeah. That character that was talking to him in his apartment could even have started the fire, for all I know. If it hadn't been for Superman, the place would probably have burned to the ground."
"It might have, even with the fire station as close as it is," Clark said. "If Superman hadn't shown up when he did, most of the people on the upper floor wouldn't have made it. Whoever poured the gas out made sure that the escape routes were blocked, and the building's sprinkler system isn't worth the name."
Lois shook her head. "That's pretty much the norm with most of the buildings around Suicide Slum. I wrote an article about it last year, but nothing much got done. The guy who was talking to Joey probably knew it. The slumlords who own these places never seem to get prosecuted. I suspect the Boss has his finger in the rental industry, too."
"Probably," Clark said. "This guy that was talking to Joey — you say he threatened him?"
Lois nodded. The two of them were standing on the sidewalk across from the apartment house a short distance from a crowd of spectators, watching the proceedings. "He said it was Joey's second strike. Do you suppose he lied?"
"Could be. Just to keep Joey from running prematurely." Clark dusted the snow from her shoulders. "Let's go. You got the story for the Planet, and you're cold. I'm sure we can talk this over just as well in your apartment as out on the sidewalk in the snow."
The flight to Lois's apartment was accomplished in a bare five minutes after they had stepped into an alley a block farther down the street. Clark set her down on the rug of her living room and scanned the apartment, as he now did routinely, for spying devices. There were none.
Lois was removing her coat. "Brr! I don't think I'm ever going to be warm again!"
"I have to admit, I've been on some stakeouts under worse conditions," Clark said, "but not many. Hold still."
She obeyed and he carefully swept her with his heat vision from head to toe, dispelling the chill.
"Thanks." She rubbed her arms.
"Don't mention it. Want to fill me in on exactly what happened in that apartment?"
Lois shrugged. "Well, I was falling asleep just sitting there waiting for you," she said, a little defensively, "so I decided to look things over a little more closely."
Clark shook his head, trying not to smile. "I guess I'm not really surprised."
"Clark, I didn't get where I am by being too careful! I told you before that I tend to jump in without checking the water level — but it's the only way I know how to do it — to get the job done. To get the respect I want — that I deserve. I —"
"Lois." He closed the distance between them in a single step and put his arms around her. "I didn't say anything."
She shook her head. "No, but I knew you wanted me to wait for you. I probably should have, but …"
"Honey, have I ever asked you to change the way you do your job?"
Again she shook her head. "No, but — you know other reporters won't work with me because of the risks I take."
"And the point of this is what?" He kissed the tip of her nose. "I'm not other reporters, you know. If I'm going to spend the rest of my life with you, then I have to accept you the way you are. I don't want you to try to be somebody else. But let me tell you something." He tightened his arms around her. "What you said about respect? I hear a lot of things that people don't expect me to hear, and in spite of the fact that they won't work with you, everybody at the Planet — *everyone*, even Ralph — thinks you're just about the best reporter they've ever known." He met her eyes squarely, trying as hard as he could to convey his sincerity. "The reason they won't work with you is that they know they can't keep up. As a matter of fact, I've acquired a totally undeserved reputation because I can, and because you've made it clear that you want to work with me." He held her back a few inches so he could see her expression. "Lois, you don't have to prove anything to anyone. You already have, time and again. You earned their respect a long time ago, honey. You were right about Ralph, you know. He's so jealous of you that he can't see straight."
He nodded. "Really. And, in case I haven't made it clear, I think you're pretty terrific, too."
She swallowed. "I didn't realize …" Her expression changed suddenly. "What did you call me?"
The abrupt change of subject surprised him. "What?"
"You called me honey." A slow smile began to form on her lips. "You know, I never thought of myself as anyone's honey. I kind of like it."
"So do I."
She slid her arms around his neck. "Do you have any other names for me?"
He caressed her cheek with one hand, leaving streaks in the light coating of soot that they had both acquired at the scene of the fire. "Sweetheart? Darling? My little … tornado?"
Lois giggled. "Oh, this is disgusting."
"Not a bit," Clark said, with a smile. "I can't wait until I can call you all those things in public. The sooner we get this investigation finished and put you know who behind bars, the sooner I can start." He pulled her toward the highly uncomfortable sofa that graced her living room and sat down, one arm firmly around her shoulders. "Now, do you suppose you could give me a slightly clearer idea of what went on in that apartment this evening?"
"Sure." Lois reached into the pocket of her jeans. "Here."
He took the envelope. "What's this?"
"These are pictures from the surveillance camera in the entrance of Joey's apartment house. I think this may be the person who committed the robbery where he lost the protection money — and maybe the diary."
"What?" Clark opened the flap and shook the contents into his hand.
The pictures were grainy and indistinct, but not so indistinct that he couldn't identify the boy in the photograph. One of them gave a fairly clear profile view, and to his enhanced vision, there was no doubt of the thief's identity.
"Oh man," he said.
"I caught this kid breaking into my apartment the other day," he said. "His name is Jack. I've been keeping an eye on him ever since."
"Why didn't you just turn him over to the cops?" Lois asked.
"I had my reasons." He stood up. "I'll tell you about it when I get back."
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"To find Jack. If these people know who he is, he's in danger — and if he actually has the diary, this could be our big break."
The abandoned building that this morning had housed Jack and Denny was empty. Clark landed in the alley behind the place and a moment later was walking into the ancient building.
The blanket that the two boys had used to block the freezing wind was gone, and all their possessions had disappeared as well. The mattress that had served them for a bed was still there, as were several paper bags that had contained fast food, but blankets and backpacks had vanished. It looked as if the boys had packed up and left in a hurry.
Well, he supposed, if they had realized that there was a hunt for them and that they were in danger it made sense for them to leave, but if they had the diary then it was a loss for his and Lois's investigation.
He looked around the dingy little room. A hole in the disintegrating wall caught his attention. If the boys had wanted to hide anything — like the stolen money — a hole in the wall would be a likely place. He flashed his x- ray vision over the wall.
Something had indeed been hidden in the wall. Lying at the very bottom, he could see a crumpled fifty-dollar bill, a grimy piece of paper and three items that looked like some sort of brochures. Quickly, he crossed the room and retrieved them.
The torn and dirty piece of paper was a local bus schedule. One of the brochures was for the local subway, and two were for the two different cross- country bus lines that served Metropolis. It looked to him as if the boys had decided that safety for them lay away from the city, and he had to admit that they were probably right. Quickly, he scanned the rest of the room, then whisked out of the rickety shelter and took to the air.
Snow was still falling steadily but it might as well not exist from his standpoint. The nearest bus station was only a few blocks away and he made a beeline for it. He was probably too late, he thought, but it seemed unlikely that the boys would have departed for the bus station in broad daylight — especially if they were at all worried about being spotted, either by CPS or worse, by the minions of The Boss, so maybe they were still around somewhere. If not, he wasn't certain what the next move would be, but maybe Lois would have some ideas.
There was no one waiting at any of the bus stops that he checked that in any way resembled Jack or Denny, although at each one he noted the presence of one or two figures that stood in nearby doorways, apparently for no other purpose than to watch the empty street. He might have thought them to be the homeless of Metropolis, except for the fact that their clothing was in far too good condition. Filing the fact away, he proceeded on to the local subway stations.
At two o'clock in the morning, the only persons present were a few individuals waiting for the night trains, a number of genuine homeless, sleeping in remote corners, and several persons of the same type as he had noted at the bus stops, who didn't appear to be actually waiting for trains, but did seem to be keeping a close eye on the entrances. A quick check of the nearest cross-country bus terminal produced the same results.
So, the public transportation in the vicinity of the boys' shelter was all being carefully watched. He added that to the empty hideout. Jack and Denny, he thought, must have realized their imminent danger and left their temporary home, probably just ahead of the hounds. It was quite possible that they were still somewhere around the area, hiding, afraid to approach their escape routes.
Which meant that he needed to find them, and quickly, but that was much easier said than done. At least, he could be fairly sure that they hadn't been picked up yet, but for how long that would continue was open to question. It looked as if Superman was in for a long night.
Lois had changed into her pajamas and a thick robe, and was sitting on the sofa watching the news when the phone rang. She pressed the "mute" button on the remote and picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Lois," Clark's voice said, "you may as well go to bed. It looks like I'm going to be a while."
"What's going on?" she asked.
"It's too complicated to go into right now," he said. "I'll explain in the morning."
"Do you need any help?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said, sounding rueful, "but I don't think anyone can give it to me. Jack and his brother are gone, and it looks like the Boss's people are hunting for them. I have to find them first."
"You're going to tell me about this Jack kid tomorrow, right?"
"That's a promise. Good night, honey."
"Good night." Lois took a deep breath. He might be Clark Kent to everyone else, but he would always be Charlie to her. "I love you, Charlie."
"I love you, too," he said. "I'll see you in the morning."
Lois hung up, wondering a little at herself. She had said those words to Claude and he'd taken advantage of her and then hurt and humiliated her beyond words. Superstitiously, she'd almost been afraid to say them to Clark for fear that it would jinx things, but once said, it was as if a burden had been lifted off of her shoulders. She didn't have to fear what would happen with him; her Charlie was the man who, after Claude, she had thought she would never meet, and yet he had come to her in the strangest of ways. The man of her dreams had literally dropped out of the sky. It figured, she thought, as she made her way into the bedroom. Her mother might irritate the heck out of her, but every now and then she was right. She'd always said that Lois had to do things the hard way; she couldn't follow the crowd.
Well, why should she follow the crowd, Lois asked herself with a touch of defiance. Such a thing was highly overrated, especially when the results turned out like this. As of tonight, their engagement was official, and as soon as they finished their investigation, she and Clark could announce it to the world. Oddly, now that it was done, she was almost as eager for it to be announced as he was. At the very least, it would stop Cat in her tracks. Or maybe not; but at least it would give Clark a solid basis for turning her down, and just thinking about the look on Ralph's face made her smile.
She went to the window of her bedroom and parted the curtains a little, looking out at the darkness where the snow was still falling gently and steadily. Her Charlie was out there somewhere, searching the city and watching over it and her. It gave her an amazing feeling of security.
"Be careful out there, Charlie," she whispered. She closed the curtains and dropped her robe across the foot of her bed. Her little battery-powered alarm clock said it was after two. She'd bought it deliberately after her experiences during the Nightfall crisis to be sure that she had an alarm that didn't depend on the building's power. With a jaw-cracking yawn, she crawled into bed and pulled the blankets up to her chin. Morning was going to come all too soon, she thought as she reached over to switch off the lamp. With any luck, Clark would find Jack and his brother. She hadn't been able to tell much from the photo but the boy didn't look very old. The thought of two kids out there in the open, hunted by the minions of the Boss, sent a chill down her spine that had nothing to do with the temperature outside the apartment. If the boy had stolen the diary, she could only hope that he was smart enough or lucky enough to escape the people hunting him until Clark could track him down. The boy's youth was unlikely to matter to someone who ran most of the crime in Metropolis. The Boss hadn't risen to the top of the criminal world by being soft.
If she started thinking too much about this, she wasn't going to get any sleep at all, she told herself, and she was exhausted. She had a date with Luthor tonight and would need to be at the top of her game. She closed her eyes and tried to relax. Fatigue pulled at her, and at last, she fell into an uneasy sleep, but her dreams were restless ones where she ran and hid from faceless hunters that seemed to know where she had gone no matter how cleverly she concealed herself. She was sweating and shaking when her alarm went off at six and she opened her eyes.
She glared at the clock, but its hands indeed pointed to 6:00. Grumbling and cross, she crawled out of bed. The bedroom was chilly. She pulled on her bathrobe and made her way to the window. A peek through the curtains told her that it was still snowing lightly. Well, today was already starting out on the wrong foot. She stumbled toward the shower, but when she snapped the wall switch, no light responded.
She flipped it several more times. Nothing.
Maybe, she thought hopefully, it was just the bulb. She went back into the bedroom and tried the switch.
Nothing. The power was out.
Wonderful. That meant that the water was going to be cold, too, and she was in no mood for a freezing shower. She'd put off a shower last night because she was tired, but there was no way she was going to go in to work this morning without showering!
Well, if the power had gone out recently, the water might still be warm. If it was, she could take a quick shower before the hot water ran out. Crossing her fingers, she went into the bathroom and turned on the water at the sink.
The water was still freezing two minutes later. She turned it off in disgust. Great; just great.
Well, it was possible that the outage was just a local one. Maybe the power was on at Clark's. He wouldn't mind if she went over there; she was sure of that.
She made her way to the phone and paused. If he had found the boys he'd probably be home, but maybe not. She picked up her purse and rummaged for the slip of paper where she had recorded his cellular phone number the night before.
The phone rang twice, and then Clark's voice answered. "Kent."
"Clark?" Lois said, "It's Lois. Any luck?"
"No." His voice sounded discouraged. "No sign of them."
"Terrific," Lois said. "Do you think they've been caught?
"I doubt it. The shifts at the bus stops changed an hour ago. They're still looking."
"Well, that's better than nothing," Lois said. "They must have found someplace to hide out. You'll find them eventually if you keep looking. I think we should let Henderson know as soon as possible."
"I'm going to, as soon as the morning shift comes on."
"Good idea. Um …" Lois hesitated. "Can I ask a favor?"
"I was wondering if I could … go over to your place for a shower."
A silence at the other end of the phone. "Sure," Clark said, sounding slightly surprised. "Um … could I ask why?"
"The power is out here and the water's cold."
"Oh." A soft laugh. "I imagine a cold shower isn't exactly how you wanted to start your day. Go right ahead. I have to get ready for work, anyway. I'll meet you there."
Jack Brown stirred sleepily on the softest bed that he had slept on in weeks. The sofa was old but very comfortable and the heater that he could hear chugging away had kept Clark Kent's apartment warm and comfortable all night long. Jack had almost forgotten what it was like to be warm all over. Even the tip of his nose was warm.
Behind the partition, he could hear Denny snoring slightly. His brother had had a slight cold for the last couple of days, and the temperature in their old home had been barely above freezing, but he sounded less stuffy this morning, so maybe the warm apartment was helping. Denny had taken the bed last night but Jack had insisted on sleeping in the living room so he would know when Kent came home.
He glanced at the clock on the wall. Six-fifteen, and Kent wasn't here yet. He must have been working last night, Jack thought. It figured. When he didn't want the guy around, he was Johnny-on-the-spot, but when he and Denny wanted to see him, he was nowhere to be found.
Well, he thought, this wasn't a bad place to hang out. At least it was warm and there was stuff to eat, although he had been kind of surprised at a guy as old as Kent having that much junk food in his kitchen.
His stomach grumbled on cue. Jack sat up, pushing back the blanket that he had pulled out of the closet and surveyed himself. He didn't look too bad and he sure smelled a whole lot better than before. Last night, he and Denny had taken turns standing guard while the other showered. He'd even washed his hair, and insisted that Denny wash his. Neither of them had had a bath in a week, except for a couple of times when they had visited a gas station and washed off the worst of the dirt with paper towels in the restroom, which was pretty unsatisfactory, to say the least.
He crawled out from under the covers and headed for the bathroom. The clothing he had hung over Kent's shower stall last night was just about dry. He pulled it on, sniffing it experimentally. It smelled a lot better, too.
It had been long enough that he actually enjoyed brushing his teeth. Kent had a spare toothbrush that was still in its package, and Jack had no hesitation in borrowing it for his own use. Kent obviously had plenty of money and could certainly afford to buy a new toothbrush if he wanted one.
In the kitchenette a few minutes later, he rummaged through the cupboard, looking for something suitable for breakfast. He didn't really want Twinkies or Ho-Hos, and potato chips didn't quite seem like something he'd like the first thing in the morning. He'd had enough junk food over the past few weeks to last him a while.
There was, however, a homemade apple pie in the refrigerator, and some eggs and bread. A short time later, he was having apple pie and eggs on buttered toast — real butter, if he was any judge — and chocolate milk. He hadn't had food like this since before his mother had disappeared. Mom had done a lot of drinking, but she'd been a pretty decent cook.
With a jerk, he shook off the unaccustomed mood. The last thing he needed now was to start getting sentimental about the past. Mom had cared more about her crummy boyfriend than she had about her own kids. Well, he and Denny didn't need her. They weren't doing too bad by themselves, if they could just stay ahead of the CPS and the Boss. Where the devil was Kent, anyway?
And at that moment, he heard the apartment door open.
Lois pulled the Jeep up in front of Clark's apartment, turned off the engine and set the parking brake. Snow was still falling, a little more heavily than it had been when she had left her own place. The tiny, glittering flakes sifted down without fuss, collecting in little ripples on the sidewalk, covering the muddy, trampled mess that countless pedestrians had made in the previous layer of older snow.
It was still early. She glanced at her watch, noting that it was just after six-thirty. The sun was up but just barely and the sky to the east was a mass of snow clouds colored with an oddly ruddy glow of the rising sun behind them. She picked up the bag containing her office wear and pushed open the door of the Jeep. There was no sign of Clark, and she was going to be late if she didn't hurry.
A man's voice spoke suddenly behind her. "That was fast."
She jumped. "Clark, don't sneak up on me like that!"
"Sorry." He didn't sound sorry. "Come on inside. I'm pretty sure this section of town still has power. A truck skidded out of control a few hours ago and hit a power pole a couple of blocks from your place. That's why the power was out."
"Well, if it is, you can just heat up the water for me," she said, shutting the door of the Jeep and handing him the bag. "And, do you have any food? I'm starving. I forgot to go shopping yesterday."
"No prob …" He broke off and she glanced back at him to see him lifting his glasses to stare in the direction of his apartment.
"What?" she asked.
"I seem to have a couple of visitors," he said, softly. "Denny is sleeping in my bed and Jack is having breakfast in the kitchen."
"Jack. The boy in the picture. Denny is his younger brother."
"They were here all along?"
"Looks like it," he said. "I gave Jack my card and told him to call if he needed help. I guess he decided to take me up on it." He pushed his glasses into place. "Come on."
Lois caught his elbow. "Wait a minute. You said you caught him breaking into your apartment a few days ago. What happened?"
"Oh, that." Clark looked uncomfortable. "I came home a couple of days ago and surprised Jack ransacking my apartment."
"I guess he ran and you caught him … and decided to let him go instead of turning him in?"
"Yeah." Clark lowered his glasses and glanced back in the direction of his apartment. "Jack and Denny are on their own. They were living in an old abandoned building a few blocks from here. Jack was basically using petty theft to support the pair of them."
She chuckled. "You're a major softie, you know that?"
He shrugged, and she thought his cheeks were a little pinker than usual. "Yeah, I know. But Lois, if I were to turn them in to Child Protective Services, and they actually have that diary, do you think they'd be safe from Luthor? I think that, for their own safety, we should probably get them out of Metropolis at least for a while. Do you think I'm wrong?"
"No; I agree," Lois said. "But you didn't know about any of this at the time."
"I didn't want to split them up," he said, a little defensively. "According to Jack, their parents abandoned them. I didn't want to make it worse. And now, with everything that's happened since …"
Lois shook her head, but decided not to pursue the subject. "Come on. If they're in your place, they must be waiting for you."
The door of the apartment opened and Jack waited out of sight in the kitchen. He was trapped, he knew, and even if he was able to get away he couldn't leave Denny. Besides, it was probably just Kent coming home. The guy had said he wanted to help them; Jack hoped that he had really meant it.
The door closed and he heard the lock turn, then footsteps across the room. His heart sank. There was someone else besides Kent; he hadn't counted on that. If it really was Kent out there, who else would be with him? A girlfriend, or maybe a cop?
One set of footsteps crossed the rug toward the kitchenette. Jack tensed.
The footsteps stopped and the voice Jack remembered spoke suddenly. "I know you're there, Jack. Why don't you come out?"
It was Kent, all right. Faced with no other choice, Jack stepped into the doorway. Kent was standing a few feet away, and a woman was sitting in one of the armchairs. Neither of them looked surprised and Jack wondered if he had somehow left signs of his and Denny's entry.
Kent smiled. "I guess you've been here for a while, huh?"
"What makes you think I have?"
"If that's your brother sleeping in my bed, I figure you got here sometime last night. What happened?"
"You said you'd help us if we needed it."
"And I meant it," Kent said. "I've heard some stuff on the street. Some pretty dangerous people are looking for you."
Kent was smarter than he'd thought. "Yeah."
"Okay," Kent said. "Why don't you bring your food in here and sit down. We'll talk and see what I can do." He gestured to the woman. "This is my work partner, Ms. Lane."
When Jack had finished speaking, Clark Kent regarded him silently long enough for Jack to begin to squirm uneasily. He told himself that Kent couldn't possibly know the real story. The guy obviously felt sorry for Denny and him, so maybe they could convince him to help the two of them get out of town.
Kent smiled suddenly. "That's a pretty good story as far as it goes, but it isn't the whole one, is it?"
"Jack," Ms. Lane said, "you'd be a lot better off if you'd tell us everything — not just the part that's supposed to make us feel sorry for you." She regarded him steadily and he shifted uneasily in his seat. "You two are in a lot of danger from some pretty nasty people. We know that you were the one who robbed Joey McPherson's safe of his protection receipts; that's why the Boss's goons are after you. Personally, I don't care about the money and I doubt the Boss really does. Somebody in his position regards the amount you stole from Joey as chump change."
Jack had to work hard to control his expression. Lane was looking at him in a way that told him that he'd badly underestimated her. He hadn't fooled her for an instant.
Her gaze flicked to Kent, and then back to Jack. "However," she continued, evenly, "being the kind of person he is, he isn't going to just forgive and forget. That's not the way he does business. Besides, when you robbed Joey's safe, something else went with the money; something much more important than a few thousand dollars. There was a diary that could put the Boss in prison for several lifetimes if it gets into the right hands. He obviously thinks you have it … and you know what? So do I. I'll offer you a deal right now. If you give us that diary, Clark and I will see to it that you get out of Metropolis safely — to a place that the Boss will have a lot of trouble finding you."
Kent nodded. "I realize that under the law, Lois and I should report you to CPS, but we're not going to. The Boss has a long reach. Even if they believed us, you wouldn't be safe in the foster care system and you know it as well as I do. Until we can straighten this whole thing out, you'll be a lot safer completely out of the state of New Troy."
Jack was silent for some time, but his brain was working hard. This was exactly what he and Denny wanted, but he wasn't anxious to admit anything about the diary. Finally, he said, "What if I said I don't know what you're talking about?"
"Then the Boss will stay free to continue hunting you," Clark said. "We all know that he'll never give up. Eventually he'll track you down no matter how well you hide, and he'll have you killed. Both of you. He can't do anything else even if he wanted to — which I doubt — and still keep his authority over his followers. The only real hold people like him have over anyone is fear; he can't afford to let them think he might be going soft, and his tentacles reach a long way out of Metropolis. On the other hand, you could give us the diary. I have a friend who can get you out of the city and leave no traces at all of where you went. Then Lois and I can see to it that the diary gets to someone who can use it to bring him down … permanently. What do you think?"
Jack scowled. Letting go of his insurance went against the grain, but that diary was a hotter potato than he had ever handled. It could get him killed as easily as it could save his neck — and Denny, as well. Much as he hated to admit it, Kent was right. "Who is this friend?" he asked, "and how do I know I can trust him?"
Kent smiled slightly. "Let's say that he can fly you out without leaving a trace. I also think I know a place where you can stay, at least for a while — as long as you don't do anything to draw attention to yourselves. Do you think you can do that — lay low and stay out of trouble?"
Jack regarded the two reporters for nearly a minute without saying anything. The deal was tempting, but he'd learned the hard way not to trust easily. "I'll tell you what," he said, finally. "You get your pilot friend to take us somewhere safe and I'll tell you where it is."
Lane and Kent looked at each other. He saw Lane give a tiny nod. Kent turned back to him. "It's a deal. Now, I need to go out for a while to make some arrangements. Lois can stay here with you while I'm gone."
Jack regarded him suspiciously. "Why can't you just phone?"
Kent shook his head. "I want to do this in person. We can't afford to get careless. Phones can be tapped and I don't want anyone who shouldn't to overhear anything I say. I won't be gone long."
He had a point. Jack nodded grudgingly. "Okay. I guess you're right."
It was a little more than half an hour later. Denny had awakened and was eating scrambled eggs and toast at Kent's coffee table when Jack heard the sound of the bedroom window opening and started up from the couch in alarm. Lane turned without the slightest sign of surprise. "Don't worry. It's just your ride."
Jack was about to ask what she was talking about when Superman stepped into the living room. Jack stared. He had heard about this guy; even he and Denny hadn't been able to completely miss the stir he had made when he appeared a few days ago. He gaped at the colorful figure, not quite able to believe his eyes. The red, yellow and blue of the costume seemed to glow in the apartment's lighting, and Jack could see the man's muscle ripple under the skin-tight outfit as he strode casually forward.
Superman turned to Lane. "Clark says your friends need a lift," he said, mildly.
The reporter nodded. "They need to get out of town without anyone knowing about them," she said.
"I know. Clark told me." He turned to meet Jack's eyes. "Jack, isn't it? And your brother, Denny. Clark has arranged for you to stay with his parents on their farm in Kansas. That should be just about as safe as you can get — as long as you don't draw attention to yourselves. Why don't you get your things and we'll go."
Jack nodded, unable, for once, to think of anything to say. Without a word, he went to retrieve his backpack from the corner of the bedroom, where he had left it. A quick glance over his shoulder told him that no one had followed him, and he was unobserved. Smoothly and quickly, he opened Denny's pack, found the diary where he had put it for safekeeping while his clothes were drying, and transferred it to his own. He wasn't about to leave this thing out of his control until Lane and Kent had completed the deal.
"Are we going to fly?" his brother asked Superman, as Jack returned to the living room.
"That's right." Superman glanced at Denny. "I'll take Jack first and come back for you, so why don't you finish your breakfast while you're waiting. This won't take long." He turned to Jack. "Are you afraid of heights?"
Jack shook his head.
"Good. We're going to take off from the bedroom window. I'm going to take you up fast so nobody will have a chance to see us. We'll be flying just below the cloud level; no one will be able to see you from the ground. I doubt that the Boss's goons are going to be looking up, anyway."
That made sense. Jack gulped, trying not to let the strange, super-powered man see that he was nervous. Superman reached out to pick up his ragged jacket from a chair back. "Better put this on. It's going to be a bit chilly. As a matter of fact, I'm sure Clark won't mind if I borrow one of his blankets for the trip."
"I'll get it," Lane said. She stepped around the wall into the bedroom and returned an instant later with the quilt that had been on the bed. She presented it to Jack. "Will this do?"
"It'll be fine," Superman said. "Wrap yourself up in it. I'll be back here in ten minutes for Denny."
Jack wrapped the quilt tightly around his body and consciously didn't swallow nervously as Superman swept him up. He felt a rush of cold wind on his face and squeezed his eyes tightly shut, and when he opened them, he was looking down at the city of Metropolis spread out below him. The cars looked like toys and the people ants. He did gulp then and turned his gaze up to look at the layer of snow clouds, close overhead. Tiny spots of cold brushed his face and he realized that flakes were still falling. The breeze was icy on his skin, telling him that the idea of taking the quilt had been a very good one. Gathering his courage, he looked down again, forcing himself to keep his eyes on the city so far below him. He had been in a plane once, some six years ago, but it hadn't been anything like this. Then, he had been enclosed on all sides by the plane; here there was nothing around him but air.
The city was moving swiftly to the rear and they approached the low range of mountains to the west of Metropolis proper. He could see roads twisting through the hills and valleys like narrow ribbons, and the various smaller rivers that fed into the Hobs River were visible, tracing their way down from the higher land toward the sea. As he watched, Superman's speed increased until the scenery was passing in a near blur. Within minutes, they were over featureless, snow-covered expanses, gleaming palely in the light of pre-dawn, and they were slowing down. To his left he could see the lights of a town in the distance; they were dropping swiftly toward a farmhouse, standing alone among snowy fields and then they were down and Superman was lowering him to a walk lightly dusted with snow, in front of an old-fashioned, covered porch. Jack became quickly aware of the difference in the temperature as his companion removed the quilt, and he shivered. Here, the air had a dry quality, and there was a distinct bite to the icy atmosphere.
Jack found himself unexpectedly nervous. Superman glanced down at him. "They're expecting us. Don't worry."
"I'm not!" he asserted.
Superman didn't answer. Instead, he strode up the walk and stepped onto the porch. Briefly, he knocked on the doorframe.
The door opened and a woman old enough to be Jack's grandmother looked out. "Hello, Superman. Clark said you'd be coming. Is this Jack?"
"Yes, it is," Superman said. "Jack, this is Mrs. Kent, Clark's mother. She's agreed to let you and Denny stay here for a while, until the danger is over. I'll be back with Denny in a few minutes." The hero took off in a rush of cold air and Mrs. Kent smiled at Jack.
"Why don't you come in, Jack?" she said. "I'm getting breakfast right now. I imagine you wouldn't turn down a cup of hot chocolate?"
"Um … yeah. That'd be good." Jack climbed the steps to the porch and stepped inside.
He had never been in a place like this, he thought, sitting at the kitchen table and looking around at the room a few minutes later. His mother had been a pretty decent cook, but her kitchen had been a haphazard affair. This place was homey but organized, neat as a pin but obviously no showplace. A kettle was steaming gently on the stove, a coffeepot perked in the background, and the room smelled of bacon and eggs. The warm scent of waffles filled the air, and there were three kinds of syrup sitting in the table next to a big dish of butter and a jar of strawberry jam. Martha Kent set a large mug of cocoa into her microwave and turned it on at half power.
"It will be ready in a minute," she said. "Have you eaten this morning?"
"Yeah. I had some toast and eggs, and apple pie in Mr. Kent's apartment."
"Well …" Mrs. Kent looked dubious. "I guess that's not too bad. When Clark called he told us that your parents had abandoned you and you were hiding from a gang lord in Metropolis?"
"Uh huh." Jack fought the urge to squirm. "Denny and me, our mom and her boyfriend ran out on us. CPS kept separating us, so we were trying to make it on our own."
"You're a little young to be dealing with big time crime," Martha Kent said. "What happened?"
Oddly enough, Jack found himself wanting to explain the circumstances. It didn't really matter, he told himself. Why should it make a difference what a stranger thought of him? Besides, Kent and Lane had figured out most of it, and he was going to give them the diary anyway as soon as Denny got here. He'd promised and a deal was a deal. "Um …" He shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably. "I was tryin' to get enough money together so me and Denny could get out of Metropolis." Once the floodgates were open, the whole story came tumbling out. When he finished he found that he was staring at the checked tablecloth in front of him, waiting for the verdict.
"That's quite a story," a male voice said. He looked up in surprise to see an older man standing in the doorway, regarding him with a half-smile. "Clark told us you'd had a kind of tough time of it, but I think it was a bit harder than even my son realized. I'm Jonathan Kent, Clark's father. Pleased to meet you."
Mrs. Kent set the mug of cocoa on the table in front of him. "Here you go," she said. She turned her head. "I think I just heard Superman land. Your brother will be here in a minute. We've decided that you and he are Clark's younger cousins, here for a long visit while your parents are touring Europe."
Jack nodded. In the other room, he heard the door open and a moment later Superman walked into the kitchen, trailed by Denny. His brother hesitated in the doorway while Superman performed introductions, and then the superhero turned to him.
"Well," he said, "I've fulfilled my part of the deal. I believe you have something for Clark?"
"Yeah." Jack slid out of the chair and knelt by his backpack. He rummaged for a moment and his hand encountered the small book that might bring down the most powerful crime lord in Metropolis. He wiggled it free of the other contents of the pack and handed it to Superman with an odd feeling of relief. "Here. I hope I never see it again."
Superman didn't seem at all surprised, and Jack had the odd impression that he had known where the diary was all the time. He examined it intently, opened it and flipped swiftly through the pages. His eyebrows rose almost as high as they could go. He closed the book with a snap. "Thank you, Jack," he said quietly. "Remember what Clark and Lois told you. Don't draw attention to yourself and you'll be all right." He turned to look at the Kents. "We'll let you know what happens," he said. "It was nice to see you again."
"It was nice to see you too, Superman," Jonathan Kent said. "Say hello to Clark and Lois for us."
"I'll do that. Goodbye." Superman retrieved the quilt in which Denny had been wrapped and strode out of the room. Jack heard the whoosh as he took off.
Martha Kent was seating Denny at the table. "I'll get you some hot cocoa in a minute. Now, as your aunt and uncle, at least for the time being," she continued, "we need to get the two of you settled. We'll put you in Clark's room and you can put your things away. There isn't much farm work to do around here in the winter, but we do need to take care of the animals. The first thing, though, is to get the pair of you some clothes that will keep you from standing out …"
"So, I left them eating breakfast with Mom and Dad," Clark said. He poured coffee for Lois and another for himself.
"I hope they don't cause too much trouble for your parents," Lois said.
"I got the feeling that Dad sized Jack up pretty quick," Clark said, with a slight grin. "Mom, too. They'll keep those kids so busy they won't have time to get into mischief. Besides, I think Jack is too relieved that he and Denny are safe for the moment to make trouble." He transferred bacon and eggs to Lois's plate and his own and followed it with a bowl of chopped fruit. "Here you go. While you were showering, I took the diary to the Planet and scanned the whole thing. Then, Superman called Henderson."
"What did he say when he saw what Superman had for him?" Lois asked.
"I don't think I've ever seen anyone literally speechless before," Clark said. He smiled reminiscently. "I told him that Lane and Kent had found the thief and that the deal was to get him out of town in exchange for the diary. He seemed to think it was a good trade. I guess now we're going to have to be sure not to alert you-know-who until Henderson's been able to verify some of the stuff in that diary."
"I guess," Lois said, "that means I have to keep my dinner-and-opera date tonight. And we can try our plan with the phones to see if we can verify that number."
Clark took a sip of coffee and nodded. "We just need to keep on being careful for a little while longer," he said. "If Henderson's half the cop I think he is, the Boss will soon be spending his days behind bars on Stryker's Island."
"Nice of you two to show up today," Perry said as they walked into the Planet newsroom. The hands on the wall clock pointed accusingly to eleven twenty-five.
Lois shrugged. "We were on a late night stakeout," she said, unapologetically. "There's been a bunch of developments on that corporate corruption story we're working on. And no, nothing can be printed yet. We did send in a piece for you last night that will probably do as filler. There was an arson in Suicide Slum around midnight."
"Anything on Superman?" Perry asked, sounding hopeful.
"Not since he saved that busload of kids, yesterday," Lois said. She lowered her voice. "That's tied in with this too, Perry. This thing's explosive, but we can't talk about it, at least for a while longer."
"Just make sure nobody else gets the jump on us until you *can* talk about it," Perry said.
"Not if we can help it," Lois said. "I also have a dinner date with Lex Luthor tonight, so I can't stay late. He's taking me to the opera."
"Oh," Perry said, without a trace of reaction. "Well, be sure you get an in- depth interview."
"I'll do my best," Lois said. "He isn't the most forthcoming, even when he's agreed to an interview." She glanced over her shoulder at Ralph, who was making his way across the newsroom toward them.
The man smirked at her. "Back to Luthor again, eh Lane? You sure get around."
Perhaps it was the short night, but something snapped. "What the devil is that supposed to mean, Finkelstein?"
"Oh … nothing." Ralph smirked again and elbowed Clark. "This girl flies high. I guess you were never in the running."
"Ralph." Perry's voice stopped him in his tracks. "That's enough. You've been warned before about inappropriate remarks. One more and I'm going to have to bring disciplinary action. This is your last warning."
"Sorry." Ralph seemed to shrink. "I didn't mean anything."
"I'll see you in my office in five minutes." Perry looked up at the ceiling as if searching for Divine inspiration, or maybe just looking for help, Lois thought. "You and I need to have a serious discussion about several issues." He turned back to Lois and Clark. "Now, since you can't give me any more on that other thing yet, there's a press conference over at Monumental Studios in about thirty minutes."
"What kind of press conference?" Lois asked, suspiciously.
"Geraldine Garcia and her costar Robert Vincent are announcing some big joint production venture. Every paper in town will be there and since Cat's out with the flu today, I need someone to cover it. You two drew the short straw. Get goin'."
"Give me a break," Lois was muttering some ten minutes later as she started up the Jeep. "This pair stars in masterpieces like 'My Brother, the Alien Clone'. We're supposed to take them seriously?"
"Lois, every actor starts small," Clark said.
"That isn't small, it's microscopic," Lois said. "Besides, they're always in the tabloids. Gerry has a drinking problem; Gerry is on a new miracle diet and has lost forty pounds in two months — not that she could afford to since she's skinny as a rail now; Gerry is having a baby — she'd have to have a dozen kids by this time if all the rumors were right, I'd think — or she's seeing another man … or her husband is seeing one; or maybe Robert's fiancee has jilted him for someone else, or is having drug problems … you name it, it's happened to them — at least in the National Whisper."
Clark laughed. "I wonder if the lives of celebrities are really all that wild," he said, "or if most of this weird stuff is actually made up to make it look like they're living this fantastic lifestyle, just so they'll sound interesting? If we knew what they really did with their free time, we'd probably find out they're just as uninteresting as the ordinary man on the street."
Lois didn't answer for several minutes as she maneuvered her way through the lunch hour traffic toward the Bayshore Parkway. After they were moving along with the flow of traffic, she resumed the conversation as if it had never been interrupted.
"I don't know about uninteresting. If you had thirty million dollars to play with, wouldn't you do some of the things that most of us only dream about?"
"I think," Clark said, "that it might get to be boring after a little while. On the other hand, I *like* living an ordinary life. Being in the public eye all the time would get old pretty fast."
Lois considered that. It was probably the most accurate statement of his view on living life that she had ever heard. "You probably have a point," she conceded. "Just think what it would be like if every time you set foot out in public there was a crowd of media waiting for you."
"Stalkers, fans, curiosity seekers," Clark added. "People interested in every part of your life, even the most private aspects. I couldn't handle it."
"Reporters for the tabloids sifting through your garbage," Lois added. "Not to mention the people trying to rip off your clothes for souvenirs. You're absolutely right. Some people might live for that, but I couldn't. I'll stick to being a journalist."
"Amen," Clark agreed. "Fame just for the sake of fame isn't worth the hassle." Lois saw that he was smiling a little and laughed to herself. Anyone listening in on them via the bug planted in the Jeep ought to be convinced by now that they had no clue about Lex Luthor's real nature. She hoped they could think of a good way to get rid of it soon. Having to watch everything she said while she was driving was definitely annoying. They let the silence lengthen as she negotiated the parkway traffic. The Cinema Boulevard exit was coming up and she cut in front of a teenage driver who speeded up at the last minute when he apparently saw her signal to change lanes.
"Moron," she commented. "I guess he loses points if anyone manages to get in ahead of him."
"People with Type A personalities are that way," Clark said. "They're just naturally competitive."
"Yeah, well, that one was stupid. I'm bigger than he is."
Clark smiled without saying anything. She took the exit to Cinema Boulevard and turned right toward the Monumental Studios lot.
"So," Clark said, "Lex Luthor is taking you to the opera tonight?"
"That's right," she said. "I'm looking forward to it. He's a very charming man."
"Just don't get too stuck on Lifestyles of the Incredibly Rich and Powerful," Clark said.
"Don't be silly," she said. "Why would he be interested in me? I'm just a journalist."
"Albeit one of the best in the business," Clark said. "Besides, he wouldn't have asked you out if he didn't like what he saw."
"To him I'm simply one more reasonably pretty face in the crowd," Lois said. "A man like him has his pick of hundreds of beautiful women any time he wants. I'm just going to enjoy the evening and the company. Are you jealous?"
"Just envious," Clark said, "but then, so are most of the men in the newsroom — especially Ralph."
"Ralph's an idiot," Lois said unequivocally. "If that brain cell of his ever wakes up, it's going to die of loneliness in there all by itself. You shouldn't listen to the rumors he starts. I don't think even he does."
"I doubt he remembers half of what he says," Clark said, "but he's going to get himself fired if he doesn't watch out. He was hitting on Patty over in the secretarial pool this morning, and I don't think she appreciated it."
"Small loss," Lois said. "His writing belongs more in the Whisper than in the Planet anyway."
"I think he's trying to branch out," Clark said. "He's been trying to snoop on your Superman information."
"Well, he won't find much even if he does," she said. "I still have to nail down that interview that Superman promised me."
"I hope he hasn't forgotten," Clark said.
"I don't intend to let him forget," Lois said. "The next time I see him, I'm going to remind him." She braked and blew her horn at a delivery truck that turned left in front of her. "Idiot! He just turned left against a red light!"
"The guy must have driven a cab in a previous life," Clark said.
"A cab in Metropolis!" Lois clarified. "Well, at least we're nearly there."
"I can hardly wait."
Lois didn't answer immediately as she pulled up to the guard's shack and displayed her press credentials. The studio guard checked them and then waved them through. She followed the signs toward the lot designated for visitors.
They were silent while she found a parking space on the second tier and cut the engine. When they had locked the doors behind them and were walking toward the security checkpoint, Lois breathed a sigh of relief. "How much longer do we have to put up with that bug, anyway?"
"I think it's served its purpose," Clark said. "It's time to get rid of it. I have an idea …"
"It doesn't involve wrecking my Jeep, does it?" she asked a little suspiciously, considering the smug expression on his face.
"Lois! Would I do that? Besides, if you did, we might wind up with another subcompact," Clark said. "Now, here's what I think we should do …"
"I can't believe it," Lois was saying as they got back into the Jeep. "All that hoopla for another grade Z horror flick? 'My Cousin, the Zombie Hunter'? Oh, please!"
"Publicity, Lois," Clark said. "If you're in show business you live and die by publicity."
"I think this one is going to die before it's lived," Lois said. "Give me a break! Perry is wasting our time with *this* drivel? That fire last night was more exciting and I can't believe we spent two hours out there in the snow reporting on a dinky little fire in Suicide Slum. Ralph could have done it with his eyes closed."
"Well, the fire chief said it was arson. Superman put it out before it spread, but it could have been pretty bad."
"Believe me, most of the stuff in Suicide Slum could burn down and nobody would miss it," Lois said. "I suppose we'd better call and see if there's any more information on it, just as a follow-up. Ten to one, some drug dealer was trying to get rid of one of his rivals or something."
"Could be. It could have killed a lot of people, though. I'll call while you're writing up your notes, and see if they have any suspects," Clark said. "Want to get some lunch before we go back?"
"Sounds good," Lois said. "How about the Fudge Castle?"
"I said lunch, not dessert," Clark said.
"They have salad and sandwiches," Lois said. "And soup."
"And every kind of chocolate known to man," Clark added.
"So? I love chocolate. You're buying," she added.
"Okay, okay. Just have some mercy on my wallet," he said.
They exited the lot and Lois joined the line of cars leaving the studio grounds.
As they pulled into the lot beside the Fudge Castle twenty minutes later, Clark nodded to her.
"Clark," Lois said immediately, "look at the dashboard."
"What?" he said.
"The indicator lights are all blinking. What do you suppose is going on?"
"That's weird," Clark said, looking at the perfectly normal readouts of the Jeep's instruments. "Maybe you've got a short or something."
"If they've screwed up my electrical system, I'm going to kill my mechanic," Lois said. "I just got this thing back!"
"I just hope something doesn't catch fire," Clark said. "That happened to my dad's car once. You'd better have it checked out as soon as you can."
"Yeah. I'll call the garage while we're waiting for our lunch," Lois said. "Don't forget to lock your door." As she spoke, she cut the engine and pulled the lever that released the hood.
Clark was out of the Jeep instantly and opening the hood. He had already located the spot where the wire from the little microphone connected to the electrical system, and with a needle-thin burst of heat vision, he severed it. "Done."
"Let's hope that was convincing," Lois said, stepping out of the Jeep. She shut the door decisively and locked it.
"I'll take the whole thing out later," he said, "as soon as I can do it without an audience." He slammed the hood. "Let's go get some lunch. How do you feel about a hot fudge sundae? Like you said, I'm buying."
"Charlie, I just said that for effect."
He put an arm around her waist and hugged her briefly. "I know. But I want to buy the woman I love her favorite dessert to celebrate my engagement to her. Come on."
Unable to find a flaw with this impeccable reasoning, Lois allowed him to escort her into the Fudge Castle.
Lois was writing up her notes some two hours later, when her phone rang. She answered it automatically, shoving the receiver into the space between her shoulder and her ear. "Lois Lane."
"Hello, Lois." Lex Luthor's voice was warm and velvety, even over the phone. "I wanted to call to confirm our plans for this evening."
Caught by surprise, Lois stuttered, trying to regain her poise. "Lex … Mr. Luthor … I didn't expect …".
"Lex," Luthor's voice said. "Naturally I wouldn't leave something so personal to someone else." There was a smile in his voice. "I'll have a car at your door at six. I've arranged for a private dinner in the penthouse, followed by the performance of Siegfried at the Metropolitan Opera House. I trust that will be acceptable?"
Lois breathed deeply. The billionaire probably thought her confusion stemmed from his celebrity status and personal charm. The actual reasons were somewhat different, but if it catered to his vanity, it was just as well. "That would be wonderful!"
"Very good. Until this evening, then."
After he had hung up, Lois put the receiver down slowly. If she hadn't known the kind of man Lex Luthor actually was, she might actually be looking forward to this evening. After all, it would be a feather in any woman's cap that such a handsome, brilliant and successful man obviously found her to his taste. Probably part of the attraction was the challenge, she thought. She was an independent career woman with a pretty formidable resume attached to her name. Someone like Lex Luthor would probably find it an amusing contest to try to win the affection of the self-reliant Ms. Lane. She'd known manipulative and controlling men before, and in her estimation he was both. Fencing with him was going to be her own personal challenge for as long as it took to put him behind bars where he belonged.
Clark wasn't in the newsroom at the moment. He had given her a flying signal with one hand and departed hastily some twenty minutes before. She wondered what he was doing, but was confident that he would have a story to write about when he got back. Superman was undoubtedly in action somewhere in the city.
The phone on her desk rang again and she picked up the receiver. At this rate, she wasn't going to get much work done. "Lois Lane."
"Hi, sis, it's me," Lucy's voice said, brightly. "You'll never guess where I am!"
"At my apartment?" Lois guessed. From the tone of her voice, it seemed that her sister wasn't suffering any ill effects from the party the night before, anyhow.
Lucy giggled. "Nope! Brian and I are on his brother's jet, headed for Italy! His brother is Albert Chow; no kidding! They've invited me to spend Christmas with them in Venice before we start at New Troy State in January! This is so cool! I didn't even realize who he was until last night, would you believe it?"
"Neither did I," Lois said, before she thought. "What about your passport, though?"
"I don't know, but I think Mr. Chow pulled some strings, and they rushed it through, because I've got one here. I guess I'll see you in a couple of weeks, okay?"
"All right," Lois said. "Have a good time."
"I will. Brian says he's going to show me every night spot in the city!"
Lois could believe it. "Take a lot of pictures for me, all right?"
"I will. 'Bye!" The phone went dead and Lois slowly hung it up. Venice? Clark's warning to Albert Chow had apparently produced fast results. Well, at least Lex Luthor would have difficulty getting at Brian and Lucy if they were with the Chow entourage in Italy. She suspected that her sister and Chow's brother would be under constant surveillance for their entire Christmas holiday — which was probably not a bad thing. Maybe it would keep them out of trouble.
And, it left her free to concentrate on the Luthor situation without worrying about her sister and whatever difficulties she could be getting into.
"Turn on the monitors!" Perry's bellow startled her out of her abstraction.
Jimmy rushed to obey and the monitors came on with a burst of sound. An announcer was speaking, and Lois stared at the picture on the screens, only half-hearing the man's excited monologue.
"… Explosion which triggered the subway tunnel's collapse. Superman has burrowed through the debris to reach the trapped passengers …"
"Somebody get down there!" Perry roared. "Lois! Where's Kent?"
"He's meeting a source!" Lois replied automatically. Explosion? she repeated to herself as she grabbed up her purse and headed for the elevator. Could it be another test of Superman, after Clark had told Luthor that he knew? It was possible, she reminded herself. Lex Luthor hadn't gotten where he was by timidity. If it was, then their opponent wasn't giving up. She and Clark were going to have to do something about this, if Henderson didn't come up with some results pretty quickly. Well, tonight they would have a chance to verify the phone number that both Antoinette Baines and Barbara Trevino had called, and maybe she and Clark could do a little more snooping into some of the references in that diary. One way or another, they were going to have to make sure that someone stopped Lex Luthor for good.
"There wasn't any sign of videocameras this time," Clark said. "I think it was a genuine accident, but that doesn't mean he won't try again."
"Or he could have already learned what he thinks he needs to know," Lois said. She glanced at the elevator's level indicator. This thing was moving with its usual speed, or lack thereof. The Planet really needed to upgrade its elevators, she reflected with a touch of impatience. "Let's hope he thinks he knows a lot more about you than he really does," she continued. "So, do I get another exclusive Superman interview anytime soon?"
Clark grinned. "We've been promising Perry something for a while. Give him the quotes I gave you on the subway thing and tomorrow we can do another one — not that we have a lot more information to put in the interview."
"We'll wing it," Lois said. "Just the name of your home planet will pack a wallop — Superman tells the public he isn't from here, you know."
Clark grimaced at the thought. "Admitting Superman's a little green man? After Bureau 39? It will probably bring out every UFO nut and conspiracy theorist in the city … or the country."
"Well," Lois pointed out, "Trask is locked up in a mental ward. There are probably other nuts out there, but not too many with his level of firepower. We'll just re-emphasize the fact that you're here to help. Besides, you're neither little nor green."
"Luthor assumed Superman was an alien," Clark said. "I guess most people probably do. Still, it's another thing to confirm it." He shrugged. "Oh well, as long as no one finds out *all* the things about him …"
"They won't," Lois said. She squeezed his arm lightly. "There's no way I want the media interfering with our lives that way. There are limits."
He gave her a crooked smile. "You're not going to get any argument from me." She felt his hand slip around hers for an instant. "I've waited my whole life for you. I want our life together to be private."
The expression in his eyes made her cheeks burn. It was an incredible thing to mean so much to a man, especially this man. She started to speak but the elevator groaned to a stop and he released her hand as the doors slid open.
A glance at the clock told her that she had less than fifteen minutes before deadline. She headed for her desk at a half-trot and dropped into her chair, kicking her bag under the desk with a careless foot. "I have to hurry. I need to be ready by six. Luthor is sending a car for me."
Clark nodded. "Be careful," he said, softly. "I still don't trust him."
She patted his hand. "Neither do I."
She finished the short article just under the deadline and LANned it to Perry. Ralph was watching them and as she shut down her computer he strolled with elaborate casualness up to her desk. "Um … Lane."
She glanced up. "Yes, Ralph?"
"Just wanted to apologize if I've said anything to offend you," he said, almost offhandedly. "I didn't mean anything by it. I was just joking."
She glanced sharply at him. "Apology accepted," she said. "Just don't let it happen again."
"It won't," Ralph assured her. "Uh … how's the Superman story coming? Did you get a chance to interview him?" He glanced at the folder in her hand labeled "Superman" and then back at her face.
Over Ralph's shoulder, she saw Clark's eyebrows fly up. "As a matter of fact, I did," she said.
"Oh." Ralph nodded. "Good work. I guess I'll uh … see you tomorrow."
"I guess so," Lois said. She watched him curiously as he walked away.
Clark was also looking after him. "What do you suppose that was all about?"
"Well … he apologized, I think."
"Maybe Perry finally managed to get through to him," Clark said.
"Maybe." Lois frowned after her coworker. "Jimmy!"
Their junior colleague appeared by her desk in less than a minute. "You bellowed?"
"What's with Ralph?"
Jimmy snorted. "Perry reamed him up one side and down the other. I … uh … sort of happened to be in the conference room next to his office when the Chief let him have it."
"Maybe that will end the whole thing," Clark said, hopefully.
Jimmy gave a short laugh. "Don't count on it. He was grousing to me right afterwards about how you seem to think Superman's your personal property." He hesitated. "You didn't leave anything important on your desk a while ago, did you?"
Lois shook her head. "No, I don't think so. Why?"
"Well, I was eating lunch at my desk and Ralph sort of strolled up to your cubicle and I saw him kind of leafing through the notepad you had lying there."
"He *what*?" Lois consciously kept her voice low, but she saw Jimmy wince. "Sorry. You think he was snooping in my notes?"
"He might have been. He saw me looking at him and put it down."
"Why that …" She broke off. "There wasn't anything important there, actually, but …"
"Maybe it wasn't what it looked like," Clark suggested. "It's hard to believe that he'd try to steal your notes. It isn't exactly ethical."
"It's happened before," Lois said.
"Yeah." Clark bit his lip. "Sorry."
"Don't be," Lois said. "Maybe it was innocent, but if he's snooping in my stuff …"
"I have an idea," Jimmy said. "If he isn't trying anything shady it won't do him any harm, but if he is …"
Lois raised her eyebrows. "What do you have in mind?"
"Well …" Jimmy leaned toward her and lowered his voice. "I think we can set up a sting, since he's so interested in your Superman stuff. See what you think of this …"
Lois dabbed Chanel No.5 behind her ear and drew a deep breath, glancing at her watch. A second deep breath failed to calm her jittering nerves. It was two minutes to six. Time to meet the car that Luthor was supposed to be sending for her down at the entrance of the apartment house. She slipped into her coat — too light, actually for the temperature outside, but the only one appropriate for the opera — picked up her elegant little bag and left the apartment, locking it behind her. After all, she reasoned, she wasn't likely to be in the open long enough for the cold to become a significant factor.
Her timing was almost perfect. As she stepped into the lobby, she saw Luthor's long, black limousine pull up in front. Trying to appear casual and unhurried, she opened the door and descended to the street, but her heart was thumping harder than usual. She was literally walking into the lion's den. Clark had stated that he was going to keep an eye on her and she'd told him, with a good deal of, she now admitted privately, false bravado that she was a big girl now and could take care of herself. She had finally compromised in view of his obvious concern for her safety, and agreed that he should check on her every thirty minutes. Now she secretly wished that she had gone along with his wish to watch the entire date from a distance, but it wasn't something that she would ever admit to anyone else.
An older man dressed in a neat dark suit stepped onto the sidewalk. His hair and beard were silver, his expression that of the perfect servant but his dark eyes seemed to regard her closely. As skilled as she was at reading expressions, Lois could decipher nothing of the thoughts behind that bland mask, but his scrutiny gave her the impulse, rigorously suppressed, to squirm uneasily. She smiled brightly at him, but didn't speak. Without changing expression, he silently opened the rear door for her. She thanked him politely and stepped into the car. He closed the door gently behind her, still without a word, and a moment later she saw him get into the driver's seat. The vehicle pulled away from the curb with the silent, ponderous grace that somehow only seems to apply to the most luxurious of vehicles. Lois sat back in the seat, looking around at the elegant interior with a touch of envy. It seemed terribly unfair that someone like Lex Luthor got to enjoy all this stuff, while a (more or less) law-abiding citizen like herself had to exist on a far more modest income. Still, there was nothing to say that she couldn't enjoy it temporarily, even while she planned to bring the owner of all this luxury to face the justice that he so richly deserved.
"Are you comfortable, Ms. Lane?" The courteous voice of the driver startled her out of her thoughts. The cultured, British voice tugged at her memory, although she couldn't quite place it, and its clipped accent was as elegant as her surroundings.
"Yes, thank you," she answered.
"Very good. If you need anything, don't hesitate to ask," the expressionless voice said. "I am at your service. My name is Nigel St. John, and I am Mr. Luthor's butler."
"Thank you," Lois said. The voice was maddeningly familiar. She had heard it before, and recently, but the occasion eluded her. Where had she been in a position to hear a British accent? She hadn't been to any upscale social functions in the last … With a jolt, the memory came back with chilling clarity. In Joey McPherson's apartment, the Boss's representative had spoken with just such an accent. Now she was alert. This might easily be the same voice. He worked for Lex Luthor, after all. Was it possible that Luthor would enlist his butler to do his dirty work?
Well, why not? It would certainly be an asset for someone in Lex Luthor's business to have a trusted servant as ruthless as he was himself. What had he said his name was? Nigel St. John, that was it. She'd give it to Jimmy when she got back and see if he could dig up anything on the man …
Through the glass that separated the rear of the car from the driver's seat she could see only the back of his head, but in the mirror she saw him glance at her and she thought again that he was looking at her as she might measure someone of whom she was not quite sure. Sizing her up, she thought. This man was no mere butler. The cold, clinical examination was that of an opponent, not a servant. She smiled at his image in the mirror, a bright, innocent smile that she had carefully cultivated, designed to keep the persons she interviewed off their guard and more likely to say things that they might not if they thought she was at all dangerous.
The butler's expression didn't change, but she saw him return his attention to the street ahead. A slight mist had begun to collect on the windshield; the natural result of the icy, winter air outside as it contacted the warmer windshield. She turned to look out the tinted side windows, noting that the streetlights were coming on. The sun had almost set and it was growing more difficult to make out details through the darkened glass. There was nothing really to see anyhow, but if Nigel St. John was watching her she didn't want to seem at all on her guard. She continued to look out the window, trying to seem relaxed. A little nervousness was probably appropriate, she thought. She'd had dinner with Luthor only once and the fact that he had asked her to the opera might indicate to an outside observer that he was showing an interest in her. It was natural that she would be on her best behavior in such a circumstance.
The ride to LexTower seemed to her to take longer than usual, and she was conscious, although she took care not to look again, that the butler was still glancing occasionally at her reflection in the rearview mirror. Was he suspicious of her, she wondered, or was he simply comparing the woman sitting here with her journalistic reputation and wondering if there was any reason to worry? She didn't see how he could have any concrete suspicions of her but it would be natural for someone who served the Boss to be suspicious of an investigative journalist who had become even loosely acquainted with the kingpin of such a huge criminal organization.
Well, tonight she would attempt again to interview Luthor and would accompany him to the opera and be her most charming self. He would expect her to try for that exclusive interview, she thought. She was known to be tenacious, so not to do so would be out of character.
After what seemed to her to be an inordinate amount of time, the limousine pulled up to LexTower's main entrance. A doorman stepped forward to open her door and give her a hand to help her from the depths of the limousine. Nigel St. John turned the vehicle over to a uniformed man who was evidently a valet or chauffeur or something, and led her into the lobby, past the elevators intended for the public and to Luthor's private elevator. She had come up this elevator for the first interview with the billionaire, but her escort then had been the slender, dark man with the turban, who always seemed to her to hover unobtrusively in the background. Lois glanced at the impassive butler standing beside her in the elevator. "I'm hoping that Mr. Luthor will give me a more complete interview this time," she said. "Did he say anything about it to you, Mr. St. John?"
The man's face didn't change. "No, madam."
"I thought maybe he would have told you," Lois pressed.
Still the man's expression didn't change. "What Mr. Luthor does or does not do is no business of the help, madam."
"Oh," Lois said. She fell silent.
The swiftly moving elevator deposited them on the top floor of the penthouse this time, and St. John stood back to let Lois exit first. Lex Luthor was awaiting her as she stepped into the thickly carpeted hallway and held out both hands to her. "Lois, my dear, you look lovely." He took her hand and raised it to his lips. "I trust Nigel was a satisfactory escort from your apartment this evening." He seemed to take her smile for assent, for he turned, tugging her hand into the crook of his arm. "I'm having dinner served on the upper terrace this evening. Now that the storm is over, it will give us a marvelous view."
Recalling the heat lamps when they had danced during her previous visit, Lois had no doubt that she would not need to fear being cold, and her guess proved to be correct. Luthor escorted her past the doorway to his luxurious study, through an elegant sitting room and opened the French doors that gave onto a wide, tiled terrace.
Where the heat source was she had no idea, but the temperature was pleasantly warm when they stepped into the open, and she had no hesitation in removing her coat when a liveried individual appeared to take it. Lex Luthor held her chair while she took her seat and a moment later Nigel St. John appeared in a black coat with tails to serve cocktails.
As Lois had expected, Luthor expertly dodged her questions while appearing to answer them willingly. She elicited very little information that she didn't already know, and nothing of use. As an interview, this dinner was a miserable failure, but as a meal it was better than the dishes served at some of the best restaurants in the world. A dinner such as this would have taken a large chunk out of her paycheck, she thought, savoring every bite. She wasn't likely to eat food like this very often, unless Clark was a gourmet cook. Of course, he might be for all she knew. That dinner he'd cooked the other night had been pretty good; not in this category, of course, but still a lot better than anything she could make. Besides, there was plenty about him that she still didn't know. If he learned at super speed, maybe one of the things he had learned was how to cook.
"Have I lost your attention?" Luthor asked.
"No, of course not," Lois said. "I was just savoring the food. You have a wonderful cook, Lex."
He smiled. "Andre is worth every penny of his salary. I wouldn't want to do without him. So, the last time we had dinner together, you said you wanted another, more in-depth interview with Superman. Did you ever manage it?"
"Not yet," Lois said. "I talked to him today, though, and he's promised to try to make time for me in the next couple of days."
"I hope he keeps his promise," Luthor said. "I want to know more about someone as powerful as he seems to be. I've noticed that his appearance seems slightly exotic. I can't identify any specific ethnic background. Is he human, do you know?"
Lois shrugged. "He looks human, but those powers of his sure aren't. That's one of the things I intend to try to find out when I talk to him again."
"I'm sure that if anyone can, you will," Luthor said, smiling. "I've seen a small sample of your determination already."
"Oh, I'm not done with you yet, Lex," Lois said. "I'm going to get a decent interview from you before I'm through. That's a promise."
He smiled. "I suppose the easiest way would be for me to capitulate and give you your answers. I'll think about it … if you'll have dinner with me again."
"That's an easy condition to meet," Lois said. "Dinner with you isn't exactly torture."
He chuckled. "I'm happy to hear that. How about next Friday night? The Metropolitan Ballet is giving a Christmas Eve performance of the Nutcracker."
"I'd love to," she said, "but I won't be in town. I'm flying out that evening for a family Christmas get-together."
Luthor smiled. "One has those obligations," he agreed. "The New Year's Eve Ball at the Lexor will be the following Friday. Perhaps I could prevail upon you to allow me to be your escort?"
She hesitated. "It would be wonderful, but I would think you'd want to take someone more socially important than a mere reporter."
He smiled slightly. "The conventions of society don't trouble me greatly. I shall certainly enjoy the evening considerably more if you are my companion rather than some feather-headed female without a thought in her head beyond her latest hairstyle. I prefer a woman with both independence and intelligence, such as you."
It was hard not to feel flattered at his practiced compliments. In person, the charm and mystique of Lex Luthor had its effect, but knowing the kind of person with which she was dealing, Lois was in no danger of losing her head. Still, there was the old saying: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer". For a moment, she wondered if that was what he was doing as well. "In that case, how can I refuse?"
"Excellent. Then it's a date." He raised his wineglass to her in a half-toast.
Nigel St. John had appeared beside the table while they talked. Luthor glanced casually at him. "Yes, Nigel?"
"You have a phone call, sir." The butler's face was as impassive as ever. "From France." He presented a cellular phone to Luthor.
"France?" The billionaire frowned slightly. "I don't recall …" He shrugged and picked up the phone. "Luthor." He listened for several seconds, spoke several sentences in French and snapped the device closed.
Lois raised her eyebrows at his expression. "Is something the matter?"
He handed the phone back to his butler. "Apparently a wrong number. Someone wished to speak with a Yvette. He was under the impression that I was her father."
"You're joking," Lois said. "How did he get your number?"
He gave a small chuckle. "It doesn't happen often, but sometimes they filter through," he said. "No matter how many layers separate one from the ordinary, nothing protects one completely from Murphy's Law."
"That's for sure," Lois said. "Murphy's Law has interfered with plenty of my investigations. Sometimes I think the old guy has me on his list for special attention. For instance," she said daringly, "I'd barely got my car back from the repair shop and this afternoon the electrical system developed a short. Clark — that's my reporting partner — fixed it for me, but it just goes to show."
"What was the problem?" Luthor asked. In spite of its tone, the question was not an idle one. Lois sipped from her wineglass.
"Clark's had some experience fixing engines on the farm, I guess," she said. "He discovered somebody had planted a bug in my Jeep and the wire had come partly loose. It was shorting out other parts of the system. It wouldn't be the first time."
Luthor raised his eyebrows. "You've had spying devices placed in your Jeep before?"
"Oh, not in the Jeep," Lois said, off-handedly. "Once in my apartment, and a couple of times on my computer. Perry figures it's probably the Whisper or the Dirt Digger again."
"Does this kind of thing happen often?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Not too often, but sometimes. It's one of the hazards of journalism."
"You don't seem upset."
She smiled. "You didn't hear me earlier when Clark found it or you might have a different opinion. They were probably trying to dig up information about Superman. That's the only really big story I'm working on at the moment, but since I've already printed everything that I know, they can't have got much."
He smiled. "Well, it's just as well in that case. But don't tell me that a journalist like you is only working on one story."
"No, of course not, but none of the others is anywhere as big as the Superman story," she said. "Clark and I were thinking of doing an expose on the way the city has been scrimping on infrastructure maintenance, but we're only in the information gathering stage at the moment."
"I see." He glanced up as the dark, turbaned man appeared and silently removed their dinner plates. "I know you normally don't have dessert, but my spies tell me that you like chocolate. I'm sure you won't want to hurt Andre's feelings by turning down his Italian chocolate mousse?"
The chocolate mousse was delicious, as she had expected: a huge, fantasy chocolate creation, probably loaded with calories, but Lois enjoyed every bite. That phone call from France had been from Clark, calling literally from a phone in Paris, which meant that the phone number that they had wondered about indeed belonged to Lex Luthor. It was yet one more small but significant piece of evidence that linked the billionaire to an intricate web of crime, the strands of which apparently reached around the world.
When they had finished, Luthor glanced at his watch. "The first act opens in forty minutes. Are you ready?"
She nodded. "I haven't been to the opera in ages," she confided, "and the last time, I was stuck in the back row. The people on stage looked like ants."
He smiled. "You won't have that problem this time."
She smiled as well, but didn't answer.
Their arrival at the Metropolitan Opera House was a completely different experience than her previous visits to the opera, but then she had expected it to be. The limousine pulled to a stop in front of the main entrance and a man in a blue uniform loaded with gold braid stepped forward to open the door for them. Lex Luthor exited first and then turned to give her a hand. Lois slid from the vehicle with a smile of thanks and glanced around.
Many well-dressed persons were entering the opera house. Lois recognized one of the wealthiest developers in the city from an interview she had done with him the year before. A well-known socialite with a fortune in diamonds around her neck preceded them, with the newest in her string of escorts. Lois tried to keep her face straight as she glanced around at the cream of Metropolis's society, as well as the gathering of persons apparently present simply to catch a glimpse of fame.
And for a second, she caught sight of a face in the crowd that seemed briefly familiar. She couldn't quite place it, but she had seen it sometime not so long ago. The man was tall and spare, with pale blue eyes and thinning brown hair, a dark mole on one side of his narrow nose and a sour expression. She caught only the briefest of glimpses before the individual turned away and was lost in the mob of spectators. She opened her mouth to speak and then thought better of it. Lex Luthor guided her up the two broad steps and into the velvet-lined lobby. She was marginally aware of the flashes from several cameras and it dawned on her that she was probably going to be splashed across the society pages tomorrow morning, but there was nothing she could do about that. A short time later, she was looking around the Luthor private box.
The box was in the perfect location to view the stage and the singers; that, of course, wasn't a surprise. From what she had learned of Lex Luthor, he would definitely demand the best of everything, and the third-richest man in the world could certainly afford to get what he wanted. He remained silent, watching her with an indulgent air while she examined the comfortable seating area and settled at last in a spot from which she could not only see the stage but a large portion of the rest of the room. Luthor sat beside her and lifted a hand to an older woman who was waving from another box, a short distance away.
"Celestine Manholm," he identified her to Lois. "She's been a devotee of the opera for many years. For longer than I have been coming here," he added. "It's a rare Wednesday or Friday night that she isn't in attendance."
The orchestra had begun to tune up, and they were silent. Lois wouldn't have dared to raise her voice to be heard over the racket, anyhow. She leaned forward to watch the action in the orchestra pit. One of the violinists was arguing violently with the guy with the bass fiddle, and the man with the drums was lightly tapping his instruments with a kind of metal brush arrangement. The huge tuba in the back appeared to her at first to be without a player, but then she realized that the instrument was wound around a tiny, pencil-thin woman with pale blond hair. Lois stared openly. The woman looked as if she should be playing a flute or a harp or something, not the massive piece of metal that she was handling. It just showed, she thought, that one shouldn't form stereotypes.
The lights darkened suddenly, and Lois saw the silhouette of the conductor step up before his musicians. The music swelled and the curtains rolled smoothly open, and she was swept away into a world of gods, dragons, heroes and wonderful music.
Some time later, she was brought back to the present as the lights of Intermission came up and Luthor left the box with her in tow to speak with several acquaintances. Lois remained silent except to acknowledge introductions. She nodded and smiled a great deal and found herself feeling uncomfortably as though she were a trophy on display as her escort moved about among the upper crust of Metropolis, engaging in light conversation. Eventually, to Lois's relief, they returned to the box for the second half of the production.
When it finally ended and the lights came up, she sighed. "That was beautiful."
"Yes, it was." Luthor smiled at her. "Siegfried has always been one of my favorites." He got slowly to his feet. "I'm sorry the evening has to end. I've particularly enjoyed your company tonight."
Lois lowered her eyes. "I'm flattered."
"I never flatter," Luthor said. "To flatter you would be telling a lie. I'm speaking the truth, and I'm looking forward to New Year's Eve."
"So am I," Lois said, mendaciously. She got to her feet and let him help her with her coat. Together, they made their way toward the exit. Luthor stopped several times to greet people, but eventually they stood by the curb, waiting for their limousine.
There were two cars ahead of it. Lois was beginning to feel distinctly chilled when the long, black car finally pulled up by the curbside and a uniformed man, wearing a ridiculous amount of gold braid, Lois thought, opened the rear door for them. Lois climbed in and gave a sigh of relief at the warmth in the interior of the car. Lex Luthor got in beside her.
As the big, powerful car pulled away from the curb, Lois sat back in the seat, basking in the comfortable temperature. Luthor leaned forward and spoke to the driver through the privacy partition, giving him Lois's address. The chauffeur nodded without turning his head.
Luthor pressed a small button and a compartment beneath the front seat opened obediently. Lois saw, to her surprise, that he was lifting a bottle of champagne from an ice bucket that had been stored in a hidden, refrigerated compartment. He produced a pair of fluted glasses from another concealed panel and poured a frothing glass for her. "Champagne?"
She nodded, speechless, and accepted the goblet. He poured himself a glassful as well, set the bottle back in its bucket and lifted the glass. "To … friendship," he said and sipped the amber liquid. Lois did the same. The sparkling beverage was very good, but then she had expected nothing less.
They drank their champagne in silence for several minutes. Lois was aware of a comfortable fatigue and was looking forward to reaching her apartment. Her heeled shoes might be stylish but her feet had begun to hurt some time ago and being able to take them off was becoming a major goal. Hopefully, Clark would either be there waiting or would come by soon and they could discuss their next move in the Luthor investigation. At least with Lucy in Europe with the brothers Chow she wouldn't have to worry about being interrupted at an inconvenient moment if she and Clark chose to engage in a little non-work- related activity as well.
But Lex, of course, didn't need to know that.
"You're very quiet," Luthor said, at last.
Lois smiled at him. "Just a little tired, I'm afraid. Clark and I wound up reporting on an arson in Suicide Slum last night — as if an arson there is unusual — and I didn't get to sleep until nearly three."
He shook his head. "The hours of a journalist must be very irregular."
"They are. We'd been on a stakeout nearby, involving a local politician and allegations of corruption, and sort of fell into the arson story."
Luthor frowned. "I must admit the thought of you taking risks of that sort disturbs me."
"I didn't win three Kerths by reporting on dog shows," Lois said.
"Quite true, and I shouldn't allow myself to fall into stereotyping again," he admitted. "Besides, you have a partner now. I admit, I wondered about this new partner of yours — Kent?"
"That's right. Clark Kent," Lois said, sounding casual with great effort on her part.
"More champagne?" he asked, interrupting himself.
"No, thanks." Lois finished the champagne. "You've been reading my work?"
He smiled at her. "Is that so unlikely? Ever since I got to know the real Lois Lane, everything about you interests me. As far as I can tell, you've never worked with a partner before."
"Actually, I've worked with several partners; they just never last long," Lois said. "My editor has the same concerns about my safety as you do and keeps trying to saddle me with them. You'd think by now that he'd realize I can take care of myself. Still, Clark's not too bad as partners go. At least he's not afraid to take risks like some of the previous ones Perry's tried to saddle me with. He's actually been some help. He supplies the touchy-feely angle to articles that I'm not so much in tune with."
He raised his eyebrows at her tone. "Do I detect a certain pique at your editor's concern?"
Lois smiled, lowering her gaze. "Maybe a little."
"So, it's a strictly work-related partnership."
"That's about it," Lois said.
"Well, if he helps to keep you safe on these investigations of yours, I can hardly complain," Luthor said. "I hope to see much more of you in the future. Your company turned an ordinary evening into an extraordinary one. I've rarely enjoyed the opera more than I have tonight."
Lois smiled modestly and looked down, wondering somewhat nervously where this conversation was going. "Neither have I. It's been a lovely evening."
"Then I hope there will be many more." He glanced casually at the back of the chauffeur's head. "Peter, however seems to be taking an inordinate amount of time to reach your apartment. It's been nearly half an hour." He leaned forward to touch the intercom. "Peter, what is the delay?"
"Traffic, sir," the muffled voice of the chauffeur replied.
"At this hour?" Luthor murmured.
"There was a football game this evening," Lois said, "but I'd think it would have finished by now." The darkened glass made it almost impossible to see out and she turned back to Luthor. "I wonder if there's an accident ahead or something."
"If the Tigers won, the celebrations may be causing traffic problems." Lex shrugged it off. "No matter."
"So tell me, Lex," Lois began, "the legend is that you went from rags to riches in a matter of only a few short years. It's a little hard to believe that someone could do that, even with your magic touch. What's the real story behind it?"
He smiled in genuine amusement. "You never give up, do you?"
"I didn't get to be where I am by giving up," she said, smiling archly back. "You wouldn't have, either, I imagine."
"Very well," he conceded. "I won a small nest egg, gambling. Poker, actually. I bought shares in a small company that had excellent potential but poor management. I won't go into detail, but I managed to influence the board of directors to replace the management and brought the business out of near- bankruptcy. That was the start of LexCorp."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "That's quite a picturesque story. I might not believe it from another man, but with you … I think I might."
"Thank you," he said.
The big car came to a slow, noiseless, majestic stop. Luthor glanced at the driver and then back to Lois. "Well, it appears that we have finally arrived."
The chauffeur turned off the engine, opened the driver's door, and stepped out. He closed the door with a sharp click. Lois reached for her small bag, preparatory to getting out. "It's been a wonderful evening," she said again.
"I hope it's only the first of many to come," Luthor said. He lifted her hand and kissed the back of it lightly. "You're a remarkable woman, Lois Lane."
"Thank you," she said.
Silence. The big car was virtually soundproof and Lois could hear none of the sounds of passing traffic. She waited with mild impatience for the chauffeur to open the door but seconds passed and became minutes, and the door did not open.
"What's keeping him?" she said at last.
"I can't imagine." Luthor peered through the tinted glass and Lois turned to look as well. It was pitch black outside; she couldn't even see the lights of passing cars, and for a second a small chill ran over her scalp.
Another minute passed and another. With a small sound of exasperation, Luthor reached for the door handle and pushed the door open.
Darkness met their startled gaze. Instead of a city sidewalk and the steps to her apartment building Lois found herself looking at a dirt road, muddy with snow and tire tracks, and beyond that, darkness and the jagged silhouettes of tall trees against a cloudy night sky.
Superman circled the city one last time and then, with a sigh of relief, turned and traced a silent path through the night air toward Lois Lane's apartment.
He hadn't liked leaving Lois alone with Lex Luthor for a minute, much less for the half hour between checks that they had negotiated, so he had compromised by making quick, frequent checks on her from a distance. The date seemed to be going well but he hadn't been able to completely relax. The things that he had read in Luthor's own words while he scanned the pages of the diary that morning had left him appalled at the utter depravity of the man. It was difficult to believe that one person could be so completely amoral as Lex Luthor. The things that Luthor had done to build his empire, to eliminate his competitors, to triumph over his opponents, or simply to take down a rival had chilled Clark to the bone, not the least of which had been the clinical matter-of-factness of the writer. There had been no acknowledgement of misdeed, no awareness of right or wrong, only success or failure. Luthor had to be a sociopath of the worst kind, willing to do anything, destroy anyone, commit any crime to achieve his goal. Success was all-consuming, a means to feed his enormous ego. Once he decided that he wanted a certain outcome, he would go to any length to make sure that it succeeded, from simple murder to the most elaborate of schemes. Clark had read of the methods used to destroy people: their careers, their families, their lives — all to achieve an end. Truly, if anyone deserved to be brought down it was Lex Luthor.
Interestingly, even his failures had been written down in the perspective of a learning experience. The incident with the Messenger and the aborted attempt to destroy the space program in order to place his own station in orbit had been detailed. Luthor had regarded Lois Lane as an inconvenience at the time, a reporter who had stumbled over the mistakes of his confederate, Antoinette Baines, and thwarted the plot. Baines had been a necessary tool to Luthor's plans and he had cold-bloodedly seduced her, all the time intending to dispose of her when their objective was achieved. He had done so earlier than he had originally intended in an effort to throw Lois Lane off the scent, and had partially succeeded, in that her death had covered his own involvement, but Lois had still managed to prevent the destruction of the Messenger substitute and save the program.
Clark still shuddered at how close Lois had come at the time to being his target. Luthor had refrained from killing her only because it might have reawakened the investigation and connected him with the whole affair. He had changed his mind when it looked as if she might be on his trail with the Trevino/Winninger situation, and then called off his assassin when it became apparent that she had not made the connection. And then he had met Lois Lane at the Charity Christmas Ball, and speculated on the benefits of seducing the beautiful and brilliant journalist. She had obviously impressed him at their meeting, and gaining control over her would have its pleasant side, he had written. Killing such a well-known journalist was only a last option now; it might bring too much unwelcome attention to him and that would be a definite inconvenience. Besides, she could possibly be of use to him in the future.
The last entry, dated the morning before the theft of the diary, involved the situation with Josef Carlin and his annoyance with Superman's intervention. He had written that he needed to find out all that he could about this new player in the game, and had as a result, devised a series of tests. There, the diary had ended.
The whole thing had been enough to raise the hair on the back of Clark's neck. It had substantiated his worst fears about the kind of monster with which Lois and he were dealing. He'd argued with her about keeping a watch during her dinner date and she'd told him that she could handle the situation. Still, he hadn't been able to completely abide by their agreement, although he didn't intend to tell her that he'd peeked a little more frequently than they had agreed, just to check on things. When they had left the opera, he had watched them stepping into the limousine and heard Luthor give the chauffeur her address, and had intended to follow them back to her apartment, but at that instant his super-hearing had picked up a scream.
He'd had no real reason not to go to the aid of the woman who had screamed. Lois seemed perfectly safe, and so he had gone. He had thwarted a purse- snatcher in the commission of his crime, and then had been forced to answer another cry for help, this time an attempted rape. A quick glance back at the opera house had told him that Luthor's limousine was gone. A cry for help from downtown Metropolis had brought him to the scene of another emergency; a middle- aged man apparently in the throes of a heart attack. He had flown the man to the emergency room, and then completed a quick circuit of the city before making a beeline for Lois's apartment.
The limousine hadn't arrived yet, of course. It would have had to race with breakneck speed to have got to her place before he did, but he wanted to be there when she arrived just for his own peace of mind. The disquiet that he had been feeling all evening was growing stronger, although it was probably just his impatience to see the date over with. He knew that Lois was perfectly capable of taking care of herself, but he didn't have to like the situation. Superman settled quietly down on the roof of the apartment building to wait.
Twenty-five minutes later there was still no sign of the limousine. Superman took to the air and traversed the route from the apartment to the opera house. There was no sign of them.
Well, maybe they had taken an alternate route. He began to circle the opera house, tracing ever-widening concentric circles through the air as he scanned the territory below. There was no sign of the limousine.
By now he was thoroughly alarmed. Luthor had given the chauffeur Lois's address; of that, he was certain. Still, maybe a quick check of LexTower wouldn't be a bad idea.
In bare seconds he was over Luthor's penthouse and center of business, scanning the building and listening for Lois's heartbeat. Nothing. No sign of either Lex Luthor or Lois.
He choked down panic. This didn't mean that Luthor was on to them, he told himself. Something else must have happened. Maybe the car had broken down, or they had taken an alternate route, but he didn't really believe it. Once more he whisked back to Lois's apartment, but there was still no sign of his partner. He circled over the city again, trying to decide what to do.
Lois's pager! He dug out his cellular phone, dialed in the pager's number and listened closely. Faintly, from the west, he heard a distinctive beeping. In an instant, he was headed in the direction of the sound.
"Where are we?" Lois asked.
"I have no idea." Luthor peered out at the unfamiliar landscape. "What I want to know is where Peter disappeared to."
"Could he have been attacked by something?" Lois asked.
"Maybe." Luthor stepped out of the car and glanced cautiously around. "I don't see him."
Lois stepped gingerly out of the car and looked around as well. Except for the patch of road beside the door illuminated by the dome light, there was blackness all around them. Over their heads, the sky was blotchy with clouds. The moon had not yet risen but here and there breaks in the cloud cover showed the night sky along with a scattering of stars. It was very dark. The car's headlights were out, and from somewhere came a screech that lifted the hair on her head. Some kind of night bird, she thought … an owl, maybe. Did owls fly south for the winter? Clark might know, but she didn't.
It was definitely cold out here. She crawled back into the car. "What should we do?"
"I'd say the first option is to call for help," Luthor said. "Unfortunately, I don't have my phone. Do you?"
She shook her head. "Perry keeps trying to convince the guys upstairs to furnish us with phones so we wouldn't have to depend on pay telephones to communicate with the office, but they're dragging their feet," she said. "I have my pager, but no phone."
Luthor slid back into the car after her and shut the door. "It's cold," he said, unnecessarily. "Fortunately, the limousine has a phone. We just need to get into the front seat."
"Can we open the privacy panel?" Lois asked. She peered through the heavy sheet of shatterproof glass that separated the front seat from the back. "I think your driver may have locked the door."
Luthor said something under his breath. "I think you're right. Just a second …" He pushed at a switch on the seat back. Nothing happened.
He swore softly. "It doesn't work."
"Great. I suppose you don't have an extra car key."
"No." Luthor was scowling. "This is looking worse and worse."
Lois thought so too. The thought that it might be a setup had already crossed her mind, but it hadn't occurred to her before that the setup might not be for her. Still, if Lex Luthor was actually the Boss and she had no doubt anymore that he was, wasn't it possible that a rival, or even one of his underlings, might make an attempt on his life? It happened all the time in criminal circles. She'd personally reported on plenty of such incidents. The only problem was, she didn't want to be caught in the fallout.
"Do you have a couple of hairpins?" His voice broke in on her thoughts.
"Hairpins. I imagine that elegant coiffure demands at least a few hairpins."
"Oh … yes." Lois pulled several pins from her French roll and felt her hair tumble instantly to her shoulders. The billionaire smiled briefly.
"I think I prefer to see your hair this way. This should only take a moment."
"What are you going to do?"
"Pick the lock," he said briefly. He thrust the door open and got out. Clutching her coat tightly around her, Lois followed.
It was bitterly cold in the open and the stiff gusts of wind that whipped her coat around her knees didn't help at all. She glanced uneasily to the right and left, straining her eyes to see as Luthor led the way around the rear of the limousine to the driver's side, but could make out nothing in the darkness. An army of assassins could be sneaking up on them and she wouldn't know it.
Once they reached the limousine's door, the big car blocked the wind somewhat, but it was still cold. Lois leaned against the body of the car, clutching her coat tightly around her, while Luthor bent over the lock. She hoped he would hurry. It was freezing out here, and her nerves were jumping. Maybe Clark would fudge on their bargain, she thought hopefully, and check up on her soon. It would really be nice if Superman were looking for her right now. Something was going on here that she didn't understand, but her imagination supplied her with several scenarios, none of them good. She hoped Luthor would be able to unlock the car quickly, although she didn't have a lot of confidence in it. These luxurious vehicles almost certainly had locks that were at least resistant to the ordinary car thief.
Seconds passed and became minutes while Luthor struggled with the lock. Her eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness and she slowly began to make out the leafless skeletons of trees on the side of the road. They weren't as tall as the ones that she could see against the sky in the other direction, but there were quite a lot of them. They also appeared to be regularly spaced in a pattern that didn't seem quite natural, and after a moment she put together what she was seeing. She was looking at an orchard.
"Lex," she whispered, "this is somebody's orchard."
He didn't lift his eyes from his task. "We could be on the land owned by Luthor Agricultural. If so, we're west of the city."
"Why would your chauffeur have taken us there?" she asked.
"I've been wondering that, myself," he said grimly, his attention never wavering from his job. Lois could hear the tiny clicks and scratching noises as he fought with the limousine's lock. Still, she found it interesting that a man in Luthor's position would even have the knowledge or skill to believe that he could pick the lock of a car's door. "This whole thing strikes me as extremely fishy."
"Do you suppose your driver is working for someone else?" she asked, cautiously. "Maybe a kidnap scheme or something? You'd be worth a lot of money to the criminal element of the city."
"The thought had crossed my mind," he said. "Keep an eye out, would you? If you see or hear anyone coming, let me know."
"Sure." She turned again to watch the road and the barren trees of the orchard, straining her ears for any sound.
The gusts of wind made it difficult to hear softer sounds. The branches of the trees crackled and snapped, and in the distance the owl, or whatever it was, screeched again. The rustle of branches and underbrush made it hard for her to tell if anyone was approaching, but she tried. If this was some kind of attempt by someone to kidnap Lex Luthor — or anything else — she could very well be regarded as an inconvenient witness.
In the end, it wasn't the sound that alerted her, however. Among the trees, a shadow moved.
At first, she thought it was her imagination. The night was full of shadows, but she watched the spot where she had seen that flash of motion and again she saw it: a human shape that ran across an open space and vanished behind a tree.
"Lex," she whispered, "there's somebody in the trees."
He glanced around. "Where?"
"He ducked behind a tree trunk."
Luthor squinted in the direction that she indicated. "I don't see … down!"
His hand pulled her down at the same instant that a gunshot cracked and the driver's window radiated cracks.
"Run!" Luthor had jerked her to her feet and suited the action to the word. She floundered after him, sliding and skidding in the mud as a second shot reverberated behind them. A bullet whined past her ear so close that she could have sworn she felt the wind of its passage.
Her ankle turned in the heeled shoes and she staggered, trying to keep her balance, then kicked them off. Her feet might be cold, but being dead was a worse option. Another shot cracked and ahead of her Luthor gave a pained yell and stumbled, clutching at his shoulder, lurched upright and continued to run, although less steadily. Lois caught up with him within a few steps and saw that between the fingers of the hand with which he gripped his upper arm, thick runnels of something dark were tracing their way down his dinner jacket.
The muddy road curved to the right only a few feet ahead. Lois grasped Luthor's wrist as they rounded the curve and pulled him sideways into the weeds and brush on the opposite side of the road from the orchard. Together, they crouched down, trying to control their breathing as the squishy thud of running footsteps rounded the curve of the road behind them.
The footsteps went on by. Lois waited until she could no longer hear them and then tugged Luthor gently be his good arm. "He'll be back in a minute, as soon as he realizes we're not ahead of him," she whispered. "Can you move?"
"Yeah." He breathed heavily and staggered to his feet, leaning on her. She led him away from the road, back into the field.
The ground was rough, full of stones and spiky dead weeds that poked at her bare feet, but she pulled her stumbling companion after her, trying to use care where she set her feet, but not letting it slow her down significantly. She was going to have to pull out burrs and splinters later, if they survived, but survival was the priority now.
The slop-slop of the returning footsteps along the muddy road told her that he was coming back. She pulled her companion down into the scratchy grass behind the skeleton of a bush. More straggly bushes here and there offered them a certain amount of camouflage and she hoped that the darkness would give them concealment.
The footsteps stopped. Hardly daring to breathe, Lois peered through the branches of the bush at the lanky silhouette barely visible against the orchard's trees. A flashlight blazed on. She froze as the light began to travel across the broken ground of the field. It moved deliberately, inch by inch, as the man, invisible behind the bright circle of light, began to walk slowly toward them.
Lois held her breath. Beside her, Luthor's labored breathing was becoming louder and harsher. She winced, hoping that the night noises would drown out the sound.
He heard. She saw the light stop suddenly and then it moved unerringly to pin them where they crouched, like insects fastened to cardboard. Lois held up her hand to shield her eyes from the light.
The light came closer and abruptly clicked off. She blinked, trying to regain her night vision in the sudden darkness. Dimly, she saw the faint glint of starlight reflecting from metal, and realized that the barrel of a rifle was aimed directly at them.
"Stand up, Luthor." Although she still couldn't see him, the voice was familiar, and all at once Lois recalled with vivid clarity the face that she had seen in the crowd as she and Luthor had entered the Metropolitan Opera House.
Joey McPherson. He hadn't fled Metropolis after all, she thought. He must have realized that as long as the Boss was alive he would be a hunted man, and he had decided to take matters into his own hands. Once Lex Luthor was dead, the warrant on his head would undoubtedly be forgotten as the Boss's lieutenants fought each other to replace the top man.
Luthor wasn't moving and Joey nudged him sharply in the ribs with the toe of his shoe. "Get up!"
The billionaire groaned and made a feeble effort to rise. The rifle gestured at Lois. "Get up, lady. Help him up."
Lois obeyed slowly. If Joey's attention wandered even fractionally, he was going to discover why she went to Tae Kwon Do classes twice a week. If she didn't find some way out of this, she could expect to share Luthor's fate. Joey couldn't afford to let any witnesses live, no matter how little she could actually see. Not if he killed Lex Luthor.
"Help him up." Joey's voice sounded grim. Lois bent and took Luthor by the arm. He was heavier than he looked. She hauled at his arm, and supported him as he lurched unsteadily to his feet.
"Looks like my aim was better than I thought." Joey sounded surprisingly pleased. "Walk that way. Away from the road."
Lois turned slowly and as she did so she released Luthor's arm. With one foot she struck out sideways and connected with the side of Joey's knee.
But it was a glancing blow. In the darkness, she couldn't see her target clearly. Joey howled in pain and staggered sideways but he didn't fall or even drop the rifle. Lois jumped at him and grabbed the barrel of the weapon with both hands, twisting it and wrenching it free.
Joey clawed at her, trying to grab the rifle back but she swung and released it in one motion. The rifle went sailing to vanish somewhere in the dark field. Then he was on her and they tumbled to the ground. She struck at his face but although he grunted angrily when her hands connected, he straddled her waist and his hands closed around her throat.
Clark paused in his headlong flight to page Lois for the third time. Again he heard the distinctive beep of her pager and adjusted his course slightly. It wasn't far away, but all at once his hearing picked up the sound of a shot. A few seconds later there was a second and a third.
They came from the same general direction as the pager. He poured on the speed, straining his ears for any other sound.
The land beneath him was agricultural land: miles and miles of rolling fields that would be tilled and cultivated in a very few months, but now lay neglected, filled with weeds and the skeletons of last year's crops.
There had been no more shots, but the sounds had come from somewhere nearby. Again he punched in the pager's combination and again he heard the beeping sound, and at the same instant he spotted the long, black car parked by the side of the road.
The beeping was coming from Lois's purse, he discovered quickly. It lay on the back seat of the limousine, but there was no sign of Lois, Luthor, or his chauffeur. Clark pushed down panic.
She couldn't have gone far, he told himself. They had to be around here somewhere.
Forcing himself to concentrate, he listened, and he heard it. Lois's heartbeat, loud and clear, and with it her breathing. It was rough and ragged, as if she were exerting physical effort.
There were other heartbeats, too. Two of them. Someone swore loudly and he could clearly hear the unmistakable sounds of a struggle taking place not far away.
In a split second he was following the sounds. They were coming from a spot barely a hundred yards away; an open field that would be lush and green in the springtime. The road curved around the perimeter of an apple orchard separating the limousine from the scene of conflict. As he soared over the barren trees and the field came into view, he saw them and his panic dissolved. He nearly laughed. He should have known, he realized. His partner, as usual, had managed to handle the situation with her usual flair.
Lois was rolling to her feet, covered with mud from head to toe. Pieces of grass were sticking to every inch of her coat and the elegant gown that she had worn to dinner and the opera, but the man who had apparently been her opponent lay on the ground — only, perhaps "lay" wasn't the operative term, he thought, pausing to survey the scene with deep appreciation. Joey McPherson was curled in an agonized ball in the icy mud, clutching a sensitive portion of his anatomy, seemingly unable to catch his breath. Beside them, Lex Luthor slumped on the ground, barely conscious.
Clark came in to a landing beside the little group, managing to keep his face straight only with a supreme effort.
"Ms. Lane," he said, in his best super-heroish voice, "you look like you could use some help. May I be of assistance?"
"You know," William Henderson said, in his most expressionless voice, "when I brought you into this case, I really didn't quite expect that you'd throw yourself into it literally. Mud wrestling?"
"Watch it, Henderson," Lois said. She picked straw from her hair and wiped at her face, but only succeeded in smearing the dirt a little further. Flakes of drying mud flicked off onto the carpet. "My sense of humor doesn't extend to ruined dresses and shoes. This outfit cost me nearly four hundred dollars."
Clark, still in his Superman guise, intervened hastily. "If you're finished, Inspector, I thought I'd give Ms. Lane a lift home."
"I'm finished for now." The corners of Henderson's mouth quivered infinitesimally. "And Lois …"
She scowled at him. "Any more mud jokes and you're a dead man."
His expression dissolved into a slight smile. "After seeing Joey, I might take you seriously. Actually, I was going to say thank you … and that I'm glad you're alive." His smile widened slightly, an expression that for Henderson was the equivalent of a broad grin. "Joey is going to be a big help, since he seems to realize that the only chance he has of surviving now is to cooperate fully. We've already got a full confession, and he was talking up a storm when I left. I have the feeling we're going to be listening to him in shifts."
"Are you sure you can protect him?" Lois asked. "I mean, if Luthor has his spies in the Department …"
"You let the DA and me worry about that," Henderson said. "We're holding him as a material witness for the moment, but the thing Joey is really afraid of is Luthor finding out where he is. As for Luthor's tentacles in the Police Department, let's say I've recently received some new information about who to watch and it fits with what I've suspected for some time. The fellow who brought it to me said you'd vouch for him. Do you know a Bobby Bigmouth?"
Lois gaped at him and then nodded. "I certainly do. Bobby'll eat you out of house and home but he's completely reliable."
"I can handle that," Henderson said. "We have a small discretionary fund for informants and such. I'm glad to know you trust him and as a matter of fact, I owe him a Chinese dinner. Needless to say, however, he doesn't want his name connected with this thing." A corner of his mouth turned up. "Go home and get a shower, Lois. And thanks."
Lois nodded and turned toward the door. A thought made her pause and turn back. "How's Luthor doing? And any word on the chauffeur, by any chance?"
"Luthor is expected to recover," the Inspector said. "Joey came close but he wasn't a good enough shot. The bullet nicked a major blood vessel. They took him into surgery to stop the bleeding right after Superman got him to the hospital and he'll be there for a few days, but it takes more than a bullet in the shoulder to kill Luthor. We're going to have to take him down the conventional way." He shook his head. "As for the chauffeur, we found him. As far as we can tell, he wasn't involved in it. He'd been hit over the head, tied up, gagged and stuffed in a cleaning closet in the Opera House basement. He was treated and released down at the emergency room."
"Lucky for him," Superman said. "I'd hate to be in his spot if he'd had anything to do with it."
"You mean, Joey was the chauffeur after the performance — and neither of us noticed?" Lois gave a disgusted snort. "But why didn't he just wait for us and kill us when we got out of the car? Why all the dramatics?"
"The interrogator asked him that," Henderson said. "Apparently he'd stashed the rifle in the orchard. He couldn't carry it with him for obvious reasons, and the rear windows of the limo — and the partition itself — are bullet proof, anyway. Luthor may be a crime boss, but he's not a fool."
"No, he isn't. He's a sociopath, who doesn't mind risking other people's lives, but he's very careful of his own," Superman said. He turned to Lois. "If you're ready, Ms. Lane …"
"I guess I am." Lois glanced back at the Inspector. "See you later, Henderson."
"You'll be hearing from me," Henderson said. "But for the sake of my grey hairs, try to be careful, will you?"
"Are you warm enough?" Clark held his partner close to his chest as he flew her through the night air toward her apartment.
"More or less." Lois wiped at her face, feeling crusts of drying mud crumble under her fingers. "I wish I'd had a chance to wash the rest of this off. Things have been so busy I barely had time to grab a paper towel and get the worst of it off my face."
"We'll be back at your place in a couple of minutes," he said. "Lois, how do you suppose Bobby knew that Henderson was our contact? And how did he know Henderson was trying to figure out which cops were on Luthor's payroll? And," he added for good measure, "how did he know who they were?"
Lois shrugged and dried mud cracked and crumbled from her clothing. "Bobby somehow always knows these things, Clark. It's why he's worth a dozen ordinary informants. Sometimes I think the man's psychic." She scowled at him. "And by the way, *Superman*, how did *you* know I was in trouble? I thought we'd agreed that you'd check on me every half hour or so."
"I have a sort of sixth sense about you," he said. "Besides, I was worried. You were right, though. You handled it without my help."
The scowl disappeared. "Actually, I was awfully glad to see you," she conceded. "And besides, you flying us in the limo was the easiest way to get us all back to Metropolis at the same time."
As she spoke, they approached her fifth floor window and Lois reached out to slide it open. Clark set her carefully on the rug and stepped through after her. "I guess I'd better go and let you take your shower," he said. "Your sister will probably be back at any time."
"No she won't," Lois said. "I didn't get a chance to tell you. She's in Italy with Brian Chow until after Christmas."
His jaw dropped. "Are you kidding?"
"No." She reached up to pat his cheek. "Thanks for coming after me, Clark. Why don't you make us some tea while I get cleaned up? We haven't really had a chance to talk about what happened. Besides, I haven't had you to myself since you proposed to me last night."
His face lit up with that smile that always seemed to brighten the room. "Okay. I'll have it ready when you're done."
Lois spent longer in the shower than she had intended. The hot water felt unbelievably good after running around in the cold and mud for half the night. She washed her hair three times before she was satisfied and soaped every inch of her body twice. Feeling clean at last, she stepped out of the shower and toweled off while examining her face in the mirror.
Except for a small bruise on one cheek, she looked all right, she decided, and she'd picked up more than bruises at one time or another in pursuit of a story. She towel-dried her hair and combed it out, and decided that if Clark didn't like her without her makeup, he'd have to lump it.
In her bedroom, she located a set of flannel pajamas and a thick robe and completed the ensemble with the bunny slippers that Lucy had given her as a joke birthday gift two years ago. These were necessary, as her feet were scratched and bruised from the rocks and other hard or stickery objects that she had encountered in the field when she had bested Joey McPherson. Ready at last, she walked into the small living room, to find her partner reclining on his back in the air in front of the television, watching a football game, his feet propped up on nothing exactly as if he were seated on a completely substantial piece of furniture. Judging by the colors of the uniforms, she thought, it was probably the game that the Metropolis Tigers had played against whoever this evening.
"Who's winning?" she asked.
He glanced around, caught sight of her and promptly fell two feet to the rug. She hesitated. Maybe this outfit hadn't been such a good idea after all.
"Wow!" he said. "You look incredible!"
It was hardly the remark that she'd expected from him and she was momentarily struck speechless; then she began to giggle.
He got to his feet, still staring at her. "What?" he asked.
"You!" she said. "Not too many guys would think much of this outfit." An instant's doubt struck her. "You're not using your x-ray vision, are you?"
He blinked. "Of course not. I wouldn't do that. You look great, honey, honestly. I just …" He broke off and to her surprise blushed dark red.
"You just what?" she asked, very curious now.
"Well … It just sort of flashed through my mind that you looked really comfortable in those … even with me here. Almost like we were already married," he explained. "You have no idea how much I've hoped that would happen, someday. Not that I don't want to see you in a few of those other outfits, like the ones at Frederick's of Hollyw —" He broke off and went even redder.
It was reassuring to know that he thought of her that way, too. "And you will," she said, "on our wedding night. In the meantime, you'll just have to put up with these."
"I can do that," he said with a grin. "How about some hot chocolate? I figured it would be more appropriate than tea at this time of night so I made a quick run to a market that I know for supplies."
"There are markets open at two-thirty in the morning?" she said, a little surprised.
"It isn't two-thirty in the morning in London," he explained. "Why don't you sit down and I'll get you a cup."
She limped over to the sofa and sat down. He frowned. "What's wrong with your feet?"
"I was running around in that field barefoot," she said.
"Oh. Let me get the hot chocolate and then I want to look at them."
"Charlie, it's nothing."
"Maybe, but a friend of mine got a splinter in his foot when I was a kid and nearly died of blood poisoning. I want to be sure your feet are okay."
He looked so worried that she gave in. "Okay."
Which was how she ended up sitting on the sofa, sipping a cup of hot chocolate while he intently examined the soles of her feet.
"You've got some splinters here," he said. "Hold still. I'm going to get them out."
"Let me finish the hot chocolate first," she said. "This is bound to hurt."
"Okay," he said. "It won't hurt, though. I'm going to chill the skin's surface first and then take them out with a pin and microscopic vision. You won't feel a thing."
"Really?" She swallowed the last of the chocolate. "What do you want me to do?"
"Lie down on your stomach," he instructed, "and just hold still."
"Not on this couch. Is it okay if I sit on the floor?"
"Sure. Just a minute while I get a blanket and pillow."
"Clark, I can —"
"I can do it," he said. A split second later he was spreading a blanket on the floor. While she was arranging herself comfortably, he whisked away and returned with a straight pin. "Okay, I've sterilized this with my heat vision. Now I'm going to chill the bottoms of your feet. Just hold still."
Five minutes later, he was dabbing each of the tiny cuts with hydrogen peroxide. "There, that should do it. I zapped each cut with a little heat vision to kill the bacteria, just for good measure. You shouldn't have any trouble."
"If I do I'll call you, Doctor Kent," she told him. "You did a 'super' job. It didn't hurt a bit."
He gave her a boost to her feet and a few seconds later all the signs of his work had disappeared. "There. Now, since it's nearly three AM, I think I'd better let you get some sleep. Is Perry expecting us in early tomorrow?"
"I called from the Precinct and told him we'd be in about one. I also phoned in the story about the attempt on the life of Metropolis's most honored philanthropist and businessman, so we're all set."
"Good." He wrapped his arms around her and for several long seconds there was no sound in the apartment. Then he let her go. "I'll be by about noon with some breakfast for both of us."
"That sounds good, but …"
"I'll let myself out." He nodded at the window. "Good night, honey."
She slid her arms around his neck. "You don't get away from me that easily, buster. I'm tired, but I'm not sleepy yet. How about you sit with me for a little while? I'm sure we can think of something to do to pass the time."
"Are you sure you don't want to get some sleep?"
"In a little while." She tugged him down on the sofa. "I went to dinner and a show with Lex Luthor, but that was business. My sister is in Italy having the time of her life with Brian Chow, and the guy I really wanted to date is standing right here, and I'm going to make the most of it …"
It was just after one o'clock in the afternoon. Perry White looked up as the elevator doors opened, in time to see the reporting team of Lane and Kent emerge. Lois was wearing flat shoes for the first time that he could ever remember, and looked absurdly petite beside the large form of her partner. It was hard to believe that the night before she had disabled a man who had tried to kill both Lex Luthor and her.
Kent held her desk chair for her as she sank into it, moving with slightly more caution than she usually did, and Perry recalled the brief explanation of her evening's activities that she had given him the night before. The look that she cast at Kent as he bent over to ask her a question made Perry raise his eyebrows. Lane and Kent? Well, there was no law against office romances, but he hoped that it wouldn't ruin a reporting partnership that was already showing signs of being one of the most successful in the history of the Planet. Still, it would be a step forward for Lois. Perry regarded Lois as his protegee and in many ways the daughter he had never had. Her happiness was important to him, and if she had finally found someone, he would be pleased.
He hadn't thought much of her relationship with Claude Chabert a few years ago. The man had been too old for her, for one thing, and in Perry's opinion, much too much of a ladies' man. He had never thought Chabert's intentions toward her were serious and whatever had happened to end the relationship had thoroughly shaken Lois. At least Kent was less than two years her senior, and seemed to be if anything, a little shy around women. Still, it was early days yet. He would reserve judgement, but he would keep his eye on them.
Jimmy Olsen crossed the office to Lois's desk as he watched and the three of them held a short conference. Lois said something that made Kent's eyebrows fly up and Jimmy nodded and made a thumbs-up gesture. For a moment Perry frowned. The gleeful expression on Olsen's face was a sure sign of trouble for someone.
Olsen turned and headed for his own small desk and Perry saw him rummaging through a drawer. He returned to Lois's desk with a sheet of paper, which he ostentatiously laid in front of Lois, and the three of them bent over it. Lois nodded and put it in the folder that Perry knew she had been using to amass her information on Superman, then made several notes on the writing pad on her desk. The three of them continued to speak for another minute, and he could almost sense the excitement in their attitudes.
What were they up to, he wondered. It boded well that Lane and Kent were so enthused about whatever Jimmy had given them. Hopefully, it would translate into a headline for the paper in the near future.
He wasn't the only one who had noticed the excitement of the Planet's top reporting team. Ralph was watching them from his favorite spot by the water cooler, and Perry sighed. Ralph was more or less a decent reporter when he was willing to put the effort into his work, but he was no Lane or Kent, and he should just stick to what he did best. Trying to do what Lane and Kent did was bound to get him into trouble. Perry was aware of the man's jealousy toward the Planet's star reporting team and their tendency to grab headlines, but not too many journalists could handle the stuff they had managed to sink their teeth into in the short time Kent had been here. He and Lois just seemed to complement each other's style in a way that led to the big stories. Like Lois, Kent must have reporting in his blood. Ralph, on the other hand …
Well, someone needed to follow up on last night's little adventure. Hopefully, Lois had enough of an in with Lex Luthor that she could wangle an interview. He went to the door of his office and opened it. "Lane! Kent! In my office, now!"
"We're going to follow it up," Lois said a little belligerently. "But …"
"An attempt on the life of Metropolis's most prominent citizen is news, Lois," Perry said. "People are going to want to know what happened. I want all the background on this material witness that Jimmy can find, and a statement from the DA …"
"Chief, you'll get a follow-up." Clark cast a hasty glance at Lois. "It's just that we need to be careful. Joey's in danger after what happened."
"In danger?" Perry's eyebrows rose. "Why?"
"We can't talk about it," Lois said. "We promised Henderson. It will all come out eventually, and we've been guaranteed an exclusive when it does, but if we screw up what Henderson and the DA are trying to do, it could all come crashing down. We'll do a general follow-up but any specifics on Joey have to be kept out of it."
"I don't suppose this has anything to do with that business corruption deal you were talking about?" Perry raised an eyebrow at them.
"Yes, it does," Lois said. "And you still don't want to know about it, Chief. It's not safe." She glanced at Clark. "Besides, we have an appointment to interview Superman again, and we don't want to be late."
Perry sat up straight. "Why didn't you say so? Get goin'!"
"On our way." Clark opened the door for his partner and Lois breathed a sigh of relief. Clark looked down at her as they left their editor's office and the door swung shut behind them. "Where do you want to go for this interview?"
"Your place," Lois said as they headed for the elevator. "Besides," she added, keeping her voice low, "we need to get out of here to give Ralph his chance. And then we might see if Luthor's official spokesperson has any comment about last night."
"Two to one he'll tell you that 'Mr. Luthor is resting comfortably'."
"Which gives us no information at all but we can't expect anything more than that," Lois said. "We'll just have to write something about how 'Mr. Luthor' is expected to make a full recovery and the police are investigating or something like that. I'll get hold of Henderson for an official statement, but for now, the less said, the better."
"That's for sure," Clark said. He rang for the elevator. "This investigation isn't going to be over for a while yet, but it definitely got a big boost last night. We'll …" He broke off, raising his head. "Oh oh."
"Let's go," Lois said at once. "The interview can wait for a little while."
Together, they ducked through the door to the stairs.
The morning edition of the Daily Planet lay on Lois's desk. The headline read: "He's Here to Help" by Lois Lane and Clark Kent, and splashed across the front page was a spectacular photo of Superman holding up the front end of an eighteen wheeler with one hand as emergency workers cut the occupants of a small car free of the twisted mass of metal that had been their vehicle a short time before.
Below was a vivid account of the rescue by Lane and Kent, and beside it, an exclusive interview with Superman, by Lois Lane. Perry White tapped the paper with one finger. "This is great, kids. I had a feeling about the two of you when I partnered you up. Glad to see I was right."
"This is nothing, Chief," Lois said. "Before we're done, we're going to be the hottest team in town. Wait and see."
Their editor grinned. "I'm glad to see that a lack of confidence isn't going to get in your way. You two keep this up, and I might have to agree with you." He clapped Clark on the back. "Good work, both of you."
As the editor headed back toward his office, Jimmy picked up the paper. "I like the quote," he said. "'Let there be no mistake. Metropolis is my home now. I'm here to stay.' That should make life interesting."
"Speaking of interesting," Lois asked. "Did Ralph bite?"
Jimmy shrugged, and the expression of wide-eyed innocence on his face almost made Clark laugh. After all, this scheme had been Jimmy's idea to begin with, albeit with wholehearted cooperation by Lois and himself. "Well, he wandered over to your desk a little while after you left. I didn't dare watch him too closely, but before he took off last night he was bragging about having a big surprise for us today, so I think he might have. I haven't seen any sign of him so far this morning."
"He's probably still wandering around the sewage reclamation facility, looking for Superman's ship," Lois said. "I was there once a few years ago, and I can promise you it's easy to get thoroughly lost there. With luck, he'll be scratching mosquito bites for several days."
Jimmy snorted. "Maybe it'll teach him something about ethics."
As he spoke the elevator doors opened. Ralph Finkelstein stepped out and it was immediately apparent to Clark that he was not happy. His clothing was filthy and stained and he was carrying a dirty, plastic bag in one hand.
Clark's sensitive nose picked up the smell long before any of his colleagues did. Ralph came down the ramp with a purposeful stride, straight toward Lois's desk. Clark straightened up. The expression on Ralph's face bordered on the murderous, and if he was angry enough to do anything stupid, Clark wanted to be ready to intercept him.
Ralph marched up to Lois's desk and slapped the item he was carrying onto its surface.
"I hope you got a good laugh out of this," he snarled, "because it wasn't funny!"
Lois stared at him, the picture of outraged innocence. "What the devil are you talking about?" she demanded. "Get that *thing* off my desk!"
"You know damned well what I'm talking about!" Ralph seemed oblivious to the fact that everyone in the newsroom was staring at him, and the pitch of his voice rose to a near-hysterical falsetto. Even Perry had paused in the door of his office to watch. He ripped open the plastic bag to produce an object, which he shoved within an inch of Lois's nose. It was a plastic Godzilla doll with a red "S" painted on the chest. "It wasn't *funny*!"
Clark grinned. "Oh, I don't know, Finkelstein," he drawled. "It looks pretty funny to me."
Jimmy underlined the comment with a cough that sounded suspiciously like a laugh.
Ralph turned to glare at him. "You were both in this," he said. "Just wait, Kent. You're going to be sorry."
"I wouldn't," Clark said. He let his grin diminish until it was only the faintest of smiles. "If you brought that back, then I know where you got it, and there's only one way you would have found it. And after all, we didn't mean anything by it. We were just joking."
Ralph opened his mouth to speak but Perry's voice cut across whatever he had been about to say. "What's goin' on here?"
"Nothing, Chief," Lois said, looking straight at Ralph. "We were just having a little discussion. Right, Ralph?"
Ralph glared at her, closed his mouth and nodded. "That's right. A little discussion."
"Hmm." Perry looked sharply at Lois and back at Ralph. "Well, go get cleaned up. You smell to high heaven." He turned and headed back toward his office. As the door closed behind him, Clark heard his boss laugh.
"You really do smell, Ralph," Lois said, kindly. "You'd better do what Perry said. And next time, keep your hands off my Superman folder. You never know what you might find in it."
Ralph continued to stare at his three colleagues for the space of twenty seconds, then he appeared to wilt. Without a word, he turned and shuffled toward the elevator.
Lex Luthor reclined in the luxurious king-sized bed in his penthouse apartment of LexTower. His bandaged shoulder throbbed dully, and he glanced at the clock by his bedside table, mentally counting the moments until it was safe to take another dose of the pain medication that the doctor had prescribed for him.
It would be only a few minutes. He lay back against the mound of pillows and glanced at the morning edition of the Daily Planet that lay on the table's surface.
Lois had scored her interview, as she had told him she would. The woman was remarkable — incredible. Never before had he met someone like her. She was beautiful — perhaps not so beautiful as some of the lovelies with whom he had associated in the past, but the character in her face, in her every expression, made up for that and more.
She had saved his life.
He was very glad now that his assassin had not succeeded in killing Lois Lane. If he had, Luthor would have missed the opportunity of meeting this astounding woman. She attracted him as no other woman ever had in the past, with her intelligence, her drive, her character, her beauty and her spirit. Lois Lane was a prize worth winning, and he intended to win her. She might be a little too independent to suit him completely, but given time he could probably manage to bring that under control. It was a challenge worthy of him, and the reward would be worth it. It would add spice to the chase, in any event.
Making up his mind, he pushed the call button beside his bed. A moment later, Nigel St. John entered. "You wished to see me, sir?"
"Yes," Luthor said. "Has there been any progress?"
"No, sir. Apparently the police are holding someone as a material witness, but our people haven't been able to identify this person."
Luthor frowned. "I trust you haven't given up."
"Good. Now, I believe you told me that Ms. Lane's clothing was ruined after the events of night before last. I want you to replace it. And send a bouquet of two dozen red roses to her at her office."
"Very well, sir. Do you wish to send a card?"
"Yes. Bring it to me so that I can write her a private message. See to it personally, Nigel."
"Yes sir. Will that be all, sir?"
"There's the matter of Joey. Has he been found?"
"No, sir." He couldn't read Nigel's expression. "All we're sure of is that he hasn't left town."
"When he reappears he's to be given no more chances. Dispose of him … but I want him thoroughly questioned first. If he has any knowledge of the diary, I want to know what it is."
"It will be done, sir."
"Has there been any progress on that other problem?"
"No, sir. The boys have apparently gone to ground, somewhere. All of our people are looking for them. As soon as one of them surfaces, we'll be notified."
"And the diary?"
"No sign of it at all, sir. It may be considered too hot to handle."
"Keep looking, Nigel. If the boys have it, all to the good. If someone else has it and is holding onto it for insurance, find him and dispose of him. I want it back."
"Yes, sir," Nigel said.
Luthor leaned his head back against the pillow. "Send the nurse in when you leave."
"At once, sir." Nigel inclined his head slightly, turned and silently left the room.
(To be continued in the next story. Stay tuned.)