By Anne Christy <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted August 2006
Summary: Lois finds herself in the midst of a terrorist plot to use Superman, while Clark Kent deals with the recent reappearance of Lana Lang. Faced with near-death and unknown enemies, Superman must save Lois before time runs out.
The alarm buzzed in the silent apartment though it was still dark and barely dawn. After a few moments of no response, the buzzing switched to a set local news station. "…for those of you starting your morning rush. Sunny today with a high of seventy-two and here's a look at what's happening in the news, from the Daily Planet here's…"
He rubbed his eyes open, yawned, and rolled out of bed to do an early set of pushups, listening to a brief rundown of the latest stockmarket predictions. Four thirty am. He took a shower, shaved, and pulled out a shirt and tie from the closet. Four forty. No problem. A bagel now, coffee and one of Jimmy's cinnabuns later. He grabbed the article draft and source documents he had been reviewing the previous evening and headed for the door. Suddenly remembering, he doubled back and retrieved his glasses, straightening his tie as he went.
The cabbie dropped him off at the main door and bid him a sleepy good morning. Early rush-hour traffic was starting to heat up downtown with the usual horn and cursing symphony. The sun was peeking up over the horizon and it cast a golden glow on the slowly rotating Daily Planet globe thirty stories up. He joined the stream of suits going in and found himself in the familiar glass-and-tile sterile lobby. Voices echoed at the front desk and five different television news channels were spread out around the area.
"Good morning, Mr. Kent," said the security guard, waving him ahead to the elevators. Catching an elevator was usually a competitive sport at the Planet, but this morning the crowd was thin enough to let him on. The tenth floor was the newsroom, open twenty-four seven.
If rush hour was just starting in downtown Metropolis, it had been in full swing at the Planet since four. Holding the source files in one hand and a Starbucks in the other, he managed to bump and squeeze his way to his desk, which was half occupied at the moment. He tentatively set down the coffee and pushed up his glasses, which were perpetually either crooked or sliding slowly down.
"Morning, Clark!" A redheaded young man no more than twenty dropped off a cinnabun box with a grin. "Lois take over again, huh?" he asked, looking at the mess of paper copy consuming Clark's desk.
"Oh, well, it's… What's all this for, anyway?"
"Luthor's meeting with President Martin today."
"Yeah, you'd forget? Don't let White catch you like that. Hey, I got photos to run off. Later, Kent!"
He had forgotten about the meeting. A Luthor in the White House, he thought. Bet he's a real favorite fishing buddy of the president and everything. Hesitantly he started to move a few of the files over.
"Wait, wait, don't touch those!" Lois appeared seemingly from nowhere and swept down past him to sort through the mess. Her dark brown curls fell softly over her shoulder and he could smell the fresh scent of soap still on her.
"Are you covering the meeting today?" Clark asked, watching her and ignoring the scalding coffee he was casually drinking.
"And Perry's insisting you come along, Smallville."
"What?" He hadn't planned on that.
"Kent!" Managing editor Perry White stuck his head out the office door and barked across the newsroom floor. At fifty and still firmly in charge, he reminded most reporters of an ex-Marine sergeant. Lois only thought of him as the barrier between her and the top stories in the nation.
"Perry, Lois told me, um—"
"You're going to DC in an hour, get ready. I want a full sellable story on the whole meeting by three, make it edgy since Martin's poll numbers are down. The public doesn't like him, neither do we."
"Yes, sir." Push up the glasses.
"It's just that I don't see why you'd need me if Lois—"
"You keep her out of trouble, Kent. And with Luthor around I want to make sure I don't end up with another libel or trespassing accusation. Now get out of my office or you'll be late."
Lois intercepted him before he could even get back to his desk. She shoved over four inches of files into his hands. "All the briefing you'll need; business agreements and presidential policies. It's a forty-five minute jet ride, so start reading."
He set aside the last file before the jet touched the BWI runway. Even at superspeed it had taken him some time; the history of Lex Luthor and President Joseph Martin was rich with profitable deals between related companies. Luthor Labs provided the technology for Martin's "Against AIDS" campaign and occasionally lent out favors to congressmen for favorable votes. Today's luncheon meeting at the White House had no particular announced topic, but it was a sure bet the opening of the Luthor & Maxwell ChemLab would be mentioned. The giant research facility, anticipated to be the top in the country, even the world, was set to open that weekend.
"You couldn't possibly have read all that." Lois was eyeing the files.
"Well, I, you know, skimmed over a few pages." He cleared his throat under her steady gaze and adjusted the press tag on his shirt.
The plane landed smoothly, taxied, and then unloaded a small army of reporters into DC.
The White House was a scene of organized chaos. Visitors and tourists at the gate snapped photos of the LuthorCorp helicopter on the front lawn, guarded by statuesque secret service. Aides, security, press, and media mashed together inside, all with urgent business. Voice shouted, cellphones and pagers went off, bags were searched, camera and video equipment was carried overhead.
"Fifteen minutes!" roared an aide, and the din grew louder.
"Clark, let's go!" Lois grabbed his arm and steered him through the crowd into the conference room. Rows of metal chairs were set up with a jungle of wires and cameras up front by two big armchairs.
"Lane, Lois Lane!" called one of the men they pushed by.
She turned and lit up with a smile. "Barry! Haven't seen you since the press corps dinner!" To Clark's surprise, 'Barry' gave her a quick peck on the cheek.
"How's the Planet?" he asked as they sat down.
But Clark remained standing. He had heard something… The soft metallic click of a handgun. But where? He pulled down his glasses an inch or two and scanned the room through jacket pockets, laptop cases, camera bags. There. A man on the far side of the room, across the rows of chairs. He was joking to another reporter with a frozen smile, checking his watch, and had a hand held protectively over a gun in his jacket.
"Clark. Clark. Clark!"
He snapped back and refocused; quickly pushing his glasses back up. Lois and 'Barry' were staring at him. "Are you feeling okay?"
"I think I'll use the bathroom…the airplane, flying…" He left quickly, leaving Lois to roll her eyes and complain to Barry about how Clark had to come along.
He worked through the crowd, pushing a little too strongly. A secret service man was making his rounds and checking the crowd. "Ten minutes!" said the same aide, now with a microphone. Clark saw the man nearly in front of him now, could read his press tag: Riley Bars, Evening Gazette. Putting on his best phony smile, he clapped Bars on the back, nearly toppling the man over.
"Why, Riley Bars! Haven't seen you in ages, how you been?" He held out his hand, forcing Bars to take his hand out of his pocket. The other held a notepad and pen.
Now. While Bars was looking at him with a confused expression and still shaking his hand, Clark reached out and grabbed the passing secret service agent. "This man has a gun!" he shouted. "Right jacket pocket!" Bars quickly changed to a deer-in-headlights look, then to one of anger. He went for the gun but discovered he was caught in a handshake of steel. The next second two secret service men had wrestled him to the ground, confiscating the gun and throwing on a set of handcuffs. The aide at the microphone was attempting to calm the sixty or so reporters present, most of who were shouting questions at the secret service and snapping photos-a bonus story!
"The conference will begin in five minutes! Will everyone please take a seat!"
Clark suddenly found himself on the opposite side of the questions.
"Mr. Kent! How did you know he had a gun!"
"Who was he-what's his name!"
"You know him personally?"
He tried to head back to his seat, but they followed like hungry vultures. "Listen, I, uh, was just doing my civic duty." The barrage of questions continued.
"Hey! You got your quote, leave off it or I'll charge you all with harassment!" Lois stepped in and propelled him back to his seat.
"Two minutes! Please take a seat, everyone!" The harried aide appeared again. This time things really did quiet down and camera lights were turned on. Notepads were opened, pens clicked.
"Thanks," Clark muttered to Lois, no sign of 'Barry'.
"Yeah, well, I know how reporters can get, Smallville. So… how did you know he had a gun?" Off of Clark's sigh she defended herself. "It is a good story, and imagine Perry when he hears the Planet's got its own Kansas-grown Superman!"
Clark fiddled with his notepad spirals. "I just…saw it in his pocket…" He forced a chuckle. "I'm no Superman, Lois."
She frowned. "No kidding, Clark. I wonder who he was after; Luthor or Martin."
There was spattered applause as Luthor and President Martin entered the room, each giving their usual camera-friendly smiles, just old pals having some lunch. Clark tensed at the sight of Luthor. The man had tried to get at him—or, more accurately, Superman—ever since he had come to Metropolis. More than just his nemesis, Lex Luthor was the number one business executive in the world and easily owned half the city with LuthorCorp. He was untouchable. President Joseph Martin, on the other hand, was a former Kentucky senator who was now in the midst of a first-term crisis. Taxes were up, gas was expensive, and the economy was downright poor. In order to distract from the troubles at home, the "Against AIDS" program was born, with Luthor spearheading the effort. A real Boy Scout, was Lois's snide comment on that story.
"I'd like to thank you all for coming," began Martin in his usual Kentucky-folks drawl. "Mr. Luthor and I have been talking over several important ideas and policies not just today, but over the course of the past few weeks. Of course, Mr. Luthor has pledged to continue his support for "Against AIDS", as should the rest of America. The most significant event this week is, as you may already know, the opening of a world-class chemical research facility in the nation's hometown, Metropolis. This facility is important to public health and America's reputation as a land of achievement, and I'd like to let Mr. Luthor expand on that."
"Thank you, Mr. President," Luthor took over smoothly. "Luthor and Maxwell ChemLab has sealed a partnership with the Center for Disease Control as well as chemical processing plants around America to ensure first-rate research into chemical effects on public health as well as groundbreaking testing labs. ChemLab will obviously employ many of the top experts in the field. I know there are plenty of questions, so I'd like to open up the floor, if the President has no objections…"
"Go right ahead," Martin said. He hated question and answer sessions.
Not to be beaten, Lois was the first up. Luthor tightened his smile in not entirely pleasant recognition. "Ah yes. Ms. Lane."
"Exactly what will be tested in these first-class labs, Mr. Luthor?"
"Any number of yet-unidentified compounds; adamantium, kryptonite, several crystal formations we've uncovered, all have yet to be completely analyzed and tested outside of smaller private labs and under more…experienced professionals, Ms. Lane."
Kryptonite. No one had missed that reference, least of all Clark. Not only would Luthor have a team of experts working on Superman's weakness, he'd have the endorsement of the President of the United States. He gripped his pen so tightly it broke, and realized he had yet to take any notes. Lois had sat down and was madly scribbling through a second page.
"…purpose of testing kryptonite? What do you hope to find, I mean?" Another question was being asked.
"Essentially, it's an alien substance with unknown origins. I believe even Superman would like to know the properties of his home planet," Luther responded easily.
"Will any of the research be done in conjunction with the Army's chemical defense institute? President Martin has been quoted as saying he would like to include the facility in quote national defense unquote." "That has yet to be seen. We have entered into preliminary talks with the Pentagon, but I can't comment on that right now," Luthor said with a glance at Martin.
"We're certainly not weaponizing any of the chemicals. The facility is solely for peaceful purposes and the sake of science," Martin added hurriedly.
Clark was attempting to connect the data between testing kryptonite and talking with the Pentagon—there was more going on there-when a far-off explosion caught his attention. He tuned out background noise and listened closer. It was definitely an explosion, a fire of some sort, people were screaming.
He got up as discreetly as possible. "Clark, where are you going?" Lois hissed at him.
"I'm, uh, not feeling well again. I'll meet you back at the plane?" He felt a twinge of guilt for leaving her alone, but Superman was needed. He weaved through chairs and legs, strode quickly past the security guards, and began undoing his tie.
The explosion was a gas leak in a downtown DC apartment building, half of which was now collapsed and on fire. A crowd had gathered down on the street, where six fire engines were parked and in use. The hoses were helping, but the gas was still leaking. He could see the fractured pipeline as he flew over the wreckage.
He braced himself, and then dove down through the column of smoke into the apartments. The flames licked at him and the smoke was thick. Five residents, he heard. Going through the fire, he grabbed a young man and woman from the floor.
"Hold on," he commanded. He flew back out, leaving them on the pavement where they collapsed into the arms of firemen and medics.
Three more. A mother and her wailing toddler were by one of the windows; she nearly threw the boy into his hands to get him out of the building. "There's another woman in there," she coughed as he brought her down. "She was screaming, but then she just collapsed, asthma—"
He went back to scan the apartment. There, slumped against a door. The ceiling creaked dangerously, flames roaring out on top and bottom. He grabbed her, not feeling any pulse, and streaked from the building as the walls began to give in. The area's gas supply had finally been shut off, but the fire had completely destroyed the apartments.
"She doesn't have a pulse!" he shouted to the rescue workers that took the woman from him.
"I need some oxygen and an Ambu bag!"
"Get her into the ambulance!" Sirens wailed and the woman was gone into the hands of the nearest DC hospital.
"Will she recover?" he asked one of the medics standing by.
The man sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I hope so." He glanced up at Superman. "Don't worry. Georgetown Medical is one of the best hospitals around. They'll do all they can."
He nodded and was gone. He should have gotten there faster, saved her first, he thought. He couldn't have known, but still…
Clark forced himself to push it out of his mind as he quickly buttoned up his shirt and emerged from the airport parking garage. The jet was just beginning to board and he grabbed a quick sandwich from a shop in the terminal.
Lois was waiting for him on the plane. "Well, Smallville," she started, letting him in next to her. "If I'd known you'd barely be around, I wouldn't have complained so much to Perry. I already filed the story, by the way."
Just as well, he thought, remembering his notepad was still in a DC alleyway outside the White House. "Sorry, Lois, I mean I—"
"Were you smoking, Clark?" she suddenly interrupted, wrinkling her nose.
Shoot. "No, no, it was, uh, it was the cabby. On the way to the airport. Smoked a whole pack."
"Huh." She almost didn't buy it, but apparently had juicier topics to pursue. "Perry wants your picture on the front page, for that Superman stunt."
"Um…what?" He had frozen. She knew, she had seen him change, Clark Kent was Superman-
"Your little gun adventure with Riley Bars? And he wants you to do the follow up."
"You mean find out who he is, who he was after."
"Turns out the Evening Gazette, all ten of them, none ever had a Riley Bars on staff, never heard of the guy until today."
"Could be a false name too." It was a strange incident, but there were thousands of people that had personal reasons to harm Luthor or Martin. Especially Luthor.
"He must have had a security guard in on it; there's no way he could have gotten in otherwise." Lois flipped through her notes. "Meanwhile, I'm going to follow up on the newest combination of Luthor and kryptonite. Maybe get a tour of the lab if I pull some strings. I bet Superman's
not happy about it, maybe I can get an interview."
Clark saw her almost smile, but she quickly hid it. She caught him looking at her and their eyes met. Heart pounding, he turned away and looked out the window, feeling like an idiot. Lois gave a small cough, clicked her pen, and reviewed her notes. The conversation was over.
"Kent! Lane! In my office!" White greeted them in the newsroom, where things were even busier than they had been at four am. Lois groaned. White shut the door and held up a recently released Associated Press photograph. A secret service agent had Riley Bars pinned to the floor while Clark stood in the background.
"Perry, I—" He started to explain.
"Kent, I sent you there to keep Lois out of trouble, not get yourself on the front page. But this is a good story, good photo; I'll go with it. Clark Kent, Superman reporter, eh?"
"That's, uh, very clever—"
"But I also have a full story on the White House meeting without a single editorial correction." Perry held up Lois's copy. "Mr. Luthor gave few details on the nature of the chemical compounds," he read. "At least, that's what I think it was supposed to read before half the vowels got left behind. Kent, I want this edited by press time, so get to work." He threw Clark the copy and gestured for him to leave.
Before he even closed the door Lois was arguing.
On his way out, Jimmy approached him. "Another battle in the lion's den?"
He smiled. "Just an unedited article."
"Ouch. Well congrats on the whole hero move, Clark. Couldn't believe I'd been delivering cinnabuns to Supes's protege all these mornings. Oh and you had a lady visitor today." Jimmy enjoyed Clark's startled expression. "Lana Lang. Said she's staying at Lex's for the weekend, you're to give her a call tonight. That's one hot number, Clark," Jimmy grinned. "She got any friends?"
Lana. What was she doing here? He hadn't seen her in years and they had parted on bad terms. He had heard from his mother that she was living near Smallville with a boyfriend, but he avoided looking her up whenever he was in town. Didn't want to dredge up of old feelings on either side. But why stay at Lex's? Why come all the way out to Metropolis to see him?
"Clark, don't go into shock or anything…" Jimmy was looking at him half-jokingly.
"Huh? Oh, I, just… Thanks for letting me know."
"Yeah, I better let you get to work on that copy, if I know Lois's writing." The redhead photographer vanished into the newsroom crowd, tapping two new memory disks of the day's photos.
Clark tuned out the bawdy news noise and selected a red pen, looking over the article in all its horrific erred glory. Lana Lang, he thought, absently marking corrections. The only memory that had any clarity to it was her angry and heartbroken _expression, framed by that vibrant auburn hair. He preferred not to remember it and hoped this recent visit wouldn't be a repeat. Should he call her? There was really no avoiding it. She knew he had to have Luthor listed as a contact.
He sighed and put the pen down, editorial corrections complete. Between ChemLab's opening, the mysterious would-be shooter, and now Lana's showing up, there were suddenly a wide variety of situations waiting to tangle into knots.
He stood in his apartment, cellphone in one hand, rolodex in the other. Just do it, Clark. Get a grip, he thought. It had been a long time, there was nothing between them now…except a nasty past. Maybe something was wrong, maybe she needed help. "The Luthor residence." Lex had probably been fielding calls all day.
"I'd like to speak with Ms. Lang, please." It took all his willpower to be polite.
There was a pause. "Who is this?"
"Clark. Clark Kent."
"From the Daily Planet. Send Ms. Lane my highest regards, if you will," Lex said with an aftertaste of disdain.
He was put on hold for a few minutes, then:
"Clark." The clear crystal voice carried just as strongly over the phone. She might as well have been standing next to him.
"Lana…" He struggled to find something suitable to say. "How are you?" was all that came out.
"I'm all right, Clark. It's…it's nice to hear your voice again. Listen, I saw you were at the White House conference today."
Clark groaned. "You read that article?"
"It was front page. Besides, how could I miss the irony?" She had known about his powers before he left for Metropolis and—so far as he knew—had kept the secret. "The man with the gun? He wasn't after Luthor or the President."
Clark straightened. "How do you know?"
"He was after a Daily Planet reporter, Lois Lane. You know, the one who does the stories about Superman."
"What? How do you know-it's a fact?" he demanded, grabbing the nearest pen and paper. He had a twinge of fear in his stomach.
"Naturally, Lex had a few of his men spend time in the interrogation room with 'Riley Bars' and found out he was going to get paid for the shooting. It had all been set up beforehand by a second party. Bars was a small-time crook, that's all."
Clark felt as though someone were taking a wrench through his gut. Lois. He shouldn't have left her alone in the conference… "What do you mean, set up? Who was the second party?" Who could he go after, more like.
"He said he was instructed specifically only to wound her. Apparently there was an ambulance on call that would be used to then kidnap her. He didn't know any more, said he never met the guy, got his instructions and a money advance online."
"For what? Why?"
"He didn't know, he wasn't given a reason," Lana said almost apologetically. "And before you bother to ask, I found out from Lex. He knows I have a sort of history with Daily Planet reporters. Well, just one, really. I came into town for the ChemLab opening, since Pete was the one who designed the place, architecture and all that… Are you okay, Clark?"
Probably not, he thought. "I have to go." He had to get to Lois, talk to her now.
"Call me if you find something," she said hopefully.
He snapped the phone shut and in a second was in the balmy Metropolis night air. Lois's apartment wasn't too far away and as always the balcony doors were open, curtains ruffling in the breeze. He landed lightly and heard music from inside. She was sitting on the floor, papers spread around her, the trusted and worn L.L. rolodex in front of her on the coffee table. She bit her lip in concentration, underlining several parts in the source documents.
She jerked up in momentary fright, caught unawares. "Superman!" She quickly gathered her composure. "Late night house calls—"
"Lois, listen to me," he interrupted, taking a more forward approach than usual. "The man at the conference today was there to shoot you; there was a kidnapping plot."
She dropped back onto the sofa, for once at a loss for words. "Why?" she finally asked, reporter curiosity kicking in.
"No one's sure yet. The shooter was only part of a setup. He can't identify the man or woman who hired him, or give a reason."
Lois had recovered and was up and pacing the apartment floor. He watched her, arms folded, admiring her grounded realism. Lois was one to tackle a problem rather than have it tackle her. "There's hundreds of articles I've written that some fanatic or another could have taken offense to."
She shook her head. "Just some city beat stuff, the usual crime stories. A few features on you—" Lois stopped herself midstride. "Leverage!" she exclaimed suddenly. "They-whoever 'they' is-wanted to use me as leverage to get to you!"
It dawned on him. "Who better to get Superman's attention than the woman he…" They were facing each other. She looked at him, but he couldn't hold her gaze. "The woman he gives interviews to," he finished lamely. Damn.
"So, this 'mastermind' is still out there?" She turned away, hiding disappointment perhaps.
"There aren't any leads as to who it could be."
"Great. Well, I've faced my share of death threats but this is the first time a maniac actually came at me during a White House conference." She sighed and pulled out a pack of Nicoret gum. "Clark!" she said suddenly, remembering.
"Who?" he asked, his heart giving a leap.
Lois smiled faintly-fondly? "Clark Kent…this reporter I work with. He was the one to find out Bars had a gun. It's just, well, I'd never thought of him as the type of guy who'd save my life." She gave a short laugh, looking up at him. Not sure to take it as a compliment, he returned her grin. "So, how does this work? You're going to give me twenty-four-seven protection from an unidentified killer, or what?"
As much as he'd want to be her personal bodyguard… "I can't look out for you all the time."
"Right. The world needs Superman too," she said.
"Just be careful." He rested a hand on her shoulder.
"Don't worry, it'll take more than a lone gunman on the hilltop to bring me down," she replied gently, in a voice that Clark Kent never heard at the office or on assignment. Would he ever?
He backed away towards the balcony. "Goodnight, Lois." Then he was gone, up into the city sky and away from the simple comforts of her apartment.
His own, in contrast, was silent and empty. Shadows of furniture lurked in the bedroom. He put the suit away-conspicuous just hanging there amid the Daily Planet day suits-and set the alarm for the same routine the next morning. If he could sleep. Just imagining what could have happened had he not gone to the conference was cause enough for a night's worth of nightmares. Leverage. How could he have been so stupid! Of course someone would take note of Lois Lane, Superman's "exclusive" news contact, and try to gain something by it.
Superman had put her in harm's way and Clark Kent had saved her.
Perry stared at them over his desk the next morning. "You two both sure about these sources?" he asked, looking from Lois to Clark.
"Gee, Perry, I don't know, Superman can be pretty unreliable, especially when it's about my life," Lois bit sarcastically.
"Mine has confirmation from Mr. Luthor, sir," Clark pointed out.
Perry chewed on his bottom lip before making a final decision. "All right, I'll hold any follow-up, but I can't guarantee another paper won't investigate the guy. Lane, maybe you better lay low for a while, let Kent take the lab opening today."
"Yeah, you're kidding, right? If I was worried about murderous psychos I wouldn't be working in Metropolis. I'm going to that opening."
Perry threw up his hands. "All right, go. Kent—"
"I'll go with Lois," he said hastily. "That is, it might be safer. Not that she can't handle, I mean, um…"
"What are you now, her bodyguard? Don't let the headline go to your ego, Kent. Tell you what—you both go to the opening, take Olsen with you for photos. And Kent, I want the story edited before it gets here this time," he said, tapping the desktop. "Both of you, out." He glanced at Lois, who looked ready to argue again. "Out."
Lois gathered up her notepads and sources from her desk, grumbling under her breath. "Jimmy!" she called across the aisle. Jimmy Olsen nearly dropped his camera as he got up. "You're coming to the opening with Clark and me." Before he could say anything in reply she turned to face Clark, annoyed. "Clark, thanks for saving my life and all the other day, but like Perry said, don't turn stalker-bodyguard on me, okay?"
"I just thought that maybe…" Push up the glasses. He avoided looking directly at her, since her gaze now had more irritated heat than his own.
She sighed. "Sorry, Smallville. This whole 'protect the helpless woman'…" she trailed off, scavenging her desk for a new pen.
He found one on his and offered it. "No one wants to see you hurt, that's all." She took the pen and paused with one of those half-puzzled smiles.
"That's…sweet of you, Clark," she said.
He watched her check the time, always afraid of being the last in on the scoop. "We'd better get going, there's probably a crowd already. Luthor's giving a press tour of the place afterwards."
They both reached for the briefing file compiled for the event, their fingers brushing. An awkward, hesitating reach-and-grab by Lois. The whole incident ignored. Clark pushed up his glasses-could they ever just stay there?-and followed her to the elevator.
Luthor and Maxwell ChemLab was an impressive facility just from the outside view. The cloudy gray sky was reflected off of crystal glass triangles on the roof and a series of double doors were built in under a semicircle marquee-like sign. The lab name was embossed in shiny steel lettering. American flag banners were hung for the opening day.
"The place looks more like a hotel than a lab," Lois said skeptically, folding her arms as Jimmy searched for the right angle.
"Musta cost him a fortune to build," Jimmy commented, snapping a few shots.
"Here comes Luthor, get a picture!"
Lex Luthor stepped up to the podium amid applause. He was wearing a crisp suit and began his short speech with the air of a confident executive. "When my father left me LuthorCorp five years ago, he was handing over not just a business, but an empire. An empire that had been built on money and, I admit, unhealthy partnerships. Since then, I have tried to give back to the community, to the world, the benefits of good wealth, useful money. I hope that with the opening of the Luthor and Maxwell ChemLab, research and health issues that previously would have gone unfunded now have a place to truly and thoroughly be studied. Thank you all for coming, and at this time I'd like to begin the press tour. If you could all please follow me?"
Clark was pushed along into the lobby. He had scanned the crowd already and found no hidden handguns, poisons, knives, explosives, or abnormally sharp tie pins. Whoever was after Lois wasn't here. Or here and just not carrying a weapon. He squeezed past a gaggle of out-of-town reporters and tried to keep up with Lois's brisk pace behind Luthor. Jimmy's flash kept blinding him, and he moved off to the side.
"Clark!" Lana bumped into him, surprised.
The crowd moved past him like a wave. The years came rushing back and it was like he had never left her or Smallville behind. She was almost a foot shorter than him, and smiled up, face tilted.
"Lana, I—" He looked around to make sure Lois and Jimmy were out of earshot. "I wasn't expecting to see you here."
"Well, like I said, Pete was the architect."
"That's right, I forgot. He's your…?" He let the question hang. He didn't want to assume they were engaged any more than he wanted to say the word fiance. They walked together slowly behind the tour group.
"We're just living together. For now." It was obviously a sensitive topic and she said nothing more, turning instead to the business at hand. "Did you get any leads?"
"None." He had spent a few hours checking contacts and had even put in a call to Gotham City.
"Well, don't worry yourself too much over it. There's still the rest of the world." Lana gave him a comforting smile, but it didn't help things.
Lex had paused to talk about the first lab, which was across the hall and through a glass viewing window. A large boiler and vat sat at the ready.
"…safe for the scientists to work so close to such extreme temperatures?" someone was asking as Clark drew near. He recognized Lois's voice.
"I assure you, Ms. Lane, that all our specialists have the proper training and caution for the work," Luther said in a tone of infinite patience. Before she could ask anything further he continued with the tour.
"There you are, Clark." Lois caught him by the arm, forcing him to keep up. "One minute you're hovering, the next you disappear. Jimmy, did you get that photo?"
"Got it." He was winding the film, then peered through the lens for another shot, catching instead the sight of Lana Lang. "Woah!" He put down the camera and held out his hand eagerly. "We meet again, Miss Lang."
She laughed. "Call me Lana."
Lois glanced from Lana to Jimmy to Clark, all the while keeping pace with Luthor. "Should I know you?"
Clark steeled himself and intercepted. "Lois this is Lana Lang, from Smallville. Old friends, and all that."
"And all that, huh?" Lois gave Lana a skeptical look. "Nice to meet you. Didn't think anyone besides Clark would've grown up in Smallville."
Luthor stopped by the next viewing window, which looked out on a lab dominated by a large metal room in the middle. "This is the kryptonite testing lab. Specially designed, of course. The room you see in the center is where the actual kryptonite is kept. Made of three-inch thick pure lead, it keeps any possible harmful exposure to a minimum."
Lead. That's why he couldn't see through it. Might as well be Superman-proof, he thought. He peered at the rest of the lab. Microscopes, computers…a drilling station?
"What's the purpose of the drill, Mr. Luthor?" he heard himself asking.
"Kent." Luthor seemed startled to find Clark asking a question. "The drilling station will be used to cut into the core of kryptonite fragments and remove the 'common ore' from the 'alien ore', if you will. We hope to be able to break down the kryptonite enough so that elements may be extracted and identified."
Lois leaned over to whisper to Clark. "Good question. But I still don't trust all this business with kryptonite."
"Especially with it being Superman's weakness," Clark agreed, thinking he'd have to keep a close watch on the lab.
"Where's he getting the meteor fragments from anyway?" Jimmy asked.
Lana interrupted. "A couple of geology museums donated specimens. Lex was keeping them in a private safe until last week."
"You his personal confidant?" Lois was wondering what other details she could wring out.
Lois turned to Clark. "You never mentioned you had an old girlfriend stashed away with ties to Lex Luthor."
"She's not really a girlfriend, I mean—" he floundered.
"I've met Superman a few times too," Lana continued over him, still sporting a tight-lipped smile. "Can't say I agree with all your articles."
Lois made a noise of disbelief. "A reporter always has some…bias…but those articles were based off interviews. And I didn't think Superman made special calls to Smallville."
"We go back a long time."
"A real history with a hero, I bet." They had left the tour by now.
Clark stood by Jimmy with the growing sense he was watching a train wreck. Lois looked ready to give Lana a black eye. He hastily stepped in.
"We should probably get back to the tour," he said a bit too loudly.
"I have to go anyways," said Lana. "How's dinner tonight, your place?" she asked him, daring Clark to refuse.
"Um…" Shoot. "I-I have some work to do…but um…"
"See you at seven then." Giving Lois an icy glare, she walked away.
Lois rolled her eyes and stalked back to the tour group, heels clicking angrily.
"Well. That was awkward," Jimmy whispered.
"I can't cook very well." Clark cleaned his glasses nervously, wondering how he would ever be able to manage both Lana and Lois for the next few days.
"Wow, Clark, this is almost romantic!" Lana exclaimed that night. The kitchen table was lit nicely with two candles he had picked up on the way home and set with a roast chicken he had had his mother bake.
"I thought you might've had dinner with Lex," he asked, pulling out a chair.
Lana laughed. "I'm not even sure he eats dinner. Besides, there's something of home in dining with Clark Kent."
He smiled and relaxed, cutting the chicken. This wouldn't be so bad after all.
"So… How about that Lane woman?"
"What do you mean?"
"All those Superman interviews. I bet you've taken her flying."
"Only a few times," he said guardedly.
"Do you like her, Clark?"
He coughed. "Lana, I'd rather not…"
They ate in silence for a while.
"So how are things with Pete?" He was anxious to get rid of that lingering tension, sour notes already.
"He's all right. He's gotten a few real nice jobs, like ChemLabs, but he can't be home most of the time. Business meetings."
"Ah." He didn't think it was the whole truth, but he wasn't going to press the topic.
She finished the last of the chicken and poured a glass of wine. "What do you think of Luthor's kryptonite lab?"
He sat back and sighed. "I know him well enough to know he can't possibly do anything for just the greater good. He mentioned deals with the Pentagon at the White House conference. He must have some kind of weapon in mind." A kryptonite missile, for all he knew.
"I haven't found out anything like that, Clark. Maybe you're jumping a bit to conclusions."
"You honestly believe he's just doing it in the name of science? Lana, Lex has tried to get at Superman more times than I want to remember."
"So why should this time be any different, right." Lana relented. "I'll look around before I leave, okay? I can't promise I'll find anything, but I'll look."
"Thanks, I—" The phone interrupted him, ringing from the kitchen counter where he had left it. Perry apparently couldn't leave him in peace even for a candlelit dinner. But the caller ID was an unfamiliar number.
"Hello?" There was a click as whoever was on the opposite end hung up. He froze. He heard it coming. Hell, looked out the window and saw it coming. "Lana, get down!" he shouted, then remembered he was supposed to be Clark Kent and took his own advice.
The bullet shattered the kitchen window over the sink and embedded itself in the far well. A tiny dot of a hole. Lana screamed and he met her in the doorway. They waited for a moment, but no more bullets came.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine. You?"
"It was a regular shotgun." He knelt down and picked up a few shards of glass from the linoleum. The landlord wasn't going to be happy.
"Clark, that bullet was meant for you, not Superman." Lana looked at him, her eyes betraying her fright.
She was right, he thought. But they didn't want to kill him either. "The aim was too off-target to be a hit shot. It had to be a warning."
"Whoever wants to go after Lois doesn't want you snooping around. Who was on the phone?"
He was looking through the wall and across the street now. "No one. They hung up." The apartments over there were all dark. Most had windows open to let in the spring air. The sniper was probably gone right after taking the shot. He walked over to the far wall and picked the bullet out from the plaster.
"Clark! The police have to use that for evidence!"
"Oh, right." The police. So once again Clark Kent was going to be in the newspaper as more than a byline.
Lana was on her cellphone already. "We had a shooting at the apartment," she was saying. "No, we're both fine. Okay, thank you." She turned to Clark. "They're sending some people out."
"I should maybe call Lois," he thought out loud. And expect her to do what? Write an article on it? Still…
Lana was gazing at him, head titled. She handed him his phone. "Here. She probably cares about you more than you think, Clark."
"Lane," she answered flatly, sounding tired and grumpy.
"Hi, um, Lois? It's Clark."
"Clark? Aren't you having a romantic dinner with the old girlfriend?"
"She's not—Lois, I was—I mean someone fired a bullet through my kitchen tonight."
"What? Clark, this is serious! Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine, but um, I think it's a warning."
"Our mutual friend the maniacal mastermind, huh."
"Don't take this the wrong way, Clark, but maybe you should think about taking that warning. Get off a while from the Planet."
"Well, I have been meaning to, uh, spend some time with my mom back in Smallville, but I'd hate to leave—"
"Clark, I don't want your life in danger too. Promise me you'll talk to Perry about it tomorrow morning?"
"I promise," he sighed.
"Good. See you bright and early?"
"Sure thing… Goodnight, Lois."
There was a pause.
"What did you say?"
"Uh, what? Hm?"
"…Nevermind." She hung up with a click.
Later that night, after Lana had gone and the police had finished with the apartment, and after stopping a runaway train and sorting out a highway traffic pile-up, he sank into bed. The alarm clock read half past one. While Clark Kent would be taking off to visit his hometown, Superman would have his hands full in Metropolis. The police had traced the phone call back to a public phone not far away and had picked up a few faint prints. He would hear back from the lab by tomorrow afternoon, they said. It seemed like a century from now. And what about Lois? If 'they' were warning him to stay away, 'they' must have another plan set up. He could try asking Luthor, but Lex would never admit to any criminal contacts. Luthor. He hoped Lana would find some sort of information about the real purpose of the kryptonite testing. He hated to use her as a spy, but neither Clark nor Superman would be able to get into the Luthor mansion and have that kind of access. He turned over restlessly, unable to sleep again. It was going to be a long night.
Morning at the Daily Planet newsroom was more excited than usual when he came in. As he should have expected, Lois had spread the word about the shooting. She always managed to be in the newsroom before him and he wondered what time she had to get up at. He saw his desk was half-buried again, and was about to set his own papers on the floor when Perry stopped by.
"Morning, Kent. I heard about last night… You sure you're all right?" The managing editor could be rough, but he was also a grandfather in the world he printed news for.
Clark cleared his throat and pushed up his glasses. "Actually, that's what I wanted to talk with you about. Um, I was thinking that just, well, it might be better for me to take a few days off. I've been meaning to drop by at my mother's—"
"A few days, eh? Sure you can leave Lois all alone for that long?"
"I suppose I can spare you a couple days, and maybe this whole gunman business'll be over by then." Perry massaged his temples, then caught sight of Jimmy. "Olsen!"
"Yeah, Chief?" The photographer hesitated, a cinnabun halfway to his mouth.
"Don't call me chief. Mind if I have that other bun? I'm starving."
"Sure, Mr. White." Jimmy handed it over, mouthing an apology to Clark.
He wasn't paying attention. He needed to get back in as Superman as soon as possible to talk with Lois, what she-what they-should do next. "So, uh, I'll just pack up then…"
"Not so fast, Kent." Perry shook the cinnabun at him. "I need you to type up the latest articles on Superman. Scratch that, just the one about the train. More exciting. Hand it in, you can go." Perry picked up two sheets of rough copy from Lois's desk and put them in front of Clark's computer. He glanced around the newsroom, saw everyone was sufficiently busy, and trudged back to the office.
Clark leaned across the aisle. "Jimmy, have you seen Lois around?"
He was editing through some photos and shook his head. "Saw her when I came in, but she went down to the station, I think." He glanced at his watch. "Come to mention it, she should be back any minutes now. Why?"
"Oh, um, no reason." He set up the word processor and began retyping the copy, editing as he went. There was always a surreal aspect of publishing his "hero work" as Lois called it. It made him uncomfortable, self-conscious. He became aware that Jimmy was staring, and slowed down his typing.
"Jeez, Clark. I dunno where you learned to type like that."
"Just something I picked up in high school." A couple more moments and he was done, printing out the article. He knocked once on Perry's door, handed him the printout, and wished him good luck while he was gone.
Perry scanned over the article, brows raised. "Fastest damn typist I ever hired," he muttered, congratulating himself.
Clark changed into the suit in the Planet's elevator shaft and waited until he saw Lois arriving to re-enter the newsroom.
For the first time in a long time, the room fell into a hush. Reporters stopped interviews, editors rose from desks. Jimmy clicked a picture. Lois stood, papers in one hand, phone still jabbering away on the opposite line.
He stepped towards her. "Lois, could I talk with you? In private…" he whispered.
"Um, sure… the roof?" He followed her back onto the open elevator, which closed on the stunned
newsroom with a soft ding.
"Bet you don't ride in many of these," she tried to joke.
"More often than you think," he replied with a small smile.
The roof of the Daily Planet opened up below the rotating signature globe and offered a breathtaking cityscape to anyone who cared to make the trip. The sun had risen and gave a hazy halo to the buildings around them, blue sky reflected off glass windows and walls. A light wind whistled and carried the sounds of the street up to them.
Lois brought out a cigarette, glanced at him, and put it back in her purse, biting a fingernail instead. "My reporting partner earned himself a 'warning shot' in his apartment last night. There's a couple of leads, but if they don't follow through…" She left the possibility open-ended, fill in any preferred worst-case scenario.
"I won't let anyone hurt you," he said, as much for her as to reinforce his own determination. So far the person or persons behind all of it had managed to avoid even his detection.
"I know… I just don't want anyone else to get hurt either. I mean, poor Clark— sometimes I wonder how he even manages to tie his shoelaces." She gave a soft laugh, her brown eyes distant for a moment.
Poor Clark. He hoped he didn't seem all that pitiful. He almost felt the need to defend his shoelace tying abilities. Instead, he heard someone coming up the stairs to the roof. "Someone's coming."
Lois shrugged. "Probably Roger for his sixth smoke break."
But the man who emerged from the iron stairwell was dressed in a neat suit and headed towards them, giving Superman a cautious glance. "Miss Lane? Lois Lane? I'm sorry, I asked down at the newsroom and they said you were on the roof. With Superman."
"Hello," Superman said.
Lois didn't recognize him. "And you are?"
"Oh! Michael Deane, I work for Mr. Luthor." He held out his hand, but she didn't shake it. "I have information regarding the man who tried to shoot you. I was hoping we could talk it over, say an early lunch at the deli?"
While he was talking, Superman had taken a step back. The man's hand was adorned with a wedding ring and what looked to be a class ring with a large green stone in the center. Judging by the slight nausea he was feeling, it was kryptonite. It figured that Deane worked for Luthor.
Lois was busy trying to squeeze out more details. "What kind of information?"
"Like who he was working for. We can't talk here though, it's not safe, there could be someone watching. The deli on Market Street, half an hour. Will you come?"
She bit her lip, thinking. "Yeah, okay, I'll come."
The man nodded his thanks and quickly left. It was such a bizarre interruption it seemed almost to have never happened. Superman leaned against the globe's pedestal, feeling the sun warm his skin. "Michael Deane was wearing a kryptonite ring."
"You mean that huge class ring?"
"Lois, I don't think it's safe to go with him."
"Maybe he didn't realize the ring was… Okay, so he works for Luthor, but if he really knows who's behind everything, I'll take my chances."
That was the reporter stubbornness coming out, he thought.
"Besides," she continued, "can't you just listen in anyways? If it turns out to be bad, I don't know, I'll scream or something."
She had a point. "Alright. I just want you to—"
"Be safe, I know, I know. I'll pack my pepper spray too." She smiled at him and he realized how much he wanted to keep her safe forever. There was a silence and after a few beats she decided to check her watch, breaking whatever tension had been forming. "I should be getting back, see how Clark's doing."
But Clark had already left for the day. "I'll be around then, at the deli."
"Twenty minutes," she reminded herself. She watched him rise up and waved a hesitant goodbye before he dove down between the buildings.
He let the air rush up against him, almost like free falling. Lois. He evened out before street level, then rocketed back up into the morning's dewy strands of cloud. He closed his eyes and let the misty vapor cool his skin. Brush against his face ever so gently.
The deli on Market Street was a popular lunch spot for just about everyone in the business district. Reporters, brokers, lawyers, secretaries, ate elbow to elbow at the diner bar or enjoyed a salad in the cooler regions at the back of the deli. Two Italian sisters had always run the place.
Lois took a seat at the back, got out a pen and notepad. She also felt the light weight of the recorder in her pocket. She tapped her foot impatiently and looked around while a waitress delivered a glass of water. Some faint strain of jazz music doodled in the background.
The man who had introduced himself as Michael Deane entered five minutes late and scooted in across the table. He glanced around the deli, seeing who was present. There was the sound of sirens outside.
"So." Lois quietly pressed the record button. They talked more easily when it seemed to be just pen and paper. "Tell me about Riley Bars's employer."
Michael Deane cleared his throat and looked her in the eyes. He had no intention of doing anything like that. "You're going to have to come with me. There's a cab waiting outside."
She felt the cold metallic press of a handgun against her thigh. Fantastic, she thought.
"And don't make any kind of noise," he added. "Let's go."
Any minutes now, Superman, she thought, taking her time getting up. She had slipped the voice recorder out of her pocket and tipped over the glass of water suddenly. Deane was momentarily distracted and she hid the recorder under a napkin on the table. He glared at her. "And watch where you're going."
He had been in the alley behind the deli listening to Lois tap her foot, when he heard screaming. Only a few block away. Should he go? Lois would be fine for a while, he reasoned, and took off in the direction of the screams.
A man that looked to be homeless was brandishing a spectacularly long hunting knife at a family of three on the sidewalk. The knife seemed so out of place, as if it could have only come from an African safari expedition. He then noticed the sporting goods store behind the man, the clerk ducked down beneath the counter. From a distance he could hear sirens approaching.
"Superman, huh!" screamed the man with the knife. "I'm gonna chop em up!"
"Sir, put the knife down. I know you don't want to hurt anyone." He tried to negotiate as the family slowly inched away.
"Shutup!" He made a move toward the family, but dropped the knife a second later, howling in pain. He cradled his burnt hand as the knife glowed white hot on the pavement. "Jesus and Mary! I wuz only doin it cuz I got munney for it!"
The mother collapsed in relief over her son, offering up a rush of gratitude to Superman. But he heard what the homeless man said and suddenly had a pang of fear.
"Who paid you? Someone paid you to rob the store?"
The man nursed his hand. "Juz some guy inna suit! Hunnerd bucks!"
Superman had the distinct feeling something was not right. It had all been a distraction, he had to get back to the deli.
Then he heard Lois shout.
She had deliberately stepped from the curb off-balance, twisting a heel so as to feign hurting an ankle. Her exaggerated cry of pain was more like a loud shout to any passerby, none of whom gave her more than a passing glance. Where was he? She was not going to panic.
Deane gripped her elbow so hard his knuckles turned white, and dug the concealed gun into her side. "Don't try that again, Lane," he hissed in her ear.
"Let her go."
He saw the gun jabbed between Lois's ribs and considered the options. He couldn't burn it out of his grasp, like he had done with the knife, without the risk of seriously hurting Lois. And although he could travel faster than a speeding bullet, it was at too close a range-nearly point-blank. He stayed back.
"Took you long enough," Lois muttered, standing rigidly in Deane's hold.
"Let her go," he repeated.
"I can't do that, Superman. Not part of the plan, see. Get in the cab!" Deane shoved Lois away and fired two shots.
He went to get Lois, ignoring the bullets that would bounce off harmlessly with no more than a slight sting. Wait, but… He saw they were different a split second before they hit his right shoulder and side. The sparkle flash of green embedded kryptonite. Then a searing pain and he was watching the cab tires squeal down Market Street, holding a sticky pool of blood in his hand. His blood. He looked at the wounds strangely, felt the energy-ebbing effects of the green rock as it spread through his body. There were people all around him on the sidewalk now, calling for help, a doctor. Someone shouting that Superman had been shot.
Then a hand helping him up. He looked and found Lana letting him lean on her. "Lana?" he whispered.
"Come on, let's get you patched up and then we'll talk. Shh."
She paid a cab driver the entire contents of her wallet to drive them back to the apartment building on back roads. Lana helped him in the back entrance, the cabby holding his hat in his hands as though he were watching the Pope. The landlord was out and the spare key taped under the door.
When he woke up she had pulled one of the bullets from him with a pair of long hospital tweezers. She rinsed it in a bowl of warm water, held it up to the light. Lana noticed he was awake then, and waited for him to speak.
"Why are you here," he breathed.
She wiped the tweezers on a towel and moved down his side to the second wound, which was covered in red soggy cloths. "I had talked to Lex and was on my way to the Planet. You were right, by the way."
He grit his teeth as she uncovered the raw flesh, swollen and chewed by the kryptonite. "They have Lois." Just saying it made it worse.
"Shh. We'll talk later. This is going to hurt." Lana lined up the tweezers, then entered the wound, feeling for the bullet. He gasped with pain. She pulled the bullet out gently and rinsed it in the bowl with the other one. The bowl was then set on the other side of the room. She came back and quietly opened the blinds, letting sunlight filter in across him on the bed. The suit was draped across a chair, two holes where the shots had entered. He was so tired and his side seared as if on fire. He closed his eyes, Lana watching over him.
When he next opened his eyes, the sun was low on the horizon, slants of orangey light on the wall of the bedroom. He could hear the television going in the other room. The alarm clock beamed close to four thirty at him. He carefully felt his side and shoulder. The wounds were healed, only vague bruises now. The news anchor was doing a special report and he listened in as he pulled on a shirt and pants, the look somewhere between Clark Kent and Superman.
"We are following a developing story this afternoon. Lois Lane, reporter for the Metropolis Daily Planet newspaper, was kidnapped earlier today and is being held hostage by an unknown terrorist group. At the scene of the crime, Market Street Deli, kidnapper Michael Deane fired two bullets into Superman. Witnesses say he was helped away by a bystander and we have no word on his location or condition. Deane, according to state files, has been on parole for attempted robbery and arson. We have obtained a copy of the hostage tape, if that could be played, please…"
He entered the living room, seeing Lana curled up on the couch, asleep. He turned his attention to the television, thinking he might be sick. But more than worried, he was realizing he was angry. At himself, at Deane, at the police.
"We have Ms. Lane, Superman," said the voice on the audio tape. "If you do not want her touched, or headless, you will deliver the Phantom Zone crystals to us at an arranged location, specified further by way of letter. Do not attempt to risk her life."
He ignored the anchor's comments on the audio message. The Phantom Zone… it was out in space by now, who knew where he would be able to find it. Months of searching, even. There was no way he could bring himself to unlock the dimensional prison here on Earth either; it would mean millions of deaths, possibly total destruction. So it was Plan B or nothing at all. He would have to find and rescue Lois, dismantle this terrorist group. God if they even so much as… He couldn't think about that. Not now. Keep a clear head, think.
"Lana. Lana, wake up." He shook her shoulder lightly and she groaned before seeing he was up. She sat up from the couch.
"How do you feel?"
She sighed in relief. "For a while there you had me worried."
"The bullets, they were really…?"
"Kryptonite rounds stolen from ChemLab, Clark. Lex didn't want to report it, but they were meant to be bought by the Pentagon as part of an emergency preparedness security program. In case Superman ever turned bad."
He felt a keen spike of betrayal. The people he protected had a back-up plan against him, in case the savior malfunctioned. "Stolen by who."
"They were caught on a security tape. Here." Lana handed him three or four black-and-white screencaps from a knapsack she had with her. He recognized Michael Deane, accompanied by two other men. She pointed to them. "These two represent Trinity Corporation, an arms dealer on the black market, caters mostly to the Middle East and Central America." Off his look, she explained more. "Lex got a few of his contacts to leak the information."
"Probably knew them personally," he muttered.
"Look, Clark. You may have been right about the ChemLab operations, but Lex told me all this as a friend. He wants to catch the bad guys as much as you do."
He laid down the photos and slowly paced the room, turning over the possible scenarios. "But we still don't have any idea where they might've taken Lois."
Lana pulled the voice recorder from her knapsack. "I found this in the deli. Deane was definitely after her all along, but he doesn't mention where he's taking her." He took the recorder as his cellphone went off next to the television. Warily, he checked the caller ID. The police department.
"Mr. Kent, just wanted to give you a call about the print lab results. They matched a Mr. Albert Tucker, residence listed as Washington, DC. Know anyone by that name?"
Albert Tucker? Did he even know anyone from DC? Wait. Albert would be shortened, a nickname maybe. "Hold on just a moment." He turned to Lana. "What's a common nickname for Albert?"
She frowned, thinking. "Al, Barry, Burt…"
Barry. He had been involved from the start, since the presidential conference meeting. He knew Lois's reporting work, knew she had a connection with Superman, and in all likelihood had read her article about the Phantom Zone crystals. But how did a press corps reporter like Barry fit into an international firearms company? He realized the police were still on the phone.
"I, uh, yes, I do. He works with the White House press corps."
"Do you have any idea why he might want to try and come after you?"
He wondered whether or not to tell the police. It could turn out the worse for Lois if he did.
"No, uh, no idea. I've only met him once, briefly."
"Well, we're gonna check this guy out, see what's up then. Hey, sorry to hear about your reporter friend. We're doing all that we can, Mr. Kent."
"Thank you, officer."
"I'll get back to you as soon as we have any information," he promised.
Clark ended the call and looked at Lana. "I'm going to stop by Barry's. He knew Lois in DC, he was behind the whole thing." He grabbed his laptop, bringing up the map directory for Washington, DC.
"Clark, you should have told the truth to the police."
He shook his head, speeding through webpages. "Clark Kent couldn't have possibly known all the information I'd have to give them. Not to mention they might hurt Lois if police got involved in the right spots. Give me fifteen minutes to get to Barry, then call the police back, say you got the information from Superman. They'll believe you."
Lana stood up in protest. "So what, you're just going to have Superman bully this guy around?"
"If that's what it takes," he said grimly. He wrote down the house address.
"Clark, be careful." She laid a hand on his arm, searching. "If there were two bullets, there's more, and I can't be there to help you again."
"I'll be ready this time." He paused. "Thank you. For everything. You didn't have to…"
"You know I'd always be there when you need me. I told you that in Smallville." She smiled wistfully.
"It was a long time ago. Lana, I don't want you to think that—"
"I know. The past is buried, right? That's how it is with you and me." She ran a soft palm against the line of his cheek. "I don't hold it against you anymore, Clark."
They were close, too close. He hesitated, his lips barely brushing hers in some sort of intimate whisper. "I have to go," he breathed, and she was left with a breeze that tossed her hair.
He flew towards DC, shaking away the near mistake with Lana. Was that what he called it? A mistake? So some part of him would always belong to Lana-as a friend. It wasn't right, especially since she was with Pete now. But it hadn't been a mistake either.
He had to concentrate on the problem of Barry Tucker. He stopped short over a row of suburban lawn-enveloped homes, the lights of downtown DC clearly visible on the skyline. This was it. He let himself down next to a white-lit backyard pool and looked through the walls of the house.
It was late and the rooms were quiet. The upstairs was dark, but there was light on in the basement. A man talking on a phone, pacing around a den. He looked further in and saw two guns hidden in the desk and under a plank in the floor. Barry also had a gun strapped below his belt. The man must be nervous. He couldn't tell if the rounds were kryptonite, so he would have to make sure the guns didn't come out. Better safe than hurt. Or dead. He recognized the face from the press conference and could remember Lois greeting him, completely oblivious. Lois. God, where was she? He caught phrases from Barry's phone conversation, but it was about a reporter luncheon for the next day. He would have to go in.
French doors led out from the basement to a patio area. While Barry's back was turned, he yanked open the doors. Lock and frame both broke as wood splintered. Barry had only managed a startled gasp and put a hand on his pistol before Superman pinned him to the wall of the den, wrenching the pistol away.
"Superman!" he choked, eyes automatically glancing towards where another gun was hidden in the desk. Must be kryptonite bullets again.
"You know about the kidnapping of Lois Lane, where is she."
"I don't know, I—"
"Trinity Corporation, how are you involved with them."
"I never heard of them!"
"The police placed your fingerprints at a crime scene, the shooting at Clark Kent's apartment. You have heard of them, you do know."
He could almost see the cogs turning in Barry's mind. Being cornered by Superman was not a comfortable position for anyone.
"Okay, so I heard a few things from some of my sources, but I swear—"
"Either you talk to me or you talk to a personal team of Lex Luthor's people. He's very eager to find the man who stole his shipment of ammunition." A threat of confrontation with Luthor's men was on par with torture. Most people that fell into that meeting came out missing body parts or worse. Under normal circumstances, he'd never think of turning a criminal over to them, but this was beyond the usual robbery.
"Jesus Christ!" Barry was pale. "All right, it was my idea, okay? A source at the Pentagon leaked me the information on the bullets, around the same time I was investigating Trinity Corporation for black market deals. They'd been looking into the Phantom Zone crystals as a weapon, had heard some rumors about it. I showed them Lane's articles. After they got the crystals, I was going to get a couple million and be done with it, swear to God!"
"And where is Lois now."
"As far as I know she's in a warehouse down at the harbor, used to be an old textile mill. It's out of my hands now, it's a Trinity operation!"
At the harbor. That wasn't too far away. He let Barry go and the reporter sat down heavily. "Thanks, Barry. I'm sure the police will be investigating this shortly." He held up the voice recorder of Lois's that Lana had retrieved from the restaurant. All on record. "Sorry about the doors," he apologized, propping them up as he left.
Lois Lane was not comfortable. She had been sitting in a vast abandoned warehouse somewhere near the waterfront for hours and her bones were sore from the hard floor. Her hands tingled beneath a generous wrapping of duct tape. Bound and gagged, she thought. A real damsel in distress, Lane. She wondered how Superman was—those bullets had gone right into him. What if he was off dying somewhere? He's not dying. Stop panicking. And what about Clark? Was he working to find her, worried sick at the Planet?
The man watching over her coughed, pulled out a cigarette, and went back to watching news coverage on CNN. The small black-and-white television set had an extension cord leading who-knows-where into the darkness. The other man was outside. He came in every half hour or so, she thought. They hadn't spoken a word to her and no more than ten to each other. Michael Deane, the bastard, was in the warehouse floor office. She couldn't see in but the lights were on. From what she could tell, he wasn't the one running the big show. The two goons seemed to be under his instruction, but they didn't like to take the orders. They both looked as though they had spent some time in a Columbian version of Alcatraz.
She had had plenty of time to consider every possible escape route, most ending with her recapture. The truth was you couldn't do much of anything with your hands tied behind your back. Deane opened the door to the office and called to the man watching CNN.
"Hey, Zeke, c'mere."
Zeke flicked ash from the cigarette tip and got up, making sure Lois didn't have any thoughts of taking off. Deane pulled the door closed but it failed to lock shut, letting her overhear bits and pieces of the meeting.
"…been a while…let him know we mean business."
"…have in mind."
"…just a bit, stick it on a tape…to the news."
Lois didn't need to hear anymore to understand what was going to happen. That was it, she decided. She couldn't depend on Superman, just sitting here like bait, and even if they caught her, at least she had tried to get away. Bracing herself against the cold brick wall, she struggled to her feet. She was still wearing her business attire, including the high pumps.
Upon seeing her get up, Zeke came to push her back down. Before he could, she tried to talk through her gag, getting him to briefly release it.
"Can a girl get a smoke?" she spat out.
He barked a short laugh, rummaging in his pocket for a lighter. He never expected the kick. With an unintelligible yell, Zeke collapsed to the floor holding his groin. Lois ran into the gloom, not sure where the exits were, but following the television's extension cord along the wall. Her heels were clicking too loudly, echoing, and she flung them off. She could hear Deane behind her quite clearly, screaming for someone to find the lights.
The orange lifesaver extension cord finally found its way into a socket next to a metal catwalk stairwell. She wasn't sure she was anywhere closer to a way out, and decided to might as well take the stairs. Gaining height and going up would invariably lead her to a dead-end roof, but at least it was putting some distance between her pursuers. The catwalk was pitch dark and she felt out each step before going forward, careful not to make any slight noise. Someone hit an arm or leg on the stairway following her and they hissed a curse. She could suddenly smell the harbor, hear the boats with much more clarity-a window! An old glass window had been knocked out up ahead and a spattering of pale light lay in a pool on the catwalk grate.
"Lois! We know you're up here!"
No kidding, she thought, inching her way to the window. Her hands were clammy on the metal railing behind her. And where was she going to go once she got to the window? Hell, jump. Couldn't be that much of a fall. She felt a little sick. Maybe there was a ledge, or a ladder. Almost there… She could taste the breeze coming in. She stepped into the light, grabbed the frame of the window, and looked down. Got, it was like peering over a cliff edge, she thought. But there! A little bit to her right was a broken yet stable-looking fire escape. Her hands were still bound though…
"Lane!" Someone grabbing her roughly, trying to pull her back. "Bitch—"
She pushed whoever it was away with her leg, but lost her balance and felt herself fall over the windowsill. She screamed into the dark harbor night, but managed to twist midair and land on a shoulder among dead leaves and soggy weeds. At least it wasn't stone, she thought, realizing she was alive. They would be coming down soon to find her.
"Help! Somebody help me! Help!" she screamed. Nothing. She tried another method. "Fire! There's a fire!" In the distance-from which direction, she couldn't tell- voices rose, a crane's light went on, doors slammed. "I'm over here!" She tried getting up but her leg wasn't cooperating. She couldn't feel it and Lois guessed a bone must have broken, severed a nerve maybe. Flashlights came out from around the corner of the mill now. Deane. Oh God. She felt tears welling up from the sheer frustration of it all, but pushed them back down. Lois Lane was not one to shed tears for the bad guys.
"There she is," Deane said, pointing to her.
The harbor at night was not the most pleasant place to be. There were also a wide variety of abandoned warehouses and old mills along the waterfront. Lois was the needle in the haystack, he thought, flying over shipment crates and narrow alleyways. He had heard, or imagined he heard, a scream while he was still a few miles away from the harbor, but when he arrived seconds later all was quiet. It had sounded like Lois, but he prayed it wasn't. A ship's horn blew, nearly deafening him.
He was scanning the mills below when he heard her, first a cry for help, then a cry of fire. Lois. She was hurt, in danger, about to be killed, possibly all three-where had it come from? As if in answer, he heard her again a few buildings down, to his left, THERE. Oh God, he couldn't be too late…
He barreled towards her voice, creating a wake of wind that ripped tiles from roofs. She was injured on the ground and they were coming for her.
"There she is," said Michael Deane, pointing to Lois with a flashlight.
One of the men stepped forward with a sledgehammer, ready to break a few more bones. The arc stopped mid-swing, caught in a steel grasp. He tore off the head of the sledgehammer and snapped the handle in two, pushing Zeke back into the wall of the mill. Deane and the other man reached for their guns, but he had seen it coming this time and melted the metal barrels. Powerless now, the arms dealer turned to run. In one fluid movement Superman hauled him and Deane in, holding them both a good foot off the ground.
"Didn't your mothers ever teach you not to play with guns?" he asked through his anger.
"You're not going to kill us," Deane sneered with a trace of fear.
"No. I'm no jury." He tightened his grip for a moment, thinking of those horrible what-ifs that could have come true. He felt his strength… He let them go, coughing and slumped on the ground. Blue and red police lights were swirling up to the textile mill. Harbor patrol.
"Superman," Lois whispered as he crouched beside her. "I thought that maybe you were—" She broke off, biting her lip against showing emotions.
"You're going to be fine," he said gently, wincing as he noticed the twisted leg. Police were jogging over, handcuffs ready fro Deane and company. Lana must have called them about Barry. "I need an ambulance over here!" he shouted. It was probably too painful for him to lift and fly her to the hospital.
A paramedic appeared almost from nowhere and began asking questions to Lois about the injury. A harbor patrolman broke away from reading Miranda rights and asked Superman if he could file a witness report. The news stations would be here soon with their cameras and helicopters. He noticed Lois being helped into an ambulance by a medical team and made to go after her, but an officer stayed him. "You'd better let them do their job, Superman. You've done enough already."
The ambulance took off for the hospital, sirens wailing. She was safe. Alive.
When he returned to his apartment, it was empty. "Lana?" he called, checking the rooms. She had left. He found a note stuck to the refrigerator door: Take care, don't be a stranger. Love, Lana.
He was disappointed to have missed her, but at the same time it was probably best that she had gone. Their relationship was a complexity that only brought along unwelcome baggage for both of them. He stood alone in the kitchen, back in one of his many Daily Planet suits. He folded the note, put it in his pocket.
"Look who's back from his vacation on the farm," Lois greeted him as he stepped into the hospital room. She had a bandage on her side and her leg was propped up in a cast. The television was tuned, typically, to a news station.
"Hi, Lois," he said, standing awkwardly by the bedside. "So, how are you feeling?"
"Like hell," she groaned. "Jimmy can't find my rolodex and there's no wireless connection for the laptop. The best scoop I ever had on a story, and I can't even type it!"
He held out her rolodex, smiling. "It was on my desk."
"Clark! You are a lifesaver!" Beaming, she began to flip through, looking for numbers.
"Uh, thanks… I'm glad you made it out alive, Lois."
She gave a snort of incredulity. "I still can't believe it was Barry Tucker. I've known him more or less for three years! And can you imagine the bad publicity ChemLabs is getting? 'Secret Kryptonite Bullets Stolen by Terrorists'; God, what a headline!" She was already thinking of the article, picking up the hotel phone to dial a source number. She suddenly remembered Clark was there and paused, receiver in her lap. "Thanks for stopping by, Clark. It's… well, I know the past few days've been hard on you."
"Well, it's tough being a reporter, I guess." He pushed up his glasses, fiddling with the frames.
She smiled at him again. "Yeah, it is, Smallville… Hello, LuthorCorp? This is Lois Lane, Daily Planet, I'd like to get a statement about…"
She was back in business.
He watched her scribble down notes for a moment, and then quietly let himself out.
A couple days later and she was finally home. She looked around the familiar apartment, set down her purse. It felt so good to be back. She opened up the balcony doors and looked out on the Metropolis night. The curtain billowed against her thigh. She limped over to the couch and sank down, setting aside the crutches and letting her eyes close for a moment. She heard the traffic on the street below, then a rustle of fabric as he landed on the balcony.
"I've only been home five seconds," she teased.
"I couldn't wait for an interview," he smiled back, standing by the arm of the couch. "I heard Luthor's lawyers are trying to get Tucker and Deane life in prison."
She nodded. "Hell has no fury like a Luthor scorned."
"How's your leg?"
"Still got six weeks, but I won't be a cripple."
"…I should have gotten there sooner. Should have never let you go to that interview in the first place."
"It wasn't your fault. I know the risks when I report." She noticed the small holes in the suit. "Are those where…?"
"The bullets went through."
She ran a finger over the skin, wondering whose it really was. "It's nice to know the Man of Steel can be just flesh and blood sometimes… but when I was falling from that window I kept thinking, or at least, part of me was expecting you to just pluck me out of danger. Then when I landed on the ground, I thought, my God, maybe they really did kill Superman, he's dead."
She changed her tone abruptly, embarrassed at having revealed a weak moment. "But here you are, right?" She grabbed the crutches to get up, but he stopped her.
"When I heard you screaming… I was afraid that… that you might be hurt before I got there. I saw the man with the sledgehammer and I wanted to kill him… I should have been there for you, Lois. If I had gotten to the mill a second later, it would have been worse than a broken leg."
There was a long beat of silence.
"It wasn't your fault," she reiterated softly, letting herself begin to kiss him.
Her pager went off and they broke away quickly. Lois checked it and smacked a hand to her forehead. "It's Perry! I completely forgot about the governor's dinner tonight! Clark's going to be by himself if I don't show up, I have to get ready."
"Oh—" Shoot. The governor's dinner. "I should be going too."
"Listen, I'll talk to you later?" she asked searchingly.
He nodded. "Goodnight, Lois." He hated to leave, the taste of her still in his mouth.
She leaned on the crutches, touching her lips where he had. Get over it, Lane. She went to find an evening gown.
The governor's dinner was an elegant affair every year for media and business celebrities. A chandelier and candles lit the ballroom and dining tables while a string quartet played various waltzes. Dinner was catered by a prestigious avenue restaurant and waiters passed between tuxes and gowns.
"Oh here comes Lois," a news anchor pointed out to Clark, who had been attempting to engage himself in conversation.
She was wearing a pink sleeveless chiffon gown and managing her crutches at the same time. "Clark. Don't tell me, the pink looks horrible. Everyone else is wearing black like it's a funeral."
He smiled. "The pink looks beautiful, Lois."
She looked up at him as if he had been joking. "You know Clark, you're not so bad," she said, amused.
"Want to, um, dance?"
"With these things?" She motioned to the crutches.
He handed the crutches off to the news anchor. "Hold these, please?" With his right arm around her waist, he lifted Lois just enough off the ground to keep her leg off pressure.
She put a hand on his shoulder. "I guess what they say about farm boys and super strength is true," she said wonderingly.
"I've, um, been working out. A little." He led her out and they danced slowly. His glasses slid down.
She pushed them back up. "Did you ever think that maybe reporting is a dangerous job for you? That maybe field investigating isn't worth a life?"
"Um, me, personally?"
"I just… I don't want to put people in danger with my articles."
"Well, um, you tell the truth. There's always going to be a danger with that."
"Clark, it was my reporting that almost got Superman killed. That's not exactly a motivating fact."
"Superman chose to tell you all that about himself. So, I guess he knew what could happen. And I'm sure he didn't want you to get hurt either. But your reporting made him more human to the rest of the world… um, don't you think?