By Debby Stark firstname.lastname@example.org
August 6, 1995
Summary: Lois and Clark worry about a fight they almost had. When William W.W. Waldecker disappears under strange circumstances, Perry thinks it may have something to do with Elvis' diaries.
This continues the story started in Dawning and continued in Dawning II, 3, 4, 5 and 6. If you missed any of those (and all this really should be read in order), ask me, visit ftp://ftp.swcp.com /pub/users/dstark, or ask the fanfic index for them. All recognizable characters mentioned below are the property of their respective owners, but the ideas are mine.
"It's not too early, is it? I didn't wake you up, did I? It's after eight there, isn't it? You weren't planning to go to church, were you? I don't know if you do that, do you? I can call back if--"
"Lois! Calm down! Take a deep breath… There. What is it?"
"Oh, we almost had a big fight…"
"'Almost'? Is that all?"
"But it was such a close thing! If I hadn't forced him to kiss me, it would have degenerated into a real fight!"
"Fighting's horrible! Before they got divorced my parents couldn't have a civil conversation, they had shouting matches! Lucy and I weren't supposed to hear them but we did, plenty of times. And Clark and I, we can't seem to get anything talked out--it's almost easier to argue! Sometimes I wonder if we're just… just totally incompatible…"
"When did this happen?"
"Then that's probably why he's here now--"
"HE'S THERE?! *Oh, my god*--"
"Lois! Lois? He's out with his father, I saw him arrive just as I was finishing the dishes. My hands are still wet. He followed Jonathan into the barn. They're probably having a man-to-man talk about women that I'm sure we'd think was simply precious. I'm in the living room now and I'll hear them when they come in, don't worry. Take another deep breath… Good. So suddenly you think you're incompatible because you had a fight last night, is that it?"
"Yes--well, I'm not saying we *are* incompatible, and I don't want us to be, and I'm sure he doesn't want that, it's just that things happen that… shouldn't happen to people who are… oh, *meant* for each other…"
"You two have had fights before--and was this a real fight or only an argument?"
"Well, more of an argument, words that just… came, and this time it was too important for that. First we had some big row over fish--"
"Fish roe, that's funny--"
"No, no, it's not!"
"Oh, all right, it's not."
"Well, maybe it is, and it was my stupid fish and me… overreacting, but it wasn't funny then--though at the time I thought it relaxed him, and after all, I didn't know how many babies Maxine can have, and I really don't want a tank full of guppies, and she probably won't notice if some of them get eaten by other fish, she'll probably be relieved…"
"Ah, yes, a distraction, I can see where that could work."
"You do? He made a wonderful dinner and I brought wine and made the salad and he dressed up and I was, too, and we had the fish… discussion, and after we calmed down about that, he was going to tell me everything, I *know* he was, he was just about to, he was working up to it, plugging along, I'm sure he was afraid of how I was going to react, and then Will Waldecker darkened our--his--Clark's door."
"All right, metaphorically speaking, our door, and Clark let him in instead of telling him to get lost--I know he wouldn't do that, he's a pushover, you warned me, and it's all right, I understand, that's part of the package--but *he* better understand that I'm not going to stay home and… and *knit* while he's out saving the world."
"And last night we went off on some wild goose chase except it may turn into a good story, I don't know yet and, frankly, I'm not sure that I care--God, I'm saying that about a *story*…"
"Do you want to take another deep breath?"
"No, I'm all right. Anyhow, before we left, Clark and I almost had a real fight--we would have ended up yelling at each other if Will hadn't been there."
"Would you have had it at all if he hadn't darkened your door?"
"Ah, no, probably not. If he hadn't shown up, I would officially know everything, but instead I just realized how we have arguments about the littlest things. It started out funny, but then it degenerated into Clark making fun of my problem with this guy at work and I made fun of his garden, or something like that, and neither of us was very nice--I mean, it's times like that I begin to think we're incompatible no matter how hard I try, and I don't know what he sees in me anymore, and, to be honest with you, sometimes I don't know what I see in him…"
"And you think you sound like your folks."
"Yes, that's it exactly--How did you know?"
"You mentioned their divorce."
"They were probably deeply in love when they got married."
"Yes, or so Mother said. It was all that stereotype stuff like you see in Cinderella with birds making the wedding gown and the handsome prince on the horse, even though I arrived a little *early*, if you know what I mean. Some fairy story. It fooled Lucy completely, but it always sounded like something just short of a shotgun wedding to *me*…"
"Oh, no, I doubt that…"
"Well, maybe I thought of that later, but she certainly left out the part about the big, bad wolf at the door, breathing down our *necks*…"
"Hmm… Lois, your relationship with Clark sounds to me a lot more like Jonathan's and mine."
"It does?--No, it can't, uh-huh, never, *no way*."
"You're wrong, I'm sorry, I'd like that, too, that would be ideal, but it can't be, huh-huh, not with *me* involved."
"Hear me out. You can't imagine a more *unlikely* couple than Jonathan and me. I was, oh, 23 and from Seattle, by way of Rome, Paris and New York. I was visiting Wichita because an artist I admired picked a God-forsaken university in the middle of Kansas to give a series of workshops that I just had to attend. I made friends though, and one evening they invited me to a coffee shop where they introduced me to this tough-looking Vietnam vet who was in his twenties, too, and attending ag-school on the GI Bill and even thinking of re-upping and doing another tour to go fight more godless commies--"
"The very same man. I know, his physique has… relaxed a little since then, but, oh, my, *then*… well, he could have given Clark a run for his money, believe me, and he was brash enough sometimes to have tried it, too, though mostly he was quiet and retiring, a slow boiler, like he is now."
"Exactly. A man of few words to my, well, my volumes. My friends thought introducing us would be a hoot. I suppose they wanted to see me with my juices aroused. I mean, there I was, a veteran myself of civil rights and antiwar marches and sit-ins, and I'd seen the inside of a jail cell several times for a variety of humanitarian reasons, most of them. And they sat me next to this Army NCO who had grown up in a backward place called Smallville and who had never thought of breaking the law and had only ever left the state to go to bootcamp, Korea and then Vietnam. Oh, and he had visited Chicago once."
"Wow… I mean, all that, not Chicago. You two were opposites."
"And we couldn't *stand* each other. But for some reason, we both kept turning up at that coffee shop. He just *happened* to decide to stay home and run the farm when his father died and his older brother didn't want it, and I just *happened* to decide I should take some art classes at KU because sketching the horizon of Kansas was a lot easier than sketching the Alps--I mean, it's *flat*…"
"You're a better artist than that."
"Thank you, dear."
"So you fell in love?"
"Oddly enough, yes. Not right away, and we still had some terrific fights--all of them verbal and over politics or farm life or Europe or other silly things--but the making up! Okay, so some of our attraction to each other was physical, I'll admit it, there's nothing wrong with *that*, and he was the first fellow I really looked forward to kissing, though we waited until we were married to, well, you understand…"
"Now I know where Clark got that, too."
"That's one reason. Jonathan and I both admired the Beatles, and he liked my love beads and he began to wonder about the war, though he didn't became an activist. And, me, the more I visited the countryside, the more I knew I wanted to settle down and start a family of little hippies."
"Oh, that's cute."
"It didn't quite work out that way--it worked out better in many ways--but I love being a farmer and mother, and now here we are."
"And you still have fights…?"
"Yes, of course, because we still have plenty of opinions. Our arguments aren't as big as the ones we used to have, we know each other very well by now, but the making up is still a *lot* of fun."
"And he does things you don't like? I mean, does he…"
"Say the wrong things at inappropriate times and not realize he's done so?"
"And watch football to the exclusion of all else?"
"Well, yes, that, too--maybe not *every*thing else. If the world caught on fire, Clark might…"
"Do something about it at half time. Well, I think saying inappropriate things without realizing is a genetic thing for men, wherever they're from. You'll have to work that out with him, but both of them like football, there's no getting around it. I can't see the sense of it, grown men trying to kill each other over a funny- shaped ball…"
"Yeah, I like baseball better."
"That game does make more sense. So when Jonathan watches football, I do something else. I've never felt obligated to sit through a game with him--no, when we were first going together, I did go once or twice, but then I thought 'What the heck am I doing? I *hate* football!' When he asked me to the next one, I said, 'No, I'm not really interested, but you go ahead, and I won't invite you to another art show.' He didn't mind that at all."
"Well, I'm sure there are things I like that Clark doesn't. I think he doesn't like blues music very much, it can be depressing, but then I don't really like opera or classical music that has a lot of violins…"
"Neither do I."
"I don't think I could sit still very long if he put on anything from Japan or China unless I could do katas--martial arts to it. And, to be honest, I'm not very interested in gardening or the great outdoors and *don't* get me started on gorillas, and I can't cook as well as he can, and I only know French and a smattering of Spanish, and--and you know what else? He thinks I'm 'serene.'"
"Well, are you?"
"When I'm… going with the flow, and I know I was just flowing right along before Will showed up, but it's hard to flow and I *try*…"
"Well, I do. Hard."
"Are you taking another psych course?"
"The one was enough."
"It sounds like you're trying to tell me something but you're not going to, are you?"
"You gave me some idea of what he does to irritate you, like playing music you don't like and cooking better than you and--"
"No, wait, that really doesn't irritate me, it… it… I… It makes me feel… like I can't compete…"
"Oh, it's a competition now?"
"Did he say 'I dare you to conjugate Hindu verbs better than I can'?"
"No, of course not. We only really get competitive at work, and I have the clear advantage there."
"Then has he complained about your not knowing which teams are in what group or whatever they're called in football?"
"Oh, he wouldn't complain if you held his feet to the fire--Ha, well, you know what I mean."
"He complains a lot to us."
"He does? Well, actually, he does complain some to me, but not about personal things, except maybe he's starting to. On Friday night a week ago, when we went to the softball game, I told him I wanted him to talk to me--not about you know what, but just about… things, like what he thought about getting caught in the rain, and Tuesday he told me his landlord tried to evict him--"
"He didn't tell you about that?"
"No, we haven't heard from him since, umm, he called his father last week, and he left a message on our machine about that fire bombing and that his apartment was okay. We assumed everything else was fine."
"Well, it did turn out all right, Clark outsmarted him, his landlord, spouted legalese at him. I guess he's good at that, too… but he didn't tell you?"
"He must have felt better after talking to you about it."
"Oh, how about that… So he is talking to me more--and that's just it, he was about to tell me everything, and I was flowing right along, encouraging him, being real serene--it was *easy*--and I wasn't pushing him or complaining--I can be real pushy and you've never heard anyone complain until you've heard *me* complain--and, bang, Will arrives and the mood evaporates."
"So you were both tense."
"That's an understatement…"
"Then I'll probably get a similar story from him."
"Similar? Like… like we're incompatible and we had a big fight and he's giving up or something? Just when we're understanding more about each other? I mean, he practically admitted he'd crossed his fingers that day, and I told him I'd been thinking about him and not Lex while I was being dragged up the aisle! And it wasn't *really* an argument, it was sort of a… misunderstanding because of the tension, and I can apologize this afternoon for what I said, it'll be simple, it's just a few words. You won't let him give up, will you? That would be terrible--You'll talk him out of it, I know you can!"
"Lois, dear, why don't you just *tell* him you know? Wouldn't that be easier all around?"
"Easier? But he's been trying to tell me, I'm sure he has some plan about how he wants to do it, and he's been so great and everything, why begrudge him that? Besides, he *owes* me the truth, the whole story, from start to finish, right from his own mouth."
"Well, I know I've stretched the truth to him now and then, but nothing of this magnitude--and what he's doing is not really a lie, it's more a… a self-protective… omission of certain little details, and I can understand, now that I've had time to think about it. But if I just came out and said that I know, Clark, you can relax--would he relax? No, he'd always wonder if he should have told me himself and if he could have done it better, you know, if it was the right time. And I think he thinks I'm going to be all upset, and I want to show him that I'm not, that it's no big deal, not really."
"*He's* the big deal, not what he does in his spare time."
"I'm glad to hear you're thinking that way, and I think you're right, too, he does have a plan, sort of, but he's been a planner from day one. His plans don't always work, but mine don't either." "Or mine, and I've been trying so… well, there's one problem, I've been trying so hard, maybe that's why I'm upset, because I'm trying too hard."
"Hmmm. You can't push water."
"Pardon? Oh, water, flow, okay, and, you know, I don't think we're incompatible, not really…"
"I don't think you are, either. I think you compliment each other and make up for each other's deficiencies."
"You do? He does have a few deficiencies, and I think maybe he needs me because of them, and I… I guess I have some, too…"
"None of us is perfect."
"Perfect is boring."
"Yes--Oh, and I think I hear them on the back porch. Are you feeling better now?"
"Oh, yes, definitely better. We're supposed to see each other again this afternoon and I can get that flow going again, I know it-- but I won't try *too* hard."
"He'll be trying, too."
"I'm sure he will be."
"He has been, I mean, he can't give up now."
"He's not a quitter."
"I know he isn't, not for this."
Martha put the phone back down on the coffee table and tried to return to the national news section of the Sunday Kansas City Star. She hadn't actually heard the imminent arrival of the male contingent of the Kent family, but she had detected a good spot to end the conversation on a high note before Lois could talk herself down out of it. Those kids… It was going to be hard to keep a straight face when Clark recounted his own tale of woe.
She could see him and Jon now:
"Women!" they were probably saying to each other and shaking their heads knowingly in the way men do. "Just can't figure 'em!" "You sure can't." "Can't live with 'em and can't shoot 'em!" "Dad!!" "Oh, I'm just joking, son." "I *hope* so!" "Your mother has a new key chain with that on it, but it's about men." "It's not funny whoever it's about." "Son, you're being way too serious today. Things will resolve themselves, believe me." "I hope so…" "But don't let your mother know, you know how she is, thinks she has to analyze *every*thing…" "Umm…"
Clark would run out of ways to coax his father to listen, and Jonathan would think he had been of tremendous help…
Her love for them both overwhelmed her exasperation. Good thing she had a sense of humor… too good, maybe. She was laughing when she heard them enter and she couldn't stop even as she got up to walk into the kitchen to greet them. Seeing them just made it worse because the looks on their faces told her she had been dead on.
"What's so funny, Mom?"
"Oh, Congress again. You can always depend on them for a laugh."
"Laugh?" Jonathan exclaimed. "At them? They're a bunch of… of lawyers! Not a farmer among them! Not one of them's ever even gotten his hands dirty--except laundering money!"
Clark said, "Oh, right," to her, obviously pretending he couldn't hear what his father was grumbling about. She knew he'd see good and bad on both sides in nonlife-threatening situations and not want to judge them, though if forced to he'd want time to think about it first and come up with something Solomon-like if possible. Fortunately, he usually thought pretty quickly, except, it seemed, around Lois. Which was all right, she kept him on his toes, and, generally, according to what Martha had observed, he enjoyed it.
Though apparently not last night.
Well, she thought, time to help this kid fix his life, too.
She put on the straightest face she could muster. Good thing now it was perfectly appropriate for a loving mom to smile when she saw her son. "How have you been doing, honey?" she asked as she gave him a hug. She noted his unsuccessful effort to square his broad shoulders and yet come off as relaxed and in control. Nope, he looked frazzled and worn out in the way only a fellow who was generally immune and invulnerable to everything else in life could look.
He returned her embrace. "Oh, just fine…" as though he might, if pressed, have qualified that to as low as 42% fine. It wasn't a fib but an "I don't want to bother you with all this…" kind of statement, even though he'd taken the couple of minutes necessary to fly all the way here to do just that. She doubted that Jonathan had let him get out more than a few words about his problems before assuring Clark that all would turn out for the best, he could tough it out…
There were things Clark could tough out, but this thing with Lois wasn't one of them nor should it be.
"Uh-huh…" she said.
"Martha, I know that tone of voice. Can't the boy visit just because he wants to visit?"
The voice of guilt, she thought, another point for me. "Certainly you can just visit…" and she looked up at Clark with a warm and welcoming smile and patted his chest.
Clark reinforced his own smile, the one that said he really enjoyed her attention--but at the same time he was struggling manfully not to let anything go.
"And I don't think it's an ordinary visit," she continued, inspired, "I think you've come for *breakfast*!" She disengaged and turned away toward the refrigerator.
"Ah, Mom? I'm not… really… hungry."
Yeah, and he absorbed energy from the sun, just like a flower. Not *my* boy, not my… oh, my! My hippie flower child!
She was glad that her back was to them and she had a moment to compose herself again before she said, "Oh? Have a big dinner last night?" as she pulled out the last thing she would normally have offered for a morning meal: the tremendously thick apple pie she had purchased in town the afternoon before. She and Jonathan had eaten only a fourth of it and had gone to bed stuffed. The juicy sweet, golden brown apples were oozing out, plainly evident, and its cinnamony scent had permeated the air by the time she set it on the counter. Next, she opened the freezer to get the ice cream.
She spied a glance at Clark; clearly reminded himself to close his mouth. He looked at his father. Secret messages passed between them. We're loosing this skirmish, Dad, Clark might have said. Hold strong, Jonathan might have replied; she's just a woman and women don't fight fairly.
Ha-ha-ha! Martha thought. You fellows lost before you even set foot on the porch.
"I wasn't very hungry last night, either, Mom…"
After their unexpected visitor turned up, she bet.
"Are you feeling all right?" She reached up and touched his forehead, though she knew better than to expect to feel a fever. That only happened due to Kryptonite and he wouldn't have hesitated to mention encountering that again. No, this ploy was so that he'd feel the coolness of her hand and smell the vanilla in the home-made ice cream. One way to this man's heart truly was through his stomach, sunbeams or no. He held still for the little-boy treatment largely, she thought, because he wanted to. "You're not hot…"
"Well, no, it's not that."
One more push and he'd be over the edge into the valley of tell- all. He didn't usually have this much trouble spitting things out. He must actually, she thought, be desperate to talk to Lois but couldn't bring himself to fly to her instead. When that dam finally broke, she thought, they wouldn't be seeing him nearly so often. She'd miss these little visits… But that was the way flowers grew.
Though sometimes liberal sidedressings of compost were a good idea. The obvious attack now in this skirmish was to hit him from the direction neither of them had fortified their bastions for: head on. "Oh, what is bothering you then?"
You're not going to wiggle this out of me? his surprised expression said before it lapsed back into that all-tired-out look. "It's just… just life."
"Martha, don't bother him, it's nothing."
"Nothing?" How about a reprieve? "Has Perry said you can't take your vacation?"
"No, that's still in two weeks. Less now."
"Then if it really is nothing, I think we should fill it up. Sit down right now."
The strongest guy in the world hesitated a second then obediently sat down at his accustomed place there at the kitchen table, leaned on his elbows (she didn't tell them him to get them off the table) and rested his chin in one hand. She placed before him a wide wedge of pie, warmed briefly in the microwave; alongside it was a big scoop of ice cream beginning to melt lusciously from the heat of the plate. "There, that should fill up that nothing."
"Really, Mom, I know you went to a lot of trouble, but--"
"I bought the pie from Maisey."
"Oh?" He looked at it again. "That's different--I mean, *your* pies are great but--"
"But Maisey's are spectacular, I know, and it wasn't a lot of trouble. After all," she squeezed his shoulder, "we didn't know you were coming." She sat down on his right. "So eat, it'll help you feel better."
He surrendered enough to take a polite forkful with a dab of ice cream. She knew then that as much as he might linger over the pie, he wouldn't leave the table until the plate was clean, unless, say, a plane crashed in the back 40 and then they'd all be out the door for that.
Jonathan sat down across from her on Clark's left, and when Clark wasn't looking gave her a warning expression which she acknowledged and then proceeded to "forget" completely. Clark had come to talk, not to be put off because Jonathan couldn't handle deep discussions without resorting to platitudes. It was the cutest thing, certainly, but they didn't help in this situation.
"Well…" Clark said after he mulled over that first bite. "I don't think this can help… It's Lois… and me… and we said some stupid things to each other last night…"
"It'll all work out in the end, son, these things really do. Your mother and I say stupid things to each other, too, all the time, there's nothing to it."
Lois, if you could hear us now, Martha thought. "Stupid, huh?" she asked Clark.
"Not just stupid… not nice, mean, nasty even. And I don't know why. I was upset, but I wasn't *that* upset, and I didn't think she was, but she *was*…"
"He was going to tell Lois about him being Superman," Jonathan explained, "but she wasn't upset about that because they got interrupted by someone before he could tell her."
"And you answered the door like any polite person," Martha said in a understanding manner.
"Yeah, well…" Clark looked up. "How did you know it was someone at the door?"
Oops. "Well, if they'd called, you would have let your machine answer it."
"Oh, of course… If only he'd called, we wouldn't have had the fight and she wouldn't have… put me on hold and…" he sighed.
I bet that hold was the emergency kiss, Martha thought, to throw a stop sign in front of the degenerating process. Clark would have been truly, perhaps unredeemably depressed if Lois hadn't thought of that spur-of-the-moment tactic.
It was interesting, Martha thought, how similar questions occurred to her. "Was it a real fight?"
"Ah… no, just an argument, but it didn't feel good, not considering I was *this close,*" measured in micrometers "to telling her. It's always something. I'm beginning to wonder…" and he returned to playing with the pie as though looking for some little edible part of it.
"Son, it's always darkest before the dawn, you know that. We see it every morning."
Clark looked up at his father with one of those endearing all- thought-processes-at-a-screeching-halt expressions he fell into sometimes when trying to figure out the most polite way to respond to someone he respected having made a clearly incongruous statement. Had he been in reporter mode, Martha thought, he could have breezed through on autopilot.
She touched his hand, a rescue. "Wonder what?"
"Oh… Ah… I wonder about… well, my… timing. Maybe even though it always seems like the right time to tell her, even though I plan it right down to the last… oh, ingredient, and everything should work just fine, maybe it just… isn't fine, isn't right. I want it to be, but wanting it to be isn't enough, otherwise, why would things interrupt us *every time?*"
Clark, a fatalist? And yet… "You may have something there."
"What?--No, don't tell me, *I've* got to figure out what isn't right yet."
"I wasn't going to tell you, I don't know myself, it just sounds like you could be right."
More pie play, and a few more bites with a touch more enthusiasm. "We're… missing something, I guess, and it's not just that I simply haven't told her the secret, but something else that… that has to be straightened out between us first, or maybe a lot of things, and maybe doing that will make the secret easier to tell…"
Ah! It felt good to jump in when she knew the answers. "Like the Lex Luthor thing?"
"No, not that, not *him*." He smiled a little, glad for once, she knew, to hear that bad name. "Not him ever, as it turns out, though he was a problem--for me, anyway. She told me last night that she didn't marry him because she couldn't--"
"Well, didn't he jump out the window?" "That was after, Dad. Said she was walking down the aisle thinking of… well, not thinking of him, and she realized she couldn't marry him and she told him that, and then suddenly the police came and then Lex jumped, to escape them. And all this time I didn't know that, that she had changed her mind and that she didn't love him. I think she was going to tell me back then, too, but I botched *that*…"
The crossed-fingers fiasco. "Misunderstandings happen, dear, you were only thinking of her well-being…"
"If we'd just *talked,* Mom. Misunderstandings always seem to happen when it comes to us…"
"They sure do. Look at the way she's been infatuated with you when you wear that suit," Jonathan said, "and you're the *very same person*."
Oh, that was a stinger, Martha thought.
But then she thought: bingo, honey, I could hug you! In a round about way, that was it, and the best part was that as Clark replied, it looked like she didn't have to say anything at all.
"Yeah, that's the *biggest* misunderstanding of all. When I went to help the Messenger and I saw her there when I was looking for the what was wrong--you remember, I told you I saw her first and figured she had found something--I thought she'd recognize me right away and be pleased to know I could do all that stuff and she'd want to work with me on the paper instead of thinking I was just a… a hack from Smallville. She said that to Perry, I overheard it…" he sighed.
"But when she didn't recognize me, I was… relieved because I didn't really know her that well, she might have made it all public. Then it got crazy when she liked me better that way, even though that's not me…" He swirled ice cream and pie juice together, paused and looked up. "And, Mom, I'm trying not to talk about myself like I'm two different people, it's just…" it was easier to contemplate the pie again, "it's just crazy…"
He almost had it. She asked, "Have you seen her recently while you were wearing the suit?"
"No, not close up since that monster thing and we were talking to the people from the Pentagon. We've been really close since that evening but as real people, and it's been really great, but what if I have to rescue her or something, I mean, it's going to happen sooner or later, and what if she gets all… I don't know, what if she… forgets all that we've done?"
His real fear, Martha thought. "She won't forget it, dear, you mean a lot to her…"
"She hardly mentioned Superman at all when she was here. When she and I were out on the tractor, I was expecting her to say 'Superman could plow up this field fast, couldn't he?' or 'Superman is stronger than ten horses' when she met Robby, but she didn't, not a peep out of her about any of that. She only mentioned Superman when I asked her what that monster was like, and then she talked more about Jimmy."
Two hugs, Martha promised.
Clark looked thoughtful now. "She's joked a bit about her relationship with me--in the suit--but not as much as she used to…" Another bite of pie; he'd eaten half of it already without much thought about it. "And she doesn't get all… dreamy eyed, and she's stopped rushing out to look for him, me, at every report. Actually, she hasn't done that in a long time, and she doesn't go through her Superman sightings file much any more, it's probably way out of shape…"
"There, you see?" Jonathan smiled. "Her infatuation is wearing off, but I don't think it will go to the other extreme, she's brighter than that. I don't think she'll start hating Superman like that Mayson woman did."
"And Mayson got over it fast once the UN gave me the Universal Passport and the US Marshall Service gave me that badge and then the State Senate deputized me. She just wanted me to be legal and she was right, those things are great to have, I want to be legal, too. If she still hated me she would have thought up legislation to rescind it maybe, but she's working on education issues like she told me she would. You know, if I'd never met Lois but Mayson instead… but I met Lois and we argue all the time…"
"Well, not *all* the time, Mom, it just seems like it, and then last night was disappointing because Will wanted to show us the bank he works at now--"
"He's in banking? He did sound a bit like an accountant type, and he made some money from that book…"
"More money than he dreamed of, and he used some of it to take courses and become a private eye, of all things, but it looks like he's for real. The bank job is a cover, he's a janitor. He thinks there's something odd going on, but he doesn't know what. He led us to Green Meadows--he drove his own car, a little red Miata, and gave Lois a radio for her car so we could talk to him--which meant we couldn't talk to each other, not that I'd have told her then when she was driving but at least we could have made up, you know, after the argument…
"And then when we got there we staked out the bank and he sat in the back seat, behind us, and kept talking. The unfortunate thing about that is, he said interesting things. I just wish it had happened some other time…"
"Well, that's me any more… Nothing happened at the bank, it's just a big, solid-looking building on the central plaza. It's full of security and he hasn't found any glitches. I guess he studied that kind of thing, too. But burglars keep throwing themselves at it anyway, three times so far, two of which were hushed up…
"Even though it was Saturday night, it was quiet there, but something interesting did happen at last. A woman walked by. She looked like she had been working late in an office, she was dressed like that, not like, oh, a hooker. But a minute later we heard her screaming and Will jumped right out of the jeep and ran off in that direction. I jumped out to follow him, and Lois stayed behind to use her car phone to call 911, which was odd. I mean, I didn't have to tell her to stay put, not that she would have…" He ate the next-to- the-last piece of pie. "But get this: that woman had been attacked by this big guy who had a knife and he was dragging her into an alley."
"That happens in the big city *all* the time."
"Yeah, Dad, it seems to some nights."
"It was just past the full moon."
"Right. But I got there in time to see him stop dragging her and aim his knife at Will, who was at least a foot shorter than him. Well, he's at least a foot shorter than everybody. The guy got a look at him and started laughing, but Will ran right up and grabbed the his knife hand just so. The guy dropped the knife and the woman and tried to grab Will, but the next thing I knew, Will had him face down on the ground with his knife hand twisted around behind him and he was screaming for help. The mugger, not Will. Will wasn't even winded. He had told us he was studying Akido and he really is and he's good at it."
"And he sounds braver than he was, too."
"Yeah, Mom, and he just jumped in to save that woman without thinking."
"Sounds like someone we know…"
"Nothing. Go on."
"Oh, you mean because he had a copy of my powers for a while he's like me? Well, he's not, Mom, not any more, not since… April 1st, and that was a false alarm. I couldn't help it that the Prankster fooled everyone into thinking the Planet building and staff had disappeared. You really should have called before coming."
After that dreadful Stride woman had gotten Clark into such trouble, Martha and Jonathan had cornered Clark and had it out with him about his frequent failures to do a little basic thinking when it would do the most good. He was perfectly capable of exercising more caution… "You've become a lot more thoughtful about handling trouble, and we're very pleased." No more rushing to Metropolis in the middle of calving a cow or harvesting soybeans. What a relief!
"Go on. He impressed you after all."
"Yeah, he did. So I can't help but think he's on to something about the bank. If it just hadn't been last night, but that's his night off, and then if we hadn't been there, he couldn't have helped that woman, so…"
"Something good came out of it. Did you stake out the bank all night?"
"No. The police came right away and took our reports, so we couldn't stay any more. Will wanted to show us his house, but it was nearly midnight and Lois looked sleepy and she wasn't dressed for traipsing around doing that--she looked *great* for a dinner, but not for a stakeout, so I suggested she go on home, that Will could take me home, and she agreed…" End of pie. "We drove up to his house and looked at it from the outside. It's small for the area, *only* four bedrooms and a half-size Olympic swimming pool and servants' quarters and a three-horse stable though he doesn't have any horses yet."
"Right. We didn't go in, I didn't want to wake Wanda Mae. I told him I could get home on my own and I did. He said he'd try to come to the party my neighborhood is having this afternoon. He said he had something to confirm and he asked if Perry would be there. He should be because Mr. Stern is sponsoring it, and there's going to be politicians and it could be hairy because of all the publicity and that means security, and security attracts the need for security…" He shook his head. "Well, I have about four hours to get back, take a little nap maybe, and then get to a planning meeting."
"And no chance to talk to Lois…?"
"Oh, she said she'd come, Mom. They don't seem to do anything interesting in where she lives except complain about the utilities. Maybe we'll have a chance to talk--not about the secret, but maybe we can clear things up after last night. We were civil to each other on the stakeout, but I want to be a lot more than *that* again."
"Well, we better chase you out then. Do you want to take some pie to take with you?"
He looked at it, obviously torn. "If I didn't have half a quiche and all that chocolate chip mousse at home, I'd take you up on it."
"Oh, you made that and she missed it…"
He nodded. "Yeah, we hardly even got to taste the quiche. If we're still on talking terms, maybe we can eat it tonight."
"If you two didn't eat, then she was hungry and maybe that's why she got upset," his father said, sounding sage. "She'll probably be in a better mood today, getting out in the fresh air."
"I hope so. I guess I'll go find out."
The day was bright and sunny with a hint of breeze and the temperature was expected to reach only 80. It couldn't have been better, Mom Nature was doing her part, Clark thought. At one o'clock, after performing a few helpful deeds on the way home and indulging in a quick nap, he arrived on time at the bandstand in the center of Ellison Park across from the Unitarian Church. On the way, walking through the long, wide park, he had passed knots of enthusiastic people setting up booths and tables, preparing entertainment, and practicing on musical instruments. Normal pre-party activity.
What didn't look normal was the clot of uniformed men and women from Metropolis Security UnLtd. that had taken over the bandstand, to the dismay of a neighborhood rock band hoping to set up there to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame. Also waiting around the bandstand were six of Clark's neighbors, five of whom usually rotated through border guard duty. They were obviously trying to eavesdrop on what was being said on the bandstand to the alert security people by an authoritative-looking man.
Clark approached Mrs. Whitney, who had her hands on her hips and looked like she was trying to determine how to blend her friends and neighbors into the group of interlopers who thought they were in charge. Before she could come up with any ideas, though, the man addressing the uniformed people walked through them to the bandstand's railing and looked down at her. "Is this them? Are these your security people?"
"Yes." She quickly introduced the six (excluding the band members). Clark and his five neighbors smiled, but the man, whose bronze name badge said "Capt. Scott," had no easy-to-read reaction. He was in his late 40s probably and had a military bearing. He nodded at them all and then, as Fran put it later, forced himself to look human and interested in them. But the man's opinion was blatantly obvious when his gaze came to rest for a moment upon Fran. True, she didn't look like anyone's idea of a security person; more like a granny in tennis shoes. But Clark had personally seen her take down a drunken man (not a neighbor) who larger men had failed to get hold of. Actually, she had snuck in and tripped him. She also wore a mean- looking pair of hiking boots and would gladly have demonstrated their utility on Capt. Scott's shin of choice given a little provocation.
The man's gaze moved on, resuming its leisurely pace, summing up what the neighborhood had to offer. "Well, Mrs. Whitney, I suggest that your people supplement ours. They can enjoy themselves and come and go as they please while my people do the job they're getting paid for."
He was so smooth that Clark could see she would have trouble arguing with that. She gave it a good try. "My people enjoy helping out at our block parties, Capt. Scott. It's their contribution to the event. Remember, *you're* supplementing *us*. Maybe your people would have more fun watching out for the DA and any other… celebrities who turn up."
As this turned into a back and forth contest of wills, Clark heard a familiar pattern of heart, breathing and footsteps-in-the- grass sounds behind him, but he didn't turn to verify it, waiting, hoping… Then he felt a hand trying to slip down to meet his left one, which like his right was in his jeans pockets.
Whew! he thought. Everything's going to be okay!
He pulled out his hand and Lois intertwined her fingers into his and stood quietly at his side, watching the combatants come to a testy draw. Half the neighbors would border guard, the other half would party and then switch off if needed; the bulk of the paid security would stick with the politicians and celebrities. Capt. Scott returned to mobilizing his troops and the neighbors began muttering among themselves.
Clark had someone to mutter to as well. He turned to Lois and before she could say anything whispered: "I'm really sorry about last night."
She looked like she wanted to whack him, and the look was explained when she whispered fiercely: "*I* was going to say that!"
"And now you think I'll use it as an excuse *not* to say that."
"But nothing, we were *equally* culpable."
"No maybes, and you're not going to let me off the hook that easily. *I'm* sorry about last night, too, got that? You were trying to make it special and, well…"
"I--We messed up."
"Yes, *we* did. Things happen, stories happen to us, we should be used to that, and since we work together well, we'll work it out," she nodded, no doubt about it.
"I want to."
She warmed up. "I know…"
He could see a "now kiss me, you fool!" look in her eyes and suspected his own said something similar (like "gangway!"), but this wasn't the right place for a passionate embrace and a fireworks smooch. She didn't look all that romantic anyhow: she was dressed for a picnic (though, of course, had she been wearing a potato sack…). She had tied her hair back in a triangular cotton scarf and she wore a flowery t-shirt and dark blue jeans.
She seemed to detect the inappropriateness of the location as well now and moderated her expression. She said, "Well, do you think you'll get to guard the Mayor? I hear he's supposed to show up some time around four but it's a secret."
"I hope not."
"What? Guard, show or secret?"
"All of them."
"You're no fun…" "It won't be much fun around here if people are afraid to have any fun because of all the secrets and suspicion…"
One of the security people, a woman who had been taking notes on a clipboard, opened a cardboard box that had been stashed out of the way. She pulled out black singlets and began handing them to Clark and the two other neighbors, Fran and Rick, who were taking the first security shift.
Lois smiled. "Oh, let's see if it says anything…"
Clark held it up.
"Security," Lois read the white lettering. "Well, they spelled it right and didn't put 'Assistant Security' or anything ludicrous like that… Hey!" Lois said to the woman who had handed out the shirts, catching her before she moved on. "Don't they get hats like yours, too? No?"
"That's not fair… Well, they shouldn't be so cheap, Clark."
"But I don't want a hat. I don't want this either."
"I bet you'll look nice in it…" and she raised her eyebrows knowingly.
Not the T-shirt thing again, Clark sighed, though couldn't deny a spark of pleasure at her interest. "I bet you'd look nicer in it. Do you want to try it on?"
"No, I came to have fun, not work. Now I just have to get you a good assignment."
The woman with the clipboard returned, but before Lois could pound her with suggestions for the best use of Clark's time, he said, "I'll watch the playground, if that hasn't been assigned to anyone."
The woman was clearly surprised. "No, it's all yours."
Lois shook her head, obviously disappointed that he hadn't insisted on, say, guarding the DA so that she could tag along and question Dawis. But then she smiled a little, as though she wasn't surprised at his request.
The woman informed him that guarding the playground was an important job because one scenario her colleagues envisioned included armed terrorists kidnapping children as a diversionary tactic.
"So they can make off with the Mayor while everyone is chasing after the kids?" Lois asked, her voice dripping.
"We can neither confirm nor deny that anyone in particular is coming to this event, ma'am," the woman said, her manner immune to sarcasm.
Clark took Lois's arm gently but with a certain "Lois, please…" firmness. Over his shoulder he said to the woman: "Thank you. My friend and I will go watch the kids *right now*…"
"Booorrriinngg…" Lois whispered as they headed south toward the playground.
"No, it's not, it's *exciting*."
She tried to pinch his arm, which he appreciated, particularly since she hadn't tried to find one of his ticklish spots. Sometimes being supersensitive had its drawbacks, but someday, if all went well, he'd let--no, *encourage* her to find them.
She said. "I know you like kids, Clark, but really…"
"They're worth watching over, and I get this…" He held it up again, "this… stupid singlet."
"It's not that bad. Put it on."
"You just want to leer at me…"
"Exactly. Hurry up. Need help?"
"No." He pulled it on over his t-shirt, ignoring her suggestion that he take that off first. The ensemble was a bit tight but he straightened it.
Lois smiled. "You look great."
"I stick out like a… a sore thumb," whatever that was like.
"Well, if you ask me--and you should have--you stick out just fine. You're stuck with me, too, too, until those Buddhist monks I saw near the stage start doing whatever they're going to do. I should probably watch them to improve on my serene-ness."
"Your sereneness is doing just fine, as is your sense of humor."
"That's 'wicked' sense of humor."
"Um, particularly after last night. My head's still spinning," or he was sure it would have been had been human and not taken a side trip to the North Pole to let out another shout on the way home from Green Hills. The shouting release of tension, talking it over with his folks, and now joking with her… Yep, things were looking much better.
"Too bad we didn't have time to work that out there on the couch…"
Uh-oh, another of those topics they couldn't pursue here and now… darn. "Ah, yeah… The monks usually play drums, pass out tambourines and get everyone into the act."
"Then we'll probably hear them when they start--Oh, look, a swing set! And they all work, too!"
The big swing was crowded with kids for the moment, but they'd soon move on to some other piece of equipment; Clark had noticed that groups of kids tended to do that. She said, "I want to test drive the first empty one."
"You'll need a nifty black singlet to do that in."
"No, I won't."
"But," he pointed, "they spelled the word right."
"No, they didn't spell it B-O-S-S, so keep your shirt on."
A swing did free up soon and she took it after she checked to see that there were no children waiting for it. He reflected that the Lois he had met a couple of years earlier might have bribed a kid to give up a swing, but this Lois waited calmly, probably trying to think up more silly things to say. He offered to give her a push and she accepted it, saying "Launch me, Captain!"
Ha, he thought, she didn't *know* launching… He gave her a gentle shove and made the next one a little harder, and then stood back. While she worked on her own to soar to new heights, he looked over the growing crowd of kids. Their parents had dropped many of them off and others had wandered in on their own to visit Officer Graham, who was setting up the face-painting table, to attend the Metro College Vo-Tech branch students story theater, or to play on the equipment the neighborhood association had refurbished earlier in the year. He knew a lot of the kids and that they'd seek him out if they needed help--if they knew he was present. He walked around in front of Lois and caught her eye. "I'm going to circulate a bit, okay?"
"Wait a minute! Stand back!" She slowed the swing and, when he was out of the way, made a daring jump, landed perfectly, knees bent to absorb the shock, and then straightened like a star gymnast. He applauded. She held out her hand, he took it, and they circulated.
They made one round of the play area, stopping frequently to greet kids and watch them show off tricks and stunts, and once to mediate a squabble in the sandbox. Lois didn't seem to mind all this inaction, which he felt certain at one time she would have found incredibly dull and not have hesitated to tell him.
No, instead she said she was thinking about getting her face painted--"Not all over like that little girl there, more like a little tattoo…"
"Go for it. How about a daisy?"
She looked at him speculatively. "And for you--"
"Don't look at *me*, I'm in *security*, I have to wear this terrific singlet proudly."
"All right, you win for now, but when I get you to myself, watch out! I wonder if any of the food booths are open, something smells good. Are you as hungry as I am? It won't be as good as the quiche," she said, "but…"
Though he realized he might have to stay here until late, he decided to say "Maybe I could reheat that tonight."
"Oh, good idea. But for now, don't go away, don't leave your post," and she was off to hunt down the best free lunch she could find, not an easy chore as Clark noticed that now Mr. Stern's caterers were descending en masse on the park and would no doubt start squabbling with the neighbors who were organizing their own customary tables.
Clark turned away from all that (it was no job for the man in blue tights) and faced the playground again, but his thoughts were not entirely on it. No, he was dedicating a portion of his mental activity to cruising on how life with Lois was evening out again, having in one fell swoop regained that high, almost breath-taking level. Making up had been a breeze--and what a relief! That seemed to bode so well for their relationship. She had just bounced right back and a lot faster than he had, when it was usually the other way around. Maybe she'd been thinking the same things he had, sort of, though of course she didn't have as much to hide--what could she have to hide in comparison?--well, her novel maybe… and certainly she didn't have the urgent need to get it out into the open between them.
Actually, he thought, I'll probably never get to see the novel…
He began to stroll around again, keeping watch. Kids came up to him to chat to show him their painted faces, or to ask him what he thought about ponies some of Mr. Stern's people were herding into a make-shift pen.
Flash! "Hey, CK, look up! All these kids around you will make some real good pictures!"
"I don't think so, Jimmy," Clark said quickly. Such pictures could look too much like the ones taken at the orphanage fund raiser. "I'm an investigative reporter, remember? I won't be one for long if my picture gets published."
"Oh, yeah…" Jimmy lowered his camera. "Perry might assign you to… to the Home Life section, huh?"
"Yes, and assign you to take pictures of tastefully decorated linen closets."
"Yech! Well, the picture I just took, if the little kid looks good, I'll crop you out. You know, the Mayor's supposed to be here at four according to my friend Tad." He checked his watch. "I've got time yet. They say he's bringing along some of the movie stars who are in town. The Mayor, not Tad. I don't think Tad knows any movie stars."
Politicians and movie stars, that would really keep Stern's people busy. "Who's the mayor's supposed to be bringing?"
"Tad didn't know, and I haven't heard anything definite, but when I do, I'll let you know. Richard Gere and Nicole Kidman are in town making a movie."
"I'd like to see her, too, but it's more likely that Superman will turn up, and then we'll probably all see him arrive."
"I expect so."
"But he's not a show off, so he probably won't come."
"Yeah. Are you saving film or…?"
"No, I've got lots--and, okay, I should use it." Jimmy proceeded to crouch, lay down, climb the jungle gym, get his face painted and otherwise experiment with different angles to take pictures of the kids, who thought he was funny looking doing all that.
Clark resumed his strolling. Getting a late start, the loud speakers Stern's people had set up boomed into life, and Mr. Reed announced that the party was officially under way. He made some introductions, but he mentioned no one special. Maybe, Clark hoped, all the security would be for nothing and people could just have fun.
Probably not, though.
For example, his own fun was threatened when he spotted Raul Escamilla walking vaguely in his direction. But seeing Raul wasn't so odd: Mr. Stern's office had sent invitations to everyone at the Planet. Clark had thought that a little presumptuous, even though his employer was paying for almost everything. As long as no one went hungry or caused trouble, though, who was he, Clark, to complain? He didn't think many of the Planet's employees would attending though. Most people who didn't live here still thought this was a rough neighborhood.
But there was Raul, Laura-less. Maybe they had finished their story; Laura had mentioned Friday they planned to wrap it up for this morning's business edition. That left Raul free to pursue Lois again, meaning that he, Clark, had to… could do… nothing? Await Lois's permission or risk her wrath?
There had to be something he could do.
He could be friendly. He smiled when Raul caught sight of him, thus giving his hapless opponent permission to approach. Clark said, "I'm glad you could come," which wasn't quite true, but under other circumstances it would have been.
"And I am glad to see you, my friend. You are the first person I see who I know," he explained. "I enjoy fiestas, any fiestas and parties and celebrations. I like to enjoy them with my friends."
Why did Lois have so much trouble with this genuinely nice fellow? Clark couldn't understand why she simply didn't tell him she felt nothing for him rather than trying to beat him off with a verbal stick. "Well, you've come to the right--"
"Is Lois Lane here?"
Maybe it was his tenacious, one-track mind… "Ah, yes--and she's with me."
"Oh?" He looked around briefly. "She is?"
"She went to get something for us to eat, and we're going to spend the rest of the afternoon together."
"Ah, I see…"
He did? It sounded like he was transforming that information into a romantic challenge rather than hearing it as bad news for his plans. Would he hang around and try to lure Lois away? It wouldn't work, Clark was 99% certain of it, but it would be a strain on her and he didn't want that.
Good grief, he thought, I sound as paranoid about this as she does.
Then Jimmy reappeared out of nowhere. "Hi, Raul. I bet you're looking for Lois."
"Oh, yes! Have you seen her? I think she will need help carrying things. Clark sent her away to get lunch for him."
"That's not what I said, and she won't need help, she's a strong woman."
"She used to be, and she used to be a real loner, too," Jimmy said. Then he winked and elbowed Clark, "But she's developed a heavy- duty soft spot for you, CK."
"Lois Lane has a heart that is big enough to contain the entire world," Raul said dreamily.
"Not really," Jimmy shook his head. "I mean, she's a great person, but she's not always…"
"Well, she's not Mary Poppins, but with *you*, CK, you know Madona and that new video where she--"
"I saw it," Clark said, and Raul's eyes widened and he nodded.
Jimmy smiled, seeing he had gotten his point across. "Raul? Lois and CK, they're like *this!*" and he held up two fingers in a Boy Scout salute. Then crossed them, one atop the other. "They're really close!"
"Well," Raul said, obviously trying to put the best face on this tabloid-style news, "Lois Lane is very kind to her friends…"
"Oh, yeah! 'Kind,' right!" Jimmy put his hand on Raul's shoulder, pulled him close and locker room whispered, "Believe *me*, I know *all* about Lois and Clark, I've been observing them for a long time, and they're *more* than close! Much more!"
Clark didn't know whether to feel appalled or fascinated. "Jimmy, go take pictures."
"But Lois Lane is a paragon of every virtue…"
"Right *now*, Jimmy."
"Well, yeah, paragon, sure," Jimmy nodded, agreeing mostly, "and one of the finest women in the world, but she knows what she wants and she gets it, too, because she stayed at Clark's place for two whole nights a couple of weeks ago, *everyone* knows that…"
Raul looked confused. Obviously he hadn't known that. Jimmy grinned and wiggled his eyebrows. "And she's been *real happy* ever since…"
Raul looked at Clark. Clark found himself shrugging, smiling a little and not having the slightest idea (really) why he was, in effect, agreeing to everything Jimmy was saying and all the incredible implications.
"I must think about this, I must ask her--"
Yikes! Clark immediately said: "Don't--"
Jimmy jumped in faster: "Don't you know *any*thing about women, Raul? They don't like to talk about that kind of thing, especially to another man! She'll *kill* you if you ask her about it! There won't be anything left of you, not even a blood stain!"
"I do not want her to be unhappy…"
"Then just play it cool, real cool," Jimmy advised in a conspiratorial whisper. "That's the best thing you can do, believe me, I know, I've learned from the *masters*…"
Perry? Clark wondered briefly. Nah…
But when Jimmy said "masters" for some reason he did glance at Clark… who smiled humbly again and again couldn't explain to himself why he wasn't making *some* effort to set the record straight, to untarnish Lois's virtue and ease the bizarre feeling in his gut. Just because not insisting on the truth seemed to be the right thing to do at the moment, that wasn't a good excuse for the long term, not nearly. Especially if Lois found out somehow.
"Look, Raul," Jimmy continued as though he considered himself the confused man's best friend, "you've got a lot to think about--and I'm hungry. Let's go find something to eat and I can take your picture while you're enjoying it,"
"But I am an investigative reporter…" Raul protested as Jimmy steered him away toward the food tables and entertainment areas.
Clark wasn't entirely certain what had just happened, but he did feel like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders and he couldn't argue with that.
Not now, anyhow, because it was Lois's turn to show up out of nowhere.
"Was that Raul and Jimmy I saw buddying up?" she asked as she handed over one of two heavy-duty paper plates full of food.
"Yep." He didn't want to talk about them. "Oh, this looks good."
"Talk about the odd couple. I hope he doesn't come bother us. Raul, I mean. Or Jimmy either, for that matter."
"He won't. Raul, I mean, too."
"Clark, you have a funny look on your face and I don't mean funny ha-ha. Sit down here…" On an unoccupied bench under a tree there on the edge of the playground "…and tell me what happened."
"Spill it. Confession is good for the soul, you know."
"I know…" Boy, do I know… "Well, it happened fast, but I think it means that Raul's not going to bother you any more…" "Oh? What did you do…?"
Her voice sounded potentially scolding, as though she expected to hear something she wouldn't like. TV sitcom mothers used that tone of voice, and it had always mystified him since his own mother had never used it that he could recall.
"I didn't do anything, I was scrupulous about that. You warned me, I took it to heart. Far be it from me…"
"Well, then, good."
"He asked where you were--"
"and I said you were getting lunch for us and then Jimmy implied that you and I… that something happened between us when you were staying at my place after the Slime Monster."
"Well, something *did* happen," she said casually as she poked through her food, smiled, and chose a fried chicken leg to start on.
"No, nothing happened--I mean, nothing the way he insinuated it did…"
"True, nothing like that."
"Nothing *remotely* like that."
"Actually, we did come rather close to it…"
"Well, I did think about it a couple of times…"
"Me, too," she smiled again and licked her lips.
"But we were… adult about it. We didn't take advantage of each other."
"That's one way to describe it."
"It's nice of you not to say we were boring."
"The worst we were was cautious, and that was a good idea, given everything else we were discovering about each other, like how you… how well you cook." She looked at his plate then, which he realized he had forgotten about due to being preoccupied with her eyes. "Are you going to even try that or did I walk all over this park looking for exotic food and you're not hungry?"
The heaping plate practically winked at him. "I'm hungry, I only had pie and ice cream for breakfast."
"You call that a breakfast?"
"Well, it was… what was available. Is this a tamale?… Yes. It tastes good, too. Hey, I'll find us something to drink, that should be easy." He began to rise.
"Hold on." She put down her plate, pulled her fanny pack around and produced some paper napkins and two cold cans of a name-brand soda, one of them being a favorite of his. That was nice.
He sat back again and decided he didn't want to talk about Raul any more, particularly as Lois didn't seem to be upset at all. Could it be that she didn't realize the implications of what Jimmy had said? No, it was clear that she had understood somehow. But what if Jimmy truly believed all that himself? If that were the case, then there was a good chance that everyone in the newsroom also thought they knew about those two nights and all kinds of lurid rumors were spreading through the building unchecked. And here he had thought Cat had just picked it up psychically when she had confronted him over the phone about it way back then.
He told himself it was way too late to do anything about it, to calm down, to try to emulate Lois's tranquil attitude. She had serene down to an art all right. She was certainly a woman he could stand living with…
She seemed to become aware of his looking at her and she smiled unselfconsciously.
His heart went "Wow…" and he told it to calm down now, too.
It helped that she changed the subject. She told him she had marveled at the transformation of the park. The stage at the other end was complete and she had seen a group calling itself the Texas Troubadours setting up. They were supposed to be playing now, but it looked like everything was getting a late start since it was well after three and no one had heard a sound out of them. There were at least a hundred folding chairs arranged before the stage and they had been filling up quickly the last time she looked. On the southwest corner of the park, near where she had picked up the spoonful of tabouli on his plate, had been two people juggling swords--"The security people were watching them closely"--and on the southeast corner, a small, open-sided tent had been erected and under it the DA was serving chili, a smile plastered on his sweaty face.
Just then they heard the Troubadours strike up a lively country and western song, battling to become the loudest thing in the park. Lois and Clark silently agreed that there was no use trying to talk over that. They sat and watched the children playing, running here and there, riding by on strings of ponies and otherwise having at least twice as much fun as any of the adults.
The crowd continued to grow. The people who Clark recognized either as neighbors or Planet colleagues were vastly outnumbered by strangers. This made him a bit nervous. Though the newcomers were welcome and surely there was enough to entertain and feed them, they wouldn't have the sense of belonging the neighbors did, and if they became discontented…
He finished his lunch quickly--at a human pace though--and told Lois, "I want to walk around some more. Things are getting crowded and I'm a little concerned…"
She nodded and rose as well. "I'll go with you…" but she looked at her unfinished meal.
He said, "I'll carry your soda if you want to keep eating."
They walked. Clark noticed that Officer Graham had abandoned face painting for the time being and was doing a little patrol duty around the playground as well. He looked conspicuous with his paint-dabbed hands but he wasn't wearing a security singlet so was in effect going under cover.
But as crowded and noisy as the park had become, Clark couldn't see anything truly suspicious or otherwise worrisome at this time, and he was happy about that.
Until Lois gasped and pointed through a momentary clearing. "Look!"
"It's… It's Perry!"
Clark zeroed in on his boss immediately, even though the man, half the park away, was difficult to recognize. He wore a dark baseball cap, sunglasses, a short-sleeved shirt, walking shorts, matching socks and tennis shoes. He was holding a beer in one hand, a hot dog in the other, and he was talking to someone dressed in a jogging suit and carrying a brief case, a man who Clark recognized as working in the upper reaches of the Planet's management team. They were chatting about the upcoming holiday season because the other man said the words "budget that Christmas party," which of course Clark couldn't mention to Lois. He did say, "I see him, but I don't see anything… wrong with him…"
"He… He has… *knees!*"
Huh? Clark turned his concerned frown on her, just managing not to laugh. "Of *course* he has knees! He wore shorts during that heat wave Luthor caused, remember?"
"Then, yes, but I heard he had them surgically removed. It's why he paces funny."
"No, it's not, I heard that was due a war wound in an inconvenient place."
"Yeah, the Gaza Strip."
"No, in his anatomy. Besides, he needs knees to get down on to beg Mr. Stern not to fire us if we don't find another story soon."
"Or if your neighbors make hash of DA Dawis."
"Or if you don't get an exclusive interview with Richard Gere."
"Or you don't wrangle one with Demi Moore."
"Demi Moore? Jimmy said Nicole Kidman."
"Moore, Kidman--what's the difference?"
"Actually, it doesn't matter, we don't stoop to Tinseltown gossip, do we?"
"But if Nicole Kidman is *here*, in Metropolis, in Ellison Park, *my* park, near *my* home…"
"Clark…" She bumped against him gently, a move calculated, he realized, to distract him from thoughts of any other woman in the world but her.
It worked. "Nicole who?"
"That's better. Hey, wait a minute, isn't that Will?"
The small man, wearing a Panama hat, a plaid shirt and matching solid-colored shorts, broke out from a crowd that had gathered around an ice cream distributor. Will carried an ice cream cone, and he spotted and strolled casually in Perry's direction. Neither Perry nor the man he was talking to noticed.
"I wonder what that's about," Lois said. "Let's go butt in."
Their view became obscured just then by more people, reminding Clark of his other duties. "I have to stay here, but you can find out what's happening faster if I'm not standing there by you."
"True, it is easier to use my feminine wiles if you're not hovering."
"That's what I meant."
"You're too polite sometimes, but I make up for it. I'll tell you what: I'll get them to move their little tete-a-tete over here where it's shady and quieter."
It took her a good twenty minutes and her hard work paid dubious dividends. She got rid of the management man, reintroduced Perry and Will, and got them to move closer to the playground and under a tree--between two families on picnic blankets. Not much privacy. Clark considered working his way there through the kids, ponies and clowns, but tuned in first, only to hear the two men discussing the vagaries of the publishing world. Perry was enjoying himself and Will was again proving that he could tell a surprisingly good story. Lois, straining bravely to look interested, was dropping hints that they should get on with it. She had to practically shout as the Buddhists began their contribution to the late afternoon's entertainment and the speakers amplified their drums and tambourines. He decided now was not the time to intrude
He tried again about half an hour later, ambling up in time to hear Will's opinions of the Slime Monster and its origins (from an undersea cavern he was sure), and Perry's tale of how he and Mr. Stern had watched some of that day's events while trapped in the Daily Planet building's penthouse. Mr. Stern had been concerned about running out of seltzer, while Perry had been straining at the bit to get out and cover the story himself.
Lois was apparently eating all this right up, but Clark noticed that she held her hands behind her back and was hooking her finger at him in a "come on, this could be it!" manner.
Clark received two welcome nods and thus permission to join in the conversation. He did not, however, want to talk about the Slime Monster. He had had his fill of it ten minutes after first seeing it floating over the city at 10,000 feet, scaring the wits out of everyone (including him, almost) with its eerie, pulsing manner. It had forced him to give up his day off… but it had also gotten things moving between him and Lois, so some good had come of that long, miserable day.
When there was a pause in the conversation for the Chief to take a pull on his second beer and Will to do the same on his diet cola, Clark said, "Will, last night you were so anxious to talk to Mr. White, I'm glad you could make it here today."
Lois gave him a covert I-was-going-to-to-say-that-next look.
Will considered his options apparently and nodded, "Yes, that's true, I did really want to talk to you, sir."
"Call me Perry, son." He pulled off his sunglasses to wink at Will. "We're not in a stuffy office where we have to be formal about things."
"Why, thank you, Perry. What I have to ask you about is sort of private, though…"
They were surrounded by people sitting around or passing by, members of Mr. Stern's staff cleaning up after the ponies, and children chasing geese that had escaped from the petting zoo.
"Well, Will," Perry chuckled indulgently, "maybe you can give me a little hint…" and he bent over slightly, offering his ear and giving his star reporters a look that said he was in a damn good mood.
Lois glanced at Clark as Will took the hint and began to whisper.
Why is she looking at me? Clark wondered. She didn't appear to be upset because Will wasn't taking her into his confidence as well. Maybe she thought he, Clark, would be the upset person, considering he'd helped with Will's book. He was somewhat surprised that Will hadn't told them many details the night before, but he had been in a poor mood anyhow and had figured he would hear about it soon enough. Like now, as he tuned in his particularly sharp ears to hear:
"Do you think I'm going to take candy from you, you ugly slimeball?"
Perry blanched and nearly dropped his beer.
That wasn't Will's whisper but the sharp voice of a child, a voice filled with disgust and not a little fear, and Perry certainly had not heard that.
No, Clark's unpredictable some-day-I'll-master-it sixth sense had picked up that fear in the air and used the most easily maneuvered sense, hearing, to override all else and inform him of it. After all, Will could be questioned later (or sooner if Lois had her way); the child sounded like she was in trouble right now.
He turned, scanned the area and in moments saw 13-year-old Sue Schwartz, a tall, thin, blond-haired girl whose approach to life made her a match for Lois. She was standing on the sidewalk at the northeastern edge of the park with several other children of varying ages and they were talking to an adult male of perhaps 30 who Clark did not recognize. Uh-oh…
He glanced at Lois. "I'll be right back."
But he was already jogging through the people stretched out on blankets, the tennis ball jugglers, and the teens throwing frisbees for their big, black dogs wearing red bandannas. Sue and her friends formed a semicircle around the stranger, who now looked up and saw Clark and decided to leave, fast. But Clark was faster and he grabbed the man's shoulder and a hefty handful of t-shirt and vest.
"Was this person bothering you, girls?"
"Nah," Sue said in a superior manner. "He's just a creep."
"He has *candy*!" a very young child exclaimed. She had already eaten ice cream and spilled some of it down her Little Mermaid t-shirt, so that sugar had primed her for more.
Sue looked at her and said gently, "No, he didn't, he was lying." She looked at Clark. "He said he had it in the back of his *van*."
"Yeah, he said that," one of Sue's peers nodded. "He probably just wants to push us inside and take us somewhere where we can't find our parents."
Clark gave the struggling man a shake and a mean look. He was glad he wasn't in the suit because he couldn't let himself look this angry about anything less than an atomic warhead aimed at Metropolis.
"We learned what to do about that in school," Sue explained. "We're supposed to yell 'No!' at them and run away and tell our parents or adults we know, like you," and she squinched her eyes and smiled dreamily at him.
The little crowd of kids, the squirming man and Clark having no trouble keeping hold of him attracted the attention of Officer Graham and two of Mr. Stern's security people. The girls were pleased to recount their story, and Graham and the security people decided that further questioning of the man was appropriate. Clark handed him over, received a pat on the back, and added his own congratulations to the praise heaped on the kids' actions; they took it with big smiles.
Well, that was worth it, Clark thought; his desire to take this post had been justified, even though he could recall nothing like this ever happening at a block party. He watched the children run off to help find the denizens of the petting zoo, decided he wasn't needed as the security people were sticking around this area now, and he prepared to return to Lois, Perry and Will. Maybe they'd be past the whispered preliminaries and wanting to talk, and he could find out what had upset his boss.
But instead Clark was intercepted by Mr. Stern. The owner of the Daily Planet was strolling around the park with his wife. They were both dressed as though they had just gotten off a flight from Hawaii, but the willowy Mrs. Stern carried it off better. Mr. Stern hailed Clark, commented that his employee looked well recovered from his tribulations of the weekend before, and then he launched into a long conversation that covered everything from how Clark liked his job to the reporter's other adventures with the contractors and finally what was happening here in the park. Stern was pleased with how the day was going, claiming that the crowds were better behaved than any he had experienced. Mrs. Stern agreed, saying she enjoyed the entertainment and the food.
Five minutes into the conversation, Clark gave up on rejoining the others any time soon. Stern was rarely a talkative man, but, as Jonathan Kent might have pointed out, it paid to listen when one of the richest men in America felt like filling your ear. So since he couldn't escape to play security officer any more, either, he quickly pulled off the singlet, explaining that his shift was over. He was informed that he could keep the apparel as a souvenir. He said "Thanks" and added that he hadn't had a chance to see what was happening in the rest of the park… hinting, he hoped, that Mr. Stern might want to let him do that.
Stern smiled grandly, "Then let me show you around! You know, we're having a party like this one in Green Meadows next weekend."
Clark felt a definite there's-a-story-here tingle. "It seems to be a good time for block parties."
"Oh, it's far more than that. Founder's Day they're calling it. Someone dug into the history books for the area and, bingo, they found that reason to party. It could have been a harvest festival for all I care, but I'm all for it," said the man who not only rarely spoke but who was known for working 25 hours a day. "Even residents of Green Meadows should let their hair down now and then."
Mrs. Stern smiled as though all these had originally been her arguments and she didn't mind him using them now. "You'll come, won't you, Clark?" she said, "You and Lois? I haven't had a chance to talk to her today…"
Neither have I, much, Clark thought. And neither did he have time until it was nearing eight, after he had seen everything the big party had to offer. During that time he had also overheard the news on someone's personal radio that an avalanche in the Wyoming's Grand Tetons had trapped six skiers and he had slipped away to rescue them. There were reasons he heard about these things, he figured: people needed help, some universal law decided they should survive whatever mess they were in, and if he was one of those who could help, he was bound to hear about it somehow and should try. The flight out, the talk with the astonished authorities and the search took less than an hour and was successful. When he ambled back to the park from "going home for a minute," little had changed. There had been no big trouble, and he had missed nothing except that Perry and Will had gone and Lois, upon finding him, was fuming. "Perry sat down for a while and looked like he was trying not to have a heart attack. Will didn't say anything more because he remembered he had to go to work. Then Perry decided to find Alice and go home."
"That's it? That's what I missed?"
She sighed, unhappy at the stalling, too. "Will said he'd come and see Perry tomorrow morning."
"Then we'll be there."
"Of course, but my tingle about all this says something else…"
She shook her head. "I don't know… Maybe there's too much going on. And what are you doing now?"
"I had to go home for something and I came back and found myself drafted into the cleanup crew."
"That sounds like fun…" She turned slowly and looked at her surroundings, which must not have been easy for regular (though beautiful) human eyes since it was dark already. "The crowds are thinning, aren't they? But from what I hear there's no more entertainment and most of the food tables have folded up." She turned back to him. "Well," she said carefully, as though deciding on some life-changing event: "I'll stay and help you."
He gave her a pleased look--but he knew she'd be easy to talk out of her noble gesture. "Do you have my key with you? Good. Did you park near my place again? Good. Well, right now, go there, go inside and get into the refrigerator, take out the quiche, and cut a piece for yourself. There are also two little bowls covered with aluminum foil in the fridge. Take one of those home, too."
"But I wanted to help you here…"
"I know, and I hate to disappoint you, but they filled up all the helper positions, so you have to go. I wish I could go with you, but it's a real mess here," and, though he suspected Mr. Stern's people would clean up most everything, he had overheard the park rangers in the Tetons speculating about more lost hikers.
"Now I really am disappointed," and she looked every inch of it. She glanced around again, decided something (like there was no one who would notice), and closed in to engage in an embrace. "Some night, real soon, before you go on vacation, I'm going to have you all to myself again."
"To do this?"
To kiss in a somewhat more than friendly fashion, but one that he thought would draw crowds. The cheering might have been fun to hear, and he had noticed other couples groping each in out-of-the-way places around the park, but he and Lois weren't an ordinary couple, it had been a noisy enough day already, and it would be a too quiet night, some of which he would spend sitting in the snow, trying to think.
When he arrived in the newsroom the next morning, he found Lois complaining about having been attacked by the horrible chocolate mousse monster that she'd had no idea resided in Clark's refrigerator. She had beaten it back, though, taken one prisoner, and enjoyed it immensely upon getting home.
He smiled and almost said he wished they could have enjoyed it Saturday evening, but heads had turned upon hearing Lois's statement and he didn't want to feed the rumor mill any more. She'd just have to understand.
Instead he asked if there was any news from Will yet, but she had none, and they sat through the budget meeting without gathering any useful clues. Clark did notice that Perry seemed subdued, but that could easily be blamed on his having more than his usual small number of beers the day before (the Chief was not known for indulging in liquor) or on it simply being Monday morning.
Raul was even more subdued, though he stole sad, furtive glances in Lois's direction. Is that a broken heart? Clark wondered, almost feeling sorry for the man. No woman in particular sat next to him. Laura, for example, hadn't attended today, and Perry didn't have an special assignment for him, he was to return to his Rinconcito beat and look for news there on his own. Clark sympathized: having no partner to work with was not fun at all.
When the budget meeting broke up, Perry motioned to Lois and Clark to accompany him to his office. When the three were alone there, Perry said, "Will Waldecker is supposed to be here at nine. He told me something… strange yesterday, and I want you two in on it because you're good at handling strange things."
"Thanks, Chief," Lois said, managing to sound both sincere and sarcastic at the same time.
"Now, you've only yourself to blame. You're the one who broke that haunted housing project scandal six months after you started here by going to that seance, and I won't even mention your investigations of Superman."
"Well, good, because he's not strange, he's…"
What? Oh, Clark thought, don't struggle…
Then again, struggle can be good for building character…
Perry raised an eyebrow. "'He's'?"
"He's… ours. He belongs to Metropolis and… he works for the world, so people have a right to know about him. He's not strange-- he's *news,*" she smiled, obviously pleased to have found the words she wanted.
But, Clark thought, I never wanted to be news…
She continued, "What he does in his private life--if he has one, and I'm sure he does--he must, I mean, who doesn't?--is his own business. There could be a normal guy under that suit." She shot a look at Clark. "Right?"
"Oh, yes, right, completely right--"
"Like… like you, for example."
"Well, not like *me*…"
She somehow refrained from giving him a "what was I thinking?" look--or would she have said that? Was she refraining?--and she said kindly: "Something like you then."
"Maybe…" He always seemed to end up with the short end of the stick when she was making such comparisons, which had been rare of late, now that he thought about it. But he didn't feel the loser today, that was nice.
Perry shook his head at the both of them. "Lois, next you'll tell me he has a wife and kids in Jackson Hole…"
"I doubt that."
Clark did, too, though, oddly enough, he'd been in the mountains near there during the night before.
"Not with the way he looks at you…" Perry said.
"He hasn't looked like that at me in a long time and that's perfectly all right with me."
It was? Really? Then he was doing some things right…
"But it's true. I have a life to get on with. He's a nice person, and I have the feeling he'll always be there for me, but…"
"But it's the wife and kids back in Wyoming, I understand. Whatever. You two get back out there and look busy until I call for you."
Will didn't show up. Indeed, at 9:15, Perry rushed out of his office, down to their desks, and pointed at Clark. "There was another attempt on the Commerce Bank early this morning. Get over there and get the details. No, Lois, not you. Clark already knows the people to talk to. I need you for something else…" and he turned away, obviously expecting her to follow him. Lois and Clark exchanged shrugs and he grabbed a note book and left.
He returned within two hours. If asked, he would have said that the best things about his having gone out were the chance to ride the high-speed express metro out to Green Meadows (when actually he had flown) and the bag of donuts he returned with. He settled in front of his computer and as he dashed off the story, Lois glided up behind him and began reading over his shoulder.
"They sprayed the building with bullets? That's a funny way to rob a bank…"
He sat back and shook his head. "They chipped the marble and didn't so much as crack the bullet-proof glass. Fortunately, no one was hurt. There were eye witnesses to the event but they all told different stories, like they did the last time."
"They panicked, it happens."
He finished the story and LANed it to Perry for his approval and dumping on the wire. "Okay." He looked at Lois. No Will, I bet."
"Right. So what do you know that I don't?"
"I could ask you that about what Perry told you."
"You could. Trade?"
"Well, you might have more fun listening in…" He turned and picked up his phone and dialed nine to get out of the building and then a number that connected him with a home in Green Hills. Lois went over to her own desk and prepared to pick up her phone on his nod, an "I expect this to be good" look on her face. The day long ago that she had stopped expecting his little stunts to fail had been cause for celebration.
"Hello, this is the White House. Wasn't that Mr. Bell just a darling for showing us these talking contraptions? I *love* them…"
"Mrs. Lincoln, this is General Grant. Is Tad in?"
"Oh, my goodness, no, I think he's out inspecting the troops with his father. He left last night and I don't know where he is…"
"I see. Is the Secretary of State there then?"
Wanda Mae thought so, and she put down the phone and began calling out for a Secretary Irving. In a few moments the home health care nurse came to the phone and apologized for not having answered it initially. Clark introduced himself and asked to speak to Will, if he was available, but Ms. Irving only translated what Wanda Mae had said: Will had gone to a party in Metropolis, returned around six, changed his clothes and gone off to his janitorial job at the bank. He should have been home by now but he had not been seen since, though upon leaving he had been cheerful. And, Ms. Irving added, he had warned her not to worry if they didn't hear from him for a while. She hadn't thought anything of it at the time, what with the odd line of work he was in…
Clark assured her that Will was probably just fine and then asked her to have him call the Planet as soon as he got home.
He hung up and looked at Lois. "That's it, that's what I know. I discretely asked about the bank's staff and got a long run down about how trustworthy every employee was and how the board of directors is composed of upstanding citizens. Nothing suspicious at all except that the janitor had signed off work early, which was all right with the personnel manager because he had done his work and they didn't want to pay him for sitting around."
"Another bizarre attempted bank robbery and now Will missing… I think you better tell this to Perry and he can tell you what he told me. Maybe there is some kind of link, but honestly…" she shrugged and played with the shredded coconut on one of the donuts, "I can't get as emotionally worked up about it--well, I can *laugh* about it, but that's not the kind of support he wants. You're better at looking sympathetic than I am."
"Then give me back my donuts, it's beginning to sound like he'll need all the sugar rush we can give him."
She handed over the bag, keeping the one she had liberated, and accompanied him to Perry's office where, as soon as the Chief finished yelling at someone over the phone, he motioned for them to enter, close the door and sit down. "I read your story; it looks fine. What did you leave out?"
Clark told him about Will.
Perry nodded. "I feared something like this would happen…" He mulled it over a moment, then turned to his intercom and shouted "Laurie! Coffee! Now!"
Clark remembered the bag of donuts, stood up for a moment and placed them on Perry's blotter between two piles of paper. "Most of them are chocolate." They wouldn't be as good as Laurie's chocolate chip-loaded cookies, but, as Clark expected, Perry said:
"Good, I need the caffeine. I was up most of the night worrying about this. Now ordinarily," he said, leaning forward and using his hands expressively, "I can pull all nighters without any trouble, I'll be out digging up the facts while you two are in dream land…" He paused, reviewing what he had said. "In your own homes, of course, separately… or not…"
Lois nodded, understanding completely. Clark realized he had a combination of surprise, anguish and thrill rushing to collide on his face; he yanked them back and tried to appear noncommittal.
"But last night…" Perry shook his head and looked at the bag of donuts. As he opened it and checked inside, Laurie entered with one of his larger mugs full of steaming black coffee. "Thanks, that's perfect, you read my mind almost as well as Alice does…"
She also carried napkins, and Perry used one for two donuts and then he fussed over where to put them among his papers. She looked over them quickly, relieved him of a stack, making more room, and went away. "I don't know what I'd do without that girl…"
"What kept you up all night, Chief?"
"Hmm? Oh, something that Waldecker fellow told me, something I never expected to hear…" He added three sugars to his coffee and stirred them in slowly, drawing his star reporters near. Clark thought that although Lois apparently hadn't been moved by what she had heard earlier, she was doing a good job of pretending that her mouth was watering.
Perry looked up. "Relax, Lois, I know you weren't impressed by the importance of Will's claims."
She sat back. "Well--"
"You kids just don't understand."
"I certainly don't, Chief."
"She didn't tell you, did she? Got your secrets out of you but didn't tell you her own, isn't that always the case? Let me warn you, women can be like that…"
"I'm not complaining about anything," Clark assured them both. "But I would like to know what's going on," the least reason being that it might involve his other self and he liked to have warnings, and the foremost reason being that he had been in the dark far too long and it was affecting his love live.
"All right, Clark, it's like this. You know I've been an admirer of the King for a long time now…"
Clark simply nodded, fearing that anything he said might be a distraction.
"I expect your parents are, too…"
Clark just smiled. There was no way he was going to say that to his knowledge they had no Elvis recordings at home.
"Oh, they don't, well, that's all right, to each his own…"
How do people do that? Clark wondered, then comforted himself with the thought that only his closest friends seemed to be able to read his thoughts and then not the important ones, fortunately.
"I'll make it short and sweet. A whole flock of millionaires call Green Meadows and Green Hills home, as you know, and millionaires enjoy collecting things, big things, small things, but definitely rare things, the rarer the better. This is not news to you."
"Sometimes they don't think their own homes are safe enough places to keep some of those rare things, so they stow them away in safety deposit boxes and the like in banks."
"Like the Commerce Bank."
"Precisely. They'll put stocks and bonds and jewels and paintings there… and Elvis's lost diaries."
His what? Clark almost said. How had that poor, drug-drenched fellow found time to write, let alone write a diary and more than one?
"They're legendary. Mythical. Unheard of. They're whispered about in dark corners at Elvis conventions. And yet, like the Holy Grail, admirers of the King have been searching for them ever since he died…" Perry paused and sighed at his coffee.
Clark stole a glance at Lois, but she was remaining neutral, inspecting her fingernails. He looked back at his boss. "This is what Will told you? These diaries are in the bank?"
"That's what he suspects. He wasn't sure, it started out as a rumor he picked up while emptying trash cans, I suppose, but since he told me yesterday, I've been thinking about it and I've come to the conclusion that odds are good it's no rumor. Robert Thibodeau, who's making a fortune in computer game development, lives in Green Meadows and he's also a follower of the King. He's so young he's still a neophyte, but he has plenty of money and he could very well have acquired what he believes are The Diaries and he's put them in the bank for safekeeping."
"And Elvis fans are trying to rob the bank to get to these diaries?" He could just barely imagine a mob of white-sequined Elvis imitators storming the massive building.
"They don't have to be Elvis fans. Why, even though Will came from Little Big Hollow, Tennessee, he's not a fan, apparently…" Perry shook his head at the thought. "No, they simply have to realize the value of them."
"And of the stocks and bonds and jewelry and paintings," Lois muttered.
"Yes, and them, too, Lois," Perry sighed. "Although those will be easier to fence than The Diaries."
"No, all they have to find is some, oh, Arab or Japanese fan who will take them out of the country and they're gone for good."
"But first they have to get into and out of the bank," Clark reminded them. "That could be the reason, or one of them, behind all these attempts, to test the system." "And it could be why Will's missing now."
"But," Lois said, "That nurse said he told her not to worry if she didn't hear from him--that's it, he might have been chasing down some clues and decided go after the perps, but he got in someone's way."
Perry frowned and nodded. "I hope the little fellow's okay…"
Clark reviewed his options, both human and superhuman, but could think of none that would help him find Will short of scanning the entire city and the surrounding countryside with x-ray vision, and he rejected that. The last time he'd tried that with any success had ironically been when Gretchen Kelly had kidnapped Wanda Mae, entrapped Lois, and forced Will to help her reanimate Luthor on the threat of killing the two women. He'd wasted a tremendous amount of time in that search and nearly come up empty handed. If he hadn't seen Lois's Jeep, she might still have been missing and they would have had a SuperLex on their hands.
Will hadn't left even that many clues, so brains had to be relied on now. "We need to find out more about the bank, more about Thibodeau--"
"He's out, I don't think he's involved," Perry said. "I checked on him last night: he's in Europe and has no connections to organized crime that I could find."
"What about disorganized crime? Shooting at a bank won't make it lay down and play dead…"
"Well, Chief, you said he made his fortune in computer games."
Perry gave Clark a narrow look but not for long because, Clark figured, he was pleased that Clark was supporting Lois even though she was making light of the Elvis angle. "Well, you can check into him if you want, but I think he's innocent, he's simply the latest owner of The Diaries or imitations thereof, and he probably thinks they're safe and sound. Maybe they are."
"If there are really any diaries, fake or otherwise…" Lois said.
"Yes, yes… but the thought of them may be enough to have turned Will into a missing person. Now, we don't have enough for you two to concentrate your time on--particularly you, Lois, since you're such a skeptic…"
"It's not that--"
"Yes, it is."
"All right, it is, but the attempted robberies themselves are interesting."
"Yes, that's the angle you'll be looking at, with no mention of The Diaries or Will, at least for now. We'll have to treat this like a run-of-the-mill bank robbery story until we have more to go on. You can bring Laura Sidbury in on it if you need her, but I don't want both of you devoting your time exclusively to it until there's more to go on."
Clark reminded Perry of the Thursday tour, and Lois said she planned to come in on her day off for that, trading the time for, say, part of Wednesday afternoon, with a meaningful glance at Clark. T-shirt and fish shopping he recalled. Perry somehow understood this and smiled indulgently. "That's fine." So Clark decided it was a good time to say, "Mrs. Stern hopes Lois and I will attend the Founder's Day Celebration Green Meadows is having this Saturday evening."
"Now that sounds interesting…"
Lois sat up. "Very interesting…"
Oh, Clark thought, two pros in action with two tingles at once.
"More angles. I expect you to be at that celebration. I'll send Jimmy to. Hmm, maybe I'll go myself. Well, get back to work and see what you can come up with now," and he shooed them out of the office, obviously happy to have shared his secret, to have them working on it, and to have at least one of them fairly interested in the Elvis angle.
"Elvis…" Lois shook her head as the walked back to their desks. "You'd think Will wouldn't need to ask Perry about that since he's from Tennessee. Even if he's not a fan, osmosis alone… Hey, I wonder if he has an office and if we can get into it to see if he's left any clues lying around…"
"Good thinking. I'll call--"
"No, Clark, we'll just go. It's harder to refuse us entry if we're standing there on the doorstep."
"And you can talk to Wanda Mae about old times while I sneak off and case Will's office."
"Not true. He probably has all kinds of security systems guarding it, if he has one at all."
"Sure he has an office! That's the first thing he'd set up! You know, positive thinking for a successful business." She reached into her drawer and grabbed her purse.
"Then he'd probably set it up in town somewhere. We'll check the phone book."
"A waste of time," she claimed as she led him to the elevator. "Remember Magnum PI? He worked out of his home."
"It wasn't his home, it wasn't even an office, it was rooms he caged off that millionaire, Robyn something."
"No, it's not."
People stood back as the elevator doors opened and the two entered.
"Millionaires are involved all over this case."
"So he has his office at home."
"He might not."
She smiled at him as the door closed. They were alone. "There, that kept them out."
"There what? Who?"
"All those people who wanted to use this elevator. They all decided to take the stairs so they wouldn't get in the middle of our totally sexual innuendo-free argument."
She embraced him and growled: "Kiss me quick."
They were offered a tour of the White House, giving Lois the chance to find out where exactly the Oval Office was before attempting a break in. As Clark didn't want her to do that, he took the first opportunity to ask Wanda Mae about the War Room, which he figured was what she might call Will's office (or rather Mr. Lincoln's office that Tad would visit).
"Why, yes, he does have one of those and I have the key," she said proudly.
Ms. Irving, standing behind Wanda Mae, shook her head though, clearly both a warning and a protective gesture.
Lois saw it as well, looked at Clark, her eyes speaking volumes-- in an unknown language, unfortunately--and then she smiled at Wanda Mae. "I'd like to see your Rose Garden, if you have one…"
"Why, yes, we do! They're out this way. They're all so beautiful…"
Surprised but pleased, Clark fell behind with Ms. Irving, lingered and when they were some distance back down some hallway, he explained, "If Will's in trouble, we may find clues about it in his office. That's why we want to look there."
"But you're not the police."
"True. The police would have warrants, a bad attitude and yellow tape to put all over the house and you wouldn't be allowed to pass it, and Wanda Mae wouldn't understand. The police would suspect Will is behind the break in attempts. But Ms. Lane and I think he could actually be a victim, and our investigations have always helped people, we have a good record for that…"
"I know, I followed that nursing home scandal you reported on. You got some award for it, didn't you? All right, you can look, but only you, and I'll be there watching you."
Clark agreed to the terms and broke the "only you" news gently to Lois, who took it remarkably well, only allowing her eyes to flash at him for a moment before turning to admire a tapestry on the kitchen wall on their walk toward the backyard garden.
But there was nothing in Will's designer-decorated office or the attached darkroom to give Clark any clues. Except the computer, a whiz-bang bells-and-whistles multimedia Pentium the likes of which he had seen only on display and once played a bit of Solitaire on until he was distracted and the screen saver came on and he didn't know the password. A strange way to sell a computer, he had thought, the store not allowing potential buyers to play with it. He didn't turn on Will's computer though, not wanting to press his luck with the vigilant Ms. Irving, who had already allowed him to check Will's appointment book, poke through drawers and inspect several files.
To no avail. Maybe Will kept everything but what would interest the IRS in his head, and that was possible if his mental capacity and acuity were increasing due to his exposure to the superpowers.
Which didn't help his and Lois's investigation any.
They had tea in the beautiful garden as the afternoon drew to a close and, in leaving, promised Wanda Mae that they would return when they had news from the front.
Clark filled Lois in on what he hadn't found on the way back to town, then ventured to make up for it by offering to buy dinner. "But it's not a date."
"Good. I don't feel like I want a date. It's Monday, and Monday and dates don't mesh for me."
"Then you won't mind going to McDonalds."
"Yes, I will, Mr. Healthy Cook. The Green Room at the Hyatt would be nice."
"I'll have to take out a loan first and the banks are closed, sorry."
They argued pleasantly about this. Clark did not mind this kind of exchange because, like the one in the elevator, he knew odds were good it would end up with them laughing. Or maybe more than that.
It ended in a draw. He got his way, they ate at a drive in, sitting in the jeep. She got her way, forcing him to think about the possibility of casing the bank ahead of time, like tomorrow, while wearing disguises.
It was a possibility he didn't like and he made that quite clear. "I'm not good at disguises," he almost said, but later on, some day, she might take that as another in a line of insults to her intelligence when she found out he was actually pretty good at disguises, one in particular. "I'll think about it," was the most he'd commit to, and then he thought up a warning. "But the bank's going to be vigilant, what with the problems they've had. I don't see *them* letting us off with a warning just because we promise them good publicity." Too often Lois and he had pulled stunts of dubious value to get leads; he wondered why they both hadn't been thrown in jail yet on serious charges of trespass or malicious vandalism. His folks would be appalled, particularly his dad, and he wouldn't feel very good about it himself.
"You worry too much sometimes--"
"And you don't worry enough sometimes."
"There's nothing to worry about, Clark--"
"Yes, but we'll find him. I'm sure he's alive and well. I'd feel depressed otherwise and I don't feel depressed."
"Don't say it, *that's* depressing, that the story has sunk that low."
"But it will make Perry happy if we can confirm their existence."
"Yes, but I'll be happy exposing whoever's trying to rob the bank, especially if you're right and Lex is involved. The bank has the funding he's probably been searching for."
"And double the take if he gets the diaries, if he tries to sell them and doesn't just add them to some collection."
"He does like to collect things…"
They exchanged quick glances.
"But he didn't get you, you saw through his disguises."
Touchy subject, he told himself, but then that was good in a way, a little tiny way. He didn't want her suffering from the memories, and she didn't seem to be much any more, but if at the same time they put him by contrast in a better light… not that he needed that, she seemed to be seeing him for himself and not comparing him to some megavillain or a weirdo flying guy…
"Disguises," she said in an effort to redirect the conversation, such as it was. "I know, we can go as Dale Evans and Roy Rogers! We haven't done a western theme in a long time."
"Maybe not so far west. You could go as a farmer looking for funding for a new crop of some kind, like…"
"What exotic things do they grow in Kansas?"
"Ostriches, but no."
"I can go as your lithesome daughter dressed in ostrich feathers because you'll be dressing up old and gray, just like a ostrich farmer."
"That's a stereotype. Farmers aren't all old and gray, even ostrich farmers, particularly the ones starting out needing bank funding, and certainly none of them would take their green-haired punk-rock daughters with them."
"If he has a daughter like that he'd be old and gray fast."
"Especially if she shaved half her head first."
"Now there's an idea…"
"No, it would never work."
"You don't want me to shave half my head."
"I'd love you just the same, believe me, but--"
"Well, maybe not *exactly* the same, but…" that sounded superficial, didn't it?
"I see…" she smiled a touch, that serene thing in action, which was a relief to see.
He decided to say: "But I'd respect you while you let it grow out."
"And you'd be cheering as it did so, is that what you're trying to say?"
"If I cut it, it wouldn't take long to grow back."
"Forget it." She wants to hear this from me, doesn't she?
"You care that much how I look…"
"I care that you're happy. Looks don't count in that equation unless they make you unhappy. I think if you shaved your head you would be very unhappy."
"All right… Well, if you won't take me to the bank as your lithesome, ostrich feather-covered, green-haired daughter, I'll take you home because you're getting crabby."
"I'm not getting crabby, I'm being cautious. I'm worried about arriving at work tomorrow morning and seeing you dressed like…" his imagination failed him--or it was more vivid than ostrich feathers and he didn't want to go there. He used to hate moments like this until he realized that such brain seize-ups kept him from having to soothe hurt feelings. There were times he wished he'd seize-up *more*… "…dressed like that."
"Well, whatever I choose, I'll bring along enough to dress you up, too."
"No way, I'm not a… a Ken doll."
"But you are a doll."
"No, I'm not."
"In a manner of speaking."
"Not even that. Watch the road."
"I'm watching it. And you." She pulled up to a stop light and looked at him for a long, nerve-wracking moment. "All right, you're not a doll."
"Not that kind of doll."
"What kind of doll then?"
"Someday you'll find out."
"I think I *already know,*" she smiled slyly and waved blithely at some illegally turning trucker she cut off as she slipped on to Sinibaldi.
"Yeah, right." He'd lapsed and let her see him too many times with very little clothing on. Each time it was one of those thoughtless things that hadn't occurred to him might be improper to do even in his own home, even though she was becoming more than a guest. But I'm *not* an exhibitionist, he thought, trying not to remind himself about the skin tight clothing he wore while helping people. The costume had seemed like such a good idea at the time…
Wait a minute, it still *was* a good idea. Relax, Kent… "And I know what kind of…" no, hold it, *not* a Chatty Cathie doll, she'd murder me, or try to, and things could only get worse from that point because she'd hurt herself. "Well, I'll find out what kind of doll you are."
"When I let you. But not tonight. Monday's aren't good for that, either."
"It sounds like our Mondays will be good for cleaning house and catching up on our e-mail."
"One evening for facing reality."
She pulled up in front his place.
He held out his hand. "Shake, partner?"
"You know, facing reality. We should get in some practice."
She took his hand and, as he hoped, pulled. "In your dreams, buddy," and they shared a nearly glasses-steaming, knocking-her- socks-off, wish-it-weren't-Monday-evening kiss.
Due to the BBC telling him about another building collapse in South Korea and being in a position--flat out in bed trying to get to sleep despite massively pleasant thoughts of Lois--to help out, Clark was late arriving at work Tuesday morning. He held his breath upon entering the newsroom, but didn't see Lois dressed in some bizarre undercover costume. Actually, she wasn't there. He crept up to his desk, but there were no materials meant for disguises heaped on it and none were hidden in his desk drawers. He had entertained the thought that she might disguise herself as Jane, but that meant he'd have to go as Tarzan, and it wasn't an unlikely scenario considering her admiration of his T-shirts.
The wallpaper on his computer hadn't been changed to reflect sketches she had made of what he could wear, and none of the staff was looking at him and snickering behind a hand. This was all good news. She hadn't carried through with her threat and come in earlier dressed like a pirate queen or an Egyptian princess or an Indian mahout, her face darkened with artificial tanning cream, her hair up in a turban, and talking to everyone in a Peter Sellers-esque voice. Though she might have dressed him like a pasha, for example, inadvertently mixing cultures, and that could have been fun. But no such luck.
She breezed in at 11, dressed entirely normally, and typed up her report on the latest attempt on the Commerce Bank of Green Meadows.
"Hang gliders on to the roof?" he asked as he read over her shoulder. "That's way too risky. How did they escape?"
"They had a helicopter standing by. It was well coordinated, according to the witnesses. They all thought Superman would turn up and have a field day, but…"
Oh. "But he was in South Korea at 8 am our time."
She gave him a look that seemed to question how he knew that, so he added: "The wire copy about it is in your in box."
"Well, that explains it then. He was probably doing something more useful than stopping another silly bank robbery attempt."
"Yeah. So these would be robbers couldn't get in via the air shafts?"
"No, and they couldn't toss teargas canisters down them, either. It looks like they almost gassed themselves in the processes. If it weren't so unbelievable, they could get their own sitcom."
"Like 'My Favorite Robber'? They still have a chance since they got away. You misspelled--"
"I know, I'll get it. Leave me alone…" She was deep into it and he told himself he should have known better than to hover, but he'd wanted to stand close to her for a few moments and just sort of… bask. He returned to his desk and waited.
When she was done, she LANed the story to Perry, turned in her chair to face Clark, kicked back, put her feet up, picked up the wire copy to peruse, and started counting quietly down from 20.
Upon her reaching one, Perry stepped out of his office and pointed. "You two, in here, now."
"God, you're good," Clark whistled.
"Yes, aren't you glad you know me?" she asked as she slipped her shoes back on and stood up.
"You bet. So tell me something: you write like Mencken and dress like Lady Di--what's your secret?--and can I have it?"
"My clothes wouldn't fit you, but if you follow all my advice to the letter, I'll make a reporter out of you yet."
He grinned in the face of her superior, heads-up attitude--but she grinned, too.
Perry grilled them about their progress in the investigation, obviously wondering more if they had confirmed Will's Elvis diaries tale than if they had discovered who was behind the attempted robberies. But they had little to give him. Clark wanted to look further into Thibodeau and Lois had idea was risky: "I want to crack Will's computer and see what he has hidden there. It should be easy to fool that Irving woman into believing the story I give her."
"I don't think so," Clark warned. "She watched everything I did like a hawk. Try the truth on her."
They argued about that briefly, but Perry came down on Clark's side, Lois would probably get the best results using the truth. She could point out that the longer Will was gone, the more likely he was to be in trouble. The computer could hold the secret of his whereabouts.
She acquiesced, for now. "All right." She looked at Clark. "But if Wanda Mae insists on helping me, I'll give her something else to think about--I'll tell her that General Grant wants to read the Gettysburg Address to her, in person and *in private.*"
"I would, and I'll tell her you plan to sing it to her, too, in four-part harmony, in the Rose Garden in the moon light. Now loan me your Computer Hacking for Dummies book, I have some brushing up to do…"
But all the brushing in the world and all the research through the Daily Planet's extensive archives for more on Thibodeau did them no good for a second day in a row investigating this story. The computer-savvy millionaire simply had a good software idea and brilliant marketers, and someone like him, or perhaps Will himself, had programmed an unhackable password system into Will's computer specifically, or so to hear her describe it, to foil Lois Lane. Clark didn't question her about the methods she used in trying because she was good at the intricacies of a number of computer programs. He also didn't ask how she'd gotten to the computer in the first place because she told him; indeed, she was mildly annoyed that using the truth on Ms. Irving had gotten her immediate access to Will's office and she had bypassed Wanda Mae altogether. "You can stop practicing your do-re-mis…"
They sat alone in the lunch room for a late-afternoon snack and brain stormed ideas. Clark had nothing new, opting to wait for the Thursday press tour of the bank to see if anything occurred to him. When she asked, he admitted that, yes, he was taking his day off the next day unless something came up at the office, which he didn't foresee. He disliked all this waiting, particularly when it came to Will's fate still being up in the air, but there was nothing for it.
"Well, then, foresee this: I'll come by your place at noon and we can go fish and T-shirt shopping and have a light lunch. I want you hungry by dinner time because I want you to come by my place at, oh, 5:30 because I'm making dinner for you."
Wow! She was moving fast in what had every indication of being a wonderful direction, and he felt a thrill at the prospect of keeping up with her. But, "You're going to cook?"
"I can cook, Clark! I just hardly ever take the time."
"Can I bring wine then?"
"No, just bring yourself. And, actually, I'm not going to cook, I'll just stop at a deli I found last week. You don't mind that I don't want to rush home and slave over a hot oven, do you?"
"Not at all. Having dinner with you and… talking…" By gosh, they could talk, couldn't they? It wasn't even his idea or his timing, so it might just work! She'd have the next day off to recuperate--or at least the morning, if she decided she still wanted to take the bank tour--if indeed she still wanted to work with him, if he escaped her apartment in one piece, if she didn't throw him out a window and scream "Fly, farmboy, you're good at that!" and slam it shut behind him… Still, it was a chance he couldn't pass up. "That's a great idea."
"No ingredients to measure, no dishes to wash…"
"Nothing like that to worry about, no…"
They talked about getting together that night but she had a Women's Press Club meeting to go to and he thought up some excuse or another as well.
In actuality he patrolled through the night and into the morning, feeling good about life in general, using up excess energy doing a wide variety of helpful things. True, the bank story was going nowhere fast and he had no idea where Will was, but like Lois he didn't feel that Will was in mortal danger, things just didn't… tingle that way. The story was simply a slow-building one and he comforted himself with the thought that he and Lois were as on top of it as they could be and apparently all alone among the news media in giving it serious attention. It helped, too, he realized, if help was the right word, that they were the only ones who had the Elvis angle. All in all it was better than "The Private Lives of Lois and Clark" making the news among their colleagues. Clark might have seriously considered suggesting she move with him to Wyoming, and become shepherds there on the ranch run by Superman's mythical wife and kids…
He made it back home in plenty of time to shower, shave, and meet Lois as she pulled up in front of his apartment at 11:30. When asked how things were going at the office, she had little to report. She had called the Waldecker mansion and been informed that Will was still away at the front. She had detected the hint of worry in Wanda Mae's voice and apologized to Ms. Irving when the woman arrived to take over her Secretary of State duties. Lois felt sorry for the women--not enough to go hold their hands, mind you, but quite enough to make her more determined than ever to get to the bottom of the attempted bank robberies, Elvis or no Elvis. "The police aren't even looking for Will. I don't think they know he's missing, and it looks like the bank hasn't noticed he hasn't shown up for work. No one misses him but us and his family, poor guy. I don't have any contacts in that police department, but you know people in the bank now, we'll have to grab someone tomorrow afternoon and grill them…"
He listened to her getting her frustration out of her system, and when she had sighed herself into a lull, he suggested that they eat first so they'd be more relaxed when shopping. They ate at a cafeteria and talked only a little, listening in on the conversations around them and simply watching each other poke over the small, expensive portions of plastic food.
Lemieux's Pet Store had too many varieties, sizes and shapes of fish to choose from so, Lois decided, she wound up not getting any at all. "I'm not in the mood," she explained. "One should really be in the mood when thinking about purchasing fish to eat your other fish…" He could not but agree. She got a general aquarium owner handbook and fish enthusiast magazine instead and promised to be more decisive the next time they tried this. Maybe next Wednesday, hmm?
He said "Sure," but didn't add, "If we've made up by then and things are straightened out and I haven't moved to The Antarctic and taken up residence among the penguins…"
She proved to be decisive enough when T-shirt shopping, and Clark wound up paying $35 for two. The one she picked for him depicted the Slime Monster in a particularly ferocious pose and under it was the terse printing: "Don't talk to me until I've had my morning coffee!"
"Lois, I know you really wanted this one," and he handed it over. He'd had it put in a separate bag when he paid for it. "Consider it my gift."
"No, Clark, it's for you…"
"Then why did you pull out a medium sized one when I take extra large?"
"Oh, well… I need bifocals, what can I say?"
"You can say 'Thank you, Clark.'"
"Thank you, Clark."
"And you can say, 'I'll cherish it always.'"
"Well, I might say that…"
"'I know I'll look lovely in it when I wear it to the mayor's next ball.'"
"No, that I can't say. I'll look lovely in it at the next Planet picnic, that will have to do."
The second t-shirt, which he picked himself, was mercifully dark solid blue and expressed no opinion and advertised nothing. This one he liked fine.
She dropped him off at his apartment and warned him to be at her place on time, 5:45. He resisted reminding her that she had originally said 5:30, but kissed her instead. He watched her drive away, went into his apartment, through it, and out the back window in the suit. He zipped south to Green Hills and the Waldecker home, where he found Wanda Mae wearing black (uncharacteristic of her since she had moved out of the rest home), sitting alone among her roses and staring morosely into the distance. She looked up and blinked when he landed lightly in front of her. She said, "Why, General Grant, how kind of you to return…"
This was why he had made every effort to avoid seeing her when he had worked with Will on the book. "I'm on a secret mission."
"Oh, I understand completely, I won't tell anyone that it's you under that disguise."
Whew! But then she had never done anything more than smile knowingly at him whenever Will or anyone else was around. I worry too much, he told himself.
They had a brief conversation about Will, and he tried to assure the woman that he was watching out for her brother, or rather, Tad. I'm not doing a very good job of it, he reflected it, but then Will had inadvertently covered his tracks.
It did occur to him that he might take a crack at the computer and succeed where Lois had failed. When Ms. Irving arrived to check out who Wanda Mae was talking to, he asked if he could inspect Mr. Waldecker's locked-up office and was given instant access.
Though he could use his abilities freely, the results were the same: zilch. Over a twenty-minute period he entered upwards of one million possible password combinations into the computer, using all that he knew about Will. He only paused once, when a tall, dark woman introduced as Mrs. Pourhamidi, glided into the office and picked up the empty waste paper basket. "Clean, we must have cleanness here," she informed them in a heavy, hard-to-place accent. She puttered around the office, straightening the maps of Green Meadows that were mounted on the walls, moving a chair back and then moving it forward again, talking sternly to a philodendron, and generally doing nothing that affected the look of the room at all.
After she glided away, Ms. Irving confided: "She's a temp sent by the agency."
"I see," Superman said equitably.
"At least she hasn't broken anything…" She then whispered: "She looks like Natasha, don't you think? And sounds like her, too. You know, like Boris and Natasha?""
"Yes, or Morticia Addams."
Ms. Irving laughed a bit, almost nervously, as though surprised that Superman could actually make a joke.
Yep. He'd seen this reaction before. He returned to the keyboard and entered more possible passwords, but the program swallowed them all and responded to none. He told Ms. Irving, who was still looking on with fascination, that it was nice that Mr. Waldecker had such a fine security system. Actually, it was a pain in the nether regions, but at least, he realized, his visit let the women know they weren't alone in their concern for their missing family member. He kissed Wanda Mae's hand when she offered it, said he would keep in touch, and flew away.
As he headed home again, flying over Green Meadows on the way, he initiated a scan but soon gave it up due to the vast number of things to see and try not to see. The needle in the haystack, with hundreds of thousands of haystacks. But that search would have been easier: the hay would all have looked the same, the needle standing out. Will was small, unprepossessing and could have been hidden anywhere in the county or out of it. That left old fashioned detective work as soon as he and Lois came up with something, some clue.
For now, the rest of his life called. Grocery shopping, clothes washing, buying some flowers… warning: some violence follows (not heavy duty, but not the usual for what I've been writing--DS)
Lois was absolutely, totally, without a doubt certain that not only was she late but Clark was up on 18 already, loitering around outside her door, worrying about being too early. He'd worry about that and it wouldn't occur to him to blame her or get disgusted that she wasn't there.
As she rushed into the spacious, well-appointed lobby of her apartment building, she glanced at the clock. 5:40. That was cutting it way too close. She had taken too long at lunch with Clark, as fun as it had been, and then returned to work to see her desk piled high with phone messages and the results of the research she had asked Jimmy to do for her on Elvis. Clark shouldn't have taken his day off, he should have come in to help her sort through this mess.
She still couldn't believe it. Elvis. The man's pouring out his life's woes into some probably nonexistent diaries seemed to be the only clue Will had left them. Earlier in the morning she had taken a more logical path, scrutinizing everything in the Planet's archives about the Commerce Bank of Green Meadows, and she had come up with nothing less than an impregnable building even she would consider putting her money into. The Board of Directors was as clean as a whistle and the Corporation Commission had given the institution its highest rating.
It was then little more than a rat waiting to find its cheese stolen. Well, a super rat in this case, with pit bulls for body guards. Clark might be on to something, she admitted; it was the kind of place a twisted mind like Lex's would see as a challenge.
But why keep doing it so… so stupidly? It was like throwing pingpong balls against that very bank's closed vault door. There had to be a reason…
Which she didn't want to dwell on all that now.
She'd have to distract Clark somehow, slip into her apartment-- too bad she didn't have a back door like he did… change into the new t-shirt, that would be cute--no, that would be silly when he needed supportive. She'd put on something undemanding, something that wouldn't scare him because this was his big chance to tell her everything and with her engineering it, it wouldn't fail.
She rejuggled her bags, freed up a hand, and pounded on the up button again. "Come *on*…"
On the door of the other elevator someone had posted an "Out of Order" sign. It figured. Fast, expert maintenance, once a selling point for this place, had become nonexistent. Jeff wasn't at his security guard post either. She wondered if he had been let go. She wouldn't have been surprised. The building was falling apart, and it was some deep, dark conspiracy, all to make her life miserable. What if Clark moved in here with her after they got things settled? He'd probably want to get married first, but she could see to that. Would two people mean more power in her dealings with management or just a raise in the rent?
The elevator arrived quietly and the door slid open efficiently. Well, that was nice, things were looking up now. People appeared out of nowhere to enter. I do all the work and they take the advantage. But behind her two men pushed their way through and fell in on either side of her as she began to enter.
She turned to her left and noticed that the large, nondescript fellow on that side had pulled out of his trench coat a semi-automatic weapon. He aimed it out into the lobby and shouted: "Stay back and no one will be hurt."
Upon hearing the threat, her neighbors scattered.
Good, she thought; the only ones who are going to be hurt are you and your friend.
She dropped her heavier bag of goodies onto the gunman's foot, then turned and kicked out at the man on her right, sinking her short-spiked heel into his groin. He doubled with a pained grunt and she retrieved her foot before he could grasp it. The man on her left grabbed at her. She dropped her second bag and blocked his hand, deflecting it up and to the side rather than trying to match strength for strength, and attempted to twist a pointed knuckle punch into the vulnerable area under his arm.
It might have worked but before she could put it to full effect, the man she had kicked recovered enough and had the unfortunate presence of mind to lunge at her and push her sideways into the elevator and hard against the back wall. The man with the gun stepped backwards into the elevator as well and, before anyone out in the lobby could act heroic, he sprayed the area with bullets, keeping everyone down until the elevator doors closed.
Clark had arrived about 4 minutes early. The clock in the lobby was two minutes slow, but that there was no one official looking in the area to point this out to. The security guard had not been at his post, but maybe nature had called. Clark didn't worry, he knew he would have been passed through or a call ahead to Lois's apartment would have told a new guard that he was okay. There had been people sitting here and there about the big lobby, or coming and going from the enclosed pool that was on the east side of the building. They must have gotten that fixed. He wondered if Lois used it, and if one would ever be built in his neighborhood. There was a committee looking for funding and a location for a recreation center, but he didn't know if that was making any progress.
The lobby was, he thought, the building's equivalent of a neighborhood gathering spot and under other circumstances, like a lack of the tension Lois had said was rolling under the surface, it might have been pleasant place to spend some time lounging with friends out of the weather.
He was glad he had his own real neighborhood and didn't live in a high-rise. He couldn't see moving out of his place, either. If he and Lois ever, ever got together and started talking about--dare he think it?--*marriage*, surely they could work something out about living accommodations that would please them both.
He had taken the first of the elevators to arrive, gone up to 18, and, before knocking on Lois's door, adjusted his new tie (mom painted palm trees quite well), ran his fingers through his hair to (he hoped) straighten it because was breezy out, and repositioned the nice little bouquet of flowers he had picked up into a more balanced shape. He had done all this several times already and wondered if he was becoming a little too anxious. But this was so important…
He knocked again. What if she wasn't home? What if she had forgotten? What if some big story had come up and was keeping her in the newsroom or she was out on the waterfront or she'd gotten a lead on Will or the diaries or…
I've gone through all this before, he reminded himself, and she drove right up and all went well with the world and things had been improving almost every moment. These were different circumstances, true, this was her place not his, so maybe she was in the bathroom and unable to come to the door right away. He tuned in his hearing in hopes of catching her shouting "Just a minute!"
But instead he heard, "Yes, Mother, I got it, don't worry."
"Well, I don't want to forget the packing, we didn't have enough last time…"
It was Harvey Johnson and a tall, athletic-looking woman with gray hair who Johnson resembled enough for Clark to decide that she was probably the man's mother. They were carrying custom-made shoulder bags that, from their conversation, he figured held target- shooting equipment. Further, the guns were apparently the kind for which one made one's own bullets. Somehow, Clark wasn't surprised. Nor was he surprised when Johnson's look bestowed upon him a third- class rating or that he whispered to the woman that the fellow standing in front of Ms. Lane's door was that Kent he'd mentioned a few weeks earlier. The woman gave him a critical look as well.
Clark sighed and repressed a sad smile. There were times when it seemed that among his abilities he detected a form of superconstraint that came in handy at times like these. He could have put the jerk in his place in two seconds flat, but who was he to know what place that was? Lois had said he was harmless and for all Clark knew, maybe the man donated to charities and helped crippled children. Johnson was entitled to his opinion and as long as he didn't act negatively on it and try to hurt someone, there really wasn't anything, Clark figured, he could or should do about it. Actually, it seemed to him that people acting on what they thought other people were thinking was one of the root causes of trouble in the world. People cared way too much about what other people thought instead of waiting to see if what they feared even materialized.
Which wasn't exactly the same way he was approaching this thing with Lois, wondering if she had forgotten about him; no, this was entirely different.
But it didn't take an acute sense of hearing to detect gunfire far below, echoed up through the elevator shafts.
"Oh, my God!" Mrs. Johnson exclaimed and she and her son huddled closer to the elevator door to hear more.
Clark felt his stomach tighten. He turned to Lois's door, lowered his glasses and scanned her apartment, but the only moving things he detected were Maxine, a drip from the sink faucet in the bathroom, and the refrigerator turning on. No Lois. The odds were too good then--or bad--that she was involved with the gunfire.
Was she the recipient of it? Was she…
No, not that, it didn't tingle that way, things were not *that* bad. He rushed to the left-hand elevator doors where the Johnsons were standing and heard himself whisper "Lois…"
"You think she's in that elevator?"
He could only nod. Parts of plans were running around in his head screaming at him. He could open the doors and pull the elevator car up by the cables, or jump down to it and through the trap door in the roof, or do the same but ignore the trap door, or fly down and meet it at the next floor it stopped at, or…
But she'd still be in there with the guns and as fast as he was that might not be fast enough. She was alive, he was almost certain of it, they would have killed her already if they wanted her dead, they (probably) weren't just coming up the elevator shooting people at random, but if he forced the issue she might not remain alive and rescue-able.
The elevator stopped somewhere below them and there was more gunfire, and Clark could hear people yelling and cursing, none of them Lois.
"Get your gun ready, mom, we only have a few seconds--"
"You," Johnson pointed at him, "you stand back out of the way and *we'll* take care of this!"
"You're going to shoot at them and they have automatic weapons and who knows how many and you have… target pistols???"
"We're not talking just any target pistols here, young man."
"And do you have a better idea, Kent?"
"Yes! Don't provoke them! Give her a chance!" Get the bad guys out in this hall space where he could deal with them somehow.
But first he saw the elevator door open on to this floor and two large men dressed in drab-brown overcoats, Lois between them trying to deliver a deadly blow to the shin of the man who did not have a gun. So only one gun, good.
He reached for her, "Lois!" if he could pull her out without yanking her arm from its socket…
Their fingers brushed.
He felt his knees weaken and strength begin to drain from his body. It wasn't fear--there was a large component of that, true--but something else.
The man with the gun aimed its business end at Clark's face.
The gesture transfixed him.
Lois screamed "Clark!" and lunged for the man's gun arm.
This clown could really blow my head off, couldn't he?
He felt his collar being grabbed.
The gun went off wildly, spitting countless bullets.
The other man seized Lois and pulled her back in again.
The elevator door closed.
Clark realized he had been yanked off to the side and he had landed a few yards away. Harvey Johnson and Lois had saved his life.
He felt his strength returning, supplied by his reserves, he expected. He realized that was shaken but unhurt, he could and better get up, and that he hadn't been the one to moan.
Johnson was moaning. His mother was kneeling by his side, trying to get him to lay still. "It's only a flesh wound, you big sissy…"
"Well, of course it does, what do you expect?"
Clark looked over her shoulder quickly, noting that indeed the man's wound was not life threatening. "Call 911--"
"The police are never any help--they're probably swarming all over down there already!"
True. He hoped. It didn't matter, he'd only wanted to distract them, maybe send them back into Johnson's apartment. Now he'd have to get rid of himself. "Then I'm going to help Lois." He looked at her door. Too bad he hadn't thought to bring her keys though he could break in easily enough.
"*You* help that woman?" both Johnsons exclaimed.
He'd had about enough of this. "Me! Yes, me!" Oh, forget them! There was an alternative way out of here, there had to be--"I'll take the stairs!"
One of them shouted after him that the villains would be watching the stairs, they probably had some complex plan, but he ignored the warning, making his own plans up as he went. He rushed around the corner and spotted at the end of the hall, as he had recalled, a window. There was also the door to the stairwell, which he threw open as though he were using it. Instead he stepped over to the window, twisted the lock off silently, and let the noise of the door slamming against the stairwell wall cover the slide of the window opening. He jumped through the window and was in the air, the suit and a nourishing glow of evening sunlight in no time.
*** When Lois next had two seconds straight to think, which was when she was pressed into a corner and the two men were trying to figure out a new way to grab her and subdue her, she realized she was going to come out of this as one massive bruise. But the two would be worse off. If they had thought they were attacking some defenseless maiden who would quake at the thought of being trapped by them, they were learning better now.
She couldn't tell what they were thinking though because they weren't sharing their innermost thoughts with her, weren't telling her why they were doing this, weren't even talking to each other.
What kind of kidnapping was this, anyway? They were *supposed* to be telling her everything so that, when she escaped, she could use the information to track them down and bring them to justice.
Didn't they watch TV?
Around the third floor they had thrown her against the elevator's control panel and she had hit every button possible, one of them being 18, apparently; she hadn't been sure and then lost count after a few stops. Unfortunately she hadn't yet been able to break away, and then to see the gunman actually shooting at people…
Why? Why was all this happening?
And why had Clark been standing there looking like a headlighted deer, reaching for her as though *that* would help when he could easily become Superman and…
It didn't matter, as long as he hadn't been hit and his secret exposed to the others she had sensed were standing there with him, then he'd think of something.
The elevator slowed. 21. She could see herself flying down 21 flights of stairs if need be, showing Clark a thing or two.
But of course they realized that she realized the elevator was about to stop again and braced themselves for her attempt. They didn't brace for her bending down, picking up a can of Greek dolmas from her scattered groceries, and tossing it at the man without a gun. "Here, catch!"
The fool tried to, and, ducking low, she almost made it out the door.
But the gunman stepped to his right to block her. She swung to his left to wiggle around him and might have made it past him if she hadn't almost run into a teenager lost in listening to a radio and barely aware of world.
"Get down! Get away!" she shouted, just before she felt a tremendous thud on her back, she lost her footing, her left arm was grabbed and she was pulled back into the elevator to the accompaniment of gunfire.
She felt dazed. The gunless man had a good grip on her now, not that she couldn't have broken it, but her back hurt and she was having a hard time thinking, let alone remembering what maneuver to use. Taking a moment to rest could lull them into believing she had given up.
The 22nd floor was actually the roof, where there was a small tennis court and an area for tenants to sun themselves. She had used both when she had first moved here, but her interest had waned as she had been unable to have fun without being ogled. She knew, though, she could reach the stairwell from here.
The gunless man pushed her out, but into the arms of a third man.
"Is this her?"
The third man said, "Yes. Hello again, Ms. Lane. You don't know how sorry I am to be involved in this, but it will be over soon."
Huh? Lois blinked at the man, trying to recognize him. There was something about him but it wouldn't come.
Behind her the gunman shot out the elevator's controls. The gunless man grabbed her again, and in a moment was aided by the gunman who had now put his gun down somewhere that she had failed to notice. She automatically began to struggle, not that it helped this time, there was too much else going on.
The third man stepped away as though finding this all distasteful. "Where is it?" he asked.
The gunman reached into his pocket and pulled out a half-thumb- sized piece of green, glowing rock.
Well, then, of course, that's why Clark had looked so helpless. He had been right by the Kryptonite and could still be weak and staggering about even now--and what if he had been shot?
"Take her over there like we planned. This will take a minute."
She was dragged kicking and screaming--though she wondered if she should be making the noise as it would bring Clark--no, Superman-- bring *him*--because he'd *try* to get here despite how he felt, wouldn't he?--only to face the Kryptonite again. Anyway, she could still get out of this without his help.
They dragged her to the edge of the roof. A chainlink fence normally surrounded the entire surface of the public area, but a length of it had been cut away. There they had set up what look like a spidery-legged science-fiction ray gun. The man she was supposed to have recognized dropped the chunk of Kryptonite into a receptacle at one end of the device, closed it, and then began turning little switches and knobs. A red light on the top of the gun came on and the contraption began to hum ominously.
It was suddenly all very clear. They were going to throw her over the side and when, as always, Superman (weakened, which they had no way of knowing) rescued her, they would shoot him with Kryptonite and both would both fall to their deaths.
"No!" The least she could do was kick the damn thing over, disable it, startle them, and maybe save him because he would come when they would try to throw her over the side out of anger.
But she had waited too long, the grip the two had on her was too strong, and even though she gave them some terrific broken-nail scratches, raked their shins to shreds and probably set back their child-making efforts by years, they hauled her to the edge of the roof, pried her hands off, and threw her over.
It wasn't the fall that killed you, she reflected as she plummeted earthward, it was the sudden landing. But she screamed anyway.
Was this really better than dying in bed of old age?
It was slightly better than dying in the arms of the one you loved, who would also then be pretty much squished and splattered all over the parking lot…
But as the ground, which had been approached at a leisurely rate, suddenly loomed, he caught her.
About a year earlier, the Daily Planet's science writers, who apparently had nothing better to do, had dreamed up a feature on how Superman was able to catch people in midair without hurting any of them. They had come up with a five theories and the pictures to illustrate them (two of them co-starring Lois, though her face and identity had been discretely hidden because she was an investigative reporter). But, in the end and without having asked Superman himself--perhaps they hadn't wanted to, to avoid the ruination of their pet theory--they had come to no definite conclusion.
Lois didn't care. She didn't care that he had apparently waited until the last moment, and she didn't care that he said "We've got to stop meeting like this…" (Later she wished she'd had the presence of mind to whack him in the ear for saying something so lame.)
Instead she clung to him for dear life, muttering something about the villains not explaining why they had done this, it wasn't her they were after, "why are people always picking on you and me?" They soared upward and away from her building and, she noticed vaguely, around to the far side of the building's 14-story monstrosity of a parking structure/failed shopping mall and to its roof. He alighted there and attempted to put her on her feet but she wouldn't unfold and couldn't stop clinging. Some clear little part of her mind informed her that she was perfectly safe and could stop acting psychotic, but she hung on to his neck, burying her face from the world. "No, don't go," she heard herself whispered hoarsely.
"Lois, I have to stop those people."
"No, you don't."
"Yes, I do. They have guns."
"I don't care."
"Yes, you do…"
"No, I don't, not at *all*."
Trying again, he made sure her feet were touching the ground, helped her straighten up, and then eased her arms from around his neck, though he held on to her shoulders as though he thought she might topple over. He was right to think that, she admitted, for a few moments at least. He said, "There's been too much shooting and people have been hurt, particularly you…" He looked purse-lipped grim, one of the angriest expressions she'd ever seen on Superman.
Well, he was right to be angry, too, but, "I'm all right--just *don't go*," I don't care who you are, Clark, or what you do or don't dress in, "Just *don't go!*"
Naturally he ignored this simple little request--when was the last time she had asked him to do anything for her? When? Answer that?--no, that didn't count and not that time, either--and he looked down her body slowly.
She felt naked and she shivered--and then could have slapped herself when he said in a totally asexual manner: "Nothing's broken, but you're going to be heavily bruised. I want you to see a doctor."
"Yes, yes--Clark will take me." Zing him with *that*.
He paused, collected himself obviously (though only to her), and said, "Once I straighten things out, I could take you faster--"
"*Clark* will get me there *just fine*."
"Yes, I'm sure he will."
"But you're *not going.*"
"They have Kryptonite!"
"Do I have to spell it out for you?"
"I know," he said, gently, anger gone (or well hidden), a confident look, something he was generally good at expressing, replacing it. "I have a plan."
"A plan? You have a plan?"
She grabbed at his chest but the suit's silky material was so slick and her fingers so painful that the only thing she could get a grip on was the "S" emblem. That would do. "S" could stand for Shake him up. She looked up into his puppy-dog brown eyes, trying to bend him to her will. His eyes were startled; hers, she knew, were sharp and mean. "*You* have a plan?" This man whose plans failed so miserably that he couldn't even tell her a simple little thing like he was really Clark? "You *can't* have a plan!"
He eased her hands off in the utmost gentlemanly of manners and now fixed a serene, mild-mannered look on his face. "Lois, you must relax, you're hurt--"
"I'm not hurt--but *you'll* be hurt! You *can't* go! There's Kryptonite!"
"I know, I've taken that into account. Wait here, I'll be right back, and don't look around the corner there, they could see you and they might shoot at you."
Huh? But he was gone leaving behind only a breeze.
What corner where?
She tried to get her bearings. The world spun a bit. She touched the cinder-block wall to her left; it was probably for a utility room and she wondered if what she faced was the corner he had warned her against looking around. She approached it and looked.
Yep, this was the corner.
Way up and across she could see that the man she was supposed to have recognized and the former gunman were looking over the edge of her apartment building. Their ray gun was poised, pointing down at a 45-degree angle and no more. Ah, she thought, so that's why he waited to catch me, so the gun couldn't be aimed at him. Or, she hoped, that must have been why. She feared it was more likely he was still weak from the earlier exposure and maybe being shot, too. The late rescue might have been all he could muster. Now what plan did he have that could possibly outwit the fast-moving thugs?
In moments his "plan" became painfully obvious. It consisted of flying up from the south (she was slightly north of the villains' position) and hovering in front of the armed trio at about 50 feet. He was no doubt, she thought, saying something terribly logical like "I fail to appreciate your attempting to harm my friend and you must not do so again…"
Actually, Superman made the most trite statement Clark could think of, one he had used a few times a million years earlier before he had wised up to certain ways of the world: "Do you really think that thing can hurt me?"
Obviously they did or they wouldn't have gone to all the trouble of getting rid of the lobby guard, smuggling the gun up here in pieces probably, assembling it, watching for Lois's arrival, disabling one of the elevators so she could only use the one that went to the roof, and then capturing her to use as bait. Neat plan.
But he was reasonably certain his was a better one.
The three men scrambled around. They had turned off the gun, perhaps to let it rest--what kind of jiggerypokery contraption (as his dear departed Grandfather Kent might have said) was it? Experimental probably. People always tried experimental things on him, Clark thought, and he was getting tired of it. On the upside, he generally knew better than to confront head on wielders of weapons like this and dare them to use them on him. Lately he worked from a distance and lasered or iced them down. It didn't make for good newspaper copy but it usually worked fine when it came to self preservation.
The Kryptonite changed the equation though: he had to get it and get rid of it and then he could melt down the weapon before anyone else got any bright ideas.
A few minutes earlier he'd watched them turn it on in hopes, he was sure, of using it on him when he plucked Lois out of the air. Thus the reason he had delayed rescuing her, to make the angle of firing untenable. Did they have to go through the same sequence to get it up and running again?
He hoped so, because he hated it when his plans failed miserably.
"Clark, you idiot!" she wanted to scream, but as good as that might have felt to get out, it would have been totally useless. He probably would have heard it and been distracted, so she let staring in disbelief express it all. *This* was his plan? Reasoning with them? In effect taunting them? Letting them swing the gun up and aim it at him?
Crying out in pain, folding over, grasping himself and disappearing?
She reviewed what she'd seen.
He had cried out in pain, folded over as he grasped his midsection, and disappeared.
"No!" she yelled at them.
Her voice echoed as though she were standing at the bottom of a deep, dark chasm.
The man she was supposed to have recognized looked over and pointed at her. The others looked and pointed as well.
She could hear them begin to laugh. She could see them slap each other on the back.
She wanted suddenly to jump across the intervening space, grasp on to the wall of the apartment building, claw her way up there and kill them each with her own bloody bare hands. Slowly, cruelly, deliciously, for what they had done to…
All right, to the one guy she had really felt was the only one she'd have any success with in life.
Even though he was, had been an total idiot--he'd been *her* total idiot, and she wouldn't have traded him for all the geniuses wearing real glasses in the world.
She felt her knees begin to buckle and the weight of her fifteen minutes of struggle begin to take a heavy toll. A sob reached her throat. She grasped on to the wall again.
They could see this and they kept laughing.
Death would be too good for them, she thought. She'd torture them first.
As soon as she could stand up again.
She felt a breeze.
"Does it look like they've turned that thing off yet?"
Lois closed her eyes. Finding strength from who knew where, she straightened up, turned and glared at him.
"How dare you?" she said in a tightly controlled little voice.
"How *dare* you, you… you…"
*** This was not what he had expected. Actually, he wasn't sure what he had expected other than she would look around the corner once warned not to. Also, he had hoped she would appear startled and that would reinforce the notion that the weapon had worked, distract the villains from realizing he had simply acted, theatrically and actually, milliseconds before they touched the final trigger. That had been his plan anyway. Risky, considering how close it took him to hyperspace and he didn't know if he could have gotten back out again. Also, he had gone so fast he hadn't been able to stop until he was about 20 miles south of town.
On the plus side he had hoped that if the machine was a prototype, they wouldn't know exactly what it could do and that disintegrating him, leaving no messy body to explain (or trophy to relish), would be an acceptable result.
She was steaming. She lunged at him and pounded on his chest; he realized he had to put a stop to it before she hurt herself. The quickest way he could think of to do that was to embrace her. She usually melted at such contact. It wouldn't help in his dealings with her as himself, but he couldn't be Clark at the moment and she needed the support right now.
She stiffened. "Get your hands off me!"
Surprised, he let her go. "Lois--"
"Don't 'Lois' me!"
"Shut up! You think you're *so smart*--fooling me!"
"No, I think--"
"Well, you don't fool me anymore!"
She threw up her hands, claimed hoarsely "I don't want to hear it!" and turned away. But she turned back immediately. "How can you *possibly* explain yourself?"
He began to open his mouth but hesitated. He took a quick peek and determined that she was not suffering from a concussion; that was a relief. Her hair had been parted six ways from Sunday, but they apparently hadn't hit her in the face; he didn't like the idea of her sporting a black eye. Her voice was strained, but that was from all the yelling and cursing and for now was preferable so that it wouldn't carry.
She said, "Well?"
Hoping this was an indication that she was prepared to listen for a few moments, he said, "I didn't mean to fool you…" He stopped for her to interject a retort; she said nothing though she didn't stop glaring. Maybe this was a sign that she cared… or not. He didn't want her to care for him in the suit but then again eventually she'd have to. How complicated… He continued. "I thought you'd realize I was doing what I'd planned. I need them to turn the gun off." She was still listening. "The lead box with the Kryptonite probably doesn't leak so the radiation can be funneled out the barrel of the gun. If the gun is powered down…"
"We can get the Kryptonite."
He had hoped for that "we." "Yes."
"So you wanted them to think they'd killed you."
"There were better ways to do that."
Well… "Probably. But I didn't want you to think they'd won, not for more than a few moments." He glanced through the wall and ceiling of the utility room and up to the men dancing on the roof, and looked over their gun. "And they have turned it off, I think. *Do* you want to go with me and help round them up and get the Kryptonite for me?"
She rolling her eyes like that was a truly stupid question. Maybe it was. "Damn straight--do I look like I'm--I'm in shock or something?"
"And we'll have to find my purse, I have some lead foil in it."
"I never leave home without it--and after we've fixed that, I want a *word* with you!"
"Yes, we need to talk," he found himself saying.
Wait a minute. Talk, here? In the midst of all this when she's as mad as Hell and looking like once she's given herself permission she could collapse and… He sighed and told himself to worry about it later.
He cradled her (she didn't cling this time) and circuitously approached the roof of her apartment building, landing on the far side of the multicolored cabanas. "Stay behind me," he warned, "in case they panic."
"Well, they *better* panic…"
True. They had to be so startled that he could zip around and knock them all out even though the Kryptonite might be leaking anyhow and affecting his performance.
They failed to panic, at least not as either Clark had anticipated.
When Superman stepped out into full view, the scene he entered had changed from the one he had glimpsed only a minute before: the man who had controlled the Kryptonite gun had acquired the semi-automatic gun now and was aiming it at his compatriots, who were holding their hands in the air and just getting over being surprised that the man had turned against them at his first chance.
Then they all gaped at Superman and Lois behind him. If it hadn't been for the semi-automatic gun, Lois could have knocked them all over with an ostrich feather.
The man who now had the gun recovered quickly. "Miss Lane, you're all right! Believe me, I didn't want to have any part of this, he promised--"
"Shut up!" the man who had once wielded the semi-automatic semi-automatic hissed.
Why do bad guys always hiss? Clark wondered.
"Yes, I've spoken too much. I must be going." He looked at Superman. "And you, you keep your distance." He held up the Kryptonite. "I didn't want to hurt you, either, but he was right, you're beginning to get in the way, so I won't hesitate to use this, just like I'm not hesitating to do this."
Unleashing a hail of bullets, he dispatched the two men who had kidnapped Lois. Just like that, before Clark realized they needed to be rescued. But leave Lois standing in the open? Never… A tough decision, but not one taking much thought. He was not unhappy that he had stayed put.
Then, in the midst of this surprise, the man pocketed the Kryptonite, turned and leaped over the side of the building, catching hold of a rope he had attached there that conveyed him via leather loop and pulley down some 15 stories to the very parking garage roof Lois and Superman had inhabited only minutes before.
"When did he put this rope here?" Lois wondered aloud as she rushed over to see where the killer had gone: into a stairwell over there, vanished.
Clark looked over her shoulder, gaging times, distances and how far he'd have to stay away from the Kryptonite to stop the fellow. "Probably while we were flying over here." Things didn't look good for the recovery of the man while at the same time keeping his distance from the deadly substance.
Lois straightened and looked up at him. "Well, are you going to just stand there or are you going after him?"
Huh? "But we were going to--"
At that very moment the police broke down the stairwell door and flooded onto the roof.
"I thought I heard them coming," she sighed. "We can't talk here."
She had really wanted to talk, Clark thought, and not yell. Progress might have been made. He could have told her he was Clark, and she might have forgiven him after getting mad all over again.
She said, "You'll be careful of the Kryptonite, won't you?"
Why wasn't she just as worried and demanding this time? Maybe her attitude reflected having a few calm moments to think about it. "Of course," he said, just as he was careful to melt down critical parts of the Kryptonite gun in hopes of preventing its being duplicated.
Because what had happened here was clear and Lois could fill in anything the police needed to know, he left. He headed for the parking structure, but a quick survey told him that, as expected, the man with the Kryptonite was nowhere to be found.
He then streaked around to the side of Lois's building and the window he had used some twenty minutes earlier. No one saw him enter. The Johnsons were gone, though there were small blood stains where the younger Johnson had been lying. I'll have to send him a get-well card, Clark thought. He changed into his more comfortable clothing and opened the stairwell door.
Police were everywhere. They cornered and questioned him bluntly. He finally made them understand that he had a right to be where he was and that he was worried about Lois Lane, his *girlfriend* (he stressed that), because he had last seen her in the clutches of some of the worst thugs this side of Hobbs Bay.
Eventually they let him through when word came down that the woman who had been assaulted was asking for him. Whew, he thought; at least she's not mad at one of me… I *didn't* say that, Mom.
He reached the roof and saw that it was dark out and cool.
She'd been waiting for him all this time, trusting he would come. That was great. They pushed past people, blood-stained walls and bodies in body bags, rushing to embrace each other, carefully, warmly. She felt small and fragile and cold, no longer the gutsy woman far larger than her physical size might indicate.
"Did they give you any trouble?" she asked.
"A little, but everything's all right now."
"Then get me *out* of here," she whispered tersely. She pointed. "That guy has my purse."
"I'll get it."
"I wish you could fly…"
Sure she did. "I think you've had enough flying. I could carry you--"
"No way! I'm walking away from here with my head held--"
She nearly tripped over a forensic expert kneeling over a precious piece of evidence.
Clark caught her, helped her regain her feet (noticing how unsteady she was), and suggested strongly by placing his body in the way that it wasn't a bright idea to give the poor public servant a swift kick with her stockinged right foot.
"Where's my shoe…"
"Maybe down in the parking lot. Let's go find it," and, snatching her purse from a police officer, he began to lead her through the crowd, at last, he realized, getting the chance to be a crowd-taming barge for her. And defender as well: when people insisted she stop and talk to them or wait for the air-evac helicopter, he informed them politely but in no uncertain terms that she was leaving, now, with him, he'd see that she was well cared for.
She didn't protest this, or ignore him and stay behind to interview anyone, or rush ahead and beat him to any of their goals-- the stairwell door, the 21st floor, the door to the working elevator--but stuck close behind him as though he were an unstoppable wave. Which he could have been had he been provoked and that came close.
But on a brighter note, it looked like they would have the elevator to themselves even though Clark could hear in the distance, as the doors closed, the voice of reporter Marie Rose yelling "Stop, wait!"
"I don't want to talk to anyone…" Lois sighed. She leaned on him and closed her eyes.
He embraced her and this time she didn't pull away. "Me neither."
"I don't even want to talk to Superman…"
"…even though he saved my life again."
"You warned him about the Kryptonite, didn't you?" Wait, he couldn't have known about that. Maybe she had mentioned it to those questioning her and could he have overheard it…?
It didn't seem to matter because she said, "Okay, so we're even. But I got mad and yelled at him and I shouldn't have, I sounded like a child…"
"You were upset, he was there, he can take it…" now that he'd had a chance to think about it, anyhow. She'd been upset because she'd thought he'd committed suicide. It wasn't so much, he hoped, that she thought he was crazy as that she'd miss him.
"I know, and I know he understands… I'm glad he's like you, a lot like you…"
"Oh, ah, you'd… be surprised…" was all he could think to say, which, he told himself, wasn't the brightest statement to make. This certainly wasn't the place to break the news to her, either; she wasn't in any shape to think it through thoroughly.
"No, no, no, you're… you're *both* heroic in your own ways."
"Shhh…" He stroked her hair and patted her back in what he hoped was a comforting manner. "Rest for a few moments…"
As they approached the ground floor, the elevator not having stopped even once since they had entered it, she tried standing on her own again and he pulled up her purse and looked through it. She figured out quickly what he was doing. "You think you're driving my car?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I think."
"Yeah, and no arguments from you."
"Okay, but I'm almost out of gas…"
He thought himself incredibly alert to refrain from saying "I can see that." Instead he assured her, "I'll think of something else, don't worry."
Fortunately, one of Lois's Police Department contacts, Officer Gorschboth, spotted them as Clark barged their way through the crowd in the lobby. She rushed up to make sure no one bothered them, commented on Lois's… tired appearance and offered the two a deluxe all-expenses-paid ride to the nearest hospital emergency room. Clark accepted before Lois could reject the idea.
The officer got them to the hospital and bullied them in to see a doctor almost as fast as Superman was accustomed to doing. Clark was relieved to see though that they weren't cutting in before people with gaping gunshot wounds or children with limbs hanging off.
The doctor who took over insisted that Clark leave, take care of the paperwork, and wait in the waiting room, now. He coaxed her aside first, though, as Lois began to argue with a nurse's aid, and he said, "Superman told me she doesn't have a concussion."
"Oh, he did, did he? And did Superman show you his medical school diploma, too?"
The doctor, a woman perhaps his own mom's age, gave him a kind but "don't try that one on me again" expression.
He looked around her and saw that Lois, having been quiet for most of the trip, seemed to be winding down rapidly because her argumentative burst had gotten her nowhere but up on the examining table. She looked at him helplessly. He gave her a cheery "You'll be *just fine*" smile, adding, "I'll be right out here, I won't leave."
That both hurt and felt wonderful. The doctor kicked him out.
He dealt with the paperwork as quickly as possible, hoping that Lois was still on the same medical plan as the one complained she had bitterly about last spring when it didn't want to cover some simple emergency dental work. He was glad it looked like he'd never have a toothache.
Then he called the office and talked to Ms. O'Shea, explaining briefly what had happened. Ms. O'Shea said they had been getting reports and had a photographer on the scene. She had wondered if Lois was involved but hadn't realized to what extent. She would exercise extreme discretion and indeed likely not mention Lois's part in it at all; the near victim would remain "unidentified at press time." Clark thanked her, hung up, thought a moment, checked that no one else was waiting to use the phone, noted that there were two others free, found more change, and called Lucy Lane. But she didn't answer personally, so he left a message on her machine to the effect that Lois had been roughed up and he was taking care of her, but she might welcome Lucy's presence.
Taking care of her? Me? he sighed. Not by being stuck here…
He could think of no one else to call immediately. It would have been nice to call his mom and dad, but this place was too public and he realized himself to be a bit shaky and liable to say too much. Pacing might have helped, but there was no room to do that. Finally he sat down. He'd really done all he could at the moment, he told himself: try to relax.
He noticed the time, 7:32, and the buzz of multiple conversations, the antiseptic stench mixed with more human scents, the worn out magazines, a three-day old newspaper, two children with runny noses staring at him, an open box of crackers and crumbs everywhere.
8:30. "Stay here? You've *got* to be crazy!"
"I have things to do and I feel *just fine*!"
Clark didn't ask permission to return to the curtained-off cubicle where he had last seen Lois, he just slipped right down the hall to it.
Lois still looked an odd mix of tired and animated, and now uncomfortably cool because her clothing had been replaced with a paper smock that didn't cover as much as she probably wanted. He wished he could embrace her immediately and warm her up.
"Clark! Take me home! I have to make dinner!"
The doctor turned to him. "Mr. Kent, I hope you have some influence over this patient."
He smiled a little, the first time, he realized, that he had done so in ages. "Not very much…"
"She should stay here for observation--"
"I'm *perfectly fine*! Where are my--oh, there. I'm getting dressed now."
"She needs to be kept from doing anything strenuous," the doctor informed him and then turned to accept a tray with an injecting needle on it.
"In case anybody remembers I'm still here, I'm not going to do anything strenuous, I'm just going to make a little dinner. I'm starving. It's simple, no strain, no pain. Where's my--there it is. Clark, turn around."
He smiled again (it felt so good to smile) and turned, thinking of himself now as guarding the door as the curtain fell closed again behind him.
"Yes, you should eat something light and go to bed immediately and stay there for at least 24 hours. This may sting…"
"I don't want that."
"It will help you sleep."
"I won't need any help."
"Oh, all right, all right, hurry up--this is covered, isn't it? Stupid insurance… Oww…"
"There, see? It didn't hurt a bit."
"You people lie through your teeth."
"It's getting to be a real old line…"
"You'll have to write me some new ones."
"Fat chance…" Lois muttered, and then in a quick surprise pushed passed Clark. "Come on, let's go."
She was corralled briefly for paperwork, things like giving the clerk her family physician's name (she made one up, Clark could tell that immediately) and being asked to sign on several dotted lines. She tried to read the small print: she blinked, frowned, growled, shoved the papers at Clark, and said, "Do these commit me to anything like giving them my first-born child?"
He read them over quickly. Legal mumbojumbo. "It looks like standard stuff that any good lawyer could probably make hash of."
"Okay." She signed them, too, as she stood there in bare feet (they hadn't taken the time earlier to look for her other shoe), wearing the same clothes she had come in, pulled on haphazardly, her hair still in some disarray. But she looked a little more in control, that was important.
A nursing aid handed him a bag with Lois's remaining clothing and some medical supplies and drug samples she could try, and the doctor wrote out two prescriptions that Lois should get filled immediately and use in thus and such a manner. "Yes, yes, yes--Let's go, Clark."
Clark thanked the doctor for them both. The doctor nodded; she'd heard all this before. She warned quietly: "Watch her, if she doesn't slow down she'll crash and hard."
"I'll be there to catch her." It was, indeed, he thought suddenly, his entire life's goal at the moment.
Two cabs were waiting outside the emergency room and they took the first one in line. Clark gave the driver Lois's address and asked if he knew of a pharmacy along that route.
"I'll take care of that tomorrow, Clark, don't worry about it. I'll take a lot of vitamin C and I'll feel just fine. I don't need any drugs, I need *dinner* and I need a nice talk with you. You don't mind eating just what I have on hand, do you? I probably lost all the stuff I bought, but it wasn't that good, it was just… food and food's food after all."
He assured her that he didn't mind and asked her to try to relax, but that was not part of the plan she wanted to reinstate. She continued in this mumbly vein, trying to make the world all right again, convincing herself if no one else. She let him hold her hand though. Actually, she clutched at his almost unconsciously and sat hip to hip next to him.
The ride took about three minutes and Clark paid and tipped the driver and tried to help Lois out. She avoided this though, on the move again. They had been deposited at the front door, so he didn't have to worry about her stepping bare footed on anything painful, not that she'd have noticed. She marched right into the lobby and right up to the unbroken elevator. "I bet this elevator was never out of order at all! It was part of their devious plan to trap Superman."
"Well, he better not be upset about that, they could have picked anyone from any building and he would have saved them if he knew about it. They just picked me because they thought he'd be quicker, but he'd save *anybody.*"
"I'm sure he would."
"It's true, I know *all* about that, I know what he's *really* like," she nodded to herself because she was talking to the unresponsive elevator door. "Believe me. There's something behind all this…" Now her look was calculating. "Something *big,* and we'll figure it out--after dinner."
"Maybe tomorrow, when I'm… relaxed and rested," and she smiled, at him and in a meaningful manner.
He returned it, her meaning escaping him unless she meant she expected to be in tip top shape again the next day. He had strong doubts she'd even be able to stand upright then, let alone dive back into the investigation.
But she took his hand again and squeezed. That seemed to make things all right for the moment.
He glanced around while they waited, noting that the only other person in the lobby was a security guard and he was eyeing them. The floor had been cleaned, but the shot-up ceiling, wood paneling and designer furniture had not been covered or replaced. They hadn't had time and the insurance adjusters would want to look at it first.
The elevator arrived. She marched in, pulling him after her. He said, "You can slow down a little, Lois, we're here now."
"Slow down? No, I'm all right, I'm doing just fine. I know! I think I have some cheese and noodles--do you like macaroni and cheese? I might even have some in a box--you know, boil the noodles, add the margarine and the milk and the cheese powder, lick the extra powder off the spoon…"
"That would be fine."
"You don't mind that it's not baked and I'm not going to put… broccoli or something in it? Like cut up wieners maybe? My mother made it like that. I used to hate it but now I like it. Strange, huh? I bet you never hated anything your mother cooked. Cooks. She's a wonderful cook, we made some great pancakes--would you like pancakes instead?--no, wait, I don't think I have any eggs, but that's for breakfast anyhow and I want to have breakfast with you again…"
"You do? Awww… But it's easy to make macaroni and cheese. When you don't have time, things that are easy to make are easy to make."
She was almost bouncing. What drug had the doctor given her anyhow? But what was worse, had it even started to take effect? No, she had to be fighting it. Why?--That's a stupid question, he thought; she fights everything… and usually I get a thrill out watching and helping her…
She rushed out of the elevator when they arrived in the midst of her asking about Harvey Johnson. Clark said he suspected the man was doing well. She said, "That's nice. He's a nice man. Where are my keys?" She poked through her purse as she approached her door and stopped to see there a big brown paper bag. "Oh, look! Look at what someone did! My things! All the things I dropped! This is so nice!" She knelt and began to pull cans and packages out of the bag. "Most of it's here--And my shoe!"
Clark knelt, too, put the things back in the bag and picked it up. "Let's take it inside."
"Now we can have a real dinner! *Better* than macaroni and cheese!" she exclaimed as she fumbled with the lock.
He noticed that her hands were shaking and that she gripped the keys with determination. Slow down, Lois, I don't want you to crash…
"Macaroni and cheese is fine, really, and easy to make--"
"No, no, no, we're going to have a nice dinner and then a *wonderful, long chat.*" She rushed into the depths of her apartment, turning on lights here and there, calling back at him to make himself at home, he should feel free, and say "Hi" to Maxine…
He followed her and put the bags of groceries and clothing on her dining room table. He decided to take his jacket off and drape it over the back of a chair. This might not be what she wanted to see him do for the formal dinner she was planning with what remained of the canned and the carry-out food, but if he looked relaxed, she might take the hint.
He sighed: What *am* I thinking?
"Where's my can opener?" She rummaged through a drawer. "There." She reached into the bag and pulled out something. "Open this for me." She paused and looked at it. "Oh. Appetizers." She shoved a battered can of Greek dolmas into his hands.
He noticed it had a fliptop lid. He didn't open it. "How about if I make us some nice, quiet soup?"
"I don't have any nice, quiet soup around here, that's boring. How about if *you* act like the guest for once? I *can* cook, you know, I'm really quite good at it when I put my mind to it."
"True, your Christmas dinner was excellent."
"Oh, Clark, you're so sweet, but I'm surprised you didn't find the price tags on some of the dishes--never mind, I *didn't* say that, I'm babbling, aren't I? Well, you're just going to have to take it, *you're* the one who told me you liked it…"
She stretched and knelt and reached and pulled back and lugged and stacked food, utensils and cooking devices on her countertops, explaining what every piece was and what she thought she might do with it, admitting in some cases that she hadn't used them yet but now was a good time, wasn't it? She just loved having all these things around the kitchen, she claimed, it made this place really seem like home, didn't it?
A good six and a half minutes into her plan, she paused. "Oh, yeah…" She turned to the sink, turned on the water, and washed her hands. "Clean food, clean kitchen, clean chef, and we come clean with each other…" She laughed out loud, turned off the water and reached for the hand towel hanging nearby.
She missed. She paused, frowned at it, tried again, grabbed it, leaned there against the sink and dried her hands carefully. Clark tried to determine what she was thinking, but she'd already left him in the dust of her furious activity several times.
Her voice was a whisper. "Is the room sort of… swaying?"
"Oh… no, of course not! It's not *that*," she giggled, "it's… it's an earthquake, we're having an earthquake and we're on the 18th floor, how thrilling! I always enjoy pounding at death's door."
And running away just before it was opened. "Metropolis is built on solid ground, Lois. At least there hasn't been an earthquake since *I* moved here." If she realized that, maybe she'd see that something was wrong with her balance and she should sit down and let him fix something for her to eat. That chef salad at lunch and maybe a fudge crunch bar at break time were not enough to see her through this.
"No earthquakes since you moved here?" she smiled. "*No earthquakes?*" She laughed. "Clark, there's been an earthquake practically every day you've been here!" She began to laugh so hard that tears came to her eyes, which he saw as he moved up quietly behind her. "We're in the middle of every earthquake in Metropolis, haven't you noticed?" She shook her head. "We've even caused a few ourselves…" She dabbed at her tears with the back of the hand she wasn't using to hold on to the countertop. "We can't get away from them…" She sniffed. "They don't leave us alone…" She hiccoughed. "Oh, I think I'm going to be sick…"
He touched her. "Lois, I want you to sit down now."
"No, I have to… Hold me, I can't…"
He turned her carefully, enclosed her in his arms, rubbed her back carefully, and when he detected that her knees were about to buckle, he picked her up and walk-glided to the living room and the couch, the closest comfortable horizontal surface. He intended to lay her down there gently, but she gripped his shirt, her eyes closed tight. "Doen go… jusdoengo…"
"I'm not going…" No, he turned, sat down slowly and cradled her close.
"Th's'bedder," she sighed, relaxing into it. "Talka lil'bid layder…"
"You're getting better at relaxing," he whispered.
She snuggled under his chin, her hand slipped down, she could no longer hold on to him or maybe she didn't feel she had to. She mumbled what for all the world sounded like "luvyouclark," and then maybe "bode-a-u", which probably indicated she was seeing double from the stress and drugs. Moments later she fell into a warm, exhaustion- and drug-induced sleep, as limp and, he thought, trusting as Vanessa had ever been.
He sighed and realized that the world could come crashing down from all kinds of human and natural disasters and, sorry about that, he wasn't going to be there to save it, not this time. No, the world owed him this moment or minutes or hours because this was it, this was the place to be. Sure, he could swoop down and pluck her from the snapping jaws of certain death, but who did she look to for comfort when at any turn she could have laughed and shoved him aside in hopes that someone in flashy blue tights would show up? Whose hand did she take and who had she expected to stick with her and be there for her--well, most of the time, anyway, except when things weren't critical between them but critical somewhere else--and he'd tell her, he'd explain all that, she'd adjust and understand. The first chance, absolutely the first chance. Planning was for people who had uninteresting lives, so just tell her, Kent, no more futzing around…
But not now, now was for this. For allowing a few tears of relief, for holding on to her and not letting go, for sitting here and enjoying the dark living room, quiet but for the constant bubble of Maxine's air pump and homey hum of the refrigerator.
This was it, this really was it.
(commercial break: Energizer Bunny vs. Slime Monster; Bank of Metropolis: your kind of bank; and the New Lexcorp Gas Company: a name you can still trust, under new management)
Yes, this is to be continued…
The author wishes to thank Debbie S., Mel, Marie, Kathy, Laurie and Laurie's Mom for proofing even though I gave them a tight deadline. You're all heras in my book (and, who knows, maybe in my stories, too).
Note: Mayson is mentioned above as still being alive. She was mentioned briefly in D1, which was finished just after Church of Metropolis. Quite a few episodes in the second season of L&C have not happened (nor will they) in my L&C universe.