By Ben Pistorius (email@example.com)
Summary: A madman who knows Clark's secret threatens to blow up Metropolis unless Superman leaves Earth forever. After the man in blue bows out, the man in red -- the Flash -- rushes in. Lois finds Metropolis' latest superhero more than a little obnoxious, but teaming up with him may be her only hope of seeing Clark again.
~ All characters are registered to ABC, DC comics, or My Imagination :) ~ I owe a debt of gratitude to Sheila Harper for all her efforts as my editor. I gave her a chunk of coal, and she sent back diamonds. Thanks, Sheila :) ~ comments welcomed!
CLARK LANDED, SOFTLY AND SILENTLY, on his small balcony. The cool night breeze had been unable to chill him. Smiling broadly, he entered his apartment. The flight home had failed to calm him from the effects of his goodnight kiss with Lois. He laughed a little, looking down at his clothing. Normally he'd have come home in his Superman outfit, but not tonight. Lois had forced some concessions on him. Number one: she had full veto power on his wearing the Suit on dates. That night, she had said No.
He hardly minded, though. Clark needed a break from Superman as much as Lois now and again.
He looked the apartment over. Home, sweet home, he thought. Passing an end table, he withdrew his glasses and set them down. While his hand was there, he took up a crumpled piece of paper; a rejection from a story he'd written that morning. Calmly, he hooked the wadded-ball over his head and toward a trash pail. As it reached the height of its arc, however, an unruly gust of wind caught it and threw it from its path. With split-second calculations, a well placed stream of super-breath introduced paper to wastebasket.
"Swish!" Clark called, followed by an imitation of crowd noise. That achievement behind him, he was raised to an even higher level of cheer; simply glowing with nothing but Lois on his mind.
With an air of happy content, he leapt into the air, his power of flight propelling him to a perfect landing on the couch. With his eyes smiling, Clark switched the television on. It was set to the Nature channel, and frogs appeared to be the main topic of conversation. Frogs. With a disgusted grunt, Clark thumbed the remote control off switch. The screen shrank to a dot, and then there was blackness.
Dropping the remote to the coffee table, Clark collapsed onto his back, tucking his hands beneath his head. From his position on the couch, he stared up at the ceiling. Moments passed. His cheerful mood seemed to have passed. With that realization, he took a quick breath in, then let it out in a gust.
Then there was a knock on the door. Happy for the intrusion, he propped himself up on one elbow and faced the door.
"Lois?" he asked, hopeful. There was a second rap. "Just a second!" he called, retrieving his glasses. Drawing the knot of his tie into place, he turned the handle and opened the door. "Yes?" he said to the strange man who met him. There was a pause, and the man's line-mouth drew back in a wicked grin.
"Ah, Mister Kent," he said in a mildly deep voice. Right away Clark had an odd feeling regarding the man's face.
"Um, can I help you?" The stranger's smile widened. Clark waited for a response, his eyebrows arched, and his mouth left slightly open. His expression begged further information. With nothing forthcoming, he began to grasp at straws. 'How do you know my name?' even crossed his mind. But he didn't need to be so blunt. He could get an answer to that question in a much more subtle manner, being the caliber reporter that he was.
"Yes, thank you," the stranger replied, brushing past Clark and into the apartment. The man surveyed the room as if he'd lived there for years. That unsettled Clark a bit.
"Can I get you something to drink, Mister...?"
"No, thank you," he replied. His failure to give his name stood out like kryptonite against a moonless sky. "Perhaps we should get to the business at hand."
"Yes, of course," Clark said. They both took seats opposite one another. "And what business might that be?"
"Well, Mister Kent--"
"Please," Clark interrupted. "Call me Clark." As much as this man's presence made him uncomfortable, it made him more so being called Mister. Plus, that statement might encourage the other to give *his* name. No such luck.
"Clark, certainly." A frown flashed across his face, and he momentarily dipped his chin. Taking the opportunity, Clark slipped his glasses down the bridge of his nose and quickly zoomed-in on the darkly-dressed man's face. Just as he had begun to study, the other raised his face up again. Clark slid his glasses back into place. His assumption had been correct. This man, whomever he might be, was wearing a disguise. "You see," he said. "I've been waiting a long time to meet you Clark--"
Just as the tale began to unfold, Clark suddenly looked off to the right. His super-hearing had detected a desperate cry for help: a cry for Superman.
"Um, sir?" he broke in, the stranger looking directly at him. "I'm really sorry, but I just remembered an important meeting I have to attend." The stranger didn't seem all that surprised by Clark's outburst.
"Oh, I-I understand, Mister Kent. I know how busy you must be. It's just that, well, this is my first, and I suspect, last trip to the States."
"Well, um, m-maybe you could come back a little later on?" Clark asked, his voice a little more insistent, his eyes darting back and forth between his unexpected guest and the woman in distress; or, at least, in the direction her scream had come.
"I'd love to, but, unfortunately, my plane leaves in just a few hours. This was going to be the high point of my trip, but..." He let it drift off. Another scream echoed within Clark's ears.
"Look, I'm really sorry, but I have to go."
"Of course." Clark had escorted the man to the door, then politely, but *very* firmly, ushered him outside.
"Listen, write me at the Daily Planet when you get the chance. I promise to get back to you."
"Certainly. Thank you, Mister Kent."
"Good-bye." Clark shut the door as the stranger, whose name he never learned, and whose peculiar behavior had been forgotten in Clark's desperation to get him from the apartment, walked down the stairs and into the darkness.
With lightning speed, Clark was reborn as Superman, and then borne skyward. He waited till he was well away from his apartment before going super-sonic. A boom and red streak signaled his departure.
A lone soul occupied the dark streets below. A lone soul who watched the receding colored-line and listened to the dying of the boom. A lone soul who started up the stairs to Clark Kent's apartment, chuckling lightly.
CLARK FLOATED SOFTLY IN THROUGH his window, gently setting his red-booted feet onto the floor. Now all his merriment was gone, a philosophical scowl left in the place of a boyish grin. First the business with that strange man, and then a distress call that turned out to be nothing at all. As soon as the Man of Steel had arrived at the position the shouts had originated from, he found it deserted. It seemed almost as though it were a set-up of some kind. To get him away from somewhere else.
With his thoughts turned inward, he walked to the couch, where he had discarded his Clark-clothing, made a lazy whirl-wind-spin, and deposited his outfit safely in his secret closet-compartment.
Ready to make himself a late snack before turning in, Clark noticed for the first time the sounds of breathing coming from inside the apartment. Instantly, his senses began to focus.
"Clark?" a voice queried.
"Lois?" he replied, surprised at the unexpected visit. Strange, he thought, making his way to the sound of the voice. The heart-rate doesn't coincide with Lois'. He came around the corner and started into the bedroom. The sight that met his gaze, however, was not that of Lois' radiant eyes or light-up- the-room smile, but the barrel of an oiled-revolver; and this through a puff of smoke and fire. Even before he had taken adequate looks at the situation, a single bullet was discharged, racing across a number of yards and striking the unprepared Clark Kent directly above the heart. The report was snuffed- out by a silencer.
Having expected Lois, and not having seen the gun before it was fired, Clark hadn't reacted at all. He hadn't grabbed the bullet from mid-air, crushing it to dust in his powerful hands. And neither did he fall back, feigning the reaction a human would've had at being shot at moderately close range. He simply stood there, arms hanging loosely at his sides, his baggy sweatshirt sporting a gaping, edge-darkened hole, his bare chest showing, undamaged, beneath. The mutilated shell was cradled at the waist-band of the shirt.
Clark looked from his chest to the darkly dressed man in possession of the gun. He had lowered the piece to his side, and a triumphant smile came to his disguised face.
"Welcome back, Superman. Can I offer you any refreshments?"
CLARK, SHOCKED, SURPRISED AND CONFUSED, stood within the doorway of his bedroom. A whisper of smoke rose from the barrel of the gun being held by the stranger. The fog of confusion which clouded Clark's mind was suddenly blown away, as if by a strong gust of wind. An angry scowl replaced an open-mouthed gaze. He began a steady march toward the other, ready to strip him of the weapon and wrench it into a pretzel before his face.
"Uh-uh-uuuuh!" the other said, waving an index finger. "I wouldn't if I were you." Clark stopped.
"And why wouldn't I?" he asked, the feeling of violation and disturbed-peace bringing rage into his voice.
"Because, Clark, I'm wearing a device. Would you care to know what it does?" Clark fumed for a second in silence. "I'll take your silence as an affirmation. I am wearing a device that measures the heat surrounding my body within a four-foot radius. If there is a dramatic rise or drop within that field of sensitivity- that's what it's called, by the way: field of sensitivity- then a number of plastic-explosives around the city will detonate. Believe me when I say I have planted them in such a way that will cause maximum damage to life and property." A gloved hand swept the corner of the jacket aside, revealing a silver box clipped to the man's belt. "If there is any attempt at destroying or disabling the mechanism, the bombs will automatically detonate. If any of the bombs are discovered and tampered with, they will all detonate. And," he continued, straightening his jacket, "if all else should fail, I have in my possession a remote-detonator." He paused for a second, his breath coming even and easy. His pulse was even. There was no sweat beading, no signs of nervousness.
Clark, however, was having trouble containing his fears. His eyes were open wide, and he had slowed his movements. Without jerking, he stepped back and raised his hands to the sky, showing empty palms. He had no way of being sure whether this guy was telling the truth or not yet. But Clark chose to err on the side of caution until he could investigate further.
"Okay, hold on. Just calm down."
"*I* am calm, Clark. Now listen to me. I don't wish to see any innocents come to harm, but I swear I have no reservation about causing them harm. You'd be surprised what I've known...where I've been....what I've seen, and....done." It was clear that this man, whomever he might be, was not a stable man. Take it easy, Clark said to himself. Don't spook him. Get him to trust you. Find out what you can, but don't push. Use your far-famed patience.
"What's your name?" he asked softly. The stranger was lost in his own world, his trigger-finger flexing twice. Light returned eventually to his eyes, though, and he stared intently at Clark.
"Call me William," he said quietly. "You may call me William, Clark. But, as I was saying, you'd be surprised at the things I know."
"The things you know. About what?" Clark asked, grasping at any and all straws in sight. The question brought a smile from William.
"Why, about you, Clark. What did you think?" He laughed for a bit. "I know all about you, Clark. Everything. I know about Superman, and Martha, Jonathan, Lois, the ship, the globe, Luthor. I know," he said, in a shadowy manner. "I know." Shudders ran the length of Clark's back, goose-bumps rising on his skin. A dot of cold was pressed against his waist. The casing had cooled quickly. Clark had no idea what to say or do. William let out a sigh. "I wouldn't want to tip my full hand too soon, though. Perhaps it is finally time to get to the business at hand, but first: Clark, for God's sake, put your hands down. You look like a scarecrow." Obediently, Clark lowered his arms to his sides, but he didn't relax. "I'll leave soon, but here is why I came to see you. Go," he stated solidly. Clark grew even more confused. "I want you to go; leave Metropolis forever. Leave the Earth, and don't return. You are hurting the people of this planet much more than you help them. I have some more explosives set in places that will cause the deaths of all your close and loved ones. You have no choice. The same rules apply.
"I am giving you two days to get your affairs in order, to say your good-byes, and to leave. If you attempt to find and disarm any of my explosives, I will detonate them all. Millions will die, and their deaths will be on your head. If you, or Superman, are spotted after midnight on Wednesday, the bombs will be detonated. Millions will die." The horror in Clark's eyes brought no sympathy from William. "This is no joke; this is no test. This is a warning and a promise." William brought the gun to bear on his own temple. "And if all else fails, I am not afraid to die if it means that I can help the people of this world." He lowered the gun, holstered it, and began walking. Clark rushed to give him a clear path. William walked easily to the door, drew the curtain aside, and checked the road. Finding all clear, he turned the knob and pushed the door wide. The chill on the night air rushed inward. Clark listened for the sounds of detonations. William interpreted the change in the other's face.
"Don't worry," he reassured the reporter. "The cold air won't set off the bombs. I have ways of regulating the device's sensitivity to non-body heat-levels." He stepped over the door-jam and turned, grasping the handle, ready to shut the door behind him. While Clark stared at William in an exasperated manner, and while William slowly drew the door closed, he quietly but clearly quoted a line. "'Come, come, go back: thy wife hath dream'd; thy mother hath visions; your sister doth foresee; and I myself am like a prophet suddenly enrapt, to tell thee that this is an ominous day: Therefore, come back.' Therefore, Clark, leave," he said, the door clicking shut.
Clark's shoulders dropped, his body going lax. The worn-out elastic of his shirt allowed the bullet to fall to the floor. It hit with a ping, shivered for a bit, and then was silent. The world was silent.
And then there was a call for Superman.
THE SUIT WAS DIRTY AND the cape sodden. In a haze, Clark had moved without thinking. He'd found a tape- recorder by his bed with Lois' voice on a cassette within it. He'd emailed a notice to Perry that he was taking an indefinite leave-of-absence. He left a message on Lois' answering machine telling her to fly out to his parent's farm as soon as she could. He said it was urgent. Normally he would have flown her there himself, but not this time. This time Clark needed time alone to think; to work out the knot in his gut. As Lois would have said, he was distancing. He knew that, but he didn't care. He felt the need to be Superman at this time; perhaps for the last time. He'd flown Lois to so many stories that her travel budget at the Planet was barely touched. This time she'd have to fly. He spent the better part of a day and a half saving everyone, and diverting every disaster that he could. He had a short visit with Doctor Klein at S.T.A.R.R. Labs, discussing possible methods of shutting down these explosives without detonating them. He scoured the city in search of the bombs.
And through it all the last thing William had said rang through his mind; that quote with which he had left Clark alone. He knew he had run across it somewhere; and he was positive who had written it. He knew even without the first name the playwright shared with the mystery man who was forcing Superman out of town in a classic show-down. Clark was leaving at twelve, the only difference being that it was midnight, and not high noon.
The quote kept nibbling at his consciousness. He was half-positive he knew where it came from, but something about it was wrong.
A few hundred crimes/disasters later, with only a number of hours left until his banishment was to be effected, a pair of red boots set down on the wind-blown grasses of Smallville, Kansas. A wide expanse of field, the rustic barns and olden-days machinery, ancient willows drooping their yellow branches to the ground, providing shade for wild flowers: all sights which brought smiles to his face as a child met him that evening, but they could not disrupt the pain, confusion and loss which he felt in his heart. He saw only one thing that could do that. One possibility. One hunch, the hunch of a well-trained reporter, which, if played-out as Clark thought it might, could spell salvation for him. He wasn't sure what it would be, if he found what he was looking for, but he was sure an idea would come. It had to. And if it did not, then....
It had to.
Clark, still residing in his Superman regalia, opened a screen door and entered his home. Lois was there, as was Martha and Jonathan. They all looked frightened. Clark hadn't had time to explain the situation to any of them. Lois saw him first, leapt from the table and rushed into his arms. Martha followed close behind, and Jonathan hovered nearby, placing a fatherly hand on his troubled son's shoulder. After a few seconds, the three stood back a bit from Clark, and his father broke the silence.
"What's the matter, son?"
"Yes, Clark," Martha echoed. "What's this trouble all about? Is it Luthor?"
"I don't think even Luthor could escape death *twice*!" Lois said, her voice just a little shaky. Clark always loved Lois' humor, no matter how sarcastic or out-of-place it seemed. He always loved to see her smile.
"There's trouble," Clark began, his voicing seeming out of place in the bold garb of Superman. He sounded frightened, unsure, halting. "This is very serious, and perhaps worse than anything I," pause, "*we've* faced before. It's like Luthor and Trask and everyone else all mixed into one."
"But what is it, honey?" Martha insisted.
"Yes, Clark. Who or what is doing this?" Jonathan asked.
"Whatever 'this' is," Lois interjected.
"He said his name is William. He knows... *everything*," Clark said.
"Everything?" Jonathan asked, more than a little stunned.
"Everything," Clark replied. "He knows about me, about Superman, you guys, about the ship, about...Lois," he said quietly, gazing into his fiancee's eyes. "I don't know how he knows, but he knows. He claims to have explosives set all around Metropolis. I've discovered four of them. They're tamper-rigged to explode. I've talked with Star Labs, and they'll work on it. But.... "
"But what, Clark?" Jonathan asked.
"You all. Everyone I love. He says he has ways of...killing you. He says he can kill you as well as millions of others in Metropolis. He said something about not playing all his cards. He may have bombs elsewhere too, for all I know." The room seemed to darken. After a long time of silence, Martha looked up and into her son's troubled eyes.
"What does he want, Clark?" she asked.
"He wants me to leave." Lois drew back, and Jon's grasp tightened, but Martha stayed as she was. "He wants me to leave the Earth. H-he says if I'm ever spotted again, he will detonate the bombs and millions will die." Clark's eyes began to water.
"Why is he doing this? He must have given a reason," Martha said.
"He says I'm hurting the people more than I'm helping them. He says he knew everything, more than I'd want to know. And he said he'd seen more than I'd ever believe."
"Is there anything we can do?" Jon asked, obviously desperate to help his son.
"I-I don't see what. If I stay, so many people will die. I *have* to leave!"
The rest of the evening was a brainstorming session. Lois would offer something, then Martha, then Jon, then Martha again. But no idea was brought up that Clark hadn't all ready considered. There was only one way out, and he *knew* that it rested in finding that quote.
Finally, he called the session to an end.
"Ma, Pa, I need to talk to Lois alone, okay?"
"Go ahead, son," Jon said, and Martha nodded.
Clark walked with Lois outside, arm in arm. The full moon shown like daylight upon the farm. Tired though he was, Clark ignored his fatigue, took Lois in his arms, and flew her into the sky.
IT WAS ALMOST ELEVEN O'CLOCK Wednesday night when the two tumbled, naked, to a halt in the warm sands of a tropical beach. Their clothes lay in a heap on a dune. Drops of tears were mixed with traces of saliva on one another's face. Tears of joy and grief had flown freely in the past two hours.
Exhausted, Lois and Clark lay in the damp sand and stared at the stars. For a number of minutes they were so in silence. Finally, they slowly dressed and Clark flew with Lois wrapped snugly in his arms, against his chest, back to Metropolis.
It was a quarter past eleven when they reached Lois' apartment. They kissed passionately for a time, but Clark broke it off when he saw the clock.
"Lois, I have to go now. I have to move some of my belongings to Ma and Pa's. I can't risk leaving some of my things there, unprotected. Plus, I have to make it look like I'm on vacation." Clark stopped himself from rambling. After some silence, Lois whispered her first words in what seemed forever.
"I can't speak 'cause if I do I won't be able to stop." A tear rolled down her cheek.
"I won't be gone forever, I promise you that, Lois." He looked back to the wall-clock. A tear threatened to roll down his cheek. "I have to go, Lois. But if it is the last thing I do I'll find a way to return home. I swear I won't be gone long." There was such strong conviction in Clark's voice, even despite its cracking at the end, that Lois found the strength to look him in the eyes again.
"Where will you go?" she asked, her own voice breaking.
"There is a place; a safe place off-planet." Lois listened with pain in her eyes. "A small, unpersoned space- station is circling Mars. It is meant to be home for a group of scientists in the next century. That is where I will go. It has oxygen. It's a safe-haven. I can live there for a long time; plan my next move." That only brought more tears to Lois' face.
"You'll be alone for y-years up there? in space? F-for y-years?" Her lip was trembling. "H-how will you get there? W-when will you--"
"I don't know how I'll get there, or how I'll get back, but I'll have your love to guide me all the way." They both cried, and clung to each other in a tight embrace. Lois finally broke off the hug, and pushed him away with one hand.
"Now go." Clark took one deep breath in, and let it slowly out. He hovered to the open window and stayed there for a number of seconds. Lois looked back to him, her tears streaming. "Go," she mouthed, with no strength to put wind or sound behind it. A streak and boom signaled his departure.
Lois fell to the couch.
CLARK HAD MOVED A NUMBER of his things to his parent's house. There was now only ten minutes until midnight. He deposited his boxes in his old room, then searched out the bookshelf, found the edition he was looking for, and speed-read it. He was right. He had guessed the play correctly. The quote had originated from Troilus and Cressida. William, the stranger not the writer, had left out the name Hector and replaced Cassandra with 'Sister.'
In a whirlwind, he read and reread the story ten times.
Nothing came to him.
And then, like a bolt of lightning, he had it. An epiphany.
"Yes!" Clark yelled, causing Jon to jerk back and Martha to jump in surprise, dropping the fresh-baked cookies she was carrying.
But before the first crumb had a chance to touch the rug, Clark had rearranged them back on the platter, and was taking a triumphant bite out of one.
"Ah, oatmeal!" he said with a grin on his face. That boyish smile brought sunshine to his parent's faces.
"Clark, what is it?" Martha asked.
"I've got it!"
"What?" Jonathan asked, perplexed.
"I know how I can get out of this. I've got a plan."
At two minutes till midnight, on Wednesday, the twenty-eighth of August, a streak of red and blue shot up into the sky, passing the dinner-platter moon and passing beyond.
BARBARA WAS COASTING DOWN THE highway, well in excess of the recommended speed-limit. Her mind was distracted by the happenings back at her office, and she wasn't paying close attention to her surroundings. She scowled as her car-phone rang out. She whipped her head to the side, watched it ring again, swept it into her hand and to her mouth, shouted "Not now!" into the receiver, and slammed it down again.
Disgusted, she turned her eyes back to the road. She found that she had wandered to the shoulder and was about to strike a jogger. At eighty-miles-an-hour, she had little chance of stopping or swerving, and the jogger even less of a chance for surviving. Grimacing, Barbara shut her eyes tight and slammed the brake to the floor.
The car came to an eventual stop, without the sound of a thud. Carefully, gingerly, she switched off the ignition, put the emergency brake into place, and got out of the car. She saw no blood, no dismembered corpse...no corpse of any kind. No body, no jogger. She turned three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, shading her eyes from the sun. No one in sight. And then she caught a glimmer of something, off a ways in the distance. She peered hard in that direction. The heat-haze from the sun-baked fields blurred the streak that was coming her way. It looked like a band of red and yellow was stretching toward her. Frightened, but hypnotized by the sight, Barbara back-tracked until she was up against the hood of her car, but her eyes never strayed. And then, like a flash, the band of color had halted, standing beside her with a frightened jogger in his clutches. The strange looking character placed the jogger's feet on the ground, where he promptly collapsed. Barbara watched the pedestrian slump to the concrete.
"Don't worry about him," the oddly dressed man said. "He just fainted. You'd be surprise how often that happens with me." Barbara looked him up and down. The man wore a red body-suit, with matching, knee-high boots, mask, and yellow belt. There were two lightning bolts jutting from either side of the mask, and a lightning-bolt insignia plastered within a white circle on his bulging chest. The mask covered all but his mouth and the area just around it, with fogged-material of some sort shielding his eyes. He was an impressive figure. His grin was equally impressive. But there was a strange vibration to his voice that the staggered lady could not comprehend. They stood in silence for a few seconds, until the fast man spoke up.
"This is where you're supposed to say: 'Where's the fire, bub?' Or: 'New in town are you?'"
"Uh, I, uh, I'm just, uh," she stuttered, half in awe and half for a complete lack of dialogue. "Who are you?" she finally managed, which brought a slight laugh from the other.
"You can call me Flash, ma'am," he said. "Now, I'd give you a ticket but you'd probably have to give me one too. So, how about if we call it even, and promise each other to _slow_down_." The way he spoke and carried himself placed him as an authority figure. Barbara just nodded.
"O-okay. Yeah, I'll slow down. I'll slow....down." With a quick salute, the Flash turned and raced down the highway at speeds which would easily cause the destruction of any radar-gun.
A trail of red and yellow marked his passing.
PERRY WHITE SAT AT HIS desk in his office at the Daily Planet. He sat admiring an Elvis-style wig which rested upon a bookshelf. He started singing 'Heart Break Hotel' along with the record that was playing on the radio. He laughed in a deep, throaty way as the song ended.
"Elvis," he said. "Long live the King." There was a knock on his office door just then, followed by the sound of it opening. Perry turned and stood as Lois walked in the door. She looked as though she hadn't gotten much sleep the past few days. "Lois, come in. How you makin' it with Clark gone AWOL?" he joked.
"Oh, I'm fine, Perry. I've just had a lot to do, y'know?" she said, clutching a note pad to her breast. "A big story has just come up, Perry. I'm talking front page material."
"Great, honey! What are we talking here? Big political figure? Entertainment figure? Not that there's much of a difference," he said, laughing again.
"Nope, neither Chief," Jimmy said, walking in the door, hands in pockets and smile on face. "We're talking Superhero figure!" Lois looked from Jimmy back to Perry, a smile on her face.
"Superhero figure?" he said, glancing back-and-forth between the two.
"That's right, Perry," Lois said. "I've just come from an interview with a woman who witnessed a daring rescue by the Flash."
"The Flash?" Perry repeated. "Well, I'll be. Now, what are you doing lolly-gagging around here for, Lois? Why aren't you out digging up some more dirt for the cover-story? Go, go, go!" he said, ushering Lois out of the office. "Jimmy!" he called, bringing the young man to stand beside him.
"Yes, Chief?" he asked, ready, waiting and excited to help out on the story.
"Jimmy, I'm gonna need you to get me a cup of coffee. None of that fancy latee stuff, either. Black, you understand?"
"Yeah, Chief," he replied, looking like a deflated hot- air balloon. Jimmy left the office and Perry walked back to his desk.
"The Flash," he said to himself. "Hah! Now we're talkin' story!" 'You Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog' came on then, and Perry began to gyrate his hips to the beat.
LOIS STEPPED FROM THE DAILY Planet building and walked to the curb. Her jeep was at the shop so she had to settle for public transportation.
"Taxi!" she called, stretching out her entire body and waving one arm in the air. "God," she said as a yellow- checkered came into view. "I hate letting other people dri--" Just as she was finishing the sentence, a blur of motion and color swept her away.
A number of miles outside of Metropolis, a few seconds later, the Flash deposited a very irate female reporter on an empty plot of land. She took two quick steps away, straightened her outfit, found herself to be in no immediate danger, assessed her surroundings and predicament for a while, and then spoke in a manner that placed her as intelligent, thoughtful, and detailed.
"Don't you _ever_ do that again!" She wished she had a hair-dryer she could shove into this guy's back. Lois cooled down, though, which she had found easier since meeting Clark. Don't go there, she said to herself. Don't think about him. "So," she began, calmer now. "You must be the Flash." He did a little curtsey.
"You are correct, ma'am. And I presume that you are Ms. Lane? I understand that you're snooping around to discover why I'm in town."
"Maybe I am. I'm a reporter; that's my job."
"Oh, don't get me wrong! I'm not trying to stop you! I'm actually thinking private interview. One-on-one. Lane brings home the scoop of the century. Y'know, that sort of thing." He smiled. Lois squinted her eyes a bit. "Anything wrong?" he asked.
"A couple things. Mind if I start the interview now?" she asked. Her investigative nature kicking in, she ignored her churning stomach, an annoyance brought on by her recent little two-hundred-mile-an-hour-plus ride. She ignored the country setting. She ignored everything but the note-pad in her hand, which she withdrew from her purse.
"Of course, Ms. Lane... May I call you Lois?"
"Sure, fine, whatever," she mumbled, removing the cover from a pen. "Now, your voice sounds a little strange. A little twangy. Why is that?"
"For a simple enough reason, Lois. I vibrate my vocal cords slightly so my true voice will be disguised. I'd hate for my voice to be recognized by someone," he said. "Or else, what for the tights?" he finished, laughing.
"For purposes of disguise," she said, writing. "Okay, secondly, you look a lot different than the pictures I've seen of you; the footage and such. Can you explain?"
He smiled again. "Easily, Lois. Have you ever tried to snap a shot of something traveling close to the speed of sound? Saying the picture would be a little blurry is a bit of an understatement," he said, grinning. "But, if you need a good look, here you go." The Flash struck a pose.
"I'm a journalist, not a photog, for Pete's sake," she said. "Now why don't we go back to my place for the rest of the interview?"
Flash quit the pose and flashed a mischievous smile Lois' way. "Why, Lois! Not on the first date!"
Lois capped the pen and marched over to him, poking him in the chin with its tip. "Now listen. I may not have super powers, but if you try anything funny, you won't *need* to vibrate your vocal cords in order to sound funny. Do we understand each other?"
"Perfectly, Lois. Only joking." He grinned. After Lois had pocketed the pen and paper, Flash swept her off her feet and held her close. Lois had a flash-back to her last night with... to her last night with Clark. Fighting the depression back, she looked into the Flash's eye-plates.
"Now, keep it slow and easy, got it? I'm not much for other people driving anyway, let alone driving at the speed of *sound*."
Her sarcastic wit brought a chuckle from the colorful garbed hero. "Don't worry, Lois. I'm a *fast* learner."
With that pun out of the way, they were off.
THE FLASH SAT, AT EASE, on the sofa at Lois Lane's apartment. Lois, wired up for a big interview, sat on the edge of her chair, a tape-recorder recording, and a pen jotting notes.
"So, Flash," she said, looking over at him, "What *are* you doing in Metropolis?"
The Flash, his legs propped up on a coffee table, arms folded across his chest, returned the look. "Well, I've noticed a strange drop in Superman sightings lately. No one seems to have seen hide nor hair of the capped crusader. Whoops!" he said, bringing his fingers to his lips. "I guess that would be Batman, wouldn't it?" he winked.
Lois was ready to cover for Superman's absence. "Well, Flash, the thing is, Superman--"
"Don't bother, Lois. I was only joking. I know all about it. Superman came looking for me." Lois perked up, sitting rod-straight. "It's amazing what he can do when he puts his mind to it. I didn't think *anybody* would be able to find me!" He ruminated for a bit until Lois' impatience became overly apparent. "Sorry. Anyway, he asked me if I could fill in for him while he was gone. I'd sorta' been canceled where I was, so I figured why not? You know?"
Lois was too busy writing to answer. Eventually she said, "So Superman put you up to this, did he? What did he tell you about...about, well, where he was going?" She wanted to know just how much he knew. Clark hadn't mentioned getting the Flash involved in any of this.
"He said someone was threatening the lives of Metropolis, and that he had to go off-planet until he figured something out. He told me I should keep a very close eye on you. Mentioned something about being head-strong, feisty... a little tornado?" Lois gave him a hard look. That only made the Flash smile broader. "I see you don't take to my brand of humor. Sorry, Kal-El loves to gush whenever we get together." Flash looked out the window briefly, then at the wall-clock. "Gee, I'm sorry Lois. This has really been grand, but your time's just about up. I'll give you some last minute basics before I have to go: My favorite color is red. My favorite flower is the forget-me-not. I only date dark-haired women. And I wear boxers, not briefs. Gotta' go!"
With a snappy salute, a streak of red and yellow shot out her window, down the building, and through an alleyway.
"I hope he knows how to stop," she said, knowing full well it was a dead-end street. Half a second later, the Flash appeared up the wall of another building, stood on the edge of the roof, waved back to Lois, and was gone. "Wow, he's fast. He might even give Superman a run for his money!"
Superman, she thought to herself. Clark. Don't go there...
""WHEN ASKED HOW HE MANAGED to miss obstacles in his way while traveling at speeds reaching three- hundred-and-thirty-two meters-per-second, Flash, the newest superhero to grace the city of Metropolis, answered, "Quite simply. How do you miss a rock in the road? Or a tree in a field? When I'm running, everything else is standing still. It's not hard to miss things that are standing still." From one rock to all you trees, this is Lois Lane for the Daily Planet." Hah hah!" Perry called, after reading Lois' front-page story. "Great work, Lois, as usual," he said, shaking her hand.
"Thanks, Perry," she said, smiling.
"Yeah, Lois. Up to your usual standards of excellence," Jimmy assured her.
"I wonder what the Flash thought of it," Lois pondered. Just then, across town...
"Well, I guess I made the front page," Flash said, sitting in his two-room apartment in the not-very-affluent section of town. His shiny costume hung on the back of a chair, hidden beneath an old blanket. There was a small kitchen/dining room, a bathroom, and a living room/bed room. The only non-food-related appliances in the place were a radio and an emergency-scanner. The scanner was on at all times, just in case. He had with him a large roll of unmarked bills: some of his savings, a monetary source that no one could trace.
He tried to wash the suit once a day, soaking it in a river or some such and then running it dry. That didn't take long. Once he had to work a four-alarm fire in a wet suit. The flames licked it dry in a hurry though.
The only reading material he had was the Daily Planet and some folders he had retrieved from Doctor Klein. The doctor, an odd fellow, had agreed to let him work with their team on attempting to defuse the bombs set all across Metropolis. They had kept it bottled up, of course. Any leak of this to the populous would cause massive hysteria. That wasn't what they wanted.
Also, collaborating with Lois, S.T.A.R. and, just recently, the FBI, Flash was working to root out this William character. Flash had given all three, Lois, Klein, and a representative of the Bureau, one Agent Longfellow, the beeper-number which they could contact him with.
He was taking a quick break from his activities to read through another report from the doctor. He was slowly wearing himself out in an attempt to make his presence felt by Metropolis. In his need to make the people feel safe, he was drawing on all his reserves, working day and night for days with almost no sleep. But he could rest later. Right now, there was a problem facing him.
He speed-read the folder. Along with his aid, fifty- nine bomb had been discovered. He'd even found one at the base of the Daily Planet building. Things were not looking up. The design of the detonators matched with some high-tech gizmos used by Black Ops and military intelligence. It was top- of-the-line, and, as far as anyone knew, impossible to diffuse.
The only answer Flash could see was in finding William, stripping him of the remote detonator, and running him into a brick wall at five-hundred miles-an-hour. Well, all except that last part. He'd have to get the suit dry-cleaned to get the stains out, and he didn't have enough leisure time to get that done.
Just then, the scanner picked up on a bulletin.
"All vehicles in the vicinity, please report to fifth and Lime. There is a hostage situation at a day-care center. A single assailant, in possession of an automatic weapon. Be advised, use extreme caution. A hostage-negotiator is en route. I repeat, all vehicles..." The Flash switched it off. Just as he was ready to leave, his beeper sounded. He saw the FBI number displayed on its face.
"Sorry, boys," he said, putting it under a pillow. "Right now is not the best time."
He shot out and down the street, heading for Suicide Slum.
"THE FLASH SAVES CHILDREN! SEE main article for the complete story," the headlines of the Planet read.
"You did it again, Lois," Perry congratulated her.
"Even without CK, you're still the best, Lois," Jimmy said.
"Gee, thanks a lot, Jimmy," Lois retorted, brushing past him on the way out. Jimmy laughed.
"Now pardon me, but I've got a meeting to attend with a certain Man of Quicksilver." The elevator deposited her in the lobby, where she walked through the doors and into the sunlight of a mid-afternoon Metropolis day. She was approaching the curb when she halted. She was two yards away from the door of her truck, but she could have sworn she heard the whistle of a fast approaching object. She heard it again. She heard the rustle of wind. She closed her eyes and tensed up. She was set down in a lightly furnished, low-lit office room. She looked over at Flash, her stomach once more upset.
"Hey," he said, meeting her sour look. "It's the only way to travel!" She flumped down in a softly-cushioned chair with broad arm-rests.
"I need some pepto bismol," she groaned, her hand to her forehead. Two wind-rustles later, after a half-second had passed, Flash handed her a spoonful of the pink stuff. Lois rolled her eyes. This is too uncanny, she thought, drinking the medicine.
Flash quickly rid her of the spoon, and returned just as a woman walked in the door. Lois got up, and they all shook hands. Flash introduced the two.
"Lois, I'd like you to meet Agent Longfellow. She's working with us on the William thing. Agent Longfellow, this is--"
"I know very well who this is," she interrupted. "Lois Lane," she said, shaking Lois' hand. "I always take time to read your articles. Very masterfully written."
"Why, thank you," Lois said, accepting the praise with a smile. "It's very nice of you to say."
"Not at all. Please, won't you both take a seat?" Lois sat back down in her chair, while Flash straddled the arm of a second.
"What news do you have for us?" he asked her.
"Something that is very close to being an issue of National Security," she replied, turning to Lois.
Lois nodded. She's gotten this plenty of times. And, at least this time, she didn't give a damn about the story as long as it meant getting Superman back: as long as it meant getting....Clark back. "Don't worry, Agent. I didn't even bring any paper. This won't see print."
"Good. Here's what we have. I've been authorized to brief you both on this. We feel you may both be able to offer us help. Another agent is speaking with Doctor Klein of--"
"Of S.T.A.R. Labs," the Flash finished. "Certainly. What's the deal?"
Longfellow sighed, and dropped all pretense of small- talk. "I'll get to the point then," she said, leaning back in her chair. "He's one of us." She waited for that to sink in. Lois looked slightly confused, as did the hero in tights.
"Who?" Lois said. "Klein?"
"No," Longfellow said. "William. William is one of us."
"He's FBI?" Flash said, shocked, standing. "You mean, you guys are doing this?!"
"Clam down," Longfellow said, in a way that made it sound like an order. Flash sat back on the arm. "No, this is not one of our missions. And, technically, William isn't an active agent anymore."
"'Technically'?" Flash said.
"What was he? Black Ops?" Lois asked.
"He worked within Operations," Longfellow answered. "He's done a lot of things. He was a top agent. Not the best, you understand. Certainly not the best. But he was good." She paused. "Very good." There was a moment of silence. "He worked in demolition, fire-arms, espionage; under- cover stuff. Infiltration. He's survived in enemy territory on his wits alone. It'll be hard to pick him out in the city. He's trained to blend."
When some people are nervous, they tend to tap a foot. Well, apparently that was a trait that Flash had picked up. Only his foot was tapping about one-hundred times a second. The room was beginning to vibrate a little.
"Do you have to do that?" Lois said slowly through clenched teeth.
"Oops. Sorry," he said, stopping. The room ceased its shaking. Longfellow took a breath in, let it out, then continued.
"We'll have some of our technicians work with S.T.A.R. on the explosives. We have to be careful though. If William does have some kind of surveillance system, he may blow the bombs when he sees us working on them." There was a break in the conversation. Lois finally spoke up.
"Is William his actual name? What's his full name? What's his past?"
"Sorry, Lois, that's classified," Longfellow replied. Lois frowned.
"Now Agent....I can't keep calling you Longfellow. What's your first name?"
"Margaret," she said after a couple seconds.
"Okay, Margaret, don't pull that classified bunk with us! The entire city of Metropolis is on the line, so don't snow us!" Margaret stood from her desk, leaning on her palms and looking down at Lois.
"Now listen here. I know how to handle the situation *much* better than you do so don't give me any of that. I know what is at risk here and how many people could die." The two had a staring contest until the Flash appeared beside agent Longfellow.
"Please, can we?" he said, guiding her to her seat. "There's too much to deal with here. Lois, please just calm down and let the woman answer." Flash appeared again at his seat.
"Thank you," Margaret said, while Lois simply sniffed. "As I was saying, this is classified. *I* don't know much about him. His past is off limits, and I can't access that. The only name I know him by is Operative William. We call him in. The mission gets done." She looked back and forth between the hero and the reporter: but, as Perry had joked earlier, sometimes there was no difference. "Lois, you first. Your mission, if you choose to accept it," Lois rolled her eyes at that joke, "is to use every source you've got to track this man down. We're working hard at it, but even the government has to work inside the law *sometimes*." Flash laughed, and even Lois snickered a little. "We know you have contacts with some pretty shady characters. Use 'em, okay?" Lois nodded. "Good. Flash, now you. Because of William, Superman is gone. Without him, it's up to you to help us. So far, you've turned up a number of the bombs. We want you to scour the city up and down. We know you've been stopping along the way to save children and stop disasters, but we need you to focus. If we don't deal with the bombs, it won't matter how many people you save coz they might all die anyway." That snuffed Flash's retort in a hurry.
"As a last resort," Lois said quietly, "couldn't we evacuate the sections of city with bombs in them?"
"We believe," Margaret answered, "that if such an attempt was made, William will detonate the explosives." Pause. "One thing has been suggested. If we were careful, it might be possible to remove an entire chunk of whatever the various bombs are lodged to, take them elsewhere, and destroy them. Again, though," she sighed, " if he has surveillance, he'd just blow them when he saw what we were doing. I don't see any option other than finding him somehow and taking it from there."
All of a sudden, Flash bolted to a standing position.
"I just felt the ground quiver slightly. Feels like an explosion of some kind, maybe fifteen miles from here. I gotta go." Before either Lois or Margaret could speak, the room was one person lighter. Margaret touched a button on her desk, calling her secretary.
"Could you bring my scanner in here, please?" she called into it.
"Yes, Sir," was the answer back. Lois was half pointing to the door.
"That-that was my ride," she said in amazement. Margaret laughed.
"Don't worry about it." A man in uniform walked in and handed Longfellow a scanner, then walked out. She switched it on and listened for a bulletin. One dispatcher reported a gas-main explosion, located on a street which was fourteen-and-a-half miles from the FBI building. Margaret smiled and switched it off. "Sensitive, isn't he? Thank goodness it was just a gas-main explo--" The Flash was standing by the desk again, his suit a little darkened.
"Don't worry," he said. "Just a gas-main explosion. Not one of William's bombs. I got everyone out of the area, and the pros can handle it from here." Lois and Margaret looked at each other, then smiled and laughed. "What?" he said. "What I do?"
FLASH RAN IN THROUGH HIS palace window, collapsing on a chair. Palace, he said to himself, laughing, as a cockroach scurried across the moth-eaten rug. His breath came in quick rasps. He didn't get tired easily, but he was exhausted now. Did he know how many square-miles Metropolis was? No, he didn't know. Did he know how many times he had covered every inch of the blasted city? Yes, that he knew. About a million. Okay, he admitted, more like ten times. In how long a period of time? a small voice seemed to ask him. Why, he replied proudly, Not quite two days. Two days of non-stop running, covering every house and building in and around the sprawling metropolis of, well, Metropolis.
He laughed dumbly. He would have laughed at anything. He was so tired it was nearly impossible to contain the laughter. He started to laugh at the hairy, wriggling, black- and-brown, leg-covered cockroach. As his father had once told him about cheap motels, though: "You want to stay in the motels with cockroaches, because the cockroaches eat the bed- bugs." You can't argue with that, he thought to himself.
It had been about a week now of non-stop action for the not-quite-almighty Flash, and, to be frank, he was pooped. But all that work had turned up a total of one-hundred-and- seventy-nine explosives, set on high rises, reservoirs, YMCAs, hotels, restaurants, air ports, government buildings, hospitals, media centers, schools, day cares, orphanages, shelters, rec. centers, club/dance joints, tunnels, bridges, malls, theaters, power stations, phone companies, and the list went on. And on. And it continued on until depression set in and tears threatened to burst forth. This William, insane or no, held all the cards. He held a city hostage, and his hand was on the trigger.
As hard as it was for Flash to contain his laughter, it was harder to contain his tears.
His beeper went off: Lois wanted him. He was glad his visors covered his eyes, so no one could see how red they were; how tired he was; how sad he was. But above all, he didn't want Lois to see. Not Lois. Out of everyone, not Lois.
Still tired, and in need of a boost, he grabbed a few dollar bills from his roll, wiped some tears away, secured his room, dashed again from his window, down the outside wall, and toward a little vendor down the road on the way to the Planet.
SALLY, WHO HAD RUN HER own Gatorade stand for nearly a year now, had seen some strange things in her days, but this took the cake. There *had* been, she was *sure*, five bottles in the open ice-chest just a blink of an eye ago. Now, there were two. There were also four bills resting on the counter. She looked around. She didn't see anybody. There had been a gust of wind, but, what could *that* have had to do with anything?
LOIS WAITED OUTSIDE OF THE Daily Planet for the Flash to show up. She knew it wouldn't take long. She *hoped* it wouldn't take long, seeing as how she was standing just beside a road construction worker, a flagger, who was taking a break from work.
"As per usual," she muttered. As a jackhammer silenced momentarily, her ears pricked at the sound of a gust of wind drawing nearer very fast. She had slept badly, worrying about Clark, as usual, and she wasn't up to one of this guy's hurricane-rides. Suddenly, almost without thinking, she reached out and grabbed the sign from the flagger. She flashed and held out the 'stop' sign toward the sound of the wind. Just as she did, a red and yellow blur coalesced into a solid form of a man. He looked at the sign, then back at Lois.
"Meep-meep," he said.
The big, rather pungent, worker reached in and grabbed the sign from Lois' clutches. "Hey, gimme that," he exclaimed, ripping it away and returning to his lunch.
With the sign gone, Flash put out his arms to take Lois up. Lois, however, brushed his arms aside and dangled a set of keys an inch before his face.
"Keys," she said, drawing it out, as though talking to a little child. "We take my car," she finished, carefully pronouncing each word. Flash smiled, and was walking with Lois to her truck when she noticed a clinking sound. Looking down, she saw three empty bottles in his hands. "What're those?" she asked pointing to them.
"Oh!" he said in surprise, as if seeing them for the first time. "Whoops! I'll be right back." The scene didn't seem to alter much. Lois' hair blew around for a second, but all of a sudden Flash didn't have the empties anymore. "Shall we go?" he asked, glad of the short chance to rest, and to let someone else drive for a change. Lois grinned and took a seat behind the wheel. Flash slipped into place beside her.
As Lois pulled into traffic, she pulled her safety-belt into place. She looked over, her brows knitted, at the superhero beside her.
"What do you think you're doing, buster?" she asked him.
"Huh? What are you talking about?" She pointed to the seat-belt hanging loosely by the door. "Oh, that! Lois, I'll be out of the car saving the day before we get into an accident." He laughed. Lois frowned harder. Flash stopped laughing. Lois narrowed her eyes. Flash buckled his seat-belt.
"Thank you," she said, continuing on, accelerating the vehicle, heading to a location known only to her.
LOIS LED THE FLASH INTO an amusement park. It was obviously far from its peak attendance. There were maybe twenty people in sight, milling around and looking for something to do. Carnivals seemed to be dying all around the country; being phased out by high-tech video games and virtual reality. A juggling clown appeared from the shade of a tent and made its way, at his own slow pace, to the couple: Lois, looking like she knew where she was, but very out of place: Flash, looking like he was lost, but fitting in very nicely among the freaks and costumed entertainers.
Flash watched the clown closely: his wide-waisted pants, over-sized shoes, painted face with black tear-drops under each eye, and a red nose, planted firmly over his actual one. Flash watched the man's juggling technique. He could follow it easily, the speed of his vision was so great. The man had three pins-- No! he corrected himself. Clubs. They're called clubs. One green, one red, one blue. He held one club at all times. As each airborne club reached and surpassed its zenith, the next would be tossed. It was an easy routine. Just a lazy three-club routine. And then one was passed under his leg, the routine recovered smoothly. And then, a short while later, the blue club made a quick triple spin, the routine resumed. All with quick flashes of the wrist. Then, out of nowhere, the blue flew skyward, perhaps twenty yards over the clown's head. Flash had kept his eye on the club, following it up, spinning, and then down, returning to the routine. Only the routine had changed. Now there were five clubs going. No one else was around. Where did he get the extra clubs? The clown was smiling at the two, paying little attention to the cascade before him. Before Flash could eye the clown more closely, the blue club found its way into the sky again. This time, though, Flash kept watch on the clown's hands. The clown quickly and deftly brought two more clubs from a secret compartment in the back of his puffy costume. As the blue dropped into a waiting hand, there were seven.
Lois was amazed. She started clapping despite herself. Flash was even impressed. He watched the whole performance in slow-mo, and so could catch every mistake; and there weren't many. This clown was good, he thought. And then, out of the deep blue sky, the clown held three clubs in each white- gloved hand, and a single was lodged between yellowing teeth.
They both applauded loudly. The clown bowed gracefully, to the ground, then straightened, smiling. Flash knew what he was going to do next. He had picked up on the one hollow club with a slit at the tip. The clown deposited the six clubs in his costume, bit down on some hidden switch without the seventh, causing a blade to spring from its recess. Flash was sure it wasn't intended for them, but he still placed a protective shoulder before Lois. He knew the instant he had done it, it was a mistake. Lois gripped his bicep, and shoved him aside. The clown, unperturbed by the shuffling of his viewers, leveled the club and the arm that held it out to his left. With a sharp, quick whip, betraying some martial arts training, the club flew to his right, becoming implanted in a support-pole with a thud. Lois had followed the club, while Flash had kept an eye on both projectile and projectiler. When Lois looked back, the clown was gone. Flash had seen him move like lightning, traversing twenty yards in the blink of an eye, disappearing from sight beneath a loose tent-flap, leaving no trace. The Flash was impressed. That clown could make an impressive superhero.
Lois was agape, but not much. She'd been close to Superman, so little could faze her. She was strong, and imposing, and she was already marching toward the planted- club-blade. Flash sped ahead, ready to investigate the small tent with the blue marker. As he was ready to poke his head inside, Lois' voice called to him.
"Hey, wait up, Mister. Last I checked *I* was the investigative reporter, and you were Spunky, my slow-witted, fast-bodied side-kick." Flash halted as the sharp sting of her sarcasm slapped the base of his skull. He slowly backed away from the entrance, making way for Lois to enter. She eyed him harshly before ducking within. Flash rolled his eyes and followed.
BOTH LOIS AND FLASH SAT, bemused, on small, shaky chairs at a round table. A crystal ball rested in a silver receptacle at the table's center. They had been escorted to their chairs by a woman dressed in gypsy clothing. As the strange woman left, after giving an instruction to remain for Madame Zalina, Lois had wiggled her fingers at her back, mocking the gesture a Hollywood-witch would make in casting a spell.
"Ooooooooooo," she whispered along with the motion. "I'm so scared." Flash, as usual, kept his comments to himself.
"Lois, why can't you just give it a chance? You're always so judgmental."
"I am *not*," she replied. "This is just some corny side-show biz to spook the farm-boys who wander too far from the city."
"Be that as it may," Flash began, but cut himself off. "Wait a second," he said, turning to face the reporter. "I just realized you still haven't told me what the heck we're doing here. What's the deal, Lo?"
"It's Lois, to you. And the deal is we're supposed to be meeting a contact of mine here. He said he would find us."
"A contact?" he said with a little surprise, dropping the tremolo in his voice for a fraction of a second. Lois noticed and looked at him funny, in thought. "Is it about William?" he said quickly, resuming his vibration. Lois gradually dismissed it.
"Yeah," she said, with some suspicion in her voice. "He may have found William."
"That's great!" he said, excited. He sat upright, tense with a quick jolt of energy. "You mean we might have him?"
"Calm down," she told him, looking around. "Geeze, we don't know. This is a bit of a shaky contact, so we'll have to wait and see."
"I'll go look for him," he said, standing.
"No," she commanded, pulling him down by the shoulder. "No. Now listen to me. You are going to *sit*, and be *quiet*, and you will follow my lead. Capiche?"
She was good at lecturing, he had to admit that much about her. Flash smiled. He settled into his seat, surrendering all self-will. "I'm yours to command, Lois," he said, with a bit of suggestiveness in his voice.
"I'm spoken for, lover-boy," she said, her voice thick as her head sank slightly into her neck. She displayed her hand before Flash's face, her thumb playing with the engagement- band on her ring-finger. Flash grinned wide and sat back, arms behind his head.
"Poor bastard," he said under his breath, just loud enough for Lois to make out clearly.
"Oh, aren't we funny today?" The situation was about to escalate. Flash was on the verge of exploding, hoping to find this contact and discover the whereabouts of William. He was already enraptured to be in Lois' presence. He was too close to giving it all away. He had to fight to not give it all away. After finding what he'd found in Lois' apartment, he didn't feel safe in talking with her. He felt the strongest need to tell her everything, but if he did, it could mean the destruction of Metropolis and the deaths of so many. And the fight to keep it all bottled in made him ache the more, building emotion on emotion.
He was close to giving it all away... when Madame Zalina floated gently into the room. She sat, wizened and ancient, upon a seat opposite the two.
"Madame Zalina senses friction in the air," she said in a theatrically high voice, speaking in the third-person. Lois groaned. Flash couldn't argue. It was pretty bad. "Madame Zalina sees two who are in love, eh? Madame Zalina sees a marriage in the future. Madame Zalina--"
"Is in need of glass-cleaner for her crystal ball," Lois finished for her. "The ring's for someone else, and this joker is just tagging along," she said.
Zalina looked oddly back and forth between the couple, playing with her chin. "Hmmmmmmmm," she whispered. She sounded a bit distraught. "Madame Zalina is seldom wrong." She paused, and then changed the subject suddenly. "Madame Zalina can sense you are here for a reason." She turned her stunning gray eyes to the ball. Candles flickered as a gust of wind blew in from the open door way. The cold, rain-speckled air brought chills to Lois' body. As a thunderhead rolled in from the ocean, the skies darkened and the circus-grounds emptied. Suddenly, the humorous side- show act became something a bit more scary. "You come," Madame began again, her voice scratchy and high, "to solve a great mystery. To find answers. But..." They waited for her to finish. "But not from me." She brushed her wrinkled, spotted, clawed hand across the clear surface of the little globe. "Much rests in the answers that blow in the wind. The wind," she said, her face looking up at them like grim death, the candle light making the hollows in her cheeks seem deeper. Then the candles blew out, and darkness filled the tent like tar. "Madame Zalina is tired, now. You must go." The finality was like a blanket of dirt on a grave.
Lois and Flash exited the tent. No words were spoken between them. They had laughed going in, but her words had hit very close. Their purpose in coming forgotten, they hobbled limply to the truck.
The juggling-clown, from before, intercepted their paths, juggling three clubs again. Neither paid much attention. The clown stayed seven yards in front, back-tracking to match their pace. He smiled in a grim fashion. Lois couldn't bear to look. The Flash, however, finally did, just before they reached the parking lot. Something was wrong. The beat was off. Mistakes were greater. The speed was wrong. Now that he looked, the costume was slightly different, too. He stopped Lois dead.
"What is it?" she asked quietly. Flash just kept his eyes on the clown. Lois looked toward him as well. "What?"
The impostor-clown gestured with a tip of his head to a smudged, sooty, dilapidated ticket-box. With no words, he jigged over to it, juggling still, brought the door open with his foot, and backed away, allowing the other two access. Reluctant, they ducked in. The clown followed, shutting the door. He quit the juggling, catching two clumsily while the third fell, clanging, to the green metal floor.
"Damn," he cursed, bending over to retrieve it. Before he was half way to his toes, the Flash was straightening him, handing the impostor-clown his dropped club.
"The contact, I presume," Flash said.
"You're right about that, friend," he said. Lois let out a quick breath. She was on edge and, though she wouldn't like to admit it, a little scared. Why are clowns so darned scary, any way? The clown nodded to Lois, but quickly turned his attention to the club he'd dropped. He screwed off the knob, turned it downward, and caught a sheaf of rolled up papers which fell from the secret compartment. He handed them to Flash, but Lois intercepted them.
"Last I knew, *I* was the reporter," she said, buffing up the strength in her voice to cover for her dip into fear the second before. The sheaf included a number of photographs along with receipts and hand-scribbled notes. Flash caught a glimpse of the man in the pictures. He looked at Lois, and she back at him.
"William," they said in unison. Lois tipped her head back a bit in confusion.
"How do *you* know?" she asked.
"Um, well, Superman. He gave me a description. I'd recognize him easily."
"Oh," she said, half-believing it, but obviously wanting to get to the story. The clown, while this short interchange was going on, lit a cigarette and slid it between his lips, drawing in, and puffing an acrid cloud into the small enclosure. Both Lois and Flash wrinkled their noses in disgust. "What are you doing?" she asked him, indignation on her face and in her voice.
"I'm just lighting up." He misinterpreted Lois' repugnance. "Oh, sorry," he said, holding the packet out to her. Lois pushed it away and looked to the ceiling.
"I think it's about time we left," Flash said, drawing out the 'I' for a bit.
"Sure, sure, I understand," the clown mumbled. Lois pushed the door slightly open, but there was barely a crack when the smelly clown/informant pulled it shut again. "Um, ummmm," he grumbled, looking to the floor, dropping his cig, watching as his large-shoed foot snuffed it out. His right hand was held out a tad, the thumb rubbing against the fingers. Lois sighed dramatically, reached into her purse, and withdrew a wallet. Flash rolled on the balls of his feet, looking innocently at the moulding tin roof, whistling quietly. It was quite a scene to behold. Quite a humorous scene, indeed. Lois peeled off a number of twenties, slapping them down. She counted under her breath.
"One hundred, two hundred," and on for a bit, reaching and halting at five-hundred dollars. The clown coughed loudly, his head still declined, his chin on his chest. "We'll check your facts first, Curly," she said. That wasn't his name. That *couldn't* be his name, could it? Flash asked himself. "I'll give you an hundred or so more if this turns out roses." The clown's out-stretched hand wavered. "Plus you'll get the heavy reward that's being offered, secretly, for the capture of William." That got his attention, his chin raising and his hand dropping to his side.
"How much?" he asked, money-signs falling into place over his hazy retinas.
"More than you'll make in this lifetime," she responded, one eyebrow raised, one lowered.
"Okay, you two, have a nice trip home." They left the clown with a clownishly-wide smile.
"Always leave 'em wanting more," Lois explained to Flash in her truck, as they drove away from the circus. "Always leave 'em wanting more."
HE SAT UP. IT WAS two in the morning. Street sounds screeched into his ears from all over the city. His costume sat, tossed aside, in a closet. He wore nothing, but the heat was still oppressive. The humidity fenced him in, and the darkness locked him out. Maybe it was just his imagination. His whole world seemed upside down. After finding that high- sensitivity transmitter in Lois' apartment, and one, later on, in her truck, he knew it wasn't safe to talk with her: or anyone else, for that matter. He didn't even trust the walls of his seedy motel.
To keep himself from dangers, he lived the Flash persona further and further, trying to forget his real identity, his real face, his real voice, his reality. He forgot his mannerisms, his laughter, his smile, his walk, his style of speaking and listening. He became Flash. He thought of himself as Flash. That way, it would be harder to slip up; harder to let his guard down. Harder to give himself away.
He worried about William. Though he hated to admit it, he'd worn himself ragged, and Lois caught on easily. He'd nearly passed out on the ride back from the carnival. She ordered him to rest for the night. She said they would meet again the next day. For fear of being overheard, they could not speak to the FBI over the phone: for fear of being watched, they could not visit them at their building. In stead, they had random meetings with Agent Longfellow at least one every two days, at places set up by discreet paper-deliveries. The next day was a meeting. They would give her their new information then, and then, Flash thought to himself, William is _mine_.
But he couldn't sleep. For all his power, he could not sleep. The heat never bothered him before; or the humidity. He'd spent time in the equator and it never bothered him. But he was so exhausted now, he couldn't think straight. Every sound was like a nail driven into his skin. The buzz of an insect, the cooing of a dove, the honk of a horn, the discharge of a gun, the back-fire of a car, the thud of a punch, the crash of metal. And nightmares forbade his peaceful slumber. He saw, over and over, his failure to stop the maniac, resulting in a blistering mushroom sprouting up and skyward. He saw millions cry out and then die. He saw it over and over. For all his strength, he couldn't go it alone. And yet he did.
He faced it alone. And tears spilled over for the hundredth time. His own sobs rocked him to sleep.
LOIS DIALED THE FAMILIAR NUMBER, waited a couple rings, and was relieved when a familiar, warm, friendly voice answered.
"Martha, it's Lois."
"Lois!" the voice on the other end called. "Jon, it's Lois!" Lois heard some muffled movement, then a click as a third phone was brought into the loop.
"Lois," Jon said, "how are you holding up?"
"Oh, I'm fine, Jon. I-I just miss Clark, is all. I guess I don't have to explain that to you, though, do I?"
"Lois, honey, we all need people to talk to. And you know we'll always be here when you need us," Martha said. God, Lois thought to herself, She's so strong. Her only son has been banished to who knows where, and here she is comforting *me*. She is so strong.
"Lois?" Jon offered, after her pause had drawn on for a while.
"I'm still here, Jon," she said, fighting some tears. "I don't s'pose you've heard anything from him," she said sarcastically.
"Lois, we know what you're feeling now," Martha said. "You don't have to hold back; not with us. Not ever." The command came with a warm smile, and Lois obeyed it with all her heart, releasing a small lever, which opened a small dam, which caused much pain to flow forth. Lois babbled and wept and sobbed and cried and cried and cried. All along Martha and Jon were offering her support. Lois felt, right then, the worst she'd ever felt, but also the best. Her chest burned, but her shoulders felt lighter than air. She finally collapsed, drained and out of breath, onto her couch. There was five minutes of nose blowing, eye wiping, and words of comfort taken directly to heart.
"I miss him," Lois whispered, when she had finally calmed enough to speak.
"We know, Lois," Pa said.
"We know what you mean to Clark, Lois. And he wanted you to know. He loves you dearly, more than any person he has ever met. He told us he knew the two of you were destined to be together from the instant you met."
"I treated him so badly," she said, almost laughing as she recalled the scene.
"He knows you didn't mean it, Lois," Jon assured her, with his voice deep and fatherly.
"Sometimes I-I think I fell in l-love with C-Clark just to get you guys for p-parents," she managed. All three laughed together, Lois clinging to the phone like a life-line.
"We love you, Lois. To us, you're already our daughter, and we're very proud of you. Of the work you do, of the people you help, and for the strength and happiness you've given to Clark. He was so afraid, when he was young, that he'd never fall in love. It was the thing he wanted most, and he was convinced he'd never have it. Until he found you," Martha said.
"Oh, Martha," Lois half-wept.
"Call me Ma, would you, Lois? It would mean a lot to me." There was a short pause, and Lois swallowed hard.
"Okay, Ma," she said, the word sounding odd. "Ma," she said again, the name coming easier. "Pa," she whispered. They all laughed for a little more. "Oh," Lois sighed aloud. She cleaned the tears away with a brush of her forearm. "Look at the time! I've got to get up in a couple of hours. I've got work, a meeting, some interviews, not to mention--"
"Lois, don't worry about it," Pa told her.
"But one more thing before you go."
"Clark wanted us to tell you something. He said to say that he'd always be with you. No matter what happens, no matter what force comes between you, no matter how impossible the odds, he'd always be right there with you, only a shout away." They could almost hear Lois' smile.
"Thank you guys."
"No problem Lois," Pa said softly. "Any time at all, you know we'll be here for you."
"And don't worry about Clark, Lois. Worry about yourself, okay? When the Flash has taken care of all this, we need you healthy for Clark's return."
"Okay, Ma," Lois promised. "I'll take care of myself. And you two do likewise, okay?"
"Okay, Lois," they said.
"Good night," Lois whispered.
"Good night," two voices echoed warmly.
Three clicks sounded, and the night was silent again. Lois drifted off to sleep.
AT FIVE MINUTES TILL EIGHT, on the mark, Lois shut her computer down, gathered some things, said good-bye to Jimmy, rode the elevator to the lobby, and stepped onto the sun-warmed pavement. The time was now one minute till eight. She was almost used to this by now. Almost. She'd done it a number of times, and, with the help of a few pills, her stomach was growing half-accustomed to it. Her watch-face read ten seconds till the hour. She still didn't look forward to it, of course. Who would? Three seconds. I'd rather drive, she thought to herself. I'd much rather d--.
Flash set Lois down gently. It was two seconds after the hour. After a moment to regain her equilibrium, Lois turned and saw the Metropolis sky-line looming in the immediate distance. She looked back at Flash, who was smiling. He was smiling, but the corners of his mouth weren't drawn back nearly as far as usual. Though he refused to let it show, he was still tired. The suit was wrinkled, and it was obvious he hadn't cleaned it in a few days. But he tried not to let it show. Just as Lois tried not to let on that she was still getting air-sick from these little jaunts.
"Lois, are you going to be okay?" he asked, his concern quite genuine.
"Yeah," she replied, massaging her stomach for a second. "It'll pass. Just gotta ignore it for a while."
"Ah, the tried and true approach," Longfellow called as she walked from the little diner. The three stood together, sandwiched between two semi's, blocked from view. They shook hands. "Ignore something long enough and it'll go away," she finished, smiling. It looked as though she hadn't slept much in the past while either. Three zombies, one with stomach-pains, one in a red and yellow spandex ensemble, all standing in the shadows of two monster trucks, at a mostly- empty diner, five miles from Metropolis, a city with explosives set on her moorings. Oh yeah. Just a typical day in the annals of Flash's Believe It Or Not. He was just about ready to hand the whole jumble back to Ripley. "Anything new I should know about?" Longfellow asked, not really expecting much. Lois smiled at Flash, and vice versa. Margaret watched that, then frowned. "What? What's going on?" No answer. "Have you found something? What've you got?"
"Oh, not much," Flash said offhandedly.
"Yeah," Lois chimed it, looking nonchalant. "Not really much of anything."
"Well, why don't you tell me what it is that you haven't got much of?"
"Just a way to find William's home base."
"What is this, baseball?" Margaret asked, excited, grasping one of Lois' biceps in each of her hands. "We've got him? Are you sure? What have you got?"
"Hey! Not so hard!" Lois squealed as Margaret's grip tightened with each word.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she apologized, removing her grip. Her hands enclosed one another, fiddling with excitement and nerves. "Well?" she asked. Lois held out a folder to her, which held the clown's- the *informant's* sheaf of papers. Trying to imitate the Flash, Agent Longfellow tore open the manilla folder and quickly scanned its contents. "This is great!" she cried aloud. "Do we know where he is living?"
"Sorry, agent, we're not that close," Lois admitted. "We could've done this ourselves, but we will probably need the FBI anyway, so you might as well help us out. We have a number of stores, restaurants and specialty shops that he's given his patronage. We also have the photographs and some receipts from the places he shopped. We need you to work on finding all the various places, and determine where he's operating."
"Now, we've come up with two scenarios," Flash began. "Either he is staying within a close proximity of his living-space, or he is leaving that area to shop and eat, so as not to draw attention to his home-territory, so to speak. If the shops all are compacted together, he is most likely there. If they are wide-spread and scatter-shot, we look where there is nothing." They both looked to Longfellow.
"Okay. But what if he's moving around, never staying in one place for long? How do we find him then?" Lois and Flash exchanged glances.
"We thought of that, too," Lois said.
"We figure he wouldn't do that. He knows I'm looking for him, so we don't believe he'd risk drawing attention to himself by constantly moving around all the time. Besides," he said, raising a hand up to point at the folder in Longfellow's hand. "Look at those pictures. Judging from the only photograph you had of him, it looks as though he's not even bothering to disguise himself. Either he's getting lazy, or..."
"Have you done a psyche study on him?" Lois asked quietly.
"Yes," Margaret affirmed.
"We already know he's unstable," Flash said. "But I think we can guess on the rest."
"He's like a political terrorist," Lois said calmly. "He's been trained to disappear from sight, but he craves attention at the same time. He's done what nobody before has done. He's beaten Superman, and without even a punch thrown." Flash thought about bringing up the gun-shot, but he knew what she meant. "He has one of the largest cities in the world by the cahunas, and no one has touched him. He wants everyone to know that, at least in his own twisted logic, he's saved Metropolis from the threat of Superman. But, again, all his training forbids him from doing so. Instead, he takes unnecessary risks. He walks around in broad daylight--"
"Shops at the local drug store--"
"Neglects to wear make-up--"
"Allows a half-drunk bum to photograph him--"
"Simply throws receipts away when it would be a high priority to burn them--"
"Allows himself to be followed--"
"His movements recorded for over a day--"
"And the notes to fall into the hands of his worst enemies--"
The words had come fast and furious, one on top of the other, Flash following Lois following Flash and so on, no breaks in between. Margaret turned her head back and forth, like at a tennis match, to follow it all. "Did you practice that?" she asked.
"Just get to work on that info, okay?" Lois asked.
"Affirmative," Margaret replied, smiling for the first time in weeks. Lois and Flash walked clear of the two trucks, while Longfellow stayed behind to look through the documents some more.
Flash turned and looked at her. "Agent," he said, getting her attention. "Were we right? About the profile?"
There was a short pause. Margaret looked at the papers for a second, closed up the folder, and looked back at Flash. "Dead on," she said. Flash smiled, the weariness and exhaustion gone from his body and mind. And then they were gone, a red streak making its way toward Metropolis. Margaret stood alone in the parking lot. "Good luck," she said. She smiled, got in her car, and drove away.
"WOW, THIS IS A REAL honor," Perry said, shaking Flash's gloved hand vigorously.
"Yeah, it's too bad Clark isn't here to meet you," Jimmy said, shaking Flash's hand after the Chief.
"Clark is taking a vacation, I'm afraid," Perry explained.
"That's okay. I can always see him another time," Flash said.
"Okay, enough chit-chat," Lois broke in, closing off the conversation. "We've got big work to do." Lois dragged Flash off by the hand.
"Lois certainly has a way with men, doesn't she, Jimmy?" Perry said, as the two watched her dragging Flash off. Jimmy laughed, his arms folded across his chest.
"She sure does, Chief. A real way with men in tights, too."
"All right," Perry said, standing from the desk he was leaning against. "Enough tittle-tattle. We've got a paper to put out. Jimmy!"
"Yeah, Chief?" Jimmy asked.
"Go down to copy, okay?"
"Sure, Chief," Jimmy said, glad to be something other than a gopher. "What should I do there?"
"See if they have any coffee. Our machine is busted." Jimmy nearly folded. Perry started to his office.
"Yes, Chief," Jimmy said, heading off to copy.
Lois sat at her computer, Flash standing over her, as she searched the databanks, looking for all the places of business from the receipts. It was taking too long, though. At this pace, it was going to take a quite a while.
"Excuse me," Flash said, evicting Lois from her seat.
"Hey!" she said in surprise. The next thing she knew, she was standing, looking over Flash's shoulder, while two blurs flew over the keyboard. The computer was having a very hard time keeping up with the speed of Flash's input. But she'd seen someone type like this before, and the computer kept up favorably well then. She missed those hands; she missed them very much.
Before she quite knew what was happening, Flash was pulling some papers from the printer.
"Okay, Lois, let's go."
"Huh?' she said, lost in memories of Clark and having a difficult time in coming out of the trance.
"William," he said. "Papers," he said, waving them in front of Lois' face. "Hide-out, location of. See bibliography of sources at the end of the book."
"Huh?" she repeated, Flash's jokes only confusing her more. Flash sighed and looked over his shoulder at an open window. Lois saw where he looked, and shook her head when he met her face again.
"Oh, no, you don't, Mister. I know what you're thinking, so don't even think it, okay?" Flash smiled, taking her into his arms. "Do you even *know* what floor we're o--" Papers flew around the room, floating to a jumbled mess on the floor, a streak leaving the office, traveling down the facade of the Planet, onto the road, and away.
"They sure know how to make an exit," Jimmy said, returning with a mug of coffee for the Chief.
THE FLASH DEPOSITED LOIS ON the filthy ground of an alleyway. He held his index finger to his mouth in a firm gesture. It silenced Lois' question. He put the palm of his right hand out to her, signifying that she should stay put. She didn't like the idea much but was queasy and lost and didn't feel in the mood to argue.
The Flash disappeared into a clothing outlet across the road, reappearing instantly with a bundle of clothes. He mouthed silently, "I'm sorry about this." Lois tilted her head to the side in confusion. The next thing she knew, Flash zoomed around her for a millisecond, and then stood before her again, her clothes and her purse in a bundle. Half-freaking out, she covered her body instantly with her arms. Flash laughed a little. Lois looked down at herself, her face molded with anger, embarrassment and confusion. She was wearing the clothes he had purchased from the store. She looked up at him, about to ask him what the hell was going on. He held up his index finger, this time in a 'just a second' sign. He left and returned in an instant, her clothes and purse and everything she *had* been wearing gone.
"Okay, you can talk now," Flash told her. She slapped her hand across his face.
"Ow!" they both said in unison.
"What was that for?" Flash said, a hand to his cheek.
"For stripping me in public, you moron," Lois answered, her left hand caressing her right. "What the hell was all that about?"
"Sorry, Lois," he said. "I didn't hurt your hand, did I?"
"You've got a heck of a chin on you, I'll say that much. Now, I think you've got some 'splainin' to do."
"Sure. You see, William has had you bugged for a while now. Since he got here, I figure. As well as your car, your apartment, Clark's, the Planet, and so on and so forth." Lois looked stunned. "I've been wanting to tell you some things since I....*arrived*, but now is not the time. We've got to catch this guy, then we can talk as much as we like, okay? Are you with me?"
"Y-yeah, yeah. Yeah," she said, more confident. "I'm with you. What's the plan?"
"We were right: it's scenario number one. All the shopping spots are confined to one small area. I have the names and locations of all hotels, motels, apartment buildings, everything. There are also a few abandoned and condemned buildings to look at. This might take me a couple minutes. Here," he said, handing her a quarter.
"What am I supposed to do with this?" she asked.
"Call Longfellow, and have her call Doctor Klein. Give her this address, and have them meet you here. I'll find where he's hiding, then come back here. Klein has been working on a detonator-sensor-model like the one William has on his belt. He may have a way of fooling it or something. But we'll worry about all that when I've found him, okay? Just call. I'll be back soon."
"Okay," Lois said. "Good luck." But he was already gone. He had been explaining in a voice so fast she'd barely been able to follow his words. In a stupor, Lois walked across the road and up to a pay-phone. She dropped in the quarter. She dialed Longfellow's number. She waited for her to pick up.
IN THE LATE MORNING SUN, the old buildings were cast with shadows, making them look gloomy and dark. Flash shot across the landscape, searching every building he came to. He searched some warehouses on the wharf, some squatter houses in the outlying sections, the hotels and motels, everything. He searched everywhere except for... except for...
"Oh, God no," he thought, turning on his heels and speeding back for Lois.
LOIS AWAKENED: OR, MORE APPROPRIATELY, came to. She'd just started to give Margaret the address when she'd been clocked from behind. She tried to move her hands but couldn't. Great, she thought. I'm tied up. What comic book story am I living now? She was on her stomach. After listening for a bit and hearing nothing, she rolled onto her back.
"Oh!" she said, a little surprised. She wasn't tied up. She was just lying on her arms, and they'd gone to sleep. She began to wave them limply in the air. Life returned to them eventually, and the tingling died down. Lois looked at her watch. She'd been out for fifteen minutes. But where was she? Lois walked up to a window and gazed out. She was in the building that comprised one wall of the alley they'd been in. She could see down into it. Another window provided her a view of the pay-phone she'd used. Damn, she thought. And Flash was off searching the city for this! She cursed herself, then turned to study the room.
It was pretty much bare. A few crates, some packing material, some grocery bags, a small refrigerator. A number of windows. Windows. Hmmm, she thought. Maybe I can force one. She went back to the window, ready to try to bust the lock. The lock was....*un*-locked. The window was open. What is this? she thought. She examined the next window, and the next, and the next, and... They were all open. She was ready to open one, but noticed she was on the fourth floor, with nothing in the alley to cushion her fall. A thought occurred to her. A *ridiculous* thought. Lois, looking about cautiously, approached the only door in the undivided floor. The dead-bolt was open, the chain dangling, the door, seemingly unlocked. Slowly, gingerly, she began to turn the knob. There was no resistance. The door was unlocked. She began to turn it the rest of the way when a voice caught her from behind.
"I really wouldn't, Lois." She turned quickly at the sound. William sat on the ground, his back to a crate, where he'd been hidden from her sight before. His eyes were closed, and he was sitting in the lotus position. "You see, were you to open that door, a great number of bombs would go poof." Lois stepped away from the door. "Much better. Why don't you have a seat?"
"No thanks," she said, keeping her back against the wall. "I'd rather stand."
"Certainly." He continued meditating. Lois backed into a corner, huddling away from this strange man, thinking, Flash, where are you?
Flash stood at the door to the loft. Angered, he read the note pinned to it again.
'To whom it may concern:
Dear Flash, I'm afraid you are out of luck. This entire room is rigged as a detonator. If the perimeter is violated this city will be destroyed. Believe me, I have nothing against you. My goal was to drive the curse of Superman from this planet, and I have. I've no quarrel with you, unless it is your intention to disarm the bombs, thus allowing Superman to return.
I have Lois. I have this city. You are trespassing. I must ask you to leave.
"I am not amused," Flash said quietly. He left the building and found Agent Longfellow, another two agents, and a truck from S.T.A.R. Labs on the curb. "He's got the building rigged," he said to them.
"Sorry it took so long," Longfellow said. "We didn't get the full address from Lois. Is she in there?" she asked, thumbing toward the building.
"Yeah," Flash nodded. They stared at one another for a second. Doctor Klein stepped from the rear of his van and approached them.
"Flash," he said, shaking his hand. "What's the situation?"
"Well, Doctor, it seems William has Lois with him in the building, and all the ways into it are wired to the detonator. He says if we try to enter it, the city will explode."
"Sounds bad," Klein said. There was some silence as Flash, Longfellow, her two associates, Dr. Klein and one technician stared at the structure.
"Doctor," Flash finally said, remembering something rather important.
"Have you found a way to circumvent the heat- sensitive detonator of his?"
"Oh!" Klein said, having totally forgotten his only task. "Yes, yes, I'm sorry. Well, Flash, we've been doing some tests, and...well, it doesn't look good."
Flash frowned. This was going from bad to worse. "There's nothing we can do to disarm it?" he asked hopelessly.
"Oh, there is one way," Klein admitted.
"There is?" Flash said, perking up. "What? What is it?"
"Well, you see, the method has a catch. It takes time, even if only a small amount, for heat to rise. As long as the device is not damaged at all, if it could be removed fast enough and placed in a TLD container--"
"A what?" Flash asked, confused.
"A TLD," the tech said. "It stands for Transmitter/Laser Damper. It is a shell composed of various kinds of metal, wire, foil, glass, and computer-controlled fields that makes it impossible for any transmission, laser- or particle- beam, or anything of that sort, to escape."
"Yes, anyway," Klein continued, "as I was saying... What was I saying?"
"You were explaining that if the device could be removed, undamaged, quick enough and placed in the TLD, then..."
"Then what?" he asked.
"I don't know! That's what you were about to say!"
"Oh!" Klein said again. "Oh, yes. Sorry. If it is placed in the TLD quick enough, then the signal cannot be transmitted to the bombs to detonate."
"What if it's a continuous feed signal? What if the disruption of the field sets off the bomb?"
"Oh, there isn't anything like that. At least, not that we know of." Flash turned to Longfellow.
"The FBI doesn't have anything of that sort."
"Okay, that's fine. I could do that easily!"
"But, if you'll excuse me, the process would have to be done *extremely* fast, with no room for error. And I mean fast." Flash looked at Klein for a second, then spoke easily, no longer tired, with much conviction behind his voice.
"You forget, Doctor. I'm the Flash." His smile was as broad as it had been since he'd arrived in Metropolis.
"There's another catch, though," the technician put in.
"What's that?" Flash asked.
"The one TLD we have that's outside of the experimental stage has a very small holding-capacity."
"How small?" he asked.
"About this size," the tech said, taking out his beeper. Flash smiled again, laughing with relief.
"Has he seen the device?" Flash asked Klein.
"Well, um, no, actually. He's been working solely with the TLD."
"Don't worry, son," he said to the young tech. "That's plenty big enough. Now, where is it?"
"Well, it's back at the Lab, under lock and key," the tech responded. "We can't take it out of the building. We're building it for the government, and our contract clearly states that it must remain within S.T.A.R. premises at all times. Removing it would put it under the risk of being damaged or stolen." Flash looked over at Longfellow.
"You have my authorization," she said. Flash was gone for ten seconds.
"Sorry," he said, holding an over-sized briefcase. "It took me a bit to find it." The tech looked rather lost. "Has it got its own power-source?"
"Yes," Klein responded. "It works on a principal along the lines of the atomic-clocks. It differs in only one major area though. Whereas--"
"Okay, no need to go into detail," Flash broke in. "Now the only problem we have is getting into the building." Flash, and the others, thought for a while. The entire time that building stared back at them. And Flash knew that Lois was in there, alone, with that maniac. He had to think! He *had* to think! He *had* to-- That's it! he thought. "That's it!" he called.
"What's it?" just about everybody said in surprise.
"The detonators are working on lasers, right? The sensors, I mean."
"Right," Klein said.
"And lasers give off ozone, right?"
"Right," the doctor replied.
"And it seems logical that William would rig the entrances with laser/motion-detectors, doesn't it?"
"If he wants it hooked into the detonator on his belt, then yes."
"And he'd have to, wouldn't he, or else, if he used trip-wires or some such, he'd have to build or have in his possession a second detonator. That's too much. If he did have to move around, how could he dismantle it? He's trained to have and use only the basics. He'd only use the one, on his belt. It gives him the most maneuverability and control over the bombs. Am I right?" Some nodded their heads weakly. "That's it! Of course that's it! He *hasn't* rigged the building! It's so obvious!" Longfellow began to question his mode of thinking, as well as to ask how he knew there was no ozone in the air, but the costumed-hero was already gone.
LOIS WAS AFRAID. SHE HATED herself more than anything for it, but she was. She was locked, in a way, within a room. And in that room was a man. And in that man was.... She didn't want to know. She didn't even want to consider it. What could be within the heart and mind of a man who would place the lives of millions of unsuspecting people on the chopping block just to get rid of a person who he felt was causing them harm? What sort of logic must he employ to convince himself he was right? What twisted logic? What sort of person was ready to sentence millions to a fiery death, and, meanwhile.... meditate?
That scared her the most. Any run-of-the-mill psychos she could handle. The ones who screamed, and ranted, and yelled, and made threats, and carried big guns. They were the push-overs. The ones who were all talk usually had little weight to put behind the threats. They never scared Lois. But this guy frightened her. Not because he was able to stand up to Superman and win; not because he had the power, at any time he wished, to blow up the city; not because of any of the things you might think would put the fear of God into most people. What scared Lois Lane the most was that this man was meditating. He didn't speak a word. He looked like a person who had everything under control: and *knew* it. He didn't wear a gun. He didn't have a knife near-by. He hardly wore any clothing. He was wearing a pair of very loose pants, and that was all. No shirt, no socks. He didn't wear a watch. There was no TV, or radio, or clock. Only a small refrigerator and an even smaller cook-stove. There was a small, silver box clipped to his pants. The detonator. He wasn't sweating in the heat, or pondering the morality of his actions, or spouting rhetoric to his helpless damsel in distress. He ignored her presence altogether. The last thing he'd said was "Certainly." He hadn't moved a muscle. He had full control of himself, and full use of his environment. There wasn't a lock or bar in the place, but Lois knew there was no getting out. She could yell 'Superman' till her lungs exploded, but how would it help? He was gone. Where? She'd been asking herself that for a long time. Had he found a planet which was habitable for him?
Lois began to cry, silently, sinking down to the floor in the corner of the room, drawing her knees to her chin. Superman! she thought as loud as she could. What had Ma said earlier? That Clark was just a shout away? That he'd always be there when I needed him? But that wasn't true, no matter how much she wanted to believe it. He was gone. Superman was gone. And now, even Flash was gone. They'd all abandoned her, and left her to the tender mercies of this raving...of this *non*-raving lunatic. Of this perfectly calm, perfectly silent, lunatic.
"Clark," she said, barely above a whisper.
FLASH WAS NOTHING BUT A blur. There is little else to describe what he was. He was red, and he was yellow, and he was *fast*. He pushed himself harder than he'd ever pushed before. He ran once around the block, to build up speed, returned with a full head of steam, scaled the stairs to the fifth floor, smashed through the door like it was made of paper, and found himself within the lion's den. Only he wasn't afraid; he wasn't hesitant; he wasn't lost. He had drive, purpose, motivation, strength, and a number of weeks' worth of pent up rage and frustration to fuel him. He released every hold he'd ever put on his powers before. He simply flew into the room, finding William easily, and started for him.
At full blast.
THE NEXT INSTANT, LOIS WAS standing, amazed, shocked, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Her knees were glued together, her toes pointed inward. One hand was covering her mouth. She was amazed...amazed...amazed. She rewound it in her mind. Played it over again. Watched it in slow-motion. Then again. And once more. She was sitting on the floor. Tears were beginning to come. She whispered Clark's name, and then...and then...and then the door was all over the room, and William was spread-eagle, and splayed a number of yards from the spot where he'd been sitting. Also, the little silver detonator was no longer apparent on William's belt.
Okay, that brought her back to the present. Anything else she was overlooking? Lois looked around and check- marked what her eyes met. One: front door all around the room. Two: William splayed onto the floor. Was that it? As far as Lois could tell, the world hadn't blown up around her. That was a good thing. Anything else? Anything else inside the loft that was different? Oh! Oh, yeah! she thought. There is that guy dressed in red across on the far side of the room. He had, in his firm grasp, a weirdly shaped, oversized brief-case. That was about all. Wait! Flash! What's going on? she asked herself.
"Flash?" Lois said, in a voice which certainly wasn't strong enough to carry the length of the loft. Flash acted as though he'd heard though. He looked up at her. It was clear he was spent. He looked like a person who'd need to look behind him with a set of binoculars to see his limitations. Flash fell to his knees, leaning on one hand while grasping the case with his other. Flash gave her the most tired grin in the world, but it spoke volumes. The smile said 'It's okay.' 'Don't worry, it'll be fine.' 'The worst is over, Lois.' And it kept on speaking to her. It kept on talking and boosting her strength. She knew that now, though she didn't know how it'd come about, Clark could return home, and they could be together again, and they could be married, and love each other, and love, and love, and her love gave her strength. And it was strength that made Lois Lois. For the first time in so long, Lois was becoming Lois again.
William was beginning to recover from the strong blow Flash had given him when swiping the detonator. Shakily, he stood. He began to take note of the change in his surroundings. He found the door open, his bluff called, his detonator gone, his power gone, his plan failed. He began to lose the air of confidence that made him so strong.
He turned, however, to find the Flash far across the room, practically in a slumped-pile. He saw a chance to escape, to rebuild, to start it all over again-- and he would. He would fix his one mistake. He would keep his manual detonator separate from the automatic. He was planning his new mission. He would escape, and do it right the next time. And there was nothing to stop him. His strength was gone, but it was beginning to resurface. He turned towards the door, and started walking.
Only to stop immediately. Lois stood, immovable, between him and the exit. He was shaken and in no mood to fool around. With a scowl on his face, he advanced, ready with a simple, yet effective, arm/leg take-down maneuver. In his pain and shock-clouded mind, he underestimated Lois. With a swift couple of moves, Lois had swept William to the ground, and put a heel to his forehead. Stunned, William began to stand again, ready to hurt this stupid girl.
"You'll regret that," he said. He raised himself to his knees and palms, giving Lois a clear shot. She took it. Her foot shot forward toward his exposed rib-cage. Before contact was made, though, William's arm caught her leg in a tight, iron grip. He was ready to snap her bone in two. Before he was able, though, two quick, lightning punches fell on the base of his skull, and then she dropped down, her loose knee slamming onto his hand that supported him, her elbows, clamped together, bashing into his head.
Just as his plan looked like it could rise from the ashes, William found himself destroyed by the most unlikely of people. His world went dark around him.
AS LOIS AND FLASH RESTED, bandaged and exhausted, on the sidelines, the FBI and police went to work. William was taken away, unconscious, under heavy guard. The building was sealed off. The case with the detonator was taken away by a group consisting of some members of S.T.A.R. and the bomb-squad. Various teams were being dispatched to collect, remove, and detonate all the explosives. The FBI had had stolen a certain number of explosives. All were accounted for. Also, they could track any extra bombs by way of the detonator. It would be taken care of.
Lois leaned against Flash, and he against her. The weeks of trials and tribulations had come to an end, finally. All the long days and short nights were over.
A forensics team arrived, entered the building, and began to search it for evidence. A number of people had gathered. A crowd grew along the perimeter of the 'Police line- Do not cross' strip. Camera-trucks were arriving to cover the event. Things were getting too hectic. Lois looked around at the gathering throng. The reporters. She was used to being *part* of the crowd, not the focus of it. After all the stress, it was an extra thing she couldn't handle. The straw, as it was, that broke the camel's back.
"Okay," Flash said, standing and offering Lois his hand. "Let's get out of here."
"Yeah, thanks." She looked a little hesitant.
"Don't worry," he assured her. "I'll take it easy." Lois let Flash scoop her into his arms. They smiled weakly at one another. What a threadbare couple they looked. Just as he was ready to take off, there was the hint of gunfire off in the distance. Flash's head turned quickly to face the sound. He looked back at Lois.
"Don't worry about it," she said. Flash set her down. "Go. Go ahead. I'm used to it." He still looked bad about leaving her. He looked like he wanted to be with her; to talk with her. She looked deep into the visors of his eyes. "Go," she said, her hand on his chest, over his heart. Flash put his hand over hers for a second, then removed it and put it on Lois' own heart. He smiled and was gone. Lois watched, even long after he'd gone. She was very tired. "Agent!" she called out as she saw a familiar face in the crowd of strangers.
"Lois," Longfellow replied, making for her. "What can I do?" she asked when she got to the exhausted reporter.
"I'd love a lift home," she said.
"Sure, Lois," Margaret said, putting an arm over Lois' shoulder. "No problem." She led Lois toward her sedan.
IT WAS STARTING INTO THE late afternoon, and Lois couldn't stand being alone in her apartment any longer. She left, hailed a cab, and went to the Daily Planet. All her coworkers greeted her with warm words and warm smiles. Jimmy and Perry were there to welcome her and congratulate her on beating "that creep William." She thanked everyone. But she wasn't in a mood to talk, not right then. They all understood and gave her some space. Perry told her not to worry about getting the story in. She'd been through a lot. She thanked him. She had some bumps and bruises, but she'd had much worse.
She sat at her computer and began to type. Ideas flowed out onto disk, and the pain dissolved as the words escaped through her fingers. In a silent moment, as the hustle- and-bustle died down, she heard the phone in Perry's office ring twice, and then the sound of Perry as he said, "Yeah!" in his loud, accented, deep voice. There was a short pause, then Perry's voice sounded again, even louder than normal. "Well, I'll be! Clark!!" Lois turned her head to face the office.
"Clark?" she said quietly.
"How ya' doin', son?" Perry said into the receiver. "That's great! How's Trinidad? Hah-ha! That's great! You what? Oh! You heard about all the excitement back home, eh? No! No, don't worry! Lois is fine! Yeah, yeah, she's here right now, working on the story. Oh, you can say that again! You sure can't put her down! D'you want to speak with her? I'll get her. What? What? Oh, no, that's okay. I'll tell her you called. What? Oh, yeah, I'll tell her you said to take it easy. No. No, she'll understand. Yeah. Okay, take care of yourself, Clark. Yeah, bye." Perry hung the phone up and walked from the office. "Lois, that was Clark on the phone!" Lois stood from her desk, her back feeling the warm winds wafting in through an open window. Perry began to say something, but he stopped, looking past Lois. "Well, I'll be! Superman!" Lois, and every other person in the place, turned and faced the man who'd just floated in through the open window. Lois almost collapsed. Everyone else cheered. Superman acknowledged the applause, smiling and waving.
"Hello everyone," he said. Perry marched over, grabbing the Man of Steel's arm and hand even before he'd touched the floor.
"My, has this city missed you, son," he said.
"The feeling is mutual, believe me, Mr. White."
"Son, for Elvis' sake, call me Perry!"
"Of course, Perry," he said. Jimmy came over and punched Superman in the shoulder.
"Metropolis was really hurting without you, Superman."
"Thanks, Jimmy. I really appreciate it." His smile warmed the shy crowd, and questions began to fly. He finally held out his palm to quiet them down. "I'm afraid I've got a couple of jobs to do before I can go back to business-as-usual, folks. Number one on my list is to give a personal interview to Miss Lane; picking up the full scoop on the happenings since I've been gone. And, number two, I promised Clark I'd bring a certain betrothed-reporter to join him at his beach-bungalow in the Caribbean." Perry smiled broadly. "I assume you can do without her for a week or two?"
"Sure, son. You go ahead. She needs the rest, even if she won't admit it." The public-private conversation ended, Lois' fate decided, Superman walked over and lifted her into his arms. She couldn't say a word. Not until, that is, they were almost out the window.
"Don't worry, Perry! I'll email my story in from Trinidad!" And they were gone. Perry and Jimmy laughed.
"That Lois. A worker up to the end," Perry said.
"You can say that again," Jimmy concurred. Perry looked around at all his grinning employees.
"What is this, a happy hour? Why's everybody milling around? Everyone back to work. Jimmy!"
"I know, Chief. I know. The coffee's on its way."
THEY WERE BOTH SILENT. LOIS abandoned herself to the warmth and strength of Clark's chest. The rising and swelling of his chest. Clark surrendered himself to the warmth of Lois' hair, burying his nose into it and breathing deeply. Then he rested his cheek upon it. The city swept past quickly beneath. They lost themselves in rediscovering each other. Their hands searched one another. They flew over the FBI building. A high-pitched whine reached Clark's supersensitive ears. He stopped in mid-air.
"I'm really sorry, Lois. This'll only take a second." She understood. She didn't want to part with him, but she could manage a couple seconds. But not much more.
Superman dropped her on a bench in some shade outside the FBI building, then entered. A guard led him to Agent Margaret Longfellow's room. But that wasn't who greeted him. It was a man.
"Superman, hello," he said.
"Hello," he replied, shaking the outstretched hand. "Will this take long? I've got something I need to--"
"Don't worry. This will only be a second. I figured I should explain a few things. I thought you might want to know how William came by the knowledge of your alternate identity." Superman tried to cover his shock.
"What are you talking about?"
"Don't worry, Mister Kent," the strange agent said calmly. "The FBI has known for a long time. You are a very public figure, and we felt the need important to investigate you closely. We feared for reasons of National Security, in case you ever turned against our government, we needed a safety-line." Superman, Clark, was stunned despite himself. "Don't worry. We know you'd never go bad. We fight the same battles. We work together. Our aims are aligned. We don't doubt your allegiance, but it's our job to be prepared for any and all eventualities. Very, *very* few know of this information. William was one of them. It was tragic that he went bad, and lucky that Flash was able to help us in reclaiming him, and the bombs. We will watch closer in the future. I promise you there will be no more problems." Casually, the agent shook Superman's hand.
Dismissed, stunned, Superman left. He gathered Lois up, silently, and took off into the air. They knew. He couldn't come to terms with that. Yes, yes, he could, he thought. How could he think he'd be able to elude everyone? The government? It was too much to hope for. In a way, he supposed, he was lucky. The people loved him, and the government refused to mess with PR. Not to mention the fact that Superman *did* help them. He had no reason to fear. He knew there was nothing to fear. If ever he was in a similar predicament, he now had a very powerful alley. He'd leave it at that. At least for now.
"What are you thinking about?" Lois asked him, her head against his chest, not seeing his face. She knew when he was troubled. Somehow she knew.
"I-it's nothing, Lois. We have plenty of time to talk. I'll tell you all about it later." He hugged her tighter.
A short time later, after a lazy flight, Superman and Lois touched down on the warm beach of Trinidad. They kissed and caressed and fell to the beach. This brought back a feeling of deja vu. Different beach, different sand, same couple, same flaring passions. Clark- Superman pulled away, looking off to the distance.
"Lois, I'm sorry. I'll be back." Superman flew off in a bolt. Lois lay, her shoes off and her shirt half-unbuttoned, on the beach, shocked. She was then about to blow up into tears, but a voice- a twangy voice- silenced her.
"What's wrong, Lois?" Flash asked her. Lois jumped to her feet, turned and faced him.
"Oh my god! Flash, you scared the daylights out of me," she said, trying to quietly wipe away her tears. "What're you doing here?" she asked, half smiling, half crying, her arms waving loosely about.
"Oh," he said, "I came to see you." The vibration in his voice slowly died away until it came out normally with the 'you.' Lois almost died. Flash brought his hands to his head, and pulled his mask free. Lois fell to her knees, looking up at him.
"Oh my god!" she cried, realization dawning. "Clark!"