By Debby Stark
Summary: Lex Luthor plots to kill Superman with a secret weapon, "Wanda Detroit" sings the blues at a dockside pub, and Punkin Kent finds a friend in Superman. A continuation of the fanfic "Seconds Helping," the full title is "I'll Second That, or, Forget Me — Please!" This is the fourth of the author's five stories written to take the place of the episodes in the five-part arc. I'll Second That or Forget Me—Please!
Part Four of My Rewrite of the "Wedding Arc"
This continues my rewrite of the five-episodes dealing with the "wedding" of Lois and Clark. The first three parts are available from me at Debby@swcp.com or ftp://ftp.swcp.com/pub/users/dstark Stories (as: ill.knot.pronounce.txt, double.entendre.txt, and seconds.helping.txt), or eventually they'll probably be on the fanfic index. I am still certain that all the below could have been translated to the screen. We could have had a more interesting, character-building time and wound up in about the same place but with no characters irretrievably damaged.
Review of previous three episodes: shots of the wedding, with emphasis on Clark's face such that new viewers realize he knows Something Is Wrong. Shots from the reception: "Lois" offending people. Clark realizing the depth of his problems. Shot in limo, Clark asking Clone if he can call her Punkin. Party at Clark's place. Shot of real Lois's crack about Luthor's wig. Shots of Clone changing clothes, slurping frog, confronting Clark, saying "It's… time to go… to bed…" Shot of monitor translation of Clone saying to Clark, "To sleep together…" Clark in bed with her, touching her. Shot of Lois's face falling, tears beginning. Shot of how Lois escapes Luthor. Shot of Superman talking to Punkin, seeing Lois, leaving to save blimp. Shot of Lois blending with parade, saying she doesn't want to remember, striking her head. Shots from foiled attempt to catch Luthor in the bank. Shot of Clark helping Clone outside bank. Shot of Wanda proposing to go with Red. Shot of Clark talking to Henderson about scientist wanting to sell a gun to Luthor. Shot of Superman on ledge at night, tears evident]
[Opening credits/theme song, abbreviated to wring out more time for more commercials oblivious to episode's theme. Over the following several paragraphs, more credits: guest stars played by the same actors or reasonable approximations; writer: Debby Stark; director: tentative - Quentin Tarantino]
It was almost two o'clock on a quiet Saturday morning.
Clark Kent searched through his closet and chest of drawers for clothing that he hadn't worn in quite some time and that no one, least of all Lex Luthor, would recognize. It had to look like clothing worn by a desperate mad scientist facing poverty.
He settled on black, which was beginning to match his mood. He considered taking along the supersuit, wearing it under this disguise, but it seemed risky so he left it behind. He didn't need Superman: the guy hadn't been pulling his weight around here lately anyhow.
He dressed, locked up his apartment, and then sat on the steps outside, facing the still, silent street. About 15 minutes earlier he had, in the suit and at superspeed, loosened and extinguished the bulb in the nearest street light. There was still plenty of light from the other fixtures along the avenue to give the neighborhood the illusion of safety, but his particular little corner of the world was plunged into darkness.
Again, he thought, appropriate.
This escapade better work…
Inspector Henderson drove up in one of the most bland, four- door sedans that Clark had ever seen and almost didn't see, its arrival being quiet and unobtrusive. The man reached over and unlocked the passenger-side door. "Good choice of clothes," he said. "We're going to my house. I've got the makeup and my wife knows how to apply it. I have a hat you can borrow, too, just don't lose it if you can help it."
"I'll try not to," Clark said and then thought, I've lost too many things already… "And the weapon?"
"No problem. Betty captured Harbert and it's a good thing because she's been on edge since yesterday morning when the Clone— Punkin?"
"Interesting name… when Punkin got away. She delivered the gun to me first, so the Mrs. and I got a look at him before she took him to the station to book him. He's about your size, but you're broader and tanner. It won't matter in the darkness. I asked Betty to come by if she's done before 4, but she doesn't know what we're doing. If you pass her inspection, I'll have no choice but to let you try this foolhardy plan of yours."
Clark noted the twinkle in the man's eye. The Inspector was really excited about this. Clark almost said "Ours, *our* plan," but reminded himself that he had been planning to do all this originally, with or without help, so it wouldn't be fair to try to share blame if things went wrong. He decided instead to say, "Well, I'm good at disguises usually," to coax the man into hinting how much he suspected about that.
"We'll see…" Henderson said simply. He said no more as they drove through the quiet streets to the suburban location of the Inspector's home.
Mrs. Henderson was a gracious, quiet woman with a gleam in her eye equal to that of her husband's; it told Clark that she was glad she'd been invited to help. After accepting a cup of coffee and talking with her for a few minutes in her kitchen, Clark saw that she was in complete control of the household. Henderson took a secondary role and apparently enjoyed it, sitting when she told him to, or rushing to fetch a towel or find a different hat.
Mrs. Henderson explained that she had graduated from beauty college and run her own salon for a few years. She also helped out in the makeup department of the local playhouse, so she not only had the skill to change a person's appearance but had been able to borrow the necessities which the Metropolis Police Department could not provide.
She was glad Clark had shaved recently (his beard grew slowly but he didn't mention that) and that his hair was rather short (though she thought he'd look more charming if he let it grow a little longer). This made it easier to apply the fake reddish beard, scraggly moustache and poorly-cut wig, all last worn by a villain in some melodrama put on at the playhouse.
"You'll look like a hard-traveling fugitive from the law. Just don't try twiddling the moustache while you go nar-har-har!" she warned, imitating of Snideley Whiplash. The fake hair wouldn't come off easily though, she added, in case he found himself in the middle of a fight. She paused and raised an eyebrow at her husband; it was clear she already felt protective toward Clark.
"He won't get into any fights," Henderson assured her. "We'll be watching very carefully."
"If I do," Clark said, "I have some back up." He glanced at Henderson. "You know: Back. Up."
Henderson, who had insisted on this very thing two days earlier but for Superman, cracked a barely visible smile.
Clark felt a little better.
He also didn't recognize himself almost 45 minutes later when she showed him to the big mirror over the dresser in the master bedroom. "Wow, this is great…" He touched the moustache. It looked like someone else touching it, but this really was his own face his fingers felt. "This is going to work just fine."
"Those contacts look good, too. Let me know if they hurt your eyes."
"They don't." He had claimed he wanted to see everything she did and had made sure he was well bearded before taking off his glasses and letting her slip the blue contacts in.
"You can see all right?" Henderson asked.
"Ah, things are blurry out beyond about ten feet, I think." He had once heard his mom say this; he added the vague wave she had used to indicate the uncertain distance. "But that's okay, it won't be for long. What did Harbert talk like? What tone of voice did he use? After all, he might have talked to Luthor or Asabi over the phone to arrange their meeting."
Henderson agreed. Harbert had been terse and breathless, melodramatic and angry, but probably not only because he'd been caught. It seemed like his natural method of communication— overbearing. "Like Lois when she's in a snit, I bet," he said, "but less believable and with a lower, whiny-er voice."
Like Mom says I get sometimes, Clark sighed. Not anymore…
Anyhow, Henderson said, they'd confirm this with Betty when she returned. Did Clark want to see the gun?
"Sure. Is there—was there Kryptonite in it?" It had to have been "was" for hadn't felt any in the immediate vicinity.
"Yes, but our son John removed it," Mrs. Henderson said proudly. "He's a genius at that kind of thing. He works at Star Labs now, did you know that? He has his own lab, too, it's fascinating. Do you want to see the Kryptonite? It's really very pretty for as dangerous as it is…" she said as she walked out of the room back toward the front of the house before Clark could think of a polite way to interrupt and say "No thanks!"
"I don't really want to waste any time seeing that stuff," he told Henderson quietly. "I mean, I've seen other Kryptonite before so I'd rather see the gun, and try to figure out how it was supposed to work."
"Oh, it was just a little piece. We've stored it for now in an antique lead box."
Having retrieved the box, Mrs. Henderson met them half way, in the darkened hall. She had said something earlier about not turning on unnecessary lights, an energy-saving habit they had adopted when their children had lived at home.
In preparation, Clark tried to imperceptibly lean back against the wall as she opened the box and she and her husband marveled at the half-finger-sized chunk of glowing green death. John, they said, would store it at Star Labs with the other pieces they had, but he wouldn't come back for it until later that morning when there was less security to worry about at the Labs.
Clark felt himself begin to sweat. The pain was incredible and it seeped through his body at an agonizing, unstoppable pace. He reminded himself he had experienced much worse in the past, and her eventual closing of the box lid did put an end to the immediate drain on his spirit and vitality. He felt pale now, then told himself that was okay for a person disguised as a red-head.
The weakening effects of the toxic stone hung on, though, even as the woman turned away to put the box wherever they were keeping it. He reached to straighten his glasses in a covering, self comforting move, but realized he wasn't wearing them. Funny (or maybe not) how his vision was blurry… He noted Henderson giving him what he hoped wasn't a speculative look.
"You look tired."
"I *am* tired…"
"If you don't want to go through with this, if it's catching up with you—"
"No, I'm just fine." Clark stiffened his back through the dull feeling and tried to look ready to go. "Where's the weapon?"
It was on Henderson's workbench in his playroom, as Mrs. Henderson called the big basement space. She pointed out the scale-model railroad countryside diorama stored vertically on the east wall and the shelves all around stuffed with railroad cars, engines and other paraphernalia of a true hobbyist. Clark was impressed.
"Sit," Henderson pointed.
Clark took the high stool in front of the table with the weapon, glad to be off his feet for a moment, hoping this didn't show.
"Have you eaten anything recently?" Mrs. Henderson asked on the tail of this thought. "I have some oatmeal cookies I think you'd like, and I think I'll fix you fellows more coffee, too," she said and she headed upstairs again.
"Her cookies are great, eat all you can," Henderson confided.
"I'll try," though he just wasn't hungry yet.
"Also, she doesn't like guns." He took a grimy white bath towel off a large object on his workbench. "And this is quite some gun."
It sure was, Clark thought. It looked like the one used by Lucille and Nell Newtrich to beam Red Kryptonite at him, but more sophisticated considering the resources of some clandestine government lab behind it. Henderson indicated the cartridge his son had opened to find the Kryptonite that was used to enhance the rays emitted through the wide barrel of the gun. He didn't reopen it; Clark hoped there was no Kryptonite residue, if Kryptonite left residue.
"John replaced the Kryptonite with something he said was harmless even though it's a little radioactive. He said the results would look impressive if the gun was ever used."
"Did he actually try it though?"
"Yes, he had demonstrated it on the couch, then ran that Geiger counter over it and even sat on it. It acted just a couch should, though it still glowed a little. That's my boy," Henderson said, almost smiling, "always showing off."
Clark picked up the weapon; it felt rather heavy. It shouldn't have. Come on, Kryptonite, wear off already… He aimed it.
"Shoot the *couch,*" Henderson said.
Clark tried. "I'm not very experienced with guns…"
"Or furniture. You might want to consider putting your glasses back on. That was the recliner."
"Oh, sorry. The upholstery glowed nicely, didn't it, heh…" What was nicer, though, what with his vision clearing up, he had seen what the beam looked like. He could extrapolate to the effects a real weapon might have on Superman, for there was no doubt that Luthor, once he had it, would try to use it. It was just a matter of fooling the villain so he'd take that chance.
"John left this behind…" Henderson broke out the Geiger counter. "And here, see? Not radioactive, nothing more than ambient background radiation. That's what he called it."
"Okay. Does it have a—"
"Hold it right there, buster!"
Clark froze. He was facing Henderson, who said nothing, but even without prompting, Clark could not fail to recognize the southern drawl that accented Betty Reed's commanding voice.
She said clearly and concisely: "Put that thing down and turn around with your arms up… easy, easy… Wait a minute…" She approached, frowning. "You were in jail, bawling your heart out… nah… All right…" She frowned at Henderson. "Who *is* this guy, his twin brother…?"
"Say something whiny, Clark."
"Oh, *Clark,* yeah, it is you, isn't it?" She put her gun back in its holster under her fashionable vest and came closer, peering at him. "Well, I'll be…" She shook her head and smiled a little now. "You do look like him, no kidding. I'm surprised. You're a little bigger than him and tanner, aren't you?"
"Yep, but not much. No one will notice in the dark anyhow, and hardly anyone knows he's in town, let alone in jail. He didn't want to call a lawyer, not that I would have let him right away, seeing he's in high security lockup and there's all that paperwork that got lost…" She considered Clark again thoughtfully. "You don't have his whine right, but I can help you with that…"
Wanda Detroit couldn't sleep any more. Her head hurt, but not like it had when she had fallen asleep after eating what she could of Bibbo's fix 'em-up-fast chicken noodle soup.
She sat up on the edge of the bed, trying to remember anything what she had been doing before Red had guided her into his truck, but nothing would come. This didn't seem worrisome, though she wondered vaguely why something so important as remembering her past didn't seem to be a top priority.
"I want to sing the blues…" she heard herself whisper.
She couldn't sing the blues looking like a refugee from a… whatever she was sure she looked like a refugee from. She rose on unsteady bare feet and began to explore the room.
The closet was full of marvelous clothing. She tried on several dresses, the pleasant distraction helping her grow confident with her balance. She found a striking, smoky-brown dress that she liked, wiggled into it, and then sat down before the mirror over the vanity and saw a woman with short, tossed-about dark hair and strained, tear-reddened eyes.
"Were you crying in your sleep or something, honey?" she asked the pathetic apparition she saw there. "Well, you can forget *that*, you're not me, you're a loser." She smiled haughtily; the mirror reflected this, good. "Wanda Detroit is in charge now, and we're going places…"
She looked over the makeup packed away in the drawers and decided to experiment with this, too. She began to hum to herself, a sad, heart-felt song that would knock 'em dead in the nightclubs she knew would fill her life from now on…
Henderson dropped Clark off fifteen minutes early and three blocks away from the alley where Harbert was supposed to meet Lex Luthor. Henderson assured him that at nightfall on the previous evening, his spy-wannabe insurance agent brother-in-law had peppered the area with cameras and other devices. Clark hadn't asked for details. If Henderson wanted to recruit his relatives into a private secret police force, it was probably a good thing that a prize-winning investigative journalist didn't find out too much about that right now.
Clark walked to his destination taking long, nervous strides and muttering unintelligibly to himself, keeping to the shadows and making his moves as obvious as he could as he sneaked up to the alley. He hugged the weapon to his chest in a paranoid fashion, this action surely accentuated by his wearing of Harbert's large sunglasses. (Over the contacts, he had laughed when he had first put the sunglasses on, but there was always the chance the glasses might come off in a struggle and Luthor might recognize his brown eyes.)
As he the alley, he looked around it and eased in, passing and keeping his back turned to the darkened doorway where Lex Luthor was standing, watching and breathing shallowly.
The villain's heart-rate rapid with anticipation when he stepped out into a cold ray of light from the streetlight at the end of the alley. "I see you brought me a gift…"
Clark turned abruptly and slowly considered the tall, thin, dark-dressed man. Lex was also wearing a wig, a stylish one that closely resembled his original hair. Why wasn't he wearing a disguise of some sort like he had at the bank the afternoon before—unless he wanted to be sure that Harbert recognized him. It could easily have been simple vanity, or both those things.
Clark grabbed hold of himself mentally. This was no time for speculation. Into the act. "It's not a gift!" he growled tersely, adding nasal tones for the whine. "It's my freedom!" Harbert was reportedly "insipidly dramatic" in his discourse.
"Yes, quite. Let's see what I'm going to trade this," Luthor hefted the brief case he carried, the one Clark had last seen held by Punkin, "considerable sum of money for."
"Ah, yes! That's more like it!"
There was a low-slung dumpster nearby and Clark put the weapon in its carrier on the closed top. He opened the bag to display the impressive device. Its well polished parts gleamed dangerously.
He showed Luthor how it worked. He strongly disliked being this close to the man who had ruined his wedding day and done who knew what to Lois. I should just nab him now, he told himself—but Luthor always had tricks up his sleeve. Sticking to this complicated plan had to be a better idea… he hoped. He commended himself for his restraint, for not grabbing his enemy and choking him to within an inch of his rotten life.
"You have enough Kryptonite in here for two shots," he and Henderson had decided to say. It sounded reasonable. "The mineral— it's powerful, it's alien—and we don't know why it wears out so quickly when we use for this kind of thing."
"It sounds like your weapon needs time to recharge."
"Oh, yeah, well…" Clark shrugged the idea off. "A little time…"
Luthor pounced on this. "*How* long between these precious two shots?"
"Ah? Not long, not long at all—"
Luthor pressed, both mentally and physically. "HOW long?"
Clark cringed appropriately. "About, oh…" They hadn't been able to agree on how much time to give Luthor, so Clark decided to use the figure that had struck him as being right—then, reviewing his personal-best record for the past 24 hours, he substituted Henderson's guess, "about eight hours…"
"Eight hours? Is that all?"
Did that mean he—or Henderson this time—*they* had played into Luthor's hand again? He hoped not. "That's all usually."
"We tested it with other 14.5-ounce pieces of Kryptonite," an odd figure pulled out of the air, "This was the last piece—I stole it—They have no idea, the cretins."
"Good for you. Fortunately, I do have some I can use."
"You do?" He did? It was entirely possible, knowing Luthor. "They…" *Think* of something! "They better be pure crystals, cut to size…" if there was such a thing as pure Kryptonite, if it could be cut.
"Oh?" unadulterated skepticism.
"Or have someone you dislike try working on the gun because all the prototypes except this one blew up and contaminated several laboratories out in Area 51."
"Oh. I see…" and perhaps he did for he said that in a somewhat subdued manner. "But this version…"
"I tested it myself, several times. It's tricky—but I'm *the* expert."
"Good for you. Perhaps the one piece of Kryptonite will be sufficient if I use the wide beam… It takes more power than the narrow, I suppose…"
"And it will kill Superman?"
"The… unsuspecting fool," for that's what he'd been, "won't know what hit him."
"I'm certain of everything, I know what I'm doing. Look, the Newtrich sisters—did you hear about them while you were in jail?"
"I had ways of keeping in touch with the outside world. What about those two failures?"
"They had a good idea, a gun something like this one—but I'm surprised it remained stable as long as it did! It nearly crippled Superman, we have it all on tape," or someone probably did. He and Lois had hoped that only the sisters realized the real effect of their gun; so far there was no word from Bobby or anyone else of their having talked about it. "But he overcame the effects. I studied the tapes, improved on a few of their ideas and machined this gun myself." He patted it fondly, hoping he looked like a gun aficionado. "Then I loaded the Kryptonite myself each time on this very model. My…" He decided to pour on the melodrama, spitting out "*employers* didn't listen to me, the fools! They kept pouring money into other versions—and their lackies died *horribly,* *writhing* in pain when their feeble attempts blew up in their faces!"
Luthor looked like he was stifling a yawn. "I see."
Clark/Harbert raised his arms in triumph. "It *will* work!"
"Yes, yes, yes…" Luthor said calmly. "It sounds like what I need." He picked up the device carefully and shouldered it. He reconfirmed the weapon's settings, poking at this button and that, and he aimed it in a testing manner around the alley, at trash cans, at piles of rags.
Clark began to back up. "No, now, stop joking…"
"I never joke."
"You *can't*…" Yet in the back of his mind he had expected this remote possibility. He shouldn't, he told himself, have thought it would be remote but entirely likely. Not that there was anything to worry about except how to make Luthor think the device worked, how to "writhe in pain," something maybe he should have practiced…
"What are you afraid of, Harbert? If it doesn't work, you'll be out a lot of money, true, but this will make a nice paperweight."
"Of course, if it *doesn't* work, if you're an impostor, I'll kill you anyway with good, old-fashioned bullets."
"It *works!*—And you only have two shots!"
"Then I better make this one count, wouldn't you say?"
Clark turned and began to run at human speed. This wasn't fast enough and nervous shock threw off any coordination. He ran into a trash can and then into a grimy wall, finding no escape. He felt a tingle on his back, wondered if this was what the couch and recliner had experienced, and held his breath.
Martha Kent was pacing her kitchen floor. Jonathan Kent was sitting at the table, watching her. Both were used to being up early, but neither had gotten much sleep during the night.
"We shouldn't be here, Jonathan! Clark needs us!"
"He needs us to be here where we're safe, where Rachel's deputy can keep an eye on us. I think Clark was right, Lex Luthor would try to harm us if he could. He'd probably try to beat me up and Lord knows what he'd do to you."
She made a fist. "I'd thrash him!"
"I'm sure you'd try, but look where it's gotten Lois, and Lois knows karate."
"Lois… Lois needs us, too."
"Lois has her folks right now, and Clark and the FBI and the Marines and the Metropolis Police and everyone in the newsroom. Look, Martha, let's both go out and plow a few fields, it's not too early in the morning and you know how that always makes *me* feel better…"
Sam Lane was pacing the front room of his suite at the old Lexor Hotel. "We can't just do *nothing!*"
"Certainly not. For one thing, you can stop pacing—you're keeping me awake!" his ex-wife snarled from her "bed" on the couch.
"You didn't *have* to come over here!"
"Yes, I did. It was for Lucy's sake. I think she wanted to flirt with that cute policeman guarding her, so she asked me to keep an eye on you."
"On me? When Lois needs us?"
"Lois needs us to keep calm heads because it's clear that everyone else has *no* idea what's going on!"
"You're right about that—so that's why we should be out there," he waved his arm at the window and the heart of downtown Metropolis beyond it, "searching for her!"
"Sure, go out there! Slip past the guards—they'll never see you. Get yourself killed by some hoodlum!"
"We owe her that much—to look for her!"
"You? Owe her anything? Like a little love and respect?"
"Don't start with me, I gave her some of the best years of my life."
"Best *minutes*, when you could schedule her *in*!"
"And your minutes were between fifths of scotch!"
"Well, at least I attended her graduation!"
"That was *Lucy's* graduation you managed to stumble into."
"At great personal expense—and you with the latest floozy you'd picked out of the trash."
"I *like* floozies—they remind me of you!"
They glared at each other.
Then their shoulders slumped simultaneously.
"I don't want to fight, I'm too tired."
"And I'm too worried."
"Why does it take this kind of thing to bring us together?"
"I don't know… I just want it to be over."
They turned away from each other so neither could see the other's tears.
Though he hadn't tested it in any other manner, Clark thought it was probably easiest to vibrate his molecules at superspeed starting at his hands and moving inward toward his chest. He could concentrate more easily on his hands, too, concentrate past the incredible pain and let the idea of what he was doing (and who he was ultimately doing it for) flow over him.
With this in mind and remembering he was putting on a show as well and had to be convincing, he turned back toward Luthor so that the effect the gun appeared to be having on him would look more dramatic. He also let out his breath when he realized it would be a good idea to scream with fear and pain; that might substitute acceptably for writhing. As it was the first chance he'd had to really express himself about this whole horrible mess and since this hurt so much anyhow, the scream was heartfelt.
It also occurred to some more calm part of his mind that he couldn't stay here in the alley. If he didn't mess up and disperse completely (a not unlikely possibility since there was a light breeze), he could recoalesce right back here. He would be unable to stop Luthor from doing anything to him, such as checking for a pulse, finding one, and killing him—or trying to—with a regular bullet to his head. If he managed to regain invulnerability quickly, again not a given, Luthor would discover his true identities. That could not be allowed.
So Clark willed his disassociating molecules to float upward, cloudlike into the night. Probably, he thought, the last thing visible from ground level would be his rapidly disappearing legs. It was a scary thought, like something from a horror movie, which was one reason he avoided that kind of entertainment.
He then worried about how high he would rise, if he could control his altitude and horizontal movement. And if—no, when he fell, would he land back in the alley anyhow? Right back in front of Luthor despite all this agonizing effort?
After some obscure amount of time, though, he stopped worrying mainly because it became just about impossible to think.
Except he thought about Lois and how doing absolutely anything to rescue her was worth all the effort.
Oh, and add to that, she wouldn't very well want to marry a loose association of atoms if he didn't get his act together again.
He regained consciousness on what he decided wasn't the ground in the alley or out in the middle of some sidewalk or street somewhere. He decided he was probably on a roof. That was nice. He closed his eyes again. He had no idea of the time, but it was still dark. He thought probably it was the same day, early in the morning. He wondered how long he could spend thinking about this and other trivial things and trying to ignore his jangled nerve endings. They were screeching at him but cooling down, too. He felt with-it, together again, barely.
He hadn't thought to worry about how he'd have to reassociate the clothing and the whole disguise as well. Ugh! But somehow they'd come along in the process, stuck with him and reformed, too.
Never do this again, he ordered himself, never, never, never… at least not before you've taken off all the clothes you can first… and then still don't do it.
He forced his eyes open once more; he had to stay conscious though his body demanded sleep.
The late night sky above was cold and bright with the usual impersonal, ambient light of the immense city. Then some of the light was displaced way up there by Henderson's face looking way down at him.
"That was some trick. I didn't know Superman could do that to a person."
"Yeah," Clark croaked, glad to have a voice even though he sounded like a bullfrog, oh… "I'll have to have a word with him about warning me next time…"
"Scream at him like you did down there and he'll listen, it was frightening."
"Screaming's not all I'll do…"
"I wouldn't want to be in his boots then. Can you sit up?"
"Give me a minute."
"No problem." The man knelt, prepared to wait. "We have time. The game's afoot—I've always wanted to say that—but Betty and my brother-in-law are on his tail."
"He got away?"
"I hope not, not with the homing device in the gun. But remember, we may not get more than a general fix on his final location because the device had to be so small."
Clark sat up and cradled his head. "All this better not have been for nothing…" I'm whining, he thought, but at least my voice is clearing up…
"I'm sure it won't be for nothing. Considering how powerful the gun appears to be, if he detects our bug's beep, odds are good he'll think it's a noise the gun makes anyway."
"I hope so…" Clark straightened a bit and began to pull off bits and pieces of the disguise and stick them in the plastic bag that Henderson produced out of nowhere. "Anything more precise than 'greater metropolitan Metropolis' will be fine with me."
"Betty definitely caught the signal and saw the two-man bicycle Luthor and Asabi were using as his getaway vehicle. Very clever—I almost expected him to use the white limo again."
"I'm getting real tired of…" He paused and looked around himself. "Where am I, anyway? On a roof somewhere?"
"Yes, on top of the building you ran into down there in your failed escape attempt. We got it all on video if you ever want to see it."
"No, no, thanks… You can get him on attempted murder now, too."
"Oh, we'll have him into his next ten reincarnations, I guarantee it."
"He always does seem to come back, doesn't he… You said two-man bicycle. They wouldn't have left Lois alone, you know."
"Being blasted into a million pieces and then glued back together hasn't slowed you down, that's good. No Lois, yet, is right, but I have people looking everywhere for her."
Wanda Detroit decided to begin singing the blues at dawn. She explored Bibbo's nightclub, found a bottle of champagne, a pack of cigarettes and matches to use as props, sashayed up to the stage, and sat on top of the upright piano. Climbing up on it made her dizzy at first, but sitting still for a few long moments helped clear that.
Then she began to practice singing. She surprised herself; she did not seem to need musical accompaniment, though such would be nice, and she knew one song after another. They just came forth naturally. Whoever the loser before had been, she'd had an okay taste in music.
She lit a cigarette, drew the smoke in deeply—and coughed seriously for quite some time, which caused her head to roar in protest and almost made her fall off the piano twice.
On his way to make breakfast, Bibbo Bibowski passed through the main room of his nightclub to check things out, and there he stopped. He waited out Wanda's third series of hacking coughs, then listened to her clear it with a swig of the inexpensive champagne and begin to sing again.
He became immediately transfixed by her beautiful voice.
Wanda noticed; she liked the effect. Having the ability to stop men dead in their tracks was a good thing. She noticed, however, that it only worked when she wasn't coughing. As the loser had apparently not smoked, it didn't look like Wanda Detroit could, either. She stubbed out the smelly cigarette on the bottom of her shoe.
Red Dixon eased his way in, obviously here to check on her health, but he, too, was captured by her voice when she began to sing about being found by a man with a heart of gold.
"This is my life…" she sang, making up lyrics now, fitting them into the right places, smiling at herself through her remaining smoke-induced tears, thinking they would work as part of her developing act. Acting was important, she could hide behind acting. Everyone she knew was acting, was not what they seemed… or probably could be accused of that if she could remember any of them.
As she let the song drift away, Bibbo applauded wildly. Red took off his hat and sniffed back a tear. She smiled in what she figured was her best sultry manner.
This *was* the life! These people *appreciated* her!
"You're hired!" Bibbo shouted. "Don't move! Let me take some pictures of you just like that! I can have them ready in an hour and we can start advertising your act and you can sing tonight!"
"I can sing the blues?"
"You can sing anything you want! I'll call Dieks, too, he's my best piano player, and you can work out some music with him!" He rushed out of the room to find his camera.
Red approached her respectfully. "I'm glad I got to hear you sing, Wanda."
She touched his head fondly, the nearest part of him that she could reach. "I'm glad you did, too. I can make a little money here and then hit the road… maybe with you…"
"I want to get away from this burg, I want to get away from it *all*…"
"I'll sure be glad to give you a lift wherever you want go, but we… we can't get involved."
"Men say that all the time, I'm used to it. We'll be different, you and I, I just know it."
"Well, it's not what you think, Wanda…"
"I need to find someone I can trust and…" she danced her fingers through his short, curly hair. "I think I have at last."
"You're different, you're good…"
"I'm gay…" He played nervously with his hat, sighed and looked up at her, his big blue eyes asking her understanding. "I like how you sing and I want to help you get away from the man who did you wrong, that rat Clark, but I just can't… well…"
"That's all right, honey." She leaned forward, acutely aware that two of her spectacular physical assets were hard to miss. She wondered if she might be able to tempt him to abandon a certain aspect of his lifestyle if she worked on him. That didn't seem likely, but one never knew.
"Ah," he stared at her assets but didn't seem to react otherwise. "Ah… I just thought you should know…"
"At least you're happy."
"Well, yeah, gay…"
"I appreciate that." She decided against teasing him further and sat up; he was a nice guy after all. "Believe me, Red, I've heard every story in the book by now and been disappointed by all the guys who think I'm a idiot. There was a billionaire criminal mastermind. A sexy outer space alien. A farmboy renaissance man…" She frowned, shook her head slightly, winced, and reached to comfort the painful area on the back of her head. "I think…"
"Don't strain yourself…" he frowned, concerned.
"Oh, I won't." She considered the bottle of champagne but decided against it. "I guess we'll make a real odd couple, you and I, when all I want to do is… ah…"
"Sing the blues?"
"Yeah, that and… I don't know… cook or something."
"Have a home and family?"
"I suppose… but I don't want to remember any of that any more."
"Well, you remembered those three odd guys, your memory's coming back and that's probably for the best, unless they were just… examples or something."
"I don't know. Maybe I just read about them somewhere. Men, they're all alike, can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em…" She sat up, pulled out another cigarette, stuck it in her mouth and took it out again, not lighting it, and she whispered through the haze of her memories, "It's one more thing to sing about…"
Henderson delivered Clark home, leaving him with orders that the younger man get some real sleep and eat all the cookies Mrs. Henderson had sent along. The Inspector had the feeling that things were beginning to move now. "I think we have a good chance of catching Luthor and his henchmen and dismantling his lair, and we'll find Lois before he does, too, all in time for you both to celebrate tomorrow, Valentine's Day."
Clark hoped so. He didn't care so much about Luthor at the moment or even what day it was today or would be tomorrow. Lois was foremost on his mind, though the idea of sleep after indulging in few cookies was a close second.
He staggered into his apartment, peeled off the parts of his disguise he hadn't left behind in the car, tossed them in his closet and shut the door securely. He reminded himself about the bag of cookies and how his mom would surely ask if he had eaten anything and he didn't want to lie to her. He veered back to the living room, retrieved and opened the bag, pulled out one the hefty nut- and raisin-stuffed things, and downed it quickly, hardly tasting it. He then aimed himself at his bathroom, found it, and had a long, relaxing shower.
Afterwards, out of habit he pulled on an old T-shirt and some shorts that were lying about in the predawn darkness. He then fell into his bed and a deep sleep prompted by the brief but intense exposure to the Kryptonite and the prolonged, awful yet brilliant use of the molecular dispersion technique.
He was awakened by a clandestine sound.
Someone is breaking in, Clark thought, at… 9:46 a.m. I've overslept… and I'm not being watched any more? Where is Betty? Okay, busy tracking down Luthor's lair, okay, fine. And where is Lois? Why hasn't she called me yet? Doesn't she feel safe—isn't *that* reason enough to call me? It's been hours and hours and hours…
"Sleeping the sleep of angels, Kent? Did our little Lois wear you out? Where is she, by the way, out… shopping? Maybe I shouldn't have left her with you; she obviously has an insatiable appetite…"
Wide awake now and recognizing the voice in an instant, Clark grabbed his glasses, rolled over and continued the smooth move onto his feet. In a few steps he approached Lex Luthor, who was dressed in a breezy, designer sports jacket, matching slacks, highly polished shoes and well groomed wig. He looked like he thought he owned the world and the biggest yacht in which to sail its seas.
Clark grabbed him by his stylish lapels and forced him back into the brick wall. He looked the man right in the eye, puncturing that vast world view. "I could kill you *very easily* right now…"
"Oh?" Luthor gurgled. "Why would you want to—"
"You escaped from prison, kidnapped the President, threatened democracy and world peace, ruined a fragile wetland to acquire an endangered species of frog, *and* you replaced Lois with a clone!— *that's* why!"
"Our friend Superman has a big mouth—"
"I figured it all out *myself*!" and Clark emphasized this with an even more fierce glare. He tightened his grip enough for Luthor to be well aware of it and added a shake. The man's teeth rattled a bit and his wig began to slip.
The sound reminded Clark that *he* was a bit rattled, too, and he had better not let on to when he had sensed and then known that the Clone wasn't Lois. "Your creation is at Star Labs. She was sent there after we discovered the truth about her—Now where is *Lois*?"
"My, but you are strong—"
"Don't *tempt* me…"
"I'd love to tell you that she's with me, but believe me—"
"And *don't* patronize me, either!"
"I'm not! I *don't* know where she is."
Then she was still hiding, good.
Well, not "good" since she hadn't gotten in touch with him yet after all this time, but her being on the loose was far better than her being in Luthor's clutches again.
Still, "I don't believe you." Another shake. "I *know* you've hurt her!"
"I would *never* hurt the woman I love!" Luthor proclaimed. "Put me down!"
Clark pursed his lips, relented despite his better judgement (or hoped it looked that way) and lowered the man so his feet touched the floor again, just.
"That's better. While it's true that she and I didn't have time to discuss my plans and I drugged her and kept her tied up—Put. Me. Down… I didn't hurt her, not really. I fed her and kept her warm and comfortable and gave her new clothing. I even entertained her with proof that *you* obviously couldn't tell the difference between her, a woman you've known for three years, and a simple clone made with hefty doses of frog DNA. If you *must* be mad at anyone, it should be at *yourself* for not knowing the difference."
"I *knew* the difference!" He released Luthor so he could use his hands to express himself. "It just… took me a little time, what with being all excited about getting married and finally getting to…" lose his patience, but Luthor didn't need to know the details. "Well, love does that."
"True, it can make a man succumb to an insidious, almost incurable form of blindness of the heart…"
"Yeah, that, too!" Except, Clark thought, not *this* man, not *me*.
There was a lot more to marrying the woman of his dreams than wild thoughts of jumping into bed with her. Clark Kent was not so shallow. Knowing he had the real woman at his side to hold on to was the most important thing in life, far ahead of indulging in momentary physical pleasure, of letting anticipation of that cloud his faculties. What a horrible wedding night that would have been had he not recognized the impostor right away, had Punkin played along. It would have killed Lois and he couldn't have faced himself ever again.
"But your clone isn't *anything* like Lois," he claimed—or overclaimed, overdoing it, a bit of guilt showing, he hoped. "For one thing, she…" What would Lex believe that he could claim as a reason for not seeing the truth for so long? "she doesn't have Lois's gift of gab—some call it babbling but it's not. It's ideas bursting forth because she's such a brilliant woman. Your clone doesn't have that, I realized it yesterday afternoon because she didn't say very much."
Luthor straightened his tie, then nodded. "I've also noticed that about Lois. She's as sharp as a razor. Sometimes it hurts, she can cut a person right to the quick with her words, but I've always felt myself a better man afterwards."
"I knew I'd be a better man the first time I saw her in the newsroom," Clark smiled at the thought. "She was doggedly chasing down some story, bent on saving the world—and she did!—yet she looked so beautiful at the same time…"
"Her beauty could launch a thousand ships. I plan to make that happen, too. I was aghast when I realized she had cut her hair—we had to cut the Clone's hair to look the same—but I swear Lois Lane would look good in a Mohawk dyed orange, that all the fashion runways of the world would be sporting the same style if she wore it…"
"But she wouldn't care. She'd insist that the models do something more useful with their lives, like taking all that money being lavished on useless things and using it to feed the starving people instead. We were going to do that with the money from the bank. It was my idea though; the clone wanted to go shopping. I think that's when I started to become suspicious."
"You were right to, Lois would insist on sharing her wealth and talent with the world. She's one in a million, a billion…"
"She's really something…"
They traded nods and sighed.
Then Clark asked himself, "What the heck am I doing???"
He moved to grab Luthor and snarl at him again, but the man was just a little faster this time and from his pocket he produced a handgun, quite possibly the same one he'd used in the bank.
Clark froze and stared at it as Luthor pointed it at a spot between his eyes at a distance of about two inches.
"Now we're even, Kent—*more* than even since I easily outdistance you in intelligence and cunning. You never had a chance. You're going to help me track down Lois, then we're going to have a nice little party at which Superman will be the surprise guest!"
"Believe me, *he'll* be the one who's surprised!"
Clark felt an internal "umph!" and it wasn't backlash from the oatmeal cookie. The plan was working, it was really working.
Luthor laughed, "Then you'll see who Lois *really* loves!"
Yep, Clark thought, keeping all trace of a smile off his face, we'll see!
He frowned, acting as though the gun didn't bother him (it didn't actually), said, "Oh, yeah?" and was about to ask for more details when there was a knock at the door.
"Get rid of whoever it is," Luthor ordered as he goaded Clark into the front room and up the steps. "But make one false move and I'll kill them and shoot you, too, probably, just for the hell of it."
Clark waited until the man had secreted himself to the far side of the door before he opened it.
It was Jimmy and, behind him, Perry. Jimmy said brightly, "Guess what, CK!"
"Lois has been spotted!" Perry exclaimed.
Curiosity trampled Clark's better sense and he immediately said "Where?"
"Down on the waterfront in a nightclub. She's singing!"
"Bills herself as 'Wanda Detroit,'" Perry explained further. "We can explain it to you." He pushed Jimmy forward. "Get in there, boy! It was in her novel, Clark, it's the strangest thing…"
"No—" Clark began to say, trying to catch Jimmy and propel him back outside again.
"Yes!" Luthor shouted. He grabbed Jimmy and then pushed the young man, who stumbled toward the stairs. Clark managed to catch him before he was hurt in the fall toward the living room floor below, but that gave Luthor time to capture Perry and hold the gun to his head. Perry gulped but wisely didn't struggle, grasping at Luthor's strong arm around his neck.
Luthor grinned, in complete control. "I don't need you now, Kent, but Lois and I will send you an invitation for our little get-together this evening!"
He dragged Perry down the steps, through the apartment, out the back door, and up the alley for a short distance to a waiting white limousine.
Clark and Jimmy could only watch in horror.
The plan was still working, Clark told himself. It was just a little more complicated than before.
Jimmy grabbed at Clark. "The Chief won't tell him anything— he'd die first!"
Clark had the feeling that Luthor had the drugs to overcome any such reticence on his employer's part. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that." He took Jimmy by the shoulders and said steadily: "Tell me everything!"
"We got a call from Bobby Bigmouth! The Chief took it. The first thing Bobby told him was just awful!"
"What? What is it?"
"Bobby was all worried. He said Luthor stole some terrible weapon from a scientist and then *killed* the scientist with it!"
"Well, that is bad news—What about Lois?"
"The weapon is so powerful everyone thinks it can kill Superman!"
"It gets worse and worse, doesn't it? And Lois—"
"We have to warn him! Lois will understand how important that is!"
Jimmy blinked. "Huh?"
"I'll take care of warning Superman, don't worry about that. He's probably already heard about it and is trying to prepare, if he can. What about Lois?"
"Oh, okay, if you're *sure* about Superman…"
"He's faced terrible weapons before, he was nearly blown up by the Nazis' atom bomb a few weeks ago, remember?"
"Oh, yeah, but Bobby said this is *worse* than that!"
"Okay, okay. Ah… Lois was spotted down at the waterfront— actually, her *picture* was, except it didn't look much like her. She had hair out to here…" He indicated a halo around his head, way too far for Lois's current hairstyle. "And heavy makeup and a real revealing dress! She's singing at some nightclub—she has a good voice, doesn't she?"
Clark didn't want a repeat a time-wasting trip down memory lane even with one of his best friends. "A great voice. What nightclub?"
"It's called Bibbo's Place."
"Great! Let's go!" He was ready to fly out—Wait! "Ah, Jimmy, can you… stay here by the phone?"
"I… I think my folks might call."
"So what are *you* going to do? *Walk* to the waterfront? Catch a *cab*? *Fly?*"
"No! Bring your cell phone and we can go on my motorcycle! The Chief loved it! You can use my spare helmet, too!" He rushed for the door.
Clark couldn't think of a way out of this, so he tried to catch up.
"And the funniest thing is what she's calling herself," Jimmy smiled as he reached for the doorknob. "Wanda Detroit! Have you ever heard such a—"
Clark jerked him back from the door as gently as he could to obtain his complete attention. "Wanda Detroit?" Perry had said this before but it hadn't sunk in until now.
"That's the character in the novel she was working on about two months ago, before we came to our… understanding…"
"What do you mean, 'oh…!'?"
"Just…" he shrugged helplessly, "you know, 'oh.' Your… *understanding*…!"
"Not *that* kind of understanding!"
Clark rolled his eyes. "Never *mind!* The novel is about a woman who falls for two men and, ah…" how could he put this.
"Yeah, the novel the Chief told me about."
"Well, she let him look at it, you know, proofread it?"
"But…" She'd just shown Clark an abstract that hadn't, for example, given him any character names other than that of Wanda Detroit.
"The one where the heroine falls for two guys named 'Clark' and 'Kent' and she's sick and tired of both of them hiding things from her? I thought that was the wildest thing I'd ever heard of until this thing with the frogs…"
"You knew about this before today?"
"Sure, I sort of… looked at it…" He began to shuffle… "after the Chief told me about it… last summer…"
Good grief. "Well, obviously I have to talk to her about it— *soon,* as fast as you can drive."
That perked Jimmy up. "Good thing you're pals with Inspector Henderson because I can make my motorcycle sing!"
Henderson? "Wait!" Clark grabbed his cell phone, called Henderson's private number, reached the man immediately, oddly enough, and outlined the news in 25 words or less. He rung off, tossed the phone on the couch, grabbed his tennis shoes because they were on the way, and was out the door so fast Jimmy should have suspected something but instead followed his friend just as fast as he could.
Wanda Detroit was pressing her trim belly to the bar, contemplating her ginger ale. Bibbo had advised her not to consume any alcohol since she couldn't remember if she did so normally. It might be bad for her wonderful voice. She didn't really miss either the alcohol or the cigarettes even if they were what she recalled were standard props for such acts.
It was nice that Bibbo cared but she doubted it would last, men were like that. They seemed to care from the very depths of their soul—and then you found out that depth could be measured with the short end of a broken toothpick.
Red had been in and out all morning, working and checking on her. He may not have been interested in her in a sexual manner, but she had to admit that she was impressed with his honesty. He was the one trustworthy man in the world at the moment—a man she couldn't have, it figured.
Something about that wanted to remind her of something else, some*one* else… but it wouldn't come. She didn't press for it, doing that had already proved to hurt her head.
She took a last sip of her soda and considered asking for another.
There was a commotion outside, up front in the small bar where people who didn't want to see the main show (which wouldn't start until seven that night) could have a drink if that was all they wanted.
"I want to see Wanda," a suave voice was saying. "I'm her doctor, Doctor Alexander Kent, and she has a serious blood condition that has in the past led her into perilous states of dementia…"
Clark and Jimmy cruised the docks after arriving in record time. Jimmy had known shortcuts that amazed Clark, who had struggled to hold on and remain seated. Indeed on sharp corners he found it hard not to "help" keep the motorcycle upright when it was clear that Jimmy knew precisely what he was doing even at 60-mile- per hour, 45-degree angles.
They found the right street at last and Bibbo's Place. Jimmy rolled to a stop in front of it and prepared to jump off his motorcycle when Clark put a firm hand on his shoulder and pointed at the sign on the door.
"That doesn't apply to *me*," Jimmy claimed.
"You're not quite 21 yet, it certainly applies to you," Clark informed him as he shucked the borrowed helmet. "Besides, I need you out here to warn me when Lex arrives."
"Oh—*Then* can I go in to tell you?"
"*Then* you can point him out to Henderson, who should be here any moment, too. Go across the street and hide and don't talk to those women over there, they may be hookers."
"The ones with the red skirts and long blond hair? Wow…"
"No, those are transvestites, but don't talk to them, either. Don't talk to *any*one you don't recognize."
"Not even to interview them?"
Clark patted his friend on his back briefly, then headed for the front doors of Bibbo's Place.
He paused to note the billboard, which featured several provocative black-and-white pictures of a woman who looked a great deal like Lois—that is, if Lois had decided to tease her hair out to *here*, smother her lips in what was probably deep red lipstick, wear more eye makeup than Tammy Faye, and make-out with the camera from atop an upright piano.
How could she want to do *this,* he wondered, rather than contact me?
There was no reason. Maybe she was establishing this disguise, and, when she was secure with it, she would invite him into the act on the assumption that he could play a piano. They'd hide undercover until Luthor was recaptured.
On the whole, he would have preferred to hide in Hawaii, under the covers of their honeymoon bed.
For now, he headed through the swinging doors into the club.
He entered a bar that opened into a larger area that he guessed was a supper club at night. Did Lois plan to sing there?
"Can I help you?"
There was a short, stocky man in his 40s behind the bar. He looked suspicious of Clark, looking him up and down.
Clark was surprised; why should he receive such a reception? He looked down at himself.
He was shocked and just short of horrified. In this last 20 minutes, it hadn't occurred to him even once to change clothes. All he was wearing was an old T-shirt that proclaimed "Compost happens" and the Eiffel Tower boxer shorts.
He realized he couldn't do anything about this now. His off-hand appearance was certainly a lot less important that Lois's fate.
He approached the bar. "I hope you can help me. I'm looking for the woman who's in the pictures out front. The billboard says she's singing here and she's calling herself Wanda."
"And you call *your*self?"
"Yes, and I'm looking for Lo—"
"Hey, Red, it's Clark!"
"Red" had to be the tall, rangy, cowboy-type person who appeared suddenly, in the entry into the supper club.
"So *you're* Clark…"
"Yes. Did Lois, er, Wanda tell you about me?" She had to have as it seemed she was after all expecting him and they'd take him to her and…
"Red" strode up to him, muttering, "She told us *all* about you…" He immediately tried to sink an immense fist into Clark's guts.
Taken off guard, Clark failed to give. Red let out a gasp, withdrew his hand quickly, holding it by the wrist, and he stumbled a few feet away, saying "Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!"
Clark decided he better react, so he clutched at his stomach and bent a bit, which threw off the bartender's aim, for that man was trying to bounce a bottle of beer off Clark's head. It thunked off his shoulder instead, and this time he yelped a totally appropriate, in-time "Ow! Hey!" He also took advantage of his face being, he hoped, somewhat difficult to see and lowered his glasses to look quickly around the immediate area of the nightclub.
Red had recovered by this time and rounded on Clark again, grabbing Clark's shoulder, pushing him up and back, and employing his unhurt left fist in a round house to Clark's jaw. Clark saw this one coming and let the mad man connect but in such a way that he wouldn't hurt himself again. Clark then covered his jaw to keep the lack of damage from becoming immediately evident. He exclaimed "Ow! That hurt!" hoping someone who might have a broken jaw could actually speak in such a situation. He held up his other hand to ward off any more attacks. "Okay, okay! You don't want to talk, I get the message!"
"Get *out* of here!" Red growled.
"And don't come back!" the bartender added sternly.
"Don't let me *see* you anywhere *near* Wanda, you got that?"
"I've got it, I've got it…"
Lois, he thought, why didn't you give me the password…?
The two men glared at him as he backed away through the door.
Outside again, he straightened and found himself facing the pictures of "Lois"—or was it really just someone who looked like Lois and coincidentally was named Wanda who just happened to fear someone named Clark and had convinced the two men inside not to let anyone with that name bother her?
Nah, it didn't make any *sense*…
He realized he hadn't seen enough of the inside of the business. Lois could have been hiding upon hearing his voice. Let's say she feared for his safety if not her own, feared he might have led Lex here. Little did she know.
He turned and looked for Jimmy, Henderson or even a lone police officer. Nothing, and no sign of his friend waiting across the street either. One of the hookers noticed that Clark was looking her (or his) way and she (or he) nodded. "Your cute little friend went around the corner" and she (or he) pointed to the south.
Good grief, Jimmy was playing hero, Clark just knew it.
"Thanks!" he waved and headed south at a run.
"You know how to thank me, honey!" the hooker called after him, but Clark pretended he didn't hear the person.
He rounded the corner and went at an even faster pace half way down the street, skidding to a halt in front of the alley that ran behind the nightclub, just in time to avoid being run into by the long, white limousine heading away.
Clark was prepared to run down the vehicle, to even reveal his big secret in the process, but it rolled to a halt on its own after going only a few yards.
Clark paused, too, waiting. One wrong move and people could be hurt. He saw that Jimmy's motorcycle lay abandoned in the alley. Perry of course had been dragged away by Lex. And Lois…
Or was it that Wanda person who first appeared, stretching long, nylon-covered legs out of the left side of the limo? She stood up on stiletto-heeled black shoes (which Lois might have worn on a bet). She was wrapped in one of the tightest, most-brief brown dresses Clark had seen outside of the sleazy back streets of Hong Kong through which he had glanced just briefly when he'd been 19… and 22 and 26—but nothing more than glance. There were golden bracelets on this woman's wrists and a mass of pearl and jade necklaces about her neck. Her lipstick was indeed deep red, her hair was teased out to *here*, and she positively slinked in his direction…
He was abashed. He had no idea what to say other than, "Lois?"
She paused as though the word was a surprising one to hear. She said, or tried to say, "Cl… Cla…" She shook her head, winced, blinked, gathered herself up, licked her lips, took a deep breath, and said more definitely, "Clark."
It was her!
Well, at least she knew his name.
He wanted to rush to her, grab her up and hug her tightly.
Something made him hesitate though. Maybe it was the wary, uncertain, don't-come-*near*-me look in her brown eyes.
Then he had it. "He's drugged you, hasn't he?" There had been plenty of time, darn it! She really needed a hug then. He took a step forward.
She took a step back, unsteadily. She looked at the limo as though for a cue. Why?
Lex Luthor emerged from of it. He said, "Tell him, tell *Clark* what you just told me!"
She looked back at Clark. "Yeah, you… Clark… I…"
Clark caught her eyes with his and held them. "Lois, I'm so glad to see you…"
She faltered again. Why? Why did she look so confused? Was it only drugs?
She tore her eyes from his, looked away, down, anywhere, and steadied herself again. She looked up again then but just past him, he noticed, not at his face. "I'm safe," she pronounced carefully. "Go away now."
"Yes, go! Shoo!" Luthor said as he came up behind her. "You heard her, scram!"
"That's not what *I* heard." He'd heard, Clark told himself, a desperate cry for help and he was the best person in the world to answer it. He stepped forward briskly, took the woman by her shoulders and helped her several feet away, maybe even levitating with her a bit though he was sure it didn't show. Anything to get her away, quickly, but not so far as to alarm Luthor into hurting anyone. He had to keep the safety of others in mind.
He looked at the love of his life. "Lois, he kidnapped you, he's drugged you—who knows in what other ways he's tortured you? I'm taking you to a doctor, now!"
"No!" She wiggled her way out of his hands. "No, no, no! I… I…" She looked at him with an expression that was a mix of confusion and, surprisingly now, anger.
"*Tell* him!" Luthor ordered.
"I was afraid to disappoint you… our parents… I couldn't even face you—"
"What? That's ridiculous!"
"You always say that! You don't listen to me! I… I think, I think you don't, you…" She shook her head as though to clear it and winced again. "I can't remember… I'm not made for marriage, I need to go away…" She tried to blink away the confusion and through that looked at him, apparently seeing the rest of him for the first time. "Eiffel…" She inhaled in surprised and let it out in a shocked exhale, drew in a shaky breath next, frowned, and her lower lip began to tremble. "Oh, you Eiffel Towered her! You, you… I want to sing the bluuuuuues…" and she began to sob. She turned away from him and from Luthor, too, for that matter. "I'm going to sing the bluuuues somewhere…"
This made no sense to Clark at all.
Well, one thing made sense. He reached for her again. "Okay, you can sing all you want, but you're going to the hospital first."
She just evaded his touch. "No! You, you just… with… don't… I'm going away, ah…"
Luthor rushed around to place himself in her line of sight. "You're going with me."
She looked at Luthor, "With you? Do you sing the blues, too?"
"No, dearest, and you'll have no reason to after we leave this horrid city and these awful people…"
"What?" Clark asked.
Luthor turned toward him, approached and faced him so closely that Clark had no trouble seeing the man's eyes dilate with the thrill of victory. "You heard her, she wants to go with me! You've lost, Clark, for the last time! Get this through your thick head, you've—"
Clark punched him in the nose.
Then he realized what he had done and looked at his fist and at the man sprawled on the ground, blood beginning to run from his nose. Luthor was conscious; the punch had somehow controlled itself.
Clark could not remember ever having struck anyone in anger. Wanting to, yes, several times in the past six months alone, but never, ever having done it in his entire life.
Well, as his dad would say, there was a first time for everything.
"Don't get up or I'll just do it again," he decided to warn the man; one of them could play fair. "She's going to the hospital. She needs help—and I'm getting Jimmy and Perry, too." Though it was odd that they hadn't come out of the limo already.
More odd how Lois did not appear to be in the least cheered by these declarations. She was standing looking at him, looking at Luthor, back and forth, her alarm and confusion quite clear. Maybe she'd hit her head—or in trying to subdue her, had Luthor hit her, in the nightclub or earlier, during the original kidnapping? Untreated trauma would explain her wincing and many of her strange actions now. She definitely had to see a doctor.
"Then you," he pointed at Luthor, who was practicing seeing less than double, "*you're* going back to—"
There was a burst of machine gun fire.
Asabi was standing at the driver's side door, hefting a dangerous looking gun. Clark leapt for Lois to protect her, but Asabi was there almost as quickly, showing him the business end of the gun at close range, shoving it between them, forcing Clark to back away. Asabi warned, "Don't move again…"
Lois backed away from them all. "I don't want to be here, I want to sing…" she said in a small, difficult-to-hear voice. It was almost as though she expected no one to listen to her anyhow.
I listen to you all the time, Lois! Clark thought—don't I?
Having acquired Clark's attention, Asabi evidently felt free to reach into the back of the limo, grab something and pull.
Perry White's unconscious body fell onto the street, though Asabi kept the man's head from landing hard.
"He is merely asleep," Asabi explained quickly. "We still have Mr. Olson, who is also asleep but may not remain so fortunate if Mr. Luthor is further pressured, so you will wish to act with great care…"
Clark didn't move to test him.
"Very wise. Even innocent bystanders could be injured…" he nodded off to the east.
Red and the bartender had come out from the nightclub and were watching in the distance from a doorway. There were cars stopping, too, onlookers gawking, and at least one police car trying to plow through all this.
Asabi walked quickly around Lois and assisted his employer to his feet. Luthor shrugged off the help angrily, glared at Clark, touched his nose, glared at the blood, and glared even more at Clark. "Da lasd harrah, eh, Clak? You've lawst, you've lawst id all! Dake da frog an endjoi her whil yu cahn! An say goobye to Supaman, tuu!" He took Lois's arm roughly.
She stared at him, surprised in a dazed sort of way, and didn't protest being pulled along. Asabi continued to cover everyone with the machine gun. Luthor said, "Combe on, Wanna, my luv…"
"Certany, whadeva yu wan…"
She looked at Clark and her expression cleared somewhat, but not in a positive manner. It was like she desperately wanted to snarl at him with some strange anger, but her lower lip quivered again—and she had no time. Luthor pushed her into the back of the limo and followed her. Asabi let loose another hail of bullets, causing everyone duck for cover. It gave the trio (plus Jimmy) the chance they needed to escape. Asabi hopped into the front seat and the limo rushed away, police cars suddenly on their tail until they all disappeared into the growing traffic around a sharp corner.
Clark heard an explosion in the distance, a bomb going off, small by the sound of it, probably dynamite and gasoline again in another abandoned building, but it would have been enough to distract Superman.
As it was, though, Superman was staying right here, wearing this stupid T-shirt and more stupid boxer shorts as the police surrounded him. He ignored them and knelt to check on Perry White.
Lex Luthor sat back and sighed. He dabbed at his nose with a monogrammed silk handkerchief. The pain was lessening rapidly; Clark obviously had no idea how to throw a real punch. Besides, the memory of that easily overshadowed by the grand feeling of Lex's having pulled off his third triumph in less than 24 hours.
First the money, then the gun, now regaining the girl, and Asabi to get them away yet again. This was the first time both of them had been truly concerned that police might be watching for them. There was the chance that the law had learned he had acquired the gun and would be wanting to use it on Superman. They might be watching "Lois" and Clark, in the event Lex would use them to get to Superman.
Asabi had been worried earlier than that, about the bank and Lex's new plan to re-acquire his money, what with such facilities naturally having guards anyhow. Guards were always easy to overcome. Asabi worried too much sometimes. He should learn to meditate—ha!
Lex had to agree, though, that this latest daring move had been dangerous. Coming this far out of the lair without a clear indication of what he could expect had been chancy. But everything had worked out nicely indeed.
Asabi took another turn at an angle most automobiles would protest, slithering them through some clot of traffic or another. Lex slid to his right, onto Lois, who yelped and fell forward on to the unconscious body of Olson. Lex straightened and reached to comfort her, helping her sit back again. "Be more careful!" he growled toward the front.
"I believe I have left the last of the police behind, sir," Asabi said gently.
"Good! Wanda has been hurt, I think…"
Her eyes were closed and her hands were holding, indeed covering the back of her head. She frowned, she had heard what he said, good.
"That *Clark* hurt her…" he said, then continued, to her, in his most soothing manner, "My poor Wanda…"
"Lois is someone best left behind, my love…" at least until we get to Switzerland.
"At your service…"
She blinked open her eyes, seemed to gain her bearings, saw him, and took a long, serious look at him.
He dabbed at his nose, hoped his wig was on straight, and tried to look like her lover, truly come to save her.
"He hit you…"
"Yes, he did—he's a very violent man!"
She frowned again, just a touch, as though weighing this information. The Lois he had first kidnaped, the one who hadn't yet seen the videos of Clark, would have laughed at him… Now her expression turned… lazy somehow. "I see." She let go of her head, her shoulders relaxed, and she leaned back a bit into the corner of the seat, crossing her legs again. She looked down and fussed with the hem of her very short skirt but somehow even more of her leg showed when she was finished. She looked at him again. "Got a cigarette?"
"Eh?" But Lois didn't smoke. From what White had mumbled about "Wanda" though… "No, I don't at this time, dearest…"
"You always were slow, hiding things from me…" She looked around herself as though only mildly interested. She noted Olson's body trussed up on the spacious floor at her feet. She leaned forward carefully and began to go through his pockets. "Cigarette…"
"He doesn't smoke either, I believe."
"I'm surrounded by losers… ah-ha!"
She pulled back and showed Lex a pack of gum, pleased with herself. She pulled out a stick, didn't offer him one, and dropped the rest of the pack down the front of her dress (access to which she didn't offer, either). She unwrapped the stick in a slow, sensual manner, tossed the wrapper just anywhere and put the stick in her mouth slowly, folding it deliciously with her tongue, watching Lex from the corner of her eye.
He was both disgusted and entranced.
He blinked and looked away. This wasn't Lois any more than the Clone had been… but actually, it was Lois. Lois was cowering under stress somewhere in a back corner of this woman's mind. It was a good place for her, too. Hmm, by tonight, after he'd gotten rid of Superman and they were on their way out of the country, he could dedicate full time to soothing her and the real woman would rush forth to accept his love.
For now, though, this "Wanda" was… different.
They arrived at the lair without difficulty. Lex instructed Asabi not to put the limo away immediately, he had to get rid of Olson first. He found several pieces of paper, wrote out the same message on all of them, and secreted them about Olson's body.
"So many, sir?"
"So that at least one will survive the buffoon's peregrinations. Drop him somewhere nearby, too. No one will believe we were foolish enough to release him near our lair."
"Excellent idea, sir. I shall return shortly…"
"Take your time."
"Be careful with Ms…"
Lois was only a few steps way, glancing around the garage, snapping her gum, kicking at pebbles, clearly bored.
"Detroit," Lex whispered.
"Ms. Detroit… Mr. Ke—"
"'Clark,'" Lex corrected tersely, then whispered "*I'm* Dr. Kent for now."
"Yes, sir. But Mr. Clark was probably right about her requiring medical attention—"
"*You* can give her medical attention when you return. Now, go!"
Asabi nodded and faded away with Olson's unconscious body.
Lex dabbed at his nose again; no fresh blood, good, and he doubted any was visible or Asabi would have told him. He straightened his tie and wig, and turned to show Wanda Detroit into his lair with all the pomp and circumstances befitting visiting royalty.
Wanda Detroit yawned. "Seen one lair, seen 'em all," she said drily.
Lex blinked. When had Lois ever been in a lair? Possibly plenty of times, yes, but never in a truly voluntary manner. She had no doubt sneaked into those places in search of stories; she was after all a delightful, playful young woman—who no longer needed to do such dangerous work because he would take care of her from now on. He liked her spunkiness, and he could use that to help him retake his empire, but he would keep her abilities under strict control. It would be simple to help her see that helping him was in her best interest after all. She would even appreciate it.
Yet here she was, blase? He had expected her to be fearful at worst. Blase was unexpected.
No, no, no, he reminded himself, this was *Wanda*, woman of the world, that world being the "slimy streets of Nowheresville, city on the west coast of an ocean of shame," according to White.
Still he wanted this woman to be impressed as well.
What would impress her?
The bed! She surely had such thoughts on her mind now, particularly considering how she was dressed.
The bed was positioned strategically in the middle of the lair. Lex had been able to relax on it from time to time, and watch and control everything. Unfortunately, that piece of furniture looked like a hurricane had hit it. He rushed to throw the silk pajamas under it, pull up the black velvet bedspread, and fluff the goose- down pillows.
"Ha!" Wanda said. She turned away. "In your dreams, Kent…"
"Don't misinterpret me, my love. I don't wish to pressure you—"
"Not if you don't want a broken arm you don't."
"Ah, what a sense of humor you have…"
"Yeah, right. What are those things?"
"My carvings!" How good of her to notice—Lois always did have an eye for fine art. They were depictions of the rigors of prison life, and they were true, highly skilled works of art. Even Asabi had agreed. Using a screw driver, Lex had painstakingly carved the pictures into the battered walls of this abandoned subway stop just the evening before, working off the tension caused by waiting for what became his successful rendezvous with that idiot Harbert.
"Yeah, well… quaint." She looked right at him, not the least bit intimidated, which was… galling. "Got anything on velvet? Clowns with sad eyes? Dogs with sad eyes? Elvis?"
Huh? "Ah, no…"
"Not even…" she looked him up and down. "Guys like you always like women with big bazoomas."
"No, we don't!"
She rolled her eyes and snapped her gum.
"It's true!" he insisted, then realized that she was trying in her amateurish way to manipulate him. Him of all people! He drew himself up. "I admire your *mind.*"
"And I admire your…" She paused, snorted and turned away. "Forget that. Well, if this is *all*…"
"All? This is just the beginning!"
"Great. I guess we all have to start at the bottom…" She considered the bed again, approached it, touched, pressed and tested it, smoothing out wrinkles.
Lex started to step forward, but something made him rethink the move.
She turned and sat on the bed, leaned back on her hands, thrust forth her assets, crossed her legs provocatively, and looked at him with a combination expression: come-hither but if you make a false move you'll regret it.
Not sure what she might consider to be a false move, he didn't move at all.
She smiled as though she thought she were in complete charge.
Lex restrained himself from growling.
She glanced around the lair from this vantage point. "Oh, a TV. Is there anything good on?"
Ah-ha! "There's one show I like, it's called 'The Truth about Clark.' You might like it…"
"Nah, I know the truth about *all* men, even you, Kent."
"Oh. But you don't know that I plan to break into that evil fortress known as Star Labs in broad daylight, do you?"
"No, but I don't care, either."
He turned away and said as though her opinion didn't matter in the least. "You need not go, of course…"
"Good. Got any beer?"
"No. I've been busy planning my daring escapade. There could be gunplay, and of course the ever-present threat capture and torture."
She raised a dark eyebrow. "Oh?"
Bingo. "I must acquire a piece of a dangerous, alien mineral. It will help me thwart Clark…"
"But most of all it will stop that evil Superman from bothering us."
She sat forward. "Oh? Super… who?"
Lex turned back to her. "Superpest, actually. He doesn't understand my need for wealth and beauty and security. He and Clark have been conspiring against me for years. Clark has known of my interest in you and told you lies about me, just as he lies about himself to you…"
"He has lied a lot…" she said quietly, perhaps a bit of Lois seeping through.
He rushed to push "Lois" back and fill the gap with thoughts of himself. He hoped it would be acceptable, for just this moment, to sit on the bed beside her and carefully take her hand. "He's told you so many lies about me, he's tried to destroy me—he even poisoned me so that my hair fell out and everyone would laugh at me…"
A completely different woman suddenly sat beside him. She looked at him with soft eyes. "Oh, poor Kent…"
"So I'm going to try to stop them both once and for all. Our world doesn't need such villains—but *you* need not worry about it. You don't need to help me unless you truly wish to. I just want you to know I'm doing this for you…"
"That's so sweet…" She blinked away a tear.
"You're a big part of my life now, you're so important to me…"
"I'll help you, Kent…"
While she looked weepy and was acting as though she favored him at the moment, her emotions were volatile. He warned himself against playing too much with them or she could turn against him instantly and he might lose "Wanda" as well.
"Thank you, my love. You lie down here and rest. I won't bother you as I make my plans. When Asabi returns, maybe you can help me put on my disguise because you have such wonderful fashion sense!"
She smiled and looked down at herself. The move made her sway, she touched her head briefly behind her right ear, blinked, looked up at him uncertainly, but in a moment smiled again. "Thanks! I just… just created this out of nothing!"
"Wanda, we're going to create a whole new world for ourselves once we clear our path of the debris of the old world."
"Wow… Do you always talk like that?"
Lex just chuckled in a humble manner.
"And, ya know what?" she asked and then she waited, snapping her gum. When he didn't reply immediately, she repeated, even more nasally, "Ya know *what*?"
He caught himself and said, "No, what?"
She giggled. "I sorta, ya know, liked your carvins, too, ya know? It's so much easier, ya know, lookin at pitchas, ya know, than, ya know, reading books, ya know, so I'm glad, ya know, that you don't have any, ya know?"
Oh, my… "Yes, dear—"
"Books, I mean."
"You're sure of," snap, "lotsa things, arn-cha?" snap.
"Yes, and I'm sure you should lie back here and take a little nap before we go on our adventure."
"Okay." Snap. "Can I see your hand for a minute?"
What? "Ah, yes, here…" He held out his left, open for her.
She quickly popped out her gum, stuck it in the middle of his palm, and folded his fingers over it. "Keep dat for me, will ya?" she giggled.
She turned away, clutched at the pillow, curled up, and fell asleep.
Lex watched her for a moment, reminding himself who he was doing all this for—himself and that doing practically anything to fulfill his own desires was worth the effort in the long run. He ordered himself to remain calm. He crept away, seeking soap and water to wash his hand thoroughly.
Perry White survived his close brush with death with only a headache and a dizzy feeling whenever he tried to rail at himself or Lex Luthor. The doctors in the emergency room insisted he stop doing that and rest, and Alice White was there to insure it.
He had no information to give Clark other than he admitted that something had forced him to babble to that villain all he knew about Lois's novel and Wanda Detroit. He was appalled at himself, but everyone assured him that it wasn't his fault and it was a good thing he had been able to fight off any other effects of the drugs.
When Clark realized that they didn't need him to sign any more papers or explain things, he slipped away, evading all the police— except Henderson, who snuck up, took his arm and guided him into a linen closet and locked the door to insure some privacy.
He apologized for not being on the scene of the most recent crime, but Lemming of the FBI had required his attention. The government man was convinced that Luthor's lair was located somewhere in the Hobbs Bay area, Luthor's showing up on the waterfront and disappearing in the same area being his proof.
"I had to listen to him and pretend I agreed completely."
"But you don't because…?"
"Because…" he pulled out a folded computer printout and said, "our bug on the gun indicates Luthor is in this area…"
Clark looked at the printout, which was a computerized map of the northern part of the city. "He's at the Zoo?"
"In that area. The Zoo is the most prominent landmark. We lost the signal here…" he pointed out a cross roads. "Betty found that the sewer has a big junction here."
"There are a lot of old buildings in that area, too. He could be hiding in one, or hiding the limo there at least."
"I think so. Punkin described an underground area, and the city cut-back on public transportation funding several years ago means there are some abandoned subway lines in the area."
"He could be in one of them, in one of the stops—one near the Zoo, what with edible animals and plants missing. Ah, Superman will want to know about it. I have it on good authority that he hasn't looked there."
"You'll change clothes before you call on him so he'll take you seriously…"
Clark looked upward briefly, then looked at Henderson. "I rushed out of the house, I had that lead on Lois—but I *did* call you."
"And you did well, considering the pressures. When you find Superman, remind him to—"
"—get back-up, I know." But Clark smiled, "Luthor *might* have a weapon that could… tickle him."
"Or he might use his trump card, Olson."
No more reason to smile. "I know, that's probably why Lois acted like she did toward me, to protect Perry and Jimmy and those guys in the bar. She's like that, I noticed that right away when I met her. She puts up a big front, but the truth is, she doesn't think about the danger she's in when others are in trouble."
"I can believe it, but from what I heard about it, what she said must have hurt you."
"It did, a lot, until I realized what she was up to. We've had our ups and downs," he sighed, "and lots of misunderstandings, and so much just…" He spread his hands, feeling helpless almost, "just *happens* to us from out of the blue. I don't understand all the twists and turns our lives have taken… but I know she trusts me, I *know* she knows I'm trying, we're all trying to find her…"
Ellen and Sam Lane had declared a truce of sorts and decided to test it—though they didn't call it that—by uniting to confront the clone and grill her for more information on their daughter's whereabouts. They headed for Star Labs in Sam's rented car, followed by an unmarked police car that they spotted immediately and ignored. On the way they argued about the best method to obtain the information. They argued in the lobby waiting for clearance from Dr. Klein, argued as they traveled down the quiet halls toward the high security/new science division, and argued as they waited outside for Dr. Klein to unlock the door.
When the Lanes saw that Punkin, dressed in her white lab coat, was standing right behind Klein to help him, Lois's parents were almost speechless. The rough plan they had mapped out was forgotten upon seeing the excited but tired and vulnerable look on the young woman's face. They smiled nervously and explained that they wanted to simply talk to the clone of their daughter and ask her a few simple questions. Dr. Klein showed them in and commended them on their calm demeanor.
"We're exploring some of the samples Punkin so graciously let me take of her," Dr. Klein explained. "I've subjected them to a battery of tests, which you two with your medical training might enjoy hearing about. I've been explaining them to Punkin, and surprisingly she's understanding quite well." He looked her and smiled.
She returned it. "I understand a lot about DNA now," she said. She climbed on to a stool and sat there comfortably. Ellen thought perhaps the clone had become used to sitting there to watch the procedures. "My DNA isn't very good, it's breaking down somehow, but Bernie and I are going to see if we can make it stronger."
Ellen was surprised. She glanced at Sam to see that he seemed to feel the same way. She said to Punkin, "You're taking this so seriously…"
The young woman sat up straight, as though facing some challenge. "Well, yeah! It's not as much fun as yesterday, like when we went shopping, but this is *really important*, *I* know it! And maybe with what we learn, I can help other people, too!"
"That's right," Dr. Klein said, "Her observations have cut through all the scientific mumbo jumbo and she's given me some ideas and some new ways of looking at things, too. Since she was the last clone made, she couldn't have picked up any of this from her maker, Mr. Asabi. She just puts two and two together and comes up with new angles."
"That does sound interesting," Sam Lane admitted. "Lois was never very interested in science—*Don't* say anything, Ellen, I know I should have encouraged her more."
"And I could have helped her with her homework, too. All right, Dr. Klein and… Punkin, let's see what you've come up with…"
They gathered around the table upon which Dr. Klein had spread out his work and both he and his assistant began explaining things. Ellen, however, found herself more drawn to the clone's animated, intelligent expression when hearing something she understood, her fierce concentration encountering a new idea, and her easy laugh when Dr. Klein made modest jokes. She looked so much like Lois and had a lot of Lois's qualities in a budding form, yet she wasn't Lois. She was, as she and Clark had insisted the day before, a new person.
A new person who was, from everything Dr. Klein was showing them, rapidly deteriorating. Ellen began to feel a hollow ache in her heart at the thought. She wanted to turn away and cry. She blamed this largely on being so tired. But as the victim herself was able to sit there and laugh, Ellen Lane, a full-grown woman who had seen a lot of life's problems, could put aside her own worries and offer some support. She hoped.
Clark at last escaped from the hospital where Perry was being held, changed into the suit as soon as he found a deep-shadowed alley, and headed for the sky and the area of the Zoo. He was sidetracked by a number of problems that demanded Superman-style help, and one that didn't, the thought that he hadn't talked to his parents in almost a whole day. He found a phone booth on a quiet corner, pulled a quarter from a secret pouch in his boot, and called them collect. As the call went through and he got his money back, he nodded and waved at a group of kids who had stopped playing ball nearby to gawk at Superman using a public telephone.
He closed the folding door securely as his mom came on the line and accepted the collect call from "Jerome."
"Hi, I'm calling from a phone booth in case my phone at home is bugged again."
"Good idea… Your father's on the cell phone now. How are things going? Any sign of Lois?"
"Yeah…" He outlined what had happened some four hours before. "It really shook me up, the way she looked at me and acted… but Luthor still had Perry and Jimmy, so what could she do? I mean, I wasn't sure what *I* was going to do after I hit Luthor—"
"I sort of… punched him in the nose…"
"Good for you, son!"
"No, Dad, *not* good, but… but I couldn't help myself, I don't know what came over me."
"You didn't knock his head off, did you? No, I'm sure you didn't. You just let some of your frustration out."
"It sure didn't solve any of my problems."
"Oh, honey, you know violence never does, and we know you know that. But I agree with your father on this one, you were letting out your frustrations and considering who you let them out on, the very man who caused them, it was a natural reaction, no one could blame you. If I had been there I would have cheered."
"It's done, son, don't worry about it. It's not like you hit every two-bit criminal who comes along, you only hit the really bad ones."
"Ah, he's the first, Dad, the first who didn't try to hit me first, that is."
"Well, there's a first time for everything. We know you'll think twice before you do it again. So now you're out looking for Lois?"
"Yeah, we have a good lead on her and Luthor thinks he has a weapon that can kill me. I expect to get some directions from him soon about where I'm supposed to go to meet my demise. Then I can get Lois and Jimmy, no sweat."
"And that darling Punkin? Is she okay?"
"Yeah, son, have they dissected her like a… well, you know."
"No, she's okay, I guess. I haven't had the chance to talk to her yet today, but Henderson said she's enjoying keeping Dr. Klein company. I think that's the best place for her now, because he might be able to help her."
Dr. Klein, Sam and Ellen Lane and Punkin Kent crouched huddled in a file room in the back of the lab. They had fled there to avoid being seen by the looters who were destroying the laboratory next to the one in which the quartet had been working not five minutes before. They had heard gunfire, and Dr. Klein had said "Not again!" and pushed everyone into hiding. "This happens every couple of weeks," he had whispered. "Security around here is abysmal…"
"Everyone's on dinner break," Sam guessed.
"Shh!" Ellen said.
Punkin, who could huddle the smallest, said nothing. She recognized Lex Luthor's voice. She did not recognize the other voice but thought it was that of a woman.
That woman said, "What're we lookin' fer again, Alex-aaaan- der?"
"It's green, it glows, and it's probably locked up…" Bang! Crash! "But… it's not in here…"
"Why yer more fun than a barrel fulla monkeys, did you know that, sonny? Got any more chew on ya, by crackie?"
"No, dearest. You stay right there."
"If ah had some moonshine—"
"I know, but it's not allowed in this facility."
"Are you sure you all's not a Hatfield? They're really mean cusses, like you are sometimes."
"I'm sure that I'm not. You wait there and I'll check out this next laboratory…"
The hiding people heard foot steps coming closer. Punkin most of all knew what that could mean, that Lex Luthor would leave no room unlooked in, and she knew she had to act to stop him because she was the very strongest person here. She rose to her feet.
Ellen Lane tried to grab her to pull her back down again, but Punkin pushed her hand away and said "Shh!" in the same way Ellen had said it moments earlier. Why would the woman want to stop her? None of the three were strong enough to face Lex Luthor like Punkin Kent had the morning before, and Punkin was sure of it. It was true that Ellen had been nice while they talked here, and she had been fun when they were shopping yesterday. She hadn't started out to be fun; she had started out watching Punkin carefully, but Punkin had ignored her. The older woman had tired easily it seemed, unlike Martha Kent or even Alice White or Mrs. Stern.
But Punkin had caught Ellen chuckling a few times, too, after a while there in Costmart. Punkin couldn't understand why the other women hadn't been interested in exploring the jewelry counter and seeing if each bauble glowed the same under different lighting conditions; checking various pieces of lawn furniture for comfort and sturdiness; testing the headphones in electronics and listening to different kinds of marvelous music at different sound levels; or test-driving vacuum cleaners and multispeed blenders in the housewares department. Lucy had shown her how the Nintendo display worked, and they'd played together until shorter kids had begun to protest that "adults!" were hogging the game. Then all the women had enjoyed trying on new clothes, but only Martha had been interested in any truly colorful combinations.
Now Ellen Lane was worried. A glance told Punkin that the woman wasn't worried about Luthor—she was worried about her!
Well, don't worry about me, she wanted to assure the woman, but she couldn't, there wasn't time.
She stepped out into the open, spotted Lex Luthor, and told him, "You stop right there, you mean old man!"
Luthor did stop. He was dressed darkly; he reminded her of the man in the bank—they must have been the same! That must have been *him* in the bank threatening to kill Clark! She pursed her lips like Clark did and tried to look like business.
Luthor had something funny looking on his head besides the wig; it was like a facemask that had been pushed up out of the way. Wouldn't that have kept him from breathing? Or didn't he want to breathe that funny, slight smell that Punkin detected in the air?
Behind him was the one with the woman's voice Punkin had heard. She was smaller than Luthor and had long, blond hair. She also wore a mask thing on her head and she was dressed darkly, but in addition to that she wore pearl necklaces. Punkin could tell at a glance that they were "faux", like some of the ones in the Costmart jewelry department. The golden bracelets also looked like "faux" and they were very pretty, too.
"Why, who's that cute little thing, Alegsander? She's prettier 'en a speckled hen under a—"
"Hush!" Luthor told her. Then he looked at Punkin. "What *are* you doing here, frogwoman?"
"What a mean thing to say! I'm *not* a frog, I'm *mostly* human!"
"Ha! You're mostly *dead* is what you are—but that's why you're here, isn't it? A pathetic attempt to gain a few more hours of life."
"It's not pa… patet.. It's not either!"
"It certainly is pathetic, which means *useless* in your case since only *I* know the secret of everlasting life for clones…" and he paused to examine his fingernails. The woman behind him leaned in a doorway, snapping chewing gum and giggling now and then.
Punkin was surprised. "You know that?"
"I certainly do. I don't know that it will help you much, since you only have a few more hours left anyhow, but if I were to tell you…"
His voice sounded gentle suddenly. Punkin didn't know if she could believe him, but he did know Daddy so well that maybe he also knew the secret. "Please tell me, please?"
"In trade for what *you* know about Superman?"
"Yes, 'oh.' *Now* you remember your assignment when you want something from me."
"Well… He's tall…"
"I know that."
"And he can fly."
"I knew that, too. You're useless! Just crawl away and die!" He turned away and started ransacking the drawers under nearest lab table.
"But *I* didn't know that! I just saw him once and that's when I found out! I know something else about him, too!"
Luthor turned back. "Oh? All right, what?"
"You know when Daddy told me that if I took off my shirt Clark would be more interested in me?"
The woman in the doorway rolled her eyes and snickered.
"Well, I thought if I did it and said 'Help, Superman!' Superman would come and he would be interested because he's a man."
"And… I didn't get a chance to call. Clark told me that Superman's not interested in that kind of thing, that I can't use it like an invitation, that he won't be tempted."
"Yeah, and he won't come."
"He won't come…"
"Trying that would be a waste of time."
"Oh? Really? You mean Superman's…" Luthor stopped, smiled, began to laugh and indeed threw his head back and let out a guffaw to end all guffaws.
The woman in the door imitated him, grabbed at her head and skittered away out of sight going "ow, ow, ow…"
"Is that what you wanted to know? Is that good enough?"
"That's certainly more than I expected to hear!" Luthor said as he wiped mirthful tears from his eyes.
"Then you'll tell me the secret to everlasting life for clones?" she asked as politely as she could.
"Why certainly, my dear." He walked up to her, placed a hand on her shoulder and said, "The secret is: never give a sucker an even break."
"Why you cruel son of a…!"
Ellen Lane roared out of hiding and bore down on Lex Luthor, who jumped back and pulled out a hand gun, aiming it at the angry woman. Sam Lane was on her heels and grabbed her before she got far, and Dr. Klein rushed around them and placed himself between his guests and the intruder.
The Doctor said, "I suggest, sir, you leave right now before the guards… wake up or whatever you've done to them…"
Luthor threw back at him a "Ha!" and eased his grip on the gun but didn't put it away. "I have no intention of staying, but perhaps taking a hostage or two would be a good idea, hmm?"
"Take me then!" Sam said, stepping forward.
"Hey, Barnie!" that woman yelled from a distance, her voice almost guttural.
The villain stopped, looked pained, moderated his expression when he recalled he had an audience, and called back over his shoulder, "Wanda? Where are you?"
"Yaba-daba-doo! Is that thing you're looking for green and glowing and about the size of a pterodactyl's toenail?"
"Huh?—Yes, probably—Stay there! And you all," he said as he backed away, covering them with his gun, "stay put, because I won't hesitate to shoot the first one I see following me—except you," he pointed at Punkin, "I won't waste good bullets on you." He then dashed out the door, gone.
The ex-hostages waited for several long seconds. When Luthor didn't return and the noise the two made abated and escaping footsteps could be heard, Dr. Klein sighed. "Well, I'm glad that's over."
Sam picked up, listened to, then put down the phone. "It's dead."
"Oh," Punkin whispered.
"Is there a back door to this place?" Ellen asked.
"There is, but you'd have to go out that door," he pointed at the one Luthor would be watching, "to get to it. I suggest waiting a few more minutes. Interesting how he was wearing a gas mask," Dr. Klein said as he loosened his tie and breathed more deeply. "That means they must have gassed all the guards."
"Maybe the ones in this area were out for dinner," Sam said, "or we might have wound up being gassed, too."
"True, and being Saturday, people rarely come in to work, I'm about the only one here usually…"
"No one to go home to?" Ellen asked, concern on her face.
"What's a sucker?"
The Lanes and Dr. Klein the grew quiet.
"I guess that's…" Punkin tried to sort it out, "somebody who only has a few more hours left anyhow…"
"Oh, dear, you're not a sucker…" Ellen said as she carefully hugged the young woman.
"I don't think he knew a secret *at all,* I think that's why I'm a sucker, I'm someone who believed him. I told him about Superman and now Superman's in trouble!" and she began to cry.
They all tried to comfort her, but Ellen found it the easiest, holding Punkin closely. "There, there…"
"Maybe I *should* die, because people get hurt because of me…"
"No, no," Dr. Klein said. "I don't think Superman will be hurt by that."
"I think you just misunderstood things, my dear," Sam said as he squeezed her shoulder, "and then that evil man misunderstood you. You know, that's a very good thing!"
Punkin looked out from the protection of Ellen's arms. She sniffed and asked, "It is?"
"Certainly it is! If he accuses Superman of that, why, Superman will laugh at him! Look! I'm laughing myself! Ha-ha-ha!"
"That *is* funny!" Dr. Klein smiled. "To think, that *Superman* wouldn't like… Ha-ha-ha!"
Punkin looked at Ellen. "It's funny?"
"It is, yes, dear, so don't worry."
"But Clark said… maybe Clark was wrong?"
"He could have been," Sam said.
"He's probably a little worried that Lois still loves Superman more than him," Ellen advised her. "Men are like that…"
"Clark is very important… He worries about a lot of things, you know? He worries about me."
"I'm sure he does."
"You won't tell him that I only have a few more hours left anyhow, will you?"
The men stopped laughing. "Not tell him?" Sam asked.
"Well, Punkin, I think there's still hope…"
"I don't know, Dr. Klein, the dissolution of my DNA is happening faster than your learning curve, you said that, I heard you, I don't know if I was supposed to, but I did…"
"I think that means I'm dying."
The three shuffled a bit.
"I don't know what dying is, but it doesn't sound like very much fun…"
Ellen truly looked like she might cry now. "Oh, Punkin…
"You won't tell Clark about that, either, will you?"
They mumbled their promises.
Ellen gave her a little hug. "Let's go sit down, you and I, and talk about the fun times you've had, okay?"
Punkin looked at her. The woman's eyes were warm and her words true. "Okay. You know? I think you're nice after all…"
Ellen sniffed back tears and smiled.
Clark hovered over the Zoo at 5,000 feet, using that as his search's center point… and finding nothing. The Zoo looked fine, there had been no more reports of losses. There were underground passages here, but they were all part of the normal workings of the Zoo. All the visitors were safe, and for the moment Metropolis was calm.
He wondered how long he could remain calm without having to flee to the Arctic and unleash a avalanche-engendering scream. Doing that was far better than punching someone out, no matter who it was.
Then something began to draw him. He wasn't sure what it was but he let it affect his float, as though the wind were causing him to drift when it was something else…
It was Jimmy. Far below, as evening fell over the streets of the city, the young man was stumbling toward a busy intersection, collapsing against a light pole—being helped up by Superman.
"Jimmy! Can you hear me?" He examined his friend quickly with x-ray vision. He saw that Jimmy was bruised and that there was one puncture mark on his arm from a drug injection, but he thought that otherwise his friend would recover much as Perry White had.
"Superman?" Jimmy peeped.
"Right! Let's go for a little ride, hmm? Hold on!"
Superman rushed the young man to the same hospital that had treated Perry and they found the same results. They also found notes secreted in Jimmy's pockets and Superman confiscated them immediately. He perused them all, and then turned them over to Henderson, who had appeared without seeming to have been called and who was waiting quietly at Superman's elbow.
Henderson commandeered a conference room this time, looked over the notes, noted that they were identical in content if not quite in penmanship, and commented, "He can't spell orangutan. The message, however, is clear."
"Midnight is not as traditional time for showdowns as high noon is, but he'll be sure that the gun has recharged by then."
"And the meeting place is practically impossible for us to surround. Night time makes it worse, and I understand a cold front is due in and rain is expected."
"I'm sure you'll be able to place a few officers around the perimeter of the zoo without disturbing the animals. Of course, he won't get away."
"He might, he has kryptonite now."
"He said that before, this morning, a threat I didn't believe."
"I didn't believe it, either, but he broke into Star Labs late this afternoon and ironically made off with the piece from the gun that my son took there for safekeeping—"
"He WHAT? When?"
"At approximately 4:30. The guards were on a shift change and the Lab was only lightly populated anyhow. John wasn't there for example, which is a good since they found the Kryptonite in his lab."
"4:30… I was in Poza Rica putting out a hotel fire…"
"Saving lives. You can't be everywhere at once."
"I should have been here…" He pursed his lips, frowned at himself, tried to stop frowning because Henderson was right, and told himself to get more information. "Was anyone hurt?"
"Some of the guards were roughed up. The Lanes and Dr. Klein were there, and Punkin tried to face Luthor down but wound up being told she only has a few more hours to live. His cruelty alone should get him an extra lifetime in jail…"
"Yes…" He saw a chance to cover for himself and automatically took it. "Does Clark know about this?"
"I don't think so. Punkin didn't want him to find out."
"Then I… better not say anything about it…"
"Perhaps you better not say anything at all to him. I have the feeling he'll want to back you up tonight."
"I have the feeling he'll try to knock me out, tie me up and take over for me for this, too."
Henderson cracked half a smile. "If he doesn't and if you don't get called away, meet with me at his place at 11 tonight."
"Ah, yes, I'll try."
As soon as he could get away from the hospital (no one asked Superman to sign any papers), Clark raced for Star Labs. He changed clothes on the way and seconds later he landed as himself in the darkness near the main door and rushed inside. He passed through ID points and a police line and was directed into a conference room near Dr. Klein's lab, where he found the doctor and the Lanes as well, contemplating cups of coffee and plates of stale-looking pastries.
"I just heard what happened—are you all right?"
They assured him that they were, that the police questioning had been as trying as meeting Lex Luthor in person.
They looked at each other, clearly torn about telling him the truth that he knew already.
"She was stressed by talking to that… that *man*," Ellen said. "The poor thing, it… took a lot out of her, so she's resting, in there."
A lounge with low lighting and a comfortable-looking couch. Punkin was stretched out on it, wrapped in a blanket, sleeping. Clark watched her for a long moment. Her breathing was labored, she was frowning at something in a dream, an expression that did not look right on her innocent face.
He decided there was nothing that he could say to comfort her, that it didn't seem he was very good at doing that sometimes anyhow, so it was probably best not to disturb her. He withdrew quietly.
He stood leaning against the wall in the darkness for a long moment, looking back over the last few days, trying to see if there was anything yet that made sense about all this but there simply wasn't. So many people had been hurt and he had been able to do so little to stop that.
The gun trick was good, but if it didn't work, what then?
No, it has to work, he told himself. It had to distract Luthor. The man had to expect Superman would come as demanded and confront him, not only for what the man had done to Superman's friends but because Luthor was an escaped felon. Superman simply did that kind of thing, confronted people, stood up for truth, justice, etc., without thinking much about the consequences.
Clark Kent, on the other hand…
Punched somebody now and then, true…
But he was otherwise, Clark sighed, an ordinary, predictable guy.
He was predictably easy to fool, he was predictably late, he was predictably emotional. He was also, he realized, predictably pretty much lost without Lois Lane.
Except that he hadn't been fooled. He did feel a little lost without her, but there was also a light at the end of the tunnel, the presence of which he had helped engineer, and it didn't look like it had morphed unexpectedly into an on-coming train.
Clark straightened up, squared his shoulders, and wondered where he could find the proverbial plumber's helper to use to whack Superman over the head and duct tape with which to bind him…
He informed the waiting trio that he hadn't bothered Punkin but that he would check in on her later. He was planning, he told them, to mount a Sunday safari to the Zoo, where Lex Luthor was reportedly hiding out.
"Maybe the tigers will eat him," Ellen said.
"Cruelty to animals," Dr. Klein said. "They'd get severe indigestion."
"Snakes swallowing him whole would be more appropriate," Sam said.
The three agreed. Let the animals have at the man and that woman who had helped him.
Woman who had helped him? Clark wondered aloud.
They told him that they had heard but not seen what sounded like a woman doing vocal imitations of cultural stereotypes and popular media figures. They assumed she was helping Luthor. Only Punkin, who had bravely tried to distract them both, had caught sight of her, describing her as having long, yellow hair and lots of fake jewelry. Oh, and Luthor had referred to her as Wanda.
"Wow," Clark said, just barely keeping the shock off his face. "Well, that's really… strange."
They agreed and laughed about it.
But they couldn't be right, Lois would never help Luthor rob Star Labs, let alone assist him to acquire Kryptonite of all things…
Except none of these three nor Punkin knew anything about Wanda. There was no reason for them to make this up when they'd already seen plenty of bizarre things over the last several days.
He wasn't about to tell them what he knew, either. What could he say to the Lanes? That their daughter was suffering from head trauma yet bravely playing along with Luthor in order to get the drop on him? They'd rightly wonder what he, Clark, was doing to stop the villain and save her.
Not enough, not nearly enough…
And why was she helping their worst enemy?
He tried to put this question aside for now. He assured himself that the three were under secure guard and left them, saying he had to catch up on his sleep to be ready for the day to come.
On the way out he questioned several guards. One had witnessed the dangerous duo enter the building, tossing gas canisters as they went. The male of the two had been overheard trying to convince the woman to kill one of the guards while he lay helpless, but she had balked and whined about at suggestion, sounding like the Nanny on TV. It was thought that the man might have dispatched the guard himself had the two not been in a hurry. Maybe that woman's voice had made the man want to move more quickly, too.
Clark thanked them and trudged out, trying to fit all the pieces together. Whatever Lois was doing, she was probably heavily drugged and completely blameless in all this.
He decided to spend some time in the outback of the Yukon, contemplating life. He wouldn't yell, it wouldn't do any good.
Midnight was only a few hours away, and it couldn't come too soon.
"Where's Superman?" Henderson asked when Clark allowed him in at precisely 11 that night.
"Beats me, I haven't seen cape nor hair of him."
"Mind if I… check your closets?"
"Like I'll have him tied up in one? Ha-ha. No, I'd put him in the crawlspace between the ceiling and the roof."
"I see. Are you sure you've gotten enough sleep, Clark?"
"No, I probably haven't," nor had he eaten more than that oatmeal cookie, which would make his mother really mad if she found out. He wasn't planning to tell her until this was all over and he and Lois were eating a fine meal at home on the farm. "There will be time for that later. Superman showed me one of those notes and warned me to stay away from the area."
"He hasn't heard of reverse psychology, has he?"
"I tricked him into telling me, what can I say? Other than I'm going, too."
"I hope he offered to back you up again."
"Of course. He wants to see the look on Luthor's face when the gun fizzles out. *I* just want to rescue Lois."
"And, by the way," he looked steadily at Henderson, "I understand that she helped Luthor rob Star Labs this afternoon."
"I see," the Inspector said after a beat. "He… no, probably the Lanes told you, except…"
"Except they don't know. They only said that Luthor was assisted by a woman they didn't see and that he called her Wanda."
"Yes, that's what they told me, too. I should have said something, Clark, but I didn't want to alarm you more than you already are. She's innocent, she's just a pawn, she won't be charged with anything."
"But maybe she isn't a pawn."
Henderson blinked, startled.
"I've been thinking about this," Clark said as he leaned back against the back of the couch, folded his arms before his chest, and tried to stay focused. "She found out Luthor wanted Kryptonite. Maybe she tried to talk him out of it but of course that's the one thing that will slow Superman down. I don't think he'll try putting it in the gun, though, I think we threw a real scare into him. He'll just keep it as insurance. So she fooled him into thinking she could help him by continuing to pretend to be Wanda Detroit and off the wall. After all, she may have seen even bigger pieces of Kryptonite but steered him toward that small one. I wouldn't be surprised if she's already gotten it away from him by now and he doesn't even know it."
Henderson considered him seriously. "You may have something there. I have no doubt Luthor is very confident. That could give Lois more maneuvering room."
"Exactly. He thinks he's winning and he'll be distracted when Superman pretends to fall into his trap. My part will be easy then, just save Lois and she'll have done a lot of the work already, I'm sure of it. So you don't have to worry about me, though maybe you'd like to go along and grab Luthor in case Superman doesn't show up in time or something."
"You're definitely not going alone on this one."
Clark nodded and smiled. He had worried about all this for quite some time until looking at it from a slightly cockeyed, Yukon-cold angle had revealed Lois's probable plan. It was brilliant.
As for himself, he had no plans other than he had dressed in different, more comfortable, dark clothing again. Henderson almost always dressed in black, so he was ready. Otherwise, Clark had no idea how he would get away from the man or even if it was the right thing to do. He was just going to wait to see what happen, to try to determine what Lois's lead was and follow along if he could.
He and Henderson rode to the edge of the Zoo, and the Inspector passed them through the triple guard posted at the main opening.
From the cloudy sky there was a distant boom of thunder and it began to sprinkle lightly for a moment… then stop. "I hope this holds off," Henderson muttered.
As they headed toward the African Jungle Exposition area, a mountain lion in the Great American Southwest display grunted what turned out to be a warning. A man dressed in typical hoodlum clothing stepped out from behind a closed fruit juice stand and confronted them. He held a nasty looking automatic weapon and he waved it carelessly at Henderson and Clark. "Visitors tonight, good! The boss said you would come."
"Mr. Krubner," Henderson said drily. "I'm surprised Lex Luthor hired you of all people."
"I'm good at what I do—spying on people."
The mountain lion grumbled again, Henderson shied away from the sound, and Clark faded into the darkness.
"What a terrifying sound," Henderson gasped as he put a hand dramatically to his heart.
"You get used to it. Well, *you* won't get used to it, Inspector, you'll be dead."
Clark tapped Krubner on the shoulder. "But you'll have the chance to get used to seeing the inside of a jail cell."
As Krubner turned, Superman removed the rifle from his grip, folded the barrel into a knot, and smiled. The shocked man held still while Henderson read him his rights and secured his mouth, wrists and feet with duct tape borrowed from Clark's supply closet.
"Good work, Inspector," Superman said as he further dismantled the gun and dropped pieces of it quietly into a patch of grass.
"Not so good, Clark's escaped again."
Superman stopped smiling, crumbled the last of the gun, wiped his hands of it, and sighed. "I'll go find him. I'm supposed to be his back up. I guess he didn't like that trick I played on him this morning."
Superman shrugged helplessly and left to begin searching for Clark.
Clark placed himself, as himself in black again, a good two hundred feet ahead of Henderson, all the while looking for more of Luthor's guards and Krubner's spy devices. He saw none of the former and a few of the latter, which he avoided assiduously. He had little doubt that Henderson would be able to do the same, he'd just have to do it on his own.
Clark jumped the fence of the empty orangutan enclosure. It's former inhabitants were on loan to another zoo for breeding purposes and new tenants had not yet been secured.
He headed for the cave-like entrance, pulled out the small flashlight he had secreted in a back pocket, and pretended to grope his way through the darkness.
He found the hidden manhole cover the note had pointed out. Superman was no doubt expected to burst through it and into Luthor's trap. Perhaps he would, later.
Clark Kent, however, would not use it. There was a second, even better hidden, real door further on. This door lead to a staircase and a series of tunnels used by zoo maintenance workers and animal behavior observers. He and Lois had discovered these tunnels and their use during the writing of a story the summer before. Drug runners had been reportedly using them, but the story had fizzled when no good evidence was found.
One tunnel he tiptoed down, guided by superhearing, led to a rusted-shut door which he eased open as slowly and quietly as he could.
Beyond the door was a small, darkened chamber, which he slipped into. He could hear voices clearly now.
"Wanda, Asabi. Superman is always on time for funerals—his own in this case—so we have less than 4 minutes to prepare…"
"Yeah, so what?"
Clark stopped. Wanda? Good! Lois was still leading Luthor to believe she thought she was that strange woman. What a clever ploy! How brilliant she was! And that screechy, nasal voice had to be just about driving Luthor around the bend…!
"So, my lovely, are you ready to kill him?"
"I *said* I was, six times already! Geesh! Don't you *ever* listen to me, Kent?"
—Oh, right, Luthor had learned about that from Perry, so he'd expect to be called that. Good work, Lois! Clark smiled to himself. What a reunion we'll have! We work so well together even when we're not together!
"Yes, yes," Luthor said, sounding tired. "Don't worry your pretty little head about that…"
Wanda giggled. "I bet you talk to all the girls like that…"
Clark noticed an odd little scratching sound… He decided that Lois was playing it to the hilt by filing her nails. That probably irritated Luthor, too.
"I believe she will do it, sir," Asabi whispered. "That will drive the final wedge between her and her memories of Superman, destroying any remaining love she has for him."
"Of course it will! The Man of Steel—and I use the word 'man' loosely—"
Clark frowned, then reminded himself he didn't care what Luthor thought.
"—killed by her own hand. She'll learn to live with it, just like she'll learn to love me again like she did before."
"You are most certainly lovable, as are we all. Her fiance is the only one I have doubts about her truly being over and done with…"
Clark, hearing reference to himself, feeling the strange thrill of danger, pressed closer to the wall, but not so closely as to risk leaving an impression of his body in the stone.
"Well, then, if he turns up, I'll have her kill him, too, it will be simple." He raised his voice from the scheming whisper. "It will be simple, won't it, Wanda? You'd love to kill Clark, wouldn't you?"
"Yeah, sure, whatevah you say, Kent. Clark's a dead man already. Will he be wearing… what was it? Blue, too?"
"No, I think he'll be wearing shorts with pictures of the Eiffel Tower on them…"
Clark almost missed her saying "…oh" in a subdued manner. It reminded him of the confused, hurt tone of voice she had wisely used when confronting him behind the nightclub. One more way to fool Luthor.
"Don't let that bother you, my love," Luthor said gently.
"Okay…" her voice was tearful.
Asabi's was insistent. "Two minutes, sir…"
"Go check on Krubner, he should have checked in by now—unless Superman took him out like we planned. He's expendable—but you're not, be careful. I'll make sure the gun is ready…"
Lex's voice faded as he said this. Clark lowered his glasses and peered through the wall. He saw both men were heading away in the direction opposite from where he was hiding. The manhole was that way, too, but closer and overhead; the two men passed under it. They would be prepared when Superman crashed through, if Clark decided to do that.
The area grew quiet, except that nail-filing sound resumed. Maybe Lois was waiting until she was sure the two were far enough out of earshot to make her big move. Instead, Clark smiled, she'd find him here to help her.
He eased out of hiding, almost floating with excitement, having a hard time keeping himself from doing so.
Lois hadn't moved yet. She was sitting curled up on an ornate bed that had a wrought-iron head board and a black velvet bed spread. She was wearing a wig with long, blond hair, a tight purple dress with a plunging neckline and purple high heels with straps that wrapped up to her knees. The skirt of the dress had no hope of reaching down that far.
Her eyes were caked with makeup freshly tear-streaked. He noticed this in particular because she glanced up, looked down at her red nails again—then looked up once more and stared at him, her eyes wide.
"Me, Lois," he whispered as he crept up within a dozen feet of her, "and we're getting out of here, now—"
"No!" she shouted.
She scrambled to her feet on the bed, her spike heels catching on the velvet bedspread, her balance uncertain. She pointed at him and almost screamed, "You stay away from me! You, you… You!"
He stopped, stood still and looked up at her, trying not to let his surprise and confusion overwhelm the need for one of them to keep a cool head. "Lois! We have to—"
"Go, Clark? So soon?"
Luthor stepped back into the room. "You want to *leave* when I'm about to destroy Superman? And you call yourself a reporter! It would be the scoop of the century, which of course you won't survive to tell…" He pulled the same handgun out of his jacket pocket and said, "Wanda, here, catch this and keep Clark covered."
"Clark…" she whispered and then looked at him, which caused her to miss the tossed gun. It landed at her feet on the bed, however, and she stooped to pick it up, wincing dizzily.
"That's a good girl. If *Clark* moves—shoot him in the arm or the leg, he deserves it."
Clark frowned at Luthor, who had hefted the bag with the Superman-killing gun onto a table. He stopped himself from frowning though, realizing quickly that he had to concentrate on Lois.
She was fumbling with the handgun, not quite able to get a grip on it at first, but in a few moments was able to hold it with both hands and aim it in his direction.
"…deserves it…" she whispered. "Clark deserves it."
Her hands were shaking.
He dragged his eyes from them and the gun and looked at her strained face. He had to say something comforting, something just right, something… "Don't shoot me, Lois, please."
"Beg, Clark!" Luthor ordered as he pulled out the big gun.
Clark kept his eyes on her. "I'm not going to beg. Lois, you and I are going to talk."
"Order him to *beg* you, Wanda! He humiliated you, he dumped you for a *frog!*"
Lois's bottom lip began to quiver.
"I didn't dump you for anyone," Clark said with a tranquillity born of exact knowledge, "and I certainly never meant to…" Oh, god, she couldn't have *possibly* have *ever* believed… "to humiliate you…"
"He's lieing! He always lies!"
"Lois, we *must* talk."
"He talks too much! Kill him!"
From out of the darkness behind Clark ran a small woman dressed in a white lab coat.
Punkin! How had she known? Had she overheard him telling the Lanes and the Kents about the Zoo and decided to come herself, early, to lay in wait to help him? Had she seen him entering the orangutan compound, avoided all the cameras, and followed him?
What an amazing person she was…
She tried to push Clark aside, but he was so startled that he couldn't move or be moved.
Since that didn't work, she approached Lois instead and looked up at her. "Don't hurt Clark!" She pointed him out in case the dazed woman teetering precariously on the unstable surface didn't recognize him. "Even if you like Superman more, Clark's the best person *ever!*"
Lois, clearly puzzled, frowned at Punkin, "Superman…?"
"Shoot her, too, Wanda! She's Clark's lover!"
"Clark is my best friend, so don't hurt him! Hurt *me* instead! It will be okay, it won't matter if you do!"
Practically every part of Lois was trembling now, and Clark realized she might shoot someone without meaning to. He had to put a stop to this. He stepped forward and touched Punkin's shoulder to ease her aside.
She turned to him, with no doubt the same beseeching look on her face for him as she had given Lois. "I want to help you…" she whispered, "but… I can't…" She sighed, her eyes rolled back in her head, and she fainted or maybe worse.
"Punkin!" She must have run all the way here, Clark thought, miles and miles. It had been too much for her perilous state of health. He caught her and knelt with her, noting her irregular breathing and weak heart beat. Her eyes fluttered opened, barely. She grasped at his sweater and whispered something almost inaudible and senseless, asking if she'd done good.
"There, you see?" Luthor cackled in triumph. "She's much more important to him than you are! Shoot them *both!*"
Clark looked up. The real Lois wouldn't stand by and do nothing. "Lois, help me, please?"
"Shoot him! He's begging—he's a *loser!*"
"No, no," she whispered, "I want… I need…"
"You must listen to me, Wanda!"
"Lois, I need you."
"Kill him—you don't need losers!"
"No—No!" She choked on the words, hiccupping, her shoulders heaving with emotion. "Stop!" She shook her head, cringed with pain. Her face contorted into what might have been a disgusted, enraged frown at the whole world. "Just *stop!* Stop, stop, stop!" She *threw* the gun—mostly in Luthor's direction, missing by a mile but causing the man to duck anyhow.
The jerking move and her feet twisting in the velvet bedspread caused her knees to buckle. She fell back, grasping at the air. For a moment, enough for a glance Clark might have misinterpreted but he hoped he hadn't, she seemed to reach for him.
He cried out, "LOIS!"
There was a terrible crashing sound—but from across the chamber.
Luthor turned toward it.
Clark laid Punkin down and rushed around the bed, heedless of speed, but could not catch Lois before she had fallen unconscious to the hard, rough floor. He gathered her up and held her as tightly and safely as he dared. He pushed off the wig and stroked her hair, resting her head on his shoulder, under his chin. Tears blurred his vision and he closed his eyes. "Lois…"
She couldn't respond—oh, God, what was wrong…
Her silence allowed the terrific sound of shattering ceiling and walls to re-assert themselves on Clark's conscious. He opened his eyes and turned slightly, toward Luthor, keeping his body protectively between Lois and the villain.
Luthor had grabbed up Harbert's weapon. He held it now with the supreme confidence of a winner, laughed triumphantly, and aimed it at…
"Superman…" Punkin said, her failing voice full of joy. "Oh, Superman!"
to be continued… Okay, readers, I'm conducting a poll. No, not about the above, I know what I want to do with all that ;)
What I want to know is, do you want me to deal with Maxwell Deter or not? Personally, I didn't much mind the A plots of "Forget Me Not" and "Oedipus Wrecks." They are good enough stand-alone stories had it not been for the previous three episodes. But do I, or we, in this version above, *need* Dr. Deter? Do you, gentle readers, want him again?
Please send your vote
Yes, include Deter
No, ignore Deter
to firstname.lastname@example.org by the middle of September, 1996. If you read this after that time, I'd still like to read from you :)
The author wishes to thank proofers Lynda L., Margaret B., Laurie F., and Molly H. A special thanks to Lauren W. for her "how Punkin shopped" idea which I wish I'd had and earlier, though in any script it could certainly be shown in an appropriate place rather than be the prose flashback it currently is.