By Debby Stark
Summary: Lois escapes from Lex but manages to elude Clark as well, thanks to an amnesia-inducing bump on the head and help from a kindly truck driver named Red Dixon. A continuation of the fanfic "Double Entendre - An Alternate View: The Non-Wedding Arc, Part II." This is the third of the author's five stories written to take the place of the episodes in the five-part arc.
A Continuation 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 and second parts are available from the fanfic index, or from me at Debby@swcp.com or ftp://ftp.swcp.com/pub/users/dstark Stories (ill.knot.pronounce.txt and double.entendre.txt). 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 of it and wound up in about the same place but with no characters IMO irretrievably damaged.
[Review of previous two episodes: shots of the wedding, with emphasis on Clark's face such that new viewers see that he knows Something Is Wrong. Shots from the reception: "Lois" eating and startling people. Clark looking for allies, then realizing the depth of his problems. Henderson rounding up the team. Shot of "Lois" throwing bouquet. Shot in limo, Clark asking if he can call her Punkin. Party at Clark's place; Clone happy (though not Lois-like). Shots of Lex's lair, Lex saying "Wake *up*, Lois!" Shots of Clone changing clothes, slurping frog, confronting Clark, saying "It's… time to go… to bed…" Shot of Clark saying "Heh…" Shot Lois's crack about Lex's wig; shot of Lex saying "I've… missed that sense of humor…" 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…]
[Opening credits/theme song, somewhat abbreviated to wring out more time for episode; more totally inappropriate commercials and previews of top-rated Tuesday sitcoms; over following several paragraphs, more credits: guest stars played by the same actors or reasonable approximations; writer: Debby Stark; director: tentative - David Lynch]
"Punkin," the clone of Lois Lane, slipped back into Clark Kent's bedroom at about 6:30, just as dawn was cracking. She was so quiet that Clark almost missed her. He remained lying asleep to the world as he heard her disrobe (just the jeans, he hoped) and felt her sit on the bed. She sat for a long time, upwards of two minutes. Maybe she was thinking. He had no idea if that was a good sign or a bad one.
He was confused. All the local, state and national law enforcement people reportedly working on this case should have followed her to wherever Luthor was hiding and captured her—but gently because Clark now thought of her more as a witness than a schemer. Next the authorities could have concentrated on Luthor's henchmen and, with any luck, taken down Luthor as well. Lois should have been the one sneaking in here to surprise him. She should have jumped on the bed and bounced him out of his boxer shorts, grabbed him and forced every last ounce of patience out of him.
He almost smiled, but pulled it back as not to give himself away.
The only other reasonable scenario was that they figured Luthor had booby trapped the area round his lair and they had put it under tight surveillance. Perhaps they were planning a lightning strike to round up all henchmen watching Clark's apartment and disabled the tiny video camera he had noted tacked discretely to the wall across from his bedroom window. But they should have gotten him, Clark, out of bed before this so that he could participate in the rescue of his wife. He would of course escape in transit and turn up at the scene as Superman, which he hoped would be more inspiring—and speed things up. Lois would understand completely.
Was this asking too much?
Then why was Punkin back here?
He decided to wake up and ask her himself.
He rolled over toward her, stretched a little, yawned, and pulled the blanket tighter over himself as though the room were chilly. This was in an effort not to frighten her and not to give her any ideas. Maybe she had originally been ordered to have sex with him, even given rudimentary instructions on the hows and whats and wheres, but she had opted out. It was a scary prospect for even real people and so probably a good idea for her. If she wasn't completely formed physically, as was the case for the earlier clones, it was no doubt in *that* way. If she had entertained no qualms about having sex the night before, and if he had been fooled and consented, she might have been injured.
Considering that the camera was no doubt still watching, Clark hoped Punkin hadn't returned with her qualms removed or he'd have to think up some qualms for himself at superspeed.
She was still wearing his shirt. Good. He didn't want to be caught staring at a naked body probably a whole lot like Lois's but not Lois's.
The shirt had a sheen of… what was it, grime of some sort, like street pollution, and there were several stains and bug splats. Could she have been traveling at high speed in the open? Being white, the shirt would have made her more visible and easier to follow—if anyone had thought of doing that. He hoped the dirt could be washed out.
She was watching him. She reached over and turned on the lamp on that side of the bed, then returned to gazing at him. She looked interested in his reaction.
"G'morning," he said, smiling sleepily, tentatively, like a fellow who hoped his shy bride was less shy now.
She smiled tentatively, too, though, from what he could see, not quite like a shy bride who was now feeling adventurous.
"It's Friday," she said. There was a touch of zeal in her voice, as though this were the first Friday she had ever experienced and she expected it enjoy it.
He doubted that it was her first; but her attitude was laudable. Everyone should consider facing each day as though it were their first and possibly last, and that the day would be full of wonders.
He hoped, though, that she wasn't expecting the wonders to be performed by him.
"I know… What time is it…?" He rolled back over and squinted at the alarm clock. Yep, it was right, 6:40. He picked up his glasses, poked them on, and rolled back over. It occurred to him that the camera could probably easily see his reflection in the dresser mirror. He hoped no one had ever wondered if Superman needed to sleep or if he'd wake up looking like this. He smiled lazily now. "Feeling… better?"
Her smile was brighter still. "I feel fine."
"I think you got up earlier this morning…" This was, he thought, a normal thing to say, with his tone making it a leading question. Hey, if he worked it right, she *might* even tell him what she'd done and it could be the truth.
"I wanted to check on your parents. They're sleeping. I watched them for a while. Your father holds your mother like…" She curved her arms, not getting it quite right but she wouldn't be able to, sitting up as she was.
"I know," he said. He had seen this before, too, Dad holding Mom safe and cuddled up, protected. It was one of the things he had looked forward to doing as a married man.
"Maybe… maybe sometime you… you could…" She looked down at her hands which were resting in her lap now.
Oh, my… and what with everyone listening… "Hold you like that?"
She wrung her hands. "Yes. They're so nice and it's so sweet…"
"They are sweet. They're the best parents anyone could ever have."
"Your parents are nice, too."
She held her hands still as though suddenly conscious of their movement, looked up, away, and then back at him. There was turmoil on her face. "I don't want to talk about them."
"Okay, we don't have to." No use putting a strain on her; even Lois didn't like to talk about them.
Punkin relaxed a little. "I want to talk about…" she began to regain some of her previous enthusiasm, "us."
"Us?" Was she going to confess? He considered sitting up to encourage some serious talk, but she put her hand on his shoulder, pressing him back into place. He let her but at the same time felt that she was surprisingly strong. A normal guy would have had difficulty resisting her in more ways than one.
"Us, and…" she reached up and drew a soft line down his cheek, tracing the curve of his jaw to his chin, "Superman."
He blinked, not having to fake being surprised. "Superman?" There was *no* way she could know…
She edged closer. "You know all about him, don't you?"
My gosh, what if she had somehow figured it out, or, worse, much worse, *Luthor* had? She seemed quite intelligent, and Luthor was much more so… "Well, ah…"
She hovered. He could smell about her a touch of old perfume, that scent of street pollution he'd noticed earlier, and her body warmth. Had she gotten "warmed up" while she was out? "You're one of his… best friends…" she purred.
"You could say that, but—"
"Do you think he'd like to see this?" She sat back and began unbuttoning the shirt. "This might interest him…" she mumbled, her chin down as she watched her hands work. She said this as though she were quoting someone.
Fascinated but just as quickly horrified, Clark sat up and grabbed her wrists, stopping her.
She was surprised, as she had a right to be, assuming she had some idea of what she was doing.
He tried to smile, wishing this were funny, wishing he knew what to say other than, "No, I *don't* think he wants to see that." And if Luthor did, too bad.
He eased his grip, letting her go in a moment. She didn't resume unbuttoning, but maybe only because she was politely awaiting his response. "He's *not* interested in this kind of thing," he indicated offhandedly her upper body. "You can't use this as a… an invitation, a beacon—he won't be tempted," Superman better *never* be tempted, better be far above all that…
"I can't? He won't?"
"You shouldn't, it would be a waste of time, he won't come."
Her gaze drifted a moment and she mumbled to herself, "…not interested, waste of time…" She caught his eyes again. "You know that about him?"
"I'm really sure about that, yes."
"A beacon calls, right? Can *you* call him? Will he come if you call?"
If she had to ask and like this, she *didn't* know!
The relief of this hit hard, he nearly smiled with it but got it covered up with a startled newlywed look. "Well, sometimes, but not right *now*…"
"But I want to know more about him," she slipped her hands up to his shoulders, "and I want you to tell me."
"It's our honeymoon morning you want talk about *Superman*?" See, Lois, this is how you play along with Luthor, we'll foil him yet.
Punkin eased closer, "He's our friend, isn't he?"
"Well, sure, but you know as much about him as I do, and—"
She covered his protest with an attempt at a kiss. Maybe she had been told to try this if he protested too much, that it would softening him up and make him bend to her (and Luthor's) will.
Her mouth tasted odd like it had the afternoon before, possibly because she hadn't as far as he knew eaten anything for quite a while and the last thing she'd consumed had been… Was this the taste of frog?
In his world travels he had eaten countless unusual things that humans considered totally edible. But this was a bit much even for one of his gastronomic experience and stomach of steel, which suddenly wanted to do back flips.
He freed his mouth. "Lois…"
She hung on to his shoulders with a powerful grip. She gasped, "Isn't this what you want?"
"Ah, yes, but—"
"Then if I give you what you want, you'll tell me things I don't know about Superman."
"But, Lois, *why?*" A darn good, natural question.
"I just… I just think about him a lot—I *fantasize* about him!"
He got the distinct impression that she had been told to say this, basically because it was a lot more likely that she fantasized about eating and shopping.
And what would any normal guy say in response? "Geesh, Lois, you're supposed to fantasize about *me*…"
"Well, I, I do, oh… I'm not good at talking…"
"I wouldn't say tha—"
"Let me convince *you* to talk."
She pulled back unexpectedly, ripped the blanket off of him in an instant and lunged for his shorts.
It was all he could do to keep from flying out of the bed to escape from her. He did manage to grab her wrists again before she made an embarrassing contact, but she did another turn about, broke free, reached for his face with both hands this time and tried to kiss him again ferociously, pinning him onto the bed.
If this had only been Lois…
"Wait, wait!" he insisted, turning his face from hers.
She paused, which allowed him to regain enough control to hold her back, just. It was gratifying to some remote part of his mind that she was this strong. Maybe it was a good omen for her long-term survival.
"Wait? But this is *fun* now!" she grinned. "What are you *hiding* from me, Clarksie!?"
Uh-oh! The playful note in her voice and the almost adult gleam in her eye were dangerous. His own survival was suddenly in doubt. "But you wanted to know about Supe—"
"*That* can wait. If you have fun, too," she said with impeccable logic as she hovered over him, "you'll *want* to talk to me—later," and she attacked his shorts again.
The next thing he knew he was lying flat on the floor next to the bed, but he was sure he hadn't landed hard or fast enough to do any damage. He looked up and saw that she was standing on the bed, hands on her hips, shirt half undone, gazing down at him. She asked quite innocently, "Do you want to do it down there instead?"
He heard his dad's voice and the main room light came on. He sat up to see his parents. They stood in the doorway, looking concerned for him in a disheveled sort of way. They were dressed in their matching robes and probably fuzzy slippers (as his glasses had been set ajar but not knocked off, he couldn't look through the bed).
His mom put her fingertips to her cheek, looked at him, then Lois, then him again and asked, "Clark, honey, are you all right? We heard some shouting in here and it didn't sound like…"
It sounded, he thought, like I needed rescuing, huh?
"I'm okay," he said as he straightened his glasses. "I just… slipped." He stood up, keeping a careful eye on Punkin, who was still smiling and who looked rather like she might try attacking him again despite having an audience, especially if she thought this would be fun, too. "Ah, Lois has been…" a brilliant idea occurred to him, "as slippery as a snake this morning."
"Snake?" Punkin shrunk back a bit, the fantasy suddenly taking on the proportions of a nightmare.
Ease that, redirect: "But you're hungry now, aren't you?" he said as sympathetically as he could. "It's been a while since we've had a good meal."
"*I'm* hungry," his dad chimed in.
"I think I can find enough with all those leftovers to make a good breakfast," his mom added with a smile.
Punkin started smiling again, too, what with there being no further mention of snakes. "I *am* hungry. I'd like to eat breakfast!" She turned toward Martha. "I'll help you! We can talk about things, too!"
"That sounds like fun."
"Do you know anything about Superman?"
"Ah, well, less than you do, dear…"
"Lois," Jonathan said, "you know more about Superman than practically anybody, don't you?"
"Ah, yes, but…" she hesitated, overcame it with a shrug and a flip of her hands, and smiled, "You know me, I just always like to know more about everything!"
"That's commendable," Martha nodded and Jonathan matched it. She came forward. "Let me help you change clothes and we'll talk about shopping instead."
"Shopping?" Punkin clapped her hands and hopped off the bed. "Oh, boy! I want to talk about that!"
"Then we will." Martha looked at Clark and aimed a thumb. "You two fellows, out, now!"
Clark complied quickly, not dreaming of protesting that he was the bridegroom here. He grabbed up the clothes he had worn the evening before and left the room, hot on the heels of his father.
Out in the living room area, Jonathan gave Clark a wry look: "Nice shorts, son…"
Clark glanced down at them and the multiple depictions of the Eiffel Tower and immediately turned away to change clothes, discretely checking first to see that it was unlikely he was visible from any windows. "They're the biggest shorts I had," he explained in an embarrassed mumble. "I thought… Lois… well…"
"I understand. Remind me to tell you some day about what your mother and I packed for our honeymoon trip to see Haight-Ashbury…"
"Lois, my love, you must eat. I killed this ferocious African kudu with my own bare hands, just for you…"
Lois was looking at neither Lex Luthor and his charming smile nor the fragrant variety of food cooling on the beautiful china plate nor the plastic spoon she was expected to eat with nor the giant-screen TV which was reshowing a muted picture of the bouncing activities in Clark Kent's bedroom. She had tried not to watch this latest installment of the adventures of Clark Kent, but couldn't help but glance up to see him and that clone woman wrestling in the bed until he had fallen out of it and his parents had come in. At least, she realized, her shock and horror about it—Clark's having been so easily fooled, his indulging himself with that frog, giving himself to it—was pretty much under control now.
Lex glanced at the screen, picked up the remote, rewound the tape and started it again from the very beginning.
She sighed quietly to herself. If it hadn't been for the little incident of her having been drugged, kidnapped and been forced to watch Clark make an utter fool of himself, the video might have been a stitch, she thought, a laugh riot. The sound track alone might have had her rolling on the floor, laughing out loud, but she only detected a buzzy, almost inaudible sound for most of the scenes in Clark's apartment. She suspected the microphone set up had failed because Lex's explanation—that he had wanted to spare her from hearing the worst from her "so-called lover"—was highly suspect.
The pictures were worth a million words anyhow.
So Lois wasn't laughing. She didn't care to, either, she didn't care about much of anything.
Except of course escaping from this place.
Oh, and killing Clark Kent—with her own bare hands…
It wasn't so much that she felt humiliated… or maybe it was. That was part of it certainly, but that was what Lex wanted, to strike her down and then pretend he had been elsewhere when it happened and that he was her true champion, come to rescue her. It wasn't enough for him to point out that she'd made yet another in her long history of mistakes judging men, he had to rub her face in the fact that the knight she had chosen had proved to be as rusty-brained as an old tin can.
If Clark had been just an ordinary fellow, as prone to foibles and mistakes as the next human, and if she had given up hope for a Prince Charming and decided to marrying such a regular guy, a face in the crowd, she could have thought up a dozen on-the-spot excuses for him and thrown them right back in Lex's face.
But Clark was Superman—*Superman*—Ha!
And Superman had made a lot of mistakes in the past, she'd witnessed them and helped him extract himself from quite a few of them. No one else knew so much about Clark's lapses in judgement, to put it charitably, probably not even his parents. Lex certainly didn't realize who he had managed to fool or he would have been crowing—the Clone hadn't told him—and why not? Clark and the luck of the naive; Lex though he was dealing with just an ordinary fellow.
It had been so easy to fool Clark…
Knowing these truths though made it impossible for her to make excuses for Clark. She had to be able to put some heart behind any claims on his behalf, but she just couldn't feel that.
How could he not *know*…
How could he just…
It made her head hurt.
There was no use dwelling on it. It was over, all over, she was on her own again, naturally.
She couldn't even use threats like "Superman will be here at *any* moment…!" Such lofty words would probably sound hollow and Lex would probably use them against her because Superman hadn't shown up *yet,* had he? And why should he? *No* one knew she was missing. Even if she tried it anyhow and sounded confident, she sighed, there might not be a convenient distraction (someone dropping a frying pan, for example) that she could use to get the jump on Lex and his henchmen. Being chained to the table didn't help, either.
"Asabi roasted the fruits of my labors to perfection, too. He picked these wonderful vegetables from an exotic garden and sauted them lightly over the small flame we dare to use here…"
She gave Lex a withering look.
He smiled in a compassionate manner. He would. He *knew* he had wrecked her entire world and was assured his reconstruction plans were on track.
Well, two could play this game. She raised her hands, shook the chains of the handcuffs, and said what he probably expected to her to say, "It would be easier for me to eat if I weren't wearing these…"
"They give you just enough freedom for now. I know you have that little grain of doubt still. It's natural, *I understand*. You've just been shown some horrible truths about the one who claimed to love you. But once you realize that the man who really loves you is yours truly, you can wear anything you want and you can wear it in, hmm… would you like to live in Paris?"
She looked away. In addition to her frown, she added a vaguely interested expression, as though his words were sinking in despite her desires. "Paris…?" she whispered. She was totally uninterested in leaving the country (at least not before she had slowly tortured Clark to death), but if she looked like the idea had sparked a small, favorable thought… She decided that after the count of 30 she'd take a piece of broccoli. She was, after all, really starving, no need to pretend that part.
"That's better," Luthor said when he saw this. He had already eaten half of his sumptuous breakfast. "Doesn't the butter just melt in your mouth? We'll be going for a drive a little later this morning. I have some business to attend to, then we can leave this place and all the unhappy memories behind…"
Add a degree of involuntary interest here, "Where are we…" retract it too late, "ah, *you* going?"
"I haven't decided yet. The world is open to us—it's ours to play with. You can enjoy yourself when we're free of this place."
She made herself take a glazed baby carrot next and nod ever so slightly. The tears wanted to come again, without prompting. *Clark* obviously didn't care about her need to relax… She struggled half- heartedly against the tears, her lower lip trembling now. Her struggle was genuine, but definitely didn't signal what Lex thought, that she was pleading for help—Lois Lane didn't need *any*one's help anymore. The only person needing help would be Clark. She began thinking of mounting his head on her wall… She sniffed. "I can't go like this…" she waved her hand (which she noticed was trembling a bit) over her wrinkled clothing.
"No, of course not, dearest. I have a complete new wardrobe for you."
"Really…?" A little concession indicating some crumbling here was a good idea, then deny it but in a manner meant to betray more than she intended. "I just want to wash my face…"
"You can take a luxurious bath if you wish…"
A chance to find more tools to work with! She could wham someone with a plunger! Zap them with a wet towel! Stuff a plug in it! "Well, maybe…" She chose a tiny piece of precut meat from the plate.
At almost 7:45, after Martha and Punkin had pulled together a bizarre breakfast of tea, ice cream, pastries and other assorted leftovers from the night before, there was a knock on the door. It was Betty Reed and Lucy Lane. Lucy said her mother would join them later, she was being petulant, wouldn't you know? Betty turned from surveying the street to look at Clark fully.
She had a black eye and an unconvincing smile.
Clark gawked. "What happened to *you*?"
"I was following a… suspect." She pointedly didn't look at Punkin, who had rushed after Clark to see who was at the door. She put her arm around his waist, too, and it was difficult not to reciprocate but he managed. "…when I was waylaid by some other law enforcement people who thought *I* was the suspect…"
"Oh, other… officers?"
She gave him a tired, tilted eyebrow and he deciphered this to mean they hadn't been MetroPolice; they'd never bungle anything *that* badly… Who then, the FBI? The NIA? The RCMP? Was this why no one had followed Punkin, because they had been fighting among themselves? Why did this scenario not seem exactly unlikely? Good grief…
Betty shook her head. "We got it all straightened out—a little *late*—and believe me, they'll be singing soprano 'til Christmas…"
"I see…" Clark was glad he was invulnerable—in some places in particular.
She nodded curtly then obviously laid all that aside. She said, "I'm on my own time now and I feel like getting some air this morning." She looked at Punkin. "You still go jogging, don't you?"
"Yeah, Lois, you always like to go out for a good healthy walk every morning," Lucy prompted. "You told me it was exercise, so you could keep up with Clark."
"It would certainly be a good way to limber up for shopping," Martha said from below where she leaned on the short banister.
"Oh, *jogging!*" Punkin said, her eyes beginning to brighten, until she paused and looked at Clark as though for approval.
"I think you should have all the fun you can in life," Clark said, not adding that sometimes you just didn't realize you better enjoy it quickly… "You go jogging," with Betty and her gun and her backups watching your every move, "and then shopping," with probably even more people watching you, "and I'll work on the Zoo-snake story, okay?"
She nodded quickly, then caught herself. "You know I'd really like to help you, but…"
"And I still want to talk about Superman, too." She had earlier tried to pry information out of the Kents and not subtly, but they had claimed major innocence in the matter and switched the subject every time.
"We can do that later."
"Okay," she sparkled, that priority obviously dropping lower on her to-do list by the moment.
In a short time all the women headed for their "jog," leaving Clark and Jonathan behind. Clark didn't feel comfortable letting his mother go, but Betty and her hidden armory were going along, as was the late-arriving Mrs. White, dressed in a jogging suit with her nunchaku (a martial arts weapon) strapped to her waist. Anybody giving them trouble would get the same back.
He turned to his father. "I want you to go with me, Dad. Maybe you'd like to hang around the newsroom…" with heavy hints that he thought the man would be safer there in the event that Luthor tried to harm anyone else.
"Sure thing, son. I'll write a note for your mother…"
In minutes they were in his father's rental car, heading toward the center of town. Clark had covertly checked out the car for bugs, found none, and felt free to talk. He poured out his hurt and anger about every chance to find Luthor and Lois being ruined by incompetence—especially his own. He had been totally unable to find any trace of her, it was the most awful time in his life… Jonathan absorbed all this and offered gentle, supportive advice and a few quips.
By the time they arrived at the Daily Planet, Clark felt a little better. While it was true that even Superman had failed his first time out, he'd helped a number of other people. What was more, those who were working full time to find just Luthor were having no better luck. The villain was a complicated, devious man; the challenges he presented were truly those only a superman could eventually overcome.
Like it or not, this was coming down to being pretty much a job for Clark Kent.
After talking out loud in the newsroom about the Zoo story (his father looking on with pride in his son's work), the two were called into Perry's office, where Inspector Henderson was also waiting, ostensibly to talk about matters at the Zoo. The story for public consumption was that the herd of deer presented by a royal sultan were thought to be threatened. Also, the demonstration organic garden (the mayor's wife's pet project) had been raided yet again. Both were matters serious enough to demand the attention of someone of Henderson's calibre.
Perry's office remained unbugged. As soon as the door closed behind him, Clark asked Henderson why the Clone hadn't been followed for her early-morning jaunt and he got more details about the attack on Betty, MetroPolice's best tracker—until the New Troy Bureau of Investigation mistook *her* for the culprit. "But their agents will be out of the hospital in a few days and able to face charges on that one…" She did, Henderson added, catch sight of the Clone on a moped and swore that its driver was wearing a turban.
Perry said that Jimmy had discovered that there was a fleet of upwards of 50 white limousines in Metropolis. Three-fourths of them were rented out at any given time and several of them were missing in action. This lead was being worked on even now, Henderson said.
The two burly, nondescript men who were sitting in a far corner of Perry's office, pretending to be itinerant Zoo auditors, cleared their throats, clearly protesting this breach of security. Henderson, who at no time seemed particularly impressed by them, introduced them as Russ of the Secret Service and Lemming of the FBI.
Russ explained that he had assigned two of his finest people to the search for Lex Luthor—no more than that would be needed, he was sure—while the remainder of his elite team would be concentrating on the President's return to Metropolis. The nation's leader wished to reassure everyone that what had happened on his visit earlier in the week hadn't frightened him. There was going to be a combination "Hello, President!" and Valentine's day parade in his honor this very Friday morning, which Russ didn't appear to think much of. However, he didn't elaborate other than to say the President would be kept well above the crowd.
Clark had heard that the President had wanted to make an immediate return trip to prove that he had recovered from being temporarily replaced by a frog (and that he wasn't bothered that few people had noticed the difference). Clark had also learned that City fathers had pressed for Friday to hold the parade for the President *and* to celebrate Valentine's Day because the police watching over the event would demand double overtime pay if they had to work on Sunday even if the President had changed his busy schedule.
Lemming said he had at least 25 people working on the case but was vague about what they were doing to find Luthor and Lois and to keep an eye on their only clue, the Clone. They planned to have the Bank of Metropolis surrounded 10 a.m., the height of the business day. As for the white limousine, Lemming chuckled, no doubt Luthor had dumped it already in favor of new transportation, the childish moped proved that. Luthor couldn't know that the FBI's comprehensive profile of him showed that he tired rapidly of baubles—not that he would tire of Ms. Lane, Mr. Kent should understand…
Clark pursed his lips to keep from commenting.
Then all three law enforcement officials turned the tables and asked Clark what he knew about Superman's involvement in all this, other than that he was no doubt another of Luthor's prime targets. They were aware that the crime fighter, whom they begrudgingly admired, had been out and about the night before—they had seen him talking to Detective Reed. "Ah," Clark said, "I did get to talk to him for a moment. After he told me to stop wandering around and go home, he said he wasn't able to devote much time to searching for Lois because other things were happening. He's probably fixing something in… Australia at this very moment."
"Well, we don't need him," Russ and Lemming said practically simultaneously. "We have a good handle on this. It's all coming together." They made gestures indicating giant jaws closing on their prey.
Henderson ignored their pantomime, saying, "Superman knows he's to discuss what he finds with me."
Clark just nodded, wanting to glance at his dad and roll his eyes but keeping himself from doing so. "Whatever. I want to get out on the street again myself, call in our contacts, find out what they know—get *working* on this, I can't just do *nothing* any more."
"You've kept the Clone occupied and fooled Lex Luthor, that's a major contribution," Henderson told him.
"If you go out, you'll have an escort," Lemming informed him.
"I'd rather you escort my father," Clark motioned at the man, "and the Lanes, too. They could be in danger."
"*You* are likely to be Luthor's next target, young man."
"Well, good, I *want* to talk to him!"
Clark felt his father's calming hand on his shoulder.
"You'll have an escort whether you like it or not, Mr. Kent, so will the others, don't fear," Lemming said, "We're beefing up security on that shopping trip your mother and Mrs. Lane want to go on with the suspect. We've asked Dr. Lane to give physicals to several of our rookie agents to keep him busy, and we've warned them not to buy anything from him. We don't have an expert on farming in town, Mr. Kent, or we'd ask for your… help, too…"
"You don't need to make busy work for me," Jonathan grunted. "I enjoy helping my son."
"And you're probably completely safe staying here for now. You," Russ looked at Clark, who had frowned at the word "safe" as said by this particular man and had to refocus his concentration, "just go about your reporter work and don't do anything suspicious."
Clark nodded, wondering who would be the worse to raise the suspicions of, the good guys or the bad guys.
He also began to plan how to escape everyone's notice long enough to hide out in the open as Superman. He saw his first and perhaps best chance to slip away as 9 a.m. neared. The man who he had immediately pegged as his escort was getting a cup of coffee in the lunch room and taking the chance to chat up Rochelle, the new gopher. Clark glanced at his dad, who had volunteered to sort and file business cards; the man gave him a small, go-for-it nod. Clark rose and mumbled something to Jimmy about a full bladder. Jimmy looked up from the files he had been examining and nodded, too. He clearly understood Clark's need to escape to mount a search and would also run interference if needed. He just didn't know Superman would be doing the searching…
Clark headed for the men's room. He thought about the morning as he did this. He'd put out a call for Bobby Bigmouth and asked Jimmy to find out what he could about any of Lex Luthor's remaining close associates who hadn't been captured and jailed or suborned by the likes of Intergang. Henderson's clue about the turban had been a good one. Could Asabi be part of this now? The man had faded from the scene a month or so before Lex and Lois's aborted marriage. If anyone could dig up anything on him, Jimmy could.
Now, though, it was time for Clark to enter the men's room and jump out the window as Superman…
The windows of the limousine were darkened but Lois wouldn't have waved for help out of them anyway. No one knew she had been replaced and would welcome just a little bit of help even if she was sure she could do what needed to be done on her own. No one ever believed her when she claimed strange things were happening anyhow.
She had changed into some of the clothing Lex had offered her, picking the most action-oriented outfit, a fairly sexy one-piece number that fit her closely but had some stretch and hit mid knee. It was something she might have considered wearing to the office on special days that could include an important interview or a trek through a garbage dump. The heels on the tight shoes were a little high for comfort, but they made her look taller—and would make good weapons. After changing, she had fixed her hair and secreted one of the clips in the hem of her dress. She was certain she could use it to unlock the handcuffs.
Lex was talking about money and she was doing her best to look interested despite herself. She had already figured out what he was going to do, he had dropped hints right and left, no doubt in hopes of impressing her. He wanted the money he had put in trust for her when they were planning to get married a year earlier, when he probably suspected a major reason she had been attracted to him was his great wealth. That wasn't the case, but she wouldn't point that out to him now.
Complete funding for all his projects was critically important to him, obviously. He must have planned this clone thing carefully with money from somewhere or promised to someone, maybe a lot of someones. She wondered if he would have come after her had his complex plan not worked out but he had managed to escape anyway. She thought not. He probably would have built himself up first, re-established some new criminal empire, all to present a promising or at minimum wealthy front to her. Appearances were everything to Lex Luthor, even when he had nothing, like hair.
"So you expect me to help you get that money," she said when he paused in his recounting of some dream or another. She had to say this, she figured, because he wouldn't believe her if she volunteered to help right away, he'd know she planned to use the chance to escape.
"It's in your name, loved one, that was for your own protection. But now *we* need it, so…"
"I don't know, Lex…"
"I realize that, you may not be up to it yet."
"People might recognize you, too…" just to see if he would tell her how he planned to sneak in.
"True, my picture has been flashed about the media as though I were a tabloid star. But the City has thoughtfully offered me cover in the form of a parade, so I'm taking advantage of it. I'll enter the bank as soon as the doors open, before the tellers have had their first cups of coffee." He laid his left hand lightly, warmly on her knee; it was all she could do not to grab it and begin breaking his fingers. "I realized that you wouldn't wish to soil your hands with the cash and bonds, that it would bring back sad memories of our ruined wedding…" His pause indicated, whether purposefully or not, he was still affected by those very memories. He recovered rapidly however, and added a jaunty smile. "Those days are long past and now no one will stop us from enjoying our well deserved happiness together. You can relax and wait here. I have an unwitting accomplice to help me…" He squeezed her knee and turned to glance out his window.
Asabi had somehow found and eased the limo into a parking space in the midst of the traffic around Metropolis Plaza. It occurred to Lois that if anyone had realized she was missing, this would be the last place they would look for her, in a blatant white limousine.
"And there she is."
Lois looked in the direction that Lex was pointing. Approaching them was the Clone, dressed in the orange dress with white piping that set off her tan so nicely and that Lois had last left, cleaned and pressed, at Clark's apartment for an emergency change.
…darn that Clark. Death was too good for him, *torture* was too good for him…
It occurred to her that maybe the frog woman would freeze to death eventually. It was a typical, cool February morning after all, and Lois had been pleased despite herself that the limo's heater worked well. She did not, though, plan to enjoy it for much longer.
As the Clone rushed up, she stumbled for a moment in the heels she wore. Lois noticed they were a pair of her better shoes. The Clone had been in her apartment, too—maybe before the wedding. Lex had invaded her life as early as that.
I don't have a thing left to call my own, she thought grimly.
Lex lowered the window on his side, the sounds of the street rushed in, and, Lois saw, he prepared a welcoming smile. Snake like, Lois thought. She leaned forward a bit as though to watch and at the same time reached for the hem of her dress.
"You're right on time, that's good!" Lex told the breathless Clone.
"I had a little trouble getting away. We were having fun shopping!"
"Shopping? You're supposed to be questioning Kent about Superman!"
She hadn't told him? Lois wondered.
"Oh, he's told me a lot of things, he likes to talk to me. I can tell you what he told me now if you want."
Don't tell him, Lois thought, Lex better be the last one who finds out who Clark is. He'd kill the Kents for sure, just because they had innocently raised someone who had turned out to be such a jerk…
"No, we don't have time now. We can do it later."
Whew, Lois thought. Maybe it's a good thing no one listens to me sometimes, even when it's only someone who *looks* like me.
The Clone blinked. "Later?"
"Yes, of course, 'later,' as in 'this afternoon.' Did anyone see you leave?"
"No, sir, Daddy taught me how to do that." She smiled and waved at Asabi, way up front in the driver's seat. Asabi nodded slightly, proudly. She looked at Luthor again. "But I want to go back soon, it's lots of fun and they might miss me!"
"I'm sure it's a laugh riot, but you and I have business with the bank now, just as we planned." From a storage space under the wet bar Lex pulled a fedora, put it on his head, and then readjusted it as the wig slipped a bit. Lois noted him struggling to keep a calm expression.
The Clone backed up and shook her head. "No."
Lex stopped. "What do you mean, 'no'?"
"No, as in… no. What part don't you understand? I don't want to help you and I'm not *going* to help you."
"It's not fun and I should have all the fun I can in life."
"That's… *You're* pre…" she stomped her foot, "pretosprotus!"
"Calm down, now, having fun is *not* part of your duty—"
"So what? It *is* part and I'm sure not going to help you until you promise, promise, *promise* not to hurt Clark and I *believe* you because I don't believe you now. You said after I helped you that you wouldn't bother us any more but now you want to see me 'later,' so that means you're going to bother me some more and maybe Clark, too."
"Listen you reconstructed frog—"
The clone backed up a step more, gaining strength in the distance. "No, you listen! You have her," she pointed at Lois, "so I can have Clark because he's so nice. He's as nice as Daddy. He was nice to sleep with and nice to have breakfast with and he's nice to *be* with."
Lois felt herself frown then reminded herself that none of that was important any more. She clenched her teeth and tried to concentrate on working on the handcuffs in a stealthy manner as Clark's new lover drew the attention of her captors.
The Clone summed it up. "I don't want you ever to hurt him so that means I'm not going to help you."
"I have no reason to hurt that worm!" Lex glanced at Lois. Lois froze. The hair clip, she realized, was just hidden. She unfroze quickly and sniffed and quivered her lower lip; this had to be exactly what Lex wanted to see. "Don't let *him* hurt *you*, Lex," she whispered.
Luthor nodded, his eyes on hers, half closed, cat like, reassuring. "Don't worry about Clark, my love, don't ever worry…" He looked back at the Clone. "I want nothing more to do with the man who broke my love's heart by being so callously blind."
Blind, ha! Lois thought. Don't tell *me* about "blind"—I've been blind for the last time!
The Clone backed up another step and stood a little taller and almost haughty. "I still don't believe you."
There were noises from outside that Lois had grown accustomed to hearing and tuned out in an effort to detect the right time to make her move. Now, though, something hard to ignore was happening. There was music, specifically marching music, and it was moving, coming closer. There were the sounds of a crowd, and that crowd was cheering.
One cuff of the handcuffs came undone. Lois felt like cheering, too.
The Clone paused to look around. "Wow! This is fun!" Then she looked up. "Oh, it's Superman! I have to talk to him!" and she ran away.
Lex shouted "No!" He reached for the door, opened it and began to get out.
As much as Lois hated to, she felt herself revert to what was natural and she screamed "Help, Superman!!!!" She could kill him later—he better rescue her now!
Lex turned, shock and disappointment on his face—then pain as Lois shoved her high-heeled right foot deep into his groin. He collapsed, falling back and out onto the street. She grabbed the edges of Lex's door, pulled herself through it, just avoided Asabi's grasp, stepped on Lex at least twice, heard him gasp, scrambled out of his reach, and headed for freedom.
Clark nearly tumbled out of the sky as the shock of the call for help surged through him. Usually he was simply aware of such things and felt the hard-to-deny urge to respond, but this one was different, way too different.
He had just flown over the East Metropolis Megamall and caught sight of the clutch of women made up of his mom, Betty, Ellen and Lucy Lane, Alice White and Mrs. Stern, all shopping in the Costmart that took up a good chunk of real estate at the west end of the mall. He hadn't seen Punkin, but she might have been in a dressing room and modesty forbade x-raying the building further to check on that. Surely though that many people, including the FBI and who knew who else watching covertly, couldn't lose track of one small woman even if Punkin had wanted to slip away. Why would she when she was having a delightful time with the $27.56 he had dredged up from his pockets and wallet since her (Lois's) money had gotten "lost." No doubt her companions would make up for that since despite knowing what she really was, they all seemed to be falling victim to her innocent charms.
He had checked out the mall after taking care of some small problems in Peking, Punta Arenas and Puget Sound. Something had then told him that it would be a good idea to discreetly inspect the security around the Bank of Metropolis from overhead, out of the way. As he approached the area, he noticed that the President and the Mayor were in Air Force Blimp #1, which was hovering between two of the taller buildings in downtown Metropolis. Clark also saw the LNN Newsblimp closing in on AFBlimp #1, the reporters maneuvering for the closest possible blimp-to-blimp interview. He quickly x-rayed the LNN Blimp, but saw no signs of a bomb or weapons, just desperate reporters belonging to a network whose ratings had plummeted when its president Lex Luthor had been revealed for the criminal he was.
Clark turned for the Plaza and that was when the cry for help struck him like a ton of bricks.
He stopped immediately and looked down, glad he never suffered a fear of heights. He blinked. He saw Punkin! He was startled, and then he saw a good reason for a cry for help: she was about to be run over by the front end of a massive band of marching people playing a wide variety of instruments, having a ball, and apparently not noticing where they were going.
Clark put all that out of his mind and darted down toward the ground and plucked Punkin from the path of the backward-marching band leader just in time. He then set her on her wobbly feet on the sidewalk out of the way.
She recovered quickly and looked up at him with wide eyes. "You're Superman, huh?"
"Yes, ma'am," he managed to say, then inspiration dawned. "But you're not Lois, are you?"
"Gosh, no, and I don't *want* to be Lois anymore, it's more fun to be *me*," she said proudly. "I have lots of friends now, and one of them is really special… You know, you look like Clark, a *lot* like Clark."
"I've been told that, but Clark is… shorter."
"Oh. I guess so, and Clark doesn't fly, but Clark is still my best friend, I really like him. You have more muscles than him, too." She poked at one of his biceps like a child who knew Superman was a friend who wouldn't mind.
"That's possible." He shied away slightly, not wanting her to hurt her finger. He couldn't stay, didn't want to draw a crowd. Where was the FBI or were they really waiting until ten to set up shop? Why was Punkin here? Could her presence mean that Luthor was here, too, right now and… "Would you happen to know where Lois is?"
"Sure, she's with Mr. Luthor."
"And where is Mr. Luthor?"
"Oh, he's on the ground over there," she pointed. "On the other side of the street." She looked sideways, this way and that, to see through the marching band. "Oh, look, Lois stepped on his face."
Lois was running like crazy toward him.
The marching band and the bulk of the parade surged between them, filling the wide avenue.
The crowds watching the parade began to look up, scream and point.
Lois stopped, trapped over on the other side, and began to jump up and down and wave and call for him.
"Oh, look up there!" Punkin exclaimed.
Clark didn't want to tear his eyes from Lois. His heart felt on the verge of bursting with relief to see her, even though she in turn didn't look exactly overjoyed. Well, no wonder, she'd had to save herself in the end and was probably going to give him a fairly large chunk of her marvelous mind about it. She was due.
I can take it, he told himself. He imagined standing quietly, or sitting, while she got her upset out of her system. Then they'd indulge in some wonderful "welcome home, stranger" time, and replan the wedding and make it entirely their own.
Two seconds later, as the crowd hadn't calmed, he found himself looking up.
Tragedy loomed: the sturdy envelope of the LNN News blimp had rammed AFBlimp #1's light-weight gondola in its enthusiasm to get that interview. The President, his guests and guards were now hanging by mere proverbial threads.
It's always something…
Save Lois. Save the President and the Mayor. Save Lois. Save the President and the Mayor. Save Lois. Save the President and the Mayor. Save Lois. Save the President and the Mayor…
Oh, God, he thought, as he darted upward.
Lois couldn't believe it. He was just *abandoning* her when he could clearly see her and compare her to that cheap imitation?
She stopped jumping up and down and waving and looked up after him.
Oh, she thought, the blimps were in trouble, he had to deal with that, save whoever was up there. She couldn't make out the markings, but it was easy to see that but if one were to fall, it could crush a lot of people down here, like members of this strange parade, like her, and like…
She turned and looked back toward the white limo. Asabi had gotten out and was helping Lex to his feet. Lex could not straighten up and he was grasping at his middle. He was also gasp-screaming at Asabi, obviously trying to get him to run after Lois, but Asabi would not leave his master's side.
My chance, Lois thought. She plunged into the parade.
This section of the parade was made up of a top-40 FM radio station's Marching Kazoo and Cupid's Day Disguise Battalion. Lois gathered quickly that it consisted of fans of the station who just turned up ahead of time and were given t-shirts and kazoos. The fans were expected to furnish any other fashion accessories they wished to wear, the more outlandish the better.
The Battalion welcomed her with open arms, an odd sight in Metropolis, but they were odd to begin with and Lois didn't question it. In no time she was attired in a fancy turquoise t-shirt, an oversized hat with imitation ostrich feathers obscuring not only her vision but her face from people looking for her (unless they had x-ray vision but Lois didn't put much stock in *that*), Army-style camouflage pants she quickly pulled over her dress and belted just under her breasts, miles of boa to wrap around her neck, and a kazoo that took no skill to play.
She proceeded to march with the best of them and have a ball for the first time in… she couldn't remember when and frankly, she realized, she didn't want to remember. She certainly didn't want to talk to… *that man* until she had calmed down and gained firmer ground from which to let him *have* it for humiliating her.
Superman caught Air Force Gondola #1 just its the last connection to Air Force Blimp Envelope #1 gave way. He considered setting the gondola on the nearest rooftop and jetting back to grab Lois away from Luthor, but the Secret Service agents in the gondola were screaming things like "the President has had a *heart attack*!" (he hadn't) and "the Mayor is *air sick* all over!" (he was), to "the other blimp *rammed* us *on purpose* and might have a *bomb!*—don't stay *here,* Superman!" And, finally, "Take us all to the nearest Air Force Base—now!"
Clark couldn't argue (it was hard to from under the gondola), gave up and did as they begged, trusting (he wondered why) that the FBI would realize that Lex had and was using the white limo and that he was right out in the open, ripe for the plucking. Before Clark left the area, he looked back at the LNN blimp and noted that it had sustained only minor damage, was still airworthy, and still carried nothing more than the mortified reporters and their pilot who was busy trying to get them the heck out of there.
Lois and the Kazoo Band marched for blocks to the west, and then turned north. She didn't notice the distance or the direction and didn't care about the destination, only that she was putting quite a lot of territory between Lex and herself and that was all she cared about. She was escaping the worst fates imaginable—again nearly marrying the wrong man, but at least she hadn't been fooled again by the first wrong man she'd nearly married. And she'd used her own ingenuity. She felt she was on the high road at last, that life was turning around and treating her better. She'd seen Clark for what he really was, a very strong numbskull, Lex had made his point—though she'd seen the bad side of Lex, too, yet again. These weren't fun things to have learned, but better now than when she'd have to drag Clark through divorce court…
She had a big smile for the world around her and her sudden companions, like the tall man on her right who claimed his name was "Red Dixon"—a cowboy? she asked; no, he grinned, a cross-country truck driver who enjoyed listening to the kazoo-parade-sponsoring radio station when he was in town.
That's great! she said, and added that she wished she could go across country: she was escaping a life full of turmoil and pain and as awful as California was, it sounded like a good place to be at the moment.
He said California was a fine place, but Metropolis was okay, too, and he hoped she didn't plan to escape today, the day before the day before Valentine's Day because he liked Valentine's Day and he'd be on the road that day, so he was enjoying the eve of the eve of one of his favorite days.
She had no idea what he had just said but marked it up to her head still spinning from the drugs, the lack of a decent meal, and all the excitement. Clark had wanted to get married on Valentine's Day, but so had half of Metropolis, so they had settled on the 11th instead, when the chapel would be cheaper to rent. The whole thing had turned out to be cheap…
"I was supposed to get married yesterday," she shouted at Red over the merry buzz of the kazoos, "but I was rescued! I didn't see it as a rescue at first, but now I realize that it was."
"It certainly is!"
"It sounds like a fairy tale, doesn't it?"
"It does—and I'm the princess who doesn't want to see that so- called Prince Charming ever again—or the wicked wizard who saved me—I wish I'd *never* met *either* of them!"
"Did the Prince treat you bad?"
"Like dirt—he couldn't tell the difference between me and a *frog*!—and the wizard made the frog, can you believe it?"
Red shook his head, whistled, then smiled and put the kazoo to his lips and let it do the whistling. After he expressed himself that way, he said, "I knew there was something mighty strange about some folks here in Metropolis…!"
Lois grinned. "You don't know the half of it! But I'm escaping and I don't want to remember *any* of that, I just want to put it *all* behind me!" and she tooted her pleasure.
"Well, you play a good kazoo, that's a great start!"
"Thanks! It's because I feel so free. Why, I could fly!" She laughed heartily at her private little joke, then glanced up through the fake ostrich feathers to see if her flyboy was there.
Nope. No sign of him. It figured.
Well, she thought, I'm marching to a different drummer now!
Her next step gave way.
She thought it was the awkward heels on the too-tight shoes, but her right foot didn't automatically recover and she kept falling forward. She looked down and realized that a broken manhole cover was crumbling right under her. To her horror, there was nothing to stop her fall. She tried to do an about face and head in the other direction, as though nature would cooperate and let her defy the laws of gravity as she had defied those of Lex Luthor.
She found no cooperation this time.
Then there was pain as she struck the back of her head on the edge of the hole and plunged into darkness.
Clark came this close to cursing but there had been no way to avoid spending 15 minutes taking the President's gondola to the nearest Air Force Base and checking to see that all its passengers were okay. They were no more than shaken up and a little messy due to the Mayor's queazy stomach. The President wanted to change clothes and go back to watch the parade to reassure everyone that he was just fine, but his agents took over and convinced him otherwise. The Mayor was distraught and begged Superman for help. Superman could only shrug. The Secret Service agents were already imploring him to stay and in effect triple the guard by his presence.
He begged off as quickly as it was polite to do so and zipped back to the Plaza.
Too late. There was no sign of Lois, no sign of Punkin, no sign of Lex, Asabi or the white limo. He searched for blocks around but saw nothing, no trace. He returned to the plaza to check for any clues that might have been left by the limo but only saw a few drops of blood from when Lois had stepped on Lex's face—unless it was Lois's blood…
The last of the parade was straggling by; its members were waving at him. He waved back half-heartedly and then flew up out of the way again as not to be a distraction. He did not feel in a festive mood.
He decided to look for a police officer and wondered why Lois hadn't done the same thing, why she hadn't waited for him to return, say, in the bank or some department store. The first officer he saw was on the corner of Main and Bauder Avenue. She was talking with Russ, the Secret Service coordinator.
Superman landed in front of them and made himself look as large and imposing as possible, which was quite large and quite imposing.
The police officer double took then grinned at him. Russ tried to draw himself up to full height but didn't quite make it.
"Ms. Lane was here 22 minutes ago. I couldn't stay to assist her and it looks like *no one else*" he barely controlled the emphasis on these words "was able to, either."
"Yes, we know. You did a marvelous job saving the President, you're a credit to the country, I'm glad you're on our side, you—"
"Why didn't your people see her *or* Lex Luthor?"
Russ had no reasonable explanation, but the scent of fear in the air, his fear, attracted vultures in the form of the FBI and Lemming, who blamed this all on Russ. Russ, Lemming claimed, had insisted that this was a Secret Service job from beginning to end, that the FBI should stick close to the bank, cloistered with the auditors if they had to be in the area at all. Lemming had asked his superior, who had asked hers who had conferred with the head of the Secret Service, who had talked to the President. The President, it was said, had decided to be a good sport and give the Secret Service a shot at making amends for failing to keep him from being replaced by the clone earlier in the week.
Tiring rapidly of watching a growing crowd of representatives of the two agencies throwing blame at each other and trying to make it stick, and realizing he was getting nowhere fast and no closer to Lois, Superman bowed out unnoticed. He did though catch sight of Henderson and floated over to him. "Have you seen Clark?" he asked as a cover.
"No, he slipped out from under their," he nodded at the FBI and the Secret Service, "collective noses again and I'm not surprised."
"I'm surprised he's not here. Then again, seeing what's happened, he'll be bitterly disappointed…" to put it lightly.
"I know. I'm keeping my eye out for him." Henderson lowered his voice to a bare whisper. "If you see him, tell him I want to talk to him as soon as possible."
"I bet he has a few choice words for you, too."
"No doubt. I have some ideas I don't want to share with anyone I don't trust. We'll bring you into it only if we need you, but…"
"I'm too frequently distracted, I haven't been of much help, and this really is Clark's dilemma to work on."
Henderson just nodded.
Clark decided to leave before his temper could sneak passed his guard and blurt out anything more on his behalf. Henderson trusted both of him, he just simply knew who was the easier to work with. It was a compliment really… He returned the nod, lifted away quietly, and headed east, since the limo had been pointed in that direction, but his search remained futile.
Red and those around the strange escaping woman rescued her from her near plunge into the sewer, but not before she had knocked herself unconscious. Some argued that they should rush her to the hospital immediately, but Red said no, here she was coming around already. Bad people were after her, like the man she'd left at the altar after discovering horrible things about him. If news got out that she was laid up in the hospital, that guy might track her down and harm her some more.
Instead, he said, he had a friend out on the west side of town who could look after her as she recovered and made new plans for her life.
Everyone decided this was a good idea and that they wouldn't let on that they knew anything about the woman's plight.
Shortly thereafter, the parade reached the end of its route. Red had foreseen this and parked his truck neraby. He helped the dazed woman to it and up into the cab. He drove as smoothly as he could, avoiding any jerky movements, potholes and quick stops. He chatted with the woman, trying to keep her awake. If she fell asleep, he thought, he would indeed take her to a hospital because that could mean she was injured severely. He'd call friends and ask them to keep watch over her because he had to be heading out of town with his next run by midnight, Valentine's Day eve.
The woman kept herself upright and she stared out the window. "Where are we going?" she asked in a voice that was so breathless he could hardly hear it. He hoped it didn't indicate anything more than excitement and a bit of natural confusion.
"I have a friend who runs a nightclub. He has a nice back room with a bed. You can stay there, it's safe and he's a good man. You know, you never told me your name."
"Oh, I'm just… just…" She frowned. She looked puzzled.
My, he thought, she really had wanted to escape if she didn't want to give him that information. "You're just a wanderer then?"
"Wanderer?" She looked at him. He wished her dazed expression would go away and she'd smile again; she had a nice smile. Now she looked so small and fragile.
"You're just wandering around…"
"Wander… Wanda… I'm… Wanda."
Yeah, he thought, "Okay, Wanda. I'll play along. Do you have a last name?"
Her gaze drifted toward the front of the cab again, out the window. They were barreling down the crosstown. "Detroit," she said. She had obviously glimpsed the sign that said "Distances to," but he couldn't recall whether one of the destinations was Detroit. He didn't think so; maybe she was telling him the truth. The city at the bottom of the list was LA and he always thought that was funny, so many thousand miles. It was good thing she hadn't decided she was Wanda La Angel, or he would have laughed out loud.
"So, Wanda Detroit?"
"Yeah…" She sat back. She looked a little more at ease, the glazed expression wearing off somewhat, being replaced with a sad one. "And no one loves me…"
"Well, ah, I *like* you…"
"Thanks… Red, it's 'Red,' isn't it? Red, you're a honey… but my honeys always seem to treat me wrong…"
"I won't treat you wrong, Wanda, and neither will my friends, you can trust us."
"They all say that, but I've learned my lesson."
"Ah, well, I'm glad to hear that… What was the name of your last honey so I can tell Bibbo to be on the watch for him."
"His name…?" She looked out the window again. In a few moments and without apparent prompting, so it must be the man's real name, as old fashioned as it was, she said, "Clark, his name is Clark, and he treated me wrong…"
Clark slipped back into the Daily Planet the way he had exited it more than an hour earlier. Upon leaving the men's room, he noted but otherwise ignored his escort posted. The man practically there dropped his teeth and called out after him "Where have you been!?"
Clark was glad to see his father though, and he took the man aside, into the conference room. He locked the door, lowered the blinds, checked for but saw and heard no bugs, and proceeded to explain everything in a terse two minutes. "The only good thing about it," he concluded as he calmed down, "is that I *think* it means she got away from Luthor, he didn't capture her again. That should make her easier to find."
"I bet she's found a safe place to hide because she thinks if she comes here or to your place, she'll lead Luthor here and that will cause a lot of trouble for everyone."
"Yeah—Yeah, that could be it! Maybe *that's* why she didn't wait for me or go to a policeman or run into the bank. She's *really* thoughtful about that kind of thing. She'll get a message to me as soon as she's confident that she's safe from Lex—I'm *sure* of it! I'll get her and take her to Henderson—she'll be as safe with him as she would be with me—and then I'll *get* Luthor!"
His father raised a slightly concerned eyebrow. "And take him back to prison…"
"Well… yeah, all right, that will be fastest. Maybe a prison in… Saudi Arabia. He'd *never* escape from there…"
"They might cut off his hands."
"Oh…yeah, well, I'll think of something…"
At that very moment the intercom sounded, alerting him that there was a call for him on line 3. He jumped for it. "Yes!"
No. It was Bobby Bigmouth.
"Hey, Clark, my man, I'm really sorry to hear about Lois…"
"Oh, oh, yeah—wait—*What* have you heard…?"
"Everything, of course, the frogs, the wedding, Lois getting away from Luthor under Superman's nose even though he did save the President and the Mayor, you know, all that. I'm keeping the clone bit to myself, you understand, we can't let this out, but I want you to know you have my deepest sympathies and I'll help you and Lois as much as I can. It's on the house. Lois is my favorite reporter, and you're pretty good, too."
Clark sat down and tried to think of something to say other than, "Thanks, Bobby…"
"Look, I know you're shook up about this, but I can tell you I've already got feelers out. We have to be careful when dealing with Luthor and that sidekick of his, that Indian guy. I don't know which of 'em is more dangerous, to tell you the truth."
"I understand. It's definitely Asabi then?"
"Oh, sure! He's the only one nobody else could buy off. He's got a few people of his own, too, who I don't think Lex trusts but, well… I've got three of their names if you want 'em. Two of them worked on making the clones and I think they're in Texas at the moment, the way I hear it, but their electronics expert, Krubner was at your house last night…"
Clark said he did want the other names and he memorized them. "Thanks, Bobby, those are better leads than the FBI has come up with."
"Those guys couldn't find their way out of a paper bag if you gave them a map. You've got Henderson though, and he's good."
"I know. Is there anything else you can give me?"
"No, and I know you're desperate, but…—wait, there is something. It's not odd, considering, but it might be connected. Word on the street is that Luthor is looking for some way to kill Superman."
"You're right, that's not odd."
"Yeah, every two-bit felon wants to take Superman out, but me, I've got kind of a soft spot in my heart for the guy who saved the earth from that asteroid, you know? The thing is, though, there's this other guy, and he says he's got a weapon that will work, it will most definitely kill Superman."
"He's some egghead refugee from a scientific lab in Gotham City. You know the type: a pocket protector, credentials a mile long and no social life, and, of course, he's a complete nut case. He got fired, so naturally he took the goods with him and now he needs money, lots of money. Word is he's heading for Metropolis and Luthor wants to meet with him if Intergang doesn't get to him first."
Clark unconsciously leaned forward, as though he were addressing the man in person, confidentially. "Something about this says it could be the break we need and Superman better get to him before either of them. Can you find out more about him? His name, what he looks like, where he worked, information about the weapon, all that?"
"Will do, no sweat, I can have it in an hour, around lunch time."
"You'll interrupt your *lunch* for Lois?" Clark asked, trying to sound shocked.
"I sure will," Bobby chuckled. "But it won't take long. Do you have the same pager number?"
Clark did. When he rang off, he was a happier man than before. He was in the midst of explaining this latest turn of events to his father and how he planned to use it when there was a knock on the conference room door. "What now?" his father muttered.
It was Punkin, loaded down with bags. "Look at all the nice things we got!" she said as she dumped everything on the big table. She was followed up by the women who had escorted her. They looked tired, especially Betty (whose black eye was no better), but they were pleased with themselves at the same time.
"Lois was just *everywhere*," Martha explained.
"We lost sight of her a few times…" Lucy said, a wary look in her eye as she admitted this.
Clark nodded, hoping he conveyed his understanding of the pressure they had been under. At the moment he was just glad they were all safe.
"Don't you want to see what we got?"
Clark smiled at the eager pseudowoman. He was glad that she was safe, too, but it was time to clear up some things between them and that had to be done in private. "Yes, I do want to see everything, but you and I have to talk for a few minutes first…"
Mrs. White stood up from the comfortable chair she had practically collapsed into a few moments earlier. She had kicked off her shoes and now she ignored them as she announced, "Come on, ladies, and," she glanced at Jonathan, "gentleman, let's see if my wayward soon-to-be-exhusband-if-he-doesn't-get-his-act-together got the soda machine fixed and if he didn't, I can show you how to make it cough up two cans for a nickel."
In thirty seconds or so Clark and Punkin were alone in the conference room. She dived into the bags and from a big one pulled out a small dark blue one. "I bought something for you, it was the first thing I got!"
She pressed the bag on him. "*Open* it!" Her eyes danced with excitement, making what he wanted them to discuss difficult to even think about. What was worse, she added, "You're so nice—you're my best friend!"
"Thanks, I like you a lot, too…" The heck of it was, that was the truth.
He took the bag, opened it, and pulled out a pair of boxer shorts patterned with faithful renditions of Metropolis' tallest building, the third tallest in the world, the Franklin Stern Towers.
"Wow, these are… nice."
"You like nice tall buildings, too, don't you? I think they're wonderful!"
"Sure, a good, sturdy building is always… a good thing to have around, and these are great. Thank you."
"I didn't have much money left after that, so I had fun watching my other friends buy these things," she swept her hand over the table, "and I helped carry them because I'm pretty strong for my size, that's what Mrs. Stern said. When we go again this afternoon, I want to buy things for them. Can I have some more money for that?"
"Yeah, ah, I suppose, if you feel like going," after I tell you the game is up.
"I feel like going right now—unless… unless you want me to help you with that story thing, is that it? I don't have to go shopping, I can help you. Did you do the snake part already?"
"Ah, no, it's not about that, it's about—"
"Is it about Superman? I don't need to ask you about him any more, I *met* him!"
"Oh?" Why did he feel like a dad who had caught a daughter out on some unintended information sharing. "When?"
Her eyes widened briefly, sure sign of a small, sick realization of a vocal faux pas. "…when?"
"Oh…" She looked up, she looked at some wall, she looked at her hands and played with the engagement ring she had not yet to his knowledge taken off. She looked a lot like Lois when doing this, but a Lois who didn't have the experience or savvy yet to wiggle her way out of her predicament. "It was… just once…"
"Was it this morning?"
"I saw him this morning, too."
"In fact, Superman and I talked. You might want to sit down…"
She decided to, perhaps because she knew it made look smaller and more nearly invisible.
"Now you and I have to talk about what he told me, Punkin."
"He…" she glanced up at him, "talked to you?"
"Yes, he said he saw you."
"Yeah…" She looked down at her hands again, then stretched them down at her sides, flat on the chair, and began rocking on them a moment, flexing her shoulders a little, ready to take off, ansty not be here any more.
"He said you talked together for a minute."
Clark decided to sit down, too, to put himself on a closer, less threatening level. "He told me what you both said."
"But I already knew."
She looked up. "You already knew?"
"Yes, I already knew that you're not Lois."
"I figured it out pretty quickly."
"I also figured out that it was all Lex Luthor's idea and not yours."
"Well, it *wasn't* my idea!" Her eyes flashed as she grabbed at the excuse. "I thought it was going to be *fun,* but Mr. Luthor was *really* mean to me and Daddy couldn't stop him, so I had to *pretend*…"
"Yeah. Mr. Luthor wanted me to call him Daddy, too, yesterday morning when I first met him, but I *wouldn't*. I don't *like* to talk to him at *all*, and this morning I told him I *won't* any more! I told him I should have all the fun I *can* in life. That's what you said!"
Something tingled. "Did you tell him I said that?"
"Ah…" She looked thoughtful, as though she were reviewing the scene, and rather like Star Trek's Data. "No… should I have?"
"No, that's okay. Maybe you shouldn't mention me to him at all."
"Yeah, he might *hurt* you."
He already has, Clark sighed.
"And I wouldn't like that at *all*," Punkin continued, on the edge of dangerous. "But… but just because I'm not her, you and me… we can still be friends, can't we?"
He realized he had grown a little tense, so he soften up as much as he could. "Yes, of course, now that we know the truth."
"The truth is easier, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is, in a lot of ways…"
"Does the truth mean you want that other woman to come back now?"
"Yes, it does, I never wanted her to go away, for Luthor to take her."
"But you wouldn't have met me then…"
"No, we might have under some other circumstance, where no one was in danger."
"Oh, that would have been nicer…" She looked at her hands again, playing with the ring once more. It would probably be easy to get it from her, he thought, he could just ask, but that could wait. She said, "I guess you want her back because she's older than me, huh? I'm only nine days old—no, today I'm *ten*—but she's older. She's an old woman and she's not prettier or stronger than me," she looked up again. "Did you know that?"
"I know that you're a whole different person, Punkin, so there's no way I can honestly compare you two."
"Oh… but that's right, I'm *completely* different. I'm *better*!"
"You're different," he said gently, "and you have an interesting future ahead of you once we find out where Luthor is and we get everything straightened out. Then you won't have to worry about him and you can make the life *you* want to make and not the one he expects."
"Oh, okay… that sounds like fun."
"It could be."
"I don't thinks she's having fun. She cries a lot, too, did you know that?"
Huh? "She cries?" Oh, no… no, no, wait, it had to have been part of an act to fool Luthor, make him think he'd won some point or another, to lull him into a false sense of security. That was it. It was the same thing as her not calling yet. There was no reason at all for her to cry, and good reason for her not to lead Luthor into giving anyone else any trouble. "She was probably… just sad."
"Yeah, but *I* don't cry, ever, but she cried this morning, I saw it, I…uh-oh…"
"I know you went out this morning while I was asleep. You saw her at that time?"
"You saw Luthor and your Daddy, too?"
"Could you take me there?"
"No, Daddy always makes me close my eyes when I hide in the back of the car."
Oh, of course… "Well, he wants what's best for you."
"Clark, you in there?'
Clark nearly jumped out of his seat. He caught himself and reached over and touched the transmit button on the intercom box. "Yes, Chief."
"Okay, get in here, in my office and bring, ah, Lois with you, pronto."
"Yes, sir," and he switched off the box.
"I like him," Punkin whispered. She tried to smile; it looked uncertain. "Am I in trouble now?"
"No, not as long as I have any thing to say about it."
"Okay, I'll stick with you."
Wanda Detroit had a whopper of a headache, so the nice man Red had introduced her to, Bibbo, gave her a cold compress, two aspirins, and a comfortable bed in a back room that had a door with a lock. "You'll be safe here, Wanda. When you're ready for something to eat, you just come out and ask, okay?"
Wanda nodded carefully and closed the door. The room spun. She stumbled across it to the bed and collapsed there.
Clark picked his mom and dad up on the way into Perry's office; he figured they had a right to be in on this, too, whatever this would turn out to be. FBI Agent Lemming, Inspector Henderson and, surprisingly, Dr. Klein of Star Labs were waiting for Clark. Clark wondered where Russ was to round out the group, but Lemming almost smirked, "The president's safe—just barely, thanks to Superman—so they cleared out. They're leaving catching Luthor to the experts— *us*. I wouldn't be surprised if we had some NIA spooks hanging around here though," and he cast a wary eye at Klein.
Klein ignored him. "So," he smiled at the Clone, "This is 'Lois'…"
Punkin moved a bit, placing more of Clark between herself and the men she didn't know. Martha stepped up to touch her comfortingly.
"No," Clark said, "this *isn't* Lois. She and I have talked about this, so we know the truth now."
"Yeah," the Clone peeped from behind Clark. "He knows. I'm… I'm…" She looked beseechingly at him.
Clark said, "You're a new person who is not Lois. Who do *you* want to be?"
"Can I still be Punkin? Is that okay for now?"
"If it's okay with you, that's what counts."
"It *is* okay." She seemed to stand a little taller and moved away from his metaphorical protective shadow again. "I'm *Punkin Kent* and I'm a *new* person and I'm ten days old *today!*"
"Amazing!" Klein smiled.
"Yeah!" Punkin agreed, but she whispered to Clark, "Is he a nice man?"
"Yes, he is. Why are you here, Dr. Klein?"
"Well, to be honest with you, I'm interested in the…" he motioned, "the clone, in Punkin. The others I saw, for as long as I got to see them…" he half-frowned at the Lemming; it was the most menacing, accusatory expression in his repertoire, "were already deteriorating by their tenth day, but Punkin here looks fresh as the proverbial daisy."
"What's he saying?" Clark heard Punkin whisper to his mom.
"He says you're amazing. I think he wants to find out why."
"Is that what you want to do?" Clark ask Klein. "Examine her?"
"Yes. Overnight should do it. She'll be safe and secure, and I have a supply of the bufo species you enjoy," he told her, "a variety, too, to see if they renew your enzyme balance with more consistency. You know," he smiled "the frogs you like to eat?"
"Oh, yeah, and I'm *hungry*!"
"We can take care of that. The FBI has already offered to keep a strict watch over her…" He glanced again at Lemming and Clark wondered if he had heard about the previous bungled efforts.
"I'll have some people there, too," Henderson said quietly, "and the Lab has a good security set up."
"It's up to Punkin," Clark informed everyone.
"What's up to me?"
"He wants to take you to Star Labs overnight to find out if there's a way to keep you from… winding up like the other Clones."
"Oh. Like getting icky and gray and dizzy and falling over a lot?"
"Yeah, I guess…"
"Daddy's tried, but Mr. Luthor won't give him the money, I think. I don't understand any of that and I don't want to leave you…"
Clark felt his heart tugged at. Punkin Kent. A sister, sort of. "Well… I'm not a scientist like Dr. Klein, and I don't have any frogs to give you…"
"Daddy just had one, and it was small and I ate it this morning, and he said he wasn't sure if he could find any more, but I don't think he *looked*…"
"I have a dozen and I'm expecting another shipment tomorrow," Klein said, hope in his voice.
"I think you'll be safe," Clark said. "Superman can fly over Star Labs now and then to see that you're okay."
"He will? He was a nice man. He's taller than you… It's just for one night?"
"One night should do it," Klein smiled. "I can run some tests, take some baselines, find out what's happening, that kind of thing. It should be very interesting. You'll learn more about yourself, too."
"Oh…" She looked at Clark; he shrugged; it was all up to her. She looked at Martha, who smiled in an encouraging, you-can-do-what- you-wish manner. She looked at Klein; he was totally nonthreatening. "Okay…"
"Well," Lemming said, "now that we have all these *pleasantries* over with, I want to know where Lex Luthor is and," he stepped forward, toward Punkin, and tried to loom, "I want to know *now,* young lady."
Punkin stepped back toward Clark, who could loom on her behalf because he was the same height as Lemming. She said, "I don't know *anything* about him except I don't like him!"
"She doesn't know where his hide-out is, either, they made sure of that."
"Perhaps she can describe it," Henderson offered mildly. "You went there this morning, didn't you, Ms. Kent? Do you remember what color the walls are?"
Punkin warmed up a little toward Henderson and he and Clark helped her to describe Lex's lair.
It was, they decided after piecing together her sparse information, underground, despite the idea that Luthor wouldn't repeat a failed plan. That would help Superman's search, Clark said, assuming that the lair wasn't too far underground or under some lead- lined building (there seemed to be more of them per acre in Metropolis than anywhere else in the world), and assuming it was even *in* town…
"This is all good to know," Lemming assured them, warming to the subject since, Clark thought, he gave every indication of thinking he was in control now. Henderson didn't seem to be disputing this; it must have been another one of those turf things and the FBI had more muscle. Clark decided, though, to save the information Bobby Bigmouth had given him for a more appropriate time and place. Lemming said, "Now I have a plan to draw Lex Luthor, so-called crime lord, out into the open so we can capture him with ease…" and he added the gesture he had used earlier that day, the one indicating giant jaws closing on his prey.
Clark didn't like the sound of this already.
Lemming's plan was deceptively simple. The Clone looked like Lois. The Bank of Metropolis had Lois's money. Luthor needed and wanted the money. The FBI would arm the Clone with Lois's pass codes, conveniently provided by the Bank, and she would get the money. Luthor was no doubt watching the bank because he had lost the real Lois, the fake Lois had refused to help him (Punkin confirmed that), and Luthor didn't have anything better to do. He no doubt expected to use the money to not only pay off his outstanding debts but to hire people to look for Lois.
The FBI would capture him as he approached the bank.
Simple, very simple.
"I don't know," Clark said.
"Haven't you fellows been trying all this 'simple' stuff since last night?" Jonathan Kent wanted to know. "And where has it gotten you?"
"That was the the state boys, the BATF and the Secret Service. Amateurs. They've retired from the field and let the real men play. Now this is *my* game!"
"This isn't a game, Lemming," Perry said fiercely.
"That's right," Clark added. "Luthor doesn't care at all about Punkin and he won't hesitate to hurt her after he's used her."
"You mean you won't be there to protect her?" Lemming asked sweetly.
"Of course I will!"
Clark felt his mom's hand on his back, too late, he realized, to warn him from jumping in and committing himself to whatever Lemming's smile indicated he had already planned. Why do I always do this, Clark wondered.
"Personally, I don't like to involve civilians in serious Bureau business like this, but it can't be helped. Luthor seems to think he's fooled you once and that the Clone still has you buffaloed. You've volunteered to help, so… And, of course, you," he motioned at Punkin, "aren't a citizen anyhow, not to mention you're too young to make momentous decisions. We'll equip you both with protective clothing and wire you for sound, and all the customers in the bank will be my agents. You won't be in *any* danger…"
Plans proceeded apace.
Clark found a moment in the conference room to take his parents aside. "I want you both out of town. I don't like how this is going. If anything goes wrong…"
"And I have the feeling it might…" his mother shuddered.
"Exactly. If Luthor gets mad—madder—he may come after me next. If you're here, he might *enjoy* hurting you if it will hurt me—and it will. I couldn't live with myself if anything happened to either of you because I was careless."
"But, son," Jonathan protested, "I've seen police everywhere, I've felt safe and protected and…"
Clark just looked at him.
"Okay, we'll pack and be on the next plane out."
"And Clark, if Dr. Klein can't help Punkin… maybe you can bring her to the farm, she'll be comfortable there if she starts to… deteriorate. She's so sweet, I don't want her to suffer…"
"Neither do I, Mom… I'll see what I can do. For now, I'll ask Inspector Henderson to assign escorts to you and if I can get into the air I'll follow you myself. Once I find Lois tonight," he paused as he noticed his mom blink and his dad raise his eyebrows. "Well, I *will*, I'll look for her and I'll *find* her, if she doesn't call me first."
"I'm sure you will, son."
"I *will*… I'm tired of all…" he waved a hand, "*this…* It's not fair…" He made himself stop complaining and try to think positively. "We're going to clear all this up and we'll reschedule the wedding and maybe we'll have it in Smallville or something. We won't rush into it, either. Maybe that was one of the problems. Maybe we should have waited until things calmed down…"
"Honey, I've noticed that things don't exactly have a habit of calming down for you either of you…"
His pager buzzed. He checked the number. "Bobby…"
He turned to the phone there in the conference room, got an outside line and called the number. Bobby gave him an array of facts about the renegade scientist, including his name, Harbert, a brief description (though no one had a picture of him), and a warning that Harbert was still considered dangerous, cunning and completely mad. "Sounds more like a job for Lois than you, Clark."
"Thanks. Is Intergang still interested in him?"
"I don't think so, what with the FBI practically giving Luthor that money in Lois's account. Look, Clark, you be careful. The odds- makers are saying that Luthor will not only get the money but he'll find Lois and split town for Switzerland or Hong Kong, and my contacts there are… shaky. I don't have any news of her, unfortunately; when she wants to hide, nobody can find her, not even Superman."
"I don't know about that, I'm sure he's looking for her."
"Good luck to him, then, but I think she'll only come out when she's good and ready."
Clark thanked Bobby for the information, hung up, sighed again, shrugged at his folks, and went out to find Henderson and ask for those escorts from the Metropolis Police.
Lemming moved his men fast and Clark and Punkin were fitted with the latest technological devices, given the information they needed, and patted on the back. Lois's jeep was brought around to the loading dock of the Daily Planet and the keys given to Clark since Punkin wasn't of age and she confessed she wasn't sure how to drive anyhow.
The bank was several blocks away. As Clark drove, he felt the mad desire to hang a U-turn and head in the opposite direction as fast as the jeep could carry them. This was just too crazy… and yet maybe it was so crazy, so well known by everyone and their sister, that Lemming could be right, it could work. The skilled FBI agent couldn't be unaware that his plans were already old news in the local underground…
What am I thinking? Clark wondered. He ordered himself not to feel helpless.
He pulled into the space Lemming had assured him would be awaiting the jeep, off on the side street west of the bank. He went around and helped Punkin out; he had asked her earlier to wait and not get out on her own but let him escort her, to remain in close contact.
She looked tired. He thought she was probably very hungry by now and in need of frog enzymes or the like. At least this was slowing her down and making her appear more human and a little older.
They entered the bank through the regular late-afternoon sidewalk crowds. There were at least a dozen people inside, most of them "customers," the remainder "clerks" and someone who looked like an "administrator." All of these people were clandestinely watching Clark and Punkin, he realized, and every last one of them looked like FBI agents. They shouldn't have been wearing white socks, Clark thought, especially the women.
This really was going so obviously bad that it *had* to work…
The "administrator" approached, passing all the "customers", and asked if he could help them.
"I've come to withdraw my money," Punkin said confidently, exactly the way she had been told to say it. She had rehearsed what they would do only once; Clark was impressed. What if she had actually tried to be Lois, had been just as confident and not frightened at all? …no, he was sure he wouldn't have been fooled then, either. Lois was just… unique. The funny-tasting kiss would have been the first clue, and others would have piled up quickly.
The administrator smiled and nodded. "This way, Miss Lane," he motioned.
It occurred to Clark that the man probably had no way of really knowing who they were and yet had treated "Lois" like an old friend, another boo-boo.
Ten minutes later they left the safety deposit box vault with a heavy brief case full of cash and negotiable bonds. Lemming had argued for the real thing (the taxpayers would pick up any losses), because if capturing Luthor took a few moments longer than necessary and they used cut up newspaper, Luthor might get testy. Punkin had little trouble carrying the load despite her pale face.
At the very moment of their stepping back into the main lobby, a man swathed in black entered through the front door. He knelt and rolled a ball-shaped device into the room and turned way. Two seconds later the device went "Bang!" and burst into a sustained light that blinded everyone but Clark, who covered his eyes anyhow. An instant later he heard Punkin shriek. Then he felt himself being grabbed, his left arm twisted up behind him in a powerful arm lock that didn't hurt in the least, and the barrel of a gun pressed into his right cheek.
"Don't struggle," Luthor warned, "or I'll kill Clark."
Clark heard Punkin say "No…" and then it sounded like she complied with the order and he heard Asabi's voice whispering assurances to her.
"Good… girl," Luthor laughed. "And you…" He wrenched Clark's arm up more and Clark remembered to wince. "Was this your brilliant plan?"
"Was it hers? Did she want the money to *shop* with? Ha! It doesn't matter, you're no smarter than I thought you were, but I think I can trust you to tell my irksome friend Superman that if he tries to find me and comes too close, I'll start blowing up famous landmarks around our fair city. I have bombs planted everywhere and I'll give him a demonstration in an hour—or sooner if he follows me as I leave."
"But you could kill hundreds—thousands!"
"That's right! I should be more gratefull after the clean quarters the citizenry has loaned me over the past months—but I'm *not*! So I know you'll pass on the message. To make sure you will, I'll take… Lois with me, understand?"
"You'll tell Superman?"
"I will. I'll have to find him."
"That's why I'm generously giving you an hour." He loosened his grip—then tightened it again. "Oh, and by the way: you haven't seen—ha, seen! the last of Lex Luthor!"
Luthor pushed Clark to the floor and rushed away, grabbing Punkin from Asabi and dragging her out the door. Clark rose and followed them seconds later, getting to the door in time to see Luthor shove Punkin to the concrete sidewalk and jump on the back of a moped driven by Asabi. They roared off into the screaming crowd, weaving in and out of the traffic like daredevils, disappearing.
Punkin remained crumpled on the sidewalk, barely moving.
Clark rushed to her. She was alive but weak and bleeding from a stunning blow to her back and scrapes and scratches from the struggle with Luthor. The recovery process typical of Clones was beginning already but it seemed to Clark to be slow.
In moments they were surrounded by FBI agents and more entered the bank to try to sort out what had gone terribly wrong. Clark lifted Punkin gently and aimed an almost piercing look at Lemming. "Get me to Star Labs—now!"
Wanda Detroit felt a cool cloth being patted gently over her forehead and she woke to see the tall Red Dixon and a shorter, plump man she seemed to recall that Red had called Bibbo Bibowski. What a funny long name for a funny little guy. His face was as full of compassion as Red's was. "Hi, fellows," she said weakly. "Have any food around this joint?"
"She's hungry," Bibbo whispered to Red. "That's a good sign, I'm sure of it!"
"Hungry?" Wanda asked as she began to sit up, "I'm hungry enough to eat a…" She got about half way up when a giant pain low between her ears protested. "Oww…"
"You just slow down, Wanda," Red warned. "You can take your time, you're safe, no one knows you're here, believe me."
"Oh, okay… I just have to find someone…"
"Who?" Bibbo asked.
Red whispered, "You know, the guy who jilted her at the altar…"
"I have to… kill him," Wanda said.
"Oh, really? Ah, I don't condone murder, Red…"
"Wanda, you're just really mad at him, aren't you?"
"He broke my heart, I think. Oh, my head…" She laid back down; that felt immensely better.
"She probably only *feels* like murdering the guy and she didn't have a gun or even a purse. He just jilted her yesterday and she's taking it pretty hard."
"Oh, well. That's different. You just *feel* like doing that, don't you, Wanda?"
"I feel like… like singing the blues…"
"Can you sing, Wanda?"
"Ah…" She tried to focus again; the room swayed less than it had, making her surroundings seem more stable while everything else was so *blank.* "I think so… I can't remember…"
"In the parade she told me she didn't want to remember," Red whispered.
"That's probably for the best for right now. Some women take this kind of thing hard. Believe me, I see it all the time, they always want to kill the guy but it usually ends up the other way around. I don't want to see that… Well, Wanda, you can stay here until you decide what to do. If you can sing, that's even better. I'd like to hear how you sound. I have some dresses left here by my last singer. He ran away with a cosmetics salesman—"
"Huh?" Red said. "He? And you didn't tell me?"
"He wasn't in town very long, and you know I usually don't book that kind of act, but he was the best cross dresser I've ever seen and he had a good voice, so… anyhow, and he left a lot of clothing and makeup behind, so if you want, you can look at all that. He wasn't a very big guy, some of the clothes may fit…"
Wanda smiled at him. They cared, she felt better already. "Thanks, you're both real sweeties…"
"You just rest and I'll go get you something to eat." Bibbo rose. "You stay with her, Red."
"I'm not going anywhere 'til tomorrow night. Hey, Wanda, maybe you'll feel well enough to let me hear you sing before I have to hit the road."
"Maybe…" she trailed her hand up his arm, "maybe I can hit the road with you…"
"Well, maybe." He smiled, took her hand and patted it. "We'll see…"
Clark and Henderson watched Dr. Klein minister to Punkin. The scientist had a surprisingly light touch and a warm bedside manner. Punkin was enjoying herself immensely. She had recovered from the beating with the help of several doses of bufo species and a large order of food from the nearest fast-food restaurant. She still looked tired, though. Dr. Klein gave her a spare lab coat and pointed out the next room, where she could feel free to change. She smiled about this, hugged the lab coat to herself, and headed for the room. Clark wished he could lower his glasses and check to see that she wasn't overhearing anything (she seemed to have quite sharp hearing). Maybe she wouldn't be able to hear because Dr. Klein proceeded to explained his fears in a quiet voice.
Despite her being female and stronger than the male clones, he said, she hadn't been made to last and his preliminary estimate was that she only had a few more days to a week at the outside, if she didn't strain herself physically and if Star Labs couldn't find a way to prolong her life.
"Don't tell her," Clark warned. "She's enjoying herself so much now…"
"Oh, I won't say anything—we might find the cure after all, and believe me, I'd like to be able to extrapolate on that to helping people with Alzheimers and cancer and other problems…"
"I think she'd like to hear that, that she's helping people."
"I think you're right. I also think you're about dead on your feet, Clark. Now, I'm not a doctor, but I play one in this lab, and I prescribe a good eight hours of sleep for you, young man."
"I'll see that he gets it, doctor," Henderson said. "We'll check in with you in the morning."
They watched Dr. Klein return to his statistics and measurements, almost seeming to forget they were there.
Clark realized they didn't have any reason to stay. He whispered to Henderson, "I have to talk to you…"
"And I have to talk to you, too."
They left the lab and cruised the halls of the giant scientific complex, trying doors and finally finding one that lead to an abandoned laboratory. "All right, I have some news I've been sitting on," Clark said as soon as the door was closed securely behind them.
"Let me guess: Harbert."
Clark blinked and recovered his jaw. "How did you know?"
"You and Lois have Mr. Bigmouth, I have… my own sources. Does Bobby have a picture of him?"
"He said there weren't any to be found, that Harbert covered his trail, but that he's said to have red hair, a beard and moustache."
"That fits with what I've heard, that he looks like that actor on that TV show 'Thirtysomething.'"
"But the character didn't have an affectation for wearing sunglasses at night."
"True, so odds are he'll be wearing them when he meets with Lex Luthor tomorrow morning at 4:35."
Clark recovered his jaw again. Maybe he *was* tired… "I hope you'll tell me next that you plan to pick him up…"
"I have every intention of doing so. Me, Betty and a select team of my very best are going to work on it. No FBI, no Secret Service, no anybody but local people—*my* people. Now let me guess again, and this time it's even easier: you want to impersonate Harbert so you can catch Luthor yourself."
"Well… yes, or at least trail him."
"Better you than Superman."
"Harbert's so sure his weapon can kill Superman, it must contain Kryptonite."
"So we acquire the gun, remove the Kryptonite and replace it with something that won't kill Superman or you, for that matter, since I don't see how I can talk you out of pursuing this dangerous course…"
"I'm putting up quite a fight, aren't I…"
"More than I can withstand."
"Superman will back me up, you know."
"I expect him to. We'll sell Luthor the gun and follow him back to his lair, where he may have Ms. Lane if he finds her before we do. If we find her before 4:35, we'll just pick him up when he comes for the gun." He glanced at his watch, barely moving his wrist or his head. "It's almost seven. Go home, Clark, get some sleep. We've removed all the listening devices and cameras from your home so you don't have to worry about that. Your parents are safe back in Kansas, I called them myself and talked to them. The Lanes are under 24-hour guard because Sam couldn't get a flight out until tomorrow. Frankly, I think he planned that. Ellen flatly insisted on staying in town. Commendable…"
Clark nodded. "They really love Lois…"
"That's obvious, just potentially dangerous. We'll come by for you at two, sharp. Be ready to take instructions."
"I will. I'll get in touch with Superman, too, he can stand by."
"You do that. And tell him that in case he wasn't in town to hear it, the bomb Lex set off was in an abandoned warehouse. Something tells me it was a single stick of dynamite and canister of gasoline, a 'bomb' along that line. I have the feeling that Luthor can't afford much more than threats now, he's spent too much money and he's holding on to the bonds he got to lure Harbert."
"Inspector, *your* feelings I trust, but…"
"But it's a good idea to play it safe. Remind Superman he's to come to me before he jumps into anything."
I will, I will, I will, Clark thought as he headed for the main exit of Star Labs and the police escort home. He sank into the back seat of the cruiser and closed his eyes. I will, I will, I will…
Lois, I *will* find you…
Are you trying to call me? Did you forget my pager number?
Was that *you* screaming before and not Punkin?
He sighed shakily.
He was home before he realized it. He thanked the officer and trudged up the steps, through the door, and inside. He paused on the landing and looked around. It was so empty here… He lowered his glasses and scanned the area, both inside and out, then calmed his heart and listened carefully…
Henderson's people had been thorough.
Clark was truly alone.
He spun into the suit and headed for the back door in as determined a pace as he could muster. He paused in the kitchen, briefly considered eating as he hadn't had anything since breakfast, rejected the idea as being thoughtless when the time could be put to better use, and he left, launching himself skyward.
He searched. He performed helpful deeds as quickly and efficiently as possible. He had to leave town twice when he overheard radios announcing disasters he could assist with. He returned as quickly as he could and search some more.
At 1 o'clock in the morning of a clear, crisp February 13th Saturday, he found himself sitting on a wide ledge of the stately old Findley building, contemplating the city's skyline. He hadn't wanted to spend a second night alone, without his true love, but a lot of things were happening that he didn't want, that he had challenged but been unable to affect.
The air seemed cold, or he could have sworn it was quite chilly. He drew his knees up and pulled his cape tightly around himself. He didn't feel any warmer, and what was worse, the skyline blurred away with tears he didn't want either.
to be continued…
The author thanks Margaret B., Molly H., Laurie F., Kathy P., and Lynda L. for their advice and contributions.