By Jenni Debbage <email@example.com>
Submitted May 25, 1998
Summary: Lois and Clark's temporary marital troubles, brought on by a surprise second pregnancy, are put on hold when Clark is abducted by three of his old nemeses and must fight for his life with a little help from his friends. The second story in the author's "Kent Family" series.
This story is my second fanfic and although it is not a sequel to 'The New Birth', it does follow on from that story. Both these fanfics take place in the time zone of Season 5/6 and the usual disclaimers apply to the characters and gadgets I have borrowed for this tale.
In this story some old adversaries (not the usual ones) emerge and, this time, it seems they have the upper hand.
Your comments are welcome, but please don't be too blunt, as *I* am not invulnerable. Jenni Debbage firstname.lastname@example.org
Lois Lane sat in the Daily Planet newsroom in front of her terminal, absentmindedly putting the finishing touches to her less than enthralling story. If she was being truthful, her mind wasn't really on the job. She glanced up as her husband re-entered the office and passed by her desk, sending her a sad quizzical look in the process, a look she chose to ignore, which only made her feel guilty on top of all her other negative feelings. Perhaps it was time to start being honest with herself.
She was pregnant again, and the prospect terrified her. It wasn't that she didn't want more children. It was just too soon. And it wasn't supposed to be possible. Both Kryptonian and Earth scientists had agreed that Joel was a phenomenon, and yet she could no longer go on denying what her body and her husband were trying to tell her. Also, blaming Clark for the situation was wholly unfair. It took two to make a baby and she had to admit that she'd participated quite freely in that act. She even knew when 'it' had happened, the day of Perry's remarriage to Alice. All the old newsman's friends, having witnessed how lost and miserable he had been when he was alone, had shared in that joyous occasion when the couple had put their differences behind them and chosen to rededicate their lives to each other. On that special day the champagne had flowed freely and the bride and groom's happiness had been infectious. When Clark had finally taken his wife home they had fallen into bed and made love with such passion, Lois blushed to remember it. That night they had scarcely slept and next day Clark remarked laughingly that it was fortunate there had been no major disasters as he had hardly been in a condition to attend a rescue. Lois enjoined wickedly that as prisoners were now allowed conjugal breaks, Superman was entitled to the same courtesy, but she had been happy back then. A new mother with a beautiful baby, an adoring husband and a job she loved and was just settling back into after maternity leave. The future had seemed so bright, then her 'period' had stopped. This was a rare occurrence, in fact it had only happened to her once before and then she had been pregnant with Joel. Her first reaction had been one of disbelief. Joel was only a few months old and he deserved the full attention of his mother, something she would find increasingly difficult to give, due to the debilitating symptoms of pregnancy. So, in typical Lois Lane fashion, she had decided that if she didn't wish for this to be, then it just wasn't.
When Clark, noticing the change in his wife's condition, had tried to broach the subject, she had rebuffed him completely and had continued, in these ensuing weeks, to keep him at arm's length. There had been moments when the ice maiden had melted, allowing them to share a few intimate interludes and times too when she had collapsed sobbing into his arms, but on the whole their relationship had disintegrated into, at best, icy indifference and at worst, open hostility.
According to Clark's estimation Lois must now be in her twelfth week, yet the more he tried to persuade her to face the situation, the more distant she became. In desperation he turned, as always, to his mother, only to find that Martha had already deduced the problem and had attempted to talk to her daughter-in-law. However, for the first time Lois had repulsed her elder friend's wise council. Clark knew she was in a state of denial because she had, as in the days of their early partnership, retired behind her castle walls and pulled up the drawbridge. She ignored all his approaches of peace talks, so there was little he could do but sit out the siege and be ready to support her whenever she surrendered to the truth.
Clark's only consolation was that, with the sole exception of his son, every other one of Lois' acquaintances was being treated with the same disdain and at times anger. For instance, this lunchtime when Jimmy Olsen had remarked that Lois' well known love of chocolate was at last beginning to make itself evident, especially around her waist, that young man had been very lucky to escape with his life. Since then, Lois had been silent and withdrawn. She didn't acknowledge Clark's goodbye when he had left to meet with a source, who had called earlier to inform him that 'something very suspicious' was going down at the Woman's State Penitentiary, or yet when he returned.
Unknown to Clark, however, the time for Lois to face reality had arrived. Reviewing Jimmy's innocuous comment about her weight gain, she at last admitted that if others were starting to notice her condition, then she had best do the same. That did not necessarily mean that she was happy with the situation, but the only alternative was definitely unacceptable. First step first though, so after lunch she had called in at the drugstore across the street to purchase a pregnancy test kit. She might as well have her suspicions confirmed and now was as good a time as any. Shutting down her computer, she fished her purse from her desk drawer, glanced longingly at her husband for a fleeting moment, then without saying a word she left the office.
Watching her go, Clark got that horrid empty feeling inside, one he was experiencing a lot recently. If only she would talk to him, but the only person to be granted the comfort of Lois' loving self at present was Joel. Lois poured out all of her strictly pent-up emotions on her baby and, while Clark could not wholly suppress a little envy, he was exceedingly glad for his son. He was also, and he had to admit, not totally disappointed about the new baby. This pregnancy meant that the researchers were wrong and that Joel would not be an only child, but if it also meant Lois' deep unhappiness then there had to be an alternative.
The ringing phone interrupted Clark's unpleasant thought. He stretched to pick up the receiver.
"Clark Kent speaking," he said, more abruptly than his usual greeting. There was no reply. "Hello. You have reached Clark Kent at the Daily Planet. How may I help you?" He spoke using a politeness he was far from feeling. Still, there was silence. "Hello!! Who would you like to speak with?"
The silence lasted a few more moments, then the caller began to laugh, not an enjoyable laughter and Clark felt his skin crawl at the weird sound. He was just about to signal Jimmy to listen in, when the person on the other end of the line cut the connection. The strange phone call upset him for a short time but he had other, more pressing problems to involve him and the source of those problems had just gone home. Quickly finishing the re-writes on his current article, he wired them through to Perry. During his interview with a young woman called Mary, who claimed to be a state employee, the information he had received had tweaked his reporter's instincts and started that certain tingle. Maybe Lois might also be interested and want to help him investigate, he wishfully thought. Still, tomorrow morning would be soon enough to check out the allegations. At present he had his private life to sort out and, after clearing away his workload, he followed his wife home.
In order to give Lois some time alone, he decided to walk home…slowly. Perhaps he too needed time to compose himself. Somehow he knew that there were stormy days ahead. He unlocked the front door and let himself into the house. It wasn't a great surprise to find Lois frantically pacing back and forth across the living room floor. She whirled to face him, and, snatching a small stick-like object from the table, waved it before his face.
"It turned BLUE," she gasped in a state of high tension. "BLUE!!" She reiterated more loudly, in case he hadn't caught her meaning.
"I know, Lois," he tried his most calming tone, "But you knew it would too." Not finding the words to answer him that would sufficiently convey her dismay, she continued pacing.
"Lois, you must have realised you were pregnant. You had to recognise the signs."
"Pregnant!! Yes, I'm pregnant…again!! Joel is barely six months old and I'm having another baby, which I suppose makes you very happy." Her tone of voice indicated that she most definitely did not share his joy.
"Well yes," Clark chose his words warily as he didn't want to upset her any further. "Us having another baby does make me happy. I'd thought that Joel would be our only child and that made me sad. I know how lonely being an only child can be. However, I realise that the timing isn't ideal."
"Too true!" she retorted. "And you're not the one who has to carry it for nine months and suffer all the physical inconveniences. You're not the one who has to give birth. You can get on with your life and both of your jobs with very little change. I'm the one who has to cope with sleepless nights while you fly off and save the world."
This last statement was vastly unfair as Clark had readily restricted his Superman duties in favour of being an attentive father and Joel had very quickly learned to sleep throughout the night. Nevertheless, Lois was way past being rational.
"How do you expect me to contend with two babies?" At that she seemed to run out of steam and her shoulders slumped. Tears began to fill her eyes and spill down her cheeks. He wanted so much to take her in his arms and kiss away the tears, but the solution wasn't so simple and he could not be sure that she wouldn't push him away again. Now Clark had to go very carefully.
"The news does please me, Lois, but it's obvious that you are miserable and it certainly doesn't please me to watch you falling apart like this."
She bridled at his last words and made to remonstrate with him but her inborn sense of justice kept her silent. She was hardly acting like a competent adult.
"So," he spoke hesitantly, unsure of how to voice his next thought, "if you feel that you really can't cope, I would understand…I wouldn't like it, of course, but if you felt you couldn't go ahead…"
His heart was breaking and he couldn't speak the words. But Lois had already understood his unspoken suggestion. She gazed in disbelief and horror at the husband she thought she knew so well.
"What are you suggesting?" she asked incredulously, but Clark could only stare in confusion, wondering how he could ever have contemplated such a thing. It certainly showed the measure of his desperation, but Lois was not thinking clearly enough for such reflection.
"I can't believe you could even think of *that*. I may be unhappy but I'm not that hopeless. *I* could never do *that*. How could you?" She babbled, clearly distressed. "You're Superman. You believe in truth and justice. You're supposed to take care of people and you have just suggested that we…that we get rid of our baby." The last words were spoken in a gasping whisper.
"No!!!" Clark shouted. His tentative plan, relayed back at him by his distraught wife, disgusted him. The past weeks must have deranged his senses. "If you'd decided on that course, it would have broken my heart, but forgive me, I should have realised you could never…" he felt that he ought not to repeat the offensive words. "Lois, we don't talk to each other anymore and I'm desperate. You're drifting away from me and I don't know how to live with that."
Lois watched him silently, a guarded expression on her face and when she spoke her voice was flat.
"The same way I'm getting through this, one day at a time," and after these words she turned, scooped her car keys from the desk and went to fetch her son.
The days passed into weeks and the situation in the Kents' household settled into one of frozen politeness. It destroyed Clark. He knew he had never been forgiven for ever considering that Lois would terminate the pregnancy and in truth he couldn't blame her. That had been a misconception of epic proportions and he had no idea how to atone for his mistake. The usual flowers and chocolates were, in this case, just pure trivia and definitely not to be considered.
Lois seemed to glide through the days in a semi-trancelike state. She no longer ignored her condition, even made an appointment with Dr. Peters and did not demur when Clark insisted on accompanying her. Dr. Beth Peters was dismayed at the change in the couple's relationship and she only hoped that in the months ahead, as Lois became accustomed to her second pregnancy, the two would be reconciled. The doctor firmly believed that a happy mother was a healthy mother.
Lois and Clark no longer fought. They barely spoke. At work they treated each other with professional courtesy. At home their one point of contact was their precious son. Joel was growing into a happy, healthy and inquisitive baby. Martha often remarked that it seemed as if someone had turned back the clock, so alike was Joel to his father at a similar age. All Joel's family had been concerned that the terrible trauma he had undergone, when only a few days old, would affect his personality; however, either it had been of such short duration or he had been too young for it to register. The only trait to manifest itself which might have been attributed to his abduction was a certain shyness in the company of strangers. Both parents were stringently careful not to allow their problems to affect Joel's well being and, in the time they spent in his presence, they found common ground, time which secretly each appreciated as the most contented moments of their now chaotic lives.
Their friends and family worried about the state of affairs between the two, but any attempt to interfere was met with icy indignation from Lois and from Clark a sad acknowledgement that there was nothing any of them could do to resolve the impasse. If there was a way out of this mess then only Lois and he could find it. At first, he had typically assumed the blame for the estrangement, but his sense of fair play had come to his rescue and, although he had made a gargantuan mistake in believing Lois would not wish to go through with the pregnancy, his wife was not playing fair. His hope was very similar to Dr. Peters'; that given time Lois' sense of justice would emerge and she would come to terms with the fact, and perhaps even like the idea, that there would be a new little person in their family.
Meanwhile Clark combatted his depression by filling his days with work both as a journalist and as Superman. He had followed up on his interview with Mary by checking her credentials and had confirmed that there was a Ms. M McConnachie working as a clerk in the administration department of the Women's Prison, but she had strongly insisted that he not contact her but await her phone call. Should she have any further information she would be in touch, but as such a call had never materialised, he assumed that either her suspicions had been unfounded or she was blessed with an overactive imagination. Whatever the reason, his tingle must have been as out of sync as the rest of his brain, for the story was dead, yet in the back of his mind there was still a faint echo of alarm bells. He had forgotten, in the subsequent mind-blowing argument with Lois, the weird phone call he had received from the cackling joker.
After an especially busy number of nights, when Superman had cleaned up an oil spill of the coast of Mexico and then proceeded to help fight gigantic rainforest fires, he returned wearily home, swimming the Pacific part of the way in an attempt to rid himself of the clinging smell of charred timber and burnt animal flesh. He had succeeded in rescuing a number of terrified creatures, but there were too many who fell prey to the flames. The fires were burning out of control across all of the Indonesian Islands, sending great clouds of smoke and smog spreading along the Pacific and blanketing the population in a breath stealing envelope of murky fog. Superman had saved countless farmers and villagers who populated the forests, but the devastation of the homes and lives of these friendly native people only added to his state of depression. Thankfully, after days of strenuous effort, the firefighters with his help had the blaze under control and Clark felt he could safely leave the clean-up to the officials. He returned home exhausted from his exertions and more than a little affected by the cloying smog.
His Superman suit was singed and covered with smoke stains and he didn't have the energy or the inclination to wash it. Deciding the laundry could wait till morning, he stripped off the suit and simply bundled it up, then fell into bed. When he awoke next morning, he found he had used up all his clean costumes and, as the emergencies he had dealt with these last few nights had been particularly dirty ones, all the suits needed a good long soak and a rigorous scrubbing. Under normal circumstances Lois would, when Clark had been very busy with large-scale disasters, make sure that the soiled garments were washed. But these were not normal times and Superman was as equally in the doghouse as Clark.
Oh well, it looked like the Man of Steel would have to take an enforced morning off. He showered, then dressing quickly in a charcoal grey suit and one of his remaining dress shirts, went downstairs to prepare breakfast. Joel had already been deposited in his baby-chair by Lois who now, with a quick good morning and a smile to her husband (they were in the presence of Joel), disappeared upstairs to lock herself in the bathroom. Focussing his superhearing, Clark discovered that Lois was once again prey to her daily bout of morning sickness. He was assaulted by a new wave of dismay, as her exclusion of him from all things relating to her pregnancy was further manifest. To ease his hurt he busied himself making oatmeal, then fed this to Joel, cooling it with his breath so as not to burn the baby's tender mouth. Joel loved his oatmeal, but he liked to wear just as much as he ate and, being a generous child, he didn't like to leave his dad out of the fun—with the result that, at the end of the meal, Clark's last clean shirt showed quite a few deposits of sloppy oats. Sponging the marks off his shirt and tie, Clark could only be thankful he hadn't already donned his jacket. His son was certainly in need of a major clean-up and he scooped him from his chair and headed for the bathroom, hoping that Lois would already have vacated the premises.
Finally he and Joel were ready for the off. A detour to the cleaners was in order and a bag full of dirty shirts was waiting by the foot of the stairs. He'd wrapped up a couple of his 'suits' and was going to ask his mother to launder them. Not that he liked to impose on her, but under the circumstances she would understand and be only too willing to help out. Martha wished she could do more.
The elder Kents had thought long and hard about their retirement plans while Lois was carrying Joel. Their decision had been almost made when, just a few days after his birth, the baby had been kidnapped. At that occurrence their plans immediately coalesced. They felt that the baby's future would be more secure, both physically and emotionally, if his grandparents were there to care for him when his mother returned to her career.
Also Jonathan had, over the past year or so, been finding the hard work of a Kansas farmer more difficult to cope with than in previous times. Clark had tried to assist his father when he could, but he had his own life to lead with two very demanding jobs and now a growing family of his own. Jonathan hadn't liked to add to his son's responsibilities with an increasing workload around the farm. Even Superman had his limits and besides, the Kansas farmer was a proud man who didn't appreciate having to ask for help.
Now, however, they had a grandchild, a very special child who had to be protected, like his father before him, from inquisitive eyes, and who was better qualified for this task than the elder Kents? Jonathan had a new goal in life. In the past there had been times when he had deduced that his only son had been a lonely young child, confused by his ever-changing abilities and having no contemporaries to share in his amazing secrets. To compensate, Jonathan had tried to spend as much time as he could with his phenomenal child, but so often the day to day duties of farm life had got in the way. Back then there had been no alternative. The farm had provided them with the material things of life, but as a grandparent, his responsibilities had changed. If he was retired, he could spend all the time in the world with his grandchildren, assuring that they grew up in an atmosphere of a loving and caring family, commodities, which in his opinion, were seldom found in the big city.
Once the plans for their future were finalised, they approached Lois and Clark. After all, if the couple should decide they didn't wish to place Joel into Martha and Jonathan's care, then all their plans would have to be rethought. However, their fears proved to be groundless. Lois had been overjoyed and vastly relieved that they should volunteer to move to Metropolis and take charge of Joel. It removed a weight of worry from the new mom's shoulders, to know that she could resume her career while leaving Joel with the best people in the world to care for him. Only Clark had had reservations. He knew how much his father loved Smallville and had once confessed to a dread of living in a city, but when his parents explained their thinking in detail he became more enthusiastic. The older Kents planned to lease out the farm (in fact, they already had an interested party) but not the farmhouse or the immediately surrounding land. The orchard, with its precious treehouse, and the pond where Clark had swum as a child would all still be theirs. Then they would look for a suitable small home here in the outskirts of Metropolis. Somewhere that would be convenient for Joel to be dropped off each day without the use of superpowers, but not in the heart of the city.
Clark was surprised his parents could afford all these changes, but it was explained that the Kents' extremely profitable pension plan had matured on Jonathan's last birthday. So too, over the years, Martha, a very efficient and resourceful housewife, had been saving a little here and there towards their retirement years. And, of course, they would receive an income from the lease of the farmland. Lois also insisted on paying a child-minding fee, though that intention had caused a fiery debate until Clark finally reached a compromise by suggesting that if his parents were so strongly against accepting any kind of remuneration, then they could use the money to open a bank account for Joel. This seemed to satisfy all parties.
Nevertheless, Clark was not wholly convinced until his mother took him aside and explained that his dad had been experiencing dizzy spells and periods of extreme tiredness. Eventually she had persuaded Jonathan to visit the doctor, who had told the aging farmer, in no uncertain terms, to lose weight and to take things more slowly, not an easy task when running a farm. Their move to Metropolis would be the ideal situation for everyone. Fortunately, within a very short time they had found a pleasant house with a nice little backyard and garden, situated in a quiet suburb of the city. The move had been made quickly and by the time Lois was due back at the Planet, Martha and Jonathan were settled in their new home and ready to take care of their grandson.
Life should have been good for all concerned, Clark reflected as he strapped Joel's carry chair into the Jeep to take him to his parents' home, but instead it had sunk into his worst nightmare. Lois ran down the steps to give the two men in her life a goodbye kiss. A large one for Joel and a fleeting one for Clark informing him they would meet later at the office. When he offered to return to pick her up, she declined, stating her intention to call for a taxi. Clark didn't press his offer but simply shrugged his shoulders, jumped into the car and drove off.
Watching them drive away Lois felt unexpectedly chagrined. Lately she'd noticed that Clark had ceased in his attempts at reconciliation, seemingly becoming resigned to her apathetic treatment. Contrarily she missed his constant attention. Slowly she turned and climbed the stairs, speeding up as she heard the phone ringing. Lois snatched up the handset just before the answering machine cut in.
"Good morning," she forced a modicum of cordiality into her voice but was met with silence. She had decided it was a wrong number and was about to hang up when she heard a rasping indrawn breath. Great, just what she needed to start her day, a crank phone call.
"Who's there?" She spoke sharply, letting her exasperation out. In answer she heard strange laughter, very quiet at first, but quickly increasing in volume until it reached a high-pitched, eerie screech. Lois slammed down the phone. After a few moments, it began ringing again. This time she allowed the machine to take over and listened in dread as the same laughter filled the room. Snatching the phone line from its socket, she ran into the kitchen. While she poured herself her usual coffee with trembling hands, she attempted to calm her distraught nerves, remonstrating with herself to stop acting like a foolish, highly strung pregnant woman.
Martha watched from her kitchen window as her son drove into the yard. Her maternal heart ached at the dejected slump of his wide shoulders which seemed to be his permanent posture these days, except of course in the suit, when he automatically assumed his Superman's stance. The young couple had started out their lives together with such high hopes. It was hard to believe their present-day misery. Tears sprang to her eyes upon seeing the dejection in his face as he carried Joel and his baggage up to the back porch. However, when he came through the door his mood brightened in his Mom's presence, so she too forced a smile to her lips and greeted him with a warm hug. She inquired, in her most caring manner, after Lois' health, as she lifted her grandson into her clasp for his customary morning cuddle and tickle. This was a game that the little boy loved and he squealed his delight. Clark replied to her inquiry with the usual niceties, talking over his son's happy giggles, then asked her apologetically whether she would launder his suits. This question was more indicative of the current state of affairs at Hyperion Avenue than anything else he said. Martha strove for impartiality, and she was sympathetic of Lois' deep unhappiness, but her son did not deserve this constant rejection. Nevertheless, she knew he would never tolerate criticism of his wife, so she kept her own council and vowed to be there for him whenever he needed support. Meanwhile she and Jonathan would make sure that Joel was happy and content, though to be fair, Lois had never let her state of mind detract from caring for her son. Martha carried Joel out to the yard and both waved bye-bye as Clark left for work.
A surprise awaited Clark at the Planet. As he stepped from the elevator, he saw Lois sitting at her desk. Somehow he hadn't expected her to get in to work until midmorning. She looked pale and a little shaken and more surprisingly, she called to him as he passed by on the way to his desk. That was something that hadn't happened in weeks.
"Psstt!! Clark get over here!!" she hissed at him, not looking very pleased, but hey, a guy couldn't have everything. He walked up to her and leant conspiratorially towards her, as if straining to catch her whispered words.
"Clark, the strangest thing happened after you left. I got this phone call, only the caller didn't leave a name. Actually they didn't really say anything. They just laughed…only it wasn't happy laughter. It was a horrible sound and it gave me the creeps." She rattled off her speech in almost one long breath and he could see she was clearly upset. His own alarm system was screaming as his mind went back over the weeks to a similar call he'd received here at the Planet, just before their disastrous argument.
"They called the house?" He mused almost to himself.
"You know about this, Clark?" she demanded, anger beginning to infuse her tone. "You've had one of these calls and you didn't think to tell me?"
Oh, no! For the first time in weeks she had chosen to share something with him and already he'd messed up. He strove to repair the damage.
"Lois, you and I have hardly been speaking to each other of late. Besides, I took that phone call here in the office and it was the same day we had our… misunderstanding. To tell the truth, I'd completely forgotten about the call. I've had other more important worries on my mind."
"So you never followed it up?" Because her instincts alerted her to a story which obviously involved her husband, she decided that their private problems could be put aside for the present. "Did anything else strange happen back then?" she asked, and Clark shook his head.
"Apart from us?" He braved her wrath, but Lois chose to ignore the barb so he continued to think back over that day. "I had an interview with a Ms. Mary McConnachie who said she'd discovered some strange happenings at the Women's State Prison, but it didn't pan out."
"You didn't check out the source?!" She raised her eyebrows.
"Yes, of course I did. I am an investigative reporter, remember." This was good. This interaction was just how things used to be between them. "Mary was exactly who she claimed to be, only she never got back to me and though I've kept a check on the State Pen, nothing unusual's gone down."
"Mmmm. Maybe, but my tingle tells me this Mary ties in with our mysterious caller."
"I agree, so let's do some investigating, partner," he threw the name in to test the waters and was pleased when her lips curled up at the corners in a tiny smile.
"Right, partner," she echoed his words. "You check with Inspector Henderson and I'll take the prison. Let's unearth whoever has the gall to harass us."
Clark was a happy man, finally there was an 'us'. However, after a busy afternoon of drawing a complete blank, he was ready to call it a day and, looking over at his wife, he realised she too needed to rest. As if feeling his glance on her she rose and crossed to his desk.
He shook his head.
"Me neither. The only thing going down at the Penitentiary is a nasty dose of food poisoning. Seems that half the prisoners are affected to some degree and quite a number of staff."
"Well, Henderson's heard nothing either and no one on the street's talking about the prison. Come on, Lois, we've done enough probing for today, maybe we'll have more success tomorrow. Let's go fetch Joel and go home."
They left the office together. Clark didn't attempt to touch Lois, much as though he wanted to, but he felt that he'd made some progress today and he didn't feel like pushing his luck.
Perry White and Jimmy watched them go and the two exchanged relieved grins. At last, their friends were leaving together. Perhaps the iceberg was beginning to melt.
The women sat in the basement of an opulent town house savouring a delicious meal of all their favourite delicacies, washed down by some very fine wine. This was definitely the best meal they'd had in such a long time, a great improvement on the food they'd been forced to consume these past several years.
The two women were an unlikely combination. In ordinary circumstances the older, sophisticated female would have spent little time in the company of the silent and slightly intense doctor, but after a few days incarcerated in a prison cell together, they had discovered a mutual hatred for a specific journalistic couple. During the intervening years they had consolidated their sisterhood by fanning the flames of their shared malice and planning their revenge.
But for the moment they were content to enjoy their long-awaited freedom. They gazed about at their surroundings, assessing every detail in an attempt to gain some insight into their mysterious benefactor. All the plans for their escape had been made through an intermediary and although they had been given a name, they knew nothing about this person, apart from what they could glean from the 'celebrity' columns. However, if possessions were any guide, this lady was doing very well for herself. Of course, there were no windows in the basement, but the heavy silk drapes gave the appearance of hidden portals; and the paintings hanging on the walls were, if originals, very expensive. The table at which they were seated was fashioned of glass and chrome, with a modern standard lamp rising in a graceful arc across the tabletop, its light striking myriad sparks from the fine crystal wine goblets. The chairs were of chrome and soft ivory leather. A theme carried out in the soft furnishings of the living area of the basement, where three large and comfortable couches formed a horseshoe shape in the centre of the room. Placed between the settees were smaller glass tables. A bookcase covered one wall and a vast range of reading material from the intellectual to the steamiest bodice-ripper filled the shelves. A large screen T.V. and a high-tec hifi system were the room's final pieces of furniture. The whole effect was one of understated luxury and seemed to have been created for just such guests as themselves, who found it prudent to spend sometime away from the eyes of the public and police.
Considering the method of their escape, their co-conspirator had immense influence and resources. It took great organisational skills to introduce an outbreak of gastro-enteritis into the prison population simply to cover the transfer of two particular inmates to the sickbay, from where, due to the more relaxed security of the medical wing, they could be more easily removed. What degree of coercion or bribery, or perhaps an element of both, was used to persuade the substitutes to sacrifice their own freedom was unknown. The lookalikes had entered the Penitentiary with the other nursing staff, who had been sent to assist the in-service medical team with the epidemic. Later that evening, at the end of the working shift, they had shed their disguises and switched places with the two patients. There were definite similarities in looks and build between the women and their impersonators, but the volunteers would inevitably be discovered, since one of the prisoners had very distinguishing scars. That, however, was not these ladies' problem. They had simply donned the discarded uniforms and walked out the gates with the other staff. Both had suffered a few anxious moments as they had passed by the guards, but perhaps because it was the end of a busy day and the jailers were thinking of a well-earned night off and not paying strict attention, their fears had been groundless. No one had screamed in protest as they had boarded the bus that drove them away from their place of incarceration and later they had been picked up at the drop-off point and brought here to await a meeting with their patron.
The time for the prearranged meeting had arrived, for the door to the basement opened and framed in the elevator was a small fair-headed female figure sheathed in a very tight pink frock. The dress showed off every sexy curve and the long shining locks proclaimed the empty-headed blond bimbo, a false persona that Mindy Church, head of the worldwide criminal organisation 'Intergang', was very careful to promote. Joined now with Diana Stride and Dr. Gretchen Kelly, the three women had formed an unholy alliance, united in their absolute hatred of Lois Lane and Clark Kent.
Diana would provide the inspiration, Gretchen the relevant medical knowledge and Mindy the materials to carry out their plan. And the plan was simple: to expose Clark Kent as Superman and then kill him.
At first Mindy had been sceptical of Diana's claim that Superman and Kent were one in the same person, but on reflection it did explain a lot of anomalies. Besides, it wasn't really important, as long as they both died.
Gretchen, on the other hand, was spurred by jealousy of Lex's attraction to Lois Lane and, remembering the months of pain and torment she had suffered following her horrific accident, she sought also her rival's death, but the other women convinced her that leaving the reporter behind to mourn her beloved husband was a more subtle and longer lasting revenge. Soon all their dreams would be fulfilled. There were just a few more details to arrange and then the plan would be put into action. Mindy crossed the room to the others.
"Welcome ladies, I do hope you enjoyed your meal." With a wave of her hand she indicated the leather couches. "However, I do believe we have plans to discuss and I'm sure, like me, you are anxious to begin."
Diana Stride rose and followed Mindy. "Mrs Church, we have been formulating our plans for years. We have had little else to occupy us, but in order for our plans to succeed we need very specialised equipment."
"Call me Mindy," she suggested pleasantly, dropping the baby soft voice she normally used when addressing her male assistants. "We shall make out a shopping list and please don't be shy in your requests. No expense is too great for the completion of our task."
Superman's destruction had been tried before, but each time Mindy had had to rely on the assistance of men. Now they would succeed. Her fellow plotters were women and Mindy firmly believed that the female of the species was more deadly than the male.
Two days after that momentous meeting, Clark walked alone into the newsroom. Perry, seeing him from his editor's office, felt his stomach drop. The relationship between his top reporting team, who also happened to be his dearest friends, appeared to be improving, which was good news on both a professional and personal level. Yet here was Clark, once again alone. Still, the young man came straight across the office and stuck his head in the door.
"Chief, Lois will be late in this morning. When I left her, she had her head over the loo bowl. I'm afraid she's having a hard time with morning sickness. She said to tell you she'd be in just as soon as she felt better."
Perry decided that as their boss and their friend he could do a little digging. "I couldn't help but notice that things were getting a little better between you two. Has Lois finally decided to forgive you for getting her pregnant again so soon?"
Clark looked slightly taken aback by this question. Did everybody know their private business? And yet, Perry was a close friend and he'd been concerned when things had started going wrong with their marriage. Besides, Lois' condition was no longer a secret and knowing that, it didn't take a genius to deduce the reasons behind the couple's obvious unhappiness. Perry deserved an answer.
"I think the jury's still out on that one, but she is beginning to warm to the idea of being a mom again…a little. Right now she's intrigued by this story we've gotten into."
"Just what story is that?" This time Perry was all boss.
"Well, to tell the truth, we're not sure. I got this information about the Women's Prison and then we started getting these weird phone calls. We both agree that there's a story somewhere. We just haven't been able to figure out where."
As editor, Perry was about to warn his top reporter not to waste his time running down a lead that might not pan out, when Jimmy shouted that Clark had a call waiting at his desk. Clark took the call and was amazed and pleased when it turned out to be Mary, a very frightened Mary. Everything she had suspected was true, and she had to tell someone. As an upright citizen (Lois would say Boy Scout), Clark suggested that Mary go to the police and even offered to accompany her, an offer which she said she might take him up on, if first he would meet her and listen to what she had to say. Clark complied and arranged to meet Mary in a downtown shopping mall. He was slightly surprised at her choice of venue, but she seemed to believe that she would be safer in a crowd.
He once again went into his editor's office and passed on his plans to meet with the frightened girl, assess the information she had to give and then decide if it was important enough to inform the police. Perry gave him his blessing and assured him he would relay the message to Lois, should she show up when Clark was gone. The situation between the two was still tenuous and it wasn't wise to exacerbate the circumstances by allowing Lois to think that Clark was excluding her from the investigation.
The Luthor Shopping Mall was, as usual for a Friday morning, exceedingly crowded. Busy shoppers thronged the galleries and took their ease in the numerous cafes. Why did everyone choose to shop on Fridays, Clark wondered as he eased his way through the crowds towards the central square, passing a paramedic team urgently in search of their reported emergency. He reached the rendezvous point a few minutes early and spent the time checking out a T.V. news crew, busily setting up to film their own project. Clark hoped it was not connected to his story and that Mary would not take fright when she spotted the cameras. He scanned the area, hoping to find a face he recognised; he had only met with her once before and that exceedingly briefly. She had assured him at that first meeting that she had instantly recognised him, having seen his photograph in the Daily Planet. Yet the only thing he remembered about the girl was that he had thought her plain. Perhaps he was too engrossed with his troubles with Lois to take much notice of other female's looks. He tried to attune his superhearing to approaching footsteps, but there was just too much conflicting noise in the centre. So he almost jumped visibly when a hand touched his arm and a voice from behind said nervously.
"Mr. Kent, thank you for meeting me. I do hope you can help me." Turning in the girl's direction he offered his hand, but as she was holding a large bundle of files, the customary handshake was not possible. His memory of the informant was correct. She was in her mid-twenties and appeared very shy and quiet.
"Ms. McConnachie? I'll do whatever I can, but if this thing is as big as you obviously think, then we should involve the authorities. Why don't we get ourselves a coffee," he indicated the nearest coffeehouse, "and you can tell me what it is you've discovered?"
Clark and the girl headed in that direction, but before going more than a couple of steps, two youngsters on rollerblades came hurtling through the throng, swerving into Mary's path and knocking her clean off her feet. Then the kids swept on into the mall, oblivious to the chaos they had created. Papers were strewn all around the fallen woman who seemed not to be hurt, but was very upset and scared that the files were now exposed for all to see. Kneeling beside her, Clark inquired about her state of health, but when she informed him that she was only shaken he hurriedly assisted her to retrieve her papers. While he knelt by her side picking up the scattered files, a pair of feet with rollerblades clamped to their bottoms appeared in his line of vision and an apologetic voice asked if it could help. One of the boys, having spotted the mess left behind, sheepishly offered his services. Clark made to answer the request but gasped in pain instead. The all too familiar dizziness was overwhelming him and the drawing pain caused by exposure to kryptonite was coursing through his body. But who was hiding the deadly rock? He tried to focus his x-ray vision to scan the crowds who, he noticed with dismay, were forming a group around himself and Mary, drawn by curiosity to the disturbance. It was not good for him to be the centre of attention. If only he could stand, then perhaps he could get away from the source of his disablement, so when the girl offered a helping hand he grasped at it like a drowning man clutching a lifeline, which he very soon realised was a big mistake. The second her fingers closed round his he felt his hand start to burn and a fire he had seldom experienced before spread up his arm and infused his whole being. His eyes locked onto the large carbuncle ring she wore on her finger, which seemed completely out of character with the rest of her apparel. There was some form of device hidden in the ring which had managed to pierce his skin and was now delivering liquid kryptonite into his body. He tried to pull his hand away, but he had become so weak, he couldn't break her clasp. Searching her face with his already clouding eyes, he gasped out almost inaudibly.
"Why?! Why are you doing this?" She held hard to him for a few more moments, then smiling an unhealthy smirk she dropped his hand as if it were something unclean and melted into the crowd, on the pretext of fetching a doctor. The young rollerblader searched frantically for help, screaming for assistance, and then thankfully it seemed as if his request was answered as the paramedic team which Clark had passed earlier hurried to the scene to give their aid.
By now Clark could hardly breathe and sweat stood out clearly on his forehead. His last coherent and whimsical thought as the medics bent across his body was that it was thankful he wasn't wearing the suit or everyone watching would learn his secret. He was already passing into a state of unconsciousness as an oxygen mask was placed over his face.
When the elevator doors opened onto the floor of the newspit and Lois stepped out she was amazed to find the desks empty and a surprising hush pervading the huge room. Most of the newsroom staff were gathered round the various T.V. monitors. A big news story must be breaking and she wasn't at the centre of it. She hurried down the ramp to join the group that included her editor, but before she reached them, Jimmy had nudged his boss and Perry came quickly towards her, looking extremely upset.
"What's happened, Chief? What have I missed?"
Perry cleared his throat and she wasn't sure she liked the pitying look he was turning on her. "Lois, my dear, maybe you should come into my office and we can talk."
This wasn't just a news story. This was personal. Lois shrugged off his restraining hand and pushed her way through her colleagues. They fell back from her path as she came past, glancing away from her, but not before she had noticed the shocked and dismayed looks on all of their faces. She came to stand by Jimmy and as she looked up at the screen she caught the tail end of a news report. The LNN outside broadcaster was winding up her account, her face expressing a genuine concern.
"So it seems that one of our fellow newsmen has himself today become the story. Clark Kent, an award-winning reporter for the Daily Planet, collapsed, here in the Luthor Shopping Mall, of what appears to be, according to the paramedics who attended him, a heart attack. He has been taken to a hospital and we will keep you informed of his condition in a later bulletin. This is Lisa Bancroft for LNN news from the Luthor Shopping Mall."
Lois' eyes widened in shock and disbelief and her mouth opened in an unsuccessful attempt to speak. She tried again and this time she managed an audible squeak.
"It's not true," she stated, shaking her head. "It's not possible. Not Clark." The Chief slid his arm about her shoulder and turned her towards his office.
"I know, sweetheart, that it seems unlikely. I mean, Clark always seemed such a healthy type. But it could be true and everyone here watched the report and he did collapse. Perhaps it's not as bad as it looked." Perry knew he was making a terrible mess of trying to console Lois, but he was having a hard time believing what he had just witnessed.
"You don't understand, Perry. It's impossible for Clark to have a heart attack." She was determinedly trying to explain, as if by convincing Perry she could convince herself. "There is only one thing that can make Clark unwell and that's…"
Oh my god, what was she saying? She had almost given away Clark's secret. She had to be more careful. Even when her world was reeling about her, she had to protect his secret identity. But that had to be the explanation. Someone in the crowd must have been concealing kryptonite and once the paramedics got him to hospital and away from the source of his pain, then he would recover swiftly. Any time now he would be walking into the office, a little tired maybe, but totally healthy. However, Perry didn't know this and for appearance's sake, neither did she. Her boss turned at the door to his office.
"Jimmy, Ralph, get on the phone. Find out which hospital they've taken Clark to."
The two men jumped to do his bidding, not only because he was their boss and in this mood you didn't ignore his orders, but also because Clark was their friend and they were anxious to find out what was happening.
Continuing to usher Lois inside away from prying eyes, Perry pushed her down into the large plaid chair in front of his desk. He could sense that Lois was suffering from shock and, being wise to her condition, he didn't want her fainting on the floor. Lois allowed herself to be led, but from here she couldn't see the elevators. She began to fidget in her seat and Perry took this as a clear sign of distress.
"Lois," he knelt by her side, appropriating her quivering hands in his strong clasp, hoping to infuse her with his own strength. "Lois, honey, perhaps you might like to phone the Kents. They probably saw the news bulletin, but just in case…" His voice tailed off for a moment, but he gave himself a mental shake. He had to stay calm for the benefit of this poor girl, who he regarded as his own daughter. "It would be better, if they haven't already heard, that the news come from you."
His suggestion wasn't only out of concern for Clark's parents. Martha was more than a mother-in-law to Lois, she was her friend and confidant and there was no one who could comfort Lois more surely than the older woman. Besides, giving Lois a task to do would help to steady her frayed nerves. Lois immediately acquiesced and, picking up the handset, dialled the number. The phone was directly picked up, a sure sign that the older couple had seen the report.
"Is that you, Lois?" An exceedingly strained male voice asked.
"Jonathan? Oh Jonathan, you know what has occurred?"
The voice at the other end of the line answered in the affirmative. Perry exited the office silently, leaving the family to console each other.
"Kryptonite must have been involved," Lois whispered conspiratorially. "There's just no other explanation."
"But will they discover that at the emergency unit when Clark arrives there?" Jonathan's ever-present concern for the preservation of Clark's secret identity was clearly at the forefront of his anxiety.
"I'm sure everything will be all right. As long as Clark is no longer in the vicinity of that horrid rock he'll quickly recover. Probably by the time he reaches the hospital. The doctors will do a quick examination and discharge him."
"Exactly! What will they find out when they examine him?"
"Well, if he's been exposed to that stuff, he won't have any of his superpowers." Martha now joined the conversation on the cordless phone. "And if I'm not mistaken, I don't believe he's wearing a 'suit' today. Otherwise I'm sure the paramedics would have gotten the shock of their lives when they went to his aid and everyone would know his identity by now."
Lois had the grace to sound sheepish as she agreed with Martha. After, all it was her neglect of Clark that had forced him to go 'suitless' today, thank goodness. Sometimes even mistakes turned out for the best.
"And Clark is very adept at getting out of awkward situations. He'll blame his allergies or something and before we know it he'll be walking into the newsroom and everyone here will tease him for giving us all such a fright." Lois finished on a falsely bright note.
"Then why are you so concerned?" her mother-in-law inquired.
A heartfelt sigh broke from Lois' lips. It was impossible to fool Martha. "I'm not sure Martha, perhaps it's my 'delicate condition'." For the first time she acknowledged her pregnancy to another soul apart from her husband and it made her feel unexpectedly good. But the feeling of well being was fleeing. "I have this strange sense of foreboding, as if Clark really is in danger."
Martha valued Lois' and her son's sixth sense that each had for the other's welfare, and if Lois sensed something was wrong then she firmly believed there would be just cause. As if on cue Perry burst back into the room and it was obvious he was the bearer of bad tidings.
"Lois!" he shouted, not caring that he was interrupting a private conversation. "I've had Jimmy and Ralph checking the hospital admittance, but they've contacted every medical facility in Metropolis and not one of them has seen hide nor hair of Clark. We've phoned the police and they're checking it out. It seems that Clark has disappeared."
The news stunned Lois for a few seconds, then she turned back to the phone conversation.
"Martha, did you hear? Clark's not at any of the emergency units."
"Perhaps he felt much better and convinced the ambulance people to let him go." His father, in his distress for his son, was clutching at straws. Slowly Lois answered.
"I don't think so. Clark would realise how worried we are and he would have returned as quickly as possible. There is something very wrong here. We didn't want to upset you, but we have both received very strange phone calls lately. The caller doesn't talk, only laughs this very weird laughter, then hangs up. I think the phone calls were a warning. Someone has kidnapped Clark."
Jimmy had joined his boss in the doorway and both men were looking at Lois as if she had gone of the deep end. This had been a severe shock and she was probably hysterical, though she didn't look like she was suffering from hysteria. Instead she was wearing her determined look. Actually, inside Lois was suffering the torture of the damned. She wished she could just give way to the screams that were threatening to burst from her lips, but that would not help Clark or bring him back to her and she knew now, without any shadow of a doubt, that no matter whether they were content or bitterly arguing, she loved her husband with all her heart and that life without him was an empty sham.
She speedily ended her conversation with Martha and Jonathan, telling them she would keep them informed, but that she had work to do if she was to bring Clark home. In an ordinary family, the older pair might have been upset by their daughter-in-law's matter-of-fact acceptance of the situation, but both understood the bond between the couple and their unswerving devotion to protecting each other's lives, which they didn't achieve by indulging in hysterics. Lois may not have had superpowers, but she was brave and tenacious when danger threatened.
Taking a few deep breaths to steady her, Lois turned to Perry. "Chief, was the news bulletin recorded?"
"All news reports are taped Lois. You know that."
"Then I want that tape. I want to study it. I want to know what happened."
Jimmy hurried off to find the recording and soon the three friends were sitting intently reviewing the LNN news segment. After watching several times, Perry and Jimmy were about to give up. It was clear with each repeat that Clark was a very sick man and seeing him collapse over and over was not doing their equilibrium much good—and they weren't married to the man. Perry was attempting to suggest that perhaps Lois ought not to be torturing herself in this manner when she froze the frame on the part of the film that showed the paramedics working on the prone Clark. Lois jumped up and crossed to the large screen, swinging round to face her audience, a look of intense concentration on her face.
"If you were a medic attending a patient, who looked very much like he was suffering a massive heart attack, wouldn't you, in your hurry to give medical aid, rip open his shirt to expose his chest and not gingerly unbutton the shirt?" As if you expected to find something under the shirt that you did not want others to see. That last thought however, could not be voiced in the present company.
"So, they're just very careful medics."
"Who didn't show up at any hospital," Lois reminded them. She restarted the tape and turned again to study the screen, watching intently as one of the attendants went to fetch a gurney. Both medics were female and as the woman rose from Clark's side, Lois was surprised by the voluptuous curves, very incongruous in a grey-haired woman in her late fifties. As the medic turned into the view of the camera lens, she lowered her head, but not before Lois caught a glimpse of high cheekbones and sultry eyes. Once more the tape was replayed and Lois shrieked in shock and triumph.
"That's impossible Lois, Diana Stride is in prison and will be for many years to come," Perry reminded her.
"Wasn't she the 'Top Copy' reporter who thought that CK was Superman?" Jimmy recollected.
"Yes. She was also an assassin for Intergang. Clark and I exposed her and sent her to prison. She swore to be revenged."
"She must be crazy too, to think that CK and Superman are the same person. No offence, Lois. Clark is my best buddy, but Superman he ain't." Jimmy blushed as he realised he had insulted his friend. Lois, on the other hand, was quick to agree. The less anyone thought of Clark and the hero in the same category the better.
"Diana Stride is crazy and she still believes that Kent is the Man of Steel, even though the prison psychiatrist forced her to watch that latest news conference when that other 'crazy' Tempus attempted to convince us all of that fact, when everyone in their right minds could see Superman on the podium and you and your husband in the crowd." Another voice had joined the conversation and the three news people looked towards its source. Inspector Henderson stood at the entrance of the office. "Diana Stride is also on the loose. She and a fellow inmate, Dr. Gretchen Kelly, broke out of prison two days ago. Unfortunately, it wasn't discovered until late last night. It seems that two lookalikes took their places and, what with the chaos caused by the stomach virus epidemic, the authorities didn't grasp that they'd gone. The State Pen staff appear to be mightily embarrassed at misplacing two of their most dangerous prisoners, because they were real slow in issuing an APB. The report didn't come over my desk until an hour ago."
"And now that woman has my husband." Lois' face was etched with shock and pain.
"This Gretchen Kelly was Lex Luthor's doctor?" Perry asked in dread.
"But didn't she get electrocuted?" Jimmy frowned as he tried to recall the events of a few years back.
"Yes." Again the Inspector came up with the information. "That was when we apprehended Lex Luthor the first time. Kelly was thrown up against some high voltage cables, but surprisingly she didn't die. Her body received horrific burns and she suffered severe trauma. Despite that, she managed to survive." The policeman was clearly worried. "Hate is a powerful stimulus."
"Oh my god, Clark," Lois spoke through shaking fingers that were pressed hard against her lips, thinking about her husband, helpless in the hands of two women who so uncompromisingly hated him. "Survived to join a whole host of miscreants just waiting to take their revenge on Clark and me."
Henderson strove to assure her of police cooperation. "I have my men out searching for that ambulance and we're studying the security tapes from the shopping mall. We'll trace the people who were with Clark. A healthy man like your husband just doesn't collapse for no reason. He had to have been drugged. Someone in the crowd must have had a hidden hypodermic. It's the only explanation."
Lois, of course, couldn't give them the true explanation, but she did have some information.
"Mary McConnachie. That's the name of the woman Clark went to meet. She works at the prison. She said she had information." As she spoke, Lois rewound the tape until she found the frames with Mary and Clark. "Jimmy, pull up Clark's files on this woman and give them to the Inspector."
"Good, we'll take everything you've got." Henderson turned to follow Jimmy, but he stopped at the door. "Lois, I promise to pull out all the stops on this one. Clark is a friend of mine."
At 2:00 a.m. next morning, Lois finally gave up all hope of sleep. She had made frequent excursions into her baby's bedroom to check that he was sleeping peacefully and had not been spirited away by some evil enemy, but Joel dozed contentedly on, his tiny thumb stuck resolutely in his mouth, unaware of his mother's anxious ministrations. She tiptoed downstairs, so not to waken her in-laws, who had elected to stay with her until Clark came safely home, and wandered distractedly into the kitchen. She poured herself a drink from the coffee maker and sat at the table. The coffee was old and tasted bitter in her mouth. The taste matched her mood. Over and over in her mind, she relived these last weeks spent with Clark and she was consumed with guilt. Lost in her sad reverie Lois didn't notice Martha enter the kitchen and cross to her side.
"Can't sleep?" Martha asked gently. "Me neither."
"Oh Martha, every time I close my eyes I see Clark lying on the floor of the shopping mall!"
Martha's hand closed over Lois' clenched fist and the older woman slipped into a chair by her side. "Many people have tried to destroy Clark before and he has always come through."
"These two women loathe Clark. It scares me to think what they have planned for him, but there's more to all this. Their prison break took a lot of money and influence to arrange. What if Diana Stride is back on Intergang's payroll?"
Martha squeezed her daughter-in-law's hand sympathetically. "You might be right, but that's not the only thing that's troubling you."
Lois smiled sadly. "Clark has often said that he could never fool you." Sighing softly, she continued. "I have treated him so badly over these last weeks. I have said so many harsh words. I don't know why he puts up with me."
This time it was Martha who sighed. "Lois, there have been times lately when I have felt like shaking you, especially when I saw Clark so completely unhappy. But I know my son and I know that he doesn't always handle things in the correct manner."
Lois forbore to tell Martha just how Clark proposed handling an unexpected pregnancy. On reflection, she perceived that his suggestion was made out of desperation and was not something Clark wished to happen.
"But my dear, Clark puts up with you because he is completely in love with you."
"And I love him. And now I may never get to tell him again. His babies might be all that I have left of him." On these words the sobs broke through Lois' disciplined calm and she found herself weeping in Martha's arms, as the two Kent women sought to comfort each other.
Only a few short blocks to the west, in an up-market part of the city, the person who was the object of all their concerns lay insensible, strapped to a surgical table, transfixed in the glare of a powerful spotlight and imprisoned in the basement of Mindy Church's townhouse. The cell that held him was very different from his kidnappers' quarters. His prison walls were built of thick whitewashed concrete and the solitary door was solid steel and sealed with a state-of-the-art electronic lock. A drug cabinet was the room's only other piece of furniture and on the wall to the right of the door was a large two-way mirror. Behind it stood the three women, gloating like Shakespeare's witches in a scene from Macbeth. They were highly delighted at the success of the first stage of their plan and at their victim's apparent comatose state. Laughing demonically, they went to celebrate their accomplishment.
Clark, meanwhile, struggled to regain consciousness through a fog of confusion and suffering. Never in his life had he encountered such pain and he had been exposed to kryptonite a number of times in the past. The source of pain began in his right arm and spread throughout his whole being. He forced his head to turn in the direction of his torment, the movement immediately causing a migraine of drastic proportions. To his horror he saw an intravenous drip steadily pumping a glowing green poisonous liquid into his veins. He tried desperately to wrench his arm from the I.V., but his bonds were too strong and his super strength had long since dissipated due to the effects of that toxic infusion.
Once before had kryptonite been introduced internally into his body and it had almost killed him. On that occasion, in order to destroy the cancer invading his system, he had entered a nuclear reactor and the massive dose of radiation he received had saved his life. Diana Stride had been behind that attempt to assassinate him and some echo of the past was nagging at his tortured senses. He struggled to remember the incident in the shopping mall; the rollerblader stopping by had started the chain of events that brought him here; Mary's deadly hand clasp; then, in a flash of recognition, the paramedic bending over him to place the oxygen mask on his face was his old enemy…Diana Stride. Only this time she had succeeded in her attempt at his destruction. The kryptonite coursing through his body was far greater than anything he had experienced before. A new wave of giddiness hit him and he sank gratefully into blackness.
Next morning Diana and Gretchen chose to visit their prey. The doctor wanted to check on Clark's medical status and, as Superman's early demise was not part of the plan, the administration of the kryptonite had to be carefully monitored. Diana simply came to gloat. This man had humiliated her in front of her T.V. audience of millions and robbed her of her freedom. Now was payback time. It had been something of a shock to discover that there was no red and blue suit beneath Kent's civilian clothes. Yet the introduction of kryptonite had rendered him helpless and if he was human there would have been no ill effect. Further contamination by the green rock had made him increasingly sick and this evidence had convinced Mindy and Gretchen that her conjecture was correct. In a few days, when his death by kryptonite poisoning was inevitable, she would expose him and all those he loved to the world and her revenge would be complete.
At present, an insensible victim was not much fun. She wished to taunt him with her triumph. For this purpose she had carried a large beaker of icy water into the cell and now proceeded to pour the water in a steady flow down onto his face and chest. The freezing blast of water brought Clark from his safe haven of unconsciousness. His nose and throat filled with water and threatened to choke him. Gretchen quickly turned his head from the steady stream.
"Be careful, Diana, his state of health is precarious. It would not be in any of our interests if you drowned him before our expose."
"Don't worry. I have waited for this moment for so long, I intend to have my pound of flesh, but I have every intention of Mr. Kent here participating in the last act."
With that assurance Gretchen Kelly had to be content. However, she felt sure that Mrs. Church would be interested to know what was going on between Diana and Kent, so with that in mind she vacated the cell.
Clark had heard this exchange through a thick smog that clouded his brain and made logical thinking difficult. He sensed that he was alone with the Stride woman and every instinct told him this was not good. He pretended to remain asleep, which he soon conceived was not a wise choice. Diana's clenched fist smashed into his left cheek, her love of jewellery inflicting more damage than the punch, as her ornate rings scored into his skin. His eyes opened in shock upon his tormentor.
"That's better, Mr. Kent. Don't you know that it's bad manners to ignore a lady?"
"I see no lady present." Clark collected his rasping breath to answer, but regretted his words of bravado instantly when in answer the fist crashed into his other cheek and the rings this time cut across his right eye. That would definitely be one huge black eye.
"What do you want, Diana?"
"I want you to beg for mercy."
Because of the throbbing headache he was suffering from, Clark forbore to shake his head and his response came in short gasps. "You may torture me… You may even kill me…but you will never hear me beg."
The skin of Diana's face took on an ashen hue and for a few minutes she was speechless.
"I see, Superman never begs, nevertheless, you will die and in agony. My associates and I will make sure of that. And everyone in the world will know that my theory was correct. That Clark Kent and Superman are one."
What the consequences of this revelation would mean to his family, especially if he were no longer around to protect them, made Clark for a moment loose all coherent thought and he struggled uselessly against the heavy leather straps that held him. Recognising that she had finally penetrated his steely control, Diana smiled slyly and, nonchalantly taking his left wrist in her hands she bent it slowly back against the restraints until he felt his bones snap. His final thought as he fainted away, was that prison had clearly robbed this woman of her sanity.
Diana seethed with rage. Superman was not supposed to faint with weakness. She pummelled his chest with her balled fists in order to revive him, but Clark was already far away, dreaming of his wife and child. This was the scene Intergang's henchman witnessed when he was sent by his boss to fetch Ms. Stride. He coughed surreptitiously, but the woman was completely unaware of his presence. Taking his life in his hands, he crossed to her side and shook her shoulder with a tentative hand. The venomous look she turned on him made him think that he might be about to meet his maker. However, after a heartbeat the woman relaxed and without speaking left the room. It had been though, a close run thing, he later told his co-workers and advised them to keep a safe distance from the mad Ms. Stride.
From the moment that Clark collapsed, virtually in range of the television cameras, and as his subsequent disappearance became known, the news was full of 'his' story. His life as an award-winning journalist, his marriage to Lois Lane and his association with Superman. This last development disturbed his family immensely. Clark had always striven to distance himself from the super hero as much as possible.
The news bulletins also speculated on the other breaking story, Stride and Kelly's miraculous escape from jail, and it wasn't long before the media linked the two reports. The morning edition of the Daily Planet carried the two articles as its leading headlines. Lois, knowing the Planet was one of Metropolis' foremost newspapers, expected nothing less, but Perry White himself had elected to write the piece on Clark and she was grateful for his delicate handling of the story.
The phone at the Kents' townhouse had rung incessantly from a very early hour and the answering machine was working overtime. Every reporter on the eastern seaboard and beyond was claiming a special kinship with Clark. Amongst the calls from fellow media personnel was one that rose goose bumps on the skin of the listening family. A specifically nasty cackle filled the room, of short-lived but frightening proportions. Inspector Henderson had wanted to place one of his people in the house to monitor the phone calls but Lois was adamant in her wish to have no strangers around to witness Clark's return, whenever or however that might be. They could watch and tap the phone line from outside the house if they must, though Lois was quite certain that the criminals holding Clark were far too professional to allow themselves to be caught by the simple expedient of a phone trace. After the call from the maniacal joker, Jonathan lost patience and yanked the phone cord from its point. They were all beginning to feel the strain of waiting.
Martha busied herself with caring for her grandson, while attempting to keep her husband calm by sending him to the store for what she maintained were much needed provisions. As Clark had visited the shops the day before his abduction and returned with four full sacks of groceries, Lois saw through Martha's subterfuge, but was warmed by the concern that had prompted it.
Lois felt she ought to be out there investigating, but hadn't the heart to leave the house, wanting to be here in case there was any word from the police or more hopefully, if Clark should escape and make his way home. Instead she sent Jimmy and Ralph to check on Mary's apartment. At lunch time they reported in with the information that the girl had vacated the premises just the day before last. She had packed all her belongings, paid the final rent and, as in all good mystery stories, disappeared into the night. The young men had bribed the janitor of the block and been allowed to view the small apartment, but the place had been stripped clean and she had left no forwarding address.
Close on the heels of the two cub reporters came Inspector Henderson, who backed up the tale of Ms. McConnachie's vanishing act. It seemed she also phoned in sick to the State Prison two days previously, which had not surprised her work supervisor as a large proportion of the prison staff had gone down with the stomach bug. Mary's only living relative was an aged mother, who was a resident in the 'St. Bride Nursing Home'. The inspector had questioned the old lady himself, but as she was a 'dementia sufferer' she could tell them nothing relevant. Then again, when he had quizzed the Chief Administrator of the home about Mary's procedure for taking care of her mother's living expenses, he discovered an interesting fact. A certain firm of lawyers had assumed responsibility for payment of all bills. And, surprise, surprise, the law firm in question had, in recent months, as reported in police circles, been linked tenuously to Intergang. The elation Lois should have been experiencing at this confirmation of her suspicions completely eluded her. Conversely, she only felt an increasing unease that such a powerful and evil organization was holding her husband.
Before Henderson left, he had one other piece of rather bizarre information to impart; on completion of their search of the shopping mall the police had drawn another blank, except for the discovery of an abandoned pair of rollerblades stashed in a trash bin. Strangely, they had found in the heel of the right boot a hollow compartment. Henderson had sent the roller boots to forensics for analysis; perhaps the lab boys could find some clues. The three Kents shared a knowing look. Neither one of them needed a lab report to tell them what had been hidden in the boot.
Back in the basement, the insidious cold revived a shivering Clark. What was that extremely annoying tapping sound that had caused him to wake from his pleasant dreams of his family? My god!! It was his own teeth chattering in his mouth. He was freezing cold. Trying to still his trembling limbs, he achingly raised his head and, forcing open his swollen eyelids, he looked down over his body. Oh my god!! He was completely naked!! These women meant business, but they also meant to humiliate him prior to murdering him. It was a toss-up as to which would kill him first, the kryptonite or hypothermia. The pain in his body had lessened and now he just felt utterly numb, so it seemed that freezing to death was the better bet.
The door opened silently and Gretchen entered the room. She checked the monitors behind his head and Clark became aware, for the first time, of the sensors attached to his body. Dr. Gretchen Kelly hated this man who had been responsible for the death of the only person she had ever loved. It mattered not one iota that the object of her affection had not returned her love, had even treated her like a pet puppy, throwing scraps of attention her way whenever he required her services. It didn't even matter that it had been Lex's hand that had thrown her against the electric cables, practically causing her death and certainly causing her a period of pain and horror such as she could never have imagined. Chaos had reigned in that underground chamber when Superman had burst in to rescue Lois Lane, and her poor Lex, having already suffered so much at the super hero's hands, hadn't been responsible for his actions. Gretchen had readily forgiven Luthor, her hopeless love enabling her to transfer the blame for all her pain onto the Man of Steel. In her eyes, Lex Luthor had been a great man and she had been content to serve him, until he had been killed while pitting his wits against Clark Kent or Superman. Now she had her enemy at her mercy. Nevertheless, she was a physician and she found it difficult to rationalise the oath she had taken at the outset of her career with her current activities. And, as a doctor, she disliked reducing this excellent specimen of a man into a physical wreck.
Laying her hand on his chest, she found little remaining warmth in his body. His skin felt cold and clammy. Suddenly, her hand was snatched from its resting place.
"Why are you here?" Diana Stride demanded possessively. She illogically believed that only she had the right to visit her prisoner. Gretchen stifled a quiver. Her former cellmate was acting increasingly psychotically.
"I'm merely checking his vital signs," she explained, hoping to placate the other woman.
"And how is our patient doing?"
"Good." That pleased Diana immensely. "Still, it does seem a shame to ruin such a perfect physique."
She had detected a flickering of Clark's eyelids and had deduced that he was conscious and listening to their conversation. A craving to further torment him possessed her. Bending over him, she planted a kiss firmly on his cracked lips. Taken unawares, Clark pulled his head aside, but she took his chin in a firm grasp and held him immobile as she continued to assault his mouth. At last she set him free, cooing seductively.
"I'm sure you have been waiting for a repeat performance of our kiss for a very long time, as have I."
She trailed her hand down his neck, across his chest towards his abdomen, then sliding even lower, she halted there in a lingering caress and all the while she was laughing, that fiendish laughter and Clark knew, without question, who had made those mysterious phone calls. Physically he shrank from her touch and mentally he retreated inside the shell of his ravaged body. Succour came from an unexpected source.
"Stop that immediately!" A strident female voice halted Diana's obscene fondling and silenced the crazy mirth. The newcomer strode purposely to the table to study, objectively, the supine figure. "What is his status?" Mindy directed her authoritative query towards the doctor.
"He's weakening very quickly. In my opinion, we have to move swiftly onto the second step of our scheme."
Mindy nodded her head, then leaned down to whisper in Clark's ear. "Mr. Kent! Superman! I know you can hear me."
Clark decided not to antagonise the witches so he looked in the direction of the voice, but his sorely injured eyes refused to focus on the face above him.
"That's better, Mr. Kent, I do hate to be ignored. I thought perhaps you would like to be informed of act two, especially since you are such an important player in our little production. My colleagues and I propose to deposit you outside the Daily Planet building tomorrow at 8:00 a.m., during the early morning rush hour. After all, we feel that you deserve a large audience. In your sorry state, you'll be transferred directly to hospital and there the doctors will discover that, along with all the superficial injuries, you are suffering from kryptonite poisoning…"
"And my 'Top Copy' expose will be finally vindicated," Diana announced victoriously.
"Ladies, I think that Mr. Kent should be left alone to contemplate his future," Mindy suggested.
"A very short future," Diana could not resist the final tease.
No one was ever quite sure who first asked the question, but, by the time the evening news programmes were broadcast, it was being frequently repeated.
Where was Superman and why was he not assisting the police with their search for Clark Kent, the man Superman often named as his friend?
Even Perry had been sufficiently intrigued to visit Lois to ascertain whether the super hero was on the case. Lois reassured her editor that she was still trying to contact Superman, but, for the present, she had not succeeded. Maybe he was tending to an emergency in some other place and hadn't heard what had befallen Clark. This explanation did not strictly satisfy the veteran newsman as no major disasters had been reported from anywhere in the world. Yet the possibility could not be ruled out. Meanwhile, the questions concerning Superman's absence continued to be asked.
Much later that night, the head of Intergang returned to the cell in the basement. Superman had rained on too many of Mindy's parades and she was as equally ruthless and vindictive as her compatriot, but unlike Diana she did not appreciate the hands-on approach. She trusted Dr. Kelly's prognosis that kryptonite toxaemia would very shortly kill Clark Kent. Nevertheless, she was not averse to taking out a small insurance policy. With those things in mind, she was accompanied by two of Intergang's more reliable hoods. Standing over her intended victim, Mindy instructed her hirelings.
"This gentleman is Clark Kent. As you probably know, he has been a thorn in my side for far too long. I should like him punished for his temerity and I expect you also might have a few scores of your own to settle. I grant you permission to do so. However, I also offer a word of caution. You may rough him up a little, but on no account might you eliminate him." She paused for a moment to be sure that this order sank into their uneducated brains. "When you have chastised our guest sufficiently, I want him dressed and made ready for his personal appearance tomorrow morning." Crossing to the cabinet she removed Kent's clothes from a locked drawer, pointedly placing his glasses on top of the pile. "Don't forget the glasses. We wouldn't want him not to be recognised. But remember, I have very definite designs for Mr. Kent and I would be very disappointed if he were unable to attend the grand finale."
After their employer exited the room, they wasted no time in obeying her instructions, but first they unstrapped Clark from the table and, pushing it aside, they dumped him unceremoniously to the floor, knocking the I.V. tube from his arm as they did so. Clark groaned on hitting the floor and unsuccessfully tried to protect himself from the copious blows that rained down on his body. At a particularly vicious kick he felt his ribs crack and it occurred to him that the two thugs had forgotten their leader's command, so it astonished him when one of the hoodlums grabbed his mate.
"Enough! Melvyn, that's enough! The boss doesn't want him dead. If we disobey her it'll be us that end up in Hobbs Bay. Let's finish up here and go share a few beers."
Melvyn wasn't pleased to end the beating but he saw sense in his partner's prudence. They speedily, though not very carefully, pushed and pulled at Clark's clothes until he was fully dressed, rammed the glasses on his face, then left him nigh-on insensible on the ground.
Thankful that he had survived the assault, he crawled disjointedly to the nearest wall and propped his back against it. Sitting upright caused the vertigo to return in full force and he struggled valiantly to remain erect. Very slowly he began to review his current situation. Mindy Church's thirst for vengeance had had the opposite effect to the one she desired. His bonds were broken and, more significantly, the lethal I.V. was no longer dripping into his veins. Also he was now, in some fashion, fully clothed and the intense cold was having less influence on his health and mobility. If there was ever to be a chance for freedom, then he had to take it now. Using the walls as a crutch, he managed to pull himself to his feet, then stumbled round the room to the door. Provided he could summon one tiny burst of laser-vision he might be able to burn out the electronic locking system, but fortunately the effort was not required as the gangsters had carelessly (depending on your point of view) left the door ajar. Clark surmised that there would soon be two openings on Intergang's payroll when his escape was discovered, but that thought was probably premature as he was not yet free and clear. He listened as best he could for signs of a guard in the corridors outside, but the whole basement was silent. Obviously they had underestimated his ability to attempt a getaway. He may no longer possess superpowers, but an ordinary man could perform feats well outside his normal scope, if he were determined enough. That night, by force of will alone, Clark found his way out of the cellar and through the backyard into the street. He had one scary moment in his bid for freedom when he had nearly fallen into a stack of trash cans, which would have sent them crashing extremely loudly to the ground and alerted his captors.
Instead, he had fought to regain his balance and caught an errant metal lid before it hit the ground, causing his broken wrist to protest in pain. His shattered nerves and ragged breathing forced him to pause for some moments, but, since it seemed his warders were still unaware of his break out, he pushed himself stealthily on across the open garden. He prayed with every step that no inhabitant of the house would look out of the windows and, spotting his stumbling escape bid, raise the alarm. Eventually he reached the back wall and using the bushes and trees that bordered the perimeter of the garden, he somehow clambered to the top of the wall and literally fell over the other side to freedom.
In the Hyperion Avenue townhouse, all four Kents were asleep. For the present, Joel was unconcerned by his Daddy's absence, as it had occurred a number of times previously when Clark had been off doing his Superman duties, and therefore the baby's sleep patterns were not yet disrupted. The adults had fallen, at last, into a sleep of exhaustion, having survived what might be considered the worst two days of their entire lives.
The house was dark and unwelcoming when Clark staggered up the last steps to his own front door, his willpower and energy ebbing swiftly away with each tortured move. He roused the household by the simple expedient of falling against the doorbell and watched in relief as the lights came on indoors.
The relentless ringing roused Lois from her stupor and her first reaction had been to dive back under the quilt and pull the pillow firmly over her head. That thought lasted but a second, then she scrambled out of bed and, without pulling on a robe, she scurried barefoot downstairs. Perhaps the police had finally gotten news of Clark or perhaps it was Jimmy with some important information. Their young friend had been determined to return to the office and research Stride's and Kelly's backgrounds, in the hope it would lead him to CK's whereabouts.
Lois undid the lock and snatched open the door, only to stand mesmerised by the sight that was before her. She heard Martha call to her from the stair landing and opened her mouth to answer but no sound came forth. Her eyes filled with tears as she opened her arms to her husband, who crumpled into her embrace. The couple screamed in unison when they hit the floor together. Clark convulsed with pain as, with the impact, his broken ribs stabbed into his left lung.
Martha hurried to the doorway to aid her son, but neither woman was quite certain how best that might be done. The door was firmly closed and locked against prying eyes. Clark had to be suffering from the consequences of kryptonite exposure but, as there was definitely none of the evil stuff close at hand, he ought not to be in such a dreadful state.
"Lois!!" Clark summoned up all his fading breath, yet even so his wife had to strain to hear. "Fetch Dr. Klein." A strange whistling accompanied his words and he had to stop to catch his breath, which seemed to be escaping like water through a sieve. "Kryptonite… in my blood…I.V…" Martha and Lois exchanged horrified glances.
"An I.V., Clark? Was it kryptonite? Did Dr. Kelly feed you kryptonite intravenously?"
The questions babbled out of Lois' mouth in her usual manner.
"Yes… Stride too…Dr. Klein…help me…have to know…about Superman."
Superman had reached the end of his tether and his head rolled forward. Softly Lois cradled him against her shoulder as her tears dropped into his dark hair.
Shaking the distraught girl to gain her attention, Martha spoke quietly in order not to disturb her son. "We have to get him into bed, try to make him comfortable."
"But how, Martha? It won't be easy for us to carry him."
Jonathan came downstairs to join his women folk and discover what the commotion was which had awakened him. Though shocked to his very core by his son's appearance, he at once took charge of the situation.
"If we can lift him into one of the carver chairs and strap him in somehow, then there's less chance of him being jostled as we carry him upstairs." Lois was about to protest that the chair would only add to the weight, but Jonathan continued urgently. "Listen to his breathing. Can you hear the whistle? I think that Clark has a punctured lung and we have to be careful moving him. Lois, phone Dr. Klein. We need him here, NOW."
Lois was a very scared young woman and she hurriedly did as she was bid, giving the doctor very little information over the phone, in case of listening ears, but nevertheless managing to convey a sense of urgency, for the doctor promised to come over forthwith. When she hung up the phone, her parents-in-law were almost finished securing Clark in a dining chair with a white cotton bed-sheet. It frightened her even more to see his skin colour was as pale as the bindings.
Somehow they managed to transport their precious cargo upstairs, but although they took great care and he was still in a dead faint, Clark groaned at every jolt. They worked swiftly and silently, each containing their shock at the cuts and contusions they uncovered when stripping off his clothes, but finally he was safely installed in bed.
The pealing doorbell heralded Dr. Bernard Klein's arrival and Lois rushed back downstairs to let him in. Clark had said that the doctor should be told his secret but, so ingrained upon Lois' mind was the need for privacy, she frantically sought other options. Say that Clark was still missing and that Superman had come to them hurt and seeking succour. That would explain why the hero had not been able to assist in the search, but would it appear too coincidental? And could she justify wasting police time when they continued to seek unnecessarily for someone who was already found? Tangled thoughts chased through her confused brain, so for the moment, she decided to tell the physician as little as possible.
She ushered Bernard indoors with a quick welcome.
"Dr. Klein, thank god you've come. Superman is here in our bed and he's very ill. I'm sure kryptonite must be the cause." She escorted the doctor upstairs, words tumbling out in a surfeit of excuses. "Of course, he'd heard about Clark and he'd like to help, but he does seem to be sick. They haven't found Clark yet." She finished in a very small voice, habitual secrecy winning out over reason.
"Lois!!" Outside the bedroom door Bernard halted her by placing both hands on her shoulders and turning her to face him. "Lois, please say no more. I know! I know Clark is Superman! I've known for some time."
His words stunned Lois. "How?"
Bernard chose his words carefully. He recognised that this young woman was very close to the edge. "It wasn't any single thing. I didn't have a blinding flash of recognition or anything like that. The realisation just seemed to grow in me. I am Superman's physician after all and perhaps I have more specific contact with him than do others." He tried another tack in his explanation. "Then there's your relationship with Superman. I used to think that it was as if the two of you were married. I can tell you that at one point I considered you a very fickle woman. Then I realised you were… I mean married not fickle… to Clark and Superman. I felt quite relieved."
"Dr. Klein, why did you never tell us?"
"I reckoned you both had enough to worry about. Besides, I reasoned that if no one knew that I knew, then no one would bother me. Being known as the 'nutty professor' does have certain advantages."
That piece of humour brought a smile to Lois' lips, but it was quickly wiped away by Martha's urgent call for help. Hurrying into the room they saw Clark had turned a distinct shade of blue, while his breath wheezed in and out like a set of ancient bellows. Bernard took charge immediately and there was no sign anywhere of the 'nutty professor'. He sent Jonathan to fetch his medical kit from his car and instructed Martha to bring hot water and towels. After a very swift examination, he concurred with Jonathan's summation that Clark had perforated a lung and explained that the air was escaping into the chest cavity and causing the patient acute distress. A drain had to be inserted through the chest wall to allow the trapped air to escape.
Klein's medical bag was brought to the bed and the doctor extracted the instruments needed for such a procedure. Of course, because dealing with this kind of emergency was not one of Bernard's usual activities, a great deal of the implements required had to be improvised. The watchers were amazed by the range of the doctor's inventiveness and following a short period of raiding kitchen cupboards and Martha's sewing basket, he was ready to begin. Jonathan was conscripted as the doctor's assistant and, although the operation was hardly carried out under clinical conditions, Bernard proved to be a skilful surgeon. A tube was inserted between Clark's ribs and once the trapped air and blood-speckled fluid drained away his colour returned from blue to white. The draining pipe was left in place to prevent a further build-up of air and when the major surgery was successfully completed the doctor proceeded to the other injuries. The broken wrist was splinted and the ribs eased back into their correct position, then, leaving the cuts to be washed and dressed by Martha, both Bernard and Jonathan went to wash up. Finally, when all Clark's wounds were treated, the bed stripped of the stained sheets and remade with fresh linen, he was gently laid back in bed to rest. The problem of the kryptonite still had to be dealt with, but the immediate emergency was over.
Bernard asked for strong black coffee to revive his traumatised nerves. Never since his years as a young resident surgeon had he been required to operate on a living patient and he needed time out before he tackled the next phase of Clark's treatment. Lois was loathe to leave her husband even though the doctor assured her that he was liable to remain comatose for a number of hours. Not until Martha fetched the baby alarm intercom and set it by Clark's bedside was Lois persuaded to go down to the kitchen. Once there, Martha made fresh coffee for everyone and they sat down to a family conference. Lois broke the short silence.
"Dr. Klein, is Clark going to die?"
"I sincerely hope not, my dear, but his current exposure to kryptonite is quite outside my experience. Normally when Superman is removed from its influence the rejuvenation process begins, yet this time he seems to be growing steadily weaker."
"Before my son passed out, he managed to tell us that the kryptonite was administered intravenously," Martha explained. "The horrible stuff is inside his body."
"Oh my! Oh my!" Just as a note of trepidation encroached into Bernard's voice, Lois was suddenly inspired.
"Doctor, it happened to Clark once before and he used radiation to burn out the kryptonite."
Bernard hated to deflate the poor girl. "Yes, I remember, I read the report, but I'm sorry, that is not an option this time. Clark is so poorly that the amount of radiation required would surely kill him."
The tragic look on Lois' face broke the hearts of the others around the table.
"There must be something you can do, Doctor," Martha entreated.
Bernard stayed quiet for a few thoughtful moments; then, reaching a decision, he spoke more assertively.
"There may be something…Lois, do you recall when Perry White's son disrupted Superman's power with red kryptonite?" Three pairs of eyes regarded the doctor and scientist expectantly, making him feel very nervous. He gave himself a mental shake. "Then later, when Clark was grazed by a bullet dipped in green kryptonite, his powers returned to normal."
"Yes!" Lois interrupted. "Clark said that you believed the green cancelled the effects of the red."
"And vice-versa. It's a theory I've been researching with Superman's help. I asked him not to talk about it because it is still in the development stage, however the tests we've done in the lab are encouraging. I would have to measure the amount of green kryptonite in Clark's blood then calculate how much red kryptonite would be required to counteract the other's influence. But you must understand that this is a very risky process and there are no guarantees that the treatment will succeed." At this juncture he stared round the table to stress his earnestness. "However, if we do nothing the toxaemia will surely kill him."
All three agreed simultaneously. "Then we have no choice," Lois was the spokesperson, "and I'm sure Clark would want to take the chance." She placed both her hands on the doctor's. "Please, Dr. Klein, please save him."
"I'll do my best, Lois. I just pray that my trial results are more accurate than the last set."
Lois looked puzzled. "Pardon?"
"Well, I was way off beam when I pronounced that Superman and an Earth woman were incapable of having babies, but that was one time when I was glad to be proved wrong."
That thought brought a smile to everyone's lips and Martha put her arms around Lois' shoulders for a comforting hug, but the expectant mother didn't need to be consoled. The events of the last few days had caused her to reassess her feelings about the new baby. As if to acknowledge the change of heart, Lois felt from deep inside her a flutter of movement, light as a butterfly's wing. Lois turned to Martha with a shining smile. She regarded her baby's first signs of life as an omen of hope.
Over the next few days Lois sorely needed the strength gained from that optimistic portent. Bernard Klein worked tirelessly to revive his special patient. The overstretched doctor spent his time rushing between his laboratory at Star Labs and the Kent home. But, although the proscribed treatment had appeared to halt the invading green venom from overwhelming Clark's system, the super hero still lay in a twilight world of semi-consciousness and his healing powers were nonexistent. He rested with his back propped up with pillows, an oxygen mask over his mouth to aid his breathing, as weak as a newborn baby. Sometimes he was aware of the loving ministration his family showered on him every hour of the day.
In order that Clark would never be alone, they had chosen to divide his care among the three of them. They split the day into eight-hour shifts, but Martha and Jonathan were anxious about the state of Lois' health. Nursing a sick man who could do nothing for himself was a heavy and tiring task and the older couple were heedful of Lois' condition. There was also the lengthening amount of time that Lois felt obliged to spend with Joel, especially since the baby was beginning to notice his daddy's absence and was growing fretful. Yet the indomitable woman, ignoring her weary body, insisted on taking her share of tending her husband and, as Clark appeared to draw comfort from her presence, no one wished to suggest that perhaps she should take some time off to relax. The few times that Clark had been awake, following her movements about the room with his eyes and clinging to her hand with his own, had been a panacea enough to sustain her.
It was during one of Lois' evening shifts when Clark first regained full consciousness. An easy chair had been set by the bed for her comfort and she watched in alarm as her husband grew more agitated. In Clark's nightmares, he was still tied to the table in the basement with the kryptonite drip attached to his arm. Wrapped in the horror of his dream, he fought desperately to remove it and was surprised to find his hands enfolded in a firm but gentle grip and a soft, familiar voice soothed his troubled soul.
"Lois?!" He barely managed to croak.
His wife eased the oxygen mask aside to help him speak.
"Yes sweetheart, you're here with me, safe at home, and Dr. Klein is taking care of you."
The voice encouraged him to open his eyes, but one eyelid was so swollen and would not obey. However, he saw enough to recognise his own bedroom and there, sitting by the bed, was the person he had feared never to see again. He smiled at her and every muscle in his face protested, but now she was tenderly stroking his cheek and it felt so good. He tried to lift his right hand to touch her, only to find his arm was restricted by, oh no, another tube.
"What's that?" And he attempted to nod in the direction of the apparatus. The movement brought on a thumping headache but he struggled to listen to Lois.
"Don't be afraid, honey. It's an infusion of red kryptonite and saline solution. Bernard believes that the red cancels out the green."
Clark decided not to nod his head again. "Is it working?"
Lois looked worriedly askance, but answered honestly. "I'm afraid it's too soon to tell."
There was silence as Clark digested that information, yet he didn't feel sufficiently well to comment. "I'm thirsty," his voice cracked in his throat.
A little iced water was poured into an invalid cup and, placing a hand at the back of his neck, she supported his head as he took a few sips. This small effort tired him and he slipped back to sleep. Nevertheless, Lois was encouraged by the lopsided grin he gave her before his eyes closed.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Kent had informed the police of his son's return, but told them that Clark was too ill to be questioned. The hard-pressed Inspector Henderson was not prepared to accept this last instruction, maintaining that, if Kent were so very sick, he would be in an intensive care unit and not being treated at home. This opinion was however, smartly reversed when the detective was escorted into Clark's bedroom for the compulsory visit. Henderson's gaze alighted on the breathing equipment and banks of monitors, all sequestered from Star Labs, but he was mainly convinced by the sight of the patient reclining in the bed. After apologising profusely for his persistence, he left with a request to be kept informed of Clark's progress.
The officer was not happy. The T.V. crew at the scene had been questioned about their presence at such an opportune moment, but they had had little to relate, only that the station had received an anonymous tip that something big was about to happen at the mall and being a slow news day and thinking 'robbery', they had decided to send a crew out on spec.
Now, without Clark's input, the trail had gone cold. Stride and Kelly, along with all the other suspects in this case, had seemingly dropped of the face of the planet.
The Kent family began to take heart during the next few days as it appeared that Clark's condition was not deteriorating and, if Dr. Klein's hypothesis was correct, then in time their beloved's health would be restored. No one speculated about the superpowers. At this precise moment, no one really cared. Being Superman had placed Clark's life in jeopardy too frequently for Lois' comfort. The way she felt at present, the guy in the red and blue suit would not be missed. But Superman was definitely missed by the media and the public.
"Where is Superman?"
The question was on everyone's lips. Superman had previously been absent for periods lasting just as long, but when the four members of Clark's 'team' held a progress meeting, Lois voiced her suspicions.
"I'm quite sure Diana Stride and her cohorts are behind this constant media attention. If they can't kill Clark then I'm certain they intend to expose him."
"But they have no proof, Lois," Jonathan added the voice of reason. "They kidnapped Clark and he escaped. In the process he landed a few broken bones and a damaged lung and that's all anyone needs to know."
Martha and Bernard nodded in agreement, but Lois could see that they didn't understand the situation.
"In a court of law you would be right; 'Innocent until proven guilty'. But this will be a trial by the media. They'll present two pieces of evidence: Clark is incapacitated and Superman hasn't been seen anywhere in the world since the day Clark, very publicly, became ill. Then they'll simply let conjecture and rumour take over. And if a voice of reason is heard, they'll suggest that Clark take a blood test to ascertain what drug was used to so disable him. And you can forget about the invasion of privacy or civil rights, because no-one will be listening."
"And they would find the kryptonite, which is only dangerous to Superman," Bernard put in. "The levels in his blood are falling but they are still detectable."
"And if he refuses to take the test then he is assumed guilty because everyone will think he has something to hide," Lois stated bluntly.
"Lois is right," the patient in the bed announced in a threadlike whisper.
The four were huddled in a group at the far side of the bedroom, talking quietly and never suspecting that Clark would overhear. All heads swung towards him and, seeing he was awake, they hurried to his side. The doctor removed the mask from Clark's face in order to hear him more easily.
"Superman has to put in an appearance." His voice sounded breathy but was quite audible.
"Clark, that's impossible," his mother admonished him. "You can scarcely lift your head from the pillows."
"I know, Mom," he agreed with a small laugh which immediately set of a paroxysm of coughing. When, at last, the fit ended and they had made him more comfortable, he went on. "The hologram, Mom, couldn't you use the hologram machine again?"
It was the way they had defeated Diana Stride years ago, but Martha seemed doubtful.
"Oh honey, an appearance at a press conference to make a short statement, which you controlled, was one thing, but a sighting, where there might even be interaction by the public, is just not on. I don't have the technical capabilities."
"But I just might," Dr. Klein joined the conversation. "I still have Jefferson Cole's 'Hallucinator'."
Lois grimaced at the memories those words revived. Professor Cole had developed a device that had succeeded in making passers-by in the street believe that Lois was stalking them with a very large handgun and later, a courtroom full of people swore they had witnessed Perry White give evidence against Lois when, in actuality, he was being held incommunicado by Cole's accomplice. The hallucination-creating machine had been so successful that the jury had found Lois guilty of murder. She wasn't sure that she approved of its return.
"Wasn't that contraption supposed to have been destroyed?" she demanded of the doctor.
"Yes," Bernard shrugged guiltily, "but I just can't bring myself to destroy a brilliant invention. Besides, you never know when it might prove useful."
"As now, Doc," Clark's ability to hold a conversation was fast fading and the people round the bed leaned closer to listen. "Keep it uncomplicated. A simple fly past will do."
"Won't folks be expecting a rescue, sweetheart?" his mother asked, unconvinced by the machine's serviceability and, like Lois, uneasy about employing the diabolical device.
Her husband, however, disagreed. "I think that Superman showing up will do the trick. Dr Klein, if you need a hand to set this up, I'm your man."
Lois wasn't totally convinced either, though she did consider that a Superman sighting would confuse their enemies and then Clark's health was improving… slowly. Perhaps it wouldn't be too long before Superman was really back.
Jonathan and Bernard spent the remainder of the day at Star Labs setting up the equipment for the super hero's return appearance. They had chosen evening for the event as that would give them the cover of darkness to obscure their operations, but there would still be enough people on the streets to witness the red-caped figure fly across the sky.
While the men folk were busy with their project, Martha, with a little help from Clark, persuaded Lois to take a well-earned rest and, as the situation seemed more hopeful, she gave into the weariness that pervaded every pore of her being. Before long she was fast asleep in her son's room. She slept so soundly she didn't waken when Martha put Joel into his crib that night, nor did she hear the two men return from their successful sortie, happy and excited by what they had accomplished.
The next morning Lois rose to the news headlines proclaiming:
The article went on to report that a number of eyewitnesses had spotted Superman flying above the rooftops of Metropolis, patrolling the streets as was his custom when resident in the city.
Lois, feeling refreshed by the first restful night's sleep she had had in days, prepared to do her utmost in corroborating the Man of Steel's reappearance. To that end, she penned a supposed interview given to her by the hero, when he had visited his injured friend. She wrote that Superman regretted he had not been here to help his friends in their hour of need, but that he had been off attempting to prevent an impending ecological disaster in the Arctic Circle. After consulting Clark, she decided to be somewhat vague about the actual nature of the emergency, leaning slightly in the direction of an increase in the size of the holes in the ozone layer. Due to the volatile nature of the said holes, this information would be less likely to be questioned. When she had completed the piece, she wired it through to Perry and was pleased when it showed up in the evening edition.
Lois' optimism was returning. After his morning examination of the patient, Dr. Klein had declared himself so satisfied with Clark's progress that the chest drain had been removed and although the oxygen cylinders remained by the bed, Clark found he required to use them less frequently. In fact, he was feeling so much better that he had asked for a very special visitor. As requested, Martha brought Joel into his father's room and with a nod from Lois gently set him on the bed. The little boy unexpectedly regarded the man in front of him with solemn eyes and drew back to the familiar and comforting presence of his grandma. Lois, sitting on the opposite side of the bed from Joel, realised that Clark was puzzled by his baby's reaction. She encouragingly squeezed her husband's shoulder as he eased the reluctant infant onto his lap, his eyes filling with tears at the touch of the sturdy small boy, who appeared to be dismayed by his presence.
Martha hovered like a mother hen, afraid that the naturally boisterous baby would inadvertently re-injure her son's healing ribs and lungs. However, at present her fears were groundless; Joel was unusually subdued. The baby hardly recognised his normally larger-than-life father in the still figure on the bed and he stared at the strange man, a guarded expression in his big brown eyes. The two women held their breath as Joel's mistrust of strangers threatened to reduce the infant to tears. Clark gently tickled his son's tummy, a game they often played, in an effort to gain a pleased response, but it wasn't until a tentative smile touched his own face that the child broke into laughter. Joel would know that brilliant smile anywhere. But now, as Joel relaxed and became more adventurous, crawling excitedly over the bed and investigating the tube that was stuck to his daddy's arm, it became apparent that Clark was not yet strong enough to withstand his son's exuberance. Before the drip was pulled from Clark's arm by small sticky fingers, Lois plucked her son from the bed and hugged him, kicking and squealing, to her breast. Clark stretched out a trembling hand to touch his son, then slid his hand over Lois' stomach. The couple smiled into each others eyes. They were together again, a family, all four.
Martha smiled benignly at the lovely picture they presented and she brushed aside the tears that fell, but now they were tears of happiness. Their problems were not yet over, but her prayers had been answered and her beloved son was safe.
Jonathan and Bernard were very busy scuttling around Metropolis, activating the Hallucinator and feeling extremely pleased with their results. Martha thought they were like a couple of overgrown kids with a new toy and she hoped they hadn't forgotten the seriousness of their mission; even so, she hadn't the heart to scold. She knew that their enthusiasm was prompted by a feeling of vast relief.
Due to these various sightings the bulk of public opinion was apparently solidifying behind Superman. After all, Stride and Kelly could hardly appear in public to refute the claim that the super hero was back without incriminating themselves in the Kent abduction. Besides, the moment they came out of hiding they would be immediately re-arrested. Nonetheless, the anonymous influence of Intergang was hard at work. 'The Dirt Digger' (not the Kents' favourite tabloid) published a small piece questioning Superman's return. The paper pointed out that while there had been a few appearances by everyone's favourite super guy, he had not made any arrests or rescues, had not actually made any spoken contact with anyone except Lois Lane. Lane, it was also noted, was married to Clark Kent, the very man who had been rumoured, in the past, to be Superman's alter-ego.
The ball was back firmly in the hands of the Kent family's opponents and drastic measures were now required to halt the growing speculation. Clark suggested he don the suit and hold a press conference at the Planet, which, with a lot of help from his family, he felt he just might be able to endure. But, since the only time he had ventured from his bedroom, he had ended up in an inglorious heap on the floor, that idea was firmly vetoed by all.
His bones were knitting together nicely and he no longer needed help to breathe, but the green kryptonite had not been neutralised sufficiently to dispel the chronic exhaustion and weakness that disabled his body. Dr. Klein was carefully monitoring Clark's blood to measure the lingering effects of the poison. He was somewhat encouraged by the present results but secretly speculated whether Clark's extra special abilities would ever return in full. Certainly the boy was in no condition to venture into the public eye as Clark Kent or Superman.
The only answer was the Hallucinator. It had been powerful enough to project an image of Perry White to a courtroom and have him cross-examined. If Bernard and Jonathan could become as skilled in its use as Cole and his accomplice, then a short press conference should be possible, especially one which they controlled. It would, nevertheless, take a deal of practising before they could risk their newfound abilities. The figure created would have to remain relatively stationery in front of an audience and answer a number of probing questions. Lois maintained that this would not be such a terrifying ordeal, as Metropolis' two most inquiring reporters would not be present, they being as it were, for the moment, on the opposing team.
Be that as it may, neither Bernard nor Jonathan had yet mastered the voice synthesiser. So for the next twenty-four hours the two older men drove off into the countryside to practise their new craft, while at home Clark and his women folk plotted the strategy for the coming showdown with the press. Lois had never envisioned in her whole life a time when she would regard the media business as a 'damned nuisance'.
After a great deal of discussion and a fair amount of arguing, it was decided that sticking close to home would be advantageous, but Lois simply refused to have a pack of unruly newspersons in her house. The fact that she was normally a member of the pack did not dissuade her, indeed it only strengthened her resolve. A compromise was reached when Martha proposed that they hold the interview on the steps leading up to the front door, that way 'Superman' could float above the crowd, well out of touching distance, a very important point as the figure was only a mirage and had no substance. This would also serve another purpose as Clark was sure that someone in the pack was bound to suggest that Kent had now recovered and was now masquerading in his other guise and of course, Clark Kent would not be amongst the group of fellow reporters.
"Then, while Superman entertains the rest of the hounds, I'll invite say two of them…no, three would be best, and they can visit with the poor invalid," Lois stroked Clark's hand consolingly, beginning to warm to the ruse. She was invigorated at the thought of putting one over on her rivals, especially those she disliked and distrusted, those she considered had no right to the title of journalist. Clark had a good idea which reporters would be invited to attend his sick bed. He watched in trepidation, a wicked grin dawning on his wife's face as she made up her visitor list.
"Yes! Yes! This is really good. We can discredit the tabloid press, the ones that are always attacking Superman, and we can finally lay to rest these old suspicions that Diana Stride began."
"Lois, honey," Clark put up his hand to halt her in mid-tirade. While he sympathised with her emotions, even partially agreed with them, this was not the main agenda. "Honey, this is not a vendetta. It's just a ploy to protect our privacy and a pretty risky one at that. I think we should keep it as simple and succinct as possible."
"I agree with Clark," Martha backed up her son. "Superman should fly down say hello, answer a few questions perhaps, then you invite a few of your colleagues in to say hi, how are you to Clark. Then wrap the whole thing up… quickly. There's more chance of something going wrong if it should last too long."
Lois looked a little disappointed. "I know. But you're both wrong about one thing. This is war and Stride and her allies began it."
"You're right about that, sweetheart," Clark patted the bed, inviting Lois to sit by his side. When she settled beside him, he stretched his hand up to tenderly touch her cheek, a loving gesture he often used with his wife. "And when I'm well and my superpowers are back, I have every intention of finding them and making sure that they never trouble us again."
Martha and Lois exchanged an apprehensive glance. The thought of Clark facing these dangerous women for a second bout did not fill them with exhilaration.
An assumption of war was certainly one with which all three female criminals concurred, but Clark's escape had affected each woman differently. Gretchen still maintained that the man was dying of blood poisoning. The Daily Planet had carried the story of how Kent had escaped from his captors, and how he had been seriously injured during his captivity, having been administered some, as yet unknown, substance which was having dire effects on his health. Also the frequent calls at 348 Hyperion Avenue of the physician from Star Labs and the serious demeanour of his friends when they left the house after brief visits reinforced her assertion. Thus the impending death (as she thought) of the man she hated gave her a feeling of gratification.
This was not an emotion shared by her ex-cellmate. Diana was livid. Superman had destroyed her exciting and luxurious life style and left her languishing in a prison cell amongst a class of people she considered unfit to kiss her beautifully manicured fingers. Nothing, short of witnessing his humiliation and excruciatingly painful death throes, would soothe her harrowed soul. Her hold on reality grew more tenuous with each passing day. She remained unconvinced by Mindy Church's assurance that the loss of their hostage was a small, easily surmountable problem in their grand scheme, and that Superman's death and dishonour were still inevitable.
Actually, Mindy Church was significantly annoyed; the fate of her two henchmen whose carelessness had led to Clark slipping his bonds, had attested to the depth of her frustration. The thugs were now buried deep in the vast open spaces of the 'Church Group's' reclamation site on the north side of Hobbs Bay. This land project was a huge and imaginative enterprise, much appreciated by the citizens and City Fathers of Metropolis. Any venture which attempted to spruce up the sight and reputation of that particularly seedy area of the city was welcome. The fact that it enabled Intergang (the Church Group's less respectable counterpart) to dispose of any unwanted baggage was not comprehended by the grateful citizens.
Mindy's ability to suffer reverses enabled her to rise above her anger and to rethink her strategy. The constant media attention given to the question of Superman was evidence of her persistence. Although the fact that she would no longer witness his downfall firsthand was less personally satisfying, being rid of his constant moral interference was the more important result for the continued successful operation of Intergang. If his death was not imminent, and she was not so sure of this as was Gretchen, exposing Superman to the population as Clark Kent would create a mistrust in the hearts and minds of his adoring public. Questions would be asked about why the hero had felt it necessary to lie to a world that had rarely shown him anything other than warm friendship and a sincere collective wish for his continued well-being.
Hopefully the loss of trust and help of the people would disrupt his crusade against the criminal element of the city, both as Superman and Clark Kent, investigative reporter. The fact that his family would now be exposed to any miscreant willing to hold them hostage might also make him less likely to interfere.
To achieve this desired result, she had begun her covert actions and now all Metropolis was humming with speculation. She had been quite satisfied with progress until Superman was reported to have been seen here in the city. Of course, she rationalised that this could not be the true Man of Steel, so she set about unveiling the mystery behind the sightings. Her best operatives were employed on the constant surveillance of the Kent home and family. She was now aware of the bustling activities of Jonathan and the doctor. Wherever they drove, in a nondescript grey van whose only distinguishing features were the strange radio antenna on its roof, Superman appeared in the sky. It didn't take a scientist to make the connection. Jonathan Kent was a small time farmer from hicksville but his colleague was a highly respected researcher who had access to all the technical wizardry belonging to Star Labs. Somewhere in Klein's professional past there had to be a record of a device which could create such an image. Although even her most accomplished hacker had been unable to access the doctor's personal computer, it had not taken her staff much time to unearth the report on the Hallucinator and the fact that, against instructions, Klein had locked the contraption away instead of destroying it.
This was very pleasing information and Mindy was delighted at the thought of spoiling the Kents' little games. Even Diana brightened at the prospect. Ideally, the throwing of the proverbial spanner into the works, should be done in public with as large an audience as possible. When it was first reported that Superman was planning a press conference, the women were over-the-moon and set to making their own plans with great enthusiasm.
After a day of intense rehearsals, using a script prepared by Lois and Clark of the questions the reporters had considered were most likely to be asked, the two conspirators felt confident in their ability to hold the said conference. Dr. Klein had entered tapes of Superman's voice into the vocal synthesiser and had watched in appreciation as the computer had analysed the sounds and within an amazingly short period had reproduced the voice. It was still, however, a highly hazardous undertaking, but as time was of the essence they felt that any further delay would only increase the stress they were experiencing. So it was that next evening at 7:00 p.m., an invited crowd of media personnel gathered outside the Kents' residence, awaiting the arrival of the people's champion.
Jonathan and Bernard had left an hour previously to park the van in an alley across the street and prepare the equipment for their big performance. Meanwhile, the others waited in trepidation in the bedroom. Lois paced the floor and occasionally glanced nervously through the window into the street, reporting on all she saw.
Martha had brought Joel with her, hoping that the unconcerned baby would distract his worried parents, and her ruse appeared to be working, at least on Clark. He had his son nestled in the crook of his one free arm and was gently rocking the tired infant to sleep, yet the furtive glances he directed towards his wife told Martha that he was not totally at ease. He desperately wanted to be out there being Superman, but his common sense told him that was impossible. His role at this time was to be the struggling invalid, he knew it was necessary for the success of the subterfuge, but he didn't have to like it. If only the 'struggling invalid' was just an act and not a horrid reality.
Craning her neck a little for a better view of the pavement outside their front stoop, Lois related that the reporters were beginning to gather down in the street and that Jonathan had come to the corner of the alley, taken a white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow then returned back down the lane, the sign that Bernard was ready to begin whenever Lois emerged at the doorway. Neither Lois nor Jonathan noticed the strangers lurking in the shadows of the alley or saw them stealthily converge on the rear of the van.
Back in the house, Martha lifted an already sleeping baby from Clark's arms and went to settle him in his crib. Joel never stirred as she laid him down, which was fortunate as a crying baby was an additional complication that was not, at this time, required. She hurried back to the main bedroom and was just in time to see the couple share a good luck kiss before Lois went downstairs to take her part in the production. Crossing to the bed, Martha settled herself by her son and took his hand in a comforting grasp. She was surprised to find his palm sticky with sweat.
Downstairs, Lois breathed deeply to control her taut nerves. When she was satisfied that she was exuding a calm aura she opened the door and stepped out onto the stage. Walking to the bank of microphones that had been set up, she swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat and began to speak.
"Thank you for attending, ladies and gentlemen." The last words were difficult to say as there were a good few amongst the throng who had no right to the titles. Yet some of the reporters were good friends, especially Perry and Jimmy whom she could see clearly in the forefront of the group, smiling their encouragement. She continued in what she hoped was a confident tone. "Hopefully, tonight we can clear up a problem that seems to beset my family from time to time."
"Being married to Superman doesn't seem much of a problem to me," a woman called from the mass below. Lois thought she recognised her rival from the Morning Star.
"I'm sure I agree. I have always considered Superman to be a very caring and kind man, and he is very attractive." There were sounds of female voices agreeing to the latter. "But as you all know, I am married to Clark Kent and am very satisfied with my husband, except that at the moment he is quite ill."
"Some people are suggesting that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person," Christina Carter of the Star announced, throwing down the challenge.
"Nevertheless, this lady is not my wife." The voice came from Lois' right and slightly above her. There had been no 'whoosh' to accompany his arrival and Lois was taken by surprise. So too were the crowd. A collective 'ah' was heard to break the silence. The journalists had attended Superman's press meetings before and some had obtained short interviews at various crime scenes and rescues, yet once more they were overawed by his presence. For a few moments there was a pregnant stillness in which Superman floated gently down to stand just a few feet away from Lois. This was not in the plan. He was supposed to remain out of reach of the gathering. Lois looked over the heads of her colleagues towards the van but she could see no sign of either of the two men who were projecting this image. She had to admit that Cole's invention was brilliant. Even this close, it was impossible to tell that the figure was a mirage. It seemed so substantial and the voice was…almost right. The others would definitely be fooled.
Superman folded his arms and straightened his shoulders into his normal super hero pose.
"I have to admit to a certain fondness for the lady, but she is married to my friend." He gazed around the reporters, smiling in his most friendly manner. "I believe you have a few questions for me," he said, inviting them to begin.
"Superman, Bob Cross, The Daily Post." The hero looked in the direction of the voice. "Where were you while Kent was imprisoned?"
"Unfortunately for Clark I was very busy in the Arctic Circle. There was an ecological disaster pending. The ozone layer is very thin at this time of year and subsequently larger holes develop. Left to their own devices these holes would create increasing problems for the population of the world. More people would suffer from skin cancers and other diseases and the world's climate would be further seriously disrupted. I felt that I had to deal with the problem immediately. By the time I returned home Clark had managed to free himself. However, he has been hurt very badly and that makes me angry. I should like to take this opportunity to warn the perpetrators of this crime that I intend to use all my powers to bring them to justice."
Lois was astounded. The script she and Clark had given to Bernard was very brief and rather stilted. The doctor was a genius at improvisation.
"Do you have any proof that you were where you say you were?" The Dirt Digger's ace reporter, Norman Houseman, was determined to prove his article's veiled implication.
Superman did not appear disturbed. "I'm afraid not. I didn't realise that it would be important. You all know that I do not lie. I promise you that I am not the man who was abducted. Clark Kent is upstairs in his bedroom and I believe Lois intends to invite some of you inside to visit her husband, while the rest of you remain outside with me." He raised an eyebrow at Lois, requesting her to take over.
"Yes, Superman, that is the plan." She scanned the crowd as if she were making up her mind, when actually she and Clark had already decided which reporters would be the most beneficial to their needs. Christina Carter was not a personal friend and Lois would only grudgingly admit that the woman had a smidgen of skill, but she was fair and honest to a certain degree. This could not be said of their second choice…'Norman of the Dirt Digger'. Nonetheless, they had felt he was a necessary witness. If a known hostile reporter was convinced then surely the rest would follow. Perry White made up the party of three. They had both thought long and hard about including Perry. There were obvious reasons not to; he was their editor; he was their close friend; he had visited frequently, though that wasn't important, visiting while Superman was in evidence outside was the main factor. And Perry White was also one of the most trusted and respected men in this cutthroat profession. His word would be accepted as the truth more surely than Carter's or Houseman's. Besides, Clark deserved a friendly face by the bedside.
Lois made her invitations and included, as an afterthought, Christina's photographer. The group were quickly shepherded inside and upstairs. The necessity to wind up this farce speedily was strong in Lois' mind. Inside the bedroom all was quiet and the four press persons were unexpectedly subdued by the sight of the sick man. Clark looked paler than he had before she left and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. Lois wondered if he had a temperature.
"Hi, Clark," Christina edged towards the bed. "I hope you feel better than you look." She attempted to lighten the awkward situation with humour.
Clark answered with a weak smile. "This is an improvement, Tina," he waved his right hand down his listless body. Norman's darting eyes lighted on the drip attached to the patient's arm. Fortunately, Bernard had the foresight to replace the red kryptonite with a clear saline solution. Some nosy reporters might have connected the pink mixture with that of the now infamous coloured rocks. "What's that?" He demanded insolently.
"My son has been unconscious for most of the time since he came home. The I.V. prevents dehydration." Martha stepped into the breach, guardedly watching the intruders like a mother tiger defending her young.
"Superman has got a good turnout. The press is always eager to talk to the Man of Steel." Perry tried to start an amicable conversation. The editor was not at all happy with the way Houseman was interrogating his favourite staff member. "Some of the media have this silly notion that you are really Superman in disguise." He laughed heartily at the supposition and Clark, hating to mislead his boss but anxious to protect his secret, tried to join in and started another coughing fit.
"Well, I wish I were," he stated between coughs, "I wouldn't feel so ill." His breathing became laboured and Martha's patience snapped.
"That's enough. You can clearly see that Clark is very sick and that Superman is fit and healthy. Take your pictures and then go." She emphasised her words with a stiff hand pointed to the door. There were two quick flashes as the photographer obeyed instructions and then Perry led the others away.
Once outside they confirmed to the remaining journalists that Kent was inside and still quite poorly. As Superman had stayed to answer additional questions, it was apparent that Clark Kent and the super hero were two different people. There were a few disgruntled newsmen on the stoop, but on the whole the majority assumed the attitude that they had known all along that the suggestion that Clark was secretly the Man of Steel was a foolish one. Hey! This was mild-mannered Clark Kent they were talking about! A really nice guy, but not quite super hero material.
Superman, listening to the talk that was buzzing round the group, was satisfied that his job was done. He called for attention for a few moments, told the meeting he was needed elsewhere, and, excusing himself, he flew off. This time Lois, who had followed her visitors out of doors, definitely heard a 'whoosh'.
Lois waited for the journalistic group to disperse, while the comments, which she overheard, assured her that the press conference had been a huge success. When the street was once again returned to its normal traffic she went back inside, where she was joined a short time later by an extremely flustered Jonathan and Bernard, whom she smartly hugged with glee.
"You were fantastic," she informed the two, who appeared to look puzzled by her enthusiasm. "It was just so…'real'. I was standing so close I could have touched him and I would have sworn he was a real person."
"Superman, naturally," Lois laughed, her gaze shifting between her father-in-law and the doctor. "And the speech was so right, exactly the way Superman would talk. I didn't know how talented you both are."
This speech only disconcerted the men more, until Jonathan had a flash of inspiration.
"Clark managed an appearance then?" he inquired.
Martha was coming downstairs to find out what was going on and she caught the end of the conversation. "Certainly not. Clark is still in bed and he was there the whole time, just as planned." She turned to her daughter-in-law, "I think we convinced them, though I'm sure that Houseman person was not best pleased."
"No! He was categorically sick," Lois agreed. "I can't tell you how thrilled that made me." Mother and daughter were about to relate the whole episode for the benefit of those stuck inside the van when Jonathan abruptly interrupted.
"There was no hologram. We started up the machine, but nothing happened. There was no power."
"We tried to fix the problem, but there was nothing we could do. The Hallucinator's generator was dead," Bernard joined in the explanation. "Without stripping the device down I couldn't fix it. By the time we gave up trying, the street was empty. We assumed everybody had gotten fed up waiting for Superman to show and had gone home."
"Then who did show up?" Lois asked, totally perplexed. "Who stood beside me on the step?"
"Ahmmmm!" The sound came from the dining room. All four looked around as a man in the familiar blue suit came into the room. "I did."
"Clark?!" Lois asked, not wholly surprised.
"Superman?!" Bernard Klein gasped totally bemused. It unmistakably looked like Superman.
"I had a feeling you might need my help," The man in the Superman suit answered as he came forward into the room.
"Who are you?" the awestruck doctor inquired. The stranger smiled but allowed Lois to answer.
"Bernard, this must be very confusing for you and I'm afraid that this is another secret we must ask you to keep." When she received a stunned nod from the doctor, Lois continued. "This is another Clark Kent and, of course, Superman. He comes from an alternate universe."
"Oh, an alternate universe," Bernard spoke as if the information he had been given was common knowledge. "An alternative universe, who knew?"
"This universe runs parallel to our own and the people who inhabit it are akin to ourselves. We discovered it when I was abducted by Tempus and he took me there in H.G. Wells' time machine, which he had modified to jump worlds." This last piece of information astounded the listening man. "A time machine belonging to H.G. Wells." Bernard began to feel like he was inhabiting some kind of bizarre dreamworld. 'Alice' must have felt this way when she fell down the rabbit hole into 'Wonderland'.
"Talking of Herbert, is he with you?" Lois asked the visitor.
"No. Herb is off exploring the future, or perhaps the past. I'm never quite sure of his whereabouts, but he left me the plans for his time machine and, having nothing better to do, I built my own version."
"Then he never found your Lois Lane?"
"Oh yes, but much good it did me. Lois thinks I'm a jerk."
"Well don't worry too much, Clark. I thought that about my Clark when we first met." Lois shook her head ruefully, remembering their recent quarrel. "Sometimes I still do."
Meanwhile, Bernard had been trying to comprehend the data he had acquired. These past several days were having a profound effect on his sanity. What with saving Superman's life, creating mirages and now alternative worlds with alternative people, however, the scientist within him began to stir. "Is there a Dr .Klein in this other universe?" he inquired, intrigued despite his confusion.
Martha, concerned as always for others' well-being, came forward, led the doctor to the couch and pressed him to sit. Both she and Jonathan, because of all they'd been through together, now considered Bernard one of their dearest friends. Neither Martha nor Jonathan was fazed by the appearance of Superman, having met their son's alternative self before, when he had been brought to their aid by the famous writer. The other Clark joined him on the sofa.
"Well, Doctor Klein, if there is then I'm afraid that I've never yet met him, which is a pity. Although we are supposed to be invulnerable, we seem to get hurt now and again. So having my own friendly physician would be good. Clark is a lucky guy."
His eyes, as he spoke, drifted towards Lois and she surmised he wasn't only referring to the doctor. Previously, when she had encountered this Clark, she had felt vaguely guilty that she and her husband should be sharing such a happy life when he was obviously lonely. Now, she was sure that it was but a matter of time before their counterparts were enjoying the same joy. She was positive that the alternative Lois would not be able to resist Clark Kent any more than had she.
"How did you know to come here?" Jonathan's voice cut into Lois' reverie.
"I was working late in the newsroom and I had this overwhelming instinct that I was needed here. So I decided to test drive my new time machine and here I am. I was right too. You do need my help?" This last was a question.
"Yes, we do," Lois reassured him, "The press conference would have been a disaster if you hadn't shown up. But how did you know what to say?"
"I don't think it's wise to jump into a situation without checking things out first, so I went to the Planet and read the back issues, including the one that reported on Superman's whereabouts while Clark was kidnapped."
"I wish that Clark would do a little more research before he jumps into situations," Martha said dejectedly.
"Martha, we did check out our sources," Lois defended her husband. "No one could have foreseen what occurred."
"Exactly what did occur?"
Over the next few moments Lois brought the visiting Superman up to date on all that had happened.
"So the kryptonite was delivered directly into his bloodstream. That must have been painful." Clark grimaced as he spoke, imagining how that must have felt. "But the treatment is working, the red is neutralising the green?"
Dr. Klein had recovered his nerve enough to answer. "It stopped the spread of the poison, but it is taking an inordinately long time to remove the toxin completely from Clark's blood and until it does the superpowers won't return. I'm not sure where to go from here."
"How is Clark now?" his alter-ego asked.
"Very weak and listless and very anxious," Martha sounded a little anxious herself. "He sent me down to find out what was going on. I got distracted by your arrival. Clark's probably frantic by now."
At that everyone hurried upstairs and not a moment too soon, because Clark had given up waiting for his mother's return and was trying to come downstairs to find out for himself. Closing off the drip, he had removed it from his arm and had managed to push himself off the bed. He had slung his robe around his shoulders and staggered to the door when the others arrived at his room. Lois, Martha and the doctor quickly guided him back to bed, Martha apologising and scolding him simultaneously. In the ensuing action of restoring the I.V. and making him comfortable, Clark did not at first notice the visitor who remained in the doorway, unsure of a welcome. When Clark got his breathing back under control, he demanded to be told what had happened at the press conference, so once again the group recounted their stories. At the point where the Hallucinator failed he grew very despondent.
"If Superman didn't show up then everyone will assume that the rumours are true."
Lois sat down on the bed and, taking her husband's hand, stroked it gently. "But Superman did show up." Her glance moved to the man in the doorway, smiling and inviting him into the room. When he walked over to the bed, she turned back to Clark, an excited look on her face. "You remember this Superman. He's come back to help us again."
Somehow this didn't seem to have the same uplifting effect on the patient as it had on his wife. Clark wasn't ungrateful, but the fact that the other super hero was required only magnified his feeling of worthlessness. Besides he always suspected that the man had deeper feelings for Lois that was healthy. He trusted Lois and he knew that she loved him, but in his unfit state he was crabbier than was normal. The other Clark began to speak and he considered it only polite to give him a hearing.
"I hope you don't mind me dropping by uninvited," strangely the visitor had picked up on these unspoken thoughts, "you must be feeling pretty bad with kryptonite in your veins. That's never happened to me, but I can imagine." The last statements softened Clark's attitude towards the intruder. No one else could really understand what he was experiencing. "The Doc has been treating me and I should be back to normal any day now."
"Hhmmmm," Bernard interrupted. Clark's latest test had caused him some concern and he felt he had to pass on his misgivings. "There seems to be a problem. The treatment is taking too long to work and the amount of red kryptonite I can give you is reaching a critical point. In fact, it may already be having an adverse effect on you. In the past it has both disrupted your powers and made you apathetic."
"A bit like I'm feeling right now. So what's the answer, Doc?"
"I'm not sure we should continue administering the red, but if we do discontinue I have no way of knowing what consequence the remaining green stuff will have."
"There is still green kryptonite left?" Lois inquired, and when she received an answering nod, she went on worriedly. "Then that could still be fatal."
"Lois, no!" Her husband hurriedly tried to assure her. He didn't feel well but then he didn't feel like he was dying either. "I might not recover my powers but I don't plan on dying."
Dr. Klein forbore to comment. He suspected that without the one to counteract the other, the poison might once again start to overwhelm Clark's system and he might be too weak to fight it.
The kryptonite in Clark's body and in the I.V. was beginning to have a slight influence on the visiting Superman's health and he walked to the window to distance himself from the debilitating presence, staring out at the night sky for a time. Everyone was quiet, lost in their own thoughts and fears. When the man in the blue suit turned back into the room, he had clearly reached a decision.
"Doctor, I'm not a physician, but could the contaminated blood be removed from Clark's system and replaced by my clean blood?"
The silence in the room was tangible and all eyes were trained on the doctor, who was unaware of the scrutiny, lost deeply in his equations. After a time, he gave his opinion.
"It may work. I never considered a blood transfusion because there was no blood match available. I would have to cross-match the two, but I'm certain they'll be compatible and then there's the difficulty of actually drawing blood from you, but a little exposure to you know what should do the trick." Bernard took a few turns about the room, concentrating deeply. "Then the poisoned blood would have to be drawn off simultaneously to the transfusion, almost like dialysis. Yes I think with some studying I would be prepared to attempt a blood change. It is certainly worth trying. If you agree to place your life in my hands?" The question was directed at the Clark in the bed.
"Doc, my life has been in your hands since this whole nightmare began and I can't think of anyone else I'd rather trust." He eagerly gave his permission. He was determined to try anything to regain his health, if not his powers.
They decided to go ahead with the procedure just as soon as they had collected the required amount of blood from Superman. Both the doctor and the two Clarks concluded that this would not take so very long given the super hero's speed of rejuvenation. As the laboratories at Star Labs were considered a more suitable environment to the giving of blood and locked in a specially constructed safe was the necessary kryptonite, Superman and Klein left to begin the first stage of the operation. They promised to keep the family informed of progress and once they were ready to start Superman would fetch Clark to Bernard's lab.
Back at the house, Clark was convinced by his family that a good night's sleep would help him regain the strength that the night's trials had drained from him and he would need all the stamina he could muster to face tomorrow's ordeal. So, though he deemed that currently he had spent too much of his time sleeping, he assented, if Lois would join him in the bed, to at least attempt to sleep. To that end Lois, settling herself by him, tenderly drew him into her arms. Their parents switched off the lights and, wishing the couple a fond goodnight, left the room. For a short time Lois and Clark exchanged endearments and gentle kisses, trying to allay each other's fears of the coming operation. Clark's input into the conversation grew more sporadic and in time he fell silent as his tired body gave into sleep. Lois suspected that she was too stressed to sleep but as she listened to the steady rhythm of his breathing she too drifted away to the land-of-nod.
Not one member of the household had considered why the Hallucinator had failed to work.
Mindy replayed the videotape of the press conference with her associate, Mr. Norman Houseman.
"And you're quite sure that was Superman?" she quizzed the seedy reporter.
"It was him all right. I passed right by him as I went into the house. You know, when you're that close, you can feel the power he exudes. It's amazing."
"And Clark Kent was inside?" This was the second time she had asked these questions, but she had to be sure.
"Yes! Like I told you before. He was in bed and he is not a well man. Believe me. He's categorically no super hero. If that's all, Mrs. Church, I have a deadline to meet." He stuck his hand in his pocket and stared pointedly at her.
"Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Houseman. Need I remind you that our little collusion must remain private? I would be very dismayed should anyone learn of it." As she spoke, she crossed the room to a very ornate desk and, unlocking a drawer, she withdrew a large bundle of money. Truthfully, she didn't like handing out money this way, but she recognised the wisdom of paying her hirelings well. "Remember, this is our secret."
She rang for her butler and had the unpleasant man shown the door. When she was alone, she opened up the glass doors and passed through to the next room where Diana and Gretchen had been listening to the interview. Mindy threw Diana a hostile look. This whole escapade was beginning to irritate her, almost to the point where she wished she had let the two women languish in prison. Still, if they couldn't regain the upper hand, she could always arrange for them to return to their place of incarceration. The two regarded her warily as she paced back and forth across the room. At last she spoke.
"After having interviewed the technicians sent to sabotage Cole's contraption and hearing what our greedy friend Houseman had to report, I have no choice but to conclude that Superman did show up, the real life Superman."
"Kent must have recovered," the one time T.V. anchorwoman stated.
"No, Diana, according to all the reporters who were invited inside the Kents' home, he remains quite ill."
"But that's not possible. Kent is Superman and he can't be in two places at once."
"I'd agree with your last statement. And if that is so, then we have to face facts. Regardless of what you saw at Kent's apartment years ago, you are mistaken about the dual identity."
"NO!!" Diana's voice rose on the edge of hysteria and she sought support from her former cellmate, but Gretchen would not meet her gaze. "You saw what kryptonite did to him. Superman is the only person to be affected by kryptonite." Mindy had been thinking hard about that question and she had reached certain conclusions.
"We know external exposure has no obvious consequences to humans. Nonetheless, I don't believe that any mortal has been injected with the stuff. Perhaps that would prove as detrimental to human health as to alien physiology." She looked to Dr. Kelly for confirmation. Gretchen at last offered an opinion, deciding that it was more propitious for her own health to back such a powerful figure in the underworld as Ms. Church.
"There are no medical records available, yet I would be inclined to think, that as the substance is alien, it could have an injurious outcome if administered to humans. Perhaps I could run some tests."
"Yes, that would be a good idea, and perhaps Diana here would volunteer to be a guinea-pig," Mindy teased, but there was a threat behind her words. Diana recognised the menace and hid, for the present, her anger. For many years Diana's defeat at the hands of Superman had fermented in her brain until her mind was seriously disturbed. Yet her instinct for self-preservation was strong; she could bide her time and destroy Superman and Mindy Church, should the latter get in her way.
"For the moment I think there is little we can salvage from this operation," the boss of Intergang went on. "But we do have some kryptonite left and since he has stated his intention to bring us to justice, we may get a chance to use it on the Man of Steel. Only, now that he is on his guard, I doubt if he will let us get that close. We shall have to await developments." Mindy was watching Diana while she spoke. She knew that the older woman was seething with rage and that she would have to tread carefully in her dealing with her. The alliance was steadily falling apart. Stride was bordering on madness and Kelly would side with whoever was more likely to triumph. So much for sisterhood.
By the evening of the next day all was ready for the blood transfusion. Clark had been brought to Star Labs by Superman and was now in Dr. Klein's treatment room. Jonathan had driven Lois to be with her husband and Martha had stayed home to babysit, having been promised by Lois that she would be kept informed of all that happened. The whole process, the doctor estimated, would take some hours, though he hoped to have results by morning.
Bernard would have been grateful for other medical assistance but had to content himself with Superman, who admittedly had sped read every medical file in Star Labs' data-banks pertaining to blood transfusions and dialysis and Superman's understanding was clearly greater than average.
A temporary A.V. shunt would have to be created in the patient in order to remove the poisoned blood at the same time as the clean blood would be transfused. This was a tricky procedure for the doctor and his helper, inexperienced as they were in this technique. Lois and her father-in-law waited nervously in the anteroom watching through the glass. When eventually all the preparations had been made and rechecked, the operation began. Once Lois had scrubbed up she was invited to sit by Clark as Dr. Klein hovered anxiously in the background. These past days he had worked like a Trojan to save the life and the reputation of his friend and although he regretted not one ounce of the effort involved, he was now exhausted from his labours. This treatment was the last resort. His brain was devoid of any other suggestions. Everyone of the unique group knew that this had to succeed.
Jonathan was talking on the cell phone to his wife and Superman felt decidedly out of place. Immediately after the older man said goodbye to Martha, the alternative Clark spoke.
"Jonathan, I think that a quick patrol of Metropolis is called for. Now the super hero is back people will expect him to be on the job."
"I agree. Besides, the Daily Planet led with an article in the evening edition about this operation to remove the unknown toxin that was used on Clark. Lois is expecting Perry White later. I think it would be a good idea if Superman were visible on the streets tonight." Jonathan appeared to consider his feelings for a moment, then continued. "I want you to know how grateful Martha and I are for all you are doing to help our son. I'm sure your Mom and Dad would have been proud of how you turned out. I know we are," he offered his hand as he spoke and was happy when the other Clark took a strong hold. He decided to play the concerned parent. "Be careful when you're out there, Son. The criminals who did this are still on the loose."
After assuring the man who reminded him so much of his own long dead father (in his world the Kents had been killed in an automobile accident when he was a boy), Superman left the labs and flew off towards the city, the older man's sincere concern warming his heart.
In the treatment room Lois and Clark spoke quiet words of reassurance to each other. It was going to be a long night, but each hoped that by morning Clark would be on the road to recovery.
The hours dragged by with uncharacteristic slowness, each one uncomfortable for Clark if not actually painful. Lois tried to distract him with tales of the funnier incidents they had shared throughout their careers together, though it was evident, as the time passed, that this was going to be a difficult experience for the patient. A few hours into the treatment Bernard was dismayed to discover that Clark had developed a fever, but thankfully his temperature stabilised a few degrees higher than was normal for him. Meanwhile Lois continued to tend her husband, towelling dry his sweat-soaked neck and chest and wiping the perspiration from his face, feeding him with iced-water and generally fussing over his condition. Jonathan joined Lois by the bedside but remained quiet. Watching his son suffer over these last weeks had caused him to be more despondent than at anytime in his life since Martha and he had learned they could not have children. Now the boy, who had lifted their spirits that night so many years ago and all the years in between, was in pain and he fought the tears that threatened to fall. Seeing his father break down was the last thing Clark needed to contend with.
Shortly before midnight Perry dropped by, a diversion which fortunately relieved the building tension. On entering the room, the Planet's editor was taken aback by the sight of his surrogate children. Clark was paler than Perry had ever seen him with great dark shadows quarried beneath his eyes and Lois had a haunted air about her. Glancing over the other two occupants of the treatment room he was not surprised to see the older men also showing signs of extreme fatigue. He decided to take charge of the situation. During the next hour Perry recounted all the newsroom gossip and the current jokes doing the rounds, but surprisingly not once did he refer to his hero, 'The King'. Eventually Clark interrupted his boss, intrigued by Perry's forbearance.
"No Elvis stories, Chief?"
"Well son, I might be an Elvis freak but even I realise when stories about 'The King' are inappropriate."
"Oh, I don't know, perhaps a few old familiar Elvis anecdotes are just what I need." Clark longed for all things routine and ordinary and Perry needed no further encouragement to launch into a few Elvis yarns. Neither Lois nor Clark recalled hearing these particular stories previously and deduced that they must have been saved for special occasions. In any event, not long into the third tale the patient's eyelids fluttered shut and his deeper, balanced breathing informed the watchers that he had at last fallen asleep. They heaved a sigh of collective relief, then after being assured by Dr. Klein that everything now seemed to be going to plan, Perry left for home. The editor still had a job to do and being the dedicated newsman he was, Lois knew that he'd be in the newsroom by 7:00 a.m. whether or not he spent the whole night awake. When leaving he passed along his wife's message of assistance. Alice White perceived that the Kent family must by this time be suffering the strains of the past weeks and she wished to do her best to help. Offering to babysit Joel was one practical method to ease their burden. Besides, she loved babies and Joel Kent was such a lovely child with the sweetest nature, caring for him for a short time would be a pleasure.
Dawn was breaking over the skyline of Metropolis when the blood change was finally completed and the weary doctor was satisfied that his patient had come through it as well as could be expected. A blood sample had been procured and the watchers held their breath as Bernard studied it beneath a microscope. Eventually he raised his head from the eyepieces and it was clear from his growing smile that the news was good. There were no obvious traces of kryptonite of any colour in the blood sample. Of course, a more detailed analysis would have to be run and further samples required before Clark could be pronounced cured, but the outlook was promising.
Superman had returned about an hour earlier, having spent the night helping the police bust a big drug deal, then separating two rival teenage gangs who were intent on causing as much damage as was possible to each other and the surrounding district. During both of these actions the hero had been in contact with many reliable witnesses.
Clark had awakened with the dawn and assured everyone that he was feeling just fine, but flying home with his other self was a strange and not totally pleasurable experience, leaving him with a feeling of frustration. He only hoped that the next time he took to the sky it would be under his own power. At home Martha was waiting and, although she had spent the night phoning the lab for updates on her son's progress, she was relieved to see him in person.
Back at Star Labs, Lois and Jonathan took their leave of Bernard Klein. The doctor was taken aback when the young woman threw her arms around him and gave him an appreciative hug for all that he had done to restore her husband to health. She extracted a promise from him that he would be sure to rest before calling at Hyperion Avenue. He waved them off the premises and, returning to his offices, he closed the blinds, dragged a pillow and blanket from a cupboard, then threw them and himself onto the couch. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
By the time Lois and her father-in-law reached home Clark was also back in bed. He had upset his mother by first insisting on waiting up for his wife's return. Actually he was beginning to be sick of lying in his bed, but unfortunately his body was not yet as strong as his mind and after walking into the kitchen for a cup of Martha's herbal tea and feeling decidedly dizzy, he agreed to wait for Lois in his bed. Martha also pointed out that as Lois had spent the night awake, as had she and his father, it was very likely that everyone would relish a relaxing sleep. A decision endorsed by an extremely tired Lois when she returned. However, there was one member of the Kent family who would at any moment be wide awake. Joel had slept soundly, unaware of the urgent happenings of the night and now he was loudly crying for his Mom and his breakfast. Lois resolved to take Alice White up on her kind offer and as Martha saw to her grandson's needs, she phoned the Whites to enlist their help. Superman, having seen the lethargy that was obviously affecting all the Kents, offered his services to fly the infant to the baby-sitter. So it was that, returning to the house after his errand, he found the place in darkness. Listening with his super-hearing he heard four sets of steady breathing, a sure sign that they were all asleep. On the coffee table in the living room he found a large sandwich and a glass of buttermilk awaiting him. It reminded him of his life at the farm, before his parents were killed and tears sprang unbidden to his eyes. He too was feeling the strain. The two days he had spent in this universe had been exceedingly busy and, he had to admit, donating eight pints of blood and being exposed to kryptonite (even a very small amount) had not been pleasant experiences. This brief encounter with the toxic rock had taught him a lesson. When he returned to his own world he would try to ensure that he was not so trusting as this Clark had been with strangers. Which was a crazy way to live. He already felt lonely and isolated without shutting out any more potential friends on the chance that they might turn out to be enemies. His mind was spinning with conflicting thoughts, so he gave up thinking, drank his milk and ate his sandwich and promptly fell asleep.
Throughout the day the house in Hyperion Avenue stayed dark and quiet. For the first time in days all the occupants slept soundly and awoke in the late afternoon feeling more refreshed than of late. Clark and Superman were the only remaining sleepers. This Superman evidently had the same habits as his counterpart, sleeping deeply for a good number of hours following periods of great mental and physical stress. In his thickly curtained bedroom Clark slumbered on, but his family were not duly concerned as this sleep seemed more peaceful than previously, as if his body were at last resting, free from its poisonous invader.
Dr. Klein appeared in the early evening, also much relieved. After examining his patient and declaring himself very contented with Clark's state of health, he drew off another sample of blood for testing. Lois, overseeing this process, had hoped that the needle would break on penetration, but the syringe drew the blood with ease. The doctor could not help but notice the look of disappointment that crossed her face.
"Lois, my dear, Clark had been exposed to kryptonite in the past and has taken a while to recover. This time the exposure was internal and for far longer than at any other experience, which means his recovery is bound to take longer than ever before." Bernard placed a hand on Lois' shoulder and gave an encouraging squeeze. "You have got to keep on believing that all will be well."
"I know, Bernard. In my heart I know that he is healing," Lois smiled a heartfelt smile. She could not comprehend how she had come to this conclusion, yet the feeling of hope was strong in her. "And Clark's recovery is due entirely to your efforts. I'm a journalist and yet I cannot think of a single word that can express the depth of my gratitude," and she stepped up close and planted a warm kiss on his cheek. The 'Nutty Professor' grinned in embarrassment and returned the salutation, after which they crept from the room so as not to disturb the sleeper on the bed.
Downstairs they found Superman ready to leave for his own world. Lois was surprised and dismayed. Somehow, she had relied on him being around until Clark was well enough to take back his role of the super hero. When she tried to persuade him to stay, he simply shook his head.
"Lois, I've been away longer than I ought. Things could be getting very chaotic back in my Metropolis without its Superman. I have to return to check on how my world is doing. Everything is quiet around here at present and Clark seems certain to recover…"
"Thanks to you and Dr. Klein," she interrupted. "But the people who infected Clark haven't been apprehended. They may try again…"
"I know how worried you are and I spoke with Inspector Henderson. I told him I had a problem to solve elsewhere and he has promised to keep the house under close surveillance until I get back…"
"Then you are coming back?" She interrupted again.
"Yes, I'll come back to see how Clark is doing and to play Superman to this world, if I'm needed." He looked down at Lois as she placed both her hands on his crossed arms in a gesture of supplication. It was apparent that this whole disastrous episode had rattled her usually strong character and then too there was the information that Martha had imparted to him, Lois was pregnant and her nerves were already under the influence of her changing hormones. He tried to reassure her. "Lois, I promise to return soon, very soon."
Martha came to his rescue. "We can't be selfish, honey. Superman has already done so much here, but he has his own world to care for." As she spoke, she leaned forward and hugged the man who looked so like her son. "Thank you for saving my boy."
He grinned in answer, then slipped away, heading to where he had hidden his time machine.
Watching open-mouthed as Superman left, the doctor was still amazed by all that had occurred during these weird, chaotic weeks. His young friends led very bizarre but interesting lives and he realised that now he was committed to the small but exclusive band who shared their adventures. Martha, ever practical but also intuitive, sensed that Bernard was feeling overawed and decided that a distraction was needed.
"Doctor, don't you have a blood sample to check?"
At the reminder, he pulled himself from his state of shock and took his medical kit through to the kitchen where Martha and Lois had organized a small counter where many items of Star Labs' equipment had been brought to help in his treatment of Clark. He changed into his blue lab coat and scrubbed himself down at the kitchen sink which was sparkling under Martha's scrupulous care. His mind wandered on an inconsequential thought; would the woman like a job as housekeeper at Star Labs? He shook himself back to present matters with a laugh. There was work to be done.
Martha also had a job to do. Jonathan would be returning from the Whites' with his grandson and both would require feeding. Now that the future had a brighter outlook everyone's appetites had improved and the older woman decided that a little celebratory dinner would not be unwelcome. Martha's cooking skills were a labour of love and she only wished that her son was awake to enjoy his favourite foods. Still, the doctor was not distressed by Clark's continued unconsciousness, pointing out that the body repaired itself best during a state of restful sleep.
That evening the family and Bernard (who was now considered part of the Kent household) enjoyed Martha's delicious meal. They were all in a high mood as Clark's latest blood sample had shown the same result as the morning one; no kryptonite present. It very much appeared that he was indeed on the mend. Dinner over, the older couple sent Lois to play with her son before putting him to bed. Dr. Klein started dismantling his temporary lab and packed the apparatus in boxes for transportation back to Star Labs. He just prayed that he wasn't being premature. When he was done, Martha offered him a last coffee, but still feeling tired, he declined, deciding to return the borrowed equipment to his workplace before heading for home, hopefully to enjoy a complete night of worry-free sleep. Jonathan helped him load up his car and both Martha and Jonathan watched him drive off, then turned back inside to join Lois. They didn't notice a black sedan pull out from the kerb further down the street and slide into the traffic behind Bernard's car. Had they done so, their overwhelming sense of relief would have been very short-lived. The police surveillance team were not much concerned either. Their instructions were to watch over the Kent family and their home.
Gretchen Kelly had a problem. She had rowed furiously with her ex-cellmate. An argument which had concluded with the female doctor splayed out on the floor, having been thrown over Diana's shoulder when attempting to stop her from leaving Intergang's safe house. Stride had determined that waiting patiently for Superman or Kent to come looking for them was not a strategy of which she approved. Stride required action and, as Dr. Klein of Star Labs was helping restore Clark Kent's health and, as he was reported not to be under police protection, he seemed the most likely candidate for a hostage. Kelly had watched as her colleague had read the Daily Planet article on the medical procedure performed by the physician on Clark Kent and had witnessed the increasing paranoia which consumed Diana at the subsequent account that the operation had been successful and that Kent was now out of danger. The crazed female announced that she wanted Klein snatched for ransom in exchange for Kent or Superman, however Gretchen suspected that she also wanted to be revenged on the old man for saving her enemy's life. The younger woman had tried to persuade Diana to at least wait to hear Mindy's opinion of the planned abduction, but her protestations fell on deaf ears and when she had physically stood in the way of Stride's path to the door, she had ended painfully on the ground. Now Gretchen had to decide whether to report her cellmate's departure to Ms Church. Somehow she preferred the crime organization's chances to take care of the situation rather better than Diana's. Having made up her mind where her best interests lay, she picked up the phone and asked for an audience with the 'Boss'.
The meeting between Mindy and Gretchen was not agreeable. The head of Intergang had finally lost patience with the two ex-prisoners, but she could not ignore the situation. Diana Stride was a loose cannon who knew too much about Mindy's involvement in the enterprise and could not be trusted to keep her mouth shut were she apprehended by the authorities. Intergang had to stop her from making the circumstances worse and to silence her once and for all. Dismissing Kelly back to her room, which now became a cell(she would attend to the female doctor later), Mindy called her best operatives and instructed them to find Diana Stride immediately and terminate her. The men understood from the lack of the kitten soft tone in her voice that the Boss meant business and that they had to succeed in their endeavours if they wished to prosper in the organization or in life in general. All Intergang personnel understood the rewards for success and the consequences of failure in this firm and they hurried off to plan a campaign to stop the Stride woman and keep their leader in the clear. Left alone in her office, Mindy fumed about the whole affair. She had been so sure that this time she would succeed in ridding herself of that meddling do-gooder, Superman, but now she wondered how she could have failed to recognise that the woman was deranged. Hopefully, once Diana was caught and silenced and Dr. Kelly taken care of, she could move on to more lucrative business. This had been a very expensive and disastrous operation which was best off dead and buried.
At Star Labs Dr. Klein was concentrating on unpacking the delicate instrumentation from his car and didn't hear the footsteps stealthily creep up from behind or even feel the blow which rendered him unconscious, but the hidden cameras watched as Diana dragged him across the car park and dumped him roughly into the trunk of her car. The security guard, returning from a call of nature, replayed the tape of the period when he had been away, swore loudly and immediately called the police.
A little over an hour later, Inspector Henderson stood outside the door of the Kents' brownstone. Knowing the trauma the family had been through, he hated having to disturb their rest, but he felt sure they would want to be told of Dr. Klein's abduction right away. So he sighed and rang the doorbell. It needed two repeat tries before a bleary-eyed Jonathan answered the door, rubbing his eyes and gazing at the man outside as if he couldn't quite place him. "Inspector Henderson," the detective held out his ID. "I'm sorry to trouble you at this late hour, Mr. Kent, but there has been a new development. May I come inside?"
"Yes, of course, Inspector." Shaking his head to clear the cobwebs, Jonathan stood aside to allow the policeman access. Lights were appearing from upstairs and Martha came into the living room, tying her robe about her.
"Jon, who is it?" She asked a trifle more querulously than was normal. A baby had started crying, wakened by the unexpected commotion. Henderson felt guilty, but he had a job to do.
"Mrs. Kent, it's me. Inspector Henderson. And I would have waited till morning, only this is important."
"Well then you'd better tell us…and quickly." Martha looked in the direction of the stairway where Lois emerged with a howling baby in her arms. The Inspector was surprised. He had visited the house a number of times lately and never had seen the youngest member of the Kent family cry.
"So he does cry sometimes," Henderson tried to inject a moment of humour. Lois walked down the stairs bouncing her son gently in her arms in an effort to soothe him.
"Inspector, I'm sure you didn't call round just to ascertain whether my son can cry."
At another movement from the stair all eyes turned in that direction and three voices cried in unison.
Martha and Jonathan hurried to help their son descend on extremely shaky legs. Despite the shakes, Clark was pleased, this was the furthest he'd come on his own steam and once he reached the solid floor he shrugged off his parents' assistance and crossed the room to sit on the couch beside Lois.
"Don't nag," he warned his wife and parents, "and no, I am not going back to bed." He turned his attention to the surprise visitor. "Perhaps you would like to tell us why you are here, Inspector," Clark suggested helpfully, indicating that the policeman might like to sit down. Everyone quickly sat and waited expectantly to hear what the detective had to say.
"I hate to bring you more bad news, especially since you're looking so much better than when I last visited, but Dr. Klein was snatched tonight from outside Star Labs by the Stride woman."
There was a pregnant pause in the room as the Kents exchanged shocked glances. Lois was the first to recover.
"Doesn't Star Labs have security guards?"
"Yes, but unfortunately they were out on patrol. When they returned, they checked the surveillance tapes and saw what happened and called us in. Stride hasn't contacted you?"
"No, but you can be sure she will." Clark looked extremely upset. "She'll use the doctor as an exchange for me."
"That's how I read it," the policeman agreed. "Your house is being watched by my best men and your phone is monitored. We'll be onto her the minute she makes contact. Until then, there is little you can do. Meantime, I have men out searching for her. It's a pity Superman had to be out of town."
There was another long uncomfortable silence, during which Clark sighed deeply and Henderson, realising that the family wanted to be alone, took his leave. The minute the Inspector left, Clark pushed himself up and went to find his suit, Lois following close behind. She hoisted Joel up onto her shoulder and he squealed in protest.
"Where are you going?" She demanded of her husband. Clark was exasperated at the hindrance, but knowing Lois had been through so much, he paused and began to explain gently.
"Lois, I have to go look for him. Bernard saved my life. I can hardly abandon him to Diana."
"You can hardly walk, let alone save Bernard from that mad woman." Jonathan joined the argument. "Son, you certainly cannot use your superpowers. So there is no point in going out as Superman. You would simply undo all that we have tried to do to protect your identity."
This statement might distress Clark, yet he knew his family was right. He leaned against the stair rail and dropped his head onto his arms.
"I can't sit here and do nothing."
That was exactly what Lois wanted; however, she appreciated that it wasn't in Clark to desert a friend in need. Her husband would ignore the fact that he was not fully recovered and do his utmost to rescue his doctor, particularly since he assumed responsibility for Bernard's predicament. Well, if that were the case, she was going along with him; they were a team.
"Then we will go to Star Labs as Lane and Kent, investigating a story as we normally would." Crossing to Martha, she placed Joel into his grandma's outstretched arms and, heaving a heartfelt sigh, she went upstairs to dress. As she passed Clark she took his hand and led him to their bedroom. Earlier that night, when Superman was leaving, she had experienced a fleeting feeling of foreboding. She had sensed that these witches were not done with their revenge and now she had been proved right. Were they never to have any peace in their life?
Watching his son and daughter-in-law leave in the very early hours of the morning created an emotion of pure panic in Jonathan Kent. He walked back indoors and was startled to have his grandson thrust firmly into his grasp as Martha disappeared into the kitchen, emerging a few moments later with something that remotely resembled a small transistor radio. She flicked a switch and a series of lights began flashing from the tiny contraption.
"What's that you have there?" he asked, distracted despite his fears.
"Superman gave it to me when he left. It's an alarm call that like the time machine can jump universes and hopefully he should hear it. Unfortunately it has never been tested. So we must just pray that it works."
Meanwhile, the younger Kents drove up to the Star Labs gates and, after a short altercation with the attending police, they were ushered through. Lois quickly manoeuvred the Jeep into a parking lot in front of Dr. Klein's laboratory. A very harassed Inspector Henderson, who had returned to the crime scene, was not surprised to see the couple and he walked over to them as they exited the car.
"Couldn't stay away, Lois?" he asked, though he had on this occasion misinterpreted the situation.
"Actually, Inspector, I would have quite happily left the investigation up to you and your team this time. It was Clark who insisted on coming."
The detective looked troubled as the three walked under the glow of the surrounding streetlights and he saw how pale and wan the other man appeared. Kent was still far from well. "Are you sure you feel up to this?" He directed his query at Clark.
"Whatever are you suggesting, Inspector? Clark here is as fit as a fiddle." Lois' voice fairly dripped with sarcasm.
The younger man groaned. It was obvious from his resigned expression that his wife had been reading the riot act. "Not you too, Henderson. Lois has been lecturing me all the way out here. Bernard is in this fix because of what he did for me. I have to try to put that right. So, please, give me a break, both of you."
As neither the two actually disapproved of Clark's sentiments, they decided to do as asked, but both silently promised themselves to keep a close watch on his condition. The object of their concerns was not oblivious to the silent glances that passed between his wife and the policeman. He was pretty sure he knew what they were thinking and, much as though he didn't relish the idea of having two nursemaids, he understood their concern. His lack of strength concerned him too.
After giving the reporters permission to look over the surrounding area and reminding Lois that this was a crime scene and that any clues found must be turned over to the police, Henderson went to check on the progress of his men who, it appeared, seemed to be closing down their operations for the time being. The area was cordoned off and a police guard posted to ward off intruders until the forensic team resumed their investigation in the morning.
Within a short while, except for the small attending police presence, Lois and Clark were left alone in the grounds of Star Labs. Henderson could not forbear reminding the couple of his earlier advice, to have a quick perusal of the area and then go home to bed and let the authorities do the job they were paid to do. The silence engulfed them as they walked together over the parking lot and surrounding gardens.
"You know Lois, it's a whole lot easier to search for clues when you have superpowers." Clark squinted at the ground as he strained to cover every inch of terrain.
"Join the human race," Lois said laughingly. "You know this whole episode might just be a very good life lesson for you. Now you'll know how it feels to get tired and have aches and pains like the rest of us mere mortals."
Her words didn't offend her husband. He knew she was only teasing and he decided to return her tease.
"I'll never complain of *your* shortcomings again. I promise." His voice was serious and for a few seconds he fooled his wife, but then she caught the twinkle in his eye and in mock indignation she batted him in the ribs. The painful gasp of breath that met her action shocked her back to reality as Clark bent over and grasped her arm to steady himself. Lois was horrified at what she had done and at her careless forgetfulness.
"Oh Clark, I am so sorry." She led him towards a park bench and pushed him down onto the seat. "I am so used to you being invulnerable to my hits that I didn't think. Are you all right? What am I saying? Of course you're not all right. I've probably re-broken your ribs."
Lois was in her babble mode and for a few minutes Clark was too busy trying to regain control of his breath that he let her ramble, but slowly the pain subsided and his breathing returned to almost normal.
"Lois," he interrupted her flow. "Lois, I'm fine." Which wasn't exactly true, but he was improving. However, his wife wasn't ready to listen so he let her continue with her apologies and her worries for a little longer, then he captured both her hands and pulled her down beside him.
"Lois," this time his voice was stronger and her attention returned to what he was saying. "It was an accident and there's no real harm done. Just remember that I'm not invulnerable for now." He leaned over and brushed her lips with his own, squeezing her hands gently. Tears formed in Lois' eyes as she leant into his kiss.
"I am so sorry," she whispered her apology against his lips. "Are you sure you are O.K.?"
Clark nodded his affirmation. "Let's finish looking this place over and go home. I'm sure the police have been over this ground pretty thoroughly. I doubt we'll find anything."
Lois stood and offered him her hand. They had strayed pretty far from the building and the lighting in this part of the grounds was sparse. Nevertheless, as the couple began to walk back towards the labs the headlights of a car, passing on the far driveway, shown across the dark grounds and glinted on a sliver of gold caught hanging in a bush. The swinging object twigged a memory in Lois' brain and she crossed swiftly to retrieve the article. Clark followed behind.
"Clark, look at this," and she held the gold charm aloft for his inspection. Even in the dark they both recognised what they had found. They hurried back to the Jeep to study the clue under the light.
The small gold crescent-shaped moon with its chain lay in the palm of Lois' hand, as the couple sat in the car reviewing their find. Lois was the first to speak.
"This is definitely Diana's and it is too much of a coincidence that she should lose her favourite charm again. She must have left it for us."
"We don't know that, Lois. I agree that it belongs to Stride, but leaving it as a clue is a pretty far-fetched conclusion. How could she be sure we would find it?"
"She would be sure that Superman would find it, with his super vision. He's been flying around Metropolis for the past few nights doing super deeds. So, as she doesn't know about our 'friend', she's bound to think that you're back up to full power."
Clark conceded that point, but was amazed at his wife's next declaration.
"And if she wanted us to find it, then it must lead to her whereabouts." For some seconds Lois frowned in concentration. "Clark, do you remember where I found her other missing necklace?"
"The cabin the N.I.A. used as a safe house," but Clark was shaking his head. "That cabin was destroyed."
Lois disagreed. "Well, it was pretty badly damaged but it was not destroyed. I would surmise that the N.I.A. probably abandoned it; after all it was no longer a safe house." Lois was warming to this line of thought. "That's exactly the place she would use to hold Bernard; and Diana knows exactly there I found her lost charm; and she's telling us exactly where to find her."
The flights of Lois' intuition never ceased to astound Clark. However, she had been right so often in the past that he was inclined to go along with her on this one, incredible as it might seem.
"O.K. partner, let's go take a look. But I'm telling Henderson where we're off to."
As he began dialling the number Lois looked a little disappointed. Under normal circumstances she liked to do their own sleuthing, but this was not normal. Clark was without his powers, in fact he was still pretty sick and their 'friend' had returned to his own world. The police were the only backup available, but listening to Clark's conversation it appeared he was having difficulty locating Henderson. He left messages informing the police of their destination and explaining to the officer on the other end of the line, who seemed to be having a problem understanding the urgency of the situation, that it was paramount the Inspector be told of their intentions. When he finished, he threw the cell phone down. Whoever had taken his call had clearly upset him. This was an unusual state of affairs, as it was customarily Lois who grew impatient with others' stupidity while Clark had infinite patience. She was surprised therefore when after a few seconds he retrieved the phone and dialled again. This call was to his parents. He told them what they had found and where they were headed and he explained the problem he had in reaching Henderson. His father promised to keep phoning the detective's special line until the Inspector was found and to pass along his message. After a few words of caution from Jonathan warning them both to take care, Clark hung up. For a while he gazed in silence at the dark scenery as his wife drove them swiftly up into the hills above Metropolis.
"This is crazy, Lois. Maybe we should just turn the whole operation over to the police and let them deal with Diana and the others."
Lois could discern a note of rising panic in Clark's voice and, while she understood his horror in facing these women again, especially without his abilities to get them out of trouble, she was taken aback by his fear. Could they have hurt the super hero mentally as well as physically? She was sure her husband was no coward. Clark had proved his worth so many times and often without relying on Superman, but he had been injured very badly in this instance and she realised that his self-confidence had been rocked to its very core. Frantically she searched for something to say that would revive his faltering spirit, when Clark spoke again, so softly that she had to strain to hear his words.
"I've been afraid before. For my parents; for you and Joel; I've always been afraid that I would lose you, that you would be taken from me and I've been afraid to face life without you. But I never seriously considered that I would be the one to die, until Diana succeeded in getting the kryptonite inside me. The thought of never seeing you and Joel and the baby ever again, of leaving you to bring up our children alone terrified me and I would have fought a thousand Dianas to get back to you. And now I'm about to risk everything again and I can't protect you with my powers. But Lois, I have to do this. I can't leave a friend, who has saved my life, to Diana's revenge. She's completely mad and there's no telling what she would do to Bernard if she can't get her hands on me. I only wish I wasn't so weak."
Lois' fears were vanishing. How could she have doubted this amazing man?
"Sweetheart," she leaned over and touched his face gently with her hand, "You are the strongest man I have ever known and superpowers have nothing to do with that. Besides, we're in this together. Remember, together we are stronger than you alone."
His fingers intertwined with hers where they rested against his cheek and he brought her hand to his lips.
"I can't protect you, Lois," he said sadly, shaking his head. "Also it's me she wants. Once she frees the doctor you have got to get out of here. She would kill you simply to see me grieve. You haven't seen her lately, Lois. Believe me. She is totally insane. You have to think of the baby and Joel. The police will be along shortly. Promise me you will leave things to them."
Fortunately for Lois they had reached the turn-off to the cabin and she turned her attention to negotiating the sharp bend and then driving carefully down the narrow forest lined, twisting roads. Clark remained silent during this operation, but when they reached the end of the track and she parked the car deep in the trees, he placed his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him.
"Promise me, Lois."
"I can't," she whispered. "I can't promise to abandon you."
"Lois! Please!" His voice begged her and she caught the glint of tears in his eyes.
"I can't abandon you to Diana, just as you can't leave Bernard to his fate. But I do promise to take great care. And that is my final word on the subject."
That said, she quickly vacated the car. Her husband groaned in frustration. When would she ever listen? Yet conversely, a part of him was thrilled by her answer. Lois' characteristic reply brought a sense of normality to the situation. Now she was creeping covertly through the undergrowth towards the cabin which could be seen glowing dimly up ahead and Clark decided he had best follow her before she got herself in bother. True to her word Lois had halted at the edge of the forest clearing, awaiting her husband. When he joined her the two surveyed the scene. The cabin had been extensively damaged by Stride's attack all those years ago and no repairs had been done since. Part of the roof had fallen in and the glass in the windows was cracked and broken. The front door was falling off its hinges, yet the shack was not at this moment empty. A flickering light showed through the dirty, defunct shutters. Lois could not suppress a smile, spotting a large black limo parked outside the stoop. Diana had made no attempt to hide. As Lois had surmised, she meant for them to find her. That being so, there was no reason whatsoever for them to walk straight into her web.
"What's the plan?" Lois murmured furtively.
In answer Clark shrugged his shoulders and almost squirmed.
"Are you planning to walk up to the front door and knock?" She suggested jokingly.
The way Clark avoided looking at her; the way he stuck his hands deep into his pockets and hunched his shoulders, sent shivers of disquiet down her spine.
"Clark?" She repeated her question. "You are going to just walk in there and give yourself over to that woman?"
"If she agrees to let the doctor go."
"You cannot seriously trust that woman to stick to any agreement." Lois' incredulous voice rose a few octaves. "There is no reason to believe that even when you are her prisoner she will free Bernard."
"She has no quarrel with Dr. Klein. He's only a pawn."
She immediately interrupted him. "Exactly! He's a pawn. And pawns are dispensable. If she's the crazy woman, you say she is, then it's more probable that once she has no further use for him, she'll kill him."
Clark had to admit that his wife had a point.
"And furthermore, she hates you and Dr. Klein saved *your* life. She very likely hates him now too. Crazy people kill the people they hate."
Reasons to stop Clark walking like a lamb to the slaughter into Diana's lair tumbled from her lips, but she'd already convinced him that his role of sacrificial lamb was not the best method of rescuing their friend. He touched her shoulder to gain her attention.
"It's all right Lois. I agree with you. If you have any other ideas I'm open to suggestion."
The trouble was, there didn't seem to be an alternative. However, they both acceded to reconnoitre before taking any action. The trees to the north side of the cabin grew almost to the crumbling walls and the couple concluded that would be the best area from which to approach. Clandestinely they crept in that direction, skirting around the clearing, using the bushes to hide their progress. Even pregnant, Lois was lightweight and lithe and well practised in stealth tactics. Clark, on the other hand, was larger and heavier and at present his weakened state left him off balance. Also he had in the past little need for such machinations. After stepping onto yet another twig which cracked loudly in the stillness, Lois hissed at him to take more care. He shrugged apologetically then went on into the darkness, his wife scurrying behind him. Perhaps the fates had chosen to be kind to them that night, for they landed hard against the timber north wall without discovery. Unfortunately there were no windows in this wall. However, after a small investigation, a wooden panel further along the side appeared to have been removed and drifting from inside came the sound of Diana's voice, stretched tautly with hysteria.
"Where is he?" I was sure that our overgrown Boy Scout would show up to rescue the good doctor." Accompanying the voice came the noise of someone pacing angrily back and forth. "You better pray, Doctor, for the sake of your health, that he shows up very soon. My patience is wearing thin."
"Perhaps he has no intention of coming here. Perhaps he doesn't know where you are." Dr. Klein's voice was steady and defiant.
"Don't treat me as a fool, Klein. I left my charm behind. Superman wouldn't miss a clue like that and his prissy little wife will deduce where I am. Though I hate to admit it, she has certain investigative skills. Between them they'll find their way here."
Her footsteps wandered to the cracked picture window in front of the house and she stood there searching the sky for signs of the arrival of her quarry.
"Superman doesn't have a wife, Ms. Stride," Klein repeated once again. Even in his dangerous predicament he was still trying to protect his friend's secret. Clark and Lois, listening to this exchange, felt very humble and Clark promised silently to rescue this man who had done so much to aid him.
Loud footsteps from inside bore down on the doctor and the unmistakable sound of a slap followed by an involuntary groan told the story of what was happening in the cabin to those waiting, silently pressed against the side wall. Clark instinctively prepared to burst inside, but Lois grabbed him and forcefully held on tight. His first reaction was to shake off the restraining hands, but his wife sent him a challenging look, willing him to wait. The voices from inside started again.
"Ms. Stride, it doesn't matter what you do to me. The facts still remain. Lois Lane is married to Clark Kent, not Superman and neither one is coming here."
"You're right in the first instance and wrong in the second. Lois is Clark's and Superman's wife because they are the same person. And all three will be here to save your life."
Once again her diabolical laugh rang out in the night air, raising the hairs on the back of the necks of the listeners both in and out of the cabin. In the room, Bernard Klein shook himself to rid his mind of his fears and stretched his cramped muscles as best he could, straining against his tight bonds. He recognised madness when he was in its presence and he realised that this female had no intention of releasing him, whether Superman showed up or not. Like Diana he was also certain that Clark would try to rescue him. The dear boy was honourable enough to walk in here and offer to exchange his own life for Bernard's. He was also foolish enough to believe that Diana would honour that exchange. Who knew, Lois and Clark could already be out there in the darkness, planning their next move. It was up to him to warn them to be careful in their dealings with this mad woman.
"Don't treat me like a fool, Ms. Stride," the doctor's voice was stronger than before. "You have no intention of setting me free."
"Right again, Doctor. Apart from the fact that you know far too much about me to stay alive, you upset me a great deal when you saved Superman's life. Any friend of that alien is my enemy. You and your patient will die here."
Outside, Lois forbore to say I told you so, but shot a satisfied glance at her husband. He raised his eyebrows, then pointedly returned to listening into the exchange between Diana and her prisoner.
"And how do you propose to do that?" Bernard felt it was important to find out as much information about this female's plans.
Crossing the room to a rickety old table, Diana pulled a wicked looking weapon from a holdall and brandished it before Klein's face. "What other weapon would 'Diana the Huntress' use?"
Bernard stifled his moan of shock. "A crossbow," he said as loud as he dared, hoping that there was someone outside to hear him. "Diana, I don't mean to disappoint you, but bows and arrows can't kill Superman."
"They will, if they are coated with kryptonite," and once again she gave in to laughter. "They are also pretty deadly to humans too. So don't even think of getting in my way, Klein."
In the darkness outside the two reporters crept back into the undergrowth, far enough from the shack where they could discuss their options without being overheard. They were at a loss to think of a plan that had any more than an infinitesimal chance of success; however, both agreed that they should split up. Clark was all for walking in the door, but that didn't please Lois. She maintained that with Clark in her clutches, Stride would no longer have a reason to wait and would probably carry out her threat at once. Lois suggested that if she went in the front door she could stall for time, while Clark entered through the missing panel and surprised and hopefully disarmed Diana.
"Oh, no. Lois, you are not going anywhere near Diana. You promised me that you would be careful and I…"
Lois reached up and stopped his words with her lips. She kissed him very thoroughly until she felt him relax under her touch, then suddenly she was gone, running in the direction of the entrance to the cabin. Clark stood bemused for a moment, his eyes closed, still feeling the imprint of Lois' lips on his. Seconds later he shook himself and pounded his fist against his thigh in frustration.
"Damn you, Lois! You do this every time and I fall for it every time." It was too late to stop her. Diana would hear if he crashed through the bushes in pursuit and in seconds she would be in sight of the window. He would have to follow her plan; he had no choice, but he intended arguing this out with Lois when they got home (if they ever did). Now he quietly approached the broken wall panel and hoped that it would provide access to the room.
Meanwhile, Lois had reached the road leading to the front door. She slowed down and began to walk slowly towards the cabin, very sure that she was being watched. Yet no one challenged her as she slid silently through the door. In the dim light from the oil lamp she could see Dr. Klein directly across the room, seemingly tied to an old wooden chair, and behind him stood a triumphant Diana, the crossbow held firmly in her hands. Lois' sense of direction was not as accurate as her husband's, yet she was sure that Clark would be entering the cabin from behind and to the left of Bernard and his jailer. In the meantime, Lois had to hold Diana's attention, so with that in mind she moved determinedly into the room.
"Hello Diana, I got your message." Lois held up the gold chain and waved it towards her adversary.
The fact that Lois had come instead of Clark Kent disconcerted Diana a little, but she wasn't prepared to allow that to show. Besides, they were a team, if one was here it was a sure-fire bet that the other was close at hand.
"Welcome, Lois! You are not quite the visitor I had in mind, but perhaps your husband is right outside." She spoke more loudly as she continued. "Please Clark, don't be shy, come out, come out, wherever you are."
Lois took a deep breath and proceeded to lie. "Sorry to disappoint you, Ms. Stride, but Clark is not here. Due to your diabolical meddling my husband is very sick. Dr. Klein will confirm that."
"Most certainly," Bernard joined in readily. "Clark is so ill he is still confined to bed."
"The effects of kryptonite, I presume?" Diana asked slyly.
"Well, I don't suppose that flooding his body with such an unnatural substance did his health much good," the doctor decided that he could fool her with a particle of science, "it did play havoc with his immune system, but I'm referring to the broken bones and the collapsed lung, not to mention the various cuts and contusions that cover his body."
The doctor's statement seemed to rattle Diana's concentration. A frown creased her brow and her free hand covered her eyes for a few moments. This lack of focus in Diana buoyed up Lois' spirit and, in the shadows behind her foe, she discerned a furtive movement. Now she had to distract Stride long enough for Clark to creep closer.
"Superman is flying around Metropolis and Clark is incapacitated. Perhaps now you will accept the fact that you were wrong in your assumption that Clark is Superman."
"No! You're lying!! I saw him with my own eyes."
But Lois could sense the uncertainty that was seeping into Diana and she pushed on with her advantage.
"No one disputes the fact that you saw Superman in Clark's apartment, nor that you found his suits in Clark's closet. My husband is one of Superman's closest friends and friends help each other out. Superman sometimes used Clark's washing machine. Even I have laundered the super suits…occasionally." It didn't hurt to insert a few words of truth into a story. "But Clark and Superman are not the same person."
So many people had tried to persuade Diana of that fact, the doctors in prison and now even her fellow conspirators. Mindy Church believed she was insane and lately Gretchen too had begun to doubt her. The memory of that far-off day had always been so clear in her mind, but since Kent had escaped her prison, her brain had grown steadily more confused. It felt like her mind was filled with fog. She shook her head to clear away the mist and in doing so she turned around in the room…and stood transfixed as her eyes rested on Clark poised halfway between the back wall and herself. The shock pulled her back to reality.
"This is a pleasant surprise, Clark, do come and join us," Diana crowed, as she waved her free hand towards the centre of the room.
Clark contemplated throwing himself at Diana and trying to disarm her, but both he and Lois were too far away and it was pretty certain that Diana could kill at least one of them before she was taken out. For the time being he could only obey and hope for an opening in the next few minutes. He walked across the room, placing himself in front of Lois and shielding her from the deadly cross-bow.
"Diana, you have no quarrel with Lois or Dr. Klein, why don't you let them go and we can discuss your plans… alone." Clark tried to force a note of pleasure and anticipation into his voice. Since their first encounter he had sensed that the woman harboured a hidden sexual attraction for him, a fact that he now chose to exploit. She was beautiful, sensual and very deadly, and she made his blood run cold, but somehow she had this illusion that he shared her passion. If he could convince her of the truth of this, then perhaps she would relax her guard long enough for him to subdue her. "Let's finish this together," he spoke softly as he edged towards her slowly.
Stride watched him, hypnotised by his dark gaze, but Lois, knowing exactly what Clark was about, groaned aloud. It was barely audible, but it was enough to break the spell.
"My plan, Clark, or should I say Superman? The thing is, I don't much care either way any more. My plan is simply to kill you." As she spoke she came a little nearer to him and closer to where Dr. Klein sat tied to the room's solitary chair. "A sensual tjte-`-tjte with you sounds delectable, but I'm sorry I just don't have the time as you've probably informed the police of your whereabouts. So, say good-bye to your wife; your only consolation is that she will soon be joining you."
The crossbow rose in her hands as she took aim. This was her moment. Finally she would kill Superman. She pulled the trigger and Lois screamed and threw herself in front of her husband. At the same moment Dr. Klein, who had been measuring the distance between himself and the crazy woman who had now come to rest directly before him, entered the fray. As Diana's finger tightened on the trigger, he launched himself at her back, ramming into her with his head and sending her and the crossbow spinning across the floor. It was enough to deflect the flight of the bolt and Lois, instead of being transfixed directly in the chest, took the missile high in the muscle of her left arm. The pain was incredible and she sank thankfully into Clark's arms.
Clark was frozen by the suddenness of the action. Instead of the certain death he had expected, he was holding his fainting wife in his arms. She had to stop doing this; this crazy habit she had of throwing herself into danger to save him; his heart couldn't take the shock. Quickly he assessed the situation. Lois, though hurt, was not in any immediate danger and Bernard was sprawled on the floor, still attached to the chair, looking in his direction and wildly making faces in the direction of the prone Diana. Clark took his meaning and, laying Lois gently on the ground, rose to face this persistent enemy.
Stride had been winded by her fall but she speedily began to bring her breathing back under her control. She was not beaten yet and Kent was preoccupied with his wife's state of health. Searching the dark room for her weapon, she found it jammed in a far corner where it had come to rest. It was quite a distance away but she began covertly crawling towards it, only to be brought to a halt by the sight of two jeans-clad legs planting themselves firmly in her path. Her eyes swept upwards over the figure…Kent. Well, she would have to finish him off without the assistance of a weapon. She was an assassin; she was trained in many forms of unarmed combat and he was still suffering from the effects of her last assault. With the images of his broken body firmly in her head, she stood to face him. For a few minutes Clark and Diana stood immobile, then she hurled herself at him, screaming taunts as she delivered a few well-trained blows to his body. Clark knew he was too weak to sustain a prolonged attack. Somehow he managed to duck the next blows and worm his way past her guard, taking her in a bear-hug and successfully trapping her flailing arms. Yet her legs were still doing a considerable amount of damage to his lower body and his ribs were beginning to protest at the amount of pressure he required to retain his hold on her. This contest had to end soon. Momentarily he released his right arm, drew it back and clenched his fist. Diana, catching his intention, grinned impudently into his eyes.
"Really! I think not! Superman would never strike a lady!!"
The sneer broke Clark's control. His arm snapped forward with all the force he could muster and connected with Diana's jaw. An awed expression suffused her face as she slipped into unconsciousness. Clark opened his arms and let her limp body drop to the floor. His fist hurt, but he felt an unaccustomed sense of satisfaction. Normally he was so much stronger than his adversaries, so he supposed that, over the years, he had begun to take for granted the fact that he would overcome anyone who came up against him. This time he had incapacitated Diana without the superpowers and he felt inordinately pleased with himself.
"Very true, Diana, but as I said before, I see no lady." He turned from his fallen foe and dismissed her from his mind. Lois needed his help. After checking that she was still conscious, he crossed to Dr. Klein and untied the older man.
"Bernard, I think Lois could use some of your medical attention."
The doctor nodded, but for a moment he could only stand with the support of Clark and try to flex some blood and some feeling back into his cramped limbs. Slowly he felt his muscles start to stir with the first sensation of pain as they protested against the unaccustomed movement. He leaned heavily on Clark as they made their way to Lois. Efficiently he examined the arm from which the wicked-looking projectile protruded, trying unsuccessfully not to hurt Lois in the process. When he had ascertained that she could still move her hand and twiddle all her fingers, he announced that the wound was in fact not as bad as it looked.
"The arrow is embedded in the muscle, but I'm sure that it hasn't broken any bones or damaged your tendons or nerves. It's not even bleeding very much and that's why I think we should leave it where it is, until we can get you to a hospital where they can remove it under surgical conditions."
Clark spoke up concernedly, "Doc, what about the kryptonite?" Bernard smiled in reassurance," Clark, I think you must be overstressed. Kryptonite doesn't affect humans."
Then the three gazes locked in realization and all three voices spoke as one.
As if on cue, Lois' lower abdomen was assaulted by a stabbing pain and she bent double in an attempt to ease her hurt. She felt Clark's arms tighten around her shoulders and his tone when he spoke betrayed his fears.
"Doctor, how will this affect the baby?"
"The internal contact with kryptonite almost killed you and you're a grown man." Klein's eyes slid away from the frightened faces before him. "An unborn baby has little chance of survival."
The couple exchanged horrified glances and Lois stretched out a hand to Dr. Klein. "I can't lose my baby. That…thing," and she pointed with her chin, as the tears started to spill down her cheeks, "has to come out *now*."
Searching desperately round the cabin, Bernard nodded in agreement. "You're right, only there's nothing here I can use." Since the cabin had been abandoned as a safe house it had been stripped of all its internal furnishings. Lois' wan face turned to her husband.
"Can't you use your laser-vision to cut it out?"
"Oh sweetheart, I only wish I could, but I have no powers."
"Then we have to resort to old-fashioned methods," the doctor had made a decision and was even now planning the modus operandi. Meanwhile Lois and Clark were left in the dark.
"What do you mean, Doc?" Clark inquired, almost afraid to ask.
"The way they do it in old cowboy movies." Klein's mind had already moved on to the coming operation and he was oblivious to the incredulous looks the couple were giving him.
"You must be kidding!? You mean pull the arrow out!!?"
An involuntary gasp escaped Lois at her husband's question.
"Certainly not!!" Klein was adamant. "Arrowheads are barbed. If it's pulled back along its trajectory the barbs will tear the tendons to shreds. It could even damage the nerve endings. The arrow has to be pushed through and out the other side. And you will have to do it, Clark. Even with your illnesses you're stronger than I." While the doctor spoke, his fingers were gently probing Lois' underarm and she jerked in pain as he pressed against the foreign-body which was buried in her flesh. "The arrowhead is just here, below the surface. It won't take much force to remove it."
But Clark was still looking dismayed; he wasn't sure he could cause his wife such pain. Lois was not, however, in any doubt. The pain in her stomach was growing in strength; there was no more time.
"Clark, this baby is in distress. You have to take the kryptonite away," she begged.
His answering gaze was grim, but he quickly rose and fetched the fallen chair to her side. Placing her arm gently across the seat, he instructed the doctor to hold the limb steady. Now that he had accepted the necessity of the action, he was all determination. He took a deep breath, then resolutely grasped the arrow shaft. Such close proximity to the arrowhead coated with its poison began to have a debilitating effect on his health, but shielded as it was by Lois' flesh the consequence was bearable. However, for all their sakes, this operation had to be carried out as quickly as possible. He bore down with all his remaining strength. For an infinitesimal time Lois' muscles and sinews gripped the invading object and then the bolt-head burst through her tortured skin. Clark speedily split the shaft and withdrew the rest of the arrow from his wife's arm. Because of its toxic coating he rushed to the door and hurled the offending article out into the dark undergrowth. The whole incident had caused him more suffering than he cared to admit, both mentally and physically, so he clung to the doorpost and breathed in the fresh night air. When he felt sufficiently recovered, he turned to walk back to his wife and noticed, with a passing sensation of frustration, that Stride was no longer in the room. She must have escaped when they were engrossed with helping Lois. Damn the woman! She had more lives than a cat! Then Lois called to him and he dismissed Diana from his mind. Dr. Klein was attempting to wrap a large handkerchief around the now steadily bleeding wound and Clark didn't need his super-senses to realise that his wife was close to fainting. The most important task at present was to get Lois to a hospital. The police could deal with Diana Stride.
When she awoke, the fog in Diana's head had seemed denser than previously; she had to concentrate very hard to simply remember where she was. She could hear a murmur of intense conversation from across the room and raising her aching head she squinted in the direction of the voices. The group of three people were vaguely familiar, but why were they here? Why was she here, in what seemed to be a wreck of a cabin? Perhaps if she could hear what they were saying she would get some clues to her whereabouts. Listening in on their conversation wasn't a problem as they were oblivious to her presence and what she overheard brought realisation flooding back.
"Can't you use your laser-vision to cut it out?"
And his answer!
"…but I have no powers."
Diana had almost crowed in triumph at that point, but, of course, she didn't wish to draw their attention to her. If she could escape, she could return to Mindy Church and verify once and for all that Clark Kent was Superman. Just who that other fellow was that was flying around Metropolis, she had no idea. Maybe Kent had a twin brother; maybe he was a clone. While she was in prison, she'd heard some rumour about Lex Luthor creating a clone of Lois Lane and substituted the creature for the real Lois just before Lane and Kent's wedding. Her cellmate hadn't been very pleased when she discovered that Lex was once again in Lois' thrall and, when it filtered through the prison grapevine that Lex had in fact been killed in Superman's subsequent rescue of his bride, Gretchen had almost gone crazy with grief. Yet the sorrow had coalesced into an implacable hatred of those she held responsible for Lex's death and thus had forged the bond for Diana and Gretchen's partnership.
This, however, was no time for reminiscing; while the other three occupants of the room were distracted, she had the opportunity to escape. Later she could return with Church's thugs and finish Kent and his wife once and for all. It was all so easy, slipping into the shadows and through the broken panel, that had given access to Superman, but…Damn! Things just got complicated. The keys to her car were still inside the cabin, which meant she would have to walk back into the city. Perhaps when she reached the highway, she could hitch a lift back into town. With that in mind she struck out along the forest track, keeping close to the bushes in case Kent spotted her absence and came seeking her. It was very dark and the ground was rough and pitted with tree roots. A number of times she almost stumbled and fell. Her exposed skin was scratched and torn by the branches she had failed to avoid. So it was with great relief that she saw the men standing in a small clearing by one of Church's black limos. For a short time she watched them, wanting to confirm that they actually were personnel from Intergang. One of the men moved to the trunk of the car and removed a heavy-duty flashlight. The beam wandered across the dark forest and lighted on his companion. Diana recognised him immediately as Mindy's right-hand man.
"Right, Lenny, this is the only other track up this damned mountain and we've checked out the other two. She has to be around here somewhere. If you had stayed closer to her tail we wouldn't have lost her and we wouldn't be faking around this damned wood in the dark."
His companion grinned sheepishly at him.
"Well let's go. The boss won't be pleased if we don't find her."
Stride was happy. She was about to prove her theory correct; these goons would help her kill the three in the cabin and she had a ride back into town. Smiling and waving to attract their attention, she stepped out from the cover of the trees and began walking towards the car. She saw the men spot her and walk a few steps in her direction. She called out a greeting and was still smiling as the bullets ripped into her chest, killing her instantly. The men hurried over to the body to check for a pulse. They were professional killers and they didn't leave a job undone. After a few seconds they were satisfied.
"Let's get out of here and back into town. The boss will be chuffed to know that we've rid her of one of her problems." They hurried back to the limo. One of them coming in contact with a low hanging branch. "Jesus! Come on, hurry. I hate the damned country." Quickly they turned the car around and sped back down the mountain, congratulating themselves on a successful mission. They weren't watching the sky, so they didn't see the blue and red streak that veered in the direction of their last port of call.
Superman observed the cabin in the woods up ahead and dropped altitude so that he flew along the roadway, barely skirting the tops of the trees. He could see Lois' Jeep hidden in the thicket, but nearer him in the middle of the track lay a crumpled heap. As he alighted on the ground, a few paces from the still form, he recognised Diana Stride. A swift check for vital signs told him that what her rag doll appearance suggested was correct. The woman was dead; she would plague Lois and Clark no more.
He hated death, it was such a waste, yet it did not haunt him as it did the Clark of this world. Possibly because his parents had died when he was a boy and his ensuing lifestyle had been certainly different, he had developed a tougher shell than his doppelganger. He had once envied Clark the warm cocoon of his family, but trusting people and letting them get too close had led to his double's serious injury. Now Clark had lost his powers and no one knew if they would return. The alternative Superman was not a vain man, yet he enjoyed his attributes, the power and agility, the ability to fly; and he was proud of his accomplishments, the things he could do to help make a difference in his world. If all of that suddenly disappeared, he would be devastated. Growing up, he had wished so often to be normal, to just fit in with the rest of humanity. Now he wasn't sure he could cope with that kind of normality. He hoped his other self wouldn't have to learn that lesson either and that wasn't a purely selfless wish. Since it seemed his alarm actually managed to jump universes, he could be called on to help out more and more in this world and he surmised that even super energy could not withstand the pressure of two worlds. Boy, what he wouldn't give for a nice vacation on some deserted island; maybe he might persuade his Lois to accompany him.
Right at this moment he had a clean-up a job to do. The holiday would have to wait. There were voices emanating from the cabin and they sounded a little shrill, as if they were worried about something…or someone. He left Stride's body for the police examiner and went to investigate. As he reached the stoop of the cabin, Clark emerged carrying a conscious but obviously injured Lois. Dr. Klein came scurrying behind, fussily instructing Clark to be careful with his patient and not increase the hurt by knocking the wound against any protruding obstacles. Meanwhile, Lois, though clearly suffering a great deal of pain, was insisting that she could walk and that Clark was not yet strong enough to carry her. As usual, her husband was disagreeing and admonishing her to keep still as her wriggling was making it difficult for him to hold her. They all three froze as they saw him at the foot of the stairs. Once more he had the distinct impression that Clark did not find his presence particularly welcome.
"Superman!! What are you doing here? And how did you know where to find us?" Lois had asked the questions that were on all three minds.
"When I left, I gave your mother an alarm system I had been working on. To tell the truth I wasn't sure if it would cross the dimensional time-lines, but it worked and when I arrived back at your home your parents gave me these directions. Jonathan eventually managed to contact Inspector Henderson, so I expect the police will be arriving soon."
Clark had been worriedly studying the surrounding area. "Diana Stride is out there somewhere. Perhaps you could do a quick scan and find her."
"I already found her. She's out along the track and she won't be troubling you again, that's for certain."
Superman received a long searching stare from his double, who eventually spoke, not quite certain how to ask his questions. "So Diana is finally dead? Just how did she die?"
The man in the blue suit was growing steadily annoyed. What was with this guy? "*I* didn't kill her, if that's what you are asking. I may not have your over-sensitive conscience but I don't kill unnecessarily. She was already dead when I arrived. There was a black limo, with two occupants who could well be Intergang employees, speeding down the mountain on the way back to town. I memorised the plates but I doubt it will do much good. We won't be able to trace the car back to Ms. Church."
Clark had the grace to look apologetic. "So Diana became a liability for Mindy and she disposed of her, like everyone else who can tie her into a crime." Clark shook his head sadly, but if he were honest, he was not really upset by Diana's death. At least with her gone the questions about his identity would cease.
Lois shifted in his clasp, "I wonder what will happen to Gretchen Kelly?" Her voice was starting to weaken.
"Well, I'm sure the police can investigate that question." Dr. Klein started to fuss over his patient again. "We have to get you to a hospital and have that arm attended to."
Clark nodded in agreement and purposefully walked down the stair and turned in the direction of the Jeep, but Superman came to stand in his way.
"Let me? I can have her in the hospital in minutes," the blue-clad figure suggested, holding his arms out to receive Lois. "You and the Doctor can follow in the Jeep. She will be safe with me."
Reluctantly Clark had to accede and with a small sigh he made to deposit Lois into Superman's outstretched arms. He was surprised when Lois herself resisted the move.
"Thank you, Superman, but my husband can take care of me."
"Lois," Clark protested, "He's right. You could be at Metro-General within a very short time. You really should go with Superman."
Again Lois shook her head, "But I would much rather go with you," and she leant into his body and placed a feather light kiss on his neck. Clark's heart swelled with gratitude. Lois turned her attention to the doctor. "Bernard, will I come to any harm of I take the long way there?"
After some consideration and a quick check of the temporary bandage he replied. "The bleeding has slowed down, so we have some time. And of course, you had those contractions, which fortunately stopped when the kryptonite was removed. A flight, no matter how short, might not be very beneficial for you at present. Besides, I can take care of you while we're in the car." Bernard had deduced that Lois felt it important to remain with her husband and they shared a conspiratorial glance.
Superman meanwhile, had picked up on a salient point in the doctor's preamble. "Kryptonite! There's kryptonite around here?" He adjusted his vision to scan the area. Clark bobbed his head in the general direction he had tossed the arrowhead. "Actually it's an arrow coated with the stuff. If you keep your distance it shouldn't pose too many problems."
"Right, right," the hero's attention returned to his friends. Noticing the way Lois' eyes rested on her husband's face. It was clear that they wanted only each other's company. "Why don't you take Lois to hospital and I'll wait here for the police to show?"
All three agreed with his suggestion and after flying the Jeep to the cabin he watched as they drove off through the trees, Lois safely ensconced in the back with her own personal physician. He settled down to await the arrival of Henderson and his men, hoping that this wouldn't take too long and that he could soon return to his own Earth and his own friends; they weren't great in number, but they knew who he truly was and they still cared for him. Moreover, he knew he was no longer needed here.
Three days later, Lois moved easily about her kitchen, preparing a light lunch for her family. Her arm still felt stiff and gave her the occasional twinge of pain, but she was well on the way to recovery. The doctors in the emergency unit had been both pleased and surprised at the makeshift treatment she had received before her arrival, making their job of tidying up a whole lot easier. Still, they had insisted she spend one night as an inpatient, in case there were complications, or indeed if the baby should start causing concern again. Fortunately that hadn't occurred and she hadn't needed Clark's assurance that the baby's heart beat was strong and steady, because it appeared this baby was quite capable of making its presence known to its mother. The next morning they had discharged her, with painkillers and fresh dressings and, under the premise that she take things very easily over the next few weeks. Lois uncharacteristically was happy to oblige, though the fact that Clark had been given the same instructions from Bernard Klein might have had something to do with her very ready compliance.
She sang happily as she completed her task, putting the finishing touches to the sandwiches and placing them on a tray, alongside a bowl of disgustingly bland baby-food (at least Joel seemed to like it ). Her glance strayed through the window to her two favourite guys, now lounging on a sun-bed amongst the plant tubs on the patio. Clark was wearing only his plaid shorts, the better to soak up the sun's rays, which hopefully would help to rejuvenate his powers. Lois wasn't complaining; her thoughts strayed to the previous night when her husband had displayed quite enough power to keep her satisfied for a lifetime. She blushed delightedly at her 'wicked' reminiscences and her eyes glowed as she took in his beautiful form. How could she have ever contemplated leaving him? Almost losing someone you loved certainly concentrated the mind.
At that moment her son, who was sleeping spreadeagled across his father's chest, turned his face towards her and stuck his fist firmly into his mouth and began rubbing it against his gums. Joel was teething and the cheek that was now exposed to her gaze was rosy-red. They were about to experience a few sleepless nights, if her reading of the situation was correct. Or, who knew, perhaps super-babies got all their teeth in one go. Not, however, according to Martha, who reported that Clark had had teething troubles like any other child. Even in his slumber, Clark had sensed his son's restless movements and gently rubbed his hand across the baby's T-shirt-covered back. Unlike his father, Joel was fully clothed, from his little white socks to the cute little sunhat that was sitting slightly askew on his head. Being half-human, they didn't know if the sun's rays could possibly burn Joel and no one was willing to take that risk, so the infant was also liberally smeared with sun-block.
Just as Lois prepared to lift the tray, the phone rang and she half-heartedly went to answer it. She didn't welcome any interruptions of this precious time spent with her loved ones. The world outside would intrude all too soon.
Minutes later Clark stretched languidly in the warm sun and opened his eyes on his wife as she placed the tray on the table by his side. She smiled in greeting.
"Hi sleepyhead. Did you enjoy your nap?"
"Hmmm…It was nice, but you should have asked me to carry the tray."
"But you looked so peaceful and besides, Bernard says you have to spend time relaxing in the sun. And my arm doesn't hurt anymore," but when he shot her a sceptical look at that last remark, she amended her statement. "Well not so much as before," There were a few seconds of silence while she contemplated telling him the next bit of news. She had been right; the world always interfered with their interludes of peace. Clark sensed she had unpleasant information to impart, so he decided to prompt her.
"Who was that on the phone?"
"Inspector Henderson," she was reluctant to continue.
"More bad news?"
"Not exactly…well, I suppose that depends on which way you look at it."
"Lois, I'm really not into guessing games at the moment."
"They fished Gretchen Kelly's body out of Hobbs Bay early this morning. They have no clue as to how she got there or who put her there, but they assume she's been in the water for a couple of days. The Inspector say's he'll have more information once the autopsy is complete. They also found the car Superman spotted leaving the mountains in a landfill sight more than a hundred miles away. No prints, no clues…nothing, and the number plates were from a car reported stolen over a week ago."
Kelly's death was not a surprise. Ever since he had driven round Diana's lifeless body, lying forlornly on the forest track, he had expected her accomplice to meet with a similar fate.
"So once again, no links to Intergang."
"And Mindy Church goes free once again. Can't you remember spotting her when you were in that basement?" Lois was clutching at straws and she knew it.
"I remember Stride and Kelly and later I'm sure Mindy put in an appearance along with the two goons who beat me up. But my recollection of events is really hazy and you can be sure that Ms. Church will have a reliable alibi. I couldn't even say for certain which house they held me in. I know it wasn't far from here, otherwise I would never have made it home, but don't ask me to find it again because I couldn't."
"It wouldn't make a scrap of difference anyway," Lois comforted him. "You can be sure that house has been swept clean. That woman may act like an empty-headed bimbo, but she has a brain as sharp as a razor."
"Well, don't worry, honey. One day she will make a mistake and cut herself and then we'll see to it that she's locked up for a very long time." He stretched out a hand to cup her face and slid his thumb tenderly across her lips. "And with the terrible twosome gone we don't have to worry about anyone else finding out about 'you know who'."
"Speaking of…'you know who', we really weren't very appreciative of him when he showed up at the cabin. I have to admit to a certain feeling of guilt as to the way we treated him." She tilted her cheek into his hand and regarded him with wistful eyes.
"I know," he agreed, "but when I apologised he seemed to understand."
"You apologised? When?"
"When he turned up at Metro-General to find out how you were doing." Lois was watching him suspiciously. "I did ask him to wait and see you for himself, but he was anxious to be on his way. So I thanked him for all his help and told him that I hoped one day to be able to return the favour." Clark laughed as he recalled his double's wry grin. "He said 'he sincerely hoped that wouldn't ever be necessary'."
"Why didn't you mention this before?"
Clark had the grace to look a little sheepish at her question, but before he could concoct an answer that suited her, she leaned forward and kissed him gently.
"You have absolutely no reason to be jealous. I love only you."
At her statement Clark's eyebrows shot up and he immediately prepared to refute her implication, but truth won out.
"You're right. I was a little jealous. I trust you, honey and I know you would never betray me, but I guess that seeing him with the superpowers reminded me of what I'd lost."
"Not lost…only misplaced for a time. Besides, even without the superpowers you did pretty good."
Modesty made him protest that…but he did feel pretty pleased with himself. He had rescued Bernard and beaten Diana Stride. He had saved his wife and child. He had even gotten himself out of that basement and all without a single superpower. Lois gave him one of her most doting looks and continued. "And I love you…*you*, not the powers. Don't ever forget that."
Clark returned her look with his own tender smile. He was sure that given time Superman would return. In fact, he could feel the life force bubbling up inside him, but at present he was content to laze in the sun and enjoy the company of his growing family.
The murmur of his parents' voices had finally penetrated Joel's sleepy mind and he proceeded to squirm around on his Dad's body. His tiny fist rubbed the sleep from his eyes and then pushed against his father's chest in an effort to sit up. A large gentle hand helped his action and he smiled in the general direction of the soft voices. Joel was sure it was time to eat, his stomach was beginning to wake up too, but the sun made him feel so warm and fuzzy. As a huge yawn split his face his Mom let out a loud squeal and the baby jumped when she caught hold of his chin and opened his mouth. A tiny sliver of white was just pushing through the pink gums.
"A tooth!! Clark! Joel's first tooth!" Lois inserted a finger into her son's mouth and carefully probed the slightly reddened gums. "And I can feel another beneath the surface," the proud mom crowed and Clark laughed. Whoever would have thought that Lois would have gotten so excited about a first tooth; not Lois Lane, cynical, hard-bitten investigative reporter?
Joel grabbed the intruding object and tried to eat it, and at that Lois withdrew her digit and walked her fingers playfully down his body till they reached his tummy. Once there she started a game of tickle, only this time Joel didn't care to play. He was hungry and he opened his mouth to shout his protest, but before he could utter a sound a spoonful of food was inserted between his lips, propelled there by his Daddy's hand. This delighted Joel immensely and he grinned in appreciation, a messy one-toothed smile, at his dad. Lois also looked in appreciation at Clark.
"That was fast, sweetheart, very fast," she whispered admiringly.
"Yes!" Clark sounded thrilled. "Almost super-fast."