By Linda Mooney (MacWombat@aol.com)
Summary: Lois is proud when Superman goes to Africa to help fight a deadly epidemic. But when Lois begins receiving strange gifts, she becomes decidely uneasy. Calling on Perry and Jimmy for help, she tries to discover who is stalking her — before it's too late. (Episode #18 of The Unaired Fifth Season)
The newscaster had warned them that the pictures would be graphic, and cautioned his viewers that children should leave the room. Then the scenes came pouring in from Kinshasa, Africa. Mounds of bodies were piled high into burning pyres. The small, inadequate hospital had patients lining the corridors and outside under tents where there was little to keep the fatally contagious disease from spreading further into the surrounding villages.
Stricken men, women, and children reached out from their makeshift beds, pleading and begging for help, for relief from the devastating virus which slid through their bloodstreams, exploding their corpuscles and mangling their inner organs, to leave them as nothing more than heavy sacks of blood within a seventy-two hour period.
Even after all she had seen in her many years as a reporter, the sight of the mangled and bloodied corpses turned what she thought was an iron stomach, and Lois felt ill. Unable to avert her eyes from the horror on the television screen, she unconsciously gripped the sofa pillow so hard that the seams began to split.
Clark walked in with a bowl of popcorn, and immediately noticed her drained expression. "Lois?"
"… no relief in sight. The World Health Organization has quarantined the entire country of Botswana, and all passports have been suspended until further notice."
"My God, Clark, have you seen this?" Lois breathed softly.
Clark felt a chill go up his spine as he viewed the ravaged remains of what had been ordinary people a week ago. Laying the bowl of popcorn on the coffee table, he sat on the floor next to Lois's feet and took the cold hand she extended to him. "Where is this?" he asked.
"A place called Kinshasa. This disease… they're calling it the Kinshasa Virus… it has a one hundred percent mortality rate."
"One hundred…" Clark tore his eyes away to glance up at her. Giving her hand a small squeeze, he turned back to the tv as the newscaster wrapped up the story.
"… team of specialists and doctors will be flying in to try and find a way to counteract this deadly disease, but Dr. Ambuguay is doubtful a cure can be found soon. The Center for Disease Control estimates that within the next two weeks, if this disease is not controlled, an estimated four million people could become infected and die."
The scene switched to a closeup of a gray-haired black man. From the slump in his shoulders, it was obvious the weight of the disaster was already telling on him. "This virus has been labeled a Level Four contagion. That alone means we have to work slowly and with great caution to prevent it spreading any further. But our first priority is to keep the virus contained, which amounts to nothing less than a superhuman feat."
Clark felt a slight squeeze in his hand, and he returned the pressure.
"In short, it will take a miracle to find the source of the virus, and an antidote, before the entire country… or continent… becomes a mass graveyard."
The scene went back to the newscaster, who wrapped up the story before breaking for commercials. Clark knew before he looked back up at his wife's face what she was thinking.
"I have to go, Lois," he murmured softly.
She nodded. "I know. Those poor, poor people."
"Question is, how will we explain Clark's absence? There's no telling how long I'll have to be gone," he continued, and rubbed her hand lightly against his cheek. "And will you be all right while I'm gone?"
"Me?" Lois gave a light-hearted laugh. "Hey, I may look like a commercial for Miracle Gro, but I can take care of myself. And it's not like there's no one I can contact in case I need any help." She ran a thumb down the bridge of his nose and gave him a loving look. "I'm just now entering my third trimester. Even if you have to be gone a month or two, I'll be a ways from my due date."
"I can't even promise I can do any good," Clark observed. "Bad guys, yes. Diseases…"
"It doesn't matter," she argued gently. "You'll never know until you try. If anyone can defeat this thing, Superman can."
"I didn't know cheerleading came with the marriage license," he quipped.
"Sure, it did!" she managed to laugh. "Right there in the same paragraph that mentions such Olympic sports as Kryptonite Tossing, Blue Suit Laundering, and ducking heat vision lances in the kitchen."
Clark laughed with her, then grew serious once more. "Then there's the stories we have to concoct for Perry's benefit."
Lois smiled. "Don't worry. I think we've had plenty of practice in that field, too," she assured him.
Perry White stared at his top two reporters with nothing less than admiration. "Now, let me get this straight," he said, getting to his feet and walking around his desk. Perching his butt against the edge of the table, he began to tick off the details on his fingers. "One, Clark here wants to go to Kinshasa to be a part of the media entourage covering this disease."
"At the request of Superman," Lois interjected.
Perry slowly shook his head. "At the request of Superman. You're going to do a daily in-depth report on the crisis there, am I right?"
Clark nodded. "I've already checked. The satellite hook-ups should be in place by the time I get there."
"And how can you be sure you'll be safe, Son?" the editor asked with concern. "I mean, after all, this ain't your average hostage situation we've got here. Those bullets are invisible, and they're one hundred percent accurate and deadly."
Lois spoke up. "Perry, if I didn't believe Superman when he told us he promised no harm would come to Clark, do you think I would even entertain the thought of my husband going overthere? As close as we are to having this baby?" She patted her round tummy in emphasis.
"Well, you gotta point there. And I think this idea of having Clark cover this story for the paper is a brilliant idea…"
"Not just cover," added Clark. "I was thinking about going at it from the human aspect of it. I want to tell how entire families, complete generations of people, are being wiped out, totally, completely, and forever. I want to see how the doctors and nurses are coping with this disease they can do nothing about, and how they're handling the emotional brunt of knowing their patients can never survive. I don't want to just cover Superman's hunt for the ultimate antidote… I want to tell the stories that usually get swept under the rug."
Perry stared at the young man for a moment. "Okay, you got me sold. How soon can you be packed? Any idea when Superman will be over there?"
"He said he had to first contact the mayor's office, and the chief of police, to let them know he would be gone for an indeterminable amount of time, so they can beef up their reserves," answered Clark.
"That's right. We have no idea how long this thing can drag on." Glancing at Lois, the editor queried, "Think you can manage without Clark for a while?"
Lois gave him a small smile. "I'm just in my sixth month. I'm trusting Superman to perform one of his many miracles and get this thing conquered before I'm due." She looked over at her husband.
Perry caught the look, and cleared his throat. "Awright. Let's go at this thing from the standpoint that Clark will be gone for at least two to three months. If it drags on any further, I'm pulling him outta there and replacing him. No argument," he added as Clark opened his mouth to protest.
Walking back around his desk and sinking into his chair, Perry made a few notes on a yellow tablet, then reached for his phone. "Hello, Matthews? Give me Peterson's office. I want to speak to Paul, and pronto." He looked up to see Lois and Clark still sitting and watching him. "Well? What are you waiting for? Don't you have a suitcase to pack? There should be a ticket waiting foryou at the airport when you get there."
Lois followed her husband out into the newsroom where she stopped him. "I… I've never been real good at this goodbye' thing. You know that." She smiled sadly and lowered her eyes. Her fingers fussed with his tie. "I know you'll be okay, but it's going to make for some long nights with you gone."
Clark lifted her chin with his hand and gazed at her tenderly. "If you want, I can fly back every night."
"No, no," she shook her head. "They need you there twenty-four hours a day. And we can't risk you bringing something back with you."
"Then I'll take a quick dip in the sun," he laughed softly.
"I am serious. Lois, it's going to be a major emotional drain on me, too."
"I know, I know." She leaned into his embrace and buried her nose into the side of his neck, closing her eyes. "Just find a cure, and quickly."
"I promise I'll do everything I can. I'll also call you every night to see how you're doing, okay?"
"Every night. And if at any time you need me, just say so. I can be here before you can sneeze."
"After your dip in the sun?" she asked with a slight tease in her voice.
Clark paused. "Well… make that two sneezes."
She chuckled and gave him a long, warm kiss, oblivious to the stares from the others in the newsroom. "I love you," she whispered, and shook him slightly by the lapels.
"Not any more than I love you," Clark responded. Placing a hand to her tummy, he whispered, "And you behave yourself and mind your mother while I'm gone, you hear? Can't have you causing problems when I'm gone." Giving her one last soft kiss, he pivoted and strode up the ramp and directly into a waiting elevator without looking back.
Lois watched as the doors slid shut. Taking a deep breath, she went over to her desk, plopped down in her chair, and reached for the phone. "Hello, Murphy's Pizza? I'd like to order one of your kitchen sink pizzas. Large. With the works… yes, and anchovies!" Hanging up, she turned on her computer and tried to see where she'd left off on her recent story, determined to bury herself in her work as much as possible. Not that it would help, but it was a start.
Later that afternoon, Perry announced Clark's new assignment to the newsroom on the Tote Board. Over against the far wall of the newsroom, a computer screen showed each reporter's current story in order for everyone to know who to contact in case a lead, a photo op, or some research panned out and had to be diverted to the proper person. In cases where a reporter was undercover, or handling an assignment that was potentially dangerous, the Tote Board read ON ASSIGNMENT. In Clark's case, the message following his name simply said KINSHASA.
Jimmy was the first one to say anything to Lois. "Hey, Lois, is Clark going to be okay?" he asked worried.
"Superman is going over there to see what he can do to help," she explained. "He asked Clark to go along."
"Wow! Superman? That's going to be some story!" Catching himself, the young man added, "I'm sure Clark will take every precaution. So… you still working on that black market blue jeans story?"
Lois sighed and cupped her chin in her hands, resting her elbows on the edge of her desk. "I'm afraid I'm on a standstill on that one. What I need is for one good leak to crack it wide open." Her eyes got "that look" that Jimmy recognized, just as she reached for the phone. "Maybe it's time to call Bobby Bigmouth and see if he likes leftover pizza with anchovies."
Both looked up to see a delivery boy peering over a dozen red roses. Lois put down the receiver and beamed. "Yes, I'm Mrs. Kent."
The delivery boy set the vase on her desk, then help up his hand as she tried to tip him. "Already taken care of," he grinned, and left.
Jimmy shook his head. "That Clark. Thinks of everything."
Lois reached for the card and pulled it from the envelope. The handwriting wasn't Clark's; she assumed he'd probably called in to the florist to order them. " 'With love, forever and ever, amen.'," she read aloud. She leaned over to sniff one partially-open bud and commented, "Well, if he's going to send me flowers everyday, maybe his being gone won't be so bad after all."
"Perhaps not," Jimmy said as he turned to leave, "but you're gonna have one heckuva floral bill when he gets back!" He laughed and ducked as she threw a pink telephone pad at him.
Grinning, Lois went back to trying to reach Bobby Bigmouth.
That evening, Lois decided to try her hand at a new dish she'd been wanting to make. Normally she avoided experimentation whenever it meant cooking for the both of them, but with Clark gone she figured that if it turned out completely inedible, she could always do with a peanut butter and banana sandwich for supper.
There weren't many ingredients to the casserole. Searching through the spice cabinet, she hunted for the sage, but was unable to find the tin she knew was supposed to be there. "Now, where on earth can you be hiding?" she wondered aloud. She went to the cabinet next to the stove and was sifting though it when the phone rang. She picked up the cordless extension as she continued to search. "Hello?"
"Clark! My goodness! You're already there?"
"Well, actually, I'm in a little village called Barabont, about two hundred miles from Kinshasa. My plane landed at the Folkradu about thirty minutes ago. I took the liberty of striking out on my own when we arrived so I wouldn't be hampered by having to stick with the other four reporters who were also on my flight. This is the closest that Clark can get at the moment. They hope to let us move closer, to a village called Poram, in the next day or two. I'm using the satellite hookup right now, but I'm limited to five minutes for personal calls. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she responded. "Oh, and thanks so much for the roses. That was sweet of you. Would you know where the sage is?" At that moment, she spotted the elusive little canister, but it was out of her reach, far in the back of the cabinet. Concentrating on trying to grab the spice, she missed some of Clark's answer.
"…roses? I didn't send you any flowers, Lois."
"Oh, you didn't? Humm. Wonder who sent them?" She shrugged it off, too preoccupied to give it any further thought. She paused, a bit breathless. "I miss you," she admitted. "I'm even doing some cooking to help me through my depression."
She could hear his distant laughter. "I miss you. Look, I'll call you tomorrow night, same time, okay? Love you, Lois."
"I love you, too. Good luck!"
"Thanks. Keep an eye open for my first transmittal. I'll be sending it in tomorrow. Bye." The connection went dead, and Lois hung up on the dial tone. Sighing, she turned her attention back to the tin of sage, and looked about the kitchen to see what if anything she could use to help her reach it. Her gaze landed on an empty coat hanger resting on the pantry doorknob. Clark often washed his Superman suits and hung them to air dry in the kitchen.
Grabbing the hanger, she was quickly able to snag the tin and drag it to the front of the cabinet. Pleased with herself, Lois muttered, "See? I can manage for myself," and placed the instrument back on the doorknob. That done, she finished her preparations and set the casserole dish into the oven to bake. Between dinner, a long shower, and the movie she'd rented, that should take care of ONE night. She hoped.
The next morning Perry motioned her into his office the moment he saw her step out of the elevators. She walked in, curious. "What's up, Chief?"
"Well, I have some good news and some bad news, Lois," he began.
Lois grimaced. "I hate it when you begin like that. Okay, give the good news first. I need the encouragement to get me through the bad."
"Good news is that story you were working on? About the knock-off designer jeans being sold on the black market? Seems the police had a mole planted inside. Story broke wide open late last night."
"Yeah, well, it happens, as we both know. So that story is now file thirteen."
Lois crossed her arms. "And this sets me up for the bad news? Okay, go ahead and hit me."
"I'm pulling you off active duty…"
"Don't argue with me on this, young lady. You know policy. I'll be assigning you to light stories and desk duty until you deliver, you hear me?" Perry spoke sternly. He was ready to battle it out with her if she continued to protest, as he knew she would do. But, to his absolute surprise, Lois chewed her lower lip for a minute before replying.
"How light' are these stories? You're not talking puff pieces, are you?"
"I'm talking anything that in no way whatsoever will put you in any kind of danger, or in the line of fire. I can't risk it, Lois. And you know Clark would have my hide if I didn't take the utmost care of you right at this time." He watched as she slid into one of the available chairs.
"All right…" she sighed, shrugging. "My current story is trashed. What have you got going for me? Please, not the Ladies Auxiliary Hash Festival or something equally obnoxious!"
"School board bond election," Perry tossed at her.
"W. B. Barnes. Ever heard of him?"
"Barnes. Tall, skinny guy? Looks like that actor from the 60s? Wally Cox? What about him?"
"Rumor says he's trying to buy his way in." Perry handed her a sheet of notes from his desk.
She wrinkled her nose. "Who would want to buy their way onto the Metropolis Independent School Board to haggle over the passage of a bond election?"
"That's what I want you to find out," he told her.
Lois nodded, getting to her feet to leave.
"Oh, have you heard from Clark yet?" he asked.
"He's in Africa. Said to look for his first transmission today," she replied before closing the door behind her.
Lois stopped first at the Tote Board to check over the duty roster. As she approached her desk, she was in time to see Morris from the mailroom leave a box of unopened mail on her desk. She stopped and gave a small cry of exasperation.
Morris looked up and grinned. "Morning, Lois! Mail call!"
"Don't remind me."
"Now, now, is that any way to treat your fans?" the young man asked good- naturedly. He paused to sniff at the bouquet sitting near the phone. "Mmm, mighty nice flowers you got there. You have a good day, okay?"
"Thanks, Morris," she managed, waving off the mail clerk. But his action had aroused her curiosity about the roses, and she wondered who had sent them. Clark had said he hadn't sent her any roses… so who had?
She pulled the card from its envelope and read the message again. " 'With love, forever and ever, amen.' Huh. Oh, well, no time to worry about it now," she said to herself, taking her seat, and she immediately dove into her newest assignment.
Around noon, her phone rang, just as she was hanging up a call to City Hall. It was her mother.
"Hi, dear! Hope I didn't disturb you!"
"Hi, Mother. How are you?"
"I'm fine. I was hoping I wasn't too late to invite you out to lunch," Ellen said perkily.
"Well, in fact, I am ravenous, and you are in time. Want to meet somewhere?"
"How does Chung Dow's sound?"
"Chinese? Great! Say, in twenty minutes?"
"Twenty minutes. Meet you out front," Ellen promised.
Lois bid her goodbye and hung up. As she grabbed her purse, Jimmy stopped by, waving several sheets of paper in her face. "Clark's first transmittal. Perry told me to give you a copy."
"Thanks, Jimmy." She quickly folded the sheets and stuffed them into her purse.
Jimmy eyed the box of letters she'd placed on the floor by her desk. "You haven't read your fan mail yet," he commented.
"No time," she threw over her shoulder as she headed for the elevators. "Maybe later."
A short twenty minutes later she met her mother and enjoyed a nice, chatty meal. Since her parents had gotten back together, Lois realized that Ellen Lane had since dropped her analyst and her medications, and the resulting woman was a lot more fun to be around than Lois could ever remember.
As they finished their meal over iced tea and fortune cookies, Ellen laid a hand on her daughter's arm. "Now, I know you're busy, but I asked you to this side of town for a reason," she admitted. "There's that new baby shop that just opened up-"
"Crib Notes?" Lois interjected.
"Yes! That's the one!"
"I've been wanting to go there and see what they have," Lois began.
"Well, why not now?"
"How long can it take? An hour? Don't you think the paper can do without you for another hour? C'mon," Ellen urged.
It didn't take Lois long to make up her mind. "All right, Mother, but I can't make an all day spending spree out of it. I still have work to do."
"An hour," Ellen promised. "And if we take a minute longer, I'll write you a note to take back to that slave-driving editor of yours."
The new baby shop was in the midst of its grand opening, and Lois loved touching and looking at every little outfit and baby blanket on the shelves. Ellen delighted in pointing out the different themes available. Lois chose a set of crib sheets in a balloon print, and was about to head for the checkout when a stuffed koala bear caught her eye.
"Oh, Mother, would you look at that?" she cooed, and caught herself. "Listen to me. I sound like I've gone off the deep end."
"It's the nesting instinct," her mother assured her. "Perfectly natural. Nothing turns a perfectly sane and sensible adult into a blithering idiot more quickly than a baby. My, oh, my, that bear is simply adorable!"
Lois turned the toy upside down and frowned. Showing the bottom tag to her mother, she said, "Yeah, and so is the price."
"Why don't I buy it for you?" Ellen offered.
"After all, it is my grandchild."
"Mother, the toy is highway robbery, no matter how cute or cuddly it is." Despite her objections, they didn't stop her from rubbing the stuffed animal against her cheek and giving it a squeeze. Steeling herself, she placed it back on the shelf. "No," she announced firmly. "I'll get the sheets… and…"
"And?" Ellen probed, seeing her daughter soften and sink slowly into the west.
"And… I'll come by next week… and if it's still here, then it's kismet. I'll get it then."
"That's my girl."
"Awright, awright! Forget I said anything!" Ellen glanced at her watch. "Hour will be up in seven minutes."
"That's okay. Perry has me desk-bound until my due date."
"Smart man. Always knew there was something about him I liked."
Lois stared at her mother. "Just a few minutes ago you were calling him a slave driver."
"Woman's prerogative. I'm allowed to change my mind. I'll be waiting for you outside when you're through paying for the sheets." Flashing her a smile, Ellen headed for the door, leaving Lois to shake her head.
"The more she changes, the more she never changes."
Once back at the Daily Planet, Lois was surprised to see her fan mail lying in four neat piles on her desk, next to her computer. Jimmy walked up behind her as she took her seat.
"Hope you don't mind. I divided them by what was written on the envelope." He gave her a self-deprecating grin. "Must be nice, getting fan mail from all over the world." He pointed to each stack. "These are from here in Metropolis. This pile is from out-of-state. This pile is from out-of- country. And this pile," he motioned to the stack nearest her, "are the letters marked 'urgent', or something like that."
"Urgent?" She picked up the first envelope, slit it open, and read the piece of paper inside. An expression of annoyance crossed her face, and Lois handed the letter to Jimmy. "Some urgency. Wants to know who my hairdresser is," she commented wryly. She picked up the next envelope, opened it, and extracted a single sheet. "Hmm… now this one might be construed as an emergency."
"Really?" Jimmy peered over her shoulder.
Lois handed him the letter; her voice dripped sarcasm. "Yeah. She wants to be a reporter just like me, and can I tell her where I went to college so she can major in the same things. But I'd better do it soon… her parole hearing is in three days, and she wants to get the paperwork finished by then. Jimmy, this is all utter nonsense!"
"Well… maybe I can ask Cecil down in the mailroom if there's someone who can read your mail, and then just send up the ones that are important enough," Jimmy suggested. He watched as she took the next envelope off the "urgent" pile.
"Guess this one wants to know what kind of perfume I wear," Lois remarked caustically as she pulled out the sheet from the next envelope. She unfolded the paper and began reading the few lines… when her face went pale; her eyes widened.
Alarmed, Jimmy asked, "What is it, Lois?"
Mutely she handed him the paper, her eyes suddenly diverted to the vase of roses on her desk.
"'I hope you liked the roses. There's more coming to show you the depth of my devotion. With love, forever and ever, amen.'" Jimmy wrinkled his nose. "Did Clark write this?"
"No. Clark never sent me the roses."
"Then who is this 'forever and ever, amen' guy?" Jimmy tried to flash her a grin. "Got another secret admirer you haven't told me about?" he teased.
Brushing it off momentarily, Lois snatched the paper from his hands, wadded it and the envelope up, and dumped them both in the trash can by her desk. "So much my secret admirer," she remarked. The vase of flowers followed the way of the note. "There. Done, over, and out."
Throwing her purse on the floor next to her desk, she sat down with a sigh and pretended to go straight to work on her assignment. Jimmy recognized her ploy and leaned over the monitor to whisper, "Hey… remember who you can come to if you need any… help."
She started to retort with another sarcastic remark, but the look of honest concern and caring on his face made her bite her tongue. Jimmy did have her best interests at heart; he truly was worried about her, and meant every thing he offered. Giving him a small smile, she patted him on the shoulder. "Thanks. I will."
This time, she did give him an exasperated look. "What do you want? Should I slit my wrists and sign in blood?"
Jimmy laughed aloud and sauntered away. Lois watched him go. When she was sure he couldn't see what she was about to do, she reached back into the trashcan, extracted the incriminating letter, then found the envelope attached to the roses. The handwriting on the note card inside matched. She looked again at the envelope where the name, address, and phone number of the floral shop was printed on the outside. Grabbing the phone, she dialed the number. A female voice answered.
"Oglevy's Floral and Gifts. How may I help you?"
"Yes, hello! This is Lois Lane of the Daily Planet. I had a dozen red roses delivered to me yesterday. Can you tell me who it was that purchased them?"
"Just a moment, please. Let me check our sales receipts." The line went to an un-Godly Muzak version of "Call Me Irresponsible", and Lois had to endure nearly the entire song before the salesclerk came back online. "Miss Lane? I'm sorry, but that order was paid in cash. We have no record of who paid for them."
Lois thanked the woman and hung up. *What now, Lois? Wait for his next move?* she mused. She tucked the floral card and envelope into the side pocket of her purse and stuck the letter in a lower desk drawer. That done, she got up to visit the ladies room, and thought no more of the incident. She had another, more pressing deadline to meet.
It was nearly six o'clock before Lois could turn off her computer and call it a day. *And what a day it's been!* Her stomach alarm went off, including an attention-getting kick from the little one, letting her know it was supper time. Smiling, she decided to stop by the deli on her way home and stock up on some corned beef and fresh fruit.
Loaded down with her sack of groceries, she struggled with her house keys as she began up the steps to the front door. She finally found the right key, reached out to slid it in the lock… and froze. Wrapped to the front door handle with a bright red bow was the fluffy koala bear she had decided not to buy at the baby store that morning. A piece of paper had been rolled up and tucked under the bow.
Lois glanced around to see if there were any suspicious-looking characters watching from nearby, but the street and sidewalks were practically empty. She sat the bag down, withdrawing a long baguette; using it like a lance, she stood back and prodded and poked the stuffed animal until she was satisfied it held no hidden dangers. Moments later she was safe inside her home. Angrily she tossed the groceries onto the couch and jerked the rolled sheet of paper from the koala's bow. The note was short but ominous: "Nothing's too good for our baby."
She took a deep sigh, willing herself to calm down. *Okay, Lois. Now, we know Clark didn't send this. That can only lead us to one conclusion… there's someone out there who REALLY likes you, and is delusional enough to think he can take Clark's place!*
Without thinking, she found herself striding over to the coffee table, reaching for the phone, when she suddenly stopped. "What am I doing?" she wondered aloud.
She knew what she had been about to do. She had been seconds away from calling the Kents… and what? Ask for their help? Cry on their shoulders? For what purpose? What good would calling them do, except to raise undo alarm?
"I mean, what evidence do I have so far? A dozen red roses and a stuffed koala bear? Since when is it against the law to send someone gifts? Oh, yeah, Lois… something REALLY dangerous there in that stuffed animal."
She tried to calm her growing fear with sarcasm, but knew she couldn't fool herself for long. Normal people may send gifts to people they admired, but they didn't include notes which implied that they were the parent of another couple's baby. Subconsciously, Lois ran a hand over her belly; a slight movement inside reassured her.
"Oohhh, no, you don't." She rolled the note back up and tucked it into her purse. That done, she grabbed the sack of foodstuffs and took it into the kitchen to empty. Although she didn't verbally acknowledge it, she decided she wasn't going to let some over-imaginative nutcase scare her into calling in reinforcements… at least not until she examined things a bit further.
When Clark called that evening to see how her day had been, she managed to keep the brief conversation light. She told him about how Perry had restricted her to desk duty and running down the less dangerous stories. And she told him that she and her mother had had an uneventful lunch and shopping spree at the baby store. If Clark heard or suspected anything from her forced tone of voice, he probably attributed it to the afternoon she'd spent with Ellen, and said no more about it.
Afterward, Lois congratulated herself on her subterfuge. No since in alarming Clark when his whole attention was in trying to save millions of lives. Between his filed story and from what little he told her, it was easy to tell he was totally emotionally wrapped up in trying to conquer this latest foe.
Besides, she wasn't Metropolis' top investigative reporter for nothing. Pregnant or not, she would get to the bottom of this mystery, and hopefully before Clark returned from Africa. But… just in case…
That night she slept with Clark's baseball bat next to her in the bed.
"Hey, Jimmy! Jimmy?"
"Yeah?" He waited for her to make her way down the ramp where she met him on the floor of the newsroom. "Yeah, Lois, what is it? Oh! I have a copy of Clark's latest article right here."
She headed for her desk, talking en route. "What did you do with the rest of my fan mail from yesterday?"
"It's still in the box on the floor beside your desk," he answered. "Why?"
Laying the box on her desk, she started to paw through the envelopes, but that quickly grew tedious. A quick flick of the wrists, and she dumped the entire contents on her desk and continued to search.
"What are you looking for?" Jimmy asked, reaching out to see if he could be of assistance.
"Ah-HAH! Found it!" She held up an envelope, and Jimmy recognized it.
"That's the envelope that you got that letter in, right?"
Lois stared at the envelope, then turned and held it out to him. "Notice anything?" she asked him.
Jimmy took a few seconds to look at it. A wide smile creased his face. "No postmark. No stamp!"
"Exactly!" she wagged a finger in his face. "It wasn't mailed TO the Daily Planet… it ORIGINATED from here!"
"But from where?" Jimmy wondered aloud. "This is a big building."
Dropping into her chair, Lois shrugged. "Good point, Jimmy. Anyone could have addressed the envelope to me, then put it in their out box for the mailroom to pick up, sort, and deliver to me."
"Lo-is…" Jimmy eyed her more closely, leaning over the computer monitor with concern. "What's happened?"
Lois feigned ignorance. "What do you mean, 'what's happened'?"
"Don't give me that. I've been around you too long. First you get roses that didn't come from Clark, and then you get some fan mail that really bothers you… Hey, this is your friend here. What gives?"
Lois braced her hands on the edge of her desk. "Nothing I can't handle," she said, more to reassure herself than him. "But if I need you to come by some evening and, say, take in a movie, think you can make it?" she asked in a sudden gush. She looked up at him expectedly.
Jimmy bit his tongue. He knew that when she was ready to tell him everything, she would, and no amount of coaxing would get it out of her any sooner. Yet she needed to hear that he would be there for her just in case — in case of what, he was afraid to find out. But it was evident she was determined to face this whatever-it-was head-on.
He nodded his head, smiling. "Sure, Lois. I'll even sign out a beeper just in case I'm not home when… *if* you call."
"Thanks, Jimmy." She smiled warmly and patted his cheek. "Now, you said something about Clark's story?"
"Oh, yeah, here." He gave her the copy of the faxed sheets, and the topic of conversation shifted to her latest enterprise. The fan mail went back into its box, which was shoved underneath her desk and promptly forgotten.
Around one-thirty, Lois leaned back in her chair and pressed her hands to the small of her back. She groaned softly just as Annamarie from Research stopped by her desk to drop off a folder.
"I've had three. I can relate," the petite woman smiled sympathetically. "Here's the financials you asked for. Budgets for the past three years, and the budget that is scheduled to be approved for the next year after the school board elections next week."
"Thanks, Annamarie," Lois said. She started to reach for the folder when a growling sound emanated from her stomach. Embarrassed, Lois blushed. "Oh, my. Sorry. Guess it's telling me I forgot to stop for lunch, but I've got so much work to do. Guess I could have something broughtin, huh?"
"Tell me." Annamarie perched on the edge of the desk and asked conspiratorially, "Had any strange cravings? Found yourself dipping pickles in ice cream yet?" she teased.
"Just for a little bit, when Clark and I went off to Gotham… had this strange craving for peanut brittle… but recently I can't seem to get enough of Gung Pow chicken from Eddie's Chung King Palace."
"Hey, I know that place! Have you tried their egg drop soup? It's to die for!"
Picking up the folder, Lois began to leaf through the sheets, when something caught her eye. "Hey… is there a list of approved vendors for the school district?"
"Last page," the woman told her. "Hey, I'd love to stay and chat Chinese food some more, but if I don't get this article to Matsen up on twelve, I may be drawing unemployment tomorrow. I'll talk to you later, okay? And have some Moo Goo Gai Pan for me."
"Great! And thanks!" Lois waved her off and buried her nose back into the numbers, trying to make sense of the multi-million dollar budget. She soon grew engrossed again in her work and completely forgot about being hungry.
It was forty minutes later when the smell of food caught her attention. Her stomach cramped with hunger, and she glanced up to see a delivery boy, wearing the familiar red brocade vest from Eddie's Chung King Palace, heading toward her desk with a large brown paper package.
"I hope that's for me," she mentioned off-the-cuff. To her amazement he stopped by her desk.
The delivery boy laid the aromatic dinner on her desk, then turned to leave.
"Wait! What do I owe you?"
"It's paid for," the boy replied.
"Ho-hold it. Let me get my purse." Lois grabbed her wallet and tipped the boy a fiver. For a split second she debated with herself whether to question the deliverer about who ordered the meal, but deterred.
After the boy left, she opened her meal. She was surprised, but not really surprised, to find that it was a large order of Gung Pow chicken, fried rice, and a small side of Moo Goo Gai Pan. Lois smiled to herself and pickup up the phone, calling the Research department.
"Hello, Annamarie? Hey, girlfriend, you didn't have to order Chinese food for me, but I wanted you to know I really appre-… What?… No, a delivery boy just delivered from Eddie's Chung King Palace, and since it contained a side order of Moo Goo Gai Pan, I just thought…" Lois trailed off, at a momentary loss for words as she found out that her friend had not called the restaurant. Thanking her, Lois hung up and stared at the food with growing horror.
"If it's too much for you, I wouldn't mind helping you get rid of some of that," a voice broke into her thoughts. Jimmy gave her a big grin. To his total amazement, she suddenly picked up the entire bundle and shoved it toward him.
"Here… you can have it all," she told him. Grabbing her purse, she hurried out of the newsroom, leaving Jimmy to juggle with three very warm tubs of Chinese food.
From the far wall of the newsroom, out of visual range, a figure watched as the scenario developed. At first he was delighted to see Lois's joy when the food had been delivered, but then his happiness immediately turned sour when she literally threw her meal away by giving it to that Olsen idiot and storming out of the office.
Why would she do a thing like that? Wasn't it exactly what she wanted? And from her favorite Chinese restaurant? What did she think she was doing, throwing good food away? Their baby needed nutrition if it was going to be strong and healthy!
It had been bad enough when he'd discovered she'd dumped the vase of roses he'd sent her. They were still fresh and fragrant — what had been wrong with them?
And then there had been the stuffed toy. Man, that thing had cost more than just a pretty penny… but nothing was too expensive for Lois. At least she took it with her into the townhouse after she'd whacked at it a few times with that damn loaf of bread.
The figure tapped his front teeth with the tip of his forefinger. Perhaps, he determined, it was time to write Lois another letter and ask why she was acting this way. Maybe it was a hormonal thing. He'd read that expectant mothers often had irrational mood swings. Maybe she just didn't feel good. Or maybe the smell of the food suddenly made her sick to her stomach.
Either way, he felt she at least owed him an explanation… and at the most, an apology.
The following morning, Lois made her way into work, determined to pretend that the previous days' incidents never really occurred.
Okay… they occurred, but it wasn't anything as bad as her vivid imagination tried to make it.
Okay… maybe it WAS as bad as she tried to envision it, but she wasn't going to let it scare her, or keep her from doing her work. NO ONE was going to keep her locked behind the doors of her home, afraid to venture out for fear of receiving another unwanted gift. If the guy wanted to approach her, well, he could do it right out in the open, right out where everyone could see him, in front of her friends and witnesses, in case she had to drag his creepy hide to court and get a restraining order against him.
Smiling to herself, Lois got comfortably situated in her chair just as the mail clerk pushed his cart over to her desk and set a small bundle of envelopes next to her computer.
"Morning, Miss Lane. Got anything to go?"
"Hi, Morris. No, not today, thanks." She flashed him a smile and checked her E-mail messages first. Morris grinned and nodded, and proceeded on to the next desk.
She glanced up to see Perry sticking his head out of his office door and gesturing for her. "Coming!" she chirped.
"Bring me what you got on that story," he added before disappearing back inside.
Lois searched her desk, looking for the folder Annamarie had given her the day before. She spied the corner of it peeking from beneath the mail and pulled it out from under the stack. The envelopes wobbled slightly, then with one fluid wave-like motion, slid smoothly across the edge of her desk and onto the floor.
"Oh, great," she breathed, and awkwardly stooped to pick up the stack. Her hand was automatically reaching for one white envelope when her eye caught the handwriting on the outside, and she froze in mid-motion. She could feel the blood drain from her face; her hands suddenly felt icy cold.
She took a deep, shaky breath, and finished gathering her mail. She kept the one envelope with her, tucking it secretly inside the manila file folder, before heading for Perry's office.
Once inside, she closed the door firmly behind her and leaned against it. Perry White glanced up from his chair and started to give her a smile, which instantly turned into a frown when he got a good look at the haunted expression in her eyes. "Good Lord, Lois! What's the matter? You look like… Jeezus! It's not Clark, is it?"
Lois shook her head before answering. She managed to flash him a watery smile while taking a seat in one of the chairs before his desk. "Perry… I… I need to confide in someone. Someone I trust. Someone who, perhaps, can help."
"Why, sure! You know you can rely on me. What's causing you concern?"
Lois pulled the envelope out of the folder and handed it to Perry. "Here. Tell me what it says." She looked around the office as Perry slit the envelope open with a letter opener, and was relieved to see all the blinds were turned down so that no one could see in.
Perry pulled out the single sheet and read it. Moments later his face turned red, and he waved the paper in her direction. "What in the name of Graceland is this nonsense? How many of these have you gotten?" he demanded.
"That's the second letter I've gotten," she replied. "But there was also the card on the roses and the note on the toy, too."
"Note? CARD? Lois, what in tarnation is going on?" Perry looked down at the paper in his hands and read aloud the message. " 'It upsets me that you're turning away my gifts, when all I have is the best intentions for you and our baby. Please don't refuse my presents again, Lois.' It upsets HIM? And where does he come off with this 'our baby' malarky? Does Clark know about this?"
"No," she shook her head. Having let Perry in on her dark little secret, she suddenly felt much better. He could smell "stalker" as well as she could, and she was glad to know he was willing to go all the way for her if she needed him.
"Clark calls me every night to let me know how things are going over there. At first I wanted to tell him, but… Perry, what good would it do? You know what he'd do; he'd be on the first plane back here, but for what? This guy hasn't made any dangerous moves against me."
"Not yet, anyway," Perry argued.
"No… not yet."
"Honey, you still need to tell Clark."
"I can't," she repeated. Her voice dropped as she recalled their conversation the night before. He had been crying as he told her what he'd witnessed — what he'd had to endure in his quest to find a cure. "He's so wrapped up in this story. He tells me about these children dying in Superman's arms, and about people begging him to help them. And you can tell by listening to him that this thing, this disease, and this race to beat the thing is taking everything out of him, emotionally and physically. Perry, I CAN'T tell Clark about this guy. That's why I came to you. Maybe, between the two of us, we can beat this guy at his own game."
Perry had been nodding during her narrative. "I know, Lois, I know. He's phoned in a couple of times, and I've read his faxes, and his stories just knife you right in the gut. God, if that boy doesn't win the Pulitzer, there's no justice in the world." He ran a hand through his hair. "Okay, so how do you want to handle this?"
Lois motioned toward the envelope. "There's no postmark, meaning it either originated here in the building, or someone hand-carried it in. The mailroom delivered both notes to me, so I'm going to concentrate my efforts there. Ask some questions. See if anyone's noticed anyone suspicious. And talk to the mail clerks… they might remember if and where they picked up the envelopes."
"Sounds like a plan," Perry remarked. "Whadda you want me to do?"
She looked him full in the face, allowing him to see the fears she'd been keeping bottled up inside. "Just be there for me. With Clark gone…" She gave a weak smile. "That makes you next on the list."
"Hey, my shoulders are just wide enough, let me assure you," said Perry, grinning. "You be lead dog; I'll run behind you in the traces. And, if it gets down to bite or be bit… that reminds me; I have a dental appointment tomorrow." He reached over to flip through his desk calendar.
Lois couldn't help but laugh. She got to her feet and headed for the door, calling out over her shoulder, "About that story you have me on… leave me the headline on Thursday's edition." She paused at the door, leaning in on the frame. "Board member Sergio Campisi. Graft."
"Better be dead certain on that one," he warned her. "Campisi has connections."
"Well, some of those connections are about to be severed, once I get through with him!" She grinned and exited, leaving Perry to grin broadly with appreciation.
Was there *anything* that woman couldn't sniff out?
The east side of Metropolis was not necessarily the seedier side of the big city, but it did contain its fair share of low rent and government housing. Graffiti covered most of the available wall space, and the inhabitants were wise enough not to venture out past ten p.m. unless accompanied by a bodyguard or one of Metropolis's finest.
Once the shops had closed their iron gates and secured their bolts, the people who called the east side home remained hidden within their private worlds, relatively safe behind their thin walls, and stayed out of everyone else's business until the next day.
Morris Montlebocker made his way up the narrow stairwell to his third floor apartment, unlocked his three dead bolts, and entered his self-made haven. The overhead light was missing one bulb, but the remaining two cast a poor glow over the interior of the tiny two-room efficiency.
His unmade bed ran parallel against the far wall, next to a chest of drawers. Opposite that was the door leading into the bathroom. On the other side of the room, near the single window which looked out onto the street, was the range and refrigerator. And in the small amount of space left between lay his private shrine — his memorial.
He opened a can of pork and beans, eating them cold from the can for his supper. That done, he pulled out another sheet of paper from the stack on the bureau, and sat down at the kitchen table to compose another letter.
His initial anger at her rejection had dissipated somewhat, but the thought still gnawed at him like a scab he kept picking, letting it bleed afresh every so often.
After much debate with himself, and some serious soul-searching, Morris had decided that Lois had turned away his gifts because she either didn't believe he'd be there for her in the end, as he'd promised… or because she was afraid to let him know her true feelings. That inside she was a lonely and frightened woman, and the brash exterior she showed the public was just a facade to cover her fears and trepidations.
Morris knew that once she understood she could be open and honest with her feelings to him, that she would accept his offerings for what they really were — sincere tokens of his love and devotion. All he had to do was be patient and keep trying to explain to her that she had nothing to fear from him whatsoever. Absolutely nothing.
And if this letter didn't do the trick, well… there were other ways he could prove his faithfulness. And if THAT didn't work…
He'd cross that bridge when he came to it.
The following day, Lois went down to the mail room and talked with everyone who worked there. She spent a long time chatting with Herb Morrison, Head Mail Clerk, but no one had seen anyone suspicious hanging around, and no one remembered picking up and sorting anything unusual for her in the past few days.
Her fan mail usually came in with the rest of the postal drop-off around nine a.m.. It was collated with the inter-office mail that had already been gathered the day before, then sent out with each of the mail clerks who delivered and picked up during their daily run through. That afternoon, U.S. mail was posted in the big blue box on the sidewalk outside the mailroom door, and the inter-office stuff was sorted and readied to go the next morning.
Yet, despite her precautions, Lois found another letter in her stack on her desk, along with a styrofoam container of kumquat and tapioca pudding from the deli two blocks away from the Planet. She recalled telling Jimmy that she'd developed an ungodly yen for the stuff after she'd ventured into the store late one afternoon after work, and the owner (whose wife whipped up the salads and desserts sold by the establishment) had given her a tiny spoonful to sample.
It was almost as if she had her own private genie to grant her every wish. If she wanted Chinese, a delivery boy showed up from her favorite restaurant. If she needed more pencils or another pen, her pencil cup would overflow. If she yearned for a pillow to help ease the cramping in her lower back, one magically appeared while she was gone to visit the little reporters' room.
And no one ever noticed how any of it got there.
"Perry, I'm taking the rest of the day off," she announced, barging in. She slammed the door behind her and made sure it was closed. Somehow, for reasons she couldn't explain, her genie couldn't penetrate editors' offices.
Perry granted her request without batting an eye. "Can I reach you at home if I need you?"
"I'm going to the hardware store to get some more locks for the doors at home. Then I'm going to get out of these horrendous maternity pantyhose and eat an entire quart of choco-chocolate monster chip ice cream before burying my nose into my laptop. I can't work here, Perry… at least, not right now. I can't turn around without something appearing like magic on my desk!" She waved her arms about as she vented.
Leaning back in his chair, Perry rubbed a finger across his chin. "Look, why don't you take a couple of days and work out of the house? This Campisi thing is about ready to hatch; you can polish it and E-mail it to me when you're ready."
"Oh, and, Lois?"
"Take care of that bambino, would you? Eat something with a little more nutrition in it than some of that stuff I've seen you down these past few weeks."
Lois gave him a straight face. "This from the man who dieted on prune juice, boiled eggs, and vegetable soup for three straight weeks?"
"Hey! I lost seven pounds on that diet!" he barked back, half-smiling.
"Yeah, but how many have you put back on since then?" she laughed, exiting before he could retaliate.
It was late before she finished installing the latest dead bolt to the front door. Satisfied with her handiwork, she locked it firmly and returned the tools to the space under the kitchen sink.
She delighted in a nice, long shower, then dressed in one of Clark's old football jerseys, one which had turned incredibly soft from years of washing.
To appease her conscious from Perry's word of fatherly advice, she threw together a quick salad, then took it and her bowl of ice cream into the living room where she could spread her work out across the sofa and coffee table.
An hour and a half later, Lois stopped and stretched, rubbing her eyes. She stood up to go to the bathroom and then grab a soda from the kitchen, when a set of folders, which had been kept level on the edge of the couch by her weight, tilted and slid onto the floor. Lois softly cursed and reached down to pick them up when an envelope sticking out from among the mess caught her eye. It was the latest note she'd received from her admirer, the one delivered with the container of pudding. She hadn't opened or read it, just shoved it into her research stuff and promptly forgotten.
Gingerly she picked it up and stared at it. The handwriting was the same as on the first two notes and the card from the floral shop. She took a moment to steel herself, then opened the envelope and pulled out the sheet of paper.
"'My dearest Lois,
"'I want you to know that I don't hold you responsible for your recent rejections of my gifts to you. I know that our baby is causing you to act irrationally. I know your job puts a lot of pressure on you, too. Yet you must understand that my gifts to you were given out of love. I expect you to accept them. So I forgive you this time.
"'To prove to you how much I love you, I will be sending you another token of my devotion soon. Do not turn this one away like you have done the others, or else I will be very upset with you.
"'Your husband is a dead man. He will not be coming back from Africa. The plague there will kill him, just like it is killing the others. Once you accept that, then you will see why you need me, and why you must accept my love.
"'So until you are willing to return my affections, I remain your loving and devoted next husband, and the father of our forth-coming child.
"'Forever and ever, Amen.'"
Lois reached for the telephone, not surprised to see her hand shaking on the receiver. A familiar voice came over the line. "Hello, Jimmy?"
"Lois? Yeah, what's up?"
"Umm… have you seen that new Harrison Ford movie? It just came out on video, and I rented it tonight to watch. Oh, and I got some popcorn, and I'm also thinking about calling out for a pizza. How do you like yours?"
There was a short pause over the line before he answered. "I prefer pepperoni, but I'll eat anything as long as it doesn't have anchovies on it."
*One pepperoni and mushroom pizza, half with anchovies and half without* she made a mental note. "Great! How soon can you be over?"
"Twenty minutes," Jimmy replied. "Uhh… Lois… should I bring a toothbrush?"
Lois smiled into the phone. Thank goodness for friends like Jimmy. "I think we have a spare in the guest bath. I'll keep the light on for you."
She hung up the phone, then glanced at the letter sitting on the coffee table where she'd tossed it. "Go ahead, you slimy bastard. Take your best shot. You obviously have no idea who you're messing with. I may be six months pregnant, but that won't stop me from dealing with you the second I learn who you are or where I can find you."
The ringing telephone made her jump, and she laughed at her skittishness. Picking it up, she answered, "Hello?"
"Lois? Hi, honey! Perry told me you'd already left. What are you doing home in the middle of the afternoon? Are you feeling all right? Is the baby okay?" From the sound of Clark's voice, she could hear how exhausted he was, and how much the assignment was putting a strain on him.
"I'm fine, Clark," she answered in what she hoped was her warmest voice. "I'm doing a piece on corruption on the Metropolis school board, and that desk chair was beginning to put a kink in my back. So Perry suggested I could work at home if I wanted to. How is it going over there?"
She could hear him draw out a long sigh. "There might be a light at the end of the tunnel. Superman found a small group of wild pigs with the viral bacilli in their intestines and feces. It looks like this thing may be spread through insects, some sort of bacterial infection. Birds and animals eat the insects, and spread the bacilli in their droppings. The next step is to determine which insects, and where this bacteria is incubating. It's not much, but it's a start."
"It's a tremendous step! You tell Superman how much the world owes him. And how proud we are of him. And how many people love him for what he's doing."
Clark laughed softly. "He's knows. Lois…?"
"I miss you."
"Miss you, too. Take care, okay?"
"I will. See you soon, I hope. I love you."
"I love you, too, Clark. Goodnight."
She waited until he had hung up before doing the same. Musing over the call, Lois found herself more determined than ever to beat her stalker at his own game before Clark returned from Africa. Grabbing her legal pad, she began to jot down a few ideas when she remembered she needed to place her order with the pizza parlor. It wouldn't be long before Jimmy arrived, but before then she hoped to have a rough battle plan outlined.
Between the three of them — her, Jimmy, and Perry — the guy never stood a chance.
"To prove how much I love you, I will be sending you another token of my devotion soon,'" Jimmy read aloud from the note. He shoved another handful of popcorn in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. "Hmm…"
Lois glanced up from her legal pad. "I know that hmm, James Olsen. Out with it. You have an idea, don't you?"
Swinging his legs around to the floor, he tossed the paper onto the coffee table and rested his arms on his knees. "It's not *much* of an idea, but if you're willing to listen, here goes. We know this guy's not using the regular postal service, which means he's either coming into the Planet to drop off the letters, or he actually works for the paper. You talked to Herb and his group down in the mailroom, but they don't remember seeing anyone suspicious, and no one remembers picking up these particular pieces of mail."
"Go on," she urged. It was nearly eleven p.m. They'd watched their movie and eaten their pizza before Lois finally brought up the subject of the new letter. Since then they'd been brainstorming ideas and thoughts on the matter.
"Well… how do you feel about setting up a trap?"
"What kind of trap?"
"Well…" He scratched behind his ear thoughtfully. "Somehow this guy knows when you're hungry. He's overheard you saying you like Chinese food and tapioca pudding, which means he had to be nearby."
"Of course. I didn't say anything on the phone that someone could have tapped into, so the guy has to be… in the newsroom?" Lois went down her mental list of all the people who worked on that floor that could have overheard her. "Maybe someone with a desk near mine?"
"Or someone working on the floor, like a custodian."
Lois perked up. "A custodian?" Instantly she deflated. "Mr. Brill cleans our floor, and he's sixty years old if he's a day. He'll be retiring soon! I've known him ever since I've worked at the Planet, and I doubt he would be sending me food and flowers *now*."
"Is there someone else helping him?" Jimmy asked, "Someone working alongside him?"
She nodded. "It's possible. Interesting concept, Jimmy… people you see everyday and practically ignore until they literally become invisible. No telling how many people work on the newsroom floor that we never notice, and never even realize they're there!"
"Sounds to me like this guy is around you a lot, or he wouldn't have overheard your talking about food."
"Or about the koala bear my mother almost convinced me to buy," Lois added, waving her pencil in the stuffed animal's direction where it sat on the end table by the sofa. Her eyes widened. "Jimmy! That's it! That's how we can set up the trap! I'll make mention that I'm desperately needing something… umm, say something chocolate. Then you can watch to see who leaves the newsroom to get it. No. Wait. That won't work. What if he calls to have it delivered?"
"And with the number of people coming and going, it will be practically impossible to tell which one is your man," he included.
"Darn," she sighed.
Jimmy smiled. "Unless you mention you want some of your Uncle Mike's famous chocolate cheesecake, and you let Uncle Mike know what you're up to."
"Uncle Mike doesn't deliver," she reminded him.
"Okay. So he can be ready and waiting for this guy when he shows up."
Lois waved her hands in denial. "Nope, no. I don't want to bring family into it. I also don't want to take the chance that Uncle Mike might slip up and spill the beans to Clark later on. No… it's got to be kept between us. And Perry." She caught herself yawning and covered her mouth. Glancing at her watch, she realized how late it was. "It's been a long day, Jimmy. Maybe in the morning we can think a little clearer and firm up some sort of plan."
"Sounds good to me."
Getting to her feet, she stretched her arms overhead. The baby moved a little, getting her attention. She placed a hand on the side of her belly and smiled. "See you in the morning, Jimmy. You sure you don't want the guest bedroom?"
"No, thanks. I'll feel a lot safer right here on the couch. In case something, or someone, tries to come in through the front door, a window, or through the kitchen, they'll have to face me first before they can get to you."
Touched by his worry and sincerity, Lois leaned over and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "Thank you," she whispered. "Goodnight!"
Jimmy watched as she slowly made her way up the stairs, awkward and ungraceful due to her pregnancy, but still as beautiful as always. He couldn't help but be jealous of Clark, but never would he jeopardize the friendship he shared with them. He considered himself among the luckiest people in the world to know Lois and Clark, and to know they trusted him. He'd never let them down. Never.
Swearing that Lois would get at least one good night's sleep, Jimmy went into the kitchen where he found a butcher knife and a meat tenderizer. These he laid on the floor next to the couch so they would right at hand should he be awakened by an intruder. Satisfied he was well-armed, he rolled over on the sofa and promptly fell asleep.
The alarm went off at seven, as it usually did on workdays, and Lois opened her eyes to stare at it in disgust when the thought came to her — she'd slept through the entire night. At first it surprised her, but she quickly gave credit to her chance for restful sleep to Jimmy, and the knowledge that knowing he was around to help protect her had given her that mental reassurance to finally get the rest she needed.
She crawled out of bed and padded into the bathroom to take a quick shower. Less than ten minutes later she was out and dressed and heading downstairs to fix breakfast.
First, however, she stopped by the couch to check on Jimmy, and smiled to see him still out like a light. He lay on his back, mouth slightly open, and snoring softly. A meat tenderizer was grasped firmly in his right hand and lying across his stomach. She walked away quietly so as not to disturb him. No telling how much longer he stayed up after she'd called it a night.
Carefully she unlocked the deadbolts and slid the chain guard off, and opened the front door to fetch the morning edition…
What faced her completely stunned her. She had no knowledge of making a sound until Jimmy stumbled next to her, awakened by her cry.
"W'assup, Lois… oh, my God."
The whole interior of the foyer between the front door and the outer door had been walled up — or papered up, for that matter — with an immense poster. A poster of her and Jimmy, sitting on opposite ends of the couch, the pizza box between them as they stared at the television. Even more frightening was the fact that Jimmy's face had been blacked out with what appeared to be a black magic marker.
"How big is it?" he murmured softly.
Lois shook her head. "I think the ceiling is seven feet high. The foyer is perhaps eight feet wide. I don't know for certain." She reached out to touch the poster. "It's a photograph, enlarged to fit. Looks like masking tape was used to fasten it to the walls."
"Want me to call the police?" he asked, looking at her.
"No," she said. "Here, help me take it down and roll it up. I think our stalker has just given us the clue we were needing."
Within the hour they were at the Planet, discussing the latest incident with Perry, and running over the details of their brainstorming session the night before.
"Well, how in tarnation did this guy get your picture?" Perry wondered aloud.
"From the angle in the photograph, he had to shoot it from the front windows that face the street," Lois said. They had rolled out the wall-sized poster on the floor of Perry's office. Lois pointed out the graininess of the print. "Whoever did this isn't an expert."
"And obviously he used a telephoto lens," Jimmy observed. "You can see here and here," he outlined the faint, blurry lines in the picture, "these are the crossbars of the window panes, out of focus as he tried to tighten the snapshot of us."
"Jimmy, what kind of equipment would you need to reproduce something this big?" Perry asked. "Can just any photo developer do this?"
"Don't think so," Jimmy responded. "You'd have to have special equipment to enlarge a photograph that big. In fact…" he trailed off and hurried over to Perry's desk.
"What are you doing?" Lois asked.
Pulling out the yellow business pages, he thumbed through the listings until he found a number he sought. He dialed the business, and motioned to Perry and Lois he was following a hunch. "Uh, hi! Is Anthony there? Tell him Jimmy Olsen is calling." He held for a few moments until Anthony could get to the phone. "Tony! My man! How's it hanging?" Suddenly remembering that Lois was listening, Jimmy blushed and toned it down. "Uhh, Tony, I need some help with a photo developing question. Say I want to take a regular photograph and enlarge to, say, seven by seven feet. Could you guys do that? Um-hmm… yeah… Just regular thirty-five millimeter film, I think." He grabbed a pencil out of Perry's cup and quickly began jotting down some notes on a yellow pad. "…yeah… okay, I see. Thanks a lot, Tony! Huh? Sure! Gimme a call; I'd love to! Talk to you later, okay? Okay, bye!"
"Well?" Perry asked.
Jimmy tore off the sheet with his notes and walked back over to them. "Bingo. You *do* need special developing equipment, and Tony says he only knows of six places in town who can handle something like that." He waved the sheet of paper.
"Good going, Jimmy!" Lois managed to get to her feet, with a little help from Perry. Taking the sheet from him, she glanced over the names. "What say we get the addresses to these places, and then split them up; you take three and I'll take three -"
"Now, ho-ho-hold on there, young lady!" Perry broke in. "If you think I'm going to let you go running around while there's this nutcase stalking you -"
Lois interrupted him. "My nutcase is going to follow me wherever I go. If you think I'm going to sit around and just wait for my next fan letter to show up -"
"I think it's time we let the police in on this. If this guy starts to think you're too close to him -"
"Bring in the police? That'll only scare him away! And we're so close, now; I can just feel it. Please, Perry -"
"Now, look, I promised Clark I'd keep an eye on you and the little one, and if that means turning this story over someone else to do the legwork -"
"What do you plan to do? Tie me to my chair? This is the first solid lead we've had on this guy -"
Jimmy removed his fingers from his mouth, then turned to look at the two people finally surprised into silence. "Look… Perry's right on this one, Lois," he told her. "It's too dangerous for you to go out alone to follow these leads. Doing it when you're this far along is even riskier than if you weren't pregnant. Now, look, I have an idea," he hurried, seeing Lois open her mouth to protest. "Let me be the one to check out these places. After all, there's only six of them. Shouldn't take me no more than a few hours. I'll call you if I find anything."
"But, Jimmy, it would only take us half the time if we split them up," Lois began.
"And tip off the stalker?"
"Jimmy's right, Lois. You stay here and give this guy a false sense of security. If you go sniffing out the photo shops, he'll know something's up. If you remain in the newsroom, not only can I help keep an eye out for any possible danger, but this guy may give himself away if Jimmy flushes out a co- conspirator who tries to contact him that we're on to him."
Lois glanced at Jimmy, then at Perry, and finally admitted that they both had valid points. Perry grinned broadly and patted her on the arm. "That's my girl."
Jimmy took that as his cue, tucking the folded list of notes into a pocket as he started for the door.
"Oh, and, Jimmy?"
"The moment you find out something, call us, you hear?" Perry ordered.
"Yes, SIR!" Jimmy saluted, and left.
Lois slowly walked toward the door, making a half-hearted gesture in the direction of her desk. "Back to the piece on the school board corruption?" she commented, and managed a small smile.
"It's a nice, solid piece of detective work, Lois," Perry replied. "It'll make for one helluva headline when you deliver the goods. And your stalker won't suspect a thing if he happens by your computer while you're working, and sees what you have up on the screen."
Again she nodded and left the room. Perry watched her until he was sure she headed back to her desk and sat down. After many years of working with her, he knew better than to give her an order and expect her to follow it without question, because more often than not, she didn't. He then squatted to roll up the poster before storing it in a safe place. No sense taking any chances that Lois's number one fan would see it and know that she had come to him with it.
Certain it was tucked safely away, Perry returned to his chair and tried to concentrate on his work, hoping it would make the time go by faster. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't, but he could hope.
Like the other two shops he'd visited, "Photogeniality" was housed between several other stores on a street lined with the narrow buildings. The lower floors of each building were the main shop areas, and the families or proprietors of the shops lived above.
Jimmy entered the photo developing store, which looked no different from the others he'd scoped out. Shelves of cameras and photo equipment like slide viewers and albums lined the walls behind glass counters containing film and telephoto lenses. There was just enough room in the store to walk in, turn around, and walk out.
Upon entering, a tiny bell over the door jangled, and a heavy-set man with a beard down to his chest appeared from behind a black cloth draped over a doorway in the back. Jimmy stared at the man who would have looked better suited on a motorcycle and wondered if he also had tattoos on his bulky forearms hidden beneath the long-sleeved shirt.
"Yeah? Can I help you?"
"Uhh, yes! Well, I hope you can. I'd like to know if you have record of a photo reprint. This one would have been blown up to mural size, about eighty-four by a hundred and eight inches big."
"Huh. Not offhand. That's a pretty unusual order. If we'd done one, it would be on the books. Why do you want to know? You a cop?"
"No! Me? A cop? No," Jimmy laughed. "I have a friend who was given this really neat blowup of herself, and I thought something like that would make a terrific gag gift for my brother. I thought the craftsmanship was outstanding, and I wanted to be sure I had my order done at the same place. I've been calling around…" he pulled out his list for emphasis, "but none of the others I went to could help me."
The man thought on it for a second. "RACHEL!" he finally yelled toward the back.
"Yeah?" came the muffled reply.
"Bring out the order book. I need to look at something."
Presently a smaller older woman brought out a ledger and handed it to the man before disappearing back behind the curtains. The owner leafed through the pages, shaking his head. "Nope. Sorry. Can't help you. We haven't had an order for that size blow-up in over three weeks."
"Well, how long does it take to develop at snapshot to that size? A couple of weeks?"
"Oh, hell no. If we have the paper, we could do it in a few hours," the man replied.
Jimmy cocked his head. "If you have the paper? You mean you don't keep that size in stock?"
"Nope. We order it as we need it from the manufacturer. Takes a day to get it."
"So you have to order your paper supply ahead of time before you can develop the photo?"
By now the owner was giving him an inquisitive eye, and Jimmy realized he was asking questions the normal customer would not be asking. To help cover his tracks, he added, "Soo… if I gave you my picture today, you wouldn't be able to have it ready for me until Monday or Tuesday? Not any sooner?"
"Like I said, not unless we had the paper."
"How do you know you don't have the paper?"
"Cuz like I said, we don't order the paper until we get a request for the job."
"Well… could you check anyway to see if you might have some paper? I mean, you never know; there might be an extra roll back there."
The man sighed and threw up his hands. "Whatever bakes your cookies. Hold on, I'll be right back," he ordered, and disappeared behind the black curtain, leaving the ledger on the counter.
The moment Jimmy was sure it was safe, he sneaked a look at the ledger for himself. Unfortunately, the man had spoken the truth — the entry for the last mural was dated over three weeks ago.
He was safely backed away and perusing a camera in the showcase when the man reentered the store. To his surprise, the man looked stunned.
"That's odd. We have a partial roll in the back, but I don't remember ordering the paper."
"Is there someone who could have ordered the it?"
"No," the man shook his head, "no one… unless Morris did it."
"My nephew. Lives upstairs with us. Sometimes he helps out in the store in the evenings and weekends." By this time the owner was too preoccupied with the fact that his storeroom held some unexpected and unauthorized merchandise to notice that Jimmy's questions were even more specific.
"Where is he now?" Jimmy asked.
"He works at the Daily Planet during the day. He's a mailroom clerk." The man glanced at his watch. "He should be getting off work soon."
Jimmy started to back toward the door. "Maybe I should come back tomorrow."
"Hey, I got the paper if you wanna leave the negative," the man countered.
"Well, I have two more shops to check out to see if one of them did my friend's blow-up. If it's not one of them, I'll be back," Jimmy promised, then slipped out of the door and around the corner of the building.
Pressing his back to the brick wall, he took a deep breath. To his right he noticed the door which he knew would lead up the back way to the apartments over the store. He was torn between conflicting needs and emotions — should he head for the nearest phone and call Lois to tell her that he found their connection to the Planet? Or should he try to see if he could find something concrete linking this guy to Lois?
His reporter's instincts took over. He knew he really had nothing on this Morris guy from the Planet that he could take to the police. What he needed was evidence — pure, unadulterated, stick-it-to-'em-in-court, can't-deny-it- for-beans evidence. And to do that, he had to get upstairs and into the man's apartment.
Quickly, and as quietly as possible, Jimmy took the tiny stairwell to the second landing. There was only one door there, and the undeniable smell of boiling cabbage was coming from behind it. Another set of stairs led to the upper floor, and Jimmy followed them to the top landing to one more apartment. Here there was no light coming from under the door, no sounds echoing from inside.
It took him a few minutes to break his way past the locks. Once inside, he found the wall switch and flipped it on. The room was more spartan than he expected.
Suddenly Jimmy caught his breath; his face paled. "Oh, Jeeeeeezus!"
The entire wall on the far side of the room was a solid montage of photographs, newspaper clippings, and magazine pages. All about Lois. Nothing but Lois. Lois smiling and Lois frowning. Lois looking pensive, and Lois walking with Clark… only Clark's face had been blackened out with magic marker.
There were shots of Lois in the newsroom, Lois crossing the street, and Lois shopping for groceries at a market. There were close-up pictures, wide- angle pictures, and grainy telephoto pictures.
The wall was filled with Lois in color, Lois in black and white, Lois in newsprint, even Lois's interviews in the "Metropolis In-Style" magazine.
Dazed by the sight of the shrine, Jimmy made his way over to the bureau and searched through the drawers. Finding nothing, he glanced over at the kitchenette. There, on the tiny table, held down by the salt shaker, was a small white envelope. Finding it unsealed, he looked inside and found several photos. His hand shook as he pulled one snapshot from the rest. It was the original of him and Lois, eating out of the pizza box as they watched their movie.
And his face had been blotted out with a black magic marker, also.
"Hey! Who the hell said you could come… YOU!"
Jimmy whirled around and barely caught a glimpse of a red and angry face before something slammed into the side of his head, knocking him into unconsciousness. As his senseless body slumped to the floor, Morris Montlebocker dropped his backpack and snatched the telltale photograph from Jimmy's grasp, smiling at the sight of the young man collapsed in a heap at his feet.
"Let that be a lesson to you, newspaper snoop," he growled, unable to believe his good fortune. "Now there's nobody blocking the way between me and my Lois. Do you hear that? Nobody!"
Perry glanced up from his paperwork and stared out into the newsroom. It was late, nearly seven o'clock, and Lois was still typing away at her computer. A couple of hours ago she'd gotten a phone call with the news she'd been waiting for. She had then come into his office to let him know she just might the next day's headlines ready before he put the edition to bed, and had been slaving away over the article ever since.
Yet the story had become a cover for the real reason she was still at the Planet — she dreaded going home and finding whatever tokens of affection her secret admirer had left for her that day.
Perry tossed his editing pencil onto his desk, and leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind his head. A thought suddenly popped into his mind. He grabbed the phone and punched in the extension.
"Lois, has Jimmy checked in?"
"You mean you haven't heard from him either?"
"How long has it been now? Almost five hours? Damn! That's not like him," Perry muttered. "Let's hope nothing's happened to him."
"Maybe he stopped for a pizza," Lois tried to make excuses, but she knew better; her boss was right. Jimmy had great reporter's instincts. He also kept in close contact with either her, Clark, or Perry whenever he was following a lead.
"You know what I think?" Perry began.
Like minds collided on the same track. Lois hung up the phone and hurried over to Jimmy's desk. Perry was right behind her.
"Okay… where are the names of those photo shops?" She ruffled through his papers, looking for his notes.
"If I remember, after he'd looked up the addresses, he'd printed his list off of his computer."
Parking herself in the chair, Lois turned on the monitor and brought Jimmy's computer online. Within seconds she was faced with a window asking for a password.
"Aww, hell's bells," Perry grumbled. "What next?"
"Hmm…" Lois guessed at several words, but none were correct. "C'mon, Perry. Help me out here. What could be Jimmy's password?"
"Spy?" She typed it in, but the screen gave her an error message. Perry tossed out a couple more possibilities, but they were wrong, also.
"Darn!" She slapped the wrist rest with her hands, and pushed back away from the desk in frustration. She reached behind her head to massage her neck and shoulder muscles, and looked around the room, resting her eyes, not really searching for anything, when something caught her attention — and a long-ago memory echoed in her ear.
"Lois… th-there's something I've been wanting to tell you…"
With very little effort, she had a direct line of sight from Jimmy's desk to her own. From his chair, he could see every move she and Clark made.
Scooching back up to the computer, Lois typed four swift letters — LOIS.
The screen popped up, and she quickly pulled up his last printout. Fortunately, it was the list of photo developers, and she printed out another copy.
As Perry mulled over the names and address, Lois continued to stare at the monitor as an idea formulated in her tired mind. "Perry?" she asked, getting his attention.
"Yeah, honey." He looked up from the printout.
"Just… just go with me on this one, okay? I have a hunch." She took the list from him, then pulled out the yellow pages from beneath the phone and found the number to Oglevy's floral shop. She dialed the number, and when someone answered, asked, "Hi! I'm trying to find my way over to your store to purchase a nice birthday arrangement. I'm over on…" she read the address to the first store, "the eight hundred block of West Martinique. How do I get there? Umm-hmm… okay, well my girlfriend lives on…" she checked the second address, "the corner of Fourteenth and Murphy. How would I get from your place to there? I see… no, that's all right; I can take a cab. Thank you!"
She hung up. Then, taking a deep breath, she hit the redial button, but this time when she spoke, she used a distinctly British accent. " 'Ello! Sorry to bother you, but I'm over on…" here she read the third address, "eight-sixteen Monticello. Is it far from where you're located? Oh, really?" She brightened up, glancing over at Perry. "Jolly good! Thank you very much! Yes, thank you!" She hung up and proceeded to scroll through the list of programs on Jimmy's computer before choosing the one she wanted.
"Whatcha got there, Lois? I trust your hunches over other people's solid evidence any day."
"I hope," she said as the screen went through its cybergymnastics, "a lead. I wondered if the florist who sent me the roses might be in the vicinity of one of these developers…"
"All within the same neighborhood, eh?" He picked up the piece of paper again.
"Yep," she nodded, pointing the third one out to him, "and this one on Jimmy's list, Photogeniality', is just a block away."
Within seconds a second screen appeared, asking for more information. "Eight-sixteen Monticello, right?" she asked.
She typed in the information, then hit ENTER. Less than a second later, one entry filled the screen. They both looked at it in astonishment, then chorused together, "Morris Montlebocker."
Lois jumped to her feet as Perry called out to her, "I'm calling the police! Don't go anywhere near that place until they get there, do you hear -" But she had already exited via the elevators, the doors closing off his direct order in mid-sentence.
Perry had no need to worry, though. The police had arrived before Lois, and had already found Jimmy bound and gagged in the third story apartment. Morris Montlebocker was nowhere around, and Lieutenant Byrnes assured her that they had put out an A.P.B. on the suspect.
Lois rushed over to the E.M.S. truck where technicians were taking Jimmy's vitals, and treating the cub reporter for cuts and abrasions to the head and forehead. She gave Jimmy's proffered hand a squeeze in relief. "Thank God you're safe!"
"How'd you find me?" Jimmy asked. "OW!"
"This might sting a bit," the E.M.T. commented, swabbing the inside of his elbow before inserting the injection tube for his I.V.
"What do you mean 'might'?" Jimmy flinched, then looked back at Lois. She explained.
"When you didn't show up or call, Perry and I figured something might have happened. So we pulled up another copy of the list of photo shops on your computer -"
"You figured out my password?" he interrupted, then stopped himself, blushing at the realization.
Lois saw his fluster and smile. "If it's any consolation, it took us a while. Anyway, while we were looking at the list of address, I got a hunch. Here we'd been thinking the stalker might be connected to the Planet in some way, but we never followed up that possibility. There was also the chance that the floral shop he used to order my roses may have been in the same general vicinity."
"Let me guess. You checked the addresses of the photo stores with the floral shop's, then cross-checked them against the addresses of every employee working at the Planet?" Jimmy chuckled. "That's a pretty big long shot, Lois, even for you."
"Not really," she shook her head. "I got to thinking. This guy had to take our picture, develop the film, then blow the entire thing up to this big size, and all within the space of a few hours. Now, since you said it took special equipment to create those big posters, then it was likely the guy had to have had easy access to a store that could do it. And since most of the work was done late at night, I took the chance that he might have lived nearby." Lois shrugged. "It paid off. What can I say?" she smiled.
The E.M.T. interrupted them to say he was ready to take Jimmy to Metropolis General. "We don't take chances with head wounds," explained the technician. "He'll just stay overnight for observation, then he'll probably be released in the morning."
"Hey, you gonna be okay?" Jimmy asked as he lay back down on the stretcher and was hoisted into the ambulance.
"I'll be fine!" she called back. "Call me in the morning if you need a ride home!"
"I will!" he managed to reply before the doors slammed shut, and the vehicle pulled away.
Another officer approached her. "Miss Lane? Lieutenant Byrnes wants to know if you'd be willing to come down to the station tomorrow morning and fill out a report, make a statement to help clear up some of this confusion about the suspect."
"Okay. Tell him I'll be there tomorrow morning."
The officer touched the tip of his cap in respect and left.
Turning, Lois attempted to climb the stairs and check out the apartment where the police had found Jimmy, but the scene had been tightly cordoned off. Although such barriers rarely hampered her in the past, she hesitated to pursue it any further. She tended to credit her newfound reluctance to pending motherhood. The baby made her make that vital second thought about things she did nowadays. Or maybe her protective motherly instincts were kicking in.
Either way, Lois eyed the narrow stairwell and its wrapping of bright yellow police tape, and decided she could come back later when things had cooled down a bit before poking her nose around. Anyway, it was nearly nine p.m., and for some reason she was dying for some shrimp egg rolls with hot mustard sauce. Fortunately Eddie's Chung King Palace was on the way home.
Lois entered the townhouse, turned on every light, and checked every room before she allowed herself to relax. Humming to herself, she checked her messages, one of which was from Clark.
"Hi, Honey! Perry told me you had a deadline coming up for a great piece about corruption in the school board. Good luck on it. Things are looking up at the moment," he said, and Lois believed him. His voice held an unmistakably positive ring to it.
"Superman thinks he's found the source of the bacilli, and the scientists think that with his help, they'll be able to formulate a possible serum within the next couple of weeks. They told him that by utilizing his superpowers they were able to accomplish certain synthesizing processes within a fraction of the time it would take them in a conventional lab.
"Well, looks like my five time is up. I miss you. Tell everyone hello for me, and I'll see you sooner than you think. I love you, Lois. Goodnight."
"Goodnight," she whispered back, kissing the tips of her fingers and pressing them to the speaker of the answering machine.
She kicked off her shoes next to the secretary, and started to head for the kitchen when the front doorbell rang. Wondering who it could be at that hour, she peeked through the peephole to see her mother standing in the foyer. She opened the door, one hand on her hip.
"Mother, what on earth…!"
"I know it's late, but you weren't home earlier when I came by," Ellen chattered, and breezed her way in. "I was driving past Chanteuse's today, you know they have the most adorable spring selection in right now, and I saw where they have opened up a maternity section in the store! Well, you know me; I adore shopping at Chanteuse's."
"You just adore shopping, Mother," Lois replied drily, smiling.
"Okay, you're right. But look what I found!" Ellen hung the article in the archway leading to the dining room, and stripped the store's plastic bag from it to reveal a navy blue dress. "Isn't that just perfect for work?" she asked, admiring her selection. "And it's washable, too."
"It's very nice, Mother," Lois told her. In fact, the dress *was* nice looking, which mildly surprised her.
"Anyway," Ellen continued, "you're father is waiting for me outside. We just took in that new boat picture."
"Boat picture? Which one?"
"Ohh, the one that sunk. I don't remember off-hand. My mind is not what it used to be. We were on our way home when we thought we'd stop by once more to see if you were finally home so I could give you the dress." Giving her daughter a quick kiss on the cheek, Ellen hurried for the door. "Look, I'll give you a ring tomorrow to see how it fit, okay? Ta-ta!" she waved, and headed back down the front steps.
Lois smiled, shaking her head, and closed the door, locking it securely before going back to the kitchen. There she threw together a quick sandwich, grabbed a diet soda, and went back into the living room to turn on the tv and hopefully catch the late edition of the news.
She was mid-way through her sandwich when the phone rang. Thinking it might be Clark managing to squeeze in another five minute call, she answered it.
"Hello, my dearest Lois," breathed a warm voice.
Instantly the house turned icy cold.
"Who is this?" she asked, hoping he wouldn't hear her fear through the connection. "Why are you calling me?"
"Apparently my letters haven't been enough," the voice replied.
Lois decided to try a different tactic. "Morris, we know who you are. The police know you kidnaped Jimmy and tied him up in your room. They know you're the one who's been stalking me."
"Stalking you? Is that what you think I've been doing? I haven't been stalking you!" Morris denied a bit angrily. "How is giving you and our baby gifts considered stalking?"
"It's not your baby, Morris, it's mine and Clark's."
"Clark is a dead man; I've told you that but you still don't believe me. Do you honestly think he'll survive that plague-infested forest over there? He bought himself a one-way ticket, Lois, and we both know it."
"Look, sleezeball," Lois said between gritted teeth. "This has to stop, and stop NOW. I don't want you to ever call me again, okay? I don't want you to send me any more delivery boys with food, I don't want to find any more gifts tied to the door of my home, I don't want any more flowers from you, and I especially don't want you papering my foyer with blown-up snapshots of me and my friends! GET IT?"
"No, YOU get it. I have been watching you and waiting for you to finally come to your senses, but apparently you're a lot dumber than I gave you credit for. I am *not* going to hurt you, okay? Everything I've done for you has been out of love, or are you too stupid to realize that?"
"Morris, I'm a married woman, a happily married woman. I love my husband, I love my baby, and there's no way you can ever convince me that my husband is not coming back from Africa. I have personally been assured by Superman that nothing would happen to him."
Morris barked out a short, humorless laugh. "And you believe that prissy blue boy? My darling Lois, how naive *are* you?"
"I'm not your darling Lois," she told him. "I'm not your darling anything. The police are looking for you, so you'd better not step one foot near my front door again, do you understand me?"
"What… are you threatening me?"
"I'm TELLING you to LEAVE ME THE HELL ALONE!" Slamming down the receiver, Lois paused, counted off ten seconds, then picked up the handset to dial 911, only to discover that there was no dial tone. She hit the reset buttons several times, without any luck.
But she wasn't licked yet. There was still her cell phone in her purse. She started to walk across the room to where she'd dropped it over by the front door, near the sofa, when the house was suddenly plunged into pitch blackness.
Fear gripped her. Instinctively she ducked behind the couch, straining her ears and waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dark. Somewhere in the kitchen she could detect faint sounds, as if someone had entered her home through there. This someone, though, had a name.
Carefully, awkwardly, she crept around the sofa to the other side and waited for Morris to make his move. Now she wished she'd said something to Lieutenant Byrnes when she'd had the chance — told him about Morris' relentless pursuit of her, about his unwanted gifts, and especially about the veiled threats he'd made in his letters if she turned down him or his offerings again.
"Lois! My darling, it's me. You don't have to fear me. I love you. I would never harm you!"
Lois listened as Morris came through the swinging door separating the dining room from the kitchen. He appeared as cautious as she in the dark, more so because he was unfamiliar with the layout of the townhouse.
The faint light from the halogen street lamp outside the front windows filtered into the living room, giving Lois a slight chance to see some movement over by the wall. She took two long, slow breaths, keeping them slow and quiet, and tried to calm her nerves. In her mind she went over the furnishings in the living room, trying to determine what she could use as a weapon. All the while, Morris tried to coax her into surrendering.
"I'm sorry I had to turn off the lights, but you'd become so unreasonable over the phone," he cooed in an oily tone of voice. "That was no way to talk to your next husband. Lois… why won't you answer me?"
Lois knew there was a carved wooden African statue sitting on the mantel behind her. It had been a gift to Superman from the president of Swaziland, and supposed to be the god who guarded over happy and healthy lives. Perry saw it the first time he'd visited them at their new home, and told them it looked like a fertility god to him. Ever since then, Clark had suggested they keep it on the mantle because they could use all the help they could get, even if the thing was double ugly.
"I just want to talk, okay? I want you to understand I could never hurt you. I could never do anything to harm the one person I love more in the world. But we'll never get this thing resolved if you don't speak to me. Lois?"
Her fingers slowly closed around its smooth woodgrain finish. It was double heavy, too, she smiled to herself, and she carefully rose up, every sense on the alert for the slightest sound from her intruder, who had moved into the living area and was slowly circumventing the room.
"This is ridiculous, darling!" he said in slightly stronger and angrier tone of voice. "We're two grown adults; we should be able to talk out our differences. I have watched you and adored you ever since I first saw you. Do you remember when that was? It was right before you left the Planet to marry Lex Luthor, but I knew he wouldn't last. I knew he would never have you, and I was right, wasn't I? Well, I'm right about Clark, too, only you won't believe me until it actually happens, will you?"
She tried to control her breathing, remaining as still as possible. She stood frozen where she was, the edge of the fireplace mantel pressed against the back of her neck, knowing she'd better not take another step until she was certain where he was in the room. Her grip tightened on the statue as she raised her arm to protect herself…
The blow came from nowhere. It slammed her back into the fireplace wall, stunning her with its force. Another blow came down across her face, throwing her onto the carpet where she rolled to absorb the impact.
"You know you had no right turning down my gifts, didn't you?" Morris asked, advancing toward her. His voice was now ice — unmoving and unforgiving. Another blow caught her across the shoulders, and she cried out in pain and surprise.
"When are you going to learn to trust me? When is it going to get through that thick skull of yours that I am the only one who loves you? The only person who truly cares about you?"
"Since when is beating on someone a sign that you love them?" she spat back vehemently.
Another slap from his hand sent her up against dining room wall. Slowly, painfully, she braced herself against the wall, sliding up against it until she was on her feet. If she could only make it to the front door… She remembered she'd only locked the bottom lock — the deadbolts hadn't been turned yet.
"If that's the only way you understand how much I love you, how much I honestly and truly care for you…"
He drew closer, blocking out the faint, watery light from the outside lamp. Lois gritted her teeth.
"Go to hell!"
She felt herself pushed so hard into the wall, her head cracked against it, making spots dance before her eyes. A pair of hands crushed her arms, then crawled up her shoulders to cup the sides of her face where they shook her roughly.
"I don't want to hurt you," Morris whined. He brought her face nose-to- nose with his; his breath was rank, hot, and heavy against her skin. "I love you, Lois. I've always loved you. I promise to love you forever and ever! Please tell me you believe me. Please tell me you understand why I have -"
She hit him with every ounce of strength she could gather, but her aim was slightly off. The African statue clipped him on the ear, hurting him enough so that he let go of her face to grab the side of his head.
He screamed a curse and lunged for her. Pinned on one side by the wall, Lois's only recourse was to back up. The weight of his body hit hers, throwing her off-balance. She hit the edge of the doorway, tangling herself in some sort of cloth, and she fell to the floor in a heap of material. In the back of her mind she realized it was the maternity dress her mother had left. Her left shoulder blade ached so badly she thought she'd broken it.
Somehow she managed to get back on her feet when Morris came for her again. He was finished trying to talk to her; now he felt the only way he could get her to understand was by his actions.
Even if it meant killing her.
One hand found her shoulder again. Within a heartbeat his fingers began to close around her windpipe. Lois pedaled backwards, trying to escape. The both of them backed into the large display hutch. It rocked from the collision; the cabinet doors swung open, and Lois heard several items fall in muffled thuds onto the carpet.
"Please… please…" she tried to beg. "The baby…"
Her throat burned; she couldn't breathe. In a last-minute attempt, she kneed him in the groin as hard as she could. The shock of the attack loosened his hands for only a second, but it was enough.
Lois half-turned to run when fingers closed on her blouse and yanked hard. She tripped against Morris' crouching body and fell to the floor. Frantically, she began scrabbling her way across the carpet, kicking out with her feet, and trying avoid his hands as they tried to grab her legs.
One hand came in contact with a hard, smooth object. Somewhere in the thick haze of her fear and panic, Lois understood it could be a weapon… if she could only reach it.
Morris jerked on her ankles, sliding her closer toward him. He pounced on her, pressing the weight of his body half-way across hers, and his hands found her neck once more.
"I'M GOING TO MAKE YOU LOVE ME!" he screamed, spittle falling into her face. "IF IT'S THE LAST THING YOU EVER DO, YOU WILL LEARN TO LOVE ME!"
She couldn't break his grasp. His were the hands of the demented gone completely berserk, and she would die from the pressure of his thumbs in the hollow of her throat, crushing her larynx.
Somewhere, subconsciously, her inner self screamed for help. She cried silently for her husband; she cried for Superman, and she was terribly regretful she hadn't told him the truth when he'd called her.
Struggling for air, she tried to scratch and gouge his arms; she tried to reach his face and his eyes, but the world was swimming in colors from lack of oxygen. She waved her arms across the carpet, like a child making angels in the snow, when her hand encountered something small, hard, and cold.
There was no more air. There was no more sound. There was only pressure against her chest, and the roaring of her heart in her ears and behind her eyes. Numb fingers started to pull on the clothes hanger when something pulled against it. Another jerk, and something began to drag against the hanger.
Her fingers dropped the hanger and crawled across the bit of wire to discover a smooth, heavy item. Tingling from her slide into unconsciousness, her arm lifted the awkward object, and with every last ounce of strength left in her body, Lois slammed the object into the side of Morris' head.
Sweet, black serenity closed in, and the night drew to its conclusion.
It hurt. There was so much pain, and it was everywhere.
She worried about the baby. She had no feeling in her arms or hands, so she couldn't reach out to touch her growing stomach.
She knew she was on her back, someplace flat, yet there was the sensation of floating, of being there but not being there, almost suspended between life and death.
And it hurt to breathe. Air had turned to sandpaper, scraping the inside of her throat and chest until they were raw and bleeding. Every breath was a struggle. Her whole body throbbed, hot with aches, bruises, and other possible internal damage.
…something cold blew over her face, then someone touched her — someone spoke to her, but the words were unclear… muffled, garbled. For a split second she thought it was Morris again, and her arms involuntarily flailed about, unrestrained and without guidance, trying to ward him away. The voice spoke soothingly, telling her something. Someone took her arms and crossed them over her chest.
The world became slightly more in focus. Now she could hear the words and make sense of them. "Lois… Lois… come back to me, my love… come back to me…"
"Lois .. . don't try to talk."
She was able to open her eyes, and the vision of her husband, clad in blue and red, loomed above her. "Cl-"
"Shh!" Clark leaned over and tenderly held her. He placed a kiss to her temple before sitting back.
"Ba… by… the… ba-by…"
"Our baby is fine. *You're* going to be just fine, too," he murmured. "I x-rayed you when I first found you. Your shoulder was dislocated; I put it back. And you have some severe bruising and swelling, but otherwise you're going to be all right, given time and bedrest."
Lois tried to turn her head and look around for signs of her attacker. Her first thought was that he'd escaped. It was daylight, so she had no idea if it was the next morning or afternoon. She struggled to warn her husband. "Mor-ris."
"He's still out cold, but I tied him up just to make sure." Clark smiled with relief, knowing she was quickly regaining her senses.
Clark nodded. "I came home this morning to surprise you. Thank God I did. No… don't move," he advised her as she tried to sit up. "I've called for an ambulance. They should be here soon."
"I… wanted… to tell… you," she confessed, "but…"
"I understand, Lois. I understand. You can explain it all to me later when you've recovered, but I've already guessed why you never said anything. You knew how much my fight over there meant to me, so you didn't want to alarm or worry me any further." He smiled. "I know you, Lois. You take stupid, unnecessary risks just so that other people don't have to suffer. You are one major high maintenance woman, but I love you all the more for it. Now promise me you'll never keep something as serious as this from me ever again."
"I… got… him," she rasped proudly, managing a smile.
"Yes, you did," he answered. He reached over, out of her line of sight, then showed her the object lying next to her. "Looks like you cold-cocked him with this."
"This" was a Kerth award; the ungainly lead crystal object was smeared now on one side with a small patch of blood. Lois blinked. Shifting slightly, she tried to focus on the writing on the award.
Clark noticed her line of concentration. "What, Lois? What is it?" To his amazement, she leaned back onto the carpet and laughed silently, hands pressed to her chest to hold in the pain. "What is it?" he asked again.
"Kerth…" she said. "*Your* Kerth."
The hutch had held four of the awards — three of them Lois's, and the one of Clark's. As Morris Montlebocker tried to choke the life from her, she had prayed for her husband to come to her rescue, and by some strange twist of fate, the one award which had fallen within reach had been his.
"Even when… you're not… here… you still save… my life," she whispered breathily.
Clark smiled warmly and lovingly down at her. "You can count on it. I always will, Lois, because I love you."
"Forever and… ever?"
"Promise to… love me… forever and ever?" she repeated.
"Forever and ever," Clark repeated, stroking her cheek tenderly with his fingertips.
Lois smiled, reaching up to draw his face and his lips down to hers. "Amen," she finished huskily, and kissed him.