By Jenni Debbage <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted December 1998
Summary: The disappearance of two of their dear friends leads Lois and Clark, along with their children and the elder Kents, to the British countryside, where they encounter a man whose plan for Superman could put the whole family in danger… The third story in the author's "Kent Family" series.
Author's note: The disappearance of two of their dear friends leads Lois and Clark, along with their children and the elder Kents, to the British countryside, where they encounter a man whose plan for Superman could put the whole family in danger… The third story in the author's "Kent Family" series.
This is my third story in the saga of my Lois & Clark family. I have taken the liberty on this occasion of moving them out of Metropolis for at least part of this story and set them on vacation (perhaps?) in the U K The title and the hall of Sheringham are fictitious though the stately home is based on a number of real houses which I have visited in the area. The town of Sheringham does exist though I have used poetic licence to describe the part in which the Kents' holiday home is situated.
The usual disclaimers apply once again, though the new characters are my own invention. I would like to thank Sarah Murray for all her work in helping me with these stories. Her assistance is much appreciated.
I hope you enjoy this story and, please, feedback is welcome.
Clark Kent paced back and forth across the living room floor of his Metropolis townhouse, glancing at his watch now and then in frustration. He didn't really need to check with a timepiece as he had an automatic clock in his brain, yet the impatient gesture matched his mood. He knew this was an important day in his daughter's young life, but just how long did it take Lois to dress the little girl? The taxi would be arriving any minute now. Looking over at his seven-year-old son, who was sitting bolt upright on the couch opposite, he was not surprised and slightly amused to see Joel apparently feeling very uncomfortable in his new and very formal suit. The child's hand rose once again to the collar of his white shirt and fiddled with his bow-tie as if it were threatening to choke him. Clark moved to his son and covered the fidgeting hand with his larger one.
"Joel, stop that. I've straightened your tie twice already; any more mistreatment and it will be beyond repair and your mother will slay us." The boy sighed wearily at his dad's rebuke. "Why don't you run upstairs and see what's holding up your mom and Clara?"
Glad of something to do, the boy jumped up from the sofa and ran upstairs. As he watched the sure and speedy way Joel mounted the stairs Clark knew instinctively that his son had inherited his super powers and, although they were not yet evident, he was certain that they would show up in the near future. He hoped for the child's sake that like himself Joel would develop his special abilities gradually, over a number of years. But unlike himself his child would have the support and help of someone who
knew exactly how weird and scary these new gifts could be. Martha and Jonathan had done a marvellous job in helping him adjust to his own capabilities, especially since they had not really understood themselves what was happening to the child they had found and raised and loved as their own. Clark would be eternally grateful to the fates that the Kents had found him, particularly now as they were helping Lois and himself in caring for their family. Without the assistance of his parents, both Lois and Clark knew that they could never balance their busy lives with their high profile jobs and his life as a super-hero, with that of bringing up their three children.
At least the problem of deciding at what age it would be best to reveal the secret of his identity to his children had been taken completely out of the hands of the troubled parents. Clara, their irrepressible daughter, when only a toddler who was just learning to build her words into comprehensive sentences, had made the connection to Superman and her Daddy. The two children were playing in their grandparents' family room while Jonathan had been watching a ball game on T V. An urgent news bulletin about an explosion in the city had interrupted the program, one which the kids had no trouble ignoring. However, when Superman had appeared on the scene to assist the public services with the rescue, Joel being as enamoured of the super hero as any other child his age, broke off from his game with his sister and became glued to the screen. Clara, bereft of her partner, had followed along. They had watched in fascination as Superman had shifted rubble and pulled away iron girders that normally would have required the time and the effort of many men. When a camera had zoomed in on the Man of Steel as he had lifted an injured child from the wreckage, a sorrowful and compassionate look gracing the face of the hero, Clara had sprung up from her position on the floor and firmly placing her sticky fingers on the screen had announced to the room at large.
"Daddy! My Daddy!" she exclaimed, beaming broadly.
Her grandparents had patiently tried to explain that this was Superman and not her father, but the small girl remained adamant, giving a very fair imitation of her tenacious mother in pursuit of a story. Her parents had been sent for but they had no more success in persuading Clara that she was mistaken and when Joel, who had remained unusually quiet while the four most important grownups in his life concentrated on his sister, finally spoke.
"You are Superman, Daddy! You are. You mustn't tell lies. Superman doesn't tell lies."
Joel's young mind had been examining what he knew of his hero and comparing that with his knowledge of his father. He knew that his father often disappeared at odd times and that sometimes this exasperated his mother,
and yet his dad was always forgiven. He also realised that his mother had feelings for Superman and that she worried about him. How often had the two of them sat alone before a T V screen anxiously watching the hero's exploits and then welcomed in great relief the return of his father? Joel wondered how he could have been so blind to the uncanny resemblance between the two men and why his younger sister had so clearly seen through the disguise. Was he 'stupid'?
Faced with the accusing glares of his two children, Clark had realised he could no longer maintain the pretense. Although he considered them too young to be trusted with such a secret, he could not lie to them.
Appealing to his wife for support, he had sat both Joel and Clara on his lap and attempted to explain in simple terms, terms he hoped the two would understand, who he was and why it was so important that they speak to no one else about this except the people already in the room. The four adults had spent the next months apprehensively awaiting the kids to accidentally reveal the truth of Clark's identity, but their fears were groundless. To this day neither one had betrayed their father's secret. They had both intuitively recognised, with a perception far beyond their years, the importance of maintaining his cover. Hopefully Nathan would follow his siblings' lead.
A frustrated scream broke through Clark's contemplation and drew his attention to the present and more particularly to the plight of his youngest child, who was very grumpily strapped into his high chair. Nathan had been the first to be dressed into his fancy clothes to enable Lois to devote all her attention to Clara's preparations. However, the toddler, not appreciating the reasons for his finery, had escaped into the back garden to pass the time with his favourite hobby of digging up the flowerbeds, thus resulting in the need for his complete refurbishment. When Nathan was once more dressed to his mother's satisfaction, he was confined to his high chair, where it was hoped he could no longer get into any more trouble. Clark sympathising with the baby's impatience, attempted to distract the infant, while praying that the two favourite ladies in his life would hurry things along.
Upstairs in the master bedroom, Lois was putting the finishing touches to her daughter's hairstyle by placing a coronet of tiny rosebuds in amongst her curls. Clara had inherited her father's dark hair colouring and chocolate brown eyes but, according to the holograms produced by the 'Globe', her features resembled her Kryptonian grandmother. On the whole, the result was lovely and Clara was not averse to using her undoubted charms to getting her own way. Her mother was usually immune to her wiles, but her father was very often putty in her hands. Clara loved her father with every beat of her heart and as she stood now before the large mirror, gazing at the unfamiliar reflection of a dainty little girl clad in ivory silk and lace, her one concern was 'what would her Daddy think?'
There was no doubt about what her brother thought as he burst into the room. His sister was a tomboy and the sight of her in a floaty, frilly dress was just too much for his equilibrium. Standing in the open doorway with his mouth agape Joel managed one word.
"WOW!!" Then his sense of humour took over and he came forward as if he were searching for something or someone. "Hey Mom, I thought you had Clara up here, but she seems to have disappeared."
Joel's customary teasing broke Clara from the trance she'd been in, ever since she spied herself in the mirror. Now the real Clara Kent emerged. Hands on her hips and her little chin raised belligerently she turned to face her brother.
"I know! I don't like it either," she challenged, "but you have to wear clothes like these to be a flower-girl. You don't look so good yourself!"
A crestfallen Joel quickly realised his mistake.
"No Clara! You look good, really pretty," and when his sister seemed doubtful he stressed, "Really, really pretty."
Lois smiled as her son's expression mimicked his father's when he was attempting to redress a similar mistake that he had blundered into. Thoughts of Clark brought his voice, calling from downstairs.
"Hey, you guys, the taxi's here. Could you move it along now or the bride will be at the church before we arrive."
Sensing Clara's reticence, Lois took her daughter's hand and with a gentle squeeze spoke words of encouragement.
"You are a very lovely young lady, but why don't we go down and ask Daddy what he thinks?"
Clara threw a last appraising glance at her unfamiliar reflection and with a sigh of resignation and holding fast to her mother's hand the three headed out of the room. Just before turning into the final flight of stairs, Lois dropped the tiny hand that clung to her and hurried to catch up with Joel. Alone on the landing Clara hesitated, unsure of herself in her unaccustomed attire. Clark looked up to remonstrate with his wife on her tardiness but caught instead the picture of his precious little girl standing anxiously at the top of the stairs. His heart swelled with pride. The ivory silk frock enhanced her creamy satin skin and her discomfiture had increased the rosiness of her rounded cheeks. Silently he walked to the foot of the steps.
"Princess, you are so beautiful, you take my breath away."
And when he opened his arms to her, Clara forgot all her decorum and launched herself into her Daddy's waiting embrace. He swung her around the room, both of them laughing merrily, when they were halted by Lois' strict reminder.
"Ahem!! I believe you said the taxi was waiting."
The Kent family began to panic. Clark deposited his daughter gently on the floor and straightened out her gown, swiftly smoothing out, with a small burst of heat vision, a few creases, created by their pirouette around the room. Lois disappeared into the kitchen, quickly returning with Clara's rosebud posy. After satisfying herself that everyone was dressed tidily she escorted her family towards the door, only to be halted by yet another shrill squeal. Nathan had almost been forgotten in the rush. Scooping him into her arms, she followed Clark and the kids out of the door.
The wedding of Doctors Bernard Klein and Beth Peters was well overdue as both parties were in the autumn of their years and their association was one of long standing. In fact, they had first met over six years ago, when Lois was carrying her second child, the baby who was to become their godchild and who was now their flower-girl.
Back then, shortly after saving Clark's life and revealing that he knew of the young man's secret identity, Bernard had shown up at the couple's home one evening, bearing the disturbing news that the new baby's life might be in danger, due to the differences in blood type between Lois and Clark. He explained that the condition could be similar to the Rhesus Syndrome and that as Joel's blood type was the same as his father's, antibodies might well have formed in Lois' bloodstream and that those antibodies may now be detrimental to the survival of their second child.
Simultaneously, Dr Peters had discovered these very antibodies while routinely testing Lois' blood. Her lab technician had that morning drawn her attention to Mrs Kent's condition. Needless to say, the obstetrician was surprised by this development. As far as she could remember, there was no reason from the first pregnancy to have precipitated the creation of the antibodies. Opening up Lois' file on her computer, she checked back over the information provided by Clark Kent when the couple had first attended her clinic, and just as her memory had suggested, his blood type was compatible with that of his wife's. The doctor did not, of course, realise that Lois and Clark had suffered many sleepless nights agonizing over just what information they could reveal regarding Clark's medical history. Eventually they had asked Martha and Jonathan Kent's advice about the question of Clark's blood type and the consensus of opinion had been, that as it was assumed that Joel would be the couple's only child, they could safely give false information. It was decided that the time to reveal all was when and if events should go wrong.
But Beth Peters had not known this and so she was confronted with a mystery. Could it be that Joel was not the offspring of Lois Lane's husband? That hardly seemed feasible when she remembered how much in love the couple had appeared to be, or how contented the new mother had been with her pregnant state. There had certainly been no signs of a guilty conscience. Then too, never in all the years of her career had she witnessed a new born child who had resembled his father as much as Joel. Perhaps there had been a mistake made in transposing the client's written file onto computer. The original files were stored in her record room and she quickly went to check the information, but there written in Clark's own hand was the same blood type as recorded on her computerised files and if this was correct then there should have been no adverse effect. Finally Beth decided to recheck the lab work but once again this only confirmed the findings. There were antibodies present in the blood sample.
While puzzling over the information, one troubling memory forced itself on her conscious thoughts. After Joel's birth the couple had stipulated that no blood was to be drawn from the baby, citing religious beliefs for their decision. To the doctor, this had seemed a strange request as neither parent had previously shown any religious tendencies. However, Clark had been raised in the farm belt of Kansas where quite a number of weird sects proliferated, so she had simply acquiesced to the demand without question. Then too, both mother and baby had left her care a little more than 24 hours after the birth and except for Lois showing up for a very swift prenatal exam, Beth had not had any contact with her until she arrived back at her surgery obviously pregnant once more.
In the weeks that followed Lois' re-entry into her life the doctor considered how the media had been obsessed with the identity of Metropolis' favourite hero. Some tabloids even suggesting that Clark Kent was, in reality, Superman. That rumour had been categorically blown apart by the presence of the hero going about his duties in the city while Clark Kent was reportedly home sick, having been injured by some of Superman's enemies. Beth had experienced only a passing interest in the reports and that only because Kent's wife was her patient. Now however, she wondered if the connection between the three subjects of the controversy might have some bearing on the reasons for the unexpected results of Lois' blood test and the strange behaviour of the new parents during the first pregnancy and immediately following Joel's birth.
She decided that the only way forward was to confront the couple with her findings and to that end she noted their home address and went to make a house call. That monumental action had changed her life. During that visit Dr Beth Peters had been indoctrinated into the small circle of friends who knew the truth of and strove to protect Superman's identity. On a more personal level, she had met Bernard Klein. Their relationship had developed and deepened slowly as the two had in the ensuing months endeavoured to find a way to save the life of Clara Kent. They had kept her alive inside her mother's womb and when that environment had proved too dangerous to the baby's existence, induced the birth and afterwards administered a life saving blood change, blood that had been donated by her father. Furthermore, they had developed a desensitising agent, which, when injected into Lois' bloodstream, protected any further offspring from any danger. And all their efforts were made while maintaining the secrecy of the family's origins. Lois and Clark had been so grateful to the two Doctors, they had asked them to stand as godparents to their new daughter and today, the child whose existence had brought together two lonely people, was to be a special witness at their wedding.
The day went well. The friends and family of the couple, though not great in number, were certainly enthusiastic. The church ceremony was very moving and the wedding party was full of warmth and joy and everyone agreed that the flower girl was the belle of the ball. Nevertheless, after a long afternoon of being on her best behaviour, Clara Kent was beginning to tire. At the moment she was swept up in Clark's arms, dancing round the floor with her father and mother. A slow romantic song was playing and the late afternoon sun shown through the tall glass windows and crept across the wooden floor, wrapping the three in a warm haze. Clara's eyes drifted shut and her head sank slowly to her Daddy's strong shoulder.
"I think someone has finally run out of steam," Lois remarked, smiling at the unusual sight of her daughter at peace. "She has been just perfect today." If the truth were told, Lois had been a little anxious about her child's behaviour. Clara was not known for her seemliness. Hoyden was more the word that sprang to mind when describing her girl and for this Lois had to claim responsibility. The energy and spunk that belonged to Lois had been passed from mother to child. A circumstance that gave the busy mother a few sleepless nights, wondering how her fiery nature would meld with superpowers, should her daughter grow up to inherit her father's genetic abilities. Clark nevertheless had no such qualms, invoking the memory of Ultrawoman, to prove that Lois' personality had adapted to the role of superhero with great aplomb. But her fears were not so easily dissipated and she promised herself that she would be there to advise and support her daughter whenever the need arose. For the moment, taking her young family home and putting them to bed, seemed to be the care required. At her suggestion, Clark immediately agreed, a teasing smile lightening up his face and his eyebrows rose evocatively. Lois laughed, but gave him a corrective slap.
"Down boy! Remember what happened when we went home after Perry and Alice's wedding." That private celebration had resulted in Clara's conception and while she recognised that Clark would probably not be too upset to have another child, Lois felt she had done her duty in the foundation of the future Utopia. Clark's answer was interrupted by their sleepy daughter, stretching and yawning and asking to be taken home. Being a flower girl had been fun, but Clara's fancy clothes were becoming too restricting and the cake and ice cream she had consumed were beginning to make her feel a little sick. She wished she had listened to her parents when they had warned her about overeating, which was really all her Mommy's fault because along with everything else, she had inherited her mother's love of chocolate.
Lois and Clark walked slowly from the dance floor, rejoining Martha and Jonathan who were sitting by the large windows that overlooked the hotel gardens. Nathan was already asleep in his Grandpa's lap, but by the restless movements he was making Lois judged that it would not be long before he awoke, grumpy and tired from the long day. A wedding reception was not the best venue for young children and although their mother was extremely pleased with how well her offspring had behaved, she sensed that their patience was running out fast and that now was the time for a quick exit. Instructing her husband to go in search of his eldest son, Lois began to collect the family's belongings.
Clark looked round the ballroom but without success. He tuned in his super hearing to his son's voice and heard laughter and excited shouts coming from the direction of the garden. Following the sounds he strolled outside, yet swiftly increased his pace when he overheard a dull thud, followed by a scream of pain. His sense of direction brought him directly to the scene of the incident and his breath caught in his throat at the sight. Joel stood perfectly still, confidently balanced on the branches of a tall tree, while a little way below him an older boy clung precariously to the trunk, looking down at his younger brother who now lay crying in pain beneath the tree. A broken branch testified to where the child had fallen from. Clark lowered his glasses and scanned the boy's body. Fortunately the only injuries he found were a broken ankle and collarbone, but the child was obviously frightened and in danger of going into shock. After scanning the tree to test the condition of the other branches and assuring himself that the other two climbers were safe for the present, he ordered the boys to stay where they were until he returned, then picking up the injured child he gently carried him inside. The boy's parents were shocked and dismayed when they saw their child cradled in Kent's arms and Dr Beth, immediately understanding the circumstances, broke off her conversation with some of her guests and accompanied by her husband, crossed to take charge of the situation. She leaned closely towards Clark as he quietly revealed that the boy had no more serious injuries than two broken bones. Comforting the hurt child as she ran her hands over his limbs in examination, she informed the worried mother and father of her borrowed diagnosis and, sending Clark a secret thank you for the valuable information, she went to call for an ambulance. With the injured child now taken care off, Clark speedily returned to the scene of the accident to rescue the other children from their shaky perch. He dearly would have liked to use his powers, but because of the group of anxious people who accompanied him, this was not possible. His climb to rescue the boys would have to be made normally, however that did not prevent the surreptitious use of his strength and balance while doing so. Lois and the rest of his family had joined the group at the foot of the tree and he easily recognised her quick intake of breath at seeing her son peering from amidst the leafy branches. Joel nonetheless, was not where his father had left him, having moved to support the other boy who was beginning to panic and therefore was in danger of losing the already tenuous hold with which he clung to the bark. The state of affairs was becoming more desperate and to prevent further accidents Clark moved to the foot of the tree and was about to reach for the lowest branch to begin his ascent when a firm hand reached his shoulder. The restraining arm belonged to one of the other guests, who had been introduced earlier as Martin Peters, the bride's younger brother. This gentleman was a physiotherapist who obviously took great care of his physique. Pointing to the broken tree branch, he offered his opinion.
"I'm not sure that the tree will take your weight, Mr Kent. One branch has already broken under the stress of a child. I know you're anxious for the safety of the boys but I think it would be wise to wait for a ladder. The staff have even now gone to fetch one."
Clark almost growled at the man in frustration. However, he realised that the advice was offered out of a genuine concern and that the fellow could not know that he wasn't in any danger of falling. This was not true for the boys in the tree and the longer they stayed on their perch the more dangerous it became. With his super hearing Clark could discern every creak and groan that emanated from the straining tree limbs and, realising that the situation was becoming critical, decided that if he couldn't climb up he could at least talk Joel down. Throwing Lois a look of encouragement he turned his gaze upwards to his son.
"Joel," he spoke carefully, not wanting to cause alarm, "the branch will not continue to hold the both of you, so you are going to have to move." As if to confirm his statement there was a loud snap as the ancient wood of the tree cracked a little beneath the boys' feet. A collective gasp broke from the group assembled at the tree base and the children yelped loudly.
"Where is that ladder?" A voice from the crowd demanded. "How long does it take them to fetch a ladder?" And a man left the group with the intention of speeding up the delivery.
Lois struggled to still her wildly beating heart, telling herself that at the very worst Clark would catch the boys if they fell and thus prevent serious injury, but she also recognised that her son's friend was terrified and therefore liable to do the unexpected, making the task of rescue more difficult. If only there was not an audience her husband could leave and reappear as Superman, but under the circumstances the attending group would probably be suspicious if Clark were to abandon his son. She moved closer to Clark as he began to speak again.
"Joel," he called anew in a calm voice. "Joel, below you to your left there is another branch. As smoothly as you can, I want you to move down to it."
Nodding his head in agreement the youngster stretched his foot towards the next branch and began to lower his body in preparation for the transfer but as his arm slid from the other boy's shoulder he was gripped in a fierce hold. Just as Lois had thought, the terrified child had acted out of fright and almost sent Joel spinning to the ground. Fortunately Joel had inherited his father's balance and he steadied himself back beside his playmate. He called down, bravely striving to appear relaxed.
"Daddy, I can't move. Every time I try, Darren gets scared and grabs hold of me. He thinks that he'll fall if I let go of him."
Once more Clark addressed the children.
"Darren, can you hear me? The branch you're standing on is in danger of breaking if you don't allow Joel to move off." Clark tried to pitch his voice so that he wouldn't create further panic, but the situation was swiftly deteriorating. He fervently prayed for the arrival of the ladder. "Darren, can you transfer your hold to the tree trunk and let Joel move away?"
But the boy was unable to listen to reason and he lurched to tighten his hold around Joel's neck. The sudden movement completed the crack in the wood and the branch and the children dropped into space. The group instinctively scattered to avoid the descending obstacles, except for Clark and Martin who desperately fought for position underneath the falling boys. This was a desperate quandary for Clark. Should he try to save his son, which every instinct was screaming for him to do, or should he catch the stranger, who he was certain would be more liable to be hurt than was Joel? Seconds later he was holding Darren in his arms. The boy was shocked but unhurt and he quickly transferred him to Martin's hold while he turned to search the ground for his son, almost afraid of what he might find, yet there was no other body on the ground. Raising his eyes back to the heights of the tree, Clark spotted Joel, his arms wrapped round a lower branch, but still out of reach of rescue. Everyone held their breath as the boy glanced down to the awaiting people far below him.
"Daddy?" They all heard his voice raised in question. He seemed remarkably at ease for one in such a hazardous predicament. "Daddy?" He spoke again and then in an action of blind faith the young child let go of his hold of the tree and plummeted to the ground and into the safety of his father's powerful grasp. The watching group were amazed at the luck that placed Clark directly under his falling son and a few puzzled over the amount of strength needed to hold the two catches. However Kent looked like quite a strong guy who probably worked out and both young boys were very slight and in the relief that all had turned out well, any questions were quickly forgotten. Those who were initiated, were completely astounded by another fact; the final part of the descent had been controlled and Joel had landed softly in Clark's arms. Lois was not impressed by her son's first foray in learning how to fly and she wrapped her arms around his small body and burst into tears.
Slowly the circle drifted back towards the interior of the hotel, to find that the ambulance had arrived. Darren with his younger brother and his parents were transported off to hospital. The paramedics had offered to take Joel too, but after a quick check up by Beth, it was decided that a good nights sleep in his own bed, with his attentive parents to care for him would be all the attention he required.
Unfortunately the little dramatic incident brought the festivities to a close. Most of the guests seemed to have lost their inclination to celebrate and the bridal couple were ready to leave for the airport. Both Beth and Bernard had a desire to visit Europe but, because they had both been too busy with their respective careers to spend much time on vacation, their ambitions had never been realised. The honeymoon seemed like the perfect time to indulge their wishes and so they were now embarking on a protracted tour of the old world, starting in London and visiting all the places of interest that they had only read about, and returning to Metropolis in six weeks time. All the Kents had intended to see the couple off at the airport, but due to the unexpected accident only Martha and Jonathan were there to wave goodbye to the new husband and wife. It was a happy farewell, no one realising the disastrous events that would befall before they would meet again.
The early summer days passed uneventfully and pleasantly as the elder Kents and their grandchildren spent time holidaying at their home in Kansas. Once Martha and Jonathan had farmed in Smallville but as they had chosen to help care for their expanding family, the farmland had been leased and they had moved to Metropolis. The house and the closely surrounding land had been retained as a holiday home and the whole family were happy to spend their vacations in the country. This fact always surprised Lois as, until she had met and fallen in love with Clark, she had considered the rural pastures of green to be places to be avoided at all costs. Right now, as she sweltered in the summer heat of Metropolis with its polluted air and its sweaty, short-tempered citizenry, she could not wait to start her holidays and join her family in Smallville. The fresh air and the quiet friendly ambience would be a welcome balm. Besides, she wished to remove her husband from the frenzied crime ridden environment of the city in high summer, where frayed tempers and frustration always led to an increase in petty crime and where hot and sticky people often became careless of their own and other's safety, leading to a myriad of accidents at work, at home and on the streets.
No one ever contemplated the possibility that Superman might need a holiday, but Lois Lane knew better. Only she saw the super hero returning home from a night spent crime fighting or clearing up other people's mistakes. Only she witnessed him return exhausted from fire fighting or attempting to hold back flood waters or any number of other disasters both natural and man made that he felt he had to attend. Only she could testify to the anguish he suffered when a rescue failed and how on those occasions he clung to her for comfort until sleep eventually claimed him, then after a very few hours rest, he would assume his normal personae and attempt to protect his home city as reporter Clark Kent. Add to that his role of husband and father and you had one very harassed and strung-out man who was greatly in need of a break from his busy routine. Of course, Lois realised that he would always help out with the major catastrophes and in order not to blow his cover he would also return to Metropolis for a few brief patrols, but on the whole there were not the same demands for Superman in Smallville.
So she happily packed her bags for herself and her husband while waiting for Superman to return from assisting with yet another pileup on the freeway. She was looking forward to seeing her children, even though she and Clark had flown down to share dinner with the family just two nights before. It always amazed Lois just how much she missed her children when they were apart. Sometimes after a hard day at the office, when she hoped to return home for some peace and quiet and it seemed the children had chosen that particular moment to misbehave, she would wish to spend time alone with her husband. And yet the minute the kids were away from home she would miss their excited chatter and their happy laughter and even their temper tantrums and their tears.
A 'whoosh' with its accompanying breeze interrupted her reverie.
"Hi honey, are we all packed and ready to go?" Superman crossed to his wife and wrapped his arms around her, bending to place a warm kiss on her lips. Clark was in a very up beat mood and she felt that he too must be looking forward to spending quality time with his family. She responded eagerly to his embrace slipping her arms underneath the cape and as their kiss deepened her hands strayed up and down his spine gently kneading the muscles of his back. Clark smiled against her lips then trailed feather light kisses across her cheek to the sensitive skin behind her ear.
"Sweetheart, if we take this much further we are going to be late for dinner and you know the kids will give Mom and Dad a hard time asking where we are."
"Mm mm … " Lois was enjoying the familiar sensations that were building in waves through her body where ever Clark's hands strayed. "We could always phone. Tell them that Superman was otherwise engaged. It wouldn't be a total lie, because I do intend to keep you thoroughly engaged. After all this is our last chance to be alone and uninterrupted for a long time."
Clark could never resist his wife when she was in this mood and so it was that when the couple arrived in Smallville three very sleepy and disgruntled offspring were awaiting them. Martha had insisted that the children have their dinner without their parents and then dress for bed. When Lois and Clark entered the farmhouse, they found their three kids sitting on the couch watching T V in varying degrees of sleepiness. Nathan was already deep in the land of Nod but Joel and Clara were fighting to stay awake. Whenever they spotted their parents they jumped up and launched themselves into Lois and Clark's arms, demanding to be told what had held them up. Both grownups looked remarkably sheepish at their children's questions and Martha and Jonathan, understanding the reason for the delay, chuckled in the back ground. Joel, who was hugging his mother's hips looked suspiciously at his embarrassed parents, but Clara, who had climbed into her father's arms by the simple expedient of pulling herself up by his cape, asked solicitously, "Did you have to go off and be Superman, Daddy?"
Clark blushed rosily as his wife answered.
"Well he was certainly 'super'."
The chuckles from the background grew louder and Lois joined in. Joel, however, was not amused. He knew what his Mom and Dad did when they were alone. Glaring at his father, he accused in disgust.
"You were kissing Mom? Weren't you? Why do you always do that when you're on your own?"
"Well sons, it's something you have to do when you're married. Wives expect that sort of thing. You'll discover that for yourself when you're older and you get married."
"If you have to kiss and things then I'm not going to get married." Joel announced but his sister had other ideas.
"If I can find a Superman like Daddy then I am going to get married," and to stress her point she planted a huge kiss on Clark's cheek.
"That might be a little difficult, sweetie," her mother explained. "Supermen do not grow on trees and the only other ones you are likely to meet are your brothers."
A look of disgust crossed Clara's face at the idea of marrying someone who could not fly.
Lois actually sympathised with her daughter, she too found the idea of marrying someone without super powers quite unacceptable. Nevertheless she offered her daughter words of comfort.
"Don't worry, Clara. You won't have to think about getting married for a very long time and when you do fall in love it won't matter if he can't fly."
On the couch Nathan was beginning to stir and Clark took the opportunity to end this nonsensical conversation. He found the idea of being replaced in his daughter's life by another man quite disturbing and he was grateful that time was in the very distant future.
"Good!!" He declared. "As none of our children are contemplating marriage I think we can close this conversation and put you all to bed."
Clara and Joel at once began to protest that, because their parents had only just arrived, they ought to be allowed to stay up a little longer. At that moment Nathan woke up and he screamed his delight on spotting his Mom and Dad. Clark agreed to his elder children's request and spinning out of the super suit Lois and he joined their three children on the couch. After all they were on holiday.
Far across the Atlantic Ocean an old gentleman sat amidst the baronial splendour of his country home much engrossed in the current edition of his subscribed medical journal. Viscount Sheringham was greatly interested in the cutting edge of medical science and in this particular issue of his favourite publication there was a report on his idol, the brilliant research doctor from America's foremost scientific establishment, Star Laboratories of Metropolis. The article recorded that Dr Bernard Klein was visiting the U K while on honeymoon and that he was taking time out from his vacation to attend a medical conference on 'The Advances in Gene Therapy', which was taking place at the University of East Anglia in the city of Norwich. Due to the doctor's care, albeit surreptitiously, of the phenomenal Kryptonian/human family Bernard and Beth had initiated many research spin-offs into the treatment of genetically transferred disorders and the seminar's organizers were especially thrilled to have sequestered the Doctor's attendance. The Viscount was intrigued by the information that his idol should be in such close proximity to his home, having followed over the last few years the illustrious career of Dr Klein and more specifically the point where that career touched the doctor's more famous patient … Superman.
Even the name caused the silver hair at the back of the old gentleman's neck to stand on end. If he had only one tenth of the hero's powers he and his family would not be in the predicament they were today, relying on the public's patronage for their livelihood. He would not have required to open his beloved Hall to the masses nor create a Theme Park in its grounds in order to preserve its magnificence. Furthermore he and his grandson would not be living in this 'tiny' apartment while tourists tramped through the ancient corridors.
Sheringham hated the transformation of his country seat into this modern-day circus but he knew of no other way to provide the finances to retain the house in its customary state or indeed to keep its ownership within his tenure. Ironically the scheme had proved so popular he had extended the complex to include a leisure and health centre, with a luxury hotel and, much to his disgust, an economy motel to accommodate the less well off visitors. And although he loathed the whole nasty intrusion, he had to admit that the success of this unwelcome venture had brought him riches far beyond anything he had ever dreamed and would provide a stable future for his heir.
His only son had been a special disappointment to him. The stupid boy had embraced the modernistic view that all men were created equal and, when only a teenager, he had run off with a like-minded female to join a group of New Age Travellers who were living in a commune on an island off the west coast of Scotland. For a long time he had heard nothing of his son until five years before, when he had been contacted by the leader of the island community with the sad news that his son and his wife had been drowned in a storm when out fishing. The couple had left a two-year-old boy behind and the commune's leadership had required to know what the baby's only living relative wished to be done regarding the raising of the child. They had made it clear that they would be prepared to continue caring for the baby but Sheringham, seeing a second chance to rear a child in his own ideology, had demanded his grandson's return. In the beginning it had been difficult for a man in his sixties to care for a baby, but he had been adamant that there would be no outside influence to affect his grandson's development. The only assistance he would accept came from his housekeeper, a woman of similar age to himself whose family had been in the Sheringham's employ for generations. This was scarcely the ideal environment in which to bring up a child but money brings power and no-one was prepared to interfere with the gentleman and his grandson. In his own strange way the old man cared for his young charge and believed that only he could ensure that the boy would grow up to take his proper place in the world as Viscount Sheringham and restore the family to its former glory.
The family history was both military and celebrated. There had been a Sheringham at every major battle in which the British army had fought for hundreds of years, one particular heir having won the highest honour of the Victory Cross, albeit posthumously, during the Boer War. The current Viscount's father had fought bravely in the 2nd World War, distinguishing himself with the legendary Chinditz as they fought their way through Burma.
Controversially, the Dowager Lady Sheringham had also made a name for herself in the conflict, unfortunately on the opposing side. Roberta Babbels, a young German girl had met the handsome young lord while she was attending a Swiss finishing school in the 1930's. After a whirlwind courtship they had married and the 12th Viscount had brought his bride home to his ancestral seat in the Anglian countryside. Sadly, Roberta had never settled in her adopted country. She found England's class-ridden society stifling and the distrust and disdain with which she was treated by her husband's peers dulled her vibrant spirit. The Babbels family owned a large munitions factory and were extremely influential in Hitler's emerging Fatherland, where the female youth were encouraged to take pride in their Valkyrian heritage. However, that very background now created trouble for her, as the Viscount's first passion for his beautiful wife waned and his inbred abhorrence of wealthy trades families re-emerged. No matter how rich his in-laws were, their affluence was derived from the sale of arms. And as the thirties progressed and as the world grew increasingly suspicious of the escalating might of the Third Reich, the marital situation in the Hall at Sheringham grew steadily worse. In '37, shortly after giving birth to a healthy heir, Roberta left her child and husband and returned to her homeland. The 12th Lord never saw his wife again, even though both survived the war, but the name Roberta Babbels became notorious in Britain when the young woman joined the band of famous female test pilots so lauded by the German Luftwaffe. Her name was not to be spoken in the hallowed halls of the family again, yet secretly her son was proud of his mother's courage and daring.
This strange mixture of familial traits merged in the person of Edwin Villiers the 13th Viscount, creating a man who was obsessed by a belief in an elite society. But the means to achieve the creation of the master race had for many years eluded him until a certain unforeseen meeting.
It had been an almost unbearably hot day last summer and Sheringham had as normal hidden away in his office. Down in park under the summer sun, the crowds were enjoying the thrills of the ever bigger and better rides his company was forced to provide. The noise and the bustle had drifted up the hill in the still air, but here in the sanctuary of his office the sounds were muted. At least the people who chose to visit the Hall itself were slightly quieter in behaviour, but still he held himself aloof from the visitors. In this stately home there were never any chance meetings between the owner and his paid guests. So when his secretary informed him that a German gentleman, one Dr Roger Schmidt, had requested a meeting, he was shocked. The woman had been in his employ for a number of years and should have known better than to forward such a request. Just as he was about to reveal the extent of his displeasure with her, she added that the caller had disclosed the fact that he was related to Lord Sheringham through his mother, Roberta.
Edwin was intrigued. Apart from her reputation, he knew nothing of his mother but since he was a boy he had desired to learn more of this legendary woman. Against his customary reticence, he agreed to meet the stranger, who, it transpired, was in fact his younger half brother. Roger was also a scientist whose chosen field was the study of genetics and when the relationship between the two long lost brothers intensified it was discovered that both harboured desires to create a race of super beings. The brothers formed an alliance to fulfil their dreams. The Viscount provided the finance and his sibling the brain power. In the extensive cellars of Sheringham Hall a private high-tech laboratory now existed, hidden from the public and from the authorities whose job it was to approve and provide licence for research projects.
The lecture given by Dr Klein was, not surprisingly, very well attended and the audience listened with rapt attention as he chronicled his long and varied career. Bernard had been horribly nervous about the whole proposal, as people interaction was not one of his skills and had it not been for the gentle persuasion of his wife he would have declined the invitation to speak. Which would have been a mistake, because he was beginning to relax and enjoy himself as it became clear that his fellow researchers much appreciated his speech. At the end of his oration, feeling very pleased with his performance, he opened up a question and answer session and was thoroughly contented with the response from his listeners.
Dr Roger Schmidt waited until the questions began to grow more sporadic before he rose and attracted Klein's notice.
"Dr Schmidt," he introduced himself, "researching gene therapy at the University of Dusseldorf. Firstly I would like to thank you for your most informative talk." Spontaneous applause followed these words and Bernard acknowledged the accolade. Allowing the noise to subside the man continued. "Secondly, I would like to ask if you could give us any insight into the physiological reasons for the strength and invulnerability of Superman and also if, in your opinion his phenomenal biochemistry could be utilised in the fight against human inherited diseases?"
Silence descended over the auditorium, almost every member of the audience being enthralled at the possible response. At the same moment Bernard blanched visibly, for this was not a subject on which he was prepared to deliberate in any venue and certainly not in public. Taking a sip from his water glass to gain a moment's respite, he looked to his wife who, sitting behind him on the dais, was also showing signs of discomfort. They exchanged silent messages of support and he turned to face his inquisitor.
"I'm sorry, Dr Schmidt, while I am familiar with your excellent thesis on this subject, Superman is my patient and as such he is entitled to full confidentiality. Under the circumstances I would be delighted to discuss your findings in private and after I finish my honeymoon." Gentle laughter spread through the hall at this statement. "However, I would not be prepared to divulge any of Superman's personal health details."
Frantically backpedalling, Schmidt strove to placate the man on the podium. His elder brother would not be happy if he alerted their prey to impending danger.
"Of course Dr Klein, I never meant to suggest that you should break the confidentiality rule, that would be totally unethical. Still I look forward to taking up your offer of a private consultation at your earliest convenience."
Later that evening, after being wined and dined by the conference committee, a very happy Mr and Mrs Klein returned to their hotel. Beth was extremely proud of her husband and Bernard was gratified by the warm reception accorded him by his associates. The only glitch in the proceedings had been the reference to Superman and both had felt that he had fielded the enquiry well, and as Dr Schmidt had not appeared at the gathering afterwards, they had forgotten the small incident.
As the couple passed the front desk the receptionist called to them and passed over an envelope which had been left for them earlier. Once in their room, Beth opened the missive and was delighted to find enclosed two complimentary tickets to visit Sheringham Hall. Although it was strange that there was no accompanying note from the benefactor, Beth was not prepared to look a gift horse in the mouth. The Hall was one of Norfolk's most admired stately homes and it had the added attraction of a Theme Park for a little lighthearted fun. So they went to bed in an exceedingly joyful state of mind, anticipating a pleasant day ahead. Life had never looked brighter for the couple.
Back in Smallville the day dawned bright and clear, with the promise of yet another warm day. Joel was the first of the family to awake, being, like his father before him, excited over the prospect of his inaugural fishing trip. The whole family had been caught up in his enthusiasm and he had even persuaded his mother to try her skills. For years she had managed to resist her husbands proposals that she should join him and his father on fishing excursions, but she found she could not resist her son's pleas. Joel employed the same soulful puppy dog stare as his father and coupled with his youthful exuberance, she found she could not destroy his ardour. So it was that the trip had evolved into a family picnic, much to Clara's disappointment. It wasn't that she disliked the great outdoors, but she had far too much energy to enjoy a pastime that called for staying still and being patient for long periods of time. However, she was sure her mother would soon grow tired of the sport and could be persuaded to explore and if her mother were with her then she was certain that her dad would tag along, leaving Joel in the capable hands of his grandpa. Of course, there was always Nathan, but at only 22 months old Clara considered him too young to be included in her schemes, though she did love him dearly and felt quite important when on occasion her parents requested her to take care of him. Soon the car was packed and the family embarked on their jaunt, happily unaware that storm clouds were gathering far away from their country haven.
The expedition had lived up to all its participants' expectations. Joel had caught his first trout, a respectable specimen, while quite unaware that his father had used his super vision to spot the creature lying deep in his shadowed layer. Clark did not often cheat at sports, but he considered his young son's determination and endurance deserved a reward and he had no control over whether the fish actually took the bait, that had been entirely up to fate and his slight feelings of guilt were assuaged with the joy that radiated from Joel's face when he held his hard won trophy aloft. Now the fish, along with the others caught by himself and his father, was stowed away in the trunk and promised to make a delicious evening meal for the family, except for Clara who declared that she could not eat anything that had been quite obliviously swimming its life away until plucked from its home and killed by her uncaring family. Her sulking had been the only dark spot in the day and she let herself be consoled when both her parents accompanied her on a voyage of discovery in the wooded hills. Due to their busy lives in Metropolis, this extent of attention from both her mom and dad was unusual and welcome to the little girl who soon forgot her disgruntled mood in the company of the two people she loved best in all the world. They had walked through the forest, her father pointing out trees and plants that she was unfamiliar with being a city kid. They had even spotted deer grazing in a clearing and, crouching in the shadow of the woods, she had watched in wonder as a doe suckled its young. The tiny fawn, unsteadily balanced on spindly legs tugged greedily at its mother, completely unaware of its audience. Reluctantly Clara had attended to her father's tugging hand as he had pulled her away leaving the small herd to their evening meal in peace. Time had sped by so fast and the sun was going down beyond the treetops as Clark had led his wife and daughter back to the picnic area, to find that Martha and Jonathan were already packing away the gear. The family had been loath to leave, especially the children who had delighted in having their parents to themselves for a whole day without any interruptions.
Now, however, as they drove through the evening dusk heading for home, the fresh air and the excitement having taken its toll, all three were fast asleep. As was their grandpa. Jonathan had fought sleep's embrace without success and now his head nodded forward onto his chest and an occasional low snore broke the silence. Clark, Lois and Martha exchanged sympathetic glances, each one pleased by the success of the day and as Clark pulled up the Jeep in front of the farmhouse the sleepyheads were awakened. A cacophony of yawns and groans could be heard as cramped legs and arms were stretched and young Nathan cried angrily at being brought unexpectedly out of a comfortable nap.
"Someone is in need of his bed," Lois remarked as she unbuckled her unhappy son from his car seat. "I'll take him inside and put him straight to bed if you see to the others." She directed her instructions at her husband.
"What about his supper?" Clark called to her retreating back.
"Clark, the kids have been eating steadily all day. I don't think he'll come to any harm missing one supper," she threw her remarks over her shoulder and disappeared inside the house. While Clark and Jonathan unloaded the car, Martha shepherded her remaining, drowsy grandchildren indoors. The telephone was ringing incessantly as Clark came into the family room and he crossed the room and picked up the handset. The strident voice of Perry White called down the line.
"Clark, where have you been? I've been calling and calling. Some important news came over the wire from London that I thought you and Lois would want to know."
"Perry, Lois and I are on vacation, remember," Clark answered his editor, more than a little annoyed at the intrusion. "Can't you get someone else to cover the story?"
Perry could be heard sighing in exasperation.
"I know all that Clark and normally I wouldn't disturb you, but this is sort of personal and I thought you would want to know … " There was a moment's silence as the unusually nonplussed editor waited for permission to continue.
"OK Perry, now you have my attention, what is so important that it can't wait?"
"Bernard Klein and his wife have been reported missing. According to the report, they left their hotel this morning to visit somewhere called Sheringham Hall and they haven't been seen since. Their car however was found parked in a car park in a town quite near at hand."
Lois had wandered into the room while Clark was on the phone and she sent her husband a questioning glance. He raised his eyebrows at her and gestured to her to pick up the cordless phone.
"Bernard and Beth are on their honeymoon, perhaps they just got sidetracked and are spending some time alone somewhere else." Clark suggested.
"According to the hotel management, they booked a table for themselves and four other guests for 8 o'clock that evening. They were very insistent that everything be specially perfect as the dinner was to say thank you to the organizing committee of the science forum at which Dr Klein lectured yesterday. Everyone showed up except Bernard and Beth. They waited a few hours and then they started checking with the hospitals and the local police and that was when the abandoned car was discovered. Of course, they have not yet been officially declared missing, but the police do think that the circumstances are suspicious. Anyway, as you and Lois are pretty close to the two doctors, I thought you might want to be informed."
"Yes. Thanks Perry. I'm sorry if I snapped earlier." Clark apologised sincerely. He was interested in the news. In fact he found the news quite disturbing. "And if you receive any more information we'd be grateful if you'd let us know."
After saying his goodbyes, Clark hung up the phone and opened his arms to his wife who quickly slipped into his embrace. Could the fact that the elder couple knew of his secret identity be the reason they were missing? Hugging each other tightly for comfort and strength, Lois and Clark fervently hoped that their life was not about to become more complicated once again.
Forty-eight hours later, when the couple had failed to reappear, the British police declared the Kleins 'officially missing'. Superman had spent the night helping the authorities search the immediate area in which his friends were last seen, but to no avail. The hero had requested that his presence remain private as he didn't want to alert the kidnappers, if kidnappers there were, to the fact that there was a connection between himself and the Kleins, assuming, of course, that this connection was not the reason for the abduction.
Now, as Superman alighted outside his farmhouse home in Kansas, night was beginning all over again. With a heavy heart, he had left England as the sun was rising and had flown westwards into the increasing darkness. Above the Atlantic thick clouds obscured the moon and a steady drizzling rain had soaked his body and matched his depressed spirit. And yet, as he neared his home and his family his mood, as always, brightened and the clouds dispersed, leaving a Kansas night sky strung with a myriad of diamond stars.
Clark spun into his civilian clothes and pushed through the kitchen door to find his wife and parents anxiously awaiting his return. Lois rose to meet him, throwing her arms around his neck and pressing her body close to his. Although his super hero's duties frequently separated them, Lois could not quite shed the fear that one day her husband would fly off and never come back. She recognised that this was an irrational fear, as Superman was for the most part invulnerable, but she always gave into a few moments of heartfelt relief when he returned and Clark, understanding his wife's small excursion into paranoia, was quite happy to allay her fears.
Following a sweet kiss, Lois drew her arms from her husband's neck, but held fast to his hand as she drew him to the table, where Martha had placed a steaming mug of herbal tea for her son.
"Did you find any trace of them?" Lois asked, but in the dejected slump of his shoulders, she already had her answer.
"I'm afraid not, honey. Yet that doesn't mean that they're not there." He took a long sip of his tea then relaxed back into his chair, surveying the three people who were waiting in anticipation of what he had to tell them. "I found out that old English mansions are roofed with lead, not to mention the miles of antiquated lead piping in the plumbing system or the lead-based paint. With all that lead my x-ray vision was useless. I searched the surrounding countryside and neither Bernard nor Beth are being held anywhere in the vicinity of Sheringham Hall, but if they are imprisoned inside the house itself, I couldn't tell."
"Couldn't you tune into their heartbeats, sweetheart?" His wife inquired, knowing he had traced her in just such a manner before.
Clark shook his head tiredly.
"There's a gigantic theme park adjacent to the house. Even when it closed and all the rides shut down, the hum of the generators created too much background noise. Besides, the only heartbeats I really recognise are my families'."
"Do the police have any information?" Jonathan joined the conversation. Since the two men had joined forces to thwart Diana Stride's attack on Superman, Jonathan and Bernard, despite their diverse backgrounds, had become firm friends.
"I'm afraid not, Dad. If it is a kidnapping then why hasn't there been a ransom demand. And if it's worse," he was transfixed by three pairs of horrified glares, "then why hide the bodies?"
"You think that Bernard and Beth are dead?" Lois' voice trembled on the question.
"I don't know. But Superman and the police are stumped."
"Then maybe we should take up Perry's offer," this she said tentatively.
"What offer?" Clark demanded of his wife.
"He suggested that Lane and Kent investigate. How about an all-expenses-paid trip to the U K?"
An ambivalent look settled on Clark's features.
"Honey, I would really like to find Bernard and Beth, but we are on vacation and our children deserve our undivided attention for at least these few weeks of the year."
Covering Clark's hand with one of her own Lois' smile became almost smug.
"I agree. We are on vacation, but we don't have to spend all of it in Smallville. A trip abroad might be nice. And it would be educational for the children."
"You have somewhere specially in mind? Let me guess. A nice little town in Norfolk, England."
"Yes! You are very quick, Kent." She patted his hand in warm approval. "And they tell me that there is a great theme park nearby, which I'm sure the kids will just love."
Once again his wife's inventiveness and tenacity surprised him. She would go to any lengths to help the people she cared for.
"All right sweetheart, you win. How about you, Mom and Dad? Would you care to join us?"
Martha seemed pleasantly surprised by the invitation. She had always wanted to visit Britain, but more than that, like her husband, she had grown particularly close to the Kleins and was glad to be given this opportunity to assist in their rescue.
"Are you sure you want us along?"
"Of course," Lois quickly reassured her. "This is a family holiday. At least, that will be our cover," she added rather sheepishly. "Besides, if you don't mind, we'll need baby-sitters while we investigate."
"Anything we can do to help you find Bernard and Beth," Jonathan stressed.
Scanning the three around the table and seeing their determination, Clark decided.
"Then I'll phone Perry in the morning and get him to make the travel arrangements."
When the children were first told of the return to Metropolis they were dreadfully disappointed, but when it was explained that this was merely a starting point for their trip to Britain, their adrenaline levels had rocketed and they had yet to return to normal. Of course, Nathan did not really understand all that was happening but he was infected by his older siblings' excitement and a highly strung toddler was proving to be quite a problem. Lois was experiencing feelings of guilt for she had virtually abandoned her children to their grandparents' care during their whistlestop stay in Metropolis, while she and Clark visited the Planet to arrange their communication details for their sojourn in the U K.
Stephan Janik, the paper's newest cub-reporter would be their contact for the duration of the investigation and, although he didn't have quite Jimmy Olsen's expertise with computers, he was conscientious and enthusiastic. And neither Lois nor Clark begrudged their friend and ex-researcher his success as a photographic journalist. Jimmy had matured and improved so much over the years, that even now his coverage of yet another famine and civil war in the Sudan region of Africa was gaining the acclaim it so richly deserved. The Kents had even heard the word 'Pulitzer' mentioned.
Meanwhile, they had instructed Stephan to do an in-depth background check on Viscount Sheringham and his business associates. This did not necessarily mean that they suspected the man, but as his property was the last place where the Kleins had actually been sighted it seemed the logical place to start. Stephan was also asked to find out all he could about the seminar at which Bernard had given a lecture, then forward all the information to Lois and Clark. After arranging all these details, and having a last-minute discussion with Perry who explained that he had leased a holiday cottage on the outskirts of the village of Sheringham for the family, as requested, they picked up their travel documents and returned to their brownstone to pack. The flight was early the next morning and Lois surmised that they would probably get little sleep that night due to three very hyped-up children.
The trip across the Atlantic was a new and thrilling adventure for the Kent children. Never before had they actually flown inside an aeroplane. They were especially pleased to have been invited by the pilot to view the cockpit and Joel and Clara were excitedly relating their experience. Clark tried very hard to share in their enthusiasm, but he had never been happy flying in what he considered a metal tube with wings and for the duration of the flight he fought off feelings of claustrophobia. Lois valiantly attempted to field her children's exuberant chatter, explaining that their father was suffering from one of his infrequent migraines, which wasn't a total lie. Secretly, Clark's fear of 'flying' amused her, but she did her best to ease his phobic fears.
At last the interminable journey came to an end and Clark was extremely relieved to stand once more on terra-firma. They quickly passed through customs and picked up the baggage, happy to find that all their luggage had actually arrived with them. Within a very short time they had acquired the hired car and were now, because of the advance in the time zone, driving through the English countryside in the growing twilight of a summer evening. The whole family was surprised to find the terrain almost flat, but unlike the wide plains of Kansas, the fields they passed were smaller and interspersed with thick copses and leafy hedgerows. They were particularly delighted with the picturesque villages with their red brick houses surrounded by gardens that were awash with the colour of summer flowers and in the centre of each hamlet the village green with its ancient market-cross. However, as the car sped on into the ever increasing dark, the younger voices grew less enthusiastic. The children's energy levels had ebbed away and now they were growing crabby, constantly asking when they would arrive at their destination. Fortunately for the harassed adults the journey was almost over, nevertheless everyone was relieved when the car drew up before the cottage that was to be their home for the duration of their visit.
Owing to the late hour it was difficult to discern much of the exterior view of the building, but Clark could hear and smell the sea that must therefore be close at hand. He passed on this information to the others and in doing so enlivened his two older children, who immediately insisted on exploring. This intention did not meet with their parents' approval and for a spell there was discord in the family which was quickly brought to an end by an unusually stern Clark sending his children to bed just as soon as they ate supper. However, as he tucked a subdued Joel and a quietly weeping Clara into their beds for the night, he relented and promised to spend the next morning reconnoitring their holiday haunt. This pledge soothed his distressed offspring and later when Clark stood outside the slightly open doors to the children's bedrooms he was pleased to hear the three steady heartbeats of heavily sleeping kids.
Downstairs the adults held a round-table conference, all four agreeing that the first day should be spent familiarising themselves with their new environment and settling the children into their temporary home. Lois and Clark would only need a short time to set up their communication line to the Planet and they were both sure that the information they had requested would be with them by next day and that they would be able to begin their investigations the day after.
Locked away deep in the cellars of the ancient hall where the light of day never penetrated, Dr Klein felt rather than knew that it must be night. Watching his wife tossing back and forth on her narrow cot he grew increasingly despondent. The poison was slowly invading her system and he couldn't be certain just how long he had before her illness reached the point of no return. Just what kind of maniac Bernard was dealing with, he wasn't sure. The Viscount seemed to be the perfect old English gentleman and yet he was clearly insane, obsessed with his notion of a race of super human-beings that would take over the rule of the world and, as he saw it, make the world a better place. Recalling his strange conversation with the Viscount made Bernard shiver in the dark. According to Sheringham, Dr Roger Schmidt, a renowned genetic researcher, professed that he had discovered a method of isolating particular genes and successfully transposing them from one being to another. The two men now intended to procure genes from Superman and splice them into the body of Sheringham's grandson and thus create a new super being. In Bernard's opinion, the fact that the old man was prepared to risk the life of a child of his own blood in such a radical procedure only attested to the extent of his madness. And why had he ever thought that the Kleins would agree to help him reach his goal by bringing Superman here to donate his unique genes, voluntary or otherwise, to this 'noble ideal'. Obviously, Sheringham had not been completely certain of his quarry's cooperation either, because he had infected Beth with the hybrid curare before revealing his diabolical objective. Watching his wife grow ever more sick, Bernard castigated himself for his foolishness, and yet there had been no clues that the Viscount had meant them any harm when he had welcomed them to his home just a few days ago.
As they had wandered round the beautiful old house with their audio-visual guidebook in their hands, they had been surprised to be accosted by an old silver-haired gentleman who seemed vastly pleased to meet them. The gentleman had introduced himself as the 13th Viscount Sheringham and explained that as an amateur scientist he had followed Dr Klein's career over the years and that, when he had discovered that the Doctor and his wife were to be in the area, he had sent the complimentary tickets for Sheringham Hall in the hope that the couple might enjoy visiting his treasured home. Both Bernard and Beth had been charmed by the old lord as he led them through the ancient rooms, relating little anecdotes of his family history that had never found its way into the guidebooks and when he had suggested that they join him for afternoon tea, they had readily accepted, neither one suspecting, as they had drunk the unaccustomed English brew from the delicate, antique porcelain, that they were being drugged and, in Beth's case, poisoned by a new and terrifying strain of curare. The poison had been infused with a time-release system which meant that a slow, agonising but inevitable death would follow its ingestion if the antidote were not administered in time. But neither had known that back then and they had amicably taken their leave of the Viscount and had indeed followed his recommendation to forgo their visit to the noisy and overcrowded theme park and had taken their enjoyment in the more leisurely pursuit of finding their way around the formidable maze for which the Hall was renowned. The old gentleman had sent his chauffeur to show them the way to the maze and they had spent a pleasant time searching for the centre of the labyrinth and laughing unconcernedly as they grew increasingly more lost. At first it hadn't registered that the place was amazingly quiet or that they had not actually met other people trying to plot a course through the puzzle. Granted, the barriers of high hedges in summer were thick and dense making it impossible to see from one pathway to another, but surely the sounds of other visitors should be heard. Of course, they had not seen the sign that had hung on the locked gate minutes before their arrival, which informed the public that the maze was closed for repair, or realised that it had been replaced after their entrance and the gate locked behind them. Nevertheless, Bernard had begun to feel slightly ill at ease and was about to suggest that they try to retrace their steps when Beth turned the corner at the end of a long leafy corridor and yelled in triumph. They had reached the centre. Now they only had to find their way back, but first an inviting garden arbour welcomed them to sit in the sun and enjoy the view of an ancient-carved statue of the god Eros. Sitting in the warmth of the sun the couple had grown unnaturally sleepy, the stone figure before them had begun to shimmer in the sun's haze and then appeared to move and swing away from them, and from the place where it had been bodies rose from the earth, led by the silver-haired old man. As the men walked towards the couple they had slid into unconsciousness.
It was the last time Bernard had seen the sun, because when he awoke, he and his wife were imprisoned in a dark cell in the dungeons of Sheringham Hall, carried there through a secret passageway, which had been built centuries before in the time of King Henry VIII, who had founded his own church and had, in a greedy rampage, persecuted the Catholic Church and its priests. The Sheringham family, being at that time devout members of the old religion, had given sanctuary to these oppressed priests and built the tunnel in order to maintain their clandestine actions, a very necessary ploy if they wished to retain their standing in the country and indeed save their own lives. King Henry had not taken betrayal well and had been known to execute those whom he believed guilty of treason. Much later the family had chosen to discard their old religion in favour of their continued earthly well being and the passageway had been forgotten. However, when Edwin was a boy he had unearthed the escape tunnel when exploring and found that, apart from a few small fall-ins, it had remarkably survived. When he and his half-brother had decided to build the laboratory in the cellars of the hall, they had repaired the tunnel and used it to secretly bring in the equipment. They had also employed it to transport their human cargo into the confines of the cellars, far away from the eyes of any witnesses and, when the Kleins were safely imprisoned, in order to cover their tracks, Sheringham had instructed his brother to arrange a controlled explosion to bring down part of the tunnel roof. The last piece of incriminating evidence had been disposed of when, after the hall had closed for the evening, the Klein's hired car had been driven into Cromer, a nearby holiday resort. George, the Viscount's chauffeur and one of his housekeeper's twin sons had reported that he had parked the car in a deserted cliff top car park, that he had worn gloves and left no clues behind and that he had been seen by no-one.
The twin boys had been born to Vera Dobson when the strange woman should have been of an age not to be caught out with an unwanted pregnancy. Edwin had never known who had fathered the children, but as Vera's family had been in the employ of the Sheringham's for generations and the Viscount took an almost feudal interest in his servants, he had given her the job of housekeeper and taken a lordly interest in the raising of the two boys. Perhaps, due to Vera's age at her sons' birth or perhaps because it had been a difficult birth, neither boy was overly bright, but both George and his brother Joseph shared an overwhelming loyalty towards the man who had given them and their mother a home and followed his instructions unquestioningly.
Now the only cloud on Sheringham's horizon was the fact that neither of the Dr Kleins shared his enthusiasm for his conception of the Master Race. Fortunately he had foreseen this problem and had ensured Bernard's cooperation by administering poison to Beth at the outset of his planned kidnapping. Grudgingly, he admitted that the woman had shown an admirable courage in persuading her husband that the continuation of her life was secondary to foiling his great scheme, but he wasn't overly concerned. He was quite certain that Klein could not sit by and watch his wife die and that it was just a matter of time before the doctor consented to contact Superman. He was also confident that the super hero's high morale code would preclude watching his friends die. Edwin's intention was to inject Bernard with the serum the moment he had obeyed instructions. The poison introduced directly into the blood stream would have a much speedier effect and when the Man of Steel arrived he would be confronted with two very sick hostages and would have no choice but to comply with the Viscount's request if he wished to save the doctor's lives. Pleasantly Edwin considered that his vision was well on its way to realisation and the Sheringhams would take their rightful place in the world. He was not yet aware that the famous investigative team of Lois Lane and Clark Kent was already on the case.
The Kent children were the first to surface next morning, much to their parents' surprise. They had thought, due to the long and tiring day of travelling, that their offspring would sleep later than was normal, but not long after the sun crept into the bedroom windows, the three children knocked impatiently on their mother and father's door and without waiting for an answer, descended on the bed and jumped in. Nathan, quickly crawled onto his daddy's chest, while Joel bent over his mom and whispered good morning into her ear. Clara sat at the foot of the bed and awaited results. The soft breath on the sensitive skin by Lois' ear brought her out of her slumber and in that dreamlike state between unconsciousness and wakefulness she imagined that her husband was kissing her awake.
"Clark, you know I can't resist when you do that, but please, honey, it's still very early."
Muffled giggles met her words and her son teasingly blew a gentle breath on her cheek. She stretched a hand out towards her tormentor and met a much smaller body than she had anticipated.
"Joel!" Lois sat directly up in bed and met the laughing gaze of her son. Her eyes travelled over her other two children and then drifted to the alarm clock by the bed. "Kids, what are you doing up at this time? It's not yet seven. Why aren't you still in bed?"
"Come on Mom, time to get up. The sun is shining and Dad promised to take us exploring today." Joel reminded her.
To prove a point and to aid the waking process, Clara crossed to the window and pulled back the curtains, allowing the bright sunshine to fall in a shaft across the bed. Turning to her husband Lois laughed to see her younger son straddling his father's torso and attempting to tickle him awake. The fact that Clark was still asleep did not seem fair to her, so she decided to help Nathan in his efforts. Whenever the two older children saw this they joined in and a rowdy melee occurred. Clark, who had actually been awake since his kids had burst into the room, but had chosen to play possum could no longer keep up the pretense and his chest heaved in a huge guffaw, spilling the little boy onto the bed in a flurry of arms and legs. The squeals and chuckles that ensued, filtered through to the room across the landing and wakened Martha, who pulled on her robe and went to find the source of the disturbance. Peering round the door and finding her children and grandchildren obviously wide awake, she declared her intention of making breakfast. Lois disentangled herself from the pile of bodies and followed her mother-in-law down to the kitchen, instructing her family to wash and dress for breakfast and leaving Clark in charge of that task.
She found Martha in the big cottage kitchen searching cupboards for the necessary utensils with which to prepare the food. Fortunately there had been a welcome package waiting for them in the cottage with all the needful ingredients for the first days of their stay and they would not go hungry until they had a chance to find their way to the grocery store. That visit, Lois made a mental note, would be one of the first priorities of the day. She realised that if Clark and she were to do the job they were sent to do, then the care of her family would have to be relinquished to her in-laws. However, both her husband and she had determined that as this was a vacation for Martha and Jonathan, they would not take undue advantage and that everyone should share in the chores. Not that these should amount to a great deal as the hire of the cottage included a cleaner and they had all agreed to make full use of carry-out food and the local restaurants. Had the children been older Lois would have chosen to stay at a hotel, but the cottage would give her lively bunch more freedom to be their irrepressible selves. At present the two women worked compatibly to prepare the morning's feast. There had been a time long ago when this scenario would have been laughable, Lois having been a disaster in the kitchen, yet although she would never be a cook of Martha's standards, she could now cope competently with the basics. Soon the appetising smells of bacon sizzling and coffee percolating drifted upstairs, where the noises of children being showered and dressed mixed with happy laughter.
Within a few moments Clara strolled into the kitchen dressed in shorts and her favourite Superman T-shirt. Both Lois and Clark had groaned when she had persuaded her Grandma Lane to buy her the shirt with the famous logo emblazoned across the chest, but Clara had thought it extremely amusing that she should secretly wear her father's emblem. Besides, as she had pointed out, all her friends wore one and she had more right than they to the s-shield. Neither parent could find a fault with her logic and Clara was allowed to wear the shirt, which she did with pride. Conversely, Joel had discarded all his Superman paraphernalia when he had discovered the truth. The boy wasn't ashamed or dismayed by his father's secret identity, but owning toys and trivia of someone who was actually your dad felt very strange.
Clark, along with his two sons, now walked into the kitchen and enquired if there was anything he could do to help. Upon being told that everything was in order and that breakfast would be served shortly, he opened up the back door and took his kids into the garden. Joel and Clara immediately ran to the gate and carefully crossing the dirt road that led down to the house climbed the dunes that bordered the other side of the track. On reaching the top of the hill they gazed over the sands towards the sea,
"Dad you were right." Joel pointed to the east as he called out. "The sea's right here. Can we go swimming?"
Clark smiled at their impatience. "Just hold it there for a little while. You haven't had your breakfast yet." Joining them at the top of the ridge, Clark was surprised to see an empty stretch of beach. Of course it was still pretty early for most people to be abroad. He couldn't believe that he was up so early. This was supposed to be a holiday and although he had work to do, he hoped, optimistically perhaps, to find the Kleins alive and well and then everyone could enjoy some quality free time. Shrugging himself back to the present, he took hold of Clara's hand and turned back towards the cottage. "Come on, let's go eat and then we can plan what we're going to do with the rest of the day."
After spending the first day with their family, twenty-four hours later, having assured themselves that their children had sufficiently settled into their temporary home, Lois and Clark followed up on the information faxed to them by Stephan back at the Planet. Deciding to trace Bernard and Beth's movements in the days prior to their disappearance, Clark called the administrator of the science seminar. Ms Wakefield, being very upset by her star lecturer's mysterious fate, was eager to help and agreed to meet with the reporters at 2.00 p m at the university.
The children were disappointed that their parents were going off to work so quickly after their arrival, but they understood that one of the objects of the vacation was to find Uncle Bernard and Aunt Beth and as they were particularly fond of the two missing adults they allowed themselves to be appeased. Especially when Martha suggested that they would visit Sheringham Hall while Lois and Clark drove into Norwich. Given a choice, the kids would have preferred a trip to the theme park, but decided that they would rather wait until their Mom and Dad were available to accompany them. But when they overheard a conversation between their Dad and Grandpa they became more enthusiastic about the proposed trip. Playing in the garden outside the open window of the living room, Joel heard his father enter the room.
"Dad, Sheringham Hall is the last known place that the Kleins visited. I checked it out as Superman but the amount of lead in the building ruined my x-ray vision. If you and Mom could keep your eyes open for anything that looks remotely suspicious, Lois and I will check it out later."
"When is later, exactly?" Jonathan asked pointedly, well aware that his daughter-in-law was not averse to bending the law in pursuit of an investigation.
"That all depends on what you discover, Dad. It's imperative that we find Bernard." Clark habitually lowered his voice when he spoke of Superman and in the garden Joel hushed his sister and brother, knowing that what his father was about to say was important. "More than anyone else, the doc understands what gives Superman his special powers. I'm sure he wouldn't voluntarily give away any of those secrets but there are ways of making people talk and they have Beth too. They could use her as a lever. Lois and I are prepared to do almost anything to rescue them."
Jonathan nodded in agreement and promised to keep a sharp eye open while they were at the Hall. Then the two men left the room in search of their respective partners leaving, beneath the window, the two young children, who had overheard their discussion, open mouthed with shock. Both Joel and Clara had watched the news reports of the Kleins' disappearance but neither had realised the consequences that were now brought home to them by their father's words.
"Daddy is in danger, Joel!"
"Not just Dad! We all are! You know what would happen to us if they found out who we really are."
Clara turned a wide-eyed stare on her brother as her Grandpa's words of dire warning came into her mind.
"We'd be locked up in a lab and dissected like frogs."
Joel could only nod in affirmation but he put a comforting hand upon his younger sister's shoulder.
"Uncle Bernie would never give us away without a fight. So we have to help rescue him before the bad guys make him tell."
Now it was Clara's turn to nod enthusiastically.
"When we get to this big house today we have to search for clues," Joel instructed.
"Yeah, we can do that." A look of determination settled on Clara's small face in a clear imitation of her mother. "We'll teach these bad guys not to mess with Superman."
Within the hour Lois and Clark dropped their family at the gates of Sheringham Hall and drove off to their meeting, unaware that a much younger version of the Lane and Kent investigative team were already hot on the kidnapper's trail. Had they been cognizant with their elder children's intentions they might not have spent such a productive and pleasant afternoon. The university was a comparatively new structure and was in no way of any architectural significance. However, the buildings were set in peaceful parklands that greenly bordered the River Yare. Finding a place to park the hired car the couple found their way to the administration block and asked to speak to their contact.
Ms Wakefield proved to be an efficient and accommodating ally. The conference organizer had prepared copies of those who had attended Bernard's lecture and, even more importantly, had a video-tape of the event. While watching a replay of the tape Lois and Clark paid particular attention to the audience, anxious to discover if any of their innumerable adversaries had infiltrated the assembly, but no apparently recognisable face jumped from the T V screen. Lois' mind began to drift towards thoughts of her children when she noticed a slight tensing of her husband's body. At first she considered that he had heard a distress call and was about to rattle off one of the habitual excuses used to justify Clark's unexpected exit. Then she recalled the family had already concluded that, as Clark Kent was on vacation in the U K , it would be too coincidental if Superman should suddenly show up performing various super feats. In fact, to distance himself from the hero, Clark had returned to Metropolis as Superman for a short period during the night and had spent sometime in the Caribbean dousing a blaze which had broken out in the kitchens of a giant cruise ship. All these thoughts flashed through Lois' mind in seconds and were discarded as she focussed her regard on what had alarmed her husband, whose eyes were riveted to the screen.
On the tape, Bernard had finished his speech and a lively question and answer session was underway which Lois freely admitted she didn't quite understand. However the last question, which Clark had requested to be replayed, required little scientific expertise. A middle-aged, stockily built man, who spoke in a very clipped manner as if making a special effort to speak in perfect queen's English, had introduced himself and was now asking a question regarding Superman's genetic make-up. This query came like a bolt from the blue to those watching and clearly it had shaken Dr Klein who appeared momentarily flustered and then with a certain aplomb had turned the question aside.
To Lois and Clark the very mention of the super hero simply confirmed their earlier suspicions that the Kleins' knowledge of Superman's physiology had been the reason for their vanishing act. Clark waited while Ms Wakefield switched of the television and then, perusing the lists she had given them, he swiftly found the name of the last questioner.
"Ms Wakefield, can anyone attend these conferences?"
The woman turned her attention to the handsome couple before her. As an English woman these journalists were not so well known to her as they might have been to one of their compatriots, but occasionally Lane and Kent had tackled international issues and had won world-wide acclaim. The university administrator was also a well-read woman, so she was aware of their reputations, however she was surprised to discover that both reporters were extremely physically attractive and she was more than a little envious of Lois Lane's luck at sharing her working and private life with such a man. She shook her self from her reverie and returned to the business at hand.
"No, Mr Kent," she explained. "Attendance is by invitation only. The university has only a small conference facility and so our numbers are restricted."
"Then this Dr Schmidt would have been invited?"
Clark scanned his notes and seemingly chose a name at random.
"Oh yes, Dr Roger Schmitd of Dusseldorf is an eminent researcher in the field of identifying and isolating genes. We were very fortunate he chose to attend, especially since he is on sabbatical."
"On sabbatical?" Lois echoed.
"Yes, visiting family here in England to be exact. He requested that we forward his invitation and itinerary to the Dorchester Hotel in London."
With this last piece of information, Lois and Clark felt they had gotten all they could from the helpful Ms Wakefield and, thanking her for her assistance and, assuring her that they would do their best to solve the mystery, they took their leave. By silent, though mutual, consent the couple started strolling along the riverside path to share their forebodings in the quietude of the campus.
"Dr Roger Schmidt just rose to the top of the list," Lois announced.
"Lois, we don't have a list."
"Yes we do, and Viscount Sheringham is on it too. Now we have to get Stephan to run a background check on Schmidt and see if their paths cross anywhere."
"That's quite a stretch, honey."
"Well, we know this doctor is visiting relatives and we know he's in the vicinity … "
"Lois, we know he is somewhere in the U K. That narrows down the field only slightly."
"Nevertheless, you do agree that he is involved with the disappearance?"
"Given his question about Superman … yes."
"And your instincts are tingling just as much as mine." Lois stated forcefully.
"Yes, Ms Lane, you are, as usual, right."
Smiling smugly Lois leaned into her husband for a tender kiss. After a few breathless moments she pulled away and sighed contentedly.
"You know I'm always right, and because I am, on the way home you can buy me afternoon tea at one of those quaint little inns that we passed on the way here. After all, we are on vacation."
Back in the grounds of Sheringham Hall, the Kent children played ball on the extensive front lawn. Just the type of behaviour that the Viscount deplored from the public masses that thronged through his house. However, the old man was not a witness to this display of rowdyism, though their game was monitored by another member of his family, notably his young grandson, the honourable Master Julian Villiers, who watched the hilarity with envious eyes. How he wished that he could be outside enjoying the sunshine and kicking a ball around his grandfather's perfect lawn. Instead, he must finish a boring old history project that had been set him by his private tutor. At the proper time, the heir to the viscountcy, as his father and grandfather before him, would enter the hallowed halls of Eton, but until then the boy would be taught in private by a teacher approved by old Sheringham. This situation had moulded Julian into a shy reticent child, quite unlike the children he was spying upon.
At that moment Joel kicked the ball towards his sister but, as had often happened lately, he completely misjudged his strength and the ball went sailing high over her head in the direction of the house and lodged in the wrought-iron railings of the balustrade of Julian's schoolroom window. Joel looked up and, spotting the boy, called to him to please throw down the ball. Young Sheringham's first instinct was to draw back into the room, but the other kids were waving and laughing in a friendly manner towards him and waiting expectantly for the return of their property. Without a second thought the window was opened and Julian stretched to retrieve the ball and threw it with somewhat erratic aim(ball games not being on his curriculum)towards the other boy who caught it deftly in hands so much stronger than his years should warrant. The Kent children called out their thanks and entreated the stranger to come and join them in their game and for a moment Julian was tempted, but he knew how disappointed and angry his grandfather would be to catch his heir associating with the paying guests. He also knew what his punishment would be for such an offense and he didn't relish the idea of being locked in his room on a Spartan diet for a few days. With a resigned shake of his head and a sad smile to his new and fleeting friends he closed the window and returned to his studies.
Down on the grass below Joel gave a last lingering look of compassion at the window. Somehow he sensed the strange boy's loneliness, then his attention was wrenched back to his younger brother whose interest in the ball game had waned. Nathan decided to investigate the stone lions that bordered the terrace and began to climb onto their unresisting backs, only to lose his unsteady footing and crash unceremoniously to the ground, emitting a shrill screech of protest as he did so. Immediately his siblings were by his side, picking him up and dusting him down. There seemed to be no serious damage although one grazed knee bled profusely and the toddler was reduced to tears. Clara and Joel escorted their brother back to the comfort of their grandparents who were sitting in the garden cafe, enjoying the sun and a refreshing cup of herbal tea. Leaving the injured baby in Martha's tender care the older children excused themselves and returned to their play with a reminder from Jonathan not to stray too far.
Actually both Clara and Joel had also tired of the games. Indeed they were now totally bored with the whole visit. When they had first arrived at the house they had been eager to begin searching for clues but as the day wore on and they had found no evidence of anything remotely untoward their attention had diminished and as with most young children perusing antique ornaments and furniture had not been to their liking. There had been a moment when they had first mounted the very grand central staircase that Joel had thought he was on to something. The young boy had been experiencing some very radical happenings with his whole body and in particular with his eyesight. Sometimes it almost seemed that he could look right through things and focussing very hard on the large portrait at the top of the sweeping staircase, the surface of the painting had melted away, revealing a hidden and very modern safe. But the vision had only appeared fleetingly and once more the portrait of a young, virile man standing before the backdrop of some ancient battleground solidified in Joel's line of sight. Desperately he tried to recreate the power that would give him a second glance but to no avail. His eyes would just not obey his commands and he was left wondering if he had really seen beyond the painting or if he was simply seeing what he wanted to see. If only these strange powers that he was experiencing were more consistent, but they fluctuated back and forth with almost no control from him. He would have to tell his father about them real soon and maybe Dad could help him learn to use these things like Superman did. Of course, he knew he had a long way to go before he was a super being, but maybe Dad had gotten his powers in bits and pieces like this. One thing was certain, he was glad he knew who his father really was, otherwise all this would be a very scary experience. For the present his only confidant was his sister Clara.
Now as they wandered listlessly back to find their ball, Clara bemoaned the fact that they had as yet found no trace of their missing aunt and uncle.
"Perhaps they're not here," Joel suggested, just as disheartened.
"Couldn't you hear or see anything?" She asked with a tinge of forlorn hope creeping into her voice.
"Clara, you know I can't control these things."
His sister let out a teasing giggle. "You sure can't. I thought you were going to break a window when you kicked that ball too hard. You must have frightened the life out of that boy at the window. I wonder who he was?"
"Maybe he lives here."
"And maybe he's seen something. We should go talk to him. That's what Mom and Dad would do."
"He didn't seem too keen to talk to us before."
Clara grabbed his hand and started to walk away from the main part of the house. "Lane and Kent would never be put off so easily."
"Where are we going?" Joel asked in resigned tones.
"To find that boy and if he lives in this house then he won't use the visitor's door. There has to be a back door in a place this big."
The two children wandered round the facade of the sprawling building yet they couldn't find a door that wasn't locked and they didn't want to knock and ask for a boy whose name they didn't even know. At last Clara was ready to admit defeat and as time was passing and they felt sure that their grandparents would be looking for them they retraced their steps towards the part of the house to which the public had access. Their route took them past the unused maze and immediately the children were enthralled. Clara and Joel had inherited both their parents' inquisitiveness and their instincts for a story. Ignoring the signs that informed the public that the maze was closed at present, Clara rushed to the gate only to find that it was locked against intruders.
"It's locked!" She pronounced unnecessarily. Then demanded in a tone that would not accept excuses. "Joel, get over here and break this lock."
Her brother being a more cautious soul than his sister and one that was more inclined to accept the authority of others, looked dubiously at his sibling and pointed to the large newly painted sign hanging on the iron gate.
"Clara, we shouldn't. The sign says … "
"Jeez, Joel. Who care's what it says. If you were the bad guy and wanted to keep people from finding out what you were up to, wouldn't you put up a sign that says. ' No Tressssp … ' Well whatever it says."
"'No Trespassers' is what it says and that means that they don't want us to go in."
"Exactly! And that's why we should take a look. Can't you at least try and get us in?" she now spoke in more coaxing tones. "Please."
In truth Joel agreed with Clara and so allowed himself to be persuaded, not realising that he was following in the steps that his father had so often trodden with his mother. Crossing to the gate Joel placed his hands firmly on the iron lock and pushed. To his surprise, the gate swung open with a protesting creak.
"Wow!" Was all that his sister managed to say.
"The lock was pretty rusty," Joel spoke dismissively. "Come on, let's go before anyone spots us." Pulling her along behind him, the two disappeared into the bushy confines of the maze. Joel plotted a resolute course through the puzzle of hedges, deviating only twice from his certain path. It wasn't that he could actually see through the greenery but it was as though an echo bounced back at him from the surrounding bushes enabling him to quickly establish which was the true way. Within a very short time they arrived at the statue in the heart of the maze.
"Now what?" Joel asked his sister.
"We look for clues." And that said the little girl walked over to the sculpture and started searching the ground at its foot.
"Oh yeah, and I'm sure we'll find a sign that says Bernard Klein was here." However, despite his scepticism, he too began looking around. Soon he was interrupted by an excited cry from Clara.
"Joel, get over here," she instructed. Clara had dropped to her knees by the base of the statue and was forcing her small fingers down a narrow crack that showed along one side of the plinth. "Look! There's a hole beneath this thing. Use your x-ray vision and see what's under here."
Her brother drew her an exasperated glance. "That's Dad you're thinking of. I can't do that."
His irritated look was returned full force. "Don't tell me that. I know that sometimes you can see through things."
"Clara," Joel sighed and tried to explain. "You're right. Sometimes I can see through doors and walls, but they're made of wood and this is stone and earth. And, like I told you before, I can't do it when I want. It just happens."
"I know," Clara placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and tried gentle coaxing again. "You got the gate open. Can't you have a stab at this? We've come too far to go back without trying."
Joel decided not to answer his sister but he did turn his eyes to the stone slabs at his feet and choosing a spot only inches from the crack, he concentrated his vision and attempted to look through the ground.
He remembered, the night after the wedding when he had part fallen and part floated out off the tree, asking his dad how he had learned to use his powers and being told that the secret, in the beginning, was in concentration. Later, Clark explained, as he had grown and become more accustomed to their use, and with a great deal of practise, they had come readily under his full control. While the concerned father had tucked his son into bed that night, he had asked with false calm if his son had been experiencing any strange sensations and though the child had been tempted, he was not ready to talk about the odd things that were occurring to him and so he had lied to his father and told him no. After the 'tree incident' Clark had known this was not totally true. However, sensing the boy's reticence and not wanting to probe, Clark had hugged his son reassuringly and reminded him that his dad would always be there for him whenever he needed.
Now Joel tried to put into effect all that his father had explained but nothing was happening. So he tried harder. Still he could only see the cracked slabs of the crazy paving that surrounded the statue's base and the small green weeds that grew in the spaces between the stones. Yet something was happening. The green plants turned black and a small spiral of smoke rose into the air as the weeds started to smoulder. Joel shut his eyes and clapped a hand across his face, but as a squeal burst from Clara he gingerly opened his eyes again and saw the flames spreading amongst the weeds. He stamped his feet firmly on the small flames and Clara, seeing his intention, joined in. Swiftly the flames were doused.
"Well Joel, your heat vision works."
"But I was trying my x-ray vision. Any more good ideas?"
Clara scanned the ground once more and, finding a small pebble, she thrust it down the gap. The two children waited in silence for a few seconds until they heard the hollow sound of the small stone hitting the bottom of the hole.
"There is something down there." An avid fan of children's adventure movies, Clara inspirationally proposed, "A secret passage, maybe?"
Joel smirked at his sister and said in a close imitation of his Grandma Lane. "You spend too much time watching T V."
Dismissing the criticism with an airy wave of her hand, Clara proceeded to feel around at the foot of the stone man. "And if there's a passage way then there must be a secret lever." The child's hand passed over the sculpted foot, then a click and a grating noise could be heard as stone scraped over stone and the statue and plinth slid back to reveal steps leading down into the darkness. Their first reaction had been to jump back in fright but now they crept forward and peered down. As if drawn by some invisible magnet the two children could not resist the lure of the mysterious tunnel and hand in hand they hesitantly made their way down the stairs. Once at the bottom they started out along the passage only to be stopped by the earthen fall-in. However, as a barricade to two small, agile children the fall-in was quite useless. A clear gap showed in the dim light between the top of the pile of rubble and the roof of the tunnel. Joel and Clara speedily climbed over the obstacle, yet found on the other side that there was even less light than before. Clinging to each other for encouragement the brother and sister felt their way slowly to the end of the passage, where they found a very thick wooden door. Joel's hands searched for a handle, hoping that he could perform the same miracle as he had with the maze's gate. Fortunately force was not required, for the door had been left carelessly unlocked. Stealthily the children crept into the cellars' of the great house, their exploration aided by the dim lighting of the basement. They followed a corridor and cautiously tried the door they found at its end. When the door opened at their touch, Clara moaned disgustedly.
"These bad guys aren't very clever. The keep leaving doors unlocked."
"Hush Clara! And don't complain. At least they're making it easier for us to search." While he was speaking, Joel pushed the door open and peeked around the edge. The room was in semi-darkness but he could discern a man's figure sitting on a chair on the far side of the room. Behind him appeared to be another person lying on a small bed. The seated figure turned to the door which was now slightly ajar.
"Who's there?" A man's querulous voice queried.
At the sound of the voice, Clara quickly pushed past her brother and running across the room, threw her arms about the sitting man.
"Uncle Bernie! Uncle Bernie! We found you." Clara pressed kisses all over the startled man's face. The young girl was as excited at finding her godfather as at the success of her persistence. She turned triumphantly to her brother. "I just knew that we could do it Joel. I just knew."
Her brother however, was looking less than ecstatic. He too had crossed the room and now stood by the narrow cot, staring down at his dear Aunt Beth.
"Is she sick?" He whispered.
"Yes, Joel. I'm afraid your aunt is very ill and she needs help right away." Bernard was thoroughly distracted by the arrival of the two children. If he had expected anyone to find them it would have been Superman but instead he was confronted by the hero's two children. As they had so frequently in the past, this family took his breath away. Nonetheless this was no time for reflection. His wife needed to be hospitalised. If Joel and Clara were here then Superman had to be nearby. But wait, that was exactly what Sheringham wanted and taking his wife from this place was not necessarily the best course of action. She needed the antidote and soon. And if the Viscount was to be believed only the serum that Schmidt had developed would counteract the poison. Bernard needed time to figure out what was the best thing to do. Joel, however had no such qualms.
"Don't worry, Uncle Bernie. You're both safe now. We'll fetch Dad and he'll get you out of here."
"I'm not sure that's such a good idea. You see Joel the criminals … " Bernard lowered his voice and began to explain to the boy why they should be wary about calling for Superman when Clara interrupted abruptly.
"The criminals! Huh! Don't worry about them. They don't even remember to lock the doors. Dad will soon have them sorted out."
"No Clara! We shouldn't bring your father here. As I was about to tell Joel … " Once again the doctor began his explanation when there was another interruption. The door was pushed fully open and four men filled the portal.
"Well, well Dr Klein! It seems that you are entertaining. Please won't you introduce me to your young guests."
Bernard's first thought was to protect the children's identity. Sending them warning glances, the doctor prayed that the kids would follow his lead.
"This is Clara and that's her brother Joel. But apart from that I'm sorry to disappoint you Sheringham I don't know who they are or how they got here."
The Viscount came into the room, his entourage following behind. The twins closed the door and stood guard on either side, eager to make amends for their sloppy forgetfulness that had led to these children finding their way to the prisoners. Schmitd, meanwhile positioned himself by Joel's shoulder. Walking slowly round the small boy, Sheringham studied this new arrival rather like a cat with a mouse. This surprising occurrence was not in his plan and for a moment he was at a loss with what to do. The big question was, did anyone else know the whereabouts of these two children? He came to stand before the boy and raising himself to his full height, which was not inconsiderable, especially for a man of his years, he frowned down at his prey hoping to intimidate him, as he normally did with his subordinates and most easily with his grandson.
"Just who are you and how did you find your way here?" He demanded.
Unfortunately, the boy did not seem to be at all frightened, which was not exactly true. Joel's insides were quaking, but he tried to still his shaky breath and assume the pose which he had witnessed so often in his father. He had also gathered from the desperate looks that his uncle was directing his way that he was not to reveal his relationship with the Kleins.
"My name is Joel Kent and that's my sister Clara. We're visitors from Kansas in the U S. We're here with our grandparents, who wanted to look over this old pile of stone." The man visibly blanched at this description of his home, but Joel chose to overlook the warning and continued with his bogus explanation. He had already decided to stick as close to the truth as he dared, leaving out some relevant facts in order to hide some other facts. "But my sister and I got fed-up, so we decided to explore and found that old maze. Mister that's a real cool puzzle, but we cracked it in the end."
"That maze was out of bounds to the public. Didn't you see the signs? That is, of course, assuming that you can read." The old man was scathingly furious. "And that gate was locked."
Clara could not keep quiet in the face of such a hurtful insult. "Yes, we can read! And your lock was so rusty it broke!"
Raising his eyebrows in disbelief, Sheringham glanced from one child to the other unused to being addressed in such an insubordinate manner. However, he chose to ignore the disrespect, believing that American children did not understand old-world manners and he turned his attention back to the boy. "You expect me to believe that?"
"It doesn't matter what you believe. It's the truth."
From his stance by the door one of the identical thugs spoke up, hoping to mitigate the fact that he and his brother had left the doors unlocked. "The kid's right, that lock should've been replaced."
For that input he received a thunderous look from his employer, warning him that the viscount had not forgotten their transgressions. "I don't see why. You would probably have left it unlocked as well." That said he turned back to the offending boy. "So you obviously found your way to the centre of the labyrinth, please tell us what happened then?"
"The statue had a gap at its foot and we could see there was something underneath … "
"We knew it had to be a secret passage," Clara interrupted once more, "so we looked for a lever to open it."
These interventions were aggravating the silver-haired man though he was intrigued by the girl's reasoning. "And why would you reach such a far-fetched conclusion?"
"Don't you watch television, mister? There are always secret passages in these old houses. It's oblige … " Clara was the daughter of two people who made their living by the manipulation of words, however, sometimes she bit off a little more than she could chew. Dr Klein helped out.
"Yes! Thank you."
Patience was not one of the viscount's strong points and the little that he had was fast running out. If these children had found their way through the tunnel, it meant that the passage was not blocked and the entrance into the cellars could be found by others. Could none of his servants do a decent job?
"Enough of this nonsense. Clearly these children found this place because certain people in my employ did not carry out their tasks correctly. I shall deal with that later. Now the pertinent question is what is to be done with this problem?" And he pointed his hand judiciously at Joel and Clara. "It's my contention that no one knows the whereabouts of these two so we may safely kill them and dispose of the bodies elsewhere."
With his decision made Sheringham turned to leave the execution of his orders to his underlings, yet his motion was halted by a desperate cry from Bernard.
"No! That's diabolical! You cannot seriously contemplate killing two innocent children."
Roger Schmidt was looking equally horrified. He had entered into this liaison with his half-brother contemplating visions of proving his theories and thus being hailed as a scientific genius by his contemporaries. Murder had not been part of the equation. Besides, these children could be used as guineapigs before the final operation on his grandnephew. But before Schmidt had a chance to voice his opinions, Bernard began talking again.
"Plus, I think you will find that these are not ordinary children."
Joel, realizing that the doctor had previously been attempting to hide their origins, directed a puzzled look at his uncle. Surely he was not going to reveal their true parentage? Sheringham halted, intrigued despite his earlier frustration. "And what is so special about two farm children from Kansas?"
"But that is not where they are from. As you know, I live in Metropolis and I believe that these children live there too." Bernard could feel the anxious stares of the two children lock on him as they strove to follow his reasoning. He was also counting on the fact that Sheringham did not know the intimate details of their relationships back home. "The boy told you his name is Kent. That's quite a well-known name in my home city especially if it is associated with the name Lane."
The viscount searched his memory for all he had learned of Metropolis, the chosen home of Superman, and the reporting team of Lane and Kent came to the forefront of his mind. They were the two reporters who were the recipients of so many Superman exclusives and, even more importantly, were considered to be the hero's closest human friends. It would certainly be a stroke of good fortune and an indication of the correctness of his cause, if such a lever as Superman's 'almost' family dropped into his lap. And watching the looks of consternation that crossed the two young faces, he knew that Klein's supposition was right.
"Now that we have been properly introduced," he addressed the children in silky tones, "welcome to my home."
The old man's self-satisfied smile gave Joel the unpleasant sensation of a fly being caught in a spider's web. The threat of a quick death for himself and his sister seemed to have receded for the moment but he sensed that whatever replaced it would not be agreeable. The 'spider' continued speaking.
"Superman will not contemplate the deaths of his favourite children. He will most certainly agree to our demands in order to save these two. Roger, inject them with the poison."
"But I have another use for them," Schmidt protested, only to receive a contemptuous reply.
"My dear Roger, who is the head of this family?" If it were possible the old man's voice became ever silkier. "And who provides the finance for your experiments? May I remind you that 'whoever pays the piper calls the tune'. I abhor dissension in the ranks."
From the moment the half-brothers had met, the younger man had fallen quickly under the influence of the older's powerful personality. Besides, the two goons by the door came forward to enforce their employer's commands. Roger, who had a healthy regard for his continued good health, chose to obey these orders and bringing a medical trolley from a locked cupboard in the darker recesses of the room, began to fill a syringe with a strangely coloured serum. At that moment Joel made a dive in the direction of the door, but the twins were close by and quickly blocked his exit. The boy tried hard to move fast and bypass the human obstacles but the men were large and strong and even with his budding powers, Joel was no match for two grown men who dedicated their lives to the protection of their master. Nonetheless, his adversaries, receiving a number of bruises from the boy's flailing arms, were surprised by the force of his blows and when one such punch connected with one of the bullies' solar-plexus the man gasped and swore.
"Damn! The little b***d is stronger than he looks."
However, the unequal struggle could not last over long and by the time that Schmidt had prepared the injection the twins had subdued their quarry.
Meanwhile, Clara had attempted to come to her brother's aid, but her efforts had been speedily contained by the vice-like grip of the viscount's arms encircling her small body. The man might be old, but his physical strength was enhanced by his fanaticism, and as yet there had been no sign that Clara would develop her father's abilities. This fact had never worried her in the past, as her brother had only started changing a few months ago. However, she would have given anything for one small atom of her dad's power. Now she could only stand within the horrid man's grasp and watch as the others tried to inject poison into her brother. But Joel wasn't beaten yet, with a last effort he twisted round and kicked out at the hand holding the needle. To the children's and Bernard's relief the syringe went sailing to the back of the room and was lost in the gloom. The stressed German scientist went after it and within a few moments a crunching noise could be heard and a voice cursing followed the sound as Roger came sheepishly back into the light. The viscount sighed audibly.
"Please don't tell me, you stepped on the syringe," Sheringham's exasperation was increasing and his ancient clawlike fingers bit into Clara's arms. "Never mind, administer the drug orally," he spat out the order. "It worked exceedingly well on Mrs Klein. Make sure you give him enough to quicken the effect. I grow tired of this nonsense."
With shaky hands Roger sought to do his brother's bidding, while Bernard could only watch in horror at the amount of toxin being measured into the glass. Joel was only a child, albeit an emerging super one. That dosage could prove fatal within a very short time. Clara knew none of that, but her instincts were strong and she realised the danger that her brother would be in if he swallowed that stuff. Desperate action was needed, so she turned and looked up at her captor.
"I can bring Superman here. Please, leave my brother alone and I'll bring Superman to you."
"No!" Klein tried to stop her, but his protest was only halfhearted. There was no other choice. His objection was ignored by Sheringham, who was sceptical of the girl's affirmation but was nonetheless not willing to discount it totally.
"Very well, go ahead, my dear. Shout or scream or do whatever you need to attract his attention."
Clara swallowed hard. She knew that her parents always preferred her to tell the truth and Superman never lied, but surely that did not include dealing with very bad guys.
"That's not how I do it."
"Come, my dear, doesn't Superman always hear a call for help?"
Bernard, seeing Clara's hesitation chose to help out. "Superman may have enhanced hearing, but not all the way to Metropolis."
The interruption had given Clara a few minutes for thought. The memory of Uncle Jimmy's ultrasonic watch popped into her head.
"I have to go to our cottage. Mom and Dad have this watch thing that they always carry with them. It's a signal that Superman can hear from anywhere in the world. I know where it is. Promise me not to harm Joel and I'll bring it to you."
Sheringham gazed at his captors for a long moment, contemplating his options. This whole operation was proving to be more complicated than he had surmised and he devoutly wanted it over and done with. He was tired. He didn't like to admit it but his age was beginning to have a definite and unwanted effect on his body. His joints ached and he grew more easily exhausted. All he desired was to see his grandson transformed into a super being and he needed Superman's cooperation for that.
"Very well, I agree. Joseph, take the girl to where she's staying at present and find that device. Talk to no one and be back here forthwith. The sooner Superman show's up the better. And just in case, Clara, you should think to tell anyone of your brother's whereabouts … Roger, administer the poison."
That was said so unexpectedly that Joel was taken unawares. He felt the remaining goon force his head back and take hold of his nose, closing off the air passages and making Joel reflexively open his mouth. Immediately the boy's mouth came open, Schmidt poured the vile potion down his gullet. The whole action happened in seconds and no-one had a chance to prevent it. Clara glared at the old man with such hatred.
"You promised me," she accused.
"No, my dear, I don't believe I actually took an oath. You must learn to pay more attention when brokering a deal. Now hurry along. I realise you are wondering whether to adhere to our agreement, but I would recommend that, if you want your brother to survive, you do exactly as you proposed."
Clara fervently wished that the man would stop speaking in that affected manner which she had difficulty in understanding and she hated the way he insisted on calling her my dear. Nevertheless, none of that mattered, Joel would die if she didn't bring Superman. She only hoped that her Dad would know what to do to defeat the old man and his thugs and to save Joel and Aunt Beth. She sullenly nodded her head and headed out the door with her minder.
The large man held Clara's wrist with more force than was needed, but she did not protest. Somehow she had the feeling that he wouldn't listen to her request to loosen his grasp. Joseph was adamant he would do this right as he and his brother were already in trouble with 'his lordship' for all the earlier gaffs they had made. So he was doubly determined to hold onto the girl and to bring back the signal-watch that 'his lordship' was so desirous of having. Pushing the girl inside an ancient nondescript van—the old gentleman didn't believe in spending overmuch on equipment used by his staff—he hurriedly jumped into the driver seat and drove out the back drive of the Hall (it didn't do to keep the viscount waiting when he was displeased). When they hit the main road, the van turned back along the thoroughfare and headed northeast for the coast and for the little town where the girl and her family had rented holiday accommodation. Within minutes they were approaching the main gate of the Hall where it became obvious that an altercation was happening at the junction. Two police cars and a private vehicle had pulled up in front of the large wrought iron gates, flanked by their stone pillars on which sat the family emblem of a charging boar. The constables were involved in a heated discussion with two couples who were obviously trying to convey to the policemen some news of great import and urgency. As it was nearing time when the great house closed for the evening, a number of other cars were now cued back up the drive waiting to depart. Most of the occupants of these cars had collected by the gate in order to discover the cause of the pile up and were now listening in a state of rapt attention to the discourse between the civilians and the officers. At first many of the drivers involved in the hold-up had been feeling varying degrees of annoyance at the unexpected delay, but as they eavesdropped on the serious conversation and the word began to spread back through the line of vehicles, their irritation turned into concern as they realised that the cause of the problem was the loss of two children. Of course, none of the listeners was unduly worried at this point. This was a big estate and there were many distractions for visiting youngsters. No doubt the kids had just wandered off and forgotten the time and if the folks who were waiting could organise themselves into search parties then the children would soon be found. Only a very few of the more anxiously minded members of the public considered the fact of the large lake that lay at the foot of the expansive lawns, and even they were not privy to the reasons why the family were over here. A few bolder members of the crowd came forward and offered their advice and assistance to the police officers, who were ardently attempting to maintain order in the escalating chaos.
By the time the van with its two diverse occupants reached the scene the road had become blocked by motorists who had halted their journeys in order to satisfy their rampant curiosity.
The van driver swore and Clara raised up in her seat and peered out of the window. She was happily surprised by the scene that was before her and particularly by the appearance of the central characters of the melee. Before the thug could apprehend what she was up to she unlocked the door and scampered towards her parents and grandparents, shouting loudly to attract their attention, which was very needful as it soon became apparent that the goon would catch up with her before she reached the safety of her family.
His daughter's piercing scream jarred Clark's sensitive hearing and sent shivers of fear coursing through his body. Turning in the direction of the sound all his terrors were realised as he saw Clara wriggling desperately in the arms of a large gorilla who was forcing her into a van that was parked haphazardly across the road. Denying the desire to move at super speed, Clark nonetheless arrived at his daughter's side within seconds and the startled thug found himself devoid of his small captive and himself enveloped in a grip of steel, which he soon discovered could not be broken. Clara had swiftly been deposited on the ground while her father dealt with the miscreant. Now she was joined by her mother and smothered in a gentle hug, which reduced the previously brave little girl into sudden tears. Martha and Jonathan quickly followed with the police officers and the angry father reluctantly turned the stranger who had tried to abduct his child into the custody of the law.
Gallantly trying to swallow her sobs while still clinging with frantic fingers to her mother's neck, Clara attempted to tell her story, but unfortunately only a garbled account could be heard by the waiting group. Even Clark with the benefit of super-hearing could not wholly comprehend his daughter's tale. It was obvious that the child needed to be taken some place quiet where she could regain her composure and then they might be able to find out what had happened to the children and why she was found in the company of this brutish stranger, who was now giving a good impression of a deaf mute. Clark took the police officers aside and suggested that, while a pair of them accompanied the family into the nearby village where they could find somewhere private to question Clara, the remaining pair could clear up the ever snowballing pileup. He pointed out that one of his children was still missing and that if the boy and his captor were near at hand, then for the sake of his son's safety it would not be advantageous to alert the kidnapper that something untoward was occurring. Fortunately the constables concurred with his recommendation and the Kent family in their hired car were speedily escorted from the scene, followed by the police with the suspect firmly ensconced in the rear of the police vehicle. The remaining officers radioed in their report and requested assistance to meet with the others in the village, then they hurriedly went about the task of clearing away the crowds.
Meanwhile in the village inn, where the manager had supplied a private room to the policemen, Lois and Clark tried once more to softly interrogate their daughter. In the quieter environment and without the presence of her abductor Clara became more loquacious and swiftly recounted her story and especially the request for Superman to meet with the old viscount. Not knowing the whole story Clara was unable to say why Sheringham wanted the super hero, but she did understand that her brother's life depended on the Man of Steel's attendance. The fact that she managed to convey all this information without once revealing the fact that she was actually speaking to the said hero, filled her listening family with pride at her inventiveness. She divulged the fact that the Kleins were also being held captive in the cellars of the big house and that Beth Klein had been poisoned by the same stuff that the wicked men had used on Joel.
During Clara's long disclosure, prompted occasionally by her parents' gentle questioning, the detectives who were responsible for the Klein investigation arrived. The policemen's immediate response was to proceed directly to the Hall and question the viscount regarding the girl's allegations, but when they heard the complete story of the poisonings and the fact that the captives were being used to blackmail Superman into doing the gentleman's bidding they acceded to a more cautious approach. The inspector in charge of the case harboured some doubts about the reliability of the child's statement, but as both her brother and the Kleins were missing and the suspect held by his uniformed men was known to work for Sheringham, he was inclined to give the girl's story some credence. Joseph Dobson, apart from giving his name, sullenly refused to answer any of the detectives' questions. Inspector Cannon appreciated too that if there were hostages involved then it was not a viable option to blunder into the situation and thus scare the viscount into unnecessary acts of violence. Being in somewhat of an impasse, the inspector was happy to concur with Clark Kent's offer to contact Superman. The policeman had worked with the hero when he had first attempted to find his missing friends at the outset of this case and had been impressed by the alien man's quiet competence. In fact, the inspector had felt somewhat envious of his counterparts in Metropolis who could call upon Superman's aid on a regular basis. At the moment he was only too happy to share the responsibility for the safety of the hostages, especially as those being held captive were the closest thing to a family that the hero could claim.
Once the decision was reached, Kent returned to his cottage to signal Superman that his help was required, while everyone waited anxiously for him to arrive. At least that was the cover story given to the police. Actually, Clark drove a small distance up the road and, hiding the car in a nearby wood, he swiftly spun into the suit and proceeded to do an aerial survey of the house and grounds, but as previously his vision was distorted by the leaded roof. However, he did spot the secret passageway of which his daughter had informed them and wondered exasperatingly how he could have missed that vital clue on his first visit. His only excuse was that it had been dark and that he was preoccupied with worrying over his friends. And even if he had uncovered it, boy scout that he was, would that have given him a sufficient reason to invade the privacy of such a prominently rich member of the aristocracy in this part of the world? Still, the nagging suspicion lingered that if he had discovered the tunnel and explored it earlier he may have rescued Bernard and Beth and his son would not presently be in such danger. However, his soul searching was not helping the present situation and he put his thoughts aside for future contemplation and concentrated on the job at hand.
Momentarily he had the advantage, because no one would be expecting Superman to arrive so quickly. The criminals would be allowing time for Joseph and Clara to drive to Sheringham town and acquire the signalling device, before any attempt to call for the hero could be made. This suited his purpose as he hoped to locate the hostages and rescue them without giving the villains the chance to react. For one long moment, Superman hung in the sky and aerially scanned the surrounding countryside. His vision honed in on a lone figure trudging along the road towards the big house and with a heartfelt sigh he alighted on the highway beside his wife.
"Lois, what do you think you are doing?"
"Waiting for you." That statement was thrown at him, daring him not to argue with her decision as she continued resolutely on her way to the Hall.
"But I left you with Clara."
"Clara is safe with Martha and Jonathan. But Joel is in danger. They understand why I had to come." Lois forced the words past a huge lump that had lodged in her throat. "Clark, our firstborn is out there and perhaps he is dying. I couldn't stay behind."
Clark's eyes echoed his wife's pain and he could not deny her. Pulling her into a quick and sympathetic embrace, Superman took to the sky and within minutes they arrived at the mouth of the tunnel.
"If we can enter the house this way then maybe we can free Joel and the Kleins without alerting Sheringham and his cohorts."
Lois nodded in agreement, but she had one lingering fear, which she could no longer ignore. "What about the poison? Clara said that Joel had been drugged."
"Sweetheart, I talked with the inspector about that and he tells me that there is a very good hospital in Norwich, which is just south of here. The moment we have our boy safe we'll fly him there. Inspector Cannon promised to alert the medical staff to the problem. Hopefully they'll have an antidote available."
"But we have to find him first."
"We will, honey. I promise."
Clark x-rayed the tunnel until he found the obstruction that Clara had told him about. It was made up of loosely packed earth mixed with a few rocks and its removal would cause him little bother. He held out his arms to Lois and as she stepped into his clasp she set her chin resolutely. "Let's go bring Joel home." No matter who should try to prevent her, Lois Lane was going to rescue her son.
While Clara was being chauffeured by her thuggish escort towards Sheringham and her rendezvous with Superman, the other twin tied Joel hand and foot, and, leaving him lying on the stone-flagged floor, exited the cellar, making sure to lock the door behind him.
Poor Joel had never felt so bad in all of his young life. Every nerve end in his body trembled and his muscles suffered from excruciating cramps. If only his mom was here. She would rock him in her arms and kiss away his pain. Maybe even sing to him. He liked his mom's voice. And his dad … his dad would come and make everything right again. A sad little whimper broke through Joel's clenched jaw and Bernard, hearing that small cry, felt his heart miss a beat at the mournful sound. Once again Klein struggled ineffectively to free himself.
"Joel! Joel! Can you hear me, my boy?" The doctor knew that it was imperative that Joel remain conscious to fight the toxin that was quickly invading the boy's slight form. When an answer was not forthcoming, he tried again, raising his voice level in order to attract the attention. "Joel, you have to stay awake. The bad stuff that the man gave you is making you ill but you have to fight it. I wish I could help, but I'm afraid I can't get free."
From the far side of the dimly lit room Joel heard a voice which was instantly recognisable. Desperately he strove to listen and to do exactly what it was instructing him. His brain latched onto the last words. There was help available from Uncle Bernie who always took such good care of his family, and all he had to do was set the doc free. And he could do that. Ignoring his pain the youngster squirmed slowly across the floor and positioned himself behind Bernard's chair. Joel took a deep calming breath, then spoke quietly to contain his remaining strength.
"I can free you," he assured the older man.
"No Joel! It's hopeless! The knots are tied too tightly."
"I can Uncle Bernie, really I can," Joel's voice strengthened with conviction. "But you have to keep very still," he instructed. Joel pulled himself up till he was kneeling on the slabbed ground. Then, letting the heat build up behind his eyes, he concentrated his gaze on the ropes that bound Bernard's wrists.
Straining to look over his shoulder to discover what Joel was up to, the doctor was amazed to feel his skin grow steadily warmer as the strands of his bonds gradually began to burn through. Think hot, Joel kept telling himself. I've watched Dad do this and I did set the grass alight. O K, so I was trying to see through things but I can do this. Think hot!
It was a slow process, this being an entirely new skill for the budding super boy, yet at last the ropes were severed and Bernard's hands were free. Clumsily untying the bindings about his feet, the doctor hurriedly examined the child who had collapsed from exhaustion into a small bundle on the floor, the effort of using heat vision for the first time having completely robbed him of his consciousness. What Bernard found filled him with dismay. Both Joel's breathing and pulse were erratically slow and if help did not arrive soon, the doctor would be the only living occupant of the prison cell.
"Please, Superman, we need you now." In such dire straits it seemed no longer justifiable to keep the super hero away from Sheringham's vicinity and in a quiet prayer Dr Klein called for succour.
"Dr Klein?" From the darkness Superman's voice answered. Bernard fell back in shock as the figure in the familiar red and blue uniform approached him with Lois by his side. Yet the doctor's alarm was nothing compared to the stunned looks that settled on the faces of the couple when they saw their son. The sick child was gently surrendered into his parents' arms and Joel, at once recognising in whose embrace he was now cradled, turned his head and sobbed into his mother's shoulder.
Lois and Clark were severely traumatised at the state of their boy and one thought kept repeating itself in Superman's brain.
"Joel hasn't inherited super powers," unintentionally he voiced this thought aloud. Somehow Clark felt responsible for his son's suffering, as if the fact that the non-transference of his invulnerability was something over which he had control. Doctor Klein rummaged around on the floor for the evidence.
"On the contrary, Superman," he affirmed and deposited the rope with the charred ends into Clark's hands. Inspecting the item a slow small smile touched Superman's lips and a swelling surge of pride overtook him. But a sharp interruption quickly returned him to the terrible situation.
"Then why is he so ill?" Lois demanded.
"Joel's human half is being affected by the poison but his Kryptonian half is protecting him. Believe me, without that protection Joel would already be … " Bernard left that prognosis unspoken. Over the years of treating the Kent family, the doctor had developed a more sensitive bedside manner and falling in love with Beth had softened his once blunt utterances. Nevertheless Superman caught his inference.
"We have to get Joel and Beth out of here. The hospital in Norwich has been informed of the situation and they are expecting our arrival. Hopefully the doctors with your help Bernard will be able to find an antidote."
"I don't think that's probable. This poison is a hybrid curare, infused with some sort of time-release system. It was administered to Beth when we first arrived and she has grown steadily sicker. Joel was forced to swallow the toxin only about an hour or so ago, but he was given an adult dose and perhaps the time scale was altered, therefore it has had a much faster detrimental effect on his health. According to the viscount, their only hope of survival is to receive the specialised antidote, to which only he has access."
"Could he be lying?" Superman asked.
"I doubt it. And are you willing to risk Joel and Beth's lives on the slim chance that he may be?"
Both Clark and Lois shook their heads.
"Then I guess that it's up to me to find it. But just what does this Sheringham want? Why has he done all this?"
"He wants you, Superman. Or more particularly, he wants your genes."
"Excuse me?" That came from Lois who was becoming increasingly more incensed at the notion that one man would wreck such havoc to realise his own insane ideas. Bernard began to explain as quickly as he could the reasons for the abductions and for the poisonings, but a few minutes into his diatribe Clark raised his hand and with a gesture called for silence. Moments later the cause for his request opened the door and charmingly strolled into the room, as if entering a drawing room at some pleasant evening soiree.
"My, my Bernard! You do seem to do a great deal of entertaining for one in your position. And I see that at last, you have finally attracted the attention of the main guest. Welcome, Superman, to my home. I have long desired to meet with you. When the time is right we must have a little tjte-`-tjte on just what a marvellous experience it must be to wield such power as do you."
Superman crossed his arms before his chest and regarded the old man with an uncharacteristically venomous look. "I doubt, Sheringham, that I would ever have anything to say to you on any subject. However if you give Dr Klein the antidote, perhaps I might be persuaded not to tear you limb from limb."
In answer the viscount laughed sarcastically, causing Lois' blood slowly to boil. "Now, now Superman, you must not tease an old man like myself. You know very well that you would never resort to violence, specifically with a man of advanced years. Besides it is completely unnecessary. The antidote will be yours just as soon as you have given me what I require."
"Which is?" Superman prompted. Sheringham seemed in no hurry to end the conversation and for his son and Beth time was of the essence.
"Your super genes. My brother, Dr Schmidt, has developed a technique for transplanting genes from a host body to another and so transferring their attributes." As the old man spoke, he ushered another man further into the room, who nodded an introduction towards the super hero, but remained silent, preferring to leave the explanations to his half-brother. "We intend to fuse your genes with that of my grandson and so create a super boy and in the future a master race founded by my bloodline that will guide the world towards a better destiny."
Lois could no longer contain her temper. "A destiny of your choosing. What sort of man are you that you would risk the health of your grandson in such a crazy undertaking. This is Kryptonian DNA you are experimenting with. Who is to say that it is compatible with the human sort?"
Sheringham's attention turned to the angry woman confronting him. "Let me guess, could this be Ms Lane, the boy's mother? I don't consider that to be a problem, Ms Lane. You see I feel that Superman would not have chosen to live on earth or to continue to enjoy such robust health if his physiology were not conducive with our atmosphere and with the beings who people the world. I also surmise that as he resembles a human man in every way from the outside that it follows that his insides should be just as similar."
Bernard was impressed by the viscount's simplified reasoning which was very close to the truth. Apart from a few minor exceptions, Superman's physical make-up was indeed earth-like and his and Lois' children were incontrovertible proof that Kryptonian and human genes were compatible. Superman, meanwhile, was quickly running out of patience.
"These super powers that you are so envious of may enable me to find the antidote without surrendering to your demands."
There was silence as Sheringham contemplated this possibility. "Yes, that might be feasible. But this is a very large and very old house and if I am not mistaken the amount of lead about the place is disrupting your x-ray vision which would make things a little more difficult for you. Of course, you could take the hall apart brick by brick but that would take much longer and time is not a luxury you can afford, if you wish to save your friends." As if to endorse the point, Joel moaned as his body convulsed with pain. "And there is the possibility that I have deposited the drug elsewhere."
Unfortunately the viscount was right and his son could not afford to wait much longer. After sending a quick unspoken glance filled with love and compassion towards his wife and child, Clark addressed the triumphant nobleman.
"OK, Sheringham, you win. How do you propose we go about this?"
"I leave the medical details to Professor Schmidt," he inclined graciously. "However, if we can adjourn to the laboratory, where my grandson is awaiting our presence then we can continue."
"And the antidote?"
"You shall have that whenever the transfer is complete. I give you my word as a Sheringham. Trust me, Superman, I am not a murderer."
Thinking of the viscount's earlier intention for the children, Bernard would have disagreed with this self-estimation of the old man's character and he could not suppress an ironic groan at these words. Superman threw his doctor a warning look. He had already summed up the viscount's disposition as that of a megalomaniac with visions of world dominance. Were Lois and he destined to be involved in never-ending battles with the type? He certainly did not trust the man, yet he had little choice but to comply with the request and so he followed Professor Schmitd as he led the way to the lab.
Once inside, Clark studied the room. The equipment was pristine and of a highly technical and futuristic nature. Many universities or research units would have been envious of the facilities available to the professor. Unfortunately there were too many chemicals sitting on shelves for Superman to pick out the drug for which he was searching. His eye alighted on a very scared young boy, of a similar age to his son, perched on the edge of an operating table. Smiling in encouragement, the Man of Steel walked confidently into the centre of the room, his cape swinging behind him. Schmidt, standing before a lab bench which was littered with various items of apparatus, cleared his throat and in a self-effacing tone asked the super hero to donate a number of tissue samples and place them in the petri-dishes he supplied. Letting his shoulders slump, Superman determined to let the enemy think they had him beaten. If he could fool them into believing he was cooperating, then perhaps they might let down their guard and he could then take advantage of any openings to save his family without allowing this fiendish plot to continue. In the meantime with his laser vision he began to remove sliver-like pieces of his flesh and fill the small receptacles. Whenever the incisions were complete, his body immediately started to repair the damage.
Professor Schmitd set to work, transferring some of the samples into test-tubes and mixing them with a cocktail of chemicals. A large gleaming machine at the end of the bench was now switched on and the air filled with a high-pitched hum which grated on the hero's super hearing. Coloured lights started blinking along the machine's console and Superman noticed that the boy gazed hypnotically in its direction, almost shaking with fear at the radical treatment his relations were preparing to practise on him. With quick efficiency the test-tubes were stoppered and placed into the machine, keys were depressed and the drone rose to an ever-higher pitch as the contraption began its cycle. Superman's hands involuntarily covered his ears, while he watched with x-ray vision as the small glass beakers were agitated at extremely high speed while being bombarded by some form of electrical force. He was drawn from his fascination by a nervous cry issuing from the young Sheringham.
"Grandfather, please don't do this to me."
"Don't be absurd, Julian. This operation won't hurt." Though in truth no-one had any way of knowing whether that statement were true. Not even the super donor. "And when it is over, you will be another Superman."
This assertion brought little comfort to the child. Julian choked back his sobs, knowing too well that his grandfather despised crybabies. Valiantly he tried to convince the old gentleman to leave him be. "I don't want to be another Superman. I don't think I'd be very good at the job."
"Nonsense child! I will be there by your side to guide you."
Both Julian and Superman looked doubtful at just how advantageous a mentor Sheringham would be.
"I'm scared, Grandfather."
This confession greatly incensed the viscount, and, losing his already intractable temper, he spat the next humiliating words at the small boy. "I ought to have realised that you are as spineless and witless as your father ever was. Well, your sentiments are not to be considered. You will do exactly as I say."
"Enough!" Superman too lost patience with the whole miserable affair and advanced on the enraged man. "The child is terrified. And whether it suits your purpose or not and whether the transfer actually succeeds or not, you will not change his disposition. World domination is not something in which he is interested. And though it may have escaped your notice neither am I."
Since the outset of his labours, Schmidt had largely ignored this contretemps; now, however, he turned his attention to the conversation.
"Edwin, much as though it pains me, I must agree with Superman. Julian is not a suitable candidate to be the receptor of these genes. The powers that will be unleashed in the transfer will require an experienced and intelligent mind to cope with the new and extremely potent abilities. A mind of vision, perhaps like your own."
There was silence as Sheringham studied the unexpected possibility.
"But I am an old man," that was said reluctantly.
"Edwin, there is a firm contention among the scientific community that superman's genes create longevity and that during his lifetime his powers would not diminish."
Clark remembered when he had first learned of this probability and frankly the idea of outliving his loved ones and more specifically his wife had filled him with foreboding. He had even considered the prospect of ending his own life if he should find life without Lois too difficult to handle. Of course he would have his children and mayhap his grandchildren for company but he couldn't be sure that even that would be enough. And if his offspring had taken over his mantle of caring for earth's well being, then he would be free to join his soul mate. However, that whole frightening scenario had been negated by the events that took place during that disastrous episode in their lives when Jimmy Olsen had been drained of his youth by a mad female researcher and Superman had to donate some of his own life force to return his friend's health back to normal. Dr Klein was not exactly clear on how many years Clark had sacrificed but he estimated that the hero would now enjoy a more regular life span, provided that he did not have any fatal reruns with a certain green rock. But whether that life drain would have any effect on his genetics, he had no idea.
While these thoughts had been recurring to Superman, the viscount had clearly come to a decision and, judging by the covetous glint that had entered his eye and the way his body had pulled itself erect as if it was already savouring the feelings of super powers, his resolution did not bode well for the world. Superman vowed that he could not allow this diabolical situation to continue, yet he still had not discovered a solution that would bring it to an end. He detected a change in the machine's noise as if its cycle was winding down and the professor had unceremoniously shifted the boy from the table and was preparing the viscount for the coming operation, wheeling various drips and monitors to the side of the operating slab. Time was fast running out.
In the cellar Dr Klein was doing whatever he could to make his patients more comfortable but without his medical equipment there was little he could do to alleviate their pain. To occupy Lois he had set her the task of sponging down her son's overheated body, which seemed to bring the boy some relief. Joel had regained consciousness in his mother's clasp and Lois crooned softly to her sick child, calming him with gentle hands when he attempted to speak.
"Shush sweetheart, Mommy and Daddy are here and we will take care of you. Just relax and go to sleep." Lois rocked him to and fro as she spoke. Joel found the movement extremely soothing and he was tempted to obey instructions and let himself be lulled to sleep, then again there was something that he had to do, some annoying piece of information that he had to tell Superman, something important. If only he could remember what it was. If only his head didn't ache so much. Suddenly it came back to him and he struggled to sit upright.
"Mom, I have to tell Superman … "
"No, honey. Superman has everything under control." Lois knew this was a vast exaggeration of the truth, but she wanted to comfort her son who was growing more agitated.
"I know Mom, where the medicine is. The medicine to make me better."
This surprised his mother so much that she only managed to stammer. "You do?"
Joel nodded his head in affirmation which he soon realised was a big mistake because it only increased the pounding inside his head. For a second or two he had to fight to stay awake, then fixing his eyes on his mom's incredulous face he explained.
"At the top of the big stairway there's this huge picture of a man in old clothes and long hair and a battle going on in the background." In his desperation to relate the information he spoke too quickly and almost all in one breath which soon left him gulping for air. Lois raised him on her shoulder to aid him. She knew how vital her son's testimony was and she did not try to prevent him from talking. After a few steadying breaths Joel continued. "I looked through the picture Mom. Only for a moment and I couldn't do it again no matter how hard I tried, but there is a safe behind the picture. I couldn't see what was in it. I did try Mom, really, but my eyes wouldn't work right." Joel began to sob quietly at his failure and Lois whispered sweet words of consolation.
"Sweetheart, please don't cry. You did good. Very, very good. Your Daddy will be so proud of you." She took his head into her hands and gently wiped the tears away with her fingers. "You have been a very remarkable boy. A Super boy." As she spoke, she gestured with her eyes to Bernard and when he came to her side she relinquished her precious cargo into his arms. "Mommy wants you to stay here with Uncle Bernie, he'll take good care of you, while I go and tell Daddy just what you saw. It's going to be a big help to Superman."
With that she placed a fleeting kiss on his brow and ran off down the winding passageway to find her husband. This was a fairly simple task because the lab door had been left slightly ajar and a loud droning sound could be heard from within. She sincerely hoped that she was not too late. Peering stealthily round the door her eyes first fell on the caped figure of her husband who was staring in trepidation at the body of the viscount, who was now stripped to his underwear, displaying his scrawny limbs, and stretched out on an operating table with a number of tubes entering his veins. A fair-haired boy stood sheltering by the hero's side and Lois assumed that this must be the grandson who was to have been the recipient of the super genes. Somewhere a long the way there must have been a change of plans. An unbidden thought sprang into Lois' mind of the viscount's spindly limbs clad in the blue spandex suit and she forced down a hysterical giggle at the incongruous vision. At that moment the machine stopped and Schmitd crossed to retrieve the now treated samples. Lois, understanding that there was no time to waste came to Superman's side and laid a soft hand on his arm.
"Superman, we know the whereabouts of the antidote. Joel discovered a secret cache behind a painting on the main stairway. He thinks that there was something hidden inside." While she was speaking the old man on the table sat up abruptly and from the chagrined look that crossed his face it was obvious that Joel's conjecture was certainly correct.
"No! It isn't so! That's not possible! How could he have uncovered that?" The viscount's old querulous voice rose an octave in frustration, but his ranting was interrupted by his heir.
"Yes it is. There has always been a secret alcove behind the portrait of the first viscount. And last year Grandfather had a new safe installed. He keeps all his most valuable possessions there."
"No! You little fool. You stupid ingrate. I took you in, gave you a home and now you betray me." Sheringham slid from the table, pulling away from the needles that were attached to his skin and advanced on his ward. Julian, knowing from experience that the old man could become physically violent when angered to the extreme, sidled closer to Superman for protection, only to find that his hero had disappeared in a blur of red and blue. At least the child thought he did for in a blink of an eye the brilliantly coloured figure was back, brandishing a metal box which an inspection by x-ray vision had revealed that it contained vials of yellow liquid and a written document of instructions on its application.
"Now that I have what I require to save my friends, you no longer have any control over me. So this whole situation ends now." Anxiously determined to destroy his DNA, which Superman firmly believed should be inherited only by his children, he trained a blast of heat vision on the machine in which his tissue samples still resided. However, in the desperation of the moment Clark failed to take into consideration the cocktail of chemicals that held his genes in suspension or the high density electrical currents that lay dormant within the experimental equipment that filled the laboratory. In a few seconds the gene-separating machine exploded, engulfing the professor who was standing by in a searing fireball. Superman attempted to douse the flames with a breath of freezing air, but the man, writhing in agony, blundered about the room and evaded momentarily the range of the cooling stream. Screaming in pain, Schmidt careened into shelves, knocking bottles of chemicals to the floor where they ignited in the heated atmosphere of the room and added their force to the conflagration. It soon became clear that the man was beyond help as he stumbled to the floor, alighting the pools of liquid that seeped across the room and carrying the flames to other areas of the lab.
Superman pushed Lois and the boy toward the door, screaming at her to fetch Joel and the Kleins while he attempted to save Sheringham. This proved to be a thankless task as the old man was determined to rescue some of Superman's precious power genes in the hope that he could still be transformed into a super being. The fact that the conductor of this magical task was now dead did not penetrate the viscount's madly obsessed brain, so enthralled was he with the ideology of leading a new master race.
"Sheringham!" Superman called to his foe. "Sheringham, this room is going to explode. We have to get out of here."
Through the flames Clark perceived the old man's white underwear catch fire as he fought his way towards Sheringham. Suddenly a massive wooden beam fell across his path as the ancient timbers of the old hall began to burn. Clark threw up his arms to ward the huge obstacle away but had also to contend with a following deluge of plaster and floor boards as the room above started to fall into the cellars. By the time his vision had cleared his quarry had disappeared into the inferno. Antique furniture and flooring tumbled into the basement feeding new fuel to the pyre and as fresh air rushed to fill the void the flames had created the fire climbed greedily to the floors above. Superman could sense that the age-old building had little chance of surviving this disastrous inferno and his main priorities were the safety of his wife and child and not the futile search for an aged and demented criminal. With one last backward glance, he turned to join his family as another explosion engulfed the room.
By the time Clark made his way at super speed back down the corridors, he found Lois with Joel in her arms and behind her Bernard was struggling to carry Beth. The hero swiftly relieved the doctor of his burden and began searching with x-ray vision for the most direct escape route. A small hand touched his arm and Julian spoke through a rasping cough.
"Down the corridor," and the boy pointed in the opposite direction, "the back stairs lead up to the kitchens. The fire started in the cellar under the main hall. This way might be safe."
For most of his short life Julian had been ensconced with only his grandfather for company in this large house and to ward off loneliness and boredom he had passed all his free hours exploring its many twisted hallways with their hidden staircases. Now he put his knowledge to good use. Through the choking smoke and the gloomy heated air Julian unerringly led his charges towards safety, staying out of range of the flames, which were creeping ever closer to their route. After what seemed like an interminable time the group eventually burst out into the fresh outdoors, coughing and spluttering with relief as they gulped the cleansing air into their smoke roughened lungs. Superman urged them away from the burning structure and out onto the back lawn. Fiery debris shot high into the sky borne on the updraft and drifting through the air dropped onto the surrounding grounds and threatened the safety of the watching band who huddled round Superman sheltered by his cape. If the fire was not quickly brought under control then Sheringham Hall was doomed.
As Clark stared, mesmerised by the flickering glow, he felt a small measure of guilt at accidentally starting the fire and then not having the time to extinguish the blaze. But his main concern was in taking Joel to hospital and getting him the care he needed. Besides, it was the owner of this house who had endangered his son's life and the viscount's avaricious obsession had been instrumental in forcing Superman into actions that had resulted in the conflagration.
The heir to all this threatened grandeur gazed in disbelief while ambivalent feelings chased through his brain. This was the only home that he could remember, yet it had not brought him happiness and his grandfather, although taking care of his material welfare, had not shown him any kindness or warmth, all the things for which the lonely, frightened child yearned. Indeed the strongest emotion that young Julian felt for his guardian was a debilitating anxiety. Viscount Sheringham had been disappointed with his grandson's retiring nature and had frequently displayed his displeasure in the boy.
Earlier in the day Julian had spied on, with gentle envy, the children playing on the lawn and he had wished so much to be a part of that happy group. When he had been given the chance to aid these same people, this longing plus his inherent sense of right and wrong had made simple the choice between his desired friends and his feared grandparent. Yet with the loss of his home and the viscount Julian would be alone in the world and that was a scary and overwhelming prospect for a seven-year-old boy. Tears spilled over his cheeks and he couldn't hold back the sobs that shook his body.
Lois, immersed in concern for her own son, could not ignore the racking cries, and she drew the weeping boy to her side. Clark smiled a little at the compassionate gesture. Over the years Lois' maternal instincts had emerged, both softening and strengthening her. Now there was little sign of the woman who had once doubted her abilities to raise a child. Meanwhile the health of their eldest child was causing great concern, along with that of his aunt. It was imperative that they be taken to hospital where they could be treated with the antidote forthwith.
Around the corner of the building, skirting the edge of the grass and evading various pieces of falling masonry, the police cars from the village, alerted by the red glow and the plume of orange-tinged smoke billowing into the atmosphere, screamed to a halt close by. The officers, accompanied by Clark's mother and father and Clara, spilled out onto the lawn and hurried across to the others. Hugs and kisses were exchanged between the family, including the doctors and Superman. Martha and Jonathan were thoroughly dismayed at the sight of Joel and Beth, but not wishing to scare Clara nor exacerbate the obvious concerns of their son and daughter-in-law, for the present they kept their own council.
"Thank goodness you're safe," the Inspector could not hide his concern. "The building looks done for. We've called in the fire brigade, but they may take sometime to get here in force. The local station is just a volunteer affair and they'll need help to fight this blaze. Did anyone else escape?" he added, remembering that Lord Sheringham was alleged to be holding the Kleins and the Kent boy.
"No." Superman shook his head. "Schmidt caught fire when the lab exploded and I couldn't get to him in time. I'm afraid he's dead. As for the viscount, he wouldn't leave with me. A falling beam distracted me for a moment and when I looked back the man had disappeared and as far as I can ascertain he's still inside. Frankly, Inspector, I was more concerned with saving my friends."
Gazing up at the now fiercely blazing house, Inspector Cannon gave little chance for Sheringham's survival. "Well, if he's in there, he's probably a corpse by now. Do you know if there were any others in the building?"
Superman again shook his head. "Not that I know of. Now I'm sorry, but right at this moment I'm anxious to take Joel and Beth to Norwich Hospital and I'd be grateful for the use of one of your vehicles."
The policeman looked puzzled. "You intend driving them to Norwich, Superman? If you don't mind me saying, that might take some time and it's time I'm not sure they've got." Cannon cast a speculative glance over the two invalids and though he wasn't a medic he could appreciate that the two were both in a very poor condition.
Superman could not suppress a wry grin. "I intend to fly them. But if they can go inside the car then I can take them all in one trip."
Enlightenment dawned on Cannon's face. "Sure thing, Superman. Anything we can do to help."
Between the two of them they began loading the patients into the car and then Lois and Bernard, who was clutching the box which held the precious antidote to his chest, climbed onboard. The doors were carefully shut and locked in readiness for the trip, but before the hero took off he crossed to his parents and confided quietly to them.
"Mom, take care of Clara and Julian. The boy helped us escape from a horrific plight, which I'll explain later, and he led us out of the fire. I could have crashed my way through the stone and the flames but the others wouldn't have survived that. So I am not exaggerating when I say that he saved our lives. He's alone now and until the authorities decide what's to be done he'll need someone to care for him." Clark's parents nodded understandingly at his statement. Even without the knowledge of what the boy had done to aid their family their kind hearts would have prompted them to look after him. Finishing that conversation, the Man of Steel now raised his voice for the benefit of the attending police. "Clark will probably be driving back from the cottage so I should spot him on the road. I'll stop and pick him up as he'll want to go to the hospital with Joel and Lois." Superman talked finally to the Inspector before he left. "If you have no objections, Cannon, the Kents have offered to take charge of Julian for tonight. Perhaps you could inform the relevant services where he can be found."
With that final piece of information relayed, the hero hurried to the car which was being utilised as a flying ambulance. Bending his knees, he gripped the side of the vehicle and lifted it into the air above his head; then, shifting his grip, he moved under the metal body and effortlessly pushed up into the sky. Because of the precarious state of health of two of the passengers, Superman could not fly as speedily as he would have wished, but nevertheless he was soon out of the sight of those watching from the ground. Martha and Jonathan had often witnessed their son execute such feats of strength, but for the policemen whose previous experiences of the super being had been through the medium of television, the actual sight of Superman carrying one of their police cars fully laden into the air and disappear within minutes into the distance, was completely overwhelming. Not until they heard the repeated wailing of the fire engines' alarms, heralding the brigade's arrival, did the men emerge from their stupor.
A prolonged state of frenzied activity followed as the firemen proceeded to deploy their equipment to tackle the inferno. It seemed, however that their efforts would be unsuccessful as the flames continued to light up the purple dusk of the evening sky. Suddenly an ear-piercing scream drew everyone's attention and as the fire fighters and the watchers turned to the boy who had emitted the shrill cry they followed the line of his pointing arm and saw, standing amid the flames on the old lookout tower, Viscount Sheringham. Glinting red in the reflection of the blaze, his silver hair appeared like a halo around his head and it seemed as if his clothes had been burnt from his body, although no one could quite be sure as the smoke and flames partly obscured the view. The witnesses watched in stunned horror as the old man bowed to the people on the ground and, raising a hand which held something which might have been a goblet, he toasted his watchers, drank from the glass, then tossed it into the fire below. For a few seconds he remained poised on the roof, thereupon he stretched his arms wide and launched himself into the heat charged air. Those on the ground, apart from his grandson, could not have known that the old gentleman believed implicitly that, after drinking the fusion of super genes, he could actually fly and so it was that the viscount's death was formally recorded as suicide. Whatever the reason for his death, the whole terrible episode proved too much for one young boy, who fell sobbing into the comfortable arms of Martha Kent. Julian was kissed and cuddled for what seemed to him to be the first time in his life and he was now and would always remain lovingly grateful. For her part, Clara, recalling how the old man had infuriated and terrified her and how he had threatened her brother's life, was not dismayed at his passing, although she would have preferred not to have witnessed the actual act. Still, as she contemplated this strange boy's show of sadness her young heart understood his pain. If anything should ever happen to her beloved grandparents she realised exactly how grief stricken she and her whole family would be. Empathy brought compassion and her fingers gently slipped inside Julian's trembling hand and with an answering squeeze a new bond was forged.
There seemed nothing further to hold the family at the site of the ravaged Hall and Jonathan urgently requested that they be returned to the holiday cottage. Thankfully Inspector Cannon at once concurred and within a very short interlude the five were driven home after stopping in the village to retrieve Nathan from the pub landlady who had kindly offered to babysit the toddler while the others went to discover what had occurred up at 'his lordship's'. Before taking his leave the police officer assured Jonathan that he would take care of Superman's request in regard to Julian and that he would attend the Kent family in the morning to record their statements. He also expressed a genuine concern for the health of Joel and his aunt which touched the sensibilities of the worried grandpa.
It was a very subdued and exhausted group that entered the seaside home. The three children were tucked into bed, Clara electing, for this one special night, to share her twin-bedded room with an obviously overwhelmed Julian, just in case he should wake in the night and be frightened by the unfamiliar surroundings. Martha and Jonathan laughed tenderly at their granddaughter's show of unaccustomed caring. Unless her family were involved Clara liked to pretend to the outside world that she was a tough little tomboy who was adept at looking after her own welfare. It seemed she had already welcomed Julian into the family circle.
Leaving the kids to their rest the two elders sat in silence in the darkened family room, the French windows open to allow the refreshing night breeze to cool their troubled senses. All their thoughts were with their eldest grandson who in a hospital in the nearby city of Norwich struggled against the effects of a deadly poison. They were not sure how long they sat hand fast against the tribulations which the world so often wreaked upon their extraordinary family. Yet neither Martha nor Jonathan would have changed their lives one whit, that unique life that had begun for them so many years ago when driving home they had stopped to investigate what appeared to be a meteorite and instead had found a tiny spacecraft with inside that most precious of gifts, their baby son, Clark. Into the gloom the ringing of a telephone interrupted their remembrances. Hurrying to answer it, before it disturbed the sleeping children, Martha stumbled and was caught by her husband who was on the very same mission.
"Hello," Martha spoke quietly into the mouthpiece and was relieved to hear Clark's voice answer.
"Mom, thank goodness you are home." The relief in his voice was apparent and Martha threw an encouraging smile to her husband. "Joel was given the antidote a few hours ago and he's responding well. Beth is too, though for her there is much further to go. But Bernard thinks that they will both recover."
"Thank you, God." Martha sent a grateful prayer up to the deities. "Is he in much pain, Clark?"
"Well, he is very uncomfortable and very tearful, which is only to be expected as he has been through so much and he is not much more than a baby. Honestly Mom, when I think of what that evil antediluvian miscreant did to Joel, I'm surprised that I didn't set him alight." There was a hush as both parties contemplated that statement, both aware that no matter what the provocation Clark was unlikely, given a choice, to kill anyone. With an unsatisfactory groan he continued. "The Doc has given him a sedative and Lois is with him. Hopefully he will sleep till morning and we'll see some improvement in his condition. How are the others holding up?"
"They're fast asleep. Clara even let Julian spend the night in her room because he was very upset. Not long after you left his grandfather showed up on the roof and then the crazy man, excuse me for being uncharitable, but I can't bring myself to sympathise with him." Martha wrinkled her brow in distaste and related the rest of the horrifying story. "Then he threw himself of the roof right in front of the children. The police think he committed suicide, yet Julian was muttering something about him believing that he could fly. Whatever prompted him, he is certainly dead. And the children witnessed the whole thing. Not surprisingly, Julian was extremely distressed. We came away after that and as soon as we reached home we put the kids to bed. Clara took Julian under her very small wing, it was quite a delight to see her concern. You and Lois mustn't worry. We'll take care of them all. Just make sure that Joel is recovering and tell him that we send him our dearest love."
Clark's tender heart ached for the young Sheringham. Nonetheless he did concur with the boy's summation of his grandfather's reasoning. "Thanks, Mom. Dad and you had best try to rest as well. Lois and I plan on staying with Joel until he has recuperated enough to bring him home. Give the children our love and tell Clara that I'm very proud of her."
He said his goodbyes then returned to the private room where his son lay tossing feverishly in bed, while his mother sought to comfort him with soothing words. As if Joel sensed his dad's return the child's eyelids flickered open and he stretched a small damp hand towards Clark who instantly took it in his own. A small tentative smile crossed Joel's face and he settled into a more peaceful sleep, much to the relief of his anxious parents. During the night Bernard visited once or twice, checking on the youngster's condition. He was further able to reassure Lois and Clark that their son was making an excellent recovery as all the monitors showed that Joel's physiology was fast returning to what was normal for the Kent children. The doctor and the parents had made it clear to the resident physicians that Dr Klein was not only the family doctor but an eminent researcher in his home city of Metropolis. As the poison that was affecting both the Kent child and Beth Klein was unknown to them, the medical staff at the hospital were content to leave the treatment of the two patients in the very capable hands, as they soon discovered, of the visiting doctor, giving him every assistance that they possibly could.
Joel slept late into the morning. However, when he did awake he announced that he was feeling a lot better and demanding that he be fed as he was starving, which he declared was hardly surprising because he hadn't eaten anything since yesterday afternoon and then it had only been an ice-cream and fruit concoction, which his grandparents had bought him at Sheringham Hall. The memory of the big house and all its horrid connotations threatened to stall the restoration of Joel's sunny disposition. The fact that his parents could allay his panic by explaining that not only was the house itself now a burnt out ruin but the viscount was dead and could no longer threaten him or any member of his family, halted the onset of his depression and the only cloud on the horizon was that the villainous twin George Dobson could not be found. The police had issued a warrant for his arrest, but the man had gone to ground and so far eluded capture. They had questioned the twins' mother, though there was no evidence to suggest that Vera Dobson had any knowledge of her employer or her sons' crimes. Superman considered assisting the police in their search, but when Joel showed signs of impending tears at the suggestion of his dad's departure, Clark happily reversed his decision. In this part of the world the authorities were accustomed to operating without super help and appeared to cope very well using their own abilities. Perhaps there was a lesson to be learned here. The Metropolis police force were as capable of law enforcement as any other yet maybe they had grown a little lax by relying on the cooperation of the super hero, making Clark's life much busier than was really necessary.
When Lois had been pregnant with Joel the newness of the situation and indeed the unknown territory they were charting had led to a great deal of unease in Clark's mind and he had restricted his Superman duties in favour of spending more time with his expectant wife. Then the birth of his first child and the novelty of being a new father had kept the Man of Steel at home, only attending the very worst crimes or disasters, a situation which had continued with the expanding of his young family. However, in recent years as the children had grown and their health and safety did not require constant monitoring, Superman had taken to the sky more frequently, assuming responsibility once again for the continuing well being of the citizens of his adopted city. He had not taken into account the fact that his repeated assistance could mayhap undermine the reliability and accountability of the emergency services. This whole episode had given him a lot of to think about. For one thing, the members of his family were not invincible and as had been proven so often in the past, neither was he. It seemed he had been taking their welfare too much for granted and that long night, as he sat by Joel's bedside, he vowed to change all that. Then, too, during the night another notion dawned in his mind and heart. One that quickly escalated into an irresistible desire; one that he would certainly have to discuss with his wife and hopefully persuade her to support his wishes. Whenever they returned to the cottage he would broach the subject with Lois.
Later that afternoon, Bernard, with the concurrence of the attending doctors, pronounced Joel sufficiently healthy to be discharged from hospital. Actually, witnessing how poorly the boy had been on admittance and also seeing the weakened condition in which Beth remained, the medical staff were astounded at his rate of recovery. This enigma Klein managed to gloss over by remarking on children's rejuvenating abilities being so much more potent than adults and pointing out that his wife had been infected by the toxin for a much longer period. If they remained puzzled, the staff certainly did not make any further enquiries, simply content that the little boy had recovered and many of them appeared at the hospital's main doorway to wave goodbye to the attractive couple and their most endearing son. The trio's popularity was no doubt in some part due to the fact that they had been brought to the hospital by Superman, allowing the local workforce to witness the hero in the flesh for the first time in their lives.
Lois and Clark were glad to escape from the attention, though they were grateful for the kind treatment they had been given. Both had visited Beth before leaving and were relieved to find her conscious though still great discomfort. They wished her well and promised to visit once the situation back at the cottage regained some semblance of normality. Lois offered them a place of respite care at the cottage when Beth was ready to leave hospital, an offer that was kindly turned down by both the Kleins. After all the terrible trauma that they had experienced they both declared that they were anxious to return home just as soon as was possible, a conclusion that Lois and Clark could completely understand. In some ways the Kent couple wished for the familiarity of their home in Metropolis, but they had a holiday to enjoy and kids to be indulged with all their love and attention. Lois declared on the way home that no 'old throw back' to the class-ridden days of yesteryear was going to destroy the first Kent family vacation to the U K.
Finally the Fates seemed to smile on the family as they basked in the warm summer sun, playing on the beach and swimming in the not-so-warm sea which caused the children's skin to rise in goose-bumps and their teeth to chatter (three of them not having super powers and one whose blossoming powers were arrested for the moment). They were guarded zealously by four over-anxious adults, but as the days passed happily without any incident, slowly the level of protection eased and the grownups were also able to unwind and join in the children's games.
The day after the fire, as promised the police attended the Kent family both at the cottage and in the hospital. The statements were taken and Superman too visited Inspector Cannon at his headquarters to relate his report on the whole incident. As the main perpetrators of the crime were already dead and only a minor accomplice was still at large, the family's involvement in the case was for the present over. Cannon thanked them wholeheartedly for their cooperation and advised them to 'lay back' and enjoy the hospitality of his country for the rest of their visit—advice that they were pleased to follow.
The one question nonetheless that remained unanswered was that of Julian's continuing care. The inspector reaffirmed that he had in fact relayed the whereabouts of the boy's living arrangements to the social services and both Lois and Clark had expected a visit forthwith from a member of that department's staff. No such visit had so far been forthcoming. They had, the previous day, received a phone call from a senior partner of the firm of 'Beckworth and Blackwood', the oldest and most respected firm of solicitors in Sheringham, requesting an audience to discuss the guardianship of the heir to the Sheringham title and estate. That afternoon in a stuffy overheated room in the firm's downtown office Clark and Lois met with the senior partner, the Mr Beckworth who had been the 13th Viscount's personal solicitor. There they discovered that their young charge was not only the 14th Viscount Sheringham but an extremely rich young boy. He was also extremely alone. Edwin Villiers had been the child's sole living relative and although the firm of 'Beckworth and Blackwood' were happy to act as trustees to the boy's fortune as instructed by the deceased viscount, they were not in a position to offer him a home. Actually Mr Beckworth was vastly troubled by the new viscount's vulnerable position. The very fact that he was prepared to divulge this highly privileged information to two strangers bore testament to the sum of his disquiet. Before doing so, he had elicited the opinion of Inspector Cannon, a law enforcement officer with whom he had dealings in the past and whom he had found to be a reliable and trustworthy associate. Thankfully for the solicitor's frame of mind the inspector's summary of Mr and Mrs Kent was highly commendable and, as at present they had assumed the governance of Julian, he felt able to confide his concerns to the couple. Immediately they assured him that they had no interest in the child's financial disposition and would prefer that the firm continue looking after that part of his heritage. Lois and Clark explained that their interest lay purely in Julian's physical and emotional care and as long as they remained here in England they were not averse to having him stay with their family. This situation for the present seemed the best possible course of action and the couple departed the office in complete harmony with Mr Beckworth, who volunteered to approach the local child care services and enquire on what involvement the department would be taking in the case.
The night was hot and sultry when Lois awoke from her slumbers and was immediately aware that she was alone in bed. For an infinitesimal moment, in between sleep and cognizance, she surmised that Clark was off somewhere being Superman. Then reality dawned and she knew that her husband had retired the super hero for the remainder of their vacation. Clearly there was another reason for this nighttime venture. Since leaving the solicitors' office that afternoon, Clark had been somewhat withdrawn. Not exactly in a 'blue funk', but attuned as she was to every facet of his personality she recognised that there was something on his mind and she was not surprised when Martha questioned her about what might be the problem. Clark had never been able to hide his moods from his mother, yet at that point she had been forced to admit that she was totally ignorant as to the cause of his taciturnity. In any event, Lois now determined that Clark had spent enough time wallowing, so donning a light burgundy negligee which she realised was one of her husband's favourites (it didn't hurt to employ all weapons at her disposal) she went to investigate.
Surprisingly she found him on the front lawn, dressed only in his sleep shorts and gazing heavenwards at the star-filled sky, at that particular point in space which he associated with his home planet, 'Krypton'. On quiet feet she trod across the grass til she stood behind Clark and, slipping her arms around his waist she laid her head against his shoulder where she pressed moist kisses onto his warm, silky skin. Silently he leaned back into her embrace and rubbed his hands up and down her arms that rested caressingly about him. She felt him heave a noiseless sigh and with heartfelt understanding she set about alleviating his troubled soul. Nevertheless due to long experience of dealing with her husband in all his various moods she recognised that she would have to do a little digging and in true Lois Lane fashion she tackled the problem head on.
"Out with it, Kent!" she demanded with no more than a little hint of a tease. "What's bothering you so much that you are standing in the garden in the middle of the night, looking up at the place where Krypton ought to be?" To soften her intruding questions she came round to stand before him, never letting her arms drop from their tight hold of his body, and smiled encouragingly up at him.
He returned her smile ruefully. "That obvious, eh?" There was a moment of stillness as Clark collected his thoughts. It was important that he got this just right. However, when finally he did speak it came out badly. "Lois, I want us to adopt Julian … " But before he could explain his reasoning for this sweeping decision his wife could not refrain from interrupting.
"Excuse me, Clark!?" This was certainly unexpected and slightly disquieting news to Lois. She stared intently at him trying to make sense of his intentions.
Clark tried again. "Lois, I understand that this is quite a shock, but I honestly feel that this is something that I have to do … that I want to do. Once I was lost and taken from everyone who loved me. Yet I was found by the best and sweetest couple that ever lived." Lois could not disagree with that and she concentrated deeply as Clark continued to reveal his soul. "But, sweetheart, it all could have been so different for me. If my spaceship hadn't landed at just that spot, at just that moment. If my parents hadn't been driving by, who knows what might have happened to me. Someone somewhere was looking out for me and now I have the chance to return the favour. By taking Julian into our home I have a chance to redress the balance." Clark's voice died away. His feelings were too intense to convey lucidly the depth of his commitment and as normally happened at such moments, he became tongue-tied. Lois tightened her grip on him in an effort to prove that she was not totally unsympathetic of his wishes.
"Clark, I completely understand why you should feel that way. But I'm also sure that there is no account to settle."
"I agree, honey. And if I gave you the impression that I was only acting out of obligation then I'm sorry. I've thought long and hard about this adoption business and this is something that I very much want us to do. Besides, Julian is a fine boy who desperately needs a home and family. Of course, I'm aware that we have to do this together and taking responsibility for another child might not be at the top of your agenda. I only ask that you give the idea fair consideration."
Clark was confident that eventually Lois would not be able to resist the mothering instincts that over the past few days had steadily been developing in her heart for Julian. Still, at present Lois was not convinced.
"Clark, honey, you say that you have considered this adoption, but are you sure you have taken every aspect into account?" At this juncture she was the recipient of a wide-eyed stare from her husband, who with a rolling gesture of his hand, invited her to continue. "For instance, there is the unavoidable subject of his ancestry to reckon with. And you have to admit, Clark, that his grandfather was not a forebear to inspire confidence."
"Julian is not his grandfather. And he chose to disobey the old man to save our lives," Clark countered. "That took a lot of courage on his part. I seriously don't think we have to worry about Julian inheriting any of Sheringham's traits."
Reluctantly, Lois conceded that point but she was not yet ready to surrender.
"And then there is the question of Superman." Jubilantly Lois discerned , by the look of surprise on Clark's face that she had scored a hit. "Ah-ha! You haven't considered Superman. Clark, our children know the truth about your identity. Which means that at home with your family you do not have to pretend. You can relax and just be your true self, doing whatever you feel comes naturally. That wouldn't be possible if there was a stranger in the house. Could you comfortably return to always having to hide your powers?"
This was a salient argument which could not be ignored. He did appreciate tremendously the fact that while he was in the company of his children he could use his abilities instinctively. And furthermore he understood that they, should they ever develop these powers, would take comfort and not be afraid of these strange skills because of this familiarity. Yet he would not allow himself to be dissuaded.
"You're right, honey. That would be difficult for me. But I've had to hide my powers from those I love before and I can do so again."
Lois grimaced at the reminder of that time long ago when, at the beginning of their partnership, he had kept secret his dual identity and she had been too enthralled by the handsome 'god' in the blue suit that she had totally overlooked the 'hack from Nowheresville'. Thank goodness they had both come to their senses. Common sense was something which she needed to employ at this moment, because Clark was obviously acting out of pure emotion.
"Then too, Julian would not always be a stranger," her husband averred. This statement jarred Lois to her very core.
"Are you suggesting that you might in the future be prepared to tell this boy?"
"Exactly! Lois, I don't believe that his knowing would be a threat to us. Call it my super hero's intuition or whatever else you like, but I'm certain that Julian is an exceptionally honourable and trustworthy child. And despite your reservations you feel this too."
There was silence as Lois contemplated all that Clark had related to her. Often in the past, they had both relied on their incredible 'hunches' to investigate a story or to rescue them from disaster and reluctantly now, her 'sixth sense' agreed with her husband's summation of Julian's character. In the beginning their visitor had seemed unusually shy and introverted, though Lois surmised that this was probably due to habitually hiding his feelings from a strict and uncaring guardian. She also perceived that her husband empathised with the boy's need to always hide his true self, albeit under different circumstances from his own sometimes lonely and isolated youth. As Julian's nervousness decreased, soothed by the tender regard that was shown him, both Lois and Clark witnessed with a sense of pleasure, the boy's natural disposition begin to emerge. While the child would always remain considerably reserved, he was also very sweet and thoughtful, with occasionally a surprising sense of the ridiculous. Starved as he had been of the company of members of his own generation, he quickly made friends with the Kent offspring. And with the trusting innocence of childhood, Clara and her siblings had without a shred of suspicion, welcomed him to their inner sanctum. Without a doubt Lois knew that her children would agree wholeheartedly with their father's suggestion. And given the previous record of the elder Kents who had taken in one abandoned child and never once regretted their deed, Lois realised she was possibly the only member of the family who was uncertain. Indeed her doubts were borne purely in the interests of the security of their family secret. She did not seriously consider the boy as a threat and as she in her heart honoured Clark's intention, Lois allowed herself to be won over. With a smile and a hug she agreed to her husband's request. Nevertheless, there were reservations that had to be discussed and Lois-like she immediately forged ahead.
"O K. I'm convinced that we should enquire into at least fostering Julian, with the premise of adoption. However, Julian is British and we are Americans. The authorities on both sides of the Atlantic may not be quite so agreeable."
"You have a point, sweetheart. First thing we have to do is discover how we stand legally on adopting an 'alien'." Clark grinned sheepishly at that title and Lois wondered if that might also be another hidden bond that he shared with Julian. "I'm sure Mr Beckworth would give us advice and support on that score."
That was definitely a given. If Lois and Clark assumed the guardianship of the child then it relieved the firm of a burden the elderly solicitors were not equipped to carry and allowed them to concentrate purely on the maintenance of his inheritance. Lois nodded sleepily in agreement.
"And if we contact Perry in the morning and tell him the whole story, then I'm certain he'll set the Planet's lawyers to work for us. After all, as a follow up to the news stories of the abduction and the rescue, it's the perfect human interest piece that you and Perry love so much. He'll be tying himself in knots to help."
"LOIS! We are not doing this for the sake of a headline!"
"Well, of course we aren't, sweetheart," she assured him with a tender kiss. "But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't use every weapon in our arsenal. We might have quite a fight ahead of us, if we want to keep Julian. So getting the Planet's legal team on our side might be a very auspicious move." Now that Lois had made her decision she was prepared to throw wholeheartedly all her considerable efforts into the battle to make Julian a member of the Kent family. It was one of the things that Clark loved best about his remarkable wife, who was at this very moment trying to stifle a gigantic yawn. It was three o'clock in the morning and it had been a traumatic few days.
"As usual, Lois, you are right. Now let's get back to bed. I can see that the rest of this holiday is going to be extremely busy. But for now, honey, let's keep this from the kids. At least until we find out where we stand on this adoption." Clark wrapped his arms around Lois' shoulder and turned to escort her back indoors, but before they reached the door, he turned her face up to his and gently cupping her face in that special way, he kissed her with such sweetness that for a moment she felt her knees buckle.
"What was that for?" she asked around the lump that had formed in her throat.
"Thank you." Clark simply said.
Despite Lois and Clark's early-morning discussion in the garden, they were forced from their comfortable bed by four very excited children reminding them that a barbecue had been promised them for lunch and that they had to go shopping for the food, before the shops sold out. As it was only 7.15 in the morning and the shops were not yet open, the kids were assured that this was hardly possible. Still they would not be put off and two fairly sleepy adults were hauled from bed. Fortunately, due to their excursion out of doors, both were fully attired, which saved an embarrassing situation from occurring. They'd been caught out on occasion by their own three but neither grown-up was certain that Julian was ready for that kind of exposure. Lois was certain that she wasn't. It was these little idiosyncrasies that would take some time getting used to. But, Clark was right, Julian would not always be a stranger. In fact he had already become remarkably familiar, if the way he was pulling her towards the bathroom and the shower was any form of measuring-stick. Alone of all the children, Julian had never experienced a barbeque before and as Lois picked out this fact while listening to his excited chatter her heart went out to this young prisoner who had spent his life locked in an ivory tower. Well, if it was a normal life Julian desired, he had definitely become embroiled with the wrong family. However, he would receive an abundance of tender loving care and that Lois knew more than made up for all the craziness that being part of this 'super-family' entailed.
When breakfast was over, Clark and Jonathan, being the chefs at this particular barbeque, took the children off to provision shop, while Martha with Lois' help tidied up the kitchen and the rest of the house. Their chores done, the women took a welcome cup of coffee into the garden to relax in the summer sun. Lois decided that this was the perfect moment to inform her mother-in-law of their intentions and, as she had reckoned, Martha was not surprised.
"I could tell that Clark was cogitating about something important." The older woman leaned over and, taking Lois' hand, probed gently. "I also can understand why he would wish to care for Julian. But how do you feel about the idea?"
"Shocked! Amazed! Disapproving! At the outset I was all these things. I felt that three kids were enough of a family. At least this time I don't have to actually give birth." Lois accompanied this statement with an abashed grin. "And I too appreciate why Clark is intent on this action. And Julian is a sweet boy, who desperately needs a home and people to love him. I care for him and I would miss him if we lost him … "
"But what about 'the secret'?" Lois knew she could confide her concerns to Martha knowing that they would never be repeated to Clark. She also knew that she would receive a fair and unbiased answer.
"That could be a problem." Martha pondered for a moment. "Clark I'm sure is confident he can return to stealth tactics, but after so long of enjoying complete freedom to use his powers naturally, I doubt that it will be so easy. Then again, it may not be necessary. Julian seems a very reliable child. And he is so appreciative of all that we are doing for him … "
"Yes! Isn't it unnerving to have a child so well-mannered about the house? It makes our lot seem like the original country bumpkins."
Martha smiled at this diversion but she quickly brought the conversation back to the question in a point. "Julian wants so desperately to belong to this family, I doubt he would do anything to destroy his chances."
"I'm not afraid that he would purposely reveal the truth, Martha."
"And there's even less chance that he would blurt it out by mistake. The child has spent his life keeping his own counsel. Besides Lois, we went through all these anxieties with our children when they discovered that their father was Superman, and it was all completely unnecessary. I think our present fears are groundless. I also think it is a lovely idea to give Julian a home and Jonathan and I will support you wholeheartedly."
Lois had already deduced that her in-laws would approve of the adoption, but she was grateful that Martha had not dismissed her small objections out of hand and she did feel a whole lot better for airing her worries. "Thanks Martha, we knew we could count on you and Jon. For the moment we are not telling the children about our plans as we're not clear on the legalities of adopting a child from another country. Clark and I are going to look into that this afternoon so we'd be obliged if you could distract the kids."
Martha nodded her assent but kept silent, having spotted the rest of the family strolling down the road towards the cottage, Nathan and Julian running on ahead. The women were touched by the attentive way that Julian held the toddler's hand and slowed his pace to accommodate Nathan's stumbling gait.
"Mama! Mama!" The youngest Kent squealed. "We got a lot of 'fings'!"
Pulling him up onto her lap, Lois enquired into what sort of 'fings' but here his two-year-old vocabulary deserted him, so Julian kindly took up the tale, only slightly less energetically than Nathan. Even a visit to the super-market was a new and exciting episode for Julian, a circumstance that Clara and Joel regarded as weird. The kind solicitude that Clara had first showered on their visitor was dwindling to be replaced with the attitude she normally reserved for Joel, which Lois reflected was no bad thing. Her daughter had already accepted the fact that she had one more brother to contend with. Often, the lone Kent female of the new generation bemoaned the fact that she was the only girl, yet Lois had a sneaking suspicion that Clara secretly adored her unique standing. And Lois also understood her daughter well enough to know that she jealously guarded her special place in her daddy's heart. It was a very good circumstance that the newest proposed member of the family was of the male gender.
When the rest of the group reached the house the provisions were carried into the kitchen and the preparation for the meal got underway. It was still too early to light the barbeque but Jonathan's special spicy marinade could be prepared along with the vegetables and salad, not to mention one of Martha's very 'chocolatey' puddings. The kids with their parents were dispatched into the garden by their elders, Martha declaring that 'too many cooks spoiled the broth' and that there just wasn't enough room in the cottage kitchen for all of them. Actually, she wanted to take the opportunity to discuss with Jonathan the proposals she had been made privy to during this morning's tjte-`-tjte with Lois. Not surprisingly, her son had divulged the plan of action to his father, although because of the children's close proximity the details given to Jon were pretty sketchy. Martha filled him in on the whole story and when she finished she was somewhat amazed to learn that his reaction was similar to that of Lois, but after a few probing questions she recognised Jonathan's age-old fears for his son's anonymity and as with Lois he also perceived that Julian discovering the secret (if he ever did) was not a hazard.
During the course of the morning the adult members of the family acclimatised themselves to the notion that there would hopefully be an additional passenger on the flight back to Metropolis. Which was a very useful exercise because within the hour they met with what might be their very first hurdle, in the shape of Miss Sarah Flight. Arriving at the house, probably due to the previous day's inquiry by Mr Beckworth, Miss Flight parked her car by the garden wall and, swiftly gathering her briefcase and purse, she strode toward the gate, only to be hit by a stray ball that came sailing over the wall, accompanied by shouts of derision from a number of childhood voices. Miss Flight sat down solidly in the road with a loud groan of pain and fright as the ball rolled into the bushes by the end of the road. There appeared at the gate a number of concerned young faces and above them the anxious glare of a dark-haired man, who quickly came through the gate and helped her effortlessly to her feet. Resting her shaky hands on the strong arms that supported her, Miss Flight sought to gain her balance and her equanimity, while the gentleman escorted her inside and settled her into a comfortable garden chair. Leaning solicitously over the man's shoulder, a young woman was enquiring into her need for a glass of water or perhaps something a trifle stronger to help her recover from her shock. Miss Flight regarded Lois disdainfully at the last suggestion so Lois quickly amended her offer to one of coffee or tea. The latter was accepted with a rather stiff smile and Lois left to supply their strange caller's request. As Lois entered the house she found her in-laws, alerted by the cacophony of sound that something untoward was afoot, stealthily peering through the living-room window at the unknown guest. At Martha's whispered query as to the identity of the stern middle-aged woman, Lois shrugged in ignorance but she explained how the hapless woman had been on the receiving end of another of Julian's off-target shots at goal.
Meanwhile, much to Clark's consternation, the unlucky woman was developing a large dark purplish bruise on her bare forehead which stood out clearly against her white skin and pale gold hair which she wore severely pulled back from her face and knotted into a bun at the nape of her neck. Thankfully the children, shocked by the accident, were showing polite but subdued interest in the unexpected visitor and without hesitation Julian stepped up before her and addressed his victim.
"Excuse me, Ma'am," he spoke hesitantly but with determination. "I am sorry for your hurt, but I did not know that anyone was there and I did not mean to aim in that direction. I was meant to be shooting for the basket." His finger pointed in the direction of a child's basketball pole. "I'm very new to this game you see."
"And haven't yet perfected your aim." The woman regarded the solemn boy with a direct stare and Clara's view of Julian's abilities at once transformed from disparagement to defensiveness.
"He didn't mean to hit you and he never was allowed to play ball games before … so you can't really blame him … " Clara's explanation was cut short by a warning glance from her father, but fortunately the lady seemed to accept her point of view, for a low mumble of laughter could be heard issuing from behind the hand that the stranger raised to her lips.
"And it really was all my own fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Miss Flight offered to conclude Clara's justification.
"Clara!" The admonition came from a distraught father, who now had a dawning insight into who this lady might be and whose clear desire was not to antagonise an official who might have the power to veto their wish to adopt Julian at the very outset. Sensing the quandary in which the gentleman was floundering, Miss Flight set about putting matters to right.
"Mr Kent, I presume?" And when she received an answering nod of assent, she continued. "There is really no need for apologies. Of course the whole incident was an accident and apart from a bit of a headache I have sustained no other damage. However, that was a very pretty apology young man and I do appreciate good manners." The lady then turned her attention to Clara, who squirmed a little in trepidation. "I also appreciate loyalty and a willingness to stand up for what you believe in. I congratulate you on your children, Mr Kent. You and your wife appear to have done an excellent job in raising them."
A few days previously Miss Flight had been given the case file of the orphaned Julian Villiers, and since then she had been diligently seeking out all the information available on the child and the much-publicised crime which had left him bereft of family. Throughout her reading of the summarised crime report she had been astounded by the bravery and inventiveness shown by all the children involved. Thus when the inspector on the case had informed the department of the disposition of the young viscount and had insisted that Mr and Mrs Kent seemed a highly respectable couple who were perfectly capable of caring for Julian in the short term, Miss Flight and her subordinates had chosen to leave the boy in the safekeeping of the Kents while they investigated further. A call from the family solicitor endorsing the couple's fostering of their client, served to consolidate their decision, but clearly an assessment visit was required. The need for this appointment became more urgent when yesterday afternoon an interested party arrived at the department of childcare, claiming to be acting for a self-declared relative of Viscount Sheringham. Neither Miss Flight nor her colleagues were happy at the revelation that Julian had this particular individual as a relative and the dedicated social worker promised to do all in her power to insure that the child was not delivered into this claimant's custodianship. So it was that she attended her meeting with the Kents in a malleable frame of mind.
Sensibly, Clark was trying not to take too much encouragement from the woman's approving words, but if only the kids would remain on their best behaviour, then perhaps she would realise that no harm would come to Julian if he was given into their care. A diversion arrived in the form of Lois, bringing a tray of tea and soft drinks for the children. She had also thoughtfully brought a supply of painkillers which Sarah gratefully accepted. A clear head was a definite requirement for this case. Informal introductions were made while the tea was poured and the youngsters were sent to partake of their drinks down on the lawn. They were given permission to resume their game but in a less energetic manner and warned that they would be banished indoors if they interrupted the grownups. Dutifully they did as they were told, allowing Lois and Clark to give their full attention to the visiting childcare officer.
In the first instance they answered routine questions about the boy's accommodation and ongoing care and happily their answers seemed to satisfy the authority's requirements. However, Clark, being more interested in the long view, determinedly turned the conversation in that direction. Quickly yet succinctly he related how his parents had died when he was a baby and how he had been the luckiest child in the universe (Sarah Flight could not appreciate the whole truth of that word) to be adopted by his current parents. At this juncture he was interrupted by Miss Flight.
"Are you implying that you are seeking to assume the permanent guardianship of Julian?"
This bald question had the effect of tongue-tying Clark, so immediately Lois stepped into the breach. "That is our intention, Miss Flight. We understand that Julian is now alone in the world and we would love to take him into our home. Believe me, we have already taken him into our hearts." Lois' hand was taken and squeezed by her husband, but the short respite had returned his power of speech.
"We recognise that there may be legal obstructions to our course of action, but I think that we may have the approval of Julian's legal council and our own lawyers back in Metropolis will deal with the American authorities. That aside, we want you to know that we have no designs on Julian's heritage. His title and his money will always be his and we are perfectly happy to leave those matters in the hands of 'Beckworth and Blackwood'. I don't like discussing our financial status, but you should know that we are very able and very agreeable to assume the fiscal responsibility of another child."
Miss Flight sagely nodded her head. In her extensive review of this case-file she had made provisional enquiries into the background of the family with whom her subject was residing. It had not been difficult to discover the Lane and Kent's status. They were prominent journalists not only in their home city but were highly regarded by the media business in the whole country and although they could hardly be considered rich, they were financially comfortable. More importantly their family life was extremely stable. Although Ms Lane was a very successful career woman, with the help of Mr Kent's parents the children received all the emotional nourishment that they needed. The result of which, Miss Flight reflected, was clearly evident in the well-balanced children she beheld. Lost in her thoughts she did not first notice that the couple had fallen silent and were regarding her with apprehension. She quickly returned her attention to the business in hand.
"I am sure that all those considerations will be taken under advisement and of course if your application for adoption is approved, an in-depth investigation into your status will have to be conducted."
"We understand, Miss Flight, and we will cooperate with your office in every aspect," Clark assured her.
Seeing his eager, all-most puppy-dog look, the fifty-something year's old spinster experienced an unaccustomed tug at her heartstrings. She secretly reproved herself for her indulgence. Surely at her mature age she was immune to a handsome face and a shy smile, which she was certain when turned full on would outshine the sun. Then why did she find herself offering encouraging words to this man she had only just met?
"Of course, I can't pre-empt the decision of the adoption board, but I feel that if Julian, while a minor, was not denied his British nationality nor his knowledge of his home, then I do not think they would be averse to him living in the States. How the American Immigration Agency would regard the situation, I have no idea although overseas adoptions between our two countries are possible. I gather as well, from what I have read in the newspapers, that you have a very important and influential sponsor in the person of Superman. Meanwhile, I intend to recommend that Julian, for the time being, remains in your care." A thoroughly perceptive Miss Flight could not avoid wondering why, at her mention of Superman, a dull blush stained Mr Kent's cheeks, but at his quick recovery she identified his motive as that of a sensible and modest man not wishing to 'name-drop', a sentiment of which she wholeheartedly approved. She gave a friendly smile of approval as Mr Kent, sensing that the interview was over for the present, was rising with the intention of escorting her to her car.
"Thank you for your time and encouraging sentiments, Miss Flight," Mr Kent offered his hand and as she slipped her own into his clasp she was pleased by the strength and warmth that she found in his handshake. "You will not regret leaving Julian with us. We intend to ensure that he has everything we can provide to make him happy and comfortable."
Taking a last look round the garden and at the children, who had resumed their play, Sarah was in no doubt of that truth. The veteran care-officer returned to her car and drove away pondering the fact that she had so instinctively favoured the Kent family. Often Sarah spent her working life dealing with the unfortunates and even occasionally the downright wicked members of society that she found it difficult to trust those she met. So she found it a little strange that she should so readily believe unquestionably in the wholesome goodness that she had experienced in the company of the Kents. Yet she did. She was not so naive as to assume that the family did not have their share of problems or even arguments. Witnessing the daughter's show of spirited independence and the father's apprehensive warning, she was quite sure that the little spitfire would often prove a handful to control. Nevertheless, in the girl's confidence to speak out, Miss Flight could perceive the loving and wise guidance of her parents' counsel. The report of her visit and her recommendations, which were even now taking shape in her mind would be highly commendable. In Sarah's opinion Julian would thrive as the ward of Mr and Mrs Kent and they were most definitely preferable to the alternative claimant.
The rest of the holiday passed by with amazing speed and still there had been no further contact from Miss Flight or from her department. Perry had come through for them like the stalwart trooper he was and the Planet's lawyers were at present applying to the U S Central Adoption Authority (a body which had been set up in the late nineties following a worldwide Convention on Intercountry Adoption) for the necessary application to adopt Julian. It appeared that this convention facilitated the entry of overseas children into the U S if all parties met the requirements for the adoption of the said child, and the Planet's legal team was in no doubt that with their backing the Kents would more than meet with the judicial dictates. With the arrival of her own children Lois' suitability in the adoption stakes had risen considerably from that time long ago when they had first dealt with the Metropolis Adoption Agency and their representative, Miss Baily who, Lois swore, had designs on her husband.
In this instance the couple had some important support from the U K side of the process. Mr Beckworth had made clear in writing, both to Lois and Clark and to the Childcare Agency that as executors of the Sheringham Estate they endorsed the adoption of Julian by Mr & Mrs Clark Kent of Metropolis. The wheels of bureaucracy, nonetheless wound very slowly in this rural district of East Anglia, though Miss Flight, knowing that time was speeding by and that the Kents would be returning home within a few days, did her utmost to quicken the procedure. The unfortunate 'fly in the ointment' was the subsequent claim to kinship made by Ms Vera Dobson on the behalf of her twin sons. The fact that Joseph was on remand in prison awaiting trial for his part in the Klein's abduction and that his twin George was being sought after by the police, meant that neither brother would be considered suitable guardians for the child, but Ms Dobson, who had in some capacity helped to raise Julian, suggested that she be considered as the boy's foster mother. This was not a scenario that the agency looked upon with any enthusiasm. The woman was old and the fact that both her sons were implicated in a major crime did not shed a reassuring light on her child-rearing skills. However, if her claim that the Dobson boys had been fathered by the 13th Viscount Sheringham was true, then they could very well be the half-uncles of Julian Villiers and as such might have a legal claim on both the child's person and his estate.
In seeking validation or (in hope) the complete opposite of this claim, Sarah approached the family solicitors, who were also executors of the estate. Optimistically she hypothesised that they might be privy to the truth of the matter, which, most opportunely, they indeed were. It appeared that a number of years previously, having hoped for some monetary gain for her children, the housekeeper had filed a paternity suit against the viscount, which Edwin Villiers had immediately refuted. To prove his point, DNA tests had been performed and the law-suit had been dismissed when the results showed clearly that the twins were in no way related to Sheringham. Because of the Viscount's prominence and the threat of loss of home and livelihood for herself and her boys, Vera had agreed to silence and the whole sorry business had been forgotten about, except for the legal documents which were locked away in the 'Beckworth and Blackwood' strongrooms. It seemed that presently the woman had allowed her greed to overrule her intelligence at the chance of accessing the Sheringham fortune.
Armed with this information Miss Flight took some unaccustomed pleasure in informing Ms Dobson that the department would not countenance her application to foster Julian and that legally her sons had no claim to a blood relationship with any member of the Sheringham family. That Ms Dobson was not pleased with the outcome was obvious, as she left the meeting mumbling about new scientific mumbo-jumbo depriving honest citizens of their rights. Sarah dismissed the outraged housekeeper's mutterings as inconsequential sour-grapes and as time was of the essence, she diligently set in motion the temporary care order to place Julian in the ward-ship of Lois and Clark with the subsequent goal of permanent adoption. That evening she finished off her work with a further visit to the cottage and was pleasantly impressed to be treated as a family friend, due mainly, she presupposed, to the optimistic news she had earlier imparted to the family over the phone when arranging this appointment. However, this was not made obvious and she had a sneaking suspicion that perhaps she was valued just for herself. All the adults were relieved to hear her propitious report on the progress of their application and they in turn related their own good news about the American side of the adoption. Sarah took note of the legal firm who were acting on the family's behalf and she promised that she would expedite all the pertaining investigations and legalities, so that hopefully the family would learn the outcome in the very near future. For the present Lois and Clark could make arrangements for Julian to return with them to the U.S. and that Mr Beckworth would be happy to help them acquire the necessary legal travel documents. Although this was the happy result that the parents and grandparents had been waiting for they decided to still keep the information from the children until the actual passport and visas were within their hands. Sarah took her leave of the family by the garden gate at which she had first met their acquaintance and for a few seconds she debated whether to inform the Kents of the claim made by the Dobsons, but as it had in the end proved no threat to the adoption, she concluded that it was well and truly buried.
The hulking man had been hidden in the thick bushes at the bottom of the cottage garden that was the present residence of young Julian Villiers since early morning. He had viewed the family's movements from the moment they had first risen and smelled jealously the tempting aroma of their breakfast preparations and now as the hours passed he was growing increasingly hungry, stiff and annoyed. His slow mind informed him that this was not a wise undertaking, but his mother had decided that if the law would not help ordinary folk such as themselves to gain what was rightfully theirs then they had every right to help themselves. To that end he was awaiting the opportunity to snatch his nephew and return him to the hideout where his mother was waiting and where he had remained out of the reach of the police who were diligently seeking to apprehend him.
George sincerely hoped that at some propitious moment the children would escape from the continued supervision of the grown-ups and therefore make his task of capture sufficiently simple. The brute could scarcely be considered a coward but he did appreciate his continued freedom and the younger adult male of the household did look to be a fit and able specimen and George did not relish having to pit his strength against this muscled stranger. So he listened in mounting glee to the conversation of the children as they spilled out into the garden, away from the surveillance of their parents.
"Clara, I really don't think we should be doing this," the elder dark-haired boy whispered, placing a restraining hand on his sister's shoulder. The hand was disdainfully shrugged off and the girl hurried down the path towards the gate and liberty.
"Why not!?" Clara demanded. "We're only going across the road to the beach. In a few days we'll be back home and we won't be able to visit the beach so easily. What harm could we come to? We'll be careful and if we need him Dad will hear us shout."
Joel still looked doubtful, but even he could not think of what possible difficulties could befall them if they only played on the sands. >From the very beginning of their association Julian had been a staunch ally of Clara's and he added his support for her proposed venture.
"I can't see a problem in just crossing the road to the beach and besides there is so much more room to play with this thing without hitting anyone," Julian held up a yellow frisbee as he spoke and grinned apologetically at Joel as they both remembered the earlier episode with a basketball and a certain visitor. Deep inside Julian wanted to have as much fun as he possibly could with these children he had come to regard as his siblings. He knew that they would soon be gone from here and he was frightened by what the future held for him. Being both an intelligent and sensitive child he had quickly deduced that Miss Flight's visits appertained to his living arrangements when Joel and his family returned home. The whole subject terrified the small boy who had known so little laughter and love and he thrust the fears from him and concentrated on making the most of every moment. "Come on Joel. Just for a short while."
"And Mom and Dad are busy with their phone call to Uncle Perry and you know what they're like when they're talking about work and stuff. If we hurry they might not even know we are gone."
His sister's statement scarcely reassured Joel but his new friend had a point. There would be few people on the sands at this early hour and they would not disturb anyone or be disturbed themselves and he didn't want to appear a spoilsport. With a shrug of his shoulders he surrendered and the four children were soon deployed on the sands, happily at play.
Their attendant spy left the cover of the trees and sneaked across the road, which at this point past the cottage became little more than a dirt track leading into the woods. Creeping up to the brink of the shallow headland, he lay down in the rough grass, cursing the sharp spikes of vegetation that scratched his skin. Still the thick grass would effectively hide him from view and once again he settled down to watch. Within a few moments of the kids' game commencing the frisbee, thrown the dark-headed boy, whirled far into the air and landed a few feet in front of his nose, lodged in a clump of the dry sea grass. George could not believe his luck as Julian, who was the nearest to the twin's hiding place, hurried after the object, slowing down as he negotiated the steep soft sand that led up to the crest of the low cliff. The grass grew profusely all along the slope and the sand dipped into hollows and climbed into steep mounds, obscuring the other children's view of Julian. Bending to retrieve the yellow disc from its resting place, Julian heard an urgent hiss.
"Hey Julian boy, come up here quickly. I need your help."
At once recognising the voice and the veiled order, the child automatically obeyed the summons, climbing the rest of the way up and over the top of the small bluff to discover what his grandfather's erstwhile employee wanted of him. This was soon apparent as the man lunged for Julian and clamping an iron hand about his mouth prevented him from crying for help. The little boy struggled against the arms that held him but he was no match for this bull like man and within moments Julian was bound and gagged and thrown into the back of the van, which had been hidden in the copse. George wasted no time in exiting from the scene of the kidnapping and heading back to the Sheringham estate and in particular the Perrivale Woods where the old hunting lodge lay forgotten in the forest. During the sixties, Edwin Villiers had built, in a more accessible part of his grounds, a luxurious and more spacious lodge to entertain the shooting and hunting set and the old building, with its deep cellar for the storage of game had fallen into disrepair and become almost overgrown by the dense thicket. The Perrivale Lodge had proved to be an ideal hideout as the police had never even visited the place and the Dobsons were confident that they were probably the only people who remembered its existence.
Back on the beach the other children were becoming impatient.
"Julian!" Clara cried out. "Come on, Julian. It doesn't take that long to find a frisbee." Her shout hung in the still air but remained unanswered.
"Julian!" Joel's cry, unlike his sister's, was anxious more than exasperated. "Julian, where are you?"
Nathan, who had been standing in the middle of the three older children, began to trot towards the place where Julian was last seen. Watched by his brother and sister he climbed on all fours up the incline and he too vanished over the top. Joel held his breath in trepidation and began to walk towards the spot, however his small brother quickly reappeared but Nathan's words stopped in their track any sense of relief that Joel was feeling.
"No 'Julan'! 'Julan' gone!"
The two clambered up the hill to their brother and speedily searched the area but found only one of Julian's new 'trainers' which he had been so ecstatic to receive and so proud to wear. Joel and Clara exchanged horrified glances. Now they were in real trouble. How did they tell Mom and Dad that they had lost Julian? Yet the music had to be faced, so taking Nathan's hand in each of their own, they made their way back to the cottage, the yellow frisbee left lying forlornly in its bed of grass.
Clark couldn't remember when, if ever, he had been quite so angry with his children. While he and Lois had been assuring the authorities that Julian would be safe in their care, thanks to the disobedience of his children (they had been given strict instructions to remain in the garden), the poor boy was now in danger. The baleful look with which he regarded his wayward daughter made her small heart ache. She had seldom found her father so immune to her tearful entreaties. The fact was that Clark recognised just which one of his children had instigated their escape bid, although Joel was prepared to shoulder the blame. The last thing he wanted to do was to intimidate any member of his family and especially not his 'princess' but Clara had to learn to take responsibility for the consequences of her madcap schemes. Yet indulging in outrage would hardly find a lost boy, thus he left Lois to explain the folly of disobeying their parents to his children and went to search for clues which might lead him to Julian's whereabouts.
Lois joined him soon after, but apart from the signs in the bushes of a small struggle and a few tyre tracks leading from the woods at the end of the lane, there was no sign of Julian. Spinning into his Superman attire, Clark flew at super speed high into the sky and scanned the area. He followed the trail up the road but when it hit the main road into town the tracks merged with the other traffic and were soon obliterated. Superman considered searching the roads and the countryside but he had absolutely no idea what kind of vehicle he was looking for or in which direction it had driven. The obvious suggestion was to search the Sheringham estate but Inspector Cannon had told him that the police had gone over the ground hunting for George Dobson but with no success. Wherever that felon was hiding out, Cannon assured him it was not on Sheringham land and little else was known of the man's habits. Besides, Julian's abduction had to be reported and he did not wish to leave Lois alone to break the bad news. Feeling somewhat depressed, he returned to the cottage to find his Clara in tears, laying over her bed with her head pressed into her pillow. He was sorry for her pain but decided against forgiving her for the moment; a short spell of contrition was character building. Joel needed no such lesson. He was waiting for his father's return and as Clark spun back into his civilian clothes the guilt-ridden boy approached his father.
"I'm so sorry, Dad. I never should have let them leave the garden. You said we shouldn't and I knew it was wrong and now Julian is lost and it is all my fault." Joel had inherited his father's tendency to assume liability for every mishap and also his mother's propensity to babble.
"Well, I'm glad you realise that you were wrong to disobey, but I'm sure that you are not solely to blame and stopping your sister when she takes a notion to do something is similar to stopping a runaway truck." Clark had repeated experiences of comparable situations with the grown-up version of Clara's determination. He could well sympathise with his son. Placing a comforting hand on Joel's shoulder, he offered consolation. "Try not to worry, Joel. We'll find Julian and bring him back and when we do, we will keep him safe. Now go sit with Grandma while your Mom and I inform the police and Miss Flight of Julian's kidnap."
Clark and Lois contacted the police at the number left them by Inspector Cannon. Thankfully the inspector was there to take the call and he promised immediate police action. The second phone call to Miss Flight was for the time being unproductive as she was out of the office on another case study, but a colleague took the message and assured the couple that their predicament would be relayed to Sarah as soon as possible.
True to his word, ten minutes after the call was made to the inspector, a uniformed police team arrived at the cottage with Cannon and his assistant following within the half-hour. Once more Joel and Clara were questioned by the older detective, only this time the children had little information to impart. However, during this interview Miss Flight, having been apprised of the circumstances, reached the cottage to directly impart her disturbing information; the fact that Ms Dobson had claimed that her son was Julian's uncle and as such should be declared the boy's legal guardian. The childcare officer further related that the claim was completely invalid and that the woman when confronted by the truth had been extremely enraged. Sarah was suffering pangs of guilt because she had dismissed the elderly lady's tantrum as insignificant and had not had the forethought to warn either Lois and Clark or the police of the Dobsons' interest in the young viscount. With hindsight it was highly likely that the housekeeper and her son had decided to take matters into their own hands and snatch the child.
The rest of the day was spent apprehensively waiting while the police-force sought for any sign of either Dobson, but as before, both the son and his mother had completely disappeared. Everyone was certain though that one of the kidnappers would soon make contact with a demand for ransom, only no-one was quite sure who would actually receive the demand. That question was answered in the early evening when a greasy adolescent leather-clad male roared up to the cottage on his motorbike and openly approached the door. To say that this individual was shocked when his knock was answered by a very irate man who pulled him into the house and slammed the door behind them, was a definite understatement. The youth soon discovered, when confronted not only by his first assailant but by top-brass members of the East Anglian Constabulary, that he was in deep trouble. Which was unfortunate because he knew nothing but the little he did know he was happy to divulge.
From his story, the listeners deduced that he had been contacted in a pub in Cromer, a nearby town, by an elderly lady who had told him that she had a job with a local domestic cleaning firm and that she had that morning been sent to work in a holiday home in Sheringham. While she was there she had found a cell-phone and, never having handled one before, she was quite intrigued. She had been so taken with the novelty of the thing she had even rung her invalid son and spoken to him while continuing with her work. Weren't new inventions grand? In fact the old woman had been so impressed with the gadget that, judging by the contents of the house that the current occupants were certainly rich enough to buy another, she had yielded to temptation and carried the phone away with her when she left. Since then her thoughts had suffered a reversal. She was not a dishonest woman and she was sorry that she had given into the sin of avarice. Only she was not sure how to put things right. She certainly did not want to confront the people from whom she had stolen, but she didn't want them to report her to her employers. Her job and her pension were her only means of supporting herself and her son who was very sickly and the last thing she needed was to be kicked out of her employment. Of course if she had to return it herself she would, only she would have to catch a bus back to the village and that would mean her poor son would be waiting at home in vain for her to return and make his supper. The scruffy biker listening to her tale of woe was not surprised when she offered him a twenty-pound note to deliver the package that contained the said cell-phone to the address she gave him and as he had nothing better to do and as he was short of cash himself he accepted the errand. And that was the sum and total of his knowledge of the situation. The woman never mentioned her name or where she lived or whom she worked for.
After close questioning and checking on the youth's past, only to find that he had a short record of very minor offenses, the police reluctantly believed his account and that he was not involved in the actual kidnap. So after giving his statement down at police headquarters he would be free to go.
Meanwhile the forensic team checked the phone, which had been delivered along with a short note composed with letters cut from a newspaper headline, instructing Mr & Mrs Kent that they would be contacted in due course on the cell-phone to arrange a ransom for the return of Julian Villiers. Clark who had already scanned for fingerprints or any other signs knew that their efforts would be useless as whoever had handled the thing had wiped away all incriminating traces. The inspector did nonetheless have a slim lead in the make of the cell-phone and he hurried off to contact the communications network to establish the ownership of the account and therefore find an address that would possibly lead them to the kidnapped boy. Everyone involved recognised that this was a forlorn hope as the instigator of the abduction plot seemed intelligent enough to have hidden Julian in a very secure place. Everyone also agreed that the person behind the plot was likely to be Vera Dobson as anyone who had been in contact with both twins knew them to be somewhat dull-witted.
Inspector Cannon left behind two of his most experienced officers, instructing them to keep a low profile as the Kents were suffering enough stress without the additional intrusion of feeling spied upon. Late in the evening Cannon called with the results of his investigation into the ownership of the cell-phone; the account belonged to 'Sheringham Leisure Estate' and the address was not surprisingly the burned-out Hall. They had hit another dead end. Nonetheless the situation was not totally hopeless. Phone calls could be traced and the inspector was busily setting up a group of experts in preparation for the tracking down of the anticipated contact.
The family that took itself to bed that night was subdued and saddened. Clara had eventually emerged from her room in time for dinner but like her brothers she had shown an unaccustomed lack of spirit and had pushed her food about her plate without really eating. In fact none of the family members had much of an appetite and the meal was soon over, the majority of the food heading for the trash-can. Noticing that her children's energy levels were steadily diminishing, Lois announced an early bedtime for all three and it was indicative of their sorrowful mood that not one objected. Indeed, only a short while later Jonathan announced his own intention to go to bed. Jon was growing older and beginning to feel every one of his years, especially when he was saddened by the abuse to a child. This whole disastrous episode had seen the abduction of his own grandchildren and the injury of his dear Joel. Now when he was just recovering from the trauma of these events they had lost the newest addition to the family group and though Jonathan had at first reservations, he had quickly learned to care for Julian, who in his reticent and gentle manner had unobtrusively wound his small hands around the hearts of all the family. Martha understanding and in truth sharing her husband's dejection went off with him. Which left Lois and Clark sitting alone in the darkened living room watching the sky grow ever blacker with the stars, unconcerned by the tragic occurrences on the far away planet of Earth, twinkling brightly in the clear backdrop. Their minders, the two constables, remained in the kitchen keeping out of the family's way, as instructed by their boss. Clark tuned into their conversation for a few moments but, overhearing a rather depressing scenario of the outcome of this whole affair, he swiftly switched off his super hearing. He did not want to go there. Sitting closely within the warmth of her husband's arms, Lois felt him tense and seeing the angle of his tilted head she discerned that he had been eavesdropping.
"Our attendant policemen aren't too upbeat about the result of this kidnapping, eh?" she enquired, letting him know she realised what he had been up to and giving his hand a comforting squeeze. "They don't think that we'll get Julian back alive?"
"Well, they're assuming that because Julian knows his kidnappers, they'll kill him after they get the money, so that he can't implicate them in the crime. Or, if the ransom isn't paid, that they'll kill him out of spite."
"I don't buy that. After all this woman Vera Dobson helped raise Julian and up till now she has shown no criminal tendencies. I scarcely think that she could murder him in cold blood."
"But what about the son? You've seen Joseph and he looks like he'd be capable of killing and by all accounts his twin is identical."
"Yes, perhaps in a fight or something. The twins are easily suggestible tools. Their crime was in obeying a madman like the viscount. I'm certain that George won't act without his mother's permission." Lois pressed ever closer to Clark and, raising a hand to his cheek, she turned his face to hers and gazed directly into his eyes, willing him to have hope. "Besides, these officers don't know that they have a secret, extremely super assistant. Clark, I have every faith that you will rescue and protect Julian."
In the face of this unconditional trust Superman felt very humble. Lois always knew just what to say to revive his flagging spirits and he thanked her in the best possible way, wordlessly with a kiss. As the embrace deepened from gratitude to passion a timid knock fell on the door and Clark didn't need the use of his x-ray vision to know who stood in the dim hallway. He recognised the slightly charged heartbeat at once.
"What is it, Clara?" he called softly, not wishing to further frighten his daughter who was at present experiencing an unusual bout of nervous tension. The door slowly opened a fraction and a timorous small face peered round the edge. "What's wrong, princess? Can't you sleep?"
On hearing the word 'princess' Clara hurried across the room and threw herself on her parents' collective lap, pushing her head hard up against her father's strong chest, where his shirt soon developed a spreading damp spot. Soothingly his hand stroked her back til her sobs quietened and eventually ceased. Yet when she spoke a quiver could still be detected in her voice.
"It's all my fault that Julian's gone. And I'm really, really sorry," her words were muffled as she pressed her face closer into the hollow where her dad's neck met the swelling powerful muscles of his shoulder. "I wish that we'd never gone to the beach and I promise I won't ever disobey you again."
Clark couldn't repress a smile at that assertion. He was quite sure that his daughter would always follow where her indomitable spirit led and he only hoped that he could teach her to review the consequences before she sprang into action. Meanwhile he strained to listen as Clara continued to unburden herself.
"And because I disobeyed, the bad people have Julian and they're never going to let him go and the policemen said that they'll kill him."
Lois and Clark exchanged a questioning glance. Was it possible to overhear the conversation from the kitchen in the hallway, or were their daughter developing superpowers too? That issue could be addressed later. Their immediate concern was to console their child who was reduced to tears again at the awful thoughts of what might befall Julian.
Clark placed both hands on her shoulders and gently raised her so that Lois and he could look into her face, yet he left his hands resting lightly on her shaking frame for support.
"Princess, you were wrong to leave the garden, but you can't blame yourself for other peoples' actions. You might have made things a little easier for the kidnappers, but they were determined on their actions and would have gotten to Julian at another time. And your mom and I don't agree with the policemen's guess that the bad guys will kill Julian."
"And Superman will find Julian and bring him home safely," Lois reminded her daughter. "So you don't have to worry and your Daddy isn't mad at you anymore."
His princess sneaked a look at her father from under lowered lashes only to find him smiling back. "You're not?" she asked hopefully.
"No. You've made your apologies and more importantly you assumed responsibility for your mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes, princess. It's acknowledging them and learning from them that is important."
"Does Superman make mistakes too?" she questioned coyly.
"Frequently!" her mother replied.
"Occasionally!" her father insisted. Then all three laughed in relief. The real Clara Kent had returned, but( and she made a silent promise to herself) a new and improved Clara Kent.
"Come on," Lois stood and pulled her daughter to her feet. "It's time for bed." And directing a suggestion at her husband. "For all of us."
Nodding in accord Clark swept Clara into his arms and they headed upstairs.
In a small pleading voice Clara whispered into his ear. "Could I sleep in your bed tonight?"
Clark considered this momentarily then decided to indulged his penitent princess. "O K. You've had a very hard day. Just for tonight." To endorse his words he placed a kiss on the tear-stained skin of her small cheek that rested trustingly against his face.
The police chief and his technicians arrived at the cottage with the dawn. They were let into the house by one of the constables who had spent the night in the front room of the house, taking turns to sleep on the big comfily cushioned couch. The communications boffins directly began assembling their equipment, while the inspector and his side-kick went to avail themselves of the coffee that was brewing in the kitchen.
Cannon was surprised to see Clark and his mother already seated, fully dressed at the table, drinking their own early morning beverages.
"How did you sleep?" The concerned policeman asked solicitously.
"As well as could be expected." It was Martha who replied while Clark merely shrugged.
Actually Lois and he had spent the night making their plans for the rescue of Julian in a hushed whisper, not wishing to disturb their child who had slept fitfully between them. Eventually they had agreed on a plan of action of which Clark had been attempting to appraise his mother when the two detectives had interrupted. Martha, however had heard enough to understand the proposed action and she patted his hand that lay clenched on the table, the only sign of his annoyance, in an effort to convey her understanding. Neither Clark nor Lois was prepared to leave the resolving of the abduction to the police, but they were not about to reveal their intentions to the inspector. Superman would trace the call in his own inimitable fashion, which he fervently hoped would prove to be speedier and more successful than the technical means.
One by one the family assembled in the living room. Lois being the last to arrive, carrying her youngest son on her shoulder. The children had been given permission to remain in the living room as long as they created no distractions. Martha was attempting to entertain Nathan with some creative painting in one of his numerous colouring books, while the older children were absentmindedly flicking through the pages of their children's novels.
Unfortunately for the family's mental state they had a long wait and the patience of all the inhabitants of the house was wearing exceedingly thin when at precisely 10.00 a.m. the phone started to ring. All in the room regarded the object as if it were a ticking bomb, then Lois shook of her paralysis and went to answer the phone. The police had been informed earlier that Lois would be negotiating with the abductor as her communication skills were better than her husband's. This was not true, but the inspector was not sufficiently acquainted with the couple to recognise the lie. As everyone's attention was concentrated on his wife, Clark moved surreptitiously towards the french windows.
"Lois!" Cannon placed an arresting hand on her arm. "Remember! Keep her talking. Give my men time to get into position."
The officer was assuming that Vera Dobson was sufficiently intelligent not to call from the place where they were holding Julian. The plan was to discover her whereabouts and then follow her back to the secret hiding place. Lois nodded and tried not to glance in Clark's direction; however, Joel's and Clara's eyes traced their father's movements. With a slight shake of his head in their direction, Clark stealthily opened the windows and within seconds he was through them and clad in the blue suit hovered high above the house, while Lois lifted the phone. Joel placed a finger to his lips to warn Clara to hush and pointedly turned his attention to listen to his Mom.
"Hello! This is Lois Lane. To whom am I speaking?"
An elderly female voice came back at her.
"You don't need to know who I am. You just need to know that we have the boy and if you want him back then you'll get us our money."
"Huh! Your money! We're not rich!! We don't have enough money to pay a ransom." Lois explained slowly.
"Yes, our money. And we don't want your money. You just tell that fuddy-duddy Mr Beckworth to let us have what we're entitled to."
"As far as I understand, Vera Dobson, you are not entitled to anything."
There was a disdainful grunt from the other end of the phone. "So you know who I am. Well, Ms Lane, you didn't work for that fussy nit-picking viscount for over forty years. Believe me, me and my boys are deserving of a lot. So you tell that solicitor that we want 500,000 pounds. Then we'll let the boy go. We'll contact you again to tell you where to leave the money."
With a resounding click the phone went dead. Lois looked toward Cannon, asking wordlessly whether she had stalled for long enough. Glancing over at the technician who was hunched over a laptop, Cannon noticed that there was someone missing from the room.
"Where's Clark?" He demanded in surprise from the woman facing him.
Lois had known that this question was looming and she decided to tell some part of the truth. "He's gone to find Julian."
Finding this even more amazing, the inspector's voice rose in exasperation. He hated amateurs disrupting his inquiries. "And how, may I ask, does he intend to do that?"
The policeman was definitely peeved and Lois was sorry for that. She liked Cannon and he had proved to be sympathetic and helpful, but Superman was much better equipped to save Julian. So she modified her own tone to hide her vexation with his interrogation. Her mind was wholly concentrated on how her husband was progressing.
"Inspector, my husband and I are investigative journalists, and very good ones I might add. We have our own methods which at present I am not prepared to divulge."
The distinctive beeping from the lap-top interrupted the conversation and all eyes turned towards the operator.
"She made the call from another mobile phone which she has since turned off. The cell-phone was located somewhere on the Sheringham estate." The man punched a few keys and watched as further information scrawled down the screen. "Probably from the confines of the Theme Park."
Cannon swore aloud. This was the worst possible location. The Theme Park opened at 9.30 a.m. and by now would be teeming with visitors. It would prove difficult for his men to find one old lady in the massive crowds. Be that as it may, the inspector sent his force to the location with the strict instructions to find their suspect and a reminder that failure would not be tolerated. Obviously, Cannon's nerves were starting to fray as Lois had never heard him issue orders so harshly. Now, those remaining in the house could only await developments.
Vera Dobson was smiling at her first contact. She carefully switched off her phone and, slipping it inside a brown paper sack filled with the peel from the orange she had breakfasted on, she continued walking towards one of the many exits from the fairground. As she passed a litter bin she carelessly tossed it inside. Now even if they did trace her call hopefully they might be stung by the angry wasps that buzzed around the bin filled with the leftovers of many snack-meals. She no longer needed that particular phone. Thankfully for her plan, the dead viscount had been, surprisingly, a gadget freak with a special interest in mobile phones and whenever a new and improved model appeared on the market he was not satisfied until he had acquired it. He had not been particularly interested in the whereabouts of the outmoded versions and had patronizingly passed them on to the Dobsons. Vera still retained a few others which she had at the launch of her scheme secreted around the Norfolk countryside. Of course, she could only use each one just once and eventually the police would trace them all, but by that time the ransom would be paid and she and her one free son could disappear. The old woman had a certain amount of slyness but her intelligence was not remarkable and she had watched too many police dramas on T V, which ought to have taught her that the villains seldom triumph. Yet now, feeling very pleased with herself from having shown that high and mighty Ms Lane that she was not to be messed with, she made her way to the car park to drive back to the hidden lodge, quite confident that she would be long gone by the time the police arrived. Vera's assurance would have taken a nose dive had she known that she was being tracked by a furious super hero.
Superman, not wishing to attract attention was conducting his surveillance from a very high altitude using his telescopic vision to follow the direction of the van. Back at the cottage he had immediately tuned into his wife's conversation with Ms Dobson and, homing into the sound of the old crone's voice, he had within seconds traced her to the Park and with consummate ease had singled her out from amongst the crowd. Clearly the creature had no inclination that she had been espied as she sauntered smugly back to her car and drove deeper into the Sheringham lands. The thickening trees were a nuisance but were not a hindrance to super powers, though Clark perceived that normal vision would have great difficulty in finding the old building, hidden as it was in the dense thicket. At once he overheard a heartbeat that he had learned to recognise just a few days ago. He had found Julian and judging by the heart's steady beat, the child was frightened though not injured. X-raying the broken-down structure, he found Julian bound, gagged and tied to an iron bedstead. Anger drove him down at super speed towards the lodge, yet within metres of breaking through the roof he halted. This was not a job for Superman. Deciding that it would be too coincidental to have the Man of Steel arrive propitiously in the same area again as the Kent family and wishing uncharacteristically to rescue Julian as Clark Kent, he spun into his jeans and T-shirt and entered the building through the door. Following the sounds of a muted conversation he crept down the rickety staircase to the basement and thrust through the door. Three pairs of surpassingly shocked eyes turned in his direction and for seconds the occupants of the room remained frozen, then with a demented scream the thickset thug threw himself at the unexpected intruder. Swiftly sidestepping the onrush Clark reminded himself to make the impending struggle at least seem even. He evaded most of the slower man's blows but also feigned hurt when he allowed a few punches to land on his person. Still, after what he considered to be a reasonable time he brought the contest to an end by ducking a well-telegraphed hit and threw a finely placed fist directly onto the twin's exposed chin. As George crumpled Clark's other fist buried itself deep into a slack muscled stomach and the one free Dobson brother collapsed onto the floor. Clark turned to the old woman and was horrified to see her lift a broken chair leg from the floor and brandish it towards him.
"Please, lady, I have no wish to hurt you. Just drop the baton and give yourself up," he instructed, circling the woman and keeping well out of reach of the improvised weapon. Alas she chose to disregard his advice and waded into the attack. As Superman or intrepid reporter, Clark had no desire to injure a senior citizen so disarming her took some time, but at last he managed to wrench the wooden post from her and she fainted clean away, overcome by her own exertions. Checking her pulse he was relieved to find that she had suffered no lasting damage. His conscience would have troubled him greatly if he had been instrumental, however incidentally, in her demise.
Having dealt successfully with the criminals, Clark hurriedly untied Julian and as soon as the child's arms were free he cast himself into his own personal hero's clasp, sobbing out his thanks. Julian had tried so hard to be brave, but he had been through so many traumas in the past weeks, that he just wanted to return to the safety of his new friends and enjoy the tender loving care that they showered upon him. When Clark sensed that the boy in his arms was regaining a modicum of composure he carried Julian outside and sat him on the edge of the balcony that fronted the lodge.
"Julian," Clark tried to gain his attention. "Julian, I have to tie up the bad guys to make sure that they don't escape before the police get here. I'll only be gone for a moment. I want you to sit here and wait for me." As the child's hands tightened on his arm at the thought of being left alone, Clark tried to reassure his small charge. "I'm not going to leave you for long, but we don't want Vera and George to get away. I promise I'll be right back, son."
The listening youngster brightened visibly at this title and he nodded his head to show that he understood and would do as instructed. Even acting at normal speed in did not take Clark long to secure his prisoners. However, as George was regaining consciousness and because the thug did have quite a bit of brute strength, Clark made full use of the ropes that he found in the basement and applied a degree of super strength when tying the knots, only yielding a very little to the softer side of his nature when securing old Ms Dobson. This senior citizen had caused his family a great deal of aggravation for him to feel overly sympathetic towards her. His last action as he exited the cellar was to use a length of broken stair rail to jam the door shut. Hopefully that should keep them imprisoned until the cops found them.
Their only means of transport to return to the cottage was Vera's clapped-out old car and with that in mind Clark had confiscated the woman's purse which he now rummaged through to find the car keys. Within seconds they were in his grasp and Julian and he were soon inside the vehicle. Their escape was delayed for a short time while Clark wrestled with the ancient controls, but finally he mastered the intricacies of the grating gear-stick change and they were off on their journey back to their loved ones.
On reaching their home and family, everyone was ecstatic in their welcome and wildly fussed over Julian, creating in his heart a sense of belonging that was for him completely unprecedented. The police were astounded at Clark Kent's success. However, when Inspector Cannon, having finally wrapped up the case, took his leave of the couple much later in the day he congratulated Kent on a job well done, while hinting with a coy wink that perhaps the reporter had certain 'super' advantages over the East Anglian Police Force. Momentarily Lois and Clark wondered if this statement indicated that the British police officer had realised what his Metropolis counterparts had failed to do; that the reporter and the super hero were one person. But as Cannon shook both their hands without expanding on this theme and wishing them a more peaceable life bade them goodbye, the couple assumed that the policeman believed that Clark had once again summoned the help of Superman. The question was soon forgotten in the small celebratory party that the family held in honour of Julian's return.
Sarah Flight attended the family gathering and, during the evening, taking Lois and Clark aside, she informed them of the happy news that due to the terrible events that had befallen the young viscount, the psychiatrist who was associated with Julian's case history had recommended, to ensure his recovery from the mental trauma, that the child be removed at once from the vicinity of Sheringham and be taken back to Metropolis with the Kent family. This endorsed the earlier temporary care order and ensured, that for the present, there would be no objections to Julian's residency in the U S from the British Adoption Authorities. To Lois and Clark this was the icing on the cake and they wished to tell Julian immediately, but when they found him draped over the arm of the couch with drooping eyelids they postponed their announcement till morning and Clark carried him off to bed instead with Lois following, shepherding her other children, who protested only mildly.
Two days to go and the family would be back in Metropolis with one very special addition. Mr Beckworth had called that morning and promised to deliver Julian's travel documents to Miss Flight who had in turn undertaken to transfer them to Mr Kent along with the provisional adoption papers.
Clark watched all four of his children through the window, experiencing as he did a warm glow of contentment. All of the bad guys were beaten, Julian was theirs and it was another beautiful day … and he still had two more days of his holiday. He was, though, somewhat perplexed as he regarded the kids who were listlessly lolling about the garden. This was very unusual behaviour. Perhaps it was due to yesterday's exertions and their little celebratory 'do' which had meant that the kids went to bed later than normal. And yet under ordinary circumstances he would have expected his biological kids to bounce back by now. Julian, on the other hand, he did not know sufficiently well to understand the youngster's rate of recovery and the seemingly delicate boy had undergone massive life changes in a very short time. It seemed safe to assume that Julian was worrying about what might befall him in the future and Clara and Joel were very likely having similar thoughts. From the first Clara had developed a protective streak for the lonely boy who had saved her brother and helped her family escape from the burning house and Joel was by nature a sensitive soul, who would worry over what might happen to his friend when they were no longer there to look out for him. Nathan was clearly too young to understand all that was happening around him and his lethargy had most probably been transferred from the others' gloomy moods. It was definitely time to pass along their news to the kids and he was more than ready to agree to Lois' suggestion when she came to his side and declared that it was time for 'the announcement'.
Before going into the garden Clark placed a restraining hand on his wife's arm to remind her that this might be considered a 'tricky' subject and that they ought to approach it with some delicacy. Lois assured her fusspot husband that she completely understood and so he was fairly shocked when, after instructing the children to come sit with them on the terrace, Lois opened the conversation saying,
"Julian, do you think that you might like to become a member of our family?"
The children's mouths dropped open in amazement and they all seemed to have lost the power of speech. Thinking that Lois had been too blunt and that they perhaps did not understand the ramifications, Clark added an explanation.
"You see, according to your grandfather's will, you have no other relatives and so we thought, as you have seemed to enjoy your stay with us that you would like to make the arrangement more permanent. Lois and I and Martha and Jonathan would be very happy if you would agree." Julian stared at Clark and Lois with wide eyes, but remained silent. "Of course it would mean that you would live in Metropolis, but we would try to ensure that you could visit your home as often as possible."
To Julian this was not a problem. Sheringham Hall had never been his home, only his very grand prison and he was silent because he was filled with a bubbling joy that welled up in his throat and threatened to choke him. Not understanding the reasons for his reticence, Lois continued.
"If you do agree, Julian, Clark and I would like to adopt you as our own son. And that would be forever."
"But your title and your heritage would still belong to you," Clark reiterated. "We want no part of that. We just want to share with you all that we have."
"And to love you, Julian." Lois declared.
Tears began to well up in Julian's eyes and threatened to spill down his cheeks. This was more than he had ever dared to dream, but still he couldn't speak, couldn't tell them how wondrously happy they had made him. Joel, however, misinterpreted his silence.
"Please, Julian! Please, say yes! It would be so neat having a brother who was just my age." Actually Joel was envisioning having some support in his constant trials to control his sisters escapades. Yet Clark sensing his son's motives felt that Joel was due for a disappointment. Clara was much more likely to wind Julian around her pretty little fingers. However, Clark at present was more than happy to join in his son's pleas.
"We have your air-ticket and tomorrow Sarah is dropping round with your passport. All you have to say is 'yes'."
"Yes!" That came out as little more than a squeak. So Julian tried again. "Yes!!"
Joel started patting him on the back and Nathan was so excited he began jumping up and down. Clara flung her arms around him in a demonstrative hug, but after a few moments she self-consciously drew back, thinking that for an independent miss of the new millennium she had shown too much of her true feelings. To hide these emotions she resorted to a tease.
"Hmmph! Another brother to put up with! Mom, you and I are going to be well out-numbered."
"Well, we Kent girls will just have to stick together," Martha suggested as she came out to the patio, carrying a tray of ice-cold lemonade and followed by her husband. She placed the drinks on the table and sitting down behind Clara she put her hand on her granddaughter's shoulder. "Let me see, the odds are 5 - 3. I think that we can hold our own."
"We certainly can!" Lois agreed and Clark and Jonathan exchanged resigned nods.
This small interchange had given Julian time to compose his runaway sentiments and seeing this Martha continued.
"Welcome to the family, Julian," and she offered her hand.
With all the old-world courtesy bequeathed to him by his ancestors, Julian rose and taking the proffered hand bent over it in a courtly bow. "The honour is mine, Ma'am."
Martha's and Lois' brows flew upwards. Then Julian dispelled the image by bursting into a fit of giggles and the whole family started to laugh. Suddenly the fair-haired boy stilled and he turned questioningly to Clark.
"Does that mean that I can call myself Julian Kent?"
This was a difficult question to answer. Sarah Flight had impressed on Lois and Clark the need for adopted children to retain a sense both of their origins and their ethnic background and Clark knew from experience how devastatingly confusing it was to grow up without that knowledge. Although Kal-El had finally chosen to reject his heritage and though his meetings with the New Kryptonians had been fraught with danger, he was thankful to have been given the chance to learn to know his birth race, even if only to comprehend that he was much more earth-like than he had suspected. Clark contemplated all these thoughts for a moment then answered carefully.
"You will always be a Villiers, Julian. And the title of Viscount Sheringham belongs to you. At the moment that might not be important to you, but perhaps someday you may see things differently and then it will be up to you to decide upon your actions and we will not try to influence you in any way." Clark stared into the child's blue eyes and was surprised and pleased to see comprehension in Julian's young face. "If, in the meantime you wish to be called Julian Kent then we would consider that an honour."
"Thank you! I would like that … Julian Kent … Julian Kent." The boy experimented with his new name as the family watched in amusement. "Julian Kent of Metropolis." Another surprising thought hit Julian. "Metropolis! Superman lives in Metropolis! Maybe I'll get to meet him again."
A collective stunned silence met his words from which Clara was the first to recover.
"Great! Just what we need in this family; a Superman groupie!" she said deprecatorily.
"Clara!" The warning voice belonged to her father.
Julian threw a shocked look at this girl with whom he had felt an identification since their first meeting. "What's wrong, Clara? Don't you like Superman?" He asked incredulously.
An angelic seeming Clara gave this question some consideration before replying. "I suppose he's O K." Then, turning a sparkling glance on her father. "But I think that my Daddy is pretty 'Super'."
Clark tried manfully to swallow a laugh as Julian almost refuted this suggestion. Then he remembered the way that Clark Kent had burst into his prison and had dealt with his grandfather's bully-boy and the old witch, Vera Dobson. And all the other things which this man was doing to ensure his safety and happiness.
"You know Clara, I agree. Your dad really is 'Super'." Julian declared and then demonstrated that he also knew how to deliver a tease. "I think that your mom is not so bad either!"
Lois spluttered at that double-edged compliment. "So I'm only 'not so bad', young man. Well, I think that it's time that you got a few things straight around here," she said in a pretend disapproving voice. "And your first lesson is in 'how to address your mother'." Launching herself at the small and very surprised boy the two ended up on the ground with Lois tickling him unmercifully in payment for his misdemeanour. Both were laughing uncontrollably and Nathan took this as a sign to join in, speedily followed by his siblings. In a tangle of arms and legs the group rolled around on the grass, alternating which body would appear on top, except for Julian who remained firmly at the bottom of the pile. The remaining three adults sat watching from the patio with a mixture of amazement and laughter stamped across their faces, grimacing every now and then as a few 'umphs and ahs' issued from the playful fray.
"Help!" A muffled cry came from the jumble of bodies. "Dad?!" that was said tentatively. Then as the tickling intensified the shout became more desperate. "Please Dad! Help me!"
For a moment Clark basked in the title emanating from its brand-new source. The name sounded fresh and oh so satisfying. Then with an apologetic grin that a grown man and a super hero at that was about to act like a six-year-old, Clark shrugged his shoulders at his parents and went to the aid of Julian his son.