By Chris Mulder <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Original Air Date: December 6, 1998
Summary: Thanks to Lex Luthor's scheming, Lois and Clark have to prove that they are fit parents or risk losing Laura to Social Services. Part 2 of 2. Episode 2 of S6.
Previously on Lois & Clark
Episode 1—"Strained Relations" …
Friday, November 6, 4:30pm
"My goodness, Clark, I had no idea that going back to work would be this exhausting!" Lois collapsed into the passenger seat of the Jeep.
Clark smiled sympathetically from his side of the vehicle. "Well, it's been a busy week, what with the election and all." He started the engine and maneuvered them out of the Planet's parking garage and onto the city streets. "Next week should be better, especially if Laura skips a nighttime feeding again."
Lois groaned agreement. "Sleep is wonderful. I think I was more addicted to those little daytime naps than I thought."
"Well, she'll get better at night, and you'll get used to work again. I thought the flex-time schedule worked pretty well, don't you?"
"Yeah, actually, I do," Lois admitted, brightening slightly. "I got my four days in, anyway. Did you?"
"Well, I owe Perry a few more hours tomorrow, but that's because of Superman distractions. I can go in first thing in the morning, and then we'll have the rest of the weekend together."
Lois shrugged philosophically. "It'll give me a chance to reconnect with Laura, I suppose. I mean, it was great to be back at work, but I was amazed at how much I missed her this week. It'll be nice to just hang out with her for a morning."
Clark chuckled. "There you go, then."
They rode in companionable silence for another block before Lois voiced the question in the back of her mind. "How are you doing, with Superman distractions, I mean?"
He sighed. "Not too badly. It's hard to ignore a call for help, but they don't really always need me, anyway — not as much as my family does. If I wanted to be Superman full time, I should have given up on being Clark Kent a long time ago, and I can't do that, so … I just have to try to find a balance." The light changed from red to green, and Clark's mood with it. "And speaking of my family … how do you think Laura's doing with her grandmother?"
Lois laughed, allowing the subject to be changed. "She's a champ. Mother did a great job as far as I could tell, and she seemed to be enjoying it, too — she said she and Laura walked around the neighborhood a few times, and got to say hi to some of the neighbors, which is more than I managed in two months of being home." She grinned. "I guess I'm more of a homebody than I thought."
"It's called cocooning, Lois," Clark informed her in his mock-professor tone. "The trend of the nineties."
"Well, what a relief to know I'm trendy," Lois murmured, idly watching the flow of traffic in the darkening streets. "It feels like a cocoon when it gets dark this early."
"It's just the change of the seasons, Lois; perfectly normal."
"If you say so, Farmboy," she teased him, starting to recover from the stress of the workday.
"I do," he affirmed, with a grin in his voice as he turned the Jeep onto their street. "Before you know it —" He broke off suddenly, peering ahead intently.
Lois looked ahead and felt her stomach clench in fear. Red and blue lights were flashing, strident in the gathering dusk. "Clark, which house are they at?"
He shook his head. "I can't tell. I'm sure it's not ours."
Lois heard the doubt and fear in his tone and was not reassured.
As quickly as safety allowed, Clark parked the Jeep, and Lois was out of the door almost before the engine cut off. Clark caught up with her immediately, holding her hand for support as they hurried towards their townhouse.
"Oh, God, Clark," Lois breathed, "our door is open, what happened??"
He shook his head grimly. "I can't tell, but I can hear Laura whimpering, so it can't be too bad."
Lois vaulted up the front stairs, bursting into her living room, expecting the worst. What she saw seemed like a nightmare. The room seemed full of people, but the first sight she could make sense of was one that was all too familiar: her mother, passed out on the floor, an empty bottle beside her. Not again, Mother! Flashes of innumerable prior occasions flooded through Lois' mind, and she reeled from the shock and outrage.
Clark steadied her, and she tore her eyes away from the figure on the floor to search for her baby. There she was, across the room, being held by a woman Lois did not know. She started forward, but was stopped by a uniformed policeman.
"Hold it, ma'am."
"What happened here?" Clark demanded, finding his voice at last. "We're the homeowners, that's our baby … what's going on?"
The officer looked at them disapprovingly and shook his head. "A neighbor heard the baby crying and called us in. Clear-cut case of neglect."
Lois again moved to cross the room and reclaim her child, but the officer tightened his hold on her arm.
"I'm very sorry, ma'am," he intoned in a voice that sounded more bored than regretful, "but until this is settled, I'm afraid Social Services will have to take custody of the baby."
… and now, the conclusion.
Lex Luthor stood at the window of his office, looking out over night-time Metropolis. Silently watching him was his lieutenant-for-now, Enrico O'Reilly. From bitter experience Enrico had learned that Luthor disliked interruptions when he was thinking. He'd also learned to gauge his employer's mood by the way he puffed on his cigar. Or, perhaps it would be more precise to say that he'd tried to interpret Luthor's mood that way. As often as not, though, he'd gotten the uneasy impression that Luthor was letting him think just what he'd wanted him to think. Even after all this time, it was … eerie.
"I saw the news reports," Luthor said finally, his voice almost without inflection, "but I did not see you. Very wise." Now he turned to face Enrico, looking at him for the first time since he'd entered the room. "It must have been cold … standing outside the Kents' all this time. Would you like a drink, Enrico?" he added, gesturing towards the decanter and glasses on his desk.
Enrico looked at Luthor, at his smiling lips and his cold eyes—eyes that were colder than the November night—and decided that, after what had happened already today, he didn't want to drink anything from a bottle Lex Luthor had had his hands on.
"No," he replied, perhaps a little too brusquely, because Luthor's eyebrows went up a fraction. "No, thank you, sir," Enrico amended reluctantly, deference and defiance equally blended in his posture and voice.
Luthor smiled again, pleased to have been able to put the other man through another emotional hoop. He knew what Enrico thought of him, but he didn't care.
Enrico, at the moment, was furious. The old devil! he thought. How dare he treat me this way! He would have loved to have punched his face in for him, but he well knew that was impossible. At least for now. Enrico had learned quite a lot from Luthor, but he was hardly grateful for the lessons. Rats in a maze are seldom grateful for the lessons learned there, either.
Luthor, having tired of Enrico baiting, had returned to the original topic. "The news reports were quite thorough. I am very disappointed in the lack of efficiency of our child welfare system in this city, Enrico. Remind me to do something about that someday."
"Yes, sir," Enrico responded, as one used to being in the chorus.
"After all, the children are our future."
"I find it appalling that that poor child wasn't placed in protective custody immediately. Appalling."
"Hmm," was all the response Enrico made. He was tiring of this game. Luthor could play the philanthropist to his heart's content in public, pretending that all he wanted was what was good for some kid, but Enrico had learned his true credo: take no prisoners, accept no partners, show no mercy. And, having been a first-hand witness to many of Luthor's least pleasant activities these past few months, Enrico wasn't fool enough to think that just because he was currently on the payroll he could count on collecting retirement some day.
"It's also deplorable," Luthor continued, "that Metropolis's most notable citizens, such as Lois Lane and Clark Kent, are capable of neglecting their own child. If I weren't certain that their guilt would be proved eventually, I might become cynical."
This time Enrico didn't respond at all, but it wasn't necessary. Lex was standing, gazing into space and pulling on his cigar in an abstracted manner, no doubt contemplating the vision of a world with a cynical Lex Luthor in it. He enjoyed these visions, wherein he played the central role, nearly as much as he enjoyed the sound of his own voice … or getting his own way.
And, since getting his own way was never far from his thoughts, it wasn't long before he was back on track. In one of those abrupt changes of mood, which could always disconcert his underlings, Luthor suddenly directed a piercing stare at Enrico and asked, in a warning tone, "You did follow my instructions to the letter?"
"Y-yes, of course," Enrico stammered slightly, and hated himself for doing so. Luthor had that effect on people. Even someone who was feared by others, as Enrico certainly knew he was, could, in Lex Luthor's presence, abruptly find themselves without control over their voices, sweat glands, and guts.
Trying to reclaim what he knew was his rightful part in this plan, Enrico hastily recollected his nerves from the four points to which Luthor's accusation had sent them. It gratified him to realize that that exercise was getting easier each time he performed it. Someday *he'd* be the boss around here! "I still think it was a mistake not to ice that dame," he stated challengingly.
Luthor sat down at his desk and casually glanced up at the other man. "And which 'dame' would that be, Enrico?" he replied urbanely.
Why is it, Enrico thought bitterly, that I can never feel as though I'm looking down at him? That was a quality that Enrico both admired and hated about his boss—his ability to inspire and control at one and the same time. There was a subtle ruthlessness—a cruel cunning—about Luthor which was unlike anything Enrico had encountered during his climb up the criminal corporate ladder. He wanted that for himself, and once he had it, then … "The dame who sucked up to the grandma for us."
"Ah, I see … that dame. I was afraid that you were referring to Mrs. Lane."
"Her? No … 'though that might have been a good idea. What if she remembers something?"
"She won't. I've told you. The drugs that the young 'dame' so obligingly administered for us, induce short-term memory loss as well as make the victim highly suggestible. As long as you didn't deviate from the plan." Once again he fixed his paralyzing stare upon Enrico, smiling when that young man decisively shook his head. "Then … we have nothing to worry about."
Enrico wasn't so sure he had the same faith in these drugs that Luthor had, but then it would be *his* face and not Luthor's that Mrs. Lane might possibly be able to remember. Knowing as much about his boss as he did, Enrico had more sense than to believe that anyone would come to his aid if this, or any other plan, went disastrously awry.
"And, " Luthor continued smoothly, "as for the young woman who assisted us, we'll keep her on hold for a bit longer. She's the mainstay of our contingency plan in case something goes wrong. Pawns are to be sacrificed, Enrico, as I've told you before, but not indiscriminately, and only when the time is right. She is safely tucked away, as we discussed?"
"Good. We have a busy weekend ahead of us. I want to know the instant they have selected a judge for the hearing."
"Yes, sir." Enrico hoped this latest plan would work. The recent failure to reacquire Amalgamated Transport had angered Luthor, but Enrico suspected that, for whatever reason, this plan to get his hands on Laura Kent meant even more to him. He did not want to think about the consequences if this failed.
Once again he found himself wondering why Luthor would want Lois Lane and Clark Kent's child. He'd heard that Luthor was supposed to have been in love with Lois Lane at one time—but why take her child by another man? Unless … Was it really Lex's child? Or, possibly the child of the clone of Lex? Trying to do some rapid calculations in his head, he nearly missed what Lex was saying to him.
"Not having second thoughts about anything, are you, Enrico?"
Enrico's cheeks lost a little color, but he maintained eye contact with the other man in spite of it. "No, sir."
"Good. It's wise to remember there is only *one* nonexpendable piece on the board, *Mr.* O'Reilly."
Yep, the old devil was definitely twitching his tail tonight. Thank goodness he didn't have to sleep with him! All he had to do was work for him.
He paid special attention over the next few minutes as Lex outlined for him his various duties for the next day. It was a good thing he wasn't especially squeamish.
As soon as he was finished, Lex signaled to Enrico that he might leave and he complied, anxious to write down his instructions before he forgot them. Enrico had concluded some time ago that keeping Luthor in ignorance of his true intentions would necessitate taking on some duties he despised, such as tasks more regularly assigned to a secretary or valet. If that meant writing orders down so Luthor wouldn't have to repeat himself, then he would do it … for now.
Another taboo Luthor rarely tolerated was having his orders deviated from, which is why Enrico had neglected to relate to him every single detail of his time in the Kent townhouse. It had seemed like a good idea at the time—erasing that message from the answering machine—but now he was having second thoughts. Luthor hadn't ordered it, but then Luthor couldn't have known that Kent's parents would call while he was in the house. As he'd listened to Martha Kent's happy voice coming over the machine, he'd known a sudden compulsion to make sure her son never heard it. Why should he hear that his parents were having a good time with some new people they'd just met? Let him worry about them a little, Enrico had thought with glee. Serve him right.
Well, it was done now, and he couldn't undo it. Luthor would never know anyway, so what difference did it make? Enrico exited the office nonchalantly, and without unseemly haste. He had his dignity to maintain.
Lex remained in his office for a few more minutes, tidying up his desk. Things weren't going exactly as he'd planned, but he still believed in his ultimate victory. There would be a hearing, so all was not lost. Witnesses could be bought, judges could be bribed or coerced, evidence could be fabricated—Luthor had great faith in the justice system.
By now the elder Kents would have called their son and left the message that they were going to visit some remote sites with a couple of new-found friends. That would let Clark know his parents wouldn't be readily available to him. Just one more little irritant to add to Clark Kent's pile of worries. The thought of it made Luthor smile appreciatively.
Luthor picked up his cigar and puffed on it contentedly. He thought he'd go to the den, pour himself a drink, sit in his favorite chair and watch the 10 o'clock news. They were bound to be playing the footage of the hubbub outside the Kent townhouse again, and he had rather enjoyed watching it before. He left the study, exiting by the same door as his henchman.
Neither man suspected that they'd had an audience.
In the library, which connected to the office, sat Beth Luthor, still numb from what she'd overheard. When Lex had asked her a couple of months ago if she'd like to have a child, she'd been elated, until that is, she'd found out he'd wanted to adopt rather than try to have a child of their own. That had been devastating. After what she'd just heard, she was alarmed. So, this was Lex's idea of adoption, was it?
And, if he got what he wanted—Lois Lane's child—what then?
Once he had this small part of his lost love, and with his former empire being rapidly rebuilt, would he even need a wife anymore?
There was, after all, only one nonexpendable chess piece on the board.
[End of teaser]
In another part of town, Lois Lane was having a terrible time getting her daughter to stop crying. Nothing had worked: not nursing, changing her diaper, rocking her or singing to her, which had left Lois only with pacing back and forth while patting Laura's back. Woman of action that she was, she wanted to be doing something, but all she was able to do at that moment was walk a fussy baby around.
All? Had she thought, "all?"
"Oh, Laura, honey, Mommy didn't mean that. You're the most important little girl in the whole world. I love you, sweetiepie. I just wish I knew what was wrong so I could fix it. Does your tummy hurt?"
Laura's only response was to wail even harder.
Just then Laura's daddy came into the room. He, like Lois, was dressed for bed, and he carried a cup of hot tea for his wife. Decaf.
"Here, Lois. You take this, and let me take Laura for a while."
"I don't know what I'm doing wrong, Clark."
"Probably nothing, honey."
"Then why can't I soothe her? I always could before … eventually. And I'm so worried that if I can't soothe her, the Social Services people are going to burst back in here and—"
Clark watched in dismay as the second of his two girls started crying. He put the tea cup down on the bedside table and then reached to take Laura. "Maybe she's overtired, Lois. This day has been hard on her, too. She may be picking up on your anxiety a little."
Lois handed the baby to Clark and tried to stop crying, but it wasn't easy as she recalled what they'd come home to a few hours before: the ambulance, police cars, curious neighbors and onlookers, the TV cameras and that obnoxious woman from Social Services, Ms. Bailey. Her mother had been put on a stretcher and wheeled away, barely conscious and babbling unintelligibly. Sam had driven up as they were loading his ex-wife into the ambulance, and had run into the townhouse only long enough to find out if Lois and Laura were safe before running out again to drive to the hospital. He'd seen the empty liquor bottle on the floor, and the pained look on his face had kept Lois from telling him that some of the people in their overcrowded living room seemed intent on taking away his grandchild.
Thank heavens for Inspector Henderson. He'd heard the call on his scanner and had come over to see if he could help. It was largely because of him that they'd been able to maintain custody of Laura—well, him and the more sane social worker who was Bailey's associate. There was going to be a hearing though, to determine their fitness as parents, and Lois was terrified.
"It will be all right, sweetheart."
Lois felt Clark's arm come around her and looked up at him. He must have been watching her and guessed what she was thinking. She could see her own fear reflected in his eyes, so it probably hadn't been a difficult guess for him. This situation was bound to be uppermost in both of their minds.
"How could Mother do something like this, Clark?"
"I don't know Lois. Maybe—"
"I thought she loved Laura. I thought she could be trusted with her. Why? Why, after all these years of being sober would she do this? Especially when things were going so well. There's no reason why she—"
They stared at each other. The same doubt in both of their minds. Why?
"Let me see if I can get Laura settled and then we'll talk."
Clark carried Laura next door to her room, murmuring softly to her and stroking her back. She was really upset, poor little thing. He could feel his own emotions building up within him, and forced himself to calm down so he could help his daughter.
Holding her next to his bare chest, he used his ability to control his vital signs in order to slow his heart rate and respiration. His voice, deeper than Lois's, created lower vibrations, and he was able to float rather than walk for a gentler sense of movement. He kept this up for a few minutes and was pleased to see that Laura was responding. Her cry carried less conviction than before and he could sense that she was listening to him now.
Deciding it was time for the next step, he floated up a little higher and gradually laid back, as if he were stretching out to go to sleep on a cushion of air. Hovering there, he began to rock back and forth slightly, still stroking her back and talking to her softly, until he felt her tiny body relax against him. She moved her head restlessly once more then, finding just the right spot on her daddy's warm chest, she settled herself for sleep.
Clark heard her sigh sleepily, and felt her snuggling into his chest, and once more he experienced that knife-sharp feeling of love he had for this wonderful little person who was his daughter. It never failed to tighten his chest, or bring tears to his eyes, and always amazed him that joy and pain could be combined into the same emotion and in such perfect proportions.
No one … *no one* was going to take this child away from him and Lois. It wasn't going to happen, and he told Laura so.
"Don't worry, little one," he told her softly. "Everything is going to be all right. Your mommy and I love you very much and we're going to make sure we all stay together. We're a family now, the family I've always wanted, and we won't let anyone separate us, sweetheart."
"No, we won't."
Clark turned his head in surprise. There was Lois standing in the doorway, watching him. He'd been so involved with Laura that he hadn't heard her approach. She walked forward now, and stood next to Clark. He floated upwards a little so Lois could see into Laura's sleeping face. She reached out and placed her hand on his where it lay on their child's back. A look passed between them, and a renewed resolve and commitment was agreed upon without either of them having to say a word.
They put Laura into her crib, after Clark had first pre-warmed the sheet with his heat vision, and then stayed awake for another couple of hours talking over what had happened, and what they were going to do about it. One thing they decided on right at the beginning was that Laura would be with one or the other of them at all times until this was resolved.
The next morning they found some reporters waiting outside their townhouse.
"Great!" Lois grumbled. "This is just what we needed."
She didn't want to feel as though she were under siege, so she told Clark she and Laura would go with him to the Daily Planet. "If I stay here, the phone will be ringing constantly, not to mention the doorbell. Besides, we're probably safer at the Planet." Seeing the worry on his face, she gave him a hug. "I know it's not the weekend we'd planned on, but at least we will be together."
That being decided upon, he helped her pack what she'd need for herself and the baby.
They made it to the car, thanks to a little judiciously applied super strength, which enabled them to forge a path through the throng. Clark stood between Lois and the other reporters while she buckled Laura into the carseat. He was pleasant to them, but firm in his assertions that all this would be cleared up, and in their favor, then asked them to let him and Lois get to their office in peace.
"I'm sure that none of you would want to risk a child's life by driving recklessly," he said with conviction.
Lois wasn't so sure about that, but Clark's words did seem to have appealed to the better natures of most of the reporters, for they were able to drive to the Daily Planet, if not without an escort, at least without harassment.
All this made Lois glad that she and Laura were going to stay within the fastness of the Planet.
"They can't get to me in here, Clark … or Laura, either."
They were standing in the smaller of the two conference rooms, where Perry had said Lois could set up shop for the time being. Clark was helping her move some of her stuff in there.
"I can have privacy in here to nurse her and take care of her, and still get some work done. I'm going to stay on the trail of these companies that Lex used to own. I know there's something going on there, and maybe that's why—"
She broke off, suddenly unable to continue. The memories of yesterday were too bleak. Clark put his hands her shoulders to comfort her, and she tried to smile for him. "I'll be okay, Clark. I don't know why I get so weepy so quickly these days. I guess being a mom will do that to you."
"Being a dad can do that to you, too," he told her and, as she looked more closely at him, she could see a moistness in his eyes as well.
They leaned towards each other, and their foreheads touched—a wonderfully comforting gesture which meant a great deal to both of them. A knock on the door interrupted them. It was Jimmy, ready to set up a computer for Lois.
"Some things never change," Lois murmured, with a smile and a small sniff. She reached up to wipe the corner of her eye, and Clark kissed her forehead before going to open the door for their young friend.
"Thanks for helping us with this, Jimmy," Clark told him.
"No problem, CK. The Chief let me have Wednesday off so I could work on Penny's car. I'm making up time just like you are."
A few minutes later Clark signaled to Lois that he needed to slip into something more suitable for flying. She smiled at him and blew him a kiss. Oblivious to this, Jimmy chatted on, enthusiastic about the play he and Penny had been to the night before, with Mr. and Mrs. Barnes. "I think her parents are really beginning to like me. Were you nervous when you first met Lois's parents, CK? … CK?"
Superman was pretty busy all that day, but not too busy to pay a visit to an old friend, Constance Hunter. Her law career had taken an upward swing after her successful defense of Superman in that lawsuit brought by Calvin Dregg. He'd kept in touch with her since then, and knew that success hadn't changed her much, beyond giving her more self-confidence. She was still the same caring and honest person that she'd been when he'd first met her, so he wasn't surprised when she promised to help his friends, Lois and Clark, in their upcoming custody hearing.
Jimmy, once he'd gotten the excitement of the previous night's date out of his system, had offered to help, too. Several Planet staffers, as a matter of fact, made it a point to tell either Lois or Clark that they wanted to help, or were thinking of them, or would be glad to testify on their behalf. It made both of them feel good to know they had such faithful friends.
Perry had offered the use of the not inconsiderable resources of the newspaper, as well as his own support. There had been no hesitation at all on his part when they'd asked him to be a character witness. He'd been at their home several times and had seen them often with Laura.
Clark was extremely busy, what with various rescues as Superman, his newspaper assignments, and a conference call with Lois and Constance Hunter, but he was still able to spare a thought or two for his parents. They would certainly want to know what was happening, but he wasn't exactly sure where they were. The last word he'd received from them had been from South Dakota, but that was nearly a week ago now. They could be anywhere by this time, and he didn't want to leave Lois and the baby long enough to go searching for them. At least, not yet. If things began to look really bad, then he'd find them and bring them back to Metropolis. For now he had all he could do to keep up with all the calls for Superman, and give Lois what help he could with both Laura and their investigations.
During their talk the night before, after they'd gotten Laura to bed, they'd discussed various scenarios. Every possibility they could think of, from this actually being the result of Ellen's falling off the wagon, to the idea that one of their old nemeses might be trying to get back at them, was looked at from every conceivable angle. It had been very difficult to stay focused, knowing that if they guessed wrong they risked losing something more precious to them than their own lives—Laura.
They decided that they should wait to hear what the doctors had to say about Ellen before jumping to any conclusions. About what she might have done, or not done. Lab reports would tell them if she'd actually gotten drunk. It had not been possible to get anything coherent out of her the evening before, so they were waiting for a chance to talk to her about what had happened. Lois didn't want to believe that her mother would jeopardize Laura's safety by taking up drinking again but, as she pointed out to Clark, if someone had drugged Ellen why hadn't they just taken what they'd wanted? As far as they could tell, nothing had been disturbed. The police had said there was no sign of forced entry and, except for a baby who'd been left crying in her crib for far too long while Grandma was passed out on the floor, everything in the house had looked normal.
As far as the idea of this being some kind of revenge by one of their previous adversaries, well, what was the point? Again, nothing had been disturbed. The baby hadn't been harmed or kidnapped, just hungry and wet. The police, on Henderson's recommendation, had also looked for any explosive "calling cards" which might have been left behind, but the search had turned up nothing. Nor had the house been bugged. It made no sense.
And then there was Luthor.
They'd been investigating the companies that had once been part of LexCorp, and were reasonably sure Luthor had had something to do with the recent labor problems at Amalgamated. Could that be the reason for all this? If so, what had Luthor hoped to gain? Embarrassment for Lois and Clark, or had he wanted to scare them? Was it some kind of show of power—a demonstration of how easily he could gain access to their home and child? Was it a warning: mess with me and I'll do something terrible to someone you love? Were they getting too close?
Too close to what? To finding out for sure that Lex Luthor was intent on rebuilding his empire? But there was nothing wrong with that—unless his methods were criminal. Or was it something else? A secret he might be ready to kill to protect, perhaps? The Lex Luthor they'd battled before would have had no compunction about killing for any reason he'd deemed suitable. If that Lex had truly been a clone, an evil clone who was now dead, then maybe the threat wasn't from that direction. However, if there had never been a clone, then the Lex they were now confronting was the same Lex who had kidnapped Lois, tried to kill Clark, and knew that Clark Kent was Superman. That Lex would know that Superman now had a child. Every time Clark thought about it, chills went up and down his spine.
There were so many reasons why an evil man like Lex Luthor might have designs on Superman's child: revenge, malice, a desire to cause suffering, were just three. Also, it was true that Luthor had financed some cloning experiments—he'd shown everyone proof of that when he'd been spinning his tale of the evil clone he'd claimed had held him prisoner—which made Clark suspect that it had been Lex who'd once made the Superman clone. Did he perhaps want to try that again, using Superman's child this time? But, if he did, why hadn't he kidnapped Laura while Ellen was incapacitated? Again, it made no sense.
The suggestion of cloning as a motive had given Clark nightmares. Even though it had been only one of the scenarios he'd thought of, it was one that could touch him on a very intimate level. When he'd been a child, there had always been the threat that if people had found out about him, he might be taken away, put in a laboratory, and experimented upon. Once he'd become invulnerable those fears had receded, and he'd been cautious more because of wanting to shield his parents, than through any sense of personal danger.
Laura wasn't invulnerable, however. She was completely helpless, and the thought of her in the power of someone like Luthor made Clark physically ill. Last night, when his nightmares had awakened him, it had taken every ounce of will power he possessed not to wake up Lois so she could convince him he was being ridiculous. He was too much afraid that he wasn't being ridiculous at all, and discovered that there was a new level of fear he hadn't, until that moment, experienced. It was very tempting to think about scooping up both Lois and their daughter, and flying off to some remote spot where they could hide from the world. But in his heart, he knew they couldn't hide from their problems, so he'd contented himself with moving closer to his sleeping wife and then lying awake, listening to her heartbeat and Laura's.
With the light of day, some of those fears had receded, but they hadn't disappeared. He kept them to himself, however, knowing that Lois had enough to deal with, and not wanting to scare her further. When he wasn't being Superman, or working on one of the stories Perry had assigned to him, he would check on Lois's progress in the Conference Room. Getting a chance to see Laura so often was a nice added bonus.
It was during one of those visits, towards early afternoon, when he was walking Laura and trying to get a burp out of her, that Sam Lane stopped by to see them. Lois was still rearranging her clothes after feeding Laura, but Sam didn't seem to notice. They could tell he was tired, and upset, and quickly offered him a chair and a cup of coffee. He accepted the chair, but waved aside the coffee.
"If I drink any more of that stuff, I think I'll be sick."
They let him catch his breath, and his thoughts, while Clark walked Laura and Lois returned to her half-eaten lunch.
"Well, Princess, the good news is that your mother will be fine, physically."
Lois and Clark stopped what they were doing, both alarmed by the worried tone in Sam's voice.
"What do you mean, Daddy? Is Mother … ?"
"Your mother is delusional."
"Well, Daddy, I know Mother can be a bit irrational at times, but—"
"She's refusing to admit that she was drinking. It's classic alcoholic behavior: denial of a problem, denial of the behavior itself. She's even said there was someone else in your house who must have given her something to knock her out." Sam put his hands up to rub his tired eyes, discouraged beyond words. Things had been going pretty well between him and Ellen. This was a terrible blow to him, and he couldn't help but wonder if he was the cause of her return to drinking. Had he done something to make her want to climb back into a bottle?
At the mention of this mysterious "someone else" Lois raised hopeful eyes to her husband. Clark had suspected that she was hoping for some kind a miracle—hoping for some proof that Ellen hadn't been drinking. Her look told him he was right, and his heart sank. He was afraid she was going to be disappointed and hurt.
Lois got up from her chair and went over to put an arm around her father's shoulders. He was usually so good at distancing himself from problems, that she was concerned to see him so distraught. "I'm sure things will be all right, Daddy."
"What did the doctors say, Sam?" Clark asked gently.
"Oh, they say she'll make a full recovery, eventually. They want to keep her for a couple of days, because, well … " His eyes dropped away from Clark's, down towards the table. His face looked suddenly older, his tone of voice defeated. "They found alcohol in her system."
"Oh, Daddy! No!"
"I had figured there would be," Sam continued, "because I could smell it on her, but … I guess … I was hoping for … a miracle."
Lois leaned down to kiss his forehead. "I know, Daddy. Me, too."
She stayed by his side, with her arm across his shoulders, but neither spoke for a while. Clark watched them silently, and even Laura was quiet, gazing at her mother with the wide-eyed look of infancy.
Finally Sam came back from whatever thoughts he'd been indulging in, and looked up at his daughter. "She was sleeping when I left … I don't want to be gone too long, but I wanted you know how she's doing. I called your house, but there was no answer. I figured you'd be here."
"Good figuring, Daddy." She smiled at him, and got a brief smile in return. "I'm glad you came by. We were wondering about Mother."
He reached up to take one of Lois's hands and squeezed it gratefully. It was apparent that he was regaining some of his normal balance. Talking about Ellen must have helped.
"We'll get through this, somehow. The first thing is to get your mother feeling better and out of the hospital. The alcohol didn't react well with her regular medicines, so it may take a couple of days to get her back on her feet."
"But, you're sure there won't be any permanent damage?"
"Yes. Of course. I asked a couple of specialists to check her over, too, just to be on the safe side. This kind of thing isn't exactly my field, you know."
"I know," Lois replied with a smile, thinking of some of the odder "fields" that were his.
"I see you've brought Laura with you today, Lois." He released her hand and got up to walk over towards Clark. "How about coming to see your Grandpa, little one?"
Clark relinquished his daughter to her grandfather, meeting Lois's eyes as he did so. They had to tell Sam what was happening, even though they hated adding to his worries.
"Sam … " Clark's voice trailed away, as he sought for a way to break the news.
"What's that, Clark?" Sam replied, absentmindedly. He was busy making funny faces at the baby, and didn't appear to have noticed the warning note in Clark's voice.
"There's something we have to tell you."
When Jimmy entered the conference room some ten minutes later, it seemed to him that Dr. Lane had been crying. That wasn't too surprising. He didn't know what he'd do if his former wife were responsible for one of his kids losing her child. He'd probably cry, too.
The other adults in the room paid him scant attention as he went about arranging the file folders, faxes, and computer printouts he'd brought with him. It tore at his young heart, watching Sam Lane holding and caressing Laura as if he'd never see her again. Jimmy's own grandfather had died when he was five years old (he'd never known his dad's father), but he could still remember some of the fun things they'd done together. It wasn't right … what was happening to Lois and Clark and baby Laura. Maybe there was something he could do to help.
He gathered from the conversation that Ellen Lane had said she'd never touched any alcohol. Rather, she claimed there had been a woman in the townhouse with her, and that she must have drugged her … maybe with some lemonade. Lois and Clark were saying there had been no sign of anyone else having been there, however, and no sign of lemonade having been drunk either. In fact, the only evidence of liquid refreshment of any kind had been the empty bottle of Scotch on the floor. Lois and Clark weren't sure what to believe, and Jimmy thought he knew why.
They were too close to the story, which was understandable. He, on the other hand, could be less emotionally involved, and therefore more detached, just as the Chief had tried to teach him. His recent success with the labor dispute story had certainly bolstered his confidence in his ability as a reporter, and he wanted to use these new skills of his to help his friends. First, though, he'd have to clear it with the Chief.
Jimmy exited the conference room quietly, and scanned the Pit for Perry. Not seeing him there, he walked over to his office. Sure enough, there he was, blue pencil in hand, and a frown on his face as he labored over some reporter's copy. Fearing that this might not be the best moment he could have chosen to pitch his idea, and yet not wanting to wait too much longer, Jimmy decided to forge ahead.
To his relief, and surprise, Perry listened with quiet attention while he related his theory.
"So you see, Chief, if I can find that woman, maybe we could prove that Mrs. Lane was telling the truth."
"That's good, Jimmy, but how? You don't have much of a description: young, slender and blonde. There are six or seven women right here in this building who fit that description."
The Chief had a point. Still, though, he wanted to do something. He had another idea … "Chief, what if I could find somebody who saw her go into Lois and Clark's house? That would work, wouldn't it?"
"Yes," Perry admitted. "Yes, that would work. Good idea, kid. It's the kind of thing the police would normally do, I guess, if they suspected foul play. However, they've got too much on their hands right now as it is, with all these recent murders. You know, they found another one this morning. An old man this time … shot in the head, point blank, and left on the back steps of the 15th Precinct. If they don't get a handle on this soon, there's going to be a panic."
"That's terrible, Chief. They don't have any leads yet?"
"Not enough leads apparently," Perry replied dryly. He was silent for a moment, looking down at a copy of the police report from the latest murder. What in the Sam Hill was happening in his town? He looked up at Jimmy again. "You go on and see what you can find out in Lois and Clark's neighborhood, son. Keep me informed."
"Yes, sir, Chief. Thanks!"
Jimmy left Perry's office, practically floating, he was so happy and excited to have had his idea approved. He stopped at his desk long enough to collect his jacket, a notepad, pens, and his camera. At the last moment, he thought of something else, and picked up the phone to call Penny. The two of them were supposed to go out tonight, but there was a chance he'd still be working, so he wanted to warn her.
When she heard about his plan, though, nothing would do but for her to come with him. Lois and Clark were her friends, too, and she wanted to help them in some way that would repay them for all they'd done for her father. The temping she'd been doing at Amalgamated had ended the week before, so there was only her class schedule to work around, and she didn't see any problems with that.
Now Jimmy's cup was full to overflowing, and he jog-skipped his way out of the newsroom and down to the parking garage.
In the conference room, Sam was getting ready to leave. He gently extricated his pen from Laura's grasp before handing her back to Clark. He'd had quite a job preventing her from putting it in her mouth. She could be pretty stubborn when she wanted to and, he thought with a smile, he couldn't imagine how she'd acquired *that* quality.
"I'd better get back to your mother now, honey. I'll see if I can't get a better description of this woman from her. If we can prove that there was someone else there then we'll all be in the clear."
He gave Lois a hug, waved to Clark and Laura, and left. Lois and Clark were quiet for a while after his departure, then they seemed to snap back to the present, and the task at hand. There was all this new stuff that Jimmy had brought in to go through, and they both sat down to make a start on it, knowing from long experience that work would help.
It was quite a morass—the intricacies of the old Lex Luthor empire—and they sensed that they'd barely begun to scratch the surface. Luthor and/or his lawyers had had a positive genius for burying companies and their assets under miles of phoney paperwork. Memories of some of the secrets that had come out during the reading of Luthor's will made them suspicious of any possible connections. Lois had been able to trace the family tree of Amalgamated Transport, which had helped them save that company, but Luthor had controlled, or been rumored to have controlled, dozens of other businesses and utilities. It would take time to trace the current status of them all, even assuming that they could identify them.
They had started putting together a chart to help them track companies and their CEO's when Clark heard another call for help. Laura was just dozing off in his arms, so he couldn't jump up as quickly as he normally would. He did hand her to Lois as fast as possible, though, and after a brief kiss for each of his girls he sped out of the room.
Lois looked down at a sleepy-eyed Laura, and whispered to her, "Well, pumpkin, looks like it's up to you and me. Let's see … do you think LexComm was completely divested, and its assets divided up among the other major carriers?"
Laura yawned and stretched briefly before settling herself for a nap.
"That's what I think, too," Lois said, glad to have her opinion substantiated.
"Your husband has done so much good for Metropolis, Mrs. Luthor. You must be very proud of him."
Beth could only stare at the well-meaning matron beside her. She and Lex were attending yet another fund raiser—this one for a special Pediatric Trauma Wing at Metropolis General Hospital. Lex had been his usual suave and gracious self, greeting everyone with a smile and a handshake, or a kiss on the hand for certain highly-placed ladies. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to touch him or get near him. They all wanted to bask in the glow of Metropolis's golden boy.
This was certainly a change from a few months ago, just after Lex had reappeared in Metropolis. People had been reluctant to accept him at first, wary after the clone business had been revealed. It had taken time, patience and a great deal of money, but he'd overcome many of their fears and uncertainties about him to the point where the Luthors were accepted as part of the city's upper crust again. There was scarcely a day now when they didn't have some social, political or charitable function to attend. And when they weren't at someone else's gathering, they were hosting one of their own. Lex's abundant charisma had once again come to his rescue, putting him back on the guest lists of anyone who mattered in Metropolis. That's how they'd gotten invited to this hospital function: charisma and cash, and plenty of both.
All that was necessary to be somebody in this town, Beth thought bitterly, was to charm people and throw money at them; they'd fall all over themselves trying to please you. Anyone would think Lex had single-handedly built the hospital the way people were fawning over him. In fact, today it seemed that Lex could do no wrong. Every word he uttered, every pronouncement he made, was greeted with enthusiasm, or outright applause. And every time he talked about what was owed to children, or held forth on how children deserved to be treated, Beth wanted to vomit.
She'd watched from the across the room as Lex's greasy gofer, Enrico O'Reilly, sidled up to him and murmured some brief message into his ear. Whatever little plot they were hatching this time must have been proceeding well, if Lex's expression was anything to go by. Or maybe this was an update on the Laura Kent venture.
Beth felt another wave of nausea at that thought. Ever since that business with her uncle and the letter, she'd noticed small changes in Lex's behavior towards her. Images from the tale of the fox and the scorpion had begun to pop into her head at odd moments, and even intruded into her dreams. She knew, none better, what Lex's true nature was, yet she'd committed herself to a life with him, hoping that love would change him … but suspecting it would not.
The scorpion had not changed his nature, even though failing to do so had cost it its life. Would Lex be able to go against his nature in order to give the two of them a life together? That had always been the question. Her love for him, or what she had thought was love, had made her want it to be so. Even now, at odd moments, she could still feel something for him. Maybe it was love. Even now. But what she was also feeling, in greater amounts and with greater frequency, was fear, revulsion and a desire to run.
But, how does one run from the devil?
She wasn't sure that was possible. All these months of living with Lex had heightened her sense of self-preservation, however, so she continued to smile and play the part of the dutiful corporate wife. It wouldn't do to let him know … to let him even suspect that she wasn't completely unaware of his intentions towards the Kents' baby. And as far as actually doing anything to stop him … ?
She couldn't risk it. If he found out—!
She shuddered, and quickly suppressed it before anyone could notice. If he found out, her life would be forfeit, of that she was absolutely certain. On the other hand, if he succeeded, her life might still be forfeit. If only she could think of something … something that he couldn't possibly trace back to her.
Her hand was shaking and she took a couple sips of her drink to steady herself. Face it, she told herself sadly, there's nothing you can do. You've made this bed, and now you must lie upon it.
That's where she was … in bed, if not with the Devil, then certainly with his most ardent disciple.
The wheels of the gods may grind slowly, but not so the wheels of Metropolis's Child Protective Services agency, and certainly not when they are being well greased.
The senior attorney for the agency, Charles Tregor, wasn't particularly surprised at the number of calls his office received about the Kent case, especially since the TV news had been broadcasting the story for two consecutive days. High profile cases always brought out the loonies. However, a couple of these "loonies," had actually amounted to something.
In his office that Monday morning, it had been hard not to get excited about this case. With the evidence piling up against the Kents, and the public interest growing due to the continued media coverage, he began to wonder if this would be the one to give him a leg up into a four-star law firm. He was tired of being a public servant and squandering his considerable talent fighting the demon of child abuse. Nothing ever seemed to change, except perhaps to get worse, and for a long time now he hadn't felt as though his abilities were truly appreciated. He wanted out, and he wanted up, but the all-seeing eye of the media seldom shone into the darker corners of child custody battles, unless the people involved were well-known.
Well, the spotlight would be shining on him now, and if he didn't take advantage of this opportunity, then he was a fool.
The phone rang. It was his wife, reminding him that their daughter's piano recital was scheduled for that evening, and he knew a brief qualm about what he could be doing to the Kents if he were wrong.
On the surface they didn't seem like the type to neglect a child, but in his line of work he'd seen plenty of people who didn't seem like "the type." If Lois Lane and Clark Kent were truly neglecting their daughter, then they didn't deserve to keep her. He needed to remember that, if he should ever feel himself weakening again. Besides, he now had two witnesses ready to testify against them.
In the end, it didn't matter who the parents were, or how famous they were—what mattered was what was best for the child.
For the good of the child—that's why he was doing this. Having convinced himself that his conscience was clear, he got back to work.
"The hearing is set for Wednesday," Constance Hunter informed Lois and Clark when they arrived for their 11 a.m. appointment. Constance had approved of them bringing Laura along, saying she wanted to meet all three of her clients. "Child Services isn't letting any grass grow under their feet on this one. I've learned that Charles Tregor will be handling their case. I've met him a couple of times before, and I've heard a rumor that he'd rather be in private practice instead of public service, but he seems all right—for a lawyer."
Lois and Clark could spare a slight smile for that weak joke, but they'd had a worrying weekend, and weren't really in the mood for humor. Lois had visited Ellen in the hospital Sunday afternoon, and had come away frustrated and despondent. Ellen still insisted she hadn't been drinking, and had begged her daughter to believe her. Lois wanted to believe her, and had even told her mother that she did, but her reporter's hard head wouldn't let her.
Nothing Ellen had said made any sense, unless one decided that she *had* been drinking and just didn't want to admit her mistake. But why, for godsakes, Lois had asked Clark later, would a total stranger come into their home, drug her mother with spiked lemonade, then clean up all evidence of the lemonade and leave an empty Scotch bottle on the floor? Her father must have been right—Ellen was delusional.
Ellen, however, was ready to swear on a stack of bibles that she hadn't drunk anything but lemonade. She also said she'd mentioned this unknown woman to Lois and Clark before, but neither one could remember her having done so. However, as Clark pointed out to Lois, both of them had kind of gotten into the habit of not paying the strictest of attention to absolutely everything that came out of Ellen's mouth—there just weren't enough hours in the day for that.
It was possible, Lois had conceded, that Ellen might have said something to them about a woman who had stopped to compliment her on her "precious" grandchild when she'd taken Laura out in the stroller, but since they couldn't remember that particular monologue, that clue was a dead end.
Nor had the weekend been any easier for Clark. He'd divided his time between worrying about Lois and Laura; flying to various rescues, while worrying if Lois and Laura would be all right until he got back; wondering where his parents were, and if Lois and Laura would be all right during the time it would take him to look for them; and worrying about all the rescues he couldn't get to when Lois was at the hospital and he was taking care of Laura. And now the weekend was over, and here they were just a couple of days away from potential disaster yet again, so it wasn't surprising that they had little time to spare for jokes.
"How do things look for us, Ms. Hunter?" Clark asked.
"Please call me 'Constance,' she told them with a smile. She could hardly blame them for wanting to get to the point. Laura was an adorable child—dark hair and eyes, lovely skin and a winning smile. She certainly didn't look neglected.
"Thank you," Clark said. "And you don't have to be formal with us, either. 'Lois and Clark' will be fine."
"All right. Then let's get down to work." She picked up some official looking documents from her desk and handed them to Lois and Clark. "I'd say things look good. I have depositions from your pediatrician and the neighbor you said did some baby-sitting for you a couple of times. I've also spoken with Perry White, James Olsen and Penelope Barnes. All of these people have agreed to testify on your behalf. Still no word from your parents, Clark?"
Clark shook his head. "I'm afraid not."
"Well, it will probably be all right any way. These other people will be good witnesses. With the exception of the pediatrician, they've all been to your house—sometimes arriving unannounced—and say they can attest to your care of Laura."
At the sound of her name, Laura turned her face to Constance and smiled. The attorney found herself smiling back, and addressed her next remarks towards the baby. "And once the judge sees how normal and healthy this little cutie looks, well … it will be an open and shut case, won't it, Laura?"
Laura grinned even wider, then hid her face against her daddy's jacket. She had only begun to interact with other people in the last month, and so this was still a new game for her. The adults laughed at her expressions, relief intermixed with the humor.
Clark and Lois stayed for nearly an hour, while Constance outlined for them what they could expect to encounter during the hearing. It would take place in a small courtroom, and there would be no jury, just the judge. The basic procedure was similar to a criminal case in that there would be witnesses sworn in and questioned by each attorney, but there would be no reporters allowed and the witnesses had to wait in an anteroom until they were called. Also, the judge had been informed that Lois was nursing, and so allowances would be made for extra "feeding" breaks for Laura's sake.
"What about the judge?" Lois asked. "What's he—or she—like?"
"His name is Judge Pender, and I don't know much about him, I'm afraid. About all anyone will say is that he's 'all right,' so it's not possible to make a guess based on that. I've checked his record. He's had a few more decisions overturned than the average, but so have some other judges I've been up before and they were honest enough."
Lois and Clark exchanged worried looks. "And if he isn't?" Clark asked.
"If he isn't, he still has to make his rulings based on the case presented before him. Anything else and he risks disbarment and possible imprisonment. Let's not borrow trouble. I know you're concerned and it's understandable, but believe me, if I get one whiff of any trouble, I'll move for a mistrial."
They agreed, and Constance brought up another topic that she wanted to discuss with them. "By the way, I've learned—through the grapevine—that your Ms. Bailey is not universally liked at Child Services."
"She's not *our* Ms. Bailey," Lois interrupted, just barely keeping the disgust out of her voice.
"What I meant was she certainly seems to have latched on to you two. Don't you find it odd that she's appeared whenever you've had dealings with Child Welfare? There are, after all, dozens of other caseworkers in that division of Social Services. What are the odds that the three of you would keep bumping into each other like that?"
Lois and Clark looked at each other in surprise. It did seem peculiar now that Constance had mentioned it, but they'd been too harassed and worried to have given it much thought before.
"At any rate," Constance continued, "I'm looking into the possibility that she may have some hidden agenda in all this. She has a fairly good record, apparently, but it's uneven. We may be able to use that if we can show that there was no real cause for her intervention in this instance, but it may not be necessary to go that far. In my opinion, we have a good case, and add to that the fact that Laura wasn't immediately removed from your care—which I've since discovered is rather unusual—and I think we have a *very* good case.
Looking relieved, Lois and Clark thanked Constance for her time and got ready to leave. It would soon be time to feed Laura again, and she was beginning to get restive. While they were putting on their coats, the phone rang. Constance excused herself in order to answer it. At first the Kents' attention was all on their daughter, and getting her bundled up against the cold, but when Constance waved a hand in their direction, they stopped what they were doing and transferred their attention to her.
She listened to the person on the other end of the line for a couple minutes more before thanking him, or her, and hanging up the phone.
"That was someone who works at Child Services—my contact, I guess you'd call him," Constance said. "He's been helping me with the preparations for this case, and … that's not really relevant at this moment. I'm sorry. I'm not good at breaking bad news."
She paused for a moment. Lois and Clark reached for each others' hands without having to think about it.
"He's just learned that Child Services has two witnesses who will be testifying against you at the hearing."
"Witnesses! What in the Sam Hill kind of witnesses could they have? Judas Priest, if this isn't the damnedest thing I—!"
"Chief, please keep your voice down," Clark pleaded, "or you'll wake up Laura."
Perry took a moment to get himself under control, but the other people in the room could tell by the way his eyes flashed and his jaw worked, that he was still very upset. "I'm sorry, Clark," he managed to say finally, "but this has got me so worked up, I don't know how loud I'm talking, and that's the truth."
He was sitting in the living room of the Kents' brownstone; he and Sam Lane had come over after receiving worried phone calls from Lois and Clark.
"That's okay, Chief. Believe me, I understand."
Sam was pacing slowly back and forth in front of the fireplace, one hand in his pocket and the other worrying his moustache as he thought over what his daughter and son-in-law had told them. They were all trying to wait until Lois could come back downstairs after putting Laura down for her nap, but it was hard not to talk about this new setback, and impossible not to think about it.
"Do you have any idea at all who these people might be, Clark?" Sam asked.
"None at all, Sam. We won't know until the day of the hearing. All we know is that they claim to have seen us neglecting Laura."
"Neglecting how? That's not much to go on, which means there's also no way to prepare a counterattack."
Clark could only shake his head.
"Well, this is just ridiculous," Perry said in disgust. "Whoever these people are, they must have a grudge against you or be trying to grab some cheap publicity because I've seen you two with that baby girl, and there ain't nobody can convince me you're not taking care of her as you ought to be."
"Perry's right, Clark. The witnesses Ms. Hunter is collecting should be good enough to counter anything those other two might say. I'm sure everything will work out all right."
Clark ran his hand through his hair; a gesture of worry and frustration that he'd had to resort to more times than he'd like to think over the past couple of days. "I hope so, Sam," he replied fervently. As soon as he'd said this, he turned his head and looked towards the stairs, causing the other men to glance that way, too. It was another moment or two, though, before Lois came into view. Perry and Sam exchanged knowing looks over how connected the young couple was; often finishing each other's sentences, almost as if each knew what the other was thinking, much to Perry's secret amusement, and Sam's secret envy.
As soon as Lois was downstairs, she walked right into Clark's arms for a hug. "She's asleep … at least for now," she told him, worry and sadness behind her smile.
He held her for a moment more, needing her nearness as much as she needed his, then taking her hand, he led her to the sofas, where Sam and Perry were waiting for them.
"It seems to me, kids … " Perry began, but he was interrupted by a soft knock at the door. "Who in the Sam Hill could that be?"
Lois and Clark looked at each other and said, "Jimmy."
Actually it was Jimmy and Penny. They had noticed Lois and Clark's car parked in the street when they'd arrived to continue their quest of interviewing all the neighbors, and had stopped by to see if everything was all right. Like Perry and Sam before them they were stunned to hear the news about the two hostile witnesses.
"That's terrible, CK … Lois. What are you going to do about it?"
"We were starting to discuss it when you got here," Lois told him. "Thanks for remembering not to use the doorbell, by the way. I just got Laura down for her nap right before you came."
Penny nudged Jimmy and he blushed. "Well, to tell the truth," he admitted, "it was Penny who remembered. I was aiming for the doorbell when she practically tackled me."
Penny gave him a small push in protest, which he exaggerated into something much bigger. "See! Just like that!"
Everyone chuckled over their antics, but it wasn't long before they were back on the topic of the upcoming hearing.
Lex smiled as he slipped another piece of popcorn into his mouth. He was enjoying himself hugely today. Even though there was a chilly breeze, the sun was shining, he had the place to himself, another one of his former holdings had rejoined the LexCorp fold, and by now Lois and Clark must have heard about the two hostile witnesses. Warm and snug in his $800.00 coat, Lex revelled in his moment, anticipating his ultimate triumph.
The skill with which he had set up Lois and Clark—especially Clark—was the kind of maneuvering he most admired about himself. He loved to create mazes with more dead ends than passages, and from which there was no escape. It was delightful to picture Clark/Superman working his way through this particular maze … feeling the walls closing in around him … growing ever higher, the passages more narrow. The only fly in his ointment was the thought that Clark, dull superhero that he was, could scarcely appreciate the subtleties of the maze wherein he was trapped.
If Clark allowed The System to do its work, he was going to lose his child. If he defied The System and took the child into hiding, he'd lose the effectiveness of his secret identity. How could Superman continue to be the do-gooding, interfering nuisance he now was if he were busy being Clark Kent, fugitive father from justice?
Luthor almost laughed out loud at that idea. Ah, yes! Superman, on the lam! It had a nice ring to it, he thought.
He chewed on another mouthful of popcorn and moved to the right a little bit to get a better view. Things just couldn't be better. Either he got the child, or he got rid of Superman … he couldn't lose! A nice added bonus would be to have some revenge on Lois for the part she'd played in his downfall. He had wanted to give everything to her and instead he'd lost everything because of her … because of her refusal to kill that … that *thing* in tights! Well, now she was about to lose everything a mother cares most about—her child. It would serve her right, too.
He felt something stir inside him, but he resolutely swallowed it down, along with the last of the popcorn. He cared nothing for Lois Lane, or her child. All he cared about was winning, and getting back what was rightfully his. This town had been his until "Super"man had appeared, and it would be his again. And all he had to do was use Clark's own code against him. It was so laughably simple, too!
His hand-picked "foster parents" were standing by, ready to take custody of the child the instant the court ruled in his favor. Their spectacular deaths would be an unfortunate, but necessary, part of the plan because everyone must believe that the child had died with them. With the child totally under his control, and any trail which might lead back to him destroyed, he'd be able to sit back and watch as a pair of grief-stricken reporters tried to carry on. And if they couldn't, then so much the better. People had gotten divorced before over more minor problems than that.
On the other hand, if Clark did surprise him by defying the judge's orders and fleeing the city with Lois and the baby, then he would still have won. Clark Kent and Lois Lane would never be able to live and work in Metropolis again, which meant Superman wouldn't be able to be the city's full-time superhero any more, either. Lex thought he knew Clark well enough to believe he wouldn't defy the court order, however. Look at how badly he'd handled that whole sordid business of Lois's murder trial the year before! Lex was certain, although he had no proof, that Clark, in his guise as Superman, had broken Lois out of jail, but … when had he done it? Not until after she'd been convicted, and the state's attorney was shooting off his mouth about the death penalty.
No, good ole Clark would be hoping for vindication by the court and so would wait, thinking the child would be safe … and he would think that until it was too late.
What a waste, Luthor thought yet again, that such powers had been bestowed on that dullard!! If he, Lex, had had such powers, and the love of his life had been in peril, would he have tolerated her imprisonment for one instant? He would not! Of course, if Lois had had the good sense to marry him, she wouldn't have gotten into that situation in the first place, because he'd have put a stop to that reportering business just as soon as she was legally his.
His brow creased as he thought of this, but he wouldn't let himself stay gloomy for long on such a glorious day. That was in the past, and his future was looking brighter with each passing hour. He might not be able to get superpowers of his own, but he could make damn sure that someone else didn't enjoy theirs.
Signalling to Enrico that he was ready to leave now, Luthor discarded the empty popcorn container in the nearby trash receptacle. "Help Keep Our City Clean" read the hopeful sign on the side of the can.
"Clean … and superhero free," he remarked, to no one in particular.
"What?" Enrico asked, not having heard his boss's low-voiced quip.
"Oh, nothing. Just thinking out loud." He smiled now, noticing, even through the dark lenses on his sunglasses, how pale the other man was. These little jaunts were not to Enrico's liking, Lex knew, but they served a purpose. As ambitious as Mr. O'Reilly was, it was essential for him to be reminded, on occasion, just who the alpha male was in this operation.
There were certain advantages to being rich and powerful, not the least of which was being able to get into places during times when ordinary people could not—like the Metropolis Zoo on Mondays, when it was closed to the public. Some money, discriminately applied, a discrete phone call or two, and the thing was arranged.
As he strolled away from the lions' enclosure—purposely keeping his pace much more leisurely than Enrico would have liked—Lex savoured once again the thrill of watching the lions make a kill. Yes, "Spot" or "Rover" or whatever the unfortunate creature's name had been, had given him, and the lions, an exhilarating bit of sport. If only he could throw a powerless Superman in there. Now that would be something indeed! Except, he rather enjoyed the notion of killing Clark himself … someday. After he'd taken everything else away from him. Then … ah, then. It was delicious to think about "then."
"You know, Enrico," Lex observed congenially as they approached the limo, "all this fresh air has given me quite an appetite."
Enrico still looked a bit green around the edges, and so made no reply.
"I think I'm in the mood for something special tonight. Tell the chef I'd like Cornish hens for dinner. Roasted." He paused, and smiled a secret, wicked smile. "With *giblet* gravy."
"Yes, sir," Enrico managed to utter, his expression wooden as he seethed over Lex's treatment of him. He held the door so Lex could climb into the car wondering, even through his anger, what was it about the word, "giblet" that could make the other man laugh.
Tuesday morning dawned bright and clear, with the sky turning that deep, vibrant blue that one can see only in the Fall. The air was cold, but not yet the bitter cold of winter, and the people of Metropolis were already gearing up for the holiday season ahead. Halloween decorations had given way immediately to the green and red of Christmas, leaving poor Thanksgiving in evidence only in classrooms and card shops.
Lois and Clark were barely aware of the bustling in the streets, however. They were at the Planet as early as their care of Laura would allow, trying to let work distract them from their imminent day in court.
Lois, especially, had plunged into her quest to nail Lex Luthor for the recent labor unrest, and whatever else was wrong with Metropolis, if she could possibly do it. Perry and Clark were worried about her and tried to distract or help, each after their own fashion: Perry by bringing an encouraging progress report for the on-site day-care facility, and Clark by giving her a flowering plant for her desk, to replace the dead one he'd thrown out.
She'd smiled, and thanked them, and gone right back to work. Her requests for information had kept both Jimmy, when he was there, and the Research Department hopping.
Ellen had been released from the hospital Monday afternoon, slightly more coherent, but no less adamant about asserting her innocence. She still couldn't give a detailed description of the woman she claimed had visited her on Friday, but her repeated accounts of the events of that day began to have a ring of truth about them. If she'd been lying, it would have been much harder for her to keep her story straight during succeeding tellings. There were strange gaps in her memory, however, which made it extremely frustrating both for her and her listeners. Sam decided to do a little investigating of his own—into what kinds of drugs, or combination of drugs, could have caused these effects.
Jimmy, and Penny when she could spare the time from her classes, were continuing to interview Lois and Clark's neighbors. So far they hadn't turned up much, but there were a handful of people they hadn't yet seen. One person had thought he'd seen a young blonde woman jogging in the neighborhood a time or two, but when asked to further describe her all he could remember was that she'd worn purple jogging shorts. Short, purple jogging shorts. He remembered that particularly, he said, because he had wondered how she could be out in that outfit when it was as cold as it had been. From the reminiscent smile on his face, he'd been wondering more than just that, but neither Jimmy nor Penny thought it prudent to point that out.
No more dead bodies had been found in inconvenient locations, but Perry was still keeping this a front-page issue. No one, least of all the Daily Planet, wanted to return to the way things had been when Intergang had moved into town. There was concern that another crime organization was gearing up, and Perry's editorials had been hot on that topic, which had made the politicos sit up and take notice. Henderson hadn't cared for the publicity being aimed at his department, but he had suddenly received the extra money and manpower he'd been begging for for the past eight months, so he was able to see it as a mixed blessing.
Clark was having to use all his powers just to keep up with everything, and he still hadn't heard from his parents. He told himself that they were fine, that they could take care of themselves, and that they were probably just in an area with limited cell phone reception, but he was worried about them nonetheless. However, with having two jobs, plus wanting to be available for his wife and daughter as much as possible, he wasn't able to slip away to look for Martha and Jonathan.
Perry had added to his load by turning over the story of the murder investigations mostly to him.
"Clark, no one is getting anywhere with this, so I want you to take a look at it. You and Lois have pulled some rabbits out of hats a few times when the rest of us didn't know there was a hat, let alone a rabbit. I sure would like to nail whoever is responsible for all these shootings."
He'd handed over an 8-inch stack of folders, papers and photographs to Clark. "This is what we've got so far, and I'll make sure the Research Department delivers any updates to you pronto. I've got Paul and Janie working on it, too, with their city and homicide connections, so you should talk with them as soon as possible." He paused for a moment, as if choosing his words carefully. "I'm sorry to dump this on you now, Clark, but you are one of my best people and, well … this has got to be stopped."
"I know. Chief. It's all right." He'd taken the stack to his desk and started going through it. Perry was right. This had to be stopped. Eight murders in as many weeks was unthinkable.
In addition to all this, he'd been pursuing a side investigation of his own. His fears about abductions and experiments and cloning, had made him rethink the alleged Lex clone business. It occurred to him that if he could prove the non-existence of the clone, then Luthor would be exposed for the criminal he truly was, and be one less threat to him and his family. With that in mind, he'd begun accessing all the information he could find on cloning, digesting it at super speed, and had also contacted Dr. Klein and Dr. Hubert for their help.
It had taken some doing to locate Dr. Hubert because he'd gone into semi-retirement following the upheaval from the murder of his friend and colleague, Dr. Winninger. Clark had managed it, however, and found the good doctor willing to help. It had seemed just possible that Dr. Hubert might, because of his knowledge of the rain forest's ecosystem, have access to more information about the Dopple Buffo frog connection to cloning. Somewhere, Clark believed, there had to be something which would show him a crack in this public image Lex had created. If nothing else, maybe Luthor would hear that he was looking into cloning and get nervous. Clark wouldn't mind making Luthor nervous for a change.
Everyone who would be appearing in court the next day, with the exception of Constance and Ellen, met at Lois and Clark's house on Tuesday night to share what information they had and bolster each others' spirits. Ellen couldn't come because she'd been subpoenaed—just as she'd been getting into the car to go to Lois's house, no less—as a witness for the prosecution. Constance, apprised by phone of this not entirely unforeseen circumstance, had then recommended that Ellen, because she was now a hostile witness, stay away from the others until after the hearing.
Constance had been invited for the pre-hearing gathering and planned to attend, but in the end wasn't able to because there was still so much she wanted to do to be prepared for court the next day.
"I'm sorry, Clark," she told him when she phoned, "but I've had so many interruptions today that I'm going to have to work tonight. Please feel free to page me, if you have any questions though, and I'll be glad to answer them."
"Thanks for calling, Constance, and thanks for everything you're doing to help us. We appreciate it very much."
"You're very welcome. I'll see you in the morning."
As she hung up the phone, her eyes lighted upon the fax she'd gotten that morning. A major west coast-based firm was looking for well-respected lawyers to head up the legal departments of their eastern divisions. Her name had come up. If she was interested, they would like for her to attend a luncheon to be held that day, to meet other department heads and discuss possibilities. She'd been astounded, first by the offer itself and then by the suddenness of it all. This couldn't be for real!
But it was. There had also been a phone call from a gentleman with a wonderful voice who wanted to know if she'd received the fax.
"Yes, I did."
"Good. Good. We are very sorry for contacting you at the last minute like this," he apologized in smooth tones. "I know this must look like we're not very organized, but I assure you that that is not the case."
"Of course not."
"The problem is that our company's Board of Directors has decided that these positions must be filled by the end of the year. Some of them are in Metropolis this week for our east coast regional conference and would like to meet with as many of the best lawyers as possible. If you pass muster, we can have you on a plane by tomorrow for a more formal interview."
"Tomorrow! I can't. I have a case in court tomorrow."
"Surely you could find a replacement, Ms. Hunter," his persuasive voice making it all sound so reasonable. "This is a wonderful opportunity for a lawyer of your caliber. Let me tell you about the salary and benefits."
Constance's eyes had widened at the numbers and other tantalizing information which poured into her ear over the phone line.
"I'm sorry, Mr … Helms," she'd interjected at the first opportunity," but as much as I'm flattered by your offer—and believe me, I'm flattered—I can't accept it."
"But, Ms. Hunter, by coming to the luncheon you are not obligating yourself to anything. We just want to meet you and discuss our ideas with you. At least say you'll come to the luncheon. I can send a car to pick you up."
It had been so tempting, and his voice was so wonderful—almost hypnotic the way he could make the unreasonable sound reasonable—that she'd almost given in. "I can't. I am terribly sorry, Mr. Helms, but I can't."
"I'm sorry, too, Ms. Hunter, for I was looking forward to meeting you. I've heard so much about you."
This was all great for a girl's ego, but Constance had held firm on her refusal. Eventually he had hung up, taking his beautiful voice and his incredible offer with him. The kind of law office he'd talked about was no doubt what many lawyers dream of, but Constance had gone into law with different goals in mind and though she could admit to a slight pang of disappointment that she'd never get rich doing what she did, she also knew she'd made the right choice.
There had been other interruptions: a woman who begged Constance to handle her case, saying she was desperate; and a man who wanted to sue his next-door neighbor for causing him, he said, "extreme mental anguish." Yep, it had been quite a day.
In spite of all this, she'd been continuing, through her legal connections, to work on improving the case for Lois and Clark, and Laura. The more she dug, the more she learned … about the inner workings of the Social Services Department, and the Child Services Division, as well as who knew whom, who was truly interested in what was good for the kids, and who was just biding their time while collecting their paychecks. Still, though, she felt she needed something else to fall back on, just in case these mysterious witnesses were out for no good.
As Superman had once said about her, she could understand wickedness, such as greed, but she didn't want to be a part of it, which made her an excellent ally. She worked late into Tuesday night, going through everything her contacts had gotten for her, and researching law books looking for precedents to cite. And, in the end, the break she needed came in the guise of a phone call. A phone call she almost didn't take.
The voice on the other end was muffled. Impossible to say whether it was male or female. The fear, however was unmistakable. The voice gave her a name, and a place to look, and then it was gone. She sat for a moment, the dead receiver in her hand, pondering what she'd just heard. Then pushing the button to clear the line, she made a phone call of her own.
At four a.m. another body was found.
The Juvenile Courts section of the Justice Building was a grim and somber place, which made Lois shiver as she carried her child through its portals and into its marble and panelled halls. Clark noticed it, despite her best efforts to conceal it from him, and he quickly shifted the diaper bag and briefcase he carried to his other hand so he could put an arm across her shoulders. She made a sound, almost like a moan, deep in her throat, but it could still be heard by him. The pressure of his arm brought her to a halt and she looked up at him, with wordless horror in her eyes.
Instantly, he put the bags down so he could wrap both arms around her, creating an oasis for the three of them amidst the bureaucratic desert which surrounded them. "Lois … my love," he whispered to her, his voice ragged with emotion, "I won't let them take Laura from us. No matter what happens, we won't lose her. I promise."
"How can you promise that, Clark? We don't know what's going to happen."
"Because, if I have to, I'll pick up both of you and fly out of here, right in front of the judge and the lawyers and everybody."
"You'd do that? But what about Superman? It's been hard enough for you these past few weeks, not being able to respond to emergencies when you're watching Laura. How could you give up being Superman all together?"
He took a deep breath. "So, maybe that wasn't the best idea I've ever had, but I won't let anyone break up our family. I can get us out of here if I need to, Lois."
She leaned closer to him and put her head on his shoulder. Between them Laura slept peacefully in her mother's arms, blessedly unaware of the possible consequences of this day.
"I think that what we have to do now is to believe that things will turn out all right. We've got all our friends pulling for us, and Constance is doing everything she can for us. We're good parents, and we're going to prove it."
She nodded, her head still sheltered against his shoulder, then kissed Laura before looking up at him. "I love her so much, Clark," she murmured simply, haltingly, as if she could barely get out the words.
"I know, sweetheart," he replied, his heart breaking to see her so distressed. If his own death could have spared her this, he would gladly have offered it up. But here he was, the most powerful being in the world, and he couldn't do anything at this moment to ease her pain. The one time above all others that he wished he could use his speed or his strength, or any of his other powers, to make things right for his family, and all that was useless to him now. There was nothing he could do. Nothing beyond holding her, and he didn't see how that could be enough. "I love her, too. And you," he added, kissing first Lois and then Laura.
Lois stood in the sanctuary of his embrace a few moments more, then took a deep breath and straightened up, moving a little out of Clark's arms, letting him know that she was as ready as she'd ever be to proceed.
She waited while he picked up the bags again, then reached for his hand. "I don't know what I'd do without you, Clark," she said, the love she had for him plain in her eyes. "You always seem to be rescuing me."
Holding Lois's hand, he felt his heart swell with happiness, in spite of his worries. He'd been able to help her! Somehow, he'd been able give her what she'd needed. Just him—no super stuff needed, either. She was strong again, and he no longer felt powerless.
He'd thought he was helping her, but it turned out that they were helping each other.
Hand-in-hand they moved further into the building, heading for the elevators and the hearing rooms upstairs. About half way there Constance came up to them.
"I've just heard that we'll have a different judge than we thought we would. Judge Pender is very sick, and had to be rushed to the hospital at ten last night."
"What's wrong with him?" Clark wanted to know.
"They're not sure, apparently. It might be his heart."
"Who's the new judge?" Lois asked, her tone getting increasingly worried with each new sentence. "What's he like? I don't like this last minute change. It could be a set up of some kind."
"Set up?" Constance repeated. "I haven't uncovered anything that points to a plot or conspiracy of some kind. Have you?"
Lois and Clark looked at each other, then shook their heads. If there was some kind of conspiracy, it was well obscured. They always came back to the same question: if the point of this exercise had been to take their child away, then why hadn't Laura been taken?
"Okay, then this is just one of those things. It happens. Now, about this new judge—"
The clock on the front of the building suddenly began to chime, a reminder that time was slipping away from them.
"Come on," Constance told them, "I'll fill you in on the way to the hearing room. We'll have time for you to get Laura settled before things get started."
They moved towards the elevators once again, talking amongst themselves, their minds completely occupied with the upcoming hearing.
None of them noticed the person who'd stood watching from the corner of the lobby.
"This is the *worst* day of my life!"
"Ellen, honey—" Sam tried to console her, while trying to unlock Lois and Clark's front door. Her time on the witness stand had been physically and emotionally draining for her, and so he'd insisted that she get some rest. Since Lois and Clark's brownstone was closer than both her place and his, they had come here.
"You can't make me feel better, Sam. All I want to do right now is have a helluva good cry and maybe hit something. Preferably that prosecuting attorney."
By now Sam had the door unlocked and was holding it open for her. Once she'd passed through, he bent to pick up a manila envelope that had been leaning against the door. It was addressed to Clark and stamped with the words, "Daily Planet Research Department" and "Courier."
"Who does he think he is, trying to make me sound like some kind of deviant or-or criminal, or something?"
Sam followed his ex-wife into the living room, watching her as she paced about, venting her frustration and anger. She dropped her purse in the vicinity of a table, not bothering to see if it found its mark, nor seeming to care when it missed and fell to the floor. Her coat had slightly more success, although half of it, too, wound up on the floor. He went behind her, straightening or picking up her belongings, then placed the Daily Planet envelope and Lois's key ring on the coffee table beside Clark's other papers. Ellen was continuing her tirade. "He took everything I said and twisted it around to the point where I was made to look like a liar, and my daughter like some stupid, heartless female who would leave her child with anyone so long as she can pursue her career without interference. We all look like idiots or-or child murderers, and … "
Suddenly she stopped and turned to face him. He could see the anguish in her eyes and reached for her before she could finish the rest of her sentence. " … and Lois and Clark are going to lose that baby and it will be all my fault!"
Holding her, he walked with her over to one of the sofas and pushed her gently down onto it. He didn't know what he could say to comfort her, so he just held her and let her cry.
"Lois w-will never speak t-to me a-again," she sobbed.
"Sure she will, Ellen."
"Why should sh-she?"
"Because she's your daughter and she loves you. Besides," he added, trying to reassure her, "your testimony was only one little part of the hearing, Ellen. We can't know what the judge thought of it, either. She's got to be used to the tricks lawyers play by now."
Her crying had slowed, and she was looking around for a tissue. Sam handed her his handkerchief.
"And another thing," he added, "when I was here last night, Lois and the rest of them all had lots of plans for what they could say and do today."
Worried yet hopeful, she wanted to know what they had planned.
"Well, Penny, Jimmy and Perry are all going to be testifying. Dr. Klein is still helping me with the drug searches. And don't forget the pediatrician, not to mention that Jimmy has only two more neighbors to interview. He's going to try and do that when the hearing breaks for lunch."
"That's a longshot and we both know it," she interrupted glumly, focusing in on the last thing he'd mentioned.
"Hey, longshots have come in before." He gave her a quick hug and then moved to stand up. "Come on, I brought you here so you could rest. Do you want anything to eat, or some tea or—"
"No, I'm not hungry, and I don't think I could rest right now either. You'd better get back to the courthouse; just promise that you'll call me the minute you know something. I'm going to straighten things up a bit and then maybe I'll feel like resting. This place looks like they left in a hurry this morning," commented, glancing around her at the cups, glasses, papers, file folders and pens which seem to be on every available surface.
"Actually," Sam observed, "I think most of this is from last night. At least, I think it is. Clark was working when we arrived. All of this is for a story he's doing." He stood beside her as she began organizing things—putting the dishes at one end of the coffee table and sliding the piles of papers towards the other end—and thinking that Clark probably wouldn't like having his stuff rearranged. "I really think you should take it easy, Ellen."
"I can take it easy later, Sam. I feel better having something to do. If you could just get a tray from the kitchen for me, I can collect these dishes and wash them up for Lois."
Recognizing a lost cause when he saw one, Sam gave in and went to fetch the tray. He had his hands on it when he heard Ellen shout out his name.
"Sam! Sam, come here!"
He came running. "Ellen, what in the world—?" She was looking pale and excited, and shoved some papers into his hands the moment he got close to her. He could see that a Research Department envelope was among them and started to chastise her. "Ellen, you shouldn't have opened—"
"I didn't. I wouldn't—! Who do you think I am? Lois? No, it was already opened. That's not important. Look at this photo."
A quick glance in the direction of the coffee table showed him that she was telling the truth. The envelope he'd put there was still lying there, unopened. Now he looked at the stack she'd handed him and thought he saw the problem. "Ellen, I know this must have been upsetting for you. These are photos from those murder cases Clark is working on. Here, let me put these away so you—"
"No, Sam! Look at this woman. She's the one."
It was beginning to get through to him what she was saying. He looked up to see Ellen nodding and grinning at him in anticipation. Her eyes were tearing up again at the thought of being able to prove her story was true.
"Are you sure?
"Of course I'm sure. I keep telling everyone that I've seen her three or four times, but no one believes me. Here's the proof that I wasn't making it up. She-she's real. *She's* the woman who was here with me last Friday." She pulled the photograph from his hand and grabbed her purse and coat. "So," she asked him impatiently, "are you going to drive me to the police station or not?"
Lois and Clark listened while Perry was sworn in as a witness for the defense. It had been a long, wearying day for them, full of emotional highs and lows.
The state had come out swinging. In his opening remarks, the attorney for Child Services, Mr. Tregor, had pointed out that, as a long-time alcoholic, Ellen had had no business being put in charge of a child at all, and that Lois and Clark had shown poor judgement by allowing her to stay with Laura. Then he'd begun calling his witnesses.
Ms. Bailey—Ms. Gladys Hortense Bailey—had testified about what she'd found in the Kent townhouse on the evening in question. Tregor had had some problems keeping her on track, because she seemed to want to wander off into her own personal opinions of Lois and Clark. That tendency did lessen her professional image somewhat, but there was no doubt that her description of the crying baby and the stuporous grandmother had painted a damning picture.
Then it was Ellen's turn. She had tried her best, but Tregor had been able to fluster and confuse her to the point where her testimony had done more harm than good. Later, under Constance's more gentler handling, Ellen had been able to give a more coherent account of herself, which made it easier to see why Lois and Clark would have left Laura in her care. It was pointed out to the court that Ellen had been an outstanding nurse and was now in a position of trust with the Superman Foundation.
When Constance had concluded her cross examination, Tregor had stood back up to ask Ellen two more questions. "Are you, or are you not, an alcoholic?" There was, unfortunately, only one answer to that.
"And wasn't alcohol found in your bloodstream, Mrs. Lane?"
There was only one answer for that as well.
Constance had countered with a final question of her own. "Mrs. Lane, would you please tell the court how long, before this alleged incident, you had refrained from drinking alcoholic beverages?"
"Six years and ten months," Ellen had replied, her voice trembling and her eyes brimming with tears.
"Thank you, Mrs. Lane. I have no further questions for this witness, Your Honor."
The hearing had recessed at that point to give Lois a chance to tend to Laura, and for Constance to give her clients a pep talk. It was early in the day. They shouldn't let this one partial set-back discourage them. It wasn't over 'til it was over.
They listened, and thanked her, and tried to draw heart from her words, but handing Laura back to the aide assigned to care for her while they were in court was a reminder that, at the end of the day, they might be told to hand her over to foster care, and for a much longer time.
Constance had already told them about the phone call she'd received the night before, but the private detective looking into it for her hadn't been back in touch, yet. It would give a motive for Ms. Bailey's extreme actions as well as her persistent butting into Lois and Clark's private lives, but it wasn't the kind of evidence that any of them was comfortable using. They'd all agreed, however, that if necessary, they would use it and anything else they had to, in order to protect Laura.
When the hearing had resumed, the two "mystery" witnesses had made their appearances. They turned out to be people who claimed to have seen Lois leaving her baby alone in a parked car while she'd run into a store, and to have overheard Lois and Clark arguing while the baby cried in her stroller. Tregor had managed to intimate that these instances were probably just the tip of the iceberg and that these two well-known reporters—reporters who must work incredibly long hours to be able to get all the exclusives they do—weren't taking their parenting duties seriously.
Child Services, Tregor asserted, wasn't advocating permanent removal of the child from the home, but rather they believed that Laura would be better off in a foster home while the parents were attending court-mandated classes and therapy sessions. The days were past when Social Services would try to keep a family together no matter what. What mattered—what should always matter—was the good of the child.
"It's like he's running for office or something," Clark whispered to Lois.
Constance, for her part, had made each witness go over every part of their testimony again. They stuck by their stories, but she was able to trip them up a bit over a couple of the details. Enough, anyway, to cast some doubt over their testimony. Mr. Tregor asked them again if they were sure it had been Lois and Clark whom they'd seen. They each said yes, one of them, this time, with just a trace of hesitancy in her voice. The State rested, and it was the Defense's turn.
Dr. Langdon, Laura's pediatrician, stated that Mr. and Mrs. Kent had always kept all the necessary "well baby" appointments, and that Laura was the picture of health, with no evidence of neglect.
The neighbor who had stayed with Laura while Lois and Clark had gone out a couple of times, said that she'd never noticed anything that would be a cause for alarm: the baby's things were all clean and just as they should be, and Laura herself seemed to be a healthy, happy little girl. "In fact," she asserted, "I wish I could sit with her more often, but I have grandchildren of my own, you see, and I also like to take trips with my friends. We went to Niagara Falls in June."
When the judge adjourned the hearing for lunch, Sam—rather surprisingly—hadn't yet returned from driving Ellen to Lois and Clark's house. Perry and the others were still waiting for their turn in the witness stand, and listened anxiously to the progress report given by Clark. Jimmy, after hearing how things had gone so far, was even more determined than ever to try and interview the two remaining neighbors on Hyperion. He'd dashed off, forgoing lunch, but vowing to return in time for his turn as a witness. Constance had gone to her office for a while, to check on something, so that left Perry and Penny to take a subdued Lois and Clark out for a bite to eat.
With the best will in the world, neither Lois nor Clark could tell the other two which way the judge seemed to be leaning. She was the most poker-faced woman Lois claimed to have ever seen. "All she does," Lois said gloomily, "is look over the top of her glasses at people, and take notes. Lots of notes. She spends so much time looking down at her notes, that you can't tell what she's thinking."
"Constance told us that Judge Rice is considered to be kind of tough, but fair," Clark added, trying to be as positive as he could.
"I hope she's right," Lois muttered.
At two o'clock the hearing had reconvened. Penny had been summoned and had told of stopping by the Kents' house a few times with her boyfriend, Jimmy Olsen. She'd never seen Lois or Clark be anything but good parents to Laura. Then Jimmy's name had been called.
"The Defense calls James B. Olsen to the stand, please."
Lois leaned over and whispered to Clark, "Wouldn't you know … the one time we *want* Jimmy to pop into a room, he's no where to be found."
After a brief consultation, it was decided to skip Jimmy's testimony for the time being, and move on to the next witness, Perry White, Chief Editor of the Daily Planet. He was a good witness; not nervous as Penny had been or meandering like Ms. Bailey, but direct and to the point, answering the questions Constance put to him in a voice full of conviction. If his expression softened when he mentioned Laura, then so much the better. It showed the depth of his feelings for that little girl. Surely someone who cared that much for the child would want what was best for her.
Then Mr. Tregor got up to cross examine. His technique was quite different from Constance's. His first few questions were asked in a rapid-fire manner, barely giving Perry a chance to answer. As a method of unsettling a witness, it was superb: The Daily Planet was a great newspaper. He was sure that Mr. White must be proud of the work they do there. Wouldn't he say that reporters—if they want to get good stories—have to work incredibly long hours? Wouldn't it be fair to say that it's difficult to have a good family life under such circumstances? Mr. White, isn't it true that your own family life suffered because of your work?
"Objection!" Constance's voice rang out.
"Sustained. Mr. Prosecutor, let's not badger the witnesses today, understood?"
"Certainly, Your Honor. I was only trying to show that reporters, who are as good at their jobs as Mr. and Mrs. Kent obviously are, might have a difficult time being good parents, too."
"You are allowed to make your points, Mr. Tregor, but you can't do it— in my courtroom—by badgering witnesses. Have I made myself clear?"
"Perfectly clear, Your Honor."
Mr. Tregor reached up to straighten his already perfectly straight tie, and thought about his next move. "Mr. White. Would you say that a reporter's job is a dangerous one? When I think of some of the stories Clark Kent and Lois Lane have written about, I'm impressed at their courage: Intergang, terrorists, deranged scientists—"
"Now just a minute here! Surely you're not trying to say that Lois and Clark would ever endanger their child, or anyone else's for that matter, just to get a story!"
"No, of course not, although that's an interesting point you've brought up. However, what I was referring to was how much personal danger they must be subjected to in order to get the kinds of headlines that they do."
"Well, there is a certain amount of danger involved, but they're real pros and don't put themselves in danger just for the heck of it. They're not Evel Kneivel, for pete's sake!"
"No one is implying that they are, Mr. White. But, since they are involved in such potentially dangerous work, such high stress work, wouldn't it be fair to say that that same stress might manifest itself in ways that are—"
"Now hold on there, buster!"
"Don't you think that they might, understandably, need some help in handling that stress? That they can't be the parents I'm sure they want to be because—?"
Judge Rice pounded her gavel. "Order, please! Gentlemen, I see no reason to shout. We are none of us deaf."
Both men began to speak at once.
"Judge, I—" "Your Honor—"
She pounded her gavel again. "I believe, Counselor, that you had asked Mr. White a question. I would like to hear his answer." She turned her attention to Perry. "Mr. White, would you like the court recorder to read the question out to you?"
"No, thank you. I remember the question. That rascal," he said, pointing to the prosecutor, "was asking if I thought Lois and Clark were being good parents as well as good reporters."
"Very well. Please proceed."
Tregor appeared to be weighing the pros and cons of arguing with a judge, but then he bowed slightly and stepped back towards his table, giving the floor to Perry. Unnoticed in all this commotion, Constance's secretary quietly slipped into the room to hand her a large envelope.
"Thank you, Judge." Perry cleared his throat slightly, using this time to get his thoughts together. He was still angry at how Tregor had tried to manipulate him, but all his years of editing for a deadline came to his aid, and in less time than anyone could have thought possible, he was master of himself again and ready to do battle.
"Yes, it's true that Lois and Clark have gotten a lot of exclusives for the Daily Planet. But, if anyone thinks that they do what they do just for the headlines, then that person would be wrong. It's not just about headlines. It's about searching for the truth. It's about being a voice for people who have no voice, and about trying to make the place you live in a better, safer place for everyone. It's about caring and commitment, even when it may seem like no one else cares if you have a commitment."
Perry paused for a moment, and Tregor opened his mouth as if he were going to ask another question, but he caught the judge's warning glance, and wisely changed his mind.
"Lois and Clark are the best reporters it's ever been my privilege to work with. They are dedicated and hard-working, and yes they have put in some long hours, and they have put themselves in dangerous situations before. But … and this is a big 'but,' they are also the best parents I've seen in a long time. Lois there has been fighting for an in-house day-care facility in the Planet building. They have both decided to work reduced schedules while Laura is so young so that they can spend more time with her.
"As far as that stress thing goes … well, if there's anyone who knows about stress and how not to handle it, it's me. I've done a lot of things wrong in my life, not the least of which was burying myself in my work when I should have been spending time with my family. Maybe Lois and Clark have learned from my mistakes, or maybe," he stopped long enough to smile in their direction "they're just plain smarter than I was, but whatever the reason, I'd say they're doing all the right things. Now, I don't know what happened in their house last Friday afternoon, but I do know two things for sure: that they love each other and they love that little girl."
Perry stopped and, taking a deep breath, relaxed back into his chair. Lois and Clark smiled at each other, relieved and grateful to Perry for what he'd just said. Surely, this would help to turn the tide in their favor. Mr. Tregor, getting a nod from Judge Rice, stepped forward again.
"Mr. White, I have listened very carefully to all that you have said, and I can truly appreciate that you care for this young couple before us here today. I can also see that you care very much what happens to Laura Kent. I think we all do, and that's why we are here. Having said that, I must point out that none of this changes the fact that the Kents allowed a woman with a history of alcoholism to watch over their child, and that because of it the child was left unattended while that same woman—the child's own grandmother—drank herself into a stupor." He paused, allowing that seemingly indisputable fact to hang in the air, then added. "I have no further questions for this witness, Your Honor."
Into the heavy silence, the judge thanked Perry for his time and told him he might step down. She then turned towards Constance. "Counselor, will you call your next witness?"
Constance stood to address the court. "Actually, Your Honor, I was going to ask for a short recess. Mrs. Kent needs to feed the baby again."
As if on cue, the distinctive sound of a baby's cry could be heard getting ever closer, and then the door to the courtroom opened just far enough for the aide to peer around its edge.
The judge smiled. "It would seem that we are in recess, ladies and gentlemen." She banged the gavel, but not too loudly, and exited into her own chambers.
Once they had moved into the small interview room down the hall, which Lois had been using when she needed to feed Laura, Lois and Clark turned worried faces toward their lawyer.
"That Tregor is hanging on to mother's alcoholism the way I hang on to a story. He's not letting up. What are we going to do?"
Clark had been holding Laura while Lois draped a small blanket over one shoulder and the front of her blouse. Now he handed the baby to his wife. "The envelope that arrived during Perry's testimony … is that what I think it is?"
Constance nodded. "It is, and it could deal a real blow to their side. So we need to decide what to do. I can put each of you on the stand as soon as we reconvene, or we can start with this." She laid the envelope down on the table between them. "Strategy-wise, I think it would be better to use this first, then put Clark on the stand, then Lois. Lois, you, as the mother, will carry a lot of emotional weight with the judge. It would give us a good, strong finish." She pulled out a chair and sat down. "Let's plan our next step."
Back in the hearing room once again, with the shadows lengthening as the day drew to a close, Judge Rice addressed them, "It's getting late, ladies and gentlemen, and I know we are all getting tired. However, I think we have time for one more witness." She nodded to Constance. "Counselor, you may proceed."
Constance rose from her chair. "Thank you, Your Honor." She looked over at Lois and Clark, as if to see if what she was about to do still had their blessing. They both looked unhappy, but grimly determined, and nodded for her to continue. "I would like to re-call Ms. Gladys Bailey to the stand."
Mr. Tregor turned quickly to his two assistants, a question in his eyes, but they could only shake their heads. They didn't understand this tactic either.
The request for Ms. Bailey's presence was relayed to the anteroom, but before she could respond, the door to the hearing room suddenly burst open and an extraordinary number of people poured into the room: Inspector Henderson, Sam and Ellen Lane, Jimmy with an unknown person in tow, Perry, Penny and even Dr. Klein were all there and all talking at once. The attorneys, assistants, defendants and court personnel were all on their feet, astounded by this untoward interruption. Only Judge Rice kept her seat, observing and listening, but keeping her gavel ready, just in case things really got out of hand.
Clark, glancing her way, thought he saw a twinkle in her eye, and was heartened by it. So, there was more to this lady than just toughness!
"We have new evidence, Your Honor … "
" … and then I found Mr. Chase. He's been out of town … "
"There was this photograph of the woman who … "
"And our investigation turned up an address where she had … "
" … the combination of these drugs would render someone helpless to resist … "
" … a suicide note and a bottle of pills, Your Honor."
" … he saw the blonde woman knocking on Lois and Clark's door."
"She apparently killed herself out of remorse for what she'd done."
The several individual tales came to an end, gradually petering out like a round sung by a classroom choir, and they all looked at the judge expectantly. She took a moment to carefully place her gavel back on its stand before folding her hands in front of her and facing the assembled crowd.
"Everyone take a seat, please." She noticed Ms. Bailey hovering undecided near the door, and motioned for her to come into the room. When everyone was settled again, she pointed at Henderson. "You are Inspector Henderson, of the Metropolis Police Department, is that correct?"
He came forward. "Yes, Your Honor, I am."
"Good. Now, can you give a clear account of what everyone was so enthusiastically trying to tell me just now?"
"I will certainly try to, Your Honor." He then proceeded to explain how Sam and Ellen Lane had brought in the photograph of the woman they said had been in the Kents' house last Friday. Unfortunately, the young woman in question was now dead, a victim, it had first been thought, of the same person who'd been murdering so many of Metropolis's citizens over the past few weeks. However, subsequent—and very hurried—investigations had turned up an address for her, and there they'd discovered notes which explained why she drugged Ellen Lane. Apparently, she had planned to take the Kents' baby, but panicked when Mrs. Lane became unconscious. Pills were also discovered in this young woman's apartment which could incapacitate a victim as well as make them powerless to prevent anyone from making them do anything … such as drink something they wouldn't ordinarily have drunk. In addition, Jimmy Olsen had finally tracked down a neighbor of Lois and Clark's who had seen the young woman enter the Kents' townhouse on Friday afternoon. This man had been out of town on family matters and had only just returned today.
"Thank you, Inspector. You may sit down. Ms. Hunter, do you still wish to question Ms. Bailey?"
Constance looked to Lois and Clark, seeing the answer to that question in their eyes. "No, Your Honor, in light of this new evidence, I don't think that will be necessary now."
"Do you wish to call any other witnesses?"
"Just one, Your Honor. Lois Lane Kent."
There was a hush in the courtroom as Lois was sworn in. Constance, aware of the tension in the air, didn't wait long before asking her questions. "Mrs. Kent, for the record, do you love your daughter, Laura?"
"Would you ever do anything to deliberately harm her in any way?"
"No. I would not."
"Did you ever leave your child alone in your car while you went into a store?"
"Did you ever neglect your child in order to pursue your own interests," a slight smile appeared on Constance's face, "such as arguing with your husband?"
"No. We never did anything like that. We wouldn't do anything like that."
Constance nodded for her to continue.
"Clark is the best person I know. He's a wonderful father, and a wonderful husband. We wanted this baby very much—had even been afraid we might not be able to have children—so there is no way that we'd neglect her or hurt her." Lois's voice was trembling slightly now, making her look to Clark as if for support, and he didn't fail her. His eyes were moist, but on his face was a look so expressive of the love he had for her, and faith he had in her, that anyone who saw it could not fail to believe in their rightness as a couple. Not taking her eyes off of him, but addressing everyone in the room, she said, "Laura is a part of us … a part of the love we have for each other. We could never do anything to harm that."
Constance let the room grow silent, then she looked towards the bench and knew the judge had seen what she'd wanted her to see. She turned to the prosecutor. "Your witness, Mr. Tregor."
He thought about it for a moment, then shook his head.
"You may step down, Mrs. Kent," Judge Rice stated.
"Your Honor," Constance announced, "the Defense rests."
"Very well, Ms. Hunter," the judge replied. She took a moment to arrange the papers on her desk, and to remove her glasses. Folding her hands in her customary gesture, and making sure she had everyone's attention she continued, "I want to thank the attorneys on both sides, and also to extend my appreciation to the witnesses for everyone's efforts today on behalf of young Laura Kent. As Mr. Tregor has so ably pointed out, that is what we are all here for … the good of the child.
"I have listened attentively to all the evidence presented today, and everything that has been said, denied, contradicted or substantiated. It all comes down to one thing: are Clark and Lois Kent being good parents to their daughter, Laura, or are they neglecting her? This has been an interesting case, and not just for the dramatic, last second rescue efforts by Mr. and Mrs. Kent's own personal cavalry."
There was a low murmur of laughter at this sally, but most of those present were too keyed up with suspense to be able to fully enjoy it.
"And, while I enjoy drama, I must say that the evidence they brought, although most interesting and informative, did not actually change my opinion on this case."
Lois and Clark turned to each other with frightened eyes and held hands a little tighter, while many of the others began whispering to each other, and Mr. Tregor began to look pleased with himself once again.
Judge Rice held up a hand for silence, and the whispering died down. "It has been pointed out that Mrs. Lane is an alcoholic and that Mr. and Mrs. Kent should not have left their daughter with her. That by doing so they were being neglectful, and should therefore be made to place their child in foster care. With this opinion I must say that … "
Everyone seemed to hold their breath.
" … I do *not* concur."
The room erupted in shouts of joy. Lois and Clark hugged each other and Constance, as did Sam and Ellen. Henderson and Perry shook hands, and Jimmy, after first hugging Penny, wanted to hug everybody else. When he reached Perry's side however, he suddenly remembered that he'd had strict orders not to do any such thing. Perry, seeing the uncertainty on his face, grinned and pulled the younger man into a giant bear hug.
Judge Rice let this state of affairs continue for a few minutes and then banged her gavel to restore order. "Neglect is much more serious than a single lapse of judgement, such as letting people one barely knows into one's home. Neglect involves a pattern of irresponsibility, or even intentional harm, that frankly I do not see in this case. And so, I would have found for the defendants even without the new evidence supplied by Inspector Henderson … and his troops."
This time the joke could be better appreciated by most of the people in the room. If Tregor's smile was a bit forced, well, that was understandable.
"I want to say now, for the record, that this new evidence completely exonerates Mrs. Lane from blame as far as the charge of neglecting her granddaughter through wilful drunkenness. She might, however, want to be more careful in the future about whom she allows inside the house when the child's parents are not at home."
Ellen nodded emphatically, a beatific smile on her face. "I certainly will, Your Honor, ma'am."
Sam reached out and put an arm around her.
"I am pleased that your reputation as a baby-sitter, and a grandmother, has been restored, Mrs. Lane."
"Thank you, Your Honor."
Judge Rice smiled back, and then turned her full attention to Lois and Clark. "Mr. and Mrs. Kent, this court apologizes to you most sincerely for the ordeal you have had to endure today. There was no cause for you to be subjected to this hearing, and I want to personally assure you that certain current procedures will be investigated thoroughly, in hopes that other good parents will not have to endure this same kind of suffering."
She directed a glare in Ms. Bailey's direction, which caused that lady to shrink a bit in her seat. Mr. Tregor was busy putting his papers together and avoiding the judge's eye, but when he heard her clearing her throat he felt compelled to look up. What he saw on her face didn't make him feel any better.
Having made her point to her complete satisfaction, Judge Rice looked once more in Lois and Clark's direction. "Mr. and Mrs. Kent, this judgement completely absolves you of the charge of wilful neglect of your daughter, Laura." She banged the gavel once more. "This hearing is adjourned," she declared in a formal judge-like tone, then added in a more gentle voice to Lois and Clark, "Go get your little girl."
Removing her black robe in her chambers, Judge Rice could still hear the sounds of jubilation from the courtroom. She could grin now about how the hearing had ended, something she would never allow herself to do while she was on the bench. She'd had her doubts about this case from the beginning, but after watching the Kents from a corner of the courthouse lobby that morning, she'd been nearly certain that the charges against them were unfounded. Further observation of the couple throughout the day, especially how attuned Lois was to the baby's needs, made her even more doubtful about neglect. Being a judge, however, carried with it certain responsibilities, and she was not a woman who took those responsibilities lightly. It was with relief that she'd been able to render a judgement which backed up her instincts.
"Come in!" she called out, in response to a knock on the door, and wasn't too surprised to see Lois and Clark enter, carrying baby Laura with them.
"Judge Rice," Clark began, "we're sorry if we're interrupting you, but we just wanted to say thank you."
"You're welcome, Mr. Kent, but the real credit goes to both of you, you know." She reached forward to lightly caress the baby's head. "You're doing a fine job with this little lady. I want to say again how sorry I am for what you've been through. I suppose, in your line of work, you must be used to being front-page news, but this can't have been pleasant for you."
Lois smiled. "I think Perry is going to take care of that. He's got big plans for the Daily Planet's front page tomorrow."
"PLANET REPORTERS COMPLETELY VINDICATED"
"KENTS NOT GUILTY OF NEGLECT"
"KENTS KEEP KID"
Thursday morning's newspapers lay untouched on Lex Luthor's desk. He hadn't needed to look at them; the bad news had been all over the various media with distressing comprehensiveness since yesterday evening. It was really quite sad when one thought of how easily the news of disasters could be spread.
Luthor sighed. Didn't anyone report good news anymore?
The last two days had been perfectly miserable for him, especially since Monday had been so full of promise. But Tuesday had brought with it the unpleasant information that the old LexLabs' computer files about cloning had been accessed. That shouldn't have happened; those files were supposed to be secure! Even though the information in them was encrypted, he'd still put one of his best people onto creating better firewalls to keep out intruders, and had learned in the process that this particular intruder had been none other than Clark Kent. Furious, and at the same time frightened, he'd been in no mood to hear that Ellen Lane's memories were more intact than he'd been led to believe they would be.
Things had gone downhill from there. His sources told him that Ms. Bailey had been investigated by a person or persons unknown, and he could only assume that whatever was found would be turned over to the Kents or their lawyer. He was worried that if they were investigating Ms. Bailey, it might not be too much longer before they discovered his contact. The judge he'd had in his pocket had turned out to have a weak heart—or was it a weak stomach—and Ms. Hunter had proved unmoveable. Thus, the young woman who'd helped to drug Ellen Lane had had to be disposed of, although … he had to admit he'd been able to turn that to good account. Her "suicide" would be reason enough for investigators to cease searching for other motives—or possible "accomplices."
For most of the day, however, it had been just one damned thing after another. He'd watched helplessly as the case he'd created against Lois and Clark had collapsed into dust.
To add insult to injury, he might now have to dispose of one of his best computer people, if that young man got curious enough to try to decode the files he'd been ordered to secure. Luthor hated waste, but he would have hated being exposed even more. So, the young man from the computer lab would have to be carefully watched. As for the two operatives he'd had lined up to be temporary foster parents, well he was having them dealt with next week. They believed they were being relocated, and, when you thought about it, they were … just not in the way they were expecting. He'd decided that they would need to disappear, but not from Metropolis. Things needed to die down a bit after all the recent "excitement," but he was basically satisfied that, for the time being, he'd gotten his message across to the people who'd needed it, and who would understand it.
Not even that thought could reconcile him to his current situation for long. Cursing all unbribable judges, attorneys who were too full of themselves to seek a postponement, and a world where the only pawns available were those who were too stupid to truly be of use, Luthor pulled furiously on his cigar until the end of it glowed as white-hot as his anger.
Lois sensed, rather than felt, Clark getting out of bed. She was used to his nocturnal comings and goings, however, and so probably would have been able to fall right back to sleep, if the last few days weren't still so fresh in her mind. As it was, the same thoughts which couldn't keep her awake a few hours earlier, were now able to force her to full wakefulness because she'd had some sleep.
A week ago tomorrow … that's when it had all begun, and now it was over. Laura was safe at home with them, and they'd been completely vindicated of the charges against them. It had all worked out so well, and everything was so much like it had been before, that the entire incident carried with it a sense of unreality—more like a vivid nightmare, than an actual period of time in her life.
Even Martha and Jonathan had finally been accounted for, having phoned last night to tell them about the Native American sites they had been visiting. They'd been astounded, then dismayed, and finally elated at the news Clark had to tell them, and had felt guilty about having had a good time while such awful things had been happening in Metropolis. Clark, with Lois on the extension, had had a difficult time easing their minds, not to mention talking them out of turning the RV around and heading for home.
Everything was fine, they'd told them. Enjoy your trip—you've earned it. We'll see you for Christmas.
Except … everything wasn't completely fine, Lois thought as she lay in bed. There were still too many loose ends for her taste. Too many unanswered questions left lying around out there, for her peace of mind. But, as Perry had pointed out, "Life ain't always as neat as we would like it to be. Sometimes, Lois, you're going to have ragged edges."
"But I don't like ragged edges," Lois muttered into the dark room.
Fully awake now, she decided to get up and check on Laura. It would be time to feed her again in another hour, if she didn't wake up before then, that is. All the craziness of the last few days had affected her, too, and had interfered with her normal routine. She'd handled it pretty well, poor little thing, but it would probably be a few more days before she was back on schedule.
Lois slipped on her robe and walked barefoot towards Laura's room, turning on the hallway light as she went. When she got to the doorway, she was surprised to find her husband standing beside the crib, watching the baby—she'd been so sure he was off being Superman. He looked a bit embarrassed to be caught this way, but Lois thought it was sweet. This was just the sort of thing that made her fall in love with him all over again.
He smiled and came towards her.
"Hi," she whispered. "I thought you'd left for a rescue, and here I find you just hanging around. Was she stirring?"
He shook his head before gathering her into his arms. "No. I couldn't sleep, that's all. So, I thought I'd see how she was doing." Nodding back towards the sleeping baby, he added, "I never get tired of watching her. It's almost as if she changes from moment to moment."
"I know what you mean. I love watching her, too. I'm so afraid I'm going to miss something. One of those 'first' things, you know: first smile, first word, first step, that I want to be with her every moment I can."
They held each other a little longer, just content to be together and to have things peaceful for a while.
"Mmm," Lois murmured, "this is so nice. It can't last, you know. Either Laura is going to wake up or someone will yell, 'Help, Superman!,' or—"
"Well, maybe," he whispered, grinning at her resigned but humorous tone, "we should take advantage of it while we can."
She looked at him suspiciously. "And just what did you have in mind?" she asked, certain that she knew the answer already.
"Hot chocolate," he replied promptly.
"I've never heard it called *that* before," she muttered.
"Ms. Lane! I'm surprised at you!" he chastised her, looking both shocked and innocent at the same time.
Her eyebrows went up in disbelief, and his expression became even more innocent than before, if that was possible. "I don't see why you should be surprised, Clark Kent. You know perfectly well what you were talking about."
"No, I don't think I do. What did you think I was talking about?"
"Nothing, at all," she replied grandly, seeing that he was bent on continuing this charade.
"Huh-uh." He eyes twinkled down at her, making her grin.
"Okay, hot chocolate sounds good, so I'll play along. You can start it, since it was your idea, and I'll go put my slippers on."
When she got downstairs, he already had a pan of milk on the stove and was measuring the cocoa and sugar into two mugs. "Do you want something to eat, too?" he asked.
"No, thanks. The cocoa will be plenty. You've got to give me your secret recipe some day. Your hot chocolate always tastes about ten times better than the instant I have to make."
"I'd be happy to give you private lessons in anything at all, my dear."
"I bet you would."
"As for the recipe, it was given to me by a very kind and generous Dutch woman I met in The Hague."
"Oh … was she pretty?"
"Pretty? Yes, she was pretty." He grinned at her. "She was also old enough to be my grandmother."
"Oh." Lois had to laugh at herself, and her reaction to the thought of Clark with any other woman but her. Even after all this time, and even though she was absolutely sure of him, she could still get these feelings. It didn't appear that Clark was bothered by her moments of jealousy or possessiveness. In fact, he seemed to take it as a compliment.
The milk was hot now and Clark poured it into the mugs, stirring the mixtures carefully. Lois could feel that he was preoccupied about something, even though he'd been doing a good job of covering it up with all his teasing and joking around. She waited until he'd brought the mugs to the table, and they'd had a couple of sips, before she asked him about it.
"So … how come you couldn't sleep?"
"Oh, you know … just thinking about things."
"Mostly that there are just too many unanswered questions."
"Too many loose ends."
"Exactly. That young woman who's supposed to have drugged your mom, for example. I'm not completely convinced that her death was a suicide."
"Neither is Henderson, but there's not much more anyone can do on that. You read the coroner's report, Clark, just as I did. What bugs *me* about her is where she would have gotten the drugs she used on mom. There's nothing in her preliminary profile which would indicate that she could have access to such things, let alone know how to use them."
"I agree, which makes her death even more suspicious. And, as far as wanting to steal a baby as a means to keeping her boyfriend by her side … " he added, in a tone of disbelief.
"Well, sometimes love brings out the best in people, and sometimes it brings out the worst. Not every woman can find a great guy like I did. I'm one of the lucky ones."
She watched as his expression softened, then he leaned over and kissed her. "Thank you." He took his free hand and reached for hers, playing with her fingers in a way that told her he wasn't completely ready to let go of this problem. "I guess you're right. Sometimes people do crazy things for the people they love. But, doing crazy things and being crazy enough to kill yourself are two different things, Lois."
"But, honey, the coroner said that while it was unusual for a suicide to shoot themselves in the back of the head, it wasn't entirely unprecedented. The angle was achievable and they did find gunpowder traces on her hands and the gun beside the body, remember."
"They also found a bruise on her cheek and another on her arm."
"Which she could have gotten in that fight with her boyfriend."
"Ah, yes," Clark replied skeptically. "The fight she mentioned in her suicide note. But what if that note was phoney? Then those bruises could have been caused by her murderer."
"I thought of that, too, but if her boyfriend was the murderer then why would he leave a note lying around that could incriminate him?"
"Maybe he didn't know about it.".
"Maybe … " Lois thought of another point. "Henderson said they haven't been able to ID any boyfriend for her, anyway. Maybe she imagined him because she wanted one so badly."
"And gave herself those bruises, too?"
Lois frowned as she thought over the various possibilities. "I know it doesn't make much sense, Clark, but we've seen even stranger things than this before."
They were silent for a moment or two, sipping their hot drinks. "This whole situation just bugs me," Clark said eventually. "I feel like we're missing some vital bit of information that would make it all fall right into place."
"I know what you mean. Sometimes I almost think I've got the missing piece of the puzzle, but then it turns out that it doesn't quite fit after all. We both know how good I am at sniffing out conspiracies, but I just can't see it here … at least not with what we've been able to learn so far. There's just this one pathetic girl who wanted someone love her, and another even more pathetic woman who couldn't give up her fantasies about a married man."
"Even that theory about there being something fishy behind the sudden change in judges turned out to be wrong. Judge Rice was completely honest and on the level."
"I didn't like that prosecutor, though, Clark. He liked his job way too much. Even though the judge says she would have ruled in our favor, I'm still grateful Mom saw that photo when she did and took it to Henderson."
"Yes, that was one of those incredibly lucky things that happens once in a while. If Perry hadn't assigned me to that story, and told Research to forward copies of everything to me right away, and—"
"If Laura hadn't spit up on me at the last minute so that I'd have to go change my blouse … "
"Then we would have already have left the house before that envelope was delivered, and I would never have opened it that morning."
"Kind of gives you a different perspective on being spit up on, doesn't it?"
Clark thought about that one for a moment, and then shook his head. Lois was shaking hers, too. "Nah," they said in chorus, and laughed.
"It's good that we suggested Mom come here instead of going all the way out to her place to rest." Lois grew quiet suddenly, as another thought about her mother came back to her. "Mom could have been killed by the combination of the drugs and the alcohol. From what Dr. Klein told me, we're lucky she passed out when she did, and scared the woman away."
Clark reached for her hand, comforting her.
"I feel really bad about not believing her sooner, Clark. Maybe if I had, we could have asked to have her blood tested for drugs and not just alcohol. But even though she was so sick, we all just thought it was the alcohol and her medications. No one thought about other drugs."
"Don't blame yourself, Lois," he pleaded gently. "None of us believed her, remember? It wasn't just you."
She smiled at him gratefully. "Thanks, sweetheart."
"For my part, I'm glad we didn't have to use that information about Ms. Bailey in the hearing. Constance has promised to turn it over to someone who's in a better position to help that poor woman, and that's a much better use of it than dragging it all out in court."
"Ugh. I knew she'd taken a shine to you, Clark, but I never dreamed she would do what she did. Did you hear that they've put her on administrative leave while she's getting treatment?"
He nodded. "Anyone who would risk a child's future by using their job to get closer to the person they're fantasizing about … well, she's a sick woman, that's for sure."
"Well, at least we won't have to worry about Social Services turning up on our doorstep anymore. Thank goodness we had good news for your parents when they called."
"Thank goodness they finally called! And, I guess that's another loose end, isn't it? What happened to the other message Mom said she left?"
"I don't know. Maybe she actually dialed the wrong number and left it on someone else's machine by mistake."
Clark looked sceptical.
"If the reception was bad, she might not have heard the message correctly when the machine answered."
"Maybe, but—" He suddenly broke off and glanced towards the second floor.
Lois smiled. "You're better than a baby monitor, did you know that? Is she crying?" Lois asked as she stood up.
"No, but she's definitely waking up." He got up, too, and carried the mugs over to the sink. "She's making those cute little noises like the ones you make when you're thinking about getting some chocolate."
"I don't make cute little noises when I'm getting chocolate!"
"Oh yes, you do! But not as cute as the ones you make when—"
"That's enough out of you, buster! Since you're so smart, let's see what kind of diaper-changer you are."
"A super one, of course!"
Lois groaned dramatically while trying not to laugh. "That's so bad, Clark."
They started up the stairs. "What? You don't like my jokes?"
"You have a great many wonderful qualities, Clark, but I did not marry you for your joke telling capabilities."
"Oh? And which ones did you marry me for?"
She laughed at him, glancing over her shoulder as she reached the top of the stairs. "Wouldn't you like to know!"
Characters in this episode are copyrighted by DC Comics, December 3rd Production and Warner Brothers. No infringement is intended in any part by the author or the Season 6 group, however, the ideas expressed within this episode are copyrighted (c) 1998 to the author(s).