By Phil Atcliffe <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Original Air Date: August 8, 1999
Summary: Lois and Clark have been trying to prove the case against Lex Luthor for over a year now — do they finally have proof that he was never a clone? Series finale, part 1 of 3. Episode 12 of S6.
"I want you to come to my wedding."
"Are you crazy?"
"Do you seriously expect me to turn up and watch you get married to *Lex Luthor?* I would no more go to that man's wedding than I'd … ride in one of his cars! And *you* shouldn't be going, either. He is *evil*; a gangster, a thief, a murderer and more — a megalomaniac, too."
"God, do you hate him that much?"
"I don't know if I hate him or not, Lois. I do know that Luthor is the only man in the world that I've ever even come *close* to hating. He cares for nothing and no-one but himself, and is utterly amoral. Remember that, the first time you have a fight with him; you may win in the short term, the way you always did with me, but he won't stop until he's broken you."
"I suppose you hate me, too."
"Hate you, no. Pity you, yes. I wonder what happened to my friend and partner … "
No, this isn't right. This isn't how it happened.
" … that she could be so blind, so *stupid* that she would fall for this kind of snow-job from the most corrupt man in the city. I must have had you wrong all this time, Lois. I thought you were infatuated with Superman because he was good and tried to help and protect people. Turns out you must have only been interested in his power, after all; and when you couldn't get that, you went straight for the richest, most powerful *human* man that you could find!"
"Well, enjoy it while you have it, Lois … because Luthor won't always get away with his crimes; one day, and it can't come too soon, he'll make a mistake, and I'll be waiting. And then Lex Luthor will face justice, and all his money and all his power won't do him one bit of good. He'll be exposed for all the world to see as the crook that he is, and I'll be there to watch.
"Maybe *you'd* better start saving. You might need a lawyer, too, and 'dear Lex's' assets will probably be frozen by the court. They will if *I* have anything to do with it!"
No, no …
"Hello, my dear wife."
"Where did you disappear to?"
"Oh, I had to take care of a little private business — a deal with a former rival."
"Lex! On your wedding day? At the reception?"
"These things crop up at the most inconvenient times, but a wise man deals with them when the opportunity is there. Besides, I wanted to make sure that there would be no … distractions … on my wedding *night* … or for at least the next month. Which there won't be, now. Not from that source. Not ever, in fact."
"Oh. Okay. Oh, hey, where does that door you came in through lead to? And what was that funny green glow I saw behind you?"
"All part of the deal, my dear. All part of the deal."
"Superman! To what do I owe the unexpected … honour of this visit?"
"Save the insincere pleasantries, Luthor. I'm here to give you a message. Two, in fact."
"Really? What might they be?"
"The first one is … you win."
"Oh, yes … and what, exactly, did I win?"
"The sick games that you've been playing with me ever since I saved the 'Prometheus' and discovered that you were the mastermind behind the sabotage of the EPRAD space program. Your repeated attempts to kill me, discredit me or force me to leave Metropolis: the multiple emergencies, the cyborgs, the nuclear plant leak, the clone, all the others — I'm sure you remember them.
"Well, I've had enough. Up till now, I've managed to thwart most of your plans, but now you've done something that I can't stop, fix or escape. So … you win. You'll be pleased to learn that, after I leave here, no-one will ever hear of Superman again. Not in Metropolis, and not anywhere else, either.
"But before you get too wrapped up in your moment of triumph, you should hear my *other* message. And that is while you may have won, your victory will be a Phyrric one. You see, you may have ruined my life, as you have done for so many others, but I will *not* allow you to do that to Lois Lane. And we both know what will happen to her if she marries you. So, goodbye, Luthor, and may you rot in Hell as you deserve!"
"Lex! Oh, my God, Lex!"
"Lois! I didn't know you were there. I'm … sorry you had to see that."
"Superman! You … you *killed* him!"
"Yes, I did. And now that he's dead, the truth about him will come out, and you'll know why. I'm sorry it had to come to this, but it was either him or you."
"Or *me?!* Are you trying to tell me that you killed the man I was going to marry for *my* sake? Why, you— "
"That's right, Lois. Oh, you don't believe me, I know — but then, you never did believe anything I ever told you about Luthor. Now, though, you'll find out the truth. Who knows, maybe you'll find it within yourself to forgive me, once you understand. Not that it matters, because we'll never see each other again. Goodbye, Lois."
No, no … no, no, no, no …
"Lex Luthor, you are under arrest. The charges include multiple counts of murder, attempted murder, arson, blackmail, forgery, grand theft, assault and battery, and conspiracy to commit all of the above. In addition, there is a long list of other felonies with which you will also be charged at Metro Police Headquarters. You have the right to remain silent—"
"Lex! Inspector Henderson? *Superman?* What's going on here?"
"What's going on, *Mrs Luthor*, is that your husband is going *down!* It didn't take me as long as I thought it would. Your new wife more of a distraction than you expected, Luthor? She certainly seems to have made you sloppy, and now you're going to pay for it!
"Yes, that's right; threaten and bluster all you want, but you're not getting away with it *this* time. The police and the FBI have got all the evidence they need to put you away for good, and none of your tame politicians or shysters are going to be able to get you off. You're going to prison, Luthor, for the rest of your miserable, wasted life! Take him away, Inspector."
"With pleasure, Superman. Oh, and hey, thank your friend Kent for me, will you? Between the two of you, we've got the most airtight case the D.A.'s office has ever seen. Let's go, Luthor; you've got a date with a judge — and a Grand Jury!"
"My God, Superman … This is … horrible. You were right … all this time, you and Clark were right. I can barely believe it, but this evidence … my husband is a monster … "
"Yes, he is. He always has been. We tried to tell you, but you wouldn't listen. Oh no, the great Lois Lane could tell what a man was like. Well, Mrs Luthor, I hope you enjoyed your marriage, all … what, two months of it? Because it is effectively *over.* No judge will grant Luthor bail, not with the charges he's facing, and he'll never be released, either. The only question in my mind is how long he'll live in prison; he's a skilled fighter, but there are an awful lot of his former employees in prison who are only there because they're fall guys for him — and now that he's powerless, they are going to take great delight in having their revenge. I don't imagine the guards will care much; they always enjoy it when one of the 'big shots' gets his comeuppance, and Luthor won't be able to buy protection, not now.
"Well, that's that. Good riddance to bad rubbish, at last. Goodbye, Mrs Luthor. I suppose I'll see you in court … "
"Wait, Superman! Come back. Please … Clark, don't leave me … please, Clark!"
"Clark! *Claaaarrrrk!!*" Lois screamed as she shot upright in bed. She looked frantically around the room, not quite realising where she was. So disoriented was she that it even took her a moment to focus on the familiar figure of her husband lying beside her. Once she did manage to grasp that he was there, that they were together, at home, in their bedroom, with their daughter asleep in the next room, she hurled herself across the bed at him, wrapping her arms around him and clutching at him desperately.
Clark, who had awakened instantly at his wife's cry, tried to reciprocate the hug — if that's what this could be called — but found that his arms were pinned. He gently pried her hands from his body, just for long enough to move so that he could wrap his own around her. The horrified look on her face as he moved her away from him chilled his blood. When he held her to him again, she grabbed at him even more frantically and burst into tears.
He didn't have the faintest idea what could have upset her so, but he knew that she needed him, so he continued to hold her, gently stroking her hair and reassuring her over and over that it was all right, he was there … Eventually, her weeping subsided into an occasional sob, though her grip on him didn't slacken any.
After a while, he felt her relax a little, and took the chance to carefully lift her head so that he could look at her. "Honey," he whispered, forcing his voice to remain calm and strong for her, and not to show any of the anguish that he felt. "What's wrong? What happened?"
It seemed to take Lois a moment to realise that he'd said something, but at last she appeared to emerge, at least partially, from the fog of misery that had her in its grip. "Oh, Clark … " she sniffed, "Oh, God … it was horrible … "
"What was, honey?" Clark persisted.
Lois shuddered, and this physical reaction appeared to clear her mind even more. "I'm sorry, Clark," she said, "It was just a nightmare."
'*Just* a nightmare?' "It must have been pretty bad to upset you like this, sweetheart. Do you want to talk about it?"
"Not really … but maybe I should. It was just … oh, it was about five years ago, when I was engaged to Lex." It was a tribute to super-self-control that Clark managed to refrain from reacting to that, not even stiffening with the tension that would have flooded through him had he let it. That was not a time he cared to remember, much less dwell on.
" … and I drove up to you in the Mercedes convertible that I borrowed, and we started to have that conversation — but it wasn't the same, because you wouldn't get in the car, and you were angry with me, accusing me of only being interested in power … "
She paused for a second to wipe her eyes. " … and then it changed, and I was at the reception, talking to Lex. He'd just come back into the room, and behind him was this green glow, and I remembered what you told me about that cage of his …
"Then I was in his office, and so were you. You were saying that he'd won, but you wouldn't let him ruin my life the way he had yours, and … and you *killed* him with your heat vision! Then you told me that maybe someday I'd understand why you'd had to do it, but that it didn't matter because I'd never see you again.
"And then it all changed again, and you were there with Inspector Henderson, and you were arresting Lex. I must have been married to him, because all you would call me was 'Mrs Luthor', and you hoped that I'd enjoyed the last couple of months, because it was now over. And then … " Her voice broke on another sob. "And then … you flew away, and I was *alone* … "
"Shhh … " he soothed as she buried her head against his shoulder once more. "It was only a dream, honey. None of that happened. And I will never leave you. Not again, not ever, not while there is a breath in my body."
He tightened his grip on her, and that seemed to do the trick. Her body gave one final convulsive shudder and relaxed. He lifted her face again and kissed her lips softly. "It's all right, honey. You relax and go to sleep. I'm here, and I love you, and I won't leave you."
She was still for a moment, just gazing into his eyes, before smiling just a little and placing her head on his shoulder — but slowly this time, comfortably, without the urgency and the distress. Happily, in fact. She fell asleep quickly, and her husband was reminded of another time when she had drifted off almost at once after being reassured; there was no Prankster trying to kill her tonight, but perhaps Luthor's evil and his warped "love" were greater threats.
Clark lay holding Lois for a long time that night, but he found little of the pleasure that doing so normally brought him. Indeed, his face was grim. 'Yet one more thing for which Luthor has to answer.'
"Someone is going to *answer* for this!" growled Lex Luthor, pounding his fist on the board-room table for emphasis. "LexCorp is under *attack!* Over the last five months, profits have become losses, productivity is down, stock prices on half the subsidiaries still listed on the Exchange have plummeted … the entire company is haemorrhaging to death! I've never *had* to sell assets in my entire life, but if I don't keep unloading the stocks in my personal portfolio — stocks which are *supposed* to provide capital for diversification — we'll have a cash flow crisis and have to file for Chapter 11 protection!
"*LexCorp* hiding from creditors! This is unthinkable!
"It's *got* to be deliberate! Five months ago, the company was as sound as it's ever been. Not as *large* as it's ever been, but that was only a matter of time; if my … *offspring* and his front-man puppet could succeed in re-acquiring so many former subsidiaries, then doing so myself ought to have been straight- forward enough. And then, once the corporation was back to its original size, it would be ready to expand even further. Now … *now*, we're fighting tooth and nail just to stay solvent!"
Michael Van Allen, President of Lexor Industrial Bank, watched, stone-faced, as his employer ranted on. Behind the expressionless mask, though, he was mightily amused to see the great Lex Luthor pounding his desk like any ordinary CEO faced with the prospect of a disintegrating company. Luthor didn't have angry stockholders to placate — there was a wall of subordinates and holding companies to protect him from that — but no group of complainants could possibly have caused the man more bitter frustration and anguish than his own ego and damaged self-respect. He'd never admit it, but LexCorp was more than just a corporation to its owner; it was the primary instrument of his power, an extension of his personality and an expression of his self-image, and, as such, Luthor took the company's present tribulations *very* personally.
So personally, in fact, that Van Allen made a mental note to take extra steps to ensure that Luthor never found out that he had been taking advantage of LexCorp's troubles to feather his own nest. Many of the stocks which Luthor had been forced to sell had found their way, by devious routes and at remarkably low prices, into his own portfolio, and he doubted that their former owner would look upon that favourably, should he ever learn of it.
Not that it was likely that he would; stocks were stocks, and, should Luthor regain the wherewithal to rebuild his portfolio — or should that be *when?* — he could easily replace what he'd been forced to relinquish without the need to buy back the exact same shares. And that is what, as a veteran of the stock market, he would most probably do. On the other hand, Luthor was just paranoid and vindictive enough to decide that he wanted to know who had got their hands on "his" property, and he had the means to trace ordinary stock transactions with ease.
So, Van Allen decided, the more layers of protection that he could put between himself and his new possessions, the better. He'd already taken precautions against SEC investigations — after all, the definition of "insider trading" wouldn't take much stretching, if any, to fit the case — but more might be— probably *were* necessary; the *last* thing he wanted to have to deal with was an angry Lex Luthor, who was unlikely to believe that his employee had had nothing whatsoever to do with the problems that had led to the sale of those stocks, and had merely seized an opportunity to acquire some valuable assets at a bargain price.
Van Allen could see why Luthor wouldn't believe in his innocence. Rumours of the company's woes, both truth and utter fantasy, had already reached the ears of people in the financial world, and the sharks were beginning to gather in response to the scent of blood. Although it had yet to buy back all the shares of its subsidiaries that had gone onto the market after its break-up five years ago, LexCorp was not a publicly-owned or -traded company — *Lex Luthor*, share his property with anyone? Ha, ha! — so it was supposedly safe from take-overs and the like, but there was more than one way to skin a cat, and the cannier corporate raiders knew them all.
The mere fact that Luthor had had to dip into his personal portfolio of stocks was a good indication that the squeeze was on; he wouldn't have to resort to such measures unless the corporation was running out of easily convertible assets, *or* it was unable to obtain financial backing — which, ordinarily, the banks would have been falling over themselves to provide. Finance for *LexCorp?* What a coup for a banker to be able to boast of! LexCorp *never* went outside for funds; that was the job of its own banks. The money market would have died of starvation years ago if it had had to depend on LexCorp for business.
So if no-one was willing to back the company financially, it was in more than serious trouble, and Van Allen was inclined to agree with his boss that it had to be deliberate. The sheer number of problems befalling almost every one of the corporation's divisions and subsidiaries, all of which had been performing perfectly — or, more to the point, to Luthor's satisfaction — mere months ago, indicated that this was more than random chance.
For the present situation to be nothing more than a run of bad luck, which seemed to be the generally accepted theory within the company itself (in lieu of a better explanation, especially one which didn't imply staff incompetence), would require almost every employee to have violated all the "bad luck" superstitions that one could think of, simultaneously and repeatedly. Not even tripping over a black cat while walking under a ladder and stepping on cracks in the pavement, then falling into the window of a mirror shop, spilling salt *and* seeing the moon over your left shoulder as you fell, *all* on Friday 13th, could cause luck *this* bad! The situation had gone from bad to desperate over the last few weeks, and Luthor's temper (and — dare he even think it? — *sanity*) had deteriorated in direct proportion to the state of LexCorp.
No, there was a mind behind this. But whose? And how were they doing it?
"Hey, Nicky! Come and take a look at this — ol' Lexy-boy is just gonna love this one!"
"What now, Alex?" Nick Trifyllis grumpily came over to the computer and peered over his brother's shoulder at the screen. He didn't really want to hear about Alex's latest hacking scheme, but he knew from long experience that it was quicker and less trouble to feign interest now rather than have to put up with hours of repeated entreaties.
"You know how we got into LexLabs' research files last week? Well, I found out that their medical division is about to submit a new anti-cancer drug for FDA testing. All the company reports say it oughtta be a real big earner for them — but not if I have anything to say about it!" He giggled, and stretched in his seat, cracking his knuckles. Nick winced slightly; he'd seen Alex like this before, and it always meant trouble for somebody — but then, that was the point, wasn't it?
"You're really enjoying this, aren't you?"
"Hey, what's not to enjoy? This is a hacker's dream; with those codes we were given by … you-know-who, I got into LexCorp's computers. That's all I needed — that's all any good hacker needs; all it took was a little work, and now, I have access to almost everything in every system in the entire company, and *that* lets me nose around in systems everywhere. I mean, look at this: to mess up the FDA submission, I'm gonna be bouncing files around between the Pentagon, the DEA, Interpol in Paris, and even the NIA! How's *that* for hacking, man?"
"What? Are you crazy, Alex? The *NIA?* What the *hell* are you doing messing around with those guys? Do you have the faintest idea what they'll do to us if they find out that you're fooling around in their computers?"
Alex swivelled around to glare at his brother; his playful air was gone now, and his voice was hard as he replied, "They can't do anything worse than Luthor'll do if he finds out what we've been doing to his precious LexCorp! Which they won't, any more than he will. Come on, Nick, give me some credit for intelligence, willya?"
Nick said nothing, taken aback by his brother's sudden change of attitude. It was easy, even for him after all this time, to underestimate Alex. The guy gave the impression that working with computers was just a big game, but dare to doubt him and it was like a completely different person would suddenly emerge, one who took what he did *very* seriously, and expected you to do the same.
The brothers matched steady gazes for a few moments before Nick ducked his head, saying, "Sorry … it was just kind of a shock. I know you're good, Alex, but … " He trailed off, unable to say what he wanted without adding insult to injury. Then, in an obvious attempt at reconciliation, he smiled and went on, "I guess you better show me just *how* good you are — again! What are you up to?"
Alex matched his brother's smile, his enthusiasm back instantly. "Don't worry, Nicky," he soothed, "No-one's gonna find me, not the way I can re-route my commands. Even if they find the files I've stashed here, there and everywhere, there's no way anyone can trace where they came from. Even *I* couldn't, because I'm using a randomiser in the command sequences; I know where the files end up, but not what path they used to get there, or how many interconnections they went through to get there — except that there's more than six; that's the minimum I put in. It's almost impossible to trace a single transfer like that, because you need to have the access codes at both ends, but *six?* Forget it!"
"If you say so … " murmured Nick. "Okay, so we're safe. Tell me about this FDA thing."
Alex laughed. "Oh, you're gonna love this, man. LexLabs is all set to download their research data to the FDA, and when they do … my baby goes into action. For a start, what the guys in Washington are gonna get is *not* what the lab guys are gonna send! In fact, it's the exact opposite: what the FDA *and* the NIH will receive is an application to have the drug — or what they *think* is the drug; the chemical composition data will be … tweaked a little — declared a hazardous substance. All LexLabs' preliminary test data will be switched with some similar figures from the Army's Chemical Weapons archives. The FDA are gonna think that this 'wonder drug' is the worst thing since mustard gas!
"Geez, I'd love to be a fly on the wall when the labs hear back from the feds. Instead of the standard test schedule that they're expecting, the great white hope of LexLabs Medical is going to be placed under the Hazardous Material regulations; nobody's gonna be allowed *near* the stuff without a full-body protective suit and massive decontamination procedures — not to mention the storage and disposal protocols. The FDA will probably include a commendation for the company for bringing the matter to their attention!"
Nick said nothing, but his brows arched in amazement. Alex saw this and went on gleefully, "And, just to add insult to injury, all the *real* research files will have mysteriously disappeared from the LexCorp computers, but, after another multiple-node re- routing — hey, whaddya think about sending them via the White House to begin with? — they will equally mysteriously turn up in the databanks of half-a-dozen *other* research houses — like STAR Labs, Metro U and some of the big drug companies! Where they will be flagged to come to the attention of people like Bernard Klein after a week or so. It'll take LexLabs longer'n that to realise that they've lost the data — and they'll *never* be able to recover it!"
That did it; Nick tried unsuccessfully to stifle a guffaw, and the strangled sound was music to his brother's ears, being the closest thing to genuine laughter that had emerged from the guy in weeks. Nick had been real down since Chris was killed, and it was good to hear that he might be pulling out of it a bit. It wasn't a lot, but it was a start, and, just like in hacking, you could go a long, long way once you'd made a start …
Equally welcome was the comment that followed the laugh: "Geez, Alex, you don't believe in doing things by halves, do you?"
"Not where LexCorp's concerned, I don't." And now it was Alex's turn to lose all trace of humour; his voice was cold and stern — deadly, even. "I am going to *destroy* it, Nicolas. I am going to make sure Mr Lex Luthor loses every red cent that he has, and then I'm gonna take his lousy, murdering hide and *nail it to the wall!*"
Nick stared at his brother with sudden apprehension. This wasn't like Alex, not at all — or, at least, it *hadn't* been like him, until recently. His little brother had changed when he learned who was responsible for Chris' death; most of the time, he was still the fun-loving, easy-going guy that he'd always been, if a bit subdued due to all that had happened, but every so often, another Alex emerged, one with a new and frightening obsession. Alex had always been prone to a certain amount of obsession — what hacker wasn't? — but now, there was something different about him. Something cold, hard and dark.
And, to make matters worse, Nick realised that he'd had no idea just how grandiose Alex's plans had become. Helping Beth Luthor put her husband in jail was one thing, but Alex seemed to have decided that that wasn't enough; he was out to shatter LexCorp, to rob Luthor of everything he owned … and then what? Kill him? Nick was beginning to be afraid that that was exactly what Alex had in mind.
He also couldn't get something out of his head — an old saying that his grandfather had once told him of, years ago: Before you set out on the path of revenge, remember to dig *two* graves.
"Very well, Michael, that will be all. I'll expect those figures on the LexAir restructuring by tomorrow noon."
"Yes, sir. They'll be ready. Oh … that reminds me: I have some news regarding our missing IT Director-cum-embezzler, Owen Preece."
"Do you, now? Can it possibly be that there's some *good* news for a change? Go on."
"Well, sir, first of all, let me apologise for not bringing this to your attention until now, but we waited until we had something concrete to report, rather than waste your time with something that was only a possibility … "
Luthor waved impatiently, the unspoken message "Get On With It!" very clear. So Van Allen did: "I don't need to remind you that the last we heard of Preece was when he withdrew $300,000 from his personal account after that 'very convenient' computer glitch put it there. Since he took it away in cash, there's been no way to trace him through the money — or so we thought. We were wrong."
Luthor leaned forward at that, and Van Allen continued, "We were wrong because we didn't know— then — of the actions of an enterprising young teller downstairs. This young lady, whose name is Sarah Hudson, realised that taking that much money in cash is highly unusual these days, particularly when the person taking it is the head of the IT Division — who, of all people, ought to be familiar with electronic banking. She considered it *so* unusual that, with no time to consult with higher authority, she decided that she needed to take action, and did. Specifically, she did what had been trained to do, should she be involved in a hold-up; she activated the new equipment recently installed in the teller cages."
"What?" said Luthor. "You mean … "
"Yes, sir," replied a smiling Van Allen. "All $300,000 were marked with the LexTrace system. The bills look no different, but every single one has been coated with the tracer dye and can be positively identified as part of the money taken by Preece by exposing them to the scanner.
"When I learned this, I sent out a warning to all our offices and to any other bank which has purchased the LexTrace system — and, as you know, it's been one of the biggest money-makers for the Security Division this fiscal year. After that, all we could do was wait.
"Yesterday, the waiting paid off. We received notification from the Columbus Agricultural and Industrial Bank that they'd received four marked bills from a local customer — a supermarket. They made enquiries, and the market was certain that the bills must have come into the store within the last two days. It's not conclusive evidence, but … "
"But it tells us that it is highly likely that Mr Preece is in Ohio, or has been, some time within the last few days," Luthor interrupted. "Yes, this is good news, Michael." 'Better than you realise, because I know things about the LexTrace system that you don't … ' "More than enough to set some wheels in motion. Keep me informed of any further developments."
Van Allen nodded, stood up and went to leave. Just before he reached the door, Luthor had one final thing to say: "Oh, and Michael … I think Ms Hudson has earned a place on the LIB fast- track scheme, don't you? Initiative and judgement such as hers should not be wasted."
The banker nodded again, and left. Luthor sat silently for a few moments before reaching out to touch a switch on his intercom. "Ms Barrows, please come in here. I have a job for you … "
Enrico O'Reilly was not a happy man. And he had reason. Quite a lot of reasons, actually.
For a start, he was more-or-less continually in a drug-induced half-stupor, and had been ever since he'd been arrested. He couldn't remember what had happened immediately before the cops had taken him in, but whatever it was, it must have been one heck of a shock; it had caused him to suffer from hallucinations and left him with an incessant feeling that he couldn't get rid of, even now, that there was somehow something *wrong* with his body.
Things were much worse when he slept, the hallucinations recurring in the form of bizarre dreams that he was some kind of animal — and then he wasn't! But, even when himself, he was facing some nebulous but horrifying figure — or maybe two of them — threatening him. He invariably woke from these dreams screaming, and he had become deathly afraid of sleep for that reason. Unfortunately, the prison doctors hadn't been able to do much for him other than prescribe tranquillisers.
During his few lucid moments, he also had to face the fact that he was awaiting trial for the murder of that aircraft mechanic — whom he had, in fact, killed — and there wasn't much chance that he'd go free. Not when he'd been so *stupid* as to be caught with the murder weapon and with traces of blood on his shoes. The cops were having a field day with the forensic evidence, and his lawyer advised him that it was an open-and-shut case. The defence would go through the motions with all the professional expertise one could want, but there was very little chance of it doing the defendant any good.
The lawyer had muttered something about a plea of diminished responsibility when told of Enrico's nightmares by a "helpful" guard. Enrico didn't think that he was meant to hear that, and he didn't like the idea. Prison was bad enough, but copping an insanity plea would mean he'd wind up in the booby hatch! No way — he wasn't nuts, he *wasn't!* He just kept having these crazy dreams …
Nor was there any chance of having the charge reduced, even if the cops didn't think they had him dead to rights. Enrico was not the only person to whom his lawyer was giving advice; legal confidentiality meant nothing to Lex Luthor, and it would be a brave attorney who tried to invoke it — especially when Luthor was footing the bill.
Enrico's "confidentiality", on the other hand, was *expected*, and nothing less would be tolerated. It had been made very clear to him, both openly by the lawyer and relatively subtly by a number of people in the prison — including staff *and* prisoners — that his only chance of survival lay in keeping his mouth shut about Luthor's affairs.
This hadn't surprised him. He'd known, right from the moment that he'd been arrested, that there was no way he could plea-bargain — not and expect to live. He knew too much, and Luthor would have him killed if it reached his ears that there was so much as the faintest whisper of the barest suspicion of the merest possibility that Enrico might say something that he shouldn't.
Luthor might want him dead anyway, just to be on the safe side. No, Enrico knew that his only hope was to be *aggressively* silent; to say absolutely nothing and do it in such a way that it would be obvious that he wasn't going to betray his employer. Except that the drugs made it so hard to concentrate, and he was afraid that something would slip out by accident while he was doped up — which was most of the time.
Not that he had any choice in the matter. He knew, when he could think clearly about it, that only this way was there any chance that Luthor might take him back on the payroll, if and when he was paroled; New Troy wasn't as easy-going as, say, California, but he'd heard of guys with murder raps getting out in ten years or so. He wouldn't get a job at the same level, of course, but the boss would always need someone to do the dirty work, and he'd have proved that he could be trusted.
The problem was that Luthor wasn't the only one who knew, or suspected, that Enrico knew things that might be to the disadvantage of his employer if they got out — and *they* had contacts in the prison, too. He had already been sounded out — cleverly, deniably, but nonetheless definitely — by a screw and a couple of cons, and he was fairly sure that they were working together. He didn't know who they were working *for*, although he had some ideas — Intergang had pretty much disappeared from the Metropolis scene after the Churches all ended up in the slammer, but it was a world-wide organisation, and what better way to get a foothold back in this city than to take over an existing operation?
Which left Enrico walking a very narrow tight-rope, because Intergang would have even less compunction than Luthor (if that were possible) about doing him harm if he refused to co-operate. But if he *did* co-operate … well, he knew what was likely to happen. Fortunately, the guys who'd made the first approaches hadn't been able to get at him when he was really doped up, but he couldn't rely on that in the future. Nor could he rely on either side to keep him safe, although he'd have to ask Luthor to do something about this, lest the man think that he was seriously considering talking; but then, by doing that, he would run the risk that Luthor would find it simpler to eliminate the problem — and him.
And yet, in spite of the dangers besetting him from all sides, Enrico O'Reilly could have put up with his present situation if it wasn't for that *stupid* nickname that the screws had hung on him! Some joker had seen his initials — "E. O'R" — on some paperwork, and had immediately christened him "Eeyore" after a character in a kid's cartoon! If he heard that … that … *name* one more time, Enrico was gonna do something violent, drugs or no drugs — except that that would only make matters worse. Then again, a few days in solitary would get him away from those Intergang stooges … for a while — and maybe he could get some rest.
Clark was finishing off the story of a routine super-rescue when the "You've Got Mail" icon popped up on the screen. He wasn't expecting anything from anyone, so it wasn't likely to be urgent; in any case, Perry would be yelling for this copy if he didn't get it finished, and a wise reporter knew when and how to prioritise.
A few minutes later, the story had sped its way across the office LAN to Editorial, and Clark sat back in his chair to look at the message, wondering who it could be from. If he was lucky, it might be from Lois, who was at home looking after Laura today; if he was *un*lucky, it'd be another of those junk e-mails that, despite every effort of the Planet computer people, still managed to get past the mail filters. Failing that, it could be from just about *anyone*.
It turned out to be from Dr Klein, asking Clark to stop by some time that afternoon or evening. Apparently there was something that he wanted to show him and, from the way the e-mail was phrased, Clark was fairly sure that it had something to do with decoding the clone project files. Bernard complained that his "bedside manner" was too blunt for clinical work, Clark mused (though he, for one, had no complaints), but the scientist could be surprisingly subtle in "print"; guess it came from writing all those reports.
Anything to do with those files was high priority, as far as Clark was concerned, and he was fairly sure that he could get away now … but he'd better check with Perry anyway. He tilted his glasses and took a quick x-ray look at his boss, and, sure enough, the editor was looking over his story. He got up and headed for Perry's office. Knocking produced the usual gruff "invitation" to enter — the one with the implied message that this interruption had better be important or the transgressor would be covering dog shows for the next week.
Clark opened the door, but didn't enter the room, trying to give the impression that he wanted to be on his way out as soon as possible — which, of course, he did. "Chief," he called, "Do you need me to do anything to that story on the Superman rescue? I've got to check something out at STAR Labs, and I'd like to get going."
Perry looked up, blinking as his eyes changed focus from the screen to the figure in his doorway. "No, Clark. This looks pretty good, so you can go."
Clark sketched a salute, shut the door and headed for the elevator. When it arrived, Jimmy emerged with a sheaf of photos in his hand and went to head down the ramp. He seemed to be in a hurry, but upon seeing Clark, he stopped and grinned. "Hey, CK, thanks for the advice."
"No problem, Jimmy," Clark replied automatically. Then *he* stopped. He needed to leave — whatever Dr Klein wanted could well be urgent — but he couldn't *not* ask: "Uh … which bit of advice are you talking about?"
"About me and Penny," his friend replied. Clark looked blank, so Jimmy went on, "You know — about sharing the chores … " As he said this, he winked and one arm twitched, almost as if he would have elbowed Clark had he been close enough.
It took Clark a moment to work out what Jimmy was referring to, but he finally remembered Lois telling him of a conversation that she'd had with the younger man while their souls were switched. Appropriately, she'd brought it up while the two of them were doing the housework — Laura was playing happily on the floor, so it was "normal" speed around the house for Clark that day — and he'd been pleased to hear that their friend was thinking of settling down. He'd also laughed — and leered — at Lois' description of how she'd tried to convince Jimmy to do his share of the chores. Much to his delight, Lois had been having similar thoughts herself, and, once the work was done and Laura had been fed and put down for an afternoon nap, the couple had proceeded to demonstrate to one another what delightful uses they could put all that time saved sharing the housework …
The memory made him smile, but he suppressed it (mostly) and asked, "So, does this mean that the two of you are going to … " Clark paused, remembering where he was. The Planet newsroom was nothing if not a hot-bed of gossip, and people like Ralph were only too eager to find out the details of their colleagues' private lives and then spread the news around, embellishing it as they went. He and Lois had had enough trouble that way — just look at the way that Ralph had assumed that Kate Martin was his girlfriend! — and he didn't want to expose Jimmy to the same malicious stupidity.
Jimmy seemed less concerned, immediately picking up the sentence where Clark had left off. "Move in together? Yes and no … we're thinking about it — *really* thinking about it — but we're both a little nervous still. It's kind of a big step, you know?"
Clark nodded. He knew. It was just that, in his case, it was a step that he'd wanted to take all his life. And he'd never been happier than since taking that step.
"But last weekend, we decided to give it a trial run. Penny came over and we spent the weekend together. We wanted to see what it would be like doing all the … um, old, married things … " Jimmy's voice had become hesitant and more than a little embarrassed at the latter, but Clark just grinned. "So we went shopping, cooked dinner, washed up together, watched TV … even did the housework!
"Penny was kinda surprised that I wanted to help. I think she was expecting to have to do everything — actually, from the look on her face when she arrived, I think she was relieved that the place wasn't much worse! I'd spent a bit of time picking a few things up already, but not too much, 'cause I remembered what you said, and that's pretty much what I told her: it hadda be done, and we could do it much quicker together, so this was one part of what we were trying out."
Jimmy flushed slightly and he cast a quick look around to see who might overhear before going on in a much softer voice, "I gotta admit that I mentioned what you said about doing the housework together giving us more time for … other stuff … and I was kinda nervous— when she didn't say anything, I thought I'd put my foot in it. But once we got started, I guess she didn't *need* to say anything … man, I didn't know that cleaning a house could make a woman move like *that!*"
Clark's grin grew wider. "It doesn't, Jimmy — not unless they *want* it to. Off-hand, I think you got off on the right foot there. Keep going like that, because that's what really counts. Which reminds me — *I* have to go. I'll see you later."
"Okay, CK. See you later." With that, the two friends parted, one to deliver his photos, the other to find out what Dr Klein had to show him.
"Lois!" Clark called as he closed the front door of the townhouse.
"Hi, Clark," his wife said from the stairs. She was carrying Laura, and looked down at the little girl. "Look, sweetie — Daddy's home."
Laura gurgled happily as her father kissed her mother soundly, then scooped her up for one of their games; this one involved Clark gently head-butting Laura in the stomach, and it never failed to produce a joyful near-giggle and a huge smile from her.
Lois looked on contentedly. One of the unsung joys of parenthood, both she and Clark were finding, was that there were ways of doing things with Laura — playing, getting dressed, even jobs around the house — that were unique to each of them, and ways that they could share. Laura never reacted as happily if Lois tried the head- butting game, but that was okay; she'd spend hours playing the finger game with her mother, but lost interest fairly quickly if Clark tried it. No, some things Lois and Laura did together, others Clark and Laura did together, and there were yet others that all three of them could join in, and that was just fine.
Eventually, Clark put Laura on the floor of the living room with some toys, gave her a quick kiss, watched her start to play and then, as he put it, turned his attention to the *other* lady in his life. Said lady had been waiting for this and, for a little while, the couple concentrated on certain things that *they* liked to do together …
"So what did Dr Klein want, Clark?" Lois asked as she finished the last of her wine. Dinner was over, Laura was asleep upstairs, and the two reporters were relaxing together on the couch. Clark was unwinding from his day (in both his jobs) by telling Lois about it, and she, as ever, was insistently curious as to what had been happening while she'd had a comparatively leisurely day just being a mother.
"He … had something to show me," Clark replied, in a slightly distracted tone. He was having a quick super-look at Laura, just to be sure that she was sleeping peacefully, because this might take some time …
"It was to do with decoding those files," he went on. "Dr Klein hadn't had much luck in making any more sense out of them than the last time I spoke to him about it. Of course, he's only been able to work on it outside of his regular work hours — and you know what they're like!"
Lois rolled her eyes at that. Bernard Klein was another workaholic, if she ever saw one — and who should know better than her? What was worse, he was a *scientific* workaholic who could get lost in equations or computers or lab experiments for days on end. It sometimes amazed her that the man could do as much "unofficial" work — like Kryptonian fertility tests and computer file decoding — as he did.
"So you can imagine my amazement," Clark said, "when he presented me with complete, perfectly decoded copies of every file that I'd managed to get hold of, *and* half a dozen others as well!"
"Whoa!" said Lois, eyebrows up. "What did he do?"
"That's the strange part, honey. According to Dr Klein, *he* didn't do anything — other than look at his e-mail this morning. Apparently, he received a message from someone who calls himself 'The ANT'; all it said was something like, 'Save these to disk. Lane and Kent might find them interesting,' but these files were attached to it in some kind of odd format. Bernard tried to look at them before saving them, but all he could see was gibberish. He thought he'd better save them anyway, and when he did, the files seemed to run a self-extraction routine and decoded themselves — *and* deleted themselves from his mailbox. So he looked at the first file again, just to see what had happened, and there was the clear text of a LexLabs report, dated April 1994.
"He looked through them all, and could tell from the titles that they were progress reports from the cloning project. He recognised some of the text from a couple of them as stuff that he'd managed to decode, and he realised that somehow, this Ant person had sent him all the data that he'd been trying to unscramble for months!"
"But how?" said an amazed Lois. "And who is this Ant character, and why would he tell Dr Klein to give those files to *us?* Who even knows that we're interested in them?"
"I thought about that on the way home, and I think I know. Think about the word 'ant' as a set of initials."
"Initials? Okay … A-N-T … Of course! *A*lex and *N*ick *T*rifyllis! Didn't Owen Preece say that Chris might have given Alex a copy of the files? He must have managed to decode them and sent them to Dr Klein— why? Why not straight to you or me?"
"I don't know. Maybe he wanted a scientist to read them — someone who he knew would understand what they meant. Dr Klein's well-known in the scientific community, and we've written about him and quoted him often enough for him to be a logical choice if someone wants to funnel information our way via an expert source. Alex and Nick don't know about everything that he's done for us, or even that he was working on decoding the same files, but they do know that he can understand the science, and that we're close. Q.E.D."
"Makes sense. Okay, so what was in the files? Does this means we've got the proof we need to put Lex away, once and for all?" Lois' voice was enthusiastic and full of anticipation, but wary; she wanted this to be the break-through they needed, but she also knew that any attempt to expose Lex Luthor had to be foolproof. Was this?
Apparently not. "I don't think so, Lois. To be honest, the files don't tell us much more than we already knew. They confirm that the cloning project was nowhere near creating a stable, long- lived adult clone at the time that it was supposedly shut down by the very 'clone' that it was supposed to have created. Creating *any* kind of adult clone at that time — or later — required frog DNA, but we knew that, and nothing in the files that Dr Klein hadn't decrypted really adds to or alters that at all.
"What it comes down to is that there is no doubt now that there never *was* a clone. Luthor's story of being kidnapped and replaced by his own clone not long after he proposed to you, and being imprisoned for almost three years, is just that — a story.
"The Lex Luthor living in the LexCorp Building penthouse is the same man who was there five years ago, and who tried to kill me and marry you, who committed suicide by jumping off that building, who was resurrected by Gretchen Kelly, who went to prison, who kidnapped you from our first wedding … and who knows that I'm Superman.
"Unfortunately, just knowing that isn't enough. We still need *proof* that we can use in court, and these files aren't it."
"Yeah," said Lois, resignedly. "I can see it now. Lex's lawyers would have a field day if we tried to expose him using this stuff as our evidence. It's electronic, for one thing, and the courts are still wrangling over how admissible computer files are — too easy to edit, and all that … "
"Added to which is the fact that the people who obtained this 'evidence' are known to have a grudge against Luthor — or his clone," Clark continued the thought. "And it doesn't matter whether it's you and I, or Alex and Nick; we all got our hands on LexCorp proprietary information by dubious means — not to mention that Alex is a convicted felon, and for computer hacking, to boot. They'd tear it all to shreds."
It was disheartening, but they had always known that this wasn't going to be easy — not if they were going to do it the way it had to be done, the *right* way. It would be all too easy to get rid of Lex if they didn't have to respect the law; Lois' nightmare of a few nights ago had shown how quick and simple it would be for Clark to kill him. He could do that from miles away — *hundreds* of miles away! But if they took the easy way … they'd be as bad as Lex.
Lois and Clark's eyes met. They looked at one another with love, and saw that love returned. They reached out and took each other's hand, and in that touch, they found strength, as they had always done since each of them had let the other through their own personal barriers and found that the strength was there to be given for the asking. And with that strength came determination. Okay, if it had to be the hard way, then Lane and Kent would *do* it the hard way!
"Right," said Lois after a pause, the length of which could have been moments … or an eternity. "Just what *do* we need to prove that Lex is, was and always will be Lex, world without end, amen?"
Clark laughed. "I don't think 'amen' is exactly appropriate, Lois — but I don't know what they say at the end of a Black Mass."
Lois laughed, too, and they shared one more moment of joy. Then they got serious. "What we need," Clark said, "is what we've always needed: something that we can get a DNA sample from that can positively and unarguably be identified as coming from the 'clone'. Then, when it's shown to be identical to Luthor's DNA, we have real, unshakeable proof — unless he claims to have had an identical twin stashed away all these years. The problem is, where do we get a DNA sample that can only be from the clone, and that couldn't possibly have been tampered with in the last four or five years?"
"Hmmm … good question. Okay, next step: what would we need to find in order to have a suitable DNA sample?" Lois already had a good idea of the answer, but the two reporters were using a technique that they had worked out over the years, especially when dealing with something "technical": one of them would ask the questions, taking particular care that there was a strict logical progression between one question and the next; and the other, generally the one who'd done the most research about whatever they were working on, would answer, brainstorming as necessary to cover all the possibilities. They found it to be very effective, usually giving them at least a lead to follow, often more than one; it was also something that the Planet newsroom staff, even Perry White, knew better than to interrupt …
"Well, the police take their samples from a few cells scraped from the inside of the mouth," Clark mused. "But it could be almost any tissue, provided it's been preserved somehow between then and now. Hair would do — as we know from that clone of me — or blood, or a piece of skin, if it had been stored somewhere very cold or very dry; muscle tissue, again if it's been stored properly; bone marrow … just about any part of the body, with the possible exception of nail clippings!"
"Really?" Lois asked. "Okay for voodoo, but no good for DNA tests, huh?" At Clark's amused nod, she lapsed into silence for a few moments. Eventually, she glanced at Clark and said, "What about the DNA sample the police took when Lex was arrested?"
"I don't think so, honey. They took one, sure, but if the 'clone's' fingerprints were tampered with, would you bet on the DNA records escaping the same thing?" Lois grimaced in answer. "It might be worth checking out anyway," Clark reflected after a moment or two, "because the phoney record — if there is one — would have to be very carefully made. There has to be no doubt that it's Luthor's DNA, but it also has to show signs of the genetic tampering needed to create the clone. That's not an easy balance to strike, and we might be able to show that it's fake. But I wouldn't count on it."
"Yeah, you're right … but it's worth remembering. Okay, so no official DNA samples. Blood — what about blood?"
"Blood would be perfect — *if* we could find some that we could be certain that came from the 'clone'. And that's the problem."
"Yeah … Where could we find something like that? I don't imagine he'd have been kind enough to donate blood — would he?"
"I doubt it, but we could check. Even if he did, the odds of the donation still being around after five years aren't good. We might have a better chance if we found that Luthor kept a private supply in case of injury, but we'd have to find it and get access to it — and then find some way to be certain that our sample was taken during the right time period."
"True … hey, what about the rubble from the tunnel where he had those 'spare bodies'? He must have bled on that."
"No luck there. I checked with Dr Klein, and the DNA from any blood on the rubble would have degraded long ago, even if we could find it — that tunnel was filled in by the City while you were in the hospital."
"Darn … that would have been poetic justice, seeing him exposed by his own blood from that place. Where else could we find a blood sample … I know! The blood test before the wedding — that *has* to have been the clone!"
The couple sat up, exchanging hopeful glances … but then Lois sagged back onto the couch. "Darn it — they don't keep the samples after they test them, remember? We made sure of that before *our* wedding. They don't do DNA analysis, either — and even if they did, the records could have been tampered with, the same way that the police records have."
Clark smiled reassuringly. "It was a good idea, honey, and it might be worth checking anyway. You never know … "
Lois smiled back — a tired, frustrated smile, but a smile nonetheless. "Okay," she said, "Blood looks to be a wash-out — unless we get lucky. What else could we look for?"
"Hair would probably the easiest thing to find, if we had any reason to believe that there was any out there to be found. I don't imagine he's left samples of skin, tissue or bodily fluids lying around … "
Clark's voice trailed off, but Lois didn't immediately notice because something he had said earlier had struck a chord in her mind. Something was trying to surface from her memory, but it hadn't quite emerged when she was distracted by her husband crying, "Wait a minute! *Tissue* samples … "
Lois came back to the here and now with a start. "What? Clark, *what?*"
Clark was already up from the couch and looking around the room. "Lois, where's that list of the murder victims?"
'Huh?' Not sure what this meant, but certain from Clark's manner that it had to be important, she sat up and replied, "There's a copy in my briefcase — it's upstairs in the bedroom — and there's—" There was a *whoosh*, and Clark was handing her the briefcase before she could finish her sentence: "—another one on my laptop … "
Lois rummaged around in the case, self-consciously clumsy in that way that everyone is when being watched by someone impatient for you to produce something in a hurry. Finally, or so it seemed to her, she found the list and gave it to Clark. He took it from her gently, thanked her while scanning it intensely — his expression closely resembled the one he got when he was using his heat vision, but the paper didn't burst into flames — and then lowered it and stared into space for a while.
Lois was on tenterhooks as she watched her husband, but she said nothing, not wanting to interrupt his train of thought. Eons later, or so it seemed, he murmured something that sounded like, "It could be. It just could be … " Lois heroically resisted the impulse to throw something at him, but the effort, not to mention the curiosity that was consuming her, must have shown in her eyes, because Clark quickly sat down beside her and spread out the list on her lap.
"Look, honey. We've got a total of 26 murders, right? Nine of the victims we have identified as being people who bought, or tried to buy, items from Luthor's collections at the auction after his 'death'; three more were major stockholders in former LexCorp subsidiaries whose deaths conveniently allowed Luthor to regain control of the companies while the wills were in probate, and we know that he has since bought back the shares owned by those victims.
"What we couldn't do is find a link between those twelve and the rest of the victims, because they didn't have any connection with either any of the other victims or with any of Luthor's former property — most of them couldn't afford it!
"What if we've been going about this all wrong? What if the link is Luthor himself, rather than what he owns or owned?" He pointed to some of the names on the list. "Look at what these guys do for a living: Smith was a lab technician at police headquarters; Andersen was a pathologist who did some work on the side for the D.A.'s office; these two worked at Metro General, in the records office and as a nurse; this one here was a celebrity barber!"
Again, Lois felt as though there was something that she ought to remember, but before she could try to focus on it, Clark went on, "Do you see, honey? If I'm right, then these … five, seven … *ten* victims were killed because they'd had contact with Luthor's DNA or with the records of it!"
Lois saw. And it made sense. Lex wouldn't stick at a few more murders if they would cover his tracks; he was a great one for being thorough, was Lex. But that still left …
"What about these four, Clark?" she asked, pointing to a cluster of names at the bottom of the list. The four victims in question were relatively recent additions, and they seemed to have even less in common with the rest of the list than some of those whom Clark had just talked about.
Clark shook his head. "You've got me there, sweetheart. I can't see how an astronomer, an electrician, a physicist and an optical technician fit into that pattern, even if two of them did work for Luthor. But I still think that the rest of the names are connected; maybe we'll find how these guys tie in once we get a little further.
"And we *will* get further on this; I can feel it all starting to come together … "
Lois agreed; she felt the same — that fine, sharp tingle at the back of the neck that indicated that a story was about to bust wide open. What Clark hadn't said, but that both of them knew full well, was that when things started to come together like this was also when it was most dangerous …
Lindy Barrows unplugged her mobile phone from her newly-acquired laptop computer and stashed them both into her travelling bag before heading for the LexCorp executive travel reception counter. As promised, Mr Luthor had e-mailed her that Owen Preece, or at least the money that he'd taken from LIB, was now to be found not in Ohio, but in a small town not far from Decatur, Illinois. It didn't take long to arrange her flight to Springfield — on a company exec-jet, no less — but that wasn't surprising; LexCorp demanded top efficiency from all its employees, and having personal orders from The Man himself only made the staff even more eager to speed her through the departure formalities.
Lindy had no direct knowledge of how her boss had managed to track the cash, but she had a few ideas. It had to have something to do with that LexTrace system, but, if so, then its capabilities were rather more than what was common knowledge — which was hardly surprising. From the phrasing of that e-mail, she figured that it must have some way of locating the marked money in real time, not merely by waiting for some bank out in the boondocks to detect a marked bill and report it. Maybe the dye gave off some kind of radiation that could be picked up by satellites? Well, whatever, it certainly made Lindy's life easier to know almost exactly where her quarry was — and that other little gadget in her case would help with that, too.
"Well, well, well … Look who's in Lexy-boy's bad books … I knew bugging his e-mail system was a good idea!"
"What *now*, Alex?" muttered a weary Nick, just loud enough to be heard.
"Remember Owen Preece, Chris' old boss? Seems he's done a runner with 300 grand of the firm's cash, and Luthor ain't too happy about it."
"'Done a runner', Alex? Have you been watching PBS again? And so what? Why are you interested in him?"
"Of course I've been watching PBS; I get some of my best ideas that way." 'Including one which is gonna be the final nail in LexCorp's coffin.' "Why am I interested in him? Don't *you* find it interesting that, straight after the guy who killed Chris is arrested — but *not* for Chris' murder — LexCorp's IT Director steals $300,000 and starts running? With Luthor's new not-so-tame bloodhound, one Lindy Barrows, hot on his heels?
"Come over here and have a look at Ms Barrows, alias 'Lindsey Bailey'. I managed to find a photo of her in the police files when I was fixing the coroner's records of 'our' bodies. She was arrested about the time we 'died', on suspicion of involvement in Chris' murder, and breaking and entering — into *my* apartment!"
That got Nick's attention. He shook his head to clear it as he got up from the sofa and came over to peer at the screen over his brother's shoulder. "Kristos, Alex," he swore on seeing the mug shot, "That could be the woman who was with O'Reilly … "
"I *thought* so!" Alex replied triumphantly. "I'm betting it was. Take a look at this." He brought up the e-mail from Luthor that Lindy had been reading at the airport. Nick read it, his eyes widening as he absorbed the import of the message. "Think about it, Nicky. We got a woman who was poking around my place after we faked our deaths; she looks like the woman you saw with O'Reilly when he killed Chris; and Lexy-boy gives her orders like *that!* Unless he's got a whole team of female killers at his beck and call, the smart money is on her being O'Reilly's accomplice. *And* being equally guilty of killing Chris."
Nick stared at the picture on the screen, horrified. "What's she doing out on the streets? Why isn't she locked up if the cops arrested her?"
"What do you think? Luthor, of course! He got her a sharp lawyer, the lawyer told her what to say, and she was scott-free in a couple of hours."
Nick flopped back down on the sofa. Silence reigned in the room for some time, until he hesitantly asked, "Should we do anything about this?"
"What do you want to us to do? We're supposed to be *dead*, remember? Which we will be for real, if little Lindy here lays her eyes on either of us!"
Nick couldn't argue with that, but he wasn't happy about it.
"Look, Nicky, Preece is just gonna have to take his chances for a *little* longer," Alex said. He held up one hand with the thumb and forefinger about half an inch apart. "We are *this close* to putting the kibosh on Luthor. If Preece can stay hidden for just a few more days, he won't have to worry any more; Lexy-boy is gonna have much bigger things to deal with than a guy who embezzled a mere 300 grand."
"But it's not Luthor the guy has to worry about! If Luthor's gonna be that tied up, do you think he'll bother calling off his dogs? Come on, Alex, we can't just ignore this. Besides, how much do you want to bet that Preece knows something about Chris' death? He's probably the one who gave Chris the job of protecting those damn files in the first place! Which means that he's on the run for the same reason we are; we gotta help him somehow …
"What about telling those reporters? They know as much as we do— more, probably — about Chris' death, and they did let us go. Maybe they can help him."
Alex thought about that. "Okay … " he said eventually. "Yeah, okay." His fingers began to fly over the keyboard. Shortly thereafter, he leaned back in his chair with a satisfied smile. "There you go, Nicky; one untraceable, encrypted e-mail off to Lane and Kent, complete with a copy of everything that Luthor told the lovely Ms Barrows, and a request that they do whatever they can for Preece. That's about all *we* can do, and we've done it. Now, what about some dinner?"
"Okay," agreed a somewhat relieved Nick. It was his turn to cook, so he headed for the kitchen. Behind him, Alex sighed with relief, closed the e-mail window and opened a new editing file. PBS had indeed given him an idea, one so grand in its scope that it was almost sublime in its sheer audacity, and he couldn't wait to begin its creation. The computer prompted him for a name, and he halted his typing, remaining motionless while he thought about it. Finally, a shark-like grin spread over his face as he entered the name — the only possible name for *this* file, really.
"There it is, Mr Luthor. Checked, tested, documented as surpassing the specs by a good 10 per cent, and ready to be shipped. The boys at the Pentagon are gonna have a field day when they get their hands on this baby!"
"I'm sure they will," Luthor replied coolly. 'That is, they would if they were ever going to see this. And who knows, perhaps they will — *after* it's accomplished its real job.' "Very good, Wright. I take it from what you say that the earlier … problems have been ironed out."
"Oh, yeah, sir. That new power core was the answer; we hardly had to touch anything else, once we got that fitted and working. The extra performance came from that, nothing else; all we had to do was make sure the focusing system could handle the increased energy flux. And there's no way that we'll have a repeat of that short that we had last December. Can't happen, not now."
"That's good to hear. Perhaps the delay, not to mention the expense, will have been worthwhile." The "short" that Wright had mentioned had been the biggest set-back in the development of the machine resting on the stand in front of its owner. What should have been a simple test, undertaken for security purposes in an old, disused warehouse inhabited only by rats and a few of the city's homeless, had turned into a fiasco when the power source had malfunctioned, starting a fire. The fire was put out quickly enough, and the building was no great loss anyway, but the need to re-design the power core had set the project back by months and cost tens of millions of dollars. Still, it was done now, and that was what mattered.
"Pack it up and put it into maximum security storage until the military are ready to collect it. Make sure that you keep track of it; this is one crate that we don't want to lose. In fact, send the details to my personal workstation. There's too much hanging on this project to take chances."
"Yes, sir!" And with that, the men who had been standing around, silently observing the exchange between the big shots, set to work. They were well-paid and efficient, so the packing was done in short order. Luthor watched for a while, then, once the crate was sealed, left and headed back to the penthouse. 'At last!' he thought, exultant. 'Mr Kent, your Nemesis awaits you.' Or, rather, it *would*, once he, Lex Luthor, decided exactly where and when his enemy would meet his ultimate, inescapable fate.
It had been a long and difficult road to this point, but it would be worth it. The financial difficulties that LexCorp was experiencing at present had been exacerbated, to say the least, by the huge amounts siphoned off to fund this project over the last year and a half, but that would no longer be a problem. With more normal internal reserves, Luthor was certain that *his* company was robust enough to withstand the efforts of their mysterious attacker until he could find and eliminate — or, just possibly, recruit — him or her, even if the hunt did not begin in earnest until after his triumph over that meddling alien.
No, at the moment, the main question on Luthor's mind was what to do about the members of the project team; should he have them killed immediately, or wait until Kent was dead and he was certain that their services were no longer required? He'd already had to have some people connected with the project eliminated — two members of the preliminary design team, and a scientist and an outside contractor who had simply been too nosy for their own good.
For once, the question answered itself, at least for the moment. Ms Barrows was already engaged in dealing with Preece, so he would have to wait for her return — successful, he trusted — before taking any steps in respect of the project staff. And, now that he thought about it, it really did make sense to delay the "risk management" until *after* the proof of the capability of the team's creation; it was unlikely, but he might need them to increase its power even more, and a wise man allowed for such possibilities, however improbable.
The thought of Lindy Barrows reminded him: he must summon Enrico's lawyer and check on the current status of his erstwhile assistant. Enrico knew too much to be left undealt with.
To an outside observer, it might have seemed ever so slightly uncanny. To anyone who worked in the Daily Planet newsroom, it was nothing unusual — for Lane and Kent, at least. An astounded Lois looked up from her computer screen, just in time to meet the gaze of her husband, who had raised his head to cast a startled glance towards her in almost perfect synchronisation.
Lois was fairly sure that her expression matched his, so there was no need to ask what he was looking so surprised about. She cocked her head, indicating the conference room; he nodded, spent a few seconds closing down something on his screen — and Lois could guess what — and got up and headed that way; she was right behind him, pausing only to blank her screen and transfer her server connection to the conference room machine.
Once they were inside and the door safely closed behind them, the couple just stood and looked at each other for several moments. Neither spoke, because all they could think of to say were silly things like, "Did you read what I read?" Finally, as the silence began to stretch to the point of discomfort, Lois sat down at the computer, turned it on and brought up that astonishing e-mail message. "How the *heck* did Alex get hold of this?" she asked softly, disbelievingly, the question addressed more to herself than to Clark.
"I have *no* idea, honey," Clark replied, equally softly, coming over to lean over her shoulder. "Unless his reputation as a hacker — and that jail term — were well-earned. This looks like he's tapped into Luthor's private e-mail system … and the mind boggles at what he'd have to do, to do *that* and get away with it! And I thought Jimmy was good … "
Lois said nothing, but went to work on the computer, entering a standard search request for information on Lindy Barrows. It didn't take long before the response came, but there wasn't much of interest to see — except for the photo.
"Well, well … " Clark said grimly. "'Lindsey Bailey', I presume."
Lois looked up at Clark with wide, troubled eyes. "Clark, we've got to do something to help Owen Preece. Bailey— Barrows— *whatever* her name is, this woman knows almost exactly where he is, and I *don't* think she's on her way to Illinois to ask him politely to give back that money!"
There was no answer to that, so Clark didn't make one. Instead, he stood up and stared off into space for a minute, lost in thought. Lois, watching, noticed that his mouth began to tighten slightly — a sure sign of bad news. "What is it, sweetheart?" she whispered gently.
Clark turned a troubled countenance towards her. "You're right," he said. "We do need to help Preece. Which means that we need to get to Decatur as soon as we can. Except that I can't figure out how … *we* can go. What about Laura? We can't just take off and leave her, but I don't want to have to fly off by myself and leave you … um, holding the baby — if you'll excuse the expression … "
Lois had to stifle a laugh at the unintentional pun, which wasn't too hard. She had been dreading this moment. In the time since Laura's birth — almost a year now — the new parents had dealt with the huge changes in their lives that having a child brought. They'd coped with an awful lot in that year — everything from night-time feedings to the custody fight to having to deal with each other's feelings (*and* bodies!) when Superman was needed — but the one thing that parenthood *hadn't* done was to break up "Lane & Kent". Sure, they worked separately when one or other of them was at home looking after Laura, but when they were both at work, they were a team.
Until now, it seemed. Someone had to find Preece, but they couldn't both hare off to Illinois when they had a little girl to look after — which meant that Clark would be the one to go while she stayed home. The stereotypical sexism of the situation would have infuriated Lois, except that she had worked that out of her system during the Trifyllis case; if Clark went after Preece and Barrows while she remained behind to look after their child, it would be for purely practical reasons. What she hated was the precedent: if this could happen once, it could happen again and again. And neither Lois nor Clark looked forward to a future in which that was the case.
However, Lois was not one to let problems like this go unchallenged. 'What we need is a little lateral thinking … Maybe we could take Laura with us? Nah … unless we borrowed Martha and Jonathan's RV? No, we'd still have to leave her by herself for long periods. Unless … '
"Clark … " she cooed, a small smile spreading across her face, "Do you think your parents would like to visit Decatur?"
It took Lois a few minutes to convince Clark that it would be possible to turn a story-hunting trip into a family outing, requiring only the co-operation of Laura's paternal grandparents, but he finally agreed that it was worth a try — under certain *strict* guidelines, designed to keep the senior Kents and their grand-daughter as far away as possible from any danger. Fortunately, Lois argued, "Superman Express" would simplify that enormously.
Clark suggested that, in that case, maybe it wasn't necessary for his parents to make the trip; he could fly Lois there and back just as quickly, whether it was from his parents' RV or from Metropolis, but Lois disagreed: if he was called away for some reason, like the proverbial Indian monsoon floods, she'd be able to get across town, or even to the next town if he was going to insist on keeping his family at a distance, *far* more easily than she could get home to New Troy from the wilds of Illinois!
Once again, Clark had to agree. He knew when to quit; he was sure that his folks would be only too happy to join in the fun — 'Fun? Oh, boy … ' — and Lois' idea, classic Lane thinking that it was, would let them work together … and this might just help put Luthor away for good. So, there was only one thing to do: "Close the blinds, honey."
The sudden change of subject bewildered Lois, but she got up to do it … and Clark went into over-drive. By the time she had closed one set of blinds, he'd done the rest and was sitting at the computer, typing furiously. Fortunately, the conference room machine had recently been upgraded, because Clark was pushing it to its limits in respect of operating speed. Windows opened and closed at a mad rate, and lines of text flowed across the screen non-stop. Even with the upgrade, the computer gave out the occasional pathetic beep as its input buffer overflowed.
About 30 seconds later, he was done. "Right," he said, sitting back in the chair, "That's all our current stories finished or up-to-date. Now let's go see Perry and tell him we'll be out of his hair for a couple of days."
'Out of his hair … ' Lois froze, her mind working furiously. What *was* it about that phrase? She'd been trying to remember something for a couple of days now; she didn't know what, only that it was important and that she kept getting distracted before she could really concentrate. This time, though, she was determined to catch this elusive memory. She closed her eyes and began a breathing exercise designed to help her shut out the world, and let her mind float free.
'Oh, my God … Of *course!*' Her eyes snapped open scanned the room for Clark. Finding him, she reached out to grab his shoulders and said frantically, "Clark, we've got to go home. Now!"
"Huh? Honey, what is it? What about Preece?"
"Never mind Preece — this is important!" Lois hissed; it would have been a snarl, but she was trying to keep her voice down. Clark looked shocked, and she relented when she realised why. "Oh, I don't mean it like that, Clark, but this is *more* important! Really. If I'm right, we might have just what we've been looking for—" She paused, and Clark could almost see the wheels turning. "—*and* it'll help Preece; all we'll have to do is take care of this hit-woman, and he'll be safe. A crook, but still safe … "
Lois dragged an unresisting, albeit rather bewildered Clark out of the conference room, out of the newsroom and out of the building. The trip to Hyperion Avenue was one of the shortest on record, even counting those made in a super-hurry, and Lois had barely parked the Jeep before charging into the townhouse and racing up the stairs. Clark, who got to "tidy up" after Whirlwind Lane — lock up the car, close the front door, that sort of thing — was just in time to see his wife disappear up the ladder into the attic.
Puzzled, he followed her, pausing in the hatchway to watch as Lois frantically rummaged in an old cardboard box that he recognised from when she moved into his apartment after their wedding. Judging by the freshly-torn tape and ripped sides, it hadn't been opened since it was sealed up, nearly three years ago. What on Earth could be in there to set Lois off like this?
Whatever it was, she didn't seem able to find it. He could hear her mutter under her breath, "Where is it, where is it … " as she tossed the box's contents to the four corners of the room. Clark lowered his glasses and took an x-ray peek into the box. Lois was about half-way down by now, but he still couldn't guess what she was looking for; nothing he could see looked out of the ordinary in any way.
But then she yelled a delighted, "YES!" and grabbed something from inside the box. Not with her hand, though; whatever it was, she wasn't touching it directly, picking it up instead inside a clean handkerchief. Once she got the mysterious object out of the box, she punched the air with the hand holding the handkerchief, her face gleefully triumphant— and finally noticed the bemused figure of her husband leaning against the hatch frame, a quizzical look on his face.
He didn't need to ask what this was all about — or, at least, to put it into so many words; the question was obvious from his entire manner — because Lois started to explain in an enthusiastic torrent: "I found it, Clark, I *found* it! It's just what we need, it'll show him for what he is, once and for all — just look—" She held it out to him, but then suddenly snatched it back before he could take it. "No, wait, it's better if you don't touch it— *I* shouldn't touch it, either; that's why I'm using the handkerchief— but then it's gonna be hard to open it this way. Clark, do you know where those silk glove liners are— or, better yet, what about those disposable surgical gloves Daddy gave us when Laura was born— as though I couldn't bear to touch my own daughter, even when she does need a diaper change—"
"Hold it, Lois, hold it … " broke in a laughing Clark. 'Babble, thy name is Lane,' he thought, stifling a further guffaw, 'and long may it be so.' He took a step backwards, off the ladder, and the familiar *whoosh* could be heard. To Lois, he just seemed to … *flicker* — but when the flicker stopped, he was carrying a pair of thin rubber gloves, and wearing another pair himself.
"Oh, thanks, Clark," she said, carefully putting the handkerchief down. But before taking what she'd asked for, she went back to the box and scrabbled around in it for a few seconds, eventually pulling out an old, torn envelope. Only after putting that down next to the handkerchief did she come over to put on the gloves.
Now suitably gloved, she picked up the handkerchief and the envelope and followed Clark down the ladder and back down the stairs to the living room. Once there, sitting next to her husband on the couch, she placed it on the coffee table and at last unwrapped it to reveal …
… another box. A red velvet jewellery box, to be exact.
Clark looked at his wife. "Lois, why the fuss about touching *that?*"
It took her a moment to respond, as engrossed in staring at the box as she was. "What?" she yelped. "Oh — I'm just trying to be careful, sweetheart. See, if I'm right, what's in here is the answer to all our problems with Lex, and I just want to make sure that no-one can say that we've tampered with it … "
"Go on," Clark replied, his voice low and serious.
She made to open the box, but couldn't seem to do it — or was it that she didn't *want* to do it? Neither of them said anything until Lois finally met Clark's eyes and said, somewhat bashfully, "Clark, can you use your vision gizmo on this? I— I— you'll think I'm crazy, but I'm scared to open it; there's too much riding on what's inside, and I want to be *sure* that Lex's lawyers can't say that we faked this."
Clark reached out to touch her face in their special way. His hand felt odd in the glove, but the touch and what it conveyed were what they had always been — and just what Lois needed at that moment. "No, Lois," he said, their gazes still locked, "I don't think you're crazy. I won't tell you what I *do* think you are, because we'd get distracted — and, as much as I love them, now is not the time for those kinds of distractions. I think you're being sensible, and careful — and, knowing you, probably brilliant! Okay, you hold that for me and turn it around so that I can get a look at what's inside from every angle — if I need to?"
Lois wasn't sure if he'd need to or not, so she did rotate the box on the palm of her hand after Clark took off his glasses and began to look. After a few moments, he asked her to turn the box over, which she did. Finally, he whistled in … was it amazement? and met her eyes again.
Inside the box was a locket, and inside *that* … but that wasn't what had caught Clark's attention or caused the whistle. The locket itself looked to be an antique — about 130 years old, if Clark was right — but was surprisingly plain in design. It was oval-shaped, with a flat, plain gold back, featureless except for some engraving, and an egg-shaped front made of a jet-black semi- precious stone. 'Literally jet black,' Clark thought; he was no mineralogist, but that looked like jet itself.
"You want to tell me about this?" he asked, his words half question and half statement.
"Well, you see, Lex gave me this as a 'pre-wedding present'. It's supposed to be very old and *very* rare—"
"It's that, all right," Clark interrupted. "Lois, do you know what this is?"
"It's a locket," she answered, wondering at his interest. "Just some old antique Lex found in an auction catalogue. I didn't like it much, but it was expensive and that's all he cared about. What's important is what's *in* it—"
"Lois … " Clark stopped her again. "This is no ordinary locket. Luthor wasn't kidding when he said it was rare: I doubt if there were ever more than a couple of these made, and I'd be surprised if any of them were alike. If you look on the back, you'll see some engraving; it's fairly worn now, but still clear. There's just two letters: 'VR'."
Lois didn't get it. "Virtual Reality?"
Clark laughed. "No, honey. 'Victoria Regina.' I think this locket may have belonged to Queen Victoria once."
Lois' eyebrows shot up and she looked at the box with new respect. Clark reached out and gently turned her hand so that the bottom of the box was towards him; a quick x-ray check confirmed his suspicions. "Yeah," he said thoughtfully, "if you look on the inside of the front of the locket, there's some more engraving: another 'VR', but this one's intertwined with the letter 'A'."
"A for Albert?"
"Yeah," Clark repeated. "I reckon that's what's called a mourning locket, made for the Queen after her husband died. I've seen one like it in the British Museum." Then he stopped and snorted in disgust. "Typical Luthor. It's unique and it's valuable — priceless, even — so never mind what it was intended as. What kind of man gives his … " His voice tightened; even after five years, and nearly three years of marriage, he still hated thinking of Lois being engaged to Luthor. " … wife-to-be a *mourning* locket?"
"One with a gigantic ego," Lois said dryly. She knew that thinking of that time still hurt Clark — she didn't like it much herself — but they *had* to think about it now, because in that horrible period of their lives, and in the small box in her hand, lay the key to the downfall of the man who had *made* it so horrible.
"One with an ego so big that only something fit for a queen would do for *his* bride," she went on sneeringly, "and one who thought he — *and* she — were so much better than everyone else that 'mere royalty' should feel themselves honoured to be replaced by us! Which is why he threw out the lock of hair that was in the locket when he bought it and put one of his own in there instead — for me to *treasure*." The last word was so sarcastic in tone that it could have peeled paint.
"What?" cried Clark. He knew that the hair inside the locket, pressed down behind a piece of transparent rock crystal, must have been important, but somehow he hadn't expected *this*. "You mean—"
"I mean that I watched Lex — or his clone, because this happened well after he was supposed to have been replaced by the clone — cut a lock of his hair and place it in that locket, sealing it in with a piece of specially-cut rock crystal … and it's been there ever since! I only wore the thing the once, when he gave it to me, and after Lex's suicide, I stuffed it in the back of a drawer and forgot about it! I think this is the first time I've even *seen* it since then — didn't my mother pack up that dresser for us? Or was it Martha?"
Now Clark's brows were up. Was it possible? Was the evidence that they needed to expose Luthor right there in that small box? He shook his head to help fight down the hope that had surged inside him, and forced himself to think about this, rationally and (hopefully) objectively. Lois had the right idea: they could have The Answer, but it would be worthless if it wouldn't stand up in court.
"Okay, honey," he said slowly, "let's take this one step at a time — just like a story." 'Oh, it's gonna be a story, all right … I hope.' "Did anyone else see this?"
"No," Lois replied, matching his mood, and determination. "No, it all happened in the penthouse, and not even Asabi or Nigel was there — and they'd hardly be reliable witnesses. But, Clark, we *can* prove that it must have been the clone. The auction didn't take place until *after* the clone was supposed to have taken over." She put the box down and picked up the papers in the envelope that she'd found earlier. "Look, this is the provenance that came with the locket. I didn't bother to look at it, but I remember Lex saying that I should keep it safe so that the locket's … what did he say? — 'value and authenticity', that was it — would be maintained. I kept it with the locket, but that's it."
Clark quickly looked through the papers, and Lois was right — not that he'd doubted her, but here was documentary proof. The 'clone' was the one who had bought the locket, and it had lain forgotten in Lois' dresser and in the packing container ever since — which meant that if DNA analysis showed that the hair came from Lex Luthor …
'No, hold it, Kent. "One step at a time," remember? I think we've got the true origin of the hair sewn up; now, what can the lawyers do to challenge it, and how can we forestall them? Hmmm … '
Clark took the jewellery box and looked at it again, both with and without super-vision — and then it hit him. "Oh, boy … " he murmured. His head snapped around to face his wife, who was also deep in thought. "Lois, we've got to get this to a lab right away."
Now it was Clark's turn to be fired with a sudden need to *move*. He jumped up, grabbed Lois' hand and hauled her, gently but irresistibly, to her feet.
"We going to see Dr Klein?" Lois asked, caught up in his urgency as she picked up and re-packed her bag, tossed carelessly in the direction of the sofa as she had charged for the attic.
"Nope. I think we need to see Inspector Henderson first, and he'll probably want the police lab to do it. Maybe we could ask him to get Dr Klein to watch, just to make sure they do it right … "
"Maybe. Now, would you mind telling me what this is all about?"
"Oh, sure, sweetheart," Clark said as they headed out the door, sounding almost surprised that he hadn't already done so. "It's really very simple … "
As it turned out, Dr Klein was the one who did the tests after all, with a police forensic scientist (a trusted friend of Henderson's) as assistant and observer. This wasn't even unusual; the Metro PD lab didn't have the advanced equipment that STAR Labs had at its disposal, so it was standard procedure for work requiring anything out of the ordinary to be farmed out. It seemed crazy to the cops that the city was prepared to pay for outside work rather than spend less money for a decently equipped lab at Headquarters, but try to explain that to the bean- counters …
The particular tests that were wanted in this case didn't take long, although it seemed like centuries to Lois and Clark. By contrast, Henderson, used to the slower pace of the over-worked MPD staff, was pleasantly surprised when the results came through so "soon".
"Well, that's it," said Bernard Klein in his usual matter-of-fact tone. "It's pretty conclusive. Based on dendro-chronologically- corrected carbon-14 tests, backed up by pollen identification, shed-skin cell age samples and an ozone isotope count, I can state that that box hasn't been opened since the middle of 1994. And the airtight seal under the rock crystal hasn't been broken for even longer."
"Is that right, George?" asked Henderson, as Lois and Clark held their breath.
"Count on it, Bill," was the reply from the police scientist. "Bernie here didn't miss a trick. Any one of those tests would stand up in court, the way he did them, but *four?* Solid as a rock! I'd be prepared to swear to their accuracy on a stack of Bibles that even Superman would have trouble lifting."
"Is that what you wanted?" asked Dr Klein. Then he noticed Lois and Clark, locked in an ecstatic clinch. "I guess it was."
"Break it up, you two!" Henderson barked after a while. "We're not finished yet!" As the two reporters sheepishly disentangled themselves, the Inspector turned back to the scientists. "How long will that DNA test take?"
"It's not gonna be quick, Bill," George answered, "Not at the level of accuracy that we're gonna need, not even with STAR Labs' latest and greatest sequencer/analyzer on the case — and that's *some* machine, let me tell you! This is not some quick-and-dirty ID check; we could do *that* by tomorrow morning with what they've got here! What we need is a detailed sequence profile that we can check for frog DNA and then use as a reference for when we get hold of a sample from … the suspect. And that will take time — a heck of a lot less than it used to, but we're still talking about … oh, about a week, Bernie?"
Dr Klein nodded in agreement. Henderson looked impressed. "That's good," he said, sounding as though he meant it. A strangled noise came from one side, and he looked over at an astonished Lois. "That *is* good, Lane. This sort of thing used to take over a month to do properly, if you want it to stand up in court. Still does, just about anywhere else in the world; we're lucky to have STAR Labs."
He looked at his watch, and then back at Klein. "Let me know as soon as you've got the results. Doesn't matter when — any time, day or night; I need to know ASAP."
The scientists agreed and left, lapsing into shop talk as they went. The inspector turned back to Lois and Clark. "So far, so good. I'm gonna head back to Headquarters and start compiling the charge list, so if the DNA checks out—"
"You mean *when*," Lois stated positively.
"*If* it checks out," Henderson repeated, "I'll be all ready to sit on Judge Black's doorstep five minutes later to get a warrant and an order to take a DNA swab. Now, keep a lid on this! I don't mind giving you an exclusive once Luthor is behind bars, but any leaks could wreck the whole case."
"Don't worry about that," Clark assured him. "We're just as interested in making sure this goes over smoothly as you are. What are you going to charge him with?"
"The easy ones first, huh, Kent? This is gonna have the D.A.'s office running around in circles once it gets out! What's the legal status of a convicted felon who's been pardoned, only it wasn't *him* who was convicted, it was someone that he was pretending to be — but he wasn't pretending at the time, just later when he was pardoned—! Don't ask me; I'm only a cop.
"Anyway, it doesn't matter, at least not to begin with. I've got plenty of things that I can charge him with without needing to worry about double jeopardy — once I've got the evidence, that is. Obstruction of justice; perjury — and then there's all those charges that were never brought against the 'clone', 'cause he was thought to be dead! Abduction — of you, Lane; conspiracy to impersonate a public official — to wit, the President of the United States; assault and battery; attempted murder; arson … It'll be enough to keep Mr Luthor and his lawyers occupied while the courts figure out whether any sentence he gets on *those* charges will be on top of the ones he already got four years ago!"
On that note, they began to leave. Henderson hung back a little and, when Lois wasn't watching, motioned to Clark to do likewise. Lois didn't notice and dived out of the front entrance, heading for the Jeep.
Once she was outside, the Inspector drew Clark over to one side and muttered quietly, "Do me a favour, Kent — keep your eye on that wife of yours. I don't know whether she realises it, but she is the key to this whole clone-impersonation thing. Lane is the *only* witness who can say that the hair in that locket came from the so-called clone's head. Without her, all Luthor's lawyers have to do is claim that the clone put a lock of the real Luthor's hair in there — to cover its back, maybe. I know it sounds crazy, but crazier things than that have come up in court.
"So stay close to Lane, and keep her out of trouble — if that's possible. And if you see Superman, maybe you could ask him to keep an eye on her, too."
"Don't worry, Inspector," Clark replied. "Both Superman and I will do our best to keep Lois safe. For what it's worth, we're gonna be out of town for a couple of days on a related story, so that should help us keep a low profile for a while. You've got our mobile numbers, so call us if you need us — and do it anyway when you get the warrant. Lois will *kill* you if we don't get that exclusive on Luthor's arrest!"
Henderson nodded in agreement, grinning in spite of himself as Clark left to join the subject of their discussion. The detective watched him go, sobering quickly. So much hung on the testimony of Lois Lane, and he was worried. "Superman *and* Kent … I just hope that's gonna be enough to keep Lane whole," he murmured.
Alex blinked tired eyes as he closed the window containing the LCKILLER code. It was shaping nicely, but he needed a break. Unfortunately, it was the middle of the night and Nick was asleep, which rather limited his options in the way of relaxation. He'd probably done enough for tonight, but he wasn't sleepy at all; what could he do to help wind down before crashing?
'What does any good hacker do for relaxation?' he thought. 'We hack!' "Let's take a look at My Favourite Murderer … "
He quickly called up Enrico O'Reilly's records from the Metropolis Prison medical database. "Oh, dearie, dearie me … " he murmured in falsetto as he scanned the list of medications that Enrico was receiving. "Poor Eeyore's having trouble sleeping. Must be a guilty conscience … well, I can help you with that, you bastard!
"Just a little dose of Dr Trifyllis' Wonder Guilt Reliever, and all those awful secrets that are keeping you awake at night will be gone — they won't be secret any more! The cops will know all about what you've done for your boss … and won't Lexy-boy enjoy being questioned over that! I don't imagine that they'll arrest him for it — not yet, but that'll change … once he doesn't own so much as the clothes he's wearing!"
Smiling vindictively, Alex set to work on the medication list, making occasional reference to a print-out of an article that he'd found on the "New Troy Pharmaceutical Journal" web-site while idly net-surfing one day. He added a new drug here, changed another to a slightly different formulation there … The end result was a list that was remarkably like the original, but the drugs thereon wouldn't do much to help Enrico sleep; what they *would* do was to react with one another once in his bloodstream to produce a kind of inhibition remover — a truth serum, if you will. Once it took hold, for the next few days, Enrico O'Reilly would answer *any* question that anyone put to him, in graphic and tedious detail. The big problem for anyone interrogating him would be to shut him up!
Lindy Barrows pulled her car over to the side of the road and reached behind her to bring her travelling bag onto the front seat. It had been stupid to put it the back in the first place, but force of habit could make one do a lot of stupid things.
Now that she was away from the airport, she pulled out the laptop and her mobile phone and connected them as she had done back in Metropolis. In moments, she was connected to her e-mail service, but there were no new messages awaiting her. This was good news; it meant that Preece— okay, the money, but Lindy couldn't imagine him leaving that behind — hadn't left that small town. This astonished her: with all that money, she'd have been out of the country like a peregrine falcon with its tail on fire. Instead, Preece had made his way to that hick burg, presumably to lie low until the heat was off.
Rather naive of him, really, to think that the heat would *ever* be off. You didn't steal *anything* from Lex Luthor and expect him to forget about it, and especially not 300,000 bucks at a time when LexCorp was short of cash. Actually, it was odd that Preece had taken so little; either he wasn't very greedy, or he'd only stolen as much as he though he could get away with. Maybe he'd thought that a relatively small amount wouldn't be missed … Fat chance.
Okay, so she had her target located in broad terms; once she got there, it would be time to narrow her search down — and that was the job of that other useful little gadget in her bag. Yet another of the latest high-tech wonders to have come out of LexLabs, it had been nicknamed the Tricorder, and its job was to help in pinpointing leaks and unwanted emissions of any detectable substance from the outside. This it did by combining one or more sensors, the appropriate ones being simply plugged in as needed, with an extremely accurate satellite navigation system, enabling the location of the sensor readings to be plotted with great precision.
This particular Tricorder, the first of a special production batch for LexCorp Security Division, was set up to detect the LexTrace dye. It also had the latest GPS software from the Communications Division, which was rumoured to be so accurate that the Pentagon had set up a black project to study ways of misleading it. That didn't matter to Lindy; what did matter was that this not-so-little black box would enable her to track the stolen money, and where the money was, she would find Owen Preece.
Unfortunately, the dye sensor, however it worked, had a pretty short range, so she'd have to cruise around Hickburg until she got a sniff. That shouldn't take too long — the town wasn't exactly big — and once she did, that would be one more loose end tied up for the boss.
Lindy put the car into gear and headed towards the town, the Tricorder resting on the seat beside her. In just a few hours, she could begin her hunt.
The RV trundled into town at a leisurely pace, three of its occupants casting interested glances about themselves at the familiar-seeming surroundings while the fourth one frowned at a map … and the fifth dozed comfortably in her carry-cot. To Martha, Jonathan and Clark, it all seemed comfortably home-like; this was Illinois, not Kansas, but some things about a small town were universal. To Lois, of course, this meant that she was once again in the equivalent of uncharted wilderness, but at least this time she had three interpreters to help her deal with the natives.
"Uncharted" seemed to be an appropriate adjective just at the moment, too, because she was having a hard time making anything she could see through the windows of the RV correspond to what was supposed to be there, according to the map. It was infuriating; here they were, barely half-an-hour's drive (if that) from Decatur — a respectable, if small, outpost of civilisation — and already she could have been sailing up the Zambesi for all the use this blasted map was!
'Why do people in these places try to *hide* everything?' she thought, exasperated, as she searched for a street sign, a recognisable feature like a town hall— *anything* that would give her some idea of where she was, so that she could find their way to the camping ground which they were planning to use as a base.
"Having trouble, honey?" Clark asked, recognising the signs.
"No, no, of course not— *yes!*" Lois replied, at first determined, as ever, to prove that she could deal with anything, and then deciding that maybe it wasn't worth the effort, not when she had her "native guides" to help. "Here," she said, passing over the map, "You're the small-town expert, farm boy; *you* work out where the heck we are!"
"O-kay," he said, annoyingly cheerful at the prospect. He looked at the map for a moment or two, then outside again. Lois watched him, thoroughly fed-up, in the firm expectation that he would immediately have the answer and proceed to tell Martha, who was driving just then, where to go … but nothing happened. Clark frowned and glanced down at the map, then raised his head and looked around, turning in his seat to see behind him.
"I see why you were having trouble," he said dryly. "Think I'll have to cheat a little." He lowered his glasses slightly and cast another glance around; to an outside observer, it would have looked no different to his previous one, but the adults in the RV knew better.
"There we go … " Clark said after a few moments. "Mom, turn right down by the church."
'Thank heavens for super-vision,' thought Lois. For, once they'd located themselves on the map — or, rather, once they'd realised that the map wasn't worth the paper it was printed on, and Clark told Martha how to get where they wanted to go — it was only a few minutes until they arrived at the camping ground.
The owner was a friendly soul, particularly after he'd discovered that the Kents came from Kansas (Lois kept her mouth shut, and no-one corrected the man's erroneous impression). He laughed when Jonathan mentioned their map troubles, saying that the company who published it were notorious for that sort of thing locally; it seemed that they'd got their hands on an old, inaccurate survey and based their maps on it. The errors had been pointed out dozens of times, but the company didn't want to go to the expense of drawing fresh maps — at least until they'd sold all of the old ones. They got away with it because there wasn't a lot of out-of-state traffic around here — what went through the county almost never ventured off the expressways — and the locals knew where they were, anyway.
His tale got Lois' dander up, and she began to mutter about exposes of rural con artists. Clark agreed privately, but that was for later; right now, he saw an opportunity to turn the conversation to some practical use. "If that's the case, someone we know might have had the same problem recently," he said casually. "I don't suppose you've met Owen Preece, by any chance?"
Clark turned to Lois. "You remember Owen, honey. Used to work in computers, until he came into that … windfall and retired."
Lois played along. "Of course I remember Owen. One day, he announced that he was leaving, and next thing we knew, he was off touring the world. But he always wanted to see this country first. Last we heard, he was around these parts," she informed the camp owner. "That was one of the reasons *we* came here; he made it sound so peaceful that we thought we'd take a look ourselves. Actually, he seemed to like it so much that we wondered if he was going to stop here for a while. You ever run into him?"
The owner didn't think so, but then, the camp kept him pretty busy. If they wanted to know that sort of thing, they should ask Verity Marshall; she not only ran the town's only real estate company, she was the biggest snoop and gossip in the county. If *anyone* round here knew this Preece fella, it'd be Verity.
Lois and Clark exchanged significant glances. Martha thanked their loquacious host and drove the RV to the designated site. Clark was pleased to see that it was not only close to the communal facilities, it also backed onto a hedge that would provide excellent cover for super-departures and -arrivals.
Meantime, Martha had been thinking. "Well, it looks like you've got your first lead," she said as she parked. "Do you want to head into town and see this Mrs Marshall while Jonathan and I set up camp with Laura? Oh, wait— how are you going to go into town if we've got the van? Should we all come with you?"
"Don't worry, Mom. We weren't planning to use the van. We don't want to strand you, and the whole point of having you along is to have somewhere separate from our investigation where we know Laura will be safe and well looked after. We'll … " He made the flying hand-signal. " … into town, and if it looks like we'll be here for a while, we'll go to Decatur and rent a car. It'll be less noticeable if we have to stake out some place, anyway."
"Oh. Okay, honey." Martha sounded disappointed — and probably was, if Clark knew his mother. Nonetheless, he didn't want his parents involved in this. He would have preferred that *Lois* wasn't involved, since she was so vital to exposing Luthor's clone story, but he knew better than to suggest that she stay here while he saw what he could get out of Mrs Marshall. The *real* reason that his parents were there, the reason behind the reason that he'd just described to them, was so that Lane and Kent could work together, and that was that.
Naturally, with that settled in his mind, Fate intervened, in the form of a call on his cellphone a few minutes later. Somewhat surprised, he pulled it out of his hip pocket and answered, "Clark Kent speaking."
"Kent, this is Henderson. Does this 'related story' of yours have anything to do with that supposed series of murders that you and Lane have been hassling Homicide about for months?"
"Well … yeah. We think we know who's next on the list, and we're trying to stop him becoming victim number 27."
Henderson grunted. For just a moment, he thought about suggesting that the reporters let the local police (wherever they were) know, but remembered who he was talking to — or, rather, who Clark's partner was — and decided not to waste his breath. "Is that gonna take long?"
"We don't know — why?"
"Because I could really use you here now— *you*, Kent! I want Lane to lie low as much as possible. Remember Enrico O'Reilly?"
'All too well,' Clark thought. 'He nearly killed both Lois and me. If Nick Trifyllis hadn't switched us back into the right bodies … ' "What about him?"
"Someone in the prison hospital slipped him a Mickey, and he's confessed to almost all those murders, and he says they were all done on Luthor's orders. It's not admissible evidence, but it's one hell of a lead! The thing is, since no-one in Homicide thought that *all* these killings were connected, the facts are scattered around in over two dozen files, and it's gonna take days, if not weeks, to pull them all together — but you two have been working on them, too, so I thought you might have what I need. Is there any chance that you can get over to Headquarters and let me have a look at what you've got?"
Clark had to stop and think. It would be easy for him to return to Metropolis to give Henderson a copy of their files, but that would mean leaving Lois. On the other hand, this could be their chance to tie Luthor to those killings, and Clark wanted him to pay for as many of his crimes as could be proven in a court of law. Besides, having Luthor face as many charges as possible would keep both him and his lawyers busy, so there'd be less chance that they could challenge the DNA tests.
"Hang on a second, Inspector," he said, hitting the privacy switch on the 'phone. Lois was, naturally, staring at him with unabashed curiosity. "Honey, it's Henderson— *no*, the DNA tests aren't finished yet," he said, forestalling the obvious question which he could see her gearing up to ask. "Nothing so straight- forward. It's O'Reilly — he's still in the prison infirmary, but he's been drugged by somebody, and he's confessing to all the murders! And that he did them on orders from Luthor! Henderson wants me to give him a copy of our files so that he can save time relating them all."
Lois' face was a study in varied emotion: joy, astonishment, laughter, triumph, confusion — all were there, and a few more besides. She also understood what this meant in terms of their immediate situation. "Go," she said firmly. When he hesitated, she shooed him with her hands. "Go! And you can drop me in town on your way."
That *really* made him hesitate, but Lois was expecting it. "Please, Clark. You've *got* to go back to Metropolis; Henderson *needs* our files. Just think, this could be the break-through that we've been waiting for. This could be our best chance to put Lex in prison — and once he's locked up, the whole clone thing can be worked out at our leisure — or Dr Klein's.
"Don't worry about me. I know Henderson's got you worried, and I know why, but I *will* be careful. I'm only going to talk to Mrs Marshall, and then I'll come straight back and wait for you— I *will*, even if she knows where Preece is. But I do need to go, and go now, and so do you."
Clark wasn't happy, but he couldn't argue. Somehow, it didn't surprise him that Lois had realised what Henderson had said to him about her; he could only hope that it would make her that extra bit more careful — but he doubted it. However, there was nothing he could do; she was right, and they both needed to get going.
Sighing, he told Henderson that he'd be there as soon as possible — which ought to be in less than an hour if he could "arrange a lift." Henderson said he'd be waiting.
Clark walked round behind the RV and spun into the suit. Lois was right there, and he scooped her up and they shot into the sky.
"Ahhhhhh … "
Nick looked up from the magazine he was reading as the sound of Alex's long, satisfied sigh filled the room.
"Look at that … " Alex murmured, his eyes fixed on the code on his screen. "What a lovely sight. There it is … the end of LexCorp, just waiting for me to press one key."
Nick, hearing this, came over to stand behind him. "So, it's done?"
"Oh, yeah, Nicky. It's done. Written, tested, debugged — all set to go. All I gotta do is—" Alex paused as a thought struck him, and he swivelled his chair around to face his brother. He reached out and grabbed Nick's arm. "No, I got a better idea. All *you* gotta do is hit 'Return'."
"Yeah, you. I know you've been bored stiff while I've been working on this, so now it's your turn to have some fun. Just hit the Return key, and away she'll go.
"Come on, Nicky," Alex urged when Nick seemed to hesitate. "This is our chance to hit back at the guy who had Chris killed — and a whole lot of other people. This is what Beth Luthor asked us to do — to cut Luthor off from his money and power, to bring him down so that he can go to prison like the crook that he is! Well, *this* is how we do it.
"And I want *us* to do it, together, because it was *our* brother he murdered. I've written the code, so I want you to be the one to put it into operation."
Nick wasn't sure about this; he was even less sure that what Alex had done was what Beth Luthor had wanted, but somehow, it didn't seem to matter. Alex was right, he told himself, Luthor had to pay for his crimes, and it was either this … or kill him! And the latter just wasn't an option; Nick didn't want to be dragged down to Luthor's level, and he didn't want Alex dragged down, either. So …
Slowly, reluctantly, he reached down and touched the Return key. The touch, made with one fingertip at the full stretch of his arm, was so light that he almost thought that he hadn't done it hard enough for anything to happen. The computer disagreed, however, and a stream of incomprehensible text began to flow across the screen … until it blanked itself, leaving only the cryptic message:
REMOTE NODES READY. Program downloaded to 15 locations. First phase scheduled for SINGAPORE. Exchange opens in 05:38:27
As Nick watched, the 15 locations became 16, and the "27" became "26", and then "25" … and then the message disappeared and the screen resumed its usual appearance. "Geez, Alex, what is this? A countdown?"
"You better believe it. The countdown to Armageddon for LexCorp, courtesy of you and me and world-wide capitalism. And the clock is ticking … "
Lindy drove slowly into town, coincidentally — or not; there weren't that many roads to choose from — following the same route as the RV had earlier. She also had the same map, and was having similar problems working out exactly where she was. This was proving to be particularly frustrating, because a) she needed to find somewhere to stay, and b) how could she do a careful, thorough sweep of the town in order to find Preece if she couldn't trust her map?
The answer to the first of her problems appeared a block beyond the church, in the form of the Shady Rest Motel. The place did not impress her on first sight, and it didn't improve on closer examination; however, it was (reasonably) clean, and it was *there*, so she'd just have to make the best of it.
While checking in (as "Lorna Barnes"), she learned of the perfidy of the map-makers, and was informed that she could get a reliable, locally-produced map at the town general store. After stashing her bag in the motel room and making another quick check for updates on Preece's position (no change), she headed back out into town to get one.
She had instructions on how to find the general store, which, as might have been expected, was located in the centre of town along with other "essential" services like the local bank and the real estate agency. It was particularly fortuitous that the bank was so close, because it enabled Lindy to train the Tricorder on the building, and thereby confirm that Preece hadn't deposited his loot there.
This was the one thing that she had feared since she had learned where Preece was hiding. It wasn't likely that he'd entrust the money to a bank — the spread and speed of modern communications meant that even places this far out in the boonies could have been alerted to watch for large cash deposits — but if he *had*, it would have made her job that much harder, because she'd have had to either stake out the bank and watch for him, or try to trace him through the tiny amounts of LexTrace dye that might have come off the money and got onto his clothes, luggage and skin. She still might have to do that if it turned out that Preece had stashed the money somewhere away from his person — like, say, burying it underground — but there was time enough to deal with that once she actually found the cash. First, though, she needed that map …
"Sorry, ma'am, but I can't find any mention of M-Mr Preece in our files," the eager young man half-stammered as he came out of the back room. "M-Mrs Marshall should be back in about an hour. C-can I get her to call you?"
"Oh, *no*," Lois said as though the very idea was ridiculous. "It's not that important," she lied. "He's just an old acquaintance that we thought we'd look up, *if* he was here. We don't even know that he stayed here more than a few days, but the guy who runs the camping ground said that Mrs Marshall would know if anyone did."
"Well, that's true enough," he replied, feeling a little less tongue-tied now that he'd been reassured by this gorgeous stranger that he hadn't let her down in a matter of life and death. Keen to prolong her visit — and his opportunity to feast his eyes on her — by engaging her in a genuine, non-work-related conversation, he elaborated on this: "Verity— Mrs Marshall — she's kinda the unofficial town census-taker. The official one, too, when the government takes one. She says that that's why she spends so much time finding out what's going on around town — that and because she says it's good for business, but everyone knows that she just loves to gossip.
"You should be careful, ma'am! Verity'll know if Mr Preece lives around here, right enough, but she'll be falling over herself trying to find out about *you* if you're staying long in these parts."
"Oh, that's okay," Lois said, "I'll just send my husband along next time. He knows how to deal with people like that." 'And he'll keep your eyes in your head as well, my boy.'
The mention of a husband seemed to deflate the young man momentarily, although Lois was sure that he must have seen her rings, and she took the opportunity to make a polite farewell and escape. She closed the door of the agency office behind her … and flattened herself against the wall as she saw Lindy Barrows get out of a car and walk into the general store next door.
Once she was certain that the woman had gone into the store, Lois crept cautiously towards the car. She peered into the windows and saw the Tricorder on the front seat.
'What the heck is that thing?' she thought, her eyes flicking across to the entrance to the general store, and then back to the car. There was nothing further of any interest in either place, however, so she retreated to a point along the street from where she could watch without being obvious about it — at least from the direction of the car — and began, not quite frantically, to think.
What should she do? Clark wasn't here, and she didn't know when he would be back. Lindy Barrows *was* here, and had that gadget in her car that … what? Lois didn't know, but she'd bet that it must have something to do with finding Preece. Which meant that the easiest, and above all, *quickest* way to find the guy in Clark's absence was probably to follow Barrows — but how was she to do that? She had no car, and couldn't get one in the few minutes, if that, before the woman came out of the store and drove off. Even if she had had a car all ready and waiting, it would be difficult to follow someone on the quiet roads around here without it being obvious that that was what she was doing.
Lois cast her eyes to the sky, hoping against hope that she might see a familiar caped figure, but to no avail — which was not surprising. If it came to that, *nobody* was around; she'd never seen a town, small or no, as deserted as this place was right now. Okay, that meant she was on her own. Time to resort to the methods that had made Mad Dog Lane the scourge of the Metropolis underworld.
Her eyes still firmly fixed on the general store, Lois crept around to the rear of the car, thanking the powers that be that Lindy had parked nose-to-kerb, and began to work on the lock of the trunk with her lockpicks. It took a few tries, but her skill had not deserted her and she soon had it open. As she had hoped, the capacious trunk was mostly empty — but not for long. She climbed in and closed the lid, wrapping the strap of her hand-bag around the lid catch to stop the lock from engaging, and also to keep the lid down as if it were properly closed. Curled up as comfortably as she could manage in the trunk, Lois settled down to wait.
Her wait was not long. She could tell from muffled sounds from outside when Lindy emerged from the store and got back into the car, tossing a bag of assorted purchases into the back seat as she did so. Lois was expecting the car to drive away almost immediately, but instead there was a longish pause in which nothing obvious happened, and she asked herself what the woman in the driver's seat was doing. Faint rustles and crackles coming from the inside of the car seemed to indicate that she was doing something involving paper; it went on for some time, and Lois wondered with a grin if Lindy was trying to make sense of one of those crazy maps.
If so, she seemed to have better luck with it than either Lois or Clark had had — or maybe she hadn't yet realised how hopeless the thing was — because she fairly soon started the engine and reversed into the street, moving off towards the outskirts of town.
For what must have been the hundredth time — although, from the way she felt after doing this for far too long, *thousandth* might have been more like it — Lindy pulled over to the side of the road, stopped the car and picked up the Tricorder. Activating it, she moved it around in yet another scan for the elusive dyed cash … and yelped in delight as it *finally* lit up and beeped at her with a positive reading.
'At last!' she thought, 'And about time, too.' She'd expected her search to be relatively quick — until she'd seen an accurate map of the town. She'd been stunned to see just how strung out this place was, and her optimism had been summarily dashed when she'd started to work out how many scanning points she'd need in order to cover *all* of it with the Tricorder.
Naturally, she hadn't been lucky enough to detect anything — at least not of the magnitude that would locate the bulk of the money, although there were plenty of low-level readings indicating places where Preece had spent a few bucks — until she'd spent fruitless, frustrating hours driving back and forth in order to scan something like 95 per cent of the town. Only now, with the twilight starting to fail, did she find what she wanted.
Well, it would be a pain to have to lug the Tricorder around in the dark, but it would make her approach to Preece's hideaway, not to mention the final confrontation — or, to be accurate, his murder — that much simpler. First, though, she still had to find the money — and her victim.
She spent a few moments getting a more precise direction to the money and marking a rough line from her present position on the map. Then she drove to her next scanning point and took another reading — which, much to her relief, was still positive. Once again, she took her time finding a precise direction to the "target" and marking it on the map. The intersection of the two lines ought to indicate the exact position of Preece's cash, and maybe if the bearings had been drawn carefully with proper drafting instruments on a decently flat surface, it might do that; however, Lindy wasn't so stupid as to think that her rough- and-ready drawing methods could produce anything other than a point from which to start a closer search.
Fortunately, she wasn't restricted to only two scans, and the more bearings she could take, the better would be her starting point. However, she only managed a third line on the map before she must have moved out of range of the money and the Tricorder returned to its former unhelpful inactivity. Things weren't that bad, though, because her three lines all converged on a small area which the map showed as the house and outbuildings of a farm, probably quite an old one since it was so close to the town.
Lindy squinted at the map in the rapidly-dwindling light, but couldn't find anything that looked like an entrance to the farm, so she figured she'd have to drive around a bit to find a way in. She did a U-turn and cruised slowly back along the road, looking for the turn-off that the map said would take her past the farm buildings.
A few minutes later, she eased the car, its lights out, under a stand of trees that overhung the road not far from the farm gate. She could see the farmhouse and buildings, although they were mostly formless black shapes in the deep purple twilight. The only visible light came from the house itself, so she guessed that the place must have settled down for the night — which suited her just fine.
She lifted the Tricorder yet again, but this time with a feeling of anticipation rather than the boredom that had come to accompany her earlier efforts. She pointed it at the farmhouse, and got a positive indication, but quite a low one. Training it on the barn, by contrast, produced a much stronger reading. 'Okay, so the money's in the barn — Geez, how hackneyed can you get? — and there's something in the house; either a few bucks from the stash, or Preece has got some of the dye on himself,' she thought.
The question was, what should she do now? Go after Preece, with who knew who else in the house, or locate the money, knowing that Preece would come there eventually — but not necessarily that night? Well, whatever it was, she was gonna get out of this car and scout the place on foot; she could really do with stretching her legs after all that driving.
In the trunk, Lois was feeling much the same way. She had moved and stretched as much as she could within her hiding place, but she had had to be careful not to make any noise, and also that the trunk lid didn't fly up. The limits that that had put on her had left her pretty stiff by this time, so she was very glad to hear the slam of the car door and the click of the central locking system.
Lindy had gone past the farm gates before stopping, the better to make a smart departure after completing her mission, so Lois was able to watch her move stealthily along the fence-line and disappear into the yard. Once she was safely out of sight, Lois climbed out of the trunk and spent a few moments working her screaming muscles; then, feeling more like a human being rather than a human pretzel, she took stock of her situation.
She had no real idea where she was, other than that it was somewhere on the edges of town. Barrows had come here on the trail of Preece, using some sort of electronic gizmo as a guide, and was now sneaking into that farm for purposes unknown, but likely to be nefarious and to involve Preece and his money. She was also likely to be, in the words of the police phrase that had become a cliche, armed and dangerous.
'Hmmm … ' Lois thought, 'If I was a cop, right now, I'd be calling for back-up.' Which she could do, too, now that she had a little privacy. She rummaged in her bag and found, much to her relief, her cellphone. Taking it out, she was about to hit one of the speed-dial buttons, but stopped. She still didn't know if Clark was back yet, and it might not be a good idea to call him; if he was in the suit, he wouldn't be able to answer. Better call the Kents instead; that way, if Clark was back, she'd be able to talk to him anyway. Besides, Martha and Jonathan would be worried.
They were. "Lois, honey, where *are* you?" asked a concerned Martha. "It's been *hours* … "
"I know, Martha, I know. Is Clark there?" Lois whispered.
Martha took the hint from Lois' voice and lowered her own. "No, he's not. Why? Are you in trouble? Do you need help? Where are you?"
'Good question … ' "Look, Martha, I'm okay. I don't *know* where I am, though, because I ran into that Barrows woman in town and hid in the trunk of her car, and she's been driving around and around all this time. We're outside a farm somewhere on the edge of town, and she's just sneaked in there; I think she's found Preece somehow, and I've gotta go after her. When Clark comes back, tell him to look for a car parked by the side of the road just down from the farm gates. I'll try and leave some sort of sign for him so he'll know he's got the right one … "
A loud bang interrupted her, but it wasn't a shot, merely a screen door being thrown open rather too energetically. In any case, it reminded Lois that there was a killer out there stalking a victim, and she needed to do some stalking of her own if Owen Preece was to have any sort of chance of survival. She quickly told Martha that she had to go and shut down her 'phone, stuffing it back into her bag.
She wanted to go after Lindy, but she forced herself to stop and think: she'd said that she'd try to leave a sign of some sort for Clark, but what? She looked around, but nothing obvious came to mind; she couldn't even scratch something in the dirt, because with the paved roads, there wasn't enough dirt to scratch anything in!
For a moment, she entertained the mad idea of creating her own "crop circles" in a nearby field, but dismissed the idea — it would take too long, and she didn't have any of the tools that hoaxers used. It did give her an idea, though, and she again dived into her bag to look for something.
There it was! She climbed onto the trunk lid and created her signal, then hopped down and quickly but quietly followed Lindy towards the farm.
The internal countdown in the 28 copies of Alex's program stored in computers all over the world (without their owners' knowledge) reached zero, and the scene was set for what was going to be one of the more unusual days in the collective memory of the business world.
As she approached the farm buildings, taking care to stay in the shadows, Lois began to regret not following her quarry immediately. Calling for back-up was all very well, but she didn't *have* any right this instant, and now was when she needed it, because Barrows had disappeared and could be anywhere — lurking, waiting with a gun for her to show herself and become a target.
'Anyway, this is a farm — *Clark's* kind of place, not mine. I hunt killers on the streets of Metropolis, not in barns and milking sheds!' Particularly not barns and sheds like *these*; being used to the Kent farm and others around Smallville, which were kept in good condition by people who used them to make a living, Lois was not impressed by the ramshackle appearance of this farm. 'Jonathan would have a fit if he saw this place … '
Her thoughts were cut short by the sound of voices coming from inside the dilapidated barn. Two voices, one male and one female — and the female voice was familiar. From what she could make out, Barrows had been waiting for Preece to show himself, and had followed him in, ambushing him neatly. Lois couldn't figure out why Lindy hadn't simply shot him until the woman began to pelt Preece with questions about the whereabouts of the money he'd stolen; it seemed that she knew that it was in the barn, but she wanted its exact location — to save her having to search for it, she said.
Preece, who seemed remarkably resigned to his fate from his manner, wasn't particularly interested in co-operating, which annoyed Lindy. She was tired and impatient after her search, and his seeming equanimity in the face of impending death infuriated her to the point that she kept less of a hold on her tongue than she might have normally. Lois could hardly believe her ears as the woman began to alternately wheedle and badger Preece to reveal the location of the money, and she hastily pulled out her tape recorder to get some of what Lindy was saying on the record — especially the parts about Lex ordering her to track him down and kill him!
As the "conversation" continued, Lois put the recorder and her bag down by the barn door. Lindy's patience was just about gone, so if she was going to do something, it would have to be now. She slid quietly into the barn, for once blessing its run-down state, which allowed her to get inside without having to worry about cattle-grids or any other kind of noisy obstacle.
The inside of the barn was a maze of shadows, the only light that of a large storm light resting on a hay-bale. She couldn't immediately see Preece, but there was Barrows, only a couple of yards away, her back to Lois, an automatic pistol — a *large* one, complete with silencer — trained purposefully on the source of the male voice. From her stance, Lindy was about to give up on talking and start shooting, so Lois knew that it was now or never.
Having no weapon, and no time to look for one, Lois charged. Fancy moves were not an option in this situation, so she simply launched herself at Lindy in a flying tackle that would have done a football player proud, crashing into the woman's back before there was any time for her target to even notice she was there, much less react to it.
The sudden impact threw Lindy off her feet, and she fell heavily, with Lois right on top of her. It also caused her to call out as she fell … and pull the trigger of her gun. There was a *phutt* and a cry of pain, followed by a muffled thud in the darkness, but neither woman had the attention to spare for that; they were too busy with each other!
Lois' first priority was clear — get that gun away from her! Even as she fell on top of Lindy, she reached out to grab the wrist of her gun hand; once they'd hit the ground, she scrambled to get to a position where she could slam gun and hand against the ground repeatedly until Lindy let go.
Lindy's other arm was underneath her body, so, once she released the gun, she was able to push upwards with both hands in an attempt to throw Lois off. Lois hung on to the gun hand, though, and dragged it with her as she rolled off Lindy. Lindy, now on her back, kept rolling in an attempt to get on top of her assailant; Lois was expecting this, however, and Lindy rolled right into an explosive right hook. Her head snapped back and hit the ground with a *thunk* that made Lois wince. The wince turned into a relieved (and satisfied) sigh as Lindy's body lay still; she was out cold.
Breathing heavily, Lois got up and walked unsteadily over to pick up the light, directing its beam onto the fallen figure of Preece. To her relief, he was still alive, but unconscious and bleeding from a shoulder wound. She looked around for something to staunch the flow of blood with but, unsurprisingly, there was nothing handy.
"Don't worry," came a voice from the doorway. Startled, Lois whirled to shine the light that way, assuming a defensive stance as she did so — or, as good a one as she could without dropping the cumbersome torch. Only after this reflex action did she recognise the voice — *and* the brightly-coloured costume revealed in the beam of light. "The sheriff and an ambulance are on their way," Superman said as he came into the barn.
Lois did drop the light then, racing over to wrap her arms around him. "Oh … about time," she breathed, "Where *were* you?" Not that she gave him much of a chance to answer, pulling his head down for an enthusiastic kiss.
"You know where I was," he said, a short while later. "Until a couple of minutes ago, anyway."
He let Lois go and moved over to look at Preece; it didn't take him long to open the man's clothes around the wound and apply some heat vision to control the bleeding. Then he looked around and floated up to the hayloft, returning to earth with a coil of fencing wire which made serviceable hand-and foot-cuffs for the still-comatose Lindy Barrows.
With both killer and victim secured, the couple strolled out of the barn to await the authorities. After a quick sweep with x-ray vision to ensure that no-one else was around, Clark went on with what he had begun to say earlier. "Henderson kept me at the prison hospital for hours, going over and over our murder files. O'Reilly's confessions won't stand up in court, so he's got to start investigating them all more-or-less from scratch — as if he'd just had a tip-off that needed to be verified. I don't envy him the job, after what we've gone through over the last few months.
"Once I got away, I headed straight back here, and Mom gave me your message. I searched the area from the air until I found the car— nice signal, by the way."
Lois laughed. "Well, I had to come up with something that you'd know was from me … "
"Yes, well, I think you did that all right. Only you, Lois, would draw the El shield and an arrow in lipstick on the roof of a car!"
"Hey, it worked, didn't it?"
"Yes, it worked," he chuckled. "I found it just in time to see you go for Ms Barrows. Oooh — that was some tackle! It reminded me of playing football in college; the coach would have given his right arm for our defensive team to have been able to do that … "
Lois was pleased by the tribute, but also surprised — and a little angry. "If you were here then, why didn't you help?"
He sighed. "Honey, I said I *saw* you go for her — telescopic vision, remember? I didn't actually get here until a second or two later. Besides, you seemed to be doing fine all by yourself; that punch reminded me of the guy who flattens the horse in 'Blazing Saddles'!
"If it's the gun you're worried about … well, if Ms Barrows had somehow managed to go after it again, or even get close to it, rest assured it would have been a puddle of slag before she could touch it!"
Clark turned to Lois and gently took her face in his hands. "Lois, you're always telling me to let you do your job and not to be over-protective, and I do *try* to do what you ask … "
That made Lois stop and think. Why *was* she so het-up, anyway? What had just happened here was what she had always said that she wanted: she'd investigated, she'd taken care of the bad guys, and Clark hadn't interfered or tried to hog the action; instead, he'd been there to back her up and protect her *if* she'd needed it — which she hadn't. Circumstances had kept them apart for most of the time, which was never as good as working together, but they'd both done their jobs and everything had turned out okay, which was how it should be.
She realised that most of her anger stemmed from old fears that should have been dead and buried by now, but had exhumed themselves when Clark had been concerned about her joining the hunt for Preece. He had only wanted to keep her safe — and not because he thought she was incapable, but for sensible, important reasons — but part of her, ever quick to take offence, had expected him to become autocratic and shove her into the background. Which was crazy, because Clark had *never* done that; if he wanted her to have a low profile, it was because she needed to have one — then.
She looked into his eyes, full of love and understanding, and once again thanked God for this man. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said, hugging him. "I was … surprised, that's all. It's just nerves — you know, stress reaction."
"Oh, I know, Lois. I know … " And with that, the couple fell silent, remaining close until flashing lights announced the arrival of the sheriff and an ambulance.
Preece regained consciousness as they loaded him into the ambulance and began to mutter to himself. His voice was never strong, and it faded in and out of audibility — at least, to ordinary ears — and it was difficult to understand what he was saying, especially if you were more concerned with treating his wound. So it was that only two people heard and paid attention to one significant outburst. It consisted of four words, the first two of which were so soft that it required super-hearing to catch them: "Mrs Luthor … warned me … "
Clark heard them all, and was intrigued. He filed it in the back of his mind, the better to mull over the possibilities that it implied, and made a mental note to tell Lois. However, at the moment, he had to deal with the sheriff, who needed statements giving a full account of the evening's happenings, plus as much background information as he could get. Oh, and would Superman mind findin' the money that was the cause of all this ruckus?
Superman didn't mind — he'd already found the strongbox containing the cash, and it wouldn't take long to unearth it from its hiding place — but he really wished that Rachel Harris was here instead of this guy. He could have asked Rachel if it could wait until the morning, and she'd have agreed; what with the gun and Lois' tape, there was more than enough evidence to hold Lindy Barrows on, and Preece wasn't going anywhere. But the local sheriff wasn't his friend and wasn't too fond of strangers (even Kryptonians) coming in and causing trouble, and he wanted to sort everything out then and there. Which meant that this was going to be a *long* night.
The other person who heard and took notice of Preece's words was Lindy, who was being marched over to the sheriff's car as the stretcher was wheeled to the ambulance. She didn't catch the name, but did hear about the warning — and it gave her furiously to think. Who could have warned Preece? Warned him about what? And when? And how could they know to warn him of anything?
After pondering the possibilities on the way to the town jail, she, too, made a mental note to tell someone — Lex Luthor. She was in trouble, but it should still be possible for a lawyer to get her out of it, and her employer would be more inclined to make the effort if she could present him with some positive results: namely that, while Preece wasn't dead, his loot had been recovered, and also that there might be a security leak somewhere. Somewhere high up.
"Let me see if I understand the situation correctly, Ms Barrows. You have located Mr Preece and his ill-gotten gains — both of which are now in the hands of the local sheriff — but in the course of so doing, you accidentally shot him and have been arrested and charged with attempted murder. Is that correct?" Lex Luthor's voice was as cool and as nonchalant as ever. And yet, somehow, it carried an undertone of absolute contempt for an underling who had been so incompetent as to bungle such a *simple* assignment.
"I thought so. Very well; a lawyer will be with you as soon as possible." What Luthor didn't say was that the lawyer's primary task would be to recover the money, arrange for Preece's extradition and to ensure that no awkward questions were asked about the LexTrace system and the Tricorder; if, after arranging all that, there was any way that Lindy Barrows could be freed, then it would be arranged — but *only* if doing that did not interfere with the other, *important* concerns.
"Thank you, sir," a suitably humble Lindy replied. "There is one more thing, sir … "
She related Preece's words to Luthor, and went on to describe some of what she thought those words might mean — just enough to show that, despite her current predicament, she was an intelligent, loyal employee. She had to be careful not to overdo it, though; there was a saying amongst people who worked closely with Luthor that the boss' grandmother had learned to suck eggs many years ago … and her grandson was known not to appreciate anyone trying to instruct either her or him without specific orders.
"Thank you, Ms Barrows. I'll … take that under advisement." Luthor's tone as he terminated the call was noticeably different. Now it was his turn to think, and think hard. For just a moment, he debated with himself as to whether or not he should make Lindy's release a higher priority … but no.
Of far more import was the significance of what she had just told him. Someone had warned Preece — but who, and of what? Ordinarily, he'd have suspected Kent, or even Lois, but since they had been involved in Preece's capture (and Lindy's), that seemed unlikely. So who else would know enough to warn Preece, and thereby (presumably) scare him so badly that he would cut and run, pausing only to embezzle a comparatively small sum? Who?
He touched the intercom. "Hold all my calls." This conundrum was going to require immediate and, he suspected, prolonged attention. If someone out there was interfering with his affairs, he, she or they needed to be identified and dealt with — or, at the very least, watched. That would require planning, but planning was what he prided himself on.
A few rooms away, a trembling Beth Luthor struggled to control the panic that threatened to overwhelm her. 'Oh, God; oh, God … ' she more than half-prayed. Lex had found Preece! *And* he knew that someone had warned the former IT Director that he was going to be killed. It didn't matter that, at the moment, Lex didn't know what Preece had been warned *of*; he knew that the man had been warned, and it was only a matter of time before he found out who had warned him. And he would find out; Beth knew her husband well enough to be sure that he *would* find out, one way or another.
'I've got to get out of here! But where can I go?' Where *could* the wife of Lex Luthor go? Where was a hiding place remote enough, secure enough to protect her from the power and fury of an angry Lex? She wasn't sure there *was* such a place.
There was only one chance that she could see. She'd arranged this last-chance bolt-hole for just such an emergency, so now it was time to use it. First, though, she had to get out of here, and without running into Lex …
Luthor sat back and reviewed the results of his day's work. He now had a comprehensive plan which would flush out Preece's ally, if the man himself managed, by some miracle, to resist … shall we say, the *incentives* that he would be given to identify his "benefactor". As part of this plan, extra security measures would be put in place to detect, locate and track anyone interfering with his or LexCorp's affairs without proper authorisation — and the means of obtaining *that* were about to change radically — so it should also catch the person of persons who had been attacking the company. If, indeed, they were not the one and the same. All that remained was to put the plan into operation.
His smug thoughts were interrupted by a commotion from outside his office. Raised voices that could penetrate the expensive sound-proofing were not something to which he was accustomed, nor were near-desperate cries from his staff of, "You *can't* go in there! Mr Luthor does not want to be disturbed!"
The sound-proofing muffled the reply, at least until the doors crashed open to reveal Michael Van Allen and two men in suits; medium-to-high-level Federal government employees, if Luthor knew anything about tailoring — which he did. The government types marched in, with Van Allen trailing reluctantly and one of his secretaries fighting a last-ditch attempt to protect her boss.
"It's all right, Miss Stafford," Luthor assured the stricken woman. "I'll deal with this." He waited until she had left, closing the doors behind her with an air of relief, before glaring at the unwelcome visitors. "Michael. Gentlemen. May I enquire as to the meaning of this intrusion?"
"That's what we'd like to ask you, *Mister* Luthor," the taller of the two unknown men began, angry and sarcastic. "We don't know *what* you were trying to do, but it sure as blazes backfired, and one heck of a lot of people are going to suffer because of it!"
"Easy, Joe," his companion murmured. "Excuse us, sir. I'm Martin O'Toole from the SEC, and this is Joseph Rogers from the Department of Justice. We're here to ask you a few questions relating to the … unusual activities LexCorp has been involved in on stock, futures and currency exchanges in the last 24 hours."
Luthor's face, always a bland mask in situations such as this, went even blanker than usual. "Gentlemen … I know of no 'unusual activities'. Perhaps you would be kind enough to assume my complete ignorance of this matter and start from the beginning."
The men from the government exchanged glances. "If that's so," Rogers said, "then we have some very bad news for you, sir. Several LexCorp subsidiaries have been undertaking extremely large transactions on exchanges all over the world, and, without exception, these transactions have resulted in heavy losses — *very* heavy losses!"
There was a pause, which stretched on and on. Finally, Van Allen, who had been silent ever since entering the office, could bear it no longer. "Sir, the accumulated debts total … total … "
The banker seemed unable to get the words out, until Luthor glared at him. " … over *ten billion dollars!* Sir, LexCorp is *bankrupt!*"
To Be Continued …
… in Episode 13, "Preparations", by Phil Atcliffe
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) 1999 to the author.