By Nan Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted July 2000
Summary: Lex has escaped from prison and is determined to get what is his: Lois. This is the third in the author's trilogy that began with "A Night at the Office," and continued with "Strange Relationships."
This is the third and last story in the trilogy that began with "A Night at the Office", and follows "Strange Relationships". It completes the "what if…" scenario of what might have happened if Lois had discovered Clark's identity that night at the Daily Planet.
The familiar characters and settings in this story are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December Third Productions, etc., and no infringement on their copyright is intended. Some of the scenes and dialogue are taken from the episodes "House of Luthor" and "Madame Ex" and are credited to the writers of the show. The rest is my idea.
"More investigations into LexCorp's dirty dealings," Lois said as she flipped over the latest revelations of Lex Luthor's illegal operations on the inside page of the Daily Planet. "After Mrs. Cox made that deal for a reduced sentence, the whole empire seems to be coming down like a house of cards."
Clark nodded solemnly and swallowed his last bite of crepe. "What I don't get is this other thing," he said, tapping the column on the next page. "A good twenty percent of people in this survey are upset about it. I mean, it's now come out that Luthor was 'The Boss', who ran most of the organized crime in Metropolis, and who knows how much everywhere else. Crime affects everyone; honest people don't like it. So why are they sorry for him?"
Lois shrugged. "Because they're idiots? When they were asked why they felt that way, they couldn't give a reason. And look at this, page two; the Superman survey. Twenty percent are opposed to Superman, too, and they don't know why, either. If you ask me, it's probably the same twenty percent as in the Luthor survey," she added, caustically. "Talk about the dumbing down of America! People with opinions who don't even know why they have them!" She gave a snort of disgust.
Clark grinned slightly. "And, of course, you're completely unbiased," he said.
"No, but I know how good Superman has been for Metropolis, and I'm learning daily about how bad Lex was for it, even though he did do some incidental good. At least I know why I have my opinions! The bad he did outweighed the good by about five hundred to one, if people would just see it!"
"Most do," Clark said, mildly. "But you can't expect everyone to think so. Superman certainly appreciates your loyalty, though." He met her faint scowl with one of his most charming smiles.
The oblique reference to their new relationship made Lois's frown turn into a slight smile. "I'm glad he does."
Clark glanced at his watch. "We better get going," he said. "We need to be at work in half an hour."
Lois was silent as he dealt with the waiter in his expert French and paid the bill, then accompanied him out into the early afternoon sunshine. Breakfast in a little Paris café hadn't been quite what she'd expected when he'd picked her up this morning, but she had to admit it was different, and it had helped her to relax. She had managed for the first time in a week to escape the sensation of observation that had been dogging her every action; the feeling that somewhere a pair of unfriendly eyes was watching every move she made.
At first, she'd put it down to nerves.
Lex had escaped from jail two weeks after his arrest, and his being on the loose had done nothing for her peace of mind. Clark's powers had returned the morning after Lex Luthor's arrest and Superman let it be known via a statement to the press that "security concerns" were the cause of his absence from Metropolis for the previous two days. He'd retrieved the third tape, and together they'd listened to Lex discuss with Mrs. Cox his plans to buy the Daily Planet, destroy it and blame the crime on Jack Brown. Other parts involved appointments with members of the Daily Planet's Board of Directors to discuss "incentives" regarding the proposed sale, and then proceeded on to the projections for the redevelopment of Metropolis' Old Town after they had acquired one last block of property. And finally Luthor's plans had come tumbling down the moment that Inspector Henderson had lowered the boom. That part was satisfying, but certain other parts on the recording left her feeling uneasy. His remark to Mrs. Cox a few minutes into the tape, regarding the "correct job" for Lois when she finally accepted his proposal, with "personal assistants" who would report directly to him on her activities, and undermine any serious investigative efforts, told her clearly how he'd planned to bring her independence—and her life—under his control. The thought of what she'd escaped left her appalled. Lex was the ultimate control freak. It wasn't a pleasant thought that gaining control of her had been his ultimate goal—one for which he'd been willing to destroy the lives of innocent people.
She'd interviewed him once since his arrest, when he'd confidently told her that all this was merely a temporary inconvenience, and that they would soon be together. She hadn't replied to that, but it left her more apprehensive than it might have two weeks before. Lex didn't make idle statements of that sort. He meant everything he said.
Then he'd escaped, and apparently vanished—only neither she nor Clark really believed he was gone. About a week after that, Lois had slowly begun to become aware of the sense of observation.
At first it had been intermittent, but gradually that changed until for the last week the only time she'd been free of it had been inside her apartment, or Clark's, in the Daily Planet, or flying with Superman. It was never definite enough to identify clearly—more that primitive instinct that tells the prey more clearly than all his other senses combined that the predator is nearby and watching, ready to pounce when the time is right.
"Ready to go back?" Clark asked her.
She nodded. "I guess so. Thanks for the break, Clark."
"Don't mention it." He took her arm and together they strolled toward the deserted alley between buildings. "We'll find out whoever's watching you, Lois, I promise. I haven't spotted him yet, but I will."
"I know Lex is behind it, Clark."
"What do you think he's up to?"
Clark glanced around and spun quickly into Superman. "I'd say he wants you."
"I know that, but why? Why go after me when he should be trying to put as much distance between himself and Metropolis as he can? It doesn't make sense."
"Not to us," Clark agreed. He held out his arms and scooped her up. "But Luthor's used to getting what he wants."
"But why me?" Lois asked quietly. Paris fell away below them and they headed west. A thought occurred to her. "You don't suppose it could be because of that pheromone spray, do you? Miranda sprayed him—and he *was* affected. I saw it."
Clark considered that briefly and shook his head. "I doubt it. I suppose it might have intensified what was already there, but you said it yourself. There had to be some attraction to begin with, or it didn't work. I think he wants you because he hasn't been able to control you up until now. You're independent, and he was never able to tolerate that. The man's obsessed with control, and that makes you a challenge. You're a beautiful, intelligent woman, who thinks for herself—a prize as far as he's concerned."
She smiled a little. "It's nice to know you think so, too."
His arms tightened very slightly for just an instant. "I didn't say Luthor doesn't have good taste, at least some of the time."
"I think there was another factor," she said, trying to consider the issue objectively. "He thought you were a rival. It would be quite a…a win for him to take the woman Superman wanted away from him."
"Probably," Clark said. He looked as if he'd bitten into something sour. "I doubt there's any one reason—but together they make you a very desirable…" He hesitated.
"Trophy," Lois filled in ironically.
"For want of a better word, yes," Clark agreed. "I think it's necessary for his ego. I know that's not very flattering, but—"
"Don't worry, Clark, I'm not offended—as long as I'm not a trophy to you."
"Not a chance," Clark said. "I can think of a lot of things to call you, but 'trophy' isn't one of them."
"Oh? And those are…?"
He smiled. "Best friend. Partner…"
"Oh," she said, a little crestfallen.
His smile widened. "Or maybe the one perfect woman in the world for me?"
She looked down at the S decorating his chest. "Really?"
"Superman doesn't lie."
"I can't believe Christmas is almost here," Clark said as he and Lois crossed the street a block from the Daily Planet. "I still have to finish my Christmas shopping for two of my cousins, my Great-aunt Dora, and Perry and Jimmy."
Lois glanced upward at the grey sky. The weather wasn't particularly promising back in Metropolis, although it had been bright and sunny in Paris. One of the big, aluminum decorations arching completely across the street caught her eye. A pigeon was perched on one of the silver wires that supported a frill of silver fringe. "You're still ahead of me. I haven't even started. Christmas in my family is always an ordeal."
"Why?" Clark asked.
She shrugged. "Dad and Mother always ended up fighting before the day was over. He'd leave for who-knew-where, and Mother would get drunk on egg nog."
"Ouch," Clark said.
"Yeah," Lois said. "It got so Lucy and I would open our presents and take them to our rooms, then spend the rest of the day avoiding our parents. Not exactly the merriest of Christmases."
"I can see that." Clark put an arm around her. "Mom told me to ask you if you'd like to spend Christmas with us in Smallville, if it turned out you didn't have plans to spend it with your family. Would you?"
"Are you sure, Clark?" Lois glanced uncertainly at him. "I mean, Thanksgiving was wonderful. Your parents are such great people…they're just so…so not insane. But won't it be an imposition?"
He shook his head. "Absolutely not. They both like you, and they know how I feel about you, so shall I tell them it's a yes?"
"Well…okay." Lois glanced over her shoulder. "I guess that gives me a little over a week to do my Christmas shopping."
Clark's arm tightened slightly. "You've already given me the best present I could ever get, so that's one less you have to…" He frowned suddenly. "It's happening again, isn't it?"
She nodded, feeling a little chill slide up her spine and that now familiar prickling on the back of her neck. The watcher had returned.
"It just started a few minutes ago."
"He probably stationed himself near the main entrance," Clark said. "Maybe we should have just flown in. And I think we should start varying our route a little to make it harder for whoever he is to keep track of you."
"That's probably a good idea," Lois said, trying to keep her tone even. "I'm glad you don't think I'm nuts or something, Clark."
"No way. I've felt the same thing myself…just probably not as strongly. There isn't a lot that can hurt me." He glanced casually around. "Let's get inside the Planet. Come on."
The approach to the Daily Planet was uncharacteristically crowded this morning. A small, but very vocal group of people with signs protesting Superman crowded the entrance and several members of the crowd attempted to obstruct their progress. Clark wrapped an arm around Lois and gently but inexorably pushed the shouting, sign-waving demonstrators out of their path, creating a passage for them to the doors. Two Security men prevented the entrance of two of the protestors in their wake, and Lois heaved a sigh of relief.
"I can't believe these people! Just what the heck is their problem?" she said.
Clark didn't answer, but she could see a faint frown of irritation on his forehead. She glanced back at the noisy mob in exasperation. "I think too many people don't have enough to keep them busy," she added to her previous remark.
"I don't know." Joe, one of the reporters from Sports, was waiting for the elevator. "If you ask me, Superman just isn't the hero he used to be."
Lois bristled. "Oh? I think bringing in that passenger jet last week was pretty heroic. What's your problem with him—or don't you know?" Her inquiry dripped sarcasm.
Joe didn't answer, but his expression indicated he wasn't convinced. The elevator doors slid open before she could say any more, and they entered along with Joe and several other members of the newsroom staff. Joe jostled Lois as they entered; she glared at him for an instant, then saw Clark grin slightly and elbowed her partner in the ribs.
Not a good idea, she realized as she did it. Those were Kryptonian ribs she was elbowing. She rubbed her offended elbow and switched her glare to Clark. His grin only widened slightly and he put an arm around her again. Joe glanced at them, eyebrows rising for an instant in surprise, then the elevator lurched into motion and he had to grasp the safety rail.
Perry was in full editor mode when the elevator doors opened on the newsroom. "Ricardo, get down there and interview that batch! Everybody else…Clark, you and Lois are late. I thought you were going out to cover the murder of that plastic surgeon from LexLabs."
"Sorry, Chief," Clark responded. "We ran into a traffic problem."
Lois nodded silently, reflecting that it *was* the truth. The traffic to which he was referring had been a pair of small planes over Metro Airport that had gotten their signals crossed. Clark had spotted the two upon their return from Paris and prevented an in-air collision between them.
"Oh." Their editor nodded. "Well, since you're here, you can listen to this, too." He raised his voice. "All right, everybody, let's all gather 'round and listen up here. I've got an announcement to make."
Lois and Clark glanced at each other.
"The powers that be—" he waved generally in the direction of the upper floors, "—have decided that since we're involved in a high stress profession—" Lois thought that a flicker of annoyance crossed his face. "—Some of you might be suffering from stress—you know, anxiety, short fuses, et cetera, so as of today, the Daily Planet now has its very own staff psychiatrist."
"What?" Lois looked incredulously at Perry. "They can't be serious!"
"That doesn't sound so bad," Clark said.
"Well," Lois said, "if you want to sit on a couch listening to psychobabble, that's fine with me, but I've got stories to write…"
Clark had opened his mouth to reply when Perry broke in. "Excuse me. Am I interrupting something?"
Lois and Clark fell silent. Satisfied that he'd made his point, Perry continued, "Many of you already might be familiar with this woman through her syndicated column that we've been running called, uh—'Healing the Inner Self—uh—On the Couch…'"
"They yanked the jumble puzzle for that," Jimmy said. "I was just getting good at that."
"Yeah," Perry said, "I was getting pretty good at it, myself. I mean, I'm not so hot on this touchy-feely stuff, so that's why I never read the column, but it's helping to sell newspapers, and the good doctor's convinced our publisher that she can be of some help here."
Lois had glanced at the column once or twice, but it had never been something that interested her. What was the woman's name, Arlene, or Arianna, that was it. Arianna Carlin. "How do we know she's even a real doctor?" she asked. "Half these media shrinks are frauds."
"Oh, I'm a real doctor, Ms. Lane." The voice, cultured and with a light English accent, came from behind her. An attractive woman strode past her, to take a position beside Perry.
"Oh, uh, Dr. Carlin," Perry said, "I was just explaining about you to the staff."
Arianna Carlin smiled sweetly at the crowd. Her auburn hair gleamed with red highlights under the bright illumination of the newsroom and when she spoke, her voice was soft and friendly. "I'm looking forward to meeting each of you over the next several days," she said. "Please feel free to stop by my office any time."
"Okay, folks," Perry said, "let's get to it. We've got some blank pages to fill in." He smiled briefly at Dr. Carlin. "They're all yours."
Lois turned to her partner. "I guess we better get going if we want to make the deadline." She bent to pick up her shoulder bag.
"Ms. Lane…" Dr. Carlin's gentle voice spoke behind her. She turned to find Arianna Carlin smiling sweetly at her.
"I'm especially looking forward to meeting with you." The woman's soft smile didn't change.
Lois glanced at Clark, eyebrows up. He met her look with a faint shrug, and she looked back to the psychiatrist. "Dr. Carlin, a lot of people have tried to get me on a couch and after all this time I don't think I'm going to start with a psychiatrist."
The doctor looked sympathetic. "I know of your reputation, Ms. Lane, your…shall we say, your tendency to endanger yourself on a regular basis, so that you frequently need the help of Superman, himself, to save your life. Such obsessive behavior can easily slide into the realm of requiring professional intervention." Her smile changed to a look of sincere concern. "I only want to help."
"Thank you for your concern." Lois could hear the edge to her own voice. "I'm fine. Come on, Clark, we have work to do."
She was conscious of Arianna Carlin's soft, brown eyes on her as she and Clark headed for the elevator, but she didn't look back.
"Did the police say if Dr. Heller was murdered here or just dumped here?" Clark asked.
"They think he was dumped." Lois kicked sharply at a can that had the misfortune of being in her path.
Clark glanced at her with a little smile. "I could be wrong, but something tells me the good doctor upset you a little."
"The *nerve* of that Carlin woman! What business of hers is my so-called obsessive behavior? It's why I'm a good reporter!"
Clark chuckled. "So you know a few things she doesn't," he said. "Don't worry about it. Of course, she's going to see your actions from her position as a psychiatrist. You see people from yours as a reporter, don't you?"
"I guess." She glanced up at him. "Do you think I'm obsessive?"
"Well…only a little." He stopped smiling at her worried look. "Lois, you're fine. I obsess over things, too. Lots of people do. That doesn't make you crazy, no matter what Dr. Carlin might think."
"Thanks, Clark." She hesitated a moment. "When I was growing up my dad never gave me credit for anything. I was a girl, and that made me second rate. 'Daddy, look, I made a 98% on my math test! Oh good, Lois. That leaves 2% room for improvement.' I guess that's why I go to such lengths to prove I'm the best."
Clark smiled. "You've already proved it over and over, Lois. You know you don't have to try to live up to your father's expectations. He was the one with the problem, not you. And to tell you the truth, *I'd* have a real problem if you'd been a boy."
She laughed, suddenly feeling much better. "Yeah, I guess so."
"So let's forget Dr. Carlin, okay? How's your radar? Did sneaking out the rear door throw our watcher off?"
"I haven't noticed anything, at least so far. How about you?"
"I've been watching, but I haven't noticed anyone following us. Of course, I didn't before—probably because it's you he's watching, not me."
"Just keep your x-ray eyes peeled, partner. If Lex has someone keeping an eye on me, I want to know who it is." She glanced past him at a graffiti-smeared wall where someone had written in yellow spray-paint:
"Look at that! Who *are* these idiots?"
Clark surveyed it with a clinical expression. "Well, whoever they are, they're clever enough to create an acrostic."
"An acrostic. It's a word or a message subliminally hidden in a series of lines. See?" He pointed. "In this case it spells the word 'stop'."
"Oh." Lois regarded it for a moment. "They're still idiots."
Clark grinned. "That's what I like about you. You don't let yourself get distracted from the important stuff."
"Is that all you like about me?" she asked, only half-seriously.
"Not on your life," he said. "But we won't go into the rest of it here."
"You better not, Kent." But his joking made her feel better. "You know," she said a few moments later as they approached their goal, "it's sure ironic. A doctor who makes people look beautiful ends up in a dumpster."
A clatter interrupted her as a shabby figure burst from behind the big dumpster, shoved her roughly aside and fled down the littered sidewalk away from them.
"Hey!" Clark gave her a hand to her feet and sprinted after the running figure.
Lois also started in pursuit, well behind the other two, then saw Clark pause, seize the battered form of a discarded tire from the clogged gutter, and throw. In the nine weeks since she had discovered his secret she still hadn't gotten used to seeing Clark do things like that, and she had to stop (again) and figuratively catch her breath before she hurried to join her partner.
Clark was helping the other man to his feet and removing the tire that pinned his arms to his sides when she arrived beside them. The homeless man—at least she assumed he probably was, judging by the condition of his clothing—stood staring at the two of them like a cornered animal, but the look he turned on Lois seemed somehow more apprehensive.
"Look," Clark said, "we're reporters. We were wondering if you could tell us anything about the body that was found in that alley."
The man's eyes rolled back to Lois again. Clark glanced at her. "I think some money might be a good idea right now."
Lois raised her eyebrows. "Where's *your* wallet?"
"Your hands are free," Clark said.
She eyed him a moment. "Okay, but you owe me half back, later." She took several bills from her wallet, glanced measuringly at their reluctant informant, and cut the total to two bills. When he reached for them, she pulled them back out of reach.
"Okay, what did you see?" she asked.
His eyes flicked from the bills, to her face and back to the bills. "There was this big car came by. Some old guy, drivin'. It was pretty dark, but these two guys, they dragged a body outta the back seat and dumped it. I heard one of 'em call the other one Harry. Only, when they got back in the car I saw they wasn't guys—they was chicks."
"Did you get a look at either of them?" Clark asked.
"Yeah." The man nodded, reached forward and snatched the bills. He pointed at Lois. "It was her."
Clark stared after the man, puzzled, then turned back to Lois. She was looking at him, an expression of dismay on her face. "Clark, what did he mean? *I* didn't have anything to do with this."
"Of course you didn't," Clark said, as matter-of-factly as he could. "There's something going on that I don't understand, but I don't for a minute think you had anything to do with it." He made a decision. "Look, let's go by the police station and take a look at the police report, okay? Maybe forensics has found out more by now, like when he was killed."
"Okay." She glanced back at the dumpster where the police had found the body of Dr. Heller. She shivered slightly. "This is really weird, Clark."
"I'd say that describes it," Clark said. He followed her gaze and had to shake away the involuntary shiver that passed over his skin. Something out of the ordinary had happened here last night, that was certain, and he didn't like it at all.
Police Inspector William Henderson was a lean, dark-haired man with a cynical manner that had never fooled Clark for a second. He listened to the story of their encounter with the homeless man with an air of disinterest, but when they finished, he turned to Lois.
"So where were you between eight and ten last night, Lois?"
"She was in my apartment," Clark said. "We were watching Lethal Weapon IV."
"Did you leave at any time during that two hours?"
No," Lois said.
"Then you're in the clear. Forensics established the time of death as about nine, give or take an hour. But this story about someone who looks like you is interesting, considering that the victim was a plastic surgeon."
"I'd say so," Clark said. "Inspector, has there been any more on the search for Luthor?"
"I suppose it's reasonable that you'd bring that up," Henderson said. "We're still pretty certain he's in the Metropolis area. Lex Tower's main vault was robbed last night."
"Who do they think it was?" Lois asked.
Henderson shrugged. "The security cameras recorded nothing; the theft was reported this morning by a security guard. Only one thing appears to have been taken. Nothing else was disturbed."
"And that was?" Lois persisted.
"A large crate, about five feet by five feet by seven," Henderson said. "It was apparently part of one of LexCorp's top secret projects under the title 'Series K'. No one admits to knowing anything about it, or why it might have been taken, which doesn't make me very happy."
"I remember Mrs. Cox mentioning it once to Lex when I was there," Lois said. "She might be able to tell you something."
Henderson didn't break a smile, although Clark was sure the information pleased him. "I'll ask her. Thanks for the information, Lois."
"Inspector," Clark said, "this business of someone who looks like Lois being involved in last night's murder bothers me."
"It bothers me, too," Henderson said, rather surprisingly. "I'm aware that Luthor had an…interest in you, Lois. There isn't much I can do at the moment, though, except to advise you to be careful."
They left the station a few minutes later, avoiding several protesters bearing "Free Luthor" signs. Lois glared at the man who tried to thrust a handbill into her fingers, with an expression that made the fellow take an involuntary step backwards.
"Morons!" she muttered. "In the first place, he's not even *in* jail! He broke out!"
Clark said nothing, but he frowned perplexedly at the marching demonstrators.
"Don't these people read the papers?" Lois asked the world at large. "He's a crime boss! It's like demanding the authorities free Al Capone or something!"
Clark shook his head. "I guess if we'd lived back then we'd have seen people demanding that, too," he said. "Nothing surprises me anymore."
They walked in silence for several minutes, Lois still reflecting on the idiocy that seemed to be permeating Metropolis this Christmas season. It was going to be a relief to head for Kansas in a week and leave all this behind, at least for a few days. There were times when the quiet of Martha and Jonathan Kent's farm seemed far preferable to all the craziness of the big city, but she knew that it didn't last. A short period of peace and relaxation would recharge her run-down batteries and she'd be ready to tackle it all again with renewed vigor. Still, it would be good to take a break. She and Clark had been working practically non-stop for weeks. She was ready for a rest, although she would rather have died than admit it to anyone. The last week had been the worst, what with the feeling of being watched. Speaking of which…
"It's nearly noon," Clark said. He waved at a sign halfway down the block. "Do you feel like stopping for a bite to eat at Ricky's?"
"Don't tell me you're hungry," Lois said. In the nine weeks since the night she had discovered that her best friend occasionally moonlighted in blue tights, she'd had to make a number of adjustments in her thinking about him. For one thing, she no longer wondered how he could eat like an eight-year-old and still look the way he did. All those calories had to go somewhere, she knew, but she figured propping up bridges and fighting typhoons probably burned them up without any problem at all.
He grinned sideways at her. "I could eat something, too, but I was actually thinking it's been awhile since you had breakfast."
"I think I'd like to get something to go. We can eat in the newsroom." The feeling was back; it had been back, she realized, since they had left the police station.
Clark opened his mouth to reply, glanced at her, closed it again and nodded. "Whatever you say." He glanced casually around. "How long has he been watching?"
"I think since we came out of the police station. Clark, this is really annoying! Creepy, too," she added.
"No kidding. Order me a steak sandwich with fries, would you? I'm going to wait by the front window and see if I can spot him."
When they emerged from Ricky's, ten minutes later, the grey sky had turned greyer and tiny, glistening flakes had begun to float lazily downward. They headed for the Daily Planet at a brisk walk, dodging through stoplights in such a fashion that the "Don't Walk" sign would flick into existence instants after they entered the crosswalk. It was at the third such crossing that Clark said, with a faint note of triumph in his voice, "Got her."
"Yeah. It's a woman with short, blond hair. She's wearing a grey coat, and walking parallel to us, about ten feet back on the other side of the street. Don't look. When we get across, lean on me and pretend to take something out of your shoe. You can look then."
They carried out the plan when they reached the sidewalk, and Lois squinted at their tail. The woman didn't seem all that remarkable, and she was sure she had never seen her before in her life.
"Recognize her?" Clark asked.
"Well, come on. The Planet is just ahead. When we go in, I'm going to do a quick exit and see where she goes. Okay?"
Lois nodded, then her eye lit on the six bundled-up forms bearing signs, marching slowly back and forth in front of the Daily Planet. "Oh, brother! More of them!"
When they dodged past the Superman protesters and into the lobby of the Planet, Clark gave her a significant look and headed for the side entrance. Lois continued on to the elevator. When she stepped out on the newsroom floor, Clark was waiting for her.
"See anything?" she asked.
"Yeah. She got into a station wagon parked in that lot beside Brown and Williams Dry Goods. I copied the license number. Let's have Jimmy run it for us. And I have another idea to suggest, too."
"How do you feel about watching your watcher?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Look," Clark said as they walked down the ramp, "these people have been keeping an eye on you for weeks. I think it might be a good idea to try to find out who they are and what they're up to. Why don't we have Jack follow you the next time you go out? Then he can follow the tail when and if she goes somewhere else—maybe spot if someone else takes her place, too. What do you think?"
"I think I'm getting tired of being followed, but you're right. We better talk to Perry about it, though. We don't want to get Jack in trouble."
"One thing," Lois said as they walked toward Perry's office. "We do *not* tell Dr. Carlin about this. I don't want her psychoanalyzing my feelings of persecution or something."
"No problem," Clark assured her. "The fewer people who know about it, the better." He lowered his glasses. "Let's see if we can talk to Perry." After a short pause, he continued, "He's doing the crossword puzzle."
"Then let's go." Lois stepped forward and knocked briskly on the office door. "Chief? May we talk to you?"
"Come on in," Perry's voice said. Their editor looked up from the crossword puzzle as they entered. "What's a seven letter word for 'an extensive, violent wind'?"
"Tempest," Clark said. "Chief, we have a problem."
"Oh?" Perry raised his brows. "Maybe you should talk to Dr. Carlin, then."
"It's not that kind of problem," Lois said. "Tell him, Clark."
"Somebody's following Lois," Clark said, bluntly. "We've suspected it for awhile, but we only spotted the tail this afternoon."
"Why would anyone be following you?" Perry asked. "You haven't been investigating anyone in particular for at least a week."
"We're not sure, but we think Lex Luthor might be behind it," Clark said. "I know it sounds a little unlikely, but…" He glanced at Lois.
"Tell him," she said, again.
"Remember when Jimmy and Jack taped John Black for us? Well, we did a little taping of our own. Lois bugged Luthor's office and we recorded three days of conversations there. It was a real eye-opener. He'd hired Black to kill me, if you remember, but what you didn't know was that he also planned to buy and then destroy the Daily Planet and pin the crime on Jack—all to maneuver Lois into accepting his proposal. There's a lot more, but the upshot is, for some reason he's obsessed with her, and we think he's still after her."
"Clark, that's nuts! The guy's a fugitive."
"Just because he was arrested doesn't mean he's given up," Clark said.
"Lex doesn't like to be beaten at anything, Perry," Lois said, quietly. "He'll go to some pretty extreme lengths to get what he wants, and anyway, don't you think he'd have had some kind of backup plan in case his dirty dealings caught up with him?" She heard her voice falter slightly, and Clark's arm was suddenly around her.
"Chief," he said, "you didn't hear those tapes. We did. The guy's a sociopath in spades, with an ego the size of Metropolis. I wouldn't put anything past him. We're talking about Lois's safety, here."
Perry studied them for a moment. "You really believe this, don't you?"
"Yes, we do." Clark met his eyes. "Someone's following her, Chief. There've been a couple of other odd things that have happened recently, too, that make us think something's up. We want to turn the tables on this tail and find out who's really behind it, and what he wants. If I were a betting man, I'd guess it's Luthor, but we're not ruling out somebody else."
"What do you want to do?"
Clark explained. Perry listened thoughtfully until he had finished, then nodded slowly. "Not a bad idea. I think we should put Jimmy with Jack, though. They can spell each other, and make it a little less likely one of 'em will be noticed." He rubbed his chin with one thumb. "I think it's time the Planet issued those two cell phones…" He picked up the phone. "Call 'em in here."
When the situation had been explained, Jimmy and Jack looked at each other. Jack grinned. "Sounds like fun." He sobered. "Don't worry, Lois. Leave it to us. Jim, you rode your motorcycle today, didn't you?"
"I was thinking about following this guy…"
When the two had gone out, Perry shook his head. "You really think they can manage this?"
"Trust me, Chief," Clark said, "they'll do fine. One other thing, Lois, I don't like the idea of you being in your apartment alone, after today."
"Clark, I've been fine, so far."
Clark nodded. "I know. But that was before this look-alike turned up."
"Look-alike?" Perry said.
"I'll explain in a minute, Chief. I just have a bad feeling about the whole thing. What if up until now Luthor's been setting up some plan, and he's getting ready to move? It just seems to me that a lot of things have started happening at once. It makes me nervous. I'd like you to stay over at my place until this is resolved, Lois. Will you?"
"If you'd rather stay with Alice and me, we can make up the guest bedroom," Perry said. "But Clark's right. You being alone in your apartment is asking for trouble if Luthor or somebody else is after you."
Lois looked back and forth at the faces of the two worried males—one, in his way a substitute father who loved her, and the other the man who was her partner, and who also loved her. Their expressions were remarkably similar. Oh well, where was the harm in it?
"I guess I'll stay with Clark, then," she said. "I don't want to inconvenience Alice. Besides, Clark would probably drive you crazy with phone calls to be sure we were all okay."
"Good," Clark said. "I promise, no funny stuff. It'll be strictly business."
Perry gave a bark of laughter. "Whatever. You can work out the details later."
"Oh," Clark said, "one thing. I think this whole thing should be kept between the five of us. There's no point in risking a leak."
Perry grinned. "Don't try to teach Gramps how to chew tobaccy, son. Now, what about this 'look-alike', and when do I get that story on the plastic surgeon?"
"Interesting that you should ask that, Chief," Clark said. "It's something we heard this morning…"
That evening when they left the Planet, they exited the building by the main entrance, making no effort to conceal their departure. After several blocks, Lois saw Clark lift his head.
"What is it?"
"Nothing. I was just listening." Clark briefly put an arm around her shoulders. "Our tail is about half a block back, and I can hear Jimmy's motorcycle a block behind her. Jack's on the job."
"That's good. I just hope she doesn't spot him."
Clark grinned. "I doubt it. Jack's amazing, sometimes. The first time we ever met him I'd never have caught up with him when he took off if it hadn't been for, you know."
"Yeah. Lucky for him you did."
They walked the distance to Lois's apartment through a curtain of drifting flakes that sifted down endlessly. The quantity had thickened since this afternoon. Christmas music floated on the air, muted by the falling snow and the sidewalk under their feet was a muddy mess of trampled, half-melted sludge. The storm showed no sign of letting up in the immediate future.
"I'll be glad to get the Jeep back tomorrow," Lois said. "You'd think people would learn to drive a little more carefully in the winter."
Clark grimaced. "There's always some hotshot who thinks the laws of physics don't apply to him. Just be thankful you weren't in the Jeep when it happened, or you might have been more than just inconvenienced. The driver wound up in the emergency room, getting his face sewn up, and he's going to be writing left-handed for a while. His father wasn't too happy with him, either."
"Serves him right," Lois said, aware of how uncharitable she sounded. She'd been coming out of the apartment house when the teenage boy who, it turned out later, had been driving his father's car, rounded the corner too fast and ploughed into the side of her beloved Jeep. Superman arrived seconds later, too late to prevent the accident, but in time to prevent Lois from further traumatizing the youthful driver.
The traffic light, blurred by the clouds of snow, turned from red to green, and they stepped down from the curb. Somewhere an engine revved, and suddenly a car was roaring toward them from out of the snow. Clark seized Lois bodily, threw her to safety, and jumped out of the way. The car vanished around the corner, the taillights fading quickly into the gloom.
"Are you all right?" Clark was holding her in his arms, looking scared. "Lois?"
Lois sucked in the air that had been knocked from her lungs in a long, whistling indrawn breath, and nodded. Clark relaxed a little, and lifted her to her feet. Several persons brushed past them, glancing curiously at them, but no one stopped. When she had recovered her breath, Clark asked, "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yeah. I just got the air knocked out of me." Lois rubbed her hip, which had come into bruising contact with the sidewalk. "Where did he go?"
"Around the corner. I didn't see where he went after that. Come on, the apartment's just a block away."
She never would have admitted it, but Lois was glad to have his supporting arm around her as they crossed the street and traversed the distance to her apartment building. They rode the elevator to the fifth floor, and Clark unlocked the door to her place.
"Come on," he said. "Let's get your things. I'm going to fly you to my apartment after that. That way the tail can sit and watch this place, and might not figure out where you are before morning."
"Okay." She rubbed her hip again. "My overnight bag is in the closet."
Ten minutes later they took off from the roof. Lois was certain that no one saw them; the storm had brought an early darkness to the city, and Clark avoided the lights. She snuggled into his arms, feeling the tiny, cold flakes brushing against her face as they drifted softly on the evening breeze. The flight to his apartment took less than five minutes and she sighed with relief as he set her down in the middle of his living room. She moved to the couch and sank onto it.
Clark looked at her narrowly. "Are you *sure* you're all right, Lois?" he asked. "You're limping."
Trust Clark to notice that! "I just bruised my hip a little. I'm okay."
"Lois, I'm really sorry. I didn't have time to be more careful."
"Clark, you don't have to be sorry! You saved my life—again." She smiled at him. "A little bruise is a small price to pay for that."
He sat down beside her. "Maybe, but I still feel bad about it. Look, why don't you take a hot shower? It will help keep it from stiffening up. I'll put on some tea, and get dinner started, okay?"
Lois glanced at the little mantle clock. It was past six. "I think I'll do that." She started to rise to her feet and winced. The bruise was definitely painful.
Clark gave her a hand to her feet, and put a palm on one side of her face, caressing it lightly. "I'm sorry, Lois. I wouldn't have hurt you if I could have avoided it."
"I know." For a moment she looked into his dark eyes, seeing there all the love she had once dreamed of seeing in Superman's eyes. But instead, now she saw her partner, who might indeed be Superman, but was also so much more.
On impulse, she leaned forward and kissed him full on the mouth. He reciprocated at once and with enthusiasm. When she broke the kiss several seconds later, she was gasping slightly for breath. There was certainly an advantage for a man who could hold his breath for twenty minutes at a time, she reflected.
He smiled at her. "Hey, I thought I said no funny stuff," he said. "You keep that up and we won't make it to dinner."
She was still smiling as she limped into the bathroom a few minutes later. A hot shower was definitely going to feel good, but it couldn't possibly be hotter than that kiss. Wow!
The last eight weeks since she had told him she knew his secret had been a revelation in more ways than one, she thought as she pulled off her muddied clothes and adjusted the water temperature. After a year of dreaming about Superman, everything had been turned upside down and she'd been pitchforked into a situation she had never remotely imagined. Superman, a.k.a. Clark Kent, had been her partner all along and, as he confessed to her once they'd had time to actually relax and talk, he had been in love with her from their first meeting. But he'd wanted her to care for him for who he was, not for the flashy super-hero who boosted rockets into orbit and saved the world from stray asteroids. He'd nearly despaired of that ever happening. But since then, she'd seen and done things with him that told her a lot more about Clark Kent/Superman than any outsider would ever learn.
Together, they had saved the city from a man who used sound as a weapon, Clark won his first Kerth (and for all his super powers, had surprised her with his pride in the achievement) and Kyle Griffen had foolishly tried to exact revenge on her and the Planet for putting him in prison, to name a few of the things that had happened. And while they dealt with the various crises she came to realize that super powers or not, Clark really did depend on her as much as she did on him. She had never been so surprised in her life as when she absorbed that fact, but it reassured her that despite his powers, their partnership wasn't heavily one-sided.
She stepped into the shower and relaxed under the hot water, still thinking about the amazing man who was her partner.
Clark was different from every man with whom she had ever had a relationship; he demanded nothing from her that she wasn't willing to give. Although he had no objections to intimacy before marriage, he hadn't pushed it when she told him she preferred to wait. Her relationship with Claude had gone disastrously wrong and left her with an almost superstitious feeling about the whole subject. She didn't want this one to go wrong as well, although Clark had assured her over and over that he had no intention of walking away, for any reason. The fact that he hadn't pressured her had, by itself, almost floored her, and convinced her, as perhaps nothing else could, that this time she had found the right man in spite of every obstacle she could throw in his way and that—for once—her feelings for him could be trusted.
When she emerged from the bathroom some fifteen minutes later, her bag was sitting on the bed and a delectable smell was drifting in from the dining area. She could hear Clark whistling softly as he moved around his little kitchen. That was another plus, she thought humorously. He could cook, a skill in which she was sadly deficient.
"What's on the menu?" she asked a few minutes later as she entered the kitchen.
"Stir fry. Do you like it spicy or mild?"
"Spicy," she said.
"Spicy it is. The teapot and cups are on the table."
"Thanks." She took a seat at his kitchen table, which was set and waiting for her.
"Feel better?" he asked.
"Some." She added artificial sweetener to her tea. "Clark, that car—"
"Yeah, I've been thinking about it. I should have gone after it, but—"
He'd been alarmed for her, she knew. "Do you think it was deliberate?"
"I don't know." He removed the skillet from the stove, barehanded, and began to spoon the contents onto two plates. "I phoned Jack while you were in the shower to let him know where we were. He asked if we were okay and reported on the tail."
"She followed us to your apartment and a little while ago was replaced by someone in a blue, '92 Ford. He described an older man with white hair. He didn't want to get too close, and besides, he was following the woman."
"I can understand that."
"He followed her, and guess where she went."
Lois took a cautious sip of tea. "I'm not into guessing games. Where?"
She swallowed. "I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose."
"No. But Jack did have something else to say about her, when I asked how she reacted when we were almost run down. He said she seemed startled."
"So her bosses didn't plan on killing us, then. Or if they did, she didn't know about it."
"Probably not, although we don't know that for sure. It may have just been a reckless driver—or maybe one who was celebrating Christmas Eve a week early."
"I guess that's possible."
He set the plate in front of her. "Here you go. It's a recipe I learned when I was in Japan."
"It smells delicious." She picked up her fork and tasted the mixture. "Clark, this is great!"
"Thank you. I'll never be the cook my mom is, but she taught me the basics." He gave her a smile. "I still remember when I was small, helping her around the kitchen—at least, that's the impression I had. Mom might tell you a different story."
"Probably," Lois said. "At least your mom and dad had time for you. My mom's in rehab again this Christmas. Maybe this time she'll stay sober when she gets out. Daddy is too busy to return my calls, and Lucy's 'finding herself'. The last I heard of her, she was somewhere in California."
Clark looked sympathetic. "Well, you'll be spending Christmas with Mom, Dad and me, and I can't imagine a better Christmas."
They ate in silence for a few minutes, enjoying each other's company. The food was excellent; Lois had tasted worse in some of her favorite restaurants. Clark was silent, too, simply eating and relaxing across the table from her. She swallowed a last bite of the food and almost jumped when he spoke.
"More stir fry?"
"A little." She watched while he divided the last of the food. "You know, sometimes I think you're too good to be true."
He laughed softly. "I hardly think so, but if you like I can try dragging my knuckles on the carpet so you'll believe I'm real."
She giggled. "No, thanks. I'll take your word for it."
"Hi," Lois said to the snack vendor in the lobby of the Daily Planet. "Do you have my order?"
"Right here." The man produced a box of Double Fudge Crunch bars from beneath the counter. "Here you go."
Lois reached for her wallet. "Am I still getting the bulk discount?" she asked. Clark, beside her, raised his eyebrows.
"Sure are." The man took the bills she handed him and gave her the change. "By the way," he added, "I'm with you one hundred percent. Go get 'em."
"Uh…sure." Lois glanced uncertainly at Clark, who shrugged infinitesimally.
"What do you suppose that was all about?" Clark asked, as they headed toward the elevator.
"I have no idea." Lois waved to George, the lobby's security guard, but the man, normally a friendly soul, folded his arms, gave her a hard stare, then focussed his gaze on the wall behind her.
"Clark, do I look okay to you?" she asked.
Clark glanced at George, then back to her. "Always. Why?"
"People are looking at me funny."
"Yeah, I noticed. You look fine, though."
"Then what's going on?"
He shrugged. "Not a clue."
When they entered the newsroom a few minutes later, heads turned toward them and frosty stares were directed at her.
"What's going on?" Lois asked. "Did I grow a second head or something?"
Jimmy passed her, giving her a cold look. "I just wanted you to know, I think what you did took a lot of guts," he said.
Perry, looking grim, met them on the way to their desks, Dr. Carlin behind him.
"Lois, what in the Sam Hill was that stunt you pulled last night? Our publisher's been all over me like a bad rash."
Lois stared blankly at him. "What are you talking about, Chief?"
"Your virtuoso performance on the late news. If you have an opinion to express you might consider using the Planet's editorial page."
Lois and Clark looked at each other. "I wasn't on the news," Lois said.
"You weren't at the anti-Superman rally last night?" Dr. Carlin asked, gently.
"Lois, you come with me, dear," Perry said. He led the way into the conference room and to the VCR. "Then I'd like you to explain this," he said. He punched the "Play" button.
The scene was that of a crowd of demonstrating men and women, placards decrying Superman's presence in Metropolis displayed prominently, and in the foreground, her own face looked out at her.
"Lex Luthor may not have been a model citizen," her doppelganger announced, staring earnestly into the camera, "but he did a lot of good for the citizens of Metropolis!" She pushed back a lock of dark hair that had fallen forward across her eyes. "What I want to know is why Superman framed him so unfairly! He was a good man, and now he's being hounded as a wanted fugitive! What kind of person is this alien? What's he got against Lex Luthor?"
"Now, I could be wrong," Perry said, "I've only worked with you for about five years, but that sure looks like you."
"That's not me!" Lois said. She looked at Clark. "Clark, you know—"
"You say that isn't you?" Arianna Carlin said gently. "Lois, take a close look. You have no memory of this?"
"Of course that isn't me! I would never—
"Lois, memory lapses can be a sign of overwhelming stress," Dr. Carlin was beginning, when Clark broke in.
"Dr. Carlin, let me speak to her for a minute. Come on, Lois." His hand closed tightly on her wrist and, before she could protest, he had dragged her bodily from the room.
"Clark!" She yanked her wrist free as the door closed behind them. "You know it can't be me! It's that—"
"Sh!" Clark lowered his voice. "Don't you see, Lois, it's a set-up!"
"Of course it's—"
"Keep your voice down! That 'Lois' is left-handed!"
Clark's voice was barely audible. He couldn't have been heard five feet away. "I knew it couldn't be you, so I watched her. She pushed her hair off her face with her left hand."
"Look, play along. I've got an idea."
She hesitated. "What do you want me to do?"
"Don't mention the double. We'll go back in there, and you argue with Dr. Carlin. Insist it's someone else. I'll deal with Perry, but if everyone thinks we don't know anything, whoever set this up will think he's fooled us. Let's see where it goes. Can you do it?"
She nodded. "You bet I can!"
"Okay. Remember, you're innocent and outraged, and you don't understand how this could be." He glanced quickly around the newsroom. "There could even be someone here who's keeping track of you, now that things suddenly seem to be happening. Call me paranoid, but it would make sense."
"Yeah, it would." Lois took a deep breath to quiet the butterflies that seemed to have taken up residence in her stomach. "Okay, let's do it."
Clark opened the door to the conference room. Perry and Dr. Carlin, in deep conversation, looked around at their entrance.
"Clark!" Lois said, furiously, "I'm telling you that isn't me!"
"Then, who else could it be?"
"I don't know! Maybe it's some kind of sick joke!"
"It's no joke, Lois," Arianna said, gently. "It's a cry for help."
"It's nothing of the kind! I never left my apartment last night!"
"Lois," Perry began.
"Chief," Clark said, "maybe we should leave them alone."
Perry hesitated, then nodded and followed Clark out.
Clark led the way from the conference room. A glance over his shoulder assured him that Lois was in full rant mode, hands waving, eyes flashing. As the door closed behind them, he turned to his editor. "Perry, I need to talk to you—in private."
"I was going to suggest the same thing," Perry said. He, too, glanced back. "She's good," he said.
Clark gave him a quick look. Maybe Perry hadn't been as deceived as he thought. He opened the door to his boss's office and let the editor precede him.
As soon as the door was closed, Perry said, "I know you said there was a look-alike, Clark, but I had no idea it was that close. If I hadn't known Lois was with you last night, I might have been fooled." He moved around and dropped into his desk chair. "I knew she couldn't have gone any place without you tagging along—and then I noticed her push her hair back left-handed. Lois always uses her right."
Clark exhaled softly. "It's a set-up, Chief."
"I could see that, and I'd sure like to know what's going on. The only thing I could think of was to pretend I was fooled and leave the rest to you two."
"Well, with that tail, yesterday, and now this…" Perry scowled. "Whatever these people are up to, it's pretty serious. If I was the guy who's behind it—especially if it's Luthor—I'd plant a spy in the office to keep an eye on things, wouldn't you?"
Clark nodded. "Dr. Carlin's new."
"She's a reputable psychiatrist. I had Jimmy run a check on her background, just to be sure, but it could be any one of a number of other people—messengers, secretaries…anybody. I'd hate to think one of the regular staff could be a spy, but you never know. Anyway, I'm going to assume there is one until I know better."
"Yeah." Clark glanced at Lois again. Dr. Carlin was gazing at her sympathetically, and from his partner's heart rate, he could tell she was genuinely angry. "Chief, I have an idea."
"Let's hear it.
Clark spoke quickly, outlining what he had in mind. Perry listened, frowning, then nodded. "Not bad." He glanced at the window to the conference room. "I think I better bail Lois out before she murders Arianna." He rose to his feet. "You get Jimmy and Jack and fill them in. I can handle this."
Lois resisted the urge to throttle the psychiatrist. The doctor's gentle refusal to accept her denial, and the sweet and compassionate smile on her face were particularly maddening, even though Lois was playing a part.
"Lois," Arianna Carlin said, gently, "you have to accept that you've been under tremendous stress lately. No one is made of steel, not even Superman. I can help you. Why not let me schedule a little time for us just to talk? I promise we won't even make it official if you don't wish it. We'll just talk."
"How many times do I have to tell you I don't *want* to—" Lois broke off as the door opened.
Perry entered. "Excuse me," he said, gruffly. "I can see there's some disagreement here."
"Perry, I don't *need* to see a psychiatrist! That woman on the television *wasn't* me!"
"Okay." Perry looked at her sternly. "We'll table it for now. I want you and Clark to continue that investigation you started yesterday. Clark tells me there's been a new development. But if *anything* else happens, you're going to schedule an appointment with Dr. Carlin. Is that clear?"
"Is that clear, Lois?"
Her shoulders slumped. "It's clear."
"Good, now go on. And try to relax."
Lois went past him out of the newsroom, resisting the urge to slam the door. Clark was speaking to Jack and Jimmy by the darkroom, and he looked up as he heard her come out. He beckoned.
Lois stormed over to him. "The nerve of that woman!"
Clark grinned. "You did a good job. Even Perry thought so."
"He caught on before we even got here."
"What? Why that old…I never would have guessed!"
"Sh!" He grinned. "Keep your voice down!"
Jimmy looked contrite. "I'm sorry, Lois—I should have known you'd never have attacked Superman that way…but I didn't know about the double."
"Well," Clark said, "we'd only heard a little. We didn't realize she was so…" He hesitated. "…So exact. I might have been fooled too, if I hadn't known where Lois was last night—except, of course, for the most important thing: that she'd have never done that in the first place."
"It did seem kind of strange," Jimmy said. "I'm really sorry, Lois."
"It's okay, Jimmy, really." Lois looked at her partner. "You said you had an idea?"
"Yeah, I do. As you pointed out yesterday, Dr. Heller was a plastic surgeon who worked for LexLabs, and he's dead—and his body was apparently dumped by two women, one of whom was probably that woman we saw on television, who's nearly an exact double of you. Lex Luthor is on the loose, and now there's all this public sympathy for him and all the Superman bashing going on. These things may be connected."
"Right. I think we need to find out more about Dr. Heller."
"My thought, exactly."
"So, we need to go over to Dr. Heller's office before all his records get moved to storage, or sent to other doctors."
"Great minds think alike," Clark said. "I told you, guys. She's brilliant."
"And," Lois said, "we need to do it before this double does something else to set me up."
"There's one last thing," Clark said. "Until we *do* solve this, we need to be sure you have an alibi every minute of the day. If this woman kills somebody else, we don't want you arrested for it."
All four of them were silent following that. Finally, Lois nodded. "You're right," she said, quietly. "I hadn't thought about it that way before, but one man is already dead. That means they're willing to kill."
"I'm inclined to think," Clark said, "that the killing was meant simply to cover the creation of the double. If Luthor's behind this, it wouldn't surprise me a bit. He's awfully good at covering his tracks, and a little thing like murder has never stopped him before." He looked seriously at Jimmy and Jack. "You two keep that in mind—got it?"
Jack nodded without his usual cockiness.
"We will, CK," Jimmy assured him. He turned as the phone on his desk shrilled. "Be right back."
"So you're going over to this doctor's," Jack said. "How are you gonna dodge your admirer out there? If there's somebody in the office keeping an eye on you, won't whoever it is alert the tail?"
"Probably," Clark said. "But she won't be following us if she's following you."
Lois looked at him. "You don't mean that, do you?" Clark didn't answer. "You do," she said in resignation.
"Well," Clark said, "if she's following your Jeep she won't be after us. Jimmy's a good driver."
Lois sighed. "Fine, but if anything happens to it, *you* get to pay for the repairs."
"Cheap at the price," Clark said. He looked past her, and she turned her head to see Jimmy approaching.
"That was my contact at the DMV," Jimmy said. "He got me the info on your tail's license number. The car's registered to a Gretchen W. Kelly, address of record: Metropolis. I'm running her name through the Planet's identification programs now."
"How about the car the old guy was driving?" Jack asked.
"They're still working on that one," Jimmy said. "I'll let you know as soon as I find out."
"Okay," Clark said. "This is what I had in mind. Lois, have you got your keys?"
"I'll get 'em," Lois said. "Just remember, Jimmy, I just got it back this morning."
"Why couldn't Superman have just flown us out?" Lois grumbled a few minutes later as they waited by the fire exit.
Clark checked his watch. "One more minute. You know why, Lois. If there's a spy in the office, the tail will be waiting for us to leave. We'd be unaccounted for, and since it's broad daylight, and I'd be carrying you, I couldn't fly fast enough not to be seen. I can't risk it."
"Oh, I know. I just—" She sighed. "You're right. I just hope Jimmy's careful."
"He will be. He knows what'll happen if he gets a scratch on the paint."
"I'm more worried about *them*," Lois said. "I don't want them to get hurt."
"Time," Clark said. "Go."
They slipped out the door and walked briskly toward the back of the Daily Planet.
Twenty minutes later they entered the office of Dr. Heller, and one look around told them that they hadn't arrived a day too soon. Boxes sat everywhere, file cabinets gaped open, and on every surface stacks of folders lay, waiting for the attention of the lone young woman moving briskly among the chaos.
She looked around as they came in, her arms full of folders. "I'm sorry, the office is closed."
"I just want my file," Lois said.
"Oh." She looked uncertain. "I don't know if you knew about it, but Dr. Heller died. All of his stuff's being moved to storage."
"Well," Lois explained, "that's why we're here. I need my records. This—" she gestured to Clark, "is my *new* doctor, and he needs to look them over for medical reasons."
Clark stepped forward, endeavoring to look professional. "Yes, I need her records. My patient is suffering some side effects from the operation Dr. Heller performed on her, some physical—" He glanced wickedly at Lois. "—Some mental."
Behind the counter, Lois kicked him lightly in the shin. "So…?" She glanced at the woman's name tag, "Uh…Linda?"
"Oh, well…" Linda hesitated uncertainly. "I guess it would be okay. Name?"
"Name?" Lois said.
"Yeah, your name."
"Well…don't you recognize me?" Lois asked. "I come here a lot."
Linda shrugged. "I wouldn't know. I'm just a temp."
"Oh." Lois glanced at Clark, who had lowered his glasses slightly and was looking around. "She's a temp!" She started around the counter. "Well," she said brightly, "you're obviously really busy, so why don't I just go through some of these boxes, myself?"
Linda moved in front of her. "No, if you want it, I need to know the name on the file."
"Well," Lois said, "I wouldn't presume to know the name on the file. How would *I* know how Dr. Heller's filing system works? Maybe it's in here." She dodged around the temp and headed for a door that opened behind the front office.
"Hey!" Linda hurried after her, protesting. "Hey! You can't go in there!"
As she entered the room after Lois, Lois shoved her past, ducked outside and pulled the door closed. With a triumphant gesture, she locked it and turned to see her partner grinning slightly at her.
"Very subtle, Lois. Was that really necessary?"
"You're the one who pointed out that someone's trying to set me up," Lois said. "I don't have time to be clever."
He glanced at the closed door, which resounded with blows from the prisoner's fists. "Come on! Let me out!" Linda's voice wailed.
Clark shook his head. "That folder," he said, pointing. "It's marked 'year to date'."
Lois lifted it from the top of a stack and opened it. On the very top of the papers thus revealed lay the one they sought. "Aha! Look at this! Dr. Heller's last patient." Quickly, she scanned the document. "Clark, you're wonderful! Female, my height, my weight—"
"Full facial reconstruction," Clark said, "but no patient name."
"The last entry here is dated the day he died," Lois said. "The operation was performed six weeks ago…that makes sense. Plastic surgery takes a while to heal. It looks like it was done right after Lex escaped. He didn't waste any time, did he?"
"Paid for by ACL Corporation," Clark said. He was checking the insurance records. "I've never heard of them."
"Me, either," Lois said. "There's the Xerox machine. I'm going to duplicate this. Maybe Jimmy can locate them for us."
Some minutes after leaving the office, Superman made a fast return to release the imprisoned Linda. Leaving her to draw her own conclusions about the door that mysteriously unlocked itself, he returned to the street and they hailed a taxi. It was some ten minutes after their return to the Daily Planet that Jack and Jimmy entered the newsroom. The two young men had a satisfied air about them that was hard to miss.
"How'd it go?" Clark asked.
"Perfect," Jack said. "She never got close enough to get a good look at us. She did get a nice tour of Suicide Slum, though."
"And," Jimmy said, quietly handing Lois her keys, "your Jeep doesn't have a scratch."
"Jimmy, I wasn't really worried about that," she said.
Jimmy grinned. "I know," he said.
"Good work, both of you," Clark said. "I don't have to tell you not to talk about it to anybody but Perry, do I?"
"Nope," Jack said. "My lip's zipped."
"Good," Clark said. He clapped the young man on the shoulder. "You were a great help. We found what we were looking for. Jim, we need you to track down an ACL Corporation. They paid for the double's surgery. I've never heard of them, but that doesn't mean anything."
"On it, CK." Jimmy headed for his desk.
As the others walked away, Lois sank into her desk chair and put her face into her hands. This whole situation was spooking her much more than she would ever admit to anyone, except maybe Clark. It seemed that the more they investigated, the more intricate the thing got.
"Lois?" Clark's voice said, softly, and she felt his hand touch her shoulder. "Are you all right?"
She raised her head. "Yeah. Just…confused, I guess. And tired."
"I don't blame you." He moved behind her and began to rub her shoulders. "How about tonight we pay a visit to Smallville?"
"That sounds nice."
"Uh…guys?" Jimmy approached the desk. "I just found out the stuff on Gretchen Kelly. She's…or was, I guess…Luthor's personal physician."
"And the other car…the one that Jack saw? It's registered to a Nigel St. John."
"Lex's butler," Lois said. "I guess that clinches it."
"Yeah," Clark said. "I guess it does."
The Kansas farmhouse, surrounded by spreading fields glittering with ice and snow and snow covered trees, all tinted a faint pinkish color by the setting sun, looked like something out of a Christmas card, Lois thought as she and Clark approached it from the air some two hours later. Not far away, to the east, she could see the little town of Smallville, and in the silence, she heard the faint, but distinct music of carols being played over a loudspeaker.
Clark landed them in the side yard of his old home and spun back into his civvies. Lois looked around at the tranquil scene, feeling her taut nerves relax for the first time in hours. Here she wasn't under observation, here she and Clark could be themselves without the fear that Lex Luthor and his tools were waiting to maneuver her into whatever trap they had set.
The side door of the farmhouse opened and Martha Kent emerged, drying her hands on a dishtowel.
"Lois! Clark!" Lois couldn't mistake the real delight in her voice. "Why didn't you tell us you were coming? Clark, bring her into the house before she freezes."
"Hi, Mom." Clark hurried forward to envelop his mother in a hug. "I hope you don't mind us dropping in unannounced."
"Of course not," Martha said, looking her tall son over as sternly as she could, allowing for the smile on her face. "You know you two are always welcome, no matter what. As a matter of fact, I was going to call this evening and ask about Lois, but I guess I can ask in person." She turned to Lois. "Are you going to be able to come for Christmas?"
"If it's not too much trouble," Lois began.
"Oh, honey, of course it's no trouble. We were hoping you'd come." Martha smiled widely. "Come on in and have some tea. I've just put it on to boil. I'm about to start dinner as soon as I finish cleaning up my art project."
In the kitchen, Lois blinked at the sight of an oddly shaped metal structure sitting in the middle of the kitchen table. Lying beside it on a heavy piece of cloth, was a welder's mask and on the floor an oxyacetylene torch leaned against the table leg. Little shreds of metal were scattered here and there on the floor.
"How do you like it?" Martha asked. "It's not finished yet, but I think it's coming along really well."
Clark eyed it narrowly. "What is it?"
Martha threw him a Look. "It's going to be an abstract sculpture—when it's finished. I haven't named it yet. Why don't you make yourself useful and move it over to that side table for me?"
Clark obliged, raising his eyebrows at the weight. Martha threw a cloth over it and set her equipment in a corner.
"Now," she said, "why don't you have a seat, Lois? The tea will be ready in a few minutes."
"Where's Dad?" Clark asked.
"In the barn, repairing the tractor. He's been renovating all the farm equipment for the spring planting while he has the time."
"I'll just see if he needs any help." Clark bent to kiss Lois on the cheek and hurried out the door.
Martha looked after him for a minute, then turned to Lois. "Men! Give them a chance to tinker with an engine—" She shook her head.
"Well," Lois said, "he did fix my Jeep a couple of months ago."
"Yeah. That guy, John Black—you remember we told you about him?"
At Martha's nod, she continued, "Well, he disconnected something so we'd have to walk and give him the chance to kill Clark. Clark fixed it for me."
Martha smiled. "The life around here is exciting enough what with the occasional loose cow from Jim Barnett's pasture, or something. I don't know what I'd do if I had your job. So, what brings the two of you here in the middle of the week? Is everything all right between you and Clark?"
"Clark and I are doing fine," Lois said. "I think Clark suggested we come out here because he thought I needed a break."
"Oh?" Martha turned her head as the kettle whistled, and rose to turn off the flame. "What happened? It isn't Lex Luthor again, is it?"
"We think so." Lois gave Clark's mother an abbreviated version of recent events and Martha shook her head in disgust.
"What a horrible man! Does he have some perverted idea that he can force you to love him, or something?"
"I don't think he cares if I love him or not, to tell you the truth," Lois said. "I think he just wants to control me."
Martha set teacups on the table. "I know the sort," she said. "Manipulative, controlling—they don't let you call your life your own, and see nothing wrong with it."
Lois nodded. "That's it, all right, but Lex takes it to a new level."
"So I've been led to understand," Martha said. "But why create a double of you?"
"I don't know. So far, she's gotten the Planet's new staff psychiatrist thinking I'm insane. She's trying to get me on her couch for some psychoanalysis."
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Martha said. "You don't need psychoanalysis."
"Tell that to *her*! She's convinced I'm on the edge of a breakdown."
"Who *is* this woman? She sounds awfully pushy."
"Her name's Arianna Carlin. She writes a syndicated column that appears in the Planet, and a number of other papers."
"Oh, *her*." Martha's expression changed to one of distaste. "Her column's in the Kansas City Sentinel. I've seen it a couple of times recently. I didn't like it…or her."
"Really?" Lois brightened. "Why?"
Martha shrugged. "I don't know, really. Just an impression, I guess. Something about it struck me as unpleasant."
"I guess that's better than the Superman haters in Metropolis," Lois said. "They don't even know why they don't like him."
"We've had some of that, too. They don't seem to know why they feel the way they do, they just don't like him." The older woman shook her head in disgust. "It makes you wonder what the world is coming to, doesn't it?"
"It sure does."
"So," Martha said, changing the subject abruptly, "speaking of Superman, how are things now that you know all about him?"
Lois giggled. "I'd hardly say I know *all* about him, but it's wonderful knowing and being able to help him out—and *not* having him hiding things from me. Except—"
"Oh, except when he's trying to protect me from things for my own good."
Martha rolled her eyes. "Don't I know it! He's done that to Jonathan and me since I don't know when."
Martha nodded. "It just means you're very important to him, honey. He's always had this need to protect those who are smaller and weaker than him. I'll never forget the day I got a call from the principal when he was in first grade. He'd tackled two, big fourth grade boys who were picking on a little kindergartner named Sara Braxton. She's a teacher over at Smallville Elementary now. Of course he lost, but he stopped the teasing." She chuckled. "He got suspended for the day. He wasn't a bit sorry though, and neither was I. I was proud of him."
"I can see why," Lois said. "Still, I wish he wouldn't do it to me."
"I know. You'll just have to be patient and convince him he has to trust your judgement. He can be a lunkhead, sometimes, but he can be taught."
Lois laughed. Somehow, Superman's mother calling her son a lunkhead wasn't exactly what she expected, but then very little about Martha was what Lois had expected in the beginning.
Some time later, the two Kent men entered the kitchen to find Martha putting together a meatloaf, and supervising Lois's preparation of a salad.
"Hi, Lois," Jonathan said. "Clark tells me Metropolis is getting a little more exciting than usual."
"I guess that's one way to describe it," Lois said. "Is this right, Martha?"
Clark's mother checked the bowl. "Perfect. Just tear the leaves into bite-size pieces. The cherry tomatoes and other veggies are in the crisper."
"Okay." Lois smiled a little uncertainly at Clark and his father. "I hope I don't poison everybody. Martha's showing me a few of the basics. Who knows, I might need to know how to do this, someday." She couldn't help meeting Clark's eyes as she said that, and was rewarded with a wide smile.
Jonathan chuckled. "Well, Martha's the one to teach you, I can tell you that." He glanced down at his clothing. "Give me a few minutes to get cleaned up, Martha. Clark speeded up the tractor repair. Better than a fully equipped garage."
He turned and left the kitchen. Clark excused himself and followed; there was a whoosh in the other room, and a few moments later he reappeared in clean clothing with his hair damp and slicked back.
"Can I help?" he asked.
His mother waved at a large bin. "Could you wash the potatoes and get them ready for the oven?"
Lois finished with the lettuce and hunted around in the refrigerator for the remaining ingredients. She was doing her best to follow Martha's directions closely; it would be humiliating, to say the least, to manage to ruin a garden salad.
Martha, apparently experienced in the ways of fledgling cooks, was, fortunately for them all, watching her closely and intervened in time to prevent the addition of the okra and the horseradish root to the salad. All in all, Lois thought later, it wasn't bad for her first successful try at food preparation—other, of course, than the macaroni salad and the two chocolate dishes she had learned how to make years ago from a college roommate.
After dinner, while Jonathan and Clark did the dishes, Martha and Lois retreated to the living room. Martha sank into her favorite chair and picked up the TV remote. "Do you feel like watching something?"
"Not particularly." Lois sat down on the sofa across from her. "Martha, are you sure I won't be a bother at Christmas? I mean, it's a family occasion, and I don't want to intrude."
"Oh, Lois." Martha set down the remote control. "As far as we're concerned, you *are* family. Do you have any idea how happy Clark has been since you told him you'd figured out his secret? My boy is literally walking on air! I've never seen him quite like this."
"Like what?" Lois asked.
"It's hard to describe. I mean, I knew from the minute I saw him after he met you that he'd tumbled head over heels in love, but I've never seen him so completely happy before. There's no other word for it."
"I'm glad," Lois said. "I do love him, Martha, and not because he's Superman. You know that, don't you?"
"Of course I do." Martha spoke seriously. "So, like I said before, you're family. Unless you have somewhere else you want to be, we expect to see you and Clark here at Christmas."
"I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be on Christmas than here," Lois said. "Thank you, Martha."
"Before we go to your place, I'd like to stop at my apartment to pick up a few things," Lois said.
"Your wish is my command." Clark suited the action to the word and changed course slightly. "Did you leave the window unlocked?"
"Always." She put her head on his shoulder. "Nice," she murmured.
"It definitely is." Clark wasn't exactly protesting, she noted. "What time is it?"
"I can't see my watch in the dark." As if in answer, the clock at City Hall chimed eleven.
"It's late," Clark said. "I don't see anybody watching, but we better make this quick." He brought them to a stop, hovering just outside her fifth story window, and pushed it open. They drifted gently inside. A nightlight that she had placed in one of the wall sockets gave enough light for her to find a table lamp without knocking anything over, and she blinked in the sudden illumination.
"I'll just be a few minutes," she told Clark. "Make yourself at home. I need to find something to wear at work tomorrow."
In the bedroom, Lois started toward her dresser, only to pause uncertainly, looking around. Something wasn't right. What was it?
Turning her head back and forth, she surveyed the room, trying to pin down that vague feeling.
Someone had been here.
How she knew she couldn't have said. Perhaps it was a subconscious sense that detected what her conscious mind did not, but she knew someone else had been in this room since this afternoon when she had come here to change for the trip to Kansas.
Slowly she turned in a full circle, searching for some more concrete clue. Nothing she could see had really changed in any obvious fashion. The scent of some perfume seemed to linger on the air—was that it? It wasn't a scent she recognized, and it was barely detectable but it might have been what alerted her to the intrusion. Slowly, Lois moved to her dresser, still searching for something more tangible to prove or disprove her conviction.
Her jewelry box had been moved. Normally, she kept the little antique box on the far right corner of the dresser. Its position had shifted by perhaps no more than an inch—but that much was significant to Lois. She was rarely meticulous in her habits but the little mahogany jewel box had been a gift from her great-aunt Lois, and she had always treasured it. With that clue to guide her, she opened the lid.
The order of her earrings had changed, and the jade ring she sometimes wore was gone.
"Lois, is everything okay?" Clark stood in the doorway, concern on his face.
"Clark, someone's been here."
"Are you sure?"
"You have a super sense of smell, don't you?"
"Do you smell perfume?"
Clark inhaled slowly. "Yes. It's some flower scent." He sniffed again. "Gardenia, I think."
"Clark, I don't *have* any gardenia perfume. I wear Chanel. And someone's been into my jewelry box. My jade ring is gone and so is a pair of my earrings. I always keep them in the same order on their hooks. Someone put another pair in its place so there wouldn't be a gap."
"Do you know which ones?" Clark, she could see, was taking it seriously.
"Yeah, my mother-of-pearl shells. Someone put a pair of white button ones in their place. My jade ring is definitely gone, too."
"Is anything else missing?" She could see him squinting around the room and guessed he was using his special vision to search for anything unusual.
"I don't know."
"Okay, look around, but try not to disturb anything, okay?"
Some minutes later she said, "Someone's been in my closet, too. I think a pair of my shoes is gone, and so is that beige pantsuit you like. I might not have noticed if I hadn't been looking."
"Positive. I just got it back from the cleaner on Friday. It was still in its wrapping."
"I don't like this," Clark said.
"Neither do I! What should we do about it, though?"
"I don't know." Clark scowled at the jewel box, obviously worried. "Yes, I do. I'm going to talk to Inspector Henderson first thing in the morning. It's late, or I'd do it now, but I'm not sure anyone else who didn't have some idea about what's going on would give it serious attention. Ten to one this is connected to all the rest of this wierdness."
"Do you suppose it was my double?" Lois asked.
He didn't pretend to misunderstand. "Your clothing and jewelry for her? Maybe. She could have easily gotten in here by impersonating you. Lois, this is really beginning to scare me."
"Me, too." She moved over to him and he put his arms around her.
"Let's go back to my apartment," Clark said, finally. "We'll talk to Henderson in the morning."
"Before we do, I'm going to put up the chain and bolt the sliding lock," Lois said. "You'll have to bring me in by the window when I want to come back. It's probably locking the barn door after the horse is long gone, but I'll feel a little better knowing they can't get back in without leaving traces."
"I'm at your service," Clark said, but there was no lightness in his tone. He waited while she bolted every lock on her door and slid the chain into place.
"All ready?" he asked, when she had finished. "Got everything you need?"
"For now, yes."
He held out his arms. "Then let's go."
It was close to midnight when Lois and Clark, who was now in his civvies, entered his apartment.
"I wonder if our tail is still watching this place," Lois said.
Clark closed the door and locked it behind them. "The station wagon is parked up the street," he said. There was a grim note in his voice that Lois recognized. Superman was getting angry.
He turned suddenly and put his arms tightly around her. "I'm going to get Luthor, Lois," he said. "I promise you I'm going to get him, and when I do I'm going to see to it that he's locked up for several lifetimes. You'll never have to be afraid of him again."
She said nothing, merely stood leaning against him, feeling his arms around her. Independent career woman that she was, it was immensely comforting to have him hold her this way. Here, the games and plots of her enemies couldn't harm her. Here it was safe.
Clark's head came up suddenly; abruptly he was a streak crossing the room, a streak that changed from grey to blue in the space of an indrawn breath. The doors banged open and a split instant later a concussion rattled the windows. Two books and Clark's fertility statue fell from the bookshelf to the rug. Lois ran to the door in time to meet a white-faced Superman, returning.
"Are you all right?" he demanded, grasping her by the shoulders.
Numbly, she nodded. "What was it?"
"A bomb. It was planted behind the couch. I heard the timer start up." He kicked the door shut with one foot and strode to the phone. "I'm going to call the police."
It was two AM before the police investigators finally left. Lois sat huddled on the couch as Clark closed the door behind the last man and turned to look at her.
"Are you okay, Lois?"
"I think so," she said.
"You look like you haven't slept in a week," he said. "Go to bed. I'll see to it that nothing happens."
"Not yet." She picked up her cup of the long-cold coffee that Clark had made while they waited for the police and swallowed the last of it, grimacing at the taste. "Is the station wagon still there?"
Clark shook his head. "It left a while ago. I didn't really notice when." He sat down beside her. "I'm going to talk to Henderson first thing in the morning. I couldn't exactly explain what I really thought was going on."
"No." She leaned against him and Clark slipped an arm around her. They sat in silence for several minutes.
"Clark," Lois said, "if Lex's people are following me, why would they try to bomb your apartment while I'm in it?"
"I don't know." Clark's arm tightened slightly. "Since you're staying here, maybe he thinks we're—you know—and has decided you've betrayed him or something."
Lois had already considered that alternative and rejected it. "No, Clark, I don't think so—not Lex."
"Lois, you know what he's capable of."
"Yes, of course I do; I just don't think it would matter that way to him, Clark. I think, if anything, it would add spice to the game—it would be more amusing for him to take me away from you if we were—well, you know. More of a triumph."
Clark appeared to consider that.
"You're probably right," he said. "I hadn't thought of it that way, but it makes sense. But in that case…"
"Why the theft at my apartment, and the double's appearance at the anti-Superman rally?" Lois asked. "If Lex wanted me dead, why all the games? There's something else we're not seeing here, Clark. It just doesn't add up."
"I know. I suppose the bomb could have just been a trap for me," Clark said.
Again, Lois vetoed the suggestion. "Lex knows we're partners and that I'm often with you. He wouldn't set an indiscriminate trap like that—not if he wants me alive."
"Maybe it wasn't," Clark said, unexpectedly. "That bomb had a countdown mechanism that started *after* we came in. It may have been remotely triggered. The bomb squad couldn't find anything we might have tripped. That was what they were looking for while you were changing in the bathroom. I didn't find anything either, and you can bet I looked."
"You mean someone waited until we entered the apartment and started the timer?"
"I think so. I agree, it *doesn't* add up. And what if that car that nearly ran us down wasn't just a reckless driver? It's like somebody else out there is trying to get rid of you—or me—or us."
He broke off and they stared at each other.
"That's it!" Lois half shrieked. "Clark, you're a genius!"
"How could we have missed it?" he asked.
"Lex is doing part of this, and someone else is doing the rest—probably the attempts to kill us," Lois said. "But why?"
"Good question," Clark said. "But it sure makes more sense this way."
"Yeah, it does. Only who could it be? We haven't made anyone mad at us for a couple of months," Lois said.
"Well, more like two weeks," Clark amended, "but they're in jail, so it couldn't be them. Lois, I have a really out-there kind of idea. Suppose someone is targeting you because Luthor wants you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Luthor's made a lot of enemies in the past," he said, "and not all of them were upright guys. What if someone out of his past has decided the best way to get revenge on Luthor is to keep him from getting the woman he wants, by killing her?"
Lois mulled that one over for a few minutes. It *was* a bit melodramatic, still, it *did* make sense. "How do we find out? I'm not eager to be killed so someone can get even with my would-be boyfriend."
"The idea doesn't exactly thrill me, either." Clark frowned thoughtfully at nothing. "I wonder…"
Lois was completely silent while he thought.
"Luthor had lots of female companionship," Clark said, "but no wife. Was he ever married, do you know?"
"If he was, he didn't say so. He did say he had a son…illegitimate. He and the child's mother were killed in a car crash."
"Hmmm…" Clark was still frowning. He glanced at his watch. "It's past two—too late to call Jimmy, now. I'll have to do it in the morning."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to have him check into Luthor's history—was he ever married or even just engaged—and if so, what happened to the wife or girlfriend? I'm just working a funny hunch here, but if it pans out it might explain some of this."
"You're saying it might have happened before."
"Maybe. That's what we need to find out."
"Well," Lois said, "at least we're acting instead of reacting for once." She smothered a yawn with the back of her hand. "All of a sudden, I'm sleepy."
"It's been a long day," Clark said. "Go on to bed. Superman's taking the night off, unless something happens that the emergency services really can't handle."
"Clark, you need sleep, too. Even Superman can't stay awake forever."
He nodded. "I'll sleep in here. I don't really need the sofa, you know, but I'll wake up if anyone tries to break in."
"You could sleep in there with me, Clark. I trust you."
He smiled wryly. "You may trust me, but *I* don't trust me. I think it's probably best if I stay in here." He bent his head and kissed her. "Go on, honey. Get some sleep."
"What did you say?" She looked up, startled.
"I said you should get some sleep."
"No, before that."
"I…you mean, 'Go on, honey'?"
"Yeah. Honey." She smiled slowly. "I never thought of myself as a honey. I like it."
"Yeah." She giggled. "I didn't think I would, but I do. If you want to call me 'honey' after this, you can."
"Okay, I will. Go on to bed, honey. I'll be right here."
When Lois woke the next morning she blinked sleepily at the clock, then sat up straight. The hands pointed unbelievably to nine-seventeen.
Clark knocked gently on the partition. "May I come in?"
"Clark, it's after nine!"
"I already took care of calling Perry. May I—"
"Come on in," she said.
Clark appeared around the partition, a coffee cup in his hand. "Non fat creamer and two Sweet 'n Lo's, right?"
"Right." She accepted the cup and saucer, noting with amusement that Clark's eyes flicked toward her cleavage before he brought his gaze back to focus determinedly on her face. "Thanks, Clark. What did you tell Perry?"
"The truth. I let him know we'd be in after we finished some other business this morning. I've already talked to Jimmy but when I called Henderson's office they said he wouldn't be back until ten. I thought we could go over there after you were dressed."
"Oh. Okay, I better get ready."
"I'll be waiting for you out front. The blue car is parked down the street, by the way."
"They're still watching."
Half an hour later, they entered the police station on their way to see Inspector Henderson. A milling crowd of protesters occupied the sidewalk in front of the building, shouting and waving signs protesting Superman and the arrest of Lex Luthor. Lois let Clark carve their way through the demonstrators to the steps of the station.
"Honestly, this is really getting out of hand," she said. "Clark, how do you suppose he's doing this?"
"I wish I knew." He held the door for her, and followed her in.
Henderson was his usual self; his deadpan expression didn't change as they told him the events of the past couple of days, but when Clark finished speaking, he shook his head slowly.
"You know," he said, "it seems to me that every power-crazed criminal, psychotic, and mad scientist in the country has it in for you, Lois. Do you go out of your way, for some reason, to tick them off?" He smiled a trifle sourly. "Thanks for the information. I can't pick these people up until I have some concrete proof, but it's a start. And Lois, for the sake of my grey hairs, stick close to your partner, will you? I don't really fancy the idea of fishing you out of the bay, believe me."
"Neither do I," Clark said, and there was a grim set to his jaw.
"As for the double," Henderson said, "I'm keeping that information quiet, except for the Luthor task force. There's a possibility we can use the knowledge to our advantage. On the off chance you're arrested for something she's done, don't make a fuss. Kent, you or Perry White can contact me and I'll handle it quietly. The less Luthor thinks we know, the better chance we have to nail him. Got it?"
"All right." Lois swallowed the nervous lump in her throat.
"Do you expect her to do something?" Clark asked.
Henderson shrugged. "I don't know what I expect, but there's some reason she was made to look like you, Lois. I don't want to throw away a possible advantage."
"I guess I see your point." Clark clearly did not like the idea.
"I'll be sure my assistant knows what's going on, in case I can't be reached for some reason." The Inspector shook his head. "You two have more lives than a cat, but try not to take any unnecessary chances. And keep that rabbit's foot of yours handy, just in case, Kent. You may need it before this is over."
The newsroom of the Daily Planet was its usual chaos when they arrived just before noon. Perry, Clark noted, was on the phone in his office, arguing vigorously with someone in Accounting. He looked up as they crossed the Pit toward Jimmy's desk, spoke a final pithy phrase to the hapless individual on the other end and hung up.
"Where's Carlin?" Lois whispered. Clark had to sympathize. He wouldn't care to have the psychiatrist zero in on him, either. He scanned the office with his x-ray vision. Arianna was also in her office, the telephone receiver wedged between her shoulder and left ear, and was making rapid notes on a sheet of paper.
"In her office. Hi, Chief."
"Clark, what in the name of the King happened to you two last night?" Perry demanded. "You said something about a bomb in your apartment?"
"Superman got rid of it," Lois said, as if that explained everything. Perry rolled his eyes.
"There was a bomb, Chief," Clark said. "Like Lois says, Superman grabbed it, and the damage was pretty minor. The police are investigating."
"You got any ideas?"
"Some. Jimmy's been checking on some things for us." They stopped beside Jimmy's desk and the young computer expert looked up at them with a pleased grin.
"Hi, CK! I finished that research you asked for."
"Did you find out about ACL Corporation?"
Jimmy nodded. "And the other stuff you asked for this morning. ACL Corporation is a part of LexCorp that administers the annuity for Luthor's ex-wife, Mrs. A.C. Luthor. It's based in Jamaica, which is why there wasn't any record of it here in the U.S."
"Bingo," Lois said, softly. "Sometimes I think you're psychic, Clark. But why would Lex Luthor's ex-wife create a double of me?""
"Good question," Jimmy said. "It gets better, though. I didn't have a name, but I started looking around and found out some other stuff that might have something to do with everything that's happening. There was no record of the marriage at the Bureau of Vital Statistics, but eventually I dug up a wedding announcement that ran in the Planet ten years ago. They were married on a ship in the Caribbean. I'm still trying to track down the ship's captain who performed the ceremony. Maybe we can find out more from him."
"Good idea," Clark said.
"Thanks. I did find out a little more, though. Luthor was just starting to build LexCorp back then. He came into some money at the same time he married, possibly from his wife. About seven months later, ACL Corp was incorporated to handle her annuity—as his divorce settlement."
"Not exactly a long term relationship," Perry said.
"Apparently not." Clark felt a little sorry for the former Mrs. Luthor, though that was tempered by the knowledge that the woman could well be behind some of the threats to Lois that had surfaced over the last few days.
"Do you have the name of the ship they were married on?" he asked.
"Yeah—uh—I wrote it down." Jimmy picked up a book that lay on his desk and removed a slip of paper from between the pages. "Yeah. She was the Sun Princess."
"I've got a few contacts I can ask," Clark said, "and you keep trying from your end." He glanced at the book. "What's this? 'Subliminal Advertising' by Arianna Carlin?"
"Yeah," Jimmy said. "I'm going to get Dr. Carlin to autograph it for me so I can give it to my mom for her birthday."
"Whatever happened to candy and flowers?" Perry asked.
"My mom's overweight and she has allergies," Jimmy said.
"Oh. Better give her the book."
"Yeah," Jimmy said. "Anyway, after I found out about Luthor's ex-wife, I started checking the archives for other announcements. Luthor's been engaged to two different women in the last eight years."
"What happened to them?" Lois's voice sounded almost strangled.
"One of them died in a car accident. Her car skidded on an icy road and rolled. She was killed instantly. The other one was killed when her apartment caught fire."
"That's not a very good record," Perry said.
"I'd say not." Clark felt Lois's hand grasp his and he squeezed it reassuringly.
The elevator doors slid open at that moment and two men exited. They descended the ramp deliberately and approached the four persons at Jimmy's desk. The man in the lead spoke.
"Yes?" Lois said.
"I'm Detective Ryder, Metropolis P.D." The man produced his identification. "Do you want to tell me where you were last night around three A.M.?"
Lois looked at Clark, then back at the detective. "I was in bed, asleep."
"Can anyone verify that?"
"What's this all about, Detective?" Clark asked.
Ryder didn't shift his gaze from Lois. "At three A.M. last night, a guard was assaulted outside Lex Luthor's penthouse by a woman he's identified as Ms. Lane."
"That's ridiculous," Lois said.
Ryder produced a photograph. "This picture was taken by a security camera outside the penthouse."
Lois and Clark looked at the photograph of Lois's double and then at each other.
"As far as we can tell," Ryder continued, "the only item taken was an engagement ring valued at half a million dollars that Mr. Luthor had purchased three months ago. His butler, Mr. St. John, reported the theft. Ms. Lane, you're under arrest for aggravated assault, breaking and entering, and grand theft."
He snapped a pair of handcuffs onto Lois's wrists. Clark caught Lois's eye, made the flying gesture, and headed for the steps, hand on his tie. He hadn't expected this to happen quite so soon, but once again, the double had struck. He had to see Inspector Henderson at once.
"Henderson sure took his time," Lois said, as she joined Clark and Perry at the front desk of the station. "Another minute and I'd have been judging a best tattoo contest."
"Sorry about that," Clark said. "Henderson was out when I called, and his assistant was in a meeting. Superman had to track him down for me. Anyway, I brought your Jeep. It's parked outside."
"Are you sure you're okay, Lois?" Perry asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine, Chief—just really irritated," Lois said. She moved quickly aside to avoid a police officer who was wrestling a tattooed and bearded Superman protester towards a chair. "Oh, brother! This is really getting ridiculous! These people need to get lives!"
"What in the name of Elvis has gotten into Metropolis?" Perry asked. "Half the city seems to have lost its marbles!"
"No, only twenty percent," Clark said. "Lois and I have a theory about it, Chief. We think it's connected to Luthor, somehow."
"Why doesn't that surprise me?" their boss asked rhetorically. "Anyway, Dr. Carlin is sure you're headed for a nervous breakdown, Lois. If you come back to the Planet today she's gonna be after you to schedule an appointment. I just wanted to warn you."
"Great," Lois said. "When I get my hands on this woman, whoever she is, I'm going to break her neck. No, better, I'm going to stick her on Arianna Carlin's couch for some serious psychoanalysis."
Perry snorted. "I don't blame you. Look, kids, I'm gonna head back to the office. I'll drop the word that we bailed you out and Clark took you home for some rest."
"Thanks, Perry," Lois said. "You know, this is getting old, really fast."
"Tell me about it," Clark said. "Don't worry, Lois. We'll get to the bottom of it sooner or later."
They made their way across the room, dodging several more shouting protesters being escorted by officers of the law, and Clark held the door for Lois and Perry then followed them out. The crowd of demonstrators on the sidewalk had thickened considerably since this morning, Lois saw. Most of them were behaving themselves, more or less, but a number were pushing and shoving at each other, and at unlucky passersby. One particularly obstreperous individual was struggling with two officers while one of them was cuffing him.
Perry, Clark and Lois descended the steps, and gave the crowd a wide berth. Lois read the signs; nothing original there that she could see. "Free Luthor", one read, and another carried the "S" shield with a "no" symbol covering it. She shook her head as a voice bellowed louder than that of the other chanting protesters, "Free Luthor! Exile the alien!" and she saw Clark wince.
She put a hand on his arm. "Ignore it, Clark. They're just puppets."
"Hey! That's his girlfriend!" someone else, a woman's voice, screamed, and all at once bodies converged around them, pushing and shoving. Someone grabbed for her and got a handful of cloth. Lois knocked the hand away, but other hands grabbed, yanked and pushed, and the cries of the demonstrators became menacing. A violent shove made her lurch against Perry, who caught her.
"Back off!" Her boss's voice sounded uncharacteristically ferocious as he faced down the offender, a tall, muscular youth wearing a leather jacket and heavy work pants. The two of them glared at each other for a long moment before the assailant stepped back. Clark moved in front of them, again beginning to gently, but firmly force his way through the mass of human bodies. Perry and Lois followed in his wake.
When they reached open space, Perry removed his arm from around her shoulders. Lois turned to smile gratefully at him. "Thanks, Perry."
"No sweat, honey. Some of these young studs need a swift kick in the rear if you ask me."
"I'll go along with that. I guess they didn't see my so-called 'virtuoso performance' the other day."
"I guess not. Are you gonna be okay?"
"Yeah. Clark and I will see if we can dig anything up away from the office. I don't really feel like facing Dr. Carlin right now."
"Can't say I blame you. All right, then. Try to stay away from trouble, okay?"
"Okay, Chief." Lois glanced back at the protesters once more.
"Don't worry about 'em," Perry told her. "They're a bunch of—" He bit off the words. "I'm not going to say what they are, but they're not worth gettin' upset about."
"Thanks, Chief," she said.
Clark's cell phone chose that second to ring, and Clark, who had remained uncharacteristically silent, answered. "Hello?" He listened for a minute. "Hi, Jim…You did? Where…? Right. Thanks. That was great work." He shut off the phone. "Jimmy located the ship's captain who married the Luthors. He's retired and living in a retirement home right here in Metropolis."
"Then I'll leave you to get on with your work," Perry said. "Try not to get in too much trouble."
"We won't—ah, will," Lois assured him. "See you later, Perry, and thanks for the help."
"Don't mention it, sweetie." They stopped next to the editor's car, parked in front of the Jeep. Perry got behind the wheel, waved to them and a moment later had pulled out into traffic.
Lois turned to Clark, who was looking sober. "Clark, what's the matter? You're not letting that bunch of idiots get to you, are you?"
He shook himself. "A little. I guess I shouldn't, huh?"
"Absolutely not!" She put her arms around him. "Alien or not, you're one of the most human men I know, and the man I happen to love. Those protesters are Luthor's puppets. He's doing something to their minds. We just have to figure out what, and how he's doing it."
He laughed softly. "How come you're always able to make me put things in perspective when they seem so overwhelming to me? I guess it just proves my instincts were right on target when I decided you were the woman of my dreams."
"You better believe it."
The retirement home where Edward Keene, formerly Captain of the Sun Princess, resided had been decorated for Christmas. In the corner of the lounge a Christmas tree that stood a good twelve feet tall glittered with silver garlands and frosted ornaments. Dozens of tiny, multi-colored lights twinkled merrily, and Christmas music played softly in the background.
Captain Keene was seated in an armchair by the picture window when they entered the room and in his lap lay what appeared to be a photograph album. The old man looked up with a smile on his round face. His hair was white, his eyes blue and twinkling. If he'd had a beard he would have looked exactly like one of the department store and street corner Santas that abounded in Metropolis at this season of the year, Lois thought. As they approached, he rose to his feet.
"Ms. Lane and Mr. Kent?"
"Yes," Clark said. "Captain Keene?"
That's me," the old man said, cheerfully. "The kid I spoke to said you wanted to talk to me about Lex Luthor."
Clark shook hands with him. "Yes, we wanted to ask you about his wedding. You performed the ceremony?"
"Yes." Captain Keene waved them to chairs. "I sure did. Of course—" He leaned back in his chair. "—Luthor wasn't anybody, then, but I could tell he was a comer. And that bride of his, she was something special. Beautiful woman, and really built."
Lois smiled a little at the man's enthusiasm. "Do you remember her name?"
"Sure! Mrs. Luthor!" He laughed at their expressions. "Hey, it's a joke! I'm retired, I ain't senile!"
They all laughed. Captain Keene held up the album. "The kid I talked to said you might want to see a picture." At their nods he opened the book and began to flip through the pages. "I've got pictures of every couple I ever married. Here we are."
He turned the album around to display the picture on the open page. Lois looked at the photograph and did a classic double take.
"Lex Luthor and Ari Carlin," Captain Keene said. "Married October 8th 1984."
Lois looked up at Clark almost in shock. "Arianna Carlin is Mrs. Luthor?"
"That guy in the alley," Clark said. "He thought he heard 'Harry'. It was actually 'Ari'!"
"I guess this explains a few things," Lois said. She handed the album back to the Captain. "Thank you. You've just given us the answers to a lot of questions."
"The question is," Clark said, as they made their way back toward the Jeep, "is Arianna Carlin working with Luthor or on her own?"
"I think the next move is to confront Dr. Carlin," Lois said. "I don't know what she thinks she's doing, but I have some serious issues to discuss with her."
"Inspector Henderson needs to know, too," Clark said. "She may be a lead to wherever Luthor's holed up."
"You call him, I'll drive." Lois was almost surprised at how calm she felt on the surface, but underneath anger was boiling. Arianna Carlin had acted so concerned for her, so sympathetic—and all the time she'd been scheming against her. No more, though. The tables were about to turn.
They were still almost a block from the Daily Planet when both of them realized that all was not as it should be. A crowd of people was gathered in front of the Daily Planet Building, and persons were emerging from every visible door, as fast as they could. Lois pulled the Jeep into an empty spot by the curb, and they jumped out.
"Come on!" Clark began to run toward the Planet, Lois on his heels.
When they got closer, Lois could see the people fleeing the building had tears streaming down their faces, many were coughing and gasping for breath, all of them obviously in distress. Clark stopped and sniffed.
"I smell tear gas on their clothes. You stay here, Lois. I'll take care of it and be right back."
"Go," she said.
He nodded to her and ran toward the Daily Planet, one hand on his tie. As he vanished through the revolving door, Lois saw her—the woman who looked exactly like her ran past, apparently unaware of Lois's presence.
Lois hesitated for a moment, but the temptation was too much. She had her cellular phone tucked into her shoulder bag. If she could find out where her double was headed, she could call Clark and perhaps they could unravel at least part of this tangle.
She turned and followed.
Ahead a blue car, driven by someone who looked very much like Dr. Carlin from her perspective, pulled up to the curb. The double opened the rear door and climbed in. The car pulled out immediately into traffic again, cutting off a pickup truck in the process, and joined the slowly moving stream of cars that were the precursors of rush hour.
Lois reached her Jeep, scrambled into the driver's seat and started the engine. Traffic was heavy, but she wasn't about to let the blue car get away. Gritting her teeth, she nudged the nose of the Jeep into the small space left between the rear bumper of a compact car and the nose of a bright red sports model. Predictably, the driver slammed on his brakes when she cut him off, and delivered a clearly audible series of imprecations to her back, but Lois didn't even glance around. All her attention was centered on her quarry. She was almost certain that the driver of the blue car was Arianna Carlin. This time she was going to get some answers.
Following the blue car in her silver Jeep Cherokee without being noticed was more difficult than she thought it would be in the heavy traffic, Lois discovered after a few moments. One blue car in the sea of automobiles would be easy to lose, but Lois's single-minded determination was more of a help than she realized. She barely noticed it when she cut under the nose of a gasoline truck to beat the light at an intersection, or the dump truck bearing a load of gravel that screeched to a stop to avoid her, when she made a questionable left turn in front of a traffic light that was in the process of turning from yellow to red. She had to stay back far enough that the occupants of the other car wouldn't notice her, but not so far back that she was likely to lose them. It was harder than it might seem, until she realized where they were going.
There was a short cut to Lex Tower that she knew would shave nearly five minutes off the trip. Mentally, she crossed her fingers. Her guess had better be right, she told herself, and swung to the right at the next intersection. Ten minutes later she pulled into the parking lot of the Moritomi Building and cut the engine, and a short time later she was seated on a bus stop bench across the street from the entrance to Lex Tower's underground parking lot, watching the street from behind an open newspaper.
In less than three minutes by her watch, she was rewarded. The blue Ford turned the corner and eased into the underground lot of Lex Tower.
Lois debated. Apparently the car and its occupants were free to come and go; the security guard hadn't stopped them for more than a cursory glance. They would probably, she thought, go up the elevator that reached the basement lot. How was she going to get in to follow them?
Well, if her double was familiar with Lex Tower, then they knew her. Her face was her passport. Lois stood up and headed briskly toward Lex Tower.
There was a side entrance not too far away, she knew from her many previous trips to this place, normally watched by a single guard. Lois headed toward it as nonchalantly as she could.
The guard, she saw, was Ron; she'd spoken to him a few times. That was a touch of bad luck because he knew Lois Lane, but she summoned the bravado that had helped her bluff her way through many worse situations and walked briskly up to the entrance, barely glancing at the man.
He nodded to her and opened the door without a word. Lois entered the building casually, only releasing her breath once more when the door closed behind her.
Her next goal was the elevator. She needed to see where Dr. Carlin and the double were going.
The ground floor entrance to the elevator that came up from the underground lot was located in one of the side hallways. Lois made her way toward it as quickly as she could without appearing hurried or doing anything to attract attention. It was warm inside Lex Tower. She unbuttoned her coat as she walked, with a businesslike stride, toward her goal. Much to her relief, no one looked at her, or paid her the slightest attention. As she reached the hallway in question, she checked before entering it.
It was a good thing she did, she thought. Two persons were waiting by the doors; one was an athletic-appearing young woman with short, blond hair. The other was Nigel St. John. They stood side by side without speaking, facing the elevator doors, and as she watched, the doors opened. The two entered without a word.
As soon as they closed, Lois moved quickly toward the elevator. Two men in business suits passed her, never glancing in her direction. She halted before her goal and watched the indicator as it crept steadily upward, marking the ascent of the elevator to the floor just beneath Lex's penthouse itself, and stopped.
That must be it, she thought, and tried to quell the pounding of her heart. She had to be calm and collected about this, she knew. No one must guess that she was not the double. Briefly, the irony of the situation occurred to her; up until now the double had been pretending to be her. Now the situation was reversed.
Well, now what? It wasn't safe to use this elevator. She could very well run into someone who would know the difference, or something else could give her presence away. But this wasn't the only elevator in the building; far from it. In fact, there was one toward the back of the building, if she recalled correctly, that had been used by the penthouse's housekeeping staff. That looked like the best bet for her.
The elevator was where she remembered. Lois boarded it and punched the button for the floor directly beneath the one where the other elevator had stopped. No use taking foolish chances, she thought. Now, if only no one decided to call this one for the length of time it took to get up there.
Unfortunately, someone apparently did. The car slid to a stop on the thirtieth floor and Lois stood aside as a man pushing a janitor's cart boarded, and punched the button for the thirty-first floor with a stained index finger. They went into motion again. The man didn't look at her and didn't speak, which she thought was odd, until she noticed the earphones and the fact that he was tapping out a rhythm on the push bar of his cart.
He exited on the thirty-first floor and the car resumed its journey. Lois held her breath, praying for no more interruptions.
The Fates or the gods or somebody must have been with her, for at last the elevator slid to a stop at her destination. Lois stepped out, trying to look casual, but the floor appeared deserted. As a matter of fact, she realized, the lower floor hadn't been heavily populated, either. Perhaps the fact that Lex had been arrested and many of LexCorp's less reputable ventures had been exposed was contributing to the situation; she didn't know, but she wasn't about to argue with her good luck. Looking up and down the hall, she hesitated, trying to decide what to do next.
Well, now was probably a good time to call Clark and let him know where she was before he became frantic, and before she got in any deeper.
A few minutes later, she gave up. Clark wasn't answering his phone; he must be busy, somewhere. Fortunately, there was another option. She dialed her boss's phone.
Perry wasn't answering, either. Well, the best she could do was to leave a message on his answering machine. That done, she headed for the stairwell.
*** When Clark charged into the Daily Planet Building, he could smell the teargas strongly. The stairs were crowded with people half-blinded by the effects of the stuff, trying to escape the irritating fumes. He flew up the stairwell over their heads, tracing the smell, but already sure where he would find it.
The newsroom was full of gas. The few employees who still remained there blundered about blindly, tears streaming down their faces. Someone had thrown open the windows and Perry crouched in the corner of the room closest to them with Jimmy, Jack and Cat, his jacket covering their heads.
"Everybody get down!" Clark called. "I'm going to clear the gas!" He inhaled deeply and released a blast of super-breath, blowing the irritating vapor out the windows.
It looked as if a hurricane had hit the place when he had finished, but at least the air was clear. He sped across the room to Perry and the others, picked them up bodily and rushed them to the restrooms.
"Splash your faces and eyes with cold water," he directed. "Your hands, too. Whatever you do, don't rub your eyes!"
"Right, Superman," Perry choked out between coughs. Cat, her mascara smeared beyond repair, stumbled into the ladies' room, with an incoherent stammer of thanks.
Clark rushed around the room, assisting the remaining five employees, then turned his attention to the tear gas container. It had stopped spewing gas before he got here, but the container undoubtedly held the fingerprints of the person who had thrown it. With the toe of his red boot, he nudged it into a trash container and set the container on a desk, then picked up the phone and called William Henderson.
By the time he had finished his call, Perry White, his eyes still red and watering, had emerged from the men's room.
"Mr. White, what happened?" he asked, quickly.
Perry mopped at his face with a paper towel. "There was a woman. I could have sworn it was Lois. She threw the canister in here, then just took off."
"The double," Superman said. "Look Mr. White, I've called Henderson. The canister is in here. It may have this woman's fingerprints on it. Make sure he gets it, will you?"
"Sure thing, Superman. Thanks."
"You're welcome." Clark was gone on the word. He needed to get back to Lois. He didn't feel safe leaving her alone; the campaign against her, whatever it was, seemed to be accelerating.
The Jeep was gone when he reached the sidewalk, and so was Lois. Clark resisted the urge to tug at his hair. Where *was* she? He snatched out his cellular phone. She had hers with her, he knew. At least he could contact her.
No tone greeted him when he flipped it open, and then he noted the little blinking red light. Low battery. In all the confusion of last night, he must have forgotten to charge it. It figured.
Well, he could call from the newsroom. He hurried back up the stairs.
Perry turned when he heard the door to the stairs open. "Clark! Where's Lois?"
"I don't know." Some of his frustration must have shown in his voice, for Perry grinned marginally.
"She took off again, huh?"
"Yeah," Clark said. "The battery on my phone is dead. I'm going to call her from…" Suddenly aware of something that had been nagging at the back of his mind, he broke off. "Where's Dr. Carlin?"
"She left about half an hour ago," Jack volunteered. "Why?"
"Arianna Carlin was married to Lex Luthor," Clark said. "She's been the office spy all along, and who knows what else." He reached for the phone.
"Great shades of Elvis," Perry said. "I knew she was off track with Lois, but I can't believe she fooled us all like that."
"Don't blame yourself, Chief," Jimmy said. He picked up his copy of Dr. Carlin's book. "She wrote the book on it."
Clark stared at the title of the book, the phone receiver in his hand. With his new knowledge, inspiration struck suddenly. "That's it!"
"What is?" Perry asked.
Clark set the phone down and hurried to Arianna Carlin's office, Perry on his heels. A quick riffle through her files yielded what he was looking for.
"Look, Chief. These are all Dr. Carlin's latest columns." He scanned the first one, quickly. Now that he knew what to look for, the answer leaped out at him. "Aha! There it is!"
"What?" Perry asked.
"The reason for all the pro-Luthor, anti-Superman demonstrations. She's used subliminal messages in her columns—look here. If you look at the first letter of every paragraph, it spells out 'Superman is Evil'."
Perry took the paper. "Well, I'll be…"
"Look at this one. 'Luthor Unjustly Accused'." He picked up several more. "'Man of Steel Wicked', 'Luthor Good', and 'Free Luthor'."
"I seem to recall seeing that one around," Perry said, drily.
"Yeah. No wonder twenty percent of Metropolis is suddenly anti-Superman."
"Yeah, well, the good doctor's got a loyal following," Perry said. "But what good will it do them? The courts aren't influenced by public opinion."
"I don't know," Clark said. "That might not have anything to do with it. He could be planning something where he needs to distract the police force and Superman, or something. It wouldn't be hard to create chaos in the city with demonstrations everywhere."
"Yeah, it could be," Perry agreed.
"Chief!" Jimmy rushed into the office. "We just got a call! There's a bomb in the building! It's going off in five minutes!"
"Judas Priest!" Perry muttered. "What next? Okay, Jimmy, sound the alarm. Get everybody out of here."
"I'll try to get hold of Superman," Clark said. "Get out of here, Chief." He headed for the stairs at a run. In the background, the phone in Perry's office shrilled, but no one bothered to answer it.
Superman found the bomb in the copy room with two minutes to spare. Most likely, he figured, Arianna had planted it before she left, though for what reason he didn't know. He flew it to a position well above the city and ripped the timer loose, half expecting it to detonate anyhow, but it didn't. By the time he returned, William Henderson and two of his men had arrived in answer to their first call. The Inspector examined the tear gas container and the disarmed bomb with his usual deadpan expression.
"You know," he said, "Mr. Luthor and his friends are starting to get under my skin." He regarded the bomb sourly. "This is the third of these little tokens of affection we've been called about in the last two hours. I have the feeling it's going to be a long night. I should have listened to my mom when she wanted me to take up bee keeping." He beckoned to one of his companions. "I want this dusted for prints. Let's at least see if we can give this 'double' a real name."
Employees were beginning to drift back into the building, now that Superman had certified it to be safe. Superman made a spectacular departure and returned a minute later as Clark. He headed for the phone.
"I'm going to call Lois," he told Perry. "I don't like this. Something's happening, all of a sudden…I have the feeling it's related."
"Yeah, me too," Perry said.
"Chief!" Jimmy burst out of Perry's office. "Lois left a message on your machine! She was calling from Lex Tower, of all places. She says she saw the double and Dr. Carlin leaving the Planet and followed them. She needs CK to find Superman as quick as he can!"
Clark was already on his way toward the stairs.
Jack looked after him.
"Maybe we oughtta tag along," he said, quietly to Jimmy.
"After CK?" Jimmy asked.
"No, I was thinking, what if Luthor's been hiding out in Lex Tower all this time and bossing the whole deal? Lois could be in trouble. Besides, we've been in on this since it started. I'd like to see the end of it. We might even be able to help."
"We could get some really good pictures," Jimmy rationalized. "And we *do* know where to go." He added, "My motorcycle's parked in the garage."
Together, the two young men ducked through the door to the stairs.
Lois hurried, up the flight of stairs to the landing of the floor where the elevator had stopped. Of course, she cautioned herself, she couldn't know for sure that this was where Arianna and the double had gone, but Nigel St. John and a woman who closely fitted the description of the other tail had come here. It seemed like a reasonable guess to make.
She waited a few minutes, getting her breath back and gathering her courage. In a way, she had walked into the lion's den. If Lex was really here, as she suspected he might be, and he got his hands on her, it could be very bad.
Carefully, she pushed the door open a crack and listened.
There was no sound of anyone nearby. From some distance away, she could hear the murmur of a man's voice, but it was too muffled to discern the words. Still that very sound sent a chill over her. She would recognize that voice anywhere, the light baritone, and the rhythm of the words that she couldn't quite make out.
Lex. She had done what the police couldn't. Lex had been hiding in his own home all the time.
She strained her ears, listening for any other sound, but there was none.
Slowly and quietly, she pushed the stairwell door open.
The hall beyond was empty. After a moment, she removed her heeled shoes. The polished floor beyond would echo loudly if she were to walk on that in heels.
Very softly, she tiptoed down the hall, following the sound of the voice.
It became clearer as she progressed. The transom of one of the doors ahead of her was open a crack, emitting light, and it was from this that she could hear the voice speaking. She forcibly quelled the prickle of fear that ran over her scalp at the sound.
"Yes, sir." That was Nigel St. John's voice.
"Very well. What about the Planet, Ms. Durant? I trust you followed my instructions to the letter?"
"Yes, sir." The woman's voice was low and sultry. "I threw the canister and got out right away. Dr. Carlin was waiting and picked me up outside. I'm sure no one had any idea I wasn't…her."
"Excellent. Arianna, my dear, your report?"
"I left the package in the copy room, Lex." Arianna Carlin's cultured voice couldn't be mistaken. "Carlo reports he phoned in the threat shortly after Superman cleared the gas."
"And?" Lex's voice said.
"Carlo's report was necessarily sketchy, sir," Nigel St. John's voice reported, "however, Superman appears to have found it and disposed of it. The police are still there. Apparently, everything worked well. Ms. Lane is believed to have been responsible for the gas. Henderson arrived to take the bomb shortly thereafter. As predicted, the police are now on the alert for more bombs about the city, as well."
Lois glanced uneasily around. She was in a horribly exposed position here. If anyone came along, or if they opened the door, they would see her. On the other hand, she didn't want to miss what they were saying.
The door next to the one where Lex was holding his meeting presented a temptation. She might be able to hear them from there, too, and she would have cover. Cautiously, she eased it open.
The room was empty—in fact, Lois suspected the whole floor was empty except for Lex and his conspirators. She slipped inside and let the outer door close.
There was a connecting door to the one where Lex was holding his meeting. She tiptoed over to it and plastered her ear to its surface.
Nigel St. John's voice was still speaking. "…Summary, sir, everything is going according to plan."
"Very good." Lex's voice was composed. "And Ms. Lane?"
Arianna Carlin's voice spoke. "According to Perry White, her partner took her to her apartment for some rest. We should be able to pick her up there when we're finished here."
"Excellent, my dear. You've been remarkably efficient. My compliments."
"You know I'd do anything for you, Lex."
"Now," Lex's voice continued, "we'll proceed according to plan. Ms. Durant, you will take your position. Nigel, is everything ready for our guest?"
"Yes, sir." Nigel sounded inhumanly disinterested. "The wine cellar has been prepared."
"That's perfect. As soon as we have him, Gretchen will retrieve Ms. Lane's Jeep for the final stage."
"Yes, Lex." Another woman's voice—Gretchen's?—spoke. "My man is in position. He's just waiting for my signal."
"Very well. Ms. Durant, the next part is yours."
Lois waited, frozen, as the footsteps of the five people exited into the hallway without and faded into the distance. Her brain was racing. She had no doubt at all about who the 'guest' was intended to be. If this "Ms. Durant" was her double, Lex must be planning to use her to trap Superman.
As for the wine cellar, very few persons knew it existed. Lex had taken her to see it, once, and the incredible collection of fine wines in his possession. It was reached one of two ways—by a door from the first floor, which was concealed behind a false wall, and from the penthouse itself via a private, concealed elevator.
Lois checked the hall. No one was visible. Quickly and quietly, she hurried back towards the stairwell. She needed to get to the penthouse.
The woman's voice was muffled, but it came from Lex Tower. Clark, hurtling toward the huge building, x-rayed the penthouse from which the cry seemed to come, searching frantically for Lois.
There she was, bound to a chair in Luthor's study.
He scanned the area around her; it didn't seem to be an ambush, but he scanned the rooms surrounding the study for human occupants. Nothing stirred. Satisfied that no one waited for him, he entered through the French windows.
"Lois, are you all right?"
She squirmed against the ropes that held her, trying to spit out the half-dislodged gag, and he moved behind her to undo the bonds that held her wrists.
Free, she reached up to pull the gag from her mouth.
"Thank you, Superman," she said clearly, and in that instant, he realized the truth.
It was a trap after all. This wasn't Lois.
Casually, she reached up to the locket that hung around her neck and snapped it open.
Pain washed over him, and he felt his strength ebbing. He staggered back, trying to put some distance between himself and the Lois imposter. The windows were only ten feet away. If he could make it, dive off the balcony, he would recover his strength on the way down.
She followed him. "Why, Superman," she said, "I'm hurt! I might even think you don't like me!"
Clark felt his knees buckle. Looking blurrily up at the double, he wondered how he could ever have mistaken this woman for his partner. Her face was the same, but the expression on it was completely different.
It was at that instant that the wall seemed to open. Lex Luthor's voice said, "So, Superman, we meet again for the last time, I'm afraid. It took a lot for us to finally reach this point, but it was worth it." He turned to the double. "You may go, Ms. Durant. Hold yourself ready for the final stage. Your payment will be waiting for you as soon as you've completed your part." He held out his hand and the double placed the locket in it. She smiled coolly at Superman, turned casually and walked away, hips swaying.
"All right, Nigel, let's take care of this." Luthor moved to grasp Clark under the arms. St. John grasped his legs and together they lifted him.
Clark struggled weakly, but it was useless. He was hauled into what he realized belatedly was a concealed elevator, the doors closed and he felt it begin to move downward.
The trip seemed to go on forever but, at last, the car stopped moving and the doors opened. Clark couldn't restrain a gasp of pain when the two men seized him again. He was dragged like a sack of potatoes across the cold, cement floor toward—
He struggled, trying to resist, but it was like trying to swim in molasses. His movements were weak and sluggish, and the two men had no difficulty in forcing him into the cage that sat in the middle of the dank, dimly lighted room, a cage where the bars glowed with a sickly green light of their own.
Clark was pushed carelessly into the cage and rolled, gasping, to lie on his face on the floor. The dreaded Kryptonite radiation was all around him. There was no escape. He heard the clang of the cage door and looked up to see Luthor locking the door, a pleased smile playing across his mouth.
"Thank you, Nigel," he said, as if he were thanking his butler for the most common of services. He dropped the key into his pocket with a gesture of finality. "See to it that Ms. Durant's payment is ready for her."
"Of course, sir." Nigel St. John turned casually away toward the elevator.
"You see, Superman," Luthor said, pleasantly, "Ms. Durant's role will be more crucial than she knows."
It was a nightmarish scene for Clark, lying helpless in the cage with his greatest enemy standing at ease before him, speaking as if they were having a perfectly ordinary conversation.
"Ms. Durant will be found wearing Lois's clothes and jewelry, with just enough left identifiable that no one will be in doubt." Luthor smiled. "Everyone will believe her dead, Superman, while Lois will be safe with me in my European fortress."
"Oh, yes. I've won, Superman." Luthor's face kept its smile, but the hatred came through in his voice. "I'll continue to run my empire, and with you and Kent gone there'll be no serious threat to my return. Kent will die before I leave Metropolis, make no mistake about that, and eventually I'll be back. We won't see each other again, Superman. I regret that. I wanted to watch you die, but one can't have everything. I do, however, want you to know how thoroughly you've lost."
"You'll never make it out of the city," Clark rasped, hoarsely. "Henderson's looking for you. The police are on alert."
Luthor chuckled. "Oh no, Superman. The Metropolis police force is going to be far too busy. I've planned this down to the smallest detail. As soon as Lois is in my hands, demonstrations will break out all over the city. Coupled with the occasional bomb threat, which has already begun, they'll be distracted. Tonight, there's a big demonstration scheduled in Centennial Park. When the bomb explodes in the middle of that, the city's emergency services and the police will have their hands full—far too full to waste time watching for me." With a final gesture, he hung the locket on a corner of the cage. "I nearly forgot. You'll want this, I'm sure." He turned toward the elevator. "Au revoir, Superman. Have a nice death."
The elevator doors opened and he stopped inside. They closed. Clark was alone.
The stairwell door to the penthouse was locked. On reflection, Lois realized she should have expected that. She debated for a moment the wisdom of trying to pick the lock, but decided against it. Knowing Lex, he'd probably have an alarm on it.
Quickly, she retraced her steps. She was going to have to risk the staff's elevator again. With luck, Lex wouldn't have any of his servants up there at this point. He *was* a wanted fugitive, after all. They probably didn't even know he was here.
The soft "ding" of the arriving elevator, as the doors slid open, sounded more like a gunshot to her strained nerves. Lois stepped out of the car, praying that no one had noticed the sound.
There was no one here in the back rooms of the penthouse; a thin layer of dust on the various surfaces told her that the cleaning staff hadn't been in the areas frequented by the help for some weeks. She tiptoed toward Lex's study, where she recalled the elevator to his private wine cellar was located.
Voices ahead. Lois froze, listening.
Arianna Carlin's voice spoke, sounding less cultured than Lois had ever heard it.
"I don't care if you don't see the reason! If you don't do exactly as Lex orders, you'll regret it, Marie! You're to dress in the clothing and wear the jewelry just as he said. Is that clear?"
The voice of Marie replied, a note of sarcasm in it. "All right, all right!" Marie must be Ms. Durant, Lois thought. The voice sounded like that of the woman downstairs. "I'll do it, but I think you're a fool! There's no way on the face of the earth I'd work this hard to give the man I loved to another woman!"
There was the sound of a slap. "I don't require your opinion," Arianna Carlin said. "Just your obedience."
The footsteps retreated. Lois waited until they had died away, then continued toward the study.
Lex's study was an elegant room, to say the very least. A thick, beige carpet covered the floor; pieces of expensive furniture were set about, objets d'art decorated shelves and tables. A huge fireplace with an oak mantle dominated one whole wall, with an ornate set of fireplace tools—which Lois doubted had ever been used—sitting in front of it. A large, antique, rolltop desk and chair filled one corner next to the French windows, and a fully equipped wet bar took up another wall.
Lois paused to get her bearings. A chair sat in the middle of the room, with a tangle of ropes and a chewed and lipstick-smeared handkerchief on the floor beside it. Across from it one wall stood bare except for an ornately embroidered wall hanging and a pair of crossed Cavalry sabres.
The soft, swish of the arriving elevator alerted her, and she hurried across the room to duck behind the sofa. The doors opened, revealing Nigel St John. Lois crouched down behind the sofa back and tried not to breathe.
"Nigel…" Gretchen Kelly entered the room. "Is Lex about done?"
"He's…speaking to Superman," Nigel said. "He should be finished shortly, Gretchen. Why?"
"I have Lane's Jeep. We're all set."
"Excellent, Gretchen. You're efficient." St John's voice sounded faintly bored.
They had her Jeep? Lois bit her lip. If they had found her Jeep, they must know she was nearby. Why hadn't this woman reported that to St. John? She held her breath, listening, but neither of the two said anything more.
A minute or two later, the sound of the arriving elevator again reached her ears. St. John's voice spoke. "Ah, sir, and how is our guest?"
"Not particularly comfortable," Lex's voice said. "You know my favorite quote, Nigel: 'Revenge is a dish best served cold'. Superman will die a lonely death in the cellar, not to be found for a very long time. Almost enough compensation for the humiliation I endured for those two eternal weeks in custody. Almost, but not quite. Tonight, Metropolis will burn, Nigel."
Lois remained frozen behind the sofa, listening as the three slowly departed, talking, her mind in a panic.
Clark was down there! Lex obviously had him trapped with Kryptonite, and it was up to her to get him out.
At last, the footsteps died away and Lois peeked around the sofa. No one was visible. She needed to call for help; she should have done so before, but the fact that Clark would be coming had lulled her into a false sense of security. But now, Clark was trapped, and she was one person on her own in this place. The next step was to call the police. With shaking fingers, she reached for the catch of her purse.
More voices were approaching. Lois held her breath, trying to be absolutely silent behind the sofa while Arianna Carlin and Marie Durant held another conversation outside the study door. Marie, it appeared, was still unhappy with Lois's choice of wardrobe.
"That doesn't matter!" Arianna Carlin's voice snapped at the recalcitrant young woman, "wear them! This is the last thing you have to do, then you walk away with half a million dollars. Now, go on!"
"All right, all right," the other woman muttered in a sulky voice. Lois listened to her retreating footsteps, wondering if Murphy's Law was dictating the presence of so many persons near the study at just this time. The click of Arianna's footsteps in the hall outside approached the study and suddenly became muffled as she entered the room.
Arianna crossed the rug toward the sofa where Lois crouched. "You might as well come out, Lois. I know you're there."
Lois froze. The woman stepped around the sofa and Lois saw the small handgun aimed directly at her.
"Stand up," Arianna said.
"Walk over to the elevator and call it."
"What elevator? I—"
"Don't lie, Lois," Arianna said. "You know where it is. Do it now."
Lois glanced at the hand holding the weapon, then at Arianna Carlin's rigid face, and obeyed.
The elevator ride to the wine cellar was a long, slow one. Arianna stayed carefully out of reach, mindful of Lois's martial arts training. Lois glanced over at the psychiatrist wondering if she might have a chance against the gun. Arianna smiled mirthlessly. "I wouldn't."
"Where are we going?" Lois asked, although she knew.
"You wanted to reach Superman, didn't you? I'm taking you to him." Arianna's expression was hard. "You and he can spend your last hours together." She laughed, bitterly. "Did you think I didn't see you following? I knew you'd be here."
"I don't understand," Lois whispered. "Why?"
"Do you think I'd willingly give the love of my life to another woman?" Arianna said. "He married me, and I'm his until the day I die. No other woman will ever take my place while I live."
"But…you two divorced."
"He divorced *me*—I didn't divorce *him*! You should have died that day on the street, Lois, but Clark Kent saved you. It won't matter, though. You've been acting irrationally for days. You'll be found the victim of a tragic suicide on the Hobs River Road. No one will ever guess that the real Lois Lane is locked in the wine cellar of Lex Tower, left to die with Superman. Least of all, Lex."
The doors of the elevator slid aside, and Arianna waved her pistol. "Step out."
Lois moved reluctantly out into the dimness of the wine cellar. There was a bright green blotch ahead of her in the dimness, which resolved itself into a cage with glowing, green bars. And inside it—
"Superman!" she gasped.
"Yes," Arianna said. "Superman. My husband's greatest enemy."
Behind them, the elevator doors closed quietly. Lois said, desperately, "Arianna, you must know I don't want Lex! I'm in love with Clark Kent. I'm no danger to you."
"It doesn't matter," Arianna Carlin said, and her voice was bleak and bitter. "Lex wants *you*. Your wishes don't come into it, any more than the wishes of the other women he would have put in my place."
"Ohmigod," Lois breathed, "it was *you*! You killed them."
Arianna didn't answer. She reached behind her and pressed the call button.
Lois took a step toward her. "Please, Arianna, you can't do this."
"Can't I? I already have." Arianna Carlin leveled her pistol and fired.
Clark saw Arianna Carlin fire her pistol at Lois, and his cry of "No!" echoed through the sound of the gunshot and Lois's scream of pain.
The woman ignored him. She thrust the pistol into her purse and nudged Lois with the toe of her shoe. "Don't worry, Superman," she said. "I wouldn't dream of letting Ms. Lane miss the sight of your last hours."
The elevator doors opened. Arianna took a step forward, and stopped. Through a haze of pain from the Kryptonite radiation, Clark saw her step slowly backward. Then, from the lighted interior of the elevator, a snub-nosed pistol appeared, followed by a woman's hand and arm.
A woman with short, blond hair emerged, pistol pointed directly at Arianna Carlin's chest.
"Gretchen!" Arianna's voice was both shaken and outraged. "I can explain!"
"I doubt it." The woman—Gretchen Kelly?—surveyed the scene with the faintest of mocking smiles on her lips. "I didn't think you had it in you," she said. She glanced sideways at Lois, who was trying to push herself to her hands and knees. "I guess," she said, "this would explain the deaths of Lex's other fianc
ées. I always wondered about that."
Arianna lunged for her, and Gretchen's weapon spoke once. The echoes bounced deafeningly around the wine cellar. The blond woman looked down at her work with an appraising expression. "But you see, Arianna, it's *my* turn, now."
"Wait!" Clark gasped. "You can't leave us here!"
Gretchen smiled, gently. "I can," she said. "You know, Superman, if you hadn't interfered, Lois and Kent would both be out of the way, now. Then all I would have had to do would have been to report how Arianna had killed Ms. Lane. This is so much less tidy, but in the end it will all work out. Goodbye, Superman." Amazingly, she smiled and blew him a kiss. Then she stepped into the elevator, and the doors closed.
Clark hurled himself uselessly against the cage bars, with no results except a bruised shoulder.
"Lois!" he called, desperately. "Lois! Can you hear me?"
"There's her Jeep!" Jack shouted in Jimmy's ear.
"Over there!" Jack, perched behind Jimmy on the young photographer's motorcycle, pointed toward the Moritomi parking lot. "She's here, somewhere."
"Yeah, inside Lex Tower. How're we gonna get in there?"
"I dunno. Pull into the lot."
Jimmy was already doing so. They parked the motorcycle in an empty space, a dozen places down from the Jeep, and Jimmy cut the motor.
The Jeep was locked up tight, as expected. Jimmy peered in the window, then turned to his efficient companion. "Got any ideas?"
"Let's go over to Lex Tower. "Maybe we'll…Look, there she is!"
Jimmy followed Jack's pointing finger. Coming across the street toward the lot, accompanied by two persons who looked unpleasantly familiar to them, was Mad Dog Lane.
Jimmy was about to wave, when something made him pause. "Jack, is there any reason you can think of that Lois would be with those two losers?"
"No," Jack said. He took a long look at the approaching trio. "Besides, wasn't Lois wearing a skirt this morning?"
"Yeah," Jimmy said. "It was that short red one that shows a lot of leg. I noticed, particularly. Wait a minute! What outfit did CK tell the Chief got stolen from her place?"
"A beige pantsuit," Jack said. "Like the one she's wearing. I've never seen her wear that jacket before, though."
The two looked at each other, then as one, turned and walked back toward the motorcycle. Jimmy knelt, pretending to examine something on the rear wheel as the three people wended their way through the massed cars in the lot, approaching the Jeep.
"It'd be interesting to know if she's wearing a jade ring or mother-of-pearl earrings, wouldn't it?" he said.
"Her earrings are white, from what I can see," Jack reported a moment later. "I can't tell about the ring."
"I'm thinking that's the double," Jimmy said. He got slowly to his feet. "Want to bet?"
"No takers." Jack was careful not to look in their direction again. "What are they doing, now?"
Jimmy, half shielded by Jack's body, risked a look. "The old guy looks like he may be picking the lock," he said. "He's got the door open…he's fast, all right. The blond is getting into the passenger side and the double's getting in back…"
As he watched, the blond woman—wasn't the name Gretchen?—popped the hood, and the older man—St, John, Lex Luthor's butler, he remembered—bent over the engine.
"What's going on?" Jack asked.
"I think St. John is hot-wiring the engine."
"They're going somewhere in Lois's Jeep, and they don't have the keys," Jack concluded. "I'd sure like to know how he's gonna beat the steering wheel lock, but I guess he must know how. Maybe we should follow them—and Henderson might like to know about them, don't you think?"
They clambered back onto the motorcycle, and Jimmy revved the engine. "You handle the call, okay?"
"Okay." Jack dug the cell phone out of his pocket and dialed Perry White's number. He figured the Chief could probably get a police operator to listen to him a lot faster than a seventeen-year-old kid could.
Jimmy kicked the motorcycle into gear and they rolled forward toward the exit of the lot. "We'll pick 'em up after they pull out on the street. Get settled, quick. I have the feeling this isn't gonna take too long."
"Lois! Can you hear me?" Clark's panic-stricken voice echoed off the walls of the wine cellar.
Lois rolled painfully over. Her leg was throbbing sickeningly with every beat of her heart, and nausea made her want to retch, but she had to move. She had to help Clark.
"Lois!" he gasped.
Through a swimming haze, she could see him on his knees inside the deadly cage. Take your time, Lane, she cautioned herself. It isn't going to do Clark any good if you pass out.
Arianna Carlin lay a short distance from her on the floor, breathing in harsh gasps, both hands clasping her middle, and even in the dim light, Lois could see the dark blood seeping between her fingers and pooling on the cement.
There wasn't much she could do for the woman at the moment, injured as she was. She had no idea whatsoever how to take care of such an injury. Slowly, Lois pushed herself to a sitting position. Her head swam unpleasantly, but she persisted, taking deep breaths until her surroundings steadied.
The bullet had penetrated the big muscle of her thigh, she saw. In spite of the pain, she experienced a moment of annoyance at the ruin of her best, wool skirt, but quickly dismissed the thought. She was bleeding, but not too heavily. Evidently, the bullet hadn't hit anything immediately fatal. It sure hurt like the devil, though.
"Lois, are you all right?" Superman's voice was rough and breathless with pain. Lois cleared her throat, trying to keep her voice from trembling. She could feel the shock beginning to set in. She was shaking all over, and she felt chilly with more than just the cold present in the cellar.
"Yeah," she said. Darn. Her voice was shaking in spite of her efforts. "She hit me in the leg."
"Oh, God…" Clark's voice was shaking, too. "Lois…"
"Superman," she said, trying to focus on the problem rather than the throbbing in her leg. "What happened to the key?"
"Luthor put it in his pocket." Clark's voice had become a rasping whisper, and as she watched, he collapsed slowly to the floor of the cage.
The Kryptonite radiation was killing him, she thought, and the realization of that fact shocked her out of the pain-induced lethargy that was beginning to creep up on her brain. Clark's life depended on her. She couldn't fail him now, of all times. She had to think of some way to open that door.
It was Arianna Carlin's faint moan that brought Lois's attention back to her. The psychiatrist's hands were slipping from her abdomen to fall limply to the floor. Clearly, the woman was in a bad way, but Lois couldn't help her. Maybe if Clark were free he would know what, if anything, could be done.
Arianna's handbag lay on the floor where it had fallen. Lois's eyes passed over it, then snapped back, suddenly alert.
Lex might have the key, but in Arianna's purse was another sort of key in the form of a .32 calibre pistol. Gretchen Kelly must have been more agitated than she let on to have overlooked that.
Lois squirmed across the floor, biting her lip at the pain that shot up her leg. Come on, Lane, she chastised herself, it's no worse than the broken ankle you got on the office ski trip! You didn't let that stop you, and this won't, either!
The purse strap was suddenly within reach of her fingers, and she dragged it over to her. Arianna didn't even stir as Lois pulled the bag out of her hand. The woman was unconscious.
The pistol was there where she had seen Arianna thrust it. She closed the purse, looped the strap over her head and looked over her shoulder at the cage. The thing was at least fifteen feet away, probably the most difficult fifteen feet of her life, but she gritted her teeth and began to crawl.
She left blood on the cement, and she had to stop frequently to rest; the distance seemed to diminish with agonizing slowness, but she kept going. Gradually, the cage drew nearer. At times, Clark seemed aware of her, and at others, he appeared to lapse into semi-consciousness. Lois found herself mumbling under her breath, urging herself on.
She wasn't fatally hurt; she was pretty sure of that, although without some kind of treatment she might eventually die of infection, or something. Whether they could even get out of the cellar was an open question, but first things first. Freeing Clark was the most important thing right now.
The cage was four feet away, then three, then two. At last, she fell against it, gasping with the exertion. "Superman!" His dark head was only a few inches away from her. "Superman, can you hear me?"
At first, he didn't move, and for a horrible second she thought he might be dead. Then his eyes opened, staring directly at her. "Lois?" he mumbled.
"Yes." She reached through the bars to touch his face. "Superman, listen to me. Move over to the side of the cage. I'm going to get you out."
For a second he stared at her, then he pushed himself weakly to a sitting position and scooted slowly to one side. Lois looked up at the lock and grimaced. This was going to hurt.
She pulled her good leg under her, then grasped the bars of the cage. Getting to one's feet was such a simple action, and yet this was one of the hardest things she had ever done. Her arms felt like jelly, and her good leg was shaking violently as she pulled herself up inch by agonizing inch. Her head swam, and for a moment she thought she might pass out, but she closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. When her equilibrium steadied, she pulled and pushed again, and suddenly she was standing on one foot, grasping the glowing green bars with her hands for balance, and panting hard. Her injured leg throbbed sickeningly, and she stood, leaning her forehead on the bars while the worst of it subsided.
She didn't dare remove the purse strap from around her neck; if she dropped it she didn't think she'd be able to get back down and up again. She opened the purse one handed, retrieved the pistol and drew it out. If this didn't work, they were done for.
She placed the muzzle against the lock and pulled the trigger.
The explosion was deafening in the enclosed space, and the pistol kicked back against her hand so hard that she almost dropped it, but when she looked, she found that the lock's casing had a hole directly through it, and the metal around the hole was twisted and distorted. Carefully, she put the muzzle against it again and fired once more. Then, her leg gave way and she landed hard on her knees.
Pain exploded through the injured leg, and she cried out. Blackness rolled over her like a blanket.
Clark winced at the sound of the shot. Lois fired into the lock a second time; then her leg gave way and she fell to her knees, slumped forward onto the cement floor and didn't move.
"Lois!" Clark crawled to the cage door and reached out through the bars to touch her face.
She was breathing; he could tell that much. He looked up at the lock on the cage door. Had Lois managed to disable it? There was only one way to find out.
He pushed on the door. It rattled, but held.
Clark closed his eyes, trying to summon his strength. He could feel the deadly Kryptonite radiation of the cage eating away at every muscle fibre and nerve of his body. But Lois had battled pain and weakness of her own to try and free him. Her sheer raw courage had been awe-inspiring.
He inhaled a lung full of air and blew it out. It hurt to breathe, it hurt to move, but Lois hadn't let that stop her. Could Superman do less?
He grasped the green-glowing bars and hauled himself to his feet. His hands burned where they came into contact with the poisonous substance, but it was a minor discomfort in comparison to all the rest. This better work, he told himself, grimly, because he didn't think he could manage this a second time. Every instant he spent in the cage robbed him of a little more strength. He drew back and hurled himself at the door with all the force he could muster.
The broken lock gave and the door burst outward. Clark staggered out, caught his toe on Lois's ankle and fell forward onto the cement of the cellar floor.
"Lois?" Lois stirred at the familiar voice and the feel of a very familiar hand stroking her cheek. "Lois, open your eyes."
She obeyed and looked up, frowning at the sight of his face above her.
"Lois?" Clark's voice said, "do you hear me?"
"You're upside down," she said.
A smile lit his face. "How do you feel?"
She was lying with her head in his lap, she realized, somewhat belatedly. "Okay," she said, slowly. "My leg hurts."
"Yeah." His face lost its smile. "You have a bullet in it."
Memory came rushing back and she tried to sit up. "You got out of the cage!"
He caught her shoulders. "Easy there. I don't want you fainting again."
"I never faint," she said, with dignity, but she sat up more slowly. "Why are we still in here?"
"Because I can't open the door and the elevator doesn't work," he said. "Gretchen Kelly must have deactivated it."
"I don't have any powers right now," he explained, quietly. "And I probably won't get them back as long as we're in the cellar. I can still feel the Kryptonite radiation, just not as strongly."
They were at the foot of the steps leading out of the cellar, Lois realized. Across the room, she could see the glowing, green of the Kryptonite cage. Beside them on the cement, Arianna Carlin lay wrapped in Superman's cape.
Clark saw her glance at the woman. "I tried to stop the bleeding," he said, "but I think she's bleeding inside, and there's nothing I can do about it."
"Oh." Cautiously, Lois lifted the edge of her skirt to check her own wound. "You bandaged it? What *is* this stuff?"
"Um…I had to use your slip," he said, apologetically. "It was all I had."
"Oh," she said, again. "Thanks. Did you try the gun on the door lock?"
He nodded. "The door's solid, heavy metal. It didn't work."
"Oh," she repeated, looking around for inspiration. "My purse is over there. The cell phone—"
He shook his head, and Lois saw the cellular phone lying on the first step.
"The cellar walls are too thick," Clark said. "I tried."
"Great." She looked at his face in the greenish gloom of the cellar. He looked pale and tired, although that might be the effect of the sickly green light, generated by the cage, and there were lines of pain there that she hadn't seen before. "You're not giving up, are you?"
Clark gave her a tired smile. "Of course not. I'm sure we'll think of something. I'm just out of ideas for the moment." He rubbed his temples. "Do you know anything about this place that might help? Did Luthor ever show it to you?"
"Once," she said. "I'm trying to think." She shivered, pulling her coat more tightly around her shoulders. "I'm cold." Suddenly aware of something, she looked harder at Clark in the gloom. He was shivering and trying not to let her see it. "Cl—Superman, you're cold! Of course you are; your powers are gone." She pulled the coat off. "Here, put this on!"
"Lois, I can't take your coat!"
"You don't have to," she said. "Here, let me sit next to you, put your arms around me and we'll put the coat over both of us."
Clark obeyed, and for some minutes they sat in silence. "This is better," Lois said, at last.
"Much better," Clark agreed. "Does your leg still hurt?"
"Some." To tell the truth, it hurt a lot, but she wasn't about to tell him so.
He raised an eyebrow at her. "Right, some. We need to get you to a doctor."
"I'm game," Lois said. She looked over at Arianna Carlin's still form. "She needs one even more. She's not going to make it, otherwise."
"I know," Clark said. "None of us will if we can't find a way out of here."
"I can't think of anything about…" Lois stopped. "Wait a minute."
She grasped for the wisp of memory. "I remember…Lex and I were having dinner in his study, one night. Asabi, that Hindu manservant of his was there, serving dinner. Lex wanted a bottle of his private stock. I remember, Nigel St. John went down to get it…and he sent it up to Asabi in the dumbwaiter! Superman, there's a dumbwaiter here, too!"
The expression of despair on Clark's face had changed as she spoke to one of cautious hope. "Where is it?"
"I'm not exactly sure. It opens up in the study behind that wall hanging of his, about ten feet to the right of the elevator."
Clark looked over at the elevator. "There's a wine rack there." He stood up. "Stay here."
"Superman, that's awfully close to the cage!"
"Not too close. If it's a way out…" He was on his feet as he spoke and striding over to the wine rack. As he neared the cage, Lois saw him falter and her heart jumped into her throat, but in spite of the radiation he stood close to the rack, leaning on a wooden barrel, examining the structure before him. Suddenly, he reached out and moved something she couldn't see, then pulled. Lois gasped as the whole wine rack swung outwards, revealing behind it the dumbwaiter.
Clark reached out and touched something beside it. "It's active!" He did something else, and the doors slid aside. "It's too small," he said, and the hope was suddenly gone from his voice.
Lois stared at the small conveyance. He was right. Someone his size couldn't possibly fit in there. But…
"I think I could fit," she said.
Clark turned to look at her. "Lois, you have a bullet in your leg. *And* it's too dangerous."
"No more dangerous than staying in here until we all die," she retorted. "If I take off my coat, I can fit. I'll take the cell phone, and when I get up there I'll call for help. Then all I have to do is stay out of sight until Henderson arrives."
"That may be harder than it seems," Clark said.
"I know that," Lois said, "but if I don't do it, she's going to die, Superman."
They both looked at Arianna Carlin. Clark's shoulders slumped in defeat. "All right, but for Pete's sake, be careful!"
The dumbwaiter, Lois thought, as Clark helped her scrunch her way into the extremely tight quarters, hadn't been designed to carry a hundred and ten pounds. She hoped the cable would hold.
The position which she was forced to assume—sitting on her heels, legs folded under her, chin on her knees—made her glad for the stretching exercises she performed in her tai kwan do class twice a week. Even so, it made her wounded leg throb almost unbearably. She gritted her teeth and concentrated on her goal.
"Are you all right?" Clark asked, anxiously for the fourth time as he helped her fit as comfortably as humanly possible—which wasn't very—into the tiny space, but she nodded.
"Yeah. Let's just get this over with, okay?"
"Right." He set the cellular phone on the surface next to her.
"Wish me luck," Lois gasped.
"Lois, are you sure you want to do this?" he asked again.
"Just hurry up, Clark. I can't stay like this long."
"Okay," Clark whispered. "I love you." He pressed the button.
Lois closed her eyes as the doors slid shut and the motor of the little dumbwaiter whined, bearing her slowly upward. She tried not to think about what would happen if the thing got stuck or the cable were to snap.
The risk was acceptable, she kept telling herself. Clark had somehow managed the herculean job of dragging her away from the cage, far enough that the deadly radiation had affected him less, bandaged her and Arianna up, then attempted to get them out of the cellar. He hadn't fooled her, though. He'd tried to make it look easy, but she'd seen him struggling to seem normal. The radiation was still present, still harmful to him, and he was still in pain. She had no doubt that in time the stuff would kill him. It was up to her to see that it didn't.
Once, she opened her eyes, but she might as well have not bothered. It was pitch dark in the cramped little space, and the air was rapidly getting stuffy. Her leg hurt sickeningly, but she found it conversely a welcome distraction from the feeling of claustrophobia; of being squeezed from all sides.
She couldn't move in any direction. Her nose began to itch and she couldn't get a hand around to scratch it. Then a spot on her scalp started, and the sensation traveled across the top of her head, down the back of her neck to a spot between her shoulder blades, and spread across her shoulders. Lois gritted her teeth, squeezed her eyes shut and counted the seconds.
At last, the dumbwaiter slid gently to a stop with a soft "ding". Lois waited, frozen. If anyone checked the dumbwaiter, she was caught. Suddenly, she was no longer itching.
She listened, with every nerve and sense reaching out to try to discover if someone waited beyond the doors and the elegant wall hanging that covered the wall of Lex's study.
Not a sound greeted her. Gradually, she moved the hand closest to the doors and pushed.
The doors came open with a slight squeal of protesting hinges, but nothing happened. A single table lamp dimly lighted the room, and nothing moved within her range of sight. She began to wiggle, the faint touch of claustrophobia still possessing her to get out of the dumbwaiter.
It took her a good five minutes, but at last she tumbled to the rug. The jar on her injured leg was almost too much, and she bit back a cry of pain, reminding herself that Clark's life depended on her not getting caught. Where was the best place to hide around here?
The sofa still seemed like the best candidate, in spite of the fact that Arianna had found her there. Arianna had been watching for her, after all. No one else had any reason to think she might be here. Besides, she wasn't in any shape to do much traveling.
The whole area was quiet right now, which was both a good and bad thing. If anyone was within earshot, she could be overheard. Lois bit her lip, resolving to be as quiet as possible, and began to crawl.
The journey to the couch took her several, determined minutes, but at last she reached the area of concealment behind it. Removing her cell phone from the front of her blouse, she started to dial 911 and paused. It was quite possible that, with the assault Lex had planned to launch on the city, that she might end up on hold. It had happened before, more than once. But if she could get hold of her boss, she knew he'd see that help arrived as fast as humanly possible. With shaking fingers, she punched the speed dial on her cellular phone for Perry White's office. She only hoped he was still there. A glance at her watch informed her that far more time had passed than she realized. It was past eight in the evening.
The phone in Perry's office rang twice. Lois held her breath, praying that Perry would answer. On the third ring, someone picked it up.
"Perry White's office. Terrence Wiederhold speaking."
The new intern, Lois thought. Terry was brand new at the office, and hadn't really sorted out precedence of unofficial rank among the staff yet. "Terry, this is Lois Lane. Get me Perry, fast!"
"Ms. Lane?" The intern's voice sounded doubtful. "Weren't you arrested this morning?"
"It was all a big mistake," Lois said, impatiently. "Let me talk to Perry. I'm in trouble."
"Well, I don't know, Ms. Lane. He's talking to a couple of police officers right now. I don't think he wants to be disturbed."
"Terry!" Lois hissed at him, consciously aware that she must not raise her voice, "Get me Perry, *now*! It's life or death!"
"Well…" Terry dithered. "I'm not sure…What?" The intern broke off and apparently covered the receiver with his palm. She could hear the murmur of voices, then, so suddenly that she started, Perry's voice was booming at her from the receiver.
"Lois! Thank Elvis, honey! Where are you?"
"Perry!" Lois whispered, "I may not have much time! Just listen! I need help! I'm in Lex Luthor's penthouse. He's been hiding out here all along. You've got to tell Henderson!"
"Judas Priest!" Perry sounded stunned. "Are *you* all right?"
"I've got a bullet in my leg, but I'll live," Lois said. "Tell Henderson to bring the paramedics, and tell them to hurry. Arianna Carlin is in Lex's wine cellar; she's been shot. I don't know how long she's got left."
"I'll take care of it," Perry said. "Stay put, honey. We'll be there as fast as we can." He hung up.
Lois shut off the phone and closed her eyes momentarily. She had no doubt that her boss would do just as he said. The police were on their way. All she had to do now was stay out of sight.
She looked around the room, trying to see if there was a better place of concealment. There really wasn't, she concluded, but then the fireplace tools caught her eye. The shiny, certainly never-used poker could be a crutch to lean on and—a small part of her mind whispered—a weapon if she was cornered. If Lex got hold of her, he wouldn't wait any longer.
The poker felt solid and reassuring in her hands when she picked it up a few minutes later. Lois braced the implement on the floor, got her good leg under her and heaved. A few seconds later she was standing, leaning on the poker like a cane.
She glanced at her watch. Come on, Henderson! If you take too long, this could all fall apart! It had been at least ten minutes since she had spoken to Perry. Surely, Henderson wouldn't delay once he knew where Lex was hiding out! Slowly, Lois made her way back to the couch, and then she saw what she had missed before.
A trail of blood marred the thick beige carpet where she had crawled. Not much, just a few streaks, but the marks showed up clearly on the pale surface. If Lex—or anyone—came in here, they would certainly notice, and the trail would lead them directly to the couch.
Where else could she hide? Lois glanced frantically around the room. There was only one place that she could see that might offer concealment. The heavy curtains, now drawn open on either side of the French windows near the rolltop desk, hung to the floor, and the view through the glass showed blackness beyond. She limped toward the windows, leaning heavily on the poker.
Cold radiated from the glass. The little balcony outside was unlighted, but the pale illumination from the room shone across it, and Lois could see that it was covered thickly with snow, so thickly that its surface could not be seen. Even the three-foot high iron balustrade that rimmed the balcony was coated with frost, and flakes drifted lazily by in the dimness.
It was the sound of angry voices approaching from the hall beyond that spurred her into motion a minute later. She ducked as quickly as she could behind the curtains and flattened herself against the wall, leaning heavily on the poker. Her leg was throbbing, but the pain paled into insignificance next to the danger of being caught.
"…Brainless fools! Where's Nigel?"
"Lex, I swear I don't know what happened!" Gretchen Kelly sounded very shaken. "Nigel had it all set up in advance. We'd just turned onto the Hobs River Road, and suddenly the police were all over us. I just barely got away, and I don't know what happened to Nigel and Marie! It took me hours to get back here. They were everywhere!"
"Henderson's brighter than I gave him credit for." Lex's voice sounded calm on the surface now, but Lois could hear the fury simmering beneath. "I want Lois picked up now, Gretchen. There's still time to salvage something from this mess."
"Lex, she's not at her apartment. Carlo reported to me a few minutes ago. We need to get out of here. The police could be here any minute."
"No." There was the sound of Lex's footsteps just beyond the door. "Nigel knows not to talk, and Marie knows the penalty if she does. If they had, the police would have been here by now. We have time. I want Lois found!"
Lois held perfectly still, trying not to breathe heavily. The knowledge of the extent of Lex's obsession with her was frightening. The lives of others, to him, were unimportant, whether they were employees, or the woman he claimed to love. All that mattered to him was what *he* wanted, what *he* desired. And if not for that night at the Daily Planet back in October, none of what had happened later would have taken place, and she would very likely be his fianc
ée, and still blind to his character flaws—assuming that Arianna hadn't killed her by now. Silently, she thanked whatever chance had led to her discovery of Clark's alter ego that night, and from that to the knowledge of what Lex truly was. It had been humiliating to realize what a colossal fool she had been, but in the end, she was glad it had happened. Please, Henderson, she implored silently, please hurry up!
"I'm not leaving without her, do you understand, Gretchen?" Lex's voice still quivered with anger under a forced calmness that only served to underline the fragile hold he had on his temper. "She's the reason I orchestrated all this. I'm not going to throw it all away."
"Lex…" Gretchen Kelly's voice became pleading. "We need to leave. We can come back for her later when the search for you has died down."
"I said 'no' and I meant it, Gretchen." There was a note in Lex's voice that made a chill run down Lois's spine. The apparent calm on the surface of his words hid—not too effectively—a thin control over sheer, frustrated rage. Suddenly the overhead light blazed on and Lex's footsteps became muffled as he entered the study, followed by Gretchen Kelly's lighter steps. He crossed the room, she thought, and a moment later glassware clinked. Lex was pouring something into a glass.
"Lex," Gretchen said persuasively, "I understand, believe me. But if you wind up in jail again, you'll never have the chance. Your first priority is to stay free."
"I said 'quiet'! What *is* that on the rug?"
"It's blood." Lex's voice shifted position as he moved. "And it wasn't here before."
Silence. Lois tried to hold her breath.
"I see you," Lex's voice said softly. "Behind the curtain. Come out, now, or I'll kill you."
The game was up. Lois pushed the curtain aside. "Hello, Lex."
"Lois!" Lex shoved the small handgun he was holding back into his pocket. "How did *you* get here?"
Lois looked at Gretchen Kelly, who was staring at her, her face stark white. All she had to do, she told herself firmly, was to stall a little longer. She had to keep Lex's attention for however long it took. "Surprised to see me, Gretchen?"
The woman didn't answer. Lex was staring at Lois, too. "You came here? What happened to you, my love?"
"Arianna shot me," Lois said.
"Arianna shot me," she repeated. "Lex, she killed your two fiancées before, and she tried to kill me to keep me from taking her place." She looked at Gretchen. "Only, this time it backfired, because Gretchen wanted you, too."
"Lex," Gretchen began.
"Quiet," Lex said. "Go on, Lois."
"Gretchen shot Arianna. She tried to get rid of both of us without you finding out."
"Lex!" Gretchen cried. "She's lying, don't you see?"
"She loves you, Lex," Lois said.
"But I love *you*," Lex said, starting toward her. "We'll get out of Metropolis and find you a doctor." The look he turned on Gretchen boded no good for the woman. "Your services are no longer required."
"Lex, no!" Gretchen grasped his arm. "Don't you see? She doesn't want you! She doesn't *love* you! *I* love you!"
Lex pushed her aside. "Come, my love. We must go, now."
"Lex," Lois began, "I can't—"
There was movement in the doorway behind and to Lex's left. Lois looked up to see Inspector Henderson, followed by several uniformed officers enter the room, weapons drawn. She gave a quiet sigh of relief.
Lex turned. "How dare you come in here!"
Henderson held up a piece of paper. "Standing warrant, Luthor. Put your hands up and keep them in sight."
Lois jumped at the yell of sheer fury, lost her balance and fell with a cry of pain.
"Don't move!" She thought the voice was Henderson's.
Lex lunged toward Lois. She covered her head, sure the officers would shoot, but they didn't. He didn't stop for the glass of the French windows, but crashed through them.
"Luthor, no!" Henderson shouted. Lois rolled over, her leg on fire. Shards of glass fell from her clothing.
"Lex, don't" she gasped.
He turned, breathing hard. "Lex Luthor will not live in a cage!"
"Lex!" Gretchen screamed.
"Luthor, don't do it!" Henderson said, beginning to move forward.
Lex put one leg over the railing, then the other. He teetered precariously on the brink. "Do you know this is the tallest building in Metropolis?" he said, almost conversationally. He met Lois's eyes, his own burning with something she couldn't interpret. "It's the top of the world," he said, and pushed away from the railing. Henderson's hand grabbed at the air, half a second too late.
Lois, lying on the sofa where one of the police officers had guided her minutes ago, opened her eyes to see Superman slowly crossing the room toward her, helped solicitously by a young officer. They had left her alone while they dealt with the arrest of Gretchen Kelly and the unpleasant details following Luthor's suicide. Lois could only be grateful. She had been afraid of Lex, but watching him jump from the balcony right in front of her had left her shaken. Perry White entered the room behind Superman, his face unusually haggard.
"Perry…Superman," she whispered.
Clark crossed the room and seated himself on the edge of the sofa. He said nothing, only reached out to grasp her hand. Perry followed him. Her editor cleared his throat.
"The paramedics are on their way," he said. "How are you, honey?"
"I'll be okay," she said. She looked at her partner, at the lines of fatigue on his face, and his torn and dirty costume. "How's Arianna?"
"They took her out a few minutes ago," Superman said. "They don't know if she'll make it or not."
For the first time since this ordeal had started, Lois felt tears begin to leak from her eyes. Superman reached out and put his arms around her. "I'm sorry, Lois. I wish I could have stopped it."
She nodded, holding tightly to him. "Don't let me go," she whispered.
"I won't." His voice was muffled.
Lois was barely aware of the study doors closing as Perry and the young officer quietly left the room.
Perry closed the door behind him. The young officer glanced at him, and Perry read anger in his expression.
"Who would have thought someone could do that to Superman," he said. "It makes me want to…" He bit off the words. "I'm sorry, Mr. White. It's just that he's done so much for all of us, especially the police. He saved my partner's life a couple of months ago."
Perry nodded. "I know," he said. "I feel the same way. But Luthor's dead, and it all worked out in the end."
"Yeah." The man nodded soberly. "One thing's for sure. If anybody asks me about this, I didn't see anything. It's the only thing I can do to thank him, y'know?"
"I know," Perry said. "I think Superman would appreciate that."
"If he asks, tell him I said so."
"I will." Perry inclined his head in the direction of the elevators. "Here comes your boss."
Henderson was coming down the hallway toward them. "Perry, can I have a word with you?"
"Jim—" Henderson took the young officer aside and spoke quietly to him for a minute. The young man nodded.
"Yes, sir. No problem."
"Good. Head on down and report to the sergeant, now."
"Yes, sir." Jim took off at a half trot. Henderson turned to Perry.
"Lois really came through for us," he said as a preliminary. "You can even tell her I said that—this time."
"I will," Perry said, wondering where the conversation was headed.
"Those two kids of yours did a good job, too. You might pass that along, when you get the chance."
"I intend to." Perry regarded Henderson thoughtfully. "Do you want to tell me what's on your mind, Bill?"
Henderson thrust his hands into his pockets and regarded the toes of his shoes. "What's the Planet going to report about Superman?"
"Why?" Perry asked, bluntly.
"I need to know. Only two other cops, you and I saw that situation in the basement. My men have already agreed that they didn't see anything, and we were careful to get Superman up here without witnesses, but if the Planet reports it…"
"I haven't got the foggiest notion what you're talking about, Bill," Perry said. "I didn't see a thing."
The corners of Henderson's mouth twitched. "Right," he said. "Thanks, Perry."
"You're welcome." Perry glanced down the hallway. "Here come the paramedics. I better let Lois and Superman know." He knocked lightly on the study door. "Superman, the paramedics are here for Lois."
A short pause, then Superman opened the door.
"Thank you, Mr. White." He and Perry moved aside as the two medics maneuvered their stretcher through the door.
Perry and Superman stood back while the paramedics checked Lois over and then lifted her carefully onto the stretcher for transportation. As they wheeled her out, Perry leaned over her.
"You gonna be okay, honey?"
"Yeah, I think so. Thanks for coming through, Perry. You really saved the day."
"You're welcome," Perry said, for the second time in ten minutes. "I'm going to have a talk with Terry first thing in the morning, and set him straight on a few points."
Lois smiled faintly. "Just as well. You probably won't be as rough on him as I would."
"Probably not," Perry said. "You get well, now."
As he moved back, Superman bent over her for a moment. "Thank you, Lois. Take care of yourself."
"I will, Superman," she said.
The two paramedics wheeled her out.
Perry watched as they proceeded down the hall, then happened to glance at Superman. The Kryptonian was watching Lois's progress as well, and something in his expression caught Perry's attention. He'd thought at first that Superman's treatment of Lois had been prompted by concern for her, and by the friendship he'd never tried to hide for the Planet's star reporter, but now he wasn't so sure. Perry was not unacquainted with the ways of men and women, and he'd have been willing to bet his last dollar at that moment that Superman's concern for Lois was prompted by something far deeper than simple friendship. In fact, he'd seen exactly that same expression very recently on someone else, in connection with Lois.
He looked away quickly, before Superman noticed the fact that he was staring, then back. It couldn't be, could it?
"Can I give you a lift anywhere, Superman?" he asked conversationally.
Superman hesitated, and Perry continued, "Henderson and I have already talked about what we saw downstairs. We both agreed it didn't happen."
Superman smiled. "Thank you, Mr. White. I appreciate that."
He was listening more closely, now. Superman's voice was familiar—very familiar—and not just because Perry had heard him speak on numerous occasions. It was the voice of someone he knew well.
"I can drop you off at Kent's place if you like," he continued. "I know he's a friend of yours."
"That would be nice of you, Mr. White," Superman said. "Thank you."
Polite to a fault, Perry thought. As always.
As they headed for the elevator together, Perry was thinking hard about what he might have discovered. If it was true, Superman obviously didn't want the rest of the world informed about what he did when he wasn't in costume—which made a lot of sense from Perry's point of view—but he would willingly wager a considerable sum of money on the probability that Lois knew. Well in that case, as far as Perry White was concerned, he hadn't learned a thing tonight. This could go in the same "never happened" file as that mysterious, green-glowing cage in the basement of Lex Tower. The paramedics who had carried Arianna Carlin out might wonder about it, but he had no intention of enlightening them or anyone else about its purpose. Metropolis and Perry, himself, owed the Man of Steel far too much for him ever to wish the super-hero any harm. Superman's secret was safe with him.
Clark would never need to know.
Christmas Eve at the Kent farmhouse was something new for Lois. The living room was decorated with garlands and holly; a manger scene on a side table sported old-fashioned china figures some of which, Lois saw, had been broken at one time and carefully glued back together.
She was sitting in the big armchair in front of the brick fireplace, her bandaged leg propped up on a footstool, and Clark had just brought in a tray of eggnog.
The four of them had gone out earlier to secure the "perfect" Christmas tree. Clark had assured her it was a Kent family tradition and even she had to participate, and therefore Clark would undertake the "chore" of transporting her in his arms, even though she assured him that she was perfectly capable of walking on her own. Somehow, she thought he didn't really regard it as a chore at all, judging by the wide smile on his face the entire time.
When they'd gotten the tree home, the three Kents had proceeded to decorate it, with Lois sitting back in the armchair offering advice, and she was given the honor of placing the star at the top, courtesy of a lift from Clark.
Dinner was sandwiches and salad, given that the big meal was for the next day, and then Clark and Martha brought in crackers, cheeses and eggnog.
Lois accepted the bright red mug with the pattern of green holly leaves around it, and Clark passed the others around to his parents. He took the last one himself and settled down in the chair next to Lois's. She saw him glance at the fireplace, where the fire was beginning to die down, and caught a flicker of red in his eyes. The flames blazed up suddenly with a blast of warmth. He took a swallow from his mug. "The dishes are done," he informed his mother.
"Thanks, Clark." Martha winked at Lois. "He's better than an automatic dishwasher."
"I can see that." She reached out and felt Clark clasp her hand.
"Is your leg comfortable, Lois?" Jonathan asked.
"It's fine," Lois said. "It's been five days now, and it's really feeling much better."
"They repaired the muscle damage with surgery," Clark said. "She was in the hospital for three days."
"Which," Lois said, "was the most boring three days of my life. At least they tell me the scar will hardly show when it's all healed up."
"So," Martha said, "what's going to happen to those crazy women, anyway?"
"Well," Clark said, "the double, Marie Durant, turned out to be wanted for embezzlement, so she's going to be tried for that and for conspiracy in Luthor's plan. Gretchen Kelly is charged with conspiracy and attempted murder. Arianna…" He looked sober. "Arianna is still on life support. She's not expected to recover. If she does, she'll be tried for murder and attempted murder."
"And this St. John person?" Martha asked.
"I don't think there'll be any trouble there, either," Lois said. "It turns out he was more than Lex's Mr. Belvedere. He was a member of Her Majesty's Secret Service, gone bad. The British are very interested in getting hold of him."
"I'll bet," Jonathan said. "I'm just glad it's over."
"What happened to the Kryptonite cage?" Martha asked. "I don't really like the idea of it sitting around for anyone to take."
"It isn't," Clark said. "I understand Inspector Henderson got rid of it. He didn't say exactly how, but I trust him. He's a good guy."
"It sounds like you have a friend there," Jonathan said.
"Superman has saved the lives of a lot of his men," Lois said. "He was returning the favor." She added irrelevantly, "He even got my antique jade ring back. He brought it to me while I was in the hospital. Marie was wearing it when they caught her."
"Then I guess that settles that," Martha said, with an air of finality.
"I guess it does," Clark said. He smiled at Lois who returned the smile.
In the days following Lex Luthor's suicide and the arrest of his conspirators, Lois had found herself contemplating Clark whenever she thought he wasn't looking. It had been he who saved her that horrible evening. To save his life, it had been necessary to push herself to lengths to which she might not have gone if the only life at stake had been her own. She'd known he was willing to die for her; now she knew the reverse was also true. But most of all, she knew beyond a doubt that living without him wasn't something she would ever want to do.
Where had her apprehensions about marriage and commitment gone, she wondered, and answered the question with the same thought. They had vanished when she had discovered that the commitment had already been made irrevocably, without her even realizing it. She would have to let him know—soon—that he could ask her the question she knew very well he wanted to ask, but had refrained from asking for her sake.
"Lois?" Clark asked. "Are you all right?"
"You kind of zoned out on me."
"Oh. I was thinking about something."
"If it was about some other guy, I think I'll be jealous," Clark said.
"You don't need to be," she said, and squeezed his hand firmly. "I was just thinking that those things I told you, about commitment? I think I've made up my mind."
She nodded. "Yeah."
Martha glanced quickly at her husband. "Jonathan, it's almost nine-thirty and we have a big day tomorrow. I think it's about time we turned in. Goodnight, kids."
Jonathan was already getting to his feet. "I didn't realize it was that late. Goodnight, Lois. Goodnight, son."
The elder Kents retreated up the steps; Martha, Lois noticed, winked at Clark as she went past, and had to smother a grin.
"Wow, that was fast," she said, when she heard the bedroom door close.
Clark smiled. "They know when something's important." He hesitated, then seemed to gather his courage. "I know it hasn't been long, Lois—but do you think you've gotten to know the real me well enough, now?"
She nodded. "I think I did all along. I just didn't *know* that I knew."
In a movement so fast she would have missed it if she had blinked at the wrong time, he was out of the chair and on one knee before her. With another blurringly fast motion, he produced a ring box and opened it, revealing a gold ring with a glittering diamond. "In that case, do you think you're ready to wear this, yet?"
"Clark! How long have you had that?"
He grinned. "I bought it back in October and I've been carrying it around ever since—I figured if the chance came, I wanted to be ready."
She hesitated, searching his face. "Are you *sure* you want me, Clark? I'm not the easiest person to get along with, you know. I'm prickly, and pushy and obsessive, and…"
"And the only woman on the face of the earth I'd ever want to spend my life with," he said. "I've been happier the last nine weeks than I've ever been, and I want that to go on—if you think you can put up with me and my weird double life. Do you think you can?"
For an instant the old doubts resurfaced, only to vanish in the light of her new knowledge. She, too, had been happier over the past weeks than she had ever been—not because Superman was in love with her, but because Clark Kent was. Her country boy from Krypton was the man she had never believed she would meet. If she told him she needed more time, she knew he would give it to her. But she didn't.
"If you're sure, Clark, then I am, too," she said. "Your 'weird double life' doesn't scare me because it's part of you, and you're who I love. What scares me is the thought of being without you. I'd like to wear your ring."
He slipped it onto her finger. Together they regarded it for a long moment. At last Clark spoke.
"Merry Christmas, Lois."
"Merry Christmas, Clark," she replied.