By Nan Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted April 2000
Summary: The birth of Lois and Clark's first child is sure to be a thrilling event. Especially when it coincides with an important investigation. Part of the author's Dagger series.
This story is part of Nan Smith's "Dagger" series. See a list of all the stories in this series and get links.
Ready for the next story in this series? Read Charade. Need the previous story? Read Priorities.
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings of this story are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions, et. al., and no infringement of copyright is intended. The story is strictly my idea, and is copyrighted to me.
This story occurs shortly after "Priorities" in the time line of my Lois and Clark universe. I hope you enjoy it.
A young woman hurried through the dimness of the parking lot.
It was past sunset, and even the traces of pink had faded from the sky. If not for the city lights the stars would be shining brightly, but as it was only a ghostly luminescence lit the sky. She glanced at the glowing dial of her wristwatch; the time was six-thirty. She was going to have to hurry to arrive on time for her dinner reservation.
The parking lot lights were too dim, and huge shadows loomed ahead of her on the path to the spot where she had parked her car. A little chill of nervousness passed over her scalp as she started resolutely toward the vehicle but she tried to ignore it. There was really no danger, she knew. She'd been here after dark many times. Keys in hand, she reached the car and inserted the correct key into the door lock.
"Dr. Klein, my due date was six days ago!" Lois Lane's voice had taken on a certain "edge" which tended to put others around her on the alert. "Just how much longer is this going to go on?"
The scientist sighed and cast an eloquent look at her husband standing silently behind her, hands in his pockets. He thought he had never seen the Man of Steel looking so…noncommittal. Clark Kent's expression was extraordinarily blank, and he appeared to be focussing on a very ordinary photograph of two of Klein's nephews on the opposite wall. Dr. Klein glanced out the window of his office and hoped the presence of two lab techs in the outer room would preclude any explosions.
"Lois," he began, "the main problem is that none of us know the actual length of a Kryptonian pregnancy. We assume it's similar to a human's because the rate of development appears to be about the same, and…um…certain size limitations rather require that it not go on much longer. All I can tell you is that every test I've been able to run says that things are fine, your baby is growing normally and there's no sign of placental deterioration. In light of that, I'm really reluctant to interfere. All the physical indications say that it will be soon. That's all I can tell you."
Lois gave a long-suffering sigh. "And so…?"
"So we wait," Dr. Klein said. "It won't be much longer, Lois."
"For you," Lois said.
"Believe me," Dr. Klein said, sincerely, "this has probably been the longest week of my life."
"Lois, he's right," Clark said as they left S.T.A.R. Labs. "It can't be much longer. Maybe if you took the rest of the time off you wouldn't be so tired."
"If I did that I'd go completely crazy," Lois said. "Besides, chasing CJ in my current condition would probably tire me out more. I'll think about it after you bring your mom here, day after tomorrow."
"Assuming nothing happens before then—"
"Naturally," Lois said. She gave him a sour look. "Believe me, if it does, I won't be upset."
He grinned at her. "Ralph will be. He's still mad that Perry won't partner him with me. Perry told him not a chance—he thinks it would cramp my style."
Clark nodded in agreement. "Ralph's writing and mine just aren't complementary which I pointed out to Perry, and he agreed. Sex scandals aren't my line. I know Ralph is looking for the key to the big scoop but he's not going to get it my way."
"That's for sure, and I don't mean because you're you-know-who." Lois sighed. "I guess I'm selfish. I just don't want to share you with anybody."
Clark chuckled. "Don't worry, honey. Ralph's not my type."
She made a face at him. "So, who *are* you being partnered with?"
"No one, so far as I know. Perry said he thought I'd do better alone until you get back, rather than wasting my time breaking in a new partner."
"Perry's so smart it scares me sometimes."
"Yeah, me too." Clark looked uncharacteristically solemn. "I sometimes wonder…" He broke off.
"Nothing." He opened the door of the Jeep for her. "Well, back to the salt mines, I guess."
When the elevator deposited them on their floor the first thing that greeted Lois's ears was a resentful mutter from Ralph. "Aren't you *ever* gonna have that kid, Lane?"
She gave him a look that would have melted lead. "Believe me, Ralph, you can't possibly be in more of a hurry than I am."
"Kent!" Perry emerged from his office. "Get on over to City Hall. There's a demonstration goin' on over the Council's new zoning proposals. Better take a photographer."
"Right, Chief. Jimmy, let's go!" He gave Lois a quick peck on the cheek and reversed course toward the elevator.
Jimmy passed Lois on his way up the ramp. "There's three messages from your mom on your desk."
The messages from her mother lay prominently on the desk's surface, but before she had the opportunity to read them her phone rang. She picked up the receiver. "Lois Lane."
"Lois, thank heavens!" Ellen Lane's voice said. "I've been trying to reach you for ages!"
"I was at my doctor's," Lois said. "Is something wrong?"
"Lucy's disappeared," her mother said.
"What do you mean 'disappeared'?"
"I mean she's disappeared!" Ellen's voice rose slightly. "She didn't meet me for dinner last night, and no one knows what's happened to her!"
Lois took a deep breath. "All right, Mother, why don't you start from the beginning?" she suggested. "Why do you think she's disappeared?"
There was a short pause on the other end of the line. "Lucy and I were supposed to have dinner together last night at Marcel's—we had a seven o'clock dinner reservation," her mother told her. "She never showed up."
"I called her dorm," Ellen continued. "One of her roommates told me she left at six-fifteen to meet me for dinner. I eventually gave up, but this morning I called her—I talked to another girl. Lucy never came back."
"She didn't come back," Ellen repeated. "But her car is still there. They checked for me. I called the police, but they won't do anything until a person has been missing for 48 hours."
"Have you called the dorm back since this morning?" Lois asked patiently. "Maybe she's shown up by now."
"I called twice more, the last time just fifteen minutes ago. She hasn't come back, Lois. Something's happened to her. I can feel it."
"Okay." Lois sighed. Her scatterbrained sister was going to drive Ellen into an early grave yet, as her mother was so fond of telling her. "Let me make some calls and see what I can find out."
"She never came back, Ms. Lane," Carol Jennings was telling her over the phone an hour later. The girl was the eldest of Lucy's roommates, the first to return from class and receive Lois's message. "She had a big exam today, too. She said she'd be back by ten because she had to cram for it."
"And you say her car is still there?"
"It's in the student lot. I checked for your mom this morning, and it was still there when I got back a few minutes ago. She doesn't usually do this. She's supposed to graduate this spring, you know, and she's really been working."
Presented with a completely at odds picture for her flighty sister, Lois was silent for several seconds. "So, what do you think happened?" she asked finally.
Carol hesitated. "I don't know," she said. "But I'm just a little worried."
"So, I called the police, but they told me the policy was to wait 48 hours," Lois said, in disgust. "They wouldn't do a thing."
"Well…" Clark tilted his desk chair back. "I guess to them she's just one more statistic. They get lots of missing person reports and most often the person shows up again on their own."
"But," Lois pointed out, "if they don't show up, the trail has gotten cold."
He nodded. "I know. In a city this size, there aren't any ideal solutions."
"Yeah. Well, I got hold of Bobby and promised him dinner at Sven's Smorgasbord if he could find out anything. He said he'd try."
"That's a good idea." Clark looked at his wife's worried face. Lois was more upset about this than she wanted him to know. He dropped his feet to the floor and stood up. "I'm going to fly over and take a look around her car. She still drives that old Dodge, doesn't she?"
"Last I heard." She looked relieved. "Thanks, Clark."
He dropped a kiss on the top of her head. "No problem. Back in a jiff." He headed for the ramp.
Behind him, he heard the now familiar rush of Ralph's footsteps. The man still hadn't given up, apparently. Clark increased his pace and went through the door to the stairs while Ralph was still hurrying up the ramp. A second later he was launching himself from the roof of the Daily Planet.
Superman spotted the familiar car from the air and a moment later was touching down lightly in the student parking lot.
Lucy's car had been sitting there for some time, judging by the light coating of dust visible to his enhanced vision. He scanned it from front to back, then leaned forward to examine the driver's door more closely.
The tip of a key was broken off in the lock.
He frowned thoughtfully, then turned to look around the entire area. Nothing. No, wait, what was that? He strode to the front of Lucy's car. There, tangled in the lower branches of the hedge was a crumpled, white handkerchief.
Clark scanned it closely. The cloth was linen, edged with what looked like actual hand stitching, and it hadn't been here long. He leaned closer and sniffed. It was faintly scented with some kind of expensive cologne. Slowly he inhaled, memorizing the smell until he was sure he would recognize it if he encountered it again, then he turned and glanced carefully around the area once more to be certain there were no observers. Quickly he transformed into Clark Kent, carefully and delicately disentangled the handkerchief from the branches, tucked it into the pocket of his coat, and left the parking lot.
"So, I visited Lost and Found," Clark was explaining some time later. "I asked if anyone had turned in a key ring that had a broken car key on it."
"Had they?" Lois asked, tensely.
He withdrew it from his pocket. "Do you recognize it?"
Lois examined it, the shrugged. "It's a key ring. But this key is for the music box I gave her when I went off to college."
"So it's Lucy's?"
He rested a hand on her shoulder. "All right, I think Superman should pay a visit to Bill Henderson. Maybe it'll speed things up a bit. This is more evidence than just her disappearance."
"Do you think the handkerchief means anything?" she asked.
"Well, it was stuck in the hedge right near the car. I probably should have left it there, but if it's evidence it could have disappeared when I left."
"Yeah." Lois grimaced.
"Are you all right?"
She made a face. "Just more Braxton-Hicks contractions. The darn things are making my muscles sore, they're so hard now."
"You're sure that's all it is?" he asked.
"Yeah, I'm sure." She rubbed her lower back with one fist. "Of course, now would be the worst possible time to go into labor, when my sister's probably been kidnapped."
"Just be sure to let me know if you do! I'll be back in a little while."
"Where are you going now, Kent?" Ralph's voice said in his ear.
Clark glanced at the other man in mild annoyance. "Police station, Ralph. It's personal business."
"Mind if I tag along?"
"As a matter of fact, I do," Clark said, coolly. "Excuse me." He turned away and headed for the ramp. Ralph followed.
"Come on, Kent, give a guy a break! You're always running off and coming in with great scoops. What's your secret?"
"Being in the right place at the right time," Clark said. "And a lot of hard, investigative work." He ascended the ramp and paused before the elevator. Ralph pressed the button. The doors opened a moment later and the two men boarded. As the doors started to shut, Clark stepped quickly backward. "Oops, forgot something."
"Hey!" Ralph protested, belatedly, but the doors were already closing. Clark turned and opened the door to the stairs. A second later there was a distant, but characteristic, sonic boom.
Perry White, across the office, had witnessed the whole event. He smiled for a second, then shook his head. Ralph had clearly not given up his hope of discovering Clark Kent's knack for nailing the big scoops. If the boy couldn't find some way to discourage his persistent colleague's determined pursuit Perry was afraid he might have to step in, but he hoped he wouldn't have to. Clark and Lois were usually pretty inventive about things like this, but they clearly had other matters on their minds right now.
And, of course, Ralph's nuisance factor could very well interfere with the Daily Planet's profit margins if he became too troublesome.
The elevator doors opened; Ralph emerged, looking chagrined. "Where'd he go?"
No one answered.
Perry grinned suddenly to himself as he made a decision. Whatever story they were following now, Lois and Clark had enough to deal with without Ralph dogging every step they took.
"Ralph!" he barked.
Ralph's head swiveled toward him, guilt written in every line of his expression. "Yeah, Chief?"
"Where's that stuff you were gonna give me about those two city councilmen and the red light district?"
"Oh…" Ralph hurried down the ramp. "Uh, I don't have anything concrete on that yet, Chief."
"Well, then, what are you doin' messing around in here? Get busy and find me some evidence one way or the other, or you're fired!"
"Right away, Chief!" Ralph scurried to his desk, grabbed his recorder, and was on his way out of the newsroom in less than a minute.
When Clark Kent arrived home just after four o'clock, he found his household very quiet. The reason soon became obvious; his wife was sound asleep on the living room sofa, and upstairs he could hear the faint noises that told him his eleven-month-old son was just waking up from his afternoon nap.
He flew quietly up the stairs to take the little boy from his crib. CJ blinked sleepily at him with his big, brown, almond-shaped eyes and held out his arms. Clark picked him up.
"Hey there, pal. You look like you could use a change." He swung the baby neatly into one arm. "Come on. We're gonna be real quiet so we don't wake Mommy up, okay?"
When Lois wandered into the kitchen about five, drawn by the delectable smells wafting into the living room, it was to find her husband, clad in jeans and a black T-shirt, cooking dinner while their son played happily with several kitchen utensils in the middle of the floor.
"Hi, honey," he greeted her. "Dinner will be ready in a few minutes. Have a good nap?"
"Mm." She tilted her face up for a kiss. "Smells great. What's on the menu?"
"Pasta with clam sauce," Clark said.
"Sounds wonderful. I'm famished," she said. "So, what happened at police headquarters?"
"Why don't you sit down over there while I set the table, and I'll tell you."
"I'm only too happy to," Lois said. She sat down and put her feet up on another kitchen chair. "Having the dimensions of a small whale does have its advantages. So," she continued, returning to the subject, "about Lucy?"
"I talked to Henderson, told him what you found out and how Clark found the key and the handkerchief, and he agreed it didn't look good. He's listed her as officially missing."
"And what are they going to do about it?"
"They're going to investigate. They've already gone over her car pretty thoroughly, as of this afternoon. It turns out that they were already investigating, though."
"What do you mean?"
"It seems that Lucy isn't the first young woman who's vanished this way."
Lois swallowed. "How many?"
He removed plates from the cupboard and glanced soberly at her. "Six others in the last two months."
Clark nodded. "Six. Seven, now."
"Have any of them…turned up?"
He didn't mistake her meaning. "No. No bodies. They just left their dorms in the evening and never came back."
"Didn't anybody report it?"
He nodded. "Yeah. But none of them have family in the area, so nobody noticed at first except their roommates, and they apparently assumed the missing women were playing hooky. No one reported the first one missing for over a week."
"That's awful! But Lucy has family in the area—" Lois stopped.
"But she never talks about us, huh?" Clark raised an eyebrow. "Maybe she doesn't want anyone to know about her notorious sister and brother-in-law." He finished setting the table and picked up CJ to put him in his high chair. "Here you go. How about chicken sticks for an entree tonight, sir? With a side of delicious peas and cooked carrots, and tapioca pudding for dessert?"
CJ squirmed around as Clark strapped him into his chair, and reached for the chicken sticks as soon as Clark set them on his tray.
"Good appetite there," Clark said. "Mom always said I was a bottomless pit at his age."
"You still are," Lois said. "I guess Lucy doesn't talk about her family. I mean, her roommates knew we lived around here, but she didn't tell them much. Carol Jennings, this morning, was surprised when she found out I was Lucy's sister."
"Sort of like you when we first met."
"Yeah, I guess."
"So," Clark said, "most people didn't know she had relatives nearby. I guess that fits the pattern, then."
"Did they have any other leads?"
Clark shook his head. "Only that they've all disappeared from the campus. And that the police are investigating."
Two hours later, they were seated together on the living room sofa. CJ was showing definite signs of fatigue, even though his afternoon nap had been later than usual, and the television was muttering away in the background although neither of them was giving it much attention. Lois, leaning comfortably against her husband's side, scraped the last dregs of chocolate ice cream from the bowl in her lap.
"Done?" Clark asked.
"Well, the bowl's empty," Lois said. "Is there any more?"
Clark shook his head. "I'm afraid that was the last of it. You've been going through it like crazy for the last couple of days. I can go down to Lupe's and pick up some more. It'll only take a minute—" He sat up suddenly. "Oh, oh."
"What?" Lois asked.
"Big fire in Suicide Slum. Three buildings. Could be that arsonist again." He stood up. "I guess the ice cream will have to wait."
Lois sighed. "Be careful."
"Of course." He spun into Superman, gave her a kiss and was gone.
Lois glanced wistfully at the empty bowl, then picked up the remote control and turned up the sound. The sports scores weren't particularly interesting so she flicked over the channels to one of the other local stations.
They had discussed the disappearance of the women from NTSU's campus until there seemed to be no angle they hadn't covered, but they were no wiser than before they started. The only thing they had been able to decide was that they would concentrate on the case the next day to the exclusion of other stories, barring the occasional Superman rescue. Surely, they would be able to turn up some sort of information. And Bobby Bigmouth was definitely getting another call first thing in the morning, if he didn't get back to them any sooner.
The news channel was in the middle of a commercial break. After a dissertation over the natural color that could be achieved by the simple application of the advertised product to the hair, and the inability of the male of the species to discern the difference, the news came back on, showing the current breaking story of the huge fire in Suicide Slum; fire fighters in protective gear swarmed around in the background, where behind them the fire raged, wholly engulfing three buildings and threatening a fourth. The newscaster exclaimed in what seemed to Lois to be less than genuine horror at the sight. Behind her, an unidentified spectator hurled an audible curse at the police officer attempting to move the inevitable crowd of spectators back to a safer distance.
A familiar red and blue figure flashed across the sky as she watched and the cameras focussed on Superman as he came to rest by the fire chief. They seemed to confer for a moment, then Superman launched himself upward and vanished into one of the upper windows of the middle building. The camera again focussed on the newscaster and then shifted to Police Chief Harrelson, who was discussing the possibility of arson and the job the arson team would be doing after the immediate emergency was taken care of.
Lois looked back at her bowl. She really wanted more chocolate ice cream. It seemed as if she couldn't get enough of it the last few days.
The news shifted to a report from Fostonia where the government spokesman was vigorously denying allegations of government coverups regarding rumors of a thriving white slave trade operating in the country. Lois gave an unladylike snort. That sounded like something Ralph could really sink his teeth into.
She glanced unhappily at the bowl again. She really wished Clark had the time to pick up another gallon of ultra choco-chocolate monster chip ice cream before he'd taken off.
The news subject changed again, to a trade dispute between Upper and Lower Tanzanika, and she wondered idly how their friend the King was doing. The last letter from Bobbo had been upbeat and cheerful, but reflected his frustrations in dealing with some of the stone age customs with which his countrymen seemed completely enamored, and which made the reforms he was attempting to enact so difficult to actually get into place.
Lois abruptly shut off the television and hoisted herself to her feet. It was only a ten-minute drive to Lupe's Market. There was no reason she couldn't go get the ice cream herself.
"Come on, sweetheart," she said to CJ. "Let's go for a ride."
"Da!" CJ announced. He loved car rides, although why Lois had no idea, as he always fell asleep within the first couple of minutes.
She took his hand, helped him to climb onto the sofa so she could pick him up without bending, and a few moments later they were in the Jeep and headed for the market.
The parking lot behind the little corner market which Lois and Clark preferred was well lighted, and several other cars were parked there as well. One of the many things that made this market one of her favorites was the presence of a police station half a block away, and the resultant high visibility of Metropolis's finest in the area. The employees of the store knew both Lois and her husband and Lupe, the grandmotherly lady who actually owned Lupe's Market admitted frankly that she had a crush on Clark. Since CJ's arrival, the crush had extended to him, whom Lupe described as "un nino muy guapo", which Clark translated as meaning "a very handsome little boy". Considering her knowledge of how CJ would look as a grown man, Lois could only agree.
When she approached the checkout counter, Juanito, Lupe's six-foot grandson, raised his dark eyebrows at the sight of the five half-gallons of different kinds of chocolate ice cream and the large jar of fudge sauce. He grinned. "You must have run out again," he commented. "Mom used to say just before one of us was ready she'd go on a chocolate binge, too. I think I'll put my bet in the pool tonight."
"I hope you're right," Lois said, fervently, as he began to ring up the purchases. "We're already a week overdue."
"I figure tomorrow or the next day." Juanito flashed a white-toothed grin. "Tell Clark he has to let us know."
"I will," Lois said.
Juanito stacked the ice cream in the Styrofoam chest Lois had brought along, then gave a sharp whistle. "Hey, Enrique!" His younger brother emerged from the storeroom. "You want me?"
"Yeah. Carry this stuff to the car for Ms. Lane, okay?"
The teenager nodded and grinned a neat twin of his brother's smile. "Sure thing." He sauntered over to the cash register and picked up the chest. "Hi there, kid," he said to CJ.
CJ babbled something unintelligible and waved both arms. Lois followed Enrique from the store after bidding his brother goodbye. The Sanchez family had run this market since well before Lois had started coming here seven years ago, and the way they treated her was another reason she continued to come here, in spite of the fact that their selection wasn't as wide as that of the supermarket farther downtown.
Enrique stowed the chest in the back of the Kent Jeep while Lois was fastening CJ into the safety seat, bade her a cheerful good evening and headed back for the store with a modest tip in his pocket. Lois got behind the wheel of the Jeep, started the engine and turned on her headlights.
She had just pulled out onto the side street when she heard the woman's scream.
It came from the alley that opened directly ahead and to her left. Lois rolled up her window, pulled up to the alley and turned the Jeep so that the headlights illuminated the narrow passage.
Three struggling figures were caught in the light: two male and one female. There was no time for more than a general impression, for as the Jeep's headlights flashed over the three, one of the men raised an arm, gripping a knife in his fist, and brought it down.
The woman's second scream was cut off in the middle as she fell, and the two men swiveled around to see who had intruded. For an instant the tableau froze.
With a yell, the knife wielder started toward Lois and she had a clear look at his face. The handle of the knife struck the driver's window. The glass quivered, but didn't break.
Lois slammed the Jeep into reverse and floored the accelerator. The bumper caught the mugger's hip, knocking him sideways and she shoved the heel of her hand down on the horn.
The other man grasped his fallen companion by one arm, dragging him to his feet and, from what she could see of his face, shouting at him. Both men ran in the opposite direction, the one whom she had struck limping markedly.
With a gust of wind, Superman landed beside the Jeep. "What's the matter?"
Lois pointed. "She was stabbed!"
Instantly, Clark was beside the fallen woman. He scooped her up. "Wait here!" Then he was gone, in a flash of red and blue.
"Superman took her to the hospital," Lois concluded to the young officer who was taking her statement. A second cop was examining the ominous pool of blood on the pavement ten feet ahead of the Jeep. CJ fussed unhappily in the rear seat.
"You're sure you saw their faces?" the officer asked, doubtfully.
"Yes, how many times do I have to tell you? I saw one from a distance and the guy with the knife up close…just inches away," Lois said, impatiently.
The officer looked thoughtfully at her expanded middle. "Would you recognize them if you saw them again?"
Lois nodded vigorously. "You bet I would. I could paint their pictures for you—if I could paint." She rubbed her back. "Do you mind if I sit back down, officer? My back and feet don't like this very much."
"Sure, go ahead…" He broke off as Superman touched down next to the Jeep.
"Officer." Superman greeted him pleasantly and turned instantly to his wife. "Are you all right, Lois?"
"Yeah, fine, except that my groceries are melting while I'm standing here talking," she said, acidly. "Officer Atkins here doesn't seem to believe I saw what I saw." A little of the shock had begun to wear off, leaving irritation in its wake.
A shadow of a grin twitched his lips, then he turned to the police officer. "If Ms. Lane said she saw the woman stabbed, then that's what she saw," he said. "Do you need her any more?"
"I'm afraid so," the man said. "If she saw the crime committed, and the face of the killer…"
"Not yet," Superman interjected. "The victim's still alive. I took her to Metro General's emergency room."
"Still, Ms. Lane claims she saw their faces. We'll need as thorough a description as possible—and there's a police artist on duty tonight."
Superman glanced at Lois. "All right. May I speak to Ms. Lane privately?"
"Sure." The man moved away to confer with his companion.
Clark opened the Jeep door for Lois and leaned toward her. "Why don't you drive over there with CJ, Lois," he suggested, sounding amused. "I'll take the ice cream home, put it away and meet you at the station."
An hour of meticulous description and exasperated outbursts later, Lois rubbed her eyes.
"To think," she said, "that all I wanted was to get a half gallon of ice cream." She winced slightly and put a hand to her middle. "Ouch."
Clark glanced nervously at her. "Are you sure you're okay? That's the second of those in forty-five minutes."
"I suppose you've been counting?" she asked.
Superman had arrived, given his statement and left shortly afterwards. Ten minutes later, Clark Kent had turned up, looking for his wife. Now he glanced across the room to where a pair of female officers were entertaining an increasingly sleepy CJ, then at the police artist. "Is she done?"
The man nodded. "I think so."
Clark turned to give Lois a hand out of the chair. "In that case, I think we'll go home." He accepted his son from one of the women. "Thank you."
"He certainly looks like you, Mr. Kent," Officer Anderson remarked. "How old is he?"
"Eleven months," Clark said. "Come on, buddy, let's take Mommy home. I think she's had enough for one evening."
As they left, his super-hearing caught a remark by Officer Anderson and he felt himself flush. Lois noticed.
"Clark, you're blushing."
He shrugged uncomfortably. "Anderson said something about me not wasting any time."
"With CJ eleven months old, and you obviously…"
"Oh." Lois chuckled softly. "Well, at least you're getting a good reputation."
She giggled and then winced. "Ow."
"Are you okay?"
She glanced down at her rounded abdomen. "Yeah. That hurt a little."
"Was it a contraction?"
She hesitated. "I'm not sure."
"You suppose this could be 'it'?"
"Maybe. Or it could just be false labor again."
Clark swallowed, surprised to discover that he was nervous. True, as Superman he had helped deliver a number of babies, but it had never been *his* baby, or *his* wife before.
"Well," he said, "I guess we'll just have to wait and see, huh?"
She looked nervously up at him. "I guess so."
An hour later she'd had two more contractions, but an hour after that there had been only one, and by one a.m. it was obvious that they were becoming farther and farther apart.
Lois was almost in tears. Clark sighed. "Another dry run."
"Oh, Clark, I know I'm going to be pregnant forever!" she wailed.
He put his arms around her. "Remember what they said in childbirth classes, honey. It's your body's way of practicing for the real thing. It means it's getting close."
"Everyone's been saying that for the last two weeks," Lois said, crossly. "It's never going to happen! Maybe Kryptonian pregnancies last for a couple of years, like elephants, or something. Who knows how long this could go on?"
He tried to look sympathetic, but the last statement was too much and a chuckle escaped. Lois glared at him. "I suppose you think it's funny!"
"No," he denied, shaking his head. "Not really. It's just when you say things like that—"
She sighed. "I know you're right, Clark, but it seems like forever!"
"I know," he said, sympathetically. "And I know how uncomfortable you are, or I'd suggest a fun way they told us about to try to stimulate labor. But really, it can't go on much longer, honey." He dropped a kiss on the top of her head. "Can I get you some ice cream?"
Lois brightened. "That really does sound good. With fudge sauce."
"How did I know you were going to say that?"
"Well, Kryptonians *are* telepathic, or so I'm told. And after I've finished the ice cream, we can talk about stimulating labor. You know, I'd put up with just about any—um—inconvenience if I thought it might hurry things along a bit…"
"Hey, Lane!" Ralph said as they emerged from the elevator at nine o'clock the next morning. "We all thought for sure this was it!" He unwisely reached out to pat her on the tummy. "When are you going to have that kid, anyhow?"
If looks could have killed, the one Lois turned on him would have left him stretched lifeless upon the ground. Clark answered him. "When it's ready. But if you want to live to see it, I'd move that hand, if I were you."
Ralph hastily pulled back his hand. Perry White, who had been a silent observer to the minor drama, now spoke up. "What happened, Clark?"
Clark sighed. "We were up late with false labor."
"Oh." Perry nodded, sagely. "Yeah, I remember that. Alice had it most of the last month with our first. Hang in there, kids; it'll happen pretty soon. Now, any more information on that mugging last night?"
"Not yet, Chief," Clark said. "We're going to give them a call in a few minutes." He took Lois's coat, hung it on the rack for her, and went to his desk. After a moment, he made a trip to the coffee machine and returned with a chocolate frosted doughnut for his wife. Lois took it and glanced up at him with a smile. "Thanks, honey. You don't really have to be so nice to me, you know."
"Yes, I do," he said in her ear. "I got you into this."
"I seem to recall I wasn't exactly objecting," she said. "But thanks for the doughnut."
He chuckled softly. "I guess you're feeling better this morning, then?"
She nodded and smiled around the mouthful of chocolate doughnut. "Your therapy was pretty effective."
"Any time," he said. "I'm going to make that call to my contact, now. Let's see if they've found out who the victim was."
Five minutes later he returned to Lois's desk. "I got an update on the stabbing," he said. "The victim was Mary Brett. *Detective* Mary Brett. She's one of Henderson's people."
"A police detective?"
Clark nodded. "She was due to report in day before yesterday, but didn't, then she showed up last night—and you saved her life."
"What was she doing there—does anyone know?"
Clark shook his head. "Marv didn't know, or wouldn't say. He did say she's in critical condition, but they think she'll make it. Henderson is livid, though."
"Lois! Clark!" Perry's voice reverberated over the noise of the busy newsroom. "In my office, now!"
Clark gave his wife a hand out of her chair and together they went into their boss's office. He gestured them to chairs.
"I just got a call from Bill Henderson. He wants us to hold any follow-ups on the stabbing story from last night, Lois."
"Why am I not surprised?" Lois asked rhetorically.
"Does it have anything to do with the victim being a police officer, Chief?" Clark asked.
Perry raised an eyebrow at him. "How'd you know that? No, never mind. Yeah. She was involved in a pretty sensitive case, and Henderson thinks her cover was somehow blown. She's been able to tell them a little—apparently she was trying to make it to a police station when the bad guys caught up with her. Henderson says he wants them to think she's dead—that their operation is still safe."
"What was the investigation?" Lois asked.
"He wouldn't say. He did say he owed you one, though."
"That's a lot of help," Lois grumbled.
"So we kill the story?" Clark asked.
"No, we just sit on it for awhile. Henderson promised the Planet an exclusive if it pans out. I guess it's his way of saying thanks to Lois."
Lois looked somewhat mollified. "I guess that's fair. Kind of. It wasn't that big a story the way it was, anyhow."
"My view exactly," Perry said.
Clark nodded. "Okay, I guess we do it his way. Uh, Chief, Lois and I wanted to tell you we've got a lead on another story right now. Unless you really need us, we're going to be busy for the rest of the day."
Perry raised an eyebrow. "Anything you want to tell me about?"
They looked at each other. "Um," Clark said, "well, it involves a series of unexplained disappearances of co-eds from NTSU. Seven in the last two months, and the last one was night before last. Superman found some evidence of kidnapping, yesterday."
"Say no more," Perry waved his hands at them. "Get going! Just be sure you bring me back a story!"
"Sure," Bobby said. His voice sounded muffled as if he was speaking through a mouthful of food. "I was gonna phone you right after lunch. I did some askin' around after you called me yesterday. There's a bunch of guys, see, who moved in two, three months ago. They were operating down south, but things got too hot for 'em."
"And?" Lois said.
"Sheesh! Have some patience! The rumor is that they were grabbin' girls from the local college—good families and all, but no relatives nearby so they wouldn't get noticed too soon. That's all I know, except these guys are dangerous. There's big money involved. They mighta grabbed your sister."
"Any idea what they want them for?" Lois asked.
"Not a word. They want 'em alive, but they're not above killing anybody who crosses 'em or gets in their way. You owe me that smorgy dinner, now. I'm risking my neck telling you all this."
"We'll get it to you. If you can find out anything more that we can use, I'll upgrade that to Peking Duck, though."
Bobby's voice sounded almost agonized. "You know how to torture a guy, Lois! I'll see what I can do."
Lois hung up and looked at her husband. "Find anything out from the names of the missing girls?"
"Jimmy's digging for bios, now," Clark told her. "He's having some difficulty getting through the university's firewall."
"Well, I can try to get hold of Lucy's roommates," Lois suggested. "Maybe we can find out a little more about where she's been or who she might have met in the last few days."
"That's a good idea." Clark turned his head as Jimmy approached. "Find anything, Jimmy?"
The young computer expert nodded. "Yeah. Here you go. New Troy State needs to upgrade its computer security. It only took me about an hour to break in. I got pictures, descriptions, backgrounds and grades. Was there anything else you needed?"
"Not at the moment." Clark took the printout Jimmy handed him. "Thanks, Jim."
"They're going to meet us in the cafeteria of the Student Union Building," Lois told her husband as they rode the elevator to the basement parking lot. Even Lois's aversion to the Planet's underground lot had not survived the weather today. Metropolis was being inundated with a late spring rainstorm. The temperature wasn't particularly cold, but it was very wet.
"It *would* have to rain today," Lois said as she slid into the passenger seat. She much preferred to drive but, considering the weather conditions, had reluctantly turned the task over to her husband.
He grinned at her apologetically. "Sorry, honey. Even Superman can't do much about a storm like this."
"No kidding. And it couldn't be just an ordinary storm," Lois muttered.
"It had to be this kind," she said, much to his bafflement. "It's the kind of pouring, sloppy, super-wet kind of rain that gets you soaked even if you've got a raincoat and umbrella and rain boots and everything. You can't much go anywhere or do anything because you come back dripping wet, and there's fender benders on all the streets and you'll probably have to take off somewhere halfway through this to pull somebody out of a ditch that he should have avoided but didn't because he was driving too fast for the conditions!"
The light dawned. "Oh," Clark said. He smothered a grin. The Lane babble gene seemed to be in full rant mode today. Maybe that was a good sign. "Don't worry, honey. Even if somebody winds up in a ditch, I don't plan on going anywhere unless there's piranhas in the water or something. It'll do people good to pay the city for the rescue for a change. Maybe it'll make them realize they can't always rely on Superman to save them from the results of their own poor judgement."
"You mean you want to keep an eye on me in case I actually *do* go into labor!"
"Well, that too."
"How about that wacko who tried to sue you last month for not being there to pull his motorcycle out of the water?" she asked, reverting in typical Lane style to the former subject.
"You mean when he rode it into the duck pond in Centennial Park? You know that didn't go anywhere. It was dismissed as a frivolous lawsuit."
"Yeah, but he tried."
"So do lots of people. The courts decided last year that people couldn't sue Superman for not being somewhere when they had an accident. That's like trying to sue a cop for not being in a particular alley when somebody gets held up. It's silly. Besides, Superman doesn't have any money. How could he pay anyone?"
"Clark Kent does."
"Clark Kent isn't the one who gets sued," Clark said.
"True." She looked thoughtful. "Maybe I should do an article pointing things like that out," she mused. "It would sure save us some aggravation. Maybe an interview…"
"Yeah, maybe. It might do a little bit to unclog the local courts," Clark agreed. "So, who did you get hold of for us to talk to?"
Lois shifted uncomfortably in the seat and readjusted the position of her seatbelt. She rubbed her middle. "I spoke to the roommates of two of the missing women. We're going to talk to them first, then we'll go over to Lucy's dorm and see some of her friends. It may be a waste of time, but you never know."
"Yeah," Clark said.
Lois fell silent for a moment, looking out at the flooded streets and sidewalks. Clark concentrated on driving. Ahead of them the roadway was so full of water that a car, trying to brake for a red light, hydroplaned into the intersection. Fortunately, Clark was able to avoid the skidding vehicle which came to rest against the curb. The driver, a youngish man with a full-sized handlebar mustache, swore eloquently, and quite clearly to Clark's hearing, gunned the engine, showering several unlucky pedestrians with dirty water, and rocketed across the street and out of sight. An elderly man shouted and shook his fist after him.
"Wow," Clark said. "There goes an accident looking for a place to happen."
"Huh?" Lois glanced at him.
"Reckless driver," he explained.
"Lois, are you all right?"
"Yeah." She rubbed her middle again. "I was just thinking, trying to figure out why somebody would be kidnapping so many women. I've got this really wild idea."
"Okay, let's hear it."
"Well, last night on the news I heard a government spokesman for Fostonia denying that the rumors about a white slave trade operating there were true. Bobby said this group, whoever they are, were operating down south, doing the same thing they're doing here. What if the rumors are true?"
Clark raised his eyebrows at the thought, while avoiding a large, shaggy wet dog that tried to commit suicide by diving under the Jeep's wheels. "White slave trade? That sounds like something that would be right up Ralph's alley."
"I know; that's what I thought. But what if it's true?"
"Well, it's happened before. I guess it's possible. It would explain why none of the women have been…found." The thought made him shudder.
"It sure would," Lois said. "And an operation like that would have to have some kind of organization behind it. It's not something a couple of amateurs is going to put together. They'd have to have some way of transporting the women, for one thing. You're not going to just pack them on a cruise ship with a ticket to Fostonia or something."
"No, I can see that wouldn't work," he agreed, a slight quiver in his voice.
"And they're a pretty diverse lot. I mean," Lois pursued, "don't serial killers usually have a 'type' they tend to target?"
"A lot of them do."
"Well, look at the victims. Three Caucasian, one Asian, two black and one Native American. Talk about an equal opportunity kidnapper!"
"I see what you mean," Clark agreed. "You might be right."
"Which means someone's targeting them…maybe meeting them ahead of time, finding out about them from other people who know them. Maybe we can find out who."
"Amy said they'd be sitting at a corner table," Lois said. "That must be it."
There were two young women at the table Lois indicated, who looked up at their approach.
"Amy Green?" Lois asked.
The petite blond nodded. "You must be Lois Lane and Clark Kent. I recognize you from your pictures."
"That's right." Clark glanced questioningly at the second occupant of the table.
The lanky brunette smiled. "I'm Yolanda Elder, Yo to my friends. Have a seat."
Clark held a chair for Lois, then took the one next to her. When they were all seated, Clark spoke.
"You two are friends of Anita Stewart and Tanya Weiss?"
"Anita's my roommate," Yolanda said. "Tanya is Amy's. What do you need to know?"
"Can you tell us a little about them?" Lois asked. "What they're like, what they like to do, anyone new they might have met in the days before they disappeared?"
Amy frowned. "Well, Tanya is one of those people everybody likes, if you know what I mean, Ms. Lane. She's really smart and pretty and friendly, and everybody likes her."
"Did anything different happen to her in the last few days before she disappeared?" Clark asked. "Or did she meet anybody new? Maybe someone who wanted to know about her family or background?"
"Um…" Amy was obviously trying hard to remember. "She met a new guy she really liked at a party a couple of nights earlier. She said he was really cute, but I don't know who he was. His name was Ben or Bob or Bill or something like that."
"That's funny," Yolanda said. "Anita went to a party a couple of days before *she* disappeared. We both did. It was at Walberg House."
Clark's eyebrows went up. "*Walberg* House? That's an odd name for a fraternity."
"It's not a frat house. It's a house off campus where a lot of the graduate students live. It got named for some rich guy who donated it to the university about twenty-five years ago, I think. They throw a lot of parties over there. I don't know how they get any studying done, to tell you the truth. A few times last semester it got so loud the neighbors called the cops."
"Oh," Lois said. "Uh, could you tell us what happened the day Anita disappeared?"
"Sure." Yolanda scowled, obviously trying to recall. "I don't think much happened that day, really. It was a Tuesday. Anita was going to a movie with some friends. She was supposed to meet them in the Quad, but she never showed up. They finally went on without her. She left the dorm about six, and that was the last anybody saw of her."
"That's pretty much what happened with Tanya," Amy said. "She'd gone to the library to study. According to the librarian she left at six when they closed and nobody ever saw her again. But the book she checked out was returned in the night book return slot a couple of days later."
"That's interesting," Lois said. "Can you think of anything else that might help? Does Anita or Tanya have a boyfriend? Maybe we could talk to them."
"Anita doesn't have any one regular boyfriend," Yolanda said. "She dates a lot of guys, but she hasn't gotten serious about any of them."
"Tanya's fiancÚ lives in Seattle," Amy said.
"I see." Clark glanced at Lois. "I guess that fits." He smiled at them. "I guess that covers it, then. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us."
"We were glad to," Amy said. "I hope it helps find them. This is really kind of scary, you know?" She gave Clark an admiring look. "Um…I'm a journalism major. Could I have your autographs before you leave?"
Salli James, one of Lucy's roommates, was at the dormitory when Lois and Clark arrived. She invited them in with a wave of her hand. "Nobody had time to pick up this morning, and Carol had to leave, so I told her I'd stay and talk to you. Have a seat." She surveyed Lois with open curiosity. "You're Lucy's sister?"
"Yes. I'm Lois Lane." Lois gingerly took a seat on a desk chair with someone's bra draped over the back.
"The reporter? Wow!" Salli thrust a pack of gum at her. "Want some chewing gum?"
"Uh…no, thanks," Lois said. Clark shook his head.
"Okay." Salli popped a piece into her mouth and chewed vigorously, looking Clark up and down with open admiration. "Wow! Is this your partner?"
"Yes," Lois said, resisting the urge to bristle. "This is Clark Kent, my husband."
"I read your stuff," Salli commented, still looking at Clark. "I didn't know Lucy had famous relatives."
"Didn't she mention us?" Clark asked.
Salli shook her head. "She said she had a married sister, that's all. Wow," she repeated. Clark squirmed slightly, and Lois reminded herself how much he disliked being ogled.
"We're trying to find out what happened to Lucy," she said, trying to ignore Salli's obvious appreciation of her husband. "Carol said she left about six-fifteen and didn't come back?"
"I dunno. I wasn't here," Salli said. "If Carol said so, she probably did."
"Could you tell us if Lucy went to any parties in the week before she disappeared?" Clark asked, suddenly.
Salli chomped on her gum, apparently thinking. "Yeah, I think she did…three or four days ago. They had the big spring beer bust over at Walberg House."
"A beer party?" Lois asked.
"Yeah. The Administration doesn't like it, but they're off campus and don't allow anybody under twenty-one, so nobody can do much. A bunch of us went…I think Lucy did, too. I wasn't paying much attention."
"I'll bet, " Lois muttered under her breath.
Salli added," I hope you find her." She looked wistfully at Clark. "You got any brothers?'
"Do you suppose this Walberg House is connected to the kidnappings?" Lois wondered aloud. Clark held the umbrella for her while she maneuvered herself awkwardly into the Jeep, then hurried around to the driver's side. He slid quickly behind the wheel, then turned, removing his glasses, and fanned low-level heat vision over her, beginning at her head and ending with her feet. Steam began to rise from her clothing and shoes.
"There." He replaced his glasses and started up the engine. "I think," he said, resuming the conversation, "that it's at least an interesting coincidence that all three women were at parties the week before they disappeared and at least two of the three were at Walberg House. Maybe we should take a look at the place."
"We can drive by, I guess," she suggested. "And maybe Superman should take a closer look."
"I guess so," Clark said. "I don't like to snoop on people's privacy with only flimsy evidence to go on, but…"
Lois's cell phone rang, interrupting his sentence. She fished it out of her purse. "Hello? Oh, hi Bobby." A pause. "More information? Well, what is it?" She was silent for a second. "*What*? Repeat that…You're sure? No, I'm not insulting you; I was just surprised. Okay, if this pans out you're up for a Peking Duck dinner. Thanks, Bobby. I'll be in touch." She shut off the phone and looked at Clark. "Wow!"
"That was Bobby. He did some more asking around—I guess he really wants that Peking Duck. He found out a name for us. Walberg."
Clark stared at her. "Well," he said, finally, "I guess it wasn't a coincidence after all."
"I guess not." She punched in a number on her cell phone.
"Who are you calling?"
"Jimmy. I want a list of the students who live in Walberg House, and some background on them. Then we can go look at it ourselves."
Walberg House, it turned out, was located a short distance from the campus, itself. It was an old, classic Victorian house, which had been turned into a rooming house for students. They drove past it, noting the neat, well-kept appearance, except for someone's shirt which appeared to have been hung on an upstairs window sill to dry, and was consequently getting soaked. Rose bushes in the front yard were putting out their spring buds and one or two more courageous early roses had already made their debut. Several young men were visible with umbrellas and raincoats as they ducked in and out the front door, but no one more than glanced at the silver Jeep Cherokee which cruised slowly down the quiet, residential street and past the house.
"Well," Lois said, when they turned back out onto the wider street again, "that didn't tell us much."
"I'll come back a little later on my own," Clark said. "I don't expect much to be going on by day and in the open, anyhow."
"Yeah. I guess we've learned about all we can here, for now," Lois admitted. "Let's get back and see what Jimmy's found out."
It was past four when they arrived back at the Daily Planet. Jimmy had the list of students now inhabiting the house, but was still working on backgrounds.
"I'll have them for you by tomorrow morning," he assured Clark. "If I get the information any sooner I'll give you a call, okay?"
"Okay," Clark said. He glanced around to see Lois as she came out of the elevator with CJ. She had stopped by the Planet's day care center to pick him up. "I think Lois has about reached her limit for the day, Jimmy. We'll be at home if you need to get hold of us."
"You got it, CK." Jimmy also glanced at Lois and dropped his voice. "Isn't she supposed to get off at one until the baby's born?"
"Yeah, but that's on hold for now." Clark's voice sounded grim, even to his own ears. "Her sister's disappeared. Probable kidnapping."
Jimmy's eyes widened. "Is *that* what you've been investigating? Why didn't you tell me?" At Clark's nod, his face hardened with determination. "I'll get that information for you as fast as I can. That's a promise. And if there's anything else I can help you with, just tell me, okay?"
"I will, Jimmy. Thanks." Clark clapped him lightly on the shoulder and went to lift CJ from his wife's arms. "Come on, honey, let's call it a day."
Behind him, he heard Ralph's voice say, "What did Kent want, Olsen?"
"None of your business, Ralph," Jimmy said, pleasantly.
"Come on, Olsen! Give a guy a break!"
"Why don't you ask him?" Jimmy suggested, and Clark hid a grin. His pesky co-worker wasn't going to get much out of Jimmy, that was certain.
When they arrived at the townhouse, Clark went directly to the phone and dialed a number. Lois sank onto the couch and put her feet up with a sigh of relief.
"I don't know which is worse," she remarked, while Clark waited for someone to answer, "the five hundred daily visits to the bathroom or the swollen feet. Who are you calling?"
He had opened his mouth to answer when he heard the receiver being picked up and a familiar voice said, "Hello?"
"Hi, Mom," Clark said.
"Clark!" His mother's voice sounded excited. "Is it time?"
"No, not quite," he answered. "I was wondering if you'd mind coming a day early."
"No problem at all, honey. What's going on?"
"I'd rather explain that in person if you don't mind, Mom," Clark said. "Something's happened and we could use your help, especially since things are as close as they are."
"I've had my bag packed for the last three weeks," Martha Kent's voice said with a laugh. "You can come get me whenever you like."
"Would now be too soon?"
"Now's fine. Just give me time to explain to your father and I'll be ready."
"Okay. I'll be there in a few minutes, then."
When he hung up, Lois was looking at him accusingly. "Why didn't you tell me you were going to call your Mom?"
"I just thought of it," Clark explained. "You can use the help right now, what with this investigation and everything. You're having to put a lot of energy into it when you should be taking it easier, so I figured Mom can take over some of the things like helping look after CJ."
She glanced at their son, who was tottering his way across the carpet toward Clark. "You're right—especially now that he's walking. Sorry I snapped at you." Unexpectedly she sniffled. "I don't mean to be so cross, Clark."
Instantly, he was seated next to her on the sofa. "Hey, what's the matter?"
"I don't know…yes, I do," she contradicted herself at once. "I'm so fat and clumsy right now, and women are looking at you all the time and wondering what this foxy guy sees in me, and—"
"Hey," he said. "So what if they wonder what I see in you? *I* know what I have, and I wouldn't trade you and CJ and this one—" he rested a hand on her rounded tummy, feeling the muscles grow hard under his fingers in one of those painless contractions, "for any other woman on Earth." He leaned forward to kiss her lightly. "It won't be long now, Lois. I have the feeling that we're just about down to the wire, here. Really."
"I just hope we can find Lucy first," she said, but she smiled.
"Me, too. I wouldn't like having to conduct the rest of the investigation by myself." He stood up. "I'm going to get Mom now, and after I get back with her I'll take a trip over to Walberg House to see what I can see, okay?"
"Okay," she said. "Better tell Martha to wear a raincoat."
When he returned from his trip, carrying Martha Kent, wrapped in yards of plastic raincoat, and the ancient suitcase he could remember from his days as a small child when they had gone to visit relatives, Lois was on the phone.
"Yes, Inspector," she was saying. "But this investigation she was involved with wouldn't have anything to do with the missing women, by any chance?" A short silence. "Why not? I'm not going to go running to the paper to splash it all over the front page! Look, my sister's been kidnapped. You don't expect me to sit around doing nothing, do you?" She listened for a moment. "Well, I'm not everybody else, in case you haven't noticed. I don't sit around." A pause. "So what if I'm about to have a baby? What difference does that make?" A long pause, this time. "Of course I'll keep it confidential…Okay…Okay…she was, huh? Okay, thanks, Henderson. Yeah, you have a nice day, too. Goodbye."
Clark set his mother on her feet and zipped up the steps with the suitcase to deposit it in the spare bedroom, then descended the stairs a second later, still in the Suit. "How was Inspector Henderson, honey?" he asked, although he had a pretty good idea.
"He was okay," Lois said innocently. "He just told me Detective Brett is doing a little better, but she won't be able to tell them much for a while. She was investigating the kidnappings. She must have found something, but they don't know what." She turned to her mother-in-law. "Hi, Martha. I'm glad you're here."
"So am I," Martha said. She stood back, surveying Lois's figure. "My, you've bloomed since I saw you a couple of months ago. You look wonderful."
Lois made a resigned face. "If bulging at the seams is wonderful."
"It is," Martha said. "It means that soon you'll be giving birth to a small miracle."
"It *is* a miracle, you know," Clark said. "Especially if you consider the circumstances."
"I know," Lois said. "And I really am happy about it. I'm just getting awfully impatient, waiting for something to happen."
"And it will," Martha said. "Now, why don't you sit back down, put your feet up and let me do the work right now? Clark told me what's happened to your sister. Clark, you said you had something to do after we got here?"
"Right," he said. "A little snooping. I'll be back shortly." He broke off as he saw Lois wince. "Honey?"
"Go ahead, Clark. It's just the usual."
"Okay." He glanced significantly at his mother, who smiled and made shooing motions with her hands.
"Go," she said. "Even if it's real, nothing will happen right away."
Slightly reassured, he kissed his wife and whisked out of the room.
"Clark, I keep telling you that it's nothing but the same stuff that's been going on all week," Lois was saying as the elevator doors opened on the newsroom floor the next morning. "Every so often the muscles all tighten up, but it doesn't hurt a bit. I wish something *would* happen, believe me!"
Clark looked dubiously at his wife as they exited the elevator. "I don't know, Lois. You had one every seventy-three minutes all night long. I know. You woke me up by squirming around every time it happened and I checked the time."
"It's the pressure," Lois explained patiently. "Honestly, Clark, you're getting jumpier about this than I am."
"Sorry. I can't help it," he apologized. "I just have this 'feeling' about it."
"So, now you're psychic?" she challenged.
"How should I know?" he replied. "I'm just telling you how I feel."
"I'll take your word for it," Lois said. "As far as I'm concerned, the whole business is on hold until we get this thing with Lucy solved, and her found."
"Hey, guys," Jimmy called as they came down the ramp. "I've got that information you wanted."
"What do you have?" Lois asked, hurrying so quickly that she almost stumbled and Clark's heart jumped into his throat.
"I've got all the stuff in the conference room," Jimmy said. "Figured it would be easier to spread out all the paper on the table there."
"Good idea," Clark said. He hadn't failed to note the instant attention on Ralph's part.
Neither had Jimmy. Their young friend closed and locked the conference room door after them. "Ralph's been after me ever since yesterday about your investigation," he said in an annoyed tone. "He's got some idea you've got this secret source for scoops and he's pulling out all the stops to find out what it is. I'd watch him if I were you. I caught him trying to peek over my shoulder when I was hunting up records from Florida this morning."
"Florida?" Clark asked.
"Yeah. There's twelve guys living in Walberg House right now. Nine of them have been there since at least from the beginning of the school year, but three of them transferred in at the semester break from the same school down in Florida."
"Florida," Lois said. "'Down south'."
"Huh?" Jimmy said.
"Bobby told us this bunch had moved in from 'down south'," Clark said.
"Oh. Well, I thought you'd want to know where they came from and if they've got any police records, or anything."
"We do. Nice thinking, Jimmy." Lois leaned over the yards of paper laid out across the table.
"Thanks. The stuff on the left is the information on the others. I separated out the three new guys in that pile on the right."
"Thanks a lot, Jimmy," Clark said.
"No sweat. If you need anything else, just tell me. And Ralph's not getting *anything* out of me," Jimmy said with uncharacteristic acerbity. "If he wants a big story, let him go out and work for it the way the rest of us do!"
"There's one thing," Clark said. "Is there any way you can find out for us if any female students happened to disappear from their last school?"
"You got it. It was probably in the local papers. I can do a search for it. Shouldn't take long." Jimmy unlocked the door and opened it suddenly, almost in Ralph's face. "Good grief, Ralph!" he snapped, irritably. "Do you *like* getting doors rammed into your nose, or something?"
"I think," Clark said, after Jimmy had left the room, "that our young friend is seriously ticked off."
"I am, too," Lois said. "Ralph's been making a pest of himself ever since Perry told him he couldn't be your partner. Like Jimmy says, he seems to think there's some secret other than hard work and investigative skills to coming up with the scoops. If we don't discourage him he's going to seriously interfere when you have to go out and…you know."
"Well, we'll have to think about how to do that after we've got Lucy back safe," Clark said. He began to sift quickly through the information Jimmy had provided. "Hmmm. Looks like Jimmy did a lot of digging. Good photos, too. Nothing here, no…no, and no. Give me that stuff on the new guys, would you?"
Lois handed the much smaller stack to him. He scanned it quickly. "Huh. Look at this. Our three transfers are Robert Ashley, age twenty-three, business major, Peter Brookes, twenty-four, a law student, and Tyler Griggs, twenty-three, major in philosophy."
Lois laughed, but didn't comment.
"Backgrounds…" Clark continued, "middle to upper class families, no felonies. Griggs has three DUIs in the past couple of years. Ashley was arrested for assault, but the victim dropped the charges."
"I wonder why?" Lois said.
"It doesn't say, but look at this! Peter Brookes apparently was caught cheating on his law exams, but his dad made a sizeable donation to the university's law school and the school officials dropped the matter."
"How on earth does Jimmy find this stuff out?" Lois muttered.
"I don't know, but he should work for the FBI…Lois, are you all right?"
She rubbed her abdomen. "Darn, but these things are annoying! I just wish they'd *do* something!"
Clark checked his watch. Seventy-two minutes since the last one. Maybe it didn't mean anything, but the regularity of the contractions put him on the alert.
Lois noticed. "Don't get excited, Clark. They don't hurt a bit."
"Okay. But you don't mind if I time them, do you?"
She rolled her eyes. "Go right ahead; you will anyway. But in the meantime, maybe we should make an appointment to talk to these three."
"Probably," Clark said. "Last night was a complete waste of time, though. The only thing I saw at Walberg House was another party—and several couples doing things I'd rather *not* have seen—but that doesn't mean it's not connected."
"My guess," Lois said, "is that it's simply used by our suspects as a way to spot the candidates. Probably nothing else happens there."
"Yeah." He reached for the phone directory. "Let's give them a call." There was a quick knock on the door five minutes later as he was hanging up the phone.
Lois opened it. "That was fast."
"It wasn't hard to find," Jimmy said. "Nine female students disappeared over a period of six months. The last one vanished on December seventh."
Clark looked at Lois. "It looks like we may have hit the jackpot."
Robert Ashley and Tyler Griggs were waiting for them when they arrived at the little one horse coffee shop not far from NTSU's campus.
Robert Ashley was a good-looking, dark-haired young man with grey eyes, and when he rose at their approach he stood several inches above Clark's solid, six-foot frame. Tyler Griggs was shorter, blond and blue-eyed, and his gaze kept shifting back and forth between Clark and his fellow student. He seemed unable or unwilling to look straight at Lois, Clark noted.
"Clark Kent and Lois Lane?" Ashley's voice was a deep, resonant baritone; Clark was reminded strongly of a speech instructor whose class he had attended for one semester at Midwest U.
"That's right." He shook the man's extended hand briefly.
"I'm Bob Ashley; this is Ty Griggs. Peter asked us to explain that he'd be a bit late. He's at a lecture for his Legal Ethics class that he couldn't afford to miss. They're reviewing for an exam that's worth fifty percent of the grade."
"Of course," Lois said.
"Shall we sit down?" Ashley gestured to chairs. Clark held Lois's chair for her then took the one next to her. When they were seated, Ashley spoke again.
"I was surprised when you called, Mr. Kent. Why would a pair of newspaper reporters want to talk to us?"
"We're interviewing a number of people around the campus," Clark explained, smoothly. "Someone recommended we speak to you because the three of you may have known some of the young women."
"Women?" Griggs asked.
"Yes. Seven young women have disappeared without a trace from the university campus since February," Lois said. "We've been trying to trace their movements over the week before each of them vanished. We understand that they came to parties at Walberg House during that time. We'd like to know anything you could remember about those visits: who they were with, who they spoke to, what they did—you know. To try to give us more leads."
Clark took photos of the women, supplied by Jimmy, from the pocket of his jacket and placed them on the table. "Do you recognize any of them?"
Ashley and Griggs leaned forward to look at the pictures. Griggs shook his head. "I don't recognize any of them," he said.
He was lying. Clark could hear his pulse pounding fast and loud. He glanced at Robert Ashley. The man's face was composed, but his heart rate had accelerated as well.
"Look closely," Lois said. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I think I recognize this one." Ashley picked up the photo of Anita Stewart. "She was at the party we threw the last week of March. I'm afraid I don't remember her name, though."
"Anita," Lois said. "Do you recognize this girl?" She held up the photo of Lucy.
Ashley shook his head. "Can't say I do. Ty?"
The blond man shook his head nervously. "No."
Another young man was approaching the table as they spoke. He was tall and slender, with a narrow face and rather small, pale eyes behind rimless glasses. Clark recognized him from the photo Jimmy had supplied of him, and the first impression he had of the man in person was that he would never make it as a lawyer. He *looked* like a crooked lawyer. On second thought, he wondered if it would make any difference at all.
"Peter Brookes," he introduced himself. "You must be Clark Kent and Lois Lane."
Clark had risen to his feet when Brookes arrived. He shook hands with the newcomer and resumed his seat as the other man pulled up a chair.
"What's this all about?" Brookes asked.
Robert Ashley explained briefly and Brookes nodded. "I see." His voice was composed. "Well, I don't know how much help I'll be, but—are these the missing girls?"
"Yes," Lois said.
"Hmmm…" Brookes leaned forward, looking closely at the photos. "Some of them do look familiar," he admitted. "I think this one was at the spring…uh…to put it frankly, the yearly spring beer bust last Saturday night." He indicated Lucy's photograph. "Attractive girl. You say she's disappeared? Is there any evidence of foul play?"
"Some," Clark admitted. This guy was smooth! His heartbeat was no faster than normal, and there wasn't the slightest trace of uneasiness in his voice.
Something else was nagging him for attention, something he should recognize. He groped futilely for the feeling for several seconds, trying to pin it down without success.
"Can you tell us who she might have been with that night?" Lois asked.
Brookes frowned thoughtfully at the picture of Lucy, slowly removed his glasses and began to polish them carefully with his handkerchief.
Clark's nostrils twitched. He had it, now. He'd found a handkerchief tangled in the hedge near Lucy's car, and on it he had smelled the faint scent of expensive cologne.
The same cologne that Peter Brookes was wearing right now. That was what he had noticed when the man had arrived.
"I don't remember that she was with anyone," Brookes said at last. "I'm sorry. I can't think of anything particularly helpful."
A few minutes later they said their farewells and departed.
"Well," Lois said, as she climbed into the driver's seat, "What do you think?"
Clark shut the door for her. "Shh. I'm listening."
Lois fell silent, watching him expectantly. He leaned on her window and tuned his hearing to the three young men still inside the coffee shop.
"Did you do it?" Tyler Griggs' voice asked.
"Yeah." That was Brookes. "With any luck it'll delay them 'til we're done. Things are getting too hot here. First that cop and now these two snoops."
"If we bolt now, people are going to notice," Robert Ashley's voice interjected. "We've got to get the shipment out tonight, then we'll just lie low for a while; we should be all right. No one can prove anything once the evidence is gone, now that the cop is out of the way."
"I agree." Brookes' voice was confident. "You two take the car and drive around. They'll follow you. I'm going to see Jeffers."
"They're coming out," Clark said. "They're our pigeons, Lois. I'll go into detail later. Griggs and Ashley are the decoys. Follow them. I'm going to trail Brookes…from five hundred feet."
"Got it," Lois said. "By the way, just in case you're still worrying, I'm still not having any labor. So much for your 'feeling'."
He didn't argue, but the feeling was still there, and he'd been aware that she'd had another one of the painless contractions while they were sitting at the table, talking—exactly seventy-two minutes after the last one. Still, if Lois was in early labor or about to go into it, as his mother had said yesterday, nothing would happen right away, and they couldn't sit around doing nothing while waiting to see if this was another false alarm.
"Here they come," he said. "I'll meet you at the Planet." He kissed her quickly on the mouth, and was gone.
From five hundred feet in the air, Superman saw the car bearing Bob Ashley and Ty Griggs pull away from the curb and Lois followed them with her usual smooth skill. He watched them disappear down the street and suppressed a stab of worry; Lois had good sense, she'd be all right simply following the two.
Below him, Peter Brookes emerged from the coffee shop, glanced up and down the street and crossed to the white VW that was parked a few spaces behind the spot where the Jeep had been. In a moment he was behind the wheel and headed in the same direction his two friends and Lois had taken.
Cruising at five hundred feet and completely out of sight of the normal human eye, Superman followed him.
Brookes headed south and west, toward Metropolis's business section. Within twenty minutes, he was pulling into the parking lot of a downtown office building. He parked in a space at the far end of the huge parking lot and strode briskly toward the tall structure.
Clark watched with a certain sense of deja vu. He was familiar with this location. He had been here as Clark Kent to interview executives of Caribbean Imports in at least three investigations over the last few years. He and Lois *knew* beyond the shadow of a doubt that the company was involved in numerous illicit activities, but in spite of the fact that it had been caught red-handed twice in two years, their investigations had never been able to prove what they knew to be a fact. Somehow, the blame always managed to be placed on corrupt employees acting without the sanction of the company heads.
Now, like a bad penny, the name had surfaced again. He watched expectantly as Peter Brookes took the elevator to the seventh floor and entered the outer office of Caribbean Imports.
Clark landed behind the building's decorative shrubbery, made a quick change, and entered through the main doors with a brisk step.
He went up the stairs to the seventh floor in seconds and paused in the hall outside the outer office of the company. A quick peek with X-ray vision showed Brookes sitting in a chair, flipping absently through the pages of an automotive magazine. To Brookes's left was the door to the office of Jeremiah P. Jeffers, whom Clark had interviewed twice during his investigations. The man was impossible to pin down, as he had discovered during those two interviews, he never gave a straight answer, and in Clark's opinion he was one of the smoothest operators in the business. His office was also soundproofed and apparently painted with lead paint, for investigation months ago had shown him that his X-ray vision was unable to penetrate it, precautions which he'd found to be—well, interesting, to say the least. Which meant that he wasn't going to be able to hear what they had to say once Brookes got inside the office, unless he could think of a way around the obstacles.
He looked around, grasping for inspiration.
There was a nearly empty restroom next to the offices of Caribbean Imports. He entered and waited for the single occupant to finish his business and leave. When the door swung shut behind him, Clark locked it, then turned to scan the walls.
The wall to his right was impenetrable to his vision; that meant it was most likely the wall to Jeffers's office.
Very cautiously, Clark used his little finger to drill a hole in the plaster wall, through the lead paint and soundproofing, stopping just short of the surface. With only a thin layer of sound-deadening material separating him from the room beyond, the stuff should no longer function to block noises within the room. Tuning his hearing to catch the faintest sound, he put one eye to the breach he had created in the office's defenses and checked his work.
Yes, he could see through the remaining barrier, now. Peter Brookes had apparently just entered, for he was standing diffidently before the executive's desk, waiting to be noticed; a complete change of attitude from his former assured demeanor.
Clark could only see the profile of the man seated at the desk itself, but that was enough. J.P. Jeffers was the pompous and very superior company executive whom he had interviewed twice before, and who had loftily denied any involvement with the crimes committed by persons in the company's employ. He appeared to be absorbed in reading a message on his computer screen and gave no attention to the man shifting nervously before him.
Jeffers finished reading whatever document had so held his attention and looked up from the computer. "You have a problem, Mr. Brookes?"
"Yes, sir." Brookes's voice was no longer firm and confident; he fiddled uncomfortably with his watchband. "The reporters—Lane and Kent—spoke to us a little while ago. They're trying to track down the missing women, and I'm sure they suspect us."
"You were sure of that this morning."
Brookes nodded. "Yes, sir. We're going to be making the last pick-up tonight, then I think we need to lie low for awhile. With the evidence gone, no one will be able to prove anything."
Jeffers lifted a hand and Brookes fell silent. "I agree."
"Thank you, sir."
"The Caribbean Lady will be lying off of Hobb's Bay tonight after sunset, just outside the three-mile limit. Make your delivery there and then go into defense mode. Do nothing to draw attention to yourselves. You'll receive a new assignment in about two months."
"However, these two reporters worry me. They may have told others of their suspicions. Is there any chance you were followed?"
"No, sir. They're following Ashley and Griggs. Any minute now they should be having a tragic accident. If they survive it, they'll be in the hospital until well after we're through."
That was the last word Clark heard of the conversation. In an instant he was out of the building and flinging himself into the sky over Metropolis, hurling himself frantically in the direction of the university.
Where had Ashley and Griggs gone? In a city the size of Metropolis, spotting one car somewhere in that vast area was close to impossible, at least in what little time he might have left.
In sudden inspiration, he stopped in mid air and, with a small touch of super-legerdemain, produced his cellular phone. As fast as the mechanism would handle it, he punched in the numbers to Lois's phone.
Heart thumping suffocatingly in his chest, he listened for the ring. Two rings, three, four—
"Hello?" Lois's voice said.
"Lois! Where are you?"
"Clark? What's going on?"
"Don't talk, just listen. Where are you?"
"I'm on the River Parkway, just after the Emerald Drive off ramp. What—?"
But Clark was no longer listening. With a burst of super-speed he headed for her location fast enough to startle the citizens of Metropolis with the loudest sonic boom they had ever heard. In a split second he was over the section of parkway she had named in time to see the Jeep lurch sideways as the right front wheel came loose. He pushed himself to higher speed as he dived for the skidding vehicle and seized it as it started to roll.
In an instant he had righted it, supporting the right, front section and letting the momentum carry him backwards so as not to jar his wife as she clutched the steering wheel, her eyes squeezed shut. At last, the Jeep came to rest against the center divider. He let it down gently, sped to the driver's door, and yanked it open. In an instant he was holding Lois tightly in his arms.
"Are you all right? Are you hurt?"
She clutched him for a moment, shaking, then seemed to find her voice.
"Are you hurt?" he asked again, forcing himself to release her. The sight of Superman hugging the very pregnant wife of his best friend was not a spectacle to which he wanted to treat any curious passerby.
"I…I don't think so," she stammered. "What happened?"
"That's what I'm going to find out," he said. With a gust of air he was gone and back again almost instantly, with the wheel. He set it on the ground and went to examine the right wheel well of the Jeep.
Lois followed him. "What is it?"
"Look." Clark indicated the places where the wheel had been attached to the shaft. "Do you see this?"
"Two of the bolts that hold the wheel on were cut nearly in two. The nuts on the others were apparently removed. The person who did this expected the two weakened bolts holding the wheel on to snap under the strain and the wheel to come off. It was a deliberate attempt to injure or kill us."
"Peter Brookes. I heard him tell J.P. Jeffers what he'd done."
"Who's…you mean that executive at…"
"Caribbean Imports." Clark turned to look her over carefully. "Are you sure you're all right, Lois? Maybe I should fly you to Dr. Klein…"
"Clark, I'm fine! Not even a bruise, thanks to you. You mean this is tied to Caribbean Imports?"
He nodded, tuning his hearing to listen to their baby's heartbeat. The steady, rapid sound was the same as always. Reassured, he took a deep breath and blew it slowly out, trying to quell the anger that was beginning to boil under the surface. These people had tried to seriously injure, perhaps kill, his wife and child.
Lois put a hand on his arm. "Clark, it's all right. I'm fine."
"It's not all right," Clark said. "If I'd lost you—"
"But you didn't. You got here in time. Let's deal with this—" she gestured to the Jeep, "—and you can fill me in on what you found out."
He nodded slowly, drawing another breath, but the anger hadn't gone away. "You're right. Get in the Jeep and I'll fly it to our mechanic; then we can talk."
"It's just as well that you insisted we get the coverage for vandalism," Clark was saying a couple of hours later. "Even if the premiums are higher." He tried to smile at her, and to keep his voice light, but the smile felt stiff and unnatural.
Lois put a hand on his arm. "Come on, Clark. Let's go into the conference room so we can talk."
When the door closed behind them, she turned to face him. "Clark, it's *over* and I'm not hurt. Neither is the baby."
"Lois, I should never have left you alone."
"I knew it!—you're blaming yourself, aren't you?" She grabbed both his hands. "Look at me, Clark! You are *not* to obsess over this! Brookes and his friends are to blame, and behind them Caribbean Imports. Do you understand me? You saved me…again. And now we know about the cargo ship. We actually have a chance to get Lucy back. You are *not* to blame yourself, Clark! I'm a grown woman, and some of this stuff comes with the job."
He pulled her into his arms, wishing for the umpteenth time that he could keep her this safe forever. But she wouldn't be Lois if she weren't free to do as she wished, even if it meant occasionally facing danger.
She put a hand up to touch his cheek. "Clark, you saved me," she repeated. "I'm not hurt."
"I know…" He broke off as he felt the muscles across her middle grow hard as granite against his side. Lois grimaced.
"Lois?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I don't think so."
"Does it hurt?"
"No, not really. It's just a lot of pressure." She sighed. "I figure Kryptonian pregnancies last ten or eleven months."
Clark checked his watch. "How many of them since the one in the coffee shop?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. Four or five, maybe. Look, I've got an idea."
"Well, this cargo ship is going to be off the coast just outside the three-mile limit."
"And that means they're going to be reaching it via some kind of small boat, right?""
"So, most likely they're stowing the women near the docks, somewhere." Clark frowned, dubiously. "All seven of them? I doubt they'd keep them here for two months…"
"No, of course not," Lois said. "They probably ship them out once or twice a month. But Lucy should still be here, somewhere. Anyway, remember that warehouse Caribbean Imports had on Pier 17 where we found the drugs that time?"
"How could I ever forget?"
"Well, what if they have other holdings around there, other buildings maybe even under the names of dummy companies or something? I mean, once they realized someone was onto them they might have started taking more precautions."
Clark nodded slowly. "It's not only possible but likely. Anyway, it's worth a shot. Let's see what Jimmy can find us. We've got a few hours before sunset. They're not going to try to grab their 'last shipment' by daylight."
"Or ship anybody out," Lois agreed. She opened the door. "Jimmy!"
Perry White watched his star investigative team and wondered what they were up to now. Two hours before, the tremendous sonic boom that marked the passage of Superman across the skies of Metropolis—and a Superman in a big hurry if Perry knew anything about the man—had rattled the windows of the Planet building, but no big story had followed, so he concluded the cause was a more personal one. At first he'd considered the possibility of the imminent arrival of the newest Kent, but when they'd walked into the newsroom a short time ago it was obvious that had not been the cause, either. But he'd noticed an increase in Clark's tendency to hover over his wife and the fact that Lois wasn't objecting. Something had happened, that was for sure, and probably in connection with this latest thing they were investigating. He toyed for a moment with the thought of asking for a progress report, but decided against it. He'd learned from experience that left alone, Lane and Kent could produce results that gave the editors of other papers heartburn on a regular basis.
On the other hand, one couldn't say that about all the reporters on the staff.
"Ralph!" he barked. "Where's that piece you promised me on the municipal court bribery scandal?"
"I'm waiting for a call back from one of my sources, Chief," Ralph said.
"Make sure he doesn't forget about you," Perry said.
"I won't—I mean, I will." Ralph moved a little closer to Perry and lowered his voice. "Chief, I wanted to talk to you about that partnering suggestion I made…"
"Ralph, my decision's made," Perry said. "Kent's writing and yours just don't mesh. Not only that, but by the time you're up to speed, Lois will be back."
"I thought maybe I could benefit from learning his methods—you know, to improve my own investigative skills…"
"Ralph," Perry said, "there's nothing wrong with your investigative skills when you use 'em the right way. You wouldn't have been hired here, otherwise. Lane and Kent apply themselves to their job—the secret is just plenty of hard work and attention to details. You might go at it a little differently, but that doesn't mean your method is wrong. You do your job and let them do theirs and you'll do fine."
Ralph glanced resentfully at the Planet's top reporting team which was now in conference with Jimmy Olsen. Jimmy was nodding; Clark clapped him lightly on the shoulder and the Planet's computer expert turned to the keyboard in front of him.
Lois moved slowly to her desk and eased down into her chair. Clark took a position behind her, beginning to rub her shoulders.
Yep, Perry thought. *Something* had happened, all right, and Clark was in full-blown protective mode. That meant Lois had been at the center of it; somehow she'd been in danger and Superman had performed another hair-breadth rescue.
The phone on Lois's desk shrilled and she reached forward to pick up the receiver.
"Lois Lane," he heard her say. "What? Yes, of course it was vandalism. Do you think I'd saw through the bolts on my own wheel for fun?"
Perry felt his eyebrows rise. This was interesting. Besides, it was a boss's job to know what his employees were doing, wasn't it?
"What do you mean, 'at least a week'?" Her voice rose to a level where he didn't have to strain to hear. "Can't it be done any sooner?" She paused, evidently listening. "All right! Fine! I'll expect the replacement vehicle first thing tomorrow morning, then." Another pause, and he saw her jaw set. "Look, you…look, I'm expecting a baby any minute and I don't intend to be caught somewhere without a car when I need to get to the hospital!…Fine! My husband will pick it up in the morning!" She hung up.
Well, Perry inferred, the case must be progressing, then. The requisite attempt to kill one of them had been made. Should he set aside room on the front page for the evening edition? He glanced at the wall clock. Nah, it was going to press in forty-five minutes. Maybe he'd better have a contingency plan for tomorrow, however, just in case…
He was doing last minute edits to Ralph's piece forty minutes later, when he happened to glance up in time to see Clark, Lois and Jimmy huddled together by Jimmy's desk. The three had an air of excitement about them that no one could fail to note. They must have found *something*, he knew. Lane and Kent headed for the coat rack and thence up the ramp toward the elevator.
Ralph had noticed, too, Perry realized with a sense of resignation. The man was headed for the stairs. At that moment, Perry saw Lois grimace and put a hand on her middle. He'd seen her do that a couple of times today, and his brow puckered momentarily. He'd be willing to wager money on the probability that there would be a new little Kent yelling his or her head off by morning, and he thought Clark suspected the same thing, but no one tried to prevent Mad Dog Lane from following a hot lead, not even Superman. He'd just have to put his faith in Clark to do whatever was necessary if something happened. And he hoped they would be able to evade Ralph, who had now vanished down the stairs.
The elevator arrived as he watched, and Lane and Kent boarded.
Perry turned back to his editing job. He made one final correction and hit the "enter" key. Just under the wire, he reflected. As always.
"I hope this is it," Lois said breathlessly as they exited the elevator on the first floor.
"Well, there has to be some reason the real owner was hidden so well," Clark said. "How many holding companies did Jimmy say he had to trace it through?"
"Six," Lois said. "Anyway, after we solve this, we've got more information we can use to go after Caribbean Imports again. They're good at blaming things on everybody else. Just like Lex was. But they have to have a weak spot somewhere." She bit her lip. "I just hope Lucy's okay."
"I'd say these guys are going to keep their 'merchandise' in good shape," Clark said, distastefully. "They probably don't get as high a price if the women are hurt or sick. They might not be very comfortable, but I imagine we don't have to worry about their health."
"That's what I've been telling myself," Lois said.
"Lois," Clark said, quietly, "we're going to get her back. That's a promise."
"I know." She smiled at him. "Let's hail a taxi. What a time to have the Jeep out of service."
Clark placed two fingers in his mouth and whistled shrilly. A taxi screeched to a stop in front of them.
"Pier Twenty-four," Clark said, as they clambered into the rear seat.
The driver glanced dubiously at Lois's midriff. "You sure?"
"Of course we are," Lois said, a little crossly. "We're in a hurry, if you don't mind."
Clark glanced unobtrusively at her. Lois was being more snappish than she had been earlier, and he had not missed the fact that the last contraction had been a mere fifty minutes since the previous one.
"Lois?" he asked quietly, "are you all right?"
She smiled briefly and nodded. "I'm okay, Clark. If it turns out this *is* labor—and it probably isn't—we've got plenty of time. The last one still didn't hurt."
Reassuring himself that she was probably right—and besides, they were only going to look—he allowed himself to relax slightly.
Neither of them noticed the taxi that was following them.
The warehouse looked like any other warehouse Lois had ever seen, and she had seen more than she cared to during her career as an investigative reporter. If every bad guy in the world didn't want to kill her inside of one, it seemed as if a good percentage of them had tried. It was big, utilitarian, and dingy. The scenery was exactly like the rest of the area around here; the docks stretched out over the brownish water, dirty and weatherbeaten, and the distinct smell of fish and seawater, decaying plants and sea life made her stomach queasy.
Clark stuck close to her side; after the near-miss earlier today and the fact that she was sure he thought she was going into labor, getting him to move more than a few feet away from her would probably be an impossible task and, if the truth be told, she didn't mind. There was an aching sensation in her lower back—of course, her lower back had been hurting for months, but this was different, almost as if something back there was clamping down purposefully in response to the tightening muscles across her abdomen.
She glanced at her watch—the contraction was only thirty minutes since the last one. Hopefully it didn't mean anything. She couldn't afford to go into labor now! The painless contractions had been extremely irregular until just last night. Maybe it was just another bout of false labor, she thought hopefully.
In the west, the sun was sinking toward the horizon. It was still light, but it wouldn't be for much longer. There would be time for a quick look around and, if Clark found anything, a call to Henderson or perhaps a more purposeful foray by Superman. Nothing to it, she reassured herself. And, with luck, Lucy would be safe.
Again, for the latest uncounted time since they had determined that her sister had actually been kidnapped, she pushed down the almost frantic worry. Worrying did no good, she reminded herself again. If she was to be of any use in the rescue of Lucy, then she couldn't afford to let her emotions free. She would not be Ellen, allowing irrational, near-panic to interfere with what needed to be done.
Clark, of course, knew. He always did. She'd gotten so adept at hiding such emotions from herself that sometimes he knew before she did.
The taxi had let them out a little over two blocks from their destination. They strolled at an unhurried pace along the broken sidewalk, apparently in no rush to reach their goal, but Lois recognized the tilt of her husband's head.
"Hear anything?" she asked softly.
He shook his head. "The whole area's too noisy," he said. "We're going to have to get closer."
The blast of a boat's horn underlined the statement. She saw Clark wince slightly.
"How about the warehouse?" she asked. "Can you see anything?"
He lowered his glasses for a moment, then pushed them back into place. "No."
"Lead lining? That's suspicious by itself."
"Yeah, but considering who owns it, it doesn't have to be because of the women. It could be anything they didn't want Superman to see. Lining a building with lead isn't a crime, you know."
"I think the EPA or somebody would object," she said. "Paint isn't supposed to have lead in it anymore."
"Well yes, I suppose. But it might not be paint." They strolled in silence for several minutes. When they approached the huge structure, he guided her toward the right, into the space between the target warehouse and its neighbor. "Let's see what we can find behind the building."
The ground between the two warehouses was littered with debris. Lois stepped carefully around bits of clutter, broken pieces of board, aluminum cans and general trash. Apparently, whoever felt like dumping something regarded this area to be fair game, she thought. A tricycle, minus its handlebars and one rear wheel, lay forlornly on its side near the rear corner. When they rounded the corner itself, Clark pulled her quickly to one side to prevent her collision with a set of rusty bedsprings discarded on the ground and half-supported by the building's wall, next to a trio of battered metal trash cans, their lids lying askew atop their warped and dented shapes. Lois made a face at the aroma wafting from the interior of the nearest can.
"There's a door over there." Clark's voice was barely audible. "I'm going to see if I can hear anything."
"Okay." Lois took a deep breath. There was a tightening feeling across her lower back, the feel of muscles bunching and contracting. It hurt. The pain radiated around her sides, cramping. It lasted for only a few seconds, but she knew what it was.
She held her breath, glancing quickly at her watch. Only twenty minutes since the last one.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way! They had told her in the childbirth classes that the early stages of labor took hours for a first baby!
Clark was pressing his ear against the door, a look of concentration on his features.
"What do you hear?" she whispered.
"Five heartbeats," he replied, also in a whisper. "And someone's crying. A woman…more than one woman. I think this is…"
Whatever he was going to say, she never learned. From behind them came a yell and a tremendous crash, the jangling of what could only be the bedsprings, and the metallic thunder of the trash cans, as a falling body catapulted into them.
Ralph lay face down on the cement among the fallen cans and scattered garbage. One of his feet was tangled in the discarded bedsprings. They rattled loudly as he struggled to free himself from their grasp. He couldn't make more noise if he was trying to do so, she thought with a flash of sheer exasperation for her awkward colleague's blundering ways.
The door flew open, striking Clark square in the face and Lois found herself staring in shock down the barrel of the biggest handgun she thought she had ever seen.
"Hold it," the man said. "Don't anybody move."
"Inside," the larger of the two men said. He gave Ralph a jab with the nose of his weapon. "You, too, twinkletoes."
Inside the warehouse, it smelled damp and musty. Lights, high above on the ceiling, illuminated shadowy piles of crates stacked at the far end. Camouflage, she thought, in case someone should open the big front doors. Their footsteps echoed hollowly as the two men herded them through the door and closed it behind them.
"What do we do with 'em?" the other man asked.
"Lock them in with the women."
"Why not just kill them?" the shorter man wanted to know. Beside her, Lois felt her husband tense.
"Because I said so."
"You heard me."
"What are you going to do with us?" Ralph asked.
"Shut up." Joe apparently wasn't the garrulous sort, Lois concluded. "Hurry up, Ernie."
"Over there." Ernie waved his own weapon. Lois followed the gesture and gasped.
Against one wall a big cage had been set up, complete with four cots and nothing else. This crowd obviously had a good grasp of the villain's traditional role, she thought ironically. Concern for their victims' comfort didn't seem to be exactly paramount on their list of priorities. Inside the cage, standing in complete silence and watching the little drama, were three young women. The one closest to the bars was Lucy Lane. Her sister was staring at her in obvious surprise and horror, but, strangely enough, she didn't make a sound.
As they were herded toward the contraption, Clark kept an arm around her and his body between her and the weapons. Neither of the men objected; they probably didn't see her as much of a threat, Lois thought, and she had to concede the fact that in her present condition, they were probably right.
Ralph was limping; he might have twisted his ankle when he fell over the bedspring, she speculated unsympathetically. If so, it served him right.
Ernie waved his gun at the women. "Back up," he ordered and they obeyed silently, in fact their silence was beginning to strike Lois as distinctly odd. While Joe covered the three captives, Ernie unlocked the cage door. "Get in."
"You can't do this!" Ralph protested indignantly, only to be shoved unceremoniously forward by Ernie. Joe pointed his gun directly at Lois.
"Careful, pretty boy," he said to Clark.
Lois felt Clark's arm tighten. Without fuss, she followed Ralph into the cage. They were in a quandary, she knew. Clark could undoubtedly take these two out, but not in full view of the three woman and Ralph. Besides, there was always the possibility that one of the captives could get hurt.
He followed her into the cage, stepping over Ralph, who was picking himself up from the floor, and looked quickly at the women. "Are you three all right?"
"Quiet in there," Ernie said. "No talking."
"You can't do this," Ralph said again as he clambered awkwardly to his feet, and then sat down painfully on one of the cots.
"Newsflash, Ralph," Clark said. "They just did." Lois could hear the barely suppressed anger in his voice and glanced up at him in surprise. Clark's jaw was set; he was definitely unhappy with the results of Ralph's blundering. Well, that was just too bad, she reflected. When they got out of here, Clark was going to have to wait in line. She planned on having first dibs on Ralph. If there was anything left when she finished, Clark could have his turn.
"I said 'no talking'!" Ernie glowered at them. "Unless you want to die a little early!"
"Ernie!" Joe's voice was sharp. He turned to the prisoners. "Let me explain something," he said to Clark. "We have a way to be sure orders get obeyed. Did you notice the floor of the cage is made of metal? You see this?" He held up a small object in his left hand. "I push this button, the cage zaps anybody inside it. It won't kill you, but it doesn't feel good. You want me to give you a demonstration?"
Clark shook his head.
"Good." Joe turned and walked away from the cage. "Don't give me a reason to use it."
Lois stared at Clark in shock. They couldn't even talk?
Clark put his finger to his lips and gestured to the cot next to them. "Sit down," he mouthed silently.
Lois nodded and obeyed. Her feet hurt and so did her back. At least there had been no more contractions so far. She glanced at her watch and realized why. It had only been six minutes since the last one, though it seemed much longer.
The ringing of a cellular phone startled her and she glanced quickly around. Joe and Ernie were sitting on a pair of folding chairs some twenty feet away, with what looked like a card table between them. Joe reached for the cell phone that lay on the table along with a deck of cards, a couple of bags of chips and the remains of two fast food dinners.
"Hello?" he said and paused, listening. "Yeah, we're ready." More silence. "An hour? Right. Uh, boss? We have a problem." Again, he paused. "Three snoopers. We caught 'em sneaking around out back." He fell silent for several seconds. "No, I didn't think you'd like it if we did it here…Right. Out to sea. That's what I figured. Right. Okay. We're ready when you are." He switched off the phone.
Clark sat down next to Lois. "They plan on getting us out to sea and dumping us there," he said, very softly. "Don't worry. I won't let it get that far."
She nodded. "Clark," she whispered, "those two are the guys who tried to kill the detective."
He nodded, apparently unsurprised.
Lucy had moved over to sit beside her, without a sound. The other two women were sitting on one of the other bunks. One of them began to cry softly. Lois recognized Tanya Weiss by her picture. Anita Stewart's darker skin didn't show the traces of tears as easily, but her eyes were reddened. Lucy had been crying, too, Lois thought. Her sister looked wan and frightened.
Clark kept his face turned toward Lois, away from the two guards. "That was Brookes on the phone," he whispered. Lois had to strain to hear the words. "They're starting out to make the 'pickup'. They should be here in an hour or less."
She nodded infinitesimally. "We wait," she breathed. Surely, she thought, she could hold out until then. Early labor took hours, didn't it?
Silence fell as they waited, not wanting to risk the results of being overheard unless there was something important to communicate. The silence was loud. She still hadn't had a contraction, she thought hopefully, after what seemed like at least an hour had passed. Maybe it wasn't real labor after all. But what was keeping Brookes, Ashley and Griggs? She was beginning to wonder if the three grad students had encountered difficulty with their final "pickup".
She glanced at her watch as she felt the telltale ache in her lower back again. Only fifteen minutes? For a moment she didn't believe her eyes. It couldn't be! Surely more time had gone by, but her watch informed her it hadn't. What was going on here? According to the childbirth classes and everything she had read, this wasn't right. Things shouldn't be progressing this fast!
Or, at least, a human labor shouldn't.
Clark was looking at her questioningly. "Lois?"
"I'm all right, Clark," she said.
It was true. The contraction wasn't that difficult to control. If it got no worse, she could handle it, she assured herself. There was no need to alarm Clark with the information. He already had enough to deal with, and she didn't want fear for her safety to make him careless. And there was no point in telling their captors. The idea had crossed her mind, only to be instantly dismissed. If they were willing to cold-bloodedly murder three human beings, one of them a pregnant woman, not to mention Detective Brett, two nights ago, why should the fact that she was in labor make any difference at all?
The feeling lasted longer this time, and she bit her lip. An hour, she told herself. Only an hour, maybe less, and in the meantime Clark would be able to figure out a way for them to escape from this situation *without* revealing their big secret, they could catch the three grad students red-handed and rescue whatever unfortunate young woman the three had kidnapped. Surely, she could hold out for an hour.
Clark seemed to accept her assurance, and indeed, the contraction was easing off, now.
An hour, she reassured herself. Just an hour.
Clark was worried. Lois shifted against him and for the fourth time in thirty-five minutes he felt the muscles of her abdomen contract. Each time, the interval between the contractions had been less, but she made no complaint. He glanced at his watch. The grad students should be getting here soon. He wished he could have gotten them out of here sooner, particularly for Lois's sake, but the thought had occurred to him that the group might have some sort of passwords or ritual to follow as a safety measure. If the trio called again before they arrived, he wanted nothing to prevent his capture of the three men, or—particularly—his rescue of the last girl. He certainly hadn't planned it like this but Ralph's blundering had forced his hand, so this was the way he was going to have to play it out.
Silently, he scanned the area with his better-than-human vision until he found what he was looking for—the circuit-breaker panel on the opposite wall of the huge, half-empty structure, which controlled the flow of electric power delivered to the warehouse. He felt, rather than heard Lois exhale suddenly and turned to see the perspiration standing out on her forehead.
"I'm…okay," she breathed.
"You're in labor," he whispered in sudden realization. "How long?"
"Under an hour. I'm okay," she repeated in a whisper. "Brookes and the others will be here soon. I can last."
Clark quelled the knot of panic that tried to surface. It was their first baby and it had been less than an hour. They had some time, but he had to end this thing as soon as possible when the three arrived with their captive. Lowering his glasses, he focussed a narrow beam of heat vision on the lock.
Lucy was regarding her sister, and her expression told Clark she had realized what was in progress. He leaned toward his wife.
"Lois, give me your shoe."
Lois obeyed without question. Lucy gave him an odd look and Ralph whispered, "For God's sake, Kent! Now's not the time to develop a foot fetish!"
Clark ignored him. His super-hearing had detected the approach of footsteps. There were three knocks on the door, then two more. Eddie rose quickly to his feet and hurried to the door to open it.
As he fumbled with the lock, Lois gave a faint whimper. Clark glanced quickly at her to see her biting her lip, eyes closed. Suddenly, she gasped.
"Clark, I …I think my water just broke!"
The door of the warehouse opened. A young woman, bound and gagged, was pushed, struggling, through the aperture, followed by the three grad students.
"Hang on, Lois," Clark whispered. "I'm going to get you out of this." He gave her hand a firm squeeze, rose to his feet and strode to the door. With a single motion, he cocked his arm and hurled the shoe directly between the cage bars, straight across the room. It struck the breaker panel with a shower of sparks.
The lights went out and the building was plunged into darkness. ***
Lois heard a startled scream from Lucy and a yell of panic from Ralph. Sandwiched in between them and the shouts from the five men outside the cage, she heard the clang of the cage door being thrown open. Clark was in action, she thought gratefully, then turned her attention to dealing with the contraction that was gripping her more strongly every second.
This one was *much* worse than the previous ones. The thought crossed her mind for a split second, and then fled as she gave a small cry of pain.
She felt a hand grasp hers. "Squeeze if you want to," her sister's voice said. "You can do it, Lois."
Somehow, Lucy's voice helped her regain some control. She took a deep breath and began the breathing pattern she had learned in childbirth classes. Lucy's voice encouraged her; it vaguely surprised her that her sister could take over this way; in earlier times it had always been Lois in control of the situation and Lucy who followed.
The cage quivered; she thought the heavy, retreating footsteps belonged to Ralph, but she didn't really care. The contraction was beginning to ease; somewhere in the background, almost as if it was in a different reality, she heard crashes and suddenly the sound of several gunshots and yells of both pain and panic. It didn't concern her as she dealt with the more immediate problem.
Slowly, the pain receded. She took another, deeper breath and opened her eyes.
It was still pitch dark, but the racket had quieted. Lucy's voice said into the sudden silence, "Is it over?"
Lois wasn't sure what she was referring to, the contraction or the fight. "What?"
"Can you move? We need to get out of…"
"Lois, are you all right?" Clark's voice said out of the darkness, and the beam of a penlight flashed over them.
"What happened?" Lucy asked.
Clark's hand slipped into Lois's for a moment. "It's all over. I'm going to call the police and the paramedics, then we can get you to the hospital." She could see his face dimly in the darkness as he turned to her sister. "Stay with her, Lucy. I'll be back in a few minutes. I've got to stop Ralph from bleeding all over the place, too." He sounded remarkably unsympathetic, for Clark. "Don't worry, he'll be fine." Lois felt him squeeze her hand again, then he was gone.
To her dismay, she felt the next contraction beginning to build. It figured, she thought. Lane and Kent never did anything the easy way…
"Breathe, Lois," she heard Lucy say, and gave a strained half-chuckle.
"What do *you* know about it?"
"Just breathe," Lucy reiterated. "I coached a friend of mine through this, last year. I can at least substitute until Clark gets back."
"Where are the paramedics?" Lucy was saying fifteen minutes later. "And the police?"
Clark wasn't paying much attention to his sister-in-law and the other three young women by this time. Lois's hand was squeezing his hard enough to cut off the circulation for an ordinary man.
"Breathe," he repeated for about the hundredth time. "Come on, honey, breathe!" He lifted his head at the sound of a distant siren. "They'll be here in a few minutes."
It was a good thing, too, he thought. If he had dared to try to fly Lois to the hospital he would have, but her labor was going fast. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the baby was half-Kryptonian, he reflected abstractedly. Or maybe it was simply one of the many different ways a labor could go. In any case, he didn't quite have the courage to try to carry his wife any distance through the air right now unless it was a case of direst emergency. If it came right down to it, he could deliver the baby. It wasn't as if Superman hadn't done it before, and in far more primitive conditions than this. Only, none of those others had been Lois and *their* baby.
Slowly her death-grip on his hand relaxed. "Clark, " she panted, still trying to regain her breath. "I don't think they're going to make it in time." Almost at once, she tensed as another contraction started to build and she began to pant.
He sneaked a quick peek over his glasses and gulped. She was right. First baby or not, if the paramedics didn't get here pretty soon, it looked as if he was going to have to do the honors. The baby's head was beginning to descend, in spite of Lois's valiant efforts not to help it along. She grabbed his hand and began to squeeze.
"I hear a siren!" one of the other women said.
Clark could hear it, too, but at the moment his attention was centered on his wife. He had expected her to yell at him sometime during the process. He knew many women swore at their husbands in the later stages of labor; they had been warned to expect it by the childbirth instructor, but, like everything else she did, Lois was focussing completely on what she was trying to accomplish. A few moments later he was barely aware of the commotion as one of the former captives let the police in, until a bright light flooded over him and a familiar voice said, "Can you use some help, Kent?"
Clark glanced up. William Henderson stood there, carefully training his flashlight on the floor between them. The Inspector turned to the young officer peering over his shoulder. "Evans, go get the first aid kit out of your squad car. And hurry!"
"Thanks, Inspector," Clark said. "Lois, try to rest between the contractions. I think we're almost there."
"You know how to do this?" Henderson asked.
"Yeah," Clark said. "Any chance of the paramedics getting here in time?"
"About another fifteen minutes," Henderson said. "There's a jam-up on the parkway. A tour bus sideswiped a pickup. We're trying to clear a lane, but…" He broke off, seeming to realize that Clark wasn't really listening. "Need some light?"
"Yeah, thanks." Clark didn't glance around. "Did you hear that, Lois?"
She tensed as another contraction started to build. "Yeah!" she gasped.
"It looks like we're going to have to do this ourselves. Lucy, can you hold the light?"
"Sure." Lucy's voice sounded scared, but determined. The young officer was back with the first aid kit. He set it down on a neighboring cot and opened it.
"Thanks, officer," Clark said, absently. "All right, Lois, on the next contraction, let's have a push…"
"You did a good job, Mr. Kent," the paramedic was saying half an hour later as Lois and the newest Kent were being wheeled carefully through the rear door of the warehouse toward the waiting ambulance. "Maybe you should have been a paramedic."
Clark chuckled. "I think I'll stick to reporting, thanks." He bent over his wife. "I'll meet you at the hospital, honey. There's something I have to do."
"I'll see you in half an hour," she whispered. Clark kissed her gently, watching her eyes close. She was exhausted, he knew, but his respect for her had never been higher than it was at this moment. He waited as she was loaded into the ambulance, and a moment later the vehicle pulled away, lights flashing.
Henderson was beside him when he turned. "Congratulations, Clark."
"Thanks, Bill." He felt himself beginning to grin. "Do you need me for anything else?"
"Not really. I think we've got most of the story. There is one thing—"
"How do you and Lane manage to get into situations like this?"
Clark shook his head and shrugged. "Inspector, if I ever find out, you'll be the first to know."
Coming slowly awake, the first thing Lois noticed before she even opened her eyes was that she was sleeping on her back. Slowly, she moved her hand to feel her abdomen. It was flat; she hadn't dreamed it, then. She and Clark had found Lucy, and Clark had helped to deliver their baby.
Her hand was taken in a large, warm masculine one, and Clark's voice said, "Hi, honey."
She opened her eyes. He was smiling down at her with an expression in his own that made a lump form in her throat. He cupped her face with his other hand.
"Do you know how much I love you?" he said.
She cleared her throat. "Almost as much as I love you," she said.
"Well, *as* much, then."
"That's better." Correctly interpreting her glance around the room, he smiled.
"I called Dr. Klein. He's doing the physical exam right now to be sure everything's okay, but he didn't look worried."
She smiled. "That's a relief, after the way it turned out. What happened to Lucy, by the way?"
He let go of her hand and seated himself in the chair next to her bed. "She and the other women went back to the station with Inspector Henderson. She said to tell you she'll be by later to see you, with our moms and your dad. She's handling it pretty well."
"Were they all right? The other ones?"
He nodded. "Yeah. Tired, shaken up and in need of baths, but they weren't physically hurt," he said.
"I'm glad of that." She hunted around to find the button that raised the head of her bed. "So what happened after I left? I want to know the rest of the story!"
Clark's smile widened. "Now I know you're feeling okay," he said.
"You bet I am! Why don't you fill me in on everything? I really didn't get to see much of the end, you know."
"Yes, I *did* notice you were otherwise occupied," he said. "Where shall I start?"
"What happened after you put out the lights?"
Clark lowered his voice. "After the lights went out, I knocked them all out. I could see well enough in the dark and they couldn't. But I was careful to move at close to normal speed, just in case."
"I heard gunshots, or I think I did."
"Yeah. A couple of them panicked and started shooting. That's when Ralph got shot."
"Ralph got *shot*?"
"Yeah. He'll be okay, though."
"Darn," Lois said.
"If someone shot him, then I won't be able to kill him," she explained. "At least until he gets well."
Clark chuckled. "I wouldn't worry. He's not likely to forget what happened for quite awhile. At least when he tries to sit down."
Lois giggled. "And then?"
"After that I tied them all up with their own belts, and after I checked on you I patched Ralph up, phoned 911, and went back to help you. After you left in the ambulance, I made one little side trip, then came right here. You were asleep, so I phoned Dad—I'm going to pick him up later this evening—and then Mom to let her know what had happened, and Perry. I'll get to the rest of our friends after I get home."
"So the case is all tied up in a package?" she asked. "How about that ship that was waiting for the 'delivery'?"
Clark chuckled. "Funny thing about that. Somehow, it strayed inside the three mile limit and the Coast Guard just happened to be waiting for them and picked them up. It must have been a freak ocean current or something."
"I think that ocean current might have had a little 'super' help," Lois said. "Did they find anything incriminating?"
"Quite a bit, actually," Clark told her. "We'll know more by tomorrow."
"I hope so. You can bet Caribbean Imports is going to claim they knew nothing about it, again."
"Naturally." Clark nodded his agreement. "But we know differently. Superman overheard Jeffers talking about it, and Jeffers is an officer of the company. After you get back from maternity leave, we're going to have a lot of investigating to do."
"It can't wait for that," Lois said. "You've got to start on it right away. Jimmy can help, and so can I, from home. There's still the other missing girls, and…"
"We will," Clark said, "but you can at least take the night off."
She lay back against the pillow and gave a little laugh. "You're right. I just don't want them to get away with it again."
"If we have anything to say about it, they won't," Clark said. "But right now, I think we've got visitors."
On cue, there was a knock on the door. Perry White, carrying a bouquet of flowers in one hand and with a wide grin on his face, stood in the doorway. Behind him, Jimmy was holding the most enormous stuffed bear Lois had ever seen.
"Hi, Chief," Clark said. "Come on in."
"Where's the newest Kent?" Perry asked. "Here, honey, these are for you."
Lois took the flowers and sniffed. "Chief, they're beautiful!"
"From Alice, Jimmy and me," Perry said.
"The baby's next door," Clark told him. "As soon as the doctor finishes, you'll get to meet—" He stopped and grinned.
"Aw, come on, CK," Jimmy said. He turned to Lois. "He told us you'd had the baby, but he wouldn't tell us what it was!"
"Clark!" Lois said.
Clark laughed out loud. "You'll find out in a minute, Jim," he said. He nodded toward the door. "The doctor must be done. Here comes the nurse, now."
Perry and Jimmy turned as a young woman in a pink uniform wheeled a transparent bassinet into the room. She checked the band on Lois's wrist against the one on the baby's ankle and smiled. "Here you are, Mrs. Kent."
"Thank you," Lois said.
"Do you need any help?" she asked.
"If I do, I'll ask," Lois told her.
"All right, then." She glanced at Clark. "You must be Mr. Kent. The story of how you delivered the baby is all over the hospital. You're a celebrity!"
Clark smiled at her. "I just did what I had to."
"Well, we all think it was wonderful. Congratulations to both of you." She smiled at Lois. "This one's a keeper, honey. Hang onto him."
"Thanks," Lois said. "I plan to."
"You delivered the baby?" Jimmy asked incredulously, as the woman departed.
"I'll tell you about it later, Jim," Clark said. He reached forward to lift the small, drowsy bundle out of the bassinet and place it in its mother's arms. "Perry and Jimmy, say hello to Marta Elaine Kent."
"I don't know what we're going to do with all these flowers," Lois said. She was carefully dressing their new daughter in preparation for going home. Clark could see what she meant. The room was decked in flower arrangements reminiscent of the Daily Planet the day after she'd made her debut as Ultra Woman. Idly, he picked up one of the accompanying cards.
"Mayor Thompkins. That was nice of him."
"Yeah. Henderson and his guys sent one, too."
"The daisies and whatever—over there by the one from the President."
Clark raised his eyebrows. "President Garner?" Curious, he began checking the names. "Huh! LNN…the Herald…the Star? Here's the one from the Planet, of course…the Governor…the District Attorney…I guess this one wants to stay on your good side. Mom and Dad, your parents…Lucy, Anita, Tanya and Maria?"
"Can you believe it? It arrived this morning. It was really sweet of them."
"Yes, it was. Let's see…The Tanzanikan Embassy?" He opened the card bearing the crest of the Royal House of Tanzanika. "How about that! Signed by Bobbo and his new bride."
"Yes. That arrived this morning, along with a telegram of congratulations. And Bobbo's hinting strongly that he wants to apply for position of godfather to Marta."
He raised his brows. "Well, I don't mind. Do you?"
"It won't make her some kind of royalty or something, will it?"
Clark grinned. "I don't think so."
"Good. One in the family is plenty, My Lord Kal-El."
"Don't remind me." He glanced around the room. "Do you want to keep all these?"
"Only the ones from our parents, the girls, Perry and Bobbo. Don't lose the cards, though."
"I won't. I've got an idea." He swept around the room, collecting the flower arrangements, vanished and returned within seconds. "There, all done." He handed her a neat stack of cards.
"What did you do with them?"
"I gave them to the volunteers to distribute to patients without any. Be right back." In a flash, he and the rest of the flowers vanished, then he reappeared. "All set."
"I knew there were advantages being married to you," she said. "I think I'll keep you around for awhile."
He smiled. "I hope so." The smile faded and he came to stand by her, looking down at his new daughter. "You know, this is a day I'd never have believed possible less than a year ago." He reached out to stroke the fine, dark hair on the baby's head with one large finger. "She's beautiful. Almost as beautiful as her mother."
"She has your eyes," Lois said.
"And your nose," he countered. "And if she's anything like you, she'll run her big brother ragged."
"It'll keep him on his toes," Lois said. "Just give her a year."
Clark grinned. "Or less." He glanced around the room one last time. "I think we've got everything. Let me take your bag to the car and
I'll let them know we're ready to leave. You're all checked out and the bill's paid. I can't wait to get the two of you home."
Jeremiah P. Jeffers sat in his office, glaring at his computer screen. He hadn't read the information displayed there for his edification; in fact, he had a strong urge to take the large, crystal paperweight resting on the corner of his desk and hurl it through that same monitor screen.
He had just finished a very uncomfortable interview with two expressionlessly courteous government officials. The men had asked a great many awkward questions about the connection of the company with a certain cargo ship which had been apprehended by the Coast Guard two and a half miles off of Hobbs Bay, and about the presence of five female captives aboard the ship, young women reported missing from the institutions of higher learning which they attended, as well as the four found in the warehouse belonging to Caribbean Imports on Pier Twenty-four, here in Metropolis, by the reporting team of Lane and Kent.
He glared at the headlines that shouted at him from the front page of the Daily Planet which lay on the desk's polished surface, and at the byline of Lane and Kent. The articles below those headlines reported in great detail the series of disappearances of young women from NTSU and the capture last night of the kidnappers; two of the five were also charged with the attempted murder of a police detective who was recovering from her stab wound at a local hospital. Extensive international investigations were being launched in connection with the cargo ship, Caribbean Lady, and a possible connection was being considered with a reported white slavery ring operating in several foreign countries…
Jeffers picked up the newspaper and hurled it across the room.
Lane and Kent had interfered with the operations of his company before, and damaged his record of success with his superiors, but this was the final straw. They had crossed an invisible line this time. They would have to be dealt with.
Jeffers picked up the telephone on his desk and dialed an outside line. On the third ring, someone picked it up.
"This is Jeffers," he began. "Sir, we need to address an ongoing business problem…"
Ready for the next story in this series? Read Charade. Need the previous story? Read Priorities.
Stories in Nan Smith's "Dagger" series, in order: Dagger of the Mind, Dagger's Edge, Assassin's Dagger, Doppleganger, Blind Man's Bluff, Countdown, Priorities, Vanishing Act, Charade, Heritage, Unforeseen Consequences, Christmas in Metropolis, Daddy's Little Girl, Suspicions, Mother's Day, A Tasteful Lesson, Too Hot to Handle, The Sting, Consequences, Middle School, and Degrees of Separation