Serial Vengeance

By Tank Wilson (

Rating: PG-13

Submitted: May 2001

Summary: When a serial killer goes on the loose, Lois and Clark must investigate. But with new deaths occurring all the time, will they be too late?

Author's notes: Disclaimers, warnings, and general preview blurb.

For those of you who are familiar with my work, I seemed to have gained a reputation over the years for being the bringer of death and destruction to the Lois and Clark universe. In truth I think that the perception far outstrips the reality, but I thought that it might be fun to actually write a story deserving of that reputation.

It didn't work. Instead I have wound up with a Lois and Clark story with several elements to it, but not the intended wham fest I had envisioned. As most of you know, stories, once they are started quickly gain a life of their own. And, alas, they go where they will.

Disclaimer 1: This is NOT a deathfic. Which means that Lois Lane and Clark Kent will survive this fic.

Wham warning: Since the A plot revolves around a serial killer, people will die, and they will die in a horrific manner, but it will never be graphically portrayed. Lois and Clark will not die.

Basically what I have tried to do is create a complete story. One that has a compelling A plot with a nasty villain. There will be whams, both physical and emotional. There will be angst, and travails for our intrepid duo to undertake, and endure. There will also be a B plot involving the relationship between Lois and Clark, and how it and they cope with the complications presented by the A plot and the circumstances that it creates. I expect there will be some moments of humor, and I doubt if even I can write an entire Lois and Clark story without a waff or two.

As always the characters are all trademarked and copyrighted to their respective owners. All feedback; good, bad, or indifferent is encouraged and welcomed at


(Chapter One)

"You wanted to see us, Chief?" Clark Kent asked as he and his partner, Lois Lane, entered the office of their editor and chief, Perry White.

Perry gestured for them to approach his desk. "Yes I did. I just wanted to compliment you two on the bang up job you did in exposing Preston Carpenter and his rag of a newspaper, the Star. That was some first rate reporting."

Lois sat on the edge of Perry's desk. "It's just too bad we couldn't link Linda King to any of the manufactured stories."

Clark rolled his eyes heavenward, while Perry frowned at her. "Now, honey, I know you don't like the woman, but from all appearances she was just Carpenter's dupe in all this. He used her by sending her out to places where the stories were about to happen so she could be johnny on the spot to report on the incident." Perry shook his head. "No wonder it seemed like we were getting scooped all the time."

Lois pouted a bit. "Yeah, maybe, but I still can't believe someone as devious as her wasn't in on the deal." Lois' pout slowly changed to a sly smile. "Unless this just proves what I knew all along. That Linda King is not too bright. I mean, what kind of reporter is she, that she didn't see what was happening?"


Clark reached for his partner's shoulder in an attempt to steer her out of Perry's office and away from the subject of Linda King, when they were all interrupted by the somewhat harried form of Jimmy Olsen. He was carrying a plain paper wrapped box. He set in on his boss's desk.

"A messenger just delivered this. Said it was for you." Jimmy looked a bit sheepish.

Perry scowled at the young gopher as he could tell there was something else on his mind. "What is it, Olsen?"

"Well, it's just that… I mean I had to pay the tip to the messenger out of my own pocket."

"Go see accounting." Perry dismissed Jimmy with a wave of his hand.

"Perry," Lois said, giving Perry a disapproving look. "You know that accounting won't reimburse Jimmy for a tip. Especially since he has no receipt."

Perry gave Lois a conspiratorial grin. "Oh, I know all right. It'll be a good lesson for the boy." Perry began to tear apart the wrapping on the box. "Now let's see what we have here."

Upon opening the package, Perry White saw that it only contained one item. It was a dress. He pulled it up and held it before him. It was a red sequined strapless number. Quite short in length, and somewhat familiar.

Lois grabbed the dress from Perry's hand. "I recognize this," she exclaimed. "This is the dress Cat was wearing when she left here last night. She said she was going to that party for Senator Wilkins. She claims there were rumors about him and a certain intern that she wanted to explore."

Perry took the dress back from Lois, sticking it back into the box. "Well, what in tarnation is she doing sending it back here?"

"Maybe she wants you to know that she went *undercover* to try and ferret out a story," Lois smirked.

Perry frowned at Lois, but while their attention was on each other, Clark slid his glasses down and gave the dress a thorough going over with his x-ray vision. He couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw slight traces of blood on the dress.

"I don't know, Chief, maybe she didn't send it." Clark looked worried. "I think you should alert the police about this, Perry."

Lois slapped at Clark's arm. "Oh come on, Clark, this is Cat we're talking about here. If it were me, or some real reporter, we might have cause for worry, but Cat's never reported on anything more dangerous than the Mayor's Pekingese needing distemper shots. Besides, losing her clothes is something of an occupational habit with Cat." Lois shook her head in disgust.

"Now hold on, Lois," Perry interrupted. "Clark may have something there, but I don't want to go causing a big stir if it turns out to be nothing." He pointed his finger at Lois. "Lois, I want you to try and get a hold of Cat.. If she did indeed attend some grand party last night, chances are she's still at home in bed." Perry then turned to Clark. "Clark, if Lois doesn't get through I want you to call Senator Wilkins' office and see if anyone can remember if Cat was there." Perry made a gesture of dismissal with his hand. "Now shoo."

Lois frowned as they reached their desks. "Why did Perry want me to call Cat and you get to call Senator Wilkins' office? He knows Cat and I don't get along."

Clark had to work to keep a smile off his face. "I don't know, maybe he thought we stood a better chance of finding something out from the Senator's people if we didn't antagonize them."

Lois' hand stopped midway to her phone. "Are you saying that I wouldn't be tactful in my questioning?"

Clark couldn't hold back. "Just make your phone call, Lois," he said, chuckling.

Lois hadn't reached Cat at her home, or her cell phone, so she turned it over to Clark to make his call to the Senator's office. Lois wasn't particularly worried that she hadn't gotten hold of Cat. Knowing the way that woman liked to sleep in, Lois was sure that she had just turned off her phone's ringer. Lois had left a message on Cat's machine, telling her Perry wanted to hear from her ASAP.

Lois leaned back in her chair and watched Clark as he dialed and spoke into his phone. His back was partially turned to her so he couldn't see her watching him. Lois was confused. She had to admit that when she thought that Linda King was stealing her partner from her she had been hurt. She had been hurt that Clark would abandon her, and the Planet, so easily. Once she had found out the truth, that he was going undercover at the Star, she was still conflicted. If she was honest with herself, she had been jealous. But why had she been jealous, she wondered. Was it because it was Linda King, and she still had issues with her? Or was it because it was Clark?

Lois bit her lip as she thought about her partner, and friend. She had a suspicion that Clark had feelings for her that went a bit beyond mere friendship, and she had to admit the idea wasn't entirely unpleasant. Clark Kent was different from all the other men she had known. He was a decent, caring individual who regularly put the concerns of others above his own. His ethics sometimes got in the way of things they had to do for a story, but honesty in a relationship with a man was a foreign concept to Lois. She had been burned by every man she had allowed herself to trust. Perhaps Clark was the exception to the rule?

A smile curved the one corner of her lip as she let her gaze sweep over her partner's physical aspect. No one could say that Clark wasn't a good looking man either. He was no Superman, but then who was, and Lois was beginning to think that her desire to be with Superman was a doomed fantasy. The man was the hero of millions for heaven's sake. Even if he had time for a relationship, why would he pick her when he could have his pick of any woman in the world? Still, she had always gotten the impression that he liked her.

Clark slamming the phone down snapped Lois out of her musings. He turned to her, a definite look of disgust on his face. Lois got up and came over to his desk.

"No luck?"

Clark shook his head. "No — I was informed that due to his popularity, the large number of guests at the party made it impossible for them to be able to tell me if a mere reporter had been there."

Lois shook her head in sympathy. "Well, I guess that means that she wasn't there."

Clark pulled back and gave Lois a confused stare. "Why do you say that? There probably *were* a lot of people there."

Lois laughed. "Clark, you saw that dress. If Cat had shown up there wearing that dress, believe me, people would have noticed." Lois shook her head and smiled a rueful smile. "One thing I will give Catherine Grant, she has the goods to fill out a dress like that."

"No better than you would, Lois." Clark had unthinkingly jumped to Lois' defense.

Lois gave Clark a funny look. "Thanks… I think."

Lois studied her blushing partner for a moment. Where had that comment come from? she asked herself. She knew that Clark thought she was attractive. He'd told her so many times before. And Lois was proud of her figure, but next to the flamboyant Cat Grant, Lois Lane tended to fade into insignificance.

Suddenly her phone rang. Moving back to her desk, she picked it up to discover that Lex Luthor was on the other end. She had completely forgotten that they had a date planned tonight. For some strange reason Lois found herself begging off, saying that a hot story was beginning to break and that she'd be tied up all night with it. She made her apologies and hung up the phone..

Lois couldn't help but wonder why she had done that. She had dated Lex a couple of times in the last few weeks and had marvelous times. He had been charming and attentive, but she was never quite sure of his motives. She found it hard to believe that he just liked to see her. He was the third or fourth richest man in the world and Metropolis' leading citizen, well, right behind Superman. But she never really felt comfortable with him. The elegant balls, the opera, the expensive restaurants were all great fun, but somehow she couldn't see scrunching up next to him on a couch and watching old favorite videos.

"Who was that?" Clark asked.

"It was Lex, he reminded me of our date tonight." Lois shot Clark a challenging look, as she knew how he felt about Lex.

Clark frowned. "Lois, I wish you wouldn't go out with him. You don't know him like I do. He's not what he appears to be."

"Oh, really?" Lois quickly responded. "He's not rich, handsome, charming, and the number one philanthropist in Metropolis?" Lois kept her voice steady, but annoyance was creeping in. "Let's see, you've been in Metropolis not even a year yet, but you know all sorts of horrible secrets about Lex Luthor. Secrets that no one, even those of us who grew up in Metropolis, know. Is that right?"

"Lo-is, look I know it irritates you when I criticize Luthor, but I do know some things about him that I doubt you know."

Lois cocked her head in a manner that Clark knew only too well. "I see, what things would those be, Clark? Do you have some proof of evil deeds that you can show me?"

Clark stared at his feet for a moment then raised his eyes to hers. "You know I don't, at least not yet, but I just don't want you to get hurt by him, Lois."

"I see," she said condescendingly. "You think I'll be hurt if I date a man who takes me to the opera, and the finest restaurants? I suppose, for my own good, I should date someone like… oh, you for instance?"

Clark's mouth was drawn in a tight line as he looked into Lois' face. "Would that really be so bad?"

Lois was just about snap a quick sarcastic rejoinder, when something stopped her. "No," she said shaking her head slowly, her voice taking on a softer tone. "No, it wouldn't be bad at all." She met his eyes with her own. "But, Clark, you are my partner, and my best friend. That's something I've never had before. I treasure our friendship, more than you know, and I don't want to lose that."

"Why would we have to lose it?"

"Trust me, Clark, if there is one thing that I know, it's how to screw up relationships. If we tried to take our friendship to something beyond that it would most likely not work out, then where would we be?"


Lois' attention was suddenly drawn back up toward Perry's office. "Look."

Jimmy was bringing in another plain wrapped package. Lois quickly jumped up from her desk and scurried toward her editor's office. Clark had reached for Lois to try and stop her but was too late, so he got up and followed behind.

Clark entered his boss's office moments behind Lois. Lois was hovering over the desk as Perry began to unwrap the package with obvious reluctance. "Oh good Lord, this is sick!" Perry's comment exploded from his lips once he had the top of the box open.

Lois looked a little green. "Oh god, you don't think — do you?"

Clark quickly stepped up to see what had elicited their responses. Lying in the bottom of the shoe box sized package was a severed human hand. It was obviously a well manicured female right hand. Clark recognized the gaudy ruby ring that adorned the third finger of the detached appendage. It had been a present to Cat from a rich sultan that she had a brief fling with about six months ago.

With a grim look on his face Clark reached for the phone on Perry's desk. "I think it's time we called Inspector Henderson."

Perry and Lois just nodded as he dialed the phone.


Lois was fiddling with a pencil, drawing little circles on her note pad. Inspector Henderson had left some time ago. He'd taken statements from anyone who saw Cat Grant the day before, including both Lois and Clark. Unfortunately neither one could tell Henderson more than anyone else could. Nearly everyone knew that Cat was going to the Senator's party, but no one had seen her or talked with her since she left the Planet yesterday. Lois watched Clark as he tried once again to get any information from the office of Senator Wilkins.

"Still no luck?" She asked as he hung up the phone.

"No, I'm beginning to think you were right, Lois. I don't think Cat ever made it to that party."

Lois gave Clark an 'I told you so' look. "Did you ever doubt me?"

Clark ran his hand through his hair shaking his head. "No, I learned long ago not to doubt Lois Lane." He looked at her, a hopeful expression on his face. "That famous Lane intuition giving you any hints, any ideas?"

Lois shook her head. "No, nothing." She picked the pencil back up and tossed it into her pencil box before turning back to her partner. "Clark, do you think that she's okay — I mean, you know beyond that sicko hand thing? It's no secret that Cat and I weren't exactly best friends, but I'd never wish something like this on her, or anyone."

Clark came over to her desk and squeezed her hand. "I know that, Lois, but the truth is, I don't know what to think. There have been no notes, no demands, nothing. We can only hope that she is still all right." He squeezed her hand again as he gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "We'll find her, Lois."

Clark again wondered if he shouldn't have taken a quick look around for Cat as Superman. He knew the police would visit her apartment, and since Lois had gotten no answer at Cat's it was unlikely that she was there. He really had nothing to go on, had no clues as to where to even begin looking. No, he knew his best chance of finding something that could be of help would be here at the Planet, exploring leads like an investigative reporter should. It just bothered him, with all his powers, to feel so helpless.

Lois bit her lip as she tried to focus her attention. She had to look at this like any other story. She had to try and figure out the first move that she and Clark should make.

"Clark, did you ask Jimmy who the messengers that brought the two packages were?"

"Henderson asked, and Jimmy didn't remember which service. The only thing he was sure of was that they were each different services."

"Darn… Oh, oh, what's that?"

Lois was out of her chair heading toward Perry's office once again. Clark saw that Jimmy had just deposited another package on Perry's desk. He leapt to his feet and followed after Lois, giving the package a quick scan as he did so. It was a larger box than the others had been, about the size of a large hat box.

What he saw nearly stopped Clark in his tracks. His stomach lurched, as he pushed himself to catch up with Lois. He managed to restrain Lois just inside Perry's door.

"Clark!" Lois angrily tried to shake off his hand on her shoulder but wasn't able to.

"Ah, Lois, why don't you go back to your desk and give Inspector Henderson a call. You can tell him Perry got another package."

She turned and scowled at Clark. "You go call him, I want to see." She turned back toward Perry.

Perry White had ignored the little by play between his reporters as he gingerly opened the top of the box, after pulling off the plain wrapping. The blood drained from his face as he saw what was inside. He quickly slapped the cover back on the box.

"Perry, what is it?" Lois asked as she continued to struggle against Clark's iron grip.

Perry seemed to notice them for the first time. He swallowed several times, seeming to have a hard time getting his voice. A tear slid from the corner of one eye.

"Chief, should Lois go and call Inspector Henderson?" Clark piped up.

Clark's voice seemed to give Perry the impetus to speak. "That's a good idea. Lois, honey, go call Bill Henderson. We are going to need him here." Perry's voice was weak and he had to fight to keep it steady.

Lois was too indignant at being held back by Clark to really notice her editor's reactions. "No, I want to see what came in the box. Clark can make the call."

"Lois!" Perry's voice was like the crack of a whip in the confines of the office. It shocked Lois into immobility. "Please, honey, just do as you're told." A couple more tears found their way down Perry's cheeks. "Tell Henderson that we definitely have a homicide on our hands."

Lois' face fell as the import of Perry's words sank in. She bit her lip, nodded once in Perry's direction, then turned to head back to her desk to make the call. Unsurprisingly, she was easily able to slip out of Clark's grasp now.

Perry looked up at Clark. "You knew?"

Clark noticed how Perry's demeanor seemed tired, and defeated. "I guessed from the size of the box, and your reaction just confirmed my suspicions."

"God in heaven, I hope the poor girl didn't suffer, that it was quick."

Clark couldn't answer. His own emotions were in turmoil. He and Cat had never really hit it off, but more than most, Clark knew that Cat's wild behavior and overt sexuality really hid an insecure woman who longed for the same things that everyone else did. Suddenly, an out of breath Lois shoved her way past him.

"I just got off the phone with Inspector Henderson. It seems that he was just about to call us. About a half an hour ago the police pulled a naked female corpse out of Hobbs bay. It was missing its right hand, and… its… head." Lois stared at the box on Perry's desk, actually taking in its size and shape for the first time. "Omigod." Her voice shook as she made her way, on shaky legs, to Perry's couch. She slowly sank to its comforting cushions, her eyes never leaving the plain box on her boss's desk. "Omigod." Tears began to slide down her cheeks.

*** (Chapter Two)

Lois tossed the half empty bowl of cereal into the kitchen sink. Not the most exciting dinner she'd ever had, but it filled her stomach — sort of. She had been enjoying a rare Monday off, doing some things that she'd been meaning to do for a while. Things like catching up on her reading, reorganizing her storage closet, and she even pulled up her novel on her hard drive and added a few more pages to it. It had been a relaxing day, but now she was getting bored, and getting fidgety.

She sat down at her kitchen table and, with nothing to occupy herself, her thoughts drifted back to Cat's funeral. It had been on Saturday, and it had been a sad affair. Lois hadn't realized that Cat had virtually no close living relatives. She knew that Cat's parent's had died when Cat was young, but it seemed that she had no living aunts or uncles either. There had only been a much older brother who had flown in from California to handle the necessary details. He seemed more annoyed by the inconvenience that Cat's funeral had caused him than any grief felt over the loss of his sister.

Lois got the impression that if it hadn't been for Perry, the brother wouldn't have bothered to come to Metropolis for Cat's funeral at all. Lois felt bad that the vast majority of mourners were only Cat's coworkers from the Planet. There were no friends from outside work, and for all Cat's supposed conquests, not one boyfriend, or former lover had bothered to show.

A chill ran up Lois spine as she wondered if the same might not happen to her. Sure, she had parents, but she wondered if her dad could tear himself away from his work long enough to attend her funeral, and as for her mother, it was only a 50/50 chance that she'd be sober enough to even realize that her daughter had died. Lois took a little comfort in the knowledge that at least her sister Lucy would attend, and Lois was pretty sure that Lucy would even grieve for her.

Lois shook her head as she tried to dispel her morbid turn of contemplation. Apparently she had been more affected by Cat's death than she thought. Lois supported her chin on her doubled up fists as she tried to analyze her feelings. She had never liked Cat much. Ms. Catherine Grant had been the office peacock and knew it. All the guys lusted after her, well, except maybe Clark, and all the women secretly envied her looks, and her 'equipment'. Lois knew that she had 'the goods' as far as being a desirable woman and she hadn't been above using them for the sake of a story, but next to Cat Grant she was merely the fourth attendant compared to the homecoming queen. And, of course, Cat had never missed an opportunity to point that out, and rub it in. Their personalities just didn't mesh. Most of the time Lois was angered by the catty remarks, but she couldn't help but remember a time when Cat had opened up to her. It had been after a particularly difficult story where her life once again had been in danger. Cat had come up to her and in her irritating way had tried to get Lois to admit that she had been scared. Lois of course had denied it. Lois had been scared but she'd be darned if she'd admit that to Cat.

Unexpectedly Cat had sat down and had let go with her frustrations over how her career, and life, was going as compared to Lois'. She admitted that she was envious of Lois, and what Lois had. Lois had seen a side of Cat that day that very few people got to see. For all her flash and bluster, Cat was just as insecure as any of them, maybe more so.

Lois also suspected that Catherine Grant had a 'thing' for Clark Kent, and was jealous of the fact that he seemed to prefer Lois, at least as a partner and friend. Lois remembered Cat intimating that she and Clark had done some wild things together early on in Clark's career at the Planet. Clark had always denied it, and Lois was inclined to believe him. In retrospect, it was almost too bad that something hadn't happened. Clark probably would have been good for Cat.

Lois snapped upright. Where had that thought come from? she wondered. Then again, why not? It was not as if she had any claim on Clark beyond professional. They were colleagues, reporting partners, and friends, nothing more, and that was the way Lois wanted it. So why did it bother her so when other women showed more than a passing interest in Clark?

Her musings were interrupted by a knock at the door. She rose from her chair and directed herself toward her front door. Maybe it was a lost pizza delivery boy, she hoped.

She opened the door without checking the peephole. "Clark?" She was surprised to see him standing there, then noting the look on his face her mood plunged lower. "What's wrong?"

Clark sighed and shook his head. "Lois, it's Eduardo."

Lois gave Clark a puzzled look. "What's Eduardo?" Suddenly something clicked. "Oh, god, no." She bit her lip as she backed up enough to allow Clark to enter her apartment.

Clark nodded sadly. "I'm afraid so. Perry got three packages over the course of the day today. The first contained a man's dress shirt." Clark had to swallow hard to force himself to continue. "The second, a severed hand, and the third…"

Lois shook her head violently. "No, don't say it. Omigod, he had a wife and three kids!" Tears began to fall as she slowly lowered herself back into her kitchen chair.

Clark selected a chair next to Lois. "Perry called Henderson right away after receiving the first package so he was there when the other two arrived."

Lois wiped at her eyes. "Do they have any leads?"

Clark shook his head sadly. "No, the first two packages were dropped off at the front desk down in the lobby. So Henderson had the guard down there hold onto anyone who delivered a third. It turned out to be a young boy who claims 'some guy' gave him five dollars to deliver the box to the Daily Planet." Clark took another deep breath. "The guard at the front desk said that the first package was already there when he came on shift. The police are trying to get a hold of the night watchman to question him. But he is sure that the kid who delivered the third package is not the same one who delivered the second one."

Lois clenched her hands a couple of times. "Have they found the body yet?"

Clark just shook his head. He didn't know what else to say. As Superman he'd gone out and flown around the seedier sections of the city for about an hour before coming over to Lois'. He had stopped three attempted muggings but hadn't seen any sign of Eduardo's body, or any clues as to what happened. He knew the police were currently with Eduardo's wife but Clark would have to wait until much later until he could find out anything that the police might have uncovered in their investigations.

Lois captured Clark's gaze with her own mist-glazed eyes. "Clark, what's happening?"

"I don't know, Lois. Henderson says it looks like we have a serial killer on our hands."

Lois frowned. "Yeah, a serial killer with a grudge against the Daily Planet.."

*** The mood at the Daily Planet that next morning was somber, to say the least. No one seemed inclined to talk about what had been happening. Lois was frustrated. She had just gotten off the phone with Henderson, but he wasn't willing, or able, to tell her anything. He was treating Eduardo's death as a related murder since the methods were virtually identical, but they didn't have a body, or any solid leads. All they knew was that Eduardo hadn't come home after his Sunday shift. His wife had called the Planet but hadn't gotten any answer on his phone. She had then called the police, but had been informed that she would have to wait forty eight hours before she could file a missing persons' report.

The Planet had done a nice retrospective, tribute type piece on Eduardo, as they had done for Cat. Since there were no actual leads into the two murders, that aspect was played down. Perry didn't want to add any fuel to the serial killer flames that seemed to be igniting. Other papers weren't being so careful, or responsible. "The Headsman Strikes Again" screamed in banner headlines in most of the other papers in town. While the exploitative nature of those reports sickened Lois, a part of her had to agree with them. It did indeed seem as if they a serial killer was on the loose in Metropolis, and if something wasn't done soon to catch him, perhaps more innocent reporters would meet their end. She was convinced that reporters were the target, more specifically, Daily Planet reporters.

Lois' attention was diverted as she heard the ding that denoted the arrival of the elevator, and saw her partner step out. She didn't stop to think about it, but her mood instantly picked up when she saw him. Before Lois could properly greet Clark, though, Perry stepped out of his office.

"Can I have everyone's attention, please." It wasn't a question, and what little buzz of conversation that had been going on instantly stopped. "Staff meeting in five minutes." With that he turned and went back into his office.

Clark had just approached Lois' desk, his expression questioning. Lois shrugged. Just then Jimmy happened to rush too close to Lois' desk. She immediately latched onto his arm and dragged him over to her desk.

"Hey, Jimmy, what's that all about?" she asked.

Jimmy seemed to be a bit out of breath so he took a deep breath before he answered. "Haven't you guys heard? Three more people quit today."

Lois looked confused. "What do you mean *three more* people quit?"

Jimmy nodded his head quickly. "Yeah, Joe Adams, in sports, quit yesterday evening, and now three more turned in their resignations today."

Lois shook her head disgustedly. Clark spoke up. "Did they say why they were leaving?"

Jimmy looked at Clark as if he had grown another head. "You're kidding, right. They didn't have to say, everyone knows why they quit." Jimmy looked around before continuing. "They didn't want to be next." Jimmy rushed off to fulfill whatever errand he'd been on before being waylaid by Lois.

It was a pensive group of people who filed into the conference room. Lois took her normal spot next to Clark. She couldn't help but notice all the empty chairs that sat unused scattered about the large room. Perry stood in his usual spot at the head of the large table. He looked terrible. There were new lines etched onto his face and his complexion didn't look good at all. He had seemed to age significantly. There was no need to ask for quiet.

"Okay, first things first. Inspector Henderson called and they have found Eduardo's body. It was found in a dumpster over in Suicide Slum." There were a few shocked indrawn breaths, but no one spoke. "I'll relay any funeral details once I have them." Perry paused, and drew in a deep breath of his own. "Now, as many of you know, we've had a recent spate of resignations over this. Two Daily Planet reporters being killed could just be a coincidence, but I can't really blame anyone who is spooked by it. I've told those folks who left that I'd hold their jobs open as long as I could, but in the meantime," Perry took another breath. "We still have a paper to get out. That means most of you will have to do double duty. We'll all have to pitch in and cover things that we maybe aren't that familiar with. All I ask is that you give it your best. Let's not let some wacko get the best of the Daily Planet. I will post a list of extra assignments on the main bulletin board by noon."

Perry paced in front of the room for a moment before continuing. "Having said that, I do want you people to know that I have hired a couple of reporters away from rival papers to help us shoulder the extra load. Taking over Eduardo's government beat will be Sidney Loomis, previously with the Weekly Register. And covering the society news, and taking over Cat Grant's column will be former Metropolis Star reporter — Linda King."

Lois couldn't believe her ears. "What! — Ow!" She turned and glared at Clark who had just kicked her in the ankle.

Seeing the look on Clark's face, Lois turned and looked at her editor and realized that now was not the time to say anything. His steely gaze pierced her and pinned her immobile to her chair. She suddenly didn't feel like offering any opinion.

"Those two people will be coming on board later in the week. Please make them welcome and help them in any way you can." Perry gave Lois another hard stare. "Now if there are no more questions, you are all free to leave." As all the others stood and began to leave, Perry came up behind Lois and Clark. "I want to see you two in my office."

Clark stared after Perry as he exited the conference room and headed for his office. Lois was next to him as Clark headed for his desk. She gave him an elbow in the ribs. "That hurt!" she complained.

Clark gave her an apologetic smile. "Sorry, Lois, I just thought that then wasn't the right time to bring up your, er, reservations about Linda King."

Lois put her hand on Clark's arm to stop him. "Why are you defending her?"

Clark rolled his eyes. "Lois, I'm not defending her. But I also don't have a grudge against her for some imagined slight that happened way back in college, either."

Lois bristled. "Imagined! That shows you how much you know! Besides, we have standards at the Planet that she could never hope to reach. She was never a good reporter."

Clark gave Lois a frown. "I dunno, she seemed pretty competent to me when I was partnered with her."

They had started walking again, but Lois stopped when Clark had said that. She narrowed her eyes as she searched the seemingly innocent face of her partner.

"You like her, don't you."

"Lo-is, it's not like that. She seemed like a nice woman, and a competent reporter that's all."

Lois shook her head. "Clark you are just too naive. You don't understand women like her. She is underhanded, devious, a back stabbing harpy who… what?"

Clark was shaking his head at Lois' tirade. "Lois, I think it would be best if you just let this old feud go. It will be much easier if you can just put the past behind you. After all, Linda is going to be working here."

Lois' eyes flashed dangerously. "Fine, maybe you can ask Perry to partner the two of you up. You are obviously smitten with her."

Clark stared at Lois is disbelief. "What?"

"Lane, Kent, in my office." Perry's stentorian bellow cut through the duo's squabble.

"Now look," Lois said angrily. "You've gotten us in trouble with Perry."

Clark just rolled his eyes again as he followed his fiery partner to Perry's office.

Lois was first to enter Perry's office. "Chief, I can't believe you hired…"

Perry held his hand up to stop Lois' tirade before it got started. "Now, Lois, I don't want to hear a word from you about Linda King. Whatever personal problems you two have had, or do have, I don't want to know. She is going to be a colleague, and I expect you to act professionally. You don't have to like her." Perry cocked his head and raised a brow. "Now, what ever personal difficulty you have with her, I expect you to leave that at home. This is a place of business and I expect you to conduct yourself accordingly." Perry sharpened his gaze and lowered his voice a notch. "Is that understood?"

Lois' mouth was still hanging open during Perry's speech but she now slowly closed it. "Understood," was all she said as she took a seat in front of her boss's desk.

Clark had entered silently as Perry had been giving Lois his ultimatum. He quickly took the chair next to her after she sat down. Clark was worried. This was taking an awful toll on Perry. Not only were *his* reporters seemingly being targeted, and brutally murdered, but his very *life*, the Daily Planet, was being threatened as a consequence. Clark knew that these murders had to be solved quickly, not only to insure that no more lives were lost, but if things continued on much longer, the paper itself might not survive.

Perry adopted his editor's tone. "Okay you two, as much as I'd like to just assign you to this murder case exclusively, I can't. I need your help in other areas. You'll see this posted later, but I wanted to tell you now, and explain how I want you to work."

Both Lois and Clark settled back in their respective chairs waiting for their editor and chief, and their beleaguered friend, to continue.

"Clark, I need you to take over the vacation and travel column in the Sunday magazine supplement. I know it's not a lot of writing, but it will require some extra research on your part every week."

Clark presented a bland mask to his chief, but inwardly he smiled as he thought of some of the ways his 'research' might be conducted. "Sure, Chief, no problem."

Lois, impatient as ever, piped in. "What about me, Perry, what extra load am I going to have to take on? The police beat, international news?"

"No, Lois, I want you to take over Joe's column."

Lois looked betrayed. "Sports!"

"Come on, Lois, don't give me that shocked look." Perry countered. "We both know that you know as much or more about sports as anyone on this paper."

Lois rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, just because my father had a connection to sports medicine while I was growing up, and I was around athletes, blah, blah, blah."

Perry shook his head. "Think what you will, but I happen to know that you, besides being a fight fan, are a supporter of both the local football and baseball teams."

"So, " Lois pouted.

Perry continued, ignoring Lois' comment. "But more importantly, you are a good, no, a great writer who won't kiss the butt of the local teams and their big star celebrity athletes. You will 'tell it like it is,' so to speak." Perry couldn't help but grin.

Lois frowned. "But I hate sports metaphors."

Perry shrugged. "So, don't use them." Perry waved off any further objections by Lois. "I'm going to scale Joe's, or I mean, Lois' column back to only three days a week so you two can concentrate most of your time on this serial killer thing."

"So, you do think this is a serial killer out there, Chief?" Clark asked.

"Frankly, I'm not sure what to think, but if it looks like a duck…" The older man ran a hand through his thinning, graying hair. "I don't have to tell you two of the critical nature of this investigation. Not only can't we afford to lose any more friends and colleagues. But I don't know how long I can keep a scared staff focused on their jobs, instead of looking over their shoulders all day long. Without a staff of top drawer reporters, the Daily Planet becomes just an empty building, and a fond memory."


(Chapter Three)

Lex Luthor had an unaccustomed frown on his face as he scanned the headlines of the several newspapers that lie scattered about his desktop. He gestured at the littered newsprint for the sake of his attending aide-de camp.

"What do you make of all this, Nigel?"

Nigel St. John, the former British Secret Service agent gone bad who now served as a sort of man Friday for Luthor, peered at the sensationalistic headlines.

"It appears that the Daily Planet has an unhappy subscriber, sir." St. John made a show of gazing over the details of the articles. "Flashy, but no style whatsoever."

A smile crept onto Lex's face, giving him a predatory look. "Oh, I agree completely. Still, I think we should look into this. There might be a way that I can take advantage of the situation as it appears to dovetail quite nicely into some plans I have for the Daily Planet myself."

"What would you like me to do, sir?"

Lex turned and gazed out the huge glass doors to the patio of his penthouse office. It was the highest building in Metropolis and he enjoyed looking out over the rest of the city -particular his city. Others might say that Superman had recently eclipsed Luthor's claim as the number one citizen, but Lex knew that was merely a detail that would be eventually taken care of. He had plans for the Man of Steel, as he had plans for Metropolis, the Daily Planet, and its most desirable employee, Lois Lane.

"I think for now, just find out what you can. We need to keep tabs on this psycho. As long as his agenda and mine run concurrent, we can let him have his fun. But I won't stand by and let him harm a certain reporter. I'd just as soon sit on the sidelines and watch how this particular situation plays itself out, but if we must get involved, to direct, or guide this fellow, then we will." Lex turned and faced his assistant. "You do understand, don't you Nigel?"

Nigel St. John understood perfectly. He was well aware of his employer's infatuation with the annoying reporter, Lois Lane. Nigel found the woman extremely irritating, but knew that Luthor professed to be in love with her. A condition Nigel felt could only lead to disaster. But then, his was not to reason why.

"Perfectly, sir."

*** Clark watched as Lois resentfully pounded the keys of her computer. The force of her blows could be heard by Clark, even without his enhanced hearing. A tiny smile tweaked the corners of his mouth as he noticed that Lois was also muttering to herself.

"So, Lois, what's your column going to about? The stadium issue? Perhaps the Monarch's new coaching staff?"

"Shut up, Clark."

Clark chuckled as he ambled over and leaned against Lois' desk. "Really, Lois, why are you so steamed? I know you are a sports fan. I've been to games with you. I consider myself a knowledgeable fight fan, but your expertise puts me to shame." Clark shrugged. "I would think that you could have some fun with this column."

Lois released an exasperated sigh as she turned her attention away from the screen and toward Clark. "It's not sports that I dislike, Clark, it's the overblown egos of the overpaid, conceited prima donnas who call themselves professional athletes. People who, because they were blessed at birth with certain physical talents, can make more money than god, and feel they are above mere mortals like the rest of us." Lois stood up and stuck her finger in Clark's chest. "You know what else I resent about this? I'm an investigative reporter, one of the best. I write stories that make a difference in this world. I don't feel it's a good use of my abilities to be writing about… " Lois seemed to grope for what she wanted to say, "mere entertainment."

Clark shrugged. "Don't let it get to you, Lois. You're talented enough to write about anything. Just have fun with it." Clark's face clouded. "Besides, we do have a very serious story to investigate."

Lois sat back down. "You're right. Do we have any leads yet?"

Clark shook his head. "The police haven't been able to obtain any physical evidence from the bodies, and they aren't talking about any leads they might have, which makes me think they don't have any."

Lois frowned. "Why? It would be just like them to keep us in the dark."

"Nah, I think Henderson would give us something if he had anything. He knows he can trust us to not print anything before he agrees to it." Clark adjusted his glasses as he fought the feeling of helplessness that threatened to overwhelm him. "I've got Jimmy searching out a list of former employees who might have reason to harbor a grudge against the Daily Planet."

Lois chuckled sadly. "That could be an interesting list, but what about criminals that Planet exclusives put away? Wouldn't they be more likely to commit acts this heinous?"

"Maybe, but wouldn't that kind of vengeance tend to be focused on the individual reporters rather than the Planet in general? I find it hard to believe that Cat and Eduardo would have some criminal in common in their past."

Lois shook her head. "They don't, I've already checked."

Clark wasn't surprised to hear that. If Lois was anything, it was thorough. As often that she might break a story because of her brilliant, intuitive leaps. She was equally successful because of her dogged persistence and perseverance. Clark wandered back to his desk as Lois' attention was diverted to her ringing phone.

The phone call was short, but it obviously was something that pleased Lois. Her mood seemed a little brighter after she hung up the phone. Clark raised a brow as he gazed at Lois while she hung up the phone.

"That was Lucy," she said. "Oh, I didn't tell you? She's coming to visit for a couple of weeks. She says that California's been fun but she wants to look into schools in the area. She plans to go back to college." Lois swiveled her chair to face Clark. "She just got in and will be at my place by the time I get home tonight." Lois smiled. "It will be good to see her again. I haven't seen her since she went to California over six months ago."

Clark smiled. "I'm sure that will be nice. I look forward to seeing her again too. In fact, tell you what, I'll bring over take out for all of us tonight, and after dinner you and I can go over whatever Jimmy has found for us by then."

Lois pondered that for a moment. "Sounds okay with me. I just hope that Jimmy will actually find something that can give us a lead. I hate it when a story doesn't come together… what?" Lois noticed that irritating faraway look Clark tended to get from time to time. Like his attention was suddenly focused elsewhere.

Clark snapped his awareness back to Lois. He'd been distracted by a bank alarm and knew he had to leave to take care of it as Superman. "Ah — okay, that's what we'll do then. Umm — I think I'd better go see how Jimmy is doing…" Clark began to make his way toward the stairwell. "See you tonight."

Lois shook her head in resignation. She doubted she'd ever understand some of the strange behavior of her partner.

She suddenly jerked her head back up. "Hey, " she exclaimed looking to see if Clark was still around. "What stadium issue?"


Clark, as Superman, had a busy day. After foiling a bank robbery, he also had to deal with a severe traffic accident, and a wild fire upstate. He'd had to call Perry to cover for himself. He claimed he was at the library doing research for his upcoming travel piece, and he also dictated a story on the bank robbery, which Superman had supposedly given him the details on. Clark had then decided to actually do some of the research he needed for his article for the Sunday Supplement, so he flew over to Paris for a couple of hours. He made some notes about a few restaurants and a hotel not on the normal tourist circuit.

Clark decided he'd make one more stop before going home and preparing for tonight at Lois'. Jimmy was going to email everything he found to Lois' home computer. Hopefully it would, at least, give them a starting point.

*** Bill Henderson was working at shifting the stack of paper on the left side of his desk to the right side of his desk. It had been a bad last few days and he had a feeling in the pit of his stomach that it was only going to get worse. Of course, that could just be his ulcer acting up.

This latest multiple murder investigation had all the earmarks of becoming something very nasty. He allowed an audible sigh to escape from his lips. He was especially on edge since it seemed to be focusing on the Daily Planet and their employees. As much as anyone in his position could, he considered some of the reporters at that paper as friends. The Daily Planet actually had reporters who had ethics and the intelligence to work with the police instead of against them. He figured that was because of a man like Perry White being in charge. Perry White was one of the few members of the fourth estate that Henderson genuinely respected.

Kent was another one. The guy always played it straight with him. Henderson shook his head in wonder. Even Lois Lane, in a twisted sort of way, had her own solid set of ethics. He and she butted heads many times in the past, but she was an exceptional investigator and Henderson couldn't help but think she'd make one hell of a detective.

Henderson was interrupted by the watch commander sticking his head through the door into the Inspector's office. "Bill, ah, Superman is here to see you…"

Henderson reacted with surprise. "Umm, send him in."

Henderson had met Superman on several occasions, and found it interesting that the Man of Steel wasn't any taller than he was. Still, there was something about the man that just inspired awe. Maybe it was the suit, but there was a presence about Superman that couldn't be ignored.

"Thank you for seeing me, Inspector." Superman strode confidently into the small office, the bright primary colors of the suit contrasting with the browns and grays of the walls and carpeting.

Henderson indicated the chair in front of his desk. "No problem, what can I do for you, Superman?"

Clark put on his best Superman mask. "I'm here to offer you my help with the Planet reporters murder case." Clark shifted a little uneasily in his seat. "As you know I have friends at the Daily Planet, and I'd like to do whatever I can to bring this sick person to justice before anyone else is hurt or killed."

Henderson nodded. "I'd be grateful for any help you can give me, but seriously, I don't know what you can do. Outside of the grisly method the killer employs, which all the papers have reported on, the only other piece of information we have is that the autopsies show that both victims were drugged."

"Drugged?" Clark leaned closer. This was new information.

"Yes," Henderson confirmed. "But it was just a sedative. Probably used by the killer to make his victims more docile, and easier to handle. We have tried to trace the purchase of the drug, but it's quite common and easily obtainable with a prescription."

Clark perked up. "A prescription? Couldn't you use that to trace possible suspects?"

Henderson allowed himself a pathetic chuckle. "Oh, we tried that, but gave up after we reached two thousand plus prescriptions written for the drug in the last six months. Metropolis is a big city, and a lot of its citizens need a little help to relax."

"I see." Superman stood up and shook Henderson's hand. "Well, if you think of any way that I might be of help please let me know. Thank you for your time."

Henderson watched Superman stride from his office. "Anytime, Superman." Henderson started to sit back down. "Wait… how would we…" he noticed Superman had already gone, "get a hold of you?" He finished, speaking only to himself.


The only light in the dark, dank apartment was a soft grayness that managed to filter through the thin rags that passed as curtains. The lone living occupant was scurrying about the small main room. He had business to take care of.

He glanced over at the sheet-wrapped body that occupied a large portion of the floor. He knew he had to wait until it was quite dark before he could safely move and dispose of the body. He had to smile as his gaze raked the nearly shapeless form so tightly wrapped in front of him.

His smile saddened as he thought how this particular killing had to remain a secret. Unlike his other, more *newsworthy* efforts, this particular achievement would have to remain unnoticed. While his other, more ostentatious killings had been killings of purpose and vengeance, this pathetic creature lying at his feet had been killed out of necessity and accommodation. He hoped his dearly departed victim could appreciate the subtle difference, but somehow he doubted it.

Looking about the dingy apartment, the man had to smile when he thought of the new digs he'd soon be enjoying. The man lit a cigarette, and settling back in the threadbare chair, which represented the only usable piece of furniture in the room, waited for the night.


Lois Lane pushed her apartment door open with her foot. Her hands were otherwise occupied with several files, and a handbag that seemed to grow larger, and heavier, everyday. She deposited everything on a side table as she entered, and kicked the door shut behind her.

"Lucy, are you here?" Lois shouted.

"Yeah, right here."

Lucy Lane came around the corner, with a large book in her hand. Lois rushed up and gave her a hug. She then stepped back and gave her baby sister a critical look, from head to toe.

"You look great. How are you doing?"

Lucy gave her big sister a big smile. "I'm doing great, and somehow I thought you might like the changes."

Lois grinned. "So, what do you have there?" Lois asked indicating the large book that Lucy held.

Lucy chuckled. "Well I know that you might be unfamiliar with it, but it's called a cookbook." Lucy held it up and grinned at Lois' mock scowl. "Unlike one of the Lane sisters, who shall remain nameless, I can cook, so I thought I'd see what I could make depending on what you had in your pantry." Lucy shook her head in disgust. "Based on what you have around, we can either have boiled carrots, or cream of carrot soup with a generous side of double fudge ripple ice cream."

Lois pretended to think about it for a moment. "As tempting as that sounds, we don't have to worry about dinner. Clark is bringing over some take out for all of us."

A sly smile crept onto Lucy's face. "Clark, huh, that's interesting. He's bringing dinner right to your door now?"

Lois shook her head rolling her eyes. "No, he's not. He's bringing *us* dinner. And it's no big deal. We often share a take out meal, or a pizza, when we have *work* to do." Lois gave Lucy a sarcastic smile. "He is my partner, remember?"

"And…?" Lucy added.

"And what?" Lois responded a bit crossly. "Don't go there, Lucy. Clark is my work partner… and my friend." Lois gave Lucy a stern look. "And that's all."

Lucy clucked her tongue as she shook her head. "That's too bad. What a waste."

Lois gave her sister a puzzled look. "What's all this about Clark anyway? You've only met him a couple of times, months ago."

Lucy shrugged. "He seemed like a nice guy." Lucy winked. "And you have to admit he's awfully cute — no, make that gorgeous."

"Lucy!" Lois gave her giggling sister a look of exasperation. "Never mind, I'm going to change into something more comfortable. Clark will probably get here fairly soon."

Lucy's lips formed an O and her eyes went wide. "Changing into something more *comfortable*, huh."


Lucy's laughter drowned out anything else Lois might have muttered. Suddenly a knock at the door caught her attention. "I'll get it, " she said.

Lucy opened the door and had to swallow a noisy exhalation of surprise. Clark stood there holding several cartons of what looked to be Chinese. And he looked better than Lucy ever remembered. He was dressed casually in a pair of gray casual slacks and a black pullover turtle neck shirt. The shirt was tucked tightly into his pants in such a manner that it fit snugly across the broad expanse of his chest. A nasty little corner of Lucy's mind wished that Clark would turn around so she could check out his… don't go there girl, she silently admonished herself.

"Come on in, Clark." She stepped back. "Lois is getting changed."

Clark had to quell his own exclamation of surprise. Lucy had changed in the six months or so that he'd last seen her. She'd filled out a bit, in all the right places. She looked as if she had been working out some too. She had traded in the long curls for a simpler, shoulder-length page cut. Very similar to Lois'. Lucy had always been an attractive young woman, but her resemblance to Lois was even more obvious now.

"Wow," Clark finally said. "Lucy, you look terrific. California must have been good to you." Clark smiled as he said that.

Lucy's heart skipped a beat at being the recipient of Clark's megawatt smile. She had to turn away for a moment, blushing. "You're just saying that because I look a lot more like Lois now."

Clark chuckled. "Well, there definitely is a family resemblance, but you've always been a beautiful young woman in your own right."

Lucy blushed again, then turned and shouted over her shoulder. "Lois, is it okay if *I* marry Clark?"

"Sure," came the disembodied reply from the next room.

A few moments later, a more 'comfortable' Lois, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, came into the living room and crossed over to where Clark and Lucy were standing. She grabbed a couple of the cartons from Clark and brought them over to the table. He followed with the rest, Lucy quickly bringing up the rear.

Lois opened one of the containers and sampled a small morsel. "Ohhh, you've really got to tell me where you get this from. It is always the best Chinese I've ever eaten."

Clark smiled enigmatically at the Lane sisters. "A man's got to have some secrets."

Lois leaned back and favored Clark with an appraising stare. "Fair warning, Kent, someday I'm going to know all your secrets."

Clark's lips formed a little half smile. "I look forward to it, Lois."

Lois gave Clark a quizzical look but before she could comment further Lucy piped up.

"Enough talk, let's eat."


(Chapter Four)

Dinner had gone well. Most of the small talk had revolved around Lucy's time in California, and her desire to now go back to school. Shortly after the meal, knowing that Lois and Clark were planning on working, Lucy excused herself. She planned to look up a few old friends. Now it was just Lois and Clark, and work.

Lois pulled several sheets of paper out of the exit tray of her printer. She had downloaded the stuff Jimmy found for them directly to her printer so she and Clark could work more comfortably at the couch. She came over and sat at one end of the couch, Clark already occupying the other, and dropped the considerable stack of paper on the coffee table. They fell with a thump, landing next to the pile of folders that Lois had brought home with her.

"What are these?" Clark asked indicating the small stack of file folders.

"Those are the files on several criminals that the Daily Planet brought to justice over the last 28 years that I thought might be possible suspects." Lois shrugged. "I queried the archives for cases that involved violent crimes, and/or criminals who may have vowed revenge on anyone."

Clark gave Lois a questioning look. "Why 28 years?"

"That's the longest tenure of anyone still working at the Planet." Lois shrugged again. I guessed that for any sort of vengeance killing to make any sense there still had to be some connection between the criminal and the Planet."

Clark nodded. "Makes sense. Who's been there 28 years?"

Lois smiled. "Perry."

Clark chuckled. "Of course."

"Not a lot here." Clark noted as he picked up the few file folders.

"Well the list got narrowed down quite a bit once I started checking into it. Many of the names on my first list are deceased, or still in prison." Lois frowned. "Still, even those few files I brought home don't really seem like the kind of person who would commit this kind of sick, brutal murder." She pulled two files from the stack. "These two are the only ones that even remotely could be possibles to my mind."

Clark accepted them from Lois and flipped the first one open. "The Prankster?" Clark looked at Lois, puzzled.

"Kyle Griffin, he was someone I managed to put away a few years ago. When I contacted the prison, I was given the run around, so I'm not sure of his status at present." Lois frowned as she dug back into her memory. "He was prone to wild, elaborate prank-like actions. He didn't seem to care if others got hurt in the process, but this beheading his victims doesn't seem to be his style." Lois looked over at Clark. "His pranks were always supposed to be funny, in a twisted sort of way. I don't know of anyone who would think the murders of Cat and Eduardo could be funny on any level."

"Then why is he here?" Clark asked.

"Just because I can't account for his whereabouts… and he was not exactly happy with *me* at his capture and subsequent trial."

Clark flipped open the other folder. "Marie Richards. I remember this case. We studied this in my journalism class. She tried to blow up the Daily Planet, didn't she?"

Lois nodded. "Yeah, it was back in the late sixties, but I remember she was supposed to have been a member of some terrorist cult group. They had targeted the Daily Planet as some sort of puppet voice of the oppressors of their cause." Lois shook her head in bewilderment. "Who knows what thoughts ran through the heads of those drugged-out nut cases. They were surprised by a swat team and all of the group, except Marie, were killed. It was a highly publicized trial because Troy Matthews was her attorney."

"Oh yes, now I remember." Clark nodded in agreement. "He tried to argue that she was merely expressing her constitutional right to protest, or something stupid like that."

Lois shook her head in disgust. "Yeah, he tried to say that the explosives were really harmless smoke bombs and the stuff the police supposedly confiscated were planted to justify their over-zealous killing of the other members of the group."

"Well, I think that she would be more inclined to think of the Daily Planet as an institutional entity, and more likely to attack the physical building again. But I suppose, killing off its reporters would effectively silence its voice. And the gruesomeness of the killings would definitely draw attention to her acts, but usually those kind of people want you to know who's behind the deeds. Otherwise their cause isn't getting the attention they desire." Clark shrugged. "Still, I guess the taking credit could still be upcoming. You're right, she is a possible."

Lois frowned. "One problem." Lois continued when she saw Clark's questioning look. "She's seventy three and in ill health."

Lois pursed her lips as she tilted her head, obviously thinking of something else. "Clark, what about the Metro gang? Do you think any of them could still be around and out for some sort of revenge. They were gangsters, and we know they do stuff like putting horse heads into people's beds as a warning."

Clark chuckled as he shook his head. "No, I don't think so. All the leaders of the Metro gang are still behind bars, and this isn't a movie, Lois. Besides, what good is a message if no one knows who it's from?" Clark tossed the files back onto the table. "I guess we should check into the *disgruntled former employee* list."

Lois pulled the sheaf of papers she'd brought from her printer off the table.. She glanced at the first page. "Well, there are 122 former Daily Planet employers still living, 66 of them retired under normal, amiable circumstances, and 23 left of their own volition to take positions elsewhere or left town. That leaves 33 people who were fired, or laid off." Lois raised her head and caught Clark's eyes. "I guess we should start setting some criteria for a person who could commit such horrible murders."

Clark bit his lip. "I don't know how anyone could commit such an act against another person, but I suppose you're right."

Lois nodded sympathetically. She knew that her partner was a bit naive when it came to the evils that existed in the world. He was also one of the most compassionate people she'd ever known, and she knew that the sick nature of the two murders affected him deeply. Especially since it had happened to two people he knew. She flashed back to how Clark had seemed to guess what that last box might have contained and had prevented her from seeing it. It was so Clark. A part of her resented his assertion that she needed shielding from such a sight, but a part of her was glad that he had. For all her tough, big city bluster, she never got used to the depths of depravity that some people could sink to.

Lois began to scan the other sheets, looking for more information. "I guess it would take someone of reasonable size and strength to be able to physically manhandle two full grown adults and, er — mutilate them like he did."


Lois looked up in surprise. "You think a woman could have done this?"

Clark shrugged. "I'm not willing to rule out anyone just yet. Henderson said that both Cat and Eduardo had been drugged. They were given some sort of sedative, probably to make them more easy to manage."

Lois gave Clark a suspicious look. "How do you know that? Henderson never said anything of the sort to me, or on record."

Clark, realizing his mistake, looked away for a moment while he composed his answer. "Ah, well, I ran into Superman before I came over and he said he'd talked to Henderson. Henderson told Superman about the drugs. Apparently the toxicology reports had only recently come back." Clark grinned weakly.

Lois frowned. "Okay, Kent, out with it. How is it that you seem to be able to run into Superman whenever it is convenient to do so?"

"Lois, I don't run into Superman whenever it's convenient."

"Oh no?" Lois' look became challenging. "No one else in this city, myself included, has a clue how to get in contact with Superman, well, beyond being thrown off a tall building or something. But you seem to be buddy buddy with the Man of Steel, and can reach him any time you need to."

Clark stared at his feet as he thought furiously. "It's not quite what you think, Lois." He looked at her and noticed her 'so, explain it to me' stare.. "Actually, we are friends, sort of. You see, ah, I do Superman's laundry for him."

"You — do — his — laundry?" Lois blinked a couple of times while shaking her head.

"It's not like he has a washing machine."

Lois seized on Clark's words. "You know where he lives? I mean, when he's not out playing superior."

"No, I didn't mean that." Clark indicated the pile of papers in Lois' hands.. "Lois, I think we have more important things to worry about right now than where Superman may or may not hang out during his off hours."

Lois looked down at the stack in her hands. "I guess you're right." She looked back up and made direct eye contact with Clark. "But don't think this discussion is over, Kent. One of these days you're going to have to explain this relationship you seem to have with Superman." She noticed that Clark didn't seem to have anything to say to that.

*** The man groaned just a little as he dragged his burden down the back stairs of the flea bag hotel. It wasn't terribly late, but it was plenty dark and the man wasn't too worried about being 'discovered'. The folks in this neighborhood tended to mind their own business. More often than not they looked the other way and had notoriously poor memories.

The tightly wrapped bundle, that was once a human being, thumped consecutively on each stair tread as they made their way down the stairs to the back door. He had a long way to go tonight in order to dump this useless corpse. It wouldn't do to have this body showing up anytime soon. That would definitely put a crimp in his plans, and that would be unfortunate because they had been going along quite well so far.

*** After a couple of hours of poring over the data Jimmy had given them, and arguing points for and against for each possible suspect, Lois and Clark had managed to narrow the list of possibles to three people. Lois circled the three candidates with a red pen and laid the papers out on the table in front of them.

"Okay," Lois said, pointing to each name in turn. "We have Roger Timmons, Maggie Person, and Jeb Dutcher. All three were fired from the Daily Planet due to being caught engaging in criminal activity. All were also reported to be very bitter."

"Yeah," Clark added. "Roger Timmons was caught stealing funds from a Planet charity event, and was sentenced to seven years for felony theft. He claimed it was money due him since the Daily Planet had been underpaying him for several years."

Lois allowed herself a sad chuckle. "Who doesn't think that?"

"True," Clark grinned. "But according to this he was quite violent at his trial claiming that the Daily Planet had set out to ruin his life. He even attempted to deny that he'd stolen the money, and that his managers had framed him. He was due for a parole hearing about four months ago. We'll have to check this out tomorrow, along with Maggie Person's current address."

Lois shook her head. "I'm still not sure about her. She falsely accused two coworkers of sexually abusing her. I remember her. It was just before you came on board. She got quite violent when her story fell apart under the police investigation." Lois bit her lip. "I could understand her striking back at male Planet reporters, sort of as a twisted substitute for those two reporters she had fixated on. But how does Cat figure in?"

Clark shrugged. "Perhaps Cat's reputation as a… sexually active person made her a target. Maggie was obviously a very sexually repressed individual."

"Yeah, maybe," Lois reluctantly agreed. "I'll have to see if I can find out any information about her current whereabouts. She never went to jail for her actions, but was remanded to a psychiatric institution for treatment." Lois shrugged. "I never heard anything more about her."

Lois picked up the third sheet. "This is my choice, Jebadiah Dutcher. Just the name says serial killer."


Lois ignored Clark. "This one goes way back. Apparently he had a long time scam going with members of the city council. He used his position on the Planet, as its city government beat reporter, to either deflect, or tip off, the crooked politicians about any possible investigations which threatened them. In exchange, he was given an extra little weekly stipend which amounted to quite a bit over time."

Clark nodded. "Yeah, but that doesn't sound like the type of person who would suddenly be provoked to commit such heinous murders."

"Well, things went badly at the end for him. Something happened during his escape attempt and his girl friend was killed. He swore vengeance for her death." Lois glanced again at the information written on Dutcher. "He was given a fifteen year sentence due to his violent resistance to his arrest. One officer was badly injured. I don't see any indication as to whether he was ever paroled, or was released for any reason. His sentence wouldn't be up for another two years."

"That's why I think Timmons is our best bet."

Lois shook her head. "I dunno, something tells me it's Dutcher." Lois looked up at Clark and grinned. "I guess that means it will be Maggie Person."

"Probably," Clark agreed with a slight laugh. He stood. "Look, Lois, it's getting late. We'll be better able to follow up on these three tomorrow at the Planet. Maybe we can pick Perry's brain."

Lois rose and escorted Clark to the door. "Sounds like a good plan, partner. Thanks for the dinner. I'll see you at work in the morning."

"Good night, Lois." Clark stared into Lois' soft brown eyes, he had to fight a nearly overwhelming desire to lean down and kiss her.

"Good night, Clark." Lois got the impression, for just a second, that Clark was going to kiss her. She shook off the errant thought as she slowly closed the door behind her friend, and partner.

Lois had no sooner closed the door, and had barely made it back to the living room when there was a knock on the door. Puzzled, Lois retraced her steps.

"What did you forget, Clark?" Lois opened the door.

"I could go back and get him if you want. I just passed him in the hallway." Lucy stood out in the hallway grinning at her big sister and the surprised expression on her face. "Sorry, I forgot my key." She explained as she entered. "Soooo, you and Clark were *working* late?"

Lois rolled her eyes at her sister. "Yes, Lucy, we were *working* late." Lois softened her tone and put her arm around Lucy's shoulder. "I don't know how much of the news you've been reading lately, but Clark and I are assigned to the murders of the two Planet reporters."

Lucy instantly sobered. "Yeah, I saw some of the headlines. Pretty gruesome stuff." Lucy shook her head. "Hard to believe that Cat Grant is dead." Lucy turned and grabbed Lois by the arms. "You guys think it's some nut getting revenge on the Daily Planet, don't you?"

Lois just nodded.

Lucy bit her lip. "Are you in danger?"

Lois shrugged. "Probably no more than any other Planet reporter." Lois gave her baby sister a reassuring smile. "But don't worry about it. With Clark and I on the case, this nutbag doesn't stand a chance." Lois leaned her head against Lucy's. "Now, it's late, and I don't know about you, but I'm beat, and I need to get some sleep. I've got a big day ahead of me tomorrow, and if I'm not mistaken young lady, you have an appointment at Metro U?"

"Yeah, but that's just an introduction thing. The big one is the day after tomorrow," Lucy answered. "But it is late so I think I'll turn in also. Good night, Lois."

"Good night, Lucy."

*** "You wished to see me, sir?"

"Ah, yes, good morning, Nigel, come in." Lex waved his assistant over towards his desk. "Have we had any progress on tracking down this 'Headsman', as the papers have dubbed him?"

"Well, I think I have it narrowed down to a former employee of the Planet's." Nigel handed Luthor a slim file folder.

Luthor gave it a quick glance. "Hmmmm, interesting fellow." Luthor looked up at his aide de camp. "What makes you think he's the one?"

Nigel inclined his head briefly. "If I may direct your attention to the final paragraph."

Luthor read over the indicated passage a smile slowly spreading over his face as he did so. "I see, very good, Nigel. Do we know where this individual currently resides."

"Unfortunately, no, sir." Nigel tried to look contrite. "My sources were able to confirm his arrival in Metropolis three weeks ago, but the last address they had for him, a run down establishment in one of the seedier sections of the city, has drawn a blank." Nigel shrugged. "If he was there, he has since moved on. I have some people out looking, but it seems that he has disappeared for the moment."

Luthor frowned. "Well, I leave it in your hands, Nigel. Keep me informed." Luthor turned his attention to other things on his desk.

"Of course, sir." Nigel excused himself.

*** (Chapter Five)

Lois sat at her desk at the Daily Planet staring at her computer screen. She chewed thoughtfully on the end of her pencil as she read the information contained there. A frown creased her brow, but didn't reach her mouth, as she escaped from the file she had been reading. Her attention was drawn toward the elevator as its bell announced the impending arrival of someone.

Lois made eye contact with Clark as soon as he stepped off the conveyance. She gave him a jerk of her head, signaling him to approach her desk. He crossed the distance in moments.

"Good morning, Lois, what's up?"

"You're late. Where have you been?" Lois asked, her attention focused back on her screen.

"Good morning, Clark, how's your day going?" Clark responded sarcastically.

Lois glanced up at him and rolled her eyes. She kept staring at him, obviously waiting for his excuse for being late. Clark had been tied up as Superman, fighting a fire down on the docks. It hadn't taken him long to assist the Metropolis Fire Department in quenching the blaze, but it was enough to make him late as he had to go back home to shower. He still smelled a little of smoke. Of course, he couldn't tell Lois that.

"Um, I had to — return a video." Clark smiled weakly. "I didn't want to have to pay any late fees."

Lois raised her brow. "Another video? When do you have time to watch all these videos you're always renting?" Lois shook her head, then gave Clark a searching look. "What movie was it anyway?"

Clark looked around, stalling for time. "Um, it was, Lethal Weapon."

Lois gave Clark a slight pout. "Why didn't you call me? I loved that movie."

Clark shrugged apologetically. "Well, er, you see, Lois, I didn't actually ever get time to watch it, but it was due so I had to return it."

Lois shook her head. "I'm beginning to worry about you, Clark."

"Well, don't worry, Lois." Clark gestured toward Lois' computer screen. "What do you have there?"

Lois snapped her attention back to her computer. "Oh, I've been doing some checking on our suspect list from last night, and I think we can safely rule out Maggie Person."

"Oh, why?" Clark asked as he tried to read over her shoulder.

"She died in a car accident six weeks ago."

"That would do it." Clark tilted his head trying to see around Lois. "What did you find out about Timmons, and Dutcher?"

Lois turned back to her computer screen. "Roger Timmons was paroled a few months ago. Seems he'd been a model prisoner." Lois jotted down information on a scratch pad. "This is his current address and phone number." Lois said handing Clark the scrap of paper. "Why don't you phone him, try and get a read on him. We might just have to go out and pay Mr. Timmons a visit."

"Okay," Clark answered as he angled toward his desk. "What about Dutcher?"

Lois frowned at Clark. "I'm having trouble tracking him. By all rights, he should still be in prison, but I can't get into their current records and earlier I got nowhere on the phone."

Clark nodded sympathetically. Lois' attention was again diverted by the elevator chime. Her mood suddenly went a couple of shades darker as she saw who came out. Linda King strolled out. Lois noted she was conservatively dressed in a simple, but smart looking, jacket and skirt outfit. Linda looked around the bullpen, as if checking out her new hunting grounds. Linda's gaze finally fell on Lois, she flashed Lois a barracuda smile and sashayed toward Perry's office.

"Gee, and I wonder why I don't like that woman," Lois muttered to herself.

"Well, scratch another one." Clark hung up the phone and came over to Lois' desk.

"What? Oh, you phoned Timmons. What did he have to say?"

Clark ran his hand his hand through his hair. "Well, I never talked to Timmons directly. I talked to his daughter." Clark saw Lois' puzzled look so he continued. "She's there taking care of Timmons. He had a stroke three weeks ago, and has been partially paralyzed ever since."

Several emotions played across Lois' face as she came over by Clark's desk. "We'll have Jimmy check it out, just to make sure it's not some cover story."

Clark shrugged. "She sounded sincere, but you're right. We'd best make sure."

"People, can I have your attention please?"

Lois and Clark were drawn away from their conversation, toward their editor and chief and his call for attention. He was standing at the top of the ramp, Linda King was at his side.

"I just wanted to take this opportunity to introduce you all to the newest member of our little family here, Linda King."

"Thank you, Mr. White." Linda cooed.

Perry nodded toward her, then turned his attention to the crowd. "Now, I know things have been difficult lately. We've all lost two admired colleagues, and have had to endure the yellow journalistic trash being spewed forth by the scandal rags. But we can't let that drag us down. The Daily Planet is the finest paper not only in this city, but in the country and I know that all of you will do your utmost to keep it that way." Perry gave Linda a smile. "In that vein, I know you all will do what you can to help make Ms. King's transition, and that of Sid Loomis next week, to our little family as smooth as possible."

Lois not only saw, but also felt Perry's eyes boring into her. Lois felt compelled to move back a step under the intensity of her boss's stare. She forced a weak smile onto her face as she met his gaze.

"Let me show you to your desk, Ms. King." Perry led the woman down the ramp into the main floor of the bullpen.

Linda chuckled in a self-effacing manner. "Oh, Mr. White, you must call me Linda. Calling me Ms. King makes me think my mother is here."

Lois thought she was going to gag as she watched the by play between Perry and Linda as they walked by. Lois had to bite her lip to keep from making an angry comment as Linda passed by and gave her a little wink, when suddenly Perry looked over his shoulder and locked gazes with her.

"I want to see you and Kent in my office in ten minutes."

Lois quickly turned and placed her hand on Clark's arm. Her attention was still on the retreating forms of Perry and Linda. "Can you believe the looks that Perry gave me?" She turned her gaze onto Clark. "Clark, you know me pretty well. I'd never let my personal feelings interfere with my professional opinion would I… Clark?"

Clark had to choke back an impending laugh. "Ah, well, that is I think that you, I mean that it's obvious that a person of your, Ummm, what was the question?"

Lois stamped her foot in annoyance. "Clark?"

Grinning, Clark began to move away from Lois. "I'd better talk to Jimmy and have him check the hospital records. We need to confirm Timmons' condition." Clark hurried toward the back of the newsroom. "I'll meet you back in Perry's office in a few minutes, " he flung back over his shoulder as he rushed off.


*** Clark sat next to his partner in the chairs facing editor Perry White's large, cluttered desk. Lois refused to look at him when he'd come in moments ago. Clark briefly wondered if his boss noticed the definite chill in the room, or if it was just him.

Perry didn't look good. Clark guessed that the chief hadn't been sleeping well lately. Perry mumbled crossly as he shuffled a pile of papers from one side of his desk to the other. Finally he leaned back in his chair, ran his hand through his hair, and sighed. Clark could see the pain and weariness in his eyes as Perry eventually looked at his two best reporters.

"I hope you two have some good news for me." Perry reached over and snatched a sheet of paper from his overflowing in basket and tossed it in the general direction of Lois and Clark. "Three of our bigger advertisers have pulled out. They are worried about their reputations. Being associated with a target of a madman isn't good for business." Perry sighed again. "The sharks are circling, boys and girls." He leaned forward expectantly.

Clark shrugged somewhat helplessly. "Well, Chief, Lois and I have just started our investigation, and while we think we might…"

Lois rolled her eyes and cut Clark off. "We've narrowed our lists of suspects down to a couple, Perry. I think that either one could be the killer, but we…"

"Sorry guys, but Clark asked me to let him know as soon as I found out." Jimmy had stuck his head into Perry's office and interrupted Lois. "It checks out. Roger Timmons was admitted to Metropolis General twenty two days ago. He was released to home hospice care last week. The prognosis isn't very good."

"Thanks, Jimmy," Clark replied.

"Timmons? He was one of your suspects?" Perry interjected with a thoughtful look on his face.

"Yes," Clark answered somewhat nervously.

"Yeah, but he was Clark's choice," Lois quickly insinuated. "What do you remember about a Jeb Dutcher?"

Perry leaned back in his chair again, nodding. "Now there's a name I haven't thought about in years." Perry studied Lois with a look that spoke of approval. "That was one nasty time. Did you know that he and I were partners once?" When the two reporters just shook their heads, Perry continued. "Yeah, it was a shame, he was a good reporter, and a great writer. Never did understand why he chose to move over to the city government beat. At least not until his complicity with the corrupt councilmen was discovered."

Clark leaned in. "So, Chief, do you think that someone who got caught taking bribes is the kind of person who could commit these murders."

Perry seemed to think for a moment before answering. "Well, like any good reporter he was passionate about things." Perry shook his head. "And he was none too happy with me."

Lois gave Perry a quizzical look. "Why is that, Perry?"

Perry gave them both a rueful smile. "It was an investigation of mine which uncovered what he was doing. Oh, he was never the target of the investigation, but by association with the councilman I was investigating for, ah, inappropriate conduct, Jeb's dealings were discovered." Perry snapped his chair upright in a rush. "Great shades of Elvis, it all makes sense now."

Clark couldn't stop himself from reaching out and putting his hand on his editor's arm to steady him. "What is it, Perry?" Clark asked, clearly worried with the violence of Perry's reaction.

"I'm sure you two read about the unpleasantness surrounding his capture?" Both reporters nodded silently. "That his girlfriend was killed in the car accident during the attempted escape?" Again, they nodded. "Well, I don't know how much detail you were able to get from your archive search, but the accident was particularly gruesome."

Perry shifted his weight in his seat, delaying as he searched for the right words. "Seems that Jeb picked a vehicle that wasn't in the best of repair for his getaway. He picked mine." Perry ignored Lois' gasp as he continued. "Times weren't the best, Alice had to stay home with the kids, money was tight. Let's just say that my car was due for some much needed maintenance. As the fates would have it, he grabbed my car for his getaway." Perry stopped and took a breath. "He tore out of here as soon as the police showed up. He knew the jig was up. He managed to escape from the Planet but the police closed in, shortly after he picked up his girlfriend. It was his undoing, really. If he hadn't gone to get her, he just might have gotten away clean."

Perry sighed. "Well, those nearly worn out tires just couldn't take the strain he was putting on them, and one of the front tires blew. He careened out of control and smashed into a parked truck. The car collided with the trailer, the impact tearing the roof clean off the car." Perry ran his hands through his hair again. "Miraculously, Dutcher only had scrapes and bruises. He must have ducked or something. His girlfriend wasn't so lucky. It was quick, but it was gruesome. I doubt the poor woman ever knew what was about to happen."

Clark swallowed trying to force down a queasiness. "You mean?"

Perry nodded sadly. "Yeah, tore the poor girl's head from her body. She was dead instantly. Jeb went a little nuts and even though he was bruised and battered he attacked the arresting officers."

Lois was shaking her head. "No wonder he has been beheading his victims. It makes sense, in a grotesque sort of way. He's avenging himself on the Daily Planet," Lois looked up at Perry, "and you, by killing his victims similarly to his girlfriend's death."

"Only one problem." Clark felt he needed to bring up the obvious. "Dutcher is still supposed to be in prison, so we *could* be way off base here."

Perry frowned at his reporters. "What do you mean, 'supposed to be'?"

Lois looked a bit sheepish. "I haven't been able to confirm that he still is in prison. The official records say he is, but they haven't been updated in a month. When I call, I'm told that only the warden can release that sort of information, and he is currently unavailable."

Perry pursed his lips. "Sounds suspicious to me. Well I guess you two know what you need to do next."

"Visit New Troy State Prison and ask to visit Jeb Dutcher?" Lois interjected quickly.

"No, darlin'," Perry said with a joyless smile. "I think you two need to talk to Inspector Henderson. If you were able to come up with Jeb Dutcher as a suspect, then I reckon his people did also. Maybe he'll be willing to tell you the current whereabouts of the man."

Lois and Clark looked at each other guiltily as they stood to leave.

"We'll take care of that right away, Perry." Lois said nodding as she allowed Clark to precede her out the door.

Once they had reached their desks, Clark stopped Lois as she was reaching for her bag. "Lois, I've got an idea." He paused for a snide comment but continued when none was forthcoming. "Henderson, may or may not have a line on this Jeb Dutcher. And if he doesn't, I'm not sure he'd be too open with a couple of nosy reporters about it." Clark paused for another breath, looking at Lois expectantly. "Okay, why don't I try to get a hold of Superman and have him talk to Henderson. Superman's already expressed an interest in the case, and had gotten Henderson to tell him things that he won't tell us. Maybe he'll be more forthcoming with Superman than he would be with us?"

Lois was silent for a moment, then nodded her head. "It makes sense. I mean, who can turn down Superman?" Lois reached down and picked up her bag. "Let's go."

"What?" Clark responded, confused. "Where are we going?"

Lois placed on fist on her hip. "You said you were going to try and contact Superman." Lois gave Clark a sadistic smile. "And I'm going with you."

Clark felt like a trapped animal. "Ah, you can't. I mean, it doesn't work that way. You can't be with me."

Lois eyed Clark suspiciously. "Why? What is this big mystery with you and Superman? If it wasn't for the amazing kiss he gave me during our run in with Miranda, and that pheromone stuff, I'd wonder just what kind of relationship you *do* have with the Man of Steel."

"Lo-is," Clark replied nervously. "It's not like that, it's just…" Clark found himself looking around for an avenue of escape. He thought he saw one coming in the form of Linda King. "Ah, never mind, just give me a few minutes to check on something with Jimmy, then we can leave." Clark hurried off before Lois could say anything.

"Chased away another one, eh, Lois?"

Lois whirled around and came face to face with a smirking Linda King. Lois took a deep breath and counted to ten before answering.

"No, as it happens Clark just has to check on something with Jimmy." Lois returned Linda's smirk. "Clark and I are on a *real* story. What great bit of journalistic bombast have you got planned for your first Planet effort? Perhaps you could do a story on the mating habits of the knob-tailed gecko?"

Bewildered by Lois' words, Linda fired back. "I don't know what you're talking about, Lois, but I think that it's time you realize that we are no longer in college." Linda shook her hair back in an angry gesture. "I know you don't think so, but I *am* a good reporter. I may be stuck with this society gig for a bit, but I plan to show Perry just how good I am." Linda inched her face a little closer. "Watch your back, Lois, because it might not be too long before you aren't the alpha female in this little band of reporters anymore."

Lois' eyes blazed. "You are so pathetic. You may have been able to scam those losers at the Star, but Perry White is not going to be influenced by your batting your eyelashes at him. If you can't produce, which I know you can't, you'll be out the door quicker than it takes you to undress for one of your dates."

"How very droll, Lois. Still the ever ready wit, I see." Linda chuckled. "Speaking of dates, how are you and Clark getting on these days?" Linda looked at Lois under hooded eyes. "I mean, when he and I were partners, we shared some pretty special times."

Lois' fists clenched and unclenched at her sides several times. "Puh-lease, give me a break. Clark was undercover. He probably thought you were in on the deal." Lois cocked an eyebrow at Linda. "I'm still not convinced you aren't as guilty as Carpenter was." Lois paused for a breath. "As far as Clark is concerned, you steer clear of him. He's a good guy, and is a little naive. He's too trusting, even of back- stabbing conniving witches like you."

Linda smiled seductively. "So, are you two going out, or what?"

"What?" Lois looked shocked. "No, of course not. He's my partner, and my friend. We *work* very well together, that's all. Not that it's any of your business." Lois shook her head angrily. "Now if you'll excuse me, Clark and I have some important business to take care of."

"Really?" Linda asked too innocently.

Lois eyed her suspiciously. "Yes…"

Linda gave Lois a big barracuda smile. "Then why is he sneaking onto the elevator?"

"What?" Lois whirled just in time to see the elevator doors closing, with Clark inside. "Clark!"

Lois rushed up the ramp and punched savagely at the call button, but it was too late. The car had already left.

*** (Chapter Six)

Inspector Henderson stood as Superman entered his small, drab office once again. He knew that he was in his office, and that Superman was the visitor, but he just couldn't help feeling like some junior officer being visited by his commanding officer. Henderson knew that the feeling was ridiculous, and that Superman had never, nor would he ever try to make Henderson feel that way. It was just, of all the senior staff at the Metropolis P.D., Henderson seemed to have more contact with the Man of Steel, and saw first hand what a difference this alien wonder man had made in their city. He was less in awe of Superman's powers than he was of the innate goodness and caring. Henderson often caught himself getting cynical, and chalked it up to one of the consequences of the job. Still, with all that pain and evil that Superman had seen and dealt with in his short career so far, he was still always upbeat and positive. Henderson didn't know how he did it, but he was grateful that he did.

"Welcome, Superman. What can I do for you, this time?" Henderson wasn't sure, but Superman almost seemed a little nervous.

"Thanks for your time again, Inspector. I've got a possible suspect name in the Daily Planet murders to run by you."

Henderson couldn't help the half smile. "Don't tell me, let me guess, Lane and Kent?"

Superman smiled. "Yes, they've done some research and come up with a Jebadiah Dutcher. A former employee of the Planet who's currently doing time in New Troy State Prison."

Henderson shook his head in admiration. "I've got to give them credit, they're good." Henderson sat down, and indicated for Superman to do the same. "Yeah, we made the connection with Dutcher also. We did have the advantage of knowing that he escaped from prison a few weeks ago."

Superman stood up in alarm. "He's escaped?" Superman made an effort to calm himself. "I'm assuming that since he's not in custody that you don't know where he is?"

Henderson nodded. "Yeah, I'm afraid that's correct. When he first broke out of prison, only the normal procedures were instituted to find him. After the second murder, one of the detectives came up with his name as a possible." Henderson shrugged. "He had no priors for murder, or psychotic behavior so he wasn't on the top of our list of possibles. It wasn't until someone dug a little further into his background that he became out number one suspect." Henderson stood also. "I'm afraid the only thing we do know is that he was spotted over on the east side a few days ago, but seems to have dropped out of sight. Believe me, we've got APBs out on him. It's only a matter of time until someone spots him again and we can pick him up."

Superman nodded. "I'm sure you're doing all you can, Inspector. I'd like to help. Could you spare a recent photo of him? The only references that Lois and Clark had were pretty dated."

Henderson nodded. "Sure… and Superman — I know you're going to share this information with Lane and Kent. Let them know that this is still an ongoing police investigation. That they can't print anything without my prior approval, and ask them to be discreet about this. If he is indeed our killer we don't want to tip Dutcher to the fact that we suspect him." Henderson paused for a moment. "And tell them to be careful. I'd hate to have to add them to the list of Dutcher's victims."

"Thanks, Inspector." Superman accepted the photocopy of Dutcher's last mug shot. "I'll let you know if I find anything." Superman paused at the door. "And I'm sure Lois and Clark will share anything pertinent that they find also."

Henderson snorted. "Yeah, I'll bet. Well, Kent might, but I won't hold my breath waiting for Lane to share."

Superman smiled at the laconic detective. "Don't sell Lois short, Inspector. There isn't a more passionate seeker of truth and justice in this city than Lois Lane." Superman quickly exited, leaving Henderson to ponder his words in solitude.


Clark wished that the elevator would go slower. He was not looking forward to facing Lois. She was going to be mad, and with good reason. He had snuck out on her, and now it was time to explain himself. Of course, he had no explanation. At least, not one that she would believe. It was too bad the truth was not an option… not yet anyway.

He checked the bag containing the chocolate eclair that he held. He knew it was an obvious peace offering, and she'd know it too, but he thought that it wouldn't hurt. Too soon the bell chimed announcing he'd arrived at his floor, and the door opened.

Clark stepped out of the elevator, his gaze instantly seeking out Lois' desk. She wasn't there. Clark wasn't sure if he was glad for the stay of execution or not. There was something to be said for 'getting it over with'. He walked down to her desk and set the bag on her desk. He then returned to his desk and booted up his computer.

Clark had actually gotten himself immersed enough in his travel article for the Sunday supplement that he didn't notice Lois' return until she was standing next to his desk. Looking up, he saw Lois holding the bag with the eclair in front of her. She released it, allowing it to fall into his waste basket. Not saying a word, she turned on her heel and went back to her desk.

Sighing, Clark got up and followed her. "Lois, look I'm sorry I took off without you. It was just that, er — I saw you engaged in a conversation with Linda and I didn't want to disturb that. I thought that maybe the two of you could use the time to, ah, work out your differences."

Lois looked up from her screen at Clark. She gave him an insincere smile. "How thoughtful of you." She turned her attention back to her computer.

Clark dropped his head and sighed. "Look, Lois, do you want to know what I found out or not?"

Lois spun around in her seat and stared balefully at Clark. "Are you sure you can trust me with the knowledge? I wouldn't want to try and pry any deep dark secrets from you."

"Fine." Clark waved his hands in a gesture of dismissal. "I won't tell you that Dutcher escaped from prison a few weeks ago, and that he's the police's number one suspect." Clark walked back to his own desk and sat down feigning attention to his own computer screen.

"What?" Lois jumped up and followed him back over to his desk. "He escaped? Do they know where he is? Why isn't he in custody?"

Clark gave Lois a placid look. "Yes, No, because they can't find him."

Lois sat down on the corner of his desk. "Give."

Clark proceeded to fill Lois in on the details that Henderson gave to Superman. He was careful to put a lot of 'Superman said' and Superman told me' in his narrative. Lois frequently frowned during the retelling of his interview with Henderson, via Superman, but she didn't interrupt. Clark handed Lois the likeness of Jeb Dutcher that Henderson had given him.

"This doesn't help us much." Lois frowned deeper as she looked over the photo. "He doesn't seem to have any unusual features that would be hard to disguise."

Clark looked at Lois, puzzled. "What do you mean?"

Lois sighed. "Clark, Dutcher is wanted felon who has recently escaped from prison. Every cop in the city is going to have this mug shot. Dutcher was a good reporter, he's not stupid, he'll know that." Lois waved the photo at Clark. "But look at him, a little make up, a beard, a mustache, a different hairstyle, maybe some glasses… what?" Lois noticed a funny look on Clark's face.

"Nothing — but I see what you mean. It wouldn't be hard for him to make himself look different." Clark shrugged. "Keeping in mind, what Henderson warned us about, what do we do next?"

"Well I think that… Oh no." Lois was interrupted by the arrival of Linda King.

"I see you found your *partner* again, Lois," Linda said sweetly.

"We're trying to *work* here Linda. What do you want?"

"From you, Lois, nothing." Linda turned her attention to Clark. "I wanted to ask Clark here if he'd allow me to take him to dinner tonight, my treat. Sort of a celebration of my new job, and maybe he could fill me in on how things work around here. Who are the people to get to know, who are the fools, who I should avoid." Linda turned her stare on Lois.

Clark cleared his throat. "Ah, that would be nice, Linda, but Lois and I have a lot of work to do. Don't we, Lois?" Clark gave Lois a hopeful look.

"That's right," Lois quickly answered. "As I mentioned to you earlier, Linda, Clark and I are working on… oh wait, I can't work tonight." Lois saw the blank expressions on both Clark and Linda's faces. "I've got a date tonight. I can't possibly cancel again. I've already put Lex off twice this week."

Clark just frowned but Linda seemed stunned.

"Lex? As in Lex Luthor?"

It was Lois' turn to give Linda the saccharine smile. "Yes, Linda, I have a date with Lex tonight. We have been seeing each other for a while now." Lois' voice got low and ominous. "Why, are you planning on trying to steal him away from me too?"

"Not at all, I'm thrilled for you, Lois." Linda replied with a smile that would put a diabetic into a coma. "It works out perfectly. That means Clark is free to have dinner with *me*." Linda turned back to Clark, her look suddenly sincere. "That is, if you want to, Clark?"

Clark hadn't been paying much attention to the exchange between the two woman. He had allowed his attention to wander once he'd heard that Lois was going out with Luthor. It really bothered him, with what he knew about Luthor, that she was seeing him. Sure, he couldn't prove anything, but Lois knew how he felt and that he thought Luthor wasn't what he appeared to the rest of the world. Lois was all about trust, but she wouldn't trust her partner's word on this, she needed proof.


Clark snapped his attention back to the two women in front of him. "What? Sorry, I didn't hear you."

Linda ran her finger along his arm. "I asked if you wanted to have dinner with me tonight, Clark? As long as Lois is going out on her own date, that means you're free from working tonight."

Lois brushed Linda's finger off Clark's arm, trying to make it look casual. "No, it doesn't. Clark is still going to be working on our story tonight, aren't you, Clark?"

Clark stood up and frowned at his partner. "Let me get this straight. You can go out on a night on the town with Luthor, but I'm supposed to stay here and work on *our* story?"

Lois backed off her attitude a bit. "Well, no, you can do it from home. I'm sure there is more data we can compile from records, and archived accounts of Dutcher's former friends and his former haunts."

"No, Lois, I think that if you feel that you can take the night off, then maybe I can too. It's not as if the police aren't looking for him too."

Lois stared daggers at Clark. "Fine, you can do what ever want! I'm not your conscience."

Clark returned Lois' hard stare. "Fine, I will!"

Linda smiled. "Great, I'll pick you up at seven thirty." Linda patted Clark on the arm, then giving Lois one last victory smile, left the two feuding partners to their own devices.

*** Lois slammed the door behind her as she stormed into her apartment. She was still angry at Clark for being such a fool. Didn't he understand the kind of woman Linda King was? She was just trying to use him to further her own career at the paper. How many times did she have to tell him about her? Wasn't he listening when she told him that she knew things about her that he didn't know?

"Lois? Is that you?" Lucy came out of the second bedroom which she had made her own for the time being.

"Yeah, it's me." Lois turned to see her little sister come in from the other room. "Hey, that's my sweat shirt," Lois frowned as she noticed what her sister was wearing.

Lucy grinned. "Really? I would have thought that it was Clark's." Lucy pulled on the edges of the overly large Smallville High sweatshirt.

Lois grimaced at Lucy. "Well, it is, er, was Clark's. He gave it to me when I was last in Smallville. It was a chilly night." Lois glanced at her watch. "Crap! I'm going to be late."

Lucy raised her brow. "Oh, *working* late with Clark again?"

"No," Lois answered curtly. "If you must know, I have a date."

Lucy brightened. "Really? That's great." A sly smile crossed Lucy's face. "Is it with Clark?"

Lois shook her head in disgust. "No, of course it's not with Clark." Lois affected a superior tone. "I'll have you know that I'm going out tonight with none other than Lex Luthor." Lois tried to keep the smugness out of her voice but didn't entirely succeed.

"Luthor?" Lucy asked, surprised. "You're going out with Lex Luthor? Why?"

Lois had started toward her bedroom but stopped and faced her sister. "What do you mean, why? You were always the one who wanted me to go out on dates. Well, I'm going out with the most eligible bachelor in all of Metropolis and you sound disappointed."

Lucy shrugged. "Oh, I'm sure the money is nice, and from the pictures I've seen, he's good looking, but I don't see him as right for you."

Lois sighed. "Not you too."

"What do you mean?"

"Never mind, I just find it so amusing that everyone thinks that going out with a handsome, wealthy, and charming man is a bad thing." Lois shook her head in wonder. "I get to see all the best plays and operas. We go to the finest restaurants. Do you know that he flew me to Paris a couple of weeks ago, just for dinner and dancing?"

Lucy shrugged again. "Yeah, that's all very impressive, but I always thought you'd be better off with someone more down to earth. Someone who you can have fun with."

"I have fun with Lex," Lois protested.

"Oh? Do you go to ball games together? Does he join in on your poker games? Have the two of you ever gone bowling?"

"Bowling?" Lois said. "Why would I want to go bowling?"

"Oh come on, Lois, you used to love to go bowling. It was something that we both did to get away from the folks every Friday night."

Lois frowned at Lucy. "Yeah, until you discovered boys."

Lucy blushed. "Whatever, but when was the last time you went bowling, or just had some innocent fun? When have you gone out with a normal guy, no interviews, no special conditions, just two people out for a good time?"

Lois studied Lucy for several moments. "I know what this is about. This has nothing to do with Luthor, or whether or not he's a *fun* date. This is about Clark, isn't it?" Lois' eyes bore down on her sister. "For some reason you've focused on Clark as being the guy for me."

Lucy blushed again. "I like Clark," Lucy admitted in embarrassment.

"Fine, you date him. No wait, you can't, he's already on a date."

Lois watched as her sister seemed to shrink back, deflated and defeated. Her heart went out to her. She walked over and enfolded Lucy in a sisterly hug.

"Oh, Lucy, I'm sorry I snapped at you." Lois pushed the hair out of Lucy's face. "Clark's a really nice guy, but I don't see him as someone to date. He's my partner, and probably my best friend. I don't want to wreck that relationship by trying to become something I know would never work." Lois strolled toward the couch leading Lucy by the hand.

The two sisters sat, Lucy spoke. "But why Lex? Do you love him?"

"Why not Lex? There is something kind of heady being asked out by Metropolis' leading citizen. He *is* handsome and charming, and he can take me places that I'd never get to go otherwise. We do have fun, of a sort. It's just not the kind that you are talking about." Lois sighed and stared at the ceiling for a moment. "But do I love him? No, I don't think so. I'm not sure if Lex is even capable of love in the normal sense." Lois allowed herself a sad smile. "We're just two over-worked professional people who use each other for occasional romantic companionship. It's nothing serious, trust me. I'll still be sitting here in this apartment trying to figure out my next big headline story when I'm old and gray."

Lucy looked at her sister, sympathy in her eyes. "That's so sad."

Lois shrugged. "Not really, I love my job and it's the way I choose to live. I'm not saying I can't be swept off my feet by say, a tall, dark, handsome superhero, but somehow I don't see that happening." Lois swatted Lucy on the leg as she stood up. "But I'm not even going to have an occasional date with Lex, if I don't get my butt in gear."

Lois headed toward her room, stopping in the doorway and looking back at her sister. "I'll probably be home late, I'll try not to wake you when I come in."

Lois disappeared into her bedroom, and bath, to prepare for her date with Lex, leaving Lucy sitting contemplatively on the couch.


(Chapter Seven)

Superman cruised the skies above Metropolis. His patrols had been altered from their normal routine. He found himself checking those residences of Daily Planet employees specifically. At least those who he knew where they lived. He knew that it was almost a futile effort, which had nothing on the proverbial needle in the haystack, but at least he felt like he was doing something.

He skipped Lois' apartment tonight. He knew she was out with Luthor and, for all that he hated it, he knew she'd be safe with him. Not that Lois would feel she needed protection of any kind. Lois was well aware of the danger that Daily Planet reporters seemed to be in at present. Other Daily Planet reporters. He knew that she had fretted over Jimmy and Perry's safety, but not herself. She still thought she was immortal. Clark *and* Superman fervently hoped that it was a notion that she'd never have to put to the acid test.

Superman did another quick fly over the east side, since that was the last place that Dutcher had been seen. Unfortunately, he knew that he could fly right over the top of the man and probably not even know it. Lois was most likely correct in her assumption that Dutcher was using some sort of disguise. After all, the police hadn't been able to find him and they had every one of their beat cops out looking for him.

Suddenly noticing that it was a quarter past seven, Superman decided he'd best get home and get ready for Clark's dinner with Linda. He had to admit that he was kind of looking forward to it. He'd much rather be going out with Lois, but that wasn't going to happen anytime soon. Clark was just Lois' partner and friend. He wasn't somebody you'd go out on an actual date with. For that she had Lex. Clark had to push the thought of Lois being with Lex out of his head. He didn't want it to spoil the evening. It wouldn't be fair to Linda, and he had to admit that Linda was a very attractive woman. He hadn't had much chance to get to know her when he'd gone undercover at the Star, but she seemed nice enough.

It did irritate Clark some that Linda seemed to enjoy needling Lois, but no more so than Lois did Linda. He was still confused by the intensity of the enmity between the two former college friends. He knew what Lois had told him, but he wasn't sure that her version of the story might not have been exaggerated just a bit, and it had happened a long time ago. But then Lois Lane was not one to forget an offense, whether real or imagined.

Moving too fast for a human eye to follow, Superman flew through Clark's open bedroom window and quickly spun out of the suit. He stepped into his shower and turned the water on extra hot. He didn't feel the heat like a regular human would, but the steam was soothing.

It was a fully dressed Clark Kent who strode toward his apartment's front door at precisely seven thirty. He waited a couple of moments for the knock before continuing on to answer the door. He'd seen Linda coming up the steps moments before she knocked.

He reached for the knob and pulled the door open. "Come on in, Linda." Clark stepped back and allowed her to enter. "Welcome to my home." Clark flashed her a smile.

Clark had seen Linda dressed up before, but she had outdone herself tonight. It wasn't that she was in some elegant gown or the like, in fact, she was almost casual, but she had dressed to her own best advantage. She wore a simply cut skirt in deep burgundy. The matching jacket was slung over her shoulder revealing a ruffled front, sleeveless white blouse. Simple hoop earrings and a gold chain choker completed the ensemble. Her hair was worn loose, flowing naturally over her shoulders. The red highlights in her dark blonde hair shone brightly in the overhead lights. Clark had to swallow to regain his composure. Linda looked great.

Linda slid past Clark as she entered his apartment. She suddenly felt a bit flushed. Gawd, Clark looked good! She had been attracted to him since she had first laid eyes on him. He was a gorgeous guy with, what did she tell Lois that time, buns of steel. She almost giggled at the memory. She turned to face him and ran into that megawatt smile of his. Her breath caught in her throat for a second.

She ran her gaze over his attire. Clark had chosen to sport a little less business-like look than the suits he normally wore. He wore a simple gray sports jacket, gray slacks, and instead of his usual white shirt and loud tie, a black, turtle neck pullover. A casual look, yet elegant enough to fit into nearly any situation. Clark definitely looked hot tonight, but Linda had been around Clark enough to know that his most attractive feature was that he was just a really nice guy.

Linda gave his apartment quick once over. "As much as I'd like to get the full tour," Linda said as she turned and put her hand on Clark's arm. "I've got a cab waiting, and reservations for eight o'clock." Linda gave Clark a playfully seductive look. "Perhaps we can save the tour for later?" She offered him her arm and allowed him to escort her out to the waiting taxi.

The restaurant was nice. Not one of those places where all the effort went into looking like a fine restaurant. Attention was paid to those things that made patrons want to come back, like the food. Clark had been there a couple of times before and he knew they had great pasta.

They were seated at a small table for two near the back of the restaurant. The lighting was a bit low, but the table had the requisite candle to set the mood. If Clark didn't know better he'd say that Linda was trying to set him up for a seduction.

Once the waiter had left to fetch their drink orders, Clark opened the conversation. "So, Linda, I have to say that I'm surprised to see you still in Metropolis. I thought you were headed for the bright lights of Hollywood? What happened to your big movie deal?"

Linda blushed and ducked her head once before meeting Clark's gaze. "Well, the money for the movie option was really good, and I will be getting a writing credit for the script, but I decided that I really didn't want to become an actress." Linda grinned. "Not even for the chance to play Lois."

Clark laughed. "So, the movie is still a go?"

"So far so good," Linda said, crossing her fingers.

Clark leaned back in his chair and eyed Linda a bit suspiciously. "If I may ask, if you turned down the role of Lois Lane, then who are they going to get to play it?" Clark could see Linda biting her lip trying to keep from laughing. "What's so funny?"

Linda tried to put on a serious face, but couldn't do it. "Well, they've beefed up the part a bit, and gotten a find actress to play the part." Linda saw Clark raise his one eyebrow, waiting. "They gave the part to Margot Kidder."

Clark snapped forward in his chair in astonishment. "Margot Kidder? You can't be serious. Ms. Kidder has to be at least twice Lois' age, and doesn't look anything like her!"

"Welllll…" Linda couldn't hold back a giggle. "I might have painted a slightly different picture of Lois."

Clark shook his head in amused disgust. "So then, who plays the plucky heroine, Linda King?"

Linda gave Clark a sly smile. "They're talking either Jodie Foster, or Julia Roberts."

The show business discussion was interrupted by the waiter, and both of them shifted their concentration to ordering their food. Conversation shifted to small talk, mostly about each other's past, and their respective homes and growing up. Clark gave her a brief picture of what it was like to be raised in the country, on a farm. Linda's upbringing was typical middle class suburbia. It wasn't until dessert that the subject of Lois came up again. Surprisingly, it was Linda who brought her up.

"Okay, Clark, I know you're dying to know, so go ahead and ask." Linda smiled as she said it.

"What?" Clark responded.

"Don't give me that innocent act." Linda grinned to show that she didn't mind. "I know that you are dying to know what the deal is between Lois and me. I'm sure you've heard Lois' side, but knowing your fatal flaw of never prejudging people, you probably want to know my side." Linda cocked her head and looked at Clark from beneath an errant curl of hair. "Am I right?"

Clark grinned back at her. "Guilty as charged." Clark sobered a bit. "Lois told me that the two of you were best friends, but claims that back in college you stole her story — and her guy."

Linda sighed and rested her chin on her hands. "Let's see; we *were* best friends, I *did* steal her story, but I never stole Paul from her. He came on to me, Lois wasn't even dating him, not really. Their relationship was mostly in her head." Linda frowned with the memory. "Oh I admit that I knew that Lois liked him, but I was crazy about Paul, and would do almost anything for him. That's why I was weak, and stole Lois' story. I'd hoped it would make Paul like me." Linda sighed again. "I'd kinda hoped that Lois, as my best friend, would understand. But if she didn't, Paul was more than adequate compensation for the loss of a best friend."

Clark shook his head, like a disapproving parent. "So, now as you look back on it with the advantage of age and hard earned wisdom, was it worth it?"

Linda gazed off into the distance, a dreamy look on her face. "Oh yeah." She laughed at Clark's startled expression. "But what about you, my friend? We've sat here all evening, enjoying a delicious meal, making pleasant conversation like two old school chums. I've seen the looks you've given me, and I'm pleased that you admire what you see. But that 'something', that special interest, that I'd hoped to see in your eyes isn't there." Linda's smile turned sad. "You once told me that your relationship with Lois wasn't defined. It's only not defined in Lois' mind isn't it? You are quite sure about the way *you* feel."

Clark suddenly felt like a child caught sneaking into the cookie jar. He didn't know what to say. "I… well… Lois and I are partners, and she's my best friend. I admire her passion, and dedication to her job. She's a brilliant reporter and…"

"And you're in love with her." Linda shook her head sadly.

Clark sat up straighter in preparation to rebuff Linda's statement. Suddenly, his shoulders sagged in defeat. "Yeah — I am."

The rest of the evening was a bit more subdued, but to each one's credit they both tried to keep things light and friendly. Clark came to appreciate Linda's intellect more as he discovered things they had in common. Linda came to realize just how special Clark was, and couldn't help but be depressed that he loved someone else. An even fight she could handle, but it was hard to match up against unrequited love.

The two stood at Clark's front door. It seemed at bit odd to him for Linda to be dropping him off, but it *was* the nineties after all. He turned to thank Linda for the nice evening and found her right next to him. She laid her hand on his chest, in a very familiar manner.

"Ah, I want to thank you for the pleasant evening, Linda, I had a great time."

Linda smiled slowly. "I did too, Clark, but I want you to know something." She locked eyes with him. "Lois may not admit this, but I too am smart and talented. And I'm a woman who, once she sets her sights on something she wants, doesn't give up easily. I'm going to fight for my rightful position at the Daily Planet, and for those things that I want." Linda rose up on her toes and gave Clark a quick kiss. "Lois can do, or not do whatever she wants, but if she wants to keep what's *her's* hers, then she'd best be prepared to fight for it, because I surely intend to." Linda let her finger trail down Clark's chest and stomach, then turned and headed back to her cab.

*** (Chapter Eight)

The man dragged his 'companion' through the ever darkening shadows of the unlit walk paths next to the poorly maintained roadway. One of the great things about a huge, sprawling, urban environment like Metropolis was that there was never any shortage of abandoned buildings to use for one's clandestine operations. This was the third one he'd utilized since he'd arrived in town. He still had ten more scouted out.

He half guided, half dragged the young lady through the small side door of the old warehouse and dumped her into a chair he'd previously placed in one of the back offices. She seemed younger than he thought she'd be, but then at his age, all people, to him, looked younger than their actual age. After taking off her shirt he secured her wrists and arms to the wide arms of the chair, then secured her ankles to the heavy metal legs. A wide piece of tape over her mouth completed the initial preparations. The woman was still pretty groggy, but she'd soon be coming out of the sedative fog, and he hated it when they screamed. The tears and the fear in their eyes provided him with the satisfaction he needed. He didn't need the wailing and the cries too.

This had been one of his more bold abductions, taking her right from her home, but it had also been well planned. He'd stolen a cab and had parked it right in front of the woman's apartment. He'd then waited for a moment when the walk in front of the building had been empty and had gone up to her apartment. Foolishly, the woman had answered her door. He'd slipped in and had clamped the chloroformed rag over her nose and mouth before she realized what was happening. Once the young woman had succumbed to the soporific vapors, he'd taken the time to inject her with the strong sedative. He had a bit of a drive ahead of him and he couldn't risk having her wake up too soon.

Making sure there was no indication that he'd been there, he'd slung her arm over his shoulder and, locking the door after him, literally dragged her out of the building. Luckily he'd run into none of her neighbors on his way out, but he hadn't been worried about that. Once on the street, he did happen upon a pedestrian walking by. His plan worked perfectly.

Asking the passing gentleman for assistance, he'd played his role as a cabbie to the hilt. Muttering and cursing under his breath, he'd made sure that his drafted helper understood how much he hated dealing with wayward drunks and druggies. It had worked just as he'd expected. The fellow had made some sympathetic noises, but couldn't wait to get out of there, and had never made eye contact with either the 'cabbie' or his charge.

The man chuckled, enjoying remembering his cleverness. Now, all he had to do was wait.

He carefully laid out the three boxes he'd need to send on an old wooden table that he'd also previously brought. He arranged them in order left to right. He painstakingly folded the woman's shirt and laid it in the first box. He then fiddled briefly with the other two boxes. At the far end of the small table a large, wicked looking machete gleamed brightly, matching the single low hanging light bulb in a reflected intensity.

He turned and noticed that the young woman had regained most of her senses. A sick smile played across his face as he gazed into the soft brown eyes now wide with fear. This one was going to be the most fun yet.

*** Lois leaned back and scrunched herself into the plush upholstery of the Luthor limousine. She peered out the window on her side of the vehicle at the lights of Metropolis at night as a contented sigh escaped her lips.

Lex gazed over at Lois, an amused look on his face. "I take it that you enjoyed dinner tonight?"

Lois grinned over at Lex. "Yes I did, Lex. It was wonderful, as usual."

Lex nodded. "Well good, I'm glad, because I've been thinking of hiring a new chef, and Andre comes highly recommended. His bistro has always had a fine reputation. It's important to me that you like his art."

Lois' cautionary guard instantly rose a bit. Why would Lex care if she liked this chef's cooking or not? Beyond securing another opinion, Lois couldn't think why Lex would need her approval for anything. The thought of Lex hiring the marvelous chef away from the restaurant bothered her some. That others would no longer be able to enjoy the man's culinary expertise was sad. But then, Lois was sure that he'd be handsomely paid and there was something to be said improving your lot in life.

"So, Lois," Lex interrupted her thoughts. "What shall it be tonight — the theater, the opera?" He looked expectantly at Lois.

Lois shifted in her seat and stared at Lex for a few moments. A silly thought grabbed hold of her and wouldn't let go. The corners of her mouth twitched slightly upward.

"Lex, you know what I'd like to do?" She watched as he leaned a little closer, as if she had his rapt attention. "I'd like to go bowling."

Lex leaned back and gave Lois a look that asked if she had taken leave of her senses. "Bowling? Lois, whatever for?"

Lois cocked a brow at Lex. "What have you got against bowling?"

Lex shrugged. "Nothing really, it just seems so… lower class."

Lois gave Lex a pouty look. "Why, Lex, you're not stuck up, are you? Come on, it'll be fun."

Lex frowned. "I have to admit that, while I'm proficient in many athletic endeavors, *bowling* has never been something that I've tried to master."

Lois laughed. "Believe me, athletics has nothing to do with it. It doesn't matter how good you are, it's just as much fun if you're terrible, maybe more so." Lois rolled her eyes. "Heaven knows that I'll stink. I've haven't been to a bowling alley in years." Lois softened her voice as she met Lex's eyes. "Please," she asked in a little girl voice.

Lex allowed a sigh of resignation. "All right, but I'm not sure I can get a place reserved on such short notice."

Lois shook her head. "No, I don't want you to buy out a whole bowling alley just for us. It's more fun to just go and mingle with the other bowlers and get ourselves caught up in all the noise and confusion."

Lex seemed more scandalized by the notion of mingling with other 'bowlers' than he had by the original notion. "I don't know, Lois. I'll probably make a fool of myself, and while I don't mind doing so in front of you, I do have an image to think of."

"Ah, come on, Lex, it won't be that bad. Most of the people there aren't very good either, and most won't even know, or care, who we are."

Lex glanced over at Lois' elegant dress, and then down at his own tuxedo. "Don't you think we might stick out, dressed as we are?"

Lois chuckled. "Oh, I think it might be best to stop at your penthouse and change. I keep a change of casual clothes in my jeep." Lois gave Lex a conspiratorial wink. "Lucky thing I decided to meet you at your place rather than have you pick me up."

"Yes, lucky." There was a definite lack of sincerity in Lex's response.

*** As the limo pulled up outside Metrop-Bowl-Us Lois felt like pinching herself. She and Lex were actually going to go bowling! Lex had made one last attempt to talk her out of the idea once they were at his penthouse. She had remained steadfast. This was going to be fun, or at least, interesting.

One concession Lois had to allow regarded the balls. Luthor was absolutely appalled by the notion of using a 'house ball'. He unequivocally refused to put his fingers into something that hundreds of others had previously done so. So they had waited while Luthor had a couple of top of the line, matching bowling balls brought up to his suite. They were measured and the balls were drilled within a few minutes.

Lois gripped the handle on the imported leather case that held her 'blue sparkle' ball as she pushed open the door to the place. She could feel Lex stiffen beside her as they were greeted by the sights and sounds of a good old American bowling alley. Actually, Metrop-Bowl-Us was one of the nicest alleys in the city, but Lois knew that Lex had to think that he was slumming. She had to hide her grin.

It was rather late, so they only had the choice of one of two available lanes open to them, and both were in the middle. There was no way to avoid having people on both sides of them. Lois didn't care.

Lois spent a few minutes explaining the scoring but she knew that Lex was checking out their 'neighbors'. To their left were two young couples. Lois had to smile as she noticed that they didn't seem too interested in the game… of bowling. On the right was a beer ad. Four, more than slightly, overweight guys who seemed to take their bowling, and drinking, pretty seriously. They were loud, but they weren't vulgar or offensive in any way. They were here to have a good time too. Noting the similar shirts, Lois concluded they were probably in one of the many leagues that seemed to be so prevalent nowadays.

Lois knew that Lex was very athletic. He kept in shape, and was very skilled in things like tennis, polo, and fencing. Not exactly your everyday, Middle America pastimes, but it did speak of a certain level of coordination and muscular development. But for all that, bowling just seemed to elude Lex.

There were a few pleasant moments when Lois and Lex had to get very close together while Lois tried to show Lex the basics of the backswing and rolling of the ball. Lois had to give Lex credit, he did try very hard, but after he clipped his ankle with the ball on one of his early attempts he never was able to get comfortable with the approach and release again.

Lois found herself biting her lip many times during that first game. After most of his somewhat feeble attempts at knocking down pins he'd turn and give Lois a self deprecating grin as if to say, 'what did I tell you?'. Lois actually had a hard time with her own game. She was beyond rusty and had to force herself not to get mad at her own poor play. It wouldn't do for her to preach at Lex, to just enjoy the game regardless of how well you do, and then get upset over her own performance.

For all her attempts at trying to keep a positive, and upbeat demeanor during their 'matches' Lois could see that this wasn't working out. As time went on, Lex became more frustrated and Lois could see that he was getting close to losing his temper. It didn't help that the 'bowler boys' next to them would occasionally make some less than kind comments that they knew Lex could overhear. It all finally came to a head after one particular comment caused Lex to stop and turn toward his tormentors. It hadn't been particularly nasty but Lex had reached his limit.

Lex marched over and confronted the biggest guy in the group. "I'm sorry, what was it you said? I don't think I heard you correctly."

The big guy looked at his buddies, then back at Lex. He wasn't quite sure what to make of Lex. "I just said that it's too bad that they don't have beginner lanes for guys like you." Emboldened by his buddies' laughter, the big guy had to add, "Why, do you want to make something of it?"

Lex bristled, but Lois quickly came over and put her hand on his arm. "Come on, Lex, this bozo isn't worth our time."

The big fellow suddenly got a funny look on his face. "Lex?" His brow furrowed, obviously in deep thought. Suddenly recognition hit. "Oh, gosh, you're Lex Luthor." He glanced at his buddies, their visible fear reflected his own. "Jeez, Mr. Luthor, I'm really sorry. You know how it is, you have a few beers and you act like a jerk sometimes."

Luthor studied the man for a moment. "I see you know who I am, Mr…"

"Black, Jimmy Black," he said hurriedly wiping his hands on his shirt as if getting ready to shake Lex's hand, then stuck them behind his back as he thought better of it. "Me and the boys here work at LexTech, down in the warehouse." Jimmy thought for a second before adding. "It's a great place to work, too." All his friends nodded in agreement.

Lois noticed Lex's body language as it slowly changed. He took a deep breath and actually allowed a slow smile to spread across his face. Lois wasn't sure what had just happened, but at least it looked like an unpleasant confrontation had been averted.

Lex clapped Black on his shoulder in a very uncharacteristic gesture. "That's okay — Jimmy?" He nodded to Lex's unasked question. "I guess I have looked pretty ridiculous at times here tonight. You can tell this isn't my forte."

"Yeah, that's for sure." Jimmy Black agreed affably even though he had no idea what Lex had just said.

Lex winked at the big man. "Maybe I'll have to have you give me lessons before I decide to do this again."

"Sure, any time Mr. Luthor." Jimmy looked like a live version of one of those ridiculous bobble head dolls.

Lex turned to Lois. "Can we leave now?"

Lois pursed her lips and nodded. "Yeah, I think that might be a good idea." As they headed for the front door Lois put her hand on Lex and stopped him. "Lex, I'm sorry."

Lex gave Lois a smile of resignation. "Don't be, Lois, it's all right, but I think you owe me the pleasure of your company for a nightcap, don't you?"

Lois smiled back. "You got it."

The nightcap turned into a pleasant hour in front of the fire conversing. They spoke on many topics but most of the conversation was kept coming back to the murders and the investigation of them. Lois had no reservations telling Lex what little she and Clark had turned up so far. She mentioned Jeb Dutcher but didn't notice Lex's nod of affirmation.

Finally Lois became aware of how late it was getting. "Oh, Lex, I didn't realize it was so late. I've got to get going." She smiled apologetically. "I've got to be up early. Clark and I have to find this guy before anyone else gets killed."

"Maybe the police might find him?" Lex added with only a hint of sarcasm.

"Lex," she said rolling her eyes.

Lex put up his hands in a defensive posture. "Far be it for me to suggest anyone get in the way of Lois Lane's dogged pursuit of a big story." Lex leaned in and gave Lois a quick kiss on the lips.

He walked her to the door, and helped her on with her jacket. "I think I'll have my driver follow you home, just in case."

"Lex, I'm a big girl, and I can take care of myself."

"I'm sure Cat Grant thought the same thing." Lex placed a finger on Lois' lips to stop her protest before she spoke it. "Humor me on this, okay?"

Lois sighed. "Okay."

After the elevator took Lois out of his sight, Luthor made the call to his driver. He would make sure that Lois made it home without incident. He then followed it up with another call. The results of which were evident within a few minutes.

Nigel St. John entered the penthouse suite from a special door reserved for him, and Luthor alone. "You wished to see me, sir?"

"Yes, Nigel." Luthor began to pace. "I had a little run in with a gentleman at the bowling alley tonight."

Nigel actually raised his brow. "Bowling alley, sir?"

"Just some itch that Lois wanted scratched, never mind that." Luthor turned to face Nigel. "I need you to track down an employee of LexTech. His name is Jimmy Black, and I guess he works somewhere in the warehouse."

"Very good, sir. Do you want this man fired?"

Lex looked thoughtful. "No, not right away. I want you to arrange for him to get a promotion, and a big raise. If I'm right about this fellow, he's not the kind who will know how to handle success." A sly smile stretched across Luthor's lips. "We'll let him go wild for a time. He'll buy a new car, TV's, stereo equipment, maybe even move to a bigger house. Thinking the money is now rolling in, he'll get himself into serious debt." Luthor's smile turned predatory. "That's when you have him fired."

Nigel smiled in return. "I'll handle it. If that will be all, I'll bid you a good night, sir."

"Good night, Nigel."


(Chapter Nine)

Perry White stared at the package sitting on his desk. His stomach lurched as he realized the significance of the box. It was the size of a typical department store gift box, and it was wrapped in the same plain, unmarked paper as the others had been. Someone else was dead.

Perry had called Henderson the minute Jimmy had set the package on his desk. Henderson had told him to go ahead and open it, carefully. That would give Perry time to identify the possible victim by the time Henderson arrived.

Being careful not to tear or destroy any of the outer wrapping, Perry unsealed the package and opened the exposed box. An icy hand closed around his heart as he saw the Smallville High logo on the front of the sweatshirt nestled into the box. Not Clark, he thought anxiously. The lad had only been with them not quite a year, but in that time Kent had proven himself to be a top notch investigative reporter, an excellent writer, and just an exceptionally good person. Lois would be devastated.

"What's up, Chief?" Just then Clark poked his head into his editor's office.

Clark had seen Jimmy hovering over Perry's desk when he'd entered the newsroom from the back stairwell. He'd had a little traffic snarl up to take care of as Superman on his way in. Both the Chief and Jimmy had looked grim so Clark decided to see for himself what was going on.

Once inside the office, he noticed the box sitting on Perry's desk. "Oh no, not another one!" With trepidation, Clark approached Perry's desk so he could see the contents of the box.

"Kent! Great shades of Elvis, man, I thought you were dead."

At that moment Inspector Henderson strode briskly into the office. "Okay, Perry, have you identified the potential victim yet?"

Perry waved his hand in the general direction of Clark. "Well, I naturally thought it was Kent, but since he's standing here, I don't know." Perry frowned. "Could it be a prank?"

"Kent?" Henderson asked, turning toward the reporter.

Clark had gone very pale, and his voice shook when he answered. "That's my sweatshirt." His voice was barely above a whisper. "I loaned it to Lois that time we were in Smallville together."

Perry dropped his head into his hands. "Oh god, not Lois."

"Not Lois what?" Lois stepped into the office to a sea of surprised expressions.

She had seen the group of people in Perry's office when she'd come off the elevator. She knew something important was up since Inspector Henderson was there. Not one to wait for an invite, and her curiosity being what it was, she marched right in to find out for herself.

Perry's head snapped up at the sound of her voice. "Lois, thank god it's you, honey." Perry indicated the box containing the sweatshirt on his desk. "Clark says that he gave this shirt to you. Lois…?"

Lois pushed her way through the throng and stared at the box on her boss' desk. The blood drained from he face as she then turned and fled from the office. She rushed down the ramp and grabbed at the phone on the first desk she came across. It took her trembling fingers three tries to get the number right.

"Come on, answer the phone!" she pleaded in an emotional whisper.

When there was no answer, she slammed the receiver down and rushed back up the ramp to the elevator. She savagely thrust at the call button several times when the elevator didn't immediately respond. Clark was a few feet away as the doors opened and Lois stepped on.

"Lois, what's the matter? What's with the sweatshirt?"

"I've got to get home," she shouted as the doors began to close. "Lucy was wearing that shirt last night before I left on my date!"

The elevator doors closed as Clark was frozen to his spot by Lois' words. Lucy was wearing the sweatshirt? Did that mean that Lucy was the victim? Clark's head swam with conflicting thoughts. Lucy wasn't a Planet employee, why would she have been taken? Could they have been wrong about this whole thing? Of course, Dutcher would only know Lois from her pictures in the paper. Was possible that Lucy had been kidnapped and killed by mistake?

Suddenly an icy chill swept over Clark's entire body. He'd consciously not checked in on Lois' apartment last night because he knew she was out on a date with Luthor. He knew that Lucy was staying there. He should have realized that she could be in danger too. He might have been able to stop this if he'd just kept to his routine. The sound of Perry's bellow brought Clark out of his recriminations.

"Kent, get in here!"

Clark slowly walked into Perry's office. He was greeted by three people whose faces all held the same question. Perry was the one who spoke it.

"What in the Sam Hill was that all about? Did she or didn't she recognize the shirt?"

Clark nodded. "Apparently, Lucy, was wearing that shirt last night before Lois went out on her date." Clark made a feeble gesture toward Lois' desk. "I guess she tried to call her. Lucy has been staying at Lois' apartment for a few days." Clark shrugged helplessly as a strangled cry escaped from Jimmy's mouth. "She's on her way there." Clark began to turn to leave. "I've got to go to her."

Perry's voice stopped him. "I agree, you should be there for her. Take your cell phone. We'll call you if we receive the other packages."

Clark was headed for the elevator when he passed another employee bringing a shoebox-sized package into Perry's office. He stopped and followed him back in, watching as Henderson carefully unwrapped and opened this box. He looked up at Clark and nodded sadly.

"I'll take this back to the station right away and do a fingerprint match. All Metropolis schools have belonged to a fingerprint identification program for years. Lucy Lane's fingerprints should be on file. I'll call you when I have a positive ID."

Henderson tucked both boxes under his arm and left with Clark. Sharing the elevator down to the lobby, Clark gave Henderson his cell phone number. Clark wanted to quickly speed to Lois' apartment but with Henderson standing right there he had to hail a cab.

Clark chafed at the delay in taking the cab, and several times he thought of just having the taxi pull over and let him out. But he resisted. As it was Lois wouldn't get to her apartment too much before him, and it wouldn't be a good idea for him to confuse things right now with how he'd been able to beat her to her apartment.

Soon Clark stood outside the hallway to Lois' apartment. The door stood open and he could see Lois rushing about inside. He heard Lois muttering to herself. His heart was heavy, and he ached for his beautiful and too vulnerable partner. On the way up the outer stairs he'd received the call from Henderson. The severed hand had definitely belonged to Lucy Lane. As he'd entered the building, Perry called to say they'd received the final package. Jimmy had identified Lucy, then had run out and been noisily sick.

Clark stepped into the apartment. "Lois, it's me, Clark."

Lois didn't look up from her pointless scurrying back and forth. "Clark, oh good, I need your help. I can't seem to find Lucy. Her bed wasn't slept in and she didn't make her appointment with the college this morning. I'm not sure where to look, I need to find…"

Lois stopped long enough to glance up at Clark. The look on his face was enough for her to know that he had news. The news that she hadn't been allowing herself to think.

"No." It was a plaintive, little girl moan that escaped from Lois' throat.

Clark's heart broke as he watched the change come over Lois. First tears began to stream down her face. Slowly at first, then in greater quantity. Next her body began to shake as she slowly stumbled toward him. As he closed the distance between them she fell to her knees in front of him, then slid to a half sitting, half kneeling position. She clung fiercely to his legs as the tears gushed forth and sobbing wracked her small frame.

Noticing the door was still open, Clark surreptitiously used his super breath to close it. He felt so helpless, there was nothing he could do for his friend and partner, and it was tearing him apart. He stroked her hair, impotently offering what comfort he could to the grief-stricken woman at his feet.


Jeb Dutcher placed a little extra spirit gum under the left side of the moustache as he pushed it firmly into place. He smiled at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He gave his graying hair a couple more swipes with the comb. Perfect, he thought. It wouldn't do for Sidney Loomis to be late for his first day of work at the Daily Planet, though he somehow thought that the folks at the Planet might just have a little something else on their minds that morning. After all, it wasn't every day your number one reporter was murdered.

It hadn't been easy, but things were going along just as he'd planned. Once he had escaped New Troy State Prison, and had determined what form his revenge was going to take, he knew that he had to find a way to get close to the Daily Planet. It wouldn't be as much fun if he couldn't be there to witness the chaos and despair as the vaunted Daily Planet crumbled to ruin under his assault.

Once he'd hit town he had started checking into low profile reporters and columnists for other papers. Sidney Loomis was like a gift from heaven. They were of similar build and coloring, and Dutcher was only a few years older than Loomis. It would be easy enough to physically stand in for Loomis when the time came.

The next part was a bit more tricky. With some carefully worded phone calls and letters Dutcher had managed to get both Loomis and The Daily Planet acquainted with each other, and aware of an interest in the other. Of course, it was all because of Dutcher's machinations. By convincing Loomis that the Daily Planet had an interest in him, should they have an opening in the near future, that part of the deal was primed. It wasn't as if any rational newspaperman would turn down a chance to work at the most prestigious paper in the country.

Then came the risky part. Representing himself as Loomis, he'd expressed interest in joining the Daily Planet staff. Naturally, he got the standard polite turn down. There were no positions open at the present time, but they'd keep his resume on file they'd told him. With the conditions set, it was time for Dutcher to make things happen. He had to create a position for Loomis to fill. Cat Grant had been just the opening gambit. A message to the Daily Planet, and Perry White, that the war had been declared.

Eduardo Friaz had been the important piece in the early part of the game. His particular position at the Planet was the one that Loomis would best fit. Once Eduardo had been removed from the board the way had been opened for Loomis to be added in his stead. Dutcher had suffered a bit of anxiety waiting to see if the Planet would follow the path he'd laid out for them. Luckily the combination of the bad press from Cat Grant's death, which kept the more high profile, already successful reporters away, and the fact that Loomis fit the vacancy well, gave Dutcher the break that he needed. With the recent resume fresh in his mind, Perry White logically chose Sidney Loomis to replace Eduardo Friaz.

The timing had then been critical. Dutcher knew he probably couldn't fool Loomis' long time colleagues at the Weekly Register so he had to wait until Loomis left the Register to intercept and replace him before he got to the Daily Planet. There, Dutcher had run into a bit of luck. Loomis had arranged a few days off in between, ostensively to take a short trip as a brief vacation. Dutcher had to smile at the irony. Loomis had taken a short trip all right. It had been a midnight boat ride… one way. The stage had been set for Dutcher to step into Sid Loomis' life.

Aside from the physical characteristics, Dutcher had also researched his intended mark's life. Loomis was a widower who had never had children. Both his parents had passed on years ago, and his only close living relative was a much younger brother who resided in California. Dutcher wasn't sure what kind of relationship the Loomis brothers had, but he wasn't too worried. He'd destroy that bridge when he got to it.

Dutcher took one last look around the small, but nice apartment that he'd so recently acquired. The address was hardly uptown, but it was in a better section of downtown, only a few blocks from the Daily Planet. Quite handy, actually, and not a place that the police would likely to be looking for him. But then, the police weren't looking for Sidney Loomis, were they? Laughing at the joke that only he thought was funny, 'Sid Loomis new Daily Planet reporter' slipped on his jacket and exited the apartment.


"What do I tell my parents?" Lois' red and blotchy face went from resting on her hands to stare at Clark. "How do I tell them that I got their youngest daughter killed — no, butchered?"

"Lois, don't be ridiculous. You had nothing to do with Lucy's murder."

Clark watched helplessly as the woman he loved beat herself up with imagined guilt. He'd held her for literally hours as she'd cried herself into hiccups with grief. Only after she had no more tears to shed, and she'd nearly exhausted herself from sobbing, had Clark been able to get her to sit on the couch. Lois had just buried her head in her hands and had continued to shake it in anguish until she finally spoke. She spoke, only to take the blame for what had happened to her sister.

Lois' eyes flashed briefly. "Didn't I? I knew that I could be a target of this psycho butcher, and that by association Lucy would be in danger too." Lois' voice was tinged with self-loathing. "So what do I do? I go off on a date and leave her all alone — alone and defenseless against a madman. I think that qualifies me as being able to share some of the blame!" Lois nearly spat those final words out. "Clark, that should be my head in that box down at police headquarters not Lucy's." Another tear managed to make an appearance on Lois' cheek as she shook her head in disgust. "I wish it had been me."

Clark slid over closer to her. "Don't," he said quietly as he took her hand in his.

"Don't what?" she answered a bit harshly.

"Don't do this to yourself." Clark began to massage Lois' hands. "Don't try to take on any blame in this. You had no way of knowing that Lucy could be in danger. It's not like she was a Daily Planet reporter. It's not your fault that this killer is too stupid to know he abducted the wrong person."

Lois suddenly got a strange look on her face. "Clark, where was Superman?"

Clark dropped Lois' hands back to her lap, surprised by the sudden change of topic. "What?"

"Where was Superman? It seems every time *I* get into any trouble, he's right there to bail me out. I know that he considers many of the people at the Planet as his friends. What is he doing about this? What is he doing to help find this wacko?"

Clark nervously fiddled with his glasses. "Why are you asking me?"

Lois' gaze bore into Clark's eyes, making him feel exposed. "Because I can't ask him, he's not here." Lois released Clark from her stare, turning her gaze to the floor instead. "I know it's not fair to ask you. But you're the only one who seems to really know much about him, even if you aren't willing to share." Lois looked back up at Clark's face. "Do you know?"

Clark definitely felt uncomfortable talking about himself like this. As Superman he was feeling his own healthy share of guilt. He'd purposely not checked out Lois' apartment last night because he knew she was on a date. He was just as guilty as Lois felt she was for leaving Lucy alone, more so. He could have possibly saved Lucy and caught the vile murderer if he'd only made a fly by at the right time. He knew that the knowledge of his inaction would haunt him for a long time.

Clark ran his hand through his hair. "Well, I know that he has been making it a priority to check up on many of the Planet reporters during his patrols each night." Clark had to stop to swallow. "But maybe, he, er, skipped your place last night because he knew you had a date with Luthor and so you wouldn't be in any danger… from the killer."

Clark's hesitation at the end didn't escape Lois' notice, but she let that go. "And how did Superman know I had a date with Luthor? Don't tell me, you just happened to mention it to him in polite conversation?" Lois could see that Clark wasn't going to answer so she plunged on. "Oh, I guess I can hardly blame him. It's not like he doesn't have a million things to worry about. I know he can't be everywhere, but it's really hard when the things he can't do actually hit this close to home."

Clark wiped at his cheek with the back of his hand. "I know."

Lois shook her head sadly. "Knowing him, he's probably feeling plenty of guilt over this himself. He's so noble and compassionate that he feels guilt when anybody, anywhere in the world is hurt or killed and he wasn't there to stop it." Lois sniffed back another stray tear. "I can hardly fault him, just because it was my sister that he couldn't save this time, can I?"

"Maybe a little," Clark replied so softly Lois couldn't hear him. Clark couldn't meet Lois' hurt expression.

"So, Clark, you didn't answer my first question." Lois waited until Clark looked back up at her, his face a question mark. "What do I tell my parents?" Lois pantomimed picking up a phone. "Hello, Mom, hi, this is Lois. Guess what? A psycho killer is knocking off Daily Planet reporters. He tried to get me last night. Good news, he missed me since I was out on a date. Bad news, he decided to kill Lucy instead."

"Lois." Clark's voice was filled with as much pain as Lois'.

Tears reappeared in Lois' eyes as she began to break down again. "Oh Clark, my baby sister is dead."

Clark quickly gathered Lois into his arms as she broke down sobbing again.


(Chapter Ten)

Clark held his sobbing partner in his arms for another hour, until her body quit convulsing and settled into occasional loud sniffles. He gently rocked her, hoping that she might fall asleep, even though it was only late afternoon. This ordeal had taken quite an emotional toll on Lois and Clark hoped that some sleep might help her regain the equilibrium she needed to move on. He could only guess how hard that would be for Lois, for all her hard-edged public persona Lois was very loyal and loving when it came to her friends. She had truly loved her sister a great deal. Losing Lucy was probably one of the hardest blows that Lois could ever imagine, and it had happened because he'd neglected to check out her apartment last night.

All the while he was holding Lois and making soothing sounds into her hair, he was feeling his own pain, and guilt. Why hadn't he thought to check this place out, he wondered. Had there been some nagging fear in the back of his mind that he might accidentally see Lois here with Lex? Had his loathing of the thought of Lois and Luthor together been so strong that he avoided her apartment because he didn't want to be reminded of why she was not there? He knew that Lucy was staying with her. He should have checked the place just to make sure she was all right.

It was a soft, almost tentative knock on the front door which roused both of them out of their separate obsessions of blame. Clark gently disentangled himself from Lois. She clung possessively to him for an extra second or two before she allowed him to rise. Peering through the door as he approached he saw the concerned but nervous figures of Perry White and Bill Henderson standing in her hallway.

Clark opened the door. "Come on in, Chief — Inspector." Clark stepped back toward the couch, leaving it up to the new guests to close the door behind them.

Lois rose from the couch, walked slowly over to Perry as he opened his arms to her. She let herself be enveloped by his fatherly hug. "Oh, darlin', I'm so sorry." He tilted his head back to get a look at her. "Are you going to be all right?"

Lois gave her boss a sad smile in appreciation of his concern but shook her head. "No, but I'll survive, I guess. You know what they say about time — but right now it really hurts, Perry."

"I know darlin', but you've got to remain strong. We'll get this guy, you can take that to the bank."

Lois turned her attention to a very ill at ease looking Inspector Henderson. She hated to ask, but the question was obvious just by his presence. "So, Inspector," her voice quavered a bit. "I assume by your appearance here that you've found Lucy's body?"

Henderson gave Lois a quick single nod. "Yes, it was found in a dumpster about two blocks from the Daily Planet building."

Lois pursed her lips so tight it almost hurt. "Sounds like he's getting bolder." Lois suddenly glanced up, meeting Henderson's eyes. "Oh, god, I suppose you need me to come down and identify the body."

"Lois, you don't have to, I'll do it." Clark came up behind Lois and put his hands on her shoulders.

Lois shook her head. "No, I should do it. Though your company would be much appreciated."

Henderson cleared his throat to regain their attention. "Actually, we usually require a next of kin, or family member, to identify the body, but in this case I think we can skip the formalities. We do have a positive fingerprint identification, and both Perry and Jimmy were able to recognize the — er, — you know."

Lois' eyes glistened with unshed tears. "Poor, Jimmy — I knew he always had a crush on Lucy. It must have been hard on him."

"Yeah, it was," Perry interjected. "He was pretty shook up. I had to send him home."

Lois returned her focus to Henderson. "When are you going to need me to come and claim the body…" Lois had to swallow before she could continue, "for burial."

"Well, we will need to keep the body for a day or two," Henderson said. "You know, for an official autopsy, and checking for any other clues it might provide." Henderson waited for Lois' nod of understanding. "I'll tell you what. You let me know the mortuary you want, and when we are ready to release the body, I'll arrange for them to pick her up myself."

Lois favored Henderson with a weak smile. "Thanks."

Lois, abruptly, to everyone's surprise began to pace around the room. They all watched her as behavior and attitude underwent a drastic change. She had switched back into her 'investigative' mode. If it weren't for the telltale sheen that still misted her eyes, it would be hard to tell that it was Lois who had suffered the great loss.

"Okay," she said, opening up the coming dialog. "We, know that the killer apparently didn't know me very well. That he probably thinks that he has killed me." She looked up at the three men who were eyeing her suspiciously. "What if we let him continue to believe that he succeeded in killing Lois Lane? We could print the headline that he had succeeded, and that would allow me to go undercover looking for him. He wouldn't be looking for that since he would think me dead." Lois increased the intensity of her pacing. "Clark could remain visible enough at the Planet, without me, to add credence to his partner being gone."

Perry just shook his head. "I don't think that will work, honey. Several people had to have seen you come in this morning. They would know that it wasn't you." Perry chewed his lip for a few moments. "Also, I don't think our publisher would go along with the deal. Too many things could go wrong that would make the paper look bad."

Lois, having stopped pacing, frowned at her chief. "What could go wrong?"

"You actually could get killed?" Clark chimed in.

Lois turned her frown on her partner. "You're probably in more danger now than I am."

Henderson held up his hand to forestall any further debate. "I'm afraid that it wouldn't work, Lois. Lucy has already been identified down at the police headquarters. Too many people would know that it is a false headline."

Lois resumed her pacing. "Okay, what if you held off the announcement for awhile? You know, we can't release the name of the victim pending notification of the next of kin, type of thing." Lois looked over Henderson, fear on her face. "You haven't yet, have you? I mean the police haven't contacted my parents yet have they?"

Henderson shook his head. "No, we haven't. I figured you'd rather be the one to break the news to them."

Lois clenched her fists and nodded. "Yeah, I guess I should be the one, since it is my fault Lucy's dead."

"Lois," Clark began.

Lois cut him off. "Don't start on me now, Clark." She turned her attention back to Henderson and Perry. "Wouldn't that work? I mean, unless the killer works for the police, or the Daily Planet, and we know he doesn't, he won't know that he missed his real target."

Perry rubbed his chin. "Well, I think I might be able to sell that to the boys upstairs. But how long can you stall like that… Bill?"

Henderson frowned. "This is not something we like to do, but I'm in charge of this case, and I could probably hold off any announcement for maybe a day, two at the most."

"Good, then that's what we'll do." Lois began to push on the two older men, directing them toward her door. "Now, you two go and get things started. I need to think of the best way to flush this guy out."

Henderson and Perry White were overwhelmed by Lois' sudden bustle of action and allowed themselves to be meekly shoved out her door. Once the door had been closed on those two, she turned and faced her remaining guest.

"Go ahead, say it."

Clark frowned, but didn't disappoint Lois. "I don't like it. It's too dangerous. You could be placing yourself right into this psycho's hands."

Lois walked up close to Clark and looked him in the eyes. "Not that it's really any of your business, I *am* touched that you fear for my safety." She placed her hand briefly on Clark's chest. "I can take care of myself, and don't forget, this guy will have no reason to suspect that I'm out hunting him. He thinks I'm dead." Lois stepped back and gave Clark a look he wasn't sure he'd ever seen before from her. "Actually, I'm much more worried about you."

Clark was clearly puzzled. "What?"

"Think about it, Clark. This maniac thinks I'm dead. Who is the next most logical, high profile, reporter at the Daily Planet for him to set his sights on." Lois bit her lip. "After losing Lucy, I don't think I could take it if I lost you too." Lois' voice took on a note of urgency. "Promise me that you'll be extra careful, since I won't be around to watch your back for you."


"Please, Clark." Her voice got suddenly soft. "Promise me."

Clark could see the real concern in Lois' face and hear it in her voice. It gave him a warm feeling to know that she did care that much about him, about her friend. "Okay, I promise." He gently stroked her cheek one time. "But you have to promise to keep me informed of what you plan to do, and where you might be. Someone has to know, so we can be ready to help if you should need it." Clark paused, and as an afterthought added, "I'll let Superman know too, so he can be ready to come to your aid if you find yourself in a dangerous situation."

Lois frowned at her friend, and partner. She let his words percolate in her brain for a short time. She resented the idea of anyone keeping tabs on her, but some of what he said did make sense. And it would be nice to know that Superman would be aware of her situation, and ready to answer her call for help, in the unlikely event that she would need his intervention. Also, she wasn't averse to a little give and take with Clark to assure his own promise to be careful.

"Okay, I promise. In fact I'll call you tomorrow to fill you in on what I decide on as my plan of action." Lois cocked a brow at him. "Will that satisfy you?"

Clark was still hesitant. "Well, okay. I'll wait till tomorrow to see what ultra-dangerous scheme you come up with."

"Good," Lois said as she placed her hands on Clark's back and shoved him toward the door. "Now, get back to work. I've got some planning to do." Her voice suddenly took on a much sadder note. "And I've got a couple of phone calls I have to make."

Understanding her need for privacy, Clark simply nodded and let himself out of Lois' apartment.

Lois stared at her front door for several minutes before she finally forced herself to walk over and pick up the phone. It was answered within two rings. "Hello, mother, it's Lois. No, I'm afraid this isn't a social call…"


Clark went back to the Daily Planet, even though it was late afternoon. He had a few things that he felt he should take care of. Even amongst the chaos and fear that this killer had been creating, the paper still had to hit the stands every day. He had a travel piece he still had to write, and he thought he'd check Lois' computer to see if she'd ever finished her sports column.

Going first to Lois' terminal, Clark quickly pulled up the column that Lois had written. He wasn't sure if Lois knew he knew how to access her story files, but it was ridiculously easy to guess her password, Superman. The column came up on the screen and Clark swiftly read it. It was good, it was very good. Clark couldn't suppress a bit of a smile when he saw that she had written about the stadium issue. Her take was a quite different than Joe would have taken, but she had her facts straight, and her conclusions were logical.

Clark couldn't help himself. He corrected some sloppy grammar before he sent the piece off to Perry. It had been agreed that both Lois and Clark's additional writing be done under pseudonyms. Perry wasn't sure what it might look like to have his best investigative reporters 'moonlighting' as columnists in completely unrelated areas. The Planet was experiencing enough trouble from the current crisis. There was no need confirm it to the general public.

Clark had just finished up his own travel column when he was joined at his desk by Linda King. She sidled up next to him and planted herself on the corner of his desk. Her eyes were wide and her face was flushed with a perverse excitement.

"Is it true, Clark? Did the killer strike again?" Her voice indicated a concern, but she also seemed morbidly stimulated by the idea.

Clark nodded sadly. "I'm afraid so. Inspector Henderson was called in early this morning. Right after Perry received the first package."

Linda leaned in close, and her voice took on a conspiratorial tone. "Do you know who it was?"

Clark's lips drew themselves into a tight line. He saw no reason to share his knowledge with Linda. She'd have to find out whatever she could through the normal company gossip. The fewer people who knew the truth the better the chance that the wrong information would find its way to Jeb Dutcher, who Clark was convinced was actually the killer. They just had to prove it. Of course, they had to find him first.

"The police are withholding the identity of the victim until the family can be notified. You know how it is sometimes." Clark gave Linda a weak smile.

Linda frowned at Clark. "That's not what I asked. I asked if you knew."

"I've heard rumors that it was Lois Lane."

Both Clark and Linda turned toward the voice that had just interrupted them. They were greeted by a pleasant looking man in his late middle age. Gray hair with noticeable thinning up front, a moustache, and wire-rimmed glasses completed the picture. He seemed somehow familiar to Clark.

He smiled apologetically and offered his hand to Clark. "Excuse me for interrupting. I'm Sidney Loomis. I'm new here."

Clark reached over and shook the man's hand. "Oh, of course, Mr. Loomis, we knew you were coming. I've heard good things about you. I imagine Perry's already done the introductions and given you the tour?"

"Well, Mr. White did *present* me to the rest of the staff, but he seemed somewhat preoccupied. He quickly turned me over to an energetic young man for the requisite tour of the place."

Clark smiled at the newcomer. "That would have been Jimmy, I'm Clark…"

"Oh, no need to introduce yourself, Mr. Kent. Your reputation precedes you. I'm a great admirer of your work." Dutcher nodded enthusiastically at Clark, giving his performance the proper deference any 'new guy' would give to the star of the team. "And who is this lovely creature?" he asked turning to Linda. "I'm pretty familiar with the roster of the Daily Planet, but am embarrassed to say that your stunning face escapes me."

Linda blushed, and offered her own hand. "Hi, I'm Linda King, and I'm new here too. I've only been with the Planet for a couple of days." Linda shook his hand. "So, what's this about Lois?"

Dutcher shrugged. "There is just a rumor going around in HR that the latest victim of this revenge killer was Lois Lane."

Linda seemed taken aback by what 'Loomis' said. She turned and stared hard at Clark for a few moments. "No, I don't think so," Linda said deliberately. "If it had been Lois, Clark would be completely devastated." She winked at 'Loomis'. "He's in love with her."

"Really," he answered, his tone a bit surprised.

"Linda," Clark interjected somewhat crossly. "I'm sure Mr. Loomis here is not interested in your opinion of my *friendship* with my partner." Clark reached back and logged off his computer. "Now if you two will excuse me, I'm going home." Clark nodded toward each of them and quickly strolled up the ramp to the elevator, and escape.

Dutcher watched Clark leave then turned to see Linda watching the elevator doors with a definite look of longing on her face. Many things were spinning through Dutcher's mind. What Linda King said made sense. It was said that Lane and Kent were quite the 'hot' reporting team. And Dutcher knew from experience how close you could get to your partner. Even if you weren't in love with them, you got to be friends, and in some ways even closer than lovers.

If he hadn't killed Lois Lane, than who had he killed? He was sure that he'd had the right apartment. And what was going on between Linda and Kent, he wondered. The look she gave Kent as he exited left no doubt that she had feelings for him. But did he return them? Was he in love with Lane, as King said? Dutcher was unquestionably going to have to do a little research into more than just the pecking order of the reporters on this paper. Apparently there was some soap operatic aspects to the folks here that he just might be able to exploit.

Jimmy chose that moment to walk by, with an armload of papers and files. He noticed the new guy, 'Loomis', standing near Clark's desk grinning. Seeing the look on his face Jimmy couldn't help but smile himself.

"Hey, Sidney, you just think of something funny?"

Dutcher glanced over at Jimmy. "Perhaps," he said as he walked away nodding to himself.


(Chapter Eleven)

Lois pulled herself out of bed after turning off her alarm. She hadn't slept well at all. After talking to her mother, and then her father, Lois had tried to concentrate on what she would do next. Even though both she and Clark were sure that Jeb Dutcher was their killer, she had no idea how to go about tracking him down. After several hours of fruitless speculation, and computer file hacking, Lois finally gave up and went to bed.

That was a mistake. She tossed and turned most of the night as scene after scene of Lucy in the clutches of Dutcher played themselves out in her mind. Each scenario sicker and more horrific than the last. Lois was still physically sick over her sister's death, but she knew she had to pull it together enough to find this psycho before he could strike again. That was the least she could do for Lucy's memory.

She had set her alarm for an early rise and even though she got very little actual sleep she forced herself up and stumbled into the bathroom, and a nice hot shower. What ever she intended to do, she wanted to get an early start. She knew she only had a day or two to try and find something concrete. Something that would lead her to Dutcher.

Her hair wrapped in a towel, Lois, dressed in her bathrobe, carefully opened her door to grab the early morning edition of the Daily Planet. She made sure no one was about in the hallways before she ventured forth. Just as she was about to duck back into her apartment, the paper in front of her neighbor's apartment door caught her eye. Quickly she checked the hallway again before scampering over and grabbing that paper.

Closing the door behind her, Lois was appalled by the 80 point headline "Where is Lois Lane?" bantered over a quarter page picture of herself in that morning's issue of the Metropolis Star. Lois frowned as she thought that the loss of their publisher, and one of their smarmy reporters had done nothing for the content of the paper.

"Swell," Lois said disgustedly as she threw the paper down on her kitchen table.

She quickly scanned the Planet's headlines. The murder was mentioned, and was linked by M.O. to the other murders, true to their words, both Perry and Henderson had kept Lucy's name out of it. The Planet merely reported that the police weren't releasing the name of the victim yet, pending notification of family.

Lois looked back at the Star's headline and the story beneath it. While they too mentioned that the police wouldn't release the name of the victim, they went on to speculate who the latest victim might have been. For whatever the reason, they had chosen Lois. Much was made of the fact that Lois wasn't seen at any of her normal haunts yesterday. A smaller picture of Clark looking very upset also accompanied the story.

Lois studied her own very large picture splashed across the front page. It was a good picture, she had to admit. It was the one that had been used on the promotional posters of her and Clark in ads for the Daily Planet. "Lane and Kent, the hottest investigative team in town, read them only in the Daily Planet". But Clark's picture had been carefully excised. It was a well known shot, and it complicated things quite a bit.

Lois had finally decided that her best course of action was to hang around the Daily Planet and watch as Planet reporters left the building to see if anyone showed any unusual interest in them, or even followed them. It seemed reasonable to expect that Dutcher somehow kept the Daily Planet under some sort of surveillance in order to know the movements of his next intended victims.

True, he had come right to her apartment to grab Lucy, but both Cat and Eduardo had been taken coming from the Daily Planet. Now that Dutcher had thought that he'd taken out the Planet's number one reporter, the next most logical target would be Clark. That worried Lois, but forewarned, she hoped Clark wouldn't put himself into a situation that might lead to his abduction. Barring Clark as the next victim, it seemed that anyone could be as likely as another. That was why Lois decided to stake out the Planet building herself.

Lois had originally planned to just wear a baseball cap and some sunglasses as she hung around the area outside the Planet, intending to blend in with the pedestrian traffic on either side of the street. The portentous headline and the picture complicated things. Normally someone who didn't know her, or Dutcher, who thought she was dead, probably wouldn't make the connection between a casually dressed Lois and her reporter persona, but now that had changed. Now people would be more aware of her and someone was sure to recognize her and possibly shout out her name or some such knee jerk response. She was going to have to come up with a much better disguise.

Suddenly the phone rang. Lois had to stop herself from her conditioned response to answer it. She let the machine answer it. It was a reporter wondering if she was in, and to please call him back if she got the message. Lois frowned. It was starting, thanks to that stupid Star headline. Now other people were also going to be looking for her. She definitely was going to have to come up with a good disguise.

Lois sighed once as she walked back into the bathroom and began to rummage around in the single drawer in the sink cabinet. Her hand found the object of her search before her eyes did. Pulling the towel from her head she stared at her reflection in the mirror above the sink.

"Oh well, never let it be said the Lois Lane was afraid of change." Lois' voice had a resigned tone to it.

With that she grabbed hold of a section of her near shoulder- length locks and with the scissors she held in her other hand sheared off several inches of the silky black tresses. Once, twice, three times the scissors passed through Lois' hair. The sink had acquired a large pile of the dark locks. Lois looked at her reflection again. One side of her head looked like it normally did, the other was a ragged mess of short strands that stuck out at all angles. She bit her lip as she admitted to herself that she didn't know what she was doing. She regretted that she didn't dare go out to a professional stylist, but she didn't feel she could risk it, not with that irresponsible headline, and picture, out on the streets. She raised the scissors to try again when she was stopped by a knock on her front door.

Thinking it was just some trashy tabloid reporter trying to find out if she was alive or dead, she almost didn't answer the door. But her curiosity got the better of her and she tip-toed to her front door and checked the peephole.

Suddenly becoming a fireball of activity, Lois flung the door open and pulled Clark roughly inside. "What are you doing here? I told you I'd call you once I knew what I was going to do?"

"I know but I wanted to make sure… Lois, what have you done to your hair?"

Lois suddenly realized the she must look ridiculous with half her hair cut off and half not. "I'm working on my disguise. Thanks to that stupid story in the Star, I can't take the chance that anyone might recognize me."

Clark had a tight frown on his face. "Couldn't you just have used a wig?"

Lois gave Clark a sarcastic frown. "I don't happen to have one, and I don't dare go out to buy one."

"Lois, you could have called me. I would have gone out and gotten one for you."

"Tell you what," Lois answered testily. "If it bothers you so much, I promise to grow it back to what ever length you want after we catch this guy." Lois grabbed Clark by the arm and began to pull him toward the bathroom. "Actually, I'm glad you're here. You can help me with this."

"What?" Clark seemed shocked at her suggestion. "I don't know anything about cutting hair."

Lois shrugged. "Does it look like I do? Come on, Clark, help me. You can't do any worse than I am."

Clark frowned silently for a moment. "Okay, get your scissors, a towel to drape over your shoulders and a comb. I'll be right with you."

Lois looked at Clark, confused. "What are you going to do?"

Clark walked over to Lois' computer and booted it up. "Take a crash course in hair cutting."

Clark knew that you could find nearly anything on the internet, and within a couple of minutes he found a few sites that gave him the information he needed. Using his body to block his hands from Lois' sight. Clark used a little superspeed to access and read several sights within minutes. Figuring he was as prepared as he was going to be, he followed Lois into her bathroom.

Not giving himself time to think about it Clark took the comb and the scissors and began to snip away at Lois' hair. Joining that which Lois had already cut off, more hair began to fill up the sink. Lois looked down in horror.

"Hey, are you going to leave me any hair?" Watching wide-eyed as more and more hair hit the sink basin. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea."

Clark chuckled. "A little late to be thinking that now."

It didn't take long. No more than ten to fifteen minutes. Lois stared in astonishment at the person who stared back at her from the other side of the mirror. She looked great. The style that Clark had managed to execute was a short, feathered look that hugged her head, yet still managed to frame her face well. It also exposed a lot of neck and shoulder.

"You did good. You did *real* good," Lois gushed. "Would you be interested in becoming my permanent stylist?"

Clark grinned at Lois. "Are you sure you can afford me?"

Lois grinned back at Clark. "Oh, I think so."

Clark was delighted to see Lois smile. It was the first one he'd seen on her since she found out about her sister. As devastating as Lucy's death had been to Lois, her being able to smile now over this little interplay gave him hope that Lois would be able to cope with her loss, eventually.

Lois began to push Clark out of her bathroom. "Now, you've got to go and get to work at the Planet. You need to look like you miss me, to help my cover story."

"Lois, you know I always miss you when you're not there."

Lois stopped pushing Clark and just stared at him for several moments. Without saying anything she resumed her pushing.

"Hey, Lois, wait a minute. You still haven't told me your plan."

Lois stopped. "Okay, I needed a good disguise because I'm planning to stake out the Daily Planet. I figure that Dutcher must have some sort of surveillance of the Planet. I'm going to see if I can either spot him, or see if anyone expresses too much interest in any of the Planet reporters as they leave the building."

Clark raised his brow skeptically. "That's your plan?"

Lois' eyes glinted steel. "Yes."

"Okay," Clark responded noncommittally. "I'll try and contact you later tonight to see if you've had any luck."

Lois shook her head. "I'll call you." Lois laid her hand on Clark's chest. "And, Clark, be careful, please. I still think you are the next most logical target for this madman."

Clark smiled warmly at her. "Don't worry about me, Lois, I'll be careful." His smile changed to a grin. "Besides, if I don't, you'll kill me."

Lois' face fell. "Don't even joke about that."

Clark couldn't believe he could have been so insensitive. "I'm sorry, Lois, I didn't mean…"

She placed her finger on his lips. "That's okay, just go, and be careful."

Clark nodded and went to the front door.

Lois rushed up and grabbed him. She slowly opened the door and looked up and down the hallway outside. "Go quickly," she said gesturing for Clark to hurry. "Don't let anyone see you."

He slipped out the door and moved swiftly to the back stairs. Lois nodded in approval before she did another quick check of the hall, then quietly closed the door.

*** Lex Luthor threw the Metropolis Star, and its disturbing headline, down onto his desk in irritated apprehension. The morning cigar he held between his fingers stayed unlit as he frowned at the large photo which jumped out of the front page. He stabbed at a special button that occupied a prominent position at the edge of his desk.

Within moments a tall, urbane gentleman entered the room. "You rang, sir?"

Luthor didn't speak, but instead just pointed at the paper lying on his desk. Nigel St. John strolled over and peered at the offending tabloid.

He nodded knowingly. "Ah yes, a most distressing headline." Seeing his employer's impatience, Nigel continued. "I have already made some inquiries. Apparently this *Headsman* fellow struck again the other night. The police aren't releasing the name of the person killed, but I see the tabloids are busy speculating."

"Well," Luthor's impatience was evident. "Who was the victim? Ms. Lane was here till quite late that night, and my driver assures me she got home safely."

Nigel nodded again. "Yes, it does seem unlikely. While I, as yet, have been unable to discover the identity of the victim, a source did mention seeing Lois Lane leaving the Daily Planet, looking quite distressed, early yesterday morning."

Lex found himself nodding in turn. "Good. I don't suppose we'd be so lucky as to find out this latest victim was that arrogantly annoying Mr. Kent?"

Nigel smiled sympathetically. "I'm afraid not, sir. He was seen at the Planet a couple of times during the day. He too, seemed a bit distressed. Apparently the victim was known to both Mr. Kent, and Ms. Lane." Seeing that Luthor still didn't seem to be completely reassured, St. John motioned toward the telephone. "Perhaps a phone call, sir?"

Luthor nodded decisively. "Good idea, Nigel."

Nigel stepped back while Lex dialed the number. He didn't pay any attention to the exchange. Instead he allowed his mind to wander a bit. It was really unfortunate, in Nigel's opinion, that Lois Lane hadn't been the latest victim. He didn't like the woman, nor did he trust her. He knew that Luthor thought he might be in love with her, and that he would eventually be able to win her over and bring her under his control, but St. John seriously doubted he could succeed. A woman like Lois Lane was all about fierce independence and a headstrong determination to do things her own way. St. John had seen the kind of women that Luthor normally surrounded himself with. Women who were only too eager to curry a position of favor with the handsome and rich Lex Luthor. They would quickly submerge their own personality to become whatever Lex wanted them to be. He didn't see Lois Lane ever doing that.

Nigel's attention was recaptured when he heard the phone's receiver being placed back onto its cradle. Luthor looked up at Nigel with a satisfied smile on his face.

"Yes, Lois is fine, but she's had to endure a terrible blow." Lex paused to finally light his cigar. "Apparently the killer grabbed Lois' sister, Lucy, by mistake. The poor young woman was brutally murdered just as were the other Planet reporters." Luthor blew a smoke ring. "I am a little concerned over the fact that Lois has convinced the police to withhold the information of her sister's identity to give her some time to go *undercover* to investigate." Lex shook his head. "She seems to think that if the killer thinks she's dead, he won't be looking for her, and she might be able to get a line on him."

"Seems like a plan more based on hope and optimism, than on sound deductive reasoning."

Luthor shrugged. "Well, that's Lois." Lex waved his cigar holding hand about. "But it does bring up a worry. I think you need to redouble your efforts to find this…"

"Jebadiah Dutcher, sir," Nigel supplied.

Lex just rolled his eyes. "Yes, well, we need to find this Dutcher fellow. We lucked out this time around. I told you before I don't want Ms. Lane hurt by this nutcase. I want him found, and if possible, guided. If he can't be guided, maybe we'll just have to do something about this madman ourselves." Luthor puffed himself up. "It's been too long since Metropolis saw me as a hero."

*** Lois picked at her lip with her fingertip as she stared at the phone. She'd just hung up after having a conversation with Lex. She knew that Clark wouldn't have approved of her breaking her 'cover' by answering his call, but Clark had blinders when it came to Lex. Surely it wouldn't hurt anything for Lex to know that she was all right. There wasn't any danger of him betraying her, even inadvertently, and it wouldn't have been kind to let him worry needlessly about her and the speculations of that yellow rag, the Star.

The phone had been ringing almost non-stop all morning, but as the machine answered each time the callers were revealed to be just more reporters trying to track down her whereabouts. When Lex's voice was recognized on the tape, she immediately answered.

She'd taken the time to assure him that she was physically unhurt, but had gone on to explain what had happened to Lucy. Lex was appalled at the close call Lois had experienced, and was solicitous over the loss of her sister. He didn't sound too supportive over her plan to stake out the Planet in an attempt to uncover the killer, but to his credit he didn't try to talk her out of it.

Lex confused Lois. She knew that he had some feelings for her, but exactly what they were and to what extent he felt them, she was unsure. Even more frustrating was trying to figure out exactly what she felt for him, and where she thought that Lex might fit into her life. She knew she had given Lucy a glib, almost pat, answer when she'd questioned her about Lex the other night. But that had been a safe, non- threatening answer. Was it the truth, she wondered? Or was it just another example of Lois trying to keep herself safe from men by creating artificial barriers and distance between them and her. It really was a time-tested, simple equation. If you don't invest much in a relationship, you can't lose much when it ends, which Lois had come to expect would always happen.

Lois bit her lip as her thoughts seemed to shift automatically to Clark. He had somehow become her best friend over these last several months. She didn't know how he had managed to do it. She had been her typical self around him, the same impatient, demanding, driven to be the best that had scared away partners and possible suitors in the past. But for some reason, it hadn't bothered Clark. He'd just stayed with her, warts and all, during the good times, and even more so during the bad. Lois probably should have told him how much she really appreciated his being there yesterday. Without his support and presence here, with her, after Lucy's death, she didn't know if she could have made it through the day. He had been a true friend.

Lois knew that her romantic entanglements always resulted in inevitable disaster. Lex was fun, and it was exciting to be able to go where he could take her. But if it all ended tomorrow, she would be able to move on with very few regrets. But Clark…

Lois shook her head angrily pushing away thoughts and feelings that were threatening to overwhelm her. She didn't have time for that now. She needed to focus on the problem at hand.

She checked to see if she had everything she thought she would need for her daytime stake out. She had stuffed an overly large bag with a variety of things. Not only did she stick in a pair of sunglasses and a baseball cap, but she also had thrown in a pair of fake, horn-rimmed glasses she had left over from a community theater production she'd been in a few years ago. She also had a change of blouse and jeans tucked under a book, and her laptop computer.

Lois was wearing a baggy, plain sweat-shirt, a pair of faded blue jeans and her Nikes. She looked very unremarkable. She could have been a young housewife out for some shopping, a co- ed between classes, or just a young woman out for a day in the city. She was confident that no one but her closest friends would recognize her.

It was quite possible that Lois' building was being watched by reporters, so she figured this would be a good first test of her disguise. Luckily her building was quite large and contained several apartments. So many, that very few of the tenants from different floors even knew each other.

Listening at her front door for a few moments, making sure that no one was in the hallway, she slipped out quietly and hustled over to the back stairwell. Coming into the lobby from the stairwell, so no one could tell what floor she'd originated from, she quickly crossed the space and confidently walked down the front steps of her building.

The short hairs on the back of her neck tingled as she imagined that she must be being watched by someone. Giving nothing away, she casually walked to the corner bus stop. Luckily she only had to wait a couple of minutes for the bus to downtown to arrive. Once on the bus and seated, she finally felt comfortable enough to let out the breath she had unconsciously been holding. It was time to get to work.

*** (Chapter Twelve)

Clark was busy finishing off a story about a recent rescue of some construction workers by Superman, when Jimmy strolled up. On his way to the office Clark had noticed that the crane being used in the latest LexCorp construction project seemed to be laboring under its load. He had no sooner spun into Superman than a sound like a thunderclap split the air. The support cable had snapped and the load of iron girders went tumbling toward a small group of men below. Superman had been able to gather the falling iron and return it safely to the ground, avoiding the potential tragedy.

"Hey, Clark," Jimmy leaned close. "You hear the latest? Perry was forced to cut out expense accounts. Money is getting really tight."

Clark leaned back and looked over at his young friend. "Yeah, I suppose that sick days will be the next to go."

Jimmy nodded in return, but his face held a look of puzzlement. "Why is this happening, Clark? We are still putting out the best paper in town, yet our advertisers keep bailing on us."

"Fear, Jimmy," Clark answered sadly. "They see this vendetta going on against the Daily Planet and its reporters and don't want any association with the paper to cause this nutcase to, perhaps, focus any attention on them."

Jimmy frowned. "That's really lame."

Clark nodded. "I agree, but they feel safer taking a wait and see attitude rather than take any chances, no matter how reasonable." Clark shook his head. "If we don't find this guy and turn him over to the police, things will just keep getting worse for the Daily Planet. Aside from the horror of the murders themselves, not only our we losing the ad revenues, but it will be harder to keep enough staff to even write a paper to be published."

"That's the truth." Linda King came up and joined the conversation. "I just heard that two more people quit this morning."

"Yeah, it's really getting tough. Perry has even assigned a story to me." Jimmy added.

Clark gave Jimmy a smile of encouragement. "And I'm sure you'll do fine with it too."

Jimmy stood up a little straighter under Clark's praise. "You think? I hope so." Jimmy lowered his voice. "I miss Lois. How's she doing? Do you think she'll be back soon?"

Linda shot Clark a black look. Clark, in turn gave Jimmy one of dismay.

He blushed. "Oh, yeah, that's right. We're not supposed to spread that around." Jimmy looked very much like a rabbit looking for its hole. "I, I've got to get going. Ah, see you guys later." Jimmy fled.

Linda rounded immediately on Clark. "Okay, Clark, give, what's going on? Where is Lois?"

Clark looked around, making sure they weren't being overheard. He indicated that she should sit down in his guest chair. "Okay, we're trying to keep this as quiet as possible. Lois was the target the other night, but the killer got someone else by mistake. Lois is using the fact that the killer thinks she's dead to do some *undercover* investigating. She hopes that she'll be free to find something out if he's not looking for her."

"That sounds like Lois." Linda leaned in closer. "But who was actually killed?"

Clark lowered his head first, then met Linda's eyes. Tears misted his eyes. "It was Lucy."

Linda's hands flew to her mouth. "Oh god, Lucy — Lois' sister?" Clark nodded. "Oh god, poor Lois."

"Did you know her?"

Linda sniffed back the start of a tear. "Not well, I only met her once. Lois and I were friends in college. Lucy was only in high school. They argued, and fought like sisters would when they got together but I could tell they shared a special bond." Linda sniffed again. "I'd heard all the stories of how tough it was when Lois and Lucy were growing up. Their father never around, their mother retreating into the bottle. They had depended on each other very much to get through it all." Linda found herself shrugging. "I'm surprised Lois wasn't more screwed up than she was, considering what she and Lucy had to grow up dealing with." Linda placed her hand on Clark's arm.. "Lois must be devastated."

Clark nodded once slowly. "She is, but she's tough. She'll find a way to get through this, and finding this murdering psycho will go a long way toward the healing."

"And I can now guess where you spent most of yesterday afternoon." Linda stood up, but left her hand briefly on Clark's arm. "Please, if there is anything I can do for you, or for Lois, don't hesitate to ask. Whatever Lois — or you may think, I want to be your friend. If there is anything, well, you know how to reach me."

Clark didn't speak as she slowly walked toward the back of the newsroom, instead he just watched her until she was no longer in sight. Clark turned back to his keyboard and finished off the Superman story. Adding a bit of an editorial at the end of his piece calling for stronger, more frequent inspections of heavy equipment used at public building sites, Clark sent the story to his editor. He hoped it would give the paper something else to report besides dealing with more speculations about the Planet's serial killer and who his latest victim had been.

Clark got up from his desk and wandered over to the large windows that overlooked the city from their high vantage point. He scanned the crowd below, checking out the people who passed by on either side of the street. He also used his x-ray vision to look into the nearby buildings across the way. Lois' contention that Dutcher may be keeping track of the Daily Planet reporters by some form of surveillance made sense. It was a credit to Lois' disguise that, even though he knew of her haircut, it still took Clark several minutes to locate Lois in the crowd.

At present she was sitting at one of the outdoor tables at the little coffee house across the street. Coffee and a danish sat in front of her. She held an open book but gave it only occasional brief glances. Clark made a mental note not to stop at that cafe for lunch today, as he sometimes did. He didn't think Lois would appreciate any 'accidental' intrusions on his part.

"What're you looking at, Clark?"

Clark turned to see that Sid Loomis had come up behind him. "Nothing much, Sidney. I was just admiring the nice day."

"I thought it was supposed to rain later today?" 'Loomis' looked out the window at the cloudy sky.

"Well, rain is nice too." Clark smiled at Loomis. "We could use the moisture. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to work." Clark left the new employee standing there with a bewildered look on his face.

Clark knew his actions had bordered on rude, but for he just felt like he had to get away from there. He didn't know what it was about Sidney Loomis, but the man made him uncomfortable. He'd never met the man before yesterday, but for some reason he seemed strangely familiar. Clark had read quite a bit of Loomis' writing recently, maybe that was it, Clark thought. Loomis' casual, friendly manner seemed a bit at odds though with the careful, almost formal writing style that Clark had seen in what he'd read. Clark decided that he would make a point of reading Loomis' first article for the Planet, which should see print within the next couple of days.

*** Lois was getting very bored. It was already past the lunch hour and she had nothing to show for her efforts. Early on, she had sat at the little cafe across the street from the Daily Planet watching as most of the Planet employees entered for the day. She kept glancing about, surreptitiously, to see if anyone was giving the front door of the Planet undue attention. No one had.

Later, she had spent some time doing some pretend window shopping up and down the street. She was trying to spot anyone who she'd recognize as being there most of the morning as she had been. The fact that she didn't spot anyone didn't mean that they weren't there, it just meant that they hadn't been obvious enough for her to mark them.

The noon lunch rush had provided Lois with excellent cover to move about, but it also gave her many more people to watch. She saw several of the Planet staffers come out for their lunch break, but there was only one guy she didn't recognize. He was an older man, with graying hair and a moustache. He was with Jimmy. They had been conversing as if they knew each other, and they had come back after lunch together, so Lois didn't think much of it. She knew there were still some new hires that she hadn't met yet. The man with Jimmy was probably just one of them.

She was now making her way out of an electronics store, with the idea of getting herself some lunch, when she saw the news on one of their television sets. It was an LNN update on an earthquake in Chile. Apparently, it had happened only a few hours ago, and it was a bad one. A 7.1 shaker on the Richter scale. LNN had gone back to live coverage because Superman had just arrived on the scene. Lois felt a little irrational burst of pride seeing Metropolis' own superhero down there pitching in. From the looks of the devastation, Superman would be occupied for quite some time.

Lois wondered if Clark knew about the earthquake. Even if he did, he should probably be setting something up with Perry, to hold the morning edition for a write up, and some quotes that Clark would inevitably be able to get from Superman. He always did.

Lois slipped partially into the alley between the electronics store and the little cafe and pulled out her cell phone. She was sure that Clark would be in the office since she hadn't seen him leave the building all day.

She called his cell phone first. She got no answer, just the message that the phone was either out of range or not currently activated. This annoyed Lois. Clark knew she was going to be out here. He also knew that she was going to call him at some point, to fill him in on what she may have found out. They had agreed to that. So, why had he shut his phone off? If it had been her, Lois figured that the batteries on his phone might need recharging, but Clark was too anal to let that happen.

She next tried his desk number. There was no answer there either. She let the phone ring several times. After about the eighth ring, which was plenty of time for him to come back from the break area and answer his phone, it was picked up.

"Hello, Clark Kent's desk."

Lois silently cursed in frustration. "Jimmy, it's me, Lois. Don't give me away, just put Clark on the line."

"Sorry, I'm afraid Mr. Kent's not here at the moment." Jimmy's voice was stilted but Lois was glad he didn't mention her name.

"Where the heck is he? I know he didn't leave the building." Lois was chewing her lip, trying to think where Clark might be.

"I'm sorry, I don't happen to know where Mr. Kent is. He left a little over an hour ago and didn't mention when he might be back."

"What?" Lois said, not able to hold back her surprise. "Where could he have gone? Never mind — if you see him, tell him — in private," Lois emphasized, "that he needs to call me. He has the number."

She hung up before Jimmy had any chance to answer. Where was he? she wondered. She hadn't had her eyes off the front of the Daily Planet long enough for anyone to have come or gone without her seeing them. True, she wasn't watching the back dock entrance, but why would Clark feel it necessary to duck out of the Planet unseen. Was he just taking Lois' precautions to heart, in the extreme. If she was right, which didn't look too good right now, and Dutcher was watching then maybe Clark was just being cautious?

But that didn't make sense either. Clark knew she was out here, and if Dutcher was here too it would be a chance for her to spot him, if Clark were indeed his next target. She didn't want Clark to be hurt in any way, but she wasn't above him playing the role of bait either.

Lois shook her head disgustedly. This day was just not turning out the way she had planned. And Mr. Clark Kent better have a pretty good excuse for ducking out on her when she spoke to him later tonight, after all, they were supposed to be partners.


Dutcher had a lot on his mind as he approached the front door of Sidney Loomis' apartment, where he now resided. Kent's behavior troubled him a bit. Kent had a reputation for being a friendly, outgoing sort of guy. Yet he'd been almost rude to him. When Dutcher had approached him earlier just to help cement his persona with some colleague small talk, Kent had brushed him off somewhat abruptly. He hadn't been nasty. Kent was, at all times, polite. But Dutcher got the distinct impression that Kent wanted to get away from him. Was it possible that Kent suspected? That thought disturbed Dutcher quite a lot considering what currently occupied the bulk of the space in the trunk of his car.

Dutcher shook his head. No, he'd been too careful, and had covered his tracks too well. He was aware, from the talk around the newsroom, that Lane and Kent thought they had the killer identified, but no one knew how to find him. This didn't worry Dutcher. He had expected either White or the authorities to eventually figure out it was him doing the murders. After all, what good was vengeance if your target didn't know who was exacting the price? That was why he'd needed his disguise, and it was a good one. Dutcher had a hard time believing that Kent might have penetrated that disguise.

It must be something else. The more he thought about it, the more he concluded that Kent's behavior was triggered by something else. Perhaps, given the circumstances, he was just worried about Ms. Lane. He'd already been told, by that Linda King, that Clark Kent was in love with Lois Lane. Other office gossip confirmed that Kent definitely had feelings for his partner. It was sort of a joke around the place. Everyone seemed to know how Clark Kent felt about Lois Lane, except Lois Lane. The more he thought about it, the more sense that made.

Confident, now, that he'd not been compromised, Dutcher opened the door and stepped into the dark apartment.

"Good evening, Mr. Dutcher. So nice to finally get this chance to meet you."

Startled, Dutcher quickly flipped the light switch. The harsh incandescent lighting revealed an older, urbane looking gentleman sitting in one of Loomis' overstuffed armchairs. The white-haired, goateed man stood, revealing a height something over six feet. Dutcher watched as the gentleman inclined his head in greeting.

It took a few moments for Dutcher to find his voice. "Who are you? What are you doing in my apartment?" Dutcher hastened to reassert his alias. "I'm afraid, sir, that you have me confused with someone else. My name is Sidney Loomis."

The look on the face of the tall man was one of impatience. "Oh, please, let's not do this little dance, shall we." The man sighed. "We both know who you are and what you've been doing."

There was a note of menace in the man's voice that gave Dutcher pause. "I, I'm sorry, you must be…"

The white-haired gentleman waved off Dutcher's protestations. "Mr. Dutcher, let me assure you that I'm not here to impede your actions in any way. In fact, I'm here to offer you some assistance."

Dutcher was still guarded concerning his 'guest'. "How did you find me?"

"Let's just say that I have contacts that most people don't have access to. You really shouldn't rent a boat from someone you aren't absolutely sure you can trust to not talk to others." The man waved off Dutcher's impending objection. "That is irrelevant, the offer of assistance is quite genuine."

Dutcher stared warily at the guiless look on the man's face. "Why?"

A slight sardonic smile twitched up the corners of the lips of the goateed man. "Well it seems that your actions regarding the Daily Planet seem to dovetail nicely with certain interests of my employer. He would be quite pleased to see your destruction of that venerable paper succeed, and is willing to offer you some valuable aid to achieve those ends. All he asks in return is a favor and perhaps some input as to the direction of your *mission*."

Dutcher was very suspicious. "What favor?"

"You are to leave Lois Lane alone. He is aware of your recent attempt on the life of Ms. Lane. It is most fortunate, for you, that you abducted her sister by mistake. My employer has his *own* plans for Ms. Lane."

"Her sister?" Dutcher nodded to himself. So that was who he grabbed out of the Lane apartment. His research had shown that Lois Lane no longer lived with her sister, but it didn't matter. The sister was almost as good, as it would greatly affect Lane's ability to function as she should.

"But the police haven't released the name of the victim. Do you have any idea why that is?"

"Not to worry, that will be taken care of. You only have to agree not make any more attempts at Ms. Lane's life."

"That's a pretty big favor. Lane's a prime target, she's their best reporter. What's in it for me?"

The man's smile was predatory. "I'm sure you are aware that Superman considers many of the people at the Daily Planet as friends of his. Your actions are sure to bring him into the picture at some point. It's only a credit to your careful planning so far that you haven't run afoul of the annoying do- gooder yet."

Dutcher nodded again. "That has been a concern of mine, but I believe I can stay *hidden* as long as I need to finish what I have to do."

The older man pulled a small dull-colored box out of his pocket. "Wouldn't it be better to have some *protection* against the Man of Steel, should he become involved?"

Dutcher's dry laugh said what he thought of that suggestion. "It would be great, but even in prison I heard enough about Superman to know that nothing can harm him. He's invulnerable."

"Have you ever heard of kryptonite?" Seeing Dutcher's negative response, the man proceeded. "Kryptonite is apparently the one substance that can harm Superman." The dull-colored box was opened to reveal an eerie green glow coming from a small thumb-sized crystal. "It can be quite lethal if he's exposed to it long enough."

"That little thing?"

"I assure you that even this small amount will be poisonous to the Man of Steel if you are in close enough proximity." The dull-colored box was held up for attention. "Lead is the only substance that is known to shield Superman from the kryptonite's lethal properties."

Dutcher was clearly intrigued. He had to keep a firm control of his hand so that it wouldn't reach for the deadly rock. "You mentioned some *other* conditions?" Dutcher gave the man a measuring look. "You spoke of *input*."

The smile became almost shark-like. "Well, it's obvious that your actions have had a major destabilizing effect on the Daily Planet. I dare say it won't take much more to irrevocably destroy the Planet's ability to function. Two or three more splashy murders and the door could very well be finally closed on the Daily Planet." The man began to move toward the front door. "My employer would just like to make a suggestion as to who one of your next victims should be."

"And if I already have my next victim picked out?" Dutcher couldn't help but think of the drugged and helpless person presently in the trunk of his car.

"No matter, just make sure this gentleman is next on the list."


"Clark Kent."

*** (Chapter Thirteen)

Superman was tired. He had been at it for several hours and it was obvious that he'd be there for some time to come. It had been a very bad quake, striking in the worse possible sections of Santiago. Substandard buildings, and appalling overcrowding contributed to a degree of devastation much greater than a quake this magnitude would be expected to produce. And it was a significant quake to start with.

For all his speed and great strength, it was his vision prowess that was utilized the most. Due to the poor nature of the general construction, Clark wasn't able to fly in and tear off huge chunks of debris looking for survivors. Lifting up a roof section in one area could easily cause a wall to fall in another. He had to take things very carefully, and slow.

Superman would painstakingly search through the rubble, 'looking' and 'listening' for signs of the living. Looking for people who still held onto life amidst all the death and destruction around them. Once he would find a person, or a small pocket of people who had survived, he could then help the emergency services people in finding a safe way to bring those people out. Once they had been freed, they would be handed over to the local red cross and medical volunteers for treatment. Occasionally Superman would be called on to fly some critical case directly to a nearby hospital.

Clark was heartsick. For every person his efforts managed to save there were at least a dozen more that he wasn't able to help. The death toll was horrendous. The substandard buildings had collapsed like dominoes tipped over by an errant child. And the terrible overcrowding in the poorer section of the large city contributed to the high death toll.

Taking a short break to talk things over with the head of the emergency services, once again, Clark had reason to be thankful for his knack with languages. He wasn't fluent with the local dialects, but he understood enough to know what they wanted from him. And he could make himself understood when he had opinions of his own to convey. He looked out over the scene of destruction before him and shook his head sadly. He knew that at some point he would have to call back to Metropolis with some kind of excuse for his absence, but there was still so much to be done, and duty called.

*** Lois managed to sneak back into her apartment without being seen. She didn't dare turn on the lights, people might still be watching her place. She paced around the room for several minutes. She still hadn't heard from Clark and she was beginning to get very worried.

Flopping down on her couch, she pulled her cell phone from her bag. She dialed his home number again, but just reached his machine. Where was he? Her conscious mind refused to acknowledge the possibility that kept trying to worm its way forward from the depths of her fear.

She had contemplated yelling for Superman's help, and might have been tempted to do so if she hadn't passed a television in a store window on her way home. The earthquake in Chile was dominating the news and Superman's continued efforts down there were the focus of the report. He wasn't going to be back in Metropolis for some time yet.

That worried Lois also. What if Clark had gotten himself in trouble? She knew that she owed her own life many times over to the Man of Steel's timely intervention on her behalf. What if Clark needed his friend Superman, and he wasn't in town to help?

Lois got back up and paced some more. She walked over to her wall phone and dialed his number again. Just as she had only minutes ago, she got his answering machine. She slammed the phone down. She stared at it for a time, wondering if she shouldn't call his folks. Maybe they would know where he was.

Lois bit her lip as she rejected the idea. It was most likely that they wouldn't know where Clark was, and she didn't want to cause them any needless worry. Clark could be a hundred different places. It had only been this morning since she'd last talked to him, and he was seen at the Planet as late as the afternoon. It really hadn't been that long. Lois had known Clark to rush off with one of his lame excuses and not show up longer than this before.

The thing that kept nagging at Lois was that Clark had said that he would call her later to find out what she might have found out during the day. It wasn't like Clark to not follow through on a promise like that. Especially not when he was concerned for her safety.

Lois spent the rest of the evening alternating between pacing, and calling Clark's home phone. Her worry increased as each hour went by. Occasionally she found herself fighting back tears of frustration. She felt so helpless. She didn't know what to do. Finally, because she didn't know what else to do, Lois gave up and went to bed.

Lois lay on her back in bed staring up at the gray shadows that flickered across her ceiling from the street lamps outside the window. Tears slowly rolled down her cheeks as she stared at the varied shades of darkness.

"Please," she whispered to no one. "I've already lost my sister, Lucy. I don't know how I'd find the strength to go on if I lost Clark too."


Lois Lane stomped off the elevator into the Daily Planet newsroom and stormed into the office of her Editor in Chief. Half crushed in her hand was the morning edition of the Metropolis Star. The bold headline wasn't visible in Lois' hand, but she knew only too well what it said. "Headsman Executes Wrong Lane" had shouted out at Lois from its shabby rack down the block from her apartment. The fact that LNN had trumpeted the fact on the small screen during Lois' breakfast hadn't started out her day very well. The newspaper headline had just been the clincher.

Throwing the partially mangled newspaper on her boss' desk Lois confronted Perry White. "I guess I'm not going to be doing any more undercover work, am I."

Perry looked up at his irate reporter. "I'm sorry, Lois, but you have to know that it didn't come from here." Perry cocked his head to the side and gave Lois a quick once over. "New hairdo, honey?"

Lois blushed briefly. "It was part of my disguise. Which is totally worthless now."

Perry nodded. "You knew that we couldn't keep it quiet much longer anyway, Lois. Did you have any luck?"

Lois' anger ebbed. "No, if Dutcher has this place under some kind of surveillance, I couldn't detect it."

Perry smiled sympathetically. "Well, it was a long shot anyhow. You and Clark will just have to go back to what ever leads you two were following before."

Lois bit her lip. "Perry? Do you know where Clark is?"

Perry looked at Lois, a bit surprised. He glanced out into the newsroom, toward Clark's desk in particular. "Well, I take it he's not here yet. Why? What seems to be the problem? You seem upset about something."

Lois chewed her lip as she paced in front of Perry's desk. "Well, I may be worried over nothing, but Clark said he was going to call me last night. You know, to see if I had managed to find out anything useful." She stopped and faced her boss. "But he never called."

"Now, honey, I know that with everything that has been going on, and especially with what you've had to endure, that you might be prone to worry about such things. But, Lois, let's not jump to conclusions here. Clark's a big boy, and he can take care of himself. There could be any number of reasons why he didn't call you."

Lois clearly was fighting back a tear, as her voice was just a bit shaky. "Yeah, that's what I kept telling myself all night too. But then I remembered that Eduardo was a big boy, capable of taking care of himself also, and now he's dead." Lois walked toward the office door. "So, if you don't mind, until I have a definite reason not to, I'm going to worry."

Lois wandered back to her desk. She booted up her computer and began to shift through her email, hoping that maybe Clark had left her a message as to where he'd gone, but there was no note from Clark. Sighing, she began to open her ongoing story folders. She was surprised to see that her sports column on the stadium issue she'd been preparing for Perry had been already sent. A wry smile briefly crossed her lips as she recognized Clark's editing of her copy. He'd obviously proofread her copy because she noticed that some of her grammar had been changed. She also saw that he'd made only the smallest of change in the order in which she presented her arguments, which she hated to admit worked much better, leading the reader to her point of view.

Suddenly Lois was aware of a shadow falling across her keyboard. Lois closed her eyes and made a silent plea that the person standing over her wasn't Linda King. She opened her eyes and turned. Her luck was running true to form.

"Linda, what can I do for you?" Lois had to grit her teeth not to add something insulting.

"Lois, I just wanted to say how sorry I was to hear about Lucy."

Lois was surprised at the sincerity she heard in Linda's voice. Taking a moment to really look at her, Lois could see that Linda seemed nervous. Almost like she was afraid to disturb Lois. Lois had had a curt retort ready to fire back, but she relented and decided to let it lie.

"Thanks," was all she could say.

Linda sat in the chair next to Lois' desk. "I know I never knew Lucy well, but as your friend in college, I could tell that you loved your sister very much." Linda shrugged. "I guess I was a little jealous of the fact that you had a sister. I always wanted one."

Lois nodded. "Okay, I appreciate the sentiment. It's been very tough, but I plan to nail this psycho, and see that he rots in prison for the rest of his miserable life." Lois had just about reached her limit of being civil to Linda. "Is there anything else?"

Linda frowned. She knew that Lois was still grieving for her sister, and she wanted to make allowances for that, but she was tired of being Lois' whipping gal. Wasn't it obvious to Lois that Linda really felt bad about Lucy's death? But she guessed that Lois' enmity ran so deep and so strong she couldn't cut her any slack. Fine, if that was the way she wanted to play it, Linda could go along.

"Yes, there is one thing more," Linda said, her voice taking on a cool tone.. "Whatever possessed you to cut your hair like that?"

Lois' eyes flashed. "I felt it necessary for my undercover disguise." Lois' tone became challenging. "Unlike some people, I'm willing to do whatever is needed to get the story."

Linda smiled mockingly. "I see, and did it help? Have you managed to come up with a breakthrough in the story?"

"I'm not sure yet, I need some more time to evaluate my findings." Lois' tone was defensive.

"Uh huh, that's all well and good, but I want to be here when Clark sees it."

Lois couldn't help but smile back. "Well, if you must know," Lois stuck her face close to Linda's. "Clark was the one who cut it."

Linda was pulled back in astonishment, her hand unconsciously going to her own long, sandy blond locks. "He did?"

Before Lois could reply Jimmy happened to walk by.

"Hey, Lois, glad to see you back. The new haircut is really hot."

Lois' smile was appreciative, but it was directed at Linda. "Thanks, Jimmy."

Linda stood up in a huff and left without another word. Lois grinned as she watched Linda stalk away.

Lois' enjoyment of Linda's befuddlement was short-lived as her thoughts quickly returned to Clark and his absence. "Jimmy, do you know where Clark is?"

Jimmy shook his head. "No, I haven't seen him yet today. Why?"

Lois frowned as she wondered if she should burden Jimmy with her worries. "It's just that he was supposed to call me last night and he never did." She sighed. "And when I tried to reach him at home, he wasn't there."

"I don't know. He didn't say he was going anyplace in particular to me." Jimmy suddenly looked at Lois, noticing the worry clearly etched on her face. "You're not thinking that maybe Clark… naw, not Kent. He would never be caught unawares… would he?"

Lois bit her lip again. "I hope you're right, Jimmy."

Jimmy affected a bravado that didn't quite convince. "Yeah, I'm sure he's fine. He just forgot, or got real busy with something." Jimmy shrugged. "Maybe he's hot on the trail of a big story and didn't have time to tell anyone."

Jimmy looked up and found his chance to change the subject. "Hey, Sid, over here. I want you to meet the best darn reporter at the Planet."

Lois watched as an older, gray-haired man came over. Lois thought he looked familiar but couldn't place him until she remembered that he was the guy she'd seen go out to lunch with Jimmy yesterday. Another one of the new reporters that Perry had been forced to hire.

"Lois," Jimmy said, beginning the introductions. "This is Sid Loomis. He took Eduardo's spot." Jimmy then indicated Lois with a nod of his head. "Sid, this is Lois Lane."

"Very pleased to meet you, Ms. Lane." 'Loomis' offered Lois his hand. "You are a legend in this town. I'm terribly sorry to have heard about the tragic loss of your sister — Lucy, wasn't it?"

"Yes, her name was Lucy, and thank you."

Lois studied this new reporter as they momentarily shook hands. His smile was pleasant enough but he seemed to give off mixed signals. There was something about his eyes, an intensity there, almost a hunger. Lois knew that look. She'd had it herself many times when she was hot on the trail of something she felt was really important. Often rookie reporters had that look when they were on their first big story, but from Lois' understanding Loomis was a veteran reporter. She wasn't familiar with his work but she knew that he'd been working in Metropolis for years. And besides, Perry wouldn't hire anyone who wasn't competent. Well, except for Linda King.

"Whoa, Sid," Jimmy broke through Lois' musings. "You look beat." Jimmy winked. "Late night?"

The laugh sounded genuine. "Jimmy, I'm a little old for the kind of night out that you're referring to. No, I'm afraid it was nothing more than a simple lack of sleep." 'Loomis' yawned for effect. "Actually, my brother called and we talked quite late into the night. Of course, he's in the Pacific time zone, so it wasn't so late for him." He nodded toward Lois, and then Jimmy. "Well, if you two will excuse me, I do have an article to finish for Mr. White. I may be one of the new guys, but if I want to hang around long enough to become an old guy in more than just age, I'd best get busy." 'Loomis' threw Lois a wide smile. "It's been a pleasure meeting you Ms. Lane." He turned and strolled toward the back of the newsroom.

As soon as Loomis was out of sight, Jimmy placed his hand on Lois' shoulder. "Hey, I've got to get going myself if I want to keep my job too. I've got my first story to finish, and a about a dozen photos the Chief wants to see before the end of the day." Jimmy lowered his voice. "I can just imagine how tough it's been for you, Lois. If there is anything you need, I mean, anything at all, feel free to call on me."

Lois gave Jimmy a sad smile. "Thanks, Jimmy, I will. I know that you had feelings for Lucy too. This can't have been any easier for you."

"No, it has been rough, but I know you and CK will nail this scumball soon." Jimmy saw Lois' face fall at the mention of Clark. "And don't worry about CK, I just know that he's all right. I'm sure you'll hear from him before you know it."

With another reassuring pat on the shoulder, Jimmy left to handle his own chores leaving Lois to shift her attention to the television screen that the newsroom kept tuned to LNN. The report was from Santiago, Chile. There had been several aftershocks, which had caused considerable additional damage. The appalling death toll continued to rise.

A cameraman had managed to get a zoomed in close up of Superman as he pulled a motionless child from some debris. The look of helpless anguish on his face made Lois' heart ache for him. She knew that the stoic, superhero persona he projected to the world was largely an act. He'd let his guard down around her enough times for her to know that he sincerely cared about people.

Superman had always tried to dismiss his actions as something anyone who had his gifts would do. Lois knew better. Very few individuals were as caring and compassionate as Superman. The only other one she knew was Clark. It was probably why they were friends, they were a lot alike.

Lois' reverie turned to Superman, and Clark. She blushed as she thought of how she acted around Superman the first few times she saw him. Once the initial shock over what he could do wore off, Lois was like a giddy school girl with a crush on the captain of the football team whenever she was around him. It took a while before she was able to control herself enough to not embarrass herself around him. She was still greatly impressed with the man, who wouldn't be? But if she really took the time to think about it, what did she really know about the vaunted Man of Steel?

She always suspected that he liked her, at least to some degree. But Lois also knew that Superman wasn't like other men. He wasn't allowed to be. She had always been accused of putting up defensive walls around herself to protect her from being hurt. She could only imagine the kind of defenses Superman had to keep in place to not have all the pain and heartache he had to deal with constantly break him down. Lois was sure that his formal bearing and somewhat stiff manner were part of those defenses. She wondered if there was anyone he could turn to for solace in times of stress, or when he'd just seen too much suffering. She had always been willing to be that someone for him, but that just wasn't Superman's way.

That brought her thoughts round to Clark. Once again, she marveled at how he'd managed to slip by her own, once thought to be impregnable, walls and had insinuated himself into her life. Clark was kind and caring also, and while he was no Superman, he had other traits that Superman didn't, or couldn't, have. Clark was funny. He had a wicked sense of humor and was one of the few people who could shake Lois out of a bad mood and get her to laugh, many times at herself.

She liked to tease him, and even in the beginning when it wasn't so good-natured he took it with grace, and gave back as good as he got. For all the frustrating times that he had to run off on her with some lame excuse, no one had ever been there for Lois like Clark had. The last year had seen many times when Lois found herself in frightening or stressful situations. But Clark had always been there for her. If only just to hold her hand and tell her he wouldn't let anything happen to her. The funny thing was, even though it was Superman who saved her when she would get thrown off the roofs of buildings, when Clark would reassure her, she believed him.

And the other day, when Clark came over with the news that the police had identified the latest victim as Lucy, he had stayed. He hadn't tried to tell her things would be all right, or any other hollow words of sympathy. He knew what she'd needed. He just held her while she broke down, as she had to. She fell apart, but he'd been there to hold the pieces together.

Lois had friends, several of them. But the awful truth was, there were really only two people who really knew her, Lucy and Clark. Now that Lucy was gone, that left only Clark.

The last few weeks Lois had been wondering about what it was that she really felt for Clark. She called him her best friend, which he was. But was he more than that? The idea was scary, so Lois tended to avoid it and fall back into her comfortable status quo. Hero worship the fantasy that probably could never be, and take for granted the friendship she had with Clark.

The last couple of days had really begun to galvanize her thinking. It made her realize how important Clark was to her. She wasn't sure if she could call her feelings for Clark love, and she wasn't sure she wanted to. What she was sure of, was she now couldn't imagine her life without Clark in it. Lois had always prided herself in being a strong, independent woman who didn't need anybody. Well, she was willing to amend that now. She needed Clark, and the fear over the possibility that he might be lost to her too was tearing her up inside.

The chime of the elevator announced its arrival on the newsroom floor. Lois anxiously turned to watch, waiting for the door to open. Please let it be Clark, she silently prayed. It wasn't.


Lex Luthor strolled down the ramp and approached Lois. He leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. "Hello, Lois. I was in this part of town today and I took the chance that you might be in. I know that you must still be hurting. I thought you might like some company." Lex gave her his version of a sympathetic look. "Perhaps we could have lunch together a little later?"

Lois was a bit flustered by Lex's arrival. Her devastation over Lucy's death and her fear and worry over Clark's disappearance had pushed all thoughts of Lex from her mind these last couple of days. She didn't know if she could handle being with Lex just now.

"Ah, I'm not sure if I can, Lex. I need to…" Suddenly Lois saw her chance to stall as she noticed Sid Loomis walking nearby. "Oh, Lex, there is someone I want you to meet." She raised her hand and called out to Loomis. "Sid, oh, Sid, could you come over here for a moment?"

Lois simulated a smile as Loomis came over. "Lex, I want to introduce you to the newest member of the Daily Planet reporting staff, Sidney Loomis." Lois placed her hand on Loomis' arm while Lex appeared to suddenly take a genuine interest in the man in front of him. "Sid," Lois continued, unaware of Lex's sudden interest. "This is my — friend, Lex Luthor."

"Whoa, it's a real pleasure to meet you, Mr. Luthor. I didn't know that Lois kept company with Metropolis' most renowned philanthropist." 'Loomis' offered his hand.

Lex's look was calculating as he briefly took, and shook, the hand offered him. "How do you do, Mr. Loomis. I do believe I am familiar with some of your work already." Just a hint of a smile touched the corners of Lex's mouth. "I'm sure before all is said and done, you'll definitely leave your mark on the Daily Planet."

"Thank you Mr. Luthor, that is very kind of you to say so." Dutcher felt uncomfortable under Luthor's hard gaze. He felt somehow exposed. He needed to get away from this cryptic billionaire. "If you two would excuse me, I must get back to my story if I'm to be employed long enough to make that mark you suggested." With a quick smile, he was gone.

"This is new," Lex said, fingering Lois' short tresses. "I think I like it. The style suits you somehow."

Lois grinned weakly. "Thanks, I cut it for a disguise. I told you I was going to go undercover, and with the Star splashing my picture all over their front page, I figured I needed something beyond a pair of glasses and a hat."

Lex nodded. "Logical, and I have to admit that I'm surprised at the professional nature of the job you did. I would think it'd be quite difficult to cut one's own hair."

Lois' face fell. "Actually, Clark did it."

Lex didn't miss the look of anguish on Lois' face, nor the slight tremor in her voice. Checking first to see that no one was using the conference room, Lex placed his hand on Lois' back and steered her toward the empty room. Once inside, he indicated that she should sit down. He closed the door and came and sat next to her.

"Okay, Lois, I know you better than you think. You're upset about something, and I'm betting that it has something to do with your partner." Lex placed his hand over Lois' hand. "Did you and Kent have a fight?"

Lois' lip was getting a work out as she stared at the table top for a moment. She raised her eyes to meet Lex's gaze. "No, it's just that Clark seems to be missing." Lois' eyes began to mist. "Oh, Lex, I'm so worried. I can't seem to locate him anywhere. With all these horrible murders, I'm scared that he might be…"

Lois couldn't bring herself to verbalize her fears. She dropped her head to stare at her hands, so she missed the hopeful look that came over Lex's face. By the time she was composed enough to look back at Lex, he'd been able to school himself, and paste on an artificial look of concern.

"I'm sure you have nothing to worry about, but…" Lex picked up Lois' hand and gave it a squeeze. "But if the worst should happen, you must know that there would have been nothing you could have done, and you must be strong. Strong enough to carry on."

Lois pulled back, giving Lex a look of puzzlement. She wondered if this was what he considered comforting her. "You don't understand, Lex, Clark is my partner, and my best friend. With Lucy gone, I don't know how I could survive without him." Lois' voice faded to a hoarse whisper. "I'd be all alone."

Lex pulled her hand up to his lips and kissed it. "You'll never be alone, Lois. You will always have me. You already have my heart."

Lex took a breath and decided that this might be a good time to spring his surprise. Lex reached into his jacket pocket for the small velvet box that resided there. He'd brought the ring along with him today. It had been his intention to take Lois out to a quiet, intimate lunch, and ask her to marry him. He knew that she'd not be able to answer him right away. There were to many things happening to her at the moment. But he wanted her aware of the possibility. As her world crumbled around her, Lex wanted her to know that he would be there for her. Once the Planet was destroyed, and her friends were all either dead or scattered to the winds, she'd have to turn to him as the only safe port left in the terrible storm that her life had become. Lex was mildly amused by the bewildered look on Lois' face. She obviously hadn't been expecting him to express such feelings to her. He toyed with the little velvet box, but never took it out of his pocket.

Lois was stunned, and a bit confused by Lex's pronouncement. It seemed to suggest that he had feelings for her that were stronger than she had originally thought. Did he actually love her? Was Lex Luthor even capable of that kind of selfless emotion? They had fun together, but did Lex see it as something more, or was she reading too much into his simple statement?

Lois' thoughts were interrupted by movement she peripherally sighted outside the conference room. She glanced over and her heart skipped a beat as she watched Jimmy bring another package into Perry White's office.

"No!" She leapt to her feet and rushed out of the room, leaving a perplexed Luthor to follow along as best as he could.

Lois burst into Perry's office and came to a sudden halt a foot in front of his desk. A plain wrapped package, about the size of a shirt box, sat there. Tears began to slide from the corners of Lois eyes. She looked at Perry.

"Open it." Her voice was quiet but intense.

Perry shook his head. "Now, darlin', I've already called Inspector Henderson and I think we should wait till he gets here."

"I think that would be a good idea, Lois." Lex had come up behind her and laid his hands on her shoulders.

She shook off her touch. "No, I have to know!" The ferocity in her voice was almost scary.

Lois reached a shaking hand toward the innocuous package on her boss' desk. She fumbled some at first, but in moments she had the plain outer wrap off. Her palsied hands took two tries to get enough of a grip to be able to pull the cover off the box. Everyone held their breath as the contents were revealed.

Inside was a fuzzy pink sweater with a shiny script A over the left breast. Lois found herself expelling a huge breath of relief, only to immediately feel guilt. She was enormously relieved to find out that it wasn't anything of Clark's in that box. She'd been given a reprieve, her knees became weak and she wasn't sure how it was she was still standing. Clark was still missing, but someone else had died. She wasn't any closer to finding the killer than she had been after Lucy's death, and now he'd struck again.

Jimmy, who'd been hanging back, leaned in for a closer look. "Oh no," he moaned piteously. "That's Angela's sweater."

Perry looked at Jimmy questioningly. "Whose Angela?"

Jimmy shook his head and sighed. "You remember, Chief. She's that new girl you hired a few weeks ago. She does research and that Kid's Korner page in the Sunday supplement."

Perry nodded. "Yeah, now I remember. Damn, she seemed like a real nice kid." There were tears in Perry's eyes. "When is this nightmare going to end?"


(Chapter Fourteen)

Lois sat in front of her computer, staring at the brightly lit screen, but not seeing any of the words written there. She was in shock. Lex had asked her to marry him! Well he hadn't exactly asked her, but his meaning was clear.

Lois took a breath and replayed the events of the last few hours in her mind. She had been relieved the packages that had arrived heralding yet another murder didn't point to Clark as the latest victim. She had also been sickened to find out that yet another innocent young woman had fallen prey to the maniac and his twisted quest for vengeance. And Clark was still missing. Just because this latest murder victim hadn't been Clark didn't mean that Clark was necessarily safe. He may be a captive somewhere just waiting to be next.

Henderson had been on scene, along with a forensics team when the next two packages had arrived. They had been able to make a positive identification that the victim had indeed been the new girl, Angela, but they hadn't found any evidence that might lead them to the killer. Henderson, like Lois and Clark, was convinced that their man was Jeb Dutcher, but he seemed to have disappeared into thin air.

Lois had confronted the Inspector about the Star's headline, and the fact that Lucy had been identified on LNN as the previous victim of the 'Headsman' killer. He couldn't swear to it, but he doubted that the leak came from his office. He too asked Lois if she had managed to find any leads. She had to admit that she hadn't.

Henderson then told Lois that they'd be done with Lucy's body by tomorrow. The autopsy, and any other information they could glean from the body itself, would be completed by then. He asked Lois where she wanted Lucy's remains sent. She had given him the name of a local mortuary, and he'd told her he'd take care of contacting them, and arrange for them to come and get the body. She'd thanked him for that, and he left with his team. They still had a different body to find.

It was then that things began to get strange. Lex had hung around during the police investigation. He'd appeared very interested in what they seemed not to know. After Henderson left, Lex had suggested that he take Lois to lunch, that she needed a chance to unwind. Lois had to beg off. She couldn't imagine going to some restaurant to engage in some idle chatter over a meal she knew she couldn't eat anyway. It had just seemed wrong. She needed to be doing something — to find the killer — to find Clark.

Lex had then surprised her by leading her into the conference room and showing her the ring he had in his pocket. She had been stunned speechless. She'd just stood there and stared at him, the ring, then back to him. His smile had almost been shy and she still remembered his exact words.

"Lois," he'd said. "Don't say anything. I know that it's too soon, and that too many things have been happening for you to properly consider this now. This is a conversation we'll have later, once things have calmed down. I'm just showing you this now so that you know, that my feelings for you are real and no matter what happens I'll always be here for you. No matter how dark things might look, I want you to know that, and that together we can survive even the nightmare you find yourself in at this time." He then had kissed Lois chastely on the lips, and left, leaving Lois to stare numbly after him.

Lois' computer screen timed out and the abrupt switch to her screen saver jolted her back to the present. Her emotions were in turmoil. Lucy's death was still a pain that tore at her heart and she continued to feel the ache of her loss. Clark's disappearance fueled her fear. Fear for his safety, and fear of an emptiness that threatened to overwhelm her if she should lose him too. Lex just left her confused.

She was confused by Lex's motives in telling her now of his plans to ask her to marry him. She was confused by what she thought she felt for him. She was confused by what she might feel for him, if the worst case scenario should come to pass.

Lois clenched her fists once, then shut off her computer, grabbed a pencil and a pad of paper, and with a determined look, headed for the conference room. She wasn't going to wallow around in her self-pity any longer. It was time to remember who she was, and begin to find out some answers for herself.

The first thing to resolve was Lex. She plunked herself down and drew a line down the center of the pad of paper. It was a tried and true method Lois had for helping her make tough decisions. She made lists. While the lists in themselves weren't really important, the process of writing things out in black and white helped her focus on what was and wasn't important. At the top of one column she put Clark, on the top of the other she put Lex.

She began to write down qualities that were attractive to her under each name. They were both handsome men, but Lois had to give Clark an extra plus there. Of the men she actually knew, only Superman was better looking than Clark. Lex was rich, while Clark was just a struggling reporter like she was. Still, Lois was never that motivated by money so the only extra points that gave Lex was the money's ability to open certain doors for her that might otherwise be closed.

Clark had a fun sense of humor. While Lex was pleasant and charming, Lois just didn't see Lex cracking jokes or engaging in good natured teasing. Clark was kind and probably the most compassionate man she knew, next to Superman, of course. Lex was a giving person, as evidenced by his philanthropic activities, but he was also a ruthless business man. Lois was under no illusions about that. Luthor had admitted to her that he'd done some things he wasn't particularly proud of in pursuit of his goals. Which was possibly why Clark was so negative about Lex. Clark was from the country, and more than a bit naive about the ways of the big city, or the workings of the corporate board rooms of the world. Clark didn't believe in the dog eat dog philosophy that permeated the real world. It actually was one of his charms.

As Lois continued her list, Lex did quite well, but Clark seemed to be pulling away in many of the categories that Lois felt important. Finally it came down to 'the' question. Did she love Lex? — No, she knew she didn't love him. That was why his surprise with the ring earlier had been such a shock. She never entertained the notion that he might be in love with her, or, at least, have strong enough feelings for her that he'd want to marry her. She was still unsure what love really meant to a person like Lex.

Could she love Lex? She pursed her lips as she thought hard on that one. She looked over the upper parts of her list under his name and had to admit that Lex would be a good catch in any woman's book. But if push came to shove, could Lois see herself growing old with Lex? She let her mind wander back to the few dates that they'd had so far. They had been story book affairs, no, more like text book. He had wined and dined her at elegant restaurants and had entertained her by taking her to plays and the opera. She had adorned his arm at Gala events, and even though he didn't ignore her at those functions, Lois got the impression that Lex was more interested in being seen there, than in being with her. Lucy was right, Lois couldn't see herself sitting around on a Saturday afternoon just talking about nothing in particular, or ordering in a pizza and watching old videos with Lex. That was something you did with a friend. While it might be possible to consider Lex as a lover, Lois didn't see how she could consider him as her friend. And if Lois was ever to decide to take that fateful walk down the aisle, she wanted it to be with a man who could be both.

Lois let the pencil doodle on Clark's half of the paper. Did she love Clark? Maybe. She'd been wrestling with that thought for a few days now. Clark was her best friend and she loved him in that regard, but was there more? She'd once told him that she loved him like a brother. But that wasn't true. The truth was, she never had a brother so she didn't know how to compare it. She knew she felt comfortable around Clark like she had with no other man. He was the first partner she could stand to work with. And she often found herself telling him things about her that she wouldn't dream of sharing with any other 'friend'.

Now was the moment of truth for Lois. Could she love Clark?

Suddenly a knock on the conference room door startled Lois. She quickly gathered her pad, and tore off the pages she'd been writing on and crumpled them in her hand.

Linda King poked her head into the room. "I'm sorry to bother you, Lois, but have you seen Clark today? I needed to ask him something."

Lois took a deep breath. It was time to settle something else. "Please come in, Linda, and sit down. We need to talk."

A confused and wary Linda walked over and sat in a chair across the table from Lois. "What do you need, Lois?"

Tapping the end of the pencil against the table top, Lois plunged ahead. "Okay, I don't think we will ever be friends again, and that's fine. You say you are going to prove that you're a good reporter? That's all right too. I welcome the challenge, but right now I need your help." Lois licked her lips once. "Tell me when was the last time you saw Clark."

"Yesterday morning we talked," Linda answered, still unsure where Lois was leading. "He and Jimmy were talking. Jimmy let it slip that you were undercover. I pressured Clark and he explained what you were doing."

"So much for it being a secret." Lois couldn't help but mutter.

"Come on, Lois, that's not fair." Linda defended Clark. "He then told me that it was Lucy who had been murdered. I was shocked. Lois, I truly am sorry about Lucy."

Lois nodded. "I know. You have to realize what I've been going through these last few days."

Linda returned her nod. "I can only imagine." Linda took a breath. "So, anyway that was the last time I talked to him. I saw him a couple of times later that morning, but I don't think I saw him in the afternoon at all." Linda searched Lois' face for a reaction. "Why do you want to know?"

Lois sighed and closed her eyes briefly before meeting Linda's gaze. "Clark is missing."

Linda frowned. "What do you mean, missing? Why do you think that?" Linda wrinkled her brow in thought. "Lois, it's been less than twenty four hours since *I* saw him last."

"That's true, but Clark promised to get in touch with me last night. We were going to discuss what I found out and what our next move should be."

Linda shrugged. "So, he got tied up with something. Maybe he just forgot."

Lois just shook her head. "You don't know Clark. If he said he was going to contact me, he would. He made it clear he was worried about me, and beyond finding out if I'd had any luck finding our killer, he'd want to know I was safe."

Linda bit her fingernail as she nodded. "Yeah, I guess you're right. That does sound like Clark, and I'll admit you do know him better than I do. Did you call him… forget I said that, of course you called him." Linda met Lois' eyes. "You're afraid for him, aren't you?"

Lois frowned at the obvious question. "I can't get a hold of him, no one has seen him since yesterday, and we have a madman on the loose who enjoys beheading Daily Planet reporters. What do you think?"

Linda sucked in her lip. "You don't think… " Her hands flew to her mouth. "Oh, Lois, what you must have thought when that first package arrived today."

"That's my problem. If the killer doesn't have him, and I continue to pray that he doesn't, where is he?" Lois jotted a number down on a scrap piece of paper from her pad. "Here is my cell phone number. If you hear anything please call me — anytime, day or night."

"Okay, Lois, I will." Linda gave Lois a searching look. "I understand your concern for your friend and partner, Lois, but you seem pretty shook up and Clark has only been out of touch for less than a day."

Lois stood, and smiled sadly at Linda. "You wouldn't understand." Lois turned and quietly left the room.

Linda stared at the door for several moments after Lois exited. "Oh, I think I do, Lois. I think I understand very well."

*** Lois was upset. Why was her world crumbling around her, she wondered. She sat at the couch in Clark's apartment staring at several photocopies of Jeb Dutcher's picture that Henderson had given Superman. She had decided that she couldn't go home to her apartment, not knowing. If Clark was just out somewhere, returning a video he rented in China or some other ridiculous reason for his being gone, he'd have to come home sooner or later. And she was going to be here.

A call to Henderson hadn't provided her with anything encouraging in either their search for Dutcher, or about Clark. Henderson had been mildly alarmed to hear that Clark couldn't be accounted for, but he'd tried to assure Lois that it was still a little too early for serious worry, especially given that Dutcher had already provided another victim. Lois didn't think Henderson sounded all that confident himself.

Before she'd left the Planet Perry had called another impromptu meeting to deliver more bad news. As of tomorrow, the Daily Planet was going to just be a morning paper. The evening edition was being suspended, indefinitely. There wasn't enough ad revenue to support both editions. Even though Perry didn't have to mention it, she knew that lay offs in the plant and press rooms were inevitable.

It was sadly ironic. Some people who worked for the Daily Planet were losing their jobs, but there weren't enough reporters to properly cover the news because many had quit. And a few, so far, had been killed. It was a nightmare, and Lois was afraid the dreaming wasn't over yet.

Trying to keep her mind off her fear for Clark, she arranged several of the photocopies of Dutcher out on the coffee table in front of her. She began to doodle on them with her pencil. On one she put a beard and moustache. On another, she penciled in long hair. On yet another she drew in some glasses, then laughed at herself. As if a simple pair of glasses would be enough of a disguise. Lois, she thought to herself, you are losin' it.

She tried various combinations of things until she ran out of photocopies. The version with glasses and a moustache looked vaguely familiar, but then so did other versions. The one with beard looked like a local TV anchorman, and the one with long hair looked like her cousin Arnie. In frustration Lois pushed all the photocopies off the table to the floor and threw the pencil across the room.

She leaned back against the back of the couch and stared up at the ceiling. Tears began to spill freely from her eyes. She made a couple of feeble attempts, wiping at them with the back of her hand. She finally gave up and let the waterworks flow.

"Oh Clark, where are you? Please come home."

*** (Chapter Fifteen)

It was a soul weary Superman who approached Metropolis. The sun had long set. He'd spent nearly thirty six hours in Santiago fighting what was mostly a futile battle against the destructive forces of mother nature. In all fairness, thanks to his special abilities many folks would live to see another sunrise. With his super help, thousands had been rescued from either a lingering, painful death, or serious crippling injury. But thousands more had been beyond his help. It had been mostly his awful task to assist the emergency workers in removing, and shifting debris in order to bring forth the dead. So many dead.

A heartfelt sigh escaped Superman's lips as the night lights of Metropolis and his own neighborhood came into view. He was worn out both physically and mentally. Being unable to help so many had taken an emotional toll on him. He was looking forward to a hot shower and a couple hours of sleep before he slipped back into his life as Clark Kent.

He frowned as his thoughts turned to his life as Clark Kent. Things right now were very chaotic. The dreadful murders of Cat and Eduardo had been a terrible blow. The mistaken murder of Lucy Lane, which had devastated Lois, had added an extra element of pain to the situation. It was frustrating for him, and Lois, to know who the killer was but to not be able to do much about it. Jeb Dutcher was nowhere to be found.

Thoughts of Lois brought forth additional guilt on his part. Clark knew that he was supposed to have gotten in touch with Lois last night to go over what she might have found out during her undercover stint. The fact that he'd not been able to leave any sort of message bothered him. He figured that Lois had probably been upset with his lack of contact. She was often angered by his 'mysterious disappearances', and this was just another case where he'd have to make up some excuse as to why he hadn't been there.

As Clark got closer to his apartment, he pulled up and hung in the air high above Clinton Avenue. A light was on in his apartment, and he knew that he had not left it on. A quick survey showed him that Lois was sitting on his couch. There were papers scattered all over the floor and the television was tuned to LNN.

Lois' legs were curled up under her and her head was resting on the cushions of the back of the couch. She was asleep, but her face was all red and blotchy, like she had been crying. An icy chill struck Clark as he wondered if someone else had been killed while he was away.

He landed quietly in the alley behind his place and spun into his Clark Kent clothes. Approaching his apartment through the front entrance, Clark carefully opened his outer door. Stepping inside, he saw Lois stir. Apparently his actions had woke her.

"Lois?" He asked, as if surprised to see her there.

Lois stretched protesting muscles as something roused her from her impromptu nap. She turned as she heard her name called out. Her eyes went wide and relief flooded her heart as she saw an obviously exhausted Clark Kent standing just inside his front door.


Clark barely had time to prepare himself as the tiny whirlwind launched herself from the couch and threw herself into his arms. She hugged him fiercely, as if she were afraid he'd disappear if she let go. She buried her head into his chest.

"Oh, Clark, I was so afraid," Lois moaned into his shirt front. "I thought I had lost you too." Lois leaned back and looked into Clark's face, tears beginning fall once again. "Where were you!"

Clark stood, stunned, looking down at the anguish in his partner's face. Suddenly it dawned on him that Lois wasn't just upset with his not calling her, but had actually been worried about him.

"I'm sorry if I worried you, Lois," Clark began in a contrite tone. "I was down in Chile."


"Yeah," Clark made a weak gesture toward the television, which was still showing footage from the earthquake. "Superman came to me just before he went down there and asked me if I'd like to go with him. You know, to get a first hand report of the disaster for the paper." Clark tried to shrug apologetically but it came off indecisive. "I know I should have tried to call you, or let someone know where I was going, but it was such a spur of the moment decision, and I didn't know that I'd be gone so long."

"You couldn't have taken a few moments once you were there to call back here and let people know? Do you know how much your friends are worried about what might have happened to you? Do you know how much *I* was worried about what might have happened to you?"

Clark's eyes mirrored an understanding. "I realize that now, but in my defense, communications were in chaos down there, and once I was faced with all the destruction and devastation…"

Lois pulled herself out of Clark's embrace. "Don't tell me — Clark Kent, humanitarian and all around nice guy couldn't help himself. All thoughts of interviews and the story were forgotten as you threw yourself into helping out with the rescue efforts." Lois managed a wry smile through her tears. "I'll bet you were side by side with Superman most of the time."

Clark blushed, and stared at his hands. "Well, yeah, I guess you could say that."

Lois paced a few feet away from Clark before turning to face him again. "You couldn't have managed to get on the LNN cameras, just to let the people back home know where you were and that you were all right?"

Clark stared at his feet as Lois continued. "Dammit, Clark, I want to be angry with you, I *need* to be angry with you. But how can I stay angry with someone who commits such unselfish acts of compassion and aid?" Lois sniffed back another tear. "Do you know what I've been going through this past day? The only thing that kept going through my mind was that Dutcher had gotten you and that I had lost you too. I've been scared witless ever since you didn't call me like you said you would."

The realization of what Lois was saying washed through Clark like a feeling of nausea. It sickened him to think that he had caused her such pain. He really should have known that people might worry given the situation regarding the Daily Planet. Lois would have been especially sensitive given what had happened to her own sister, Lucy. A part of Clark was secretly buoyed by the fact that Lois seemed to be this worried over his well being, but mostly he was just ashamed of his thoughtlessness.

"Lois, I — I don't know what to say. I'm sorry."

"I know you are." Lois' smile was sad, but understanding. "But that doesn't change what I suffered while you were gone."

"Are you going to be okay?" Clark asked hesitantly.

"No, not yet anyway," Lois answered truthfully. "So much has happened in these last twenty four hours. I've been forced to face fears and examine feelings that I swore I never would again. I didn't know where to turn. My sister was dead, and then it looked like my best friend was going to wind up the same way." Lois began to pace. "When I saw that first package come to Perry's desk this morning…"

Clark reached out a hand and stopped Lois. "What? There was another package? Has there been another murder?"

Lois faced him and nodded, biting her lip. "Yeah, a new girl. Someone named Angela. I never caught her last name."

Clark closed his eyes briefly in pain. "I think that's the new girl who Jimmy had a crush on."

Lois sighed. "Yeah, from his reaction, I think you're right. Jimmy seemed pretty shook up."

Clark led Lois over to the couch and they both sat down. "Are you up to filling me in on what has happened while I was away?"

Lois took a deep breath and then commenced to fill Clark in on what she'd been going through over the last day and a half. She began with the worry that began to build when he didn't contact her, and how it increased as she continually failed to reach him. Clark tried to again apologize then, but Lois waved him off and plunged ahead with her story. She told Clark of her shock over hearing and seeing Lucy's name splashed about the media as a victim of the 'Headsman' murders. Clark had no more idea as to who might have leaked Lucy's name to the press than Lois did, but both agreed that it was only a matter of time till the information would have gotten out anyway.

Lois was chagrined to admit to Clark that her undercover plan had been a bust. She hadn't learned anything useful, beyond the fact that some reporters took awfully long lunches, in her time spent watching the Planet and the surrounding areas. She spoke of her talks with Perry and Jimmy. And how they both tried to reassure her that he'd probably show up soon. She mentioned her conversation with Henderson, and how he had no new leads to offer them. She even mentioned her chat with Linda. Clark had raised his brow at the mention of her name but didn't interrupt.

Lois paused. She had purposely left out the visit from Lex. She knew it would upset Clark. She wrung her hands and bit on her lip as she turned it over in her mind. Should she tell him, or should she just keep it to herself.

Clark noticed her hesitation. "Lois, was there anything else that I should know?"

Lois frowned, then made her decision. "Well, Lex was there."


"Yeah, he said he was in that part of town and thought I might want to go to lunch. He said it would give me a chance to get away and unwind a bit."

"How did Lex know you were at the Planet? How did he know you weren't the murder victim?" Clark wondered aloud.

Lois blushed, embarrassed. "Well, I told him." Lois saw the look of disapproval on Clark's face and rushed to defend her decision. "He called me that morning. He was worried about me. I didn't see any harm in telling him that it wasn't me that had been killed. I told him what had happened and what I was planning to do." Lois gave Clark a defiant look. "After all, the man cares about me."

Clark snorted derisively. "Lex Luthor only cares about one person, Lex Luthor."

Lois felt her anger rise to the bait. "Really — if that's true then why did he ask me to marry him?"

Clark stood up in shock. "What! He asked you to marry him?"

Lois felt herself just a bit intimidated by the fervor in Clark's tone. "Well, he didn't exactly ask me to marry him right there," she responded somewhat defensively. "He showed me an engagement ring and told me not to say anything right then, that we would have that discussion later, after things had settled down. The meaning was clear. At some point in the near future he plans to ask me to marry him."

"Why would he bring it up at all? Considering all that you were and are going through, the timing seems suspicious. How did he even know that you'd be at the Planet if he knew you were investigating undercover?" Clark's frown deepened.

Lois shrugged. "I don't know, I suppose he read about it in the Star. He knew that I was hurting over my sister's death, and he knew I was worried about you. He said he just wanted me to know that, no matter what happened, he'd be there for me."

Clark ran his hand through his hair. "I don't get it. What is Luthor's angle?"

Lois stared at her partner, her anger not abating. "Is it so hard to believe that someone could want to marry me?"

Clark stopped and turned to face Lois. The look of hurt on her face caused him pain. "No, of course not. I'm surprised you're not beating off suitors with a club all the time. I just don't trust Luthor." Clark's mouth was set in a tight line. "You can't possibly consider marrying him?"

"I can't?" Lois answered dangerously.

Clark came over and sat next to Lois. He took her hand in his own. "Lois, please, I beg of you. Luthor is not the man you think he is." Clark's voice took on an unusual fire. "I know that to most of the world he's this successful, philanthropic billionaire. He has wit and charm, and has the power to shake the largest corporations to their foundations. But he has a much darker side, a side the public never sees. He will only hurt you, Lois."

Lois studied Clark's face intently. She was well aware of Clark's enmity for Lex. She had always chalked it up to either envy, or some sort of jealous rivalry that Clark had manufactured in his mind. But as she stared at her partner, she saw more. She saw more than concern for her. She saw fear. This was another thing that needed to be sorted out, now.

"Does this have something to do with Superman? Has he told you something about Lex that you aren't willing to share with me?"

Clark stared at his hands not saying anything.


Reluctantly, Clark began to speak. "Do you remember back when it seemed like Superman was being run through a series of tests? It happened shortly after he came onto the scene, and *incidents* appeared to be staged to measure his speed, strength, invulnerability, and such. You were even hurt by some debris from that explosion." Clark waited for Lois' nod before continuing. "Well, Superman was pretty shook up by that. He received veiled threats that if he didn't leave town, things might happen such that he wouldn't be able to be on time to stop them. It was pointed out that he couldn't be everywhere at once."

Clark took a breath to steady himself. He didn't like remembering that time. "Superman was ready to give up. He almost left town rather than risk any more lives in the dangerous cat and mouse game that was being played out. He suspected Luthor and confronted him about it. Luthor practically admitted being behind the *tests*. Superman told Luthor that he wasn't fooled by his public image and that Luthor had better watch his step because he, Superman would be keeping his eye on him."

Lois' eyes had widened as she listened to Clark's words. "So, how did Lex respond to Superman's accusations?"

Clark frowned. "He said, 'Let the games begin'."

Lois' frown now matched Clark's. "So, why didn't Superman ever tell me this?"

Clark shrugged helplessly. "I don't know, Lois, it was Luthor's word against his. Luthor was considered Metropolis' leading citizen. Superman was this alien from another world who people didn't know very well. For all his good deeds to date, tell me, who would the people of Metropolis believe?"

Lois wasn't sure what to think, but she knew that Clark definitely believed what he was telling her. "Were there other incidents?"

Clark nodded his head grimly. "Oh yes, there were several. Superman's pretty sure the Luthor was behind the Messenger sabotage and the death of Dr. Baines. And doesn't it seem just a bit odd that in our investigations of those cyborg fighters your father was involved with, our exploration of the south side and the Metro gang, and even our run in with those super smart orphans, Lex always seemed to be around somewhere?"

"Yeah, but…" Lois couldn't think of any answer.

"Remember the heat wave that almost drove Superman out of town? You found out that it was Luthor's nuclear plant leaking that was causing the problem. What if the leak wasn't accidental? What if it was another attempt by Luthor to get rid of Superman?"

Lois' voice was soft, barely above a whisper. "So, again, I ask, why didn't he tell *me* about it?"

Clark nervously played with the edge of the couch cushion. "Lois, you are an intelligent, investigative reporter. You've seen Luthor for years as this great benefactor of your city. You'd need proof, and Superman had none. While Luthor may have enjoyed taunting Superman to his face, he was too clever to ever let any of his involvement in these things get traced back to him. Also, later on, you seemed to be becoming romantically involved with Luthor."

Lois bit he lip. "Okay, fair enough. I understand that Superman might be unwilling to make any accusations he couldn't back up with proof, but why didn't you tell me? You're my best friend."

Clark let his gaze fall to the floor. He couldn't look at Lois. "I didn't think it was my place to do so." His head snapped back up. "But I did try to warn you that Luthor was not who he appeared to be. I asked you to be careful around him."

Lois laughed mirthlessly. "Sure you did, but you refused to tell me why. Don't you know me well enough by now to know how I'm going to react to something like that, when you won't give me any proof, when you just sound like you're jealous of me going out with Lex?" Lois reached over and placed her hand on Clark's knee. "So, why are you telling me now?"

"Because things have changed. I cannot stand by and let you marry Luthor. Even if it should destroy the friendship we have, I care too much about you to let you make that mistake without trying to prevent it." Clark took a deep breath. "Tell me you won't accept his proposal, Lois."

Lois' mind was awhirl with conflicting thoughts. She didn't know what to think of Clark's accusations. They still sounded like paranoid jealousy, and she might have dismissed them as such if they had just come from Clark himself, but this was stuff that Superman supposedly told Clark. Having watched Clark closely as he was talking, Lois knew that he was telling her the truth. She knew that he wouldn't lie to her, not about something this important, and not now.

She patted his knee a couple of times. "Clark, he hasn't even really asked me yet, and even if he does I'd have to say no." Lois held her hand up to forestall any comment from him as she saw Clark's face light up. "And it's not just because of what you've told me here tonight, though it is something that I will have to think long and hard on. No, I could never accept Lex's proposal because I don't love him." Lois allowed herself to flop back against the back of the couch. "Oh it's been pretty heady stuff having someone as rich and powerful as Lex ask little ol' me out on dates, and I will admit that we often had wonderful times together." Lois turned and met Clark's eyes. "But when you come right down to it, Lex just isn't my type."

Clark expelled a sigh of relief. "Lois, you don't know how glad…"

Lois placed her finger over Clark's lips. "I need for you answer me one question. I don't want any long explanations or rationalizations. I don't want any reasons, or any excuses. I just want a yes or no answer." Lois took a deep breath, then plunged ahead. "Do you love me?"

Clark was surprised by the question. It was no secret around the Planet that Clark Kent was smitten by his beautiful partner, and Lois had to know that he had feelings for her beyond mere friendship. She just refused to acknowledge them because it would upset the relationship with him she had built in her mind. So why was she asking him now he wondered. Did this latest scare cause her to somehow change her mind about him? Did the thought that she might lose him force her to reevaluate their friendship? Or was it just the proposal from Lex that made her want to know where she stood with him.

To his credit, Clark never hesitated. "Yes."

Lois nodded, a single tear traced one of the already dried tracks from before. "Thank you."

Clark stared silently at Lois until she blushed and turned her head away. "Dare I ask you the same question?"

Lois answered with a covert smile and a slight shake of her head. "I think not. Someone told me not too long ago that a man's got to have some secrets. The same is true of a woman. I think this is one that I'll just keep to myself for the time being."

Clark responded with a smile of his own. "Fair enough. Tell you what, Lois, when it comes to you, I only have one real secret left — now. When you're ready to tell me yours, I'll be ready to tell you mine."

Lois gave Clark a coy look. "Does yours have anything to do with your relationship with a certain spandex clad friend of ours?"

Clark shook his finger at her. "Uh uh, no fair prodding. When you are ready to share yours, I'll tell you mine. Deal?"

Lois leaned in and gave Clark a quick kiss on the lips. "Deal."

Again Clark was surprised by Lois' actions. She was beginning to act like he'd always dreamed she would. He was a bit confused. He didn't know whether to be encouraged that Lois might be experiencing a change in attitude toward him, or if it was just the feeling of relief she had now that she knew he was all right. He pushed those thoughts aside for the moment. He'd have time for them later.

Clark grabbed Lois' hands and helped her to her feet. "Okay then, what are all these papers all over the floor?" Clark indicated the scattered photocopies that Lois had pushed off the coffee table earlier.

"Oh those," Lois barely looked at them. "We can worry about them tomorrow. Right now, it's gotten quite late, and I'm tired. We both need to get some sleep if we are to find Dutcher before he strikes again, and takes the Daily Planet down with him."

Clark nodded as he put his arm around Lois' shoulder. "You're right, I'll walk you to your car, and…"

Lois pulled out from under his grasp. "Nope, you are going to get me a pillow and a blanket. I plan on staying right here on this couch tonight."


"Clark, you still don't realize what I went through these last several hours when I didn't know where you were." She flopped down on the couch. "I don't plan to let you out of my sight until this maniac is caught and behind bars."

"Lo-is, you are welcome to stay if you like, but aren't you over-reacting just a little?" Clark stared bemusedly at his determined partner.

Lois arched her brow at Clark. "Oh, so it's all right for you to worry about me, and my safety, but it's not all right for me to worry about yours?" They stared at each other for several moments without speaking. "Are you going to get me that pillow, or am I going to have to raid your bedroom myself?"

Clark threw up his hands and headed for his bedroom to find some extra bedding. There was no arguing with Lois when she was like this, and he wasn't sure that he wanted to. It worked both ways. If Lois thought she was going to stick by him to make sure that he was safe, then he'd always know where she was and it would be easier to keep her safe. If Superman were needed, he'd find a way to deal with that at the time. Given all that had been said here tonight Clark had a lot to think about, and being close to Lois for however long it took could prove to be very interesting.


(Chapter Sixteen)

Dutcher leaned back in the plush recliner that Sidney Loomis had saved up so long to buy. It was very comfortable. All the lights in the apartment were off but he could still see the lighted face of the clock in the kitchen through the open doorway. It was late, but Dutcher didn't feel sleepy just yet. It had been a very interesting day, and he needed to mull over the new information he managed to uncover.

It had been very satisfying to see the fruits of his labors in action. From a distance he had watched the tableau unfold as his 'little gifts' began to arrive at Perry White's desk. The shock, and horror on the faces of those in Perry's office were extremely gratifying. Watching how ineffectual the Metropolis Police Department was also caused him great satisfaction. But it was something that had happened a bit earlier that had really aroused his curiosity.

His run in with Lex Luthor had been, at first, disturbing. Luthor had a way about him that was hard to define. He seemed to exude danger. Dutcher had been quite puzzled by Luthor's words. They were so cryptic, and appeared to have a double meaning. The more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that Luthor knew something. That Luthor knew about him.

Initially, Dutcher had summarily dismissed that notion as paranoia. After all, why would someone like Lex Luthor know anything about him, or his agenda? And if he did, why wasn't he telling it to that police inspector the first chance he got?

Dutcher's thoughts had then flashed back to an incident that happened in prison a couple of years ago. One of the prisoners, newly arrived, was quite vocal about the fact that Lex Luthor was behind most of the big crime in Metropolis. He claimed to have worked for Luthor, did some dirty work for him, then been left to take the rap alone. The guy was trying to act like a big shot so most of the inmates ignored his ranting. A little over a week later the fellow was killed in a brawl that had erupted out in the yard. No one thought much of it at the time because that kind of thing happened all too frequently at New Troy State.

Now, in hindsight, it wouldn't be too hard to imagine that this 'chatty' inmate might have been seen as a threat, or at least a nuisance, and had been 'asked' to shut up… permanently. Dutcher, before his arrest, had been a good investigative reporter, one of the best. During that time he'd learned to trust his hunches and feelings about certain things. A good reporter develops a sixth sense that tips them off when things aren't as they appear. That sense had been buzzing all afternoon regarding Mr. Lex Luthor, billionaire philanthropist and power broker extrodinaire.

Dutcher had checked a few things out on his computer and had located a building across the way from the LexCorp Tower, with a vacancy that faced Luthor's building. Posing as a prospective renter, Dutcher had been taken to the small office space. While being shown around, Dutcher had surreptitiously jammed the deadbolt. After assuring the broker that he'd think about it, the two them left and Dutcher went back to the Planet to finish the latest article he'd been working on. He still needed to keep his cover intact.

He returned to that office later in the evening. Without the deadbolt engaged, the lock was ridiculously easy to pick. Any reporter worth their salt knew how to pick a standard lock, and some things you just didn't forget. It was like riding a bicycle, even after fifteen years the skill hadn't eluded him.

Once inside, Dutcher quickly located the proper window, and with the lights off, began his surveillance of the penthouse suite in the LexCorp Tower. He'd brought a good pair of binoculars, and a small telescope. There hadn't been enough time to secure anything more sophisticated.

For the first few hours Dutcher had to sit, bored out of his mind, watching Luthor conduct business either by phone, or on his computer. Didn't the man ever take a break, Dutcher had wondered. Finally, Luthor had stepped through the large glass doors that led out to his balcony, and in full view of Dutcher. Apparently Luthor was either just getting some air, or he was gazing over the city which he probably thought of as his. It was then that Dutcher's patience had been rewarded.

Luthor was joined on that patio by another man. A tall, stately looking fellow, with thinning white hair and a goatee. He was the quintessential image of a fine English gentleman. And he was someone who Dutcher knew only too well. He was the same man who had visited him the other night. The same man who had indicated that he knew who Dutcher was and what he was doing… and didn't care. In fact, he'd offered his assistance in return for the favors of not killing Lois Lane, and targeting Clark Kent as one of his victims.

The man had spoken to Dutcher about his employer having an interest in seeing Dutcher succeed in his — what had he called it — his mission. So, it was obvious to him that the mysterious employer was none other than Lex Luthor, Metropolis' number one son. The question was, why?

Dutcher allowed his head to sink into the pillow back on the chair as he mulled that question over. Some things were straightforward. It appeared that Luthor had some sort of feelings for Lois Lane, and therefore it was clear as to why he didn't want her killed. The fact that he wanted Clark Kent killed also made some sense when one considered the gossip around the Planet that rumored Kent's feelings for Lane went beyond mere friendship. There was even an office pool as to when the two of them would actually go out on a date.

Killing Kent was no problem for Dutcher. Aside from Lane, Kent was the best reporter at the Daily Planet. The team of Lane and Kent had been selling papers for the Planet for nearly a year. Destroying that team, and killing Kent, would very probably be the final push needed to send the Daily Planet toppling to its ruin. Too bad about Lane though, he thought. It would be nice to have succeeded there. He still wasn't sure, no matter what Luthor wanted, that he wouldn't try to correct that little error.

Knowing that Luthor was the man behind the nocturnal visitation had to be worth something. Not that Dutcher wasn't grateful for the little kryptonite present he'd been given, because he was. His one worry in all his plans was Superman. How did you counteract a force that couldn't be stopped? He'd figured that his best bet was to try and remain in hiding. And his hiding in plain sight had worked well so far. But he knew that he was messing with people who Superman had some sort of relationship with, especially Lane and Kent, who were thought to be friends of the Man of Steel. No, the kryptonite was definitely a nice piece of insurance.

But Luthor was a billionaire, a billionaire with a public image to maintain. That ought to be worth something. Dutcher hadn't really thought much past the completion of his vengeance. He'd been so focused on how to achieve his goal that he hadn't spent much time contemplating what he was going to do once he accomplished his mission. Mission, he liked that word. It made his vengeance seem noble in some way.

Now that it looked like he was close to the fulfillment of his 'mission' perhaps it was time to think about what he'd be doing once the Daily Planet fell. And the more he thought about it, the more he felt that Mr. Lex Luthor, billionaire, should play a part in it.

Dutcher forced himself out of the chair and headed for the bedroom of his 'borrowed' apartment. He'd have to give this more thought in the morning. He wondered what small tropical islands were going for these days.

*** Lois stared up at the shadows that played across the ceiling from the lights outside that leaked in around the curtains in Clark's apartment. She couldn't sleep. It wasn't that the couch was uncomfortable. In fact, quite the opposite, it was actually quite comfortable. Of course, Clark, had tried to play the chivalrous host and had offered her the bed. She had refused, claiming that the couch would be just fine for her. The fact that he hadn't argued with her had told her how tired he must have been. She could hear him gently snoring in the other room. She almost giggled at the thought of Clark snoring. The snoring was mild and wouldn't have kept her awake either. She couldn't sleep because she was too keyed up.

So much had come out tonight. She had been put through an emotional wringer, then had been overloaded with information, which she wasn't sure she was capable of assimilating just yet. It had been a roller coaster ride of an evening.

After spending hours trying to ignore the anguish she felt over not knowing where he was, or what might have happened to Clark, she had finally given in to the fear. It had been an emotional drain and her conviction that she had also lost Clark had taken her to depths of misery she didn't know she could reach. As low as her mood had reached, that was as high a feeling of elation and relief she experienced when she saw Clark walk through the door. She normally scoffed at such things, but she had to admit that she'd had an epiphany.

Amidst all the conflicting emotions that had been vying for her attention, the foremost thought in her mind was — she couldn't lose Clark again. Somehow, she, Lois Lane, had come to rely on the comforting pretense of her partner and best friend. Mad Dog Lane, fiercely independent top investigative reporter found out that she needed someone else to feel complete, and that someone was Clark Kent, mild-mannered farmboy from Kansas. And that mild-mannered farmboy loved her.

Lois had to admit that Clark's admission wasn't a total surprise. She had always known that he liked her. There had been times when she'd catch Clark staring at her. He was always considerate of her feelings, and his patience with her moods would rival that of Job. Not that he let her walk all over him, on many occasions he'd given as good as he got, but he was never mean, or cruel. Except for that one time, when he taught her a lesson after stealing his Superman story, and he'd sent her on that wild goose chase into the Metropolis Sewage Reclamation Plant. She still felt bad about that one. It seemed that Mad Dog Lane had met her match, when in reality she had just met someone she could respect.

But to know now, that he did love her gave her a feeling she couldn't quite describe. It made her feel both protected and liberated. It was a warm, comfortable feeling to know that someone loved her for who she was and not for whatever facade she had to create. Clark knew the real Lois Lane, good and bad, and he still said he loved her.

Her thoughts turned to her own feelings. She knew he'd turn the question around once he'd answered hers. Her little ploy with the 'secrets' thing had been merely a delaying tactic. In truth she still wasn't sure how she really felt about Clark. The givens were; he was her partner, the only one she'd ever been able to stand, and he was her best friend, who against her conscious will had managed to insinuate himself into her life. But was he more? She knew she wanted to love Clark. That was the revelation she'd had these last few days, the epiphany that she'd had. She could no longer imagine her life without Clark Kent in it. The point had been driven home when she thought she had lost him. She wanted Clark in her life. She needed Clark in her life. But did this mean she truly loved him?

It wasn't as if Clark would ever knowingly betray her, or use her for his own macho posturings. She knew that he wasn't like the other men she'd ever been romantically involved with. She trusted him to never knowingly hurt her.. It was herself she didn't trust. Did she even know what love was? If the men she had been intimate with in the past were any indication, her batting average for picking guys was right about zero. Given what Clark had told her about Luthor, she was right on average once again. Not that she and Lex had been intimate yet, but if things had continued to progress, they probably would have. The man was planning to ask her to marry him! Well, that wasn't going to happen now.

And what about Superman? Was he still in the equation, or was Lois willing to admit that the fantasy he represented was more alluring than the reality that he'd ever presented. Superman was an icon, the textbook version of the perfect man. Was he someone who could love a lowly common woman, and in turn be loved by her? Or was that what made him so attractive? It was safer to love an ideal than it was to love a real man, because the ideal could never hurt you. She knew she had undeniable feelings for the Man of Steel, but were those merely admiration and a school girl crush being mistaken for love?

Lois knew two things. Clark Kent loved her. And she wanted to love Clark Kent. Whether she was capable of love was what she needed the time to find the answer to. Her withholding her declaration under the pretense of being coy would give her the time, she hoped, to resolve her doubts and answer the question for herself before she had to answer it for Clark. Those thoughts and others like them were what danced around in Lois' brain until she tired enough to slip into a deep dreamless sleep.

*** Lois found herself being dragged from the depths of her pleasant sleep by the delicious odors which assailed her nose. She uncoiled from her position on the couch. Tossing the blanket aside her hand went immediately to her sleep mussed hair. Being shorter now it didn't recover so well from 'pillow hair'. She tried to smooth down the errant strands that stuck out at odd angles, and fluff up those spots that were smashed flat against her head.

"I must look terrible," Lois muttered mostly to herself.

"You look beautiful, as always," came the answer from the kitchen area.

Lois turned her head to see Clark standing over the stove preparing something that smelled great. Her breath caught in her throat as she saw her partner standing there in only a pair of gym shorts and a tight black T-shirt. Clark gave her one of his megawatt smiles which seemed to make her insides do a little flip flop. She returned the smile.

"Whatever it is you're fixing smells wonderful. What is it?" Lois stood and walked over to where Clark was standing.

"I'm fixing us Omelettes a la Kent." He made a motion toward the cupboards. "If you could set us out some plates and silverware, these are just about ready."

Lois poked her head around Clark's shoulder, taking in his culinary concoction. "How come my omelettes never smell that delicious? What's in them?"

"Family secret," Clark laughed. "Now go and set the table. Then you can see if you can guess the ingredients when you eat."

Lois gave Clark a playful punch in the side before she complied with his wishes. Within a few minutes they were both seated at the table enjoying their breakfast. Lois hadn't realized that it had been nearly two days since she had eaten anything beyond coffee and pastries. She ate like a starving person.

"I don't care what's in this omelette, it's delicious," she managed to say between mouthfuls.

Clark laughed. He guessed that Lois probably hadn't been eating well the last few days, which was why he'd made her omelette considerably larger than normal. When Lois was upset she either gorged on stuff like chocolate ice cream and candy, or she didn't eat. Now that Clark knew that she'd been worrying about him, on top of her pain over the loss of her sister, he felt extra guilty. He vowed to never cause her unwarranted worry ever again.

While Clark cleaned up after the breakfast, Lois went into his bathroom to take a quick shower. Clark had already done so while Lois had still been asleep. Once he had everything put away he went over to the scattered papers on the living room floor. Picking them up, he moved back and sat on the couch, shuffling through the stack as he did so. He recognized what Lois had been trying to do. She was the one who pointed out that Dutcher would have to have been using a disguise to hide from everyone who would be looking for him, so she'd taken photocopies of Dutcher's police photo and had tried to pencil in variations of his basic look. He frowned at one page in particular.

"See anything interesting?"

Clark looked up at the sound of her voice. His breath caught in his throat at the sight of her. She was standing in the archway between the living room and his bedroom. Her hair had been washed, dried, and brushed to a shiny gloss. Her face was well scrubbed and she wore no make up. She didn't need any. She'd put her slacks back on, but had grabbed one of his T-shirts which came down nearly far enough to double as a dress. Her head was cocked to one side and she had a bashful smile on her face which caused his insides to do a little flip flop.

"Clark?" Lois couldn't help but giggle.

Clark was snapped out of his staring by her laugh. "Oh." A sly smile creased his face. "Actually I do, but if you mean these altered sketches, there is this one that I find a bit disturbing." He held up the photocopy that Lois had drawn glasses and a moustache on.

She came over and sat next to him. She frowned as she gazed at the piece in question. "Yeah, I thought that one looked a little familiar, but I couldn't place it."

Clark reached over and grabbed the pencil laying on the coffee table. He quickly erased the heavy rimmed glasses Lois drew in and redrew in ones that were of the wire rimmed variety. "Does he look like anyone you know now?"

Lois reached over and took the piece of paper that Clark had reworked. "That's Sidney Loomis."

"Sure looks like him," Clark responded nodding.

Lois grabbed the rest of the stack from Clark. "Yeah, but this one," she pulled out one from the middle, "looks like that anchorman, Bart whatshisname. And this one," she pulled another from the stack. "This one looks just like my cousin Arnie." Lois sighed. "Somehow I don't think that either of them is our killer in disguise. It's probably just another coincidence." Lois turned to look at Clark. "Besides, we both know that Sidney Loomis has been a reporter in Metropolis for years."

Clark's frown deepened. "Maybe, but…"

Lois' look at Clark turned to one of wonder. "Are my ears deceiving me? Are you the Clark Kent who is always lecturing me on jumping to conclusions, and reaching for connections based on only the flimsiest of evidence?"

Clark grimaced. "Yeah, I know, but there is just something about this guy. I get an uncomfortable feeling anytime I'm around him. I can't explain it, it's just a feeling."

Lois just nodded knowingly. "Uh huh."

"Look, it's not like we have anything else to go on. What would it hurt to do a little research on the Daily Planet's newest employee?"

Lois grinned at Clark. "Congratulations Mr. Kent, you are now officially a top notch investigative reporter. You're going with your gut feelings. It's called playing a hunch. All the top reporters do it. It was about time you started doing it too." Lois giggled at Clark's blush. She slapped him on the knee. "Okay, partner, where do we start?"

Clark stood. "I say we check out his writing."

Clark walked over to his front door, opened it and pulled his copy of the Daily Planet from the front stoop. Wandering back to the couch, Clark opened the paper to the city government section. Lois leaned against Clark as they both quickly spotted Sid Loomis' byline. 'City Council Deadlocked Over New Sales Tax' was the headline. Both read the article in silence.

Lois flopped against the back of the couch when she'd finished. "Whoa, he's a good writer." Lois couldn't help the slight note of envy that crept into her voice. "Who would have thought that someone could make a boring city council meeting this compelling." Lois saw Clark's furrowed brow and tight lips. "Clark?"

He nodded. "You're right, it is good writing. It's passionate, emotionally charged, almost inflammatory. He chose to downplay the facts and went for contrasting the personalities of the council members and their individual agendas." Clark looked up at Lois. "He's almost as good as you."

Lois smiled as she shook her head. "God, you're good." Lois gave Clark's hand a squeeze. "But what does his being a good writer prove to us?"

Clark frowned again. "I don't know who wrote this, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't Sidney Loomis."

"You're familiar with Sid Loomis' writing?" Lois asked obviously surprised.

Clark admonished Lois with a raised brow. "Lo-is, when I came to town looking for a job, I read every paper and got familiar with most of the writers here." Clark tapped the article with his finger. "What I remember about Sid Loomis' writing was that he was a thorough researcher and a stickler for the facts, but his writing was as dry as dust. It was why he was stuck at a paper like the Weekly Register rather than a more prestigious one. I doubt that Perry would have ever considered hiring him if things weren't as bad as they were."

Lois shrugged. "Well, Linda King proves that." Lois ignored the look Clark gave her. "So, this is still pretty slim evidence. Loomis might have improved or altered his style since you read him last. After all, he was going to the Daily Planet."

Clark ran his hand through his hair. "I know, but it is a possibility."

Lois suddenly snapped her fingers. "Wait, I just remembered something." She jumped up from the couch and grabbed Clark's phone. Lois fidgeted during the few seconds it took for someone to answer. "Jimmy? Lois, look I need you to do something for me. I need you to break into the phone company's records." Lois paused while listening to Jimmy. "I know, but you've done this stuff before so don't go ethical on me now. I need you to pull up the activity from the last few days for Sid Loomis' home phone." Lois had to pause again while Jimmy had his say. "Never mind, I'll tell you later. Just put a rush on it and fax it over to Clark's, and yes I'm over at Clark's apartment, and yes Clark's here too. Tell Perry we're working on a lead and we'll be in later." Lois stared at the ceiling impatiently as she was forced to listen to Jimmy's excited question. "Forget that now, we'll fill you in after we get there. Just get those records for me, pronto — and Jimmy, thanks." Lois hung up.

Crossing back over to the couch Lois sat back down next to Clark. He stared at her.

"What was that all about?"

Lois took a breath then turned to her expectant partner. "Well, I remembered a conversation Loomis, Jimmy and I had yesterday. Jimmy made some crack about Loomis looking tired, like he'd been out all night the previous evening. Loomis answered that he'd just been up late talking to his brother." Lois sucked on her lip momentarily. "I just want to see if he did indeed talk to his brother or if it was just a story to perhaps cover for the real reason he might be tired."

"Which would be?"

"Killing Angela."

Clark walked over and booted up his computer. Lois joined him as his fingers played across the keyboard. In a few moments he had the Daily Planet's current employee roster. Most of the HR data was confidential but Clark was able to find out that Sidney Loomis did indeed have a brother in California. In fact that seemed to be the only family that Sidney Loomis had still living.

"Well we know he does have a brother," Lois said.

Clark nodded. "Yes he does. But it's also quite convenient that the brother, who lives on the other side of the country, is the only living relative our Mr. Loomis seems to have. No family to have to avoid here in Metropolis."

Suddenly the ringing of the phone disturbed the partners' conversation. Lois went to answer it while Clark shut down his laptop.

"Jimmy, I told you to fax the information over to us." Lois' tone said she didn't enjoy the fact that Jimmy hadn't followed instructions. "What? Really? Okay then, thanks. We'll be in shortly." Lois hung up the phone and turned to Clark. The look on her face was thoughtful.

"Well?" Clark asked.

"That was Jimmy, apparently there has been no activity on Sidney Loomis' phone incoming or outgoing for nearly a week." Lois smiled. "I think it's time to get to work and keep an eye on Mr. Sidney Loomis, don't you?"

Clark nodded. "Yes, definitely."

*** (Chapter Seventeen)

Clark and Lois exited the elevator onto the floor of the Daily Planet newsroom. It was late morning, as the pair had stopped off at Lois' apartment so she could change. They had no sooner hit the bullpen floor when a familiar voice bellowed out a familiar greeting.

"Kent, in my office."

The partners quickly made their way to Perry White's office. They stepped into their editor's inner sanctum and faced his desk. Perry looked up and seeing the two of them raised a brow.

"Lois, have you recently changed your name?"

Lois looked confused. "No, I… no."

"I know I'm getting old, and my memory might be failing, but I could have sworn that I just requested Kent to come into my office." Perry's tone was condescending.

Lois frowned. "I know, but we're partners, Perry, I just assumed that you'd want both of us." Lois saw the implacable stare on Perry's face. "Ah, I think I'll head back to my desk." She turned to Clark. "I'll see you in a little while." Lois spun on her heel and out the door, not missing out on a chance to slam it just a bit harder than necessary.

Clark turned his attention back to his boss, his confusion clear of his face. "What's up, Chief?"

Perry waved his hand toward the chair in front of his desk. "Sit down, son." Perry's expression was grave. "I have some questions for you, Mr. Kent."

Clark began to feel very uncomfortable. "Yes sir."

"Where have you been?" Perry's voice was calm but there was a hint of disappointment in it.

Clark nervously played with his glasses and his tie. "Ah, I know I should have called and let someone know before I left, but it really was a spur of the moment thing. I really didn't have any time, and once I was there, well things were such that I couldn't break away, and I think communications were probably down anyway…"

Perry held up his hand. "Whoa there, son. If I wasn't staring at you I'd swear I had your partner sitting in front of me. Now, let's slow down a bit. Where were you?"

"In Chile."

"Chile," Perry nodded. "The earthquake?" Perry saw Clark nod. "My guess is that you somehow contacted Superman and hooked a ride down to Santiago."

Clark remembered what he'd told Lois. "Well, he found me."

"Uh huh," Perry scratched his chin. "Ordinarily, I'm all for my reporters showing initiative in going after a story. And I understand how you sometimes have to just seize an opportunity." Perry frowned at Clark. "But you must realize that things aren't exactly ordinary around here right now." Perry watched Clark for his reaction, but Clark was staring at his lap. "Do you have any idea what you put your friends through? Do you know what you put Lois through?"

Clark's look of contrition was sincere as he raised his eyes to Perry and just nodded.

Perry leaned back and expelled a deep sigh. "Hell's bells, man. Lois has just had to deal with the murder of her sister and with this psycho still on the loose you up and disappear without any word." Perry raised his hand to stop any protest from Clark. "Now, I don't what to hear any excuses as to why you didn't think about letting anyone know where you were, and I know very well how you feel about Lois, but I have to tell you how it was around here. I've known Lois for several years, and I love that gal like she was my own daughter. I've seen her deal with some of the toughest situations that a person can face, including her betrayal by that scoundrel Claude, but I've never seen her as afraid as I saw her yesterday."

Perry leaned forward and put his hands on his desk, Clark continued to stare at his lap. "Now, from the way the pair of you came in here this morning, I'd guess you two have already discussed your disappearance and have come to an understanding." Perry picked up a pencil and began tapping it on his desktop. "All I want from you is a promise that the next time you go gallivanting off with Superman somewhere that you let someone know about it." Perry allowed himself a sympathetic smile. "And one hell of a story on the devastation down in Chile."

Clark looked up at Perry White and nodded. "You've got it, Chief."

Clark stood up and got as far as the door before Perry's voice stopped him. "Oh, and dare I ask if there is any progress on finding our killer?"

Clark ran his hand through his hair. "Well, Lois and I think we might have a lead, but we need to check out a few more things before we are confident of our suppositions."

Perry nodded. "Okay, you two run with it, but remember, if there's anything I can do to help."

"Thanks, Chief, there just might be."

Clark arrived at Lois' desk moments later. She seemed to be busy looking up something on her computer. Clark planted himself on his usual spot on the corner of her desk.

Lois didn't look up from her screen. "What'd Perry want?"

Clark had to look away to hide his blush. "He chewed me out for not telling anyone where I'd gone."

Lois still didn't look up from her screen but a slight smile played across her face. "Good," she said quietly.

"So what are you so busy looking into?"

Lois finally looked up at Clark. "I've been doing some information searches on our friend Loomis." Lois frowned. "He seems to be a pretty unremarkable guy. No police record, no significant medical history, no public record of any kind. He's not even a registered voter." Lois leaned back in her chair. "I called the Weekly Register and talked to a few of his co-workers. Apparently he didn't have any real friends there. After his wife died he stayed pretty much to himself." Lois met Clark's eyes. "He is the perfect candidate for someone to impersonate. Not much there to trip you up."

Clark sighed. "Yeah, what'd you tell Jimmy?"

Lois shrugged. "Not much, I told him that we'd heard that the killer might have tried to contact Loomis, but for Jimmy not to tell Sid since we didn't come up with anything, and we didn't want to scare him."

Clark raised a brow. "Did he buy that?"

Lois shook her head. "I don't think so. He looked kind of hurt, but didn't say anything."

Clark ran his hand through his hair again. "What do you think? Should we go to Perry, or Henderson with our suspicions?"

Lois grimaced. "What do we really have? A writing style that doesn't quite click with one you remember from months ago, a lie about a phone call that might have just been used to cover up something embarrassing which he didn't want to talk about, and a feeling. I think we need something a little more concrete before we involve any others. You know what a stickler Perry is for hard facts."

Clark nodded. "So, do you think we have the wrong guy?"

Lois reached over and gave Clark's hand a squeeze. "No, I'm convinced he's actually Dutcher in disguise."

Clark cocked his head to the side. "Why?"

Lois gave Clark an earnest look. "Because of the phone call, and the writing style difference, but mostly because you think so, and I trust your judgment."

Clark placed his hand over Lois' forehead. "Are you feeling all right, Lois? I mean, Lois Lane trusting someone else's judgment?" Clark took his finger and tilted her head up and he made a show of looking deep into her eyes. "Are you sure you're Lois Lane?"

Lois' smile was just a bit flirtatious. "What can I say, people change." Lois quickly pulled herself away from Clark's touch and looked back at her screen. "I think what we really need is to figure out some plan of action." She looked back up at Clark. "How do we go about — Oh no!" Lois' gaze had shifted to something she could see past Clark's shoulder.


Clark turned to follow the direction of Lois' stare when his was enveloped and nearly knocked over by a fierce embrace.

"Oh, Clark, I'm so glad to see you back! I was so worried about you."

Linda King had thrown herself at Clark and was doing her best to squeeze the breath right out him. She spared a sly glance down at Lois before she reached up and grabbed the sides of Clark's head and pulled him down to her for a quick kiss. Linda was a bit annoyed to see that Lois was merely grinning and shaking her head.

A shocked Clark was finally able to pull away. He held Linda at arm's length. "Linda, I'm sorry, I didn't realize my one day absence had worried you."

Linda tried to slide closer to Clark but he held her back. "Of course I was worried. You don't think that Lois is the only one who cares what happens to you? She may have been worried about losing her reporting partner, but I was scared that I had lost you!"

Clark risked a quick glance down at Lois and was surprised to see her trying to stifle a laugh. "Well, I'm truly sorry if I upset you in any way." Clark had managed to extricate himself completely from her grasp. "So, Linda, what can we do for you?"

"Well, now that you mention it." Linda purposely ignored Lois. "I could use your help down in the Planet archives." Linda shot Lois a dirty look as Lois had to stifle some coughing. "I'm not familiar with the Planet's microfiche system and I could really use your help in finding some research information for an article I'm preparing for Mr. White."

Clark stepped back, clearly uncomfortable with Linda's advances. "Well, the person you really want is Jimmy. He's the expert on all the systems around here. He's also a whiz at research."

Linda ran her finger up and down Clark's arm. "If I had wanted Jimmy's help I would have asked Jimmy."

Clark was definitely getting warm. "Well, Lois here is also quite good with the systems too. She's been here longer than I have…"

"Oh, go with her, Clark," Lois said between suppressed giggles. "I don't think I can take much more of her begging."

Linda sent Lois a look of puzzlement only to be answered by a smiling Lois Lane. She shook her head, but seized the moment, and Clark's arm. "See, even Lois agrees that you should help me."

"But, Lois, what about…"

Lois waved him off. "Don't worry about it, Clark. I'll continue to see if I can find any useful information. You just remember not to leave this building without me."

As Clark was being dragged off he shouted over his shoulder. "Nor you without me."

Lois nodded her agreement to him as she waved. Lois had a hard time keeping a grin off her face. Not too many hours ago, Linda's actions would have infuriated her. Her unconscious jealousy would have been aroused, but she knew she didn't need to worry about that anymore. After last night she knew there was never any more reason to worry about the Linda Kings of the world. Clark had admitted his love for her. Clark was hers, all she had to do was say the word. A frown slowly erased the smile that had been on her face. So why was it so hard to say the word?

Suddenly the ringing of the phone interrupted her thoughts. "Hello, Lois Lane… Oh hi, Lex, I'm glad you called."


Nigel St. John entered the office of Lex Luthor to see his boss pounding furiously at his computer keyboard. He glided up to the front of Luthor's desk waiting to be acknowledged. After several more moments Luthor finally looked up at him.

Nigel inclined his head slightly. "Problems, sir?"

Luthor's frown was thoughtful. "Just a bit puzzled, Nigel. I called the lovely Ms. Lane earlier and she told me that she thought it would be best if we didn't see each other until this whole situation with the Daily Planet murders was settled." Luthor picked up a letter opener and tapped it against his palm. "I'm not sure what to make of that."

"Perhaps, sir, your declaration that you wished to marry her has caused Ms. Lane to be a bit — skittish, as they say. Perhaps she needs some time to think it over and the chaos at the Planet makes it a bit difficult to give it the proper consideration."

Luthor smiled. "I'm sure you're correct, Nigel. It must be something like that." Luthor leaned back in his overstuffed leather chair. "So, Nigel, what can I do for you?"

"This letter was just messengered over to you, sir." Nigel handed Luthor a simple manila envelop. "It's marked personal and confidential."

Luthor accepted the letter and used the opener already in his hand to rip open the envelop. He began to scan the contents and his features got cold, then angry. He flipped the letter over to Nigel.

"It seems our Mr. Dutcher has done some actual investigating and has put you and me together."

Nigel set the letter on Luthor's desk after having read it. "I'm sorry sir, I don't see why he would have had any reason to."

Luthor waved his hand indicating dismissal of Nigel's apology. "I think it was probably my fault. I met the gentleman yesterday and I couldn't help myself. I probably said something to make him suspicious. He was, after all, considered a top investigative reporter in his day."

Nigel inclined his head to acknowledge Luthor's beneficence. "And the request, sir?"

"Ah, yes, the request. Twenty million dollars for his silence after the Daily Planet is destroyed." Luthor shook his head sadly. "Doesn't our friend, Mr. Dutcher, realize that greed has led to the downfall of many a successful man?"

"Would you like me to take care of it, sir?"

Luthor wagged his finger at Nigel. "No, not yet at least. Mr. Dutcher still has a task to complete. We'll worry about his 'request' after his mission has been accomplished."

Nigel gave Luthor a slight bow. "As you wish, sir." Nigel turned and left Luthor staring out his large balcony doors in contemplation.


Linda had spent the first half hour of their being together in shamelessly flirtatious behavior. She was continuously touching him, and leaning against him. She hadn't bothered with the schoolgirl-like gushing over Clark's expertise and intelligence. That was a game Linda didn't play, especially when she knew it wouldn't work on someone like Clark. In fact, she knew that her behavior in general was a bit over the top, but she was doing it purposely trying to get some sort of reaction from Clark. She was trying to see how far she could push Clark's 'perfect gentleman' routine before he said something to her.

As it turned out, he never did say anything untoward to her, but he did leave for a short time. During a particularly 'touchy-feely' act, he'd gotten a far away look on his face. He then stammered out that he had to return a video before he got a late fee, and had left her sitting staring confusedly at the spot where he'd just been. Linda took that as her answer to her 'pushing'.

She was pleased when Clark came back twenty minutes later, because the truth was that she did need some help with the archiving system of the Planet. And she was trying to research some items for an article she was writing. She was still determined to show Perry White that she was truly a good writer, no matter what Lois might say, or think.

Once Clark had come back she settled in to a more normal and professional approach. She could tell Clark appreciated her change of tack. He became more relaxed with her as he helped her find the information she was looking for. He even offered her some helpful tips on how she might structure her article to impress Perry. In short, he had reverted back to the Clark Kent she'd gotten to know when he worked with her at the Star while undercover.

It was also the tolling of the bell for Linda. If she had still held out any hope for her and Clark, it ended right there. In truth, when she saw that Lois was no longer jealous of her advances toward Clark, she knew she had lost. Clark Kent was Lois' and that's all there was to it. It made Linda just a little sad to think of what might have been if she'd seen him first. Guys like Clark Kent didn't come along too often.

*** (Chapter Eighteen)

Actually Clark found that his being with Linda for a part of the afternoon to be a bit of a blessing. He'd twice had to excuse himself to go out and handle quick emergencies as Superman. Getting away from Linda for a few minutes had been much easier than it would have been had he been with Lois. He knew none of his normal excuses would have worked with Lois since she wasn't going to let him out of the building without her.

After spending a couple of hours with Linda, Clark had returned to his own desk to find Lois busy working on her next column for the sports section. Clark took the opportunity to write up his first hand report of the Chilean earthquake. Since the event itself was already 'old news', Clark relied heavily on the personal cost such a disaster can exact from the victims. He largely ignored the monetary cost of the losses in favor of the emotional price paid by the people of the South American country.

As he was just wrapping up the story he noticed that Lois had come over and was reading his screen over his shoulder. He waited until she had finished before turning to look at her. A single tear had found its way down her cheek. She gave him a sad smile.

"It must have been pretty awful down there," she said as she rubbed his back with one hand.

He nodded. "Yeah, it was."

Lois sat down on the corner of Clark's desk. "So, it's nearly quitting time. What do you suggest we do about Mr. Loomis?"

Lois inclined her head ever so slightly in the direction of Loomis desk. It was clear on the other side of the newsroom so there was little danger of him overhearing, or even seeing Lois' actions.

Clark gave his partner a slight smile. "What would you say to a bit of take out and a stake out?"

Lois answered Clark's smile with one of her own. "Sounds like a plan. Do you still have the address from your exploration of his HR file?"

Clark just nodded.

Clark and Lois waited for Sidney Loomis to leave the Daily Planet, and waited a few minutes more before leaving themselves. Having the advantage of Lois' jeep, while Loomis used public transportation, the duo arrived at their destination just in time to see Loomis get off the bus and enter his apartment building. They stayed a full block away from the front of the apartment complex since they didn't want to run the risk of tipping off Loomis, or Dutcher, or whoever he thought he was.

Lois' jeep was well known to most of the Planet staff, but they were counting on the fact that Dutcher wouldn't be familiar with it, coupled with the fact that he'd have no reason to suspect anyone was watching him, they felt pretty secure. Even though they were a full block away, they had a good view of the front of the building, and the window of the apartment which they were sure was his.

Eating take out from Ralph's Pagoda, Lois and Clark settled back for an evening of pleasant conversation. Comfortable companionship, and watching to see if their quarry made any moves.


Lois snuggled down under her covers as she readjusted her pillow for the third time. She wasn't really tired, but it was late and she didn't know what tomorrow would bring. She and Clark had stayed outside the apartment of Sidney Loomis until after midnight. After the lights had gone out there hadn't been any more activity for nearly three hours. Clark had concluded that Dutcher had taken the night off and had just gone to bed. The thought that he might have used the cover of night to slip out some back door had occurred to the pair. But the building was designed in such a way that the back door only led to an isolated small back patio area which held the building's air conditioning unit and the garbage dumpster. The only way out was via the driveway on the side of the building, which then exited onto the street out front, so they were confident that, unless he could fly, Dutcher hadn't left the apartment.

Lois had argued for them staying there all night, just in case Dutcher decided to slip out in the early hours of the morning. She maintained that the two of them could trade off sleeping while the other watched the building. Clark had been confident that Dutcher had actually just gone to bed for the evening, and didn't have any plans for that night. It seemed somehow wrong, to Lois, to abandon the stakeout that quickly just because it looked like the killer was taking the night off after having killed just the night before. She had eventually given in to Clark's assertion that Dutcher was most probably asleep. She wasn't sure how he could be so positive about that since all they could really see was whether or not he had his lights on. Still, he had managed to convince her.

Lois stretched out her hand and traced some circles on the side of the bed she wasn't lying on. Her mind played with the idea of what it might be like if Clark were lying here next to her in her bed instead of tossing and turning on her small couch. Even though they thought that Dutcher probably wasn't going to be trying anything that night, Lois still insisted on their staying together — just in case. Since they had been at Clark's place last night, Clark had agreed that they should stay at Lois' tonight. When Lois had tried to offer Clark her bed because the couch was so small, he had refused. He told her that it was only fair that she get to sleep in her own bed since the night before he'd gotten to sleep in his. He had looked so uncomfortable all curled up in a ball with his knees practically in his face, but he assured Lois that he'd be fine.

The funny thing was neither Lois nor Clark brought up the extra bedroom that Lois' apartment had. A room that still had all of Lucy's things hanging in the closet.

A little smile touched Lois' lips as she thought back on how close she had come to offering to share the bed with him. As pleasant a prospect as that might be in her current fantasies, she knew it was still too early for that kind of activity. Lois almost laughed at the idea of sharing her bed with Clark before they even went out on a date. She shook her head in the darkness. She was going to have to definitely get a handle on her emotions. It wouldn't be fair to Clark for her to lead him on before she was sure of herself. It was fun to daydream about what it might be like to be with Clark, to truly be with Clark, not just as friends but as a man and a woman, but until she could conquer her fear that such a move would only destroy the wonderful friendship they already had… that sort of fantasy would have to wait.

Lois was briefly startled by a tapping on her window. Once she recognized the sound, she quickly pulled back her covers and slipped out of bed. Only one person tapped on her upper floor windows. Not worried about being seen in her pajamas, Lois silently padded her way over to the window.

She unlocked and raised the window, then stepped back so the imposing figure cloaked in the shadows of the night could glide through. The normally colorful costume looked to be only shades of gray in the sparse light of the deep evening.

"I'm sorry to drop by so late, Lois, but I needed to talk to you."

Lois took an involuntary step back as if to give him more room. "That's okay, Superman, Clark and I were out late anyway. We just got in a short time ago. He's out in the living room, I'll go get him." Lois turned toward her bedroom door but was stopped by Superman's voice.

"No, that's all right, let Clark sleep. It's you I need to talk to." Superman noticed that Lois seemed a bit ill at ease. "What is it? You seem distracted."

It was a strange feeling but for the first time Lois was ambivalent about Superman being there. She knew she should be glad to see him, no matter what time of night it was. But in all honesty it felt strange having Superman in her bedroom, while Clark was sleeping in the other room. She wasn't sure how to answer Superman, so she fell back on her concerns from earlier in the evening.

"Well I don't mean to be a poor host, but Clark and I just got back from a stakeout of the man we believe responsible for the Planet killings, and I can't help but wonder if we shouldn't have stayed on our stake out. If Dutcher decided to sneak out late." She placed her hand on Superman's arm. "I wonder if you would…"

She couldn't see his smile. "It's okay, Lois. Dutcher was sound asleep when I checked up on him a short time ago."

Lois frowned, though it couldn't be seen in the darkness. "How did you know where to find Dutcher?"

Superman fell back on his standard reply. "Oh, Clark mentioned it to me."

Lois' frown reached her brow. "When did he do that? Except for a short time at the Planet when he was with Linda King, Clark and I have been together ever since we discovered Dutcher was masquerading as Sid Loomis. If you had dropped in at the Daily Planet I think I would have heard about it."

Superman was thankful that Lois couldn't see his panicked look in the dim light. "Ah, he called me earlier today, while he was at the Planet. He just wanted to fill me in."

Lois' eyes got big. "You've got a phone? Can I have the number?"

Superman grabbed Lois' flailing hands in an effort to quell her rising enthusiasm. "Maybe later, but that's not why I've come, Lois. I had to stop by and tell you how sorry I am for what happened to Lucy."

Lois' excitement instantly died down. "Thank you. It has been tough, if it wasn't for Clark, I don't know if I could have gotten through it." Lois could feel more than see his nod. She led him over and they both sat on the edge of her bed.

Superman's voice had a slight quaver in it. Like he was having a hard time keeping control. "What I'm trying to say is, I truly am sorry for what happened to Lucy. I knew she was staying with you. I should have realized that, even if *you* weren't home, that Lucy could have been in danger." His formal demeanor seemed to crack a bit. "My only excuse is that I didn't think of it. I knew you were out, so I didn't bother to do a flyby of your apartment that night." There was a heavy sigh. "If I had only kept to my routine I might have been there when Lucy was taken and have caught this psycho before he could have hurt Lucy, or killed again."

Lois fell her body go cold. "Omigod," she whispered.

Lois couldn't believe it. Superman was apologizing to her for Lucy's death. He held himself somehow responsible. She knew that Superman felt guilt whenever he wasn't able be there to help someone, whenever he couldn't be everywhere he was needed. In most cases, he knew his guilt was just an extension of his desire to help as many people as possible, and that it wasn't reasonable or even conceivable that he could be everywhere he might be needed. He could only do the best he could and be satisfied with that. And usually he was, but this was different. If Lois was reading his apology right, Superman felt personally responsible for Lucy's death.

Lois reached out in the dark and found his hand. "Superman, don't do this to yourself. Lucy was killed by mistake by a madman bent on revenge against the Daily Planet. I'll admit that I wondered where you had been that night. I mean you've practically made a career out of saving me, time and time again. But I know you have so many other concerns, and so many demands on your time, I could never fault you for not being able to be there for me sometime, or in this case, for Lucy." She gave his hand a squeeze.

Lois couldn't help but see herself reflected in Superman's remorse. She too had felt a personal responsibility for the death of her sister. She had gone off on a date with Lex Luthor and had left her sister home alone with a madman on the loose. As her mind relived those self recriminations, some of her guilt came flooding back.

"If anyone should be feeling responsibility and guilt over Lucy's death it should be me," Lois said, her voice barely above a whisper.

Superman's shake of his head went unseen in the dark. "No, Lois, you can't blame yourself. If I hadn't skipped checking out your apartment that night, I might have been there when the killer was. I could have stopped him. No one else would have had to die."

Lois' heart ached to hear the pain in his voice. "Yes, you *might* have been there when Dutcher abducted my sister, but just as likely, no — more likely, you would have just found her sitting at home watching television or something, and gone back to your patrol, or whatever it is that you do in the evenings. Do you know what the odds of your happening to be there at the precise time necessary to have done her any good?"


"No, I'm the one who left her alone the whole night. I'm the one who, even though I knew that there was a psycho out there preying on reporters, decided to go out on my date."

Superman placed his other hand over the hand that Lois used to hold his. "Lois, you had no way of knowing that Lucy was in danger. She wasn't a Daily Planet employee. Why would you think that she could have been a target?"

Lois smiled. It was a sad smile, but a smile nevertheless. "And why should you have? It works both ways, big guy." Lois sniffed back a threatened tear. "I will always feel some guilt and some responsibility for what happened to my sister. And I imagine you will also. But a very good friend of ours convinced me that there was nothing to be gained by shouldering more guilt than my actions warranted." Lois sighed. "We both made decisions based on the information we had at the time. Maybe we should have realized that Lucy could have been in danger just by association, but we didn't. We knew that our killer had targeted the Daily Planet and it's reporters. Lucy is not, nor has she ever been in the employ of the Daily Planet." Lois gave Superman's hand another squeeze. "We *assumed* Dutcher knew who he was targeting. We were wrong. All we can do now is find this bastard and put him back in prison for the rest of his miserable life!"

Superman stood up and was a black silhouette facing Lois. "Thank you for your understanding, Lois. What you say does make sense. I will have to think on it." He moved back toward the window. "I promise you that I will do what I can to help you bring this maniac to justice." Superman placed one foot on the window sill. "Please be careful, Lois." With a characteristic gust of wind, he was gone.

Lois stared at the open window for several seconds before she got up and went over to close it. She sighed as she looked at the door which separated her bedroom from the living room. She walked softly over to the door, opened it, and went quietly into the living room. She approached the couch as silently as possible. She stared at Clark lying there, huddled on her couch, for several minutes.

Finally, Clark shifted his position and seemed to notice Lois standing over him. He sat up. "Lois? Are you all right?"

Lois slid down onto the couch next to Clark. She snuggled up next to him, placing her head against his chest. "Just hold me."

*** (Chapter Nineteen)

Lois woke to the feel of strong arms around her. She wasn't surprised, or even briefly bewildered. She knew exactly whose arms those were. After her discussion with Superman had brought back the feelings dealing with her sister's death, which were still just beneath the surface, she knew she'd never be able to get to sleep. She feared the nightmares would return. Instead she had gone out to the living room and had watched Clark as he slept curled up on her smallish love seat. She stood watching him, not wanting to wake him, but silently hoping he would. He had.

She had come over and had sat next to him, asking him to 'just hold her'. Being Clark, he couldn't help but do as she asked. Somehow he was able to discern that Lois needed to not be alone just then. She had snuggled up against him and had laid her head on his muscular chest. He wrapped his arms around her and, together, they just sat there. They didn't talk, there was no need. Soon they had both fallen asleep. Regardless of the cramped conditions it had been one of the most comforting night's sleep Lois'd had in several days.

Lois turned in Clark's arms until she was facing him. Suddenly, a pair of deep brown eyes opened and gazed into her own. She smiled at him and was rewarded with a dazzling return smile from him.

"Good morning, Lois."

"Good morning, Clark." Lois had to giggle as she imagined what a strange picture they must present. If someone had come in right then, who knows what they'd think.

Lois placed her hands on Clark's chest and, lingering for a few extra seconds, reluctantly pushed herself upright. "Well," she started to say as she tried to straighten her hair with her fingers. "I guess we have to get up."

Clark smiled and nodded. "I guess we do."

"Tell you what," Lois said patting Clark on the knee. "Let me take a quick shower, and change, then we can stop by your place and you can do the same. Once we're dressed, I'll treat you to breakfast at that new place we've been meaning to try."

"Callards?" Clark smiled at Lois' affirmative nod. "You don't have to go to all that trouble, Lois."

Lois cocked an eyebrow at Clark. "The alternative is, I cook breakfast."

Clark feigned a look of horror. "I think Callards might be pretty nice after all."

Lois swatted his leg as they both laughed. Clark shook his head. "Really, Lois, you don't have to go to the trouble, I can fix us something right here."

It was Lois' turn to shake her head. "No, this is my place, and I'm the host. Breakfast is my responsibility. Besides, I don't think I have anything in the place that you would deem suitable." Lois gave him a sardonic look. "Unless you're big on Pop Tarts?"

Clark made a show of thinking it over, for exactly two seconds. "Callards it is."

Lois stood and headed toward her bedroom. "If you really want to fix something, I could sure use a cup of coffee when I get done getting dressed."

Clark smiled at Lois' morning caffeine addiction. "Consider it done, partner."

Clark couldn't see the smile that brought to Lois' face as she passed through the door, into her bedroom, and to the anticipated hot shower.

*** Jeb Dutcher dragged himself out of the bed and scrubbed at his face with both hands. The area under his lip itched from the spirit gum he continually had to use to attach his Sidney Loomis moustache. He stumbled into the bathroom to get himself ready to face another day at that most vile of places, the Daily Planet.

Showered, shaved, and in character, Dutcher walked out into the living room on his way toward the kitchen area. Passing near the front door, he happened to notice a slip of paper that had apparently been slid under his door sometime last night. He knew it hadn't been there when he'd gotten in last evening. He'd come home early and after a bit of television had gone to bed. He thought it wise to rest up. He figured he might be busy again, real soon.

Reaching down, he picked up the folded piece of paper. It was a simple piece of typical typing paper, folded over twice. Unfolding the sheet, Dutcher noticed that it had obviously been done on a computer or word processor. He doubted the sender left a copy of it on their hard drive. The message was simple and to the point.

"Mr. Dutcher, I have received your note. As to your request, I am fully willing to discuss that with you once Clark Kent is dead. I'd be much more amenable to said request if I find out that Mr. Kent suffered considerably before his ultimate demise."

Dutcher wasn't surprised that there was no signature of any kind. He knew it was from Luthor, and Luthor knew he'd know it was from him. Dutcher crumpled the paper in his hand and resumed his walk toward the kitchen. Perhaps it was time to push things ahead. Dutcher was convinced that the death of Kent would be the final straw needed to break the back of the Daily Planet. One more high profile murder would send the Planet into a tailspin that they'd never recover from. He'd have preferred his final victim to be Lois Lane, but Kent would do. From what he'd been able to gather from newsroom gossip, and seeing the two of them together, he was convinced that Kent's death would most probably destroy Lane also.

Dutcher sat at the small table munching on a piece of dry toast as he mulled over his options. It made sense to move up the timetable. He was beginning to wonder if Lane and Kent weren't getting suspicious of him. There was nothing concrete, but once again, as a former investigative reporter himself, he had learned to trust his feelings and instincts. It had paid off with the discovery that Luthor was his mystery benefactor.

Initially Kent had been a bit stand offish with him and that wasn't in keeping with what he'd heard about the man. Also, lately, he'd notice Lane and Kent deep in conversation until he got close enough to overhear. Then one of them would make some inane comment and they'd go their separate ways for a short time. But he'd see them back together only minutes later. They were both award winning investigative reporters, just as he was, and they didn't get that way by ignoring their own feelings and hunches. He knew they couldn't have any definitive proof or the police would be knocking at his door.

Something he'd done or said must have given them some reason to doubt his cover. Maybe just being a new guy coming in at an unusual time brought some extra scrutiny. What ever it was, he figured that it would be a good time to make his last kill, collect his reward, and disappear.

Brushing a few bread crumbs from his shirt as he stood, Dutcher began to formulate his plan. He had originally intended to wait a couple more days to let the frenzy from his last killing die down a bit. Maybe it might lull the people at the Planet into something of a false sense of security, or better yet, allow their fears to fester some more. But now, it seemed the best course of action would be to grab Kent at the first opportunity, carry out his last bit of revenge, and retire a satisfied and fulfilled man in some exotic, tropical paradise.

Stopping at the small coat closet near the front door, Dutcher reached for a small, heavy box tucked in the back of the upper shelf. He marveled at the eeriness of the green glowing crystal as he removed it from the box. No sense in not being prepared for anything… or anyone. Wrapping the jade-like crystal in a thin piece of lead foil, he stuck it in his jacket pocket. He checked his other pocket to make sure the other, more ordinary, form of persuasion was still safely in place. Whistling a tune he didn't know the name of, Dutcher exited his apartment and headed toward his date with destiny.

*** Lois and Clark sat in a cozy booth in the far corner of the restaurant. They had quickly given their orders to the attentive waitress and were now just waiting for their food to arrive. Lois had her ever present cup of coffee, while Clark sipped at a large OJ.

"Now the way I see it," Lois began. "We can't just sit and wait for something to happen. I think we need to push Dutcher into some rash action."

Clark instantly had a bad feeling about where Lois' thoughts were going. He thought he knew where the rash action would really come from. "Lois, what's going through that devious mind of yours? What course of action are you suggesting that I'm not going to like?"

"Oh you," Lois chided, as she slapped his hand. "It's simple really. It's too risky to just watch and hope that we can intercept him before he strikes again. He might slip by our watch and then we could be responsible for someone else dying." Lois was getting animated. "For all we know he might have slipped out late, after we left his place. We might go into work this morning to find out that Jimmy, or even Perry might have become his next victim!"


"We need to force his hand. Since he's already tried for me and missed, he's probably hot to try again."


"I can make sure that he knows that I'm going to be alone after work."


"We can, or *you* can, contact Superman and he can keep an eye on me."


"Once he's taken me to his hideout, the place where he commits the murders, Superman can swoop down and rescue me and capture Dutcher."


Lois frowned. "Why not?"

Clark shook his head. "It's too dangerous."

Lois snorted. "How? Don't you trust Superman?"

Clark grabbed Lois' hand. "Too many things can go wrong. Dutcher may just decide to shoot you on the spot. Superman may be faster than a speeding bullet, but not if he doesn't know it's coming."

Lois pulled her hand from Clark's and gave him a dismissive gesture. "That wouldn't happen. My death would have no purpose if he couldn't showcase it in his normal splashy manner. They're called serial killers for a reason, Clark."

"Lois, what if Superman loses track of the two of you? What if he hears about some big emergency and is forced to choose between following you and attending to something that could endanger the lives of tens or even hundreds of people." Clark forced himself to calm down, before he accidentally gave himself away. "Would you want your death on his conscience too. He already feels enough responsibility about Lucy's death."

Lois opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. She frowned at Clark for a few seconds before she again spoke. "Okay, so there's some risk, but not that much. I'm a big girl now, I know the score going in and I'm willing to take some risk to get this wacko off the streets."

Clark frowned back at Lois. "All right, if it's such a minimal risk, I'll do it. Same scenario, I'll make myself an easy target for Dutcher and when he grabs me and takes me wherever, Superman can capture him."

Lois felt a chill pass through her body. She couldn't explain why, but she knew that she had to keep Clark out of the hands of Dutcher. She'd had premonitions in the past, and they were wrong as often as they were correct, but this feeling was strong. If Dutcher got his hands on Clark, she knew she'd lose him.

Her voice was weak when she finally answered Clark. "No, you can't."

Clark was frustrated by Lois' constant tendency to rush into danger, counting on her luck, or Superman, to bail her out time after time. His greatest fear was that someday, she'd pull one of her infamous Lane stunts and he wouldn't be there for her, and he'd lose her.

His frustration caused him to speak in a tone harsher than the conversation warranted. His fear made him speak out of turn. "Why not me? What, only Lois Lane can run out and dangle herself above the jaws of death? Is the spotlight that important to you, Lois? So important that you continually place your life in danger just to get an award winning story!"

Lois looked as if she had been slapped. Tears began to slide down her cheek as she stood. Turning away from Clark, she slid out of the booth and without a word headed for the door. Clark got up, took a few bills out of his pocket, threw them on the table, and rushed to catch up with Lois.

Clark caught up with Lois outside the restaurant. She was standing next to her jeep, her hands doubled up in fists. She was faced away from Clark, but he could see from the shaking of her shoulders that she was crying. He placed his hand on her shoulder. She shook it off. He placed both hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. Tears still spilled from the corners of her eyes and her mouth was pressed firmly in a tight line. She wouldn't meet his eyes.

"Lois, I'm sorry. I didn't mean what I said. It was the fear and frustration talking." Clark drew a deep breath. "You don't know what it does to me every time I see or hear about another narrow escape from death for Lois Lane, ace reporter." He reached down and with a single finger tilted her head up so he could look her in the eyes. "My greatest fear is that someday you won't escape. Lois, I can't bear the thought of losing you."

Lois sniffed loudly and wiped at her tear-stained cheek with the back of her hand. "Nor I you." Lois sighed. "So, what do we do?"

Clark answered Lois' sigh with one of his own. "I don't know. Maybe we should bring Perry in on this. He might have some ideas. Maybe we should tell Henderson about our theories. Even if we don't have any real evidence, he might be better equipped to keep an eye on our friend Loomis."

Lois shrugged. "I guess that makes sense."

The two partners got back into Lois' jeep and, with Lois driving, were soon on their way to their place of employment, the beleaguered Daily Planet.


Lex Luthor was already busy at his desk as the early morning light came peeking between the steel and glass towers and through his sliding glass doors which led to his balcony that overlooked his local empire. With one last keypunch, Luthor completed another deal with would net him a tidy sum, and cripple another business rival. Lex reached for a cigar and leaned back in his expensive chair. It had already been a gratifying and profitable day, and the morning had just started. Lex smiled as he pressed a special button located under the corner of his desk.

Almost immediately his aide de camp, Nigel St. John entered. "You wished to see me, sir?"

Lex waved the unlit cigar in the air. "Yes, Nigel, things have been going rather well today. I hope you have some news that will fit in with this glorious mood I'm in."

St. John inclined his head in a gesture of compliance. "Well, sir, the investigations of the various board members of the Daily Planet continue to bear fruit, as it were. We shall soon have the necessary influence on enough of the gentlemen to force them to sell the Daily Planet to you. Should it become necessary, or desirable to purchase it."

"Excellent," Luthor replied. "And with all the troubles that the Planet has been, and will be having, I'm sure the price will be more than reasonable."

"Indeed, sir, and in reference to that, the note was delivered as you asked. I believe we should see results on that front shortly also."

"I hope you are keeping a watchful eye on our *friend*."

"Now that things seem to be, heating up, as they say, I will be taking a personal interest in the activities of our Mr. Dutcher." Nigel gave Luthor a slight bow.

Luthor sucked on the end of the cigar and twirled it about in his mouth for a few moments before pulling it out. He reached over, taking an overly ornate lighter in his hand and lit the end of the already clipped Havana.

Taking a deep puff and blowing out a perfect smoke ring, Luthor addressed his aide. "Very good, Nigel." Luthor blew another perfect smoke ring. "Greed is such a wonderful tool. I fear our Mr. Kent's days are numbered. Perhaps that number may be even be as small as…one?"

*** (Chapter Twenty)

"… and so, since my father won't be back in town for at least another 36 hours, Mother and I decided to wait a couple of days before having Lucy's funeral service." The conversation was revealed as the elevator doors opened onto the newsroom floor and the Daily Planet's two best reporters entered into their working world. "You'll be there, won't you?"

Clark touched Lois comfortingly on her arm. "Of course I will."

Lois cocked her head and looked him straight in the eye. "No running off to return a video, or flying off to Chile with Superman?"


She shook her head, depressed by the subject. "I'm sorry, I don't actually think you'd do something like that… it's just that I think I'm going to really need you there. I'm going to need you to help hold me together." Lois allowed herself to bump up against Clark's sturdy side. "This is going to be very tough on my parents."

Clark gave Lois a look of friendly sympathy. "And you?"

Lois didn't return Clark's look, but nodded in response. "And me."

They made their way down to Lois' desk. Lois sat as Clark stood at the corner. "Lois, why don't you pull together what we have on our suspicions about Dutcher masquerading as Loomis? When I get back we'll go to Perry and see what he has to say. We won't include Henderson yet unless Perry thinks it would be a good idea."

"Okay, and I think I'll search out and print off a few of Sidney Loomis' more recent articles for the Weekly Register, so we can compare those to that latest effort attributed to him. Maybe Perry's familiarity with Dutcher's work may come in handy, even if it has been over fifteen years."

"That's a great idea, Lois." Clark gave her a wide grin. "Have I ever told you how smart you are?"

Lois grinned back. "Gee, and here I thought you just liked me because I have a great body."

Clark feigned a look of innocence. "Really, I hadn't noticed."

"Yeah, right." Lois frowned at her partner. "Wait, what do you mean, when you get back? Just where do you think you're going to go without me?"

"Ah, I don't think you'd want to go along with me in this case, Lois." Clark directed a sly smile at her. "It's that little room down the hall to the left?" Clark pointed in the direction of the men's room.

"Oh," Lois said, blushing.

Clark left Lois trying her best not to look as embarrassed as she obviously felt. He strode into the spotless room like a man with a purpose, which he was. Having quickly dispensed with his reason for being there, Clark was at the washbasin when 'Sid Loomis' walked in. Clark looked up and acknowledged the man with a curt nod. Loomis just grinned and leaned against the wall.

Clark straightened up and faced 'Loomis'. "Is there something I can do for you, Sid?"

A small revolver was pulled out the jacket pocket. "Yeah, you can accompany me." Dutcher's smile was cold.

Clark's mind went into overdrive. He had no fear of the gun, but he had to be careful not to do anything to reveal himself to Dutcher. Besides, if Clark took Dutcher down right there in the men's room, they still wouldn't have any real evidence linking him to the other murders.

"If you shoot me in here it's bound to be heard and you'll surely be caught." Clark needed to play for time, he needed Dutcher to incriminate himself in some way.

Dutcher just smiled at Clark. "But you forget, I'm crazy. The way I figure it, you'd be dead and your death will be enough to sink this paper once and for all. My *mission* will have been accomplished. The fact that I might not escape… oh well."

Clark wasn't sure that he bought into Dutcher's comments, but he didn't want to push Dutcher into such an act for obvious reasons. He needed evidence linking Dutcher to the other murders. Perhaps Lois was right, perhaps Dutcher had some secret hideaway where he did his evil deeds. If he took Clark there, then he might be able to find some physical evidence that the others had been killed there.

As much as he wanted to have Dutcher feel that he had the upper hand, thinking of the horrible murders that this sick, perverted man had committed caused Clark to react with anger more than the fear that one might expect when someone had a gun pointed at you.

"So, you've finally decided to drop the act… Dutcher." Clark nearly spat out the words in a low, ominous voice.

"My, aren't you the brave and clever reporter," Dutcher answered, noting Clark's lack of fear. "And if you have any idea of playing the hero, sacrificing yourself to bring the evil killer to justice, think again, my friend." Dutcher waved the gun toward the door, indicating that Clark should precede him. "There are plenty of *innocent bystanders* that could just as easily catch a bullet as you could. Maybe even your little girlfriend, Lois Lane."

Clark quickly quelled his anger at Dutcher's words. The madman was right. No matter how fast Clark was, Dutcher might accidentally get a shot off and someone could get hurt, or killed. Clark couldn't risk that. Besides he needed Dutcher to take him to wherever it was that he committed the murders. Dropping his head in a gesture which he hoped looked like defeat, he allowed himself to be pushed out the door.

Placing his arm around Clark in a phony gesture of comradeship, Dutcher steered Clark toward the back stairwell, which was only a few feet from the men's room. Swiftly the two men pushed open the door and entered the back stair. Dutcher stepped back, as he gave Clark a shove toward the steps.

"Oh, and if you're thinking of yelling for your friend in blue spandex, I warn you that I'm prepared for him also."

Dutcher reached into his other pocket and pulled out the small crystal. He stripped off the lead foil he'd kept it covered with. Its eerie glow reflected a sickly green from the plain white washed walls. Clark felt it's effect immediately. As he began to double over in pain, his foot slipped on the edge of the step and before he could think to grab the hand rail he found himself tumbling down a flight on stairs to the first landing below.

"Rather clumsy," Dutcher muttered to himself as he put the kryptonite back into his pocket without rewrapping it in the lead foil. Shaking his head he slowly followed after the now trembling Clark.

Clark's moaning increased as Dutcher got closer. "Come on, hero, no laying down on the job here." Dutcher reached down to try and help Clark to his feet. "Crap! You are one heavy sonofagun aren't you." Dutcher took Clark's chin in his hand and looked at him. He saw that Clark was conscious but he seemed more out of it than the fall would seem to warrant. "What happened Kent, you hit your widdle head?" Dutcher chuckled. "Well, if you aren't going to cooperate, I'll just have to improvise our descent down these stairs." Dutcher put his foot against Clark's back and pushed.

Clark pitched over and slid down the next set of stairs. Dutcher quickly followed him down and repeated his 'help' until they reached the bottom of the stairwell. Once there, Dutcher finally reached down and hoisted a somewhat battered Clark to a semi-standing position. Dutcher half carried, half guided Clark into the underground parking garage and into his waiting automobile.

*** Lois had been putting the altered photo and Loomis' phone records into a folder to take into Perry's office when she saw Clark and 'Loomis' sneaking out the back stairwell. Lois' blood ran cold when she saw them. Her first instinct was to call out to Clark, but she didn't. She was afraid that if she brought any attention to the two men, that Clark might get hurt. It was obvious by the way that Dutcher was holding onto, and pushing on Clark, that he was going under duress. Clark would never act that chummy with 'Loomis' knowing who he really was. Recognizing that she couldn't call out for Superman without endangering Clark, Lois jumped up from her desk and hurried over to the stairwell door.

She heard Dutcher warn Clark about calling Superman, then heard something that sounded like someone falling. Lois had to bite her lip to keep from crying out. She could hear Dutcher muttering, but couldn't make out what he was saying. Once she was sure that they had started down the stairs, she cautiously opened the door and peered into the stairwell.

Lois very carefully followed them down the stairs, confused by the sounds she was hearing. It wasn't until she could see the bottom of the stairwell, and saw Clark crumpled on the concrete floor, though she was still several flights above them, that she was able to understand what had happened. Lois' heart skipped a beat as she saw how much pain Clark was unmistakably in. Dutcher must have pushed Clark down the steps! Again, she was forced to bite down on her lip to keep from crying out as she saw Dutcher struggle to help Clark up and drag him through the door to the garage. Clark must have been hurt pretty bad. He looked barely conscious.

Lois' worst fears were playing themselves out in front of her eyes. Dutcher had Clark. Clark had been hurt, and now he was being dragged off to feed Dutcher's sick vengeance. Clark would die if she couldn't do something to help him. Lois knew she had no time to call Henderson or involve anyone else. Counting on Clark's condition to slow Dutcher down just enough, Lois ran back up the steps, burst through the door, hurried over to her desk, and grabbed her purse.

Hustling down the stairs, Lois slipped quietly into the parking garage in time to see Dutcher and Clark pulling out in an older green sedan. Lois quickly made a beeline for her jeep and jumped in. Before she could put the key into her ignition the passenger door opened and Linda King jumped into her vehicle.

"Get out!" Lois yelled as she started the jeep and began to back out of her space.

"No, I saw you take off down the back stairs like you were chasing a page one. I want to come along." Linda folded her arms across her chest in defiance.

Knowing she had no time to waste, Lois did her best to ignore Linda as she pulled out of the Planet's parking garage, looking for the direction Dutcher's car had gone. Luckily she spotted the green sedan stopped at a light only a block away. Pulling her jeep onto the street, Lois began what was going to be the most important tailing mission in her life… and Clark's.

"So, are you going to tell me what you're chasing, Lois?" Linda asked in a voice more demanding than curious.

Lois spared Linda a glance that would melt steel. "If you *must* know, I'm chasing a serial killer." Lois slipped her jeep behind a taxi. The green sedan was two cars ahead.

"What?" Linda shook her head in puzzlement. "What are you babbling about?"

Lois' hands fairly trembled on her steering wheel as her grip tightened even more. She took a deep breath before she felt she was composed enough to speak to Linda. "As you may be aware, if you've been paying any attention to what has been going on lately, it's generally accepted that the so-called 'Headsman' killer is a former Planet employee who escaped from prison recently."

"Yeah, Jeb Dutcher, I know that." Linda frowned at Lois. "I also know that the police can't find him either. He seems to have disappeared."

"That's because no one thought to look for him *at* the Daily Planet."

Linda was now clearly confused. "What?"

Lois took another deep breath. "Clark and I discovered that Dutcher disguised himself and took a job at the Daily Planet. Pretty handy, he was responsible for creating the vacancy that he then filled."

Linda frowned, then threw up her hands. "Okay, I give up, who?"

"Sidney Loomis," Lois turned to face Linda, "and he's got Clark."

Linda's hands flew to her mouth. "Ohmigod!"

Lois took her one hand off the steering wheel just long enough to point to the traffic in front of them. "They're in that older, green sedan." Lois grit her teeth. "Keep your eye on them, under no circumstances can we allow ourselves to lose them."

Lois paused as if she was going to add something else but then thought better of it. Pursing her lips tight, she returned all her focus to her driving.

*** Dutcher slowly rolled up the back entrance of another run down, abandoned warehouse. This one was in the old garment district. He was glad that this was going to be his last victim. He had stayed ahead of the police by changing his locations every time, and he still had several other abandoned buildings scouted out, but it was only a matter of time before someone happened on one of his hideaways. He'd been somewhat lucky so far, there was no need to push in any farther. Kent's death would achieve what he wanted most, and Luthor's money would set him up in a pleasant retirement in some far off exotic locale.

Grunting and complaining once again about Clark's unnatural weight, Dutcher dragged the now nearly unconscious man into the ramshackle building. There hadn't been as much time to set up this place but he had what he needed. Instead of a proper chair, Dutcher arranged some old crates sufficiently for his needs. A couple of other crates acted as his preparation table.

Noting how out of it Clark was, Dutcher, without fear, went back out to the car and quickly took out the necessary 'equipment' and brought it back into the old warehouse.

Using a heavy length of rope, he tied Clark securely to the stack of crates. He then placed a strip of duct tape over Clark's mouth. Satisfied that Clark wasn't going to be able to go anywhere, even if he did regain his senses, Dutcher turned his attention to setting up his table. He laid out the boxes and then reverently laid the gleaming machete next to them.

Turning his attention back to Clark, Dutcher frowned. It wasn't going to be any fun if the intended wasn't awake to get the full understanding of his impending doom. Dutcher walked up and slapped Clark in the face a couple of times. It only elicited a moan from the near comatose Clark, that and a small smear of blood. Dutcher's nail had scratched Clark's cheek and now that tiny wound seeped a thin line of blood.

Puzzled by Clark's condition, Dutcher wondered if Clark hadn't suffered some sort of concussion falling down the stairs. Absently, he allowed his hand to slip into his pocket and it fell upon the small crystal of kryptonite. Pulling it out, he noticed that Kent seemed to react as if in great pain when Dutcher held it up to look at it. Curious by the reaction, Dutcher stuck the crystal against Clark's exposed neck. Clark convulsed, and actually cried out in extreme pain. Dutcher then pulled out the lead foil and quickly wrapped the kryptonite and stuck it back in his pocket. Clark was still obviously in distress, but his breathing seemed to ease some, and the pain lines on Clark's forehead smoothed.

Dutcher's eyes went wide with the implications of what he'd just witnessed. He mentally reviewed all that he'd been told about that rare little green crystal. It supposedly only affected Superman, ordinary humans weren't bothered by it. It had clearly affected Kent. Dutcher also knew that prolonged exposure to the radiation from the crystal could eventually kill the Man of Steel. How long it might take was not accurately known. He guessed it depended on the size of the crystal and its closeness to Superman.

Dutcher reached back into his pocket and unwrapped the kryptonite. The reaction from Clark was immediate. His body tried to jerk away from the offending rock as another moan escaped his lips. A sadistic smile began to form on Dutcher's face as he slid the uncovered crystal back into his pocket.

The smile faded again as Dutcher traced the line of blood on Clark's cheek with his fingertip. Instead his brow furrowed. Dutcher raised his arm and gave Clark a savage back hand blow across the face. Clark's head snapped back, and some instantaneous swelling began under his right eye. With the demeanor of a clinician conducting important experiments, Dutcher repeatedly slapped and punched Clark until several bruises were evident, and a thin stream of blood flowed from his nose.

Dutcher stepped back, his grin caused him to look like some maniacal clown who had just destroyed a child's birthday party. If the kryptonite only affected Superman, Dutcher thought, then that meant that Kent was Superman. But Kent was hardly invulnerable, as Dutcher's gentle ministrations had proven. That meant that apparently the nasty little crystal had the power to rob Superman of his powers before it killed him, and that meant that Dutcher had nothing to worry about.

Kent was his true target, and even though he was secretly Superman, he was vulnerable and would be able to fulfill his role as the proper victim. Superman had always been Dutcher's main worry, but now he had nothing to fear from that quarter anymore. Dutcher couldn't help but wonder if he couldn't parlay the fact that he had been the one to kill the famous Superman into some more 'gifts' from his benefactor Lex Luthor. If Luthor was indeed as crooked as Dutcher suspected, removing Superman from the scene should be worth quite a bit. Oh yes, Dutcher thought there was definitely going to be some renegotiation with Mr. Lex Luthor once he'd finished here. Turning back to the crates he'd been using as his work table, Dutcher picked up the heavy machete. Its razor sharp, deadly blade gleamed in the spotty sunlight filtering through the cracked windows, and missing boards of the old warehouse. He turned back to Clark, his smile ever wider and ever viler. He raised his arm for the strike.



(Chapter Twenty-one)

Lois and Linda had been following Dutcher's car for over half an hour until they finally found themselves in a seedier part of town. Lois recognized the area as the old garment district. Metropolis had once had a thriving fashion and clothing manufacturing industry as recent as a few decades ago. Unfortunately, as was the case with so many things, the local companies couldn't compete with the cheap overseas labor force and eventually those companies that wanted to stay viable moved their manufacturing there. Those that didn't, failed, and went away.

The traffic had gotten progressively lighter and so Lois had to keep dropping back farther and farther in order not to give herself away. Her anxiety continued to rise as she would lose track of the green sedan, only to have her or Linda spy it again as they passed some side street. Finally, they lost Dutcher's vehicle for good. Lois was in a near panic. Where was that damn car! She began to cruise up and down the streets hoping against hope that she might spy the older green sedan.

They were among a series of old abandoned buildings. Old factories and warehouses that spoke of the failure of their owners to change with the times. Lois figured that any of the old structures would serve Dutcher's purpose only too well. She prayed that they would come across the green car, or some indication where Dutcher might be… before it was too late.

"Look! Over there." Linda pointed excitedly toward an old ruin of a warehouse where one could just barely see the rear of the green sedan visible around the corner of the building.

Lois pulled the jeep over and the two of them cautiously approached the building. Dutcher had been confident of his anonymity and hadn't bothered to try and secure the building in any special way. The back door he'd entered through was closed but it wasn't locked. Lois still didn't think it would be too smart to try and enter that way. A few feet away she found a window that was only partially boarded over, the glass having long been the victim of youthful target practice. She peered in and could just make out Dutcher about two hundred feet away, but several old crates partly blocked her view. Of course, that meant that they would block Dutcher's view of her too.

Lois turned to Linda, who'd been following close behind. "Linda," Lois whispered. "Go back to the Jeep and use the phone to call Henderson."

Linda's look became defiant. "You go back and call Henderson."

Lois raised her eyes skyward. She couldn't believe she was having this conversation with Linda again. "Fine!"

Lois carefully levered herself up to and past the boards which covered only a small portion of the window. She let herself down as silently as she could and gave a small prayer of thanks that Linda managed to get down without making enough noise to give away their presence there. Both women crept up to a stack of crates only about twenty feet from where Dutcher was standing. Lois could see Clark also. He was tied to a makeshift chair of crates. He looked awful. Dutcher waved something that she couldn't see next to Clark, and Lois could see that it seemed to hurt him. Then Dutcher began to hit Clark.

Linda gasped as she saw Clark being repeatedly struck by Dutcher. Lois turned, glared at her, and shushed her with a finger to her lips. Lois turned back to the awful scene before her. In truth it was all she could do to not cry out herself as she saw Clark being punched and smacked by that madman. She had to do something, she thought fiercely and a tear snuck out of the corner of her eye. She frantically looked about for something she could use as a weapon, but there wasn't anything. Another gasp by Linda wrenched Lois' attention back to her. She was about to give Linda another baleful stare when the look in Linda's eyes caused Lois to turn her attention back to Dutcher.

Her heart stopped. Dutcher had picked up an evil looking machete. He raised his arm, readying himself for the strike. Lois couldn't let this happen!

She rushed out from behind the stack of crates which was her hiding place, into the open, and shouted. "Stop!"

Dutcher whirled around at the sound of her voice. The machete dropped to his side as he cocked his head and smiled an evil leer. "Why, if it isn't the ubiquitous Ms. Lane?"

Lois' voice shook with suppressed emotion. "Let him go."

"Who?" Dutcher reached back with the blade and poked Clark in the arm, drawing a little blood. "Him?" Dutcher laughed. "Why would I do that? Clark Kent is my final victim. Since, fortunately, I missed in my attempt on you, I still need a high profile death to complete my vengeance." Dutcher nodded his head in a mocking manner. "Don't you think that Kent's gruesome death, splashed over the front pages of all the other newspapers in this town, will finally sink that despicable rag, the Daily Planet?"

Not understanding his reference to it being 'fortunate' that he missed his attempt on her, Lois fought the trembling in her limbs as she slowly approached Dutcher. If there ever was a situation where sheer mental force of will could compel someone else to do your bidding Lois prayed that Linda was getting her message now. Lois wasn't under any illusions that she would be able to stall Dutcher from his vengeance for very long. Most likely she and Clark would both end up dead. The only hope was that Linda would be smart enough to sneak back to the car and phone Henderson. Lois' cynical inner voice couldn't help but comment on the irony that her life depended on Linda King doing something smart. Lois could only hope that Linda's obvious infatuation for Clark would be the catalyst for her to 'do the right thing'.

Lois took a deep breath to steady her voice. She wasn't sure she'd be able to stall Dutcher long enough for help to arrive, but perhaps there was another way to save Clark. After all, Dutcher just needed a high profile victim. "Why settle for second string?" she asked. "When you can have the top banana?"

Dutcher raised a brow, his grin was wolf-like. "Are you offering yourself in exchange for your boyfriend?"

"He's not my… yes, yes that's exactly what I'm doing." Lois now stood within a few feet of Dutcher. "Just let him go, and I won't resist you."

Lois could now see Clark quite clearly. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she saw his battered and bruised face. Oh Clark, she grieved silently, what has that madman done to that beautiful face?

"But he already knows too much. I can't let him go free now," Dutcher pointed out with an evil grin.

Lois bit on her lower lip, then adopted a conciliatory tone she didn't feel. "Oh come on, you can't tell me that Clark Kent is going to be any threat to you? You've been brilliant in your planning and the execution of your vengeance so far. You've just told me that this is the final kill. I have to believe that you've got some equally brilliant plan to just *disappear* once the latest victim is presented, and the Daily Planet is destroyed by it."

Dutcher flashed on his expected big payoff from Luthor. His smile got wider. "Well, that may very well be true, but…"

"Hey, if you want to make sure of your vengeance, and insure the Planet doesn't recover, in all modesty, I think I would make a better victim than a guy who hasn't been with the paper for even a year yet. If you remember, the byline reads *Lane* and Kent, not Kent and Lane." Lois couldn't believe that she was standing there begging for a madman to kill her. "So, what do you say, Dutcher? I promise I won't struggle. You can do what you will, I won't fight it."

Dutcher snorted. "What fun would that be? I enjoy the terror I invoke in my victims." Dutcher's face took on a detached, faraway look, like he was reliving the excitement of previous murders. "Do you know what it's like to stare into the frightened eyes of a person who knows they are going to die? Can you begin to imagine the thrill that courses through your body when you know that they know that you hold the power of life and death over them… and that choice is a foregone conclusion?"

Lois took one more step closer. "Oh, I'll be terrified all right. I don't want to die. I'll cry, and I'll beg for my life if that's what you want. I just won't try and get away."

"No…" The voice was weak and barely above a whisper.

Both Lois and Dutcher turned and stared at Clark in astonishment. Lois could tell that Clark was barely conscious as his head had come up briefly but then flopped back down to rest on his chest. He must have heard what she was saying and his plea tugged at her heart but it only strengthened her will to do what she had to do.

"Shut up, Clark, I'm trying to save your life." Lois glanced at Clark but couldn't tell if he was even conscious anymore.

Dutcher laughed again. "And what's to keep me from just killing Kent?" Dutcher swung a vicious back handed swipe at Clark, which missed him by only inches. "And then killing you?"

At the sight of the machete's gleaming blade swinging toward Clark's exposed neck, Lois felt like a jolt of electricity had surged through her. She took several moments to stop herself from shaking.

"With all due respect," Lois said, trying to control the shaking of her voice. "You do seem to be in decent physical condition but you are not a young man anymore. You may be able to handle someone you've drugged into docility, or someone you've knocked senseless by pushing him down a flight of stairs, but I'm a young woman in her prime who is ready for you. I'm also a black belt in Tae Kwon Do." So, she was only a brown belt, it wasn't like Dutcher would know any better. And she wasn't going to tell him.

Dutcher smiled and reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the small revolver. "But I have this."

If the sight of the gun unnerved Lois, she didn't let it show. She took a deep breath. "Yeah, but would you really want to just shoot me? What fun would it be if you couldn't carve me up like some Thanksgiving Day turkey?"

Dutcher's maniacal giggle was unsettling. "Well played, Ms. Lane. Point taken, and as much as I'd like to take you up on your *generous* offer, I'm afraid I'm no longer allowed to kill you. So you see, Mr. Kent will just have to do."

Lois was stunned. "What?"

Dutcher was enjoying this. "Oh, didn't you know? Your other boyfriend offered me to aid me in my *mission*."

"My other… what are you talking about?"

Lois momentarily forgot her fear as puzzlement took over. Did he mean Lex, she wondered? She had introduced Lex to him the other day, but only as a friend. For all that Lois was beginning to see that Lex wasn't the benevolent city benefactor he purported to be, given what Clark had told her the night before, still she couldn't see Lex getting involved with a madman like Dutcher. It just didn't make any sense.

"Well," said Dutcher, grinning at Lois' bewilderment. "It seems that he is very keen on my succeeding in my quest for vengeance. Apparently it fits in with his own plans." Dutcher laughed and reached into his pocket. "He gave me this." The crystal glowed an unhealthy green in the uneven lighting.

Lois couldn't stop her exclamation. "Kryptonite!"

Lois had overheard Dutcher warning Clark that he was prepared for Superman. Now she knew what he'd meant. She hadn't heard about any kryptonite since their run in with Trask and the zealots of Bureau 39. She hadn't even known if it really existed in more than Trask's twisted mind until just now. But there was no mistaking what the crystal that Dutcher was holding up was.

"So, I see you recognize this little rock." Dutcher tossed it into the air casually and caught it again. "Frankly I was a bit skeptical as to how effective such a little piece of green rock could be against the legendary Man of Steel." Dutcher's smile looked like it belonged on a barracuda. "But, believe me, I know now how well it works." Dutcher looked back over his shoulder at Clark and gave the unconscious man a wink, a gesture that was completely lost on Lois.

Lois shuddered when she thought that there existed something that could hurt, or even kill Superman. Her uncertainty over what Dutcher had been talking about with Clark was what had kept her from yelling for Superman the minute she arrived. Not knowing, or understanding, how Dutcher might know how well the green crystal might or might not work against Superman, Lois wasn't willing to risk it. Dutcher seemed too sure of himself.

Dutcher tucked the kryptonite back into his pocket. "I'm very grateful for the gift of this little crystal." Dutcher patted his pocket. "So, I guess it was a good thing that I abducted your sister by mistake. My benefactor's only condition for his assistance was that you be spared… Oh, and that Mr.. Kent be one of my victims."

Lois felt her blood chill. The mention of Lucy brought back the pain of that loss and her determination to try and save Clark became more resolute. But it seemed that there was no way that Dutcher would be talked out of killing Clark now. She was becoming more afraid and more flustered. Was Lex really involved? She still couldn't wrap her mind around that. Dying would have been bad enough, but to have to watch Clark die, and herself be spared without knowing why. It was too much! She crossed the distance between them quickly and grabbed at Dutcher's arm.

"What are you talking about! What does this have to do with me?"

Dutcher used the hand that held the machete to shove Lois back. She stumbled and fell against the crates which held Dutcher's boxes. She lay there and looked up at the crazed look on his face. She could feel a warm trickle of blood dribble down her left cheek.

"Don't push your luck, Ms. Lane. I promised not to kill you, but I may be convinced to go back on that word."

Lois just glared at Dutcher. "Who!"

Dutcher's laugh bordered on the hysterical. "Oh come now, Ms. Lane, you can't tell me you don't know? Who else would want you protected, yet want Mr. Kent and the Daily Planet to die? You really can't figure it out? Maybe you aren't the investigative reporter I thought you were." Dutcher laughed at the look of confused pain on Lois' face. "Okay, I'm not normally this accommodating, but I think I'll enjoy the look on your face when I tell you who has been secretly helping me."

Dutcher suddenly pitched forward, as a neat hole appeared on his forehead, and the back of his skull disintegrated in a gruesome display of blood and brains. Lois stared at Dutcher's crumpled body in shock. She never heard the shot that took him out. She looked about in a frantic attempt to locate the hidden gunman. The building contained many upper story catwalks and long unused offices. There were dozens of places where a sniper could hide and not be seen.

Nigel St. John calmly ejected the shell from his high powered, and heavily silenced rifle. He frowned as he reflected on how unhappy Mr. Luthor was going to be that Dutcher hadn't finished Kent off before it became necessary to eliminate him. Nigel could only shake his head in disgust. That's what you get when you depend on showy amateurs, Nigel thought as he slipped another bullet into the chamber.

He placed his eye carefully against the powerful sniper scope and searched out his next target. The tiny cross hairs finally came to rest on the forehead on his next kill. It never entered Nigel's mind that it was hardly sporting since his victim was tied to some crates and was unconscious, or nearly so. No, Nigel was always, if nothing else, very practical. Mr. Luthor wanted Kent dead, and since their original weapon, the madman Dutcher, had failed, it was up to Nigel to correct the situation. Just as he was about to squeeze the trigger his field of vision was blocked by a mass of dark hair. Nigel had to pull his head away from the scope to see what had happened. His frown became more pronounced.

Lois had recovered her wits enough to crawl over to Clark and was blocking Nigel's clear shot at him. Nigel had two choices. He could wait and hope that a clear shot presented itself. Or he could take them both out. He carefully weighed his options. Luthor wanted Kent dead, but he wanted Lane alive. But Luthor also wanted the Daily Planet destroyed. Of course, Nigel knew that Luthor's obsession with the Daily Planet had more to do with Ms. Lane's attachment to it than any profit or loss considerations. Still, the deaths of both the Planet's top reporters would definitely insure the demise of the once great metropolitan newspaper.

Nigel couldn't help but allow his personal feelings to enter into his mental calculations. He didn't like Lois Lane. He didn't trust her. She was too willful, and too independent. Her fiery spirit was one of the things that appealed to Luthor, but Nigel feared he saw it as a challenge, and Luthor fully expected to be able to eventually reign-in the maverick reporter. Nigel didn't think so. Luthor might be able to break Lane, but he'd never tame her. If he was successful in breaking Lane's spirit, once he'd brought her to heel, she would no longer be the woman he professed to love, and Luthor would lose interest. Nigel had seen it before. Still, Luthor currently was the boss, and Luthor didn't want Lane hurt.

Nigel placed his eye against the scope again. The professional in him was piqued by the challenge. With this rifle, he was sure he could take out both Mr. Kent and Ms. Lane with one shot. Lining the cross hairs of his scope on the long and slender neck of Lois, he estimated that he could punch right through that delicate neck and still inflict a mortal wound on Kent. The challenge was difficult to resist, but with a sigh, Nigel, lowered the rifle and waited. If an open shot presented itself, Nigel would be ready.


(Chapter Twenty-two)

Lois wasn't sure where the shot had come from but since Dutcher had been facing her when he went down, the sniper had to be behind her. Only she had no idea exactly where. Her gaze kept drifting back to Dutcher's prone body lying in an ever widening pool of his own blood as she crouched down behind one of the crates. She couldn't say she felt any sort of remorse over Dutcher's death, but she did feel somehow cheated. In a way, Dutcher got off too easy for the crimes he had committed, and the pain and suffering he'd been the cause of. Lois just shook her head, who knew why things worked out the way they did.

Her gaze swayed and she caught sight of Clark, unconscious but still tied to some crates, out of the corner of her eye. "Omigod, Clark!"

She kept herself half bent over as she rushed over to her partner, who was much too exposed to whoever was up in the rafters with a rifle. She purposely placed herself between Clark and where she thought the sniper might be as she clawed frantically at the ropes that bound him to the makeshift seat of wooden cartons. The short hairs on the back of her neck tingled as she kept imagining someone casually putting the back of her head in the cross hairs of his scope.

Despite her fears she continued to pull at the tightly tied ropes, all the while expecting to feel the sudden impact of a high powered bullet ripping into her back the very next moment. Tears streamed down her face as she broke fingernails and cursed Dutcher while pulling and tearing at the firm knots on the taut ropes. Finally, her fingers bloodied by the effort, Lois managed to loosen the ropes enough to slip them away from Clark. With a cry of elation, Lois pulled Clark from his throne of packing crates and over to the protective cover provided by the crates Dutcher had set up as his table.

Hot tears flowed freely as Lois carefully scrutinized Clark's injuries. She cried as she gently examined the cuts and bruises on his face and neck. One eye was swollen shut and his nose still bled. Lois ripped a piece off her blouse and as carefully as her tender fingers would allow, wiped the blood from his face and nose.

Lois knew that Clark had apparently fallen or been pushed down the stairs at the Planet, and she had seen the vicious beating Dutcher had given him, but Lois didn't know what else was wrong. Clark was in a very bad way. He seemed to be in extreme pain, and his breathing was very labored. Lois was afraid that he might have cracked a rib, punctured a lung, or even might have some internal bleeding somewhere. The overriding thought in her mind was that she needed to get Clark to a hospital, and fast. Now was the time she needed Superman.

The thought of Superman brought the kryptonite back to Lois' mind. Taking care to keep her head down, she crawled over to Dutcher's body. She couldn't avoid getting some of Dutcher's blood on her hands and arms, but she ignored that as she reached into the dead madman's coat pockets. She pulled the small revolver out of the one pocket. She considered throwing it away, but decided to hang onto it. It might offer her some protection against their mysterious sniper if it came down to a showdown. The other pocket yielded the prize she sought. As she pulled the kryptonite from his pocket her fingers latched onto a small piece of foil that was also in there.

The piece of foil was thin, but still fairly heavy. Lois guessed that it must be lead, or something like that. Seeing the deadly glow of the small crystal in her hand, Lois immediately guessed what the foil was for. She quickly wrapped the repellent rock with it. Shoving the covered kryptonite into her pocket, she crawled back to Clark.

Lois didn't even know if the sniper was still there. He hadn't taken any shots at her as she had scurried about. Especially when she was getting Clark untied. She was a clear and easy target for anyone wanting to take her life at that time. She hadn't cared, she had to get Clark to safety. Lois, hoping that the foil which she was sure was lead, would offer the needed protection, opened her mouth to call out for Superman.

The shout never left her lips. The front door of the warehouse suddenly burst open in a shower of splinters and twisted rusted metal. Inspector Henderson lead a small group of policemen into the warehouse. Linda King followed in behind.

"Watch out," Lois shouted. "There's a sniper up there somewhere." Lois pointed in the general direction she thought the sniper shot had come from.

Immediately finding cover, Henderson directed a couple of uniforms to circle around the perimeter of the warehouse and check out the upper offices and catwalks. He and Linda approached Lois and Clark in a crouching run.

Linda looked stricken as she got close enough to see how badly Clark had been hurt. Lois noted that, surprisingly, Clark's breathing had, at least, gotten easier. Now that she was no longer worried about merely surviving till the next minute, Lois allowed herself to take a deep calming breath.

"What happened here?" Asked Henderson as his practiced eye took in the apparent chaos around him. He turned to Lois. "Just give me a quick synopsis. A longer statement can wait until we can get you two medical help." Henderson could see that Clark needed immediate attention, and Lois was on the edge of collapse herself. It was obvious that she'd been operating on pure adrenalin for quite some time, and she was ready to keel over. "I put a call into the EMTs as soon as I was told that Clark had been beaten. They should be here soon."

"Inspector." One of the uniforms had approached Henderson. "We found one spent shell casing, but there's no one there now."

Henderson nodded. "Thanks, Jeff. Ms. King." Henderson turned his attention toward Linda. "Would you please go outside and wait for the EMTs and send them in here as soon as they arrive?"

Linda, at first, looked like she was going to defy Henderson's request. She wanted to hear what had happened, but the expression on Henderson's face told her that even though he had asked, it hadn't been a request. Muttering under her breath, Linda got up and left Henderson with the worse for wear Lois.

Henderson turned to Lois and just raised his brow. Lois took another deep breath and began to fill him in. She filled him in on how she and Clark had worked out that Dutcher was masquerading as Sidney Loomis. She told him of how she managed to see 'Loomis' take Clark out of the Daily Planet and that she and Linda had followed them to this old warehouse. She then gave him a quick run down on what had happened between her and Dutcher. She hit on the high points, like Dutcher beating on Clark, and her offering herself in Clark's stead. Henderson just gave her a cryptic look at that point but didn't interrupt. She finished up with her description of Dutcher being shot by some unknown sniper. Lois left out the part about how Dutcher claimed to be getting help from someone he had called her 'other boyfriend'. She was too confused by that to answer any questions Henderson might have about it. The only person who came to mind was Lex, and she wasn't willing to voice an allegation like that against him, at least not yet. She also failed to mention the kryptonite. She just didn't trust the police to keep it safe, and a secret. If this little crystal could indeed hurt Superman, she wanted to know what was going to happen to it.

"Let me get this straight," Henderson said after she'd finished. "Knowing there was a sniper out there, you put yourself in the direct line of fire in order to untie Clark?"

"Yes, I needed to get him to safety," Lois answered in a challenging tone.

Henderson just nodded, a small smile turned up the corner of his lip. They were interrupted by the arrival of the medical team and Henderson reluctantly moved aside to allow them to do their work. Stepping over to examine the body of Jebadiah Dutcher, Henderson couldn't help but think that the demise of the 'Headsman' serial killer was going to make one hell of a headline, and a front page exclusive for Lois and Clark. But it seemed that there were going to be plenty of questions that there would never be answers to also. Sighing, Henderson headed back to his car to call for the coroner.

*** Nigel St. John stood in front of his employer. "I'm sorry, sir. Things didn't go quite as planned. Dutcher was ready to implicate you in front of Ms. Lane so I felt I had to keep that from happening. I had intended to take Mr. Kent out myself but Ms. Lane interposed herself between me and Kent. I was never able to get a clean shot. Shortly the police arrived, so I thought it best not to get caught there. Too many questions, you understand."

Lex Luthor eyed the cigar he was holding. He had purchased it especially to smoke in celebration of the elimination of Kent and the Daily Planet, paving the way for him to bring Lois Lane under his control. He sighed as he put the Havana back into its custom humidor. Not that he was giving up his dream of Lois Lane, but as things looked at present, that might have to wait. He slipped the humidor back into his desk drawer. There would come another time.

Luthor looked up at his aide de camp. "I quite understand, Nigel. As you said, it's hard to control events and outcomes when you are depending on amateurs." Luthor stood and striding over to his wet bar, poured himself a drink. "I guess we'll just have to wait for, or create, another opportunity down the line a bit. It wasn't a total loss. We still have the information on those Daily Planet board members that might come in handy some day." Luthor's smile was a calculating one. "We also know how easily the general public can be manipulated." Luthor took a moment to stare at the contents of his glass. "No, my friend, I won't call this a defeat, merely a set back. I am not finished with our Mr. Kent, the Daily Planet, or that blue spandexed flying boy scout. And I am definitely not done with the lovely Ms. Lois Lane." Luthor raised his glass toward Nigel. "There is always another day, salute."

Nigel, empty-handed, nodded in acknowledgement of his toast as Luthor drained the glass.

*** "I can't believe the doctors let you out of the hospital so quickly. It's only been one day, but they say you are healing at an amazing rate." Lois had slipped herself under Clark's arm and was guiding him into his apartment.

Clark allowed himself to be led even though he had regained the strength of an ordinary man. His powers were still gone, but he was confident that they'd return in a day or two. "I've always been a fast healer." Clark smiled as Lois guided him to his couch.

Lois wandered back to the kitchen and rummaged around in the cupboards. "Perry says that our story is a sure Kerth winner and will be the catalyst that will bring the advertisers flocking back to the Planet. He thinks that everything will be back to normal in a few weeks."

Clark pursed his lips and frowned. "Except for the people we lost."

Lois sighed sadly. "Yeah."

"I noticed that my name was on the byline of that front page story along with yours." Clark fixed Lois with a calculating stare and smiled when she blushed. "I remember going through some of the stuff you wrote about but I don't remember contributing any written words."

Lois shrugged. "We're partners, so anything that comes from one of us comes from both of us."

Clark chuckled. "Okay, partner, what's next?"

"Well, you just sit there and relax. I'm going to take care of everything for the next day or two."

"Does that include the cooking?" Clark asked in pretended fear. "I just got *out* of the hospital."

Lois pinned him with a deadly glare, then broke into laughter. "Well, my fingers may still be a bit sore," she said, holding up her bandaged digits. "But I can still use a phone, and I know all the best take out and delivery places in town." She came over and sat next to Clark on the sofa. "So, what will it be tonight? Pizza, or Chinese?"

"We can decide that later." Clark touched the little bandage on Lois' cheek then took her injured hands in his own. "I'm so sorry that you were hurt."

Lois rolled her eyes heavenward. "Don't tell me you are going to take the blame for what happened to me because of that madman. Clark, you were in trouble and injured. I only did what any good friend would do." Clark fixed Lois with a look of such intensity that she had to look away as she blushed. She seemed to be doing that around Clark a lot lately.

Clark shook his head. "Lois, I may have been pretty out of it, but I did hear quite a bit of what was said." He reached over and with his finger on her cheek guided her face back in line with his. "You risked your life for me. You offered yourself in my stead. I think you might say that goes a little beyond mere friendship."

Lois pulled away and began fidgeting with her hands. "Does it?" She turned back and met his eyes. "I want it to, but I just don't know." She flopped back against the back cushions of the couch. "These last several days have put me through such an emotional wringer. I lost my sister, and that was very hard to take. I still don't think I'm over that."

Clark took one of Lois' hands and gave it a squeeze of reassurance. "Lois, I don't think you are supposed to *get over it*. I just think that with time you'll learn how to keep her memory in a special place in your heart, where you can access it whenever you need to, and move on with your own life."

Lois sighed. "Yeah, I guess you're right." Lois gave Clark's hand a squeeze in return. "Clark, do you remember the other day when I asked you if you loved me?"

Clark chuckled. "Of course, and I said yes… and Lois, I still do. I always will."

Her smile for him was tender, if a bit shy. "I know. I wish it were that simple for me. In these last few days it finally began to sink in just what you mean to me. I've been burned a few times in the past when I've given my heart to someone, and so I've managed to convince myself that by being the best reporter in Metropolis I would be fulfilled, and wouldn't need the complications and pain that inevitably come from a relationship."

Lois turned and laid her head on Clark's lap. "Oh yeah, I had it all figured out. Tough as nails, Mad Dog Lane, a hard crusty shell."

"That protected the soft creamy middle," Clark added as he began to brush her hair from her forehead with his fingers.

"Whatever," she retorted with a smile that belied her word. "Anyway, somehow you accomplished the impossible. You got around my defenses. No matter how much I belittled you, or were mean to you, you stayed with me. Slowly you became what I'd never really had before — a best friend. When you disappeared without a word the other day I thought my life was over."


"Hey, I'm pouring my heart out here, the least you can do is shut up and listen." She slapped at the hand that had been playing with her hair.


"When I was facing the possibility the I might have lost you forever, it forced me to realize just what I would be missing. In some ways it was a surprising revelation, but it was then that I finally understood that I had grown accustomed to having you around. And more than that, I depended on you being around." She grabbed his hand and just held it. "Clark, I've gotten used to having you in my life, and I don't think I could go back to the way it was before."

"I'm not planning on going anywhere."

She craned her neck and twisted around so she could look at him. "And you'd better not." She resumed her comfortable position of using Clark's lap as her pillow. "Still, I know that you love me, but am I being fair to you? I know that I *want* to love you, but I've made such a mess of any previous relationships I've had that I think I'm incapable of love."

"That's nonsense."

"Is it? All my past relationships with men could be considered federal disasters, including that with my father." Lois sighed.

Clark shrugged. "So, I'll just be your first, non-federal- disaster."

Lois frowned. "Clark, I'm serious. What if we find out that I'm incapable of really loving anyone?"

Clark reached down and pulled Lois into a sitting position in his lap. He captured her eyes with his own. "Lois, think back to yesterday. You were arguing with a psychotic killer. You were trying to convince him to kill you instead of me."

Lois shrugged with her eyes. "Yeah, so?"

"Lois, the first definition of love is putting the other person's welfare, and happiness above your own." He stroked her cheek with the palm of his hand. "If offering yourself up as Dutcher's final victim in my place isn't placing my welfare above your own, then I don't know what is."

Lois leaned her cheek into Clark's hand, then turned and nibbled on his finger. "You think?"

Clark smiled. "I think. Besides, my folks adore you and they are pretty sharp people."

Lois smiled back at Clark. The two of them looked deeply into the eyes of the other. Their bodies drifted slowly toward each other. Suddenly, a frown creased Lois' brow as she pulled away. She bit her lip as she looked back at Clark, her face clearly etched with worry.

Clark was puzzled by Lois' abrupt change. "What is it, Lois? What's wrong."

"It was something that Dutcher was telling me, or trying to tell me." She saw that Clark was confused, but then so was she. "He claimed to have been given aid by my *other boyfriend*. Clark, he had kryptonite! I recognized it from your descriptions from when we had to deal with Trask. Dutcher was convinced it would protect him from Superman."

"Where is it now?"

"I flushed it down the toilet." Lois shuddered. "I don't know if it would have worked, but it was some pretty eerie stuff."

"Oh, it works all right."

Lois gave Clark a calculating look. "How do you know?"

Clark was now frowning himself. "I'll explain later. What was this about your *other boyfriend*?"

Lois shrugged helplessly. "I don't really know. The only person I can think of is Lex. But Lex, wouldn't have anything to do with a madman like Dutcher." Lois stared at Clark, but he turned his head away. "Clark?"

Clark sighed, then turned his head back to Lois. "Look, I know we still don't see eye to eye on Luthor. And, truth be told, I don't know if he did or didn't have anything to do with Dutcher, and the problems at the Planet." Clark reached for Lois' face again. "Would you at least consider having Lane and Kent do some investigating of Mr. Lex Luthor, and his empire?"

Lois stared hard at Clark. The earnestness of his expression caused her to doubt her initial conclusions regarding Lex. Clark truly believed Lex was evil. "Okay, I think that might be a good idea." Lois allowed herself a wry smile in Clark's direction. "Let's find out about Mr. Lex Luthor once and for all."

Lois twisted herself around until she could snuggle up against Clark's broad chest. She reached up, grabbed his arms, and pulled them around her. Sighing, she settled into his embrace.

The partners stayed like that on the couch for nearly an hour. Neither one spoke, neither one felt like moving. They just sat there in each other's arms, content to be together.

"Clark," Lois said, finally breaking the contented silence. "I love you."

Clark didn't speak, he just placed his finger on her chin and turned her face toward his. He leaned down and captured her lips with his. It wasn't a kiss of wild abandon, or hot passion. It was warm and tender. It was a kiss full of promise. It was a beginning.


When they finally broke, Lois had to gulp in a breath of air. She leaned her forehead against Clark's. A big smile crossed her face. With her fingertip she traced little circles on Clark's chest. She was about to lean back in for a repeat performance when they were disturbed by a strange rumble. It was Lois' stomach.

Lois giggled as she reluctantly pushed herself out of Clark's embrace and to her feet. "I guess that means we should get something to eat."

Clark nodded his head, but was clearly disappointed by the interruption. "I guess." He saw Lois about to ask him what he wanted. "You choose."

Lois grinned. "Okay, I feel like a large pepperoni pizza with everything on it." Lois quickly dialed the number of the pizza place from memory.

She spoke quickly into the phone then hung up after giving them Clark's address. "It should be here in about a half an hour." Lois, seeing Clark just sitting there, suddenly got a coy look on her face. "You know, Clark," Lois said, pulling at her lower lip with her finger. "I've just told you my little secret." Her smile became a little more flirtatious. "If I remember right, that entitles me to hear your last, deep, dark secret." Lois took a couple of steps back toward the sofa. "That is what you said, right?"

Clark slowly got up from the couch, running his hand through his hair. He stared at Lois for several seconds, then walked over to her. Grasping her hands, he led her back to the couch.

"Lois," he said, hesitantly. "I think you'd better sit down."