By Nan Smith <email@example.com>
Submitted: September 28, 2002
Summary: This is the sequel to the author's "Four Days to Nightfall" and begins two days after "Charlie" deflected Nightfall, thereby saving the Earth from destruction. There is no Superman yet, and Clark Kent has just been hired at the Daily Planet…
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings in this story are not mine. They are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions and whoever else can legally claim them. The story is originally based on the Lois and Clark episode "Witness" and any recognizable parts (of Witness or any other episodes of the series) are credited to the writers of the show. Any new characters, scenes and the story itself are mine.
This is the sequel to "Four Days to Nightfall" and begins two days after "Charlie" deflected Nightfall, thereby saving the Earth from destruction. There is no Superman, yet, and Clark Kent has just been hired at the Daily Planet…
"Clark Kent, this is Lois Lane," Jimmy said. "She's…"
"I had the privilege of meeting Ms. Lane some time ago," Clark Kent said. "How are you, Lois?"
"Fine, thank you, Clark." Lois said, politely. "How are things in Smallville, these days?"
"Much better than a few days ago," Clark said. His eyes were twinkling. "My parents said to say hello to you for them."
"That was nice of them," Lois said. "So, you're joining the Planet, huh?"
Clark nodded. "I'd been planning to try for a job in Metropolis for some time," he said. "The Nightfall thing made me decide to speed up my plans a bit. Jennifer has been ready to take over as editor of the paper for quite a while, really, so I turned it over to her a week early and here I am."
Jimmy grinned. "I guess something like that makes a lot of people think," he said. "I finally decided to re-enroll in the night classes at Metro City College and finish getting that AA degree in computers. It will take a couple of years, going to school part time, but it should mean a real improvement for my career."
"It certainly will," Clark said. "I'm told you're pretty good with them, already."
Jimmy nodded. "Yeah, but it was mostly self-taught. Those letters after my name will make a big difference."
"Sad but true," Lois said. "Maybe it'll translate into a bigger salary."
"I wouldn't mind," Jimmy said. "Come on, CK, I better show you the rest of the layout. Over here, we have the sports section. The Sports Editor is Pete…"
Lois watched them go, or more accurately, she watched Charlie — - or Clark — walking away. The man certainly made that suit look good.
A low wolf whistle made her turn her head. Cat Grant, clad in something that was at least theoretically a dress, was also watching him with an expression that reminded Lois of a tiger contemplating its prey.
"Who's the new tight end?" she inquired.
Lois shrugged, suppressing a twinge of annoyance. Charlie had made it pretty clear a few days ago that Cat really wasn't his type. Besides, she was darned if she'd let Cat know that anything the woman did bothered her. "Why don't you throw your usual forward pass and find out?"
Cat smiled her usual irritating smile and whipped out her compact to check her heavy lip makeup. Lois deliberately looked the other way but couldn't help listening as the gossip columnist parked herself directly in his path.
Lois glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. Cat was blocking his way, blatantly displaying her not-inconsiderable assets. She extended her hand. "Cat Grant. Cat's Corner?" she added, smiling brilliantly.
Charlie — Clark, Lois reminded herself — smiled back, a little hesitantly. "Oh, yes. I've read your column, Ms. Grant."
"Cat," she corrected.
"Cat," Clark agreed. "I'm Clark Kent."
"So, Clark," Cat said, trailing a finger up his arm, "are you new to Metropolis? I know how lonely it can be, those first days in a new place. Maybe we could have dinner someplace tonight and I could show you around…"
Lois gritted her teeth. If Charlie was foolish enough to accept that invitation, she knew what Cat would be showing him! Trust the woman to move in on an attractive male — or *any* male — like a steamroller!
"Why, thank you, Ms. Grant." Clark adjusted his glasses. "I appreciate the offer, but I'm pretty busy, right now. Maybe after I get settled…"
Cat's smile widened and she patted his arm. "It's a date." She turned and walked away, hips swaying.
Clark turned his head and looked at Lois, his expression almost comically dismayed. The expression was so eloquent, Lois's irritation vanished as quickly as it had arisen and she had to master a sudden urge to laugh.
Jimmy wasn't paying attention to the byplay, however. He was watching Cat walk away. Lois got to her feet and crossed the office to where the men were standing. "Wipe the drool off your chin, Junior."
"Huh?" Jimmy's gaze snapped to her.
"Have you finished the tour?" she inquired.
"Huh? Oh, yeah."
"Good, because it's past my lunchtime. Clark, if you've finished your paperwork for the moment, I'm going to get lunch. Want to come along?"
"Sure…if Mr. White doesn't want me to do anything else."
"Even new employees get time off for lunch. You can tell me what you've been doing since I saw you last."
It was already past noon. As they stepped outside the Daily Planet, Lois turned to Charlie — Clark, she reminded herself again, but it was hard to think of her companion during the Nightfall crisis as anyone but Charlie. He was Charlie to her and probably always would be. "Where would you like to eat? There are a lot more places open, this time around."
He chuckled. "That's a nice change. I don't know. The burger place we went to would be fine."
"Okay." They started up the block toward the hamburger stand. Lois glanced sideways at him, wondering how to start the conversation. This wasn't the Charlie she had known, the man without a memory. This Charlie was Clark Kent of Smallville, the editor of the town's little paper and in full possession of his memories.
"I guess those were your glasses that I found in the crater, after all," she said.
He nodded. "Probably. Normally, I wear my glasses all the time, even when I'm flying. It's a habit."
"Don't they blow off?" she asked, curiously. "I mean, you must be able to fly pretty fast, if you reached the asteroid swarm in under five minutes."
"Yeah, I do. I don't know-they seem to stick where they are without any trouble."
"Oh." She digested that. "Why glasses, though? You don't really need them, do you?"
"No, not to see," he admitted. "Mom came up with the idea to remind me not to use my special vision without thinking about it. The lenses are made of lead crystal."
"That was one of the things we didn't figure out," he said. "I'll explain later when we aren't in public, but basically, I can't use my x-ray vision very well while I'm wearing them."
"*X-ray* — " She cut the sentence off. "I can see you've got a lot to tell me," she continued after a minute. At his nod, she said, "Well, you can do that this evening. We'll get some take out and go to my apartment-unless you have one of your own by now."
"Not yet. I'm staying at the Apollo Hotel until I find the right place. I wouldn't invite my worst enemy over there."
"That bad, huh?"
"Worse," he said. "Your place is much nicer. Was the food I left you still warm enough when you got home?"
She nodded. "It was fine. You probably only missed me by a few minutes."
"I'd have stayed, but I had a lot of things to do. Mt. Pinatubo was erupting and there was a village right in the path of the lava —"
"Yeah, I know. I figured that was probably you," Lois said. "I've been following the news pretty closely the last couple of days, trying to figure out what was coincidence and what was your work. How do you manage without people seeing you?"
He shrugged. "Sometimes I don't. I can move pretty fast, but sometimes I can't avoid being seen. Dad keeps telling me that sooner or later somebody's going to catch me with a video camera and the jig will be up."
"Hmm." Lois mulled that over. "Maybe you should wear a mask or something. As fast as you can move, you could put one on in no time."
He didn't answer for a moment, and when he did, he sounded slightly surprised. "You know, I never even thought of that."
"Well," she said, "we're going to have to work on some way for you to keep from being recognized, if you're going to keep helping people. You don't want to have to explain yourself and I don't want you to have to, either."
"Dad always said that if anyone ever found out about me, the government would put me in a lab and dissect me like a frog," he said. "Mom and Dad were pretty worried when they first found out that you knew. I told them they didn't have to worry."
"Good," Lois said, "because they don't. Besides, how could anybody dissect you? If ramming Nightfall didn't kill you, I doubt anything the government could come up with would be able to. Still, I'd rather people didn't know. We'd never have a moment's peace."
He didn't answer at once. Finally, he said, " You still feel the same way, then?"
"Of course I do," she said. "Why shouldn't I? Unless you've changed *your* mind."
He was shaking his head. "Not a chance."
"Well, as long as we have that straight." The hamburger stand was doing a brisk business. They joined the line, waiting for their turn. "What do you want for lunch?"
He grinned. "You bought last time. This time it's my treat."
"Actually, Perry bought the burgers from this place," Lois pointed out.
He waved that away. "Only a technicality. I'm buying. What would you like?"
"I think I'll get the chicken sandwich," Lois said. "The days of unbridled eating are over."
"I don't think you ate much at the time, actually. Did you ever get the chance to go shopping?"
"Yeah, the next morning I stocked up on frozen dinners. They're fast and I'm not much of a cook."
"Well, I am," Clark said. "Wait until I get my own place. I'll invite you over for an apartment-warming dinner."
"That Chinese food you brought was great," Lois said. "Was it really from — you know?"
"Yeah, I found the place about three years ago, while I was traveling," he said. "I've gone back there ever since, every time I want good Chinese take-out. It's only a few minutes away for me and the food is worth it. Besides, I figured it couldn't be worse than that petrified stuff you threw in the garbage the other night. They closed down Feng's Chinese Garden two months ago — and it wasn't that great when it was open."
"You've been there?"
"Sure. I like discovering good places to eat. That wasn't one of my better choices, though."
The teenager ahead of them paid the cashier, collected his burger and fries and departed. The woman at the counter turned to Lois. "What'll it be?"
Lois gave her order and then listened in a state of slight bemusement as Charlie — Clark, she reminded herself again — ordered enough food to feed a small army. While they waited, Lois looked out at the now-bustling city, reflecting how different it had been the last time she and Charlie had stood here.
He leaned against the counter, looking relaxed and comfortable, smiling at her and she thought again, as she had been doing since she had met him, that it was a shame that they hadn't met years ago. Charlie — or Clark — was so completely unlike Claude, it was like night and day. Maybe being from a small town had something to do with it, she thought. She'd always thought of people from small town America as naive and unsophisticated, but looking at Charlie — Clark Kent — she was beginning to wonder if that was such a bad thing — or if it was even true.
Several other people had come and gone before the large bag containing their lunches was deposited on the counter and Clark (was she ever going to get used to calling him that?) paid the cashier.
"Do you want to eat at one of the tables?" he asked.
"Sure." She took a spot near the sidewalk, comfortably positioned with the sun to her back and he presented her with the chicken sandwich and the diet soda. When he unwrapped his own meal, however, she eyed his choices with a certain amount of envy. "Don't you ever have to worry about fat or cholesterol?"
"I doubt it," he said, keeping his voice low. "I've never found anything that can hurt me, since I was about twelve."
She was removing the wrapper from her sandwich but at that, she looked up. "So, there was a time when you weren't…um…"
"Injury proof? Well, I fell out of a tree when I was six and broke my leg. I think that was the worst thing that ever happened to me, though. It healed up in about two weeks, but nobody knew that except my Mom and Dad."
"Oh." She took a bite of the sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. "So, I take it that the Mr. and Mrs. Kent we talked to are your parents?"
"My adoptive parents," he said. "I've never known who my real parents were. I was kind of left on their doorstep — so to speak. Actually, they found me in a field."
She stared at him, slightly shocked. "You were abandoned?"
"Um — not exactly. At least, I don't think so. I'll tell you more about it this evening."
That was probably a good idea, she decided. With the sounds of the passing traffic and the general noise of Metropolis, it wasn't likely that his low voice would be heard but she wasn't anxious to take the risk. She concentrated on eating her chicken sandwich and watched with some amazement as an amazing amount of food disappeared from in front of Charlie in record time. Well, for a man who was as fast and strong as he was and who could fly besides, it probably wasn't all that big a meal, she reasoned. He must burn up energy like crazy. No wonder he looked as if he worked out constantly. She knew what Cat saw in him, all right — outside of the simple fact that he was young and male. Cat had to be closing in on forty, but she had never, in the time Lois had known her, ever let that stop her in the pursuit of an attractive guy-and most of the men seemed to find Cat to their taste. She hoped that Charlie wouldn't fall under her spell, though. To his credit, he hadn't seemed particularly interested.
"Is something wrong?" Charlie's voice broke through her abstraction.
"Huh? Oh — no, not really. I was just thinking about Cat trying to move in on you a while ago."
"Oh, that." Charlie rolled his eyes. "I was going to ask for your advice about that. I don't want to hurt her feelings, but I really don't want to have dinner with her."
Lois simply looked at him. Were there really men like this or was it because Charlie was an alien? In spite of the way she'd seen him react to Cat twice now, she still had difficulty comprehending his behavior. Every man at the office, with the possible exception of Perry, would probably jump at the opportunity Cat had dangled in front of him, and he was trying to figure out a way to avoid it? True, he definitely wasn't your ordinary, average guy, but something about Cat brought out every insecurity Lois had ever had about her own appeal to the male of the species. Charlie had to at least suspect what was being offered and apparently really didn't want any kind of fling with her. After a few seconds, she regained her composure and cleared her throat. "Um — let me give it some thought," she said. "I'll figure something out."
"Thanks. Cat just isn't my type."
"Oh?" Lois said, unable to resist the temptation. "Just what *is* your type, then?"
"I didn't have a 'type' until I met you — or at least, I didn't know what it was," he said, with a small grin. "I guess I'm just very selective, because I've never met any woman like you before. Does that sound silly?"
"I think," Lois said, "that I'm taking back everything I ever thought about small town guys. It might be silly, but I like it."
"Good." He looked down at the table and then back at her face. "I don't want to rush you — I mean, you've only known me for a few days — but I was wondering if you'd like to go out to dinner, after I get a little more settled. There's this little café that I know in Paris —"
"Paris? Could you do that? I mean —"
"Well, sure, it's not dangerous. I've taken my mom and dad places that way and I've never dropped them, yet."
"Oh, no I didn't mean that," Lois said, quickly. "I just hadn't realized you could — I mean, you could take me flying with you?" The idea was dazzling.
"Sure. How about this evening?"
Suddenly, evening couldn't come fast enough. "Wow! I mean, sure!"
"Have you ever been to the Brazilian rainforest?" Lois asked, as they headed back toward the Planet a short time later.
"Well — " Lois glanced upward at the cloudy sky. A light dusting of snow had begun to fall. "I wondered. It seemed likely that you had, considering what we found out about you that day the power went out. They're picking the new head of the Rainforest Consortium, you know. It was all over the papers before Nightfall kind of crowded it off the front page. The results are going to be announced Tuesday."
"Yeah. Rumor says the front runner is Barbara Trevino. If it's true, she'd be the first woman to ever hold the post. Quite an honor, really."
"Exactly. It's big news. Anyhow, I'm supposed to try to get an interview from her for the Planet. I was wondering if you could give me a little general information about things — you know — - what the rainforest is like, the situation with the timber companies and the clear cutting operations — what it looks like to a visitor and so forth. If you don't mind."
"Sure," Charlie said. "Any time you like."
"Well, how about this evening, then — before you tell me about yourself?"
He shrugged. "No problem."
As they entered the Planet's lobby, Lois glanced at the newspaper and magazine stand. Barbara Trevino's face smiled from the front page of two different magazines and the same shot, much smaller, graced the front page of the current copy of The Daily Planet.
"The papers are sure playing it big," Charlie said.
"Yeah," Lois said. "Won't everybody be embarrassed if they pick somebody else, after all this?"
"Why do you say that?" he asked, sounding mildly curious.
"No reason. It's just that I'm a firm believer in Murphy's Law."
"I see what you mean," he agreed. "Well, let's hope it doesn't happen."
Lois glanced at her watch. "Oh, great, look at the time. I need to change clothes. I have an interview in about an hour."
"Big story?" Charlie asked.
"Maybe," Lois said. "I got a call from Vincent Winninger this morning. You know who he is, don't you?"
He nodded. "Sure. He has quite a reputation — not all of it in the scientific community."
Lois couldn't restrain a grin. "True. But he wanted to talk to me, and far be it from me to toss aside a chance like that. Go on up to the newsroom. I'll see you in a minute."
It was rather more than a minute before Lois arrived in the newsroom and hurried over to her desk to retrieve her recorder. Glancing up, she saw Charlie's appreciative gaze riveted on her with quite a different expression on his face than the one with which he had regarded Cat.
"How do I look?" she asked.
"Very…nice," he said.
Lois glanced down at the short, red dress that showed a good deal more leg than most of her office wardrobe. "Thank you."
Jimmy stopped in mid step and nearly fell over his feet. "Whoa! Where are you going?"
"To interview Vincent Winninger," Lois said, trying not to sound smug.
"You're kidding!" Jimmy looked suitably impressed. "The Mad Scientist?"
"He's not mad," Lois said. "He's eccentric."
"*You're* going to interview Vincent Winninger?" Cat's voice said, behind her. Lois turned. The gossip columnist was removing a leopard-spotted coat to reveal a dress that uncovered different patches of skin than the creation she had worn this morning.
"Yes," she said, trying not to bristle.
Cat snorted. "That explains the vain attempt to look sexy."
"You better be careful," Jimmy said. "Vincent Winninger is a notorious —"
"Wolf," Cat said. "Womanizer." She didn't sound as if the thought bothered her. "Maybe I should go with you."
"Maybe you shouldn't," Lois said, without hesitation. She found the recorder in the second drawer she opened and thrust it into her bag. "I'll see you all later."
Cat cast a final glance at the red outfit and sashayed away toward her desk. Charlie — Clark, she reminded herself again. She really had to start calling him Clark even to herself, or she was going to slip at the wrong time — *Clark* had a faint grin on his face. "Don't tell me," he said. "Are you planning to exploit your femininity to —"
"To get the story of one of the strangest and most reclusive scientists of our time?" Lois completed the sentence. She grinned. "You bet."
Clark chuckled. "I was right," he said. "Any editor would kill to have you on his team."
"That's for sure," Jimmy said. He resumed his interrupted progress toward the storeroom. Lois waited until he was out of earshot before answering.
"You're welcome, but I was only telling the truth," he replied. "You shouldn't let Cat get to you like that. It's just envy, you know."
"Maybe," she said, glancing at her watch. "I have to leave or I'm going to be late. I'll be back in a couple of hours."
It wasn't until she had stepped into the elevator and the doors had closed that it occurred to her to wonder how he had known. It seemed that Charlie was a lot more observant than she had realized.
"Scientists, philosophers, historians, hippies — hah!" Vincent Winninger broke off with a snort of laughter. "Elimont Center, the intellectual commune: named after — " Again he paused and said on a musing note, "I don't remember who he named it after. Do you?"
Lois turned from her examination of the wall full of photographs to look at him, uncertain whether the scientist actually expected an answer. He was a tall, athletic man with an engaging manner that Lois found quite charming, even if a good proportion of his remarks left her slightly confused. Winninger gave her a half smile. "Whoever he was, you can bet he was obscure."
He must be joking, Lois decided. She turned back to the photos.
There were a lot of them, photos showing Vincent Winninger with politicians, astronauts, actors — famous personages from all walks of life. She leaned closer, taking in the famous faces. "And these theatrical photos?"
"The commune had a theater group," Winninger said.
An extremely famous face caught her eye. "Isn't that…?"
"Frank Sinatra?" Winninger filled in the blank. " Uh, no. That's Sebastian Finn. Mr. Make-up, we called him. He could make himself look like anyone. His Bette Davis was … remarkable."
Fascinated, Lois examined the image of the imposter closely. If there was a difference, she couldn't see it in the photograph. "What happened to him?"
Winninger shrugged. "I don't know. He sort of disappeared. His make-up was better than his acting."
The photo of Winninger and a past president caught her attention. "Isn't this…"
He nodded, looking unexpectedly serious. "Barbara Trevino," he said, indicating the woman standing in the background. "She's come a long way. From radical hippie to…"
"To chairperson of the Rainforest Consortium," Lois said. Belatedly, she snapped on her recorder. "Do you mind if I record this?"
He shook his head. "Be my guest."
"Thanks. You were talking about Barbara Trevino, the new Chairperson of the Rainforest Consortium —"
To her surprise, Winninger unexpectedly shook his head. "Well, not until Tuesday. But we're going to change all that."
Lois shot him a startled glance. "We?"
"Yes, you and me. That's why you're here." The scientist took a seat on the sofa and reached to extract a small book from a box sitting on the coffee table. "Did you know that I spent several years living with an Amazonian tribe?"
There must be some point here, she thought, even if she wasn't seeing it. The scientist waved her to a seat beside him and held out the book. "The Life and Times of Vincent Winninger. In this play, Barbara Trevino has a leading role. She's the femme fatale."
Not rambling after all? Lois leaned forward to take the book, avoiding the tray holding a pitcher of iced tea and two glasses that sat on the table, and her skirt inched upward, baring a stretch of shapely thigh. Winninger's eyes flicked toward it.
"You know," he said, resting a hand casually on her knee, "you're a very good-looking woman, Ms. Lane."
"Thank you." She firmly removed his hand.
He gave the faintest of smiles, acknowledging the action. "How do you feel about increased male potency?"
"What?" She quickly pulled her skirt into place. "Look, Dr. Winninger, I know your reputation with women is only exceeded by your scientific one, but I think it's best if we keep this meeting professional."
Feeling as if she were grasping at mist that melted as she touched it, Lois stared at him. "What am I missing here?"
Winninger's smile had vanished. "Barbara Trevino is going to sell all of us and the ozone layer straight down the river," he said, "and destroy our chances for increased male potency."
Lois stared at him in shock. The man was clearly rambling. "I guess the sixties were pretty good to you," she said, finally.
Winninger didn't seem to be offended. "Hear me out. It will all become clear." He picked up the pitcher of tea. "Would you like some iced tea?"
He began to pour a glass for her, but the liquid splashed slightly, spattering her blouse. Winninger set the pitcher down quickly and snatched up a napkin, attempting to blot away the tea. "Oh, I'm so sorry!"
"That's okay," Lois said, hastily. "I'll get it." She rose quickly to her feet and hurried toward the bathroom, still clutching the notebook. Behind her, she heard a knock on the door.
Later, she would marvel at the workings of chance and at the fact that the minor accident had probably saved her life. Dabbing at the small spot of tea on her clothing, she heard Winninger's voice, speaking to someone out of her range of vision.
"You're back early."
There was no answer from the newcomer, but the next word brought her around in alarm.
"No!" The scientist's voice was filled with sheer terror. "No!"
The second word cut off in the middle and Lois almost ducked at the sound of a shot fired from a silenced pistol.
Why the sound it made was called silenced she wasn't quite sure, for the shot was anything but silent to her startled ears, but she supposed that it wasn't as loud as an unsilenced one. Marginally, anyhow. Someone outside probably wouldn't know what had made it. Quickly, she peeked through the crack in the door, trying to see what was happening.
Winnenger collapsed suddenly into her range of vision and she almost jumped. There was something about the way he lay there like an empty sack that left no doubt in her mind that he was dead, and her heart began to thump painfully in her chest as it occurred to her for the first time that she was in real danger. She had nearly witnessed a murder; she had certainly heard it, and the killer was standing right there in the other room, less than fifteen feet from her. Biting her lower lip to keep from making any inadvertent sound, she sneaked one eye past the edge of the door again, trying to see.
Motion. She could see a leather shoe and then a pantleg. A man knelt beside Winninger and felt for the pulse in his neck. For a numb second, during which her brain didn't seem to be functioning, she didn't absorb the scene before her, then reality seemed to rush back. She was seeing the murderer checking the efficacy of his work.
She almost gasped but managed to stifle it and consciously tried to breathe quietly. She needed to remember what she saw, she told herself, but it was hard to concentrate. Then the breath caught in her throat as the killer got to his feet and turned toward the bathroom.
As silently as possible, she eased back against the wall and pressed herself as flat against it as she could manage.
The book. Too late, she saw the notebook she had been holding, lying on the lid of the commode.
The door was pushed back suddenly and she barely stifled a squeak of alarm. The man entered the room and walked directly to the sink, ignoring the book that lay openly on the lid. Methodically, he removed his shirt, then unwrapped a bar of soap, tossing the wrapper into the trash.
Lois couldn't be certain what he was doing because she didn't dare move. Flattened behind the door, if she did anything to draw his attention he would be bound to see her. The self- defense moves she had learned wouldn't be very useful against a gun, and in any case, the bathroom was too small for much maneuvering. Trying to breathe silently, she remained motionless.
The sound of running water reached her ears and she dared to lean forward just slightly. The killer was washing his face. Now was her chance, probably the only one she would have. Feeling the perspiration break out on her forehead, Lois reached out and seized the book, retreating once more behind the door. If she could have, she would have left the bathroom and fled, but the space between the killer and the door was too narrow. She would have brushed against him and given herself away. As it was, her heart was pounding so hard in her chest, she was surprised he couldn't hear it.
How long was the guy going to scrub himself, she wondered. She felt suffocated from trying to breathe lightly and silently. At last, he turned from the sink, his eyes closed tightly, and reached for the bath towel hanging neatly from its rack. His hand missed the towel rack and he leaned forward, feeling for the towel. In a moment, he was bound to open his eyes to find the thing he sought and the jig would be up. Moving quickly and quietly, Lois seized the item, almost thrust it into his seeking hands and flattened herself against the wall once more.
Every second seemed like a small lifetime as the murderer carefully dried his face and hands. At last, he turned and left the little bathroom, taking the towel with him. Lois let out her breath.
The fact that she had so far escaped detection must have given her a small jolt of courage. She was still scared; she admitted it freely, but her brain and sense of observation were beginning to recover.
He had taken the shirt as well, she saw. This guy, whoever he was, wasn't any amateur.
Lois could hear the man's retreating footsteps and breathed a sigh of relief.
Too soon. The footsteps were returning. She held her breath, not daring to move. The footsteps entered the bathroom, and she saw a hand reach down into the trashcan to remove the soap wrapper.
More movement. This time the footsteps retreated purposefully and quickly, and she heard the door open and then close.
Lois released her breath explosively and then, feeling slightly dizzy, sucked in a lungful of air. He was gone.
Slowly, she emerged from behind the door. Vincent Winninger was sprawled face down on the rug of his study, and a wide patch of red soaking the carpet next to him had formed itself most appropriately into a lopsided question mark.
Giving the scientist's body a wide berth, Lois made her way to the phone. With shaking hands, she dialed zero and waited what seemed like an hour for the operator to answer.
"Operator," a woman's nasal voice said in her ear. "What number, please?"
"This is Lois Lane," she said, amazed at the steadiness of her voice. Her insides felt like jelly. "I want to report a murder."
"Lois, are you okay? What happened?"
Charlie … no, she firmly reminded herself; Clark. Clark jumped to his feet as she emerged from Detective Horner's office.
"How long have you been here?" she asked.
"Half an hour or so. I got here right after you phoned Mr. White to tell him where you were," he explained. "I overheard the call — I wanted to be sure — well, that you were all right. Are you?"
"More or less. At least, the guy didn't see me. I need to get back to the Planet, though. I have a story to write."
Charlie lowered his glasses and glanced past her. Lois looked over her shoulder but saw nothing except a closed door. "What?"
"Tell you later. Where's your car?"
"Parked over on the cross street." Lois started toward the glass doors. "Come on. I'll fill you in."
Clark held the door for her and followed her out. "What happened? I heard you tell Mr. White that Vincent Winninger had been murdered."
"How did you … oh, yes. Your hearing. Yeah." Lois started down the steps to the sidewalk. "Winninger was murdered. I was there when it happened."
"*What*? I thought you'd found him dead. You were there?"
"I'd gone into the powder room to get a spot of iced tea off my blouse. I heard someone knock on his door and …" Lois succinctly told him the story while they made their way to the Jeep. Charlie — Clark, she reminded herself, sharply — listened in complete silence until she finished.
"— And then I called the police." She glanced up at his face, surprised to see that he had lost color. "I'm fine, Char — Clark. Really."
"I know. It's just — you could have been killed."
"But I wasn't," she reminded him. "He never knew I was there, and I got a good look at him when he came into the bathroom to wash."
"That makes you a witness," Clark said. "You can identify him."
"I know," she said. "But he doesn't know it. I'm going to find out why Winninger was killed and who the guy was that killed him. My bet is, it's because of what he was going to tell me about Barbara Trevino."
She unlocked the passenger door and then went around to the driver's side. When she slid into the seat, Charlie was frowning over his shoulder, glasses sitting on his nose, but as she slammed her door, he pushed them back into place and turned to look at her. "Why do you think that?" he asked. "You could be right, but are you guessing or do you have another reason?"
"It's more than a guess," Lois said. "While I was waiting for the police, I noticed something. The box of journals that was sitting on the coffee table while Winninger and I were talking had disappeared. Winninger gave me one from that pile — I think it might have been what the killer was looking for. Here." She extracted the little book from her bag and handed it to him. "I can't read it — it's written in some other language. But if I can get it translated …"
He opened it and frowned at the handwriting. "It's in Portuguese."
"You can read it?" Lois asked.
"Yeah. I lived in Rio de Janiero for a few months a couple of years ago," he said, absently, flipping through the pages. "It's a diary, all right. I don't see anything in here worthy of murder … it looks like Winninger's record of three years spent in Brazil, living with an Amazonian tribe … but there's some kind of chemical formula on the last page. That might be what you're looking for. We're going to need a chemist to figure it out, though."
Lois found herself gaping at him. "How fast do you read?"
"Pretty fast." He lowered his glasses and looked back in the direction of the police station again. "I thought so."
"Detective Horner is headed back to Winninger's house with Inspector Henderson. Winninger had a roommate — a Dr. Hubert. He's flying back into Metropolis in about an hour. They've already made an appointment to talk to him when he gets there."
"How do you know that?"
"I heard him talking to Inspector Henderson when we were leaving and I've been watching them to see what they were going to do."
"That's what you were looking at?"
"Yeah." Clark nodded. "I thought maybe you'd want to know what was going on after you left —and they're on their way out right now. "
"You bet I want to know!" She started to insert the key into the ignition but paused as a new idea struck her. If Charlie would work with her on this, she might have to share the byline, but think what an advantage they would have! Not just on this investigation, but on any future ones. True, she had never worked with a partner, but they seemed to get along so well — and anyway, if they were going to embark on any kind of a relationship, this might be the very test to see if they were as compatible as they initially seemed to be. Besides that, with these abilities, Charlie was bound to be one heck of a reporter. If anyone was going to have that kind of leg up on the competition, it was going to be her!
"Charlie — " she began.
He gave a little smile. "Clark."
"Right; Clark. Sorry, I still think of you as Charlie. Look, would you mind working with me on this case? I realize you're probably used to doing things on your own, especially with these incredible abilities, but —"
He grinned. "I was wondering how to suggest it. Not that I want to barge in on your story, but if we work together we might be able to find out some things the police miss."
She discovered that she was blushing. "Charlie — Clark, I know an investigation brings out all my predatory instincts, but I'd love to work with you … if we can figure out how to present it to Perry. I don't want him to recognize you as Charlie."
He nodded. "Neither do I. As far as I'm concerned, Charlie can just sink back into obscurity. There were too many weird things about the guy. I don't want him connected with me."
"Me, either. But to me, I think you'll always be Charlie — at least a little." She leaned forward again to start the engine. "I'll think of something. Let's get back to the office. I want to go back to Winninger's in time to see the roommate, and maybe Jimmy can find someone to figure out that chemical formula … " She broke off. "What?"
Clark was looking at her with a small grin still on his face. "You," he said. "Why didn't I meet you before? You're incredible!"
"Well, I could say the same thing about you." She thrust out a hand. "Partners?"
He took it. "Partners."
"'Only minutes before his death, Dr. Winninger produced diaries which he claimed contained evidence that would abort the impending introduction of Barbara Trevino into the Rain Forest Consortium.'" Perry White leaned over Lois's shoulder to read the short article about the murder of Vincent Winninger. "You don't want to write this."
"And why not?" Lois demanded.
"Why shouldn't she, Chief?" Jimmy chimed in.
"Because I can't print it."
"Because she doesn't have the diaries."
"I may not have the diaries, but I have the recording," Lois said. "The police made a copy of it and gave me back the original. I'll play it for you if you like. And I did have the one diary I gave to Jimmy."
Jimmy nodded. "I can't read it, though. It looks a little like Spanish, but I don't think it is."
"It's Portuguese," Lois said. "Clark lived in Brazil for a while and he says so. We're only interested in the chemical formula in the back, though. Find someone who can read it, okay?"
"I'll do my best," Jimmy assured her.
Perry shook his head. "Lois, if I print that part without some corroborating evidence, the paper could be open to a lawsuit."
"Can't we go with a disclaimer?" Lois protested. "We're only quoting Winninger, and I have him on tape."
"We could, but without the diaries there's nothing to back it up — just the word of a dead man against Barbara Trevino. And saying that there were diaries and that the killer took them is gonna tell him you were there."
"I *was* there!"
"Yeah, but he won't know that unless you tell him. If he figures that out, he could come after you."
"Perry, I just spent five hours with the police and they didn't say anything about me being in danger."
"Did they know about the missing diaries?"
"Well … I mentioned that they were gone."
"Yeah, and they're probably ashes by now. But I'll bet anything that you didn't tell them about the one you had."
"They've probably got tons of forensic evidence. They didn't need this, too. Besides, we don't know for sure that it's really evidence."
"Uh huh." Perry White glanced at Clark, who was keeping his face carefully expressionless as he read the article. "The killer might not know about that one, but if he knows Winninger well enough to kill him, then he may. And if he realizes it's missing, he'll start trying to figure out where it went. And that will lead right to you."
Lois sighed and made several changes. "There, does that make you happy?"
"I called Barbara Trevino's spokesperson," Clark interrupted, diplomatically. "She's en route to Metropolis now. She has a meeting at the Trade Center tomorrow. He wouldn't tell me where she was staying, though."
Perry refused to be diverted. He indicated one of the original passages. "Change this from 'minutes before' to 'earlier in the day' — just to be on the safe side."
Rebelliously, Lois obeyed, revising for the second time. "How about the part that says the man is dead? Can I keep that?"
Perry again glanced at Clark, who maintained his blank expression. Lois jabbed the key to transmit her story to the printer and pushed herself to her feet. "I'm going back to Winninger's house. His roommate ought to be there pretty soon. If I stay here much longer, I won't have a story." Hastily, she cleaned the fingerprints off her monitor screen and hurried toward the elevator. Clark glanced quickly at his boss for permission and followed.
She was standing at the curb, waiting for the light to change, when he caught up with her. It was well past sunset and the street lamps were on. The strings of Christmas lights that looped from building to building, coiled around the lampposts and wound through the glittering silver arches of tinsel proclaiming the holiday season, lit up the night in a myriad of rainbow colors. The activity on the streets hadn't decreased at all with the coming of evening.
"Lois, are you okay?" he asked.
She nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine. Perry's right. I'm going to need a lot more facts before this is a real story. Anyway, I think we've given Dr. Hubert time to get here. I want to talk to him. Maybe he'll have some ideas about why Winninger was killed."
"Maybe. I did some checking on Dr. Hubert while you were writing," Clark said. "It turns out he's been in Washington DC since last night, apparently attending a meeting of the National Science Council. He was scheduled to give some kind of presentation this afternoon. I thought it might be a good idea to be sure he had an alibi, just in case."
"Any idea whether he actually made the presentation?" Lois asked.
Clark shrugged. "Can't say. I guess we can ask."
He glanced sideways at the sound of skate wheels on the sidewalk in time to see a long-haired skateboarder come careening toward them, somehow managing to miss the other occupants of the sidewalk. Until, that is, one of the wheels of his skateboard hit a hole in the walkway where a chunk of concrete had broken away. The wheel jammed and the board tipped, sending the man lurching forward, desperately trying to regain his balance. He slammed into Lois, and the two of them tumbled into the street, directly into the path of an oncoming truck.
Clark didn't even think. One instant, Lois was on her hands and knees in the street and the next he had seized her and shoved her back onto the sidewalk. Almost absently, he grabbed the skateboarder by one arm and threw him, somewhat less gently, to safety. Avoiding a physical collision with the truck (one that would certainly have caused far more damage to the vehicle than to him) took more than normal speed, but in the confusion, he doubted anyone would notice. The skateboarder was staggering to his feet. Clark glared at him for an instant and turned quickly to help Lois, wasting no more time on the cause of the almost fatal accident. "Are you all right?"
She nodded, looking a little stunned as he set her upright once more and he could hear her pulse racing in the aftermath of the near-disaster. The light changed to green at that moment and the "Walk" sign flashed on. The crowd that had been waiting to cross surged past them, paying no attention to the incident other than an incurious glance or two in their direction. The skateboarder retrieved his battered board and departed, dodging pedestrians in his progress down the walkway. He didn't even look back.
"Lois, are you sure you're all right?" Clark asked again.
Lois took a deep breath. "Yeah." She made a visible effort to regain her composure. "Come on, we're going to miss the light."
They crossed the street and made their way to the Jeep. Lois hadn't said a word since assuring him she wasn't hurt, but once inside, she put a hand on his arm. "Thanks, Charlie. You saved my life. I guess that's two I owe you."
He shook his head. "You don't owe me anything, Lois."
She gave an unsteady little laugh. "Yes I do. Every human on Earth owes you something. You saved us all from Nightfall and no one knows it but me — and I guess your mother and father. This is just one more thing to add to the tally."
"I'm not counting," he said. "Besides, if it wasn't for you, I couldn't have done what I did and you know it. If anything, the world owes you, not me."
Lois stared at him for a long moment and finally shook her head. "You're incredible, did you know that? Anyway, I hope nobody else back there noticed how fast you moved, just now."
"I doubt it. Everything was pretty confused."
"And it's not that bright out there," she agreed. "Still, I see why you're afraid of being seen. We're going to have to try to think of some way to protect you. I don't want anyone else to realize what you can do."
"When we get a few minutes of our own," Clark agreed, relieved that she seemed to be recovering quickly. Still, he was worried. Sure, this time it had only been an accident, but what about next time? Once her story came out in the paper, he had no faith at all in the hope that the killer of Dr. Winninger would fail to put two and two together and conclude that Lois had seen him commit murder. Once he realized that, Clark was quite sure he would try to eliminate the witness to his crime.
There was no point in drawing that to Lois's attention, though. She had to realize the danger, even if she wouldn't admit it aloud. Clark remained silent as she started the Jeep and pulled out into the moderately heavy evening traffic. Losing her for any reason wasn't something he was prepared to do. He was just going to have to be on his toes.
The police guard let them past when they arrived at Winninger's house, directed them to Inspector Henderson and warned them sternly against touching anything at the crime scene. Lois agreed impatiently, and she and Clark made their way to the study.
Henderson was standing in the hall with Detective Horner, speaking to a man whose back was toward the two reporters. Lois took one look at him and felt the hair on the back of her neck try to stand up. She hurried toward them, Clark on her heels, and moved around to a spot from which she could get a good view of the stranger's face.
"Henderson!" she said. "This is the man who killed Dr. Winninger!"
Inspector Henderson shook his head. "I'm afraid not, Lois."
"But I saw-"
"I know. That's what I thought, too." Henderson gave a half- smile. "This is Dr. Hubert, Dr. Winninger's associate."
"Dr. Hubert has been in Washington DC since last night," Henderson explained, not very patiently. "He was there today at two o'clock when Winninger was murdered."
Lois fixed Hubert with a stare. "Did anybody see you?"
Hubert didn't hesitate. "The thirty or forty men and women who attended the National Science Council meeting … and heard my presentation. Including the Vice President of the United States."
Henderson raised an eyebrow and smiled, sourly. "I'd call that an alibi, wouldn't you, Lois?"
Lois stared at Dr. Hubert, totally confused. She had seen this man in Vincent Winninger's bathroom. She had got a close-up view when she handed him the towel to dry his face. She couldn't be mistaken. But, evidently she was.
A memory tugged at the back of her mind. Winninger had said something while they had been talking, but whatever it was slipped away as she reached for it. She glanced at Clark, standing silently beside her, his glasses perched on the end of his nose, and then back at Henderson.
"Something is really weird here," she said, flatly. "If it wasn't Dr. Hubert, then it was his twin brother. I *saw* him, Bill."
Henderson sighed. "I don't know who you saw, Lois, but it wasn't Dr. Hubert. We've already checked out his alibi, very thoroughly. He was exactly where he said he was at the time of the murder." He looked at her with a faint hint of sympathy. "Look, you've had a rough day. I already promised you that we'd keep you informed if we find anything you can print. Why don't you go home and get some rest?"
"Well, Henderson obviously thinks I've lost my mind," Lois said. "I suppose you do, too?"
Clark shook his head. "No. I think there must be another explanation, even if I don't have a clue what it might be." He glanced at his watch. "It's nearly eight o'clock. Why don't we quit for now and get something to eat? I believe you had a few things to ask me."
"Good idea. I've had enough of butting my head against a stone wall for one day." Lois kicked an innocuous twig out of her way. They were heading back toward the Jeep after leaving Winninger's house. The air was crisp and cold, and Lois could see frost already starting to form on the dried grass of people's lawns.
"Looks like it's going to be cold tonight," Clark said.
Lois nodded, still fuming, but already her curiosity and investigative instincts had superseded the annoyance of being wrong about Dr. Hubert. "Did you say something about Chinese takeout from Shanghai?"
Clark grinned. "You bet. Let's go back to your place and I'll make a quick trip for food. Then, we can talk and eat and you can ask me all the questions you want."
"I don't think it was necessary for you to escort me into my apartment," Lois was saying as she closed the door behind them. "I doubt if there's any danger — at least yet. My article won't even appear until tomorrow morning, so how could the murderer have any idea I saw him?"
"I know," Clark said. "Let's say I'm just being careful. Besides, I'm going to leave from your window to avoid being seen." He lowered his glasses and turned his head slowly back and forth. Knowing what she did about him, she guessed that he was scanning her apartment for intruders. "Nobody here. Is your door locked?"
Lois turned and began to fasten the array of locks. "It is, now."
"Good. In that case, I'll go get the food." He strode to the window and unfastened the catch. Lois held her breath as she saw him casually defy gravity for the second time since she had known him. He floated upward from the floor and drifted out the open window. Standing on nothing, he turned and smiled. "Back in a few," he said and shot skyward.
Lois took a deep breath. "Wow," she murmured.
"Wow" really didn't describe it, she amended, looking after him. Slowly, she removed her coat and went to her coat closet to hang it up, hardly aware of what she was doing. Charlie — no, Clark, she reminded herself for the hundredth time — was even more amazing than she had realized, until he had pulled her out of the path of that truck this evening. Half of the shock she had been coping with had been simply seeing him move so fast that for an instant he had been literally a blur to her eyes. Knowing in theory that he was capable of some really incredible feats somehow didn't measure up to actually seeing him in action. And seeing him matter-of-factly floating in the air, as if it were an everyday thing … well, that nearly left her breathless. The thought of actually flying with him as he had suggested this afternoon, had her feeling like a little kid whose parents had promised her a trip to Disneyland.
The cold breeze from the window finally snapped her out of her abstraction and she moved forward to close it. A whoosh of air made her pause, and then Clark was floating back in the window as gently as he had left. This time, however, he held a large bag, which was producing delectable aromas that made her mouth start to water.
"That was fast," she said, after a startled instant.
"I flew straight," he explained. "I'd have been faster, but I didn't want to risk the food."
Almost absently, she closed the window. "Well, shall we eat?"
"Suits me," he said. "Is your kitchen table okay?"
"Sure. I'll get some plates."
"Do you want tea with this?" he asked. "I can make it pretty fast."
"Sure." When he said fast, he undoubtedly meant *fast* she thought. "What's a Chinese dinner without tea?"
"My thoughts exactly. Where do you keep your teapot?"
True to her expectations, he set the teapot on the table only about three seconds later. "It'll take a few minutes to steep," he said, taking a seat across from her. "So, did you want to ask me some questions?" He waggled his eyebrows comically at her.
Lois found herself giggling at his antics. "Sure. Let's eat, though. This smells too good to wait any longer."
They began to spoon the food onto their plates. Lois looked expectantly at him. "Now, why don't you tell me your life's story? Let's start with: where do you come from?"
"That's a good question, but I'll tell you what I know." Clark picked up a pork roll and bit into it. "I have no idea where I'm originally from."
"None?" she asked, startled.
"Nope." He popped the remainder of the roll into his mouth, chewed and swallowed. "None at all. Mom and Dad think I might be a Russian experiment, but nobody knows for sure. On May 17, 1966, just after sunset, Mom and Dad were driving past Simpson Quarry, west of the Elbow River near Smallville, when they saw a fireball in the sky — kind of like you did." He gave a one- sided smile. "They thought it was a meteor. It came shooting overhead and crashed among the trees in Shuster's Field." He lowered his glasses and looked at the teapot. "I think the tea's ready."
Lois reached for the teapot. "Go on," she commanded, fascinated.
He grinned. "Okay. Well, my mom, being who she is, had to check it out. They went to where they thought it had come down and, of course, they didn't find a meteor. They didn't even find a crater. What they found was a trough in the dirt where it had come in, and at the end of the trough, a tiny rocket or spaceship, with one occupant: a baby about three months old. Of course, I was the baby."
"And there was no clue to where you came from?"
He shook his head. "None. There were some kind of symbols or hieroglyphs on the ship itself, Mom told me, but she doesn't know what they could have been. Anyhow, Mom and Dad didn't have any kids; they couldn't, for some reason, and they hadn't been able to adopt, either. Since it didn't seem likely that anybody was going to claim me, they took me home. With the help of the town doctor — who was Dad's cousin — they got a birth certificate for me, and I became Clark Kent."
"So you grew up in small town America," Lois said.
"Yeah. No one ever came looking for me. Mom and Dad worried about it for a long time, though. Considering how they found me, and the fact that it was in the middle of the Cold War, they thought maybe the whole thing might be some kind of Russian experiment or something. Mom told me later that she decided that same night that she wasn't going to give me back to anybody who would experiment on a baby. Still … " He paused, staring at his plate. "Still, you wonder, you know?"
"Well, sure," Lois said. "Even ordinary kids wonder why their parents gave them up. You'd have more reason than most."
He nodded. "Not that Mom and Dad weren't everything I could have wanted as parents," he added, hastily. "To them, I was a miracle. Still, I sometimes wonder what the real explanation was."
"Well, if it was some kind of government experiment, your real parents might not have had a choice," Lois pointed out.
"I've thought of that." He agreed. "If it happened that way, it would have been pretty bad for them. I guess it really doesn't matter now, but I'd like to know."
Lois took a sip of tea. "I guess I understand that," she agreed, soberly. She reached out to take his hand. "Still, the chances are, we'll never know. Whatever the explanation was, I'm glad you're here, now."
He squeezed her fingers gently and smiled. "So am I." He seemed to shake himself. "Anyway, I grew up on our farm — just another kid in a rural community."
She released his hand. "No one ever noticed anything different about you?"
"No. At least, not at first. I was pretty much the same as every other kid — except that I didn't seem to get sick. I grew up like any farm kid — doing chores, helping Mom and Dad, going to school — until I was somewhere around ten or eleven, when I started to develop my powers. That was when we realized I wasn't just any kid, and Mom and Dad had to tell me how they really found me. I didn't get them all at once, either." He smiled. "Flying was the most fun, but I didn't do that until I was eighteen. After I graduated from high school, I went to MidWest U and got my degree in journalism, then I traveled around the world for a few years before I came back and joined the town newspaper for a while. Then the editor was killed in an accident, so I took over temporarily. I'd been planning on coming to Metropolis to try for a job on one of the papers here, when Nightfall kind of accelerated my plans." He reached out to pick up the teapot and pour himself a cup of tea. "That's my whole life story in a nutshell, up until I met you."
"Not quite," Lois said. "When did you start using your powers to help people?"
"Oh, that." He shrugged. "After my powers started to come in and I found out I was faster and stronger than other people, and that nothing could hurt me, sometimes I was able to help in an emergency without other people finding out. I always had to be really careful, though. I wanted to help whenever I could, but Dad reminded me all the time that if the government found out about me, they'd put me in a laboratory and dissect me like a frog. He was scared that the authorities would take me away from him and Mom if anyone ever found out what I could do."
"He might have been right," Lois said, thoughtfully. "Remember what happened to the Dionne quintuplets. Their government decided the parents couldn't take care of the girls adequately and took them away. I can just see some agency in Washington trying something like that on you and your parents. You're a lot more unique than a set of quintuplets and, even if they can't dissect you, I don't have much faith in a bunch of power- hungry, government types."
"Neither do I," he admitted. "I understand why Dad worried so much. Still, I'd like to find a way to use what I've been given to help people openly — without having to worry about someone finding out it's me. I've been thinking about it for a while, now. I'm still not sure how I want to handle it, but the mask is probably a good idea in the meantime. At least then, nobody would see my face."
"I suppose it will do for a stop-gap measure," Lois said, "but we need a permanent solution. If you wear a mask, people will realize that you have something to hide and really start looking around, trying to figure out who you are and where you come from. We've got to think of something better."
Charlie looked confidently at her. "I knew I was right about you," he said. "We'll work something out."
"You've got an awful lot of faith in me," she said.
"I have reason to," he pointed out. "Nobody else could have figured out what you did about me. Even I didn't." He poured himself a second cup of tea. "So, if you can help me work out something that would fool even you, I don't think I have to worry about much."
"Well, let me give it some thought," Lois said.
They finished dinner in companionable silence, Lois mulling over what Charlie had told her. Somehow, the thought of him being an experiment, from Russia or any other country, didn't really sound right. If it were possible to produce a super being like Charlie, why wouldn't the makers have made more? The Soviets had never been particularly concerned about the welfare of individual humans and there were plenty of other countries with the same attitude. If they had lost their prototype, wouldn't they simply have created another? In her experience, destroying a scientific discovery didn't prevent its development, in the long run. Once the genie was out of the bottle, it stayed out. Something once invented would be invented again within a short span of time because the level of scientific knowledge made it possible and human beings were infinitely clever and curious, sometimes to the dismay of the rest of the world.
So, it followed that the technology to create a super man like Charlie didn't exist. If it had, whichever country had it would have used it to make more like him and — since Charlie was probably in his mid to late twenties — the world would have known it long before now. So, where had he really come from?
"Charlie, what happened to the ship your parents found you in?" she asked, suddenly. "They didn't leave it for anybody to find, did they?"
"I never asked," he said, "but they didn't leave it around. Dad always just said he hid it. Why?"
Lois stood up and began to gather the plates and silverware from the table. "I'm not sure, really — but I don't buy the idea that you're a Russian experiment. I'd like to see it, someday. Call it my natural curiosity as a reporter."
"I'll ask the next time I talk to them," he said. He closed the containers of food. "What do you want to do with this?"
"Put it in the refrigerator," Lois directed. "You can bet it won't sit there like the stuff from Feng's did. It's too good. Unless," she added, "you'd like to take some of it home, yourself."
He shook his head. "If I want more, I'll fly over to Shanghai and pick some up. And speaking of which," he added, "I think I promised to take you flying tonight."
"Yes, you did," she said, trying to sound casual and calm about it.
He wasn't fooled. He grinned. "Why don't you get your coat?" he suggested. "It might get a little cold out there."
Lois swallowed nervously. It wasn't that she didn't trust Charlie. It was simply that the whole idea was so incredible that she couldn't help but be a little nervous. Still, if he said it was safe, she believed him. She hurried into her bedroom, found a heavy sweatshirt to pull on and rejoined him in the living room less than a minute later.
Charlie had opened the window and was looking out. He glanced around when she re-emerged into the room and smiled. "Ready?"
Silently, she nodded. His smile widened slightly. "Don't be nervous. It's completely safe — I promise."
"I know." She stepped up beside him and looked out. The sky was clear and cold. The haze of city light blotted out the stars, but the full moon shone down brightly, clearly visible even in the city.
Charlie stooped and lifted her effortlessly into his arms. That would be reasonable, a detached part of her mind pointed out. To a man who could push aside an asteroid the size of Nightfall, the weight of a mere woman would be negligible. "Ready?"
She nodded, feeling her heart starting to beat faster — not with fear but with excitement. Suddenly it seemed as if she weighed nothing at all. The pull of gravity had disappeared. Looking down, she saw that Charlie's feet were no longer on the ground. He was rising from the floor, taking her with him. They floated out the window so smoothly that she almost wasn't aware of movement, and he turned to let her slide it closed behind them. Looking down, she could see that there was nothing between them and the ground, five stories below, except very thin air, but Charlie was standing on empty space as easily as if his feet rested on solid ground. He was regarding her seriously when she looked up. "Are you all right?"
"This is incredible!"
It was the right answer. His smile returned and suddenly the apartment house was dropping away beneath them. Lois looked down once, watching the city dwindle into a mass of lights, and then up, again. The sky was growing darker as they ascended, and the stars began to appear, at first only the brighter ones, and then more and more, like uncounted diamonds scattered across black velvet. There were more stars than she remembered, but then, she'd been in the country at night only infrequently, and usually on business that didn't involve stargazing.
Looking around, she could see the lights of the harbor and the luminescence of the bay. The dark, irregular patch that must be Suicide Slum stood out by its lack of lighting. Uptown, she could see the brightly-lighted business district and for a moment, the glittering, fifty-foot letters that flashed across the top story of the Lexor Hotel were on a level with them, then they were falling behind as Charlie continued to gain altitude.
"Like it?" he asked.
She could only nod. The lights were sliding to their rear as they began to move forward, at first slowly and then with increasing speed. They were headed south, Lois saw, and within a very few minutes they had left the city of Metropolis behind. It was strange, too, she thought. They had to be moving pretty fast, but the wind wasn't bothering her, nor was she uncomfortable. Somehow, being held closely in Charlie's arms appeared to protect her from the discomfort that she should have felt while flying at this speed. "Where are we going?" she asked, raising her voice slightly to be heard above the wind.
"Your choice," he replied. "You don't need to shout, though. I can hear you all right."
Naturally, she thought. That incredible hearing of his. "How far can we go?" As she asked the question, it dawned on her how silly it was. A short time ago, this man had casually flown to Shanghai and back in the space of about fifteen minutes just to pick up dinner. An idea occurred to her and she hesitated, her instinctive desire to avoid personal, potentially emotional interactions warring with her curiosity. Curiosity won. "I'd like to see your home town."
"Really?" He sounded both surprised and pleased. "Okay."
He made a long, swooping turn. They flew over a mass of lights that must be another, smaller city and headed west.
As they drew away from the cities and flew over the Appalachian mountain range, Lois looked at Charlie … no, at Clark Kent. "Why did they name you Clark?" she asked, suddenly.
"Huh?" He seemed surprised at the non sequitur. "Oh. Clark is Mom's maiden name. Jerome was my paternal grandfather's name."
"Clark Jerome, huh?" She sighed. "I guess I'd better get used to calling you Clark, even though you're Charlie to me."
He chuckled. "I don't mind as long as you don't call me Charlie in public."
"Yeah, but if I don't get used to calling you Clark, sooner or later I'm going to make a mistake. Your name doesn't matter, anyway. You're still the guy I … well, that I wish I'd met a long time ago."
His arms tightened around her for a second. "I wish you had, too. I'd started to think that I wasn't made to fall … to feel like this about a woman. Like whatever makes me different had made me different that way, too."
Lois rested her free hand lightly on his upper arm. "Believe me, you're not that different."
He glanced at the hand and swallowed. "I can tell … now, anyway."
She didn't smile. "I'm glad. I hope you think that way after you've known me longer."
He cocked his head sideways. "Why do you think I might not?"
Lois shrugged uncomfortably. "Most men feel threatened by a successful woman in a man's job."
His eyebrows flew up. "I thought we'd already established that I'm not 'most men'."
"I think that's pretty obvious," Lois said. "But you know what I mean."
"Yeah, I do. But Lois, my odd abilities have nothing to do with whether or not I'm a good journalist. I can find things out, but writing about them effectively is something completely different. I'd get nowhere if I couldn't write. That kind of thing has nothing to do with gender — or super-human powers or anything else. It takes ability. Talent. Why should I feel threatened because a smart, aggressive woman can do the job as well as I can? It's up to me to prove that I can compete."
That was true. He might make a good private detective, but to be a journalist required the ability to write. She patted his arm. "I understand, I think. Even with your super powers, we're on a level playing field in our profession."
He was watching her closely. "It's not just that, though — is it?"
She looked down, unwilling to meet his eyes. "No."
"You don't think you're likeable, do you? Why?"
The gentleness in his voice caught her by surprise. She looked up to see his worried expression and felt her barriers start to crumble. What was it about this guy, she wondered, that he seemed to be able to walk through all her carefully constructed defenses as if they didn't exist?
"I'm not," she said. "I don't have friends. Not many, anyhow."
"You have me," he said, gently. "And, unless I'm very much mistaken, you have Perry."
She gave a short laugh. "I guess so. I'm Perry's protegee."
"You said something back in Willow Rock — about how maybe this time it wouldn't have turned into a disaster," he said. "Has it, before?"
She'd hoped he hadn't noticed what she had said in the heat of the moment, but obviously Charlie had a very good memory, now that it was working right, she thought wryly. She looked down at the dark land passing underneath them. "Yeah. Every time."
"Lois, look at me," he said, softly.
Reluctantly, she obeyed. He was smiling at her. "Just because other guys haven't got the sense to see what an incredible person you are, doesn't mean I'm stupid, too," he said. "I've never met anyone like you in my life. You're a complicated person." He grinned suddenly. "You're domineering, uncompromising, pigheaded and cynical. You're also loyal, tenacious, and determined to do the right thing. You're a brilliant, investigative journalist who cares about people — and under all the prickles and armor is somebody who is very lovable. I know. What I don't know is why the other guys couldn't see it, too, but I'm glad they didn't."
In spite of herself, she could feel her eyes beginning to fill with tears. What was happening to her? Lois Lane *never* cried but she had started to cry twice in Charlie's presence. Maybe it was because he had described her so accurately. He *knew* what she was and it didn't seem to bother him at all. Determinedly, she blinked the moisture away.
He was still smiling at her. "I don't know how to say it, really," he said. "It's just that together — we seem to work. I stopped Nightfall, but without you, I wouldn't have remembered in time. It was you who figured out the important stuff. Do you understand what I'm trying to say?"
"That together we're stronger than we are separately?"
His smile widened. "Together. That's the concept I was thinking of. Does it make sense?"
She gulped. Was he saying what she thought he was? "I think so."
"Good." He rested his cheek lightly on the top of her head. "I don't want to rush things," he added. "We need to get to know each other better … but I'm already sure. It's up to you to set the pace. Is that all right with you?"
She nodded, unable to speak. Charlie was saying that no matter what she thought of herself, he wanted her, that he valued her — and that she could make the rules. When had any of her other previous relationships begun that way?
She found that the stars were blurring for a second time and quickly blinked away the moisture. She mustn't jump to conclusions just yet, she told herself. But it was a promising start.
To the north of them, a patch of lights was growing. Another city, she thought. Charlie — Clark — avoided it, keeping to the darker skies. They flew along in silence for a while. Lois glanced up at the stars, almost dazzlingly clear in the pitch black sky. She'd had no idea how bright they could be away from city lights.
"Beautiful, aren't they?" Charlie said.
She nodded, pointing northwest. "That one's really bright."
He glanced up. "That's Vega. One of the brightest stars in the sky."
"I guess you'd know, wouldn't you," she said.
"Some," he agreed. "When I'm over the ocean, I use them for navigation."
She hadn't thought of that. "Sort of like the old sailors, I guess."
"Exactly," he said. "We're in the Midwest now, coming up on Kansas. We'll be over Smallville in five minutes. My parents want to meet you, to thank you for what you did. Do you want to see the house where I grew up or do you want to put it off until later?"
How did he know what was in her mind without her saying a word, she wondered. "Do you read minds?"
He gave a soft laugh. "I don't think so."
She swallowed and gathered her nerve. "Well — if you don't think it's too late at night."
"You forget — It's earlier here than it was in Metropolis," he pointed out. "Mom and Dad won't mind a bit."
Lois hesitated. "Well … okay."
The lights of a small town were approaching as they spoke. Unlike other towns, Clark didn't try to avoid it but flew directly over the buildings, too high to be seen by the people still frequenting the streets and sidewalks.
Christmas music floated in the air, and she could see that the little town was decorated in red and green and silver. The holiday was only three weeks away and the whole setting of the town was right out of a picture of middle America, something she had always avoided as unbearably bucolic and corny. Now, however, looking at it from above, the picture was unexpectedly attractive. She had grown up in Metropolis and was used to Christmas in the city. To her, Christmas was an ordeal to be gotten through, a time when her father disappeared early in the day, her mother got drunk on eggnog, and she and her sister hid in their room to avoid the unpleasantness that inevitably arose before the sun went down. Somehow, she was sure that that wasn't the kind of Christmas that Charlie — Clark — was used to and she was suddenly slightly envious.
The town fell behind and in the dark countryside below, she could see solitary lights here and there, marking single houses. The snowy fields reflected the light from the almost full moon that hung like a lantern to the south. They were approaching a farmhouse now, and her private pilot was losing altitude. They came down lightly in a snowy yard and he set her gently on a path that led to an old fashioned porch.
"Here we are," Charlie said. "They heard us land."
As he spoke, the porch light came on and a second later, the door was flung open. A small woman stood in the lighted doorway. "Clark?"
"Hi, Mom." Clark strode up the walk, pulling Lois along by the hand. "We decided to drop by for a visit. This is Lois."
Clark's mother was already looking at her and Lois fought the urge to hide behind her companion. "Hello, Mrs. Kent."
Clark's mother smiled widely. "Oh, honey, call me Martha. Clark, bring her in here right now before she freezes!"
Clark obeyed at once and a moment later, Lois found herself in a small, living room. A fire burned vigorously in the room's brick fireplace and a grey-haired man of about sixty was sitting in an easy chair in front of the television set, a cup of something in his hand. He set the cup on a coaster and rose to his feet when he saw Lois.
"Lois, this is my dad, Jonathan Kent," Clark said. "Dad, this is Lois Lane. She's the one who found me when I crashed in Centennial Park."
"I guessed that, son," Jonathan Kent said. "You don't normally come flying in with a passenger."
He smiled at Lois. "I was hoping we'd get the chance to thank you, Lois. Clark says it was you who saved all of us. Thanks for taking an interest in our boy."
"He told us how you shoved him off the three story building," Martha Kent said. She sounded amused. "That was a smart move."
Lois turned to look at him. "He told you about that? Char— Clark!"
His mother laughed. "He was bragging about you, Lois. To tell you the truth, if I'd been there, I'd probably have done the same." She waved to the sofa. "Have a seat. I'll make some more hot chocolate."
"I'll help you, Mom," Clark said. He followed his mother, and Lois sank slowly onto the old fashioned sofa.
Jonathan Kent settled back into his easy chair and pushed his glasses into place. "You've certainly made quite an impression on my boy," he said. "He couldn't stop talking about you after he came home."
"Really?" Lois asked.
The farmer nodded. "We were a little worried at first," he continued. "If anyone ever found out what Clark can do —"
"And I'm a reporter," Lois added. "His secret is safe with me, Mr. Kent. Even if I wanted to tell anyone, who would believe me?"
"With all the crazies running around nowadays, you never know," he answered. "Anyway, now that I've met you, I won't worry anymore. And, my name is Jonathan."
Clark re-entered the room at that instant, a tray of steaming mugs in his hands. Martha followed with a dish of cookies. "It's always so convenient when Clark is around," she said, setting the cookies on the coffee table. "He can heat up the chocolate in seconds without scorching it."
Lois accepted one of the mugs and raised it experimentally to her lips. Clark sat down next to her on the sofa with his own cup. Martha took the rocking chair and reached out for a cookie. "So, what brings you back so soon?" she asked. "Did everything go all right today?"
"Oh, yes," Clark said. "Mr. White hired me to cover the city beat and I'm kind of back to guarding Lois." He took a sip of chocolate, his eyes dancing at Lois over the rim of the cup. She smiled back at him.
"Oh?" Martha said. "Why? Or shouldn't I ask?"
"I witnessed a murder today," Lois said. "I got a good look at the murderer, but there's kind of a mystery about it. He looked just like the victim's roommate, but the roommate has a perfect alibi — so it had to be somebody else."
"My, you seem to have an exciting life," Martha said. "First Clark and Nightfall and now a murder. Who was the murder victim?"
"A scientist named Vincent Winninger," Lois said. "He was going to tell me why Barbara Trevino shouldn't be inducted as head of the Rainforest Consortium, but he was killed before he could explain."
"Vincent Winninger?" Martha said. "Good heavens!"
"You've heard of him?" Clark asked.
"Oh yes," Martha said. "Years ago, I knew him when I lived at the Elimont Center. They called it the Intellectual Commune- named for somebody called Morris Elimont."
"Who was he?" Clark asked.
Martha shrugged. "I have no idea. It was certainly different, though. There were all kinds of people, all dedicated to the ideals of the sixties. I was very idealistic at that point in my life, too, and one summer a friend suggested I visit. He said it was an intellectually stimulating environment. I don't know about that, but it was inexpensive, and I was trying to save up money for my next semester at college. Anyway, that was where I met Vincent Winninger and Barbara Trevino. They were an acknowledged couple, of course. He was handsome and very charming — quite a ladies' man, even then, although I understand his reputation grew a lot more in later years. She was one of the most beautiful women there, and I always said she was a bad influence on him. If he was trying to keep her out of the Rainforest Consortium, I can't say I'm surprised."
"You knew both of them?" Lois asked, her reporter's instinct instantly aroused. "Can you tell me anything else about them?"
Martha took a sip of chocolate. "Not much, I'm afraid. Vincent was younger than I was by about five years. He was very intelligent and charismatic. I only stayed at the commune for about two months, but it was like watching a real life soap opera."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you've probably heard about the 'free love' of the sixties," Martha said. "Vincent and Barbara could have been poster children for the era. They couldn't keep their hands off of each other, but the last week or so that I was there, he dumped her just like that. Something about having discovered that she wasn't living up to the ideals of the group, I think. Anyway, he started showing symptoms of interest in me, and I didn't want to make a fuss about it, so I just left to avoid trouble. That was right before I met your father," she added, with a glance at Clark. "Barbara had already taken up with one of the members of the theater group. I don't remember who it was. I never trusted her, though. There was something about her that struck me as phony."
"Hmm," Lois said. "That's interesting. Did you know a Dr. Hubert?"
Martha frowned. "No, I don't think so. I probably wouldn't have, though. There were a lot of people at Elimont and I didn't stay there long."
"Well, there was some reason Winninger was killed, and the connection seems to be Barbara Trevino and the Rainforest Consortium," Clark said. "I wonder if checking into the names of some of the other residents of the commune might tell us anything. Barbara Trevino didn't kill him, but-"
"But she could have been behind it," Lois agreed. "Jimmy is supposed to be researching her background, so we should have that sometime tomorrow. What really confuses me is the person I saw. He looked just like Hubert, but Hubert was giving a presentation in Washington DC at the time, in front of a crowd of people. Henderson probably thinks I was seeing things."
"Henderson?" Jonathan Kent asked.
"Inspector William Henderson, Homicide Division," Lois said. "He was there when I accused Dr. Hubert of being the killer."
"Oh," Jonathan said. He swallowed the last of the contents of his mug. "You say you got a clear look at this guy? How did you do that without him seeing you?"
"I was in the bathroom," Lois said. "He didn't know I was there and I stayed behind the door when he came in to wash, but he was standing within a couple of feet of me. I got a close look at him."
"Could he have been wearing a mask or makeup?" Martha wondered. "He came in to commit a murder, after all — wouldn't he try to make sure no one would be able to identify him later, in case a snoopy neighbor saw him or something? I know it seems like some kind of Hollywood trick, but some of those makeup artists can do some amazing things."
Lois stared at her, shocked. The thing that Vincent Winninger had told her, that she had been trying to remember ever since she had misidentified Dr. Hubert as the murderer, clicked suddenly into place. "That's it!"
"What is?" Clark asked, obviously puzzled.
"Who?" Clark asked.
"Winninger told me about him! There was this guy in the theater group at the commune who could make himself look like anyone. What was his name…" She frowned, trying to remember. "Sam, or Sean or — something that started with an S. I can't remember."
"I remember him," Martha said, unexpectedly. "I never knew his real name, but I saw him at one of the plays that summer. He played the part of Lady Macbeth. You're right, Lois; his makeup skills were incredible, but he couldn't act very well. I remember that, too."
"Lady Macbeth?" Clark said, sounding slightly incredulous.
"Yes," Lois said, impatiently. "I need to get hold of the names of the commune's theater group. I'll recognize the name if I see it."
"We can probably get it tomorrow morning," Clark said. He set down his empty mug. "We'd better be getting back. It's late in Metropolis and we have a busy day tomorrow."
Lois glanced at her watch, which read 11:45. "You're right," she said, a little reluctantly. To her surprise, she had enjoyed the brief visit with Clark's parents. She turned to Jonathan and Martha. "It was nice meeting you both."
"Likewise," Jonathan said. "Come back when you have the chance — when you're not saving the world." She could see the smile lurking in his eyes and couldn't help smiling in return.
"I'd like that," she said. It was nice to be able to utter the commonplace pleasantry and actually mean it. This evening had turned out differently than she had expected, but in all, it had been enjoyable. And now she wouldn't dread meeting her new boyfriend's parents — not that she had ever met the parents of any of her other potential boyfriends. Maybe that should say something about the type of relationship she and Charlie already had. It was definitely something to think about.
The flight back to Metropolis was accomplished more quickly than the outward-bound one had taken. Clark held her while she slid open the window, floated inside and set her gently on the rug. The warm air of her apartment still smelled of the delicious dinner they had eaten earlier, and Lois sniffed appreciatively. "I'm going to have to take advantage of your special talents more often, after this."
He grinned. "I hope you will." His expression sobered quickly. "Lois, be extra careful tonight, will you? If anyone knocks, think twice before you open the door. If the killer really is this 'Mr. Makeup,' he could look like anyone, even Perry or Jimmy. If I were in his place, I'd be trying to find out what the police know about the situation, and if he figures out that you were there, he may try to eliminate you just to be on the safe side."
"Char — Clark, I've been taking care of myself for a long time," she said. "I know enough to look out for myself."
"I know — and I know you can handle yourself in a fight better than a lot of men — but be careful anyway, okay? Karate is no match for a gun."
She smiled at him. "I will. I promise."
"And if you feel the least bit scared, yell your head off. I'll hear you and be here in seconds. Okay?"
"I promise!" She couldn't decide whether to be irritated or flattered by his concern. "I'll be fine!"
He had the grace to look embarrassed. "Sorry, Lois. I know you're used to taking care of yourself. It's just that, well, I worry, you know? You're important to me. I don't want anything to happen to you."
Irritation vanished. "I understand." She laid a palm against his cheek, feeling the faint rasp of bristles. "I guarantee you that if I'm the least bit worried, I'll scream loud enough to wake up the whole apartment house."
"Good," he said. "I'll take that as a promise. And I'll be here first thing in the morning. It won't hurt if this guy tries something while I'm with you."
"I hope he does," Lois said, privately thinking that Mr. Makeup would be in for the biggest surprise of his life if he tried to face down Charlie. "I'll see you in the morning, then."
"Okay." He hesitated for an instant and then leaned forward. Lois had debated what she should do if he tried to kiss her, but when the moment arrived, she didn't hesitate. She had kissed him the first time; now it was his turn. His lips brushed hers, lightly. She leaned into the kiss, and his arms slipped around her. It was different than before but no less intense. Lois was aware of the blood pounding in her ears and the feeling that she never wanted him to stop. When he finally drew back, she saw that his cheeks seemed to be a little flushed, but she said nothing, sure that hers were equally pink.
He gave a shaky smile. "Good night, Lois."
"Good night," she replied, and watched as he turned and floated lightly out the window, again. An instant later, he was gone.
Clark Kent walked slowly into his two-room "suite" at the Apollo Hotel. It had been an eventful day, that was certain. He wondered briefly if every day in Metropolis was going to be like this. Except for the fact that Lois was involved and that her life was probably in danger, the excitement wasn't a bad thing. There was something about the city, he reflected, changing out of his clothing. The pace within its borders was something quite unlike Smallville, a fact that he had noted in every great city he had visited during his travels. Now that Metropolis was going to be his home, at least in the foreseeable future, he found that he was looking forward to it with wary anticipation. Life wasn't going to be peaceful, but it was going to be enjoyable, as long as he could keep Lois safe.
She was a large and critical part of his future, he knew. For years, he had believed that his differences were so profound that the ability to fall in love was beyond him. He'd had female friends, certainly. He'd dated and engaged in most of the social life of his male friends. He hadn't wanted to stand out and had made an effort to blend in, in every way possible. Still, although he enjoyed the company of women, whatever it was that bound a man and a woman together had somehow escaped him—at least to the point that he might ever have been tempted to make such an arrangement permanent, and that had held him back from anything that might push him into a commitment. It wasn't that he was immune to the temptations presented by the opposite sex; far from it. But he had never—until now, anyway- -found a woman he had been willing to commit to for life.
Lois Lane had changed all that. Brother, how she had changed it! Their actual meeting was a bit fuzzy in his memory: he had probably still been somewhat stunned from his crash-landing in Centennial Park, but it hadn't been long before he'd become aware that this was no ordinary woman. Lois Lane was everything he had ever imagined in his wildest dreams. She was intelligent, headstrong, opinionated, independent—stubborn as a mule, sometimes, he reflected with a wry smile—and the fact that she was beautiful didn't detract from her appeal, although he suspected that he would have thought of her as beautiful in any circumstances. The trick was going to be to convince her that she was someone worthy of being loved. That she doubted it was something that he found extraordinary and yet it was obvious that she did. How any human male could meet her and not be instantly infatuated was something he couldn't quite grasp. Still, it was apparent that she hadn't had much luck with men. Maybe, an irrational part of his mind considered, maybe she was like him in some way—simply waiting for the right man to come along. Well, it was up to him to convince her that he was the right man.
In the meantime … He changed into a pair of black jeans and a long-sleeved, dark blue flannel shirt and shrugged his shoulders into a leather jacket he'd bought two years ago in Argentina. In the meantime, he had every intention of staking out her apartment tonight. She wouldn't appreciate him hovering over her, so he simply wouldn't tell her. Lois was highly independent; that was obvious to him and he thought he understood why. She'd depended on her father and her father had let her down. He'd not only tried to force her into the mold he wanted, he'd let her feel that he found her a disappointment and left her to manage on her own when she chose to go against his choice of a career for her. She'd found out the hard way that the only person she could depend on was herself. He hoped that he could show her that now she could depend on him as well and that he would never intentionally disappoint her.
He opened the door to his room and stepped out into the dingy hallway. No one was visible as he strolled toward the window at the end of the hall, opened it carefully, stepped through the aperture and closed it quietly behind him. A split instant later, he was zipping silently through the icy, winter air of Metropolis in the direction of Lois Lane's apartment. Even the short time he had been away from her had left him nervous about her safety. If this Mr. Makeup was as good at impersonations as Clark had been led to believe, there was nothing to prevent the man from simply walking into the local police station and finding out everything there was to find out about what the authorities knew concerning the murder of Vincent Winninger. And, if that was so, it meant Lois was almost certainly in danger. He had every intention of thwarting any attempt on her life. Lois might not know it, but she had acquired an around- the-clock bodyguard until the killer was in custody.
Avoiding the streetlights, he landed in the alley next to her apartment building and strolled casually out onto the sidewalk. A quick glance with his x-ray vision assured him that Lois was undisturbed, moving about her apartment, preparing for bed. Satisfied on that point, he glanced around, looking for the best position from which to mount his surveillance. A wooden bench at the bus stop, diagonally across the street, presented an excellent position for him to observe the building, as well as Lois's apartment window on the fifth floor. Without fuss, he purchased a copy of the Daily Planet from a vending machine on the corner and made his way to the bench. A transient shuffled by, pushing a battered shopping cart before him. The man eyed him for a moment and then resumed his progress down the sidewalk. Clark took a seat on the bench, opened the newspaper to the Sports section and settled in to wait. It was just after midnight.
Clark didn't look up as the police cruiser, that covered this section of town, went by for the third time, but his attention was tuned to the men inside the vehicle.
"Isn't that the same guy that was there last time?" That was the short, fat cop, riding shotgun.
There was a pause while the driver glanced briefly at Clark. "Maybe. What's he doin'?"
"Same as before. Reading the newspaper."
"Forget him. He's not breakin' any laws."
The car continued on down the street. Clark casually turned the page. His watch informed him that it was now three-thirty in the morning. The number of persons moving about the area had diminished a good deal, but there were still people around. The transient he had noticed, hours ago, was huddled tightly in his ragged coat in the alley, sleeping on a grate where the heat from below rose to keep him warm. So far, nothing seemed unusual, but he didn't relax his vigilance.
A van was coming along the street, and as he watched, it pulled up in front of the newspaper vending machine. Clark could see the words "Daily Planet" on the side of the vehicle and realized that this must be the delivery of the paper's morning edition. A man, thoroughly wrapped up for the frigid weather, hopped out, the back of the van opened and a second man handed a thick stack of bundled newspapers to him. As Clark watched, they removed the two remaining issues of last night's edition and replaced it with the new ones. Then both men jumped back into the van, and it trundled away toward its next destination.
It had all been done in less than a minute. Clark folded his copy of the paper up and stuffed it into a wire trash basket then strolled back to the vending machine again to obtain a new paper. A selection of other newspapers was available for purchase besides the Daily Planet and after suitable consideration, in addition to the Planet, he selected the National Whisper. A little fiction might be entertaining for a change. He resumed his seat on the bench and opened the Whisper.
The article about the aliens from Uranus that had diverted the Nightfall Asteroid and then given the reporter, Leo Nunk, the exclusive, looked interesting, to say the least. And then, there was the one below it about the vinegar and pomegranate diet that cured psoriasis. That one he simply had to read. These guys should try their hand at a book, he thought. They had the imaginations for it.
He had finished the entire paper and was opening the Daily Planet when motion at the corner of his eye caught his attention and he looked up. A man was approaching along the sidewalk, carrying a large bag labeled "King's Hardware," and he recognized the manager of Lois's apartment house. Mr. Tracewski mounted the stairs of the building with a brisk step and entered. Over the tops of his glasses, Clark watched his progress until he was certain the man wasn't headed in the direction of Lois's apartment and then returned to his reading. Still, he wasn't able to completely relax. Something wasn't right about the situation. He glanced at his watch. What would Mr. Tracewski be doing wandering around outside the place that he managed at four in the morning? He supposed that it was possible some sort of emergency might have dragged him out of his bed in the middle of the night, but unless it was something fairly serious, wouldn't the man have just waited until daylight? Well, it couldn't hurt to check. Clark laid his paper down and started across the street. Halfway there his enhanced sense of smell picked up a distinctive scent, and he broke into a run. He went up the steps in a blur and through the doors, leaving them wide open behind him.
Inside, the smell was much stronger, at least to his senses. Clark was forced to slow down momentarily as he tracked the source of the odor. It was coming from above, he realized, and raced up the stairs, following the growing smell of gas.
It was strongest on the fourth floor. He burst from the stairwell, less than five seconds after entering the building. The smell was coming from a door labeled "Keep Out." The door appeared to be locked, but he unhesitatingly broke the lock and yanked it open. The space beyond was a large closet. Inside, various pipes ran up the rear wall, and in one corner stood an industrial size water heater. Clark x-rayed the device. The valve controlling the gas had been turned up full, and the pilot light was out. The room was full of gas, much stronger than in the hall outside. And sitting innocently on a shelf was a small device with an attached clock, counting down.
He x-rayed the package. The thing, as he expected, was a small, explosive device. By itself, it wouldn't cause significant damage. Surrounded by a closet full of gas, the explosion would be devastating.
Well, first things first. He strode forward and shut off the gas. Then, he exhaled completely and inhaled, sucking in the deadly fumes. Holding his breath, he picked up the device, careful not to smudge the fingerprints he could see on the casing. Something like ten minutes remained on the timer, but it was an elementary device. In the last few years, he had had occasion to observe the work of explosive experts and had disarmed a couple of similar devices on his own. The first one had exploded due to inexpert handling on his part. He had smothered the explosion, but it had taught him how to avoid such mistakes in subsequent attempts. He studied the thing with his x-ray vision and saw at once how to disarm it. Quickly and precisely, he pulled the critical wire free.
The man he had seen enter the apartment house some fifteen minutes earlier was almost certainly the one who had set this up, he thought. The scheme had been a good one, simple and direct. Give the gas time to build up in the closet and then detonate it with a small explosive. It would have taken out everyone in the building with no way for anyone to prove that it had been anything but accidental, and no way for anyone to be sure who the target was, in the unlikely event that the authorities suspected foul play. Clark crushed down the fury that was growing in him at the callousness of the man who had murdered Vincent Winninger and who was now stalking Lois, and forced himself to think calmly.
Lowering his glasses, he looked around. Mr. Tracewski—the real Mr. Tracewski, he realized—was sleeping soundly in his bed, in the manager's apartment on the first floor. There was no sign of the would-be killer. Carefully, he set down the device and made a super speed exit to the top of the apartment house, where he exhaled the lungful of gas. It was time to wake Lois and call the cops.
Lois Lane awoke to the sound of someone knocking on her door and after a moment, managed to sit up and stagger into the living room, wrapping her bathrobe around her as she did so.
By the time she reached the door, she had recollected Charlie's warning and took the time to check through the peephole to see who was knocking. Charlie—no, Clark Kent—was there, and he was frowning. Lois started to undo her locks and paused, recalling the warning. Was that really Clark or a cleverly disguised assassin?
"Yes?" she called.
"Lois, it's Clark. I just disarmed a bomb in the water-heater closet on the next floor down. You need to call the cops. I'll stand right out here until they get here."
"A—a *what*?" she stammered.
"Somebody just tried to kill you — and everybody else in this apartment house. Call the police." His voice was calm, but she could hear the anger underlying it. "Hurry."
Lois made her way to the phone, her mind whirling. Charlie had disarmed a *bomb*? What had he been doing here, anyway?
The answer to that was obvious, she realized as she dialed the operator. Charlie had been watching the building, guarding her. She should be angry, she thought, but how could you be angry with a man who had just saved your life and the lives of everyone else in the building?
A short time later, she was standing beside Charlie, along with a very indignant Mr. Tracewski, watching two officers from the bomb squad carefully removing the small explosive device from the shelf next to the water heater. Their boss stood next to Lois, watching the whole operation critically. "I see what you mean, Kent," he said. "I can still smell the gas a little. How did you figure out it was here?"
Lois said nothing, figuring she'd get the real story later. Clark, not Charlie, she reminded herself, firmly, was frowning. He hadn't stopped frowning since she'd seen him through the door. "I smelled it," he said. "I'd been hanging around by the front door because I was worried about Ms. Lane, and I thought I smelled gas. I went in and followed my nose. That was all there was to it. I shut off the gas and pulled the wire on that thing free. Fortunately, I learned something about explosive devices while I was in Colombia, working as a free lance journalist. Then I opened the windows at each end of the hall to clear out the gas, just in case."
The man nodded. "Normally, I'd probably lecture you about leaving this to the professionals," he remarked, "but I won't, this time. You probably saved the lives of everyone in the building. But don't get cocky."
Clark didn't answer. The man moved forward to examine the small device and then turned to the manager. "I suggest you lock your doors until whoever did this is in custody," he said. "You were just lucky that Kent has a sharp nose." He added to Clark, "You'll need to come down to the station to make a report…"
Lois sighed. "I'll go with you, Clark," she said. "I'm not going to get any more sleep, anyway."
"So let me get this straight." Detective Thomas fixed Clark with a hawklike gaze. "You smelled the gas from out in front of the apartment house and decided to investigate?"
"Well…" Clark sighed. "I had another reason to check, Detective. I didn't want to go into it at the apartment because it's pretty complicated. Lois, to explain this, I think we should tell him about Mr. Makeup."
"Mr. Makeup," Lois said. "Vincent Winninger told me about him during my interview. We've talked to someone since who knew about him, too." She proceeded to explain to Thomas what the murdered man had said. "I think that might be why I thought the murderer was Dr. Hubert. He looked just like him, but Hubert had a perfect alibi."
The detective raised an eyebrow. "Interesting theory. You say this had something to do with why you checked, Kent?"
"Yeah." Lois thought the look Clark gave her was slightly apprehensive. "I — well, I knew you didn't want me to hang around guarding you, Lois, but I was worried about you after what happened. I kind of staked out your apartment house from the bus stop across the street. At about four o'clock, I saw your apartment manager, Mr. Tracewski, come walking along with a bag of stuff from a hardware store."
"At four in the morning?" Lois asked, incredulous.
"Yeah. I didn't think that was quite right. I kind of stewed about it for maybe ten or fifteen minutes and then decided I'd better go check, so I went inside and—"
"And that's when you smelled the gas?" Thomas asked.
"That's about it. And later, when the police showed up, they had to wake up the manager. He'd been sound asleep in his bed. He said he'd been there since eleven last night. If he'd rigged that thing up, he wouldn't have been anywhere around or it would have killed him along with everybody else."
The detective gave him an exasperated glare. "And you didn't see fit to tell the officer on the scene about it?"
Clark shrugged. "Like I said, it was pretty complicated — and I was about as sure as I can be that the man I saw wasn't Tracewski. The real killer was long gone, so I figured I'd tell somebody when I came over here and could explain."
Thomas grunted. "Well, there's no proof the guy you saw had anything to do with it," he conceded. "We'll have to interview Tracewski to pin down the facts, but next time, Kent, why don't you let us decide whether it's important?"
Clark hitched his shoulders uncomfortably. "It was important. I just didn't want to add to the confusion when there wasn't anything that could be done, anyway."
The man grunted again. "Reporters! Is there anything else that you've conveniently neglected to tell me?"
"No." Clark met his eyes. "I think you should take this attempt on Ms. Lane seriously, Detective. I don't think it's a coincidence that she witnessed a murder yesterday afternoon and this morning someone tried to blow up her apartment house."
"You seem to be doing a pretty good job of guarding her, Kent." Thomas leaned back in his chair and stretched the kinks out of his arms. "Unfortunately, we don't have the manpower to put a guard on every witness to a crime in Metropolis, so unless Ms. Lane doesn't object to being held as a material witness and put under armed guard—"
"No way!" Lois said, emphatically. That was the last thing she needed!
"I thought not. You can both go as soon as you sign your statements. And I'll relay this 'Mr. Makeup' stuff to Henderson. He's handling the Winninger case, so he can decide if it's worth investigating."
Lois glanced at her watch as they left Detective Thomas's office and headed down the hallway toward the main doors. It was a few minutes before six, almost time for the shift change, and so she wasn't surprised to see William Henderson standing in front of the coffeepot behind the Chief's station, pouring himself a cup of the murky-looking brew.
The officer seemed to sense her gaze and turned. He sighed. "Now what?"
"Oh, nothing," Lois said, airily. "Winninger's killer probably tried to blow up my apartment house, that's all. Thomas will tell you all about it."
She was sure she heard him mutter "I'll bet," under his breath as she and Clark left the police station. Clark had a small grin on his lips and she found herself starting to giggle at the memory of Henderson's sour expression. The giggle died, however, when she saw Clark lower his glasses slightly and look quickly around.
"Do you see anybody?" she asked.
"That's the problem," he said, quietly. "There are a lot of people around. Even if the murderer is one of them, I wouldn't know it. He could look like anybody." He gave her an apologetic look. "Would you mind sort of walking a little behind me—just in case? If somebody takes a shot at you, I want the bullet to hit me, not you."
Lois complied at once, a little surprised at herself. His argument made sense, though. He couldn't be hurt and she could. The open space around her was suddenly intimidating.
"This is very creepy," she said, almost to herself. "Don't you think this is creepy? I mean … " She glanced nervously at a coffee vendor who was in the process of opening his stand. "The killer could be anybody. Anybody you see could be somebody else."
Clark glanced at her, then put an arm around her. "Come on. Let's get into your car. You're less exposed that way."
She nodded. "Good idea."
The SUV was parked just around the corner, and they hurried to it, but as she took out her keys to unlock the driver's door, he caught her hand. "Just a minute. Let me check before you touch anything."
She was about to ask what he intended to check for when she saw him lower his glasses and turn his head, sweeping the Cherokee from front to rear. "Just being sure there aren't any surprises waiting for us."
For some reason, she hadn't thought of that. He hadn't removed his arm from around her shoulders, she noticed. It was surprising, just how reassuring it was. It was amazing in a way, too, at the confidence that she felt about him. In another way, though, it wasn't. She'd already seen Charlie do the right thing in spite of the fact that she knew he had been afraid of the job. He'd gone after Nightfall a second time, unable to put his own safety above that of the Earth — and of her. How many of the men in her life before now had been willing to put the welfare of others over their own? None of them, she knew. Not her father, not Paul, certainly not Claude. Why did she always pick the losers?
Well, not always. The exception to the rule was standing beside her with one arm holding her firmly against him, checking her car for explosives.
"It's clean," he said. "Go ahead and get in." He released her and stood behind her, blocking anyone from getting a clear view of her. Quickly, she unlocked the door and clambered in.
"It's too bad you don't have bulletproof glass," he said, shutting the door behind her. An instant later, he was getting into the passenger seat. "Let's not hang around here too long. I don't want you to be a stationary target."
Lois started the engine, released the brake and looked back over her shoulder, checking for traffic. As she did so, she felt herself shoved down hard across the seat. All at once, Clark's big body was pressing her painfully onto the emergency brake, and she heard the sudden, almost musical splintering of glass, not once but twice and then a third time. She didn't hear the shots, but a second later, she heard a sharp report echoing in her ears, and a scream of unmistakable pain. More reports and again, glass splintered.
"Stay here. Stay down." Abruptly, his weight was gone.
Uncharacteristically, she followed his orders, her paralyzed brain still trying to process the unbelievable events.
Someone had shot at them, she thought belatedly, almost dreamily. Charlie had somehow realized what was happening and protected her again. Turning her head, she saw that her windshield was a mass of cracks. Four holes marred the glass as well. Irrelevantly, it flashed through her mind that if she got her hands on the shooter, she was going to wring his neck. He'd damaged her beloved car and that was unforgivable. Then the realization swept over her that those shots had been meant for her and she felt a surge of sheer, primitive fear.
Keeping her head down, she slid to the floor under the steering wheel. Her knee came down painfully on something that felt like a rounded piece of gravel and, feeling around for the small, offending stone, her hand encountered a smooth, hard object that felt horribly familiar to her fingers.
It was a bullet. She stared at the irrefutable evidence in her hand and felt herself begin to shake. Somewhere in the background, she heard the wail of sirens.
Someone was pounding on her door. She peered up to see William Henderson, his face uncharacteristically pale, looking through the window. "Lois! Are you all right?"
Behind him, Clark appeared and she heard a key turn in the lock. She hadn't even noticed that the engine was off and that her car keys weren't in the ignition. Henderson wrenched the door open. "Lois, are you hurt?"
Numbly, she shook her head. The cop seemed to relax. He glanced at Clark. "Don't let her get out. He's probably gone, but I'm not ready to count on it." He turned quickly away from the door, and Lois could hear him shouting something unintelligible at someone out of her range of vision.
Clark got into the passenger seat. "He's gone, I think, but you'd better stay down for a few more minutes. Are you okay?"
The feeling of shocked numbness was beginning to lift and the shaking was getting worse. Clark put his hand on top of hers and with the other, he lifted his glasses, peering up through the cracked windshield. Abruptly, he seemed to relax. "He's gone. You can get up."
Her body didn't want to move. Slowly, she slid back onto the seat. Surprisingly, her brain was beginning to function coherently again, but the shaking wasn't going away. "He tried to kill me," she whispered. She could hear the trembling in her voice. Clark looked at her narrowly and all at once, pulled her into his arms, holding her close.
"It's all right," he murmured in her ear. "You're safe. I won't let him hurt you, Lois, I promise. You're safe."
The approaching sirens cut off abruptly. Lois burrowed against his chest and closed her eyes, trying to block out the confusion. With his arms around her, she had this incredible feeling of security. Somehow, she knew that Charlie would protect her no matter what, even from a faceless killer who came and went in plain view and was never seen.
Lois stood on the sidewalk next to the Jeep, Charlie's arm closely around her, watching the confusion and trying to shake off the lingering numbness of shock.
A couple of the bullets fired from above had struck innocent persons. That was what had prevented Charlie from capturing the shooter, she knew. He had paused to stop a young man from bleeding to death. Lois had heard the paramedics talking about how the bullet had amazingly cauterized the severed artery and kept the victim alive until help arrived. It just underlined to her what she had already known but had somehow not internalized, before. This wasn't a game; it was deadly serious.
Police had spread out, looking for the shooter, but she was already sure they would find nothing. A high powered rifle, complete with a telescopic sight, had turned up on the roof of the building across the street from the spot where she and Charlie had left the Jeep. The killer must have been lying in wait for her to return. It was only because of Charlie that she was still alive.
"I'd like a hair off that rabbit's foot that you carry," William Henderson's dry voice said, behind her. "From the looks of your Jeep, you should be dead." The inspector moved into her range of vision. "Are you sure you're not hurt, Lois? He put four bullets through your windshield."
"I'm all right," she said again. "Thanks to … " She had to forcibly rearrange her thoughts to keep from making an error. In the stress of the moment, she had been thinking of her companion as Charlie, again. "Thanks to Clark."
Henderson shifted his attention to Clark Kent. "You're Kent, aren't you? I think I saw you at Winninger's last night."
"Yes, sir." Clark nodded.
"Bill Henderson, Homicide," he introduced himself. "Do you mind telling me what happened?"
"Sure." Clark hesitated. "Could we get Lois inside, somewhere? I don't like having her out in the open like this, right now."
"Let's go to my office," Henderson said. He beckoned to them and started back toward the police station at a fast pace. "I doubt there's any danger at the moment. We have the area blanketed and whoever did this is probably making tracks away from here as fast as he can move."
"Maybe," Clark said. "Did Detective Thomas have the chance to tell you about Mr. Makeup?"
"Who?" Henderson shook his head. "He'd just handed me the report about last night's attempt on Lois when we heard the shots." He had moved unobtrusively to walk on the side nearest the street as he spoke, placing his body between her and the possible places where a shooter could hide. "I'm sorry, Lois. I didn't think you'd be in any danger. Obviously, I was wrong." He glanced at Clark. "You were saying?"
"After last night, I was afraid of something like this," Clark explained. "I was watching for anything that might be a threat. We'd just gotten into the Jeep when I saw the guy with a rifle on top of the building across the street." He tapped his glasses. "I have a pretty strong prescription. Anyway, I grabbed Lois and shoved her down on the seat, just before the first shot."
"You probably saved her life," Henderson said. He glanced at the back of Clark's jacket. "Are you all right, Kent? It looks like he hit your jacket."
"Yeah," Clark said, after a startled moment. "I was lying on top of Lois. I guess he must have just missed me."
Henderson raised an eyebrow. "Forget the hair off that rabbit's foot," he said after a short silence. "I just want to touch it. That should give me all the luck I'll need for the next ten years." He seemed to shake himself. ''Now, what's this about 'Mr. Makeup'?"
It was nearly eight o'clock by the time Lois and Clark stepped off the elevator into the Daily Planet newsroom. The decorations draped around the room seemed frivolous and irrelevant, compared to what had happened this morning, Lois thought as she and Clark passed the glittering office Christmas tree, gleaming under its load of ornaments and tinsel.
"Lois are you okay?" Perry fell into step beside them.
"I'm fine," she said, briefly. The question had been asked so many times since the events at the police station that the answer had become automatic.
"Well, what're you doin' here?"
"I work here," Lois said. "I have a job to do."
"Well, your job ain't goin' to be worth the sweat flyin' off an Elvis imitator if you end up dead." Perry looked back at Clark who was walking behind them. "Kent, you saved her bacon. Can't you talk some sense into her?"
Lois cut in. "Look Chief, apparently the killer can find me anywhere and can look like anyone, so I'm probably safer around a lot of people I know." She turned her head, looking for Jimmy. "Jimmy, did you find that stuff I asked for?"
The young computer expert waved a paper. "Got the list right here, Lois."
"Good, let me have it." Lois dropped into her desk chair. "I want to see if I recognize the name of this guy."
Jimmy laid the list on her desk and Clark leaned over the back of her chair to read.
"Great shades of Memphis, Kent," Perry said. "What happened to your jacket?"
"Huh?" Clark straightened up and removed the item. "Oh. I was going to go back to my place and change, but Lois was in a hurry to get to the office."
Lois had seen the damage to the jacket, earlier. "That happened when the guy was shooting at us, Perry. He just got the jacket, though. You should bring a change of clothes to work, Clark. That's what mostly everybody else does."
Perry shook his head. "It looks like I nearly lost two reporters this morning, not one. You two be more careful from now on. Got it?"
"Got it, sir," Clark said.
Lois had been scanning the list. "There are some famous names here. Let's see …" She scowled at the paper. Then she saw it, and the sense of recognition was like a slap in the face. "That was it. I knew I'd recognize it if I saw it. Jimmy, find me everything you can, especially the whereabouts of Sebastian Finn, AKA Mr. Makeup."
Clark put down the phone. Normally, Lois would have excoriated any colleague who presumed to sit on the corner of her desk or use her phone without permission, but this time the impulse hadn't even occurred to her. "Henderson says he just finished listening to his copy of your interview," he said. "He said it was too bad you didn't start the recording until after the conversation about Finn, but he agrees that there might be a motive there. He also said to remind you to watch your step."
"Yeah, yeah." Lois shrugged off the reminder. "So I was a little shaken up before. Getting shot at will do that to you."
"No kidding," Clark said. "I was, actually. Anyway, we know Finn knew both Winninger and Trevino—"
"They were all in the same photo," Lois said. "I'd say there's no doubt of it. But what's the tie-in between Barbara Trevino, the ozone layer, increased male potency and the Rainforest Consortium? Winninger mentioned all of them just before he was murdered, and I refuse to believe there was no connection. You don't deliberately go out of your way to murder somebody like Vincent Winninger without a good reason."
"You're not getting any argument from me," Clark said. "Maybe when Jimmy gets that formula analyzed it will tell us something. Winninger must have thought something in the book was important. I tried to call Dr. Hubert to ask him about it, by the way, but he's disappeared."
"Yeah. Not even the police can find him."
"He's probably afraid of Finn, too, after what happened to Winninger," Lois said. "Hubert's probably the only person left who might know anything about what Winninger was going to tell me. We'll just have to keep looking for him." She glanced at the clock. "Let's go get some lunch. We have to be at Trevino's press conference in about an hour."
"I'll go get it for you," Clark offered. "We can eat in the conference room."
"Clark, you don't have to coddle me."
"I'm not," he said, and she saw the worry in his eyes. "It's not that I want to tell you what to do, Lois. I just don't think it's a good idea for you to make yourself a target when this guy is so determined to eliminate you as a witness. I'm not infallible, and if something happened to you, I don't know if I could live with myself. I—" He broke off, swallowing, clearly wanting to say more but thinking better of it.
"Clark, I'm a grown woman. I can take care of myself."
He said nothing and Lois could feel the charged silence between them stretching thin. The memory of the glass of her windshield splintering and the feel of the bullet under her knee flashed through her mind. If Clark hadn't been there, she wouldn't be sitting here now, arguing about her ability to take care of herself, she knew. She'd be in the hospital … or the morgue. But it was hard to say it aloud.
She had never, since her childhood, been willing to take the risk of depending on somebody else. Hard experience told her that they always let you down when you needed them the most. And when you started depending on them, there were always strings attached. But that had been before Charlie. Three times now — no, four, if you counted Nightfall — he had come through for her and demanded nothing in return. Was it possible that she had finally found the one person whom she could truly count on?
All right, so no one could take care of herself all the time, she admitted, grudgingly. It was no shame to sometimes need the help of someone else, especially if that someone else was Charlie. Heads of state, actors, famous people of all kinds, had bodyguards to do for them what they couldn't always do for themselves. She wasn't particularly famous, but she *had* witnessed a crime, or close enough. The killer couldn't know for sure that she was no danger to him — at least, in her ability to identify him by sight — and had apparently decided to remove her as a threat. Was it cowardly to simply show a little care for her own safety? Mad Dog Lane didn't have to prove the truth of the sobriquet by stupidly putting herself in danger to no purpose, did she? How important was it that she display her independence by going out in the open simply to get her lunch?
She realized suddenly that the she was staring at Clark, who was studying his own knuckles as if he had never seen them before. She might not like to admit it, but he was right. There was no point in making an unnecessary target of herself for something like this.
Besides, her car was currently in the hands of Henderson's men. That seemed to settle it. She really didn't want to walk.
"You're right," she said, so abruptly that she saw him jump slightly. "Why don't you go get me something to eat?"
Clark really had to work on hiding his emotions more effectively, she thought. The expression of relief on his face was unmistakable. She smothered a grin. "Don't let this go to your head, Kent," she said. "I don't think I've admitted I might be wrong more than twice in my life. Pick me up a Chinese chicken salad and a diet soda, would you?"
He nodded. "Any particular place?"
"The deli over on Maple is where I usually—"
"Say no more. I know where it is." Clark stood up.
"Wait a second. I'll get my purse."
"That's okay. You can pay me when I get back." He gave her a brilliant smile and headed for the exit.
Lois shook her head, smiling after him, then turned back to the preliminary information Jimmy had turned up on Sebastian Finn. The man had briefly done work in Hollywood as an extra and then gone to work as a double for famous personages. After that he'd sort of disappeared. Hopefully, with a little more time, Jimmy would be able to find out what he'd been doing since.
"Where did Kent go?" Perry's voice asked from behind her.
Lois jumped and spun her chair around. "Don't sneak up on me like that, Perry! I've had enough shocks today! He went to get me lunch."
Perry raised an eyebrow. Lois quickly explained, "He didn't think I should go out unnecessarily, right now."
"He's right," Perry said. "You two seem to have become friends pretty fast."
Lois shook her head, recalling what Clark had told Jimmy yesterday afternoon. "I've known Clark for some time. We met at a journalists' conference a while back."
"Oh, I see. Old acquaintance, huh?"
"That's right. We had some mutual interests. Clark's an unusual person. He's done a lot of traveling, for one thing — he's not your ordinary country boy at all."
"I got that impression when Jimmy said he'd disarmed that bomb at your apartment house," Perry said. "Maybe it would be a good idea for you to hang around with him until they catch this guy that's gunnin' for you."
Lois looked down at her keyboard. "That was pretty much what we decided," she said. "It wasn't really a bomb, though. It was just a little explosive set to detonate the gas from the water heater."
"I can't say I see the difference," Perry said. "In any case, if you don't mind workin' with him for awhile, he can help you out with this Mr. Makeup thing."
"After this morning, I don't mind at all," Lois said.
"Good," Perry said. "You can tell him he's assigned to you when he gets back."
Clark returned some twenty minutes later with the requested chicken salad and soda, as well as a steak sandwich for himself, and they adjourned to the conference room to eat and talk without being overheard by various colleagues.
"So, we met at a journalists' conference, huh?" Clark said, sounding amused. "Which one? We should probably get our story straight, just in case anyone asks."
"How did you know I said that?" she asked, startled.
"I was listening," he admitted. "I probably shouldn't have been, but until this Mr. Makeup is caught, I'm sort of hyper- aware of you."
"Oh. How far away can you hear?" she asked, intrigued.
"Well, most of the time, I don't hear any farther than ordinary people," he said. "I tend to pick up the sounds of people in trouble, bad accidents, that kind of thing from some distance. And, like in your case, I can hear somebody I'm concentrating on from several blocks away. It's kind of selective, though. If I did it for everything, I'd go nuts."
"I guess you would," she said. "Okay, which journalists' conferences have you been to — if any?"
"I've been to quite a few," Clark said. "Last year's conference in Memphis —"
"I wasn't there," Lois said. "Perry went. How about the one in New Orleans, the year before?"
"I was there, but only the last two days."
"So was I," Lois said. "We met in New Orleans, then."
"Okay," Clark agreed. He began to unwrap his sandwich. "On another subject, I wanted to bounce an idea off of you. Something you said this morning about bringing a change of clothes to work made me think of it. Yesterday, you said a mask would make people think I had something to hide. What about an — an outfit of some kind? — a costume that would attract people's attention, that I could wear whenever I used my powers to help people."
"That's a thought," Lois said. "Maybe a change of hairstyle, too — and you'd have to lose the glasses."
"Naturally. If I'm using my powers openly, the last thing I'll need is something in the way. Besides, it would help change my appearance. So, you think it might work?"
"I think it just might," Lois said. "But how are you going to get this costume? I can do a lot of things, but my sewing talents are pretty much limited to fixing a torn hem or replacing a button."
"My mom can sew," Clark said. " I was pretty hard on my clothes when I was a kid. She made most of them when I was in school, to save money. I'll call her this evening."
Lois took a bite of salad. "What do they — your parents, that is — think of this idea of going public? Or haven't you mentioned it to them? Your father seemed pretty worried about the idea of anybody finding out about you."
"I've discussed it with them," Clark said. "Dad isn't crazy about it, but he won't stand in my way. He knows how much I want to be able to help, openly."
"But without giving away who you really are," Lois said. "I should think that would make the difference."
He nodded. "It does." He glanced over his shoulder and Lois saw him frown.
"What?" Lois asked.
"Charlie," she said, warningly, "you're frowning. What did you hear?"
He shrugged. "The guy with the thinning hair…"
"He thinks I'm trying to make a pass at you and wondering if he should warn me …" Abruptly, his frown deepened. "Why that dirty-minded …" He broke off. "That's why I don't usually eavesdrop, but I heard your name and it got my attention before I realized."
Lois shrugged. "Don't worry about it. Ralph still hasn't gotten over what happened when *he* tried to make a pass at me. He thinks he's God's gift to the female of the species and didn't take 'no' for an answer … at first."
Clark's expressive eyebrows flew up. "Should I ask?"
Lois grinned. "Only if you want a description of his picturesque walk for the next several days."
Her companion laughed. "Nice work."
"I thought so." She glanced at her watch. "We better hurry. Barbara Trevino's news conference starts in twenty minutes."
"Don't worry; we won't be late."
"We will be if we have trouble getting a cab," Lois said. "You haven't forgotten that the cops have my car, have you?"
"No, but we're leaving from the roof." Clark jerked a thumb at the window. "It's clouding up nicely, out there. If I'm careful, nobody will see us and if Finn is watching for you, we'll avoid him completely."
The thought of flying to the news conference hadn't occurred to her, but now that he brought it up, it was the obvious option. "It's nice having a private pilot."
He grinned. "It's nice being your private pilot. Are you finished?"
She picked up her wrappings, crumpled them into a ball and tossed them into the trash. "Now I am."
He pitched the wrapper for his sandwich after hers. It bounced from the wall, off the table leg, and into the basket. He looked at her, slyly.
"Show off," she said, after a startled instant. "Wish I had reflexes like that. Let's go, okay? I don't want to cut it too fine."
He got to his feet and opened the door for her. "After you, Ms. Lane."
"It's a global village now," Barbara Trevino said. "We of the Rain Forest Consortium have to act accordingly."
From her position in the second row, Lois observed Barbara Trevino appraisingly. She was still a beautiful woman even in her early fifties, assured and, in her own way, powerful. If the inference Vincent Winninger had made was correct, this woman would be a dangerous opponent. Could she have the ruthlessness it would take to send a hired killer after Winninger? If she did, then Barbara Trevino was the real enemy and Finn was just her lackey, albeit a dangerous one.
"How does it feel to be the first woman to hold this post?" The question came from Bambi Wilson of the Star.
Barbara Trevino smiled modestly. "Well, I don't officially hold it for two days, but at the risk of being premature…" Her smile widened. "… It feels great."
A ripple of laughter filled the room. Lois spoke up quickly. "Ms. Trevino, concerning the death of Doctor Vincent Winninger …"
Barbara Trevino's smile disappeared and for a second she saw the woman's beautiful, civilized mask slip. A pair of dark, piercing eyes met hers and irrationally, it seemed to Lois as if Barbara Trevino were reading her mind. Then, an expression of gentle sorrow suffused her features.
"Dr. Winninger was a brilliant scientist and a dear friend of mine for many years. I was shocked and saddened by his death."
"How do you feel about the ozone layer?" Lois asked, almost on the heels of the last word.
There was a silence, then a soft, confused murmur among the assembled journalists. Clark's face remained unreadable.
"And," Lois continued, "what's your view on increased male potency?" Resolutely, she ignored the incredulous glances from nearby colleagues, keeping her eyes firmly fixed on Barbara Trevino.
The woman was staring at her, her eyes narrowed. "Who are you?"
"Lois Lane, Daily Planet. I interviewed Dr. Winninger only a short time before his murder."
Barbara Trevino's face had lost all its expression. "Well, Ms. Lane, I find your sense of humor odd, to say the least, and totally inappropriate. I suggest this would be a good time to close this press conference." Without another word, she turned and left the podium.
"Well, Lois, that was interesting." The speaker was Linda King of the Metropolis Herald. "Been missing your appointments with your psychotherapist again?" She gave a laugh and turned to follow the crowd of departing journalists.
Clark glanced after her and then turned back to Lois. "I take it you had a reason for that."
"Did you see the look on her face? " Lois said, softly. "She knew exactly what I was talking about … even if I didn't."
"I saw it," Clark said. "The question is, how are we ever going to get to her, now?"
"I'll think of something," Lois said. "Come on, Clark, let's …"
"Excuse me." A short, slightly chubby man, with a reddish beard and mustache was standing beside her. "Ms. Lane?"
At her nod, he continued, "I am Dr. Trevino's administrative assistant. She wishes me to tell you that she will discuss whatever you wish … privately."
Lois glanced quickly at her companion. "I'm here with Mr. Kent."
The little man also glanced at Clark before turning back to Lois. "Just you, she said. You understand."
"She wants to talk woman-to-woman, kind of a sisterhood thing," Lois said, not at all sure that she had any wish to be alone with Barbara Trevino.
Clark smiled engagingly. "Sure, I understand completely. But I'm still going with her."
The little man looked at Clark's solid form and shrugged helplessly. "Very well. This way."
"This way, please." Barbara Trevino's assistant gestured Lois ahead of him as they exited the elevator but stepped out ahead of Clark. Beyond the elevator doors, Clark saw a short, uncarpeted corridor that led to a door at the end marked "Roof Access." On one side of the wall nearest the elevator was a pay telephone and on the other, a glass case that housed a fire extinguisher. Two doors, both closed, opened off either side of the hall, but no one was to be seen. Lois turned to look questioningly at Clark.
"Just a minute." Clark couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't quite right. He put a hand on the other man's arm. "Why would Ms. Trevino be waiting for Lois on the roof?"
"Ms. Trevino wished for privacy." The aide had a faint but definite accent, but to Clark, it rang false. Clark Kent spoke 347 languages and he had never heard an accent quite like that of the little man — except for those put on by actors on television and the silver screen.
He almost reacted, but stopped himself in time. If this was the assassin, he was after Lois, and now was the chance to capture him — except for the fact that they had absolutely no proof, whatsoever. He had to wait for real proof, he told himself — but if it looked as if Lois were in real danger, he would act immediately. There was no way he would allow Mr. Makeup to harm her, even at the cost of revealing what he could do.
He released the man's arm and stood back. Their guide pushed the door open and gestured for Lois to go ahead of him.
Lois cast another questioning look at Clark and preceded the aide through the door. The man followed her and pulled the door shut in Clark's face. He heard the bolt click home on the other side. Without pause, he moved with a speed born of desperation, out of the hallway and toward the roof.
As the little man slammed the door behind him, Lois knew at once what she had half suspected — that this was the man who had been trying to kill her. From the other side of the door, she heard the telltale "whoosh" that meant Charlie was moving, literally faster than a speeding bullet, to get to her within seconds. Sebastian Finn undoubtedly thought he had a helpless woman at his mercy, now that her protector had been neutralized — and he was wrong on both counts. She only needed to keep the killer off balance for a very short span of time before she had super- assistance.
The little man reached inside his jacket and pulled out a handgun. Lois didn't wait for him to point it at her. As he withdrew the weapon, she snap-kicked him in the knee as hard as she could.
Her shoe connected with his kneecap and he howled in pain as the leg collapsed under him. He made a desperate effort to save himself and went painfully down on the pebble-strewn roof, his leg unable to support him. Lois ran.
She ducked around one of the big metal structures that dotted the roof here and there and nearly jumped out of her skin as she came face to face with Charlie. He touched his lips with one finger, signaling for silence and gently pushed her into a position behind his body.
Together, they waited. Lois saw that Charlie's glasses were sitting practically on the tip of his nose and he was apparently staring straight at the big steel structure behind which they were hiding. An instant later, he removed them and gestured for her to stay behind him. Quite deliberately, he stuck his head out and very quickly pulled it back, too fast, she thought, for Finn to get more than the glimpse of a human head. A gunshot answered the move and she saw dust spray from the graveled rooftop.
Charlie gave a satisfied little nod, keeping his eyes fixed on the scene beyond the steel wall that only he could see. Lois could hear the slow crunch of footsteps as the man approached their hiding place.
All at once, she felt Charlie's arm around her, and they moved so quickly that she literally didn't have time to catch her breath. They were suddenly behind another, smaller rooftop structure, crouching down behind it to stay out of sight. Her companion was still looking at something that she couldn't see. Again, he very deliberately stuck his head out and pulled it back as another shot echoed through the cold, afternoon air. Lois heard the impact and the whine as the bullet ricocheted from the metal behind the spot where Charlie's head had been. Chips of stone flew as it struck the low wall that surrounded the roof.
Footsteps approached them again, crunching in the pebbles, and Lois noted the irregularity of the sounds. The man was limping. Evidently, her kick to the knee had been fairly effective, after all.
Without warning, they were moving again. All at once, they were behind the figure of Sebastian Finn as he passed a third of the big, metal structures and Charlie reached out to tap him on the shoulder.
Finn spun. His eyes widened as his eyes took in the sight of Charlie standing solidly in front of him, and Lois saw his finger contract on the trigger, but fast as the assassin was, Charlie was faster. He reached out, calmly seized the man's wrist and pushed it sideways with inexorable strength. The bullet whined harmlessly to the side and imbedded itself in the door through which they had reached the roof.
"I'd say that's sufficient," Charlie said, and Lois saw his hand tighten. An expression of pained surprise crossed the assassin's face, and his fingers opened, helplessly. The gun fell to the ground and Charlie kicked it casually out of reach. "I think the various bullet holes and your fingerprints on the gun, combined with Ms. Lane's and my own statements should be enough for the police to make their case." Effortlessly, he spun the man around and grasped his free hand. Holding Finn's wrists lightly but firmly with one hand, he glanced at Lois. "I'm making a citizen's arrest, Lois. Would you like the honor of calling the police? I think I saw a phone in the hall."
"My pleasure," Lois said. Her eyes narrowed as she studied their prisoner. Something about the thick mass of reddish curls didn't look quite right. On impulse, she reached out and grasped the heavy shock of hair on his head. If it turned out to be real, too bad, but not at all to her surprise, the hair came free in one piece, revealing a hairless dome beneath it.
Lois thrust the wig into Clark's free hand and seized the mustache and beard, which peeled off as easily as the wig. "Sebastian Finn, I presume?"
The man's eyes flickered, but he didn't answer. Lois glared at him. "Why did you kill Vincent Winninger?"
Finn smiled, slightly. "His Rosencrantz was atrocious."
"But, why come after me?"
A faint frown line appeared between his brows, as if he thought the answer was obvious. "You could identify me."
Lois glanced quickly at Charlie, who shook his head slightly.
"Where does Barbara Trevino fit into this?" she asked.
One corner of his mouth curved up slightly, but he didn't answer. Lois shrugged. "Hang onto him, Clark. I'll call Henderson. Maybe Mr. Finn will talk to him."
The man chuckled softly. "Not likely, Ms. Lane. I do congratulate you on your luck, however. I've never failed to fulfill a contract before. Now, someone else will have to finish the job in my place — and it *will* be fulfilled; don't ever doubt that. Your efficient friend can't always be there to protect you, you know — although I would like to know where you got your training, Mr. Kent. You're very good."
Clark smiled without humor. "You'd be surprised, Mr. Finn."
"It can't be just that you can identify him," Clark said. "Otherwise, he wouldn't have said what he did about a 'contract.' Whoever's behind him —"
"Barbara Trevino," Lois said.
"Probably. In any case, whoever is behind him wants you dead, and there has to be a reason."
"She knows I interviewed Dr. Winninger just before he was killed," Lois said. "However, she doesn't know what he told me. For all she knows, I might know about whatever it is that was behind Winninger's murder."
They were flying back toward the Daily Planet from the 12th Precinct, two hours after the arrest of Sebastian Finn. Lois had already phoned the story to the Planet, but the sense of relief brought about by the killer's capture was tempered slightly by the remark Sebastian Finn had made just before she had gone to call the police.
"That's a possibility," Clark said, thoughtfully. "I wonder if she and Finn know about the notebook that you took."
"Maybe. You said there wasn't anything in it, though — except that formula."
"But neither of them know that," Clark pointed out. "For all Trevino and Finn know, Dr. Winninger has written all his suspicions down. Whatever it is must be pretty urgent."
"Well, he said I was going to help him prevent Barbara Trevino's induction as head of the Rainforest Consortium, which is only two days away. I'd say that's urgent."
"Yeah," Clark agreed. "So, I guess the next thing on the agenda is to try to figure out whatever dark secret she's hiding that will disqualify her from holding the post."
"You got it," Lois said. "Welcome to big city journalism, Mr. Kent."
He was descending feet first toward the roof of the Daily Planet. "Oh, I'm not entirely unfamiliar with the concept, Ms. Lane."
She laughed and punched his arm lightly. "I kind of figured that out. We're going to be the hottest reporting team that ever hit Metropolis. Just wait and see."
"Maybe," he said, cautiously. "First we have to find out what Barbara Trevino's up to and defuse the contract on you. I'm not going to relax until this whole thing is over."
"According to the police," Jimmy was saying, "Sebastian Finn wasn't just moonlighting when he killed Winninger. Apparently, he's been a successful, independent hitman for years — I guess he finally made his ability to disguise himself as anyone pay off. The FBI has been hunting him for quite a while. They call him 'The Reaper.' You know, like the Grim Reaper? Henderson says he thinks the guy came up with the name, himself."
"That figures," Lois said. "I hate actors."
"Police investigators interviewed Barbara Trevino," Jimmy continued. "She's got an airtight alibi, of course. She was getting into her limo and claims she has no knowledge of any attempt on your life."
"Naturally," Lois said. "But we still don't know the connection between increased male potency, the rainforest and Barbara Trevino. Jimmy, I want you to do a thorough background check on her. I want to know about her finances, her associates, whatever organizations she's associated with — everything you can find on her. I want to know more about her than her own mother does. Got it? We've got to find the tie-in!"
"I got it." Jimmy said.
Clark put down the phone and pushed his chair over to Lois's desk, beside Jimmy's. He lowered his voice. "Remember Dr. Hubert, the man nobody could find?"
"Yeah," Lois said.
"Well, the police found him by dragging the river."
"Great," Lois said. "Finn?"
"Probably. It looks like they're eliminating anybody who might have any idea of what Winninger was going to tell you."
"It must have been pretty hot stuff," Lois said, thoughtfully. "What have we stumbled over here?"
"That's a good question," Clark said.
"I wish I could talk to Barbara Trevino, myself," Lois said.
"Yeah, good luck with that." Jimmy pushed his chair away from her desk and back to his own. "Well, back to work."
It was after dark when Clark floated at the window of Lois's apartment while she opened the window for him. The moon was up, but snow clouds covered the sky, and the room beyond the window was unlighted, making it impossible for them to be seen by the naked eye. He floated through the opening, set her lightly on the floor and turned to close the glass behind them.
"Stay here," he said. "Let me check the place first."
Lois waited in the darkness by the window while Clark made a quick search of the entire apartment. It took only a few seconds and he stood next to her again.
"All clear. Make sure your door and windows stay locked, especially that window that opens on the fire escape, all right?"
She nodded, suppressing the slight feeling of nervousness in the pit of her stomach. "I'll be fine, Clark."
He nodded. "I'm going to check the building completely before I go. Mr. Tracewski is keeping the doors locked at night until the police tell him not to, isn't he?"
"I think so."
"I'll check that before I go, too," Clark said. "Are you sure you'll be all right, Lois?"
"Sure." She would, Lois assured herself. She couldn't expect Charlie to hang around and protect her every second. Sebastian Finn was in jail. Surely Barbara Trevino wouldn't be able to get another assassin that quickly, could she?
Clark hesitated. "If anything scares you, scream. I can be here in half a second flat."
"I will, I promise."
He took half a step forward, taking her by the shoulders. "If anything happened to you now, I don't know what I'd do, Lois. I've been waiting all my life for you, without knowing it. I can't lose you now."
"You won't." She slipped her arms around his neck. "I've been waiting for you the same way. I'm not going to get myself killed before I have the chance to see what it's like to — " She paused and took a deep breath. " — To be in love," she finished, bravely.
His arms went around her. "See to it that you don't," he said. "I'm finding out about it for the first time, too. I like it."
He nodded. "I know it's not supposed to happen so fast," he said, "but I think I fell in love with you that first night when you found me in the park. Is that possible?"
"I don't know," she said, "but if it isn't, I don't want to find out."
"Me, either." He leaned forward to kiss her and she tilted her face up. The apartment was silent for several seconds. At last, he drew back. "I suppose I'd better go."
"Yeah," she agreed reluctantly. "We need to get up early tomorrow, and it's nearly midnight."
"Uh huh." He glanced at the clock. "I don't want to leave, Lois. I have this scary feeling that if I do, something's going to happen to you."
"Clark, you can't stay with me every minute. I'll be fine."
He nodded, not answering.
At that instant, the ringing of the phone broke the silence of the apartment and they both jumped. It rang again and Lois went to pick up the receiver. "Hello?"
Silence on the other end. "Hello?"
There was a sudden click and the caller hung up.
"Wrong number," she said.
There was a smash. Something sailed through the window and Clark reached up to catch it so fast that she felt a gust of air against her face.
"What — " she began.
Clark went through the broken window in a rush, knocking any remaining glass from the frame.
Hurrying to the window, Lois saw a flash in the sky, and a second later, she heard the unmistakable sound of an explosion. Then, he was back.
"What happened?" she whispered.
"Rocket propelled grenade." He was looking grim. "I don't know where it came from. You're not staying here, tonight, Lois. Get something to sleep in. I'm taking you somewhere you'll be safe for the night."
Almost in a daze, she obeyed. When she returned to the living room a moment later, she saw that he had covered the window with cardboard and taped it down securely, although she knew that there had been no cardboard or masking tape in her apartment a few moments ago.
"That should keep the snow out," he said. "Come on, we're leaving by the door. Let me go first."
"Char — Clark what's going on?" she whispered. "Ordinary hitmen don't have access to this kind of stuff, do they?"
"Not normally, no. But it's not impossible to get, if you have the contacts. The drug cartels in Colombia were using worse when I was there. How do you think I learned to disarm a bomb?"
He undid the locks on her door and stepped out. "It's okay. Come on."
She obeyed, stepping quickly out into the hall, half-expecting to feel the impact of a bullet as she did so. Clark closed it behind them and waited until she had secured the lock. "Where are we going?"
"To my parents' place for tonight," he said. "No one's going to find you in Kansas." He scooped her up in his arms and Lois felt the cool rush of air. An instant later, they were launching from the roof of the apartment house into the cloud- covered sky. Tiny snowflakes were beginning to sift down, but Clark took them straight up. In less then five seconds they had emerged from the clouds into a clear night sky, spangled with stars. Beneath them, a cottony white layer of clouds shimmered in the moonlight, blocking her view of the city. Lois put her arms around his neck, holding him more tightly than was strictly necessary, and closed her eyes, trying to control the shivering that had nothing to do with the chilly air.
Over and over, her mind replayed what had just happened. Someone had called to verify that she was in her apartment and then had cold-bloodedly fired that thing through her window. If not for Charlie, she would have been dead — again. Could Barbara Trevino have the resources to hire the kind of high- powered hitman who had just tried to kill her? It seemed unlikely. Just what was really going on here?
"Lois, I promise I'm not going to let him hurt you," Charlie's voice was saying in her ear. "We're going to find out what's behind this and expose it. Then there won't be any point in killing you." His arms tightened around her. "God, Lois, don't shake like that! You're scaring me!"
She became aware that her whole body was trembling and that his voice had taken on a desperate edge. She had to get hold of herself, she thought. This wasn't the first time she'd been targeted. Others had tried to dispose of a snoopy reporter who stuck her nose into their business, and she had always managed to expose the bad guys before they could fulfill their intention. But this time it was different. Lois had been sure the threat came from Barbara Trevino. She was certain the woman was mixed up in it, somehow, but it had become evident, starting with Finn's comment this afternoon, that there was more to this than met the eye. Besides Barbara Trevino, there could very possibly be someone else to whom she presented a threat and a nuisance that needed to be removed.
But she was Lois Lane. She didn't let shadowy criminals intimidate her. And she wasn't just Lois Lane anymore. She was part of a team; she had Charlie — Clark Kent — to back her up, a man with superhuman abilities who was going to be her permanent partner, as soon as she could wangle it without Perry getting suspicious. Together, they would dig up whatever it was that Barbara Trevino was hiding and expose it to the light of day. Somebody, she thought, had made a very big mistake tonight.
"Feeling better?" he whispered.
Lois nodded, aware that the trembling had begun to ease off. "I'm okay, Clark. I've decided to stop running and start going after whoever is behind this besides Barbara Trevino. We're going to start tomorrow morning."
His arms tightened around her. "That's the Lois Lane I know," he said, quietly.
"I haven't thanked you," she said, resting a hand on the side of his face. "You saved my life, again. That makes three times in one day, once last night and once yesterday."
"However many times it takes," he said.
They were sinking through the cloud layer again and Lois felt the dampness of mist brushing her face, then, they were beneath the clouds and dropping toward a single light in the dimness beneath them. Instants later, he set her on the familiar path that led to the door of his parents' Kansas farmhouse. Snow was falling, much more heavily than it had been in Metropolis, and Lois found herself standing in several inches of the stuff where it coated the path. A brisk wind whipped the snow into her face, and she squinted her eyes against it.
They had made their descent so silently that Clark's parents hadn't heard their arrival. Clark led her up to the door and knocked gently. A moment later, Martha opened the door. "Clark! Lois! Come on in!"
"Hi, Mom." Clark let Lois precede him into the cozy living room. "We have a favor to ask. Would it be all right if Lois stayed here, tonight?"
Martha raised her eyebrows. "Of course. What's wrong?"
"Someone's trying to kill me," Lois said. "Clark's saved my life four times since last night."
"Oh, heavens." Martha closed the door behind them. "Are you all right, honey?"
"More or less." Lois could feel herself relaxing, further. The old farmhouse might not be a modern apartment in the city, but here was the feeling of safety that she hadn't had all day.
"Somebody must be pretty desperate to get rid of you," Jonathan said, slowly. "Was it because of the murder you saw yesterday?"
"Partly," Clark said. "We think it might be because of what they think Winninger told her when she interviewed him."
"The thing is, he hadn't actually said much," Lois interjected. "Now we have to figure out what they're trying to cover up."
"'The wicked flee when no man pursues,'" Martha quoted.
"Exactly," Lois said. "So, now we know for sure that there's something to hide. Hopefully, Jimmy will have more information for us, tomorrow. He's doing an in-depth background on Barbara Trevino. Maybe that will tell us something."
"Who's Jimmy?" Jonathan asked.
"Jimmy Olsen," Clark said. "He's the office gofer, junior photographer, researcher and computer wizard. Very bright kid."
Lois nodded, giving her junior colleague his due. "He really is. If there's anything to find, he'll find it."
"Well, that's reassuring," Martha said. "In any case, you're certainly welcome to stay here tonight, and any other night as long as you want." She gave her son a look that Lois couldn't quite interpret. "Come this way. You can sleep in Clark's old room."
Clark looked out the window at the falling snow. Here in Kansas, the snowstorm that had hit Metropolis was dwarfed by a cloud of flakes growing thicker by the minute. In the fireplace, a log had been mostly devoured by fire, and the embers were still glowing brightly.
"Do you want me to get some more logs from the woodpile?" he asked.
Jonathan shook his head. "It's nearly my bedtime," he said. "I have to get up at four-thirty to milk the cows, remember. Not like you lazy city folks." He grinned at his son.
Clark snorted. "We may get up a little later, but life in Metropolis has been anything but lazy in the last couple of days."
"I sort of figured that out," his father said. "Seriously, do you think you'll be able to get to the bottom of this?"
"We have to, Dad. Lois's life depends on it."
Jonathan removed his glasses and began to polish the lenses with an old polka-dotted handkerchief — the same one, Clark thought, that he had carried for the last ten years, strictly for the purpose to which he was now putting it. "You really like her, don't you, son?"
"Yeah." He came to sit in the rocking chair across from his father. "I think she's the one, Dad. No, I *know* she's the one."
Jonathan blinked at him. "That was pretty fast. You've known her for what — a week?"
"Six days. The thing is, I knew the first day I met her. Or, the first night, since technically we only met after dark when I crashed back to Earth. I felt like I'd been kicked by old Ferdinand; it was that sudden."
Jonathan grinned. "I remember the time that bull let you have it when you were sixteen. He limped for a week. But I get it. It was kind of the same way for me when I first saw your mother. Lois kind of reminds me of Martha — not in looks, but the way she thinks. Smart women, both of them."
Clark found himself grinning in return. "You don't have to tell me that. Look, why don't I get you a stack of logs and dry them off for you? That way you won't have to bring them in tomorrow."
"I'd appreciate that," Jonathan said. He hoisted himself out of the recliner. "Looks like we're in for quite a storm tonight."
"It didn't show any sign of clearing when Lois and I were flying in," Clark agreed. "If you like, I'll check on the animals while I'm out there."
"Thanks, son." Jonathan Kent regarded him with a smile. "It looks like you've finally found your niche, doesn't it?"
Clark shrugged. "I hope so, Dad. Working at the Planet, meeting Lois — it's like a dream come true. Now, if I can find some way to use these extra powers that I've somehow been given —"
"It looks to me as if you've already found a way to use them. She said you saved her life four times in twenty-four hours."
"You know what I mean, Dad. Lois and I came up with something that might work. She doesn't want anyone to know what I can do, either, but if I can wear some kind of disguise that will misdirect people, convince them that I'm somebody else … maybe I can do what I've wanted to do for a long time."
"It sounds to me like that young lady has a lot of sense," Jonathan said. "I said a long time ago that you needed a smart woman in your life. Lana was never right for you, you know."
"I know. That's why I left when I did. She wanted more, and I couldn't give her more. It wouldn't have been fair to either of us."
His father smiled. "Well, if you're sure Lois is the right woman, who am I to argue? Life with her certainly won't be boring, though, if this week has been any example."
He surprised himself by laughing out loud. "That's for sure!"
"What's for sure?" Martha Kent re-entered the room.
Clark smiled at his mother. "Dad said life with Lois won't be boring. Is she all right, Mom?"
Martha nodded. "I think she'll be fine, Clark. I just came down to find out your plans for the night."
"I'm going to check the animals, bring in some wood and then bed down in the living room for the night," Clark said. "That is, if you don't mind. Lois and I have to be at the Planet early tomorrow morning to get a jump start on this thing." A thought occurred to him. "By the way, is your sewing machine still working?"
"I think so. Why?"
"Well — I think I'm going to need some kind of outfit." He got to his feet and started toward the door. "I'll tell you all about it later. I better go take care of the animals."
Lois readied herself for bed, looking around at the room that had been Clark Kent's while he was growing up.
One wall was lined with shelves, starting about three feet from the floor, and two of them held models of planes and cars. Grouped on a separate shelf were various trophies for high school football, volleyball and wrestling. Framed certificates for excellence in various subjects adorned the walls. One, above all the others, proclaimed to one and all the fact that Clark J. Kent had maintained a 4.0 average throughout all four years in high school. Another one was awarded for his service as the editor of the Smallville High School Sentinel, obviously the school newspaper. A home-made bookshelf held a surprising array of literature, from boys adventure stories and a book entitled "Mandarin for the Beginning Student," to a copy of Shakespeare's Comedies. A photograph of a much younger Clark and Jonathan Kent, holding up a huge fish almost as large as the little boy, held a position of honor on the dresser. Another picture, this one of Jonathan, Martha and Clark, together, sat on the bedside table.
Everything about the room spoke of a happy and secure childhood and of a family that loved each other a great deal. Lois stood looking at the photograph of the young Clark, grinning proudly as he displayed his catch and found herself smiling. He had been an adorable little boy, she thought, and had grown up into an amazing man, and somehow Fate had decided that he would literally drop from the sky into her life. Who was she to turn away from the incredibly fortunate circumstance that had brought them together?
There was a light tapping on the door and she turned to find Martha Kent standing in the opening.
"Did you find everything all right, Lois?"
She nodded. "Yes. I was just looking at the picture of Clark and his fish."
Martha chuckled. "I remember the day they showed up with that thing. They were both covered with mud and soaking wet, but Clark was so proud of himself. I guess we should have known right then how extraordinary he was, but it wasn't until he was about eleven or so that we realized it."
"He said he started developing his powers at about that age," Lois said. "He also told me how you found him. Wasn't there anything that gave you any idea where he came from?"
Martha shook her head. "Just the ship itself. We were afraid someone would find it, so Jonathan went back later to get rid of it. It was just as well he did."
"Oh?" Lois asked.
Clark's mother nodded, coming into the room. "A few days afterwards, some men showed up." Her voice had dropped and she spoke very softly as if, even now, she was afraid someone who shouldn't would overhear. "They said they were with the space agency, and they were looking for some debris from a Russian satellite that had come down."
"Probably. We didn't tell them anything, of course, and after while they went away."
"Good," Lois said, more vehemently than she had intended. Martha's face crinkled into a smile.
"It's so good to be able to talk to another woman about my boy," she said. "You care about him, don't you?"
Lois nodded. "He's … he's something pretty special. I only wish I'd met him a long time ago."
"I wish you had, too. He was everything we could have wanted in a son, but after his powers began to develop, he began to isolate himself from his friends. When he was thirteen — about the time when he started to get really strong — he made the decision by himself never to tell anybody. He said that he wanted to fit in — but, of course, he couldn't." Martha's smile wavered a little. "Not really. It broke my heart watching him have to hide what he could do. I was afraid he was always going to be alone."
"Didn't he have friends?" Lois asked. "I mean, wasn't there anyone he could talk to?"
Martha shook her head. "No. Just us. We were always afraid that if he did, someone would find out and — " She shrugged. "I think that when he learned to fly it opened the whole world to him," she said, almost offhandedly. "He could go anywhere in a matter of seconds. After college, he traveled the world that way — always looking for the right place to settle down, but he couldn't keep from stepping in when someone needed help, and after while, people would start to ask questions, and he'd have to move on. Finally he came back here. He'd planned on moving to Metropolis to try to get a job. He said it was less likely that anyone would notice anything odd about him in the city."
"That's for sure," Lois said. "I think a Martian could walk down the street there and no one would notice — and Clark looks just like anybody else, except that he's so good-looking, that is." She scowled at a memory. "The office man-eater is already after him."
At Martha's questioning look, she elaborated. "The paper's gossip columnist is trying to start something with him. She collects men like some people collect stamps."
"Oh, poor Clark." Martha couldn't restrain a small laugh. "Clark really isn't much of a ladies' man. I mean, girls liked him, and he dated a little here and there during high school, but he's never gotten serious with any woman, really — until he met you." Lois found that Martha Kent was regarding her soberly. "You're the only woman he's ever been serious about."
"And you want to know if I'm going to break his heart," Lois said. She picked up the photo of Clark, looking down into the childish features. Martha Kent didn't speak. After a moment, Lois put the picture down.
"The answer is, not if I can help it." She looked up to meet the older woman's eyes. "I've had a few relationships — none of them worked out. But I've never met anyone like Clark before — and I don't mean because of what he can do. I feel this really strange connection to him. It's like I've been waiting for him all my life, and the others were just — well, killing time while I waited. And unless this thing we have somehow turns sour — " She smiled. "No, I won't break his heart. He's the man I've been waiting for all my life. I'd be pretty stupid to throw him away, wouldn't I?"
"Well, I'd think so, but I'm his mother."
"What would you think about me?" Clark asked, appearing in the doorway.
"We were just discussing your finer qualities," Lois said with a smile. "I'd tell you, but I don't want you to get a swelled head."
"Oh." He looked slightly disconcerted. "I just came up to see if you were okay. I'm going to sleep down in the living room. I just gave Mr. White a call and told him what happened — suitably edited, of course. I said you were in a safe place and that we might be a little late tomorrow morning. He said to be careful."
Martha patted Lois on the shoulder. "Well, you just try to forget about this evening and get a good night's sleep, Lois. Good night. Don't keep her out of her bed too long, Clark."
"I won't." He stood aside to let his mother through the door. "Good night, Mom."
"Good night, honey." She kissed him lightly on the cheek and disappeared down the hallway.
Clark smiled at her. "May I come in a moment?"
Clark entered the room, looking around. "I probably should have redecorated it after I came back, but I never got around to it."
"I stayed here after I was through traveling, but I only slept here. I didn't stay in the room enough to bother changing it."
"Oh." Lois glanced around the room again. "It looks like there's a lot of history in this room."
He nodded. "Yeah. He nodded at the photograph on the dresser. "What do you think of my fish?"
Lois glanced at the picture with a smile. "It's almost as big as you were."
He nodded. "I still remember that fish. My line got tangled on an underwater log and I was afraid it was going to get away, so I ended up wading right into the lake and grabbing the fish with my bare hands, before Dad could stop me. He was afraid I was going to drown, but I didn't. My dad and I went fishing a lot when I was a kid. It was his favorite sport, and I loved it because he did. He and Wayne Irig — he's our nearest neighbor — still go on a fishing trip every year. I've gone with them a few times."
Lois smiled. "I suppose I'll have to put up with that, too, won't I? I warn you, though, if you catch any fish, you get to clean them."
He walked to her and slipped his arms around her. "Funny thing, that's the rule my mom always had. Come to think of it, Dad and I had to clean her catch too, the times when we went camping — when she caught any."
Lois giggled. "I knew I liked your mom."
He smiled. "I'll clean all the fish you want me to, and any you catch, too, if we ever go camping. That's a promise." He looked down into her face. "Are you all right, now?"
She nodded. "I'm all right, Clark. It was scary when it happened, but I've been shot at before and I've been threatened before. What we have to do now is to find out what's behind this attempt to kill me and expose it. My guess is it has something to do with what Winninger wanted to tell me. After Jimmy gives us the background check on Barbara Trevino, we'll need to find out if there's anything there that's somehow connected to her becoming chairperson of the Rainforest Consortium — and if she has any connections that would benefit from her being in the office. My guess is that it's something very profitable and probably illegal."
"I think you're right," Clark said. "While we're doing this, though, I'm going to stick to you like glue — and we're going to take every precaution with your safety. I'm not going to lose you now, for any reason."
"I guess I can't argue with that." She found his face descending toward hers and closed her eyes. Some seconds later, he drew back, and she discovered that she needed to breathe. "Wow! Being able to hold your breath that long sure gives you an advantage!"
He hadn't let her go. "I think," he said, smiling, "that I'm going to need every advantage I have to keep up with you. Where have you been all my life?"
"Waiting for you," she said, very softly. "I just didn't know it until now."
Clark Kent stepped out of the elevator, glanced carefully around and then beckoned to Lois, who followed him. Perry had to smile even through his concern. It was certainly refreshing to see Lois actually being cautious. Kent was definitely having a beneficial effect on her.
He strode forward. "I'm putting on extra security," he told them. "People are going to have to show special identification to get in here." He looked specifically at Lois. "Are *you* all right, honey?"
Lois nodded, looking determined. "I'm fine — thanks to Clark. Anyway, I'm tired of being a target. We're going after these people as of this morning."
"You got any leads?" Perry asked, raising an eyebrow.
"A few. Hopefully, Jimmy will have some stuff for me by now, too."
Perry grinned. This had all the earmarks of a front page story. "Okay, honey, go get 'em — but in the name of Elvis's sainted aunt, be careful!"
"I will be. I'm not going to let these people win by default!"
"Default?" Perry asked, slightly confused.
"Yeah. If they kill me, they win. There's no way I'm going to give them the satisfaction!"
Perry watched her march down the ramp with a businesslike stride and glanced at Kent, who grinned slightly and shrugged. "You heard the lady."
"Yeah." Perry gave a sudden bark of laughter. "But I've never heard somebody describe getting killed as the other side winning by default."
"Well … " The other man gave a shrug. "Lois is kind of unique."
He certainly couldn't disagree with that. "You said a mouthful, Kent. Don't let anything happen to her, okay?"
"Not if I can help it, sir." Kent followed her down the ramp, looking as businesslike as she had. Perry watched him for a minute. That young man was going places, he thought. He had the feeling that for the first time, his star reporter might have met her match.
"Where's that stuff they handed out at the press conference?" Lois asked, rummaging around in her desk. "I put it in here, somewhere."
"I have a copy." Clark produced a sheet of paper from a side drawer of his desk and handed it to her.
A long, hose-clad leg, ending in a foot in an impossibly high, stiletto heel, was planted on the seat of his chair, directly in front of him. Clark glanced slowly up at the leg to where it disappeared into the high slit skirt. Cat leaned forward, and for an instant, he feared the low cut blouse would be unequal to the strain of containing its contents. "Hello there, handsome," she drawled, running a finger across his jaw. "Remember that dinner date?"
He glanced briefly at Lois and straightened up. "I'm sorry, Cat. I haven't even had time to think about it. Lois and I are right in the middle of the Winninger investigation."
"You are?" Cat said, raising her perfectly plucked and pencilled eyebrows. "I thought that was Lois's story."
"Perry assigned Clark to partner with me on the investigation," Lois said, crisply. "It's a good thing he did, too, or I'd be pushing up daisies right now. You don't want to hang around us too closely. You might pick up a stray bullet."
"And tonight?" Cat asked, running a finger along Clark's cheek, to his acute embarrassment.
"Tonight, too," Lois said, firmly.
"Can I give you a raincheck for later, when we've finished?" Clark said.
Cat straightened up, placing her foot on the floor, and smiled at Clark. "I'll remember that. Just don't wait too long." She turned and walked away, the material of her skirt straining at the hips. Clark breathed a sigh of relief.
"This is interesting," Lois was saying, a short time later. "According to this bio, Barbara Trevino is on the Board of Directors of Hobbs Mining."
"That might be a connection," Clark said. "I wonder if Hobbs Mining has any interests in the Brazilian rainforest, or anyplace else relevant."
"That's a good question," she said. "At the very least, I'd call it a conflict of interest."
Jimmy approached at that moment, waving a sheaf of paper. "Here's the background that you wanted, Lois. Barbara Trevino is associated with a bunch of different organizations, and I did a little research on each one of them. It's all there. If you need any more, let me know."
"Great." Lois took the papers and riffled through them. "Here's Hobbs Mining … Clark, they have a strip mining operation in Brazil."
Lois was reading. "It's in an area of the rainforest that was logged over last year. Jimmy!"
Jimmy paused in mid step. "That was fast. What did I leave out?"
"Which company conducted logging operations in the area of the rainforest that Hobbs Mining is operating in?"
"It's in there," Jimmy said. "I thought it was an interesting coincidence."
"What was an interesting coincidence?"
Jimmy sighed. "The logging company, of course. It was Lexwood Logging. Trevino is some kind of environmental advisor to the company. It's a subsidiary of LexCorp, believe it or not."
"LexCorp?" Lois said. "As in Lex Luthor?"
Jimmy nodded. "I said it was an interesting coincidence."
"Why does it have to be a coincidence?" Clark asked.
"Lex Luthor is a well-known philanthropist as well as a businessman," Lois said. "Remember, I told you about him? He's the third richest man in the world. Besides, he's one of the sponsors of … " She broke off at an unwelcome thought. "No, it can't be."
"What can't be?"
"He's one of the sponsors of the Rainforest Consortium. Like Jimmy said, it has to be a coincidence."
"Probably," Clark said, after a short silence. "What are they mining for?"
"Um … " Lois was reading. "Uh … uranium. And several other minerals."
"Yeah," Jimmy said. "I took a look at the mineralogical reports. Apparently that section of Brazil is rich in all kinds of mineral deposits. It's a mining engineer's dream."
Another silence. "Jimmy," Lois said, slowly, "I realize that this is really reaching, but I want you to do some more research. Find out how Lexwood Logging got the permits to log in that section of the rainforest … and I want you to do an in-depth on Hobbs Mining. I want to know the name of their parent company, if any. And find out about any new applications for mining permits they may have made in the last few months. I'm probably way off base here, but I don't want to leave any possibility out."
"You don't think Lex Luthor had anything to do with it?" Jimmy said, sounding slightly incredulous.
"Probably not. Lex Luthor is one of Metropolis's leading citizens. I can't see him being mixed up in anything illegal. But it wouldn't be the first time a subordinate in a company did things the boss wasn't aware of."
"That's true," Jimmy said. "Okay, I'm on it. Everything I can find out about Hobbs Mining and Lexwood Logging in Brazil. I'll have it for you as fast as I can."
Lois was frowning thoughtfully. "And Jimmy —"
"Find me Barbara Trevino's home address — and the Brazilian headquarters of Hobbs Mining."
Jimmy shrugged. "Okay. I might have to do some hacking. I don't think her address is available to the general public."
Lois nodded, her mind racing. "Clark, can I talk to you in private? I have an idea."
Watching Lois's mind work was a fascinating exercise, Clark thought as he followed her toward Conference Room Two. It no longer amazed him that she had put two and two together about his powers and figured out what she had about him.
Lois shut the door behind them and twisted the lock. "Char — Clark, we need to get a look at Barbara Trevino's private records, and you can bet she's not going to let any snoopy reporter see them."
Clark had a sinking sensation in his gut. No wonder she had wanted the woman's private address. "Don't tell me, you want me to —"
"No, I don't want you to break into her home. You're going to help *me* do it."
"Lois, that's breaking and entering. It's illegal!"
"So is murder," Lois said, unarguably. "Will you help me?"
Put like that, it wasn't so difficult to decide. "You know I will."
"Good. The same goes for the Brazilian office of Hobbs Mining. Are you with me?"
He gave a faintly dismayed laugh. "Of course."
"Good." Her voice was businesslike. "We'll have to scout the area and come up with a way in, but —"
He shrugged. "Don't worry about that. I think I can manage. Let's wait until we get a look at the lay of the land before we make plans." He felt his face turning pink. "I — uh — I've done a little in that line, myself."
"Oh?" She looked instantly interested.
"Um — yeah. I was investigating one of the local government officials in Manila a few years ago. It turned out he was using his office to smuggle drugs past Customs. It was the only way to get the evidence on him to shut down his operation."
"Someday you're going to have to tell me about some of the things you did while you were traveling," she remarked. "It sounds as if it wasn't your usual world tour."
"Well, no — not exactly." He glanced back out into the office where Jimmy was leaning forward to read something on his computer screen. "Can Jimmy trace phone records? I'd be interested in who Barbara Trevino has been talking to in the last few days."
"He's done it before," Lois said. "At the least, he could try. I'll tell him I need them."
"Okay, here you go." Jimmy presented Lois with the fruits of his search, a satisfied look on his face.
"You look like the cat that swallowed the canary," Clark said.
Jimmy nodded. "I think you two are on the trail of something big. The section of the rainforest in question was supposed to be protected. The proposal for logging was rejected — and then, a month later they were suddenly granted a permit, without even another proposal being submitted. I hunted around and found the name of the official who signed the permit and noticed that he suddenly made a purchase of a large estate on the outskirts of Brazilia, right about the same time. Interesting coincidence, huh?"
"Very," Lois said. "Anything on Hobbs Mining?"
"Yeah. It's all there. Hobbs Mining is a subsidiary of Carlin Investments, which in turn, is a subsidiary of LexCorp. They applied for the mining permit a month or so after the area was logged over and received it within weeks. There's another permit application for mining in the area right next to the logged section where they're mining right now. I didn't see anything else about it, so the application is probably still pending, but that's a protected area, too."
"I'd sure like a look at a mineralogical report on that land," Clark said, softly. "Lois, extensive mining operations in the protected areas of the rainforest would constitute an ecological disaster."
"And if Barbara Trevino becomes the head of the Rainforest Consortium," Lois said, suddenly, "she could sign the permits to grant Hobbs Mining what it wants without the necessity for paying out more bribes. Jimmy, did you get those addresses for me?"
Jimmy nodded. "They're in with the rest of the stuff. In summer, Barbara Travino lives in a penthouse apartment in New York. Her winter home is in Florida. I included both addresses with the other info."
Lois didn't even blink. "Okay, thanks. Now, I want you to see if you can get hold of her telephone records for the last month. I want to know who she's been talking to."
Jimmy sighed. "You don't ask much, do you? I'll see what I can do."
Lois gave a slight smile. "Thanks, Jimmy. I knew I could count on you. Come on, Clark."
"Where are we going?" Clark asked.
"See anybody?" Lois asked, softly.
"No. The Security patrol is down at the other end of the beach. We've got about ten minutes." Clark lowered his glasses — probably checking out the burglar alarms, Lois thought. "Hold it a minute." His expression became intent and Lois saw a thin spiral of smoke emerge from a tiny, pinprick of a hole in the door frame — a hole that had not been there an instant before. He took a grip on the doorknob and turned it. Lois heard a crunch, the door opened easily, and they stepped inside.
"Don't you worry about fingerprints?" she whispered. Hastily, she polished the doorknob with the tail of her blouse.
He grinned. "Thanks. Yes, I'm careful not to touch the metal with the tips of my fingers, but it's just as well not to take chances. Come on."
Quietly, he closed the door and led the way through the entrance hall toward a door near the back of the house.
Barbara Trevino's winter home was a luxurious beach house in an elite neighborhood, patrolled by a private security firm and walled away from the common masses by a high stone wall and iron gates that admitted only the residents and their guests. Fortunately, Lois thought, smugly, the security measures hadn't been prepared for an intruder who could fly, see through walls and over great distances or disable the house alarm and break the front door lock by sheer strength, as she suspected Clark had done.
He pointed. "That seems to be her office. There's a desk with a computer and a filing cabinet." Lois could tell by the tilt of his head that he was listening for sounds that she didn't have a prayer of hearing. "I don't hear anyone nearby but we better not fool around."
Hastily, Lois produced the scrap of lace that served as a handkerchief and used it to turn the doorknob. Clark was looking around, his glasses resting on the tip of his nose, and the sight almost made her giggle. Quickly, they slipped within, and Lois closed the panel gently behind them.
"I'll take the computer," Clark said. "If she has a password, I can break it faster than you can."
Lois started to object and then realized that he was correct. There was definitely an advantage to being able to move so fast. Even without the perk of being well on the way to falling in love with her new partner, this arrangement was working out better than even she had envisioned. She went to the file cabinet and tried the top drawer.
"Locked." She removed her trusty lock pick and dealt summarily with that particular obstacle. "Let's see what we have here … "
Behind her, she heard the computer booting up and a moment later, the soft whir of Clark's fingers over the keys. He gave a soft exclamation of satisfaction. "Got it. Now, let's see what we can find … " The whir resumed, and a few seconds later the beep that warned of an overflowing buffer made her grin and shake her head. He was absolutely incredible, she thought, going through the files at a more modest pace.
A file containing geological survey reports and another marked "Hobbs Mining" caught her eye and she withdrew the little camera she always carried on these jobs. She didn't have the time to read the documents as she photographed them as fast as she could.
The second drawer down yielded more files, and she located the one designated for LexCorp. She didn't seriously think that the head of LexCorp could be involved in the affair, but that didn't mean that other, lower ranking officials weren't doing things their boss had never sanctioned.
Clark had slipped a floppy disk into the computer and was copying files as fast as the machine could work. As she looked over her shoulder, she saw him remove one disk and replace it with another. He glanced at her with a slight grin. "I've never done this with a partner before. It's more fun than I expected."
Lois grinned back, replaced the LexCorp file and pushed in the lock. Meticulously, she wiped off the handles of the cabinet, making certain that all traces of her fingerprints were eradicated. "I think I have everything I need for now. Are you almost done?"
"Almost." He had lifted his head. "Security is coming this way. Stay away from the window."
Silence except for the hum of the computer faithfully copying data. Then Clark moved quickly. "They're stopping. Barbara Trevino's maid is telling them she thought she saw someone by the front door!"
"Where was *she*? I thought you said there was no one in the house!"
"In the maid's quarters — that little house down by the gate." Quickly, he extracted the floppy and snapped off the computer. "I hope it got everything."
"Wipe off your fingerprints." Lois thrust the handkerchief into his hand. He obeyed, hastily and quietly opened the door, careful to touch the knob only with the cloth.
"Which way?" Lois asked.
"Out the side door. They're just coming up the walk." He scooped her up in his arms and the surroundings blurred for an instant. Then, they were out the side door, and Clark had closed it gently behind them. Another brief burst of speed past the swimming pool and beautifully landscaped grounds, and he set her down on the sidewalk that ran past the rear of the private property. "Just look casual," he said, softly, handing her back the somewhat smudged handkerchief. "I want to listen in. Pretend you're taking pictures of the scenery."
They stood together, apparently admiring the ocean view while Clark listened. Faintly, from the other side of the wall, Lois heard the sounds of excited voices and bursts of static from the radios and a few minutes later the engine of another vehicle. Security was apparently searching the grounds of Barbara Trevino's home very thoroughly. At last, Clark took her hand, and they began to walk slowly away toward a section of the beach that was open to tourists.
"Hopefully," he said, "no one will realize we got into the file cabinet or the computer. As far as I could see, we left it the way we found it."
She nodded, trying to maintain the appearance of a casual tourist out for a stroll in the late afternoon sun of southern Florida. Clark really couldn't fly them out of here at the moment, she knew. There was too much chance of someone seeing them. He had taken enough of a risk whisking them over the high wall in the back of the property. Hoping she looked casual, Lois glanced around, trying to determine if anyone was paying them any undue attention. There didn't appear to be, however. Clark had moved pretty fast, so, if anyone had caught a glimpse of them, he most likely wouldn't realize what he had seen.
"Hey, you!" A truck, marked with the insignia of the Coconut Palms Resort security firm, had pulled up beside them. Lois and Clark stopped and turned slowly toward the man who had shouted.
"Can we help you, officer?" Clark asked, sounding completely casual.
"Yeah! Did you see anyone suspicious hanging around out here — or maybe climbing over the wall back there?" The man pointed back toward the stretch of sidewalk from which they had just come.
Lois opened her mouth to deny it, but Clark intervened. "I think there were a couple of teenagers, maybe sixteen or seventeen, walking along the street. They headed back that way." He pointed. "Why?"
"What did they look like?"
Clark shrugged. "Just a couple of kids. I didn't really notice. Is something wrong?"
The man didn't answer, but the truck swiveled around, making a U-turn in the middle of the street and headed back the other way. Clark pulled Lois after him toward the steps leading to the beach.
Lois glanced after the men. "They'll come back when they don't find anybody," she warned. "We better get out of here."
"They'll find someone," Clark said, smiling faintly. "There's a guy about seventeen and a girl around the same age getting pretty hot and heavy in the bushes just up the street. I saw them. It'll be just as well if the security guys do spot them before things go much further." He continued to set an unhurried pace toward the line of palm trees that lined the edge of the white, sandy beach. "There's a place right down that way where no one can see us. We'll leave from there." He added, thoughtfully, "If you want to check out the Brazilian office of Hobbs Mining, I think we'd better go after dark."
"Look at this, Clark." Lois indicated the photograph of the record from Barbara Trevino's file that she was studying. "This was a Xerox of an authorization for a 'discretionary payment' to 'facilitate' the acquisition of that land for logging — 'prior to mining operation.' Remember that official who bought the estate in Brazil?"
"Yeah." Clark gave a low whistle at the size of the payment. "Looks like Hobb's Mining and Lexwood Logging were cooperating. You know, I can see a subordinate in one of the companies in business for himself, but with both companies working together? That sounds like someone higher up was involved."
It was late evening at the Daily Planet. Except for Jimmy and Perry, and, of course, themselves, the only persons in the office were members of the night staff.
"Well, it looks like Trevino negotiated the whole thing," Lois said. "And there was that other thing … " She rummaged in the stack of printer paper. "Those financial records of hers. This payment from LexCorp's discretionary fund … the dates coincide. This stuff can't be on the up and up."
"Lots of 'discretionary' payments," Clark murmured. He glanced at his watch. "We can head for Brazil any time you're ready. You want some coffee?"
"Sure." Lois handed him her coffee mug. "Two sugar substitutes."
"I know how you like it," he said, taking the mug with a smile. "Be right back."
Perry emerged from his office and crossed the room to her. "I promised Alice I'd be home before ten. Are you two gonna be okay?"
"Sure, Perry. Clark and I will be here for a little bit, then we have one more place to go before we quit for the night. We might have something for you by tomorrow."
"Just don't take chances," Perry said. "I don't want to lose my best reporter, you know."
"Barbara Trevino becomes head of the Rainforest Consortium tomorrow. If we're going to stop it, we need to have all our information before then," Lois said. "We'll be careful, Perry — - I promise."
"Just be sure you are," Perry said. He glanced around as Clark returned with the coffee. "Keep her alive, Kent."
"I will," Clark said. "Good night, sir."
Perry grinned, faintly. "That's what I like to hear from my reporters. Respect — something I don't get much of around here."
"Don't worry, Clark will learn," Lois said. "Good night, Perry."
Her boss chuckled and turned to pick up his coat. "Good night, kids."
Jimmy emerged from the copy room as their boss stepped into the elevator and crossed the Pit to the Sports desk where one of the four night employees was swinging idly back and forth in his desk chair. "Here you go, George."
With an inarticulate grunt, the man took the stack of paper that Jimmy presented to him. The gofer hurried over to his desk and opened a drawer. "I almost forgot, Lois. While you and Clark were out of the office, a guy from STAR Labs returned that journal along with an analysis." He extracted a large, thick envelope from the inbox. "Man, who needs a workout at the gym? I've probably covered fifty miles today, just in the office. Here you go. Dr. Brennon said it might interest you."
Clark stepped around Lois's desk to take it. "Thanks, Jim." He pried up the little metal clasps and removed the journal and several sheets of paper. "Let's see what we have here … "
"Well, don't keep it all to yourself," Lois said. "What does it say?"
"Just a second." She saw him flip quickly through the papers. When he said a second he meant it, she thought, irrelevantly. Literally.
"The formula is plant-based," Clark said.
"Apparently it contains a combination of phytochemicals that, when combined with certain enzymes, appears to increase sperm count and … um … stamina in the monkeys they tested it on."
"Nope. See for yourself."
"Oh, I believe you. Didn't you say the journal was a record of his stay with an Amazonian tribe?"
"Uh huh. He has a bunch of tribal lore about plants that the medicine man used for medicinal purposes, including one that was supposed to be an aphrodisiac. Do you suppose … "
"'Increased male potency'," Lois quoted. "I guess he was telling the truth after all. It's possible more of the details might be in the other journals that Finn stole."
"Better sex through science," Clark said. "I guess that would explain why he thought it was so urgent to stop Barbara Trevino from becoming head of the Rainforest Consortium tomorrow. He knew she was going to give Hobbs Mining a carte blanche to wipe out acres and acres of jungle — and the discoveries he made while he was there."
"Not to mention the ones still waiting to be made," Lois said. "Let me see that report."
He gave it to her. "Are you about ready to head for — " He glanced at Jimmy, a short distance away at his desk. " — The other place?"
Lois hesitated. "Can you do it by yourself, Clark? I want to finish going through all the stuff we found this afternoon. I need to put together an article for the paper tomorrow that will at least delay Barbara Trevino from taking the office. I promise not to go anywhere."
"I guess I can." He bit his lip, indecisively. "I'd rather not leave you, alone."
"I'll stay with her." Jimmy glanced up from his computer screen. "Nobody's going to get in here."
Lois nodded agreement. "Security is pretty tight, Clark. No one will know I'm still here."
Clark hesitated. "All right, but I'm holding you to your promise. And I'll be back as fast as I can manage."
She nodded. "Just be sure to get everything. Don't rush."
"Right." He glanced around, taking in everything, she thought, but as usual, the night staff was working quietly at their desks and the only person moving around the room was the drab figure of the cleaning woman emerging from Perry's office, pushing her cart. Quickly, he strode toward the stairs and vanished through the door.
Silence descended on the office. Lois continued to read, making notes as she did so, assembling the facts for the article that would, if not derail the appointment of Barbara Trevino, at least delay it, pending further investigation. Jimmy worked quietly at his computer, a few feet away, finishing up someone's research for tomorrow. He yawned suddenly and stretched, then pushed back his chair. "I'm gonna get some coffee. Want some?"
"Sure. Two —"
"Sugar substitutes, yeah, I know." Jimmy collected her mug, snatched up his own, and headed across the room toward the coffee machine.
Lois turned back to the documents. Glancing at her watch, she noted that Clark had been gone nearly fifteen minutes. In spite of her brave words, she was beginning to be a little nervous without his presence to reassure her. It was certainly her imagination, but she could almost feel the calculating eyes of a predator watching her, waiting for her to make the slip that would put her at his mercy. After all, until she and Clark had done all the damage to Barbara Trevino's plans that they were capable of doing, there was still an incentive to dispose of her.
Shaking off the chill that ran over her scalp at the thought, she again scanned the documents before her. Printouts of the data that Clark had downloaded from the woman's office computer showed several more "coincidences" that together with the file data added up to an incriminating scenario. Still, something was missing, she thought. Barbara Trevino was unquestionably up to something quite illegal as well as highly unethical, but there was certainly more behind it and it looked as if the place to look for that something might very well be LexCorp.
Maybe it was time for her to put more effort into getting that interview with Lex Luthor after all. Who at the organization would have the power to direct two of the company's subsidiaries to cooperate in this project? One of his company officers? Or was it even barely possible that the philanthropist might have a hand in it, himself?
Well, Lex Luthor probably hadn't gotten where he was without cutting a few corners, but would he involve himself in something like this? Well … power did strange things to men. It wasn't highly likely, but she shouldn't assume anything about him. How many apparently squeaky-clean individuals had turned out to have skeletons in their closets? She'd unearthed more than one, herself.
She reached for her scheduling notebook to make a note of the thought and the pencil lead snapped as she began to write. With a sigh of resignation, she opened the bottom drawer of her desk, groping for the pencil box stored there.
It was, naturally enough, empty. Lois sighed and got to her feet. There were more pencils in the storeroom. Normally, she would have sent Jimmy, but he was busy at the coffee maker, apparently engaged in measuring out coffee grounds for brewing a new batch. It would only take her a minute to get herself a new box of pencils, after all, she thought, hurrying toward the storeroom. Besides, she needed to stretch her legs after an hour of sitting behind her desk.
The storeroom light came on, illuminating the shelves loaded with office supplies. It took her only a moment to find the boxes of pencils, and she appropriated one.
A sound behind her made her turn quickly, but it was only the cleaning woman, and she let out her breath. "You scared me. Are you looking for something?"
The woman shut the door and twisted the lock. "I found it." Turning, she slipped a hand into the pocket of her coverall. "Now, tell me where that notebook is."
Barbara Trevino. Lois stared at her, making out the woman's beautiful features under the makeup and straggly hair only partially covered with a scarf. Instinctively, she stalled. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Barbara Trevino removed her hand from the coverall's pocket, bringing with it a gun. She pointed the muzzle directly at Lois. "The notebook," she repeated. "The one Finn didn't find. Winninger gave it to you when you interviewed him."
Lois gulped. She was cornered. Barbara Trevino wasn't going to let her go, that was certain. She knew too much. And the distance between them was simply too great for her to handle her opponent the way she had handled Sebastian Finn. Only one thing might keep her alive until Clark got back — the belief that there was more evidence in that notebook than there really was — and the knowledge that Lois could get it for her.
"Yes, he did," she said, striving to keep her voice calm. "He told me about you and why you wanted to be Chairperson of the Rainforest Consortium — and your connection to Hobbs Mining. Everything is in the journal — along with his formula for increased male potency. Tell me, Ms. Trevino — how much money are you getting for doing this?"
The older woman smiled, grimly. "A lot," she said. "More than enough to kill for, and with the mining proceeding as we speak, there isn't much you can do to stop it. Now, I want that book."
"I can't give it to you," Lois said. Try as she would, she couldn't quite control the fear that made her voice quiver very slightly. "My partner has it. And if anything happens to me, he's going to take it straight to the police."
"That's too bad," Barbara Trevino said, "I guess I'll have to take my chances with him but you, at least, are one loose end that I won't have to worry about any longer." She raised the gun.
Behind the woman, there was a crunching sound that Lois recognized as the method by which Clark had "unlocked" the front door of the luxurious vacation home, earlier that afternoon. Barbara Trevino spun around, trying to bring her weapon to bear on the door as the panel was pulled suddenly open. Clark Kent stood framed in the doorway, and in one hand he held the journal.
"Is this what you wanted, Ms. Trevino?" he inquired.
Lois wasn't at her desk when Clark stepped back into the newsroom from the stairwell, but he could hear her heartbeat clearly. It was loud and agitated and tuning his hearing, he could hear her voice speaking.
It was coming from the storeroom, and one glance with his x-ray vision made his heart jump into his throat. Instantly, he descended the steps to the Pit and crossed the floor with a purposeful stride, not even pausing as he snatched Vincent Winninger's journal from its inconspicuous spot on the corner of Lois's desk.
Jimmy was crossing the newsroom with a mug of steaming coffee in each hand. Clark brushed by him without a word and paused at the storeroom door.
"I can't give it to you," he heard Lois's voice say. "My partner has it. And if anything happens to me, he's going to take it straight to the police."
Over the top of his glasses, he saw Barbara Trevino raise the small pistol in her hands. "That's too bad. I guess I'll have to take my chances with him, but you, at least, are one loose end that I won't have to worry about any longer."
Clark didn't hesitate. With his free hand, he gripped the doorknob and twisted, feeling the lock break. Without pause, he yanked the door open.
"Is this what you wanted, Ms. Trevino?" he asked, holding up the book.
His sudden entrance had shaken her, he saw, but the expression of grim determination on her features didn't change. "Give it to me!"
"No," Clark said. "Are you going to kill me in front of Lois and five other people? You can't possibly get us all."
"Give it to me!"
"Okay." Clark casually tossed the journal toward her. "Catch."
Instinctively, she grabbed for the book and fumbled the gun. Lois lunged forward, grabbing her from behind. An instant later, it was all over.
"Clark, we have to do something!" Lois said as he propelled Barbara Trevino out the door. "Hobbs Mining is starting early!"
"I know." He nodded toward the phone. "Call the police, Lois. Tell them what happened and tell them I'll be by later to make my statement. I have to call a friend of mine in Brazil. We may be able to stop this before it goes too far. It wouldn't hurt to tell the police what's happening with Hobbs Mining, too." Without effort he shoved his captive into a chair. "I guess I can always get another tie."
"What …?" He barely heard Lois's half-formed question as he pulled off the aforementioned article of clothing and used it to bind Barbara Trevino's hands behind her.
"I'll be back as soon as I can," he told his flabbergasted partner and half-ran toward the stairs.
Cruising above the Brazilian rainforest, Clark Kent made a beeline for the mining site. This was going to be a delicate task for him. He still had friends on the police force in Rio de Janiero, and a call to a certain police chief had produced quick results. Now, all he had to do was to delay things until the authorities could arrive — and do it without being seen.
There beneath him was the camp and his better than human eyesight showed him that men were setting the explosives to begin their operation. Floating silent and invisible above the activity, he watched as the demolition crew finished setting the last charge in their initial series and hurried back to their makeshift command post. A horn blared and a loudspeaker relayed orders to take cover. Men scurried here and there, diving behind the shelter of rocks. Then the horn fell silent.
Clark traced the wires running from the detonator and severed them quickly and neatly with his heat vision.
The leader of the crew threw the switch and Clark smiled at the language issuing from various individuals below when the charges failed to explode. Men looked at each other in puzzlement, and then the activity commenced anew as they began to try to find the problem. In the distance, Clark could hear the approach of the law along the dirt road that led to the mining camp. In a very few minutes, he would be able to safely abandon his post and return to Metropolis. Once the news came out about the arrest of Barbara Trevino and the exposure of the scheme to mine the rainforest, the danger to Lois would probably abate — as long as the unknown mastermind behind it all wasn't alerted to the fact that he wasn't safe yet.
Because, he wasn't. Whoever this person was, he was dangerous — - very dangerous. Clark wasn't fooling himself by considering for a moment that Barbara Trevino was the one behind that attack on Lois in her apartment. Mr. X — whoever he was — must have a great deal to lose if his identity were to come out. Which meant that he had to be their next target.
The door to the stairs opened, and Clark Kent stepped out to stroll casually out into the newsroom. Lois and Jimmy turned at the sound of his arrival, and he could tell by the expressions on their faces that the news had preceded him.
"I guess the word is good?" he inquired.
One of Lois's eyebrows slid up. "The Planet's Brazilian office just called. The police made it in time, the mining operations have been suspended, and the authorities are cleaning house at the Rainforest Consortium. Funny thing, though, it wouldn't have worked out nearly as well if the wires to the explosive charges hadn't somehow been severed."
"Amazing," Clark said. "Do you suppose someone on the crew could have had something to do with it?"
"I'm sure somebody there did," Lois said, noncommittally. "Have you seen Henderson, yet?"
"Not yet. I was just about to head over to the precinct. Do you want to come with me, or shall I take you back to your place, first? I want to be sure the hit man has been called off before I leave you by yourself."
Lois reached for her coat. "I'll come along with you. We have some things to talk about, Kent."
They stepped into the elevator and Clark punched the button for the roof. "Do you mind if we fly?" he asked. "I don't want to relax until the story appears tomorrow. Whoever sent that guy with the rocket grenade after you may not think he's safe, yet."
"I thought of that." Lois took his hand and he curled his fingers around hers. "I was careful not to hint that we thought anybody higher than Barbara Trevino was involved when I wrote the article for the morning edition."
"Good. But until then, you're still in danger. I'd like to take you back to Kansas tonight."
She hesitated. "You know I always like to fly with you, but I'm not sure I should impose on your parents again, Clark."
"Didn't you hear what Mom said last night? She and Dad want you to be safe, and so do I. Besides, Mom wanted to consult you about my outfit."
"Uh huh. So people won't recognize me."
"Oh, yeah." She nodded. "Okay. Let's go take care of your statement to Henderson and then head for Kansas."
Clark gave her hand a squeeze. He was feeling good. The whole mess had worked out both better and sooner than they had expected and other things were on the way to working out as well. It was amazing how fast things had turned around for him. A week ago, it had looked as if the world wouldn't survive beyond four days. Now he had found the woman of his dreams, had the job he had been aiming for since the day he had become editor of Smallville High's newspaper, and was on the verge of realizing his other long-held goal: being able to use his amazing powers openly without ruining his life. Could it possibly get much better than this?
The thought was almost scary.
Clark's feet had barely touched the snow-covered walk of the farmhouse when Martha Kent opened the door and waved for them to come in. They quickly ascended the steps to the porch and hurried inside, dusting away the little flakes that feathered their hair and clothing. The storm had stopped and the sky was crystal clear, but a brisk wind filled the air with clouds of snow from the trees and fields that surrounded the Kansas farm.
"We were hoping you'd come," Martha said, shutting the door behind them. "It was all over the news a little while ago."
"I know," Lois said. "What we found just scratches the surface, though. Next we're going after whoever it is that's behind Barbara Trevino."
Jonathan Kent entered the living room with a glass of steaming milk in one hand. "I wondered when you two would get here," he remarked. "I guess you've been pretty busy today. Am I wrong to suspect Clark might be behind those severed wires they were talking about?"
"You think?" Lois asked, trying to keep her expression blank.
"Um … yeah," Clark admitted. "I had to keep the explosives from going off, without being seen, so I cut the wires to the detonator with my heat vision."
"Speaking of which," Lois interjected, "you were talking about an 'outfit' you could wear while you're doing these things in public. What did you have in mind?"
"Well … I was thinking that you and Mom might have some ideas about that," Clark said.
Martha Kent looked at Lois. "What do you think, Lois? Do you want to help design a uniform?"
"Well … I can't sew very well," Lois said.
"Oh, I'll take care of that part," Martha said. "What I want is another critical eye." She glanced out the window, where a full moon illuminated the snowy landscape. "We can't do it now, but on your next day off … "
"Actually," Lois said, "tomorrow *is* my day off. I'll call Perry in the morning and ask him for Clark's help. After this last thing, I think he'll go along." She patted Clark on the arm. "After all, he saved my life again, tonight. That's pretty good for just three days on the job."
"Well," Jonathan said, "I guess you could say, he's not your ordinary newsman."
Lois gave a snort of laughter. "That's probably the understatement of the year."
The grandfather clock began to chime. Martha Kent glanced at the timepiece. "Goodness, look at the time! And we have to be up early to do the chores!"
"Don't worry, Mom, I'll take care of them," Clark said.
"Just the same, it's past my bedtime," Jonathan said. "G'night, kids."
"Good night, Mr. Kent," Lois said.
"Jonathan," he said, starting for the stairs. "Nobody ever calls me Mr. Kent but the delivery boy."
"Jonathan," she said.
Martha smiled. "I'm going to bed, too. Turn off the lights when you turn in, Clark."
They waited while Martha Kent ascended the stairs. Lois saw her companion remove his glasses and glance at the fireplace. The smoldering log flared up again with a crackle and a small burst of sparks.
He tugged on her hand. "Want to sit and talk for a few minutes?"
"Sure. I'm a little too keyed up to sleep yet." Lois followed him to the sofa and took a seat. Clark settled down beside her. He hesitated and then tentatively slipped an arm around her shoulders. Lois relaxed back against his arm.
"So," Clark said, "you said we had some things to talk about?"
"Sure. When we were leaving the Planet."
"Oh, that. I was just making conversation. You saved my life again tonight, Clark. You can't thank somebody for that."
"You don't need to. Like I said, yesterday, 'as many times as it takes.' I couldn't stand to lose you, now."
"So you had a selfish motive, huh?"
"You bet I did. In one week you've become necessary for my happiness. I've never known anyone like you before. I'd almost given up ever finding someone I could share my life with — someone who would accept me as I am."
"Oh, Clark. I'm not as perfect as you think."
"Don't you think I'm the one to decide that?" he asked. "You might not be perfect for someone else, but you're perfect for me."
She hadn't thought of that. "Maybe. I sure wasn't perfect for anyone else."
"Does it matter?"
"Maybe not. I'd just about decided, after Claude, that I was the problem. I mean, there was my dad — I told you about him. He was always disappointed in me, first for being the wrong sex, then because I didn't want to be a doctor —"
"That was his problem, not yours. He's got the right to decide what to do with his life but no one else's."
"Maybe. But when he and Mom split up, I thought it was my fault. I know, now, that it wasn't, but kids don't understand that."
"That must have been pretty painful."
"Yeah. It was a long time before I realized that was just how people are, Clark. They can make the deepest commitment to each other, and even have children and then, because they're selfish and they only think about themselves …" She broke off. "Then there was Paul, in college. We were dating. He was the editor of the paper, and I had this big crush on him. I'd been investigating this thing at the school about these football players that weren't taking their own exams, and I thought if I wrote it up, it would impress him and make him notice me more."
She shook her head. "No. Do you remember Linda King?"
"I don't think so."
"That red-headed reporter from the Herald. She made a pass at you at the EPRAD press conference."
"Well … sort of. When you were still Charlie."
"Oh, that red-headed woman. You did introduce her, but I wasn't really paying much attention to her."
"She was my roommate in college and we were best friends. She found my notes, wrote them up and submitted them under her own name. I tried to explain, but he told me I was being petty, trying to claim her story. It got pretty ugly. I guess that was why I didn't fight harder when Claude … "
"You mentioned his name before. Who was he?"
She grimaced. "I thought he was the great love of my life. He was French. I was a rookie reporter, and he was a pro." She fell silent, gathering her courage. Clark deserved to know, she thought. "Anyway, one night I told him about this story I was working on. This perfectly reputable business was a front for one of the biggest gambling operations in Metropolis. The next morning when I woke up, he was gone — and so was my story. He won an award for it and didn't even thank me for my input." She sneaked a look at him, but his expression hadn't changed. "Do you … do you mind?" she asked.
"Of course I mind." Clark began to frown and her heart sank. "What a jerk! I mean, that was a pretty lousy thing to do. I wouldn't mind having a word with him — in private."
"I meant … "
He tightened his arm around her. "Lois, you have to know I'd never do something like that to anyone, especially not you. You don't get to be a successful journalist by stealing someone else's work."
"Oh, Clark, I meant that he and I … " She gulped. "I just wish I'd waited, that's all."
"Oh, that." He shook his head. "It doesn't matter. What happened in your past is none of my business. What matters is that you're my girl now, and that isn't going to change unless you change *your* mind."
She sniffed determinedly. "Not a chance, pal."
"Good." He took her chin in his fingers and tilted her face up. "You know I'm going to kiss you, don't you, Ms. Lane?"
She quickly wiped away the moisture that was blurring her vision. "What are you waiting for, Mr. Kent?"
After that, the only sounds in the room for a considerable time were the gusts of the wind against the sides of the house and the crackle of the fire.