By CC Malo <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: March 2003 (reworked and resubmitted October, 2003)
Note: I posted the first 14 pages of this story in March, 2001, then got bogged down, but finally posted the last parts in March of this year. But for the encouragement of the people who commented on the story as I posted it on Zoom's mbs, I would not have finished it. A huge thank- you, too, to my long-suffering betas — Gerry, Jenni, and Wendy, and also to Jeanne for editing this for the archive. :)
In this story, I've played with S2's schedule, and assumed that Metallo occurred as the 6th episode in that season, following Madame Ex, Wall of Sound, The Source, Church of Metropolis, and Bolt from the Blue.
Comments and feedback are very welcome.
*Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again to-day;
Gee, I wish he'd go away.*
—Old nursery rhyme
Chapter 1: The Morning After
Sometimes things are not what they seem.
It wasn't until it was all over that Lois understood that this was so. Sometimes, the lie is the truth. And who you thought was there is not.
It started with the man whom she'd encountered in the cool crystal sunlight of a bright autumn morning. He was walking toward her, one of the many passersby on a crowded sidewalk in downtown Metropolis. Still, she'd noticed him immediately and wondered why he was looking at her. When he got closer, he paused for a fraction of a second, so brief that later she was unsure whether he had, and he smiled at her with that familiar look of someone who knows you well. Aware that she was holding her breath, she tilted her head and waited, certain he was going to speak, caught by the quizzical light in his grey eyes. But he remained silent as he continued walking past her, and, for a moment as slight as a dragonfly's breath, she sensed she'd lost something important.
She felt she knew him, yet was unsure she'd ever met him before. Had she? Puzzled, she turned to stare at his retreating figure, lithe and confident as he rounded a corner, disappearing from her view as he vanished into the sunlit ravines of Metropolis's skyscrapers.
A light touch on her arm tugged her back. "Hey, Lois, what is it?"
"What?" Lois swiveled, turning her attention to the young man beside her. "Nothing, Jimmy. Nothing, really. I thought I saw someone I knew." She smiled at her companion, shaking her head, clearing it, and let the incident slip to the back of her mind, forgotten. "Well, what are we waiting for?" She took a deep breath. "We have a story to cover."
"Yeah." Jimmy grinned, his eagerness infectious. He automatically patted the leather bag encasing his camera equipment, as though he were taking inventory of its contents. "Too bad CK couldn't make this one."
"I guess… the Planet's resources are stretched so thin right now. We all have to do a bit more."
"Gotta say I was really surprised when Perry OK'd my raise. I mean what with the rebuilding costs, and all. Hope the suits don't veto it."
For a moment, Lois was silent. Yeah—the Planet had started publishing again, just two months ago, but it was running on a shoestring, scrambling to recapture its circulation figures as it struggled to put out a quality newspaper using a much reduced workforce in a workplace which still showed the scars of Luthor's bomb. And she had played a part in all that, in the destruction of the Daily Planet. If only she hadn't…
"They won't, Jimmy. Perry won't let 'em. And we can do it! We can make the Daily Planet number one again."
"Well, one of my convention shots is gonna be front page, and it'll have my name under it." Jimmy's enthusiasm was contagious.
Playfully, Lois jabbed his arm. "Right beside my big story on the breakthrough in world trade, Jimmy." She hoped, anyway. Privately she thought that the convention they were on their way to cover was the political equivalent of a dog show, the delegates all sleekly groomed, house broken, and skillfully handled.
Well, look for the new angle—wasn't that what Perry always said?
Thirty minutes later, Lois, along with a battalion of other reporters, was sitting in the Hamilton Salon of the Lexor Hotel, listening to the predictably empty speeches of middle-aged men. As she observed each one trotting up to the microphone, her impression that she was covering a dog show returned. Looking at the Foreign Trade Minister of she had forgotten what obscure country, maybe Canada, mouthing hollow phrases at the podium, she suddenly saw a Russian wolfhound, its silky silver-brown hair framing a narrow, patronising face. Gazing at the other delegates, all waiting obediently for their turn to show, she watched, fascinated as their faces did a canine morph: a couple of eager, antsy terriers, a stolid bulldog, and one elegant but slightly embarrassed standard poodle. A few lap dogs, too. But not an honest working dog in the group, she thought sadly, remembering the border collie she'd played with as a child during those two wonderful summers at the seashore. Struggling, not too successfully, to suppress a sneak attack of giggles, she continued scribbling notes.
That was the story she wrote for Perry White—'World Trade Meeting: Dog Show in Metropolis'. In it, she had even decided on the 'Best in Show': that very athletic, young South American who looked like he might be a soccer player. Probably a good retriever. After sending the article to Perry, she leaned back in her chair, very satisfied. She smiled. Yes, she thought. Her report was pretty decent.
"Lane! My office! Now!" Perry's bellow rolled over the newsroom buzz, silencing it, and stopping time as all heads snapped up in a synchronized ripple.
Lois walked the long yards to Perry's office and the buzz returned, its frequency intensified. Why did she always feel like she was being watched these days? Was she? But that didn't make any sense. Perry sounded impatient; maybe he had something new for her.
He didn't. He rose from behind his desk, eyes ominous, body in full bluster and blood pressure rising, as he pointed at the story on his computer. "Now what in Sam Hill is that?"
"My World Trade article, Chief."
"No, it's not—it's a dog story."
"Perry, I was making a point. Satire—using some humour."
Shocked, Perry looked at her, his mouth slack-jawed for a second. Then he spoke. "Lois… darlin', you don't have a sense of humour."
Lois's dark eyes flashed indignantly. "I do so."
Perry came from behind his desk. "You've got one hour to clean it up for tomorrow's edition." Nevertheless, his voice gentled as he added, "Now, Lois, you know we can't go comparing the Secretary of Trade to an overbred pit bull with distemper."
"Why not, Perry? That's how the man comes across—a bully with no tolerance for the needs of weaker countries." Now she was angry, defending her story.
"Then write that, Lois." Turning, he indicated his computer screen again. "But clean it up." He paused. "The dog show… well… it just don't hunt."
Lois sighed. "Okay, Chief."
Subdued, she left Perry's office and returned to her desk where she gazed unfocused at the story still haunting her computer monitor. Then, for some reason, she looked up, and was surprised to see, standing in front of her desk, the grey-eyed man whom she'd encountered that morning. Of course, she thought, this is where I've seen him. He must be a new hire at the Planet.
"I'm all right, aren't I?" she asked him, her voice barely audible.
He smiled enigmatically and was about to speak just as a tall, dark-suited man, his tie a little askew, entered the newsroom. He smiled in Lois's direction as he proceeded toward her desk. Turning, the grey-eyed man slipped quietly away, leaving Lois alone with Clark Kent, her colleague and sometimes partner at the Planet.
"Got a minute, Lois?"
"Sure," she said, quickly closing her story on the monitor. "Need my help?" Her voice was half-teasing, half-hopeful.
These days she wasn't quite sure where she fit, a new sensation for Lois Lane. Last year the question would never have crossed her mind. If someone had asked her, she would have answered without thinking—where I decide I fit. But now… she didn't seem to fit here, although god knows, she was trying. Way too much had happened in the last year. Maybe that guy was right when he wrote you could never go home again.
Home. Yeah. The place where she kept her fish.
It looked like she didn't fit with Clark Kent, either; he was making that pretty clear these days, she thought. So were the altered conditions at the Planet which meant they were working on their own as often they worked together. And Superman—wasn't there. Was he? Not for her. Not in any way that counted. Lately, she'd begun to wonder if he had been playing a game with her all along: sometimes showing up at her apartment, flirting with her; other times pushing her away, even misleading her.
And now Clark was doing the same.
Clark's tentative repetition of her name brought her back. She raised her eyes to his face, and he smiled.
"Thought you'd gone missing there for a sec," he teased.
"You just haven't got my attention yet, Kent."
He grinned as he extended an arm to grab his chair, and pulled it, casters clattering across the vinyl floor, beside her desk. "There was a jewellery theft early this morning. 'Dimitri's'—his new flagship store in the Metropolis Tower. They got quite a haul." He paused, then continued, his words now careful. "I think you've met the owner, Dimitri MacAdam?"
"Yes, a few times." She hoped her tone was cool, professional, minimizing how it was that she had met the man. "Lex bought my engagement ring from him. Lex knew him socially as well. I mean, we're not talking 'Diamonds 'r Us' here." She flashed a weak grin at Clark, but got only a polite smile in return. "He was at Lex's apartment sometimes as a guest."
"What was your impression of him?"
"Impression? I don't know that I had one. Why?"
"Did you like him?"
"Sure." She smiled, recalling the dapper man who had distracted her with his frivolous wit. "He was smooth, a charming man. But you know I'm a sucker for a European accent. I never could figure out exactly what his was, though," she added as she remembered teasing Dimitri once about the fact that his name provided little help in figuring him out at all. "Yeah, I liked him."
Clark searched her eyes for a second, and held them with his own. "Do you trust him?"
The question surprised her. "Of course—he's one of the most reputable jewellers in the country. Of course I trust him. Lex always…" Her voice trailed off—yeah, she'd trusted Lex, too. Why was Clark even bothering to ask her opinion? "Which means, for some reason you're not quite sure about, Clark, that you don't trust him, doesn't it?" she asked softly, intrigued now by what Clark might be on to.
He smiled, acknowledging her take on his perception of the man. "I thought MacAdam was just a little evasive about some of the details when I talked to him."
"Maybe he thought you were asking more than you should about his business."
"Yeah, I know. He wouldn't be the first guy to think a reporter had asked one question too many."
"Dimitri could get prickly, especially if someone rubbed him the wrong way."
"Me?" Clark raised his eyebrows innocently and grinned at her. "But you could be right… See, Lois Lane, I count on *you* to ask the pushy question. Then, after I calm the guy down, he gives *me* the answer."
"Clark!" Lois was shocked. "I am never pushy."
His eyes widened as his face took on the expression of a saint straining for politeness.
"Hardly ever. Rarely. Only…" She stopped to fix him with a steely glare. "Only in the interests of getting the truth," she finished virtuously. "And anyway, we'd never get anywhere if we used your mild-mannered Smallville approach."
He let that one go by—she was right, in a way. They worked well together; neither of them perfect, but together unbeatable. At least, that's how it had been once. But these days, he was never quite sure how things were between them.
"So there's probably nothing to my feeling that MacAdam's hiding something?"
"Probably nothing. Dimitri's a decent man." Pausing, she met his eyes, and a wry smile twisted one corner of her mouth. "But this is the woman who thought Lex was a decent guy, too," she added lightly.
Her words caught him off guard. It was the closest she'd come in the almost four months since the aborted wedding to admitting to him that she'd been wrong about Luthor. Trust her to choose the busy newsroom for her confession, he thought as he let out a slow breath. Count on Lois Lane to pick somewhere she was safe from reprisals and from where she could easily retreat. But still, it was quite an admission, and, right now, especially, he desperately needed this sign from her. Gently, without thinking, he touched her hand, his eyes meeting hers. "Lois, he fooled a lot of people."
"Not you. Not Perry. Not Jimmy. Not Jack." She clipped out the words, each one an indictment.
Clark averted his eyes as he listened. Unbidden, the bitterness he'd felt back then when he'd finally grasped how little she valued his warnings about Lex Luthor, and, more damning, how she didn't want Clark Kent, slashed through his mind and pierced his heart. How could he deny what Lois was saying now? Her instincts, always so good, had failed her when she'd decided to marry Luthor. How could Clark explain her decision? So that his explanation comforted her and made sense to him? Yet, hearing the coldness in her voice, he understood now that she had not yet forgiven herself for what had happened. Not after all these months. For the first time, he wondered if he truly had either.
"Maybe you were too close to see," he said, his voice a whisper as his mouth became inexplicably dry.
She slipped her hand away from his, pulling away from him, and leaned back in her chair. "So what I'm saying, Clark, is, I guess I could be wrong about Dimitri. What was he so evasive about?"
He let her retreat.
"Well, for one thing, he didn't seem too interested in finding out who the thief was."
"The insurance payout could have dampened his curiosity."
"Maybe." Clark was skeptical. "Anyway, besides a few high end pieces of jewellery, the thief also took a small quantity of rough cut emeralds. I asked MacAdam where they'd come from but he was pretty vague. He changed the subject—gave a detailed description of a necklace which had been stolen instead."
"Maybe he thought that was more interesting. Was it the most valuable piece? Did he have a buyer lined up for it?"
"Probably the most valuable, but those uncut emeralds must've been worth big bucks, too. The necklace, by the way, was in to repair a couple of loose stones next to the clasp. It belongs to Francesca Albertini."
"Well, that explains Dimitri's reaction, then." Lois grinned at him. "She has to be his biggest worry. I mean, Clark, would you want to give bad news to Francesca Albertini? She's only one of the most prominent women in Metropolis." She paused, then added thoughtfully, "But you'd think he'd be more interested in finding out who broke in so he could get it back to her."
"Yeah, you'd think. And I'd still like to find out more about those loose emeralds."
"I do know Dimitri made frequent trips to Colombia to buy gems. Once, when I'd showed up a little too early at Lex's, I went into the library while he and Dimitri were talking about his latest buying trip."
"Do you remember anything about their conversation?"
"No… they changed the subject when I came in. I remember that because I was fascinated by what they were saying—I mean, emeralds, Clark! I asked a few questions, of course. Tried to ask," she amended. "But Lex hinted that they were discussing something he was planning for me, and it would ruin the surprise."
"What was so fascinating?"
"You know, I'd never much thought about *how* they actually *get* emeralds. I mean who ever gets past Tiffany's window?" She grinned at him. "Or Dimitri's? But, Clark, there's so much adventure in it—mining in dangerous places, risky trading in Colombia, and then getting the emeralds to market here. Dimitri called them 'green fire'." She looked at her colleague thoughtfully. "You know, that could make a good sidebar to your story on the robbery."
"Perfect." He flashed her a quick smile. "Let's do it."
Lois enthusiastically outlined what little she knew about emeralds; then, together, they roughed out a few questions to pursue in her companion piece. For a few moments, they were once again a team, even if it was a little ad hoc. Neither of them thought of checking with their editor-in- Chief. They were lost, all else forgotten, in the pleasure of working together, of finishing each other's thoughts, and anticipating a story that now was developing real potential.
They were interrupted by a copy of that morning's Daily Planet as it was snapped crisply open, then deposited onto Lois's desk, its front page photo facing toward them. Taken by Jimmy Olsen, it captured, in stark detail, the last moments of a dying man and his girlfriend, Lucy Lane. It was a full body shot, but below the man's knees, there was nothing but grey liquid, which had pooled and spilled over the pavement. Johnny Corbin. Metallo. Petty thief and thug who had been an unwitting subject in a ghoulish experiment by Rollie and Emmett Vale to build their own personal bionic thief to grab whatever they wanted.
"Lois, you were a witness to this. Were you too, Clark?" a husky, yet feminine, voice asked.
Neither Lois nor Clark answered immediately.
"No, he wasn't." Lois finally answered for her partner who appeared to be tongue-tied in the presence of Mayson Drake whom, Lois speculated, a few desperate men might possibly find attractive. At any rate, Clark Kent clearly lost his power of speech when the assistant District Attorney was around. The thought flattened her brief euphoria of the last half hour.
But Lois was wrong.
Oblivious now to those around him, Clark looked at the picture, reliving again the shock of the moment when he had understood precisely what had happened. What he had done. Metallo was dying, and he was dying because Superman had, without thinking, used one of his arsenal of tricks, had even made a flippant remark before using the heat vision, like some kid trying to be cool in the schoolyard. Then, with an intense blast of heat vision, he had liquefied Johnny's robotic legs, disabling him so that he could not move and so making it possible for Rollie Vale to complete what Superman had started: to end Corbin's life.
Automatically, as soon as he understood what was happening to Corbin, Superman had looked to Lois, seeking her reaction, and had met the sorrow in her dark eyes. And heard Lucy's heart-breaking sobs as she sank to her knees and bowed over her dying boyfriend.
Then, as Lois had rushed to her sister, Superman had fled upward, seeking refuge in the cloudless sky.
He was appalled at what had just happened. He had acted impulsively. Had there been no other way to stop Corbin? Since the man's robotic body was powered by kryptonite, he probably could have defeated Superman, just as he had done a couple of days earlier in that brief back alley skirmish. But Superman had been caught off guard then, Clark countered, had not expected to feel the sudden pain and the weakening of his body which the kryptonite caused. Was it that beating to which he had reacted when he'd blasted Corbin's legs? Had he instinctively taken revenge?
Superman didn't work like that.
Yes, he did. He answered his own question. Metallo had embarrassed and humiliated him. He'd even admitted that to Lois the next day at the Planet. And so, like a street thug, Superman had overreacted, not thought about what he was doing. Metallo… It was a comic book name pinned on a human being by the tabloids, he reminded himself. The man's name was Johnny Corbin. And now he was dead. The death penalty for a petty criminal.
Could Superman have stopped Corbin some other way? Clark asked himself. Although the kryptonite inside Corbin's robotic chest cavity would have made Superman progressively weaker, he had nevertheless quickly discovered, as he dodged and sparred with his awkward opponent, that the mineral's effect was limited when he kept a certain distance away. Perhaps there had been some lead in the alloy which encased the robotic body. Superman also had the advantage of being able to fly, so he had leapt upward, then hovered overhead, and blasted Corbin with his superbreath keeping him at bay and knocking him off balance.
Corbin's lumbering robotic body lacked agility; sooner or later he would have fallen and Superman could have used his superbreath to keep him on his back until the police arrived. And there was no way Rollie Vale would've been able to get past those flailing bionic arms and legs to get at the chest cavity to grab that power source. So why had Superman given up on that tactic so soon? Couldn't he have continued to distract Corbin until the police showed? The MPD knew of Metallo's strength. Did Superman think they were too stupid to be prepared to handle it?
Why did Superman never think of waiting for the police? Did he always have to be the hero?
Clark took a deep breath as he recalled all this, but still he could not clear it from his mind, could not focus on what Mayson was saying.
Superman had to accept that it was his arrogance and his impulsiveness that had led to Johnny Corbin's death, as surely as if he had made a conscious decision to kill his opponent. That he never intended to kill Corbin, that he abhorred all killing didn't count. What counted was not what he thought, but what he had done—like a good-natured drunk who kills when he climbs behind the steering wheel of a car.
Superman had disappeared from Metropolis for the rest of the evening, escaping across the continent. Not to Smallville. He could not bring himself to admit to Martha and Jonathan Kent what he had done, could not face the disappointment that would flicker in their eyes before they comforted him. Instead he'd sped north, to the Arctic. But its icy silence echoed his accusations, rejecting the man who had come there in times of pain before. Springing upward from its unending whiteness, he had returned to Metropolis. To Lois Lane's apartment.
And caught her as she was tying her robe after emerging from a bath. More than anything, at that moment, he had needed her comfort, had ached to feel her arms around him. He needed to talk with her about what had happened, to confess. But he'd been stopped, immobile, by the sight of her, bare-legged and fresh-scrubbed, dark hair tied back, and that softness in her eyes that was only ever there for Superman. Finding his voice, he'd made some inane remark, apologizing for losing track of the time, and for making her worry about him.
It had been the wrong thing to say.
Lois had come to him, sliding her slender hands seductively over his arms and along his shoulders, and he knew, as he met her luminous gaze, that she had misread his intentions. Part of him had longed to submit, to lose himself in her softness, to forget everything; but, somewhere, the stronger part of him knew that to do so would be wrong. How could she want to be with Superman after what he had done?
And he had been dismayed. It was obvious Lois still cared for Superman. Stricken, he'd gently pulled her hands away and reminded her of Clark Kent, thanking her for what she'd done for his real self, distancing himself from her.
Then she'd said those amazing words, her eyes dark with feeling. "I guess there isn't anything I wouldn't do for him."
Confused and off balance, he had confessed his dream to her then, the one he'd abandoned on that night when she'd accepted Luthor's ring and he'd watched, a voyeur, through Luthor's window. "You two are lucky to have each other."
Then, as he always did, he disappeared quickly into the night, more bewildered than ever about Lois Lane, and about himself.
There had been no sleep that night, only the restless search for distraction as he sped across the continent from one flash point to another, searching for any place where people facing a fire or flood or other catastrophe needed help, trying to escape the images of Lois Lane and Johnny Corbin flickering in his mind. He hadn't bothered to return to his apartment. Instead, when morning came, he'd gone straight to the Planet, immersing himself in his job, and then had left as soon as he'd heard the police report on the MacAdam robbery.
Now, that afternoon, as he sat with Lois behind her desk in the busy newsroom of the Daily Planet, he confronted the accusation in Mayson Drake's angry face and knew that she, more than Lois Lane, understood exactly what Superman had become.
As if from a distance, he heard Lois reply to Mayson's question. "No, Clark wasn't there."
"Where were you, then, Clark?" Mayson repeated. "You'd just escaped from the Vales so you couldn't have been far away."
Again, in the remote part of his mind, he heard Lois answer. "He'd gone for help. Superman came while he was gone." God, Clark thought, that sounds so feeble. Doesn't Lois get it? No, she doesn't. That had been clear at her apartment last night.
"Clark?" Mayson's tone was insistent.
"Like Lois said."
"Mayson, why is the DA's office so interested in this anyway?"
"Lois, Superman is a vigilante, and this photo proves it. Would Johnny Corbin be dead if Superman hadn't done this?" Mayson leaned forward, tapping her index finger on Metallo's picture, just below where his knees should have been. "Superman, of all people, had no need to go that far. Given his powers—" She spoke the word derisively. "—he could have easily immobilized him and waited for the police. He used excessive force." She enunciated the last two words slowly, her precision giving them emphasis. "When he did so, he must have understood that death was a probable consequence of his action, and so that action was criminally negligent."
"Metallo was a thug, Mayson. He'd stolen, he'd threatened my sister. He had to be stopped."
"I figured you'd defend Superman, Lois. But what about you, Clark? You're awfully quiet. Don't tell me you're not having some doubts."
"Mayson, I… I…" Clark hesitated and was relieved when Lois again jumped in.
"Of course he's not having doubts. He's just can't believe what you're saying!"
Mayson looked directly at Lois. "Lois, a couple of weeks ago you gave the MPD a hard time over what you called 'excessive use of force'. Different rules for Superman? Is he above the law?"
"No." Clark rose from his chair and spoke decisively. "Superman is not above the law."
The suggestion of a smile softened Mayson's intensity. "I knew you'd agree, Clark." Then she shifted her gaze to Lois. "The DA's office will need to talk to you, Lois, and to Lucy, and also to Jimmy Olsen."
Shocked, Lois met the other woman's eyes. "You're not serious. You can't press charges against Superman!"
"We're waiting for the autopsy results on Corbin before deciding exactly how to proceed."
Lois had no idea how to respond to Mayson. She understood only too well the logic of the woman's argument. Hadn't she, too, watched in horror as the grey metal of Johnny's artificial legs dissolved beneath him, bringing him to his knees? The terror on his face as he understood exactly what was happening to him and the pain in Lucy's sobs had haunted Lois last night, keeping her from sleep.
After having talked to the police and comforting her sister, she'd returned to the Planet to write up the story of the Vale brothers, attaching Clark's name to it as well as her own even though he hadn't reappeared at the Planet by the time she left. Exhausted and on edge, she'd finally got back to her apartment a couple of hours later, and had headed immediately for the amniotic security of a warm bath. She'd even put on a romantic, distancing, fantasy CD in an attempt to forget what had happened. Then, just after she'd emerged from her soak, Superman had come, entering through the tall living room window which she always kept unlatched.
God, she'd made a pass at him. Given the turmoil in her mind, she'd had no idea she was behaving so bizarrely, until after it was all over. It was as though somebody else were in control of her body. As though the lyrics she'd listened to during her bath had brainwashed her… "I've got a crush on you…"
He had rebuffed her, of course.
Then he had told her how brave she was for helping Clark when he'd been kidnapped by the Vales. She'd replied with a truth she only half realized, that there wasn't anything that she wouldn't do for Clark, surprised that Superman would even think it necessary to mention how she and Jimmy had rescued Clark from the Vale brothers' lab. And why, she wondered, had Superman looked at her like that, as though he had been searching for something important, when he'd said she and Clark were lucky to have each other?
Then he'd turned, striding away from her, and left her apartment without a backward glance.
Confused and stricken, Lois had phoned Clark, needing to talk to him, to see him, but she'd got only the impersonal voice of his answering machine. She'd replaced the phone without leaving a message, feeling more alone than she'd ever felt before.
They didn't have each other, did they?
Then, unsure of just about everything, she had curled up in a fetal position on her bed, numb, unable to sleep.
Now, as she looked across her desk at Mayson Drake, she remembered Rollie Vale's dash across the pavement to grab the kryptonite which powered Johnny's bionic body. She had been shocked to see the green crystal. So what had happened to it? Did the police have it now? And what would they make of it? The public didn't know that kryptonite could kill Superman; she had kept that information a secret last month when he'd been shot by Arianna Carlin. So there was no way Mayson could possibly know that Superman had no choice but to take down Johnny. Lois herself had not understood that until she'd seen Vale take the kryptonite. Surely, there hadn't been any other way for Superman.
Had there? Why did she even have that doubt? Why that vague feeling that somehow Superman had acted less than super? Less than heroic.
Lois darted a quick look at Clark. Did he know that kryptonite could kill Superman? He must. He was Superman's friend. Surely Superman must have told him. Did Clark know that Metallo's battery pack was kryptonite? She must ask him. He hadn't been there to see Vale pull it from Johnny's chest cavity so, unless something had happened while Clark had been held hostage, then he might not know. Why was he so quiet? He'd barely said anything. She sensed, without asking, that he was deeply upset. But about what exactly? That his friend was in trouble? Or because, deep down, he agreed with Mayson?
She shifted her gaze back to Mayson. "The DA's office is premature then, Mayson. Hostility to Superman isn't enough to build a case on."
Mayson flushed, then her eyes flashed. "Nor does the quality of a victim's character determine whether the law is enforced. Lois, the law is what protects us. You and me. But we have to protect the law, too. When we disregard it, when we flout it, even if we feel it's for the right reason, then we weaken both it and what we are. That goes for Superman, too. Especially Superman. I'll be back."
Abruptly, she turned, then strode toward the elevator, her staccato heels telegraphing her determination.
"I know, Lois."
"They won't do this. Superman is too popular."
"Listen to what you're saying, Lois." His voice was harsh.
She averted her eyes. Popularity was no defense. "So maybe this time we have no choice but to wait for the DA to make the next move."
"We wait," he agreed.
"I hate waiting, Clark."
That made him smile at last, and, he reached for the ghost of his former self, willing himself to block what Mayson had said. "It'll be character building, Lois. Patience."
She made a face at him, then turned to her computer with a sigh. "And I have exactly half an hour to rewrite a dog show."
Inside Perry White's office Franklin Stern the new owner of the Daily Planet, Franklin Stern, and Perry White were arguing, bass voices rumbling over point and counterpoint. Both were large, dominant men, but Stern's deeply resonant voice, his higher executive power, and the fact that he had, by virtue of being the visitor, gained control of the small office's territory, meant that the force was with him and not with Perry White. Immobile, the editor-in-Chief of the best newspaper in the country sat sandwiched between his desk and the wall of books behind him.
"Perry, we've got to cut staff. There's no other way."
"Dammit, Franklin. We've just cut staff. This place is gutted, emptier than a church the week after Christmas. Our reporters are stretched thinner than a see-through band-aid as it is."
"They can work smarter. Hell, we all can. The Planet's still hemorrhaging red ink."
"Capital costs from rebuilding, Franklin. Luthor's bomb ripped the guts out of this paper. We can absorb those costs, but it'll take time."
"An accountant's shell game, Perry," Stern said as he paced the office. "Money is money—I don't care what envelope it's in."
"Just look at these circulation figures." Perry pulled a print-out from a pile of loose paper on his desk and brandished it before Stern. "Climbing steadily. Today's numbers are gonna be the highest we've had since Luthor's takeover."
Stern picked up a copy of the Planet from Perry's desk. "Great shot by Olsen, Perry. There's your circulation boost right there. Kent's article is good too. That young man impresses me." He dropped the paper back on Perry's desk.
"*Lane* and Kent," Perry firmly corrected him. "They are both impressive."
Stern shot him a critical look. "Sentiment has no place in business, Perry. I know she was your protege but she's not a sure bet anymore. She takes far too many unreasonable risks."
"That young woman's got the best instincts of anyone I've ever worked with. She's the finest investigative reporter in the country. Let's be absolutely clear on that."
"Not this past couple of months, she hasn't been. Look at the fiasco with Viologic. Looked like she'd managed to get her source, what's his name, killed. Fluke that she didn't. She almost managed to get herself killed, too. But what she did manage to do was get the Planet sued." Stern stopped in mid rant to look directly at Perry. "Do you know how much insurance premiums for the Planet have increased this year? Accounting showed me this morning. The notice said the increase was to cover 'the consequences of excessive risk-taking by reporters and the increased potential for lawsuits'."
"Bullshit!" Perry exploded, as he rose from behind his desk. "Sure Lane took a risk on the Viologic story, but it paid off. That's good reporting! And she's got the Kerths to prove it. She's the youngest triple award winner in its history. She doesn't wait for some spin doctor's press release to drop in her lap. She goes out and gets the story. Besides, you think the Star doesn't have these costs? You and I both know insurance guys'll use any excuse they can to raise premiums."
"Look, Perry. You know I had my doubts about rehiring Lane when the Planet reopened. That's why I insisted on the short term contract. She's supposed to be an investigative reporter, yet, look how easily Lex Luthor conned her. That man nearly destroyed the Planet, one of the greatest institutions in this city—in this country! But Lois Lane, award winning investigative reporter, was duped by the guy. Even when she was on the inside, in a position to know more about him than anyone else was. There must have been clues. Hell, I knew the man was shady. Where were her instincts then? Where was her initiative then? Where were her smarts? The biggest crime story in the country, right in her lap, and she missed it!"
"She's not the first person nor the last one, either, to trip over a matter of the heart, Franklin. But she's on the ball again. Just look at what she's done since we've reopened—that Carlin woman's plot against Superman, the Intergang expose…"
"Both written with Kent. What has she done on her own since she's been back?" Stern finished his third circuit of Perry's office as he spoke, coming to a stop beside the editor's desk where he was momentarily distracted by Perry's new computer. Then he noticed the story still on its monitor. He read the heading: "World Trade Conference: Dog Show in Metropolis"; he skimmed the rest. "This is what she does on her own," he said. His deep voice amplified his disapproval and made it more ominous.
"It was just a joke, Franklin."
"A joke?" he rumbled. "Kent's carrying her. He's the one who won the Kerth last month. She wasn't even nominated."
"Kent is good," Perry said, his pride in his other star reporter evident. "Absolutely no doubt about that. But Lois Lane is damn good. There's no doubt about that either," he finished, emphasizing his last words. "None. She's done some fine work this year, and especially," he paused to lock eyes with Stern, "especially in the last two months. Make no mistake, Franklin—Kent does not carry her."
Silence smothered the room as the two faced off.
Then Stern spoke. "We need to cut staff." He reached for the door. "Lane has three weeks left on her contract to prove herself."
"Sorry, Jim. It took a little longer to finish up than I thought," Clark apologized as he met up with Jimmy Olsen. He'd spotted his friend waiting by the massive front entrance of the Metropolis Dome where, that night, the Metro Marvels were slated to take on the Toronto Raptors. A quick diversion of an out of control dual transport truck had made Clark a few minutes late, and he hoped the game had not yet started.
"No problem. I just got here myself. The Chief sure has us running right now. Hope the financials pick up soon so we get some slack." Jimmy handed his ticket to the attendant as he spoke and the two men made their way along the grey concrete corridor to gate six. "Stern was in with him late this afternoon."
"I didn't notice him," Clark said as he checked the row number on his ticket.
Jimmy grinned at his friend. "You never do when you're talking to Lois."
Clark's eyes acknowledged Jimmy's hit. "So what were they talking about?"
Jimmy grimaced as they began the ascent to the Dome's peak. "Expenses, I guess. The quarterly report's out tomorrow and rumour says it's gonna be bad. Hope I get to keep that raise I just got."
"You will. It was long overdue, Jim."
"My Metallo shot boosted circulation," he added proudly. "The Chief showed me the numbers this afternoon before I left."
"That's great." But it was hard for Clark to muster enthusiasm for the one-day circulation boost when it had been achieved by a photo of a distraught Lucy Lane comforting her dying boyfriend.
Jimmy's face sobered as he looked at Clark. "CK, Lois isn't going to lose her job, is she?"
"What? What makes you think that?"
"Something I overheard this afternoon."
"I was waiting outside Perry's office. He and Stern were hassling about something but I'm not sure what. When Stern opened the door to leave the office, the last thing he said to Perry was, 'Lane has three weeks to prove herself'."
Clark's face registered his shock. "You must have heard it wrong, Jim."
"I don't know. Perry wasn't too pleased with me when I didn't get that picture of Superman."
"What picture?" Clark asked, wondering where Jimmy was going with this tangent.
"A few days ago. Of Superman, after Metallo… uh kinda roughed him up. I had the shot lined up but Lois stopped me—she didn't want anyone to see Superman vulnerable, she said. Perry was pretty cheesed that I missed it. He called it a 'once in a century defining moment' shot. You know how he gets." Jimmy grimaced. "He spoke to Lois after about it. I figure he must've chewed her out, too, because when I started to take that shot yesterday, at first she went to stop me but then she backed off."
"I see," Clark said grimly. So Lois had covered for Superman and the Planet had lost a great shot. "Jim, Perry chews us all out regularly—it's his idea of a management style."
"But what if Perry mentioned it to Stern?"
"Relax, Jimmy. He wouldn't do that."
But Clark was worried by what Stern had said to Perry about Lois. He knew, deep down, that she wasn't yet back in full 'Lane' mode. When they'd first started back at the Planet, after it had reopened, she'd been brittle, tightly wound, yet somehow not really focused either. She'd admitted to him that she hadn't been sleeping well. At times, there'd be these awkward silences between them, something that had never been there before, even back when he'd first started at the Planet and they were both trying to score points to impress the other. At least he had been.
Still, most of the time she was on her game—it was just sometimes she took these risks … was she taking more than she had before? He'd been shocked when he'd fished her, gasping for breath, out of a barrel in the river during the Viologic mess. And what had possessed her to break into Gretchen Kelly's chamber of horrors to get Waldecker? She could have been killed.
After the Luthor disaster, he'd taken to reading Freud to try to figure out what Lois might be going through. It hadn't helped. Maybe he should try Jung or Adler or…
His thoughts were interrupted by a huge roar from the crowd. The anthem had ended and the game begun. He forced himself to concentrate on it, on the intricate weaving of skilled athletes as they manoeuvred, dodged, then triumphed.
Chapter 2: When in Disgrace with Fortune
The next morning began with one of those routine planning meetings—the ones with the hidden agenda. But since Perry White was as good at concealing agendas as a cat with an exposed tail was at hiding under a sofa, everyone got the message by the end of the meeting. Cut expenses.
Fifteen minutes later, the rumour was out that there would be job cuts and that if the paper wasn't in the black by the next quarter, it would be sold. Stern stuff. Lois tried to ignore all this. She couldn't lose her job, could she? What job? she reminded herself—your contract is up soon. A dark wave of anxiety lapped at the fringes of her soul. The only safety, security she'd ever known had been here, at the Planet. The place she'd helped to destroy last spring…
She took a deep breath. She could do this, help the Planet rebuild, keep her job. Don't think about anything else, focus, she told herself.
As she absently sorted through her e-mails, she wished she had something more spectacular to show for the previous couple of months… If only she'd won a Kerth last month. No, no, she blocked that thought, deeply ashamed as she recalled her petty, self-centred reaction to Clark's nomination. He deserved that award, and she had been fiercely proud of him as she'd listened to his acceptance speech. But, right now, she would feel a little more secure with at least a nomination to point to.
She had written some good pieces last year, before Lex. Why hadn't at least one of them been acknowledged? Were her colleagues sending her a message that she had to bear some of the responsibility for nearly wrecking one of the best newspapers in the country—no make that the world— when Lex had so casually blown it up?
She hadn't written a resume in five years.
The new guy, the one with the grey eyes, stopped by her desk and she smiled at him. Those grey eyes seemed so familiar. He was younger than she had at first supposed, about the same age as she was. "Maybe I'm not stretching enough," she said to him. "I need to get my edge back. Take some risks."
"Mad Dog Lane," he teased.
"They think I never knew they called me that, but I did. I loved it. It was a great nick. I'd kill to hear them call me that again."
"Where, oh where, did Mad Dog go?"
Lois grinned. "Ran away?"
"When was the last time you saw Mad Dog?"
"Just before I got engaged to Lex." She spoke the words softly, musing, forgetting the man she was talking to, as she gazed unseeingly at the large window which formed much of the north wall of the newsroom.
"Hey, Lois, talking to yourself?"
Lois snapped back, found herself facing Jimmy, the new hire nowhere to be seen. Maybe he would come back later.
"Jimmy, what's the new guy's name?"
"The new guy? Don't think I've…" He stopped speaking as he noticed the image of a woman on one of the several TVs which hung suspended from apertures fixed on the nearest wall. The sets were constantly tuned to different news channels, there as a perpetual reminder of what the competition was finding newsworthy. "Hey, isn't that the new Assistant DA?"
Lois turned to look at the screen, noticing, out of the corner of her eye, that Clark Kent was just entering the bullpen, his right hand tugging at his tie. For some reason she found herself distracted by that nervous mannerism of his. Why was he adjusting his tie so often? If he was uncomfortable in it, why did he wear one?
Clark came to stand by her desk and all three watched in silence as two reporters, mikes thrust out aggressively, pursued Mayson Drake as she mounted the steps of the courthouse.
"Ms. Drake, is it true the DA's office plans to charge Superman with criminal negligence in the death of Johnny Corbin?"
Mastering a flicker of annoyance, Mayson stopped, then spoke clearly. "Not at this time. The Coroner's report will be out tomorrow. The Vale brothers are facing charges, but the MPD is still investigating the full circumstances around Mr. Corbin's initial disappearance, his involvement in the robberies, and his death."
"Ms. Drake, you're on record accusing Superman of vigilantism. Did he cross the line this time?"
"Gentleman, I'm always concerned when undue force is used in the apprehension of alleged criminals." With that she turned from the reporters and walked briskly into the courthouse.
"Smooth," Jimmy smiled appreciatively.
"Jimmy, what are you saying? She didn't say 'no'!"
"Take it easy, Lois. There's no way they're gonna charge Superman. I can't figure why they even sent those two guys down to the courthouse."
"Didn't you read the Star this morning, Jim?"
"No." The reply came from both Jimmy and Lois.
"I did," Clark said grimly. Looking around he spotted a copy of the Star on Lois's desk, unopened. That was odd, he thought—she usually began her day with a quick look at the opposition. He opened the newspaper to the front page. It was dominated by a blow-up of Jimmy's photograph and, beside it, a headline shouted: Man of Steel's Laser Vision Lethal
What followed was a brief recap of Corbin's death, questioning whether Superman had used his powerful heat vision responsibly. The article included a quote from Mayson Drake, saying much the same thing she had said to Lois and Clark the day before.
Lois scanned it quickly. "Over-exaggerated sensationalist garbage," she snapped indignantly. "They can't get away with this!" She stood up quickly. "Come on, Clark."
"Come on, where, Lois? Just what are you going to do?"
"We're going across to the Chief Pathologist's office."
"You heard Mayson. They're not ready yet. Besides what are you hoping to prove—that Superman had nothing to do with Corbin's death, that Superman did not destroy his legs? That the whole thing did not happen?" His tone was derisive.
Their eyes locked for a second, and Lois had this momentary flash that she did not know this man, that he was as remote from her as any stranger on the street. Then she saw the defiance fade from his dark eyes and felt his hand touch her arm.
"Look, Lois. Let this one go. Wait until that report comes out. Let's go follow up on those stolen emeralds. Perry thinks we're onto something there and…"
"And we could use a good story," she finished for him, not happy to put aside her impulse to defend the superhero. But she knew Clark was right. Until the coroner was finished his work, there was nothing concrete for them to use in Superman's defense. Still… "If we don't defend him, who will?"
"What if he can't be defended?" he countered.
"Clark, you can't possibly believe that!"
"A man is dead, Lois." Brutally, he continued, "Just because you've got a crush on him doesn't make what Superman did right."
She snatched her arm away, her eyes blazing, but she said nothing. Clark's accusation stung—did he now have so little respect for her as a professional that he thought she'd base her reporting on her emotions? He'd made her feel like a hero-worshipping adolescent.
She turned away from him, reaching for the purse on her desk. "Why don't we split up this morning? One of us see MacAdam and the other Francesca Albertini?"
"We need to follow up with the police too. Maybe a call to Henderson?" Clark added, relieved she hadn't exploded after his crack about the crush. What had he been thinking? The last thing he wanted was to hurt her, let alone cause a scene in the newsroom. World War III he didn't need. "Look, I'm sorry, Lois." When she didn't respond he added, "So… what about we meet for lunch to compare notes?"
"Sounds good." But she didn't meet his eyes.
"OK, then—Capelli's at noon?"
He stood for a moment waiting for her to look at him but she was busy stuffing things into her purse. He had upset her he knew, and he realized he had let his bitterness about her feelings for Superman get to him. He'd controlled that resentment for so long.
Why can't I do it now? he thought. Why can't I let her go, why can't I stop loving her? Then he remembered her words two nights ago. "I guess there isn't anything I wouldn't do for him."
He turned and walked toward the elevator.
Lois watched him walk away, trying to figure out what had just happened. Something was wrong; it wasn't like Clark to lash out like that. Was it that article in the Star? He must be more upset about Superman than he had been willing to admit. Or was it her? But why? She frowned; this was getting her nowhere. Impatiently, she grabbed the offending newspaper, strode quickly to Perry's office and placed one foot across the threshold of his open door.
"Come on in, Lois." Perry looked up from his computer monitor.
"Have you read this, Chief?" She waved the front section of the Star as she spoke.
"By this, I'm guessing you don't mean the item about the Congressman and his missing girlfriend," Perry said dryly.
"Perry, the Planet has to take a stand on this."
"We are, Lois. I'm working on an editorial right now." He motioned her to take a look at his monitor.
She read silently for a moment, then said, "That's fine, Perry, but shouldn't it be stronger? The Star's piece is pretty inflammatory."
He narrowed his eyes. "Yellow journalists, each and every one of 'em. Bottom feeding mudslingers. What in tarnation did they expect Superman to do?"
Lois smiled, then read a sentence from his editorial: "Superman acted, as he always has, in the defense of our city. This time his actions prevented the escape of a man with a record of petty crime who had been cruelly transformed by the Vale brothers into a lethal machine which no mere mortal could stop."
"I like that, Chief. He did, you know—they'd kidnapped Clark and threatened Lucy."
"That'll be in there, too. Now you do *your* job and bring me the best darn story you've ever written."
"You've got it, Chief."
He watched her leave, troubled.
Clark stopped by police headquarters first, hoping to catch Henderson. He was in luck.
Henderson acknowledged Clark's presence with a sardonic raise of his right eyebrow, a greeting which some who knew the man would have described as effusive. "What can I do for you, Kent?"
"An update on the MacAdam break-in. Any suspects yet?"
"No. Forensics has been all over that place—clean job. The perp didn't waste time on any display pieces. Went straight for what he wanted, and was in and out in the time the alarm sounded and security got to the scene."
"How long would that be?"
"Maximum five minutes. That's how long it takes the security company to get on site once the alarm triggers."
"How long before your guys arrive?"
"On a good day, ten minutes after the security company alerts us."
"A bit slow?"
Henderson shrugged his shoulders, his bony frame lending the gesture an awkward grace. "We're not supermen."
Clark smiled. "Sometimes, maybe."
"Now that type of comment is not something you learned from that partner of yours." Henderson grabbed a fax which was just emerging like a newborn from the groaning womb of an old machine close to his desk. "You two not working much together these days, though," he commented as he quickly scanned the fax.
"No. We're short-staffed. Are you certain that it was only one man?"
"Pretty much. Tape from the surveillance camera shows just one figure which the infrared motion detectors located throughout the premises corroborate." He grabbed a photograph from the corner of his desk and rotated it so that it was visible to Clark right side up, a courtesy he wouldn't have shown to most other reporters.
The picture showed a man in dark pants and sweater, wearing a balaclava hood. Judging by his height compared to that of the display counter which he was passing, Clark thought the man to be of medium height and build, perhaps a couple inches shorter than himself.
"He leave any clues?"
"No prints, nothing we can find. He knew what he was doing. He went directly to the safe at the back of the work-room, took the loose emeralds, the Albertini necklace, and a couple other items. He didn't touch the cheap stuff—you know, the stuff that's only marginally more expensive than you or I would ever be able to afford."
Clark grinned at the image of Henderson actually buying jewellery for someone. Then he asked the obvious question. "So he had some knowledge of the layout?"
"Must've, to get in and out that quickly. But that's all we've got right now."
"He forced entry though. So he didn't know the security code."
It was then that Clark noticed the morning papers on Henderson's desk, the Star on top with its lead article ringed in black marker. He gestured toward it. "You working on that one, too?"
"The DA's office is riding it right now." Henderson's tone was non-committal.
"What do you think?"
"Doesn't matter what I think, Kent—I'm just a foot soldier around here."
"The police got to the scene pretty quickly."
"Yeah. That trap Lane and her sister had set up for Corbin. Olsen called us just as Lucy got there. Why she couldn't have come to us earlier with the plan beats me."
"Because you would have talked her out of it?" Clark suggested.
"Would have tried," Henderson amended. "Has anyone ever talked her out of anything? But the plan worked," he added grudgingly. "You were freed and we got the Vales."
Clark repeated his question. He needed to know what Henderson, whom he respected, thought about what had happened. "Is Superman negligent in his death, Bill?" His words came out slowly and with a quiet intensity which he had not intended.
Henderson looked at him closely. "At this point, I'm not sure. That's the legal answer." He paused for a second. "The Vales played Frankenstein with Corbin. But that's not the issue, either.
"The real question is this: did Superman have an alternative way of stopping Corbin? That's the dilemma police officers deal with routinely. How do I apprehend this guy without using undue force? Without violating his rights? I have to make the right decision in a split second, often when emotions are running high."
Henderson leaned forward as he continued. "Now is Superman like the rest of us? Does he ever panic? Does he have emotions? I raise these points because they may suggest that, for Superman, the circumstances can never be extenuating. It should be easier for him to do the right thing because he has no emotions to block his making a logical decision. Plus, he's invulnerable which also has to be taken into account. Self-defense is not an arguable defense because Superman can't be killed."
"So he is negligent, then?"
Henderson sighed wearily. "I'm not sure. Same answer as before. Remember Corbin was super-strong too. We knew from the earlier robberies that an ordinary man could not stop him. So we'd worked out a response for the next encounter. Essentially, Corbin had become a low grade tank, and just as it's possible for a soldier to destabilize a tank, we had developed a way to destabilize Corbin. Nevertheless, we would have appreciated Superman's input on the problem."
Clark looked surprised. "Why?"
"Apparently, a few days ago, Corbin had gone a couple of rounds with Superman and come out the winner. At least, according to your paper Superman was roughed up, but the story was worded so vaguely we weren't sure exactly what happened. Lane wrote it—ambiguous, not quite her old stuff. Anyway, we would like to have talked to Superman about how it happened."
Clark grimaced at Henderson's criticism, understanding why Lois had blunted her report, but to defend her was to argue her lack of objectivity and that was a poor defense to make for a reporter. "So how does the dusting up Corbin gave Superman make a difference?"
"It could provide a context for Superman's action—help us decide if he overreacted or responded reasonably."
"So the DA's office is on the mark then?"
"Officially, Drake has a point. Off the record—" He shot Clark a warning glance. "—I'm not losing sleep. Corbin wasn't your average respectable citizen, even before the Vales got hold of him. Plus this city owes Superman. Besides, it's election season again, and the DA's not going to win any votes bashing Superman. Look what happened the last time the city did that, during the heat wave last year—they came out looking like fools."
"You've never once called Corbin 'Metallo', Bill."
"I may not be one of his chief mourners, but he wasn't a freak. He was a man. What the Vales did to him was unspeakable."
Outside, on the pavement, Clark decided to walk the few blocks to Dimitri MacAdam's place of business. As he walked, he mulled over what Henderson had said. It hadn't made him feel any better about what had happened with Corbin. But if Henderson had trouble with the ethics of the situation, they clearly took a back seat to more pragmatic concerns. Not too surprising, Clark thought, given what Henderson faced every day on the street.
However, Clark was chilled by Henderson's belief that Superman had no emotions, and yet as he thought about it, wasn't that the image he had been so carefully trying to construct ever since he'd first appeared in Metropolis? He'd played the role; done everything he could to keep the world from guessing the truth, to keep himself remote and apart.
The man who didn't need… need to feel, to laugh, to sleep, to eat for god's sake, that ridiculous little lie he'd told Lois last year, when he'd been under house arrest during the heat wave that he was supposed to have caused. Fearful of what would happen if he were alone with her for any length of time as Superman, he'd tried to keep her at bay, to keep his distance from her. Anything to prevent her from suspecting that he was Clark Kent.
He sighed and looked up to the sky, seeing nothing. The man who didn't need to feel… to love. Super Man. Able to leap tall buildings. So why was Henderson's observation bothering him? His ruse had worked.
Francesca Albertini's upper west side townhouse was situated on a narrow street where the pinnate leaves of locust trees filtered the autumn sun, scattering patterns of light and shadow on the pale pavement. The graceful four story building sat back from the street, aloof behind the black swirls and bars of a delicate wrought iron fence. The mansion had been in Francesca's family for over a hundred years, built by her great-grandfather, and two years ago, after the death of her powerful second husband, she had returned from Italy to make it her permanent residence.
Feeling a little nervous, Lois walked across the small brick courtyard to the front entrance and eyed the brass buzzer set in the dark brickwork beside the doorframe. She had been here before, but she'd come then as a guest, the fiancee of the third wealthiest man in the world. She remembered her excitement that evening at getting to go behind one of those doors which were closed to ordinary people, to her. She had felt that night as if she were on the verge of discovery, of understanding something important that had always eluded her. Was that one of the reasons why she had accepted that first date with Lex Luthor? Then kept seeing him? Then agreed to marry him? When all along she knew that she did not love him. Was that the kind of woman her ambition had made her?
She had not found what she was seeking behind those closed doors.
Still, that evening hadn't been boring. The Governor of New Troy had been there, as had the Vice-President of the United States and the heads of three of the largest corporations in the world. Make that four, if you counted Lex. And the corporation that Francesca had inherited on her husband's death was not inconsequential, either. In fact, the current buzz in the financial district was that Albertini Inc was one of the key players in a bid to take over and restructure what was left of the legitimate side of Lex's empire.
However, this morning Lois was here as a reporter for the Daily Planet, not as someone who any longer held automatic entree behind these substantial doors. That thought pleased her and her nervousness disappeared. She was here in her own right—because she was Lois Lane of the Daily Planet. She jabbed the buzzer.
A middle-aged woman, conservatively attired in a navy woollen skirt and sweater, opened the door. Lois explained that she had an appointment and, seconds later, she was following the woman down a spacious hall and into a small conservatory which overlooked the back garden, an urban oasis ablaze with a broad ribbon of late blooming crimson and purple asters.
Francesca Albertini sat at a small antique table which had been placed in front of the window so that anyone who sat there could catch the morning sun. Slender and very beautiful, she was the type of woman who could be any age between thirty-five and fifty but who Lois knew was closer to the latter.
She smiled. "How good to see you again, Lois. Please sit down." She gestured to a chair opposite her. "How are you doing, my dear? Such an unpleasant time you've had since we first met." Her voice was a rich contralto, suggestive of warm cognac and intimate conversation.
"I'm doing fine," Lois responded, hoping it was not too much of a lie. "And you? And your children?"
"We're all very well. Andrea has just started her studies at the Sorbonne—she's so excited—and Alastair graduated from Harvard last spring," she added proudly.
A maid entered, bearing a coffee pot and cups on a silver tray which she quietly set on the table in front of Francesca, then left as unobtrusively as she had entered.
"Do you take cream and sugar, Lois?"
"Just black. Thanks." She accepted the coffee and took a sip. "Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your stolen necklace, Francesca?" She wondered why she had phrased the question so deferentially.
For a moment Francesca's calm retreated, replaced by a flash of anger in her green eyes. "How could Dimitri be so careless? I had confidence in that man, Lois. I entrusted my precious necklace to him. My husband gave it to me on our wedding day, and his father gave it to his mother on their wedding day, and his grandfather on his. It has been in his family for generations, a gift from Napoleon. It's irreplaceable. It must be found!"
"I know it's very valuable, Francesca, but I had no idea about its history."
Francesca proceeded to tell Lois the story of how the great Emperor Napoleon had been so entranced by the ethereal beauty of the young wife of Count Albertini that he had felt compelled to present her with the necklace in tribute.
"Why did you take it to Dimitri's?"
"It needed a repair. I had worn it to the Metropolis Opera gala last week and noticed, when I took it off afterwards, that the stone set next to the clasp was loose. When I checked the necklace more closely, a couple of the other stones felt wobbly, too. So I took it to Dimitri, asked him to inspect the stones and tighten the claws of any which were in danger of coming loose."
"Did anyone know you had taken it in?"
"Not really. Mary, my housekeeper knew of course, because it was she who actually took the necklace across town to Dimitri's. I may have mentioned it at breakfast, so perhaps Janine knew."
"The young woman who brought us coffee."
"Oh," Lois said. "Has she worked with you long?"
Francesca smiled. "Now you're sounding like that intriguing man from the police department. I have no reason to doubt Janine—she has been with us for two years, ever since we returned to Metropolis."
"Who did you breakfast with…"
Lois's question was interrupted by the appearance in the doorway of two young men.
"Alastair! You're back!"
"Hi, Mama. It's great to be home." The two men entered the room, and suddenly it seemed charged with energy. Alastair, a darker and decidedly masculine version of his mother, stooped and kissed that lady's cheek. Straightening up, he said, "Mama, this is Jake Lamont, the best tennis player in the universe and also the skipper of the coolest little sloop in Metropolis Harbour."
Francesca beamed—there was no other word for it, Lois thought—at the two young men, both of whom were, in Lois's opinion, just about the most gorgeous examples of male youth this side of a movie screen, or at least this side of an Armani ad. But as Francesca introduced her, it was clear to Lois that her brief interview was over; the woman was now clearly interested only in hearing about her son's week away.
Lois had been waiting for Clark Kent in front of Capelli's—well, more truthfully pacing the street on which Capelli's was located—for the last twenty minutes. She feared Clark was going to stand her up. It wouldn't be the first time.
As she ranged up and down the block, she thought back to that morning, to his crack about her crush on Superman. It had stung and she'd wanted to lash back at him. It'd been like that this fall between them, since the Planet had reopened. Hot and cold—actually, more like warm and cold. At times, it was like nothing had changed—they were best friends and, at times, she even suspected maybe a bit more. Then, just as she was daydreaming about what that 'more' would be like, he was making sarcastic cracks about coins in phone booths, believing that people who looked like her were actually her even though they were doing and saying things that were so not her, holding out on her—that scoop on the runaway roller coaster at the Metro fair grounds— *and* making chocolate eyes at blonde DAs!
Lois took a deep breath and calmed down.
Thank god she hadn't lashed back at him. The newsroom was no place for soap op hysterics and she'd already put on enough of a show last spring—the Lex and Lois show. Can a ditzy girl reporter with a secret passion for a superhero find happiness among the ruins of the Daily Planet with the world's wealthiest master criminal?
She sighed. Maybe Clark had a point. A small, nano-point, perhaps, but still—a point. Besides, she'd sensed that he'd regretted his crack the moment he'd said it.
She was about a block away from Capelli's when she looked across the street and finally spotted Clark coming out of the narrow alley, which ran alongside the old Dow Building across from the restaurant. That was odd, she thought. Why would he have been in that alley? She smiled as he raised his hand to straighten the knot of his tie. Maybe that was the explanation, she speculated. He takes his ties off when he's not in public and he uses alleys as a place to put them back on again. No—that was too weird. Maybe he gets his ties in dumpsters in alleys! Yeah, that was more like it.
She watched him now as he crossed the road, admiring the athletic grace in his stride and the broad line of his shoulders. He wasn't the best looking guy in the universe, certainly not in the same smooth league as Alastair Albertini and Jake Lamont, but he was pretty close, she thought. Besides, there was something about Clark Kent that gave her pleasure whenever she saw him. He had caught sight of her now, smiling in recognition, and her heart did a small dance of joy.
It's the weather, she told herself, the sunshine. Don't kid yourself about Clark Kent. Remember what he told you last spring. He's not in love with you. Besides, he's seeing Mayson Drake. This lunch is just business.
"What's wrong, Lois? I'm not that late, am I?"
"No, no. Sun got in my eyes."
He grinned. "It's a great day for cutting the corn stalks back."
"Sorry. Kansas reference." He grinned. "What we do in the fall, after harvesting."
She laughed. "I keep forgetting you're not from around here."
"No, Lois, I'm not."
Why did she get the feeling he was teasing her when he said that? And that she somehow was not getting the joke. Well, who knew farm humour? She gave him a sidelong glance. "You do know, don't you, Kent, that that's still real obvious, even after over a year in the big city? Well, just to show you that I too can appreciate the great outdoors, why don't we skip Capelli's and walk in the park instead?"
"Deal. We can grab a hotdog at the stand on the corner."
Catching a green light, they crossed the broad avenue which separated them from Centennial Park. "So was the staff meeting as brutal as Jim said?" Clark asked.
"Yeah, I guess."
"He said something about job cuts."
They reached the sidewalk on the other side of Centennial Park Avenue, and Clark halted his stride to look at the woman beside him.
"Perry didn't actually say that—just came down pretty heavy about the need to improve circulation, cut costs—the usual Perry rant. I don't listen to rumours." It was a lie, and she knew he knew it was a lie. Why was it so hard to lie to Clark Kent? Because she knew he would never lie to her?
She did listen to rumours, and he knew that she did—the trick in being a good reporter was in knowing which rumours to follow. She could even hear her voice saying that to Clark a couple of weeks after he'd started at the Planet.
Clark searched her eyes. "Are you worried, Lois?"
"No!" She quickened her pace, walking ahead of him. She wasn't worried. Why would he ask that? She had never even told him about her short term contract. Had he heard something? Rumours?
"So how'd the interviews with Henderson and Dimitri go?"
Clark sighed. "Henderson confirmed what we already suspected—the robbery was carefully planned, probably a one-man job. They got a surveillance camera capture we can run with the article." He reached into the inner pocket of his suit coat, withdrew the picture, and showed it to her as they walked.
"Very generic looking guy," Lois commented.
"Yeah, isn't he? Average height, weight."
"That balaclava is a nice distinguishing feature, too. There haven't been any other same-type robberies recently, have there?"
"Nope, this is a one of a kind event—at the moment, anyway."
"So the guy likely knew about and wanted those emeralds. I talked to Francesca…"
"Francesca… on a first name basis with the great lady are you?" he teased.
"I'd met her before… when I was engaged."
"Yeah, I guess your paths would have crossed then." Clark's voice was restrained, tight.
Lois flushed, but continued. "Anyway, the necklace has quite a history—would you believe it was a gift from Napoleon to the Albertini family?"
"No kidding!" As he spoke, Clark instinctively reached out to pull Lois out of the path of a speeding taxi as she started to jaywalk across the street which led to the park. "They have lights for a reason, Lois."
"That cab was speeding!"
"Two wrongs, Lois…"
"Clark, this is Metropolis—people jaywalk. Every cabby knows that. The man is clearly homicidal!"
"The driver was a woman, Lois."
"How could you tell? She was driving so fast, she went by in a blur."
By this time they had safely crossed the street and were walking toward the hot dog vendor whose cart was habitually stationed at that particular entry to the park. The aroma of hotdogs rotating on a spit curled in the air, enticing disciplined pedestrians off the path of dietary asceticism and onto the comforting freeway of junk food excess. Clark ordered the king-sized extra spicy Polish version of the traditional dog, with extra mustard, while Lois bypassed the opportunity entirely once she noticed that the vendor also carried quality ice cream bars, the sinful ones coated with a thick layer of dark chocolate. They paid for their lunch, then took a broad asphalt path which meandered through the tall trees of Centennial Park.
"So what happened at Dimitri's?" Lois asked as she carefully removed the top half of the ice cream bar wrapper.
"He has no idea who it could have been. No one in the store, aside from the two jewellers who do the repair work—and they've worked for MacAdam for over a decade—knew MacAdam had the necklace."
"What about the emeralds? How valuable were they?"
"Probably about two million, Lois." He sounded astonished by the sum.
"So likely it was the loose stones he was after, and the necklace was just a bonus."
"Probably. MacAdam hadn't had the emeralds long. He got them two weeks ago."
"Now I wonder who buys stolen emeralds."
"Me too—I asked Dimitri that and he said high quality stones like those would probably resurface in Europe or the mid-East. They've been rough cut and catalogued, and he has a record of the weight and shape of each stone. He figures they'll be recut into smaller stones to avoid being traced."
"Did he still seem more concerned about the necklace?"
"No doubt on that score." Clark grinned. "I heard more about your friend, Francesca Albertini, and the havoc she would wreak if she didn't get her necklace back than about the loose gems."
By this time they were well inside the park, wandering slowly in the afternoon sun past a grassy field where a couple of impromptu teams were playing lunch hour Frisbee. A badly directed disc soared their way and, in a quick graceful movement, Clark leaped high, caught it, then sent it sailing back towards the man who had fired it in the first place.
"Nice one," Lois said admiringly.
"Thank you kindly, ma'am," Clark replied, a gleam in his eye. "So how'd things go for you this morning?"
"After I left Francesca's I wasted way too much time talking to Mayson Drake. Me and Lucy."
"Oh?" Clark's tone changed. "And…?"
"That woman has an appallingly rigid mind set," she blurted out, then stopped to look at Clark closely.
How could he be interested in Mayson Drake, anyway? Mayson disliked Superman, and Clark was Superman's friend. Didn't that make him feel just a tad uncomfortable? A flicker of annoyance crossed her face. "Well, really, Clark, here's Superman giving his all to this city, even putting his life on the line when the Nightfall asteroid threatened us, and what does she do—she tries to charge him like he's some common criminal scuzzbag. She's got this ridiculous, paranoid mistrust of Superman, she…"
"So what did she want to know?" Clark cut her off in mid rant.
"She just went over the statements Lucy and I gave to the police after the Corbin incident. Having to go over it all again, so soon after it happened, was rough on Lucy," Lois added, remembering how her sister had gulped out what she had witnessed.
"She's taking it pretty hard, I guess," Clark said.
"Yes, she is. Clark, I wish I could make it better for her. Even though she'd decided to break up with him, there's still the horror, you know?"
"I know," Clark said quietly. "I know, Lois. I would give anything… There had to have been some other way for Superman to stop Corbin. I keep going over it, trying to figure out how…" He stopped speaking as he became aware of how closely Lois was watching him. He'd been getting careless around her lately.
"You sound like Mayson, Clark."
"She does have a point." His eyes had narrowed and his face become a mask.
Lois was silent for a few seconds. When she spoke, she lowered her voice so that it was barely audible. "I've been thinking about that, too, Clark. When you were being held hostage by the Vales, did you see anything… ah… did you get any impression of what it was that powered Corbin's robotics?"
"Yes." He spoke slowly. "It was a kryptonite crystal, Lois."
Lois hesitated, then said carefully. "Kryptonite has some unusual properties."
"I know, Lois. It can kill Superman."
Lois let out her breath, relieved. So Superman had told him. "I wasn't sure if you knew. But the thing is, no one else knows and they can't know either. Can you imagine how dangerous it would be for him if every crook out there had that information? We have to keep this secret, Clark; we have to protect Superman. It's bad enough we published that story last year about the kryptonite found at Wayne Irig's."
"Yeah, I've thought about that, too, Lois."
"But the problem is, the DA's office doesn't know about kryptonite. As far as they know, Superman was his normal self when he took on Metallo. I didn't figure it out until I saw Vale grab the crystal from his chest. I have to admit I was shocked by Superman's action until I saw Vale grab that crystal. Then I understood—the presence of kryptonite meant Superman didn't have much choice."
Clark didn't reply, and they walked together in silence for a few moments. Lois wondered what he was thinking. Sometimes, she had the feeling that she could read his mind but not right now. Not for a long time, in fact. Right now, he had retreated from her, lost in his own thoughts.
He turned to look at her, and she was dismayed by the pain and doubt she saw in his eyes. He looked deeply troubled and, all of a sudden, she understood.
"You've lost faith in him, haven't you, Clark." She spoke softly, stating a fact.
They were walking past a bicycle rental kiosk whose proprietor had a radio on, tuned to a popular call-in program. The host's voice droned out, all too loudly, "Superman—can he be trusted to use his powers for the common good or are those powers a threat to all of us? Call us with your thoughts, Metropolis."
"Oh, great," Clark muttered.
Lois stopped walking. "We should listen, Clark. I'm betting Superman will get lots of support."
The radio host continued. "Here to give us some background is Professor Matthew Albany of Metro U's law department. Professor Albany, should Superman be above the law?"
"Lois, let's get out of here."
"Come on, Clark. Talk to me."
"About what you're thinking! Don't shut me out, Clark."
"*Me* shut *you* out? Lois, do you have any idea…" He stopped. "Come on, let's get back to the Planet," he muttered, his body rigid as he quickened his pace.
"Clark, don't listen to Mayson. She's wrong. She doesn't know Superman the way I do, the way…"
"Lois, you don't know Superman at all!" His voice was harsh. "There are things about him you might never know."
Lois snapped her head quickly to look at him. Those words—almost exactly what Superman had said to her that painful, horrible night last spring in her apartment when she'd confessed her love to him. Dismayed, she knew he must have told Clark the whole thing.
"You think he's this hero, this perfect man," he continued derisively. "That he can do no wrong—even when he is wrong, when he goes too far."
"Oh, and so now you've decided that Superman's some kind of fraud. That he's a false hero."
"You're blind, Lois! You were blind about Luthor, and you're blind about Superman."
She gasped. Suddenly she needed to get away from him, from the accusation in his eyes. "All right, I was blind about Luthor." She was angry, and she was hurt. "Do you think I haven't asked myself how I could have made such a mess of things? How I could have been so stupid? So blind?" She spat out his word, cold anger in her dark eyes. "But how can you even think this is the same? It's not the same at all." She spoke passionately, pleading with him. "Clark, I thought Superman was your friend! Have you let Mayson influence you so much that you've given up on him?"
"Mayson! Give me some credit, Lois. I *am* capable of independent thought."
"What's that supposed to mean, that I'm not?"
He pushed his hand through his dark hair. "No, no I didn't mean that. Lois, I…"
Suddenly he stopped speaking, and cocked his head to one side as though he were listening to something, his eyes no longer focused on her. She'd seen him do that before. So often before. Here it comes she thought. He's going to take off on me.
"Lois, I have to go, I'm sorry but there's, uh… uh something I forgot. Look, I'll see you back at the Planet?" Not waiting for her response, he walked briskly away from her, down the path that led away from where she was going.
That's it, she thought, not for the first time; go ahead, take off on me. Why does he do that anyway? Maybe he hears voices. Maybe he's schizophrenic. That thought alarmed her—no that couldn't be it. Maybe he's possessed—now that's a possibility. Or maybe, she told herself, maybe he just doesn't want to talk to you right now.
As soon as it looked safe, Clark ducked into a dense thicket of bushes where he whirled unseen into the suit, then leaped upward and blasted across the sky to the source of the piercing screams and gunshots which had commanded him away from Lois. Within seconds he reached his destination, touching down on the pavement outside the head office of New Troy Health and Life Assurance Inc where he was immediately besieged by a small crowd of bystanders, all talking at the same time.
"Superman, thank God! There's a guy in there with a gun and he's taken everyone inside hostage. He won't let anyone out. He's already shot someone."
"It's the fifth floor—the claims department. I just got outta there in time. I coulda been killed."
"Superman, you've got to do something."
In a blur, Superman shot upward, then paused to scan the fifth floor interior. Inside the vast room he saw three men, not one, and each held an assault rifle, poised and ready to fire. Two men were stationed so that they controlled each entrance to the floor, blocking any attempt to flee, while the third stood on top of the reception counter, a position which gave him an overview of the block of cubicles, the work stations of staff without enough clout in the corporate pecking order to warrant an office of their own. His position also gave him command of the three offices which lay to the other side of the reception area.
The doors of those three offices were open, peppered with bullet holes. Two men, dressed in navy suits, were sitting on the floor just outside. A third person, a woman, lay huddled on the floor between them, blood slowly staining the front of her grey suit.
One of the men was in the process of removing his jacket which he then placed over her. "For god's sake, let me call an ambulance."
"No," one of the gunmen yelled. "What help did you give us? Now it's your bloody turn."
"She needs a doctor!"
"She'll get one—as quickly as my little girl got one."
The other executive rose to his feet, a mistake because the gunman covering the west exit from the room quickly raised his rifle and fired, clipping the executive's shoulder.
All this happened while Superman watched, hovering outside, evaluating the situation. His first instinct had been to burst through the window, then use his laser vision to melt the weapons which the men were brandishing. But instead he held back, not acting, assessing the scene.
If he did force his way in, what would be the consequence? He knew he could do it almost instantaneously. Almost. Would his dramatic entrance into the room panic the gunmen and trigger a hail of bullets? Would someone else be wounded, perhaps killed?
Quickly, he looked around the large room, his x-ray vision penetrating the padded walls of the small cubicles. People were crouched low, hiding; yet, for two of them, that tactic had not worked. They were wounded, but alive and conscious, sprawled limply back on the floor, needing help. He noticed a woman crawling toward one of the wounded men, crouching very low, moving quietly. She was not quiet enough, though, and she attracted the attention of the gunman standing atop the reception counter. His AK47 already trained on that area of the room, he fired and the woman sank, sprawling face down, her agonized scream piercing the silence and her blood spattering the grey industrial carpet.
Without thinking, Superman burst through the sealed window, flying low across the room, directly toward the first gunman who was guarding the east exit, knocking the man off balance. As he flew, he focused on the assault rifle which the man on the counter was holding; his heat vision burned the man's hands and the rifle clattered to the counter top, then skidded to the floor. He heard gunshots from the third man's rifle and, in a blur, his hands plucked the bullets out of the air, stopping them in mid-trajectory. He landed in front of the gunman, who continued firing, but the bullets bounced off Superman's chest, ricocheting toward the wall behind the gunman. One of those bullets got him in the right shoulder, and he dropped his weapon, clutching his shoulder.
Superman grabbed the hostage-taker's assault rifle, then whirled around and quickly collected the weapons of the other two men. At this point, the room erupted in action as people emerged from behind their cubicles.
"Keep an eye on that one," Superman directed, his glance indicating the gunman with the wounded shoulder. He grabbed the other two, both of whom were scrambling for the exits. "Think you'd better stay right here," he said as he secured one by the arms and then dragged him quickly across the room to corral his companion. With both men firmly in hand, he looked around for some way of securing them so he could check the people who were hurt. Not a problem. The room was a nest of co-axial cables. He grabbed a few, quickly bound the hands and feet of the assailants, and then turned to give whatever assistance he could to the wounded.
Police and ambulance sirens wailed in the street below, and Superman knew in a few moments he would have all the back- up he needed. He noticed that a couple of people were applying first aid to the wounded employees. Only the woman in the navy suit was unconscious. Very gently, he scooped her into his arms.
"I'll fly her to Metro General," he said to the two men beside her.
The paramedics and the police could take care of the others.
After Superman left the hospital, he flew across the city, high above the Daily Planet with its newly installed Globe, then northward to the range of rolling hills which paralleled the sea coast. Covered now in lush green vegetation, they would, in another couple of weeks, be suffused with autumn colour. If he had looked more closely, he would have seen the first hints of that metamorphosis.
Spotting an isolated ridge above the grey rounded rocks, he landed and sat on its ledge, looking outward across the land, across the indigo river which wound carelessly through the valley, separating the hills from the careful geometry of the farms beyond.
He'd blown it back there, messed up badly. He looked down at his hands, examining the fingers splayed apart on his knees. The strongest hands in the world. He let out a deep breath.
Worried about misusing the powers, he'd acted too slowly, and so two people had been shot who might not have been hurt if he had just acted as he always did. Acted as he finally had done. Could he have done it any differently? For the life of him, he didn't see how. And one of the perpetrators had been wounded in the course of Superman's intervention. There was no way he could have prevented that.
Perhaps like he couldn't have prevented wounding Corbin? He wasn't sure.
He thought about Mayson's condemnation of Superman's vigilantism and her impassioned defense of the importance of legal safeguards. She had become, in the short time he'd known her, a reminder to him that no one was above the law. What he had done, the lives he had saved in the past year were not part of the equation. They weren't some kind of credit he could draw on to mitigate tomorrow's mistakes. He knew that. What counted was how he behaved now, today and in the future.
The thing was, he agreed with Mayson—it was law that offered people real protection. He believed that deeply. Frontier justice—rough, shoot first and ask questions later—was not what Superman stood for. He had to be seen to be serving the cause of justice, not just using brute force to solve all problems. He, above all others, because he was so strong, because he could do things that no one else could do, had to act responsibly and more carefully even than a cop on the street.
And, always, always, he had to remember that what he did on impulse could be lethal.
Mayson was right, and she alone had had the guts to call Superman on it when no one else had.
Nevertheless he'd messed up back there. He'd delayed, been too careful.
Again, he expelled a breath in frustration. He should get back. Do some interviews at New Troy Assurance, get background on the gunmen, write up the story. Use his insider knowledge, he thought with a grimace. Sometimes he wondered about his ethics. Some things were too easy for him, and he took advantage of that.
Lois's words came back to him. Had he lost faith in Superman? He backed away from the idea. Time to get going. He rose and took to the air. As he flew back to Metropolis, his mind roamed back to the hostage situation at New Troy Assurance. Two people wounded because he had not acted quickly enough.
Johnny Corbin dead because he had acted too quickly.
Lois sat on a park bench listening to the call-in show. After Clark had taken off, she'd changed her mind about returning to the Planet, too curious about caller opinion to leave the park. Instead she hurried back to where she and Clark had heard the radio, bought a bottle of juice from the sidewalk vendor, taken up a position on a nearby bench, and pulled her cell phone out of its holster, ready to fire.
The host was inflammatory, of course, goading callers to take extreme positions. Lois just knew he was looking for a response which slammed Superman, making him out to be some kind of menace to people's rights as well as to national security. As she listened to the show's house expert, Marshall Albany, who of course supported the host's view, her blood boiled. Her fingers punched in the station's number. She couldn't get through.
Dr. Albany continued speaking, phrasing his concerns with caution, expressing, in a circuitous way, his hope that Superman would show more respect for the civil rights of all citizens. He also wondered if it were possible to control a super man, and what might happen to humanity were that not possible.
Humanity! Lois glared at the phone and kept punching in the station's number, unable to get past the busy signal. She finally gave up when it became clear that a majority of callers supported the Man of Steel. As far as most of them were concerned, what Superman had done to Corbin was no different than a cop shooting a criminal in the leg to stop him fleeing a crime scene. In the last analysis, for most callers, what mattered was that one more crook was no longer on the streets. They felt safer because Superman was there.
Few callers were concerned about Corbin's rights. He was a monster, a criminal, and he had to be stopped. Superman stopped him. It was as simple as that. A couple of callers had friends or family who had been rescued by Superman; as far as they were concerned, the superhero could do no wrong.
A few callers did express concern that Superman was setting a bad example by resorting to so much force. One man, who sounded two degrees on the iffy side of normal to Lois, wondered about Superman's long term intentions. The guy was pretty sure that Superman was going to set himself up as some sort of dictator once he got everyone convinced he was the people's protector. What's in it for Superman? he asked. The answer was power. Another guy said it was babes.
But all in all, it didn't look like the DA's office would have much support if it charged Superman. Still, Lois reminded herself, enforcing the law shouldn't be based on whether an action or the perpetrator was popular with the public.
To be honest, she wasn't sure what she really thought herself about what had happened to Corbin. Although she was not prepared to tolerate others criticising the Man of Steel, and would defend him publicly to her last breath, she reluctantly admitted to herself that she had some reservations about what happened a couple of days ago. She sighed as she tried to consider how he should have handled it. Maybe he should have waited for the police.
For the first time, it crossed her mind that Superman was not perfect, that however well intentioned he might be, and she had no doubt that his intentions were always honourable, he might make mistakes.
She'd told Clark once that it didn't matter if Superman couldn't be everywhere and save everyone. That it was impossible for him to do it all, that whatever he could do was enough. It hadn't occurred to her back then that there was a possibility that what he did do might be the wrong thing. Or at least not be quite the right thing, her reluctant mind amended. That he could make mistakes. He was not perfect. He was after all just an ordinary man.
As she was musing over this insight, the call-in show finished and a brief recap of local news followed. Several people had been wounded, including one woman who had been seriously injured, when armed gunmen had taken over the offices of New Troy Life and Health Assurance. One of the gunmen had also been wounded as he was being captured by Superman.
Thank god, Superman had got there, she thought. But she also knew that if she hadn't decided to spend this last hour sitting on a park bench that she would have been on site covering that story. She quickly phoned the Planet, got Jimmy, and asked him if anyone was over at New Troy Assurance. Clark, he replied. He was there right now. Lois sighed. She'd missed it.
The woman who had been wounded as she tried to reach her injured colleague was going to be fine. Clark was relieved. In fact, it looked like no one who had been shot was going to suffer any long term harm. After discovering that, he headed over to New Troy Assurance and interviewed a few of the workers who had been held hostage, capturing their impressions of what had happened. It hadn't really been clear to them at all why the three men were there until after the whole thing was over. But the police had pieced it all together: a man, bitter and resentful about the insurance company's refusal to pay for medical treatment for his seriously ill child had lost control. He and his two brothers had decided to get justice the only way they thought was left to them. It hadn't worked.
By the time Clark finished talking to the police, it was late afternoon. He phoned the Planet to let them know that he would have the hostage story ready by the time the paper went to press. It was then that he learned that the Chief Coroner was about to release his report on Corbin's death. He knew Lois had been assigned to cover the briefing but he wanted to be there. Had to be there.
As he walked briskly over to the Coroner's Office, he forced himself not to think about what the man might say. His mind randomly jumped around. Basketball—the game he'd seen with Jimmy the other day. Lois, meticulously unwrapping a chocolate ice cream bar. He smiled.
It had been great walking with her in the park this afternoon, but 'great' hadn't lasted long. They'd begun to argue and he'd got on her back about Luthor. It had just slipped out. The sniping which their banter seemed to slide into these days. What he'd said to her had been hurtful, wrong. He'd been so careful in the weeks following Luthor's death to stay away from the issue of her relationship with the man, fearful of triggering painful memories. More than anything, he'd wanted for Lois to be her old self again and for them to get back to their old relationship. Before Luthor.
He'd hoped that she would talk to him, confide in him about what she was going through, and that he could help her exorcise Luthor's ghost. He'd searched through those recently acquired psychology books, looking for enlightenment about Lois Lane. But it hadn't come.
About himself either. He was beginning to think maybe his wish for Lois's confidence had as much to do with his desire to help *her* as it had with his own barely acknowledged need to confront what Lois's engagement had meant to *him*, with his resentment over her dismissal of his warnings about Luthor. That she had chosen to 'get in bed' with the devil. The thought of her in bed with Luthor had eaten at him, embittered him, and he'd said things to her while she'd been engaged that he now regretted. Yet he was still saying them. He'd been jealous of a man whom he knew was a master criminal and a murderer, and he'd been diminished by it.
Worse, he'd been angry at Lois, too; he admitted that now.
Last spring in Centennial Park, more nervous than he'd ever been in his life, he'd poured his heart out to her, but she'd turned her back on him and offered him the anemic love of a friend, and then had the nerve to ask him to arrange a meeting with Superman for her. Her words to Superman mocked him now—I'd love you if you were an ordinary man. Yeah, sure she would.
Clark hadn't forgiven her. He understood that now. Had that been why she'd never confided in him? Had she somehow sensed that, in spite of his constant presence, he hadn't really forgiven her. And yesterday, he realized she hadn't forgiven herself either, and that tore at him.
He knew she hadn't loved Luthor. Yet, she'd been willing to marry him. That ate at him, too. Decent women don't marry men they don't love; at least, that's what he'd always assumed. Not that he'd ever thought much about it until he met Lois. Why had she said yes to Luthor if she didn't love him? His money? But that wasn't the Lois he knew. He didn't get her decision at all.
Did she mourn Luthor, even knowing what she now knew about him?
Why had she been so easily fooled by Luthor when she was by nature suspicious of most people? What she called a big city survival skill. He'd even kidded her about it.
Luthor had nearly killed him. He'd gone to see him just before the wedding, at Luthor's request, to talk about Lois, and he had walked right into a trap. And he'd known, for the second time in his life, the pain of kryptonite needling through his flesh, forcing him to his knees, as a cage with kryptonite bars had lowered around him, trapping him like an animal. The pain had been even worse than his first exposure to kryptonite in his dad's barn. At least there, he had not been imprisoned, confined in a small dark space, alone.
He'd never forget lying there, despairing, and then he'd heard the first strains of Mendelssohn's Wedding March, and suddenly, for some reason, he'd felt Lois's presence. With him. Irrationally, at that moment as the processional played, he was absolutely sure that Lois Lane loved him. He'd raised himself on his forearms, willed himself to have the strength to use his superbreath to dislodge the cell key from its hook on the wall. It had fallen to the ground, and he'd managed to use the cummerbund, which Luthor had discarded contemptuously an hour earlier, to drag the key toward him.
He was free.
He'd struggled to stand upright, walking painfully out of the cell, and then he'd collapsed in the shadows, among the barrels in Luthor's wine cellar, gasping for breath. The heavy door at the top of the stairs banged open and Luthor appeared, took in the open cell door, and roared in rage. But he hadn't come downstairs. Instead he'd taken an axe and hacked senselessly at something which Clark hadn't been able to see, then flung frenzied out of the cellar, a mad man.
Relieved that Luthor had not attempted to find him, Superman had struggled up from the cold cellar with barely enough strength to reach the street. Somehow, slowly and painfully, he'd managed to change back into his regular clothes, and then, exhausted by the mundane task of getting dressed, he'd sunk back into the shadows of the great building which housed Luthor's empire, gasping for breath and willing his strength to return.
He'd believed he was going to die in that cellar, and as he'd stood in the shadows, all he could think was 'I'm alive' and then, 'Lois is his wife.'
Suddenly, he'd noticed that people were pouring out of the building, talking animatedly. He spotted Jimmy and Jack, and finally a tearful, white-gowned Lois being led by Perry White. They'd managed to get Luthor! Then he heard Lois asking, 'Where's Clark?', and he stepped out of the darkness and she ran into his arms and he held her fiercely, bowing his head against hers, never wanting to let her go.
It should have been easy after that, but it hadn't been. He'd been tiptoeing around her, trying to avoid hurting her feelings, afraid to tell her about his own feelings. The nightmare of his imprisonment, his fears… his anger.
He had tried to be friends with her. That was what she'd said she wanted, and he'd told her that was what he wanted, too. To make it easier, he'd even taken back his declaration of love, removing the barrier which that awkward little confession of his had created between them.
But it hadn't quite worked. He'd tried, too, to distance himself from her when he was in the suit, although he was not always successful. The reduced circumstances at the Planet were conspiring to keep them apart as partners, as well. And Lois seemed on edge a lot. When he'd been nominated for a Kerth she'd been, well, downright bitchy. She'd always been competitive, but she'd never been petty. Still, she'd apologized and gone as his date to the award ceremony.
That evening had been wonderful. She'd made him feel, without saying a whole lot, that he was the most important guy she knew. He smiled now as he remembered how really great he'd felt as he'd walked away from the ceremony that night, holding his Kerth, that proof of his professional achievement, with Lois's arm tucked through his. He'd never been happier.
Would he ever feel like that again?
The Chief Coroner's Office released what it called a preliminary autopsy report late that afternoon, ahead of schedule. Lois was part of the media crowd present in the small vestibule outside the warren of rooms in the cold basement where Dr. C.Q. Reichs, the Chief Pathologist for the city of Metropolis, conducted his work.
The autopsy had taken less time, because, quite simply, they had only part of Corbin's body. The police still had not found the rest of the corpse and without that they lacked the information necessary to determine what had happened to Corbin.
Dr. Reichs had as many questions as he had answers. Had Corbin's heart stopped beating before he acquired his robotic body? Had he been clinically dead for even a few seconds before the surgery? If that were so, what had caused his death?
As the reporters listened to him speak, the full horror of what had happened to Johnny Corbin finally dawned on all of them. What had been implicit earlier was now graphically and hauntingly explicit. The report went beyond the merely scientific: it was an eloquent expression of the pathologist's dismay at Corbin's fate, and of his condemnation of Rollie Vale's perverted use of his extraordinary bioengineering skill and his brilliant surgical talent.
"So, if we don't know whether…" a reporter from the Star began, only to be interrupted by Leo Nunk from the National Whisper.
"You're saying that Metallo wasn't human."
The Chief Pathologist frowned, annoyed. "I have not said that. Mr. Corbin was all too human."
"How could he be if he didn't have a heart?" Nunk persisted.
Lois muttered under her breath. "Nunk, speaking from experience." But what she asked was the obvious question, hoping for a straight answer. "What was the final cause of death?"
"Mr. Corbin's brain stopped functioning when the battery pack from his robotics was removed. That cut the stimulus to his brain."
"So he was dead then before the Vales attached the robotics?"
The pathologist hesitated. "Frankly, we're not sure." He paused again. "It may be that the Vales resurrected him. Or it may be that they took advantage of the fact that he was dying and operated before actual death occurred. Regardless, John Corbin was alive two days ago."
"So Vale will be charged with murder?"
"That's the DA's turf, Ms. Lane, but it wouldn't be unexpected."
"What about Corbin's legs, Dr. Reichs?" Lois asked, aware she was avoiding a more direct question that included Superman.
"The legs were destroyed from the knees down, making it obviously impossible for the victim to escape from Vale who allegedly removed the battery which powered the robotics."
It was then that Clark Kent joined the crowd, entering quietly from a side staircase, but Lois was aware of his presence, as she always was. She was surprised to see him, given that they were less often assigned to cover stories together since the cutbacks. But then Superman was Clark's friend too, so he had a personal interest in this particular report.
"Would Corbin have died if his legs had not been destroyed?" This blunter question came from the Star's crime reporter.
Potentially, it was a damning question but Lois was glad that it was now out in the open. She knew she should have asked it, but she had been afraid to. Mad Dog Lane, she thought derisively. She looked sideways at Clark as Dr. Reichs answered.
"Vale wouldn't have been able to get at Corbin to take the battery pack if Corbin had been able to move. But there's also some evidence that the electronic stimulus to the brain began to malfunction once the legs began to melt. It appears something in the circuitry may have been cut or there may have been a chip destroyed that triggered a chain reaction which ultimately would have cut the impulses sent to the brain, thereby cutting the supply of oxygen. We've sent the prosthesis to the bioengineering department at Metropolis University for analysis.
"One of the missing pieces of evidence, by the way, is that power supply. How much longer did Corbin have before it ran down? Technically, Corbin was on life support. Did he have much longer? The energy required to keep a complex system like that robotic body running would be pretty high."
"So not an energizer bunny then?" quipped someone from the back.
A few groans of hollow laughter rippled at the edges of the crowd.
Nunk took the opportunity to fire another question. "Metallo had a girlfriend. How 'anatomically correct,'" he asked, leering, "was the Tin Man? Could he deliver the goods?"
Dr. Reichs looked at the Whisper's representative like he'd just emerged out of a cesspool. "That's it, people. It's past my dinner time." He backed away from the group of reporters. The press conference was at an end.
Lois made directly for Nunk. "We can always count on the Whisper for the sleazy question," she said contemptuously.
Nunk laughed. "Hey, our circulation's better than the Planet's." Then he added, "At least you got in bed with a classier kind of crook, Lane, not the freakin' perp your sister fell for. You Lane girls sure got taste," he smirked.
"You bastard, Nunk…"
Clark quickly grabbed Lois by the shoulders and whirled her toward the nearest exit, a stairwell at the side of the room, which served as an emergency escape from that part of the building. "Not now, Lois," he whispered. He released her, but kept a firm grip on her hand, dragging her farther into the darkened stairwell.
"How dare you, Clark Kent." She was furious.
"How dare I stop you and Lucy from being the centre of the story in the Whisper?" They had halted on the mid-flight landing.
She let out a sigh. "Yeah… How dare you?" But a wry half-smile told him that she had calmed down. "Thanks, Clark."
Without thinking he raised his right hand to touch her hair, his thumb gently caressing her temple. Then aware that his gesture was too intimate, he lowered his hand. "How's Lucy?" he asked softly.
"Not good, but better than I had hoped. After the MPD questioned us the other day, they recommended a counselor, a Dr. Friskin. Lucy had her first session this afternoon. She called me afterwards, and I know she felt good about how it went."
Clark smiled. Then he took a second dare. "And you? How are you, Lois?"
Her eyes flashed. "Fine! Why wouldn't I be fine?" She sighed again. "Come on, Clark," she said dispiritedly. "Let's get back to the Planet."
Back at the Planet, Lois and Clark worked on their respective articles, racing against the early evening deadline to get them to Perry who'd made it clear he wanted their pieces for inclusion in the next edition of the paper.
Lois found the rhythm of work soothing, and gradually her mind stopped listing, revising, and amending the list of primitive tortures that she would visit upon Leo Nunk of the National Whisper if she could get her hands on him. *When* she got her hands on him. By the time she'd finished writing the account of the Chief Pathologist's report, she'd calmed down enough to settle for letting the air out of his tires the very next time she had the opportunity. All four tires. On that beatific thought she finished her article.
She and Clark discussed the stolen emeralds story, rolled around a few ideas about motives for the theft but reached no firm decision on what direction to take next. As they talked, Lois felt that Clark was preoccupied, not giving their discussion his full attention. Was it the Pathologist's report? she wondered. He shouldn't keep things bottled up like that—she'd begun to notice he had this tendency to brood sometimes.
The night staff began to filter in, and so Clark and Lois took the hint and decided to call an end to their own working day. As Lois was putting her keys and her notepad into her bag, she made a decision. She stopped what she was doing and turned to look across to Clark's desk, watching him for a moment as he concentrated on his computer, finishing off what he'd been writing. Then he pushed his chair back and looked up, catching her eye. He smiled at her.
His smile gave her courage. Heck, his smile did a lot more than that, she thought. She took a deep breath. "Clark, I was wondering if… maybe we could… uh…" She hesitated.
"There's this movie; it's got kind of good reviews, and I know you've been to India, and so…" She stopped, noticing that familiar look of distraction cross his eyes and she had that odd feeling again that he was listening to something.
"Uh, can you excuse me, Lois? I just, uh, remembered…"
He seemed at a loss for words, she thought, and with a sinking feeling she recognized the pattern.
"Remembered…" He was rising from his desk now, touching the knot of his tie, the way he always did, as though it were too tight for him. " …that I promised to uh…" He was walking quickly toward the steps which led up from the bullpen.
She never did hear what he'd promised. It didn't matter. She sat, staring at nothing for a moment, then picked up the phone. "Hi, Luce, it's me. How would you like to go to that new Indian movie tonight?"
The new hire, the man with the grey eyes, stopped by her desk after she got off the phone.
"You'll like that movie," he said.
"Why does he keep disappearing on me like that?"
The young man smiled, his eyes teasing her. "Come on, Lois. Think about it. You know why."
"Nope. Not a clue." She shook her head, but now she felt less distressed about it than she had a moment ago. So Clark kept disappearing… so… "Clark just being weird, again, huh?" she said.
"Very weird." He laughed companionably.
"You know, I don't know your name."
"I thought you did." Mild disappointment lurked in his eyes, just for a second, then disappeared. "Jeff." He smiled at her.
She thought he had the most comforting smile she'd ever seen. Where had she seen it before? Somewhere, a long time ago. Yes.
"Jeff," she repeated.
Superman soared upward, racing against the wind toward the sound of terror, the unbearable cry of fear that always tore him away from whatever else it was that seemed important. He always heard them—the voices, the crashes, and the high- pitched scream of sirens. He knew their codes now—which ones were police, ambulance, fire department. Which were warnings and which were emergencies. Which were benign, the joy of a crowd at a baseball game or a concert. But it was the individual cries of panic, of anguish which always compelled him. Anything to stop their pain, to make it less, to help. Please, god, let him help. Let him get there before it was too late.
After their chat on the phone, Lois reflected that her sister had sounded more like her normal self, and she was cheered by that. They had decided to have a quick dinner first before the movie, and Lois was looking forward to it. She hadn't seen very much of Lucy throughout the past year, and it was time to change that. Especially now. They needed each other.
As she was getting up to leave, her attention was attracted by the LNN channel, constantly blaring into the newsroom, taunting the reporters with its immediate, on the spot coverage of breaking news. Real reality TV brought to you by the people with the best hair in the universe.
She turned, staring at the monitor, transfixed by a clip of Superman gliding downward, carrying in his arms the gangly frame of an adolescent boy. Carefully, at least that was how it looked to Lois, he set the boy on his feet. He looked about fifteen, maybe sixteen, she thought, still not fully grown. Instinctively, the boy looked around, then found the eye of the camera and his body slouched into nonchalance. No hint of fear or embarrassment—the kid was exultant.
Microphones thrust eagerly toward him, seeking gratification.
"Cool… Superman…" He paused for a second. "Like… I knew… like so freakin' cool…"
Superman took off, the camera cut away, and Lois grinned.
Superman grinned, too, as he sped back across the city. He knew he should be ticked, but the kid had cheered him up, reminding him of the self-absorption, the foolishness you could get into when you were that young. He ought to be angry—the kid had pulled a stupid stunt, hoping to prove his manhood to some girl in his class. He'd wound up going too far, climbing too high along the walls of a skyscraper, pulling a Spiderman, then losing his nerve. Clark wondered if he had ever been like that when he was sixteen. So blinded by his own insecurities and besotted by the prettiest girl in his class that he could see nothing else? Maybe—but he'd grown out of it.
Anyway, the kid was okay, and that was all that mattered. Maybe he would turn out to be a Nobel laureate some day.
Chapter 3: Alone Again
The next morning, Lois was already at the Planet when Perry arrived. En route to his office, he stopped by her desk, and, after meandering verbosely around the weather, the mess the painters had made in his office, and the challenge facing Elvis after he got out of the army, he gave her a pointed look and stopped speaking. The message he was struggling to convey to the young woman in front of him was that good weather could be deceptive; inside it could be a mess, but even the greatest could triumph over setbacks. That done, he figured he could cut to the chase.
"Lois, I want you full time on the WTO thing."
"What about the stolen emeralds, Chief?"
"Leave it for Clark—I can't afford to tie up my top two reporters on the same story."
Ignoring her frown, Perry looked over his shoulder at the bank of TV monitors and nodded toward the one at the end. It was tuned to the local cable channel, which this morning was manned by a couple of Metropolis U TV journalism students. Using a handheld camcorder which was feeding directly into the station, they wandered through the streets outside the security perimeter of the Lexor Hotel where the WTO delegates were meeting.
Occasionally, the camera panned over the waist-high concrete barriers which surrounded the hotel. They were too low to be very effective at excluding anyone, but they did serve as a reminder that spectators were not wanted at this particular party. A few policemen patrolled the periphery, silently reinforcing that message. The students provided no commentary, conducted no interviews—just captured images, some of them good, others unstable and unfocused, of protesters and demonstrators standing around in small groups in the dim predawn light. Many of them looked shaggy as though they were only half awake, while others were chatting, holding mugs of steaming coffee or busy preparing signs. A series of camps getting ready for the day.
Lois searched Perry's profile for a second, prepared to object to his decision, then changed her mind. He was the boss. Shifting her gaze, she looked at the TV screen, almost mesmerized.
Then she reached for her bag and stood up. "Okay, Chief. But not the delegates this morning—the story's in the streets." Her eyes glinted, reflecting her gut feeling that she was right to shift focus.
Perry, now halfway across the bullpen to the coffee machine, grunted and then called out to her as she was about to mount the few steps to the elevator. "And swing by the courthouse at 2:00 this afternoon—the DA's scheduled a press conference."
Lois stopped in her tracks and swerved away from the elevator back towards the coffee station. "About Superman?"
"A friend called late last night—he doesn't know what's comin' down. Could be anything, but it's Drake's show, though, so I'm bettin' it's Superman, and I want you there."
He was briefly silent, waiting as she came to stand before him, then he asked gruffly, "What happened to the woman who worked alone?"
Lois bit the inside of her lip. "Guess I got used to a partner."
"Honey, things are different now. We still have a couple of roadhouses to play before we get the Planet back on the charts. Besides, you need to fly solo, get a couple of strong pieces under your by-line."
Lois took a deep breath and met his eyes directly. "Thanks, Chief, for the warning."
They were alone, at least isolated enough from the few other staff present in the large newsroom so that Perry knew they could talk without being overheard. This time, he did not take the trouble to hide his concern for her from his eyes. "Lois, you're one of the best reporters in this country."
"But Franklin Stern isn't so convinced?"
"Then convince him, darlin'! He's new to this business. He doesn't know what really makes this place tick. Show him you're the best thing to hit the newspaper business since Nellie Bly, since Woodward and Bernstein, since…"
Lois smiled as she cut him short. "Thanks, Perry. That means a lot to me."
There was a brief moment of awkward silence as two people who were unaccustomed to expressing their private emotions searched for the next thing to say. Perry found his old pattern first.
"So what are you waitin' for? Get outta here and get me that story."
"On it, Chief."
Restless and unable to sleep, Clark Kent heaved himself out of bed just before sunrise, spun into the suit, and took to the air, hoping a quick morning patrol would settle him down and remind him of the routine of being Superman. Not long after he'd left the airspace above the inner city, he spotted a burning building at the Metropolis zoo, its flames still localized in, he saw as he swept lower, the old information centre. The overhead sprinklers appeared to have malfunctioned, which was not too surprising given the money problems the zoo was facing.
He could hear the distant sirens, announcing the approach of fire trucks. Quickly, he grabbed the lone security guard, who was aggressively wielding a large fire extinguisher several feet too close to the crimson flames, and then he used a few streams of superbreath to extinguish the blaze. As easy as the candles on a birthday cake, he thought. A few words with the security guy to check if he was all right—he was, just a little singed around the edges—and then Superman lifted upward just as the first fireman was leaping from his truck. That one had been a no-brainer, he thought, like the rescue of the boy last evening. He was relieved.
Deciding to do a quick patrol, he flew north out of the city as the sun rose, scanning the landscape beneath him, searching. That was when he spotted it, or rather heard it, just as he neared the shore line: the sputtering engine of a small cabin cruiser which was heading out from the marina at Metropolis Harbour. There were two men aboard. An odd time of day for them to be out, he mused. Fishing before sunrise? Probably, but given the pollution of Metropolis's waterfront, he wondered about the wisdom of eating any fish caught there. He scanned the interior of the small cabin. Nothing unusual inside—just another man covered by a blanket, asleep on one of the two bunks. No fishing gear, which was odd.
He hovered high above the craft for a few seconds, watching, but as he saw that the men weren't going to get the engine started again, he drifted lower, then, paused, astonished, as the two men jumped overboard and began to swim vigorously toward the closest pier. That was foolish —why hadn't they radioed for help? The Metropolis Harbour Police could have been there within a quarter of an hour.
They hadn't bothered to alert the sleeping man. Why not? Clark hesitated for a moment, not rushing to pull them out of the water as he would have done had this happened a week, before… Maybe this wasn't a job for Superman? After all, stuff happens, and you have to cope.
But… at this time of year the water was cold, and this morning it was rough, white caps breaking the inky surface, making swimming more challenging. Fatal? Maybe, if these guys weren't strong swimmers, but they appeared to be doing just fine and they weren't too far from shore. Why had they abandoned the boat? Maybe he should check it first. As he was about to do that, one of the swimmers broke his stroke, gulping for air, his arms flailing against the waves. Recognizing the signs of trouble, Superman shot downward, pulled him out of the water, then, like an eagle plucking prey, grabbed the other man, and flew them both quickly to shore, towards the harbour police unit where they would be given assistance.
Just as he neared the pier he heard the thunderous boom of an explosion shatter the early morning stillness, and then the fainter sounds of fiberglass hitting water. In a blur, he deposited the men on the end of the pier, then swirled quickly, and sped towards the area from which the explosion had come. Within seconds, he spotted fragments of the craft from which the men had jumped, white shards strewn across the dark water. Frantically his eyes scanned the area, looking for any sign of the person who had been sleeping inside the cabin. He could see nothing!
He dove underwater searching both the murky water and the floor of the bay very carefully, for something, anything. And he found what he'd been searching for—small pieces, fragments, ripped and shattered … of fibreglass, of fabric, of wood and metal, of human flesh.
Shooting upward to surface through the waves, he gasped deeply, breathing rapidly, looking around him, for what he wasn't sure. For a way to turn back time?
Why? Why hadn't he immediately landed on the craft once the men jumped ship? He'd thought their behaviour was odd. Why had he ignored his instinct? Why hadn't he taken the men back on board and checked the sleeping man? Why hadn't he been listening carefully? He should have heard that bomb! Had he forgotten that superhearing was part of his arsenal? Why?
And a man was dead.
Slowly he flew back to the pier, crossing above a patrol boat on its way to the scene of the explosion. He landed at the harbour police station where he expected to find the two men, but they weren't there. The duty officer said no one had come in during the last fifteen minutes, let alone the last hour. In the rush to get out to the explosion, no one had checked the pier. Why would they?
After Superman had explained what happened, the radio officer contacted the patrol boat and alerted the officers on board. Then he contacted the MPD forensics unit—they would have a diving team out as soon as possible.
So what had caused the explosion? Who were the three people on board the cruiser? What had been on board that had made them believe it was necessary to abandon ship? And above all, who was the dead man?
Could he have saved him?
Superman dropped to the ground in the centre of a remote wooded section of Centennial Park where he was hidden from the sight of anyone who might be passing by. He was appalled at what had just happened. Once again, his mistake had caused someone to lose his life. Spinning quickly, he shed his costume and emerged as Clark Kent.
Striding quickly, he left the park and hurried toward the Daily Planet where, a mere few feet from its front entrance, he spotted Lois leaving the building. She too appeared in a hurry. But she always did, he mused. It dawned on him as he spotted her that when he thought of Lois, his image of her was usually active. She was always moving: turning around to face him, dark hair swirling; racing to catch a cab, long legs stretching; walking toward him, hair tied back in a pony tail, still damp from a bath—no, he thought, that's not my memory, that's Superman's memory.
What would Lois think about how Superman had handled things this morning? Would she gush over his heroics and make light of the one fatality? Should it matter what Lois thought? he asked himself coldly.
At first she didn't notice him in her rush to hail a cab, but then as she turned, her arm raised in mid-command, she did, and she smiled at him. Yeah, it mattered what Lois thought.
"Hey," she said, lowering her arm.
"What's up?" she asked, tilting her head, regarding him a little more closely.
He hesitated before explaining. "Superman. I… uh just saw him… a small boat exploded in Hobbs Bay. One person died," he added bluntly. "The police are on their way right now."
"Superman got there too late?"
"No," he answered. "No, he didn't. He got there before the explosion happened." Clark noticed the shock in her eyes and then the concern.
"Oh no. Clark, how awful." She looked at him speculatively. "So why aren't you on your way over to the harbour?"
"Dunno," he said. "Thought I'd check back here first."
If she was surprised by his response, she hid it, grabbing the sleeve of his jacket to turn him toward the road, and gave him a side-long glance. "Dad'll be okay with it." Raising her arm to hail a taxi, she added, "If we bring him home a good story. Come on—let's get over there. I'll call him from the cab."
A taxi stopped beside them, and Lois jumped in. "Get in, Clark."
He obeyed, and mustered a smile for the first time that morning. "So where are *you* supposed to be going, Ms. Lane?"
"Over to Hamilton and Fifth. The WTO site. Perry wants me on that story."
"So shouldn't you be getting there?" he asked politely, his raised eyebrows a reminder both teasing and serious.
Lois didn't reply; she had her cell phone out and was leaving a message for Perry, letting him know what she and Clark were up to. He noticed, however, that she hadn't contacted Perry directly, and Clark wasn't so sure it was a good idea for Lois to be flouting orders at this point.
Although Clark was positive that she had Perry on her side on the job issue, she shouldn't be taking chances, charging off in her own direction right now. It just might be wise, he mused, for her to follow the rules, at least for a month or two. He was not so foolish as to suggest this, however. Besides he wasn't sure she was capable of playing it safe. That thought both alarmed and comforted him.
She turned to him and grinned. "I know what you're thinking, Clark Kent, but this won't take long, and then I'll be good."
"Why do I feel I shouldn't hold my breath?"
She flashed another grin at him but didn't reply directly. Instead she said, "Seriously, Clark, why didn't you head straight for the docks when Superman told you about the explosion?"
The truth? Because I didn't have to, Lois; I already had the story. No. One more lie. "Gotta give the police some time, Lois, to do their job."
She wrinkled her nose, rejecting his argument. "That doesn't mean we don't do ours meanwhile."
"I guess." His tone was listless as he thought back to the explosion earlier and to the person who had died because he had made the wrong call.
"What's wrong, Clark?"
They rode the rest of the way in silence.
In fact, Clark was right; they were on the scene at the marina too soon to get much more information. The MPD Dive unit was still collecting evidence, and the harbour police had very little to add to what Superman had already told Clark. The communications officer had received no message from the craft; nor had any of the three people on duty that morning noticed the two men whom Superman had rescued. But they had at least found a witness.
The woman who ran the coffee stand across from their station had seen Superman land on the end of the pier, each of his arms gripping a man. Needless to say, she'd stopped what she'd been doing to watch, but the Man of Steel had immediately taken off again, and so she'd turned her attention to the two men he'd left behind. They were too far away for her to get a useful description, other than she thought they seemed to be about the same height as Superman, give or take a few inches. Anyway, the men had begun walking towards the shore, but had stopped and entered the derelict mechanics' shed which was situated about halfway down the pier. She hadn't noticed them come out, but admitted she'd been distracted at that point because a small group of customers had shown up, wanting muffins and coffee for their thermoses in preparation for a day on the water.
After talking to the woman, the two reporters walked farther along the massive concrete pier. It was in sad shape, its cement chipped away in spots, leaving patches of exposed aggregate. Rusted hardware, which once had been used for tying up boats, punctuated its length at regular intervals, but few vessels were anchored there now, only an old tugboat, which looked like it hadn't been seaworthy in over a decade, and a battered garbage scow, which had turned the indistinct colours of the garbage it collected in a sort of urban adaptation to its environment.
Midway down the pier, they came to the dilapidated wooden blockhouse where marine mechanics used to service the stolid lakers which had once been regulars at Metropolis Harbour. Inside they spotted Sandy Wong, a member of the MPD forensic team, a woman whom Lois had first met a couple of years ago while she had been covering a homicide at City Hall. Sandy was about Lois's age, maybe a couple of years older, and the two woman had got along reasonably well. At least, as well as could be expected for two women who were each obsessed with their work.
Lois smiled a greeting. "Hi, Sandy."
Sandy was just packing up her kit, getting ready to leave as the two reporters entered the building. She grinned. "Should have known you two would be first on the scene."
"Have you found any sign of the two guys Superman dropped off here this morning, Sandy?" Clark asked.
Sandy's face acquired a professional reserve. "Let's keep this off the record right now. I want to finish up here first and get the info back to Sam."
"Understood," Clark said.
Lois nodded her agreement, but added, "Okay if we check back with you later today?"
"Sure," the investigator replied. "So here's what it looks like. There were two guys in here this morning. Not wearing shoes—they must have kicked them off when they jumped overboard."
"No one saw them leaving here, though," Clark said. That was another oversight, he thought—in his distress over the knowledge that someone had died in that explosion he had not bothered to look for the two men. He had assumed they would head straight for the harbour police to seek help, but now he knew that would only be true if they were innocent victims in this whole thing. What if they weren't? "Any idea how they left?"
"Yeah. Those two sure didn't want to be seen." She pointed towards the far end of the empty building. "Of course, their footprints have dried now but our dusting powder still brought out their tracks. There's a hatch over there—probably used for waste disposal back before environmental controls." With the two reporters following, she walked across the creaky floorboards to a small trapdoor which had been left open. Reaching for her flashlight, she squatted down, then illuminated the granite boulders which lurked beneath the small square opening.
"Just wide enough for a man to get through," Lois observed, as she gazed through the hatch at the huge rocks which jutted above the water level to form part of the original pier's extensive crib. "But then what?"
"Note the tracks—hands, partial footprints. It looks like the two of them crawled beneath the pier until they got to shore. I'm just about to go back there and see if there's any sign of where they came out."
"They must have been pretty cold by that point," Lois said as the trio walked away from the hatch toward the doorway.
Moments later they were at the land end of the pier. The narrow strip of beach was rocky, so there was no visible sign of prints, just wet pebbles slicked by the lapping waves. Lois and Clark watched silently as the investigator reached into her kit, dusted a short stretch of the shingled beach at the edge of the pier, and then crouched down to watch as the pattern of two people who must have squirmed out from under the pier became visible.
"Yeah," Sandy said with satisfaction. "So they came out here. It's not likely to have been anyone else in this spot. But from here on in, it'll be harder to distinguish their tracks from everyone else's. No shoes though, so that makes it easier," she added as she continued her work.
"They chose the side of the pier that's less visible to the Harbour Police," Clark commented, lowering his glasses to gaze intently across what he imagined the path taken by the fugitives to be. He could see nothing that indicated their presence.
"I noticed that," Lois said. "And I'm betting they didn't stay out of the water long either—too easy to be seen, and these guys clearly didn't want to be seen. But notice the bank gets higher the farther along you go."
Sandy grunted as she continued her work, speaking as much to herself as to the two reporters. "So they stayed low, out of sight, and probably came up…"
"About over there," Lois pointed towards a small collection of rowboats tied to posts jammed at odd angles into the beach.
"I wonder if any of those boats are missing?" Clark suggested.
"Still too early maybe for anyone to have noticed."
The three of them walked over to the marina and Sandy asked the manager a few questions. The marina was not fully staffed at this time of day, but as far as he knew no boats had left that morning. Still, it was a private marina; people didn't check in and out unless they had plans for longer trips.
Sandy left them at that point, returning to join the rest of her team while Lois and Clark headed in the opposite direction, walking along the marina's dock past the small private boats which were anchored offside. A few early risers were already in the process of getting ready to take advantage of what promised to be a warmer than average fall morning.
The crafts ranged in size from what were really just fishing boats, useful for no more than a day of pleasure on the bay, to small but seductively sleek yachts which gleamed in the sunlight. On the deck of one of these, a man wearing a warm jacket and carrying a newspaper and a mug of steaming coffee was just settling into a deck chair positioned to catch the morning sun yet still remain sheltered by the cabin from the brisk wind. He noticed the two reporters and wished them a cheerful good morning, then turned to his paper.
Lois sighed as she watched him. Just before she'd become a teenager, she had sailed for a couple of summers, and now that time seemed so idyllic. As she stood on the dock of the Metropolis Marina, she could almost feel the spray of cool waves tingling against her warm skin and hear the laugh of her best friend as they triumphantly averted flipping over into the ocean. What had ever become of him, she wondered? Maybe he was a sailor now. Odd how those few happy, precious summers had been on her mind lately when she hadn't much thought about them in years.
"Clark, maybe I should move. Get a boat down here at the marina and live on it."
"Your goldfish would approve," he teased.
"They are not goldfish, Clark; they are tropical fish— fantails and angelfish… Like the name of this boat." She pointed to an arc of polished brass letters screwed to the back of the vessel on their right. "What would you name a boat if you had one, Clark?" she asked dreamily.
"The African Queen? The Pequod?"
Lois emitted a surprised choke, a laugh highjacked by a strange snorting sound. "Now I wouldn't have expected that from you. Both those boats get shattered—why the pessimism?"
He shrugged his broad shoulders, squinting his eyes as he gazed along the dock on which they were standing and then across to the other piers, concrete fingers stretched out into the inky harbour toward the horizon, towards something unseen, something that eluded their grasp. "I think we're done here, Lois. I'll check back with the MPD later, see what they've found."
"Okay." They turned around and walked back toward the shore, she noticing absently the names of some of the vessels they passed: 'Marguerite's Daydream', 'Toy Boat', 'Captain's Marvel', 'Jake's Dream', 'Victory'…
She had noted, though, that he hadn't answered her question. Clark was definitely not 'Clark' this morning, she thought. He was distracted, brooding, and it was clear he wasn't going to tell her what was bothering him. She sighed. After all, why should he confide in her? Things had been so awkward between them lately. Sometimes, it was as though nothing had changed at all. But then there were those prickly moments when neither of them seemed to get the other at all. When they said things… Then, for no particular reason, they would revert automatically to their old (not so old, Lois, she reminded herself—less than a year old, really) pattern of working, teasing, and the simple sharing of reactions to news, to Perry's bizarre cultural allusions, to so many things. Yet, at other times, Clark seemed almost hostile, making sarcastic or angry comments that caught her by surprise. Maybe she'd been doing that too.
He had been her best friend; was he still?
She looked at him, studying his profile, his jaw set, and his eyes narrowed, focused elsewhere. Nope—definitely not Clark this morning—someone else. Who?
They walked back toward the street, reviewing what they'd found that morning, then agreed to go their separate ways: he to the Planet, she to the story which Perry had assigned her.
Perry White listened as Kent explained what he and Lois had been up to during the morning. Perry's grunt as Clark finished was noncommittal, conveying the editor's decision that this incident wouldn't make the front page where a local news item had to be pretty extraordinary to grab space from bigger national or international stories. Still, he was pleased—this wasn't an item that other papers would have picked up, nor were they likely to unless the MPD released something more sensational than an exploding boat. And unidentified bodies were a dime a dozen in Metropolis.
As Clark was leaving, Perry turned back to his computer screen. Although he was pleased with this small story, he was, nevertheless, concerned about Lois's decision to tag along with Clark this morning rather than go to the WTO site, which, as he recalled, he had most certainly told her to do. As fond as he was of Lois, and as much as he admired her talent, he had reluctantly to admit that at times she was a loose cannon.
When the Planet had reopened a couple of months ago, she'd arrived back on the job as ready to rock and roll as ever. Anyone who didn't know her too well would have said she was her old self. But Perry did know her well, and he'd noticed those occasional dark circles under her eyes that told him she wasn't sleeping. And a couple of times she'd reacted in ways that surprised him, like her snarkiness over Clark's Kerth nomination.
Then that breakdown of hers in the bullpen when she thought that Stuart Hofferman had been killed because of her. The man hadn't been killed, but even if he had been, it wouldn't have been Lois's fault. Hell, she hadn't even been with him at the time of his so-called murder. But she hadn't been able to get what had happened in perspective, and she'd sat at her desk crying. Weeping women terrified him.
No, Lois wasn't back in fighting form yet—her old confidence was not completely intact, and he worried it was maybe more serious than that. One thing was sure: she was puttin' on a show—The Great Pretender. He shook his head and addressed her silently. Honey, whatever you're doin' right now, play it straight.
Outside, in the bullpen, Clark started to write his first draft, describing what he could recall of the craft which had been destroyed at sunrise. As his fingers skimmed over the keyboard, he realised he hadn't got the name of the boat. With luck, the MPD would discover what it was and fill him in when he checked back with them later today. He needed their preliminary report before he filed the story with Perry anyway; some of what he had now was speculative.
The thought of the person who had been asleep inside the cabin had never been far from his mind this morning, distracting him from what he and Lois had been doing. He knew there was nothing he could do to change what had happened. He had done what he thought was right at that particular moment. But it hadn't been good enough. He shook his head; he had to let this go. And he had to forget about the woman who was shot yesterday at New Troy Assurance. Had to forget about Johnny Corbin.
He was brooding—he knew it and he knew it was pointless, destructive even. Get on with it, he told himself. Do something. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Kent. You the only guy who ever screwed up? It's okay for you to screw up. People do. Yeah, but not Superman.
Mayson's press conference was scheduled for this afternoon. Although Clark knew that Lois had been assigned to cover it, he planned to be there too. He saved his article, then shrugged into his jacket and headed toward the elevator, planning to do a bit more digging on the stolen emeralds, hoping that Superman would not be needed, figuring how he could kill time until 2:00 this afternoon when the DA's office would make its announcement.
As she walked among the demonstrators at the conference site, Lois was struck by the diversity of people with whom she talked. They had come from all over the country, from Europe, and from other parts of the world to voice their concerns about a range of issues: the environment, the inequality of women, child poverty, corporate crime, world trade imbalances…
During the last hour, Lois had taped so many voices, most of them expressing, sometimes not too coherently, the fears, frustrations, and hopes of three generations of passionate and committed people. But she had also caught the voices of a couple of in-line skaters, and a few students who were clearly out on the streets looking for the ultimate party, as well as a couple of off-the-wall, who knew where they fit, very unique individuals. The latter belonged to a group which had caught her attention, their quirky street theatre performance a welcome diversion, poking fun at the pomposity of the suits inside the grand rooms of the Lexor hotel.
Lois found herself agreeing with bits of what many of the voices had to say although she was not quite sure how or whether it could all ever be put together in any kind of constructive whole. Maybe nothing ever could, she speculated.
As she roamed among the small clusters of people, she was very aware of the ominous presence of the police keeping an eye on all of them, a stolid wall of dark uniforms blocking street access to the polished delegates inside the Lexor. Even though the concrete barrier which separated the two sides was only about three feet high, it was clear that no one would be allowed over it. People on either side could see across it, but not get across it.
However, at the far end, down by the service entry to the hotel, a gap had been left in the barrier so that there was enough room for small delivery vans to get through. Lois noticed a small crowd gathered there, along with a few cops, and so she headed in that direction. Just to see if she could do it, to test how tight the security was, she tried to get into the hotel. A policeman shoved her roughly away when she persisted, threatening to charge her with disturbing the peace. Well, what had she expected, she thought; she hadn't shown him any ID. Still, had it been necessary to be that rough?
Talking to people in the crowd, she found that two demonstrators had already been charged, although there had been only minimal disturbance during these first days of meetings. One of the organizers of 'Students for the Environment' informed her that the police had met with the organizers of the larger protest groups before the conference started, and both sides had agreed to guidelines for demonstrations as well as physical boundaries.
So far, this had paid off; there had been remarkably few incidents compared to previous conferences although Lois had picked up some oblique mutterings from disgruntled individuals who called themselves anarchists. Yeah, didn't everyone, she thought. In their opinion, most of the people here, this year, had sold out. Nevertheless, Lois found it hard to take them seriously as a security threat.
She was mentally composing an article which would focus on the colours and sounds and personalities of the street, what she was trying hard not to call a fluff piece, when about fifty picketers protesting the destruction of forests by international logging companies approached a section of the barrier about a hundred feet away from her. Two people, clad as forest rangers, stepped out from behind this group: one was carrying an armload of stuffed teddy bears and the other, a large sling shot with which he proceeded to lob the toys at the police.
Their hope, of course, was to use comedy to make a point, but the police, who had not been recruited for their sense of humour, didn't get the joke. Lois pulled out the new digital camera which she carried everywhere and began to snap away from various angles, catching, she hoped, a teddy bear in mid-trajectory. As she was doing that, three officers leaped across the barrier and grabbed the man who was about to launch yet another fuzzy missile. A much larger crowd now gathered around them shouting insults at the police who ignored them and concentrated instead on removing the two attackers from the scene. As the police took both men away, people poured out of the side streets, rushing into the avenue which fronted the hotel. Angry jeers filled the air.
Lois pushed closer, just in time to see several people rush the concrete barricade, leap over it, and then race toward the hotel entrance. Then, all of a sudden, the sharp acrid odour of tear gas caught in Lois's nostrils, and she started to choke, but she did not back away. Quickly, she raised her camera, snapping randomly, getting as many different shots as she could. As she did, a muscular arm reached from behind her and lunged for her camera. A cop. She was too quick for him, darting under and then out of his reach, but then he yanked her by the arm and demanded ID. Several kids swarmed the man, allowing Lois to writhe out of his grip.
Someone threw a stink bomb, a childish prank but one which seemed to be a signal. All of a sudden the street was jammed with protesters, thousands of people, many intent on getting across the barrier, milling forward, shouting, chanting, and Lois was in the middle of them, pulled along, unable to break away from the relentless swell of the crowd, to fight against the current of bodies. She felt herself being pushed, then twisted around as people surged around her. Losing her balance, she fell to the ground, the skin scraping on her palms as they hit the pavement, breaking her fall. Quickly she jumped to her feet, this time flowing with the current, not fighting it, aware she could get trampled. Her view was blocked; most of the people around her were taller or broader shouldered than she. All she knew was that they were charging forward.
The air grew murkier as the police lobbed more tear gas into their midst, this time enough to stop the crowd, dispersing them in different directions. Many were holding cloths to their faces, as though they had been prepared for this, but others were clearly not, and they were calling out for their friends, obviously confused. Some were angry, yelling obscenities at their opponents as they backed away from the barrier and then scattered down side streets or over to the far end of the main street to cluster some distance away from the police. But they all fell back, and the barrier remained standing.
Lois stood apart from them, gasping, momentarily dazed, yet exhilarated, feeling the adrenaline flowing, as she looked around, searching the crowds. Somehow, she wasn't surprised to see Jeff walking toward her, his graceful frame dodging around the people in the street, aloof from the chaos. She smiled as she watched him brushing something off the sleeve of his jacket, thinking how like him that gesture was. His grey eyes met her flashing dark ones.
He smiled at her. "That's more like it, Lois Lane."
"You always were good when the water got rough."
"Have you been here long? Did you see what happened to the guy the police nabbed?"
"No. I just got here."
"I didn't know Perry was sending you over, too."
"He's always concerned about what you do, Lois."
She grinned. "I know—he can never, and I mean never, resist slipping in a bit of free advice. You should have heard him this morning."
"He'll be pleased with this story, though."
"Yeah, I think so. Did you get anything? Hope I got a good shot."
"You need Jimmy for that."
"I know!" Her reporter's eyes were still scanning the thinning crowd, looking for something new. "Hey, look, over there." She turned away from him and began to stride toward the far end of the crowd, assuming he would follow her. "I think that's Jake Lamont. That's strange. What would he be doing here?" She broke into a trot, jogging over to where she had spotted Alastair Albertini's friend who now appeared to be leaving. Picking up her pace, she turned to Jeff. "Come on, I want to talk to that guy…"
But Jeff was nowhere to be seen. She stopped and looked around, scanning the thinning clusters of people, but not seeing him. He sure does move fast, she thought, resuming her path towards Lamont. But he too had vanished.
"Damn," she said.
"Word is the Albertini neckpiece's fake."
"You're kidding!" Clark said.
"Paste, but quality, five star paste. Even your big spender trophy wives wouldn't spot it."
The source of this news was Bobby Bigmouth, erstwhile restaurant worker in some of the less classy diners on the wrong side of town, fulltime gourmand, and, more importantly, an occasional supplier of useful bits of information to Lois Lane, and therefore, in the last half year, to Clark Kent. For a price—which at the moment happened to be a half dozen of Martha Kent's butter tarts.
"To die for, Kent." Bobby waved another tart in quasi salute to the man next to him. "But can't figure where you got 'em. I don't recognize the bakery. They've got this rich fruitiness with a hint of autumn…" Puzzled, he gazed at the pastry for a second before popping half of it into his mouth.
"No kiddin'? She do this all the time?"
"No. Can we get back to the necklace here?"
"One of MacAdam's guys took a good look at the piece before locking up that night. Necklace is supposed to be one of the seven wonders of the world for those guys and he wanted to, you know, take a last look at it before packing it in for the day. Go figure. Weird what some guys obsess about, dontcha think?" He finished off the last buttertart as he spoke.
"How do you know this, Bobby?"
Bobby grinned at him. "Ya think I'm gonna tell ya? Got my rep to think about."
Clark grinned too—it had been worth a shot. "Does MacAdam know?"
"Any more of Mom's tarts?" Eagerness enlivened Bobby's eyes and hope lurked in his voice.
Clark reluctantly pulled out another small plastic bag containing the remainder of the dozen which he'd brought back from Smallville about four days earlier, looked at them mournfully, and then heroically passed them over to the man beside him. He had hoped not to have to make this sacrifice. Why hadn't he just bought some Danishes?
"MacAdam knows—word is the assistant called him soon as he found out."
"Which would be about when?"
"Ya sound like a cop, ya know that, Kent. Ya might wanna work on that."
Clark made a quick grab for the bag of tarts, but he was not quite quick enough. For a moment he wondered if Bobby had superpowers.
Pain crossed Bobby's face and he turned sulky. "Okay, okay. About 10:00 PM—the guy worked late that night."
"The police don't know this. Why, I wonder."
"Got me. Insurance money?"
"MacAdam that sort of guy? You're talking fraud."
"Gotta be tempting. Who's ta know, and it ain't as though insurance guys are saints." He paused to enjoy another buttertart moment. "How come Lane's not here? You guys have another spat?"
"Don't think the street don't notice—you two jabbin' at each other lately."
"I wouldn't say we're jabbing exactly. Not always."
"Lane's not easy."
"I'm bettin' you're not either."
"Bobby, can we get on with this. Anything else?"
"About the heist?"
"That's all I got." He shifted away from the brick wall against which he'd been leaning, and began walking toward the back entrance of the diner where he worked, dropping the empty plastic bag in the dumpster on the other side of the narrow alley as he neared the door. He turned briefly. "Give my regards to your partner."
Lois and Clark converged at the courthouse, almost colliding into each other, two separate forces preoccupied with minutiae and focused elsewhere: he straightening the sleeves of his sports jacket and aligning his tie as he walked with a couple of reporters from The Star; she talking to Perry on a cell phone, which she'd borrowed that morning, outlining what had happened at the WTO and explaining about the pictures she'd left with Jimmy. Neither saw the other, each striding toward the steps of the courthouse, only to skid to a simultaneous stop as she nearly crashed into him, or was it he who nearly collided with her?
Regardless, they met.
Both stared at the other for a second, speechless. Then both spoke at the same time, the words tumbling into the air.
"I wasn't expecting this…"
"to find you here…"
"I have to tell you…"
"What happened this morning…"
They paused, dark eyes meeting, as a short spurt of laughter erupted between them.
Impulsively, Lois tucked her arm through his. "You had to come, didn't you? You couldn't not be here for him." Her voice was sympathetic, understanding. For now, the hurtful comments he'd made to her about Lex and about Superman were forgotten, unimportant compared with what was about to happen.
He took a deep breath, and met her eyes, letting her see the doubt and uncertainty in his own. "Lois, if only…" He took a deep breath and couldn't continue, but his hand covered hers as it rested on his sleeve, involuntarily affirming whatever it was that always drew them to each other.
"It'll be all right, Clark. He'll be all right."
Nunk interrupted them as he bounded toward them. "Hey, Lane, they gonna put out a warrant on flyboy?"
"No, Nunk, they're not." Lois clipped out the words as though saying them took five seconds longer than she wanted to be talking to the leering reporter. She removed her arm from around Clark's but said to him softly, "They're not, Clark. Come on, let's go up."
The press conference was to be held at the top of the massive flight of steps which led to the somber entrance of the courthouse. There, framed by the solid Doric pillars which adorned the old building's facade, Mayson Drake would, in a few moments, announce whether or not the DA's office would charge Superman in Johnny Corbin's death. Although Lois, Clark, and Nunk were among the first media people to arrive, claiming positions in what would be the front row of Mayson's audience, they were joined very quickly by representatives from radio, television, and print, all of them excitedly buzzing over what they expected to happen.
"They go after Superman, it's gonna be big news."
"Come one… they screwed up last year when they tried to pin the heat wave on him."
"Trust me, this is going nowhere. Stupid idea in the first place."
"Some people you don't touch … Superman is one of them … like the President or the Pope."
"They can get away with murder."
"or Britney Spears." This was followed by a collective groan.
"…like so not happening," the most disgusted voice in the universe, which at that moment happened to belong to the style, trends, and gossip columnist for Metro Mag, said.
"God, Clark," Lois whispered, "are we the only ones taking this seriously?"
Clark gazed upward at the trio now walking calmly out of the courthouse, their steps measured and merciless. It seemed to him that it took them forever to reach the microphone which had been set up on the landing at the top of the courthouse steps. Mayson Drake stepped forward.
"Not quite, Lois, not quite." His heart was hammering and for a moment he froze as Mayson glanced quickly at a sheet of paper in her hand.
"The State will proceed with a charge of murder in the first degree against Rollie Vale. The case will go before a grand jury next Friday at which time bail will be set. A warrant is out for the arrest of Emmett Vale. Superman will not be charged." Her face coldly professional, she stopped speaking.
Clark felt a huge surge of relief wash over him. He felt almost giddy, and the flashes of cameras arcing across the top steps blurred his vision. He had got away with it. He was not 'criminally negligent'. Then, the sober second thought hammered him: no… no he hadn't got away with anything. He just didn't have to face a courtroom. What he had done was still there.
He felt Lois's touch on his sleeve. He turned to look at her, saw the relief in her eyes grow to exultation. He turned from her and bowed his head.
"Clark," she whispered, "you know they've made the right decision."
He turned to her. "Have they, Lois?"
As he uttered this, the guy from the Star got the first question. "Ms. Drake, why didn't the DA press charges against Superman?"
"The evidence was too speculative." She spoke tersely, without elaboration.
"Did the DA decide that Superman acted reasonably, given the circumstances?"
Mayson's hesitation was minimal but it was, nevertheless, there. "Robotics had given Mr. Corbin super strength. The circumstances were extraordinary."
Clark muttered under his breath, "That's no answer, Mayson."
"Is Vale being charged on two counts of murder or one in Corbin's death?" Andy Gopnick from the Star asked.
"One," Mayson replied. "Without Corbin's torso we don't have enough evidence to ascertain what happened to him before the Vales operated and whether it was the Vales who injured him in the first place."
Lois called out, "What about the power source for Corbin's robotics? Has it been found yet?"
"No. The police are still searching for it."
"Any idea what it was composed of?" the reporter from The Village Weekly asked.
"No." Mayson was clearly not in the mood for playing any guessing games this afternoon.
"Will the robotic body be submitted in evidence to the Grand Jury?" Nunk asked.
"The DA's office is still in the process of preparing the case for the prosecution."
"So is that a yes?" Nunk shot back.
"Was Corbin legally dead when the robotic body was transplanted to his body?" Andy Gopnick returned to his earlier line of thought.
"That's for the court to determine, Andy," Mayson replied, turning her gaze toward the reporter from the Star. "It's not exactly an area where we have a lot of precedents," she added dryly. Then she shifted her gaze, addressing the group. "Thanks for your attention, everyone." She flicked the microphone off, turned and reentered the courthouse.
"That's a relief, Clark," Lois said. "Come on, let's get back to the Planet."
"I'll see you there later, Lois. I want to catch up with Mayson."
"Clark, the briefing is over."
He didn't say anything more and Lois searched his face looking for some indication of what his intentions were. But he wasn't giving anything away. Disgruntled, she figured he probably just wanted to ask Mayson for a date. But that's not what she said.
"This is my story, Clark." It was said lightly, an attempt at teasing him, a reminder of their misunderstanding over his scoop, a few weeks earlier, on the runaway roller coaster at the Metropolis fairgrounds and then hers, in the next edition, with the first Viologic story.
"What? Yeah." He grinned and briefly touched her shoulder. "Don't worry, Lois. I'm not going to steal your thunder."
She forced a small grin in response, but her curiosity about Clark and Mayson hadn't disappeared. "Just wanted to make sure. See you later, part…" She caught herself. "See you later."
Clark caught the unfinished word and was torn. Just go with her, he said to himself; let this other stuff go. No, Superman had to know. That meant talking to Mayson. Although the assistant DA was Superman's harshest critic, Clark nevertheless respected her professional competence, and, more importantly, felt that she was a good person, and so her opinion mattered. If she had managed to exonerate Superman, then maybe he could too.
Still, as he jogged up the steps of the courthouse, it was Lois he was thinking about, and that incomplete word. Like them he thought: undefined, dangling and uncertain— incomplete.
Inside the courthouse, it didn't take him long to catch up with Mayson. She had stopped at the far end of the rotunda to talk with several co-workers, dark-suited professionals circled in a huddle, hands gesturing, voices excited and rapid. Deliberately, he blocked the temptation to eavesdrop. When he got close enough, he caught Mayson's eye, silently signalling her away from the group, conscious as he did so that he was using his awareness of the woman's interest in him. He flushed slightly.
She smiled as she walked toward him. "Hi, Clark. What's up?"
"Hi, Mayson. You handled that briefing well." They walked a few yards farther toward the perimeter of the rotunda, their footsteps echoing across the marble floor as they put some distance between them and her colleagues who, Clark was aware, had stopped speaking for a moment to watch them. "But I have this suspicion that you didn't give us the whole story." He noticed a brief flash of frustration in her eyes as he finished speaking.
"Did you, Clark? And what were you expecting? That we would really prosecute the great man? Actually send a message that he's not above the law? Hold him accountable?"
Yep, he thought, she's bitter. "Yeah, actually I thought you might."
"Clark, the briefing is over." She started to mount the steps to the second floor, not looking at him.
"I know that, Mayson. And," he stressed, "I respect that. This is off the record." He continued slowly, hoping to get his words right. "So you're uncomfortable with the DA's decision on this one?"
"He's the boss, Clark. It's his call."
"But it wouldn't have been your call."
She hesitated. "Off the record?"
"Off the record, Mayson."
"No, it wouldn't have been my call."
"Why not?" Considering what she had said to him and Lois two days ago at the Planet, Clark thought he knew how she would answer; still, part of him was hoping that now, after considering all the evidence, she had found something that had changed her mind.
"Clark, there's an argument called 'intervening act'. Textbook stuff," she added with a flicker of a dismissive smile. "I'm paraphrasing here." She met his gaze as she spoke. "If—" She sounded as though she were quoting that unseen text. "—the effects of two wounds cannot be isolated, then the accepted view is that both perpetrators can be held to have caused the victim's death and can be convicted of a homicide offence." She paused briefly. "So, even though Superman and Rollie Vale were most certainly not in league with each other, Superman could be considered to be partly responsible for Corbin's death if it can be proven that his action in conjunction with Vale's led to that death."
Clark expelled a long breath. "And can it?"
"The courts would have to decide, but I believe the case can be made. Corbin would likely still be alive if Superman had not—" She grimaced. "—kneecapped him. Vale could not possibly have got near enough to him to remove that power source."
"And it was the robotics that were keeping Corbin alive."
Mayson nodded. "Yeah—a mobile life support system." She paused. "There's another thing, too. We need to know whether Corbin's brain was functioning at the time of the transplant."
"And whether he would have died if there had been no transplant?"
"That's one reason we need to find the body. Nevertheless, I'm not sure that alters the fact of what did happen at the end. Corbin was alive at that point. Consider as an analogy the situation of a person with an artificial heart. If you disable that heart… This situation is not really any different." Mayson paused and again looked at Clark, and he sensed that she was troubled.
"My argument is not," she emphasized, "that Superman acted in concert with Rollie Vale; it never was. Nor have I ever argued that he committed murder. The public forgets, and that includes some media people," she said, frowning, "that human behaviour is complex, and so, therefore, must the law be. Of course Superman did not murder Corbin.
"But his behaviour showed a reckless disregard for human life—remember that Superman is invulnerable: he cannot be killed so the argument of self-defense can never be used him. His recklessness combined with Vale's action to kill Johnny Corbin. Intervening act—a consequence, in this case, of criminal negligence."
Clark's mouth was dry. Forcing himself to speak, he clutched at a straw. "But the DA disagrees with you."
"Off the record, Clark… no, he doesn't. But there's an election next month."
"I see. So the DA turns a blind eye."
"He says we can take Superman on trust." Her tone was dismissive.
Clark looked at her, surprised. "And you don't trust him, Mayson," he said flatly.
She looked at him impatiently. "Whether I trust him or not is beside the point, Clark. It's not personal, nor should it be. The really vital issue here is the law—no one, not even Superman, is above the law. We can't abandon that ideal; we can't make exceptions. If we do, we give up on our democracy." She flushed and her husky voice quieted. "I know that sounds corny." She sighed.
"But I'd like to know, Mayson," Clark persisted. "Do you trust Superman?"
Her reply was neither belligerent nor sulky; instead it was puzzled and curious. "Why should I?"
"Because he *has* saved people's lives. A great many lives." Clark felt compelled to speak in Superman's defense. "He stopped the Nightfall Asteroid, remember. Surely that confirms what his intentions are."
"I'm aware of what he did then. But there are so many unknowns. After all, who *is* Superman? He shows up out of the blue last year: a creature who cannot be killed, who displays no evidence of emotion, who has extraordinary physical powers. How did he get them? Where did he come from? Is there someone behind the scenes programming him?"
"Programming him? Mayson you have absolutely no evidence of that!" Clark was astonished, really grasping for the first time the depth of Mayson's mistrust of Superman. She didn't even regard him as human. He felt cold inside. And he was angry. She didn't understand—Superman did the best he could. "What are you suggesting, Mayson, that he's some sort of wolf in sheep's clothing, a Trojan horse?"
"Clark, I know he's saved people's lives. But he's only been here a year. There are all these unanswered questions. When you add to them the way in which Superman often disregards legal conventions when he's apprehending alleged criminals you have to doubt how deep his respect for our law goes." She met his eyes as she continued. "And furthermore, why isn't the press asking any of these questions?"
"But, Mayson, the first week he was here, he stated what he stood for."
"Ah, yes, that Daily Planet interview when he first showed up. That was clever, Clark, anticipating the concern the public might have and using Lois Lane to dampen those concerns."
"Using her?" In his wildest dreams, Clark had not thought of his interview with Lois in those terms.
"Don't you see, she was the perfect choice—her reputation as a hard-headed reporter, her journalism awards, her job at the best newspaper in Metropolis. At that time, I'd say she was perhaps the most credible reporter in this city. So one of the people who might have asked the hard questions, didn't do it. Furthermore, Superman appears to have been very careful to nurture his contact with her during the first few months he was here. You know what disappointed me, though? How quickly Lois converted to being his cheerleader. You know, I expected more of her— I'd been a fan of her reporting."
"Listen, Mayson, Lois Lane is still the best reporter in this town."
Her brown eyes widened and she looked contrite. "I'm sorry, Clark. For a moment, I forgot that you two work together, but that doesn't change what I think. You're too close to her; you can't see how easily she was used by Superman."
There was an awkward silence between them. Then Clark said, "Thanks for your time, Mayson. I appreciate your honesty."
Mayson put her hand on his sleeve. "Clark, can we put this aside? All I'm saying is that we shouldn't set Superman above the law. Whether I trust Superman shouldn't be an issue between you and me."
Clark took a step backwards and shoved his hands in his pockets. "No, it shouldn't, Mayson," he said slowly. He raised his head. "I should be going. Thanks again."
Superman leapt upward, blasting beyond Earth's atmosphere until he could no longer breathe easily, until he felt a sharpness threaten his lungs as it purged the anger within him. For a moment he paused, hovering, suspended in black nothingness, a finite speck among dead stars.
Mayson was wrong. She didn't get it, he told himself fiercely, she didn't understand. He would—could—never intentionally hurt anyone. He'd saved so many lives; he'd even risked his own life to save others, stared down oblivion as he'd raced against time toward the Nightfall asteroid.
So do firemen, policemen, he reminded himself—does that mean they get to be above the law?
Images of Corbin dying, a woman bleeding, a man sleeping on an exploding cruiser swirled, mingled in his mind, distorted, melting into shapeless pools of blood and metal. Now his thoughts were incoherent, a jumble of anger, accusations, pleas for understanding, acceptance.
It was too much. He'd done the best he could. He was just a man.
No, he was Superman. There were different rules for Superman. All he knew was Superman had to follow a higher order, one which he must always strive toward, point the way toward. He had to… be… Superman.
Lois slipping her arm through his, laughter lighting her dark eyes as they met his. But always just beyond his reach.
Focus, he told himself. Clear your head. Focus. You can do this. You are Superman.
He shot downward, racing toward Earth—searching, and finding all too easily crises where Superman's brawn, his strength, but not his mind or his good judgement, were needed. A brief stop at the Planet at the end of the afternoon and then upward again, never pausing to rest, circling the Earth, escaping as he had done days earlier in a whirlwind of action. Never returning to Clinton Street to sleep.
But by morning he felt at least that he had accomplished something. He had helped. It had been four days since Corbin's death.
Chapter 4: The Wall
"TEDDY BEARS' PICNIC SMOKED OUT"—Perry White wasn't too crazy about the lead headline on the front page of the Daily Planet, but he was sure pleased with the large colour photo below it and especially with the tightly written article beside it. Lois had come through with a riveting piece which, he had noticed when she'd submitted it earlier, showed no traces of that so-called comedy act she'd tried pulling on him three days ago. He planned to make sure that Franklin Stern read this one, although he doubted that the man would miss it. He doubted Stern missed anything.
The other item which pleased him was inside the paper, in the city section. It explained the DA's decision not to pursue a negligence charge against Superman. Finally showing some old-fashioned common sense, he thought. He knew that his competition would have it as their lead this morning, but he'd decided to bypass that route, identifying the story for what it was—a local news item of little, if any, national significance. Just another Metropolis crime story. Let the Whisper front with it. He'd placed it in the city section. On the front page of the city section, mind you.
He got up from his desk and wandered to the large window which overlooked the newsroom. Most of the day staff were here now, getting themselves organized for the morning ahead. It was earlier than the official start time, and so the newsroom was crowded, night and day staffs overlapping. It would remain that way for another hour as the night staff hung around longer than necessary.
He remembered joking once that he loved the smell of fear in the newsroom. It was obvious he'd tempted the gods when he'd said that because now, as the Planet struggled with creditors and a smaller circulation base, the smell of fear did coil and hiss through the newsroom and it was no damned good. It was demoralizing.
Lois was already at her desk, fussing over a plant that she'd apparently bought this morning. That was a good sign he thought, showed she had confidence in the future; although his pessimistic self reminded him that any plant Lois plunked on her desk had a limited shelf life. He couldn't tell from this distance what type of plant it was; hell, even standing right over it he wouldn't be able to tell what it was.
He noticed Lois look up toward the elevator, and he smiled when he saw the reason why. Clark Kent was stepping out of it, along with Jimmy and Ivan Belovich, the Sports Editor. Automatically, even as he was in the midst of saying something to Ivan, Clark's gaze shifted towards Lois's desk and he seemed to hesitate. Perry's attention returned to Lois, and he saw that she had swiveled around and was rapidly typing at her computer, avoiding eye contact with Kent.
Yep, he thought, the door's closed and he ain't getting' in. He shook his head. He was pretty sure that Kent had fallen for Lois back on day one, and unless he missed his guess, Lois was crazy about Clark, too—so why did she keep running away from him? What had happened this time? he wondered. For every step those two took toward each other, they seemed to take two steps back. Sometimes, they were like two halves of the same whole, in some kind of symbiotic synch; then the next day they were either avoiding each other or hurling sarcastic missiles at each other.
He turned back to his desk. He wasn't running a singles club here.
"Janine hasn't shown up again this morning, Contessa."
"Has she called, Mary?" Francesca Albertini asked her housekeeper.
"No, she hasn't. It's not like her at all — she's hardly ever sick, and when she has been, she's always called. Besides, she was very excited about today."
Francesca peered at Mary over the top of her reading glasses. "Why on earth?"
Just the slightest trace of a blush tinged Mary's cheeks. "The guest list for the luncheon. Mick Jagger."
"Oh," Francesca said, then added dryly, "I would have thought Janine would have found him a bit too creaky to take notice of."
"He's a legend though, ma'am. Janine was really looking forward to seeing him. That's why I'm worried. She didn't call yesterday morning either."
"Did you call her apartment?"
"Yes, just now. Her roommates haven't seen her in two days, but they don't seem concerned—they said she often doesn't come home at night."
Francesca smiled. "There's a boyfriend then?"
"If there is, her roommates don't know who he is. I asked if there was another phone number where she might be reached, but they said they didn't have one."
"It's unlike her not to call, though, Mary. Weren't they a little worried about her when you told them that?"
Mary's face registered her disapproval. "No, they weren't—they seem to be very casual about everything. Janine has only lived there a couple of months—it sounds like a revolving door! People come and go all the time, apparently."
"Do we still have her previous address? She was there for over two years, I believe, so maybe they might know where she is."
"I already phoned there. Her old roommates have no idea where she might be. They haven't seen much of Janine since she moved. The girl I talked to was concerned, although she was pretty sure there was a new boyfriend. She didn't know his name, though."
Francesca smiled. "That's likely it then. She's probably with the boyfriend." She sighed. "But it does create a problem; it leaves you short staffed for our lunch today."
Mary smiled at her employer reassuringly. "Don't worry. We'll be fine."
There was a tap on the conservatory door, and Alastair, still showing the vagueness of someone who has just awakened, entered the room.
"Good Morning, Mama. Morning, Mary." He smiled at the housekeeper as he approached the small table where his mother sat finishing her breakfast, the morning newspaper open beside her coffee. "Can you find me some coffee and maybe some toast, please?"
Mary left the room as Alastair took a seat across from his mother.
"Judging by the Spartan breakfast you've just asked for, I gather you had a very nice time last night, darling," Francesca said affectionately.
He grinned back at her. "Yes, we did. After the game, Jake asked a few guys back to the 'Dream' for poker."
Francesca smiled at him. "Very boring, darling." She turned the page of her paper as she spoke.
"So it's a wild time when you and the Metro Matriarchs get together for bridge, is it?" he teased.
"You know we only do that for charity, Alastair. And we aren't… a little smudged the next morning," she added as she raised both her eyebrow and her coffee cup.
"Just a little, Mama," he acquiesced. "Thanks, Mary. You're a life saver," he added as the housekeeper reappeared and set a tray bearing coffee, juice, and toast beside him. He smiled charmingly at the older woman. "Could you do me another favour? There's a plastic bag on my desk. I meant to bring it with me downstairs. It's a present for Mama. Could you get it for me, please?"
"Yes, of course." She slipped unobtrusively out of the room.
Upstairs, in Alastair's room, Mary walked across the dark oak floor to a desk cluttered with receipts, magazines, a map, photographs and the inevitable laptop. The desk was big, not an antique like most of the furniture in the house, but instead a solid serviceable piece, which Alastair had used since he was a teen. It sat against the wall that faced an east window, and at that moment the desk was bathed in the morning sun which streamed like a spotlight across the floor.
Mary picked up the plastic bag and then stooped automatically to retrieve a used boarding pass that had fallen behind the desk. As she did, she caught the sparkle of something blue close to the baseboard. Her first thought, natural for someone who had started her working life as a maid, was that the cleaning staff had become careless, not always doing the baseboards. She would have to speak to Fred.
Her second impulse was, of course, to pick up the offending item. She knelt down, partially ducking under the desk, and reached for the small object. It was wedged in that slight gap which often develops over the years, as houses settle, between the floor and the baseboards, and she couldn't get it out. She crawled out from under the desk, retrieved a letter opener, then once again bent beneath the desk. Carefully, she inserted the letter opener in the gap and dislodged the tiny item. Her fingers closed around it. After she'd straightened up, she opened her hand to look at what she had retrieved. It was a gem, a sapphire, she suspected, and her heart lurched.
Four days ago, she had taken the Contessa's sapphire necklace in for repairs. This small stone looked remarkably similar to some of the smaller stones that were in that necklace. How could that be?
She put the letter opener back on the desk, and as she did, she noticed a picture of Alastair and the young man whom he'd brought to the house over the last week, Jake Lamont. They were standing in front of a small yacht, a racing sloop by the look of it. They were laughing, enjoying a joke, maybe something the photographer had said. Mary noticed the shadow of the photographer in the picture. She smiled at the apparition—she, herself, had been trying not to get in the shots as she took photos lately. Then she sobered and made up her mind.
A few minutes later she was in her own room in the basement of the old mansion, speaking on her private phone line. "I'd like to talk to Lois Lane, please." There was a pause as she waited to be connected to the reporter and then she said, "This is Mary Mackenzie. Is it possible to meet with you about a necklace I took in for repairs a few days ago?"
Lois put down the receiver of her phone. She'd just agreed to meet Mary Mackenzie later this afternoon. Although the woman had sounded troubled, she had not been willing to go into any detail over the phone. Since Lois suspected that Mary was both reliable and discreet, as well as unflappable, she'd agreed immediately to the woman's request.
She looked across at Clark. This was his story. She should tell him. Still, he had held out on her about his meeting with Mayson yesterday at the courthouse when he'd returned very briefly to the Planet at the end of afternoon. Yeah, but their chat was probably personal, none of your business, her respectable self said. Nevertheless her eyes narrowed as she continued to gaze across at the enigma who worked beside her.
When she'd first broken the Viologic story he'd accused her of not sharing. True, she hadn't, but that had been because he'd scooped her on Superman's rescue at the fairgrounds. She'd even been there with him, but then he'd taken off on her — like what else is new? she asked herself—got the story, and then disappeared back to the Planet to write it up. And he hadn't even bothered to deny it or explain it when she'd later confronted him! Sharing was a two-way street. Her mouth pursed stubbornly.
Maybe he'll have to leave for some reason and there'll be no need to tell him… maybe take off on one of those trivial errands of his, the ones where he's gone for a couple of hours, longer even. She was now willing him to do so… go on, Clark, go pull one of your disappearing stunts. You must have something to pick up at the cleaners, a video to return, a third cousin twice removed to meet at a taxi stand, a dentist appointment. No, Clark never has dentist appointments.
Well, there was still lots of time before her appointment with Mary. Maybe Clark wouldn't be around when it was time to go.
Clark looked up. "Okay, Lois, what is it? You've had something on your mind for the last five minutes."
"No, I have not!"
"Not a thought in the world then?" he asked calmly.
An unholy grin brightened his face, and she realized what she'd just said. Cripes, she was losing it! She frowned and then, unbidden it came out. "Mary Mackenzie wants to talk about Francesca's necklace. Four o'clock, at the tearoom in Macy's."
Clark's grin faded. "Did she say why?"
"No. She just said she wants to talk. She seemed reluctant to say about what on the phone. Do you think she suspects the necklace is fake?"
"I guess we'll find out."
"What happened when you told Henderson about the necklace, by the way?"
Clark grimaced. "I haven't yet."
Lois looked at him, surprised. They'd talked about whether he should tell Henderson late yesterday afternoon when Clark had returned very briefly to the Planet after his tete-a-tete with Mayson. He hadn't stayed long, hadn't even bothered to check back with Sandy Wong to see if there was more information about the boat explosion. He'd seemed preoccupied, restless even.
She had speculated that he probably had a date with Mayson and was in a rush to clear out. Lois wished she could let that little detail quit bugging her, but she couldn't, and it did. And here it was now, distracting her again. Just what was going on between Mayson and Clark, anyway? She frowned.
"Penny for that thought," Clark said, looking at her curiously.
"It's not worth a penny," she grumped.
"If it's bothering you, it is."
Oh no, she thought, don't you pull that on me, Clark Kent— that sensitive guy routine and those eyes that look like they care. "Why didn't you tell Henderson?"
"I didn't get a chance. I, uh…" He didn't finish, and a desperate look crossed his face.
She leaned forward, fascinated, leaning her elbow on her desk so that her chin rested on her fist. "Yes?"
"…uh, had to… go…"
This time she interrupted him. "Hot date?"
Lois's eyes widened. "You had to return a basketball?"
He looked at her directly and he did not deny it. "Yes."
Lois's eyes sparkled. She knew he was lying and she was comforted that this time the excuse wasn't so he could run out on her. He must do it all the time! Not just to her. The man must have some kind of secret life! The sparkle vanished. Secret love life? She stomped the thought down.
"I… uh… borrowed a basketball for a quick game of pick- up and I forgot to return it."
"Ah, yours was at the cleaners, was it?"
Now the sparkle was in Clark's eyes. "That's right. There's this great basketball refurbisher over on Elm Street. Operated by a good but not quite tall enough for the NBA former high school star."
Lois shook her head. Clark, just being weird again. But to make sure, she said, "So no hot date?" and mentally crossed her fingers.
"No hot date, Lois."
She believed him, but she still would like to know what had prevented him from talking to Henderson. "Gonna tell Henderson today?"
"Yeah, later morning this morning." He twisted around for the suit jacket draped over the back of his chair, then stood up. "First, I'm going over to Dimitri's and see what I can find out there."
"And I'm still at the WTO site. See you at Macy's."
Just as Clark was about to step into the elevator, the wail of sirens stopped him. Quickly he darted for the stairwell leading to the roof but, when he was halfway up, the sound stopped. No need for Superman after all. He was getting too edgy these days, over-reacting. He reversed direction down to the next landing and then entered the elevator, musing over his brief exchange with Lois.
He hated lying to her. He hated lying period. Because his job at the Planet gave him a great deal of flexibility, it was rarely necessary for him to explain why he kept disappearing. As a reporter, he could be called away at any time, so his random disappearances didn't look suspicious. But working so closely with Lois over much of the last year had made it necessary to play a game of deception with her although he'd had to resort to playing it less often during the last couple of months, simply because they were not working as frequently together.
Maybe that was why the small little lies were harder these days.
Lois had called him on it—the lying—back there, and he just hadn't wanted to try to save the situation, to dig himself in deeper. So he'd played the game with her. He knew he was getting careless around her. He'd almost dared her to find out the truth a couple of weeks ago when he'd shouted at her that she was blind, that she couldn't see what was in front of her.
What had they been fighting about then? Oh yeah. Mayson Drake. Lois had accused him of being "besotted" with Mayson and blind to her possible involvement in Church's illegal activities. Lois had been right though, he admitted; he had been a little distracted by Mayson's attention. She was an attractive woman, and he had been flattered to know she was interested in him, Clark Kent, and not Superman. But Lois had been wrong about Mayson's involvement in criminal activities.
And he'd been wrong about Mayson, after all; the attraction had been superficial, more to do with his bruised ego and unexercised hormones than much else. He'd known it that night at the Daily Planet/CostMart Charity Ball. He'd spent much of the evening dancing with Mayson, trying to keep his mind off Lois, never succeeding for very long, always aware of where she was in the room. And Mayson's attitude to Superman, at first so comforting in its dismissal of the superhero, he now found disturbing.
He was tired of lying to Lois. Maybe that was part of the problem. They were both hiding from each other, not confronting what had happened last spring with Luthor, pretending it hadn't happened, hiding the pain, avoiding the truth.
The elevator doors slid apart, permitting its sole occupant to exit into the busy lobby of the Daily Planet. He stopped for a few minutes to chat with a couple of colleagues who were about to head upstairs. The chat quickly turned to office gossip and these days that gossip usually focused on how overloaded people were and how insecure their jobs looked. Clark grimaced sympathetically. Then one of them asked if the rumour they'd heard about Lois's job being on the line was true. Someone in Personnel had said that Lois had been rehired on a short term contract and it was about up. He added that the story she'd got yesterday at the WTO was damn good, though, and ought to be making her sleep a bit easier. With that they left Clark and headed for the elevators.
Clark stared after them. He hadn't known about the three month contract. Lois hadn't told him. He'd just assumed her contract was the same as his. Why hadn't she told him? But he knew the answer—the wall, that barrier that she had constructed around her, the one he'd been dismantling ever since he'd first met her. The wall that she had rebuilt after Luthor.
But why the three month contract? Lois was an outstanding reporter. Whose decision would that have been? Not Perry's. Stern's. He remembered what Jimmy had told him at the basketball game the other night. So Jimmy mustn't have been the only one to have overheard that conversation between Perry and Stern.
Lois was a brilliant reporter. Then he remembered Mayson's words about Lois being conned by Superman. God, even he'd said things to her about both Superman and Luthor. Why should he be surprised that Stern wanted to be convinced when he, himself, had let Lois know he wasn't convinced. He'd helped her build that blasted wall.
As Clark pushed through the heavy bronze doors at the front of the building, he thought about how Lois had kept the story of kryptonite's potential to kill Superman out of the paper last month when Arianna Carlin had shot him. Then, a couple of weeks ago, when William Waldecker had shown up as Resplendent Man, she hadn't written about how it was possible to transfer Superman's powers to another person. Either one of those stories would have been enough to convince Stern of her worth to the Planet. But she'd held back, protected the Man of Steel.
And what had he done? When she'd got too close to the truth, he'd avoided answering her questions about how it was that Waldecker had all of a sudden gained super powers. Later, she'd asked him, "Did you lie to me?" and he'd prevaricated, misleading her yet again.
Misleading her, throwing her off the track, pushing her away from him. Maintaining the wall. The secret had to be protected. No one must know. That was his father's voice in his head, but his experience with Trask last year had made it all too clear that his father had been right. Even Mayson—what would she do if she knew the truth? After yesterday, he had a pretty good idea. No, the truth had to remain a secret.
But Lois was the best friend he'd ever had, and, more than that, he was in love with her.
He needed her. And just maybe she needed him.
But the truth had to remain a secret.
Half an hour later, and for the third time in four days, Clark entered the very posh and polished space that was 'Dimitri's'. Although quite a few people, both staff and customers, were in the store, it was quiet, hushed: a shrine where people glided on thick carpets, talked discreetly… and spent enormous sums of money.
Clark paused to look at one of the display cases, noticing the absence of price tags on the jewels inside. He suspected that meant he couldn't afford them. Them? He grinned inwardly. Couldn't afford any of them, he amended. A row of glittering diamond rings caught his attention, and he remembered Lois's engagement ring, the one he'd watched Lex put on her finger. He saw again the look on her face as she'd said 'yes'. But now he was seeing something else too—or rather not seeing, either on her face or in her eyes, something he had not seen in her at all during the whole time she'd been engaged to Luthor. Lois had never looked happy.
He raised his head and was still for a moment as he reflected on that.
"Having a difficult time deciding which one, Mr. Kent?" The question came from Dimitri MacAdam who was now standing beside him.
"No," Clark grinned. "I don't know much about diamonds, but I have a pretty good idea that these are out my league."
"Perhaps not. But when you're ready to take that step, let me know and I'm sure we can find a stone that's both worthy of your bride and respectful of your pocketbook."
"I'll keep that in mind," Clark said.
"So, it's not a search for the right ring that brings you here this morning?"
"No. I was wondering if you could spare a few minutes to give me a bit more information about the Albertini necklace."
"Ah, yes." A suggestion of a frown marred his face.
"I understand it's got an interesting history. Does that add to the value or is it just a product of the quality of the stones and the setting?"
"Provenance usually adds value, and in this particular case, the Napoleonic connection adds a certain mythos to the piece."
"But, nevertheless," Clark continued, his voice casual, "if the stones have no value, then the necklace would be little more than a curiosity piece."
MacAdam regarded him carefully. "Why don't we continue our chat in my office, Mr. Kent?" He turned and walked toward the back of the store, stopping a few times to greet sleekly dressed customers.
Once both men were in his office, MacAdam closed the door. He made no effort to sit, although the room had a small seating area where three sleekly upholstered dark leather chairs clustered around a circular wooden coffee table. Clearly, he was not interested in spending much time with Clark Kent, and he wasted no time on small talk.
"Why did you really come this morning, Mr. Kent? You don't need me to tell you about provenance. That sort of thing is easily available."
"A reliable source—" Clark mentally choked over applying the adjective to Bobby Bigmouth. "—has informed us the necklace is paste."
"I see. And what if I deny that?"
"You don't seem surprised."
MacAdam hesitated. "Mr. Kent, you're a reporter and whatever I say to you is going to be in the Planet tomorrow." He shrugged. "Things are often not what they appear. That's true for all of us, and it's no different for the very rich. There are times when they deceive others, or struggle to keep up appearances, appearances which are often at a level that you or I can never aspire to. Discretion is an important part of my business—what an item cost, whose credit rating has dropped, who the real recipient of a gold hip flask or a pair of ruby earrings is."
"Why would someone bring in an item for repair if it was essentially worthless?"
"Now that's an interesting question. Perhaps that person didn't know the true value of the item. It happens—an ancestor a hundred years ago needed cash, and tampered with the family jewels, telling no one."
"An unpleasant surprise for the current owner."
"I imagine Francesca Albertini would be very upset."
"I imagine so—if it were to happen to her."
Clark said nothing for a moment and let his gaze wander around Dimitri's office. Furnished simply, it was designed to soothe rather than distract any customers or staff who might be in it. Only the wall across from the door had anything on display. A bookcase ran across its width, its glass shelves housing reference books on gems, mineralogy, and antique jewellery while its centre bay showcased rock samples of rugged primal beauty, translucent crystal prisms which burst through their stone beds to absorb the light of the room. There was a geometric precision about those crystals, Clark thought—proof that God was a mathematician.
Dimitri noticed his glance. "Do you find the natural stones more interesting than the gems, Mr. Kent?"
"Yes, I think I do." He walked over to the bookcase and looked at the samples more closely. He touched a cluster of opaque green crystals which were embedded in stone. It reminded him of kryptonite and he shook his head, momentarily repulsed. Then he took a second look—it was not like kryptonite at all—there was a depth, a warmth in this stone, not the cold cruelty of kryptonite.
"This is emerald, isn't it?"
"Yes." MacAdam picked up the sample which was just large enough to fit in the palm of his hand. He handed it to Clark. "Take it over to the light by the window. They all look different in natural light."
Clark did, and caught his breath as he looked at the stone more closely. It seemed alive, its green embers glowing, mesmerizing him. "Green fire," he said slowly. "I've read that emeralds are called that, but now I understand why." He turned to look at MacAdam. "Did you get it in Colombia?"
"Yes. I picked it up years ago on my first trip there."
"It must be more dangerous to get these now than it was back then." As he spoke, Clark handed the specimen back to MacAdam.
"It can be. One has to take precautions."
"And you would know the right people."
"I've been in the business for thirty years, Mr. Kent."
"I expect you don't get time to make many trips these days. You must have people who do that for you."
"Sadly true, Mr. Kent. Expanding the business and opening this new store have left me a prisoner in Metropolis for the last couple of years."
Ah. It was a lie. Lois had mentioned overhearing MacAdam talking to Luthor about a recent buying trip to Colombia. "So you haven't had a chance to get to Colombia recently? The stolen emeralds—did you buy them from a middleman?"
MacAdam hesitated for a fraction of a second, so brief that had he not been paying careful attention to the man, Clark would probably have missed it.
"Yes, that's how I buy most of my stones these days, Mr. Kent." MacAdam smiled regretfully, then replaced the emerald crystal in its place in the book case.
"Who are your suppliers?"
"They vary…" The phone on his desk rang, and he stepped over to answer it. "Yes, David?"… "No, that's fine. Mr. Kent is just leaving. Put Mr. Lamont through."
Clark signalled that he'd got the message. "Thanks for the information, Mr. MacAdam."
"Drop by again when you're ready for that ring."
Clark turned to leave the office and was just crossing the threshold into the hallway as MacAdam was saying, "What can I do for you, Jake?"
Although he was further ahead, it was only by a yard, Clark thought as he walked away from the Metropolis Tower where 'Dimitri's' was located. MacAdam was as evasive as he had been a couple of days earlier when they'd first talked. Still, evasion rather than outright denial confirmed what Bobby had told him earlier about the necklace. So did the great lady know? Clark wondered. He'd enlist Lois's help on that one.
Right after he talked to her about her contract at the Planet. If he could get her to talk about it. His mouth set in a firm line. He would make her talk. Yeah, you and what army? pal. He smiled ruefully, but he was determined. Lois Lane would talk! Just how he was going to achieve that he wasn't quite sure. Tying her up and depriving her of chocolate was probably not a good idea.
He sighed and his mind returned to the problem at hand. Why had MacAdam lied about travelling out of the country? When had he gone to Colombia? Who did he get the stones from? Clark had assumed all along that the emeralds were the real target of the robbery, but now he wondered if it might have been the necklace. Which reminded him, he hadn't yet called Henderson about the necklace being paste.
He spotted a phone kiosk at the end of the block, and put through a call to Henderson who, not too surprisingly, was out on an investigation. Clark was reluctant to leave his information with the duty officer to whom he was speaking, so he left a message asking the detective to call him as soon as he could.
As he was hanging up, his superhearing caught the faint sounds of shouts coming from the southern part of the city. The noise intensified, at first sounding like the roar of a crowd at a football game but now changing, overlaid with higher pitched screams. He picked out a few words. "… out of here! … I've been hit! … Help!" Then an ominous regular thudding of precise footsteps, like an advancing platoon of disciplined infantry.
Desperately he glanced around for a secure place to pull a quick change and saw none. No, wait, that transport truck which had just turned the corner at the north side street of Metropolis Tower and was now pulling to a stop. There was a massive canvass tarp there, shielding scaffolding behind which, at the moment, Clark could see no workers. Once the van stopped, it would form a de facto alley.
Clark walked as quickly as he could without drawing attention to himself, all the while listening to the increasing din of a panicking crowd, and in a blur, he slipped between the solid white panel siding of the van and the heavy tan canvas. By the time the van had braked, Superman was taking off and into the sky, hoping that, like Lois Lane, the driver of that particular vehicle never checked in the rear view mirror on the passenger side.
He was at his destination almost instantaneously. The Lexor Hotel, site of the World Trade Conference, and right now something a whole lot more dangerous. Below him, the street was filled with stampeding people, tear gas swirling around them. At the far end, a steady wedge of riot police, visors down and bullet proof plastic shields before them, marched relentlessly forward, never wavering, pushing the crowds back, like a phalanx of Spartan warriors, helmeted, masked and hidden from the people they pursued.
In the middle of the chaos of the crowds he spotted Lois Lane and his heart lurched. Without thinking, he swooped down like a hawk, his red cape billowing behind him. Just as he was about a foot above her, he reached down, grabbed her shoulders in his strong hands and soared upward, flying her to a safe perch atop the flat roof of the old building across the avenue from the Lexor Hotel. Gently, he set her down, looking at her carefully, checking her. He kept his hands on her shoulders as though fearful that she would disappear.
"Are you all right?"
Her eyes blazed. "Yes, I'm all right. I was all right before you came!"
He looked at her, astounded. "Lois, you were in the middle of a stampeding mob! That's a riot down there!"
"And I was covering it! Doing my job!"
"You were in danger!"
"No, I was not. Besides, I can take care of myself." She glared at him, her face angry and her dark hair tangling in the wind which sliced across the plateau of the flat roof. "Now take me back."
"No." There was a smudge on her cheek, and he wondered grimly how she had got it. He folded his arms across his chest. He wasn't taking her anywhere.
They stared at each other, dark eyes determined, and then both spoke at the same time.
"I don't need a keeper."
"You take too many risks. What are you trying to prove?"
"That I can do it, dammit!"
He heard the desperation in her voice, but also the defiance. It was a declaration. He took a step toward her. "Lois…
Two shots split the air above the noise of the crowd below. Superman looked at Lois, his eyes registering agonized distress at what those shots implied. "Stay here!" he ordered and then took off, plummeting downward.
Lois rushed after him, braking to a stop at the edge of the flat roof, and looked down at the crowd. The space which separated the line of police from the crowd had widened, but now there was a smaller circle within the larger crowd of running people. They had stopped and were gathered around someone who was lying on the ground. Superman skidded to a landing beside that group and people parted, letting him in.
Lois turned and ran toward the door that led into the building, racing down the flight of stairs that opened onto the top floor. "I'm missing it! The biggest story of the week, and I'm missing it," she fumed as she jabbed the down button for the elevator. Maybe she should take the stairwell; it'd probably be faster than this ancient elevator. How many floors was this pile of bricks anyway? The elevator cranked open and she entered, her thoughts in a turmoil as she rode to the main lobby, watching impatiently as the light signaled each floor. This was the slowest elevator in the universe! The story would have evaporated by the time it reached ground level. Why didn't Superman just leave her alone?
Finally, she reached the lobby. She flung out of the elevator, dashed through the small foyer and out the entrance door, and, as she ran toward the edge of the crowd, she crashed into Jeff.
"Is that what you really want, Lois? For Superman to leave you alone?"
"I was right in the middle of this story as it was breaking!"
"He was trying to keep you safe. Isn't that what you've always wanted? Someone to keep you safe?"
"No! I'm not a kid anymore, Jeff."
"It's okay to need to be safe."
"I've played it too safe." They had neared the edge of the crowd and she spoke a little breathlessly.
"How'd you get that black mark on your face?"
"It's nothing." She continued jogging as she spoke, fumbling in her bag for her tape recorder. "Do you have a camera with you?"
"Did you fall?"
"No. A guy behind me shoved into me, and I stumbled against someone's picket sign. Look, Superman's over there. You go check out what's going on there and I'll go talk to Tony Johnson." With a nod of her head, she indicated the leader of one of the larger protest groups. Leaving Jeff to do his part of the job, she jogged over to where Tony was standing.
The disturbance had started about half an hour ago, and now, clearly it was defusing, its momentum dissipated, as demonstrators straggled back to acceptable spots well back of the concrete barriers which ringed the perimeter of the hotel. Lois was not quite sure how it had all got so out of hand.
She heard the shrill pitch of an ambulance siren, and she looked toward the Lexor Hotel just as the ambulance pulled up in front of it. Two paramedics were out of the van in a flash, over the barriers, and sprinting toward the crowd around Superman and the police. Lois swerved and ran there too. That was where she should be, to find out about those shots. Johnson wasn't going anywhere. She knew from past experience that everyone would be only too eager to give their version of what had just happened. More to the point, she had just spotted the news crew from LNN pulling up.
As they did, Superman took off, shooting upward, his cape a crimson banner in the clear blue sky.
The avenue was still crowded, protesters milling about talking excitedly. Anyone whom Lois asked seemed only too pleased to tell her what they thought had happened. In fact, in the space of ten minutes, she had four different versions of what was the absolute truth. As she finished talking to what she decided would be her last interview, she caught sight of a vaguely familiar face—two in fact. Jake Lamont and Alastair Albertini.
They weren't standing far from her, but neither had noticed her. Jake was chatting with a rough-dressed bald man, nudging the edge of middle-age, but Alastair was not part of their conversation. He was standing a few feet away from the two men, talking and laughing with two very pretty women who Lois thought were probably about twenty years old. They too were dressed rough, but for them it was a fashion statement, a look copied from a Gap ad. And Lois knew you didn't get hair that looked like theirs without major pain to your wallet. Jake didn't notice Lois as she approached, but Alastair did. His eyes lit up as he recognized her.
"Ms. Lane. This is awesome, isn't it?"
Lois looked at his handsome eager face. "Very awesome," she agreed. "How long have you been here?"
"I guess you're covering this for the Planet?" Alastair continued.
Lois smiled at him. "Yes. So I'd be interested in your take on what happened."
Jake had stopped talking to his companion who was now wandering away, and he came to stand beside them. "We haven't been here long enough to get much of an idea. Nice to see you again, Ms. Lane. Looks like it's been an exciting afternoon." He turned to look at Alastair. "Let's head out, Al. Let Ms. Lane get on with her job."
Alastair looked reluctant, perhaps because of the two young women, but he offered no resistance. "Bye, Ms. Lane. Maybe I'll see you again at my mother's."
Lois thought, with a smile, that that was not too likely. She watched as the two men left, accompanied by the two girls. She kept her eyes on them for longer than strictly necessary and noticed Jake stop to talk briefly to his bald friend again. She turned away, focusing once more on the people in the street.
She did her job. Found out that one protester had been wounded, although not seriously, by what the police officer said was one of two shots fired in warning to disperse the mob. The victim had not been the target, but an unlucky random casualty. There were claims that a third shot had been fired, but the police denied that they had fired that shot. One of the officers did acknowledge though that he had heard it. So who had fired that one? When they discovered that the victim had not been seriously wounded, the paramedics slowed down and methodically treated the wound, then took the woman away in the ambulance. Although she protested that she was able to walk, they insisted that she be placed on a stretcher.
Lois took a couple of quick shots of the scene, hoping that the two she had taken just before Superman had interfered would be much better than what she was getting now.
As quickly as possible, she returned to the Planet, wrote up her story, and sent it across to Perry. He beamed: he liked it very much, although he was disappointed there was no picture of Superman.
Surprisingly, Clark was on time for his meeting with Lois and Mary Mackenzie at Macy's. He was pleased; he'd hoped to be the first one to get there because Lois had been noticing more often than he liked that he was often the 'late Mr. Kent', an old phrase which told him that Perry White had been noticing too. So it had been Clark's objective to be sitting peacefully, pot of tea before him and a newspaper open—at the middle—to show that he had definitely been early. When she entered, he would bestow his most mild-mannered gaze on her and then check his wrist watch.
But Superman, whose actions had triggered the plan, had interfered with its execution. Nevertheless, the emergency which had delayed him was one of those routine affairs that he could do without much thought—remove a transport truck jackknifed across the interstate. It hadn't taken long to move the truck and clear away the few cars which had been unlucky enough to be in that spot at that particular time. Fortunately, no one had been seriously hurt and, because Superman was both extraordinarily strong and greased- lightning fast, a few people's lives had been made a little easier.
No judgement needed and a lot less prickly than rescuing Lois Lane from being crushed beneath the feet of an inflamed, out-of-control, stampeding mob. At least, that was what he thought he'd been doing because that was what it had looked like was happening when he'd spotted people scattering in all directions below him. But no, he'd got it wrong—she'd been just doing her job, nothing out of the ordinary. All in a day's work for any reporter. He thought, for about the billionth time, that she was taking even bigger risks lately. And he had not got it wrong at all.
He was absolutely positive he'd done the right thing when he'd rescued her—no, make that 'picked her up'. Her attitude had floored him. Plus, it had hurt his feelings, he now acknowledged ruefully. Then again, he shouldn't have been too surprised; it wasn't the first time she'd been ticked at Superman. She hadn't been all that thrilled with him when he'd withheld information about Waldecker either.
At that time, she'd called him to account. So why hadn't he levelled with her about the transfer of his powers back then? Hadn't she proven she was his ally? Didn't he trust her? Was it because telling her that one thing would lead to telling her everything? Or was it the memory of her relationship with Luthor? Clark sighed. At least she wasn't hero-worshipping his alter ego any longer. That brought back his crack about her crush on Superman and he winced.
He checked his watch—six minutes late. Not too bad—maybe Lois would be late. He cheered up as he recounted to himself all the times when she was not where he thought she was supposed to be. His plan could still work, he thought optimistically, as he strode into the tearoom at Macy's, hoping not to see her…
He saw her. But she was just sitting down, arranging her jacket on the chair back behind her, so she must have just arrived.
She really was beautiful, he thought.
She smiled as he approached the table. "Hi, Clark. Mary's going to be a little late—Francesca's hosting a special lunch today and it's taking a bit more time than she expected."
"So we get to relax for a few minutes then?" He grinned. "Can you do that, Lois Lane?"
"I can, if you can."
"Deal." He turned to the waitress who was hovering beside them and ordered tea and muffins. When he again looked at his companion, he noticed that she was staring out the window, her eyes unfocused. "Lois." Gently, he called her back.
She turned her attention back to him. "We don't often get to do this—just be together with nothing much to do."
"Maybe we should try to do it more often."
"And how do you think we might do that?" she asked lightly.
"Well, I guess we'd have to plan it, pick a time and a place, somewhere away from the Daily Planet."
"Like a date, you mean." The words slipped out.
"Yes," he said softly. "Like a date."
"But not a date-date."
"Well, it could be…" He looked at her and felt a nervous quickening of his pulse. God, Kent, he said to himself, just ask her out. "There's that new Mel Gibson movie. We could go to dinner first." His words were tentative, his eyes watching her carefully.
Lois looked at him. "What about Mayson? I thought you were seeing her?"
Clark was surprised. "I'm not, Lois. I haven't been."
Lois shifted her eyes away from him. "That night at the Charity Ball, you were … with her most of the evening, so I thought…" Now she looked at him, but her tone remained light. "…that you were interested in her."
Clark had no idea Lois felt that way. His first impulse was to ask her how she could have ever thought that. Nevertheless, he felt awkward—he didn't like discussing Mayson with Lois, particularly since he was aware of Lois's animosity toward her. It was unfair to Mayson; yet he didn't want to mislead Lois either. Not about something as important as this. "There's nothing between us, Lois."
"So yesterday, at the courthouse, after the briefing…" She didn't need to finish her question.
"I wanted to talk to her about the DA's call on the Superman charge."
"Why?" Her eyes widened. "Clark, the DA's office did the right thing." When he didn't speak, she continued. "You suspected Mayson really disagreed with what the DA said, in spite of what she said to the press, and that's what you went to find out, isn't it?"
"And I take it Mayson hasn't changed her mind?"
"No—how can she, Lois? What Superman did hasn't changed, and the law hasn't changed."
"Clark, it's not that simple! Both you and Mayson are looking at this as though it's possible to label all actions as absolutely right or absolutely wrong, as though it's just about good guys and bad guys. But the circumstances here are just as important as the cold fact of the act itself. They make a difference." She lowered her voice and leaned forward. "And don't forget about the kryptonite. Mayson doesn't know about that."
"So Superman had no choice but to act as he did? There was nothing else he could have done?"
Lois sighed. "I just don't think it's that simple," she repeated. "Often things aren't. Sometimes we wind up making a mistake, but for the best of reasons."
"Surely it has to be different with Superman? If he does the wrong thing, someone could die."
Lois looked at him, and Clark wondered at the sadness in her dark eyes, and then the compassion. And once again, he thought how beautiful she was, how beautiful she would always be.
"Clark, remember I told you that what attracts me about Superman is his integrity and his innate goodness. Well, I haven't changed my mind about that, but I've come to realize that Superman is really pretty ordinary in a lot of ways."
"You have?" Clark was startled by this bit of news.
"Yes," she said emphatically. Leaning forward, she reached across the small table and gently squeezed his hand for a second. "He may be Superman, but he's not Perfectman, although for some reason, which I don't quite get, I think he believes he has to be. But, Clark, you've got to understand that he's not perfect, too. He needs you— you're his friend. But if you lose faith in him, if you can't accept that he's not perfect, then how can you be his friend?" She was pleading with him.
"Lois, sometimes it's hard, harder than I thought it would ever be." Was that Clark Kent or Superman speaking? He didn't care—he just wanted to talk with this woman who sat across from him. Needed desperately to talk with her. As he gazed intently at her, he thought she looked puzzled by his comment. Then her eyes cleared, and again he felt the reassuring touch of her hand on his, her fingers slowly tracing the back of his hand, and he wondered at how a touch so slight could make him feel so complete.
"The other day, you accused me of letting my crush on Superman cloud my judgement."
His face showed the dismay he felt over those angry words. "Lois, I shouldn't have said that."
At first she blushed. Then she spoke slowly, as though she were saying something she had just come to understand herself. "Maybe, but you did mean it, Clark." She gave him a crooked smile. "You know, though, I don't think I ever did let my 'crush'—" She spoke the term with a small hint of repugnance. "—influence my judgement. I hope not anyway." She grinned at him. "But what it did do was blind me to the fact that Superman's not infallible. That although he's capable of the greatest heroism, he can also make mistakes."
"And is that what he did with Corbin?"
"Maybe—honestly, Clark, I'm really not sure. But I do know he had to act quickly. And I do know that he didn't intend for Corbin to die. I mean, how could he have predicted that Vale would grab the battery? You know, I've been thinking about how it all happened, and it seems to me that, in some ways, what Superman had to do at that particular moment was pretty complex, even more complex than what he had to do when he faced the Nightfall asteroid."
Clark lowered his head as she talked, soothed by the softness of her voice, and the warmth of her hand on his.
"He risked his life to stop Nightfall. What he did was heroic. But, Clark, I don't think it was as complicated as what he had to face with Corbin."
He jerked his head up at that. "It wasn't? Now, wait a minute, Lois. He had to hit that asteroid at just the right angle, and at exactly where the scientists told him to, not one foot to the left…" He stopped as he realized she was looking at him strangely, and that he would soon be telling her, in much too vivid detail, about the whole experience.
"Anyway, maybe Superman could have handled Corbin differently," Lois continued. "Would that have saved his life? We don't know, can't ever know, that. And Superman has to accept that maybe there are situations where he might not be able to do what he hopes to do."
"Superman abhors violence, Lois. He does not condone killing as a way of solving problems."
She sighed. "There you go again, Clark—seeing the world in black and white, no middle ground, no shadows. But let's assume you're right—Superman messed up. So, does he get to understand how that happened, and more importantly forgive himself, or should he just continue to beat himself up over it? And can *you* never forgive him?" She paused, then added gently, "Maybe it's you who has been the hero- worshipper?" But her fingers caressed his hand as she said it.
When he didn't reply to her, she continued and this time she spoke haltingly and withdrew her hand from his. "A year ago, I had a reputation as an outstanding investigative reporter—that means that I asked the hard questions and noticed the clues that some other people missed. Yet, I managed to avoid doing all that when I agreed to marry Lex Luthor. He was a killer, Clark, a destroyer of people's lives. Isn't that what you'd been trying to tell me for so long? And I wouldn't even listen to you."
She raised her eyes to his, seeking … what? he wondered. His forgiveness?
Now it was his hand that covered hers, his large fingers closing around her more delicate ones. "Lois, I've said some things to you… I guess I resented, didn't understand. I was… hurt. There are things I haven't said… I…" He floundered, helpless.
"But you never gave up on me, did you?"
"No." He smiled and his strong fingers entwined through hers, absently playing with them. "I could never do that, Lois Lane."
"If you can do that for me, suspend that 'he's right or he's wrong' code for me, then why can't you do it for Superman?"
His smile was genuine as he recognized the trap into which he'd fallen. "Because he's Super Man?"
"Clark, you haven't been listening to me here. Superman is only human… he has made mistakes, and I guarantee you he'll screw up again sometime. Sure—he bends steel in his bare hands, he's faster than a speeding bullet, an upholder of truth and justice. But here's the awful truth—that's on the good days." She paused and met his eyes. "So cut the guy some slack, Clark—he's a couple of degrees down the slope from perfect."
"Well…" She leaned back in her chair and her tone lightened. "I think the jury's still out on whether he has a sense of humour, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't like chocolate." Then she became serious again. "He prevaricates at times, and occasionally, he interferes when he really doesn't need to."
He grinned at her. "Like rescuing Lois Lane from crazed mobs when she doesn't want any help?" It was out before he'd realized he'd said it, and he was aware of his heart hammering. What was he doing? Was he losing it?
She gave him a withering glance. "And he chats way too much to you about me."
Whew. Safe one more time. So why was he so disappointed?
"So what I'm saying is that he's a whole lot like you and me."
"Do you have any idea how incredible you are, Lois Lane?"
She tilted her head to one side and her dark eyes danced. Then she smiled and he was dazzled.
"Does that mean I've convinced you, then?"
"You've given me something to think about—a couple of things."
"Ms. Lane?" Unnoticed by either of them, Mary MacKenzie had arrived at their table. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting."
Both Lois and Clark, started, then recovered quickly. Lois smiled at the older woman reassuringly. "Please, don't be. You've given us an excuse to take a bit of a break. This is my… partner, Clark Kent."
Clark, who had risen and pulled out a chair for Mary, caught the word and smiled. He smiled at Mary MacKenzie, too, as he offered her his hand while Lois completed the introductions. As he helped the woman off with her coat, he said, "We're curious about what you have to tell us." He was aware of Mary's scrutiny as they both sat down.
"This is really Clark's story so I asked him to come. I hope you're comfortable with that. There's no one you can trust more than Clark."
Mary MacKenzie nodded her consent. "Yes, I've read Mr. Kent's articles, and yours, too, Ms. Lane. I believe I can trust you both." She sounded troubled. "I need to be sure, though, that what we talk about here is off the record." She looked at them, making up her mind as she spoke.
Both Lois and Clark spoke at the same time, reassuring her that anything she told them was in strictest confidence.
She nodded, then sighed. "I've worked for Francesca Albertini for fifteen years now. She's a very special woman, and I care what happens to her and her family." She stopped speaking.
"But something has happened to make you concerned about them?" Clark prodded gently.
"The problem is, I wasn't sure what to do when I found it. Whether to tell the Contessa…"
"But you called me instead," Lois said.
Again, Mary nodded, then she fumbled in her purse and removed a small zip-locked plastic bag which contained a neatly folded tissue. "This morning I found this on the floor in young Alastair's room—wedged beneath the baseboard behind his desk." She opened the bag and methodically unfolded the tissue so that it lay like a small cushion in front of her, framing the brilliant blue of a sapphire.
Lois gasped. She judged the stone to be about a quarter inch in diameter, and it was beautiful. "You think this stone came from the necklace, don't you?"
"I'm certain it did. It's the same size as the smaller stones in that necklace."
"You took the necklace to Dimitri's, I believe," Clark said. "Did you notice if one of the stones was missing?"
"None were missing—it would have been obvious to both me and the Contessa if one had been."
"So where did this stone come from and why was it in Alastair's bedroom?"
Mary's blue eyes were worried. "I don't know."
"Does Alastair have anything that has a sapphire in it?" Lois asked.
"Of course, I'm not aware of what he has, but I don't think so. He's just a young man, not much interested in that sort of thing. I've never noticed him to wear anything other than his Harvard class ring."
"Mary, do you think this could have anything to do with the necklace's theft from Dimitri's?" Clark asked.
"I don't see how it can."
"So why didn't you tell Francesca?" Lois asked.
"Because I don't want to upset her. I don't know why the stone was in Alastair's room, but I don't think it should have been there. Before I tell the Contessa, I want to know what happened."
"Mary, do you mind if we hang on to the sapphire for a couple of days? I'd like to check it out," Clark said.
"Not with Mr. MacAdam, I hope. I think he would recognize what it is and go to the Contessa."
"Don't worry. We'll consult someone else, and we'll keep it quiet."
"Are you prepared to go the police if we find something odd about this sapphire?"
"I'm not sure," Mary said carefully. "That's why I came to you." She met their eyes directly. "I couldn't think who else to go to."
"Alastair was out of town for a while, wasn't he?" Lois asked.
"Yes, but not for long. He spent a few days on his friend's yacht. That morning you came to the house, Ms. Lane, that was his first day back after the trip."
"He lives at home then?"
"Yes, although on and off. He lived in residence until he graduated this spring."
"Have he and Jake known each other a long time?" Lois asked.
"I don't know, but we'd never met him at the house before this week." Mary seemed uncomfortable about talking too much about the family for whom she worked.
"Does Alastair have a job?" Lois asked, wondering if that's what the sons of the very rich did immediately after they graduated from college.
"He's interning three days a week with a law firm—he'll be entering law school in January."
"Why not this fall?"
"He spent most of the summer in Europe, although he came back to Metropolis a couple of times. The family isn't in town much during the summer. When he returned home at the beginning of September, he wasn't too sure what he wanted to do."
"Hence the law firm—see if he liked it?" Clark suggested.
"Yes," Mary smiled and there was a touch of pride in her eyes. "He's decided it's right for him."
"That's good," Lois said.
"I must be getting back, Ms. Lane." She reached around for her purse which she'd draped over the back of her chair. "We've been short-staffed the last couple of days."
"Oh?" Lois inquired.
"Janine. She hasn't come in the last two days."
"Wasn't she the person who brought our coffee the other morning?"
"Yes. She's always been so reliable. And now she just hasn't shown up." Mary went on to explain how she'd checked with Janine's roommates.
"She'll probably appear in a day or two." Lois tried to reassure the woman who was sitting beside her.
"I hope so." Mary rose and as she did, so did Clark. He helped her slide into her jacket. "Thanks," she said to Clark, "and thank you both for seeing me."
"Try not to worry, Mary. I'm sure everything will work out. We'll call you as soon as we find out anything." But as Lois spoke she was aware that her words were platitudes, the customary reassurance that one often gave to people who were distressed. Her instinct was telling her that things wouldn't work out.
After they left Macy's, Lois and Clark dropped by MPD headquarters. Henderson was still out, so once again Clark left him a message. Then they swung by the forensics department, looking for Sandy Wong. Although Lois had checked with the woman late yesterday, she hadn't given her much more information on the explosion than she had the morning at the docks. She didn't want to compromise the ongoing police investigation, she had said.
They found her at her desk, staring intently at a computer screen which was showing the sworls of two enlarged fingerprints. She looked up as they approached.
"I can give you five minutes."
"That means you've got something," Lois said.
"A few more details. But, I've still got more questions than answers right now." She grinned. "I'll leave those for the 'other side' to figure out, though."
Lois smiled at Sandy's term for the detectives who worked with her evidence to track down the perpetrators of crimes. "Have you identified the body yet?"
"No. And that's where we could use some publicity. From what the coroner has come up with, it looks like the victim's female, probably in her twenties, about five foot six, brown hair. But the dive team didn't find anything that gives us a clue as to who she was. They're trying to come up with a sketch of her based on what her body tells us. We'll release it asap."
Clark was surprised at this news. All along he'd been thinking of the victim as a man. But then all he'd seen was the back of a person's head as she lay asleep under that blanket. "She must have died quickly," he said more to himself than to the two women in the room.
"Not that quickly," Sandy interjected. "But she was already dead before the boat exploded."
"She was?" Clark felt a huge weight lift from his shoulders. There was nothing he could have done to save her! And the presence of a dead body on board explained why the two had jumped rather than radioed for help. Relieved, he expelled a long breath. "I just assumed she'd been killed when the boat exploded."
"No—it looks like she'd been dead for almost twenty-four hours by the time that boat exploded."
"So we're talking murder then?" Lois asked.
"No, it doesn't look like it. The body wasn't completely chewed up by the explosion—most of it was propelled some distance from the boat."
Both Lois and Clark grimaced. In Sandy's statement, there was a detachment from the horror of what had happened that seemed a little ghoulish.
Oblivious of their reaction, Sandy continued, "It looks like she died of a drug overdose. Cocaine."
"So they wanted to dispose of the body," Clark said.
"And someone wanted to dispose of them, too, by the look of it," Lois added.
"Maybe not," Sandy said. "The bomb was timed to go off when it did. But the woman's death was accidental. So whoever planted the bomb couldn't be sure who would use the boat next or even if it would be in use."
"Any idea who owned it?"
"Not yet, but give us time. No one's reported a stolen boat, but, given the circumstances, we could hardly have expected that to happen."
"Did you guys get any of the registration numbers or the name of the boat?"
"Not all of them. One letter, four numbers. We also got a chunk of fibreglass with brass letters on it—'aby'.
"Well that narrows it down, doesn't it," Lois said wryly.
"Oh yeah." Sandy grinned.
"And the two men—any more there?"
"We got some fibres from the rocks beneath that trap door. Looks like we know the colour of their socks and that they were wearing jeans."
"Oh, great, that's a big help," Lois said.
Clark grinned at her, then said to Sandy, "Ignore her. She's really very grateful."
"I can tell," Sandy said with just a hint of sarcasm.
Lois laughed. "Well, I am. See ya, Sandy." And with that the two said good-bye to Sandy Wong, aka 'a reliable source at police headquarters'.
On their way out of the forensics lab, Lois and Clark did a quick check to see if Henderson was in his office, but the detective was still out, and so Clark's information about the fake necklace remained undelivered. Disappointed, they wound their way out through the maze of untidy desks, which served as headquarters for individual MPD officers, and then entered the dingy corridor that led to the front lobby.
As they walked toward the front entrance, Lois returned to what Sandy had just told them. "We have to tell Superman."
"About the woman's body, Clark. Can you imagine what he must have been thinking about her death?"
Clark looked ahead, not focusing. "Yeah, Lois… yeah, I can imagine."
"But now we have to let him know that there's nothing he could have done."
He turned his gaze back to her. She had sensed all along how he had been feeling, all along had understood him. "No there wasn't—anything, anything at all, that he could have done." His words were slow, deliberate, but there was a lightness in them, a relief and an affirmation of his action that morning. Then he sobered as he thought of the dead woman.
"So we have to tell him, Clark."
"It'll be in the next edition of the Daily Planet, Lois. He'll see it." Smiling affectionately at her, he admonished, "Remember, he reads your stuff."
She shot him a quick glance, her eyes curious. What did they do, sit down and critique her articles? Surely Superman had better things to do?
Quickly he shifted gears. "So now we have a different story. The identity of the girl… and the two men. And the bomb—why and who?"
"Your story in the first place, Clark. But maybe Perry'll team us on it."
"Keep that thought, Lois," he said hopefully as they approached the front doors. Like the Smallville gentleman he was, he held one of the doors open for her and they stepped outside.
And then, as they stood in the brisk autumn wind on the broad expanse of pavement outside MPD headquarters, they did something a little risky.
"Lois, about the date…"
"The date?" Lois took a deep breath. "Are you sure we should do this, Clark? I've been thinking…"
He bulldozed ahead. "Maybe tomorrow?"
She shook her head and appeared to be chewing the inside of her cheek. "No… Lucy and I are going bowling."
"What?" Was this her way of backing out on him? "Lois, do you even know what a bowling ball looks like?"
"Yeah, it's round—everyone knows that."
He looked down at the pavement where his toe seemed to have found something worth shoving around, poking and finally lodging it in a crack in the sidewalk.
Lois started to speak rapidly. "Okay, so I don't know what a bowling ball looks like. But I'm going to find out." She sounded determined. "The restaurant where Lucy works— they have a league—and Friday there's this tournament for staff and family. It's a big, once a year deal; the restaurant even closes early. So Lucy asked me if I would go. It's important, Clark, for me and Lucy—we used to be so close. And I want us to be again. So I'm going bowling on Friday."
He watched her as she finished speaking and then touched her shoulder. "So maybe we should rethink the Mel Gibson movie, and I could teach you how to bowl?"
"Clark, you know how to bowl?" She sounded impressed. Then she added, "I guess that's what they do in Smallville, huh?"
"Right after we harvest the corn, Lois."
She laughed and quickly shot back, "I thought it was wheat." Then, suddenly she raised her eyes to meet his. "That means we'd have to do this tonight. The date I mean."
"It does," he agreed solemnly.
"Think I'd rather see the Mel Gibson, though," she said thoughtfully. "Not sure I could handle bowling two nights in a row."
"So that does mean tonight, then." He grinned, pleased, and his dark eyes sparkled.
"Yes…" she said hesitantly. Then repeated, "Yes!"
"So… I'll pick you up at seven, and we could go to Alexander's for dinner, and then catch the movie after that."
They looked at each other, neither saying anything for a moment, and then each smiled, suddenly shy and nervous, as though meeting for the first time. But pleased too—they'd done it. Well, not actually done it, but it looked as though they might do it.
A gust of wind blew a strand of dark hair across Lois's face and Clark swiftly reached out to touch it, brushing it back from her cheek. Gently, he tucked it behind her ear. Her eyes widened at his touch, and he could hear her heart hammering. Did he have that effect on her? Incredulous, at a complete loss for words, he continued to stare at her.
She took a deep breath. "Well…" she said but seemed unable to continue.
"Well…" he said.
"I guess I should be going."
"I guess so. Me too. I should get back to the Planet… write this bit up before deadline."
Neither moved, each reluctant to be the first one to say good-bye. Then a look of panic crossed Lois's face.
"Clark, I don't have anything to wear! I have to get going." She turned and walked rapidly away, tossing over her shoulder, "See you later."
He grinned. He'd done that a lot in the last five minutes.
In the back seat of the cab which was taking far too long to get to her apartment, Lois kept mentally reorganizing her wardrobe—in between panicking over her date with Clark.
It was going to be a disaster.
No, it would be the best night of her life.
Maybe she should wear that red dress, the one she'd impulsively bought a couple of weeks ago. No—it was too short, too tight, and had too much cleavage. It made her look like she rented by the hour. Not even that long. God, the date might be the most boring date either of them had ever had! Black—yes—everyone wore black. Very safe. Making a non-statement. No, she didn't want him to nod off on her, or worse, start checking out the other dresses in the room. It's just dinner and a movie!! What colour does he like? God, he probably likes something I don't have— like burgundy. She checked her watch. Do I have enough time to buy something new? Get a grip—it's just a Mel Gibson movie, not the premiere of the latest Brit drama. Jeans—she should wear jeans. It was a jeans kind of movie. Yeah. Maybe black leather? What would Cat wear? God, no, she'd freeze all night.
Wasn't Clark worth freezing for?
She'd fantasized about a date with Clark. No, no her fantasies were about a date with Superman. In her fantasy, she and Clark would be dancing, and he would pull her closely against him. She had danced with Superman. Then Clark's hand would glide gently across the bare skin of her back. He had beautiful hands. She sighed.
She took a deep breath. It's just a date, Lois, she told herself. Jeans and a sweater. But good jeans—designer jeans. She didn't have any designer jeans!
Maybe she should get her hair cut? God, no, what was she thinking?
Finally, the cab pulled over in front of her apartment building. As she fumbled in her bag for some cash to pay the driver, Lois's fingers accidentally touched the plastic bag in which Mary Mackenzie had placed the sapphire. Lois had forgotten about it! She had just enough time to check it out before getting ready for the date. Leaning forward, she directed the driver to take her to Bronson and 22nd Street.
About ten minutes later they arrived in front of the small diner run by Louie, the father of her college tennis doubles partner. Louie could help; after all he had contacts—guys who knew guys. Last year, he'd helped Clark track down Jack after he'd burgled Clark's apartment. She hoped Louie would be able to put her in touch with someone knowledgeable who would look at the sapphire but not talk to anyone afterward about what he'd seen.
Once inside the dingy diner, she explained what she needed, but hedged and only partially explained why she needed it. Then she asked Louie if he could help. Louie could. A couple of minutes on the phone to see if the guy was available and then fifteen minutes later, Lois was in the back room of a small shop, taking the blue jewel out of its pouch and handing it to an elderly man.
He looked at it and she saw the interest spark in his blue eyes.
"An unusual stone you have here, young lady."
"Is it real?" Lois asked.
"Oh yes," he replied. Then he pulled out a monocular eyepiece, held it close to his right eye and inspected the stone more closely. He smiled. "Perfect." He handed the gem back to her. "Do you know what you've got here?"
Lois smiled slightly and shook her head. "I was hoping you could tell me."
"A top quality sapphire, that's what you have. The best I've seen, although not the largest. But what's more interesting is the way it has been cut." He handed her his eyepiece. "Look carefully at the facets. That's the work of a master craftsman." He shook his head sadly. "We don't cut stones that way so much these days. Usually there's more faceting, to make the gem reflect more light. This one was probably cut in Europe—the first half of the nineteenth century, maybe earlier."
Lois looked through the eyepiece but lacked the knowledge to appreciate anything more than the gem's brilliance. She handed his eyepiece back. "Thanks," she said, pleased. One more piece of the puzzle.
The old man looked at her shrewdly. "There aren't too many places a gem like this could have come from."
"A few—do you have the piece this stone belongs to?"
"No," Lois said.
He nodded. "A very famous sapphire necklace was stolen a few days ago from Dimitri's."
"I imagine there's always stolen jewellery around."
"True—diamonds, especially; twenty percent of the diamonds in the legitimate trade are obtained through smuggling and money laundering."
"Yes, I'd read that. The blood diamond trade out of Africa." Lois watched him carefully, wondering what he was leading up to.
"Not only Africa. Not just diamonds."
"Emeralds, for example?"
"Most definitely. Smuggled or stolen, then exchanged for clean money and used to buy guns from European and American munitions companies."
"Have you heard anything about the emeralds stolen from Dimitri's?"
"I'm an old man—they don't tell me so much anymore." Then he added, "But I'll bet you even money your sapphire here is tied to that robbery." He paused. "A couple of weeks ago, I heard that stones of this cut and quality showed up on the street. That would've been before the robbery."
He stopped speaking and watched her face closely. Lois wondered if he were waiting for her to make the obvious conclusion.
"Any idea who bought them?" she asked "Or who sold them?"
"No—like I said, they don't give me much news anymore."
Lois smiled at him. "But you've been a big help, and I appreciate it."
Lois and her friend left the man's shop, walking out onto the street just as it started to rain. Twenty minute later she was back at her apartment. She had fifteen minutes to get ready for her date with Clark.
By the time Lois got back to her apartment, the rain had turned into a steady downpour. In the short time it took her to dash from the taxi and into her apartment building she was soaked. She caught sight of her reflection in the glass of the air-lock doors which separated the front entrance from the tiny lobby of her old building. Her hair was a disaster, hanging in wet curly strands. She checked her watch. Not much time to reconstruct. With luck, Clark would be late.
Clark wasn't late. He was five minutes early. She had just got out of the shower when she heard his knock on her door. Quickly, she grabbed her robe, twisted a towel around her wet hair, and got there on the second knock. So much for making an impression on him. Yep, she was right— the date was going to be a disaster. Just how bad did she look?
Maybe she should just not open the door. Pretend she wasn't home. He knocked again. She sighed, opened the door, and met his startled eyes.
"Got home late," she mumbled. "Not ready yet." Which was pretty obvious.
"You look… good."
She looked at him skeptically and didn't move.
He grinned. "Really. That turban thing…" He raised his hand and gestured, not quite touching the towel. Then his voice lowered a decibel to something that was rough, soft, tender. "You… always do." His other hand was behind his back, and now he pulled it forward and handed her a single red rose.
She met his eyes and saw that they were hopeful, unsure. He was just as nervous as she was! She took the rose and looked at it. It was a romantic gesture and it frightened her out of her wits. She took a deep breath.
"You don't like it?" He sounded worried.
"I love it. It's so beautiful." She lifted her eyes to his. "But it's a rose!"
"Yes…" He sounded cautious.
"I mean, Clark, you've never given me a rose before."
"Sure I have—I've given you flowers before."
"Yes. I know, but this is a single rose!" Clutching the stem, she carried it to her small kitchen where she found a narrow vase and slowly filled it with water, then set it on the counter.
Get a grip, she told herself. It's just a flower. Guys look at these things differently than we do. Besides, what was going on with that single rose you gave Superman after the Kerths? That was different, she countered. It wasn't red. It was white—for idealism, she told herself smugly. And besides it was an impulse, taken from the bouquet Clark gave you before the Kerths. Exactly, she continued. That time he gave you lots of flowers, and not one of them was red. Anyway, that white rose she'd given to Superman hadn't really come from her, it had come from Clark—all she'd been was the intermediary between Clark Kent and Superman.
She set the rose on the counter and then looked up as she felt Clark watching her. She met his eyes, caught the humour in them, and she smiled. *A rose is a rose is a rose,* she mentally quoted.
"Looks like we're off to a good start, right?" she said ruefully as she walked over to where Clark was standing.
"A very good start." His tone was solemn, but his dark eyes danced, teasing her. "But I gotta say, I'm wondering about the bathrobe. There might be a dress code."
"Told you I had nothing to wear." She grinned impudently at him, finding her footing again. This was Clark, not some exalted being, just her Clark.
"Nothing's good. I could live with that."
"Clark, it's raining out there. I'd have to wear something." She took a step closer to him, and her fingers traced the damp spots which raindrops had left on the shoulders of his sports coat. Her eyes met his and she said, "See?"
His voice got all gravelly again, chasing her libido around her living room. "Yeah, I noticed." He paused, then shrugged and his voice returned to normal. "So, in that case, I'd be okay with your wearing clothes."
"I appreciate that, Clark." She turned toward her bedroom door. "I should be ready in fifteen."
And that was what it took her. Having blown her big chance to stun Clark Kent when he'd first shown up, she now settled for dry hair, a dash of mascara and a suggestion of lipstick, plus the black slacks which she'd picked up from the cleaners yesterday. However, she did select a sweater with a neckline that scooped just a question mark lower than what her mother would have approved. She would have to do.
The look on Clark's face when she emerged told her she did quite fine.
"So you haven't asked me why I was late," Lois said to him as they left the apartment.
"That was good of me, wasn't it?"
She swatted him lightly on the arm.
"Or maybe I was just distracted by that turban thing."
"Okay, Lois, why were you late?" He stepped back in order to let her enter the small elevator which serviced her old apartment building.
Her eyes sparkled as she looked over her shoulder at him. "I knew you'd be curious. After I left you this afternoon, I remembered the sapphire, and took it over to Louie's, you know him, Clark, and he took me over to this jeweller he knows."
"With impeccable credentials, I'm betting."
Lois grinned. "Very impeccable." The elevator came to a noisy stop and the two stepped out.
"And, the sapphire is the real thing, first rate in fact, and likely from a century old setting. You can tell from the way it's been cut. I never knew that, did you?"
"No, I didn't." They were out on the street now and the rain had stopped, and the night was mild, although still humid, thick with the promise of more rain to come.
"Do we have time to walk to the restaurant, d'you think?" Lois asked.
"Not if we want to go to 'Alexander's'. But we do if we just go round the corner to 'The Alley Cat'."
Lois tucked her arm through his. "Let's do that."
He smiled, covering her hand with his for a moment. "Okay."
As they walked the short distance to the small family restaurant she told him what else Louie's friend had told her.
"So he's guessing the stone came from the stolen necklace?" Clark asked.
"He avoided actually saying that, but I think he does."
"The Lane intuition at work," he said lightly.
"Nothing so insubstantial," she replied. "The last thing he did as Louie and I left was to repeat something he'd said earlier—that it wasn't just diamonds that had blood on them. And that it was interesting how the necklace was stolen at the same time as the emeralds were."
"Blood emeralds," Clark said slowly. "Look, Lois, if that's what those emeralds are, this could turn out to be something a whole lot more serious than just a robbery."
"I know, Clark. I wonder who Dimitri got those emeralds from in the first place?"
"And how the sapphire necklace ties in."
"If it ties in. After all Louie's pal didn't actually confirm that."
"Tomorrow we do a little digging. Follow up on the sapphire, too, and maybe you can talk to Alastair."
"Yeah, I'd already thought about that—it's not going to be easy."
"And I have yet to talk to Bill Henderson."
"Clark, you can't tell him about the sapphire. Mary spoke to us in confidence."
"I know, I know."
She glanced at his profile as he spoke, and watched as he pushed his hand through his black hair, a familiar gesture she'd come to recognize as a sign of concern about what step to take. Part of Clark Kent's problem solving technique. She smiled.
"Lois, I'm betting Alastair…"
"…probably swapped the stones in Francesca's necklace."
"He's not a kid anymore…"
"and there may be some reason why he needs a large sum of money."
They'd stopped walking and were now standing on the pavement planning their course of action. Clark suddenly grinned at her as he realised that they'd automatically fallen back into the their old work routine, and so he decided to pull them back from it. He placed his hands on her shoulders and gently squeezed them. "But not tonight, Lois Lane." His eyes held hers as he raised his hand to cradle her cheek, and then he slid his fingers slowly over her hair.
"Not tonight," she repeated, stilled by the wonder of his touch. Shyly, she gazed at him, drawn by the sparkle that lit the dark recesses of his eyes, compelled to go there, to find out what there was to know about Clark Kent, everything there was to know, and then lose herself in him. Escape, fly away with him.
The intensity of what she was feeling shocked her, and she pulled back, breaking the spell… no suspending it, putting it on hold until she had time to sort it out, to think about it, to understand it.
Still, she smiled at him, bemused and happy to be where she was. "No, not tonight. But first thing tomorrow."
The Alley Cat had been a neighbourhood institution for decades, at least so the locals said. And it really did have a resident orange tabby cat, now nudging old age, who slumbered on a cushion at the back of the restaurant. Lois was pretty sure that keeping the cat on the premises violated some health department rule but no one ever seemed to object. Certainly not her.
In the few years she'd lived in her apartment, Lois had got in the habit of popping into the 'Cat' to grab some take- out, and occasionally, over the last year, she and Clark had gone there for a quick dinner when they'd been pulling an all-nighter on a story. She felt comfortable there, and it was a whole lot less momentous to be going there with Clark right now than it would have been to have dinner with him at Alexander's. This was her territory.
Quite the risk-taker, Lois, she said to herself.
They got to the restaurant just in time to get the last table which meant, of course, that they got to sit at the back not far from those squeaky swinging doors which separate the kitchen from the dining area. Just a few feet away, behind a gleaming counter, the bar tender prepared drinks for milling waiters to transport to customers.
As Lois and Clark walked to their spot, they manoeuvred among closely placed tables, most of which appeared to have one or two more people sitting at them than they could accommodate. However, neither Lois nor Clark cared at all about the hive of activity that buzzed around them. At that moment, as far as they were concerned no one else really existed anyway; they were all just dim apparitions, murmuring in the background, traversing through the space into which Lois and Clark had temporarily wandered.
They sat down at the table and beamed at each other, speechless with the miracle of finding themselves together, and both feeling as though they were getting away with something.
A waiter appeared at their table, a long skinny kid whom they'd encountered here before, working part time to help pay his tuition costs, and he brought them back to earth.
"Hey, you two," he greeted them as he pulled out his order pad. "Workin' late, again? Must be a big story."
"Not tonight, Al." Clark made it sound like some sort of special announcement.
"We're just here for dinner," Lois added.
"Dinner? You mean like a date dinner?"
Lois looked at him, exasperated. "Al, has no one ever explained to you about the idea of 'unobtrusive'?"
"Yeah—that's how it goes in those boring places. Y'know, like uptown French places where my parents go on big occasions."
The legendary orange alley cat tumbled from its plump cushion on the wooden chair in the corner, and sauntered the short distance toward their table where it began to purr as it swished by Lois's legs, en route to greeting the rest of the clientele.
"So what can I bring you?"
They told him and he left, and Clark grinned at his companion. "Next time, maybe we check out one of those French restaurants."
Lois's eyes widened. "Next time!"
Clark detected a slight note of panic in her voice, and for the first time was suspicious about her suggestion that they come here rather than to Alexander's. He looked at her firmly. Now was not the time to back down. He mentally grabbed the virtual brick that he imagined she was reaching for and removed it before she had a chance to add it to that neat little wall of hers. "Next time, Lois."
"Next time," she repeated, nodding and then a small pleased smile flitted across her eyes as she toyed with the idea. She relaxed. "But then we'd have to be respectable, Clark," she teased.
"We could do it, Lois."
"Not too respectable, though."
"No," he agreed. "Just enough to get in the front door."
"You'd miss me though, Ms Lane," Al said as he reappeared and placed a glass in front of each of them and then uncorked a wine bottle, looking both pleased and astonished as he pulled out the cork.
"No, I wouldn't." But her eyes were laughing as the waiter shrugged and returned to his duties.
"See, Lois, we have a bad rep—no one seems to think we take time off."
Al reappeared, bearing four plates of pasta, two of which he placed in front of them. "Bon appetite, folks." Then away he glided, delivering the remaining plates to a table across the room.
"Clark, this is Metropolis. No one has time off." Lois sounded shocked that she should have to remind him of this basic fact of big city life.
"So you are what your job is then?" he teased. "Lois Lane, investigative reporter."
Now the banter was gone from her voice and he realised he'd accidentally stumbled onto a path he wanted to take. "The best in town," he said softly.
"Maybe I was once. It's my edge, Clark. I appear to have lost it."
"You never lost it, Lois. You are a brilliant reporter. Don't ever doubt that."
"Let's hope Franklin Stern agrees with you."
"Lois, how much longer do you have on your contract?" He was done beating around the bush. But he saw the startled look in her eyes and he wondered if maybe he should have circled that particular bush one more time after all.
"How did you know, Clark?"
"I didn't know, Lois. At least not until a few days ago, and then I heard a couple of things."
"Oh, God, the whole newsroom knows!" She sighed. "Well, I shouldn't be too surprised, I guess." She shifted her gaze to stare a little over his shoulder at the wall behind him as she confessed in a flat tone, "When the Planet reopened, Stern offered me a three month contract. I very nearly threw it back at him. But Perry talked me into accepting it." She paused, and took a slow sip of red wine, then met Clark's eyes. "The thing is, Stern was right. Look at what Luthor did to the Planet, and it was because of me."
"Lois, that's ridiculous. You had no control over what Luthor did."
"But why was I so blind to what he was, Clark? I've asked myself that over and over and over, and I still don't understand it. Any answer I come up with is damning. I agreed to marry a man I wasn't in love with when all along I thought I was in love with someone else. So why'd I do that? Was it his power? Was it his money? My vanity? Regardless of what answer I come up with, I can't… make it work." She finished and glared at him defiantly, as though daring him to put a positive spin on the whole mess.
He reached across the table for her hand, and as he covered it with his own, he recited slowly, repeating what she had said to him about Superman a few hours earlier at Macy's. "So, does he get to understand how that happened, and more importantly forgive himself, or should he just continue to beat himself up over it?" He said nothing more, waiting for her response.
She met his eyes. "That's not fair, Clark."
"Sure it is." He grinned. "Or are you telling me it's okay for Superman to be imperfect but not for Lois Lane? What is this, a double standard? Only Lois Lane has to meet impossible standards?" His soft voice poked at her, jabbing her gently, dismantling her wall.
"Clark, I've always been such a good judge of character. It's part of what made me a good reporter." She stopped, then asserted, "And I was a good reporter. I may not have been good at a whole lot in my life, but I was a good reporter. Part of that was knowing, often for no tangible reason, who I could trust and who I couldn't. But I really misjudged Luthor. You know…" She looked down at her hands and then whispered "…there've been times since last summer when I've thought I might be losing it. And now my job. If I lose that… I lose everything. Who I am."
Clark was dismayed. Although he had heard Lois briefly express her doubts about how she was doing her job a couple of times before, he had not, until the last couple of days, really understood the depth of her loss of faith in herself. His hand tightened on hers. "Lois, you are so much more than your job. You are the most amazing person. You're a brilliant reporter, but you're so much more than that. You give me hope. I've never met anyone with more courage, and more compassion."
"You really think that, don't you?" Then she met his eyes and smiled. "You know, you're pretty amazing too, Clark Kent. And I've been wallowing here. I hate wallowers." She continued lightly, "But let's just hope that Stern agrees with you."
"He will. You've done great work since the Planet reopened. And that piece about the WTO disturbance yesterday was outstanding."
"No, not outstanding," she said critically. She brightened. "But it was pretty good. So was the piece I gave Perry this afternoon."
"In spite of Superman's interference?" he added lightly.
"Yes." She grinned at him. "In spite of." She picked up her fork and poked at her pasta. "I guess he was a little annoyed at me, huh?"
"He was… surprised."
"Go ahead, Clark, you can say it. He was royally teed, I bet."
"Lois, Superman does not think like that."
"Wanna bet?" She laughed. "Still I was right and he was wrong."
"Lois, he was not wrong. You were in danger."
"Is that what he told you? Well, he exaggerated, Clark Kent. And, besides, where does he get off gossiping to you about me, anyway?"
"Lois, Superman does not gossip."
She rolled her eyes at that, but said nothing, instead opting to focus ostentatiously on twirling a very long strand of linguine around the tines of her fork. "Yeah, yeah."
"Besides, I thought you liked Superman's attention," he said, his tone just a little grumpy.
"I do. But within reason."
"Like when you've been locked up in a barrel and dumped in Hobbs Bay?"
"Yes," she agreed casually. "That would be one of those reasonable times."
"Ah," he said with satisfaction and took a sip of wine. "But you haven't answered my question. How long on your contract?"
"Not sure. Maybe about two weeks. Seventeen days."
"Lots of time," he said. "I'm betting once Stern reads your WTO pieces, he'll offer you a contract in person."
"I hope so, Clark. Look, maybe we should get going. We don't want to be late for the movie."
Clark looked around the room for Al, their waiter, and silently flagged him down. Privately he thought he'd be just as happy to skip the movie and spend the rest of the evening talking with Lois, but he recognized the signs in the woman across the table from him. She'd lowered the drawbridge and was feeling a little unprotected; now she was cranking it back up again. Well, he was a patient guy; he'd be there when she lowered it again. It wouldn't be the first time he had camped outside her front door.
Outside, as they stood on the pavement waiting for a cab, Lois turned to him impulsively, stood on tiptoe and placed a quick kiss on his cheek. He looked at her astonished and raised his hand to touch the place where she had caressed him so briefly. "What was that for?"
"Because you're you." And then she deftly jumped into the cab which had just pulled up to the curb.
Drawbridge lowering, he thought, as he climbed in beside her.
Well, the movie was a Mel Gibson movie. So it only disappointed the critics. Mel's baby blues, one bare butt scene, plus two car chases, one demolition scene, and a bond between Mel and his partner that made Clark Kent and Superman look like distant acquaintances—what more could a moviegoer ask? Both Lois and Clark enjoyed the movie although, of course, for different reasons.
As they were walking through the lobby chatting after the film, they didn't notice the three kids who roared ahead of them, chasing each other, reenacting a part of the movie. They weren't very old, the youngest probably about six, Lois thought. Too young to be out this late at a movie, let alone this particular movie she mused. But they seemed to be having a good time so maybe it didn't matter, and she recalled Joe in Sports complaining about the fact that babysitters got paid more than he did. So what else was there to do?
The kids raced toward the front door, squeezing through it just ahead of Lois and Clark, and well ahead of their mother whose voice Lois could hear calling out behind her. She smiled as she and Clark followed the boys into the rainy night. The three kept running, dodging and bumping into each other, playing a game whose rules weren't readily apparent to the onlooker. For a brief second Lois was reminded of herself and Lucy playing Star Wars with their cousins. Then the youngest child raced too far and lost his balance, tripping over the rain slicked curb and sprawling face first onto the road. All at once, she couldn't say in what order, Lois saw a speeding car skid toward the boy as the panicky driver slammed on his breaks much too quickly, heard the piercing panic of a woman's scream, and saw Clark holding the boy by the waistband of his jeans. It was all over in a second.
Clark was crouching beside the very startled boy, straightening the child's jacket. "You, okay, cowboy?" he was asking as two women approached him.
"You saved his life. You were so quick."
But the other woman had knelt beside the boy and was hugging him, holding him to her, scolding him tearfully while her companion rounded up the other kids, speaking to Clark as she did, "How can we ever thank you?"
Meanwhile Clark was reassuring the shaken driver, who had jumped out of his vehicle to check on the child, that the whole thing had been unavoidable, and that the boy was fine. Lois watched as the driver leaned in through the window of his car and asked his companion to take the wheel—he didn't feel up to driving right then. Then he got in the car which pulled slowly and carefully away.
Clark turned to Lois and took her arm, hurrying her away from the scene. "Come on, let's get going, Lois."
"Clark, what's the rush?" she asked.
"No rush, just time to go."
"That car would have hit that boy if you hadn't been so quick."
"I wasn't that quick." He sounded defensive. Then he looked around, and spotting a cab heading toward them, raised his arm in a big city salute, and then was bundling his companion into the back seat, while giving the cabby directions to her street. As they rode back to her apartment, he kept the conversation focused on the movie, on other movies, on the rainy weather. He talked a lot, and Lois half listened, watching his face in the dim light of the night.
And then he was walking her to the door of her apartment and both of them were a little nervous. As dates went, it hadn't been the wildest, or the most romantic, and now both of them were wondering how it would end, neither really wanting it to end. Lois was thinking that dating was a vastly overrated concept and vowed never to use the word again. It carried way too much baggage. The evening had gone by so quickly; it seemed like they'd just left her apartment, and for the first time in months, she'd felt calm. But now she sensed Clark's nervousness and she wondered what he thought about how the evening had gone. Did he think it was a mistake?
She reached in her purse for the first of the three keys which she used to open her door and methodically inserted each one. Then she turned to see if he was still there behind her, half hoping he would have somehow disappeared while she was preoccupied with the intricacies of her security system. But he hadn't. He was standing across the narrow hallway from her, leaning against the wall, hands in his pockets, looking like he had all the time in the world, and that it was not pushing midnight and they both had to be at work tomorrow.
"No wonder Superman comes in through your window," he said casually.
"Tells you that too, does he?" she said lightly. By now she was figuring that her relationship with Superman, whatever it was, was an open book to Clark Kent. She wasn't sure why, but that had stopped bothering her.
He smiled enigmatically as he stepped away from the wall.
She leaned back against her door and took a deep breath. Then she held out her hand to him as though to shake his. "Well… good night, Clark. I had a good time. It was…" She met his eyes and spoke softly, her voice trailing off, "…nice."
Clark looked at her uncertainly and then looked down at her proffered hand. He took another step toward her. "I am not shaking hands with you, Lois Lane." Instead, he gently reached one hand behind her head and bent forward, slowly, giving her time to withdraw. But she didn't. Tenderly, he brushed his lips against hers, slowing caressing them. There was a sweet shock of breathlessness for both of them but their bodies did not touch.
Then he pulled back and looked in her dark eyes, meeting the wonder in them and the surprise. His own lit up and he briefly raised his hand to cup her cheek.
"Good night, Lois." His voice was a husky whisper in the quiet of the hallway.
"G'night, Clark." She sighed happily. No pressure, just magic.
He took a step away from her, and she opened her door, turned to enter her apartment. Then, unbidden, she turned around again and said, "I didn't, you know. I didn't get *in bed with the devil*. That's the one thing, at least, I didn't do. I never slept with Lex." Then she quickly closed the door behind her, leaving him standing, open mouthed, staring at her door.
He smiled and, as he walked down the hall, he scratched one nightmare.
Chapter 5: The Men Who Weren't There
Now everyone has the impression that reporters, like cops, work on one thing at a time, but they don't. They're jugglers: at any given time they're following at least a couple of stories, focusing a little more on one, and then hoping it won't crash to the ground while they turn their attention briefly to something else. For Clark, that routine included the huge ball that was his Superman activities.
So the next morning was way too busy for both Lois and Clark. They crossed each other's paths for a nanosecond in the bustling bullpit of the Daily Planet, smiled euphorically at each other as though they shared a happy secret, and then went their separate ways.
Clark had barely said good morning to his co-workers and started to work when he heard the LNN monitor just beyond his desk—when were they going to rename that channel? he wondered—interrupt its current programming with the news that a severe tropical cyclone had, according to reliable sources, wiped out most of the population of a tiny island in the Seychelles. It was a freak storm, developing late in the season and blowing into an area just beyond the so- called cyclone belt. As a consequence, the islanders had been taken by surprise. Horrendous winds and hundred foot waves were preventing rescue ships and helicopters from getting near the place, and the fear was that none of the small population could possibly have survived in the face of storm tides which would have flooded the small coastal town where most of the island's inhabitants lived.
Clark didn't hesitate. As the newscaster was finishing his piece, Clark, in one fluid movement, rose from his desk and reached for the rim of his glasses, barely glancing at the busy woman at the next desk.
"See you later, Lois," he said without further explanation, and then he was gone.
Lois had two things she wanted to do that morning. One was talk to Alastair Albertini, and the other was to interview Tony Johnson, one of the protest leaders. She had debated about phoning Alastair, but she wasn't sure how to suggest they meet. She needed a plausible excuse. Then, as she was getting ready to head over to the WTO site to talk to Tony, she realised that the riot could be her in with Alastair who had, along with his friend, Jake Lamont, been at the site yesterday.
Having just learned that the police had charged a few of the rioters, she knew the local media would be riding the event. Yesterday, she hadn't got the chance to talk to Alastair about what he'd seen, and now this was her opportunity. An eyewitness account, especially from the son of a leading Metropolis businesswoman and socialite, would make a nice, glitzy sidebar… and give her the excuse she needed. Thus it was that, at the same time as Clark was rushing out of the newsroom, tugging at the knot of his tie, Lois had been punching in Francesca's phone number.
After she put down the phone, Lois wondered briefly where Clark had disappeared to, then she shrugged. He'd be back.
As she walked across the newsroom toward the elevator she suddenly realised she hadn't seen Jeff that morning. She had begun to get used to the understanding smile in his grey eyes, and she wondered how he was getting on in his new job at the Planet. Funny that he'd been hired so recently, given all the cutbacks.
She glanced across the room, looking for him, but he wasn't there.
Lois entered the quiet and subtly masculine reception area of the prestigious law firm where Alastair Albertini was interning. Judging by the wood panelling and the leather club chairs in the waiting area, these guys were pretty expensive. She hadn't heard of the firm, and now it struck her that their field was probably corporate law, where low profiles and discretion were the name of the game. Good training for a young man who was as well connected as Alastair, she thought.
The very respectable looking receptionist buzzed through, and within seconds the young man, all lank hair and graceful limbs, was striding into the waiting room. Lois had the feeling that he was doing his impression of being an adult as he greeted her. She sympathized; she'd been there not so long ago. She stood up and followed him to a small conference room.
"Great to see you again, Lois," he said, abandoning a little of his earlier formality. "What can I do for you?" he asked, as he motioned for her to sit down.
"The Planet is putting together an overview of eyewitness accounts of the WTO riot yesterday. I was hoping you'd be willing to give us your perspective on what happened."
"Sure," he agreed enthusiastically. "It was so cool. You know, I would've missed out on it if it hadn't been for Jake."
"Jake? So he's into that sort of political action?" Lois pulled out a small notebook as Alastair spoke.
"I don't know that he is, but there was a guy he knew at the demonstration he wanted to talk to, so we took a cab over there first thing yesterday morning."
"I didn't realise you'd been there that long," Lois said.
He looked at her, puzzled. "We weren't. It was about eleven o'clock. I'd met Jake for breakfast on 'The Dream', and then he got this phone call just as we were finishing."
Lois suppressed a smile. How early was early? "The Dream?"
"Jake's Dream." Alastair smiled. "It's his yacht—he lives on it." A hint of envy tinged Alastair's voice.
Lois smiled; she was a little envious herself. Her fantasy, as she and Clark had walked past all those yachts at the marina the other morning, briefly replayed in her mind. "Cool," she said then refocused on reality. "So I take it Jake's friend belongs to one of the protest groups?"
"I think he must, but I didn't really get a chance to talk to him."
Lois smiled inwardly, recalling the two women who had claimed Alastair's very willing attention as she'd first approached him yesterday. "I noticed him—the middle-aged guy in the old black ski jacket."
"Yeah, that's him."
Lois was curious about what Lamont had wanted to talk to the man in the ski jacket about but thought it might be better to get back to the ostensible reason for her visit. "What we're really interested in, Alastair, is your impression of what happened yesterday. What you saw, what you thought. You got there just before the protest turned violent?"
"Yeah, we hadn't been there very long. We were looking for Jake's friend, just walking through the crowds along the barricades."
"What was it like?" Lois had been there and she remembered the long orderly line of people, grouped in clusters of about ten abreast, many of them carrying picket signs painted with boldly printed slogans. Not much excitement; just people chatting as they walked, finding relief from the boredom of marching back and forth in the damp fall air.
"There were lots of people. The radio said about twenty thousand, and I believe it. I even met a couple of guys I knew at college." His eyes sparkled. "A couple of street musicians were there and that group that does street theatre."
"The environmental group?" Lois asked.
"Yeah, that's the one. Their ideas are pretty far out— they have no clue about economics—but they're a blast to watch."
"Jake must agree with some of their ideas, though, or he wouldn't have been there."
Alastair shrugged. "No, he just said he knew this guy and wanted to say hi to him."
"What was his name?"
Alastair's brow furrowed. "You know, I don't think he ever mentioned it."
"Must've taken a while to find him in that crowd?"
"Jake had arranged to meet him by the barricade across from the entrance to the Lexor, but we got stopped by the riot."
"What do you think triggered the riot? I've heard so many different opinions."
"When we got there, a few guys were pushing toward the barriers. There was a lot of yelling and taunting the cops." Alastair grinned. "The police weren't responding though, unless someone tried to hop over the barriers. Then they yanked him back. I thought for sure they were gonna haul a couple of them down to the station."
"So what made it turn ugly?" Lois repeated her question.
"I saw a group of about twenty people rush the barricades— they jumped over them, and then they were followed by maybe a hundred people. They didn't get far—the cops marched forward, shoving back anyone who got in their way."
"I remember that," Lois said. "Then what?"
"I'm not sure whether I heard a gunshot or not. There was a pop, but it sounded muffled and everyone was yelling."
"Could it have been something else?"
"Maybe," he said. "I'm not sure—but it was a different sound, and I wondered what it was. Anyway, that's when the crowd started to get out of hand. They were all over the place." He grinned at her, excited by the memory. "It was a rush! Like after a soccer game I went to in Europe last summer, but crazier. People running all over the place. Smoke—tear gas, even."
"Yeah, I remember that bit myself," Lois said. "But I don't remember hearing a shot."
"It wasn't very loud, and I could be wrong about it. It didn't sound the same as the shots later."
"Do you have any idea who fired it? The police or someone in the crowd?"
"Someone in the crowd, I think. People were talking about it afterward, arguing about whether there had even been a third shot. But if there was one, everyone seemed to think it must have come from the police. But I don't think so. It sounded to be coming not far from where Jake and I were. It didn't sound like it came from the police."
As they chatted longer about what Alastair had seen, Lois got the impression that he had thoroughly enjoyed himself. Life in the Albertini townhouse was probably a little rarefied. But he didn't really have anything more to add to what he'd already told her, so Lois folded her notebook and put it in her bag.
"Thanks, Alastair. You've been a big help."
"No problem, Lois."
"Give my regards to Francesca."
"Is she still upset about the loss of her necklace?"
"Yes, she is." His voice was troubled and he met her eyes. "She thinks she's betrayed my father by losing it." Then his voice changed. "But, Lois, it's just a necklace. She didn't even like it; she never wore it, said it was the wrong colour for her and the setting was ugly. The only reason she put it on that night was to impress the French Ambassador—he's a Napoleon junkie."
Lois smiled. "And discovered it needed a repair when she took it off later that night. So she brought it down to your room and asked you to take it to Dimitri's in the morning?"
"No, she didn't." He sounded surprised. "Mary took it in."
"It's not too surprising, though, that it would need a repair. If she never wore it, it mustn't have been out of her jewellery box in years. I mean it had to have been a long time since you'd even seen it."
His eyes shifted. "I don't remember the last time I saw it."
"The necklace must have been so beautiful. Sapphires of those size…" Lois didn't finish, hoping she had managed to inject a dreamy note in her voice, giving him the impression of a woman easily impressed by such things. "Not something I could ever afford." She smiled at him.
He smiled automatically in response. "You never can tell."
"I wonder what just one of those small sapphires in the necklace would cost?"
Alastair didn't respond.
She continued. "I wonder if the thief will dismantle the necklace and sell the stones separately?"
"Maybe. I have no idea."
"Wouldn't it be funny if the stones were fake?" She watched Alastair carefully as she tossed out the idea. She wasn't sure though what she was seeing. He just seemed very self-contained to her, his face a mask. What did that mean? A good judge of character, she'd told Clark—yeah, right. "Like the de Maupassant story."
"Who?" Alastair's tone was puzzled and his body seemed less rigid. "I don't think I've ever heard of him."
Lois read many things into the change in the tone of his voice and the relaxed slope of his shoulders. "A French writer—nineteenth century. People often substituted fake stones-paste—for their real jewels, which they pawned, when times got tough in the family. He wrote a story about that."
"I see." His voice was tight again.
"But that's unlikely with Francesca's necklace."
"No. I mean yes—no, it's not likely." He got up, as though he'd finally figured out it was he who should be controlling the interview. "I have to get back to work. I hope you don't mind, Lois."
She gave him her best dazzling smile. "No, of course not, Alastair. Thanks for talking to me." She stood up and reached for her jacket. "By the way, I guess the necklace was insured?"
"Insured? Oh yeah, I guess so. Everything's insured."
Okay, she said to herself as she left the huge office tower, so what exactly did that prove—beyond a shadow of a doubt, that was? Not much—but the shadows were more layered, she countered. She crossed the street and entered the subway to catch the next train to the WTO site.
As Lois Lane was entering the bowels of the Metropolis subway system, Superman was vigorously clearing away the debris which the cyclone was still hurling across the landscape. The winds were still too high and the sea much too rough to allow any rescue units near the tiny island. It truly was isolated. He was all they had.
As he worked, the driving, horizontal rain twisted the branches of old palms into crazy patterns clawing against the darkened sky. Just beyond him, three cars had come to rest, piled against each other into a cluster of metal that now resisted any further disturbance. A quick scan of the vehicles with his x-ray vision showed that they held no passengers. At one point, as he ducked a small red fishing boat which flew past his head, then skimmed the top of an old white Cadillac, and slammed into the side of a collapsed house, it crossed his mind that he had somehow entered an animated copy of a surrealist painting.
He stood in the midst of two hundred kilometer winds, his red cape whipped tightly around his body by gusts of stiletto rain, and he listened, listened for sounds beneath the roar of the storm, for voices, for sound frequencies outside the noise of the blasting wind. As he did, he remembered how he'd failed to take the evidence of all his senses into account before he'd rescued the two men from the boat two days earlier. He'd felt such relief when he heard the autopsy report yesterday. But now, as he listened so carefully for signs of life, he understood that the Coroner's finding hadn't been a full pardon, after all; the victim might as easily have been alive when the boat exploded. He put the thought aside, but knew he would never forget it. Yet he also knew that now he could accept it.
His x-ray vision penetrated beneath the layers of collapsed buildings, looking for signs of life. He heard nothing and saw nothing, and his heart sank. Then he lifted his eyes beyond the village and looked at the hazy line of hills in the centre of the tiny island. That's where he would go, he thought. Cyclones were not uncommon here; people who lived here knew them and had woven them into their folk tales.
He leapt upward and flew toward the lush green hills, scanning the vegetation as he flew over them. Then he spotted them, a series of caves dug into the hill. Landing, he scanned the caves, and his heart lifted. People.
Tony Johnson offered Lois a cup of hot coffee, and she accepted it gratefully. The day was cold and damp, one of those autumn days that no longer remind you of summer past but of winter to come.
Tony was a veteran of these demonstrations; he'd been at the last one in Seattle, and the ones in Italy and Quebec City. But most of his time he spent scouring the nooks and crannies of corporate America, scrounging depreciated capital goods for re-use in the rural village economies of developing countries. Lois knew him from her student days—he'd been a graduate student then, assigned to teach her first year economics class. Energetic and hard-headed, he'd made an impression on her. He still did. He was not given to flights of indulgent fancy, nor did he portray the people of the villages he visited as victims. His was the persistent voice of reason in the romantic choir of protest and dissent.
And right now, he was deeply concerned. His thick reddish brows bristled as he spoke. They'd always fascinated her, and she swore they had a separate existence of their own.
"I don't like what I'm hearing, Lois."
"You hardly ever do, Tony."
"No, this is different. There's a rumour going around that someone is planning to take a pot shot at one of the delegates."
"What? But isn't that always a possibility at these things? Hence all the security, Tony," she added in a withering tone.
"This is different. It's not just the usual gossip. Look, we've tried damned hard to keep this protest organized and non-violent. Whenever violence erupts, our credibility dips lower than the Dow Jones on a triple witching day."
Lois smiled at his metaphor—Tony had started his grown-up life as a financial analyst at a major Metropolis brokerage, then he'd made the mistake of taking a vacation in South America and getting religion as he'd travelled through the impoverished villages and towns.
"So how's the gossip different this time?" she asked.
"First, it's murkier. No one seems to have any idea what group is behind this—usually that's part of this sort of talk. Plus, there are all sorts of rumours about who the target is—and it's not one of the top five delegates."
Lois suppressed the thought that someone was out to get the Canadian representative. Nah—too harmless. "So who then?"
"One of the South Americans."
"Anyone contacted the police?"
He looked at her askance. "Are you kidding?"
"Tony, sometimes you have to trust someone in a uniform."
"Nurses—I trust nurses big time."
Lois laughed; Tony was married to a nurse who put in heroic hours at Met General. "So you want to use me, is that it, Tony?"
"That I do, Lois Lane. No good having a media contact if she's just a pretty face."
"You insult me, Tony."
He grinned. "So prove you're more. Find out what's going on. What I hear is this guy's working alone, and he's not political."
"So tell me how this rumour surfaced."
"That third shot yesterday. Nearly everyone assumed it was the police—but a few of us aren't as certain. There's also a bit more money on the street here than you usually see. Heck, you don't usually see any money."
"I can't believe anyone who's planning something as big as an assassination would be flashing cash around, Tony."
"It's not the cash—just the feeling that there are more drugs here this time."
"Things get built up, exaggerated," Lois countered. She needed something harder than loose street talk to base a story on.
"Yeah, I know—but that riot yesterday—the guys who rushed the barricade. I saw that happen and I didn't know any of them. Not one. And I'm still not sure what caused that first one—your Teddy Bear's Picnic," he said, repeating the Planet headline for the story she'd written.
Now that was a bit of information that Lois took seriously. In his world, Tony was a guy who knew guys. Extroverted, energetic, and always interested in new people who had joined the movement, whatever that term meant, Tony had friends and acquaintances across the whole spectrum. He kept his eyes open, too, ever zealous in his fear that infiltrators would taint his cause.
"Undercover cops maybe?" Lois asked.
"Not this time. We've worked hard with the police to set some guidelines for this protest—the cops are trying to avoid some of the excesses that happened at the last two conferences."
"Tony, I took some pictures yesterday, before I was, ah, removed from the scene."
Tony grinned. "Yeah, I saw that. Superman. You looked like a wriggly fish on a hook when he flew off with you."
"Yeah, well…" She fixed him sternly with her eyes to quell any further comment. "Can you come back to the Planet with me and take a look at the photos—maybe they might get us somewhere."
Tony looked around, his gaze sweeping over the clusters of people, the barricade, and the line of police standing stolidly in front of it. "Yeah, sure. Things look pretty quiet here."
Superman entered the dark interior of one of the larger caves and approached the cluster of people who were sitting around a large fire. There wasn't much he could do right now for them until the storm blew itself out, and he knew that might be as long as a week from now. But talking to them revealed that they were short of food and water and that some of them had been injured by the collapsing houses and falling trees. Also, the water supply would likely be contaminated when the storm finally did stop. But until outside aid could help they had to wait it out.
What he could do though was make sure the outside world was aware that they were here and safe, and he could get supplies to them. That he did. After talking with several of them, he put together a list of needed goods and left. The high level winds meant that it was impossible for people to emerge from the caves but his super-strength meant he could stand his ground. Water first, then medical supplies, and finally food. Somewhere, while transporting all of that, he found a moment to inform the local coast guard of what he had found. All of these actions were very simple for a man whose personal powers allowed him to defy the forces of nature. What really pleased him more was the use to which he could put his first aid skills, something which required more than just his strength.
After he had done as much as he could, Superman flew to the highest point on the island and stood there, strong and steady against the swirling winds; only his cape whipping around him betrayed the intensity of the gale. He stared at the ocean, watching the violent foam of monster waves as they broke and then raced to merge again with the inky water. For a few moments, he let his mind go, losing himself in the vastness of an ocean across which even he could not see. Neverending, reminding him of what he couldn't do, of his own mortality.
Slowly, he smiled. Lois was right. Superman wasn't perfect. Then his smile widened to a grin. She was though; even her flaws were perfect.
Kneeling, he picked up a small pod from a cinnamon tree, gently dried it with his heat vision, and tucked it in his belt. He would take it back to her.
Tony Johnson and Lois passed under the LNN monitors as they walked across the bullpit to her desk, only partially hearing the news of Superman's activities in the Seychelles amidst the clatter around them. The anchor was saying something about its being just a matter of time, now, until communication could be re-established with the island and an LNN news team would be able to reach any survivors.
"Big brother," Tony joked as they passed the screens.
Lois did not bother to look at them. "Yeah, and just as superficial," she grouched.
"Sour grapes, Lois?"
"Nope. Tell me, who would you trust for the real news— newspapers or TV?"
"Depends on the newspaper. Me—I have a subscription to the National Whisper."
They reached her desk and she plopped her bag on one corner, almost knocking over the new plant she'd bought the other day. As she automatically reached for a file folder, which was buried two layers deep in the clutter, she wondered, for a second, if she should water the plant. Maybe tomorrow.
She opened the file and spread the photos out across her desk. "I took these yesterday. This little digital camera is great," she said, touching it affectionately.
Stepping back, she motioned to Tony to sit in her chair. He did, then began to sort through the pictures, looking at them carefully. None of Lois's shots were composed; often she hadn't even seen what she'd been photographing. Finally, he pulled a couple out of the group and looked at them more closely.
"What?" she asked, looking over his shoulder.
Tony put one of the photos down, then his index finger skipped across the images of a few of the protesters who were on the periphery of the crowd. "See, I know these people." His finger tapped each face for a moment as he identified it. "But look at this cluster over here, in the centre—I don't know anyone in it. And in these, too." He gestured at the pile of photos which he'd put aside. "Where were you when you were taking these?"
"Pretty close to the barricades and the cops. Things were pretty tight and I was just shooting randomly, not focused at all." She paused, then added thoughtfully, "So the people you can identify weren't in the eye of the storm, then."
"No." He looked more closely at a shot that showed men and women, their faces panicked, running haphazardly away from the police line. Again his index finger stopped on one man who was standing alone in the background. It was difficult to make out his features clearly, but he appeared to be of average height and build, and he was bald.
What caught Lois's attention was his posture. He was alert, and she was sure he was watching something in the opposite direction from which the crowds were running. What? she wondered.
Tony reached for another photo. "Look, here he is again. Still standing by himself, and not moving. Why?" Then he picked up a third one. "No one I know here, either."
Lois looked over his shoulder and smiled. "I do, I think." She reached over his shoulder, picked up the photo and looked more closely at it. Then she put it down again and pointed to the two men standing at the edge of the crowd. "That's Alastair Albertini and Jake Lamont."
"Alastair's the son of Francesca Albertini, and Jake's a good friend of his."
Tony snorted. "Rich boy and buddy out taking in some local colour." He put the picture aside.
By this time Jimmy had joined them and was watching as the two sorted through Lois's shots. "Hey wait a minute," he protested. Reaching for the discarded photo, he placed it beside the one which Tony had looked at previously. "Lois, this isn't the same sequence you took them in." His hand gestured to indicate all the photos scattered across Lois's desk. "Look at the time at the bottom of each shot. Why don't you arrange them in sequence so you get more of a feel of the crowd?"
Tony continued his scrutiny and spotted the loner in two more shots as Jimmy shuffled the photos, lining them up across the desk in the order in which Lois had taken them. Some were clearly overlaps: the same scene taken only a short distance away and so the same people reappeared. Lois had been very close to the centre of action when she had been taking those shots, constantly moving as she struggled to get closer to what she hoped was the source of the disturbance.
Now, as the three studied the pictures in their correct time sequence, what became evident was that there appeared to be a nucleus of people who were standing their ground, not fleeing from the cops. In fact, a few of them were even skirmishing with the police. And it was in that nucleus that there was no-one whom Tony knew.
"Okay, who are they then?"
"Outsiders, brought in to disrupt the process," Tony muttered darkly.
"Jimmy, can you blow these up for me?"
"Sure, Lois, but you can do that with the new software I just installed for you."
Lois looked at him and sighed. "Why doesn't that surprise me?" Well, she guessed she'd better start using it. "So will you walk me through it, Jimmy?"
"Sure thing." Jimmy smiled eagerly. "Wait'll you see what this baby can do."
Tony stood up. "I'd better be going, Lois. I don't like to be away too long," he said as he reached for his jacket. "Do you mind if I take a couple of these—I'd like to ask around."
"That'd be great, Tony." She sat down and then printed additional copies of a couple of pictures for her friend to take. "Jimmy, can you do some blow-ups for Tony, too?" She indicated the contact sheet displayed on her terminal. "One of the 'loner', too, please."
Jimmy did, then said, "But you do the rest, Lois."
After Lois finished, the three of them walked the short distance to the printer which served that section of the newsroom, and hovered over the machine as it completed its task. Lois pulled the last print out as the paper was rolling out, giving it a little help. It was an impatient habit and she wondered why she did it.
Turning the picture over, she was astonished to see that the 'loner' was very likely the man in the black ski jacket whom she had seen talking to Jake Lamont just after the riot. She scrutinized the image carefully, trying to remember. As a reporter, her observational skills were better than average, but that didn't mean they were fail- proof, court-room infallible. Still, the man in the ski jacket had caught her attention when she'd seen him simply because his rough clothing and that body succumbing to middle age had been such a seedy contrast to Jake's well- groomed, youthful manhood.
"Can you hang on a minute, Tony," she said, rushing back to her desk as she spoke. "There's another shot I want you to have." Quickly she clicked on an image which included Jake and Alastair, then cropped out the crowd, and enlarged Jake and Alastair. Jimmy was right, she thought, excitedly; she could come to love this stuff.
In another minute, she was handing the picture to Tony. "Can you also ask if anyone has seen these two?"
"Sure, but why?" he replied as he slid the picture into the brown envelope that held the other prints.
She grinned at him. "I have no idea. An impulse. Probably pointless." She shrugged, but she knew there was something odd about that sapphire being found in Alastair's room, and it was only a coincidence that he was at the riot. Not to mention Jake and the Loner. Nevertheless, she wanted to make sure it was a coincidence and not part of a larger pattern.
After Tony had gone, Lois slid her photos back into a pile, careful to keep them in order. As she did, she noticed one picture in particular, another shot of Alastair and Jake. But this time, the loner was there too, not yet next to them but looking as though he soon would be. At least she thought it was the Loner.
She sat down and pulled up the contact sheet again, then clicked on the image of the print she held in her hand. Yes, it was the same shot. She enlarged it on the screen and peered at it closely. She was right, and she'd bet money that she'd caught the two just before they made contact. So he was the friend whom Alastair had mentioned in their chat this morning. The one they'd gone to meet at the WTO site.
A million questions rolled through her mind. Well, a few questions at any rate, and now it was time to see if she could chase down some answers. Alastair had mentioned that Jake lived on his boat; 'The Dream' she thought he'd called it. It should be easy to find, she figured as she recalled the marina where she and Clark had been the other morning, after Superman had rescued the two men from the exploding boat.
As she reached for her shoulder bag, she absently noted the disarray on her desk. As a concession to neatness, she slipped the photos back into their folder which she then placed precisely on the corner of her desk. That was as close to organizing her desk as she would get. As she did she spotted something which had slipped her mind over the last couple of weeks.
It was an invitation to the closing dinner of the WTO conference. Most media outlets had received them, and Perry had passed one along to her as part of her WTO assignment.
The dinner was to be followed by wrap-up speeches, and then a dance, grand and lavish, designed to show the world that regardless of what conflicts the world's leading countries had had during the discussion, the delegates were capable of putting those aside. They could waltz right though them, Lois thought. The gala would be the last event she would cover as part of her series on the WTO. The Planet and most of the other newspapers in town had tickets, and so she would be going, would have to go, like it or not.
Alone, she had decided, when Perry had handed her the two complimentary tickets.
In fact, she'd hoped to be able to avoid going entirely. Any story that came of the event would be a fluff piece and that, she didn't want to write. It was Cat's bailiwick. Lois sighed. She wouldn't have believed it, but she missed Cat; she was never boring.
But Cat had been one of the many people to lose their jobs in the restructuring which followed Lex's attack on the Planet. Although she hadn't been 'terminated', her job had been so redefined that Cat had turned up her nose at it, then swished into Perry's office a couple of days later with the news that she was off to Paris, on assignment for Vogue. She'd purred her way out, and Lois had silently applauded her.
She picked up the tickets and looked across at Clark's empty desk. Maybe, just maybe things might work out between them. She wasn't absolutely confident of that, of course; in fact, she wouldn't bet on it, or take it to the bank, or whatever it was you did, given her track record, not to mention the general conditioning of American men, but still there just might be an outside possibility, even though who could tell after just one date? She narrowed her eyes speculatively. Maybe she should take a chance.
Swiveling in her chair to face her computer again, she sent a hasty e-mail to her absent colleague:
Talked to Alastair about Francesca's necklace. I'm thinking he's not a good liar and I'm wondering about that friend of his, too. The wrap-up WTO gala is tomorrow night and I have to cover it and I need a date for it but I know it's short notice but I forgot about it, so you probably have something else scheduled which is okay. I'm heading over to the Metro Marina and Yacht Club to check things out.
There, she'd done it. She'd asked him out. Who said she couldn't take risks? She stood up and walked briskly toward the elevators.
Flying faster than the speed of sound and far too high above land to be seen by those below him, Superman sped back to Metropolis. As he neared the city, he slowed, drifted lower and kept his eyes focused carefully on the cityscape below him, on the broad cup of Hobbs Bay and the river which snaked into it, and the narrow streets of Suicide Slum which had centuries ago been the heart of the new city of Metropolis. He skimmed above the splashes of green and amber vegetation which broke up the grey concrete of the city and the grid of streets pulsing with cars. As he descended even lower, he noticed that the fog which he had awakened to that morning still blanketed the city, thickened by the pollution which New Troy's recent emissions control law had not yet diminished.
Then he spotted the Daily Planet globe, newly restored after Luthor's bomb last spring, and he felt his heart stir. The globe reassured him; it was one of his markers, a sign of home. He landed on the roof of the building, in the shadow of the stairwell which provided access to the top floor. Automatically, he checked to make sure no one could see him, then shrugged his caped shoulders as he noticed the LNN traffic helicopter flying low in the sky above him. Clearly, the fog had not grounded that particular flight. Aware that there was a chance the pilot could see him, he decided this was not the best spot for a quick change.
He shot upward, searching for a dark, deserted, back alley. Significant real estate for Clark Kent/Superman. When he'd searched for his apartment last year, it wasn't the view that he'd been after, but the presence of dark alleys. Plus affordable rent, he thought wryly.
Moments later, Clark Kent was greeting Jimmy in the bullpit of the Daily Planet, noticing out of the corner of his eye that Lois Lane was not there. Disappointed, he approached his own desk, then on impulse, reached into the pocket of his jacket and retrieved the dark, rust-coloured cinnamon pod which he'd picked up in the Seychelles.
He hesitated for a moment trying to figure where in the midst of the clutter on her desk he would place it and then decided to put it next to her computer, where he knew she couldn't miss it. As he did so he noticed her new plant and grimaced. Its drooping leaves signalled a pathetic plea for some first aid fast. He fetched some water for it, thinking, as he administered it, of Lois's eternal optimism in buying plants which she seemed to think would never need any care.
Okay, time for him to do some proper reporter type work. Resisting the impulse to check his e-mail—after all it was mid-afternoon and he didn't have a lot to show for the day—he pulled out a folder of notes, fired up his computer and soon buried himself in an article on gangs in Metropolis which he was pulling together for the weekend supplement. He hadn't been at it for more than fifteen minutes when Perry, accompanied by Franklin Stern dropped by his desk.
"Afternoon, Kent. Great interview with the Mayor." Even in normal conversation Stern's majestic voice rumbled, hinting at thunder and mythic pronouncements. It was a voice that Superman should have had.
Clark stood. "Thanks, Mr. Stern. The mayor just seemed to want to talk that day."
"Takes a good reporter to put the Mayor in that frame of mind. Don't think I don't know that, Kent."
Stern cast a critical eye over the cluttered and vacant desk next to Clark's and then came to rest on the plant whose leaves had not yet responded to Clark's ministrations. Stern looked pained. "Who…"
Perry caught Stern's look and quickly interposed. "I've just pulled the latest circulation numbers, Franklin. I think you'll find them interesting."
The two men turned and walked towards Perry's office. When Stern left the newsroom ten minutes later, Clark Kent was still pounding away at his computer, fingers flying across the keyboard.
Twenty minutes later he was gone, in the air speeding toward the high pitched sirens of what he knew were probably several emergency vehicles. He arrived in the nick of time, streaking downward through the fog to stabilize a truck which had jackknifed across the railing of an overpass above the interstate running north of the city. He wasn't always so lucky, he thought with satisfaction as he leapt upward to head back to the Planet; he wasn't always so lucky.
He was sidetracked, however, from that objective by two swarms of people which he spotted well below him, near the boundary of Suicide Slum and Lower Town. The area, with its burnt out buildings and rubble filled lots, bore a closer resemblance to a war zone than to a district in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. As he descended, the swarm took on distinct characteristics and he saw that he had come across an incipient gang fight. At that moment, it mostly consisted of loud, angry obscenities flying in repetitive strings, but Superman could see the flash of knife blades as the two sides faced off.
He hesitated for a fraction of a second. This situation was not as simple as the truck had been. Here, things could blow at any minute. He was aware, too, that these kids had little respect for Superman; they were not on his side. He got in their way. What he stood for got in their way.
The last time he'd intervened in one of these gang fights, he'd just grabbed the two protagonists and hauled them off to the nearest precinct headquarters. He'd made their day. Not only had they got to fly, the cops had not charged them because Superman had failed to read them their rights, and it had been their word against Superman's. Both the cop on duty and Superman knew no one would come forth as a witness; that would be breaking the code. The two gang members had left the station house snickering, insisting that Superman fly them back to the neighbourhood. He didn't.
As Superman hovered, trying to figure out how to defuse this latest escapade, he was very aware that his hesitation, his concern about rushing in too quickly without thinking things through after the Corbin incident had also become a problem. His hesitation had endangered lives. He was overthinking, overanalyzing. He should trust his instincts—learn.
Activating his x-ray vision, he did a quick body scan of several gang members, the ones at the head of each group. What he saw was an arsenal of weapons that would have done a gangster proud. Whirling quickly, he stirred up a low grade mini-tornado, enough to blast the crew in the center onto their knees or backs. Hovering just above them, he activated his heat and X-ray vision simultaneously, and, with the skill of a neurosurgeon, he neutralized the concealed knives and guns, turning them into useless shapes which were just hot enough for their owners to yelp in surprise.
The items dropped to the street, the fabric of jackets or jeans no longer there to hold them. In a blur, before they were back on their feet, Superman scooped up the weapons, melted them into a slag heap, cooled it with his superbreath, and then hurled the lump into orbit. As a last measure, he turned his superbreath on the remainder of the two gangs, the ones who had not taken off at the first sight of Superman.
"You guys need a little cooling down," he said. It was a smart aleck remark but not inappropriate, he thought. Then he grabbed the leader of each gang, and took one of the knives which had clattered to the ground, melted it until it was bendable, wrapped it around the wrist of each person, binding one to the other with rough handcuffs that would take some resourcefulness and perhaps even cooperation on their part to undo.
By now, over half the gang members had dispersed, and Superman cast a forbidding eye over those remaining. "Out of here, now. Unless you'd like to partner someone…?"
They took the hint and scattered, except the two thugs who were now shackled together.
Superman turned to leave.
"Hey, you can't leave us like this!"
"Deal with it," Superman snapped, then leapt upward.
The fog was thicker at the marina than it had been downtown, blanketing the docks in a shroud of mist so that Lois was barely able to discern the outline of the boats tethered there. Ghost ships, they clung to the side of the pier, waiting out the fog.
As she got closer to the pier where the larger vessels were moored, Lois finally was able to see the water. The bay was unusually smooth and glassy flat, and in the foggy greyness, it seemed infinite, its horizon invisible. No wind for becalmed sailors today, she thought, not the way it had been the other morning when she and Clark had walked along this same pier as they tried to piece together what had happened to the two men whom Superman had rescued. That day, the water had been rough, turbulent, tossing foam up towards the sky.
Like the day, all those summers ago, when she and her friend had taken his small sailboat out when the weather had been borderline risky, neglecting to wear the life jackets which both of them had disdainfully labelled as 'uncool'. They'd sailed too far, believing as all twelve year olds do that they were immortal. Besides, it had been his birthday; he'd just turned twelve, catching up to her he'd said. But that day they'd challenged the gods and fought for their mortality.
They hadn't been far from shore when her friend had lost control of the sail in the strong wind, and the yardarm had swung about, knocking him on the head. Lois had made a grab for the ropes, but she lost the race and the boat had overturned, tossing both of them into the merciless waves of a turbulent ocean. Lois shivered now as she remembered, recalling the dazed look in her friend's grey eyes as he sank beneath the waves and the sharp fear in her soul that he would drown.
She still didn't understand how she'd found the strength to go after him. But she had. Swimming with vigorous strokes, she'd fought toward him, then dove beneath the waves into the chilly depth of the sea just as a giant wave tried to claim him. Hooking her arm around his neck, she'd pulled him to the surface. When he didn't respond to her screams, she made an instant decision to head to shore where she knew she could apply first aid rather than swim for the overturned hull of his small Laser.
Half-swimming, half-pulling him, she somehow made it back to shore. Dragging him up onto the sandy beach, she'd been only vaguely aware of two adults running towards them. Immediately, she'd crouched over him and applied mouth to mouth resuscitation, willing him to breath, her heart hammering as she bargained with God for the life of her friend. It had only taken a minute and then he was choking, sputtering, and struggling to sit upright at the same time as the two adults reached them.
Of course, they were both grounded for a week during which his dad took his sailboat away. But the two had survived, and they swore a life-long pact to rescue each other, as kids do after the gods pull them through a scrape. Then the next week, they were out on the sea, taking risks again, their brush with the powers that be pushed to the back of their minds, forgotten.
Jeff, where are you? she sighed, as she continued walking along the pier.
She focused on the brass lettering on the sterns of the larger boats, wondering as she did at what point a 'boat' become a 'yacht'. Then she spotted it, not 'The Dream' but 'Jake's Dream'. That must be it. She stood in front of it for a second pondering how to announce her arrival; there was no buzzer to ring or intercom to call. But unable to bring herself to yell, "Yo", she climbed up the narrow ladder onto the polished mid-deck. She spotted a figure at the bow, his back toward her.
"Jake," she called out, and he turned around to face her.
"Hello, Ms. Lane," he said as he walked toward her. He seemed neither pleased nor displeased to see her. "What's up?"
"I'm doing an article on the marina for an upcoming weekend supplement," she lied. "I was walking along the dock and spotted your boat. I wasn't sure but I thought it was you." She let her eyes wander appreciatively along the yacht's sleek lines. "Alastair mentioned you live on board. It must be wonderful." The admiration in her voice was not a lie; she really did imagine that living on a boat would be just about perfect.
"It is," he grinned, flashing white teeth and charm. "I was just going to make some coffee. Join me?"
"Love some." She followed him down the short, narrow staircase into a compact galley, all stainless steel and polished oak, giving it an appearance of both efficiency and elegance.
He gestured toward the interior of the cabin. "Make yourself comfortable while I get this ready."
She did, allowing herself to fantasize for a moment as she sank back into the suede covered cushions of a small built- in sofa. She wondered if Clark liked to sail. Would he have ever had a chance to do that growing up in Kansas? She had no idea whether they even had lakes in Kansas. She'd barely even been aware there was a Kansas before she met Clark Kent. She'd have to take him sailing.
And find out more about Kansas.
Her eyes roamed around the small living quarters, appreciating its skillful blending of compactness and luxury. Clearly, Jake was a young man of some wealth, she decided. Her eyes took in a desk, which looked more like the control panel of an airplane. Very high tech instrumentation, she thought.
As Jake handed her a mug of coffee she remarked, "I'm guessing you take this on some fairly lengthy trips." Her head inclined toward the desk.
"Yes," he smiled. "That's the great thing about living like this—I can take off whenever I want."
She sipped her coffee. "Looks like you could run a moon mission from here."
He grinned. "Yeah, it does, doesn't it. But it's standard gear these days when you're sailing, especially on the high seas."
"You do that often?"
"Sure. Staying in one place gets boring after awhile."
"So you haven't been in Metropolis long, then?"
"No, just since the end of summer."
"Yes, I remember now—you and Alastair were in Europe."
He nodded and sipped his coffee.
They chatted for several minutes about sailing, and then Jake noticed her nearly empty coffee mug. He reached out his hand. "Here, let me top that up for you. Or can I get you something stronger?"
"No, coffee's fine," Lois said as she handed him the mug, not wanting more but needing a reason to stay here a little longer.
As he took the few steps back up toward the galley, she continued her observation of the boat. Spotting a row of pictures displayed on the cabin's one bookcase, she walked across to look at them. Mostly, they were shots of sailing, but there was also one of Jake holding a racing trophy and another of him with an older couple, his parents she assumed. Beside the frames were a few loose photographs, clearly taken both inside and outside 'The Dream'. The one on top was of Jake and Alastair, leaning lazily against the deck railing, laughing, each with an arm around a beautiful young woman, clad in a microscopic bikini, who stood between them.
Lois looked at it, trying to remember where she'd seen the woman before. "This is a nice shot. Looks like the perfect bachelor life." He smiled but didn't add anything. "Who is she—someone special?" she asked coyly.
He shrugged. "Just a girl."
"She looks familiar. I'm trying to figure out where I've seen her before."
"Probably around. I don't imagine you stay in a lot," he drawled, giving her an appraising look, one that Lois had seen before, one that was not quite a leer, but not quite anything else either.
She repressed the verbal shot, which rose instantly to her tongue, and instead said virtuously, "I work long hours, Jake. And I do get around. Like the WTO protest where I met you and Alastair the other day."
"I'd forgotten about that," he said casually.
"Were you ever able to meet up with your friend?"
"Alastair said you'd gone there to meet a friend. It must have been hard to find him in all that confusion."
"You're right. It was way too hard. I missed him."
"That's too bad. I saw you talking to someone, a man in a black ski jacket. So that wasn't your friend, then?"
"No, just some panhandler looking for a handout."
"You talked to him for a while, though."
"He was hard to shake. You know, you're pretty observant, Lois. That must get you in trouble sometimes," he said quietly, as his cold blue eyes met hers.
"Just the opposite," she said. "By the way, what can you tell me about the first shot that was fired?"
"Not much. Just the police firing to disperse the crowd. Rubber bullets, I expect."
"No, I meant the first one, the one that came from the crowd."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Alastair told me he heard a shot come from near where you two were standing."
He grinned at her. "Alastair doesn't have much experience with firearms. He has no idea."
"But you do?"
"Look, Ms. Lane," he said slowly. His eyes held a warning as they met hers and held them. "I've seen this sort of protest before. Not everyone there is out to save the forests and serve brownies to the world. You want to be careful. You don't want to stumble into the wrong crowd. You never can tell what could happen."
"And who is the wrong crowd at the WTO?" Lois asked lightly.
He shrugged. "Don't ask me. Look, Lois, I know this is bad manners, but I'm afraid I have a squash game with Alastair at his club in exactly twenty minutes."
"Good luck," she said, and placed her coffee mug on the bookcase. "And thanks for the coffee."
As soon as she was away from the pier, she ducked into a phone kiosk and made a quick call. The Albertinis had a membership at the Metro Racket Club, one of the oldest and most prestigious fitness clubs in Metropolis. It was where Francesca and Lois had first met, shortly after Lex had extended his club privileges to her. The voice at the other end informed her that no courts had been reserved for Mr. Albertini that afternoon—he had played over the lunch hour.
Lois smiled and put down the phone. When she got back to the Planet she'd get Jimmy to help her do an internet search on Jake Lamont, one of those intensive searches that violate one's privacy. She had no scruples, she thought. Well, yes she did, she amended, but sometimes they were just a tad situational.
By late afternoon, Clark was back at the Daily Planet, once again hoping to put in a few productive hours at his paying job before the day ended. Good thing he needed less sleep than normal people, he thought. He frowned at his use of the word 'normal' and tried substituting 'regular'. That was just as bad. Then he tried 'ordinary' and that reminded him of Lois's saying she would love Superman even if he were just an ordinary man. Did she still love Superman? he wondered. He no longer believed she had a crush on him, and maybe that was all her love for Superman had ever been about. After the last couple of days, he was beginning to hope that Lois had feelings for the real him. Clark Kent. He frowned again. What was he thinking—that Superman wasn't real? Yes, he admitted, that's what he'd always thought. He could never understand how Lois could love a man who wasn't there.
But just maybe Superman was real. Clark Kent was beginning to accept that idea—no, that fact.
Then he grinned; he was way overanalyzing this. He reached for his notes on the gang article and got to work. He was well into it when he got a call from Lois's friend, Louie, who made it clear that he really wanted to talk to Lois but he'd accept Clark as the next best thing.
"But only because you know the kid and I'm guessin' the kid likes you," Louie added.
"It's mutual, Louie." Clark smiled as he spoke into the receiver. "So what do you want me to pass on to her?"
"My friend, he heard a couple of things since he talked to me and the kid the other afternoon. The Albertini dame, she can kiss the sapphires good-bye. They were swapped by a guy, an illegal, but my friend says he's a sweet jeweller. Got the craft."
"Any chance of talking to him?"
"Zip. Like I said, he's an illegal and no way is he surfacing. This could get him deported."
"So what happened to the sapphires?"
"Out of the country—sold as a lot to a broker from the Middle East. They're long gone by now, probably tucked up nice in some oil-rich warlord's bunker," Louie speculated.
Clark briefly wondered where Louie got his ideas from. "Anything about the emeralds?"
"Yeah. For a couple of days after the Dimitri heist, rough cut emeralds were sold here and there to domestic buyers of questionable integrity," Louie said piously.
"So who was selling?" Clark asked.
"A guy we don't know. Middle-aged, bald, not a guy you'd want to mess with. Word on the street was that the emeralds were Dimitri's, but, of course, it would have been impolite to ask."
"Of course," Clark said, wondering, not for the first time, how it was that Louie's Diner managed to produce enough income to fund the lifestyle in which Louie's family had lived for the last ten years.
"Okay, now this is important, Kent, and it's maybe good I got you and not the kid. If she's on this story, I hope you're keeping an eye on her. Word is the vendor is not a gentleman, not like the guy who faked the necklace. This guy's not your respectable jewel thief. He's into heavy stuff. So keep an eye on her," he repeated.
"Always, Louie," Clark promised.
Always, he repeated to himself as he hung up the phone. He looked across at Lois's desk, wondering where she was. Surely she wasn't out looking for jewel thieves. Recalling his skirmish with her the other day when he'd 'rescued' her, he fought the urge to do a quick fly-over of Metropolis to search for her. Lois didn't need a keeper.
He turned back to his computer—still nothing to show for his day at the Daily Planet. Then he got lucky and a story came to him. Sandy Wong, of the MPD Forensics department, showed up and handed him a large brown envelope.
"Can you run this in the next edition?"
Clark opened the envelope and slid out a sketch of a young woman, very attractive, slender, and fair.
"She's the woman on the boat, isn't she?" he said quietly.
"Yeah. We're hoping someone will let us know who she is."
Clark sighed. "Yeah, we'll run it."
Lois put in a quick call to Lucy to verify the location of the bowling alley where, in a moment of insanity, she'd agreed to meet her sister later that evening. Now, she had to get across town to the Lexor Hotel for the press conference which the WTO chair was scheduled to give in, she checked her watch, ohmigod fifteen minutes. What had she been doing?
She dashed to the curb and hailed a cab, muttering, during the interminable three minutes it took a cab to skid to a stop beside her, about unreliable taxi service. She flung herself inside and fired out her destination to the driver, then sat on the edge of her seat, mentally counting the minutes, while the taxi crawled cautiously through the fog- bound streets. She'd never get there! She half listened as the cabby counselled her on serenity and the inner peace of bending like a willow. She rolled her eyes and slumped back in despair against the upholstery.
When all this was over, she was going to go to bed with the best chocolate in town, a glass of Madeira, and a great trash novel. And with luck, sleep like a baby, something she hadn't done in a very long time. She closed her eyes for a dreamy second and then flashed them open.
What if this taxi ride was never over?
Clark was about to check his e-mail when he heard yet another round of high pitched sirens. Leaving his article on gangs still very unfinished, he walked rapidly across the bullpit and seconds later was speeding toward the sound of the sirens. The heavy fog had made visibility poor and there was a pile-up of over fifty cars on the interstate. To make matters worse, one of the transport trucks involved in the pile-up had slammed into a hydro pole and now a thick cable hung dangerously across the highway. It had also knocked out the power so that the lights, which had automatically come on early that afternoon in response to the fog-induced dimness, no longer functioned. Everything had ground to a halt, and the emergency vehicles had still not reached the scene, delayed by the fog and rush hour traffic.
His first impulse was to land and check out all the vehicles, helping where he could, but he quickly rejected that idea because it would require some time to accomplish. He noticed a few people at the back of the pile-up walking along its ragged length, checking and helping where needed.
Almost instantaneously he turned in mid-air and flew back toward the sound of the approaching emergency vehicles. The ambulances first, he decided, then the hydro truck, and finally the police cars. His own personal airlift. It took precious minutes, but what it did mean was that trained rescue crews were on site, and he could now lend a hand to clear up, pull apart, and fly ambulances back to Metro General so that they would not have to make their way through the jammed traffic in the city.
Fortunately, no one had died in the wreckage, and his intervention meant that the injured would receive medical attention much more quickly. As he was using his superbreath to extinguish a small electrical fire in one of the cars, he overhead a cop radio back to the station recommending the highway be closed for the rest of the night.
No kidding, he thought.
By the end of the afternoon he was once again back at the Planet where he figured he had spent a total of one hour and eight minutes that day. He grimaced. He hadn't even had a chance to check his e-mail. He picked up the picture which Sandy Wong had given him and looked at it, memorizing the woman's face, paying homage to a person who very probably had no one to mourn her. He finished the report that would accompany the photo and then walked it across to Perry's office. He had just made the deadline—he hoped.
Perry was not alone when Clark entered his office. Franklin Stern was back again, this time seated on the sofa looking at a print-out of what Clark figured was the latest report from accounting. He hoped the numbers were looking better. He also wished that Stern would back off a little on his hands-on management style.
Perry took Clark's material with a grunt followed by a sympathetic word for the loss of someone so young, but then he was immediately back in focus with Stern on the numbers. Clark left them to it.
Time to look at his e-mail, and then a quick flight to the Seychelles to check on the islanders. LNN had reported that high winds and torrential rain still blocked rescue ships from reaching the island; Clark wanted to be sure that everyone was safe and also to bring more fresh water and any supplies the islanders might need.
His eyes rushed down the list of his unopened e-mail, and immediately landed on the one from Lois. He read it quickly, pleased that she had thought to tell him where she was going. That wasn't like her. Then it hit him; buried in there somewhere she had asked him out. He read it again. Definitely, she had asked him out, although she had also pretty much said he could say no.
Was she kidding? He'd drop everything to go out with her! He grinned—no he wouldn't, but just about everything. Quickly, he dashed off a reply:
Lois, (light of my life and haunter of my dreams)
He deleted that and started again.
Lois, I am all yours. Do with me what you will.
He deleted that too. God, why couldn't he write this!
Lois: Would love to go. I'll pick you up at your place at 7. And yes I do know I need a tux. Louie called: A middle-aged bald guy sold the emeralds stolen from Dimitri's. He says be careful. That means *BE CAREFUL*, Lois. Have fun bowling with Lucy. Just remember, aim for the pins and keep out of the gutter. Love, Clark
Then he deleted the 'love' because he didn't want to spook her and sent the message.
Yes! He leaned back in his swivel chair and beamed. He'd reserve a tux before heading out to the Seychelles.
"Hey, Jimmy," Lois greeted her friend as she passed him en route to her desk. "Seen Clark?"
"You just missed him."
"Oh," she said, her response a one-word note of disappointment. She stopped at the coffee machine and poured herself a mug, noticing as she did that the doughnut box still had a few left in it. She'd missed lunch today, and she was ravenous. There was a chocolate one! She reached for it and carried it like a trophy back to her desk.
As she put the mug down, she noticed her new plant was looking pretty good. "Ya know, Jimmy, I just might be getting good at this plant thing. It was looking pretty ratty this morning, but it's perked up."
"Don't worry, Lois, I'm sure you'll find a way to kill it," Jimmy teased as he patted her shoulder.
Lois grinned at him. "Come on, Jimmy." She gestured at the plant, then looked him straight in the eye. "Can't you see I'm turning over a new leaf?"
They both burst out laughing, and Lois took a bite of her doughnut managing to get a slash of chocolate across her upper lip. At that moment, Perry White and Franklin Stern were walking across the newsroom and looked up at the sound of the laughter.
Lois spotted them, her hand with the doughnut midway to her mouth for the second bite. Stern frowned at her, then turned to Perry and rumbled something at him which she was too far away to hear. Nor could she hear Perry's response. But she could imagine what Stern had said. The lightness she'd felt seconds ago vanished, and she felt weighed down, a kid caught by the principal. What was Stern doing here anyway? she wondered.
She looked at Jimmy and shrugged nonchalantly, hoping he wouldn't notice her dismay.
Jimmy gulped. "Guess it's time to get back to work." He turned away from her.
"Yeah," she muttered, as she watched his retreating back. What did it matter that she'd been out all day? What mattered was what Stern saw.
She sat down behind her desk, staring at its contents, but not focusing on anything. Slowly she swiveled so that she faced her computer screen, and it was then that she spotted it, a dried pod the size of a small egg and the colour of the earth. What on earth was it? Picking it up, she examined it more closely, turning it in her fingers, detecting as she did a subtly enticing, almost seductive aroma. She brought it closer. Cinnamon—it smelled like cinnamon, sweet and heady, yet soothing her. She was delighted. How had it got there? Who had put it there?
She raised her eyes and saw Jeff standing by her desk, his grey eyes mischievous.
"You know who gave it to you," he said.
She shook her head. "Nope, not a clue."
"Cinnamon for love and healing," he said softly, then he paused and added wickedly, "and lust."
"So who gave it to me?"
"You know, Lois. You've always known."
"I guess so," she said slowly. "Maybe. Yes, maybe I've always known."
Her fingers closed around the pod, and she wasn't thinking anything at all, just submitting to a fragile second's happiness. Then she carefully placed the cinnamon pod by her plant, looked across at Clark's desk, and smiled. When she turned back to her computer, Jeff was gone.
Lois decided to stay at the planet, working, until it was time to meet Lucy. Before she settled into her article, she checked her e-mail and found Clark's note. She smiled. Tomorrow night. Then she read his brief message from Louie, ignored the warning and fixed on the information about the bald man. That was the same description as the loner in the photographs, the man whom she had seen talking to Jake Lamont. Okay, she said to herself, maybe it's just a coincidence; bald, middle-aged men are not exactly rare in Metropolis. But maybe it's not a coincidence, either. She filed the information away in her mind.
Then she wrote a quick reply to Clark:
Clark, great. I'll be ready at seven. We have to find the bald guy. I think I've seen him before.
Superman shot upward, slicing through the blasting winds and rain which still pounded the tiny island in the Seychelles and tore at its homes. Nevertheless, the villagers were hanging tough, safe in their caves, the kids restless but the adults planning what to do first when the weather decided to look the other way and permit their escape from the prison of their caves.
They had needed the water which Superman had brought, and they appreciated the supplies. They would get through this, and probably another one like it at some other point in their lives. He thought of his parents and how they too led lives that were still in many ways controlled by the weather. Too much rain, too little rain. Killing frosts that came too early for the crops. And that one tornado that had ripped through the farm when he'd been seven. He would never forget it. He had told the children he'd just visited about it, how he'd been grabbed up by the swirling wind and would have been snatched away if it hadn't been for the strength of his father. The kids laughed and asked him more about little boy Superman. But he smiled and said it was time for him to leave.
Unconsciously he veered towards Kansas, and now he drifted lower through the clouds, flying over Smallville, and then beyond it over the dirt roads which wound through the prairie to his parents' home. He lost yet more altitude and now he was flying mere yards above the unpaved single lane road that cut through his father's fields and led to their house, taking note of the fences and the rich earth furrowed from plowing, things which only his eyes could pick out in the true darkness of a rural night. Only the moon and the stars for light, and the few lights which were on at the house. His parents wouldn't be up much longer, he knew, but he would have an hour or so with them.
Of course, all Lois's horrors about bowling proved true. You actually had to go bowling to believe it, she thought; the imagination could not do the game justice. You had to rent special shoes, why she had no idea, because her sneakers would do just as well, plus she was the only one who had ever worn them. Maybe special shoes were supposed to add to the mystique of the game, like the padding football players wore or those amazing body hugging suits that skiers wore.
Beer was served with the game, not wine, and, of course, potato chips, all of which was why you spent a lot of time sitting around. No wonder it was a sport of the semi-fit, she thought.
Patiently, the guys explained the rules of the game to her. She rolled her eyes at the elaborate system of scoring, which had obviously been developed by some small town accountant forced to spend the winter indoors. Bet he lost the girl the night he figured that system out, Lois thought. Then one of the guys even offered to show her how to roll the ball, but when he stood behind her a little too closely and put his arm around her for the greater good of showing her how to hold her arm, she developed an awkward case of elbowitis and he backed away. She apologized, using her wide-eyed innocent look, the one she'd honed the year she'd turned fifteen. Everyone laughed, including her would-be instructor.
Nevertheless, Lois had a much better time than she had expected. She picked up the limited rules and skills of the game quickly, realising that Clark's reference to the gutters was only bowling specific after all, and that he hadn't meant anything else. Probably. That Clark knew how to bowl was a bit scary.
But then he wasn't perfect, and she loved him for it, she thought with an impish smile, as she picked up a ball and rolled it carefully toward the pins at the far end of the lane.
Lucy's restaurant gang took the game way too seriously, but no one took each other seriously, and even the guy who'd put the move on her had the good grace to accept his failure. It hadn't dissuaded him in the least; he tried with every other woman there too, and his efforts quickly became a joke. No one, least of all him, took them seriously and Lois felt she had misjudged him. She decided he was okay after all, and in a kind of unclassy way he was a bit of a cavalier. He excluded no one.
She had a lot of fun and was startled to realise she'd almost forgotten what that word meant. Not that she hadn't enjoyed last night with Clark. But last night had been different, so right, so part of… of what? Of her and Clark. As she sat back on the bench, taking a swallow from a can of beer and watching Lucy pick up a ball, she smiled. This was really all right; Lucy was laughing and Lois loved the sound of it, the delight in her sister's voice. Who knew that you could have an epiphany while you were bowling?
Later, after it all was over, Lois and Lucy stopped in an all-night diner and sipped tea and talked, doing a play-by- play of the triumphs of the evening, then turning to talk of more serious things. Finally, Lucy mentioned Johnny, and how she had so misjudged him, and had been taken in by his looks.
"I mean it's the leather jacket thing, Lois."
"That'll do it every time, Luce," Lois agreed, nodding her head. "We, both of us have a knack for picking the wrong guy. At least you didn't get engaged to an uptown mobster."
"I told you, Lois, Clark's the one," Lucy said. "What you see is what you get with that guy."
"Yeah, maybe. But I've been fooled before. Not just by Lex—there was Paul in college, then Claude—god, remember how crazy I was about him?"
"You were pathetic, Lois," Lucy agreed. "Just classic, the great man syndrome. I'm taking this psych course," she added by way of explanation.
"I would never have guessed," Lois said dryly.
"Claude, the great reporter, Luthor the great entrepreneur…" Lucy enumerated happily.
"I know, I know, I loved the man who wasn't there." Lois grinned, ceding the point to Lucy.
Then they both spoke at once and softly, "Like Daddy."
Their startled eyes met, and Lucy spoke. "Well, that was a Dr. Friskin moment."
"Yeah, wasn't it just," Lois agreed. "So she's helping you work through all this?"
"Yeah, she is. It's been good. Anyway, I'm telling you, Lois, Clark isn't like those guys."
"Who knows, Luce? Who knows about Clark? Maybe he's a different man than who I think, too. With my track record, he probably is."
"Come on, Lois. Like what could he be hiding? I know, maybe he's Bat Man," she teased. "No, no—he's Zorro. 'Member that crush you had on Zorro when we were kids? You begged Mom for fencing lessons."
Lois rolled her eyes. "Don't remind me. Anyway, those are all good guys. The guys I thought I knew turned out to be sub-human."
"So Clark's really Mr. Hyde? Or Hannibal Lecter then?"
Lois nearly choked on her tea, giving Lucy the chance to get in an extra volley.
"It's guys in capes isn't it, Lois? Think I'll tell Clark he should get a cape."
"Lucy! Don't you dare," Lois said, laughing. "Besides I've had only one date with Clark."
"Yeah, but it was a great date."
"So how about you, Luce?" Lois asked, both interested and eager to change the subject.
Lucy's expression sobered. "It's too soon. Besides, I need to get through school before I get serious about anyone." Then she brightened. "But that doesn't mean I can't have a little fun along the way."
"No, it doesn't, Luce." Then she said innocently, "And Steve looked like he might be fun."
"He just might be," Lucy agreed.
Superman whooshed onto the back kitchen porch of the white frame farmhouse in which he had been raised. Almost instantly Martha Kent was there hugging him, then leading him into the brightness of her warm kitchen. When his dad wandered in to see what the commotion was, he gave Clark the great good news that his mother had just baked an apple pie that afternoon.
Sitting around the old wooden kitchen table, which had been made by Jonathan's grandfather, they told each other of how things had been over the last week, and gradually Clark talked to them, too, about the horror of Johnny Corbin's death, and how it had tied him up inside. They listened and understood, but they did not offer him false comfort, only their love and acceptance.
Like Lois had done, he told his Mom. Her eyes lit up at that, and then, as he and his dad talked tractor pulls, harvest records, and grain prices, she'd woven into their conversation what he figured she thought was a subtle third degree about his relationship with Lois. She would have done Henderson proud, he thought, as he ducked and feinted, and avoided her probes, leading her astray, and it wasn't until the apple pie was completely done, and he was once more standing on the back porch that he casually mentioned that he and Lois had gone out on a date last night, and that he was taking her out again tomorrow night. Then he leapt upward with a grin on his face and was gone.
As he flew back to Metropolis, he took it slowly, pleasuring in the cool night breeze, soaring through the midnight sky, then swooping downward to swerve among the giant oaks of darkened forests and skim the tops of farmers' fields. As he flew, he thought about Lois and who she was, what she was.
So many things.
Just when he thought he had her figured out, she would do something that showed him he would never completely figure her out. And he now was beginning to think that was fine with him. He'd tortured himself with resentment over her love for Superman rather than Clark Kent and been darkly angry over her engagement to Luthor. But in all that time, he'd never really looked at things from her point of view. He hadn't picked up on her confusion, and in the last couple of months her fear about her job. That was stupid— he should have known she was keeping something from him. One thing about Lois, you always knew how she felt about trivialities, or about job-related matters, but when it came to the important things about herself, she clammed up.
He thought again about her feelings for Superman. Why had she always made such a point of letting him know that Superman was the only man for her and that Clark Kent paled beside him? She hadn't made that comparison with other men and Superman. Just him. Why? It was almost as though she had been trying to distance herself from him. But now, after yesterday, he had no doubt that she cared for Clark Kent, and was even attracted to him, although he was still not sure if she loved him. He hoped she did.
He did know now that whatever it was she felt for Superman, it was not a hero-worshipping crush. Did it really matter if he ever knew whether it was Clark Kent or Superman she loved? What was it his mom had said to him a year ago, after he'd only been Superman for a month or so. "But, honey, you are Superman so what difference does it make?"
So what difference did it make whether Lois loved Clark or Superman? Last spring he'd thought it made all the difference in the world. But now?
He'd been alone for so long. He hadn't really noticed it or thought too much about it before last year. He'd got used to it growing up when his secret had always held him back somewhat from the kids he'd grown up with. But still, with his parents' guidance, he'd managed to lead a pretty normal life, made friends who were still his friends.
But the powers had developed through his teens, and the necessity of keeping them secret had become even more important when he became an adult. College had been a bigger challenge because some things were too easy for him, and so he had become more elusive, guarded, never getting too close to anyone. He still had memories of playing football, going on the road to play other colleges, and never sleeping at night because he'd been afraid he would float in his sleep, one of the three other guys he bunked with would spot it, and would, well, wonder.
It was that same fear that had kept him from heterosexual sleepovers too. Not that he hadn't been interested or wanted or needed…
Nevertheless, he hadn't taken off on his world travels because he wanted to hide and escape, but because he'd been eager to explore the world. As he'd wandered over the planet, he'd never felt alone.
And through it all, he'd always had his parents and his interest in whatever was around him.
It was Metropolis and Lois who had made him understand that he was truly alone. As soon as he met her, as soon as he had walked the streets of the city, and chased stories for the Planet, he had known that he was where he belonged. This was meant to be his home. He was meant to be with Lois Lane, no one else. And he'd understood why, although he'd been most definitely attracted to women, he'd never been struck by the feeling, the absolute certitude, that there was that one special woman whom he would be unable to live without, whose spirit and heart would complete his. For whom there could never be a substitute.
As a kid he'd just assumed he'd marry one day, when he was old; that was what grown-ups did, at least in Kansas. It was just a matter of finding a girl who he thought was pretty, —and when he'd been sixteen, he'd been amazed by the number of pretty girls in Smallville—and then deciding whom he could live with. He'd hoped, too, that she would be able to make apple pie.
But he never had found a girl he thought he could live with, let alone not live without. There'd been girls he'd liked, girls he'd admired, girls he'd competed with, and a couple of girls he'd lusted after. But there had never been one girl, that one woman, who had been all those things, let alone been someone who somehow wound her way into his soul. Until Lois Lane.
And so when Lois had cast starry eyes at Superman, he'd felt alone, truly alone, separate, for the first time in his life.
So did any of that matter now? What was false and what was real? Was Superman real? Last year he would have said no; now he was less sure. Did it matter if Lois loved Superman? Maybe it didn't matter if he ever knew the answer to that question. Maybe it was too complicated to ever know. He smiled. Besides, it would be darned awkward if she didn't at least like Superman, and he thought of Mayson Drake whom he had for a day or two thought might help him forget about Lois Lane. But no one would, could ever replace Lois.
Stubborn, brilliant, beautiful, eyes flashing, unique, her arms around his neck, her body…
It was late now, and her evening with Lucy must be over. He wondered how it had gone, and if she were about to become a world champion bowler. He grinned. Maybe he'd stop by her apartment, just for a second—that open window of hers… He hadn't seen her since this morning after all.
He shot lower and hovered outside her window. It was after midnight, her lights were all out and her window locked. He thought about scanning her apartment but then discarded that action as too invasive of her privacy. Disappointed, he drifted away.
Then he saw her, a slender figure in dark leggings and an oversize plaid jacket, walking in the fog, where images blur, and people appear out of nowhere and then vanish mysteriously. The hazy glow of a streetlamp highlighted her dark hair as she passed by, and he noticed it was beginning to curl in the damp air. Given the boots she was wearing, it looked like she'd been doing some serious walking and he wondered why.
He slipped down beside her, materializing out of the mist, an apparition in red and blue. She didn't seem at all surprised to see him, and he fell in step beside her.
"Hey," he said softly.
A smile lit her dark eyes. "Hey."
Without speaking, Superman nodded in the direction of the park, and they walked across the street into the leafy darkness where it was unlikely, at this time of night, that they would encounter anyone.
"So you're not mad at me anymore," he said, smiling.
"No, we all make mistakes," she said grandly.
"That was a riot, Lois!"
"It was not!"
"Lo-is," he protested.
She smiled at his pronunciation of her name. That was so like him. "Got the story anyway," she said.
"It was a great story, Lois. See, you don't need to go flinging yourself into the jaws of death."
"How about we make a deal—you don't tell me how to do my job, and I don't tell you how to do your job." But she said it lightly, without belligerence.
"Are you kidding? You tell me how to do my job all the time," he said.
"I do not!" Clark maybe, she thought, but not Superman.
They continued walking along the tree-lined path that meandered through Centennial Park, passing no one.
"So that's way you dropped by—to apologize?"
"No! Do I have to have a reason?"
"You always have had a reason." She paused and checked back over her memories of Superman visits. "Yep, there must be a reason."
"Maybe I just wanted to see you?" he suggested.
"Nope," she teased. "Superman always has a reason. You want to thank me, or warn me about something."
"I was just passing by, Lois, and I saw you walking and…"
"Thought you'd drop down for a visit?" she finished for him.
She was astounded. He'd never done that before. "Are you okay?" she asked. "You've had a really rough week. The Corbin business…"
"Yeah," he agreed, his voice barely audible. "Sometimes, Lois, it's hard, harder than I thought it would ever be."
She turned to look at him, at his profile, and she saw his vulnerability. She wanted to touch him, to slip her arm around his, to let him know he was not alone. She reached out, but then quickly pulled her hand back, remembering how he had pushed her away last week when he had come to her apartment the night of Corbin's death.
"I know, Superman," she said softly. "There have been so many times when what you have to do must have seemed impossible. But I also know that you always do the best you can. Sometimes… sometimes doing the right thing is a difficult call, especially when you have so many powers which I think, maybe, might be challenging to use. I mean using them carefully," she added. For a moment they walked in silence and then she said thoughtfully, "You know, sometimes I think it's your strength that's your vulnerability."
"Lois…" He exhaled slowly.
They were walking slowly now, their only light in the foggy mist the hazy glow from the distant city streetlights and a barely visible full moon. His hands were clasped behind his back as he listened to her.
"It's not always as easy as 'good guys and bad guys', is it?" Then, her voice rueful, she added. "Sometimes it's even hard to know who the bad guys are."
"Like Luthor," he said. "I understand that now, Lois."
"I was blind. About so many things."
"We all are sometimes. We all make mistakes. That's what you told me, Lois. Like I did with Johnny Corbin. And then I made it worse. I let it get to me."
"Maybe it was right that you let it get to you." She looked at him again and saw that he had turned his head so that he was watching her, the look in his eyes so familiar that it distracted her for a second. She met his eyes and neither spoke, affirming a connection between them that had been there from the beginning.
Then she said, "I mean, how can you stand for truth and justice if you don't examine what it is those things mean when you act? If you don't ever ask yourself if what you've done was the right thing? If you show no signs of having a conscience, if you don't examine what you do?"
"You *are* being supportive, here, right?" he asked wryly.
"Of course, I am!" Her voice was enthusiastic. "I'll always be your friend, Superman, but that doesn't mean I'll always agree with you or blindly cheer your every move."
"No more Super Man, then?" he asked lightly
"Oh, Superman's still there," she said. "He's even more super than I thought. Maybe because he's an ordinary guy."
He took a deep breath and they walked farther into the park, turning a curve. "Last spring you told me you would love me even if I were an ordinary man."
"You didn't believe me."
"I made a mistake that night in your apartment."
"Yeah," and his voice was low, not like Superman's at all. "I said things… I made a mistake, Lois."
She had to look at him to remind herself that it was Superman to whom she was talking, and when she did she no longer was sure. She had never seen him like this; he had never talked to her like this.
"I made a mistake, too, only I was too blind to figure it out." It was time for her to be honest, and she confessed to him, admitting what had been in her heart for so long. "I do have feelings for you, Superman. But it's Clark. Maybe, it always has been. I couldn't get him out of my mind the whole time I was engaged to Lex."
"Clark?" He sounded astonished.
"Yeah." She stopped and then it all tumbled out, her gentleness vanished, now replaced by pure energy. "The whole time. He made me so mad—said things, accused me of *things*, wouldn't see me, wouldn't speak to me. I had to chase him down in that stupid car Lex gave me, and all he did was yell at me." Lois was on a roll now, winding up, and going for the top. "He told me he was in love with me. And then he tells me he doesn't love me, he was lying to me."
"He crossed his fingers when he said that, Lois."
She looked at him, amazed. "He what? I don't believe it! See, that's what comes of being a boy scout. What does that organization do, anyway, give merit badges in avoidance behaviour?"
"Clark doesn't lie."
"Apparently he does. He even lies about lying! That crossed-fingers manoeuver does not cut it. No one over the age of twelve does that! Do you know, that man wouldn't go away—the whole time I was walking down the aisle to marry Lex, all I was thinking about was Clark Crossed-Fingered Kent."
Superman stopped walking and stared at her. "Lois, I didn't know."
"Humpf." Her walking had turned to a stalk, and she was striding ahead of him, fuming.
"I thought you were getting along okay with Clark right now."
"Yeah, me too. But now I'm remembering." She glared at him as though he were a stand-in for the absent Clark Kent. "Who knows what Clark'll do tomorrow? Pull one of his disappearing acts again."
"But he always comes back."
"Yeah, I know, I know," she admitted grudgingly and slowed her pace. "Guess I'm obsessing just a little here." She turned to him and her voice was plaintive. "But I don't understand him sometimes. Sometimes I could swear he lo … loves me, and then other times he gets all distracted and can't wait to get away from me."
"But he does love you, Lois."
"He does?" She was amazed, and she stopped to look at him. Then she sobered. "Let me see your hands."
"Let me see your hands. Wanna check your fingers."
He laughed and held them out before her. "No crossed fingers, Lois." Then he repeated, serious, his voice gravelly. "Clark Kent loves you."
Her eyes lit up, and a small web of happiness began to grow in her soul. "He told you that, huh?"
"He didn't need to, Lois."
"No, I guess not." She took a deep breath and felt the hammering of her heart. What was going on here? She sneaked a look at him out of the corner of her eye and saw that once again he was watching her, as though he were waiting for her. Well, she wouldn't give him the satisfaction. Not when she felt like the sand was shifting so rapidly beneath her.
They should talk about something else, anything else.
"It's really foggy out tonight."
"That why you're out walking so late?" he teased.
"I couldn't sleep."
"Bowling was that exciting, was it?" he asked with a hint of laughter. "Hope you kept out of the gutter."
Her eyes widened again. She wished he'd stop doing that, quit reminding her of Clark. Mentally she shook her head. She was imagining things. So Clark and Superman bowled together, then? She took a deep breath. No, Lois, they don't. This was way more information than she wanted. She must be reading too much into it. She plowed ahead.
"I did most of the time, but you're right, you know; it's hard to keep out of the gutter. It's always there distracting you."
"And so you don't see what you're supposed to see," he teased.
She wanted to say, 'No, no I don't see anything at all.' But she didn't. "I think I have a lead on the riot."
"Lois, be careful. Remember Louie's warning."
Clark told him that, he must have, he must have.
"Don't you go interfering when I'm on the verge of getting a good story."
"No, Lois," he said, and she hoped he was serious, "I wouldn't dream of it."
They had reached the outskirts of the park; they'd wandered in a half circle and were once again back at the street. It had started to rain, the promise of the day finally fulfilled.
He turned to her and scooped her up in his arms. "Door to door service," he said, his eyes bright.
She rolled her eyes. She wished he'd quit channeling Clark Kent. And then she forgot that troubling detail as they rose upward, and once again the magic of flying with him excited her childish heart. She met his eyes and he smiled at her as they silently flew the very short distance back to her apartment building.
Gently, so gently that she scarcely felt her feet touching the ground, he let her slip to the sidewalk. Then he smiled slowly, as he tucked a strand of her damp hair behind her ear.
"Thanks for the ride," she said casually, hoping he could not hear her thudding heart.
"It was my pleasure, Ms. Lane."
"I'll see you around," she said lightly as she put her foot on the bottom of the stairs leading up to the door of her apartment building.
He stood watching her until she'd reached the top of the stairs and waited until she'd opened the door to her building. Then he replied, very softly, so softly that later she wondered if she had imagined it.
"You bet your sweet chumpy, Lois."
And he took off.
She watched him become a tiny speck in the sky, muttering to herself, 'Okay, Superman is not Clark Kent. Clark Kent is not Superman. They are not the same people—person. They are two different people. They are not at all alike. No resemblance whatsoever. Clark is shorter and less muscled. Although he's very, very nice, she added loyally. Plus he has way better hair—it's longer and thicker. Clark has great hair. Clark's voice is different. Besides, Superman doesn't have to eat, and Clark eats like a horse! Nope: no way they could be the same person. They are two separate people. They just chat a lot. Yes, that's it, that explains it all.'
And with her mind reassured, she entered her apartment, quickly got ready for bed, and then, just as she was about to pull the covers over her shoulders, she impulsively picked up the phone and entered Clark's number. Not surprised when all she got was his answering machine, she waited until the appropriate tone, and then she said, "G'night, Clark." It didn't even cross her mind to wonder where he was.
She fell asleep. Sort of.
Clark Kent/Superman didn't sleep at all that night. He didn't go home. He'd told her! Now she knew. And he felt released, purified, free. No more lying; he would never have to lie to her again. And she loved him! Had loved him for a lot longer than he had thought. Almost as long as he had hoped. Yes!
He soared and rolled and dove in an aerial acrobat of joy, popping through clouds, and dancing in the rain. He flew across the continent to where the sun was still shining and then raced to the North pole where he stood on a massive ice floe, exultant. A seal popped its head above water and waddled onto the ice toward him, curious. He bent over and told it, happily, "Lois Lane loves me."
Chapter 6: Fitting the Pieces
Lois slept in the next morning, having finally succumbed to sleep after a restless night of half-imagined thoughts, maybe they were dreams, about Clark Kent/Superman. When she awoke she walked over to her window and looked out—the fog had lifted and she could see clearly across the street.
She could see clearly. Clark Kent was Superman.
Maybe. She was ninety-nine percent sure, but she had to be absolutely, 'beyond a shadow of a doubt' sure. And this morning offered her that opportunity; Superman was scheduled to visit the Children's Hospital first thing to- day.
She leaned against the window frame. Part of her was hoping that she was imagining the whole thing, that her mind was playing tricks on her, helping her to resolve her feeling that to love two men at the same time was just not what nice American girls did. So if they were the same man, then there would be no problem. She was very properly in love with one man only.
She turned away and walked across her small bedroom, her eye landing momentarily on the teddy bear which Clark had won for her at the Smallville Corn Festival last year. Her words to him that night returned. "You seem so Clark." She rolled her eyes; then they widened, as she recalled his pathetically unheroic reaction to that paper-cut he'd got when she was there.
Lois fixed the teddy bear with stern eyes as she approached her bathroom door. "You better not be Superman."
As she turned on the taps for her shower, she mused about whether she really wanted Clark to be Superman. She'd never really thought much about the reality of having to live life with the superhero. Her daydreams had been filled with romantic fantasies—of the sappiest kind, sometimes, she thought with a grin. But it was different with Clark; he was real, solid, there for her when she needed him. And he was a man with real strengths, idiosynchracies (in spades!) and even a few faults. So how did Superman actually fit in with Clark? She conjured up an image of each man and then tried blurring them into one person. Surprisingly, it wasn't difficult.
What would life with him be like?
Life with him? What was she thinking? They weren't anywhere near that stage. Were they?
Maybe he wasn't Superman. Maybe there was a teensy, infinitesimal long shot that Clark was just Clark.
A small group of reporters clustered around Superman, crowding in on him as he arrived in the solarium of the Children's Hospital. Immediately he was swarmed by cameras and microphones jabbing toward him, as TV crews vied for the best sound byte.
Lois watched like a hawk from the back of the pack, not interested, for once, in out-doing the competition, but only in proving, or was it disproving, her suspicion. She kept her eyes on Superman, and she noticed his brief flicker of apprehension as the reporters crowded in around him. Clark. Her impression vanished quickly as he became Superman, his voice and words formal, distancing himself, his arms folded across his chest, and the media pack took a collective step backward.
After Superman finished speaking, the Chief Medical Director delivered a brief statement of welcome plus an announcement that this was the beginning of the hospital's special fund-raising week. Then she reminded the media that because this visit was very important to the children, she knew they would give Superman enough space so that the children would have a special moment with their hero.
Superman strode toward the children, and immediately their voices rose, excited. He knelt beside them, talking quietly, teasing them gently, asking them questions, listening. Their eyes were bright and they replied excitedly, asking him questions too. What was his favourite food? His favourite football team. What was it like to fly? Could he fly to the moon? Did he have a girlfriend?
Apple pie; the Metro Tigers; it depended on the weather, but pretty amazing; no, he couldn't unless he had additional oxygen; did she think he should have a girlfriend?
Good question, Lois thought with a smile. He was good with kids, patient, interested in what they had to say, and gentle—the gentlest man in the world. She had always thought that about Clark.
Then he knelt beside the gurney of one very quiet boy whose leg was in a cast, suspended in traction. "You, okay, cowboy?" he asked softly, and it was Clark speaking, not Clark doing an act, Clark who had used those same words two nights ago when he'd rescued a boy from the path of a skidding car. Lois froze and finally accepted the truth.
The boy asked Superman if it were true that he could do things that no one else could do. Superman nodded but didn't reply.
The boy said to him, "I don't think I'm ever going home. I want to go home. Can you take me home?"
Superman bowed his head for a moment, and then he raised it and placed his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Yes, I can take you home. But not today. Dr. Adair will call me, and then I'll take you home."
The boy brightened. "I'll be ready tomorrow."
Dr. Adair interposed quickly. "Maybe not tomorrow, Jason, but soon. So you have to get better quickly," she added gently.
"I will, I will, I promise," he said eagerly. The he added shyly, "Superman, can you sign my cast?"
Lois watched him for the next half hour, and then he left, striding out a private door, accompanied by Dr. Adair. She heard him say to the doctor that she should give Clark Kent a call at the Daily Planet when Jason was ready to go home. Then, just as he was about to leave the solarium, he turned one more time and glanced at the group of reporters. His eyes met hers, dark brown eyes, eyes that were Clark Kent's, and he smiled very slightly at her, and nodded his head, and… he winked.
Lois stood there for a moment, very still. Okay, beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Along with several of her colleagues, she rode the elevator down to the main floor, forcing herself to chat with them as she did, relieved by the brief respite they were giving her from facing the truth, and then she was out on the pavement, left on her own, no possibility of escape from the absolute truth. She decided to walk for a few blocks, to put it all in perspective.
At least now she understood the significance of Clark's fascination with dark alleys.
"Why are you so shocked, Lois?"
"Jeff!" Lois smiled at her friend as he fell in step beside her.
"I mean, he's been dropping all these clues for days now," he said, his grey eyes laughing at her.
"I know, I know. If I had a dollar for every lame excuse…" She glared ahead and quickened her step. "He lied to me, misled me."
"So when should he have told you, Lois? Maybe when you told him you were going to marry Luthor?" Jeff suggested.
"Come on. Why should he trust you with his secret when you were about to marry Al Capone junior?"
"Maybe he should have told me that little detail!"
"No, Clark told me that… Clark told me," she repeated quietly. She turned to Jeff and said with some assertiveness. "But he didn't give me any evidence. Why should I have believed him?"
"Because Clark never lies."
"I thought we just established that he does! Quite regularly as a matter of fact."
"Oh, that. That's different," he said dismissively. "So do you always have to have the facts, Lois? You can't trust your own heart?"
"It's not that simple. He should have told me!"
"He did. He's been telling you for the last couple of weeks. It started with the Church story, when he accused you of not seeing what was right in front of you. He's been daring you to call his bluff ever since. He told you last night."
"No he did not… He did not actually say, "Lois, I'm Clark Kent."
"Maybe he didn't think you needed a road map."
"That's profound." She could hear the teasing in Jeff's voice, just as she had so many summers ago, when they were kids. Then he added, "So why have you been avoiding the truth if he's been dropping all these really obvious clues?"
"Because I… because he… because!"
"That makes sense." His voice was mock-serious as he spoke.
"Because it's overwhelming! Because I finally figured out that I want a real relationship, not some fantasy daydream. Because I love Clark Kent. Because I don't know Superman at all!"
"You think too much, Lois. The truth is that you love him, whoever he is, and that's all that matters."
"Humpf. Well, I'm not telling him I know," she said triumphantly. "He might think I know, but he doesn't actually one hundred percent for sure know I know so I'm not telling him I know."
"Oh, that's mature."
"I think so. Two can play this game. He can litter the newsroom floor knee-deep with clues, but I will not pick them up," she announced grandly.
In her rush to get to the Children's Hospital, Lois had not had a chance to scan the morning edition of the Daily Planet. Now she did so as she rode the elevator up to the newsroom. At the bottom of the front page she saw the composite sketch which the police artist had produced of the woman whose body had been found at the marina a couple of days ago.
Lois recognized her features. It was the maid who had brought her coffee at Francesca's. Lois thought for a moment—Janine, yes, that was her name. Mary Mackenzie had mentioned that she hadn't shown up for work for a couple of days. Now Lois understood why. The composite was a plain sketch, Janine's features drawn without expression, but it was easy to visualize the woman who had brought Lois coffee the other morning. Polite and competent, the girl had faded into the background when she'd completed her task. As Lois studied the picture more closely, the other penny dropped as well.
It was not much of a leap to see beyond the plainly dressed Janine to the beautiful woman in the photograph on Jake's bookcase. She obviously hadn't wanted to draw attention to her physical looks while serving in the Albertini household, but when she was not on duty the story was different. And Alastair had obviously noticed.
Lois wondered when the last time was that Janine had been aboard 'The Dream'. She hoped it was last summer.
As soon as she left the elevator, she rushed across the room to her desk, barely saying hi to Jimmy as he passed, and only briefly noticing that Clark wasn't there. She could guess why.
By now, Francesca would have seen the morning paper, Alastair as well, and they would have contacted the police. Lois picked up her phone and entered Francesca's number. She got the great lady's social secretary who expressed regret that Mrs. Albertini was not available at the moment. No, Alastair was not either.
Lois tried the law firm where Alastair worked. No, the receptionist was sorry but Mr. Albertini was not expected today—he'd be out of town for the next couple of days, in fact.
There were way too many coincidences here.
Lois's next call was to Bill Henderson, and amazingly she got hold of him.
"You got two minutes, Lane. You caught me on my way out."
"Anyone call to ID the woman in the sketch?"
"Yeah, too many calls, but a couple were hits. One from her old roommate. Then, a couple of minutes ago we heard from Francesca Albertini. The girl worked for her. She's offered to cover the funeral arrangements—seems the girl is an immigrant; the family lives in Poland."
"Any idea where she got the heroin?"
"Not yet—I'm on my way out to talk to the current roommates. We need something we can cross reference her DNA with for a positive ID."
"Wonder why her new roommates didn't contact you?"
"Me too. Maybe they aren't newspaper readers."
Lois grimaced into the phone, but didn't comment. "Are you going to talk to Francesca Albertini, too?"
"Yeah—at least to the housekeeper. We need to piece together what the girl was doing, who she saw."
"She wasn't very old, Bill," Lois said quietly.
His tone changed. "No, Lois, she wasn't much more than a kid."
After she hung up, Lois idly pulled out the photos she'd taken at the riot, and spread them across her desk. She looked at the pictures of Alastair and Jake, hoping an answer would come, yet also hoping that the answer was not there in front of her. She slid the pictures back in their folder and put it to one side.
Abruptly she stood up. With luck, Mary Mackenzie would talk to her, although at this point, Lois knew that Francesca would be on full media alert, doing damage control, even if she were not sure if there were any damage to control.
Lois looked across at the empty desk beside her. Okay, leave him an e-mail.
The unidentified body is Francesca Albertini's maid. Not only that, I saw a picture of her yesterday at Jake Lamont's.
Do you have anything you want to tell me???
She hoped the extra question marks would spook him.
Superman landed behind the downtown MPD precinct building, in the shadows formed by the back wall and a large dumpster. Whirling quickly, he sloughed off the primary colours and shrugged into the restrained charcoal and navy that he much preferred. Knotting his tie, he slipped out of the narrow alley beside the building and emerged into the sunlight.
As he entered the old precinct station, he saw the object of his visit walking across the lobby.
"Got a moment, Bill?"
"Seems like Lane and Kent always think I do," he said sardonically. "Just got off the phone with Lane."
"I take it you're here about Janine Jacobowski?"
"No. Who's she?" He paused; then he got it. "She's the woman in the sketch, isn't she?"
"Yeah." Henderson filled Clark in with pretty much the same information he'd just given Lois.
Clark was silent for a moment, remembering his horror at what had happened to her. Then he turned to his reason for dropping by and delivered the tip that Louie had left for Lois yesterday. As he repeated Louie's message, the information didn't sound like much, but Henderson probably had more pieces of the puzzle than he and Lois right now. Keeping Henderson on his side was something Clark Kent felt was prudent; it was always good to have money in the bank against the next time when Lois would manage to ruffle Henderson's feathers. And he had no doubt that there would be a next time.
Still, he felt like they were making progress. He and Lois really were great together. And not only that, the day was shaping up to look like he might actually earn his salary at the Daily Planet.
When he got back to the Planet, Lois wasn't there and Clark felt a major let down. Although he was used to not always seeing her at the Planet, given the new working arrangements and also his Superman business; today, especially, he'd looked forward to her being there. That brief encounter at the Children's Hospital didn't count.
He found the e-mail she'd sent him and guessed she'd probably go over to the Albertini residence to follow up on the maid's death. What did she mean, did he have anything to tell her? He'd told her. What was she getting at? Why all the question marks? Sometimes she drove him nuts.
He dashed off a quick reply:
*Lois, my life is an open book.
Then he re-checked Lois's message. Who was Jake Lamont? Then he remembered where he'd heard the name. As he'd left Dimitri MacAdam's office, Dimitri had been on the phone to a Jake Lamont. So who was he—a business associate or a client? And why did he have Janine's picture? And, most importantly, what had Lois been doing at his place?
She really did drive him nuts. Gritting his teeth, he reached for his gang article and got down to work.
The afternoon was crazy. He barely got a chance to talk to Lois, once she got back, beyond finding out that she had been pretty much shut out by both Francesca Albertini and Mary Mackenzie. The household had closed ranks, responding with bland statements of regret over Janine's death, but nothing more. Lois told him Mary had seemed the most distressed, her face grim as she talked to her. Nevertheless, the housekeeper had been reluctant to prolong the interview.
That was it: the sum total of his one-on-one time with Lois Lane, and even those few moments had been squeezed in between 'sessions' of the games which Franklin Stern had organized for them that afternoon. He'd brought in outside consultants to run team-building and morale-boosting activities for employees of the Planet. Command performance—they had to attend.
So there they all were, sitting in circles and being led through experiential scenarios which were supposed to build trust and co-operation. Lois grumbled that they might start with senior management first and pray for a trickle- down effect but was unfortunately taken to task by the fanatical positivism of the group leader. About five o'clock, they were led into the real agenda of the afternoon, which was to brainstorm ways to cut costs and work more efficiently.
Then they finished with juice and sandwiches, at which point Lois ducked out, saying she had to attend a WTO function that evening.
Lois was not in Clark's group, and he prayed she had behaved herself, but the couple of times he'd looked over at her, all he'd got were glimpses of her rolling her eyes. He hoped she had not tried to sabotage the meeting. And he thought of her contract, the one that was running out.
Before she'd fled the Daily Planet, Lois did a quick check of her phone messages and found one from Tony Johnson. He'd shown the pictures around, and the small group of demonstrators in closest proximity to the police were people whom no one knew. His suspicions about outside agitators were confirmed. Then he added that a couple of his friends had seen Jake Lamont, not just that day, but the day before. They didn't know who he was, though. They hadn't seen Alastair Albertini at all.
Lois wondered how far Jimmy had got on the Lamont check that she'd asked him to run. He hadn't got back to her yet, but knowing Jimmy, he would as soon as he could.
When she got back to her apartment, she headed for the bathtub. She needed a long soak in soothing water, and she had just enough time before Clark came to indulge herself. As she ran the water, she considered for the first time what to wear. She wanted to look great to-night, as drop- dead gorgeous as she could manage. She wanted to play mind games with Clark Kent, flirt with him, and then clear the air. And maybe even a bit more.
She smiled. For Clark, letting her in on this secret of his must have been a huge deal, one he'd clearly found difficult to put into words. She wondered who else knew. Obviously Martha and Jonathan. Then she remembered Trask, that really paranoid Bureau 39 operative who'd tried to kill Superman last year. She paused, reflecting. That must have been a fear the Kents had lived with ever since they'd understood how truly different Clark was.
What was it Maisie had said, or was it Rachel, when she'd been there for the Corn Festival? "With Clark, here, what you see is what you get."
Even Lucy had said much the same thing to her the other night. But they were all wrong. Clark Kent was the most secretive guy she'd ever met. He'd had to be.
So maybe he *had* told her.
This wasn't a game after all.
She climbed into the warm bath water, sinking slowly until her body was submersed beneath aromatic bubbles. Still, just because it wasn't a game, didn't mean she couldn't have a little fun with Clark Kent/Superman. She scooped up a handful of bubbles and blew them away.
Then she turned her mind back to a more immediate problem— the limited range of potential WTO dinner apparel that hung in her closet. For the first time, she regretted having thrown out the designer gowns which Lex had bought for her. She'd have to wear either the safe black dress she'd worn to the Kerths last month or the light grey thing she'd worn to the Cost Mart ball a couple of weeks ago, but which she didn't much like. She'd bought it at the last minute on sale. Her Princess Leia dress. It was no bargain.
Then she remembered the dress she'd got over a year ago: royal blue lace, long sleeves, and a low neckline. She relaxed. That was what she would wear.
Lois heard his knock on the door. After a quick look in the mirror to make sure she was okay, she whirled and strode toward the living room, confident that whatever it was that might happen this evening, she, not Clark, would be in control. When she'd stopped to think about it, to roll everything around in her mind, it was obvious that Clark Kent/Superman had called the shots since he'd walked into the Daily Planet, all dewy-eyed and corn-fed over a year ago. So tonight, it was her turn.
She unlatched the bolt on the inside of her door, opened it and there he was. In a tux. He looked so good in a tux. So really good, she thought as she raised her hand to touch him. Control, she told herself, thwarting the traitorous hand. You are in control.
"Hi," she said softly, too softly.
Clark stood rooted to the spot, his hands behind his back, forgetting everything that he'd been rehearsing in his mind all day. How he was going to take control for once in his relationship with Lois Lane. Instead his mouth opened, but no words came forth.
She was magnificent. His breath caught and he managed a whisper. "Lois." After that, he stood speechless once more, immobile just outside her door.
He thought maybe she said hi.
"Lois," he repeated. She looked great; her eyes sparkled, and then her hair, and then her shoulders… His gaze wandered over the curves of her body and then he raised his eyes to meet hers, aware that she was regarding him with a quizzical look. "You look… incredible."
"You too." She paused and met his eyes. "Super." She hoped she sounded ironic.
He unfroze at that and found the impetus to step into her apartment. He peered at her anxiously. "Nobody's perfect."
She raised one eyebrow in response and then looked down at the bouquet of flowers in his hand. "Those for me?"
"What?" He followed her eyes downward. "Oh, yeah." He thrust them out to her, unable to find the words to tell her how he was feeling.
"Thanks. Roses." She spoke the word slowly as she bent her head to inhale their spicy fragrance and smiled. "I love them." Then she realized what she had said and saw that as the second sign that she was about to lose control, knocked out in round two by a bouquet of flowers.
She walked across to her kitchen, putting some physical space between herself and Clark. "I'll put them in water."
Maybe once she got out of his range, the physical effect of his presence would lessen; sort of like sound waves or something, his impact would weaken, diluted by space. Maybe one of the laws of physics covered this. What was it? Oh yeah—Intensity = Power/Area. Or maybe it was one of the laws of chemistry?
Nope, the laws of chemistry apparently didn't work that way. He was still standing at her door and the physical effect on her remained exactly the same.
It was probably the tux. Yeah, that was it—there was some law of chemistry that applied to men in tuxedos. Men in tuxedos with roses. Clark Kent in a tuxedo with roses.
She glared at him and reached for a sharp knife. Then, carefully, she began cutting the ends of the flower stems, focusing on each one, getting the angle exactly right, and taking more time than she needed so she didn't have to look at him.
He was standing beside her. How that had happened she did not know, but she had a strong suspicion he hadn't walked. She refused to comment.
"Do you have a vase? I'll put some water in it," he said.
"I'm not sure which cupboard it's in."
"No problem." He quickly scanned the cabinets, and she realized what he was doing. "Ah, in here." He crouched down and retrieved a tall glass vase.
"The vision gizmo comes in handy sometimes," she said, fighting the seductive distraction of black fabric stretching across his broad shoulders.
"That it does." He grinned as he handed her the water filled vase.
"Just how handy?" she added suspiciously. "You do use it, ah, responsibly?"
She plunged the flowers into the water and then found she was staring at him again, at the enticing expanse of his chest, the line of his chin, the brightness of his eyes, and now it was she who was speechless. She shifted her gaze to the flowers she was holding. Oh yes, she had to put them somewhere.
Deliberately, she walked as far across her small living area as possible and put them on the desk by the door. "I guess we should be going."
"I guess," he answered.
He looked at her standing across the room from him and was once again mesmerized by how the blue lace of her gown clung to her hips, how its rich colour contrasted with the creaminess of her throat and the swell of her breasts. He wanted, needed to touch her. Slowly, he walked toward her, his eyes holding hers, and then he was beside her, slipping his hand through the thickness of her dark hair as he slowly bent his head towards hers. And then he was kissing her, slowly, very slowly, his lips learning hers as they moved beneath his own.
Breathless, they pulled away from each other. She dropped her head on his shoulder, and spoke against it, her voice muffled. "This isn't going the way I planned."
"No? Right now, it's going the way I'd hoped."
Her head snapped up at his words, ready to challenge him for the control she felt she was losing, and she met his eyes and saw that it wasn't about control at all. What she saw was a guy with a goofy grin on his face and a look in his dark eyes that she'd never seen before. Ever.
"So you had plans, did you?" he continued.
"You make me crazy, Clark Kent-Superman."
His eyes glinted at that. He kissed her again, holding her shoulders in his strong hands, pulling her against him, and this time his kiss was hungry, demanding. "Like you don't drive me nuts," he murmured against her mouth. "Like you haven't driven me nuts since the first day we met."
She slid her arms around his neck and returned his kiss forcefully, passionately, and he staggered back a step, momentarily off balance, pulling her against him as he did.
She came up for air. "Good, that's good."
"Yeah, it was," he said, dipping his mouth to hers again.
She stepped back, eluding him. "No, no. I meant it's good I make you nuts." Taking a very deep breath, she walked over to her closet and pulled out her long coat.
In a flash, he was there beside her, having moved so quickly that she had barely seen him. As he helped her on with the coat, she said dryly, "I can see this is going to be an interesting night."
"Hopefully," he said so innocently that she laughed.
She pushed him out the door and then followed. "Come on, Kent. We don't want to be late."
"We don't? Why is that?"
As these things go, the WTO dinner was not too bad. In fact, Lois was grateful that she and Clark were in a very public situation where he had to behave. Things had heated up way too fast in her apartment, and her emotions were in turmoil. Not to mention her hormones. Who knew they could flare up so quickly, stirred by a mere glance from dark brown eyes and the slow curve of a smile?
She and Clark, along with six other media people, were sitting at a table located in the outer ring of importance at the dinner, right next to the service entry. Now, as they all sipped coffee, they were listening to the fifth after dinner speech, mercifully the last of the evening. For Lois, this was a working dinner, and she'd been hoping for a quotable quote or a memorable anecdote and so she'd been forced to pay attention. Neither the quotable quote nor the memorable anecdote showed up. She figured whatever story she wrote after this would wind up on the back page of the front section and get a quarter column only. If that.
She'd noticed that Francesca Albertini was there, sitting at the head table between the Italian ambassador and the American Secretary of Trade. Lois was hoping she might get a chance later to talk to Francesca, once the speeches were over and the affair became less structured. The dancing was about to start and Lois figured she'd get her chance as people began to work the room.
While the American Secretary of Trade was finishing her closing remarks, a small band had been quietly setting up. Once they started playing, a few couples took to the floor, and then others followed. Lois was about to get up to approach Francesca when a colleague from The Metropolitan, one of America's most respected magazines, asked her to dance.
Rats, she thought. She liked the guy, and moreover, he might be helpful should she ever need to look for a job, a not unlikely possibility. Francesca could wait. Lois rose and let him take her hand. As she did she noticed that the Style and Trends reporter from Metro Mag, which was definitely not on Lois's list of must-read magazines unless she was in her dentist's waiting room, was tapping Clark on the shoulder and smiling at him in a way that made Lois deeply suspicious of the woman's intentions.
Lois kept an eye on the Style and Trends reporter and also on Francesca, all the while chatting with her friend. He was both interesting and a lot of fun. At that moment he seemed convinced he was a young John Travolta, and was not at all concerned that his natural lack of grace challenged his partner's skill. She spotted Clark and was grateful all of a sudden that this was not a slow dance. She was also grateful for all the air that she could see between Clark and Ms. S & T's bodies.
God, Lois, you sound so high school. It's just one dance, she reminded herself. She shifted her gaze again and saw that Francesca was dancing with the Colombian trade minister, Pedro Vargas. Hopefully, she'd stay here at the gala for a while longer.
The dance over, Lois slipped away from her partner and walked over to Francesca who was chatting with her dance partner. As Lois approached, Francesca stopped speaking and greeted Lois, not effusively but not coldly either. She then introduced Lois to Vargas, setting them up for the next dance.
Lois gritted her teeth and smiled at the man as Francesca slipped away. Well, she might as well make the best of it—never overlook the opportunity for an interview. So she chatted, trying to find out a little more about his country, while he flirted with her, delicately hinting that perhaps she might want to join him for a drink in his suite. She murmured her thanks and said she would be very pleased to join him later, along with her colleague from the Daily Planet.
Speaking of whom, where was Clark? She looked around and saw him, beer in one hand, huddled with the foreign correspondent from The Star and the business reporter from The Washington Post. Given the laughter she heard coming from them she figured they weren't talking WTO issues. She smiled; he was happy and that pleased her.
Where was Francesca? Still in the room, dancing, this time with Dimitri MacAdam, the jeweller. Lois hadn't noticed him earlier; he hadn't been sitting at the head table, but she wasn't surprised that he was here—she'd already spotted several of the city's social elite. Guess Francesca's forgiven him about her stolen necklace, Lois thought absently. But at least the Contessa was still in the room.
The music stopped, and Lois once again headed towards Francesca, but she didn't get there quickly enough. The band had started again, and the Contessa was now in the arms of yet another man, this time someone Lois didn't recognize. Lois frowned—shouldn't the woman be more restrained? How long had she been a widow anyway?
She wished she were a man—then she could cut in on Francesca.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
Lois whirled around, startled, and then she laughed as she allowed Clark to lead her onto the dance floor. No, it was wonderful being a woman. Especially right now, she thought as Clark pulled her close, very close. Then common sense took over, and she stepped back from him, an amused glint in her eye.
"We don't want people to talk, Clark," she admonished.
"Yes, we do."
"Not tonight. Tonight we're here on business."
"Not me," he countered. "I'm here as Lois Lane's date."
"Colleague, escort," she corrected.
"Yes, ma'am." He took a step back from her as the band continued to play, this time an old romantic standard.
'Are the stars out tonight…'
Clark extended his arm as far as he could and still keep his hand on Lois's waist, his eyes mischievous. There had to be a good two feet between them, at least enough space for another couple to dance cheek to cheek. "How's that? No observable funny business," he said. "Your virtue and your reputation are incredibly safe."
She fought the tiny smile that tugged at the corner of her mouth. "Thank you."
And so they danced, slowly, gracefully, her movements the mirror image of his, her blue lace swirling against the black of his tuxedo.
'I don't know if it's cloudy or bright…'
They both knew the words, written long before either of them were born, and now the melody slipped into their shoulders and their hips, mimicking what was in their hearts. Somberly, then lightly, blissfully, but always keeping the space between them, they drifted across the floor, dark eyes lost in dark eyes, aware of no one else.
'I only have eyes for you…'
Gazing at each other, they silently acknowledged everything, all the pain that had been between them, and now also the joy. No need for words, for talk, just the sweet wonder of her hand in his. The smooth, seductive rhythm of her hip beneath his hand and her hand on his shoulder, slowly caressing him, set his pulse racing. He dipped slightly to one side, smiling at her, teasing her, daring her to come with him, and he was exultant as she did, her eyes flashing, and he knew that she was at one with every move of his body. He was spellbound, lost in her magic as he carefully, so carefully held her away from him, her beauty searing his soul. They were meant to be together, and at that moment they both understood that.
The music ended, and for a brief quick moment before she quite understood what was happening, he pulled her silently against him. His eyes travelled slowly across her face, then he bowed his head to hers and spoke, his voice a ragged whisper. "You are my dream." Then he released her abruptly and watched her.
She raised her eyes to his and spoke softly. "Clark." Then she took a deep breath, acknowledging everything. "You win, Clark Kent."
He reached for her again, but this time she stepped back quickly, giving him a knowing look as she tried to restore some sense of reality.
"Lo-is," he protested.
"But I've got your number, Clark Kent."
"Yes, you have," he said happily as he slid his arm around her. Once more the band began to play, and this time she stayed willingly, pliant in his arms, sighing as he rested his cheek against her hair. Then, all of a sudden he jerked his head up, and she felt his body tense. She looked at him, understanding now that look which crossed his face and the eyes that were focused elsewhere. He shifted his gaze to her, his expression stricken.
"Go," she said.
He bent his head and kissed her lightly on the side of her neck. "Save the last dance for me, Lois Lane."
She rolled her eyes as he hastily left the room, muttering, "So-o farmboy."
Superman had never been more reluctant in his life to take off than at that particular moment. Was this what life with Lois was going to be like? Yes, he answered his own question.
He soared upward and then veered toward the east part of town where he'd heard the sound of sirens.
Lois saw Francesca across the dance floor, this time not dancing, but walking toward the exit, accompanied by Dimitri MacAdam and Pedro Vargas. Lois strode quickly in pursuit, following them into the corridor where she spotted the three talking to another couple with whom they were leaving the hotel.
Lois reached the lobby door just as the Contessa and her friends were walking the short distance to the black line of limousines which stood waiting in front of the hotel. She noticed picket signs bobbing on the other side of the concrete barriers and heard the chanted slogans; the protesters were out in force to-night, making a grand, final show before the end of the WTO. Dimitri and Vargas walked with Francesca to her limousine and then stood back as she and the other couple got in and her driver closed the door.
Lois stood watching, disgruntled that she had missed the chance to talk to Francesca about Janine. The Contessa's limo pulled away, while the Colombian trade minister and Dimitri MacAdam stood there. The two men said something to each other, and then Vargas reached into his pocket and pulled out a small silver case, removed a cigarette and cupped his hands against the breeze as he lit it. They spoke for a moment longer, shook hands, then Dimitri walked away, toward a car at the rear of the line of limos.
Lois was about to reenter the hotel when all of a sudden she heard a muffled pop, then a second one, and she watched astonished as Vargas slumped to the ground, his cigarette glowing as it spiralled downward. She ran toward him, as did several other people—protesters, police, and a few powerhouses whom Lois took to be plainclothes security. One of them put in a call to 911 while another crouched over the fallen man.
She heard him say, "I think he's dead." Nevertheless, the man went through the motions of administering first aid. Horrified, Lois looked at the blood pooling on the pavement, seeping from the small neat hole in his forehead.
She ran toward the chaotic crowd, now splintered into frantic groups of people either fleeing or surging forward to jump over the barriers which had for so long kept them away from the hotel. The police waded into the crowd, firing into the air, using bullhorns to call for order. Tear gas clouded the air and, in the background, sirens screamed.
Hiking up her gown, Lois scrambled over the rough concrete barrier and ran into the middle of the crowd searching for some trace of something out of place, anything that would give some clue as to who had shot the Colombian. She knew the police were doing the same.
The small square was jammed, people pushing toward the hotel, others running away from the scene as fast as they could, still others milling about, looking bewildered. Oblivious to the chill of the cold autumn air, Lois pushed her way toward the centre. She spotted Tony Johnson, his own bullhorn in hand, shouting for people to pull back. She felt a flash of sympathy for him; his worst fears had materialized, his cause now irretrievably discredited, regardless of who had shot Pedro Vargas.
Amidst all this chaos, it was only too easy for the assassin to melt into the crowd and then slip away in the darkness of the night. The perfect cover. Lois stopped searching, aware that she could do nothing. Instead, she walked through the crowd, talking to people, asking them what they'd seen, hurriedly jotting down notes, and willing herself not to be affected by the tear gas. Needless to say, no one had seen anything that made any sense. Meanwhile the police continued their efforts to disperse the crowd.
Above the melee, a small speck appeared in the sky, unnoticed by anyone on the ground below. Superman was flying overhead, returning to the Lexor after what had turned out to be a brief rescue, and now he saw the crowd beneath and then spotted Lois in the middle of it all.
Why didn't that surprise him?
Resisting the impulse, the very *natural* impulse, he told himself, to pluck her up and fly her away, he flew lower. She wasn't wearing a coat and it was just marginally above freezing! He caught a whiff of the tear gas that the police had just fired. He could see that Lois's eyes were watering, and she was wiping at them as the man next to her shouted out an answer to a question she had evidently asked. But she didn't look to be in any real danger.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the ambulance and the paramedics who were placing a man's body on a gurney. He veered toward it and landed, not interfering. Whatever it was that had happened, he was too late, and now was not the time to slow down the work of the police and the paramedics. He couldn't have prevented it; he understood that. He could not be everywhere, and while this had been happening, he had saved a man's life. But still, he had to remind himself of that fact.
With a nod to the paramedics, Superman rose vertically into the sky and once again searched for Lois Lane, then flew to her, landing beside her as she was running back toward the hotel.
"Lois," he said.
She kept running. "Have to phone this in to Perry. If I get it in before midnight, I can still make the morning edition."
The Man of Steel found himself striding behind her. Sometimes, it took superpowers to keep up with her.
"Saw you up there. Thanks for not pulling me out of that."
"You're welcome." He nodded, pleased that she had noticed his restraint. "But you didn't seem to need it."
"No, I didn't." But she flashed a quick grin at him, and as she did, she noticed the muscle in his jaw twitch and the compressed line of his mouth and knew he was still doing battle with himself over not 'rescuing' her. "I was okay, you know. Really."
"But could you do me a favour, please?" she asked meekly as she was about to enter the hotel.
He raised one eyebrow and looked at her suspiciously.
She gestured at the row of phones in the lobby. "After I've called Perry, can you fly me back to the Planet so I can write this up?"
"My pleasure, Ms. Lane," he said very softly. "I'll wait for you here," he added.
And so he waited outside the hotel, leaning against the wall in the shadows, aware that the uniformed doorman was looking at him in some surprise.
Lois was out of the hotel quickly, and Superman looked at her.
"Where's your coat?"
"No time to fetch it. Let's go."
"Wait," he said gently.
She stopped and looked at him, her head cocked to one side, asking a silent question.
"You're cold." He focused his heat vision on her so that it slowly wandered along the contours of her blue lace gown, warming her. Then he met her astonished eyes.
"Wow," she said as he scooped her into his arms and flew off toward the Planet.
He smiled at her, pleased with himself. "But I guess this means no last dance," he said.
"Doesn't look like it," she said regretfully.
"For us, Lois, there'll never be a last dance."
She smiled dreamily. "I love dancing with you, Clark Kent."
He dipped his head and brushed her lips with his, and she slipped her arms around his neck more tightly, deepening the kiss. Suddenly they careened lower, and for a second he flew perilously close to the top of a building.
He straightened. "Oops," he said. "Guess we're gonna hafta practice that some more."
"Darn," she said with suppressed laughter.
They landed beside the Daily Planet, in a dark alley, then he spun quickly into his tuxedo, his eyes glinting as he became aware that she was watching him slack-jawed. He straightened his tie, then offered her his arm, and she took it.
"How could I have been so clueless about the alley thing?" she said as they walked out into the street.
"Because you didn't want to see?" he asked lightly.
"I dunno. Maybe."
He walked with her through the revolving door of the Daily Planet.
"Look, Clark, there's no point in your coming up with me."
"Sure there is. I can finish my article on gangs while you write this up. After that, I get to walk you home."
As they entered the elevator, she asked him about the rescue he had made earlier; then she told him about the assassination and what little she knew about it. Very shortly, they were at their desks in the bullpit of the quiet newsroom where for the next hour and a half they worked in companionable silence on their articles. When she'd finally sent hers off to the night editor, she shut down her computer and then looked at him.
"Time to go?" he asked.
She nodded and got to her feet. Moments later they were in the sky, flying across the city. He took it slowly, enjoying holding her in his arms. The flight was soothing, lulling and by the time he reached her apartment, she was fast asleep.
And she was only marginally awake when Clark Kent kissed her goodnight in front of her apartment door. Dropping her head on his shoulder, she absently stroked the lapel of his tuxedo and murmured drowsily against his throat, "Think maybe we have to talk about some things." She traced a slow S on his shirt front.
He took her fingers from his chest and kissed the palm of her hand. "Yes," he whispered.
"But too tired, Clark Kent. Haven't slept really well in so long."
He kissed her again, brushing his lips against hers, gently, tenderly.
"Then go to bed, Lois Lane. I'll see you tomorrow."
Chapter 7: One More Risk
The next morning, Lois arrived at the Planet exactly five minutes ahead of Clark Kent. Sitting at her desk, she watched him as he disembarked from the elevator, chatted briefly with a couple of night staffers on their way home, then headed toward the coffee station. He walked so smoothly, his gait easy, she thought dreamily. Then she reminded herself to get a grip, that this was not tenth grade, and she had work to do.
She was helped toward this goal by the ring of her phone.
"So you're the mystery lady in blue," she heard Bill Henderson say.
"Got the Planet in front of me. The doorman at the Lexor told one of our guys there was a *babe*—I'd get him for that if I were you, Lane—in a blue dress at the scene of the Vargas assassination last night. She fits your description, but I didn't clue in until I read your account in the Planet this morning."
"Yes, that was me, but, Bill, what I saw is in my article." She reached for the newspaper on her desk and skimmed her front page—the front page, again, Franklin Stern, she thought—article.
"The doorman says Vargas was with four people, three of whom left in a limo. Any idea who they were?"
"Dimitri MacAdam and Francesca Albertini, but I don't know the couple who were with her."
"It's not much help. Francesca and Dimitri won't be connected to this."
"That your experience of the rich and famous, Lane?" he said dryly. When she didn't answer, he added, "Sorry, Lois. I forgot. I never did buy you and Luthor."
"That's okay." But her breathing had accelerated for a few seconds, and then she looked up and saw Clark walking across the bullpit toward her desk, carrying two mugs of coffee. She smiled. "It really is okay, Bill." Then her voice became more business-like. "So you want me to make a statement or something?"
"No—we've got your article. But we may want to talk to you later." He paused. "So don't leave town, Lane."
"Yeah—cancelling the spa weekend right now."
She hung up and looked at Clark, answering the question on his face. "Henderson. About last night."
"I figured." He placed a mug of black coffee in front of her. "Morning," he said softly.
"Morning." She took the coffee gratefully, as she had done most mornings for over a year. She met his dark eyes. "Thank you, Clark."
"My pleasure, Lois."
He sat on the corner of her desk, reluctant to leave. Until, that is, he heard the booming voices of Perry White and Franklin Stern greeting each other, two bull seals barking across the newsroom.
Lois widened her eyes at Clark, and he shrugged his shoulders in response, stood up and walked across to his desk.
"Clark," Perry said expansively as he approached Clark's desk.
"Chief," Clark replied cautiously.
"Franklin," Perry nodded his head in the direction of the elevator into which the bulky figure of the new owner of the Daily Planet was now disappearing, "is addressing the senior class of Hearst High and he'd like our Kerth winner here—" Perry beamed at Clark and clapped his hand on his shoulder. "—to join him."
"No, no," Clark muttered, visions of the unfinished gang article looming up before him. He was so close! "Perry, I really don't have time for this." He ran his hand through his hair, his agitation obvious.
Perry fixed him with the bead of his eye. "Son, Franklin Stern saved this paper. When there were no buyers out there, when this town gave up on the Planet, shut its doors and closed its shutters on us, he took us on. He's losing money on the Planet, but he's fightin' for it. So if he wants my latest Kerth star for show and tell, then he's got him. Am I making myself clear, here, Kent?"
Clark looked across at Lois and met her gaze which, he felt, was not as supportive as it might have been. She was looking at him wide-eyed and shrugging her shoulders, her left hand signalling that she was powerless to intervene.
He had to go. He had no choice.
Shortly afterwards, Lois left the Planet to catch the joint MPD/FBI press briefing on the Vargas assassination. However, before it started she hoped to find Tony Johnson and see what the street was saying about last night. No doubt the cops, from whatever agency, had already done the same.
Once she got to the WTO site, it took her about ten minutes to spot Tony; he was with a small group of men and women who were cleaning up the litter left behind by the protesters.
He was pretty grim when he spoke to her. "Nothing to say, Lois."
"Come on, Tony."
"My money's on the CIA—Vargas was a reformer."
"Look, Lois. He was one of the few voices inside the Colombian cabinet who spoke for the ordinary guy. He wasn't a radical, just wanted to clean things up. No one out here on the streets wanted him dead." Tony jabbed his spear at a cardboard container bearing the remains of a half-eaten hamburger and placed the debris in the plastic bag he was dragging.
"So who wanted him dead then?"
"Look inside the Lexor."
"Come on, Tony. The shot didn't come from inside. I was there."
He gave her a withering look. "I didn't mean that literally, Lois."
Lois flushed. "Calm down, Tony. It's in everyone's interest to clear this up. So if security looked the wrong way last night, who got them to do it?"
He stopped spearing litter and stood still. "We've already gone over this with the cops—they've showed us crowd photos they took during the… riot last night. A few guys were not our people—just faces off the street. The cops knew some of them."
"So someone was paying them to disrupt things."
"More likely free drugs," Tony said.
"Colombian connection there. Could Vargas have been a runner?"
"Who knows. Someone here is."
"Tony, this picture of Vargas isn't hanging together. Sycophantic diplomat or political reformer or drug runner?"
"Sure that hangs together. He could be all those. Playing both sides of the street while he lines his own pockets. Who did he hang out with?"
With Francesca Albertini and Dimitri MacAdam Lois thought. Another of those coincidences that kept popping up in this mess.
"Tony—the Loner—did anyone spot him last night? Or Jake Lamont?"
"Not Lamont. But I spotted the Loner in one of the police shots. Mentioned it to the cops, but I don't think they were much interested."
Lois checked her watch; the police briefing was scheduled in another twenty minutes. She thanked Tony and then made a quick call to the Daily Planet and asked for Jimmy Olsen.
"Hi, Jimmy. Got anything on Lamont yet?"
"Yeah. I just got a print-out for you. There wasn't that much on him," Jimmy said. "The guy's just five years older than me, but he sure has a different lifestyle."
"Last year he crewed on the winning yacht in the America Cup. There was a picture of him in some Brit fashion magazine with the Albertini's at a big party in Monte Carlo last year."
"He gets around, doesn't he?"
"Yeah. I hacked into his credit rating—clean as a whistle. No criminal record, or even outstanding traffic tickets. He's been a member of the Metro Yacht Club since last summer. He has two boats docked there—the one he lives on, 'Jake's Dream', and a small craft, 'Dream Baby'."
"Any background stuff?"
"He holds dual citizenship—American and French. Private school in Canada, graduate of William and Mary, has a pilot's license."
"None." Lois could hear the disgust in Jimmy's voice. "But he's got money. Couldn't find it though."
"Airline manifests are tight these days. Just got into one of them—United Airlines. He was on a flight from Miami to Cartagena, Colombia last spring."
"Can you track his yacht—see if you can find where it's been over the last year or two?"
"Thanks, Jimmy. You've been a big help."
"No problem," he said casually, but she could tell by his tone that he was pleased.
"You missed him by five. Mr. Stern's driver just picked him up for the Hearst High thing. Don't think I've ever seen CK scowl before."
Lois grinned. She hadn't either.
She took a cab across to the police briefing where she didn't learn much more than she already knew. Vargas had been killed by a single shot, although he had been hit by two bullets. The assassin clearly knew what he was doing. As Lois listened, she wondered about the shot that had been fired a few days earlier, just before the riot started. What if that bullet came from the same gun? She knew the police would have scoured the site pretty carefully for evidence. She wondered if they'd found that first bullet. She'd ask Sandy Wong, her forensics contact.
Then she made up her mind—she wanted to see Jake Lamont.
Mary Mackenzie sat by the window in her room at the Albertini townhouse. In her hand, she held a picture, which she wasn't looking at, a picture which she hadn't given the police.
After she had seen the police sketch of Janine in the Daily Planet and after she had contacted the police, she had gone downstairs into the basement of the old townhouse and into the lounge which had been set up for the household staff. She had walked straight to Janine's locker and looked at the contents—a couple of changes of uniform, personal toiletries, an old paperback, a sweater. Mary picked up the paperback and saw that Janine had used a photograph as a bookmark. It was a picture of herself in a bikini, standing on the deck at the stern of a boat—'Jake's Dream'. The photograph had a brief note scrawled along the bottom.
'A souvenir of an awesome day, Love, Alastair'
Mary had slipped the photo into her pocket before the police came.
Now she looked at it sadly and made up her mind. The Contessa had gone out—a committee breakfast meeting—and Alastair, who had been out late, had slept in and had just come down for breakfast ten minutes ago. Slowly Mary rose from her chair and walked into the conservatory where she knew that Alastair was just finishing his breakfast.
She showed him the picture.
Lois gazed along the length of Jake Lamont's yacht and thought again how sleekly beautiful it was. It wasn't that large really, just large enough for one person to live on. Maybe two. She saw no sign of the small boat, 'Dream Baby'. Come to think of it, she hadn't noticed it last time she'd been here either. She'd hoped to spot Jake on deck but didn't see him, so up she scrambled, then walked around to the far side of the boat. Still no sign of him. She circled around to the stern and knocked on the cabin door. She called his name. No answer. She frowned at the door.
Well, maybe… why not? She tried the door but, not surprisingly, it was locked. She sighed. She could almost hear Clark reminding her of the legal code. She ought not to. Then she recalled a couple of times when he'd been her partner in crime and relaxed. A little B & E in a good cause was surely okay. She looked at the door and saw in dismay that the lock had a key pad; she needed to know the number code.
Unless she could figure out his code there was no way. She tried the obvious first—1…2…3…4—hoping that he hadn't bothered to change it from what the manual suggested. Rats, he had bothered. Okay what would he use? Let's see… how many words in the English language? God, he was French too. She entered R…E…V…E… and the door opened! Jake's dream. She smiled.
That was lucky. Once inside the cabin, she looked around, her eyes travelling thoughtfully over the bookcase, around the periphery of the small room, and then stopped at the desk. She opened its drawers. There wasn't much there, maps, receipts of recently purchased items. The man was neat and didn't appear to keep receipts very long. She booted up his computer, hoping she could play Jimmy Olsen, but clearly she was out of her depth. Not only that, but some of his files were in French—and her two years of high school French hadn't rendered her strong enough to understand what was in the files. She shut it down, resolving to update her survival skills.
She slipped into the tiny bedroom and spotted the built-in night table. The top drawer had a lock on it. Well, that was a red flag. The lock was easy to pick too. Lois smiled as the lock released, and she opened the drawer. She turned over a small zip lock plastic bag containing a couple of tablespoons of white powder. She could hazard a guess as to what it was but knew that the quantity wasn't that significant. Nevertheless, it did raise some interesting questions. The second item was a soft flannel shoe bag bearing the label of an upscale London shop. The bag's drawstring was pulled tight. Lois lifted the pouch out of the small drawer and loosened the drawstring.
How beautiful! She held it up against the sunlight streaming through the small porthole window. The brilliant blue sapphires sparkled against the intricate gold of a very old setting. It was easy to see how the average person could be fooled into thinking the stones were real, especially given that the gold setting surely was the same one in which the real sapphires had been set almost two hundred years ago. Carefully, she slipped the necklace into its pouch and turned toward the night table.
"Did you find what you were looking for, Ms Lane?"
Lois whirled around and said nothing, her mind rapidly calculating what her options were.
Jake Lamont approached her, and for the first time, Lois realised that he probably outweighed her by about fifty or sixty pounds and that none of it was fat. Instantly, she thrust out her left leg, aiming for his groin. He dodged, but not quickly enough, and her foot jammed into his stomach. He was thrown off balance, and Lois shot around him and was out the door of the tiny room.
Only to be grabbed by the arms of a seedy man who turned out to be stronger than she had anticipated. Without looking at him too closely, she knew by the black ski jacket and the bald head that this was the Loner. She jammed her heel down on his foot, elbowing him in the guts as she did and squirmed free. But by that time Jake had recovered enough to be once again a functioning member of the opposing team.
He lunged and grabbed her, while the Loner jerked her arms back, roughly pinning them behind her. It seemed like he was ripping them out their sockets, and she yelped in pain. The next thing she felt was a large hand around her throat, so tight that the curse she attempted to utter cracked in her throat. Then she noticed the third man, sitting on the sofa, watching with interest, not stirring.
It was Dimitri MacAdam.
He met her eyes. "I'm sorry, my dear. You really should have stayed out of it."
"What'll we do with her?" the Loner asked, keeping Lois's struggling body firmly in his grip.
Jake stood in front of her, not taking his eyes off her. "Dimitri, there's some rope up on deck, in the stern, inside the bench along the back."
Dimitri left the cabin.
Lois had known from the moment she'd felt a thumb pressing against her esophagus that any cry for help she might manage wouldn't be heard outside this room. But she did manage to croak out a question. "Was Dimitri in on the theft?" The words were scarcely audible and painful for her to utter.
Jake said nothing, the chill in his ice blue eyes giving her the answer to a question she hadn't asked.
"But why would he steal from himself?" Her voice was a hoarse whisper, struggling against the pressure on her throat.
"Good question, Lois."
Dimitri returned, stepping down the narrow staircase, then he handed the yellow rope to Jake. He picked up a knife from the desk, sliced the rope in half and bound Lois's ankles. Then he handed the other length of rope to the Loner.
"Now her hands."
As she felt the rope twine around her wrists, Lois remembered an old magician's trick she'd read about last year when she'd done a bit of background research for the story on the kidnappings carried out by a magician's daughter. As her captor wound the rope around her hands, she did her best to gather a part of the first loop between her hands and to tense her wrists, pushing against the tightness of the rope.
Jake stepped away from her, walking into the bedroom, and returned with a silk scarf. "Gag her." He paused for a second. "Now we have a slight problem. We need a boat, and we unfortunately no longer have one." Jake looked at the Loner. "See what you can do about that. We'll wait here for you."
Dimitri sighed audibly. "My dear boy, he's too conspicuous. His grooming… He may as well wear a sign saying 'security risk'. You, on the other hand…"
Jake nodded. "Dump her in the bedroom until I get back."
It was shortly after one o'clock when Clark got back to the Daily Planet. It had taken some diplomatic skill to turn down Franklin Stern's invitation to lunch, something he ordinarily would have accepted. He had pleaded the need to get back to work. It was the truth. Sometimes he wondered when someone would spot all the times he wasn't working. He used his superpowers to take short cuts, and at times he was uneasy about it. Still, he didn't see that he had much choice. Without them, he would never get anything done. And he loved his job at the Daily Planet; it was a part of him.
Over the last year Lois had been a big help too. He'd talked about that to Stern, telling the businessman how important Lois was at the Planet. Stern had said something about admiring his loyalty to his co-workers and so Clark had repeated, stressing that it was more than loyalty, that Lois was *the* best and most talented reporter in Metropolis, if not the country.
She was on his mind a lot these days. In an entirely pleasant way. He wondered if she were free tonight. Maybe he should hold back, not crowd her. Still, maybe something low key. Supper at his place and a video. He stopped at the kiosk in the centre of the lobby and reached for a double fudge crunch bar, her favourite. Then he put it back; he knew her bottom desk drawer had a stash of the things. Taking her another would be liked taking coals to Newcastle.
Still, he wanted to take her a present and his eyes roamed over the selection of items at the counter. Not much that seemed to fit the bill. There were flowers there, single stem roses. Naw, he'd been giving her roses a lot lately. Something to make her laugh. Then he spotted it—bubble gum. Who could resist?
Upstairs, he deposited his token beside her plant, right next to the cinnamon pod and dashed off a quick note. "I'm stuck on you." As he placed the note beside his gift, he wondered if she'd actually see it—her desk was, as usual, eclectically organized.
He saw the array of photographs fanned out across the middle of her desk. He gave them a cursory glance and then stilled. Slowly he picked up the top one. He recognized two men—the men he had rescued from the waters of Hobbs Bay a few days earlier.
Why did Lois have their pictures? He looked at the photos more carefully and saw that they were shots of the riot at the WTO site.
"Jim," he called out. "Do you know anything about the pictures on Lois's desk?"
Jimmy looked up from the cubicle where he was working, then walked the short distance across to Lois's desk, carrying in his hand a sheet of paper.
He looked down at the pictures. "Those. Yeah. Lois took them at the riot the other day. She and that friend of hers, Tony Johnson, were trying to identify the people in the shots.
"And did she?" Briefly he wondered who Tony Johnson was.
"Just a couple of them—they were interested in this guy— Jimmy pointed to the figure of the bald man. And these two guys are Alastair Albertini—he's the son of *the* Francesca Albertini—and some guy named Jake Lamont."
Clark's head snapped up. "Jake Lamont!" That was the guy he'd heard Dimitri MacAdam on the phone with a few days ago.
"Yeah." Jimmy handed him the paper he was carrying. "Here. Lois asked me to run a check on him. I was just going to put this on her desk. She called me earlier and asked for it."
"Where is she, Jim?"
"Don't know, CK. She went over to the WTO site and then to the police briefing, but that was a while ago. She phoned me just before she went to the briefing—wanted this information."
"She should be back by now."
Jimmy grinned and shrugged his shoulders. "You know Lois."
"Only too well," Clark said, the worry clear in his tone. He wasn't sure why, but some sixth sense was telling him that Lois was in trouble. He tried to shake the feeling, telling himself that he was just feeling over-protective, that Lois was an adult, that she knew what she was doing, that she could stay out of trouble.
None of these rationalizations worked.
He turned to his desk and checked his e-mail, hoping for a note. There wasn't one. He picked up the sheet of information that Jimmy had just handed him. Lamont owned a yacht where he apparently lived. Yeah, he remembered Lois describing it to him.
He picked up the phone, put in a quick call to Henderson at MPD, and couldn't get him. But the duty officer recognized Clark's name and gave him Henderson's cell phone number— the detective squad had just been issued with these items, a purchasing decision for which Clark was grateful when he heard Henderson's voice on the other end.
"Bill, the two men who jumped from that boat the other morning, the ones Superman rescued. Their names are Jake Lamont and Alastair Albertini. Lamont lives on his boat down at the yacht club—Jake's Dream. They were both at the WTO site too. I'm not sure where Lois is, but I'm betting she went to see Lamont.
"Thanks, Kent. On it."
And still that sense that Lois was in trouble, that she needed his help.
Clark practically ran out of the newsroom; seconds later he was in the sky, a sonic boom echoing in the newsroom.
A small motorboat ripped across Hobbs Bay, out well beyond what was visible to anyone on shore. Inside the miniscule cabin, Lois Lane, her body wrapped in the designer sheet from Jake Lamont's bed, was fighting her rising panic as she wriggled against the ropes that bound her. Knowing exactly what was coming, she desperately tried to loosen the ropes on her hands. She hoped she was accomplishing that.
The sound of the engine changed to a low rumble, and Lois felt the loss of forward momentum as the boat shifted into idle. This was it. She heard the cabin door open, and then Lamont was looming over her. He picked her up easily, not looking at her. As he carried her up the few steps to the deck, Lois breathed deeply, taking in as much air as she could manage, trying to quell the terror that clutched her heart.
Dimitri MacAdam grabbed her ankles. She had the sensation of being swung, then airborne, and finally shocked by the cold as she plunged into the sea and sank beneath the waves. The last thing she heard was the roar of the boat's engine as it gunned away.
The sheet quickly loosened, but clung stubbornly to her legs. If she could only hold her breath long enough. Trying to stay calm, she worked her wrists against the nylon rope, sliding one hand tightly against the other until she wiggled and inched it free. Quickly, she unwrapped the sheet that had trapped her legs, and then she pushed herself to the surface, gasping for air.
God, the water was freezing! How long could she survive in it? She struggled briefly with the silk scarf which gagged her mouth until she got it free. It was difficult keeping her head above water—the rope around her ankles had restricted her leg movements so that they were useless. Taking a big gulp of air, she bobbed beneath the surface and tried to stay calm as she worked at the rope around her ankles.
It took her three tries before she finally got the knot untied. Then she ducked again and removed her shoes.
Gasping, she trod water for a moment as she looked around, trying to get her bearing. All she had to do was make it to shore. But which way was the shore? And how far was it? She couldn't see clearly. Everything was so hazy, and she was confused. Was she losing consciousness in the cold?
"Let the waves show you the way, Lois."
She started to swim.
"You can do it, Lois. You saved me, you can save yourself."
The water was achingly cold, and she was still gasping from it. How long before her body got used to its icy temperature?
"Come on, Lois. I'll race you to shore. You always used to beat me, remember?"
"Jeff, I'm so cold. I can't…"
And then she felt something else, she wasn't sure what, warmth maybe, and she felt Clark's voice calling her name.
"Clark," she whispered. Then, she stopped swimming for a second and, at the top of her lungs, she yelled for help.
Stretching her body out, she lifted her left arm and once again struggled to swim, fighting the numbing water.
Superman heard her call as soon as he left the Daily Planet. In a flash, he touched down at the marina, scanned the bay, and spotted her quickly. He flew out toward her, then dipping downward, he scooped her out of the water, feeling a huge surge of relief as he felt her coughing against his chest.
He looked at her, at the welt across her mouth, her tangled hair, and her pale face.
"God, Lois," he said and his voice shook.
She didn't reply, just tightened her grip and buried her face against his neck.
He landed, letting her slide slowly from his arms. Saying nothing, they stood alone on the stony shore of Hobbs Bay, their eyes locked.
Finally she raised her hands to his shoulders. "I've never seen you like this before."
"It's different now. It's different. Lois, when I heard you calling…" He shook his head, not trusting himself to tell her the fear that had gripped him. He lifted his hand to touch her cheek, unable to speak. Then he attempted to smile and injected a lightness to the tone of his voice.
"Hope this was okay. That you really did need to be rescued?"
"Oh, yeah. This would be one of those times. Definitely, one of those times." Then she shivered as a gust of wind blew across the beach.
He noticed and slowly used his heat vision to dry her hair, her clothes, and restore the warmth to her body, letting his gaze wander over her, caressing her, claiming her. He wanted to put his arms around her, to hold her, but Superman could not do that lest anyone see—see that he had emotions, that he was not much different, that he was vulnerable, that he loved this woman.
"Thanks," she said, meeting his eyes. "You saved my life, Clark."
"Lois…" He bowed his head for a second, unable to find the words he wanted.
"I know, Clark," she whispered, shaken by what had just happened. "Sometimes, I maybe might take a bit of a risk…"
"A bit of a risk!" He exploded at that. "Lois, that was not a bit of a risk. That was… that was…" His hands flailed as he searched for the words which eluded him.
"A bit dumb?" she finished for him and then smiled at him ruefully, contrition in her dark eyes.
"Yes," he said firmly, fighting the lure of her smile. He was not going to let her off this easily.
"So now can you fly us over to Jake's boat? With luck, they'll still be there."
He shook his head, wondering if she'd got his point. He doubted it.
Nevertheless, he lifted her up, and they flew across to the pier where the 'The Dream' was docked. Jake Lamont, followed by Dimitri MacAdam and the Loner, who was carrying a small duffel bag, appeared on deck, just as Bill Henderson and one other officer were striding down the concrete pier.
Although Henderson appeared not to have taken notice of Superman and Lois Lane, as he walked past them he said, "What happened to your shoes, Lane?" Then he called out to the three men on the yacht's deck, "Jake Lamont." He flashed his badge. "MPD. We'd like to ask you a few questions."
Jake looked around for a second, as if weighing the situation. "Of course, officer. What can I do for you?"
"I'll leave you with the officers here, Jake. Talk to you later," MacAdam said, then glanced at the Loner. "Ben, can I drop you off somewhere?"
"That'd be great. Yeah."
"Why so quick to leave, Dimitri? I'm sure Inspector Henderson would be interested to talk to you and your friend here. You could tell him what happened to my shoes for a start."
As Lois spoke, Superman x-rayed the duffel bag that Ben was carrying. "Inspector, you might find the contents of the bag interesting, too. The gun, to start with."
"I got a permit for it," Ben said defiantly.
"Doesn't everyone," Henderson said wearily as he put a foot on the steps which accessed the deck of 'The Dream'.
"Mind if we look around, Lamont?"
"As matter of fact, I do, Inspector."
"I was afraid of that." Henderson reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper which he handed to the younger man. "Search warrant." He took the remaining steps onto the polished deck, followed by the other officer, and also by Lois Lane. Henderson looked back at her and frowned. "Last I knew reporters were not on the MPD payroll."
"Bill, it's my story! And they tried to kill me!"
"Wait down there." When she didn't move, he added, "On the concrete."
She backed down and stood quiet but seething beside the Man of Steel. He did not offer her his sympathy.
"I might, that's might, Lane, give you a couple of details when we're finished."
"Oh, all right." So she waited, as did Superman who kept his eye on the three men who were now guarded by Henderson's colleague. "Look in the night table in the bedroom, Bill," she shouted at his retreating back.
"Thanks for the tip," Henderson acknowledged with a wave of his hand.
He reappeared not long after. "Okay, gentlemen, time for a trip downtown." Then he radioed MPD headquarters, asking for forensics to send a team out to the Metropolis Yacht Club. He checked out Ben's ID and added a request to run a check on a Ben Coletti.
After he finished, Lois called out, "You might find out what he's been doing at the WTO site this past week, too."
Henderson looked at her and nodded. "Anything else I should do?" he asked sarcastically.
She shook her head. "No. I figure you can piece it together from this point."
Superman rolled his eyes and figured he'd better take action. "Uh, Lois how would you like a lift back to the Planet?"
"Thanks, Superman," Henderson said. "By the way, is this the guy you fished out of the drink Tuesday morning?"
Henderson nodded. "Had a call from Francesca Albertini's lawyer about that incident this morning, by the way. Like that guy said, 'The rich really *are* different from you and me.'"
"Okay, Lois," Superman said as they flew toward the Planet, "what happened?"
She told him, exhilarated. She had survived. Plus, she was about to break a great story! Her eyes flashed as she filled him in, her words tumbling out.
"Can I remind you, Lois, that you're supposed to report on the story, not become the story."
"You wouldn't be trying to set some ground rules here, would you?"
"If only…" he muttered.
They landed on the roof of the Planet, and after checking to make sure he was unobserved, he spun out of the spandex and into his street clothes. Without saying a word, he reached for her shoulders, then pulled her against him, his left arm circling her waist. He met her eyes. "But sometimes we're gonna play by my rules, Lois Lane." His voice was rough, letting her know it wouldn't all be her way. "Lois, I was sacred to death…"
Then he kissed her, hard, slowly, urgently, softly, every way that his anxious heart needed, and then in every other way as he responded to her moans of pleasure.
When they broke apart, she looked at him her eyes wide and maybe even rapturous. "So is this one of the rules?"
He wasn't sure he'd ever heard that dreamy tone in her voice before. "Yes," he grinned.
"I can live with this one." She fingered the fabric of his tie. "Umm… what are the others?" Then suspiciously, "Are there many?"
"Will I want to negotiate any of them?"
He kissed her again. "Maybe. Lots of slow negotiation. It'll take us a very long time. Our lifetimes."
"What about my rules?"
He grinned. "*The rules*, you mean? The ones you told me about the first day we met?"
"That was just the first page."
"That I know."
She laced her fingers behind his neck. "About today, Clark…"
He interrupted her. "You drive me nuts, ya know?"
"You keep saying that, but I'll try not to do that too often," she said with uncharacteristic meekness.
"Why don't I believe that?" But his voice was teasing, betraying his happiness. Lois Lane was safe and she was in his arms.
Her dark eyes flashed, as she replied, "I have no idea, Clark." She shook her head. "You really should be more trusting of people."
"Oh, I trust people, just…"
"Not Lois Lane." They finished in unison, laughing, as they headed toward the stairwell leading down to the newsroom.
The afternoon was a productive one—so productive that neither Lois nor Clark ever did get lunch, although Lois's reserve of double-fudge chocolate bars did come in handy, plus she was able to top each round off with a bubble gum chaser. She picked up the note that was beside the bubble gum, smiled across at the man working at the next desk, and then tucked the note, which she had carefully folded, into her purse.
In order to piece together an article on the events of the morning, Lois had needed to talk further to Henderson as well as to Sandy Wong. Although she expected that both were still involved in collecting evidence, Lois figured they had most of the puzzle completed. However, before she could get on the phone, Sandy Wong called her.
Sandy's team had gone over the yacht with the fanatical zeal of a kid who'd just got her first microscope for Christmas. She informed Lois that they would need a sample of her DNA because someone, who was not Jake Lamont, had drooled on Lamont's pillowcase, and given what Lois had told the police, they figured it was her. But they needed to be sure because who knew who might have been sleeping in Jake's bed? So would she come to them or should Sandy pop by the Planet to collect a sample of Lois's spit?
So Lois had gone over to MPD headquarters. After she'd spit onto a sterile petri dish for Sandy, she dropped by Henderson's tiny office to give him a statement about the events of the morning, a visit which gave her a chance to get a few more details out of the man whom she often found to be stubbornly laconic. She'd taken her photos from the WTO riots to give him, just in case they might prove useful. They did.
Henderson had raised a questioning eyebrow at Lois's inexplicable presence in the interior of the yacht, but given that he was about to wrap up two, maybe three, crimes with one stone, he didn't pursue it. In fact, he was feeling generous, and so he told her that Albertini's lawyers had contacted him this morning and given him information that was peripheral to the story in exchange for not pressing charges against Alastair Albertini. The DA's office was not averse to a little horse trading to cement a more important case.
"It looks like they'll do a plea bargain on the attempted murder charge involving you, too, Lane."
"What?" Her tone was indignant.
"We can trade you off against what Coletti knows."
"Trade me off!"
"Yeah—you came in handy, Lane."
She sighed. "So Alastair won't be charged then?"
"Too soon to say, but it doesn't look like it. He's agreed to testify against Jake Lamont in exchange for the DA dropping any charges he might be considering pressing."
"Like stealing sapphires and swapping them with paste?"
Henderson grinned at her. "Of course," he drawled, "we have no way of knowing that's what happened. Contessa Albertini has said she's not interested in pressing any charges. All we have is an insurance statement describing the necklace as having real sapphires. Alastair's mother seems mystified about how and when the paste gems were substituted. It's my bet the housekeeper knows something, but she's not saying what it is. Somewhere in all this mess should be a charge of insurance fraud, but it's not going to happen."
"I guess your guys are asking around to find the jeweller who swapped the stones?" Lois asked cautiously.
Henderson quirked an eyebrow at her. "We found him already. He's co-operating."
"And Lamont and the Loner are involved in the Vargas assassination."
"The Loner?—oh yeah, Ben Coletti. So you figured that out, too."
Lois shrugged modestly.
"The gun in Coletti's duffel bag is the same one that fired the two shots at Vargas. That duffel bag had a lot of interesting stuff in it. Two passports, both with Coletti's face in them, an airline ticket, $5000 in cash and a cash transfer statement from a bank in Monte Carlo to one in the Caymans—my guess is payment for services rendered. Plus 'Jake's Dream' had a stash of cocaine that was worth big bucks on the street. Coincidentally Coletti had passing free coke at the WTO site, oddly enough just after each of the disturbances." Bill grinned again. He was clearly a happy man this afternoon.
They continued their chat for a while longer. Lois had never found Bill Henderson so forthcoming. But then she'd had bits of his puzzle to give him in exchange. When she got up to leave, she thanked him. He waved away her thanks, saying that for once she'd been helpful too. Then, unable to leave things on a purely benign note between them, he added a warning.
"You were lucky this time, Lane. If Superman hadn't been there for you…" He let his words trail away.
When Lois got back to the Planet she filled Clark in on the details.
"Okay," he said to her. "So two things. Why steal the emeralds? It's obvious Alastair had to get the necklace back. We know the thief forced entry to make it look like an outside job, but once inside the guy knew what he was doing. So MacAdam mustn't have been too surprised. I can see his agreeing to the theft of the necklace, but not the emeralds. So why take them?"
"Because they were there. Coletti was the thief, and when he saw the emeralds next to the necklace, he couldn't resist. A chance for him to make a little profit on the side. According to Louie, he fenced them pretty quickly."
"Second, the big question—why was Vargas murdered?"
Lois sighed. "That the cops are still working on. What they do know is that MacAdam, Vargas, and Lamont have business dealings in Colombia. MacAdam and Vargas were pretty open about that. But the part that involved Lamont is still murky. It may be that Vargas didn't know about Lamont and the drug connection. When he found out, he didn't want any part of it."
"Yeah. He'd come out pretty strongly against Colombia's drug lords over the last year," Clark said. "So Vargas got in the way. And the plan was all along to use the WTO as a cover to get rid of him. You just happened along at the last act, when MacAdam manoeuvred Vargas outside to set him up."
"And so Albertini gets off."
"It looks like it. Francesca has promised that he'll give evidence about the break-in at Dimitri's. Henderson says that's off the record right now, by the way." Lois frowned, not happy at leaving that detail out of her story. "Apparently Alastair owed Lamont money for drugs and gambling debts. Plus his mother has already booked him into a rehab centre somewhere in the southwest. According to the family lawyers, he is deeply remorseful over what happened to Janine."
Disgusted, Clark expelled a deep breath. "Let me guess. Your story will have 'the Albertinis were unavailable for comment' somewhere in it."
"Yeah." Then she grinned at him. "But you know what's really great about this article, Clark?"
"There'll have to be a follow-up."
"Because Lamont and MacAdam were smuggling emeralds," he finished for her.
Chapter 8: Epilogue
Superman was needed only once during the rest of the afternoon and so Clark Kent actually finished his article on gangs. It would make the weekend supplement. He sighed with satisfaction as he finally sent it across to Perry.
Lois heard the sigh and looked across at him. "Ready to go?"
"Yeah. About time, too." He pushed his chair back from his desk and stretched his arms.
Lois watched him for a second. "So… I was wondering if you'd like to go out to dinner?"
"Would this be a date, Lois?" His face lit up.
"Maybe. I don't know. It's just that it's nearly seven o'clock, and we didn't get lunch, and I thought if you weren't doing anything…"
He looked at her innocently. "So are you asking me out?"
"Maybe." Her eyes sparkled mischievously.
"In that case, maybe I'll come." He stood up, and smiled at her. "But how about my place, instead?"
"I don't know." She looked at him suspiciously. "Will I be safe there?"
"Maybe," he teased as he helped her on with her coat.
Outside, they made a decision to walk to Clark's place, rather than take a cab. It would take a little over half an hour, but there was a decent take-out pasta place around the corner from Clark's apartment. He gave the restaurant a quick call; by the time they got there, their order would be ready.
And so they walked in the moonlight—well, streetlight and moonlight—cutting through the shadows of Centennial Park, then taking a short cut along darkened side streets, all the while talking and sharing secrets that neither had told anyone else ever before. He slipped his arm around her shoulders and told her she was the most incredible woman in the world, and she slid her arm around his waist and whispered that he was pretty super himself. Then she giggled.
They talked, too, of more serious things, of past misunderstandings, secret dreams, and future hopes. And then they didn't talk at all as he gently slid his strong hand through her dark hair and kissed her. He let her go, and she sighed, leaning forward. And so he kissed her one more time.
"Lois, at this rate we aren't ever going to get to my place," he whispered as he kissed her yet again.
"Who cares," she murmured against his lips, sliding her arms around his neck, pressing against him, seeking the strength of his body. He wrapped his arms around her and they stood there, her face against his shoulder, his dark head bent over hers, saying nothing.
Nevertheless, they did make it to his place, although, as it turned out Lois did not make it back to her apartment that night at all. Neither knew exactly how that had come to pass. All they did know was that they could not stop touching each other and that somehow they'd found themselves on his bed, in his bed, and that their clothes were in the way of their search for each other, and finally, ecstatically they found each other and afterwards were somehow blissfully floating above his bed, wide-eyed and grinning and both believing in miracles.
They had the pasta much, much later than they had thought they would. They were ravenous.
In the middle of the night, Lois stirred from her sleep, confused and only partially awake. Where was she? Then she smiled. Oh yeah. She rolled over and reached out. He was gone. She turned on the light and stared in dismay at the other side of the bed. She was alone.
She noticed pieces of clothing puddled in haphazard pools around the bed. She flushed. Slowly she got out of bed, shivering in the coolness and began to pick up the pieces, trying to keep her mind away from the absent Clark Kent.
It didn't work too well, and she found herself repeating, "Clark's not like that, he's not like that…"
A few minutes later, she heard a whoosh outside the window, and then Superman was standing in front of her, holding an orchid, its white flowers arching along a dark green stem.
"Lois, what are you doing?"
Feeling stupid, she thought. That's what I'm doing. Feeling galactically stupid. Clutching a bundle of clothes in front of her naked body and striving for dignity, she said, "Oh, just tidying up a bit."
"At three o'clock in the morning? Lo-is."
She would not tell him the silly fear which had crossed her mind when she'd awakened to find herself alone. "Yes, there's no time like the present to get things in order, is there?" She gestured vaguely with her right hand, dropping a couple of socks in the process. Quickly she clutched at her remaining bundle, shifting it so that it covered as much of her as possible.
He noticed and raised one eyebrow as he slowly gave her the once over.
"Clark!" she said, indignant.
"Lois," he said quietly, "this is what it's going to be like. Sometimes I have to leave in the middle of the night. But I'll always come back." He handed her the orchid. "Always, Lois."
She looked at it. "It's beautiful."
"Aren't you going to take it?"
He sensed her dilemma; the bundle of clothing she was clutching to the front of her body wasn't leaving a whole lot to his imagination. He grinned. "Why not?"
"You could just maybe put it in a vase for me."
"I could." But he didn't move.
His eyes lit up, and then he spun, whirling in front of her, his features an indistinguishable blur; then he was still, the costume lying in a careless heap beside him on the floor. He stood in front of her, naked, his dark eyes serious, promising her everything. He handed her the orchid. "I love you, Lois Lane."
Her mouth opened, but all she was able to say was, "Wow." Involuntarily, her eyes travelled the length of his muscled body. "Oh, wow." She sighed.
In a blur, he was gone, returning so quickly that she was still wide-eyed, slack jawed and clutching yesterday's clothes. He strode to the night stand beside his bed, placed the vase with the orchid on it, then he returned to her. Silently, fighting his laughter, he reached for her bundle, and just as silently she handed it to him.
Then she giggled.
He reached for her, picked her up, and carried her the few steps to his bed. "We should go back to bed, Lois."
"We should," she agreed as he lowered her to the sheets. "I love you, too, Clark Kent."
The next morning they were only marginally late for work but immediately were very busy trying hard to pretend that things were normal, business as usual with Lane and Kent, as they fought to ignore the laugh that Jimmy Olsen swallowed every time he walked passed their desks—which for some reason he did frequently that morning.
Shortly before noon, Franklin Stern entered the newsroom, but he did not look in their direction. Instead he walked toward Perry White's office, oblivious of the fact that his presence had momentarily stopped all activity in the newsroom as though his were the second coming.
Perry's voice boomed a greeting, then he left his office, and walked across to Lois's desk. "Uh, Lois, Franklin would like a word with you." He looked over at Clark. "Son, I think you should come along too."
Lois looked at Clark, trying to mask the panic she was feeling. He whispered to her. "Lois, you are the best."
Lois entered Perry's office with Clark close behind her.
Franklin Stern looked at her, and for a moment he didn't speak. Then he spread open the morning's Planet on Perry's desk and put his finger on Lois's article. "That's it— right there—the spirit of the Daily Planet," he boomed. Then he faced her. "Ms. Lane, I had my doubts about you. Couldn't get past Lex Luthor. But this is the damnedest article I've seen in some time. You've done a fine job. Not just on this, but on the whole WTO scene."
Lois relaxed. "Oh, it was nothing."
"Nothing, my foot! I believe it's time this paper offered you a regular contract." He pulled a document from his briefcase and handed it to her. "Look it over carefully, but I think you'll find it in order."
Lois looked at it quickly, noting the fact that there was also a raise in salary as part of the package. She looked around at Clark and beamed. He enveloped her in a bear hug. As did Perry.
Then Perry scuttled behind his desk, bent over, and emerged triumphant, bearing a bottle of champagne which he handed to Clark. "Son, you do the honours while I find us something to drink from." While Clark popped the cork, Perry produced a small stack of paper cups. "Here we go." He lined them up on his desk and Clark poured.
"To Lois Lane, reporter extraordinaire." Perry raised his paper cup.
"Hear! Hear!" Stern added.
"And to the Daily Planet." Lois lifted her champagne in tribute.
At that moment, Perry's phone rang. He picked it up. "White here." … "Now that's great. You send him on up here." He beamed at the group standing around his desk. "Another coup for the Planet. If you all will excuse me… I'll be back in a minute."
They peered out through the window of Perry's office, watching as the editor-in-chief shook hands with a slender young man with brown hair. Perry pointed him in the direction of his office, then led the way, stopping a few times to make introductions. Astonished, Lois watched their progress.
"Lois, Clark, Franklin… I'd like you all to meet Jeff Alexander." Perry grinned expansively. "We've been lucky enough to second him to the Planet for a couple of months. Sports. Jeff here has just returned from sailing solo around the world." He clapped his hands on the young man's shoulder. "Don't know how you did it, son. Out in the middle of nowhere. Man against the elements. Just the endless sea. How you stood the loneliness sure beats me."
"The solitude was amazing at first. But, yeah, towards the end, the loneliness was overwhelming. Then, when my trip was nearly finished, a storm blew up and blew for days. I had to go without sleep to fight it. It was touch and go— I know I was hallucinating at one point, my mind wandering…"
He looked at Lois, a quizzical look in his grey eyes. "But I survived." Then he reached out to shake her hand and, as he took it, his eyes sparkled. "You've grown up, Lois."
"Jeff!" Delighted, she hugged him.
"You two know each other?" Clark asked.
"We were the absolute best of friends for a couple of summers when we were kids. We shared everything," Lois said.
"But then my folks moved, and we never saw each other again." He met Lois's eyes, and a quizzical look flitted across both their faces. "Until now."
"Until now," she repeated quietly. Then she turned to Clark and tucked her arm through his. "Jeff, this is Clark Kent." The pride and affection in her tone earned her a surprised but pleased grin from Perry White.
Jeff smiled at Clark as the two men shook hands. "For some reason," he said, "I feel like I already know you."
Then he turned to Lois and winked.
Sometimes things are not what they seem.
It wasn't until it was all over that Lois understood that this was so. Sometimes, the truth is not what's there or isn't there, but what is in your heart.
Thanks to ML and her trusty law textbook for the intervening act argument, and also to Metwin for Intensity = Power/Area.
After I wrote the phrase 'little boy Superman' I thought of Sandi McDermnin's wonderful 'Little Man Superman'. Nevertheless I kept the phrase; I hope she would not mind.:)
Disclaimer: The main characters in this story are not mine (surprise<g>); they belong to DC Comics & Warner Bros., and December 3rd Productions. I've also used the occasional line from episodes of "Lois and Clark: The new adventures of Superman."