By Terry Leatherwood <email@example.com>
Rated PG-13 (for brief violence)
Submitted June 2004
Summary: Lois's stunned silence in response to Clark's withdrawal of his declaration of love at the end of Season One was a reasonable response, but what if she'd reacted differently? What if she'd blown up at Clark and shoved him out of her life? What would Clark have done? How different might their relationship have been? Maybe — just maybe — it would have been as different as this.
The characters contained in this story are the property of corporate entities other than myself. No resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, is intended.
Lois and Clark both began speaking at the same time.
They smiled at each other. "Lois, you go first."
She shook her head. "No, you go ahead. Please, I insist."
"Okay." He ducked his head. "Remember when I told you I loved you and didn't want you to marry Lex?"
She grinned. "Of course! In fact I —"
"Wait! Lois, please listen."
She was puzzled now. "All right, Clark, I'll listen."
"Lois, I — I only told you that because I was trying to keep you from making a huge mistake. I do love you, but — as a friend. Just a friend. I'm sorry. I mean I'm not sorry you didn't marry Luthor, but I'm sorry —"
"Lois, I said I'm sorry I —"
"Clark? What are you saying?
"That I'm glad you didn't marry Luthor and that I still want us to be friends. That I'm sorry if I said —"
"Sorry?" Her eyes brightened. "You're sorry?" She took a step forward. "Just friends?" Her voice was tempered steel. "Now you want to be just friends?" She clenched her fists in front of her. "You declared your undying love for me just so you could do me a big favor?"
Clark stepped back. "Lois, wait, I —"
She stepped forward again. "I can't believe I'm hearing this from the down-home Kansas farmboy." Lois forced Clark backwards until he bumped against the courthouse wall. "You played games with my emotions! You treated me like a — like a —"
"Lois, please, calm down! People are watching!"
If Lois had possessed Superman's heat vision, Clark would have been a pillar of fire. "Let them! Let them see the vile, contemptuous vermin you really are! I thought Lex was a louse but you out-louse him by a factor of ten! No, a factor of a thousand! You can't yank me around by the nose by telling me what you think I want to hear! I won't let Lex Luthor or Claude Gauthier or Clark Kent rip me off like that! You may think you can turn on the country charm and say any blasted thing you want to placate me but you can't! I hate you, Kent! I hate you and I never want to speak to you again! If you were burning to death I wouldn't spit on you! I hope you live a long and miserable life and then die an agonizing death all alone!"
She spun and stalked off, leaving Clark nailed to the wall and hanging there for everyone to see. She was so angry she didn't even see Superman whoosh past her above the street a few moments later.
She hadn't planned to go back to the Planet, but that's where she ended up. The building wasn't officially open yet, but she climbed the stairs to the newsroom, sat down at her desk, and threw her purse into the bottom drawer before she realized that everything in and on her desk had been put in storage until the building was fixed. She folded her arms and put her head down on her desk.
She didn't cry. She wouldn't cry. She refused to give him that victory.
Clark had hurt her, just as Claude had hurt her. Not in the same way, of course, but they had both betrayed her. Each of them had declared his love to her. Neither of them had been faithful. Neither one of them had told the truth. Claude had stolen her story, but Clark had stolen her heart. They were both beneath contempt.
She couldn't believe how cruel he'd been! She'd almost told him she loved him! That would have been a totally hysterical scene. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Lois, because I just want to be your friend." Some friend!
Her heart felt like a martini olive, punctured and skewered and drowning in bitter fluids. She'd lost again. She wasn't sure how, or why. All she knew was that she'd let a man get close to her again, and she'd gotten hurt again. Clark and Claude. Claude and Clark. Sounded like a stand-up comedy team. They'd probably exchange stupid-Lois stories if they ever met.
She'd show them. She'd show both of them.
A scraping noise startled her. She sat up quickly and looked across the room. Cat Grant had come into the newsroom and was cleaning out her desk. She didn't look happy. Lois's first thought was, Good, if I can't be happy then she can't be happy either. But as Cat paused, Lois thought she saw something in her expression that had never been there before.
"Gaah!" Cat spun around and almost dropped her box. "Lois! For crying out loud, don't do that!"
Lois almost smiled. "Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
"Well, you did! Sheesh!" Cat took two deep breaths and faced Lois again. "What are you doing here? Perry didn't fire you, did he?"
"No, of course not. Why, did someone get — " Then it hit her. "Oh, Cat, they let you go! But why?"
She shrugged. "Perry said that Franklin Stern wants to go in a slightly different direction. More hard news, less gossip- type stuff. It's a good move for the paper." She put her nameplate in the box. "Perry offered to let me stay in research and archives, but at a lower salary and I'd get a lot fewer bylines. I told him thanks, but I've needed to move on for a while." She grinned. "This will be good for you. You'll have a lot less competition now."
Lois waved her hands. "I'm sorry. I know we — didn't exactly get along very well, but —"
Cat shook her head. "It's okay. Cats always land on their feet." She put the box on Lois's desk and folded the top shut. "I've already got another job. I'm going to do news and investigative reporting for a radio station in Cincinnati. And I plan to use what I've learned from you and Clark when I get there."
Lois's face hardened and she leaned back in her chair. Cat saw it and zeroed in. "Ooh, don't tell me there's a problem with the Planet's star reporting team!"
"I don't want to talk about it."
Cat shrugged again. "Okay. I'm out of the gossip business, anyway. Well, I think I'd better get this stuff out of here. I'm about packed at home, and I leave for the Midwest in three days. Take it easy, Lois."
Lois watched Cat walk to the elevator. She waited until Cat had pushed the button before she said, "You wanna do lunch?"
Cat turned and smiled. "Sure. Have your people get in touch with my people."
Lois stood. "No, I mean right now. Have you had lunch yet?"
Cat's mouth fell open. "You mean it, don't you? Wow! Lois Lane and Cat Grant at Burger Whiz for lunch. What will the tabloids say?"
Lois smiled and Cat chuckled. "We can do the Burger Whiz thing if you want, or we can eat at Mike's." Lois held up two fingers intertwined. "I'm like this with the owner."
Cat smiled back and nodded. "Sure. Help me with these boxes? My car's in the garage across the street."
"Good. We can stow your stuff and grab a cab."
Uncle Mike outdid himself. Lois couldn't tell if he was showing off for her or for Cat. Even when she wasn't trying, Cat attracted men like sugar water attracted flies.
Lois laughed as she speared the last bite of steak on her plate. Cat was just coming to the climax of her story.
"So the assistant DA looks at the bank statement and says, 'You mean it's really illegal to take bribes when you don't do what they pay you to do?'"
Both women laughed. Lois held her stomach in mock pain. "Stop, you're killing me!"
"You asked me first!"
"But you didn't have to make it so funny!"
They laughed some more. "So, Cat, how many years will the former assistant DA spend as a guest of the state?"
"He's serving ten to twenty, so he'll be there at least six years. He'll be a changed man when he gets out."
"I'll bet he will! Say, do you know who's replacing him?"
"Yep. The new assistant DA is Mayson Drake."
Lois frowned. "Sounds like Perry Mason's poor nephew."
Cat grinned evilly. "Mayson Drake is a woman. Her first name is spelled with a 'Y' and she's hard as nails and tougher than a Burger Whiz special. She's supposed to be absolutely incorruptible and coldly relentless. You'd better be careful around her, especially since I won't be here to watch your back."
"I will, thanks. So, you know where you'll be staying yet?"
"In a motel, at first, at the station's expense. They told me it's a good deal cheaper to live in Ohio than in Metropolis. I hope they're right. My clothing costs are killing me."
Lois lifted her tea glass. "Cat, you're going to knock them dead in Ohio. Those Midwestern sodbusters won't know what hit them!"
"Thank you, my lady." Cat clinked her glass against Lois's and spilled a little.
"Oops! Careful. Uncle Mike doesn't like it when the customers break the glassware."
"I'll try to do better, Lois." She drained her glass. "Mmm, that was good. I'm glad we could get together like this." Cat sat back and seemed to draw inward. "Lois, I'm sorry."
"What? Sorry for what? Who did you proposition this time?"
"I'm really serious." Cat shook her head. "I'm sorry for waiting so long to find out you're not such a bad dame after all." She took a deep breath. "I don't have many women friends. I never have. My therapist told me it was because I intimidated the girls I grew up with, because I grew up — and out — before they did. I've always had men around me, hitting on me and treating me like I was a slut, so women always treated me like I was competition. Did you know that in high school I was voted most likely to cause multiple divorces?"
Lois stared at her. "What? That's terrible! Why — oh, never mind, I know why."
"Yep. But I have to tell you, despite what you may have heard, I was twenty, in college, and engaged when I did it the first time. We broke up the next day when I walked around the corner of the library and heard him bragging about what a great body I had and what we'd done the night before."
Lois nodded. "I know the type."
"We both do. But that's why I act and dress like a Vegas stripper. It's a defense mechanism. You know, they want me to be like that, so I am. It's easier than trying to change their minds."
"Uh-huh." Lois popped the last of her pie into her mouth and swallowed. "So, if you don't mind my asking, why are you telling me this now?"
"Like I said, I'm sorry. We could have been friends instead of almost enemies, and it's mostly my fault. Now that I see what I've been missing, I regret losing all that time." She looked away. "I'll never get that time back, not with you, or Clark, or Perry, or Robert, or anyone. My time at the Planet could have been spent building my career and my life instead of being a selfish, self-centered narcissist. I can't live like that anymore." She pushed back her hair and preened. "Take a good look at the old Cat Grant, because you won't see her any more after today."
Lois smiled. "Okay! Long live the new Cat Grant!"
"No, no, no! From now on, I'm Catharine. It has a more sedate sound, don't you think?"
Lois laughed. "I never thought I'd live to see you sedate! But I think it'll be good for you." She looked at the clock on the wall. "Oh, Cat, I mean Catharine, I'm sorry! I have to run. I've got a meeting with Perry and Mr. Stern in twenty minutes. Look, here's my home address and my e-mail address. I really, really mean this! Let's stay in touch, okay?" Lois smiled warmly and handed her the card. "I could use a good friend right about now."
Cat fixed her with a glare. "Then maybe I should bring Chinese takeout to your place tonight. We can talk then."
Lois was still amazed at herself as she unlocked her front door. Cat had called her desk at six-thirty to confirm dinner, just before Lois had left Perry's office, and now she was waiting eagerly at her apartment for her newest friend.
She had already flipped the first lock home when Cat knocked on the door and called out, "Beware of beautiful women bringing food!" Lois laughed and let her in.
"Thanks, Lois! Take the egg rolls. You just get here?"
"Yes. Wow, they're still warm. Let me get some plates."
"Don't worry, I brought paper stuff." At Lois's look, she said, "Hey, Catharine thinks of almost everything! I hope you have something to drink."
They chatted all through dinner. Lois filled Cat in on the new direction for the Planet, and how much Mr. Stern seemed to trust Perry. Cat talked about meeting the short, Walter Mitty- like news director of the radio station, and how impressed he was with her voice check tape, even before he'd seen her. They each talked about their families and the men in their lives. The subject turned to Lex Luthor, and Lois confessed that she'd stopped the wedding before Perry had burst in.
"No! You did? Why?"
Lois looked into her wineglass. "I realized that I didn't love him. I'm not even sure why I agreed to marry Lex in the first place, except that he was such a difficult guy to resist."
"I know. There was a time I wouldn't have resisted him, either."
Lois giggled. "I think a lot of women felt that way."
"Maybe. I'm glad now that he stayed away from me." Cat played with her chopsticks for a few seconds, then said, "Lois, can I ask you a personal question?"
She thought Cat was still curious about Lex. "Hmm. Yes, but I don't promise to answer it."
"Fair enough." Cat turned and faced Lois directly. "You've talked about your dad, about Lex, about Claude, about your old Irish boyfriend, but you haven't said a word about Clark. How come?"
The question threw Lois for a loop and she blurted out the first thing that popped into her mind. "Clark? You want the slimy little weasel you can have him!" She swallowed the last of the wine in her glass and reached for the bottle, but stopped short.
Cat looked shocked. "That's not the description of Clark Kent that I would have expected from you." Lois stared at her empty plate and didn't respond. "What happened, Lois? I'm kinda surprised Clark didn't ask you to marry him."
Cat's eyebrows danced near her hairline. "Oh. Uh, Lois, you said that like it was a bad thing."
"He took it back."
Cat's eyebrows almost jumped over her head. "What? He proposed and then backed off? You're kidding!"
"No." Lois stood and began pacing. "Before the wedding, the wedding that didn't happen, he told me he loved me and didn't want me to marry Lex and this afternoon he said he just wanted to stop me from throwing my life away and he loved me like a friend and I told him where to go and how to get there and I don't ever want to see him again!"
Lois stopped beside her window, the one Superman had tapped on and flown through so many times. She stood there, almost panting, until Cat gently relieved her of the wineglass whose stem she was threatening to snap. Then Cat guided her back to the couch and sat her down. Lois grabbed a napkin and started shredding it.
Cat sat down beside her and put her arm around Lois's shoulders. "Oh, Lois, honey, I'm so sorry. I know how much that hurts."
Lois sniffled. "Yeah, I guess you do." She leaned back and then put her head on Cat's shoulder. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that the way it sounded."
Cat smiled. "It didn't sound any way at all, Lois. Don't worry. You want to tell me how you feel now?"
Lois peered up at her. "I thought you were out of the lonely hearts business."
"I'm not out of the friend business."
"Right." Lois sat up. "I feel like an idiot. I feel like a complete jerk. He was as gentle as he could be, I guess, but what he said just about killed me. I'd turned down one of the richest men in the world at the altar, and here was this Kansas plowboy, the guy I really wanted, telling me he didn't want me." She sniffled. "I — I should have gone first."
"Well, we both started talking at the same time, and I was going to tell him that I cared about him, too, and that the reason I'd stopped the wedding was because I didn't love Lex and would far rather marry Clark and —"
"Whoa! Did you tell him that?"
"No! He went first and told me he loved me like a friend and that was all and I blew up at him! He probably hates me now." She wiped her eyes. "That's me. One guy falls off a building and I destroy the other one, all in one week. I'm batting a thousand."
Cat tugged Lois's chin up with her index finger. "Lois, I just have one thing to say to you."
"I don't know what 'batting a thousand' means."
Lois's eyes went wide. Cat smiled. Lois smiled back. They raced each other to hilarity and eventually collapsed in a mound of laughter.
Lois walked into the newsroom the following Monday and was struck by how quiet it was. She glanced around the room and saw that almost everyone was looking at Perry's new office. There were sharp, abrupt men's voices coming from behind the closed door. Lois couldn't distinguish what was being said, but she knew somebody was mad about something.
She stopped at the top of the steps and called out, "You know, if Perry were out here, he'd say something about Elvis that would get everybody back to work."
Every eye snapped to her, then just as quickly everyone scurried to do something, most of it probably work-related. She was surprised by the reaction she'd gotten. She'd expected them to nod and grin before going back to work, but they acted like they were scared of her.
It bothered her as she walked to her desk. No one looked at her, not even Jimmy. She turned to ask Ralph what was going on, but for the first time since she'd known him, he ignored her. She put her purse in the bottom drawer and pulled out her chair.
Before she could sit, Perry yanked open his door and bellowed, "Where in the name of Graceland is Lois Lane?"
"Right here, Perry. What's —"
She walked in, wondering what was going on. Perry shut the door and turned to her, breathing hard. "Okay, Lois, what's going on?"
"What's going on with what? Perry, what are you talking about?"
He pointed at the corner of the room. "He wants out."
She followed his finger and saw Clark leaning against the wall. His arms were crossed and he was staring out the window, apparently intent on studying the pigeons on the ledge.
He was also so angry he was almost vibrating.
Lois put her hands on her hips and walked over to him. "What is it that you want out of, farmboy?"
Clark's lips worked but he neither looked at her nor spoke. Perry sighed deeply. "He says he can't work with you as a partner any more. He says it's a personal matter between the two of you, and he says it can't be fixed."
"Oh." Her voice got small and she dropped her hands. "Is Perry right, Clark? You don't want to partner with me any more?"
His voice was tight enough to walk on. "That's right."
"And it can't be fixed?"
"Are you sure?"
He almost turned his head to look at her but held back. "Yes."
Lois stepped closer. "Will you let me apologize? Can we sit down together and talk this out?"
His mouth barely moved. "No. I won't work with someone who hates me."
"Oh. If I told you that I didn't really mean it, would it make a difference?"
He re-crossed his arms and turned away from her. "No. Not this time."
"There aren't any shades of gray here, are there, Clark?"
He shuddered visibly as he controlled himself. "No, there aren't."
"I see." Lois shrugged. "I'm sorry, Perry. I think he's right. This isn't fixable, not right now."
"Great shades of Elvis! Suppose I lock the two of you in the conference room until you work this out?"
"Well, I won't presume to speak for Clark, but I think you might have to call the police." She glanced back at Clark. "Or maybe the coroner."
Perry sank down in his chair and stared at them. "Do you know that one of the main reasons Franklin Stern bought the Daily Planet was to keep the two of you here, together? What am I going to tell him now? 'I'm sorry, Mr. Stern, but the best reporting team in the eastern US has split up and won't tell me why.' He'll hang me up by my heels! And that's if I'm lucky!"
The room was silent for a long moment, then Clark spoke up. "Tell him you're using us to train the junior members of the staff. Tell him we're no longer conjoined twins. Tell him we're both aliens and we can't stand our own kind. I don't care. I will no longer partner with Lois Lane."
Perry raised his hands in supplication to Lois, but she shook her head. "He's right, Perry. We can't talk about it, we can't get past it, and we can't work together. But look on the bright side."
"There's a bright side to all this?"
"At least we're both still on staff."
Perry nodded finally and exhaled loudly. "Yeah, there's that. I'm glad you came back from LNN. And I'm glad Clark decided not to go back to Kansas."
Perry sighed again. "Okay. I'm ordering the two of you to divvy up whatever you're working on together and start moving forward separately. Now, I still don't understand the problem you two have gotten yourselves into, but I insist that you behave in a professional manner at the Planet. Do you both understand that? Because that's absolutely not negotiable. Your personal problems can't be allowed to disrupt the operation of this newspaper."
Lois said, "I can manage that."
Clark nodded. "So can I, chief. Just one request."
Perry sighed dramatically. "Of course, of course. You have but to ask, sahib."
Clark didn't look at Lois. "I'd like you to move our desks away from each other. As far as you can."
Perry stared at him. "Son, are you sure about that? It will cause a lot of talk."
"I don't care, Perry."
"Lois, honey? What do you think?"
She looked at Clark's profile. She knew he could see her. She knew that he knew how much his request had hurt her. He didn't seem to care. It was as if she'd hurt him deeply and now he was hitting back. It was uncharacteristic of him, but quite human. She almost reached out to touch him, but he suddenly turned to face her. He didn't move in her direction, but his eyes blazed with fury and his fists were clenched.
That hardened her. "I think it's a good idea, Perry."
Clark's desk ended up near the stairwell, out of Lois's field of vision. Her desk was on the other side of the newsroom, beyond Cat's old desk. She had finished moving her stuff and was booting up her computer to make sure it worked when a technician stopped by to hook up her phone. The voicemail light came on immediately and she checked it as soon as the boy left.
The first call was from Catharine. "Hey, new girlfriend, I'm here in Cincinnati! I'm calling from the motel, and I don't know how long I'll be here, but send me an e-mail! I sent you one already so you'll have my address. I'll keep you up to date as much as I can, but these people are absolutely crazy! The station manager looks a little like Perry but acts like Ralph without the leer, if you can imagine that. And Les, the news director, is just a little doll! This is going to be great! You'll have to come and visit me when you can. I'll scope out all the good Chinese places, assuming there are any. Bye for now!"
Lois smiled as she erased the message and made a mental note to check her e-mail as soon as she could. The second message chased the smile away.
"Hi, Lois? This is Martha Kent. I hope you won't think ill of me, dear, but we spoke with Clark over the weekend and he seemed very upset with you. He wouldn't tell us why, or even what happened. I'm really worried about him, and about you, too. If you don't mind, I'd like to talk to you about it. I'll try to call you again tomorrow morning, or you can call us."
Martha recited both her phone number and her fax number, in case Lois wanted to send a note instead. "I know I'm being a meddlesome mother, but I've never heard Clark this agitated before. I need to know how to help him, and I can't think of anyone I'd rather talk to about him."
Lois fell back in her chair and dropped the phone into her lap. Once Martha found out what Lois had done, she'd never speak to her again! But there was no avoiding this. She'd begun the dance, and now she was going to start paying the piper.
She dialed the number, hoping that Martha would be out milking goats or something, but Jonathan answered on the second ring. "Hello, Kent residence."
"Ah, hi, Mr. Kent, I mean Jonathan, is, uh, is your wife there, I mean, is Martha there?"
She envisioned him looking at the phone and wondering who the nut on the other end of the line was. "Lois? Is that you?"
"Yes. Mrs. Kent called, I mean Martha called me and said she, she wanted to talk to me about Clark."
"Oh. Okay. Hang on while I go get her. She's out milking the goats."
Lois laughed to herself, then sat back to wait. It took too long and not long enough before Martha answered. "Hello? This is Martha."
"Yes, Martha, it's me."
"Lois! Oh, thank you for calling me back so quickly! I don't want to pry into your private life, honey, or into Clark's, but something's wrong and I want to fix it! I'm a mom, after all."
They shared a brief chuckle, then Lois sighed. "I wish there were something you could do. I'm afraid it's my fault."
"What's your fault, Lois?"
"We had a terrible argument. I — I said some things — some things I wish I could take back."
"Have you apologized?"
"I've tried. He won't listen."
Martha was astounded. "He won't let you apologize?"
"I said some really bad things to him."
"Oh. So, he's angry with you right now?"
"It's more than just angry, Martha. He told Perry he wouldn't partner with me any more."
"Oh, he'll get over it, I'm sure."
"He had Perry move our desks across the newsroom from each other."
Martha went silent for a moment. "Oh, dear. That does sound serious."
"I'm afraid it is. I'll understand if you don't want to see me again, Martha."
"What? Who gave you such a ridiculous notion?"
"But — but I thought — if Clark —"
"If Clark's thick-headed enough to shun you, that's his loss, not mine. Jonathan and I are coming to Metropolis in about three weeks. If you're willing, we'll go shopping together while Jonathan and Clark do whatever it is that they do, and you don't have to see Clark if you don't want to. I like you, Lois, and I can't say that about many young people nowadays. I'd like to keep you as a friend."
"Martha — thank you. Thank you so much!"
"It's nothing, dear. Now you get to work and go bust some bad guys!"
Lois laughed. "Okay, okay! I'm busting, I'm busting!"
Martha's smile reached across the miles. "Keep your chin up, dear. We'll see you soon. Bye for now."
"Bye, Martha. And thanks again."
Her smile had returned. She hung up the phone and looked at her screen. There was a message from Clark entitled 'notes' and one from Perry with no title. She read Clark's message, noting that he had been more than fair in dividing their workload. She opened her own notes directory and built a message to send back to her ex-partner.
"I can't believe he's out of chocolate fudge bars! This is early Saturday afternoon! No Metropolis street vendor worth his umbrella and mustard runs out of chocolate fudge bars this early in the weekend!"
Martha patted Lois's elbow. "Do I smell an exclusive?" Martha painted the headline on the air with her hand. "Fudge — the stuff of life! By Lois Lane, recovering chocoholic! What a scoop that would be! Or even a double scoop!"
Lois's laugh startled a passerby, and that set Martha off, too. They wound down as they found a seat at the outdoor coffee palace.
"Martha, we can guard our stuff better if we're inside."
"Nonsense! No one's going to steal from a kindly old lady and her faithful companion in broad daylight."
Lois waved to a waiter. "Companion! Is that all I am to you?"
"Oh, I suppose you can be my official food taster. I wouldn't want to be poisoned here in the big city."
Lois unsuccessfully tried to attract another waiter. "If we don't get some service soon, I may try out for the job of royal assassin!"
That got a response, just not the one Lois had hoped for. The police officer at the next table leaned over and softly said, "You probably shouldn't say that too loud, ma'am. Superman might overhear, and he takes a pretty dim view of people making lethal threats. For that matter, so do I." Lois tried to stare him down, but her best Mad Dog look had no effect on him. "It kinda goes with the job."
Martha waved at him. "Oh, Officer, uh," he turned so she could read his nameplate, "Mooney, she was just letting off a little steam. The vendor over there didn't have any chocolate."
Mooney nodded. "I see. In that case, I'll have to issue him a citation. Failure to provide chocolate to attractive ladies has got to be a violation of any number of laws."
Lois changed tack. "Oh, please, don't arrest him. It wouldn't be worth your time, or the resulting writer's cramp."
He looked puzzled. "Writer's cramp?"
"From all the paperwork." He still looked puzzled. "In triplicate." No response. "With no carbon paper."
He finally nodded. "Ah. Good point. That would take a long time. Tell me, are either of you ladies packing heat?"
Martha was distracted and didn't respond, but Lois put her hand in her chin and leaned over to him, then said in a sultry voice, "Why? Are you going to — frisk me?"
Mooney cocked his head to one side. "Only if you refuse to behave yourself."
Lois put on her best Marilyn Monroe voice. "Oh, officer, you're scaring me."
Martha reached over and tugged on Lois's hair.
"Ow! That's my real hair, you know."
"Lois Lane, you leave that poor policeman alone! He has a job to do and you're not helping!"
Mooney's face lit up and he snapped upright. "I thought I recognized you! Lois Lane of the Daily Planet! Wow! You're very good at finding out stuff people don't want you to know. I'm impressed."
Oh, good, Lois thought, he's a fan. "Thank you, and to answer your previous question, no, neither of us is armed."
"I never thought you were." He spread his hands. "Ms. Lane, I want to apologize. I have to admit I was — well, I was trying to flirt with you. I figured as long as I behaved myself you'd cut me a little slack, since you're with your mother."
Lois flashed a quick smile at Martha. "She's not my mother, but I wouldn't have minded if she had been. Oh, I'm sorry! Officer Mooney, this is Martha Kent. Her son is one of my co- workers."
He stood and gently shook her hand. "Clay Mooney, Mrs. Kent. You get any traffic tickets, just come see me. I can tell you where to pay them."
Martha laughed. "Thank you, Clay. May I call you Clay?"
"Of course. Now I really have to go. I've got lots of paperwork to fill out, in triplicate, and we're out of carbon paper." He settled his hat on his head and saluted nonchalantly. "Take care of yourselves, ladies. I'll see you around, Ms. Lane."
He tucked some bills under the saucer and walked away. Lois turned just as a waiter put a cup of flavored coffee on the table before her. "Hey! I didn't order this!"
Martha waved her down. "I did, Lois. While you were flirting with that good-looking young police officer."
Lois took a sip. "I wasn't flirting!" Martha gave her the 'oh-really' eyebrow. "Well, maybe just a little. It's good for a woman's ego! You know that!"
Martha laughed. "Yes, I do. And I understand that sometimes a woman just needs a little ego boost. If he'd been a little older, or if I'd been a little younger, well, who knows what I'd have said to him myself?"
Instead of laughing, Lois sat back and sighed. "I think I need a shuttle booster strapped to my ego right now."
Martha hitched her chair closer. "It's that bad?"
Lois nodded. "Clark won't talk to me. He won't even listen. I know I hurt him, but he won't let me tell him how sorry I am!" She wadded up a napkin and tossed it into a nearby trash can. "It's so frustrating! Can you help me?"
Martha shook her head. "I've tried. Clark won't listen to me, either. I tried to get him to talk to us about what happened, but he refuses, and he's starting to get angry with us when we bring it up."
Lois wiped her eyes on another napkin. "It's my fault. Ever since that day in the park, he won't get closer than ten feet to me."
Martha sat back. "I'm so sorry, Lois. I wish I could help."
"So do I. Martha, we haven't had a civil conversation since then. Every time I try to apologize, he closes up and walks away. I'm afraid it's going to affect his work. It's already affected mine. Perry hasn't said anything, but he may have to." Lois dabbed her eyes again. "Are you sure you're willing to be seen with me now?"
Martha put her hand on Lois's arm. "Honey, I understand. Really. If Jonathan had pulled something like that on me before we were married, I don't know what I'd have done to him. You just have to focus on the long term and work through this. Okay?" Martha patted Lois's arm. "I promise, it'll get better. Maybe not soon, but it will."
Lois nodded. "Thank you."
"Oh, you're more than welcome. You want to finish your cappuccino here or hit some more stores?"
Lois smiled. "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping."
They stood and gathered their shopping bags. Lois stopped and smiled at Martha.
"Dear, what is it?"
"It's just — would it embarrass you if I told you that I loved you and Jonathan deeply and that I wish my parents had been more like you?"
Martha's face lit up. Her smile warmed and softened the morning briskness. "No! I'm thrilled and flattered! Jonathan and I love you, too, Lois. We love you as if you were our own daughter."
Hey, Catharine! Hope you get this message soon. You changed servers again and I'm not sure this is your current address, so it'll ask you to send a receipt. I want to make sure we're still in touch.
You would not believe Perry! He's actually going home early to Alice a couple of days every week. He was afraid that keeping his home together wasn't compatible with his job, but he's found a way. Me! I'm acting editor when he's not there during the day or early evening. I don't get any extra pay, and it makes for long Mondays and Thursdays, but it's great experience and I like making Ralph go on noodle runs! Plus Perry's just a phone call away if there's something I can't handle.
Your last e-mail mentioned a great apartment, but you didn't elaborate. You said the last tenant was formerly a receptionist at the station. I'd imagine it'd be a tiny place, but it didn't sound small. You'll have to fill me in on it. Maybe I can scoot out there one weekend and you can show me scenic Ohio.
Whoops, I wasn't watching the time. I have to get in to work! Check out our headlines next week! There's a certain Federal judge who's been getting too close to one of her bailiffs. A lot of non-public information has been getting out from her court, and we've found out why. The bailiff has been selling copies of case files and affidavits and depositions for quite a while now, and the judge has deliberately decided not to know about it. But everyone will know about it soon, courtesy of you-know-who. Yours newsworthily, Lois.
Lois had just finished her Monday morning coffee when her phone rang. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet."
A deep male voice answered. "Hello, Ms. Planet. That's an awfully long name for such a lovely lady, don't you think?"
Puzzled, she asked, "Who is this?"
"Clay Mooney, Metro PD."
Ah. The cute cop from Saturday. "Hello, Officer PD. You've an awfully long personal handle yourself. What has prompted your call to our faithful bastion of the fourth estate?"
"Hey, I'm just a dumb beat cop calling to ask an attractive lady if she's free for lunch."
"I see. Well, if I see an attractive lady who's also hungry, I'll let her know you're looking for her."
"Thank you. I'd like to meet her at the same coffee shop where we saw each other on Saturday. Think you could give her directions?"
Lois smiled. "Actually, I think I could pry myself free about lunchtime and meet you there about twelve-thirty."
"You? Are you sure the other attractive lady you were talking about won't be jealous?"
Lois laughed. "I won't tell her if you won't."
She heard his smile. "It's a deal. I hope you like the deli next door."
"I'm sure I will. See you at lunch, Clay."
She showed at the appointed hour. Clay was in uniform, which reassured her. He was wiping off a table and arranging the chairs. He reminded her momentarily of Clark and how meticulous he'd always been. Then she pushed the thought aside. This was just a lunch.
He looked up and smiled warmly. "Hey. I'm glad the attractive lady could make it."
Flattery works a little, she thought. "Naw. I'm just the stand-in."
"You won't hear any complaints from me." He held out a chair. "This side okay for you?"
"Sure. I'm glad you picked a table under the awning."
He seated her. "The deli boasts a fabulous selection of subs, Reubens, Philly cheesesteaks, and gyros. Which would you prefer?"
Lois surprised herself. "You pick."
His eyebrows went up a little. "Ooh. That's dangerous."
"I thrive on risk."
"As milady wishes." A few moments later, he brought back a gyro for himself and a turkey on wheat for her, along with two large cups of water. A waiter from the coffee shop brought cups as he sat down.
Lois tasted hers. "Hey! This is what Martha got for me on Saturday."
He nodded. "Hope you aren't bored with it."
She smiled. "This is fine, Clay. Thanks."
"You're welcome. You know, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
"Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca."
"At least I didn't call you 'Louie'."
Hey Lois! How's life in the fast Lane?
Ha-ha-ha! I always wanted to use that joke but never found the right time and place. Sounds like you're still a busy little bee. Stepping in for Perry is going to put a crimp in your social life. Did you go on a second date with the cop yet? Clay Mooney! He sounds stolid and dull. But considering your past and mine, maybe we should both go for stolid and dull. Goodness knows, I've tried almost everything else. But then, as Mae West once said, "Goodness had nothin' to do with it." Maybe that's been my problem.
I just found out there's an annual softball tournament here, and everyone's expected to play. The big rival is another station, and the general managers hate each other for some reason. If I'd been at all athletic in college, I'd think they hired me just to help the team. The former receptionist couldn't hit worth a flip, and she was too pretty (and too top-heavy) to bend down and field a ground ball. Oh, just so you'll know, they told me what 'batting a thousand' means. It's a very useful phrase.
My apartment isn't at all small! It's immense! It's a little expensive compared to the other digs for rent here, but it's secure and modern and clean, and I can come home and just relax! The former tenant made some really sexy modifications. I can't wait to watch you blush at them!
We've been working on a story you might want to look into. Seems there's a street gang that has way too many weapons and too many drugs to be just local. One of the leaders was arrested day before yesterday, and the police said that the man arrested with him is from Metropolis. I know it's a long shot, but maybe there's a connection. You know, the drugs come to Hobb's Bay and just dilly-dally along the highway until they get to Cincinnati and points west. If you think it's worth pursuing, I'll fax you what I have so far. But don't do it just because we know each other, okay?
Ooh, gotta send this. If I don't stop now I never will. Take care! And make sure Ralph doesn't drop the noodles before he puts them on your desk. This is the Cornfed Kitten, ten-four and ten-ten, good buddy!
Catharine, they don't really talk in CB lingo there, do they? That's so Smoky and the Bandit!
Oh, yes, send me anything you have on the gangs and the drugs. Clay told me yesterday that they think there's some organization based here that's trying to build up a distribution network in the Midwest and Deep South. The police don't have any proof, but maybe with your info we can shake something loose and benefit us both.
Clay and I aren't quite dating. We like each other and we have similar interests, but there's no romantic spark there. He's a nice, comfortable guy who's not threatening or demanding or dangerous. 'Dating' isn't the right word, and I really don't know what the right word is. I'll let you know when I figure it out.
There's a press conference early next week, and Superman will be there. It's odd that there's no pre-announcement going out, but Perry thinks it just might be something really big. There have been rumblings from the mayor's office and the DA about Superman's role in fighting crime. Clark thinks it's really something political. (No, he didn't tell me. I overheard him talking to Jimmy.) Knowing this administration, I'm forced to agree with him, as much as I'd prefer not to.
I like this! I'm glad we're friends. I'd like for us to get together some time soon. Maybe we could meet halfway or something. Perry told me that I'll get extra vacation time for covering for him if I want it. I think I'll take him up on that offer.
If you do get a CB radio, I think your handle ought to be News Kitten. You're way too pretty to be any kind of hound. Until next time, digitally yours, Lois.
Lois was eager. She hadn't spoken with Superman since before the aborted wedding over six weeks before. He rarely gave press conferences, but the mayor's office had requested this one, and Lois was determined to get a good story. She arrived early, but had to settle for a seat almost halfway back. Still, Superman could hear her and see her wherever she might be.
The short and boyish city public relations director began right on time for a change. "Ladies and gentlemen of the press, thank you for coming. I will read a brief statement from the mayor's office, then Superman will read a statement, and then we'll entertain questions. Please don't interrupt our statements. The quicker we get through this, the quicker Superman can go back to doing massively good things."
He flashed a plastic grin, pleased with his attempt at humor. Just then, Superman walked in the side door. Flashbulbs lit up the rostrum and several reporters tried to yell questions. The PR director waved his hands and kept his smile.
"Please, folks, please! Just hold your questions until we're done."
Everyone finally calmed down. Lois had been watching Superman since he'd entered, and he didn't look very happy. She didn't know what the problem was, but whatever this was about, he wasn't pleased with it.
The PR director stepped to the podium and opened a folder. "Copies of this announcement will be available to each of you at the end of the conference. We have plenty for everyone." He rustled a sheet of paper and cleared his throat. "Whereas Superman — " he paused and smiled at the superhero " — has faithfully executed the office of citizen of Metropolis since his arrival, and whereas Superman has assisted law enforcement and legal authorities in the capture and prosecution of criminals both major and minor, and whereas Superman has proven himself beyond a reasonable doubt that he will continue to behave in these manners, the city of Metropolis hereby grants a full law- enforcement commission to Superman, along with the powers and privileges inherent to him as an officer of the law. Signed this day by His Honor, the Mayor." He closed the folder with a self- satisfied flourish and looked at Superman. "The upshot of this is that, from this day on, Superman can make arrests and behave as any other police officer, because legally he now is just like any other police officer."
Lois saw reluctance in the superhero's posture. This wasn't something Superman wanted to do, but why not? It sounded like a good thing on the surface, but there were undercurrents making themselves evident. She suspected they were political in origin.
Superman crossed his arms, displaying his upper body to good advantage. Lois heard two of the women around her sigh. One pudgy cameraman grumbled something about super-showoffs. Then Superman began his statement.
"I'd like to thank the mayor and the city council for this kind gesture. I understand a little of what it means to put your life on the line for others, which is something the police and fire department personnel do for all of us on a daily basis. And none of them have my particular advantages. Frankly, I think they are the ones who should be honored, not me.
"That being said, I'm afraid I must decline the honor offered by the city of Metropolis. I hope you understand that, while I'm pretty much based here in this city, I can't be tied to one particular locality. There are times when I have to pass by a mugging to stop a murder in progress, or let two cars hit each other so I can stop a bank robbery, or try to stop a flood while someone somewhere else falls and breaks a leg. No one, no matter how super, can do it all. Please don't think I regularly assign priorities to people or situations, because I don't. I do what I can, when I can, and sometimes that takes me away from Metropolis, whether I want it to or not.
"That's why I turned down this commission once before. I informed the mayor's office last month that I would not accept it, despite the pure motives of the mayor and most of his staff. I know that —"
He stopped and tilted his head. Lois thought he heard an emergency call, but instead of leaping away he scowled, then continued. "None of you can hear what is being said behind me, but the mayor's PR director has just whispered to me that I can expect to receive far less cooperation from the police department and the DA's office if I don't suddenly reverse myself and take this commission. I think you'll find that I don't respond well to threats, sir. Besides, if Metropolis doesn't really want me, there are a lot of other large cities who'd love to have super- help with their crime problems."
"Now, ladies and gentlemen, do you have any questions for me?"
No one spoke for a moment. Superman's words had stunned them all, especially Lois. He'd behaved — well, she wasn't sure what he'd done, besides disappoint her a little. She'd have expected him to ignore the implied threat and just go on.
She raised her hand to ask that very question. "Superman? Lois Lane, Daily Planet. Would you tell me why you told us what the PR director was saying to you? Was that really necessary?"
He fixed her with a glare. "Ms. Lane, I refuse to allow myself to be pushed into a situation where someone thinks he — or she — has some kind of hold over me. I do what I do because I want to help. I don't do it for personal glory or for pay. And I won't allow myself to be held accountable to one civil authority over another. I can't be limited in that fashion."
Lois nodded, and everyone around her began shouting their questions. Superman answered all that he could for almost ten minutes, then excused himself, saying that there was an emergency he had to respond to.
Lois pulled out her cell phone and called in the outline of the article, saying that she'd flesh it out when she got back to the office. As she drove, she considered how abrupt Superman had seemed, and how almost petty his behavior had been. She wondered if he was having personal problems too, like she and Clark were.
She flinched as Clark called out her name. There had been a time when she'd looked forward to hearing her name come out of his mouth, but he hadn't spoken ten words to her in the two weeks since their argument. She figured he was going to complain to her about her story on the Superman news conference.
She was right.
"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded. "You made Superman look like a spoiled brat at the news conference yesterday. Who gave you the right to judge him like that?"
She didn't back up an inch. "Perry White did."
He gritted his teeth. "I sincerely doubt that Perry assigned you to do a hit piece on Superman!"
"Perry expects me to report the news! I wrote what I saw and heard!"
He threw the newspaper onto her desk. "You saw Superman threaten the mayor's public relations director? You heard Superman kiss off the city of Metropolis? You must have been at some other news conference, Lois! I didn't see or hear any of that!"
She stepped closer to him. "Then you weren't listening or watching! Superman was upset when he first walked in and he took it out on that little weasel! Sure, the guy was out of line, talking to Superman like that, but Big Blue didn't have to embarrass the man in front of the entire press corps! He may lose his job over that little fiasco! Did you think of that? Did Superman?"
Clark froze. He stared at Lois for several seconds, apparently processing what she'd just said, then spun around and stalked away.
Lois let out a deep breath. Just great, she thought. The first time she and Clark had spoken since he'd had Perry separate them, and they did nothing but argue. This was going to be harder than she'd thought.
News Kitten to Fast Lane.
Hey howdy there, girly! We're wall-to-wall and catch you on the flip-flop! No, they don't really say stuff like that out here. They don't talk CB lingo, either, except to gullible East Coast newcomers. I can't tell you how embarrassed I was when I tried to thank the newspaper vendor in my building with a CB code. He looked at me, tried hard not to laugh, and said, "You ain't from around here, huh, lady?"
I promise, I'll get back at Les. One day when he least expects it. And he'll remember it for the rest of his life.
Hey! I saw yours and Clark's stories about Superman's news conference. Were you two at the same event? And did Supes really diss the mayor's personal munchkin like that? I wish I'd seen that!
Check your home fax machine. We have some more info on the street gangs and drugs I told you about. There's a guy here in the Ohio State Attorney General's office who's very eager to learn whatever he can about interstate drug smuggling. Seems whoever is doing this is targeting mid-sized cities in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Tennessee, and maybe more places we haven't identified yet. A little birdie actually mentioned the word Intergang, but it was just a mention, and Les thinks it might be meant to send us off on a wild turkey chase, and he might be right. He's Woody Allen without the New York baggage, but he's also pretty sharp. Yeah, he said 'wild turkey' instead of 'wild goose.' I don't know why.
You didn't mention Clark the last time you wrote. I take that to mean that there's been no progress on that front. I'm sorry about that. I hope he calms down a little bit soon. Anyway, I hope the stuff on the gangs helps. Factually yours, Catharine.
Fast Lane to News Kitten.
Cath, this is great stuff! With what you sent and what we have, we can really pull Intergang into the spotlight. I've already got Jimmy collating all the info and tracking down the loose ends. They're like roaches; they don't like being in the bright lights. But we're going to show them off big-time.
Clay tells me that the police in the field appreciate what Superman has done and continues to do for them, but the political mucky-mucks aren't as happy with him as they were a few weeks ago. I don't think Superman cares too much about them, either. He's still taking the bad guys to jail just like he did before, except he doesn't joke about it now. Some of the cops were collecting his wisecracks and passing them around, but for some reason he's not trying to be cute anymore. I think there's something going on in Superman's personal life, but I haven't been able to get close enough to him to ask him about it. I'm not even sure he'd tell me if I did ask. You should have seen the way he looked at me at the news conference. I was very, very glad I wasn't a criminal.
Clark and I yelled at each other over that story, but there was no real conversation. He was wrong, and I think he knows it, but he's still too angry with me to apologize or even admit I might be a little bit right. Surprisingly, his mother and I have gotten closer. She thinks he's being a jerk, too, but she has to love him anyway. I don't have to, but I still do. Any thoughts on what to do about that? About not loving him so much, I mean. It still hurts that we work so close together but we're so far apart.
Just so you don't chide me about it, yes, I went out with Clay again. We're just friends, and we both know that, but he's a nice guy and he, at least, doesn't run away with stupid excuses at the drop of a hat. He told me he was thinking of transferring to Narcotics, but he's changed his mind because he doesn't want to go undercover and be cut off from his friends and loved ones. I'm not sure what he meant by that. He told me he isn't seeing anyone special and hasn't been for almost a year. He broke up with his last girlfriend when she moved away to go to school.
Gotta go. Deadline in three hours, and your stuff is dynamite when we put it with our stuff. If you get anything else, just send it along. We're planning on printing it in a few weeks, if we can confirm everything we have now. You've really got a nose for this investigating-type stuff, girlfriend. Keep at it! Your name will look great on the Planet's front page right next to mine. Tap keys at you later. Love, Lois.
Lois, hold on! I know why you said that about sharing the byline, but you can't! Two reasons. First one is professional. The station doesn't mind if I do this kind of stuff in cooperation with the Attorney General's office, or something like that, but they really frown on having my name on anything attached to another news organization. It'd be like you working for the Planet and writing for the Metropolis Star or something. Second, we have absolutely zero budget for security. If Intergang saw my name and where I work on that article, we'd have no way to deflect them if they came after us. Superheroes don't live out here in the Midwest.
But thanks a lot for the offer! I know how important a byline is, and you've made my day by telling me you'd share it. Love you for it.
If I get anything else, I'll have to run it through the AG's office, but you'll get whatever they don't absolutely forbid me to pass on. In fact, there are a couple of names and dates and places on your fax machine now. I think you'll find them very interesting.
Sorry to hear about Clark. But I think your female instincts are a little dull. Clay doesn't want to lose contact with his loved ones, and he isn't dating anyone special right now? Lois, do I have to draw you a diagram? I could do one of those cable sex therapist things with the little dolls, I guess, but I didn't think you needed that kind of help.
I'm planning to be in Metropolis to cover a farming convention in about three weeks. It'd be nice if we could get together. I've missed you, lady! We need to connect again. How does Thai takeout sound? There aren't many authentic Oriental places here, except in the Vietnamese district. And I don't like to go down there. I stand out like a stripper at a convent, and all I can see is the tops of their heads.
The News Kitten thanks you, Lois. We'll talk again soon.
To the News Kitten from Fast Lane.
By no means should you put yourself in danger! I'm sorry. I guess I let my enthusiasm run ahead of my common sense. First time that's happened in, oh, about forty minutes. I think that's a new record for me.
No, you don't need to tell me about the birds and the bees. But Clay is neither avian nor winged insectoid. He is, however, an amateur biologist. He's managed to make interesting the study of things I used to consider as pests. Like Ralph.
Cath, you won't believe this, but Martha Kent is attending the conference you were talking about! She and I had already planned for her to stay with me to save on the hotel, and she wants to meet you! You two can talk farming if you want, or we can all go shopping together. For a Kansas farmer, she shops like a big city vet! The only difference is that she has money left over at the end of the day.
And Martha loves Oriental food. She says that's one of the reasons she comes to Metropolis.
You might ask why she isn't staying with Clark. I did. She made a lame excuse about him being out of town on an assignment that week. I checked with Perry. Clark isn't going out of town on Planet business, but he'd already scheduled a week of vacation. I hope this 'thing' between us isn't driving him away from his family. I'd hate to have that on my conscience, too. Oh, well, if Superman can't fix the whole world, neither can I. Later, Kitten!
Thank you so much for letting me stay with you during the convention! You are so much fun. I like hotel service, but it's just so expensive. You helped me save two or three hundred dollars on lodging. Of course, I think we spent that much while shopping.
I'm going to send a thank-you letter to Catharine. I really enjoyed meeting her, and I'm so glad you two are getting along so well. I thought you and I could shop, but Catharine outdid both of us and never had a hair out of place. How does she do that? She's much nicer than Clark had told us. Perhaps it's her new job, but she seems very responsible and level-headed, not at all as she was described to us. I hope to see her again. I'm going to invite her to spend some time at the farm, and maybe the two of you can come out together. That would be more fun than Kansas law allows!
I wish I could help you with Clark, but I'm afraid he's a little irritated with me for spending the week with you instead of with him, even though he was 'on vacation' and 'on assignment' and 'unavailable.' I'm afraid I haven't made things any easier for you. I'm so sorry.
Jonathan got irritated with me when I insisted we try out that new grain threshing technique this fall that's supposed to increase the wheat yield by eight percent or more. But last night I overheard him talking with Wayne Irig on the phone. He told Wayne that he was going to have a better wheat harvest this year than Wayne would. They even bet a barbeque dinner on it! Goodness, I hope that young woman from Illinois State knew what she was talking about, because I'll have to make all the side dishes if Jonathan loses. I'll have to let Catharine know how it goes. I'm sure she could make a good human interest story out of it.
Time to get this in the mail. We'll talk again soon.
All our love, Martha Kent.
Lois's cry echoed despite the noisy city street. Almost before she'd finished shouting, Superman whooshed down and began unpiling the mangled autos.
"Lois! What happened here?"
Lois tugged on the rear passenger door of a smashed cab. "The guy over there in the Corvette tried to pass in the intersection. He bounced off a delivery truck and hit the bus. Everything else went to pieces after that. It looked like the inside of a berserk pinball machine."
"Okay. Have you called 911 yet?"
"Before I called for you."
"Good. Watch for them and let them know I'm here. I don't want to surprise them."
"Will do." She turned back to the cab and yanked on the door again. It finally yielded to her persistence. She bent down and spoke to the passengers in the back.
"Is anybody hurt here? Anybody bleeding?" The older couple sat back against the seat, panting with adrenaline overload. "Hey! Is anybody hurt?"
The woman turned to her husband and examined his chest. "Michael, are you hurt?"
He shook his head. "No. I don't think so."
Lois gestured to them. "You need to get out of the cab if you can."
The man nodded. "Okay. Wow! That was some ride, wasn't it, Elizabeth?"
"Yes, it was most enjoyable, dear. Next time, might we go over Niagara Falls in a barrel instead?"
Lois and Michael both laughed. "Okay, folks, this way to the egress. Come on, just take my hand and we'll get you somewhere a little safer."
Michael stepped out first, then turned and helped his wife exit the cab. The driver was already arguing with another motorist. Typical Metropolis cabbie, thought Lois.
Then she turned to the couple. They were neatly but not richly dressed, and they obviously cared for each other. Lois guided them to a park bench and had them sit.
"Wait here, please. The police will probably want a statement from you."
"Why? My husband and I didn't do anything."
"No, but you were involved in the accident, and they'll want to be sure you aren't hurt. The insurance companies will need to know about you, too. Will you wait here?"
"Of course. Just a moment!"
Lois had turned away, but stopped at the woman's cry. "What?"
"What's your name, young lady?"
She smiled. "Lois Lane. I'm a reporter for the Daily Planet."
"Oh. A reporter. I see."
The breeze from Superman's arrival fluttered Lois's hair. "Lois, the paramedics aren't here yet. I could use some help."
"Of course, Superman." She turned and followed him to an overturned SUV. She looked in and saw two children in car seats, hanging upside down and crying hysterically. Superman pointed at the intact passenger window and used his heat vision to cut an opening for Lois.
"Wait a few seconds, the glass will still be hot. I can't cool it without freezing the kids."
She nodded as he zipped off to help someone else. In the four months since she and Clark had fallen out, she'd only seen Superman a few times, and on the one occasion when she had tried to interview him, he'd been terse, almost rude. She guessed that Clark had told him what had happened between them. He wasn't being rude now, but he did seem distant, even standoffish. Maybe he and Clark were closer than she'd thought.
Oh, well, she thought, it could have been worse. That one interview she'd gotten with him since the news conference was right after he'd captured a pair of kidnappers trying to snatch a child from a playground. Somehow, both of the suspects had suffered torn knee ligaments. They'd tried to run and been Super-tackled, then arrested when the uniformed officers had arrived. At least he hadn't tried to tackle Lois.
She spoke calmly to the kids and gently removed them from the SUV one at a time. The paramedics arrived to pull their mother out and got her into an ambulance as Lois sat down on the curb with the two girls. They were too scared to tell her their names, and she guessed they were about three and five years old. She comforted them as best she could for several minutes, then handed them over to another paramedic and walked back to the couple from the cab.
A police officer was just leaving as she approached them. "Hello again. How are you feeling now?"
The woman put her head on her husband's shoulder. "Very tired, but grateful to be alive. What about you?"
"Me? I'm fine. I wasn't the one who was just in a multi- car pileup."
Michael nodded. "But you helped those little girls. That was quite wonderful of you, Ms. Lane."
Lois smoothed her skirt. "Thank you, but it wasn't such a big thing."
Elizabeth pointed a finger at her. "Yes, it was a big thing. And we're proud to have been rescued by you."
Lois smiled. "All I did was open the door to your cab. Superman's been a lot busier than I have."
"But he wasn't there for us. You were. And that makes a world of difference." Elizabeth patted the end of the bench. "Please, sit down. It'll make it easier for you to interview us."
Lois sat. "But I didn't come here to interview you. I came to check on you."
Michael patted her arm. "We know. But we also know how you make your living, and any story would be good for you."
Elizabeth leaned forward. "Michael is the senior professor of journalism at Middle Illinois University."
"Oh. Oh!" Lois's eyes saucered. "Wait a minute! Are you Michael Preston? The Michael Preston?"
He smiled. "I don't know how many others there might be, but I am one of them."
"Oh! I loved your book on journalistic ethics! You took some dangerous positions, but I think you were right most of the time."
Michael and Elizabeth laughed together. "That's a better response than we got from the reviewer for the New York Standard."
Lois waved idly. "That degenerate? He wouldn't know an ethic from an epic if it bit him on the — on the nose."
They all laughed this time. Lois looked around to find Superman, but instead saw Clark striding in her direction. "Clark! Is Superman still here?"
"No, he had another appointment. What are you doing here? Are you bottom feeding on accident victims now?"
Preston's eyebrows lifted. Lois cut in before Clark could embarrass himself further. "Clark, this is Professor Michael Preston and his wife Elizabeth. They're here — say, you never did tell me why you're here."
Elizabeth touched her shoulder and worked it. "Vacation, actually. First time in the really big city. Oh, this is getting stiff."
Lois stood. "Come on. You two need to see a doctor and get checked out. Clark, I'll see you back at the Planet."
Lois led the Prestons to her Jeep and drove them to the emergency room. She stayed with them until the doctor saw them, then completed their cab ride back to their hotel. They insisted that she interview them, so she did, and they all had a fine time.
She refused to remember that Clark hadn't said anything to her after he'd insulted her. He obviously hadn't gotten past his anger yet.
When Lois came in that afternoon to finish her story on the pileup, she saw a pretty but hard-faced blonde coming out of Perry's office. Perry called her over. "Lois, this is Mayson Drake, assistant DA. She wanted to talk to you about something."
"Sure. Perry, I'll send you my interview with Michael and Elizabeth Preston when I finish my re-write." She turned to the blonde. "Call me Lois. We can chat at my desk."
Lois strode across the newsroom and dropped her purse in the desk drawer, then suddenly realized that Mayson wasn't following her. She'd moved in the opposite direction, towards the stairwell. But there was no one over there but Clark. Why was she over there?
Then she saw Mayson smiling at Clark. Ah, now she understood. Mayson smiling at Clark didn't bother her. Lots of women smiled at Clark. Regardless of the way he treated Lois, Clark was very nice to look at. She still looked, on rare occasions.
Then she saw something that chilled her liver. Clark was smiling at Mayson, and it wasn't a polite stranger-to-stranger smile. It was his more-than-a-friend smile.
Lois had seen that smile pointed at her before. No longer. As Mayson Drake made her way across the newsroom, Lois pointedly reminded herself that she'd shoved Clark away with both hands and told him to stay as far as he could from her. She'd regretted doing so every day since then, but never so much as at that moment.
Mayson sat down across from Lois and pulled a notebook out of her purse. "Lois, I need any information you might have on Intergang."
Lois leaned back in her chair. "You're not much for social niceties, are you?"
Mayson gave her a blank look and spoke in a dry monotone. "Hi, Lois. Nice to meet you. Your hair looks great. Have a nice day. What do you have on Intergang?"
Lois frowned. "What makes you think I have any usable info on Intergang?"
"The Planet published a story five days ago about Intergang using students on spring break to smuggle drugs from large East coast cities to the Midwest. It was written by Lois Lane with additional research by Jimmy Olsen. You hinted at a lot more than you wrote. I need it."
Mayson frowned in return. "Because I'm with the DA's office and we prosecute criminals, that's why. Is the concept unclear to you?"
Lois sat back. "I don't have much more than I already wrote. What little I have is just speculation and rumors. I haven't been able to verify any of them yet. I don't even know how valid it is. A bunch of it is probably less than useless."
"Less than useless? How can that be?"
"Finding out what's useless would take time away from researching valid leads. I can't spend all my time chasing will- o-the-wisps any more than you can."
"Maybe I've got better contacts."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
Mayson's face went cold, and Lois remembered Catharine's description of her: hard as nails and tougher than a Burger Whiz special. Lois thought about adding 'sharp as a barracuda's tooth' to the litany.
Mayson's mouth barely moved. "If you're accusing me of being on Intergang's payroll, you can think again! I want those slimeballs and I won't let anyone stand in my way, not you or Superman or anyone else!"
"Superman?" Lois was confused by the change of subject. "What's he got to do with this case?"
"I want these guys arrested and convicted by a court of law, not hauled into the limelight by an overgrown Boy Scout with an enlarged sense of justice! I want them behind bars and I don't care how they get there as long as it's legal!"
Lois raised her hands in surrender. "Okay, calm down! Don't shoot your bra across the room." She leaned forward. "Look, if I find out that any of my info is legit, I'll send it your way. Should I call you or e-mail you?"
Mayson stood. "Just give it to Clark."
Lois's eyebrows levitated. "Give it to Clark? Why?"
Mayson's eyes bored through Lois's skull. "We're dating. He can get in touch with me any time, night or day."
"I see. Okay, if I find out anything, I'll give it to Clark."
"Good." Mayson whirled around to leave.
"Nice meeting you, Mayson."
"Shove it up your word processor, Lois."
Lois sat back and smiled ruefully. She had to hand it to herself. She could irritate almost anyone, any time, anywhere, all without half trying.
She touched her mouse to erase her screen saver, but before she clicked on the inter-office mail icon she realized that someone was standing beside her desk. She looked up and received a mild shock.
It was Clark. In all the time since he'd had Perry move them apart, he hadn't even let on that he knew where her desk was. Lois knew his being there at this time wasn't a good thing, but she'd let Mayson aggravate her too much to be polite to him.
He was frowning at her, of course. "Lois, what did you say to Mayson to upset her so?"
She leaned back in her chair. "That didn't involve you, just Mayson and me. You don't keep me informed on your life, hayseed, I don't keep you up to date on mine. That's the deal you decided you wanted, remember?"
"But — but Mayson and I have — have a personal relationship. One that goes beyond just business."
"Oh, really? I remember something like that. With you, in fact. I can't wait to see what happens when she does something you think you can't forgive. Don't forget, Clark, she's probably armed, and I'll bet she's a dead shot."
Clark slammed his hand down on her desk. The concussion echoed around the newsroom and attracted everyone's attention, but neither Clark nor Lois noticed.
"Lois, you leave her alone! Don't mess with her. She'll crush you like a grape."
Lois stood slowly. "This reporter doesn't crush so easily. And I don't respond well to threats from anybody, you included!"
He moved closer. "This isn't a threat, it's a warning."
Lois shouted up into his face. "Don't do me any favors!"
"This isn't for your benefit, I promise!"
"Oh, goody, a promise! How long is this one good for? Does it have a money-back guarantee?"
Clark shouted incoherently. "Arrgh!" Then he grabbed her desk by the edge and flipped it completely over. It crashed to the floor, top down, and everything on Lois's desk was scattered around the area, including her monitor and keyboard. Everyone not dodging debris from the desk stopped dead in their tracks and stared. Clark stood staring at Lois, panting with rage. Lois stood to one side, frightened to silence by his uncharacteristic display of temper.
Perry popped out of his office and looked at the mess. "Judas Priest! Clark, get your butt in here right now! Jimmy! Call housekeeping and have them set this to rights! Lois! Get your coat and take a walk! Be back here in forty minutes! The rest of you get back to work! This isn't a circus!"
Lois shook her head to clear it. Clark's outburst had shocked her. She'd known he was still angry with her, but she'd had no idea that he'd been that close to losing control. She knelt down to get her coat, but it was caught under the edge of the desk. She couldn't lift it alone.
"Ralph? Hey, Ralph! You and Jimmy come here for a minute and help me."
"Sure, babe. What can I do —"
Lois stopped him with a laser-intensity glare. "Don't. Call. Me. Babe."
He stopped and shielded himself from her with his hands. "Okay, okay." As he bent to pick up the desk, he muttered, "Sheesh, Kent's pretty strong. This thing is heavier than I thought. Didn't know he had it in him. Say when, Olsen."
Jimmy didn't respond. He just helped Ralph lift up the edge of the desk and then went back to his own work. Lois decided to have a talk with him, later, after Perry finished ripping her up one side and down the other. She put on her coat and knelt beside the overturned desk to retrieve her purse.
She noticed four parallel indentations under the edge of the desk. She frowned, wondering what they might be, then on impulse put her fingers in them. They almost fit. In fact, they felt like -
They felt like the impression of human fingers.
But that wasn't possible. No one was that strong except -
Clark wasn't strong enough to -
Unless Clark wasn't just Clark. Unless he was also -
The conclusion that she drew was impossible, but how else did the desk get dented like that? It was the same one she'd had for years. She knew every nick, scratch, cut, and dent in it. These were so new, they almost felt warm.
No normal human, no matter how strong, could impress his fingers into a steel desk. Only Superman could do that.
Clark had grabbed the desk by the edge, the same edge that Lois was now examining.
The logical, inescapable conclusion was that Clark Kent and Superman were the same person.
She stood quickly and walked out. She had to think about this, try to poke holes in her deduction, try to disprove it. It couldn't be! Clark couldn't be Superman! Superman couldn't be Clark! She'd have known it!
Or maybe not. If Superman and Clark really were the same person, he wouldn't have wanted anyone to know, not unless he trusted that person with his life. Maybe that was part of what had made Clark so mad in the first place. After she'd turned Clark down, Superman had told her that he didn't believe her declaration that she'd love him even without his powers. She'd left him to marry Lex, even though she hadn't gone through with it. And then she'd exploded at Clark when he'd tried to back off but still maintain a relationship with her. He'd wanted to share the secret with her, but she'd simply blown him off.
No wonder the guy was so uptight. It was a wonder that he wasn't a certified manic-depressive schizophrenic.
And all the stupid, moronic excuses for all his sudden departures now made sense. Clark would leave to return a video or check his mail or go see his dentist, and then Superman would show up. And Superman's attitude towards had her mirrored Clark's attitude so often. It all fit together. Both of them had arrived in Metropolis at about the same time, too. The more she went over the evidence, the more she believed it. It might have been circumstantial, but she'd bulled ahead on stories with much less.
She hoped she was wrong, but she feared she wasn't. And she had to be sure, one way or the other.
She sat on the bench across from the Planet's main entrance until she saw Clark turn for home. He leaned into the wind and strode purposefully onward, never looking across the street. He would have seen Lois studying him like a herpetologist might warily observe a particularly deadly poisonous snake. After he passed out of sight, she crossed the street and took the elevator up to the news floor.
When she got to Perry's office, he was sitting on the front of his desk with his arms crossed. He waved her to a chair and closed the door behind her.
"Lois, honey, I can't let this go on. This problem between you and Clark is affecting the whole staff. I've had comments from every reporter on the floor. I've had calls from all the bosses. Mr. Stern himself called me while Clark was in here. This has to stop and it has to stop now. No matter what it takes."
Lois nodded. "I know, Perry. I know it's a big problem, and it's not just Clark's fault. I just don't understand why he and I can't discuss it without going completely insane."
"Because it's personal. Because he thinks you betrayed him."
"You mean — you mean he told you about it? Clark told you that?"
"Not in so many words, Lois, but I didn't get to be editor because I can whistle Dixie. Something happened that drove a wedge between the two of you, and neither of you can back away far enough and long enough to see how to pull the wedge out and fix the split. Doesn't mean it's your fault, or Clark's fault, it just is." He patted her on the shoulder. "Clark volunteered for overseas duty to keep the two of you from each other's throats. He knows he's partly to blame for this situation."
Lois stood up and paced. "He would volunteer to do the 'noble' thing. It might even be good for him. But I don't think so, Perry. I'll leave."
"Whoa! Nobody's being asked to leave, Lois! The Planet doesn't want to lose either of you. Heck, I don't want to lose either of you! We can work something out!" He brightened for a moment. "Hey! Lois? Do you want the overseas assignment?"
She shook her head sadly. "I'm sorry, Perry, thank you, but no. This has been building for a long time. One of us has to go. I got an offer from the New York Standard last week. They want me to run their Metropolis bureau. I told them I'd think about it and get back to them. I was going to turn it down, but I've decided to take it. If you want written notice, I can turn it in tomorrow."
Perry crossed his arms and looked directly into her eyes. "Honey, are you sure that's the way you want it?"
Tears glistened at the corners of her eyes. "No, it's not the way I want it, but it's the way it has to be."
Lois almost knocked on Clark's door, then almost moved away, then raised her hand again. Then she hesitated again. She paced, started to leave, then came back yet again. Finally she told herself that she had to be sure. She had to know beyond any reasonable doubt. Before she finally could knock, however, Clark yanked the door open. "Have you come to gloat?"
"How did you know I was out here?"
"You've been marching up and down the steps for almost ten minutes. Those heels hitting concrete sound like pistol shots. I was hoping you'd just go away."
She forced herself to be calm. That was actually a reasonable answer, and not more super-evidence. "May I come in?"
He hesitated, and she thought he would refuse, but then he stepped back. She walked in and looked around. He'd been busy. In fact, he was almost completely packed. Two hours wasn't enough time to accomplish all this unless he really was -
She refused to think it. Instead, she looked back at Clark, still standing beside the door. She turned and faced him. "I'm leaving the Planet, Clark."
"Uh-huh. Taking the next Mars shuttle?"
Calm, she told herself, be calm. If he really is Superman, and you push him into losing control again, he might accidentally kill you.
"No. I've accepted another offer."
He looked like he wanted to snap at her again, but he refrained. "Okay. Where?"
"New York Standard, Metropolis bureau."
He nodded. "Still in the city, but away from me." He shrugged. "I suppose that's far enough."
She closed her eyes and counted to ten, then opened them slowly. "Clark, you need to check my desk very carefully."
"More story notes? An Intergang investigation? Bribery in the dog pound?"
"No. Finger marks in the edge of the desk."
"What? What do you — " and she saw the light go on over his head.
"Yep. You squeezed too hard when you flipped my desk over. I didn't see one, but there may be a thumb dent on the desk top, too."
He waved his hands. "Lois, there are lots of explanations for what you think you saw."
"There's only one explanation that fits the facts, Clark. And it's a super one."
She expected him to deny it again, but he didn't. That locked it down.
Superman's secret identity was Clark Kent.
And he hated her so much he couldn't be in the same room with her.
He crossed his arms and stood there with his shoulders back, staring at her. She shook her head. "Don't stand like that, not when you're wearing civilian clothes. Someone else might make the connection."
"Right. Like that's going to matter after you print the story."
"You idiot! I'm not running this story! Not at the Planet or at the Standard! Don't you understand? Metropolis needs Superman! The world needs Superman! So you need to stay here and you need to keep your secret! I'm leaving so you don't have to go!"
"Oh." She watched him process the data and come up with the wrong answer. "I see. So, you're here to let me know how noble you are, right? Or are you going to pressure me to give more Super-stories to the Standard than to the Planet?"
Lois sighed. "I was wrong, Clark. You're not an idiot, you're a brain-dead super-moron." She walked towards the door. "I'm sorry I wasted your time and mine. Try not to generate a tornado when you unpack. I hope you and Mayson have a good life together."
She slammed the door on her way out, but not before she heard him say, "Lois, wait!" She ignored him, even when he opened the door and stepped onto the landing. If he had called out to her again, she'd have stopped. At least, that's what she told herself as she cried herself to sleep that night.
Lois arrived at eight o'clock the next morning, as usual, and went to her desk, which was now upright and covered with loose papers. As unobtrusively as she could, she checked the edge that Clark had gripped. It was smooth, both above and below. No more proof, at least to anyone else. The fact that the finger impressions were gone was yet more proof to Lois that she was right.
She started the inventory of her notes so she could turn them over to another reporter, probably Clark. She grudgingly admitted that he could write well, and could assemble a story as well as she could. She hoped Perry would cut him some slack in his personal life, at least during Superman-type emergencies.
Just before lunch, Clark slowly walked to her desk. She glanced at him, then resumed working.
He stopped beside the desk. "Hello, Lois."
She didn't look at him. "Morning, Clark. Sleep well?"
"Oh? I'm not surprised."
She kept on working for another minute, but he didn't go away. Finally she looked up at him. "What?"
He looked agitated, as usual, but for a change his anxiety wasn't directed at her. "We need to talk."
"It's a little late for that, Clark."
"No, I — I need to apologize for yesterday."
"Oh, I think you need to apologize for a whole lot more than that."
"I won't deny that." He glanced around and lowered his voice. "Lois, I need to know that you won't — you won't use what you learned last night."
She fought her temper down. "If I haven't used it yet, Clark, I'm not likely to use it in the future." She turned back to her computer. "I've got to finish this. Perry will want to assign these items to someone else."
"He already has."
She looked up again. "Oh. Is that why you're over here now?"
"Yes. That, and the — other thing."
"Okay, Clark, I'll send you all the story notes I have and all the sources that I've used on them. As for the 'other thing,' as you call it, you're just going to have to trust me."
He sat on the edge of the desk and gritted his teeth at her. "That's just it. I don't trust you."
She barely reined in her temper. "You know something, farmboy? You really don't have much of a choice."
She turned back to her computer. He sat there for a few seconds, then walked stiffly back across the room. Lois almost called out to him. Then the elevator doors opened and Mayson walked out. Her face softened as she walked to Clark, and she put her hand on his shoulder as she commiserated with him about his horrible ex-partner. Lois wondered what Mayson, given her anti-Superman bias, would do if Lois pulled Clark's shirt off to reveal Superman's costume underneath.
Lois snorted at herself. With her luck, Clark would have sent it out to be cleaned, and she'd look even stupider than she felt.
"Jimmy, I'm leaving for lunch. You busy?"
He looked up at her, then glanced in Clark's direction. "Uh, actually, I am, Lois. Sorry. Maybe next time?"
She frowned at him. "Jimmy, he won't eat you. Just because I'm leaving doesn't mean we can't still be friends."
He sat for a moment, then nodded. "You're right. Let me tell the chief what I'm doing and I'll meet you in the lobby." He stood and grabbed his jacket. "We're going Dutch, right?"
She grinned a little. "You'd better not expect me to feed you! I've seen you eat!"
He smiled back. "Three minutes, tops. See ya!"
They met in the lobby, bantered about where to go, and settled on a new pizza place around the corner that also served spaghetti and garlic bread. Between slurps, Jimmy kept up a long-winded monologue on his latest girlfriend and whether or not she was 'the one' for him. He wound down about the time Lois polished off her last meatball.
"Lois, this was a great idea! I wasn't too thrilled at first, but it's been fun."
She wiped the tomato sauce from her lip with her napkin. "I'm glad we came, too. I was beginning to think that Clark had forbidden you to talk to me."
Jimmy scowled. "Naw! We work well together, kinda like you and I do, but he doesn't run my life. He's not real crazy about you, but he hasn't said anything real bad about you lately. At least, not to me."
Lois frowned. "You mean he was running me down before?"
He made a 'T' with his hands. "Time out! The day you guys got your desks moved, I asked him what was going on, and he said, 'Jimmy, don't trust a woman. She'll stomp your heart into the ground and laugh about it.' That was the last time I can remember that he referred to you at all. He never told me what happened, but I know he's still mad about it."
"Do you think it's my fault?"
He shrugged. "Maybe the original problem was mostly your fault, and that's just a maybe, 'cause I really don't know. Even if it was, CK hasn't tried to mend any fences with you, and I don't think he's let you try, either. The way I see it, it's mostly his fault the thing — whatever the 'thing' is — hasn't been fixed."
She nodded and leaned back. "Knowing that, or at least believing it, can you keep working with him?"
"Sure. He's very good at what he does, just like you are, and I learn something every time I team up with either of you. Of course," he continued as he played with his leftover pepperoni slices, "since you're leaving, that kinda cuts my opportunities to learn by half."
She grinned. "I hope you're not angling for a job offer, because I don't know how much hire-and-fire authority I'm going to have. Hey, did Perry announce where I was going?"
"No. He only told me because I asked him nice, and I caught him in the right mood. He said he'd hoped you'd take over as editor for him one day, but that this was a great chance for you to be the headliner." He pushed a stack of meat slices into his mouth. "That's not a newspaper term, at least as far as I know, but it sounds good."
"Well, keep your nose clean, and try not to yell for Superman too often."
When they returned from lunch, Clark immediately pulled Jimmy aside to do some background research on a story. Lois wandered to Perry's office and knocked on the door.
He looked up and smiled. "Come on in, Lois. Make yourself at work."
She smiled back and closed the door. "You don't seem to be mourning the loss of your top reporter. You sure you remember what I said last night?"
He waved at her. "Oh, sit down. I'm glad you're here. I have something I want to tell you."
She sat. "Okay, I'm all ears."
He clasped his hands and leaned forward. "I want you to keep this under your hat, 'cause it might not happen. Okay?" She nodded, intrigued. "I didn't tell you this last night because I wasn't sure I should, but now I am. I had lunch with Franklin Stern day before yesterday, and he told me that the business leaders of the city have decided they need someone else in Washington besides the chuckleheads they have now. I thought Stern was going to suggest a new editorial policy or ask me to support a new slate of candidates, but instead he suggested that I run for the U.S. Senate!"
Lois was dumbfounded. "Perry! They want you to be a Senator?"
He nodded. "Alice and I have talked about it, but neither of us is sure yet. Besides, the party primary isn't for almost two more years. We've got time. And Alice thinks she'll have me home more often than she does now!"
Lois laughed. "You know, she might be right! I don't know of many Senators who work as many hours as you do. Why, it'd be like going to part-time status!"
This time Perry laughed with her. "Might be at that. Anyway, the reason I'm telling you this now is that, if I do this, the Planet will need a new managing editor. Now, understand me here, I'm not making any promises and I'm not asking for any, but if things fall the right way you could walk back in here in a little over a year and take over my desk. What do you think of that?"
Lois's mouth fell open. "Me? Editor of the Planet? Perry, there's never been a woman editor here! How do you think the powers-that-be would react to that?"
He leaned back and furrowed his brow. "I'd make it a condition that if I run, they'll offer you the job. And I don't want you to take it just because it's the Daily Planet, a newspaper with a glorious history that's been in continuous existence —"
Lois finished with him. " — for over two hundred years!" They laughed together again. "Perry, this is — well, it's a little overwhelming! Just two little speed bumps that I can see."
"Well, Clark's one, I'd guess. What's the other one?"
"What about all the folks out there who might like this desk? Maybe you have a budding editor out there who'll be ready in a year or so."
He shook his head. "No. Clark could do it, but he wouldn't be happy. He'd get distracted with people issues and soft-soap everything. Besides him, do you know of anyone out there who's tough enough and determined enough to do this job?"
Lois looked through the glass in the door. Her gaze lit on every person in her line of sight, and she eventually nodded. "You're right, Perry. Either they won't ready to do it by that time, or they'll never be ready." She made a sour face. "Eww. Can you imagine Ralph behind that desk?"
Perry sat up straight. "Lois, please! I just had lunch!"
She grinned. "Serves you right for dangling that kind of bait in front of me, you rat!"
"Speaking of rats, the Employee Relations Specialists want to see you. Something about your accumulated vacation and an exit interview." He sighed. "I never thought I'd ever say 'exit interview' to you. Shucks, I figured this place was in your blood."
She stood and patted his arm. "It is, Perry. I love this place so much that I'll leave rather than let be torn apart by a personal matter. I have to call my new boss and then I'll head downstairs." She chuckled ruefully. "First time in a long time anyone's interviewed me. I probably won't know how to act."
Lois went home early that day. The exit interview had bored her, and the interviewer was less than enthusiastic himself. She signed all the papers they had pushed in her direction and made the appropriate noises at the appropriate times. She wondered if all exit interviews were that uneventful.
There was one more chore she had to take care of. She dialed the Kent's number in Smallville and waited. She didn't particularly want to talk to Martha or Jonathan, but she didn't see that she had much choice.
Jonathan answered on the second ring. "Hello!"
Lois started. He was far more abrupt than she'd ever heard. His normally jolly voice was pierced with resentment. Lois hoped he wasn't angry with her.
"Um, Jonathan? This is Lois Lane. Is this a bad time?"
"Oh! Lois, I'm sorry! I thought it was Clark calling back."
Her mouth hung open for a moment. She never dreamed that Clark might have unresolved difficulties with his parents. That was her gig, not his.
"No. No, I called because — because I need to tell you something very important."
"Hold on." He called to his wife. "Martha? Lois is on the phone. She needs to talk to us. Something important and that's all I know so far."
They waited until Martha picked up the cordless extension. "Lois, hi! Thanks for calling. We really appreciated it. We want to apologize for Clark. I'm so sorry you're leaving the Planet because of him! If I thought I could smack some sense into that boy's head, I'd be on a plane to Metropolis tonight!"
Lois smiled. "Thank you, both of you. I really called to reassure you."
Jonathan sounded puzzled. "Reassure us, Lois? About what?"
She paused. She didn't want to say anything about Clark being Superman over the phone. Maybe it was paranoia, but she just didn't quite trust a secret of this magnitude to an open phone line. So she tried to say it without saying it.
"You know. That super-secret that I found out about."
Lois listened to two people breathing very carefully. Jonathan was the first to speak. "Ah, Lois, I'm not sure I understand what you're saying. Could you be a little more specific?"
"Well, I thought you knew that I knew. I mean, you just spoke with Clark, didn't you?"
Martha chimed in. "Honey, all he really told us was that you were leaving the Planet. I'm afraid I got angry with him at that point, and the discussion just went downhill from there."
"We were upset that he caused you to lose your job, Lois. That's all we know, honest."
"Oh. Well, I kind of accidentally found out something about Clark that explains a whole lot. In fact, I really think this secret — " she emphasized the next word " — suits him to an 'S' instead of a 'T'."
Now they were even quieter. Lois heard what sounded like one of them walking from one room to the next. Then Martha spoke again. "Lois, honey, I think I understand what you're telling us, but we want to be absolutely certain that we're not missing your point. Would you, just this one time, say exactly what you mean?"
They knew that she knew. They were just hoping against hope. "Jonathan, Martha, I know that Clark was adopted. I know he had a loving home while growing up and that he has wonderful parents who love him very much. I also know that he's more than just a reporter for the Daily Planet. He has a night job that takes him up, up, and away to fight crime and protect the innocent. I also know that you made his uniform, and that I was the one who gave him the name of Superman."
She waited for a moment. She heard a pair of deep sighs, and before they could respond, she continued, "And I really called tonight to make sure that you two know that no one will ever learn this secret from me. I don't understand all that's involved in this, but I know if I let it out that Clark's private life will be destroyed. I might also put the two of you in danger, and it would almost kill me to do that. I love both of you as if you were my own parents. In fact, you've been better parents to me since we met than mine were when I was growing up."
Jonathan cleared his throat. "Lois, that's — that's one of nicest things anyone has ever said to us. Thank you for your kindness. And thank you for thinking well enough of us to call us yourself. I'm sure Clark would have told us eventually, but this way we can tell him we already knew."
Martha chuckled. "That'll be unusual, us knowing something about Clark's life that he doesn't."
Lois smiled. "That should make him think. Uh, may I ask you a personal question now?"
"Lois, you don't need permission for that! Jonathan and I have no more secrets from you."
"Thank you. I was just curious what Clark has told you about Mayson."
"Mayson. Mayson Drake, assistant district attorney."
"Oh, her. Clark told his mother that he's working with her on some cases. Why?"
"Um, I was just wondering if you knew how long he's been dating her."
This time the silence was deafening. Martha finally squeaked, "Dating? He's dating this woman?"
"Uh. Yes. I'm sorry if I've spilled the beans. I guess Clark wanted it to be a surprise."
"Well, it sure is a surprise," Jonathan said. "How long have you known, Lois?"
"Since yesterday. She came to the Planet and that's where I met her."
"I see. Lois, this may be nothing, but was it Clark or Mayson who first told you they were dating?"
"Hmm. I think, yes, it was definitely Mayson. In fact, Clark acted almost embarrassed about admitting it in front of me. Why, Jonathan, is that important?"
"Might be, might not be. Anyway, now we can surprise him with two facts next time he visits."
"And don't worry, honey, we won't tell him you told us."
Lois grinned. "Martha, there aren't many candidates for that particular honor, so he should be able to figure it out pretty quickly." She glanced at her watch. "I'd better let you go. I might say something else that will shock you."
Jonathan chuckled. "That's right, feel sorry for us old folks. We can't take too many surprises at once. We could end up with brain overload or something."
"Good night, dear. And thanks for calling. Come and see us again soon, okay?"
Lois chuckled. "I'll do my best, Martha. You and Jonathan sleep well. And try not to give Clark too rough a time when he comes home."
Two mornings later, Lois stood in the work area of her new job. Her title was Managing Editor, Metropolis Bureau, and a workman was repainting the door as she stood there, surveying the scene. She was glad to see that her office had lots of glass, like Perry's did. She didn't want to be cut off from the reporters, either literally or symbolically. Although she wasn't altogether pleased by the low-walled cubicles she saw. It made her think of cyborgs in recharging slots, ready to perform on command.
She nodded her thanks to the girl who'd guided her there, and the girl ran off to do something else related to her intern status. Lois decided to let everyone know she was there.
She clapped her hands sharply three times. When everyone in the news area was looking at her, she motioned for them to come towards her.
"Everybody take three minutes and come say 'hi' to me. I promise I won't fire anyone today."
Almost a dozen people gathered around her. Some of them smiled nervously, while others just stared impassively. She put her hands in her coat pockets to keep them from waving around too much.
"Most of you already know who I am, but just to be sure, my name is Lois Lane. I'm going to be taking over as managing editor a week from Monday. We'll have an official staff meeting that morning, along with some individual meetings as needed, but I thought I'd give you the chance to see me in the flesh before I take over the helm."
She walked around the area slowly and looked at each of them in turn. "I don't plan any major changes right now. I don't believe in change for the sake of change. If something works, keep it. If not, fix it. And I don't care who gets the credit. You do a good job, your names will go up with what you write. You don't do a good job, nothing you write gets past me. And I've learned from the best, so don't try to snow me. I guarantee you that it won't work.
"Whatever you have going that's good, keep at it. Maximize your time and your contacts. I know you already know this stuff, but I'm told that this bureau has a couple of significant problems and we're going to work together to fix them. I'm not here officially today, but if you have any questions, now is as good a time as any."
An older woman reluctantly lifted her hand. "Ms. Lane, there are several of us who've been with the Standard for quite a while. Do you plan to bring in a lot of new faces?"
Lois smiled at her. "Not unless I need to. Do I need to?"
The woman shifted uncomfortably. "Well, I can certainly understand that you'd want to work with people with whom you are most comfortable."
"Unless you're planning to make trouble for me, I don't see any reason to change your status with the paper. If you're concerned about pay rates and promotions, that's reasonable, and all I can tell is that I don't have enough data to make any decisions yet. Your raises, promotions, and periodic evaluations will depend on how well you do your jobs, not how well you get along with me."
One bored-looking man raised his hand. "This all sounds great, but we're heard this kind of hot air before. How do we know you'll follow through with what you're saying? How do we know you're not just blowing it out of your pantyhose?"
Some of the others flinched, obviously expecting Lois to explode, but she fooled them by staying calm. "You don't, any more than I know you're a good writer instead of a hack from Nowheresville. What's your name?"
"Ron Dombrowski. And please don't call me Dumbo."
She grinned. "Deal. Ron, I don't expect you to kiss up to me. In fact, if you try, you'll regret it. All I expect from any of you is honest effort and a commitment to quality news. I'll find out for myself anyway, but one of the problems here is supposed to be a lack of teamwork. Either you're all a bunch of selfish children, or you weren't taught teamwork. I suspect the problem is a little of both, and I'll probably get a memo on what I just said from the head office. I don't care because I'm not here just to make a name for myself. I plan to help you make this office the envy of the entire organization, but I can't do it alone. You'll either help the rest of us achieve that goal or you'll be gone. And you can pass that on to the ones who aren't here. Any more questions?"
No one else dared to speak. "Good. I'll see all of you, I hope, a week from Monday. Including you, Ron Dombrowski."
He gave her a half-hearted salute and turned back to his terminal. Lois took a last look around and left to finish the day at the Planet. No one looked in her direction, but all of them watched her go.
Lois stopped at Mike's for dinner. Her uncle wasn't there, but his staff made her meal a treat. She was almost ready to order dessert when a shadow fell over the table.
She lurched around. Mayson Drake was standing in the light, staring at Lois. Without moving her lips, she said, "Mind if I sit down?"
Lois nodded. Mayson pulled out a chair.
"I was just about to order dessert. Would you like a piece of pie?"
Lois expected Mayson to refuse, but she looked at Lois's plate and asked, "Apple or peach?"
"Uh. Both, I think, plus cherry cheesecake. Get whichever you want. I'll have them put it on my tab."
Mayson nodded briefly. "Thanks."
They both ordered peach pie. As Lois scooped up the last of the crust, she noticed that Mayson had already finished hers. "My uncle serves good pie."
Lois looked at Mayson, puzzled. "Is there something I can do for you?"
Mayson sighed. "I want to ask you about Intergang again."
Lois shook her head. "Now wait a minute! I already told you —"
Mayson stood. "I need to visit the ladies' room. I'll be right back."
Her ploy was transparent. Lois had done the same thing at times. You ask the person a question they don't want to answer, then make an excuse to leave for a minute or two and let the victim think about it. When you come back, sometimes they'll be ready to talk.
Lois glanced at Mayson's purse, then looked closer. Her pager was blinking. It looked like one of the expensive ones, with internal memory and a log of -
Internal memory. And a log of calls received.
Lois knew she was in trouble even before she reached out and lifted the pager out of Mayson's purse. She slipped it into an inside pocket and hoped it wouldn't buzz or beep or ring before she could get out of there. If Mayson was working with Intergang, there might be a number on the pager she could track back to them. Then she could confront Clark with evidence that his girlfriend was as crooked as a -
As crooked as a reporter who stole a DA's pager.
The whole internal argument took only a moment. Oddly, the mental image she had of the part of her saying this was a bad idea looked like Michael Preston, and the part saying this was okay looked like the woman she'd seen in the mirror that very morning. She insisted to herself that she'd return the pager, just as soon as she proved to her satisfaction that Drake wasn't working with Intergang. Lois briefly considered taking the cell phone, too, but that was too obvious. She signaled for the waiter and told him to put the meal on her tab, including Mayson's pie. He nodded and left.
Mayson finally came back. "Do you have anything else on Intergang, Lois?"
Lois shook her head. "Not since we last spoke, no."
"You sure? Would you even tell me if you did?"
Lois leaned back in her chair. "I don't know. I think there's a leak somewhere in the DA's office, and I don't have any specific reason to suspect you, but I also don't have any reason to think you're not the leak."
"Clark can vouch for me."
"Clark can be a bit naive at times, and I don't know that he'd be able to tell if you were lying to him."
She expected Mayson to react angrily, but she didn't. "No. He'd know. He's transparent, sure, and he doesn't always see the grays between the black and white of his worldview, but he'd know if I were lying to him."
Lois nodded slowly, impressed that Mayson knew Clark so well. "Maybe he would at that. How did you meet him, anyway?"
"He was at a press conference about three months ago, when the mayor announced that audit of the city refuse department. He and I had lunch over an interview, and, well, I kind of asked him out. He looked a little lonely."
"Uh-huh. Just a sweet little lambsie-wambsie."
Mayson's eyes narrowed. "Look, I don't know what happened between you two, but I want you to back off. You want to trash him, at least be honest enough to do it to him, not to me, because I won't stand for it."
Lois bit back a sharp retort and thought for a few moments. "You're right. I'm sorry. Whatever happened between Clark and me is history and I shouldn't take it out on you. I won't insult him to you any more."
Mayson looked surprised, but sat back, apparently mollified. "Good. I have to go. I only came in because I happened to see you here. I won't bother you again on your personal time. I'll see you the next time I'm at the Planet." Mayson's chair scraped back.
"You'd better make it quick."
"I won't be there after next week. I'm taking over the Metropolis bureau of the New York Standard. You can call me there if you want."
"I see. What about your current assignments?"
Lois shrugged. "See Perry White. He'll make those calls. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to leave too."
Lois came in the next morning and tapped Jimmy on the shoulder. "Jim, you have time to run down a list of phone numbers for me?"
"How soon do you need them?"
"Today. Before lunch if possible."
"Whoa! I'm stacked up with stuff for CK and Valerie and Perry. I couldn't get to it before tomorrow afternoon at the earliest."
She frowned. "Who else can do this?"
"Is it Planet business?"
"Of course it is! I'm investigating a possible link to Intergang."
He screwed his face up in thought. "I'll call Gina. She's a new intern and she's good. Give me the list and she'll get it back to you today for sure."
He looked at the list. "Uh-uh. Can't promise that. You've got close to forty different numbers here. Some of them might be unlisted, and that takes time."
She sighed. "Okay. Have Gina do the best she can. I'll be in and out, so have her e-mail me as soon as she's finished. I need names and locations wherever possible. Got it?"
Jimmy called to her as she strode away. "Got it, Lois."
She got to her desk and checked her e-mail, all work- related. As she leafed through them, she began to feel the effects of what Perry had called "short-timer's syndrome." She was still there, still working, still doing what was expected of her, but the sense of accomplishment and the thrill of the chase were lacking, plus she was no longer building towards her future. Whatever she did for the next few days would have to be wrapped up quickly or passed on to other reporters. She hated for anyone to edit her work.
Perry popped out of his office and motioned for her to come in. She was too far away now for him to yell without disturbing almost the entire place.
He motioned for her to close the door. "What is it?"
He gestured with his hands. "We have a tip about someone inside the DA's office who's feeding info to Intergang."
Lois was suddenly energized. "How solid is it?"
"You remember the former assistant district attorney who's now doing ten to twenty in New Troy prison?"
"He wants to make a deal and he's ready to talk. I want you there as soon as you can gather your stuff. I want names, places, amounts, contacts, phone numbers, whatever you can get! This thing just might blow wide open sooner than we thought."
"Right." She stopped abruptly. "Perry, who else knows about this? Where did this tip come from?"
"Clark told me."
"Why isn't he covering it?"
Perry shrugged. "He said something about being late for an appointment."
"Oh." Lois understood; it was a job for Superman. "How did he get it?"
"He said Mayson Drake told him. She's headed up there now."
Lois's mouth dropped open. "Oh, no! Perry, there's a chance that she's the leak! I've got to get up there right now!"
Lois sprinted through the hallway to the sign-in desk at the prison visitor's room. She skidded to a halt before she ran into Mayson, who had just put down the pen.
"Slow down, Lois. You missed the ladies' room. It's back that way."
"I'm here — whew! — to interview your predecessor. I heard he's ready to talk."
"Yeah. Why isn't Clark here?"
"How should I know? He told Perry about this and Perry asked me to take it. I don't know what Clark's doing."
Mayson nodded slowly. "Okay. Come on, we can see him together. It's barely possible that you'll think of something I missed. Wait, you have to sign in."
As Lois picked up the pen, the phone rang at the desk. The officer answered, listened, then nodded and hung up. "Ms. Drake? You might as well save yourself a trip. The prisoner you wanted to see is dead."
"That was the prison doctor. They guy got knifed in the exercise yard about half an hour ago. He just died. Doc said he couldn't do anything to help him."
Mayson stomped back to the desk. "Gimme that phone!" She dialed a number and began shouting. "Bobby? This is Mayson. Fletcher's dead. As in hammer, mackerel, Methuselah, a rock, all that. Yeah, he was stabbed. Bobby, I want an autopsy and I want it started ten minutes ago. Yes! I know! I don't care! And I want the guy who stabbed him put in solitary fifteen minutes ago! Because you calling from the office can get things done quicker than I can from here! No, I'll come on back."
She slammed the phone down and muttered some extremely rude words. Lois was impressed with her vocabulary; she'd never heard some of those particular combinations before.
Mayson turned to Lois. "Well, whatever he knew is gone now. Unless you know a good psychic?"
Lois shook her head. "Sorry, no."
"Nuts. I've got to go back and deal with the aftermath. You need a ride?"
"Got my Jeep."
"Okay. I'll get them next time."
Mayson marched down the hallway, slicing the air with her determined chin. Lois, meanwhile, was having second thoughts. Unless Mayson was an Oscar-caliber actress, there was no way she was the leak. Lois felt guilty again. The ethical Michael Preston part of her was berating her once again for stealing the pager. This time, however, the other part of her, the part that was so good at rationalization, was silent.
I've really gone and done it this time, she thought. Jail was a real possibility. Her new job might be in jeopardy, too. She just couldn't seem to stay on top of her life.
Jimmy grabbed Lois as soon as she came through the door to the newsroom. "Lois, we have a real problem."
"What? What's wrong?"
He pulled her off to one side. "You remember that — list you asked me to check out?"
"Jim, I have a feeling I'm not gonna like the next thing you say."
He blew air past his lips. "Trust your feelings on this one. Those numbers belong to the DA's office, the police chief, the mayor's office, a Dr. Smith's office and residence — he's a podiatrist — and a pizza place downtown."
"I called them. They page you to let you know your meal's ready."
Lois put her hands to her head. "Oh, nuts! I've really screwed up this time."
"I'll say. Mayson Drake is gonna have your head on her wall."
"Yeah, she'll — Mayson! How did you know?"
"Like you could hide it from me?" He frowned at her. "Gina brought me the mayor's office number and told me she didn't want to know any more. I ran the rest myself, including the pager number." He pulled her closer. "Are you completely crazy? Do you know what kind of trouble you could be in?"
"Yes! Yes, I know." She walked towards her desk. "I'm going to give it back to her and tell her what happened."
Jimmy nodded. "Yeah, that sounds like a great plan to me. Good luck."
Lois dialed the phone as she opened her lower desk drawer. "Mayson Drake, please." She dropped the pager in her purse. "Mayson? Lois Lane. I need to meet with you as soon as you're free. No, you pick the place and time. I have something for you. Yeah. Yeah. Centennial Park. Half an hour?" She glanced at the wall clock. "I'll be there as soon as I can. Bye."
She walked past Jimmy and patted him on the shoulder. "See you in front of the firing squad."
Jimmy shook his head. "You should be so lucky."
Traffic was lousy. Lois was nervous and took a wrong turn. She was eight minutes late, but Mayson was still waiting. Lois pulled into the nearest parking space and dropped in two quarters, thinking about what an optimist she was.
She walked to the bench where Mayson was sitting. Lois stood in front of her, took a deep breath, pulled out the pager and gave it to Mayson.
"My pager. Where did you find — wait. Wait a minute! Lois, did you take my pager?"
"You stole my pager?"
Lois nodded again and sat down without looking at Mayson.
"Do you know how long you could go to jail for this? You stole city property from an assistant District Attorney. Some of this stuff is important to ongoing criminal investigations. There are message logs on —"
Lois looked up as Mayson paused and saw the elevator reach the top floor. "You were checking me out, weren't you? You thought I might be working with Intergang. You didn't trust me."
Lois hesitated. "No. I didn't."
"I see." Mayson took a deep breath. "How about now?"
Lois shrugged. "I'm pretty certain you're not working for Intergang."
"That's a load off my mind." Mayson weighed the pager in her hand. "Is this because of Clark?"
"No." Lois hung her head. "Maybe a little, yeah." She leaned back on the bench. "Mostly it's because I just don't like you very much."
"Oh. Well, that's refreshing."
Lois looked at her. "Refreshing? That's not the reaction I was expecting."
Mayson nodded enthusiastically. "No, I understand! I really don't like you very much either."
"Oh. Good. I think." Lois smiled slightly. "Well, now that we've gotten that out of the way, am I under arrest?"
Mayson cocked her head to one side. "I don't think so. There's no real harm done, and now I have something to hold over your head."
Lois's mouth dropped open. "You're stooping to blackmail?"
"Why not? You burgled my pager."
"Oh. Yeah, there is that, I guess."
"There is. Now, do you have anything else to give me on Intergang?"
Lois almost shook her head, but then sighed. "Okay. There is one thing I haven't told you. The Ohio State Attorney General is working on the back end of the Intergang drug delivery pipeline with the news staff of a radio station in Cincinnati. The reporter's name is Catharine Grant. She used to work at the Planet. I'll give you her phone number and e-mail address when I get back to the office. I don't have them with me."
Mayson stood. "Sounds like a plan to me. Why don't you meet me for dinner tonight at the Burger Whiz on Main and Fourth, say about eight? Bring all that stuff with you then."
Lois's head whirled. "What? Dinner? What for?"
Mayson winked at her. "Just a little girl talk."
Lois arrived early at the Burger Whiz. She'd changed into jeans, tennis shoes, pullover top, and denim jacket. She wondered briefly what Mayson wore after work.
Then she glanced up and found out. Mayson looked like a working cowhand out on the town, lacking only a hat to complete the ensemble. Lois had to admit to herself that the look worked for her.
Mayson nodded to her. "You order yet?"
"No. I just got here."
"Okay, let me get the check since I kind of forced you into this."
"Sounds good to me."
They ordered and sat down. Lois passed Mayson a slip of paper with Cat's info on it.
"Like I had a choice."
Mayson tilted her head. "We could have done this at my office."
Lois sighed. "You're right. You've been more than fair about this."
"Well, I have to confess that I have an ulterior motive." She stuffed some fries in her mouth. "A p's'n'l w'n."
Lois almost choked on her soft drink. "Personal? You want to explain that?"
Mayson swallowed and nodded. "It's about Clark."
"Oh." Lois sat back. "Maybe I'm not the best person to talk to about Clark."
"No. You're the source I want."
"If you mean the source of his bad moods, then yes, that's probably me."
Mayson shook her head and sipped her drink. "That's part of what I want to talk to you about. Why is Clark so angry with you?"
Lois took another big bite and chewed it slowly. "Clark and I had a — a disagreement of a personal nature. I got scary mad at him and accused him of some things that — well, they weren't accurate."
"So? Why didn't you just apologize to him?"
"I tried. He refused to listen."
"Wow." Mayson grabbed some more fries. "Clark won't listen to your apology?" Lois shrugged. "That must have been some argument."
"Yeah. It was."
They chewed in silence for a few moments, then Mayson rattled the ice in her cup. "You want a refill?"
She reached around and filled both cups. "Here you go."
They ate in silence again. Finally Mayson said, "There's something else I've been wanting to ask you."
Mayson finished the last of her burger. "You've worked with him and around him for over a year." She wiped her fingers on a napkin. "How come Clark just jumps up and vanishes sometimes? I mean, we can be at dinner or at a movie or listening to music or just out walking and suddenly he just ups and leaves. He always comes back, but his excuses are really lame. Why does he do that?"
Uh-oh, Lois thought. Here it comes, a chance to get back at him. She could split them up with just a few words. Mayson didn't like Superman one little bit, but she obviously felt very strongly about Clark. Lois didn't think Mayson could handle the shock of knowing the truth about Superman and Clark, especially if Clark wasn't the one to share it.
She envisioned Michael Preston standing before her with his arms crossed and an impatient expression on his face. She hesitated, opened her mouth, closed it, and finally shook her head. "I'm sorry, Mayson. You'll have to ask Clark about this."
Mayson sat still and stared at Lois. "I sort of figured you knew him well enough to know what was going on."
Lois crossed her arms. "I do know. But I can't tell you. It's Clark's secret, not mine. All I can say is that he's not involved in anything illegal."
"That's not good enough! I need to know what the man I love is —"
Mayson's mouth snapped shut. Lois stared at her. "Oh. So, it's that serious." Mayson didn't answer. "Have you told Clark that you love him?"
Mayson played with her napkin and didn't look at Lois. "No. Not yet. I mean, he has to know I feel strongly about him, but — no I haven't said the L-word to him." She looked up. "Why? Is that what broke you two up? Is he that afraid of commitment?"
Lois snorted. "No, no, no! Nothing like that. Look, you need to talk to Clark about this. I really can't talk about it any more."
Mayson looked as if she were about to cry. "But — if you two aren't even friends — why did he — why did he tell you about it?"
"He didn't tell me. I figured it out on my own."
"Ah." Mayson recovered a bit. "So. Thanks for meeting with me. I'll get in touch with the Ohio authorities. Maybe we can scratch each other's backs."
"Okay. I just hope I haven't gotten anyone in trouble."
"I doubt it. Um, I think I need to say one more thing to you."
Uh-oh. "What's that?"
Mayson's gaze bore into Lois's eyes. "My feelings for Clark are vry intense and very real. I love him, but if he doesn't really love me, I'd want him to be happy with the woman he does love."
Lois felt daring for a moment. "Even if that woman was me?"
Mayson narrowed her eyes. "Don't push your luck, Lane. I don't like you any more now than I did this afternoon."
Danger, News Kitten! Danger, News Kitten!
I know you were trying to keep a low profile on this and I hope I haven't done something else really stupid, but I gave your name to Mayson Drake in connection with the Intergang investigation. I wouldn't have, but I did something kind of illegal, and she sort of leveraged it out of me. Please, please, please be careful! I also told her you were working with the state AG's office on this. Please forgive me! I'm sorry if I've disappointed you, but I really didn't have any choice, except maybe a stretch in city lockup. I still want to be your friend.
Assuming that you're still willing to be my friend, I have some more things to tell you. I'm changing jobs. I'm going to run the Metropolis bureau of the New York Standard. How about that? Now young cub reporters will call me 'Chief' and I can yell at them and make them bring me donuts and pick up my dry cleaning. I'll even get the last word.
That's not the only thing that's going on. I also found out that Clark is dating Mayson, the same woman who strong-armed me into squealing on you. I'm pretty sure she's on the level, but be extremely cautious if you talk to her. You forgot to mention that she's also mean as a barracuda.
On top of that, I also learned something juicy about Superman that I can't publish. I'll never be able to publish it! I can't even hint at it to you! I can tell already, this is going to drive me the rest of the way to crazy! Oh, Cath, please don't be too mad at me! I really, really need a friend right now!
Lois, calm down! It's okay. Really. When I told you I didn't want to be identified in relation to this investigation, I meant 'in print,' not 'never.' I guess I wasn't clear on that part. I'm not worried about Drake. If she goes through the state AG's office, I might never even meet up with her. So don't get your thong in a knot. We're still cool, I promise.
Something 'kind of illegal?' What did you do, break into Mayson's office and trash her files? That must have been some kind of leverage to work on you.
We've got some more info for you. I'm just waiting for the AG's office to clear it so I can send it over to you. It's pretty hot, too. I can't hint about this, either, but when you print it, blow on your fingers and duck!
That is just so cool about you being an editor! I think it's totally hot! Yes, I know I'm mixing my slang. Since this is a Top-40 rock 'n' roll station, we have a parade of interns coming through trying to find out if radio is their ticket to the big time, and I understand almost half of what they say. They're usually disappointed, of course, but a couple of them have stuck. I'll introduce them to you when you come out for a visit. They'll be very impressed with the old lady. Me, I mean, not you!
Notice I said 'when,' not 'if.' You're coming to visit me if I have to blackmail Superman into flying you out here! Hey, wouldn't that impress those kids? You could do that, you know, just threaten to publish the 'thing' you found out. Bet that's totally rockin' too!
Gotta get this thing in the pipeline. Stay sane, Fast Lane! See you over by the litter box.
"Thanks for meeting me here, Lois. I wasn't sure you'd enjoy an evening at the Science Museum."
She smiled. "I must say, I never imagined that you'd be a budding geologist as well as a biologist."
"That's me, Clay Mooney, cop with many layers. Kinda like an onion."
She laughed. "I'm glad you called. Wednesdays at the Planet are pretty dull for a short-timer like me."
He looked at her appraisingly. "I'm still surprised you're leaving. I mean, being an editor is a great position, I guess, but you leaving the Planet for any other news outlet?" He shook his head. "I would have thought they'd have to pry your keyboard and notepad out of your cold, dead hands."
"Wouldn't you move to another precinct if you could get a promotion and stay in Metropolis?"
He shrugged. "I might. It'd depend on what I had to do when I got there."
"Yeah, there's that." She turned away and examined a panorama depicting a cave bear advancing on a group of hunters. "Say you were one of those hunters."
He assumed a Tarzan pose. "Okay. Ugh. Me great primitive hunter. Me fight huge sabre-toothed cat with bare hands. Me get killed and eaten, though."
"Stay with me on this, okay? You and your hunting partner have an argument. Neither one of you is completely right or totally wrong, but you can't work together because you don't trust each other any more. Wouldn't it make sense to move to another hunting group?"
"Hey, some days you get the bear, some days the bear gets you."
She turned and looked into his eyes. "This is really dangerous work, Clay. Someone could get hurt, maybe even killed. And the band of people depending on the hunters might not get the meat and animal skins they need to survive. All because of a stupid argument that isn't really all that important."
He returned her look for a long moment, then nodded. "Yeah. If it meant that my buddies would have a better chance to get the bear, then I'd move on." He stepped closer. "I think it would be hard to do, though."
She nodded. "You got that right." She turned and meandered along. Clay came up beside her and touched her hand. She grasped it lightly.
"Uh-oh. When a woman thanks me out of the blue like that, I know I'm in deep trouble."
She grinned and punched him gently on the shoulder. "One of your many layers is that you're a good friend, Officer Mooney."
He stopped and took both of her hands in his. "I never, ever thought I'd say this to a woman."
Lois began to get nervous. "What's that?"
He smiled. "I'm glad you're my friend, Lois. And I'm glad to be yours."
She relaxed and exhaled. "Thanks, Clay. I can use all the friends I can get."
He stepped back a little and stuck out his right hand. "Shake, pally!"
She laughed as she complied. "Friends to the end, right?"
He lifted one eyebrow. "Don't you think that's taking it a little too far?"
The rest of Lois's time at the Planet passed uneventfully. The staff passed around a couple of good-luck cards, and her last Thursday afternoon brought cake and ice cream. Chocolate, of course. Perry contributed a box of European chocolates, and Jimmy gave her a CD-ROM with several very powerful Internet hack- and-search utilities and a text file containing complete instructions. He also whispered to her not to get caught using them.
After the brief festivities subsided, Lois looked around and felt a tug on her heart. She was leaving a place where she'd found a home, where she knew she was accepted and valued. She didn't know how she'd be received at the Standard, but she was determined to give it her best shot.
She leaned on her old desk for possibly the last time and read the messages on her cards. She was pleased to see what her co-workers had written.
But she suddenly realized that Clark hadn't written anything on either card. She decided to ask him about it, as calmly as possible. They hadn't spoken since the day after 'the revelation,' as she called it in her mind. Lois decided it was time for them to talk.
She walked to Clark's desk. As usual, he was typing away, his fingers almost blurring together and the clacking of the keys blending into a buzz. She waited beside his desk until he looked up at her.
"Hi, Clark." She leaned on the side of the desk. "I couldn't find your name on either of these cards. Was it an oversight on someone's part?"
He turned his face towards his monitor. "They didn't ask me to sign them."
"I see. I'm sorry. That didn't come from me." She looked out the window. "That's a nice view. You can see the park from here." Lois stepped to the glass and put her fingertips on it. "Would you have?"
"Would I have what?"
"Would you have signed the card?"
He was silent for a long time. "No. I would have — I should have written something for you personally. I'm — I'm sorry I didn't."
She looked down at her feet. "I'm sorry, too." She turned to leave, but he stopped her with a word.
She turned halfway towards him. "What for?"
His voice was uncharacteristically gentle. "You know what for. And thank you for what you said to Mayson last week."
"Were you eavesdropping on us, Clark?"
He raised his hands momentarily. "No, absolutely not. She told me about it. Although I'm a little surprised she didn't have you arrested for that pager stunt."
Lois grinned. "She was nice about that." She looked at her feet again. "Clark?"
"You need to tell her. She — she cares deeply about you. Don't blow it, okay?"
He sat back. "You're right. I'll tell her. Soon."
Lois nodded. "Good. She deserves it. You two — you two have a good life together, okay?"
Clark stood and faced Lois without rancor for the first time in months. "Thank you. That means a lot, coming from you. I hope — no, I know you'll do well at the Standard."
"Thanks, Clark. Hey, I have to go. Perry and Alice are treating me to a very swanky meal tonight and I have to get ready."
"Have a good time, Lois. And tell Perry I'll hold down the fort until he gets back."
"You should tell him that yourself, Clark. He has a lot of confidence in you. And I think you'll be a good editor someday."
He raised one eyebrow. "Good? Just good?"
"Well, how about almost as good as I'm going to be?"
Clark smiled at her. She managed not to drop her teeth. "I'll work on that. Be well, Lois."
"You too. Good-bye. Tell your mom 'hi' for me the next time you see her."
He nodded. "I will. Good-bye, Lois. Good luck."
As she drove home to change for dinner, she realized that her feelings for Clark hadn't diminished in the least. She still loved him. But she understood that Mayson had the inside track with him. She hoped Clark loved Mayson half as much as Mayson loved Clark. She hoped that they really would have a good life together. Maybe they'd even name their first daughter after her.
Only if they gave Mayson lots and lots of drugs, Lois thought ruefully.
Monday morning at the Standard brought meetings, meetings, and more meetings. Lois knew she'd have a hard time remembering all the names and faces of the people she met that day before lunch, which turned out to be a trial in and of itself. Her new boss, Matt Grogan, took her to lunch at the same restaurant where Perry and Alice had treated her to dinner a few days before. She didn't enjoy that meal quite as much as she had the previous one; there were too many political undercurrents to sort out.
"I'm very glad we have this opportunity to speak privately, Ms. Lane. You should know that I was the one who championed the job offer to you."
Lois munched on her salad, overly conscious of the dressing decorating her chin. "Oh? Thank you."
"Don't thank me. You've earned it. Some of the Daily Planet's reputation for integrity is directly connected to you, and I think the Standard can benefit greatly from having someone with your experience and ability in charge. I've mortgaged a lot of good will to get you here with us, and I'm sure you'll earn it back with interest."
"I hope you expect me to work with the reporters and not nursemaid a bunch of self-important executives with delusions of grandeur."
Grogan looked at her appraisingly. "I see your reputation for bluntness is well-deserved."
She smiled and lifted her tea. "I prefer to think of it as honesty, Mr. Grogan. It's a commodity that's in short supply in some media workrooms."
"But not the Daily Planet, I presume."
"Not the Planet." She drained her glass. "And not in the Metropolis bureau of the Standard, either. Not from today forward."
"Ah. So, you plan to change things immediately?"
"Only if they need to be changed. Some people make wholesale changes when they take over a group either to put their personal stamp on the job, or because they'd rather be comfortable than have their employees be comfortable. I don't work that way."
Grogan signaled the waiter for a refill. "I find it significant that a sports team which changes coaches almost always changes many of the players also."
"This isn't the Metropolis Dragons and I'm not a head coach. I'm an editor. I'm in charge, Mr. Grogan, don't doubt it, but I'm also not so egotistical that I think I've got all the answers all the time. A smart coach changes his or her approach based on the available personnel and the situation, and that's what I plan to do. I told you when I accepted this job that I want the Standard to be the best news organization east of the Mississippi, and I don't care who gets the credit. When we get there, we'll all have plenty of credit to spread around."
"Very well, Ms. Lane. The Standard will pick up the check for lunch. And we'll be watching you. We're expecting great things in the near future."
No pressure, Lois, she thought, just save the world before morning coffee break. And don't forget the bottom line.
She headed back to the bullpen to spend some time with her employees. She savored the feel of the phrase 'her employees.' It felt good. She hoped the feeling would ease the frustration at the politics she'd already butted up against.
She walked into the office area and immediately saw a short, older man wearing an expensive suit yelling at one of the reporters she'd met that morning. Lois stepped over and tapped the man on the shoulder.
"Excuse me. Who are you?"
The man spun and snarled at her. "I'm Roger Pinkerton! I'm head actuary for the Metropolis bureau of the New York Standard and you're interrupting!"
"No, actually, I'm Lois Lane and you're yelling at one of my people. Let's just step into my office and —"
Pinkerton's face reddened even more. "I don't care who you are! This is my job! Get out of my face!"
Lois reached out and grabbed Pinkerton's collar. "You yell at me like that one more time, Roger, and I'll kick you out of here with my own personal foot. You understand me?"
His face paled. Lois could see herself reflected in his glasses, and she almost scared herself. "Okay! Okay. Let's not get physical here. There's no need for violence."
"Good!" She released him and flashed her most disarming smile. "Now, let's go into my office and you can tell me what the problem is."
He looked at her in amazement, then followed her into the office. Lois shut the door and took off her coat. "Now, Roger, tell me what's going on."
He opened a folder and pulled out a report. "This reporter, Laura Nguyen, has gone over her expense budget three months in a row. We can't have this kind of irresponsible waste in this office."
Lois took the report, sat down, and began reading. She made quiet noises and nodded several times, then put the report down and said, "I'll take care of this, Roger."
He looked at her for a moment, then nodded. "Very well. I'll have that back, please."
"What? But I can't leave that. It's against the rules."
"Then make me a copy of it."
He shook his head. "That's against the rules, too. This is sensitive information."
Lois crossed her arms and leaned her elbows on her desk. "Roger, she can't fix what she's doing wrong if I can't show her what the problem is."
Roger had recovered much of his bluster. "That's what I was trying to do when you butted in! You've got to let me do my job."
"No. Your job is to bring this to my attention. It's my job to make sure she hears about it and changes her behavior."
His face fell. "But — but this is the way we've been doing it for years!"
"Not any more. This is my turf, and you risk a lot when you trespass on it." She stood and walked to the front of the desk. "One of the reasons I'm here is because there were problems with the way things were being done before. I won't change something just to change it, but I will change something that isn't working, and you yelling at my people doesn't work. From now on, if you need to tell one of my reporters something related to your position at the Standard, you go through me. Got that?"
He looked at the steel in her gaze and decided that discretion was indeed the better part of valor. "As you say, Ms. Lane. May I have my report back?"
"Roger, weren't you listening? I need this document or a copy of it, or Laura never hears another word about it from me. Or from you."
He met her stare but blinked first. "Keep it. I have it on my hard drive."
She beamed. "See how easy that was? Thanks for coming by, Roger, and come back and see us soon. Bye now!"
She opened the door and smiled brightly. Roger scooted past and headed for the stairwell. Lois called out, "Laura? Can you come in here, please?"
The tiny Asian woman scuttled nervously into Lois's office and sat down. "Relax, Laura. Would you like some coffee?"
Laura's mouth fell open for a moment. "Ah, no, but thank you."
Lois sat down beside her. "I take it you and Roger have had this conversation before."
Laura nodded. "Every month since I started here. He practically accused me of embezzlement just before you came in."
Lois lifted the paper in her hand. "Well, let's see what jolly old Roger is so apoplectic about."
They went over the report together. Laura explained every item to Lois's satisfaction, and she helped Laura understand that Roger was the kind of person whose security was based on things he could touch and feel. Laura, on the other hand, saw that if she documented her expenses more thoroughly, Roger would be less likely to strain his voice at her. She left Lois's office with a bounce in her step and a smile on her face.
Lois turned to her 'in' box and took out a stack of papers, but before she could open the first folder, Ron Dombrowski knocked on the door frame. She looked up. "Come on in, Ron. What can I do for you?"
He grinned at her. "You've already done it, Ms. Lane. Mr. Roger Pinkerton, accountant and actuary, has been hammering on all of us for months now, not just Laura. Your predecessor was so worried about covering his own assets, he forgot to cover ours. You've made a good beginning. I just hope you keep it up."
"Thanks. I intend to. And call me Lois. Hey, what are you working on right now?"
"A feature on the Vietnamese immigrants in the inner city."
"Good time for something like that." Lois frowned. "Is Laura helping on it?"
She stood. "If she's not tied up on something else, she needs to be in on this. She can get in places you can't."
Ron's smile evaporated. "Why? Because I'm not Asian?"
"Partly, Mr. Sensitive. It's also because you're not a woman."
"Oh." He relaxed. "Yeah, I see what you mean. Okay if I tell her?"
"Go ahead. What's your deadline on this?"
"It's supposed to appear a week from Wednesday."
"Okay. Get me a rough draft by this Thursday afternoon. I want to see how you two work together."
He nodded. "Okay, boss-lady. You know, this might turn out to be fun after all."
She gave him a wry grin. "You aren't doing it for the money, are you?"
Her first day behind her, Lois decided to celebrate. She dropped into The Catch of The Day, a new upscale seafood restaurant not far from her office. She'd read good reviews on it, and she decided to be a little adventurous. After all, beginning a new job was an adventure in and of itself. She might as well go all out.
She caught them just as the early dinner rush was ending, so they put her in a corner booth, the only thing open at the moment. She ordered flavored iced tea and an appetizer, both of which exceeded her expectations. She was feeling good, so she decided to splurge a bit and get a stuffed lobster. She'd never been a big seafood fan, but newness begets even more newness. She giggled to herself and admitted that it probably wouldn't be funny if she told anyone about it. Unless she told Catharine. That was a pleasant thought.
Her dinner came, and she was so engrossed in it that she didn't notice the couple being seated in the booth behind her. The plants between the booths blocked her vision, and the dim lighting created the illusion of privacy. So she wasn't all that surprised to hear them speaking in low, intimate tones as they discussed their orders. Funny, one of the voices sounded very familiar -
Then she heard voices that chilled her to the marrow. "Clark, this is wonderful! I love this place. Are you sure no one can see us?"
"Pretty sure, yeah. I don't think anyone can hear us, either, as long as we keep our voices down."
"You look really, really nice tonight, Mayson. Your hair is — well, it's just beautiful."
"Thank you, Clark."
"Yes. It almost comes up to the standard the rest of you is setting."
Mayson sighed, and Lois almost fell out of her booth. Of all the places for Clark and Mayson to have dinner! She thought about letting them know she was there, but the sound of a warm, slow, wet kiss spiked that thought. All she could do was keep as quiet as she could for as long as she could. If she attracted Clark's attention at all, he'd know she was there.
Her appetite had fled with that first kiss, but she also knew that if she was totally silent, that would eventually interest Clark, and the jig would be up. So she forced herself to keep eating. The lobster was delicious, but it might as well have been a sawdust souffl‚ for all the enjoyment she got out of it.
She heard Clark stifle a gasp. "Mayson, we're in public!"
She purred deep in her throat. "You said yourself that no one can see us."
"Yeah, but you're going to wear a hole in — uhh!"
"Is something bothering you, Clark?"
"I'm sorry, was that bothering you? How about this?"
He panted a couple of times. "Mayson, you are incorrigible!"
Her voice was so low it was almost inaudible. "I certainly hope so."
"Oh! Look, here's your sea bass. And my stuffed flounder. Ready to eat?"
"I'm absolutely starving. Nibbling on you just isn't enough."
Lois was being tortured. A woman she almost didn't like, or maybe she almost did like, was pawing at Clark like a horny teenager. It was a horrible way for an assistant DA to behave in public, not to mention Clark's reputation and his Secret Identity -
She mentally clapped a hand over her mouth. If she didn't think about the secret, she wouldn't tell the secret. She couldn't. She was determined not to.
But hearing them laugh together was agonizing. Hearing them enjoy each other's company was acid in her veins. She didn't deny it. She admitted to herself that she was horribly jealous, that she wished she was the woman in the booth with Clark. She desperately wished she were the one touching him, the one receiving his caresses in return. She leaked a tear as she thought about all the time she'd wasted trying to make Clark understand that she was right and he was wrong. It didn't matter. None of it mattered. She realized that Cat must have come to a similar conclusion so many weeks ago. You go through life, thinking that certain things were important, and it was crushing to learn how unimportant they really were.
She loved Clark Kent. She loved him whether he was Superman or not. She loved the person, the man who wore the loud ties and conservative clothes, not the suit or the powers or the thrill of flying with him. She loved Clark.
And she'd blown it, big time. Clark had moved on and left her behind and she'd never get the chance to hold him in her arms and tell him how she felt. That chance was gone forever.
She signaled to the waiter to bring her check. When he came over, he glanced at her face and just laid it on the table without comment. She put a stack of cash in the small folder and was about to sneak out when she heard Mayson ask a very important question.
"Um. The only way I know to ask this is straight out. I know you've been keeping something from me, something important. What's your secret?"
He hesitated. Lois could tell that he was thinking long and hard. Finally he answered, "It's time you knew. I'd rather tell you in private, if you're willing to wait. It's not something I can share in public. How about tomorrow night at your place?"
She sighed. "Can't. I'm leaving at a ridiculously early hour tomorrow morning for a week in Ohio with the AG's office. We're close to a big breakthrough on the Intergang thing and I have to be in on it. I'll be back really late Monday night. Can we meet next Tuesday after work?"
"Mmm. I don't know if I can wait that long to tell you."
"There's a big story in it for you, too."
"That's good, but seeing you again will give me the better end of the deal."
Lois heard her them kiss again. "Thank you, Clark."
"For being willing to tell me. That's almost as good as knowing the secret."
"I — hope you still feel that way after next Tuesday."
"I know I will, Clark."
Their waiter asked if there was anything else, and they thanked him and said no. Lois heard sounds of movement, then they stopped.
"Mayson, what is it?"
"Clark, I — I need to tell you something now."
"It is." She hesitated, then exhaled deeply. "Okay, here it goes. I don't think it's as big a secret as yours is, but — oh, nuts! Clark, I — I'm in love with you."
Clark lifted her hand and kissed it. She heard Mayson sniff once and say, "Please don't say anything right now. I won't mention it again and I won't ask you how you feel and I won't demand anything from you. Will you take me home now? I need — I need some rest."
"Of course, Mayson. Are you sure you don't want to talk about this now?"
"I'm sure. If you have something to say to me, please wait until next Tuesday evening. I know it sounds weird, Clark, but this is important to me. Okay?"
"Sure." Lois heard the smile in his voice, the warm smile that he'd once directed towards Lois, and she knew how it must have warmed Mayson's heart.
Knowing that smile was now aimed at Mayson froze Lois's heart to the core.
Clark stopped them just a few steps from Lois's table. "Mayson?"
Lois could see the anxious expression on her face. "What is it, Clark?"
He fumbled for a moment, then made eye contact with Mayson and said, "After I tell you that — after I tell you my secret, I mean — I'd like to take you to meet my parents. Assuming you still want to hang around me, that is."
She smiled an electric smile that lit up her face down to her kneecaps. "That sounds wonderful! I'm looking forward to it." She hesitated and then said, "Clark, is something else bothering you?"
He sighed. "I'm — I'm nervous."
"About telling me the secret?"
"Yes. And, well, I keep thinking something's going to happen. I'm afraid I'm going to make a mistake and this is all going to blow up in my face. I don't have a very good track record with the ladies, you know."
She kissed him gently. "That's changed, as of the first time I saw you. I'd die before I'd hurt you, Clark. I love you." She chuckled. "I know I said I wouldn't mention it again, but I thought you needed to be reminded." She kissed him again. "Now take me home. I promise I'll behave myself, at least until I get back from Ohio."
Lois kept her head down until they were well out in the parking lot, then she hurried to the ladies' room and stayed there until she had her emotions under control again. She knew that Clark was going to tell Mayson that he loved her too. Then, when he revealed the secret, she'd be shocked, then angry, then offended, and finally she'd come around to his way of thinking. Maybe she'd even get him to accept that peace officer's commission from the city.
Their teamup was a natural. Crusading DA and intrepid investigative reporter, busting crime rings and jailing evildoers left and right. She'd go to the wedding, assuming she'd be invited, she'd smile and say all the right things, and she'd throw rice or bird seed or oranges or whatever they thought was appropriate. She'd wish them many years of happiness. She'd never, ever let either of them know of the ragged sword of grief sawing her heart in two. She'd sheath it tightly and push it down, way down where no one else would ever see it, and she would take it out and admire it only when she was alone.
Cath, help! I'm in love with a man who's about to get engaged to another woman! What should I do? I've already ruled out murder, mostly. Besides, I'd never get away with knocking off a district attorney.
Yes, it's Clark. Yes, Mayson's in love with him. Yes, he's probably in love with her. I accidentally overheard them tonight at a restaurant. No, I didn't follow them; they followed me and I'm pretty sure they never knew I was in the next booth. Their conversation was definitely rated PG-13, and maybe their hands were too, I don't know. All I really know is that I'm dying. Help! Please?
Ron Dombrowski stuck his head into Lois's office on Thursday morning. "Ms. Lane? You busy?"
"It's Lois, okay? And sure, come on in, Ron. It's what I'm here for."
Ron turned and waved to someone else. Laura Nguyen trailed behind him, wearing a Cheshire-cat grin. Lois pointed at the chairs in front of her desk.
"Okay. What'cha got?"
Ron said, "This teamup thing is great, Lois! We work really well together. Laura's a natural at getting information out of people, and with my organization and research skills we're a great team! How did you know?"
Lois smiled back at them. "I didn't. I just know that no one has the whole package. Everybody has weak points and blind spots. I really pushed Laura to work with you because of the Vietnamese angle, but you two act like you've gone way above and beyond what I expected. Do you have the rough draft I asked for?"
Laura grinned. "It's on the network. Look in the Kay drive, folder 'rough draft' then subfolder capital 'D' underscore capital 'N,' for Dombrowski and Nguyen. File name 'Little Da Nang.' We think you'll like it."
Lois pulled up the file. She read through it and nodded. She grabbed a pad of paper and made some notes, then sat back and grinned at them.
"Congratulations, you two! I know it's not finished yet, but that's definitely a keeper."
Laura bounced in her chair. "You like it? You really like it?"
"Yes, I do. I especially like the facts that you're both excited about it, and that I can't tell which of you wrote what parts. Your styles blend very well."
Ron's brow lifted. "Really? You think so?"
Lois nodded. "Yes. This is already very good. I do have a couple of suggestions, however."
Ron snorted. "Of course you do."
She pointed at him with her pencil. "Hey, it says 'Editor' on my nameplate, not 'Fan Club.' And I think you'll like these suggestions."
They did. They both bounced out of the office, eager to polish their current piece and start on the new assignment they'd just received. Lois smiled after them. Oh, well, she thought, at least two somebodys are having a good time and doing a good job together.
Before her smile faded, a knock sounded on her door. "Come on in."
One of the other reporters casually leaned in. "Hi. Martin Patrick, roving crime reporter and general nuisance checking in. We met Monday morning. Got a minute?"
He came in and shut the door before she could answer. "May I sit down?"
She shrugged. "Why not?"
"I have disturbing news. Please smile and act as if this is a very informal meeting."
Lois grinned and pointed her index finger at him. "Okay, I'll bite. What's going on?"
"Intergang has someone in this newsroom."
Lois didn't appear to have heard him. She reached into a drawer and pulled out a bag of hard candy. "Want a sweet?"
He frowned slightly, but picked out two butter rum packets. "Thanks."
She unwrapped a cherry-flavored disc and popped it in her mouth. "Makes it harder for lip-readers."
"Gotcha." He nodded and unwrapped one. "Don't know who. Don't know why. Might just be an informant."
"But you're not sure."
"No. I'll give you a heads-up as soon as I find out more."
"How solid is it?"
He grinned. "Minimum of three months, probably much longer, so I know you're in the clear."
"What about you?"
"No reason to warn you if it was me. It'd just make you cautious. These baddies are real mean, but very quiet and not real tricky."
"I agree." She stood and smiled at him. "Okay, Martin Patrick, man with two first names, get out there and beat the bushes! Bring me scoops and scalps, and not necessarily in that order!"
He stood and shook her hand. "Thanks, Lois. You're just what this bureau needs."
"Thanks. Don't get your head blown off."
"This old thing? I just pulled it out of the closet this morning. First thing I laid my hands on." He winked at her and headed out the door. "Be sure to follow your own advice."
News Kitten to Fast Lane.
Lois, hold on to your bloomers! I have the okay to give you this now. You'll never believe who's head of Intergang! Believe it or not, it's Walter Mondale!
I knew you wouldn't believe it. Actually it's Bill Church, the CEO of CostCo Inc. It's a perfect cover, too. None of us even had him on our radar. But the state AG's office has an informant tucked away in — oops, I can't tell you where. But he, or maybe she, gave us a diagram of Intergang's secret communications room. It's underground, beneath the CostCo main office in — drum roll, please — downtown Metropolis! I even got permission to send you a copy of the drawing. I attached it to this message. It's not exactly an architectural blueprint, but you should be able to use it to get in and look around after the raid. What raid, you ask? The raid on all of Intergang's hideouts and illegal warehouses. I don't know when and I don't know how many, but it's coming. And fairly soon, too.
I met Mayson Drake in Columbus. She's everything you said she was and more. That woman could divide the Ohio River with just her sharp gaze. And don't get me started on her vocabulary. It's quite extensive. But I managed not to get into trouble with her. I've been a good girl with the AG, and they wouldn't let her touch me even if she wanted to.
I think Mayson is a tad too intense for my taste, but she feels very strongly about Clark. Somehow, she found out about the football thing we said to each other the first time I saw Clark I the Planet's newsroom. You remember, don't you? I said, "Who's the new tight end?" and you said, "Why don't you throw your usual forward pass and find out?" She said Clark told her. I didn't know you'd filled him in on that little conversation.
She also told me it was a good thing I was all the way over here in Ohio, because if she ever — and she strongly emphasized the word 'ever' — found out I made a play for Clark from today on, she'd flag me for illegal use of hands and penalize me five years. I laughed at first, but you know, I think she meant every word. Scary broad.
So, if Mayson's dating Clark, and you're dating Clay, what's the problem? Oh, right, that silly little 'love' doohickey. Lois, I wish I had some words of wisdom for you, but I don't. I wish I could bring you Chinese takeout and sit up late with you and watch sappy movies with you until dawn. Oh, well, that'll have to wait, I guess. But not too long, girlfriend!
Les is worried about security. He's a worrier anyway, but this time I think he's right to worry. Did you know there are eleven different states cooperating with this investigation? After we break the story, there shouldn't be a problem, but until then we're all potential targets. And this is one cat who doesn't want her tail set on fire. So I plan to be vewwy, vewwy quiet, like I was hunting wabbits.
Anyway, we won't do anything until at least Tuesday, so you have a minimum of four days to put this together on your end. That's when all the people who are now here in Columbus will be back in their various offices. Keep your head down and write a bang-up story!
P.S. I read back through this and everything in here is cleared for me to send to you. Cat's honor.
Fast Lane to News Kitten.
I've been so busy I haven't checked my e-mail for over three days. You sent me this on Thursday afternoon, and here it is Saturday night already. I'll make sure I pull in all my personal messages on a daily basis from now on. And yes, I'm at home, alone, on Saturday night! So sue me.
Bill Church is head of Intergang? Bill Church, philanthropist and art collector? Friend of the average working man? Known Perry White for more than twenty years? Are you serious about this? I'd sooner believe it was Walter Mondale!
Now that I've gotten that out of my system, I have some questions. If he goes down, what happens to CostCo? Do the Feds take over the company or put it up for sale? There are a lot of jobs at stake here, Cath, and I'm certain that most of those workers have never done anything more serious than not feeding the parking meter. And what happens to the company's assets? Will they be seized or turned over to a court-appointed attorney or board? Is the investigation being done under state laws or under Federal? Or under both? Do the Federal racketeering statutes (RICO) come into play? How far down the ladder are they planning to go? How many people are going to be arrested? Do they anticipate violent resistance?
Hey, I'm still a reporter. And I'm not kidding about those questions. I want answers, woman, and correct ones! Seriously, I'd like to set up a phone interview with you right after this thing goes down. That way I can ask rebound questions, too.
Clay and I are just friends, Cath. We went to a museum last week and talked. All he wants from me is friendship, and right now that's what I need the most. So we're okay on that front. Besides, with my track record for men, I'd just ruin him. He'd end up dead or on the run or engaged to the deputy mayor. And the deputy mayor is still a man, despite being a closet cross- dresser.
Mayson is pretty rugged, but she's straight as an arrow. I'm not sure how serious Clark is about their relationship, but she's very serious. You might get some kind of announcement about something permanent before too much longer.
And before you ask, no, I'm not going to do anything about it. I'm not going to try to break them up, I'm not going to sabotage the wedding, I'm not going to kidnap the bride and substitute a clone or anything so idiotic. Clark and Mayson will do or not do whatever they do without any interference or assistance from me. I just hope she doesn't ask me to be a bridesmaid. I don't think I could handle that.
I just re-read the last three paragraphs, and I sound like a pity party waiting to break out. I'm sorry. I guess I just needed to vent at someone, and you're far enough away so that I can't throw anything and hit you. I tell you, Cat, I've got to get a life somehow.
I'll burden you later with more of my daytime drama life. Keep it between the ditches, News Kitten. This is Fast Lane signing off, 10-4 and 10-10, good buddy.
Lois logged off her work computer and stretched. She usually hated working on Sunday, and today was no different. She was glad, though, that the bullpen was empty, and no one was knocking on her door. She wondered how Perry ever got any of his own work done, with all the reporters constantly demanding his attention.
She shouldered her purse and looked up. She was startled to see Laura Nguyen standing in the doorway. The diminutive woman smiled at her and said, "Hi! Hope I didn't scare you."
"No. Well, maybe a little. I sure didn't expect to see you here. What's up?"
"I got a call to meet Martin Patrick here. He said he wanted to give me something for my next story. Have you seen him?"
Lois frowned. "No. Haven't seen or hear from him since mid-day Friday. He's supposed to be in tomorrow morning, though. What story are you working on?"
They walked to the bullpen door together. "I've been looking into a string of petty thefts in small shops and businesses near Hobb's Bay. The thieves break in and mess up the place, and the owners usually have a hard time telling what's missing. It's more than just kids or gangs. I think it's some kind of intimidation tactic linked to a protection scheme, but I don't have any proof or any solid leads. Martin was supposed to have something on it for me. Do you think maybe some of your old Planet contacts might know something?"
Lois grinned. "I still talk to those folks, Laura, but I work for the Standard now. I don't give them story leads and they don't do research for me. We all like it better that way."
She nodded as she opened the door and held it for Lois. Nice girl, Lois thought, intense, eager, and hard-working, kinda reminds me of me a few years ago.
Laura was staring hard at Lois as a taxi meandered down the street in front of them. Lois tugged out her keys. "Need a ride?"
Laura seemed to snap out of a trance. "No. No, I'll just grab a cab. I've got some other places to go before I head for home."
"Okay. See you tomorrow morning, bright and early."
By ten o'clock the next morning, Lois had approved and submitted Ron and Laura's story on Little Da Nang for publication. She'd received confirmation that the story was to be printed in the Wednesday morning edition. She'd given out several new assignments, met individually with two more of her reporters, answered a screen full of inter-departmental e-mails, approved expenses for a new investigation into the possibility of the state health department paying ghost employees — people who got paid but did no work — and met with her boss to smooth over Roger Pinkerton's ruffled feathers.
But she hadn't spoken to Martin Patrick.
There was no answer at his home or on his cell phone. Both flipped to voice mail after several rings. Neither did he respond to his pager. Lois began to be concerned.
She called Ron into her office. "Ron, can you get in touch with Martin? I can't lay hands on him."
Ron shrugged. "He's not exactly tied to a schedule." When he saw Lois's frown, he amended, "At least, that's how he's used to working. Unless you've told him different, he's probably still operating on his old assumptions. Don't worry. He'll turn up in a day or two with a slam-bang story in hand. That's standard operating procedure for Martin."
"Hmm." She leaned back. "I still want you to take a shot at finding him. I need to ask him a couple of questions. Besides, he was supposed to meet Laura here yesterday morning and didn't show."
Ron frowned. "Yesterday? On Sunday? That's odd. He almost never comes around here on the weekend. He usually sets up meetings with other reporters in fast-food places like Burger Whiz or the food court at one of the local malls, where it's nice and public. You sure Laura said she was to meet him here?"
"That's what she told me."
Ron's face cleared. "I'll bet she misunderstood. She here?"
"I sent her out to cover a diplomat coming in at the airport. She'll probably be gone most of the day."
"Okay. I'll listen for her phone. If Martin calls, I'll tell him you're hot on his trail."
Tuesday morning rolled around with no contact from Martin. Just before lunch, Lois called Clay to ask a favor.
"Clay, if I give you a name and a description, can you check unofficially to see if someone is in the morgue?"
"The morgue? Lois, what's going on?"
"Hold on." She stood and pushed her door closed. "One of my reporters told me that there's a pipeline to Intergang here in this office. He told me this last Thursday and no one's seen him since Friday about noon."
Clay snapped into full 'cop' mode. "Lois, you need to fill out a missing persons report right now. Something is going on that involves Intergang, and we don't know what it is. All we know is that it's big. Now give me what you have."
Lois gave Clay a full description, including what he'd been wearing the last time she'd seen him. "He's a reporter who's used to flying solo, so this isn't the first time he's been out of touch for this amount of time, but I'm still concerned."
"I'll run this one down myself, Lois."
"Thanks, Clay. I owe you one."
"We'll call it even if you don't wait so long to call me next time."
As she hung up the phone, someone knocked on her door. Ron stuck his head in. "You seen Laura today?"
"She called in her story yesterday afternoon and said she wasn't feeling well, that she'd try to be in this afternoon. Haven't talked to her since then."
Ron frowned. "It's too quiet out there with both Martin and Laura out. You need to come out and yell at us or something."
Lois laughed. "Sure. That's something I do very well. Hey, is there a good Italian place around here? I feel like lasagna today."
He observed her appraisingly. "You look more like a model to me."
She pointed to the newsroom. "Out, you knave! Flattery will gain you naught but dog show assignments."
His face contorted in mock horror. "No! Not that! Horrors! In that case, you look more like a diet-program commercial 'before' picture."
She picked up a stapler and made as if to throw it at him and he hit the floor. The other reporters in the bullpen stared as Lois sat on her desk and laughed almost hysterically.
By four o'clock, Lois had become really worried about Martin. She reached towards her phone, intending to call Clay again, but it rang an instant before she touched it. Surely that was Martin, calling in with a big story. She released a sigh of relief as she answered.
"New York Standard, Metropolis Bureau, Lois Lane."
A strained voice reached her ear. "Ms. Lane?"
"Who is this?"
"It's Laura! Look, I've found out something about Martin and what he was working on."
"Let's have it."
"I can't! I have to meet you tonight and give this to you. It's really hot!"
"Okay, Laura, just come by my place and —"
"No! No, we have to meet. Be on the south sidewalk across from the DA's office at seven-thirty tonight. I'll meet you there and give you what I have. And please, please don't tell anyone about this call! It might be dangerous!" She panted into the phone. "Did Martin tell you about the Intergang mole in the office?"
She hesitated. "Why? Does this have something to do with Intergang?"
"Yes! Please say you'll come, Ms. Lane! It's really important!"
"Laura, you need to come into the office. The police —"
"No!" The girl sounded scared. She was almost crying. "No, I have to see you tonight! Please come! Oh no! I have to go!"
"Laura! Laura, wait — " but the connection was broken. Lois glanced at the caller ID display, but the incoming number was blocked. That was odd. Why would Laura want her number blocked from her employer? And why did she sound so nervous over the phone? She opened a document on her computer and typed for a few minutes, then printed it and put it in an envelope.
Lois knew it was a calculated risk, but she tapped on the glass and motioned Ron into her office. "What is it, Lois? Is something wrong?"
"I don't know." She closed the door and faced away from it. "Don't react to anything I say." He nodded nonchalantly. "I just got a frantic call from Laura. She wants to meet me tonight at seven-thirty across from the DA's office. She said it involved both Martin and Intergang."
Ron nodded and scratched his nose. "What do you want me to do?"
"Nothing, unless something happens to me or to Laura. In that case, you go to the police with what I'm about to give you."
"It won't self-destruct in ten seconds, will it?"
Lois managed a wry grin. "Ron, I'm just hoping I don't self-destruct tonight."
At seven-twenty-one, Lois parked a block from the DA's office. She could walk the rest of the way in four minutes or less. She'd changed into tennis shoes, loose jeans, and a sweatshirt. She locked the Jeep and started off.
She rounded the last corner and was surprised to see Clark standing under a streetlight. She slowed, but then remembered that he'd know she was there if a blizzard was blowing through the city. She stopped about six feet from him. "Hi."
He looked at her, curiosity in his expression. "Hi yourself. What brings you here?"
"I'm supposed to be meeting one of my reporters. Why are you here?"
"Waiting for Mayson to get off work. We're going to — go somewhere private and I'm going to tell her."
Lois nodded. "Good." She stood there fidgeting for a moment. "I hope she understands."
Clark hugged himself. "Me too."
Lois waved her hands. "What am I saying? Of course she'll understand. Just be sure and give her some time to get used to the idea."
He nodded. "I intend to. Thanks for — you know."
She nodded. "I'm glad I found you, though. I need to give you something."
"This is actually for Superman." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. "This is a map of the interior of Intergang's communications center. I think he could help with the investigation on it. I got it from a source west of here."
Clark looked at it under the dim streetlight. "I see. Did your source also name the head of Intergang?"
She nodded. "I'm told it's Bill Church."
Lois watched Clark for a reaction. As she expected, he merely nodded. "That's what we heard, too. I'll bet you don't have any more proof than we do, though."
A third voice spoke. "In a few minutes, neither of you will need any more proof."
Lois and Clark turned towards the voice. A diminutive woman walked into the circle of light. In her left hand, she held a small semi-automatic pistol with a silencer on the barrel.
Clark looked at Lois. "I take it you know this woman?"
"She's — she's one of my reporters! Laura, are you the Intergang mole?"
Laura inclined her head. "Actually, I prefer the term 'undercover agent,' but yes, I'm with Intergang. Being a small Asian woman helps when you just want to fade into the background."
"You told me you had news about Martin."
"I do. I had to kill him."
Lois gasped, and Laura continued. "He got too close too quick. He was very clever for a round-eye, and I had to stop him from blowing my cover. If only he hadn't told you about me, you wouldn't be here now." She waved the pistol. "You two move a little closer together, okay?"
Clark stepped closer to Lois. "I suppose you're going to have to kill us too?"
"Not just yet. There's a little sideshow I was hoping you could catch first. Actually, I only expected Lois. You're quite a bonus for me, Kent."
"You get double for two?"
Laura smiled at Lois. "It's pro-rated, but I do get more money. That's why I do this, after all. Pays a lot better than reporting."
Lois knew Clark wouldn't let her be killed. She decided to try reason, even though she held out little hope that Laura would listen. "Laura, you don't have to do this. I really don't want to be shot to death, and Clark doesn't either. We can talk this out. We can protect you —"
"Don't bother trying to 'save' me, okay? I don't have a good side you can appeal to. I like what I do. I'm good at it. Besides, when I go back to the office tomorrow, I'll be just as shocked and upset as the rest of them, especially Ron. Did you know that I made my final contact for this assignment in Little Da Nang with him right there beside me? He doesn't suspect a thing, the big moron." Laura's gaze shifted. "Ah. Here comes the main event."
"I thought I was the main event!"
"We're just a sideshow this time, Lois."
"Shut up, Clark!"
Laura exhaled dramatically. "If you'll stop arguing and turn around, please?"
Lois didn't take her eyes from Laura, but Clark did. Suddenly Clark spun his head back to Lois and snapped, "Mayson! The car!"
Lois didn't hesitate. "Go!"
He took a quick step and Laura snapped off two shots. Lois saw both bullets hit him in the middle of his back and puff his shirt out, but instead of falling, Clark spun into his Superman outfit and turned towards Mayson, who had just shut her car door.
Laura's smile at hitting Clark dead center vanished. Her astonishment at seeing Clark become Superman froze her for the half-second Lois needed to kick the pistol out of her hand. Then Mayson's car exploded into a huge ball of flame that lit up the scene.
Lois heard the bones in Laura's left hand crunch, and the smaller woman cried out. The pistol spun straight up in the air, just over her head. Laura grabbed for it with her other hand. So did Lois. They grappled for a moment as Lois tried to wrench the weapon from the smaller woman. Lois recoiled as Laura snarled furiously at her and tried to bite Lois's hand. Lois snagged Laura's right wrist with her left hand and grasped the pistol's slide with her right. Laura reached the pistol's grip with her right hand and squeezed the trigger.
The pistol spat. The impact of the bullet striking bone and muscle knocked both women off their feet. Lois fell onto Laura and watched her mouth move as she tried to inhale.
Lois tried to grab the weapon with her right hand but pain shot through her fingers. She pulled the pistol away from Laura with her left hand and stood up. Laura was bleeding profusely from both the entry wound in her chest and the exit wound in her back. Lois knelt to help her, but there was nothing she could do.
Laura pawed weakly at Lois's arm and gasped, "Soup — Soup — he — Kent — I shot — Soo — Loissss —"
She didn't inhale again. Lois pulled Laura's dead hand from her sleeve and stood. She dropped the pistol on the sidewalk a few feet from Laura's body. Mayson's car was burning fiercely across the road. Superman had pulled Mayson away from the fire and extinguished the flames on her body, but even from where she stood Lois could tell that Mayson was critically injured.
She jogged across the street to where Superman was cradling Mayson. As Lois got closer, she feared that it was too late. Even if Mayson was still conscious, the extent of the burns on her body might prove to be fatal.
Clark was panting frantically and muttering, "No, no, no, no! Mayson, no, please, no! Come back! Please don't go! Mayson!"
Lois put her uninjured hand on his shoulder. "Superman, she needs a doctor right now! Please take her!" She shook him. "Superman! Snap out of it! Emergency room! Now!"
He looked up at Lois. Tears streamed from his eyes. "She's — gone. There's no heartbeat. Her blood — all over. She's gone, Lois. She's gone. Gone!" He gently laid her body down and stroked her hair twice, then stood. He squeezed his eyes closed and clenched his fists. He inhaled more deeply than Lois had ever seen him do.
Then he bellowed, he shouted, he screamed in agony. Windows that had survived the bomb blast were smashed inwards. Car alarms that had ignored the explosion went crazy. Lois clapped her hands over her ears and fell to the ground, trying to shut out the deafening expression of Clark's misery and anguish.
Lois felt, rather than heard, the sudden whoosh of air as Superman flew away. She slowly lifted her head to look around. She realized she couldn't hear the fire crackling. She slapped the sidewalk with her foot and heard nothing. Great, she thought, I'm deaf. Then she looked at Mayson's body and thought, but at least I'm alive.
Lois reached out to her. She didn't know if she whispered or shouted. "I'm so sorry, Mayson. He loved you. I think you might have been happy together. And he was going to tell you tonight." She closed Mayson's eyes. "I'm sorry."
A hand pulled Lois around and she struck out. The policeman caught her hands and held her still.
"Clay! You're here!"
His mouth moved but Lois heard no sound. He pointed at Mayson and mouthed a question.
"I can't hear you! No, just listen! The woman across the street was an Intergang assassin! She called herself Laura Nguyen! She tried to shoot Clark and I kicked the gun out of her hands and we fought for it and it went off and she's dead! I think she set the bomb that killed Mayson!" Clay's eyes bugged out and he pointed to the car. "Yes, that was Mayson Drake's car! This woman is Mayson Drake! Superman was here and said she was dead and then he left! I don't know where!"
Clay nodded and motioned for Lois to follow him. He made her sit down beside the ambulance that Lois had almost heard as it arrived.
He gestured as he asked her a question. Lois assumed he was asking if she was hurt. Considering the dirt and blood that covered her, she was surprised he didn't have a surgeon examining her.
She lifted her right hand. "My hand is hurt!" A young paramedic gently took her hand and examined it. He pointed to her index and middle fingers and made a gesture like breaking sticks. Lois nodded. "Broken! My fingers are broken! I was holding the gun when it went off." She looked at her hand and got dizzy. "My fingers — broken — Clay — I —"
He caught her before she fell and gently laid her onto a gurney. As her vision cleared, she began to hear again, as if from a great distance. She could hear tires squealing and sirens crying and people yelling. She began to sit up, but the paramedic leaned over her and slowly yelled into her face, "Stay down un-til I fin-ish! O-kay?"
"I can hear you! I'll stay here. What are you doing?"
"I'm splinting your fingers. You should see your doctor as soon as you can. You need some attention on that wound on your chin, too."
"What? What wound?"
He shrugged. "You have an open abrasion. Looks like you scraped it pretty hard on something."
Lois felt her chin with her left hand. It came away damp with blood. She remembered being hit on the chin when the gun had fired. The pistol's ejection slide must have struck her chin when Laura pulled the trigger. She'd been that close to death.
Lois turned her head and held her eyes closed. The noises around her became more distinct and louder to her as the paramedic worked on her hand. Finally, he patted her shoulder. "Ma'am, you can sit up now if you want to."
She didn't want to, but she knew she needed to. She sat up and looked around. Firemen were spraying the smoldering remains of Mayson's car. Two uniformed officers were drawing chalk marks around Mayson's body. A third officer held a blanket, with which she covered Mayson when the chalk was down.
Across the street, two more officers were studying Laura's body. Lois could see the puddle of blood that the young murderer had spilled onto the sidewalk.
Lois thought rapidly as the paramedic cleaned and bandaged her chin. She had to tell them what happened. She'd tell the truth, that Laura had shot at Clark but Superman had intercepted the bullets. Then Mayson's car had exploded and both Clark and Superman had raced across the street to save her, but they'd been too late. Lois had jumped Laura and the other woman had been accidentally shot during the struggle. Superman had seen what Intergang had done and screamed in frustration, then he'd flown away, taking Clark with him. That was all she knew.
That would work. She wouldn't even have to embellish it.
She was rehearsing it in her mind again when Clay walked over to her. "Lois. The paramedic told me your hearing was coming back. Can you understand me?"
She nodded. "Yeah. My ears are still ringing pretty good, but it's better than it was a few minutes ago. I don't think it's permanent."
"Good. You know I have to get a statement from you."
She nodded and repeated her story. He took it down without flinching. Then he sat down beside her. "Did you know the shooter?"
She nodded. "She called herself Laura Nguyen. She was a reporter for the Metropolis bureau of the New York Standard. I was her boss."
Clay looked away. "One of my buddies recognized her. She was seen with another reporter over the weekend, Martin Patrick, the guy you called in the missing persons report on. Have you seen him?"
She shook her head. "She said she'd killed him because he got too close to her. She was with Intergang."
"You said that before. We'll have to verify it, but I believe you." He motioned to the remains of Mayson's car. "You said this was Intergang's work too?"
Lois nodded. She was suddenly very tired. "I have to call my boss. I have to call this in. Where is — did you find my purse?"
He lifted a small, black purse. "This yours?"
"Yes. I have to call this in." She took the purse from him and pulled out a cell phone. "I have to call — " She sat there, staring at the phone, until Clay took it from her and put it back in her purse.
Lois began to tremble. He put his arm around her. She began to sob. He held her tighter. She fell against him and wept out her grief and pain and relief and guilt.
Clay's supervisor released him to take Lois home just after eleven o'clock. He insisted on checking out her apartment before she entered. He searched the entire place while she leaned against the wall beside the door.
"Looks clear, Lois. You have anything to eat here?"
She looked at him blankly. "You're hungry now?"
"It's not for me, it's for you. You need to eat something." He headed towards the kitchen. "Got any soup?"
He assayed a small grin. "Soup. You know, broth with meat and/or vegetables and/or pasta in it?"
She nodded slowly. "Cabinet to the left of the refrigerator. Bottom shelf. Bowls above the silverware drawer."
She heard him shifting pots and scraping silverware. Lois slowly walked to the couch and sat down. Her hand was throbbing and her chin was sore, but the pain she felt most keenly was heartache for Clark. She wondered where he'd gone, how he would deal with this horror.
Clay came back with a bowl of cream of mushroom soup. Lois wasn't hungry until she smelled it, then she couldn't put the bowl down until it was gone. Clay took the empty bowl from her.
"Would you like some more?"
She looked up at him. "Thank you. I better not."
He nodded. "I'll make you some tea." Just then the phone rang. "Right after I answer the phone."
He picked up the receiver. "Lane residence. Officer Clay Mooney speaking. Oh, Chief, yes, she's here. No, I don't think she should — But Chief, I don't — okay, I'll ask her." He put the handset on his shoulder. "The Chief wants to know if you're well enough to take a look at some important evidence."
Lois could tell he didn't think it was a good idea, but she reached out for the phone anyway. "Lois Lane here."
"Ms. Lane, this is Assistant Police Chief Lawson Brown of the Metropolis PD. We have some evidence that we'd like for you, along with a number of others, to take a look at."
She sighed. "Can it wait?"
"It concerns Superman."
That got her attention. "Tell me where and I'll be right there."
"Please give the phone back to Officer Mooney. I'll have him bring you."
"Okay, but he comes in with me."
Brown hesitated, then said, "Okay. He'll find out pretty soon anyway."
Lois held onto Clay's arm as she walked into the police training room. She looked up and saw a number of people she knew, including Perry. He almost ran to her.
"Judas Priest! Lois, honey, you look like the last gig of a thirty-day forty-city concert tour!"
She smiled despite herself. "Thanks, Perry. I'm glad to see you, too."
The chief stood. "Ladies and gentlemen, it's time for the show. Please be seated."
Lois looked at Perry. "What show?"
Perry shrugged. "No idea."
Chief Brown lifted a remote and activated a wall-mounted television, then activated a video player.
The scene came up in another office. Bill Church sat at a console, facing an impressive array of video equipment. There were a dozen faces on different monitors on the screen. Church was just settling himself in his chair.
He spoke almost jovially. "Well, how is the cleanup going?"
One man in the top row of monitors spoke. "We think we have a success rate of greater than seventy percent, Mr. Church."
Church nodded. "Good, good. At that rate, the survivors will be too scattered and disoriented to take concerted action. Let's begin with the regional reports, shall we? We'll start with Cincinnati."
Lois gasped, but Clay put his hand on her arm. A woman in the bottom row of screens answered. "I'm afraid we missed one target out of four, Mr. Church."
"The radio reporter. She was injured, but survived the car bomb."
Church grunted. "Can you get to her in the hospital?"
Lois gasped again. "Perry, that's Catharine!"
"Sshh! Just wait."
The woman smiled. "Give me twenty hours and she'll be one dead kitten."
Church spoke again. "Wonderful! What about Chicago?"
A small man with round glasses lifted his hand nervously. "M-mister Church?"
Church sighed. "What is it?"
"Sir, I — I know we've discussed this before, b-but I still —"
"You still think this whole operation is a bad idea, Mr. Wallace. We know your opinion. You are in error. I assure you that killing, especially on this unprecedented scale, will break the back of law enforcement's investigation in our businesses. No one will attempt to stop us now. No one will get in our way now."
"B-but sir, isn't it just as likely that we'll create more problems than we'll solve?"
"Nonsense! Dead people aren't problems, they're merely statistics. I realize that this is a major shift in the way we have done business, but there's no reason to think that we can't continue in this manner. Now let's proceed with the reports, shall we?"
Lois's eyes began to water. She dashed away the tears before she realized that something on the screen had changed.
Church was looking around uneasily. "What's that?"
A voice off-camera answered. "I — I don't know, sir! It may be — oh no!"
An instant later, Superman exploded through the wall to the left of the monitors. Bill Church lurched to his feet and began protesting. "Superman, you're trespassing on private property! I demand that you leave now!"
Superman strode to the front of the panel. He looked off camera where the voice of the technician had come from and squinted. A burst of smoke appeared and the technician screamed, then began crying.
Church became indignant. "Superman, you've deliberately injured one of my employees! This is inexcusable behavior! Once again, I demand that you leave now! You will hear from my legal staff!"
Superman looked at the monitors. The anger in his voice was almost a tangible thing, even on the videotape. "I've already traced all of your signals. I know where each of you is sitting or standing. Remain there and I'll come to pick you up in a moment. You're all going to jail, unless I have to go looking for you."
Then he reached out and pulled the head of Intergang towards him. "All but you, Bill. You killed a lot of people tonight. One of them was an assistant DA. Her name was Mayson Drake. You blew her up and burned her to death like she was nothing! She meant nothing to you! You have no respect for human life! You murdered her for trying to protect the weak and helpless! You're less than human! You don't deserve to live!"
Then Superman did something that Lois had never even dreamed he was capable of doing. He lifted Church into the air with one hand and thrust his other hand deep into Bill Church's chest. Church screamed in agony. Then Superman pulled the criminal's heart right out of his body. Blood fountainted onto the monitors, the chair, the floor, and onto Superman. The enraged superhero held the quivering organ in front of Bill Church's face as the former head of Intergang folded in on himself and died.
Superman then dropped Church's body and the sundered heart to the floor. He spun and flashed out of the hole he'd made in the hall. One by one, the terrorized and stricken faces on the monitors disappeared.
Chief Brown stopped the playback. "All of the people on those monitors have been identified as people who have been delivered to various police stations in the Intergang investigation region. Last night, counting the unsuccessful attacks on Ms. Lane and Mr. Kent, there were eleven unsuccessful attempts on the lives of various members of law enforcement and the news media." He paused. "There were also forty-three successful attempts."
A collective gasp arose from the group. The chief raised his hands. "Please. Superman, by his precipitate action with Bill Church, has ensured that all of these people confessed freely to everything asked of them, even after counsel was brought in. We have made or will make hundreds more arrests, based on those statements and the evidence we already had. I have no idea whether or not those confessions will stand up in court, but I do know that Intergang has been dealt a deadly blow." He wiped his face with his handkerchief. "I also know that it has cost us forty-three people who were on the side of justice. On balance, I'm not certain it was worth it, but we can't change what has happened. All we can do is move forward."
He sat back against his desk. "You folks are here because you are the media. We ask you to tell the truth about this night. We ask you to say that Superman, acting out of what I believe was frustration and grief, took the law into his own hands, and in an act of vigilante justice, executed the head of Intergang, and then delivered his top lieutenants to the authorities. We're asking you to report the story in this way only because we believe it to be the truth, and not because we're trying to shore up the arrests we have made and will make. We have had no contact with Superman since he dropped off the last of the people whose faces appear on this tape."
Lois raised her hand. "Chief? Can I ask you something?"
"Of course, Ms. Lane."
"What are you going to do to Superman?"
The chief closed his eyes and rubbed his face with his hands. "I don't know. I truly don't know. If Superman doesn't surrender willingly, we have no way to hold him against his will. He hasn't been charged with anything yet. It depends on the courts and the grand jury and, of course, on Superman himself. That's not my call." He straightened his coat. "I know that's probably not the answer you were looking for, but it's the only one I have right now."
Lois leaned back against Clay's shoulder. She was physically and emotionally spent. She'd been injured, seen people die right in front of her, had her own life threatened, had her best friend's life torn apart by a heartless assassin, and worst of all, she'd seen Superman — Clark — totally lose control and deliberately kill someone. It was almost more than she could take.
"Please take me home. I need to go home."
"Sure. I'll bring your Jeep around."
She raised her bandaged hand. "I'm not sure I can drive it."
He smiled gently. "I'll take care of that. You just wait here."
Clay not only took her home, but he helped her clean up and get into bed. When Lois finally awoke the next morning, she glanced at the clock and saw that it was after ten. She tried to leap out of bed, but her body refused to respond and she cried out as she fell to the floor.
Clay, still in uniform, popped through the door and helped her up. She was surprised to see him.
"Clay? What are you doing here?" And then the memories crashed back into her mind. "Oh, no, no, no! Please, no!" Lois fell back on the bed, whimpering, her hands clasped over her mouth. Clay sat down beside her and held her until she was able to control herself.
"I'm sorry, Clay. You must think I'm a totally helpless baby."
"No." He kissed the top of her head. "I think you're a very strong woman who's gone through more in one day than most people could handle in a lifetime. Can you make it now?"
She stood, stiff but stable. "Yes. As long as I take it easy."
"Good. I'll get breakfast ready. It'll be there when you come out."
He was as good as his word. Bacon and eggs and ham and biscuits were waiting for her. She sat down and thought she'd just take a few bites, but before she knew it she was reaching for seconds, and then thirds.
As she finished her orange juice and sat back, Clay put a pad of paper in front of her. "These are the calls you got while you were asleep. Three from the Standard wanting to know when you were coming in, two from Perry White asking about you personally, one from some guy named Les about a cat, and one from Martha Kent. She wants you to call her as soon as you have time. She said it's kind of urgent but not life-threatening."
She put out her good hand. "Phone, please." He complied and she began dialing Les's number.
"Yes, this is Lois Lane. Is this Les?"
"Oh! Ms. Lane, yes, this is Les! I'm so glad you called!"
"I'm Lois, Les. Can you tell me how badly Cat — I mean Catharine — is hurt?"
His voice darkened. "Oh, Lois, she's lucky to be alive! One of our interns chased her out to the parking lot to ask her a question, and instead of getting in her car Catharine closed the door and started walking back towards the station. The bomb blew up about four seconds later and the force of the blast tossed her completely across the lot. The intern was hurt too, but not nearly as badly."
Lois swallowed her fear. "Is Catharine going to be okay?"
"The doctors don't know yet. She suffered burns and fractures, Ms. Lane. They haven't let me see her. All I know for sure is that she's still alive." His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "But just between you and me and the fencepost, Lois, I think she's going to be okay."
Lois sighed. "Okay, Les. Do me a favor? If she wakes up before I get there, tell her I'm coming to see her. Tell the Fast Lane is coming to visit the News Kitten. Got that?"
He giggled. "News Kitten, eh? That's a good name for her. Yes, I'll tell her. And if there's any significant change in her condition, someone from the station will call you and let you know."
"Thank you, Les. Let me give you my cell number. Ready?"
"Of course. A good newsman always has writing implements at the ready."
Lois smiled and recited her number. "I have some other calls I have to make, Les. I'll talk to you as soon as I know anything about my schedule."
"Of course, Lois. I look forward to meeting you. Good- bye."
She put the phone down and wiped her eyes. Clay handed her a tissue. "Thanks. You're pretty handy in an emergency."
He just nodded. She picked up the phone again and dialed her boss's number.
"Grogan here! Who's this?"
"Lois Lane, Mr. Grogan. I just woke up a little while ago and —"
"Just woke up? Lane, you do your carousing on your own time! Now come down to the office as soon as you can get here! This place is a disaster area and you've got to take control!"
"Okay, Mr. Grogan. I'll be there as soon as I can."
He slammed the phone down in Lois's ear. She turned to Clay and said, "You feel like driving Miss Daisy again?"
He smiled. "At your service, ma'am. Uh, you might want to take a shower first. No offense intended, Lois, but you smell pretty rank."
She nodded. "Yeah. That'd just make Grogan's day for him."
In full uniform, Clay walked into the Standard newsroom beside Lois. The place was indeed a madhouse. People were yelling at each other and obviously accomplishing very little.
Grogan spotted them and immediately came unglued. "Lane! This is no place to bring your boyfriend! Now get over here and gaahhkk!"
Clay grabbed him by the throat and squeezed. "Listen, you slimy little pus pocket, this woman almost died last night! You be real nice to her or I'll arrest you for being a complete jerk! And there's no statute of limitations on that crime!"
He released Grogan against a desk and glared at him. Grogan rubbed his throat. "Is that true? You were almost killed last night?"
Lois nodded. "Who hired Laura Nguyen?"
"Laura?" Grogan smiled. "I did. Not only is she a good writer, she brings diversity to this newsroom."
"Sure it does. Diversity is so very important. You idiot." Lois pointed her splint in his face. "You hired a murderer."
Grogan paled. "What? What are you —"
"Laura Nguyen was an assassin for Intergang. She blew up Mayson Drake's car and killed her. She tried to shoot me. Oh, and before I forget to tell you, she also killed Martin Patrick because he got too close to learning her real identity."
Grogan went completely white. Clay put a chair under him and began loosening his tie and shirt. "Come on, Mr. Grogan, don't collapse on us now. Just listen to what Lois has to say."
The other reporters had quietly gathered around Lois. She held up her bandaged fingers. "I was lucky. There were forty- three murders committed by Intergang last night. There were eleven unsuccessful attempted murders. Superman broke Intergang last night. He took over a dozen high-ranking leaders to various jails, where they freely confessed their crimes."
Ron stammered, "Laura — she was — she was one of them?" Lois nodded. "Where is she now?"
Clay answered, "In the morgue. Lois fought back and Laura got shot with her own gun." He looked at Lois. "Forensics has already confirmed your story. You'll probably have to give a deposition, but you won't be charged with anything."
Grogan recovered his composure. "Ms. Lane, I apologize for my behavior. I was way out of line. I'm sorry."
Lois nodded. "You didn't know. And you don't know me. Now, Mr. Grogan, I think we have some storytelling to do." Lois turned to give instructions. "Beverly, Deanna, I want copies of every daily that's already gone to press. Find out what's already been printed. Matt, Lisa, you grab some interns and start on the obits of the people who were killed, and get the current conditions of the ones who survived. Ron, I want you in my office now. We have to talk. The rest of you start putting together anything and everything you can find about Intergang. We're going to need that for a launching pad. This will be our main focus for today."
Lois turned to Clay. "Thanks so much. I think I can take it from here."
He smiled and casually saluted. "My pleasure, my friend. If you need me, just call." He turned and left.
Lois headed towards her office, but Grogan stopped her. "Ms. Lane, you didn't say what happened to the head of Intergang."
She turned her head away. "He's dead."
"Oh? What happened to him?"
She hesitated. "Superman happened to him."
"What?" He paled again. "Superman killed him?" Lois nodded. "Was it an accident?"
"No. It was quite deliberate. The police have the scene on video."
"Wow." He walked around Lois and shook his head. "This is — well, not great, of course, but it is most advantageous! We can finally counter the Daily Planet and their constant barrage of pro-Superman stories! We can be the paper that brought down Superman! We can rule this town! Are you ready, Ms. Lane? Are you?"
She stared at him. "Grogan, over forty people are dead and you're worried about how the Standard can take advantage of this disaster! This is more like a terrorist attack than criminal activity! Intergang was trying to take over this whole state and probably more! Superman is missing and no one knows where he is! There are hundreds of people suffering because of this and you want use it to sell papers!" She stomped towards him threateningly. "Get out! Get out of my newsroom!"
"Your newsroom? Lane, you —"
"Out! NOW! Or I'll call that police officer back here and have you arrested for — for indecency in the face of death and suffering! Move it!"
Grogan left. Lois knew there would be a huge price to pay for what she had done, but at the moment she had something more important to take care of.
She limped into her office. Ron was sitting in a chair against the wall. He looked as if his entire world had just collapsed into a primordial ooze right before his eyes.
He looked up at Lois. "Did she really — " He couldn't finish.
As gently as she could, she said, "Yes."
Ron shook his head. "How could I have missed it? I'm an investigator. I see through the lies. I find out the truth. But I never even suspected that cute little Laura — Man! I'm an idiot!"
She sat down in the chair beside him. "No, you're not. She fooled everyone. Martin told me last Thursday that Intergang had someone in the newsroom, but she never crossed my mind as a suspect. She was very good at what she did."
"Yeah." He crossed his arms. "Our story was printed this morning. It looked great. I was looking forward to celebrating with her."
"I know, and I'm really sorry. Ron, there are a bunch of things you'll have to work through, but right now I need you to help me. I have stories to write and I can't type with this." She held up her splinted fingers. "You'll have to transcribe as I talk. Can you do that?"
He leaned forward. "Yes. That much I can do."
"Good. Go ahead and sign on to my machine. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."
Lois talked for over two hours. Finally Ron called a halt. "My fingers are sore and we both need something to eat. Let me go get a pizza and soft drinks, and we'll start again after I lick my fingers clean."
"Okay. What are you getting?"
"Thin crust cheese. I suppose you like the deep dish kind?"
She nodded. "With pepperoni and mushrooms."
"Typical." He sighed. "I can't afford to get two. I'll get one half-and-half."
"Half thin crust and half deep dish?"
"It'll be a challenge for them."
She smiled. Ron would be okay. It would take a while, and he'd carry some scars, but he'd make it.
Now for the hardest thing she had to do that day. After Ron left, she dialed the Kent's number and waited.
Jonathan answered on the second ring. "Hello?"
"This is Lois. How are you, Jonathan?"
"Lois! Hold on!" He pulled the phone down but still blasted through the handset. "MARTHA!! LOIS IS ON THE LINE!!"
Lois heard her pick up. "Lois! Honey, are you okay? We saw some of what happened on the news. Did you get hurt?"
"I'll be alright, Martha. I have two broken fingers, a cut on my chin, and lots of sore muscles. I'll heal. I'm so sorry I haven't called before now. I've been literally swamped with stuff and I haven't been alone until now." Her voice almost broke. "What — what about Clark?"
"What? What do you mean, what about Clark? What happened to him?"
"Martha, you mean he's not there? Oh, no, no, no!"
"Lois! What happened? What's wrong with my son?"
Jonathan spoke. "Martha, calm down. If something had happened to Clark, Lois wouldn't have asked us how he was. She'd know already."
"Oh. Oh! Of course, yes. Lois, please tell us what happened."
She related the tale to them, sparing them nothing until she got to the surveillance video. "I — you need to sit down now. Both of you. I mean it."
Jonathan grunted. "Okay, I'm sitting on a barrel. Martha?"
"I'm on a kitchen chair. Lois, what is it?"
"Clark — Superman saw Mayson die, right in front of him. He couldn't do a thing about it. He couldn't help her. He went a little crazy. He burst into Intergang's communication center and killed Bill Church."
A deathly silence reigned on the Kansas end of the line. "Jonathan, Martha, are you there? Did you hear me?"
Martha began crying. Jonathan said, "Lois, if anyone else had told us this, we wouldn't have believed it. Are you sure — could it have been an accident? Could Superman have — have killed him without meaning to?"
"No." She took a deep breath. "Brace yourselves for when the story comes out. Superman killed him deliberately and some people are going to crucify him for it."
Jonathan stifled a sob. "So — so that's why — that's why you asked about Clark, since they're — so close."
"Yes. Yes, that's it. I'm so sorry, I would have given anything not to be the one to tell you, but —"
"No! Lois, I'd rather hear this from you than from a stranger. You know — you know all of us. You understand." Martha blew her nose. "We — Jonathan and I need to talk now. Please call us back soon, Lois."
"I will, Martha. I'll try to come out soon, too. I — I love you."
"We love you too, dear. Oh, here comes Jonathan now. Good- bye, Lois."
She clicked off. Lois realized she hadn't mentioned Catharine's injuries to them. She decided to save that one. They had enough burdens to carry for now.
Lois was trapped by invisible sand up to her chin. She saw Mayson get in her car. Lois tried to tell her to get out, that she was in danger. Mayson just looked at her like she was asking Lois to do something, but Lois didn't know what. Then Clark floated down out of the sky and landed between them. He looked confused and distraught. Mayson, from behind the steering wheel of her car, pointed to Clark and then to Lois. Lois shook her head 'no,' but Mayson just smiled sadly and nodded.
Then the car blew up in Lois's face.
Lois jerked upright in her chair. She'd fallen asleep in her office, something she never thought she'd do. She shook her head, remembering her dream. She wondered if she understood correctly what it meant.
Ron popped through the door carrying two pizza boxes. "This was all I could salvage from the marauding horde outside. Those kids can really put away the pizza!"
"Thanks, Ron. Hey, refresh me on this. We sent off two stories before you left, didn't we?"
He nodded around a slice. "Yep. One straight reporting piece and one editorial." He swallowed and eyed her. "You're going to get some flak about the editorial, too."
"How do you know?"
Ron pointed to the two older men walking towards Lois's office. "That's how."
Lois glanced at them. "Grogan and who?"
"Mr. Lyle, one of the minority owners. Good luck."
Lois's next question was forestalled when the two men entered her office. Grogan stared pointedly at Ron until he smiled and said, "Hey, I'm late for my pedicure. See you in a few hours." Then he left.
Grogan turned to the short, dapper black man beside him. "Mr. Lyle, I apologize for Dan. He's something of a — a free spirit, I'm afraid."
Lyle smiled and pointed at the pizza box. "I think we interrupted his lunch. And that of Ms. Lane, also. Ms. Lane, I am Andre Lyle, one of the minority owners of the Standard." He reached out to shake her hand.
Lois stood and offered her left hand. He looked at her hands and said, "I'm sorry, I wasn't told that you were injured."
Grogan waved one hand. "Just a couple of broken fingers, Mr. Lyle. She's practically as good as new right now."
Lois sat down. "Gentlemen, to what do I owe the honor of this visit?"
Lyle opened his mouth, but Grogan cut him off. "It's your editorial, Lois. We think you're being too soft on the super- vigilante."
Lois just sat there and stared at him. After a long moment, Grogan went on. "We think that our position should be one of condemnation. After all, Superman essentially executed a man who hadn't been tried, wasn't given legal counsel, had no appeals made available to him, and was denied his civil rights. We believe we should lead out in calling for Superman's arrest and trial for manslaughter, or even murder."
Lois nodded slowly and turned to the other man. "Mr. Lyle, what do you have to say on this matter?"
Again, Grogan cut him off. "Lois, I've just enumerated the paper's position on this issue. It's your job to put it in practice now. You need to re-write your editorial using this viewpoint."
Grogan's jaw dropped. "What? What do you —"
"Mr. Grogan, as I told you when I kicked you out of here this morning — " Lyle's eyes widened and he fought to contain his laughter " — I will write the entire story and not focus only on what Superman has done. If you'll read the entire piece, you'll find that I do indeed condemn Superman's actions. But I also understand why he did what he did. He was obviously enraged by Intergang's continued pursuit of power and money without regard to human life. In a moment of weakness brought on by frustration and righteous anger, he stepped over the line and took a life. But we have to remember whose life he took. Superman didn't murder an innocent man. He killed a man who was directly responsible for the deaths of forty-five people in one day. That's mass-murderer status by anyone's count."
Lyle lifted his hand. "Excuse me. I'm sorry to nit-pick, but I thought there were forty-three fatalities. Have I missed something?"
"Two of the injured have died. There are at least three more who may not survive."
"I see. Forgive me for interrupting. Please continue."
"Thank you, Mr. Lyle. Mr. Grogan, I will not clobber one man for a killing done in anger and make a victim of another man who committed many more killings deliberately and in cold blood. You want someone to do that, you'll have to get someone else. I'm not your woman."
Grogan stood. "I see. Perhaps we made a mistake in hiring you after all."
"Perhaps you did." Lois stood also. "Should I gather my personal effects?"
Grogan stared at her. "We'll see." He strode out of her office and stopped at the door. "Mr. Lyle, are you coming?"
"In a moment, Mr. Grogan. I'd like to discuss some things with Ms. Lane first."
He scowled and nodded. "I'll see you at the four o'clock meeting. Until then."
Lyle watched him leave. "Please sit down, Ms. Lane. You have obviously been through a bad time, and I deeply regret having to disturb you."
She sat. "I'm used to it by now."
Lyle smiled again. Lois thought he had a nice smile. "Ms. Lane, I have to tell you that, while Mr. Grogan does not represent the editorial position of the entire paper, he has a great deal of power and influence. He will attempt to force you to bend to his will."
"Really? And here I thought he was such a sweet, cuddly little thing."
Lyle laughed aloud. "Oh, you have spirit, I grant you that! And I think you have a great deal of integrity. That speaks well both of you and the organization we stole you from."
"The Planet?" Lois frowned. "Thank you, I think. I'm not sure I'm thinking altogether clearly at the moment."
"You think a good deal more clearly than your predecessor did. He would have tripped over himself to re-write that editorial." Lyle picked up a piece of pizza and bit into it. "This is quite delicious. He also would never have shared lunch in this office with a reporter on his staff."
Lois nodded. "I can see why he was so well loved. And that reporter's name is Ron Dombrowski, not Dan. Grogan didn't even get that right."
Lyle wiped his mouth with a napkin as he finished his pizza. "Ms. Lane, I agree with your position on the Superman situation. I think we should focus on Intergang and present them in the worst possible light. But I fear that I do not make those decisions, I merely contribute to them." He stood and buttoned his suit jacket. "I am but a minority owner in word, in value, and in ethnic origin."
Lois stood. "Maybe you and Grogan could exchange jobs."
Lyle laughed again. "I almost wish we could. I believe I would appreciate working with you, Ms. Lane, even if I might not enjoy it all the time."
"A stable that has no ox in it is always clean, but no work gets done."
He cocked his head. "That is from the Book of Proverbs, is it not?"
She shrugged. "That or something like it. It just popped into my head. You'll have to decide if it's germane to our conversation."
"If you mean that two people who never disagree have only one functioning brain between them, then I think it is germane. Well, I must go. I think you should take the rest of the day off. You have been through a great deal, and surely you need rest."
She shook her head. "Mr. Lyle, I will not re-write my editorial to attack Superman."
"I would be most disappointed if you did so, Ms. Lane. Your story and your article will both run in the afternoon edition unchanged from your original source document. Beyond that, however, I cannot promise anything."
"I understand. Thank you, Mr. Lyle. I think I will go home and get some sleep."
Lois fumbled with her keys. Her fingers were throbbing slightly. She decided to go see her doctor, and then realized that he didn't yet know that she'd been hurt. He'd be thrilled to learn that a paramedic had splinted her hand and she'd had no X-rays done.
Traffic was unusually light, but there were quite a few police officers in view, all wearing stern expressions. Lois turned a corner to head to the doctor's office, and suddenly realized she was driving past the Planet building. On impulse, she decided to drop in on Perry and find out what she could about Clark.
She pulled into a metered space. When she approached the meter, she noticed that there were almost two hours left on it. She nodded to herself, thinking that it was the first good break she'd had in what seemed like a long time.
She pushed through the revolving door, glanced to her right, and saw Clark standing beside the security desk. He was signing a document on a clipboard, and he had a box beside him that reminded Lois of Catharine's stash when she'd left.
She walked up to the desk and waited for him to finish. He turned and saw her, then nodded. "Hi, Lois. Are you — are you okay?"
She nodded. "I'll be fine. Just a couple of dings." She motioned to the box. "Clark, are you leaving?"
He wouldn't meet her gaze. "Yes. Since Mayson — I'm moving back to Kansas. I can't be here right now."
She glanced around. "Can we sit down and talk for a minute?"
He hesitated, and she thought he would refuse, but he nodded. "I suppose so. Have you had lunch?"
"Yes, but I'm always thirsty."
He almost smiled. "Okay. Coffee in the park?"
"Sure. My treat?" He raised one eyebrow. "Hey, your hands are full."
He nodded. "Okay."
They sat on a bench near the memorial statue. Clark sipped his coffee and leaned forward. "Thank you, Lois."
"You're welcome. Can you tell me where you've been?"
"How did you know I'd been gone?"
"I called your folks this morning. They hadn't heard from you."
He froze for a moment, then dropped his head. "I've been in the Arctic, thinking and — thinking, ever since I dropped off the last of the Intergang bosses. What did you tell my parents?"
"The bare bones of the story. We didn't discuss the whys or the wherefores. That's your job. I just couldn't allow them to hear it on the news first."
He nodded. "You're right. Thank you again." He sighed. "I should have told them, but I just couldn't." He rubbed his eyes and his fingers came away damp. "I'm really going to miss her, Lois. I was going to tell her. I don't know what she would have said or done, but I would have told her."
She patted him on the shoulder. "I know. I think she would have been okay with it, eventually."
He looked up at her. "Really?" She nodded. "You're not just trying to make me feel better?"
She grinned lopsidedly. "Hey, this is Mad Dog Lane you're talking to. I don't lie to spare people's feelings, remember?"
He leaned back. "I was going to ask her to marry me." He looked at Lois. "Do you think that would have been a good thing?"
She shuddered internally, but put up a brave front and lied through her teeth. "Yes. I think you two would have been very happy together." She turned to face him, the truth now on her lips. "She loved you fiercely, Clark. I think she would have done almost anything for you."
He closed his eyes and nodded. "Thank you, Lois. That means a lot, especially coming from you."
She cocked her head to one side. "Oh? Why is that?"
"Because you're the one person I know — besides my folks — who will always tell me the truth, no matter how much I don't want to hear it."
She smiled. "Thank you, Clark." She leaned back. "When are you leaving for Kansas?"
"Tomorrow morning. I've got to finish packing."
She looked at the memorial. "That should take you, oh, about three minutes or so."
He spoke the word abruptly, so much so that it startled her. "No? Just what does that mean?"
"What do you think it means?"
She clamped down on her rising irritation. "Whoa. No arguing, not today. I'm sorry, Clark, I didn't mean to sound accusatory."
He sighed. "It's my fault. I just have a habit of being perturbed by you."
She nodded. "Me too. Anyway, would you explain what you meant?"
He looked down at his feet. "Superman is gone."
She hesitated, not wanting to push him too hard. "Clark? What do you mean when you say, 'Superman is gone'?"
"I mean that I — Superman can't be trusted to control himself. I mean that what Superman stands for has been compromised. I doubt you'll see him in the near future, if ever again."
She nodded. "I can't say that I understand, Clark, but I know what you're driving at. But remember all the good Superman has done. Remember, too, that as powerful as he is, he isn't God. No one can fix everything, not even Superman."
He looked at her, agony in his eyes. "Mayson's dead because I hesitated. You got hurt because I got distracted. Bill Church is dead because I let my feelings dictate my actions. I won't allow myself to make mistakes like that again, Lois. Not ever. Superman will never again hurt someone I care about."
She took a breath to argue, but the look on his face stopped her. She realized he had to work through this on his own. She took her own advice and quit trying to fix Clark's life.
"Okay. I hope that's the right decision."
"Thanks, Lois. And thanks for dropping by to see me."
She blushed slightly. "Actually, I came by to see Perry. I just happened to run into you."
"Oh." He had the grace to smile. "There goes the final microscopic remnant of my shattered ego, swirling down the drain."
She giggled and stood. "I think you'll survive." Then she blanched. "Oh, no! Clark, I'm so sorry! I'm such an idiot! Please forgive me!"
He reached out and touched her hand. "It's okay, Lois, I understand what you meant, and I appreciate it." He stood also. "I have to get going now. My plane leaves just about dark-thirty in the morning, and I still have some loose ends to tie up." He put out his right hand, then remembered Lois's injury, and put out his left. She took it and held it gently.
"Good-bye, Clark. Have a good life."
"You too." He picked up his box of stuff and walked away slowly. She watched him go. She knew his strength, but feared that he might not be able to bear this burden.
She also hoped she could face life without him.
She turned and limped towards the Planet. She'd drop in on Perry and then head towards the doctor, then make plans to go visit Cath. She mused that getting time off might not be a problem; she might be unemployed by tomorrow.
Perry was in his office talking with Franklin Stern. Lois almost turned and left, but Jimmy touched her elbow. "Lois! It's really great to see you. Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?"
"I think I'd better. Thanks, Jim."
He pulled out his chair and helped her sit. Her left knee was getting stiff; she wondered if it was also damaged.
"Boy, the Chief's been in there with Mr. Stern for a long time. He's really bummed. Perry's bummed, I mean."
Lois relaxed into the chair. For some reason, the Planet's chairs were more comfortable than the ones at the Standard. "Why? Is he upset about Clark leaving?"
Jimmy stared at her. "How did you know that? I only found out about twenty minutes ago myself!" He shook his head. "Sheesh, you're good!"
She grinned at him. "I ran into Clark as he was heading out the door."
"Oh. You mean, you two had a civil conversation?"
"Yep. I suppose I'm mellowing out in my old age."
"Naw, not you! Anyway, Clark leaving is part of it. Mostly he's upset about Bill Church."
"Why? What did — " and then Lois remembered that Perry and Bill had been friends. "Oh, no! Not again!"
"What is it, Lois? What's wrong now?"
She pounded her head with her fist. "I just said something galactically stupid to Clark, and now I completely forgot about Perry and his feelings!" She moaned. "And on top of all that, now I have a headache."
Just then, Franklin Stern came out of Perry's office and spotted her. "Lois Lane, as I live and breathe! It's good to see you up and about." He held out his left hand to her and she took it. "How are you feeling?"
She shrugged. "As well as can be expected, I suppose, Mr. Stern. Thank you for asking."
"Think nothing of it! Well, I must be going. Lois, James, I'll see you later."
Jimmy watched him leave. "Wow. He sure fills up a room. Hey, I think Perry's free now."
Lois slowly rose and walked to Perry's door. She knocked gently. When he saw her, his face lit up.
"Lois, honey! Come on in. Olsen, haven't you got something important to do?"
"Sure, Chief! I'll get right back to it."
Perry closed the door behind her. "How are you? Your hand hurt much?"
"Not too badly."
"I noticed you were limping. Ankle sore?"
"No, my knee is stiff. I was on my way to the doctor when I decided to come and see you."
Perry smiled warmly. "That's sweet of you, Lois." He sighed deeply. "I just can't believe I missed this so badly. Bill Church, my good friend and criminal mastermind."
"Perry, one of my reporters was a hitwoman for Intergang. It never crossed my mind, either. These people got away with what they did because they were so adept at looking like sheep and actually being wolves. Don't beat yourself up too badly."
He nodded. "You're right, but I still can't forget it. After all, I'm a veteran investigative reporter. I might have saved some lives."
"You might be dead, too. That hitwoman killed another reporter who got too close to her real identity. They fooled a lot of people."
"Okay, okay, you've made your point. We're all doofuses on this one." He stood and paced. "You know, I really wish now that you hadn't left. Clark's going back to Kansas. Poor guy. I can't imagine how I'd feel if Alice was murdered right in front of me, and me not being able to help her."
"Me either. But I may not be at the Standard much longer, either."
"Huh? What in Graceland for?"
"I was told this morning, in no uncertain terms, that the Standard's editorial policy will be to hound Superman because of what he did to Bill Church. I told Grogan that I wouldn't do it. He made some veiled threats, and I don't know if I'll have a job in the morning or not."
Perry pointed a finger at her. "You say the word and you're back here! I'll even designate you associate editor! And I'm not saying this just to be nice. Without Clark here, there's no one else who can carry the rest of the load, and, well, I'm just not as young and energetic as I used to be."
She smiled warmly. "Thanks, Perry. I may take you up on it. Have you heard anything about Catharine since this morning?"
Perry frowned. "I thought she was okay. Oh! I forgot! Blast! That woman told Bill that she was going to take care of the kitten!" He pounded his forehead with his fist. "I'm such a total moron!"
Lois grabbed his hand. "Perry, stop! You'll only give yourself a headache. Believe me, I know."
He stopped and stared at her. She grinned back and pointed to her forehead, and they shared a chuckle.
"Oh, Lois, that's almost like old times! Where are you off to now? Have you eaten yet?"
"I'm good, Perry, but thanks. After I leave the doctor's office, I'm going to call the Standard to see if I still have a job. Whether I do or not, I'm flying to Cincinnati as soon as I can to see Cath. Her boss told me he thinks she's going to pull through, but I want — no, I need to see her myself."
He nodded. "I understand. Did you know we lost someone else last night?"
She blanched. "What? Who?"
"Miriam Blake, the head of research and archives." He paused and sighed deeply. "She got married last night in Vegas."
Lois slapped him on the arm with her good hand. "You fink! Don't do that to me! I'm not as young as I used to be, either!"
Perry laughed. "You should have seen your face! It was priceless!"
"You're so mean!" She leaned back in the chair and pouted.
"Aw, honey, don't do that! Look, the real reason I mentioned it was because we need to replace her, and I'll bet Cat could do the job with her eyes closed. You tell her if she wants to come back to the big city, she has a job here if she wants it. And tell her she'll work like a horse! No catnaps all day. Got that?"
Lois stood and saluted. "Got it, Chief." She turned to go.
Perry shouted after her, "And don't call me 'Chief!'"
Lois walked into the office and saw the receptionist behind her counter. The hefty woman looked up Lois awkwardly signed in. "Miss Lane, what are you doing here today?"
Lois held up her hand. "Hi, Connie. Broken fingers and a sore knee. Doctor Perkins have room for a drop-in?"
She smiled a tired smile. "For you? You do not even have to ask. Come on back and I will set up the X-ray for you."
They moved her quickly to the exam room and slid the X-ray photo into the viewer. Dr. Perkins shook his head as he looked at Lois's hand. "This is pretty good work for a paramedic. I need to re-splint them, but I don't think you'll have any permanent damage. How about your knee?"
"Feels swollen and stiff. I think I twisted it somehow."
He felt her leg and manipulated it. "I don't think you have any ligament damage. If it's still bothering you on Friday we'll do an MRI. Until then, you should put ice on it to relieve the swelling and keep it elevated as much as possible."
She sighed. "Good. I was afraid it was going to be a problem."
He grinned. "Don't borrow trouble, Lois. You have enough of that as it is. Let me look at that chin now. Hmm, not too bad. Paramedic fix that too?" Lois nodded. "I'll have to get that young man's name and let him know I approve of his work. Believe me, they get more than enough complaints from doctors who don't work on emergency room patients. Might do the young man some good."
"I don't know his name."
"It'll be in the incident report. Never mind, I'll have Connie get it for me. What with the fingers and the chin and the knee and the stress you've been under, I want you to take a couple of days off. Can you do that?"
Lois smirked. "If you'll let me make a phone call, I'll tell you." She pulled out her cell phone and dialed the Standard's newsroom.
"New York Standard, Metropolis bureau, Ron Dombrowski speaking."
"Ron, this is Lois Lane. Anything hot happening?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."
"Ron? It's Lois. Your boss, remember?"
"Because we've been forbidden to talk to that Lois Lane person. Mr. Grogan has informed us that Ms. Lane is no longer employed by the New York Standard, and we're not supposed to talk to anyone about this, especially any attorneys, and most especially Ms. Lane herself. We're specifically not supposed to tell her that the Standard is preparing for a lawsuit from her and that any evidence that Laura Nguyen was an Intergang assassin is being suppressed. We're absolutely forbidden from telling anyone that Lois Lane was acting on behalf of the Standard when she was injured, because the official position of the Standard is that she was acting on her own, and therefore is not covered under the paper's insurance."
"Oh. I see. Thank you for not telling me this, Mr. Dombrowski."
"And I probably shouldn't tell Ms. Lane that I've still got the envelope she gave me the other day before she met Laura. Grogan doesn't know about it. He'd probably destroy it. It's a good thing for Grogan that Lois doesn't know that I've made a copy of it and mailed it to her, and that the original is in my safety deposit box."
Lois grinned. "Thanks for not giving me any information, Ron. My attorney and I will be in touch with the Standard tomorrow. Talk to you later."
"I'm sorry, I didn't get your name. Oh, well, that's life. Good-bye."
She closed the phone and turned back to the doctor. "Looks like taking it easy for a couple of days won't be a problem. I would like to go see a friend in Ohio as soon as I can."
He shook his head. "You stay in town for a couple of days and come see me on Friday morning. If you're doing well, I'll release you to travel then."
She nodded. "Okay. You're the doctor."
He looked at her oddly. "You're taking this awfully well. You usually argue with me until Connie comes back and threatens to call the police on both of us."
Lois dropped her gaze. "I almost died last night, Doctor. I saw two other women die very messily right in front of me. I don't — it's going to take me some time to get over this."
He nodded. "I think I understand. I know a couple of pretty good counselors you might want to have a talk with."
"Thanks. I have someone already. I think I'll go see her tomorrow."
"Good idea. Now let me get at those fingers."
Lois put the bottle of prescription painkillers on her kitchen cabinet and picked up the phone. Perry, of course, was still at his desk, even this late in the day.
"Hi, Perry, it's Lois."
"Oh, that's rich. I suppose you'll want your own network time slot now."
"Naw! I got enough to keep my busy nine days a week! When are you coming back to help me run this monstrosity?"
"As soon as you want me to, assuming the job is still open."
"Lois, honey, of course that offer is still open! In fact, you're on the payroll as of right now. I can just reactivate you with a phone call first thing tomorrow morning."
"Thanks, Perry. You might want to wait until I get back from Ohio."
"Nope. That's your first assignment, to take a recruiting trip to the Midwest. When can you leave?"
"Not until my doctor releases me."
"Huh! Since when have you listened to doctors?"
Perry was silent for a moment. "Okay, Lois, I gotcha. You need a good lawyer for dealing with the Standard?"
"I have one, thanks. We're going to call Grogan in the morning."
Perry snorted. "Honey, you just let your attorney lean on Grogan just a little and he'll crumble like a sand castle in a hurricane. He's been chasing the Planet for twelve years and he's never understood that integrity is more than a word following 'integer' in the dictionary."
Lois grinned. "Yeah, I kinda got that impression too. I'll talk to you as soon as I know something, Perry. And thank you. Thank you so very much."
"Hey, I can't afford to lose my very favorite associate editor! Get some rest, Lois."
Dr. Perkins had warned her about the side effects of the painkiller, but he hadn't warned her about vivid dreams. She met Mayson again, but Clark wasn't there, not at first. Lois couldn't move until Mayson wiggled her fingers for Lois to follow. They walked into a room together and saw Clark strapped to the wall. He didn't seem to know them. Mayson walked up to him and pulled open his shirt, but instead of the super-suit, there was a deep, bloody wound on his chest. Lois reached out to touch it, knowing somehow that she could help Clark with just a touch, but Mayson stopped her and said, "No. If you help him heal, you will become part of the scar. He must heal first. Don't repeat my mistake."
Lois shook her head. "I don't understand."
Mayson gently pulled Lois back. "You will."
That was all she remembered from the dream when she awoke the next morning.
Lois sat beside Catharine's hospital bed and watched her sleep. The nurse had told her that Catharine was due to wake up sometime in the next hour, and yes, she could stay if she behaved herself. The oxygen tank wheezed, the cardiac monitor beeped, and Lois cringed at the bandages covering Catharine's torso and eyes.
She looked at the clock on the wall, and when she turned back, Catharine was smiling in her direction. She barely whispered, "Les, is that you?"
Lois's eyes filled. "No. No, it's Lois." She touched Catharine's left hand with hers. "Can you hear me?"
"Lois? Oh, Lois!" Catharine grabbed her hand and squeezed it. "Thank you. Thank you so very, very much!"
"Didn't Les tell you I was coming?"
"Yes, but I didn't think you'd get here so fast!"
Lois blinked. "Cath, it's mid-day on Saturday. My doctor didn't release me to travel until late yesterday. You've been in here since Tuesday night."
"What? You mean I — oh, yeah, I kinda remember now. Did they find out who blew up my Porsche?"
Despite the situation, Lois giggled. "Cath, you bought a Porsche? What about keeping a low profile, being sedate?"
She smiled. "That must have been some other silly kitten who told you that."
Lois smiled back. "I talked to the doctor. He said you're making very good progress."
"Good. Did he say when I'd be able to go dancing again?"
Lois lost her smile. "Cath, do you remember talking to the doctor yourself?"
Catharine's smile faded too. "Oh. Yeah, I do now, sort of. Um. I'm not real clear on a lot of things. How about you recap it for me?"
"Oh, Cath, I don't know if I should —"
Catharine gripped Lois's hand ferociously. "Please! Tell me how badly I'm hurt. I can take it from a friend."
Lois squeezed back. "Okay. We'll go from top to bottom if that's okay with you."
"Bottom? Oh, please don't tell me they blew my butt off."
Lois spluttered. "No! No, your fresh little fanny is slightly dinged but basically intact. Now let me run it down for you."
Catharine visibly braced herself. "Go ahead."
"Your hair is mostly burned away, but there's little or no scalp damage, so it should grow back nicely. Your eyes were flash-burned, but the doctor said you should regain most if not all of your vision in a week or so. You might be light-sensitive for a while, but your eyes should be good as new in a few weeks."
She nodded slightly. "Okay so far. Keep going."
Lois sighed. "Both of your lower legs were broken. Some big piece of metal came out and clobbered you. But they should heal nicely. You'll need some rehab, but you'll get your glorious gams back."
Catharine grinned. "Never thought I'd hear you call them 'gams,' Lois. You're getting racy on me."
"There's — one other thing."
"Ah. I thought you were holding out on me."
"Yeah." Lois licked her lips. "Cath, I'd give almost anything not to tell you this, but — you have a spinal injury."
Catharine became very still. "How bad?"
"It's low down, almost to your hips. Your spinal cord is bruised and they can't tell how badly just yet. You may lose — you might not walk as well as you did before."
Catharine didn't move or speak. Lois grabbed her hand. "Oh, Cath, I'm so sorry! I — I wish you'd never heard of Intergang!"
Catharine's head jerked towards Lois. "Intergang! Is that who tried to get me?"
"Yes. I thought you knew."
Catharine chuckled. "If Les told me, I forgot. I thought it was a jealous wife who'd followed me from Metropolis. Hey, I feel lucky! They don't usually miss." She kneaded Lois's hand. "Lois? Did they go after anyone else?"
"Yeah, they did. But I think that story should wait for another session, after your brain is working better."
"But I want to know now!"
A nurse opened the door. "Now, Ms. Grant, you know that curiosity killed the cat."
Lois could tell Catharine was tiring, but she wouldn't give up. "Maybe so, honey, but satisfaction brought it back!"
Lois laughed and Catharine chuckled. The nurse gave Lois a mock frown. "That's enough, Ms. Lane. This young lady needs her rest. You can come back tomorrow."
"I'll do that. You rest, Cath. I'll tell you more bedtime stories next time."
"Okay. Hey, Lois! How long will you be here?"
"As long as you need me to be."
"Lois? Did they go after you?"
Lois paused. "Yes. They missed me too."
"But they — they didn't miss everybody, did they?"
"No. They didn't. But I'll fill you in on all that later, okay?"
"Yes. I'll hold you to that." Catharine grabbed for Lois's hand once more. "Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you for being here with me. Thank you for being my friend."
Lois leaned over and kissed Catharine on the cheek. "Sleep well, friend. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Ralph, turn up the TV! I can't hear it!"
He muttered, "You need a hearing aid."
Lois snarled back, "And you need a personality transplant! Now turn up that volume!"
Senator White's voice filled the newsroom. " — and we once again remember the members of the law enforcement, the judiciary, and the media who gave their lives three years ago this day in the fight for truth and justice. They paid the ultimate price so that we might enjoy freedom. They laid it all on the line in order to build a better tomorrow for all of us.
"The wheels of justice sometimes grind slowly, and all law- abiding citizens of the various cities attacked by Intergang are looking closely at the trials in Federal court which are slowly coming to a climax. Despite the delaying tactics employed by their teams of attorneys, the hard-working and honest people of our nation will require that these criminals answer for what they have done to our society. We all look forward to the day when Intergang will be a history lesson and not a part of our nightly news."
Perry lowered the paper from which he'd been reading and stared at the camera. "I'd also like to add a personal message. Superman, wherever you are, whatever you're doing, we'd like you to come back. The people of Metropolis and, heck, our entire nation, miss you. For that matter, I miss you, you big blue lug. I hope you hear this. Three years is a long time to be away. Please come home."
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you."
The LNN anchor's face popped onto the screen. "This was the prepared and prerecorded statement released by the office of Senator Perry White this morning. Senator White remains in Washington pending the vote on the relief bill for Guatemala and the surrounding —"
"That's enough, Ralph. Turn it down and get back to work."
Ralph groused as he lifted the remote. "Turn it up. Turn it down. Fix the contrast. Bring the donuts. Go get noodles. Man!" He muttered to a co-worker behind him. "Being managing editor has really gone to her head."
He didn't see who the man behind him was. "Do you want me to put that in a memo to the editor, Ralph?"
He spun to face Ron Dombrowski and spluttered, "Dumbo! I — I — I mean Dombrowski! Hey, I was just griping, you know, the inherent right of all employees to complain. Just like in the army. Right?"
Ron stared at Ralph until he scuttled back to his desk. Ron turned to Lois and winked conspiritorially, then sat down at his terminal and went back to work.
Lois motioned Jimmy into her office and closed the door. "Jim, I've been rather rudely informed that we have a change of policy on vacation time. Seems there were some bean-counters who got very upset at Perry when he left last year and insisted on being paid for his fifteen months and change worth of accrued vacation. So, now they're insisting that any and all vacation time gets taken within two years of receiving it or it just goes away, no extra money or time off or anything." She pointed at him. "That's where you come into the picture."
"Me? I didn't think I had any leftover vacation."
"You don't, but I do. And I have to take it or I lose it. I'm leaving on vacation for three weeks, starting this coming Monday. You will be acting co-editor in my absence."
His eyes bulged and his jaw just missed the floor. "Me? Editor? Lois, this is — this is just — it's greater than great!"
She smiled for the first time. "I thought you'd feel that way." A knock sounded at the door. "Ah. That's probably your co-conspirator now." She called out, "Come in."
Catharine Grant pushed the door open and wheeled herself in. "Hi, most high and imperious boss-lady. You summoned me?"
Lois frowned. "Didn't have much choice, actually. I was hoping for Walter Winchell, but he's not available."
"Ooh, you mean Brokaw turned you down, too?"
"Girl, you are incorrigible, you know that?"
Catharine smiled widely. "Somebody has to keep you from getting a big head."
Jimmy broke in, "So why are we here, anyway?"
"Finally, an intelligent question! Jim, you and Cath are going to be subbing for me while I'm on vacation. And if you call me it'd better be a real emergency!"
Catharine grinned. "You cleared this with higher-ups, right?"
"Of course. Neither of you will get any extra money, but the experience will do you both some good, and it'll look great on your records. And if anyone gives you any lip, you take care of it and let me know what you did. About the only thing you can't do is fire anybody, not even Ralph. I'll handle that when I get back." She lifted her purse. "And I'll have my phone with me in case you can't decide to lead with the jelly festival or the dog show."
Jimmy stuck his hand out to Catharine. "Shake, partner! You 'n' me is gonna clean up this here town!"
Lois arched her eyebrows. "Are you implying that I'm not a competent editor, Jim? Maybe Cath needs a different associate."
"One with a more respectful attitude," Catharine added.
"No! No, Lois, I didn't mean that at all! I was just — hey!"
He put his hands on his hips and glared at the two women laughing at his discomfiture. Catharine spun her chair around and popped a wheelie. "See you in a few! I have to call Clay and warn him that he'll be responsible for dinner for a while."
Jimmy followed her out. "Hey, that husband of yours make sergeant yet?"
"Yep! Got the results back on the exam yesterday. I haven't had a chance to tell you. Sorry!"
Lois called after her, "You still owe me dinner for introducing him to you! I expect to collect when I get back!"
Catharine waved gaily and wheeled towards Jimmy's desk. Jimmy stopped just outside the office and leaned back in. "Lois, I'm sorry. Did you need to tell me anything else?"
She shook her head. "Not at the moment. The three of us will get together later today, and then we'll make the formal announcement at a staff meeting tomorrow afternoon."
"Sounds good! Hey, where are you going, anyway?"
She smiled softly. "Direct connection from Metropolis to Wichita, then twin-engine propeller-driven puddle-jumper to Smallville, Kansas."
Martha met Lois at the only gate Smallville's airport contained and hugged her enthusiastically. "Lois! Oh, it's so good to see you again! It's been too long by far!"
"I'm happy to be here, Martha. Thanks for inviting me."
Martha stood back and examined at her. "You look good for an old lady editor! If I didn't like you so much, I'd probably hate you for staying so slender and shapely! I hope you brought some work clothes with you."
Lois's brow creased. "I thought this was a vacation. I brought mostly jeans and flannel shirts."
Martha laughed. "Well, that's what I meant! Springtime in this part of the country means lots of hard labor. We're going to put you to work around the farm, young lady!"
Lois smiled. "Sounds like a wonderful vacation to me."
"Oh, and I love your hair! That short look really works for you."
"Thank you. I've gotten a lot of positive comments about it."
They piled into Martha's pickup and dropped Lois's luggage in the bed. Lois looked all around as they drove through town. "Not much has changed since I was here last."
"Farm towns don't change very much, at least not in the short term. But Maisie has installed a wireless Internet node in her cafe, and her business has almost doubled. Mel has started carrying that new cell phone that's also a walkie-talkie, and he's sold a wagonload of those already."
"Technological change marches on."
"Yes, it does."
They rode for several miles in companionable silence, then Martha asked, "Have you spoken to Clark lately?"
Lois's smile faded and she stared straight ahead. "I sent him a check for a travel piece on Maui two months ago, but that was all done through e-mail and postcards. I haven't talked to him directly for almost a year."
Martha frowned. "I thought so. You don't know this, of course, but he doesn't have a single picture of Mayson, at least not where I can see it."
"Hmm. What do you think that means?"
"Not sure. He might still feel guilty, maybe he hasn't processed all his grief, maybe he didn't really love her like he thought he did. Or thought he should have."
"If that were true, wouldn't that tend to make him feel even more guilty?"
Martha made a face. "Rats. I hadn't thought of that. You're probably right."
Lois chewed on a nail. "I guess she's still with him, too."
Martha glanced over. "What you mean by that?"
Lois grabbed her own hand and forced it down into her lap. "I have got to stop chewing my nails." She sighed. "Mayson's still with me. Every once in a while she'll pop up in my dreams. The situation varies, but I almost feel as if she's asking me to take care of Clark for her. And I still feel a little guilty for the way I treated her."
"You mean over her relationship with Clark?"
Lois nodded. "That too. Mainly, though, I thought she was giving information to Intergang. She wasn't. She was more ethically solid than I was. She still nudges my conscience whenever I'm tempted to cut corners or shade the truth for personal gain. So, in many ways, if there was a competition between us, she won it."
"Honey, I don't think you need to worry about that. Shakespeare was only partly right when he had Mark Anthony say of Julius Caesar that the evil we do lives on, and the good is often buried with us. It works the other way, too. Mayson's memory shouldn't make you uncomfortable. It should inspire you."
"Thanks, Martha. I appreciate that." They rode in silence for a mile or more. "Is Clark here in Smallville?"
"Yes. You know, this is the first time you've visited us when Clark has been here at the same time."
Lois eyed her speculatively. "Funny how that's worked out, isn't it?"
Martha smiled and shook her head. "It's purely coincidence, Lois. Clark's between travel assignments. He's also taking this opportunity review the galley proofs for his latest novel this week and send them back to his publisher."
Lois grinned. "I almost choked on my salad when you told me who K. C. Jerome really is. I still can't quite get over Clark writing best-selling romance novels."
"You didn't tell anyone about it, did you?"
Lois rolled her eyes. "Like anyone would believe me!"
"I don't understand the marketing end of the novel business, but his publisher told him that the people who read that stuff — mostly women — wouldn't accept a man who writes like that. My goodness, some of that stuff makes this old lady's blood pressure skyrocket!"
"But he's such a good writer! He should do more serious work."
"I saw his last royalty check. Clark's making more now that he ever did at the Planet. Besides, the romance formula suits him. When he's in his imaginary worlds, he's in complete charge. And he gets to write happy endings all the time."
Lois nodded. "That makes sense." She shifted in her seat. "What did he say when you told him I was coming to visit?"
"He doesn't know."
"What? You mean you —"
"— Didn't tell him? No. Neither did Jonathan."
Lois stared at Martha, then shook her head slowly. "'Surprise, Clark. Guess who's coming to dinner.' I bet you guys fish with dynamite just for fun."
Clark was in the yard, working on a tractor with his dad, when they arrived. He was wearing jeans and an old football jersey, and Lois thought he looked pretty good. He didn't turn around as the pickup came to a halt beside the gate.
Jonathan turned and waved. "Hi, Martha! Welcome back, Lois! Make yourself at home."
Clark's shoulders froze when he heard Lois's name. He didn't move for a moment, then he leaned down and lifted the tractor to replace the tire he'd repaired. Jonathan walked over to Lois and hugged her.
"Lois, it's good to see another pretty face here! You know, you're almost good-looking enough to give my wife some real competition."
Martha slapped him playfully on the arm. Lois laughed. "Jonathan, you sound like you're trying to dig yourself out of a hole. Did you say something critical about your wife's artwork again?"
The three of them laughed together. Clark finally turned and caught Lois's eyes. His face was as chiseled obsidian. "Hello, Lois. I didn't know you were coming."
"The Planet isn't letting people accrue vacation any more. I had to take it or lose it."
"I see. If this isn't a business trip, then why did you come to see me?"
Lois cocked her head to one side. "I didn't come to see you, Clark. I came to visit my friends, Jonathan and Martha Kent. I didn't know you were here until your mom told me in the truck."
Clark's face relaxed slightly. "Oh. Well, I hope you enjoy your stay."
"Your mother promised to put me to work."
He smiled a little. "Then you'd better get changed. She doesn't allow slackers on the farm."
Martha took Lois's arm. "Come on, let's get you settled so you can get to work. We have some goats that need milking."
Dinner was fabulous, as always, and Lois kept everyone entranced with stories about Ralph, about how well Ron Dombrowski was working out at the paper, about Jimmy's newfound maturity and his engagement, about the newly elected Senator Perry White, and Lois's first year-and-change as the Planet's managing editor. Clark even contributed the fact that not only was she the very first woman to hold that position, she was the youngest managing editor at the paper since before the Spanish-American War.
Martha said, "Lois, let me congratulate you again! You didn't tell me about that."
"That's because I didn't know it. About the age thing, I mean."
Jonathan gestured with his fork. "Well, I think you deserve it. And it sounds like you're doing a good job, too."
Lois nodded. "Thank you. I'm no Perry White, but I do get by."
Clark gulped his tea. "I seem to remember that Perry rarely took any vacation time. Especially early in his career, I think he would have let the vacation time go rather than allow an edition of the Planet go to press without him."
Lois nodded. "You're probably right. In fact, Perry told me just about the same thing when I took over the reins. He also said it was a mistake. Until I came back, there wasn't anyone to whom he'd even think about giving up his job. Except for you, Clark, and well, you — you had to leave. Anyway, Perry told me that I should develop some people, give them some responsibility and let them grow. So, Jim Olsen and Catharine Grant are running the show while I'm gone."
Martha offered seconds. "Anyone want more mashed potatoes? Lois?"
"Thank you, Martha. These sure taste better than the ones in my apartment."
Clark hid a smile from everyone but Lois. "They're fresh out of the ground and not processed six ways from Tuesday. It's no wonder they taste so good."
"Lois, you filled us in about Jim Olsen and Perry White, but you haven't told us about Catharine Grant yet."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Jonathan. She's doing very well. You all knew that she came to live with me after she got out of the hospital?"
Clark's eyebrows went up. "I didn't know that."
"She did. As soon as she could go back to work, Perry put her in charge of research and archives. She was named associate editor when I got my title."
"I'll bet she's good at both of those things," Martha said.
"Oh, she is, believe me. And she's quit chasing men, too."
Jonathan smiled wryly. "Catharine Grant doesn't chase men anymore? That's hard to believe."
Lois grinned back. "That's because she finally caught a good one. I introduced her to Clay Mooney — Martha, you remember him, don't you?"
"Oh, yes! He was really cute. Tall man with dark, wavy hair and nice shoulders. His uniform fit very well."
Jonathan dramatically lowered his fork and frowned at his wife. Clark gagged on his tea and almost dropped the glass. He refused to look at his mother, who smiled conspiratorially at Lois.
Lois giggled. "Anyway, they got married a little over a year ago. He just made sergeant on the Metro PD. He's one of the really good cops."
Clark said, "My first impression of Cat was huge eyes, long, tawny hair, and long, beautiful legs. She was quite stunning." He carefully selected another roll. "How's she doing on her rehab?"
Lois looked appraisingly at Clark, who slowly and carefully buttered his roll. "A little payback, Clark?"
He bit into his roll and didn't answer. She continued, "She's not all the way back with her legs yet. She still uses crutches about half the time, and if she works too hard she has to get back into her wheelchair, but overall she's doing very well. She and Clay went dancing last weekend and it caught up to her, but I think she's as happy as I've ever seen her. Clay loves her more than breathing, and she's over the moon about him, too. They're a terrific pair."
Jonathan smiled. "Pass the rolls, will you, Clark? Thanks. Lois, I'm still a little puzzled that you accepted when the Planet offered you the job as editor. I thought reporting was something you couldn't get away from."
Lois sat back. "I thought so, too. But that was before Laura Nguyen tried to kill me."
"But you've been in dangerous situations before and since, even life-threatening ones. What made this one so different?"
She crossed her arms and looked at her plate. "When I was trying to take that gun away from her, she growled at me like a wild animal. Her eyes were feral and blazing. She scared the fire out of me. I've never faced anything human that was that frightening. And then when the gun went off in my hand and the slide hit my chin, I thought I'd been shot. I see the scar every morning when I do my makeup. It still gives me the willies sometimes." She hugged herself. "I don't think I've ever told anyone that before."
She shuddered, then relaxed. "Anyway, I realized I wasn't bullet-proof, and dying wasn't on my list of things to do for the next few decades. Plus, I really liked being in charge at the Standard, more than I thought I would. If Perry had just offered me a reporting job, I might have turned him down and gone somewhere safer."
"But you didn't. And, as I said before, I think you're doing a good job."
Lois raised her head and smiled. "Thank you, Jonathan. You're very kind. If it's any consolation, I still keep my hand in. I don't just write editorials and tell other people where to stick their unwanted noses."
Clark wiped his mouth and stood. "If you all will excuse me, I have some galley proofs to read. I'm going to try to finish them by the day after tomorrow."
Jonathan looked up at his son. "Is that what was in that big package?"
"Yes. Mr. Hobart frowned more than usual when he handed me the box. It weighs almost nine pounds, and he's not a kid any more."
"None of us are. Okay, Clark, you and I will tackle the combine tomorrow, assuming you'll have the time, while the ladies hit the barn."
"I'll make the time, Dad. Goodnight, Mom, Lois."
Lois rose as Clark padded up the staircase. "I think I'll sit on the porch for a few minutes before I go to bed. Thank you both for letting me come here and decompress."
Jonathan grinned. "Careful, Lois, you might end up a country girl after all."
Lois smiled back and patted him on the shoulder. "That's not very likely, Jonathan, but if I did, I don't think it would be such a bad thing."
Lois gazed at the stars and marveled at just how full of light the sky really was. She rarely took the time to look up when she was in Metropolis, and even then she saw mostly buildings and streetlamps instead of heavenly bodies. She sat in the swing, rocking gently, and didn't hear the soft 'whoosh' beside the house.
Clark came around to the front of the porch and said, "Hello, Lois."
She nodded back, knowing he could see her. That Clark's sudden appearance hadn't startled her indicated how much she had already relaxed. "Hi, Clark. Taking in the night air?"
"Yes. I just needed to get up and out for a minute."
She sighed and looked up again. "It's really beautiful out here. Every time I come out here, I amaze myself. I wonder how I could have forgotten the grandeur and majesty of the heavens. And every time I come here, I feel the same awe when I look up at the stars on my first night."
Clark leaned against the post on the ground. "I know. It can be very soothing."
She sighed again. "It is. You remember how Metropolis is, all pedal-to-the-metal and racing to beat the clock. Here, people live in rhythm with nature instead of fighting it. I don't think I could do this as a lifestyle, but it's wonderful to come and rest here from time to time. This place is a refuge for me, like it is for you. It's no wonder you keep coming back."
"I'm glad you like it. I was wondering, though, about your folks. Any particular reason you aren't visiting them?"
"Aside from the fact that my mother and I can't be in the same room for three consecutive hours without fighting?"
Clark's grin came through in his voice. "Well, there is that, of course."
Lois chuckled. "They're on a medical mission in Kenya. Daddy took a six-month leave of absence and convinced Mom to go with him. They're working in a charity clinic in the bush."
"That's great. They must be getting along, then?"
"Well enough that my mother told me she was taking birth control pills again." Clark tried to stifle a chortle but failed. "That's about what I said. She was kidding, of course, but I'm glad they're back together. Maybe this time it'll be for good."
"I hope so."
They remained silent for a long time. Clark finally stepped up on the porch. "How often have you been out here, Lois?"
She thought for a moment. "This three-week period will be the longest single stretch I've been here, but I've spent about, oh, I'd guess about forty, maybe forty-five days here with your folks, total. That doesn't include the times Martha's come to see me in Metropolis. Why do you ask?"
"Because — I didn't even know you were visiting them."
She looked at him. "That's because you haven't been here when I have. It's also because you didn't really want to know." He stiffened, and she continued. "Relax, Clark. I don't mean that you were avoiding me personally. You just weren't ready to get over what happened with Mayson three years ago."
"I see. Do you think I'm ready to get over it now?"
"I don't know, Clark. I kinda don't think so, though."
"Oh? Why is that?"
"Because Superman is still missing in action."
He took a step back. "I'm still doing super-stuff, at least on occasion."
"I know. You helped stop a forest fire in Siberia last winter, and the summer before that you helped with the rescue and cleanup after a tidal wave hit the Philippines. And I'm sure you help out where you can, when you can, when nobody really knows you're there. But that's what I mean, Clark. You're still hiding. You're not showing yourself to people. You're only active on natural disasters. You haven't stopped a mugging or a bank robbery or lifted a cat out of a tree for quite a while. You don't think you're ready to be back in public."
"Do you think I should be?"
She shrugged. "That's not my decision. It has to be yours, and you have to believe you can help and not hurt. Three years ago, for the first time, you faced a situation that you simply couldn't handle. It overwhelmed you. You think it was your fault."
He turned away and crossed his arms. "Wasn't it?"
Her heart almost burst for him. She replied so softly that a normal human wouldn't have heard her response. "No. It wasn't your fault."
"People died, Lois! Mayson died! I was right there and I didn't save her! I couldn't save her! You almost died too and I didn't — I didn't even try to help you! I did what I said I'd never do. I left you in danger!"
Lois kept her voice low. "I didn't die, Clark. I'm still alive. No deep scars, no permanent damage to my anatomy." She stood and walked to him. "Mayson loved you, but now she's gone, and I'm deeply sorry. She was extremely good at her job, and that's why she was targeted by Intergang. They're the ones who killed her, not you. You did your best."
"My best wasn't good enough. I wasn't good enough!"
Lois sighed. "Clark, did Mayson win all of her cases? Did she nail the bad guys first time out of the box every time?"
"No," he admitted grudgingly.
"Did you catch Lex Luthor before he almost took over Metropolis?"
"No, I didn't."
"Did I win every Kerth I was nominated for, even though my stories were always the best of the nominees?"
His mouth twitched up at the corners. "No, I guess not."
"Then why are you beating yourself up for not being perfect? Only God is perfect, and the last time I checked, you looked pretty good, but you weren't God."
He looked her in the eyes. "I killed Bill Church. I held a human life in my hands and I took it. I ripped his beating heart out of his chest and showed it to him as he died." He turned away. "Is that how a hero is supposed to behave?"
"No. It isn't the way heroes are supposed to act."
He stood there, waiting for her to continue. When she didn't, he turned around again. "This is your cue to recite platitudes and reassurances."
"Sorry, I'm a little short on platitudes today." She crossed her arms and turned away. "You did wrong, hero, and you're still doing wrong."
He snorted. "Now who'd I murder?"
She looked back at him. "The fact that you can make even weak jokes like that one tells me that you've made some progress."
"Don't avoid my question. How am I still doing wrong?"
"Are you sure you want to hear this?"
He inclined his head. "No, but I think I need to hear it."
"Okay." She began pacing slowly. "Mayson wasn't too fond of Superman, mostly because he was outside the law. Oh, you never took the law into your own hands, not that she knew, and you didn't go out hunting for trouble, just for bad guys. But it bothered her that she had no control over you. She could instruct the police on how far to go, she could make decisions on whether or not to indict a suspect, she could present the evidence and pretty much control the prosecution, but she never could control Superman.
"I won't say that I ever really liked her, Clark, but I did respect her. She was very good at what she did, and she was more honest than I was. In some ways, I wish I were more like her."
She stopped pacing and held his gaze. "If Superman doesn't go back and face the music, her memory will always be an unpleasant one for you. The law has to take its course with Superman, which means you have to put on the suit again, go back to Metropolis, and surrender to the police. No charges have ever been filed. Officially, Superman is only wanted for questioning. So I don't know what would happen to you. Maybe a prison term, maybe nothing, maybe something in between. But unless you take that step and find out, you'll spend the rest of your life in a kind of stasis, alive but not really living."
Clark stood so still that Lois couldn't even tell if he was breathing. She wanted to touch him, to comfort him, to hold him close and tell him everything would be alright, to tell him that she'd always be there for him. But instead, she walked back to the swing and sat down. Lois could imagine Mayson whispering in her ear that she was handling this the right way, that Clark needed to do this because it was the right thing to do, not because Lois wanted him to do it.
He stood there, gazing at nothing, for a long time. Finally, Lois stood up and reached for the door, but his words stopped her.
"Please don't go."
She withdrew her hand. "All right."
He turned towards her and fidgeted with his hands. "Lois, I — I'm sorry for the way I acted towards you. I was wrong, so wrong. Please forgive me."
"What are we talking about, Clark?"
"The way I — the horrible way I treated you after — after Lex died. I understand now that you were hurt when I told you I really didn't love you. I was so stupid."
"Yes, you were."
"Oh." He took a step back. "I didn't expect you to agree with me."
She grinned. "I'm no longer as predictable as I once was."
"That's for sure." He put his hands in his pockets. "Lois?"
"What were you going to say to me?"
She furrowed her brow. "You mean just now?"
"No. That day when — when you let me go first."
"Oh." She clasped her hands in front of her mouth and decided to go for broke. "I was going to tell you that I had — very strong feelings for you. I would have said that I'd already stopped the wedding, before Perry and the police burst in, because of those feelings for you. I was going to tell you that I loved you, too."
He reached out for her, but she blocked his embrace. "No! No, Clark, not now. Not like this."
He stepped back. "Not like what?"
"Like this! You can't just take up where we left off!"
"But we know each other so well, Lois."
"You don't know me any more. I've grown, I've changed, I've matured even more. We haven't spoken to each other, except on business, for three years. Three years, Clark! I'm not the same woman you met over four years ago."
She frowned. "Five years? Yeah, I guess it has been that long."
He crossed his arms. "So. What would it take for you to let me back in your life again?"
She took a deep breath. "First of all, love can't be earned. It's not a reward or a prize or something that can be bartered or purchased. It can only be given freely and without conditions.
"Having said that — and having meant it — I can't let you 'back in my life,' as you put it, with unresolved Superman issues. One way or another, you've got to accept responsibility for what happened."
"You mean with Bill Church, right?"
"Partly. You also have to admit to yourself that Mayson died because of Intergang, not because of Superman. You have to stop living in the past."
"You think I've been doing that?"
She put her hands on her hips. "Look at yourself, Clark. You're living at home with your parents, you've pretty much taken off the suit, and you're writing romance novels, of all things! You're K. C. Jerome! You're my mother's favorite romance author, and that's about the last thing I ever thought I'd say about you!" She exhaled deeply and calmed herself. "Look, you've been hiding and healing here for three years, but it's time to break out of the chrysalis. You can't stay in Kansas forever and you can't hide your abilities from the world for the rest of your life. It's time to start living again."
He nodded slowly. "Are those your conditions?"
"What? Clark, you just aren't listening! I'm not setting up conditions for anything or anyone! I'm not making any promises and I'm not trying to force you to do anything you don't want to do! This isn't for me, or for the world, or even for Mayson. It's for you! It's your decision, not mine! And I've got to get up earlier than I'm used to so I can gather eggs and muck out a very nasty barn. Goodnight!"
She yanked the door open and went to her room on the ground floor. She sat on the bed and forced the tears back. She didn't want Clark to hear her crying. This had to be his decision. He had to do this for himself and not for her, or else he'd be emotionally dependent on her for the rest of his life. She refused to have that on her conscience.
She slept, eventually, and dreamed of Mayson yet again. This time Mayson came to her while Lois was sitting at her desk at the Planet. Mayson was carrying Superman's cape, folded neatly into a square, and on top of the cape sat a pair of glasses. Mayson put the cape and the glasses down in front of Lois and nodded to her. Then Clark came into the office and said, "Oh, that's where they are! Thanks, Lois." He picked up the glasses and put them on, then flipped the cape around his shoulders. He fastened it and turned as if modeling the cape for both women. Mayson touched him gently on the cheek, then turned to Lois and said, "Your turn. Do the right thing." Then she walked out.
Lois popped up out of a sound sleep, wide awake. She glanced at the bedside clock. Three-thirty-four. She'd have to be up before long anyway, so she gave up on sleep and began her day, thinking about her newest dream. This one didn't leave her feeling upset. This time she felt as if there was a finality to the dream, as if this would be the last one. She almost felt as if Mayson was finally being put to rest.
Lois hoped it would be the last. She was tired of competing with Mayson Drake in her dreams as well as during real life.
For the next three days, Clark and Lois walked on eggshells and rattlesnakes around each other. They were polite and courteous, but neither of them was willing to begin a conversation that went beyond the impersonal. Meals became quiet affairs, with neither Lois nor Clark contributing anything of significance beyond the weather, the day's chores, or the price of gasoline.
On the fourth day, Martha and Lois had just served lunch when Clark lifted his head in a familiar gesture.
"Airliner in trouble, almost directly above us. I'm going to check it out."
He strode out the front door, looked around to be certain of his privacy, and then spun into the suit in the front yard. He launched himself upwards in a blue and red blur, leaving three astounded people behind him.
Martha looked at Lois. "I think you should tell us what you said to him the other night! I'll put it on a CD and set it to repeat endlessly." She shook her head. "Jonathan, isn't this the first time he's let us see him change since Mayson was killed?"
Jonathan nodded. "I didn't even know he had the suit on under his clothes."
Their eyes turned to Lois, who raised her hands to her sides, palms up. "All I told him he needed to live in the present and not in the past."
Jonathan grinned at his wife. "My, my. Martha, why didn't we think of that?"
Martha stared mock daggers at him. "I don't know, dear. Why, I don't think either of us suggested that more than, oh, thirty or forty times each."
Lois smiled. "I'm just glad he went to help. I got the impression the other night that he hasn't done that very much of that lately."
"He hasn't." Martha frowned in thought. "I just wonder if this is a good thing or a bad thing."
"Ladies, let's eat, shall we? We can dissect Clark's psyche later, and I'd hate for all this good food to go to somebody else's waist."
They ate with an air of quiet but positive expectation. Jonathan and Martha both had sparkles in their eyes. Lois, on the other hand, was apprehensive. She went through dozens of mental scenarios for Clark's return, discarding each of them in turn. They finally finished the meal. Jonathan motioned to Martha and pointed to Lois, and Martha nodded knowingly.
"Martha, let's go out to the barn. We need to talk about whether to fix that old combine or buy a new one."
"Jonathan, we've been over this before. I told you that it would be cheaper to fix the old one."
"But a new one would be quieter, more efficient, and the maintenance costs would be a lot lower."
"You men are all alike. You just want a new toy to play with."
They pushed out the back door, still talking. Lois smiled, knowing what they were doing. She hoped she'd have the courage to say the right things to Clark. Assuming, of course, that Clark would listen.
As Lois was putting the last of the lunch dishes in the drainer, Clark came walking back through the front door, wearing his civilian clothes again. As brittle as she felt, it was time to say something. It was a huge risk, she knew, but not pushing him would be an even greater risk. She was determined not to be a coward, not now when she finally had the chance to talk to him.
She nodded to him. "Welcome back. There's a plate in the refrigerator with chicken and sweet potatoes if you want it. Your folks are in the barn, trying to decide if they really need a new hay cutter thingy. How'd it go?"
He smiled at her. "That's a pretty weak opening for an interview."
She gave him a 'look' and replied, "I'm on vacation, remember?"
"Right. Anyway, it was a flight from Metropolis to LA. They were having trouble maintaining safe altitude. The left engine had sucked in a bird and quit. I got them safely over the Rockies and they should be landing in California by now."
"I'm glad." She wiped her hands on a dish towel. "Does this mean anything about Superman's future?"
Clark frowned at her. "I think we should stop talking about me as if I weren't here."
Lois gave him an eyebrow. "The perils of a secret identity are many and varied."
"That sounds like a mangled quote."
"I'm sure it is. And you didn't answer my question."
"About Superman's future."
He returned her earlier 'look.' "I thought you were on vacation."
She shrugged. "My life is my work and my work is my life."
"Sounds dull to me."
"It can be." She put her hands on her hips. "And you're still tap-dancing."
He crossed his arms and turned away from her. "I don't know."
She nodded, suddenly afraid again. "Okay."
He turned back. "Okay? Just 'okay?' No incisive follow-up questions? No demands for the truth? No pressing for the vital answer? Has Mad Dog Lane finally lost her edge?"
He was too close to her heart. "Cut it out, Clark."
His eyes brightened. "Oh! So you do have a weak spot! I was beginning to think that I wasn't the only invulnerable being here on Earth."
The anger in his voice scalded her spirit. "That's enough!"
He waved his hands about and raised his voice. "You practically demand that I put the suit on again and when I do you just say 'okay!' Don't you understand what this suit reminds me of? Every time I look at it, every time I hold it, I see Mayson's face! I feel her dying in my arms again! I feel Bill Church's heart quivering in my hand again! This isn't a symbol of heroism to me, Lois! It says 'pain' to me! It says 'failure' in every fiber, every thread! How am I supposed to carry on as Superman with that symbol of death on my chest? Don't you see what this does to me? Don't you understand what you're doing to me?"
The dam finally burst. She threw the dish towel in his face. "Doing to you? What makes you think you have a monopoly on heartache? Who gave you the right to be the one who hurts the most? Huh? Don't you realize that I've in pain too? I named you! I wrote about you and put you on a super-pedestal for everyone to admire! I made them think you were infallible! I set you up to fail! I gave you the map to the Intergang communications center where Bill Church was! I even gave Mayson the information that put Intergang on her trail! Did she tell you that, Clark? I put her in their sights! I watched her die too, or did you forget that? What makes you think you're the only one who feels guilty? What gives you — " she stopped abruptly and turned away.
Lois heard him step towards her, and she moved away from him. "No! Please don't touch me."
"All right, Lois." He waited a long moment. "May I ask why?"
She almost turned and reached for him, then stopped herself. "Because — because I don't know how to respond to you! I don't know whether to comfort you or — or beg you to comfort me." She dropped her hands and clenched her fists. "This is hard, it's too hard!"
"I'm sorry, Lois." She didn't respond. "I never considered that you'd feel guilty too. I guess there's plenty of blame to go around. But you aren't responsible for Mayson's death, or for Cat getting hurt, or for any of the rest of it. That was Intergang."
She sniffed. "Really? If I'm not responsible, then why are you?"
He hesitated for a long time. When he answered, he almost sounded surprised. "I guess — I'm not."
She hugged her arms across her chest. "Then I'm not, either, even though I still feel like I am."
"I understand what you mean. But I think I can deal with it now." When she didn't continue, he spoke again. "I've decided."
She wiped her eyes. "I think I need that towel back." He brought it to her and she dried her hands and face. "Thanks. What have you decided?"
"To go back."
She held her breath. "Go back where?"
He crossed his arms and assumed a Superman stance. "To face the music, pay the piper, see the man, own up to —"
She threw the towel at him again, but without rancor. "I get it, I get it!" She smiled and put her hand on his wrist. "I think it's the right choice."
He nodded. "May I ask you a question?"
He held her gaze. "Is there a chance for us? Even after I get through the justice system?"
She held her breath. "Are you asking me to wait for you while you do your hard time? Is that one of your conditions?"
His expression didn't change. "No. No conditions. I'm going back no matter what you say or do at this point. I just want — no, I need to know — if you feel strongly enough about me to stay with me."
Her eyes glistened. "Who's asking me? Clark Kent, or Superman?"
He slowly reached out and gently put his hands on her shoulders. "Clark Kent is who I am. Superman is what I do. Clark is asking." He looked closer. "I'm asking."
She stepped forward and put her arms around him. "Yes." Her hands pressed against the granite of his shoulders. "Yes, I'll wait for you. No matter how long it takes."
He returned her embrace and kissed her on the forehead. "Lois, I — I have to tell you something."
"No, you don't. You can tell me anything you want to tell me, but you don't have to tell me a thing."
His buried his face in her neck and didn't speak for a moment. Lois luxuriated in the feel of his embrace, wishing that the moment would never end.
He gently separated them but didn't release her. "I think you need to know this."
She nodded and wiped her eyes again. "Okay." Then she chuckled as he once more handed her the towel.
"Three things. First, Mayson and I were never — we never got to — we didn't — oh, nuts!"
She smiled and touched his cheek. "It doesn't matter to me what you and Mayson did or didn't do, Clark."
He blushed slightly. "Thank you. I just — I wanted you to know."
She nodded. "What's the second thing?"
"I'm giving you — the Daily Planet, that is — the exclusive story of Superman's return to face society's judgment, and whatever legal remedies which may result."
She closed her eyes, then opened them. "You don't have to do that."
"I know. That's why I'm doing it."
She lifted his hand and kissed it. "This time, I thank you. What's the third thing?"
He lifted her chin. "I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you."
She tried to speak, but her throat closed up, so she just grabbed him and held him as close as she could and sobbed her heart out.
When she got her voice back, she whispered, "I love you too."
"I'm glad. One-sided relationships are tough."
"Like you'd have a clue." She leaned back, just far enough to look up into his eyes. "I've loved you for years, Clark. Did you know that?"
His eyes widened. "Years? No! Really?"
She grinned and punched him lightly in the stomach. His breath whoofed out. "Ow!"
"Just remember that I'm not one of those helpless pulp heroines from your romance novels. I'm tougher than Kryptonite."
"Ain't that the truth." He rubbed the impact point below his ribs. "May I ask you a serious question?"
He hesitated, then plunged on. "Did you — did you love me even when Mayson and I were — together?"
He looked into her eyes. "You're truly amazing. You gave me no hint at all."
"You just weren't listening." She kissed him, softly and lovingly. "But I loved you then and love you now. I love you so much that I want you to be happy, with whoever it is you'd be happiest with." She cocked her head to one side. "The best objective assessment is that you'd be happiest with me, of course," she giggled. Then she turned serious again. "But if it's not me, then — you need to find her."
He took her in his arms again. "I have found her."
Clark was still stroking her hair when his parents came back in. They took one look at the couple and started to leave, but he gestured for them to stay.
Lois stood beside Clark and put her arm around his waist. Clark's arm slid around her shoulders. "Mom, Dad, I'm going back." His parents looked at each other, then at Clark. "To face justice."
Jonathan cleared his throat. "Um, is this Lois's idea or yours, Clark?"
"It's hers, Dad, but I'm not doing this for Lois. I'm doing it because it's the right thing to do."
Martha smiled. "That's wonderful, son! And the scene when we came in? Was Lois that thrilled over a Superman exclusive?"
Clark glowered at her as Lois laughed. "No, Mom! I told her that I love her!"
"Well, it's about time!" Martha reached up and slapped Clark on the back of the head.
Clark frowned at his mother. "Hey! What was that for?"
"I want to make sure I pound that good sense all the way into your head so that it doesn't ever fall out again!"
Lois put her arms around Clark's neck and kissed him tenderly. "Don't worry. I'll remind him every day for the rest of his life."
To be continued in "Rebuilding Superman"