By Tank Wilson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: December 2004
Summary: In this continuation of the author's elsewhere tale, Clark, still without his powers, teams up with Det. Lois Lane when she and Henderson become victims of blackmail at the hands of Luthor's successors. Add to the mix the appearance of an evil Superman clone who claims to be the real thing.
Author's note: This is the sequel to my earlier 'To Protect and Serve' (hence the designation TP&S II, clever huh?). It would be most helpful to be familiar with the other story before reading this one as there are references and general continuity set-ups that were presented there in this story.
All trademarks and copyrights are assigned to their respective owners. I make no claim against any of them. Any additional comments or feedback can be directed to TankW1@aol.com
Detective Sergeant Lois Lane stared out the window of the unmarked squad car. She and her partner Bill Henderson were on a classic stakeout. A typical, boring, waste-of-time, stakeout. Lois was not only bored, but she was fidgety. She wanted to leave.
Lois turned to her partner. "So, what do you say? If Baker doesn't show in the next fifteen minutes I say we call it a night."
Henderson glanced at his watch. "It's only eight-thirty, Lane. You got a hot date or something?" He smiled when he noticed a slight blush creep across Lois' cheeks. "So that's it, is it? I've only been back from my vacation for a week, yet you can't wait to dump me for some muscle-bound amour du jour."
Lois rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on, Bill. I see you more hours of the day than any other human being on the planet. As thrilling as that is for me, I do need time away, if only to reconfirm that there are other people in the world besides you and the scum of the earth we have to deal with."
Henderson shook his head and let go a hefty sigh. "Now I'm really hurt." He turned toward her, his face schooled in a look of mock seriousness. "Okay, come clean. Who is he? It's that Kent guy, isn't it?" Lois' brow went up. "Oh, come on. It's all over the department. He's been seen picking you up several times over the past few weeks."
"You people need to get lives of your own."
"Ah hah! I've struck a nerve, haven't I?"
Lois shook her head at her partner's antics. "You never like the guys I date."
Henderson shrugged. "So what's not to like about Kent?"
She grinned. "Well, he's handsome, cultured, charming, and he dresses better than you."
"You forgot wealthy."
Lois shook her head again. "He's not wealthy, but he does have abs to die for."
Henderson raised his brow. "My, aren't we shallow? You're just after this poor schlub for his body."
Lois allowed a dreamy look to come over her face. "Yeah, but what a body."
Bill clucked his tongue as he shook his head disparagingly. "You always go after the pretty boys. Didn't Luthor teach you anything?"
Lois snapped to attention at the mention of Lex Luthor. "Don't mention that animal's name in the same breath with Clark."
Henderson held up his hands in surrender. "Hey, take it easy, partner. I was just kidding."
Lois leaned her head back against the seat and sighed. "I know, and I'm sorry I reacted badly. It's just that Clark is really a sweet guy, and I don't like it when people compare him to Lex." She rolled her head so she could look at Bill. "You were right about Lex, and I'm sorry I didn't listen to you. I should have. You're my best friend, and I should have known that you really did have my best interests at heart." She paused to take a breath. "But believe me when I say Clark is nothing at all like Luthor. I'd swear he's the most caring man I've ever met."
"Hey, you've really got it bad for this Kent guy, don't you?" Lois spread her hands and shrugged. "Please don't tell me that Mad Dog Lane is in love? The shock to my system would probably kill me."
Lois shook her head but smiled at her partner's wisecrack. "Come on, Bill, you know me better than that. I doubt if I'd know what love was if it bit me on the butt. We've only had a few dates, so I can't really say what I feel. Clark's a good guy, and I think we're on our way to becoming good friends, but love? Lois leaned back into the cushion of the seat. "I'm just happy to take things as they come. Maybe someday… who knows?"
"So, if this guy's so great…" Lois noticed the mischievous gleam in her partner's eye. "What's he doing hanging with you?"
"I have no idea." They both broke out laughing.
Once the two detectives finally stopped laughing, Lois gave her partner a warm smile. "So, I've never known you to take a vacation before. Where were you for the last few weeks?"
"Did you miss me?" He grinned and winked at her.
Lois snorted. She was about to make another wisecrack when suddenly she decided not to. Instead she chose to speak her mind. "Yeah, actually I did. You're the best partner I've ever had, Bill, and I felt a little lost without you around." She let a slight grin sneak back onto her face. "Besides, guys like Jenkins and Palmer are no challenge for me. When it comes to verbal sparring, those two are totally inept."
Henderson nodded, as if commiserating with her. "Yeah, the Academy is really falling down in that regard." Just then a soft ring came from Bill's pocket. "Hold on." He reached in and pulled out a cell phone.
Lois watched her partner as he listened to whatever was said on the other end of the call. He didn't say much. A couple of grunts and an 'okay, bye' was all she heard. "So what was that all about?" She asked, when he put the small phone away.
Henderson waved off her interest. "It was nothing. It's personal."
"Ooh, getting mystery personal calls at work now, eh?" Lois reached out and slapped him on the arm. "Anyone I know?"
Henderson suddenly looked away and stared out the front windshield. "You know, you're right. There's nothing going to happen here tonight. Let's pack it in for the night." He reached down and turned the key. The engine sprang to life, and with a squeal of the tires and a spray of loose gravel, the car leapt forward and sped off toward the main highway.
Lois was stunned by her partner's sudden shift in attitude. Obviously something about that call upset him. Being who she was, every curious bone in her body screamed at her to find out what it was. Ask him. Badger him. Do whatever it took to get him to tell her. That's what she wanted to do, but she didn't. They were friends, and she respected his privacy. If it were something that he felt she should know, then he'd tell her. Until then, she'd just have to abide by his decision.
Of course, she was going to be up all night wondering about it.
Clark stared at the screen of his home computer. He'd been to Arianna Carlin's latest press conference earlier in the day and had come home to write his article rather than having gone back to the Planet. He was looking for the hook for the story, but it was eluding him.
It had been the third press conference she'd held since Luthor's death. The first one had been to address the revelations that had come out during the whole sordid Boynton affair that had led to Lex's eventual downfall. She had denied any knowledge of Lex's dealings, citing the fact that she hadn't had any contact with Lex for at least five years. Not since their less than amicable divorce. Of course, then came the second news conference. The one where she had dropped the bombshell. Apparently, her and Luthor's divorce was never properly filed. Legally, she was still Lex Luthor's wife. Which made her, suddenly, the third richest person in the world.
Today's press junket had been to announce her taking over as CEO of LexCorp and to outline some of the changes she planned for the direction of Luthor's holdings. She had introduced several people who would now be running many of the operations of the various companies under the LexCorp banner. The police's investigation into Luthor's dealings had led them to many of his subordinates. The arrests had decimated the upper levels of LexCorp management. Clark had to admit that all of Arianna's chosen came to the dance with impressive credentials.
It should be an easy story to write. A lot of information was given out and Ms. Carlin had outlined many potentially exciting and far-reaching changes that her new management team was going to be implementing. Clark could fall back on enumerating those items and let the article be a laundry list of Arianna's plans. But that didn't say what he wanted to say.
Luthor had long used a heavy involvement in charities and humanitarian foundations as a public shield for his true activities. Now that they were no longer needed to provide him the thin veneer of respectability, Clark had wondered what would become of many of those charities. Even though they had been funded by an amoral criminal, they had done a lot of good. He was glad to hear that Arianna intended to expand LexCorp's participation in humanitarian endeavors. He supposed he could focus on that aspect of the conference. But he rejected that also.
He couldn't put his finger on it, but the whole thing seemed too… too pat. Arianna as the cast off ex-wife, who was the unwitting dupe, Clark could believe… if it had ended there. But with the paperwork mix-up that led to Carlin being revealed as still the legal Mrs. Luthor, it just was too convenient. And now, in such a short time, she had new players and new plans already lined up and ready to go. She was either incredibly gifted when it came to business, or she had more time to prepare for this than was apparent from the events as they happened.
Clark had no reason to suspect Arianna Carlin of anything but being the unexpected recipient of some good fortune and wanting to do her best. On the surface her motives seemed pure and well intended. But he couldn't help but wonder about her. After all, she had readily admitted that she did love Lex Luthor at one time. Was she really that innocent back then? Was she really that ignorant of his true nature? Or had she learned more than she let on?
There was no denying the woman's individual success. She had risen to her own fame and fortune as a best-selling author and syndicated pop-psychologist whose columns ran in most of the major papers in the country. All this success had come after being discarded by Luthor.
Had the experience spurred her to achieve on her own? Or had she learned some of her husband's less ethical means of manipulation and motivation, and applied those teachings to further her own career?
Clark was driving himself crazy. He had no proof. He didn't even have any real reason, beyond a 'feeling', to suspect that Arianna Carlin was anything but what she seemed. He needed to take a break.
As if in answer to his thought, there was a knock on the door. Glancing at the clock as he rose, he wondered who would be knocking on his door this late, and what it was they were selling.
He opened the door and was surprised to see who was standing there. "Lois? I didn't expect to see you. I thought you said you would be working late?"
He could see the hesitation in her face. "Ah, well, we knocked off a little earlier than expected, and well, I just thought… but if you're busy, I can go. It's no big deal."
Clark chuckled. "No, come in, please. I'm glad you stopped by." He closed the door as she stepped in. "And I'm especially glad that you feel you can stop by without a prior invitation."
She stared at him, as if measuring his words. "Well, you did say I could stop by anytime."
He smiled as he guided her toward the living room. "And I meant it. So, what happened that allowed you to cut out early tonight?"
"I'm not really sure." She frowned after saying it. "It was a stakeout that was going nowhere, and I know I mentioned the idea first, but Bill is usually a stickler for 'following through' with things." She'd used her fingers to make quotes signs. "Yet he was the one to call it a night."
Clark sat down on the couch next to her. "Bill's your partner, right?"
She nodded. "Yeah, Bill Henderson. You've met him a few times, but he's been on vacation for a while and has only been back for about a week."
"So, where did he go?"
Lois raised a brow at Clark. "You're drifting off track here, Kent. But the weird thing is… I don't know. He hasn't mentioned anything about his vacation to anyone at the station, not even me. I don't know where he went and what he did." She shrugged her shoulders. "He's always been a private sort of guy, but we've been partners for a while now and he usually tells me stuff."
Clark's shrug mirrored Lois'. "Maybe it was something really personal that he doesn't want to share?"
"It was a vacation, not a secret mission for the C.I.A. And there was something else that was odd. He got a phone call while we were on the stakeout. I couldn't make out anything as he mainly just listened, but it was right after that he decided we should call it a night."
Clark leaned back into the plush cushions of the couch. He almost smiled. He could see the curiosity burning in Lois. She wasn't used to being out of the loop and didn't like it when secrets were kept from her. The two of them hadn't really gotten into their own 'discussions' yet. The one about his behavior with her concerning Superman and his reluctance to share everything with her about it. For that he was glad because he really didn't want to get into an argument with her, but he knew the time was coming. Probably soon.
"So, he got a personal call," Clark said. "Does it really have to be something sinister because he doesn't choose to share it with you?"
Lois glowered at Clark. "Are all you men alike? Why is it you have such a problem with something as simple as the truth?"
Oh, oh, Clark thought. He'd stepped in it now. After just thinking how nice it was that he hadn't had to deal with their own trust issues, now it looked like his comments were going to bring them back to the surface. "Not all men are alike, Lois. No more than all women are alike. I'm sure you've had secrets you've kept from people before. Things you didn't want to tell your parents, your sister, even your partner."
"This isn't about me." She stared at her hands. "But to answer your question, no, I've never lied about anything that I thought was important." She sighed. "Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm not the kind of person that people want to trust."
Clark reached over and used a finger to turn her face toward his. "Don't be ridiculous. People may be a bit wary at first just because you're a police officer. But I have to believe that once someone gets to know you they'd see they could trust you." Clark hesitated for only a moment, even though he knew what his admission would bring. "I know I do."
She bit down on her lower lip. "Do you really?"
Clark shifted his position on the couch so he could face Lois directly. He'd been dreading this conversation, only because he didn't want to upset her. He hadn't felt that he'd done anything wrong under the circumstances, and he wasn't about to back down on that. But he knew that Lois wouldn't necessarily see it that way.
"Look, Lois, I know you feel some level of hurt that I kept my full identity from you. For that I'm sorry, but I won't apologize for my actions. At the time, I felt it was the best course of action."
Lois' mouth firmed into a hard line before she spoke. "Setting aside for the moment that you were withholding crucial information on an ongoing criminal investigation, you expected me to take your word about certain things but weren't willing to give me all the facts to base my decision on. I was supposed to trust you, but you obviously didn't feel the same way toward me."
Clark clenched his fists. "Come on, Lois. What was I supposed to think? I didn't know you as anyone except Lucy's sister, and the woman who was dating Lex Luthor. True, you were, and are, a member of the Metropolis Police force, but then Luthor, to all intents and purposes, was the city's greatest benefactor. I couldn't take the chance that you and he weren't…"
"Weren't what? In cahoots? The king and queen of crime in Metropolis?"
Clark spread his hands wide. "Truthfully — yes, that's exactly what I couldn't take the chance on."
Lois glared at Clark for several moments, then her expression began to soften. Finally she sighed and allowed herself to flop against the back cushion of the couch. "You're right, you didn't know me. But after you did tell me about your encounter with Lex on the pier, and I was convinced that Luthor was the bad man you said he was, why couldn't you have told me then? We were working together on exposing him. Why did you continue to insist that you'd merely been a witness to the attack rather than the victim? Why did I have to find out up in Luthor's penthouse?"
Clark stared hard at Lois. Conflicting thoughts were running through his mind. Exactly why had he hesitated, even after he knew that he and Lois were on the same side? Had he been afraid that she still might be in Luthor's pocket? No, that was ridiculous. Her concern for her sister was genuine, and once she believed the links to Luthor that he showed her, Lois held back nothing in her subsequent investigation of the mine and its connection to Lex.
And what about her admission that Luthor had abused her? She certainly wouldn't have had to tell him about that, yet she did. She'd trusted him enough to bare her shame to him. But he still hadn't come clean with her. Something had continued to hold him back, and suddenly, like a shot to the head, he realized what it had been. At the time he would have said it was just caution, but the truth was more personal than that.
"Clark?" Lois looked at him expectantly.
"Lois," he began. "We've only known each other a short time. Even so, in that time I think I've come to understand some things about you. I respect and admire you as a professional, and as a person. You are dedicated and loyal to your job and your friends. You have an incredibly strong sense of right and wrong, and are committed to redressing those wrongs whenever you come across them." Clark allowed himself a small, shy smile. "You don't give your trust easily, but when you do, it's total. And you expect the same back. I didn't give that to you, and I'm sorry."
Their eyes met. "Do you know why you didn't?" she asked.
Clark dropped his head and sighed. When he managed to meet her eyes again, it was with a look of embarrassment. "I think so." She gave him a quizzical look. "I didn't want your pity."
"What?" She shook her head in confusion. "I don't understand."
"Being Superman was an incredible rush. Having those unbelievable powers and being able to help so many people was a gift. A gift that I was thankful for. But, still, Clark Kent was who I had always been. Superman was what I could do. But Superman was gone. The powers were gone. Only Clark Kent was left. I didn't see any point in telling you because I didn't want your feeling sorry for me because I wasn't Superman anymore."
She reached over and took one of his hands in hers. "But I do feel sorry for you. I'm sure it's very hard to adjust to being normal after all those years of having incredible powers. That's not something you can just forget after a few days. But mostly, I feel sorry for this city, and the rest of the world, because they've lost a hero and a selfless benefactor. I mourn the good that you would have been able to do that might not get done now. And I feel for how that must make you feel. But I don't pity you." She gave his hand a squeeze. "Never mistake my sympathy for your situation with pity. From what I've seen, Clark Kent is a pretty formidable person in his own right. He has all the compassion and caring for others that Superman ever did, and he still uses all his resources as a crusading reporter to fight the good fight, even though he has been dealt a blow that would have destroyed most lesser men."
Clark felt a slight lurch in his heart at Lois' words. The more he got to know her, the more incredible he found her to be. He'd been instantly drawn to her from the first moment he laid eyes on her, but he hadn't known why. But now he was beginning to understand. Her every action, and deed, just confirmed and reinforced those initial feelings. It was obvious to him that she was the woman he was meant to be with. He just hoped that over time he could convince her of that. And in order to do that, he'd have to stop wrapping himself up in his own obsessions, and be willing to share everything with her, no matter what. She demanded, and deserved no less.
"Thank you, Lois," he said. "I really appreciate your being so understanding about this."
She shrugged and gave him a slight grin. "Well, what can I say? I'm just a darned nice gal."
Clark grinned back at her. "Yes, you are. And, hopefully I won't make the mistake of ever forgetting that in the future."
"Just see that you don't." Lois stood and began to move toward the front door. "It's late, and I imagine we both have busy days tomorrow. I'd best be going."
Clark walked her to the door. She seemed to hesitate. "Lois, are you doing anything this Friday night?" he asked.
"I don't think so? What do you have in mind?"
"Nothing yet, but I'd just like to see you. I'm sure we'll be able to figure something out before then."
She shrugged. "Sounds like a plan?" She grinned. "A feeble one, but a plan none the less. Pick me up at eight?"
Clark smiled as he reached down to open the door for her. "Eight it is."
They stared at each other for several moments, neither quite sure how to end the evening. Finally Clark used his finger to tip Lois' chin upward as he leaned down and gave her a quick, gentle kiss.
"Good night, Lois."
"Good night, Clark," she replied. Once the door was closed she couldn't help using her finger to trace where his lips had met hers. A shy smile spread across her face as she moved down the street.
Henderson leaned against the crumbling brick and stone of the abandoned building. The alleyway was drenched in darkness. The nearest streetlight that still worked was two blocks away. The stars twinkling brightly in the clear night sky and a half full moon offered the only light. There were no colors, only varied dark shades of gray. He hated meetings like this.
He'd been hanging around the alley for nearly an hour and was getting ready to leave, when a large shape detached itself from a recessed alcove in the building on the other side of the alley. The figure was cloaked in its own shadow, and even though Henderson couldn't make out any features, he knew whom it was he was meeting.
"You know all the best places, St. John." Bill didn't even try to temper his sarcasm.
"Ah, yes, ever the laconic policeman." The figure may have been unrecognizable, but the voice was a dead giveaway.
"So, what's the deal? Why this meeting?"
The large shadow shifted slightly. "Well, let's just say we were concerned. We haven't heard from you in quite a while."
Henderson shook his head, not knowing if St. John would even see it in the darkness, and not caring. "I've been on vacation. Besides, I've got nothing more to say to you. I've done what I said I would. I helped you take down Luthor. That's all I ever signed on to do. What you and the suddenly restored Mrs. Luthor do now, I couldn't care less. Keep your noses clean while in Metropolis, and you can try to rule the rest of the world for all I care."
He couldn't be sure, but it almost sounded like a chuckle coming from the dark bulk in front of him. "My good inspector, you aren't really that naive, are you? You don't really believe that we would allow you to walk away, now, do you? That wouldn't be good business now, would it?"
Henderson wasn't naive; he knew that once you made a deal with the devil, no matter what your motives might be, you didn't just walk away at your own convenience. That didn't mean that he couldn't try. After all, if he could convince St. John that he would be of no further use to them, they might not feel it worth their time or effort to keep him 'in the fold' so to speak.
Henderson reached out toward the figure, but St. John stepped back out of his reach. "I know you're paranoid; it's in your nature. But, you have to know that I can't really say anything. It would ruin my career if my involvement got out. You can trust me not to say anything. Just take your spoils and leave me alone."
The hat topping the shadow that was St. John moved back and forth. "I don't think you understand the situation. We still have need of your services. You've been paid handsomely for your past service, and you will continue to be paid well. There are bound to be situations where a man in your position could be of use to us."
Here it came. Knowing that he'd probably have to deal with this situation eventually didn't make it any easier to face. It was like trying to swim in quicksand. The more you struggled to get out, the more it pulled you in deeper. He wasn't quite sure what he was going to do, but he had to make Nigel realize that, even after what he'd done, he had his limits.
"Look," he began. "My reasons for agreeing to help you and Ms. Carlin take down Luthor are my own, and none of your business." Henderson ran a hand through his hair. "I can't undo what I did. I've compromised my ethics for a goal. A goal that I thought more important than my own personal values. But make no mistake, St. John, I'm not going to become your personal stooge in the police department. Don't try to blackmail me, Nigel. I'll call your bluff and take my chances. If you're smart, you'll walk away from this partnership. Let it end now."
St. John, still unreadable in the dark allowed several moments of silence to pass between them. Finally, the cultured accent broke the stillness. "I see. While I'm disappointed in your attitude, I think we might be able to come to an accommodation. I can put to rest your concerns about our intentions in Metropolis. We don't plan to 'crap in our own yard' as they say. Our ultimate goals are much more far-reaching than that." The big man circled to the other side of Henderson. "But I still see one potential problem. There is still one person, who was close to Lex, who could be a possible thorn in our side. Take care of this and you can consider our relationship equitably terminated."
Bill suddenly felt a chill and had to suppress a need to shiver. "What are you talking about?"
"It's simple really. Detective Lois Lane is too nosy for her own good. She had a relationship with Luthor, and that makes her an unacceptable risk. We don't want her asking any of the wrong questions."
Henderson nodded. He'd expected something like this. "Okay, she's my partner. I can keep a close eye on her and make sure to steer her away from anything that might lead her back to you… and me."
He heard that chuckle again. "Once again, you misunderstand us. We don't want your partner watched… we want her eliminated.
Lois lay in her bed staring up at the ceiling. Well, she was staring into the darkness above her, which eventually would have ended at her ceiling. She'd been tossing and turning all night. Her head literally ached from the jumble of thoughts and feelings that kept flitting in and out of her mind.
She'd been fretting over Bill's secretiveness. Why wouldn't he tell her who called? Why hadn't he shared any of his vacation stories with her? They were best friends; they always shared everything. Well, not everything. She certainly couldn't tell him about Clark's secret.
She sighed as that thought drove her mind back to Clark. She was confused when it came to Clark Kent. They had been dating for a few months now. Ever since Lucy had met up with that Mac guy from the Boynton lab and had left with him for California. Apparently he had family there and much better job prospects than he would've had here, considering he had been employed at one of Lex Luthor's illegal secret labs. Not that he'd known it at the time. He was largely responsible for Lucy's escape from the place and they had fallen in love. Lois didn't believe in love at first sight and was uncomfortable with Lucy running off with this guy, having only met him, and under dubious circumstances at best. Still, Lucy was an adult and she made it clear that her decision on the matter was not up for debate.
Lucy had worked with Clark, and he and Lois had met on that particular case. It had also been the case that had led to Luthor's exposure as Metropolis' most notorious crime boss. A fact that had shaken Lois more than she cared to admit. She'd been dating Lex at the time, and it had been a humbling experience to have misread his true character so badly. Her only consolation had been that she and Clark were largely responsible for his downfall.
Clark had known all along that Luthor was an amoral criminal, but he had the advantage of a first hand encounter, if you could call it that. Luthor had tried to kill him. Actually Luthor had tried to kill Superman, but Clark was… or had been Superman. Whatever Luthor had done to him had destroyed the Man of Steel's powers. Clark hadn't been killed, but for all practical purposes the hero had been. With no more powers, there was no more Superman.
It was still quite a bit to take in for her. That the caring, funny guy that she'd been having such a good time dating had actually been the idol of millions was daunting. That a nearly all-powerful being from another planet found her attractive and interesting enough to spend his time with was almost scary.
The thing was, she didn't see him as Superman. She'd never had a lot of contact with the super hero so she didn't have a history to compare the two sides of the man with. She only saw the wonderful, sensitive man that was Clark Kent. She had to admit, that given a choice, she would've preferred Clark to Superman every time.
A quick stab of guilt flashed through her. What if the powers came back? She knew that the world had lost a great deal when their hero disappeared. But Lois couldn't help hoping that the powers would never come back. She liked Clark the way he was. She didn't think she would want to have to compete with the rest of the world for his attentions. If their relationship continued on the path she suspected it was going, she wasn't sure it could survive the reintroduction of Superman. She didn't think she could share him with millions.
Lois' eyes, which had drifted shut during her musings, suddenly popped open. Whoa! When had her thoughts about Clark turned so serious? He was a nice guy, but how well did she really know him? The fact that he used to be Superman should be a pretty good character reference, but what else? He was handsome, polite, funny, charming, and witty. But then, so had Lex been.
She shook her head in disgust for the unworthy thought. Comparing Clark to Lex was a fool's errand. Whereas there might be some similarity on a superficial level, Clark was the most compassionate and caring individual she'd ever met. So, what was the problem?
The problem was her… and the problem was Lex. She'd been burned badly by Luthor. She'd thought that he was every bit the near perfect man he pretended to be. If she could have been fooled so badly by one man, could she trust her feelings about another? No, it would be best to take things slowly. Control her raging hormones and get to know the man, the real man, better before she unlocked the cage around her heart.
Lois rolled over and looked at the small alarm clock on her nightstand. It blinked its annoying message at her. She groaned as it registered on her brain that it was nearly four a.m. and she hadn't gotten a wink of sleep yet.
She was startled when the phone rang, the sound echoing unnaturally loud in the quiet of the early morning. Perplexed she reached for the receiver and picked it up. "Hello?" she managed to croak.
"Lois? This is Bill. I need to see you."
Clark sat in the moonlit cast shadow of the Daily Planet's famous globe, gazing out at the luminous splendor that was Metropolis at night. He knew it was quite late, but he couldn't sleep. He often found himself coming up to the roof of the Planet building just to look out over the city. It was the closest approximation of the views he'd gotten used to when flying over the city. He didn't fly anymore, but he could still appreciate the beauty and the life of his city from above. Sometimes it had a calming affect on him, but tonight it didn't seem to help.
He was confused. The last few months had been a whirlwind of emotional conflict for him, and at the center of it was a certain dark-haired police officer. Detective Sergeant Lois Lane was an incredible woman, and if Clark wasn't careful he could easily fall head over heels for her… that was, if he hadn't already. He had to admit that he found her beautiful, exciting, intelligent, passionate, and the most amazing woman he'd ever met. But did he really know her?
Their initial encounters had been intense. Worry for her sister, coupled with his insistence that Lex Luthor, a man she had been dating, was the root of all evil hadn't led to a great deal of trust between them. Add in the fact that she'd known he was hiding something from her. It was surprising that she hadn't arrested him right then and there. But they had put aside their personal differences for the sake of Lucy and had eventually grown closer because of the forced intimacy the investigation had required.
There was no denying Lois' determination and passion for her convictions. Once she was convinced of Luthor's true nature, she threw herself into the investigation with both feet and a total disregard for any negative personal consequences. But then, that was the way she approached all her cases. It was a wonder the woman was still alive. He'd gotten her to admit that she'd been wounded in the line of duty three times in the last five years. The sudden thought of Lois being killed sent a cold chill through his soul. The thought of anyone dying was anathema to Clark, but in the case of Lois, just the possibility sent him into a panic. Especially now that there was no longer a Superman to rush in and save the day.
Clark approached the low wall that rimmed the roof of the Planet. Leaning his arms on the concrete top, he gazed out over the city as if searching for something. A sigh escaped into the predawn quiet. Superman. The hero of Metropolis, and the idol of millions. Where were the cheers and the accolades now?
Superman had been gone from the scene for over six months now. In the first few weeks there had been quite an uproar about it. People wondered where he was, what had happened, and if he was ever coming back? As the weeks progressed the furor died down. The Man of Steel was presumed dead, and people got on with their lives.
Clark watched the first rays of the coming dawn begin to stain the waters of Hobbs Bay. He turned and headed back to the roof access door. It hadn't taken the citizens of Metropolis and the rest of the country, for that matter, long to forget about Superman. He wasn't sure what that said about the impact he'd made in their lives. Maybe it didn't say anything. People have to face decisions and events that affect their lives everyday. The smart ones adapt to the changes and move on.
Maybe it was time he did so, also.
"Hang on, I'm coming." Lois wrapped a robe around her as she moved from the bedroom toward the front door. There had only been a couple of sharp knocks, but she knew who it was.
Without further comment, she pulled open the door and stepped aside as her partner, Bill Henderson, walked into the apartment. She closed the door and followed him into the living room. Sitting on the edge of the couch, she watched as he paced a circle like a caged cat. She waited in silence for him to speak. Finally he stopped. He looked at her, his eyes conveying a sadness she'd never seen from him before. "I'm sorry, Lois."
She returned his gaze. Hers betraying her confusion. "I don't understand? What are you sorry about?" The look on her partner's face was beginning to scare her. "What is it? What's wrong, Bill?"
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath as if trying to compose himself. "I've managed to get myself into some trouble, and I've unintentionally dragged you into it."
Lois patted the cushion next to her, inviting Bill to come sit next to her. He remained standing where he was. "Come on, Bill, we're partners. All for one, one for all. You know. Whatever trouble you're in is my problem too. I'm your friend. Talk to me."
He shook his head sadly. "After today, I don't think you're going to want to be my friend anymore." He began pacing again. She let him, content to wait for him to talk. "I went way over the line this time, partner. I was arrogant and stupid. I thought I was clever enough to play with the bad guy's matches and not get burned. I was a fool, and I've put you at risk too."
Lois' head was swimming. "Slow down. You're not making any sense."
Henderson slowly sat in the chair opposite the couch. He stared down at his hands for a few moments before raising his head to meet Lois' troubled gaze. "A few months ago I was approached by Nigel St. John. Nothing too overt, or obvious, just a feeler. Somehow he'd known that I wasn't enamored with his boss and wondered what I'd be willing to do to bring Luthor down."
"Lex?" Lois shook her head. "Why would he think you'd want to bring down Lex?"
"Because I did." He grimaced and studied his hands for a moment again. "Ever since Luthor burst onto the scene as this big philanthropist billionaire, I've never trusted him."
"Bill, you don't like anybody who has money or power."
"Yeah, but this was different." He shrugged. "I don't know; there was just something about the guy that set off all my alarms. At first I looked into his dealings pretty closely. There were hints here and there, but nothing concrete. Nothing one could hang a decent accusation on." He sighed. "So, I forgot about him. I knew he was dirty, but there was nothing I could do, so I ignored him and just went on with my job. That is, until…"
"I started dating him?" Lois reached out her hand to him, but he didn't seem to see it.
"Yeah." He stared at her. The look of longing in his eyes was so intense Lois had to look away. "Suddenly it became very important to me that I expose Luthor for the criminal that I knew he was." Lois could hear the frustration in Henderson's voice. "I spent weeks — months, trying come up with something — anything, that would cast Luthor in a negative light. But he was too careful. Not even a parking ticket."
He flopped back into the chair. "My sideline investigations must have been noticed because a few months ago St. John approached me. He was soliciting my help to bring Lex Luthor down."
Lois was still confused. "But why? Nigel worked for Lex."
Henderson shrugged. "Why else? Greed. He and his new partner had a plan to expose Luthor, leaving his wealth and his empire behind for the taking. But they claimed to need my help."
Lois spread her hands as if inviting an explanation. "So… what? You went to the Chief and set up a sting operation? How come you didn't tell me?"
He shook his head. "No, I didn't go to the Chief. I couldn't trust him. I knew that Luthor had a lot of guys in his pocket. Chief Andrews could have been one of them." A sad smile crossed his face. "You? I was supposed to tell you? Crap, Lois, you were going out with the guy. Why do you think I was willing to go cowboy on this?"
Lois sucked in a breath. "I knew that you never really liked Lex, but I just figured you were playing big brother. You never liked any of my dates."
His chuckle was hollow. "That's because you always dated creeps." He held up his hand to keep her from responding to his observation. "Lois, believe it or not, I do care about you, and I just couldn't see you and the slime together any longer. At best it could only lead to heartache, and at worst, it would have destroyed your life."
Lois had to fight back a tear that burned at the back of her eye. She'd always known that Bill cared about her. Heck, she cared about him. He was her best friend. But she had never figured he'd go to such lengths. Were his feelings for her more than just those of a friend? That line of thought just confused Lois more. She and Bill had tried the dating thing and it hadn't worked out. Both of them had acknowledged that they were just meant to be friends… hadn't they?
She forced her mind back to the present. "So, what's changed now? Why are you telling me about this now?"
Bill dropped his head, not looking at her. "Because it's no longer just my problem. You're in danger… because of me."
Lois folded her arms across her chest. Her voice was calm and level. "Explain."
He sighed again, then met her gaze. "As I said, I was arrogant and stupid. I thought I could dance just the one dance with the devil then leave the ball. Compromise my normal ethics for the greater good, so to speak. I should have known better. They don't want to let me go." He spread his hands and arms in a gesture of helplessness. "I told St. John that I wanted nothing more to do with them, but he threatened to expose my true role in the Luthor investigation."
Lois was appalled by what she'd been hearing, but this was still Bill Henderson. He was still her partner and best friend. "So, go to the Commissioner. We've all gone cowboy on occasion. Use what you know to bust St. John and his new cronies. I'm sure you could work something out. I'll help you."
His smile held just a hint of the man she had known for so long. "Of course you would. But you don't understand. I was so desperate to bring Luthor down that I crossed lines that shouldn't be crossed. I'm not going to say that, in hindsight, I'm not ashamed of some of the things I did. Even so, given the same circumstances, I'd do it again, but I'm not ready to go to jail for them."
"What kind of lines? What did you do?" Lois was very curious, but even more, she wanted to help her friend.
He shook his head. "No, it's best you don't know. I don't want to involve you any more than I have to."
She frowned at his refusal to share but didn't push it. "So what are you going to do?"
"I'm going to disappear." He took another deep breath, gathering the courage to continue. "That vacation I took was a scouting mission. I was checking out a few places where I might become just another anonymous tourist who decides to stay for a while."
Lois was very distressed by what she was hearing, but she was still confused. With her brow furrowed, she sought out his eyes. "So…"
"So why am I telling you this now? Why am I making you an after the fact party to my indiscretions?" She nodded. "Because you have to know. I couldn't just disappear and not let you know why. You deserve to know the truth. Also, I had to warn you of the danger you're in." Her look of sympathy changed to one of puzzlement. "St. John gave me one way out. They would leave me alone if I did one last thing for them."
"What was it?"
"For some reason they feel you are a threat to them. I'm supposed to kill you."
Lois seemed to shrink back into the couch cushion. "Oh." She bit on her lip. "You aren't going to… are you?"
He shrugged. "Well, look at it from my standpoint, Lois. It is my way out of this mess."
"Bill!" He laughed, probably for the first time in weeks, as she reached over and punched him. "Seriously, though, what are we going to do? I still think we need to take Nigel down and claim you were under deep cover."
Henderson shook his head. "Won't work. Who authorized it? No one is going to let me get away with this as a solo operation."
Lois stared at her hands, thinking furiously. "How about we go to the Commissioner with the idea that we suspect Nigel of taking over Luthor's criminal empire. Tell him you have a way to infiltrate Nigel's organization. Get him to authorize the investigation. No one has to know that you're already on the inside."
He reached out and grabbed her hands, which had begun to flail about. "Lois, calm down. I appreciate your willingness to help. But I can't let you get involved in this. It could adversely affect your career."
She shrugged. "Too late, I'm already involved. I'm your partner and your friend. I'm not going to let you face this alone. Part of the reason you're in this fix is because of a misguided desire to protect me. What kind of friend would I be if I let you down now?"
Henderson rose from the chair. "Listen, Lois, I don't want you to get anywhere near this. I only told you about this because I think you're in danger. If I just disappear, and you stay away from Nigel and his enterprises, I hope they'll just forget about you."
Lois shook her head sadly. "You don't really believe that do you?"
His head dropped. "No, but I don't know what else to do." He sighed. "Just promise me you'll stay away from St. John."
Lois scrubbed her hand through her hair. "Bill, you've told me that Nigel has taken over Luthor's criminal pursuits, at least some of them. How can I stay away from him if I know he's one of the bad guys?"
Henderson stared at the ceiling and sighed. "I knew this was going to be a bad idea." He moved toward her front door. "Lois, I'm sorry about all this. Please, stay away from St. John."
Lois followed him to the door. She placed a hand on his arm, holding him from leaving. "Promise me you won't leave just yet. Give me a chance to come up with something. *We* can come up with a way out of this. You don't have to throw your career away over this."
His smile for her was melancholy. He reached out and stroked her hair. "Don't worry about me; I'll be fine. Take care of yourself, kid. Watch your back. I'm sorry I put you in danger. And I'm sorry I won't be there to help protect you." He let himself out the door and started down the hall.
Leaning her head out into the hallway, Lois pleaded with her friend. "Bill, don't do this."
He looked back at her. "Hang onto Kent. He seems like a good guy." He turned and quickly moved down the hall and left her building.
Lois thought about running after him, but didn't want to draw the attention to them. It was early, and she didn't want to risk waking any of her neighbors. She just had to hope that Bill would think about what she'd said and not disappear just yet. She hoped that he'd come to work, and she'd get a chance to talk some sense into him.
Closing the door, a shaken Lois Lane began to get ready for another day. A day that might just change her life significantly.
Clark felt a little foolish leaving the Daily Planet building when he was just going to have to return within a few hours. The first rays of the dawn hadn't yet been able to broach the barrier of the taller buildings, but the sky had turned from the black of night to the gray of impending day. He'd only gotten a few blocks from the Planet when he heard a commotion coming from the alley he'd just passed. Stopping and retracing the few steps necessary, he peered into the still heavy shadows of the urban canyon between the two tall monoliths of commerce.
What he saw brought him instantly to anger. A group of young toughs were pushing an elderly lady around. They were laughing as they pawed through her purse, and taunted her, as she begged for them not to hurt her.
Clark quickly rushed into the alley. "Hey, leave that lady alone. Give her back her bag. What's wrong with you kids, anyway?"
The largest of the group of four turned to face Clark, a sneer on his face. "Hey, look guys, grannie has a hero." He stepped closer to Clark. "Is that what you are… a hero?" His friends laughed.
Clark ignored the fellow and went over to help the elderly lady back to her feet. "Are you all right, ma'am?"
She gave Clark a weak smile, then he saw fear reflected in her eyes. He turned in time to see the same bigger youth launching a fist toward him. Clark sidestepped the main force of the blow, but it caused him to stumble a bit. The young tough followed it up with another punch, which landed solidly in Clark's side. This drove him to one knee.
"Hey, hero. You don't look so heroic now, do you? Maybe you need a lesson in minding your own business." The fellow tried to lash out with his booted foot. Clark managed to catch the foot and with a grunt shoved back causing the young hoodlum to fall flat on his butt. That didn't set too well with the fellow.
Clark stood. Even without his powers he was still a large, well- built man, but he had no real experience at fighting. Especially street fighting. Also, it was one against four. As it turned out there were only two good things that came out of the situation. The woman was able to get away while the street punks were focused on Clark. And they didn't feel any need to use more than their fists and their feet to deal with 'grannie's hero'.
After a few minutes of 'fun', the young thugs got bored and left Clark lying battered and beaten in the alley. It wasn't starting out to be a good day.
Nigel St. John let himself into the penthouse of LexTower, a practice he had long been accustomed to. Only this time the occupant of the luxurious office/apartment complex wasn't the man for whom the building was named. This time he was greeted by a beautiful woman.
"Ah, Nigel, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?" She gave him a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. It was obvious to St. John that, even though they'd been partners in the dethroning of Lex Luthor, she still didn't trust him completely. Not an unwise precaution.
He inclined his head toward the dark-haired, impeccably dressed woman. "Just thought I'd pop in with an update on our *other* project, Mrs. Luthor."
She waved a hand at him in disgust. "Please, don't use that name. I have to deal with that all day long. It makes me feel like I'm still in some stuffy boardroom. I think, as partners, you can call me Arianna. Or, if you must be formal, Ms. Carlin."
"As you wish."
"So, what's the latest word from the redoubtable Dr. Mamba?"
Nigel allowed a slight smile to tweak his lips. "It seems that our good doctor has finally made his breakthrough. He has a fully realized subject and is, as we speak, working on the proper indoctrination."
Arianna Carlin licked her lips in avarice expectation. "How close are we to… deployment?" She grinned at her own cleverness of words.
St. John was able to restrain himself from rolling his eyes. The woman could be quite trying at times. "We will soon be in a position to begin covert testing, then we can move to more — rigorous tests."
"What about Henderson? I understand he is balking. Was he ever in our camp?"
Nigel allowed himself a dry chuckle. "I think our good Inspector never felt that he was actually one of us. He fooled himself into thinking that he was in control of his situation and was merely using us to achieve what he felt was the greater good." He strolled over to the elegant french doors that led to the large balcony and gazed out over the city. "It's a common failing of those who are confident in their own abilities when they undertake what they think is merely an undercover operation." He paused, adding a dramatic effect. "They refuse to see that they have actually become what they thought they were only pretending to be."
Arianna was clearly confused. "I'm not sure what you're saying? I would have thought Henderson too smart to think he could just pretend to help us, just to get Luthor out of the way, then turn around and go back to being a normal street cop. Is he with us, or not?"
"I'm afraid the Inspector has a weakness. For all his bluff, tough-guy image, he cares about people. And in this case, I'd venture it was one particular person that he was most concerned about. That weakness made him stupid. He ignored what would normally be clear to a man of his experience and instead allowed himself to be seduced by his faith in his ability. That he would be able to somehow avoid what would be the normally obvious result of such a deception."
"So? You're saying that he's not with us?"
Nigel shrugged almost imperceptively. "He's a bright fellow. I'm hoping he realizes that there is no way out of his predicament except for the one that I've offered him."
Arianna frowned. "Do you think he'll do that?"
St. John shook his head. "No. But I'm prepared to deal with that eventuality if it turns out I must." A feral smile creased to older man's lined face. "Who knows? Perhaps, Henderson will prove to be of value in a completely different manner before we are done with him."
Arianna stared, bewildered, at the implacable Englishman.
Lois walked into headquarters yawning. She was very tired. Funny, she wasn't able to get any sleep all night long, but now, if she'd just allow herself to put her head down on her desk, she knew she'd be out in seconds. Stifling another yawn she glanced over at Henderson's desk. He wasn't in… yet. She bit her lip. Please just let him be late, she thought.
"Lane! My office." Chief Andrews leaned his corpulent body out the door of his office, made his pronouncement, then disappeared back behind the frosted glass. Lois glared at the partially closed door.
She didn't like Andrews. He was a pig of a man in more ways than just his bloated physical stature. He had beady eyes that never seemed to look straight at you, and his whiny voice grated on her nerves. She'd never really thought that Andrews might have been on Luthor's payroll but her gut instinct had always told her not to trust the man. So it wouldn't have surprised her if she found out that he was dirty.
"Yeah, chief?" she asked as she entered the small, cluttered office.
He barely looked up from his desk. "I need you to look into an increase in gang activity near downtown." He threw a folder to the far edge of his desk toward her. "It seems that muggings and general harassment are on the increase. See what you can find out."
Lois picked up the folder and nodded. "We'll get on it as soon as Bill gets in."
Andrews finally looked up at her. "Henderson called in sick. You can go solo on this for now. Just don't get yourself into any potentially dangerous situations until you can secure backup." He cocked a brow at her. "Our health care premiums are going through the roof as it is."
"Well, I wouldn't want to cause the department any undue financial burden by getting injured or killed."
Andrews absently nodded. "Good." He shuffled a few papers around on his desk. "I guess some reporter was mugged near the Daily Planet early this morning. You can start there."
Lois felt a quick chill come over her. "Do you have a name?"
"No, but apparently this fellow came across a lady being hassled by a gang of young punks and decided to play the hero. The lady got away and called the police, but the hero got himself beat up for his efforts." Andrews looked up. "Lane?" There was no one in his office.
Lois was out the door and into her car within a minute. She started the jeep and was headed for downtown, and the Daily Planet. It had to be Clark. Who else in this city would put themselves at risk for a stranger?
As the blocks sped by she could only hope that Clark hadn't been hurt too badly. Andrews hadn't said anything about the man being hospitalized, just beaten up. Lois could just see Clark rushing to the aid of some poor beleaguered woman. It was what he'd been doing as Superman for years. But he wasn't Superman anymore. He couldn't waltz into a situation like that and expect to be able to subdue a bunch of street hoods like he'd always been able to when he had his powers. Even a police officer wouldn't have entered that alley without drawing their weapon.
But this was Clark. And even after a few months Lois could see that it was the man behind the spandex who'd made Superman who he was, not the powers. The powers just made it easier for him to be who he was. So, of course, if he saw someone needing help, he had to help. It was an instinctive reaction.
Once again, Lois felt a stab of guilt over her selfish wish that the powers never come back. That if Clark was the one, then she would never have to worry about sharing him with the rest of the world. She wasn't sure if she was strong enough, or giving enough, to endure such a situation. Could she even manage to hold onto a man who was adored by millions and could have the pick of any woman he wanted? Did she even want to try?
Lois finally pulled into a visitor's spot in the Planet's garage, and was out of her vehicle in a manner of seconds. Riding the elevator up to the newsroom on the fifth floor, it finally dawned on Lois that she should have just called Clark first. He might not even be there. If he was too badly hurt he could be in the hospital, and if he wasn't hurt badly at all, he could very well be out on some story. She'd look pretty foolish bursting into the reporters' bullpen, all worked up, only to find him gone.
Glancing at the indicator, she saw that she had three floors yet to get a handle on her emotions. She closed her eyes and practiced some breathing exercises she'd learned in her Tae Kwon Do classes. It seemed to help because when the elevator announced her arrival at the fifth floor, she was able to step off the car and onto the floor with her normal professional demeanor intact.
She took another deep breath as she spied Clark sitting at his desk working at his computer. She was just going to walk up to him all professional. Just interviewing another victim. She could do it. With another breath she began to move down the ramp toward his desk.
She couldn't do it. Sensing someone coming up behind him, he turned to face her. "Oh, Clark!" She immediately forgot all about her stoic, professional attitude.
He had a black eye and numerous scrapes and bruises about his face. Why would anyone want to damage that gorgeous face? The backs of his hands also contained evidence of abuse. She was afraid to think what might be hidden under his shirt.
"Lois," he said, surprised. "What are you doing here?"
With a resigned sigh and a sad shake of her head, she sat on the corner of his desk. "There's been an increase in gang related assaults in the downtown area lately. Heard anything about it?" She reached out and gently caressed a particularly nasty looking bruise under one eye. He flinched from her touch.
"Well, as it just so happens, I might be able to provide you with a bit of information." Clark glanced back up the ramp. "Where's Bill?"
Her mouth drew tightly into a straight line. "Is there somewhere we can talk… in private?"
He nodded toward the conference room. "We can have some privacy in there."
The suddenly grim couple moved quickly to the conference room. Once inside, Clark drew the blinds and closed the door. Lois sat in one of the chairs. He sat in one next to her.
"Okay," she began. "First off, I am investigating these assaults, so if you would please give me a rundown on what happened."
While Clark gave her his account of the events that morning, Lois' heart ached to see the obvious signs of the beating he took. She was right to fear what she couldn't see also. Once he began to describe the cracked ribs and bruised leg muscles it was all she could do to keep from tearing up.
"So, have you called your folks yet?" she asked.
He shook his head. "No. They're still pretty busy with that new store. It's a new experience for them, running a general store. I didn't want to bother them right now."
Lois raised a brow. "Uh, huh. I see — so, when you talk to them in a couple of days and your mother asks why you are wheezing when talking to her you can just say… Oh, did I mention that I got the snot beat out of me the other day? Nothing major, just some broken bones, major cuts and contusions."
"Don't use that tone with me, Kent." Her sympathy had morphed into righteous anger. "What where you thinking? You could have been killed. Still playing the hero?" She lowered her voice. "Clark, you are not Superman anymore."
"So, what was I supposed to do? Just turn my back on the poor woman and let those young hoodlums have their way with her?" His own frustrated anger was now coming to the forefront. "I just did what any other normal individual would've done… what you would've done."
"No, a normal, rational-thinking individual would have called for the police. And me? Clark, I'm a trained police officer, it's my job to know how to handle situations like this. Besides, I have a gun."
Lois could see Clark mentally counting to ten. The tenseness in his face began to lessen, and finally he dropped his head. "I'm sorry, Lois, but I'm just not made that way. I can't turn my back on someone in trouble if I can help."
She reached over and took his hand, giving it a squeeze. "Of course you can't. But you have to be more careful. You're not indestructible anymore."
"I know." He looked up at her, his face brightening. "But you know what? I really am feeling a lot better than I did this morning. It doesn't even hurt to breathe anymore."
A quickly suppressed flash of fear surged through Lois. What if his powers were coming back? She pushed that thought down. She didn't want to wrestle with that dilemma just now. She had too many other things on her mind. Apparently, Clark was able to sense that because he took her other hand in his and returned the comforting squeeze she'd given him moments ago.
"What's wrong? Where's Bill?" he asked.
"Out sick," was her terse reply.
She dropped her head as a strangled sigh escaped despite her best intentions not to let it. "No."
She could feel his eyes on her. "Lois?"
She really wanted to tell Clark. Have someone to share her fears and concerns with. But did she have the right? After all, it was Bill's problem. Well, Bill's and hers. She wanted to help him. She offered to help him, but he shut her out. Truth be told, she wasn't really sure that there was a way out for Bill. She'd been racking her brain about it since he left her place so early this morning. She'd not been able to think of a way out that didn't put Bill's career and freedom in jeopardy. She wasn't really sure exactly what Bill had done to put him in such a fix. He probably wouldn't have ever brought the subject up if it hadn't been for his concern for her safety.
Her safety? Wouldn't that be a reason to confide in Clark? Bill had warned her that St. John would likely be out to eliminate her, and since it was looking more and more like her partner wasn't going to be around to watch her back, she needed someone else to do that. Clark could do that… couldn't he?
She looked up and was immediately struck by the obvious concern she saw in his eyes. The man had been Superman for crying out loud, if she couldn't trust Superman, whom could she trust? Apparently not her best friend and partner, anymore.
Seeing that the blinds had been drawn and the door was firmly closed, Lois sighed again, then in a soft voice began. "Bill came to see me this morning…"
She appreciated the fact that Clark didn't interrupt her while she told him of Henderson's visit early that morning. She gave him a capsule version of what Bill had told her, but she conveniently left out the part where St. John wanted her dead. Why confuse things with side issues. The important thing was that Bill was in trouble. She had a hard time reading his expression as she related her story. It wasn't until she'd finished that she knew what Clark was thinking, and it was far from what she'd expected.
He frowned. "Lois, I know he's your partner, but you have to go to your Chief with this."
Lois was stunned by Clark's comment. "Are you kidding? Andrews has probably been on the take since he got the job."
"Then you have to go to the Commissioner. Lois, you can't seriously condone this. Bill conspired and collaborated with known criminals in the commission of who knows how many felonies?"
"Don't be silly. He was trying to help bring Luthor to justice. I'd think you, of all people, would appreciate that."
Clark expelled a breath of frustration. "He wasn't trying to bring Luthor to justice. He was trying to bring Luthor down, regardless of the methods, or the outcome."
Lois was beginning to get angry with Clark's attitude. "Don't be naive. Undercover policemen rarely have that much control over the final outcome of their investigation. If they can build a case that will stand up in court, wonderful. If the bad guy is brought down by his own actions or the actions of others not within his control, oh well. We still have eliminated the threat."
Clark rolled his eyes. "Now who's being naive? Trading one bad guy for another doesn't solve anything. And why do you insist on calling this an undercover operation? You said that Henderson told you he had no official sanction for this. He'd decided that his goal was more important than due process and the law."
A very unladylike snort exploded from Lois as she rose from her chair. "So now you're all gung-ho about the letter of the law. Funny, a few months ago you had no problem ignoring the law. I guess Superman employs a double standard."
Clark stood and faced Lois. "It's not the same thing and you know it."
"Do I?" She turned her back on him and stalked to the door. Once there she stopped and faced him again. "All I know is that my partner, and the best friend I've ever had, is in trouble. He's in trouble because he was concerned for me. He may not want my help, but he's going to get it, and in doing so I'll probably be putting myself in more than a little danger. I just thought you'd like to help him… and me."
She grabbed the knob. "Bill Henderson may not be the paragon of virtue that you are, but he was willing to put his career, and his life, at risk because he cared what happened to me. Apparently, your personal ethics are more important to you than I am. " Lois yanked the door open. "It's good to know these things."
She ignored him as she stormed out of the conference room, up the ramp and jabbed aggressively at the elevator button. She could hear Clark hurrying up the ramp after her. The elevator chime announced its arrival and the doors parted. She stepped in and punched the down button. She looked up to see the doors slide closed in Clark's face.
It wasn't all that late, but the room was dark. The blinds were all drawn, and no lights were turned on. Bill Henderson sat in one corner of the room in an old chair. It was his favorite chair. One that he'd had since his college days. It was lumpy, badly worn, ugly — and the most comfortable chair he'd ever owned. Luckily, being single, he'd never had to make an aesthetic choice as to whether he should keep the chair or not.
It didn't match any other piece of furniture in the apartment, nor could it even remotely be considered a classic design. It was just old, but it was his favorite chair to sit in. Especially when he needed to be alone to think.
How had things gotten so far out of control? How had he allowed things to get so messed up? He'd always considered himself to have been a good cop, but that was in the past. Good cops didn't do what he'd done, even if they thought the ends justified the means. Like he'd told Lois earlier that morning; he wasn't proud of what he'd done, but given the same circumstances he'd probably do it again. He'd do it again for her.
He shook his head. A meaningless gesture, being alone in a dark room. If only there had been another way. But he'd been reviewing the past months in his head all day, and he just couldn't see where he could have passed up the opportunity that St. John had given him. Not, and have been able to effect the desired goal so quickly.
He certainly could have continued on the course he'd been on: Plugging away, using normal police procedures and methods, and continually coming up against blank walls and dead ends. Luthor was a savvy criminal, a master, actually. And, as was often true in the cases of brilliant leaders, it took betrayal from the inside to bring them down. But in the end, Luthor had been brought down. Even if Lois hadn't been forced to shoot the man, the evidence that he, along with St. John and Carlin, had managed to put in Lois and Kent's hands would have been more than enough to put Luthor away for the rest of his life.
But what now? Luthor was gone, but problems still remained. Problems that he knew he'd have to deal with. Problems he was willing to face… alone. But the devil wasn't done with him. Complications had to be added. Lois was involved now.
This whole unfortunate mess was a result of his feelings for his partner. He could tell that she had been surprised by his confessions this morning. That some of his true feelings for the woman had, inevitably, slipped out. They had always been friends. In fact, Lois had many times told him that she considered him her best friend. But it could never be more than that.
They'd actually tried the dating thing a few times, but it never seemed to work out. Aside from their jobs, the two of them really had little in common. They'd spend the day together, under high stress conditions, only to take the job with them on their dates. There was never any down time for them. They had both agreed that more than friendship just wasn't in the cards for the two of them.
Lamentably, that didn't alter his feelings for her. Lois might have been able to immerse herself in 'just' a friendship, never having emotionally gone beyond that. But for him it was too late. He was already in love with the woman. It didn't matter that he realized they weren't compatible on a romantic level. The heart seldom consults the intellect on such matters. Lois Lane was his partner, his best friend, and he loved her.
He'd long ago known that he'd give his life for her, so compromising his ethics and risking his career to save her from the dangerous machinations of a man like Luthor had been a no- brainer. He'd seen his chance to rescue her from the clutches of a man he knew had the power to destroy the woman that Lois had been, and would be, and he took it. The consequences to him were of little importance. He was strong. He would survive… somehow.
Only Lois wasn't out of danger. She was still caught up in the tangential web of intrigue that he'd managed to spin, and it was up to him to get her free of it. He wasn't stupid. He knew that running away wouldn't solve anything. St. John hadn't managed to orchestrate the recent coup by not paying attention to the details. He was too thorough. He didn't leave potential problems unanswered. If Nigel St. John had gotten it into his head that Lois Lane was a potential problem, she would be dealt with. The only advantage he had was that St. John thought that he was currently considering providing that solution.
No, just warning Lois and disappearing wouldn't resolve the dilemma. St. John was more than likely to just hire someone else to take care of the situation. Or he was quite capable of handling the problem himself. Only Lois' death would satisfy the man, and that was something that he couldn't allow.
He reached over and picked his service revolver up from the coffee table in front of him. A quick flick and spin of the cylinder confirmed that the gun was fully loaded. Something he could tell even in the dark. He'd already crossed the line this far; would it really be that hard to take the next step? Could he… for Lois?
He set the revolver back down on the table and reached for the phone sitting next to it. It was a special number. Very few people had it. It was answered by the second ring.
"St. John? This is Henderson. I've been thinking about your offer. You know that Lane is my friend and I'd really rather not see her killed… I know, but I think I have come up with an alternative solution to the problem. All I ask is that you hear me out… No, not over the phone. We have to meet."
Bill Henderson sat silently as instructions were given to him over the phone. He didn't bother to respond, he merely listened, then hung up when St. John was finished.
Allowing himself a sigh, he pulled himself out of the chair. He was under no illusion as to the outcome of this coming evening. As many, if not more, things could go wrong as could the way he intended. Not one to put all his proverbial eggs into one, somewhat flimsy, basket, Henderson had one more stop to make before he met with St. John.
Clark sat at his desk, staring blankly at his computer screen. There was no way he was going to get any more work done today. He shut off his computer in disgust. Glancing at the clock on the wall, he shrugged. He might as well head for home now.
He couldn't believe how stupid he'd been earlier. Whatever possessed him to argue with Lois like that? While it was true that he'd been appalled by what Lois had told him about Henderson, still, he shouldn't have gone off on her like that. He knew how Lois felt about her partner. Of course her first instinct would be to defend and protect him. Her loyalty to her friends was one of the wonderful characteristics that Clark loved about Lois.
That wasn't to say that he could easily turn a blind eye to what she'd told him, but he could have been more tactful and sensitive to her feelings. He should have really talked to her. Found out exactly what she felt about Henderson's actions. She clearly couldn't condone them… could she?
Clark entered the cab he'd hailed and settled into the seat in the back. After giving the cabby his address, he let his mind snap back to his problem with Lois. She'd clearly been worried about Bill. And she'd mentioned that he and she were both probably in danger. But she hadn't really gone into exactly what Henderson had done.
Even though Lois had tried to underplay it somewhat, it was obvious that her partner's motivation had been a concern for her. He'd been worried about her relationship with Luthor. Clearly he, like Clark, didn't have too high an opinion of Lex Luthor. But to have put his career in jeopardy, he must've either been really sure of Luthor's true nature, or he cared much more about Lois than he let on. It was like the proverbial light bulb going on over his head. It was so obvious. Bill Henderson was in love with his partner, Lois Lane.
Clark took a deep breath. It was time to try and examine what he knew with a more rational frame of mind. Just what did he know about what Henderson had done? Lois hadn't gone into any details. It sounded like she didn't really know. Apparently Bill hadn't given her any details. He'd just told her that he'd gone too far to be able to 'come clean' with the department without serious consequences. Most likely in the form of prison time. Prison, to a cop like Henderson, was literally a death sentence.
Clark didn't know Bill Henderson very well. He only had a few meetings and Lois' perspective to go by, but what he had gleaned over the months was a picture of a solid career cop. A person who took his job seriously and was good at it. So to have done whatever it was that he'd done, he had to have felt the threat to Lois' well being was very real. In an uncomfortable turnaround thought, Clark wondered if he too wouldn't have been willing to compromise himself for Lois' sake. He knew first hand what a slime that Luthor was. And he certainly, over the last few months, had come to care a great deal about Lois. Make those months, years of close association, and he could see where a man might be tempted to decide that expediency over ethics was a viable course of action. He couldn't agree with Henderson's choice, but he might be able to understand it.
Again, though, it came back to what had Lois' partner actually done? Tampered with evidence, surely. Whether he'd given St. John privileged information, or planted some things he'd received from Nigel where Clark and Lois could find it, he wasn't sure. Probably both. Obviously Henderson had conspired with St. John, and then protected him from any associated guilt when Luthor was exposed, but was there more?
On the surface it didn't seem like it was all that much, or so terribly damning. Certainly, several felony-level crimes had been committed, but it wasn't as if he'd killed anyone… had he?
Clark shook his head to clear the confusion. He just didn't have enough information, and he suspected Lois didn't either. She saw a friend in trouble and her first reaction was to help him. And that should have been Clark's first reaction too.
Lois was very important to him; he knew that. In their short time together she'd been able to reach places deep inside him that no woman had ever been able to before. It was as if she was meant to be a part of him. That she filled a hole in his being that he never knew existed. Yet when she came to him for help he lashed out without thinking. Even if he thought that the only reasonable way to help Bill would be for him to turn himself in, or even for Lois to do so, he should have come at it from a different angle.
It was clear that Lois was more concerned about her partner's wellbeing than in the laws that he might have broken. She wanted to help him, and that was the tack Clark should have taken. She'd mentioned that Henderson's motivation had been worry and fear for her. So he should have seen that there was a component of guilt in Lois' desire to 'save' her partner from the mess that he'd gotten into.
Clark paid the cabby and stepped out into the beginnings of a gentle rain. No, it was clear to him now that he'd failed Lois, and he had to try and set things to right. He had to talk to her. Give her a chance to tell him what she was feeling and what she was thinking. Did she have any ideas as to what to do? He wouldn't be compromising any of his own ethical beliefs just by hearing her out. He owed her that much.
She had also pointed out that he wasn't above a bit of law- bending when it served his own purpose. He knew that the degree of what he'd done and what Bill had done were miles apart, but it still made him look hypocritical. It was always easier to see in black and white when it was someone else.
Clark opened the door to his apartment and flipped the light switch as he entered. He stared at the phone over on the wall next to the kitchen. He would call Lois, apologize, and hope she would give him a chance to come over so they could talk. And this time he would really listen. He would listen and volunteer his ideas merely as that. Suggestions which she could decide for herself whether they had merit or not.
He could argue for the most reasonable course of action, but in the end he would support whatever decision she'd make. It was what you did when you loved someone.
A small smile crooked the ends of Clark's mouth. Yes, he loved Lois. There was no more need to pretend. Their relationship might still be in the early stages, but that didn't mean that he hadn't already fallen for the remarkable Lois Lane. Suddenly he felt a kinship with Henderson and wondered if even Luthor had succumbed to amazing Ms. Lane during their time together.
Of course, it might be all well and good to finally admit that he loved Lois. He still had the problem of getting her to even talk to him again. With more than a bit of trepidation, Clark reached for the phone.
Before he could pick up the receiver and push the buttons to the now familiar number there was a knock on his door. Thinking… hoping that it might be Lois, Clark moved quickly back to his front door. To say he was surprised would be an understatement. But it wasn't an unpleasant surprise. Perhaps he'd have some of his answers from the source itself.
Clark stepped back and allowed Bill Henderson to enter.
The tall, slender detective looked about the small, neat apartment. "If I didn't know that Lane had the hots for you I'd think you were gay." He cocked a brow at Clark. "You're not, are you?"
Clark had to smile. He'd only met Bill Henderson a few times, but the man always came off fairly informal, but direct. "No, I definitely like women… or one particular woman."
"Good. I've talked to some friends over at the Planet and they tell me that you're a stand-up guy. Good reporter, too. Probably one of the best investigative reporters in this town." He walked over and sat down on the couch.
Clark followed, bemused by Henderson's directness. "It's good to know that," the inspector continued. "Lane deserves the best."
Clark took the chair opposite the couch. "What's this about, Bill? Checking out the boyfriend?"
Henderson leaned back against the soft cushion and gave Clark a wry grin. "You know, if I had the time, I might just get to like you, Kent. Yeah, something like that. Lane is a special woman. I care about what happens to her."
"So, what do you want to know?"
"Do you love her?"
"Yes. Do you?"
Henderson raised his brow. "This isn't about me."
Clark leaned forward. "I think it is. Do you know how much your shutting her out is tearing Lois apart?"
Henderson's gaze grew wary. "She told you I was shutting her out?" Clark nodded. "I take back what I said. I don't think I'm going to like you after all. Just what has she told you about me?"
He wondered how much of what he knew he should reveal. Not that he knew all that much, but Lois had obviously confided in him information that Bill had given her in confidence.
"I know enough to understand that Lois feels her best friend is in some sort of trouble because of her. And it's tearing her apart to not be able to help him. That he doesn't trust her enough to let her help him."
"She tell you that?"
Clark waited a few moments before answering. "Yeah, but she didn't really have to. I could see it in her actions and words. She's beside herself with worry. She feels your problems are her fault, and she needs to help you. If not only because she loves you as her best friend, but for her own sense of guilt."
Henderson snorted. "She thinks too much. My problems are my problems. She's never liked it when I've had to keep her out of the loop on anything." He rolled his eyes. "You better learn now that Lois doesn't appreciate being on the outside of situations." The smile was one of amusement, but Clark could see the weariness in his eyes. Bill Henderson hadn't been sleeping much lately. "If you have any secrets you're thinking of keeping from her, you best forget that now."
Clark had to bite down on his lip. "I'll keep that in mind. But you still have answered my question. Do you love her?"
His chuckle was soft and ironic. "You don't have to worry about me horning in on your action, Kent, if that's what has you all hot and bothered." He sat up straighter and met Clark's eyes. "I'm sure she's mentioned that we dated a couple of times early on. Didn't work out. We're just partners and friends."
"Sure. But I'm not worried about anything like that." Clark held Bill's gaze. "Let's quit dancing around here. Why are you here, Bill?"
Henderson stared at him for several minutes, as if sizing up the man sitting across from him. "Okay, cards on the table. You already have been told that I've gotten myself into a bit of trouble. It's something that's probably going to force me to go away, for a while at least. I don't want Lois getting herself wrapped up in it. It could be dangerous for her."
"And it's not for you?"
Bill waved off Clark's concern as if it were irrelevant. "Doesn't matter. What I've gotten myself into is not something that anyone else can fix. I have to deal with it by myself. There's nothing to be gained by involving anyone else. My mess, my consequence." For the first time that evening, Henderson look worried. "But I do need to know that if I, for some reason, am not going to be able to be around for a while, that Lois has someone who can watch her back. Someone who can be there for her when she needs a hand to hold or a shoulder to cry on." He took a deep breath. "Is that you, Kent?"
"I love her." It was a simple statement, but it was also the answer to any of Henderson's questions.
"Good. If things go the way I've got planned, this whole thing could be over by tomorrow. But there's always a chance that it could go sour. The best laid plans and all that…"
Clark shook his head. "I don't like the sound of that. Why do I think that you're only going to be adding to whatever trouble you've gotten yourself into? What are you planning to do, Bill?"
"Best you don't know, Kent. Just accept that it's something that I feel I have to do."
Clark couldn't shake the feeling that Henderson was heading for even more serious trouble. "Two wrongs won't make a right. You can't take back what you've done, but compounding a mistake by committing another mistake isn't going to help. Don't take this so far that you'll never be able to come back."
Henderson frowned at Clark. "What would you know about it? You, who live in such a nice, neat, black and white world. Don't lecture me, Kent. You don't have any idea what I've done or why, so don't pretend that you do."
Henderson stood, but Clark quickly rose himself and placed a hand on the man's arm. "Don't do this, Bill. Don't do this to Lois."
Henderson slowly pulled his arm out of Clark's grasp. "I thought you'd understand? I have to do this… for Lois."
Clark felt helpless. Short of tackling the man and hog-tying him, he didn't know what to do. The resolute look on Henderson's face told him that there was going to be no changing the taciturn inspector's mind. As he watched the man step through his door and move quickly out to the street, Clark could only hope that his apprehension over what Bill had planned would prove to be wrong. But he doubted it.
Lois turned the collar of her ragged jacket up against the cold breeze and the rain that was starting to fall. Typical. Why was it that whenever she went on outside stakeouts it rained… or snowed? She was dressed in torn and dirty jeans, a sweatshirt several sizes too large that hadn't seen a washing machine in a long time, and a threadbare former Metropolis High School letter jacket with no snaps. It was her street person outfit.
She'd purposely not washed her hair that morning and it was now quite lank and greasy-looking. She'd also stuck an old baseball cap, with a torn bill, on her head, which caused many of the ends of her short hair to stick out at all angles.
All the extra dirt and grime she'd smeared on her face had been pretty much for nothing since the rain was washing it off. Well, after it turned it to mud first. She silently cursed her luck. She should have worn another shirt under the sweatshirt. The rain-dampened jacket soaked through to the shirt and was giving her a chill every time the ever-strengthening wind struck her. Worse was the fact that if the weather got too bad, the gangs of punks she was trying to find probably wouldn't be out and about tonight.
Keeping in character, Lois huddled next to a large dumpster deep in an alley that, from her investigation of gang activity, seemed a likely prospect. She figured she'd hang around for about a half an hour to forty-five minutes then move on if nothing promising materialized. Of course, that meant that she had time to just sit and think. Alone and thinking while being physically miserable as well. A real good combination.
Trying to pull the small knit collar closer with one hand, Lois silently cursed the weather, then turned her curses to men in general, and certain men in particular. Why did she have such lousy luck with men? Why did they all have to be such disappointments? She was beginning to think that she didn't know how to find a decent man. That she was destined to be alone and friendless the rest of her life.
She angrily wiped the rain off her face and shivered against the ever-cooling breeze. Frowning she had to admit that she was being just a bit melodramatic. She certainly couldn't put Bill or Clark into the same category as a hormonal college pseudo-stud like Paul, or a first-rate slimy Lothario like Claude. Lex, on the other hand, was the epitome of bad judgment.
But Bill had more than proved his friendship over the years, and his recent actions had only just confirmed the way he felt about her. He'd basically thrown away his career for her. So why couldn't he see that she was just trying to be a friend back by helping him? Why did he have to go all macho-noble on her and take it all on himself? If he would just talk to her. Tell her exactly how deep he'd gotten involved, she was sure they could figure a way out of it. He'd risked everything for her benefit. Didn't he see that, under those circumstances, she'd want to help him? That she had to help him? What kind of friend would she be if she weren't willing to risk equally in helping him than he'd done for her?
A frown pulled at her face. She had been surprised to hear just how much Bill Henderson seemed to care for her. She'd supposed that he considered her his best friend, like she did him. But for him it seemed like more. It was almost as if he loved her. Well, was that so unbelievable? She loved him too. He was her best friend. Clark was the only other person in her life, besides her sister, that she'd ever had such deep feelings for. And with Clark it was different. She shook her head. She wasn't going to think about Clark right now. She would get to him later.
Did Bill think of her as more than just a good friend? Even a best friend? No, that was ridiculous. They'd tried dating, and both of them realized that they just weren't romantically suited for each other. Bill knew that. He was actually the first one to say it out loud. Lois had been afraid to voice her reservations for fear that it would ruin their friendship. It was their friendship that she treasured the most. Love was an overrated emotion. Her parents had been in love, and now they didn't speak to each other. Love was something that Lois felt she could live without if she had to. She wasn't sure how she would be able to live without her friend. But now it looked like she was going to have to learn since it seemed as if Bill had abandoned her.
That left Clark. If ever there was a man who would be able to convince Lois that being in love was something to be desired, it would have been Clark. Not even during the best of times with Lex had Lois felt the stirrings deep inside that Clark seemed to bring forth. The last few months had been wonderful for Lois. Her life had seemed nearly complete. She had a job she loved, with her best friend as her partner, and she was seeing a wonderful man who just might've been the one to convince her to take the plunge relationship-wise. But that was yesterday. Today her life was crap.
Today her partner and best friend was on the run, leaving her to face the possibility of powerful criminals wanting her dead. So whom did she turn to? The only other man in her life. The man who was supposed to teach her how to love again. Only she found out that his personal ethics were more important to him than she was. Damn his Superman morality.
You come into this world alone, and you go out of it alone. For Lois, it looked like she'd be spending most of the in between time alone also.
She started to uncurl herself from her protected refuge, thinking that it might be time to move along to someplace else, when she suddenly heard a noise deep in the alley, behind the building itself. She rose quietly and moved closer to the sounds. Perhaps the gangs were operating tonight in spite of the weather.
She crept silently up to the corner of the building and crouched down behind some discarded boxes. She could hear voices now but couldn't quite make out what they were saying. It was only two people, of that she was sure. Both were male, and one of the voices sounded agonizingly familiar. If only she could get closer!
Taking a deep breath, Lois inched her way along the wall until she was right at the edge of the building. The argument, for clearly that was what it was, was happening not that far away from her present spot. The rainfall and the noise the wind made as it whistled through the brick and mortar canyons made it hard to hear. She couldn't make out any individual words, but the tone of the conversation was less than congenial.
Taking another breath, Lois steeled herself to take a peek around the corner. She was counting on the fact that the two men would be concentrating on each other too much to notice her peering around the crumbling brick. With one last intake of air, she thrust her head around the corner.
What she saw and heard caused the blood to freeze in her veins.
Henderson slouched against the weathered bricks of the dark, crumbling building. He looked up as droplets of rain began to fall. Typical, he thought. He turned his collar up and pressed himself tighter to the abandoned structure. Why did meetings always have to take place in dark, deserted alleys? Why couldn't they meet at a nice cheery restaurant with a four star rating?
Of course, he had to admit that tonight a dark deserted alleyway fit his purpose just fine. He didn't think that he'd be able to gun down a man in cold blood in a restaurant full of people. Even someone as deserving as St. John.
His hand slipped into his pocket once again to feel the cold comfort of the steel revolver there. He hadn't bothered with a silencer. Despite what the movies and television might depict, it wasn't that easy to get one. Not for a cop. It wasn't like he could just check one out of the police armory. The paperwork needed alone was a deterrent. That and the desire to leave no discernible trail that would lead back to him.
Also, he couldn't go out and purchase one from a gun dealer. Again, paperwork and background checks would leave too much of a trail back to him. So he was left with just his service revolver. While it was true that ballistics could be traced back to his gun, he'd just have to find a way to 'lose' it, so it wouldn't be available for comparisons. Just an ordinary .38 with no silencer, but then he wasn't really worried about the noise of a gunshot here. It wasn't like gunfire was all that uncommon in this part of town. Even if someone heard anything, he'd be long gone before any authorities could answer the call.
He pulled his hand out of his pocket. He had to appear totally in control, give St. John no reason to suspect him of anything untoward. Henderson looked around, his eyes adjusting to the ever-increasing darkness. The shadows were deep, but the ambient light of the huge metropolis allowed for a city that was never completely black. Colors washed out to shades of gray, but he could easily identify what each piece of left behind debris that littered the alley was.
He felt the presence before he saw it. He was surprised that the shape coming out of the shadows came from behind him, deeper into the alley. How had St. John gotten by him? Had the man been there all this time?
Within a few more steps he could see that it wasn't Nigel St. John. In fact it looked remarkably like…
The cape swirled in the increasing breeze. "Hey. Henderson isn't it? How's it hanging?"
Bill stared in utter confusion at the Man of Steel. "What are *you* doing here? Where have you been? Everyone thinks you're dead."
The tall man smirked. "The reports of my death… you know the saying." Henderson noticed an intense look in the superhero's eyes as his gaze swept him from head to toe. "I don't think your gun will do you much good here."
Bill shrugged, hiding the feeling of unease that was stealing over him. "I'm a cop. I never go out unarmed."
Superman's brow rose. "Even when meeting a friend?"
Henderson tried to step back but ran up against the hard brick of the building. "St. John is no friend, and what do you know about that? What is it you want, Superman? Why are you here?"
The idol of millions reached out, grabbed Henderson by the lapels of his coat, and raised him off his feet as if he were no more than a child's doll. "I come with a message. No deals, no changes in the plan. Lane dies… or you do." He hoisted him a bit farther upward. "So, what do you say… cop?"
"Who are you?" Henderson squirmed in the steely grip. "Superman would never work for a man like St. John." His voice rose in a combination of anger and terror.
The Metropolis Marvel tossed Henderson into a nearby garbage can. The noise went unnoticed. Striding over, he stuck one finger under Bill's chin and lifted the one hundred and eighty pound policeman off his feet. "Oh, I'm Superman all right." An invulnerable fist smashed into the brick wall next to his face. "I'm just not *your* Superman." Allowing Henderson to fall to the dirty pavement at his feet, the superhero stepped back and favored the beaten man with a look of scorn. "So, what's it going to be, cop? Do as you're told and kill Lane? Or should I just save us all some time right here?"
Henderson couldn't help but cringe away from the intimidating presence of the larger man. "I don't get it. Why do you want Lane dead?"
The spandex clad hero laughed. "I couldn't care less. The boss wants her dead, so dead she has to be."
"But I told St. John that I had a solution to the problem that didn't require Lane's death," he pleaded. "There's no reason to invite the extra heat that killing a police officer would bring. He has to listen to me."
"No, he doesn't." Superman reached down and, grabbing him by the face with one hand, lifted Henderson back to his feet. "No more stalling. It's time to answer the sixty-four thousand dollar question. Lane… or you?"
Henderson could feel his heart racing. What was he going to do? He was no match for Superman. How St. John managed to get the Man of Steel under his control he had no idea. One thing was for certain. This Superman, whether the real article under some sort of mind control, or some incredible doppelganger, had all the power of the original. Henderson was left with no choice.
He held his hands up in front of him and was subsequently dropped to the pavement below. "Okay, okay, I'll do it. I'll get rid of Lane for him."
Superman stared at the nervous cop for a few moments and chuckled. "Wrong answer."
"What?" Henderson was even more confused, and more afraid.
"Let me rephrase that." The superhero turned away, as if pondering his next words. Turning back Henderson could see the evil grin on the man's face. "The words were correct, but I found the sincerity lacking."
Henderson backed up until he was up against the hard brick of the building wall again. "Look, I don't know what you want me to say. I said I'd kill her. What more do you want?"
Superman shrugged. "Honesty?" He laughed again. "Poor Inspector Henderson. You just don't get it, do you? I've got the super hearing too, you know. I can hear your heart pounding away like a jackhammer. It's better than a lie detector." He shrugged again. "So, you see, it doesn't matter if you tell me you'll eliminate Lane if you don't mean it."
Henderson began to reach into his coat pocket then let his hand fall limply to his side. It was over. His bluff had been called, and there was no way his gun was going to do him any good here. "What are you going to do?"
The sneer on the face of the hero was mockingly cruel. "I suppose I could easily kill you right here and leave your corpse for the rats to feast on, but where's the fun of that." Superman reached out and, grabbing a fistful of Henderson's shirt, lifted him off his feet. "Ever met an active volcano up close and personal?"
The bogus superhero's laughter echoed hollowly off the surrounding brick walls as the two men disappeared into the air.
"Bill? Bill!" Her voice trembled and cracked. "Clark?"
It was raining hard now as Lois lurched and stumbled along the sidewalks of Metropolis. She was barely conscious of her movement as her mind continued to torture her with the images of the horror she'd witnessed.
She hadn't been able to move, so stunned was she by what she'd seen. It was a shock to find out that the two people she'd heard at the other end of the alley were her partner Bill, and… Superman. But there wasn't any Superman.
When she'd finally peeked around the corner, the argument between the two men was just about over. She had been able to see the fear in her friend's eyes and the sneer on the face of Metropolis' resident hero. She'd just been able to hear Superman threaten to kill Bill by dropping him into a volcano. Then, in a blur, they had vanished into the air, vile laughter ringing in her ears.
Lois' legs were like silly putty as she forced herself over to the spot where moments ago her partner had stood facing the Man of Steel. There was nothing. No indication that a man had been standing there just seconds ago. No evidence that a kidnapping had just happened and a murder was about to take place. Bill Henderson was just… gone.
A chill had run through her body and she began to shake. A single inarticulate cry erupted from her mouth as she fled from the alley and into the streets.
Somewhere deep in the back of her mind she knew she was in shock. She couldn't stop her body from shaking, but she couldn't force her thoughts away from the continuing replay of the terrible scene she'd witnessed. It was all she could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other without falling over.
Zombie-like, she continued on.
Clark had been upset that no one had answered at Lois' when he'd called earlier, and again just recently. He knew it didn't mean anything ominous. She was probably just either working, or out. It was obvious that she'd been really worried about her partner, and after his recent visit, Clark figured she had even more reason to be than before. Maybe she'd finally tracked him down. Found him before he had a chance to do whatever he was planning. Maybe she was talking some sense into him. It was possible, but not likely.
Clark had an uneasy feeling. It was obvious from his actions that Henderson was planning something dangerous. Why else would he come over to make sure that Clark was going to be there for Lois if she needed him? It sure sounded like someone who didn't plan to be around in the future. And now he couldn't get a hold of Lois either. He didn't like it. He didn't like it one bit.
In the old days he'd just spin into the spandex and take a cruise around the city until he found her. He could've then, from a distance, seen that she was fine and she'd have never known he'd been worried about her.
But this wasn't the old days. Superman didn't fly around the city any more. So, his choices were to go out and aimlessly wander about the city with no clue, or sit home and worry, waiting to see if she called. He didn't care for either choice.
Suddenly there was a weak knock on his front door. Instantly he knew it was her, and he rushed to answer it. He was stunned by the vision that greeted him upon opening the door.
Lois was standing on his stoop, soaked to the skin in the now pouring rain. She was dressed shabbily and she was visibly shaking. The look on her face scared him the most. Her eyes appeared glazed, as if her sight were focused on something that wasn't part of the real world.
"Lois! Omigod, what's wrong?" He ushered her into the apartment. She didn't seem to know he was there. "Let me help you out of these wet things." He began tugging at her outer jacket. "You'll catch your death."
At the word 'death' she perked up and finally was able to focus on Clark. His heart ached. She seemed so lost.
"Bill's dead." Her voice was a flat weak monotone.
A chill of dread raced through Clark's body. "Oh no! Lois, what happened?" He prodded her farther into the living room, pulled the afghan off the couch, and using it like a towel, began to rub her down with it.
"He was killed." Her gaze slipped away from Clark and seemed to wander about the room. The emptiness of her stare nearly broke Clark's heart. Finally her gaze found its way back to Clark. Her veiled eyes met his concerned ones. "He was killed… by Superman."
Lois was standing, naked, in the middle of a small, white-tiled room. She wasn't sure how she'd gotten there, and it took her a few moments to realize that she was in a bathroom. In fact, she was in Clark's bathroom. A pile of wet clothes was lying in one corner next to the tub and shower. She had a large soft towel around her shoulders and it felt wonderful. It was nice to finally feel warm again.
She spied a neatly folded sweatshirt and sweat pants on the turned-down toilet lid as her mind gradually became aware of her situation and her surroundings. She clamped down hard on her thoughts before the memories could come rushing back and threaten to overwhelm her again. She forced herself to stay in the here and now.
Draping the towel over the edge of the bathtub, she reached for the warm, dry clothes that Clark must have provided. The pants were absurdly large on her, but the waist had a drawstring and she was able to cinch it tight enough so they wouldn't fall off. She rolled the legs up until they were just below her knee. The sweatshirt was also large, but it was soft and comfortable. It hung down to below her butt, the neckline plunging to an almost indecent depth. She rolled the sleeves up. A small smile found its way onto her face when she saw the pair of thick woolen socks that had also been provided. They caressed her cold-numbed feet like a pair of favorite old slippers. Leave it to Clark to have thought of those.
A shiver ran through her body, but she was able to keep it from manifesting into a full-blown attack of the shakes. She knew she'd been in a state of shock and probably still was, but felt a little more in control now. She glanced at the closed bathroom door. She wasn't really looking forward to leaving that ceramic sanctuary just yet. She knew she had to go out and explain everything to Clark, but that would just bring back the horrible memory of what she'd seen, and that she wasn't looking forward to doing.
She stalled a few more minutes trying to comb out the tangles in her hair, absently thinking that she needed to make an appointment to get in for a trim. Finally, realizing that she could put it off no longer, she turned and faced the door again. With a sigh, and a firm set to her lips, she took a step and reached for the knob.
Clark paced about his living room like someone caged. He'd been appalled at Lois' condition when he'd first opened the door to her. She'd been dressed in old ragged clothes. A disguise of some sort, he guessed. But she'd been soaked through to the skin by the rain and was shivering from the cold. But that wasn't all.
Something terrible must have happened. She'd been clearly in a state of shock. Her gaze had been unfocused and she didn't even seem to know exactly where she was. Then, something he'd said had triggered a reaction in her because she looked squarely at him and said something nearly incomprehensible. He could swear she'd said that Bill Henderson had been killed by Superman. Before he could even express any shock or surprise of his own, she'd collapsed in his arms.
Knowing that she could be in serious danger if he didn't get her out of those wet clothes and warm, he'd carried her into the bathroom. Quickly stripping the wet clothes off her, he turned on the shower and helped her into it. Allowing himself to get soaked, he held her up in the warm spray until she regained enough of her senses to be able to stand on her own. He then left her to finish without his assistance, hoping that she'd forgive him the liberties he took in taking her clothes off. At any other time holding a naked Lois next to him would have been the definition of heaven, but he was much too scared for her to even have it register.
Changing into dry clothes himself, he pulled out a pair of sweatpants and sweatshirt for her. He also grabbed a pair of thick athletic socks. Noting that she was still in the shower, he slipped in and laid the dry clothes on the toilet seat.
After that he'd begun pacing, which was what he was still doing. Her words hadn't made any sense. What had happened? Was Henderson really dead? Why did Lois think that Superman had killed him? She knew there wasn't a Superman anymore. And what did this have to do with what Bill had hinted at when he'd been there earlier? Had he been planning to meet with Superman? But there wasn't a Superman anymore. He knew that all his jumbled thoughts would become sorted out once Lois came out of the bathroom; at least he hoped that they would be. But that didn't stop his mind from its confused conjectures.
Suddenly, he heard the knob on the bathroom door begin to turn. He hoped that she was all right. She'd really put a scare in him.
When the door opened and she came out, he could feel the burn at the back of his eyes. She looked so small and forlorn, drowning in the sweat clothes that were so much too big for her. She walked over to the sofa and sat down. She bit her lip as she looked at him.
"Do you have anything warm to drink?" Her voice was quiet, but relatively calm.
Clark glanced up to see that the pot of water he'd started heating earlier for some tea was still on the stove. The burner had been turned down low, but it was probably still hot enough so he hurried over to make her some tea.
As he worked in the kitchen, he repeatedly glanced over his shoulder at her. She just sat on the couch, hunched over, with her arms resting on her thighs, staring straight ahead. He was beginning to worry that she might slip into some sort of delayed shock. She must have been through something truly awful.
He poured her a cup and brought it over. She favored him with a weak smile as she gratefully took the cup. After a few sips, she set it down and looked at him. Clark had taken a seat in the chair across from her.
"I suppose I wasn't making too much sense when I came to your door earlier," she began.
Clark gave her an encouraging smile. "Take your time. I'm not going anywhere."
"Really?" she said with an almost laugh. "I'd imagine you'd be nearly bursting wondering what I was yammering about when I first came in here."
Clark stretched his hands in the universal gesture. "I'll admit that my curiosity has been piqued."
"I'll bet." Lois closed her eyes and sighed deeply. Placing her hands on her knees, she met Clark's eyes and began her story.
Clark's emotions ran the gambit from worried irritation at Lois' solo 'undercover' investigation to stunned horror at her description of the 'Superman' she saw and the abduction of Bill Henderson. He was also amazed that she was even able to sit there, calmly, telling him about the tragic events she'd been forced to witness just hours earlier.
"I want you to know that I never thought that the… the person who took Bill was you." Clark cocked a brow at her. "Well, maybe in the first confused minute or two I wasn't so sure. But it didn't take long for me to realize that I know you well enough to know you could never do anything like that." She sniffed back an errant tear. "You could never kill anyone."
Clark nodded, grateful for her words. "And I don't have my powers anymore either."
She bit her lip. "That, too." She ran her hand through her hair, mussing up the smooth careful style she'd spent so much time trying to achieve. "Which leaves us with a serious problem. There's someone out there with Superman's powers… killing people."
"We don't know that Bill is dead. You never saw this… person, actually kill him."
She bit on her lower lip as a tear rolled down her cheek. "He said he was going to have Bill get 'up close and personal' with an active volcano. You do the math."
Clark had been watching Lois all during her recitation. Her body was wound tight like a coiled spring. She had continued to clench and unclench her fists, alternating between that and wringing them. He could see that she still had trouble controlling her voice, even though, to the average person, she would have sounded completely in control. She was on the edge.
He got up from his chair and she watched him as he came over and knelt down in front of her. He took her hands in his. "It's okay, Lois. You don't have to put on any brave front here. You can let it go."
She frowned. "I don't know what…" Her eyes suddenly began to glisten. A deep shudder wracked her slender frame. "He's gone, Clark. He's really gone." She tried to look away, but he knew that she couldn't hold on any longer. "I'll never see Bill again." Tears began to flow in earnest as Clark drew her to him. A tear snuck out of his own eye as he held the sobbing woman tightly to his chest.
Arianna Carlin-Luthor pulled the large brim of her hat lower to help obscure her face and adjusted the sunglasses that weren't needed for their normal purpose since the sky was overcast. It had become quite a burden being the suddenly reestablished widow of the late, but not lamented, Lex Luthor. Her privacy had become non-existent. Due to the splash that had been made when it was discovered that her long-ago divorce from the billionaire had never been final, she was instantly recognized anywhere she went. If she ever did want to go out, alone, and not be bothered, she had to go in disguise.
Of course, there were compensations for the loss of her privacy. Mostly, she had access to so much money now that she didn't really need to go out anywhere. Practically anything she might need or want could be brought to her. She had staff, aides, and dozens of hangers-on just waiting for the chance to do her bidding. So, normally, it wasn't so bad to be the famous widow.
But there were a few occasions when her fame was less than convenient. Times, such as now, when she had to meet with people it was best not to draw attention to. Nigel was good at coming and going with a minimum of risk to their 'arrangement'. He'd been Luthor's aide and so had become somewhat known around the offices of LexCorp and the boss's private suites, yet was never obvious or obtrusive about it. It was also generally known that St. John had been retained to help Arianna and the new board of directors in their transition of rule over the vast Luthor empire. At least, that was the official story.
It was the other man that she was to meet with that complicated matters. Mamba was still a wanted fugitive from justice. When the plot to take down Luthor had been devised it had necessitated the exposure of the secret lab outside of Boynton. This had compromised Dr. Mamba, who was too well known by many of the lab's complement of researchers and general staff as the head of the facility. He couldn't very well plead ignorance of the actual work being done there, as could a large percentage of the staff that had been rounded up during the initial police raid.
So Mamba had been forced to flee to the safety of another secret lab located in Switzerland. But he'd made sure he had certain valuable notes and specific DNA cultures in his possession when he left. The first lab might be gone but the research went on. And apparently, very successfully.
So now Arianna found herself forced to make a clandestine rendezvous with her other co-conspirators in this little restaurant on the west side of town. Not one of the high-class places she was used to, but hardly a dive either. It only took her a minute to find the table occupied by Nigel St. John and another man wearing sunglasses and sporting a moustache that hadn't been there when last they met. Obviously, Mamba, had felt a disguise was necessary also.
Neither man made any move to stand as she approached the table and slid into the unoccupied seat. "So, gentlemen, I take it from the urgency of this meeting that you have some news?"
A slight smile cracked the normally stone-like expression on St. John's face. "We just thought it would be prudent to inform you that you'll soon be hearing some remarkable news in the general media."
Arianna wasn't stupid. She could guess what that news was going to be, just not what direction it might take. "I gather, from Dr. Mamba's presence here, that our project has been successful?"
Mamba's smile was more of the self-congratulatory type. "Beyond our wildest dreams."
"That is good news." Her smile was one that she usually reserved for her clients. All on the surface, nothing underneath. "So, have you had time to look into our *other* problem?"
Nigel waved his hand dismissively. "Already taken care of. No need to worry your pretty little head over it."
Arianna's eyes narrowed as she glared at the former Luthor factotum. "Don't ever make the mistake of thinking that there isn't a brain behind this face. I didn't get my doctorate on my looks, nor am I foolish enough to think that either of you actually thinks of me as an equal." Her hands clenched into fists under the table. "Get one thing straight, *boys*, you need me more than I need you. I'm the one controlling the Luthor fortune now, and if you want to keep getting your pieces of that sizable pie, you'd better treat me with a little more respect."
Nigel inclined his head. "Sorry, Miss Carlin. No offense intended. But if I may? A bit of advice." He raised his head until his grey-eyed gaze met hers. She shivered involuntarily. "Never make a threat you aren't willing, or able, to back up."
Arianna jerked back in her seat as if she'd been slapped. Mamba put out a hand. "Enough bickering," he said. "Let's just tell her what we came to tell her and get out of this place. I feel too conspicuous."
"Very well," Nigel acquiesced. He turned back to her. "We have decided that our villa in Switzerland is too far away to act as a base of operations. After all, it has always been our intention to implement our plan here in the States. It just makes sense that we find a more convenient place to work from."
Arianna spread her hands out, inviting St. John to elaborate. "So?"
"We're going back," Mamba interjected.
She could see by the look on Nigel's face that he was enjoying her confusion. "What the good doctor means is that there is a perfectly good laboratory set up just a few hours outside of Metropolis that isn't currently being used. No sense in letting it go to waste."
She gasped at their audacity. "You don't mean the old mine site?" Nigel merely nodded. "But… but… that's been exposed. The police and the feds know about it. They've shut it down and locked it up."
"The authorities may have crawled all through the place, collecting all the data and information that we wanted them to have months ago. But I hardly think they give it much thought anymore." He shrugged almost imperceptively. "I imagine they've put a nice padlock on the front and back doors to the facility. Maybe they've even posted a guard out front, but there are other ways to get in beside the front door."
"Aren't you concerned that someone will notice?" she asked.
Mamba shook his head. "No, the only risk of being noticed is if we are seen coming or going, and we won't be. The facility was purposely built sound-proof, so no one on the outside will have any reason to suspect there is anyone on the inside." This time it was Mamba who shrugged. "Besides, we are not talking about a fully staffed research facility anymore. Just a place we can call home, while we continue with our project."
Arianna was still unconvinced. "What if someone decides to come in, for what ever reason?"
This time it really was a smile on St. John's face. "I have some ideas in that regard. We'll just have to provide some discouragement."
Lois woke to the smell of fresh coffee. She was momentarily disoriented as she took in her surroundings and the bulky sweat suit she was wearing. She pushed back the coverlet that had been draped from her legs to her shoulders. She was on a couch, but obviously not hers. Hers was nowhere near this comfortable. The enticing smell of the coffee forced her mind to engage as she sat up.
She was still at Clark's place. She glanced over to the kitchen area and noticed his broad back bent over the stove, as the sound of something frying poked through the cotton wool that was her brain. She stood, the heavy socks feeling good against her feet, and with a purpose moved toward the kitchen.
Clark turned. "Hey, good morning. Breakfast will be ready soon." His look changed to one of deep concern. "How are you doing?"
Lois opened her mouth, then shut it. She had been going to say 'fine', but that wasn't true. As the fog cleared, and she remembered more and more of what took place the night before, she realized that she wasn't fine. She was a long way from fine.
She was a cop who had witnessed a major crime, yet she hadn't reported it. She couldn't. The worst part of it was that it had happened to her partner and best friend, yet she had no legal recourse. Bill was gone, and there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it.
"I don't know," she answered truthfully.
Clark began to put plates on the small table. "Well, eat first. We'll work out what has to be done later."
Automatically Lois went over to the cupboard drawer and began to pull the needed silverware. Leave it to Clark to order priorities with food at the top of the list. Actually, she knew that breakfast was Clark's way of allowing her to put off dealing with yesterday. Give her some time to figure things out before she had to take some action. She knew that he'd sit there quietly, too. He'd let her initiate the conversation, but he'd be there for her. Too bad he hadn't thought that way when they'd had their argument yesterday.
"Smells good. What's cooking?"
"Nothing much, just some eggs and toast. I've got some fresh strawberries in the fridge if you'd like."
She smiled. "Sounds great. Smells great, but first…"
He answered her smile. "Some coffee?"
She nodded and accepted a cup of the steaming brew from him. She made her way to the table and sat in one of the chairs; just staring at him while he dished up their eggs and brought over a jar of preserves for the toast. She began spreading some of the sweet confection on her toast as he went back and pulled a tub of strawberries out of the refrigerator and set them on the table.
She watched as he slathered his eggs in Tabasco sauce and dug in with a gusto she always found entertaining when they'd dined together. Idly, she wondered if he'd eaten like that when he was Superman. The thought of Superman brought all the bad memories of the night before crashing back, and she suddenly lost her appetite.
She could see him watching her, warily, as if she was some delicate piece of crystal balancing on the edge of a shelf, just ready to fall and shatter into a thousand shards. The trouble was, she felt like that. She was still numb. The impact of what had happened hadn't hit her fully yet. She'd told Clark what she'd seen last night, then had broke down, sobbing, in his arms. She didn't know how long she cried, nor how long he'd held her. She had only hazy memories of him laying her on the couch and covering her with that small spread. Her next coherent memory was waking up several minutes ago.
The numbness was actually a blessing of sorts. Dealing with the death of her partner was going to be difficult. Already there was an ache in her heart and a knot in her stomach every time she thought about it. And she couldn't help thinking about it. Bill had not only been her work partner, he'd been her best friend. The thought of never hearing him crack wise over something she'd said or done, of never being able to count on him to back her up when she needed it, of never seeing him again. It was just too much to bear. How was she going to be able to do it?
"What am I supposed to do?" She sighed, and used her fork to push her eggs around the plate.
She could see the hard set in Clark's lips, then his expression softened. "Look, Lois, I apologize for being such a jerk yesterday. You came to me for help, and I got all righteous and moral on you. It was obvious that you wanted to help your friend, that you felt an obligation to that friendship. And instead of talking to you and trying to understand where you were coming from, I just went off on you."
Lois shrugged. "It's okay."
Clark shook his head violently. "No, it wasn't. I care very much about you and what happens to you. That should have been my first concern. 'How can I help you?' That should have been the first thing out of my mouth. My behavior was inexcusable."
Lois allowed herself a slight, sad smile. "You're right. It was. But I can see where you might have been worried that I hadn't thought this through. That, by protecting Bill, I might be getting myself involved in whatever illegal activities he'd gotten himself into." She paused long enough to take a sip of her coffee. "But I knew all that. I knew what I could, potentially, be getting into. But it didn't matter. Bill was my friend, and he'd put himself on the line for me. Could I do any less?"
Clark stared down at his own half-eaten plate of eggs. It looked as if his appetite seemed to have suddenly left him too. "No."
"Well, it's all moot now. Bill is dead, and I don't have a clue as to what I can do about it."
Clark's brow furrowed. "I don't follow you."
Lois spread her hands wide in a gesture of frustration. "Think about it. What am I going to do? Who is going to believe that everyone's favorite superhero has come back from the dead just to kill my partner? Besides, I can't exactly report a murder. There's no body. I doubt if *Superman* is going to tell us which volcano he dumped Bill into."
Clark's head snapped up. "Lois, we both know that it wasn't Superman."
"No?" Her voice asked the question before her words. "Sure looked like the Man of Steel to me. Where do you think those powers came from?" She stood and began to walk back to the living room. Clark followed.
"It came to me just now," she continued. "I know that the man I saw kill Bill wasn't you… but who was he? Then it hit me. What was going on at that lab outside of Boynton? What was the project that Luthor had to keep so secret that it led to his downfall when it came out?"
She could see by his expression that Clark was following her lead. "The cloning experiments."
She nodded. "Exactly. I remember Mac telling us that most of the workers and researchers thought they were doing legitimate medical cloning experiments. That their efforts, though highly controversial, were still above board."
Clark nodded. "But you don't think so."
"We're talking about Lex Luthor here."
Lois began to pace. "Follow along with me here. What if the whole purpose of that facility wasn't just to perfect cloning techniques for future medical use, but to perfect cloning techniques for a specific purpose… or to produce a specific clone?"
"You mean a clone of Superman."
"It makes sense. I saw Superman, complete with super-strength and the spandex suit, fly off to kill my partner. Since we both know it wasn't you, who else could it be?"
Clark stared at his hands for a few moments then looked at his left arm. Lois' gaze followed his. She saw that he was staring at a scar on the inside of his left arm. It was about four inches long. She hadn't noticed it before, but then he normally wore long-sleeved shirts. She moved closer and traced the slightly raised weal with her fingertip. "Where did you get this?"
"When Luthor attacked me on that pier, I scraped my arm against an exposed nail just before I fell into the bay. I suppose they could have noticed that. There had to have been blood on the nail."
Lois nodded. "So we know where they got the Superman DNA from."
Clark reached out and stopped her pacing. "We only know that there was an opportunity there. The rest is circumstantial and speculation."
"I would feel confident going into any courtroom with this much evidence. Men have been convicted on less. Don't forget, this isn't conjecture anymore. The clone exists, I saw it…" Her eyes became guarded. "Unless you think I dreamed up the whole thing."
Clark took her hands in his. "No, Lois, I believe you saw what you saw. I'm just not quite willing to believe that it was a Superman clone. There could be some other explanation."
Lois folded her arms across her chest. "Okay, I'm waiting."
Clark ran his hand through his hair. "Look I'm just saying that we have to be open to other possibilities. After all, Mac told us the clone specimen of Lucy was a failure, and the facility was closed down right after that."
Lois shrugged. "So, they went somewhere else. Is it so hard to believe that enough key people escaped that they couldn't pick up where they left off in some other lab? We know that St. John escaped any prosecution, even though we both know that he's dirty. And Bill had mentioned that Nigel had an associate in his plan to take down Luthor, but he never told me who it was. It could have been this Dr. Mamba whose process Mac said they were using. He never surfaced after the raid."
Lois watched Clark intently as it was clear that he was thinking fast and furiously. She knew that the only reason that he resisted the idea of a Superman clone was that the thought of someone that powerful out there with no apparent moral code scared the heck out of him. She could understand that, because it scared her too. But she'd seen the man, he hadn't. There was definitely an evil doppelganger of Superman flying around, and they were the only ones who knew it.
Clark finally sat down. "Do you think?" He said quietly almost to himself.
Lois came over and sat down next to him. "Do I think what?"
"Mamba isn't the only one who could be involved in this. There's another person who stood to gain quite a lot from Luthor's downfall and death."
Lois shook her head in confusion. "Okay, I'll bite. Who?"
Clark looked up to stare into Lois' face. "The convenient widow, Arianna Carlin-Luthor."
Arianna sat in front of her dressing room mirror staring at her reflection. The condescending remark from Nigel the other day had really bothered her. 'Don't worry your pretty little head' he'd said. What a jerk. She knew that 'the boys' never really thought of her as a full partner in their venture, but maybe it was time they learned.
It was true that Arianna was a good-looking woman. She didn't deny it, nor was she above using her attractiveness to advance herself. Her current look had been carefully cultivated. She was a doctored psychologist. She knew that people tended to make judgments based on a way a person looked and how they presented themselves to the world. She could write a book on it… but she didn't have to. It had been done many times already.
When she'd embarked on her career as a media personality, a celebrity as it were, she knew that she would need to cultivate a look that would be much different than what one would normally see in a clinician. She had to be photogenic. She had to be glamorous. She was going to be judged by more than just her words. She was also going to be judged by her delivery. The books and the syndicated columns were all well and good, and they had provided her with a more than comfortable income, but they wouldn't have fared nearly so well if it hadn't been for the television talk shows and the personal appearances.
The hair, the make-up, the clothes…had all been deliberately chosen to enhance and further those goals. But things had changed. She was still a public figure, but the glamour was no longer needed to win people over. Now she needed respect.
She was the CEO of one of the largest corporate conglomerates in the entire country, if not the world. Nigel and Mamba could have their fun playing around in Lex's former shady and illicit activities, but seventy percent of LexCorp holding were legitimate concerns, and those were hers.
She had recently been installing her own handpicked replacements for many of the executive positions that had been left vacant in the wake of Luthor's downfall. Even though Lex had died at the hands of that irritating former paramour of his, anyone else who had been implicated by the information that Nigel had fed to Henderson and the documentation carefully left behind the facility outside Boynton, found themselves either in custody, or on the run.
She had done her homework well. She chose good people who would be able to guide the various divisions of LexCorp through these tough times and keep the companies thriving. What she hadn't done was chosen a bunch of yes men. Those wouldn't have suited her purpose. She needed strong and able leadership. Unfortunately, that came with a built in obstacle to be overcome. While the people she hired might be grateful to her for their new positions, they still had an image of her as the media celebrity pop psychologist.
She knew she had the guts and the brains to run this company, but they didn't. She would have to teach them. And the first step would be for her to look the part.
She reached over and pressed the button on the intercom that was never far away, the other side being manned twenty-four seven.
"Yes, Mrs. Luthor?"
She recognized the voice at the other end. "Gloria, get in touch with Mr. Jordan at Sach's and tell him I would like to see a selection of business wear sometime this morning." She fingered the ends of her long dark hair. "And call Mr. Andre and make me a hair appointment for this afternoon."
"Certainly, Mrs. Luthor. Will there be anything else?"
"Yes. Contact the members of the board and inform them that there'll be a meeting tomorrow at nine o' clock sharp."
"As you wish, Mrs. Luthor."
"Thank you, Gloria."
Arianna leaned back and peered through fingers that were steepled in front of her. Nigel St. John had better watch his step in the future. He might not know it yet, but he'd just acquired a new boss, and if he didn't like it … well, that would be his problem. One that she'd be more than happy to solve for him.
Clark stared into the eyes of a very confused Lois Lane. He knew that he'd thrown her with his abrupt shift. It was just that the talk of some mystery associate of St. John's got him to thinking. Could the celebrity pop psychologist, who was suddenly, and conveniently, found to be Luthor's legal widow, have been in on it all along?
Clark was sure that Lois hadn't spared the woman more than a passing thought since she'd surfaced. She'd have been more worried over what her partner had been involved in than in who had shown up to claim the vacant throne. So her confusion was understandable.
Ever since Arianna Carlin had suddenly come forward with the tale of her barely known early marriage to Luthor, and the very unusual circumstance of the non-divorce, he'd had a nagging doubt about the woman. Things that seemed too good to be true usually were. Was that the case with Carlin? Had she been a part of the partnership that brought Luthor down?
Clark had seen the original news conference where her status as the legal widow of Lex Luthor had been announced. The woman had seemed truly surprised and more than a bit flustered by all the unusual attention and media pressure that had been brought to bear. Still, the woman was used to being in the public eye and had to have learned how to play to the cameras over the years.
"Are you saying that Dr. Arianna Carlin, noted popular psychologist, best selling author, and syndicated columnist… is a crook?"
Clark shifted his attention back to Lois and her question. "It's possible."
How could he explain to her the 'feelings' he'd had watching her at her news conferences? Lois might agree with him as to the fortunate timing of the discovery that her long ago divorce from the billionaire wasn't valid, but it could be just as easily argued that such things were more likely to come to the surface when the affairs of the deceased were scrutinized by lawyers. He could only shrug for Lois. It wasn't anything concrete that he'd discovered. It was just a gut feeling.
"The woman was quite successful in her own right," Lois pointed out. "She may not have had wealth to rival Lex's, but she was hardly living check to check."
Clark shrugged again, conceding her point. "I can't explain it. My instincts just tell me that there's more going on there than a surprised ex suddenly finding herself one of the wealthiest women in the world." Clark drummed his fingers on the table. "She was married to the man. It's possible that she knew what he was into even back then, don't you think?"
Lois shook her head in resigned frustration. "I suppose anything's possible, including that she's up to her artificially applied eyebrows in this mess. Of course, it's also just as possible that she is exactly what she's telling everyone she is. The lucky recipient of unusual circumstance."
Clark frowned. He didn't like that possibility being pointed out to him. "I guess."
Lois actually was able to crack a smile seeing him pout. "Look, don't sulk about it. You can bet that I'm going to be looking very closely into this matter. If the woman is dirty, I'll find out."
Alarmed, Clark grabbed one of Lois' hands. Was it time to tell her about his visit from Henderson? This could be exactly what Bill had warned him about. The man must have had an inkling as to what he was heading into last night, which was why he had visited Clark. He'd said he wanted to make sure that there would be someone there to watch Lois' back. Henderson must have felt that there was a very real chance that he wouldn't be coming back, and his fears for Lois' safety had driven him to check out the boyfriend. Would he be able to protect Lois now that her partner wasn't able to anymore?
"Lois." His voice was soft but steady. "I'm not going to be foolish enough to tell you to stay away from this investigation. That would be like asking you to give up breathing." His eyes pleaded with her. "But, please be very careful. Let me know what you are doing every step of the way so I can help in whatever way I can."
He bit his lip before continuing. "You know that Bill feared for your safety… for your life. You won't be honoring his memory by getting yourself killed." He held up his hand to stop the retort he could see was coming. "I'm not telling you to forget this. I understand that you have to see this through. I'm only asking that you be extra careful and that you let me help." He gave her hand a squeeze. "I can only imagine the pain you're feeling over what happened last night… but I don't want to have to experience it by losing you."
Lois gave Clark a wary look. "I've only mentioned in passing that Bill thought I might be in danger, yet your concern for me seems much more urgent. What do you know that I don't?"
Lois stared at a very uncomfortable looking Clark Kent. He'd been giving her his 'be careful' speech like he knew more than he was telling. When she called him on it, he suddenly became fidgety and tended to stare at his hands. Okay, it was obvious he was either nervous or reluctant to divulge his inside information, but silence was not an option Lois was going to allow.
"Come on, Clark, spit it out." She tried to give him her best glare, but she knew that it probably looked quite a bit less fierce than she'd like.
Clark drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Okay. I don't really know anything special, but Henderson came to see me yesterday."
Lois was momentarily stunned. Bill had come to see Clark? Why would he do that? "Why?" She frowned as she asked.
Clark mirrored her frown. "He gave me the impression that he was here to check out his partner's new boyfriend." Lois rolled her eyes as Clark continued. "But before long it was clear that he was worried for you and wanted to gauge if I would be someone who would be there for you if he wasn't around to cover your back."
Lois was getting an uneasy feeling. "What did he mean by that?"
Clark shrugged. "I'm only guessing here, but it seemed like he was preparing for a worst-case scenario. He claimed that if things went the way he planned, 'it', whatever it was, would be all over by today. But he admitted that there was a chance that things could work out in such a manner that he wouldn't be able to be around for you anymore." Clark shrugged again. "Whether that meant he was going to have to 'go away' like he'd mentioned to you earlier, or he knew that his life could be in danger, I couldn't tell."
Lois was beside herself. Why hadn't that lunkhead come to her? Why go to Clark? She was his partner and best friend. Why didn't he trust her? "Didn't you try to stop him? Didn't you tell him that he should be talking to me, not you?"
Clark shook his head sadly. "Lois, I tried to reason with him. I told him how he was hurting you by his actions and how I thought what he was going to do sounded like he was just compounding his mistakes rather than solving them."
Lois let out an exasperated breath. "I'm sure that went over well."
It was Clark who, this time, rolled his eyes. "No, it seems he's as stubborn as you are once he has his mind made up." He ignored the dirty look she gave him. "For all his talk about fixing his previous mistake, I got the distinct impression that he felt he might not be coming back."
Lois swallowed back a lump that was trying to form in her throat. "And he didn't." Her eyes misted a bit as she gazed at Clark's face. "So, why didn't you call me?"
"I did, but there was no answer. I guess you'd already left for your stakeout."
Lois sighed and stared at her hands. That explained why Bill had been in that alley last night. Clearly he was there for some kind of meeting, which is what she would have guessed if she'd had the time to think about it. But was he there to meet with that bogus Superman, or had that been a surprise to him as well? Had he known that he was walking into a death trap? Was that why he'd come to see Clark, or was he just covering all his bases? It wasn't like Bill to walk into a situation where he hadn't figured all the angles. He wasn't reckless.
Her head was spinning with whys and what hads, but nothing jumped out as a clear clue as to what her partner had been up to. And now it was too late. Unconsciously her head turned to the clock on the wall.
"Omigod, it's after ten o'clock." Lois glanced over at Clark. "You've got to be late for work."
Clark shook his head. "It's my day off. What about you? Shouldn't you have reported in before now?"
Lois ran a weary hand through her hair. "No. The chief knows that I was on a late stake out last night so I don't have to be in until this afternoon."
Clark reached across and took her hand in his. "So, what are you going to do?"
Lois moved her head back and forth in a slow shake of denial. "I don't know. For now, nothing, I guess." Her eyes sought out his. "What can I report? There's no body, no indication that any crime took place. I'm not going to go to my superiors with a story of Superman returning from the dead just to kidnap and kill my partner."
Clark gave her a sympathetic look. "No, I don't suppose you can."
Lois stood and walked toward the bathroom. "I'm going to gather up my things and head for home. I've got a lot to think about."
Clark stood. "Lois, promise me you'll call me."
She glanced over her shoulder. His concern for her was etched deeply onto his face. It was nice to know that someone else actually cared about her. Especially now that the person who normally filled that role was… dead. She fought off a fresh bout of tears. She favored him with a sad smile. "Don't worry, Clark, I won't run off and do anything really dangerous without leaving you a message — or an email."
He gave her a wry smile. "Thanks. I feel very reassured by that." He reached for the phone. "I'll call you a cab."
Clark stared at the screen of his computer. The problem was that there were no words staring back at him. It had been two days since Lois had stumbled into his apartment babbling about Superman kidnapping her partner. He hadn't heard from her since then. Many times he wanted to call her, but he held back. She needed time, and some space, to come to grips with the loss of her friend and partner. If she needed his shoulder he would be there for her, but he wasn't going to force it on her. He knew she was a proud, independent woman. She was proud of her independence. She would need to talk more soon, and he would be ready for her when she did. But right now he would allow her to deal with this in her own way. At least for a while longer.
"Kent! In my office."
The bellow came from the direction of Perry's office. Clark glanced up in time to see his boss duck back into his sanctum. Giving his blank computer screen one last frown, he rose and headed for his editor's office.
"What's up, Chief?" Clark closed the office door behind him as he approached the large wooden desk and took the chair in front of it.
"I think that's my question."
Clark shot his boss a look of confusion. "I don't follow."
Perry made a gesture in the general direction of the bullpen monitors that were always tuned to LNN. They were currently rerunning the press conference that Arianna Luthor had called late yesterday, where she had announced more changes in the upper management of LexCorp. The media had been stunned into silence by the 'new look' Mrs. Luthor, but the real bombshell had been her announcement of the firing of Thomas Deverson as the head of her board of directors. He'd been her handpicked choice only a few weeks ago but apparently had already fallen out of favor with her. She had cited a growing difference of opinion as to the direction of LexCorp as her reason and stated that she would be taking over as Chairman of the Board as well as her position as CEO.
"How come we haven't printed anything much beyond a press release on this Carlin woman's take over of LexCorp? There's got to be more here than meets the eye." Perry spread his hands wide. "What's with the new look? The haircut and the clothes? This is a woman who used to grace the covers of all the celebrity mags. Now she looks like she's trying for the cover of Business Monthly."
"Actually, I heard that she's been contacted to do the cover of Corporate World Weekly." Clark grimaced as his editor fixed him with a glare.
"That's what I'm talking about. What's going on with the woman?" Perry leaned forward, his forearms on the desk. "You've written several pieces on this so far, yet they've been as dry as toast. I can tell that there is something just behind your words. You're holding back. I don't know what it is you're not saying, but that's what we need to print."
Clark sighed and stared out at the television screens. Shaking his head, he turned back to Perry. "I can't, Chief. It's only a feeling — a gut instinct about her and about how she came to be where she is. It's just too convenient — but I have nothing, no concrete evidence or proof to hang any accusations on."
Perry leaned back, giving his top reporter a searching stare. "But you do think there is something hinky about her? Do you think that she was really in cahoots with Luthor all along?"
Clark clenched his fists and shook his head again. "No, I don't think she and Luthor had any kind of relationship anymore. But I've learned that Luthor's downfall wasn't all about the combination of good investigative journalism and good police work. His demise was engineered from within."
Perry began to fiddle with his pencil. "But nothing you can print." It wasn't a question.
"No. It's a good source, but not one that is willing to go public, nor can I get corroboration from anyone else." Clark frowned again. "I'm certain that Nigel St. John was the main force behind the betrayal of his boss, and I know he had a partner, or partners, in the scheme. I just don't know who." He shrugged. "Arianna Carlin-Luthor is a likely candidate in my book."
Clark smiled sadly. "But, I can't prove anything."
Perry nodded and held Clark in his penetrating gaze for several moments. "You know you can trust me, don't you?"
Clark bit his lip as he nodded. "I know, Chief. But not yet. I'm not the only one involved here."
Perry nodded. "Okay, you keep on it. If there's anything you need let me know."
Clark smiled at his boss, friend, and mentor. "Thanks, Chief, I'll keep that in mind."
Clark got up and turned to leave.
"But, in the meantime." Perry's words caused Clark to pause. "There's a mayoral press conference happening in about thirty minutes."
Clark chuckled. "Gotcha. I'm on it."
Lois frowned as she stared at the few scraps of paper lying in front of her on the desk. There had been two more incidents of youth gangs assaulting people in the downtown area in the last two days, yet she was no closer to an answer than she'd been at the start. She couldn't tell if these were just random acts by different groups or a series of premeditated acts of violence by one particular group. Thankfully no one had been killed yet, but one old man had tried to fight back and had been beaten very badly. He was in critical condition in Metropolis General, but the prognosis was optimistic.
None of the witnesses had been very helpful in their descriptions of their assailants. Even Clark, a trained investigator, hadn't been able to give more than generic descriptions. It was very frustrating for Lois on more than one level. First, the absence of her partner was clearly affecting her work. She didn't have the same drive and energy she usually had. She had a hard time staying focused and involved in the case.
And that was the other problem. She wasn't sure there really was a case here. Muggings were an unfortunate reality in a city the size of Metropolis, as were disaffected youth who formed into gangs and committed such acts just for the hell of it. It may seem like there was an increase in muggings over the last couple of weeks, but was it really more than just one of those statistical fluctuations which were needed to balance out 'quiet' periods to produce averages? Was two weeks really enough time to form a 'trend'? Maybe the kids were just crankier than usual, or maybe people were becoming more careless and stupid when they wandered around downtown after hours. She didn't know, and despite not wishing injury on anyone, Lois was having a hard time caring. And that was the real root of her problem.
Since she'd lost Henderson she just didn't seem to care about much. Well, that wasn't entirely true. The truth was, at present, she only cared about one thing. Finding that bogus Superman and making him pay for Bill's murder. Unfortunately, it was hard to go to your chief and ask to be assigned to investigate a murder that no one knew ever happened.
The other problem was she couldn't even push to investigate Bill's apparent disappearance. Henderson had been covering his tracks even before he'd gone to that fateful meeting in the alley. Given what he'd intimated in his conversations with her, Lois figured that he must have been planning to not return to the force no matter what the outcome of that late night rendezvous would have been.
When she had come in yesterday she'd been told that Henderson had mailed in his resignation with an apology that he hadn't done it in person. A quick trip to his apartment had yielded nothing telling. His landlord had mentioned that Henderson had prepaid a couple of months rent in advance, claiming that he was going to be out of town for a while. Lois, who knew where Bill kept a spare key, had gone into his apartment but found nothing that could help explain what had led to the scene she'd witnessed in the alley that horrible night.
So she was stuck going through the motions on cases she didn't give a fig about. If she was going to find out what had been going on between St. John and Bill she was going to have to do it unofficially. That meant she was going to have to include Clark. If there was a Superman copy involved, who better to have on board than the original?
Of course, that meant she was going to have to call him or stop in to see him. She'd been staying away from Clark for the last couple of days because she needed time. Time to come to grips with her loss. Time to adjust to not having her best friend around anymore. She was not adjusting well. It actually irritated her once she realized how much she had come to depend on having Bill around all the time. She had always prided herself on her independence. Yet, without her partner, she felt like she was 'less' somehow.
Clark was a wonderful man, and she had hopes for the two of them, but it wasn't the same. She and Bill shared the danger and excitement of their jobs every day. He had understood her like no one ever had, not even Lucy. With Clark, she had a solid friendship and expected it to grow as their relationship did, but it was different. While she greatly enjoyed Clark's company and loved being with him, she couldn't help but feel that nagging little urge when around him. She was very much attracted to him, sexually, and even if they were just having dinner together there was always that itch in the back of her mind that wanted to rip his shirt off and throw him down on the table right there. It embarrassed her to feel that way, and she worked at suppressing such thoughts, but they were there nonetheless.
With Bill, she never had those 'feelings'. She had loved him like a brother. There had never been any sexual tension to get in the way of their friendship. In a romantic relationship you had to work to keep it good and fresh. Granted, when it was good, it was really great, but it took a lot of effort from both parties. If one side failed, or let down even just a little, the relationship was likely doomed. She had seen it in so many couples. She had seen it with her own parents. Her folks had loved each other, she knew that they had, but they'd grown complacent and had taken each other for granted. That was all it took. The slide had been quick and nasty.
With Bill, there never was any effort required. Their friendship was so natural and comfortable; it was like slipping into a favorite pair of slippers whenever they were together. None of that hormonal stuff to get in the way.
That wasn't to say that they hadn't tried the other route. They had both mistaken their deep friendship for something more, but they'd been lucky. They had realized their mistake early enough to correct it, and their friendship was quickly restored. No recriminations, no regrets. They were both able to put their little 'experiment' behind them. At least that was what she'd thought.
Now she wasn't so sure that Bill had actually managed to do that. Her conversation with him the day before he was killed and things that he'd told Clark made her wonder. Had Bill harbored romantic feelings for her? Was that why he let himself get in so deep? They were best friends, and friends would do whatever they had to in order to help the other. She knew that she would've gladly risked her own career to help Bill with the mess he'd gotten into. There didn't have to be any feelings deeper than friendship involved, did there?
She placed her fingers against her temples and rubbed vigorously. This was getting her nowhere. She'd been asking herself the same unanswerable questions for that last two days. She was never going to know exactly what had been going through Bill's mind when he'd decided to work with St. John. The only way she was ever going to get any peace was to expose the parties behind Henderson's murder and bring them to justice.
Of course, that presented another little problem. How does one go about bringing a Superman to justice? Even if anyone would believe her, it's not like any prison would be able to hold him.
She closed the thin folder she'd been basically ignoring for the last several minutes and tossed it back into her 'active' tray. She was going to have to talk to Clark. She'd call him tonight, after she got off her shift. They had things they needed to talk about… many things.
Arianna sat behind her massive mahogany desk going over some figures. Things were looking good. Much of the down sliding that LexCorp had been experiencing since Lex's death had stopped and was now starting to show positive movement again. She couldn't keep the satisfied smile from sneaking onto her face.
She regretted having to fire Deverson. He had a great business mind and a dynamic personality, but she needed to make a statement. One that would shock all the others and leave no doubt in their minds as to who was in charge. Besides, maybe his personality was a little too dynamic. She didn't need someone who might get too popular with the others and become a serious rival to her authority sometime down the line. Better to remove the risk now, while she could use the unexpectedness to her advantage.
"Mrs. Luthor?" The ubiquitous black box on her desk was paging her again.
"I have a Mr. Kent, from the Daily Planet, on the line. He'd like to make an appointment to interview you."
Arianna's brow rose a bit. So, the Planet's top reporter was finally taking notice of her. She had wondered how long it was going to take for the city's top paper to stop parroting her press conferences and news releases and go after the 'real story'. Who was this woman, and where did she come from? How did a former media celebrity suddenly find herself in charge of one of the world's largest conglomerates? Especially now that things seemed to be going well, her story would have even more impact.
Her office had been contacted by most of the other papers in town already, but she'd declined all the interview requests. She didn't trust them to get the story right. At least, the story she wanted out there. For that she'd need a well-respected reporter, from the city's primary paper. Someone who would be believed.
Arianna turned her attention back to the intercom. "Gloria, tell Mr. Kent that I agree to the interview and make a hole in my schedule tomorrow to accommodate it."
"Very well, Mrs. Luthor."
Arianna picked up a pencil and began tapping it on the desktop. No stranger to the media and knowing the value of good publicity, she was looking forward to the interview. It should dovetail nicely into her campaign to solidify her position here and prove to the outside world that she was more than capable of running LexCorp.
She'd have to be at her best. Kent was no dummy. He wasn't going to fall for a haircut and some new clothes. She would have to feed him answers to his questions that would allow him to arrive at the conclusions she wanted him to make. She'd also have to be careful. She'd have to be on constant guard not to give him any reason to suspect that she was more than just the unfortunate ex-wife who Lex had tried to use, and then through luck, became the fortunate benefactor of a totally unexpected clerical mishap.
A sly smile turned up the corner of her lip. She'd been in more than her fair share of interview situations and prided herself on her ability to fashion the outcome she desired. She was smart and quite a good actress. She had no reason to doubt that the outcome of her interview with Kent would be any different. Kerth winning journalist or not, he was still just a man.
Just then the door to the private elevator opened and Nigel St. John stepped out. Arianna looked up from the figures she'd been studying. Nigel ignored the raised brow that she gave him.
"I think it might be better if you gave me warning before you pop in," she said. "What if I was in the middle of a meeting or a conference? It wouldn't do my position here any good if it were known that you came and went as you pleased."
"It wouldn't do *your* position any good?" Nigel's tone was only slightly condescending.
She met his somewhat bemused gaze with a hard stare of her own. "Yes, Nigel, *my* position." She stood and walked over to the french doors which opened out to an elegant balcony overlooking the city's downtown district. She turned. "I think you are forgetting something here, Mr. St. John. I'm the head of LexCorp now. It's my name that's now on the letterhead. I think our future dealings will be much more productive if you remember that."
Nigel looked a bit taken aback by Arianna's almost hostile attitude. "Don't forget, my dear, who put you in that position."
"I'm sorry, did I forget to thank you?" A wry smile graced her lips. "I do appreciate your efforts on my behalf, which is why you and that crazy doctor are still being funded by LexCorp. But I am the one in power now, and I don't plan to sit quietly on the sidelines while my *betters* pull my strings. I'm not going to be your puppet, Nigel."
A frown that bordered on anger transformed St. John's face. "You think that cutting off your hair and wearing corporate couture is suddenly going to turn you into a tycoon? Don't forget, I know where you came from."
"Don't be stupid," she retorted. "You know as well as I do that this haircut and the clothes are strictly for public consumption. Just as my former look had been. People will more readily believe in you if you look the part." She began to pace. "But, as for knowing where I came from? Do you? Do you really, Nigel?" She pointed to a framed diploma hanging over the mantel in the large sitting room adjacent to the den. "Contrary to what you might think, I didn't sleep my way to my doctorate. To quote that old fart from the TV commercials, I got my diploma the old fashioned way — 'I earned it.'" Arianna found her way back to her chair. "I'm quite capable of running this company, and that's exactly what I plan to do. So if we are to continue our *partnership* get used to the idea. Remember, I'm the one who has to sign your checks."
Nigel St. John stood silent, staring at Arianna for several moments before he spoke. He gave her a slight nod of his head. "As you wish." She couldn't tell if his tone was deferential or mocking.
She sat heavily back down into her large leather chair. "Oh don't give me that unflappable Brit crappola. I know you hate this situation. That you have always hated needing me to make your plans work. Well, tough." She picked up her pencil and pointed it at him. "Your impeccable English manners don't fool me for a second. You're a misogynistic creep who absolutely hates the idea of a woman, any woman, in a position of power over you. You'd gleefully slit my throat if you didn't need me to be the public face of this company. But you do need me, and I am not only the public face of this company, but the one who is actually holding the reins. And I have no intention of handing them over to anyone."
Arianna made a show of picking up several of the papers that were currently spread across the broad expanse of her polished desktop. She shuffled through them a couple of times before she allowed her gaze to settle back on St. John.
"So," she began. "Was there a specific purpose for this visit?"
A barely perceptible smile tugged at the corners of Nigel's lips. "Actually, I came by to fill you in on our progress. We have now moved Dr. Mamba back into the Boynton facility. He will be able to resume his researches by the morning."
Arianna nodded. "That's good, I guess. What about the authorities? How are you going to keep them from discovering you're there?"
This time an actual smile did grace St. John's lips. "That is being taken care of as we speak."
Lois paced back and forth across her living room. She then went back into the bathroom and again checked herself in the mirror. Was she dressed okay? She had on a nice pull over sweater and a pair of black jeans. She nodded. Yeah, it should do. Casual, but not sloppy. It said that they were comfortable with each other. But were they?
Clark had sounded happy to hear from her when she called him earlier. She wondered what his mood would be like. Neither had made any attempt to contact the other in the last couple of days. Had they really settled anything when she was at his home last? Did he think she was still mad at him? Was she? No, she wasn't, at least she didn't think so.
Well, she'd find out soon enough. She was supposed to be at Clark's for a late dinner in about thirty minutes. She had suggested that she could bring some take out, but he had insisted that he would cook. Said it would be nice to cook for more than just himself for a change. She hadn't fought him on the issue. She wasn't stupid; she'd eaten enough of Clark's cooking to know that he was quite familiar in the ways of the kitchen. Idly, she wondered what he was planning to prepare.
Her awareness was suddenly captured by something she heard on the television, which had been playing in the background. She moved back to the living room to watch the special report being touted on LNN.
Apparently there had been a seismic event to the north of Metropolis. A rare and unusual situation to say the least, but that wasn't what had caught her attention. She'd heard the mention of the town of Boynton. It seems that earlier today there had been a shaking in the small mountain range just outside the town causing several rockslides. No one had been hurt, but the roads leading up to the old mine site had been blocked with the loosed boulders and accompanying rubble. At present they were impassable. The report continued to say that both front and rear entrances to the mine, and the notorious facility housed within, were collapsed in the slide. He then added a quick recap of the part the site had played in the downfall of former billionaire Lex Luthor. At least as much as the public was allowed to know.
Lois bit on her lip. She wondered if this event could have anything to do with the current activities of St. John and those who had escaped the facility all those months ago. She didn't know how it could, but she didn't like things that were coincidental. She shrugged, but then again, what advantage could be gained by sealing up what was left of that facility. It's not like the authorities hadn't already gone over the place with a fine toothcomb. More than once. The only result Lois could imagine coming out of the slide was that LexCorp lost any chance of eventually reclaiming some of the equipment that still might be inside.
She shook her head. It was time to go. She'd ask Clark if he thought there could be any significance to the event. She grabbed her coat, thumbed the TV remote, and flipped the light switch off as she exited her front door.
Clark busied himself with the final preparations for their meal. Lois would be there any minute and he wanted everything to be perfect. He shook his head in amusement. He was acting like a nervous teenager. Sure, he and Lois were going through a bit of a rough patch at the moment. But they were still friends, and he hoped that they'd be able to talk it out and get themselves back on track, together.
He knew that Bill's disappearance still tore at her, but he was buoyed by the fact that she had called him and had wanted to get together tonight. He hadn't been able to get a read on her mood from the phone call, but he was hopeful. He couldn't believe that she'd be willing to throw away all they'd managed to build so far because of his thoughtless outburst days ago. The fact that she was coming over told him that she must be willing to talk. That was enough for now.
He took a quick taste of the sauce that had been simmering for quite some time. It was ready. He knew that she liked pasta almost as much as he did, so he'd chosen a favorite recipe for tonight. He did a quick check on the oven and smiled as he pulled out the perfectly browned loaf of bread he'd baked just for the occasion. He glanced over at the table where the bottle of wine was chilling in a bucket of ice. A couple of candles stood waiting to be lit.
He frowned, then went over and pulled the candles off the table. He was getting carried away. This wasn't a first date, nor was it a special occasion — not really. He had to reign in his enthusiasm. She was coming over to have a conversation with him and perhaps gain a little comfort for her hurting soul. He had to remember that she, at present, was a bit fragile, and not to push his own agenda. Let whatever will happen, happen.
A soft knock on his front door instantly grabbed his attention. He quickly wiped his hands on a towel and headed for the entrance. He didn't bother to check the spy hole to see who it was. He pulled the door open and stepped aside to let her enter.
She came across the threshold, a hesitant smile on her face. "Hi, Clark."
He returned the smile two fold. "Hi, Lois, come in. You look great."
She frowned, glanced down at herself, then back up at Clark. "I look like I'm dressed for a football game. I didn't think this would be a dress up situation. Do you think I'm too casual?"
Clark chuckled at her insecurity. "No, what you have on is perfect. I may be biased, but I always think you look great; I just don't say it to you enough."
She blushed as she came farther in the apartment. "Thanks. So, how are you doing? Your injuries healing all right?"
He nodded. "Yeah, most of the bruises are gone, and I don't really have any pain. I guess I heal pretty fast."
"I'm glad." She glanced over at the table and moved into the kitchen. "It smells wonderful."
"Thanks." Clark took her wrap and hung it in the hall closet. "It should be ready in a few minutes. "Make yourself comfortable."
Even though he'd meant for her to get comfortable in the living room, he grinned when Lois took a seat at the table and began to fiddle with the tablecloth. It was clear that she was a touch nervous.
"So," she said. "What do you think about that earthquake up at the old mine site?"
Clark nearly dropped the spoon he'd been using to stir the sauce. He turned and looked over at Lois. She had a matter-of-fact look on her face. "What earthquake?"
Lois shrugged. "Well, the LNN newsman called it a seismic event. But I imagine it's just a matter of degree. But the entrances to the mine site facility have been collapsed and rockslides have made the roads to the place impassable." Lois began to use the end of a fork to trace circles on the tablecloth. "Do you think it's just a coincidence? Could Nigel be involved somehow?"
Clark turned the heat off under the sauce and came over and sat next to Lois. "This is the first I've heard of it." Clark shrugged and frowned. "I have no idea what to think. It does seem kind of coincidental, but what could Nigel have to do with it, and why?"
Lois nodded. "Yeah, I don't see it either. At first, I thought that he might have been trying to bury some incriminating information, but that facility has been crawled over by local, state, and federal authorities for months. In fact, if I remember correctly, they only formally closed their investigations a couple of weeks ago." She tapped on the table with the fork handle. "I'm sure that Nigel has the explosives expertise to cause such a rock fall, but if he did, it seems too little, too late."
Clark nodded. "So it would seem." He held up his hand. "Excuse me for a moment, Lois. I'm going to check with Perry. See if he has any additional information."
Clark stepped over to his phone and made the call. Perry had heard the same information that Lois had, and from the same source. He didn't know anything other than what LNN had been reporting, but he promised Clark he'd check a couple of his sources in the government to see if he could find out anything else. Clark thanked him and told him they'd get together in the morning about it.
Coming back into the kitchen, Clark began to dish up the pasta and sauce. Lois came up behind him and reached into his cupboard, pulled down a couple of wine glasses and took them to the table. A warm smile passed between them as they began their meal.
Clark was aware that Lois had an agenda beyond just friendly conversation on her mind. She had that determined look on her face. But during the meal he purposely kept the conversation light and trivial. There would be time for the heavier topics after they'd eaten.
The meal passed quickly and before he realized it, Clark was leading Lois into the living room. They retained their wine glasses, and Clark brought what was left of the bottle with them. He watched as Lois frowned, then bit her lower lip, then frowned again. He couldn't help it; she was so cute when she was trying to figure out exactly how she wanted to broach a subject. He had to chuckle.
Her frown deepened as she glared at him. "What's so funny?"
"I'm sorry, Lois, but you look so serious and determined."
"Maybe because I am determined, and I think we have some serious things to talk about." She gave him only a hint of a pout to show her displeasure at his attitude.
He opened his hands in a gesture of apology. "You're right, and I'm sorry. I know that the last few days have been tough for you." He reached over and gave her hand a squeeze. "Just know that if you ever need me, for whatever reason, whenever it might be, I'll be there for you."
A melancholy smile tugged at her lips. "I know. It's just that the horrible events of the last couple of days have caused me to do some thinking. About me, and the people in my life." She chewed on her lower lip for a moment. "I'm not sure I like what I've discovered."
Clark was confused by her words. "I don't understand, Lois. What discovery?"
Lois took a deep breath, as if preparing herself for some important speech that she wanted to make sure she got right. "I've always prided myself on my independence. On my ability to make it on my own. I didn't need anybody's help to achieve what I chose to go after."
Clark's return smile was warm and encouraging. "You are a remarkable woman, Lois. But everyone needs a little help now and again. It's not a sign of weakness."
She bent her head and nodded. "I know. I just never realized how much I had come to depend on certain people."
"Like Bill?" Clark saw her answering nod, though it was quick. "He was your partner and your friend. It was only natural that the two of you would create a relationship that counted on the other."
Still nodding, Lois raised her head to face Clark's concerned gaze. "Yeah, Bill, and Lucy… and you." She ran her fingers through her short dark locks. "Lucy's gone off to California, Bill is dead, and we've been fighting. I've never been so scared of being alone before, and the fact that I'm scared, scares me." A single tear snaked out of the corner of her eye as her fierce gaze held his. "If I'm going to invest any more of myself in this relationship I've got to know. Better to walk away hurt, now, then to be devastated later." Her fists clenched in her lap. "Are you going to leave me too?"
Clark slid closer to Lois and pulled her to his chest. He gently stroked her hair. He knew what this admission of fear was costing her, in pride and her own self-image. "Don't worry, Lois. The only way I'd ever leave you is if you wanted me too." He gave her shoulders a squeeze, then kissed the top of her head. "Lois," he continued. "Whatever our misunderstandings were recently are behind us. I don't want to dwell on any of that anymore. We'll take whatever comes our way and face it together."
He felt her sigh, then she pushed herself back from his embrace. "Which brings us to our present problem. Finding this bogus Superman, tying him to Nigel St. John and whatever nefarious schemes he's got planned, and figuring out how to bring a superhero to justice for murder."
Clark frowned at the tone of sadness and dejection in her voice. "We don't know that Bill is really dead. You never saw this… person actually kill him." Lois raised a brow and glared at Clark. He held his hands up in surrender. "Okay."
Clark didn't want to belabor the point with Lois. In truth, it was probably better if she were able to resign herself to the idea that Bill was dead, rather than try to hold onto some slim hope that he was still alive. It was far easier to be happily surprised if he were found to be okay than to deal with dashed hopes if she found out differently, and from the scene that Lois had described to him, it was most likely that Henderson had perished that night.
Clark had to admit that the reason he kept stubbornly hanging onto the idea that Henderson was still alive was the fact that, if he wasn't, he would have been killed by a Superman. Lois' theory that the person she'd seen with Bill must have been a clone made sense. And if that was true, then it had been made in his image. Intellectually he knew that the clone, if that's what she'd seen, wasn't like him, but emotionally it was harder to separate the idea. If St. John and whoever was responsible for the doppelganger were able to create a Superman who could kill, what did that say about him? If the circumstances were right, did that mean he had it in him to kill? The thought of taking a life, any life, was anathema to him, but his previously immutable convictions now didn't seem quite so immutable. Were there limits that even he could be pushed past?
"Clark?" He looked up to see Lois staring at him, a perplexed look on her face.
"You zoned out on me for a moment there. Do you have any ideas on how to expose this fraudulent Superman?" She shrugged. "After all, you are the real Superman."
Clark frowned. "I *was* Superman, Lois. Now I'm just plain old Clark Kent, no powers, no spandex suit."
He saw a sly smile steal onto Lois' face. "I happen to like 'plain old Clark Kent."
He smiled in return. "I'm glad." Clark leaned back. He really didn't have any ideas. It wasn't like he could use his likes and dislikes or his favorite haunts to try and track down this bogus super being. It was likely the Superman that Lois saw was being controlled, or at least, guided by someone else. "I don't know what to say. We are both fairly sure that this Superman is somehow connected to St. John, so I guess that's the best place to start."
She nodded. "That's what I thought, too. The only problem is that Nigel is not exactly very visible these days. I made some inquiries, but no one has had any contact with him since the events that brought Lex down."
Clark ran his hand through his hair. "I guess I'm not surprised."
Lois furrowed her brow, as if deep thought. "What about…?"
"Well." She hesitated for a beat. "You did say that you were suspicious of the Carlin woman. Maybe that might be an avenue to explore? At least we know where she is."
Clark had to smile again. He'd been about to bring up the possibility of Arianna Carlin-Luthor but was glad that Lois had. He didn't want to sound like some conspiracy nut. He knew that she wasn't as convinced of the new Mrs. Luthor's culpability as Clark was, but it did make it easier to discuss since she brought it up.
"Funny you should mention her."
"I have an interview with the very newsworthy Arianna Carlin- Luthor tomorrow."
"Oh. Well, that's good." Lois lapsed into silence. Clark watched her. It was almost like he could see the wheels turning in her beautiful head.
Suddenly he was struck by the fact that he could spend the rest of the evening just staring at her and be perfectly content. He'd always been aware that she was a good-looking woman, but he'd never focused on that overly much. She had too many other remarkable traits that he found attractive to be hung up on just her physical beauty. But staring at her just now, he realized just how lovely she actually was.
She kept herself trim and fit and had a body to make most men drool, but it was her face that drew him in. Her face was a classic oval, with cheekbones a model would kill for. Long lashes graced a pair of large, soft, brown eyes. A man could drown in those eyes. Her dark hair was silky and worn in short layers that framed that near perfect face.
If there had been any doubt in Clark's mind before as to whether or not he was in love with Lois Lane, it was settled once and for all right then. He could not only spend the rest of the night just staring at her, but he'd gladly spend the rest of his life staring at her.
"What?" She had finally noticed his intense gaze. "Do I have food or something on my face?" Her hand went nervously to her cheek.
Clark laughed. "No, I was just admiring the view."
"Well, stop it. You're embarrassing me." A bright crimson flush tinted her cheeks.
Clark allowed himself an amused sigh and a shake of his head. "I don't think I can."
Lois closed her apartment door with a shove of her butt. She tossed her keys onto the table and flicked on the overhead light. She still had a smile on her face. She had gone over to Clark's to set up their possible investigation into the whereabouts of this clone superthug, and they had done that… sort of.
After an absolutely delicious dinner, they had begun to discuss ways in which they might track down the bogus Superman she'd seen. But Clark had gotten off the track. He'd gotten… playful. And, in hindsight, it was just what she had needed.
The loss of her partner had left her hurting and lonely. She hadn't been able to focus on anything but her own pain and her desire to avenge Bill's murder. As terrible as the scene she'd witnessed, and its consequences, had been, intellectually she knew that nothing was served by wallowing in her private misery. But then, that was what Lois Lane did. She closed herself off from other people and dealt with her problems on her own. She didn't need anybody else. In the past, only Bill had ever been able to sneak past her walls of defense and force her to share her burdens. Not even Lucy had ever been able to do much more than offer Lois her sympathy during trying times.
Lois plopped down in the chair opposite her couch. She never sat on her couch if she didn't have to. She shook her head in wonder. She knew Clark was aware of what she was, and had been, going through. She had displayed her emotions quite visibly at his apartment that night. And even after seeing each other for only a few months, he knew her well enough to know that she would need time alone. But he must have also figured that it was time for her to 'lighten up'. Time for Lois Lane to come back into the real world.
That wasn't to say that they weren't serious about what they felt they had to do. That the investigation wasn't of the utmost importance. It was. Still, she had to admit that she also really enjoyed tonight's playful banter, but the times spent not talking were even better.
Her pleasant musings were interrupted by the ringing of her phone. She glanced up at the clock on the wall. Who would be calling her this late? Was it Clark? Did he have a few more 'sweet nothings' to say to her before she went to bed? She had a grin on her face when she picked up the receiver.
Her grin instantly disappeared when she heard the gruff, distorted voice on the other end.
"Check your mail," was all it said. Then the connection was broken.
The call confused Lois. She'd already gotten her mail for the day after she'd come home from work. There wouldn't be another delivery until tomorrow. Still, even if the caller didn't make any sense, she'd have to go check. If she were anyone else, she'd chalk it up to a crank call and dismiss it. But weird stuff happened to her. She was a magnet for disaster. So, if a strange voice called her in the middle of the night to tell her she had mail, she had better check her box.
Dangling the key from it's own key chain, Lois marched to the front hall of the building where the bank of mailboxes were located. She quickly recognized hers and stuck the key in the lock. Before she turned the key to unlock the box, she stopped.
What if someone had placed a bomb in her mailbox, wired to go off when she turned the key? Was that why she got the call? She bit her lip as she thought it out. No, she finally reasoned, if someone wanted to kill her with a mail bomb of some sort, why call her up? It would make more sense to say nothing and let her blow herself up when she looked for mail, normally, the next day. They would have to know that the call would only make her suspicious.
Running her conclusions past the logical part of her brain one more time, Lois took a deep breath and turned the key. Nothing happened. Backing away from the tiny metal door as far as she could and still reach it, she took a deep breath and pulled it open. Nothing happened.
Letting herself breathe again, Lois looked into the small space dedicated for her incoming postal pieces, which generally meant bills. Inside was a plain brown envelope. Whatever was inside the envelope must've been pretty thin, because she really couldn't feel a bulge in it.
Never being one to wait once her curiosity was aroused, she ripped open the envelope and let the contents slide into her hand. Once she had a chance to realize what she held, the blood drained from her face. She clamped down on her lower lip with her teeth to keep from crying, but she couldn't stop it. She found herself, back to the wall, slumping down to a sitting position as the tears flowed in earnest.
Henderson allowed himself to slump against the wall, his back scraping up against the rough, undressed rock that made up his cell. It was like a scene out of a bad B-movie. He would never have guessed that such cliched, dungeon-like places actually survived the middle ages. But he was wrong, because he'd been the guest in one for the last three days.
It was dank and smelled like sewage, which was understandable since his 'bathroom' consisted of a six inch wide hole in the floor in the far corner of the small cell. He wasn't sure how large the pit under the small opening might be, but the water inside didn't seem to be moving, nor was there any evidence that it contained any chemicals to break down his waste products. In short, the place stank.
The only nods to modern times were a dim, low watt light fixture, which was buried deep in the ceiling behind a tough steel mesh that prevented access to it, and a thin foam mattress that covered a rough wooden pallet that he assumed was supposed to act as his bed. The light came on and went off automatically to a schedule he hadn't yet figured out. He had been able to deduce that the light was off much more than it was on.
There was no other furniture, nor were there any windows. The door was made of heavy iron with a small, square, barred opening set high in it. The place was positively medieval. Leave it to St. John to provide such 'luxurious' accommodations.
Suddenly the light came on, and a few seconds later the imposing door creaked slowly open. A heavy-set fellow came through the door. He was your typical nondescript thug, overly large, overweight, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
"Mornin', Sunshine," Henderson chirped as the thug set a tray on the floor near him. As was usual, the fellow just glared at him. "Have I mentioned how much I enjoy our little chats every day?" Bill reached for the tray, which held a bowl of oatmeal and a glass of water. "What, no brown sugar?" The thug just grunted, turned and left. "Thanks, it's been great talking to you," he called out over the 'thunk' of the door closing.
Henderson picked up the bowl, sniffed, then wrinkled up his nose. He tossed the bowl into the small hole that served as his toilet. He hated oatmeal. At least the water was wet. It was warm, but it was wet. He drank the tepid liquid then threw the cup down the hole after the bowl of oatmeal. He knew it was a petty thing, but it amused him to do so, and under the circumstances, his amusements were few and far between.
He flopped back on the pathetically thin mattress and used his arm to prop up his head. You'd think that they could have, at least, given him some sort of pillow. Of course, they hadn't provided a blanket of any kind either, so he guessed not having a pillow was in character. He supposed he was lucky to even have the mattress. Maybe they didn't know he had it.
Not for the first time since he'd been taken, his thoughts strayed to Lois. He wondered what she was thinking. Did she think that he'd run out on her? He had mentioned the possibility that he might have to leave town. Maybe she thought that was what he'd done? He could only imagine what she thought of her 'friend and partner' now. From her point of view, he'd abandoned her.
She might think he was dead. He almost preferred that to her thinking that he'd just cut and run. Not that he wished to cause Lois any pain. He knew she cared for him, just not quite the same way he did for her. Still, it might be better to grieve for a dead friend than to think that he was a live coward.
A hoarse chuckle escaped to echo through the small cell. This had become his new game. He'd been worrying about what Lois had been thinking since they brought him here. Perhaps his time might be better spent worrying about his own skin.
He had no idea why he was being held captive. St. John surely couldn't think that he'd change his mind, go back to the force, and work as his pet cop, could he? He should be dead. He thought he was dead when that laughing super-whatever had grabbed him and flown away. He'd tried to scam his way out of the situation, but the 'superman' had known he was lying. That meant that St. John knew he was lying. So, why wasn't he dead?
Just then the door opened again. The giant musclehead entered. A wry smile creased Henderson's lips. Be careful what you wish for. In his typical verbose manner, the hired help grunted and gestured for Bill to follow. Not wanting to disappoint his host, he rose from his uncomfortable repose and fell into line behind his jailer. The thought of possibly attacking the fellow and making his escape never entered his mind. Aside from the fact that the gorilla could probably break him in half, Henderson had no clue as to where he was or how to get out of there. He needed more information before he could even begin to formulate any plan.
He was led only a few yards down a plain rock-walled hallway and led into a simple bare room. This room wasn't like the cell; it had plaster walls and adequate electricity. There was a small wooden table in the center of the room and two chairs.
Without being told, Henderson moved over and took one of the chairs. As expected, Mr. Personality shambled over to stand near the door. Also as expected, a few minutes later, Nigel St. John entered and sat in the chair opposite.
Bill leaned insolently back in his chair. "Hello, Nigel. I have to say that the accommodations in your hotel really suck."
One gray brow rose slightly. "You're alive, aren't you?"
Henderson nodded. "Yeah, I am. Why is that, exactly?"
The other gray brow rose. "We could easily rectify the situation."
Bill shook his head. "No, I don't think so. If you wanted me dead, I already would be. You have something else in mind." He waited only a beat, not allowing St. John to answer. "Oh, and the answer is no."
"Droll." Nigel sighed, sounding like a long-suffering father needing to school a recalcitrant child. "But you are correct. I do have something else in mind." St. John allowed himself a small self-satisfied smile. "I've known for some time that you weren't going to 'play ball' as they say."
"So, Mr. Henderson, I still would like to have someone on the inside that I control." Nigel folded his hands in front of him.
Henderson snorted. "What about Chief Andrews? Everyone knows that he was in Luthor's pocket."
Nigel inclined his head in deference to Henderson's assertion. "Andrews was Luthor's man, but Luthor is gone, and I don't trust the man. Too many people are aware of his past loyalties to make him of any use any more. Besides he's a stupid, greedy little man."
"I would think you'd admire him for his greed."
"There's greed, and then there's greed."
Henderson had to laugh. "My, isn't that deep? Do you have that embroidered on a sampler somewhere?" St. John just stared back at him. "So, if I'm not going to be your inside guy, who is?"
Nigel's grin became positively feral. "I would think it would be obvious. Detective Sergeant Lois Lane."
Henderson was thunderstruck. "Are you nuts? There is no way that Lois would ever do business with you. There isn't a more honest cop on the force."
St. John leaned back in his chair. "I think you underestimate your value as leverage."
Bill felt a chill go up his spine. She wouldn't. They were friends, and Lois was willing to help him with his troubles, but unlike him, she would never cross the line. Not for anyone. He had to believe that.
"Bad choice, old man. Lois and I aren't exactly on the best terms anymore." Henderson grinned, not exactly sure who he was trying to convince. "She knows that I've been playing house with you, and now she thinks I've run out on her. Not exactly the best leverage, if you know what I mean."
Nigel nodded. "Oh, I know exactly what you mean. But as I said, you underestimate your value." Nigel unfolded his hands and used them to push himself up from his chair. "She didn't think you ran out on her, she thought you were dead. But now she knows that's not true."
"Because I told her."
Lois hadn't gotten any sleep that night; she'd spent the time alternating between shock, disbelief, and worry. She was shocked to find out that Bill was still alive, and she was having a hard time believing that he was now a captive rather than having been immolated in some volcano as the fake Superman had promised. As his friend, she was worried about him, but she was more worried about why she had received the envelope which led to the revelation.
The envelope had contained a picture. It was a picture of a very disheveled Bill Henderson sitting on some sort of cot in a rock- walled room. It looked almost like an old-time dungeon. There had been a few words written on the back of the photo. It had read simply, 'You will be contacted'.
It never entered Lois' mind that the picture was somehow faked or had been taken before that night in the alley. There would have been no reason for that. She was more worried about what it meant. Why was she sent the picture? Was it just to torture her? Or was it something more sinister?
There was no doubt that Bill was now in the hands of St. John. But why? It was clear from what he'd told her and from what he'd told Clark that he wasn't going to go along with Nigel's plans anymore. So why hadn't they just killed him? Not that Lois wasn't glad that he wasn't dead; it just didn't make much sense… yet. The note had made it clear that she would find out soon.
Even though she was expecting it, the sound of the phone ringing caused her to jump. She walked over to the instrument, and taking a couple of deep breaths, answered it on the second ring.
"Lane," she said.
"Ah, Detective Lane, it's so nice to find you at home." She recognized the cultured English accent of Nigel St. John.
She gritted her teeth. "What do you want, St. John?"
"What, no 'good morning'? No 'how are things with you'?" Lois just expelled a loud breath of air. "Very well, to business then." He paused briefly. She swore he did it just to add to the dramatic. "As you are now aware, your partner is actually alive and is currently my guest."
"From what I can tell from the picture, your accommodations suck." Lois tried to keep a tight control on her anger.
"Amazing." A dry chuckle came across the line. "That's just what Henderson said. I think you two have been partners too long." Lois just let silence fill the pause. "Right, to the point. It's simple really. I need a reliable contact in the police department. You know, someone to keep me apprised of any sort of investigation that I might find… interesting. Since my old friend Henderson seems to have had a change of heart, I am looking for someone to replace him."
Lois was dumbstruck. "You can't be seriously thinking that I would agree to work with slime like you? I'm going to be the one who brings you down, St. John. I'm going to be the one to expose your complicity in everything that Luthor was involved in, everything you did to betray Lex, and every illegal enterprise you are still involved in. Then I'm going to testify at your trial, and after you are convicted and sent to prison I'm going to go dancing to celebrate."
"My, aren't you the spiteful one. I never knew you cared that much for Luthor."
Lois' derisive snort was quick and clear. "Don't kid yourself that I'm going to put you away as some sort of retribution for what you did to Lex. Luthor got what he deserved. A crook is a crook, and I'm a cop. Putting creeps like you behind bars is what I do. Of course, that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it."
"So you are telling me that you aren't interested in my kind offer?"
"What planet are you from?" Lois voice rose revealing her exasperation. "Weren't you listening?"
"Yes," Nigel said in an irritatingly calm voice. "But apparently *you* haven't been. I have your ex-partner, and if you don't wish to play by my rules, then I have no reason to keep him alive, now do I?"
"What are you saying?"
"Oh, come now, Detective, I know you aren't that dense. The rules are these. You do as I ask, and your partner lives. If not, he dies. What could be simpler?"
Lois suddenly found herself unable to speak. He was serious. He expected her to work for him. If she didn't, Bill would be killed. She couldn't let that happen. But how could she let herself be used by someone like Nigel? It went against everything she believed in. But it was Bill's life. She'd been willing to risk her career to help him out of his problem, but this was different. She never questioned why Bill had done what he'd done. Well, not to his face. She didn't understand why he'd done it. She knew it had something to do with his feelings for her, his hatred of Lex, and some misguided notion that she needed saving from Luthor. But she didn't dwell on the why. What was done was done. She was only concerned about how they could solve his problem.
Now things were different, very different. She was going to be asked to commit felony-level crimes. Clark's reaction to the revelation to what Henderson had done flashed through her mind. She quickly squashed the thought. This was her problem. Could she do it? She shook her head. What was she thinking? Of course she could do it. Bill's life was at stake. Her mind was made up. She would play St. John's game… for a while. Just because she was being forced to do the man's bidding didn't mean she would stop trying to find a way to bring him down. In fact, it might give her more access to the kind of proof that she'd need.
"Okay, St. John, for Bill's sake I'll play along. But I'm going to lay down a few non-negotiable ground rules." She rushed on, not letting Nigel interrupt her. "First, I need proof that Bill is alive and well. That photo could have been faked, or taken anytime. I want irrefutable proof that he's alive and okay. Second, better accommodations. If the place I saw in that photo is where he is, that's not acceptable. He gets a decent bed, decent food, and decent sanitary facilities. And lastly, I won't kill, or allow someone to be killed. Those are my conditions. Take it or leave it." Lois held her breath as the silence on the other end of the line grew. She was gambling with Bill's life, but she assumed that St. John would put up with her requests to get what he wanted.
"I think we can accommodate your demands, Detective." Lois would swear she could hear a smile in that unctuous voice. "You'll be contacted in the next few days with instructions." There was a slight pause. "Oh, and I don't think I need to tell you not to be sharing our agreement with anyone else. If I find out that has happened… well, let's just say it could have tragic consequences. Have a nice day."
Lois didn't have a chance for a response. She just heard the sound of the disconnect from the other side. She slowly put the receiver back into its cradle. Absently, she went into her living room and sat down heavily on the couch, not even noticing how uncomfortable it was. What had she gotten herself into… and what was she going to do about it?
Clark stood in the outer office belonging to the personal secretary of Arianna Carlin-Luthor. He'd been passed through three security checkpoints and two assistants before making it to this lofty position. He knew that Gloria Steness, as her nameplate proclaimed her, was one of six personal assistants to Mrs. Luthor. The position was manned 24/7. It was obvious that Ms. Steness was the lead dog in the secretarial pack.
Clark had done a bit of research going in and found out that the intimidating woman sitting calmly behind her large functional desk had been employed by LexCorp since its birth over twenty years ago. She had risen to the position of senior assistant secretary and had reported directly to a Mrs. Cox until her disappearance during the Luthor investigations.
The woman had survived the fall of the House of Luthor mainly because she was, and always had been, exactly what she appeared to be… a very competent secretary. When Arianna had been looking for someone to organize and head up the pool of assistants, Gloria had been the natural choice.
Clark wondered if the woman knew Nigel St. John. She had to have seen him around, and must know him by sight, but Clark doubted she'd ever had a lot of contact with him. According to Lois, Nigel held a special position as Luthor's personal aide. She wasn't sure, but she didn't think he had much, if anything, to do with the day-to-day business of Luthor's legitimate holdings. St. John was likely Luthor's man in the area of not so legitimate businesses.
"So, Ms. Steness." Clark paced the large outer office. "You said that Mrs. Luthor knows I'm here?"
The woman barely glanced up from her computer screen. "Please sit down, Mr. Kent. Ms. Luthor is in a conference. She knows you are here and will see you as soon as she can."
Clark frowned but did as he was told. He only had to wait a few more minutes until the intercom on Gloria's desk finally buzzed and, after a few clipped sentences, Clark was allowed to enter the inner sanctum.
He was impressed by what he saw but was also a bit puzzled. He had entered into an impressive office. Gleaming, modern furniture graced a large room, with a wall of bookshelves on one end, and large floor to ceiling windows behind the desk. It was a really nice office, but somehow it wasn't what he would've expected of Luthor. It was too… corporate. It looked like a lot of other CEO's offices that he'd been in. He'd somehow expected more.
"Welcome, Mr. Kent, please sit down." The well-dressed woman indicated one of the leather and chrome chairs in front of her desk. A slightly amused smile greeted him. "Something bothering you, Mr. Kent? You seem a bit surprised." She arched a brow. "Not what you expected?"
Clark took the seat offered. "It's very impressive, but I have to admit that I'm a bit puzzled. I have been in Luthor's private office, and this isn't it."
"Ah yes, of course, you were there at the final showdown, as it were." She laughed. "You're absolutely right; this isn't Lex's private office. That office is in the penthouse. That's where I live. This is my corporate office. This is where I conduct my daily business. I keep office hours as does any corporate officer." She moved some papers from one tray to another. "This is where I interact with my employees and the public. That's not to say that I don't work up there on the top floor. I'm sure you can understand that running a company this large is not a nine to five endeavor, but I like to keep my private office — private."
Clark nodded. "Fair enough. So, Mrs. Luthor…"
She held up her hand. "Please, call me Arianna, or if the familiarity bothers you, Ms. Carlin. I'm not particularly fond of the name Luthor. I merely put up with it for the sake of the company."
Clark found her statement interesting. "But you were married to the man."
She leaned back in her chair. She seemed very at ease. "Yes, and he divorced me — or thought he had divorced me. I was young and blinded by this charming, handsome young man who seemed to have the world by the tail. He wasn't anywhere near as wealthy then. His holdings were few. He only owned a couple of companies, but I could see that he had what it would take to succeed. And succeed he did."
She rose and stared out the window for a few seconds. "I know what you're going to ask next. Did I love him?" She turned to face Clark again. "I did, or at least I thought I did, but apparently he didn't feel the same way about me. Unfortunately I soon found out what it was that Lex really loved."
She chuckled as she shook her head. "No, money was the means to the end. What he really always craved was power."
"And you?" Clark asked.
"What, did I love the power? No, I wanted the man, but I quickly found out that as he acquired more wealth and power, he needed me less and less. In fact, at the end he didn't even bother to use me for sex. I no longer held any interest for him so I was discarded, like last year's suit."
"Yet, here you are, in control of his entire empire." Clark folded his hands in his lap. "Don't you find that… strange?"
Arianna cocked her head and gave Clark a piercing gaze. "Strange? In what way? Was it totally unexpected? Sure. Was I flabbergasted that something like that could have happened? Absolutely. Once I left Lex's life I never gave a thought to ever coming back. But life can be particularly ironic at times… don't you think?"
Clark pursed his lips. It was time to try and steer the conversation in a more useful direction. "Yes, about that clerical error. I was no expert on Lex Luthor, but what I did know makes it hard for me to believe that he would have made such a mistake. He always seemed like the kind of man who paid attention to details."
Arianna sat back down and folded her hands on the desk in front of her. "Oh, he was. But that was the problem. I no longer rated his personal interest. The details for ridding me from his life were left to underlings, who passed the tasks down to assistants, who filed it in their 'to do' pile and forgot about it." Her smile was not one of amusement. "I guess you could call it poetic justice."
Clark readjusted his position in his chair, not that he was uncomfortable, but to gain a few moments before asking his next question. "What about Nigel St. John?"
The barest hint of a smile tugged at the corners of Arianna's lips. "What about him?"
"You know him?"
She shrugged. "Not well, but yes, I know who he is. After our marriage broke up, Lex took him on as some sort of personal assistant. After all this happened -" She waved her hand to indicate her opulent surroundings. "I briefly considered taking him on as an advisor. I'd hoped he'd be able to give me some insight as to the inner workings of such a large operation. Turns out he was merely a personal aide to Lex and didn't really know much about the business side of LexCorp. It was my understanding that he wasn't implicated in any of Lex's illegal dealings." She leaned forward and rested her forearms on the polished desktop. "Was I wrong?"
Clark shook his head. "Not formally, but there still is some question as to how involved he might have been. The police would have liked to question him, but he seems to have disappeared."
"I can't say that surprises me." She leaned closer and spoke as if sharing a secret. "Truthfully, I found the man rather creepy." She settled back in her leather chair. "I couldn't have worked with him even if he had the knowledge I was looking for."
Clark frowned but kept it from Arianna. This was getting him nowhere. Either she knew that he suspected her and was giving him all the answers that would make her look innocent, or… she was innocent. But that was something he couldn't bring himself to believe. She had to be involved, it was just too… convenient.
He spent the next several minutes trying to get her to say something, anything, that he might be able to interpret as incriminating, or even the least bit unusual. But she was always there with the 'correct' answer, or a guileless explanation. And that made him even more suspicious. No one was that virtuous. The more he talked with her the more he was convinced that she, at least, knew more than she was saying, and he'd bet she'd been in on it from the beginning. But she was too good. She never said anything he could actually hang his suspicions on.
The interview had turned into a pointless exercise in Arianna Carlin-Luthor propaganda, so he made his excuses and left after only fifteen minutes. He would swear that the grin she gave him as he left her office was more smirk than smile.
Arianna stared at the closed door of her office for several moments after Kent had left. Her brow was knitted in a frown and she tapped her finger on the desktop. Finally, letting go a disgusted sigh, she reached for the phone. This was one call that Gloria wouldn't be making for her. Arianna punched in the set of numbers that only a handful of people still living knew.
She held the receiver to her ear and waited. The phone on the other end was picked up but no one spoke. She took another breath. "Nigel, I think we have a problem. Clark Kent was just in my office and I think he suspects my involvement." Her words were met by more silence so she continued. "I know you don't care a fig about me, but realize that if I go down, you go down. So I think it's in both our best interests if you take care of that little problem."
She hung up the phone, never having heard a voice on the other end. She hadn't had to. The message had been conveyed and received. She had no doubt that any problem that Clark Kent could pose, would soon be rectified… permanently.
Clark stared at his computer screen. His interview with Arianna Carlin-Luthor stared back at him. He'd promised Perry an article that wasn't just another press release for the new head of the LexCorp empire, but he wasn't sure he was able to deliver. He'd managed to give the article a more personal feel by including her expressed feelings for Lex and what he'd done to her. He'd been able to put that ironic slant to the piece, even to the point of using the 'poetic justice' line that Arianna had used. It wasn't the same old thing that had been printed to date, but he still was uncomfortable with it. He couldn't get over the feeling that this was exactly what she would have wanted printed.
It was a good newspaper article. It gave the reader some inside information and a view of the subject that hadn't been examined in previous pieces. Still, Clark knew that it didn't say what he wanted it to say. It didn't implicate her in the plot to betray Luthor. But then, to the rest of the world, there hadn't been a plot to betray Luthor. A tough, dedicated police officer and an intrepid investigative reporter had been responsible for the fall of the city's previously anonymous crimelord.
Arianna had played Clark like a rookie beat reporter and the worst part was — he knew it. Still, she had answered the questions he'd asked. She just had all the 'right' answers. It was almost like she knew what he was fishing for and had been able to deflect his questions so as not to reveal anything she didn't want revealed. Which begged the question: what did she have to hide?
The arrival of the elevator opening up to the newsroom floor drew his attention from the screen. He couldn't stop the smile from forming on his face as he saw Lois step off the conveyance. She zeroed in on his desk and strode purposely toward him. She wasn't smiling.
"Lois, what brings you here? Is there something wrong down at the precinct?"
She shrugged as she swiveled her head, checking out who was close to them and who wasn't. "I don't know about the precinct. Starting this morning, I'm on vacation." She glanced around some more. "Is there someplace we can talk?"
Her unspoken meaning was clear. She wanted to talk somewhere where there was no chance of them being overheard.
"Sure," he said, gesturing toward an empty conference room.
He rose from his chair and guided her toward the small room. Once inside he closed the door and after a good look at her expression he pulled the blinds.
"Could you lock the door?" Her voice was soft, and there was a quality in it that he'd never heard from her before. It was fear.
After doing what she asked, he moved over, grabbed her hand, and guided her into a chair. He pulled another chair up and turned it to face her. "Lois, what is it? What's wrong?"
He watched the play of emotions as they flashed across her face. She finally sighed, then took a deep breath. "I… I can't do this alone. I know I'm not supposed to tell anyone, but I'm going to need someone to back me up. I'm afraid if I try to do this solo, I could screw up and there'd be no one to save Bill."
Her hands had begun to flail about. Clark grabbed them and held them in front of him. "Lois? What are you talking about? What do you mean, no one to save Bill?"
Lois pulled her hands back and clenched them into fists. "I'm being blackmailed."
"Blackmailed? By who… never mind, I can guess. What does this have to do with Bill?" Clark ran his hand through his hair. "Maybe you'd better start at the beginning."
Lois reached into her bag and pulled out a crumpled, folded over, piece of paper. It was a picture. She handed it to Clark. "I got a call last night telling me I had some mail. When I went down to check, this was in my mailbox."
Clark slowly let out a long breath. So Bill Henderson was alive. That the person in the picture was Lois' partner, there was no doubt. Where it had been taken was another matter entirely. He saw the few words scribbled onto the back of the photo.
"Were you contacted?"
She nodded. "Yeah, St. John called me this morning." He didn't prompt her. He just waited until she was ready to continue. "He told me that he needed someone new to be his inside person in the police department since Bill had apparently changed his mind now that he'd gotten what he wanted."
She nodded. "Yeah, and he told me that he'd kill Bill if I didn't do what he wanted."
Clark chewed on his lower lip. He really didn't want to ask the next question, but he had to, even though he knew what the answer was going to be. "So, what did you tell him?"
Lois glared at him. "What do you think I told him? This is Bill's life we're talking about." Clark held back a sigh. He didn't say anything. "I laid down some ground rules of my own. At least, what I figured St. John would accept." She rubbed her temples with her fingertips. "I told him I had to have solid proof that Bill was alive and well. That he should get better accommodations than were shown in the photo." She paused, looking into Clark's face. "And I told him I wouldn't kill, or through inaction, allow the death of anyone."
She rose from the chair and began to pace about the small conference room. It was difficult because the table took up so much of the space. "I know you're disappointed in me," she began. "I'm sorry if I offend your high moral standards by agreeing to do as Nigel says, but this is Bill's life I'm dealing with. I'm already taking a risk by telling you about this."
Clark reached out and pulled Lois back into the chair. "Lois, don't. I don't blame you for the decision you've made. It's who you are. Your friends and loved ones are very important to you. I'd no more expect you to abandon them in need than I would expect you to … fly."
Her eyebrow rose. "I would if I could, you know."
Clark allowed himself a slight grin, before schooling his features into a more serious vein. "So, I assume, because you think you need help with this, that you need to have a back-up, that you aren't going to cooperate exactly in the manner that St. John expects?"
This time it was Lois who ran a hand through her hair. "Oh, I'll do whatever he asks within the limits I set for him, but that doesn't mean that I'll stop trying to bring him to justice. There is no way I'm going to stay his pet toady in the department any longer than I absolutely have to." She looked back up into his eyes. "That's why I need your help."
Clark found himself unsurprised by Lois' declaration. He knew that she'd willingly risk her career, and even her life, to help her former partner and friend. He couldn't help a slight twinge of jealousy. If only she'd be that willing to put herself out for him some day.
But, true to her beliefs, she wouldn't just take St. John's machinations lying down. She'd do what she had to, but it wouldn't stop her from also trying to 'do what was right' at the same time. There was no way that he wouldn't offer her all the help and assistance she needed.
"You know I'll do whatever I can to help you, don't you?" His eyes pleaded for her acceptance.
She gave him a slight grin. "That's why I'm here. I'm going to need you as my partner in this. I'm going to be walking a slippery tightrope here, while trying to dance to Nigel's tune. I'm going to need you to be my safety net and my confidant." She had to stop to swallow and clear her throat, which had gotten a bit choked up. "There are times when I'm going to need you to take the lead in investigating information I may find but am not free to look into." Her grin turned into a wry smile. "I don't like admitting that I can't do something, anything, but I'm not a fool. If I'm to save Bill and bring down St. John and whoever is working with him, including that fake Superman, I'm going to need you."
Clark reached out and placed his hand against her cheek. She leaned into his gesture. "You've got me." He smiled. "I'm sure that St. John already knows that you and I have been dating, so it shouldn't be unusual for us to see each other frequently." Clark leaned back and pursed his lips while he began to verbalize his thoughts. "We'll have to make sure that it doesn't seem like we're talking about anything related to him or his organization when we're in a public place."
Lois nodded, as she chewed on her lower lip. "Yeah, I'm sure that he'll have me watched quite a bit." She fixed Clark with a coquettish look. "We'll just have to be more demonstratively romantic when we're out and about. Just to throw suspicion off us."
Clark grinned back at her. "I think I can manage to do that."
Suddenly it hit Clark that he'd just grilled Arianna about her possible connection to St. John and implied that she might have been involved with Luthor's downfall. If she were indeed involved, as he was sure she was, it would alert them that he was into a possible investigation of them. That wouldn't help Lois' situation. If they thought that he was investigating Arianna, his association with Lois wouldn't seem so innocent anymore. He could easily jeopardize her safety, and Bill's.
"Lois," he began. "I think that there could be a problem." She gave him a puzzled look. He took her hands in his and told her about his interview with Arianna Carlin-Luthor.
She frowned as Clark came to an end of his tale. "I can see where this could be a problem for us." She reached out and touched his face with her fingertips. "In fact, I can see where this could become dangerous for you."
Clark shrugged. "It's my job. People expect me to go after the story, no matter what it is."
"I know," she responded. "But I'm not too fond of the idea of my having to worry about your safety also." Lois' brow wrinkled in deep thought. "You say that you were sure she was deflecting your questions like she knew what you were angling for."
"I'm sure of it."
"So, what would happen it you made it appear like she had succeeded in fooling you?"
Clark, at first wasn't sure what Lois meant, then the suggestion became clear. He nodded. "Yeah, that might work. I haven't sent the story to Perry yet. I could rewrite it so that it would read just the way she had been steering the interview to go." Clark scrubbed a hand through his hair again. "Actually, it pretty much already reads that way. It wouldn't take too much rewriting to hammer it home. She really didn't give me much to base any suspicions on, and without quotes, or hard facts, my mistrust would just look like baseless accusations, or a personal vendetta." He nodded as he began to mentally rework his article. "I'll have to tell Perry what I'm doing… but I'll keep you out of it," he hastened to add at her look of concern.
"All right then." She stood. "I guess, you should give me a kiss when I leave… you know, to better play up our relationship."
Clark had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at her so serious tone. "Well, if you think it would be a good idea." She rolled her eyes as he couldn't help himself and let his grin break free.
Lois allowed Clark to guide her toward the elevator with his hand on the small of her back. She found the gesture interesting. It was something she noticed that he seemed to do instinctively. If any other man had placed his hand in such a manner she would have resented the controlling nature of the move. With Clark it never seemed like that. It was more protective than possessive. She doubted that he even was aware that he was doing it.
They paused at the elevator. She placed her hand on his chest and looked into his eyes. "So, dinner tonight?" she asked, innocently.
"Sounds good. I'll pick you up at seven."
He had a sly smile on his face as he leaned down and captured her lips. She knew that part of this was for pretense, but that didn't mean she couldn't enjoy it. She found herself savoring the flavor of him and began to respond to him and moved to deepen the kiss when he suddenly pulled away.
"What? What is it?" Lois had been confused by his sudden departure. She followed his gaze that was directed at the television monitor screens, which hung, mute, from the bullpen's ceiling. "Omigod," she whispered under her breath.
"Turn that thing up." Perry had come out of his office when he'd noticed the commotion taking place on the bullpen floor. Everyone's attention was glued to the monitor, which was tuned to LNN.
"… And so to all my fans and friends in Metropolis, and around the world, I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize for my absence. I was ill, and it took me these past months to fully effect my recovery. But I'm one hundred per cent again, and I just want to reassure everyone that… Superman's back." The figure on the television screen in the colorful spandex costume waved to the crowd and stepped away from the microphones even though the crowd of reporters were shouting questions at him."
Lois came up next to Clark, whose gaze was still riveted to the screen. She noticed the odd look Perry gave him. That told her that Perry hadn't been told about the clone. She turned her attention back to Clark.
So the clone had finally gone public. She could see the tenseness in Clark's back and shoulders. She worried that he might cramp up if he didn't let go some of the tightness in his muscles. She reached over and absently rubbed his back, hoping to relieve some of the tension.
She noted that the bogus Man of Steel's address had taken place on the steps of City Hall. She didn't remember hearing anything about an announced press conference. She wondered if there had been anyone from the Daily Planet there. Clark hadn't said anything about it. In fact, he looked as surprised as she was. What was the clone's game?
She continued to watch as the mayor and some of the city councilmen crowded around the fake Superman. She shook her head in disgust at the fawning going on. How did Clark take it? All the phony smiles and claps on the back by so many trying to further their own agendas. It must have been torture to endure. Of course, Clark, being as naive as he was, probably didn't know that they were being disingenuous.
Suddenly she noticed a funny little man hanging back from the rest of the crowd. He wore glasses that seemed to be on the verge of falling off his nose at any moment. His clothes were rumpled and ill-fitting. He was basically untidy, but not unkempt or dirty. He wasn't some sort of street bum who had wandered onto the stage by accident. There was a brightness to the eyes that bespoke of a sharp brain behind those coke-bottle lens.
Clark's exclamation startled Lois. She quickly glanced at him for an explanation. When he noticed her attention he indicated the screen with a nod of his head. "Do you see that man in the tweed jacket?"
It was the fellow she'd just been wondering about. "Yeah," she answered.
"That's Professor Emil Hamilton. He works for a remote division of Star Labs." There was a definite note of apprehension in Clark's voice.
"So?" His name meant nothing to her.
"I wonder what he's doing in Metropolis? He hardly ever comes into the city. Claims he doesn't like the crowds."
Lois placed her hand on his arm. "Clark?"
Before he could answer Lois, Perry sidled up next to them. Clark turned to his mentor. "Did you know about this?"
Perry shook his head. "I received word that there was going to be a special press conference, but I had no idea what it was to be about. I sent Diaz out to cover it, thinking it was going to be something political. Frankly, I'm flabbergasted." Perry frowned and fixed his prize pupil with a penetrating stare. "Do we need to talk?"
Clark glanced down at Lois. She gave him an imperceptible shrug. He turned back to his boss. "Yeah, I think we do."
The three of them walked up the ramp and entered Perry's office. If White was surprised that Lois had come along, he didn't show it. Clark closed the office door and sat next to Lois on the couch in one corner of the office. Perry perched himself on the corner of his desk and faced them.
Lois was a bit unnerved by how apprehensive she felt. She knew that White was Clark's mentor, and he considered the older man almost like a second father. Still, she couldn't shake the image of being called into the principal's office to explain herself after getting caught dusting the cheerleader's pom poms with sneezing powder.
It was clear by his manner that White had functioned as one of Clark's confidants over the preceding months, if not longer. It was obvious that he knew that Clark was — had been — Superman.
"So," he began. "What can you tell me about this?"
Clark glanced at Lois. She gave him a small smile. "Tell him whatever you think he should know. None of this can be printed anyway. We have no proof," she said.
Clark nodded. "Okay."
The next fifteen minutes were spent giving Perry an overview of what Lois and Clark knew about Nigel's role in Luthor's downfall and their theory that the Superman at the press conference was a clone. Lois was thankful that Clark glossed over Bill's role by just saying that he was on the 'inside' of St. John's operation. It sounded like Henderson had been on a legitimate undercover assignment even if he hadn't actually come out and said it.
Lois added her witnessing of the bogus Superman grabbing Bill and flying off with him. She was sure that White made the logical assumption that Bill's cover had been blown. She then felt emboldened enough to mention the fact that she had been notified that Henderson was currently Nigel's captive.
Lois had then been surprised by Perry's next words. He'd correctly guessed the motivation for Bill's capture. He'd told Lois that she should be very careful because it was obvious that St. John was going to look to use her partner for some sort of blackmail leverage against her. She had just nodded and answered with a soft 'I know'.
White had then thanked the two for their candor and told them that if there was anything he could do, to just ask. And, of course, he wished to be kept informed of the situation as it unfolded. After all, he'd said, he couldn't help them if he didn't know what they were doing. Lois had smiled at that but had promised they'd keep him in the loop as much as they dared.
Now she and Clark stood in front of the elevators once again. It was time for her to leave, and for Clark to get back to work. Strangely, she didn't really want to leave him. She had been feeling so alone and vulnerable lately, that being with him just, somehow, made her feel more secure. Even though he wasn't Superman anymore, she still saw him as someone who could act as her protector. Not that Lois Lane needed anyone to act as her protector. It was just nice to know that there was someone there to watch her back.
She felt a slight pang of betrayal at the thought. Bill had always been the one she'd thought of in that role, but now that seemed to be changing, and she wasn't all together sure how she should feel about that.
"Well," he said, smiling down at her.
She blushed. "Yeah, I guess I should be going. You've got work to do, and I've got some strategy to map out."
Clark cupped her cheek with the palm of his hand. "Don't forget, dinner tonight."
She smiled. "I'm looking forward to it."
He leaned in and gave her another quick, gentle kiss. It felt nice. "Till tonight, then," he said.
She nodded as the elevator door opened up behind her. She didn't remember pushing the button but stepped inside. She turned back and gave Clark another smile. "Bye." The door closed.
A few moments later she found herself back on the sidewalk unsure as to what to do next. After pondering for a minute or two, she had decided on a course of action. Maybe it was time to check in with a few of her normal snitches just to see what was circulating around the underground grapevine these days.
Lois stood in front of her bathroom mirror frowning as she tried to pat her unruly hair into place. Her hair was currently in that 'in-between' stage where it seemed to have a mind of its own. With all that had been going on lately, she had missed her normal appointment. Ordinarily she wouldn't care that much, but tonight she wanted to look nice for Clark. She tried to tame her locks for a few more moments before finally giving up. Why did women want long hair anyway?
She smoothed the strapless black dress, where it hugged the curves of her hips, with her hands as a polite knock at her door was heard. Oh no, she thought, the dress was too tight, but Clark was here and there wasn't time to change. Reluctantly she went to the front door and opened it for him. "Wow, Lois, you look great."
Clark was wearing a simple pair of dark slacks, light blue shirt, and a dark tie. The sports coat was charcoal colored herringbone. He looked good. She reached for her wrap and purse.
"I look a fright. My hair's a mess, and this dress doesn't fit right." She frowned in irritation. "My make-up is probably smudged too."
Clark laughed. "I'm sorry, Lois, but you will always look beautiful to me. It wouldn't matter if you were wearing the most expensive ball gown with your hair in curls and a tiara or shorn to the scalp and wearing a tattered potato sack."
She looked up at him with a raised brow as they stepped into the hallway. "Careful, Kent, I may hold you to that."
He just laughed as he took her arm and they made their way to the stair leading into the night.
The cab ride was short and there was little time for conversation. They just spent the time holding hands and staring out at the deepening evening, as the lights began to come on throughout the city. It was a pleasant ride and Lois used the little time to let some of tension of the day flow out of her. It would be easy to just forget all the crap that had come down on her lately and enjoy the evening and company. But she knew that the two of them would have to discuss serious matters.
The restaurant was understated, but very nice. None of that phony underlit pretension or pseudo-elegant atmosphere. It was a comfortable, well-lit room that spoke of an owner who cared more about satisfying his customers than how chic their place looked.
The food was excellent and all during the meal they kept their conversation light and personal. Spending most of the time trading high school horror stories. Finally, though, while sipping their after dinner wine and listening to a favorite old standard wafting through the restaurant sound system, Lois decided it was time to broach some of their upcoming problems.
"I got in touch with several of my informants today." She said it softly, in the same tone they'd been using all evening. She wasn't sure if they were being watched, but she didn't want to arouse any undue suspicion if they were. It was obvious that no one was seated close enough to overhear them if they spoke in normal tones.
Clark nodded as he took a sip of his wine. He was as aware as she of the possibility of scrutiny. "Really? Find out anything?"
She shook her head. "Not much. Did you know that Lex had been the one that everyone had always referred to as 'The Boss'?"
Clark set his glass down. "You mean it's not Springsteen?"
"Funny, Kent." She shook her head at him. "Apparently, though, there hasn't been anyone yet that has stepped into the now vacant role. Actually there hasn't been a lot going on that's been organized since Lex's death."
"What about those gangs that have been terrorizing people lately?" he asked.
"I'm convinced it's just street punks being restless. I don't see it as anything organized. There doesn't seem to be any purpose behind it." She reached out and gave his hand a squeeze. "I see that your own wounds seemed to be nearly all healed. I don't see any indication left of the bruises you suffered."
Clark smiled. "Yeah, I may not have my powers anymore, but some extra time in the sun seems to still have had a remarkable restorative effect. Being a Kryptonian, even a non super-powered one still has its advantages."
Lois took another sip of her wine. The mention of his alien heritage brought back to mind the Superman press conference they'd seen earlier. "Clark?" He put down his own wine glass. "You remember that fellow you said was at the press conference? That professor?"
Clark's face took on a grim look. "Yeah, Professor Emil Hamilton."
Lois nodded. "Yeah, he's the one. Who is he, and why was he there at a Superman press conference?"
Clark expelled a deep breath. "I'm not sure why he was there, but the fact that he was worries me."
"I don't understand?"
"Lois, Professor Hamilton is the man in charge of the space ship I came to earth in."
Lois stretched and let her leg slide off the edge of the bed searching for the floor. She finally gave in and opened her eyes… mistake! Bright sunlight assaulted her vision, making her eyes water. She hadn't pulled the curtain the night before and now the sun's bright presence was streaming in the uncovered window. She threw up her hand as protection as she stumbled out of her bed toward the bathroom.
It had been a pleasant evening. She and Clark had enjoyed a great meal together, but mostly it was the company that she had savored the most. It wasn't as if she and Clark hadn't gone out to dinner before. They had been dating pretty regularly the last few months. No, it was a matter of timing. With all the turmoil her life had been going through these past several days, the 'timeout' with Clark had been a blessing.
It wasn't as if she had forgotten what a mess her life currently was. She still had a hard knot in the pit of her stomach every time she thought about Bill and the fact that he was a captive of Nigel St. John. She also couldn't help but worry about what being St. John's inside person was going to entail. How much of her professional ethics would she be forced to compromise, if not abandon outright?
She and Clark had discussed it, and once again he told her he'd follow her lead and do whatever she felt she needed. It was nice to know that, but until they had some concrete lead, or at the least, a direction to pursue, they'd decided to play it by ear as the situation played itself out.
Clark's interview with the Luthor woman hadn't yielded him anything to latch onto. He was sure that she was involved, but he didn't know how to go about proving it. They still had to prove that Luthor's illegal dealings were still operating. She figured that she wouldn't really have much to go on until St. John started asking her to 'do' things for him. That might give her an idea where to begin her inquiries.
She stepped out of the shower, toweling off her hair as she reached for her robe. It wasn't one of those silky, thin, negligee type affairs. It was an oversized cotton terry that had been washed to an incredible softness. It was comfortable, and that said a lot about her. She generally chose practical over flash.
She retrieved her copy of the Daily Planet from outside her front door and moved to her kitchen. She stopped in her tracks as she glanced at the front page headline. Setting the paper down on the table, she pulled out a chair and began to read.
That the front page had a huge picture and coverage of the Superman press conference didn't surprise her. But underneath the large 60 point headline proclaiming the Man of Steel's return were several stories of amazing rescues and super deeds that Superman had performed yesterday. She scanned the articles, shaking her head the whole time. That super clone had been a busy boy. The question was… why?
Lois was under no illusion as to the true nature of the bogus super hero. She'd only caught the tail-end of his encounter with her partner, but there was no mistaking his tone, or his meaning. He might not have intended to actually kill Bill, but he sure enjoyed making him think so. His actions were intentionally cruel, and he enjoyed the fear he was able to instill in Henderson. She could see it in his eyes. That… creature was evil.
She frowned as the phone jerked her away from her reading. She was reluctant to pick up, thinking that it might be St. John. After the third ring she shook off her apprehension and lifted the receiver.
It was the watch commander. "Lane, this is Captain Davis. Sorry to do this to you, but I'm going to have to ask you to forgo your vacation for a day or two. I need you to come in. Something's come up."
Lois frowned. "Come on, Dan, I haven't had a day off in months."
"I know, and I am sorry, but I need you."
Lois expelled a heavy sigh. "Oh, all right. What's up?"
"I don't really want to get into it over the phone, but it could be the start of something big. Look, Lane, I know you weren't expecting this, so don't rush. If you can get in here by noon, that will be fine. It's not like these guys are going anywhere."
The connection was broken without further comment. Lois placed her own receiver back onto its cradle. Her frown of annoyance had changed to one of curiosity. What had Davis meant by that last remark? Was someone already in custody? Or were they… dead. She moved back into the kitchen looking for the filters for her coffee maker.
She hadn't taken her first sip of her coffee when a knock on the door interrupted her morning routine. Setting down the cup, she went to the front door. Peering out the spy hole, she noticed an innocuous young kid in a 'Speedy Messenger' shirt. She unlatched the four deadbolts and opened the door, leaving the long safety chain engaged.
The kid looked up. "You…" He glanced at his paper work. "Lois Lane?"
He shoved a small plainly wrapped package toward her. "Sign here." He offered her his board with the delivery receipt clipped to it.
Lois took the package and set it on the umbrella stand next to the door. She then took the clipboard and hurriedly scrawled her name on the proper line. She handed the clipboard back. The young man stood there… expectantly.
Lois groaned. "Just a minute," she said, as she moved over and grabbed her purse off the living room side table. She reached in and pulled a dollar out of her wallet. "Here — thanks." She shoved the bill at him through the door. The kid glanced at the single bill in his hand and frowned. Without another word, he turned and moved toward the exit.
"Jerk," she said, as she slammed the door shut.
Picking up the package, she noticed that there were no markings indicating a return address. She had an uneasy thought that it might be a bomb or something, but she quickly rejected the idea. Too risky using a commercial delivery service for something like that. Besides, she was no longer on anyone's hit list that she was aware of.
She tore off the plain paper wrap to find she was holding a videotape. Her heart skipped a beat or two as she stared at the unassuming rectangle of plastic. Her step faltered just a bit as she moved over to her VCR and slid the tape into the slot. Grabbing the remote, she shuffled back to her couch and sat down. She took a couple of deep breaths before she was able to push the 'play' button. The screen on her television flared to life and after a few moments of static, the picture cleared. It was Bill.
He was in a plain dorm-like room that seemed vaguely familiar to her. But then it looked like a lot of dorm, or cheap hotel rooms, she'd seen or been in. Bill had a wry smile on his face as he glanced around the room and then faced the camera.
"Hey Laney, oh boy, this is quite an improvement, I have to say." He winked at the camera. "I hear you're responsible for my upgrade. Thanks a ton." He moved to one end of the room, forcing the camera person to follow him. "See, I even have a real bathroom, and…" He moved over to the other side of the room. "A desk with a chair. Not that I have any need for a desk." He shrugged then walked over and sat on the edge of the twin-sized bed. "This is going to be appreciated, though."
Lois felt the heat of a tear prick at the back on her eye as she watched her partner lie back in the bed. "Oh boy, I think I can really get used to this. It's better than my bed at home." He moved back up to a sitting position. He faced the camera and seemed to look straight into Lois' eyes. "I'm not too pleased to hear that you agreed to St. John's blackmail. Really, Lois, I'm not worth ruining your career over." Lois glared at the screen as she saw Bill put his hands up. "Look, I know how you feel about this, and I am grateful. But I just hope you don't wind up regretting what you've had to do."
Bill rose from the bed and leaned toward the camera, as if he was sharing something confidential with her. "Hey, does Nigel know about you and Kent? You know, that you're actually engaged?"
Lois sucked back a cry of surprise. What was Bill talking about?
"Look," he continued. "I know that it is supposed to be a secret, but you were going to have to tell Nigel soon anyway. How else would you have been able to explain your trip to Smalltown…"
"It's Smallville." Lois absently corrected the man on the screen.
"… Next week to visit with Kent's folks. St. John's no fool, well, not too big a fool, and he would need to know why you were going out of town so soon after your agreement to work for him." Bill paced around the small room a couple of times, then reached over and grabbed a newspaper that she hadn't noticed sitting on the desk. He held up a copy of yesterday's Daily Planet. "Oh, I almost forgot. I was supposed to hold this up to show you that I'm still currently alive and well. You'll be getting updated photos or tapes about once a week to satisfy your conditions."
Bill tossed the paper aside and stared back into the camera lens. "Personally, Laney, I think you're nuts. So I'm going to ask you to think this over real hard. You got a good thing going with Kent, and your whole career is still ahead of you. Don't do this." Another wry smile appeared. "Hell, with me gone, you'll make Inspector inside of a year." His smile disappeared. "Hey, you know I care about you. I don't want to see you ruin your life because of me. I'm not worth it."
The screen went dark. Lois had tears in her eyes, and a fierce smile on her face. "Oh yes you are. Thank you, my friend. Thank you for the chance to save you."
Just then the phone rang. Lois picked it up, knowing full well whose voice she was going to hear on the other end. "Lois Lane."
"Miss Lane. I assume you've had time to view the tape we sent you?" Nigel's cultured, clipped speech was instantly recognizable.
"Yes, St. John, I have… and the name is *Ms.* Lane." She heard him chuckle. "So what do you want?"
"First, I want to make sure that Henderson's impassioned plea for you to forget about him hasn't swayed your resolve." Lois could swear that Nigel's tone was mocking.
"No," she quickly responded. "I'll do as you ask as long as Bill stays well."
"Good. Now, that matter that Henderson alluded to concerning your supposed engagement?"
Lois bit her lip. "Well, it's not generally known yet. We were waiting to tell Clark's parents before we made it official. Only Bill and Perry White know about our intentions."
"I see." She could hear the skepticism in the man's voice. "Seems rather sudden."
"Yeah, well, I'm not getting any younger and Clark just happens to be a pretty nice guy," she answered in her 'not that it's any of your business' tone of voice.
"Very well. I expect to be informed as to when you plan to depart on this little side trip, and when I can expect you back. Not that I won't know." His tone was one of menace. "But I just like to make sure that you aren't trying to pull a 'fast one', as they say."
Lois let him hear her sigh of exasperation. "Look, St. John. I said I'd be your stoolie, and I will. Is there anything else you want before I hang up and get ready for work?"
"There is one more thing."
"I know that you were called to come in today even though you were supposed to be on vacation. You weren't trying to avoid me already, were you?"
"Whatever… just get to the point."
He chuckled. "You will be given an investigation. I'm going to want to be kept abreast of its progress."
"Is that all?" Her tone was definitely sarcastic.
"Oh, no. When the time comes, I'm going to want you to bury the case."
Lois felt the muscles in her neck tighten. "What do you mean?"
"Please, don't play dumb, *Ms.* Lane. This is going to be an investigation that leads nowhere. You will go through the motions and reach only dead ends. I want the case shelved."
Lois didn't answer immediately. She hadn't realized how bad this was going to be. Passing along some information now and then was one thing. But to purposely throw an investigation was quite another. She had to hold on, at least long enough to bring St. John and his cronies down. She had to hold on.
She sighed. "Okay. How do I get in touch with you?"
Another chuckle. "Don't worry, I'll get in touch with you when I need to."
"I'm sure you will." She allowed the sarcasm back into her voice as she slammed the phone down.
She hurried into her bedroom. She had a lot to do before she made it to work. She'd have to find a safe phone and call both Clark and Perry White. She now knew where they were keeping Bill, and he had given her the breathing room she needed to act on it. She just had to be ready to take advantage of it.
She threw open her closet door and tore an outfit off its hanger. She tossed it on the bed as she went to her dresser. For the first time in quite a while, things were beginning to look up. If she could just figure out where to get a cheap engagement ring in the next couple of days.
Bill Henderson lay back in the small but comfortable bed staring up at the ceiling. He had to grin. Leave it to Lois to force concessions from St. John even before he got her to do anything for him. That was one incredible woman. His grin quickly faded as he was brought back to the reality of the situation. Lois was being forced to be Nigel's pet policeman. That was a very bad thing. It was something else his karma would have to answer for. The whole mess was his fault. If he hadn't been so stupid, but then love makes one do dumb things. Oh yes, he'd admit that he loved Lois Lane… to himself. He would never admit it to her.
They shared an 'understanding'. She loved him like a best friend, and he just loved her. He was her partner and friend, and Lois took that very seriously. She had always been fiercely loyal to her friends. He, on the other hand, had allowed himself, over the years, to fall for the dynamic bundle of energy that shared his workday.
He let his mind wander back to those early attempts at dating. He had to laugh, but his bark was more than a tad melancholy. It had been a disaster. He could tell that Lois had been trying so hard not to show how miserable she was. While they could mesh like a well-tuned engine on the job, minds working in tandem, they just couldn't seem to get the hang of 'downtime'. If they weren't talking about a case or teasing each other about their personal foibles, there was just uncomfortable silence.
It was funny how little they had in common off the clock. Lois had been relieved when he'd voiced the obvious. It was fortunate that neither had let the awkward fumblings that had been their dating adventures spill over and ruin their working relationship.
They had both redoubled their efforts as work partners and 'just friends'. For Lois that had been a balm to her skittish psyche, and truthfully it was for the best. He had to admit that the two of them could never be a couple. That didn't stop his heart from going the way that it would, but his brain knew the truth. Her friendship was all he would ever be able to have from her… and from a woman like Lois Lane, that wasn't so bad.
Of course, he'd probably screwed that up now. After what he'd done, he was surprised she hadn't cut him loose completely. But then, that wasn't Lois. No, she'd remain loyal and bust her butt until she had him out of this current mess… then she'd kill him.
He stuck his hands behind his head. He hoped that his messages had gotten through to Lois. He'd had to be fairly circumspect since Nigel was right there when he made the video for her. He thought that he had been, but had it been too careful, too cautious? Had she gotten the message? Lois was sharp. She had be the quickest mind he'd ever seen. He had to assume that she'd got the message; if not, then they were all screwed.
As soon as Nigel brought him up to this dorm-like room, he'd recognized it, and so, had known where he was. He hadn't been in on the original bust of the facility at Boynton; he'd sent a couple other officers to take care of that. He'd been more worried about Lois and the confrontation he knew that she was planning to have with Luthor.
Still, he had visited the place a few times during the investigations that had followed. All the rooms for the tech staff had a boring similarity to them. He had immediately recognized the room as one of those when they'd brought him in.
So Nigel was back at Boynton. He knew that Arianna was busy playing the widow Luthor, so he doubted she was here. But he doubted that St. John was there for the ambiance, so what exactly was he doing here, and more importantly who was here with him?
Certainly that bogus Superman who had 'escorted' him here in the first place called this facility home. Where better to hang out than an abandoned science lab. But who else might be here… and why?
Lois walked into another abandoned warehouse. Why did these things always happen in abandoned warehouses? They'd probably be able to cut crime in half if they could just put to use all the abandoned warehouses that seem to infest the seedier parts of Metropolis.
She flashed her ID to a uniform who was there for that purpose, and he pointed out the coroner to her. She approached a scene that looked like it was out of some cheap horror movie.
There were six tarp-covered bodies carelessly strewn about one corner of the nearly empty building. Whatever furniture had been there had been reduced to kindling. She didn't think there was a piece more than a foot long left anywhere.
"So, Bennie." She addressed the medical examiner who was jotting some notes on a piece of paper. "What have you got?"
The elderly Japanese coroner turned to Lois. "See for yourself." He reached down and pulled back the tarp that covered one of the bodies.
Lois bit on her lip. She'd seen a lot of grisly deaths in her day, but this had to be one of the worst. The body was badly burnt, almost as if it had been in a serious fire. She glanced around. There was no indication that a fire had existed anywhere in the building.
"Ick," she said, shaking her head.
The coroner nodded. "That about says it. Not only are the burns over ninety-five percent of the bodies, they all suffered significant injuries before they were burned."
"What do you mean?"
He used a telescoping pointer to indicate parts of the badly charred remains. "You can see here that many of the bones, most generally in the arms and legs, have been shattered. Not just broken, but almost pulverized. I can't begin to tell you how that could have happened. Usually the only time you see that kind of breakage is if some extremely heavy object falls on it, or the arm or leg is caught in some heavy machinery."
Lois looked around again. There was nothing in the warehouse except a few old crates and some wooden pallets. "I don't see anything like that here." The M.E. just nodded in agreement. "So, how about these burns? Any idea how those came about?"
"Extreme heat from a very intense fire?" Lois frowned. "Cute. No, really, do you have any ideas? I don't see any signs of a fire here."
He shook his head. "No, you're right. There are no signs of any fire here, yet every body is as badly burned as this one." He flipped the tarp back over to cover up the body. "Tell me, Sergeant, do you believe in science fiction?"
Lois met the man's eyes warily. He wasn't joking around. "I don't follow."
"If I didn't know any better I'd say these men had been gunned down by some sort of Martian death ray."
Lois knew that the coroner's remark had been born out of frustration, but it caused a sudden chill to creep up her spine. Maybe not a Martian death ray, but possibly an alien one. Did anyone know how Superman's heat vision worked?
She looked at her surroundings with a new perspective. Pulverized bones could be a result of the use of incredible super-strength, and heavy wooden furniture was like tissue paper to a superman. Had he been there? Had the bogus Man of Steel committed these murders? If so, why?"
"Do we have an ID on any of these guys yet?"
The coroner shook his head. "Not yet. The conditions of the bodies make that very difficult. We'll have to get them back to the lab and try to find something to give us a starting place to guess who they might be, then use dental records to confirm it."
Lois nodded. It was what she figured. "Are you done here then?"
"Yeah, we've been done for a while, but we were supposed to wait for you." He gave a nod to some men who'd been standing around, obviously waiting for his signal. They proceeded to transfer the bodies from their spots on the floor to the black vinyl body bags.
Lois sat on one of the old crates and watched as the M.E. and his men finished up. So this was the case that Nigel wanted buried. Well, if his pet Superman was involved, she could understand why. Still she was curious as to who the victims had been. Whether or not this investigation would come to an 'official' dead end, Lois was going to find out who the dead guys were, and why they died.
Clark knocked softly on Lois' door and gave her a big smile when she let him in. "Hi," he said.
"Hi, yourself," she said, then rose up on her tiptoes and gave him a quick kiss.
Clark had to grin. "What was that for? Not that I'm complaining, mind you."
Lois gave him a coquettish look. "What? Can't a girl kiss her fiance?"
"Oh course she… what?" If he'd had dentures Clark would have dropped his teeth. The look on his face must have been funny because Lois howled with laughter.
Clark was clearly confused. Lois had called early this morning to tell him that there had been some important developments in their shared investigation and that he should come over for dinner tonight. So, as the dutiful boyfriend, he gladly did as she asked. Actually, he would have called her and suggested it if she hadn't.
"So, what's up?" Clark frowned, then looked around. If Nigel was having Lois watched, he might just… "Do you think that it's okay to talk?" He spoke softly into her ear. It looked like he was nuzzling her… if anyone was watching.
She pulled away and smiled at him. "Yeah. I borrowed a sniffer from the guys down in vice."
She laughed again. It was a wonderful sound. "A sniffer. It's used to sniff out bugs — listening devices."
Clark nodded. "I know what bugs are." He set the cartons of take out he'd brought with him on the table. "So, the place is clean?"
She nodded. "Yeah, only the phone is bugged, which is why I went out and got a cell phone today. Remind me to give you the number."
"Don't forget to give me your new cell number."
"Cute." Lois swatted him on the arm. "Anyone ever tell you you're a funny guy?"
Clark grinned, then gave her a thoughtful look. "You know, I don't think anyone ever has."
"There's a reason."
Clark rolled his eyes. Lois was in an unusually good mood. It was nice to see, but considering all she'd been going through he had to admit that he was confused by it.
"So what's this about an engaged woman?" As he rolled the term over in his mind he found that he liked the sound of it. "And does it have anything to do with the strange grin Perry gave me as I left this evening?"
"Bring the food over to the coffee table." She was putting a tape into her VCR. "Come watch this."
Clark brought the food over and sat next to her on the couch. The television screen flickered to life and he was greeted by the image of Bill Henderson. No wonder Lois was in a good mood, Bill looked well. A bit tired, perhaps, but otherwise he seemed to be in good shape.
"That looks like a lot better accommodations than we saw in that picture," Clark said.
"Shhhh, just watch." She pointed to the screen.
Clark sat back, the meal forgotten, and watched Henderson's monologue. He was surprised to hear Bill claim that Lois and Clark were engaged. It took a moment for it to register, but Clark soon saw why he'd done so. It was clear that he was giving Lois a reason to be with Clark without raising St. John's suspicions. Henderson must have felt that Lois would need his help. Though Clark figured Bill was more concerned about Lois' safety than he was about whether or not he ever got out of Nigel's clutches.
When the tape ran out Lois turned to Clark, her face bright with a huge smile. "Isn't it great!" she exclaimed. "He not only gave us the time to go look for him with that trip to your folks dodge, but he also told us where he is."
Clark looked at her. Okay, he would accept that Bill had acted a little strange at times during his commentary, but he wasn't sure what Lois was so excited about. Yeah, the excuse of vacationing in Smallville would give them a reason to sneak out of town, but was that really that helpful? And he had no clue as to where St. John might be keeping Henderson. Of course, he didn't know Bill like Lois did, so it was clear that he was missing something that she had picked up on.
"Okay, I'll bite," he said. "Where is he? You couldn't possibly have recognized that generic looking dorm room… could you?"
She laughed again. "No, but it did seem familiar to me, and I realized later why it did." She was a bundle of pent-up excitement waiting to burst. She took a deep breath before she began. "I guess you have to know Bill to have really gotten his message. He's a wise guy, likes to tease me, and make cracks about things, but he seldom uses cliches, or silly exaggerations. There were a few things that jumped out at me when I heard this tape this morning. Like, he's never called me Laney before."
She reached down and took a sip of the cream soda she'd brought over before they started watching the tape. She expelled a breath, then turned her attention back toward Clark. "Twice he used the exclamation 'oh boy'. In five years I've never heard him say that. But here he used it twice. The other thing is he used the term 'thanks a ton'. That's something else he would never say." She glanced down for a second, then back at Clark. "I said that to him once and got a ten minute lecture that started with 'What the hell does that mean?' and ended with, 'If you're going to say something, say something that makes sense'. I never forgot that. So I doubt if it was a simple slip up on his part."
"Okay, so he purposely used 'oh boy' and 'thanks a ton' to pass on a message." Clark knew he was looking stupid here, but he didn't see what Lois obviously had. He spread his hands in surrender.
"Oh *boy*? Thanks a *ton*?" She looked at him expectantly. "Boy? Ton?"
Clark sucked in a breath. "Boynton?"
Lois grinned. "Bingo."
Nigel St. John let himself into the penthouse. He was there to converse with Arianna. It was at her request, but he'd needed to see the woman anyway. He needed to make some assessments concerning her. She'd become nearly insufferable in recent days, asserting her independence as if her wishes actually mattered. He wasn't stupid; he knew that Arianna Carlin was intelligent and had never allowed something as inconvenient as ethics get in the way of what she wanted. That was why he'd chosen her in the first place. Still, she seemed to be forgetting why she was there, and who had brought her to the party.
He sat in one of the sturdy leather chairs, which graced the front of the massive wooden desk. While waiting for her to show up, Nigel let his mind review the situation. Henderson's supposed revelation that Detective Lane and that reporter, Kent, were engaged had forced him to reexamine some of his short-term plans. He'd decided not to eliminate Kent as Arianna had wanted. At least not yet. The reporter's death at this time would most likely adversely affect Lane's ability to function as his person inside the police department.
Of course, just because Henderson had mentioned it, didn't mean that Nigel automatically believed it. In fact, anything his former associate said was immediately suspect. He hadn't been able to see any advantage Henderson could gain by such a declaration, so he felt he should err on the side of caution for now. He would take a greater interest in Lane and her off-duty activities just to be sure. He didn't feel that Kent really posed too great a threat at the present, so he felt he could afford to play it as if what Henderson had said was true. He could always modify the situation if the need arose.
So far, Lane had 'played by the rules'. She was the lead investigator in the warehouse murders, yet there had been no new information released since the discovery of the bodies two days ago. She was doing as he'd asked; stalling the investigation until all the leads became too cold to point to anything useful. And now, according to Henderson and Nigel's own surveillance information, the woman was getting ready to take a trip to Kent's hometown to meet his parents. So far, everything seemed to be as it should be. Still, he hadn't gotten where he was by being careless… which brought back to mind the situation with Ms. Carlin-Luthor.
As if reading his mind, the private elevator doors slid open and the object of his most recent thoughts strode forth.
"Ah, Nigel, I see you are here already. Please, make yourself at home." The tone of her voice wasn't exactly what one would normally associate with a friendly greeting. "I'm sorry that I wasn't here to greet you properly. My doctor's appointment ran a little longer than I thought."
Nigel inclined his head in acknowledgement of her arrival. "That would be the required yearly physical that the board requires of its members?"
She nodded absently as she made her way to the elegant chair that rested behind the large desk. "Yeah, I just got a notice the other day. Being new, I guess they decided that I should get it taken care of sooner rather than later." She frowned. "Funny, I'd never heard of a such a policy."
Nigel's shoulders briefly flexed in what passed as a shrug. "I believe Mr. Luthor instituted it about two years ago. I'm not sure, but I think he felt that knowing any possible medical weaknesses in his board members could give him an advantage over them if he should ever need it. He always did believe that knowledge was power."
Arianna shook her head. "That sounds like Lex." She folded her hands in front of her and looked Nigel in the eye. "Now, tell me, why is Kent still alive?"
Nigel glanced at the morning paper sitting on an end table over near the main elevator. "I assume you read the article that Kent wrote the other day based on your interview?"
He shrugged. "Seems to me that it read pretty much how I would think you'd hoped it would. Didn't sound particularly threatening or suspicious to me."
Arianna shook her head. "I know, but I just had the feeling he was trying to get me to implicate myself in Lex's downfall. He kept asking me questions about how I felt about Lex, and if I knew you."
Nigel shrugged again. "It's his job to ask those questions. And it's not as if I was particularly anonymous while working for Luthor. He could have just been… fishing?"
She chewed on her lower lip. "I'm sure that's part of it, but I still think he suspects me; he just can't prove it yet. I think it would be best if he were to disappear."
He stared at her for several moments. He got a momentary feeling of satisfaction when he saw her begin to squirm just a bit under his gaze. "I'm afraid I'll have to disagree — at least for now. Kent's death would prove to be more of a complication at present than I need. He'll be watched, and if it looks like he could pose a real threat to either of us, he'll be dealt with at that time."
She frowned. "I don't understand. Why the delay? What's so important about Kent?"
"Oh, it isn't Kent himself but the company he keeps that I have to concern myself with," he said. "I'm in the middle of some delicate negotiations with Detective Lane, and I don't want to have to deal with any unwanted… distractions… where she's concerned."
"So, she's with Kent now." Arianna's tone was contemptuous. "Didn't take her long to get over Lex and hook up with another pretty boy."
Nigel's brow rose at the venom in her voice. "Quite."
"Okay, I guess I can see your point. So Kent gets a temporary reprieve. But I want him watched closely. If he makes any moves that could be construed as a potential threat to me, I want him removed… permanently."
Nigel rose and made his way deliberately toward the private exit. He stopped just before he reached it and turned to face Arianna. "Oh, by the way, did I ever mention that I like the new look you've adopted?"
"No, I don't think you did." A small smile snuck onto her face.
Nigel nodded once. "Good." He turned away and pressed the call button, knowing that the woman was staring daggers into his back.
Once Nigel was out of the LexCorp Tower he strode quickly to his waiting sedan. Sliding into the front seat, he took a moment to pull a cell phone from his pocket. With a practiced surety he punched in a set of numbers. He only had to wait a moment for the other end to answer.
"I've just left her office," he began. "I'll be able to pick up the samples on my way back." Nigel listened for a few seconds. "No, I didn't tell her about our other guest. I felt it was information that should be on a need to know basis and, frankly, she doesn't need to know."
He snapped shut the lid on the small phone and slipped it back into his pocket. He turned the key and the engine in the large dark sedan roared to life. In another moment he was easing his way out into traffic.
Professor Emil Hamilton was confused and more than a little bit scared. He didn't know what to make of the last few days. He certainly didn't know why he was locked in this spartan dorm room. Nothing was making any sense.
Like everyone else, he'd been thrilled and relieved when he'd heard that Superman was back. He, like so many others, had feared that the hero had met his demise due to some foul play. Not many people out there knew about kryptonite and its effects on the Man of Steel, but there were enough. When he'd found out that there was a special press conference being held to welcome back the super hero, he'd made sure he was there.
Ever since Superman had given over the care and custody of the spaceship that had been his conveyance to earth, Hamilton had taken the responsibility very seriously. He knew that just the size of the ship would've been conclusive evidence that Superman had been on our planet since he was a baby. That meant that the baby hero had been raised under some sort of foster care. Hamilton had never asked, since he felt it wasn't any of his business, nor did he want to know. Anyone close to Superman, like a set of foster parents, would be targets of the unsavory if their identities were ever known.
Emil had mourned, as had the rest of the world when the Caped Wonder had disappeared, and his heart went out to any who might have been close to the man. Still, he hadn't stopped his research, or his study of the Kryptonian vessel. It was just too interesting, even exciting, to have such a totally alien artifact to examine.
So, when he found out that Superman was back he was even more elated than he normally would have been. His continued studies had led him to an important discovery. A discovery he couldn't wait to tell Superman about.
He'd long ago theorized that pieces of kryptonite were merely specific pieces of the home planet Krypton that had been altered due to the chain-reaction atomic explosion that had erupted from the core of that world. The pieces found on earth must have been sucked along in the drive wake of the tiny spaceship and arrived on earth along with the baby.
He had no way of knowing how many pieces of the deadly rock had come to earth with the child, because differences in mass would've allowed for atmospheric winds and currents to have altered their trajectories and spread out their impact area far beyond the landing site of the tiny rocket. Though Hamilton was confident most would have landed within a few hundred miles of the craft's impact, there was no way to be sure.
Having had access to a few small pieces of kryptonite, Hamilton had studied the deadly crystals along with the tiny spacecraft. It had been a long arduous task, but he'd finally been able, through comparative analysis of the altered planetary rock and the normal refined Krytonian metal, to make an amazing break- through.
Using his data on the chemical and atomic components of the Kryptonian artifacts, along with his knowledge that lead was able to block the deadly radiation given off by the kryptonite, coupled with Superman's apparent ability to utilize solar energy, he had stumbled across something wonderful. He thought he'd found a way to immunize Superman from the deadly effects of kryptonite.
Of course, once he'd heard that the Man of Steel was back he couldn't wait to tell him his good news. It had been a very disconcerting meeting, up on that stage, after the press conference. Superman acted as if he didn't even know Hamilton. Chalking it up to whatever illness the hero had recently gone through, Emil had barely been able to contain his enthusiasm as he began to explain his discovery.
That was when things had gotten really strange. Superman had smirked at the Professor and had told him to 'hold that thought'. He then grabbed the smaller man and had whisked him away. The next thing Hamilton knew he was being escorted, blindfolded, through some corridors and then deposited into this room. That had been some days ago. How many he wasn't even sure. At least two, if not three or four.
He'd had no contact with anyone except for a large fellow who irregularly brought in simple meals. Trying to find out anything from the big man had proved futile. If the brute wasn't mute, then he was doing an excellent impersonation.
Hamilton allowed himself to collapse onto the small single bed. Why had Superman brought him here? Was this where the hero actually lived? If so, why the isolation? Why the locked door? The Professor was terribly confused. What was going on?
Lois left the salon and headed back to the station house. She had managed to fit in a hair appointment during her lunch hour. It not only made her feel better to get her hair trimmed back to a proper length, but it also looked good for 'appearances'. Nigel would surely know that she and Clark had made arrangements to leave for Smallville tomorrow morning. What would be more natural than the nervous fiancee trying to make sure she looked her best for her meeting with her future in-laws?
They had purchased their tickets through a very public travel agency. They'd made themselves quite obvious when they had visited the place. She was sure St. John would have no trouble accessing the agency's records to confirm their flight plans. They had also booked a rental car from the Wichita airport.
Clark had filled in his parents to the extent that they would be able to cover for Lois and him should anyone call while they were supposed to be out there. He hadn't given them any details beyond the fact that he and Lois were working on an investigation that required they appear to be elsewhere.
Lois didn't fight the grin that found its way onto her face when she remembered watching Clark trying to explain that he and Lois were pretending to be engaged. She could only imagine what his mother must have thought. She admitted that she was looking forward to actually meeting his folks sometime, but now they had other matters to deal with.
Upon reaching her desk, she quickly checked her phone messages. There was a message from one of her snitches. She reached for the phone, then glanced around, and replaced the phone onto its cradle. She rose and headed for the restroom.
She let herself into one of the stalls and locked the door behind her. Keeping her eye on the floor to watch for anyone coming in, she pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. She wasn't sure if her desk phone here at work was bugged, but she wouldn't put it past St. John. Actually, it only made sense to keep track of what she was doing while working since she was supposed to be St. John's 'man' inside.
She thumbed the familiar number and waited for someone to pick up on the other end. It took four rings.
"This is Lane. You have something for me?"
"If you have something for me?" The voice was suddenly coy.
"Don't play games with me," she said, with a bit of bite in her voice. "You know you'll get paid… if the information is worth it."
"Okay, I was just kidding, you know." He seemed to wait for a comment but she didn't say anything. Finally. "Well, I'm not sure if this is anything you might be looking for but the word on the streets is Johnny Taylor and some of his top lieutenants are missing. No one has seen them in days."
"Thanks, it might be helpful. You can expect your usual payment in the usual manner."
Lois thumbed off her phone and put it back into her pocket.
It was some interesting information. Johnny Taylor was an old school gangster who controlled a lot of the action over in the West River area of Metropolis. He was a small time hood with some big ideas. He ran his operation out of the notorious Metro Club. But if he was missing, that might mean that she had a possible clue as to who might have met such a grisly end over at that warehouse. She'd have to look into that — discreetly — before she left.
Normally she'd just call up the M.E. and give him her suspicions as to who the victims might have been. That would give him a starting point. He could obtain dental records, and other medical records that might give him the clues he'd need to make the positive identification. But she knew she couldn't follow normal procedure on this one. There was too much of a risk that St. John would hear about her inquiries, and since this case was supposed to come up with only dead ends, she couldn't let it be known that she knew who the victims had been. She'd have to find another way.
She fretted about it for a time, then remembered an incident a few months back with the new assistant coroner. He was a cute, young guy who hadn't heard the 'stories' about Mad Dog Lane and her 'hands off' policy when it came to co-workers.
Everyone around the precinct knew she had dated Lex Luthor and was later seeing Clark Kent. But when it came to the men at the station house, she was all business. Her problems with Claude when she was just a rookie and her later unsuccessful attempts with Bill had shown her that you just couldn't be romantically involved with someone you worked with. It would inevitably fail.
Still, there had been a few others in the past who had taken a run at the beautiful brunette sergeant, but she quickly rebuffed their advances. Soon, the word had got around, and she gained a 'reputation' for being cold and aloof. She didn't mind. It suited her just fine. But apparently this new guy never 'got the memo' about Detective Lane, and so he'd laid some of his best lines on her.
At first she'd just politely brushed him off. But he'd been persistent. After the third time in as many days she finally had to let him have it. She informed him that she was in a committed relationship, which was an exaggeration. She and Clark had been just starting to see each other socially. Then she went on to chastise him for 'not doing his homework'. She pointed out that if he'd still been interested after her first refusal he should have checked with the other guys at the station about her. He would then have found out what he needed to know and would have left her alone.
Needless to say the poor schlub had burned crimson and was very apologetic. He tended to stay away from her ever since that time. Perhaps Lois could exploit that 'fear' the lad seemed to have of her for her advantage in this case. She was sure, if she was nice about it, that he could do some of that checking for her, off the record, as it were. If he balked, well then, she could always resort to her tried and true methods. Intimidation.
Nodding to herself, Lois rose from her desk and headed for the basement. It was time to reintroduce herself to that particular young man.
It wasn't late, but Clark had been home for a couple of hours when he heard a knock on his front door. The only article he'd been working on for the paper had been wrapped up early so, after discussing some necessary arrangements with Perry, Clark had gone home early. He had some packing to do and he wanted to make sure he called his mother tonight to make sure they knew the make believe schedules he and Lois had worked out.
He opened the door to find a smiling Lois, complete with a packed bag standing on his front step. With a grin, he stepped aside and allowed her to enter.
"Lois," he said. "To what do I owe the pleasure? Our plane doesn't leave until tomorrow morning."
She set her small suitcase down by the front door and moved toward the sunken living area. "Well, we are supposed to be engaged. And we are supposed to be flying out to see your parents tomorrow to tell them. I just thought, for the benefit of those who are keeping tabs on us, it would only seem natural that we'd be spending this night together before we leave."
"Sounds perfectly logical to me." Clark couldn't keep a grin off his face, which only got bigger when she grinned back at him.
Clark led Lois into the living room and they both sat down on the couch. Clark had been watching the news and so that is what was on the tube. He glanced at Lois. She seemed just a bit nervous.
"So, do you have any videos we could watch?" she asked. "I'm not really in the mood for any more depressing news right now."
Clark shrugged. "I don't have much of a personal collection. You already know what I have. If I'd known you were coming I'd have rented a couple."
"That's okay," she said as she picked the remote off the coffee table. "Maybe there's an old movie on somewhere." She began to run through the channels.
Clark leaned back against the cushions. It was nice having Lois there. But then he always enjoyed her company. "So, I talked to Perry before I left today. He's going to have a car ready for us at the airport. He's renting it under Alice's name so it's less likely that Nigel will become aware of it."
Lois nodded while she continued to click through the channel options. "That's good. Though I don't think that Nigel will be expecting us to ditch our flight, it doesn't hurt to be sure." A small frown tugged at the corners of her mouth as she continued to speed through the choices on Clark's cable service. "Hey, here's one." She finally stopped her search.
Clark raised his brow. "Old Yeller?"
She turned and gave him a mock look of hurt. "I loved that movie as a kid."
Clark held his hands out in a gesture of self-defense. "Hey, I'm not criticizing here. I liked it as a kid too. But are you going to be able to watch it without crying at the end?"
Lois rolled her eyes. "What kind of question is that? Of course, I'm going to cry at the end." She snuggled a little closer to him. "But I have my big strong fiance to hold me while I do."
Clark could only grin at her flirtatious behavior. He knew she was feeling a bit awkward about the situation, but didn't want him to think she was nervous, or… scared.
He wondered how she was taking all this 'engaged' stuff. He knew that Bill had 'planted' the idea with St. John so Lois would have a reason to stay closer to him than one would normally think of a couple just dating. Personally he couldn't help but enjoy the perks of the ruse. They'd been more demonstrative in public to help support the idea, and he had to admit that holding and kissing Lois was never a hardship for him. He just hoped that she wasn't uncomfortable having to do such things for the sake of their cover story. As the movie began to play Clark decided to help make her more comfortable.
"Would you like something to drink?" He asked.
"Sure," she replied. "What do you have?"
"That sounds great." She leaned back and turned to watch him over the back of the couch as he rose to go into the kitchen. "But do you know what would be even better with that?" She smiled at his look of expectation. "Some popcorn?"
"O — kay, I think I can manage that." He opened a cupboard and pulled down a jar. "I assume you want butter on your corn."
She nodded quickly. "Oh yeah. Lots of butter."
Clark chuckled to himself as he turned back to his task. While going through the motions of popping the popcorn he let his mind review their plan. They had reservations for a flight out of Metropolis Airport to Wichita for 9:20 tomorrow morning. They assumed they would be followed to the airport and be watched as they boarded the plane. Lois was sure that she'd be able to spot their 'tail' during the process.
Figuring that once they were safely on the plane their shadow would leave, they would wait until the last minute, then find an excuse to slip off the plane to pick up the car that Perry was to have ready for them. Then it was just a matter of driving out to Boynton to do a little investigating.
Like any plan there were a dozen little things that could go wrong, but both were fairly confident that it would work. Simple plans always seemed to work best.
With the popped corn in a large bowl and two cans of cream soda in his other hand, Clark moved back to the couch and settled in next to Lois. She thanked him, then dived into the popcorn with enthusiasm.
The evening had progressed pleasantly. They'd made few comments during the movie, instead, just enjoyed the tactile presence of each other. True to her word, Lois did tear up at the tragic climax to the story but was also able to smile when all the little puppies were shown bounding around the old cabin at the end. And, true to his word, Clark held her close during that time. For some reason she just seemed to fit so well against his body.
Trying unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn, Lois glanced up at him with a shy smile. It was time to discuss their sleeping arrangements. "This is a pretty comfortable couch," she said as she patted the large overstuffed cushions. "I shouldn't have any trouble sleeping here tonight."
Clark frowned down at her. "Lois, you're my guest. You take the bed… I'll take the couch."
Lois shook her head vehemently. She knew she was going to come up against this. Clark was such a boy scout. "No, that wouldn't make sense. It *is* a comfortable old sofa, but it's not nearly long enough for you to be able to sleep well on it." She made a show of running her eyes up and down his body. "I think you'd agree that you are a tad bit taller and larger than I am…"
She placed her hand on his arm. "I wouldn't think of pushing you out of your bed."
Suddenly she saw a tiny gleam in his eye. "Wellll — it is a large bed. There'd be plenty of room."
Lois had to bite down on her lip. She'd been afraid that he was going to suggest that. She wasn't ready for that… with him, yet. Though she had to admit that she was pleased that he would suggest it. It made her feel… wanted. Still, it wouldn't be a good idea.
"Look, Lois," he began. "If you're worried that I'd take advantage of the situation, I want you to know that you can trust…"
She placed a finger against his lip. "Shhhh, I trust you. I'd trust you with my life. It's just that — this isn't the right time. I love you, Clark. And it's quite likely that I'm in the process of falling in love with you. But I can't trust my own emotions right now." She bit on her bottom lip. "Do you know how hard it is to stay focused and not let myself get caught up in all our engaged couple play-acting? But I can't let myself go. There's just too much stuff going on, tearing me in every direction. Until we can get Bill away from St. John and get me out from under his thumb, I can't afford to get distracted." She saw the look of disappointment on his face. She gave him a smile. "No matter how pleasant that distraction may be." She leaned back against the opposite arm of the couch. "Clark, once we've rescued Bill and have exposed Nigel and his fake Superman for the crooks that they are, we'll have all the time in the world to explore our relationship and see where it takes us. But I can't deal with it right now." She allowed her eyes to plead her case. "Can you understand that?"
Clark reached out and placed his palm against her cheek. "Of course I understand." He rose from the couch. "I'll get you some blankets and a pillow."
She watched as he walked into the bedroom, seeing the broad expanse of his back stretch the fabric of his t-shirt to its limits. A sigh escaped from her lips. It really was a nice back.
Everything went according to plan at the airport. Perry had driven and had dropped them off at the terminal. It hadn't taken Lois long to pick out their shadow. They had made sure that the fellow kept up with them the whole way to the proper concourse and their eventual embarkation area. They'd made sure that they played up their roles for their audience. Lots of hand holding, hugs, and several quick kisses had been displayed for his benefit. Neither had minded much.
Just before the plane was scheduled to take off, Lois, using her Metropolis police ID, informed the stewardess that there was an emergency back at the station house and they had to get off. With a frown and a look of definite exasperation, the attendant had escorted them off the plane. Since they had only brought carry on luggage there wasn't a problem with any luggage being left behind. Security did a quick scan of the overheads to make sure nothing was left behind, but Lois' position with the Metro PD allowed them to pull this off where a normal citizen would probably be held for additional background checks due to their questionable behavior. They hadn't seen their shadow anywhere.
Buoyed by the fact that things seemed to be going their way, Lois and Clark made for the rental car lot and picked up the innocuous silver sedan that was waiting for them there. Perry had given them the keys during their trip in and had told them exactly where the car would be. Lois loved the new express check out systems that allowed one to go directly to their car without all the hassle of a goof behind a counter.
It was now early afternoon, and the two of them found themselves outside the little town of Boynton, parked at the base of the small range of hills, called Camel's Back, that held the old mine site. The old copper mine contained within had enjoyed a short life span. About twenty years ago the site had played out and there'd been no more ore of value to be found. The original company had just abandoned the site and left it for nature to reclaim. A few years ago, fences and gates had sprung up along the dirt roads leading to the front and back entrances to the mine.
Clark, with Lois' sister Lucy's help, found out that the mine had been purchased by Luthor using a shell company supposedly run by Arianna Carlin-Luthor. To this day, she still claimed no knowledge of the ghost company, and that might have been true, but Luthor had definite plans for the out of the way site. Under the cover of an archeological dig, Luthor had built and maintained a research lab there, a lab dedicated to the experimentation of cloning technology. He and Lois had broken the case open, which had led to Luthor's exposure as the criminal that he truly was and his eventual death at her hands. Clark never wanted to see anyone die, but since, in this case, it was either him or Luthor, he couldn't feel too bad about what Lois had done.
Now they stood at the bottom of the small range of tiny mountains getting ready to investigate the place once again.
They had avoided going through Boynton on their way up to the site. They knew that the FBI had abandoned their examination and surveillance of the place a while back. And since the quakes and landslides of a week ago, they no longer felt any need to keep watch on the place at all. Still, Clark's friend in the bureau had told him that there was still an agent based in town just in case anyone came along expressing any interest in the site. They wanted to avoid him and anyone St. John might have down there for the same reason.
"So, what's the plan, nature boy?" Lois gave Clark a look of innocence.
Clark rolled his eyes. She knew as well as he what they were planning. They'd gone over it exhaustively in the car, both on the way to the airport, and in the rental vehicle on their way here.
They had managed to find an old side road, hardly more than a dirt path, which led through the thickest patch of forest that surrounded the hillside. It was at a point the farthest from the town and away from the road that led to the mine entrance. It was also quite a distance from the back entrance of the mine that the two of them had discovered when they'd first come up here together.
"I figure that this route is the least likely to be seen as we make our way back up the hill to get to the top of the mountain." Clark pointed up the hill, straight into a lot of rocky ledge and overgrown brush. "Good thing we're dressed for the climb."
Lois nodded as she adjusted her pullover sweatshirt and tough denim jeans. Her tennis shoes positively gleamed with newness in the early post noon light.
"I don't suppose you could have gotten any brighter pair of shoes?" Clark asked with a wry smile. "I wouldn't want any overflying planes to miss you walking up the hillside."
She swatted him on the arm as she came up next to him. "Funny, Kent. They'll get dirty soon enough." She glanced up the hillside. "It's going to be more than just a walk in the park, isn't it?"
Clark allowed his gaze to take in the rugged terrain. "Oh yeah."
Lois used her hand to shield her eyes as she looked up the hill. "So, you think those air shafts are up there?"
Clark shrugged. "I certainly hope so. According to the old plans for the original mine construction I was able to track down, there should be at least two major air shafts poking up through the top of the second hump on Camel's Back."
Lois frowned. "I'm sure Luthor's men made a lot of changes when they built their installation. Do you think that those vents are still there?"
Clark shrugged again. "No reason to believe they wouldn't be. The site would still need air. Even if they didn't have any particular other use for those old shafts, I doubt they wouldn't have done anything more than just ignore them."
The two of them started their climb. "So, supposing we find them. Then what? It's not like you can just fly down one anymore."
"No, I can't." He indicated the coil of rope he had slung around his shoulder. "That's why we have this."
Lois snorted. "Always the boy scout." She gave him a sidelong glance. "What's with you? We are heading into a potentially dangerous situation with little more than a hope and a prayer, but you seem positively giddy over it."
Clark grinned at her. "I don't know. I can't explain it, but I feel good. I'm excited about the investigation. I'm always thrilled to be doing things with you, Lois."
Lois placed a hand on his arm. "Let's not get too carried away here, sport. I like being with you too, but let's focus here." He saw her lip quiver just a bit. He suddenly felt guilty for his own good mood, knowing that for Lois there was a lot more at stake. "I have a good friend, whose life is a mess because of me, who needs rescuing. Add to that, a major bad guy to take down, and that's not even mentioning the bogus superhero that is flying around the city."
"You aren't' to blame, Lois."
She gave him a sad smile. "I know, but that doesn't change my sense of responsibility. Bill is my friend and I have to do whatever I can to help him."
Clark nodded. "I know. I'm sorry if it looks like I'm not taking this seriously."
Lois gave him a little laugh. "Don't feel too bad, Clark. At least it's not raining like it was last time."
She turned quickly back to him. "What?"
Clark pointed over his shoulder at the black clouds gathering on the horizon. "I figure we've got about two hours before it gets here."
Lois' shoulders slumped as she sighed in frustration. "Swell."
Suddenly Clark's attention was captured by a faint ringing tone. He glanced over at Lois and noticed she was staring up the hill with a fierce look of determination. "Do you have a cell phone on you?"
She glanced back at him. "What? Oh, yeah… yeah, I do." She apparently had now heard the disturbance from her pocket and was reaching for the small portable. "I got one because I wanted to be able to make and receive calls that Nigel wouldn't be able to listen in on." She gave Clark a strange look as she flipped open the phone. "You heard that ring?"
Clark nodded. "Yeah, you must've been distracted by the picturesque climb we have ahead of us."
Lois rolled her eyes. "Whatever… Hello?"
The two of them began to make their way up the hillside as Lois talked in hushed tones into the tiny phone. He could easily hear her half of the conversation, but it made no sense to him, so he waited for her to finish.
She shoved the cell phone back into her pocket, a look of smug satisfaction on her face. "Important call?" he asked.
"Oh yeah. You know I told you about the murder case down in the old warehouse district that St. John was having me bury." Clark nodded. "Well, I've been doing a little unofficial digging into the case. That was my contact in the M.E.'s office. It seems that the victims were indeed Johnny Taylor and some of his bully boys that were flash fried."
"Isn't Taylor the guy who owns the Metro Club and handles most of the illicit goings on down in West River?"
She gave Clark a wink. "Yup. It looks like St. John is beginning to look about to expand his holdings. And he's using that clone Superman to do his dirty work."
Clark mulled over what Lois had just told him for several moments. "That's not good… is it?"
Lois shook her head. "No. Especially when he has someone in the police department to cover up for him." A grim frown wrinkled her brow.
Clark put his arm around her shoulder as they continued up the hill. "Well then, I guess we'll just have to do something about that, won't we."
Henderson lay back in the small, but comfy, bed and amused himself by bouncing a ping pong ball, that he'd recently found left in a drawer, off the far wall and catching it. 'Simple pleasures', he thought to himself with a wry grin.
Bill was bored. There was no denying the seriousness of the situation he found himself in. He was a captive of a man who probably would rather see him dead, and presumably would before too much longer. His life only had value as a tool of coercion. He felt bad about that, but it was out of his control. He was kept locked up and controlled at any time when he wasn't alone. But for all the danger and unpleasant ramifications that his captivity represented, he was mostly bored out of his skull.
He'd investigated the small dorm-like room from top to bottom, several times, but hadn't found much. A used pair of shoelaces and the ping pong ball. And, of course, the one unused condom, but he didn't figure St. John would be allowing him any conjugal visits anytime soon. Maybe he should have said that *he* and Lois were engaged, rather than Kent. Nah, not even Nigel would believe that.
Just then the door of the small room opened.
"Speak of the devil." Henderson gave Nigel St. John only the barest of glances, then turned back to his ping-pong ball exercises.
Without looking, Bill could see that the number one thug had closed the door and had positioned himself beside it as Nigel moved over to stand next to the desk across from the bed. He snapped the ball out of the air one last time, then folded his hands behind his head and waited.
Nigel frowned, then sighed crossly. "You have greatly disappointed me. I gave you more credit for intelligence. I had hoped that you would know that it would be useless to try and 'put one over on me', as they say." Nigel moved a little closer. "Maybe you just thought I was stupid?"
Bill made a show of mock concentration. "Stupid? An arrogant, self-deluding, preening, egomaniacal jackass, perhaps. But not stupid."
True to his carefully maintained unflappable image, St. John didn't rise to the bait. He merely shook his head. "Do you deny that you gave me false information regarding Sergeant Lane?"
Bill was mildly surprised that he was able to stay nonplused in the face of Nigel's accusations. He wasn't sure exactly what the man was referring to, but it wouldn't help anyone to admit to anything. "What seems to be your problem?" he asked, affecting his most innocent tone.
"It seems that Lane and Kent decided to skip their trip to visit Kent's parents in Kansas."
Bill shrugged. "Maybe something came up. Kent does have to follow the news you know."
"No, they purchased their tickets, even went so far as to get on the plane. But for some reason they got off the plane at the last minute."
Henderson raised his brow. "You had them followed? Tsk, Tsk, where's the trust, old man?"
Nigel let just a bit of his anger show. "I trust no one except myself. And as it turns out, I was right to mistrust the detective." The barest hint of a smile twitched at the corner of Nigel's lip. "Apparently your safety isn't quite as important to Lane as I was led to believe."
Bill rolled his eyes. He needed to keep St. John feeling that he was unconcerned about the situation. That he didn't care that much for his own safety, which in reality was true. He didn't care that much about what might happen to him, but he did care, a great deal, about what could happen to Lois.
"I can't believe that Lane didn't tumble to your tail. Love must be making her sloppy."
Nigel paced a few steps in front of Henderson's bed. "Oh, I'm sure she did. I was quite explicit in my instructions. One of the surveillance team was to be noticed, but not so obvious as to be recognized as wanting to be noticed."
The dry chuckle that came from St. John was more like dead leaves rustling in a light breeze than an actual human expression of mirth. "If I'm anything, I'm thorough."
Bill shook his head in disgust. "Sounds more like paranoid to me."
"Semantics. Still, it allowed me to know that Lane and Kent went to the Avis lot and left in a rental sedan. Which means that the rental was set up ahead of time." St. John stopped his pacing and stared at Henderson. "That means that they never intended to go to Smallville, had no plans to meet with Kent's parents, and most likely aren't even engaged. If I had to guess, I'd surmise that they are merely dating and that the engagement ruse was as much news to them as it was to me when you mentioned it in your message."
Henderson shrugged. "Pretty clever, huh? I just wanted to give Lois some opportunities to kick back and take it easy once in a while. I knew that you'd be pretty demanding on her, and I just wanted to give her a way to relieve some stress."
"So good of you."
"I thought so." Bill gave Nigel a big grin. "So if Lois and Clark didn't go to Smallville, where did they go?"
Henderson watched the play of emotion, or lack thereof, on St. John's face. "I somehow doubt that you'd be surprised that, at present, the two of them are toiling their way up the hillside. No doubt, intending to effect your rescue."
"You can see why I've always liked that woman." Bill gave Nigel a big grin.
Nigel nodded ominously. "Well, I'm afraid that Sergeant Lane is going to have to learn that when she breaks the rules, there will be penalties to pay."
Henderson snapped upright in bed. "What are you going to do?"
St. John's grin was positively feral. "Something… unpleasant."
Clark stopped, turned, and smiled at Lois as she slogged up the hill. She had fallen a bit behind so he waited for her to catch up. She came up next to him, trying to catch her breath.
"What's with you today?" She managed to gasp out between deep breaths. "You're practically running up this hill."
Clark chuckled. "I think you're exaggerating. I just feel good, that's all. I've been cooped up indoors all week and it feels good to get out in the fresh air. Even the rain decided to stay away." He pointed to the bank of formerly threatening black clouds that had continued to drift off to the north of them. "Besides, you're probably a lot more run down than you're willing to admit." Clark led her to a nearby boulder where the two of them sat. "How much sleep have you been getting anyway?"
Lois had the decency to blush in embarrassment. "Not much… some… enough."
Clark nodded knowingly. "I thought so." He put his arm around her when he saw her shiver slightly. "Let's rest here for a bit. Are you cold?"
She shook her head. "Not really. It is brisk, but you're right, it does feel good. I just think I am a bit tired." She formed her lips into a tight line. "I've got to shake off this lethargy though. I need to be sharp when we get to the top." She glanced up the hillside. "We are close… aren't we?"
"Yeah, it shouldn't be much longer now."
Clark knew that they had at least an hour of the hardest part of the climb left, but Lois didn't need to hear that right now. He gave her shoulders another squeeze. She leaned against his side, letting go with a deep sigh.
She looked up into his concerned gaze. "I'm just worried. Getting up there is the easy part. We still have to get in, find Bill, and figure out a way to get out of there. But not before we find some sort of evidence that we can use to incriminate St. John, and his cronies." She sighed again. "And that doesn't even begin to answer the question of what we're going to do about that fake superman. It's not like you can face off with him. You don't have your powers anymore."
Her words brought a frown to Clark's face. She was right; he didn't have his powers and in a confrontation with that bogus super hero neither he nor Lois stood any chance.
He felt her stand up, pulling away from him. "Well, sitting here moping isn't going to get us anywhere, so we may as well get moving." She began to trudge up the hill. Shaking his head in amazement, Clark stood and quickly caught up with her.
The rest of the trip to the top of Camel's Back passed in silence, except for the heavy breathing. Clark found that even he had worked up a sweat. The cool breeze would cause a quick shiver on those occasions when they stopped for a few moments and were exposed to the wind.
True to his estimate, they finally reached the top of the small mountain just over an hour after their impromptu rest stop. Knowing that it was possible that this area might be watched, the two of them took care to try and stay out of direct sight as they approached what could obviously be seen as two large vent pipes jutting out of the ground.
Lois and Clark crept quick and quietly up to the pair of large structures. The tubes, or pipes, or whatever you wanted to call them, were a couple of feet across and stuck out of the ground about three feet. The tops were protected from debris and weather by a conical cap, which sat above the pipe by a few inches, and a fine screen mesh. The caps seemed to still be in good shape since they'd been fashioned of stainless steel, but the mesh was badly rusted. Clark guessed that the screening was something that had been replaced on a regular maintenance schedule.
Unshouldering the rope, he approached the nearest of the tubes. After a little effort he was able to pry off the conical top and set it aside. Lois came up next to him and, with a single tug, pulled the mesh screen off. Both peered down the pipe into an absolute blackness.
"Do you think we brought enough rope?" Lois squinted as she tried to penetrate the darkness. "How far down do you think it is?"
"Let's find out." Clark began to pick up a few rocks of various sizes, from marble sized to one as big as his fist.
Lois stared at him quizzically. "What are those for?"
Clark stepped up to the pipe. "Well, what we have to do is drop a rock down and time how long it takes to hit the bottom."
Her brow rose nearly to her hairline. "And that helps us how? How are we going to hear it?"
Clark grinned. "That's why I chose a selection. We start small, and move up to larger stones until we get one we can hear."
Lois nodded skeptically. "Why not just the large one right away?"
Clark shrugged. "I figure we would want to make as little noise as possible."
"Okay, then what? We have the time, but what do we do with it? It's not like we know how fast the rock is traveling?" It was Clark's turn to raise a brow. "You're kidding. You know that stuff?"
Clark smiled at Lois' astonishment. "It's just physics, Lois. It's all about terminal velocities and the distance it takes an object to reach it."
Lois frowned. "If you say so. I'll handle the watch. You do the computations."
Clark grinned as he selected a small stone and held it over the tube's opening.
"I'll save you the trouble. It's two hundred and seventy-three feet to the bottom of the shaft."
Clark spun around to see Nigel St. John approaching, a large revolver in hand which was pointed at them. He heard Lois' gasp beside him. Stepping out from behind St. John was a large, thug- like fellow, and a somewhat familiar figure. The bright blue and red of the spandex costume clashed with the greens and browns of the surrounding hillside.
"St. John." Lois hissed out the name like a curse.
"Ah, Detective Sergeant Lane." Nigel inclined his head in a mock bow of acknowledgement. "I have to say I'm quite disappointed in you."
Clark watched as Lois took a step forward. It was all he could do to not grab her and force her behind him. Unfortunately, he knew that this was her show now. If they were to have any chance of getting out of this it would depend on Lois' ability to use her value to St. John, and her wits, to talk her way out of this mess.
"I guess I won't be able to sleep tonight, Nigel, knowing that you're disappointed in me." Lois tone was beyond sarcasm.
"How droll, my dear. But then I was under the impression that we had an understanding. This is quite contrary to our arrangement." He brought the gun up level with her chest. "And here I thought you were a woman of your word."
It was obvious to Clark, seeing Lois' indifference to St. John's revolver, that she'd had guns pointed at her before. "I haven't broken our agreement. I've kept you informed of the cases you've asked about, and I've stalled the investigation of the warehouse murders just as you requested." Lois cocked her head to one side. "So, tell me, what do you want with a small-timer like Johnny Taylor's operations anyway. The West River area is little more than a blight on that side of town."
Nigel raised his brow and nodded in grudging admiration. "So you found out who the victims were anyway. Tell me, Detective, were you also aware of Luthor's plans for a massive redevelopment of the West River area? No? Well, it really doesn't matter. Let's just say that there's a great deal of money to be made once the proper acquisitions are completed."
"I see." She shrugged. "Still that doesn't change this. It's not my fault that you decided to interrupt my fiance's and my nature walk. We were feeling kind of nostalgic. This is the place where we had our first kiss, you know."
Clark was surprised by Lois' revelation. Not that he didn't know she was just trying to talk her way out of their predicament, but that she would remember that they had indeed had their first kiss on this small mountain. Though it was actually part way around, and down the hillside.
"Oh please, Miss Lane. You surely don't think I'm that gullible, do you?" Nigel's tone bordered on disgust. "The two of you were scheduled to fly to Kansas this morning. You actually got on the plane, but then got back off because you were suddenly seized by the need to revisit the site of your first kiss?"
Lois spread her hands. "What can I say? I'm just a hopeless romantic."
Clark was getting more uncomfortable with the situation as each moment passed. It was obvious that St. John had known they were coming and had been waiting for them. He didn't have any idea what to expect from the former British agent, but he was sure it wasn't going to be pleasant.
"Look, St. John. Why Clark and I were here is irrelevant. The bottom line is, you still need me on the inside of the Metropolis Police Department. So you can't kill me. Neither can you threaten to hurt Henderson because then I wouldn't cooperate with you anymore."
Nigel actually chuckled. "That's it? I still need what you can provide so I just let this *indiscretion* slide? It's not that easy, Detective. You broke the rules and there must be a penalty paid."
Clark watched the by play between the two of them, a sinking feeling in his gut growing larger as the seconds passed. Lois stepped forward, glaring at St. John. Typical reaction for her… attack.
"So what? You're going to shoot me?"
"No, you are absolutely correct. I still need you… and Henderson as the leverage against you."
Clark's eyes got wide as he saw the revolver swivel in his direction. He thought he heard someone shouting 'No!' off in the distance somewhere, but his senses had all focused on the barrel of Nigel's gun as he heard it bark loudly twice. Instantaneously he felt the hot shock of two impacts hitting him in the chest. It was as if someone hit him with a large hammer. He staggered back several steps.
Quickly, Lois was next to him, her hands clutching at his suddenly sodden shirt. He could see that her hands were all bloody. Had she been hurt? No, not her, him. It was his blood.
The silent thug grabbed Lois and pulled her away from him as, Clark, in his confusion stared uncomprehendingly at the tableau that was unfolding. His eyes locked with the bogus Superman as the phony hero stepped forward. There was cruelty in his eyes, but also something passed between them. There was a recognition. The clone knew!
The voice that he heard laughing was his own, but it wasn't him. "Hey, Kent, you're no longer wanted around here, so why don't you just… blow."
Clark saw the clone's cheeks puff out, then he felt the impact of a hurricane of cold wind slam into him as he was lifted off his feet and flung off the side of the small mountain. He heard someone scream his name just before he blacked out.
Lois stared in shock and horror as the figure of Clark Kent disappeared into the distance. She still had his blood on her hands, which felt slickly warm as she clenched her fists. She turned her own watery glare toward Nigel St. John. A white hot rage overwhelmed her. A string of expletive-laden curses exploded from her mouth as she launched herself at St. John. She knocked him to the ground and using her doubled, bloody fists began to beat on the startled and suddenly helpless elder man.
"Get her off me!" he managed to shout between blows.
Suddenly Lois was hoisted off her feet by the throat. She found herself staring into the smirking expression of the clone as her arms and legs windmilled fruitlessly. He was wearing the face of a man she'd just seen foully murdered in front of her. Her curses quickly switched to the new target.
The bogus Superman let out a large bellow of a laugh. "Why don't you try and pound on me for a while, witch."
Lois went quiet, her eyes narrowing as she glowered at the mocking super being. Not willing to listen to his laughter any longer, she grimaced, then spat in his face. His amused countenance quickly changed to a look of feral anger. Lois began to gasp for breath as his fist began to tighten around her throat.
"No!" St. John came over and placed his hand on the clone's arm. "We need her alive… for now."
The clone released his grip on her neck. Lois dropped roughly to the hard ground. Nigel brushed some dust off his jacket as he turned to head back the way they'd originally come.
He nodded at the large, silent thug. "Bring her along." Grasping her by the shoulders, the brute hauled Lois to her feet and dragged her along following the others.
Lois didn't resist. The fight has temporarily gone out of her as her heart twisted in her chest and she flung one last gaze over her shoulder to where she'd last seen Clark disappearing into the distance. Without super powers there was no way he would have survived, even if the bullets from Nigel's gun hadn't killed him first. She didn't know what to expect now, and a part of her didn't even care.
Henderson was lying on the small bed and found himself staring at the ceiling. There didn't seem to be much else for him to do. He was nervous, and on edge, but someone looking in on him at that moment wouldn't be able to tell that from his prone body. His turmoil was mostly mental. If only there was some way he could be of use, instead of just lying here like a helpless Pollyanna waiting for others to decide his fate.
He knew that Lois and Clark were on site, and obviously St. John was going to have to deal with that, but what manner that would take he couldn't guess. He hoped that Nigel would be content to let them wander about aimlessly; then allow them to leave after finding no way to enter the facility. That was what he hoped, but he didn't believe it. He was very worried about the couple. Knowing Lois like he did, he wasn't surprised that she had come running once she'd figured out his clues to his whereabouts. He'd hoped that Kent would have been a voice of reason, and would've recommended caution. But then this was Lois Lane, and it wasn't like anyone would be able to change her mind once she got an idea into that beautiful little head. He prayed that she wouldn't be hurt.
Suddenly, the quiet of his silent musings was shattered by the sounds of angry shouts and scuffling outside his door. The door flew open and a raging bundle of fury was tossed into the room. The door slammed shut with a note of finality. Henderson looked over at his new roommate.
He slowly got out of the bed as he watched as her head snapped around to fix him with a gaze. Her clothes were dirty and stained with blood. There was blood on her hands, but she didn't appear injured or hurt in any way. The look of fury and outright hatred he saw on her face quickly evaporated.
"Bill?" she asked, her voice cracking as she spoke.
Henderson was aghast. He took a step toward her. "Lois? What happened? Are you hurt?"
He could see flames of anger quickly flare back up in her eyes. "Hurt?" She said, as her voice cracked again. "We came up here to see if we could help you. I'm covered in my *fiance's* blood." The sarcasm was heavy as she almost sneered out the word fiance. "My world has been torn to shreds because of you, and what do I see when I finally find you?" There were flecks of foam at the corner of Lois' mouth. Bill involuntarily took a step backwards. "I find you lying comfortably on your fat backside twiddling your thumbs!"
Lois clenched her fists. "Are you bruised and battered from repeated attempts to escape? No. Are you tied down to keep you from over-powering your guards and getting free? No." She grabbed the chair and swung it against the small mirror above the desk. The shattering glass echoed loudly in the shocked silence. Lois picked up a shard of jagged mirror and held it out in front of her, not even feeling the blood beginning to drip from the wound she had inflicted on herself from holding the sharp glass too tightly. "Have you even tried to use any of the weapons at your disposal to free yourself?" He flinched at the fierceness of her glare. "Well? Have you!"
Henderson approached his overwrought former partner cautiously. "Lois, tell me what happened?" He held his hands out in front of him. "Put that piece of glass down and talk to me."
Lois savagely flung the jagged shard to the floor. "Answer me!"
"Lois, it's not that simple." He continued to approach the woman slowly, keeping his voice low and soothing. It was obvious that she was on the edge. "You have to realize that, for all its apparent comfort, this is no less a prison cell. I've had no opportunity to try to escape." He tried to give her his more boyish grin. "It's not like I'm Superman and can bust through that heavy wooden door."
"What did you say!" Bill was startled by the look of rage that burned in her eyes. "How dare you." Her tone was low and venomous.
She took two long strides, which brought her right up to the startled ex-cop. She launched a savage right cross which landed squarely on Henderson's jaw. He was rocked back by the force of the blow and stumbled back against the bed, falling to a sitting position. He stared up at the shaking bundle of rage in front of him. He opened his mouth but no sound came out. He didn't know what to say.
Lois' breathing became more ragged and her shoulders shook. He could see the emotion start to drain out of her body as she continued to stare at him. The fire in her eyes died down, and tears began to flow down her cheeks. Suddenly her muscles seemed to lose the ability to hold her upright. Her legs began to wobble and she slowly sank to her knees. Her chin hit her chest as great wracking sobs began to rock her body.
Bill reached out and took her in his arms. Drawing her close he couldn't help but feel the misery that emanated off the distraught woman in waves.
"What is it, Lois? What happened? Where's Kent?"
He could barely hear her strangled words as she choked them out between sobs. "He's dead, Bill. Clark's dead. They killed him."
Emil Hamilton sat at the laboratory bench, a tight frown on his face. He knew he was being watched. He could feel it, like an itch in the back of his neck. There was no one else in the lab with him, but he knew his every move was being monitored.
He was still pretty confused, but some things had become clearer. Something wasn't right with Superman. He just didn't seem the same man that Emil had met all those months ago. There was something… almost sinister about the super hero. Had his illness had some sort of psychological effect on him? Or had Hamilton just misread the Man of Steel's character on those few occasions when they had met previously. And as for his friends, well, the Professor couldn't say he cared much for any of them either.
After cooling his heels for days in that small dorm-like room, Hamilton was finally brought to this very well equipped lab and told to get busy on the kryptonite antidote. Oh, the request had been couched in much friendlier terms, with the implication that the Professor was doing a great thing for his friend, Superman, and the world. But the meaning had been clear. There had been a very real, if unspoken, threat underlying their request.
Their words might pretend to embrace a comradeship. But he knew that he definitely wasn't a guest. He was a prisoner. One who was expected to produce what he'd told Superman he'd been able to discover. The problem was, he wasn't sure that he wanted to anymore.
The door opened behind him, and Hamilton turned to see Dr. Mamba enter the room. He'd heard of Mamba and his controversial theories before but had only met the man for the first time yesterday.
It was hard not to be in awe of Mamba's brilliance, but the man just seemed to be very self-involved. Emil had met ego-driven scientists before, but Mamba's ambition clearly went beyond mere self-gratification. Hamilton got the impression that the man was after much more than the affirmation of his theories. He wanted fame? Or perhaps… monetary gain?
"So, Professor, is the laboratory up to your standards? Is the equipment satisfactory, or is there something else you require?" Emil knew Mamba's genial nature was put on.
"No, the lab is fine, but I'd very much like to contact my employer and tell them why I haven't been to work the last few days."
Mamba clapped his large hand onto the smaller man's shoulder. "No need to worry about that, Professor. Superman will make sure that you suffer no repercussions by being here. I'm sure you understand the need to keep Superman's fortress a secret."
Hamilton frowned at the condescending tone in Mamba's voice. They'd been giving him that story of this being Superman's secret 'Fortress of Solitude' since they'd finally let him out of that room. He wasn't buying it, but he also wasn't stupid enough to anger his 'hosts'.
"So tell me, Doctor," Hamilton began. "What's a renowned man of science like yourself doing here? I thought I read somewhere that your specialty was… cloning?"
"Yes, cloning for medical research." Mamba guided Emil back over to his workbench. "But, you know how problematic such studies can be. Too many skittish politicians involving themselves in areas in which they have no real knowledge. It can be very frustrating." The doctor clapped Hamilton on the back once again. "That's why I'm so grateful to Superman. He believes in the vast benefits that my research can bring to the people, so he allows me the use of this facility to further that research. And now he is providing you with the same opportunity."
"I didn't ask to come here." Hamilton frowned at the bemused look on the other man's face. "I was doing just fine with my research on my own back at Star Labs."
Mamba nodded just a bit too enthusiastically. "True, very true, Professor. And if what you mentioned to Superman proves to be true, then it is indeed a wonderful thing. If the Man of Steel never has to worry about the effects of that deadly crystal ever again, it would be a great thing. Not only for him, but for the whole world."
"I agree, which is why I embarked on the study in the first place." Hamilton let some of his frustration show through. "But what I don't understand is why I'm being kept prisoner in a secret facility?"
Mamba chuckled. "No, no, Professor. You misunderstand our motives. You are not a prisoner. You are our guest. But surely you see the need for secrecy here? Security at your own lab may be good, but it is nothing like we can provide here. And I'm sure you would agree that if word of your research ever leaked out to Superman's enemies, they would stop at nothing to destroy it, or find a way to turn it against our hero. Your own life would be in grave danger."
Hamilton let out a small sigh. Mamba's arguments did make sense, but to his ears there was a false ring to the doctor's words. It was the undercurrent of threat that pervaded his manner, and the whole facility, that didn't allow Emil to embrace the high- sounding words being thrown at him.
For all that was said about being a guest, and it was only security reasons that kept him so sequestered and shut off from the outside world, he knew that if he wished to leave before his research was completed, it wouldn't be allowed. And that's what still confused him, for that wasn't the way the Superman he'd known operated. He also couldn't help but wonder what would happen to him once he'd completed his antidote.
Nigel looked up from the paper he was reading when Mamba entered the office space he'd taken for his own. "So, how was your meeting with the good Professor?" he asked.
Mamba sat in a chair across from the small desk that St. John sat behind. "Not bad, but not good either. I'm afraid our Professor Hamilton is still very suspicious but is also too confused to know the truth."
Nigel nodded. "I see. Well, I think that another chat with our Superman is called for. Let the hero reinforce the scenario we've created and calm the man's fears." St. John shifted the paper to the side of the desk. "What about the surveillance?"
Mamba waved his hand in a gesture of dismissal. "No problem. I'm sure he's not aware of the cameras we have watching him." He shrugged. "And even if he is, it doesn't matter. There is no way he can hide any of his research from our scrutiny. Once he's finished with his *miracle* antidote I'll know exactly what it is and how it was done."
"And how to negate it?" St. John was quick to add. "We wouldn't want to lose our ability to control our creation should his programming ever break down."
Mamba's grin was not one of amusement. "Not to worry."
"So, what about our other project? How's that one coming along?"
The doctor's grin got wider. "We were lucky. The culture materials you brought were excellent. They reacted immediately to the process. You'll have a full grown specimen in a few days."
"Excellent. And the programming?"
"Shouldn't be a problem. I'll only have to modify what we used on Superman slightly." Mamba leaned back in the chair. "So what are you going to do about our other guests?"
Nigel sighed. "I'm afraid I'll have to continue on as I have been. I'll use Henderson as a lever to keep Lane working for me in the police department. As time goes by I'll need her presence there more and more."
"But you killed her lover."
St. John looked at Mamba with a raised brow. "Whether they were or not is in some doubt, but it doesn't matter. I hope that Lane is smart enough to learn the lesson." A slight, but vicious, smile turned the corners of Nigel's lips. "You break the rules, you pay the penalty."
The two men sat in silence for several moments before St. John broke the stillness. "You're sure we can't just clone her?"
"Who… Lane?" Mamba shook his head. "No, I told you, neither she nor Henderson is a viable candidate for cloning. You see there is a small percentage of the population who… do you want the technical explanation again?" Mamba broke off, looking at St. John expectantly. At Nigel's negative shake of his head, he continued. "Well, okay. It just happens that there is a small percentage of people who, due to reasons I won't go into, cannot be successfully cloned. The studies on the DNA samples you've provided on each of them show me that neither Henderson nor Lane would be able to be cloned." Mamba grinned. "I guess you could say that they are each one of a kind."
Nigel just snorted. "Oh well, I guess I'll just have to rely on the old tried and true method of coercion to keep her in line." Nigel picked his paper back up. "Is there anything else?"
Mamba winked at the stoic Brit. "Just one more thing. I need some money. I have a few things I want to acquire."
Another sigh escaped from Nigel's lips. "Of course you do."
Lois sat in the hard wooden chair at the desk in Bill's room. She was staring straight ahead, but not seeing anything. She had gone into the small bathroom and washed the blood off her as best as possible. Her shirt was damp from where she tried to wipe it with a wet towel. It had been too late. The shirt had been permanently stained already.
She found herself wondering if Clark had suffered much. Had the bullets done their job before Clark hit the ground so far below? Had he lost consciousness and thus been spared the extra pain of the horrendous impact from such a height? Lois had hoped so. She couldn't bear the thought of Clark suffering.
She felt lost. Superman, the real Superman, was now gone, as was the gentle, wonderful man who was Clark Kent. The world would eventually miss Superman, but she missed the real man. She missed Clark Kent and probably would till the day she died.
"Lois, I'm so sorry. It's all my fault." Bill's contrite tone barely registered in her consciousness. "I never meant for any of this to happen. If I had only…"
"Shut up." Lois turned to look at her former partner. A man she had risked everything for. A man Clark had died trying to help. "Don't waste your time with apologies or recriminations. What's done is done." She turned away and resumed staring at the far wall. Suddenly she felt his arm around her shoulders.
"Lois, don't do this to yourself. It wasn't your fault." He gave her a hug.
She shook her head slowly. "No, it wasn't my fault. And despite what I said earlier, it wasn't your fault either." She absently reached up and patted his hand with her own. "We are caught up in a complex mess that has escalated beyond what we'd ever thought. But let's not forget where the blame for this disaster really lies. It lies squarely on the shoulders of that disgusting former Luthor toady, Nigel St. John. And I swear that I will have justice if it takes me the rest of my life."
Bill moved back to sit on the edge of the bed. No words were spoken for several minutes. The breathing of the two friends was the only sounds in the room. Finally a sigh broke the silence.
"I think I was falling in love with him."
"I know." She looked over at him, confusion on her face. "Hey, I may not have been around much lately, but even I could see that there was a chemistry starting to work there." He chuckled softly. "It was obvious that Kent was totally smitten with you."
Lois could feel the heat in her cheeks as she turned away and ran a hand through her hair. She fought back the tears that threatened to start falling again. She'd spent too much time crying already. Tears wouldn't bring Clark back.
She got up and moved over to sit on the bed next to him. "We've been friends for a long time, Bill, and I love you dearly, but there was just something about Clark that I can't put into words." She shrugged. "If I believed in such things, I'd say we were somehow meant for each other."
"Soulmates?" Bill gave her a sly smile.
She returned the smile as a tear escaped the corner of one eye. "Something like that."
Bill shook his head in mild amusement. "Who would have thunk it. Lois Lane turning into a warm and fuzzy romantic."
Lois bit down on her lip to keep from crying. "Yeah, typical Lois Lane luck. She finally finds the perfect man only to lose him before they even have a chance at love." She allowed herself to fall against her friend. "Oh Bill, what am I going to do?"
"Exactly as you are told."
Both Lois and Henderson's attention was immediately drawn to the door that they hadn't noticed opening. Nigel St. John stepped through accompanied by his usual mute giant. Lois felt the heat of her anger flare up again.
Lois stood and faced the tall Englishman. "After what you did, if you think I would do anything you ever said again, you have to be out of your mind." She spat the words out through gritted teeth.
Maintaining his unflappable demeanor, St. John shook his head at the angry woman. "Now, Detective Lane, you'll have to admit it wasn't I who broke our agreement. I've kept my word. You can see for yourself that your partner has been well taken care of." Nigel fastened his gaze onto Lois. "I'm not the one who sneaked up the side of the mountain in some foolish attempt at what… a rescue?"
Lois found it hard to not launch herself at St. John once again. She clenched her fists so hard that they turned white. She had to take several deep breaths before she could speak.
"You killed Clark. I will not rest until I see you either behind bars for the rest of your life… or dead."
"You will continue to do just as you were originally instructed," he said, as if she hadn't just threatened him. "You were the one to try and get around our agreement and now you have suffered the consequences. It's unfortunate that Mr. Kent had to pay for your recklessness, but if you break the rules there are penalties."
Nigel continued to stroll back and forth in front of the two police officers. "Kent's death doesn't change anything. I still need you in the department to keep an eye on things for me. And I still have your partner. If you don't want to see him hurt, you'll go back to doing what you are told to do."
Lois let loose a string of expletives that even brought a look of mild surprise from Nigel. Shaking his head sadly, St. John nodded at his large silent associate. The big man moved over and grabbed Henderson by the front of his shirt and threw him against the wall. He followed up with a kick to the ribs, then picked up the slender cop and slammed him against the wall once again.
"Stop it!" Lois grabbed at the big fellow's arm.
Nigel nodded, and the thug let Henderson slip bonelessly to the floor. Lois rushed over to her friend, offering what comfort she could.
"Kent was a regrettable lesson that hopefully you have now learned, Miss Lane. But if you don't want that lesson repeated on your old partner here you will go back to Metropolis and get back to being a member of the city's finest."
Lois glared at the older man. "You mean go back and be your stooge in the department."
"Whatever." Nigel finally allowed himself a true smile. "Call it what you will. If you want your ex-partner to continue… undamaged, then you will go back and honor our original agreement." St. John nodded once again to his over-sized flunky. The man quickly came over and opened the door. Nigel moved toward the open doorway. He stopped and looked over his shoulder. "It's quite late. I'll let you two have the rest of the evening to say your goodbyes. I'll send someone to escort Miss Lane to her vehicle at first light." Once again he allowed a smile to crease his face. "Have a pleasant evening." The door closed with a resounding thump, quickly followed by the click of the lock.
Lois helped Bill to his feet and guided him over to the small bed. Once she had him lying comfortably, she sat on the corner of the bed and stared at the closed door. She didn't have the energy to fight them any more so she let the tears flow unabated.
It was a long, slow, painful journey back to consciousness for Clark Kent. The fact that he regained consciousness at all amazed him. He shouldn't be lying in the dark, his body wracked with pain. He should be dead.
He had no idea where he was, except that he was still in a wooded area. He could see stars and a bright moon peeking out between the branches of the tall pines. The grass under him was sparse and mossy. The ground was hard and he could feel every stone and root that he lay on.
Cautiously, he levered himself to a sitting position and scooted over so he could lean back against a tree trunk. He took several deep breaths, which hurt like hell, and tried to recreate how he got to where he was.
The shock and pain of the two gunshots came back to him, and he found himself reaching down to his chest. His eyes had adjusted to the dim light provided by the clear night sky such that everything appeared in a black and white version of the world, as if from an old fifties television show. He could see the dark staining on the front of his shirt. It felt hard and crusty to his touch. The blood had obviously dried… but why had it stopped flowing?
Tentatively, he reached his fingers inside his shirt and felt around. He winced at the tenderness he felt. Clearly his chest was badly bruised, but bruising should be the least of his worries. He let his fingertips do more exploring until they came upon a couple of raised, welt-like lumps on his left pectoral.
He was surprised when, with continued careful probing, he felt something come loose into his hand. He pulled it out to look at it under the pale illumination of the moon. It appeared to be a flattened piece of metal. Like a pellet of some sort. Was that the bullet? Reaching back into his shirt, he was able to carefully dislodge a similar pellet from the other minor chest wound.
He closed his eyes as he considered his situation. He was shot at close range — twice. He should have been killed, but he hadn't been. He was then blown who knows how far through the air by the super clone only to land on hard, rocky soil. He had probably crashed through more than a couple of tree branches on his way down also. Glancing up, he noticed an irregular tunnel through the forest canopy which confirmed his suspicions. Even if he had survived the fall, he should, at least, have several broken bones.
He slowly got to his feet and did an inventory of his aches and pains. No, nothing broken, just a lot of soreness and tenderness to the touch. The bullets had obviously broken the skin because he had bled, but they hadn't seemed to penetrate the muscle more than a fraction of an inch. It was as if his body had been battered and bruised, but hadn't suffered any serious deep tissue damage.
Had his invulnerability come back? He winced again as he moved. Well, not entirely. He was clearly badly bruised and perhaps even lacerated in a few spots. Still, he must have regained much of his invincibility back to have survived the trauma he'd been subjected to.
He'd always theorized that his invulnerability was due to an aura of some sort that he generated. When he was at his peak, that aura would project a few millimeters out from his skin which is why his suits could withstand anything he encountered, but was always needing to replace torn, burned, and tattered capes.
Was that what had happened here? Was his aura coming back, only it hadn't quite reached all the way to the surface of his outer skin?
He remembered back, as a child, invulnerability was one of the first powers that he'd developed. And it had developed slowly over time. As he'd grown, his resistance to bumps, bruises, and illness had grown until he'd reached the point where nothing seemed to hurt him anymore. Was that what had happened? Was he now in the later stages of his aura being fully regenerated?
He knew that he'd been feeling inexplicably good the last few days… physically. Had that been a signal that his powers were coming back? He willed himself to listen to the sounds of the forest around him. Hearing had been the next power to manifest itself as he grew toward adolescence. The forest was pretty silent, but he could just barely make out the chirp of crickets some distance away, and the restless movement of some small creatures rustling in the underbrush. Still, he couldn't tell if what he was hearing was merely normal sounds that anyone could hear, if they made the effort, or not. He flashed back on the cell phone ring that he'd heard but Lois hadn't. But that could just've been a case where Lois was distracted. It was something he'd have to keep in mind.
Next, he tested his vision. He wasn't sure if his clarity of vision was a product of his powers returning, or merely that the moon was so bright. It was obvious that he still couldn't see *through* anything.
Another indicator that his invulnerability was coming back was the fact that he could see his breath in the grayness but only felt the slightest of chills.
Buoyed by the fact that he was alive, and the possibility that his powers might be returning, Clark began to have hope that things just might be breaking in his favor.
He took another deep breath, which didn't hurt quite as much as the last one. First things first. He had to find out where he was, and then figure out what to do next. What had happened to Lois? he wondered. Was she St. John's prisoner, as was Henderson? Before he was shot, Nigel had mentioned that he still needed Lois, so that probably meant she was still okay. He had to believe that. He couldn't let himself believe anything else. Otherwise, what was the point of his survival?
Noticing the faint tinge of the dawn beginning to color the eastern sky, Clark had to wonder how long had he been lying there. Had it just been through the night, or had he been out for days? And if it had been days, what did that mean for Lois? Was she still a captive of St. John, or had he forced her to go back and do his bidding in Metropolis?
What had she thought had happened to him? Most likely she figured he was dead. That would've been the most logical conclusion. But how would that have affected her? Clark knew that Lois cared a great deal for him, but she also cared a great deal for Bill. If St. John still had Henderson to use as leverage against her, Lois would have no choice but to bend to his will.
She might grieve his loss, but Lois was tough. She would do what she had to do until she could find a way to bring St. John down. That was a certainty. She *would* find a way to bring St. John, and his cronies, to justice.
Trying to get back inside the complex wouldn't make any sense. He didn't know if Lois was even still in there. He needed time to heal, and he needed time to gather more information. He didn't even know where he was, exactly. The only logical course of action was to head back to Metropolis, gain the knowledge he needed, and plan a new course of action.
Knowing he had a walk ahead of him and since putting it off any longer would serve no useful end, Clark started moving. Using the coming sunrise as his compass and knowing that the main highway was east and south of the small mountain, he veered slightly right of the apparent dawn and picked up his pace.
Lois woke to the sounds of movement outside the single door. She gently dislodged the arm that was draped over her shoulder. It was a small bed and she had snuggled into Bill's arms out of necessity… and she needed the comfort his presence gave her. But now it was morning, and it was time for the nightmare to begin in earnest.
Every time she let her memory stray to the awful events of yesterday it was like a knife wound to her heart. It was useless to deny it any longer. She *had* fallen in love with Clark, but now that love was just a painful reminder of what could never be. It almost made her want to give up.
But she would never give up. She was Lois Lane, and she wouldn't let her friend and partner down too. She would find a way to bring Nigel and his goons to justice. She just had to. And that included the creature masquerading as a super hero.
By the time the door opened Lois was on her feet, combing her fingers through her hair. She heard Bill rousing behind her. She gave St. John and his ever-present gargantuan shadow a glare of hatred, then stepped into the tiny bathroom, closing the door with a definitive thunk.
After taking care of nature's needs, she faced herself in the small mirror over the sink. Not a pretty picture. Her hair was disheveled and sticking out at all angles. She wet her hands and halfheartedly attempted to smooth it into place. Her eyes were still red and puffy from having cried so much in the last several hours. The sweatshirt she wore was looking quite ragged and was torn in a few spots. But what drew her gaze like a magnet were the now red-brown stains that covered the front of the once comfortable old shirt.
Her heart clenched yet again as she turned away from the image. She took several deep breaths, forcing herself to focus on the present. Clark was dead. She had to accept that. Whatever she had once thought life might hold for her with him was now over; but she still had a purpose. It was something to concentrate all her efforts on. A reason to get up every morning. Until that day arrived, her every waking moment would be dedicated to freeing Bill, avenging Clark's death, and bringing down St. John and the bogus Superman. Once that had been accomplished, all bets were off.
She stepped out of the bathroom and faced the placid Brit. "I'm ready."
Bill got up and placed a hand on Lois' arm. "Lois, I…"
She shook her head. "Don't worry. I'll be all right." She turned and gave him a warm smile. It felt good to smile but she didn't think she'd be doing too much of it for a long time to come. "Stay strong… for me." He just nodded as she, St. John, and the jolly silent giant left the room.
"We located your vehicle last night," Nigel began, as they moved quickly through the hallways. "I daresay, if we hadn't known you were coming we just might have missed you. I doubt if anyone knew of the existence of that old path since the days the mine was actually in business."
Lois stopped, causing the others to halt as well. She turned and faced St. John. "Tell me something. How did you get a Superman to kill?"
Nigel looked a bit taken aback by the seemingly anomalous question. "What ever do you mean?"
Lois rolled her eyes. "Look, I know what this place is. I know what it was originally used for. It's obvious that the clown you have dressed up in the skin-tight spandex is some sort of cloned copy of the real thing."
If he was at all surprised by Lois' statement he didn't show it. "Really?"
"Do you deny it?"
Nigel shrugged. "No. I suppose that you've seen enough to realize that the Superman we employ is not the same one who used to fly around Metropolis doing all those good deeds."
"Which brings me to my question." Lois sighed. "I know what kind of man the real Superman was. He'd never agree to work with scum like you — or Luthor. And he'd never, under any circumstances, kill. So how did you do it? You had to use the DNA from the world's most compassionate being, yet the creature you seem to be able to control has none."
Nigel actually chuckled. "My dear, just what *do* you know about clones and the cloning process?"
Lois shrugged. "Nothing."
Nigel nodded. "Frankly, I know little more than that, but what I am told by those who do know is this: a clone is the duplicate of the original in every way — physically. But that which makes us who we are is our brain. More specifically, the knowledge and experiences that we've had from the womb to the grave. Our emotional growth, our sense of values, our hopes and dreams, these all come from our brain's ability to assimilate and store this data as we mature." St. John resumed walking, forcing Lois to follow along.
"A clone is grown as a full adult specimen," he said. "But the brain, or the mind, as you will, is a blank slate. There have been no stimuli to allow it to function beyond autonomous, reflexive actions. We must provide that."
Lois felt confused. She never liked overly technical explanations for things. They were usually used to mask a simpler truth. "So, what? You program these creatures? Like a computer?"
Nigel inclined his head slightly in deference to her surmisal. "Yes. And a very complex program it was too. It took Mamba many months to finally get it right, but now that we have it, any future clones can be programmed with only slight variations on the original."
"You're cloning more Supermen?"
Nigel chuckled softly. "No, one is quite enough." He raised a brow at her. "I'm just talking hypothetically now."
Lois' brow furrowed. For some reason she didn't feel St. John was telling her the whole truth. "So, are you saying that the clones can never learn on their own?
"Not at all. Once they've achieved their full consciousness, they will progress like any normal person. Let's just say that we've already provided them with those *formative years* that everyone experiences growing up. In a very real sense we've already given them their basic personalities." A very chilling smile frosted the face of Nigel St. John. "Value systems are learned behavior, Detective. We've just given our Superman a set of values that dovetail nicely with our own."
"I would think that someone as powerful as Superman, with the moral compass of scum such as yourself, would be cause for more than a bit of … apprehension?" She noted the look on Nigel's face. "But you have ways to control the clone, don't you." It wasn't a question.
Nigel extended his hand toward a doorway in front of them. "We have arrived at the exit. This way, Detective."
Clark swatted at the swarm of black flies that continued to hover around him as he made his way through the brush. His invulnerability might have been mostly back, but it was clear from all the bug bites he was enduring that his aura wasn't all the way back yet.
He'd been walking long enough for the sun to have risen sufficiently to have burned off the early morning mist and held a promise for a rather warm fall day. He only hoped that he had figured correctly and would find the highway soon.
He shook his head in wonder as he thought back on the events of yesterday. What had they been thinking? It had been a foolish plan, born of desperation. Their chances of pulling off some sort of rescue had to have been next to none. It was a scheme doomed to failure. In fact, part of the reason it had been doomed was because they really hadn't even had a solid plan.
The old airshafts had been a viable way to enter the complex, but once inside what were they to do? They had no idea where Henderson was being kept. Neither he nor Lois had enough familiarity with the facility to have known where they might keep him. Lois had mentioned that, from the video they saw of Bill, she was pretty sure he was being kept in one of the dorm-like rooms that had been used as living quarters by the technical support staff. But there were several dozen of such rooms, in several different parts of the complex. Bill could be in any one of them.
They really needed more information. If his powers were indeed returning that could be a huge advantage to them. But it wasn't like he'd be able to just bust in and corral the bunch of them like he used to be able to do. Even if his powers came back in full, there was still the matter of the clone Superman to deal with.
Clark didn't doubt that his experience would be a help, but he also couldn't be sure that he wouldn't be rusty after all these months without his powers. And there was still the possibility that they wouldn't come completely back, which would put him at a definite power disadvantage against the clone.
The other major stumbling block, which still haunted Clark, was the fact that the clone seemed to have no moral or ethical values. From what Lois had told him, the bogus super hero had enjoyed taunting Henderson that night and was deliberately cruel. Add in the fact that the clone obviously had no compunction against killing made Clark very uneasy.
Killing was never an option for him. Not even to save his own life. There must always be another way. Trouble was, he had no idea what it might be.
The other obvious problem was that he might not even get a chance to square off against his evil doppelganger. He had to assume that St. John had some kryptonite handy somewhere. He'd never risk dealing with a super-powered being without some way to protect himself in the event that the 'colleagues' ever had a falling out.
Which, of course, begged the ultimate question. If by some miracle he and Lois were able to bring these crooks to justice, how does one imprison a Superman? Using kryptonite over an extended time would kill the clone, just as surely as it would kill him. And there was the ethical question of whether or not it would be considered cruel and unusual punishment to continually subject the bogus Man of Steel to the effects of kryptonite. Having felt its painful and debilitating effects on more than one occasion, Clark wouldn't wish that punishment on anyone.
His brooding was suddenly interrupted by a brightening of the area in front of him. The forest seemed to be thinning, and it looked as if there was a break in the trees up ahead. He pushed his pace a bit.
Within a couple of more minutes, Clark, stepped out from under the forest canopy and into the ditch that ran alongside the highway. He'd finally reached his goal. Now all he needed was a ride.
Scrambling down the one side and back up the other side of the ditch, Clark took a moment to get his bearings. He'd been correct in his estimation of the direction he'd needed to go to eventually hit the highway; he just didn't know exactly where he was. Not knowing how far he'd been blown by the cloned Superman, it was hard for him to guess just how far out of Boynton this stretch of highway was.
He shrugged and turned to face the southeast. It really didn't matter where he was, only where he was headed, and that meant Metropolis. The only way he'd be able to discover what happened to Lois was to get back home and see if she'd made it back. If not, he would have to figure out a way to come back and look for her back at the site. He hoped that his powers would make a full recovery before then, because he was really going to need them when he had to come back.
He looked back as he heard a car coming up the highway behind him. Since he was still not able to fly, he was going to have to rely on more mundane methods of transportation. Sticking his thumb out in the classic hitchhiker mode, he tried to catch the attention of the approaching vehicle. It roared by without even slowing down.
Clark grimaced as he watched the sedan disappear into the distance. With a sigh, he began walking along the road's shoulder. He hoped that his luck would change soon; otherwise it was going to be a long walk back to Metropolis.
Lois had a hard time keeping her attention on the road ahead of her. Luckily there wasn't a lot of traffic to contend with. She was hunched over the steering wheel, trying to focus on her driving, yet still let her mind work on the problems she was going to have to deal with once she got back to Metropolis.
She wasn't supposed to be back from her visit to Smallville for another day, so that would give her some time before she had to go back into work and face more of St. John's manipulations. She supposed she'd have to deal with the snide comments from her co- workers, and she wasn't looking forward to…
She nearly lost control of the car as her mind seized on the one problem she'd been trying hard not to focus on. What was she going to do about Clark? She was supposed to have been going to Smallville to meet with Clark's parents. They'd made sure that everyone knew about it. What was she going to say to them when it was obvious that Clark wasn't around anymore?
What was she going to tell Perry White? He knew they'd only used the Smallville trip as a cover so they could sneak away to continue their investigation of St. John and try to free Bill. Even though they hadn't given Perry a lot of details on what they'd planned, he knew that they were heading into a possibly dangerous situation.
Now she had to tell him that his best reporter was dead. Killed because she was stupid enough to think she could put one over on Nigel St. John. She gasped audibly as her thinking took her to the next logical place. What about Clark's parents?
She gripped the wheel tighter. They didn't know her. She'd never met them, but she was sure that Clark had confided some of what they'd been doing to them. How was she to tell them that their son was dead!
Lois tried to take some deep breaths to calm herself. It wasn't working. Perry White, he was the answer there. He most likely knew the Kents, perhaps even had met them at some point. It would have to be Perry who would tell the Kents the bad news.
How far should she go? She would have to tell Perry, but what then? Clark was dead. He wasn't going to be coming back, but what excuse could she give to everyone for his absence? She was a cop. She should just go and report the murder. There were procedures that needed to be followed. That was what she should do, but how could she? She had no idea where Clark's body landed. It could take search parties days to cover the enormous amount of remote territory where his body might have landed. Lois' heart twisted again as she realized the murder victim she was having her internal debate about.
But, really, what could she do? Other than his absence, she had no proof that a murder had even been committed. She couldn't very well say that he'd been killed by Nigel St. John during their attempted break-in of his secret complex. They'd take her away wrapped in a coat with extra long arms. Besides, St. John still had Bill.
Tears began to fall again which began to obscure her vision. Rounding a bend in the highway, she had to swerve suddenly to avoid clipping a man walking along side the road. She hadn't seen him till she'd been almost on top of him.
She slowed as she glanced in her rear view mirror to make sure the fellow was okay. She shook her head and slowed a bit more as she wiped at her eyes and looked again. Why did the fellow seem so familiar?
She pulled onto the shoulder of the road and turned her head so she could see him more clearly. He'd begun jogging toward her car. Her heart was suddenly in her throat. She was going crazy! Clark's loss had been too much for her. She was hallucinating.
It was a shaky hand that fumbled at the latch on her car door. Stepping slowly out, she watched in total bewilderment while the man slowed as he approached. He gave her a slightly confused smile.
"Lois?" he said.
"Clark?" Her voice was barely a whisper. "Clark?" Louder. "Clark!"
Suddenly her feet sprouted wings as she ran toward him. Tears poured down her cheeks, but she could still see his smiling face as he braced for her.
She was still several feet away when she launched herself at him. He caught her and swung her around, his laughter sounding like the sweetest music she'd ever heard.
"Oh, Clark," she sobbed. "I thought you were dead?" She placed her hands on either side of his head. "How are you not dead?" Her whole body shuddered in his arms. "Please tell me you're not a hallucination."
His voice was soft, yet betrayed a sensual edge. "Could a hallucination do this?"
He tilted her chin up with his finger as he lowered his lips toward hers. She lifted her own, eagerly, to meet his. The touch was electric and comforting at the same time. They stood in each other's embrace at the side of the highway, their lips hungrily seeking the taste of the other. For several moments along that stretch of highway, time ceased, and the world shrunk to encompass just one woman and one man.
Emil Hamilton found himself sweating despite the controlled temperature of the lab. He leaned against his bench as he stared into the face of the most powerful being on the planet — and for the first time in his life, he was frightened. Superman's tone was pleasant and almost friendly, but he never got the feeling that the emotions were real.
"So you can see, Emil, why we need to keep your research all hush hush. It's for your own safety as well as mine." The large super hero clapped the small scientist on the shoulder.
Hamilton shook his head and stared at the floor. "I understand the need for security, but I don't see why I can't call my boss and tell him why I'm not there. He'd understand if I told him I was doing something for you. I wouldn't have to elaborate as to what, or even tell him where I was."
He brought his eyes up to stare into the frowning face of Metropolis' hero. "We've been all through this, Hamilton." Superman's voice took on an edge. "I was hoping that you'd understand, and do this voluntarily. But make no mistake, you will do this. This is too important to me, and the world, to let your petty doubts interfere."
The brightly clad figure turned and walked toward the laboratory door. As he grabbed the knob, he turned and looked back at the intimidated professor. "The sooner you accomplish what you told me you can do, the sooner you'll be free to go. Think about that, Professor." The door closed with a resounding finality that unnerved the small man.
Hamilton turned back to his flasks and computer screens. When Mamba had come by earlier to tell him that Superman would be by to see him later, Emil had felt a certain sense of relief. He was sure that the Man of Steel would be able to allay all his doubts and confusion. Instead he was now more confused than ever, and his doubts now bordered on fear.
How could Superman have changed so much in the time he was away? Granted, Hamilton hadn't spent an inordinate amount of time with the super hero, but the man who had entrusted him with his space capsule seemed nothing like the man who'd just left this room.
The Superman he'd met all those months ago had been very grateful for Emil's help and never put any pressure on him to make any significant discoveries. He just seemed relieved to have the capsule in the hands of someone he claimed to trust. This Superman seemed all about pressure and threats. Veiled though they may have been, there was no doubt as to their meaning.
So that brought up the question of what he was going to do? Did he do as he was told and create the antidote he was sure he could produce, or did he withhold this possible life-saving boon because he didn't like the way Superman was treating him? Did he have the right? Superman routinely saved dozens, even hundreds, of people every week. How could he not want to give that man every advantage he could against those who would want to bring him down?
Yet something held him back. The fact that he was being watched. The fact that he was a virtual prisoner. The fact that no one seemed to be able to give him a straight answer to his questions. The fact that, deep down, he no longer trusted Superman. All those things were cause for doubt and fear.
He ran a trembling hand through his graying hair. What should he do?
Lois pulled back from their kiss, but she couldn't take her eyes off Clark's face. She reached up and stroked his cheek with her hand, still not quite daring to believe that he was alive.
She felt the tender touch of his fingers as they reached out to brush away the tears of joy she'd shed upon seeing him again. She let her hand slide down to his chest and picked at his bloodstained shirt.
"I saw you bleed." Her voice was barely above a whisper.
"Oh, I bled all right." He gave her a smile of reassurance. "But I wasn't hurt badly."
She pushed his shirt open and gasped at what she saw. His chest was a riot of color as she gazed at the large bruises that emanated out from the two small wounds there. The wounds still showed signs of the ragged tearing of the skin and raw redness at the edges of the not yet healed punctures, but even she could see that the injuries didn't seem to have penetrated very deeply.
"How could this happen? It looks like the bullets only went in a little way."
Clark nodded. "That's what I think happened. I think my aura of invulnerability is coming back, but just hasn't made it all the way yet."
Lois was sure the look on her face conveyed the confusion she felt. "Aura of invulnerability?"
Clark's laughter cut through the stillness of the morning and she felt her spirits soar. Just maybe things weren't so hopeless after all. "I'll explain on the way back." She gave him another confused look. He put his arm around her and guided her back toward her car. "I wasn't killed, but I'm still pretty banged- up."
"Oh god, Clark, I'm sorry." Lois touched his chest tenderly. "Now I'm afraid to touch you. Are you in much pain?"
Clark pointed to his lips, a big smile on his face. "These are just about the only parts of my body that don't ache."
"Oh, my poor baby." She stretched up on her tiptoes and gently kissed him. "Is that better?"
"A lot better." His grin was infectious. "And as much as I'd like to spend several hours under your gentle ministrations, I think we need to get back to Metropolis to figure out our next moves… don't you?"
Lois sadly nodded her head. What Clark said made sense. She too would love to spend time reveling in the fact that he was alive. Nobody had ever been able to make her feel the way Clark did with just an innocent kiss, but they did need to get back home and plan. She still had to save Bill, and take down St. John and his cronies. Having Superman back would be a great asset.
Once they were back in her car, she restarted the engine and pulled off the highway. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He was resting his head back against the seat and he had his eyes closed. She could clearly see he was uncomfortable. But that would soon go away once his powers came back, wouldn't it?
His powers. Suddenly she was struck by just what that might mean. There was no doubt that having the real Superman back would go a long way toward evening up the odds in their battle against St. John and his pet super-powered creature. Still, she couldn't fight the sense of loss that was beginning to creep into her mind.
Once Clark had his powers back, where did she fit in? Would he want her around anymore? She was sure that he had deep feelings for her, but would those feelings be the same once he became the idol of millions again? He could have his pick of movie stars, supermodels, or the most impressive women in the world. All he'd have to do would be to give them a wink and a smile and any woman would be knocking down his door to be by his side. How could she compete with that?
She had to admit that the last twenty-four hours had changed her attitude drastically. She knew that her feelings for Clark had been growing over the last few months, but it took the apparent loss of him to crystallize those feelings. Suddenly, once it looked like she had lost him forever, she knew that she didn't want to be without him. She'd not only gotten used to having him around, but she was able to finally acknowledge that she really wanted him around, perhaps even needed him.
It was a heady realization for someone like Lois to come to. She had always prided herself on her independence and self-reliance. In all her prior romantic liaisons, even Bill, she had been in control and knew exactly where she was at all times. With Clark it was different. She had to constantly fight to maintain control. It would be so easy to just give in to her more primal urges. One look from his expressive eyes, or to have that incandescently disarming smile aimed at you, made you want to surrender there and then.
But if the super hero were back, would those smiles be for her alone anymore? Even if Clark's feelings for her didn't change, even if he claimed to still love her — could he? Did Superman have time for a relationship with a mere mortal? Did she want to share him with the rest of the world? Could she?
It was something that Lois had pondered before she'd been forced to face her true feelings for Clark. She had wondered, if she did fall in love with Clark, could she love the hero also? Or would she come to resent the fact that his 'other job' would constantly be pulling him away from her?
Now it looked like it was something that she would have to consider very seriously. There was no doubt any longer that she loved Clark. But the powers were coming back, and that meant the hero would come back also.
Lois had always had a story book vision of what love should be. Her perfect man would sweep her off her feet and worship her, as she would him. They'd spend their evenings making blissful love and wake up every morning in each other's arms. The most important thing in the whole world to each of them would be the other.
The rational side of Lois knew that such pure love didn't really exist. Any relationship had to be worked at. And that was okay too, but she wasn't sure she could live in one where she wasn't first in his list of priorities. It may be selfish of her to think that way but she knew that, for Superman, helping people would always come first and the most she could hope for was second best.
She bit on her lip and quickly reached up and wiped at the tear that threatened before it could fall.
Henderson was in a foul mood. He hated wallowing in self-pity and so instead he channeled his feelings into anger and disgust. Unfortunately, most of the anger and disgust was directed at himself. How could he have let the situation get so far out of control? If he'd just been able to see past his own petty obsession with Luthor and had done things the right way, all this could have been avoided.
Undoubtedly, Luthor would still be in control of Metropolis, but Clark Kent would still be alive and Lois' life wouldn't be in ruins. Kent would've probably come around sooner or later and have been able to take Lois away from Luthor. Bill cursed himself for not giving Lois more credit. She would have seen through Luthor eventually. She hadn't needed his protection.
Instead he'd gone all 'big brother' on her and instead of saving her from what he thought was a potential disaster, he'd gone ahead and ruined her life. What a great friend he turned out to be.
The simplest solution to the problem would be for him to take away Nigel's leverage. If he were dead, St. John wouldn't be able to use his continued well being to force Lois to do his bidding, but he quickly dismissed the thought as cowardly.
He wasn't the kind to commit suicide. He might put himself into an untenable situation; one with little or no hope, but he'd go down fighting. Ending it with a whimper just wasn't his style. Besides, it was too late for such thoughts. Lois had gone through too much already on his behalf. To give up now would not only be unfair to her, but it would make all the sacrifices she had endured pointless. He couldn't do that to her.
No, he wouldn't give up, nor would he give in, but he was through just sitting back and letting things happen to him. It was time he became a player again. Time to get off the bench, so to speak. He had to change his mind set. He had to be ready. If any opportunity to help him, and thus help Lois, should present itself, he had to be ready to take advantage of it. And that would start now.
Superman, because that was the only way he could think of himself, hovered high over the Boynton complex. Mamba had never bothered to give him a name, and St. John mostly addressed him with an indifferent 'my boy'. So Superman was the only name he'd had, the only one he'd known — until now.
He'd learned something interesting the other day on the mountain. Just before he'd blown that reporter Kent to the other side of nowhere, something had passed between them. Something he couldn't explain.
Their eyes had locked for only an instant but in that brief moment it was like a light had been turned on in a dark room. He knew who Clark Kent really was, or more accurately, who he'd been. And that meant who he was.
He was under no delusions as to what he was. He was well aware that he was merely a clone of the original Superman. A being grown in a lab under the care and guidance of Dr. Mamba. It never bothered him. How he came about wasn't an issue as far as he was concerned. All that mattered was who he was now, and what he could do.
He'd been told that St. John and Lex Luthor had killed the original Man of Steel, but apparently they hadn't. He didn't understand why Kent was no longer super-powered, but there was no doubt in his mind as to who the man had been. In that instant it had been like looking in a mirror. Seeing himself dressed differently, but still easily recognizing himself. No, there was no doubt in his mind that Clark Kent and Superman had been the same person, and that meant he was also Clark Kent.
The thought appealed to him. Another role he could play with, perhaps? Now that Kent was dead, should he take his place as he had that of Superman? He should talk it over with St. John and Mamba.
Kent and Lane were supposed to be an item. Perhaps he could exploit that situation also. After all, no one besides the people here knew that Kent was dead yet. Maybe he could keep a 'closer' eye on Lane and her activities. She was a fairly attractive woman. It wouldn't be a great sacrifice to have to cozy up to that body.
He slowly descended to the hidden entrance that he used when coming and going from the complex. He had a grin on his face as he entered the facility and began to search out St. John. Much of the place was lead-lined so he couldn't use his enhanced vision to locate Nigel or Mamba, but his hearing was as sharp as ever, and the sounds of the two men's voices allowed him to zero in on their whereabouts fairly quickly.
He stopped just outside the small room that served as an office for the doctor. Apparently St. John was visiting him. Hearing himself mentioned, he focused on their conversation, curious as to what they were talking about.
"So, " he heard Nigel say, "There is no chance that our Superman's programming will break down. That he could turn against us?"
"Nothing's certain." He recognized Mamba's voice. "But it's highly unlikely. He does pretty much have free will now, but the value system we instilled into him and the loyalty to us we hammered home time and time again should serve us just fine. As long as our interests dovetail like they have, we should have no problem controlling him."
Superman frowned but didn't make any move to interrupt what he was listening to.
"I just get nervous when I think about how much power that *creature* has, and what could happen if he suddenly decided that he didn't want to follow our agenda anymore." St. John didn't sound nervous as much as he did cautionary.
Mamba chuckled. "Look, Nigel, the clone has our outlook on life, he's been programmed to be loyal to us, and let's face it, he's not exactly the brightest bulb in the lamp. We've purposely damped down his IQ and inhibited any signs of self-reliance. He's not stupid, but he needs guidance. He has no real initiative. He needs someone to tell him what to do. He needs us."
"Maybe, but nevertheless, I feel better knowing that I have this on me at all times."
The clone could hear some rustling, like something being brought out of a pocket. That was followed by a crinkling sound, as if something were being unwrapped. Almost immediately after that he began to feel a level of discomfort he'd never known before. His head began to ache, and sweat began to bead on his forehead.
He was feeling very weak when he heard the sounds again, and suddenly the pain went away. He took a couple of deep breaths to restore his equilibrium. What had just happened?
He listened in again, but the voices were somehow fainter.
"Ah, yes," Mamba said. "The ubiquitous crystal, kryptonite. Tell me, Nigel, do you even sleep with the stuff next to you?"
There was no answer to that question. "Just tell me that when Hamilton comes up with his antidote you will have a way to counteract it. I don't want to lose my advantage over the creature."
Another chuckle. "Don't fret so. I told you once I have studied his procedure I'll have no trouble finding a way to negate its effects."
He heard St. John moving, as if he were getting ready to exit the room. Not wanting to be found out, the clone quickly moved farther down the hallway and around the corner. He leaned against the wall, rubbing his temples with his fingers. His head still ached.
So that was kryptonite? He'd known about the stuff and that it was potentially very dangerous to him, which was why he'd brought Hamilton here after being approached that day. But he'd never felt its effects before. He had no desire to repeat such an experience again.
He moved swiftly toward his own apartments. He was troubled by what he had heard. He'd always considered St. John and Mamba as mentors to him. He looked up to their cleverness and ability to turn any situation to their advantage. But now he was seeing things slightly differently.
He'd always considered himself one of them. An equal partner, as it were. Apparently they didn't see it the same way. He'd never had any illusions about himself, but being called a 'creature' by St. John stung a little. He was merely a tool to them, a weapon to use against their enemies.
Being a weapon didn't bother him. He enjoyed using his powers to hurt people. Heck, he even enjoyed playing the hero at times. Just using his powers was a high that he doubted anyone but Kent would ever be able to understand. But he'd also used his powers to impress St. John and Mamba. He liked getting their approval for things that he did. But now he had to wonder how much of that gratitude had been real and how much had been just an act to mollify him.
He reached his room and let himself in. Closing the door behind him, he could see the deep frown on his face as he spied his reflection in the small mirror over the desk.
They didn't think of him as an equal partner. They feared him. Granted, he was the most powerful being on the whole planet, but he'd never entertained any thoughts of not doing as they asked. Maybe it was time to change things up some. He had the power. Shouldn't he be the one in charge?
Of course, there was that kryptonite that St. John kept on him at all times. That would be a problem. He sat down on the bed with a thump. He groaned and flopped back. He had some thinking to do, and his head still ached. What was he going to do?
Lois opened the door to her apartment and let Clark in before quickly closing it behind them. He no sooner turned around than she threw herself into his arms and was kissing him again. She couldn't help herself.
Clark had rested most of the way back to Metropolis. He'd taken the time to fill her in on what had happened to him and his suppositions as to how his powers might just be slowly coming back. She hadn't said much, but had listened intently. Her confusion over her conflicted feelings consistently vying for her attention. She knew that there was still serious work they had to take care of, but she couldn't help but wonder and worry.
"Oh, Clark, I didn't know what I was going to do if I could never see you again." She punctuated her words with another desperate kiss. "I love you so much."
He directed a warm smile at her. "I love you too, Lois." He leaned down and returned her kiss.
Clutching each other, the two of them stumbled into the living room and onto Lois' couch. In the back of her mind she knew that she was being hypocritical. But she did love him and right now she was acutely aware of her need to continually prove that he was alive and with her. Whatever might happen farther down the road, once Superman was back, she pushed out of her mind. Finally, breathless, the two of them disentangled themselves and sat up on the smallish sofa. Lois still found herself touching him.
She watched as his smile faded and he ran a hand through his hair. He turned his head and looked at her, his eyes betraying his concern. "What are we going to do now, Lois?"
She wasn't ready for such a question, so it took her by surprise. "What do you mean?"
"I mean…" He stopped and took a deep breath. "What do we do about… me? St. John and his cronies think I'm dead. Even though no one else does, if I suddenly show up at work, or am seen wandering around town, they'll know I'm alive. Is that something we want?"
Lois bit on her lip. She hadn't thought of that. She'd been more relieved that she didn't have to tell Clark's friends and family that she'd gotten him killed to worry about what might happen if Nigel and his crew found out he was alive.
"I don't know." She stood and began to pace. She always thought better when she paced. "I'm glad I don't have to tell Perry White or your folks that you're dead, but I guess it might be better to let St. John think that he killed you."
Clark nodded. "I agree. It will give me a chance to work without anyone watching me." He reached out and took her hand and guided her back to the couch. "We can fill Perry in, and I'll call my folks to warn them not to believe anything they might hear or see on the television or radio. I'll use the pay phone in the front foyer of the building so as not to alert St. John if he still has your phone bugged."
Lois nodded, then folded her hands in her lap and stared at the floor. "But what cover story do we use? I can't exactly tell people that you were shot dead on a mountainside outside of Boynton when we were supposed to be out in Smallville?"
"I'm sure that we'll…" Clark suddenly stopped and she noticed a look of particular intensity on his face.
Clark stood up from the couch and moved toward the bedroom. "Someone's coming." He left her staring, bewildered, at him as he ducked into her bedroom and quietly closed the door. Just then, there was a knock at her door.
Startled, Lois turned her attention in that direction. "Just a moment," she said as she padded silently to her front entrance and peered through the spy hole. An involuntary gasp of surprise slipped out as she took in who was standing out in hallway. "Clark?"
Arianna Carlin-Luthor slammed the phone receiver savagely onto its cradle. How dare he order her! She had told him in no uncertain words that she was too busy to be running out to his playpen. She didn't have time to be traveling up to the northern part of the state just because he wanted to see her. If he wanted to meet, he could just come back to Metropolis.
She was through jumping through hoops for Nigel St. John, and she let him know that. Then, in his infuriatingly calm monotone, he 'informed' her that it wouldn't be possible for him to come to Metropolis at this time, and that it was imperative that she come out to the facility. He had something that she must see. He continued by stating that he expected to see her by tomorrow afternoon. Then he just hung up!
Who did he think he was talking to? She had half a mind to just ignore the high and mighty Mr. St. John's edict. Maybe that would teach him who was in control now. She controlled the money and that meant she called the shots.
She spun around in her chair and stared out the french doors which led to the large balcony. Her mouth firmly set in a frown, which also furrowed her brow. She absently brushed a short lock of dark hair away from her face. Finally, a slow sigh escaped from her lips.
Who was she kidding? Of course she'd go up there tomorrow. If for no other reason, her curiosity would force her to go. What was so stinking important that she had to go up and see it? It wasn't like she had any real interest in Mamba's research. So they'd made themselves a Superman clone. Who cared? He was just another lackey for St. John, albeit one with some added features. Still, he was just a super-powered errand boy. He wasn't her concern.
What was her concern was Nigel's continued lack of respect for her and her station. She'd thought she'd made her position clear to him before, but apparently he needed some reinforcement.
Well, she'd give him that reinforcement all right. She would make the trip to the Boynton site tomorrow, but she would not arrive all meek and submissive. It was time she taught Nigel and his pet mad scientist, Mamba, who really called the shots now. A slow smile spread across her face. Oh yeah, she was going to enjoy her little visit.
What it ultimately came down to was the money. St. John was the one who set her up to take charge of the vast Luthor empire. Which meant that she controlled the purse strings, and as long as she did, she, not Nigel, was going to dictate policy from now on.
She reached over and pressed the button on the omnipresent black box. It squawked to life immediately.
"Yes, Mrs. Luthor?"
"Gloria, hold all my calls for the next hour. I plan to indulge myself in a nice, hot, bubble bath."
"Very good, Mrs. Luthor."
"Oh, and arrange for my car to be ready first thing in the morning. I'll be out of the office for the day."
"Will that be all?"
"Yes, that will be all. Thank you, Gloria." Arianna let go the intercom switch and stood up, beginning to unbutton her suit jacket as she did so. A devilish smile played at the ends of her mouth as she began rehearsing the little speech that she'd be giving Nigel the next day.
Lois had to take a deep breath as she leaned against the door. What should she do? She had to let him in, but what if he saw Clark? And why was he dressed like Clark? Had he found out somehow? Had he always known? Did Nigel know? She took another breath to steady her nerves. He wouldn't expect anyone else to be there, so maybe if she kept his attention on her he wouldn't know that Clark was there. But what did he want? Only one way to find out. With a final deep breath she opened the door.
She faced him for several moments. His grin was… unsettling. "What are you doing here — dressed like Clark?"
He spread his hands wide. "What, not happy to see me?" She replied to his wisecrack with a stony silence. "Aren't you going to invite me in? The neighbors might begin to wonder what's wrong if you don't let your own *fiance* in." Lois stepped aside and let him into her apartment. He gave her place only the briefest of glances. "Nice place, I guess. Kind of small though."
"What do you want? Why are you dressed like Clark? Did St. John send you?" She tried hard to keep her voice even. It wouldn't do any good to anger him too much. She had no desire to become a charred corpse.
"Mr. St. John doesn't know I'm here." He smiled at her, but the effect was hardly calming. "It was my own idea." He gave her a mock pirouette. "Do you like the outfit? I thought it only appropriate to dress like Clark Kent since I am Clark Kent."
Lois had to bite down on her lip to keep from gasping. "What do you mean? I saw you and Nigel foully murder Clark. Neither of you are fit to lick the boots of a man as wonderful as Clark." She was allowing her temper to get the better of her.
"Do you deny that Clark Kent is… er, I mean, was Superman?"
Lois turned her back to the clone and walked into her living room. "Would you believe me if I did?" she asked as she turned back to face him.
"No." He shook his head. "I recognized it the minute I looked into his eyes up there on the mountain. Despite the glasses, it was like looking into a mirror." He leaned against her couch. "Clark Kent was the Superman before me. Now I'm Superman. I guess that means I'm also now Clark Kent."
"Clark Kent is dead," she said through gritted teeth.
His smile took on a more sinister aspect. "He doesn't have to be."
She was appalled by what he was suggesting. She couldn't keep the contempt out of her voice. "On your best day you could never pretend to be like Clark. Clark was kind, gentle, and compassionate. He cared about other people." She glared at the smirking clone. "He had a soul."
The bogus Clark put his hands up and a gesture of fake surrender. "Oooh, I guess I've been put in my place."
Her tone became icy. "You never answered my first question. What are you doing here?"
He reached out and grabbed her by the arm. Lois had to swallow her instinct to scream. "Listen, Lane, I'm not sure yet what I want to do with this knowledge of Superman having played at being the geek reporter Kent." He released her with a casual shove that nearly pushed her off her feet. "I just came by to let you know that Clark Kent just might be making a miraculous recovery from his unfortunate accident on the mountainside."
He walked over to the door and opened it. He turned back and smiled that cold smile once again. "You know — it might be fun having a fiancee." He gave her a wink, then stepped into the hall, pulling the door closed behind him.
Lois could only stare, dumbly, at the closed door. Clark came quickly into the room and took her in his arms. She was shaking.
"Are you all right?" Clark's voice communicated his concern for her.
She nodded. "What do you make of that?"
Clark's expression was grim. "I'm not sure, but I know I didn't like the sound of it. But I do know what he meant when he mentioned 'it was like looking in a mirror'. I felt the same way."
Lois felt her stomach knot up. The way he had looked at her. It was as if he was looking at some prize hanging on the back wall of a carny booth. All he had to do was knock over the milk bottles and he could claim his prize. She endured another involuntary shudder.
She placed her hand on his arm. "I'll be all right. I'm just confused as to what we do now. Is Clark Kent supposed to be dead, or not?"
Clark, still holding onto her, gave her a squeeze of reassurance. "I guess that's up to the clone now."
She leaned back against his broad, comforting chest. It was amazing how safe and protected he made her feel when he enveloped her in his arms and she could feel his body against hers. She allowed a small sigh to escape from her.
"So what do we do now?"
Clark began to rub her arms. "When I was hiking out to the highway this morning, I remembered something which had been nagging at me since I'd originally seen it on the Daily Planet monitor. Other things came up so I pushed it to the back of my mind, but now I…"
"Clark, just spit it out!"
He gave her an embarrassed smile. "I just wonder what Professor Hamilton felt was so important that he had to try and contact Superman right away at the press conference?"
Lois cocked her head to one side. "I take it that's not common for him?"
Clark shook his head. "No. The Professor is somewhat of a hermit. Doesn't like crowds or the big city. He's perfectly content to putter around in his laboratory at Star Lab's most remote facility and bury himself in his work."
Lois turned and placed her hand on Clark's chest. "So, I take it we're going to go pay a visit to this mad Professor of yours?"
Clark grinned. "Oh I wouldn't call him mad. Eccentric, definitely, but not mad."
Lois laughed. "Okay, I take it we're going to go pay a visit to this eccentric Professor of yours."
"I think that might be a good idea." Clark cupped Lois cheek with his right hand. "But that can wait until tomorrow."
Lois' grin was coy. "Definitely."
Lois carefully pulled into the parking lot of the smallish Star Labs facility in Green Haven. She and Clark had been on the road for a couple of hours getting to the small community that housed the remote Star Labs complex that was where Prof. Emil Hamilton did his research. Now that they were there, Lois was a bit apprehensive. What was she going to say? Clark had decided that it might be best if he stayed in the car, out of sight, just in case. They still weren't sure what the status of Clark Kent was going to be. Was he dead, or was the clone going to make some public appearances? It was all very confusing. She just hoped that this Hamilton character could give her some insight that she could use to help her take down the clone, and with him, Nigel and his cronies.
Lois had been fearful when she'd gotten up that morning that the clone might be waiting for her. She hadn't called the precinct since she was still supposed to be in Smallville on her vacation. She wasn't due back for another two days. If Nigel was put off by her not going immediately back to work, then that was too bad for him. Actually, he'd probably just think that she needed a little more time to deal with the death of Clark. Which was also probably why they didn't spot anyone keeping surveillance on her.
Clark's hearing had been getting better, as was his vision. He'd been able to scan, both visually and aurally, the area around her apartment for several blocks and he'd spotted no one. The same went for her apartment itself. She assumed the phone was still tapped, but she had stayed away from that.
She strode up to the front entrance with a confident step that she didn't necessarily feel. Opening the glass door, she stepped into a well lit, inviting reception area. A uniformed guard sat behind a small metal desk. She could see the typical sign-in sheet and box of visitor badges that adorned the countertop in front of the desk. Behind the young man she could see several men and women dressed in white and blue lab coats scurrying by the glass wall and door.
"Can I help you, Miss?"
Lois fished her I.D. out of her purse and flashed it for the rent-a-cop. "Sergeant Lane, Metropolis Police. I'm here about a Professor Emil Hamilton."
A strange look crossed the face of the guard. He quickly blanked his face and reached for phone. "One moment please," he said and punched in a three-digit number. "This is Brad at the front desk," he said, as Lois listened. "There's a Metropolis Police Sergeant here about Professor Hamilton. Okay, I'll tell her." He hung up the phone. "If you would be seated." He indicated one of the several chairs arranged around a round table littered with old magazines. "Dr. Clyson will be out to see you in a few minutes."
Lois frowned as she sat in one of the hard plastic chairs. Who was Doctor Clyson and why was he coming out to see her? Was there something wrong with Hamilton? Her wait was a short one. Soon, a squat, balding man came through the door and offered her his hand.
"Sergeant Lane? I'm Dr. Clyson. I'm the head administrator for this facility." Lois shook his hand.
"How do you do."
"I understand you're here about Professor Hamilton?" he said. His voice seemed anxious.
Lois nodded. "Yes, I'd like to see him. I have some important questions that I need to ask him."
Clyson frowned. "Can I ask what sort of questions?"
Lois shook her head. "I'm afraid my questions are for Professor Hamilton alone. All I can say is that Superman sent me here."
The administrator nodded, and his frown grew deeper. "I was afraid of that. So, you are telling me that you don't know where Emil is, or what might have happened to him?" Lois was sure that her blank stare communicated her confusion more than words could. "You see, Sergeant, no one knows where Emil is. He hasn't been in, nor been in contact with anyone in several days. Frankly, we are beginning to get worried."
Lois was momentarily disconcerted by the doctor's words but couldn't honestly say that she was surprised by them. It was clear that whatever Hamilton had told the clone after that press conference must have intrigued him enough to take Emil with him. It suddenly struck her that the Professor had probably been at the Boynton complex when she'd been there. But that also meant that Bill didn't know about him because he would have told her if he had.
She shook her head slowly. "I'm sorry to hear that. It's very important that I get in contact with him. He's never gone off before?"
Clyson shrugged. "Oh, he comes and goes; keeps irregular hours, but he always lets someone know if he's going to be gone for more than a day. It's not like him to not contact the facility to let us know where he is or when he might be back."
Lois chewed on her lip for a bit. "Maybe there is some clue as to his whereabouts in his lab. Could we take a look?"
Clyson, shook his head. "I'm afraid I can't let you do that. Emil's research is classified. You'd need a special clearance warrant from the Federal government to get into that lab. I'm not even allowed in there without either Emil or Superman present." The Star Lab administrator brightened. "You said that Superman sent you? Perhaps you could get him to come in person. Then we could legally enter the lab since he would have the proper key card and identification."
Lois' brow wrinkled. "You mean that you have no means to enter Hamilton's lab? What if there were some sort of emergency, like a fire, or something?"
"Well, the lab is basically isolated from the rest of the facility. It has several fail-safe systems in the event of fire, gas, explosive, or chemical accidents. If the suppressive systems don't handle the problem, the lab is locked down by an external, computer monitored security system." Dr. Clyson shrugged. "Worse case scenario is that whatever might happen within the lab would be contained within. Then we could contact the proper federal authorities and they would come and deal with whatever had happened."
Lois shook her head in disgust. "Seems like a silly way to run a research facility. Security is one thing…"
Dr. Clyson gave her a nervous laugh. "Well, Star Labs is privately owned and it's the price we sometimes have to pay to get those lucrative government contracts. When it comes to secrecy, the government takes a back seat to no one."
Lois nodded, mostly to herself. She'd had more than one run in with government types in the past. She always thought that the thing they were best at was obstructing an investigation rather than helping solve one.
"So, you say that Superman can get into this lab?"
Clyson nodded. "I know that he has one of the key cards and his cornea scan is on file with the security computer." He shifted from one foot to another. "I really am worried about Emil and would like to do whatever I could to shed some light on his disappearance. So… you can contact Superman?"
Lois sighed. "Maybe." She reached out and shook the administrator's hand again. "Thank you for your help, doctor." She turned toward the door. "I'll be back."
Emil Hamilton knew he was sweating. He could feel the perspiration sliding down his forehead and into his eyes. He always perspired when he was nervous. He was very nervous at the present time.
If his suspicions were true, then he'd been playing a very dangerous game this past day. Knowing he was under constant surveillance yet trying to not let his watchers know exactly what he was doing had wreaked havoc on his already frayed nerves. He just wasn't cut out for these high-pressure situations.
Still, he was fairly confident that he'd managed to succeed in what he'd hoped to accomplish. He'd know for sure soon enough. Within the hour he would be able to present Superman, and his associates, with the antidote that they had desired from him.
He prayed that what he'd managed to cook up would satisfy them, and they'd allow him to go back to his normal, routinely uncomplicated life. But somehow he doubted it. The people around here, Superman included, just didn't seem the type who would smile gratefully, then thank him for his efforts. He wasn't sure yet what he'd do if they wouldn't let him leave. Which was why he'd worked so hard to hedge his bets.
The cameras had been on him the whole time, but once you knew where they are, there were ways to obscure or block their ability to see exactly what you were doing. He could only hope that he'd been clever enough.
Dr. Mamba knocked briefly on the outer door, then presumptuously entered Nigel St. John's office. The former British agent merely raised his brow at the intrusion. Mamba flopped down in the single chair in front of the large desk. St. John leaned back and waited for the good doctor to speak.
"So… is she here yet?" he finally asked.
Nigel shook his head. "No, but our spotters say she should arrive within the half hour."
Mamba sat quietly looking around the room. He clearly had something he was eager to share with St. John but didn't seem to know how to approach the subject. Either that, or he was just being melodramatic. Nigel frowned. He wouldn't put that past the doctor. Deciding it would be more expedient to play along, he sighed and asked. "So, is there something you wanted to tell me?"
A big smile spread across Mamba's face. "Now that you mention it…" He leaned closer to the desk. "Hamilton has finished the antidote."
Nigel said nothing for several moments. He folded his hands in front of him. "Tell me again why it was a good idea to let this mad professor concoct his vile potion? The last thing I want is for our Superman to be invulnerable to the only means we have of protecting ourselves from him… if the need should arise."
Mamba shrugged his shoulders. "What could we do? Hamilton approached the person he thought was Superman and told him he had an antidote for the effects of kryptonite. We couldn't very well tell our favorite clone that we didn't want him to have that protection because we wanted to be able to kill him if we felt like it. No, it was fortunate that our Superman brought the professor here. At least now I know how the stuff was created and can easily find a way to negate its effects or, at the very least, sabotage its formulation."
Nigel snorted. It was a dignified snort, but a snort nonetheless. "Seems like a long way to travel just to arrive at the same destination."
Mamba smiled. "True, but now our superclone has no reason to suspect that we might ever wish him any harm."
"I don't wish him any harm," Nigel began. "As long as he does what he's told, I want him to have a long and happy life. I'm just being careful."
"Of course." Mamba's grin bordered on irritating.
Suddenly, a barely audible chirping sound came from St. John's pocket. He reached in and pulled out a small cell phone. Thumbing the on button, he spoke into the tiny device. "Yes."
He listened for a few seconds then closed the lid and stuck the phone back into his pocket. Nigel allowed himself the ghost of a smile as he noticed the curiosity burning in Mamba's eyes. "That was Boris. Our guest has arrived."
Arianna sat in a luxurious lounge chair in a large outer reception area. It was clear that the space didn't get much use any more. Only a large, beady-eyed fellow sat in the hard metal chair behind the small desk. She supposed he represented some sort of security, though she had a hard time wondering what he did. After all, this was a secret base. No one who wasn't supposed to be here ever came. She doubted that he was there strictly to greet her.
The heavy metal door behind the guard opened and she stood as Nigel entered the anteroom. He inclined his head in her direction. "Arianna, so good of you to come."
She glared at him. "I shouldn't have, but I thought that it would be good for us to have another chat." She arched her back slightly. "It's time that we got things squared away once and for all."
"I couldn't agree more."
She didn't know which unsettled her more. St. John agreeing with her, or the fact that he was smiling. Without another word, she moved through the door that he held for her.
They walked down several identical hallways and turned more corners than she could keep track of. The thought that she couldn't retrace her steps back to that reception area without help suddenly came to mind. The thought made her frown.
She'd never been in the complex before, but it seemed particularly unremarkable to her. It was obviously big, but nothing special that she could see.
After one last corner, Nigel led her into what could only be described as a small conference room. There were six chairs arranged around a mid-sized round, wooden table. She sat in the nearest chair, not waiting for him to tell her to do so. He moved over to a small portable bar in the far corner.
Looking at her, he raised a bottle of liquor and nodded toward the glasses. She shook her head. Now was not the time to be sharing any drinks and getting all chummy with him. She had no problem working with the man when their aims and goals coincided. But the real truth was that she didn't trust the man.
Once again, she was going to have to remind him that she controlled the flow of money, and if he wanted to continue to be funded in his schemes, he was going to have to acknowledge that she was ultimately in charge.
She didn't care what he and that silly doctor did shut up here in their little hideaway. She knew that the Superman clone was flying around Metropolis playing the good hero, which didn't bother her either. She wasn't naive. She was certain that St. John had another agenda for the superclone, but as long as he stayed away from her world, he could do whatever pleased him.
Nigel had poured himself a drink and remained standing. He continued to stare at her. She had to fight an urge to shudder. He really could be quite creepy sometimes. "So, Nigel, since you have suddenly gone mute, I guess I'll start." She tapped on the tabletop with her long fingernail. "What you and Mamba do up here is no concern of mine. I have what I want. I control LexCorp, and that means I control the money. So, as I tried to make clear to you before, if you want to continue to receive funding for whatever fun and games you're playing here, you have to play by my rules."
"Shut up, Arianna." His words were softly spoken, but there was also a measure of menace in them. "You were asked up here for one reason. And if you'd have refused, I'd have sent someone down to fetch you."
Arianna found herself sputtering in outrage. "Well, I never…" He scowled at her and she shut up.
"As I said; you were invited up here for one reason. I wanted you to meet someone."
Her outrage quickly morphed into confusion. Meet someone? Who could he possibly want her to meet? She had briefly met the Superman once, and she'd had plenty of dealings with Mamba over the last several months during the whole operation against Lex. So who was in the picture now?
"What do you mean? Who do you want me to meet?"
A soft knock on the door interrupted them. "Come in," Nigel said.
Arianna turned and was shocked into speechlessness by what she saw. A quick glance over at Nigel confirmed her worst fears. His feral grin spoke volumes. "Arianna Carlin-Luthor, I'd like you to meet your successor, Arianna Carlin-Luthor."
She knew her mouth was hanging open, but she couldn't seem to make a sound. Standing in the doorway next to that grinning idiot Mamba was… her!
Her exact image smirked at her, then turned to Mamba. "You were right Doctor M. She really does have this stupid haircut."
Arianna slowly rose from her chair, not really daring to believe that St. John and Mamba had actually gone and cloned her. She reached out a tentative hand to touch the cheek of her doppelganger. "Careful," the newly grown clone admonished the stupefied Arianna. "You'll mess up my make-up."
She felt, rather than saw, when the silent giant of a man entered the room. Arianna saw her double step away from the door, leaving her next to the large lackey. It was obvious that he was Nigel's man, for he merely stared at St. John until the Englishman deigned to speak.
"Take Miss Carlin away," he said. "You may do with her what you will, but be sure to clean up after yourself."
Arianna whipped her head around and gaped at St. John. The expression on her face betrayed her shock and confused fear. Nigel just smiled.
"He doesn't know his own strength. He tends to break things."
Her lips moved but again no sound came out as she felt herself being dragged forcibly out of the room.
The superclone touched down on the roof of the Daily Planet. He used his x-ray vision to peer into the bullpen. He saw the bustle of activity and the barely organized chaos that was a big city newsroom. People were running back and forth, calling out to each other, and typing furiously on their computer keyboards. He saw Perry White step out of his office and begin to direct some of the seeming bedlam. He was shouting and pointing. It all looked very confusing to the current Superman.
Slowly shaking his head, he lifted back into the air and headed north. Maybe he wouldn't take Clark Kent's place at the Planet. After all, what did he know about news reporting?
And now that he thought about it, how long would he be able to keep up the mild-mannered act? How long could he take crap from a bunch of people he could crush between two fingers? But most importantly, it didn't look like it would be much fun.
He put on some speed and within minutes he was over the small town of Boynton and zeroing in on the old mine site facility. As he landed outside the secret door that he always used, a slow smile spread across his lips.
Just because he didn't plan to become Clark Kent the reporter, that didn't mean he couldn't play some at being Clark Kent the fiance. That was something he was definitely going to have to explore.
He walked the halls unerringly until he reached his room. Stepping inside, he was surprised to see Nigel St. John sitting there waiting for him.
"Where have you been?" The older man's voice was quiet, but clipped, showing a bit of displeasure.
The clone stared at the man he once thought of as a mentor. "I was doing a patrol. We have to keep up appearances, don't we?" His smile mocked his words.
St. John frowned. "That's what I'm here to talk to you about — appearances. I got a report that Detective Lane received a visitor last evening." Nigel stood. "That visitor was Clark Kent."
The clone shrugged. "So?"
Nigel shook his head slowly. "You and I both know that Clark Kent is dead. So how can he show up at Lane's doorstep?"
The superclone moved over toward his bathroom, never looking at St. John. "Suppose you tell me," he threw over his shoulder as he entered the small lavatory.
He heard Nigel walk over and make sure the outer door to the room was securely closed. Then the older man turned and waited for the young clone to come out. "How long have you known?" Nigel asked once he returned to the main room.
The clone's brow rose in surprise. "You knew?"
He nodded. "I made the connection when I saw the two of you together up on the mountain top the other day."
The clone nodded. "Me too."
"Obviously Luthor's destruction of the true Superman hadn't been complete. But without his powers, we were able to kill him like any other man. Same result, it just took a little longer than we thought."
The clone turned away, not wanting St. John to see his reaction to the comment about Kent being the 'true Superman'. The man really didn't care about him as a person at all, did he? Well, it didn't matter to him either. He would bide his time for a bit. See how things were done, then he could step up and let Nigel and Mamba know who was really in charge.
"So, is that all you wanted to talk to me about?" The clone flopped down onto his bed. "Tell me you knew that Kent was Superman?"
Nigel shook his head. His speech took on the tone of a lecture. The clone hated that. "I want to know why you visited her and to tell you to not do it again."
St. John frowned. "Nothing will be gained by tormenting the sergeant. I need her as a functioning member of the Metropolis police department. Not being constantly reminded that her lover is dead."
The clone shrugged again. "Maybe I can help her forget."
Nigel snorted in contempt. "Don't flatter yourself, my boy. You may be able to have nearly any woman you want by just flexing those artificial biceps at them, but Lane knows you for what you are. She would never accept you. She is burdened with morals. A concern neither of us have had to be encumbered with."
"Whatever." The clone knew he was sounding sulky, but he resented St. John's constant putdowns. It was funny he hadn't noticed how the man treated him before.
Nigel moved toward the outer door. "Get some rest. I think I'll have a task you'll enjoy tomorrow." Without another word, the Brit left his room, closing the door firmly behind him.
The superclone followed St. John's progress with his enhanced vision for a few moments, then shut it down. He rolled over and shut his eyes, idly wondering if Kent had needed to sleep.
Lois woke early and dragged herself out of bed. Yesterday had been a crazy day. She and Clark had gone out to the Star Labs where Hamilton carried out his top secret Superman research. It had been a long trip only to be stonewalled by the fact that Hamilton was missing, and no one could access his lab. Well, no one except the Professor, or Superman.
Coming back to her jeep, she explained the situation to Clark. He confirmed that he did have a key card for the lab, but he'd never used it. He wasn't even sure where it was. So, they'd made the long trip back to Metropolis, taking care to not be seen by St. John's minions. After some searching, Clark was finally able to locate the key card in question and dust off an old super suit.
Then had been the long trip back to the Star Labs facility. Clyson had been properly awed by Superman coming in alongside Lois. He'd practically fallen all over himself escorting them to Hamilton's lab. Lois almost felt sorry for the administrator when Superman told him that it would probably be better if he didn't accompany them into the lab, just in case there was something there that the doctor shouldn't see.
Clyson had reluctantly left them to their investigation. It seemed that Superman's word carried a lot of weight at that facility even though the only time he remembered being there was to initially establish his security clearance.
The frustrating thing was that they found no clues in the lab as to Hamilton's whereabouts, nor did they find anything they could understand that would give them an idea as to what the Professor had been working on.
Lois had found something. A crystal that had been wrapped in lead foil. When she had unwrapped the small stone, she'd guessed immediately what it was. Kryptonite. She had quickly rewrapped the small piece and had put it in her purse. With that crazy super-clone flying around Metropolis, you never knew when having some kryptonite might come in handy.
Her musings on the day before were interrupted by a slight breeze blowing through her apartment. She glanced over toward the window and found it open. Frowning, she went over and closed it, not remembering having left it open the night before.
She nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of her name coming from behind her. She whirled around.
"Clark! You scared the crap out of me. I…" Suddenly a strange look came over her. "How did you get in here?" She turned toward the window, which a moment ago had been open. "You didn't." She saw the grin spread across his face. "You can fly again?"
He nodded. "Yep, " he said, his grin getting wider. "I woke up this morning with the sun shining through the bedroom window on me. I felt better than I had in months. I knew I was back."
He stepped closer and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Yeah. I'm back to full strength. All the powers are working."
Lois tried to smile. "That's great." The tone of her voice clearly wasn't convincing.
Clark grabbed her hand. "Lois? What's wrong?"
She turned away, not willing to see the concern in his face. "Nothing, I guess I'm still just tired." How could she tell him what was wrong? She wasn't sure she really knew herself. Lois just couldn't keep her insecurities at bay. She quickly changed the subject. "You went back to your apartment? I knew you told me you had some place you could go, but I just thought you'd wind up at Perry's."
He shrugged. "Yeah, well, I knew you needed to get some rest so it was better that I find someplace else to stay last night. I didn't want to bother Perry, and I was careful. No one saw me go in or out."
Lois chewed on her lower lip. "So, now that the real Superman is back, what do you plan to do about your bogus twin?"
"I'm not sure." Clark paced the room. "I don't think it would be a good idea if people found out that there had been a super- clone running around. The idea might be rather unsettling. We both know what he's capable of, but he hasn't done anything criminal in public yet." Clark frowned. "If we can neutralize him before he does, then the public need never know."
"I can see the advantage to that," she said. "But we still have a more pressing problem. What do we do about Clark Kent? I've been able to avoid reporting his supposed death because we're still supposed to be in Smallville. But St. John thinks you're dead and he'll begin to wonder why there's been no word of your death."
Clark nodded. "Yeah, but with the clone threatening to play at being Clark Kent, how can you officially report my death?"
"Yeah, I'd look pretty foolish if I told anyone you were dead, then have the clone walking around as Clark." She moved away from him and began pacing near the couch. "Actually, it would be best if we didn't have to report it at all. That would make it easier when you reappeared. Since Perry and your folks know the truth, it would be easy enough to tell anyone else who asks that you decided to stay in Smallville for a time." She paced some more. "But that still doesn't address the problem of…"
"St. John." Clark sighed after he spoke the name. "Do you suppose, since the clone knows, that maybe St. John knows also?"
Lois stopped her movement and looked into Clark's eyes. He was worried, as was she. "I don't know. The impression I got from the clone was that he didn't share his discovery with Nigel, but that doesn't mean that St. John doesn't know. I doubt very much that someone like that slimeball would share any information he didn't have to with his super-lackey."
Clark frowned as he nodded in agreement. "No, I don't see him confiding in someone who he sees as an underling." Suddenly Clark's head snapped up, and he tilted his head to one side. Then he seemed to stare intently at the far wall.
"What? What is it?" Lois was instantly able to tell that Clark's attention had been grabbed by something she couldn't hear or see."
Clark's frown became grim. "He's coming up the stairs."
She began to push him toward the window. "Hurry, you have to leave. He can't find you here."
Clark stood his ground. "Lois, I'm not going to leave you alone with… him." He gestured toward the outer hallway.
She kept pushing on him, even though he wasn't moving. "I'll be fine. If he sees you now, it will ruin everything." He cocked a brow at her. "Well, it will complicate things… won't it?" He frowned. "The super goof knows that St. John needs me. I won't be in any real danger from him."
Clark shook his head but allowed himself to be shoved toward the window. "I'm not so sure."
"Just go," she said in exasperation. "You can keep an eye on things from above, or something, if it makes you feel better."
Clark didn't look convinced but finally nodded and turned toward the window. In another moment he was gone. Immediately after that, there was a knock on the door. Lois made her way over and peered out the spy hole. Not that she didn't know who would be there, but because he would expect her to.
She opened the door and stepped aside to let him enter. "What do you want now?" Her voice lacked any warmth of greeting.
His mocking smile and the way he looked at her made her feel like she needed a shower. "You look quite fetching in the morning. Though perhaps a bit overdressed."
She looked down at herself and for the first time realized she still had on her pajamas. They were a full flannel pants and shirt set. They were warm and comfortable, but hardly what you'd consider sexy. She rolled her eyes at him.
"Why are you here?" she asked. "I have to get ready for work. I don't have time to talk."
"Talk?" He chuckled. It wasn't a pleasant sound. "I'm not really interested in talk, but I do have something to take care of this morning anyway, so I just dropped by to let you know that I'll be coming by to take you to lunch."
She stepped back a pace. "Are you crazy? You can't be seen in public dressed like that."
"Sure I can. What's more natural than a fiance picking up his intended for a lunch date?"
She sighed then shook her head for effect. "My fiance is dead. St. John knows that he's dead. Therefore I can't be having lunch with my fiance." Her brow furrowed in confusion. "What about the guys who keep a watch on my place? Won't they report seeing you coming over here?"
His grin was cold. "They've been dealt with. They won't be reporting on anything for a while yet. I figure they won't wake for another couple of hours." He reached out and stroked her cheek. Lois pulled away. He just smirked at her. "I wouldn't worry about what St. John thinks. He knows that Kent used to be Superman."
Lois' eyes went wide. "How do you know that?"
The clone shrugged. "He told me."
Lois' mouth drew into a tight line. "I see. He wants you to keep an eye on me. Doesn't trust me anymore?"
His laughter was full bodied, but completely lacking in mirth. "He doesn't trust anyone. Not even me. But that's not why I'm here. St. John told me to stay away from you, but you want to know the truth?" He leered at her. "I don't care what St. John says. I no longer do anything he tells me to do unless *I* want to do it. From now on, this super hero is doing what he wants to do. And he wants to take you to lunch."
Lois couldn't find her voice. She stared at the clone, her mouth slightly open. There obviously was trouble in the criminal paradise, but how could she exploit it? It didn't sound like the super-clone was in open revolt against St. John, merely indulging in his feeling of self-importance and flexing his muscles, so to speak.
The clone moved back toward the door. "I will pick you up at the station at noon. I expect you to be waiting for me."
Lois opened her mouth to let him know that she couldn't guarantee that she'd be around the station at noon. She could be anywhere in the city, investigating whatever case she'd be assigned. One glance at the look on his face caused her to swallow her protest. She'd be waiting.
Clark only waited a few minutes to make sure the clone was truly gone before he flew back down and entered Lois' apartment. He could tell he startled her by the look on her face when she whirled around upon hearing him come in. Her look of surprise quickly changed to one of relief as she hurried over into his arms.
Clark pressed a quick kiss into her hair. She felt so good in his arms. "It's all right," he murmured. "You don't have to be frightened. I won't let him get near you again."
Lois pulled back and gave Clark a look of puzzlement. "What do you mean? I'm not frightened. Disgusted, revolted, maybe a tad nauseous, but I'm not frightened. Even if his dense molecular structure is mostly between his ears, he's not dumb enough to harm me knowing that Nigel still needs me."
Clark wasn't convinced. "Lois, I heard everything he said. It sounded like he and St. John aren't exactly seeing eye to eye right now."
Lois began to pace, gesturing wildly as she did so. "Exactly! Maybe I can find out a bit more about that and use it to our advantage. I could possibly find a way to act as a wedge that will force that split even wider."
Clark shook his head. It was just like Lois to not consider the danger that she could be in. "I don't know, Lois. You can't trust that guy. You yourself told me that you're sure he committed several grisly murders."
She nodded as she continued to wander about the room. "Yeah, but those were ordered by St. John; I'm sure of that. The clone wouldn't even have known who Johnny Taylor was." Lois came back and laid her hand on Clark's chest. "What about St. John knowing your secret?"
"Well, I can't say I'm surprised. I guess that's just something we'll have to deal with when the time comes."
Lois nodded. "I guess. You know I've got to have lunch with him. It's a chance to find out some useful information that could lead to Nigel's downfall. And when you think about it, I'd much rather have lunch with him than have him ticked off at me."
Clark's frown grew deeper, but he could see the logic in what she'd said. "Okay, it might be helpful to have lunch with him, but I'm going to be watching and listening the whole time. If he so much as…"
She placed a finger against his lips, shaking her head as she did so. "No, I've got a better idea. While I'm having lunch with the clone, you can go out to the Boynton facility and look around. Now that you have your powers back, you could fly in and pretend to be the clone. You might be able to find the evidence we need to put St. John away for good."
Clark shook his head. "I don't know, Lois. Won't Nigel and Mamba know that I'm not him?"
She patted his chest. "I hate to break the news to you, big guy, but the super dude who just left here looks an awful lot like you. If you're worried about it, just make sure to stay away from them, but I don't think anyone will think you're not him. Especially since you, the real you, is supposed to be dead."
"You know what I mean."
"Yeah, unfortunately, I do." Clark had to grin in spite of himself.
"Besides," Lois added. "While you're there a chance to free Bill might present itself."
Clark shook his head in defeat. There was no winning an argument with Lois Lane. Giving in gracefully was generally the only course of action she allowed.
She walked back into her bedroom and began pulling things out of her closet. "You'd best go and do whatever it is you have to do. I need to get ready for work." She pulled out a slinky black skirt and a small looking sweater. "What do you think? Will my lunch date like it?"
She giggled. "I'm just kidding. Come here."
Clark, a bit confused, walked into the bedroom and stood next to Lois. He was pleasantly surprised when she stood up on her tiptoes and planted a fierce kiss on his lips.
"Whoa," he said somewhat breathlessly. "I could get used to that."
She grinned. "Now, don't forget. He's meeting me at the station house at noon. I'll try to keep him occupied as long as I can, but I wouldn't count on having more than an hour." She pointed a finger at him. "You definitely don't want to be there when he gets back. You may have your powers back, but he has no compunction against killing, and that gives him an advantage over you."
"I've been super a whole lot longer than the clone has, you know. I've learned more than a few things in my years with powers." Clark knew that Lois had a point but he felt just a bit hurt by her comments.
"And you've only just regained them after… what… six, seven, eight months? Are you really up to full speed already?"
Clark stared at his feet for a few moments before meeting her eyes. "I'm not sure."
She reached up and stroked his cheek with her hand. "Then let's not test it, shall we? I'd much rather take St. John and his bunch down through superior planning and intellect than by brute force."
Clark sighed. "I guess you're right."
"I'm always right." She gave him a coy smile. "But I thought you already knew that?" Clark rolled his eyes. She pushed on his chest. "Now go, unless you plan to help me get dressed."
It was Clark's turn to flash the coy smile. "Well… if you're asking."
She returned his grin. "As inviting as that sounds, I'm afraid if I let you help, I'd never make it to work."
Clark nodded reluctantly. "Okay, I'll leave. And I'll head out to St. John's hideaway at noon, but I'm going to have an ear tuned to you. If he makes any unwanted move on you just yell. I'll be there in a heartbeat."
He saw a change come over her face. Her lip trembled slightly and her eyes seemed to mist just a bit. She reached out and grasped his hand and gave it a squeeze. "You would, too, wouldn't you?"
It hadn't been a question but Clark decided to answer anyway. He leaned his head down and captured her lips with a kiss that spoke of his desire. She returned it with a passion that mirrored his own.
Arianna looked up at her jailer. So far he hadn't done anything beyond locking her in a small dorm-like room. She knew that her respite wouldn't last much longer. He'd stuck her there a few hours ago, then had left. Now he'd returned.
She rose and moved away from the bed. She didn't want to be caught there. "What do you want?" Her stomach turned when she saw a slight grin crack the formerly rock-like expression on his face.
He slowly pulled his shirt over his head. She gasped as his huge, finely sculpted body came into view. She'd met Mamba's clone of Superman before and had noticed the fine body that creature possessed. This man in front of her looked like an exaggerated version. Hard muscle rippled from his shoulders and chest down to his stomach. Unfortunately, she couldn't allow herself to enjoy the vision. This man was going to hurt her.
She backed up against the small desk unit in one corner of the room. She could feel the hard wooden edge against her back. He nodded his head in the direction of the bed. She shook her head in the negative. The last thing she was going to do was get under that mass of muscle and flesh. He would have to kill her first.
His grin got wider, giving him a look of near idiocy. He advanced on her. Arianna had grown up a child of privilege. The only daughter of wealthy parents, she had lacked for nothing. Then her short marriage to Lex had just continued a life of indulgence. She hadn't gone on to her studies and chosen academic fields until after Lex had discarded her.
But during her time of plenty she hadn't had to worry about mundane things such as working for a living. Instead she had done what many young, wealthy women did. She had worked on herself. She had kept fit by having a personal trainer and by taking classes in aerobics, ballet, and personal defense. It had been some years since her judo and kick boxing classes, but the lessons never really went away.
Knowing he wouldn't expect it, she lunged forward and aimed a savage kick at the inside of his left knee. He grunted and stumbled slightly to one side. Her foot went numb, as if she'd just kicked a piece of concrete. He frowned and reached out to grab her. She ducked but he managed to seize her by the hair. He jerked her head back, nearly tearing her hair out by the roots, and planted a crude, inexpert kiss on her protesting lips.
She reached down and grabbed his groin, squeezing for all she was worth. He shouted out in pain and, reflexively, tossed her away from him. She slammed into a wall, cracking her head against the plaster.
Still bent over, he stumbled toward her and caught her with a cruel backhand as she rose. The force of his blow split her lip and she spit out a broken tooth. Scrambling to her feet, she backed away from him, suddenly finding herself next to the small bathroom.
She quickly rushed inside the tiny, tiled sanctuary and closed the door. It took a couple of heartbeats for her fumbling fingers to find the lock on the doorknob. Just in time, she turned the lock. The knob rattled a couple of times, then he began to pound viciously on the door. The loud pounding on the door was deafening. In a near panic she looked around herself. She was trapped!
Suddenly her gaze fell on the tiny shelf above the sink. She couldn't be that lucky, could she? She took the step over to the basin and reached out to the silver cup that held her captor's shaving gear. He used a straight razor. No one used a straight razor anymore. She lifted the sharp instrument from its resting place. The light of the small fluorescent glinted off the shiny four-inch blade.
A feral smile stretched across her face, causing her battered lips to bleed. She didn't notice. She turned toward the door just as it finally splintered under the constant beating it had endured.
Lois shuffled a couple of stacks of paper from one corner of her desk to another. The entire desktop was covered in a multi- colored riot of stationery, note pages, computer printouts, and scraps torn from whatever was handy. She didn't notice her visitor until he was right next to her.
She jerked back, turning quickly toward the sound. She took a deep breath. "Oh… Clark, you… startled me."
He gave her a smile that almost looked real. "Sorry about that. You seemed preoccupied there."
She grimaced at her desk. "Yeah, well, I've got a ton of stuff to catch up with."
"Are you ready for lunch?"
She really wanted to refuse, to tell him that she had too much work to do to go out for lunch. But she couldn't do that. She needed to keep him occupied for as long as she could so Clark could check out Nigel and his cronies. Also, one look at the clone's face chased any idea of refusal out of her mind.
"Sure," she said, smiling up at him for effect. She grabbed her bag and stood up, making ready to leave.
As the two of them began to move toward the station house door, she heard another irritating voice pipe up from behind her.
"Lane, where the blazes do you think you're going?" She turned to see Chief Andrews standing in his open doorway. His pig-like eyes fastened on her.
"I'm heading out to lunch — with -Clark." She gave the clone a quick look and pat on the arm.
Andrews waddled over to the couple. "No, you're not. I just received word that there's been a multiple homicide. Bill Church Sr., his wife Mindy, and his son Bill Jr. were just found in a dumpster behind the downtown Cost Mart store. They'd been literally torn to pieces."
Lois' eyes widened. She involuntarily glanced back at the man next to her. He was looking at the chief, a frown on his face.
"Look, Chief Andrews, is it?" The clone put his hand on the fat man's shoulder. "Lois and I are engaged. We haven't seen each other for a time and would like to spend a pleasant lunch together. Is that too much to ask?"
Andrews glared at the clone. "Haven't seen each other? You just got back from several days in Kansas. How much together time do you need? Besides, with Henderson gone, she's my best investigator. This is a high profile case."
The Clark clone directed the chief back toward his office. Lois watched as he guided her chief. "Surely this will keep till after our lunch? After all, it's not like those folks are going anywhere, is it?" The two of them disappeared into his office. With a flip of his hand, the clone closed the door behind them.
Lois bit on her lip, wondering what was being said in there. She hoped that the clone's mule-headed, egocentric manner wouldn't blow Clark's cover completely. The last thing she needed was for her supposed fiance to get in trouble by threatening a police officer.
A few moments later, the substitute Clark Kent left Chief Andrews' office, his face revealing a self-satisfied smile. He stepped up to her and placed his arm around her waist. It took all her will power to not flinch away.
"The chief reconsidered," he said, his voice betraying a smug note to it.
"What did you do?" she asked, somewhat fearfully.
They had reached the front steps and were approaching the sidewalk in front of the precinct house. "I just reasoned with the man." He gave her a strange look. "Why do you care? You know the man was on Luthor's payroll, don't you?"
Lois nodded. "Yeah, but I don't want you causing any trouble for Clark."
A quick chill went through her body. "I mean, Clark's memory. When the world is finally allowed to know how you and St. John murdered him, I don't want his memory sullied by your actions."
The clone reared his head back and roared with laughter. He pulled her tighter to him. "You're really something, you know that? If you'd just get past that ridiculous notion you have of right and wrong, we could really have some fun together."
Lois was about to launch into a tirade about her supposed ethics versus his complete lack of any moral center, but she held her tongue. She couldn't afford to drive him off just yet. As uncomfortable as it was going to be, she was going to have to suck it up and spend some time with this vile creature masquerading as her beloved. She just hoped that she'd be able to hide the fact that the super-clone made her skin crawl.
"Shall we?" He looked at her, a barracuda-like smile on his face.
Lois gritted her teeth and took a deep breath. "Sure."
Clark hovered high overhead of the small mountain that housed the facility where Nigel St. John and Dr. Mamba operated from. He could see where the rock slides covered both the normal front entrance and the back entrance he and Lois had discovered back when they had first found the place. Obviously, St. John, and the rest, had some way to get in. He used his enhanced vision powers to scan the entire mountain top. He knew that Nigel must've had some nearby entrance when he'd surprised him and Lois the other day.
After a few moments he located two different ways into the site. One, as he'd expected, was near the airshafts, but there was another one off to the north side of the slope. It was surrounded by large boulders and the only way in was from the air. It didn't take a genius to guess who used that egress.
Clark landed softly on the largest boulder next to the secret entrance. He looked through the earth covering the tunnel. He saw a long, sloping hallway that led back toward what used to be the back entrance. There was no one in the vicinity so he quickly dropped down into the facility.
He used a moment to orient himself. He'd never been inside the complex, but he'd done a lot of research on the original mine site and had checked out the entire layout while looking down from above. It was a massive place, and with the minimal crew that presently occupied the site, there was more empty space than area in use. It would be easy to get lost in there.
Clark paused for a moment, then took off in the direction he thought would lead him toward the dorm-like living quarters. He had a better chance of finding Henderson in one of those than in any lab or office.
As he walked, he tried to come up with some plan of action. Lois had been all for him coming here pretending to be the clone. Sure, it would give him access, and he probably wouldn't run into any trouble with most of the staff, but he wasn't sure he could fool Mamba or St. John.
So, where did that leave him? What sort of evidence could he dig up if he had to make sure he didn't run into either of them? And what about Henderson? Lois would be thrilled if he got Bill out of the place, but it wasn't like that would help them nail St. John. Henderson couldn't exactly tell the authorities that he'd been kidnapped and held prisoner without it coming out that he'd been in league with Nigel and his associates in the first place.
And where was Professor Hamilton? Lois figured that it was likely that the clone had taken the scientist to this place. It made sense. Emil hadn't been seen since he'd talked to the impostor at his press conference.
He tried to use his x-ray vision to see through the walls of the complex but was stymied by a combination of lead ore in the mountain, and lead paint on the walls. He'd had a much better view from above. Now that he was down in the middle of it all, it was like trying to look through a fine mesh fence.
He passed several intersections, and was now, obviously, coming into a section of the complex where more of the activity was concentrated. He'd passed three or four grim-looking fellows. Typical hired muscle types. None had made eye contact with him. So far, so good.
He came upon a heavy metal door and stopped. He could hear a rapid heart beat coming from inside. He tried his x-ray vision on the door. The paint was cracked and had peeled in some spots. It was enough to let him see a small portion of a lab on the other side of the door. He stared at it for a few minutes, until he was rewarded with the figure of a small, stooped man walking past his field of view. It was Emil Hamilton!
Clark found himself reaching for the heavy lever handle.
"There you are, my boy. I'm glad you're back."
Clark froze at the sound. He recognized the cultured accent immediately. A glance over one shoulder confirmed what his ears had already told him. Nigel St. John was coming toward him. Clark remembered from overhearing the clone's conversation with Lois that there was some sort of rift between his twin and the elder Englishman.
Clark took a surreptitious breath, then turned to face Nigel. He kept his expression impassive.
Nigel inclined his head slightly in Clark's direction. "I heard it on the news. A job well done I must say." St. John laid a hand on Clark's shoulder and used his other to point down the hallway. "Come, tell me everything." Clark found himself involuntarily following his nemesis.
Henderson was sitting on the small, hard chair that was the only other piece of furniture that one could rest on. Usually he just lay back on the bed, but today was different. He had to be ready.
He had no watch, nor any other way to tell time accurately, but his stomach told him that it was getting near to lunch. Soon someone would be in to serve him his meal.
Sometimes, St. John came along if he wanted to torture Bill with some bit of news. The amoral former British agent enjoyed trying to make him react. Usually, he was able to keep his calm, and not give away how he was feeling. But, occasionally, St. John was able to get a reaction from him. Generally, it only happened if it concerned Lois.
Most of the time it was just the over-sized flunky who delivered his meals. Bill had never thought of challenging the giant brute before, realizing that the man could probably break him in half if he wanted to.
Today was going to be different. If King Kong came in alone, he was going to act. He didn't have to beat the man, just distract him enough to get by him and out into the hallway. He fingered the heavy drawer sitting on the desk top next to him. He'd pulled it from its glides and had set it next to him. He figured it was the best weapon he could come up with and he'd get maybe one chance with it. He had to make it count.
Suddenly the door handle began to turn. He tensed as the door moved. He nearly exclaimed out loud when he saw the form of the guard holding the tray coming around the door. It wasn't Godzilla. It was just an ordinary goon. Well, the guy was a good six foot two, and easily outweighed Bill by forty pounds, but next to the man-thing he was used to seeing, this guy was Tiny Tim. Of course, he carried a gun in his other hand.
Bill instantly sized-up the situation and knew he had a chance. He'd been there for many days now and had offered no resistance of any kind. He'd always been a good little prisoner. There was no reason to think that his demeanor would change now. It was evident in the casual way the thug carried his weapon that he really didn't expect any trouble from Bill.
Henderson gave the fellow a goofy grin. "Dang, I was beginning to worry you forgot about me. I sure am hungry." He pointed to the desktop next to him. "Just set it there, please."
The guard just grunted and bent to set the tray on the desk. Moving with a speed that didn't give the man a chance to react, Bill snatched up the wooden drawer and, with a wide-arced swing, slammed it into the head of the startled fellow. He went down like a pole-axed steer.
Bill stood up and checked the guy's pulse. He was alive, but out cold. Dragging the unconscious man into the bathroom, he bound his hands and feet with the towels from the small room. He didn't have any tape to act as a gag, so he shoved a washcloth into the man's mouth. He waited a few moments to make sure the fellow was breathing through his nose before he left him there in the shower stall.
As he moved toward the door he glanced over at the lunch tray left, neglected, on the desk. He grabbed the spoon and quickly sampled the fare. "Dang, that's good chili."
He began to set the spoon back down when he changed the utensil's path. Plunging the spoon back into the bowl, he allowed himself several more mouthfuls before walking away from in and moving back to the door. It really was good chili. He stuck his head out and looked both ways down the hall outside his room. As he'd suspected, the room they'd kept him in wasn't in a high traffic area. He shoved the guard's pistol into his belt and stepped into the hallway, closing the door behind him.
Anyone seeing the bloodied, desperate-looking woman roaming the near-deserted halls of the old Boynton mine facility would have had a hard time reconciling that image with the refined, cultured, businesswoman of just twenty-four hours ago. There was a savagery in her look, and a cold fire burning in her eyes. Arianna Carlin-Luthor had reverted to a primal state.
She prowled the halls with a purpose, careful to avoid being seen by anyone who wasn't her prey. Even though she'd never been in the facility before, she knew basically where she wanted to go. She just followed those who wore white lab coats.
Her progress was agonizingly slow because she had to take extra care to not be discovered as she came into areas of greater activity and personnel. But her caution paid off. Eventually she had worked her way through the basic labs and work areas of the small contingent of support staff. These gave way to a larger, more elaborate laboratory. One that was definitely more private.
She hadn't seen anyone in this area for several minutes. Of course, the 'private — keep out' signs might have had something to do with it. She knew she'd reached her goal.
Waiting several more minutes, just to be sure, Arianna finally approached the door to the private lab. She nearly shouted out with glee when she pushed down the handle and it moved beneath her hand. What an idiot he was. All his warnings, and postings against trespassers, yet the moron didn't even lock his door.
She eased the large door quietly open, thanking whatever gods watched over vengeful women that the door's hinges were well maintained. She slipped inside, letting the door close silently behind her. She could see the object of her search hunched over a microscope.
She could hear Mamba's mutterings. "I don't see how this could neutralize the effects of kryptonite radiation," the doctor mumbled to himself. "I wonder if Hamilton ever really had an antidote."
Arianna soundlessly crept closer until she was directly behind him. "Is that any way to talk about another man's research, doctor?"
Mamba straightened up in shock. Before he could turn, Arianna had one hand in his hair, and the other positioned such that the straight razor, which had served her so well so far, was against Mamba's throat.
"You have one chance of coming out of this little adventure alive." Her voice was soft, but full of menace. She got a great deal of satisfaction out of feeling his body shiver under her touch. "I'm going to ask you just one question. You will answer this question truthfully, and with no hesitation. If I like the answer, I'll let you live. If I think you're lying to me, I'll slit your throat and let you bleed to death like the traitorous pig that you are." She pressed the blade a little tighter to his throat, nicking the skin just enough to cause a slight trickle of blood to form a tiny rivulet sliding down his neck. "Ready?" She smiled as his body began to shake.
She placed her lips against his right ear. Her voice was a steel-edged whisper. "Where is she?"
Clark walked along next to Nigel St. John, not sure how to proceed. So far a sulky silence had served him well. St. John hadn't seen through his charade yet, but he knew that it was only a matter of time. Nigel had referenced a 'job well-done', but what that job might have been Clark had no idea. He wasn't sure how much longer he could remain silent, but he needed some sort of clue as to what St. John had been talking about.
"Look, my boy, I know you're upset with me because I told you to stay away from Sergeant Lane, but if you look at the situation logically, you'll see that it's for the best."
"I guess." Clark kept his head down and half mumbled his response.
Nigel led Clark into what clearly was his office. It wasn't a large room, but it was efficiently appointed. The desk was of moderate size and tidy. A phone system on one side and a couple of paper trays on the other. A computer sat on a side credenza. St. John sat in a typical office-style chair behind the desk, and Clark took one of the guest chairs, which sat in front.
St. John folded his hands in front of him. "I take it we won't have to be worried about Intergang getting in our way now, will we?"
"Guess not." Clark stayed with the reluctant monotone. Intergang! Did the job that he was supposed to have done have something to do with Intergang? Clark racked his brain for any information he might have about the shadowy criminal organization that supposedly had moved into Metropolis.
He wasn't aware of any real hard evidence against the crime cartel, but rumors had been flying hot and heavy for a few months now. Clark replayed as much of the street gossip he'd heard through his head as he could. There wasn't much there to help him. The only things he could seize onto were that the person, or persons at the top were well-known figures, and that they ran a successfully legitimate business as their front. Apparently St. John knew more than Clark did.
"You're not going to make me pull the details out of you bit by bit, just because you're cross with me, are you? I'd like to hear you tell me how it went down."
Clark shrugged, still playing up the sulky child act. "You heard the report. I'd imagine you could guess how it went."
Nigel sighed, then nodded his head. "Oh, I can imagine, all right. I know you delight in showing off your powers, but don't you think this was a bit over the top, even for you?"
Clark didn't make eye contact with St. John. Instead, he let his gaze drift about the room, as if he were getting bored. "No. I did what I thought was best."
Nigel shook his head and allowed himself a slight chuckle. "Well, it certainly does send a message. I mean, dismembering the entire family and stuffing their various body parts into their own company's dumpster is not something that will be soon forgotten."
A chill knifed through Clark's being. His clone had done that? Dismembered human beings? It didn't matter that, whoever this family was, they were criminals. They were still people. How could anyone kill so casually, and so cruelly? Clark was shocked.
"That was in the news report?" The words came out before he could stop them.
Nigel shook his head again. "No, but I had people on scene when the police found the bodies. Or I should say, the body parts."
Clark had to fight his gag reflex. Talking about tearing people apart as if it were no more than the latest stock market report made Clark want to retch. But he knew he couldn't let St. John see how he was being affected. After all, he was supposed to be the one who had done it!
At least he now knew what his job was supposed to have been. Eliminate more competition. More specifically, Intergang. The problem was, he still didn't know who that had been. He hadn't paid much attention to the news that morning. He'd been too worried about Lois' impending lunch date with the clone.
His stomach knotted as he thought about Lois being with a creature that could do such a thing. A super powered being who thought nothing of rending people limb from limb. He had to find a means to get away from St. John. He had to get back to Lois.
Henderson prowled the hallways, making sure that no one saw him. The fact that the facility was huge was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it meant that the likelihood of running into someone was lessened considerably. He knew, from their conversations, that St. John didn't house a lot of people there, and Mamba only had a small staff working under him. The problem was, the large size of the complex made it difficult to know where he was and where he was going. There had to be a way out of the place, but how to find it was the question.
He'd been gone for nearly an hour, by his guesstimate, and still an alarm hadn't been raised. Apparently no one was missing his waiter yet. Bill knew it wouldn't be long before the fellow was noticed not to be where he was supposed to be. So, he had to find a way out, and soon.
Rounding a corner, he nearly ran into a small man wearing a white lab coat. Henderson quickly averted his face and grunted something unintelligible as he brushed past. He held his breath as he walked on, waiting for the person to call out after him, but he never did. That was a close one, he thought to himself.
He had to duck into empty rooms twice to avoid a couple of other people in lab coats. He reasoned he must be in the research end of the complex. Bill racked his brain trying to remember the reports he'd read about this place. Did any of them contain a blueprint of the facility? He was drawing a blank. It looked like he'd have to continue to flail about and trust to his luck.
Coming upon a junction, he slowed as voices broke the more common silence of the complex. He approached the corner slowly and stealthy peered around it. He saw another of the generic thugs leaving a room holding a tray filled with empty dishes and tableware. It looked like someone had actually gotten a chance to eat their lunch.
He watched as the guard threw a simple slide bolt across the closed door and moved on down the hallway in the opposite direction. Clearly, Henderson hadn't been the only captive being held.
After a quick check up and down the adjacent hallways, he moved swiftly to the closed door. With a rapid jerk, he slid the bolt back, and eased the door open. Slipping inside, he stayed close to the door just in case he had to exit quickly.
He let his gaze pan slowly around the obvious laboratory. Off to one side, bent over a table full of scientific 'stuff', was a small man. His movements were furtive and guarded. His absorption in his task wasn't complete though. He must have heard Henderson enter because he turned around and saw Bill standing there.
The small man's gaze locked onto Henderson's as his eyes widened in surprise at seeing someone there. Then the fellow's eyes made a quick flick toward the upper corner of the room. Bill followed his glance and saw the camera mounted there. He noted that his position by the door wasn't quite in the cameras view and gave silent thanks that there hadn't been any cameras mounted in the outer hallways.
So, whoever this scientist was, he was being watched. That meant he wasn't here of his own free choice. A situation Bill had gleaned from the fact that the door had been locked from the outside. He had to give the fellow credit, he didn't call out, nor did he make any obvious moves or gestures, beyond that first look of surprise that would've given Henderson away. Bill just watched as the small man went into some kind of act.
The movements were jerky, and betrayed a bit of fear, but he had to admire the little man's performance. After puttering around with his instruments for a few more minutes, the fellow picked up a clipboard and posed for the camera, as if in deep thought. He wandered over toward the wall just a few feet down from where Bill stood. There was a storage cabinet there. Once the man reached it, he flattened himself against the wall and edged his way toward Henderson.
His voice was only a whisper. "I'm out of range of the camera now, but I don't know if the place is wired for sound." He stuck his hand out. "I'm Professor Emil Hamilton, late of Star Labs, lately a captive of Superman."
Henderson frowned. "The creature you've been dealing with is not Superman." Bill matched the professor's whisper. "The real Superman is dead."
The small scientist's face fell. "I'm sorry to hear that, though I have to admit that I'm not surprised." Hamilton leaned closer. "So, is the Superman who kidnapped me… a clone?"
Bill nodded. "Yeah, at least that's what I've been able to get out of my association with these people over the past months. No one has come right out and told me, but they haven't tried to hide the fact either."
"Knowing a bit about Dr. Mamba's research, that would've been my guess." Hamilton gave him a confused look. "Exactly who are you, if I may ask?"
Bill allowed himself a self-mocking grin. "Bill Henderson, late of the Metropolis Police Department."
The Professor's eyes got wide again. "You're a police officer? Are you undercover?"
"I wish." Bill pulled the door open again and peeked out into the hallway. "Say, professor, what do you say we get out of here? I'm tired of speaking in whispers, and I'd really like to get the heck out of this place."
Hamilton nodded rapidly, giving him the look of a human bobble- head doll. "I'm all for that, but if I'm being watched all the time, they'll know fairly soon that I'm gone, and that will institute a search."
"Yeah, but I hope we will have enough of a head start to find a way out of here."
"I'm afraid I have no idea how to get out of this place."
Bill shrugged. "Why am I not surprised by that?"
The Clark clone sat opposite Lois Lane in a quiet corner of a small Italian restaurant a few blocks away from the precinct house. She had suggested it, and he had told her that it would be fine. He liked pasta. She seemed a bit nervous, or maybe just ill at ease. He could understand that. He was a pretty imposing fellow. He wondered if she'd known Kent before he'd lost his powers.
She was a beautiful woman. Not in the over-the-top way of some super models, or a silicon-stuffed starlet. She was real. She had all the curves that a man could want, and eyes that you could get lost in… if you allowed it. She wasn't perfect. Her silky, dark hair was too short for his tastes. The practical style suited an active woman like her, and he had to admit that it did look good on her. He just liked the long flowing styles that most of the women he had been with favored.
They had sent the waiter off with their orders, and now he was curious as to where the conversation was going to go. He knew she didn't like him. Heck, she probably hated him. He had been a party to the murder of her former lover. But, if she was smart, she'd get over that. No matter what she thought of him, he planned to stick around her. It was going to be fun.
He pasted an indifferent smile onto his face and waited for her to begin the conversation.
"So," she began, after clearing her throat a couple of times. "How much do you know of your, um — birth?"
He grinned at her discomfort. "Do you mean, do I know that I'm really just an artificial construct grown from the cells of a *real* man who is now dead?" Lois flinched at the word 'dead'. "Yeah, I'm well aware of what… and who, I am."
"Oh." Lois played with her napkin. "Does the knowledge bother you?"
The clone shrugged. "Should it? I think, I feel, I have free will. I'd say that makes me a living being, wouldn't you?"
Lois shrugged. "I don't know? Do you have free will, or are you just a product of your programming?"
He laughed. "Touche, Lois. But, really, we're all products of our environment and upbringing. Our *programming* as it were. Mine was just more concentrated."
Lois shook her head, sadly. "Yes, but I had the advantage of a lifetime of influences and experiences to use to come up with my personal value system. My parents weren't exactly what you'd call the best role models for a young girl growing up, but that didn't mean I had to follow their example. I learned and was able to make my own choices as to what sort of person I turned out to be."
He, grudgingly, had to give the woman credit. She wasn't about to back down. And, it was clear, she might be leery of him, but she wasn't afraid. "And I'm learning too. As each day goes by, I experience living, and it affects me, just as it does you."
Lois waved her hands in frustration. "But, if that's true, how can you not see St. John and Mamba for who they really are? How can you pretend to be Superman and not be affected by the good you have done when you've made those rescues and helped so many people?"
He reached over and rubbed his thumb across the back of her hand. She pulled it away. He grinned at her action. "Look, Lois, I may look like the former idol of millions, but as you've so eloquently pointed out before, I'm not him. I'm me."
He leaned back in his chair as their food was delivered. He watched her as she picked up her fork and dug into her pasta. He hid a grin behind a drink from his water glass. He could see the tension on Lois' face as she tried to look nonchalant while eating her lunch.
"I know exactly who Nigel St. John is. And I'll admit that it's been fun playing the hero. Having all those people fawning over you is a kick." She looked up as he reinitiated the conversation. "But do you know what's even more fun? What's more satisfying?" She shook her head, her mouth still full of food. "Power. It's true, you know. Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac." He leaned closer to her. "And I have the power. I'm the most powerful being on this planet. It's by my will that someone, anyone, lives or dies."
Her eyes suddenly took on a steel-like glint. Her mouth drew into a tight line. He could almost see the anger rising in her body. "Really," she said between clenched teeth. "Seems to me that it's Nigel St. John who makes those decisions, not you. You're nothing more than his super-powered lap dog."
The clone felt his face flush in a growing anger. He reached over and grabbed Lois by the chin, squeezing just enough for her to feel pain. He could see her discomfort in her eyes, but she refused to cry out. "Don't play your mind games with me, Lane. It may look like St. John is in charge of things, but that's because I want it that way. I let Nigel think that he is still in charge because it amuses me. I allow this because, so far, our agendas happen to coincide."
Lois sat back in her chair, putting as much distance between her and the clone as possible. She rubbed her chin with her fingers. "Do you really believe that?"
His hand clenched on the water glass causing it to shatter and splash water across the tabletop. The clone ignored the mess as his eyes blazed in anger. "Yes, I do. It may have taken me some time to have my eyes opened, but now that the blinders are off, both Nigel St. John and Dr. Mamba are going to find out whose desires will prevail."
He glared down at her as he stood. It made him feel good to see fear flash across her face. It didn't matter that she'd angered him. He wasn't about to harm her yet. He wasn't done with Detective Lois Lane, not by a long shot.
"I think this lunch date is over. I'm sure you can find your way back to the police station on your own." He made to leave but was stopped by a hand on his arm.
He turned in time to see her glance at her watch, then shift her gaze toward him. "Don't go. Not yet. I really am interested in what you think, and why you are like you are." She ducked her head and took a deep breath. "I can't ever condone what you've done with the gifts you've been given, but I'd like to try and understand why you feel the way you do."
His brow rose as he stared at the woman seated in front of him. She was biting her lip, not meeting his eyes. Suspicion rose in him. What was she up to? He knew what she thought of him. She didn't care why he did anything. She was only interested in seeing him pay for what he and St. John had done to the other Clark. She was up to something… but what?
Clark stared at Nigel St. John, who drummed his fingers on the desk. He was getting more nervous that he'd be discovered as each moment went by. Not that he was afraid for himself; he did have his powers back after all. But if he were found out and word got back to the super clone, where would that leave Lois? He wasn't as confident as she was that the creature wouldn't hurt her.
He had stayed mostly non-communicative with the man, and St. John was getting a bit fed up.
"Look, my boy, you have to realize that sometimes we have to submerge our personal wants and needs for the good of the larger picture. I can imagine that some might find Miss Lane desirable… sexually, but you can have your pick of nearly any woman in the world. We need Detective Lane to function in her position as a policewoman. I can't have her distracted by your attempts at seduction."
Clark felt his stomach clench at the thought of that vile creature making advances at Lois. Not for the first time, he wondered how much sway St. John actually had over the clone. He hoped that the creature was smart enough to realize that Nigel was right, that they needed Lois where she was, regardless of how he might resent St. John at the moment.
He brought his mind back into focus onto what Nigel was saying. "Look, if in the near future, we find we no longer need Lane as our tool in the department, you have my blessing to do with her whatever you will. But for now, let's leave the woman alone, shall we?"
St. John was staring at him, waiting for some sort of response. "Ah, sure, I guess that makes sense." Clark added a meek shrug. No sense in antagonizing the older man.
The light on the desk phone began to blink which interrupted the heart to heart they'd been having. St. John reached over and picked up the receiver. Clark watched as the Englishman's face darkened. "Very well," he said. "Tell Gunther to get Boris, and then meet me at reception." Being out of practice, Clark hadn't thought to listen in on the conversation.
He gave him a quizzical look as St. John rose from his desk and moved toward the entrance. "Come along, my boy, we have a problem. Your assistance could be needed."
"It seems that your friend, Professor Hamilton, has managed to wander off."
Clark frowned. So Hamilton had been here, and now he had escaped? "How could he do that?"
They exited the room and began to move down the hallway. "He couldn't, not without some help." Suddenly, there was a buzzing coming from St. John's pocket. He reached into his coat and pulled out a small cell phone. He listened for a few moments. Clark didn't quite catch the words mumbled from the other side. "Of course, I should have guessed," Nigel said. He stuck the small device back into his coat pocket, then turned toward Clark. "Well, we now know who helped the professor."
Clark felt a spark of hope begin to flame. "Who?"
St. John increased his pace. "Henderson. It appears he overpowered the guard who brought him his lunch and slipped out."
Clark followed along, barely keeping up with the long strides of the tall Englishman. "So, where are we going?"
They rounded another corner and moved into another long straight hallway. "We're going to reception. As you're aware, it's the only way in or out of here that the general staff knows about."
"What about the two up at the top of the mountain?" The look St. John gave him made Clark realize that he probably had just committed a faux pas. "I mean, isn't it possible that they could've somehow found their way out that way?"
The older man frowned. "As far as I knew, there was only one extra egress constructed at the top of the mountain… unless you had decided you needed one for yourself?" St. John took Clark's silence as an admission of guilt. "It doesn't matter. But think about it. Neither Henderson, nor Hamilton, knows the layout of this complex. How are they going to find their way out?"
Clark shrugged. "Luck?"
St. John snorted. "Hardly. Oh, they might have tried that method for a time, but once they realized that their time must be running out, they'd opt for the more logical approach. They'll have coerced a member of the staff to show them the way."
Clark nodded, more to himself than as an acknowledgement of the statement. It made sense. With a facility this large, anyone not familiar with it could wander aimlessly for hours before happening upon the 'front door'.
A few more yards and the hallway ended at a large intersection. Other halls went off to the right and the left, and a large double door was dead ahead. Without slowing for a beat, St. John reached for the lever and pushed one of the large doors open.
Clark found himself following Nigel into what could only be described as a commercial style reception area. The room was approximately twenty feet square with another set of double doors opposite those which they'd entered through. A single desk with a startled-looking fellow sitting behind it was just to the right of the doors. There were a couple of sterile-looking office style reception chairs off to the other side. Within another moment, a very large man walked through the door and nodded at St. John.
"Where's Boris?" St. John asked as soon as the man entered.
The big man shrugged. "I don't know, he didn't answer."
Nigel frowned, then motioned the man to flank the other side of the door. Pulling a revolver from his coat pocket, St. John kept his eye on the double doors they'd just used. Clark wondered what he was going to do if Henderson and Hamilton came through that door. He couldn't let either of them come to harm, but should he just use his powers to help them escape? He saw the other man draw a pistol, also. He wasn't in any danger, but with bullets flying about, even with his speed, there was a chance that Bill, or the professor, could get hurt. He'd have to be careful and watch for his opportunity.
Lois would be pleased with getting Henderson free, but he wasn't sure that either Bill or Hamilton knew enough to really give them what they'd need to put St. John and his cronies behind bars.
Henderson's testimony would be tainted by his prior involvement with them. That was, if he would be willing to testify at all. And who knew how much Professor Hamilton knew? Would anyone believe that he'd been kidnapped by an evil clone of Superman? Did he really want that knowledge to come out?
His mind had been so engaged he hadn't noticed that St. John had received another phone call until he saw the older man closing the lid on his small cell phone and slipping it back into his pocket. "Who was that?" Clark asked, trying to sound merely curious.
"Nobody important." St. John gave him only the slightest of glances before turning his attention back to the double doors. Holding the pistol tightly in his right hand, Nigel slipped his left hand into his coat pocket. He seemed a study in casual menace.
Suddenly the doors burst open and a slight fellow in a white lab coat came stumbling into the reception area. He was followed by two other men, one of whom held a gun in his right hand.
"Ah, Inspector Henderson, so good of you to finally show up. I see you brought the good professor with you. You've both been very naughty fellows."
Lois had placed her hand on the clone's arm. "Don't go. Not yet. I really am interested in what you think, and why you are like you are." She had said as she'd ducked her head and took a deep breath. "I can't ever condone what you've done with the gifts you've been given, but I'd like to try and understand why you feel the way you do."
She really didn't give a darn what the vile creature thought or felt, but she needed to keep him there longer. Clark would need all the time she could give him for his investigation at the Boynton complex. It wouldn't do to have the clone busting in on him.
She tried to affect an innocent look as the clone, frowning, stared at her. "What are you up to? I know you don't really care two figs for what I think."
Lois rolled her eyes. She'd have to take a different tack. "Okay, but I'm an investigator. I'm curious. What makes you tick?" She took another breath, then took the plunge. "I'd like to know how you can kill people so casually."
"You've killed," he said, matter-of-factly.
"Only in self-defense, or to defend someone else." Lois' lips drew tight. "It's not the same thing."
The grin on the clone's face was almost scary. "I suppose not, but you have to admit that the feeling you get when you snuff the life out of that first person is… exhilarating."
"Come on. You mean to tell me that watching someone plead for their life doesn't get your juices flowing? That the fear on their faces when they realize that you're about to terminate their pitiful existence doesn't excite you? My god, it's better than sex."
Lois slumped back in her seat. The creature was perverted. How he could have ever come from cells that had originally belonged to Clark she'd never know. And she didn't even want to think about the fact that this 'thing' had sexual relations with a woman at some point. "That's sick," she said under her breath.
Realizing, too late, that he could hear that, she quickly looked up for his reaction. His grin just got wider and scarier. "You asked."
Lois nodded. "Yes, I did." She patted the table. "So, sit. I may find it disgusting, but I do want to know." He turned and began to walk away. "Hey, where are you going?"
He winked at her. "I've got to go to the little superhero's room. I'll be right back."
She watched him disappear down the short hall in the back of the restaurant that led to the restrooms. She clenched her fists a couple of times to keep her hands from shaking. That clone was one of the scariest individuals she'd ever met. And she'd known Lex Luthor.
She had to hold it together for Clark's sake. She had to give him time. Just then the clone came back, a strange look on his face. He stared down at her. She couldn't help but squirm under his gaze. "What?"
He sat down and took her hand in his. She raised a brow at the gesture. "I just had the strangest conversation," he said.
"Conversation?" Lois tried to pull her hand away, but he held it tightly.
"Yes, I called St. John to let him know that I'd be a bit later than originally planned." Lois' eyes widened. "And do you know what he said?" She swallowed and shook her head. "He said that I was already there. Had been for over a half an hour. Imagine that. What do you make of it, Lois?"
She tried to shrug but his grip on her hand wouldn't allow the movement. "I don't know. Has Mamba created another clone?"
He chuckled. "No, that would have been impossible. You see, once I was cognizant enough to know just what I was, I destroyed the original culture and all his DNA samples. I didn't want any competition." He leaned forward. "So… who is back at the center, playing at being me?"
Lois held her voice as steady as she could. "I can't imagine."
The clone stood, pulling Lois to her feet also. "Let's go find out, shall we?"
Clark saw the look of defeat on Henderson's face as the policeman took in the scene that confronted him. He could tell that Bill thought he'd just blown his one last chance for freedom.
The befuddled lab technician got to his feet and stared around him in complete confusion. Nigel just nodded his head and the young man fled back the way he'd come in. Nigel's gun was raised; Henderson's was being held loosely.
"I'd drop the weapon if I were you, Inspector." The cultured accent seemed to just make the simple statement that much more menacing.
Henderson raised his own revolver. "Maybe you should be the one dropping your weapon?"
St. John shook his head sorrowfully. "I don't think you're that stupid, Inspector. We have two guns trained on you." Clark glanced over and noticed that Gunther had his weapon raised also. "You might get one shot off, but you'd surely be dead before you could fire another."
Henderson smiled. "It might be worth it to get you."
St. John gave him a wan smile. "You're overlooking my added *protector*." He inclined his head toward Clark. Henderson sighed and dropped his gun.
Clark kept looking back and forth between St. John, Gunther, and Henderson. Professor Hamilton just stood dumbly next to Bill. Clark knew he had to do something, but he didn't know what. If he made some move toward St. John, the other thug, Gunther, might start firing. Not only did he have to worry about Bill, or the Professor, being targets, but any bullet aimed at him, however misguided, could result in an unfortunate ricochet. He was frozen, not knowing what to do. Maybe Lois had been right. He was rusty.
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to teach you a lesson, Henderson." Nigel turned toward Clark. "Give the good Inspector a lesson in what it means to cross us." St. John smiled. "Nothing lethal. Just make him understand what it means to break the rules."
Clark's head was on a swivel. He felt trapped. He looked at St. John, then at Henderson. He could see Bill grimacing, anticipating some sort of physical abuse. Clark took one step forward. Then turned toward Nigel.
"What good would beating on him do?" Clark tried to affect a disinterested voice. "I thought you wanted him as leverage against Lane? He's no good as a hostage if he's dead."
"I don't want him dead," Nigel said. "Just broken a bit." Clark's step faltered a bit. "What's the matter, my boy? I know you enjoy this stuff. Why the hesitation?"
"Maybe that's because he's not who he's supposed to be."
All eyes, including Clark's, turned to the sound of the new voice. Coming through the door behind Henderson was the super clone. Dressed in his suit, he was the spitting image of the Superman standing near St. John.
Clark's attention quickly shifted from the spandex-clad clone to the person held tightly in his grasp. Lois! He took a step forward.
"Nah, ah." The clone waved a finger in the air. "Don't move a muscle." He slid his hand up around Lois' throat. "I'd hate to have to twist this pretty little head clean off." He nuzzled Lois' hair.
Lois felt her skin crawl when the clone held her close and stuck his face into her hair. She saw the fear and indecision on Clark's face. Her hopes began to fade. She knew that he would never do anything to endanger her. They'd lost.
"You made good time." St. John addressed the clone as the bogus Superman moved toward one end of the room. Lois had no choice but to be dragged along. She could see the tension in Clark's body language.
Nigel glanced down at the front desk security guard who'd been sitting, stunned, the whole time they'd been there. "I want you to go find Mamba and tell him to come up here." The guard looked relieved to have an excuse to leave.
"Now isn't this a cozy situation." Lois' head snapped around to see Bill shaking his head. If she didn't know better she'd say he thought this was all just too funny. "So what now, Nigel, old man?"
"I say we just kill them all, and get it over with." The clone's tone was deep and fraught with menace.
"You know I won't let you do that." Clark's voice was just as calmly menacing.
The clone laughed. "And what are you going to do… has been?" He gave Lois a slight shake. "As long as I control your little squeeze toy, you ain't going to do a thing." He nodded over toward where Henderson and Hamilton stood. "I could flash fry your two friends over there and you'd do nothing but stand and watch as long as I had a hold of Lois' lovely neck."
"Shut up, and don't be stupid." It was unusual to hear St. John raise his voice and so it grabbed everyone's attention. "We still have need of these people."
Lois could feel the clone's body tense next to her. "No, you shut up! I'm tired of you thinking I'm just some stupid lackey. I'm glad that Mamba is coming. It's time the two of you learned who is really in charge now."
Lois was thinking furiously. There must be some way to take advantage of this rift that was forming between St. John and the clone. But as long as he held onto her, she was greatly inhibited in what she could do, and Clark wouldn't do anything to endanger her. She hated being helpless.
"Come, come, my boy." Nigel spoke in a calming tone. "This isn't the right time to have this conversation. We can discuss your grievances once we have the situation back under control."
"Is he always that condescending toward you?" Lois piped in.
"I hadn't noticed it at first, but I think he has been." The clone practically growled.
Nigel rolled his eyes. "Oh good heavens. Are you listening to her now? You know what she's doing, don't you?"
"Just shut up! Everyone shut up!" The clone's brow furrowed deeply. "I need to think."
Lois wanted to laugh out loud at that, but controlled the urge. A movement seen out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. The other large thug, the one who'd been on the far side of Clark, had begun to slowly move. She wasn't sure what he thought he was going to do. After all, the clone was invulnerable.
The fellow was a giant of a man, though, and he might prove troublesome for Bill at some point, so she decided that her personal captor should know.
She leaned back against the clone and nodded her head in the big man's direction. She could feel the shift in his body position. She smelt burnt hair as a great blast of heat flashed directly over her head. She closed her eyes as she saw Nigel's gorilla burst into flame. She couldn't shut out the scream.
Everyone was shocked into silence for several moments. It was St. John who broke the stillness first. "Why did you do that? Gunther couldn't hurt you?"
The clone's voice began to rise. "Shut up! If you don't want to be next, just shut up."
Lois could tell that the clone was near a breaking point but wasn't sure how it should play out. She wouldn't shed any tears if the creature decided to incinerate St. John, but she wasn't sure if Clark would be able to handle the clone one on one. She cursed the luck that had forced her to leave her purse behind. She could use that piece of kryptonite now.
She had her attention on Clark, watching him internally wrestle with himself, so she missed the furtive moment by Nigel. He stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a small foil wrapped object. Before anyone knew what he was doing, the lead foil had come off the crystal and a sickly green glow seemed to light up the man's hand. Kryptonite!
She felt the clone's grip on her slacken as he clutched his head and slipped to the floor. She stepped away from the groaning creature. "Clark!" A harsh whisper escaped from her when her gaze fell on the other writhing figure on the floor. She started to move over toward him when a gunshot rang out, causing her to stop and look toward the sound.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Detective." St. John was holding the still smoking gun. "Please step over there next to your former partner."
Biting her lip, Lois reluctantly did so. Her heart was breaking watching Clark in such pain.
The two supermen lay writhing on the floor. "I wish that Mamba would get here," he said, somewhat crossly. "We need to get this little disturbance…"
Everyone's attention was diverted by the crashing open of the double doors. "He's here now, you sick, misbegotten, double crossing scum."
Lois momentarily was distracted from Clark's troubles by the shocking figure of a bloodied and disheveled Arianna Luthor pushing a visibly shaken Dr. Mamba into the room. Mamba stumbled, then fell, landing between the two supermen.
Nigel was stunned into immobility for several moments. That was all Arianna needed. Two quick shots rang out, echoing loudly off the hard plaster walls. Lois' mouth opened in surprise as she saw the blood roses erupt on St. John's chest. He slowly sank to his knees, then toppled over.
With two quick strides she moved over to where the large Englishman lay bleeding on the beige carpet. She bent over so she was only a few inches away from his ear. "I want to thank you for sending that security flunky out looking for Mamba. I was wondering where I was going to get a gun." She launched a violent kick to St. John's body. "Die, you crumpet-eating creep." There was no response from the man lying on the floor.
Lois, like everyone else, was riveted to the tableau that had just unfolded but she was able to regain her reason quicker than the others. She made a move toward where the hunk of kryptonite now lay after rolling out of St. John's hand. Another gunshot rang out, and a bullet planted itself into the flooring just in front of her. She stopped.
"Not so fast, Lane." Arianna now had the gun pointed at Lois, and in effect, Henderson and Hamilton also. "I think I'm seeing double here. What gives?"
"You have to let me get the kryptonite away from Superman," Lois said in a rush. "It's killing him!"
Arianna stared at her, then looked from one identical Superman to the other. "Let me get this straight. One of those guys is the real Superman?"
"I thought he was dead?"
Lois' voice began to crack in her frustration. "He was only put out of commission for a while. He's back now, but he will be dead if I don't get that kryptonite away from him."
A slight smile found it's way onto the battered face of the current head of the LexCorp empire. "And the other one is the clone? Mamba and St. John's super lackey?"
"Yes." The smile became larger. "Let them both die."
"What!" Lois' eyes goggled in disbelief. "Are you crazy? I said that's the real Superman down there."
Arianna chuckled. "I heard you. But think about it. Why would I want any Superman around to get in my way… hey, what do you think you're doing?"
Lois turned, and it was suddenly like one of those slow motion sequences in the movies. The ones where a particularly dramatic incident was being played out. She saw the small man, who she now recognized as Professor Hamilton, scurry over toward Clark. Arianna shouted something that she didn't hear. The woman turned her revolver toward Hamilton. Behind her she felt Bill moving, making a dive.
Even though it seemed like it took forever to happen, the logical part of Lois' brain knew that it all occurred within a couple of seconds. Another gunshot reverberated through the room just as her old partner launched himself into a dive in front of the small professor, who was bent over Clark.
Lois heard the shout, but it sounded like it came from someone else, even though she knew she was the one who had voiced it. She saw Bill's body jerk as the bullet hit him while still in the air. Instinct, and training, took over Lois. One swift step took her within range of the murderous CEO. Her foot lashed out and struck the hand that held the revolver. The gun flew across the room. Lois followed up with a quick shot to Arianna's nose with the flat of her hand and a judo chop to the woman's neck. Arianna slumped to the floor.
Lois hustled over and picked up the gun, then turned to view the carnage. The kryptonite was still glowing obscenely in the middle of the floor. Bill was lying in a growing pool of his own blood. And Hamilton was bent over Clark who was… getting up!
She hesitated for a moment, confused, but relieved to see Clark seeming to be getting better, then rushed over to her ex-partner, tears beginning to fall from her eyes. "You stupid jerk, what did you think you were doing?"
Bill smiled up at her. He reached up and touched the wetness that now covered her cheek. "Tears? For me?" A deep chuckle escaped from the former cop's mouth. "I hate to spoil such a dramatic moment, but I don't think the wound is fatal. Arianna never could hit a moving target."
Lois was able to smile through her tears. "Well, that's lucky for you. If you would have died after all I went through to get you free, I'd have killed you."
Bill raised his brow. "Come again?"
She giggled as she shook her head. "You know what I mean." She reached into his pocket and pulled out his handkerchief. She pressed it against the shoulder that had taken the bullet. "Hold that there."
"Yes, mom." He did so. She glowered at him, but she couldn't keep her expression from changing to another smile.
She pushed herself to her feet and rushed over to where Clark was now standing next to the bespectacled professor. She placed her hand on his chest. "How?" Her voice was full of wonder.
Clark took her hands in his. "Emil risked his life to slip me a potion of some sort he had on him. Apparently it's an antidote to kryptonite poisoning. That's why he was here. He'd approached the clone, thinking he was me, to tell him he'd created the cure to Superman's only lethal weakness."
"I'm afraid the clone is dead."
Lois and Clark turned, seeing Hamilton bent over the other spandex-clad individual. Lois hadn't noticed the small man leave.
Clark's brow furrowed in confusion. "How is that possible? We weren't exposed long enough for the effects to be lethal?"
Hamilton shrugged. "Maybe his resistance to the radiation wasn't as great as yours? I don't think he'd ever been really exposed to the stuff." Emil looked up at the super hero. "I imagine you'd have built up some resistance from your exposures over the years." He shrugged again. "Maybe it was just a flaw in the cloning process?"
Lois looked up at Clark, then down at the dead clone. Seeing him there, looking so much like Clark, sent a shiver down her spine. She hoped she'd never again have to get this close to seeing the man she loved die.
"Didn't the clone get the antidote?" Lois asked. "I thought that's why you were working here?"
Hamilton shook his head. "I was fooled at first, but it didn't take me long to realize something wasn't right with the Superman I was dealing with." The professor shook his head as he stood. "I gave them a phony antidote. Kept the real thing for myself." He grinned. "I'm glad I did."
"Hey." Bill's voice cut through to gain the trio's attention. "I'm glad he did also, but can't somebody get this broken down old cop, who happens to be bleeding all over himself, the heck out of here?"
Lois grinned up at Clark, then gave him a questioning look. He nodded. "I feel almost back to normal already." He gave Emil a wink. "The stuff works great, professor."
"Hello? Bleeding ex-cop here."
Lois chuckled and gave her ex-partner an amused smile. "Just hold on for another minute."
She reached out and took Clark's face in her hands. She pulled his head down to where she was waiting. Their lips met in a sweet explosion of passion and desire.
Lois sat on the couch in her living room, her nerves beginning to get the best of her. Clark was on his way over, and she knew that this was going to be it. This was going to be the big brush-off.
It had been two days since the final confrontation at the Boynton complex. Things had wrapped up quite nicely. Mamba, shaken up by his close call with Arianna, had turned State's evidence and the whole plot had been revealed. As for the former head of LexCorp, she was currently in jail awaiting her arraignment. Authorities had found the Arianna clone dead in one of the dorm- like rooms. The creature's throat had been slashed. Arianna was going to do major prison time.
Clark, able to utilize the clone's previous appearances, slipped right back into his role as Superman. In fact, that was where he was at the present time. He was dealing with a fire down in the warehouse district, but he promised that he'd be back soon. He had something he wanted to discuss with Lois. That was why Lois was so nervous.
They'd been fortunate that the clone's murderous actions had been confined to the criminal element. Nigel had concentrated on securing his illegal empire first. Whether or not Mamba's testimony concerning the clone came to public light, the consequences of his actions would probably have little effect on Clark as Superman. Whatever happened in that regard could be dealt with at the time.
Now that Clark had his Superman persona back, she figured she was going to be yesterday's news. How could she ever expect to interest a man who could catch the fancy of the most glamorous movie star, or the most brilliant scientist, or… well, he could have anybody.
For a long while she hadn't been sure she would even want to have to compete for Superman's attention. She knew that the demands on the super hero's time could be significant. She'd already had a taste of that these past couple of days. Still, even given all the disadvantages, she'd come to the realization that she'd really like a chance to see if they could have a future together. Clark was definitely worth it. A few minutes with Clark were better than having hours, or even days, with another man. But that wasn't going to be. Clark was coming over to 'let her down easy'.
She jumped, startled by a knock on her window. Would she ever get used to that? She quickly got up and hurried to open the window. She stepped back as he floated into the room. He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek as they both moved back to the sofa.
"How was the fire?" she said, immediately feeling foolish for asking such a stupid question.
He smiled. "It went well. It was an abandoned building, so nobody was hurt. The fire department thinks it was arson. Possibly for the insurance." She nodded. He put his arm around her shoulder. "So, how are things on the crime front? Is Mamba still talking?"
Lois snorted. "He could give a canary singing lessons."
Lois sighed. "I heard from him yesterday. His shoulder is doing fine, and he said he'd send me a post card from whatever tropical island he ends up on. He knows who you are."
Clark shrugged. "I figured as much. We weren't exactly circumspect about our feelings for each other back there, though I doubt Mamba or Emil made the same connection." He sighed. "No chance of Bill coming back?"
Lois shook her head. "No, given his involvement in Luthor's downfall, he'd never be accepted back on the force, and it's likely he'd have to face charges. He really is better off going into retirement on some remote tropical island."
Clark frowned. "Can he afford to retire?"
Lois looked up at Clark and gave him a sad smile. "I guess when he was working for St. John he received payments for the services he provided. Significant payments." She chuckled. "He's going to do just fine." Another sigh escaped. "I'm going to miss him."
Clark gave her shoulder a squeeze. "I know you will." Clark pulled his arm back, and sat up straighter on the couch. He took a deep breath. "That's another reason I have to talk to you. I need to…"
Lois stood up and walked away from the couch. She stared out the window, her arms wrapped around her as if she were cold. This was it. This was where Clark gave her the old heave-ho.
"Look, you don't have to say it. I understand, I really do. I mean, who could blame you, you're Superman. You can have any…"
"Lois, will you marry me?"
"…one you want. You would have to be crazy to… What?" Lois turned to see Clark down on one knee. He had a small velour- covered box in his hand. "Will you marry me?" He said it again!
On wobbly legs, she came over to stand in front of him. "Why?"
He looked bewildered by her response. "Why?"
Lois nodded. Tears were beginning to form at the corners of her eyes. "Yeah, why would you want to marry me?"
Clark chuckled as he shook his head. "You're kidding, right? Lois, you have to know that I love you. I think I maybe always have, and I know that I always will. I've never known a feeling like I get whenever I'm with you. I know you don't believe in such things, but I believe we are meant to be together. You are that piece of me that I've always been missing. You complete me."
She was crying fully, now. "I… I don't, I can't understand…"
Clark grabbed her hand. "Look, I know that being married to me is no bargain. Now that my powers are back, so are my responsibilities to the rest of Metropolis and the world. I'd understand if you don't want to live like that. You'd never know when I'd have to run off to rescue a trapped motorist, or handle a fire, or some other disaster."
She reached out and placed her finger over his lips. "Just shut up." The water works were now coming like a flood. "God, I can't even see right now."
Clark rubbed her cheek with his thumb. "Do you have a tissue?"
Lois nodded. "Yeah, in my purse."
The purse was on the table next to the couch. Clark reached over and pulled it to him. He stuck his hand in, trying to find the small pack of tissues that should be there. She saw a look of puzzlement come over his face. "What's this?" he asked as he pulled out a small foil-wrapped bundle.
"Omigod, I forgot I had that. Quick, give it to me; it's kryptonite. I got it at Emil's lab. I thought I might need it against the clone."
"Hmmmm." Clark turned the small bundle over in his hand. He began to unwrap it.
"What are you doing?"
Clark shrugged. "Hey, I've taken the antidote. Let's see if it still works."
Lois shook her head. "No, let's not. Let's not tempt fate."
He didn't listen to her, but just continued to unwrap the once deadly crystalline rock until it was fully exposed. The glow painted his palm a sickly green. "Pretty ugly, isn't it."
Lois stared at the offensive rock. "No pain?" He shook his head. "Good." She reached over and snatched it away from him. She quickly rewrapped the small crystal in the lead foil. She then rushed into the bathroom and flushed the small bundle down her toilet. She came back out, a satisfied look on her face. "No reason to keep it around."
He grinned. "If you say so."
She knelt down directly in front of him. Clark was still on one knee. "So, where were we?"
"I asked you to marry me."
"Oh, that's right you did, didn't you." Lois wondered if Clark could hear the rapid beating of her heart. She didn't know how he couldn't. It felt like her pump was going to blow a gasket. She couldn't believe it. Clark wanted to marry her. Her? Plain old Lois Lane. She was the one that Superman wanted. But even more important to her, she was the one that Clark Kent wanted.
She stared into his soft brown eyes for several moments. She saw his anxiety there, the nervousness that he was feeling. But she could also see the love. There was no doubt about his true feelings. She could see it in his eyes.
Slowly she allowed herself to move toward him. Clark leaned toward her. She captured his lips. The kiss was the stuff of cheap romance fiction. She could swear fireworks were going off somewhere. When they finally broke she had to take a moment to catch her breath.
* fin *