By Tank Wilson <TankW1@aol.com>
Submitted: November, 2007
Summary: The Prankster is in prison, probably for a long, long time. And that ought to be the end of it, right? … Right? But it isn't…
Lois sat at her desk at the Daily Planet and typed up the final few paragraphs on her latest story. It was a no-big-deal article about a city councilman taking kick-backs from a local contractor in return for favorable bid awards. Once she finished this off, she'd shoot it over to Clark so he could give it a once over and add anything he thought she might have left out.
This story was nothing compared to some of the ones she and Clark had dealt with recently. It couldn't stack up against heavy stuff like the murder of Mayson Drake and the subsequent Resurrection drug scandal, but those didn't come along every day; but Perry still expected them to come in and put in their time.
Thoughts of Clark caused her to bite her lip. Things were a little strange between the two of them right now. She still loved him dearly, but he'd become more withdrawn since Mayson's death, and Scardino's irritating presence hadn't been helping things out either.
She knew she was partially to blame for that because she hadn't put Daniel in his place right from the start. But Clark's continual disappearing acts had just increased her own level of frustration with him. It was nice to feel that someone was still interested in her. Not that Clark had said anything that would lead her to believe that he had lost interest in her. It was just that his actions didn't seem to back up the words.
She glanced at her watch and frowned. It was after noon, and still no Clark yet. He'd told her last night that he had some errands to run, but that he shouldn't be too late. They could have lunch together. She'd gotten the impression that he had something on his mind since he'd seemed a bit nervous.
Well, Clark or no Clark, she was hungry and she was going to lunch. She grabbed a post-it and jotted down a message for Clark, telling him where she was going in case he got back soon. She slapped it on his computer screen as she headed for the elevator doors.
The sun was bright overhead as she exited the Daily Planet and looked up and down the street, trying to decide where to go for lunch. After a short mental debate, she decided on Manny's Deli. Settling on a destination, she strode purposefully in that direction.
She hadn't gotten more than two blocks when a dark-colored van pulled up next to her and stopped. The side door opened, and a less than reputable man called for her attention.
"Hey, Ms. Lane, my boss would like you to accompany me."
Lois raised a brow and stared at the man. "You're joking, right?"
He shook his head, and gave her an evil grin. "He said you'd be reluctant." He pulled something out of a bag he had next to him. It was red. "If you declined, I was supposed to show you this." He held out a large expanse of red, satiny cloth.
Lois grabbed the piece from his hand. It was obviously Superman's cape. "How did you get this?"
The smile got larger and even more menacing. "We got it from the big man himself. Are you coming?"
Lois pursed her lips and fingered the shiny cape. It was possible that the cape was a fake, but could she take the chance? It felt like the real thing. Sighing her resignation, she stepped into the van. "Where are we going?"
"You'll find out soon enough."
Lois' eyes took a few seconds to get accustomed to the light, having been blindfolded for the ride over. She had concentrated during the ride and knew that they'd taken a right turn, two left turns, another right turn, then pulled into some sort of parking lot. The trip had taken a little over half an hour. Still, she doubted she'd be able to time the turns well enough to get exactly where they were now. They hadn't taken off the blindfold until they were inside the building, so she had no idea as to what the area around the place looked like. The windows were conveniently covered, and the lighting was dim. The only thing she could tell was that they were in an abandoned building. Most likely an old apartment building of some sort.
They ushered into a room on the second floor. "Superman!" Lois rushed toward the hero who was caged at the far end of the room.
"Lois, stay back." His voice was weak.
Heedless of his words, she rushed up and was knocked backwards from a jolt of electricity when she touched the bars. She glared at the men who'd brought her as they laughed at her humiliation.
She sat back on her heels and studied the cage that imprisoned Superman. It was small, only about six feet square, and the sickly green glow of the bars told her that they were coated in some form of kryptonite. Obviously, the bars were also electrified.
Lois reached out, but held her hand just short of the bars. "Superman, what happened?"
He raised his head slowly, until he was finally able to look her in the eyes. She could see the pain there. "Tricked." His words were slurred and it looked as if it was a great effort to even speak. Tears quickly came to Lois' eyes.
She turned to his captors. "You're killing him. What are you trying to accomplish?"
The thin fellow that had spearheaded her kidnapping gave her a wink, then moved over to a table on the other side of the room. It held a television and a recorder. He switched it on. It only took a second for the static to clear and the picture to come on.
"Hi, Lo. Are you surprised to see me?"
"Griffin!" Lois stared, open mouthed, at the visage of one of her most relentless antagonists. Kyle Griffin, sometimes known as The Prankster, grinned at her from the television screen.
"Sorry I can't be there with you, but as you can see from my wardrobe, I'm still in prison. I hope my man, Lenny, is treating you well." Lois wanted to curse the man on the screen, but she knew that would be pointless. It was a pre-recorded message. "I suppose you're wondering why I had you brought here. The answer is simple, really. Revenge." The image on the screen broke out into a harsh laughter.
Lois shook her head in distain. Kyle Griffin, aka the Prankster, had been a personal thorn in her side for years. She'd been responsible for putting him in prison the first time a few years back. It had been before she knew Clark. In the last year and a half, she and Griffin had crossed swords again, twice. The last time had been only a couple of months ago when he had tried to kidnap the President using some sort of contraption that froze people in their tracks for a short period of time. She and Clark, with Superman's help, had managed to foil his plan and put him back behind bars. It was no wonder that Griffin wasn't exactly a fan.
She refocused her attention to the screen. "Do you like the cage? I got the design from an old friend of yours." Lois didn't know what he was talking about, but that didn't change the fact that Superman was indeed helpless. "I needed you to see that I did indeed have ol' Supey as my captive. He will be my means of revenge against you." Lois became more uncomfortable. She didn't like where this situation was headed. She glanced over at Superman. He seemed to be barely conscious.
"I wouldn't worry too much about Blue Boy, though. The coating on the bars has been calculated to merely weaken him, and keep him docile." Griffin smiled. "The cumulative effect shouldn't be life threatening for several days. That's not to say that I don't have the means to 'force the issue,' as they say."
As if on cue, Lenny walked over and pulled something out of his pocket. It was wrapped in a dull foil of some sort. Before he had it unwrapped Lois knew what it was. The green glow from the unwrapped crystal told the tale; kryptonite.
Superman's reaction was immediate. He cried out and doubled over in obvious pain and distress. "Put it away! I believe you!" Lois shouted at the henchman. She thought briefly of attacking Lenny, but the other lowbrows standing around caused her to rethink that action. Instead she turned back toward the television and waited for Griffin to continue.
"So, Lo, now you know that I have Superman's life to use as leverage, I'm going to explain what's going to happen." His smile now turned positively sinister. "My lawyer has arranged for an interview with Bill Doyle of LNN tomorrow at noon. It will be there that I reveal my plan. My vengeance will take the form of three assignments that you will be required to undertake, Lois. If, for any reason, you decline to accept any of those assignments I will be forced to kill the Man of Steel. But if you complete all three assignments, I give you my word that I'll release Superman. After all, what can he do to me? I'm in prison." Griffin smiled at the screen for a few moments, then, as if remembering something, he spoke again. "Oh, and I suppose I should tell you. You are going to find that your assignments are going to be… shall we say… unpleasant?" His cackle of laughter echoed after the screen went dark.
Lois frowned at the now blank television. She knew that Griffin hated her, and she was under no illusion as to what he was capable of. After all, the last time they'd faced off, he'd thrown her off the balcony of a penthouse on the forty-second floor.
Suddenly she was surrounded by her kidnappers. Lenny placed the blindfold back over her eyes. "It's time to go, Lane. I've also been instructed to tell you that trying to find this place again would be pointless. By this time tomorrow, we'll have moved Superman to another spot."
Without a word of protest, Lois allowed herself to be pushed along until they guided her back into the van. The vehicle started up and they began their journey back to Daily Planet. Lois' mind was working feverishly. She was certain that she didn't want to have to dance to Griffin's tune and complete whatever 'assignments' he had planned for her. Unpleasant was probably going to be an understatement. But unless she came up with a way to rescue Superman before that she would be forced to comply. Griffin was a liar, a thief, and an amoral criminal, and there was absolutely no guarantee that he would keep his word to let Superman go if she did as he said. But what choice would she have? There was no way she was going to gamble with Superman's life. He wasn't only important to her. He was important to the world. If it came down to it, she wouldn't hesitate to trade her life for Superman's.
Lois was a walking zombie when she arrived at the Daily Planet the next morning. She hadn't slept well. Her mind kept showing her Superman lying in agony in that horrible cage. She had tossed and turned all evening, racking her brain trying to figure out a way to free Superman from Griffin's clutches.
She booted up her computer and logged into a site that showed her an overview map of greater Metropolis. She was figuring that she had to have been taken to someplace within a twenty-mile radius of the Planet. She knew that 'Lenny' had told her that they would be moving Superman today, but if she could figure out where they'd been, it might give her a clue as to where they might go. She was sure that finding abandoned buildings where one could assemble a kryptonite cage and transport Superman there unseen wouldn't be that easy.
She glanced down at the time code down in the corner of her screen. She had over three hours to wait until Kyle's interview would air. She hoped that Perry would let her work unchallenged until then. She didn't know if she should explain to him what had happened or not. Griffin hadn't said anything about not revealing Superman's capture, but she thought she should wait until she saw him in the interview before she said anything to anyone else. She would take her cue from him. She didn't want to do anything that he might think was going against their 'deal.' Superman's safety was too important.
The ring of the elevator bell caused her to look up. It was just Jimmy coming back from the archives with an armload of files. She frowned as she glanced over at Clark's desk. She wondered where he was. She hadn't seen him at all yesterday either.
She picked up her phone and quickly dialed his number. She got his machine. That caused her to frown some more. Where was he? She really could use his advice right now. With a shrug of resignation, she turned her attention back to her citywide grid search.
The next three hours passed agonizingly slowly as Lois pored over maps and information about any possible empty apartment complex within her guessed search radius. She couldn't come up with any solid lead. Either her guesstimation had been wrong, or she couldn't find enough information to accurately pinpoint any particular site.
Suddenly she was pulled out of her futile search by an agitated Perry White storming out of his office and bellowing for the TVs in the newsroom to be turned on. He looked toward her.
"Lois, I just got word that Kyle Griffin is going to be interviewed on LNN. You'll probably want to see this."
Lois just nodded as she got up from her desk and wandered over to stand next to Perry.
"This is Bill Doyle, and today I will be talking to Kyle Griffin, aka 'The Prankster.'" The camera panned over to a smug-looking Griffin seated a few feet away from Doyle. He was wearing cuffs and ankle chains, but otherwise seemed composed. "So… Prankster, we were contacted by your lawyer and told that you had something to say that the citizens of Metropolis would be very interested to hear. Well, we're here."
Griffin smiled toward the camera. "Thank you for this opportunity, Bill. I want the citizens of Metropolis to know that I hold no enmity toward them for my unfortunate incarceration. No, the blame falls entirely on the shapely shoulders of one overly-nosey reporter, Lois Lane."
"But didn't you try to kidnap the President of the United States?"
Griffin glanced over at Doyle, then turned back to the camera. "Yes, I did. And if it hadn't had been for Lois Lane I would have succeeded, gotten a tidy ransom, and would have retired to some remote tropical island, never to trouble the good citizens of this fair city ever again."
"Okay, so Lois Lane was instrumental in your capture. I guess we all owe her our thanks, but what does that have to do with what you wish to tell us now?"
"I want this city, this country, to know that whatever happens now will be on Lois Lane's head." Griffin's stare into the camera became intense. "You know what I'm talking about… don't you, Lois?"
"Well, it's nice that someone knows what you're talking about, because I sure don't." Doyle began to sound irritated.
Griffin smiled. "It's really quite simple, Bill. I intend to have my vengeance on Ms. Lane. This vengeance will take the form of three assignments which she will have to undertake. If she fails to comply in any way, or if the police, or any city officials interfere, there will be terrible consequences for everyone."
"What sort of consequences are you talking about, Prankster?"
His smile grew wider. "Oh, Lois knows. It's our little secret." Griffin motioned the camera to come in for a closer shot. "When I was arrested this last time, I found myself de-panted when I came to. Apparently Lois thought it would be funny to humiliate me in that manner. Well, it's time to turn the tables. For your first assignment, Lois, in exactly two hours you will go to Centennial Park where some of my men will publicly humiliate you in a manner which I'm sure we'll all find quite amusing." His smile didn't seem to hold any humor. "If Ms. Lane doesn't show up, or the demonstration is interfered with in any way, all bets are off. And you know what that means, don't you, Lois?" Griffin gave her an evil grin. "Oh, and Lois, my lawyer will be there with a release form for you to sign. A little legal formality which will keep my associates from being charged with any misconduct by the authorities. After the fact, you know." Kyle turned back toward Doyle. "I'm assuming that two hours will be enough time for your people to have the proper equipment in place to broadcast Ms. Lane's humiliation for all to see on live television?" Doyle nodded dumbly. "So, my curious viewers, if you wish to know what comes after today's little demonstration, be sure to tune in, same time, same channel tomorrow for part two in my little drama."
"This, this is… preposterous." Doyle sounded more flustered than anything.
"Say buh-bye, Bill."
The shot quickly returned to the anchor desk, as the talking head there tried to explain what everyone had just seen. Lois tuned it out as she turned back to her desk. Perry stopped her with a hand on her arm.
"Darlin', do you know what this is all about?"
Lois gave her boss a sad smile. "Yeah, Perry, I do."
"Do you mind telling me?"
"I'm sorry, Chief, I can't."
"So, what are you going to do?"
Lois shrugged. "What can I do? I don't have enough time to follow any leads, even if I had some. In two hours' time I'll be at Centennial Park to take my lumps."
"Are you sure that's wise?"
A tear snuck past Lois' defenses as she patted the hand of her mentor. "I'm sure it's not, but I don't have any choice. I have to go."
Just then the phone rang. She walked over and picked it up. She hoped it was Clark. "Lois Lane." It was Henderson.
She spent the next half an hour arguing with Inspector Henderson. It took all of her skills of persuasion, but she finally convinced him that the police had to stay out of whatever was going to happen at two o'clock. She couldn't tell him the truth, but she had prevailed upon their mutual respect for each other to trust her. Finally, but unwillingly, he had agreed. He would be there, but the police would take no formal action.
After hanging up on Henderson, she quickly redialed a most familiar number. Clark still wasn't home. With a sigh, she hung up. Glancing at her watch, she decided to go home and change. Whatever was going to happen at Centennial Park, she didn't want to run the risk of ruining her good work clothes. She didn't know what Griffin had in mind, but she was sure she wasn't going to enjoy it.
As Lois approached the park she could see that things had already escalated to carnival-like proportions. LNN and other news crews were all set up, complete with cameras and anxious anchors hanging onto their microphones waiting for the spectacle to begin. A small platform/stage had been quickly erected and there were several of Griffin's henchmen standing up there obviously waiting for her to arrive.
A fairly large crowd had gathered. They were being kept back about ten yards from the stage by some ropes and stanchions that the police department had placed there for crowd control. Henderson saw her approach and walked toward her.
"You came." He glanced up at the impromptu stage. "Do you know what they have planned?"
Lois shook her head. "No."
"Are you sure you want to go up there?"
"No, but I have no choice."
"What's going on, Lane?"
She gave the laconic inspector a sad smile. "I wish I could tell you, but I can't. I can't risk going against Griffin. Believe me, I'm not looking forward to this but the alternative is much worse."
He just shook his head and walked away. Lois continued on; the crowd parted as they recognized her and let her through. In a few moments she had climbed the stage. Her old pal 'Lenny' was there. His grin didn't give her any comfort.
"Nice to see you again, Lane. Are you ready?"
Before Lois could answer, a small weasel-like fellow came rushing up toward her. He had a piece of paper in his hand. He stuck it under her nose.
"Ms. Lane, I'm Fred Denton, Mr. Griffin's attorney. I have a hold harmless release for you to sign. It basically says that you are entering into this arrangement of your own free will, and will not hold any of the participating parties to any legal liabilities for their actions."
Lois grabbed the paper and quickly read it over. "Wait a minute. This doesn't say what's going to happen here. I'm not going to sign anything until I know what I'm supposed to endure."
Lenny raised his brow. "Are you saying that you choose not to do this? It shouldn't take long to let Mr. Griffin know that you have decided to opt out of your arrangement."
Lois shook her head. "Hey, that's not what I said. I just said I want to know what I'm getting myself into here. I think I deserve that much."
Lenny seemed to ponder this for a moment, then nodded his head. "Okay, I guess that makes sense, but if you don't sign the paper and place yourself into our hands immediately after, then the whole deal's off." Lois nodded. "It's really going to be quite a spectacle, Ms. Lane. The Prankster has requested that you be publicly tarred and feathered."
Lois' eyes went wide. "What! Are you crazy?"
Lenny motioned toward the paper still being held in the hands of the attorney. "Tick tock, tick tock."
Lois glared at him as she snatched the release from the timid lawyer's hand. He offered her a pen which she grabbed, then turned him around in order to use his back as support to sign her name. She threw it back at him.
Lenny smiled and ushered her to the center of the stage. Lois could see the pot which held a dark syrupy liquid, and a large box of feathers. She couldn't believe that she was willingly going to allow this to happen, but then what could she do? She'd give her life to save Superman, so this indignity, no matter how unpleasant it was going to be, was something she could endure.
"Okay, Lane, strip."
"What?" Lois looked at Lenny as if he'd lost what little mind he had.
"Can't do this right if you got all those clothes on." She looked down at the sweatshirt and jeans that she had chosen to wear. "Come on, just down to the undies will do."
Lois frowned, but pulled the sweatshirt over her head, and slowly unbuttoned her jeans. Soon she was standing in front of the large crowd, and who knew how many on live television, in her underwear. Of course, Lois had had an inkling that Griffin's vengeance would include her in some state of undress. After all, she had pulled his pants down in front of a large Presidential procession. So, as a hedge, she had chosen a pair of men's boxer shorts, and a dark, opaque sports bra. Still, she hadn't counted on being tarred and feathered.
She watched, silently, as the man lifted a large bucket and moved over to stand in front of her. She could smell the pine scent of the tar, and could feel the heat wafting up from the top of the pail. He stuck a large, coarse, brush in to the molasses-like liquid and stirred it up a bit. Then he pulled out the brush and began to smear the brownish mass along her arms and legs.
She bit back a gasp of pain as the hot tar hit her skin. It wasn't enough to actually burn her skin, but it was extremely uncomfortable. She kept her eyes focused straight ahead, looking out at the crowd who stood in a hushed awe as the spectacle unfolded.
Lenny took great delight in painting her chest and belly with the warm and sticky pine tar. He then brushed generous portions over her back and rear. Lois watched him out of the corner of her eye. He looked down into his bucket, then back up at her. The look in his eye was enough for Lois to know what was coming. She closed her eyes, waiting for the inevitable.
She wasn't able to hold back her reactive gasp as the remainder of the pine tar was poured over her head. She could feel the hot liquid flow through her hair, down the back of her neck, and drip onto her forehead and cheeks.
She opened her eyes and looked down at herself. The dark syrupy tar covered a large portion of her body. It was hot, and it was sticky.
Suddenly a blanket of white appeared in front of her. Large handfuls of feathers were being thrown at her. The small white chicken feathers got in her mouth, and up her nose, causing her to sneeze. Soon she was covered in them. Lenny's cackle echoed in her ears.
The large crowd that had gathered to view her humiliation stared in silent confusion, not really knowing how they should react. Lois was thankful that there had been no great outbreak of laughter, nor any major outcry of any kind. Most just stood there watching, while others murmured quietly amongst themselves.
Lois wasn't sure what she was supposed to do now. She stood on the small stage, facing the milling crowd and the numerous news cameras. Lenny directed his associates to clean up the area as he walked out to the edge of the stage.
"Ladies and gentlemen in attendance, and all you citizens of Metropolis who have joined us through the eyes of LNN and other outlets, may I present to you…" He stepped to one side and with a flamboyant sweep of his hand and arm indicated her standing there. "Miss Lois Lane!"
There was a slight increase in the general murmur, but no outcry or outburst came from the crowd. They merely stood there for a few more minutes, then began to drift away. Several news crews and reporters ran toward the stage, their microphones extended out in front of them. Once they reached the front of the stage they all began to shout out their questions at the same time. It was an unintelligible din.
Lois stepped forward and held up her hands to quiet the crowd. It took a few moments, but finally they all settled down enough and turned their cameras and microphones toward the apparition before them that had, only minutes before, been Lois Lane, ace reporter for the Daily Planet.
"I can't tell you why I agreed to allow this to happen, so I won't answer any of your questions. But I'm sure it's clear to each and every one of you that the mind behind this, this… spectacle is sick, and we can all be thankful that he will stay behind bars for a long, long time. As for the rest… I have no comment." She looked over at Lenny, who was still standing on the stage. "Can I go now?" He nodded.
Lois turned to go, but was stopped by Lenny's smirk "Oh, and you should know," he said as he pointed toward her head. "That tar will never come out of your hair."
Clark had trouble staying conscious. His whole body ached; he was nauseous, and probably had a fever. He forced himself to watch the television, but he found the spectacle that Griffin had arranged to be sickening. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he saw Lois being humiliated in front of a large crowd, and live television cameras.
Why? Why was she allowing herself to be treated that way?
He hung his head. He knew why. Guilt washed over him like an icy cold wave. It was his fault. Griffin was using his captivity to force her compliance. He was getting his revenge on Lois because Superman had been careless and stupid.
He agonized over what Lois had endured because of him and even with the effects of the kryptonite wracking his body, he still could feel the dread in knowing that it wasn't over for Lois. He'd been barely conscious when Lois had been there and had viewed Griffin's tape, but he'd heard it all. The Prankster's revenge was going to take the form of three situations that Lois would have to subject herself to. If this was any indication, and it being only the first, Clark couldn't imagine what Lois had in store for her.
Griffin was a psychopath, and a criminal. Lies were his stock and trade. Lois had to know that the chances were good that even if she did what she was told to do, that Griffin would likely not honor the agreement. He would gladly accept his own death if it could guarantee Lois' safety. But he knew that was a fool's dream. This was as much, if not more, about revenge against Lois as it was a plan to destroy him. Besides, Lois was too loyal to her friends and too willing to put herself on the line for them. Her head might know that there was little chance that Griffin would release Superman if she did as directed, but her heart wouldn't let her not take that chance. However small it might be.
That was why he had to find a way to escape. He had to get out before Lois was seriously injured… or worse.
He gritted his teeth and reached out to grab the bars, hoping against hope that he might have enough strength left to damage them in some way. The burning pain that blistered his hands as they touched the bars was his answer. He fought against the natural reaction to immediately release the bars as the pain knifed through him, but it was no use. Struggle as he might, right up to the point of nearly blacking out, he didn't have the strength to displace the bars in any way.
After a few seconds of futile struggles, he finally fell back. He was totally spent.
A tear of frustration and despair rolled down his cheek. "I'm sorry, Lois."
Lois Lane was worried, and not about her current problem with Kyle Griffin, though that wasn't far from her thoughts either. No, at present she was worried about her partner. She'd called Clark again last night but there was still no answer. She still got his machine. Where was he? She couldn't help but think that something was seriously wrong. Clark would never have let her go through what she'd had to endure yesterday alone. It just wasn't in him. He was her partner and best friend. Only two reasons why he wouldn't have been with her. He either didn't know about what was happening… or he was physically unable to be there for her.
She'd considered calling his folks in Smallville, just to see if he was there, or if they might know where he was. But she'd decided against that. It wasn't likely that he would have gone home without telling her first, so in case they didn't know where he was, she didn't want to worry them… yet. He had to be somewhere; she just hadn't figured it out yet.
She was counting on the fact that Clark hadn't really been involved with her run-ins with The Prankster all that much. Griffin blamed her and Superman for his troubles, so it was likely that Clark being missing didn't have anything to do with him. But where was he? Why wasn't he here?
The door of the elevator slid open and Lois stepped out onto the floor of the bullpen. She couldn't help but notice that most of the staffers studiously avoided looking at her. Some suddenly found a reason to be elsewhere, while most just turned away. She had become some sort of object of pity, and it bugged her.
"Hey, Lois," Jimmy caught up with her. "What happened to your hair?"
She didn't look at him. "Most of it's in the trash can under my bathroom sink." Fighting off an urge to reach up run her fingers through her raggedly short cropped locks, she continued on toward her desk.
Jimmy nodded, as if coming to a sudden understanding. "Oh, I suppose that tar didn't come out of your hair in the shower, did it?"
She glanced over at him. "No, Jimmy, it didn't." She sat down and turned on her computer. She had a lot of work to do to try and find Superman, and she knew that time was running out, for both her and Superman. "If you'll excuse me, I have a lot of work to do."
"Sure." He began to back away, then stopped. "Are you okay, Lois? I mean, aside from the hair, were you hurt in any way?"
She turned away from her screen and favored Jimmy with a slight smile. "I've a couple of minor burns from the hot tar, but I'm okay. Thanks for asking."
"Lois!" The deep growl of Perry White cut through her conversation with Jimmy. She looked up at her boss, who was standing just outside his office door. "Could I see you for a few minutes?"
"Sure, Chief." Lois got up and moved up the ramp toward her editor's office.
Once inside she was directed to a chair in front of his desk. "Sit." She sat. Perry leaned against the desk. The worry in his eyes was clear to see. "First off, are you all right?"
Her hand involuntarily went to her head. "Well, except for an extremely bad hair day, I'm fine, Perry."
He frowned. "Are you sure?"
She nodded. "Yes, I'm sure."
"Okay." He paused, then took a deep breath. "Are you ready to tell me what this is all about?"
She shook her head. "Sorry, I can't." She looked at her boss. "Have you seen or heard from Clark? I haven't been able to get a hold of him."
Perry looked surprised. "No, I haven't seen him for a couple of days. I just thought he was working with you on whatever this was that you aren't talking about."
She bit her lip. "No, I haven't seen him in since the day before yesterday either. I'm worried."
"Have you called his folks?"
"Not yet. I didn't want to alarm them unnecessarily."
Perry didn't speak immediately. He slowly walked around his desk and sat down. "Look, darling, you know how I feel about you, and you know I trust your abilities and your instincts. But this goes against everything I ever learned in this business. You can't keep a story, what ever it is, to yourself. If, god forbid, anything happened to you, no one would know what was going on." He leaned forward and met her guilty look with a hard stare. "Are you sure you can't tell me what this is all about?"
She shook her head again. "Other than what you already know; that it involves me and Kyle Griffin, I can't say any more. If it was only me at risk here, I'd have no problem sharing this with you."
"So it does concern someone else, someone you are protecting. Is it Clark?"
"No, Clark is not involved… at least not that I'm aware of. Unfortunately, this is The Prankster's game and for now he's making the rules and I have to play by those rules."
"So what are you going to do? Are you just going to continue to follow his mandates?"
"Not exactly. I'll do whatever I have to do, but I'm not completely helpless. I've got some things I'm working on that might provide me with a way out of this, but it's a long shot."
"Well, you get back to it, and if there's anything you need, and I mean anything… You just holler and I'll make sure you get it."
With a sad smile, Lois reached out and patted her editor/mentor's hand. "Thanks, Perry, I know." She rose and exited the office, anxious to get back to her research.
It had been a long, grueling morning for Lois, but she had some results. She had decided to operate under the assumption that Griffin's henchmen wouldn't have moved Superman from where they'd first presented him to her, even though they said they were going to. First, they had taken too much care in making sure she didn't know where they were going. She'd been blindfolded, and it had been obvious that they'd taken a circuitous route. Also, the construction of the cage had to have involved some significant effort and she doubted that it was highly portable. So she was fairly confident that Superman was still imprisoned at that abandoned apartment complex.
Still, her search had to cover a lot of territory. She had estimated that the site could have been anywhere within twenty miles of the Planet. Normally, she would have just asked Jimmy to find any possible abandoned housing complex within a twenty-mile radius. Unfortunately, she couldn't do that. Her search had to remain a secret. She couldn't risk her reason for the search getting out.
She had a new appreciation for the stuff that Jimmy was able to do for her. It had been an arduous task, but the hours spent yesterday and this morning had given her some leads to check into.
There had been over two hundred apartment, or housing, complexes within her search parameter, but she'd been able to eliminate almost half of them simply by their construction date. It was clear that the building she'd been to was older, quite a bit older.
Then came the painstaking process of locating the ownership of each of the remaining properties to see if they were still viable rental units. After hours of further internet searching, and numerous phone calls, she'd been able to eliminate most of the rest of her initial list. She was left with twenty-seven properties that she couldn't prove were still occupied with current tenants.
She rubbed her temples. Her eyes hurt, and her neck was sore. What she needed right now was a Clark Kent neck rub. She bit her lip. Why hadn't he called? Why wasn't he here? She reached over and picked up her phone. Might as well leave another message on his machine. She was just about to dial the number when she was interrupted by the sudden noise of the bullpen's television sound being turned up. It was time for Bill Doyle's show on LNN, and that meant Kyle Griffin part two.
Lois didn't bother to get up from her desk and instead just leaned back in her seat. Most of the rest of the staff gathered around the hanging screen.
"This is Bill Doyle and today we are continuing our interview with The Prankster, Kyle Griffin."
The camera pulled back to show both men sitting in simple chairs adjacent to each other. There were no guards in the shot, but Lois knew they were off to the side just out of camera view.
"As our viewers know, yesterday, The Prankster had issued a challenge of sorts to the Daily Planet reporter, Lois Lane. He gave her the first of three assignments, as he called them, to complete, implying some sort of dire consequences if she didn't do as he commanded. As we all saw on LNN yesterday afternoon, Ms. Lane was required to endure being publicly tarred and feathered. Which she did." Doyle turned away from the camera and addressed Griffin directly. "Your enmity toward Lois Lane is no secret, so it's not surprising that your 'assignments' would be, shall we say, unpleasant experiences for Ms. Lane. But what compels her to do as you ask? Are you ready to tell us what hold you seem to have over the normally fierce award-winning reporter?"
Griffin gave Doyle a sly smile, then turned to the camera. "No, Bill, I'm not. This is between Lois and me. She's a grown, liberated, woman and only does what she wants to do. Apparently Lois wants to do what I ask."
"Which brings us to today's little bit of adventure. As much as we all love hearing you drone on and on, Bill, I'm sure your viewers are anxious to hear what I have in store for our intrepid Ms. Lane today."
"So… tell us."
"Well, today's lesson is about pain and suffering, Bill. I've suffered quite a bit since I was incarcerated; thanks to Ms. Lane. It's time for her to experience a bit of her own." He smiled for the camera. "Lois, I've heard that you have some knowledge of the fight game. That's good, because then I'm confident that you're familiar with the name Tiger Bennett."
"You don't mean…?" Doyle burst in.
Griffin nodded. "Oh yeah. The formally undefeated heavyweight boxing champion. The one who retired without a single blemish on his professional record."
"But he didn't retire. He was thrown out of boxing when he was convicted of assault and battery charges and sent to jail three years ago."
"Semantics. But he will be a part of this next undertaking. At precisely six o'clock this evening there will be an exhibition boxing match taking place at Centennial Park. In one corner the former heavyweight champion, Tiger Bennett. In the other… Mad Dog Lane."
"You can't be serious?"
"Oh, I'm as serious as a heart attack." Griffin leaned in, staring directly into the camera. "Oh, and Lois, this is a by-the-rules boxing match. None of the martial arts funny stuff. If I see those shapely legs lash out even once, or any shots below the belt, I'll have to consider you in default of our deal. Also, I expect you to put up a valiant fight. I don't want to see you running away from your opponent all evening, either. If I don't see you in there throwing your own punches and trying your best to win, I will consider that an admission of non-compliance with the spirit of the arrangement." Griffin leaned in a bit closer. "And you know what that means."
"But, Prankster, surely you realize that Ms. Lane could be badly beaten by entering into the ring with an animal like Tiger Bennett."
Griffin stood. "Oh, I'm counting on it." He waved at the camera. "Say goodbye, Billy."
Someone turned off the screen, but Lois had stopped seeing it anyway. Perry came over and laid his hand on her shoulder. "You aren't really going to go to Centennial Park to fight Tiger Bennett, are you?"
She looked down at the pile of notes she had scattered across her desk. There wasn't time enough to check out more than one or two of the addresses she had come up with before six. Unless she got miraculously lucky, what choice did she have? "I guess we'll find out at six." She rose, grabbing the large stack of papers as she did so. "You'll have to excuse me, Perry. I've got a lot to try and get done in the next few hours."
"But what are you going to do?"
"What ever I have to, Chief."
Clark propped himself up the best he could as he saw the goon who was charged with guarding him pull a chair up in front of the television set. He looked back at Superman and gave him a gap-toothed grin.
"Hey, Supes, can you see all right? I'm not blocking the screen, am I?" He chuckled. It was a throaty, sadistic sound. "Boss wants you to be able to watch this. Says you'll get a kick out of it."
Clark's throat burned just like the rest of him, but he managed to croak out a few words. "Why? What's going on now?"
"Seems the boss has set up a little exhibition boxing match for the citizens of Metropolis. Your girlie friend is going to go 15 rounds with the former champ Tiger Bennett."
Clark slumped down to a nearly prone position, but then fought his way back to a semi-seated state. Griffin can't be serious. Lois had always been able to handle herself, and her self-defense skills were such that she could deal with most of the common street scum she came into contact with. But Tiger Bennett was a professional fighter. One of the best. She could be badly hurt. Her only hope was to use her martial arts training to get in several of her best shots before he had a chance to land any punch. Even if she managed that, it was very likely that she still wouldn't have the ability to hurt a man like Tiger Bennett enough to incapacitate him. She might just make him mad.
Clark tried to shunt his pain to the back of his consciousness and focus on the screen a few yards away. His jailer reached over and turned up the sound. It was starting. There was some sort of out-of-tune fanfare played by a few tone-deaf individuals. Then a skinny, rat-faced fellow, who Clark recognized as Lenny, stepped into the center of the temporary ring, microphone in hand.
"Ladies and gentlemen of Metropolis, it is my distinct pleasure, through the beneficence of Mr. Kyle Griffin, to present to you a spectacle the likes of which you have never seen before. Tonight for your viewing pleasure we present the ultimate in David versus Goliath combat. A boxing match that will go down in the annals of sporting history."
Lenny walked about the ring, letting his hyperbole sink in before continuing. Raising the microphone to his lips he pointed toward one corner. "In the white corner, we have the former heavyweight champion of the world. A man who held the title an unprecedented three full years… Tiger Bennett!" He paused, allowing the crowd to react. There were a few cheers, but mostly boos and catcalls greeted the former champ.
Clark was dismayed to see that even after years in prison, Bennett had kept in shape. He looked every bit the rock-hard athlete he'd been in his prime, and he was enjoying the negative response he was getting from the crowd.
"And in the black corner, a woman known to many as the Daily Planet's top snoop. A woman who makes it her business to stick her nose into everybody else's business… Lois Lane!" Cheers and wolf whistles greeted the grim-faced woman who reluctantly stepped into the center of the ring.
Clark gasped when he saw Lois. What had happened to her? His captor turned at Clark's gasp and grinned.
"I guess your girlie had some trouble getting cleaned up after yesterday's little demonstration."
"I'll bet those feathers were a bitch to get out." He clicked his tongue and chuckled. "Don't think the tar and Lane's hair got along too well, either. Not a good look for her, wouldn't you agree?" He leaned back and roared with laughter.
Clark turned his attention back to the screen, and Lois. He had immediately noticed the short, cropped mess that her hair was, but now he could also see pink patches on parts of her exposed skin. They looked like burns. His anger at her treatment had almost made him forget his own pain as he watched the match begin to unfold.
The referee had just finished his explanation of the rules and had motioned them to their opposite corners. Clark noticed that Inspector Henderson was stationed at Lois' corner. The Inspector leaned over and whispered something into Lois' ear. She nodded. The bell was rung, and the fight was on.
The opponents circled each other for several moments. Tiger had a big, evil grin on his face. Lois' look was grim. Suddenly she darted in and gave Bennett a shot to his stomach. The champ just laughed.
"No, Lois, stay away." Clark felt so helpless. His unwanted companion turned toward him.
"She can't just run away. If she does, she defaults and you go bye-bye. Same goes if she tries any of that fancy martial arts stuff. This has to be strictly a by-the-rules boxing match."
"But Lois can't possibly win under those circumstances. They're too unevenly matched."
"She don't have to win; just fight."
Clark clenched his fists in frustration. Lois was going to get herself hurt badly, and it was all just to try and protect him. His guilt was like a crushing weight bearing down on him. Why was she doing this? She had to know that Griffin would never keep his word to free him, even if she did everything he asked. But then, this really wasn't about him. This was about Lois.
It was the same conclusion he'd come up with yesterday after watching her public humiliation. Griffin hated Lois; this whole farce was just to get back at her. He didn't really care that much about Superman, or Clark. Superman was just the leverage to get Lois to do his bidding. Griffin knew, as well as Clark did, that Lois would do anything to try to secure Superman's release. Even if she didn't trust the man, she would play along; either in the hopes that he'd keep his word, or that she would be able to figure out a way to engineer his escape another way.
Clark watched, his horror growing as Tiger Bennett began to trap Lois in a corner. He lashed out with a swift left jab. Lois' head snapped back and her nose began to bleed. Clark wouldn't have been surprised if the blow had broken her nose. Bennett followed up with a right hand that knocked Lois to the matt.
"Stay down, Lois. Stay down." Clark's entreaty wasn't heard, nor was the message followed. He knew it wouldn't be. She was Lois Lane, and surrendering, even in the face of unbeatable odds, just wasn't done. She'd win, or she'd lose… but she would never quit.
It was torture for Clark to watch the spectacle that The Prankster had arranged, but he couldn't turn away. The fight, such as it was, lasted nearly an hour and a half. In that time Lois suffered a brutal pounding at the massive fists of the former champion. That wasn't to say that it was a totally one-sided contest. Lois, being much younger than Bennett, was also quicker, and at times was able to use that quickness to slip inside the champ's much longer reach and get in a few shots of her own. Clark couldn't help a slight smile from turning up his mouth when Lois managed to bloody Tiger's lip. Still, the reality was that Lois was terribly overmatched and the outcome was a forgone conclusion.
During the match Lois had been continually knocked down, but she always got back up. Until that last time. Finally, after what had seemed like an eternity to Clark, Tiger Bennett had landed a savage right cross that actually lifted Lois off her feet. She didn't get back up. After being counted out by the referee Lois had been taken off by some attending medics amidst the jeers and booing that followed Bennett's upraised hand.
Clark continued to stare at the television screen long after it had been turned off. Tears rolled down his cheeks as the awful memory of Lois being carried out of the boxing ring was burned into his brain. His hands were shaking so bad that he had to clench them into fists to stop it.
For the time that he'd spent watching the sham of a contest his own pain had been forgotten. Instead he was living hers. That she would endure such a thing for him was paradoxically both exhilarating and devastating. To know that her love and concern for him was such that she would willingly put her own welfare at risk was an incredible thing, but at the same time, the crushing guilt he felt for the situation Lois was forced into because of him was nearly paralyzing.
Would Lois ever be able to forgive him? How could she? Could he ever forgive himself?
Head bowed, the words were again whispered into his chest. "Lois, I'm so sorry."
It was late when Lois got back to her apartment. The doctor that treated her at the hospital had wanted her to stay overnight, 'for observation', but she decided that she could lay about feeling crappy in her own bed as well as the one in Metropolis General. Since none of her injuries were life threatening, nor needed any continued treatment, the doctor agreed to let her leave. Not that he could have stopped her anyway.
Dumping her bag and jacket on a chair, she noticed the light on her answering machine was blinking. She rushed over and hit the button, hoping that it was Clark.
"Hello, Lois, this is Martha Kent. We saw that terrible fight on the television and had to call to see if you were all right. Please give us a call to let us know how you are. We're worried about you, honey."
A sad smile crept onto Lois face. It was so typical of Jon and Martha. They were more concerned about her well-being than her own parents were. Her smile quickly faded. If they were calling her that meant that they hadn't heard from Clark either. It also meant that Clark wasn't in Smallville or he would have been the one calling. She began to feel a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature.
All the way back from the hospital the only thing that kept going through her mind had been Clark. She was beginning to get scared. Clark was her partner, and her best friend, and she hadn't seen him since before the whole debacle with Griffin had started. The only way the Clark wouldn't have been there for her was if he couldn't. The call from Martha proved that even in Kansas people knew what was going on, so it was highly unlikely that he wouldn't know what had been happening if he'd just been out of town.
No, something was very wrong.
Lois slowly moved over toward her couch as she examined the situation. She knew Clark. He was always trying to protect her from herself. Again she figured that the only reasons Clark wouldn't be by her side during a time like this were: either he was unaware of what was happening, or he physically was unable to be there.
Since he wasn't at his folks, and he wouldn't be out trying to dig up some story without her, she had to figure that he wasn't around because he wasn't able to be. It was the only logical conclusion, and it scared her. What could have happened? Did Griffin kidnap Clark too, like he had Superman? If so… why? And if he had Clark, why hadn't he used him as leverage against her also?
The more she dwelled on it the more it became clear that Griffin didn't have Clark. He knew well enough how close she and Clark were. That they were partners and friends. If he had kidnapped Clark there would have been no reason to go after Superman. After all, Superman was a much more risky prisoner to take, even if you did have a kryptonite cage. But the fact still remained; Clark wasn't around and that meant he most likely was being held somewhere against his will, just like Superman.
Just… like… Superman.
Lois thought she was going to have a stroke. Her head suddenly seemed like it was going to explode. Could that really be the answer? Her mind unspooled memories of countless lame excuses followed by a disappearing act which just happened to precede an appearance by Superman somewhere. Then he'd come back with an equally lame story of how he 'just happened' to run into Superman who gave him the all the details of his latest endeavor.
How could she have been so blind?
Just then the phone rang. Startled by the sudden ringing, Lois rose and went to the phone. Who would be calling her at this hour? She picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Oh, Lois, thank god you're home. This is Martha Kent, are you all right?"
Lois felt a tangible feeling of warmth at the sound of motherly concern in Martha's voice. "Hi, Martha. I'm a little worse for wear, but overall I'm okay."
"I'm sorry to be calling so late, but we just talked to Mr. White and he told us that you'd left the hospital and were going home. We just had to call to see if you were all right. Jon and I watched that horrible fight on the television and were very worried about you. It looked like you took a terrible beating."
"Well, I've got a broken nose, bruised ribs, a split lip, a slight concussion, and a whole lot of cuts and scrapes, but nothing that won't heal."
"I can't believe you agreed to do that, and what's more I can't believe Clark let you."
"Clark doesn't run my life, Martha."
"I didn't mean to say he did. But you have to admit that you facing that Tiger Bennett fellow just doesn't make any sense."
"I had my reasons. I take it, then, that you haven't heard from Clark lately?"
"No." Suddenly the voice on the other end of the phone sounded wary.
"Well, I haven't either. I haven't seen Clark since before this whole thing with The Prankster started." Lois paused for Martha to answer but she was met with silence. "Martha, do you know where Clark is?"
"Ah, no, dear, I don't."
Lois frowned. "Well, I think I do."
"Obviously you know some things that you aren't telling us, Lois. Would you like to share that knowledge?"
"I wish I could, Martha. It would be great to have someone to talk to about this, but I can't."
"Is he all right?"
"Not entirely, but he's safe for the time being."
Lois could almost hear the wheels turning in Martha Kent's brain. "Should Jonathan and I come to Metropolis?"
Lois bit her lip and shook her head, then realizing what she'd done, she sighed. "No, not yet. Give me a little time to work on some leads that I have. We'll make some time after all this is over to discuss various 'revelations', if you get my drift."
"I think I do. We'll wait to hear from you." There was a pause. "Oh, and Lois?"
"Never forget that he loves you."
For the first time in days Lois found herself with a smile on her face. "I know."
Lois hung up and began chewing on her lower lip as she pondered her next moves. It was clear that she wasn't going to get any help in this matter from Clark. It was more important than ever that she find out where Superman was being held. She'd been doing as Griffin asked because Superman was her friend, and in the bigger picture, the world needed him. But with what she had worked out tonight, it had just gotten personal. Clark was her partner, her best friend, and… the man she loved.
No matter how tired she was, or how much her body ached, sleep wouldn't come easy tonight.
Lois was at her desk early the next morning poring over the information she had managed to put together the day before. She hadn't slept well, and her body protested every movement she made, but that didn't matter. She had to find Clark before it was too late.
Before the fight she had only been able to check out two of the addresses she had come up with. One had been a large unit that had been converted and sold off as condos, and the other turned out to now be an empty lot. That left twenty-five more locations to check out. Of course, if Griffin had moved Clark like he had said he would, all her work would have been for nothing. She shook her head, an action she immediately regretted when a sharp stab of pain lanced through her skull. It was no time to question herself. This was her only chance to find him, so she had to have it right.
It was a testament to how early she had come into the office when Perry White stepped off the elevator. He spied her as soon as he hit the bullpen floor, and made a beeline toward his number one reporter.
"Lois, what are you doing here, darlin'? Even if you didn't stay in the hospital like you should have, you should be home in bed."
She looked up at him; a wan smile touched her lips. "I've got too much to do, Chief… and no, I can't tell you what. You just have to trust me." She noticed the look of concern in her editor's eyes. "I'll be okay, Perry. I'm a bit beat-up, but I've been worse."
His eyebrow rose. "Oh, really? When might that have been?"
"You know… back … whenever. It doesn't matter. I've got to go." She gathered up her notes and shoved them in her briefcase. "I'll be back in time for Griffin's next interview."
She was grateful that Perry didn't try to stop her.
"Do you want Jimmy to come along to help you?" She was going to shake her head, but changed her mind.
"No." She began to move up the ramp.
"Lois?" She stopped and looked back at him. "Do you know where Clark is?"
"Yes, no… I mean… I'll fill you in later. I've got to go." In a couple of heartbeats she'd cleared the ramp and was at the elevator pushing the call button. Fortunately, the elevator came quickly and she was in the safety of the small conveyance before he could ask another question she couldn't answer.
Clark had a headache, but then that wasn't unusual. A headache, along with the muscle pain and nausea, were to be expected under the circumstances. The level of kryptonite exposure had somehow been lessened. He wasn't sure how they controlled it, but Griffin's men had the ability to control the level of the exposure that he received. Normally, exposure to kryptonite for this long would have already ended in his death, but he wasn't dead yet. He was sick, and extremely weak, but he was alive.
Sometimes he slipped into short periods of unconsciousness, and sometimes he just fell asleep. He wasn't sure what long-term effect this long a period of exposure would have on him. He might not get his powers back for a long time… or ever. That, of course, assumed that he'd ever get out of the cage.
Working in his favor was the fact the Superman wasn't the main target of The Prankster's revenge. Griffin wanted to punish Lois Lane. Superman was merely the means to coerce Lois into doing his bidding. It was possible that once Griffin had finished his degradation of Lois that he might let Superman go because he really didn't care. But the man was a pathological criminal; why would he pass up the chance to become famous as the man who engineered Superman's death?
Clark clenched his fists in impotent rage. He pounded them on the floor. He'd never felt so helpless in his life. It tore at his very being. He was living his worse nightmare. Lois was in danger and he was powerless to do anything about it.
The really sad thing was, even if he were able to escape the cage, he was so weak that he had no chance to overpower the fellow who was left behind to watch over him. Not only had he been exposed to kryptonite for days, but he hadn't been able to get any sunlight, nor had his captors bothered to feed him.
Still, for all the misery he'd had to endure these past few days, his greatest pain was what he felt for Lois' situation. Any physical torture he'd had to undergo was trivial compared to what he experienced watching Lois take that beating at the hands of Tiger Bennett the night before, and the fear that continually ate away at him imagining what might be next for her.
Clark noticed that his jailer had just entered the room and sat in the one comfortable chair that had been placed there. He picked up the remote and turned toward Superman, a big grin on his face.
"Hey Supes, it's time for the Bill Doyle show. I bet you can't wait to hear what the boss has in store for your girlfriend this time."
Clark tried to glare at the man, but knew that he was currently hardly an imposing figure. The button was pushed and the screen came to life. Clark didn't want to watch. He didn't want to hear what evil Griffin had planned for Lois, but he couldn't turn away.
Whatever was to happen, he shouldn't be spared the horror. It was his fault.
Lois had only managed to check out two more locations on her list before she had to return to the Planet. Both had turned out to be sites of new construction. Apparently the old buildings had been torn down. At this rate it would be nearly two weeks before she'd be able to cover all her possibles. And that didn't even take into consideration the possibility that Griffin's men might have moved Su- Clark.
She had to shake her head. It was going to be hard getting used to the fact that Clark was actually Superman. Or, more likely, that Superman was actually Clark. The more she thought about it, the more obvious it was to her that Clark was the 'real' person, and Superman was some sort of public persona. His overly formal manner and stilted speech patterns were clearly part of the disguise. Clark was naturally outgoing and friendly. His easy manner and charm were too much a part of him to be an act. Still, while it was true that the two sides of the man seemed quite different, she should have seen through it.
Then there was the fact that she'd been to the Kent farm and had seen pictures of Clark as a boy, growing up. She almost giggled when she remembered the one Martha had shown her, just to embarrass Clark. He looked so cute on that bearskin rug; wearing that big smile and literally nothing else. Of course, he was just a baby, but he was still cute.
A frown marred Lois' features. If Clark had been here as a baby and had, essentially, grown up on this planet, why hadn't she heard of Superman before last year? That was something she was going to have to ask her secretive partner when all this was over.
Her musings were shattered by the sudden juxtaposition of sound in the newsroom. All the background chatter had stopped and the volume on the television had been turned up. She looked up to see the title roll for Bill Doyle's segment on LNN. She took a deep breath. This was it. The third trial that Griffin was going to force on her. She couldn't imagine what it was going to be, she only knew that she wasn't going to like it.
The musical fanfare seemed particularly ominous to her as it blared forth, then the shot centered on Bill Doyle and his smarmy manner as he played to the anticipatory mood that he knew gripped his audience. He leaned toward the camera, affecting the faux intimacy that was his trademark. Lois had never paid much attention to the man's program in the past, and watching it the past couple of days, she guessed she hadn't missed much. He was a poser, and not a particularly bright one at that. He seemed oblivious to the fact that Griffin had been playing him from the start.
No, Bill Doyle might be clueless as to the way things were, but obviously his producer wasn't. That person knew what made good TV, and right now The Prankster was ratings dynamite.
"Good afternoon Metropolis, I'm Bill Doyle. Today we are continuing with our conversations with the notorious criminal mastermind, Kyle Griffin, aka The Prankster."
"Oh, Bill, you're going to turn my head."
"So, Prankster, the past couple of days, you've been focused on your enmity for Daily Planet reporter, Lois Lane, and have put her through two pretty intense situations. Yet against all common sense, she participated in your scenarios, apparently of her own free will. Tell us, Prankster, what kind of hold do you have over Ms. Lane?"
"Are you saying, Bill, that Ms Lane doesn't just find my challenges… stimulating?"
"We both know that's not true. You've repeatedly told us how much you hate Lois Lane, and are doing these things to get your share of vengeance on her."
"So, what's your question?"
"Why is she going along with this?"
"You'd have to ask her."
"But she's not talking, either."
"I guess you have your answer then… Next question?"
Doyle seemed somewhat flummoxed, but quickly regained his composure. "Okay, then, what's next for the Planet's intrepid reporter? Or are you done with her now?"
Griffin's smile was positively evil. "Almost. I just have one more little task for her."
"And what might that be?"
"I want Lois Lane to arrange her own execution."
Bill Doyle's surprised exclamation was echoed by several people in the Planet newsroom, including Lois herself. She stared at the screen, transfixed by the audacity, and sheer arrogance of the statement. Was he serious?
"Are you serious?" Doyle asked.
"But it's preposterous. Lane is never going to agree to that."
Griffin shrugged. "Oh, I think she might." He leaned forward and stared straight into the camera. "What do you say, Lois? How far are you really willing to go?"
"But, but that's murder. Surely you can't expect her to be a willing participant to her own murder?"
"Actually, Billy boy, it's more like suicide." Griffin held up his hand to forestall any further outburst from Doyle. "Now I realize this isn't something that will be easy to throw together. I'm sure there are going to be some legal and political hassles that will need to be dealt with. So, generously, I'm going to allow Lois forty-eight hours to make this happen."
"Make what happen, exactly?" Doyle spit out, angry that he'd been cut off.
Griffin smiled. "Here are the details which our intrepid Ms. Lane must arrange. First, it's to be a firing squad execution, held in Centennial Park no later than six p.m. the day after tomorrow. At that time my representative will arrive with the proper papers for Ms. Lane to sign and then her squad will be provided with the rifles that will be used for the execution." Griffin smirked at the camera. "After all, I wouldn't want Lois to try and pull a fast one on me by using blanks or some such thing. The last little detail will be the make-up of her execution squad. It will consist of three individuals, hand picked by me." His smile became feral. "And I choose: Perry White, James Olsen, and Clark Kent."
There were several loud gasps through out the newsroom. Perry's bellow boomed through the bullpen.
"If he thinks I'm going to shoot my best reporter on his say-so, then that man is loonier than I ever thought he was."
Jimmy rushed over to Lois. "Yeah, don't you worry, Lois, there is no way they can make me shoot you. And believe me when I say there is nothing that could make CK harm you in any way."
Lois glanced back up at the screen, but during the commotion they had signed off Doyle's interview and were back in studio with the shocked reactions. She ignored the television and turned to her friends.
"I know neither one of you would willingly ever hurt me." Her lips formed into a hard line. "But I might have to ask you to do it all the same." She grabbed her notes and moved up the ramp. "I've got to go. I'll check back in tomorrow."
"But, Lois…" Perry's words bounced off the closing door of the elevator.
Lois slammed the door to her apartment closed behind her and threw her coat and briefcase in the general direction of the kitchen table. She stumbled into the living room and collapsed onto the couch. She dropped her head into her hands. She couldn't do this. It was hopeless. Superman was going to die because she couldn't find him.
She fell back against the cushions of the couch. She'd managed to check out three more addresses, but there were still so many left to check. She just didn't have the time. She was at her wits' end. She couldn't do this alone, but she couldn't confide in anyone. And now there was no time. She had less than forty-eight hours to find and free Clark, or suffer the consequences.
Tears began to roll down her cheeks. What if she was wrong? What if they really had moved him, and she was following an impotent lead? It was very possible that none of the locations she'd targeted were where they were holding Clark.
Was it going to come down to her only choice was to trust Griffin's word that he'd release Superman once she'd fulfilled his demand? It wasn't the most pleasant of thoughts, but it might just come down to that. If it did, could she do it?
She glanced up and noticed the light on her answering machine was blinking. She rose from the couch, dreading going through the countless messages from the various media and news types that she was sure were there.
As expected, her machine was full and all but one were from reporters and media news outlets wanting to know what she was planning to do. The one that wasn't was from Martha Kent. It was a simple message. She merely said… "Call me."
Lois looked at her watch. It was late, but not too late. It would be an hour earlier in Smallville. Quickly locating the number, she dialed. It only rang twice.
"Martha, it's Lois; I got your message."
There was a pause at the other end for a few heartbeats. "Lois Lane, don't you dare."
"I take it you and Jonathan saw the Bill Doyle interview today."
"Yes we did, and I may have only met you a couple of times, Lois, but between what I've observed and what Clark has told me, you might actually be considering this."
"Believe me, it's not my first choice by any means, but it might just come down to that."
"It would kill him, honey."
Lois could feel the tears falling again. "They will kill him if I don't." Lois grabbed a tissue and blew her nose. "Look, Martha, I think it's possible that I'm being watched, and I have to be somewhat circumspect in what I say or do just on the chance that Griffin's goons are keeping tabs on me. But I can say that I hope it won't come down to my having to play The Prankster's sick game. It's just that time is short and I haven't had much luck so far."
The voice at the other end of the line was quiet for a few seconds. "So, this Prankster fellow has Superman?"
"Yeah, he does."
"What will you do if time runs out?"
"The world needs a Superman a lot more than it does another nosy reporter." Lois could hear soft sobs coming through the line. "Good night, Martha, and thank you for your concern."
Lois set the headset into its cradle and stared at the wall for several seconds. A determined look came over her face. She wiped away the drying tears with the back of her hand. It was time to stop feeling sorry for herself, and instead, figure a way out of this mess.
So far, she'd placed all her hopes on one plan; on finding Superman before Griffin's deadline. That wasn't going to be enough. She had to start making some contingency plans and she was going to need help. She couldn't pull this off alone.
She thought about telling Perry, but rejected the idea. She couldn't risk Perry's reactions to what was happening not looking genuine. If she was being watched, she didn't want anything Perry did or said be a possible tip-off that he knew.
She walked over to her windows and glanced out at the coming night. She had to find a way to talk to Henderson… alone.
Clark carefully extended his arm between the bars of the cage and managed to get his hand into the sunlight. His portable cell had been placed in a far corner of the main room, far away from any windows. But during the early morning a ray of sunshine would slip between the haphazardly drawn curtains and paint a bright yellow stripe across the carpet a couple of feet in front of the cage.
His jailer always slept late, so Clark had used the time of not being under direct observation to take advantage of the brief access to sunlight. He had to be very careful not to touch the bars. He had grabbed them immediately upon his incarceration to his instant regret. It was like grabbing hold of fire. A burning pain had flared through his hands and coursed through his entire body. It was a lesson he wasn't soon to forget.
By being extremely careful he could stretch through the bars enough to allow his hand to reach the patch of sunlight in front of his cage. It would only last for about a half an hour, until the sun moved enough to take the ray of light beyond his reach. It wasn't much, but it was like a crust of bread to a starving man.
The cage was actually a marvel of technology. Griffin had somehow gotten the cage, or the plans for it, from one of Luthor's associates. Clark guessed that St. John might have found it ironic selling a kryptonite cage to 'The Prankster.' With Luthor's resources and access to the scientific and engineering know-how, it wasn't surprising that it was much more than just a cage.
Somehow Luthor's scientists had figured out a way to coat the ordinary metal bars with an amalgam of lead and kryptonite. This coating was acted upon by some sort of current or other means which allowed a person to control the intensity of the kryptonite exposure. The stupid cage even had a remote control. And he couldn't forget the actual piece of kryptonite that one of the thugs kept with him at all times.
He used that fact, and the knowledge that Griffin needed to keep him alive, to his advantage. Clark was very weak, and very sick, but he had been playing it like he was even more adversely affected by the kryptonite radiation than he was. Their selfish concerns for his well-being led to their turning down the intensity, which allowed him a small measure of relief. He'd been doing this for more than a day now and he was able to think a little more clearly and make small movements within the cage without the agonizing pain.
The pain was not gone; far from it. His head still pounded, and his muscles burned and constricted with every movement, but it wasn't completely debilitating. He was nowhere near a state where he could try to escape, but if he was able to continue to trick them into lowering the intensity even more, he might get there. They had to be careful because they needed him alive to act as leverage against Lois.
The thought of Lois immediately plunged him into a deeper depression. He'd watched the interview and was shocked by Griffin's announcement. Did he seriously think that Lois would willingly allow her own execution? There was no doubt in Clark's mind that Lois would do just that to save Superman's life. But how would an amoral criminal, whose only thoughts would be self-serving, come to that conclusion? Was it just an attempt at psychological torture?
Clark knew that beneath Lois' determined no-nonsense public facade was a woman who was fiercely loyal to her friends and routinely risked her life for 'what was right.' Lois was truly more heroic than Superman. She didn't have the advantage of super powers and invulnerability, yet that never stopped her from continually putting her life on the line in her own pursuit of truth and justice. In her mind, when measuring the needs of society, how could she not consider trading herself for Superman?
How could he stop her?
The small patch of sunlight had moved to the point where Clark no longer could keep his hand in it so he carefully pulled his arm back into the cage. He was just in time because moments later, his jailer came walking into the room.
"Hey, Supie, old boy, I see you're awake." The fellow gave him a smirk. "I'd offer you some breakfast, but you don't need to eat, do you?" His laugh was more of a snort. "Well, I do need to eat, and I'm hungry, so I think I'll just step into the kitchen for a nice morning meal. Feel free to just… lie there." He stopped after a couple of steps. "So, do you think that Lane will stand up in front of a hail of bullets to save her big hero?" His laughter echoed off the walls as he left the room.
His words grated against Clark, like cold water on an exposed nerve. Knowing that he couldn't count on Lois to do the smart thing, he had to pin his hopes on Perry and Jimmy. There was no way they would agree to act as members of her execution squad. Especially since it appeared that there was no public knowledge as to why Lois had been going along with Griffin's crazy pronouncements. Also, the fact that Clark Kent wasn't going to be available could also be a deal breaker. He had to believe that his friends would come through and save Lois from her own nobility since there was nothing he could do himself.
He felt so helpless.
Lois stood outside the New Troy Penitentiary and stared up at the massive stone building. She approached the impressive iron gate and fingered the call button on the speaker box located outside the gate. It was time she had a little talk with The Prankster face to face.
It hadn't been easy, but she'd managed to see Henderson last night. Fearing that she was being watched, she had disguised herself and had walked out with a small group of people who'd been visiting a tenant from down the hall. She'd heard the party going on when she'd gotten home and had figured it would be a good cover if she needed to leave. So she had donned the 'trashiest' looking clothes that she had, covered her short ragged locks with an old beret she'd used a couple of Halloweens ago, and for good measure, put on an old pair of reading glasses that she kept in the bedroom. Then she waited.
She had gone through the motions of turning out the lights in the living room, and turning on the bedroom ones. She left those on for a time, then turned them out, making it look like she had turned in for the night. In the dark, she went back out to the main room and waited by her front door. When she heard a group of people leaving the party, she quickly let herself out of her apartment and managed to look like she was part of that group when she left her building.
Obviously, she couldn't take her car so she hailed a cab and was whisked away from Carter Ave. After a couple of miles toward downtown, Lois got out of the cab and went to the nearest phone booth. It took some digging into her bag, but she'd managed to find the bent card that Henderson had given her some months back during a particularly nasty investigation. He'd been concerned enough then to have actually written his home phone number on the back of the card. Once she'd found the card she dialed the number and hoped that he wouldn't be too upset being woken up at such a late hour.
Bill Henderson wasn't a stupid man, so it really hadn't surprised Lois when he showed no irritation over being called in the middle of the night. He knew something had to be going on. He'd already had some 'words' with Lois about the initial 'incidents' that she'd been involved in because of Griffin. He knew that for Lois to be calling him up at such an hour meant that she needed his help. They arranged to meet at a small all-night diner on the corner of Shuster and 38th.
Lois had confided in Henderson, explaining the whole set-up. She told him about her theories as to where Superman might be being held and had turned over her list of addresses to him. Bill, in turn, promised to find a way to have his men check out as many of those addresses as possible. He did have to explain to her that he couldn't just assign a great deal of manpower to the task without some sort of reason. He'd have to do it in conjunction with other natural functions of his department. It wouldn't go as quickly as either one of them would like it to, but he'd do the best he could. Maybe they'd get lucky.
The two of them talked for a while longer, discussing possible strategies or plans of action in the event that they didn't find the place where Superman was being kept before the deadline. Henderson had pointed out that even if Lois signed a legal waiver claiming she was allowing the execution to take place of her own free will, it wouldn't wash. Technically it would still be considered suicide, and suicide was illegal.
And that led her to the prison and her own interview with The Prankster. If she was ever going to be able to save Clark, she would have to make Griffin see reason.
It took quite a bit of pleading and cajoling before they believed Lois' need to talk to Griffin was genuine, but they finally relented. It was a somewhat surprised Prankster who came into the small room and saw who his visitor was.
"Why, Lois, it's so nice to see you. I was actually hoping to see you one last time before… well, you know."
She glared at him. "Are you insane?"
"Is that a rhetorical question?"
"I'm beginning to think so." Lois leaned back in the chair. "I guess my question is, do you really think that I will march up and stand in front of a firing squad? One made up of my friends, yet?"
Griffin grinned at her. "I have to say that I'm hopeful, but if you refuse I still get a measure of revenge." He giggled at her look of confusion. "Remember, Lois, I have Superman and if you don't go through with my little plan… I kill him. I imagine that might cause you a few sleepless nights."
Lois stared at her own hands for several seconds before raising her head and looking at Griffin. She nodded. "Okay, you're right, I can't let anything happen to Superman if I can prevent it. And if that means that I have to die in some stupid circus-like manner to prevent that, I will. But you have to give me some things, too."
"I don't have to give you anything, Lois; I hold all the cards, but I'm listening."
"First and foremost, you have to convince me that if I go along with this… If I give you your revenge… You will let Superman go… unharmed."
This time it was Griffin who leaned back in his chair. His smile slowly dissolved and was replaced by a look she'd never seen on his face before. "Lois, I can give you my word, but I know that would mean nothing to you. And truthfully, if it suited my purposes, I'd go back on my word without a moment's hesitation. So, instead, I'll try and convince you that once I have my revenge on you, Superman's death would be pointless."
"Aren't you concerned that he'd hold you personally responsible for my death? It doesn't matter what you have me sign, or who actually pulls the trigger; everyone will blame you for my death."
"True; and I plan to take credit for it, too. But what is anyone, including Superman, going to do? I'm in prison. For all the rage and resentment he might hold for me, Superman is a noble beast. One who will not kill. Not even to avenge you."
"But wouldn't you be worried that the authorities will add to your prison term?"
Griffin chuckled. "My dear Lois, I tried to kidnap the President of the United States. Do you have any idea how long my sentence is?"
Griffin nodded. "You could say that."
"Still, what about Superman? Are you so sure that he won't take some measure of personal retribution?"
He rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, Lois. He's Superman. What the heck is he going to do? Call a press conference and publicly condemn my dastardly actions?" Griffin's grin came back. "Actually, if you think about it, with you dead, letting Superman live would be much cruel than killing him. He's a hero. One of those annoying types whose has such an excess of nobility that he'll take on the responsibility for your demise. Even if I were to pull the trigger myself, he would feel that he'd failed because he hadn't been able to save you, and worse, his life would have been traded for yours. Can you imagine the guilt that Superman would carry with him from that?"
Lois chewed on her bottom lip. She knew Griffin was right. She knew that if she were to die to affect his release, Clark would not only be devastated by the personal loss, but he would take on the blame for her death. She hoped it wouldn't come to that, but if it did she'd still make the trade. A guilt-ridden Superman would still be better than no Superman. He would never stop helping people. He couldn't.
"All right, let's say that I do believe that you will let Superman go if I go through with this execution. I guess my eventual death is pretty important to you."
"Oh, it is, Lois. You've been the single greatest bane to my life. I curse the day our paths first crossed, and have dreamed of erasing you from my life ever since."
"Well, if you want this to happen, you have to let me tell everyone that you have Superman as a hostage."
Griffin shook his head slowly. "Now why would I do that? Part of the fun is watching the reaction of the public as the famous Lois Lane does all these inexplicable things for no apparent reason."
"Look, it's one thing to dump tar and feathers on me, or make me participate in a ridiculous boxing match, but this firing squad execution is a whole different problem. It took all my persuasion to convince Inspector Henderson not to interfere with those two little exhibitions, and he's a friend of mine."
"You consider Inspector Henderson… of the Metropolis Police Department… a friend?"
Lois shrugged. "Well, maybe not a close friend, but I respect him and I'm pretty sure he respects me. Besides, I trust him." She took a deep breath and shook her head. "But don't you see? He's not going to let this execution thing slide. He's not going to allow a public murder to take place."
Griffin waved his hands. "Well, I wouldn't really call it a murder. More like… suicide."
"Newsflash, Prankster, suicide is also illegal. There is no way I would be able to convince the city authorities to allow this to happen. Especially if I can't tell them why they should let this happen."
"Even if you tell everyone that Superman is a hostage, that won't change the legality of the firing squad."
"No, it won't; but it will give me ammunition to take to the mayor and the police to try and persuade them to allow this. Heck, once it's public knowledge that Superman will die if I don't, the people will demand that I be executed just as you wish." Lois spread her hands in a gesture of helplessness. "It's the only chance that they'll let this happen."
Griffin leaned back and stared at Lois for several moments. Finally he nodded. "I guess I can see the logic to your argument." He smiled. "What the heck, never let it be said that I stood in the way of a fair damsel and her doom. Okay, you can tell the world that Superman is a hostage to your proper behavior."
Lois nodded. "One more thing; Clark Kent can't be a member of the firing squad."
Griffin suddenly got animated. "Oh no, Lois, there is no backing out allowed on that point. It's up to you to convince your friends to pull the triggers. As you say, you now can use Superman's predicament to help persuade them of the necessity."
"It isn't that. He's not available. He went home to Kansas, and took ill. He's too sick to fly so he's stuck out there until he's better. The doctor thinks he will be bedridden for at least a week."
Griffin's eyes narrowed. "You aren't just trying to spare your partner from this, are you?"
Lois shrugged. "I'm sure you've got people watching me. Check with them. Have any of them seen Clark around for the last couple of days?"
"I'm not convinced that you aren't trying to pull something here, but since I can't see how it would really make any difference in the final outcome, I guess I can accept it."
"You're too kind."
His grin was not something pleasant to look at. "So, Lois, who would you like to take the place of your absent partner?"
"Oh, I'm sure you'll think of somebody. Probably that goof, Lenny, that you've had carrying out all your morbid little tasks."
"No, Lois, it must be a friend or loved one of yours. That's what makes it so deliciously ironic. How about a family member; mother, father, a sibling?"
"I have no idea where my father is at present. My mother is still in rehab somewhere in Florida. And my sister is traveling across Europe with her latest boyfriend."
"So, are you telling me that you have no other friends?"
"I don't really have many close friends."
Griffin raised his brow as Lois shrugged. "I've got it," he said. "How about your friend, Inspector Henderson?"
"Yes, I think that he will be the perfect replacement."
"Are you crazy? He's a police inspector; there's no way he's going to participate in something like that."
"Well then, I guess you have your work cut out for you, don't you, Lois? I have made my decision. You'll have to convince Inspector Henderson to be the third member of your execution squad." Griffin stood up and stared down at Lois. "Don't think I don't know that with the public revelation of Superman as a hostage that you hope to get the police involved with finding him. But I wouldn't get your hopes up if I were you. Even with the entire Metropolis Police force, there isn't enough time for them to find where I've got him hidden." Griffin grinned at her. "Besides, we can just continue to move him if we need to. Now, if you'll excuse me. I don't want to be late for lunch. I think we're having meatloaf." He cackled as he left the room.
Griffin never turned around to look at Lois as he left. If he had he might have seen the slightest of smiles touch her lips. Things were looking up a little. She'd managed to get Griffin to allow her to reveal Superman's role in this farce, and she had managed to get Bill Henderson placed where they could work together and not arouse any suspicion.
Yes, things were looking up, but she still had a long way to go before she was out of this mess and Superman was freed. She had a plan, but it was shaky at best.
It hadn't taken Lois long to set up the press conference. Her recent adventures in Centennial Park having been broadcast live on LNN the past two days had made Lois a media darling. She was news. Everyone had heard Griffin's last pronouncement and they were all anxious to hear what the doomed Lois Lane had to say. She chose the lobby of the Daily Planet for her conference. If she was about to drop a bombshell it was only fair that the Planet had a head start on the news.
She came out of Perry's office; her friend and mentor followed behind. "Lois, that's the craziest story I've ever heard, but I can see why you've done what you have the last couple of days. Still, you can't be seriously contemplating standing in front of a firing squad just because Griffin says he'll release Superman if you do. You can't trust the man."
Lois put her arm around her boss and leaned against him as they walked. "Well, I'm hoping that Henderson and his men will find Superman before the time comes, but if he doesn't I don't have a lot of choices."
"What are you saying, Lois?"
She stopped and turned to face her dear friend. "I'm saying that I have a few ideas yet, but if it comes down to it, I expect you and Jimmy to do what has to be done."
"Perry, Superman saved the city; heck, he saved the entire planet when the Nightfall Asteroid came. How many other people are alive today because Superman has been around to save them?"
Perry shook his head vehemently. "Now, Lois, you can't go there. You can't measure your worth against Superman."
"Why can't I? Believe me, I have a very high opinion of myself and the good that I do as an investigative reporter. I'm proud of what I've been able to accomplish in the few years I've worked here. But do the math, Chief; it's not exactly close."
"Now, honey, this isn't a contest. You can't expect me or Jimmy to choose between you and Superman."
"I don't. I'm the one who will make the choice. You and Jimmy just be where you are supposed to be at the time you're supposed to be there. I'll tell you what to do." Perry opened his mouth to argue, but Lois just used her fingertip to his lips to stop him. "No arguments. You may be my boss, but this is my story, my life, and I'll call the shots."
Lois squared her shoulders, and quickly tried to pat her short locks into some sort of order. "Now, I've got a press conference to hold."
By the time the elevator deposited her onto the first floor lobby, the place was already a scene of chaos. Cameras clicked and reporters jostled for position as she approached the temporary dais. Lois held up her hands until the general clamor died down. A microphone with a small public address system had been set up, but a sea of hand-held microphones waved in the air in front of her. Video cameras were positioned on shoulders, and lights were focused on her. It was time.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please, I have a few things to say, then I'll entertain a few questions." Lois took a deep breath. "As you all know, the criminal known as the Prankster, Kyle Griffin, has had me jumping through his hoops the last two days, and now he has commanded that I arrange my own execution. Why is he doing this? That answer is simple; revenge. Griffin hates me. I've been responsible for his incarceration three times in the last few years. He would go to nearly any lengths to get his vengeance against me."
She paused and looked out over the crowd of reporters. "But, why have I been going along with his so-called assignments? The answer to that is also simple. I just haven't been able to tell anyone until now."
There was no sound. Everyone was waiting for her to reveal the reason. The tension throughout the lobby was thick. "The unfortunate truth is… The Prankster has managed to capture Superman and is holding him as a hostage. Griffin has told me that if I should fail to complete any of the three assignments that he has thought up for me he would kill Superman."
The cacophony of sound that erupted was like an explosion. Questions were flying fast and furious. Lois could just pick out some of the most obvious. 'How could Superman be captured?' 'Isn't Superman invulnerable?' She held her hands up to try and silence the crowd. It took several minutes for the shouting to die down, but eventually she was able to be heard again.
"I know what you're all thinking. How could The Prankster capture and hold Superman?" She stopped and took a breath. "I don't know the means, but Superman was somehow tricked and Griffin has found a way to keep Superman captive and in a weakened state."
Lois knew that kryptonite was more commonly known than it was a little more than a year ago, when she was first made aware of its power over the Man of Steel. But that didn't mean that she was going to publicly acknowledge its existence. Best to keep things vague and keep those who didn't know in the dark. Just revealing that there was something out there that could weaken Superman made her uncomfortable enough. She just didn't have any choice if she was to get her point across and be able to use the public to sway the city's officials to let her do what she had to.
"I know this to be true because I have seen him. Griffin had me kidnapped two days ago and brought to where Superman was being held prisoner so I'd know his threat was serious. And, no, I don't know where Superman is being held because I was blindfolded during the trip, and was told that they would be moving him right after I was returned."
She stared out at the crowd of reporters who were all ready to burst if they couldn't ask their questions. She smiled inwardly at their eagerness. If she wasn't so intimately involved with the situation she would probably be just as eager as they were. This was a big story.
"I will now take a few of your questions."
Lois spent the next half an hour answering a barrage of questions fired at her from the crowd of reporters while the television cameras sent the proceedings back to the studios for instant editorializing. Most of the questions covered the same ground that Lois had already mentioned; they just wanted more details. Details which Lois was careful not to give them. She wanted the public to know what was happening, not how it had happened. Superman's life was tough enough as it was; she didn't want to be responsible for making it any worse. Of course, she knew that if Griffin got his way, Clark was going to have it much worse. She didn't want to die, nor did she want to hurt Clark, but if there was no other choice, she would do what had to be done. She would trade herself for Superman.
Lois was back sitting at her desk looking over her data regarding her guesses as to where Superman might be being held when her phone rang. She picked it up. It was Henderson.
"Hey, Inspector, so I guess you saw my little press conference?"
"It would have been nice to have gotten a little advance notice of it."
"I couldn't afford the time. As soon as I got Griffin to agree to let me tell everyone that he had Superman, I had to act quickly to get the information out there."
"It still doesn't change anything, Lane; what Griffin wants you to do is still illegal."
"Have you seen the latest phone-in polls that LNN is touting? Ninety-eight per cent of the good citizens of Metropolis are for allowing the execution to take place tomorrow."
"I suppose you think you're pretty clever going public like that so you can bully the mayor and the city council into letting you stage this farce."
"Believe me, Bill, I'm even less enthusiastic about having this last 'assignment' come to pass than you are, but I have to keep Griffin thinking that I'm following his demands while you and I pursue ways to make sure it doesn't happen. Have your men had any luck locating where Superman is being held?"
"No; I've been able to have six more addresses checked out but if Griffin did move Superman, we might be looking in entirely the wrong places. How certain are you of your data?"
Lois sighed. "Not all that certain. It was the only lead I had to work with. My estimation of time and distance could be off, and that would change the size of our search area. And, as you say, Griffin could have had Superman moved to someplace completely different and then we have no leads as to where he might have been taken."
"Well, now that you've gone public I can commit more manpower to the search without having to worry about someone wondering what I'm doing. I'm going to have our people expand the search radius another five miles, and add empty warehouses and other abandoned buildings whose location would allow Griffin's men to operate without suspicion."
"That's going to add a lot of locations to check out. Are you going to be able to check them all out before tomorrow evening?"
There were several moments of silence before Henderson answered. "No; we're going to have to hope for a lucky break. Especially now that Griffin's men will know that we're looking for them. Frankly, even if we do get lucky, I'm not sure we can plan and execute a rescue operation that doesn't endanger Superman's life in time to stop your appointment with that firing squad."
Lois frowned into the phone. The news Henderson had wasn't good, but it was pretty much what she had expected. It wasn't like anything had exactly gone her way yet. Why should the search be any different? "Well, as to that, I'm meeting with the mayor in about an hour, then I want to meet with you later this evening to discuss some other options."
"Won't Griffin be suspicious of any meeting we might have?"
"No; he'll just think that I'm trying to persuade you to be a part of my firing squad."
Lois had to let go a small chuckle at the normally unflappable Inspector's surprise. "It's a long story. I'll fill you in later."
"Well… Okay. We can meet at the station tonight after you've met with the mayor."
"Great, I'll be there as soon as I can… oh, and Bill…"
It was a very tired Lois who stumbled into her apartment late that evening. She tossed her bag and her jacket on the kitchen table and went to the refrigerator. After a fruitless search for food, she settled for a can of cream soda. She took her bounty and collapsed onto her couch. Not for the first time she wished she were at Clark's place trying to relax. Whatever possessed her to purchase this couch?
She grabbed the remote and clicked on LNN. They were still running the excerpts from the mayor's press conference from earlier in the evening. Lois turned up the sound.
"… and so in the interest of the greater good for the citizens of Metropolis, and because Ms. Lane convinced me of her willingness to make this great sacrifice for us, I have met with the city council, and the Chief of Police, and we have agreed to allow the event demanded by The Prankster to take place."
Lois turned the sound back down. It had been a grueling session with the mayor. If someone would have been watching the conversation they would have been completely confused. The mayor had been adamantly arguing to save Lois' life while she was just as adamantly arguing to allow her execution to take place. It had been crazy. Ultimately, it was the public opinion being touted in poll after poll which had turned the tide. The citizens made it clear that, while they sympathized with Lois, they were quite okay with her trading her life for that of Superman's. When the electorate speaks, the elected listen. At least, if they want to be elected again.
After leaving the mayor Lois had met with Henderson. They had discussed the likelihood of the police finding Superman before six p.m. tomorrow and what they would do if they didn't. They had talked and schemed late into the night, but for the first time since Griffin had made his final pronouncement, she felt like she had a decent shot of getting out of this mess alive. Well, maybe decent was a bit too optimistic, but she did have a shot.
She was grateful to Henderson for agreeing to replace Clark in the makeup of her firing squad. She frowned. How stupid a thought was that? Still, having him there was going to be a comfort. Especially since Clark was not going to be able to be there. She'd fed Henderson the same story she had told to Griffin about Clark being stranded in Smallville by an illness. She wasn't sure whether he'd believed her or not; he'd just nodded and said he'd be there to follow through with what they needed to do.
Lois sighed, and got up from the couch. She left the can of soda on the end table. She was beat, but she couldn't allow herself to sleep too late. She intended to join in the search for Superman until the last minute. She would be in Centennial Park at six p.m. as directed if she had to, but she could still hope that it wouldn't be necessary.
As she headed toward her bedroom she noticed the light on her answering machine was on. She reached over and pushed the button. A familiar voice greeted her.
"Lois, its Martha. I just wanted to let you know that we got a call late this afternoon by someone who wanted to talk to Clark. It was just as you said it would be. I told him that Clark was asleep, but if he'd leave his name and number we'd have Clark call him back once he woke up. He hung up. Lois, I know you know what you're doing, but I have to say once again, don't let this Prankster fellow…" The tape had run out. Lois erased the message.
Lois' original plan had been to spend the morning and much of the afternoon checking out addresses and trying to find where Griffin had Superman stashed. But from the minute she left her apartment she was besieged by reporters and other media folks. Everyone wanted the 'big quote.' What was she going to do? Was she really going to let her friends shoot her? And what about those friends, were they actually going to pull the trigger on her just on the hope that it would free Superman?
Since it would be hopeless for her to try and do anything toward finding Clark, she decided to head for the Daily Planet and let Henderson and his men continue the search. She hoped they would get lucky, but she wasn't too confident. More and more, she was beginning to believe that Griffin had indeed moved Superman to some other place.
Luckily once she reached the Planet she was able to shed her entourage. Security kept them out of the building, so she was able to make it up to the bullpen without any more interruptions.
She got off the elevator and made her way to her desk. Once there she didn't know what to do. It wasn't like she was actually working on a story. She was the story. She couldn't go out and look for Clark like she had intended, so she was stuck sitting at her desk… waiting. Lois Lane didn't do waiting very well.
Perry came out of his office and sidled up next to her. "How are you holding up, darlin'?"
She looked up and gave him a sad smile. "As well as can be expected, I suppose."
"Is there any way I can talk you out of showing up at Centennial Park this evening?"
She shook her head. "No, and I need you to promise me that you and Jimmy will be there too."
Perry nodded. "I've talked to Jimmy. We'll be there, but I don't know if I can guarantee that either one of us will be able to pull the trigger when the time comes, Superman or not."
She reached out and gave his hand a squeeze. "Well, we can hope it doesn't come to that. But if it does, I need you to do what you have to do." She shook her head at his intended protest. "No, don't worry, you know me, Chief, I've got it covered. Everything will be okay. You've got to trust me."
He reached down and gave her shoulder a squeeze. "I do, honey, I do." He walked slowly back up to his office.
Lois felt bad that she didn't confide in Perry some of the things that she and Henderson had discussed the night before, but she didn't want to build any false hope. She also needed him to continue to act and react naturally to the situation in case Griffin still had her under observation. She frowned. Perry might be able to handle the information and still keep his emotions genuine, but Jimmy would never be able to. It hurt her to do so, but it would be better all around if Perry and Jimmy just continued on as they had been. Besides, it was not as if her back-up plan was all that great, anyway. It might still come down to her and a firing squad.
Lois picked up the phone and dialed Henderson's number. Might as well see if there had been any news on that front. He had given her his direct number so she didn't have to fight through the switchboard.
"Bill, this is Lois."
She heard the sigh on his end. "I told you I'd call you if we found anything."
"Well, have you?"
"Did I call?"
"Then that means we haven't come across anything."
"Don't be a butthead."
Lois could swear she heard a slight chuckle. "Do you realize that you just called a police inspector a butthead? That's a misdemeanor."
"Well, actually, I am. But I am glad you called. Have you had a chance to try on the special equipment we were able to procure for you?"
"No, I figured I'd do that this afternoon before heading out to Centennial Park."
"Well, I wouldn't wait too long. You want to make sure the rig is set up correctly."
Lois chewed on her lip. "Yeah, I know, but it's pretty simple, and I'm sure that I'll be able to rig it properly."
Henderson hesitated for a couple of beats. "Do White and Olsen know what you have planned?"
"No; I couldn't risk the information getting back to Griffin. I'm sure that he has someone watching me everywhere. If it looked like Jimmy and Perry were too comfortable with this, it would make him suspicious."
"Are you sure that they'll fire their rifles if it comes to that?"
"No, I'm not, but I know I can count on you, and that should be enough."
Lois felt foolish, but she suddenly needed to ask the question. "Ah, Bill, you are a good shot… aren't you?"
This time she knew she heard a chuckle. "I can hit what I aim at."
"Good." Lois was nodding. "Good."
"Goodbye, Lois. I'll call if we find out anything."
"Okay, thanks, Bill."
After hanging up, Lois stared at the phone for a few more minutes. Finally, with an exasperated sigh, she set the phone to forward any calls to her cell and got up to leave. Perry stuck his head out of the office as she passed by.
"Heading home, Lois?"
"Yeah, Chief, I can't do anything here. I'm just going to go home and get myself ready, if you know what I mean."
He nodded gravely. "I'm afraid I do."
"I'll see you at six, Chief."
"Well, let's hope it's to celebrate Superman's release, and not your execution."
"Amen to that, Chief."
Clark had been doing his best to keep Griffin's henchman turning down the intensity of the kryptonite bars. He finally managed to get it to a point where he felt like he had a bad case of the flu. His powers were still gone, and he was still fairly weak, but he was confident that if given the opportunity, he could move under his own power. The only problem was, he was nowhere near strong enough to get out of the cage on his own. The metal of the bars was still more than enough to keep him imprisoned.
The television was tuned to LNN, which was treating the situation like it would a major political rally. The crowd that had gathered was straining against the restraints. There were several signs being held aloft. Most said 'Save Superman;' some others merely said 'Thank you, Lois,' but none called for her to not go up onto the makeshift stage and accept the fate that The Prankster intended for her.
Clark could see the clock from his cage. It was only minutes before six. He saw Perry and Jimmy walk up toward the stage. It was obvious from their demeanor that they both wished they could be anywhere else at that moment. Henderson was already there. He'd been directing his men in crowd control. He'd also had words with the crew from the coroner's office. He was waiting on the stage when Perry and Jimmy approached.
Suddenly the attention being paid to the screen was disrupted by the ringing of the phone. The man left behind to watch him picked it up and listened intently for a couple of moments. He hung up the phone and turned toward the door. Striding over to it, he unlocked the door and let in another oversized goon.
"Looks like you're going to miss the show, Supes." His main jailer gave him a wicked grin. "I'm kind of sorry we're going to miss it, but the cops have been seen poking around in this neighborhood, and we have to get you out of here."
"But I thought that once Lois did what he wanted, Griffin was going to let me go." Clark's voice was weak and scratchy from not being used for several days. It enhanced his appearance of weakness.
"Yeah, well, it will take a bit of time for the ceremonies to commence. Got to add some drama, don't you know." The goon winked. "We can't run the risk of being found by the cops and have them radio ahead that you've been found." The fellow came up close to the cage. "Besides, what makes you think that The Prankster is actually going to let you go?"
It looked like it was going to be as Clark feared it would be. Griffin was an amoral criminal. There was no way he'd let such a plum achievement slip through his fingers. To be known as the man who got rid of both Superman and Lois Lane would make him a legend. Lois had been risking her life for nothing.
"Come on, help me with this guy." His main guard gestured to the other fellow. "He's pretty heavy, and I don't think he'll be able to walk on his own." He fixed Clark with a hard stare. "Even in your weakened state I know that you might want to try something. I'd advise you not to." He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a fist-sized lump still wrapped in a dull gray foil. "Remember, I've still got the persuader within easy reach."
Clark glared at his jailers. "Why bother, if you're going to kill me anyway?"
"Oh, don't be in such a hurry, big man. I didn't say anything about killing you, at least not yet. No, I just said the boss isn't currently disposed toward letting you go. Truthfully, I have no idea what his ultimate aim for you is going to be. I don't get paid to think for myself. I just do as I'm told, and right now I've been told to move you to a new location."
Clark grimly prepared himself. It was like a gift from the fates. He'd been racking his brain for the last two days trying to figure out a way to escape his captors, and now he was being handed his best opportunity. He couldn't have asked for a better chance. But was it going to be too late to save Lois?
Clark didn't delude himself into thinking that this was going to be easy. He was still pretty weak, and both men seemed fit and capable. Your average hired muscle. And there was also the added threat of the chunk of kryptonite his leering jailer held in reserve. If he was able to bring that into play, any hope Clark might have of escape would end immediately.
Wisely, he continued to play up his feigned weakened state. He watched carefully as the kryptonite intensity was turned completely off and the single door in the portable cell was opened. Clark allowed himself to be dragged out of the cell.
"Now don't you worry about losing your old comfortable home, here. As soon as we've got you safely on the way, a separate crew will come over and knock down this cell and bring it to your new location."
The two men ducked under Clark's arms and hefted him up between them. He let his feet drag along the hardwood floor. One of the fellows struggled a bit as he had to balance Clark and open the door at the same time.
"Crap, this guy is a lot heavier than he looks."
"Yeah, I hear it has something to do with a greater molecular density."
"And you know what that means?"
Clark watched his surroundings as they maneuvered him down the hall, looking for his opportunity. As they approached the staircase, he knew that it would be there that he'd have his best chance. They were on the third floor, and just before the hall intersected the stairs going down, it opened up to an old-style cathedral-type foyer. Oh his left was the wall that contained the doors to the various apartments. On the right was a somewhat frail-looking banister overlooking the first floor entrance hall.
It was going to be now, or never.
Suddenly, Clark got both his feet under him and clamped his arms around the necks of his two captors. With every ounce of strength he had left in him, he smashed the men's heads together.
Stunned and groggy from the impact, they both staggered out of Clark's grasp. He reached out and snagged one fellow and tossed him into the wall. The other one, still somewhat groggy, made a lunge at Clark. He threw a quick elbow into the guy's nose, which caused him to fall back into the banister of the railing.
A loud crack echoed through the empty hallway as the aged railing gave way and the man fell to the floor two flights below. He landed with a meaty thunk. Clark moved over to the edge and looked down. The man was unconscious, but it was apparent that he wasn't dead. He must've landed fully on his back and completely knocked himself out. Thankful that the man, though probably hurt, hadn't been killed, he turned his attention back to his original guard.
The man was shaking his head and trying to regain his feet when Clark lunged at him. Taking him full in the chest with both fists doubled, he slammed the fellow back against the wall with such a force that a nearby light fixture fell off the wall. His captor's eyes rolled back into his head and he slid bonelessly to the floor of the hallway.
Clark was on his knees, bent over gasping for breath from the effort he'd expended. He crawled over and reached into the man's pocket and pulled out the grey foil-wrapped bundle. The lead covering kept the kryptonite's effects from reaching Clark, but it still made him feel uneasy just handling it. But he couldn't leave it where it could possibly be used against him again.
Clark struggled to his feet. He had to get out of there. More of Griffin's men would soon be there to deconstruct the cell, and he didn't want to be there when they showed up. Somewhere in the distance he could hear a clock tower chiming six o'clock. Lois!
He nearly fell down the stairs in his adrenalin-fueled rush to get outside. Once in the street he was struck by another cruel situation. He had no idea where he was. He didn't recognize the part of town he was in nor did he have any idea in which direction lay Centennial Park.
He stopped and took a few moments to calm himself. He needed to think. He carefully scanned the sky and the surrounding buildings. The area was definitely one that had seen better times. Many of the buildings looked to be either abandoned or in various states of disrepair, or both. The run-down apartment building he'd just come out of was the only residential unit in his field of view. Most of the rest of the buildings were either abandoned warehouses, or seemingly empty plants and factories.
Looking up, he saw a few sea gulls circling lazily overhead. That meant he was close to the ocean. Most likely Hobbs Bay. He noted the direction the birds seemed to come from and head back toward and assumed that was east. If he was near Hobbs Bay, then going west would soon have him crossing a major north-south thoroughfare. From there he should be able to flag down a cab and get to Centennial Park.
He started off at the best jog he could endure. His body was spent. He was running on pure willpower alone, but he couldn't quit now. Lois' life could very well hang in the balance.
He couldn't tell how long it had taken him, but soon he found himself confronting East 82nd. It was the first street that showed any signs of traffic, though not as much as he'd like. He looked up and down the street for the familiar yellow of a Metropolis cab, but didn't see any.
Griffin's men had mentioned something about the police being out looking for him in the area, but he hadn't seen any indication of a squad car either. There was a phone kiosk on the corner, but obviously, he had no change for the phone, nor was there anyone around he could bum a couple of quarters from.
He was ready to scream with frustration when he saw a cab pull over about a block away. He hurried over as quickly as he could. As he approached he noted that the off-duty sign was lit and the cab was sitting in front of a liquor store. The driver had apparently just quickly run inside to pick up a bottle for later that evening because he'd left his cab running. Not the smartest thing to do, but for Clark it was a sign that his luck had finally changed.
Normally, Clark would have engaged the man and solicited his help in getting him to Centennial Park. That would have been the right thing to do. That was what Superman would do. But it wasn't Superman who came upon that running taxi in a state of near panic. It was Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet and partner of Lois Lane. When Lois was in danger Clark never hesitated.
He jumped into the cab and drove off in a squeal of tire rubber.
It was a nerve-wracking few minutes of aimless driving until Clark finally recognized where he was and how he'd have to go to get to Centennial Park. On one hand he was fortunate that there wasn't much traffic and he was able to drive quickly and unimpeded toward his destination. The reason was what was unfortunate. Everyone was either at the park, or at home watching the coming spectacle on television.
Every minute that passed squeezed Clark's heart in a fist of desperation. Would he get there in time to stop Lois from throwing her life away for him? What if he couldn't? What if he was too late? How could he ever forgive himself?
He pressed down on the accelerator a bit more and took a corner nearly on two wheels.
Lois approached the makeshift stage, noting that her friends were already there. She'd purposely come a few minutes late, just to give herself as much time as possible without causing Griffin to think she'd backed out. Let him think it was just a natural fear of what was to come.
The light windbreaker she wore made her uncomfortably warm, but its presence was necessary to her plan. A plan it looked like she was going to have to rely on since there had still been no word on Superman's location.
She mounted the stage to the sound of muted cheers and shouts of encouragement. What she was about to do might not be the most rational act, but her apparent willingness to sacrifice herself for Superman was appreciated by most of the citizens of Metropolis.
Within another couple of minutes a dark van rolled up beside the stage. The doors opened, disgorging Griffin's men, led by a grinning Lenny. Large, deadly-looking rifles were in the hands of his associates.
Once they were all on the stage together, the rifles were handed to the defacto firing squad as Lenny approached the stand that held the microphone. He pulled the wireless from the stand as Lois watched how the rifles were carried. Henderson cradled his with a practiced ease that bespoke a familiarity with the firearm. That wasn't the case with Perry and Jimmy. They both looked like they had been handed venomous snakes. Lois' attention was drawn back to the front as Lenny cleared his throat before addressing the crowd.
"Citizens of Metropolis, both here in attendance and across the live air waves, I greet you on behalf of Mr. Kyle Griffin, The Prankster. Tonight we will all be privy to his final assignment for Daily Planet busybody, Lois Lane. Tonight we will also be privileged to witness the culmination of The Prankster's righteous revenge."
Lenny strutted back and forth across the stage, enjoying the tension even he must have felt in the air. It made him smile. His smile made Lois frown.
"I will say that I do have to admit to a grudging admiration of Ms. Lane's bravery. To sacrifice your own life to save the life of a friend could be said to be the highest form of courage and nobility." His grin spread wider. "Or, one might say that she's a few bricks short of a load." He was the only one to laugh at the joke. "Nevertheless, it all comes to a culmination mere moments from now." He turned and looked at Lois. "Ms. Lane, if you'd follow me?"
Lois meekly followed the man as he led her to the wooden backstop that had been erected at the back of the stage. The fact that the boards were of ordinary thickness told Lois that the rifles weren't going to be loaded with any sort of super high-powered bullets that would easily tear right through those boards and keep going, endangering anything or anyone who might be behind the stage though blocks away. She wasn't conversant enough with firearms to know what her execution squad had been equipped with, but Henderson hadn't seemed too concerned so she was confident that their plan was still viable.
"Now, Lois," Lenny began, "I know that we never communicated any specific mode of dress; instead leaving that choice up to you. But, really… a jacket? It's over eighty degrees out. Aren't you a bit warm?"
"No, I'm fine. The idea of being shot down on live television tends to give me a chill."
Lenny chuckled. "Nice try, but I don't think I can quite buy that. If you please, take off the jacket."
Lois shook her head. "I'd rather not."
Lenny's look became hard. "It wasn't a request. Do it, or walk off the stage now."
Lois glared at the man, but complied. Sighing, she pulled the windbreaker up over her head and tossed it on the stage beside her. She heard the gasp from the crowd.
"Tsk, tsk, Ms. Lane. Now you know that this…" He reached out and fingered the police issue bulletproof vest she had worn under the jacket. "Is not in the spirit of your agreement with Mr. Griffin." He cocked his brow at her. "What's it going to be, Lois? Take it off, or do we call it a night right now and I send the word back that you've decided not to take on the assignment?"
With another sigh of resignation, Lois undid the buckles and tossed aside the vest, revealing a simple white pullover decorated with an unusual design. On the front of the bright white shirt was a brilliant red bulls-eye, the center placed directly over her heart.
Lenny grinned again. "Now that's what I call a shirt that honors the spirit of the occasion."
Lois shrugged. "I just wanted to give my friends a bit of help. They're not exactly marksmen, you know. If this has to happen, I'd rather not linger. Best if it happens quick and clean."
"I couldn't agree more."
Lenny pulled a blindfold out of his pocket and offered it to Lois. She shook her head in declination. Lenny nodded in acknowledgement and moved off to the side. Lois knew her time was up.
"Ladies and gentlemen of Metropolis, the time has come." He paused for a few seconds for the drama. "Squad, rifles to ready." All three men raised their weapons and aimed them toward Lois. "Aim." Henderson sighted down the barrel. Jimmy and Perry, as if of one mind, both dropped their rifles to boards at their feet.
"I'm sorry, honey, I can't do it." Perry turned away, gathering Jimmy with a strong arm around the young man's shoulder.
Lenny frowned, but kept the microphone firmly poised at his lips.
A tear slid from the corner of Lois' eye as she watched Perry and Jimmy slink off. Her eyes flew to Henderson. Her voice pleaded with him. "Bill?"
His lips were pulled into a tight line. He gave her a slight nod.
Without a moment's hesitation, Henderson squeezed the trigger. The crack of the rifle shot ripped through the previous quiet of the park.
It had only been about ten minutes, but for Clark it had been ten lifetimes. He roared into the area and was forced to a screeching halt two blocks away from the heart of the park. The gridlock that had been produced by the big event had access to the area blocked off. Between the police, emergency vehicles, and the television crews' satellite trucks and other equipment, there was no way to get close to the stage except by foot.
Clark slammed the cab into park and jumped out without bothering to turn off the engine. He got many stares as he ran toward the stage set-up in the center of Centennial Park. Within moments he was pushing through the mob of people. For once he wasn't careful or polite; he just forced his way through as best as he could in his still weakened state.
There was a general murmur spreading through the crowd as those around saw who it was that was pushing on them. Unfortunately, it was impossible for anyone more than a few feet away to know what was going on.
"Squad, rifles to ready."
Clark slipped to his knees, tearing his costume on the hard flagstone walk that he had tripped on.
A frantic burst of desperation forced Clark to forget about the burning in his lungs and the horrible ache in every muscle of his body. Please, don't let him be too late. He was getting close now. He could see Lois standing against a large wooden backstop. Perry and Jimmy had dropped their rifles and were turning away. Henderson kept his locked onto the target… Lois.
"No!" Clark watched it happen as if in slow motion. Lois was thrown back by the force of the shot. A bright rose stain blossomed on her chest, obliterating the red rings of the target design that had been on her once-white shirt. She fell back. Henderson was quickly at her side.
Clark didn't remember the last hundred feet. One moment his heart was bursting watching Lois fall to that stage flooring; the next he was climbing up onto the stage and rushing to her side. He shoved Henderson out of the way and pulled the tiny, still form into his embrace. He cradled her head in his arms.
"Oh, Lois." Tears began to fall from his eyes.
Suddenly Lois' eyes snapped open. "Cla-, Superman?" She threw her arms around his neck. "You're all right! You got away." He felt her tears soaking the front of his tunic.
He leaned back, startled, and looked at her. "Lois?"
"I tried to find you, but I couldn't. Henderson had his men looking for you, but we could only guess where you might be. Then there was what Griffin had said about moving you. Did they move you?"
"Then I wasn't sure if he'd let you go even if I did as he asked. I was so scared."
"You're not dead?"
"What? No, I'm fine. Well, I'm pretty sore, but I'm not dead." She thumped her chest. "Another bulletproof vest. I figured that Griffin and his men would expect me to try something. That I wouldn't just docilely walk into their planned execution. So I gave them something to discover. But I guessed that if they found one bulletproof vest they wouldn't suspect a second. Help me up."
Clark stood, and levered Lois to a standing position. "But the vest hardly shows. I know it's there, but I would still miss it if I wasn't looking for it."
Lois smiled. "Yeah, it's a new prototype vest that Henderson got from Star Labs. It has a much slimmer profile. They designed it for undercover work. It's made from some sort of special ceramics."
"But, but the blood?"
She stared down at the ruin that was once her white pullover. "Yeah, special effects; looks pretty real, doesn't it?"
"Well, I'm glad that you're okay. I don't know what I would have done if you had died because of me."
She frowned at him. "Yeah, well, I'm glad that you're okay. How do you think I would have felt knowing that you were hurt or might be killed because of Griffin's insane hatred of me?" She reached up and stroked his cheek. "Are you okay?"
He smiled. "I've been better. But thanks to you, I'll be fine."
He couldn't help himself. She looked so vulnerable, so desirable. He leaned in and captured her lips with his. She melted in his arms. It seemed that there was some cheers and applause in the distance, but he didn't really hear it. As his desire increased, hers seemed to match his, for a time. Suddenly she went slack. He pulled back, alarmed.
Henderson came over from where he'd been directing his men in the capture and arrest of Griffin's men, and pulled her from his arms and laid her on the stage decking. He lifted her shirt and examined the vest. "She's passed out. I think she might have a broken rib. We'd best get her to the hospital. She's been through a lot the last few days."
Superman stood by, speechless, as a crew of paramedics rushed up onto the stage and carted Lois off to the awaiting ambulance.
Henderson clapped him on the shoulder. "Glad you're all right." He moved off to follow the ambulance.
Lois slowly opened her eyes. She was immediately disoriented. She didn't recognize the pristine white ceiling, and the bland, pale green walls. Suddenly, memory came rushing back. She was in the hospital… again. Her side ached, and she could feel the tight wrap of bandages around her stomach and chest.
She let her gaze drift around the room. It was a typical hospital room. Only hers seemed to have one special feature that none of the other rooms would have. She saw him dozing in a chair off to one side of her bed. A feeling of warmth and comfort spread through her body. She didn't fight the smile that found its way onto her face. Clark looked so precious slumped down in the too-small chair, his glasses having slid halfway down his nose.
He stirred, then abruptly sat up straight. His first move was to look in her direction. "Lois, you're awake."
"Yup." She grinned. "Hi."
"Hi." He pulled the chair next to her bed. "How are you feeling? The doctor says you have a cracked rib, but it's not broken, and if you take it easy for a few weeks you'll be good as new."
She blushed under the intensity of his gaze. She turned away. "Don't look at me. I'm a mess." She ran her hand through her still ragged, cropped locks, and she knew that any make-up she might have had was long gone.
"You look beautiful, as always." He grabbed her hand.
She smiled. "How are *you* feeling? You were pretty sick when I saw you last."
He leaned back and sighed. "I'm fine. It will be a while before I'm super again, but otherwise I'm fine. I talked to Mom and Dad after Henderson had you brought to the hospital. You were sedated right away, so they wouldn't let me see you. Mom sends her love. They wanted to come, but I told them to wait a couple of more days." His expression became a bit more guarded, perhaps even fearful. "She also told me that you had figured it out."
Lois nodded. "Yeah; I can't believe it took me so long to see the obvious, but I realized that the only reason that my partner, and best friend, wouldn't be right beside me during this whole Griffin fiasco would be because he couldn't. It didn't take too long to put the pieces together after that."
"I'm sorry, Lois. I should have told you sooner, but it just kept getting complicated."
"First off, you didn't tell me. I figured it out for myself, and you know, I think I like it better that way. I feel more vindicated in finding out for myself rather than having you suddenly spring it on me and I have the fact that I missed what was right under my nose all this time pointed out to me."
"But, weren't you… aren't you mad?"
Lois leaned her head back into her pillow. "At first I was too worried about you to be mad, and after a while, I realized that it didn't really matter. This whole experience has taught me that life is too short to let myself get all bent out of shape before I have all the details; before I hear your reasons."
Clark gave her a look of bemusement. "Hello, I was talking to Lois Lane here. Do you know where she might have gone?"
"Ha, ha, very funny. Look, I'll admit that I'm still a little hurt over this, but I'm willing to wait and hear your side of things before I decide how I should feel about it. So, the subject is definitely not settled between us, but the main thing is that it helped me understand a lot of my own confusion when it came to you, and Superman."
"You were confused?"
Lois chuckled. "Oh, yeah. I was driving myself crazy wondering how I could have such strong feelings for two different men. This is much better."
"You aren't confused any more?"
She knew he was waiting for her to say more, but she decided that those confessions could wait. After all, she couldn't let him completely off the hook for keeping this from her for so long. She may not be mad at him, but that didn't mean that he wasn't going to be paying a bit of tax for his duplicity. He still had some groveling to do.
"Did you see any of the 'assignments' on the news?" She asked.
He look became grave. "Yes, they made sure that I was able to watch both of them. I was particularly horrified by your fight with Tiger Bennett. I'm amazed that you weren't much more badly hurt. Mom said you only suffered a broken nose, and a slight concussion."
"Well, it was a bit worse than that, but I did manage to walk away from that in much better shape than Griffin had intended."
"I've always told you I can take care of myself."
She laughed. "Griffin, like many others before him, underestimated me. He knew that I had trained myself in martial arts, and he thought that he got around that with his by-the-book 'boxing match.' But he made the same mistake that most people who get their knowledge of martial arts from Jackie Chan movies do. He only thought in terms of offensive moves and techniques. More than half of what we learn is defensive. How to avoid, or minimize your opponent's moves and blows. I was able to deflect or roll with many of the shots that Bennett threw to keep him from knocking my head off."
Lois shook her head at the memory. "That's not to say that he didn't connect on occasion. He did, and I paid for those mistakes. But the truth was he didn't hurt me as badly as it looked like he did."
Clark leaned in and placed his hand on her cheek. "I'm glad."
Lois felt her heartbeat quicken as Clark leaned closer and kissed her. It was a sweet kiss. It started out a bit unsure but when it was apparent that she welcomed it, he became bolder and allowed himself to explore the taste of her. It was a kiss of promise.
It was also a kiss that gave Lois the courage to speak the thoughts that had been going through her mind for that last couple of days.
"So, I'm going to be fine, and you're going to be fine." Her voice betrayed a touch of shyness that wasn't normal for Lois Lane. "Where do we go from here?"
"Wherever you want to go, Lois. Wherever you want."
He leaned back down for another kiss. She quickly rose up to meet him. She couldn't help but think that once she got out of that hospital things between her and Clark were going to get very interesting. And she couldn't wait.