By Nan Smith <email@example.com>
Summary: This is the last story of the Wedding series, following "Wedding Consequences." Lois and Clark come to Smallville to avoid the media and the new head of Luthor's criminal empire, who wants Lois dead. But Lois and Clark never do things the easy way, and they can never mind their own business when someone else needs help.
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings in this story do not belong to me. They are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions and whoever else can legally claim them, I have written this story solely for its entertainment value and am making no profit from it whatsoever. The story, however, is mine.
The sky outside his office window was darkening. William Henderson glanced out at the rising moon, glowing mistily through the light haze above the city. It had been nearly a week, he thought, since his men had discovered the Kryptonite-coated cage in the basement of Lex Tower. There had still been no sign of Superman, in spite of the most intense search. No one had found a body, but the last shreds of hope were beginning to fade. It was entirely possible that Luthor, or his minions, had somehow disposed of the body in such a way that it was extremely unlikely that it would be found.
The thought that Superman might actually be dead produced an emotion that he hated: real, genuine grief.
Normally, he was able to place the deaths of victims in perspective. He and his men couldn't save everyone; all they could do was to be as diligent as possible in bringing the perpetrator to justice. They had limits, being only human, but Superman had been able to do things that his people couldn't. He'd been able to help many people in ways that were outside the resources of the police. He had accomplished seeming miracles. If Luthor had been able to destroy the man who had come to them nearly a year before and given hope to the entire city, there wasn't anything he and his men could do but damn the billionaire's soul. He would have quenched that hope forever. He would have destroyed Henderson's hope that things would be better. He would have killed Henderson's friend.
The Inspector deliberately pushed the morbid thoughts away. Nothing was certain yet. Superman might have some reason for failing to contact anyone, to reassure the public that he was still alive, but Henderson couldn't imagine what it might be.
The phone rang, jolting him out of his reflections. He snatched up the receiver in some relief. "Henderson."
"Inspector? This is Superman."
It might be a hoax, but somehow he knew it wasn't. There was something very familiar about the soft voice with the Midwestern accent. For an instant, he wasn't able to identify the emotion that surged through him. It was sheer joy, followed an instant later by anger at the unnecessary worry that he had been enduring for over a week. "Where the devil have you been?"
"I'm sorry I wasn't able to contact you before," the Kryptonian's voice said, sounding, he thought, genuinely regretful.
"What happened?" Henderson asked, more gently. "We found the cage in the basement of Lex Tower."
"That's why I was calling," Superman's voice said. "I wanted to ask you if you can dispose of it for me."
"I'll see what I can do," Henderson said. "But —"
"Luthor trapped me in that cage, Bill." Superman's voice was soft. "He nearly killed me. Until a little while ago, I wasn't sure I'd be able to come back at all." A hesitation. "I wasn't able to get in touch with you until now, and I sincerely apologize for making you think…what you did. If you could let anyone who needs to know that I'm alive…and will probably be able to come back in a week or two…I'd appreciate it."
"A week or two?" Henderson said, quickly rearranging his thoughts. Apparently there had been some reason for him to worry after all.
"Probably," Superman said. "I'm getting better. I hope in a couple of weeks everything will be back to normal. Don't pass that along to anyone, please. I'd rather it wasn't general knowledge."
Henderson could understand that. "I don't see why anyone else should be interested," he said, not exactly truthfully. "In any case, it's nobody's business."
"Thank you," Superman said. "I appreciate it. I'll contact you when I'm ready to make my reappearance. Goodbye, Bill — and thanks again."
"You're welcome," Henderson said.
Superman hung up, and the Inspector put down the phone, amazed at the sudden lift to his mood. It wasn't surprising, though, he rationalized. Superman was a great asset to the Metro PD. Ah hell, why not admit the truth for once? Henderson didn't have many real friends, and he counted Superman as one of them. He was genuinely glad that his friend was still alive.
After a moment's thought, he picked up the phone and dialed the number of the editor of the Daily Planet. If anyone deserved to hear the news ahead of everyone else, it was Perry White, and he doubted that Superman would mind. And, after that, he would return to his task of following the trail of the persons who had tapped Perry White's phone and arranged the accident that had nearly killed Luthor's widow. Somebody wanted Lois Lane dead, and Henderson had every intention of nailing "The Mrs." With a moniker like that, one of the first places to look was in Luthor's history. If the man had been married before, it might shed a lot of light on the mystery.
At the other end of the line, someone picked up the receiver. "Hello?" Perry White's voice said.
"Hello, Perry," Henderson said, "I have some news…"
"That makes me feel better," Clark said. "After Perry told me Henderson thought Superman was dead, I couldn't let that go on any longer."
"Yeah," Lois said. "Henderson can be a pain sometimes, but he's a good guy. Don't tell him I said that, though."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Clark said. "He was itching to arrest Luthor, you know — he just didn't have enough evidence until Jimmy and Perry took the information we'd collected to him. Apparently once it was in his hands, he pulled a judge off the golf course to issue the warrant."
"Why couldn't he just get another judge?" Lois asked.
Clark lifted an eyebrow. "Why do you think? He wanted one he was sure of — not some guy who was in Luthor's back pocket."
"Oh," Lois said. "Yeah. It's still a little hard to realize how far Lex's influence went. It shouldn't be a surprise. I guess a lot of people are ducking for cover right now."
"Well, Perry told me there's at least three judges, a couple of assistant DAs and a number of cops under investigation. Another judge has disappeared. According to his spokesman he's gone on a health retreat because of on-the-job stress."
"Should I wager anything on the odds that he'll ever come back?" Lois asked.
"Your guess is as good as mine. The heads of several companies that had dealings with LexCorp are under suspicion as well, and —" He broke off with a shrug. "I doubt you want to know the details. LexCorp is coming down like a house of cards."
"Yeah," she said. "I saw it starting before we left Metropolis. I only wish I could help, rather than hide from the press this way."
Clark nodded silently and put his arm around her. "Unfortunately, if we were in Metropolis, instead of writing the story, you'd *be* the story," he said. "Perry told me the Star is already trying to turn you into a gold digger who only married Luthor for his money. The Planet is defending you, and once you finish the legal stuff and the Superman Foundation takes control of the funds, it will make them look like fools."
"I can't say that makes me feel all that bad," Lois said, a little maliciously.
Clark chuckled softly. "Perry said the same thing. In fact, he sent Jack out to give them some choice quotes that they'll probably use as 'an anonymous source', and end up making them look worse than ever when the real story comes out. He said he normally wouldn't do something like that, but they were being so vicious that he decided to teach them a lesson. I guess they can't conceive of you actually giving away the money, so they think they can get away with it."
"Good for him," Lois said. "I'm going to enjoy watching them flounder. Perry told me he'll get hold of the Superman Foundation's legal representatives tomorrow and start getting the documents drawn up. He thought it was a great idea. I did tell him that I wanted everyone who lost his job because of Lex's bomb to be compensated for lost wages and given a bonus for all the emotional distress they went through. Maybe that will help make up for some of what Lex did to them. Money may not buy happiness, but it can make up for a lot of unhappiness — especially mine. I hope Lex is spinning in his grave."
"I think," Clark said, "that Superman will give a very public speech thanking you for the money, which will be used to repair the damage that Luthor has done, as much as possible, and thank the Daily Planet for not jumping to conclusions, unlike 'certain other publications'. What do you think?"
Lois giggled. "I like it. Just don't lay it on too thick. When I go back, I'm going to be careful to give personal interviews to papers that didn't slander me, and snub the ones that did. There's no better way of getting even with a newspaper."
Martha Kent knocked on the wall before entering the room. "Lois's bed is all made up. You can have the couch, Clark — unless…?" She looked hopefully at them. Lois and Clark looked at each other for a moment and simultaneously burst into laughter.
"We're not," Lois said between sputters, "unless you count huddling up to each other to keep warm at night in the mountains."
Martha laughed. "Oh well, six months isn't so long. You know where to find the blankets, Clark."
Clark could tell he was scarlet. "Mom, you're incorrigible!"
"Well, a mother can hope," Martha said, sending Lois into another fit of giggles.
"And I used to think you got your Midwestern values from your upbringing," she said, after Martha had departed.
"I did," Clark said. "What makes you think we Midwesterners are saints? Weren't you the one who talked about me giving a girl a hickey behind the Dairy Freeze?"
"*Did* you ever give a girl a hickey?"
He grinned. "No. It always seemed kind of mean to me — sort of like a guy was trying to put his brand on a girl. Besides, Lana would have killed me, and Rachel would have done worse."
"I've never met Lana, but I can believe it about Rachel. Does she know we're here, do you know?"
"I have no idea. Probably not. I don't think anyone has had time to call her."
"We probably should. If any more 'journalists' — to use the word loosely — show up here, we're going to want her to know what's going on so she can be ready."
"I'll call her in the morning," Clark said. "She's probably already gone home for the day by now."
"Considering it's nearly ten, I believe it," Lois said. "Why don't you show me my room, Mr. Kent?"
"Anything you wish, Ms. Lane," Clark said.
Rachel Harris entered the small office that belonged to the County Sheriff's Department in Smallville just as the phone on her desk rang. The day was definitely starting early, she thought. She shook her head and crossed to the desk to answer on the second ring. "Sheriff's Office."
"Hi, Rachel!" The voice was familiar, and it took her a moment before she recognized Clark Kent.
"That's right. I thought I'd better call you first thing, and let you know I'm in Smallville."
"I'm at my parents' farm," Clark said. "I heard from Mom and Dad that there have been some reporters hanging around."
"If you want to call them that," Rachel said.
Clark's voice laughed dryly. "No comment."
Rachel also laughed. "I guess you're hiding out from them for now, huh?"
"Kind of," Clark agreed.
"What's the real story?" she couldn't help asking. "The rumors are flying about you and Mrs. Luthor."
"Lois Lane," Clark said, firmly. "She never took Luthor's name. Look, Rachel, I don't want to be seen in public for now. If you'd like to drop by when you have time, I can give you the whole story."
"I might do that," Rachel said. Another thought occurred to her. "Is Miss…uh…Lane there with you?"
Clark's voice hesitated for a long moment. "Yes," he said, finally. "You didn't hear that, by the way. Someone with his eye on Luthor's fortune apparently wants her dead — and, of course, every news service in the country is after her. She has to stay out of sight until a month after Luthor's death, so no one will profit by managing to dispose of her."
Rachel could feel her eyebrows climbing at the statement. "You're sure of this?"
"Unfortunately, yes." Clark said. "Our pilot bailed out and left us to crash. If I didn't know how to land a plane, we'd be dead."
"Oh," Rachel said. That hadn't been in the news conference. There had been a report of an attempted assault on Mrs. Luthor, but it had been fairly vague, with a strong implication by the media that the so-called incident had been simply an overreaction by Mrs. Luthor to an overly aggressive reporter. Evidently there was more to the story. A thought occurred to her. "And I suppose it's possible that whoever is after Miss Lane could show up in Smallville."
"Let's say it wouldn't be impossible," Clark's voice said, sounding a little grim. "They know Lois is hiding somewhere, and when they decide she isn't in Metropolis, the next place they're going to look is here."
"All right," Rachel said, after a moment, "I guess we'd better not do too much talking on the phone. I'll try to make time to come out there when I can. Um…you'll be there, won't you?"
"We're not going anywhere for now," Clark said.
"All right," Rachel said. "Expect me when you see me."
Clark hung up and Rachel put down the receiver. The conversation with Clark had given her plenty to think about. The thought of big-time city crime and corruption coming to Smallville wasn't something that she liked but if it did it was up to her to root it out. It looked like a visit to the Kent farm to get the whole story was on her agenda this morning.
Greg Ross, one of her deputies, who was just pulling into the little parking lot next to the Sheriff's Office, looked oddly at her as she headed for her squad car. "Going somewhere, Sheriff?"
"Yeah. If you need me, call my cell phone," Rachel said. "And if any more of those vultures show up looking for the Kents, send them out by way of Potter's Slough, would you?"
Greg snorted. "Actually, I was thinking of Whittaker's Bog," he said. "That should keep them busy for a few hours. Especially if they take the long way around the lake and past the power station."
"Sounds even better," Rachel said, recalling the maze of rutted, dirt and gravel roads that the unfortunate members of the media would have to traverse. "Do that. Might let Dan, at the service station, know if you do, so the truck can be out of service when they call. I'll be back in a couple of hours."
Greg nodded matter-of-factly and proceeded on into the Sheriff's Office.
The Kent farm looked peaceful and serene in the morning sunlight. The four milk cows that the Kents maintained were grazing placidly in a nearby field, and not far away, in a smaller field adjoining the one with the cows, Espresso, their new coal-black stud bull was lying in the shade of a tree. Rachel pulled her squad car into the bare area in front of the house and cut the engine. A pair of chickens wandered aimlessly by, pecking at the ground as she got out and slammed the door. The terrier mix that had been around for the past year ambled out to greet her and followed her toward the house, sniffing at the backs of her legs. She noted that Jonathan Kent had finally surrendered to the inevitable, as the dog now wore a collar and a brand new license tag.
As she climbed the steps to the big front porch, the door opened and Clark Kent said, "Come on in, Rachel."
She stepped into the homey living room. A dark-haired woman in a pair of loose jeans, pulled tightly around her waist by a wide, leather belt, and a shirt that looked like one of Jonathan Kent's, was sitting on the sofa, and Rachel recognized Lex Luthor's widow, Lois Lane.
"I guess you know Lois," Clark said. "Can I get you some coffee?"
"Sure." Rachel glanced around. "Are your parents here?"
Clark shook his head. "Dad's out working in the barn, I think. I told him I'd talk to you. Mom went into town to get Lois some clothes. Have a seat. I'll get the coffee."
Rachel took the rocking chair, regarding the heiress curiously. Somehow, she had expected the woman to have changed from the hard-driven reporter that she had met months previously and in that she had been correct but the changes were not the ones she might have expected. Gone was the abrasive, almost arrogant female journalist. In her place was a pale-faced woman in too-large clothing, with a faintly grim set to her mouth and chin. She didn't look like a woman who had come suddenly into a fortune.
"I guess the story the media is telling isn't the whole one," Rachel said, after an uncomfortable pause.
Lois Lane shook her head. "Not exactly."
"Want to tell me what happened?" Rachel asked.
"We intend to." Clark re-entered the room, a cup and saucer in his hands. "You take two sugars, if I remember right."
"That's right." Rachel took the coffee cup, inhaling the aroma. Martha Kent's coffee was so far above the stuff brewed in her office that the concoctions might have been two different beverages entirely.
Clark handed a second cup and saucer to Lois Lane and disappeared momentarily, reappearing almost at once with a third cup. He took a seat on the sofa, facing Rachel. "We thought you should know what happened, in case anybody who shouldn't comes snooping around. They could."
"So I gathered from what you said on the phone."
"All right, then," Clark said. He glanced at Lois Lane. "Do you want to tell it, or shall I?"
Lois sipped her coffee. "Go ahead."
"All right." He regarded the woman beside him in a way that made Rachel faintly uneasy. There was almost an intimacy to the look. Then, he turned to Rachel. "I'm sure you heard what happened to Luthor. Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, Jack Brown and I worked together to prove that he was behind the bombing of the Planet. When the police showed up to arrest him, he chose to dive out the window of the Lexor rather than be arrested. Lois hid out at my place for several days, and then we decided that the best thing we could do was to get out of town…"
Rachel listened in silence as Clark told the story of the plane trip, the vanishing pilot, the hike through the mountains, their encounter with the "search team" from LexCorp, the attempt on Lois Lane's life at the ranger station, and finally their escape from the media and their arrival at the Kent farm. When he finished, she looked at the two reporters for a long moment in silence.
"Wow," she said at last. "That's quite a story. So now what?"
"We decided," Lois Lane said, "that I should stay out of sight until a month has passed since Lex's death. After that, by the laws of the state of New Troy, my death won't help whoever is after Lex's money. In the meantime, our editor and my lawyers are preparing for me to donate his fortune to the Superman Foundation. That will get it out of my life. But, until then, whoever tried to kill me is going to be hunting for me and one of the obvious places for them to look is Smallville. They could easily show up pretending to be another team of reporters."
Rachel had already thought of that. She nodded briskly. "We'll do our best to keep the mob away," she said, "and I'll alert my men to keep an eye on them — without telling them you're here, of course. The fewer who know it, the better it will be for everybody, I think. The story will be that there have been some anonymous threats against the Kents. There are always a few nutballs who send threats to anyone in the news, you know — usually people looking for vicarious thrills. We've actually had a couple about your parents, as a matter of fact."
"You have?" Clark looked alarmed.
"Yeah. One was from a high schooler over at Smallville High. He apologized to Martha and Jonathan after we caught him. He was just trying to cause some excitement. He did, too. We charged him with malicious mischief and Judge Tibbets ordered him to perform two hundred hours of community service. His dad wasn't satisfied, though. He's got him cleaning out barns, for free, all over the county, and I'd say his summer vacation is pretty much shot. The other one was from a guy in his fifties who makes a regular habit of it. We recognized the style right away and he's got a court date next week."
"Oh. Norville Greene," Clark said, obviously relaxing. "I should have figured."
"How'd you know that?" Rachel asked, in surprise.
"I used to live around here, remember," Clark pointed out, dryly. "And I *was* the editor of the Smallville Press."
"Yeah, I guess you were," Rachel admitted. "It's just that you're a big city reporter now. I didn't think you'd remember."
Clark raised an eyebrow. "I'm still from Smallville. I never forget that."
Rachel smiled, conceding the fact. Clark might be an ace reporter for the Daily Planet now, but she still remembered the sweet, awkward boy who had played with her as a child, and later become the handsome captain of the football team in high school. He'd dated Lana Lang in their senior year, but he'd ended up taking Rachel to the prom because of Lana's mysterious case of poison ivy that appeared two days before the prom.
Rachel had a fairly good idea how that case of poison ivy had come about although she'd never told Clark, since she didn't know for sure. Besides, gossiping about Lana wouldn't have improved Clark's opinion of her. Rachel's cousin, Vern Whipple, had been flirting with Lana for weeks, and he had coincidentally turned up with a poison ivy rash at the very same time, one that covered him from head to toe according to his mother, who had told Rachel's mother within Rachel's hearing. Tuttle Park, traditionally a favorite location and Lover's Lane for high school kids (or the Passion Pit, as her father had referred to it) was also well known for its poison ivy. Every year there was an effort to clear it out, and every spring it came back as thick as ever. But Lana's poison ivy rash had covered her shoulders and arms, and, Rachel had heard from other female friends, a number of other places that it ought not to have contacted at all. Lana had been confined to her house for over a week, leaving Clark without a date for the prom. And so he'd asked Rachel, who had been more than willing to take up the slack.
But now, Lois Lane was Clark's partner at the Daily Planet. Rachel had seen the way they interacted on their previous visit to Smallville, when those crazy government agents had been looking for a rock that they thought would kill Superman, and their leader had tried to shoot Clark in the back. When she'd heard that Lois Lane was the intended of Lex Luthor, Metropolis's most prominent citizen, she'd hoped that maybe Clark would come back to Smallville for a time. He had come back, all right — but with Mrs. Luthor in tow. Still, the situation wasn't exactly romantic. Maybe she could manage to get Clark alone while he was here and casually inquire into their situation.
In any case, she had a job to do. Lois Luthor — or Lane, she amended, since Clark had stressed that his partner had never taken Luthor's name — was quite probably in danger. Men and women had been murdered over fifty dollars, much less the ten or so billion that she had apparently inherited from her husband of less than an hour. If a quarter of the things that the papers were feverishly reporting about the world's third richest man were true, he'd undoubtedly had associates that wouldn't balk for an instant over the idea of murdering his widow in order to remove her as his main heir; or was that heiress? Some of the reporting teams already in Smallville might very well be agents of whoever it was that wanted Lois Lane dead. Since she and Clark had successfully evaded the assassin at the ranger station, as well as the various representatives of the media, the hunt for her was probably in high gear by now.
She set down her empty coffee cup. "I'd better get back and put things in motion," she said. "We'll do our best to keep the wolves away from the farm but do me a big favor and stay out of sight, both of you. If the word gets out that you're here, Superman himself couldn't keep the media away."
Clark glanced at Lois Lane and Rachel saw her smile faintly. "We'll do our best," Clark said, getting to his feet. "Thanks, Rach. I knew we could count on you."
After the Sheriff had gone, Lois looked after the trail of dust that her car had made in the driveway. Rachel was a very pretty girl, in a corn-fed kind of way, and she sure seemed to have an eye for Clark. "You took her to the prom?"
"Uh huh," Clark said. "Why?"
"Was she a serious girlfriend?"
"Huh?" Clark seemed genuinely surprised. "No, not really. We dated a few times in high school but in my senior year Lana Lang was my steady."
"Really? Then why did you take Rachel to the prom?"
Clark's mind seemed to be somewhere else. "Oh, that. Lana came down with poison ivy at the last minute, Rachel didn't have a date and I didn't either, so I called her. We went and had a good time. That was all there was to it."
"Oh," Lois said.
Clark seemed to pull his attention back to her. "Sorry. I was checking out my telescopic vision. Don't tell me you're worrying about Rachel?"
"No — not really," Lois said.
"Good, because you shouldn't. You're the one that I lie awake at night thinking about; not Rachel."
"Really?" she said, gratified.
"Oh," Lois said. She cleared her throat. "How's your telescopic vision coming along?"
"It's better. Still not back to where it was before the cage."
"Have any of your other powers come back?"
"Hearing — some, anyway. I want to go out into the barn and see if I can lift some of Dad's farm machinery where no passersby can see me. That should tell me where I am, physically." He glanced around. "The pickup's gone. Dad said something earlier about going into town to get a part for the tractor. I guess he did."
"How about flying?" she asked.
He closed his eyes and she held her breath. He opened his eyes and shook his head. "Not yet."
"Well, give it a little more time," she said. "It will come back."
"I think you're probably right," he said. "I sure hope you are."
"I am. Give it time." She slipped her hand into his. "You keep telling me to have patience and stay out of the investigation in Metropolis, and I'm telling you the same thing about your powers. It's not easy for either of us but it's important. Superman will be back — and so will Mad Dog Lane. Eventually."
"Good. As soon as you have the papers drawn up, I'll fax a copy to Lois so she can look it over and make any corrections. Right." Perry White put down the phone and picked up the copy of the Metropolis Star that lay on his desk. A photo of Lois taken for her wedding announcement with Lex Luthor was prominently displayed on the front page, along with the caption: "The Ultimate Gold Digger?" The other paper had obviously given up all pretense of objectivity. The editor of the Star had a bone to pick with Lois dating back two years and the man was playing it for all it was worth. It was going to be eminently satisfying to watch him try to save face when the headline hit the Planet announcing the donation of virtually the entire fortune to the Superman Foundation, minus whatever amount it took to compensate employees who had been impacted by the destruction of the Daily Planet. For just a few seconds, Perry allowed himself to dwell pleasurably on the thought. Scoring a few points over his old rival wouldn't hurt his feelings either, but mostly he was looking forward to it because of Lois and on basic principle. The kind of shenanigans that the Star was engaging in was what gave honest newspapers a bad name. People got the idea that all of them had an agenda, instead of simply being in the business of reporting the news accurately and fairly, so that the readers could make up their own minds.
It had turned out that Lois's inheritance of Luthor's legitimate financial assets was larger than they had thought at first. At least, no one had been able to prove that certain questionable parts of his immense wealth had not been acquired legally and the legitimate amount of the man's fortune totaled in the neighborhood of twenty-seven billion. Although a very large chunk of his assets were just as unquestionably gained through illegal means, the thirteen and a half billion that was Lois's share was no small sum to simply give away. Personally, Perry wasn't certain that he could do it if it were his instead of Lois's. On the other hand, he could understand her reasons. Lois wasn't the kind of person who could comfortably live behind electric fences and patrolling Dobermans for the rest of her life.
Jack Brown crossed the Pit and stopped to speak to Jimmy Olsen by the copy machine. Those two boys were a dreadful duo, he thought with some amusement, but they were a formidable team. When he wanted something done a little outside the normal channels, he hadn't found anybody better, except possibly Lane and Kent. They'd been very busy during the last day.
There was a knock on his door and he sighed in resignation. It was that psychiatrist again. The woman had somehow convinced Mr. Stern that some of the Daily Planet's employees might be suffering from stress and that having a staff psychiatrist available might improve the mental health and thereby the productiveness of the staff. Perry wasn't nearly as sure of it as Mr. Stern seemed to be, but he hadn't been given a choice.
"Come in," he called.
Arianna Carlin was a very beautiful woman, probably, Perry judged, in her early-to mid-thirties. Not only was she a doctor of psychiatry, she was also the author of several books and wrote a syndicated column for newspapers all across the country. She stepped through the door, smiling sweetly at him.
"I was wondering," she said. "I know that you can't give any information out about the location of Lois Luthor and Clark Kent, but since they're both listed as employees, surely they have to return to work eventually. I'm very eager to speak with them — especially Mrs. Luthor. The trauma that she has endured can't help but have an effect on her emotional health. Surely you can give me some information about that?"
She paused, an expectant smile hovering on her lips.
Perry resisted the urge to raise an eyebrow. "Lois *Lane*," he emphasized, "is taking an extended sabbatical. She and Kent will be returning after some of the media circus has died down. I'm afraid I can't tell you any more than that."
Dr. Carlin frowned. "Surely she understands her new situation," she said. "She's become a very wealthy woman. Frankly, I don't understand how she can possibly be an effective reporter, given the circumstances."
Perry shook his head. "Why don't you let Lois and me worry about it, Doctor," he said. "I'm afraid I can't discuss Lois with anyone at the present time."
"I'm only concerned over how her new situation will affect her and the Daily Planet," she said. "Her refusal to use Lex…Luthor's name only emphasizes the fact that she has failed to accept the fact that she's his wife. Or widow," she added, belatedly. "That kind of denial seems to indicate bigger problems that I'm very anxious to help her explore."
"Regardless of that," Perry said mildly, "I think you'd do better counseling the people here. After Lois gets back is more than time to decide what — if anything — needs to be done."
"I suppose you're right," the psychiatrist said, "but I take my responsibilities very seriously."
"I'm sure you do," Perry said. "However, that's for later. Is there anything else?"
"No," Dr. Carlin said. "Do you have an approximate date for her return, or a way to contact her?"
"The answer to the first question is I'm afraid not," Perry said. "As for getting hold of her, I believe she and Kent are on a cruise ship, but I don't know which one and I'm told they're registered under pseudonyms to keep the press off their backs. She's contacted me twice, so far, to have someone feed her fish and to let me know that she and Kent were all right, after their adventure in the mountains."
"Oh," Dr. Carlin said. She put a hand on the doorknob. "I'll be in my office if anyone wishes to speak to me." She smiled fractionally. "I wish that you would speak to your staff, Perry. None of them have taken advantage of my availability, so far."
Perry could understand that. "I'll mention it in the morning briefing," he said.
"Thank you," Arianna said.
Perry looked thoughtfully after Dr. Carlin as the door closed behind her. He might be mistaken, but he hadn't become editor of the Daily Planet because he could yodel and if she hadn't been handing him a load of bullsh…uh, psychobabble, then he was Elvis's first cousin once removed. Well, the thought of Dr. Carlin being involved in the attempt on Lois's life wasn't a pleasant one but she seemed a little too interested in the whereabouts of Lois and Clark for Perry's peace of mind. After a long moment spent frowning at the closed door, he got to his feet. He'd been a pretty decent investigative reporter not all that long ago. It was time to put a little of his old knowledge to work. Maybe it was just his overactive imagination, but considering the apparent attempts on Lois's life, he wasn't willing to simply let it slide. Better to be sure. If his instinct was right, Arianna Carlin wouldn't be the first person to put money ahead of reputation and ethics, after all. If she had been planted here in the office to try to find out where Lois was hiding, he — and Henderson — needed to know it. Making up his mind, Perry went to the door and pushed it open.
"Olsen!" he barked. "In my office, now!"
"Somehow I thought of a barn as different," Lois said, wrinkling her nose slightly. There was a definite aroma of animals in the big building, in spite of the fact that the door was wide open. "I expected it to be full of cows and chickens or something."
"The cows are out in the field right now," Clark pointed out. "They don't stay in the barn 24/7. And neither do the chickens. Besides, we have a hen house." He made his way past the tractor. "Dad keeps his tools and stuff back here." He pointed to one of the three storerooms near the rear of the barn. "There's feed in that one. Dad said he had to go into town to get a new belt for the tractor. The old one is worn."
"Do tractors wear belts?" Lois asked. She glanced up at the faint scrabbling sound of claws in time to see an orange cat leap gracefully from one wooden beam to another and vanish into the loft.
"This one is for the fan," Clark said. After a moment's consideration, Lois dismissed the mental picture of a revolving fan.
"I guess you don't mean the kind of fan for cooling people off," she said. "I don't know a lot about tractors."
"No; this is the kind of fan for cooling the engine off," Clark said. "Pretty much the same as for a car engine. Last time I was here, a couple of weeks ago, he was talking about the tractor's motor overheating." He guided her past stacked bales of hay, around several bags that probably held feed, and opened one of the splintery wooden doors. "Watch your step. There's a lot of stuff in here to trip over."
"What are you looking for?" Lois asked.
"Something heavy but not too heavy," Clark said. "I want to see if my strength is coming back at all."
"Well, how about that big iron thing," Lois said, pointing. "That looks pretty heavy."
Clark appeared to examine the big object carefully. "Okay, I guess it will do for starters." He bent, trying to get a good grip. "Stay back. If I drop it, I don't want it to land on your foot."
"What is it?" she asked curiously.
"It's the engine block to Dad's old tractor," Clark said. "It's been in the barn so long I'd forgotten about it."
Lois watched as he bent at the knees, gripped the thing, and heaved. The solid chunk of iron came up off the floor, but Lois could see the muscles bulge in his arms and thighs and sweat broke out on his face. After a moment, he lowered it to the floor again and wiped his forehead on his sleeve. "Whew!"
"You did it!" Lois said.
"Yeah, but I had to work," Clark said. "I'm not back yet."
"How much does that thing weigh?" Lois asked, glancing at it. A big chunk of iron that size had to be pretty heavy.
"Only about five hundred pounds," Clark said, sounding discouraged.
"*Only* five hundred pounds? Clark, do you know how many normal men can lift five hundred pounds like that? The only people who can lift stuff that heavy are professional weight lifters. I'd say you're doing pretty well!"
"I lifted it when I was fifteen," Clark said. "That's why it's in here instead of out in the main barn. Dad wanted it out of the way. It was easier then."
"Okay," Lois said, "but you hadn't been in a Kryptonite cage for hours and hours, and picked up a case of Kryptonite poisoning when you were fifteen. The point is, you're a lot stronger than you were only a couple of days ago. Your powers are coming back. It's just going to take time." She put a hand on his arm. "Like you always tell me; you have to have patience. If I can stay here in Kansas, away from an investigation that I'm itching to dive into, you can wait a little while to become Superman again, can't you?"
He looked down at her and she saw the faintly sulky look on his face relax into a smile. "I guess you've got a point," he admitted. "I guess I'm acting like a spoiled little kid, aren't I?"
"Well…maybe just a little," she said. She slipped her arms around his waist. "Look at it this way. If we can't get involved in the investigation, we can take a little time off and…" She hesitated before summoning up the nerve to say it, "just be in love."
His face softened at her words. "You know, I haven't heard a better idea for a long time," he said. "And Mom and Dad won't be back for a while yet."
"Gee, I hadn't thought of that," Lois said ironically.
He grinned. "I'll bet. It's too bad I can't take you over to Lover's Lane tonight, but it probably wouldn't be too good an idea. There's too much chance someone would see us. Rachel's deputies check the place pretty often, for obvious reasons."
"Oh? Where's Lover's Lane around here?"
"Tuttle Park." He put his arms around her as well. "It's over on the east side of town."
"Well, we could have your dad drive us there and we could go walking," Lois suggested. "You can show me all the places that her deputies don't go."
"Nope; not a good idea," he said firmly. "Tuttle Park has a poison ivy problem. They try to clear it out every winter and it comes back as thick as ever every spring. I wouldn't want you to have to spend the next couple of weeks recovering."
"Definitely not," Lois said. An idea occurred to her. "Was that how Lana got her poison ivy?"
"You mean when I took Rachel to the prom?" He chuckled. "Probably; but I didn't take her there. Rachel's cousin Vern had a real bad case at the same time. He missed the prom, too. I always figured that they'd been out there together."
"Was that why you and Lana broke up?"
He shook his head. "No. You have to know Lana. She and I were friends but we weren't really suited for each other. Besides, I had a scholarship at Midwest U and Lana was headed out to Berkeley. We just kind of drifted apart after high school. We stayed friends but we never had any serious intentions of getting married."
"I wonder if she thought so," Lois said.
"Oh, sure," Clark said. "Lana had visions of becoming a business executive with a penthouse apartment and tons of prestige in the business world, and a lowly journalist wouldn't have suited her image."
"I happen to like your image," Lois said. "There are things more important than prestige and penthouse apartments."
Clark grinned down at her. "Oh? And what would those be?"
"Well, let's see…"
The sound of a vehicle pulling up outside the barn, some five minutes later, interrupted what was becoming a very interesting non-conversation. Lois had been just about to suggest that they move from the barn's storeroom into the house when Clark lifted his head and Lois became aware of the somewhat uneven sound of an engine and the crunch of tires on the ground outside. She was conscious of a definite sense of disappointment at the knowledge that Martha or Jonathan was back from town and began, rather resignedly, to move toward the main room of the barn.
Clark's hand on her arm stopped her. "That's not one of our cars. Stay here out of sight and I'll go see who it is."
She'd almost forgotten, for a few minutes, that she was a hunted woman, she thought wryly. If some news team had finally managed to locate the Kent farm, the last thing she wanted was to let them know that she was here.
The sound of the motor cut off. Clark picked up a shovel, mussed his hair slightly, pulled the tail of his shirt, that he had tucked into his waistband, out so that it hung loosely about his hips, and slouched out of the storeroom, swinging the door partially closed behind him.
"Hey you!" The voice was male and Lois didn't recognize it, which wasn't surprising. "Is this the Kent place?"
"Who are you?" Clark's voice asked.
"Ben Maher from the Topeka Intelligencer. I'm looking for Jonathan Kent. That wouldn't be you, would it?"
"Nope," Clark's voice said. "I'm Jake. I just work here."
"Well, is he around?"
"Nope," Clark said. "Him and Mrs. Kent're over at the Garrison place. They're butchering hogs this week. If you like, I'll tell him you were here."
"No; never mind." The man's voice dropped and Lois had to strain her ears to hear what he said. "I'm actually looking for their son — a Clark Kent. You wouldn't know if he's here, would you?"
"Clark?" Clark said, sounding puzzled. "Far as I know, he ain't been here for months. He works for that big newspaper in Metropolis. The one that got blown up a couple of months back."
"I know. You sure you haven't seen him?"
"Yup." Lois could almost hear Clark nod. "Mr. Kent was talking about going to Metropolis next week to see him. He's gonna be paying me extra to take care of the place while him and the missus are gone."
"Well, do you mind if I look around the place a little, just to get a feel for it?"
Lois could almost hear the slow shake of Clark's head. "'Fraid I can't do that. Mr. Kent'd fire me on the spot. He's got pedigreed chickens and cows, and a pedigreed stud bull and he's worried about rustlers stealing 'em. He don't want no strangers wandering around his property. If'n he comes back and finds you where you ain't supposed to be, he'll probably let you have it with his shotgun. Loads it with rock salt. If you wanta talk to him, you better come back when he's here." Lois resolutely clamped her mouth shut. Clark sounded like the hayseed she'd wanted to believe he was when he'd first come to work at the Planet. Superman might stand for truth and justice, and have that straightforward boy-next-door charm, but he was also a gifted actor.
"Well, do you know when he'll be back?"
"Dunno." There was the effect of a shrug in Clark's voice. "Butchering hogs usually takes all day. You could go over there, if you really wanta see him, though."
"Where's this place?"
"It's over at the Garrison farm. They got a little, one-horse hog operation. You want directions?"
The man sounded skeptical. "It's not over by that big swamp, is it?"
"Potter's Slough? Naw. You take the Whittaker cutoff…"
Lois listened while Clark gave painstaking directions to the intrepid newsman and waited as the motor came on again. Gravel sprayed and she heard the roar of the engine diminishing. When the sound had died away completely, she emerged from the barn. "Isn't the owner of that place going to be a little confused when a newsman shows up there, looking for your father?"
"No," Clark said blandly. "The Garrison Hog Farm went out of business ten years ago. Besides, I sent him over toward Whittaker's Bog."
Lois began to laugh. "I thought Superman never lied," she sputtered.
"Superman didn't lie," Clark said innocently, but she noticed that the corners of his mouth were trying to turn up. "That was Jake. But now we'll have to decide where we're going to hide out tomorrow when the guy shows up again looking for my blood."
"We could bury him in your mom's garden," Lois suggested.
"No, I think I'll give Rachel a call so she'll be ready when Mr. Maher gets back into town," Clark said. "And we'll have to warn Dad. Now that Maher's found the place, the others are going to find it too."
"Jake, huh?" Jonathan Kent grinned and glanced out the window at the gravel road leading to the highway that passed the Kent farm at some distance from the house. "Don't worry. If your friend shows up again, I'll deal with him. But I thought I taught you better than that, son." He shook his head more in sorrow than in anger. "Why in heaven's name didn't you send him out to Porcupine Gulch?"
"It seemed like kind of a long way," Clark explained. "I wasn't sure he'd go for it. Besides, I didn't want searchers to find his bleached bones there next summer."
"I suggested we bury him in Martha's garden," Lois offered.
Jonathan snorted. "Not a good idea. We want the garden to keep producing vegetables. I'm not sure he'd make good fertilizer; you remember the Intelligencer, don't you, Clark?"
Clark made a face. "It's kind of a local version of the National Whisper," he explained to Lois. "And almost the same quality."
"Still," Jonathan said, "he may not give directions to the other reporters. He isn't going to want a bunch of competition."
"He'll probably do it just for the nuisance value," Lois said. "What are we going to do?"
"Well…" Martha, who had remained silent up until now, spoke up. "If Maher comes back asking for Jake, you can watch me do my best imitation of Maw Clampett. By the time I'm through with him, he'll be over at the hospital, getting his stomach pumped."
"Mom, you can't poison him!" Clark said. "A joke's a joke, but —"
"I don't intend to," Martha said, placidly. "I'll just serve him some of my beef stew that I'm going to make for dinner tomorrow. It won't be my fault if he thinks it's 'possum tails and skunk livers.' Or not much, anyway."
Lois managed to limit the guffaw that threatened to break loose to an odd-sounding choke. She had no doubt that Martha would do exactly as she said. If any reporters did manage to find the Kents, she had a strong suspicion that they were going to regret it. Two days on the Kent farm had definitely changed her opinion of country folks. She'd be willing to match them up against the residents of Metropolis — or any other city — any day of the week and bet heavily on Jonathan and Martha.
"And I'll deal with any questions about Jake," Jonathan said. "Don't worry about that. You, however, need to be somewhere else," he added firmly. "I'd suggest you take Lois sightseeing in some of the nearby towns — or go to the library over in Pepper. Nobody's going to be looking for you there."
"That's an idea," Lois said. "Do they have computers in the Pepper library — and who the heck names a town Pepper, anyway?"
"I have no idea," Martha said. "If it were me, I'd have named it Zucchini."
Clark cast her a sharp glance, and it took Lois a moment to realize, from the innocent expression on her face, that Clark's mother was joking.
"Actually," Clark said, "they named it Pepper because a big part of its agriculture production a hundred years ago was different kinds of peppers. For some reason the climate there is ideal for growing peppers — or was — so that was what they named the town."
"Oh," Lois said. "How come I never heard about it before?"
"Well," Clark said, "its main crop isn't peppers anymore. The Dust Bowl conditions kind of wiped out their pepper industry. They still grow some peppers but not nearly in the quantity they used to. Their cash crop is mostly wheat."
"Oh," Lois said. Clark, naturally, would know such trivia. Superman must have the time for a tremendous amount of reading, considering his super speed and photographic memory. She wondered what other talents he hadn't thought to mention to her. Getting to know all there was to know about Clark was going to be a lifetime job. The thought made her smile.
"You can look up the history in their library if you want to," Martha said, bringing her thoughts back to the current problem. "I agree with Jonathan — it would be better for you two not to be around if Mr. Maher comes back, especially if he lets it be known that he's found the farm. I think you should pack up your stuff and head for Pepper, or one of the other towns around here. Maybe check into a motel or camp out by Callahan's Creek or maybe even at Domino Lake for two or three days. I know the idea of camping probably doesn't set too well with you right now, but if you take along enough supplies, and so forth, it won't be anything like the walk through the mountains. Just be sure you have a cell phone with you."
"We don't have any. Perry wanted to get them for us so we could report from the field," Lois said unhappily. "Unfortunately, that was about the time Lex started his campaign to bankrupt the Planet so he could buy it, so we never got them."
"That's all right," Martha said. "You can borrow mine. You can call us if you need to and we can call you when we're sure the coast is clear again. We've got plenty of camping gear. We used to take Clark there on weekend camping trips. There's a camping area out there for families to camp and swim and hike and so forth. And you can always camp on the beach, too."
Clark looked doubtfully at Lois. "What do you think?"
"Well —" Lois considered the idea dubiously. "I kind of overdosed on camping out the last few days, but if we've got all the supplies we'll need —" The thought of the mob of frenzied reporters, all trying to claw their way to her at the Ranger station — not to mention the assassin who had tried to kill her — tipped her decision in favor of the expedition. "I guess we could manage it for a day or two."
"And, Jonathan pointed out, "Clark will have plenty of time in the sun. Maybe a few good tanning sessions will be enough to recharge his powers."
"What does the sun have to do with it?" Lois asked.
"I seem to absorb sunlight," Clark explained. "If I'm using my super powers a lot at night, I start to feel tired sooner than if I'm doing the same thing in the daylight. Dr. Klein, at STAR Labs, thinks Superman's powers come from sunlight. He was going to run some tests but then I got distracted by the things that have happened in the last few weeks and we didn't get around to it."
"Oh," Lois said. "Speaking of your powers, how are you feeling now? He lifted the engine block for your old tractor," she added, to Jonathan. "He's definitely stronger than he was yesterday."
"Yeah," Clark said, "but it was heavy. My powers are coming back, but awfully slowly. The other time, with Trask, they came back all at once."
"That time," his father said, "you were exposed to the stuff for a few minutes at most. You weren't stuck in a cage made of Kryptonite for hours on end, and you didn't get sick from the radiation —"
"We don't *know* that's what made me sick," Clark said.
"Don't quibble," Martha said. "Can you think of anything else that would be likely to make you that sick?"
"Exactly," his mother said, in what Lois had come to recognize as her "no argument" tone of voice. "You've never been sick a day in your life except this once. I think we can assume the Kryptonite caused it."
"Yeah, probably. I'm just worried that my powers won't come back all the way," Clark said. "I didn't realize how much I missed being Superman until they were gone."
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Martha said briskly. "Don't be a pessimist, honey. All we know right now is that you're starting to get some of your powers back. In the meantime, let's get the camping gear out and pack everything you'll need in your rental car. I'll fix lunch so you don't have to stop for food. The less you're seen anywhere around Smallville the better — at least for two or three days."
Pepper looked very much like Smallville, Lois thought, except it was actually smaller. Clark drove slowly down Main Street, past the greenery of a wide lawn surrounding an incongruously small City Hall, while Lois took in the tiny, farming town.
A pre-adolescent boy swooped past on a bicycle, cutting in front of the car so close that Lois inhaled sharply, half-expecting the thump of the bumper impacting with the bicycle and its rider. Clark swerved, simultaneously applying the brake. The tires squealed in protest at such treatment, but the boy escaped death by inches. The child never glanced back but rode on, apparently unaware of the incident.
"It's a wonder to me how they ever manage to grow up," Lois said. "What are the odds that a kid can pull something like that over and over and somehow never get killed? It's a good thing you've got fast reflexes."
"I think they're getting better," Clark said after a pause.
"Yes. They're better than they were, but they're not back to normal."
"Give it time," Lois said quietly, putting a hand on his where it rested on the gearshift. "Your mom is a smart lady."
"I know," Clark said. "I guess after my hearing started coming back yesterday, I just kind of expected to be back to normal by today."
"Well, just because things don't work out like you expect it doesn't mean they won't come out okay," Lois told him. "And I'm not trying to play Pollyanna, either. You don't know any more about this than I do, really. If you're no stronger or faster tomorrow than you are today, *then* you can begin to worry, but I think you've been improving ever since you got over that fever. Remember when we were walking through the forest, that night before we found the helicopter? You could see, even though I couldn't. I think your powers were beginning to come back, and have been slowly but steadily getting better ever since. It's just happening gradually."
Clark appeared to think that over and slowly nodded. "You could be right," he said after a moment of strict attention to his driving. "I didn't think about it, but maybe…"
"Good," Lois said. "So, where are we going right now?"
"Well," Clark said, "I thought we'd go over to the library. You said earlier that you wanted to get to a computer."
"I did, didn't I?" Lois said. "I don't know if it'll do me any good. I know Henderson's looking for 'The Mrs.' I probably don't stand a chance. I just wanted to see if Lex was married before. He said I was the only one, but he lied about everything else, so why not that?"
"Why don't you call Jimmy?" Clark suggested. "If anybody can ferret out something like that, it's him."
"That's a good idea. Is there a pay phone around anywhere?"
"Sure. There's one at the service station."
Jimmy Olsen was working on the assignment given to him by his editor when the phone on his desk rang.
A little surprised, he picked up the receiver. "Olsen."
"Jimmy?" Lois Lane's voice said.
"Just a minute." Jimmy lowered his voice instinctively. He knew that Lois and Clark had gone to Smallville, since he had been the one to make arrangements for Perry to rent the car for them in his name, but his boss had stressed that he was to keep the information to himself. That psychiatrist, Arianna Carlin, had asked him casually about Lois and Clark, and Jimmy had told her all kinds of unimportant things about the two of them, but claimed ignorance of their whereabouts. He glanced cautiously around, locating the woman. She was in her office — the smallest conference room the Planet had, which had been quickly converted for her use. He could see her typing something — probably that column of hers that had replaced the jumble puzzle in the paper.
Cat was no longer here, of course. She had taken a job with the Star right after the bombing of the Planet, but the new guy, Ralph What'sisname, was lounging by the water cooler. In Jimmy's opinion, Perry had made a mistake hiring him to replace Jerry, who had reported on local politics for the paper. He spent most of his time gossiping and hitting on the women in the secretarial pool. Jimmy didn't like him. He'd even tried to extract some gossip about Lois from Jimmy, and Jimmy had politely told him to mind his own business. He didn't want Ralph to find out that Lois had called. It would be all over the Planet building inside of fifteen minutes.
But the guy was out of earshot as long as he kept his voice down. Keeping a discreet eye on the traffic near his desk, Jimmy cupped his hand over his lips and the receiver, although no one seemed to be paying him any attention. Sometimes it was a good thing to be nearly the bottom man on the totem pole. "Lois?" he asked softly, "is that you?"
"Yes, it's me," Lois said. "I was wondering if you could do something for me."
"Sure," Jimmy said.
"The thing about 'The Mrs.' gave me an idea. Do you think you could do some research into Lex's background and find out if he'd ever been married before?"
"Not a problem," Jimmy said. "In fact, I was just starting it when you called. The Chief had the same idea that you did."
"He did? Good!" Lois's voice paused. "If you need to get hold of us for the next couple of days, phone Clark's parents. They'll get the message to us."
"Is something wrong?" Jimmy asked quickly.
"Not exactly. One of the reporters looking for us finally found the farm, so Clark and I are going camping for a few days. I have a cell phone and Clark's parents can get hold of us if you need them to."
"Oh," Jimmy said. "Okay. I'll let Perry know."
"Great," Lois said.
"Uh — are you and CK all right? You had a pretty rough time of it."
"We're fine," Lois said. "We'll have something important to tell you when we get back next month."
"All right," Jimmy said. The speculations that remark conjured up were definitely something to spark the imagination. He hadn't missed the fact that CK had had a heavy crush on Lois since the day he was hired. Jimmy had been upset that Lois and Luthor were getting married, but CK, he thought, had been just about as bummed out as a man could get. He was pretty sure that was what had made Clark so determined to prove that Luthor was the criminal that all of them suspected he was. Maybe things weren't as one-sided as he'd thought they were, after all, now that Lois had come to her senses. "You two have a good time," he added.
"Well, I'm not so sure about this camping thing, but at least the media hasn't caught up with us yet," Lois said. "Call the Kents if you find anything, would you?"
"Will do," Jimmy told her.
"Bye," he answered.
"Something important?" Clark said, raising his eyebrows at her.
"Sure." Lois checked the change slot, on the off chance that there might be loose change in it. To her gratification, she discovered a quarter, which she dropped triumphantly into her pocket. "I don't want to tell everybody, but I think Jimmy and Perry deserve to know that we're getting married, after all they've done to help us out. I think Perry might have been rooting for us all along. He's said a few things that made me think he wasn't that happy about me marrying Lex."
"Well —" Clark grinned sheepishly. "I've kind of wondered about that, myself."
"You know," Lois added, as they got back into the rental car, "one of the things that made me decide on this camping trip was the idea of me getting you all to myself for a couple of days — without anybody around."
"We had that in the mountains," Clark pointed out.
"Yes, but we weren't engaged then," Lois said, clinching the argument.
"That's true," Clark agreed. "Maybe it will be a good sort of experiment, finding out how we do together as an engaged couple."
"Maybe," Lois said. "Where is this camping spot that you and your parents used to go to when you were a kid?"
"Over by Domino Lake," Clark said. "It's not that big a lake, but it's the only real one in the area. Smallville Lake is about half the size — sort of like a big pond, and it's got a picnic area but no camping facilities. Domino Lake Campground is in a narrow river valley. They made the lake when they dammed up the river. There's some woods around it with both a camping and picnic area — people bring their campers and tents and stuff. It isn't very big, but it's the only one around for a couple of hundred miles. There's running water and restrooms, and little concrete pits where you can build campfires — and lots of privacy if you want it. There's swimming, and hiking trails —"
"Sounds pretty civilized, compared to where we were," Lois commented.
"Yeah," Clark agreed. "There's bound to be a few other people around, but they'll be in their own campsites, and we don't have to socialize if we don't want to."
"That's fine with me," Lois said. "The people I've been around recently haven't made me want to be a social animal again for a while — except for your parents," she amended. "At least they haven't mobbed me or tried to kill me."
Clark laughed. "I'm glad of that," he said. He started the engine. "Shall we be on our way?"
"Let's." She fastened the seat belt. "There's not any poison ivy around there, is there?"
"A little," he admitted. "We'll just have to be careful."
"You mean *I'll* have to be careful," she said.
"I'm not so sure of that," he said. "Who knows whether I'll react to poison ivy now."
"Did you ever break out from it before you got your powers?"
"No, but I was careful to stay away from it."
"Believe me, it's not possible to stay completely away from it if it's anywhere in the vicinity. All you can do is try your best, wear stuff that covers you up mostly and wash a lot. If you're lucky, you don't get it."
"I thought you never went camping."
"I was a Girl Scout."
"Oh." He glanced sideways at her. "Is that why you knew how to start fires while we were stranded?"
"No. I read about using a magnifying glass to start a fire in General Science. I had to take it in my freshman year at Metro High."
"Oh," he said. "I guess I probably did, too — but I didn't think about it. I'm too used to using my heat vision."
"Well, it doesn't matter," Lois said. "This time we have matches and lighter fluid, and a bunch of other stuff. Do you know how to pitch a tent?"
"Sure," he said. "Didn't they teach you in Girl Scouts?"
Lois shook her head. "No. The tents were already pitched for us when we got there."
"Oh. Well, I guess I can teach you," Clark said with a grin. The smile faded as he glanced sideways at her. "Have I mentioned today that I've been in love with you from the day we met?"
"No." She felt her cheeks warming. "Were you really?"
He turned back to watch the road. "Yes. Everyone knew it, too — even Luthor. He knew that Clark Kent loved you — and he knew that Superman did, too. I guess I'm lucky that he didn't put two and two together."
"That's for sure." Lois regarded her hands, clasped in her lap. "I wish I'd seen it before — I wish I'd *let* myself see it before. It would have saved us so much trouble if I'd been smart enough to know how I felt that afternoon in the park. I could have turned Lex down and saved you all of this."
Clark slipped a hand over her clasped ones. "Stop beating up on yourself," he said.
"I'm not —"
"Yes, you are," he said. "You've been blaming yourself for what happened to me, and for all the rest of it, ever since you found out the truth. None of it was your fault. Luthor was determined to have you one way or another. Knowing that Superman wanted you, too, just added spice to the contest. You didn't blow up the Planet, you didn't cause it to go nearly bankrupt and you didn't lock me in a Kryptonite cage. Luthor did it — all of it. You mustn't hold yourself responsible for his behavior. From what we've learned since, that was just his standard way of doing business. Besides, you're the one that's going to repair as much of it as can be repaired. No one can ask for more than that."
She looked up from her clasped hands. Clark was staring at the road and his jaw was set in the way she had seen Superman do countless times. Clark did it too, although somehow it had seemed different on him. Still, she should have seen it before; should have seen that the superhero that she loved was the quiet, unassuming, amazing man who worked next to her at the Daily Planet. She'd armored her heart against love for so long that she'd had to settle on an unattainable super man or a billionaire instead of the farmboy from Kansas. She should have known that there was nothing ordinary about the farmboy, either — especially when it dawned on her that facing the life of a socialite without him was going to be unbearable. Why had she thought that such pale things as liking and respect for the man that she had believed Lex was could take the place of the love that she felt for Clark? With or without Superman's powers, Clark was something more than special, and she could only be grateful that when she had finally realized it, it was not too late after all. And she owed that to Clark as well.
It took barely five minutes to travel from the heart of Pepper to its outskirts. The buildings of the town were left behind and she saw that they were driving between fields of waving yellow grain. In the distance she could see a small building that was much too tiny to be a house, and beyond that, some kind of machine with big tires and some kind of windmill or something in front of it crunching through the tall stalks. No doubt if she asked Clark he could tell her what it was, but she didn't. She sat back in the seat, trying to imagine an area with a lake and campground in this wide, flat country where Clark had grown up.
It was less than half an hour before Clark turned off the main highway onto an uneven gravel road and Lois realized that, for all the land's apparent flatness, they were going downhill. The gravel road dropped steadily until Lois could no longer see the grain fields. A short time later, it crossed a narrow river on a bridge that made her hold her breath until they safely reached the other side and then ran along beside the river for as far as the eye could see.
Which, she realized, wasn't far. The narrow line of trees growing beside the creek began to widen until the road was wending its way between trees that grew on either side of the road. They must be entering the camping area, Lois thought.
A dirt road crossed the gravel one and Clark turned onto it. The trees were thicker, although they were nothing like the enormous pines that they had seen during their hike through the mountains of Colorado. Clark slowed the car down further, and Lois sat up straighter, looking around.
Little paths barely wide enough to accommodate the car branched off the dirt road and at last Clark turned onto one of them. They went on another ten minutes, jolting and bumping along the so-called road that would have been better called a footpath, Lois thought, crossed another, slightly better-maintained bridge, and finally, it came to an end in a small clearing. Clark pulled into the clearing, parked the car by one side of it and cut the engine.
"We're here," he announced.
William Henderson unlocked the door of his car, which was parked in the Precinct's parking lot, and slid behind the wheel. The investigation into "The Mrs." was proceeding slowly, as he had expected. This was the organization built up by Lex Luthor, after all. The LexCorp Board of Directors was dodging questions with the expertise of lawyers, which wasn't surprising since most of them were lawyers, but he had the feeling that he was onto something. The Board was battling frantically to save something from the wreck of the company and apparently had little time to waste with the police. At least that was the impression they gave. Henderson wasn't so sure. He'd asked to speak to Luthor's successor, Richard Isakson, and been told that the new CEO was out of the country at the moment, on company business, and would be happy to schedule an appointment with him at a later date. The person speaking to him, however, was unable to give an exact time for Mr. Isakson's return. Luthor's former right hand man, a gentleman by the name of Flanagan, seemed less than happy at the mention of Luthor's successor but unwilling to talk about it. None of them, apparently, had heard of the attempts on the lives of Luthor's widow and her writing partner, Clark Kent, and all of them professed horror and disbelief at the story. None of them would admit to knowledge of the search team in the LexCorp helicopter, one member of which had apparently pulled a gun on Kent. For a bunch of corporate lawyers, they seemed, at least to him, just a little too pure to be believed.
Henderson fastened his seat belt and inserted his car key into the ignition. As the engine kicked over with a sputter and then began to purr, a familiar voice, with the strong accent prevalent in Metropolis's Suicide Slum district, said, "The word is you wanna know about 'The Mrs.', Inspector."
Henderson controlled his start of surprise with an effort and raised his eyes to look into the rear-view mirror. The narrow face of a middle-aged man looked smugly back at him.
"Well, well — Bobby Bigmouth, as I live and breathe," he said, after a short pause. "How the devil did you get into my car?"
The individual in the back seat was long and lean, with the faint impression of hunger about him, like a man who is constantly on a diet. Henderson had occasionally had contact with him, although he didn't know him well, but he knew of Bobby Bigmouth's reputation as a reliable, if somewhat exasperating, snitch, and he knew that Bobby's appetite was legendary among Henderson's fellow officers.
"Trade secret," Bobby said. "I hear you're lookin' for information about 'The Mrs.' I can help you, for the price of a deli sandwich with all the trimmings. And a promise to keep my name out of it."
"What are you up to?" Henderson inquired. "I've never known you to look me up without a good reason."
"Hey," Bobby said. "A square meal is serious business — but actually I got another one. Let's just say I owe Lane a favor, and I don't like bein' in debt — okay?"
"All right," Henderson said. "One deli sandwich with all the trimmings — if the information's good. What have you got for me?"
"From what I hear, there's a contract out on Lane — Special kind of contract. It's gotta look like an accident and only good until the thirty day anniversary of Luthor's wedding. After that, it's off. I'm guessing it's got something to do with Luthor's will."
"We'd figured that," Henderson said.
"Yeah, well, maybe you don't know that The Mrs. has gotten into the investigation herself. She's running Luthor's syndicate now. She's even running the legit part of the business. All those lawyers on the Board of Directors know they better toe the line if they want to live. You're not gonna get any answers out of them."
"That's interesting," Henderson said slowly. "What kind of hold does she have over them?"
"Same as Luthor did — good old fear. Blackmail material, not to mention their lives. Nobody crossed Luthor and lived. Same here. That plastic surgeon that turned up dead in the dumpster this morning made the mistake of knowin' too much."
"What's he got to do with it? What did he know?"
"Let's say that if Lois Lane turns up in Metropolis unexpectedly, you might want to compare her fingerprints to the ones on file."
"How do you know I can?" Henderson inquired dryly.
Bobby just looked at him. "You're tellin' me you don't have Lois's prints?" he inquired. "After the time you arrested her for trespassin' on that rich guy's property five years ago?"
How the devil did Bobby know about that? Henderson wondered. "The owner refused to press charges," he pointed out.
"So? That doesn't mean you tossed her prints," Bobby said.
"All right, supposing that's true," Henderson said, tacitly conceding the point, "what can you tell me about the Mrs. that I don't know?"
"Her and Luthor divorced about ten years ago," Bobby said. "Rumor has it they were married on a cruise ship. She wants Lane out of the picture for good and the word is she sent one of Luthor's enforcers to Smallville to try to get Kent's location out of his parents. I guess she figures that if they can get their hands on Kent, he'll know where Lane is — if she's not with him." The snitch paused, probably for dramatic effect.
"You got a name?" Henderson asked, wondering absently how and where Bobby came up with this information.
Bobby shook his head regretfully. "They just call her 'The Mrs.', he said, "and the enforcer don't have a name that anybody says out loud. He's one of their best, though — after the way the last ones screwed up. If I could put a name on either one, I would."
"For dessert?" Henderson said dryly. "Anything else? The name of the cruise ship would be handy."
Bobby managed to look wounded at the side comment, but he said, "Nope. I'll tellya what, though. I'll do some snooping around and see if I can come up with anything. If I find something else out, you'll know, but I gotta be careful." He held out a hand. "That's got to be worth that sandwich."
"Yeah." Henderson fished for his wallet and handed over a twenty. "There you go. Buy what you want — but if you find out anything else, be damn sure you call me before you call anybody else, got it?"
"You got it, Inspector. Just keep my name out of it." Bobby opened the rear door and got out. Henderson shook his head slowly as the nondescript figure of the snitch ambled inconspicuously away. He'd get the discretionary fund to reimburse him for Bobby's snitch fee, he thought. It was interesting how Bobby had gotten into this thing without anyone asking. Of course, there was the lure of the free meal but, oddly enough, Henderson didn't think that had been the primary motive. Lois Lane had the inexplicable ability to inspire plenty of loyalty in her friends and acquaintances. Those that weren't plotting to kill her, of course. They even did their best to protect her from herself. Perry White, Kent and those two kids had sure worked their butts off to keep her from marrying Luthor. Superman apparently had been involved, too. It was too bad they hadn't been a little bit faster. If they had, Lane wouldn't have assassins after her. He gave a faint snort. She wouldn't be Lois Lane if she wasn't in *some* sort of trouble, he thought. He supposed he'd better get in contact with the Smallville authorities and tell them that they had a professional assassin heading their way. And he'd better warn Kent, too. And then maybe Perry White could get the Olsen kid to dig into Luthor's life, ten years back, and find out the name of the ex-Mrs. Lex Luthor…
"That wasn't so hard," Lois said, trying not to pant. She stood back, surveying the tent that she and Clark had spent the last hour setting up. She glanced at her watch. "It's four-fifteen. What's next?"
"Now we can put on our swimsuits and go down to the lake," Clark said. "There's still plenty of daylight left and it's just a short walk."
"How short?" Lois asked.
"Five minutes tops. This spot used to be our favorite because it was close to the lake."
"Don't we need to get out the supplies or something?"
Clark shook his head. "They're safe where they are. It'll keep the squirrels out of the food. Did Mom get you anything to swim in?"
"No," Lois said. "People might have wondered if your mom had bought herself a bathing suit."
"Why?" Clark asked. "Mom swims when she comes here. Of course, she usually uses scuba gear."
That figured. "Well, any scuba gear of your mom's would have been too small for me. I figured I'd just use a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Will that do?"
"Sure," Clark said. "People swim in anything and everything here. My favorite swimsuit when I was a kid was a pair of cut-off jeans. Why don't I get the stuff and you can use the tent to change."
Lois had wondered how they were going to manage that, or, now that they were engaged, if Clark would expect her to behave differently. Her farmboy from Krypton seemed to be letting her decide where things were going to go and how far, and, to tell the truth, she found that reassuring. Lex had definitely been irked when she had expressed a desire to wait until their wedding night, although he'd gone along with her wishes. If Clark was disappointed, he wasn't letting on in any way. Unexpectedly, she was a little let down by his behavior, but at the same time it took off a good deal of the pressure. Clark hadn't even raised the subject, so maybe he was waiting for her to do so. She supposed that she should, sooner or later — maybe tonight, while they were cooking dinner, she thought. Just to clarify things, so there wouldn't be any misunderstandings.
Clark had gone to the car and was unlocking the trunk. She'd packed everything Martha had bought for her in a big plastic bag in lieu of a suitcase, and so had Clark.
"My stuff's on the left side," she told him.
"Okay." Clark pulled out her bag. "Here you go."
Inside the tent, she made quick work of changing into the outfit. Her bra could stand lake water, she thought, and she now had four others as well, so this one could certainly be sacrificed for swimming. She found the pair of black shorts that Martha had picked up for her, and the plain blue T-shirt, and changed her clothing.
Clark was waiting patiently when she emerged from the tent with the beach towel that Martha had insisted on loaning her. "I'll be right out," he said, and stepped inside the tent.
True to his word, he came out again only a couple of minutes later, clad in a pair of tight cutoff jeans and minus his shirt. Lois had seen him shirtless once before, when he had answered the door of his hotel room wrapped in a towel, and she recalled now that she had been very favorably impressed with his build. She had seen him since, as Superman, in skin-tight blue spandex, but without that thin barrier he seemed so much — well, more. She ran her gaze over the bare expanse of hairless chest and flat middle, and found herself almost unable to look away. Well, why not? she rationalized. She was engaged to marry him, after all. Why shouldn't she look? He was certainly worth looking at. Especially half dressed and wearing almost too-tight cut-offs.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"Um…yes, fine." She forced her gaze higher and looked him in the eyes. "Just, um…admiring the view."
To her surprise, he looked uncertain and reached for his own towel. "Maybe I should have borrowed Dad's trunks," he said. "These jeans seem to have shrunk a bit."
"They're fine," she assured him, resolutely not glancing at the item of clothing in question. "Besides, if you'd worn your dad's I might be getting a view of a lot more of you than you wanted."
"Lo—is!" He sounded almost shocked, and her surprise turned to amusement at the pink flush spreading up his neck.
She giggled. This was the man who flew around the skies of Metropolis in a form-fitting, spandex suit? Talk about a split personality! "Don't worry," she assured him, slipping her arm through his, "so far I haven't seen anything not to like. Let's go swimming."
Rachel Harris was studying an FBI bulletin regarding a kidnapping suspect who was believed to have crossed the Kansas/Missouri border when the phone rang. Greg answered it.
"Smallville Sheriff's Office. This is Deputy Ross…Who? Metropolis? What can I do for you, Inspector?" He listened for several more seconds. "She's right here. Just a moment." He covered the receiver. "It's an Inspector Henderson from Metropolis, wanting to speak to you."
"Metropolis?" Rachel picked up her extension. "This is Sheriff Harris."
Five minutes later, she put down the phone, scowling. Greg looked at her, his eyebrows lifted. "What's wrong, Sheriff?"
"We may have a problem," Rachel said. "Clark and Mrs. Luthor — Lois Lane, actually, since she didn't take Luthor's name — are at the Kent farm, hiding out from the media. Henderson knew it; I guess Clark let him know where they were. He's found out that there's a hit man headed for Smallville, who's after Ms. Lane."
Greg's eyebrows flew up. "Are you serious?"
"Yeah," Rachel said. "Ms. Lane inherits half of Luthor's estate — any part that they can't prove wasn't acquired legally. Somebody in his organization doesn't want her to get the money."
Greg frowned over that for a moment. "Yeah," he said. "I get it. People get killed over twenty dollars. Luthor had billions. Y'know, I don't think I'd want to be in her place. Wouldn't be worth it."
"That's for sure," Rachel said. "I better call Martha."
They emerged from the trees onto the flat beach of a lake. The water looked clear and cool to Lois, who was frankly sweating in the humid warmth of a typical Kansas summer afternoon. She wiped perspiration from her upper lip. Clark, she noticed, didn't appear to be in the least uncomfortable, but she didn't say anything. If his powers didn't come back all the way, she didn't want to get his hopes up but she was willing to bet that before long they would be seeing Superman again.
"We can hang our towels on a tree limb," Clark suggested, suiting the action to the word. "Too bad we don't have our old motorboat and water skis. I used to be pretty good when I was a kid."
"Yeah, Dad and Mother used to have a cabin on the beach in Northern New Troy," Lois said. She hung her towel beside his and removed her tennis shoes. "I was pretty good on skis, myself."
"We'll have to go somewhere on our honeymoon where we can ski," Clark said. "Have you thought about it?"
"Kind of," Lois admitted. "I'd love to go to Hawaii. I've been to Oahu once for a journalism conference, but I pretty much stayed in the hotel — except for the luau we attended the last evening."
"I've been there," Clark said. "The islands are beautiful. Maybe we could go to one of the less-commercialized ones like Kauai or Molokai. I'd enjoy showing you around."
"I've got some vacation money saved up," Lois said. "Maybe we could get one of those cabins right on the beach — you know, with a ceiling fan and lots of privacy."
"I've saved some, too," Clark admitted. "Together, we should have enough. If my —" he lowered his voice, "powers come back, we wouldn't even have to take a plane."
"I guess you saved a lot of money traveling by doing that," Lois said. "Before you came to work at the Planet?"
"Sometimes," Clark admitted. "One summer I worked my way as a deck hand on a cargo ship, just to see what it was like. It was sure different, but it turned out to be lucky for the ship."
"Oh — a grease fire broke out in the galley and got out of control. Fortunately, I was able to put it out without anybody realizing what happened."
"I guess you did things like that a lot while you were traveling."
"Well, not a lot," Clark said, "but sometimes. I worked odd jobs here and there, and freelanced a bit."
"Like with the Borneo Gazette?"
"Yeah," he admitted. "Anyway, after a couple of years, I got tired of it and decided it was time to get on with my life. I'd always wanted to work for a newspaper like the Planet, so I decided to come back to the States and give it a try."
"Did you try any papers before the Planet?"
He shook his head. "No. First I decided to try for the one I wanted to work for the most, so I came to Metropolis."
"Why the Planet? There's the New York Times and the Washington Post —"
"Well, I'd seen the writing of this incredible journalist in the Planet and it really impressed me."
"Who —" She broke off when she saw him smile. "*Me?*"
"Uh huh. And then, during my interview, you charged into Perry's office like a one-woman tornado, and I was hooked. That's why I came back with the story about the theater the next day. I *really* wanted to be hired there after meeting you."
While they had been talking, they strolled down toward the water. There was a weathered wooden pier jutting out into the lake, and Clark led her toward that. "Watch out for splinters," he cautioned her. "There's a ladder at the end where we can climb down into the water."
The ladder was still there, or perhaps it had been replaced with a newer one, for the metal was suspiciously bright. Lois watched as Clark descended and pushed away from the ladder, treading water and waiting for her.
"How is it?" she asked.
"Nice," Clark said. "Come on in."
Considering that it was Clark who was telling her that the water was great, she descended the ladder carefully, dipping a toe into the lake before she completely took his word, but he was right after all. The water was cool but not cold and after a moment of initial adjustment, after the warmth of the air, Lois pushed away from the ladder. The water felt like silk against her skin as she glided forward.
"This is wonderful," Lois said. "And it looks like we have the whole lake to ourselves."
"Pretty much," Clark agreed. "I see a guy in a rowboat over there," he added, pointing, "but that's all."
"Where?" Lois asked, shading her eyes against the sun. "You mean that little spot of red, way over near the other shore?"
"Yeah," Clark said after a moment.
"Your eyes are definitely better than mine," Lois said. "I'd even say, they were super."
"Yeah…maybe," Clark said, and she could hear the hope in his voice, even though he tried to hide it.
"Your powers are coming back, all right," Lois said. "Can you do anything else?"
He closed his eyes and Lois held her breath, trying to tread water quietly.
He opened them again. "I still can't fly," he said, and she could feel the disappointment in his words.
"Yes, but you can see better than you could yesterday," Lois said. "Remember what I said — they seem to be getting better gradually. Have you tried any of your other powers — like, oh — X-ray vision, maybe?"
"No," Clark said. He looked down at the water and Lois saw him squint. Another long silence. She was just about to speak when he blinked several times and looked back at her. "It seems to work." His voice was shaking slightly. "Maybe you're right."
"Betcha I am," Lois said. On impulse, she hit the lake's surface with one hand, splashing water into his face and turned to flee as fast as she could swim. "You're it!" she called.
Clark was after her instantly and she had barely gone ten feet before he caught up with her and grabbed her by the wet material of her T-shirt. "All right Ms. Lane, now you pay!"
She squealed, expecting to be ducked and trying to wiggle loose, but instead he spun her around and she found herself being thoroughly kissed. She ceased struggling instantly.
He lifted his head after several endless seconds and smiled down at her. "You're no fun," he said teasingly. "You're supposed to try to get away."
"Now that would be really stupid of me, wouldn't it," she said breathlessly. "That's one super power you didn't lose."
"Every time you've kissed me, you've taken my breath away," she said.
"Hmm. Maybe I'll have to do it more often," he said.
"Believe me, Farmboy, if you don't, you're going to be in a lot of trouble!"
"Hmm — " Clark tilted his head and grinned. "Wouldn't want that to happen," he remarked.
The second kiss was longer than the first. When it ended, Clark drew back a few inches and asked, "How was that?"
"Good," Lois told him, "but you need more practice."
"More?" Clark asked. "Are you by any chance taking advantage of the situation, Ms. Lane?"
"Of course not," she assured him. "But we want to get it right. This kind of thing shouldn't be rushed…"
Perhaps an hour later, they walked, wrapped in towels and dripping at every step, back toward their campsite.
"I'm starved," Lois said. "So, what are we having for dinner tonight?"
"We'll have to see what Mom packed," Clark said. "Do you want to make a campfire or use the camp stove?"
"What's a campout without a campfire?" she teased. "But we'd probably be better cooking on the stove."
"Probably," Clark agreed. "Okay, I'll set up the stove while you change into something dry."
"Don't you want to change?" she asked.
"After you're done," he said. He pushed aside a scratchy growth of underbrush and they entered their clearing.
Lois occupied herself changing clothing and drying her hair as well as she could, and, by the time she emerged from the tent, Clark not only had a fire going, but the little camp stove was sitting on the ground beside it and a frying pan perched atop it was releasing delicious aromas. She was suddenly conscious of the fact that she was famished.
"What's for dinner?" she asked.
"Well, I figured the frozen chicken breasts Mom put in the ice chest were probably a good idea," Clark said, "with canned vegetables. There's a nice bottle of Chablis in the chest, too. Just the thing to go with chicken. And there's a bag of marshmallows that we can toast in the fire for dessert."
Lois heard her stomach growl. "Sounds delicious."
"Of course, we'll have to drink the wine out of paper cups," Clark said.
"Fine with me," Lois said, thinking that if it were Lex, his chef would have produced filet mignon with multiple side dishes and fine wine, served on china and crystal. No doubt there would have been some decadent dessert that was fairly unlikely to have been cooked over an open fire, as well. Lex's idea of roughing it was decidedly different than Clark's. This version of camping was a lot more to her taste than Lex's, even if she could have done without the mosquitoes that had made themselves evident in the last hour.
"There's some citronella candles in the trunk," Clark said, almost on cue. "Mom and Dad always brought a few when we camped here, because of the mosquitoes. Here's the keys."
Lois accepted the keys and went to retrieve the candles. At the same time, she recalled the cellular phone that Martha had loaned them. She'd left it in the car, figuring it would be safe enough with the doors locked. Taking it to the lake hadn't seemed a good idea. "I think I'll give Martha and Jonathan a call and see if Maher turned up again," she said, setting the candles down on the ice chest next to him.
"Good idea," Clark said.
But when she opened the car door to retrieve the cell phone, it was nowhere to be found. She searched the glove compartment and under the seats, and at last had to acknowledge defeat. The phone wasn't there.
"I can't find it," she said, when she returned to the center of the clearing.
"Maybe it fell off the seat," he said.
"That's what I thought, but I looked," she said. "I looked everywhere I could think of. It's not there."
"Maybe you left it at the farm," Clark suggested.
"Maybe," Lois said. "I guess I must have, but I could have sworn it was in the car."
"Did you check your purse?"
"Yes," she told him. "And I left my purse in the trunk before we went swimming. I know you said there aren't many thieves around here, but I didn't want to take chances.'
"It was probably a good idea," Clark said, peaceably. "Well, if we need to call home, we can walk down to the restrooms. There's a pay phone next to them. If you call, you can ask Mom to look around and see if you left the phone there."
"I guess so," Lois said. "I was sure I brought it, but maybe not."
"It would be easy to forget," Clark said. "If you intended to put it in your purse and got distracted, you might have thought you did."
"Yeah," Lois said. "Oh well, it's not a big deal. I'll call after dinner."
"And in the meantime," Clark said, with his best French accent, "if you'd take a seat on this fine fallen log that I just happened to drag over here, I'll serve you your dinner."
Martha Kent raised her head at the sound of the knocker. A glance out the kitchen window informed her that a sheriff's car was parked in the area of packed dirt between the house and the barn and she went into the living room to answer the knock, just as it sounded again.
Rachel Harris, looking deceptively harmless even in the official uniform she wore as the Sheriff, stood on the front porch. Martha remembered Rachel from the time she had been barely more than a baby, bouncing up and down in the stroller that her mother pushed ahead of her as she walked down Smallville's Main Street. The bright, active toddler had turned into a no-less-enthusiastic schoolgirl, and then a high school cheerleader with a starry-eyed crush on Clark when he had been Captain of Smallville High's football team. She had turned that zest for living into her passion as Smallville's new Sheriff after her father's retirement and some months ago had proven her competence in that office to Martha when she had saved Clark's life from a rogue government agent, who had tried to shoot him in the back.
"Hi, Rachel," she said. "Come in."
Rachel stepped into the living room of the farmhouse and Martha closed the door. "What are you doing out here?" she asked. "Is something wrong?"
"I had some information that Clark should know about," Rachel said. "Is he here?"
"I'm afraid not," Martha said. "A reporter showed up sometime around noon when Jonathan and I were out, looking for him and Lois, so we persuaded them to disappear for a couple of days. He's got my cell phone, though, if we need to get hold of him. What's the matter?"
"I got a call from Metropolis," Rachel explained. "From an Inspector Henderson. He seemed to know that Clark and Lois were here."
Martha nodded. "Clark's mentioned him," she said. "He was the one that arrested Lex Luthor at his wedding reception."
"Yeah, well —" Rachel hesitated for an instant. "I guess you know what's happened since."
"Yes," Martha said. "Someone has an eye on Lois's share of Luthor's estate."
"That's for sure," Rachel said. "Anyway, Henderson got a tip that an enforcer for Luthor's criminal organization is headed out here, to try to find out from you where Clark is."
Martha glanced out the window at the sight of her husband crossing the cow pasture toward the house. "Jonathan will be here in a minute. Can I get you some coffee?"
Rachel smiled a little. "Sure."
Martha went back to the kitchen for the promised coffee. When she returned, Jonathan was just closing the living room door.
Rachel was still standing in the middle of the room. Martha nodded to a chair. "Why don't you sit down and you can explain." She handed her the cup and saucer. "Sugar?"
Slowly, Rachel sank into an armchair and set her cup and saucer on the coffee table. Martha set down the coffee tray, took a seat on the sofa and poured a cup for Jonathan while Rachel put a teaspoon of sugar into her coffee and stirred.
"Now," Martha said, "what's this about an 'enforcer', did you say?"
Jonathan was stirring cream and sugar into his coffee but at Martha's words, he glanced sharply at her. "Enforcer?"
"Yes," Rachel said. "Inspector William Henderson, from Metropolis, called my office this morning. He received a tip from one of his informants that an enforcer for 'The Mrs.', who appears to have taken over the organization, is on his way out here to try to get Clark's location from you."
Jonathan looked at Martha. "Clark said anything might happen," he said. "I guess he was right."
"And we're not going to tell him," Martha said in her most no-nonsense voice. "If we do, he's going to come rushing back here to try to protect us, which isn't a good idea right now."
"Definitely not," Rachel said. "No offense, but Clark is a reporter. I know he writes about big city crime all the time, but he's not trained to deal with people like this. I still shudder when I think how close he came to getting killed by those crazy government types a few months ago. I don't want him anywhere near the place."
Neither did Martha. Without his invulnerability, Clark was bound to get himself hurt or killed trying to protect them. "What do you think we should do?" she asked.
Rachel had obviously been thinking about that, for she replied almost at once. "We could put you in hiding, but that's sort of inconvenient, especially since you have the farm to take care of, and you'd have to hide until the month is up," she said. "I was wondering if you would mind if Greg Ross were to come stay here for a little while — kind of as a bodyguard."
Jonathan and Martha looked at each other for a long moment and then Martha nodded. "That's a good idea. If there's a witness around, he can't do anything violent. They want to kill Lois, but it has to look like an accident."
"My thought exactly." Rachel finished her coffee. "I'll tell him as soon as I get back to town. Expect him here this evening."
Martha finished her cup of coffee and set it down. "I'll make up Clark's room for him," she said. "If Lois or Clark calls you, you're not to tell them about this."
"I won't," Rachel said. She glanced at her watch and stood up. "I need to get back. Thanks for the coffee," she added. "I wish you were making coffee for the boys and me. The stuff at the station is barely fit to drink."
"It's just coffee," Martha said. "Maybe it's your coffee maker."
"Maybe." Rachel didn't sound convinced. "You two look out for yourselves. I'll have Greg over here as soon as he can make it, but when he shows up, be sure it's him."
"I know Greg," Martha said. "Clark and Pete were best friends, remember. Greg used to tag after them a lot of the time when they were kids."
"All right," Rachel said.
When she had gone, Jonathan stood looking after the cloud of dust that the Sheriff's squad car had left hanging in the air. "An enforcer," he said slowly. "Whoever wants that money isn't giving up, is she?"
"Not for that kind of money," Martha said. "Let's just hope she doesn't figure out where Clark and Lois are."
"In the meantime," Jonathan said, "I guess we've got a few preparations to make. We'd better get busy."
The setting sun was hidden behind the trees and the sky overhead had turned a deep purple when Lois and Clark walked slowly down a narrow trail toward the campground's convenience station — restrooms, showers, telephones and other sundry items that Lois had always regarded as necessities of life before the last few days in the mountains. Clark carried a flashlight with which he illuminated the path ahead of them, since the sunlight was dimming rapidly.
"Watch your step," Clark said, as they descended five wooden steps, apparently installed on a short, steep section of the trail for the convenience of the campers. "Looks like one of the boards is coming loose."
Lois carefully negotiated the loose board. After their trek through the mountains, such minor inconveniences were nothing. She and Clark had encountered far worse on that trip, and yet now she had begun to look on it as the happiest part of her recent life. How could she ever have believed that she could be happy with Lex? Even if he had been the pillar of the community that he had pretended to be, she wouldn't have been happy with him. Looking back, with the twenty/twenty vision of hindsight, it was so completely obvious that her future happiness lay with the man who walked beside her now, one hand clasping hers, that she couldn't believe how blind she had been. Clark had come to be her best friend over the last year, and had gradually and unobtrusively worked his way into her heart, accomplishing it so quietly that looking back she couldn't pinpoint the time that she had begun to love him. She had fallen in love with Superman during their first, short meeting, but with Clark it had taken time — time for her to notice him, and much more time for her to realize that somewhere along the way friendship had turned into something far deeper.
That time when Miranda had sprayed the newsroom with her pheromone should have told her how dangerous Clark was, she thought, but typically, she had rationalized the whole thing away so she wouldn't have to deal with her growing feelings for him. How much easier it would have been if she'd just gone with the flow, as Lucy phrased it. Or maybe not. Her sister went with the flow all the time and her success with close relationships was as bad as Lois's had been before Clark. Lucy, like Lois, had learned that men couldn't be trusted, and as a result, she chose men who were losers in one way or another. Lois hoped that one day Lucy would find someone who could show her that not all men were like their father — that there were some who didn't walk away when the going got rough — although she would never wish anything like what had happened to her on her sister. Surely there were easier ways to learn a lesson, but of course she was Mad Dog Lane. She never did things the easy way.
"Are you all right?" Clark asked.
"Huh? Sure. Why wouldn't I be?"
"You looked a little sad," Clark said. "Is anything wrong?"
"No," Lois said. Impulsively, she raised their clasped hands and kissed the back of his. "I was just hoping that Lucy is as lucky someday as I've been."
"Lucy? You mean your sister?"
Lois nodded. "I was just thinking about her. She has this tendency to pick losers — just like I did. She just chooses them from a different social stratum. I agreed to marry Lex and she takes up with illiterate goons. Same result."
"That's too bad," Clark said. "I saw Lucy once, not long after I came to the Planet. She's a beautiful, intelligent girl — just like her sister. She deserves better."
"I think both of us got the feeling that we weren't worth much in our parents' estimation," Lois said slowly. "Daddy wanted boys, not girls, and he didn't try very hard to hide it. Nothing I did was ever quite good enough." She slapped absently at a mosquito. "Mother spent most of the time after Daddy left drunk out of her mind. The court ordered her into rehab when I was fifteen and Lucy and I had to move in with Daddy, but nothing much changed. Daddy didn't spend his day getting drunk but he was too busy to pay much attention to us. I basically raised Lucy. Somebody had to do it, and Mother and Daddy were pretty much AWOL. That kind of thing doesn't make you feel very good about yourself — that your parents didn't think enough of you to bother with you. And then, when I was a senior in high school, Daddy and I had a tremendous fight and I moved out."
"What was it about?" Clark asked. He reached out absently to push a hanging creeper out of her way. Lois hadn't even noticed it in the gathering gloom but Clark seemed to have little difficulty seeing.
"He wanted me to go into medical school and I wanted to be a journalist. He threatened not to help me pay for college if I didn't go into medicine." She shrugged. "I was eighteen, so I moved back in with Mother while I applied for scholarships and funding of one sort or another, and then I moved into the dorm at New Troy State. Somewhere around my junior year, Daddy must have realized that I was going to be a journalist no matter what kind of pressure he brought, and he helped me pay for the rest of my education, but it wasn't the best part of my life."
"I can't understand why parents would try to force their child into a career she doesn't want," Clark said. "Dad wanted me to study agriculture and animal husbandry at Midwestern U so I could take over the farm someday, but when I told him I wanted to go into journalism he didn't try to change my mind. He wanted what was best for me."
"That's about it," Lois said. "Daddy wanted me to do what he thought was best — and naturally what *I* wanted wasn't relevant. Anyway, you can probably understand now why Daddy and I were so uncomfortable with each other when you met him. I know you didn't at the time."
"Yeah," Clark said. He squeezed her hand. "It must have been rough."
"Sort of." She shook her head. "Anyway, I guess that's why I have trust issues with men. Or at least part of the reason. When I was a little girl, I kept dreaming about a Prince Charming who would come along, see something in me that no one else saw and sweep me off my feet, but after I grew up the couple of times I thought I'd found him it turned into a disaster. I told you about Paul, in college, and then Claude —" She stopped, wondering if it was a good idea to remind Clark of her history. "Anyway, I think that was probably why I wouldn't let myself think of you as a romantic interest. I think I chose Superman because deep down I knew he was out of reach. He was safe to love because nothing could ever come of it. Then I figured marrying Lex would be safe, because I didn't love him. It was only after it was done that it finally hit me what an awful mistake I'd made." She sighed. "I should have known better. You offered me everything I'd ever wanted and I was too scared to see it. I jumped in without checking the water level again — and if it hadn't been for you and Perry, and the others, I'd have been trapped."
Clark put an arm around her waist, guiding her through an overgrown section of the path. "I'm no Prince Charming either, you know," he said with a trace of apology in his voice. "I wish I were. Superman is as fallible as anyone else."
"You don't have to be perfect," Lois said. "You're my best friend. You've seen me at my worst and it didn't scare you away. I don't have to be on my best behavior for you, and you don't have to be for me. Best friends don't have to worry about those things." She hesitated. "We're still best friends, aren't we? Even though we're engaged?"
"You'll always be my best friend," Clark said. "My mom and dad are. Best friends, that is. When Dad is upset or worried, the first person he talks to is Mom, and Mom is the same. It really surprised me when I realized it wasn't that way with all married couples."
"I wish I'd had your parents," Lois said, a little wistfully. "From everything you've said about them — and from what I've seen — they made their marriage look like fun, and raised you to be the kind of person who could be Superman. My parents raised me to be a neurotic compulsive overachiever who doesn't have the courage to admit it when I'm wrong. It gets me in trouble, sometimes."
"Yeah, I'd noticed," Clark said dryly. "Still, I'd rather it was me rushing to the rescue than some guy on a white charger. I stand a better chance of succeeding. Or I did."
"I think you will again," Lois said. "Not that I'm looking forward to needing to be rescued, but you know what I mean."
"Yeah," Clark said. He stopped and turned to face her. His expression was hard to see in the gloom, but she didn't need to see it. His voice told her everything she needed to know. "I can't promise never to hurt you or disappoint you. I wish I could. I'm bound to make mistakes, but I'll never do it on purpose, I swear." He raised a hand to cup her cheek. "I love you."
Unexpectedly she felt her eyes stinging with tears. "I know," she said. "I just hope you know what you're getting into. I'm not the easiest person to live with."
"I can take it," he said, and there was a smile in his voice. "I figure it'll be worth it — especially since I decided months ago that it was you or no one."
There didn't seem to be any answer to that, which was fortunate. His lips descended on hers, and she found herself the recipient of another of those breathtaking kisses.
When he finally let her go, she followed him with unaccustomed docility along the remainder of the path. The woods opened up suddenly into an illuminated clearing. A wood-frame building dominated the center of it, and along one side was a row of pay phones. Arrows directed newcomers to the showers and restrooms and a rustic sign tacked to the side of the building welcomed visitors to the campground's Convenience Center.
The sun had completely set but the clearing was illuminated by several floodlights placed high on rough, wooden poles. Several people in shorts and T-shirts suitable for the warm, Kansas summer night were wandering around the area or loitering here and there, obviously waiting for other members of their party.
Lois made a beeline for the ladies shower and restroom. There were several women and girls there, and she had to wait for the opportunity to use one of the four showers. While she waited, she observed the other campers standing in the short line. Most were women with children, ranging in age from barely more than toddlers to girls in their teens. One girl of about seven or eight seemed to be by herself, several places ahead of Lois. At least, she didn't appear to belong to the woman in front of her who was escorting twin girls of about three, or the group behind her which consisted of a woman who looked as if she were in her early to mid-forties and three girls that were probably her daughters, ranging from one of about six or seven to one obviously in her mid-teens. Lois might have thought that the girl belonged with them but for the fact that mother and daughters were alike blond and blue-eyed and the lone child was very definitely a brunette with brown eyes and a flock of freckles. She looked nothing like them, and was dressed in a pair of tattered blue shorts and a stained T-shirt, while the other girls wore swimming suits.
Normally, Lois would have paid no attention to the child, but the fact that she was so obviously alone in the crowd seemed odd. Still, it was probably nothing, she thought. The girl most likely had parents waiting outside, and she was probably old enough to be trusted in here by herself, considering how many other people were around.
Lois couldn't quite dismiss the girl from her thoughts, however. Something that she couldn't even identify nagged at her. After about a five-minute wait, the child disappeared through the door to the dressing rooms, and a moment later the blond mother sent her oldest daughter in with the admonition to "make it quick".
A few minutes later the unaccompanied girl emerged silently from her dressing cubicle as Lois was waiting to enter the room. She didn't glance at Lois as she squeezed past.
Lois had intended to take a long, leisurely shower, but she found herself hurrying. In what was certainly record time for her, she shed her clothing, showered quickly and returned to dress, all in the space of seven minutes by actual count. Emerging into the main body of the ladies room, she saw that the girl had vanished and made her way hurriedly to the door, unable to explain her sense of urgency even to herself.
Clark was leaning casually against the wall just outside the door when she emerged. He straightened up, smiling at her. "That was fast." His smile faded as she looked quickly around. "What's the matter?"
"Did you see a little girl come out alone a few minutes ago — maybe eight years old, brown curly hair, brown eyes — wearing shorts and a T-shirt?"
Clark frowned thoughtfully. "Maybe. Were the shorts blue?"
Lois nodded. "Did you see if anyone was waiting for her?"
"I wasn't paying much attention," Clark said. He continued to frown, obviously prodding his memory. "Yeah, there was."
"Oh." Lois drew a relieved breath. "I guess it's okay, then. Who was it?"
"A guy — I guess it was probably her grandfather."
"Uh huh. He looked like he was maybe about fifty. Tall guy, some grey in his hair, thinning a little at the temples. Why?"
That photographic memory again, Lois thought. Clark's incredible memory definitely gave him an advantage over the average newsman. "I don't know, really. She was in the ladies room alone. She looked kind of — oh, I don't know — a little scared, maybe. I wondered if anything was wrong."
"Well, she went with the guy. I thought maybe she was just tired, but now that you mention it —" He paused.
"Well — she kind of hung back, but she didn't do anything to attract attention."
Lois bit her lip. "It's probably okay," she ventured.
"Yeah, probably." They looked at each other. "But now that you've brought it up, neither of us is going to get a wink of sleep until we know for sure. Right?"
"You took the words right out of my mouth, partner," Lois said. "Let's go see if we can find out."
Martha was pouring dishwashing detergent into her dishwasher when there was a brisk knock on the door. A glance out the kitchen window showed that the battered pickup truck that she recognized as belonging to the Ross family was now parked in the open space next to the hen house. Greg Ross, the younger brother of Clark's best friend during his high school days, had arrived.
Greg Ross was between three and four years younger than Clark, and certainly seemed too young to be a deputy sheriff, Martha thought as she opened the door. He resembled his older brother a good deal although his hair was more red than light brown and he displayed considerably more freckles than Pete ever had. He was dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt and didn't look anything like an officer of the law. Martha guessed that Rachel had directed him to blend in, instead of allowing strangers to realize that there was a sheriff's deputy on the premises.
"Come in, Greg," Martha said, opening the door wider. "I guess Rachel told you you're on babysitting detail for a few days."
To her surprise, Greg blushed up to his hairline and shook his head vigorously. "It's nothing like that," he said quickly. "You and Mr. Kent could probably handle some city slicker bad guy without much trouble but Sheriff Harris wants to be sure somebody's here to help, just in case." He looked around the living room as he stepped inside. "I guess you got a new rug since Clark left home," he said. "I remember you had this brown one that was all different shades."
"That was to disguise the dirt you kids tracked in all the time," Martha said. "I figure you've probably grown out of that stage — finally."
"Kind of," Greg said. "Is Mr. Kent around?"
"Jonathan's outside, finishing the chores," Martha said. She glanced at Sport, the dog that had adopted them last year. He had followed Greg into the house and was sniffing at the backs of his legs. "It's a good thing he catches rats. He's useless as a watchdog. Out, Sport," she commanded, holding the door open for the animal.
Sport obeyed, ran down the steps and vanished into the barn. Martha turned to Greg. "Have you had dinner yet?"
"Huh?" The deputy looked blank for a moment. "Oh, yeah. I picked up a sandwich at Maisie's, around four."
"Then it's been nearly four hours since you've eaten," Martha said. "Come on into the kitchen and have some coffee and pie." She led the way as she spoke. "How's Pete doing these days?" she asked. "We never hear from him since he got the job at the state capital."
"He's on Senator Benson's staff," Greg said. "He says that our local assemblyman's talking about retiring instead of running for re-election. Pete's thinking about running for the seat."
"Really?" Martha opened the refrigerator to remove the apple pie. "I guess he's doing pretty well then." She located a pie plate, sliced off a generous serving of pie and set it before the deputy, following it a moment later with a cup of coffee. "Here you go."
"Thanks," Greg said. He inhaled the aroma of the coffee. "Rachel said your coffee was going to spoil me for the office stuff if I'm here for a couple of days," he added. "It sure smells good."
"It sounds like your coffee maker needs to be cleaned," Martha said. "Or maybe you should adjust your timer settings. I don't do anything different than most people when they make coffee."
"Mom used to say that making coffee was an art, and that some people had the knack while others never learned it," Greg said. "I'll bet that you could even force our cranky old coffee machine to make decent coffee." He sipped the brew with deep appreciation.
Martha busied herself with loading the remainder of the dishes into the dishwasher. As Greg finished the cup of coffee, the front door opened and closed and a moment later, Jonathan Kent entered the kitchen. "Are we having more pie? I could use a slice before bedtime."
"I thought you might," Martha said. She set a second plate of pie on the table. "You get a smaller piece," she informed her husband. "I've been counting your calories for the day."
Jonathan glanced at Greg and patted his stomach. "Just my luck. She cooks like that and then complains when I eat it."
Greg grinned. "Tough luck," he remarked. "So who's the guy that showed up this afternoon?"
"Clark said he called himself Maher," Jonathan said. "Ben Maher from the Topeka Intelligencer."
"The Intelligencer, huh?" Greg took a last bite of pie. "That was terrific pie," he told Martha. "Did you see their interview with Elvis yesterday?" He grinned. "Rachel — I mean Sheriff Harris brought it in for us to read at lunch. They're probably channeling the ghost of Luthor now and we'll get the story in a few days. Maybe they want to get Ms. Lane's input."
Martha snorted. "Probably. Or maybe they're getting a viewpoint from their Martian contacts."
"Or the mole men," Jonathan put in, brightly. "Can't forget them."
Martha shook her head in amusement. "At least no one from any of the other papers has found us so far."
"That's good." Greg handed his pie plate and fork to Martha. "With luck, nobody else will show up and this big time enforcer will turn out to be a dud, too. If we're all real lucky, some other big news story will crowd the Luthor story onto the back page. In the meantime, though, if somebody you don't know *does* drive up, don't go out there without me. All right?"
Martha and Jonathan nodded.
"Good." Greg pointed at the small TV set that Martha kept in the corner of her kitchen counter. "There's all kinds of creeps running around these days. We were put on alert this morning for that guy."
Martha turned to look at the picture of a man of about fifty glaring at the camera from a police photo. "I've seen a couple of reports about him today," she said.
Jonathan looked questioningly at Greg. "Nasty looking customer," he remarked. "What did he do?"
Jonathan had been working outside, Martha thought. The radio they kept in the barn had quit a week ago and she hadn't found time to replace the batteries, so Jonathan wouldn't have heard anything about it.
"Guy's a child predator that finished up his sentence a few weeks ago in Missouri," Greg told him. "There were all kinds of protests from his hometown about letting him out — except his dad, who says he was wrongfully convicted — but the courts didn't have a choice. Anyway, they think he snatched a kid off the street on her way home from school. He might be headed this way. Kansas law enforcement's watching for him."
Rachel Harris glanced at the little thirteen-inch television set that sat on a shelf near the rear of the Sheriff's office. The LNN News-at-Eight Hour was on and she listened to it with half her attention. The newscaster was reporting on the kidnapping in Missouri where Bethany Ann Gordon had been snatched two days ago while walking home from school. The police were searching frantically for her and for the man believed to have kidnapped her — a violent sex offender who had been released from prison three weeks before. David Waters had been seen in the area at about the time of Bethany's kidnapping and the description given by her six-year-old brother matched. There was an interstate alert for the fugitive and the little girl, and Bethany's mother had been shown repeating her tearful plea for her daughter's return. Rachel shook her head. If Waters had really taken the child, the family's pleas wouldn't make an impression on him. Rachel knew his type — a sociopath who couldn't have cared less about the pain that he was inflicting on others. If anything, he would probably enjoy it. For perhaps the fiftieth time, she studied the flyer that had come in this morning about the case. Various tips now led the police to believe that the pair had crossed the Kansas state line and the search was spreading across the area. As if she didn't have enough to handle, this had to happen just now. Still, she hoped that someone would spot the guy and call the cops before it was too late. The news program had found an expert on the subject who had warned that it was just a matter of time before Waters killed one of his victims. Rachel very much feared that this might be the time. If he turned out to be their man, he certainly must know what it would mean for him if he were convicted again.
Almost on the thought, the phone rang. Rachel's heart jumped at the suddenness and she made herself draw a deep breath before picking up the receiver on the second ring. "Sheriff's office. This is Sheriff Harris," she said, making her voice calm and steady mostly through force of will.
"Oh, thank heavens!" The feminine voice on the other end of the line sounded as if its owner were on the edge of hysterics. "I think he's dead!"
"Hold it," Rachel said. "First tell me who you are."
"This is Maisie Allen, over at Maisie's Diner. I just stepped out in back to dump the trash and there's a guy lying behind the dumpster. I don't think he's breathing!"
"Did you call 911?" Rachel asked.
"Yes, but I think he's dead! There's blood all over his shirt and —"
"I'll be right there," Rachel interrupted. "Don't touch anything."
Smallville's only paramedic van had arrived almost at the same time as Rachel. It pulled into the narrow alley right behind her squad car. Rachel stopped as close to the dumpster as she could reasonably manage in order to give the paramedics room and set the brake, leaving the headlights on for visibility.
Maisie was standing in the alley — or perhaps standing wasn't exactly the word. She was leaning against the wall and looking ready to either faint or throw up when Rachel got out of the car and approached. She looked the older woman over with a critical eye and made a decision.
"Maisie, go inside and sit down," she directed. "You can't do anything here. Get yourself some coffee or something. I'll be in to talk to you in a few minutes."
Maisie gulped and nodded, rolling an eye in the direction of the body, and obeyed without a word. Rachel turned toward the man on the ground.
The situation was much as Maisie had described it. The victim was almost certainly dead. He was lying face up and his shirt was rent in three places, and covered with dried blood. Stabbed, Rachel thought, shining her flashlight on his face.
It was no one she knew, she realized with a trace of relief, for which she mentally chastised herself. It was still most likely a homicide and probably some time ago — perhaps several hours.
The paramedics were kneeling by the body and the taller one glanced up at her, shaking his head. "Guy's been dead for hours," he said. "Looks like somebody stabbed him." Harry Talbot was from Rachel's graduating class at Smallville High and, in the illumination of the headlights from Rachel's car and the van, his complexion had taken on a greenish tinge. "Guess we'll be taking this one to the Coroner."
"Any ID?" Rachel asked. She went to her car and removed the camera that she kept in the trunk for situations like this. This would be its inaugural use in such a situation.
"Doesn't look like it. Could be one of those reporters that have been looking for the Kents. Maybe somebody at the motor court knows who he is."
"I'm sure they're going to love being called in for an identification," Rachel said dryly, but her mind was working rapidly. Police Inspector Henderson, from Metropolis, had told her that an enforcer from the criminal organization formerly run by Lex Luthor was headed for Smallville. Could it possibly be connected with this?
Sure it could, she was telling herself ten minutes later as she watched the paramedics loading the unidentified man into their van. There hadn't been a murder in Smallville in nearly ten years. And now, right after Clark showed up with Lois Lane, who was apparently the target of unnamed criminals from the city, an out-of-towner was found dead behind Maisie's Diner. It might be a coincidence but she was inclined to think it wasn't.
Rachel walked to her car and reached for the radio. Greg was at the Kent farm but she had three other deputies available who weren't going to like being called away from their homes at this hour. Which was too bad, but nobody had ever said this job was only about catching the occasional sneak thief or issuing citations to someone who parked in the handicapped zone at Lang's Emporium. This time they were going to have to earn their pay. And it looked like it was time to call in the forensics team from Wichita. Big city crime had definitely come to Smallville.
"He headed up the same path we came down," Clark said, keeping his voice low. "There are branches to three other campsites from it besides ours. How do you want to work this?"
"How is your hearing coming along?" Lois's voice was softer than his, but he could hear her without difficulty.
"It's better than yesterday but it isn't back to normal," Clark answered. "The trouble is that I don't seem to have full control of it. It happened the same way back when I was first getting my powers."
"What do you mean?"
"It just started this afternoon. We'll be talking and all of a sudden the super hearing kicks in and it's like I'm in a crowd with everyone screaming at the top of his lungs," Clark said. "I can get it under control but it takes a second or two."
"Oh. How about your eyesight?"
"I can see in the dark fine," Clark told her. "And my telescopic vision is better than it was yesterday. My X-ray vision is partly back. I could see the bottom of the lake this afternoon without any trouble." He paused. Should he tell her? Instantly he made up his mind. No more keeping things from Lois. He'd promised himself that while they were still lost in the mountains. "There's one thing, though."
He hesitated and then plunged ahead. "A couple of times in the last couple of hours it's cut in when I wasn't trying, the same way my hearing does."
"Is it a problem?" she asked quickly.
"Not exactly." He hesitated. "Uh — while I was waiting for you outside the ladies room was the second time it did it. It was a little embarrassing."
Lois grinned. "I guess Superman's crack about the lead-lined robe was a bluff, huh?"
Clark could feel himself blushing. "Yeah. I was kind of upset. I'm really sorry about what I said. If I'd been a little more rational about the whole thing, we might have avoided what came afterwards."
"True," Lois agreed, "but then some of the other things wouldn't have happened either. You'd probably have your powers, but I wouldn't know the truth about you and who knows what Lex would have done when I turned him down. He'd still have the Kryptonite cage, too, and he'd be more determined than ever to kill Superman." She stopped in the middle of the path and turned to face him. "You said we weren't going to rehash all the mistakes we made, remember? You blew it but so did I, and there's no way to know how things would have worked out if we'd done things differently. Given that, I'm glad that we're here, even with everything that's happened. I've finally figured out who I really love and you're with me, alive and safe. That's worth everything we went through — at least to me."
"It's worth it to me, too," Clark said. "You're right. I'll try to quit kicking myself if you'll do the same." He smiled at her in the darkness. "I know how you've been blaming yourself for what happened. Can we just stop trying to assign blame? We both made some mistakes but we don't have to keep dwelling on them."
Lois hesitated and then lifted her chin. "You're right."
"I am?" he said. It wasn't like Lois to give in on any argument.
"Yes, you are. We've got more important things to do than sit around and blame ourselves for things that can't be changed. The thing that I'm wondering about is that you say these things — your powers cutting in unexpectedly — happened when you were first getting them, too. I think that means they're really starting to come back now."
He'd heard that changing the subject was a feminine trait, but Lois definitely raised the talent to a new high, Clark thought. He blinked at her for a second. "I never thought of that. I guess I'll have to be ready for the others to start kicking in unexpectedly, too."
"Exactly," Lois said. "Now, back to the plan. We're going to find where the guy and the little girl are camping and you're going to use your powers to eavesdrop. Then, when we find out what's going on we'll decide what else we need to do. If anything."
As a plan, it left a good deal up in the air but Clark had to agree that it made sense. "Okay. Come on."
It was almost an hour later that they approached the last of the camping spots connected by the narrow trail. The first campsite had been occupied by a noisy family of two adults and five children, all under thirteen, and a large hairy beast that was, theoretically at least, a dog. It had barked noisily at them and Clark had apologized profusely, explaining that they must have taken the wrong branch from the trail.
The second spot had held a small camper and Clark had pulled Lois away quickly. The two persons inside were newlyweds, he'd explained briefly, and were busy getting better acquainted. It had taken Lois a moment to decipher his code and then she had laughed.
But this campsite held another small camper, a battered one that had seen better days. The little girl was nowhere to be seen but a tall man was sitting on a log in front of a campfire, while an iron skillet that was perched precariously over the flames sizzled loudly and gave off the scent of frying bacon. As they watched, he leaned forward to break an egg into the pan.
Lois put her lips against Clark's ear. "Well?" she whispered. She kept her voice low, trusting that the warm breeze that was rustling the shrubbery and brushing her face and the sounds of the night insects would muffle her whisper.
Clark lowered his glasses, squinting at the camper.
"She's in the camper," he said after a moment. "Alone."
"What's she doing?"
"Just sitting on the bench by the table." He frowned. "I think she's crying."
The lone man was fiddling with a radio now, Lois saw. Little bursts of static came to her ears. Finally, it seemed, he found a station for he set the radio down on the ground and reached forward to stir the contents of the pan.
"What —" Lois was beginning.
"Sh!" Clark was leaning forward, his head tilted in exactly the pose that Lois had seen many times at the Daily Planet. Superman, she thought. He was listening to something that she couldn't hear. She fell silent, biting her lip and watching his face.
After nearly a minute Clark took her arm, pulling her back a short distance from the clearing. "He's listening to a local news report," he said softly. "They're reporting that there's a statewide search for a girl who was snatched two days ago in Missouri. Her name is Bethany Ann Gordon. They think the guy who has her is a sex offender who was released from prison a few weeks ago." She thought she could see him frowning in the faint starlight that sifted through the trees. "I remember hearing something about it at the time. I didn't pay a lot of attention because of what was going on in Metropolis. His name was David Ferdinand Waters. There was a lot of controversy, but it turned out they had to let him go because there wasn't any legal way to keep him in prison."
"Is that him?" Lois asked.
"I don't know. He might just be listening to the news."
"Now would be a good time to have your mom's cell phone," Lois said. "We never did make that call." She glanced back in the direction of the clearing. The light of the campfire was barely visible. "I guess the cops are asking for tips, huh?"
He nodded, obviously still listening. "Bethany is seven years old with brown hair and eyes. When she disappeared she was wearing a T-shirt and…" he paused, tilting his head again in the direction of the muffled voice issuing from the radio. "…Blue shorts."
"That's good enough for me," Lois said. "We have to do something."
"He might be armed," Clark said. "If it's them he probably is, actually." She could see him frowning in the dimness. "One of us needs to stay here to keep an eye on things, and the other should go back and call the police."
"I'll stay here," Lois said at once. "You can move faster in the dark and you know the area better."
Clark hesitated. "I don't like to leave you here, alone," he said. "If that's really Waters, he's dangerous."
"Clark, I'll just watch. If he tries to…hurt her, I'll think of something to distract him. Hurry up." She glanced back in the direction of the firelight. "The sooner you go, the sooner you'll get back."
Under less serious circumstances the indecision in his expression might have made her laugh. "You'll just watch? Promise?"
"I promise — unless I have to do something. Go on!"
There really wasn't any other choice and she knew he knew it. "I'll be right back. *Please* be careful." The last sentence was spoken in a whisper but was no less heartfelt for all that.
"I will. Go!"
Robert Jackson, the day manager of the Smallville Motor Court, hesitated, glancing nervously back and forth between Rachel Harris and Wesley Reid, Smallville's Coroner. He seemed unable to look directly at the sheet-covered form on the long table in front of him. He swallowed convulsively. "Are you sure about this, Sheriff?"
"It's okay, Bob. All we need is for you to see if you recognize him," Rachel told him soothingly, for the fifth time, although she could hardly blame him. Violent crime in Smallville was normally limited to a fistfight at the local bar on Saturday night — not murder. Wesley Reid had already told her that the man had been dead for at least seven or eight hours — maybe more. Whoever had killed him had picked a good spot to dump the body. Even Maisie might not have spotted him if it hadn't been for her compulsively neat habit of walking around the dumpster for a final pickup of trash before she closed down for the evening. "He's not from Smallville, so the chances are good that he was staying at your motel."
The man gulped again, looking slightly green around the edges. "But — murder! I'm not sure —"
"We're not going to show you anything but his face," Rachel said. She nodded to Reid. "Let's get this over with."
The Coroner gently drew the sheet down, revealing the victim's features. Jackson gulped and took a step backwards.
"*Do* you recognize him?" Rachel asked again.
The manager swallowed a fourth time but leaned forward, obviously determined to put the unpleasant episode behind him. Then he paused, and Rachel saw him frown.
"Do you recognize him?" she asked.
Slowly, Jackson nodded. "I think so. I think he's one of the reporters that checked in a couple of days ago, looking for the Kents."
Rachel produced a plastic bag, containing one of several items that her deputies had retrieved from the dumpster behind which the body had been found. "We found some things thrown into the dumpster. Is this key from your place?"
Jackson took the plastic bag, examining the key with the corn-shaped tag dangling from its chain. "Yes, it is. We're the only motel in the area that uses this kind of tag for our room keys. Room 24A —" He glanced quickly once more at the murdered man. "I can check to see the name of the person we rented that room to. Is there a phone here?"
The Coroner nodded at Rachel. "Use the one in my office." He covered the victim's face with the sheet once more.
Moments later Jackson was listening to the voice of the night manager of Smallville Motor Court. "You're sure? All right. Thank you." He set down the receiver. "The room was rented by a Benjamin Maher, of the Topeka Intelligencer. The maid reports that there's no one in the room, and his rental car isn't there."
"Maher?" It took Rachel several seconds to recall where she had heard the name before. It was the name of the reporter that had found the Kents' farm this morning.
The manager was nodding. "Benjamin Maher," he repeated.
"All right," Rachel said. "I guess that's all. You can go. Thank you for your help."
The manager had barely closed the door behind him when Rachel picked up the phone and dialed the number for Jonathan and Martha Kent. The time was nearly nine-thirty, and she knew the Kents kept early hours because of the need to be up before the sun, but the back of her neck was crawling. This couldn't be a coincidence, she thought. Ben Maher had found the Kent farm and now he was dead.
Clark Kent and Lois Lane knew that he had located the farm but somehow Rachel couldn't see either of them killing the unfortunate newsman just to prevent him from leading the others of his profession to the place. But she'd had a warning this afternoon that someone who would have no such compunction was on his way to Smallville.
"Hello?" Jonathan Kent's voice emerged from the receiver.
"Jonathan, it's Rachel," she said. "What time did Clark and Lois leave the farm?"
"Hi Rachel. Is something wrong?" Jonathan asked.
"Maybe. What time did Clark and Lois leave the farm?"
"Around one thirty, I think. Just a minute." His voice became fainter. "It's Rachel. She wants to know what time Lois and Clark left."
There was a murmur in the background. "Rachel?" Jonathan's voice was suddenly louder again. "You still there?"
"Right here," she said.
"Martha thinks it was about two. Why?"
"Do you know where they were going?"
"Sure," Jonathan said. "They were headed for Domino Lake. They wanted to go somewhere out of sight for awhile so they decided to go camping. What's going on?"
"Maybe nothing," Rachel said. "What time did Clark talk to that reporter?"
"I think he said it was about noon. Why? What's the matter?"
"Have you had any contact with them since they left?"
"No. They have Martha's cell phone, though."
Rachel considered that. "Could you give them a call?" she asked finally. "Just to see if they're all right — and then call me back at this number." She read off the number on the phone.
"All right. But what's wrong?"
Rachel hesitated. "Maher is dead," she said finally. "At least we think it's him."
"Yeah. I'm a little worried about Clark and Lois. It seems a little too coincidental that this happened just now. Call them, all right?"
"All right." Jonathan Kent's voice had taken on a worried edge. "What are you thinking? Clark and Lois wouldn't hurt anyone."
"I know that," Rachel said. "I'm thinking about the call from that Metropolis police inspector this afternoon."
"Oh. All right, I'll call them right now."
Jonathan Kent hung up. Martha set down the cordless phone that she had lifted to her ear during the conversation and for several seconds they stared at each other. "What on Earth do you suppose —" Martha began.
"I don't know but we'd better call them," Jonathan said. He quickly punched in the number of the cell phone. The phone rang five times and then cut to the recorded message for the voice mail. He disconnected, waited for thirty seconds and tried again.
The result was the same. He switched off the phone. "It's on, but no one's answering," he said.
"Maybe they left it in the car," Martha suggested. "There's any number of reasons they might not answer. They're engaged, after all."
Jonathan shrugged. "Maybe. I hope that's all it is but I'd better call Rachel back." As he spoke, he was punching in the number she had given him.
Rachel answered on the first ring. "Rachel Harris."
"No one's answering the phone," Jonathan told her. "I tried twice. I hope they're all right."
"So do I," Rachel said. "I'll call you back if I find out anything else. Did they say where they'd be camping?"
"Uh — yeah. Clark said they'd camp over in the one of the sites off of the Lakeside Trail if he could find an empty one."
"Okay," Rachel said. "That's about a twenty-minute drive from Pepper. I'll see if I can get somebody there to check it out for me. I'll call you back if I find out anything." She hung up and Jonathan was left listening to the dial tone.
Clark knew the area of the Domino Lake Campgrounds as well as he did the landscape around Smallville. The lake was the result of a dam that had been built some years before his arrival in Shuster's Field and a small forest of the local trees and vegetation had grown up around it in response to the increase in the water supply. Still, the area wasn't all that large. There were eight trails bordering the lake with four camping sites branching off from each one. He cut through the woods for a short distance until he reached the trail that led down to the Convenience Center and broke into a trot. His eyesight had recovered a good deal since the night, two nights ago, when he and Lois had been threading their way alongside a stream high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, escaping a pair of searchers from LexCorp. Lois had been right, he thought. His powers might be taking their time about it but they were coming back. If only they would hurry up a little. It would be really convenient right now if Superman were able to put in an appearance.
But it was obvious that, although his powers were slowly returning, they weren't up to Superman level yet. Leaves and various creepers and pieces of underbrush slapped him uncomfortably in the face as he hurried along and once he tripped noisily over a root that he didn't remember being there before, and landed on his hands and knees in the dirt. He picked himself up as quickly as he could and hurried on.
It took a good twenty minutes to reach the Convenience Center. There were fewer people evident now, and Clark headed directly for the phones.
But, when he put the phone to his ear, no dial tone greeted him. He pushed the lever for the return of his quarters.
No quarters. He fished out two more but as he started to insert them an older man with white hair and an equally white mustache touched his elbow. "Don't bother," he said. "The phones are out. Somebody tried calling on a cell phone but there's no one on at the phone company. At least not the local branch. They said they'd send someone out in the morning."
"Oh great." Clark paused. "I really need to make a call. Do you have a cell phone?"
The helpful camper shook his head. "Sorry. Ask around. Somebody here's probably got one."
Rachel left the Coroner's Office and got into her squad car. She had left the forensics team from Wichita combing the area around the dumpster, taking samples and looking for anything else that might give them more information. It was now past ten, and it looked as if it was going to be a long night. Not that she would get any sleep if she went home right now, she knew. She frowned at the dashboard of the car, thinking.
Benjamin Maher had found the Kent farm and had to have been killed shortly afterwards — probably before Clark and Lois had even left for their camping trip. Why?
Well, she thought, suppose the enforcer had already arrived and was looking for the farm, and that he'd somehow learned from Maher that he'd found it. Maybe Maher had told him. Or maybe, she thought suddenly, he had taken Maher's place before he had even gone to the Kent farm. What if the man Clark had spoken to was actually the enforcer?
There had already been two attempts to kill Lois Lane in the last week, and this guy was supposed to be one of the best. He most likely wouldn't have done anything right there at the farm, but what if he'd hung around the place, intending to try to learn something from the Kents when they returned from town, figured out that Lois and Clark were there, and followed them? Lois's death had to look like an accident and accidents happened around lakes, where a person could drown, and woods, where someone could fall and be hurt and unable to call for help. He could very well be at the lake campgrounds right now.
Rachel reached for her radio. "Jane, are you there?"
"Right here, Sheriff," the dispatcher's voice responded. "I was just leaving."
"Radio Cal and tell him to take over for me. And then call Dan Wilson for me. Tell him we've had a murder and the killer may be headed for Dan's favorite fishing spot — the one where he caught the forty-two pound cat." Deputy Wilson in the little sheriff's office in Pepper would know what she meant, she thought. The reporters all over Smallville probably had their scanners tuned to the police frequency, but nobody but she and her deputies knew where Dan's favorite fishing spot was — at Domino Lake, where he'd caught the biggest catfish she'd seen in several years. "Tell him to have an ambulance on standby and to contact the ranger station. Tell them to try to locate Clark Kent and Lois Lane. I'll be there in an hour."
Lois crouched in the shrubbery, trying to make herself as inconspicuous as she could. Beside her on the ground lay a heavy length of dry branch that she had located after Clark had reluctantly left. For some reason, while Clark had been here, even without Superman's powers, she had felt safe. As soon as he had gone to call the police, the feeling of safety had departed. Still, Lois Lane had been in very bad situations before and had come out of them, if not unscathed, at least alive and with the story. And, assuming that the man out there was David Waters who had a seven year old girl as a captive, she had every intention of not only coming out of this alive but making sure that Bethany Ann Gordon did as well.
A quick glance at the fluorescent dial of her watch told her that Clark had been gone nearly forty minutes. Surely he must be on his way back by now. Waters had poured loose dirt over his campfire but it was still smoking and the breeze blowing toward her made her want to cough. She fought the tickle in her throat, aware that the man in the clearing would hear her if she did.
The campsite was still illuminated somewhat by the row of lights strung along the small guard rail that ran around the roof of the camper and in its illumination she could see Waters — or whoever he was — moving about.
The problem was that what he was doing was making her very uneasy. He was digging a large hole at the edge of the clearing. A very large, deep hole. Large enough for a seven year old girl to fit inside.
The thought made her skin crawl at the realization that he might be planning to dispose of his victim right here. It made sense — but if he tried to do anything of the sort before Clark returned, it would be up to her to stop him.
The smell of smoke was heavier. Surely the little campfire wasn't putting out that much smoke. Again, she managed to overcome the urge to cough, although the tickle in her throat was becoming more pronounced. Waters stepped back from the hole, evidently considering his work, and then tossed the shovel to the ground and turned toward the camper. Lois fought the almost overwhelming urge to cough and lost. A small, strangled sound escaped.
But Waters didn't appear to hear it. He coughed harshly several times and spat on the ground. Suddenly, she saw him lift his head and sniff the air.
The smell of smoke was stronger than it had been only moments ago. It was definitely not coming from the campfire, Lois thought. Somewhere not far away, someone must have started another fire. Maybe he was having trouble getting it going.
Waters reached the camper and she saw him unlock the door. It had been secured from the outside, she realized all at once. The little girl had been locked in. Lois choked back another cough, her attention riveted on his actions.
"Come on out," he said.
There was no answer. Waters stepped up into the camper and she heard a faint cry from the girl. Lois had started to stand up when he emerged again, dragging the child after him. Lois froze.
He thrust the girl toward the hole he had dug and Lois's suspicions crystallized into certainty. She came to her feet as silently as she could manage and eased forward, squeezing through the branches until only a thin screen of brush separated her from the clearing. Bethany Gordon struggled futilely in Waters' grip as he forced her toward the hole. His back was toward Lois and his attention was all on the squirming girl.
Lois stepped into the clearing.
With an exclamation of annoyance, Waters seized Bethany by the throat, strangling her with one large hand. Bethany choked and struggled but her movements began to grow weaker almost at once. Lois came forward at a half run, the branch held in her hands like a battering ram. The end of the branch rammed Waters in the back. He staggered forward, dropping Bethany, and landed heavily on his hands and knees. Lois lifted the branch and swung.
Half-stunned as he was, Waters tried to dodge and partially succeeded. Lois's blow hit him on the shoulder instead of his head but the blow knocked him sideways. Bethany was trying weakly to sit up but Lois couldn't spare any attention for her at the moment for Waters was trying to get to his feet again. She swung again and connected with his ribs. He plunged forward on his face and lay still, panting harshly.
The smoke wafted over all three of them again, thicker than ever. The smell of burning wood.
Lois didn't dare take her eyes off of Waters. She spoke to Bethany, who had staggered to her feet.
"Get behind me," she said. "Stay out of his reach."
"You're going to pay for this," Waters snarled.
Lois didn't remove her gaze from him but she spoke to the girl who was huddling behind her. "Are you Bethany Gordon?"
"Yes." Bethany's voice was almost inaudible. "Are you a cop?"
"No. But my friend went to call them," she said. "They're looking for you and him." She nodded at Waters.
Waters made a quick move, trying to grab for her ankle. Lois brought her club down on the arm, but he seized the weapon, trying to wrench it away from her. She twisted it free and brought the other end down on his shoulder. "Lie still!"
He obeyed, but Lois saw that he was now lying with his head twisted sideways so that he could watch her. "Don't try anything," she said.
"How long do you think you can keep me here?" he asked. He bared his teeth in a feral grin. "I'm gonna kill you, you know."
"Until the police get here," she said. "Or at least until my fiance gets back." She added, "Don't move."
"What are you gonna do if I do this?" He moved one leg to cross his ankle over the other. "You're not gonna hit me for that, are you? Or if I move my hand, like this?" He eased one arm away from his body, careful not to make a threatening move. Lois recognized the technique. He was trying to push the limits without her hitting him so that when he moved to attack her, she would hesitate for a critical instant.
A cloud of smoke wafted across all three of them. Behind Lois, Bethany squealed. "There's fire!"
Lois didn't dare to take her eyes off her captive. "Where?"
"In the trees!"
She could see the smoke blowing past them on the breeze, accompanied now by ashes, and the smell of burning wood was suddenly stronger. Waters moved suddenly, rolling sideways. Lois pushed Bethany back and lifted her branch. Waters came to his feet, facing her and then his gaze went past her. His eyes widened and he spat a four-letter word, and then he was running away from Lois and Bethany toward the trail. He didn't pause but charged down the narrow path and disappeared into the darkness.
Lois turned, already sure of what she would see.
The woods were no longer dark. Through the trees a flickering, reddish orange glow was clearly visible and with it a glitter of sparks dancing upward on a rising draft of air. The night noises had disappeared. In their place, all she could hear was the boisterous crackling voice of fire set free.
"Sir, I saw them — rather, my fiancee and I *both* saw them. He has an old, beat-up camper and it's parked in campsite #4 on the Lakeside Trail of the Domino Lake Campground." Clark waited while someone in the background asked a question. The voice that had answered his call belonged to a ranger at the Domino Lake Ranger Station.
"Can you describe them, Mr. Jones?"
"Yes sir. The man is about 6'2", around fifty years old and has dark hair with some grey at the temples. He's wearing a T-shirt and jeans. The little girl is about seven or eight, wearing a white T-shirt that's kind of dirty, blue shorts and sandals. She's got brown hair, brown eyes and freckles. When I saw her she was crying."
"We'll send somebody to check it out," the voice said.
"Thanks," Clark said. "I'm on a borrowed cell phone, so you won't be able to call me back. All the pay phones here are out of order for some reason."
"We know," the voice assured him. "Wait at the Convenience Center. We'll have a car there in ten minutes."
"Hey, look!" someone shouted.
Clark turned to look in the direction of the man's pointing finger. Up the slight rise and some distance away, he could see the red flicker of flames in five different places, equally spaced, and five columns of smoke were rising to blot out patches of the stars.
He spoke again to the man on the phone. "I can't wait, sir. There's a fire up where I left my fiancee! I've got to get back to her right away."
"Now listen," the voice said. "We see the fires. Don't go up there or we'll have to rescue you, too —" But he was speaking to empty air. Clark had handed the cell phone back to the man from whom he had borrowed it and was already running toward the trail.
The owner of the cell phone spoke into the little device. "Save your breath. He's already gone."
A four-letter word answered him, for which he didn't blame the ranger at all.
Clark ran up the trail as fast as his legs could carry him, considering the obstructions in his path. The trail was narrow and uneven, and he had to keep his speed down somewhat to avoid the worst of the hazards. Briefly, he wished that his power to fly would return as suddenly as his X-ray vision had this afternoon but it looked like he was going to have to handle this like an ordinary man. Almost, anyway.
He could see things around him clearly, even under the trees that blocked out the moon and starlight. His ability to see in all but complete darkness had obviously returned in full force — but since that was the power that ten year old Clark Kent had noticed first, and the most un-alarming of them all, all it told him was that his recovery was progressing, although not nearly as fast as he would like. If only Superman were back to full operating capacity! If he were, most of the problems they were dealing with would be easily resolved, including the fires that he and the others had seen burning above him on the slope.
Fires that, he realized, had to have been deliberately set. The five fires were equidistant from each other, obviously meant to burn a certain area — an area that encompassed their campsite. Unfortunately, they also included the other nearby campsites in their circles of destruction, not to mention the fact that they were bound to spread. Kansas hadn't had rain in several weeks and the woods were dry. With the addition of the brisk breeze that had sprung up a short time ago, it was going to be a miracle if the fire crews were able to contain it to one small area.
Someone was ahead of him on the trail. Their presence was announced by the excited voices of children and the frantic barking of a dog. Then the beams of flashlights became visible as the family group that he and Lois had encountered earlier came down the trail in disorganized flight. They must not have dared to try to leave in their camper, he thought in dismay. That meant that fire was probably blocking the driving trails.
He stepped aside to let them pass. As they did so, the children's father turned to him. "Don't go up there," he cautioned. "The fire's spreading fast."
"I have to," Clark told him. "I left my fiancee at the campsite!" He squeezed past the dog, sending the animal into another paroxysm of hysterical barking. "I'll be careful, but thanks for the warning."
He ran on up the trail, leaving the family behind.
He could hear the fire now, he realized, the crackling of burning wood and the peculiar roaring sound that seems exclusive to wildfires. It was ahead and on both sides of him, although it wasn't too close. Yet. His super hearing was operating instinctively in the face of emergency.
Two more people, a man and a woman, were coming down the trail with more haste than grace. He moved aside to let them past — the newlyweds whose campsite that Lois and he had checked out in their search for Bethany and her kidnapper.
"Don't go up there," the man panted as he hurried his wife toward the meager safety of the Convenience Center. "You'll be killed!"
"I have to get to my fiancee," Clark said. "Go on — get out of here. This place is going to be burning in a few minutes."
The man nodded and together he and his wife half-ran on down the path. They should make it all right, Clark assured himself. The fire was definitely blowing this way but it was still some distance off. Fifteen minutes, maybe, judging by the wind speed and the auditory cues that his hearing was picking up. Lois was in much more danger and no one was going to stop him from getting to her. There was no way that he would allow anyone or anything to take her away from him again.
Within ten minutes he was ascending the steepest part of the trail. This was the section of the path that required wooden steps to have been installed in several places. Clark went up the steps three at a time. The smoke was heavy in the air and the roar of the fire was much louder. Somewhere behind him he heard the crackle and sizzle as a bush burst into flame beside the trail, and then another, and another. His path of retreat was cut off.
Another body was plunging toward him from above and it took him barely a second to recognize David Waters. He stepped aside and let the man go. He didn't have the time to deal with him now.
"Lois!" he shouted. "Lois, can you hear me?"
From not far away, Lois's voice answered him. "Clark!"
"I'm right here!" he shouted. "Where are you?"
Her voice was coming from the side path that led to their own campsite. Clark dived into the narrower path and ran.
He arrived at the clearing to see Lois and Bethany Gordon huddled against the rental car. Bethany had a piece of cloth that he recognized as the shirt that Lois had used for swimming this afternoon held across her face against the heavy smoke. He ran toward them. "Are you all right?"
"Do we *look* all right?" Lois said with a trace of sarcasm. "The fire was all around the other camp. I was afraid we'd get trapped, trying to go down the trail!"
Bethany had flinched away from him and was now half-hidden behind Lois. It didn't surprise him at all after what had happened to her, but that would have to be dealt with later. "The path's blocked," he told them. "We're cut off. We can't go back that way. The fire's spreading fast."
"Waters went that way." Lois coughed, covering her mouth and nose with a frivolous little lace handkerchief that didn't look at all like something that she would buy. She had apparently soaked hers and Bethany's improvised masks in water from the canteen that swung from her shoulder.
"I know. He went past me. The path is blocked." Clark looked around, trying to decide what to do. "Get in the car, quick."
Lois reached into her pocket for her keys and pulled out an empty hand. "The keys are gone! I must have dropped them somewhere."
Clark grasped the handle of the driver's door and yanked. He was beginning to get his Superman strength back, he knew. He could only hope that he was strong enough.
There was a squeal of protesting metal and the door came off in his hand. He didn't have time to contemplate the implications of that now, but dropped it on the ground. Hopefully, Perry's insurance, or the rental company's would cover the damage. "Get in!"
Lois pushed Bethany into the car. "Get in the back seat," she told her.
"You too," Clark said. "Get down on the floor. This could get pretty hot." He got into the driver's seat, bent down to lift the floor mat and retrieved the spare key.
Lois didn't argue. He'd known that in an emergency he could count on her but it was reassuring to see it in action. Lois slid over the seat and scrunched down on the floor beside Bethany. Clark glanced over the tops of his glasses at the access road that they had come in on earlier this afternoon. The trees on both sides of it were smoking, and little flickers of flame were dancing merrily from the upper branches. Farther down the road, however, the fire had taken hold. The smaller trees on both sides of the exit route were engulfed in flame. It looked like something out of Dante's Inferno, but at least what he was doing gave them a chance. It was a good thing he knew the campgrounds as well as he did.
Clark gunned the motor. "Hold on to whatever you can hold to. This is going to be a real bumpy ride." He eased in the clutch and the car moved forward.
He slewed it around and put the accelerator down. The car lunged forward, straight toward the exit road and between the smoldering trees. He heard a faint scream from Bethany but Lois didn't make a sound.
The road twisted and turned but Clark took the curves as fast as he could. Ashes and little bits of burning matter speckled the windshield and blew against him through the open space where the car's door had been. They stung slightly where they contacted his exposed skin but he didn't try to brush them away. He trusted that his returning invulnerability would be enough to protect him against such minor irritants, because he needed all his attention to keep the car on the road — until they reached a certain spot.
There it was, coming up ahead. The road crossed the narrow river channel that was one of the tributaries feeding Domino Lake. The old wooden bridge crossed the water, and it was burning sullenly, sending off streamers of smoke. He could see the edges of the boards glowing orange and his keen night-vision showed him that the boards themselves were blackened. The flickering orange glow of the fires lit the sky with a nightmarish mixture of red, gold and orange and the rising air from the flames flung the embers swirling upward in a crazy, spiraling dance.
Clark aimed the car directly for the wooden safety rails that edged the banks on either side of the bridge. It was a ten-foot slope, but it looked like their best chance. The trees on the other side of the bridge were blazing.
"Brace yourselves," he told them. "This is going to be rough."
The front grill of the car contacted the wooden rails and they snapped. Bethany screamed as the car rolled and bounced down the steep incline and into the river.
The water came up to the axles. He turned the car toward the lake, hoping the engine wouldn't flood out too soon. There were uneven rocks and pieces of fallen debris in the water, but the river was remarkably clear of obstructions for a river. They bounced and jounced over the rocky riverbed and he thought irrelevantly that the shocks were going to need to be replaced, but he kept going. All around them, on both sides now, the smaller trees were blazing. Clark could feel the heat on his skin and prayed that Lois and Bethany weren't getting it too bad. It didn't seem to burn him, though, and he dared to hope that his invulnerability might have mostly returned. Still, there wasn't anything to do but go on and trust that their luck wouldn't run out too soon.
He heard the roar of an approaching plane and risked a quick glance upward. A huge tanker plane that the local fire fighting teams used for quenching wildfires swooped by overhead. The emergency services were already in action, he thought with relief. Still, that didn't mean that Lois, Bethany and he were out of danger.
Water sloshed across the bottom of the doorframe and he knew the river was deepening. The car's engine wasn't going to be able to stand this much longer but they weren't far from the lake now. If the engine quit, there was at least a decent chance that they could make it.
Two minutes later, the engine sputtered suddenly and went silent.
Out of habit, Clark put the car in first gear and set the emergency brake, even though logically he knew it wouldn't do any good. The entire floor of the car was several inches under water. It was a wonder that the engine had held out this far. The car swayed unsteadily in the current running past.
Clark twisted around to peer over the back seat. "The engine's flooded. We're going to have to go the rest of the way on foot."
Lois let go of Bethany and got up off the floor. "The engine's not the only thing that's flooded. Where are we?"
"In the river. We're about a quarter of a mile from the lake. If we can get there we can stay in the water until they get this thing under control." He'd been hearing the sounds of more fire fighting planes and helicopters for a good five minutes. "They're bombing the fire with fire retardant and water from the lake. All we have to do is stay out of the way."
He could see her hesitation for a split second, and then she nodded. "Come on, Bethany. We have to get out. Just stay with me. Clark and I won't let David hurt you again."
Clark unfastened his seat belt and stepped carefully out into the river. The water came well past his knees and he could see debris from the fire swirling downstream with the current. Lois helped Bethany over the rear seat and Clark held out a hand. Bethany flinched back. Clark backed away a step.
"I won't hurt you, Bethany. My name is Clark Kent. I'm Lois's fiance. Come on — we have to hurry."
Bethany glanced back at Lois, who nodded encouragingly at her. "Clark won't hurt you. Go on. I'll be right behind you."
Bethany slowly got out of the car, clutching the frame. The girl was hip-deep in the water, but she watched Clark warily.
He made no move to approach her. "You're safe, Bethany. I already called the rangers about you. Lois stayed to make sure you were all right while I went down to the phones."
Bethany glanced back at Lois, who was stepping down from the car into the river. She nodded to Bethany. "That's exactly what happened. I saw you down at the ladies room and Clark saw David waiting for you. We thought something was wrong so we came to find out for sure." She hesitated. "We're newspaper reporters. We won't let you get hurt." Lois reached out a hand. "Hold onto me, just in case, all right?"
Bethany slipped her hand into Lois's and Lois extended her other hand to Clark. Slowly, he began to lead Lois and Bethany downstream.
Rachel Harris pulled her squad car to a stop behind the fire lines. Her trip to Pepper, with the accelerator pressed flat to the floor most of the way, had been hair-raising enough but on arrival she had found that there was a fire at Domino Lake's campgrounds — one that had in all probability been set. It tended to confirm her theory. Someone else might actually be the culprit but an enforcer was trying to kill Luthor's widow in such a way as to make it look like an accident, and now there was a bad fire where Clark and Lois had gone camping. It was too much of a coincidence for her taste. If her trip to Pepper had been fast, she must have broken all international speed records to make it to the campgrounds.
She killed the engine and left the car, looking around for someone in authority who could answer questions.
One large family accompanied by a dog the size of a small grizzly bear and with a disturbing resemblance to one, occupied three benches near a parking spot where an ambulance sat. A young man and woman huddled together on another bench — people who had managed to escape the flames without their vehicles, she guessed, waiting for who knew what — transportation, maybe. Well, it couldn't hurt to talk to them. Maybe someone had seen Clark or Lois this evening.
She approached the group, keeping an eye on the dog. It saw her and instantly began to bark frantically at her.
"Quiet, Bear!" That was one of the kids and to Rachel's surprise the dog instantly became silent.
"Excuse me," Rachel said, speaking to the man who sat on the nearest bench. He must be the father of this small mob of children, she figured — five by actual count and, if Rachel was any judge, the oldest was no more than eleven.
"Yes?" The man turned to look up at her and then got to his feet. The woman beside him also rose and Rachel wasn't surprised to realize that she was apparently expecting again. She might be three or four months along.
Rachel smiled at them as disarmingly as she could. "Please, sit down. You look like you've had a rough evening."
Slowly, the two of them resumed their seats. Rachel took a precarious perch on the approximately five square inches of unoccupied bench across from them. The two-year-old next to her squirmed and looked reproachfully at her before getting down and running over to fling her arms around the dog's neck and pull on its ears. The animal promptly flopped down on its side and began to vigorously wash the child's foot.
"I'm the County Sheriff," Rachel informed the parents of the small mob. "I wonder, could you tell me anything about this evening? Do you have any idea how the fire started?"
Both immediately shook their heads. The man glanced at the dog. "The first we knew something was wrong was when Bear started going crazy." He paused. "I'm Ed Walker, by the way."
"Rachel Harris," Rachel said. "Go on."
"Well, at first I thought he was just barking at a squirrel or something but he wouldn't shut up even when Tommy told him to." He nodded at the child who had spoken to the dog. "I went to see what it was and saw the fire above us on the slope. It had blocked off the driving trail and I didn't want to risk trying to drive through it with the camper, so we took off down the trail to the Convenience Center. I guess," he said hopefully, "that it was a good idea to pay extra for the optional insurance the rental company offered after all. I thought it was a waste of money, but Amber insisted."
Rachel fished in her pocket and took out her wallet. A newspaper clipping, with a photo of Clark Kent was folded inside one of the compartments and she took it out. "I wonder — have you seen this man today? He was supposed to be camping here at Domino Lake."
Walker took the photo and held it so that the headlights of one of the emergency vehicles fell across it. He frowned. "Yeah, I've seen him somewhere. Don't know where, though."
"He's a reporter," Rachel said. "I'm trying to locate him."
Amber leaned over to look at the clipping. "Sure," she said. "We saw him this afternoon. Remember the two people that accidentally came into the camp? They'd got turned around and took the wrong trail."
"Oh yeah —" Ed scratched his collarbone with one finger. "Yeah, sure. I think it was him, later, too, when we were on the way down. He was running back up to get his girlfriend."
"When?" Rachel asked sharply.
"After the fire had started. He said he'd left her up there and had to find her."
"You mean he ran back up where the fire was?" Rachel asked in dismay.
"Yeah. I didn't see him after that, though. I sure hope they didn't get —" He broke off.
Rachel hoped not, too. "Which camping spot were you in?" she asked, already sure of the answer.
"We were on the Lakeside Trail camping area — campsite #1," Ed told her. He nodded at the young couple that Rachel had noticed earlier. "They were in campsite #2. I guess everybody else got out before the fire blocked off their roads. Just our luck."
Rachel got to her feet. "Thanks," she said. "I appreciate the information."
It was just like Clark to do something stupid trying to save somebody else, she thought as she hurried toward the barricade. Like the time in Smallville when he was seventeen, that he'd charged into a burning house in town to rescue the Anderson family's cat. He'd done it, too, and both he and the cat had somehow escaped with nothing but a few scorches to his clothes and the cat's whiskers. Rachel had been sixteen and hadn't been shy about telling him what a stupid stunt it had been, even if he hadn't gotten hurt.
She hoped fervently that he'd walk out of this one unhurt, too. Telling Martha and Jonathan that their son had been killed in a forest fire was something that she *really* didn't want to do.
Several uniformed rangers were moving about in the lights of the emergency vehicles and with them, she saw, was a man in a sheriff's uniform. Dan Wilson, the Deputy who manned the sheriff's office in Pepper, was using a flashlight to examine a map that the men had spread out on the bed of a pickup truck.
"Dan!" she called. He lifted his head at the sound of his name and saw her.
"Hi, Rachel — I mean, 'Sheriff'," he said. "I got your message. What's going on?"
"We've had a murder in Smallville," Rachel said. "They told me back in town that there was a big fire up here. What happened?"
"This one was set," Dan said grimly.
"How can they tell so soon?" Rachel asked.
"They saw it from one of the spotter planes," Dan explained, "and caught it on video. Five fires that pretty much started at the same time — set in a semicircle around one of the camping areas. It was pretty weird. They had to have been on some kind of timer."
"*Which* camping area?" Rachel asked.
"Lakeside Trail," Dan said. "Why?"
"I was afraid of that," Rachel said.
"The fires were set to kill Lois Lane," she said.
"You mean that reporter who married Lex Luthor last week?" Dan said. "Rachel, what the he — heck is going on?"
"Plenty," Rachel said. "You want the long version or the short one?"
"Let's try the short one for starters."
"Okay, you asked for it," Rachel said. "The whole thing is about Luthor's money."
"That sounds logical. In the end, most murders are about money."
"Yeah. Well, as you know, Luthor had billions and, as his wife, Lane inherits half of Luthor's legitimate assets, but if she dies of natural causes within thirty days of his death, the money reverts to the estate and is divided between the other heirs."
Dan raised a satirical eyebrow. "Are you saying somebody decided he doesn't want to share several billion dollars?"
"Something like that," Rachel said. "Clark Kent told me there have been two attempts to kill her 'accidentally' in the last week. They've been staying with his parents on their farm, outside town since yesterday and this afternoon I got a call from the Metropolis Police. They'd had a tip that an enforcer for Luthor's criminal syndicate was on his way to Smallville to find the Kents and get Lane's location from them, since Clark is her reporting partner. I think the guy they sent killed one of the reporters that's been hanging around Smallville and took his place. I think he followed them here and tried to arrange for Lane to die 'accidentally' in a forest fire."
Dan's eyebrows had climbed into his hairline by the time she finished speaking. "You mean some big city hit man came out here and tried to burn down Domino Lake's campground to kill Lex Luthor's widow?"
"Yeah," Rachel said. "That's pretty much it."
Dan swore softly under his breath. "If I get my hands on him, you're going to have to arrest *me* for murder," he said. "Let's just hope he didn't succeed."
"I just talked to one of the campers who said he thinks he saw Clark running up into the fire area to try to find Miss Lane," Rachel said.
Dan shook his head. "That's not good. That whole section was pretty much blocked off by fire within about twenty minutes after it started. If they got trapped up there —" He let the sentence hang.
"I'm not so sure of that," Rachel said. She reached out to rap her knuckles on one of the painted wooden sawhorses that made up the barricade. "With anyone else, I'd figure they'd had it but Clark's luckier than anybody has a right to be. His family camped here a lot when he was a kid and he knows the lay of the land pretty well. Where would they go if they couldn't make it back to the Convenience Center?"
"Here's the map of the whole campground," Dan said, pointing to the one spread out on the bed of the pickup. "If they were in the Lakeside Trail area —" He traced a finger across the lines on the paper with the burning area marked in red ink. "If they could make it to the river, they might be able to follow it to the lake."
"Can we get there with the fire and everything?" Rachel asked.
"I guess so. The fire's on the eastern side, but we can go around to the north dock and take an inflatable over to the delta. That's probably where they'd be if you're right." He turned to one of the rangers who had been listening to the conversation. "We need to borrow an inflatable and an emergency medical kit."
Lois hung tightly on to Bethany's hand as they made their way slowly down the river. Clark was moving smoothly and carefully for their sakes; Lois had no doubt that he could move much faster alone. He was looking over the tops of his glasses, and, she suspected, guiding them past the more difficult obstacles with his x-ray vision. Superman, she thought, was well on his way to being back to normal. She hadn't missed the fact that his left arm was speckled with tiny pieces of charred vegetation and that his shirt was dotted with holes where burning specks of debris had landed during that last wild ride but it was obvious that none of that bothered him in the least. River water splashed onto his arm, washing away the specks, revealing no burned spots on his skin at all when by rights the arm of an ordinary man would have been reddened and blistered.
Ashes were settling out of the sky, sifting endlessly down like powder. Bethany's mouth and nose were covered with the makeshift mask of Lois's wet swimming shirt, but Lois couldn't hold the handkerchief to her face while holding both Bethany's hand and Clark's. She tugged on his arm. "I need to put something over my face. I don't want to breathe this stuff."
"Huh?" He glanced up. "You're right. I didn't think about it. Just a minute." He fished in his pocket to remove a handkerchief with his initials embroidered on one corner. Lois had noticed that most of his handkerchiefs were embroidered in a like manner but it hadn't occurred to her to ask. Surely Clark didn't spend the evening embroidering his initials on his handkerchiefs, did he?
Clark had followed her gaze and now he grinned. "My Aunt Opal embroiders and she always sends me handkerchiefs with my initials on them for my birthday and Christmas. One year she and Mom got into a contest of how many ways they could embroider my initials onto articles of clothing and sneak it into designs so that I couldn't see it. I always found it, but toward the end it was getting difficult. Let me have your canteen. I need to rinse this thing out. It's soaked with river water."
Lois handed him the canteen and watched as he carefully rinsed out the cloth. After a moment, he handed it back. "Tie it over your mouth and nose. That should help."
Lois obeyed. "What else did they embroider?" she asked, knotting the cloth at the back of her head. She grasped Bethany's hand once more.
Clark took her free hand and they started on again. "You don't want to know."
"Yes I do," she insisted. "Come on, Clark, give. You have to know I'll ask your mom."
"And she'd probably tell you, too," Clark said with resignation. "They embroidered everything. I almost died from embarrassment when I discovered that Aunt Opal had embroidered some of my…um…shorts on the seat and…uh…other places."
Lois nearly broke into giggles. "Really?"
"You'd better believe it. And I haven't dared wear the tie she made. I haven't thrown it away because if I do she's bound to ask me if I still have it and her feelings will be hurt."
That figured, she thought. Clark didn't like to hurt people's feelings. Superman, it seemed, had an unexpectedly soft heart.
"Have you still got the shorts, too?" she asked.
It still amazed her that she was capable of making Superman blush. His face definitely had gotten pinker in just the last couple of minutes.
"Yeah," he muttered. "I was afraid to throw them away."
"If anybody ever found them and figured out who they belong to, what would they think?" he protested. "I mean, good grief! Besides, they're from Aunt Opal. She's really a very nice woman and — except for things like that. I like her a lot. She really means well."
And he didn't want to hurt her feelings, Lois thought. She made up her mind that after she and Clark were married that she was going to insist that he model them for her — but she didn't say so. Instead, she asked. "How far now?"
"Just a little farther," he told her. He glanced back at Bethany. "How are you doing, Bethany? Can you hang on a little longer?"
Bethany nodded and Lois felt her small hand tighten a little.
"Don't worry," she told Clark. "I'm hanging on tight to her. We won't let anything happen to you," she added to the little girl. "After we get to the lake somebody's sure to find us after while. Then we can make a phone call to your mom and dad and let them know you're safe."
Bethany nodded soberly but now, for the first time, she actually looked straight at Clark. "You're not like David," she said.
Clark smiled tentatively at her. "No, I'm not. I'm not going to let him get his hands on you again."
"If we can, we're going to try to help the police put him in jail again — for the rest of his life," Lois added.
"I hope he burned up in the fire," Bethany said, her childish voice low and intense. "I hate him. He hurt me."
Lois could hardly blame her. "Well, whatever happens to him, he can't hurt you any more," she said.
"Come on," Clark said. "Let's get to the lake. The air ought to be clearer there, too."
They resumed their progress. Lois kept her eyes on Clark as he led them carefully downstream. Ahead, she could see an opening in the trees where the river widened and ran into the lake. It was only a short distance away now.
Clark's voice startled her and she felt herself grabbed around the waist by one of Clark's arms, and a rush of motion. Then she discovered that she and Bethany were being pinned tightly against the riverbank by Clark's body. Somewhere behind them, she heard a crashing noise and a massive splash, followed instantly by a deafening hiss.
Slowly, Clark released them and Lois turned to see what had happened. A tall elm tree had fallen and now lay partially in the river. Flames still streamed upward from the branches that remained in the air, fanned by the strong wind created by the fire.
"Wow," she said faintly. "That was close."
"Yeah," Clark said grimly. "Let's hurry."
They sorted themselves out quickly and again Clark took the lead, hurrying them along as fast as they could manage. Bethany's hand clutched Lois's with almost frantic intensity and it was obvious that she was near exhaustion but she made no protest. Lois found herself apprehensively watching the burning trees on either side of them for any signs of another such collapse.
But the delta was suddenly yards away, and then feet. And then all at once her feet were no longer touching the muddy bottom and she found herself treading water.
Clark released her hand, turning to look at Bethany. "Can you make it all right?" he asked.
Bethany nodded, spitting out water. The girl was treading water almost effortlessly. "I can swim."
"Good," Clark said. He pointed. "See that line of buoys out there? I want you to head for that. If we hang onto the rope, we'll be able to stay in the water until somebody sees us."
Bethany nodded and struck out with a sidestroke toward the buoys. Lois raised her eyebrows at Clark and followed. Bethany had apparently had a good deal of swimming instruction from her parents. Her form was better than Lois's, and Lois had always considered herself a pretty good swimmer. The little girl's fatigue seemed to have vanished. Glancing back, Lois saw that Clark was swimming a few feet behind them and guessed that he was doing so in order to keep an eye on them both, just in case. Superman, she thought again. Clark always seemed to take the responsibility on himself to make sure that others were safe. It was just the way he was wired, with or without his powers. Although she thought that if his powers had not completely returned, it would not be long before they did. That unconscious air of confidence that he had always projected was back, and it gave her confidence as well.
Across the water she could see the lights when one of the fire fighting copters swooped in low, filled it's huge container from the lake, and rose vertically once more into the air before it turned majestically and made its way back toward the fire. It roared past overhead, the sound of the rotors so loud that her ears rang after it passed. A smaller plane buzzed by a little to the south, also headed for the fire. She closed her eyes for an instant, hoping that the skilled and courageous men and women who were fighting the monster behind them would come through alive and unhurt. Then she turned her attention to making progress toward the line of buoys.
The water of the lake was choppy in the stiff breeze that was blowing across its surface, but the haze of smoke was lighter here. The breeze, coming from the west, was carrying the smoke to the east, away from them. Lois's throat was still raw but her lungs were already feeling better. The raw, aching sensation from having inhaled too much smoke was already easing in the clearer air above the lake. The silver light of a gibbous moon hanging nearly overhead made everything around them clearly visible.
The roar of a boat's engine caught her attention with a flood of relief. Someone had seen them already and was coming to their aid. She came to a stop in the water and waved.
"Lois!" Clark had moved up close to her in the water. "Make for the buoys! Get Bethany out of here — quick!"
"What —" Lois started to object but he had turned in the water and she saw that he was moving with better than human speed to place himself between them and the boat. It was a sleek, expensive sport craft, she realized, painted silver with red racing stripes. Not a craft belonging to any of the rescue services.
And then she saw what Clark must have already somehow realized. The man in the boat wasn't a ranger or a cop. He was dressed in ordinary civilian clothing, and the craft he piloted was coming directly at the three of them, making no attempt to slow down.
He was going to run them down, she thought, changing her sidestroke to a crawl. "Come on, Bethany!" she ordered. "Swim!"
Her recent kidnapping must have made Bethany a good deal less trusting of her fellow man, Lois thought, for at Lois's warning she didn't even pause or attempt to ask a question. She shifted to a powerful racing crawl, pulling ahead even of Lois. Thus it was only Lois who saw what happened next.
Clark submerged in a surface dive so smooth that he barely disturbed the water. The boat was coming toward her at full speed and it was as if she could see the eyes of the man guiding it focused directly on her.
Somehow the forces of LexCorp's new boss must have tracked them here, she realized belatedly, though how he had guessed where she would be Lois had not the faintest idea. However it had been done, he clearly intended to run her down, to stun or kill her and leave her in the lake, the victim of an accident. Clark and Bethany would have to be taken care of too, but she thought he might manage that easily. If he shot them it would be suspicious but if he ran them down, too, it was just an unfortunate accident. He could claim that they had all been bunched together and he hadn't seen them in the dark. Or he could dispose of them in a dozen other ways. He might have to face charges of some kind, but LexCorp's lawyers would undoubtedly take care of things the way they usually did, and the important thing would be that Lex Luthor's widow was no longer in the running for the inheritance.
Lois turned and swam as hard as she could, aware that she stood no chance at all against a speedboat, but praying that Clark had some kind of rabbit up his sleeve. The lights of the boat seemed to pin her against the lake's surface like a fly on a plate and the roar of its engine grew to deafening volume. She glanced back once to see the boat barely twenty feet behind her and coming hard — and at that second it happened.
The speedboat flipped smartly upward into the air, spinning, and its pilot flew free. Lois couldn't imagine what had happened. Dazzled by the headlamp of the boat, she couldn't see anything that it could have encountered in the water but it must have hit something, she thought.
And then the boat stopped in midair, and she caught her breath, staring up at a miracle. She couldn't see his face, but the brilliant blue and red of Superman's uniform was clearly visible as he slowly lowered the craft to the surface of the water with one hand. In the other hand he grasped the craft's pilot by the back of his belt.
As he came closer, Clark's face became clearer in the bright moonlight and he was smiling.
"Hello, Lois," he said, "fancy meeting you here."
"Superman!" she sputtered.
"In the flesh," he said. "Why don't you and your friend keep swimming for those buoys. I'd pick you up right away, but I think the police will want to speak with this fellow — and I don't want him to dispose of any of the interesting things that he seems to have in his possession. There's a rescue raft on its way, just a little north of you. I'll let them know where you are on the way past. You can tell them that I said Clark is all right, too. He'll be along in twenty minutes or so."
He probably would, Lois thought as she turned back toward the buoys and Bethany Gordon, who was treading water a few feet away, her gaze fixed on the superhero as he vanished upward into the hazy night sky. It probably would take Superman about that long to help the firefighters get the blaze under control. And Lane and Kent would get the story of that as well as the one about Bethany and her return to her parents. The Metropolis Star could bid goodbye to any pretense it had of taking the place of the Daily Planet in Metropolis.
Lane and Kent were coming back with *style*.
"Clark!" Rachel Harris turned as Clark walked into the little aid center where Lois and Bethany were being treated for minor bumps, bruises and mild smoke inhalation. "Are you all right?
"Sure, I'm fine," Clark said. "How are Lois and Bethany?"
"We're all right," Lois said, answering his question. "We need to put in a call to Bethany's parents. There's no excuse for making them worry any longer than necessary."
"Come on over and let the paramedics have a look at you," Rachel urged.
Clark shook his head. "I feel *fine* Rach. No cough, no burns, no scratches — nothing. The only treatment I need is a shower."
The paramedic laughed. "At least come over here and let me do a quick once over. You look the picture of health but your shirt sure could use a patch or two."
Reluctantly, Clark approached the man and exhibited his undamaged arm under the sleeve of the tattered shirt. "Some ashes blew onto me while we were in the river. I just ducked under the water fast. See?" He peeled up the shirt, exposing washboard abs. "Not even a scorch."
The sound of Lois's heartbeat sped up and he saw that she was watching the tableau closely. Well, it wasn't bad that she liked to look at him shirtless, was it? He was sure that he would enjoy the reverse, once they were married.
"Let me listen to your lungs," the man said. "We've had several people with some smoke inhalation tonight."
Lois rolled her eyes at the man's persistence, but Clark obeyed. At last the paramedic put down the stethoscope. "Well, I don't know why, but you sound fine. If you develop any breathing difficulty in the next few days, see a doctor right away. All right?"
"All right," Clark said. He turned to Rachel. "Where did you put the guy that Superman brought in?"
"We've got him locked in the back of my car, until we get a transport here for him," Rachel said. "Why?"
"Well, Superman said that you told him that you thought whoever was after Lois might have killed a reporter and taken his place. I'd like to see if he's the same person that showed up at the farm. I'm the only one that saw him, so —"
"All right," Rachel said. She waited while one of the rangers handed Clark an intact shirt to replace the one he wore. "Come on out this way. He had a bunch of stuff in his pockets that could have been used to make some fire bombs, so he may be our arsonist. And," she added, "the boat was stolen so we can hold him on a charge of grand theft until we have the time to investigate thoroughly." She paused for a second. "By the way — do you by any chance recognize this?" She held up a cellular phone.
"That's Martha's phone!" Lois exclaimed. "So that's where it went!"
"I guess that explains why you didn't answer when Clark's parents tried to call you earlier," Rachel said. She pushed the door open. "This way."
"You think he started the fires to try to kill Lois?" Clark asked, following her obediently out the door.
"I think it's a good possibility. We're still looking for his car. It can't be too far away."
Clark could answer that. He'd flown over the entire area to look at the damage and had seen a rental car, similar to the one Ben Maher had driven to the Kent farm, parked under the trees by the river some distance from the fire. "I saw a rental car upriver a bit, while Superman was flying me around to look at the damage," he said. "It was parked two or three miles upstream. It could have been the one he was driving this morning."
"Nice observation," Rachel said. "We'll check it out. I guess sometimes you reporters are worth something after all."
"I hope so," Clark said. "And, after I see this guy, maybe we could put in a call to the police in Bethany's hometown. Like Lois says, we need to tell her parents their little girl is safe. They must be going out of their minds."
"We will," Rachel said. "I think I'll turn custody of her over to you and Lois until we can arrange transportation for her home. She's had enough disruption for the last few days. Our paramedic says she's physically all right, except for — well, what happened to her. I'm sure the family will want to take her to their own doctor. She's been hanging onto Miss Lane like a security blanket ever since we picked them up. Can't say I blame her."
"I hope your people are keeping an eye out for Waters," Clark said.
Rachel cocked her head. "My daddy would have said you shouldn't try to teach Grampaw how to chaw tobaccy, city boy," she drawled. "Everybody's looking for him. If he managed to make it out alive, that is. The place where Miss Lane last saw him pretty much burned to the ground. They're going to have to bring in some young trees and plant them in the burned areas so we can have our campgrounds back to normal in a few years."
"Yeah," Clark said. He promised himself that Superman would make some time to volunteer in that effort. And he could plant a few larger trees as well. He knew of some overgrown forests that were firetraps waiting to happen. A number of them were slated for thinning, and moving the same kind of trees from them to the local campground couldn't hurt, as long as they were healthy trees, and as long as the local governments didn't mind.
"Here he is," Rachel said, indicating her car. A man in the uniform of a Deputy stood beside the car. "Dan, this is Clark Kent. Clark, Dan Wilson."
"Hi," Clark said.
Dan nodded politely. "So you're the guy with the lucky rabbit's foot," he remarked. He looked at Rachel. "You were right. If I hadn't seen it, I never would have believed it."
Rachel grinned at Clark. "You've already got a reputation around here."
"What did I do?" Clark asked.
"Waded through fire, flood and famine — well, maybe not the famine — and got Miss Lane and Bethany out of trouble," Rachel said. "Without picking up a scratch or a scorch. Honestly, one of these days your luck's going to run out."
"You sound like my dad," Clark said. "Can you turn on the light in the car? I want to see this guy." Actually he had already identified him half an hour before. He leaned close to the window as Rachel opened the front door to turn on the dome light. "This is the guy that called himself Ben Maher — the one that showed up at the farm this morning."
Rachel nodded. "I figured that. Maisie Allen found the real Ben Maher about nine o'clock this evening — stabbed and lying behind her dumpster." She shut the car door. "He'd been dead for hours. It's lucky she always walks around the dumpster and picks up the pieces of trash on the ground or he might not have been found until the trash collectors showed up on Friday. By that time this guy would have been long gone."
"Then he's —"
"Your Inspector Henderson from Metropolis called earlier today," Rachel said. "He'd had a tip that there was an 'enforcer' coming out to Smallville to try to get your whereabouts from your parents. I think this may be him."
Clark nodded, gritting his teeth. The Mrs. was building up quite a record for such a short time in Luthor's position. But at least Superman was back now. He could take Lois somewhere for the remaining three weeks and leave no trail that anyone could follow. Maybe he could convince his mom and dad to go along — or maybe he didn't need to. All that was really necessary was for the Mrs. to realize that no one but Superman knew where Lois was, and that he wasn't talking.
"Let's go back inside," he said. "I have a phone call to make."
A short time later, two of Rachel's deputies showed up to escort their arsonist/enforcer back to the jail in Smallville, pending further transportation to more appropriate quarters, and Rachel offered Clark, Lois and Bethany a lift back with her in her squad car. The trip to Smallville was accomplished nearly in silence. Lois dozed with her head on Clark's shoulder in the rear seat and Bethany sat in the front beside Rachel, riding shotgun as Rachel phrased it. Bethany examined everything in the squad car with wide, fascinated eyes. "This car is cool," she announced as they pulled out onto the road that led out of the camping area. "Do you get to drive it all the time?"
"Yes," Rachel said. "I'm the County Sheriff, so I get the best one."
"Cool," Bethany repeated. "I'm going to be a sheriff when I grow up. Then I can put people like David in jail."
"Sounds like a good idea to me," Rachel said.
"Did you catch him yet?" Bethany asked.
"Not yet," Rachel said, "but we've got police and rangers and Superman looking for him. We'll find him if he's still alive."
"I hope he's not," Bethany said darkly. "I hope he burned up in the fire. He was a — a —" She hesitated and then used a word that Clark's mother would have tanned his hide for if she'd heard it pass his lips.
Rachel didn't bat an eye. "Yeah, he was," she agreed. "But I'd call him a weasel if I were you. That isn't a very nice word. If I'd said that in front of my mother, she'd have washed my mouth out with soap."
"David used it," Bethany said.
"Yeah, well, I don't think he's a very good person to copy, do you?"
Bethany fell silent, obviously thinking it over. "I guess not," she said finally. "But he was a really nasty weasel!"
"That he was, sweetie," Rachel said.
Clark found himself smiling a little sleepily. It had been Superman's first day back on the job and he had to admit to a little fatigue. A good dose of sunlight tomorrow morning would fix that, though, he knew.
The ride to Smallville took nearly an hour and a half since Rachel obeyed the speed limit this time. Martha and Jonathan Kent and Greg Ross were still asleep when Lois, Clark and Bethany tiptoed softly into the farmhouse but moments after their arrival, Greg appeared at the head of the stairs. He was wearing pajamas and a bathrobe and in one hand he held his .38 Special.
"It's just us, Greg," Rachel called softly.
Greg stuffed the revolver into the roomy pocket of his robe. "Sheriff?" he asked, keeping his voice low. "What's happened?"
"Go ahead and get your clothes," Rachel told him. "I'll explain everything on the way to your place. We got the guy and he's locked up in the town jail for tonight."
"Great," Greg said. He glanced at Bethany but he didn't say anything. "Give me a minute to change and I'll be right down."
A short time later, Greg and Rachel said goodbye. Clark shook Greg's hand and clapped him on the shoulder. "Thanks for watching out for my folks," he said. "I really appreciate it."
"No problem," Greg said. "They're great people. Next time you're in town, drop by and see us. We miss you. Mom and Dad read all your stuff in the Daily Planet."
"They do?" Clark said,
"Sure they do. Local boy makes good, didn't you know?"
"It hadn't occurred to me," Clark said. "Well, in that case, look at the front page in the morning. It'll give you most of the details of what happened tonight. Rachel can fill in the rest."
After they had gone, Clark hurried upstairs to make up the bed in his room for Bethany. Lois showed her the upstairs bedroom minutes later and then went quietly downstairs again to join Clark in the living room.
He had made up the couch for her and was ready for her objections when they came. "This is your house! You take the couch!"
"Sh!" he cautioned with a grin. "You'll wake up my parents. I don't need the bed. Watch!" With a little hop, he achieved a reclining position in the air, just level with her eyes. He stretched out as if he were lying on a bed and then turned on his side, one hand supporting his chin. He smiled innocently at her expression. "How's that?" he asked.
Lois stood staring at him for the better part of a minute and then slid into the bed he had made for her on the couch. "Your life is so strange," she said.
"And getting stranger by the minute," he agreed. "It doesn't bother me if it doesn't bother you, though. Does it?"
She shook her head, pulling her knees up and wrapping her arms around them. "No. Not really. I was dazzled by Superman because of all the incredible things he could do. I'm hardly likely to change my mind now just because I suddenly discovered that he's my partner and he loves me."
"That's good." He drifted slowly toward her through the air. "I wouldn't want you to be afraid of what I can do."
"Superman and Clark in one jumbo package," Lois said. "I think I'm getting the best of both worlds." She patted the couch with one hand. "Can you come over and sit next to me for a minute?" she asked, a more serious note in her voice.
"Sure." He drifted over and settled gently down in the spot she had indicated. "Is anything wrong?"
Lois leaned against him, resting her head against his chest and he automatically put his arms around her. "What's the matter, honey?"
"I don't know. Nothing, really. It just been — a crazy sort of day."
"I'll second that," he said.
"No — it just sort of hit me how unpredictable life is," she amplified. "If things hadn't worked out just right — if that guy the Mrs. sent to kill us had been just a little luckier — one or both of us could have died."
"I know," he said.
"And we'd never have known what it was like to be married to each other," she said. "I would have missed being married to the man I never expected to meet. You know — you came along and I almost threw you away! I was so busy trying to be careful, to be in control, trying to be sure that no man could ever take advantage of me or hurt me again that I nearly missed the best thing in my life. I'm so glad you never gave up, in spite of every obstacle I put in your way."
"So am I," Clark said, wondering where this was going.
"So," Lois said, "I came to some decisions while we were waiting for the raft to show up so we could be rescued. I don't want to wait."
"Huh?" Clark barely restrained himself from gaping at her. "Lois, we're in my mom and dad's living room and Bethany's sleeping upstairs!"
"I didn't mean *that*," she said, giving him a light jab in the ribs with an elbow. "What I meant was, I don't want to wait six months. How long does it take to get a marriage license in Kansas?"
"Oh," Clark said, a little disappointed and relieved at the same time. "It's three days from the day you apply. And for the record, I think waiting six months is definitely too long. We can go over to the Town Hall and fill out whatever forms we need to in the morning."
"Are you sure you don't mind?" she asked, a little shyly. "You know what the tabloids will all say about you, you know."
"The same thing they're saying about you," Clark said. "So what? They'll have to eat their words when you donate it to the Superman Foundation anyway."
She nodded. "Do you think we could get Perry and Jimmy out here for it? And maybe…" Her voice trailed off.
"Well, my mother will have a cow, but I'd like her to know, at least. And my dad. And—" She hesitated.
"Yes," he urged.
"Well, Lucy wanted to come to my wedding and she couldn't — which was just as well — but I'd like her to be at the real one. And —"
"Who else?" Clark asked.
"Well, I know it's silly, and he'll probably say no, but — Bill Henderson turned out to be a better friend than I'd ever imagined he could be. Do you think that maybe Superman could ask him?"
"No, but Clark Kent could," Clark said with a smile. "And Superman could fly everyone here and back home so they don't miss anything important." He pulled her tightly against his chest and kissed her soundly. "I like this idea. And if we fly off on our honeymoon after that, we could be gone for three weeks and no one would have any idea where we've gone because Superman doesn't leave a trail. By the time we get back, the time will be up and there won't be any advantage anyone could get by killing you. Besides, maybe Henderson and Perry and the others will have solved the case by then. And if they haven't, we can step in and give them a hand."
Lois and Clark returned from Smallville's Town Hall at ten-thirty the next morning, having picked up a copy of the Smallville Press on the way. The news of the fire and the rescue of Bethany Gordon were on the front page, with credit to the Daily Planet and to Lane and Kent, who had saved the day and nailed the story. Perry White had been ecstatic when Clark had phoned it in the night before from a gas station on the way back to Smallville. They had taken advantage of Clark's super speed, and the Kent computer and fax machine, later that evening to send in a more complete report.
The story was all over the television this morning as well. They had, Lois observed happily, stirred up a hornet's nest.
"That's for sure," Clark agreed. "I called Perry a little while ago while you were still talking to Mom. He really liked your part — the way you tied the whole thing together. Bethany's kidnapping and rescue, the set fires, the environmental disaster averted by the fire fighting services and the last minute reappearance of Superman. It was great writing." He put an arm around her shoulders. Another thing they had done this morning was tell Martha and Jonathan of their changed plans. Martha had promptly shooed them out of the kitchen and told them to go listen to the television because they were all over it. "If you're getting married in three days you might as well relax until Bethany's parents get here," she'd said, "because you won't be able to afterwards."
"By the way," Clark said, turning down the sound, "Perry passed some interesting news to me. Jimmy and Henderson really came through for us."
"Oh?" Lois tried to straighten up but found herself held firmly in place by two immovable arms. After a moment she gave up the fight and snuggled back against his chest. Clark tucked her head under his chin and they watched the silent pictures on the screen. The scene was currently a view of the Domino Lake campgrounds as seen from a newscopter. Lois grimaced at the sight of the large burned areas. Still a great deal more of the area was untouched by the fire. It was a good thing Clark's powers had come back when they did.
"Yeah," Clark said. "Things have been happening in Metropolis while we've been vacationing out here in the peaceful Midwest."
The irony wasn't lost on Lois. "What happened?" she asked.
"You really want to know?"
She could hear the amusement in his voice. Clark was enjoying knowing something that she didn't. Well, super strength or not, he wasn't going to get away with that. "Clark Kent, you tell me right now or you're going to sleep on the couch *after* we're married, too!"
"Okay," he conceded. "A couple of things have happened, actually. Somebody tried to steal Luthor's body from the morgue —"
"Luthor's doctor. Henderson got a tip about it from somebody named Bobby, set a guard and caught the thieves red-handed."
"That's really weird," Lois said. "What's the other thing? You said there was more than one."
Clark nodded. "You remember how Perry was complaining the other day about Mr. Stern saddling him with a staff psychiatrist?"
"Yeah. He said she's the one who writes that syndicated column that's in half the papers in the country. 'Psychiatry Self Taught' or something. I've never read it."
"Actually it's called 'Healing the Inner Self," Clark said. "Her name's Arianna Carlin. Anyway, Perry sent the new guy — Ralph something — to the reading of Luthor's will. It turned out that a big chunk of Luthor's assets were to go to an ACL Corporation which was supposed to administer the annuity for Luthor's ex-wife, so you, Perry, Jimmy and Henderson were all on the right track. There was a former wife. With that as a clue, Jimmy did some digging through the public records and found out that — through various trusts and dummy companies — ACL Corporation now has actual control of the majority of Luthor's assets, minus what you inherit, of course, and the previous Mrs. Luthor is now the de-facto head of LexCorp, so she's definitely a front runner candidate for whoever it is that wants you dead."
"Why doesn't this surprise me," Lois said. "What else?"
"Well, once he knew that, he started looking in the fine print and discovered that ACL stood for Arianna Carlin Luthor. She's 'The Mrs.' — or so Henderson thinks."
"A shrink?" Lois said, almost outraged. "He married a shrink before me?"
"Apparently so," Clark said.
"So what are they doing about it? The former Mrs. Luthor working in our office can't be good."
"There was a plastic surgeon murdered a few days ago in Metropolis," Clark said. "Perry says he'd recently been paid a very large sum of money by ACL Corporation. Henderson's investigating that angle. Anyway, Perry's keeping Arianna on the staff so he can watch her. Sooner or later, she'll slip."
"Yeah," Lois said wistfully. "I wish we could go back and start investigating it too."
"We can — in another three weeks," Clark reassured her. "Once the thirty days are up. Remember, this is LexCorp. All its secrets aren't going to come out at once. Investigators are still going to be tracking down the answers to some of the questions for years to come."
"That's for sure," Lois said. "LexCorp has more arms than an octopus."
"Shh, listen." Clark turned up the volume on the television again. He must have picked up the sound with that incredible hearing of his, Lois thought.
"— Discovered a body in the ashes of the fire," the announcer was saying. "The victim was burned beyond recognition, however, today the authorities have announced that, using dental records, the remains have been identified as belonging to David Ferdinand Waters, who was wanted in connection with the kidnapping of Bethany Ann Gordon."
Clark sighed. "I should have tried to stop him," he said.
"Yeah. When I was trying to find you — after the fire had started — he ran past me. I knew the trail was blocked. He must have gotten turned around and been trapped."
Lois shook her head. "He made his bed. You can't do everything. You may be Superman, but you're still just a man. You already had your hands full. Besides, he was probably already dead by the time your powers came back."
He nodded reluctantly. "I know. Still, I wish I could have done something."
She put her fingers across his lips. "It's over," she said. "No more what ifs. Remember, we're getting married in three days."
"How could I forget?" Clark said. "I'm counting the minutes."
In was just before noon when a squad car pulled up in front of the Kent farmhouse, accompanied by a swarm of civilian cars, no doubt carrying members of the media in full cry after the Bethany Gordon story. Lois and Clark were sitting in the farmhouse's kitchen, having coffee, while Bethany helped Martha Kent to prepare an apple pie. Jonathan Kent was leaning against the doorframe, also drinking coffee. Clark cocked his head at the sound of numerous automobile engines converging on them and then cutting off directly in front of the house. "It looks like Rachel's here with Bethany's parents. And most of the media in the country," he added, getting up to look out the window. "It's a good thing we phoned in the story to the Planet last night. We beat them all to the punch."
"Perry was pretty happy," Lois said. "When I called him back a little while ago, he told me to tell you that we've both got bonuses coming when we get back to the Planet." She grinned happily at her partner. "That'll show those half-baked journalists at the Star that they can't compete with us."
Clark met her grin with one of his own. It looked to him as if Lois had finally managed to put the Luthor fiasco behind her. Any so-called journalist who tried to push Mad Dog Lane around was in for a surprise.
Martha removed her apron and laid it over the back of a chair as the front door's knocker sounded. "Here we go. Everybody ready?"
There were nods all around. Lois stood up and took Bethany by the hand. "Let's go see your mom and dad," she said. "Just don't worry about all the newspaper people. They'll behave themselves or we'll know the reason why."
The knock sounded a second time as Martha reached for the doorknob and pulled the door open.
A man and a woman stood there, and directly behind them, Rachel Harris, Greg Ross and an unidentified man, whose bearing said "family lawyer". Bethany let go of Lois's hand and ran forward to throw herself into her mother's arms.
The assembled press surged forward and flash bulbs went off. Rachel turned, frowning at the crowd. "I told you ahead of time to stay back," she said. "Bethany has had a very difficult time. There'll be opportunities for photos later. *If* Bethany's lawyer okays it."
"Come on inside," Martha said in a low voice. She opened the door wider to let them in.
Somebody shouted, "Hey! Why are Lane and Kent in there?"
The door closed, cutting off the reply but Clark heard it and rigorously repressed the urge to laugh. "Because that's his parents' house, you idiot."
"What are you grinning about?" Lois's voice said softly in his ear.
"Tell you later," Clark answered. He glanced over his glasses through the wood of the door, to see that several deputies had moved in to prevent the press from crowding up onto the porch. One of them was firmly ordering an over-eager news hawk to remove his feet from Martha Kent's flower bed.
Bethany Gordon's father turned to him and extended a hand. "Mr. Kent? I want to thank you and Ms. Lane for rescuing my daughter. From what Sheriff Harris told us, she wouldn't have survived if it hadn't been for you."
Clark drew Lois forward. "Here's the one you should thank, sir," he said. "She was the one who took Bethany away from Waters. All I did was get us to the lake in one piece."
Bethany broke in. "She hit David with a big club," she said gravely. "She knocked him down and told me to get behind her." The child's eyes shone with admiration for her new idol. "When I grow up," she said, "I'm going to be two things."
"What are they, honey?" her mother asked. She was seated on the Kent sofa with Bethany in her lap and Clark could see that she was holding back tears.
"A sheriff *and* a reporter," Bethany said firmly.
The small church where Martha and Jonathan Kent attended services every Sunday held a group of people all in their Sunday best that Thursday afternoon. Rachel Harris sighed resignedly as she and Greg Ross stepped through the doors and found a seat in the row directly behind the Kents. She should have known that Clark was completely head over heels in love with his partner the first time they had come to Smallville, months ago.
Several of Clark's friends from school, both male and female, had come to attend the small wedding as had a number of older persons who had known him as a child growing up in Smallville. She spotted Wayne Irig among the guests, and Maisie Allen as well. It was amazing, Rachel thought, how Martha had managed to get this thing put together in three days. She had even enlisted the assistance of Superman, who was a friend of Clark and Lois in Metropolis, to bring in guests from several fairly distant places. The distinguished older man and woman in the seats across the aisle were Clark's editor at the Daily Planet and his wife. The young, good-looking guy was some kind of general handyman for the newspaper and had apparently been appointed official photographer for this event. The young kid next to him had been introduced earlier to her as "Jack". She hadn't caught the last name, but she'd quickly checked her jewelry after they shook hands to be certain it was all still there. The tall, dark guy with the dark glasses was Inspector William Henderson from Metropolis, with whom she had spoken several days before, and the pretty, dark haired girl seated next to him was Lois Lane's younger sister. Martha Kent had dithered a little — something that surprised Rachel — over the protocol for Lois Lane's mother and father. Dr. and Mrs. Lane were apparently divorced, but she had decided finally that, since this was about their daughter's wedding and not their personal differences, they would be seated in the front row in the place for the bride's parents. Hopefully they would keep their disagreements for another place and time and not air them at the wedding. Dr. Lane, of course, wasn't there at the moment since he was getting ready to escort his daughter down the aisle.
On the other hand, she knew exactly how they had kept this event from the knowledge of the media, as she had helped with the conspiracy. The whole thing had been planned in secret, and Superman had even flown the happy couple away from the Kent farmhouse the night before, and returned to ferry Clark's parents away as well this morning, in such a way that the reporters parked at their front gate were unable to follow. They had changed clothing at Rachel's home and driven over to the church in Greg's old pickup truck. Reverend Sweet and his wife, who was the church organist, had been sworn to secrecy as well, and, since the reporters had no interest in a small town clergyman, they had driven quite openly to the church. By the time the press found out what had been pulled off under their noses, it would be too late.
Claudia Sweet entered quietly from a side door and took her seat at the organ. The influx of occasional latecomers into the church had finally ceased, Rachel saw and now the music began. Up near the altar, she saw Clark enter, looking incredibly handsome in his black suit. Pete Ross had apparently been induced to take a day off from his duties at the state capital, for that was unquestionably him, standing up there with Clark.
The music changed and Rachel glanced back to see her ten year old cousin advancing down the aisle. The doors opened again and Lois emerged in a simple, lace gown that Martha had whipped together in record time, accompanied by a tall, white-haired man who must be Dr. Sam Lane.
Seated in the place for the groom's parents, Martha Kent surreptitiously lifted her handkerchief to her eyes. Rachel sighed again, a little wistfully. If she'd been a little more determined, that could have been her walking down that aisle instead of Lois, but it had already been too late months ago when Lois Lane had first visited Smallville. She should have seen it at the time, she thought again. Oh well. Ifs were could-have-beens that weren't important anymore. Besides, Clark was a reporter and she was a law enforcement officer. It probably would never have worked out. Clark would always be her friend, but Dan Wilson had asked her to be his date for the Smallville Rodeo, a few weeks ago, and she'd told him she'd let him know. Well, she would now. He was a nice guy, and he understood what her job entailed far better than Clark probably could, she thought. She and Dan would go and have a good time.
"I now pronounce you husband and wife."
Lois Lane had heard those same words a little over a week ago in a completely different way. Then she had been marrying a man she didn't love, for reasons that had nothing to do with love. She had heard them with a sense of loss, followed swiftly by panic and the knowledge that she had made the worst mistake of her life. How much difference that week had made.
Then she had dutifully let Lex kiss her and stumbled forward into a future that she dreaded, knowing that she had finally taken one step too far, had jumped into the shallow end of the pool head first and discovered halfway down that there was no water in it.
This time, when her groom peeled back the modest lace veil loaned to her by Martha Kent, she had no hesitation. As Clark leaned forward to kiss her, she flung her arms around him and kissed him back with all the love that had been growing in her heart for him since the day that she had burst into Perry's office and seen him interviewing for his job. She'd brushed him aside as unimportant, fixated completely on her potential story. But he had noticed her and from that day, she thought, her future had been determined. How she could have failed to realize that he was the man with whom she was meant to spend her life she now couldn't understand.
Reverend Sweet was smiling benignly at them when they drew apart and gently turned them to face their families and friends.
"I present to you," he said, "Mr. And Mrs. Clark Kent."